Monthly Archives: February 2011

Breastfeeding, Bootstrapping, and the Boundaries of Personal Experience

“Breastfeeding is a Must …” declares the headline for an article on City Limits magazine’s website, “… for Moms Who Can Afford It.”

It’s a knowingly incendiary statement: the sort of thing considered, by some journalists, de rigueur for maximizing eye-catchability. (And to them I say, “Hey, at least you didn’t use a forced pun”). A little backlash is written off as acceptable in that it means the title is doing its job, serving as an entrée to the meat of the story — which people hopefully bother to read.

I was referred to this City Limits article by the Facebook page of an online compendium of breastfeeding resources. It should go without saying that people who follow said Facebook page — myself included — tend to be pretty vociferous breastfeeding advocates.  However, reading others’ comments in response to this article reinforced the fact that some of my cohorts-in-name-only and I part ways significantly when it comes to bolstering our allegedly shared cause.

(Two quick caveats before I continue:

  1. I should probably impose a “No reading ‘users fora’ comments for any print or, especially, electronic publication” policy. I don’t need to court high blood pressure.
  2. Like my Pax (Ro)mama counterpart, Jen, one of the many hats I wear is that of professional educator. In my case, I’m an adjunct humanities lecturer at a career college that does not — emphatically not — traffic in liberal arts degrees. So convincing students of the utility of my classes is sometimes a hard sell.  All things considered, though, I think I do a pretty good job. And yet, I am so the type to read course evaluations and home in on the one or two negative comments bobbing ineffectually in a sea of positivity. That same, basic principle applies to other facets of my life, too.

Okay, so, back to the action!)

The gist of the article, written by a New York City social worker, is that, while Michelle Obama recently spoke out in favor of federal support for breastfeeding initiatives (especially in underserved African American communities), other federal programs, utilized by many poor women of color, actually impede the establishment of positive breastfeeding relationships between mothers and babies.

There were three camps of pro-breastfeeding readers who reacted negatively to this article’s premise:

  1. “WTF? Breastfeeding is free!” These people either failed to read past the article’s title, or are so mired in this kind of “strict constructionist” rhetoric that anything seeming to stray from a rotely-regurgitated adage just will not penetrate the ol’ gray matter.
  2. “Even though I am a huge proponent of breastfeeding, I also [coughmindbogglinglycough] agree with Michele Bachmann’s [coughmindbogglingcough] comments about Ms. Obama’s campaign being literally indicative of the United States’ slide into [coughbogglebogglebogglecough] ‘nanny state’-dom. Ergo, people on TANF can suck it. ” The opinions of this group aren’t so much focused on the thesis of the article as the notion that a conflict between what they see as two cogs in the same, decrepit machine lends credence to their position. And that is, “The entire ‘factory’ [to  belabor my metaphor] needs to be shut down.” Frankly, for their purposes, it doesn’t even matter that the article is about breastfeeding. It’s just another way to insinuate a general political stance into a thread of discourse. Their prerogative, I guess.
  3. “I breastfed sextuplets after having a breast reduction and I needed to relactate seventeen times and I had mastitis every day and my partner left me and I had to hand express into a Ziploc bag while working 16 hour shifts in an abattoir and my babies all reverse-cycled for 12 months so I got by on two, non-consecutive minutes of sleep every night and the babies and I had to live in a hole in the ground, under a plastic tarp. If you can’t boast my willingness to blithely self-sacrifice, you aren’t entitled to claim hardship.”

It’s this last cluster of naysayers that frustrates me the most. Their objections aren’t rooted in an obstinate lack of reading comprehension, or a political ideology. Instead, they’ve become devotees of bootstrappery, and unable — or unwilling — to see that their stories, like everyone’s, have wholly unique parameters.


I had my own share of difficulties while breastfeeding. The most difficulties? Of anyone, ever? Clearly not. But enough to say to those feeling indignant about the momentusness of their efforts going unacknowledged, “I can relate.”

Neither my mother nor my grandmother breastfed any of their children, so I didn’t have the foundation of tradition buoying me along. After having my first baby, I had to return to work outside the home, starting at six weeks postpartum. (Of my partner and I, I had the greatest earning potential and carried our family’s benefits. My husband still worked near-fulltime hours in the evenings and on weekends). Stuart (the baby) rejected  just about every bottle my husband tried and, consequently, turned into a reverse-cycler. This meant he refused expressed breast milk during the day, preferring to wait until I got home from work and he could sup “from the tap,” every hour or two. All. Night. Long.  And he ended up having some pretty significant food allergies, which meant that I had to go on an allergen-elimination diet (and execute the second Great Freezer Stash Purge of 2007. The first GFSP happened after I discovered an excess lipase issue)  — while I was newly pregnant with my second baby, no less! Poor weight gain. Anemia. No La Leche League meetings within a forty-five minute drive from my home. It was not a walk in the park.

I did have a lot going for me besides a steely resolve, though.

