Saturday, August 17, 2013

Just Making Cookies

There are a few people in my life who have recently become mothers or who want to become mothers.  They're unsure of how to move forward...they're either completely overwhelmed with the nonstop and insanely difficult demands of their infants/toddlers or they're trying to figure out how they'll be able to keep/return to their pre-child lifestyles.

This post is for them.

Note that the following applies to those who are fortunate enough to have the choice of whether or not to stay home with their children.  I understand many women don't have that those single moms out there -- you have my utmost respect...I can't fathom how you do what you do.  Kudos.


I've always considered myself a feminist.  Women should have choices, yes, of course, and women should be able to have any job a man can have.  However.

We are the ones who, if we choose to have children, grow the zygotes/fetuses inside our own bodies.  We produce the milk and feed our babies from our own breasts.  There are biological, endocrinological bonds between mothers and their babies that do not exist between babies and their fathers, or babies and their nannies/daycare providers/au pairs.  Sure, many adults can love and care for a child.  However, speaking from an evolutionary point of view, the baby is biologically primed to need its mother...and new mothers are endowed with ferocious instincts to stay with and care for their infants.

Here's the thing that most folks don't realize, though.  For at least 90% of our time on this planet, homo sapiens were hunter-gatherers.  Generally speaking, women did the gathering while taking care of their children, thus providing the daily calories for themselves and others within their population.  In other words, women worked out of the home AND took care of their own children.  They did all this surrounded by other women and children.  They were not isolated and they were not forced to make the completely insane choice between providing for their families and taking care of their infants.  Today, in America, new moms have to make decisions they should not have to make...they're going to feel guilty no matter which way they simply is not in our nature to have to choose between taking care of our children and bringing home the bacon (or, more aptly, the berries/tubers/etc.).  For most of our biological history, we did both....and we didn't do it in isolation.

Of course, maternal instinct is strong.  Incredibly strong.  It is so seriously strong...I cannot describe it and you will honestly not fully understand it unless/until you have children of your own.  There is nothing so strong as the love a mother feels for her child.

Therefore, almost all modern-day new mothers decide they're going to personally take care of their babies for as long as they can.  For some, that might mean the duration of their pathetically short maternity leave (anything less than a year is ridiculous...seriously, American employers, get your act together!).  For others, it might mean leaving the paid workforce until the child is of preschool or Kindergarten age.  For folks like me, it means being a hands-on caretaker and homeschooler from the moment of birth all the way until the kids go to college.

So...we obey our instincts, do the best we can, and take care of our babies for as long as we're able...and we very, very quickly realize how insanely difficult this motherhood job is.  It's so difficult, in fact, that those of us without emotional support or some kind of contact with other adults can quickly be driven to near-insanity.  We weren't supposed to do this alone, remember -- for 90,000+ years, the females of our species were surrounded by other women and kids, all gathering the daily calories.  So though staying with our babies and small children is completely in line with our instincts, doing all this work in relative isolation is NOT how it's supposed to be.  It takes a village, yes indeed -- it takes a village to surround and support the mother as she raises her children.

If you're thinking of having kids, or if you already have them but feel completely frazzled, google "sometimes I hate being a mother."  Read through some of the links and responses.  Prospective parents, know ahead of time that what you find might be shocking.  Frazzled moms, what you find might be a temporary balm that carries you through the'll discover you are not alone and you'll relate to some of the stories.  Know that I have felt the same way as some of those women, especially during my early years of parenthood.  Also know that I love my children fiercely and don't regret a single one of my choices.  But still.  I have well-behaved, intelligent, bright, loving children, but motherhood can be damn difficult and there have been moments when I've wanted to walk out of the house and never come back. 

