Thursday, March 03, 2005

Second Verse, Same as the First

Last Wednesday, we had a brief taste of spring, and several of the moms from preschool took their kids to a local park. We had a brilliant time, the kids got to run off their energy and the moms all shared their snacks and we all agreed to do it again as often as possible. (It turned freezing cold over the weekend so we did a playdate at our house yesterday. Afterward, Wilder threw up his chocolate milk and grapes and then took a nap. He threw up three more times before 11pm. Sigh.)

Also at the park, I had an hour-long conversation with one of the moms about IVF, IUI, and the relative merits of stims when your diagnosis is male-factor infertility. We talked about wand monkeys and sperm analysis and the state of my ovaries. The awkward part? The mom in question is 42 years old, trying for her second child, and swears six ways until Sunday that both her eggs and her (tested last year) FSH levels are good to go. Etiquette and common decency require me not to gasp at any claim by a 42-year old woman that she knows "tons of women who had [non-ART] babies in their mid-forties," and Good Lord, she knows her FSH better than I do. But because the woman in question wanted someone to agree with her that she didn't need stims "because our problem is male-factor, not egg quality," I was hard pressed to know what to say. After an hour, I had pretty much used up my time-tested variations on "well, I'm not an RE" and "I had a different diagnosis so I have no idea" and "It certainly sounds like you're making the best choices for you."

Finally, I lost my head and confessed that I knew of several women in their early forties whose FSH levels took dramatic turns for the worst with no warning (as opposed to, you know, those women whose ovaries sent up warning flares), and hinted that the general consensus in the infertile world would be to act fast whatever she wanted to do. I suggested that if she wanted to do IUI without stims (against the advice of her RE), she should do it soon. I suggested that she could try IUI with stims (as advised by her RE) and call off the insemination if she responded too well for her particular comfort level. I suggested that she was wise to get a second opinion if that's what she wants, but it was my best guess that most other REs would want her to move right along to IVF, and that I heard they did a mean PGD up at Shady Grove. I aplogized six or seven times if I'd overstepped my bounds.

I get approached a lot about ART. I take to heart the advice of other triplet moms that I tread gently when asked, "are they natural?" Sometimes, the answer to "why do you ask?" isn't just stuttering silence as the questioner realizes she's overstepped her bounds. But this is insane. I've now had lengthy conversations about secondary infertility with moms in all but one of the major venues: preschool, Kindermusik, and swimming lessons. (So far, no one has queried my sex life at church.) No doubt it's a reflection of the socio-economic status of the women I meet, because all three SIF moms had their first babies at 38 years old. Probably people "come out" about their infertility to me more than to other women: I doubt the mom in the Kindermusik room whose only child turns out to have been conceived in an FET would have said anything if the SIF mom in the room hadn't raised the topic. I'm glad I don't move through a world where infertility, and especially secondary infertility, is a silent menace. But it does raise some interesting etiquette questions.

Yesterday, the new mom at the preschool talked for rather a long time about how "she wouldn't recommend having your babies so close together" (her daughters are thirteen months apart in age) and I couldn't stop myself from thinking that SIF mom probably didn't need to hear that. It's not my job to educate other women about SIF (my claims to that status being highly dubious) but simply changing the subject felt wrong. How to stand up for my sisters in arms? I have no idea.

Unhappy sidenote: I'm not entirely sure I like being asked about IUI when the question is prefaced by, "I just don't think I could survive having triplets. How did you decide what to do when you were infertile?" I have a fairly complicated answer to that question, and I'm willing to share it, but at some point, how appropriate is it to ask about my responses to triplet motherhood when my kids are tugging on my pants and shrieking for another push on the swings?

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Living Each Moment

Over at So Close, Tertia asked for people to share their regrets about parenting, the choices or non-choices they wish they could do differently. Quite a large majority of people wrote to say that they regretted worrying so much, about everything from toddler milestones to grammar school grades to their own bad days. One person shared with Tertia an article about motherhood regrets published by Anna Quindlen in Newsweek a few years ago. Quindlen made quite a few claims about her own anxieties, her deferral to experts, and her wish that she'd just been more laid back.

Quindlen's take-away line was, "But the biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make while doing this. I did NOT LIVE IN THE MOMENT ENOUGH. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs." Quindlen presents this regret, this key insight into the value and meaning of motherhood, as if it weren't available to her in the expert testimonies (Brazelton, Spock, Leach) that she read. I'm not sure that Quindlen read her Spock very closely, if she doesn't remember Spock's central message: "You know more than you think you do. Relax." What I do know is that every recent generation of parents has arrived at the bittersweet realization that their life passed them by while they were attending to other things.

Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town in 1938: its dramatic climax comes when Emily, from beyond the grave, tries fruitlessly to get her mother to see her, to be fully in the moment, and not to let life slip by in meaningless small things. Erma Bombeck wrote, by my count, eight books about motherhood, and every single one of them featured at least one chapter laughing at and mourning the passage of time, and regretting the way that children do indeed "grow up!" just as their mothers snap at them to do. Julia at Uncommon Misconception has already succumbed to motherhood's primal grief, the bittersweet embrace of time's passage, and her daughter is all of one month old.

Steven Sondheim never had children, but in Into the Woods, the witch sings: "Children can only grow from something you love, to something you lose."

Parents know that time is passing. Mothers know that today's petty troubles cloud their ability to notice and be with their kids. This isn't a blazing insight of a new generation of enlightened people. The question isn't, why don't we notice that life is what happens while we're making other plans? The question is, why doesn't it make a difference, when we do notice it?

Why hasn't it occurred to anyone that some of the mania of "overparenting" arises precisely from the knowledge that every moment and every experience is both precious and fleeting? Maybe mothers obsess over preschools and fiddle with the paper plates because they know that they were too distracted to sit and read the book, or too bored to play Barbies, or too tired to go for the walk. Too many moments are already gone, so we drive ourselves to create the perfect future moments that will persist, in memory, in photos, in life. Should we recognize that the perfect moments are the laid-back ones, the picnics on the front lawn or the giggles over a silly movie? Okay, yes, we should. But it's hard to work up the energy for those moments, some time. Give us a bit of a break, please.

Can you think of anything that would demand more perfect mothering, than the demand to be truly in the moment as much as possible with your children, when you're with them? Is anything harder than transcending the thoughts and emotions and distractions of our ever-chattering minds, so that we can dwell in the here and now? There's a reason why Buddhists refer to their practice as a discipline, and say that it takes hard medicine to achieve enlightenment.

Sometimes I wish that mothers whose children were grown would stop telling mothers whose children are small to stop and smell the roses. I'll be happy to do that, if you'll come over and mop my floors, cook my meals, and wash my clothes. Unless you're prepared to make that offer, shut up -- because telling me to stop fixating on the irrelevant and live in the transcendent is starting to get on my nerves.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Madness, All Madness

There has been much blogging about "Mommy Madness." While I started out enjoying all the hullabaloo, it's Sunday afternoon now and I'm ready to think about other stuff. I worry, suspiciously, that whatever valid points Warner has made about the burdens and costs of motherhood cannot be made to bear the weight of her policy proposals. I notice that I have nitpicked the particulars of Warner's argument, at the expense of the big questions, both in my own post on the article and my follow-up on the issues. As a new week begins, I am returning to the question of personal responsibility and personal choice again--precisely the trap that Warner advised us to fight against. But there will be, I think, one good result of my immersion in Warner-ease: I haven't mentally composed a single "first blog paragraph" in the last week that didn't immediately seem connected to Warner's concerns.

Here, not for your pleasure but for your ease of navigation, are summaries of some of the blogs I happened upon. I'm sure that there are plenty of other excellent posts out there, but I didn't find them before my interest began to burn away. (A final aside: I wonder whether my rapid burnout is another sign of that learned helplessness that Warner targets in her book.)
  1. Getupgrrl at Chez Miscarriage offers an excellent and succinct set of historical comparisons debunking the possibility that Warner says anything new. The point I most which I had made: "Interestingly enough, the cure for maternal overparenting has also remained the same throughout history: more sex!" Grrl points out that the cylical nature of mother bashing reflects "large-scale social and economic patterns." I think you could also talk about generational conflict, but regardless of that digression, I'm inspired to begin drafting a blog-worthy history of recent American motherhood.

  2. Elizabeth at Half-Changed Life analyzes the independent forces that drive SAHM and WOHM moms to ramp up their "parenting," and what happens when the groups collide. My personal "ouch" moment: "Some at-home parents feel the need to justify their decision by giving their kids every bit of attention and stimulation possible. This is how they prove that they're not wasting their expensive educations." Yes, yes, guilty as charged. Half-Changed Life also picks up on and praises an Elle piece by Warner that puts American superparenting into an international context, where it looks decidedly unique and weird.

  3. Over at Birch and Maple, a pointed question for all of us who worry about doing the right thing by our kids: "Doesn't striving for perfection really just mean you can't deal if you're not in control?" I confess, sometimes I think my entire experience of parenthood, including infertility, circles around questions of control. The author, Orodemniades, compares the subjects of Warner's article (or, more precisely I think, the subjects of Quindlan's column) to an infamous category in the infertile world: Pottery Barn People. Because I've never quite gotten that metaphor, I appreciated Oro's summary: "They have it all, yet they still whine." Hmmm, I think I'm a PBP.