Stuart did not require a surgical birth and, as such, I was able to breastfeed him almost immediately after he was born. Stuart was a full-term baby and did not have any physiological or developmental issues that prevented him from latching properly and swallowing and digesting my milk. I did not have any physiological or psychological issues that prevented me from producing milk or nursing without pain or emotional distress. I had six weeks to begin to establish a nursing relationship in the comfort of our apartment. I had healthcare providers who were knowledgable about breastfeeding, and encouraging of my goals. I had a computer and internet access at home and the ability to search for, and discern, credible information on breastfeeding. I was able to acquire an electric double-pump at no cost to myself. My employer offered a comfortable, private location to use my pump, and allowed me to do so according to my own schedule . 

In my case, when the factors from column “A” and the factors from column “B” duked it out, the circumstances contributing to my ultimate breastfeeding success prevailed: “success” meaning that I achieved the milestones I hoped I would (nursing until Stuart was at least one year old, and allowing him to wean at his own pace). I can easily see how, if things had been only slightly different, I wouldn’t have made it.


Sure, the strength of my commitment played some part in all of this. But I know better than to arrogantly say, “That’s all it takes.” The implication of such a statement is that those who do not breastfeed, for whatever reason, are “weak.” In fact, the reason I take such pains to point out that the very definition of breastfeeding “success” is highly subjective is that I believe objective success/failure polarities are counterproductive.

For some, success may mean never using artificial milk or artificial nipples to feed their baby. For others, it may mean exclusively expressing breast milk for, and bottle-feeding,  their baby until they are able to begin transitioning to solid foods. The bottom line is, until breastfeeding is truly enculturated, across the board (for working and stay-at-home moms; mothers of every ethnic and cultural background; moms of all ages and socioeconomic statuses), and steps are taken to provide practical accommodation for all manner of barriers, we breastfeeding advocates need to be a little better about reserving judgment.

Does that mean we should all rest on our laurels until the fabled day arrives (or until Michelle Obama delivers it unto us? Wow, that woman is endowed with an awful lot of responsibility for a single person!)? Well, obviously, I wouldn’t suggest that. However! If you’ve been following along, you can probably surmise that I appreciate how daunting a task it seems to take a run at The System while trying to juggle the stuff of everyday life. I know it is easier to just feel disgruntled and cast aspersions at faceless folks on the Internet. So here are some things you can do to constructively forward the cause that require virtually no time commitment whatsoever:

  • Acknowledge people’s victories, including your own. I think one of the major contributors to breastfeeding mamas’ bitterness is that they expend a ton of effort to do right by their child in a not-always-breastfeeding-friendly climate only to have their breastfeeding milestones pass without so much as a pat on the back (or, even worse, with comments like, “Oh, you’re still doing that?”).

Do you know someone who is breastfeeding or pumping milk for their child? Throw a casual, “Good job!” in their direction every once in a while. And if you don’t get the same in return from people in your life, celebrate yourself! Just say, “I am proud of myself for breastfeeding,” out loud, to another human being (or, heck, in a Facebook status update). It’s all part of moving toward a curious-but-necessary re-normalization of this biological function. Plus, who doesn’t appreciate a little praise?

  • Acknowledge people’s setbacks, including your own. I feel like no one should have to justify their personal reasons for breastfeeding only at a certain level (i.e. supplementing with infant formula), or only for a certain period of time … or not at all. We’re trying to take down the paradigm, not the individual, right? Nonetheless, I’ve found  that many people really want to share their challenges: particularly people who have had to revise their original breastfeeding goals. The tricky part to navigate: knowing when they are looking for suggestions to redress the difficulties they have encountered, and knowing when they are simply looking for commiseration and recognition. Responding with, “That sounds really hard. Here’s an anecdote about something that was hard for me when I was breastfeeding my child …” and leaving the door open for further discussion is a good one-size-fits-all salvo.

Relatedly …

  • Be able to identify threats and challenges to individuals’ breastfeeding success as well as broader, societal acceptance of breastfeeding. Be open to reading articles, like the one from City Limits, and listening to people’s stories that might, initially, trigger a defensive or antagonistic response. Be aware of laws pertaining to breastfeeding in your state and imagine the different ways in which they may help and harm breastfeeding mothers. Try to avoid interpolating your own history and cultural background into the experiences of others; trust that they are accurate chroniclers of their circumstances, and that it might take action internal to their particular demographic to effect change.

And, last but not least …

  • Remember that the vast majority of parents love their babies and want to do what is best for them. The shame of being told , “If you really loved your child, you would [do X,Y,Z differently],” is pretty peerless and, I would venture to guess, not a great motivator. Understand that we humans all have different stress tolerance thresholds, different priority hierarchies, different coping mechanisms.

If one mother, for example, is part of a religious congregation that frowns upon breastfeeding during services, it may be feasible for her to attend services elsewhere, or forego attending until her baby is able to make it through the service without nursing. For another, the very idea would be unthinkable and could lead to alienation from her family or faith community. Whether or not their choices line up with the choices we would make, it is not our place to question their love for their babies, or their fitness to parent.              


