Image credit: Kevin N. Murphy on flickr
The pressure cooker
Margaret Wente, whom I frequently disagree with, wrote an article called Motherhood: the new oppression. Although I do not feel oppressed (most days) and I think she makes some broad generalizations (as usual), I do think that what she says rings true to some extent:
Once upon a time, the conveniences of modern life (processed foods, Lysol spray, disposable diapers, clothes dryers, polyester sheets) liberated women like my mother from their chains. But now, their granddaughters are clamouring to clap the shackles on again. Someone’s got to mash the organic applesauce, hang the diapers out to dry, and breastfeed the kid. No matter how enlightened the parental units, that someone will generally be Mom.
It seems to me that if you had deliberately devised a plot to oppress women, it couldn’t get more diabolical than this. Highly educated, progressive and enlightened mothers don’t need men to oppress them. They’re perfectly capable of oppressing themselves!
I would like to say she was completely wrong about mothers being oppressed, but then I read articles like Mother-Toddler Separation (by Dr. George Wootan, M.D.) and I know that the attempt to oppress mothers is very real [emphasis mine]:
Babies and toddlers, up to about the age of three, have little concept of time. To them, there are only two times: now and never. Telling a toddler that Mommy will be back in an hour, or at 5:00, is essentially the same thing as telling her that Mommy is gone forever, because she has no idea what those times mean.
Let me submit to you that the need for mother is as strong in a toddler as the need for food, and that there is no substitute for mother. When he’s tired, hurt, or upset, he needs his mother for comfort and security. True, he doesn’t need Mommy all the time, but when he does, he needs her now. If he scrapes his knee, or gets his feelings hurt, he can’t put his need on hold for two hours until Mommy is home, and the babysitter – or even Daddy – just won’t do as well as if Mommy was there.
So, yes, this is what I’m saying: A mother shouldn’t leave her child until about the age of three, when he has developed some concept of time. You’ll know this has begun to happen when he understands what “yesterday,” “tomorrow,” and “this afternoon” mean, and when your child voluntarily begins to spend more time away from you on his own accord.
If I read between the lines in Wootan's article (the whole thing and not just this excerpt), I can agree with his basic premise. Babies and young children will feel insecure if they are not with someone that they have a strong bond with. However, assuming that can only be the mother is an attempt to oppress mothers and does a disservice to fathers, grandparents and others who do or would like to develop a strong bond with a new baby.
Is it irresponsible for a mother to leave her young child? No.
If anything, I would say that:
- It is irresponsible for a mother to deny her young children the opportunity to bond with other adults
- The child benefits from having several close relationships.
- If the mother has an emergency and needs to be away, the child will have other loved ones to stay with, instead of being doubly traumatized by "something happened to my mother" and "who is this strange person I have to stay with?".
- It is irresponsible of the mother to deny herself a sanity break
- I doubt there are very many people who can withstand being "on duty" all the time for several years, without breaking herself and/or taking it out on the kids.
Big important tasks like raising a child are best shared. Other adults can initially bond with a baby or young child while the mother is still present. Whether that is the father wearing the baby down for a nap while the mother makes lunch, the grandmother playing peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake with a young toddler while the mom does some laundry, or a neighbour holding the baby while chatting with the mom. If other adults are given consistent and frequent opportunity to bond with an infant, there will come a time (usually before 3 years of age) when it is okay for the mom to go alone to the bathroom, to have a nap, to grab the mail from the mailbox, to go to the store, to have coffee with a friend, or even to go to work. I know that the bond between an infant and its mother is extremely important and I know that mothers are very important for small children, but I do not think that infants and toddlers will be emotionally scarred by being separated briefly from their mother if they are left in the care of other adults that they have a strong bond with. Small children may not understand time, but they can understand routine (e.g. first we have lunch, then go for a walk, then have a nap, then have a snack, then mommy comes home). Developing a bond and a routine should be done gradually and with care (not abruptly), but to say that a mother has to be with her children 24/7/365 x 3 years is unreasonable and ridiculous.
Arwyn from Raising my Boychick wrote a response to Wootan's article that hits the nail on the head. In, No, less-than-threes do not need their moms 24/7/365, she starts off her stellar post (which you must read in its entirety) with:
What infants and toddlers and preschoolers need is attachment — loving, responsive care from people they know and trust, preferably have known for most or all of their lives but at least with whom they have built a relationship. They need to have older people — adults, yes, but also teens, older children — who know them and love them and who they know and love, accessible to them when needed. The placement of that responsibility exclusively on the mother makes it not a joy, a task of life easily fulfilled, but a burden, under which so many of us are breaking.
A lot of moms are breaking. Some break just a little bit and are no longer capable of providing the type of loving care that their children deserve. They end up lashing out at them verbally or physically or end up ignoring some of the child's emotional or physical needs. Some end up depressed as a result of their feelings of isolation and hopelessness. Some just can't take it anymore and have to leave.
Jennifer Van Laanen, whom I wrote about in my post on intersecting needs and interdependence, was a big natural parenting and attachment parenting advocate when her children were young. She was probably, in the eyes of Wootan, the perfect mother. But she broke. In her post, The Perfect Mother, she reflected on her experience many years after she had a nervous breakdown and left her family:
I poured all of me into my children from day one. I went all out to be super-mom… home birthed, breast feeding, no babysitters, sling carrying, home schooling, wooden toys, home-cooked organic meals, arts and crafts, no TV… the whole continuum concept-attachment parenting- granola thing. My children were my best friends and I devoted myself to them twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week… for nine years.
I was sad and lonely, I was bitter and resentful, I was empty. I was good at pretending I was ok.
