True Mommy Confessions 7 – Pre-School Edition

Last week I brought my children to a playgroup that meets in the basement of a church in my town.  There were many kids there ranging from infants to 5 year-olds.  The folks were friendly and there was a great, almost entirely enclosed space for the kids to play.  The facilitators had a simple craft for the kids to do.  They decorated “flashlights” (paper towel tubes) and then went on a “bear hunt” around the basement area.

As the other children played inside the enclosed area, my little J dedicated himself, in typical form, to escape.  I’m not just talking about escape from that area, but from the building.  We had come down an elevator, and J ran down the hall toward the elevator repeatedly shouting “press-a the button!”  Had I not chased him quickly enough he would have happily rode the elevator up and exited the building.  In the meantime, O pulled every single book off the shelves, and dumped several bags of blocks which she then proceeded to ignore.  She sat on the lap of most of the adults there, much to their confusion.

When the craft began, I tried to interest my kids in it.  Somehow, someway, all the babies and kids managed to participate but mine.  While the other kids colored (some with parents’ help), mine ran around, jumped on furniture, and attempted to escape up the escalator.  When the “bear hunt” began, my kids were nowhere in sight.

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Wednesday Discussion – Why Have Kids by Jessica Valenti

So despite thinking Why Have Kids didn’t actually comment much on the question, “Why Have Kids,” I do think it broached how parents, and mothers specifically could be more happy.  Some of these arguments if fully explored (which I don’t necessarily think they were) are pretty radical.

As I saw it, Valenti was suggesting 5 things we need to realize to be happier parents.  For each, do you believe this is contributing to maternal/parental unhappiness, and do you agree it should change?  Why or why not.

1)Recognizing motherhood is not as hard or important as we think.

I believe motherhood is extremely emotionally hard.  However, for me, this is kind of a circular argument, because I think it’s emotionally hard for me, in part, because of gendered societal expectations on mothers.   I think what we need to address is that some of the reasons it’s hard are the very things Valenti argues, lack of support for parents/ mothers, expectation of sacrifice, and to an extent, the idea that motherhood is the most important job.  But even aside from these societal expectations parenthood is hard.  I think we need to separate out the difficulty inherent in parenting, from hardness that comes from isolated mothers with not enough support from society and partners attempting to meet unrealistic expectations.  This is not easy to do.

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Independence Day (True Mommy Confessions 4)

Footprints on the heart can never be washed away...

It’s July 4th, and I’m sitting alone in an old Victorian office building, waiting to see the 1/4 of my Wednesday night patients still willing to come in on Independence Day.  The building is deserted, except for the owner, typically a suited-up lawyer wielding a portable phone, who is spending the holiday scraping the front porch in the sweltering heat.  I walk up to him as I leave, asking if I should lock up, and immediately feel badly.  He seems embarrassed as I stand there in my work clothes watching him drowning in sweat.

I had scheduled two patients that day about four hours apart.  In between I sat in my office working on this blog, doing paperwork, and knocking things off my to-do list I haven’t been able to get to for months.  “Why are you working?” so many people had asked me.  Sure, there are patients for whom it’s tough to miss a week of therapy.  But I am still entitled to days off.  If I don’t maintain my own sanity, I can’t be expected to help others.  The truth is, I worked today because I preferred it to the alternative.

I’ve learned there is no such thing as a vacation for me since having twins a year and a half ago.  I spent our last actual trip fantasizing about coming back to my office and relaxing while kicking my feat up and helping people work through their emotional problems.  This week, my nanny and I mis-communicated.  She assumed she would be off on the 4th, I assumed she would have asked if she wanted off.  When we realized the mistake, I told her not to come in, but she insisted.  Seth left early this morning on a three-day back-packing trip with some friends.

The thought of being alone with my babies for three full days in a row made my organs tremble.  I know myself, and I know I don’t have that in me.  I used to think that made me a horrible, incapable mother.  Now I think it’s just something I need to know and accept about myself.  I reach a threshold before which I’m a totally fine, responsive, loving mother, and after which, I feel like I’m completely shut-down.  The truth is, I’m not.  I do what I need to do for my kids.  But I do it saddled with the feeling that I’m drowning – like someone’s slowly pouring my soul out my ears, and every moment that passes I have to consciously resist the urge to claw my way out of the house.  Needless to say, three full (we’re talking 12 hour) days was way over that threshold.  Thank-you nanny for your mercy!!

