I’ve spent the last two years immersed, for a large part, in the world of babies and the world of parenting. A world where concerns are shared, and deeply felt, by parents looking to do everything in their power right by their children. Wanting to look after them, to nourish them, to keep them healthy, safe and happy.
Parents that I know are from all around the world and all walks of life. But there are few to no barriers in communication when it comes to the root of what we care about. The expressions might be different but the desire is the same at its heart. We want to keep our children well. In the earliest days the want is nothing short of obsession for how to keep these little people alive.
Being a parent, and becoming a carer of people, has given me a lot of lessons in tolerance. Babies and children don’t act on cue according to the imagined scheduling of their parents, because they have their own wants and needs. And the tolerance learned from being a parent extends to others around, because we all have our own wants and needs. So at what point is it that people’s lives become dispensable?
It is unfathomable to me, that this world that I live in, in which I see people with the same concerns and cares all around me, is the same world in which it is somehow acceptable for war to be declared, and the large scale destruction of human life instigated. You might say that it is not acceptable, that a huge majority is up in arms, yet the fact is that it is happening and I just can’t believe that it is allowed to happen in this same world.
I’ve read the articles and I’ve taken in the notes on the history. These things don’t help me to understand why anyone could want for this to happen. And they don’t help me to accept these actions as a move, albeit regrettable, as though part of some elaborate game. Russia has been banned from some football, some olympics, are you fucking joking me? Life is not a game.
Imagine if, when we were expecting a child, that the main question people would ask was… say… are you hoping for a blonde or a brunette? Are you going to find out the hair colour in advance, they would ask, or are you going wait for it to be a surprise?!
If, for some reason, we as a society felt that this one trait was the most defining thing, there’d be tests available too of course. Science would have figured out a way to find out in utero what hair colour the baby was likely to have. And then we’d be able to start imagining our lives ahead with this little blonde or brunette in it. We could start shopping and decorating accordingly.
We would have these clearly defined notions, deeply seeded in our consciousness, of what blondes and brunettes are like. If it mattered so much, it would probably be because we had somehow gotten to a point where our society was built on these notions.
Blondes are more bubbly and social and chatty, we would know, it would just be common fact. So all of those jobs, like presenting and tour guiding and negotiating would all be owned by blondes. It would be the natural order of things. Brunettes on the other hand, as everybody knows, are more serious and quiet and intellectual. They would be our accountants, our scientists and our philosophers. The world would thus be split.
If you were expecting a blonde baby, you’d probably decorate the room with yellows and cartoons. You’d buy lots of dolls and musical instruments. For a brunette, more dulcet tones would be appropriate, an avocado green perhaps. You’d stock the shelves with books and building blocks.
For even the most woke among us it would be impossible to be without some deeply embedded preconditions. We’d have grown up seeing the world this way, seeing blondes centre stage and talking, seeing brunettes working industriously behind the scenes. It would be the reality of the world around us, so we naturally would see the future for our little ones panning out accordingly.
Clothes shops would be separated into blonde and brunette sections, and so, we’d most often go with the grain in our own shopping habits. Our friends would pass us on the clothes of their appropriately hair coloured child. To give us the other, well, it might be just a bit weird or challenging. Probably best and smoothest to stick with the norm.
When a birthday present needed to be bought, we’d think about the hair colour of the child in question, and ask amazon what the best gift for a blonde/brunette child aged 7 would be. Amazon would duly reestablish the status quo and an uncontroversial gift would be bought – easy peasy.
Out in the world, in nursery and in school, our little ones would meet this division of character by hair colour. They would be assigned to their category and learn what they are supposed to be. They’d be inducted into their clubs. Their natural will to survive and thrive would guide them into doubling down and framing their identities through reinforcing those traits that ensure their place in their team.
How many children do you have? Oh I have three – two blondes and one brunette. Though I do worry a bit about one of my blondes, bley seem to have some very quiet tendencies, you know, sort of brun-ish. It’s probably just a phase, bley adore bleir older brunther.
We would imagine the activities that our kids would be interested in. Oh a little blonde, we’d think, it will be so much fun seeing blem taking drama classes. We’ll sing together! If it’s a brunette, well, my brunband is very excited to have a pal to talk about the intricacies of trains with.
Ok, ok, this has been fun, but of course we know that the world is not split according to hair colour. When a blonde author emerges they are not told that blondes can’t be writers. And brunettes are welcomed onto the centre of all sorts of stages. In this society, this actual real one, from within which I am writing this blog post, we don’t determine so much based on hair colour. What we do is determine all this and more based on which genitalia our babies are born with.
But, you might say, there really are differences between boys and girls. You might know, you would tell me, because you see it all around you and in your own life. But how much of those differences are created through the ways that we reinforce preconceived notions, and how much is innate? According to Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue, the reading of which has been the inspiration for this post, the best analysis shows that very very little difference between the sexes is innate in children.
