Two pink lines

A positive pregnancy test.We have news.

We’re very happy, of course—we wanted this—but also kind of terrified.  It is a totally ridiculous time for us to have another child, but it is also the best of all possible times.  It may be the only possible time.

Early pregnancy is a time of waiting.  It’s too early for an ultrasound to tell us that everything’s going as it should.  Too early to see the flicker of a heartbeat on the screen.  The embryo is a tiny grain of rice, busily doing things that are entirely out of our control.

My body knows it’s there, though.  In the days before the test read positive, my face broke out like a repeat performance of puberty, and I lost the ability to fall asleep in a reasonable period of time.  The above paragraph originally noted that it was too early for morning sickness, but today my stomach started to notice the rising hormone levels and complain.  More symptoms will come, and my body will stretch and change as it did before.  And it will be scary and uncomfortable and wonderful and awful and amazing.

Hopefully.

Grow well, little one.

Falling into gender roles

One of the more identity-warping aspects of parenthood is the way that it has pushed certain traditional gender roles into my marriage.  I didn’t expect this: I grew up in the “girls can do anything” generation and married someone who had no interest in being a stereotypical breadwinner.  But then BAM! societal structures whacked me in the face.

Some of it seems to make sense in the context of our family.  My husband is older than me; he has a real job and I’m a grad student.  Now that he’s working outside of academia, he makes a lot more than me.  My status as a student means that my hours are flexible, my vacation is not tracked, and, well, it just makes sense for me to be the one who stays home when the kid is sick.  To be the one who takes at-home days so that we can save money on daycare.  If we have a second kid after I finish my PhD, it’ll be totally logical for me to be the one to take “leave” for a few months or maybe longer.

But…  Would that calculation change if my husband’s new job offered paternity leave?  (It doesn’t.)  Would I have chosen to stay home as much as I did if daycare were more affordable?

What happens when we move somewhere where daycare costs even more?  Where the waiting lists are months long?  Who has to stay home then?

What happens if we have that second kid and I take some time off to parent—will I be losing forever the opportunity to have the kind of career I once imagined?  Am I doomed to be the secondary breadwinner, looking at a life of trying to sell jewelry and fake nails to my friends?

My husband and I had a fight the other day about money.  He’d started to say things that sounded like he thought of his salary as something he earned for himself and partially distributed to me for stuff, as opposed to something he earned for our family.  It turned out we were taking our worries out on each other: he felt bad about spending less time with our son (he’s had to work weekends recently), while I was worried (jealous?) that I made so much less.  It bothers me very much that we’ve been pushed in these directions.

Today is one of my at-home days, and I’m busy trying to fill the hours with dishes and knitting and crayons.  Likely my husband will be working again this weekend.  I feel unfulfilled, like I’m turning into the stereotype of a bored 1960’s housewife.

I’m not sure where to go from here.

I feel old

I feel old.

Objectively, I’m not actually that old, but I’m feeling it in a way that I haven’t before.  I’m closer to 30 than 20, still young but not the youngest anymore.

Maybe I’m hitting that heretofore-mythical stage when one starts feeling like an adult.

It’s a confluence of factors, I think.  The changing of the seasons, heading into yet another summer at the end of yet another year of grad school.  The eternity of the same routine, when a whole class of college students has been and gone and graduated in the time I’ve been here.

My body is still finding its post-breastfeeding equilibrium, shifting and aching in ways both familiar and new.  My clothes hang differently than they used to, and I feel more comfortable dressing as a “mom” than as a “young adult.”

And speaking of that mom thing, my kid is almost two.  Where does the time go?

Time is forcing me to change the vision I have of myself in my head.

It’s hard, and I am tired.

That gorilla incident illustrates how mothers are basically screwed

The internet’s perpetual outrage machine is busy right now with a sad incident at the Cincinnati zoo.  (Quick summary: small child fell into gorilla enclosure, gorilla behaved threateningly, child survived but gorilla did not.)  A significant chunk of that outrage is directed at the child’s mother: Why didn’t she see him entering the enclosure?  Why wasn’t she watching? 

Now, I wasn’t there.  I don’t know exactly what happened.  Maybe this particular mother was being genuinely neglectful.  Maybe she just had a lapse for a moment and made a mistake.  I’m sure it’s being thoroughly investigated, as it should be.