After the nanny left tonight, another babysitter came over to relieve her, as Seth normally would.  Two babysitters so I can see two patients.  I think I probably lost money today, but what I gave up in earnings, I more than made up for with maintenance of sanity.

After work, I drive home slowly, stopping at the grocery store, where I spend quite a long time browsing the organic chocolate shelf, and then pile a large quantity of organic chocolate bars into my cart.  These will keep me company tonight, I think to myself.  As I drive, I hear fireworks going off.  The roads are empty, and my neighborhood is eerily quiet.  I pay the babysitter and put my chocolate in the freezer (yes, I know, I’m a freak).  As the fireworks continue, I start thinking about “independence day,” and the years of independence I took for granted.  I always felt tied down to something.  My parents.  Grad school.  But now that I’m a mom, I realize, I wasn’t tied down at all.

After my mom died when I was in my mid-twenties, I packed up a hiking backpack and walked from my apartment to a commuter train.  I got some funny looks and questions due to the backpack.  “Where you headed?”  “Africa,” I replied, like I had said I was going to Staten Island.  I returned after travelling around southern Africa with a friend for a month.  Now, taking that same train into Manhattan feels somewhat exotic.  The term “vacation” has a cruel irony to me.  It means hours on end of hard, manual, emotionally draining childcare labor while also trying to do maintain the illusion of doing the “vacation-like” things I would have done in the past.  No thanks!

Allow me to provide an example.  I spend a week organizing and packing so the family can go to Florida, after which I will spend a week washing and unpacking and re-organizing.  While in Florida, I complete all the usual baby tasks I would as a part-time, stay-at-home-mom, but in addition, I spend the mornings packing up and organizing for the beach.  Food for us.  Food for the babies.  Bottles for the babies.  Baby suits, diapers, change of clothes, towels, tents, sunscreen, hats, beach umbrella, chairs, toys, books, baby chairs, jogging stroller, kill me please.  Between the babies’ naps, we head to the beach where they eat sand and get too much sun for 20 minutes.  We then pack up the hundred tons of stuff and head back home, where we proceed to bathe the babies, wash all the stuff, and put it away so I can pack it up again the next day.

Vacation is an evil to be avoided at all costs.  Give me my nanny, my part-time job, and my mother-fucking computer!  This blog is my version of lounging on the beach sporting a carved-out coconut full of pina colada with a little umbrella poking out.  As far as anyone else knows, I’m on the computer writing testing reports for work.  I like to keep it that way.

So when’s my independence day?  When do I get to rejoin humanity and take a vacation or even a day off where I don’t choose one kind of work over another?  Perhaps in 16.5 years when I drive a U-Haul up to a college campus and leave my children to fend for themselves until Thanksgiving?  Well that doesn’t sound like a vacation at all.  And therein lies the catch-22 of parenthood.  We want the vacation, and yet we don’t want the vacation.  I could take a trip. I could leave Friday when Seth gets home.  He’s gone for three days.  I could do the same. But I won’t.  Because as much as I don’t want to be with my kids for three days straight, I don’t want to be away from them for three days straight either.

When I’m with them, I want my life back, and when I’m away from them, I realize, once again, that they are my life.  Freedom takes on a new meaning when you are a mother.  It’s something you remember longingly, fantasize about, and crave, but in the end, you’d never choose it, because the truth is, for mothers, there is no such thing as freedom anymore –  only life without your babies – and that’s a kind of independence none of us would choose.

