OK, I’ve revealed some of the “unspeakable” taboo truths about the “dark side” (cue Darth Vader breathing) of parenthood. Will you be giving up on the whole “having baby” project? I suspect not. The desire to have children is often blindingly strong. I certainly would have given these concerns little heed when I was trying to have kids. But you do have a bit of insight now. It might be useful to explore the topic. How do we prepare for this challenging time?
Protecting Relationships While Feeling Overwhelmed
One thing I recommend is reading the book, Baby-proofing Your Marriage: How to Laugh More and Argue Less as Your Family Grows, By Cockrell, O’Neill, and Stone. It discusses many of the most irksome issues that develop between partners who are now suddenly co-parenting a fragile butterfly.
The book is written with input from both the male and female perspective on many issues. My husband’s comment after reading it was that he was relieved to know that the struggles we were having were so common. Ours were normal struggles and conflicts and if other people worked them out then so too could we.
How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, by Jancee Dunn can also offer some great insights into both the personal and social dynamics that can shake the foundations of even the best of relationships.
Babies can put a huge strain on a marriage or partnership. With multiples, the stress is logarithmically increased. Your own life will be savagely altered by the needs and demands of parenting. At times, you will be exhausted and hurting. You may well find yourself taking out your frustrations on your spouse. Their failings may be magnified by your own frustrations with how life is unfolding in these days of personal loss, massive sleep deprivation, life shaking responsibility, and…deep heart stopping joy. Sigh.
The first year of parenthood can be emotionally very confusing. You’re supposed to be all contented and happy, joyous and fulfilled. But the truth for many is much more complex. You’re giving up a lot from your old life and the demands of the new one are daunting. There are going to be some negative emotions popping up. It’s important to know that it’s ok to have mixed feelings about the whole motherhood – fatherhood deal you just bought into.
Personally, I was angry and kinda bitchy for much of the first year. OK, a lot bitchy. Then I realized that my anger was a sign that I’d sacrificed too much of myself in this act of continual giving. (“The Dance of Anger” by Harriet Lerner, is a useful if slightly dated book on this topic.) Maybe with a singleton one can find a bit more balance in the first year…and maybe not. Certainly, with twins or the arrival of your second child, I think you need to realize that you’ll wind up sublimating most of your own needs for theirs. Even with involved spouses the demands of the first year are truly HUGE.
This is where communication with your partner is very, very important. It can be quite difficult, but you must have these conversations. In all likelihood you will both feel as if you have no more to give and that the other person is not doing enough of their part in the new much larger work load of family life.
It is certainly true that today’s fathers step up to the challenges of family life in many ways that past generations could evade. It’s also true that many new dads find that 3-4mns along in family life, there is less equal sharing than they had expected.
Here are some tools and thoughts to help you with this conversation. Bear in mind that this process has the potential to pull you together as a couple and deepen the love in your life OR to drive a wedge of resentment and distance between you. We all love our children. With that statement made we can now go on to discuss some of the conflicts their presence generates in today’s families.
For the record: I have been a full-time stay-at-home parent. A full-time outside working parent. And a full-time stay-at-home while also a part-time outside working parent.
Things for parents and parents-to be to think and talk about…with each other.
- Child care work is an especially difficult and draining type of work that is distinct from other forms of family and life work. (Yes, it has rewards…yada, yada, yada. We’ll cover that later.)
- House work that is done while supervising or teaching children is really a form of extra hard childcare work.
- House or home care work that allows the adult to work alone and without supervising children is work but it is also a refreshing break from child care. For example: mowing the lawn, home/car repair or maintenance that is done without simultaneously supervising children, grocery shopping alone, paying bills alone. There is a huge difference between painting the fence alone with earbuds in and your favorite tunes blasting as opposed to painting a fence with a pair of preschool “helpers.” And the first is actually a nice bit of alone time!
- By dinner time, an out-of-the-house working parent and a stay-at-home working parent are both usually tired. But…the outside worker is “kid fresh” after a day of adult interaction. The stay at home worker is “kid fried” after a day of unrelenting, unbroken service and often little adult interaction. These are the facts like them or not. (FYI: The current life style of a typical American stay-at-home parent is often isolating and psychologically unhealthy. It needs to be radically revamped. But that’s my next book!)
