Have you ever been so tired that you literally can’t see straight? So exhausted that you break down crying because you can’t remember what you need to do next?
I have. And so have many, many mothers I know.
It’s not just sleep, either. Even if our kids are sleeping through the night, we are running ourselves ragged trying to keep up with Mrs. Jones, who has three perfectly manicured toddlers and a baby in a moby wrap, all with genius-level IQs (thanks to Mrs. Jones’ homemade flashcards at an early age). Never mind the fact that we’ve never actually met Mrs. Jones – we’ve been told she exists, and that’s enough.
Some of this exhaustion is to be expected – I mean, babies don’t sleep well for a long time (months, usually), and figuring out how to keep a whole human being from either killing himself or turning into a psychopath is no easy feat.
But the rest of it? The rest of it is just more of those horrible, unattainable standards that make women feel like failures. Meet Modern Motherhood: a culmination of Attachment Parenting, Studies (you know, “studies show…”), and the ideal of Having it All ideal.
Feminism was supposed to give women equal rights. If we wanted to, we could work and have kids at the same time. Or work and have no kids. Or stay home and raise kids – if we wanted to. Unfortunately, it turned out that we’re expected to manage all of these things – plus do all the crap we did in the 50s.
While some women are lucky enough to have partners that contribute 50% in every way, my husband works a job that takes him out of the home for 80 hours a week. Most friends of ours are dual-income families where one partner works signifcantly more than the other, and the other person has to take care of the home in addition to their full-time job. That person is usually the woman. There is an unbelievable amount of pressure on women, and everyone has a different opinion – which of course means, you can never do anything “right.”
If you’re a stay-at-home-mom, you have let women everywhere down because you aren’t “feminist” enough to work. Being a mother isn’t a contribution to society – you’re a loser and a disappointment to feminists everywhere.
If you’re a working mom, you’re a letting your children down – daycare? You’re letting someone else raise your children? You hideous beast – what kind of mother are you?
But whether you’re working or staying at home, Modern Motherhood is guaranteed to make you not only feel like a failure, but cause you to lose your damn mind in the process:
Guidelines for Babyhood: Never Let your Baby Cry (or they will develop an anxiety disorder)
(Disclaimer: obviously I’m making these points dramatic for the sake of good humor, but really – this is how it feels to be a hormonal mother to a newborn baby. I say this, too, as a mother that is still breastfeeding a 17 month-old, co-slept for 5.5 months, and wore her infant everywhere. So don’t get all offended, Dr. Sears.)
1. When your baby is born, you need to begin breastfeeding immediately. Breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world. Your baby will bob it’s little head, rooting around for your nipple, which he will find in moments and begin to nurse. If it doesn’t happen that way for you, it’s because you are doing something wrong and have failed as a mother. Also, you must breastfeed exclusively – at whatever cost. If you can’t do it, you are a failure as a mother and your child will be damaged FOREVER. FORMULA IS THE DEVIL’S WORK. Breast is best.
2. Wear your baby. All the time. They need to feel close to you – after all, they were in your womb for nine months – you can’t just LEAVE THEM SOMEWHERE. It’s called the fourth trimester, a—hole. You better figure out how to take a poop with a baby strapped to you – otherwise, you’re inattentive and have failed as a mother.
3. Put your baby down for bed swaddled, drowsy but awake. They will fall asleep quietly in a few minutes. If that doesn’t work, you suck. But because attachment parenting is a set of guidelines (not rules), here are a few other ways to do it: nurse them until they fall asleep or your nipple falls off. If the latter, switch sides and apply lanolin to the first nipple. Shush them. Bounce them up and down while sitting on an exercise ball. Play white noise. If your baby is still crying, you simply aren’t trying hard enough.
4. Co-sleeping is the best way to sleep, but make sure you do it safely so you don’t suffocate your kid. What? The idea of suffocating your helpless newborn scares you? You can’t put your baby in a freezing cold crib all by himself! We are social creatures! All other societies share beds! We Americans have it all wrong and are causing our children to have insecure attachments, which is why they are all shooting up schools! Do you want to raise a murderer?! Talk about being a failure as a mother.
5. Whatever you do, don’t let your baby cry. At all costs, don’t subscribe to “convenience” parenting (AKA selfish parenting). If you let your baby cry, it’s because you value your own sleep, personal space, or desire to have a life over your child’s emotional development. You are not only a failure as a mother, but a horrible person as well.
When you’re in the midst of the hardest thing you’ve ever done, to be constantly told “hey – you doin’ it wrong” really isn’t helpful. And to be told that you simply need to try harder when you’ve already tried as hard as you can possibly imagine? Also really not helpful.
These “guidelines” make women feel guilty – because really, there’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re failing this tiny, helpless little person who you love more than anything. These “guidelines” make us push ourselves to the limit and beyond – and what do we get for it? Are our swaddled, moby-wrapped, breastfed babies really better off for it? Maybe – but not if their mothers are exhausted, depressed shells of their former selves.
Let me tell you a little story. When my daughter was a baby, I belonged to a mother’s group at our local hospital. The group was my saving grace – being around a group of women who were going through the same thing I was made me feel less alone. When she was 5.5 months old, I was so tired I truly could not see straight. I went to my mother’s group, which I’d been looking forward to all week because FINALLY SOMEONE WOULD UNDERSTAND, and I broke down crying, BEGGING for help. Daphne had been waking up every hour – literally every hour – for a month, and I couldn’t take it anymore. The whole “sleep when the baby sleeps” was a joke – her naps were only 30 minutes long, and I had to nurse her and pat her back until she fell asleep, which took 45 minutes in and of itself.
