**warning, this post contains controversial but necessary info. Read at your own will and don’t say I didn’t warn you. Feedback welcome so comment below**
My baby boy will be 6 months old this week, and I figure now’s a good time to look back and reflect on the past year. Oh, how so much of my thinking has changed.
The decision to have and raise a human being is not a light undertaking, yet in our society its gravity is rarely acknowledged and discussed in a honest manner. No one prepares us adequately for the all-consuming, life-altering event, and women are sold the notion that life will more or less go back to normal within a few months- we have our baby, get our maternity leave, go back to work, and all’s well. What’s not discussed is the reality that babies have endless needs to develop and thrive, and that they deserve the best possible care from their mothers** (and their partners!) for an extended period of time (at least 12 months, ideally 3 years); and honestly, not everyone is cut out for this time intensive work (gasp!).
Instead of talking about the importance of parenthood and the effect we as mothers have on raising the next generation, we encourage mothers to suppress their maternal guilt, get back to their “real” work, and outsource childcare. It is now more common for us to pay practical strangers to raise our babies rather than making the sacrifices to do it ourselves. Prioritizing our baby’s well-being by staying home with them, once an inevitable result of giving birth, has become a “luxury” reserved for the “rich”.
How did we get here? And what does it mean for our children?
The latter half of the 20th century brought us incredible wealth, technological advances, and financial autonomy. With the rise of women’s liberation, more mothers began trading in home life for work life. Feminists told women they shouldn’t have to sacrifice anything – they were entitled to all of the advantages men had in life, personally and professionally. They could have babies and go straight back to work as if nothing had happened – the domestic shackles had been released! Enter formula, daycare, microwave dinners, and sleep training.
The problem with this idea is that the moment we deny our maternal instincts to be with our babies, we buy in to the pervasive delusion that our babies are just fine without us. We were in daycare and turned out fine! Everyone else is doing it! We point to working (outside of the home) moms and say, “Wow! They’re amazing- they’re really doing it all!”.
But, are they? A woman who goes to work full-time is simply not the person who’s mothering her baby for the majority of their waking time. (Unless, of course, she has the amazing fortune of working someplace where she can be with her baby all day!) But no one wants to come out and say this, for fear of being portrayed as “anti-feminist” or “privileged”. Like with any social system in need of reform, the feminist pendulum swung to an extreme. We are living in a time where, within a century, mothers went from being home their whole lives (no bueno), to being home for a mere 2 weeks (double no bueno). We need some middle ground here. No one is really preparing moms-to-be for the incredibly devastating and unnatural moment (for good biological reasons!) when they will have to detach from their newborns after just 6-12 weeks and go back to work. Mothers are left to find out the hard way, when it seems “too late” to change their plans.
Anytime we place our very young (under 12 months old) babies in the care of others, whether it’s a number of caregivers at a daycare or a single nanny, we are giving up control over how our babies are being nurtured and cared for. We are taking a risk, trusting that a surrogate caregiver can and will be as emotionally and psychologically invested in our baby as we are. That they can and will respond to our baby in a timely and sensitive manner. That they are interested in our child’s emotional and cognitive development, sleep, and nutrition, and will engage in playful, one-on-one interactions with our children. That’s a lot to ask of anyone, let alone someone who has 2 or 3 other infants to watch.
When we choose another person to raise our baby for most of their waking time, we are giving up:
-breastfeeding on demand (which provides skin-to-skin with our babies, helps maintain milk supply, increases our oxytocin, and decreases our chances of breast/ovarian cancer; things that pumping simply can’t do)
-comforting our child when they’re upset or scared, and regulating their intense emotions
-control over how often and how long our children nap
-natural contexts in the environment/community for play and learning, as well as the continuity of learning that comes from talking about the day’s events
-the possibility of witnessing our babies rolling/crawling/sitting/standing/walking for the first time
The truth is that separating mothers from their babies for extended periods of time frays the sacred mother-baby bond that is a child’s birthright. When babies’ needs for our love, nurturing touch, on-demand milk, and emotional regulation aren’t consistently met, their future health and well-being is undermined. Babies as young as 6 months have been shown to mourn the loss of their mothers when they’re gone for extended periods of time. We mothers intuitively know this; research is just now beginning to prove our instincts are valid and important. Ever seen a list of the happiest countries on earth and noticed how well it correlates with the list of countries who provide the best maternity leave? (Spoiler alert: the US is on neither of these; we are, however, consistently ranked #1 in the following: obesity, anxiety disorders, per capita health expenditures, fossil fuel consumption, rapes, locking up citizens, death by violence, cocaine use, and worst maternal care, incase you were wondering!)
“BUT! My baby needs daycare! He needs to socialize, he needs to self-soothe, he needs to be on a schedule, he needs those ABC toys! It takes a village!”