  4. The Mental Multivitam declares Warner's subject to be, not mommy madness but mommy stupidity -- she targets the hand-painted paper plates -- and later adds that "reading, thinking, writing, learning, laughing, living are more worthwhile pursuits than whining." The author approvingly quotes a friend's declaration that "Loving others, especially our husbands and children, is really so much more inspiring." Of course, Warner might be exploring precisely how today's mothers should best love their children (and the husbands, too).

  5. Barbara Curtis also takes up the question of women whining, labelling Warner's topic one appealing primarily to "every narcissistic, infantile and elitist woman whiner." Among her other criticisms of Warner's subjects, Curtis makes a telling point about Warner's proposal of part-time childcare for stay-at-home moms. She asks: does Warner "assume there's some subclass of women who are too stupid to do much other than care for the kids of the more "gifted" working and stay-at-home mothers?"

  6. Curtis's take-no-prisoners approach sparked a debate, inspiring her to follow up with an essay in praise of stay-at-home motherhood -- boredom, loneliness, exhaustion and all:
    "this is a brief season in your life. When your kids are leaving, you will hardly believe how fast it all went. ... As I sacrificed to give everything I could to my kids ... my own life was being stretched and enriched. ... So even though it looked on the outside like my life was consumed by motherhood -- and it was -- inside there was a well of creativity being formed. When it came bubbling to the surface, I began to write. And because of the discipline of 12 years of putting others before myself, I actually had something to say."
    Curtis's final zinger: "the impact [of] all these whiney, negative stories on motherhood must have an impact on [children's] tender spirits, must make them feel like burdens rather than blessings."
  7. Jennifer Lynn Arnold of 4 Boys and a Mom joins Curtis in pronouncing that the years of intensive motherhood are "but a season." She believes that Warner's subjects are correct to feel depressed and overwhelmed, because their attempts to do all things by halves have led them to neglect their most important charge, their children. Arnold echoes many evangelical Christian bloggers when she writes:
    "God designed us to be maternal and to be the helper. We are driven to not fail as a mother as instinctively as we are built to breathe in, breathe out, blink! ... There is not [a] rule that says a woman has to become a mother, but by God if you are going to than you better have your priorities straight. Let me clue you, that means putting your child's well being before your, pride, ambition, goals and self indulgent pleasures. It is when we fight against that and do not have our priorities straight that we feel bad and stressed out."
    I was surprised, though, that Arnold thought Warner's catalog of mommy depression was a condemnation of SAHMs who are happy with their lives. I think this defensiveness arises from Arnold's belief that the modern women's movement is responsible for transforming women from "helpers" into "competitors." One offshoot of this transformation? The types of intensive parenting behaviors Warner catalogued, which Arnold asserted were intended not to improve children's lives but to compete with other moms.

  8. Geeky Mom also targets a culture of mommy peer pressure, and believes that maternal competition makes it very hard to step off the perfect parenting race track. She doesn't think Warner is writing about elitist problems: "I live in a very middle-class neighborhood. No one drives fancy cars or sends their kids to private school, but there's still enough pressure to make some of us (me) feel like they're not doing enough." Geeky Mom refocuses on Warner's claim that working women are responsible for too much of the burden, not just of childcare but of community care. She thinks Warner's proposals are a good place to start.

  9. More on the question of peer group and peer pressure at City Mama. In an upbeat manner, Mama attributes her laid-back mothering style to laziness and a healthy ability to forego judgementalism. She also connects Warner's topic to the rising use of SSRIs, something I would hope Warner herself addresses in her book. City Mama closes with a rousing invokation of sisterhood: "No more living in fear of what others will think. No more judging. No more competing. We are hurting each other by doing that. We are making our sisters feel terrible about themselves and their parenting choices. ... And ultimately it's our children that will suffer." Of course, it's precisely the question of why we do this, why we can't just let it go, that inspired Warner to write her book.
  10. Over at The Bleat, a stay-at-home dad named James Lileks eviscerates Warner. He flat-out rejects any suggestion that society is to blame for mothers' anxieties, and targets instead "the latest set of internally contradictory expectations thrown at women’s heads like a big frozen watermelon." It's a good if infuriating piece, worthwhile if only for the 'I'm outside this debate because I'm a man' attitude, and ends with a slacker dad manifesto: "When it comes to expectations about gender and roles and accomplishments and the latest theories about childrearing, I have a secret mantra: I don’t care." Then again, one of Warner's topics? Why exactly so many women are unable to be the slackers here extolled.

  11. Childbearing hipster also extols an "I'm lazy and it's wonderful" approach. Hipster's excellent advice? "Find yourself a good solid core of people who love you and your kid, get together, mix up a pitcher of margaritas and let the rugrats go wild. Good. Happy. Take it as it comes. Do what works for your family, and if it isn't working, find out what does. Don't beat yourself up, and don't let anyone else beat you." Hipster lives among an enviable community of supportive and happy families, precisely the environment Warner loved so much while she lived in France. Warner's point, of course, was that while Hipster's community might be attributable to individual effort and luck, in France, the expectation of community support for mothers and family life is treated as a socially mandated right.

  12. Back on the Daddy track, Jim McQuiggen of Patriside complains about Warner's exclusion of Dads, especially SAHDs. McQuiggen writes, "Many of the issues that Ms. Warner identified rang true to me: lack of decent childcare in this country, corporate apathy to the plight of parents, economic stressors, and yep, the thud you hear is my head pounding the wall." Ultimately, though, he labels Warner's subjects "congenital whiners" whose elitist lives are no where near as difficult as his own: he doubts Warner's theses will gain traction in the Heartland. McQuiggen implicitly raises a key methodological question: is Warner correct when she asserts that we are an aspirational people who allow the values and behaviors of the upper middle class to shape our behavior regardless of our own social and economic level?

  13. Middle-Aged Divorced Woman chimes in to report how different her own mothering was, twenty years ago. Reporting on a lost culture of laid-back mothering, MAD Woman explains that "When I was raising kids ..., we kind of all hung out together. We played with Lego's a lot, watched Sesame Street some, but mostly what we did when we got bored was go on a walk. Sunny days, snowy days, cloudy days. Doesn't matter. They've got all kinds of sports and Accelerated learning for kids, but I think going on walks provides the best education there is." Like Warner, MAD Woman encourages today's moms to relax their standards and re-think their goals. Also like Warner, she understands that personal behavior changed as society did: family walks are more difficult when "Developers do their best to bulldoze every last bit of woods and fields so they can build acres of gigantous, humongous, dreary, ugly "luxury Executive Homes." ... Do they leave anything un-built, spontaneous, free, un-controlled? No. Not even a sidewalk."

  14. Suzanne Galante rides to Warner's rescue over at Mother-in-Chief. Galante thanks Warner for validating her blog's subject: the plight of mothers who did believe they would have it all, only to find themselves profoundly "let down." She writes, "My whole family respects what I am doing as a parent, as a writer, as a woman, as a person. They all love and respect me. I wish I could manage the same for myself." Galante pairs Warner's diagnosis of "learned helplessness" with her own experience of "learned hopelessness": "We are so focused on creating the best learning environment for our kids by reading to them, taking them to play group, art class, swim class, the park, Germ-boree [etc] ... it seems impossible to figure out how to change things so that our worlds become a better, less insane place to live." She closes by highlighting and cheering Warner's proposed solutions, although Galante doesn't really explain how the solutions address the problems she identifies.

  15. The RetiKhah at Kol Ra'ash Gadol obviously agrees with Warner's implicit conclusion that today's mothers are oppressed. She invokes backlash theory: "We no longer have the guts to call our society and government to account for inventing new ways to keep us in the kitchen and the home, and then set those working at home against those working out of the home by confusing us about whom to blame." In a very brief post, the question of dads -- where are they and what are they doing -- gets first mention.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Talking 'bout Our Generation

This is a draft! Warning, This is a draft! It's midnight, I fell asleep getting the kids to bed, and I need to write down some of the stuff that's been chasing around my brain before I can fall back asleep. (I hate falling asleep right after the kids. Even when I'm tired, I feel like I've been robbed of the only guilt-free adult time in my day. Why shouldn't adult time during the rest of the day also be guilt-free? Good question. Let's discuss that.)

There's a blog-o-splosion Warner-wise, and I do plan to get it summarized, I do. But I was struck, powerfully, by the first topic of conversation in Warner's interview with American Prospect. Warner's claim:
When I began the research for the book, I was spending a lot of time with stay-at-home moms. Hearing the way they talked about their lives and looking at the effect of not working, so much of it reminded me of Friedan’s observations [from 1963] -- that sort of vague, indefinable feeling of emptiness and unhappiness and anxiety and angst. ... [Friedan] had written about a culture-wide "mystique of feminine fulfillment" that was driving women quietly insane. Today, of course, we no longer worship women who, like the "happy housewife heroine" of Friedan’s day, can find fulfillment in making their floors shine. [Note: Obviously Warner has never spent any time on FlyLady because, oh yes we do.] Yet, while our world has changed so much, why were the women I knew speaking in such a similar way and seeming to feel such similar things? The concrete facts of their lives were different, but the stuff going through their heads -- and the internal struggles -- were so similar.

