It pains me to recall this, but about 16 years ago, I was complaining to my friend Christine about how exhausted I was. I was working as a lawyer at a big firm; I was relatively newly married; lots was going on and it's true, I really was tired. But the last person I should have told was Christine, who was, at that moment, nursing her baby while her not-yet-two-year-old ran after their dog, knocking over an enormous Thomas-train construction that took up half the living room. Oh, and she was already back at work.
Whoops. The look she gave me, for a split second before she composed her face let me know I'd really put my foot in my mouth, and I've been sorry about it ever since.
In that spirit of regret, enjoy this post from ScaryMommy, written as an apology for all we said and did to our friends who had kids before we did. My favorite line:
I’m sorry for not coming over more. We could have watched TV in our sweats after the kids were in bed. Why did I think you would want to meet me downtown for margaritas?
P.S. it's the beginning of the month! New moms' groups are forming. Come join us!
Happy almost Mother's Day!
During those early days and months, it can sometimes feel like your baby is all over you, all the time. It's understandable to feel like you really need a break (you do).
But a weird thing about motherhood is how hard it can be to get the kid-dose right - I remember when my son was a baby or toddler how some days I'd wait restlessly all morning for his nap, wanting some freedom, but when he was finally asleep, ironically, find myself at loose ends, missing him. It was so strange. I'd stumble around uselessly, then eventually find something of my own to do, begin to get excited about that, only to hear him stirring, and start the cycle again. We talk about separation anxiety as though it's only something that happens to babies, but I think that the give and take of how much closeness feels right is very much a two way street between a grown woman and her child.
Recently, I was asked to contribute an essay on motherhood for wfuv.org's special Mother's Day broadcast of Cityscape. I shared a story about me and my son navigating the distance between us, and it's live here this morning (mine begins at minute 21; the other three essays are terrific, too). It's an emotional weekend for me; here I am reading aloud about something that happened when he was a preschooler, and later today, in real life, he'll become bar mitzvah -- a young man, according to our religious tradition. Then tomorrow, we'll celebrate my mother and my mother in law, and my sister and me, hopefully with a lot of chocolate.
Hey folks, this month, Brain, Child magazine is doing a month-long essay series (on their blog, Brain, Mother) on the topic, "What is Motherhood?" Today's essay is a guest post by me, and it delves into deep issues like ... double parking in New York City.
What is motherhood to you? Email me some responses (or comment!) and I'll see if I can weave them into a post.
Brain, Child is a great magazine, by the way, if you're up for more than the usual saccharine of the parenting mags. Check it out!
Many new moms find it pretty exasperating that they don't know what their babies want. It's 3 pm, your baby is sort of crying, sort of moaning, you've been alone with her all afternoon, you've tried feeding and rocking and white noise -- it's pretty common to think, "if only she could talk, I'd understand what is going on here."
Yeah, I'm not sure that talking clears everything up. To wit, one of my kids said to me today:
"They have a thing for -- what's it called? -- our thingy, with a dog on it with one of those things on his head, eating chicken."
But don't despair, all those years of knowing the actual kid helps you decode a little. Somehow, I knew that what she meant was, "in the store, earlier, when I was looking at the greeting cards that were mostly for Easter, there was one that was for Passover [a holiday we celebrate] and it had a picture of a dog wearing a yarmulke, holding a shank bone."
P.S. Don't be alone all day if it makes you cray! Come to a new moms' group!
for those evenings where you're reading the same book to your kid for the hundredth time and anyway he's too young to understand it all, here, courtesy of buzzfeed, are some reinterpretations, such as:
and my favorite,
A lot of what you read online about breastfeeding is divisive or superficial, unscientific at best, dangerously misguided other times. One writer whose work I always admire, though, is Alison Stuebe, MD, MSc, who writes for the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine. Her latest post, about "lactastrophes" -- when breastfeeding doesn't work -- is terrific.
All too often my students and clients say that they feel that, while "everyone" is pressuring them to breastfeed, "no one" (they mean, none of their doctors) are actually there at the right time and place to help them make it happen, or seem to care. This is, in part, because physicians do not learn about lactation management in med school.
