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Archive for the ‘the first year of motherhood’ Category

My latest article is here:

So, when I found out about mothers’ groups I came to them with some desperation. There I discovered other women like me — sleep-deprived and confused by our new lives – we were as fragile as our babies. During such times in life you either make the best of friends or the most peculiar and transient of acquaintances. You are open and lost offering something between possibility and flight to those you encounter.

We had big new identities, these women and I, we were mothers now. But we didn’t yet inhabit those identities. We simply sloshed around in them like liquid insufficient to fill a bucket. Our lack of structure and integrity made us terribly vulnerable. If someone was blunt or even mildly critical about our parenting we were devastated. We were so recently arrived and incompetent that we became disorientated by anyone with a strong position or a new theory. It wasn’t just the blind leading the blind, it was the blind and opinionated leading the blind.

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This response from Eliza at tea plus oranges is such a considered response that it’s hard to imagine it was written with a sleeping baby on her chest… and reading it was a lovely opportunity to revisit those first early months of motherhood. All my love to new parents.

If you have a partner, how does your partner feel about your feminist motherhood? What is the impact of your feminism on your partner?

I’m interested to see how this will pan out. It’s something we’ve talked about a lot at various stages of our relationship, mainly in relation to balancing two careers. We met at uni as two ambitious law student types, and he fully supports the idea that I should be able to go forth professionally and do interesting, meaningful things in paid work, as well as being an available and attentive parent. However, there is an inevitable tension in trying to carve out an equal relationship in a non-equal society. “Lean in” feminism emphasises the need for a supportive partner; but the limits of individual action in working around structural problems also apply to the concerted actions of a couple. He wants to support my career, but doesn’t want to sacrifice his. That’s fair enough. Why should either of us have to? Why can’t employment conditions accommodate family life for both partners? Yet, they don’t. So we intend to find some way of realigning the division of labour once we’re through the early years of parenthood (in which I want to be at home with my babies). Watch this space.

He took four weeks’ leave when bubs was born, which was really really fantastic. I’m now passionate about the feminist importance of paternity leave. There was a revelation in that month – he “gets” household management now. Five years of living together, I’ve done more than half the domestic load, but since bubs arrived that has changed. All it took was four weeks in which I completely abdicated responsibility for everything other than breastfeeding… He’s back at work now, and while our relationship may look very traditional at the moment, in many ways it’s more equal than ever (we’re both exhausted). I’m really grateful to be able to spend a full year at home with bubs. In an ideal world, we’d have better maternity leave provisions, so that women’s ability to do this doesn’t depend on the work status of the father. In the meantime, I’m pretty glad to have a breadwinner spouse just now.

(You can find all the many other responses in this series here. If you’d like to respond to these questions yourself you can either email me your answers and I’ll put them on blue milk as a guest post or you can post them elsewhere and let me know and I’ll link to them).

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Lauca was a really difficult baby.

Really

fucking

difficult,

like

that

first

year

of

motherhood

about

killed

me.

But fast forward on oooh, say seven years in the future.. that difficult baby turns eight years old and you are dragging your tired self home from work one evening and you ring ahead to ask if you need to stop at the shops to buy something to cook everyone for dinner:

Lauca: “No, I have already cooked dinner”.

Me: “What on earth did you cook?”

Lauca: “Pie”.

Me: “What did you put in it?”

Lauca: “Whatever I could find in the kitchen”.

When I walked in the door that evening I found her lying on my bed reading a novel while the pie finished baking. So wonderful. And then on the weekend she woke me up with breakfast in bed. She had found a recipe for Greek yoghurt pancakes in her cookbook. Finally, that evening she asked me to show her how to cook a roast. My god.

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A year later, I visited a friend who had just given birth and found her crying with joy about how much she loved her baby and her husband. As a mutual friend said, “It’s like a roller coaster. We’re all experiencing the same thing, but it makes some people laugh and whoop with joy, and it makes other people cry with fear or puke.”