This isn't the first place Warner specifically compares today's generation to Friedan's. I'll go find the other references later. For now, though, let's just say that second-wave feminists everywhere are exhaustedly picking themselves up off their yoga mats and wondering, again, if anyone has paid any attention to the world at all since they first went to work. Warner must be willfully forgetting everything she knows about Friedan, the President's Commission on Women, NOW, Ms. Magazine, and the entire decade of the 1970s if she truly believes that the "emptiness and unhappiness and anxiety and angst" of today's mothers has much in common with the same set of feelings felt by women in 1963. Elizabeth at Half-Changed World links Warner's book to one about the tyranny of choices, and that about summarizes the problem with Warner's claim here. We have choices now; compared to us, women in 1963 did not.

I promise to get the real figures for this tomorrow, during my guilty writing portion of the day, but for now, let's just ballpark. The average age that women first married in 1963 was about 21; today it's 26. Most women in 1963 did not attend any college; most women today do. In 1963, a majority of the private colleges and universities that jockey for the top 100 spots on the US News & World Reports rankings did not admit women. Today, I think they all do. I'm not even going to bother cataloging all the careers and professions that were still considered unfeminine and inappropriate for married women and mothers in 1963; if you're reading this blog, the chances are good that you are now or once were or plan to be again employed in one of them.

Another bit of information the popular press manage to forget every time one of these mommy books comes out: the 1950s were in no way traditional when it came to motherhood and family. They represented a pretty radical break with the decades that came before them, on any number of fronts. Warning: I'm about to launch into US History intro mode. I know you know this. But apparently, Warner forgets that one hallmark of the decades that immediately preceded the 1950s was a crisis in marriage and family life. The Great Depression led to record-level paternal abandonment (there's nothing like economic failure to send men scurrying) and for a whole host of reasons, many intact families with unemployed husbands survived on the wives' wages, too. The farm crisis of the 1920s had sealed the fate not only of the family farm but of small towns, too: urbanization throughout the 1920s and internal migration in the 1930s (especially to California) freaked everyone out. Then came the war, and the inevitable explosion in the numbers of female-headed households, because now even the families who had clung to traditional middle-class respectability were divided by war. 1946 had the highest divorce rate in American history, right up until the 1980s, because all those war brides and husbands took one look at each other when the men came home and ran screaming to the judges. (Don't underestimate the role of post-traumatic stress for the men, either.)

Which of Warner's radical proposals for family change was implemented during the war, only to be dismantled in 1946? Government-funded childcare in the workplace. Why was it dismantled? Because 10 million men were returning from the war and they needed jobs and (almost) every economist in the country believed the post-war period would result in a major depression, possibly re-triggering the conditions of the Great Depression, which had only really ended with the ramp-up of wartime industry. Who suffered most from the rollback in wartime women's employment? Working-class women, the great majority of the 19 million women employed during the war, whose wages had risen, whose job status had risen, whose pride in labor had risen, and who were now shunted back into the low-paying jobs they had worked before.

Why were the 1950s the 1950s? Who knows, exactly. I tend to remind myself often not to underestimate cultural warfare: the popular press was filled with messages to women throughout this period to use their family lives to prove the superiority of capitalism over godless Communism. Also, and this is my favorite beef with traditionalist Republicans: for the first time in the 1950s, thanks to unions and massive government expenditures (on that trusty military-industrial complex and the various welfare provisions of the GI Bill), working-class Americans could afford a middle-class lifestyle. Women whose mothers had worked every day of their lives could finally stay home, and stay home they did. They considered themselves damn lucky to do so.

Finally, there's sex to consider. The 1950s were a decade of sky-high teen sexual activity and sky-high teen pregnancy. Why doesn't this register in the national memory? Because all those teens got married. That's what good girls and boys who wanted to have sex did in the 1950s: they got married. Then they clustered their three or four children very close together in age (because the women actually did know that the years of caring for small children are back-breakingly exhausting), they moved to the affordable houses in the new suburbs, and they sank into the depression that Friedan described.

By the 1960s, two things were happening: the oldest of the baby boomers, the late 1940s children of these 1950s moms, were entering their late teens and confronting the message to get married. Most working-class girls did get married, partially for the sex and partially for the economic security, while more and more middle-class girls went off to college and started to reconsider all their parents' rules. (My mom was a working-class granddaughter of farmers so she got married at 19 and spent the rest of her life telling me not to make that mistake.) Meanwhile, the 1950s moms themselves had a lot of free time on their hands, because their youngest babies were in school now, and so the mothers went back to work.

Fact is, throughout the twentieth century, very few women of any economic class remained unemployed for the full 22 or 24 or 26 years that they had dependent children in their homes. Some of the social change that happens in the 1960s is just boring old sequencing, and if the whole homeschooling movement doesn't short-circuit the process, we'll see it again with these folks like myself who've opted out. Granted, quite a bit of the labor of moms with teenagers still wasn't being paid in the 1960s and the 1970s. We're still suffering the fallout of the loss of volunteer hours that middle-class women used to provide, and while I admire Warner's touching belief that Americans want to replace that volunteer labor with government expenditure, I think if we're realistic, we'll set out to recruit retirees instead. But the real revolution in women's work wrought by second-wave feminism was the revolution in work by mothers with young children. And given that household wages have stagnated since 1973, even though moms with young children now work, it's possible to argue that that wasn't a cultural revolution but simply an economic necessity. When American families can afford to keep one parent at home with their young children, they do so.

Which leads us, of course, to the reason why I think mothers today feel "emptiness and unhappiness and anxiety and angst" and why the blogs on Warner's book are divided between those who think she's fear-mongering and those who think she's dead to rights. It is, sigh dammit this again, the men. It's the husbands and the fathers and the brothers and the sons, who still don't do their share of the housework and who still don't do their share of the childcare and who still don't do their share of anything other than the employment and the commute. Not that those things aren't crucial, they are, but let's get real. Caring for children and keeping a home is, along with everything else, hard physical and emotional and intellectual labor, and women bear the disproportionate share. Throw in enormous status-anxiety, the direct result of those thirty years' worth of stagnant household income, and you have a recipe for -- mommy madness.

Warner's answer is to emulate France (and France does sound lovely), because she thinks we'll have more luck changing our government than our men. This woman, I don't know what to say, is she an optimist or a pessimist or what? Because the men, they vote Republican, and the history, it's not encouraging on either front.

Tomorrow morning: an interesting comparison to Germany, where supposedly women have so internalized the message that children should be raised at home for the first three years that the country is now suffering a massive demographic crisis. According to some German politicians, their women, having gotten the message that you can't raise kids and have a job, have chosen -- the jobs.

The proposed German solution? We should be more like France.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Straw Horses

Yesterday, the latest Newsweek arrived, the one with the cover story about Mommy Madness. (Side note: last year, because I subscribed to Salon, we received US News & World Report; now, because we donated to the local public radio station, we receive Newsweek. I guess that tells you everything you need to know about advertiser-driven publication, doesn't it.) Calder dropped it down on the counter and said, guess I've lost you for the night. And it's true, I hide in the bathroom until I've devoured a magazine, when the subject matter doesn't piss me off.

Now, I'll grant you, the first thing that pisses me off about any cover story about mothering is the irritated conviction that someone else has stolen my book idea and will now reap fame, fortune, and a long career writing self-centered drivel not half as intriguing as the drivel I could write, if only I were given the chance.

But the second thing that pisses me off is the overwhelming banality of these stories. Rachel Byrne, one of the mothers featured in the photo essays that accompany the "Mommy Madness" piece, claims that "motherhood isn't anything like she imagined. 'It's stressful, lonely, and tiring.'" So now I have to ask, what did Bryne read during her pregnancy? Was she the only middle-class pregnant woman in the United States who didn't hear a single recommendation for Child of Mine or Mother Shock or Operating Instructions? Did she never browse through even one issue of American Baby while waiting at her OB's office? Stress, loneliness, and exhaustion are the trifecta of mothering articles in America. You don't need a subscription to Brain, Child to have at least a small clue as to what's coming. You might believe you'll be the exception, the glowing supermom whose tireless efforts Anna Quindlen so casually shoots down, but to have not the faintest inklings in your imagination as to what labors motherhood entails? That blows my mind.

There hasn't been a cover article about motherhood in a mass circulation newsmagazine for the last twenty years that hasn't claimed to rediscover the remarkable truth that mothers--especially working mothers--can't have it all, even if their (obviously ever-shifting) generation was sadly, tragically raised to believe otherwise. There are currently 2,959 titles categorized under Motherhood at Amazon.com and two of the current three best sellers are books about how crazy difficult motherhood can be -- and about how no one ever talks about it. Forgive me, but I think this is all we ever talk about. I won't even apologize for that. I think women have been justifiably complaining about how hard motherhood is ever since they left the farms and factories and starting having the time to do the complaining. I wouldn't take any bets that the church foyers and market squares of the sixteenth century were free of harangues and whispered fears about motherhood, either.