But all this B.S. about the mother “not doing her job” and the like?  That needs to stop.  If you’re tempted to say that, stop and ask yourself: Have you always done your own job to 100% perfection?  Have you never made an error, out of ever single day that you’ve ever worked? 

From a safe distance, it’s easy to say that she should’ve done this or she should’ve done that, but to do so ignores the cultural context in which women parent.  (And yes, it’s moms who face the fiercest judgement.)  I’ve read piles of “the kid should have been on a leash!” comments, often with a stated or unstated “if she couldn’t handle him” accompanying.  Which is the irony of those very comments—to put your small child on a leash might be convenient and safe, but it will get you branded as someone who “can’t handle” their rambunctious toddler.

People are damn judgemental about those leashes.  “Parenting won’t include those for us,” sniffed one woman in a now-deleted Tweet when the topic came up on my feed a few weeks ago.  A big chunk of American culture has decided that confining children in any way is a mark of lazy parenting—just look at how weird people are about playpens these days.

Another recurring comment I’ve seen is that the mom shouldn’t have brought the kid out at all if the kid was a known “runner.”  Because apparently the punishment for being an actual human being and not a perfect robot is that you don’t get to go anywhere.

For goodness’ sake, people, listen to yourselves!

If you use a leash, you get judged.  If you don’t use a leash and your kid does anything untoward, you get judged.  If you stay three inches from your kid the whole trip, you’re helicoptering.  If you stay three feet away, you’re neglectful.  If your child is any less than a perfect angel, or you are less than 100% perfect yourself, someone will think that you should’ve just stayed home.  But if you stay home, you’re not providing your child with the “enrichment” they need.

We can’t win.  All we can do is hope that our imperfections don’t make national news.

A letter to my baby on our second Mother’s Day

This is my response to


My dearest child,

This is our second Mother’s Day.  You haven’t the foggiest idea what that means yet, except that Daddy will give you a pen and ask you to draw all over my card, which you will do with great care and enthusiasm.  Because that’s what Mother’s Day means: it means I’m part of a family.

Before you were born, for all those months that I carried you in my womb, we were a family.  Your Daddy and I laid our hands together on my stomach to feel your hiccups.  We worked together to prepare you a room, and we went to classes to learn about your arrival.  My body did the hardest work of growing, but your Daddy was always there to keep me (and you) close.

The day you came into this world, the moment we met, I smiled and told your Daddy to follow you to the nursery.  His bare chest comforted you; his heartbeat soothed you.  You came to me an hour later, tiny and pink, and I was astonished—how could something this amazing have come from me?  Your Daddy helped me carefully hold you, carefully bring your tiny head to my breast.

Your first few weeks, we learned together how this family would work.  My milk fed you, but your father and I shared the journey of staying up with you late at night when you didn’t understand the difference between night and day.  I learned to pump milk so that others could nourish you in my absence.

Soon, you started to take a bottle with ease, and I rejoiced to watch you snuggle with your father and your grandparents.  I read you books and played with your toys—and so did they.  We all watched together as you learned to focus, learned to smile, learned to reach, learned to roll.  It was always you, and me, and our family.

After six weeks, I went back to work part-time, trading shifts with your father.  We woke at night together when you stirred, he to change your diaper, I to offer food to soothe your rumbly tummy.  I remember snuggling in the quiet night with you, alone in the darkness.  I also remember the nights when you would not sleep, when I cried and your Daddy came out to take over.

And then, you began to sleep through the night.  You no longer needed me in the darkest hours and I rejoiced.

I rejoiced because it was never about you and me, and how you needed me.  It was about you.  About you growing, gaining independence.  Watched and loved by two parents.

You need me now much less than you did in that first year.  You run on your own, and you wiggle away when I try to hold you tight.  Someday your father and I won’t need to change your diapers, or pick out your clothes, or slice your food up into bite-size pieces.  Someday you’ll be reading on your own, truly reading and not just the nonsense syllables you make now as you turn the pages for yourself.  You have grown so much, and I am so proud.

It was never just you and me, and we are all the more blessed for it.  You have learned that many people provide safety and comfort, and you have learned that Mommy and Daddy always, always come back.  You are making friends at daycare, and I delight in the joy that shows in your face as you run around together.