Picture a big fat pie. It’s bursting with delicious contents, and at the edge there is the tasty crust. All of those delicious contents include all of that great juice of life that each of us brings in our own, uniquely individual characters and personalities. Scrum-didilly-umptious! In one side of the crusts, defined by some characteristics, there is a higher portion of boys. On the other side, a higher portion of girls. That’s it. Inside the pie, where most of us live, is all the variety and range of being that each of us has.
What I find most interesting in all of this is to understand better the predicament that we find ourselves in today – those of my generation, my peers and particularly my peers that are and will be parents. The fact of the matter is that we have been brought up in a society that attributes certain things to girls and certain things to boys. We’ve been placed in separate camps from very young ages, we’ve been treated differently, and we’ve been taught different things.
Here we are and here I am. A mother of 37 years of age, in a time where we have apparent equality in many things, but at a time where women have been raised to be better at and to manage all that is entailed within emotional labour. It is part of our gender construct. This construct and the effort that it entails is an important thing to increase awareness of in the workplace. When it comes to the home, and once children are introduced, is where the matter really explodes.
Women have been raised to be aware of and look after the needs of others. Perhaps unsurprisingly, having a kid brings a whole lot of looking after work into the fray. All of the monitoring emotions, watching for cues, and planning planning planning to have the right things in the right place at the right time. It turns out we were raised for this shit. Even those of us, like me, who have often denied many of the tropes of femininity that didn’t seem to resonate. It looks like this one’s gone real deep.
Meanwhile our male counterparts have been raised with a more singular focus. Be kind and good, sure, the good ones, the ones many of us have married and had children with, for example, have been raised like that. But while being good and kind, mainly, know what you want and get it, make it happen. It can be a bit jarring, to be trying to go about your business, and to be confronted with the neediness of others. Suddenly a whole new mentality is needed.
You can’t just decide, ooh I’d like a hotdog, then make a hotdog, and eat a hotdog. Life doesn’t work that way anymore. Now you gotta think, when will they be hungry, when will they need me to get them down to sleep, and what would they like to eat. If you’re eating a hotdog at a bad time, and they obviously come looking for a bite (as of course they would), then you’re disrupting their routine. If you’re eating a hotdog and they’re begging for your attention, because they’re tired and they need you to get them off to sleep for their nap, come on dude what are you doing eating a hotdog at nap time?! I know you’re thinking, whimpering now, I just wanted to eat a hotdog in peace! Well, tough titties man, it’s time to get with the programme. The only way you’re eating that hotdog in peace is when you work around the needs of others.
The most frustrating thing of it all is that because men have not been raised to be aware of the emotional labour, like women have, that they don’t even then notice it. They hear their wife singing at bedtime, and they assume she’s doing it for her! So they don’t see the effort, and they don’t learn from her how to do to it themselves
Yes, it’s quite the predicament and it does run deep. The best thing we can do is to talk about it. Keep building our vocabulary. Highlight the effort and make sure that it is recognised. And lo, oh yes, invite others to take on some of the responsibility. Yes indeed, it’s time to get womansplaining.
This post was inspired by what I learned from Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue; how to raise your kids free of gender stereotypes by Christia Spears Brown.
Yer man said something interesting the other day. You know the chap, the pope, they call him, isn’t it. Innit, I’m getting all London n all.
Well, that fella said that people are not having enough children these days for his liking. He said this is a great shame. He said this is a sign of cultural degradation in our world, that we’re weakening, that we can only handle relationships with puppies, but not little humans. Interesting stuff!
I can’t say that I’m privy to his particular spreadsheets. I don’t know what numbers exactly he is referring to when he’s expressing this concern. I can only presume that he’s speaking about what’s happening in the Christian world, wherever that is. So what is happening in the western world that could be behind this shift in proliferation?
In 1970 Germaine Greer wrote about the impossibility of being a mother in a society of nuclear family shaped households. She had a point. At that moment in time, in the western world, we had firmly settled into a way of living that meant that families, in the sense of parents and children, would live in defined spaces separated unto ourselves. Very much, you’ll observe, the way we still live today – young families live, for the most part, and by ideal, in their own home.
In 1970, as Ms. Greer all too well highlighted, women had a lot of problems. Once married, women were absolutely and definitively expected to play a particular role. In Ireland, at that time, women who married had to leave their jobs. By law, you see. So to marry at that time, which of course implied becoming a devoted mother, was to pin women right down to their domestic role.
But not anymore, you say. “All that has surely changed now!”, my own mother not so long ago commented to me. I grant you, Mam, that a lot has changed. In the western world, women have access to every opportunity that men do. There are real problems with harassment, with bias, with violence. But there are no longer any lawful barriers, and in theory it is all there for the taking. Great stuff!
Now that that’s solved, and women can have all the jobs, just remind me again of who exactly is doing the parenting of these proposed children? Speaking as a person that spent six years and unsurmounted effort to have children, and for whom it has really meant the world to do so, it is most certainly a choice that I wouldn’t recommend for anyone to take on lightly!
