When you’re pregnant, one thing you hear and read everywhere, but are seemingly incapable of taking to heart, is how difficult parenting is.
“My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience. It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness.” Audre Lorde
Perhaps there are those of us who are blessed with either a keen predilection for mothering, or a perfect support system/village and a wealth of resources already intact. But, for those of us deficient in those categories, parenting (and especially mothering) a baby is brutal and gruelling at times. I have never slept so little or worked so hard at anything in my entire life. That isn’t to say it isn’t also sublime, beautiful, perfect, rewarding, and like touching the face of god… but there is just no real way to prepare yourself for how much you will sacrifice for your children… not the least of which; your bank account, your sleep, your earthly body, your sanity.
The frustrating part of this whole shebang is the fact that that knowledge is out there, but is impossible to truly learn until you are actually (literally and figuratively) in the shit yourself.
If we’re to believe the media, there is a war being waged through the back alleys of internet forums and social media, between opposing factions of mothers. The classic battle of Breast vs. Formula, Attachment vs. Contemporary Parenting, of Stepford Moms vs Momz Keepin’ it Rill. There’s Young Hip Moms vs. Old-ass Tired Moms, there’s Christian Moms vs. Atheist Moms, there’s “please, not another baby! I can’t do this!” Moms vs. Moms Who Struggle For Years with Infertility and Loss. But perhaps one of the most onerous battles is that between the Working Mother, and She Who Stays at Home (SAHM).
No matter which side of this equation you fall on, you will sacrifice something. Whether it’s time with your family and control over the way your children are raised, or your career and identity as an autonomous human being; something is on the chopping block. There is no “having it all”. The only thing many of us find ourselves “leaning into” is the poverty line and sleep deprivation. Between a lack of reliable, affordable childcare for working mothers, and a lack of resources for mothers who stay at home, we all lose, at least a little bit. And I don’t believe anything’s going to change, unless we revert back to multiple generations of women, many of them lactating, living under one roof, or free, quality, in-work childcare for every possible vocation. Like it or not, we continue to live our lives under the thumb of The Capitalist Patriarchy, and in many ways society sets women, mothers in particular (and by extension, their children), up to fail.
I, myself, was raised by a hard-working feminist mother. I was shuttled off to a nanny/daycare at the age of 6 months, and there I stayed days, mornings, afternoons, until I was a preteen. My mother is my hero. Her hustle was strong, and her work ethic (coupled with my status as an only child, I suppose) provided our family with a dual income and the privileges and freedoms that come along with that (travel, brand new clothing, a nice warm big home on the lake etc). It also provided me with the notion that I could do whatever I wanted career-wise and it just never occurred to me that I would find myself in the predicament that I currently occupy.
I spent my 20s as a free-wheeling, neurotic, self-indulgent bon-vivant. I dropped out of my degree program at Art School when I was around 25, managed to complete my community college education in graphic design the year I turned 30, and filled the interim with shiftless stints in retail and food service. When it came around to being time for us to start a family, I was jobless and had not established myself in my career. Given that, I always knew that I would stay home with my baby for at least the first six months, but I honestly never imagined that I would be two years deep in a different “career” — Extreme Full Time Baby Mother. And I never imagined how difficult it would be.
It is often framed as the “privileged” way to mother a child. The assumption is that your partner makes enough money that you have the option of staying at home. And in a sense this is true. We certainly have it better than most people in the world. But for us, myself especially, it has also meant that I’ve sacrificed my burgeoning career and my sense of identity. We do with quite a bit less and a blow to our quality of life, because we only have a single income and the cost of living here is astronomically high. I cook all of our meals at home, we’ve done away with everything but the necessities, we purchase many of Soren’s baby items second hand, and we only travel if the bill is footed by grandparents waiting with baited breath to see their grandson.
These sacrifices and financial realities have been sobering to say the least. With both of our families living thousands of miles away, and a lack of a budget to go towards childcare, the onus has been on me to provide our son with round the clock care, with few breaks or opportunities to “Do me”. The option for help only existing during the brief periods in which we’re visiting – or being visited by – family. To say this has been a challenging “season” in my life would be an understatement in the extreme.
