Don’t Make Me Do This Again: The Pressure to Reproduce

“When are you going to give him a sibling?” a complete stranger asks. It’s maybe the dozenth time I’ve been asked this question. When someone offers to be my pro-bono, full-time nanny, I think.

There’s a kind of unspoken expectation in America to have multiple children. Only children, or kids who don’t grow up with a sibling in the home, are seen as self-absorbed, maladjusted, unhappy loners lacking in social skills. I have an issue with  the way these assumed behaviors are referred to — only child syndrome — and how it suggests that being without siblings is a disorder of some kind: all children that grow up without a brother or sister are subject to this same set of negative stereotypes, with little or no regard for the environmental factors that influence characteristics like adaptability, agreeableness, empathy, and resiliency.

IMG_2647-EFFECTS.jpg

The unspoken assumption is that parents of only children do little or nothing to encourage or facilitate socialization with age-mates, or that only children are treated as little adults, isolated from situations that allow them to develop critical social skills that will allow them to flourish as they become old enough to interact with the world independent of parental guidance.

To tell parents that only children are in some way worse off places an excessive amount of pressure on parents to reproduce — even if they lack the financial stability or mental energy to do so. The decision to expand (or not expand) the family is a deeply personal one. More worrying, this pressure entirely disregards the possibility that many couples are unable to expand their family, whether due to fertility reasons, a lack of resources to pursue adoption, or other equally personal reasons. How does a parent compensate for the multitude of ways they are told their child will suffer for their solitude? Can they compensate?

Of course they can. I’ll be damned if I let strangers and ill-proven theories about stunted development persuade me to put my body through the difficult, painful, year-long process of conception, pregnancy, and newborn period. I’ll be double damned if my son isn’t going to be the happiest, most well-adjusted kid ever. The common factors that are most often pointed to as being causes of only child syndrome are things that can be significantly influenced through the active and ongoing evaluation of the child’s environment, relationship with caretakers, and various social outlets.

Ben is in daycare three days a week. We get a little report card telling us how he’s doing on his interpersonal skills, like listening to directions, table manners, and waiting patiently during hallway time. We also get a note on what we need to work on at home. Right now (surprise) it’s listening ears. Ben has a mind of his own, but I’m pretty sure kids his age have maybe a 50% return rate on listening the first time anyway.

From the time Ben was old enough to be aware of the world around him, I made an effort to get him out of the house and into the world on a daily basis. While I’m sure this started as a way to relieve myself of the monotony of caring for an infant, it eventually grew into a much-needed reprieve for Ben, who becomes restless if he’s been cooped up inside all day. We have a large yard and two active dogs, but this isn’t enough stimulation for a vibrant, giggle-happy toddler. Our daily outings to the park or grocery store or a friend’s house for play time allow Ben ample time to interact with the world and other children outside of the structured routine of daycare.

So here, friends, is my deepest (and newest) fear. What if I do everything in my power, but my everything turns out to not be enough? What if my family history of depression ensnares him as it did me? How much of his adult self is determined by  nature vs. nurture? The truth at the heart of it — the same truth at the heart of everything we do — is that only one outcome is ever guaranteed to us. So I’ll do my due diligence and hold onto the hope that our efforts won’t be for nothing or in vain. The rest is a combination of chance, effort, timing, and love.

 

Advertisement

He won’t call me mama, and the weight of loving

After a few nights of teething fueled, leg flailing non-sleep, Ben woke up in a surprisingly stellar mood. Most nights (get off my back already) he ends up in our bed between 3 and 4 in the morning. This doesn’t really bother us if he can HOLD STILL, WHICH HE NEVER DOES BECAUSE HE’S A TODDLER. We’re suckers for the snuggles, but we’re also freaking exhausted and aren’t capable of anything more involved than bringing him to our bed in the middle of the night. Sleeping with a flopping fish isn’t exactly easy, but it is possible. That’s what I tell myself. Fake it ’til you make it. Or something. I don’t actually believe that. But I like to pretend I do.