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No More Martyr Mommy: 10 Ways to End the “Mommy Wars” and Free Ourselves from One-Size-Fits-All Motherhood

Intro – My Stab at “Attachment Parenting” and Subsequent Detox from Mommy Martyrdom

Three months into parenting, my husband sat me down and told me that I had to stop breastfeeding for the sake of our children.  It took a few weeks, but I realized he was right.  My whole life had become about my breasts.   My twins were born 7 ½ weeks premature, so I pumped breast milk while they were in the NICU.  I was blessed (or cursed) with plenty of milk for both babies, but struggled with painful plugged ducts.  I had to manually knead out the plugs for what totaled hours per day to prevent Mastitis.  The babies had difficulty latching, and when they could latch, feeding them by breast was usually painful.  I was told they had “tongue-tie,” which led to a gut-wrenching decision about whether to have the skin under their tongues cut.  Then there were the trips to La Leche meetings, doctors, and lactation consultants.  When direct breastfeeding couldn’t happen, I had to pump eight times a day as well as feed both babies eight times a day.  There were times I fed one baby on one breast while pumping the other, then fed the other baby.  By then the first breast needed to be pumped again.  I spent approximately 12-15 hours per day in breast-related activities.

I remember the sinking feeling I had when I first read about Attachment Parenting during my three months of bed rest.  At the time, I thought it was because things like baby wearing and co-sleeping would be nearly impossible with twins.  I realize now it was because deep down, I knew it wasn’t something I could do.  This was problematic because back then I believed AP was the “right” way to parent as a well-off, progressive, somewhat “crunchy” mother.  So I did what I could with twins, which for me meant becoming obsessed with breastfeeding.  Other moms of twins I met took a more flexible stance, stating “I’m going to try it and see how it goes.”  I distinctly remember thinking that was not good enough.  I was going to breastfeed these twins no matter what, because that was what they needed me to do.  That was how I was going to attach to them.

But for me, breastfeeding was not a natural process that fostered attachment in a manageable way.  It was torture.  So why did I continue?  I was a martyr.  When those unacknowledged fears about not having what it takes to be the right kind of mother crept to the surface, I beat them back with self-sacrifice.  I had three months of bed rest, and outright physical pain day in and day out to wear like a badge reminding me I was good enough.  So week after week, instead of acknowledging my mixed feelings like loving my babies tremendously, but fearing the loss of my independence, I strove to prove what a good mother I was.  I channeled all the normal terrors a new parent feels into managing my breasts.  But my kids didn’t need me to be a martyr.  Did that breast milk help them?  Of course!  What they needed most, however, was a sane, flexible mother who was in touch with her own feelings, strengths, and weaknesses.  After three months, I had to let go of martyrdom, face who I was, and figure out how I was going to attach to my children.

This article is not a criticism of Attachment Parenting or any particular parenting style.  I am a huge proponent of breastfeeding, and any and all parenting strategies that work well for a given parent-child pair.  This article is, however, a criticism of the societal standard that mothers be selfless martyrs who want nothing more than to focus on their children’s needs.  For me, Attachment Parenting became the stick with which I beat myself with that societal ideal.  Women have to be able to talk about the ways in which the ideal of the blissful, selfless mother oppresses us.  We have to be able to discuss where that martyr ideal intersects with Attachment Parenting, “helicopter parenting,” and other parenting trends, without being seen as damning those practices or the parents who practice them.  I think breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby wearing, and a general nurturing, child-centered stance can work great for many parents as ways to attach to children for whom these practices are feasible and welcome.  I do have a concern with the term “Attachment” Parenting due to the implication that other parenting somehow does not foster attachment.  If one needs to practice a technique that is extremely child-centered and does restrict a mother’s freedom quite a bit in order to attach, than what does that say about mothers who can’t sustain that loss of freedom?  The implication is that their children will be less securely attached.  But the research shows that’s not true.

1)Changing the Conversation from Parenting Content to Process – “Attunement” Parenting, a Strategy for Everyone 

Early in my parenting journey, I had to let go of my fear that because I didn’t feel blissful about mothering infant twins, and because sleeping with them and wearing them didn’t work with my temperament, my children would not be securely attached.  The haze of baby brain eventually lifted just enough for me to remember I had a Doctorate in Psychology.  I thought to myself, ‘I know what secure attachment is and what is necessary to achieve it.’  I went back to my textbooks and watched videos of Mary Ainsworth’s classic “strange situation” attachment experiments.  I paid extra attention to whether my children showed signs of secure attachment, instead of obsessing about what parenting techniques I was using.  What I remembered is that attachment is about attunement.