- Primary working parents feel the burden of financially supporting the family in a deeply stressful way. They are also often balancing powerful and conflicting demands between work and home.
- Primary at home parents make a huge personal financial sacrifice when they stop full-time paid work to “lean in” and meet the family’s needs. Years away from work (or reduced hours, or taking a position with less overtime expectations) results in lower pay that is often not “caught up” if they do return to work. This has a huge impact on social security benefits as well as the building of other retirement benefits. There becomes a very real risk of poverty in retirement for these, usually female, parents. A stay-at-home parent brings years of unpaid labor to the table of family life.
- Note: I personally believe that, when possible, a family with a stay-at-home parent should take out a separate retirement account in that parent’s name and fund it with automatic deposits from the family income check. The same way the working parent’s retirement is funded. This will not make up for any employer matching of retirement deposits but it’s a start. It will not make up for lost social security benefits either. That will have to come with legislation that gives child rearing monetary value in the social security system. At the very least, twenty dollars a pay check can become a symbolic and concrete recognition of the contributions and sacrifice made by the at-home parent.
- Many women (not all) feel that with the arrival of a baby, the woman often becomes the sole family-care-professional and that their husband becomes the family-day-laborer.
- Many women (not all) want their partner to step up to the role of a family care Co-professional and not become a passive Day Laborer. Without a co-professional parent, most women are not able to unshoulder the burdens enough to maintain adult life.
- Some women (not all) have a hard time sharing control over family life.
- Some men (not all) have a hard time knowing how to BE a professional co-parent.
- If you want to have a co-professional parent, you have to cede some control over things. Let go of perfectionism. Embrace different approaches to tasks. Leave the field of play and don’t hover.
- If you want to become a co-professional parent, then you have to act like a professional. Look for what needs to happen, learn, discuss, track, plan, research, be present and involved in an on-going way. And expect the job to be constantly changing. You will need to stay on your toes. No kicking back and relying on your co-worker to baby-sit you.
- Being a wage earner AND a professional co-parent is hard BUT…it offers TREMENDOUS rewards. Love, intimacy, connection, life meaning, pride, joy…all the things that make life truly worth living.
- Being an at home child-care worker AND ceding some authority to a co-parent is hard (partly because of our American image of motherhood and partly because you have to let go of “mom” as your sole identity and find something else to fill in ) BUT…it gives you the space to breath, lets you release resentment, brings you closer to your partner, and allows for a much more emotionally healthy life.
These issues are further challenged by the fact that many families in our culture consist mostly of parents and kids. Our grandparents, aunties, and uncles are often far away and only intermittently connected.
It’s Not Your Mamma’s World
This lack of family and community support is taken for granted as normal in our culture. But it’s not the norm in many parts of the world where extensive networks of family and friends help to care for and raise children. Furthermore, in many other westernized countries a tight web of family services eases the financial and labor burdens of a smaller modern family.
These same services can also make it much easier for both parents to work. Once your baby(s) actually arrive you’ll begin to discover the high cost of childcare for young children in our country. (Yet ironically, we truly don’t pay childcare workers nearly enough! And we give tax breaks to the rich?! Hmm, not sure about those priorities.) Often this becomes a huge barrier to keeping both parents working before the kids hit school age.
Getting by on one income is of course far from easy for many families. Often it is simply impossible. At some point in the first year these issues will hit home. You might feel inadequate. Why are you unable to handle the kids alone? Are you a wimp? Didn’t your parents do it without help? How are you going to make this work financially and professionally?
Well, you’re not a wimp. The pace of life was quite different in the past. Expectations were HUGELY different. Three squares and send ’em out to play was good parenting. And you could send them out to play because the neighborhood was full of other kids who had been sent out to play too. “Good” moms maybe washed the fruit before serving. In the past, many women were working at home in the neighborhood and able to help each other out.
E-mail didn’t exist! Nor did cell phones and no one had a social media platform to maintain! T.V. was 3 channels plus PBS. In addition, no one had to worry about bisphenol-a, phthalates, and other endocrine disrupters. Kindergarten was…fun!