 

This post isn’t about the benefits of breastfeeding for babies. It isn’t really about the benefits of breastfeeding for mothers, either. Trust me, though: those considerations are never far from my mind. What it is about it this:

 I would like to propose that increased acceptance of breastfeeding is too important a battle for us to employ tactics like reductive credos (“Breastfeeding is only natural!” “Where there’s a will, there’s a way!”), ad hominem attacks, and scorched earth exclusivity. I wish that it was as simple as “boobs + baby + positive attitude = universally utopic breastfeeding experience.” But I think that, in the end, admitting the flaws in that equation will lead to a more comprehensively useful, fundamentally stronger campaign.

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I’m a Baby Gear Junkie.

Seriously.

For me, one of the best parts about having a friend who is expecting (besides, you know, the human being soon to come) is having an opportunity to talk baby gear and to see what’s new since I invested.  (A LOT changes even over the course of two short years!)

My absolute favorite gear to talk about?  Cloth diapers.

“What?!”

No, but seriously.  Cloth diapers absolutely rock my world.

I know if you’re not familiar with the modern world of cloth diapering, the first thing you think of are diaper pins and rubber pants– or worse, big, sloppy pails of soaking poopie diapers.

Think again, my friends!   Cloth diapering has never been easier.  And actually, it takes me less time to cloth diaper than it does to use dishes instead of paper plates.  A LOT less.   Like, probably an average of less than 5 minutes per day.  Total.

The Down and (really not so) Dirty:

We use the pre-fold/ cover system most of the time.   It’s cheaper, and usually works most reliably (Those new-born blowouts are practically non-existent).   It does, however, lack some of the convenience of the all-in-one (AIO) systems for being out-and-about, and their similarity to disposables that so many child-care providers crave.  Still, it’s pretty easy– fold the pre-fold into thirds, set it in the cover, velcro or snap it into place– 1,2,3.

So, Naya goes about her day, I change her soiled diapers, and if it’s a #1 situation, it goes right into my diaper pail, which is lined with a “wet bag” (basically a bag  made of laminated cloth that holds the diapers until you’re ready to wash).  If it’s #2 I dump it in the toilet (Naya shouts, “Bye bye, Poopie!”), then throw it in the wet bag.

And now you’re thinking, “What about the messy ones? Do you really have to rinse them in the toilet?”

Well, yes– but that happens about once every two weeks in our house– and, if you’re really squeemish, they make things called diaper sprayers that hook up (quite easily, I’m told) to the water supply of your toilet.  But, even the rinsing takes, say, 20 seconds.  And, when they’re really small, if you’re breast feeding, you don’t have to rinse the poop at all.  For some reason, it just magically disappears in the wash.  Breast milk is magic, but that’s a story for another post.

Since we’re going to be washing anyway, we even use cloth wipes–basically tiny washcloths we spray with water, use, and toss right into the bag.  And before you get all, “You only clean her off with WATER?!” on me, remember that you probably don’t even use that when you do your business.  So there.  But, if you’re going to be like that, some people add a drop of baby wash to their water bottle, or buy special spray for it, or even prepare their own formula that involves some kind of cooking (I know, right?).  I don’t personally think it needs to be that complicated.  Water works fine.

So anyway, you get a bunch of dirty diapers– for us, this happens about once every 3-4 days now (when she was younger, it used to happen about every-other day).  You take the bag out of the diaper pail, turn it inside out into the washer (so you don’t even have to touch the diapers), throw the bag in with it, and VOILA! You’re washing your diapers!

Cold rinse.  Double wash with the teeniest bit of detergent.  Cold rinse.

Line dry the covers.  Machine or line dry the pre-folds.

I think it’s probably at least as pleasant as emptying one of those magic-hide-the-diaper contraptions.

And, yes, it helps that I’m a stay-at-home-mom, but anyone who knows me knows I’m no Donna Reed when it comes to matters of the home.

And, yes, it helps that my laundry room is right next to the kitchen, but in our old house, when I had to truck downstairs to use our traditional washer/dryer combo (now we have the HE models I coveted for so long– consolation prize for moving away from my friends and family), I often set Naya on top of the basket of fluffy, clean diapers and towed us all back upstairs.  I think she liked it.

And no, we aren’t fanatical about it (which is probably why I love it so much).  Sometimes,  if we’re out and about, or we have a sitter who’s not comfortable with them, or we’re on vacation, we use disposable.

All in all, it’s probably saved us about a thousand dollars– more, if you count the fact that one of my Besties borrowed Naya’s first set of diapers for her son.  (We have two sets– one for the first 6 months, and one that will take her to potty training.)

Easy peasy.

And it’s one of the parenting decisions that both my husband and I feel really, really good about.

What are some of the parenting decisions that you’re really proud of?

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And Another thing!

… or, “Why the Valentine Episode Touched a Particular Nerve”:

Almost everyone who knows me well enough to meet — or at least be aware of — my kids eventually hears the anecdote about how Stuart, my four-year-old, was “supposed to be a girl.” 

