Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Connecting the Mothers to the Childless

One of the huge hurdles I see women facing today is relating across the parenthood line. When I was pregnant for the first time I had no peers who were first time mothers with me. I swore I wouldn't change, I could be a mother and hang out with my girlfriends and life didn't have to change *that much*. Well, I kept part of the promise and I do try to always conjure up the smell of being childless. I need it especially when I read certain articles (such as the article I read last night in Marie Claire about a woman being revoked godmother status) or talk on the phone with a long lost childless friend. But as time passes, it is harder and harder to remember. I don't want to stop reading certain magazines when I realize I can barely empathize with a writer, nor do I want to take breaks from friends when I sense they don't "get" me anymore.

Lately a few things have happened that make me feel the need to write about this and open up a discussion of the language barrier between those with and without children dominating their lives.

One very wonderful thing is that a close friend just had her first baby. She is a child expert, a step-mother and a teacher. Yet she said to me with such deep mixed emotion the other day "I just didn't understand how hard it was." I hugged her and I said, "you aren't supposed to, nobody ever does." I got thinking why IS this the case? Why does our culture not get it? I know she wanted to understand, just as I did too during my first pregnancy. Is it simply that we do not have words in our language that describe the changes that happen to you simultaneously when you have a newborn? Do we not do a good job mentoring women? At Birth Circle I feel like there is such a spirit of understanding, even between the first-time and third-time pregnant women. But is there ever a circle that includes the women who don't think about being pregnant or becoming mothers and what it all means to the feminist movement? I want to find this...or create this.

So that is one thing to muse on. Really it is how to get the childless women interested in this sort of thing when becoming a parent is a distant point in the future. It just doesn't seem real enough to care about until you are pregnant. But by then the learning curve is so steep, much steeper than it needs to be.

Another thing that happened is I read this post on the newly formed collaborative blog to discuss modern feminism. I am so grateful that I have friends who "speak" Feminism better than I do to help us start some good discussions. When I think about what we teach childless women, younger and older, about how to balance family with work, something truly does get lost in translation. I do think a lot has to do with how we use the word "career" and luckily, I read a review of a new book that encourages people (ok, women specifically) to rethink their "career" as a series of waves instead of as a ladder. I don't think we make clear that a "career" doesn't stop or start but is always morphing as your passions and commitments change. And this is a good thing.

While kids are happily playing I want to wrap this up and get talking about it more. The last thing I wanted to bring up are the actual phrases women use after they become mothers that I don't hear childless women using. I recently used "it is just too much" in an email to two very dear girlfriends as they/we attempted to plan a get-together. I have been wondering, did they both understand what I meant? One friend is a working mother with two children, the other is childless and in a long-term relationship. Did I ever say "it is just too much" in my childless life? I don't think I did. And if I heard it, and I do think I did, I thought "what is too much? just get a babysitter!" or "it is too much to prioritize your friends?" or a myriad of other things.

I may have to title a blog "It is Just Too Much" to really elaborate on all the things that includes. But now I have a crying child and I'd love to know any initial thoughts you have out there!


Rixa said...

Great things to think about. I can't think of anything profound to add, but I enjoyed thinking about the ideas you raised.

katescales said...

"It's just too much" has become my natural state since my monkey has developed opinions of her own and can't be carted happily everywhere I go. Despite having worked as a nanny (to twin infants!) and spending my youth babysitting, I really had no idea what it was going to be like. There was an interesting article in the Washington Post magazine on Sunday about a Women in Business class that addresses work/life balance. It seems like that stuff should be taught in high school, as part of Home Ec--here's how to cook, here's how to sew, here's how to find decent childcare...

Naticia said...

I will write more hopefully, but what pops up right away, is how that crying child that needs attention in the now, makes writing a blog, or sometimes even finishing a thought, difficult. There are only so many things one tries to do, because doing "too much" increases the proportion of feelings of failure, and parenting is just not a realm where we are allowed to fail.

We can fail to keep a sterile home, we can fail to have 28 balanced meals a week, we can fail to get the weeks groceries, but we can't fail at responding to the needs of our children during their formative years. Regardless of whether we do it perfectly or not.

The other adults in our lives are just that: educated, self advocating individuals that have a wide array of choices. The children in our lives are largely dependent as they form their identity and develop their skills and their inclinations to be productive, they cannot advocate for themselves and say "I have had a rough day, I need mom home to put me to bed tonight because that one extra hug is going to make all the difference in the peace in my heart." They do not have the choice or rather the ability to put off getting needs met--like I will get my nurturing at this time, and I will be independent and self sufficient the balance of the time.

As far as staying connected to the "childless" lifestyle, I did not find it something that worried me--ever. It never occured to me to be worried. It is true that my childless friends don't get as much of the same sort of time as we used to have, but the transition and change in the relationship has included my children. They are now the aunties and uncles of my kids and a part of my kids' reality as well as mine.

Because so much of the majority of the world is either a parent or primary care giver in one way or another, and because the world is so unfriendly, generally speaking, to children, I want kids and my kids, to be a part of everyone's reality and to be recipients of understanding and compassion. There is a narrow window of time, comparatively speaking, when one is not either a child, or involved with children...what, like 18 to ---so say a 20 year window, and then by the time the 20 years are done, a large number of parents are sliding back into a childless life as their birds leave the nest.