Instead of waking up under his usual cloud of fog, he was immediately ready to go. He flopped around for a minute, smothered me in a few very wet kisses, and crawled over to pat the dog. The he stood up, threw his arms up and cooed “Da-da!” at Quinn. Side note: Ben has yet to call me mama after doing it exactly twice several months ago. As far as his baby brain is concerned I am still merely an extension of him, not an autonomous being unto myself. Everybody else is a separate entity, but I exist to be an anchor point in the sea of childhood. Ever-present, stable, sturdy, covered in strange growths.

Wait. No.

It’s kind of a heavy burden to bear, isn’t it? Being the center of someone’s world. There’s a constant pressure of never wanting to let them down, never wanting to see them hurt or sad or in need. It’s like universe is telling us, No pressure, but the emotional well-being of this small human depends entirely on you and whatever small village you can cobble together to help you.

There’s a well-meaning saying about having to love yourself before you can love other people. This is an unfair statement. It tells us (unintentionally, but nonetheless) that we don’t deserve to love unless we first can find ourselves worth loving. This is a cruel thing to tell people. I speak from personal experience that this way of thinking is, by and large, misguided bullshit.

Here’s the thing: in allowing myself to love others, I am better able to find reasons to love myself. In allowing myself to take on the weight of caring for another human life, I have opened myself to a range of emotions I hadn’t experienced before becoming a parent. There’s a sense of being secure in my abilities that wasn’t there before. The people I love — my kid, my husband, my friends, and even my dogs — inspire me to be better, to take better care of myself. I am absolutely, 100% capable of loving others even when I don’t love myself. There’s a quote I like much better, that doesn’t tell you that you have to have reached a certain level of acceptable mental status before you’re deserving of love:

By compassion we make others’ misery our own, and so, by relieving them, we relieve ourselves also.

– Thomas Browne

Something to think about.

Even my doctor doesn’t want to see me

“Pregnancy made me stupid,” I lamented to my friend.

“Oh, no it hasn’t,” she replied. She had that stop feeling sorry for yourself tone in her voice. You know, the one where you’re trying to placate somebody when they’re being dramatic and hard on themselves but you love them and want them to be happy.

“No, it has. It’s a thing. I swear pregnancy, like, permanently changed my brain.”

(It does, you know. This isn’t me saying all moms are mentally inefficient in the same way I am. That’s me calling bullshit on the “Get your pre-baby self back” crowd. If you’ve gone through the physical experience of carrying a pregnancy,  you are literally not the same person you were before. It’s more than that transcendental love at first sight, the center of my universe re-positioned itself thing the mommy blogs talk about. It’s an actually physical and mental change. In other words: fuck evolution*.)

But back to my lamentation: when I say pregnancy made me stupid, what I’m really saying is that I can no longer communicate the way I used to. Speaking and writing — previously a huge part of my identity — now present major obstacles. Speaking out loud has become a challenge. I stumble over my words, lose my train of thought, and forget what I said 60 seconds prior during any conversation with another adult human. Writing is no longer the cathartic practice it once was. Writing is difficult and requires outlines and notes and typically results in embarrassment over the lack of quality.

I used to be so good at these things. What happened? Can I fix it?

Exhaustion is undoubtedly part of the problem but the only solution anybody can seem to offer me is sleep more, as if the idea of sleeping is novel and somehow utterly attainable for parents of young children.

Yes, I’m tired. I’m always tired. I’m 18 months of insufficient sleep tired. You know what else I am? Anxious, and a little bit traumatized. See, my kid will not sleep through the night. It’s my fault, of course, because I handle the overnight things. Any sleep issues he has can be blamed squarely on good ol’ mom. We’ve had a dozen or so nights without wake ups since he was born. That’s roughly 12 full nights out of over 550. It’s gotten to the point that

I’ve tried night weaning (still wakes up). I’ve tried letting him cry it out (he screams for hours). We’ve tried melatonin at bedtime (falls asleep easier, doesn’t stay asleep). Earplugs. Begging. Sobbing. Cuddling. Co-sleeping. He’s not in pain. There’s nothing physically wrong with him. He hasn’t flagged for ASD. He just wakes up and won’t sleep until he has me there, cuddling with him. If Quinn goes in — and this really pisses me off — he cries MORE until Quinn brings him to me.

What. the. fuck.