Staying at home with your children is hard, hard work, and no one can prepare you for it.  Please, for the love of God, ignore anyone who describes stay-at-home-motherhood as "just baking cookies," "just staying home," or "just" anything else.  There is no "just."  The idiots who say such things usually don't have children of their own, and they always want to make you fit their own definition of feminism.  "Just" remember that any woman who trivializes stay-at-home-motherhood or thinks childrearing isn't difficult and valuable work has absolutely no clue and is not a feminist.  Feminism is about choice and leadership.  A woman raising her own children is a valuable leader of the family and society.  Yes, a female lawyer/doctor/corporate executive is also a valuable leader....but she's no more important than the stay-at-home mom.  Neither woman is better than the other.  Seriously.  The choice on whether to stay with your child or find alternate care is a personal one based on what you personally feel is in the best interest of your child and your family -- and if some other woman doesn't agree with your choice then she can go suck it.  It's not her kid, it's not her family, it's not her life, it's not her business.

I was at Harvard when I had Alex.  I planned on putting her in daycare so I could continue my Ph.D. studies, but those maternal instincts kicked in like mad as soon as she was born and my plans went right out the window.  My professors were great -- I brought my infant to classes, I traveled with toddler Alex to northwest Argentina and did fieldwork among the Toba population of the remote Chaco region, I took my qualifying exams and earned my Masters, etc. etc.  However, there came a time when I realized I could no longer care for my child while pursuing a degree fulltime.   I took a leave of absence to figure out what I wanted...and I never looked back.  A year later, I was pregnant with Sage...a year after that, I realized I was going to homeschool.

Those first few years were the most difficult of my life.  Alex woke up every hour and a half until she was 18 months old (thankfully, Sage slept 6 hours at a time from birth onward).  Alex was a high strung, highly intelligent kid who started reading on her own at two but could not sit still for more than five seconds.  She was extremely emotional and she saw the world in strict black-and-white terms.  She had questions for me every ten seconds.  She was a beautiful, sweet, sensitive child and I loved her, and then her sister, far more than I could ever possibly love spending time at any job, no matter how prestigious the position.  Still -- I was exhausted and completely overwhelmed 100% of the time.  Outside of finances, I had little help from Hugh.  He was on the tenure track at MIT and often went on business trips for days/weeks at a time.  He also started a company, and that work also kept him away from home.  I was the sole hands-on provider for my kids.  I was the only one getting up at night, I was the only one constantly handling and caring for my baby/toddler, I was the sole person who did all the house repairs (painting, carpentry, gardening, etc.), and I was the only one doing the errands (shopping, laundry, etc).  In addition, during Alex's first year of life, I had to deal with an extensive blood clot that put me in great pain and almost killed me twice.

Looking back, I don't know how I did it.  I loved my children ferociously -- I still do -- but for three years of my life I operated at baseline survival mode.  The only thing that drove me forward was the overwhelming love I felt for my children.

Women are not supposed to be isolated and on their own after they have babies.  If they do become isolated and emotionally/physically unsupported, then they're going to start sounding like the women who write those "sometimes I hate being a mother" posts.

Eventually, things got much easier.  The kids grew, I found other moms to hang out with, Alex started hiking mountains and her emotional nature calmed considerably (my kid got ME into hiking...not the other way around!), Sage was and continues to be a fairly mellow child, Hugh is now able to spend more time with the girls, the damaged veins from my clot are best helped by consistent hiking (awesome!), and we're all generally healthy and happy.  I still have times when I feel overwhelmed and in desperate need of a break.  Now, however, I can tell the girls to go play elsewhere, or to do their schoolwork quietly, or to give me a half hour to myself.  My love for them is as ferocious as ever, and the workload is still heavy (my workday begins from the moment the kids wake up until the time they go to sleep), but I feel good and productive, and I'm getting a proper amount of sleep.

Do I regret not getting my Ph.D.?  Absolutely not.  Do I regret not pursuing a tenure-track position?  Absolutely not.  If I had continued on that path, then I would have barely seen my kids.  I've been there for every first.  First smile, first crawl, first step, first word, first solid food, first everything -- I've witnessed it, I've supported it.  If I died tomorrow, I would die at peace knowing I did everything I felt was best for my kids.