In fairness to Judith Warner, whose book Perfect Madness was the inspiration for Newsweek's cover story, the story wasn't supposed to focus on overworked, perfectionist, privileged mommies whose very concern for being good moms is ruining their children's lives. Anna Quindlen was the one to run with that angle. Warner intended to point out that
"Women today mother in the excessive, control-freakish way that they do...because, to a large, extent, they have to. Because they are unsupported, because their children are not taken care of, in any meaningful way, by society at large. Because there is right now no widespread feeling of social responsibility--for children, for families, for anyone, really--and so they must take everything onto themselves. And because they can't, humanly, take everything onto themselves, they simply go nuts."
Warner advocates for corporate tax incentives, government-mandated child care standards, better provisions for part-time work, and a change in the economic climate that requires so many two-parent families to be two full-time-working-parent families.

But Warner suffers from the usual weakness of all these books, a weakness that afflicts most popular sociology in the United States. Warner lacks a decent framework for understanding, describing, and discussing class differences. She flatly declares that the purpose of her proposed change sis to makelife "less expensive and stressful for middle-class families so that mothers (and fathers) could work less without risking their children's financial future." Having just done our taxes, and boggled at the $3000 child tax credit and the uncapped mortgage tax credit that are coming back our way, I disagree with Warner that the problem facing families in America is the lack of support for the middle class. What's lacking is support for the working class, and we'll never get there if we don't even admit that such a thing exists.

Most of what Warner describes to support her argument is, I'm afraid, the luxury consumption behavior of the privileged classes. Women who hand-paint paper plates for a class party, who harrass the other mothers for not painting the plates the proper color, who compete relentlessly for the best ballet classes and summer camps and piano teachers -- they are making choices about how to spend their spare time. Whether the mothers who do those things believe that their children need these herculean efforts to ensure their future membership in the privileged classes has nothing to do with subsidized childcare or corporate tax incentives. I know it seems so obvious that it's pointless to declare, but women who join internet chat groups so they can advise other mothers about the proper age at which to watch Pooh movies -- we're using our free time, or stealing time from work, to do that. Our obsession with our parenting has become a type of luxury good.

My blatantly working-class cousins in rural Minnesota, the ones working low-income, no-benefit jobs while their husbands farm and drive snowplows and pick up seasonal work with the county? They don't have time for a lot of the stuff Warner and Quindlen target, and they'll tell me so, at length. The type of language Warner mentions overhearing on the playground, the supposedly empowering child-speak that concludes with an "Is that okay with you, honey?" -- I never hear that around my family back home. As often as not, there's a quick smack to the hand and a sharp "stop your crying" and the kids are back out playing while their parents sip beer, talk baseball, and replicate the supposed idyllic, balanced parenting life we've lost in our quest to Do It Right.

This all reminds me, powerfully, of a post about money management that I found via Half-Changed World. Over at In Favor of Thinking, I read
The people I know who are trying to manage their money and curb expenses are already living pretty carefully. I'm not saying that my partner and I can't tighten our belts somewhere -- in fact we've been working on that recently. You can always cut out something. But when you're already bringing a thermos of homemade coffee with you to the office and packing your lunch, it's really irritating to hear how you could shave off $100 a week for your debt if you were already spending your money that way.
That's how I feel about these articles about my mothering. Don't tell me to slack off on the competitive sports and the obsessive craft projects or remind me that I need to have more sex with my husband. I already know these things. I'm already doing them, thanks, to the best of my ability anyway. So are all the other mothers I know. In fact, quite a few of them aren't even trying to do it all, but secretly wondering if they're the only mothers regularly ordering take out for dinner and hating housework and generally making it up as they go along. So all these articles about learning to relax? They're just behind the curve, and also irritatingly self-important. Please, I'm begging you already: tell me something new.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

A Limited-Resources Ecology

There's another depressing article about triplets published in the latest issue of Pediatrics: "Does a Triplet Birth Pose a Special Risk for Infant Development? Assessing Cognitive Development in Relation to Intrauterine Growth and Mother-Infant Interaction Across the First 2 Years." The authors' take-away conclusion? "Without organized assistance [financial and social support], it cannot be expected that the mother will form the unique, sensitive, individualized relationship that is necessary for these high-risk infants."

These types of articles tend to spark indignant protest among triplet parents. The study group was too small; the comparison groups (twins and singletons instead of large families) was skewed; the authors unfairly focused on the drawbacks without mentioning that hallowed sibling bond. I don't tend to have a lot of patience with these responses, partly because I think a less self-serving critique exists. For example: child development theory overwhelmingly emphasizes the importance of the mother. Fathers, other family childcare providers (i.e., grandparents), and non-family childcare providers all might as well be invisible. To the extent that assumptions about maternal-infant interaction in singleton families are flawed, their applicability to triplet families is minimized. Furthermore, child development research relies overwhelmingly on researcher observation of interactions at home and in laboratory settings, and while there's continuous emphasis on "objective coding," I don't even have time to begin outlining the inherent problems in this, the entire field's baseline methodology. Finally, the statistical correlations are often much weaker, and the differences between groups much smaller, than the broad generalizations of the authors would suggest.

And yet....This is a peer-reviewed article; it conforms to the state of the art in the field. We dismiss the authors' conclusions and recommendations (which are, after all, in favor of increased support for triplet parents) at our peril. Do I enjoy hearing that my family situation correlates with negative environments for my children? No. I hate it. I hate it. But how are my children well-served by the ostrich approach, denial and deliberate refusal to engage with the research? I might feel better in the short run, but what if the authors are indeed correct? Isn't it better to be inspired to prove the research wrong through careful attention to the questions raised?

Do any of us have sympathy anymore with adoptive parents who claim that adoption "doesn't matter" for their child? Being born as part of a set, especially a large set, matters--the body of research isn't large, but it's consistent--and we parents of high-order multiples have an obligation to attend to how it does matter. Our children deserve that.

Luckily, I have access through Calder to the full texts of these articles. So here, for your consideration, are a few provocative and uncomfortable excerpts.

First, an excerpt describing the behaviors studied:
Maternal sensitivity was based on 10 items ... acknowledgment of the infant’s interactive signals, elaboration of the child’s vocalizations and movements, warm and positive affect, affectionate tone of voice, fluency of the interaction, consistency and predictability of style, resourcefulness in dealing with the infant’s negative states, appropriate range of affect, and adaptation to the infant’s state and signals. ... Child social involvement was calculated from 5 items at 6 months and from 7 items at 12 and 24 months. These included child initiation of interactive bids, child positive affect, child vocalization, child alertness, and child-led interactions. At 12 and 24 months, 2 additional codes were included, ie, child symbolic-creative play and child competent use of the environment. (Pages 445-446)
The study also measured infant cognitive development, using the Bayley Scales, and maternal competence and satisfaction, measured using the Parental Competence and Satisfaction Scale, "a 17-item instrument assessing the levels of parental anxiety, frustration, motivation, competence, and problem-solving." (Page 446)

There were several pages of graphs and regression analysis, and finally the authors concluded:
Triplets as a group showed lower cognitive skills, compared with singletons and twins matched for gestational age and fetal growth parameters, at 6, 12, and 24 months of age, which suggests that the triplet situation itself constitutes a separate risk condition for infants’ cognitive growth, independent of the effects of other known medical risks to infant development. ...
Infant cognitive development is based on 2 central factors, ie, the infant’s disposition and neurologic intactness and the mother’s sensitive support of emerging skills and timely introduction of new and appropriate stimulation. The development of maternal sensitivity requires the mother’s full investment in the well-being, communicative signals, and growing capacities of an individual child. Mothers of triplets were found previously to report higher levels of parenting stress and lower investment in the formation of a unique emotional relationship with each child, and the present findings underscore the role of lower maternal competence in the parenting role as an important factor in the slower cognitive development of triplets. The data demonstrate that, when mothers need to attend to the specific interaction rhythms and growth needs of 3 infants simultaneously, the level of sensitive parenting to each child is significantly reduced. These findings were persistent at 6, 12, and 24 months of age, across the period when infants move from initial manipulation of objects in their environment to interactions that involve symbols, words, gestures, social participation, and initiation. We observed that the decrease in maternal sensitivity among mothers raising triplets was not a transient phenomenon but rather a stable maternal interactive style. This maternal trait was related to the mothers’ decreased sense of self-efficacy and was predictive of the infants’ cognitive outcomes at the toddler stage, beyond the infants’ medical risk and multiple-birth status, which points to the strength of the association between maternal parenting style and infant developmental outcomes.
Similar to the mother’s reduced sensitivity, the infant’s social involvement during mother-child interaction was lower in the triplet group. The present findings, consistent with previous reports and theoretical formulations, indicate that the degree of infant social participation, including child alertness, communicative initiation, vocalization, competent use of toys, and creative-symbolic output, is closely linked to the mother’s sensitive handling of the interactive flow and the timely presentation of new stimuli. The findings demonstrated that infant social skills predicted cognitive outcomes, beyond neurologic intactness and maternal behavior, which highlights the associations between child curiosity, social competence, and creative dyadic play and the ultimate cognitive development of the infant. (Pages 449-450)
And finally, here are some of the hypothesis and theoretical constructs the authors relied upon, and were testing, as they performed their research:
Authors of triplet studies have underscored the potential negative impact of a triplet birth on the development of cognitive skills, as a result of the mother’s limited capacity to provide adequate attention and stimulation to each child. ... Parents admit to a situation they have long desired but have difficulty managing competently once the infants are born. Because triplet pregnancies are associated with increased medical complications for mothers, life at home begins with maternal physical and emotional exhaustion. Interviews with parents indicate not only that parenting of triplets is more difficult than parenting of twins but also that the 1 additional child makes the difference between a manageable parenting situation and an unmanageable situation. Mothers of triplets reporthigh levels of stress, anxiety, social isolation, and fatigue and a significant decline in the marital relationship. Most importantly, mothers of triplets complain of having no energy to develop a unique bond with each child and of emotional detachment from the children.
Because cognitive development in infancy is based in part on the mother’s provision of sensitive, age-appropriate parenting and adequate stimulation of the infant’s growing cognitive skills, the enormous parenting stress and lower sense of competence caused by the triplet situation is likely to interfere with the infants’ cognitive development. Moreover, the effects of the mother’s lower sensitivity on the infant’s cognitive development are likely to be more pronounced during the second year, a period when infants become more mobile and verbal but are still highly dependent on the mother to make sense of their environment, especially because their access to care-giving adults outside the family setting is still limited. Therefore, it may be postulated that, within the limited-resources ecology created by the triplet situation, triplet infants are likely to receive lower levels of maternal sensitivity. (Page 444)
Any thoughts?