18 months of this has left me… well, traumatized for lack of a more appropriate word. Every night when I go to bed, I think to myself there’s no point, he’ll be awake again soon. And when that little voice cries out, I wake up anxious, angry, tearful. I recently had Q try to do bedtime (don’t ask why he doesn’t do it. I don’t have the strength to go into it right now) after an hour of Ben fighting me, and the tantrum was so bad I found myself in the middle of the first panic attack I’ve had in ages.

A panic attack. Full-blown. Numb, tingling hands. Heart racing. Shaking. Nauseated. I had to leave. I couldn’t be around it. I felt like I had failed my son.

(Side note: bedtime is now tantrum-free and at a normal hour again, which is a nice hurdle to have jumped.)

So I’m back on the self-care, me-first-just-for-a-while bandwagon. I have calls in to several offices — GPs as well as therapists — but I can’t seem to find a doctor’s office in this entire damn city to return my request for an appointment. I am loosing my god damned mind trying to navigate the Forest of Toddler Parenting. The trees are thick, and the path is dark.

I’m desperate for a sense of normalcy. Ease. I feel a little like Link in the Legend of Zelda game we were playing last week. I need tools, a sword, a map, maybe a little fairy to boost me up when I collapse. A wise old wizard to tell me stories and inspire me along the way.


*I’m putting this on a coffee mug

Who am I doing this for?

“Why are you trying to lose weight?”

“Oh, you know,” I say. “Need to lose a few pounds.”

Don’t tell me, I want to say. I know this one. It’s a joke, asking women why they want to lose weight.

I’m trying to lose weight because I’m fat and no longer comfortable in my body for a multitude of reasons you may or may not empathize with.

Because following the birth of my child, I stopped prioritizing my own health. I regained the 60 pounds I first gained during pregnancy, then lost while breastfeeding, then gained back.

Because my workload suddenly tripled, and I barely have the time to sleep let alone cook healthy meals.

Because my free time is spent playing with my son instead of going to the gym, because I will only have these precious and frustrating early years once.

Because I have developed an emotionally dependent relationship with food.

Because society has conditioned women to believe their value as a person can be measured by their weight far more than their contributions or character.

I don’t say any of this. I rarely do, because historically what I intend to be an honest statement that I hope will inspire or facilitate a deeper conversation is met with admonitions. It’s a bummer, or it’s “too serious.” These responses come almost exclusively from men — which I, for now, assume is at least somewhat related to the bullshit men* are raised with: emotions are a sign of weakness, boys don’t cry, and other assorted, inane nonsense. Women, by and large, nod appreciatively. In the broader sense, it doesn’t seem to matter how empathetic, funny, engaging, or socially minded we are. Ours is a world that makes snap judgments based on our appearances. When was the last time you looked at a stranger and thought “Oh yeah, look at the sense of social obligation on that one?”

My desire for help, for connection, for commiseration and support, is silenced before the things I want to say can surface. There’s a sense of being resigned, of having given up. I don’t want to make anybody uncomfortable on my search for connection and understanding, because, don’t you know? Women don’t complain.

Many of the women I have known grew up aware of the same silent rule I’ve been unknowingly adhering to all my life: girls don’t complain. Women are expected to be caring, nurturing, loving, self-sacrificing. Is this unspoken rule an exploitation of the maternal instinct? Does the maternal instinct even exist? I don’t know. I have no idea. I can say, with certainty, that am not an instinctual parent. I parent by learning. I had no idea how to breastfeed or help a newborn latch on to a breast. I learned how to do so through many, many hours with a squirmy little leech attached to me. I didn’t suddenly know what his different cries meant, or even that he had different cries at first; I learned through paying attention.

Whether it’s nature or nurture, the end result is the same. On my list of priorities my mental and physical health hovers towards the bottom, because I have ended up in a place, mentally, that no longer sees the pursuit of better mental or physical health as something of value. I find myself spending a majority of my time at home cleaning. That’s it. Cleaning. Picking up, wiping down, rinsing off, changing over. Time I could be spending writing, or reading, or doing yoga or just… staring at the wall.

That’s pretty bleak, right?

It would be easy to let myself carry on like this, never growing, never moving out of this very uncomfortable comfort zone. But here’s an opinion you hear so often that you probably don’t believe it when you hear it anymore: being a parent makes me want to be a better person. I love my son, but my desire to be a better and healthier person stems from acknowledging how influential his father and I are in how he views and interacts with the world.

