Monthly Archives: February 2016

Parenthood is Not a Project

I’m re-reading my favourite parenting book: Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman. This is the third time I’ve read it in under three years, and I love it because it’s funny, it’s relatable, and each time I read it, I’m struck by new things. So don’t be surprised if I bring up Druckerman’s ideas in more blog posts in future.

Today I was reading her chapter on “The Perfect Mother Doesn’t Exist,” where she talks about how American-style (and I’d say, Canadian-style, too) parenting involves an intense amount of “concerted cultivation” – in other words, parenthood is a project. Druckerman admits that as an American living in Paris, “my project is to make my kids bilingual, international, and lovers of fine cheese.” It struck me that perhaps one of the reasons I had great difficulty during my first maternity leave is that I too, thought of my time at home as a project.

I’m not surprised I viewed mat leave this way. Most of my life until that point had been a series of projects – from completing each class and each year of education until I was 22, and then continuing that ‘project’ mindset as I moved on through a series of contract jobs, buying my first house, and the nine months of my first pregnancy. All these experiences had definitive expiry dates, finish lines, and clear goals.

So of course I saw mat leave, with it’s defined months – six, in my case – as another project. I had an actual spreadsheet of goals, and I thought I was being very reasonable to only put one major item on the slate for each week. This didn’t work out so well for me. I did manage to check off most of my goals (probably because I had been so minimal with them in the first place), but I still felt like I hadn’t managed to accomplish much as my return to work neared.

Looking back now, I realize the problem wasn’t that I had tried to be organized, or that I had tried to ‘make the most’ of my brief time off work by having a clear idea of what I wanted to accomplish. The problem was that the point of that time wasn’t leave from work. The point of that time was my entrance into motherhood. I had been thinking about those six months as an isolated block of time, rather than as just the beginning of a lifelong experience with no expiry date, no finish line – the experience of being a parent.

Of course I felt I hadn’t “accomplished” anything – because my relationship with my child, my motherhood, my family, isn’t something to be “accomplished.” It’s something to be lived.

This isn’t to say I can’t have goals while I’m away from work this time around – I can, and I probably should, to keep connected to my independent adult self, who loves to-do lists and accomplishing things. But I won’t tie those goals to the finite period of my mat leave; instead, they’ll just be part of my life while I happen to be home every day, and they can and should go beyond my return-to-work date.

As I thought about this, I set aside my book, rubbed my big round belly, and promised baby #2 that this go round, our time together won’t be a project. We won’t try to accomplish things over the next year. We’ll just experience living with each other, getting to know each other, and cherish the fact that we have so much time to devote to the start of this new relationship that will last forever.

Motherhood is not something to be accomplished. It's something to be lived. (1)

 

Advertisements

Confessions of a Hot Mess: Hamster in a Wheel

hamster-wheel-03-600Hello, dear mamas. Long time, no see. Once again, I have been remiss and Lindsay has been holding down the fort here at Raise a Mother. She’s been doing a fantastic job, I’m sure you’ll all agree. If you haven’t yet read her post “Letter to my Post-Partum Self“, do. It’s lovely and thoughtful, just like her.

Lindsay also wrote recently about bonding, and about how many of us are allowing ourselves to become “too busy” to connect with the people in our lives, instead collapsing at the end of each day in front of a screen. Reading this post made me feel uncomfortable and guilty, though I know that wasn’t close to Lindsay’s intent when writing it. You see, I am the hamster in that wheel.

Ladies, I have a confession to make: I am a hot mess. I eat more than I should, drink more caffeine and wine than I probably should, and weigh more than I should. I don’t sleep, or exercise, or floss as much as I should. I may or may not have finished the last bits of peanut butter from the jar by pouring in some chocolate chips and then scooping it out with a spoon (I totally did).

My absence from this blog comes down to one thing – I am terrible at taking time for myself. I work through my lunch break on a regular basis. I feel a compulsion to make sure that all my chores are done before I do something fun. Of course, with a toddler around, my chores are never done. They’re on an endless loop. I constantly feel “too busy” and collapse on the couch at the end of the night.

Here’s the thing, my lovely mamas: all things considered, I’m doing ok. I might personally feel sometimes like a human disaster, but I know my son, my husband and my family feel loved. I do need to do better on making time for myself, and I am working on it. At the same time, I know that my slightly OCD tendencies mean that I need my house to be tidier than many people need their houses to be in order to feel truly relaxed.

I know I’m not alone. We all have our quirks that shape the challenges we face in balancing our lives. I’m sure I’m not the only one of us to feel like I’m currently on a bit of a merry-go-round.