What happened isn’t all that uncommon. The technician administering my level 2 ultrasound had a little difficulty compelling cooperation from the 20-week fetus (imagine!). When he was finally able to achieve a view that allowed him to determine (“with 99.9 percent certainty”) the baby’s sex … well, Stuart must have been feeling a mite demure.

“See those three lines?” the technician asked. “That means it’s a girl!”

To this day, I have no idea what those three lines were; I only know that they weren’t labia. Because, when Stuart James (neé “Vivian Lucille”) was born, in the words of our midwife, “I said to myself, ‘Wait a minute: that’s a scrotum’!”

My husband, looking mildly surprised ("mildly") at the arrival of our baby BOY.

After we managed to convince my parents-in-law, who weren’t present for the birth, that, no, we were not, in fact, joking (this wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility for Cullen, by the way. When we were discharging from the hospital, a nurse’s aide asked him if Stuart was his first baby. Cullen responded, without missing a beat, “The first that I know of!” while prompting her to give him a high-five. She looked kind of uncomfortable), we quickly got used to the idea of having a boy. Frankly, new parenthood was such a shock to the system that I couldn’t really think clearly enough to differentiate between boy, girl, and small wombat.


The questions we got the most, both then and when I retell the tale today, were, “What about the baby’s room? Did you have all kinds of pink clothes already?”

In response to the first point: Stuart didn’t have a room. Not a room of his own, at least. (Negative points to me for not cultivating a Virginia Woolf baby?). We were living in a one bedroom apartment at the time. He did have a crib and mobile and junk (I was gung-ho about bed-sharing; Cullen, uh-uh), and my main concern, with that arrangement, was how we could integrate it into our existing room decor. Fascist, I know. Baby Stu had a poster from Blue Velvet hanging above his changing table for the first six months of his life.

As for his clothes, though? Ooohhhh, the pinkspolsion.  “Rose” to “ballet slipper” to “Pepto Bismol” and every shade in between. All perfectly acceptable garments from perfectly well-meaning friends and relatives: nothing that we’d dismiss out of hand for a child, regardless of sex.  Not ones to turn up our noses at the thoughtfulness of others, and facing the very practical issue of needing to clothe our newborn … Stuart just wore the “girl” clothes.

What you can't see in this photo are his pink, scallop-edged socks with the word "Princess" on the cuff. Those really made the ensemble.

When I would show acquaintances pictures of Stuart in get-ups like the one above, or have to correct strangers in the grocery store who assumed he was a girl (most of the time, I didn’t bother. But I was often cornered into showing my hand when faced with the question, “What’s her name?”), I heard nary a disapproving word. I did hear a lot of, “Oh don’t worry, he still looks very handsome.  Wearing pink doesn’t mean that he’ll be gay!”

First of all, score one for Team Pointing Out the Obvious. You mean the color of clothing a child wears before he or she even has a sense of object permanence has no known correlation to their adult sexual orientation? Tell me more!

The main thing that continues to irk me about receiving “reassurances” like this is the 800-pound-gorilla-of-an-insinuation. It is the insinuation that I would be concerned if my child was gay (not to even broach the topic of how I’d feel if my boy-who-was-supposed-to-be-a-girl started articulating that he actually was a girl). As my husband has mentioned, we might be concerned about how he would fare in a world that is not currently readily accepting of people who don’t identify as heterosexual or cisgender. But concerned to the point that we would actively interrupt or steer the formation of our child’s identity? Not on your life!


I was recently directed to the seemingly prescient post “My Sons Are Gender Conformists” at Blogging While the Baby Isn’t Looking.  Heather’s sons, as you can probably gather from the title of the post, are currently into stuff that traditionally skews “masculine.” But she writes, astutely,

If and when this masculine phase comes to an end and they decide to start wearing body glitter and cute skirts, I’m okay with that, too! And not just because it would probably be a phase, not just because it probably wouldn’t mean anything, and definitely not because I think that would be super freakin’ cool, but because even if it DID mean they were gay or transgender, those are not bad things to be.

Moreover, comments like, “It probably doesn’t mean anything [… with regard to sexual orientation or gender],” betray such a narrow comprehension of sexual orientation and gender and the confluence — or complete diffraction — of these and myriad developmental activities.

 It’s why (and I know this will be an unpopular stance to take) I’m even somewhat cautious about efforts like the Born This Way blog. While the stated objective (“a photo/essay project for gay adults (of all genders) to submit childhood pictures and stories (roughly ages 2 to 12), reflecting memories & early beginnings of their innate LGBTQ selves”) is a beautiful one, and so many of the photos and essays are extremely poignant, humorous, and otherwise moving … I wonder if it is, even just a little bit, furthering the idea of a one-to-one equation and unintentionally delegitimizing a host of other narrative voices. 

(I need to take a moment for digression, here, and stress that I am not, not, not suggesting a corrolary movement: like “Born Straight” or what-have-you. Let’s just get that cooptative silliness out of the way).