How the external circumstances of new parenthood will affect your mood might be easier to predict. If you are good at just being in the moment and taking your life as it comes, there can be a Zen-like quality to your days with baby. But say you’re someone like me—someone who likes the feeling of planning out your day, both what you’re going to accomplish and when and how you’re going to relax, and then executing that plan–then you will probably find that the long, aimless weeks of waiting on and reacting to your newborn are unsatisfying, frustrating, even depressing. You may find yourself a little weepy at the end of a cold, gray day in which you accomplished nothing but half a load of laundry, now moldering in the washer since the baby’s surprisingly early awakening from her morning nap. You may find yourself unreasonably irritable when your partner calls to say that he or she is going to be home from work thirty minutes late.

I was less weepy on the days when I got more done, when I felt more competent. I draw a lot of satisfaction from the experience of mastering a task, of figuring it out and doing it well, but the task of parenting a new baby changes so rapidly that it’s nearly impossible to feel any sense of mastery in those first few months. Everyone kept telling me that, when in doubt, I should tune into my “Mother’s Instincts,” but I didn’t really feel like a Mother yet. I had Instincts, but they just seemed to be the same ones I’d always had, like the very strong Instinct to make myself a cup of tea and watch The Wonder Years. These Instincts didn’t have much to say about parenting Rosie, and they were struck especially dumb when confronted with conflicting theories about childrearing. The hard-core attachment parenting ideologues said I should hold my baby all day (actually, it was worse: They said I should want to hold my baby all day), and I was pretty sure that was crazy, but what did I know? In the absence of loud and confident Mother’s Instincts, some new mothers find it helpful just to pick an ideology and follow it. I opted for the more balanced approach of allowing them all to make me feel equally inadequate.

This is excellent. Jody Peltason with “Before I Forget: What Nobody Remembers About New Motherhood” in The Atlantic. Cry on my shoulder any time, new mothers, any time. I remember everything. One of the reasons I have a category on this blog called “the first year of motherhood”.

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My latest article is up at Daily Life and also Essential Baby:

By sharing private and difficult moments as mothers we create a more complete picture of the reality of motherhood – it ultimately frees us all. The ugly complaints, if told wisely, can be witness to the stamina of this extraordinary relationship. But the fear in us in disclosing is palpable – that we might be frauds and that our secret moments exclude us from being good mothers. For an instant, you are unsettlingly close to the truly dysfunctional mother, and you see the dangerously fragile state that she must teeter in, and how damaging she is to her children.

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When feminist writer, Jessica Valenti had a baby it turned out to be a life-threatening experience for both her and her daughter. It was an immediate introduction to the ambivalence that is possible in motherhood. In fact, Valenti described her early months in motherhood as being – “(c)rippled by fear and post-traumatic stress.” It’s the kind of gut-wrenching description that stops a reader in her tracks. There’s a great potential to trivialise motherhood and in doing so we miss out on understanding both its bleakest moments and its soaringly romantic ones. I suspect ambivalence is a near universal experience for women but it’s so taboo we rarely fully identify it in parenting books. This book, more than anything else, is attempting to fully examine that ambivalence.

Why Have Kids?  is an interesting and brave approach to the conversation about parenthood because it frames the discussion in a political sphere. At one point the book quotes Katie Allison Granju and Jillian St. Charles as saying – “many women will tell you that becoming a mother was the most politically radicalizing experience of their lives”. Absolutely, and it is refreshing to see an author treat the subject with just this level of seriousness. Valenti covers a range of topics that deserve attention but which rarely get featured in books about parenthood like, the history of state control over women’s bodies and child-rearing practices; the infantalising pregnancy diet and the alcohol-abstinence messages; the incessant downplaying of the role of fathers; the success of non-nuclear families; the classism around how we view at-home mothers differently according to their wealth; the tensions in achieving work-and-family balance; and the predatory success behind the ‘parenting expert’ anxiety industry. Because this book is a commercial one about parenthood, rather than an academic book, these topics are probably ground-breaking for the genre.

The chapter, “Bad Mothers Go To Jail” is particularly thoughtful. Here, Valenti examines the phenomenon of child abandonment and neglect as the heartbreaking evidence it provides that motherhood is not nearly as serene and unconflicted as we are led to believe. It is a chapter like this that makes you appreciate a feminist like JessicaValenti taking on parenthood for her book. This chapter also highlights the sense of losing oneself that is common for women entering motherhood and one of the book’s strengths is the manner in which it normalises the desire in some women not to be parents. As Valenti goes on to argue, most women spend a great deal of their lives using contraception to avoid getting pregnant; so, it would seem strange that we stigmatise women for not wanting to ever be pregnant, given that it is a view we can all relate to ourselves for much of our lives. Why Have Kids? is not going to offend those readers who are ultimately deciding against parenthood, Valenti is clearly wanting to draw the non-parent and parent communities together and it’s an excellent ambition for a parenting book. This means the book doesn’t touch on any of the extreme individualism that is sometimes being directed towards mothers and children by elements of the childfree movement and which leads to a misogynistic judgementalism about mothers, but deciding that is beyond the scope of the book is reasonable.