But you know what, forgive me, I must have missed something. While women were being “invited” into the world of work, clearly an eye was taken on all that they were managing before. Aha, clever legislation was put in place to support the shift of that work. Surely. I mean, otherwise it would make no sense, make no sense at all.
The states in the Christian world will have thought about good support for childcare. They will have thought about good facilitation, for bright and constructive people to be able to contribute, while raising physically and mentally well families. Surely.
Who’s taking care of these children you want us to have? With what time and what means?
Gender equality in parenting is only the start of it. It’s the part that a lot of us can play a part in. From there, a lot a lot a lot of legislation needs to change.
I’m someone who longed to have children, I fought really hard to make it happen and I fucking love it. But I have days, you know. Look, I can see how hard it can be. How much it can be. When I think about doing this alone?
Not all women are born mums. To the same extent that not all men are born dads. Well, now women have some of the same stature as men do, with our current system, it’s not a great wonder to me that fewer of us would choose to have babies.
Ok in reality I see men in the playground all the time. In fact, on Saturday and Sundays, I often see so many dads in the playground with their little ones that I wonder if my work here is done – what am I even writing about this stuff for? We’ve done it!
That is until I remember alllll of the other things. All the rest of what I see around me. Women overburdened by childcare responsibilities combined with their paying jobs. Women overburdened with the running of their households. And the fact that what I see at the weekends may actually be the piece of relief that they are given, rather than the norm. It may present quite an illusory image to the outside world of the usual running of that family.
Anyway, today, all joking aside, a man came into the playground on his own. As in, all on his own. He walked confidently into the playground. I thought maybe he was taking a shortcut through, until he hopped up onto a broad sort of see-saw thing, and while facing towards my girl, commented on the weather.
I felt my brain leaping to associations. A man in the playground. At the moment he had come in, so too had a woman with a little kid, through a different gate. It was possible that they were together, I told myself. How foolish of me to become quickly fearful of this guy when he’s probably a dad with his partner and kid. How ridiculous, in the context of someone who wants to fight for gender equality in parenting, to see a man here and to jump to silly conclusions.
I looked around to clock where Andrew was. He was outside the playground, in the park with the child who likes to go for long wanders, while I was with the child who’s keen to master all of the playground equipment. Sadly, this dude did not appear to be here with that other family either.
We have a choice of playgrounds around us. A wonderful, city park one. A fantastic one in a rather affluent area, where the toddler fashion at the weekend is out of this world. Today, due to our mornings plans, we were in the small playground in the rougher park near us.
It’s a park in which I regularly see people likely dealing drugs, and the odd few people drinking on park benches. But that doesn’t matter when you’re there for the play. In the playground, while the fashion may not be to die for, the people there are just good folks caring for their kids.
I was now getting worried about this guy. Clear now that he was not with any child, bouncing stood up on the see-saw, just hanging out in the playground by himself. My little compartmentalist brain moved things into the “officially not happy about this” box. He didn’t look like he was drunk or coming up or coming down or manic or any of those things. He seemed quite calm. But whatever this guy’s deal was, hanging out as an adult alone in a playground is something that it’s ok to not be ok with.
So I bristled and started to look at this chap in a way that I felt did not mask my displeasure at his idle presence. I felt myself, again, looking to identify Andrew’s location. I started to imagine, as you do, now that I had initiated alert and protect mode, what I would do if this dude was to make one wrong move.
A first idea that I had was that I could call Andrew over swiftly. Andrew is a big man, and in an utterly superficial way, that can have a quick impact. If this guy, to hyperbolise the situation entirely, was here to prey upon a child alone with only her mother, the appearance of a great big dad would likely draw short shrift to the power that he imagined himself likely to have.
Then I thought better of that idea. I felt it in myself that that was a lazy option, made available today because Andrew happened to be here, which is not always the case. It wasn’t good enough. I may not have the superficial advantages of Andrew’s gender and size, but I am perfectly capable of getting this guy to fuck right off should I need to. I refocused in on what I would do, if this guy took one step out of turn.
It might be a controversial opinion. It’s a tricky one, because of course women are often victimised. The power of oppression should never be underestimated. But I am not oppressed and I have never felt oppressed for being female. When it is the case that there is no oppressing force I believe that it is possible for women to shake off an illusion of weakness and step into their strength.
I listened to a podcast not so long ago debating the issue of transgender people participating in sports and the gender categorisation. It’s an interesting and challenging topic. On the one hand, transgender women are women. On the other hand is the idea that women’s sport, at a moment when it is only beginning to rise, would suffer when transgender women were allowed to participate.
It’s not an easy one to answer and the experts involved have spent years analysing the various factors. In the summary that I heard the one thing that I felt was not explored enough was the psychological impact on an expression of strength that growing up as female could have.
Could it be that growing up as female, and constantly told that we are the weaker sex, puts limits on the strength that we then reach? When I think of some female athletes specifically it is hard to imagine that this could be the case. It would probably be heinously insulting to them to suggest it. I just wonder what that lifetime of being told of certain limits really does.