Children feel secure when adults are responsive to them.  Some children might respond well to a parent holding them most of the day, others might feel quite overwhelmed by this.  Children need to feel a sense of basic safety and responsiveness.  However, times when a child’s needs are frustrated are also a necessary part of development.  This helps them learn to self-soothe.  How do we know when to meet a child’s needs and when to give them space to manage things on their own?  The only way to know is to be attuned to that specific child.  If I were going to start a parenting trend, I would call it Attunement Parenting.  It would stress the fit between the parent’s strengths and the child’s needs.  Any parent or caregiver can practice attunement parenting, including moms, dads, grandparents, stay-at-home parents, single parents, gay parents, parents who work part or full-time, non-traditional families, families from a variety of ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and those who practice a wide variety of parenting techniques, including Attachment Parenting.

2)Striving for the Ideal Parent-Child Match instead of an Ideal of Self-Sacrifice

The other critical aspect of Attunement Parenting is attunement to oneself.  If being a stay-at-home mom, having my children in my bed, and lengthy breastfeeding come naturally to me and feel fulfilling then I am likely to be present and able to attune.  If these practices lead me to depression and resentment, then I’m not going to be able to attune to my child.  However, in a society that measures mothering by self-sacrifice, admitting one is not temperamentally well-matched with such practices can come with the price of social censure and extreme self-doubt, rather than a simple recognition that we all have strengths, weakness, preferences, and limitations.  The crucial truth is self-sacrifice doesn’t necessarily correlate well with attunement, and thus, attachment.  In fact, decisions like working or staying at home, breastfeeding and formula feeding, whether to co-sleep, etc. have not been shown by research to impact child adjustment.  This means none of these practices are all good or all bad.   For example, there is some point at which the damage of maternal stress would outweigh the benefits of breastfeeding.  My guess is research shows similar outcomes regardless of these choices because parents who are choosing what optimizes the match between their temperament and their children’s likely have the best outcomes regardless.

Time parents spend with children and the way they spend that time doesn’t impact research outcomes because attunement is not measured in the time or content of interactions.  It is measured in the intonation of interactions.  Thus it can occur during breastfeeding or bottle feeding, between children with one main caretaker or a variety of devoted caretakers, and whether a parent is home one or twelve of the child’s waking hours.  It’s about being responsive.  Truly seeing and truly hearing.  My son makes a silly face.  I laugh.  He makes a funny noise.  I mimic it.  He hugs me.  I hold him tighter.  He pulls away.  I let him.  He goes and plays on his own.  I write or read.  Twenty minutes later he tugs on my leg and I sit down with him again.  Or, I make him wait a few minutes, if I see he can tolerate it.  For me, I am most attuned when I have time away.  I would be a worse mom if I didn’t work part-time, make time to write, go out with friends, and do yoga.  I also don’t feel full-time work is right for me right now.  This is my balance.  For another mother much more time at home or work might be the right balance.  But how can we attune to ourselves, and structure our lives to maximize the fit between our nature and our child’s in a culture that tells us good mothers are martyrs?  How can we face our ambivalent feelings about parenting when we are being told good mothers should feel only bliss about parenting?

3)Getting Comfortable with Ambivalence and Telling Each Other the Truth

Ambivalent feelings are part of being human.  Every mother feels some ambivalence about mothering.  This does not mean wishing one wasn’t a mother, but rather, having positive and negative feelings at the same time.  Unrealistic cultural ideals actually increase ambivalent feelings because in addition to the natural negative and positive feelings parenting evokes, we feel inadequate and guilty for having the negative feelings.  For many mothers, those negative feelings become so threatening that they can’t tolerate them, especially in the current cultural landscape.  Being a martyr is a way to manage those feelings.  When I was enduring physical and emotional pain “for my kids” while breastfeeding, I didn’t have to feel guilty if deep down I wanted to run away to a desert island somewhere, or even just take a nap.  Normal ambivalence is confusing.  Normal ambivalence mixed with the societal ideal of the blissful, martyr mother results in the paralyzing guilt so many of us feel.  The way out of that guilt is to normalize ambivalent feelings – to tell each other the truth.  Some days I fantasize about not having kids.  Sometimes my kids annoy me.  A lot of the things I need to do for my kids are nothing but hard labor, and I don’t enjoy them.  Sometimes my writing, time with my husband and friends, and my work feel more fulfilling than my kids.  Attachment Parenting, for me, would have been too overwhelming.  These are my truths.

