Monday, 18 December 2017

The Reason I’m Not Proud of Giving Birth to My Children

Both my babies were born in natural, drug-free, midwife-led labours. Both labours were about 9 hours from start to finish.

Once my sons were born, everything was okay and we were sent home after one/two nights in hospital.

I had minor tears both times, which healed within weeks with no further problems.

I have never miscarried, and I’ve never had to try consciously to conceive. 

Breastfeeding was hard both times. 

With Francis I didn’t know how to do it because I hadn’t read anything or gone to any short courses, so we ended up mix feeding from the beginning and weaning much earlier than I’d hoped for.

With Louie, I had read everything and gone to every course possible and breastfeeding exclusively for a whole month, only to find he was not gaining weight and having to supplement with formula. Now he’s nearly twelve months and we’re down to just two ounces of formula a day, so it is mostly my milk keeping him alive and I’m so surprised and happy.

When I couldn’t breastfeed the way I wanted to, I felt like a failure. My heart sank when my babies gobbled up the formula, clearly hungry after hours of getting ‘nothing’ from me. 

I felt like less of a mother and less of a woman. 

I know a lot of people have felt this way after giving birth - something I never experienced with my ‘dream’ labours.

Having had the kind of births so many women aspire to, and having struggled so much with breastfeeding, I wanted to say something about this ‘failure’ business.

People often say ‘well done!’ to me when they hear I gave birth to two 9-10 pound babies without painkillers in just one night. ‘You must be proud! Go you!’

Well, if I’m honest, I don’t feel proud.

I couldn’t have lasted much longer with the pain of labour - if I had had a twenty or thirty hour labour, I would have needed pain relief at the very least.

I had nothing to do with the fact that my contractions moved the labour on steadily. In fact with Louie I was sent home a few hours before I came back to give birth because although I was contracting my cervix wasn’t dilated at all.

I also had nothing to do with the fact that my milk took over two months to come in, unlike the usual three days. 

I am not proud of having had straight-forward labours, I’m grateful.

And I’m not ashamed because I had a difficult time with breastfeeding, I’m grateful.

When it comes to motherhood I’m grateful for anything that comes easily, and I’m grateful for the challenges that remind me I’m not the one in control. 

So don’t waste energy feeling sad that you didn’t give birth how you wanted to, that your children are different from what you’d imagined, that mothering is harder or sadder or duller than you hoped or wanted sometimes. Don’t envy others’ experiences because no one does anything valuable without suffering. 

Dale gracias por todo porque todo es bueno.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Why I Don’t Want To Split the ‘Mental Load’ Equally

There’s no question, for me, that women, by and large, bear the brunt of the ‘mental load’ or ‘emotional work’ of running a household. In other words, they tend to be the chief manager of a household (regardless of whether or not they work outside the home too) and are expected to delegate tasks they want completed. So even if the visible, tangible housework and admin is split 50:50 (which it often isn’t), the woman is usually the one to establish the split, and check on the progress.

Recently there’s been more discussion about how this is a much more consuming role than it would be simply to share managerial duties equally, without one person (typically the woman) having to micromanage the other.

Various articles offer the same cause and the same solution for this problem.

The cause is that women are socially conditioned from a young age to be more giving, more caring, more selfless, etc. etc. etc., and essentially we grow up to believe we ought to take on that mental load ourselves instead of sharing it equally.

The solution is thus to re-educate ourselves, our husbands, our children and society in general, about gender roles, so that they can become more similar to each other, described as more ‘equal’.

I personally don’t agree with either cause or solution, although I don’t claim to have resolved the matter myself.

As regards the cause, it does not match my experience. I don’t feel like a victim of society’s plan to make me more self-sacrificing than my male counterpart. The notion that ‘men are less naturally capable of self-sacrifice’ to me does not seem like a lie conceived by men to force women to let men off the hook. I don’t think the patriarchs of the world are cunning masterminds who have trapped matriarchs into taking on a less desirable role in order to free up their time to do all the fun out-of-the-house things.

My personal experience is almost the opposite of this: the ‘lie’ that has been socially constructed is that the conventionally matriarchal role is mindless, unrewarding work (that consequently has very low social status) and the conventionally patriarchal role – ie any role carried out outside the home – is romanticised into a self-actualising adventure. In my experience, all work is equally tedious, so if there’s some kind of social construct that does not reflect reality, it’s the idea that working outside the home is somehow objectively preferable, and thus women should undertake it too and the work inside the home is low-level drudgery that should be outsourced or split fifty fifty.

This leads me to the problem with the suggested solution: the fifty-fifty split.

In school, when the teacher would gingerly announce ‘we’re going to do groupwork for this lesson,’ I’d mentally switch off. I can work with others if there’s a need to, but only within a structure where someone is in charge, and only when there’s a true need for teamwork: where working together is beneficial for results. I hate communally doing a task that can be completed individually – it inevitably takes longer, and someone’s usually doing most of the legwork whilst other people feel frustrated, bored, or excluded from the process.

If something complex needs to be executed, the vast majority of the time I prefer one person to take charge, and the rest of the people can act as subordinate support. I believe in having a strong leader – if someone suggested splitting the role of Prime Minister 50-50 I’d envision chaos ahead, rather than a more egalitarian utopia. Again, this is my personal preference based on a lifetime of witnessing this as the typically most productive structure. 

So when people say the solution to a home’s mental load inequality is to split the task equally, I get traumatic flashbacks of spending twenty-five minutes trying to establish who should do the bubble writing for the poster about sedimentary rocks.