Back in the playground and imagining scenarios playing out. I would stress that this was not the same as being all alone in a dark place. This was the daytime and with some other families around. If this guy had said something sinister, and I had reacted by calling Andrew over, I would have been the victim. In the new turn of events, having beckoned a man, I would now have been waiting for a number of moments for him to arrive while I what? Although with some upper hand, I would have been weakened in status while I waited for him to arrive. And god forbid he should not hear or should misunderstand me!
And what about the next time? No, I knew that in the moment I had to strap that mantel on and be the one to protect my children. I didn’t know what I was going to say or how I was going to say it, but I knew that I would make it very clear that I was not someone to fuck with. Because that’s who I would have to be for my girls.
There’s a lot of talk these days about the phenomenon, experienced by many women, of losing their identity after having a baby. Women lose their sense of who they are.
We understand this because, of course, having a baby brings massive changes to our lives. But what do we really mean by this thing of losing identity? What actually causes this to happen, and should we be so acceptant of it as par for course of becoming a mother?
When I was three years old and went to playschool for the first time, the school were surprised to report that I was pretty familiar with my numbers already. My family wracked their brains as to where I could have got this from? Until they realised that, oh, it must be from my exposure to their poker games.
What I’m trying to say is that I’m a bit of a gambler. And when I was approaching my maternity leave, I took the risky decision to completely separate myself from work. There are a lot of specifics that put me in a position to be able to do so. That said, all in, I knew that it was a bit of a risk and a bit of a gamble.
I wanted, after 15 years of dedicated full time working, to see who I would be when I did take that step away. I was very aware of the vital role to my self esteem that work plays for me. But it happened to be a good time for me, mentally, to take that bit of a gamble. In other words, I approached maternity leave like a sabbatical. Which is really, by the way, not what it is meant for.
Being a bit older, I had a good understanding of myself, and was able to plan some mitigations against the risk. I committed to doing some charity related work, which I thought would give me some mental focus. And I dusted off some old creative hobbies.
Sod the washing up or, heaven forfend, the hoovering! If two babies were miraculously asleep at once, I was going to snatch that twenty minutes to work on something of my own. So I contributed to the bit of work, I painted, I wrote, and to be honest when the girls were awake I read if I could with some of those projects still in mind.
These things helped to preserve my mental health. It didn’t require a huge amount. I might be caring for my babies for 11 hours of the day without a break at times. But the time snatched in the evening, and being able to think about that project throughout the day, even while my hands were full, meant the world to me.
I managed to get out for a meal with a friend one evening, when the girls were maybe 7 months old, and lockdown restrictions were eased. The waiter complimented my ordering skills and I cried. One thing I hadn’t banked on through this entire experience was my need for positive reinforcement!
Generally speaking it is often the case that a woman goes from working full time in her productive job to nothing. Busy, of course, with her new baby, but nothing wanted of her outside of that. A void of space presented to her, apparently to help her to adjust to her new life. Of being a mum, and completely unseen. Is it any wonder that this change can hit hard.
Post-partum depression does not effect the same numbers of women or men equally from country to country. There are discernible trends to be observed that see higher proportions of people suffering with post-partum mental health issues in some countries over others. This is not a necessary biproduct of having a baby. This is societal and it is cultural.
May I have a drum roll please for one of the countries that has the lowest recorded rates of post-partum depression among new mothers and it is… badumdumdumdumdumdum…. The Netherlands!
What I read about the Netherlands is that there is often more involvement from grandparents in the daily lives of new parents. And, moreover in my opinion, more involvement of dads. It seems that there, the expectancy is not for women to drop entirely out of the workforce in her maternity, but for her to work reduced hours, perhaps, while her baby’s father does the same.
It doesn’t have to be for everyone. I know, I hear you, women who are much more sensible than I am and who don’t hinge their well-being on these external outputs. Some women can and of course should remain perfectly happy to take to the full time parenting role. As might many men.
What might it look like in our society to say, when little ones come into the world, that we expect and prepare for any parent to switch to a reduced hour working week for a time. That when a woman or a man, equally, when a baby is born, will work less hours in order to care for their infant.
When a woman has a baby we tell her that it’s ok for her to be gone. Essentially, that we really don’t need her. We’ll get on just fine. It’s all well meaning, in the main.
Well, why not say that the same applies for all? For all, we will expect a reduced presence at work. If we are willing to so easily accept that 100% of a woman’s time can be let off unmissed, can’t we by the same token say that 50% of each a woman and a mans time could be thought of in the same way? It doesn’t sound so radical to me.
I often write here about how different our two little girls are and have been from day dot. It’s been such an incredible joy and a gift to pay witness to.
One of the best examples is in how they sleep. Oh, babies and sleep. How babies sleep or don’t sleep can be the crux of the pain of early parenting. And we have been treated to two very different little types of sleepers.
