When visiting your friend who has a new baby

This is a blog I’ve been meaning to write for well over a year, sort of. When I the little dude many friends said “you’re the first person I know with a baby, you should write an etiquette guide on the blog”. And I didn’t because I didn’t want to offend anyone who strayed from the guide. 

Tomorrow I’m visiting a colleague who had a baby last week. So I’m writing this, finally, as a refresher for myself! 

1) Take food. You have to take food. Take much food. If you don’t have time to make food, take food from a shop, but make it decent. The food is for the new parents, it is to be presented in a form that they can use later with no more effort than it takes to push microwave buttons, it is not for you to eat while visiting. 

2) Say that the baby is the most beautiful thing in the world.

3) Do not ask to hold the baby. But if the parents ask if you want to hold the baby, say yes, because they probably mean “please hold baby for a moment so that I can be not holding the baby for a moment”.

4) Unilaterally do chores. Do not accept offers of drinks, etc. If they offer you a drink say “no, you sit, I’ll get a drink for you.” Then wash the cups before you leave.

5) Don’t stay more than about half an hour, or an hour tops. Visit frequently by all means (that will probably be greatly appreciated), but make it brief. 

6) If you are a parent yourself, give much general sympathy and moral support. Give practical tips where appropriate and relevant. Don’t be patronising. 

7) Did I mention bring food? 

8) Don’t say you’re tired. 

9) If the mother is breastfeeding, take your cue from her as to whether you stay in the room or not while the baby feeds. If she leaves the room, definitely don’t follow. 

10) Don’t ask about childbirth. 

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Parenting for the child who owes you nothing

I have recently read Jessica Valenti’s “Why Have Kids” and I was in the midst of writing some thoughts on it when I stumbled across this piece about parenting teenagers. 

I brought the little dude into the office last week, and my (male) boss wanted to “have a cuddle”, but the little dude showed no signs of reciprocating the interest and held firmly to my arms. I wondered afterwards whether my boss expected me to pass him over anyway, which I didn’t. “Ah, I miss the baby stage” said my boss “just wait til they’re teenagers”. 

One of the themes of the article about teenagers is the loss of power over children when they reach adolescence and assert themselves. I look at the little dude though and he is already asserting himself as an individual; he has done since he was tiny. Even while they are totally dependant they seek autonomy. Part of the challenge of parenting a pre-verbal child is figuring out what they want, so you can respond to it. I look forward to a time when I can reason with him, when I can explain, when his wants aren’t so alien to me (current fascinations: the cat door, the compost bin, tubs with lids, cupboard doors, the air vent on the dehumidifier). I can make him do things with my bigger stronger smarter prowess, but I don’t like to treat him like an object, so I always try and explain things as well. This feels a bit ridiculous and veers into a monologue that acknowledges his lack of understanding “Wait just a minute darling, let’s stay still while I change your nappy, no rolling, aah goddamn it kid just stop wriggling for one bloody second, ah now there’s poo everywhere, look if you just stayed still this would all be over so much more quickly and then you could play with the tubs as much as you want!!”. 

Once, time distant, he was inside me and I was in complete control of his life. He would lean his heel against the side of my belly and I would feel and see the little lump from the outside, and I would push back against it “hey baby, move your foot, that’s not comfy”. Then he was born, and he was initially dependent on me for all sustenance. And he was immobile, we held him so gingerly, but we also left him on a blanket on the floor and he would stay there, just looking. Now if I put him down on the ground while I peg out the washing he walks over to the apple tree and triumphantly picks a low hanging fruit and starts to eat it, joyful in his independence, already. He’s like a miniature grown-up says my husband. He’s just a really small person. 

There is a quote in the article that gave me great pause:

Their [the teenage girls] mothers are known as “she.” When I first heard about “she,” I was slightly puzzled by her status, which was somewhere between servant and family pet. “She” came in for a lot of contempt, most of it for acts of servitude and attention that she didn’t appear to realize were unwanted, like a spurned lover continuing to send flowers when the recipient’s affections have moved elsewhere. She’s such a doormat, one of them says. When I forget something I need for school, I just text her and she comes all the way across town with it. She’s so — pathetic. I don’t know what Dad even sees in her. Why doesn’t she get a job or something?