I made the right choice for me and mine.  Motherhood can be insanely difficult, especially if you have a partner who is gone 11+ hours a day or frequently away on business trips.  It's even more difficult if you don't have loving relatives nearby to regularly help out and you can't afford a babysitter to give you a break for a few hours each week.  Don't go into this line of work thinking it will all be peaches and cream.  If you're in this line of work already, then don't allow anyone to pressure you to go back into the paying workforce.  You know you're already working crazy hard, and you know that what you're doing is far more important than any 9-5 job. 

If you WANT to go back into the paid workforce because you cannot stand being a stay-at-home mother for one more second, then of course that's your personal decision and you should take the appropriate steps to get to where you want to go.  You can't be a good mother if you ALWAYS hate being home.  Most of us hate being home with our kids sometimes.  That's normal.  Needing to vent and feeling like you're going insane and desperately wanting help is all completely normal.  If those feelings don't ever lift, however, and you're sinking into a deep depression and you have no help whatsoever and you CANNOT STAND being at home with your kids and you dream of getting back into the workforce....then obviously staying at home with your kids is not the right choice for you and yours.  Don't let anyone try to guilt-trip you into staying home with your kids if you absolutely do not want to do so.  It's not their kid, it's not their family, it's not their life, it's not their business.  

We all love our children, and we all want to do what's right.  What's right is going to come down to what you ultimately feel is best for your own child, your own sanity, and your own family.  Neither choice you make is going to be easy.  It will be hard work, whichever way you go.  Ignore the critics (for there will always be critics) and focus on what you honestly feel is the best decision for you and yours.

Alex, Sage, and I have a good life.  I don't regret any of my choices, and I love being with my children.  We have our moments when we all get on each other's nerves, but that's normal.  I can honestly tell you that my early years of parenting were awfully, insanely, incredibly difficult, though.  For those of you with newborns who have made a firm decision to stay-at-home but feel overwhelmed -- I'll tell you right now that it does eventually get easier.  In the immediate months and years to come, however, do whatever you need to do in terms of finding emotional and physical support for yourself.

I'll close for now...I've gone on long enough this morning.  Perhaps I'll touch more on this issue in later posts.

Up next -- our trip report of Utah's highpoint.  Our ascent of Kings Peak was one of our more memorable hiking trips for various reasons...stay tuned...the post will go live by Tuesday.


Jennifer Johnson said...

Yes! Thank you. You have touched on things I have been struggling with trying to understand myself. It is insanely hard the way our society is set up these days. It's hard whether you stay home or go back to work. Getting the support I need and being proactive about my own mental and physical health, besides my faith, has gotten me through these years.

cherelli said...

Thank you for this post - I'm impressed with Alex being the one who got you into hiking! I look forward to reading more on this; at 6mths postpartum with my first I find it fascinating to feel as though I have been chipping away at who I used to be and adding more gentle layers to adapt to being a mum; the last 4 nights have been rough with my daughter yet I have found myself far more accepting of them than I did at 2-4 weeks postpartum...I find it hard to convince my husband of how much change is required to become a mum; I also very much value his support when I read of single and über-busy doing-it-all mums too...

Patricia Herr said...

Jennifer and Cherelli, please forgive my late response to your comments.

Jennifer, agreed, our society is not set up in any way that's in line with our female instincts. We want to care for the kids AND bring home the berries...that's what we're primed to do. To have to make a choice is ridiculous. Hopefully, as the years go on, there will be more and more work-at-home opportunities.

Cherelli, congratulations on your new baby! 6 months is such a great age -- still so little, but not so wobbly anymore. :) Don't have to worry so much about supporting the head, etc. You must be having fun. That being said, I can relate to your comment about your husband. I don't think men really get how much work goes into caring for a baby/toddler fulltime unless they've done it themselves. Try to find a local new mom's support group if you need to be with others who fully "get" what you're going through.