Saturday, May 10, 2014

For Mothers Everywhere

I am passionate about breastfeeding. I mean, really, in another era, I could have been a wet nurse. To me it's one of the easiest parts of those early months -- free, neat, portable, healthy!

Love it, love it, love it.

So when I do my morning perusal of the headlines and spot Does Breastfeeding Cause Divorce?I, of course, feel compelled to stop. The provocative headline was written to lure readers like me, but I found the author's premise much deeper (and darker) than just another round of ammo in the Mommy Wars. Author Molly Baker begins with government statistics on the potential benefits of extended breastfeeding:

The recent study said that the lives of 900 babies could be saved, along with billions of dollars in lost employee wages, if 90% of American women breastfed their babies exclusively for the first six months. I am not sure which part of that goal stuns me more – the 90%, the six months or the “exclusively.”. . .

But what they haven’t looked at is what these “suboptimal” rates have prevented or gained for American women, children and families. Where are the statistics on how many marriages have been saved by limiting breastfeeding? Or simply what postpartum independence has meant for women’s mental health, and their confidence and trust in their relevance outside the domestic sphere? . . .

In a word, be careful what you wish for. Blue-ribbon breastfeeding goals could -- in the extreme -- lead to increased divorce, depression, and long-term damage to the delicate ecosystem of gender roles in our families, workplaces and society. At the very least, the effort sanctions the message to women that their children and domestic duties come first. For women and researchers for whom long-term breastfeeding is the answer, the question certainly needs to be asked: at what cost?

To any woman entering motherhood with such a cost-benefit analysis at the front on her mind, I say this: You are in for a rude awakening. The author is worried about the cost, and so she should be, because the cost is high, high indeed. Forget about the hours you will spend nursing and wiping poopy bottoms and laundering little sleepers. Forget about the figures news outlets publish citing the cost of raising a child to age eighteen.

Let's just cut to the chase: Motherhood will cost you everything. Yes, everything.

Let me cite the single best analogy I have heard for motherhood: It's a tattoo on your face.

Baker states, “I do resent the expectation that after carrying a baby for nine months, American women should surrender control for six more months.”

Why do I find that line so shocking, so completely out of step with my expectations of motherhood?

Fifteen years ago we announced the pending arrival of our first child, our son, Timothy. My mother-in-law sent me a breastfeeding manual. In it she had written: You've now given permission for your heart to reside outside your body. This may seem like a saccharine sweet endearment dreamt up by Hallmark. Mothers know how true to life it really is.

You don’t surrender control for nine months or another six months or eighteen years; it’s gone, baby, gone and gone for good.

When I began labeling my archived writing, I was a tad surprised that most of my writing falls into the category of Real Life. I talk about the struggles and the spilt milk, sibling rivalry and interrupted sleep. I have invested an inordinate amount of words discussing vomit (click here to read Gross) and potty training (colorful details here and here).

I have written fairly transparently about my own struggles ( Losing the bite) and about bad days (So many reasons to have kids). In that piece I wrote:

I wanted this life. I wanted these kids. I prayed and fasted for them. I took fertility drugs! In the face of all that, motherhood remains the hardest thing I've ever done.
By far.

Now, I don't have eight or ten kids, I have never had multiples, and we have not faced physical  disabilities. I wake up every morning to the run-of-the-mill start the laundry, sling some hash, load up the van, off to the pool, umpire the shouting match, change the diaper, kiss the boo-boo, read the story, et cetera, et cetera. It is typically exhausting, sometimes mind-numbingly boring, always constant.

Let me say unequivocally that motherhood is also teeming with moments of grace.

Cuddling a nursing baby. Placing my hand on Ainsley's cheek and feeling her tiny hand rest on mine.

Hearing my two-year-old come up to me and say, "I have a secret," and then lean into my ear and lisp, "I wove you!"

Opening my eight-year-old's writing journal and finding he has written "I love my Mom and Dad" on the inside cover.

Watching my twelve-year-old play with his baby brother and sister and then tell me he hopes we have another one.

My terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day ended. John came into our bed in the middle of the night. I rubbed his soft cheek and felt the warmth of a brewing fever. He cried and then said in his sweet toddler voice, "Dwy ma tears, Mama."

Yes, it can be exhausting, boring, and constant. In its own imperfect way, it is also joyful, enriching, and blessed.

I write this from the perspective of a woman with relatively young children. We deal with the trivial hurts that don't always seem so trivial: watching a son come in dead last in every heat in the Pinewod Derby, seeing another son being the only player who rode the bench for every minute of the soccer tournament, commiserating when a child has missed first honors by 0.3.

Yes, our oldest is just fourteen and to date our frustrations have been mere irritants in the grand scheme of things. But I was once a teenager and one of four teenagers in my home. As children begin to cut the apron strings and venture out into the wider world, the stakes are higher. Teenagers text and speed simultaneously. They spend 6.5 years working hard on that elusive bachelor's degree. They dump the nice girl and take up with the hot girl.

I have watched friends struggle as their adult child made poor choices. It's the unplanned pregnancy or the hint of casual drug use. It's watching a once fervent faith wane and materialism take hold. Other times, adult children face hurdles beyond their control -- cancer or depression or divorce.

You fervently love, but you cannot control. You desperately fear, but you can no longer protect. You persevere in hope and never cease to pray. You ship care packages full of chocolate chip cookies and socks and underwear.

Your heart resides outside your body.

If  we're going to count the cost, let's count the whole count. It will take all of you. It will take all of me.


christinelaennec said...

Absolutely. And I feel so much richer for having experienced true sacrificial love. Not just my own sacrifices made for my children, but a realisation of what my mother and grandmother did for me, as a result.
I laughed out loud at the quote about having to give up "six more months". It reveals such a profoundly self-centred attitude towards life, nevermind having children. A little bit scary...

Happy Mother's Day, Kelly!

Mary @ Better Than Eden said...

You point out the problem with her line of thinking exactly, Kelly. If we're looking to get out of motherhood without giving everything (a tempting offer, to be sure!) then I think we may have missed the crux of it. And it is a disordered attitude that sees the needs of an infant as some sort of threat to motherhood and marriage.

Hope you had a wonderful Mothers' Day!

Kris said...

This almost made me cry!! Of course, my oldest son is graduating from high school this coming Saturday, so I'm a bit weepy anyway. The gift of raising and loving these children has been the best thing to be given to me.

Kelly Dolin said...

Christine, Mary, Kris - Happy Mother's Day! Maybe this article speaks to a general lack of fortitude found in other avenues of life. It's not all about us, whether you're a mother, a teacher, a police officer, a priest, a nun, etc.