Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

An Open Letter

So, here’s something darkly funny: the developed nation with the LEAST amount of maternal choice is the nation with the MOST amount of debate about maternal choice.

When I say “maternal choice,” I don’t mean the choice whether to be a mother or not. Too much of our language about choice gets encrusted around the issue of abortion, to the neglect of the issue that statistically affects far more women and arguably has a greater impact on the life of our nation as a whole. By maternal choice, I mean the choice how to be a mother.

We’ve all brushed up against an installment of the “mommy wars”: articles berating working mothers, mocking breastfeeding mothers, articles pontificating, brow-beating, sneering, exalting, insisting, guilting. Above all, the guilt. Guilt guilt guilt. Are you a working mom? You must not love your children if you abandon them to the cesspool of day care. Are you a stay-at-home mom? You must not love your children if you don’t give them a role model that fits society’s vision of productive work. Even a mother’s personal, agonized reminiscences or musings out loud become a battleground, and get picked apart for every implication, nuance, suggestion, or hint of where precisely she stands on the bloody, corpse-strewn battlefield of the Mommy Wars.

And of course, it’s all ridiculous, because what choice, exactly, are we debating? This is not a country where there is much choice at all. If you’re a mom, and you’re not the wife of a venture capitalist, and Olympic dressage happens not to be your hobby, then simple economics says you are almost certainly going to have to work.

So what follows is a mix: my personal story, yes, but also the things that I have learned as a mom of four. The chief thing I have learned is how screwed the women of this country are. In France (and I pick France because a friend of mine has recently emigrated there) mothers and fathers have four months of paid maternity leave, and up to two years of unpaid leave, during which their job is secure. They can split the leave so that they both take a year, or so that one of them takes two years. In my experience, that year off is just about right. Babies need a constant caregiver for their first year of life. I don’t mean they need constant care, although that is true too; I mean they have a demonstrable, scientific need for a primary caregiver to whom they can attach.

Babies are kind of like suction cups. They just want to be on something, as anyone who has ever tried to peel an infant off their body long enough to use the bathroom can attest. And at this age, their wants are their needs. That drive to be physically attached to a human at all times is a reflection of their need for emotional and psychological attachment. It doesn’t have to be their mother that they attach to, although it most often is; emerging from the womb, they are familiar with her voice, soothed by her touch and taste and smell. Warm milk flows from her body, warm arms give comfort and heat and safety. Attaching to mom is a natural, though like I said, they’re suction cups, and if in those first hours you rip them off mom and attach them to another human who can give all those things just as well, they will attach there.

I knew before my first daughter was born that I wanted her to attach to me. I wanted to be the mommy, and I didn’t want to hire a mommy, no matter what. I wanted her first attachment to be a confident, continual one; I didn’t want her to have to go through the stress of detaching from me (they scream for a reason when that happens) and learning to attach to someone else. Babies do best when their first attachment is stable, sure, and constant. Babies do best when their first attachment is not running out the door to make a meeting, or leaving them for nine to ten hours a day. Notice I said babies, not children. That high-need, high-intensity period of needing primary attachment lasts only about twelve short months—twelve months that never come again in their lives, or in yours.

Maternity leave in developed nations is based on knowing all of this: babies need mommies, and mommies need babies, and everyone does best and is happiest when that attachment is not ruptured or stressed. It’s a no-brainer. What seems like an impossible, unworkable ideal in this country is a commonplace right in other, freer places.

I was lucky enough to have great examples to learn from, and I supported my choices with lots of reading and research. I spent time around mothers whose style of parenting, and whose ideas of natural, simple care appealed to me. I studied and learned babywearing, I attended La Leche League meetings, and I surrounded myself with like-minded, supportive role models. I immersed myself in Dr. Sears’ Baby Book, in the League’s Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, and in the writings of Sheila Kippley. I got informed.

Natural mothering is a lot like deciding to eat organic: what might have been instinctive knowledge to your great-grandmother needs to be re-learned, and requires effort. Don’t kid yourself it’s going to be easy, but it will rearrange your way of seeing the world, your health, and yourself. And like going organic, there’s nothing quite like the liberation of it. Thousands of dollars spent on cribs, bottles, formula, changing tables, strollers, iPod-docking-bouncy seats, and all the unbelievably expensive equipment the baby industry will try to convince you that you need? Fuhgeddaboutit.

But of course, in this country, all that money-saving comes at a cost. Taking the time out of your life to mother your baby yourself means, for most women, a serious toll on their careers. Even jobs that allow part-time or flex-time after your baby’s birth are few and far between, and as for the perfectly reasonable idea that there are very few jobs short of brain surgery that you can’t do while wearing your baby? Yeah, you can forget about that too. Our country’s models of work are one hundred percent male, and there is no room in the working world for natural mothering.