What kind of person will he grow up to be, if his first and biggest influence is depressed, unhappy, unhealthy? How will this influence his view of women? Of marriages? How can I hope to raise a well-rounded, empathetic, conscientious human if I can’t be those things myself? What will I do with myself and my life when he’s grown and left home? Do I want to be like this forever?

I always end up with more questions than answers. That’s okay, though. I like questions.

When it’s time for a I’m uncomfortable in the body I currently exist in, due the the limitations an excess 50 or so pounds puts on me. I’m unhappy with my energy levels and eating habits. I’m not okay with no longer being able to see myself for the breadth of who I am: engaged, attentive, passionate, and maybe more than a little difficult.

So, yeah, I’m doing it partly for my kid. Mostly, though, I’m doing it for me.

Related Reading Around The Web

An interesting take on maternal instinct as a social invention

Kids learn to undervalue women from their parents

*(or, more specifically: people assigned male at birth and raised with male gender roles and expectations)

“This mom thing is bullshit.”

Ben, my almost-17-month old, is face down on the floor, wailing. He’s been teething for three days, sleeping six of the twelve hours he needs at night, refusing to eat, and being generally non-responsive to children’s over-the-counter pain medication. The frustration is compounded by my temporary helplessness: his needs are met to the very best of my ability, and yet in this moment I have, on some level, failed him.

It was part exhaustion, part par-for-the-course toddler tantrum. The trigger (this time) had something to do with me trying to cook myself a quick breakfast. I stood over him, cooing gentle and supportive words while he shrieked so loudly I couldn’t actually hear myself speak. He would occasionally look back up at me to make sure I was still audience to his display.

This is bullshit, I thought. I dropped the cooing. Sometimes silence is the only way to handle a tantrum.

I bear the brunt of his moods because as many a toddler will tell you: only mama will do. Only mama is fit to be the target of their literal infantile rage. My husband looked at me and shrugged — not just shrugged, but gave me that “I’m doing what I can, but I don’t know what else to do” look that looks like defeat mixed with confusion and maybe a small hint of failure.

“I’m going to write a book about all the bullshit they don’t tell you about parenting.”

(Hi: this is that thing. This clearly isn’t a book, but it’s… close enough.)

Parenting, I’m learning (I’m new at this, please be cool and fuck back off to your perfect Instagram life before you pass judgment), is a lot of bullshit. Yes, my child has become the thing I hold most dear in the world. Yes, my world would be shattered and it would take years to regain some sense of rightness with the world if anything ever happened to him. If I could trade But there’s a lot they don’t tell you about, like the endless screaming fits or seemingly inborn death with or how some people will tsk-tsk you for getting frustrated, like, ever, or for not matching their socks or whatever. They don’t adequately warn you how much pressure you will truly feel: is he happy enough? Is she hitting her milestones too slowly? Why can’t I get him to sleep through the night? Why did they allow me to reproduce without passing a basic competency check*?

They also don’t tell you how gross and adorable it will be when they start giving big, sloppy, open mouth kisses fifteen times a day because they feel like it, or how you will become the center of their world and that this small human will, at least for a few years, become the world that the sun rises and sets on. They don’t tell you that naps will become your second or third favorite thing ever, or how much your view of the world and the people in it will shift. How your taste for media will rule out anything that shows small children in any kind of peril (maybe that’s just me). How you will suddenly feel compelled to be a better person, even just slightly, because you realize that how you face the world is also how your child will learn to face the world.

This mom thing is bullshit. Or maybe, more clearly, the facade of motherhood in the internet age is bullshit. Perfectly curated lives and pristine white-and-gray iPhone photos and kids that never, ever get sick or messy. Twenty ways to clean your house completely while your kids are napping (because one thing you aren’t is a human that just wants to sit down for a fucking minute. Ten (completely unhelpful) tips for parents that don’t get enough sleep. Three ways to do the years of emotional work you neglected before the kids get home from school. Keep up, they tell you. Be super mom. You aren’t human, are you?

There’s a lot of bullshit. The internet — a central component of many of our lives — is full of it. But those big, sloppy kisses and giggle-filled screams of hello at the end of the day? Man, they almost make it worth it.

*Eugenics is bad.