So this Mother’s Day, our second Mother’s Day, I am going to sleep in.  I am going to take Daddy up on his offer to watch you all day.  I don’t know what I’ll do yet with that time—maybe I’ll have lunch with a friend, or go shopping, or just curl up at home with a book.  Because I know that I need that break, and that I’ll be a better wife and mother for it.  Because I know your face will light up when I come back, just as it lights up when Daddy comes home from work.

Because I know you will always be my baby, even when I’m not around.

Love,

Mommy

Then what should we do about the C-section rate?

Inspired by a discussion on my last post with reader Amanda Anderson, I want to talk more about the rate of Cesarean sections in the U.S., and what, if anything, I think ought to be done about it.  Most definitely, the answer is not hanging creepy “awareness” ribbons.  I am not a medical professional—just a rather opinionated C-section mama.

Be realistic about the issueSo the C-section rate in the U.S. is “too high”?  What does that mean?  Let’s look at some numbers: In 2014, 32.2% of all deliveries were by C-section.  However, only 26.9% of low-risk deliveries were C-sections.  That’s still a pretty big percentage, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agrees: they’d like to see the C-section rate for low-risk deliveries get down to 23.9% by 2020.

“Over the past three decades the WHO-proposed caesarean section rate of 10–15% was used as a threshold, despite the lack of concrete evidence to support this statement.”—Ye et al. (2015)

23.9% might be higher than some target numbers you’ve heard.  It’s very common for midwives and company to quote the old 10–15% C-section rate advocated by the World Health Organization (WHO), although the WHO no longer quotes a specific target rate and the original numbers were based on scant data.  It’s clear that 10% is a solid bare minimum, but recent studies show that maternal and neonatal mortality rates continue to drop until C-section rates are at least 20%.  (And bear in mind that death isn’t the only possible negative outcome; oxygen deprivation during birth can lead to severe brain damage, and even less severe effects like a broken collarbone are perhaps not desirable.)

So when I say “be realistic,” I mean this: don’t look at the U.S. C-section rate as being twice as high as it ought to be.  It’s more like a few percentage points higher than the optimum.

Recognize that it’s about risk.  It’s easy to say that if the C-section rate is too high, then some C-sections must be unnecessary, but which ones?  How can we tell in advance?

The reason for my C-section was a breech baby (meaning he was oriented head-up instead of the usual head-down).  Doctors like to avoid breech vaginal births because there’s a chance the baby’s head could get stuck after the rest of its body has already been born, a scary and potentially deadly situation.  But it doesn’t happen that often: for every 111 breech babies delivered the normal way, 1 baby dies.  Meaning, 99.1% of the time, that baby could’ve been born vaginally just fine, and so technically that C-section was “unnecessary.”  But we can’t tell in advance which babies will make it through—are you willing to take that 0.9% risk?

“Obstetricians are sued more frequently than physicians in most other specialties, awards against them can be very large, and they pay more for liability insurance coverage than any other specialty except neurosurgeons.”—Yang et al. (2009)

Risk is also at play when it comes to hospital rules, like how long you’re allowed to push during the second stage of labor, and whether or not you can attempt a VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean).  For better or for worse, we have a very sue-happy culture in the U.S.  If your local hospital’s medical malpractice insurance doesn’t cover VBACs, they’re kind of stuck.

Don’t demonize doctors.  I’m sure there are obstetricians out there who are overly pushy when it comes to medical interventions in childbirth, and who make women feel out of control.  There are also midwives who are too pushy in the other direction and contribute to maternal and fetal deaths.  Every profession has bad apples, and humans in general are very susceptible to ideology.

But here’s my anecdote as a counterpoint: my OB very seriously warned me about the risks of a C-section and encouraged a version, which is when a doctor tries to turn the baby from the outside.  The specialist who did the version tried and tried, far beyond the expected three attempts, until his arms shook, because it seemed like my baby might turn.  The hospital was as nice of a place as hospitals can be, and the nurses were wonderful throughout.

Moving beyond anecdotes, I believe we shouldn’t put too much blame on doctors because we need them to work with us.  If there are medical practices that need changed, doctors are going to be the ones to do it.  Painting them as scary interventionists who just want to get to their golf games is not only largely untrue, it’s antagonizing to the very people who could be our greatest allies in improving obstetric care.

Focus on maternal health.  Your average media article about the U.S. C-section rate treats it as the problem.  But what if it’s the symptom?  We know that the U.S population has high rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, all conditions that make pregnancy and birth more risky.  We know that income inequality and access to affordable health care are huge issues in this country.  I believe that if we focused on those issues, mothers and babies would be healthier, and the C-section rate could naturally fall.