Dr. Stuebe notes that although obstetricians routinely screen for breast cancer, which is not strictly within their realm, they can be "reluctant to take responsibility for the functioning breast," and, consequently, kind of ignore breastfeeding. (In fact, when she tried to submit the essay to an obstetrics journal, it was rejected, with the reviewer saying it belonged in a pediatric journal, even though it is about lactation, which is, obviously, an adult's issue.)
Meanwhile, pediatricians don't routinely consider lactation to be within their purview, either. Though some give breastfeeding advice, I rarely hear of pediatricians who observe and assess an entire feeding, and have never known a pediatrician to assess the mother's breasts, let alone take a thorough maternal history to try to understand how the mother's physiology is at play in a nursing relationship. Without looking at half of the dyad, how can they assess what's going on or why something isn't working?
Appropriate care of a breastfeeding pair involves looking at the baby, the mom and the way the two work together, over time. It involves understanding what happened in the pregnancy and birth as well as what's going on right now, and the mom's plans for the future. You have to consider the mother's learning style and access to resources. It's is more than a side issue to fit in during your 8 minute OB checkup or your 10 minute pediatric visit; it takes time.
To thrive, it's imperative that new moms have access to competent, trained specialists in human lactation -- IBCLCs are the gold standard in clinical support of human lactation. But unfortunately, most new moms I meet, even ones who know about lactation support, haven't the faintest idea that there is even a difference between a L&D nurse offering breastfeeding advice, versus an IBCLC, a CLC, an LLLL, a CLE . . . there is a whole alphabet soup of lactation support personnel, each of whom is competent to handle different situations. Some docs think any lactation professionals are "woo woo," and ignore them (as though breastfeeding problems will resolve themselves when no one helps the new mom); some lactation professionals spend more time defending the legitimacy of their credential instead of being candid with moms about their scope of practice, and experience. And way too many people all over the profession ignore the relationship between nursing and a mother's mental health, or fail to follow the mom over time to see how their "advice" has played out. Mothers aren't generic; followup is essential for good care; success is not merely "baby gains weight."
With this backdrop, and with posters everywhere saying "Breast is best!" and people suggesting, routinely, that it always works if only the mom tries hard enough, moms end up confused, and, if breastfeeding doesn't work out, resentful. What is "trying harder," anyway? I remember the first time I encountered a situation Dr. Stuebe also describes in her piece: a new mom with classic, obvious signs of insufficient glandular tissue. Her breasts presented so clearly -- more than four fingers' breadth between the breasts, each breast long and tube-shaped with bulbous areolae, one about twice as long as the other, unchanged during the pregnancy -- she could have been the text book photo of IGT. Her baby had lost a lot of weight; she had been told by her caregiver -- who had seen her breasts many times and knew her menstrual history -- only to "make sure the baby nurses twenty minutes a side." She contacted me because the baby was very sleepy and wouldn't stay at the breast for that long and she felt guilty that she couldn't get the baby to keep trying. Try harder, she had been told. Try harder at what!? Trying to keep a starving, exhausted baby active for an arbitrary number of minutes was not going to fix anything. Recommendations that don't begin by asking: why is this happening in the first place? can result in moms who exhaust themselves without actually making progress.
Breastfeeding does not always work. It works best when the mom has access to excellent prenatal, intrapartum and postnatal care and education, ideally with continuity of care so that the same people who get to know her prenatally can be of service after the baby is born. Excellent care reduces the number of problems that come up and increases moms' satisfaction.
But, as Dr. Stuebe says, we must stop asserting that "all women can breastfeed." Grandiose claims
about the infallibility of lactation are not cited about any other physiologic processes. A health care professional would never tell a diabetic woman that ‘every pancreas can make insulin’ or insist to a devastated infertility patient that ‘every woman can get pregnant.’ The fact is that lactation, like all physiologic functions, sometimes fails because of various medical causes.
OBs, midwives and pediatricians need to work as a team with IBCLCs and other specialists to investigate what is going on when breastfeeding goes off the rails, and be candid that sometimes the honest answer is, "we don't know why this has happened." The network of clinicians around new moms can, together, ponder how best to either restore physiologic function or to support the breastfeeding dyad through weaning if that's not possible.