Edited to add emphasis on the key assertions.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Resonance, Attunement, And Presence

An outdoor restaurant in summer: A young couple with two children, one about three, the other about four months. The mother nurses the baby, snuggled in her lap. For the longest time, the baby's face is buried in the breast and under parts of her mother's blouse. But her hand is playing with her mother's the whole time. Later, her head surfaces, and she sits on her mother's lap, gazing at her. The mother makes cooing noises, and tilts her head slightly. The baby opens her mouth, making a perfect circle, her blue eyes wide open too, drinking in her mother's face. Her eyes are so open, her mouth is so open, her face is so open, she is an incarnation in this moment of pure presence. The eyes are radiating presense. The mouth is quivering with presence.

The mother puts her head down and touches it to her baby's forehead, then moves it back. The baby smiles. There is a complete force field connecting these two. This baby is in the orbit of her mother in this moment, and the two are speaking in a thousand ways, on a thousand wavelengths, across their bodies where they touch, across the air between them.

...As her older sister sits at the table, I can feel that she too is at home in her body and in the force field of her family. It is not even that they interact that much. They don't. But they form an inseparable whole in which she is completely at home.
--Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn, Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, page 189

There is an ideal of mothering* that assumes that babies are born one at a time. This isn't a medical ideal --although the medical ideal exists and is, in fact, more easily asserted, defended, and accepted -- but a psychological, even spiritual, ideal. It is an ideal of infancy, the elevation of an idea about what mother and baby create between themselves in the first hours, weeks, and months of a newborn life. It is the ideal of the singular gaze.

No mother, not even the mother of a first-born singleton, achieves the ideal. Colic, sleeplessness, hormones, employment, mealtime and laundry, they all conspire to muddy the flow between baby and mother, to fracture that heart-locking gaze across a thousand distractions. Yet the ideal exists and persists, not just as a weapon to bludgeon imperfect women but as a spiritual attainment that most mothers and babies approach and breathe upon, if only for fleeting seconds. It is this spiritual ideal of mothering, of infinite and boundless and all-encompassing love, that causes infertile women so much pain. It is this ideal that hovers out of reach as cycle follows cycle, paperwork confounds, and pain multiples over years.

For mothers of multiples, it can seem that the ideal becomes a thing forever out of reach. Just as the ideal, the madonna image, the vision of perfect oneness, hovered over our infertility, it goes right on hovering over our lives with multiple newborns. In every second spent holding one infant, drinking in one infant, falling in love with one infant, another infant waits, filled with the same longing for mother love, filling mother with the same longing for the singular gaze. The mother is always and forever divided, not between children with different needs and infinite varied desires, but between infants whose needs and desires coincide, overlap, entangle, and confuse. It is heart-wrenching. It causes physical pain.

Losing my chance for the ideal filled me with rage. My fury and my grief were boundless, the bitter apex of my infertility, the achievement of a vision forever tainted by what would never be. This was my theme and my refrain for months after the babies were born: look at the world we have lost. Look at what we will never have, and never be.

Other parents of multiples turned their backs on me in the moments I dared to confess my grief and my rage. I heard so many platitudes, so many dismissals, so many admonishments: How dare I feel grief when my babies were happy and whole? Don't you love your children? Think of the special bond they'll have among themselves.** The advantages will outweight the drawbacks, and don't you dare believe anything else. For God's sake, grow up and get over yourself.

Well, the children grew up, and I have mostly gotten over myself. But I refuse to believe that minimizing my pain helped me overcome it. Denying my loss didn't help me feel it less. When I held one baby at the breast, when I settled one baby close upon me, my eyes immediately sought another. The baby nearest me was the baby least in need of me in that moment, and my gaze was forever divided. I wrote that I held my babies enough, that I had enough time alone with each of them, but I lied. It was never, ever enough, and I forever felt divided. I see a friend with her newborn singleton and a tiny piece of my heart still aches.

What brings me comfort is this: the mothers of singletons, unlike the mothers of multiples, admit my loss. They know what they have, and they know the magnitude of not having it. The simple admission, "I can't imagine having to share this time with another baby," soothes my soul.



*I hate making nouns into verbs through gerends. I hate the term "mothering" especially. But it's the only word available that brings this particular experience of mine into sharp relief. I typically want to include Calder and use the word parent, but this ideal is an ideal by and of and for mothers, and I don't want that to be lost.

**Obviously my frame of reference is incomplete, but I don't believe that the bond between multiples is better than the bond between singletons. Undoubtedly it's different, but it's not better. For every mother of multiples who marvels at the laughing voices of her babies babbling to each other in their cribs, there's a mother of two singletons marvelling as her oldest child teaches her youngest child a new word. Is the delighted laugh of a baby discovering her twin any more delightful than that of a baby smiling back for the first time at his older sister? Special bonds between siblings are precious and delightful and I'm grateful not to face the pain and sorrow of secondary infertility, wanting as I did more than one child. But special bonds between siblings are more than, different than, bonds between mothers and infants, and one does not replace the other.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Audrey's Mom

Okay, I love this. It's so of-the-moment, it's practically tailor-written for a little piece in the New York Times. The Times, not Salon, because Salon is a little more aware of the how the internet works, and not so inclined to describe the normal in terms of fancy condescending psycho-sociology. What am I talking about? A woman I met at La Leche in Connecticut found my blog via Tertia. I made internet contact with someone I haven't spoken to in two years because I commented on a blog written by a South African woman. Come on, admit you think this is wild.

So, in case this episode doesn't make it painfully obvious, I'm not writing to disguise myself from those who've met me. I think it would take any of my friends or family or passing acquaintances about three seconds to figure out that this is my blog. For one thing, they would recognize the kids in the photo that accompanies my profile. For another, I'm using my real name. And for the last, I use WEG in the title, even though it has yet to appear in the text, and WEG is a dead giveaway in my circle.

No, I'm not pursuing total anonymity. With a little deductive logic and a little internet investigation, I'm reasonably certain all of you could find me in two or three searches. No, I'm disguising the names and precise current locations and other extraneous details mostly to keep myself flying below the google radar. I don't want anyone to find this website while looking for me. Oh, also, I don't want my kids' future prom dates to learn all these intimate details about their lives. HAHAHAHAHA.* Ahem. No. I'm disguising the kids' names in particular because they haven't given consent to use them, and because I'm still not quite certain how the internet aids or abets child abduction (most of which is done by folks the child and the parents would describe as known), and because it just seems like the right thing to do. Everyone has to go with their gut on this one, and this is my gut: don't use the kids' names. Don't announce their exact birthdates. Don't post identifying photos. Don't give people enough information to lead them to your door, at least not without e-mail exchange.

Some of my wariness about the photos arises from imaginary triplet families. There have been a few websites and forum identities created with the use of borrowed photos of triplets. (Apparently this happens to parents of singletons, too.) I have more of a "whatever" attitude to imaginary online identities than many people, but I'm not going to let someone else claim my kids. I suppose the trade-off might be that the lack of explicit details (especially on the Triplet Connection) might lead some folks to doubt me. An especially paranoid survivor of the TC might even suspect I invented Erika, Audrey, and Isabel, just to lend myself some credence.

I know that people being hired in my once and future employment field should expect to be googled. I would prefer that my blog habits not be part of the results. I don't suppose being a semi-literate mom to many would count against me, but it doesn't need to be part of the hiring profile. (If you google my real name, you'll find an article about Calder and me and our kids in the archives of a certain university publication anyway.) Also, I don't want Calder or my mother or my mother-in-law to find this site by accident. Luckily, they're all indifferent to blogs, to a greater or lesser extent, and they're not that handy with internet search engines, so I'm not especially worried. Maybe I should be, though, now that Erika's found me. It is pretty wild.