One of our girls has pretty much always put herself down for naps and bedtime all by herself. At some point, early on, she decided that 7pm was bedtime. A belted cry and we were told, it’s time to put her to bed. And once we did, provided she had her bunny, she would settle herself down for the night. I know, right.
The other has been quite a different story. The only way she has ever slept, for a nap or for the night, has either been in motion in the buggy or in her parent’s arms. At 19 months and counting, this is still the way it is.
A small note here that sleep, and sleep routines, is an area where advice is very often sought and very often doled out. This blog is absolutely not about giving any parenting advice, as I am absolutely no expert, and I realise that I expose myself to judgement in sharing how we do, but hey ho. Judge away if you like.
This is just the state of play as we have found it. We have one fantastic sleeper, and one child who simply loves company so much that she can’t bear to drift off to the land of nod without generous accompaniment.
I have asked myself whether it is wrong to treat them differently, and have concluded that since I very much want them to be their own individuals that it is not. So we are now in a phase where we gently steer the one towards bed, while the other stays up a for a bit longer. It works pretty well for us.
Then tonight, oh betrayal of betrayals, the sleeper wouldn’t sleep. Normally quick to get into the idea and settle herself down, she most unusually wasn’t having it. She was a bit wired, she wanted to play, she insisted on company.
It’s moments like these that serve as a good reminder of just how much we take her easy behaviour for granted. We’ve come to terms with one bad sleeper, but two at once and we’re thrown right out. She’s due a couple of needy nights, no doubt.
So I spent about three hours this evening basically standing by her cot. Rubbing her back. Giving her the odd giggle. Trying to let her fizz her energy while not getting any more excited – tricky that.
It’s difficult when you have other stuff to do, to give your time over like this to another. When you have work to do, deadlines to meet. Or work that you’d really like to do, creatively, for yourself or others.
It’s difficult especially when this caring is not shared. I have no complaints tonight, my husband was busy all the while with the usual non sleeper. I was thankful we were one on one, which is a common phrase in our family that equals some relief.
All that said, I looked at my daughter and realised that if this was what she needed all the time, if she just needed me to be there constantly, then that is what I would do. I would make the decision to pack in all my other interests and employments to be a constant carer to either of my daughters should that be what they needed.
Knowing that, doesn’t that make all of my this here vitrionics about equality in parenting seem a little bit, well, selfish? Shouldn’t I just shut my gob and get on with the privilege of doing the job that I have been gifted to do?
Maybe. Those thousands of heroic individuals who do devote their lives entirely to others could obviously speak better to what it is and what it means than I. If they had the time.
All I think is that it shouldn’t always be women. Because that default whips a whole big bunch of people out from other sectors of life where we could really benefit from a bit more balance.
I worried about this a litle while I was pregnant, but thankfully a baby is not like a plant. I have cared about my plants. I’ve really wanted them to live. And yet, I haven’t quite remembered to feed and water them when they needed. I’ve let them die.
The good news is that a baby won’t let you do that. When they are born they are new and you are also new, to being the one to care for them. So there is some stuff that happens. That makes you rise to the challenge.
They cry. They wail. They scream. One of those. All of those. It looks like there are lots of different ways. I have a limited sample size of two to go by. Of that two, one squawled, she trusted no-one and felt that nothing was going to happen unless she made her needs painfully clear. The other was more content, but would look with puppy dog eyes, welling, growing larger than her head somehow, when something was amiss and it was time to be fed already.
We were pushed to action. Either technique would work just fine. The little human would stir us into action.
Of course there are other things at play apart from the process through which a baby forces you to change into their carer. There is the witchcraft, the hormones, the magic, the love. Whatever it is that makes you absolutely adore this new little person. The only option is to lean in and relish it. And you become willing and eager to do what is required. As you rightly should.
For all of that love, I challenge you, wouldn’t it have been possible, in those first early weeks, for you to sleep through a night without getting up for that 2am feed? In those moments when you hit exhaustion, might you have somehow yet forgotten that 3 hours had passed and it was that time again? Despite the greatness of the love, you still depended, didn’t you, on those consistent reminders from baby.
That’s normal. We were only learning. The love itself, important as it is, doesn’t help you to know what to do. It makes you keen to figure out what to do and frustrated when you get it wrong (to put it mildly). But it doesn’t inform the knowledge, the know how. For that, you need something more.
On one occasion, the squawler was squawling, and so I was preparing to feed her. I remember looking at her and thinking, “OK! I’ve got the message, I’m preparing to feed you, you can quiet down.” But, I realised, had she quietened down I might actually have stopped preparing to feed her. “Oh. She’s alright now,” I might have thought, “whatever it was has passed”.
So they have to be relentless. We need them to be in order to really get the message and to understand what we need to do. Eventually we learn. Then we don’t need the relentless cries, in fact, we might just get so well trained that we start to prepare the feed before the moment hits, oh glory. And she, in turn, will learn to trust us as she gets to know that we can be depended upon for the required results. It all just gets, gradually but surely, calmer as the work becomes second nature.