If we work together, we can develop solutions to some of the physiologic problems, and we can insist on training for everyone who works with new mothers in how best to support those who cannot meet their goals. We should be honest with mothers that the reason that this is not already standard is that it's costly and time consuming to appropriately train everyone, and we haven't made that the standard of care. Currently, it's mothers who pay the price in exhaustion and disappointment. It's not the mothers that need to try harder, it's everyone else who works with them.
The lactating breast should not be ignored by the health care providers moms see most, her OB/midwife and the pediatrician. "Too many clinicians treat the lactating breast as a hot potato," Stuebe writes, "leaving moms and babies lodged in the gap between pediatric, obstetric and lactation specialists. In an era where public health campaigns urge all mothers to breastfeed, we need to urge all health professionals treat breastfeeding management as an integral part of health care." Let's do better for moms and their babies.
What you can do:
- take a good prenatal breastfeeding class taught by an IBCLC.
- have contact information for local breastfeeding resources. Kellymom.com is a good place to start, and, if you're in New York, check out nylca.org.
- ask your caregivers, prenatally, what their resources are for breastfeeding mothers. If they have none, is this the right caregiver for you?
- have resources for a good facilitated moms' group for after the baby comes, where you can get the support you need.
My cousin, the author Rachel Vail, has a family rule called "plums are not a one-bite food."
Here’s another great piece about the way childbirth affects a baby’s microbiome (the bacteria that live on and in her), this time an essay by a microbiologist who was all prepared to “inoculate” her newborn if a c-section was necessary. Inoculate, here, means: ”take some vaginal discharge and swab the baby’s mouth and nose with it to try to replicate what the baby would have been exposed to during birth.” Check it out. For more on this topic, see here and here.
I’m sharing today’s post from Brain, Child’s new blog for several reasons:
- Because it is a hilarious short piece about pooping during childbirth, which also involves a brief misunderstanding about whether the author’s midwife reached orgasm during the labor.
- Because Brain, Child is an excellent magazine you should all subscribe to if you are interested in thinking and parenthood. (I thought this long, long before I had an essay published in it).
- Because it fascinates me that this woman took a childbirth class where Pooping During Pushing only came up incidentally and quietly and kind of indirectly. Did her teacher say “fecal matter”? Ladies, come to my class and we will be real and talk about All The Things.
- Speaking of which, here’s the real scoop on the poop:
If you’re pushing something large down the birth canal (i.e. your baby), in all likelihood you’ll also push some stool out, too. The same muscle groups control all the exits down there. You’ll probably squeeze some pee out, too, while we’re mentioning Things.
You might not even know it happens: If you have pain medication, you won’t feel it; if you don’t have pain medication, you may have so much sensation that you don’t particularly register a bit of poo on top of everything else. In both cases, if your partner isn’t looking, s/he may not see your midwife or doctor wipe it away briskly. She will wipe it away quickly because she, like the rest of us, does not want to hang around beside a steaming pile of poo while we wait for the rest of your baby to emerge. This may be what happened in the author’s first two births.
The thing is, it’s really all OK. This is not a parenting fail, at all. At all. In fact, to the contrary: I hate to gross you all out even more, but it’s actually really OK if a tiny bit of poo is on your baby. Think about it people:
- lets say no actual visible turd emerges. Do you really think that your anus is sterile? If your baby is born with her nose essentially pressed against your butt hole, she is going to get some particles of poo on her no matter what you do.
- What is in that poop? A whole lot of your gut bacteria. And yes, it goes up your baby’s nose and possibly into her mouth, and from there it gets into her gut. And that (plus her trip through the birth canal, where, to be clear, your vaginal microbes get on and into her) is what helps “colonize the infant gut with protective microbes” (translation: all the good-guy germs that live inside your tush and vagina go into her nose and mouth and then start growing inside her). And this, despite the lemon face you may have just made, is a very good thing. These great, helpful, protective gut bacteria keep her healthy, protect her against infection, regulate the immune system, and neural development, and apparently affect her metabolism for the rest of her life. In short, it may be one of the best things you ever do for her!
As my great friend, certified childbirth educator Ceridwen Morris says, “It’s not a mistake that human babies are born with their face an inch away from their mother’s asshole.” Chew on that for a while.