The nurse who ran our group said, “this is what babies are like – they need their mothers. Have you tried co-sleeping? Nursing her in the middle of the night using the side-lying position?” Yes, yes, I had tried that.
“Well, my daughter didn’t sleep through the night for 27 months,” she said, shaking her head.
I can’t even describe the devastation I felt when I heard 27 months. TWENTY. SEVEN. MONTHS. I wouldn’t make it. I left that day feeling totally deflated.
The next week I went back to the group in the exact same position, but I really couldn’t deal with it anymore – and after taking the wrong way home and ending up in a bad neighborhood, my sleep deprivation was a danger. My mother had been saying, “Charlotte, you need to let her cry. She does not know how to sleep, and you can’t teach her by walking around in the kitchen in circles for an hour.” But I couldn’t let her cry, because the guilt that I was failing my daughter was too great. I picked up Dr. Weissbuth’s book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, and realized that my mom was right – Daphne did not know how to go to sleep by herself, and the sleep-deprivation was actually damaging to her. In my attempt to follow Attachment Parenting, I was damaging both my child and myself. My baby was 5.5 months old, and I told the group that I was considering cry-it-out.
I am not exaggerating when I say there was an audible gasp – not just from the nurse, but from nearly every mother in the room. How dare I even SUGGEST letting my child CRY?! What kind of mother can listen to her child scream? She’d be terrified! Left to cry alone, with no support! Too little to understand what was going on! She would be damaged forever! The guilt was awful, and now I felt like I couldn’t win. I either broke her trust by letting her cry, or I caused long-term damage to her IQ by letting her get more and more sleep-deprived.
If not for my two mom friends, I would not have done it. And there’s no way to tell for sure, but I have a feeling that Daphne still wouldn’t have any idea how to put herself to sleep. We would both be totally miserable.
I still follow a lot of the points of Attachment Parenting; I even find them helpful or sometimes simply agree with them. But the guilt I feel when the ideas don’t work? I flat-out think it’s damaging to women, who often have to do it all, all by themselves. Unfortunately we don’t live in a world of villages anymore. My parents don’t live near me. Neither do my husband’s, and he works a demanding full-time job. I just can’t do it all myself.
And even with that in mind, I still have the guilty feelings running through my head a year later. Want to check your email? Respond to a work crisis? You’re a terrible mother. Inattentive. Your daughter just wants to interact with you – learn from you. And you, you evil bitch, care more about your iPhone than your own child.
Which brings me to…
Guidelines for Toddlerhood: Respond to your Child’s Every Need (or they will be stupid)
You are solely responsible for your child’s emotional and intellectual development. Entertain them at all times. They don’t even know that their hand is part of their own body for months, but if you don’t show them black & white flashcards, their IQ will be 20 points lower than your neighbor’s kid. When they’re older, play puzzles with them. Only use wooden toys, because plastic will kill them. Do not turn on the television before they’re two, or their brains will turn to mush. Do not leave them to play by themselves, or they won’t feel loved.
I mean, really people: what kinds of mothers are we creating here? Self-sacrificing women who give up EVERYTHING for their children. The “good” mother whose kid loves broccoli, has never been exposed to the hazards of TV, listens to classical music and knows sign language. What has she had to sacrifice? Maybe some women don’t feel like they’ve sacrificed anything. But my guess is that the majority of women have sacrificed a lot – and they still feel like they aren’t doing enough.
And are those sacrifices good examples for our daughters? Do we want them to grow up and drop everything for another person? Or alternatively, do we want them to grow up expecting undivided attention, and becoming frustrated when the world doesn’t revolve around them?
When I was little, I played by myself a lot, and I think that has a lot to do with why I have such a good imagination. When our children expect us to play with them all the time, are we really doing them a service? Or are we teaching them to rely on other people instead of themselves?
I know they say “kids with good attachment are more confident earlier, blah blah blah,” but I don’t know if I buy it. One thing that has surprised me about kids is that so much more is “nature” than I ever expected. Daphne is, by nature, a very shy kid. I don’t think any amount of cuddling will make her more secure around of strangers. Meanwhile, some of the kids of parents who did cry-it-out and bottle-fed their kids are running up to strangers, smiling at doctors, and playing with kids they don’t know. They have secure attachments to their mothers, just like Daphne does. They are happy.
I think we’re putting too much pressure on women, and I don’t think this method will raise healthy, independent children. I think Modern Motherhood is the opposite of feminism. You can’t have kids and your life – you have to give up everything for them. No, no one is saying, “you have to give up everything for your children,” (in fact, you sometimes hear, “take care of yourself when you need to,” but it’s such an afterthought it has to be a joke – and it’s sorta not possible to do without messing up your goal of Raising the Perfect Child). But you do have to give up everything. Because it’s impossible to do what is asked of you AND have a life. And to pretend otherwise is wrong.
I am not advocating that you leave your baby to cry in a corner while you play around on Facebook or paint your toenails. But I am advocating for some balance here. What are we doing to ourselves? Let’s stop giving the side-eye when someone says they had to let their kid cry it out, or that they turn on Sesame Street every morning, or they answer their emails while their kid chews on blocks. There is a middle ground between sacrificing nothing and sacrificing everything, and every mother I know is doing her absolute best. Modern Motherhood is hard – let’s give ourselves a break.