The talk of these girls brings on a distinct queasiness. I think of the many women I know who agonized over work when their children were small, who curtailed and compromised and very often gave up their careers, sometimes in the belief that it was morally correct and sometimes out of sheer exhaustion. Dad, meanwhile, is revered for his importance in the world. I hear them discuss, with what I am guessing is a degree of exaggeration, their fathers’ careers and contacts and the global impact of the work they do; unlike “she,” their fathers are hardworking, clever, successful, cool. They describe them as if they’d only just met them; they describe them as if they’d discovered them, despite the conspiracy to keep these amazing creatures hidden.

When people say that parenting is a thankless endeavour, this is what I think of. What if you do all this work raising a kid and then they don’t even like you? Valenti in “Why Have Kids” picks apart the trope of parenting as the “hardest/most important job in the world” – it’s not a job, she says, it is a relationship. Yes, but. We have hopes for our relationships with our children, but we can expect nothing. 

Those of us who have good relationships with our own parents might breezily assume that we will sail through the teenage years because after all, surely our kids will like us? We’ll be the cool parents. And I re-read the paragraphs in that quote and I know it speaks to something that has been in the back of my mind since becoming a mother, what sort of mother will he want when he is an adult? Your children don’t owe you a damn, one thing about good relationships is that you can’t force them. 

My parents are in Tokyo. They are on their way to visit my brother in Spain. When they booked their flights I felt somewhat envious, and also a little bit bereft – what if while they’re gone we get sick or something and they’re not here to help out? All grown up with a baby of my own and still, there’s that sense of preferring my parents to be on hand just in case I need them. I like to think I’d be there for them too if they needed me, but last year while we were still getting the hang of parenthood the support definitely mainly flowed from them to me. When I was sick earlier in the year my dad took the little dude to the supermarket and let me have a rest. My mum comes round after work sometimes, and it is always so nice hanging out, for both me and the little dude. She is worried that he’ll forget her while she’s away. 

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have a mother or father who was retired, or had never been in paid work, and was always available for caregiving of the grandkids – like my grandmother was for me. On the other hand, what if Mr Daddy and I never have grandchildren – we could go to Spain for more than six weeks, we could do whatever we want. You just never know, that’s the thing. You can’t have any expectations of the future. It doesn’t work like that.  

This means also that it is foolish to think in terms of a future pay-off for the hard bits of early-years parenting. Parenting requires you to give so much and in so many ways that I think it is tempting, especially for mothers, to just give in to the giving. But children don’t ask for that and they won’t necessarily thank you later for giving over your life to them: they might look at you with disdain, you might bore them to tears, they might think the very things that you saw as worthy sacrifices make you an insufferable presence. Valenti terms this “total motherhood”, the idea that motherhood becomes one’s whole identity and anything you do for yourself is suspect, that you should be all mother all the time. She has a great critique of this – particularly around the idea of marginal effort vs the benefit the child perceives. Her recommendation is that we get better at setting up boundaries, creating space to look after our own interests. I think this is very important. I would add though that it is also important to give in a generous spirit, and respectfully as well, recognising that this child does need you for many things – and one of those things is to teach by example the value of unconditional kindness. 

Who is childcare for?

Last night was one of those nights that you can’t really even begin to describe to non-parent friends because they start to get a panicked rabbit look in their eyes. The little dude went to bed at around 7, and woke just after midnight. He just wouldn’t go back to sleep. We tried everything, bonjela, pamol, nappy change, extra layer of clothing, rocking, bouncing, breastfeeding, shushing, patting, walking round the house, putting him in our bed. He clearly wanted to be asleep but was too frantically uncomfortable from the teething pain to be able to relax. Obviously, we got him back to sleep eventually, but I don’t even want to tell you what time because it’s too depressing. 