UPDATE, 5/16/13: This excellent article in this weekend’s NY Times Magazine discusses the importance of gut bacteria and the “fine patina” of poop that, for better or for worse, coats basically everything. It’s an awesome piece, but even the intrepid Michael Pollan glosses over the birth-poop-connection. He says:
“Most of the microbes that make up a baby’s gut community are acquired during birth — a microbially rich and messy process that exposes the baby to a whole suite of maternal microbes. Babies born by Caesarean, however, a comparatively sterile procedure, do not acquire their mother’s vaginal and intestinal microbes at birth.”
It’s a funny world when you can have a feature article about how important your poop-bacteria are, but not be clear that Vadge-And-Butt-To-Nose-Transfer is where it all begins.
You need a little patience and a bit of a sense of humor to enjoy this video of a new dad putting twins into a Moby Wrap (he’s not actually going to drop them), but it’s worth it, especially at the end when he struts down the street a la “Saturday Night Fever.”
I love to see new parents experimenting, and I especially love that he’s getting help from his own mom.
I really enjoyed this essay at Atlantic by Jody Peltason, a mother recalling her firstborn’s early weeks. The essay is based on her own journal entry titled, “Before I Forget.” In it, she recounted how awful, frightened and generally lousy she felt soon after her child’s birth, and how irritated she was by a stranger’s remark that she must be “On Cloud Nine.” Now three years later, and the memories have faded; the recollection still hurts, but, oddly, she wouldn’t remember the details of those awful first weeks but for her own journal.
The truth is, of the 1000+ new mothers I’ve worked with in the past decade, I have yet to meet a single one who seems to me to be on Cloud Nine. Some of them are happier than others; none of them is constantly ecstatic.Not in the first six months, certainly, certainly not in the first six weeks. It’s not what new moms are like, though many of them seem to think there’s something wrong with them for not being blissful.
I think partly this is because of what birth is like for almost everyone (even when it goes well, I have yet to meet anyone who described a hospital birth as ‘gentle’; can you imagine how those early weeks might change if new mothers routinely said, “everyone I encountered while I was doing all that work of labor went out of their way to make me feel personally cared for — they were kind and patient, took the time to do whatever made me feel like the rock star I am for having given birth”; can you imagine how different the world might be if women were taught to feel not “the only important thing is my baby’s outcome,” but, instead, that they were entitled to dignity and respect and pampering, gentle care in the hospital? That they were taught to see that being treated gently on day 1 makes a difference in her confidence and mood on day 2, 3 and so on?).
I also think that partly moms don’t seem to be on Cloud Nine because they’re often sent home alone with no one to take care of them during the next several months (in other parts of the world, there are cultural rituals around the care of new mothers; they are attended to so they can do the work of reinventing themselves, caring for helpless newborns, and recovering from birth. Our culture’s complete absence of any rituals is harsh by comparison).
But mostly I feel like new moms aren’t on Cloud Nine because it’s just not like that at first – it’s chaotic, it’s a transition, your baby is a stranger and very needy, in some ways you’re a stranger to yourself and very needy, your body feels different. Even with the best of help, no one loves being a beginner.
With my own firstborn, I remember some happiness, but mostly what I remember was that I felt drugged by him – drugged as in, dopey, in that I felt this compulsion to touch and respond to him even though it wasn’t, yet, recognizable as “love,” and also drugged as in “sort of sedated,” which may have been the sleep deprivation making it hard for me to think clearly, and also drugged as in “on downers”: I remember at least one day where I sobbed in bleary exhaustion because I couldn’t find the top of the water bottle, and at least one night where I cried and cried, because the un-shareability of breastfeeding was just too much. I recall my daughter’s newborn period as much more straightforwardly happy, though when I hone in on it, I can also remember that that Pretenders song, “It’s a Thin Line Between Love and Hate” was literally a soundtrack in my head for the entire first month. And that there was that one afternoon when I declared, in irritation, that I was going to wean her TODAY, RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE. And that other time where my computer crashed and I knocked over a water glass onto some papers and my baby had been screaming herself purple all morning, and I sat down on the kitchen floor and cried and cried.