The problem for me is not so much a lack of equal distribution of responsibility, but rather a lack of support for the woman in charge. An overwhelmed manager doesn’t need a timeshare contract, they need a more efficient team. 

The role conventionally taken on by the matriarch is not one that can be carried out in isolation. Humans are herd creatures. Most mammals are fertile until death – but the human female has an exceptionally long infertile period, following the menopause. That’s because human females are meant to support their offspring with their respective set of offspring. Human childrearing, in purely biological terms, takes a very long time compared to other mammals,  is very hard on the mother’s body, and is not carried out by an individual. That’s why I started this blog – because it hit me that being a ‘mother without a mother’ was a unique challenge that I had not previously considered.

But it’s not just morhers’ mothers that need to help. I’m not suggesting the mental load should be split evenly between mothers and grandmothers instead of mothers and fathers. It’s more that mothers ought to operate within a network of people who can soften the material load. This would free them up to take on the main share of the mental load. Like the way a bar manager takes on staff to do bar work, so they can do all the behind the scenes work. 

That is easier said than done. Living as we do in isolated urban dwellings, instead of human support we resolve to use artificial replacements for the support network: we can formula feed with bottles so that we’re not tied to the infant as relentlessly, we can outsource childcare and household work to hired help, we can use modern medicine to tackle the various childbirth-related physical ailments that may arise pre-, during or post-labour.

All these artificial forms of support have done a lot to lower mortality rates among mothers, and also given women a host of choices: we can choose whether or not to stay at home with our children, we can choose whether we want to clean or not, we can choose whether the role of matriarch has anything to do with our identity as woman or not.

The flip side of all this choice is that it has made the mental load of becoming a wife and a mother completely unsustainable for a single person, sucking the joy out of what should be a very challenging and stimulating job: caring and educating for children and building not just a home but an entire life.  It’s like a Prime Minister whose cabinet are all off on holiday at the same time. The only available solution is to hire help from unknown employees, or to split the role of Prime Minister between two people. Both of which, to me, seem inadequate.

Friday, 1 December 2017

5 Things To Avoid Saying To Someone on Maternity Leave...

...or a stay-at-home mum.

1. ‘I work really hard so you can stay at home with the children’

Essentially, running a household is a job. It involves deadlines, scheduling, completing tasks, organising projects, discussing things, executive decisions, etc. It’s no different from a job, except that the people who do it don’t get paid and we love the people with work for more than anyone else in the world. That doesn’t make it easier than a job that you wouldn’t do for free. It might make it feel more important than a job outside the home, or more natural than a job we need to undergo extensive training for. But neither of those things make it any more enjoyable. Whether inside or outside the home, work is work – they call it that so as not to confuse it with ‘fun’. It’s true that if one of you gives up their job entirely, the other is, in part at least, working so that the other can remain at home. But it would be just as true for the stay at home mother to say ‘I work really hard so that you can enjoy your time with your family.’ Because that’s what’s going on: hours and hours of work so that the quality time can be just that: quality time. The parent who has a job experiences the best part of it – even when it’s a difficult day, it is the easiest of the difficult days because there are two of you and it’s Saturday and you can solve everything with ice cream. So the ‘working parent’ can fall into the trap of imagining when they’re not there everything is just as pleasant and straight-forward. It’s not. It’s so hard. And if you don’t believe me, tell me why the vast majority of dads haven’t spent 12 hours straight alone with the children since that one time they spent four hours with them seventeen months ago.

2. ‘I’m sorry I’m late but I was working.’
This one is the one that makes me want to get a job, even though I think having a job outside the home as well as being a mother would be the hardest thing in the world. It just makes me think ‘if I had the carteblanche ‘work’ excuse, I wouldn’t have to stress about being on time for everything.’ Except of course if I were working, I would say ‘I’m sorry I can’t stay, I get charged extra childcare if I’m late to pick up the kids.’ 

3. There’s no clean sterilised bottles.
You can replace this with literally any comment regarding something that has yet to be done. I’ll use a workplace analogy to explain this one: in this case, being a waiter. Usually if someone asks a waiter for something – tap water for the table – they assume they are the only customer in the world with any requests and if the water doesn’t immediately arrive, or indeed if the waiter forgets, they indignantly remark ‘how hard can it be, it’s just some bloody tap water.’ Anyone who has waited on tables though, knows that that request is at the bottom of a long list of things the waiter is currently doing, whilst smiling and trying not to look stressed because part of the service they provide is a relaxing time for customers.
I hope the point I’m making is clear: if you notice something needs to be cleaned, wiped, purchased, put away, planned, insert verb here, just go ahead and do it yourself. Which smoothly brings me to my next point…

4. ‘I sterilised the bottles.’
Please don’t ask us to congratulate you on the 0.5% contribution you made to the household chores when it’s 10pm and we have just sat down to have the first and last uninterrupted cup of tea of the day. It’s tantamount to us going into your office and clicking save on a file left open, cheerfully letting you know we noticed you’d left a file unsaved when you went to the toilet so thought we’d help you out by clicking save, you are welcome. 

5. ‘I think it’s because…’
Any suggestion on how we can improve things is unwelcome. No, the baby isn’t crying because we’re doing too much or too little of something. We’ve already tried those things – they were the second or third thing we tried in fact. We don’t need advice or solutions – just like you would hate them coming from us in your workplace. In fact, we want just two things:
  1.  Admiration, and  
  2. A break.

So all you really need to say tonight when you get home is, ‘wow, looks like you’ve had a long day/the house looks amazing [pick one depending on whether the house looks more or less like a zoo than usual] --you hero!’ closely followed by ‘let me take care of that so you can sit down for a few minutes.’