I was finding myself not only afraid to speak of these feelings, but afraid to admit to other moms that my husband and I were practicing equally shared parenting.  I felt like admitting I was not    martyring myself and doing way more than my husband was admitting to being a bad mom.  I have a team of people parenting my children, including my husband, my aunt and uncle, a part-time nanny, my brother, and close friends.  That team provides a level of energy and a consistency of attunement I would never be capable of on my own.  I set it up this way because I  knew that for me being an isolated, full-time mom would not provide optimal attunement for my kids.  I believe other moms (and dads) have the right constitution to make that work well for them.  I’m not one of them.

4)Letting Go of Guilt – No More Martyr Mommy!

Since that time when I stopped breastfeeding, I believe I have set things up exactly right to optimize my mothering capabilities.  There is just one problem – the paralyzing, debilitating guilt.  Author Pamela Druckerman writes that for many moms, guilt is a way to negotiate a way    out of constant self-sacrifice.   “If we feel guilty about these things, it allows us to do them.   We’re not just being selfish. We’ve ‘paid’ for our lapses.  Of course, guilt also saps the pleasure  from these activities.”  Thus, I take “me-time” and I spend it torturing myself about having it.  So how do we make peace with our guilt and stop feeling like bad mothers?  We do so by changing and expanding our notions of what a good mother is.  We do so by insisting on shifting the focus  from how much we are torturing ourselves, to the things children need most.  Children need basic attunement, a physically and emotionally safe environment, adults who model effective, respectful communication with each other, and who are as emotionally healthy as possible.  ‘Do                 my children feel a basic sense of safety in the world and that their needs are generally responded to within a reasonable amount of time?  Then I’m going to go ahead and get that massage and not torment myself about it!’

5)Stressing Flexibility

Attunement to ourselves means staring down the intersection between our own psychology and cultural standards.  Do we know why we are doing what we’re doing?  If not, we run the risk of missing the forest for the trees.  I took breastfeeding to an excessive, unhealthy place to manage my own anxieties and feelings of inadequacy, partly driven by a societal standard I knew I could never meet.  “Overparenting,” “helicopter” parenting, and everything we hear about the “right way” to parent can lead us to such distraction that we are not attuned.  Fixating on parenting “techniques” can also take our attention away from much more problematic family dynamics and emotional problems that could be impacting our families like relationship conflict and depression.  Attachment parents can be wonderfully attuned if they know themselves and their children.  All parenting requires flexibility.  Otherwise, we run the risk of trying so hard to follow a parenting rulebook that we stop listening to our kids.  Sometimes when I spend time writing or return from work and my own guilt is bubbling over, I come home determined to connect with my kids.  In their toddler way, they make it known that they don’t need me hovering and distracting them from their play.  They’ve been with an attuned, loving person all day.  Kids are wired to learn and develop with basic safety in place and basic needs being met.

6)Stop Blaming our Feminist Mothers and Start Demanding More of Men

The focus on parenting “techniques” and the ideal of the blissful/martyr mother takes the focus off of men to take more responsibility for childcare, and keeps the lion share of responsibility for child rearing on women.  These ideals can also be terribly alienating and invalidating to those many men who already take a great deal of responsibility for childcare.  It is critically important to ask ourselves as who is benefitting from an unrealistic ideal of motherhood, and who is profiting when we reinforce that ideal by fighting over how we should be parenting.  While we are busy making each other feel inadequate (even if simply by not admitting to each other any negative feelings about mothering), millions in profits are being made selling us products, classes, lessons, and books that will bring us closer to “perfect” mothering.  While we are blaming our feminist mothers for motherhood getting lost during the feminist movement, we are distracted from demanding the political and structural change needed to finish what they started.  The fact that our political and structural support systems haven’t changed much and men haven’t stepped up the way we needed them to, doesn’t mean our mothers’ efforts were wrong-headed and we need to focus our lives more on caretaking again.  What we need to do is keep working to make those needed changes.  Throwing another generation of feminists under the bus is just another way to keep pressure off others to change and keep it on us.