I was very fortunate to have Andrew around for 9 months of parental leave. While there are many problems with our system here in Canada, and the way it serves families, I am forever grateful for the government-sanctioned healthcare that allowed me to give birth without going into debt, and the parental leave that allowed my husband to be home with us in what is arguably the most important period of parenting. I feel like his presence saved our breastfeeding relationship, and saved me from slipping over the edge into extreme PPA/PPD territory. I honestly do not know how I would have made it without him.
Any way you slice it, having to subjugate all or most of your needs to a second, more helpless person (for whom you are also responsible in heaping piles of often unrequited love upon) is difficult. Spending your days in the company of someone who speaks in 3 word sentences (and sometimes not at all, choosing instead to communicate in a variety of loud and jarring noises) is difficult. Squeezing your adult existence in the three hours between your child going to bed and you joining them (only, of course, to spend the night with a small foot threatening to kick you in the face at any moment) is difficult. No-date-nights-ever is difficult. Never being apart from this little person for longer than a few scant hours here or there is difficult. Trying to maintain an even-keel of pleasantness at all times, when you want nothing more than to scream “FUCK OFF FOREVER!!!!” at the top of your lungs is very difficult.
But this isn’t really about how hard I have it, and it certainly isn’t a list of complaints – just a no-holds-barred, honest description of how it is. Being a SAHM has also, for the record, made me the happiest person I have ever been. I have never felt more enriched, of service and satisfied in my entire life. It has taught me so much about life, work, love and what I am capable of as a human being (lots, as it turns out) and that nothing worth having is easy.
I have had the privilege of nursing a child well into toddlerhood (the global norm, and the recommendation of the World Health Organization, and a goal that is made infinitely more challenging for mothers who return to work), of being present for every milestone, of having complete freedom and control when it comes to parenting style/philosophy/ethos, and of being able to hug my son whenever I G.D want to.
Despite all the challenges, I have zero regrets, and would do it all over again in a heartbeat. I am not an expert by any means, and depending on your definition of it, I might not even be a “good” mother. But the important takeaway here is that I have survived; happy and ok, with my baby and sanity relatively intact. I recommend it heartily to anyone is able, and if you’re curious about it, or new to being a Stay at Home Mom, read on for a bunch of survival tips that you will more than likely forget until it’s too late.
Tips for surviving two years of Stay at Home Motherhood
#1 Breastfeed I am a firm believer in choice when it comes to baby-feeding. For the very reason that bodies and the boobs that live on them are an extremely personal thing, and no one has the right to tell you what to do with them. To insist that every baby has the right to breastfeed (insinuating that to not breastfeed is a violation of a baby’s human rights) veers into body-essentialist territory, and I’m of the opinion that we mothers have the right not to be defined by and limited to our (potential) biological functions. Not everyone can or wants to use their bodies to feed their babies, and that is totally okay. Beyond a month, I wasn’t really breastfed and I happen to believe I turned out fine. This is anecdotal, of course, but “not being breastfed” doesn’t even register on my list of grievances, and certainly hasn’t hindered my relationship with my own mother (at least to my knowledge). I know plenty of formula-feeding moms who are amazing mothers, probably better, happier, more productive mothers than me. And saving yourself from the crazy-making experience of trying to sort out breastfeeding has its perks, I’m sure. I’m not going to get into any “breast is best” rhetoric, because as far as I’m concerned fed is best.
That said, I also believe in the power of the boob. This is all about how much easier breastfeeding can make your life. I would be lying if I said that it wasn’t absolutely the cornerstone of my early mothering experience. I have written extensively of this in the past, but in the context of this post, breastfeeding has certainly been crucial to my survival.
After you get over the hump of troubleshooting early feeding issues (or maybe you’ll be lucky and it will come easy to you — I hear that happens from time to time), breastfeeding is the easiest mothering tool in the world. I have a friend who said “put a boob in it” was the solution to every baby problem, and she’s not wrong. Virtually everything that could make a (healthy) little baby cry, can be assuaged by the almighty boob.