Speaking from my own experience, U.S. health care is a pain in the butt to navigate.  It’s a maze of insurance and referrals, waiting lists and three-letter acronyms.  And I’m an educated person, with financial and family resources—exactly the kind of person who ought to find it easiest to get good health care.  Imagine a mother who can’t easily take time off for OB visits every few weeks.  Who can’t rest up in late pregnancy because she has to save up all her sick days for after the birth.  Who can’t afford her co-pays.  Her prenatal health is going to be worse, and she’s going to be at greater risk of needing a C-section.

I often see the U.S.’s C-section stats compared to those of countries in northern and western Europe.  You know what those countries have?  Socialized medicine!  Social safety nets!

Support research.  And no, I don’t mean more research about the many possible ways in which C-sections could be scary.  I mean research about the facts of birth.  For instance, a 2014 study showed that with an epidural, it can be safe and normal for the pushing stage of labor to last up to nearly 6 hours, twice as long as the accepted norm.  That’s good, useful information, because it can inform hospital and obstetric policy.  Knowing that, doctors won’t feel like they’re taking as much of a risk letting women push for longer.

We need more data like that.  What is a “normal” labor for women in the U.S., given the current health and demographics of the country?  Can we find more markers of “low-risk”?  Can we develop better technology to measure pelvic widths (to rule out the problem of a too-big head), or to better augment labor when it’s slowing (to keep things going without a C-section)?  The better we can distinguish who’s going to need a C-section before birth, the more we can keep the rate of C-sections where it needs to be.

Make birth centers more available.  One story I hear over and over again is that women didn’t feel like they had any choice about the situation in which they gave birth.  Proper birth centers, that are staffed by proper nurse midwives (CNMs), and that have referring relationships with hospitals, would help with that.  They’re relatively rare, for reasons that I don’t completely know but suspect relate to insurance and perhaps to a general lack of CNMs.  (Midwifery qualifications in the U.S. have several tiers; only CNMs have qualifications on the level of midwives in Europe.)

Birth centers wouldn’t change the underlying health issues faced by many women, or reduce the number of high-risk births, but by offering a choice, they might bring the low-risk C-section rate down that last few percentage points.

And finally…

Stop scaring mothers.  I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: we have to stop telling women that C-sections are bad.  If we set them up to believe that the surgery will be a bad experience, they’re much more likely to feel that it was.  Now, I know women who’ve had scary C-sections, because they were in an emergency situation and had to suddenly stop pushing and be rushed to the operating room.  I also know women who’ve had scary vaginal births, with stuck shoulders and painful tears.

The burden of changing the C-section rate does not lie on individual women, nor should it.  Women should be free to choose Cesarean if that’s what they want, or if it’s what they feel offers the safest route to a healthy birth.  No woman should be made to feel the need to defend her C-section, chosen or not.

Well, readers, I think that’s all I have to say on this, for now.  What do you have to add?

How I came to hate attachment parenting

When Little Boy was an infant, I spent a lot of time online.  Trying to keep myself awake, mostly.  Somewhere amid the long dark nights, I found myself Googling “I hate attachment parenting.”  I needed affirmation for the black fire of anger that had arisen during pregnancy and spilled out everywhere during those newborn days.  I needed someone to tell me it was OK to parent in a way that really, truly worked for me and my baby.

This post is about where that black anger came from, and why I’ve had so much trouble letting it go.

Before I go any further, let me be very clear on one thing:  If you practice attachment parenting or any of its components because it is what works for your family, then this post is not about you.  All the core components of AP fall onto the spectrum of perfectly acceptable parenting behavior.  We did several of them ourselves: I breastfed Little Boy for 17 months; we frequently “wore” him around the house and neighborhood; we room-shared for the first few months.  Heck, most of those things are recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

No, when I say I hate attachment parenting, I mean that I hate Attachment Parenting™, the worldview that believes that it is the only acceptable way to parent.  I hate the naturalistic fallacy that has infected the white, liberal, middle-class approach to parenting, and I hate the misinterpretations and misappropriations of science that are used to back it up.