7)Fighting for Institutional Change

As women’s roles expanded during second wave feminism, less of our collective energy was spent on childcare.  The way to reconcile that is not to convince ourselves that motherhood should be blissful for each of us, and we should be willing to lose ourselves completely to it.  We need to re-structure society in ways that promote the nurturing of children so they can get their needs met without women giving up feminist gains.  Men’s roles need to expand.  Institutional barriers need to come down.  My husband left a high-powered job with a low quality of life, 8 months after our kids were born, for one where he could be home more.  He told his boss he was leaving because as a man, availing himself of the options utilized frequently by female employees, like 70% schedules and long maternity leaves, would have been career suicide.  His boss simply agreed.  We need to take the energy we are expending critiquing each other’s parenting and put it toward demanding generous paid leave for women and men, state-sponsored childcare, and flexible work schedules for women and men.  In The Second Sex, Simone De Beauvoir describes an ideal in which “motherhood would be freely chosen—that is, birth control and abortion would be allowed—and in return all mothers and their children would be given the same rights; maternity leave would be paid for by the society that would have responsibility for the children, which does not mean that they would be taken from their parents but that they would not be abandoned to them.”  It truly does take a village.  When we ask ourselves if we’re good enough, let’s ask ourselves if our village is good enough as well, or if it is “abandoning” our children to us.

Even without these structural changes, we can begin to structure our lives differently.  We can speak up and admit we need help.  We can ask fathers, family, and friends to do more.  However, this requires not undermining those other participants in childcare and giving up some of our control over the private sphere.  One of the well-researched barriers to father-involvement is feelings of inadequacy in fathers as parents.  We need to believe fathers can parent in order for them to be expected to do so.   Keep in mind how we would feel if men micromanaged our work in the public sphere or made it obvious they didn’t believe we were capable of running companies or countries.  We can also hire help or and we can create exchange systems where we help each other without becoming overcome with guilt for utilizing childcare.

8)Viewing Raising Children as a Village Responsibility

We can put the focus of childcare on a village of which we are a part, rather than on ourselves as women, without our children suffering.  In fact, children derive great benefit from more than one primary caretaker.  A large body of research shows positive outcomes for children in a wide variety of areas when fathers are more involved, ranging from school performance to relationship satisfaction later in life, to having a greater internal locus of control, to greater flexibility in gender role identity.  Although less researched, there is no reason to believe the addition of other adults, including same-sex parents, grandparents, nannies, etc. would not produce similar benefits.  If we make the choice to stay at home with children and be sole primary caretakers, we should do so because it is right for us, not to make up for our mothers’ feminist leanings or because we believe it will harm our children if we don’t.  All parents need support.  Stay-at-home-moms and dads as well as working parents need their village.  The idea that one parent alone with children most of the time was ever the best way for the majority of people to structure childcare is highly unusual in the course of history and in other cultures.

9)Taking back our Time, our Money, and our Mental Resources

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf muses about a fictional character, Shakespeare’s sister.  She talks about what this woman might have accomplished if not for societal barriers and expectations side-tracking women.  How much time and money are we spending focusing on what type of mother we should be, if we are “mom enough,” researching and buying the safest products, monitoring our children instead of letting them play and develop on their own, providing the absolute perfect environment for neurological development, spending hours online trading cloth diapers, attending classes we’ve become convinced our children can’t do without, or paralyzed by guilt that we are not doing these things?

Meanwhile whether we are working or not, we are modeling to our kids that a woman’s role is to obsess over caretaking.  Making the choice whether to stay at home with children or how much of one’s time to spend focused on children is and should be a very personal one, and there are no wrong choices.  But these choices as well as choices about parenting techniques and purchases related to our children are not made in a vacuum.  They are made in the midst of societal standards, and social sanctions.  At this point in history, meeting those standards is related to the extent to which one is martyring oneself – putting one’s own needs aside for children.  Fathers are not subject to these same sanctions.  Consider the choice for a father to stay at home with children.  For the father, there would be sanctions about not being a provider, rather than not being self-sacrificial enough.  For men, simply “babysitting” their own children is often seen as martyrdom.  How can we truly make honest choices with such double standards in play?  It is short-sighted to think that these norms have no impact on our decisions.  Even when they don’t truly don’t impact our decisions, they can have a profound impact on how we feel about them and our level of guilt.