But my kids are past the newborn stage, so when I work with new moms as a teacher or lactation consultant, I’m one of the list of people Peltason says “don’t get it”:
no one we talk to—not our mothers, not our friends with toddlers, not our pediatricians or lactation consultants—is able to re-inhabit her own experience fully enough to really understand how we feel.
That’s true. And I’m sure that there are mothers, friends, pediatricians and lactation consultants who seriously lack empathy and make it all worse. I know some of them! But I hope that even without being able to re-inhabit our own experiences, good helpers can help shepherd new moms through this stuff. I encourage new moms to reach out to their own mothers, childbirth educators, kind IBCLCs, friends, and other new mothers and to keep looking till they find someone who actually helps.
We aren’t able to be the new mom with you, but perhaps we can recognize your experience and try to be of comfort or of service while you go through it, just like you can’t literally understand what your baby is going through when he cries, but you can be helpful and supportive and gentle while he goes through it, and that will be good for him.
Still, Ms. Peltason writes, it’s lonely when no one else really inhabits the new mom place with you.
It sure is.
At some point, I think, it begins to sink in and feel “normal” that you’re the baby’s mother. You are, of course, always going to be literally alone with it, but as you grow into it as a role, the bad part of “loneliness” abates some. It takes a while, though, and it’s not made any easier by the fact that you’re tired and recovering and learning and, often, for a while, stuck at home, doing stuff that most of our country deems “not doing anything.” (i.e., keeping a completely helpless creature who can’t even move his own head alive with your very bodily fluids). It is lonely work, in the sense that you are truly alone in the role. No one else, no matter how sensitive, can inhabit this with you, that’s what’s hard about it. That’s why you need to be pampered and attended. It’s not something that can be fixed, it’s something you come to terms with. And that’s work.
I loathe strangers who talk to new moms idiotically, telling them to “savor every moment,” or that “it goes by in a flash” or that they ought to be on cloud nine. I loathe them for the pain they cause my students and clients.I think we all know, in our ‘normal’ lives, that random comments by strangers in the drug store are worth precisely zero, but in those early weeks, new moms are so extraordinarily suggestible – I wish the world would shut up around them or commit to be extra-gentle with them. But they won’t – random people at the drug store will continue to say random things, and in time, I think, moms find they can ignore it.
Till then, though, what helps make it a little more bearable? Food, fresh air, qualified helpers for specific concerns, the presence of gentle people who love you and make you feel OK – the basics of being cared for.
Do these things make the first several weeks and months easy? Do they remove all of that self-doubt? Do they allow you to feel you have total control and confidence, relaxed about your baby’s unpredictability? Do they ease spousal tensions, make you never weepy and confused, erase all your problems and leave you fully rested and understand your role completely? No. Nothing can do that.
But the right kind of help can help support you while you grow into being the mother you’re turning into. It won’t take all the pain away, but it will help you live with it. Because the truth is, the first months are bumpy for almost everyone. Peltason is exactly right that it’s not something you can master. You just get through it, hopefully with gentle people around you that you can lean on.
(And when you are through it? You still, as a mother, have periods of self-doubt, incomplete control, occasional weeping and confusion and problems, and so on. But you find that you’re much, much better at handling it than you were at first.)
Like Peltason, I weary of the way we talk about the early months in a harsh dichotomy of “postpartum depression” versus “sheer joy all the time.” The normal postnatal period is trying for almost everyone. Sometimes, (often, I daresay), the tools that help folks who are tipping into Depression are also useful for everyone else as well; often a good facilitated new moms’ group is all that she’ll need. No one benefits from imagining that “normal” and “healthy” is the same as “easy” and “happy all the time.” No one is happy all the time and few important things are easy. It’s a ridiculous standard.
It’s easy, as she notes, for helpers to encourage moms to tune into their “Mother’s Instincts” to figure out what to do during this time, but all too often, I’ve noticed, new moms are certain they have no instincts! Like Peltason, many of the new moms I meet worry their “Mother’s Instincts” are lousy, untrustable, or absent, because they don’t feel like a mother yet.
I say, it takes a while to feel like a mother, period. But you are, literally, a mother. So if your gut tells you that you should drink tea and watch The Wonder Years, as Peltason’s did, that’s your Mother’s Instinct. And it’s probably exactly what you need to do.