It started when I was pregnant.  As those of you who’ve read Little Boy’s birth story know, I was interested in “natural” birth—that is, giving birth without pain medication—until Little Boy flipped breech in the third trimester and it became clear that a C-section was likely.  I am the kind of person who likes to learn as much as I can in advance, so I did a lot of reading about “natural” childbirth.  Only… it turns out that there aren’t a ton of resources for women like me, women who want to skip the epidural but stay in the hospital.  It was always sort of assumed that if I was going that route, then of course I didn’t trust doctors and of course I’d probably really want to give birth at home.

Here’s the thing: I’m a trained scientist.  I may not be a medical expert, but I have enough background to read medical papers, and my university affiliation gives me access to the full text of most major journals.  I can tell when people are spewing bullshit, and my bullshit meter was blaring like a siren.  It was so easy for me to check that all the woo about homebirth was wrong.  And all this scary stuff that people were telling me about hospitals?  It hasn’t been true since before I was born.

Unfortunately, while it was easy to dismiss the stuff that was obviously fringe, it was much harder to ignore that which had crept into the mainstream.  One of my friends, a smart, educated woman, was reading Ina May Gaskin and planning to deliver at a local birth center.  So that couldn’t be that weird, right?  The local hospital’s birth classes were taught by doulas and lactation consultants; the hospital itself boasted that babies were expected to room-in full-time after birth.  So that was good, right?

Except… My OB was a wonderful, caring woman, and the lactation consultant who visited our hospital room was a jerk.  Full-time rooming-in was terrifying and exhausting.  All of the naturalistic stuff I’d been hearing just didn’t jive with my experiences.

The second step came with the breastfeeding.  The funny thing is, breastfeeding went really well for us.  No problems with supply, no issues with weight gain, nothing to feel guilty about.  So why does the über-pro-breastfeeding culture make me so angry?

Well, there was the way the lactation consultants in my breastfeeding class spent the first 10 minutes telling us how inferior formula was.  We’re here at this class—we’ve already decided that we want to breastfeed!  Plus they seemed to be going way beyond what the science actually says, twisting and stretching the facts to suit a certain narrative about good motherhood.  Like I’ve said, I hate it when people get the science wrong.

Yet again, I found that there was no place for me in mothering culture, no place for a mother who wanted to breastfeed but didn’t want the answer to everything to be “more boob.”  It has always been extremely important to my husband that he be an active parent, and so it was very important to us that both parents be able to soothe Little Boy.  I didn’t want to nurse every five minutes.  I can’t nurse every five minutes and keep my sanity.  And you know what?  Little Boy didn’t need to nurse every five minutes.

It turns out, though, that when you search for the answer to breastfeeding questions, the answer is always “more boob, more often.”  Even when that doesn’t make sense.  Even when it’s clear that baby isn’t hungry.  The top-listed resources, Dr. Sears and KellyMom and La Leche League, they all assume that of course mom is going to be with baby constantly, probably co-sleeping, and dad’s just there to help out.

Attachment Parents like to tell you that their parenting beliefs are all about “following your instincts.”  They’re just doing what they feel they should do!  But here’s the thing: my instincts about parenting were always on the side of “he’s fine, give him a minute.”  I never had an “instinct” to run to the baby the second he started crying.  I love snuggling with him, but my “instinct” is always to put him down so that I can do things for myself once in a while.

I made the mistake, during pregnancy, of joining my “birth month group” on BabyCenter.com.  Oh hell no—do not do that.  BabyCenter purports to be a mainstream resource, but in its fora I saw women excoriated for letting their babies cry for THREE whole minutes.  Horrors!  Apparently my instinct—that is was OK to let Little Boy fidget a bit while I set up my environment to be comfortable for nursing—made me a terrible mother.

I’ve never felt the need to stare into Little Boy’s eyes constantly while I nurse, or to be down on the floor with him every second of his playtime.  Quite the opposite, in fact: I need time to myself in order to literally stay sane enough to function.

What do you do, when the culture is telling you your “instincts” are wrong?

I was already pretty viciously anti-attachment-parenting by the time we sleep trained Little Boy, but that was the last straw.  Our baby, at the age of three months, was not interested in being nursed to sleep, nor in being rocked gently off to dreamland.  We know.  We tried those things.  As long as something worked, we were willing to do it—but nothing worked.  Little Boy resisted sleep, and woke from his naps cranky and tired.

Sleep training (we used the Ferber method) was a miracle.  It took only a few nights and surprisingly little crying.  Little Boy, it seems, wanted the space to be left alone to sleep, without rocking or singing or nipples in his face.  He was happier, we were happier, and I have never had any doubt that we did the right thing.