In the early days babies are so tiny. Which means they need feeding very very regularly. I can barely even remember now, so buried into my psyche it’s become, was it every 2, every 3 hours? So every 3 hours, around the clock, feeding is to happen. It is because they are so small that the frequency is needed, and as they get bigger, they take bigger portions less often.
It would be harder the other way round though, wouldn’t it. It would be hard for us to get successfully trained in as parents if at the start the feeds were infrequent. It would be much harder to learn the rhythms of what we need to do. And it would be really hard if from that starting point we had to increase the frequency. We’d be comfy, and this thing would be niggling at us to do just a bit just a bit just a bit more all the time.
Far better to start off running, and gradually get to enjoy slowing down a bit, than to start off easy and try to build up to a faster gait. There must be some resonance with our human nature, mustn’t there. Successfully keeping children alive is literally the one thing that has got us to this point as a species. People try to introduce change through many different techniques and methods. If we’re looking for what will play well across human psychology, I suspect the babies have it.
All of the big change management theories have some element of reward baked in. And when it comes to babies, well, how much time have you got? The rewards are obviously ceaseless, but even to take an element of the feeding example in isolation you can see.
From squawling relentlessly, or looking utterly betrayed, to dozing contentedly, the reward is immense. After a few weeks, you are treated to satisfied smiles, and true and honest love beaming up at you. In my world these days, after eating some wholesome food, I am treated to two happy energised children running up and down the corridor and making each other giggle. Truly delightful.
And that is the other thing. It changes. Because it has to. It is obvious to us that children have to grow. And that need for change therefore is part of who we are and how we work as people. As humans, we need things to change and to evolve. Otherwise we would get bored, we’d become forgetful, we’d forget why we care. We know this is true, we can see it in examples in work all the time. We need change (which is why, incidentally, we should not be shy about evolving the gender norms as they are currently viewed around parenting).
Yes, when it comes to change management, babies have simply got it all worked out. Relentless and frequent, painful reminders to start, easing up over time. They provide delightful rewards, which evolve and grow. Before you know it, they’ve turned someone who could never keep a plant alive into a parent of a fed and watered thriving child. When you think about it, it’s sort of marvelous.
Women are not magic.
It is often the case that women are the subjects of this process of change. And if you’re outside the process looking in, you are not subject to that change, nor is it easy to keep up with its evolving nature. The only way to learn is to be subject to the process too. It has absolutely nothing to do with a parent’s gender.
It goes back to the very beginning. I didn’t manage to breastfeed her and before we knew it we were regularly feeding our daughters, side by side, and alliances were being formed.
Having twins was an incredible initiation into parenthood for two utterly clueless adults. It quickly became apparent that they were two very different little people. One was quite content to go to sleep by herself and in her own cot, for example. The other required a lot more holding.
Now that they are swaggering nicely into toddlerhood, I appreciate those cuddles that she still looks for very, very much. It is so gorgeous to get those little squeezes all throughout the day. But when they were tiny babies that need for constant holding was challenging for me. It probably suited Andrew’s natural inclinations slightly better.
Now, when Andrew leaves the room, she is absolutely devastated. If he calls down the stairs to say something to me, she hears his voice and then he doesn’t appear, she can’t take it. Why would he be in the house, she seems to think, and not be here with me?!
The other morning, while I was having breakfast with the girls, Andrew went up to have a shower. She clung, wailing, to the stair gate at the bottom of the stairs for the next 20 minutes. Inconsolable and impossible to distract. I leave the room all the time and nothing.
I can’t be sad about this. When her dad leaves and she gets upset she is absolutely heartbroken. I can’t want to create those feelings in her! And it would be hard for me too, trying to have some time to myself or get some work done, to hear that expression of pain.
At our wedding, my dad began his speech saying “I first met Liz when she was about 4 years old”. It was a very funny opener. Because, of course, my parents were together throughout my early years. But my dad would not have been involved with all of that.
Despite that, I know how much he means to me. He was a hugely important influence throughout my childhood, especially as I was getting bigger. It’s a bit unfair really, to my mum who put in all those hours, that I should care for him so much as well.
It means that I know that not being her favourite right now won’t matter in the long run. And I do see how much she loves me besides. Plus, let’s face it, this is all easy for me to say when we have two.
It doesn’t always have to be mum. That creates an unfair impediment for anything she wants to achieve outside of her family. And if it’s not mum sometimes, that might just be fine.
I’ve been thinking a lot about introversion. This week I’ve been thinking about introversion in the context of work. I’ve been going through some performance review stuff, and been realising a lot about how being an introvert as a professional can contribute to how your work is understood.
Introversion might mean different things to different people. To me, the defining thing about being an introvert is that I don’t need to share. When I’m going through something, good or bad, I don’t need to communicate about it. In fact, I rather not. I am incentivised to communicate when I want to teach, to share a learning. In the moment, I’d rather work things through in a quiet way.
