Last week an old friend got in touch, he and his partner had a baby about a year ago, and they are totally miserable. Of course they love their child, who is the shining beacon in an otherwise pretty dreary landscape, but they have lost a sense of themselves and each other.
We had a long conversation, which then caused me to reflect on my own experience of those initial years. Like any bad experience, I had simply shut the off the details, packed them into a box labeled “never to be repeated” and focused elsewhere. But now I dived back into the memories, yes, they were pretty horrific.
I think it’s mostly because we are in a transition time as a race. The era of equal rights has ushered in and now we are trying to figure out what on earth that means when it comes to having children. For my part, I just figured that I had to do the pregnancy and breast feeding part, but all else was fair game.
I totally believe we can be, do, and have anything we want. As a child of the 70’s I was taught to value equal opportunity, in fact I’d say I expected it, even though it wasn’t what was typically modeled in households where most women stayed at home and men went out to work. Certainly there was no way I was going to put up with anything less than being treated as an equal. Then I met the world as an adult.
My first clue to the true nature of this era that ushered in equality should have been the grossly skewed distribution of chores around the home, the same in every relationship I have had. I know there are men out there who love to clean and keep home, but you are the minority. I recall reading an article a number of years ago citing that, while most women now work outside the home, in most cases women do around 80% of the chores at home, or more.
This isn’t about bagging men. These are changing times and we are all trying to find our place. We are coming out of the age of superwomen. When I say ‘super’, I mean haggard, wrung out women, running in circles trying to prove they can be and do everything. Urgh.
When I met my partner, and we both wanted children, I’m not sure why I had this picture in my head of parenthood as something that we could share equally. Before kids he was keen to take time off and be the one at home, and then along came our first daughter and – while he would never admit it – that idea ran for the hills never to be seen again.
Yes I can be and do anything, but motherhood? Grueling. Amazing. Relentless. Joyous. It will literally and metaphorically turn you inside out.
I really thought a parent was a parent. Sure, a man can’t physically carry and squeeze a baby out of his body, nor can he naturally feed them, but in all other aspects I just figured we could share. Let me not skip too quickly past the bit about birthing and breastfeeding though, it was hideous in many ways. The story of my children’s births had much to teach, but breastfeeding was a complete surprise.
I recall a few weeks into my journey with my first daughter counting in amazement at the cumulative 10 hours of feeding in a day. It locks you in. I had a picture in my head that babies would take a good feed then go and sleep for a few hours, or laugh and giggle and start to explore the world.
Instead I found the on/off feeding from the breast meant there was no handing over of baby for any length of time. Even when it came time to return to work, it was all about getting back for the bedtime feed.
Of course we can choose to feed our kids from a bottle, but when you are approaching parenthood with a baby growing in your tummy that has been so long awaited and hard won, then you get bombarded with all the ‘evidence’ abut what is best (natural birth and natural feeding are expected), I kind of felt obligated to at least give it a go.
With that comes baby griping, most have some form of it in those early months as their burgeoning digestive systems get used to processing their milk. As they are crying and even screaming, you wonder if it’s something you are doing or not doing and it can just about drive you crazy. There’s sleep patterns that can tie you up in knots, and the warning not to let them sleep on their fronts. It’s daunting.
Frankly, I was glad to get back to work in many ways by the time my daughter was 8 months old. I remember saying I was a much better mother for working, even though I was in a soul sucking job that expected much and reaped little.
It was not fun. Before kids I had a successful corporate career, watched television in the evening to zone out, had time to do gardening and home improvements, and was used to having café lunches on the weekend. I expected to have no time to myself, but had no real concept of what that truly meant.
Suddenly I was this mother machine that seemed to be needed 24/7 and I really resented it. I couldn’t resent my baby, with each passing day our daughter would do something we would consider miraculous and we would bask in the glory of that. But I would look sidewards at my partner, watching TV on the couch, going to work and doing stuff around the house and garden and resent the hell out of (what appeared to be) the lesser change to his world.
My friend’s partner yells at him, I can relate. I can look back now, more objectively, and say that I just wasn’t feeling heard. It all felt so unfair. It was relentless, tedious, exhausting and I just needed him to listen, to understand. I’m not sure it’s possible. Men see women as having gotten what we wanted – equal rights.
Certainly that drove me nuts, my partner casting the desires of previous generations upon me, as if I had put it on my xmas list for Santa and now was reaping what I’d sown. How could he blame me for something previous generations had fought for? How could I blame the previous generations? How could I blame him?
All the while we needed my income, and I resented that too. Not that I wanted to take on the role of motherhood and apple pie at home, you could go stick the pie where the sun doesn’t shine as far as I was concerned. I’ve never viewed motherhood as my raison d’être, my children are the fruits of my life, not my reason for it.
That is the crux of where I was stuck, the wee woman at home picture felt like I was saying this was the reason I existed, when I know there’s so much more to me and wanted an acknowledgement of that.
Yet here I am, my daughter is 6 years old and at school now. Her sister turned 4 last year, siblings is a whole other subject, don’t be lured into thinking they need friends! Siblings are there for your children to learn conflict management, think about it carefully… I jest and, yet, not.
I have skipped over the constant sibling battleground, the meltdowns and tantrums and many other things that have unwittingly consumed my attention in these last few years. Because, despite the intensity, it has to be one of the best opportunities for growth and insight you ever get, this parenting gig.
Our kids make us want to be better. From the minute mine were born I knew what I wanted for them, above all else, was to allow them to be who they are. That meant I had to figure out who I am. Before I figured that out, I balked at most aspects of being mum. But going on that journey has released me from a lot of my old perceptions and beliefs that held me back.
Despite studying child psychology at uni, despite having continued to learn and grow throughout adulthood, absorbing all the material out there on temperaments and gender differences, the biggest surprise has been the genuine difference in the role of mum and dad, and the real need kids have for both those roles in different ways at different times.
I resisted being ‘mum’ for a long time, all the while naturally being the one who considers how the kids are feeling given any level of activity, being the one who plays nurse, being the one who plans and packs for any type of activity, being the one who naturally thinks about what clothes are needed in each wardrobe, what equipment is needed, what food is needed, whose birthday is coming up, what gifts to buy for xmas… the list is endless.
From the psychology of what is going on with everyone at home, and the growing friendships at school, to the practical daily needs and, of course, empathy, mums just seem to be better wired.
When I finally let go last year of this concept that I needed to be out earning, and gave myself permission to just go with the flow, it finally opened up the space for me to be me and for my partner to find his flow.
I’m not saying all mums need to let go of earning. What I had built a career on was, as I said, soul sucking, I didn’t want to do it anymore. What I discovered I love to do – writing – wasn’t something I had the time nor energy to put towards building a career out of. I just wanted to do it and let the other part figure itself out naturally over time.
Letting go of the need to earn allowed me the tiny bit of space I needed to pursue what I love at the same time as being the best mum I can be (and running the household and supporting my partner’s new business). Figure out what you need, without hanging your happiness on others.
The best way to help those around you, is to get your own lifebelt on first. That is it, my best advice, is figure out who you are, then let go of all that you are not. It will allow others to be who they are and fill any gaps that arise in the process of you letting go.
Parenthood is long haul, a marathon that most undertake without any training and find themselves fairly quickly hitting a wall. I have no idea why being a mum and all that means has been such a surprise really, but I wouldn’t change it. Parenthood is a journey, it can turn you inside out and tear you apart if you let it, or you can choose to be kind to yourself and those around you. I vote for kind.
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