What does drinking tea and watching The Wonder Years have to do with developing as a mother? How can it help answer your questions about parenting philosophy and whether to keep breastfeeding or buy a different brand of diapers or return to work or whatever? I don’t know. But if it’s what you feel like doing and you’re the mother, that’s your instinct. Go for it. See where it takes you.
You know what will happen? An hour will go by. You’ll have an hour’s more experience, an hour where you did something that just felt right. In time, those hours accumulate and you’ll have gotten through the early stuff. You’ll know your baby more, and yourself more. You’ll be one step further from being that vulnerable new mom, at the steepest part of the learning curve, and one step closer to being the person who forgets herself in Duane Reade and inadvertently reminisces aloud about how wonderful it all was.
I like this picture going around FB, even though the quote is sloganny and simplistic.
My firstborn is a boy, and was an only child for 6 years. During that time, I noticed some patterns in what “boys’ moms” tended to say and what “girls’ moms” tended to say, and one of them was: moms of daughters frequently described their girls as “bossy.” I think I noticed it initially because I never thought of my son as bossy. Then, when I thought about this more, I realized I never heard a mother of a son call him “bossy.” But it was common hear among mothers of girls. I immediately wondered: if I had a daughter, would she seem bossy to me?
And I noticed that almost always, the girl being described didn’t seem bossy to me at all. Granted, I had a distance on this because I had only a son, but I was often surprised when “bossy” was handed out because mostly the girl seemed to be acting opinionated, charismatic, enthusiastic, but not “bossy” in the sense that “bossy” also involves a real failure of empathy, an inability to “get” when it is time to keep your opinion to yourself, listen and follow.
Or — sometimes her grabby, want-to-get-my-way, inconsiderate routine was really unempathic and truly out of line, but even then, typically, I’d think, well, that’s annoying, but it’s actually just “childish” behavior. And this person is a child.
Meanwhile, the boys also did the grabby, want-to-get-my-way, inconsiderate routine, the very same routine, and it was equally annoying from them, and all too often the adults around them didn’t call them names, but also didn’t teach them how to do it any better. All too often, when boys got “bossy”, their grown-ups expressed pride in the young tyke’s cojones, or else apologetically explained that he couldn’t help it because that’s how boys are.
I think it’s worth being careful with our language. It’s important for all kids to learn to express their opinions with a little charisma and a good sense of audience. They’ll all mangle it for a while – some will be too hesitant to express opinions until they find their voice, and others will steamroll over everyone else’s opinions until they learn some moderation. In the end, helping them learn this is important because these are leadership skills. We owe it to a daughter not to suggest that venturing an opinion (and risking doing it boorishly) is so horrible that we’ll call her names for having a personality. It’s exactly in the low-stakes world of the playground that she should learn to do that stuff with our help. And we owe it to a son to do right by him, too, to be sure that when we admire and encourage budding “leadership,” we’re also teaching him to be mindful of his audience. Acting like he’s not capable of basic empathy is treating him like an idiot. It’s not fair to boys or to girls if we give up on them.
The pre-release media buzz around Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In has sparked a barrage of essays about women and ambition and career. In this one on the Daily Beast, journalist Mary Louise Kelly describes how and why, after considerable distress, she left a very high powered, full-time career to be mainly with her kids, and writing part-time.
And yet—with sincere and enormous respect for the accomplishments of superwomen like Sheryl Sandberg—I wonder if there isn’t room for a more expansive definition of female professional success. So many of the women I know are blending work and family in ways our mothers and grandmothers never dreamed possible. This seems to me worth celebrating, not sniffing at. Dare I confess that I feel I’m accomplishing something just as meaningful now as when I spent my time scurrying between Pentagon press briefings? Or, to use an example from Sandberg’s world, should we automatically assume that the woman running the company is doing more with her life than the woman who has negotiated a three-day week?
There are many ways to succeed professionally over a lifetime, just like there are a lot of things you could call a “great dinner.” Personal taste, access to resources, time and skill are all factors; it’s silly to compare them.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to discuss. The larger point is, if you’re not “leaning in” to your current career, why?