So this morning, when we woke up, well, we were all pretty wretched. It was one of those mornings when I was inordinately glad that I’m no longer a stay at home parent. After that night, I had no emotional energy left. 

I dropped him off at creche (late), and they gave him some toast with marmite (good kiwi kid, it’s a favourite), and he seemed totally happy and waved me goodbye with a smile. When I picked him up, he hadn’t had good naps but seemed chipper enough. He had a good little play at home, and a very messy dinner which involved getting a lot of food in his hair. He didn’t enjoy his bath because of the necessity of removing food from hair. And then began the process of getting him to sleep. 

Same problem as the middle of the night. C’mon kid, I got nothing more to give, it’s been 45 minutes already, it’s been an hour now, it’s an hour and a half, it’s two hours kid c’mon when are you going to fall asleep and what more do you want from me? 

Childcare is usually discussed in the context of families where both parents work outside the home. For older preschoolers, aged three and above, there is a universal subsidy but it is justified purely on the grounds that it is educational for the kids. They’re there to get experiences that will enable them to do well in primary school! They will read sooner! There’s an ambivalence about the role of childcare for children who are pre-verbal – especially centres like the one my son attends where there is a room full of kids and several caregivers, rather than one-on-one care in the home. Like it’s a second best option and the ideal would be the mother or another caregiver providing all the care all the time. Or maybe it’s ok, but only if the mother is going to work and she has to go to work for the family income or her own sanity.

Some of the creches I looked at bore out this concern. One in particular seemed like a place to store the babies for the day. It wasn’t dire or anything, it was just not all that nice, and not all that welcoming. One was fine but extremely small, so the kids couldn’t really explore all that much. I was delighted when I visited the creche my son now attends, because it’s super lovely and it’s incredibly convenient and it’s not more expensive that the other creches we looked at and they had space to enrol him. The variance in quality is of course concerning, but that’s what you get from something that isn’t publicly provided. The ideal creche will have a small group of children and a high ratio of carers, age appropriate learning and discovery activities, nutritious meals and snacks, a welcoming cosy environment, a nice sleeping space, recognition of cultural and other diversity, and will feel like a “value add” beyond what the parents can provide at home. The settling in period was hard for the little dude, but now when I drop him off I can be entirely confident that his day will be as good if not better than it would be with me. That’s not to minimise the value of spending time with him – I love having my two afternoons with him, and weekends are precious precious precious. But on Monday morning, he’s eager to wriggle out of my arms and get down and play with all the cool toys we don’t have at home. 

His creche uses an online update system to send me “learning stories” during the day. Today I got a story about how the children were learning about shapes and colour, and there was a photo of my son and other children smearing their painted fingers across a big circular piece of cardboard. I probably wouldn’t do stuff like that at home all that often because it’s a lot of hassle.

The physical space is lovely too. They have a covered outside area and a sandpit and the inside area in the under-2 room is all set up to be toddler safe so they can wander about at their leisure and play with things low down on the walls, like this genius little panel with several different doorknobs for them to turn. One day when I arrived to pick him up the six children present were sitting down shaking maracas and bashing drums while one of the teachers played the ukulele and sang. 

All of this means that I feel entirely certain he’s getting something out of it already. Which is not to say that other care arrangements, including parent at home, are any worse. Parents I know still at home with kids the same age as the little dude do cool stuff like go to the park and Tinytown and Te Papa and story time at the library and swimming classes and it sounds great. I hear fantastic things about Playcentres. Some people swear by au pairs or nannies or in-home carers. Lots of options. 

Yet, good quality out of home care is one option that has particular scope to improve the early childhood experience of kiddies whose care arrangements at home leave something to be desired. 

This is why the price tag is not just a problem for parents in paid work. If anything, it’s least of all a problem for those parents. If you’re going out to work you have to put the child somewhere, and everything is expensive, so a good quality creche is a feasible option if you can find one. But if you’re not in paid employment, it’s completely out of reach for most people. 