Breastfeeding is also (usually) a foolproof way of putting babies and toddlers to sleep. Learn how to breastfeed lying down, and you’ve just bought yourself a one way ticket to nap-ville, or a chance to read a book and rest in close proximity of your baby, which in turn helps them sleep better and longer and helps you worry less.
Breastfeeding is free – after any initial requirements such as breast pump, SNS, bottles, nipple shields, lanolin creme, tongue and upper lip tie revision etc… Haha! I lied! Just kidding! No such thing as a free titty lunch. But, once the initial investment is out of the way, you can use the money you don’t spend on formula to get out of the house and buy yourself a coffee.
Feeding with bewbz is also extremely portable and requires NO preparation. Meaning, you don’t have to worry about lugging anything around with you, and you’ve got just what your baby needs at the right temperature, on tap, at the drop of a hat. You can learn how to nurse in a baby carrier and nurse (quite covertly, if modesty is a concern) while you walk down the street. You can quickly nurse before and after trips to the store, which will ensure a much more calm and carefree errand-running experience.
And it’s not that a mother who bottle feeds cannot chill TF out or bond with their baby – that is absurd, and I bristle when lactivists suggest this -but the extra bonding and calming hormones that come along with a nursing relationship help you keep your cool and increase the warm/fuzzy feelings that make Stay at Home Mumming easier.
Breastfed babies also get sick less often and for shorter durations, and trust me; there is nothing more heartbreaking and difficult than a sick baby.
#2 Bed-Share (or room-share) Lots of childless people probably look at me with side-eyes when I talk about having a family bed. To be honest, while I knew Sose would be in our room with us as a newborn, I could never picture myself sharing a bed with my husband and a toddler. But babies are shit at sleeping. Just utter shit (unless you lucked out and got what the internet moms call a “magical unicorn baby”). Having your little guy in bed with you means you can Put A Boob In It all night long, and if you master side-laying nursing, you barely even have to wake up (and in fact I have probably drifted back to sleep this way hundreds of times). It sure beats being woken by your crying baby, getting up out of bed, stumbling into another room, picking up baby and trying to stay awake while nursing in a chair. Most babies sleep better and longer when they can sense your presence, and you will sleep better too, once you get used to it. I am absolutely convinced it’s the best way to: maintain a breastfeeding relationship, bond with your family, and get the most amount of sleep possible. Being a human mattress for naps (+iPad/e-reader) really worked for us, too. If you decide that the family bed is for you, be sure to research safe co-sleeping guidelines.
#3 Find Your Comrades You will never be more lonely and more in need of friends than during early motherhood. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself increasingly alienated by your existing non-parent friends (who will not, despite every effort, be able to understand what you’re going through) and desperate to reach out to others who can relate. Despite this, finding mom friends is like moving to a new school. It’s hard and moms are clique-y AF.
Find moms with a similar parenting style, or this will cause you troubles. You want a mom bud who won’t bat an eyelash if you whip out a boob to feed your 2 year old, or who doesn’t think your family bed is weird, cuz she’s got one at home too. It isn’t to say that you won’t make friends with moms who parent in an entirely different way than you do, but to have someone in your court who really gets and supports what you’re doing is crucial. You will suddenly be thrust into this bizarre social world, where you won’t have anything in common with your peers other than the fact that you both popped out babies. I have found this particular aspect especially frustrating, since many of my pre-child peers have chosen not to have babies; It’s tough slugging being a weirdo in a sea of normie moms. So find your people. Bonus that your kids can play together and you get a minute to chat.
#4 Baby-led Weaning Like every other choice in parenting, how you choose to introduce solids is often a point of contention. We chose to forgo the cereal/puree stage and go right to normal food after Sose was around 6 months old. The mushy stuff isn’t a necessary step, and babies are capable of self-feeding as soon as they master sitting up, hand-to-mouth/grasping, and have surpassed the age of 6 months (when current research shows the readiness of the gut in handling food other than breast milk/formula). Baby-led weaning saves you a lot of time and energy, because you can feed baby the same healthy foods that your family already eats. Whole, unprocessed foods, like fruit, veggies, meat and so on. You can spend your mealtimes eating alongside your baby instead of spooning food into them. It is a great deal of fun to watch as your kiddo explores food on his own terms. And you can chill about how much/how often they eat because they’re still getting the bulk of their calories and nutrition through breast milk/formula until the age of one. We started around 6 months, but after a few unsuccessful attempts (perhaps owing to the fact that he came into our lives 3 weeks early), held back until 7 months or so, when Sose became really interested and ready to eat. It’s just a more relaxed, easier way of managing food that requires no extra effort or preparation on your part. If you’re curious, read more of the finer points on the Baby-led Weaning website.