The default expectation in work, I guess in many places, is to be extroverted. Coming across a problem, then communicating it and working it through with your boss, will give them visibility of the challenge that you’re overcoming, and also get them more invested in your success. While if you quietly deal with a problem independently, and even take it in your stride, your boss may never know the quality of your work at all.
Does this impact women more than men? I don’t know. But I would say that your position in the company makes a big difference. Lets take a personal example. Imagine I am dealing with something, say, the psychological and physical toll of a miscarried pregnancy. My preference may be to continue to work, enjoying the satisfaction of being productive, while getting through a tough patch.
Another person might need to take some time off. This will disrupt their work. And that will create further turmoil for them, but they have to take that time to heal. Then they’re returning to work with a pile of catch up to do on top of their continued recovery.
Different people need different things and everybody should be entitled to do what’s needed to look after their well-being. In the second scenario, the boss is being informed, the boss is feeling every ounce of sympathy, and supporting and celebrating the persons return, catch up efforts and recovery.
In the first, they are not. Maybe because they didn’t know that anything was going on at all. But here’s the thing. Even if they did, even if I did tell them what I’d been dealing with, how seriously would they take it? Coming from the CEO, it would get some credit. Speaking to a large and hushed audience, the power that she took to get through her turmoil would resonate and impress. You may not expect to see such power in the ranks below you. When someone deals with something in an introverted way, you may not recognise the strength that it took to do so or give due respect to the weight of the challenge that they had.
Every day in work brings challenges, of a bigger and smaller scale. The power and the quality that it takes to navigate them may be completely underestimated in an introvert.
I think a lot about what it means to be an introvert as a mum. Firstly and mainly because it hit me quite abruptly, when I first became a parent, that the assumption is that mums should be extroverted.
Because there is still so much that is unknown about women’s bodies, pregnancy, birth, post natal hormones, and baby care, the best source of information for new mothers is often other women. Great for the extrovert who anyway wants to work through their challenges out loud, in company of others, and is eager to line up those networks. Much tougher for the introvert.
Looking after babies, with the way things are these days, can be terribly lonely. On the flip side, it can also be a lot. It is a lot of person to person care and attention. How the baby (or babies) sleep can be the difference between little and no alone time.
What is the most commonly tossed about piece of advice for women who are in the thick of it with parenting and are in need of some reprieve? That’s right, “why not go and meet some other mums.” For an introvert that might as well read “you’re exhausted, why not get out there and stretch yourself even further”. Introverts can be power houses. If what they need is 3 hours to themselves, to read, to rest, to meditate or to work, then please let’s let them have it.
Looking after children in itself would seem to be an extroverted occupation. But why? Look, certainly I know that when interviewing for a nanny for their kids that I am the last person anyone would expect to meet. I also wouldn’t say that childcare is my vocation. So vocationally, maybe working with babies and kids is more something for the extroverts? I don’t know, probably not. But I am certainly sure that being an introvert as a parent is no bad thing.
When my babies were first born, I was often hit by the question of what on earth was I supposed to be doing with them? A common feeling, I believe, for many first time parents. The trouble is, once you start asking that question to the world, to the internet, to other parents, you can quickly come to the conclusion that what you should be doing with them is EVERYTHING. You should be singing, and dancing, you should be reading to them, and taking them out for experiences. You care so much for these little ones, and any sign that you might not be doing what’s best for them – another baby has learned something they haven’t, for example – and panic can set in. You should be doing more.
I’ll use an analogy of travel. We all know that friend who, when on holiday, has a big long list of sites and attractions that they want to see til the entire trip is nothing but stressfully dashing from one location to another. The greatest holiday companion I’ve ever had, yes, planned the trip out to the minute, but where the planning involving a lot of time. Time to sit, to drink coffee and people-watch, to take in and absorb the area. Half a day in the Lower East End, taking in one museum. Half a day in the Village, taking in a gig. Time, most importantly, to enjoy the atmosphere of this incredible city.
An introvert, and every person, needs to find the natural rhythm that gives them strength. Singing and dancing all day long is wonderful when that’s your natural energy and meets your need to communicate. There is also value in quiet. In fact, while an extrovert sings and dances they might do so absent mindedly, which leaves room for other thoughts, both for them and their companion. An introvert’s song could be so thoughtful it would simply take up too much space if it continued longer than it should. The worst thing anyone can do, any parent can do, is set themselves up trying to be something they are not.
Being an introvert is by no means better, but it is equally wonderful and should be celebrated in it’s way, and for it’s own quality. You may be assuming a lot about your child if you think they would do better, or would prefer, you to be an extroverted parent. Sing when you want to sing. Dance when you want to dance. Listen when you want to listen. Work when you need to work.
Introverts at work shouldn’t need to change their style. They should be met half way by a company that becomes better at recognising them. And introverts that are parents shouldn’t feel the need to be anything other than themselves either.