So why did I choose it?

Well, I could lie and point to all the valid developmental arguments I was referencing above, and say that was why natural mothering was so important to me. But that would be a bit of a dodge, and more than a bit dishonest. Finally, natural mothering was about me. It made me feel indescribably happy.

At my very first La Leche League meeting, I was heavily pregnant, and I sat there perching my Titanic-sized ass on the uncomfortable folding chair, listening to these moms talk about the benefits of this and the advantages of that and blah-dee-blah-dee-blah, and in the midst of it all, a toddler waddled up to his mother, who was leading the meeting, and without breaking her train of thought she scooped him up, attached him to her nipple, and carried on speaking. It might not have seemed so remarkable, except on her other nipple was her two-week-old baby. And I’m sure I stared. I couldn’t look away. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen – literally an image of divine love and overflowing, abundant self-giving, like Rubens’ Charity. And I wanted that. I wanted to be that.

Being a natural mother was never really about anything other than that: my choice. If I had been a different person, I might have made a different choice. I might have worked during my babies’ infancies, and been perfectly happy doing so. I would surely be far along in my career by now, with a stable income and few worries, instead of floundering in a mid-life crisis of purpose and finances. All I can say is, I’m not that person. From the minute my babies were born, I felt an attachment to them that I could almost literally see – like the cord that attached them to me had never quite been severed, or something. I don’t know how else to describe it; it was overwhelming, it was visceral, and it was irresistible. I could no more have left them than I could have hacked off my arm. Someone could stand there and say to you, you know you really should hack off your arm, and you can say, yes, I know that I should, but it doesn’t change the fact that you won’t be able to. That is what my attachment to my babies has felt like, each and every time.

Part of me wishes it hadn’t been like that. I look at other mothers and sometimes wonder if it’s the same for them. Honestly, maybe it’s not; maybe I just got like, an extra dose of hormones or something. But I’ve seen the moms crying in their cars in the daycare parking lot, so I suspect that isn’t true. I suspect we all feel the same ache in our bodies, a pain and love so intense that you cannot imagine it until you have felt it. I’ve been one of those moms in the daycare parking lot, though admittedly after my youngest was over a year old. I’ve been a working mom, for a lot of my kids’ childhoods, and in my not-inconsiderable experience, I want to say that you can do your job really well, or you can be a really good mom, but you can’t consistently be both, so you have to choose, on a daily, and sometimes an hourly basis. Am I going to spend this chunk of time grading papers and preparing class, or am I going to spend this chunk of time arguing on the phone with my son’s insurance company about yet another denial of care? Because both are necessary things, and both have to be done today, but there is only this one bit of time, and You. Must. Choose.

I have locked myself in the tiny coffee room at work to cry, knowing that my son needed me desperately, and I wasn’t there. I have missed school plays, and I have felt the knife of my kindergartener sobbing and saying, why weren’t you there? I worked so hard! You name the pain, I have felt it. And I didn’t have a choice. I loved my job; I love teaching like I love nothing else, and I am good at it, you wouldn’t even believe how good I am at it. But it’s nothing to how much I love mothering, or how much I love my kids.

There are no easy answers. Even a year’s maternity leave doesn’t provide the answers, because all of those conflicts I described above happened well after my kids were in school full time. More reasonable work schedules are a large part of the answer; Americans now work harder than almost any other developed nation, for less pay and fewer benefits. Our productivity has increased dramatically in the last thirty years, while our standard of living has not. And meanwhile the French, those slimy bastards, are chuckling softly at us while they sip anisette on the beach and enjoy their one-month paid vacation. (France’s economy, by the way, is the world’s fifth-largest, and they entered the global recession later, and exited it earlier, than most other comparable economies - this according to Credit Suisse 2010’s Global Weath Report. But socialism sucks.)

I started putting these thoughts together for my beloved friend Elizabeth, a gifted and driven young woman who is poised on the brink of motherhood, trying to figure out if it is something she can do. I wish I knew what to tell her. I wish I could tell her, make thousands of babies! Litter the world with hundreds and hundreds of your smart, compassionate, artistic and articulate little babies! Because she would make an amazing mother, and the world deserves to know her children. But the truth is, maybe it won’t get to. She is a lawyer at a high-powered firm, and she is just embarking on her career, and she knows very well what kind of toll mothering will take on the career she worked so hard to launch. She knows it. And all my useless flailings and hand-flappings, all my oh it will be so worth it, is not helpful.

Winston Churchill once said that democracy was the worst form of government, except, of course, for all the others. And I feel kind of that way about mothering. It's a job with no benefits, no pay, little contact with the wider world, and few if any tangible rewards. As every American woman knows, mothering is the worst of all possible jobs – except for all the others.

My favorite New Yorker cover of all time: the Mother's Day cover from 2000. 

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