The other day I was catching up with a friend and hearing about her eight-month-old baby. It was like a newly-deployed soldier at the front talking to another who just finished a tour of duty. The conversation went something like this:
Friend: “I think nursing is taking a lot out of me. I can’t believe how tired I am all the time!”
Me: “How often is she nursing?”
Friend: “Every two hours, day and night. She won’t take a bottle if I’m not here, so she just cries and waits for me to come back. It’s awful to feel like if I decide to go somewhere without her I’m depriving her of all nourishment.”
Me: “How is she on solids? Any interest there?”
Friend: “Not really. I talked to a couple of lactation consultants who told me it’s totally normal for her to nurse ever two hours for the first year. I just don’t know if I can do this for another four months!”
Me: “Is there some way to cut out one feeding a day? Maybe for you to go out in the morning, find a really great person to take care of her for a couple of hours while you go do something else? That could really help you start feeling like a person again.”
That sound you just heard is the horrified gasp of disapproval coming from so many of the “attached” moms I know. They were my mentors, my support system, my midnight emergency phone call recipients when my daughter, now almost three, was an infant.
Those were the friends who told me that if my baby needed something it would symbiotically benefit me to give it to her. Breastfeeding is symbiotic! It wires mom’s brain for instant deep sleep; reduces her risk of breast cancer: reduces her risk of ovarian cancer. Breastfeeding is patently good for every single mom ever!
And if that is true, it must also be true that wearing your baby, sleeping with your baby, taking your baby with you everywhere and rearranging your life around preventing all crying are also good for all moms everywhere. Why would nature make an infant whose needs conflicted with the best interest of its mother?
It was a compelling argument; not that I really needed much convincing. I’m as pro-breastfeeding as the daughter of a lactation counselor and home-birther (not to mention the sister and sister-in-law of women who nursed two or more babies at once over three or more years) can be. Breastfeeding is not only great nutrition for babies, it is damned convenient for moms once they get the hang of it. Nothing to buy, nothing to sterilize, nothing to measure; just latch and feed.
The philosophy of Attachment Parenting is practically in my blood. My mother says my birth in Lesotho in 1971 was the first Bradley birth in Africa. She got the local women to teach her how to carry me on her back in my own Basotho blanket. At 10 I watched my little brother be born at home into the hands of a lay midwife.
So when I nursed my daughter I did so “on demand,” about every two hours, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 18 months. She slept in bed with me and daddy, spent 85% of her waking hours in a sling or otherwise strapped to my body. Good for me, right?
Sure. Good for me.
The problem is that all that togetherness wasn’t always good for me. I needed breaks, weekends, sick days. But whenever I talked to my attachment parenting support system hoping for some strategies to get help, they told me things like this:
“Sacrifice is just not valued in our society, but sacrifice is what motherhood is about. It’s okay to give up your needs for your kids.”
Or, “She needs you, Juliet. What you give her is so essential to her well-being; you’re doing a great job.”
Or, “You have a high-need baby; it’s hard now but you’ll see it as a blessing in time.”
My daughter certainly was high-need. Maybe that had something to do with me needing some time to myself.
So here are some things that no one said to me, that I would like to say to new moms. I’m not a veteran mom of seven kids over 30, but I have a few thoughts to share now that my one daughter is in pre-school.
Moms are people. We have the same needs (also known as requirements or necessities) for mental stimulation, companionship, emotional release, spiritual fulfillment, sex and play as anyone else has. We also have the right to make meeting those needs a part of our daily lives, just like anyone else.
Babies can adapt. We all know someone who went through terrible illness or tragedy in early life, only to turn out basically okay. And yet some people insist that for mom to work outside the home, go to a yoga class by herself three nights a week, or get a sitter and go to a movie constitutes an unnatural separation from the baby, and therefore is harmful to both. I’m here to say that your baby can get used to the minor discomforts of being away from you sometimes if that means you come back to your baby refreshed as a person and ready to be a mom.
We are teaching our kids how to be grown-ups. Those of us raising daughters are modeling how to be grown-up women. Do we really want them to grow up thinking that motherhood means being lonely, monotone and perpetually unshowered? Uh-uh. I, for one, want my daughter to see in me a proud, smart, creative and dynamic woman she can look forward to emulating someday. A woman who knows how to take care of her needs while teaching her children to take care of theirs.
Those of us raising sons are modeling future lovers and wives for many of our sons. Let’s be the daughter-in-law we want to see in the world.
For that matter, let’s be the change we want to see in the world. Let’s take all the talk of equality and choice and step back from those voices who tell us that staying at home means one thing and working for pay means another. Let’s get creative about making our own ways, finding support systems that really work for us, and holding onto those parts of ourselves that are uniquely ours.
For some moms this means working part-time while dad stays home, or finding a good childcare arrangement that allows both parents to work. Some stay-at-home moms arrange for time off when their husbands and partners are at home with the kids. For some it means swapping childcare with a friend, or hanging out at each other’s houses and creating their own little “tribes” complete with kids running wild while moms sip coffee at the kitchen table. The point is they are working out ways to get intellectual stimulation, rest, companionship, and adult conversation.
The first few years of motherhood really turned me inside out. Maybe right now they’re turning you inside out. I was depressed, anxious, sleep deprived, physically depleted, creatively stunted, my brain turned to mush by daytime TV. My experience may have been a little extreme; I hope your transition to motherhood is easier. It took me a while to realize that I had to be the one making sure I got some rest, had some fun, and took time for myself. Part of the problem was that I had to realize it myself; I hope you won’t have to.
I’m just a few steps ahead of you in motherhood. My child is weaned and in pre-school, could be close to being potty-trained, and knows how to use a fork. I’m a voice from your future: no matter what anyone says, take care of your baby and yourself. You are both worth it.