10)Asking Ourselves, “What Would I Tell My Daughter?”

So is parenting all about selflessness and martyrdom?  Yes and no.  Let’s ask ourselves, as mothers, is this something I really need to be a martyr about?  Is this a time I need to be totally selfless?  And then let’s ask ourselves if we would ask the same thing of a father.   Parents must be selfless a lot of the time.  They have to put their children’s needs first in profound ways.  But there is a difference between meeting a child’s needs and making one’s identity about being a martyr.   My kids may well have needed me to stay in bed for three months to give them the best chance of survival.  This was one of the very, very few things my husband could not have done.  But, they did not need me to suffer through pain and anguish trying to breastfeed them in the circumstances I was under.

In our culture, the only way to talk about self-care for mothers is to couch it as beneficial to children.  What about self-care because we are humans and deserve it?  Selfishness is part of human nature.  Let’s take back the term “selfish” and own it.  I am selfish.   I want to eat a hot meal uninterrupted.  I want to use the bathroom by myself.  I want to have lengthy conversations with adults while my kids wait, bored, for me to put my attention back on them.  I want to go out with friends.  I want quality time with my husband.  I want a career.  I want hobbies and interests.  I want to be an agent of social change.  I want to be passionate about things other than my kids.   I often catch myself feeling like admitting these things makes me a bad mother.  But when I really think it through, I conclude that in my case, they make me a good mother.

When I am feeling guilty about my mothering, I have a little mental exercise that I do.  It’s called, “What would I tell my daughter?”  If my daughter was grown and had her own children and came to me with the things I’m struggling with, what would I tell her?   Here are some of the things I would tell her.   “Go to the spa.  Accept all the help you can.  Have sex with your partner.  Validate that you have a wonderful village helping raise your child and stop beating yourself up about it.  Read.  Enjoy your work.  Structure your life in the way that makes for the best match between you (and your partner) parenting well and your children’s needs being met.  If your child has another parent, make the same demands of him/her that you make of yourself.”  It is critical for us to remember that we are modeling being adults for our children.  What does mommy do when she feels overwhelmed, stressed, and burdened?  Does she squelch those feelings and keep pressing on or does she ask for help?  Does she structure her life in a way where she feels whole and balanced, or does she make her life about being a selfless martyr?  Does she take a night off and pamper herself, or does she get more and more resentful until she yells at her children?

Let’s Start a New Mommy War Against Mommy Martyrdom!

Let’s not send our daughters the message that mommy means martyr.  If we can’t tolerate the thought of doing something for ourselves, perhaps we can tolerate modeling something better for our daughters… and perhaps… each other?  Let’s start a movement we can all get behind.  A “Mommy War” against those who are profiting off our insecurities and perpetuating ideals that keep our focus off the rights we should have as mothers and parents.  A movement where we are trusted to make choices that make sense in our particular circumstances.  One where we can truly join with men, rather than buying into motherhood ideals that subtly suggest men are lesser parents.  Let’s draw our line in the sand and demand better for ourselves.  Let’s not do more than we would reasonably ask of others.  We are mothers, but first and foremost we are people.  No more martyr mommy!

Copyright 2012,, All Rights Reserved.





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Mommy Attention Span

I sometimes still prefer time with non-mommy friends even now that I’m a mom, and “Mommy Attention Span” or M.A.S is one of the reasons.  M.A.S. occurs when one loses all capacity for attention other than toward ones children.

M.A.S is not to be confused with “baby brain” or the way parenting generally slices and dices one’s neurons until there is nothing left but a soupy mess of incoherence.  No engaged parent can think straight!  We are always splitting our attention and it’s hard to concentrate with the responsibility for another being’s entire life on our minds.  BUT the little attention we can muster has to be able to shift.  Mommy Attention Span occurs when we try to squeeze attention to everything and anything else in between reacting to our children’s every move.