Sleeping training, though—from an attachment parenting perspective, that is the worst thing we could do.  Some commenters have implied that we should have waited until six months.  One woman online told me that I was lazy and clearly didn’t know how to soothe my baby!  (I do know how to soothe my baby.  It involves giving him peace and quiet.)  I have seen mothers adopt severe martyr complexes about what they endured to avoid “crying it out,” even more than the martyr complexes they take on about breastfeeding.

My baby needed to learned to sleep on his own.  Anyone who thinks otherwise can fuck off.

Much later, I checked out Dr. Sears’ The Baby Book, that bible of attachment parenting, from the library and read it, wondering if perhaps my impression of him had been wrong.  Nope.  The Baby Book is every bit what I thought it was, filled with dire warning about the “bad start” of an un-“natural” birth and a general snide message of “don’t you want to know that you did the best for your baby?”  The “best,” of course, being Dr. Sears’ tenants of attachment parenting.

I’ve noticed that Attachment Parents like to present an aura of being rebels, of going against the mainstream.  It’s one of the things that seems to appeal to them.  But are you kidding me?  I’m sure there are places where it’s some of this stuff is still unusual, but on the whole?  In the media?  Give it up, you guys, you already won!  The AAP is staunchly pro-breastfeeding.  Babywearing has been common for a quarter-century.  Bed-sharing remains controversial, but the AAP itself recommends room-sharing.  The classic baby-care guide What to Expect the First Year won’t even answer the question of how to put a three-month-old on a regular schedule.  Among the white, liberal, educated middle-class, the attachment parenting approach is already the norm.

In fact, that’s why it’s so hard to reject: because there are bits and pieces of it that are smart and good and true, or at least reasonable under some circumstances.  If it didn’t pretend to be based on science, I would laugh it off just as I laugh at the anti-vaccine crowd.  But it pretends to be The Right Answer, and it drives the guilt that underlies my approach to motherhood.

So there it is: the anger.  Little Boy is one year old, going on two; you’d think I could let all this go by this point.  But I still remember the deep black darkness of his early days, and I remember how much the feeling that I was doing something wrong contributed to that pain.  I felt alone and judged and hopeless, and the attachment parenting ethos is one reason why.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to be a DEtached parent.

We need to banish the phrase “That’s what you signed up for when you became a parent”

If you’re spent any time on the “mommy internet” (forums, blogs, etc.), you’re bound to have come across the self-righteous mother.  You know, the one who made all the “best” choices in pregnancy and birth and parenting and can’t imagine that—gasp!—other people’s lives might be different.  One of Ms. Self-Righteous’s favorite things to say is this: “Well, that’s just what you signed up for when you became a parent.”

Kid wakes up every 45 minutes all night long?  “That’s what you signed up for when you became a parent.”

Bleeding nipples from trying to breastfeed?  “That’s what you signed up for when you became a parent.”

Feeling stuck at home and missing adult interaction?  “That’s what you signed up for when you became a parent.”

It’s bratty, it’s common, and it needs to be banished forever.

For one, it rests on an utterly ridiculous assumption: that the person in question “signed up” to be a parent.  Some people do.  I did: the pregnancy that brought me Little Boy was very carefully planned and sought after.  But half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, so chances are good, when you’re speaking to a strange woman on the internet, that she didn’t actually “sign up” to be a parent.  For some people, it just happens.

Second, do you know what this attitude reminds me of?  Hazing.  “You can’t complain about having to run around campus naked in sub-zero temperatures,” says the bro.  “It’s what you signed up for when you pledged this fraternity.”  We don’t allow that kind of excuse when it comes to college students, why should we allow it with new parents?

Third, while all parenting necessitates sacrifice, there is essentially no one specific hardship that is required by 100% of all parents.  Some women (me!) breastfeed with minimal pain.  Some babies actually do go to sleep easily, and some very lucky parents can afford a night nurse or postpartum doula to help when they don’t.  Heaps and heaps of parents balance parenthood and working, or parenthood and community service.  There’s no checklist of things you could “sign up for” to be a parent, even if you wanted to.

Fourth, it’s just plain mean.  Becoming a parent is a huge adjustment, and people need safe spaces to talk about that.  Even if someone is venting about something that seems completely shallow to you (“I can’t go out to the bar as often anymore!”), don’t be a brat.  They’re going through a major life transition and they need empathy, not self-righteousness.  If you can’t muster up any empathy, STFU.