Yes, while babies do need to be around other humans (something that mothers are perfectly capable of providing for their infants through play dates and visits with family/friends), your baby does not need to socialize with other babies in order to develop social skills. Babies build the foundations for later social skills by engaging in face to face dialogue with their primary caretakers. Children do not mature into cooperative, social play (with other children) until ages 4-6, and for the first 2.5 years of their life, solitary play is normal and developmentally appropriate. What babies do need is a consistent, loving caregiver who is sensitive and attentive to their cues and needs – none of which include a need to self-soothe. Babies do thrive on routines, such as a general routine in the day (after I wake up we take a walk and then I take a nap, etc.) and a night time routine. This is not to be confused with minute-by-minute with-holding of food or sleep in the name of a timed “schedule”. Babies need on-demand feeding, and they should be calmly soothed into sleep when they are demonstrating signs of tiredness. These are two things that are nearly impossible in daycare settings, where the environment is too overstimulating and regimented. As for the toys? Nothing compares to the time tested teaching tool of good old face to face interaction. Your baby doesn’t “need” toys anymore than he “needs” his pacifier; the originals work much better than the substitutes! Okay, so what to do? An ideal surrogate caregiver is your partner, a family member, or close friend who has an equal investment in your child’s wellbeing, and will be a part of their life forever. When that’s not available, a carefully chosen nanny who can commit to several years of caregiving is second-best. More here. It does take a village, and babies need multiple loving caregivers, but the village never intended for mom to be absent.
“But, I need daycare/a nanny so that I can go back to work to afford to live!”
I implore you to really, carefully evaluate and challenge this assumption. I thought this was my reality as well; I live in the most expensive area of the country, and during pregnancy figured I simply HAD to go back to work within 3-4 months of having my baby. But then came baby, and once I realized that spending time with him came before anything I’d ever deemed important, I readjusted my expectations and my husband and I had a serious discussion about our finances. We found ways to cut excessive spending, sell things we didn’t need on Craigslist/eBay, and I found a job where I can work for a few hours on the weekends. Our rent is more than 60% of our total income each month; not a long-term solution, but do-able for a year? Absolutely. Because our federal and state laws don’t support parenthood, it’s up to us as individuals to make the necessary sacrifices. They can be as small as giving up expensive groceries and nights out, or as big as taking out a loan to supplement income or packin’ up and moving to a cheaper town. There are always options, it comes down to what we’re willing to give up to be present for our babies. (Please note: My intended audience is not single moms, as research has shown that the negative effects of them not being with their children are outweighed by the availability of basic necessities that an income brings.)
“But I love my job!”
Great! As do I! Here’s the rub: How can we stay involved with our work in the long-term (we’ve got a good 20-30 years left till retirement), while temporarily pausing full-time work? Explore your options- can you work part-time, can you work from home, can you freelance/consult, can you switch companies to one that values motherhood and will wait for your return, or better yet- can you start your own business? Work can be incredibly fulfilling and meaningful for many of us, and keeping women in the workforce is vital. Get creative – there are so many ways to remain active in your work on a smaller scale while you take the necessary months and years to invest in your child.
“But! I make more than my partner!”
Then by all means, work it out to where your partner can be the primary caretaker. It will still be difficult and challenging to leave your baby every day, but having a committed and caring partner to raise baby is as good as it gets if you can’t be there. Next blog post will be all about the necessity of supportive and loving partners, and how they can be highly involved and fulfilled in their parenting role.
“But! I don’t want to be home with my baby all day!”
Although this is a statement you hear less often, it can sometimes be the one we tell ourselves and believe to be true. I am not suggesting that being with your baby 24/7 is healthy for you or your little one. We all need to take time to relax and restore for our own health and well being, whether that’s in the form of an exercise class, quiet hour of solitary reading, or part-time work. Nor am I saying that being with your baby is wondrously fascinating all the time; every job has it’s boring moments. It’s only when feelings of boredom and ambivalence begin to wash over almost all of your time with your baby that Houston, we have a problem. These are often symptoms of underlying postpartum depression or a pervasive mental illness that was present before pregnancy. We all carry wounds from our own childhood. The way we were treated as very young humans etches feelings/memories into our subconscious mind that can become all too evident and painful when we begin raising our own children. Persistent feelings of anger, resentment, sadness, boredom, distraction, and anxiety are signs of deeper psychological trauma that can and should be addressed. The book “Parenting from the Inside Out” is a great resource to start with.
Our babies are here to teach us so much about life, including our own needs for joyful love, nurturing physical touch, undivided attention and the feelings of safety and serenity we can experience when we’re with loved ones. Babies demand that we are honest and unconditional in our love and acceptance of them. They are our looking glass, reflecting our inner worlds and shining the way towards an examined life. But only if we move at their slow, deliberate pace, and only if we’re present.
**by mother, I mean primary caretaker, some of which are fathers, grandmothers, etc 🙂