What I would like is for me to tell about the “ultrasound follies” with Stuart and have it received with a wry chuckle and no additional commentary. Or for it to act as a springboard for a real conversation about this very topic: people’s deeply-ingrained ideas (including my own, certainly!) about sex and gender and just what those impute. Because, uh, clearly I’m not at all opposed to that!

Maybe, just to be contrarian, I will start reminding parents of infants who are dressed in ways we perceive as normative for that child’s sex, “You know, that doesn’t mean that your baby will be straight and cisgender.”

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Tinkerbell Valentine of Much Consternation

It was Valentine’s Day this past Monday and, on Tuesday, Stuart’s preschool did a card exchange. Both Stuart and MaryAlice (who is only two, and lacks a “social circle” save the rather de facto one composed of her daycare chums) chose their own Valentines: store-bought, because  inspiration and patience for making homemade cards were in short supply.  Stuart’s Valentines were dinosaur-themed, and MaryAlice’s featured Tinkerbell.

(Let me take a moment to stress that both Stuart and MaryAlice are fans of the 2009 cinematic triumph  Tinkerbell and the Lost Treasure . Far from being a Disney apologist, I will say that, if this movie is any indication of the thrust of the character’s recent rebranding (deviating from the original character of 1953’s problematic-for-a-whole-host-of reasons Peter Pan), today’s Tinkerbell and her Pixie Hollow friends seem to be rather benign spokestoons for a highly-glossed treatment of animism. Animism with lots of sparkly bits and sassy costumes. They even seem to have dispensed with a gendered division of labor. Tink herself is a mechanic-slash-inventor in this incarnation. So … pillorying averted? Nonetheless, I definitely acknowledge that the target demographic for this arm of the Disney pantheon is girly-girly-girls).

Anyway, when it came time for Stuart to select individual  Valentines for each of his classmates at preschool, he had two themes to choose from. We sat down with the teacher-provided list of the five girls and two other boys in Stuart’s class.

And then, it happened:

“I know!” Stuart exclaimed. “We can give the dinosaur Valentines to the boys, and the Tinkerbell Valentines to the girls!”


Well, I knew the day would come sooner or later — especially taking into account the amount of time Stuart spends outside the home, with peers and older children. And the fact that he’s kind of a media-head. We don’t have TV. I mean, we have a TV: just no broadcast television. But we do make use of inter-library loan to acquire DVDs, and, because both my husband and I are huge cinemaphiles (I’m an adjunct film studies lecturer, too), we have a pretty impressive movie collection, which includes a healthy number of children’s titles. Plus, there are fewer checks on Stuart and MaryAlice’s viewing habits when they’re at their grandparents’ house. Or visiting friends … . You get the picture. They ain’t cloistered. 

I’m not in denial. I know  Stuart has osmotically absorbed some binary-oriented thinking when it comes to gender. After all, my husband and I haven’t engaged in a Pop-level offensive to screen these messages. (If you don’t feel like following the link, I’ll mention that Pop is a Swedish child whose parents did not disclose hir sex [not hir “gender,” as claimed by the article’s title] to others).  This was just the first time I heard Stuart isolate “masculine” and “feminine” so clearly.


Remember how I said my resolve was too ground-down (read: I was too lazy) for homemade Valentines? The same applies to making ev-er-y-thing a teachable moment. I envy the parents who can do it.  But, most of the time, I stick with a broad definition of “negligibly important.” I did, however, decide to turn the Tinkerbell Valentine of Much Consternation incident into an object lesson in … well, why dinosaurs and fairies aren’t inherently aligned with boys or girls.  And, guess what? It turned out to be no big.

“Say, Stuart,” I replied. “I bet there a lot of boys who love Tinkerbell.  And I’m a girl who happens to think dinosaurs are so cool. Think about what your friends like. We should pick out a very special Valentine for each of them.”

Then I painstakingly made my way through the list of names (okay, the “pains” I “took” weren’t that great. There are only eight kids in his class, after all), reading them aloud. Stuart carefully reviewed the avaiable designs, holding each friend’s name in his head and trying to find its perfect complement in an image of a lurching t-rex or coterie of fairies tiptoeing through the tulips.

Of the five girls, two were given dinosaur cards, and three Tinkerbell cards. Both boys got dinosaurs.


You might think I’d be disappointed that my little didactic exercise produced results not too dissimilar from Stuart’s original intention. But, working with him on his project, I could tell that the path he took to get there was much more well-considered. He didn’t just chuck a few dinosaurs into the girls’ mix to appease me, either. He actually thought about his friends as people — which is the precise point that mandating an expectation-reversing “dinosaurs for girls, Tinkerbell for boys” would have missed.

Ours isn’t a household that promotes a wholesale squelching of all things pink or blue. When the kids were infants, sure: we took a decidedly a-gendered tack. Now, though, instead of trying to neutralize gender by limiting their options, we find ourselves reminding Stuart and MaryAlice of the limitless possibilities when it comes to investigating their interests and aptitudes: dinosaurs to fairies, baseball to ballet.