There was no such thing as “concerted cultivation.” In my day, we never went to pre-school and I ran free with older siblings from a young age. How we managed to all obtain college degrees without rigorous pre-school intervention remains a secret mystery of the past. There was also no shepherding of wee toddlers to gymnastics and music and art and dance and language classes.
People didn’t worry that a lack of “kindergarten readiness” would set their child up for a failed school career and dead-end jobs. In the past, parents were responsible for basic love and care, and the kids were in charge of growing up.
I have no idea what my mom did with her days, but she sure wasn’t entertaining us kids! Now, we are somehow responsible for inculcating our children’s self-esteem, their emotional intelligence, their capacity for commitment, and internal motivation. There is always the next, latest, greatest psychological litmus of your child’s future success that parents are charged with “developing.”
So, cut yourself, and your partner, some slack. Our world is complicated, crazy paced, battered by too much information, full of new responsibilities, ridiculous expectations, and greatly lacking in family supports.
Thinking About Childcare and Work
In your first year of parenthood, you may find yourself in a continuous struggle to work out how to care for your children. I’m not talking about “how to potty-train.” That’s a different chapter. I’m talking about how to arrange adult care of young kids.
There is no longer a “right” formula for how to do this. Nor is there any consensus of what’s “best” for the kids. Nor are there standard easily accessed family services to tap into. So, this becomes one more thing you have to figure out on your own.
Will mom or dad stay home with the kids? For 1yr? 3yrs? Until they are in middle school? How will you keep a stay-at-home-parent (SAHP) sane? Will they get any child-free time? Are there grandparents who can help? Do you want them to help? Will you pay a nanny for a few hours per week to get the SAHP a break? Can you find and retain a part-time nanny or will you lose them to a fulltime job offer?
Perhaps both parents will go back to work fulltime. Can you find a nanny you trust? Will you send your kids to an in-home day-care? Can you afford to have two kids in day-care at the same time? How do you find the day-care? (Try: recommendations from local mother’s clubs, city/county listings, word of mouth, playground referrals) Are your kids doing okay there?
All of these questions and more will come back again and again in your child’s early years. They are quite challenging and require a huge investment of time and energy. (Pay attention daddios. As a co-professional parent, modern mom’s will expect you to pro-actively participate in researching and investigating childcare. Failure to “own” this parenting task may result in deeply harbored resentment from mommio. You must discuss this together.) Furthermore, once you have everything set up you may find… it isn’t actually working! Sigh.
Heads up. This next thing is important.
What you, your kids, and your partner need in life will change over time. Whatever you set up now isn’t written in stone. You can change how you set up your life. And then, you can change it again. You may find yourself restructuring your family life several times over in the early years of parenthood. If it’s not working, don’t be afraid to change it. There is no “right” formula and you may find that what you thought would work- doesn’t.
I had planned on returning to work between 3 – 6mns after delivery. Unfortunately, I wound up with severe postpartum carpal tunnel syndrome and ultimately with surgical repair on both wrists. As a result, I didn’t get back to any kind of outside work until the kids were 12mns old. Over this first year back to work, I changed jobs 3 times before I found something stable with workable hours.
Part way thru, our wonderful nanny had to leave so we tried to find a new one. Instead, after extensive searching we had to let go 3 subpar nannies and then gave up and found a great daycare. Perhaps the trajectory of your first few years will be more straightforward. But chances are good that you and your partner may find yourself juggling the unexpected and veering off plan. This is to be expected. Open your mind to the new possibilities and go with the flow.
Things to Consider When Both Parents Work
When you have two parents working and multiple young kids, life is just crazy. You wake up extra early to get ready before getting the kids up. Then you run around doing everything for your completely dependent little beings. There’s diapering, dressing, bottles, sunscreen, packing the daycare bag, more diapers, lovies, blankies, lunches, snacks, bottles, and then clothing changes for everyone after the babies spit up on your work clothes. Then you race off to get them to daycare so you can make the office on time.