Why Have Kids? is occasionally prone to some simplistic generalisations about attachment/natural parenting that can come across as divisive. For instance, elimination communication (EC) is labelled a “feminist’s worst nightmare”, staggered vaccination schedules are seen as helicopter parenting, and the backlash against French feminist, Elisabeth Badinter’s anti-breastfeeding book is described as “(h)ell hath no fury like La Lech League scorned”. Why Have Kids? is right to critically examine parenting trends, given their impact on women’s lives, but broad sweeping statements are likely to alienate some mothers. Valenti, a mother who breastfed initially but who chose formula-feeding when the breastfeeding became part of the trauma she was experiencing with her premature baby, is particularly concerned with the heavy-handedness of the breastfeeding message and it’s a very important story to be telling. But it is frustrating in a book like this one, that seeks to debunk myths, that scrutiny is not being applied with the same persistence to the misogynist barriers against breastfeeding. The ways in which public space, workplace practices and marital expectations are arranged is actively hostile to women trying to breastfeed and tend to their infants, and this is a serious feminist issue. I feel quite certain that Valenti gets all this; she selected quotes from an interview with me where I am making some of these arguments and she ultimately ends this particular chapter by acknowledging that “(p)arenting and caretaking are only as oppressive as our society makes them.” But still, the discussion around attachment parenting is uneven and could benefit from more nuance.

However, where Why Have Kids? gets it exactly right is where Valenti confronts the perfectionism and policing that happens in motherhood these days and some of this is coming from the attachment/natural parenting movement – “(i)t may be that American mothers are so desperate for power, recognition, and validation that we’d rather take on the burden of considering ourselves “expert moms” rather than change the circumstances that demand such an unreasonable role for us”. These will be uncomfortable truths for motherhood experts and websites that make their money by schooling us in exactly these pursuit, but, yes and yes to what Valenti is saying here.

As well as the attachment parenting chapter I also found myself somewhat conflicted when reading the chapter, “The Hardest Job in the World”, where Valenti justifiably questions what can be a patronising and exploitative message for women about the role of mothers. It is sexist that the boring, mundane tasks of mothering are sold to women as some kind of special task for which we are biologically designed and therefore not entitled to reward or status for doing them; but it is equally sexist to reduce all caring tasks to the trivial, the mindless and the twee. Mothering can be complicated and compelling and also, intellectually and emotionally satisfying. The fact that we describe it as involving problem-solving no more difficult than “kissing boo-boos” is telling. Given all this, what does it say when we characterise some women as falling “for the trap of believing that parenting is the most important job they’ll ever have”? This is a difficult balance to strike in feminism – between denigrating ‘women’s work’ and liberating women from domestic servitude, but it is one where white, middle-class feminist mothers, like myself and Valenti, risk universalising our experiences at the expense of disabled mothers, mothers of colour, trans parents, mothers in incarceration, poor mothers and other marginalised people who are still fighting for their mothering to be respected and for whom mothering can be a radical feat of activism and community building. The availability of high quality childcare is not the answer to every problem.

Why Have Kids? is probably at its strongest where it approaches tricky subjects but openly acknowledges its own bias. So, for instance, the chapter “Women Should Work” is buoyed by this rather lovely piece of self-reflection from Valenti after admitting that she thinks women should generally avoid being at-home parents (a view I share, in part): “I’m not sure how to reconcile these beliefs with my feeling that people’s life choices should be honored. I think there’s a way to discuss and think critically – and be critical – of parents’ choices without resorting to personal attacks and hyperbole. And I trust women and mothers to be able to have this conversation with the knowledge that we want to make parents’ lives better”. There is some great stuff in here on what the studies are really showing about long-term outcomes for mothers and children when mothers stay attached to the workforce and it refutes conservative propaganda. The chapter also includes the most interesting and humanising interview I’ve seen with Linda Hirshman in some time. In it, Hirshman notes the social impact of elite stay-at-home mothers on the rest of us in terms of raising unrealistic expectations  – “Setting aside for a moment the people who have to work, an important question is why do they do it? It’s like the really skinny models; it’s some bizarre norm of female accomplishment that no one can really achieve”. Hirshman has her blind spots (some of them large) but she makes solid points in support of women’s participation in the workforce – “If the rulers are male, they will make mistakes that benefit males” – and her interview reminded me that Hirshman is mostly motivated by a desire to improve the lot of mothers.