Since returning to work from maternity leave I’ve been taking Fridays off. This generally means that I work pretty intensely from Monday through to Thursday. By the time Friday comes around, I’m ready to switch into a different mode. I’m ready to press pause on the many demands of my work, and focus my attention entirely on my little girls.
On Saturdays and Sundays Andrew and I will be parenting together. We’ll each be able to pop in and out, do some bits and bobs around the house, head out to meet with friends even, all while sharing the parenting between us. But Friday is my day, and after a busy week of work I lean into being nothing but a parent for a day. It wasn’t quite the same when I went from working in a full time job to all at once becoming a full time parent.
One thing that I never really grasped about babies was… just how much they need to be held! Having children for me has never been about having babies. It’s been about having kids, little people with their joys and sorrows, who’ll grow into adults as time goes by. But certainly, while I was pregnant, I dreamt of holding them. I imagined the pure bliss of the cuddles and snuggles and the realness of their little bodies in my arms. I just never realised how excruciating it could sometimes be.
It turns out that babies don’t want to be held in accordance with their parents’ schedules. In fact, sometimes, it seems it’s quite the opposite. I have never truly known the experience of being interrupted, continually, until my bundles of joy were in this world. I have never felt such desire to do the most mundane tasks. Bottles left abandoned, partially washed, would bob in agonising circles in my mind, when my excitement at completing just one task, any task, was dashed once again.
Pasted to the couch with a baby in my arms, thoughts would run through my mind of every other thing I could be doing at that time. I could be reading my book, and I could do that now, but I’ve left it on the other side of the room, just there, and out of reach. The TV remote is only just ever so tantalisingly out of reach of my hand. My phone might just, if I just reach over that way, but no – she makes it clear that I will not get away with moving that way. I’d hear something coming through the letter box and I’d know exactly what it was – something for them, of course, something I’m excited to set up for them. It falls to the ground, where it remains.
I’d see snippets of a whatsapp chat scrolling on my distant phone and catch the gist of the conversation. I’d think of a response which would turn out to be the wittiest thing I’ve ever come up with in my life. But the moment’s passing. Other comments are coming through. It won’t make sense any more by the time I’ve got my phone back in my hand. The moment will have gone.
To anyone looking in it would look the perfect picture of bliss. A happy mother holding her beautiful, healthy newborn. From the inside, it’s incredible what captivity can do to the mind. With arms full and decommissioned, thoughts of every other thing I could possibly be doing would invade me and fill me with urgency. Once released, once finally free to do whatever I should choose, the ridiculous thing is that I could easily have sat right back down in that very spot again.
When I was pregnant I was told, time and time again, “you’ll be busy!”. This didn’t concern me. I like to be busy. In the run up to their arrival, I was running at double speed, polishing and handing over things at work, and getting everything at home ready and organised. There was still plenty of organising to be doing with the girls now here. Yet I was going nowhere. Stuck to the couch, I was stopped in my tracks. It was not the sort of busy I’d been expecting.
I gained some important life skills in that time. I got better at stopping, remembering that what I was in the middle of doing or about to start, could wait. Remembering that I don’t get to choose to have a lovely snuggle in 15 minutes time, that that’s not how life works. Lovely snuggle is happening now, and I’d be fool not to soak it in. That she’ll never again be smaller than she is right now. And how unbelievable her little fingers, just so teeny tiny small, and so to just breath in this moment.
This is what you have to do, I’ve come to realise, when you’re in the role of carer. You need to put your own shit aside, and get right into the moment to be there with the person that you’re caring for. The only trouble with this is that having got yourself into that zone, a passing other, like say, a husband figure, will see your blissful calm and smile sweetly at you, and to himself, as he walks on by to go about his business. “Noooooooooo!!!” you might want to call, as you watch him get away. “I’m happy, but I could use a break!” “A wee would be nice!”. But you can’t raise your voice and your whispers will go unheard.
My urgency, in those moments, did become about little things, like looking at my phone, and sharing a joke with my friends. Larger than that, the change from being productive in a busy and fulfilling job, being self sufficient and in control of my life, my actions and the space I live in, was quite a drastic thing. Having a baby is challenging whatever way you look at it. But it’s when all the caring expectations fall to one person that it can become devastatingly hard. If the load was shared, if each person could have balance, the ability to split their time between caring for the baby and doing other important things, things could be very different.
I reflect a lot on why we don’t see more women speaking out for gender equality in parenting. One theory that I have is that we don’t want to be ungrateful, for what is, after all, the most wonderful gift. Becoming a parent is hard, and should not be taken on lightly. I waited 6 years for my family to start, and have been so incredibly grateful since that day when I finally learned I was going to have children. Having them in the world has been the greatest challenge and the most amazing, life affirming, fantastic thing I could ever imagine.
There is a separation though, between the wonderful thing of having children, and the broken system in which we are supposed to have them. Maybe there is a way that we can better enjoy the wonderful thing for all of its joy. Maybe having a baby doesn’t have to be torturous at all.