When I said “I do” the second time, at age 32, I knew what this marriage was about — kids. We both said we wanted to have a child, maybe two (my preference), and we talked about what that might mean for us financially.
We were both journalists at the time — not big income kind of careers, but each of us had been able to support ourselves. But the question facing us was, could we make it financially as a couple with a child, especially since we both wanted one of us to be home with our child and we didn’t have family around who would help? Because my then-husband was more established in his career, we decided that I would stay at home and work part time as a freelance writer, and he would continue his full time career and be the breadwinner.
All of this sounded great in theory, and some of it actually worked in practice; what was not so great were the massive changes for me despite our best intentions.
First, what worked: I would never trade my time home with my son. Yes, I felt that rush of mother love. He was perfect, and I couldn’t imagine missing his first steps, his first words, seeing the world through his eyes. The vision I had of the joys of parenting — playing, exploring and reading together — were exactly what happened.
And because we lived modestly, we could make it on just one salary. This was a sacrifice we were willing to make, and it it didn’t feel like much of a sacrifice — we lived in a beautiful community with great weather, wonderful parks and schools, and easy access to the beach, mountains, snow.
The not-so good
The things that didn’t work was, well, everything else, and I was not prepared for that at all. There’s so much more to a baby than how it impacts a couple’s finances. I was an independent woman with a budding career who came and went as she pleased (well, within the confines of a committed relationship). Now, I couldn’t do anything unless someone helped me — a baby-sitter (which we couldn’t afford too often), a neighbor, a friend. My freelance writing career was short-lived; who can make business calls with a baby, newly awakened from his nap, screaming in the background? I felt an incredible loss of freedom.
And parenting felt so isolating. My son and I spent hours alone even though there were other moms (or nannies) at the nearby park, which we frequented a lot. I joined a mothers’ group that met once or twice a week, but for the most part the only thing we had in common was that we were mothers, we lived in the same town and we were all about the same age. Still, they provided some sort of a connection and our shared experiences, ambivalence and mothering concerns (“Oh, your baby does that, too?”) made me feel somewhat normal.
Still, it was an isolating and exhausting existence. When my then-husband would arrive home from work, all I wanted to do was hand our son over to him and say, “Here, your turn,” so I could have a break. Except, he’d had a long day, too, and dinner needed to be made and …
I was not prepared for the psychological and physiological impacts of having a baby, even though people told me what it was like and even though I read probably every parenting book that had ever been written (which, of course, created unnecessary anxiety).
By the time our son turned 18 months, I thought I was going to lose my mind.
“I need help,” I said to my husband.
And so we put him in a sweet in-home day care near our home for a few hours two mornings a week just so I could have a break — if you want to call cleaning and catching up on household things I couldn’t get done when my toddler was awake a “break.”
For whatever reason, our sex life did not suffer as much as it often does for many couples — a small blessing. Which, of course led to son No. 2.
Although I originally thought I wanted two children, by the time our son was almost 3, potty-trained and beginning preschool, I started to feel like I was finally gaining some sort of life back. That’s when my then-husband said we should go for another. I hesitated at first, but then we did; I started working part time just when I got pregnant. (After I abandoned freelancing, I had a small home-based business that probably earned me less than minimum wage but at least I was being creative, and that mattered much more than money at the time.)
The temporary solution
My mom moved into our studio apartment for the first six months of our second son’s life, enabling me to head to work without worrying about the boys (and allowing us to take our first vacation as a couple that, sadly and humorously, had to end after just one day.). She returned home to Florida just about the time my then-husband won a grant and worked a flex schedule for six months, which, I am convinced, is why he and our youngest son have such a close relationship.
When life returned to normal, me at home and working part time and my then-husband working full time, I was back to where I was — juggling everything by myself, now with two young kids, and again relying on baby-sitters to make it all work. It was clear to me what I really needed — others who cared for and were as engaged with my children as I was.
I needed a tribe.
Which is why Bunmi Laditan’s article, I Miss the Tribe, resonated with me. She writes about mourning an imagined community of women:
You’d know me and I’d know you. I’d know your children, and you’d know mine. Not just on a surface level — favorite foods, games and such — but real, true knowledge of the soul that flickers behind their eyes. I’d trust them in your arms just as much as I’d trust them in mine. They’d respect you and heed your “no.” … I miss that village of mothers that I’ve never had. The one we traded for homes that, despite being a stone’s throw, feel miles apart from each other. The one we traded for locked front doors, blinking devices and afternoons alone on the floor playing one-on-one with our little ones.
So much of the advice parents get on life after baby has to do with maintaining sex and intimacy between the couple, or how to raise healthy, happy kids. There’s also been more attention, finally, on mothers’ (and increasingly fathers’) postpartum depression. And there has been much discussion about parental leave in the U.S., which is essential but will only help parents for a few months at most — what happens after that?
Because after parental leave ends comes the hardest part, and we don’t have any good solutions to our changing world of dual-working families. All we hear is about moms leaning in or opting out — or just resigning themselves to being overwhelmed — in their quest for that ever-elusive work-life balance (which more dads are struggling with, too). And make no mistake — this a discussion typically among middle- to upper-middle educated women. Poorer women and single/divorced/widowed moms do not have those options; they just have the overwhelm. And when I was divorced in my 40s with two children young children and working full time again, I didn’t have any choices, either. (Thankfully, we had 50-50 physical custody and when my kids were with their dad I had blessed time to myself.)
Something is terribly wrong.
Time to reevaluate
In light of the exhaustive research my co-author and I did on the parenting marriage model in The New I Do, I’ve come to appreciate the many ways people arrive to parenthood and the many creative ways couples are parenting once their romantic and sexual relationship is over — like actress Maria Bello’s thoroughly modern take on co-parenting. And I was encouraged to learn about the marital contracts a handful of couples created back in the ’60s to keep their egalitarian partnership from gravitating to old gendered patterns once they had kids (I sure wish I had a contract when my kids were young!)
So it’s encouraging, yes, but it isn’t quite enough.
Fathers are much more hands-on than ever before, and many are stay-at-home dads. Yet the bulk of caregiving, including emotional caregiving, is still done by women — whether by moms or paid help — and we pay the price for it. Plus, many of us are in the sandwich generation, trying to care for our children and our aging parents, often unsuccessfully. Despite the essential role caregiving plays in society, it is not given the status it deserves. Until it is, I’m convinced women will never reach equality.
So I have been looking at the problems of modern parenthood and believe that we just may need to reevaluate what we’re doing. I have a few ideas I’d love to share with you … soon.
But I’d rather hear from you now. What do you think we can do better?