For all the doubts raised about the over-prioritising of parenthood in women’s lives in Why Have Kids?, Valenti arrives at a conclusion, not unlike a lot of us: “I, unfortunately, didn’t have a choice in deciding whether or not she would be the center of my life. She just was; her health and survival depended on it”. Making peace with this fact – that children are vulnerable little beings who will sometimes justify great sacrifices on our part and yet, somehow we must be allowed to remain intact as ourselves – is important feminist work. Personally, I would love to have seen more sharing of experiences from Valenti in Why Have Kids? because I eat that stuff up with a spoon, but I can see that a memoir is not the book Valenti set out to write here. You won’t agree with everything in this book no matter which direction of parenting you’re coming from, Valenti acknowledges that, but it is taking the mainstream conversation about parenting to a meatier level and it’s about time that happened. When the book ends with its wonderful conclusion about why we need to move away from individualism – because when one mother is punished, we are all punished – I am hoping all readers hear that.

In accordance with disclosure guidelines, please note that I was sent a copy of this book for review by the publisher and I am also quoted in the book. 

(Cross-posted at Hoyden About Town).

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Can you write advice columns, one of the editors asked me. Yes, I lied. And here we are, my advice on how to announce your pregnancy is now my latest article up at Daily Life.

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Wheeeee! I am very pleased to have an article published at The Wheeler Centre - “The Most Powerful Pregnant Woman on the Planet”, where I am discussing the controversy around Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer’s pregnancy announcement: “I like to stay in the rhythm of things. My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it” .

Mayer is taking maternity leave (or not taking it) in one of only four countries remaining without a universal paid parental leave scheme. Australia has not long left that dismal list. When Mayer talks about maternity leave as something brief and something that she can work throughout, and her quote receives international attention, you can forgive mothers in the US for being a little jumpy.

Her statement, as well as communicating a sense of work pressure, also suggests a couple of things about mothering. The first is that mothering is not all that captivating; it will not compete with the rewards of a CEO job. The second is that mothering is, if not easy, then at least not particularly skilled work, because it is something that can be combined (even in the first weeks) with another, more demanding, job. In fact, mothering may be ideally complemented by – how shall we say it? – a more cerebral job.

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NOTE TO COMMENTERS: Welcome to bluemilk. In this thread, the same points are now being hashed and re-hashed in comments. Please read the entire post and thread before replying. In addition, please note that any comments downplaying slavery & racism may not be accepted. Some existing unacceptable comments may be left in place at the moderator’s discretion, especially if already replied to/called out.

Let’s move the conversation forward. Thankyou.

—-

An African mother and slave, presumably wet-nursing for a white master’s baby while her own child goes without. The image is from The Sociological Cinema files and they are having trouble tracing its true credit. I find this photo incredibly painful – breastfeeding, with all its hormones, bonds, and intimacy, and the transferral of that unwillingly from one’s baby to another’s.

Looking at the photo I was reminded of a description in this piece, which is not about slavery but which is truly beautiful writing from Mona Simpson in The New York Times with “Nannies – Love, Money And Other People’s Children”:

Seeing Michele Asselin’s portraits, I remember the heightened sensitivity of my first months as a parent. The pictures are beautiful and idealized. The women look at the children with love. No one looks frustrated. No one looks bored. No child is having a meltdown. They conjure the dome of tender air that encloses a mother, whose body is coursing with hormones, and a newborn.

But these moments of private contentment, with the serenity and depth borrowed from the portraiture legacy of the Madonna and child, do not depict mothers with their infants. The women holding the children are nannies. Part of what’s striking about the pictures is that they position front and center a person who is often left on the editing-room floor when a family’s memories are being assembled. Nannies have told me that their employers crop them out of photographs of their children. On the wall of a West Los Angeles home, I noticed a blown-up photo of a baby in a pretty white dress, held by a pair of hands of a darker color. In her photos, Asselin captures a radiance between caregivers and children, often of different races…

.. We don’t like to mix love with money. We want love to come as a gift that offers as much pleasure and reward to the giver as to ourselves. No one receiving love wishes to break it down to its component parts, of good sense and feasibility, much less to consider that payment may be necessary to inspire the whole project.

I highly recommend that article, it takes what can be a one note guilt-trip topic and goes somewhere else with it.

UPDATE: As you can see below in the comments the picture has now been identified – this is one of the things I love about writing on the Internet. Pretty much instant knowledge. Harper has the story in a comment below and the mother in the photograph may or may not be an African slave, because she might instead be a paid ‘wet nurse’.

The second thing that has changed since I first wrote this post is my assumption that this photograph would make everyone uncomfortable, as it did with me. The title of my post was, in part, a reference to all the many photographs of mothers breastfeeding their babies that we see where anti-breastfeeding types complain that the pictures are making them uncomfortable, offending them, or turning them on. I thought, now here’s a photo that really does make me uncomfortable and it is because the mother is doing this lovely, nurturing activity with the baby but there is, what I assumed to be given the information I had, a pretty awful backstory. It is the juxtaposition of ‘mother love’ against the cruelty of slavery that makes me feel uncomfortable. But Minna Salami of MsAfropolitan, and a Huffington Post blogger, told me she had quite a different reaction to the photo:

Minna Salami: Does this photo make you feel uncomfortable? I find it strong and compassionate even if poignant. Wondering why you presumed that the African woman’s own child wasn’t being breastfed? Takes away agency..

Me: Guess I’m imagining her baby isn’t allowed to be prioritised over this other baby. And it’s missing out on something.

Minna Salami: Whether prevented or not, a mother could find ways to protect her children. And surely often would. There was still agency. To me, the photo says love and humanness triumphs despite patriarchy and racism.

This is another thing I love about writing on the Internet. New ways of thinking. Minna Salami makes an excellent point and it is one that was also expressed by ifyspify in the comments below.

Finally, a word to clarify my original post: I wasn’t assuming that the mother in this photo was necessarily not able to also breastfeed her own baby but I was assuming that she would be forced to attend to this baby over her own baby.

PerthMum makes a good point in her comment that breastfeeding supply equals demand and obviously mothers are able to breastfeed twins and other multiples. My opinion on wet-nursing was also influenced by having recently read this article about Europe where Anne Manne says:

There was, however, an entirely different rule for poor women. For them it was not merely okay but necessary to breastfeed for they became wet nurses to elite women’s babies. Such babies replaced at the breast their own infants, who frequently died.

More Update: You must read Elita’s reply to Minna below.

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On What Women Can Learn From Men
It started when I had Malia…and what I noticed is that my husband was still getting his workout in, almost miraculously… Instead of getting angry about that, which was my first reaction — and I did for a short period of time — I sort of thought, now, why am I mad at him? He’s doing what he needs to do, which is ordering his day so that he gets things done, and I would work around that.

So that was the beginning of me saying, I’ve got to do what he does. I can’t get mad at him for doing what he’s doing, I just need to figure out how to do it, and how to get the help I needed. This is when I started having the crazy early morning workouts. I got up — 4:30 in the morning — to go work out. And when I came back from the workout no one was dead. Baby was fine, everyone was happy, I don’t — she might have cried for the entire hour, I didn’t know, but she was okay.

On The Necessity Of Mom Friends
There was a group of moms — we’re still close — we all had girls around the same time. We would have Saturday mommy and baby play dates that started when the kids were 8 months old. And it was basically — we’d set them in their little carriers and we’d hang out and just talk about these issues.

On How Everything Changes When You Become A Mother
And I tell young, professional women you may feel one way today and then you have a child, I guarantee you, you will feel differently. And then, you have two, you’ll feel differently. And then, when they get a certain age, you’ll feel another way. Then, you’ll get to a certain age and you’ll feel another way. This is all very fluid. And that’s what gives me a sense of calm is that I know that I have to figure out what works for me at any given time.

From here in The Huffington Post.

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