Her Bad Mother

Friday, February 6, 2009

Too Shy, Shy; Hush, Hush...

I am in Nashville, for Blissdom. Nashville seems nice so far, if the airport and hotel are anything to go by. I've been here for about fourteen hours. I've slept about 45 minutes of that time.

I don't say that to solicit sympathy. I knew that I wouldn't sleep on this trip. Me, the baby, no husband to run interference, no Ativan to get me through the rough spots. I knew what I was in for.

But what I hadn't given any thought to was this: I need to be a fully functioning, coherent grown-up today. And I need to not succumb to social anxiety and that whole awkwardness in groups thing and the like because? In a barely functioning, sleep-deprived state, that shit will bring me down. (You didn't know? I am painfully shy in social situations. I am very, very good at covering it up. VERY good. Years of speaking at conferences and lecturing in a university have given me mad people skillz. But if you see me in a group and I seem to be bursting with confidence and moxy? I am, on the side, fraying the sleeve-ends of my shirt with nervous fingers, anxious as a thirteen year old at her first dance. Seriously.)

So here I am, all set to meet a couple of hundred new people, and speak to them coherently about writing or whatever, and I can barely form a sentence or put one foot in front of the other.

This bodes well.

All of which is to say, if you're not in Nashville, send me your best survival wishes. And if you are here, in Nashville, at Blissdom? Go easy on me.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Other Side Of Anger

Before I had children, I understood that parenthood would be challenging. I read a lot of books about it, actually, because I was a little worried. Would the first months of my child's life be like boot camp? Would I go insane from sleep deprivation? Was I going to be comfortable breastfeeding? Would I gag at all the shitty diapers? Could I do this? I was pretty confident that I could do it. I figured that I was about as well-prepared as any mother could be, and, besides, I was not in this alone. My husband would be right there with me, doing his share and gagging at runny poos. We would be doing it together, and together, we would be strong.

And then Emilia was born and it was, as expected, hard. And my husband was there, just as I had expected him to be, and he provided all the support that I could hope for. He provided all of the support that I could hope for, and more, and yet: I found myself feeling very, very angry. At the situation. At him. Mostly at him.

I was struggling with post-partum depression, which of course exacerbated things, but it was more than just a byproduct of the depression. It was a deep, almost aggressive, resentment that burbled up in my throat - burning, like an acid - and choked me, every time that he walked out the front door to go to work, or to pick up milk or cat food or whatever, his arms swinging freely, his keys dangling casually from his fingers. Maybe I'll just stop by the barber for a hair-cut, he'd say. Or, I'll swing by the grocery store on the way home from work. Or, I'm headed out to work; call me if you need anything; love you! The bastard.

He could just walk out the front door, just walk right out and head off to wherever, totally unencumbered, totally unburdened. He was free. I was not free. I could not even go to the bathroom without undergoing complicated rituals to ensure that the baby would not scream for the five minutes that I would be out of her line of sight (having failed to master this activity, I soon resorted to waiting until she had one of her two eight-minute naps of the day, or jerryrigging the baby carrier so that I could hold her and pee at the same time.) If I wanted to leave the house, even to venture the half-block to the bakery for a take-out cappuccino, I had to plot my outing like a military manoeuvre, making certain that my plans were in accordance with nap schedules and feeding times and stocks of supplies and the appropriate alignment of the stars. I was not free, and I resented my husband's freedom with a fury that sometimes made me tremble. I was angry. I was sometimes not sure whether I was angry at him, or myself, or the universe, or all three. Usually I settled for just being angry at him.

Last week, the New York Times reported a story - originally posted on Parenting.com, later covered by Jezebel - about moms of young children feeling anger toward their husbands. According to the original story, nearly half of all moms who took a survey about anger reported that they "get irate with their husbands" at least once a week. Fully half of them described their anger as "intense." Moms, the study concludes, are mad. Which, whatever. I could have told them that.

The story that I would tell about this anger, however, might be a little different than the one told in the Times. The Parenting.com story focuses on the imbalanced distribution of parental responsibility in most households, and their characterization of that imbalance rang perfectly true for me ("We carry so much of this life-altering responsibility in our heads: the doctors’ appointments, the shoe sizes, the details about the kids’ friends. Many dads wouldn’t even think to buy valentines for the class, for example, or know when it’s time to sign kids up for the pre–camp physical... We’re the walking, talking encyclopedias of family life, while dads tend to be more like brochures." Yes, I said to myself, reading this. YES.) But I'm not convinced that that imbalance necessarily leads - must lead, should lead, justifiably leads - to rage directed at one's spouse.

Is it really my husband that I'm angry at when I find myself trapped (yes, that's how it feels sometimes) alone inside the house with a squalling baby? When I'm awakened for the umpteenth time in the night by a baby who won't take a bottle? When my husband reveals that he doesn't know when Emilia should visit the dentist, or when Jasper should go in for his next well-visit? When he complains about being tired or overwhelmed while I'm scrounging in the medicine cabinet for the Ativan? Sure, I feel angry - I sometimes feel very angry - but is my anger really directed at him? And if it is directed at him - should it be?