- Is it because you’ve been conditioned not to take yourself seriously? Not to take risks? Not to grab the spotlight? Not to “go for it”? Only to worry about the logistics? Never to say you’re great at something?
- Have you been taught to take criticism so hard that you lose sleep over it even when the person criticizing you is clearly in the wrong? To feel like a fraud and an imposter when you do well?
- Has everyone failed to teach you how to negotiate, how to ask for a raise, or how to identify the person in your work community who is most likely to shepherd your career? Have they, instead, taught you that negotiating and asking for a raise is “pushy,” and that looking for help is “weak”?
- Were you indoctrinated to forgive a spouse who is better at getting out of domestic and childcare tasks than you are at saying, “share this stuff with me or leave” because “that’s how men are”? Do you and your spouse tacitly agree that if he takes a job that leaves him no time for home and family that’s “sad for him” but that if you take the same job, it’s sad for all of you?
- Have you been taught, over and over again, that if you don’t feel guilty or inadequate you probably ARE guilty and inadequate?
If those are the only reasons you are leaning back, they are a shame, and there are things that help.
That these are the motivators for so many of us reflects systemic problems that began to color our views in childhood. They lead to women holding themselves back, and men holding women back. It’s time to push back against that, hard, starting with what we teach young girls and boys, and I hope that the “movement” afoot is about that. And to the extent that any of it can be re-learned in adulthood and allow women to take more control of their lives, I am all for it. Not just for mothers. Not just for women. For all of us.
But let’s not conflate any of that with something separate, which is: for reasons that have nothing to do with the above, many people feel a very strong pull to be substantially with their kids while they are little. They want to be with their babies not because they’ve been taught to hold back by a sexist culture, not because their work isn’t interesting enough, but because they want to be with their babies. And that’s a good thing.
Although leaning towards our babies when they are babies is not what feels right for everyone, is not practically possible for everyone, and is not a profession, it’s right for many and it should be possible for more of us, just as access to affordable childcare should be possible for more of us who need that.
A mother who feels called to be with her young is not unfeminist. In fact, it’s misogynist to suggest that there’s something wrong with her for wanting to use her body to do female things: gestating, birthing, lactating, nurturing the baby she has grown with her body.
It’s also not a permanent state: babies grow, and when they’re big kids most people have moved back to the workplace.
Meanwhile, whether you’re staying in or leaning back from the career path you were on before your kids were born? Learning to negotiate, take risks, partner with your spouse and develop appropriate confidence will help you dive back in to whatever it is you do in the next chapter. It will also help you parent your children.
I hope we’re at the beginning of a flood of thoughtful discussions that lead to real changes for women, not a slide into the old, divisive, unproductive arguments that folks call the Mommy Wars. There’s no war, and it’s time we stopped using that term and built systems that help more of us succeed.
There’s been a lot more commentary on Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” in the past week; here’s a piece by a mom who returned to work full time after her baby was born, but later chose to leave her career, and be, for now, substantially with her child. She vividly expresses the mix of concerns and joys she feels, including an honest admission that she worries about how and *whether* she’ll “get back in” when, eventually, she wants a career back.
I like this essay for its honesty. It takes character to acknowledge your reservations and not just cling fiercely to a defensive “I did the right thing that all mothers should do” or “what I did was dreadfully wrong so don’t make my mistake!” mentality. Especially on this topic. So first of all, congratulations to Ms. Morison and I’d love to see more of this, everywhere, not just at my working moms’ groups, where moms can be brave because they know they can lean on each other (and there’s wine!).
Second, and importantly, to all folks who have stepped out for a few months or a few years. To the extent you are wondering, can I ever get back in? The answer is yes. I don’t know what your job is, and I can’t promise you you can return to your exact same job. Truly, after a hiatus where you’ve been doing something profoundly different, you may not want the exact same thing you wanted before anyway.
But yes, when you are ready to be done with what you’re doing now and rejoin the workforce in a more ambitious or earnest or focused or unambivalent way than you feel now — yes, you will be able to do it. I have watched it happen for clients and for friends. They are not CEOs of mega corporations. But they are outstandingly successful, fully engaged, bettering the world, inspiring their kids and their friends, and bringing in money. They are stressed by childcare issues and parent-teacher conferences sometimes, and by their work, sometimes. But that’s because they’re human. In the main, they are happy. You can do it, too. You’ll need to have a lot of creativity and confidence, and there will be moments where you have to be courageous or do something scary or uncertain, and that’s where peers and colleagues who love you can help a lot.