What’s so amazing (and relieving) for me to discover is that, with their minds being as permeable as they are, it seems just as easy to counter the messages of compulsorily gendered, rigidly segregated preferences and behaviors as it is for the kids to become passively indoctrinated in the first place. Good news! I don’t need to adapt the works of Judith Butler for the pre-K set, and enforce a strict dress code with entirely muted-earth-tone pallette garments. I don’t need to be hyper-vigilant, raising them in some kind of house-sized Skinner box. And I don’t  need to shame them for mirroring the dominant tropes of “gender-normative” behavior. If I just remind them, once in a while, that their horizons are endless … they will be.

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I’m Not on the SAHM Tenure Track.

“I think I really would like to try staying home with the baby when it’s born.”  I told my husband a couple of weeks after we found out we were expecting.  “I mean, I can always change my mind, right?”  And, true to his generally agreeable nature, my husband concurred.

I had my daughter at  precisely the right time so that, as I finished up each of my students’ cumulative folders to hand off to the sub who would complete the remainder of the school year, I was experiencing contractions.   Two months later, I officially resigned from the  district for which I had been teaching since graduating from college, packed up my little car with my two dogs and tiny daughter, and moved across state lines in order for my husband to begin a new stage in his career.   We came here full of ideas about how it was all going to go.

Then, we woke up for the first time in our new home, my husband left for work, and my parents — who had helped us move– packed up and headed home.

And there we were.  My two-month-old daughter and I.   Alone.

No tv.  No internet.  A mountain of boxes in a rented house outside of town.

Oh, and did I mention a whole universe of exhaustion, hormones, and internal chaos?  Those were definitely there with us in those first weeks— who am I kidding? months.

_______________________________________________________________________________

About five months from now, my little family will once again be packing up and moving across many state lines to transplant ourselves, our pets, and all our stuff into another town.  It’s an exciting (and daunting!) prospect for which we have been planning since, it seems, the beginning of time.

A lot will change when we make the move.  My husband will be taking on a position that offers considerably more family-friendly hours (which, as I told a family member in a recent email, would probably be enough in and of itself for me to get excited about relocating to Antarctica), and a raise in pay.   As it happens, however, the town in which we will find ourselves appears to offer a lot of opportunities for me to reestablish a career outside the home, as well as to explore personal interests that do not necessarily involve my daughter.

I. Am. So. Ridiculously. Excited.

Please know that I absolutely understand that the last two years of my life– staying home with my amazing daughter, meeting other fabulous mamas, and learning how to enjoy a much smaller existence has been an incredible privilege.   I really, really do.  And, although I have really struggled (fought epic battles??) with the transitions it required of me, I wouldn’t change it for the world.

There have been real benefits to staying home (besides living in PJs).  Breastfeeding was certainly easier because I didn’t have to try to negotiate a working pump schedule.  My daughter got to reach developmental milestones at her own rate, instead of having things like nap and meal times dictated by her childcare provider.  My husband’s sometimes ridiculously unpredictable hours were much easier for me to absorb than they would be for any child-care center of which I am aware.   We never had to deal with the anxiety of whether or not to send our kind-of-sick child to daycare or to take the day off to keep her home.  On mornings she needed extra time or cuddling, we could choose to stay home instead of dealing with the stress that can be packing up the under–two set.  In short, it made life easier in a lot of ways.

On the other hand, there have been a lot of sacrifices related to staying home.  A LOT of sacrifices.

Going from two moderate incomes supporting two people to one moderate income supporting three people (and two large dogs and a geriatric cat) has not been without strain.  Because of our financial situation and my husband’s work obligations, there have been times when I have been in the continuous presence of my daughter for, quite literally, months at a time without the respite of so much as a solo trip to the grocery store.  My amazing doctor actually performed my last (complete) physical one-handed whilst holding my infant daughter on one hip.  No. Lie. When my sister, who was in the throws of her last semesters of graduate school, complained to me of her stressful course load, instead of being a sympathetic listener, I was waxing reminiscent about my own experience in my masters program– and missing the challenge and camaraderie that comes from a shared experience with other adults.

And honestly, in those first months, when people would tell me how lucky I was, or how much they wished that THEY could be in the situation where they could stay home with their child, I wanted to disappear (or scream or throw things, depending on the day)– because obviously, there was something wrong with me if I wasn’t appreciating this opportunity.  Obviously, I missed the mama gene somewhere.  But, by that point, I realized that my husband’s work schedule simply was not conducive to 1. job interviews, or 2. sharing child-care responsibilities were I to actually land a job, so the escape route we had discussed before Naya came along wasn’t really the option we thought it was.  And, because of this, it really was a better thing that there be a stay at home parent in her life.

It’s gotten easier and infinitely more fun as we’ve gone along, to be sure.  I have connected to a lot of great people and resources in my community.  My husband and I have become (so much) better at sharing parenting duties and taking advantage of the time he isn’t working.  Naya just keeps getting more amazing, interesting, and fun to be with every minute.  I just don’t know a cooler human being than her.