My husband is not - I am pretty sure about this - acting maliciously when he walks out the front door to go to work. And he does not actively try to avoid retaining certain information about the household schedule or the children's appointments or how many Valentines Emilia needs to bring to school next week. Nor is he making a conscious effort to disregard how challenging things are for me when he complains about his own exhaustion. Sure, he'll never be as exhausted as I am - nobody will ever be as exhausted as I am - but that doesn't preclude him from experiencing his own sleep-deprivation-related discomforts. So why do I feel anger about these things? These things are not his fault. He's a supportive husband and father, but he's got his own challenges to deal with: his job pays the mortgage, his cooking skills keep us from living on soup and donuts, his ability to stay awake at night and get up early in the morning to wrangle baby is required to keep his sleep-deprived wife from going batshit crazy. This new household order isn't a walk in the park for him, either. So why do I - and, presumably, half of the married mothers in North America - blame him for the seeming imbalance in that order?

My point: it's not my husband's fault that I carry most of the burden of responsibility for caring for our kids. It's just the way that it is. I could blame him - and believe me, sometimes, in my darker moments, I do - but mightn't it be more reasonable to blame society's patriarchal hangover? Or even more reasonably: mightn't I blame the choices that we have made as a couple, that I have made as a woman and mother? We made choices as a couple that established a certain division of labor in our household, and we agreed upon those choices. I'm a stay-at-home/work-at-home mom. The children are in my care for a far greater share of the day than they are in his. If he didn't work, things would be different. If he lactated and could breastfeed, things would be very different. If parenting were just an easier gig, things would be different. I could justify my anger as rightfully directed at him if I felt - if I believed - that he just didn't take the care of our children as seriously as I did, or if he actively shirked parental duty and left the burden of work unfairly to me. But he doesn't, and so I can't.

And my guess is that this is very probably true for many women. Pressed with the question, do you get angry at your husband?, any one of us might say, "hell yeah, I get angry!" Do you feel that you work harder in caring for your children, that he doesn't do as much as you do, that things are easier for him? "Yes, yes and yes!" Does that make you mad? "YES!" But are we really mad at our husbands and partners, or are we mad at the circumstances of our parenting arrangements? Are we really a continent of enraged mothers, silently seething at our significant others, filled with justifiable rage at their failure to measure up to our needs and expectations? Or do we all just find parenting really, really hard sometimes - not to mention isolating - and so just fall easily into the trap of resenting our partners for not - from our blinkered perspective - having it as hard? When we talk about being angry at our spouses, aren't we really, many of us, talking about being angry about hard this motherhood business can be, and about what a drag it is that the larger share of the burden of childcare has, over the course of human history, fallen to women? You know, as the ones with the boobs? Is this really about our own husbands at all? Or this about long-standing, world-historical tensions concerning divisions between men and women generally?

None of this is to say that my husband doesn't f*ck up sometimes, nor that he is perfectly attentive to my every need as his parenting partner. Sometimes he's just an outright doofus about things. And so I feel completely justified in feeling a teeny bit - maybe a whole lot - pissy when he asks why I can't just go to sleep earlier, or maybe nap when the baby is napping, or when he doesn't put away the laundry or when he says oh, hey, would you mind terribly if I just went out for a while to do whatever and left the kids with you? But the larger issues, the challenges and obstacles and difficulties that provoke real anger and deeper frustration: these are not his fault, and my emotional struggle with these should not be his cross to bear. This should be our shared burden, one that we manage, in part, by acknowledging that we both ache from the strain and and that we both buckle, sometimes, from the weight.

And then he should mix me a drink and rub my feet. Then we'll be good.

Where are you at with this whole angry-at-mah-hubby thing? Are you one of the 50% of the population that's filled with rage? Would a foot-rub help? Is it just me, or does even talking about mother-rage feel discomfiting? Like, if I had a good feminist household I wouldn't even be talking about this crap because dude would have a prosthetic, lactating breast machine strapped to his chest and would be nursing our baby himself while I added a few more degrees to my CV and maybe found a cure for cancer? GAH. Maybe I get angry because I fetishize the inside of my own head. That shit's tiring.

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Science Of Sleep

I think that I've said it here before, but I'll say it again: I'm exhausted. I'm going to say more about it right now, so if the topic of my slow spiral into sleep-deprived madness bores you, click away now.

When Emilia was a baby, I was pretty certain that I had the night-time sleep thing figured out. She refused, for the most part, to nap during the day, but was sleeping through the night from infancy and so I counted myself lucky. More than lucky: I was smart. I knew what I was doing, if only in this one area of motherhood. There were a lot of things that I couldn't figure out (like naps, which I bitched about heartily), but getting baby to sleep at night? I knew all about that. When I spoke to other moms who couldn't get their babies to sleep through the night, I shared my tactics - consistent bedtime routine, liberal use of loveys and binkies, a willingness to let baby fuss it out - and nodded sympathetically when they said that these tactics didn't work for them. I nodded sympathetically, but secretly, I wondered: were they doing it wrong? They must be doing something wrong. My formula worked like magic. Of course it was because it was exactly the right formula, and not because Emilia was simply disposed to sleep at night. I wasn't just lucky. I was doing something right.