And so to you, my fellow hamsters, I say: You are not alone. You are doing a wonderful job and your kiddos love you. This particular marathon won’t last forever, so just do the best you can to make it all you want it to be. In the meantime, I’m waving from the next wheel over.

Hey, Dads-to-Be: Patriarchy Might be Causing Some Shit at Your House

If you’re a dad-to-be, I know you’re likely getting a lot of information right now on why your pregnant partner isn’t… well, herself. You might hear about incessant nausea, joint and muscle pain, bloating, extreme fatigue, trouble sleeping, swelling of limbs, constipation… and that’s just the physical side of things. From the emotional/psychological angle, your partner might show inexplicable weepiness, sudden bursts of anger, emotional confusion, frequent changes of mind, or overwhelming worries that she can’t seem to make you understand… thanks, hormones. Hopefully, it’s understandable why these things might make the person you thought you knew so well behave at times like someone you don’t even recognize. But there might just be another, sneakier, underlying contributor to your partner’s frustration, sadness, anger, or anxiety… especially if you happen to be in love with a feminist.

Chances are, if your partner is a feminist, patriarchy might well be fucking up her day (or week, or month) right now. Think about it: your partner’s likely proud of her ability to achieve things, happy in her self-sufficiency, and values her place in ‘the world.’ So if this sounds like her, consider these six new realities she may be facing:

#1. She simply can’t do things she’s used to being quite good at. 

“Girl power.” “Empowerment.” “Be the change.” These are catchphrases of modern approaches to raising girls into strong women. She grew up on these, perhaps internalized them, and is, hopefully, damn proud of the things she has achieved – athletically, professionally, creatively, organizationally, you name it. Now she might not be able to get out of the car without assistance, carry bags, reach things on high shelves, shovel snow, or, you know, walk at a normal pace. Nothing to make you feel like a child again like not being able to walk properly.

#2. Her own brain and body seem to be working against her. 

Patriarchy is bolstered by assumptions that female bodies and brains are simply inferior to male ones – that women’s brains are simply less “rational” than men’s, that their bodies aren’t as “strong,” etc. – and such beliefs have been used to justify women’s oppression for centuries. Now your partner’s dealing with “baby brain” (where she forgets things or has trouble articulating ideas), and she can’t lift heavy things. It might be frustrating her to feel that she’s perpetuating stereotypes that have been used to discredit women for eons, even if it’s only temporary, and even if the whole reason for her temporary lack of rationality/strength is that her body’s busy working on an incredible feat of strength: you know, growing a whole other damn human being, brain, muscles, organs, and all.

#3. She knows she’s about to be thrown into a shit-storm. 

Despite how far feminism has come, the label mom still comes with a lot of baggage. Check out Google Images’ top hits for “moms”:

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 08.06.55

 Superhero. Handling everything. Blissful. Clean. Beautiful. (With one little tiny freakout in there, but it’s the ugly outlier.) Our culture still assumes motherhood is a ‘natural’ state your partner will just easily, gracefully fit into. (If this was true, we wouldn’t have postpartum depression, but we sure as hell do: about 10-15% of Canadian mothers are affected, with similar rates in the US.) It’s also culturally assumed that a woman will necessarily – and don’t forget, happily! – set aside large portions, if not all, of her adult identity to devote herself to being a mother… though she’s also expected to retain enough appeal (sexually, intellectually, socially) to maintain her relationship with you, and all other adults. Then there are the “mommy wars” and contradictory parenting philosophy camps on all sides to contend with, plus pressure to choose one of these camps so you start things off on the ‘right’ foot.

Even the strongest and freest woman might reasonably dread her inevitable entry into this fray, because even if she tries to avoid the whole thing, she doesn’t live in a bubble, and she’s smart enough to know this. She will, at some point, be thrown into the mix by others.

#4. Her world has shrunk to the bubble of your relationship. 

Reading stacks of literature on pregnancy and baby care. Being too fatigued to do anything after work other than get home, eat dinner with you, and then go to bed. Giving up physical activities she used to do regularly. Having to reduce hours at work or go off early entirely in order to be on bedrest. If your partner faces these sorts of limitations, it can feel like her world has become entirely enclosed in this pregnancy – which, since the baby isn’t here as a separate person yet, might really feel like her whole world has become enclosed in your relationship. And if she values interactions with the world outside of her partnership, this can be incredibly frustrating or lonely.

#5. She is sometimes literally barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. 

There will come a moment when your partner will be shoeless, with a uncomfortably large belly, and happen to be making herself a sandwich. The cultural relevance of this will hit her, and she will either react with exceptional good-humour defensive skills, or fall somewhere on the irritated/grumpy/sad/angry/outraged spectrum. If you’re not familiar with the phrase, see here; it’s a fairly upsetting history.