But, as our full-time work together comes to an end, I know this is the right move for both Naya and I.  She is hungry for more stimulation than my limited creativity can muster, and is at an age where social interaction is both wanted and needed.  And, knowing this makes the transition easier for me, assuaging the crazy guilt that comes with wanting more.  And I know this isn’t the same for every parent.

There are some parents who know they could never be stay at home parents and some parents who wish desperately that they had the opportunity.  I believe that every one of them has personally told me their take on the situation too.

“I would love to stay home with the kids, but if I did we wouldn’t be able to eat.”

“I am a better mom because I work.”

“I can’t imagine leaving my babies with someone else.”

And you know what?  None of them are wrong.  I swear they’re not.  But, at the same time, it’s so easy to idealize the other side of the coin.

What I can say about the whole situation, from my own limited perspective, is this:  Staying at home is hard freaking work.  And you know what?  I know how to work.  I once taught classes of 38 middle school kids at a time in an urban public school system– and did more than crowd control, mind you– and this is harder.  I once worked third shift at a factory in which coming home with random oozing chemical burns was not uncommon— and this is harder.  I .  .  .well, you get the idea.  I’m not a stranger to work, and this is it.  Is it also wonderful, amazing, insanely rewarding?  You bet.  Do I love the heck out of it?  Every day. . .well, almost every day.

I hope I’m not idealizing the working mom’s plight either.  I know that balancing child-care; my relationship with my husband, friends, family, and self; household needs; and life in general is not going to get easier because I add more to my plate.  I do realize that being a working mama is fraught with equally great dilemmas.  I get it (or, at least I think I do).

Last month, my wonderful husband used one of his rare weekends off to stay home with Naya while I took a trip out of state to visit friends with a new baby (my godson!).  ( Yes,  I used my first child-free weekend ever to visit another child.)  During the first night of my stay, the new parents were shooed out of the house to enjoy a baby-free and much needed date.  And, as my beautiful godson settled easily into my arms to be rocked to sleep, I came to the conclusion that I am MADE for this mama business, and always have been.   And my desire or need for an occupation outside of that has nothing to do with not possessing the mama gene.  It has to do with all the other parts of my person that also need to be honored.

Perhaps it would be different if we had stayed in the community in which I lived and worked for several years before getting married, buying a house, and deciding to have our daughter.  Perhaps, if I had long-time friends and family nearby to remind me of who I was before I had my daughter, and a support system upon which to rely when I needed to nourish those sides of myself, I wouldn’t need this so much, but that’s not the case here, and most likely won’t be the case there.  And that’s ok.

I have already started researching pre-school situations for Naya for this fall–ones that offer lots of undirected play time, nourishing vegetarian meals, and time outdoors.  Naya has a backpack that she has started carrying around with her when we pretend to go to school, and I’m sure she’s going to like taking it with her to pre-school.

I anticipate that the first days I drop her off will probably be ridiculously painful for me, and might be a difficult transition for Naya, but I also watched her this weekend with a toddler whose family was spending the weekend as our house guests, and the absolute bliss she was in chasing the other little one around the house, so I know it will be short-lived (at least for her).

And, when I pick her up, according to the wisdom of Mr. Rogers, she’ll have things she wants to talk about, and I will too.

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Toeing My Line

Stuart on his first day of preschool

Our family lives in a rural village (yes, it’s officially a village) in west-central Wisconsin, and both my husband and I commute perhaps … irresponsible? … distances to each of the five jobs we are currently maintaining between the two of us.  This is one of those trade-offs to which one becomes grudgingly accustomed: bucolic charm for wild inconvenience.

Or, in our case, affordable single-family housing for wild inconvenience. The county in which we decided, for better or worse, to  put down stakes (short list of  justifications: Cullen and I met when we were both pursuing our undergraduate degrees at an area university. It’s half-way between our parents’ homes. And, by the time we had our first child, it had become the locus of our careers and social lives.  Shrug) is one of the wealthiest in the state. The little municipality where our house is located is among the last to remain immune to the development feeding frenzies of the past decade-and-a-half (again, for better or worse). So, even though it’s a pretty insular place where we are regarded as big-time socio-political outliers, we leapt. After all, Cullen grew up in an even smaller town, and he likes Neu! and Aki Kaurismäki films and stuff. One’s physical location is practically arbitrary in the global media age. Etcetera.

Except when you’re trying to be even the teensiest bit discerning about your kid’s preschool.

Finding a program we liked wasn’t challenging, actually. Nearly a year before Stuart was even eligible to enroll, we zeroed in on a progressive, nature-based preschool. The kids start each day with a hike through the wilderness preserve that abuts the school’s property; then they come back to the hobby farm to feed and water the goats, rabbits, chickens, and a peacock (!), collect eggs, and crawl around on the huge, old storm-felled tree that was left in place to serve as a natural play structure. Oh, hello idyllic childhood of my Stuart’s dreams!