But if you're out there lurking, not telling me you've found me because you're worried I'll be weirded out, well, I might be. But come on out and say hello anyway, because honestly, is anyone surprised? I'm so self-involved and chatty that I bombarded poor Erika with my birth story when she was, indeed, pregnant with Isabel. And really, what sort of egotist doesn't remember the first rule of vaguely menacing birth stories: don't inflict 'em on pregnant women!

[I'm trying to play that lightly, but the truth is, I went home from La Leche that day convinced that Erika thought I was a jerk. Then again, I worry that about most people I meet and talk to: convinced of my own public persona's likeability, I am not.]

*How many Mommy blogs have existed for as long as Dooce's? How many of them are hosted on Blogger or a another free site? How many of them are likely to exist two years from now, let alone six or ten or sixteen? Apparently the folks at the Times have never heard of the word ephemera.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Library Books

I signed the babies up for libary time in the fall of 2002. Calder's office was ten minutes from the downtown library, and he didn't lecture on Tuesday mornings, so he could come with me. We would park up by his office, load the babies into their enormous stroller, and walk down together. The librarians would read a few books, interspersed with simple finger plays and dances, and then they would haul out several buckets of toys or a big box of musical instruments for fifteen minutes of free play. At the same time we were doing the library outings, I was also taking parent-child swimming lessons with the babies, and going out to stores with the babies by myself a great deal more than previously, and taken all together, it was during that autumn that I regained my equilibrium. I started to feel normal.

Just after Christmas, Calder went away for a conference one week and I took the babies to the library by myself. I was scared to stay home and admit that I depended on someone else, and so even though I was also scared about the possibility of a toddler whirlwind, I went, and I managed just fine. The babies get a lot of the credit. I think I've mentioned that they are fairly low-keyed and even-tempered, and by then, they knew the routine and the people and how to behave. Also, although I never got to know the other families terribly well, we'd all gained enough rapport to lend a minimal amount of assistance to each other--it extended at least so far as to warn that a baby was breaking for the door. And the librarian knew us by then, and gave me the benefit of the doubt. I could have been irritated that I had to earn her trust, prove that we wouldn't be a disruption, but all I felt at the time was gratitude for everyone's good will.

Once I had proven that I could manage the library myself, Calder's attendance became more and more sporadic, and eventually he stopped going altogether. I had and have mixed emotions about that: I wanted to be normal, and certainly a mom with her kids at the library is the epitome of a certain kind of privileged normal. (Actually, in that particular group, I was abnormal--a bare majority of the adults were nannies.) At the same time I was getting an ego boost from my weekly forays into super-competency, though, I missed spending time as a family with Calder. I also resented the way he took advantage of my growing competence--most of which felt thrust upon me by sheer necessity, rather than conscious will--to withdraw from the intimate participation in the babies' lives that marked their first eighteen months. And it bothered me that Calder rarely seemed to praise or even notice my work with the babies, because out in the world, my quest to be normal meant I had to keep deflecting everyone else's praise.

All told, we did library time for about eighteen months. By late fall 2003, it was clear that the babies had outgrown the toys and that it wasn't worth the hassles of driving downtown. I signed them up for Kindermusik instead in the spring of 2004, after clearing it with the teacher that my good friend Beth, whose daughter is four months older than the kids, would also be attending and could offer me an extra set of hands. Beth was an insurance policy I never really needed to use. My kids rarely wanted to sit on Beth's lap, her daughter didn't want to share Mommy, so I learned how to tap eggs or twirl scarves in sequence. When we signed up for Kindermusik summer camp after our move, I told the new teacher we'd be fine, I offered to put her in touch with the old teacher if she needed reassurance (she didn't), and that was that. I'm done making special arrangements to put other people at ease.

Well, yes, now that the kids are four, most people aren't asking me to make special arrangements. But on principle, I won't do it anymore.

Most parents of multiples are turned away from toddler activites on the presumption that the class--library, Kindermusik, Gymboree, whatever--demands a 1:1 parent-child ratio. This tends to bother me quite a lot. Parents of multiples are already isolated enough without being deliberately excluded from most of the major gatherings of suburban Mommyland. Instead of the presumption being that parents of multiples can't handle it--as was my case, having to provide extra adults to set teachers at ease--I think there should be a presumption that we can. At the very least, I think parents of multiples should feel free to use backdoors into these events. Promise to bring a babysitter or a grandparent and then, once you've won over the group and the teacher, try coming by yourself once. It's certainly better than sitting at home.

One thing we didn't do at the library was borrow books. I needed to get our city's library card before the downtown system would issue me borrowing privileges, and I never took the time. (Our local library refused to sign us up for their toddler class because of the adult:child ratio problem.) One of the first things I did in our new town was drive over to the library and borrow some books. I actually meant to go to the toddler reading hour, but we were late out the door and I couldn't muster the courage to ask a stranger about the rules for late entry, so we picked some books off the shelf and I signed up for a card instead. Boy, was I stupid not to do this before. The kids love borrowing books. Yes, they wish they could keep some of the books,and we've borrowed quite a few twice now for that reason. But it's a great feeling to pull up the old Amazon wish list, print it out, and then borrow all those books from the library instead. Think of all the money I would have saved if I'd thought to borrow library books sooner!

Now that the kids are four, they get to sign up for their own library cards. Tomorrow is the first time we'll have visited since they've become eligible, I haven't told them about this new privilege, and I'll keep you posted on their reactions.

I have meant to write down the lists of books we've borrowed, but never gotten around to it. Now that I'm imagining this blog as more of a permanent record for the kids, I can just copy the list from the library's on-line system and post it here. So be forewarned: every three weeks or so, I'm going to post a boring list just like this:

  • Arthur's Birthday by Marc Brown
  • Arthur's New Puppy by Marc Brown
  • Cinderella at the Ball by Margaret Hillert
  • Cinderella: The Dog and Her Little Glass Slipper by Diane Goode
  • One Fish Two Fish by Dr. Seuss
  • The Too Hot Day by Beverly Komoda
  • Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
  • Rumpelstiltskin by Paul Galdone
  • Swan Lake by Donna Diamond
  • William and the Night Train by Mij Kelly
I should write about the kids' reactions, and why certain books were borrowed, it's the sort of information I'll tell myself now I couldn't possibly forget, but not remember six months from now. And yet--I'm not going to do it. Not tonight, at least.

Friday, January 21, 2005

The Spoiled, Unconsolable Baby Canard

We're headed into the final stretch of the AP FAQ here....
Were you worried they’d get spoiled, and too dependent on external comfort when they were sad?

No. I don’t think you can spoil a baby. I especially don’t think that parents of multiples can spoil their babies: we don’t have the time, the arms, or the energy. But more than that, it has gradually dawned on me that halting a workable solution today just because it might cause problems in the future is, well, insane. Just because I never imagined that the kids would still be wearing night-time diapers at age four, doesn’t mean I should have started potty training at age two. It was age appropriate to respond to every cry from a three-month old baby and to rock her to sleep every night. The babies at 26 months had very different needs and abilities, and now, at age four, I have no hesitation in walking my kids back to their beds, tucking them in, and saying good night again. The crucial factor for me was that my kids trust me to meet their needs. How else do you do that, except through responsiveness?

I also agree with the temperament researchers, who say that what works well for one child may not work at all for another, because of her inborn temperamental needs. Strict schedulers of multiples don’t seem to agree with that idea, at least not in my experience. There tends to be a lot of talk about "teaching the baby she’s not a singleton, and she doesn’t get to do that [particular inconvenient habit]." Gemma has always been a "good sleeper," at night at least, sleeping as much as six hours at a stretch at 2 months and falling asleep in the crib after being laid down awake at five months. Elba had a terrible time relaxing at the end of the day right from the beginning, a fact commented on by every single person who came to stay with us. Elba would actually lie stiffly in my arms as she nodded off, and if pushed too fast at bedtime (whether in crib or swing), she would throw up and become hysterical. Remarkably, by 26 months, she would kick me out of bed at night: she’d gently remind me "night-night, sweet dreams" and get Gemma and Wilder to play along. It was enormously satisfying to watch Elba make that transition, and to believe that I’d helped her along by meeting her need for rocking and parental soothing earlier on. Now, Elba’s the only one of the kids who almost never climbs into bed with me at night, almost always lies in bed awake after the others have dozed off (she still takes longer to unwind) but also sleeps a solid 45 minutes longer in the morning. It was so, so hard to meet Elba’s sleep needs sometimes in the first 18-24 months, hard not to want to just lay her down screaming and run far away, so seeing her so self-sufficient and happy in sleep is a fantastic feeling. Meanwhile, William falls asleep fast, wakes up early, and has virtually nothing in common with his sisters when it comes to sleep. I don’t think that’s at all surprising or unique: my brother and sister and I had fairly different sleep habits, too.