Fifth and finally, this phrase and its variants tell us something very important about the speaker:  When you say this, what you’re really saying is that you’re insecure about your own parenting choices.  You’re angry and bitter about other people taking the “easy way out.”  That’s why one of my husband’s relatives was so insistent that formula-feeding mothers were “selfish”—she couldn’t handle the thought that it would’ve been OK if she’d switched to formula and skipped the hardships she’d faced while breastfeeding.  (For another example along the same lines, see this comment.)  It’s again very much like hazing: “I did it, so you must too, or else you’re not worthy.”

Look, sometimes you have to own your own decisions and accept that you did things the hard way.  We, for example, played a crazy game of alternating shifts to keep Little Boy out of daycare until he was eight months old.  In retrospect, that was unnecessary (except possibly for the money side of things).  We could’ve put him in daycare several months earlier and maybe been happier, without any sacrifice at all to his well-being.

You know what we don’t do?  We don’t go around trying to justify our decision by telling everyone that babies need to stay home with their parents for the first eight months.  We’re OK with the decision that we made, even if we might do it differently in retrospect.  Because here’s the thing: when it comes to parenting, if you really made the best choices for your family, then other people’s choices don’t matter.*  So take responsibility for your decisions and don’t be a smug jerk to compensate.

*Except for vaccination.  You’re putting my kid at risk if you don’t vaccinate yours.  Vaccines are awesome.  Make sure your children get them all.

What other parenting-related phrases should be banned forever?

What Judith Warner got right about motherhood in America

Over the holiday season, I finished reading author Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.  (Just the title alone makes it sound like the perfect book for me, right?)  I had a very positive gut-feel reaction to this book.  Here was someone, published, in words, who was experiencing the culture of American motherhood in much the same way that I am.  Not the specific details of our lives, but the overall aura of how mothers are perceived and expected to behave.  The unsaid expectations and judgement and blame that pile up and make you feel guilty for the most ridiculous of reasons.

Because I have so many tendrils of depression and anxiety running through my brain, I’m used to other people dismissing my perception of reality.  “It’s not that bad,” they say.  Or, “Just ignore it.”  This happens so often that I end up gaslighting myself, trying to convince myself that perhaps the forces I feel are all in my head.  It therefore comes as a profound relief to hear that someone else feels them too.

I found the pressure to breastfeed for at least a year, to endure natural childbirth, and to tolerate the boundary breakdowns of “attachment parenting”—baby-wearing, co-sleeping, long-term breastfeeding and the rest of it—cruelly insensitive to mothers’ needs as adult women.

Perfect Madness, pg. 15

The book came about after Warner moved back to the U.S. a few years after giving birth to her first child in France.  She extols the French approach to parenthood to perhaps an excessive degree, gliding over some of the more sexist elements to focus on the availability of childcare and the expectation that mothers remain adult women with their own lives.  Her shock at the contrast between the two countries’ approach to parenting is the launching point for an extended discussion of American motherhood.

It’s a discussion that’s unabashedly focused on the (white) middle class, that group that kinda-maybe-sorta has enough money and privilege to have real choices in life, but maybe not.  It’s the group that can get just close enough to having it all that when they inevitably fail, they assume that it’s their fault as individuals rather than a failure on the part of society.  It’s the group that buys the wooden (not plastic!) toy blocks and the organic cotton blankets and the Baby Einstein DVDs—or maybe doesn’t buy the Baby Einstein DVDs, so they can brag about protecting their children from the evils of TV for 2, 3, 4 years or more.  It’s the group that organizes Frozen-themed birthday parties for one-year-olds and puts together special sensory boxes for their toddlers.

Maybe our children could have run off and played.  If we’d let them.  But we didn’t.  There was so much pressure to always be doing something with them or for them.  And doing it right.

Perfect Madness, pg. 25

Warner puts this approach in context of the last 50 years of motherhood in the U.S., describing how, as household devices relieved the heavy work that had once dominated a housewife’s life, women began to fill their time with “makework and trivia.”  She talks about how Dr. Spock and other child-rearing experts popularized the notion that children are born as relatively blank slates, to be perfected into successful human beings by the attention of their parents.  She calls modern women “a generation of control freaks,” caught up in the angst of the declining American middle class and trying to prove that we are good enough.  If we do everything just right, we believe, we will be rewarded by perfect children and an easy life.