This is a shame, for two reasons. First and possibly foremost, caring for a child fulltime really takes it out of you and it is amazingly awesome as a parent to be able to have a break. Second, and also really important, not every kid with a stay at home parent does cool activities all day with the added bonus of mum or dad being around. For whatever reason: no car and living far away from amenities accessible on public transport; parents who just aren’t that interested; parents who are unwell; parents who want to do their bests but don’t have a knack for thinking of and executing the sorts of activities kids enjoy. It sucks that those kids miss out at home, and also miss out on the opportunity to have that lack made up for in out of home care. And it sucks the most that the reason they don’t have the opportunity to attend a creche like the one my lucky boy goes to and play and paint and sing and have a good time is because of government funding priorities. 

10 Feminist motherhood questions revisited

I blogged my response to the bluemilk feminist motherhood questions last year in early April. 

I’m revisiting now. I haven’t changed my answer to the first question, all others are new.

Original post here.

How would you describe your feminism in one sentence? When did you become a feminist? Was it before or after you became a mother?

Feminism to me means acknowledging that society is built around a male template for personhood, and insisting that this must change. I’ve always been a feminist – my main introduction to feminism was the centenary of women’s suffrage when I was 6 (I was obsessed with the suffragettes). My mother is a feminist and so were most of my female role models growing up.

What has surprised you most about motherhood?

The level of kinship I feel with other mothers I meet. Partly because if I meet a mother, I automatically assume that this right here is an awesome awesome person who has done and continues to do something amazing with her life. But also, y’know, people who can relate to experiences like “for lunch I had avocado on toast. It wasn’t guacamole, it was purée the baby rejected”

How has your feminism changed over time? What is the impact of motherhood on your feminism?

It’s gotten angrier and also more inclusive and intersectional. The angriness is largely a result of feeling, as a mother, like I’m part of a group that is taken advantage of in our world. The inclusivity is a matter of reading around more and educating myself on issues that I struggled to relate to when I first came across them. Possibly there is a connection: the way the experiences of motherhood are silence and sidelined may have prompted me to be more aware of other experience that are even more silenced. 

What makes your mothering feminist? How does your approach differ from a non-feminist mother’s? How does feminism impact upon your parenting?

I stand by my previous statement that I think a lot of mothers do feminist work without really waving a feminist flag. But I also think that the flag waving is important. Feminist mothers need to really work towards addressing the structural issues like lack of extended paid parental leave and early childcare subsidies that make women financially vulnerable. And all the other stuff. There’s a lot of feminist stuff that affects mothers more than others.  

Do you ever feel compromised as a feminist mother? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a feminist mother?

I think I went in to motherhood not sure what being a feminist mother would look like for me in 2014 and beyond, so I’m not sure whether I’ve compromised my ideal or not! At times I’ve felt held hostage to my love for the little dude, and I’ve felt a tension between wanting to share the parenting as equally as possible but also sorta wanting to feel like “I got this, me and baby, we’re a good team” – especially when my husband was working long hours and so wasn’t around as much. It’s a tricky one. 

Has identifying as a feminist mother ever been difficult? Why?

Nope. But probably people presume lawyer+woman+baby=feminist mother. 

Motherhood involves sacrifice, how do you reconcile that with being a feminist?

I think maybe I read this wrong last year. It’s not that motherhood requires sacrifices ( as in plural, discrete sacrifices), it’s that being a mother is itself an enormous sacrifice of your future autonomy and your sense of being the centre of your own life. I have found that being a mother means I automatically go to put the little dude first, and putting myself ahead requires conscious effort. I don’t think this is at odds with feminism per se, I do think it is at odds with a individualistic conception of feminism; but also that it is a phenomenon feminism needs to take into account in our conversations about motherhood and work and society and female advancement and our image of what the feminist utopia would look like. For example, what sort of sacrifice does motherhood actually require in the abstract vs in this particular place and time? A lot of the sacrifices I have made, I feel I should not be called to make. Mothers should not be in a position where 85% of our awake time is spent in either paid or unpaid work. But that’s pretty much my reality. 