I was wrong. I was lucky. Mostly. I mean, my tactics certainly helped - Emilia's bedtime routine was made all the more straightforward for its consistency and its props. She did need to fuss it out sometimes, and my willingness to allow that helped us through some difficult periods. But mostly? She was, and is, a good night sleeper.

Jasper is not. And nothing that I do seems able to change that.

I've tried everything - routine, props, fussing it out, crying it out, nursing before sleep, not nursing before sleep, swaddling, not swaddling, vodka (for me) - and then tried it all again, and none of it has worked. Sometimes he settles easily into his crib, sometimes he will only fall asleep in his car seat, but regardless of how he falls asleep, he does not stay asleep. He wakes up, always, a couple of hours after going down, and then he will not return to sleep unless he is tucked in at the breast, in bed, with me, and then he will wake up, invariably, every two hours or so to nurse or just to grab at me and make sure that I am still there. If I sneak away to another room - as I have been doing most nights, just to remove the temptation of boob and try to extend the minutes between wakings - he still wakes up, and yells Ma-Ma-Ma-Ma-Ma until I return.

And so it goes, night after night. The husband gets up with him in the mornings, when he can, which affords me a couple of hours of rest, but beyond that there is not much to be had. I stumble forward into each day, ever more tired, ever more slow, ever more blurred and bleary and dazed. I'm coping, in a way - there are worse things, certainly, than to be exhausted from caring for a beautiful, healthy, ever-happy baby - but still: I look ahead at the days and weeks and months of Jasper's babyhood and wonder whether I am fated to remain awake for the duration. And I wonder whether I will stay sane.

Of course I will stay sane. I'll be fine. Millions of mothers before me have endured sleeplessness. Many, indeed, have done it without the advantages of helpful husbands and king-sized beds and spare rooms and Ativan prescriptions. So I resist the urge to proclaim myself overwhelmed unto defeat. If my own mother could do it, so can I.

What I am having more trouble overcoming: the nagging worry that I am not just unlucky, that I am, in fact - against all evidence to the contrary - doing something wrong, that I am missing some vital resource, some work of science or art or magic that would change things, that would make my baby sleep at night. I think back to the nights of Emilia's babyhood, when I would stand outside her door and listen to her breathing and fight the urge to go in and - the mind boggles, it just boggles - wake her up to snuggle her, to have more time with her in her babyness, and I wonder whether that was a different woman, a different mother, a mother who knew things, things that I do not know, or have forgotten.

And then I wonder whether I am going crazy, and I shake the Ativan bottle to see how many pills are left and I calculate the odds of Jasper deciding to sleep through the night before they run out.

And I tell myself that I am very probably not that lucky.

Okay, maybe I'm a little bit lucky. It's just, you know, it'd be nice to look at them and not have them be blurry.

(I apologize - do I need to apologize? - for turning off comments so much recently. I've been doing it when a) I know that I need to back away from the computer - to, you know, maybe sleep a little bit - and won't be able to read comments, and b) when I'm just posting video of the babies, because that whole thing where you give way too much thought to whether people are going leave comments saying how cute they are and ohmigod what if no-one says they're cute? I don't like that. So I avoid the issue altogether. Feel free to tell me that you think that this is terrible of me. Because I worry about that, too.)

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Grace In Small Things: Stolen Moment In Dark Of Night Edition

It is the middle of the night. I am in a dark hotel room, my babies asleep within arms reach. I am listening to them breathing. I am listening, and I am loving the sound, the reassuring rhythm of the sound of their sleep. They will wake - sooner, later - and I will wrap my arms around them and kiss them and hush them and we will snuggle together and they will sleep and I will lay awake and we will pass the night and we will be happy, all of us. Even me, in my tiredness. I will be happy. I am happy

We have taken a little holiday, just we three. We have spent the day playing and eating and playing and swimming and eating and playing, just us, and then with good friends, and then just us again. There has been no Internet, no television, no distraction. Just us. Just us, and the untrammeled joy of just being just us.

Tomorrow, we'll play some more. And eat some more and swim some more. And then we'll go dancing. And we will laugh, a lot.

And then we'll go home and we will hug and kiss our fourth and we will wade back into the mess and busy-ness of home and work and life. Laptops will spring open. Televisions will be turned on. The buzz and hum will resume.

But we will be happy, because we will know that we can always turn off the buzz and hum, that we can always escape, even if we never step out the front door. Because we are each other's greatest joy.

We always know that. Sometimes it takes a little break to remind us, but we always know that.

We always know.

Edited, late Sunday
: from the vantage point of the day following an entirely sleepless night, this sentence - "
and they will sleep and I will lay awake and we will pass the night and we will be happy, all of us. Even me, in my tiredness. I will be happy" - reads like 50% nonsense, 30% delusion and maybe 20% rambling sentimentalism. The sentimentalism, fine - I do adore my children and I do consider myself happy and I am so glad to have taken a technology break this weekend - but really. Exhaustion sucks rancid cow poo, and I was not - I repeat, NOT - happy to get only five minutes' sleep last night. They are my greatest joy, yes, but they just might be trying to kill me, too.