I see this attitude so often in parenting magazines, advice blogs, and mommy forums.  If you follow every attachment parenting rule in the book, your infant will not cry.  If you practice only the very very gentlest disciplinary measures, your child will not only eventually learn to behave, he or she will go into adult life free of parent-induced neuroses.  If you adhere to an enormous and often conflicting set of strictures about child nutrition, your kid will have a healthy relationship with food and zero allergies.  The corollary, of course, is that if your baby does cry or your child does turn out anything less than perfect, then it must be your fault.

[The] potential to do damage, to cause one’s child unbearable and lifelong pain, became part of the very definition of motherhood. […] and the linking of nightmare experiences of children lost and abandoned to mundane everyday situations of short-term separation became attachment theory’s problematic legacy.

Perfect Madness, pg. 93–94

Perfect Madness is actually a decade years old—Warner’s generation of mothers are closer in age to my mom than to me.  Aside from the occasional reference to growing up in the 80s, though, it doesn’t feel out-of-date.  If anything, it feels even more true now than it was 10 years ago, with the ever-increasing prevalence of “natural” parenting and the recession that knocked the American middle class back even farther.  It makes the vaguely hopeful ending a bit more depressing to know that in 10 years, we haven’t managed to make any kind of structural changes to American society to ease the struggle of motherhood.

Because Warner doesn’t blame this atmosphere on individuals.  She blames it on a culture that values “rugged individualism” above all else, and I tend to agree.  For all the freedom my demographic (that is, middle-class, educated white women) supposedly has, our life choices actually remain rather constrained.  You can work—for the money or the intellectual satisfaction—but that means buying into our workaholic culture and paying the exorbitant cost of unsubsidized daycare to cover the long hours of your job.  Or you can stay home and budget carefully and love being with your kids but maybe wish that wasn’t all you did.  There’s very little space in-between.  And so women who pick one extreme or the other convince themselves that it’s all for the best, and that they have freely chosen the thing that is Most Beneficial for their children.

All the moralizing we routinely do is a ridiculous waste of time and energy.  And it rests upon assumptions that have no basis in reality.  Chief among them: that mothers do what they do most of the time out of choice.

Perfect Madness, pg. 145

The book wanders a bit in the middle, stepping away from parenting to discuss the other ways that millennial women manifest their control-freakishness: eating disorders, pseudo-allergies, an extremely individualized approach to feminism.  I was also a bit put off by the chapter on marriage and husbands, which had a very “men don’t help at all” attitude and spoke of fathers disappearing for golf and drinks on the weekends.  My family’s experience is nothing like that (although I do know people who are more stereotypical; I suspect it remains unfortunately common).

There’s one other thing I don’t like about this book: whenever the subject of American daycare comes up, Warner bemoans its low quality.  It’s the sort of thing to make a working mom feel immediately defensive, and it feels odd given the book’s focus on the middle class.

Still, Perfect Madness was a fascinating and welcome read.  I’d highly recommend it to anyone who feels caught up in the pressure of parenting, or who has ever felt that way.  If nothing else, take away this message: guilt is not a necessary part of being a good mother.

[Obligatory (not-really-a-)disclaimer: I bought this book myself because I wanted to read it.  I have no connections to anyone involved in its publication and all opinions are my own.]

Bye-bye, breast pump

Going back to school/work after Christmas is always hard, but there was one definite positive this week: I’m not pumping milk anymore!  We dropped the last middle-of-the-day nursing session over the holidays, when the excitement of travel and new toys made it relatively easy to coax Little Boy into changing his routine.  He’s still nursing, but only once a day, when he first wakes up in the morning.

It’s so nice to be done.  I didn’t particularly dislike pumping—it wasn’t terribly difficult for me, and my office on campus turned out to be nearly ideal as a lactation space.  But it was always a thing to do, a thing that I had to remember to do, a thing that took time to set up and put away.  It meant hauling another hefty bag to school every. single. day. and washing a bunch of tiny fiddly pieces every. single. day.  It came with a bunch of extra little tasks, like remembering to grab the milk from the mini-fridge at the end of the day, that made my mental load just a little bit larger.  Being done means that mental weight has lifted, along with the physical weight of that big ol’ bag.  It feels good.