#5 Screen time (and Letting Go of “Perfect”) Again, a very contentious issue. And there is research to suggest it isn’t the greatest of ideas. However, as parents, we will sacrifice our ideals in the first year (and forever after). If you asked me while I was still pregnant, I probably would have told you that my son would get no screen time of any kind for at least the first 2 years. We lasted 10 months. When he was about 15 months, we loaded the iPad with educational apps and let’er rip. If it weren’t for the iPad (and Treehouse TV, and Netflix for kids), I wouldn’t get a minute to myself. But it’s also been really fascinating to watch my son learn how to use a tablet all by himself, and he’s constantly surprising me with what he teaches himself (the entire alphabet by the age of 18 months, for one) all of his own volition.
Sometimes, you just have to make choices that are more about your needs than your child’s. A SAHM cannot do all jobs at once, no matter how we might try, and I do not believe it is wrong to rely on some things that make your job easier. Trying to strive for perfection in any given style of parenting is a fast-track to disappointment, because very few of us can always live up to our own expectations. Have a good idea of your parenting ideals, and then manage those expectations. Adjust them to your needs. Put on your own oxygen mask first from time to time.
Another example? Cloth diapering. I had every intention of using only cloth diapers, and in fact picked up quite a stash of expensive, brightly coloured micro-fibre dipes. But Sose was born premie-sized, so initially he couldn’t fit them, and when it came down to brass tacks I just didn’t want to spend my free-time rinsing shit off of fleece diaper liners and doing pre-soaks and multiple laundering cycles. Cloth diapers are clearly the better choice for the environment (and ostensibly for babies’ skin), but I sacrificed that so I didn’t have to live the diaper years haemorrhaging loonies like a backwards Uncle Scrooge and being a slave to the laundry room.
Back to screen time: Regardless of what research may say, nothing changes the fact that we exist in a world of screens, and people used to say the same things about the fast-moving imagery seen from a train window when that type of travel was a novelty. They said it about the invention of the radio. You never know which little screamer’s going to be the next programming genius, so have heart and lighten up.
#6 Leaving room in the budget for buying coffee at shops sometimes I sacrifice on other perks (maybe a monthly manicure, or more frequent haircuts, or a new superfluous article of clothing or makeup every now and then) so that I can do this. Many “budget experts” will say it’s the first thing you should ditch when you’re trying to save money, but for me it often feels like the difference between life and death (I am that dramatic about coffee, yes). It is self care. There have been and will continue to be days where I feel less than human. When you’re in the business of continually subjugating your own needs, you can feel like you don’t even matter. Nothing resets this like getting outside, walking a couple of blocks, and grabbing a fresh cup of coffee that someone else made just for you. Sometimes they even write your name on the cup. Often they smile at you while serving it. It just hits the “play again” button, and it’s often the difference between a mum-meltdown, and keeping your shit together. In the early days, it was the act of going out for a coffee that lifted the oppressive veil of postpartum miasma and allowed me to gradually start to feel like myself again. The whole production is good for you, and in turn, good for your baby. This should almost be #1
#7 Encourage independent play from an early age Every child is certainly different, but with our son, I’ve found that limiting the amount of “parent as entertainer” play from early-on has made for an infant and toddler who became very good at self-initiated independent play, and allowed us to gradually hang back while he did his own thing.