I understand when you are trying to talk to another mom, there are going to be interruptions.  Clearly, when someone is in potential danger, hurt, starving, or about to eat a small, non-edible object it requires mom’s attention.  But little ones are going to want attention anytime they can get it.  If I’m trying to talk to a friend about something hard, or even something inane, why does the fact that baby brought you a toy, drooled, or made loud noises, demand a response and break from your attention every time?

Example number two.  Moms are endlessly complaining about how they have lost the freedom to go to the bathroom by themselves.  This loss of freedom results not from the condition of parenting, but from… “Mommy Attention Span.”  Don’t get me wrong, moms (and dads who spend a lot of time at childcare), give up many freedoms, often including the freedom to put one’s own needs first.  But unless your kid is in some kind of peril, shut the door and go to the bathroom!  My kids have yet to set the house on fire or kill each other during the time it takes me to pee by myself.

In part, my feelings on this topic may come from having twins.  When you have twins, the illusion that you will be completely attentive to your baby and meet all her needs is immediately shot to hell on day one.  There’s something about two sets of little hands on each knee and two little mischievous faces looking up at me that says ‘no, this is not acceptable or necessary while I pee, they’re going to wait outside from now on.’  Are they slightly miffed when I shut the bathroom door in their faces?  Sure.  But two seconds later when I come out, they have forgotten all about it.  Who says we don’t have a right to a minute or two of attending to our own bodily functions?

Where did we get the idea that a good mom is endlessly attentive?  And what messages are we sending our children?  I’m sure on one level we believe we are equipping our children to have high self-esteem and feel like they are fascinating just by being them.  And indeed, it is critically important to reflect back to our children who they are in an accepting manner.  But not every minute!!  The truth is, they are not endlessly fascinating, and giving them the idea that they are could harm them.  There are going to be a lot of metaphorical bathroom doors slammed in their faces and they’re going to have to regroup and deal with it.

Children (and adults) need to be self-entertaining.  They need to be able to tolerate times when they are not being enjoyed just for being them.  That’s why our kids desperately need us to let them develop on their own.  They need time to explore their environment, and I’m not talking about a house full of loud, colorful, over-stimulating toys.  Leave your kids alone with a few Tupperware containers and pick up a book.  They will thank you later when they can read a somewhat long paragraph without becoming unfocused and wondering where the flashing lights and pictures are.

I believe for some of us, our relationships with partners and friends are suffering, and our connections to ourselves and the outside world are too.  The combined cultural notion that we should both want to be around our kids all the time, and want to be attentive to them all the time leave us with no way to connect with other adults.  Then, feeling cut-off, uninspired, under-stimulated, and just plain bored, we beat ourselves up for not loving being cut-off, uninspired, under-stimulated, and just plain bored.

Being attentive to children can be delightful, but often it is work… plain and simple.  We do it out of love, the same way we listen to our partners go on and on about aspects of their work we don’t fully grasp, or the way we listen to an elderly parent describe the daily happenings in the hallway at their nursing home.

We don’t expect to derive the ultimate pleasure from these activities, and thus we don’t attempt to do them 24/7.  We intersperse times when we ourselves can be heard and stimulated.  We need those times!!  So moms… if another mom, or a partner, or anyone comes around and your kids are safe and have basic care, give your attention to that adult, and for the love of god, accept theirs, you need it!  Give yourself some precious moments for you.  Be “selfish.”

Your children will thank you when they can sit in a classroom for hours out of the day tolerating not being called on or paid attention to.  They will thank you when they can be that partner who listens to someone talk without turning the topic to themselves.  They will thank you when their boss provides constructive criticism and they’re not thrown off balance because they believe everything they do is fascinating.  Your daughters will thank you when they learn that being a mother means your kids are your top priority, but not that you have to make them a priority every minute.  Moms, you still exist!  Let your daughters see you exist.  Let them see you ignore them now and then so they can learn that no role, even mother, should be powerful enough to erase them.

Copyright 2012 All Rights Reserved.

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