Last: Ms Morison brags
I was great at my job – before I became a mom, and after. I have trouble even typing that statement — which perhaps gets at some of what Sheryl Sandberg is talking about to begin with — but I was.
YES. I don’t know, yet, whether that’s what Lean In is about, but getting to a point where women can be proud and confidently tout their own awesomeness when they deserve it: that has to be one of the most fundamental parts of any movement that seeks to reinvigorate this very old discussion.
That and adequate affordable childcare and an understanding that corporate success is not the only type of success.
I’m miffed again about Marissa Mayer. The Yahoo CEO sparked online rage this week after announcing Yahoo would no longer allow employees to work from home. Last year, she pissed people off by announcing in a way that sounded rather cavalier that she would take “a couple weeks” maternity leave. I blogged, at the time, about how her comments made it seem like she didn’t understand that the transition to motherhood is more than just learning how to wipe a butt (which women like Mayer can farm out.)
I actually feel kind of bad for Mayer — as the world’s most prominent CEO/New Mom she’s got to be under tremendous scrutiny to prove herself in a thousand ways, and it must feel like a minefield. But whether she’d wished to be this or not, she’s the Working Mom In Power, who everyone is looking at right now, and she’s handling it badly, over and over. I don’t know the right answer for Yahoo! in terms of work flexibility arrangements (and some online have suggested that flex time was abused within the company and/or that the scheme is a way for Yahoo! to achieve mass layoffs without having to do a public reduction in force), but a blanket ban on working from home seems outdated and monolithic in response.
This isn’t just about mothers, it’s about all parents, and to be expansive, it’s about all workers. Flexibility can be abused, for sure, but it can also allow workers to do better, cleaner, more efficient work and be happy with their lives. As long as it’s managed well. And what we expect in a CEO is excellent management skills, right?
But it gets worse. Apparently, Ms. Mayer paid to have a nursery built into her office during her maternity leave. This way, she can see her baby when she needs to, without having to work from home. How nice for her! She’s so lucky to work for a company where that kind of work-life flexibility is considered importa— oh. Wait.
Somehow I’m doubting she’s about to unveil Yahoo’s plan to provide on-site nurseries with childcare for the rest of its employees. Everyone is a hypocrite sometimes, but this example is pretty egregious.
It’s a shame; I was hoping she’d use this position and the timing of her motherhood as an opportunity to lead.
Yesterday I blogged about the importance of gut microbes, and recent news showing that birth mode (vaginal vs c-section) and infant feeding (breastmilk vs formula) affect babies’ development of good bacteria for long term health. Today there’s another piece about this in the Times. The article covers a Canadian study which found, again, that babies born by c-section and those who don’t have a breast milk diet have less protective gut bacteria at four months old, and more of the harmful germs that make you sick. The authors of the study believe that this is a pathway for various autoimmune problems in older people.
You can read the full study here. I don’t love this study because the total number of infants is low. More importantly, it, like so many studies that start to examine the nursing relationship, doesn’t really clarify what “breastfeeding” means. They differentiate “formula feeding” from “exclusive breastfeeding” and “partial breastfeeding” at the time they took the samples, but there’s no apparent guidance about how to use those terms. My concern is that without good definitions, we can’t properly interpret the results. For instance: if a baby was given one bottle of formula on day 1 in the hospital (as so many are) but went on to have nothing but breast milk for the next many months, is that baby “exclusively” or “partially” breastfed? If we are looking at the effect of early exposure to nonnatural microbes, it seems wrong to compare that baby to one who has had nothing but breast milk from birth. But if we are looking at whether a protective effect of breast milk is dose-dependent, it seems wrong to lump that baby in as “partially” breastfed with another who has had half breast milk and half formula for four months. These distinctions are rarely made in studies that purport to look at the ways infant feeding affects health outcomes. But if we’re going to learn anything real, we need to look closely at what it is we’re trying to study. “Breastfeeding” isn’t just one thing.