If you have a partner, how does your partner feel about your feminist motherhood? What is the impact of your feminism on your partner?

It’s been an interesting year on this front. I think it’s enormously problematic that it is so hard to combine parenting and paid work. In terms of our relationship, and in terms of feminist relationships generally, I suppose I’m increasingly skeptical that you can have equality when there is long-term differentiation of caregiving and income earning roles. 

When I first went back to paid work, my husband took three week’s leave, and I think that was very helpful just as a little window into what life was like for me last year. I’ve also found that going back to the office has really helped me relate to how he experienced last year. I used to find it monstrous that he would get home late and say “I was in the swing of things at work and I had this thing I wanted to get done and just wasn’t thinking about home and didn’t think an extra half hour would be such a big deal!”. I would respond “How can you possibly forget?! Half an hour is an eternity when you are alone with a baby! Half and hour in his day is a huge chunk of his awake time!”, etc. Then there were some days when I first returned to the office and I had the exact same experience, and so I got to creche half an hour later… and on those days, I could see in my baby’s face that I had pushed him too far and I remembered “shit, half an hour, actually a long time for him!”. 

I also think we have to be careful to bear in mind that if we consider as feminists that the caring sphere has long been undervalued and is actually really important, then the exclusion of men from that sphere is a feminist issue and we need to work to enable their inclusion.  We need to acknowledge that it is really hard on them that they are expected to go out and earn the money and not feel sad if they don’t make it home in time for bedtime because they’re big manly men who don’t have feelings. This leads back though to the perennial issues of working conditions that accommodate family responsibilities…

We’re all up against a capitalist superstructure that makes it extremely difficult to have two people in a partnership equally combining work and childcare. This also means that I think those of us with husbands who, while imperfect, at least call themselves feminists, need to remember that this battle for equality has many fronts. Even if my husband doesn’t do the dishes as often as I do, I hope that the things he does in the office will help contribute to change – things like trying harder and harder to push back against the expectations of long working hours. 

A final point, I also realised being back at work, how much I was facilitating him having a good relationship with his son and enabling him to work longer hours last year. I would do things like bring the little dude in to work in lunchtime so that it didn’t matter so much if he missed bedtime, and on the weekend I’d do housework while my husband took the little dude to the park. Not great from the standpoint of equality. But you do what you have to.

If you’re an attachment parenting mother, what challenges if any does this pose for your feminism and how have you resolved them?

I will answer this not in relation to attachment parenting generally, but just in relation to the one part of it that I fully adopted: breastfeeding. 

Breastfeeding meant that there were things that only I could do. It meant that I didn’t leave the little dude for long periods basically until I went back to work. It made it easier for me to slip into “no no it’s ok, I’ll deal with the baby” mode. This did pose a challenge for equal parenting, absolutely. I’m not sure yet how I feel about this. Perhaps the bigger challenge is how feminism should approach the prospect that some mothers, in that first year especially, feel like they don’t want to spend much time apart from their babies. 

How does this approach align with feminism?

To my mind, the key is that individualistic feminism doesn’t really work for mothers. Humans are not a solitary species. We evolved to live in groups, and if mothers and babies weren’t left alone together so much, many of these tensions wouldn’t arise. Ironically, whenever we were on holiday I didn’t feel pinned down by breastfeeding – I felt like it was really affirming that there was this special little pause in the day where I would connect with my baby. It was only a problem when I’d had a long week and then the weekend rolled round and I felt like the overload of baby time during the week made me want to just have some time away from him, ah shit please I need it I’m going loopy. And then that time apart was scheduled around feeding needs. Which felt like a limitation. But it sucked anyway that the weekend was the only time I could have time to myself, so I don’t want to blame breastfeeding. Especially because I never really bothered expressing because I figured there was no point as I had so little scope to have someone else look after him!  