It was my decision to devote myself so thoroughly to my children. In retrospect I can see how that contributed to my breakdown and to the damage of my marriage. I never once complained or asked for help. After nine years of being self-less and super responsible, I found that I needed to nurture and feed, pour more back into me. I was an empty shell and I needed some life other than being mom.
Jennifer's story is a sad story about what happens when mothers oppress themselves (whether willingly or necessarily) or when they are oppressed by others. But are all mothers as unhappy as she was?
The unhappy mother
New York Magazine published an article, All Joy and No Fun - Why parents hate parenting, by Jennifer Senior. The article is full of stories about women who chose to have children, but who find themselves sad or stressed by the daily grind of being a mother. I can understand those stories. I nod my head when I read them. Having just spent several months as a stay-at-home parent to two children who have no friends nearby and almost no activities that they participate in, I know how hard it can be sometimes. I know that I was often stressed. I know that I did not always have a smile on my face.
While the stories in the article are interesting and confirmed by my own experience, I find this quote about the academic studies behind parenting and happiness to be telling:
As a rule, most studies show that mothers are less happy than fathers, that single parents are less happy still, that babies and toddlers are the hardest, and that each successive child produces diminishing returns.
Basically, what this summary shows, is that the more alone a mother is and the more that is piled on top of her, the less happy she is. Makes sense, doesn't it?
The other side of the coin is that the breadwinner dad or non-custodial parent isn't necessarily happier either as a result of not having to care for the kids. For example, with regards to fathers the article says:
Fathers, it turns out, feel like they’ve made some serious compromises too, though of a different sort. They feel like they don’t see their kids enough. “In our studies, it’s the men, by a long shot, who have more work-life conflict than women,” says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute. “They don’t want to be stick figures in their children’s lives.”
So mothers are sad that they have to do it all. Fathers are sad that they are not involved enough in their children's lives. Besides the gender stereotyping in the studies and the article, what is wrong with this picture?
What is wrong is that parents in general and mothers in particular are taking more and more on their own shoulders. As Margaret Wente said, there are so many things that you "have to do" as a parent these days. But in addition to there being more on the parent's plate, there is also no longer a village there to help raise the child. So when we sit in our single family homes where we don't know our neighbours and live thousands of miles from our relatives, it is no wonder that parents are unhappy. They are doing everything themselves. Possibly the mother is doing everything herself.
How can parents be happier?
I think that Equally Shared Parenting, which authors and co-parents Marc and Amy Vachon describe as half the work...all the fun, provides a partial answer to this dilemma. I also think that bringing the village back into our communities is essential. What is not helpful, however, is a working dad telling all moms that they should never leave their child's side until the age of three, especially since it further isolates the mother and exacerbates the stresses and sadness she may face.
Should having children make you happy?
If you're happy and you know it clap your hands...
Before I had children, I was happy. I was in a great relationship. I had great friends. I was involved in enjoyable activities. I went on great vacations. I had a rewarding (but sometimes stressful) job. When we decided to have children, it was because we wanted to and it felt like the time was right. We did it because we had a desire to be parents, not because we were unhappy or trying to fill a void in our lives. I think that people who have children as a "solution" to their own unhappiness are likely to be sorely disappointed.
As Karen from The Kids are Alright said in her post Happiness Runs in a Circular Motion, in response to the New York magazine article:
But really, back to the gist of the thing, the thing that got my sensible white cotton panties in a knot (because everybody knows that sexy undies are only for the childless): the idea that our children are supposed to make us happy at all.
I am a complex person. There isn't one person or a group of people that are responsible for my happiness (or my unhappiness). I think that is a lot of responsibility and also pressure to place on the shoulders of someone else. I am responsible for my happiness and I am responsible for telling others that impact my happiness what I need. I don't think that having children makes you happy and I don't think that not having children makes you happy. Children, certainly, can contribute to or take away from the things that make you happy. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that most children will do both, regularly (the exception of course may be mothers who are suffering from postpartum depression or parents who are otherwise depressed).
For me, being happy means:
- That my daily activities and interactions are, on the whole, rewarding and interesting
- That I am not too stressed out
- That I'm getting enough sleep, exercise and good nutrition
- That I get to interact with people who care about me and people whom I find interesting
What does it mean to you?
Finding your route to happy
As parents, we all have things that are important to us. For us, for example, it was important to not leave our children to be babysat by people that they were not comfortable with. That meant that we took our children a lot of places that other people didn't. That meant that we ensured they developed strong bonds from birth with a few key people (their father, their grandmother) and not just me, so that I could have a break and go to work. That also meant that we opted out of events when there was no other option. We have been criticized for this and had people tell us that we are letting our children run our lives. But it was important to us.
We each have the right, as parents, to determine what is important to our own family. We are best able to read our children's needs and readiness. We are the ones who get to decide what type of relationship we want to build with our children. We are the ones who get to decide how much we let parenting define our lives.
My point is that in finding the balance between fostering attachment, meeting your baby's needs, and doing the (other) things that make you happy:
1) You shouldn't be letting others tell you how that is done (you know your child best and you choose your parenting style)
2) You may need to take responsibility for finding and fostering that balance (e.g. by inviting others to bond with your child)
Is it easy to block out voices that are telling you that you are a bad mother if you do not do XYZ? No. Is it easy to let go enough to allow others to form a bond with your child? No. But it is important, at least to me, in finding my route to happiness. I need breaks from my children. It is important to my happiness. It is important to my ability to be a good mother. So I need to make it happen. It doesn't mean that I always get a break when I need one, but it means that on the whole, I get enough breaks so that I don't break and so that I am happy.
Do you take charge of your own happiness as a parent? Or do you just grin and bear it?