Did they learn to comfort themselves?
Yes. It definitely took longer because it was at their pace, not mine, but in ten years, I doubt I’m going to look back on their baby years and say, gosh, I wish I’d rocked, nursed, and cuddled them less. Right now, today, I miss those times. I needed down time, I absolutely needed Calder to come home and give me my breaks, but I’m not sorry I chose the route I did. I’ll never rock another baby again--I’m incredibly, unspeakably grateful that I did it once.

Plus, I suffered pretty severe post-partum depression. Practicing attachment parenting was incredibly healing for me. I actually didn’t fully embrace it until six or eight weeks after Elba came home; before then I spent a lot of energy and time trying fruitlessly to get the babies onto a schedule, and I was miserable. Were their days I melted down and just wanted the lives of my friends who propped bottles to stay on schedule, introduced cry-it-out at twelve weeks, and laid their babies down awake, thereby getting to see their favorite TV shows in real time? Oh, yes, yes, there were those days. But taken all in all, now that those days are past, I'm so glad I spent my time the way I did. Besides, my kids are enormously self-confident, secure, and happy. Whatever Calder and I managed to cobble together, I think it laid a nice, sturdy foundation.

Well, I know a family who practiced AP and their kid...

"...only slept in the parents’ bed at night, was still night-nursing continually at 15 months, her parents had no sex life, she needed two hours to fall asleep and then only if one or both parents lied down with her, she only napped if the mom slept too, never ate at meals, demanded snacks continually, and was a whiny, clingy, demanding brat by the time she was two"? Yes, I’ve heard of that family! They really get around, don’t they. They seems especially well-known to the baby nurses who post on the Triplet Connection, women who like to say they’ve never met a family for whom AP works, that they’re always being called in to help fix the poor deluded AP parents’ bad choices. I’ve always thought this was about as insightful as the personal trainer who claims he’s never met anyone who eats chocolate without developing a raging weight problem (hello—you’re a problem-solver, people only come to you when they have problems) but whatever.

My short-answer response to these stories is this: you can be a "bad" parent doing a lot of different things. There are "bad" AP parents and "bad" scheduling parents and "bad" whatever-the-hell-else parents. Parenting philosophies are guides, they offer tools, and how you use those tools doesn’t always reflect on the philosophy. Have you met the family who fed their kid formula (yee gads! oh no! how could they! ... Wait, we fed formula ... oh, never mind) on a strict-three hour schedule, left him to scream in his crib for an hour when he was 12 weeks old, and never held him because babies need to learn independence? And now he’s an allergy-ridden thug with an eating disorder and a bed-wetting habit? I think they live right next door to that out-of-control AP family you mentioned. Out on Bad-Mommmy-Myth Lane?

Karen Gromada wrote once on the APMultiples site that she tried to make choices based on a fairly simple formula: what was her child supposed to learn and accomplish during this particular life stage, and what were her goals for how her child would behave, believe, and feel as he entered the stages to come? I wrote at the beginning of this endless little discussion that my primary goal in the first year was to have a really tight mother-baby bond. Everything I did in the early months arose from that. I can easily imagine folks who had the same goal for their baby’s first year, who made completely different choices than mine. I can also imagine people whose goals were very different from mine, but whose choices were the same. It’s a complicated situation, raising a child, and I’ve found that I don’t often agree 100% with Calder about how to handle something, let alone anyone else. But enough with the "everyone I know who did that" stories about attachment parenting, because now you know me, and it’s just not true.

Multiple Attachments: Life Without a Schedule

There is no way you can you practice Attachment Parenting with multiples!
The crucial books for me were Mothering Multiples, rev. ed.; and Keys to Parenting Multiples, both by Karen Kerkhoff Gromada. Gromada is a long-time La Leche League leader, certified lactation consultant, and mom to twin boys who are now in their twenties, plus three other now-grown singletons. She believes that parents, not book authors, are the best experts on their children’s needs; that parents should provide responsive, loving care to their babies and children; and that the parent-child bond is central to all children’s emotional growth, whether the child was a multiple-birth baby or not. Although I read the Sears’ Baby Book, there were and are a great many Sears ideas I wasn’t able to implement fully, babywearing being the most obvious. Too often, I closed the Sears' books feeling guilty more than helped, so I learned to leave them alone. Also, I lost patience with their tendency to call parents who make different choices detached. What a crock.

In practical terms, I learned to spend a lot of time on the floor, cuddling one baby while stroking another’s body if they were fussy, and relied on swings and bouncers when my arms were full. I could nurse/rock one baby while gently bouncing two others in vibrating bouncers with my feet, and I kept my feet clean and bare to increase skin-to-skin contact. I tried using Snuglis and Baby Bjorns, but my back took a beating during the pregnancy and they weren’t very comfortable. When I discovered slings at about 14 months, I started wearing my toddlers more: I wish I’d discovered Kangaroo Korner and the Maya Wrap when the babies were tiny and still in the in-arms stage.

No, seriously, how did you feed three babies without a schedule?

For the first six months, I staggered the babies’ first feed of the day and then let each baby ask to eat after that, with a bit of nudging to keep them staggered as much as possible. On most days, that meant each baby got a half-hour block of time, so I would feed babies at 8am, 8:30am, and 9am, then at 11am, 11:30am, and 12pm. In theory, I mean. In practice, the babies would switch positions all over the place, because like I already wrote, Wilder wanted to eat every 2 to 3 hours while Gemma wanted to eat every 3 to 4 hours. And all of them wanted to eat more frequently as the day went on. And the babies who nursed wanted to eat sooner than the babies who got formula. And regardless of the clock, none of my babies seemed to have been equipped with internal chronometers, and some days were more hectic than others. I still vividly remember one nightmare day when for whatever reason, I was nursing one baby at the top of each hour from 8am until 7pm, when Calder came home and we did our daily group top-off feeding to trigger the nighttime, two-adults routine.

True confession: I had panic attacks in the early months. I could not tolerate the thought of two babies getting hungry and screaming to be fed at one time, and at first, I had no confidence that I could do anything to avoid that possibility. Throughout April and May 2001, there were many days when Calder would go on campus at 8:30am, give his lecture, pick up his mail, and be home by noon. I was so lucky that he had that kind of flexibility. Often, on a Friday, he would take one baby to work with him, too. That was marvelous and amazing—going from three babies to two was such a release. Calder also had a sabbatical from the university for the entire 2001-2002 academic year. I’m pretty sure that we couldn’t have been so flexible at home without his consistent presence at home. Even with that, though, he insisted we hire a mother’s helper in late April 2001, and until she had to leave in mid-June 2001 (her son was finished with school for the year), I was able to relax three mornings a week, knowing there was another pair of hands available to comfort crying babies. Also, she did laundry, washed the boxes of hand-me-down toys, and kept me company. If I could do it over again, I would have hired her earlier. I didn’t because I was sick to death of nurses hovering over me at the NICU and wanted to be home alone, must me and my husband and our babies. Competing interests collided.

If I could do it over again, besides making a whole host of different breastfeeding choices, I would have practiced modified demand feeding. Without getting into a convoluted explanation, you start by feeding one or two babies at a time, feed the remaining babies all in a row, then wait for the hungriest baby to demand food again, then rouse the other two and feed them. It takes some of the pressure off, and allows for the possibility that the babies will nap at roughly the same time. Ah well—I’m not going to go out and conceive triplets again just to prove to myself I can do it correctly this time.

For the first four or six months, we didn’t have terribly formal bedtimes. Calder and I would feed the babies downstairs while we watched television, then line them up in bouncers or on our laps and let them fall asleep. The babies would wake again anywhere between 9:30 and 10:30pm, we would do their last downstairs feed, and then take them up to bed. They slept all together in one crib in our bedroom for about two and a half months,* then in separate cribs in the nursery after that. Gemma went through a period in May and June 2001 when she refused to drink from a bottle, and Elba did the same thing in (I think) August and September. Wilder was on special formula and nursed once a day at most for most of the summer of 2001, but as the girls’ nursing tapered off, he increased his time at the breast until, by mid-November 2001, Wilder did nothing but breastfeed. Then, in a stirring testimony to the power of the breast, Wilder went on refusing milk in cups and bottles for another 18 months. He went from being a non-nursing infant to a non-stop nursing toddler.

By around six months, we formalized bedtimes. I would nurse one baby down in the glider in the nursery while Calder cuddled the other two downstairs in the living room, offering a bottle of formula if someone was especially fussy. Then, I would nurse another baby down while, most of the time, the third baby would fall asleep with DH. (Calder has fond memories of rocking Gemma down in his office while "The Dark Side of the Moon" played softly in the background.) As the babies fell asleep, we would lay them in their cribs. By around nine months, Wilder always went first for nursing: besides the fact that he was beginning to refuse all formula around then, he also fell asleep the fastest. It was the rarest of nights when he wasn’t lying limp and unconscious, a tiny dribble of breastmilk at the corner of his mouth, by the time "All the Pretty Little Horses" was playing on the stereo. Then I would nurse either Elba or Gemma, depending on who was fussier. It was, I’m sorry to say, pretty consistently Elba who rated second in my arms by Christmas, and I’m sure that’s why Gemma stopped nursing just before her first birthday. One night, she just didn’t want to be bothered taking the breast. I was heartbroken, and I still worry that it hurt our bond: she’s my child most likely to run hot and cold. And she’s been Calder’s favorite since birth, something that would bother me less if only Elba didn’t so obviously push every button he’s got. Troublesome, that, not just for Elba’s sake, but because she’s so much like me.