It would definitely help me as a mom to stay in contact with the literature and thought process of the childless, in order to be able to understand their sensitivities. However, any friend who refuses to speak with me on the phone because I have children in the back ground, or because I may have to stop to pour a bath, either needs to be invited into the world of children and welcomed, or should set up an appointment for sharing time that does not include kids.

This is a job, and not one that automatically comes with free Friday nights.

You raised the point about what kind of job our culture does mentoring women....we don't parent in public/neighborhoods, and roads are no longer the places where kids hang out and parents gather. We aren't in each others homes, we just don't see families being families in public except perhaps on a rare Saturday morning. I think the extremity of paradigm shift that takes place on becoming a mother is due to the same reason that in our culture so many women have unprecedented issues around breast feeding the first time--we just don't see it. We don't get to witness the flow of family life, we don't get to understand the effect to the whole day that a half hour of crying first thing in the morning may have, we don't get to see the joy and fun of family life, the relaxed moments, the demanding moments, all those yummy moments that make it all worth while. Not seeing it, makes it hard for the childless (by choice childless) to see why we make the choices we do and why we would never in a million zillion years give it up.

I LOVE parenting, and I love that my single/childless friends are a part of our family life, and I feel lucky that we can accept each other and our differences in life style fully.

Thanks C.


Annie @ PhD in Parenting said...

Great post! I have a number of childless friends and I often find myself thinking that they just don't get it and that the things that are important to me, may seem trivial to them.

helenastrick said...

Lots of thoughts to ponder here... but I'd like to offer a different perspective on this issue. As moms, I think we all can agree that childless women don't really understand how hard it is to be a mom. As a woman who went though years of infertility, I think it's important to consider that most moms also don't realize how hard it is for some women to be childless. In my experience, being an infertile woman who desperately wanted children was much harder than being a mom is for me now.

Bird said...

I agree with the other comments and wanted to add a comment about judgment. Last week three friends who do not have children came to my house for brunch. We had a lovely time, they all adore my baby boy and are wonderful with babies generally, but at one point a discussion arose about how a woman one of them knew was parenting her 11 month-old. My friends are intelligent young women, but they, like most of us!, thought they knew the best way to take care of a baby and this woman's strategy was clearly, in my friends' estimation, wrong-headed. This baby's parents keep him too managed, too clean, too safe, apparently. They talk to him too much like he understands what they are saying. I didn't say anything at the time (like, that it's encouraged that you to talk to your little ones even though they don't understand), but it really bothered me for a couple of reasons. First, because it's hard enough to be a mom and do the best you think you can without feeling like you are doing *something* wrong in *someone's* view. Second, because these young women do not have children of their own and therefore do not know what it is like to take care of an infant who is sick or gets hurt. Moreover, when it is your own child, you are more automatically protective than when you are observing someone else's mothering; you are more aware of the potential dangers lurking around every corner when you have a child of your own. Yes, I am sure it is possible to over-protect your baby, but I don't know this woman or her family situation and neither do most of the other girls discussing her parenting skills. Knowing how hard it is to be a mother, I feel inclined to avoid judging others' ways of parenting. I don't think that childless women are more judgmental of mothers than other mothers are- indeed, I am positive other mothers are far more critical of their peers! To be honest, I don't know which bothers me more, childless women judging mothers or mothers judging mothers. But I think that if childless women had a better understanding of how hard it is, they would at least hold off on passing judgment with such ease. How to get mothers to have better solidarity and less peer judgment is another matter altogether...

Naticia said...

helenastric makes a great point. What does raising kids with our unable to have kids friends do to the friendship dynamic? In Malawi if you meet someone who doesn't have kids they are immediately offered condolences regardless of if they want them or not.

I wonder how this works in countries with negative population growth...can't remember where, where the gov't "pays you" to have children. Definitely a new variety of paradigms of adulthood.

Naticia said...

Bird--the judgment part is something that I have discussed with my mom friends, felt pressured by, and inadvertently done. This is something that is hard in a society where having opinions and expressing them are as natural as breathing. It is hard not to feel pressured to have an opinion, and accept that it is okay for somethings to just be. It makes it hard parenting.

I find my kid saying "I have finished my drink" and myself saying "that is okay" -- How about "are you filled up?" or even a silent acknowledgment? Even her actions that just are are judged, and I always catch it right after. She isn't asking for my approval, it just is.

Segway over.

Anyways, I agree with the non-judging as hard as it is to achieve sometimes, and knowing when we judge we make an awful lot of assumptions. Judging has a place when children are being abused or neglected, but only if there is going to be a resulting action, right?

Christine Gresser said...

C, I loved this. I don't have time (!) to post a thoughtful comment right now, just wanted to peek my head in and say how glad i am that you're blogging this.

Melody said...

Just waiting for your next post!

Stop over at my blog, you've won an award!

Anonymous said...

Some of us decide to be child free. We do not feel empty or childless. We have chosen not to have children. There are enough of you already populating the world.