There is also the car seat issue. If Daddyo is dropping off the kids then he either needs to remove the car seats and leave them at daycare for the pick-up person to use or he has to do the pick-up himself. If you have 2 young kids, then you may wind up needing to own 4 car seats to equip 2 cars. Otherwise you’ll be taking 2 carseats in and out of the cars every morning and evening…well that’s a pain in the rear!
In our family, the end of my work day was just too unpredictable for me to get the kids on time. That meant my husband was doing both drop-off and pick-up of the kids. This made it impossible for him to put in the “extra” hours at work that were expected of him.
The conflict between family needs and work demands put enormous pressure on both of us. And in many families it becomes a source of parental discord. Once you all get home from work the mad dash continues. The kids are tired and want attention, and parents are running around trying to pull together some dinner for toddlers and adults. Next, you give baths, change a zillion diapers, put PJ’s on, do stories, change diapers again, sing songs, tell stories and put the kids to bed.
Then…you do dishes, laundry, try to prep for the next day, look at the crumb strewn floor…decide to ignore it…and collapse. Lights out for grown-ups in our house was 8:30-9pm. Chances were high that our “not so good sleeper” was gonna wake us up at least once during the night.
When it’s a particularly bad night, one of your kids might wake up at 2 am…sick. Throwing up on the rug…running a high fever and inconsolable by anything other than a cartoon…and their sibling would of course be awakened by the commotion and crying too. It can be misery all around.
And…all the while you’re wondering, “Who’s going to miss work tomorrow? Him or me? Who missed last time? Who has the most pressing need to be at work?” You know that by the time the virus goes thru both kids there will be 5-6 days of missed work…at a minimum. And then we parents are gonna get the bug too.
A year into this kind of craziness, I decided that it just wasn’t working for us. I sat down and did some calculations. My job did not offer much in sick leave or vacation time. Like many women returning to work with kids, I had compromised on salary and benefits in the hope of more reasonable hours.
When calculating the cost of working, you need to include more than just childcare hours. You want to add in commuting costs in gas and the expense of an extra car, lost days of pay from staying home with sick kids, and extra costs paid to nanny services to take care of sick kids. Don’t forget you still pay for daycare when your kids are home sick with you or a back-up nanny. Also consider increased food costs, professional clothing or uniforms, dry cleaning, and tolls. Once I crunched the numbers it was clear that financially we only just barely came out ahead with me working. And what about those less tangible costs? Well, we weren’t having fun and we were exhausted!
In retrospect, I generally encourage people who plan on both parents working to seriously consider a nanny. A good nanny in your life can be a wonderful thing. Especially if you have more than one child. As well as providing a loving presence in your home for your kids, they can also greatly ease many burdens of the first few years of parenting.
You don’t have the frantic rush to get out of the house with 2 little kids in tow or the race to leave work early to pick them up. The nanny can have the kids bathed and fed before you get home. Or they can have a family meal ready for your arrival. They can get some laundry done and sweep the floor. (But don’t expect too, too much if your kids are really young!) If you’re working, these things can help you find the room to breathe a bit…maybe actually enjoy the kid’s early years. If you can arrange for the nanny to cover a regular date-night, you’ll find it an excellent investment in the integrity of your family’s foundation.
In many cases, hiring a nanny can be cheaper than paying for 2 children in daycare or preschool. If you can also afford a house cleaner 1-2 times a month, do that too. These expenses don’t have to be forever. The challenges won’t go away, but as the kids get older the family work will become more manageable.
And if you are a lower income single parent with twins? Sigh. Find a social worker and get all the help you can. Call in favors from friends. Move close to family. Contact a local multiples mother’s club for help. Do whatever you can to get a network of parents, moms, family, and friends who will help you thru these first difficult years.
To be clear, I have nothing against daycare. My kids have thrived in a daycare environment. If you have flexibility at work or family who can help with pick-up/drop off and caring for sick kids then many children can find enrichment in a multi-age group setting.
And there are other ways to make your days run smoother. You can hire a “mother’s helper” for the after-work time. Less costly than a nanny, a mother’s helper can give a hand with dinner, baths, clean up, laundry etc. You could also hire an older teenager to play with your preschoolers while you make dinner.
There are many ways to get yourself some help and don’t feel bad to go looking for it. It really does take a village to raise a child. And it really is different today than it was for your parents.