Can We Talk About How Hard It Is To Be a New Mom?
While working moms typically take maternity leave, dads do not — setting the stage for gendered marital inequality and discord
As a mom, I’m mad. Well, it’s really too late for me to be mad — my new mom years are way behind me and if I’m exhausted now it has nothing to do with kids keeping me awake at night or a partner not doing his share. But recently I have read a handful of books that, while different in focus, have a common theme — how the transition into motherhood impacts a woman in numerous ways and the decisions that are made in those first critical weeks have long-lasting and often complicated consequences for their partnership. That sure resonated with me.
As I read Megan K. Stack’s forthcoming Women’s Work: A Reckoning With Home and Work, Stephanie Land’s Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, Shani Orgad’s Heading Home: Motherhood, Work, and the Failed Promise of Equality, Catherine E. Aponte’s forthcoming A Marriage of Equals: How to Achieve Balance in a Committed Relationship and Molly Willwood’s forthcoming To Have and to Hold; Motherhood, Marriage & the Modern Dilemma, I found myself back in the early days of new motherhood, unable to fully express what had just happened to me felt like and what I — not the baby — needed. All I read and heard at the time was that I should just be thankful I had a healthy baby (and I was) and to get on with it. And so I did, as best I could.
It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was overwhelming. I often felt alone. I was thousands of miles away from my parents, in a state where I knew no one outside of my new husband, his friends and the handful of women I’d befriended in my new mom’s group — women I may not have had much connection with if it weren’t for the fact that we had just given birth. Still, that seemed more than enough at the time — most likely because that’s what I was told.
You got this. Get over it. Women have been doing this for centuries.
Except not alone. In hindsight, I needed more. As Millwood writes:
There is nothing easy or normal about caring for a helpless, demanding infant, and especially in the compromised physical and emotional state that results from the act of childbirth, and especially all alone, as is the typical scenario in American culture.
It’s that “all alone” (Millwood’s emphasis, not mine) that causes so many problems. It certainly felt that way for me, even though it was my decision to move across the country from my parents (although my parents, loving grandparents that they were, didn’t indicate any desire to help raise my kids) and a mother-in-law who had no desire to help.
And with the overwhelming feeling of being alone in this came a huge sense of loss — the loss of my freedom, sleep, the flow of my day, basically the life I knew.
It never occurred to me to hire help in those early days, not until I went back to work part time. It’s eye-opening to read about the complicated decisions Stack, an award-winning foreign correspondent who moved to Beijing and then India to help further her husband’s career, feels about hiring migrant women to help her raise her children, clean her home and cook her meals while she worked on a novel. Except it wasn’t her children, her home, her meals — outsourcing labor benefited her and her husband, foreign correspondent Tom Lasseter. Still, as Stack writes, nothing in his life changed when they had children. “He simply packed a bag and left” when he was on assignment, without giving a second’s thought to making sure his kids were fed, cared for, getting to school, etc. He could keep his career without having to make any compromises. Why?
Well, because it was assumed Stack would manage that, as well as manage the help “she” hired to help “her” continue “her” career, instead of seeing it as a choice they made to best manage their family.
Stack, who had a difficult first labor and an emergency C-section — which is not easy to recover from — wonders why she was stuck in the main caregiver role long after her babies were infants, why hiring and managing help was her issue.
And this the problem many moms, myself included, find themselves having no answer for.
While Stack’s book addresses wife-husband dynamics, it’s more an exploration of the lives of the migrant women she hired — not just help but not quite family. Still, this wouldn’t be a book a man would write about providing for his family. And that’s the point.
While parenthood transforms men and women in many challenging and delightful ways, it generally doesn’t upset the daily goings-on of men’s life and work, nor are they judged for how they raise their children — including hiring help such as nannies and housekeepers.
This is not a woman’s experience.
Hired help = happiness?
And that’s exactly what has been suggested recently — that hiring a maid adds to happiness — except we need to ask, whose happiness? Land, who left an abusive marriage when their baby was young, was thankful for any kind of work, but also is very clear about how impossibly hard it is to manage raising a child solo as a low-paid maid in her memoir, Maid, and Stack is honest as she explores her complicated feelings about hiring poor women to help her manage her household, kids and, thus career.
But men rarely talk like that unless they’re a single dad.
And that, again, is the problem. Someone has to do that work — who will it be and how will we value it? If we even value it. Generally, we don’t.
Think about how that feels for women, especially new moms. Millwood makes it pretty clear. While working women typically take maternity leave (assuming they have it, and many working women don’t), working dads typically do not, even if they have it. And so the roots of gendered marital inequality — and discord — start early.
When a father is less involved with care early on the mother’s greater expertise at soothing the baby and reading the baby’s signals paves the way for the problematic patterns and dynamics. The seeds of resentment and imbalance are sown every time a baby’s cries are heard only by Mom, or soothed more quickly by Mom than Dad.”
In the short term, there isn’t a problem; in the long term, however, dads often feel inept, moms begin to resent them for that as well as how they aren’t as burdened by having a child as she is, dad feels less bonded to his child and … well, let’s just acknowledge that it sets up couples for a level of long-term, gendered unhappiness that might be avoided.
Meanwhile, Millwood notes, “poor social support, particularly in one’s own marriage or primary relationship, is linked with depression in new mothers.”
As if the sheer exhaustion, bodily discomfort and isolation new moms feel isn’t enough!
How single moms cope
Which made me wonder, how do single moms handle the first few weeks after birth?
Well, they do a lot of planning and aren’t afraid to enlist help — from friends, family, neighbors or paid help. They seek out support. “The answer to, ‘Can I help you?’ is ‘Yes, thank you,’” Leah Klungness, co-author of The Complete Single Mother, tells me. They don’t have that “super mom” thing going on in which they believe they need to handle it all themselves. They know they need a village and they cultivate one.
When I asked her if single and choice moms are somewhat more prepared for this phase than partnered women, who assume their partners will pick up the slack, she answers with an unequivocal yes. “Expectations unmet can devastate partnered women adding relationship conflicts on top of the difficult postpartum period.”
The problem with spouses who are ‘everything’
Our spouses are supposed to be our everything nowadays — best friend, lover, co-parent, confidante, soul mate, great communicator, romantic and professional equal, true companion and financial partner, etc., etc. So of course new moms would expect that their husbands (and this is a heterosexual thing, once again) will automatically know what to do and how to help her get through the massive physical, hormonal and emotional changes she’s experiencing, whether it was a typical birth or a difficult one.
It’s probably time to stop expecting that.
Maybe partnered moms need to be more like their solo mom sisters and ask for help — and not just from their partners. And maybe partnered dads just need to be better partners and take the damn family leave.
Want to know how to create a parenting marriage? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore or order it on Amazon.
Originally published at omgchronicles.vickilarson.com