#6. She has to watch you continue to live with none of this. 

You won the biology and patriarchy lotteries. While your life might have changed since the positive pregnancy test, it’s no contest with the changes put upon your partner. You’re not responsible for prenatal vitamins; eating with the growth of another human in mind; doing 9-months worth (and probably longer) of designated-driver duty; getting up multiple times during the night to keep hydrated and use the bathroom; having an altered libido (and often, contrary to popular lore, not in an awesome way); preparing for a necessary and possibly lengthy absence from work; and learning how you’re going to push a baby out of your genitals. So from her viewpoint, you get to maintain all your physical abilities, keep staying up late if that’s what you choose, keep eating what you like, keep drinking with friends, and just generally carry on with life.

Of course, this isn’t patriarchy, it’s biology, but it’s so wrapped up in patriarchy and socialization that it can be a psychological gong-show for your partner. And it’s not your fault that this is the way it is – it’s the biology lottery. It’s not your fault that you won, but it’s not her fault that she lost either, so the least you can do is be a gracious winner, empathize with her over the inequality, and understand where she’s coming from.

There are good parts of pregnancy, too, no question. There are women who love being pregnant and have minimal discomforts. There are women whose chosen lifestyles already fit well with the demands of pregnancy. There are non-feminist women and women who don’t see their feminism as contradictory with the roles of wife and mother. But this isn’t for the partners of those women.

This is for the partners of women who might feel some patriarchally-fuelled upset about their pregnancy, motherhood, and the tangled interactions of biology and culture. If any of these things seem like they might resonate with your partner, being open to talking about them with her might help you get through what can be a conflicted, confusing, and stressful time. Who knows? Sometimes a simple, empathetic, “Fucking patriarchy, eh?” is all she might need.

 

 

A Gratitude Journal: Birthing Conditions

A couple of months ago, Shannon introduced the idea of gratitude journal posts here in our village, so here’s a second one, sparked by this insightful photography series by WaterAid, highlighting the differences in what women pack in their maternity bags in the different places WaterAid works.
Mother Waiting

Mother-to-be Chadla in Nicaragua, photo by Jordi Ruiz Cirera/WaterAid

What struck me most as I read through the series is the number of women who include medical/hygiene necessities in their bags for the hospital. I packed an enormous bag to take to have my first child, but now that I think about it, every single item in there was a luxury – slippers to wear for pacing the halls, a bathrobe, a book to read, music to play (I may have even brought a card game?), a journal to write in, our camera, clean clothes for me and John, etc. Even the things that seemed like necessities – snacks, juice boxes, sanitary pads, diapers, my water bottle, an outfit for Arlo to wear home – could have been easily provided or substituted by the hospital in a pinch. Some of these women need to pack clean coverings for the delivery surface, towels, basins, razor blades, string, clean water to drink, and disinfectant.
Mat Bag Contents

Malawian mother-to-be Ellen’s maternity bag contents, photo by Jenny Lewis/WaterAid

 
I’m a little sheepish admitting that I didn’t even use any of the crap in my hospital bag during labour; Arlo was too fast for that. I ate some of the snacks I brought about an hour after he was born, but a nurse would have brought me food. The private birthing room had a beautiful tub where I had a hot bath of clean water before going home that night – and if I’d needed it, they would have had a bed for me to sleep in, with clean bedding and pillows.
 
So I’m feeling very grateful this morning for the provisions made for pregnant/birthing women in the country I was lucky enough to be born in, through no merit of my own. We tend in our culture to put a lot of stress and worry around labour/delivery, especially for first-time mamas, but this bigger-picture reflection helps me to both be thankful for and confident in the situation I face as a birthing woman.
 
If this photo series touches you similarly, here’s where you can learn more about and contribute to WaterAid’s Deliver Life Initiative. There are many similar causes out there as well, such as opportunities to fund a safe birth for a mama-to-be at Kangu.org, or enable a newborn checkup in a developing country through Plan Canada. Some baby registries, like BabyList (which I used and quite liked), allow you to include contributions to these organizations as options for your family and friends. Contributions like these are just one way we can expand our village beyond those in our physical communities, and extend our support to women the world over.