Do you feel feminism has failed mothers and if so how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given mothers?

Feminism hasn’t failed mothers; we’re just not there yet. There is so much work to do. 

Enjoy this special time: further reflections on the first year

So I have a new fave mum blogger, and want to write something in response to this piece. What I’m about to write basically spills out some things I might prefer to say in person over a large loaf of gingerbread and a bottomless pot of tea. 

When I’m at work, I have a tiny corner of my brain thinking about the little dude, and I glance up at his photo sometimes, but mostly I just focus on my work and enjoy being able to have that uninterrupted time to do stuff. When I pick him up from creche, I immediately flip across and don’t think about work – I just focus on him. If, like today, he didn’t have good sleeps at creche then this dictates the rest of my afternoon. Occasionally I wonder whether he’d be better off if I was still at home with him, he doesn’t like being left in the mornings and he’s been pretty clingy lately, I think he misses me when I’m not there and I’m worried he’s not getting enough mum time. These are very fleeting thoughts because being back at the desk job it’s obvious to me that there were times last year when I was barely holding on. 

I am sooooooooooo grateful for the little dude. This morning I woke to the sound of him lying peacefully in his cot, staring at the ceiling, and slowly and deliberately clapping his hands. What the awesome? Hilarious, wonderful, what a little gem. Sometimes I am seized with a full-body dread that something terrible might happen to him and I lift him up for a quick cuddle and tell him he’s gorgeous. Sometimes I let him drift to sleep while breastfeeding just so that I can hold a sleeping bundle for a few minutes and wrap my arms around him, and the feeling of how much I love him reverberates in my chest and I lean in and hover my lips over his brow, half kissing and half breathing him in.

Yet there have been times – especially last year – when frankly, I’ve been a complete mess, with no sense of perspective. Times when I tried to see the dark humour of the situation because the alternatives were crying or yelling. Going to the office is such a great counterpoint to all that. I feel much more like myself. So occasionally I wonder whether it would be better for my mental health to take a shorter stint of maternity leave next time. And I’m torn because on the one hand, it goes so fast that I want to appreciate things, but on the other hand I know that for much of last year I would wake up and just have no clue what to do all day. And sometimes I’d have a little moment when I had to really really really try hard to not completely lose it. Over stupid things. Like once I was reversing out of our driveway (poorly, my reversing skills are the first thing to go after a bad night’s sleep) and a bag of recycling on the curb had fallen in the way and I got out and moved it and the little dude was in his carseat crying because I have no idea why, and in the middle of the suburban silence I was all “FOR FUCK’S SAKE, WHY CAN’T PEOPLE PUT THE BAGS AGAINST THE CURB NOT ON THE SLOPE WHAT THE HELL RIDICULOUS FUCKWITS WHY IS IT ALWAYS MY PROBLEM?!”, y’know, just really calm and centered and emotionally stable and not overreacting at all.  

I was meant to be enjoying the special time with my baby, wasn’t that the whole point? Wasn’t my maternity leave meant to be a treat, something to cherish? Some of it definitely was. Some of it was great. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it. I just, I kinda feel ripped off. Because my expectation, before going on leave, was that it would be nice baby times with some hard work thrown in. And instead it was the other way around: all hard work with some nice baby times thrown in. I was exhausted, and so lonely, and the caregiving was so relentless, and it was such a steep learning curve. 

Not only is Boaganette right that it feels super shitty as the parent of a little one when someone admonishes you with a call to greater enjoyment, it also misses the whole damn point. Which is that we should ideally enjoy it and we should feel grateful but it’s bloody impossible to do that if all the hard stuff is on us all the time. Dear person who wants me to just really enjoy this time: don’t tell me how to feel, try and build a society that is more conducive to those feelings. Maybe we’d find it easier to appreciate our babies if the rest of the world showed more appreciation for the caregiving we bestow.