This bedtime routine was time- and labor-intensive. What also proved increasingly difficult was the co-sleeping I adopted in desperation as Wilder and Elba showed no signs of sleeping through the night: I kept on laying them down in their cribs at bedtime, but as they woke, I would bring them to bed with Calder and I. When Gemma started waking at night because of molar pain just after her first birthday, it all started to seem too overwhelming. Also, Calder started looking ahead to the end of his sabbatical year and realizing that he didn’t have too many more 60-90 minute bedtimes left in him. Everything converged such that, in May 2001, we removed the cribs from the nursery, laid a king-sized mattress on the floor, and at bedtime I began lying down with the babies until they fell asleep. I would lie on right side, Wilder would nurse my right breast (it was the only one that produced any sort of measurable milk at all by then), Elba would drape herself up my back and across my side and nurse my left breast, and Gemma would lay her head on my outstretched left hand. At first, I stayed in the room until everyone fell asleep. By the time the babies were 22 months, I would nurse for 10 to 15 minutes but leave the room with everyone still awake—although Wilder continued to collapse into sleep while nursing, and even now, he’s often asleep just seconds after saying good night, while the girls will lie in bed and chat for as long as half an hour. When someone woke up, I would return to the nursery, crawl onto the mattress in between them, and fall asleep nursing or cuddling. We switched to toddler beds in November 2003, and the routine has been a little unpredictable since then: sometimes I lie on the nursery floor until everyone’s asleep, sometimes Calder does, sometimes I say goodnight and leave.

As for that hallowed goal, Sleeping Through the Night: Gemma started sleeping 12 hours uninterrupted at about 10 months; she did six hours’ sleep as early as 2 months. Elba slept 12 hours at around 10 months too, but she would wake at 4am for a quick nursing session (or a bottle—what can I say, I was tired) until she was just about 15 months old. Wilder, alas, had rotten sleep habits—probably due to the reflux, although maybe it’s just Wilder’s personality, he’s still a very wakeful kid—and as late as 26 months, he would sleep only 10 hours at night, with one night-nurse at 1am and another at 5am as well. I thought I was in it for the long haul, but he gave up the 1am session and then the 5am session all in a rush, and started sleeping straight through at 29 months. It’s deeply strange how all-consuming the question of uninterrupted sleep felt at the time, and how long ago those sleepless nights now feel. (The kids are doing their part to remind me, though, by having vivid nightmares and crawling into bed at all hours in search of comfort. It seems as if most daytime stresses—moving, preschool, potty training—invariably show up at night.)

Naptime was a challenge. Until about 9 months, each baby had a separate but overlapping nap schedule because each had his or her own feeding routine. I vividly remember my surprise one afternoon in July 2001, during my friend Diane’s visit, when all three babies napped in their bouncers together for two whole hours. Normally, I never got that much down time. I confess, it wore on me: naptime was when I most wanted just to leave the babies in their cribs and walk away, crying be damned. Starting at around 9 months, after we’d introduced solids and the babies’ schedules overlapped so much more, I started planning and hoping for regular morning and afternoon naps, and I wasn’t shy about using swings to lull any resistors. Typically Wilder would nurse down quickly, as would Gemma if Elba didn’t scream her head off at being forced to wait to nurse (tandem nursing not being an option because I had only one productive breast), but the challenge was to get all three down for a nap with enough time left for me to breathe before the first woke up again. I can’t think of a single babycare book that offers even marginally useful advice about naptimes, and I can’t think of a single issue more likely to drive me around the bend than failing to get the babies to nap. (One good idea that didn’t work for us, but worked for a TC poster I adore, was to lay down with all three babies on the floor, nursing and cuddling until they fell asleep--and then sneak away.) At the babies’ one-year appointments, my pediatrician actually suggested what I’d already started doing: car naps. I would say from 10-14 months, the babies took at least 1 car nap a week -- they would sleep for 2 hours in the car. Meanwhile, starting at around 13 months, after Elba had outgrown the swing -- which had been her nap location of choice -- I switched everyone to cribs for naptime. If someone hadn’t fallen asleep within 10 minutes of nursing, I would lay her down awake in the crib, explaining what I was doing. Amazingly, Elba, who had depended so much on the swing, took to the crib without a peep, and immediately went from being my best napper but in the swing to the best napper in the crib. Wilder just went on being the breast man he was, needing his five or ten minutes to fall into a milk-induced haze, while Gemma mostly took to the crib but fussed for 5 or 10 minutes before settling. Because Gemma wasn’t nursing any more, the fact that she was the baby whose fussing I most often waited out caused me endless anxiety. I still imagine her reading my journals some day and saying, "ah ha, this is why I’ve always thought you loved me least." Arg.

By eighteen months or so, we didn’t need car naps anymore. The girls would nap in a crib and a pack-n-play in the master bedroom, while Wilder nursed down in the nursery. Between reliable 2.5-hour naps and the babies' increased mobility, the "two's" were an amazing, wonderful year for me. The kids gave up their naps entirely just after our move this past June, but no one had really been sleeping very well since their third birthday. Often, the girls would chat for an hour or more, then fall asleep and nap until 5pm, throwing bedtime into chaos, while Wilder (who stopped nursing at naps ... hmm, I don’t even remember when) would often have just laid in bed staring at the ceiling or reading a book, and of course would have a meltdown if we didn’t get him to bed at night as soon as possible. It was easier, finally, just to give up my dreams of a daytime break in return for earlier, easier bedtimes.

How were you able to hold them all enough?

For the first year, because of the staggered feeding schedule over the first nine months and then the stair-stepped naps (especially in the morning), I had a lot of one-on-one time with each baby. This was frankly one of the things that kept me going with attachment parenting when I had playdates with moms who propped bottles, laid everyone in cribs and shut the door. I didn’t have as much time for myself, Calder, or the house, but I had a lot more time with each baby alone. After the NICU, and in the context of multiples, that one-on-one time was precious to me.

*The whole beginning was such a blur, it wasn't until I wrote to Tertia about sleep habits that I remembered Calder and his mom putting the babies to sleep one night in their cribs in the nursery, and realized that we must have moved them there by mid-April. I was always making those mistakes back then, overestimating just how long a particular stage or phase had lasted. I just didn't realize those misimpressions would have such a long shelf life.

Coming Next: Answering the Critics

Defining My Terms

What do you mean, "Attachment Parenting"?
I believe the attachment, or bond, between baby and parent takes precedence over other concerns, particularly in the first nine to twelve months. (For the record: I do not believe Bill and Martha Sears when they write that working during your baby’s infancy makes you detached. What a load of crap.) I believe that parents need to respond to their babies’ cues, so that babies learn to trust their parents. I believe that establishing trustworthiness and a sense of safety is the first job of parenting. I believe that what a baby wants and what a baby needs are the same things in the first year. I believe that holding your baby as much as possible is a worthy ideal.

I believe that parenthood gets harder as your child gets older, because the child’s needs and wants start to diverge, and because parents are supposed to start gently pushing their child to expand his limits and his horizons and to take a chance. I believe that your toddler will let you know when he’s ready to fall asleep on his own, stop wearing diapers, and spend more time apart from you. I believe that parents should respect separation anxiety and stranger anxiety and not force their toddlers to stand apart too soon. I believe that children should be cooperative, not obedient. I believe that children raised to be cooperative are not, in school or on the playground, significantly distinguishable from children raised to be obedient.

For me, leaving a baby to cry for any length of time had too great a potential to damage the mother-baby bond. Having multiples exacerbated that fear, because I found that I had a very slow learning-curve of "cry recognition." It took me a very long time to learn three different sets of cries: for hunger, wet bottoms, loneliness, anger, or "leave me alone, I just need to fuss about the world." I didn’t trust myself to know which cries could be left alone: I wanted to respond to all of them.

In general, the people I know who practice cry-it-out and parent-directed scheduling tended to say and post things like "my baby was twelve weeks old, he weighed twelve pounds, all this waking to eat at night was habit, not need." I tended to believe my babies knew their appetites for food better than I did. The parent-directed scheduling folks would write that their multiple-birth babies who fussed so much didn’t really need to be held, they were just wanting extra attention. I was always thinking, if this little tiny baby could speak, what would she be saying? Do I think she's saying, "Mommy, Mommy, I need you to hold me," and if so, do I want to respond, "no, no, Mommy’s too busy, it’s time for bed, you’re really just fine," give her a pat, and leave her to cry? At six months, the answer was "not in a million years." At four years, the answer is, a lot more often than I would have predicted. But hey, my kids are four now. They are, for all intents and purposes, entirely different people than the ones I mothered in 2001.

It drives me crazy when Calder loses patience and walks away when I start crying, and I’m an adult. I would never walk away from a crying baby.

Coming Next: You can't do that with multiples!