Bonding – a Whole Approach to Life

I recently read this beautiful essay on how human connection – not sobriety – is the remedy for addiction. I highly recommend reading the whole thing, but if you aren’t going to, I’ll try to snapshot the key points that have sparked my thinking here:

The author, Johann Hari, explains two separate addiction experiments done with rats, the long and short of which is that the rats who were kept in isolated, un-stimulating environments were exceptionally prone to drug addiction, but those who lived in ‘Rat Park,’ a healthy, happy environment for rats, were not. Moreover, once rats who had been conditioned to addiction in the isolated cages were allowed to live in Rat Park (“a lush cage” with “colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends”), they quickly returned to a life free of drug use. He goes on to make comparisons to human examples of Vietnam-war veterans and those prescribed heavily-addictive drugs in hospital settings, which are quite interesting.

But my thought-train here has really nothing to do with addiction per se, or with rats, or with the ethics of animal experimentation. Rather, one of Hari’s passages struck me particularly:

“Human beings are bonding animals. We need to connect and love. […] But we have created an environment and a culture that cut us off from connection, or offer only the parody of it offered by the Internet.”

His argument is about addiction as a clinical condition, but I think his assessment of human beings is something we can all reflect on and learn from.

While not in as dire circumstances as many people, there are many of us living what appear on the surface, or from the outside, to be ‘full’ and ‘happy’ lives… or at least what ‘should’ be so. In truth, many of us live in self-constructed cages of isolation. Even if we’re not facing depression or constant physical isolation, we’re often more isolated than we would like to be. Why is that, especially if we are lucky enough to in fact have the means, the people nearby, and the opportunities, to be more connected, more bonded with our village?

Too often it seems we feel we don’t have the time to connect with our people, our friends and family; this is the most common cause I hear. But what are we doing instead? The usual culprits seem to be working, getting chores done, driving around to do errands, with the awful end result that when one does have some ‘free’ time, it needs to be ‘me’ time (read: a chance to collapse from exhaustion, to sleep or zombify in front of a screen).

But I think in these cases we need to question the importance of the things we’re using our time for instead of connecting – because at the end of the day, we are choosing to do so, and only by acknowledging our own agency can we start to either change it or become okay with it.

Do our living spaces really need to be tidy in order to enjoy our home with those we love? Does our time need to be ‘free’ of obligations or to-do lists before we can engage with our people? Or would it be better if we did more things communally – buying food, cooking, folding laundry – embracing that we’re all going through this together, rather than feeling we need to ‘get our shit together’ before we can enjoy one another’s company? Do we really need to ‘unwind’ at the end of a long day by scrolling through a social media feed that only gives us that ‘parody’ of bonding? We could instead be actually connecting with the people and activities that bring us joy, or indulging in that ‘me’ time by having a bath, walking outside, or doing an activity that engages our bodies and minds rather than just collapsing from exhaustion, often in front of a screen?

We have created a culture, as Hari says, “that cuts us off from connection.” The expectation is that we will all live in our own little kingdoms, whatever your particular box of living space looks like, and that our first responsibility is to keep our own kingdom in order. If we are good at keeping this order – bringing in the right amount of money for our lifestyle, tidying and cleaning, having the ‘right’ groceries in our cupboards with our near-future meal plans settled, having at least some plans in the works for how we’ll change our kingdom/life, and maintaining whatever image we’ve created of our lives in our online worlds – then we can occasionally, when it’s a ‘good’ time, invite others into our kingdom to enjoy the space we’ve cultivated, or allow ourselves some time away from our boxes to enjoy someone else’s kingdom… provided they have kept their kingdom in order, of course.

Perhaps we need to start living with each other, instead of alongside one other with the occasional meeting in the same space.

The people we wish we bonded more with might live in the same space as us, our spouses or children; they may live down the street or across town or across the country or the world, and technology may be a necessary tool for allowing us to simulate face-to-face interactions with some of them. We may wish to bond more with ourselves, to connect with our interests, and hobbies, those experiences that allow us to feel more alive, more engaged and joyful.

The point is not how we connect but whether the connection, the bonding, is a real bond or a parody. Even more so, the point is accepting our own agency (should we be so fortunate as to have some, as there are many in the world who truly don’t), so that when we feel we’re living in a cage, we can look around and determine honestly if the bars are real, or if we’ve given them form and weight with our own perceptions.

“Bonding” in this broader sense doesn’t seem to be something that can be done or felt effectively if only allotted in rare, discrete blocks of time; such a model means there will also be set times of isolation, boredom, or loneliness. It would be idealistic to think all of life will be continuous bonding and connection, but it also seems sad and unnecessary to resign ourselves to a life plan where bonding and connection are rare ‘treats’ if we’ve been ‘good.’ I’m not sure what the solution is, but I think it’s worth some serious consideration, and I hope some of you will leave your thoughtful comments below!

%d bloggers like this: