Archive for the ‘the first year of motherhood’ Category

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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“More than in any other human relationship, overwhelmingly more, motherhood means being instantly interruptible, responsive, responsible.” – Tillie Olsen

What this means is that when you’re caring for an infant, you can get completely lost in caring for an infant, but you can’t get lost in any other type of work or leisure or relationship or anything else at all. You can try, but you’ll probably be interrupted 30 seconds, or a minute, or five minutes, or sweet glory! an hour! into it.  This doesn’t sound so bad, I know, and for some people, it seems to be not that big a deal. But for others, artists and writers particularly I think, who need to disappear into a painting or a story or a what-have you, it’s a special kind of torment.

This is lovely writing from the House of Flurfel about all the stopping and starting of mothering and that longing to just complete one task.

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Bill and I were in foul moods this morning but what a relief it was to find that we were both angry about the same things and it wasn’t each other. This time it was the state of the house and the behaviour of our children. Because recently it has been about one another, in a scary, suffocating kind of way. I’m not good with that kind of anger in a relationship, I’m not the sort to naturally back away from anger, I’m not the sort to try and cover it up, nor the sort to ride it out and trust that this is the ebb and flow of relationships; I think about moving on at times like that. Maybe it is because I am the daughter of a single parent, I don’t have the fear some women have of going it alone with children. I have a kind of gallows humour about the difficulties that path would involve, but not a complete aversion to it. The arguing brought up very old arguments for us, arguments impossible to resolve, and with this some very bad old habits that we both thought we’d outgrown. I’m only writing about it now that the moment has passed because honestly, I have no perspective when I am in those moments, I couldn’t write about it sensibly, couldn’t write about it with any kind of optimism, couldn’t write about it with the sense that only two weeks ago I was thinking I would compose a message of hope to new parents based on my own experiences about how much better it all gets.

While I was this angry I talked to my friends about how angry I was with Bill and how angry he was with me. If I can be so bold, this is my piece of relationship advice for you, have friends you can talk to about that anger and who aren’t afraid of it and then hold nothing back. Even better if they will share their own honest moments of anger and disappointment with you. Nobody wants to be the only person whose relationship ever falters.

I received lots of wisdom. Some of it reassuringly matter of fact: “you will either grow together or grow apart but you can’t stop growing”. Also, “women heading into their forties are restless with energy and self-awareness but they’re often partnered to men in their forties, and men at that age are becoming increasingly inflexible and self-assured, after all, they are quite literally the patriarchs by then, they are busy becoming their fathers and probably inadvertently expecting their mothers as their wives now”.

Some of the advice was refreshingly realistic: “friends say to me they don’t know if this new relationship of theirs is the one or not and wonder when they will feel that and I tell them I’m married to this man, have three children with him, bought two houses together and love him dearly but I still make a decision every single day about whether to be with him or not”.

Some of the advice was just the relief of knowing that others go through the same thing; those friends who share their quietest, most secret moments of doubt with you.

And some of the advice was terribly clear-headed: “have you thought about the fact that you and he are under incredible stress at work right now? No wonder you’re hating each other, you’re both flipping out”.

They were right, actually. For a time there both our jobs were simultaneously being ramped up with demands while facing possibilities of job insecurity. Most often I am aware of the impacts of home life on working life, but really, you can’t underestimate the impact of the reverse. Thankfully we seem to have passed through all that safely and like magic our anger is dissipating.  However, it feels like the house slid over the edge in that time and it is chaotic with mess right now and our children are increasingly frantic for our attention. So we’re annoyed, he and I, but in a shared kind of way.

And that’s the thing about being  this feminist and a man in a relationship – we are in love but we are also strongly independent and so it feels at times with us, as parents, that the obligations of domesticity are trapping us together. When really, we are choosing this relationship, there isn’t a sense of fate here, there is instead a sense of mad passion and endurance and vulnerability with us, of pushing and pulling and struggling through it all for an outcome we both want that involves ‘happy’ every bit as much as it involves ‘together’.

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Two of my most favourite motherhood writers ever are writing, for want of a better word.. sequels. I’m very excited about this. First there was Rachel Cusk with A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother and then more recently, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation and now there is Anne Lamott, who previously wrote the first big motherhood memoir, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. Here’s Lamott in an interview in the LA Times talking about her forthcoming motherhood book, Some Assembly Required which this time is about her adult son’s first child, so, a ‘grandmotherhood memoir’ if you like:

And yet, it’s this matter of the grown child, as distinct from the small child, that made “Some Assembly Required” a bit different, a bit
more complicated to work out. Jax, after all, is not just Sam’s son but also Amy’s, which means another family to consider, for whom
growing up in public was not a way of life.

“I had to be very protective,” Lamott says. “I didn’t want to expose these kids in any way. My intention was not to create crisis. So I
gave everybody full editorial power.” As for what that means, it depended on the circumstance. “I made a lot of changes that Amy and
her parents asked for,” Lamott acknowledges, although she also managed to portray the couple in all their complexity as young parents and young lovers, struggling with their responsibilities, feeling as if they were in over their heads. “The first 10 days,” Lamott remembers, “when I had everyone staying with me, I was trying to make things perfect, but then I walked into Sam and Amy’s bedroom, and they were talking about splitting up.”

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Baby Lauca on the back of the plane.

In the first year of motherhood I got quite run down by about the four month mark. Bill was working incredibly long hours and the weeks of being home alone with a colicky baby were beginning to accumulate. The crying stage, it went on and on. We had passed the six week milestone, we’d passed the three month milestone, and we were rapidly heading to the six month milestone and still there was no ‘let up’ in this colic thing. One hundred and twenty days, and counting, of crying. My mother was living interstate at the time and she invited Lauca and I to stay with her for a week. I was somewhat nervous – the logistics of packing for a week away with a new baby, flying for the first time with her, and then being apart from Bill and his middle-of-the-night assistance.

But, in fact, it was a week of pure bliss. My mother quieting my baby daughter in front of the fireplace during ‘witching hour’. My mother taking my baby from me after the pre-dawn feed so I could ‘sleep-in’ until dawn. My mother inviting us for walks along the beach. My mother making tomato soup for me. My mother buying my baby new clothes. After that week was up I flew home restored.

Bill met me at the airport; we were all delighted to see one another. And then something went wrong and we had an argument in the airport carpark. I felt all the perspective and recovery and joy acquired over that week drain out of me and like a puddle at my feet it seeped into the bitumen and was gone. It was the worst kind of wastage I could imagine.

My god, the first year is hard.



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When Rachel Cusk wrote about motherhood in A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, I felt heard. It wasn’t my story, exactly, but it was closer to my story of the early days of motherhood than others were writing. This time she is writing about her divorce. It isn’t my story either, but I suspect there will be much here to embrace for those of us attempting this strange dance of domestic equality with our partners:

Call yourself a feminist, he said.

What I need is a wife, jokes the stressed-out feminist career woman. The joke is that the feminist’s pursuit of male values has led her to the threshold of female exploitation. This is irony. Get it? The feminist scorns that silly complicit creature the housewife. Her first feminist act may have been to try to liberate her own housewife mother, and discover that rescue was neither wanted nor required. I hated my mother’s unwaged status, her servitude, her domesticity. Yet I stood accused of recreating exactly those conditions in my own adult life. I had hated my husband’s unwaged domesticity just as much as I had hated my mother’s; and he, like her, had claimed to be contented with his lot. Why had I hated it so? Because it represented dependence. But there was more to it than that, for it might be said that dependence is an agreement between two people. My father depended on my mother, too: he couldn’t cook a meal, or look after children from the office. They were two halves that made up a whole.

My notion of half was more like the earthworm’s: you cut it in two, but each half remains an earthworm, wriggling and fending for itself. I earned the money in our household, did my share of the cooking and cleaning, paid someone to look after the children while I worked. And my husband helped. It was his phrase. I was the compartmentalised modern woman, the woman having it all, and he helped me to be it, to have it. But I didn’t want help: I wanted equality. In fact, this idea of help began to annoy me. Why couldn’t we be the same? Why couldn’t he be compartmentalised, too? And why, exactly, was it helpful for a man to look after his own children, or cook the food that he himself would eat? Help is dangerous because it exists outside the human economy: the only payment for help is gratitude. And did I not have something of the same gratuitous tone where my wage-earning was concerned? Did I not think there was something awfully helpful about me, a woman, supporting my own family?

And so I felt, beneath the reconfigured surface of things, the tension of the old orthodoxies. We were a man and a woman who in our struggle for equality had simply changed clothes. We were a transvestite couple – well, why not? Except that I did both things, was both man and woman, while my husband – meaning well – only did one.

So I was both man and woman, but over time the woman sickened, for her gratifications were fewer. I had to keep out of the kitchen, keep a certain distance from my children, not only to define my husband’s femininity but to appease my own male values. The oldest trick in the sexist book is the female need for control of children. I perceived in the sentimentality and narcissism of motherhood a threat to the objectivity that as a writer I valued so highly. But it wasn’t control of the children I was necessarily sickening for. It was something subtler – prestige, the prestige that is the mother’s reward for the work of bearing her offspring. And that prestige was my husband’s. I had given it to him or he had taken it – either way, it was what he got out of our arrangement. And the domestic work I did was in a sense at the service of that prestige, for it encompassed the menial, the trivial, the frankly boring, as though I was busily working behind the scenes to ensure the smooth running of the spectacle on stage.

The extract from her new book, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation reads as quite muddled here in The Guardian – how others might sound writing about the intimacy of their divorce but not what you’d expect of a wordsmith like Cusk – though don’t give up on the book, as Cusk has noted here, she doesn’t much like the way newspapers select bits and pieces from her books and then put them together in single, false essays. I imagine the book is much more coherent, even if it is a memoir of something that raw.

I love Cusk’s writing and to say that I am keen to read her new book would be an understatement. If you have never read any Cusk and you want an introduction to her non-fiction writing then this interview with her about her forthcoming book might be as good a place as any to begin.  There is so much to love in this interview with her, like her response about her ‘feminist principle of autobiographical writing’ and her answer to the question of whether she still calls herself a feminist and then these answers, too:

Why did you decide to write about your relationship breakdown?I was asked by Granta magazine in 2010 to contribute an essay about feminism, which they said they wanted to be quite personal; and having thought at first that that wasn’t the proper way to discuss feminism, I realised very quickly that for me now, perhaps it was the only way. The radicalism I had felt as a young woman began to seem to me if not exactly semantic then verbal, theoretical. As I have grown older, it is experience that has become radical. It is living, not thinking, as a feminist that has become the challenge. Sex, marriage, motherhood, work, domesticity: it is through living these things that the politics of being a woman are expressed, and I labour this point because it is important to understand that the individual nature of experience is essentially at odds – or should reserve the right to be – with any public discourse. I no longer presume to know how other women live or think or feel. I can only try to align myself with them, to get into sympathy with them, by saying how it is for me. And it is of course intrinsic to femininity that it is costive or denying to a degree, so the saying can become radical in itself, but only from a point of view of personal honesty. So the decision to write comes from that. And as for the subject, it had fallen within the compass of my experience and what I saw was that in the breakdown of marriage the whole broken mechanism of feminism was revealed. I had expected to find, at the end of the family structure, at least some proof of feminist possibility, however harsh. But either it wasn’t there or I couldn’t find it, and that seemed to me to be a subject worth writing about. The book grew from that essay, which forms the first chapter of it.

Do children belong to their mothers? You write: “They’re my children. They belong to me.”

Children belong to themselves, of course. But what I wanted to describe in the book were a number of primitive and fairly ferocious feelings that seemed to emerge from the rupture of separation and that directly contradicted my own meditated feminist politics. This was the beginning of my seeing the difference between feminism as an ideology and feminism as lived experience.

Have you invaded your children’s privacy?

Children have to share their parents’ destiny to some extent, like it or not. I happen to be a writer; they are the children of a writer.

There’s a lot to chew on here, and I’m not sure yet where I am with all her ideas about the conflict between feminist ideas and life lived.. but I love the questions she is raising.

(Cross-posted at Hoyden About Town and thanks to Cristy for the link to the articles).

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I’m really liking Tracy Moore’s parenting posts on Jezebel. (But good god, don’t expect any kind of enlightenment in the comment threads). She’s what I would describe as ‘an accidental attachment parent’, which is pretty much how I came to be attachment parenting, too. It just happened, it felt right to me, it seemed to kinda work, and it really suited my laziness.

Here are Tracey Moore’s parenting posts:

How I learned to stop worrying and love pooping during childbirth

Five: At least knowing this helps you figure out who you really want in the ol’ delivery room, eh? Let’s take that list, cut in half, and then burn whatever’s left. Hey – some people have honest-to-God orgasms when they give birth. Is that what you want your mother-in-law to see? I think you’re beginning to see that pooping is clearly the more family-friendly option here.

Isn’t a baby supposed to cramp your style?

Perhaps, at least initially, early parenthood should be a period of confinement, I wondered. A mental and physical test of one’s ability to focus, channel and redirect. A meditative retreat into a new self, a quieting down of all the usual clatter.

Sure, we went out into the world with our baby. But rather than try to force her into our existing excursions, we tried new ones that might force us to consider the city – and our lives – from a new angle. Rather than become frustrated at staying in evenings, we relished the ability to live a low-key existence and go to sleep early, which strengthened our relationship and made working the first year entirely possible in spite of lots of waking up in the middle of the night.

Where, exactly, is it ok to take your kid?

Here’s something you did one time that didn’t help. When you were driving to take your baby to a broken glass factory wine-tasting party, you didn’t immediately floor it when the light changed green while sitting in traffic because you were looking at your baby in the rear-view mirror instead. Um, the lady in the Jetta was trying to get to her friend’s yoga class that already started and she only has this one free pass for this one time?

Also did you know how slow you are? Everywhere you go? Can’t you go faster? Even a little? Do you ALWAYS have to strap the baby in the car seat? Some of us are trying to get to a movie?

Advice to would-be parents: learn how to make the elephant sound now, before it’s too late

The ability to lie completely still for three hours, transcending all your biological needs.
This one’s not about externalizing, but internalizing. It’s great for people who are already interested in meditation. Lying next to a baby who is just almost asleep for two hours while you desperately need to pee/eat/ scratch an itch/cough brings up strange, existential questions, like, Is it possible to reabsorb all this pee and somehow be “beyond peeing?” Can you cough into yourself? Inquiring minds.

Who needs the family bed when you have the family toilet?

Recently I was sitting on the toilet peeing while my nearly 2-year old daughter was sitting in my lap playing with her stuffed koala bear, and I thought to myself, how did we get here? It could be worse, I suppose — we could be doing this as a performance art piece at a pop-up gallery in downtown L.A.

I guess I forgot to wean my baby

Not like you didn’t already have enough weird, judgy parenting shit to deal with, but yay, now it’s not just whether you nurse and whether you like it but how long you do it for — and don’t forget to feel bad about where, you human gargoyle.

Even ol’ Prudie McJudgy over at Dear Prudence, who fancies herself the most reasonable and permissive person on the planet (about porn for men), joined in on the haranguing when she had about two hemorrhages in November answering a letter about a woman who nursed her 5-year-old in, gasp, plain view of other humans.

My worst parenting mistakes (so far)

We fought in front of the baby and didn’t always show her the makeup part.

Just ask any of my (theoretical) ex-boyfriends, I’m a BIG fan of talking about conflict right out in the open. I also think it’s OK to let kids see their parents argue, and what’s more important is showing them you can have a disagreement but that everything can be resolved. But like shaving your legs, this is still far easier said than done. Before you know it you find yourself stomping around hairy-legged one time too many over the same old row, till you notice you’ve raised your voice defending the second scratch you put on the side of the new car because there’s a weird pole next to your parking space and YES, you can try not to hit it 99% of the time but what about the 1% and what the crap can you really do if you’re in a hurry, and there is your sweet little baby hanging on your every utterance like she’s studying for the bar exam.
2012 is the year of only discussing what the baby can verbally help us resolve.

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“But men are used to being centre of the universe. It’s like they throw a tantrum when the baby is born because their world as they knew it is thrown off kilter.”

And (my use of bold)..

“Men go to work all day but are still expected to come home and help with the babies. Neither of us is sure what we’re supposed to be doing and we both feel resentful.”


“Sex is the last thing you feel like, with little people crawling over you all day,” she says. “Then you feel the hand creeping over and it’s like, ‘Oh no.’ It’s not like I don’t love my husband. I just love sleep more.”

Also, when will we see a discussion of the last point that finally joins the dots between those first two points?  Oh sexism, you bore me so. (From here).

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