The main drawback? The school was about half-an-hour, by car, from our home; over an hour, round-trip, from home-to-preschool-to-my-primary-workplace; and an even more absurd drive-time commitment for my husband. Both of our employers (I work in public sector human services, and he works for a human services non-profit that contracts with the public sector) would probably be amenable to some kind of flex-time arrangement … but not the kind of flex-time arrangement that allows us to get paid for eight hours of work when we only do four.   Something about taxpayers wanting their money’s worth or whatevs.

So we asked our childcare provider for options more local to us, and she raised two possibilities:

(1) A preschool affiliated with a church a couple of miles from our house, which claims to be non-denominational, but, if their website is any indication, seems … not. (Read: “proselytic like whoa“). Even though I went to a secular preschool that leased space from a church, and even though our caregiver, who does not belong to the church but has cared for other children who have attended the preschool, assured me that the Jesus-y influences on their curriculum are limited to “a blessing before snack time,” we had to pass. As a couple of culturally Catholic agnostics who were married in a Unitarian ceremony, when we noticed one of the school’s core values was “(capital-C) Creation,” it raised some red flags.

(2) A home-based, evening preschool in a traditional, classroom-style setting, located just a couple of blocks away from our daycare provider. Although it wasn’t the nature-immersion/experiential education environment I was hoping for, I was willing to give this a chance.

Then our caregiver said, “It’s probably nothing, but I’ve heard parents say that [the preschool director, who is also a daycare provider] is great for preschool, but terrible for daycare.”

“Why?”

“Well, for one, she makes the kids eat all their food at mealtime. My friend’s son threw up on her front step once because he was so over-full.”

Yeah. Even though this didn’t have a direct impact on the preschool experience, that was all the information I needed to know our “philosophies” wouldn’t mesh well.


I had to do a lot of soul-searching — soul-plowing would be more apt — to decide what my next move was going to be:

Allowing Stuart to explore and forge new social connections in a space designed for that purpose is important to me. Yeah, but is it important to him?

Many families can’t afford to, or choose not to, send their child to any preschool. It’s kind of grossly privileged that you’re splitting hairs about what preschool he attends.  If it is within my capabilities to send him to a school that reinforces my ideals, don’t I have an obligation to my child to follow through?

Are you sure this isn’t about self-flagellating for the choices you’ve made? Like moving your sweet, amazing children to a community where your values aren’t mirrored? Like having to hop between three  jobs just to pay the mortgage and put enough gas in the car to make it to your three jobs? I think we’re firmly entrenched in Catch-22 territory, here, Amanda. No, it’s not that at all! I mean, I don’t think it is … . Oh, shit. 


 Long story short, we taxed our time management skills to the utmost, cashed in some favors, and were blessed with a few deus ex machina-style offers of assistance from friends, family and near-strangers . We managed to get Stuart to the Exalted Preschool (uh, not the actual name). He’s been attending, two mornings a week, for the past five months. 

And … he likes it and all. He likes the hikes. The egg collecting. The peacock. But I’ve found myself thinking, At what cost?

Then, a couple of weeks ago, Stuart and I had a little conversation that gave me a sense of peace with my decision (and Ahab-esque pursuit of my goal).

Stuart is really interested in defining inter-relationships right now. He enjoys connecting the dots. Who is Daddy’s mommy? Why is MaryAlice my sister, but Aunt JennyRose’s baby isn’t my brother? You can practically see the cogs turning.

At preschool, Stuart has two teachers: Ms. T, the preschool owner and administrator, and Ms. A, who I know to be Ms. T’s sister. Stuart, too, seemed to sense that they had more than a “collegial” relationship. So, one afternoon, he asked me, “Ms. A is Ms. T’s wife, right?”

And maybe I’m vesting this with more meaning than I ought to.  Maybe he just doesn’t really grasp that adults can be siblings. Nonetheless, this innocent (and incorrect, at that!) speculation reminded me of why my selectivity — not just in terms of preschool, but with regard to all sorts of exposure to outside-the-home influences — didn’t ring hollow, and wasn’t just about trying to “buy” some contrived version of a perfect childhood.

Surrounding Stuart with attitudes that preserve his completely guileless conviction that two women can be married until he is intellectually mature enough to shoot down those in society who question this precept? That’s worth all kinds of torturous contortions on my part, I think.

And it’s only one example, of course. It is a stand-in for all of those values I want to not only impart to my kids, but feel compelled to ensure are upheld when I leave them in the care of others. Because, as much as I reject the idea of Working Mom-hood as a modality with compulsory characteristics (including “moms of young children shouldn’t want to work; they should only be working if they have to for financial security”), I also believe that this doesn’t absolve me of responsibility as their Primary Adult Influence (yes, yes, along with Dad). 

In other words, when Stuart asserts that two women may be married, I need to know that my surrogate caregiver — whoever that is at a given moment — reinforces the party line. My “mama line.”


What about you? What are your deal-breakers-and-makers when it comes to selecting your young child’s educators and caregivers? Has there ever time when you have had to make a necessary-but-difficult compromise?

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