Proponents of the parenting philosophy RIE (Resources for Infant Educators – which in my estimation, is a “take what you can and leave the rest” type of deal, since some of the ideas are also sheer lunacy to me, so…) suggest creating a “YES” space, where a baby’s exploration doesn’t have to be limited. Once our son became mobile, we partitioned off our hallway with two baby gates and filled it with interesting toys and kitchen tools etc. There was nothing in this area that I had to say “no” to, and it allowed for free-exploration without the need for a playpen. As his independence grew, we would leave the bedroom (which is reasonably kid-safe and opened to that section of hallway) open, so he could have that much more space to roam freely. An arrangement such as this gives you the freedom to do chores, or read or have a cup of coffee while your kid can explore safely, seemingly without limits. We experimented with a playpen, an exersaucer and a jolly jumper, but I wasn’t fully comfortable with the inhibited range of motion and possible uncomfortable hip positioning (physio therapists hate those things for a reason), and ultimately Soren was happier with some real space to explore.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t play with your baby. Yes, by all means spend time every day playing with your child! But, I believe it promotes a more intuitive and natural type of learning, and leads to greater independence later on (which is great for them, but will also allow you the freedom to get work done or take care of your own needs).
#8 Babywear (As much/for as long as possible) This was a real boon for us from about 3-12 months. And I still whip out my ring sling or SSC (soft structured carrier) at the airport because it makes things that much easier. I have sacroiliac joint dysfunction, though, and my son is a big guy, so we had to cut down on our baby-wearing time drastically after I put my back out from overdoing it. But most younger babies seem to prefer it to the stroller, and it really facilitates both attachment AND freedom for the mother (win/win). Be sure to research fastidiously and avoid most outward-facing carriers (aka “crotch danglers”) unless they support baby’s legs in an “M” shape, because like the aforementioned baby-holding devices, they can cause undue strain on the hip flexors (imagine being suspended by your groin for hours at a time). If you can figure out how to nurse in a carrier (for what it’s worth, I never got the hang of it!), you’re truly laughing. If you have cheddar to spend, there are some really beautiful options out there for woven wraps and carriers.
#9 Get Over Yourself and Ask for Help This is a real “don’t do what I did” piece of advice. I am a fiercely independent (to a fault) person, and beyond even an extreme distaste for unsolicited advice, I have a BIG problem asking for help. I had plenty of people offer help in the early days, and I was too prideful – and self-conscious of the “letting it all hang out” part of early motherhood – to take them up on it. But looking back, I needed it, and it really would have benefited all of us. Sometimes help is just company, or someone to walk with, or talk to. But it doesn’t happen unless you reach out for it. And you know that if you were in the opposite position, you would LOVE to help your friends.
#10 Make An Effort With Your Appearance (if you want) In my two years of SAHM, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve left the house without makeup and proper clothing. I’m definitely not a heels-wearing girly girl (my style skews heavily in the “vaguely tomboyish best friend from an 80s movie” direction), but I am not over here in athletic-wear-as-outerwear either. Your mileage may vary, but when you’re feeling sub-human, as I say; knowing that you’re put together goes a long way. I hate to be bolstering the beauty-industrial complex, but I don’t feel like myself without a beat face and an outfit.
(bonus tip) #11 But Shower Less (again, if you want to) We don’t really have to shower as much as we think we do. I probably sound like a stanky hippie, but it’s true. The whole “cleanliness is next to godliness” thing is a bullshit, puritanical Victorian ideal that carries on so Johnson & Johnson can sell more body wash. Unless you’re a coal miner, or an olympic athlete, or a fishmonger, you can get away with it. Trust me. It’s called spraying perfume in your hair, deoderant, and doing the odd “bird bath” with a baby wipe (you’ll have lots of those around). My free time is so scant, that I’m not really interested in spending it in the shower, or waiting for my hair to dry afterwards. I wash my hair once a week (it’s very thick hair, so I can easily get away with that) and shower every 2 days or so. You can call me gross all you want, but I have no regrets and I get a lot more reading or TVing done this way.
The most important thing for you to remember is that you matter. You may feel as though you suddenly don’t, but trust me, you do. And people are idiots and no one is going to remind you of that, so you need to fight to assert your own importance. You are now a part of this mystical, otherworldly, inseparable mama-bb dyad, but you are the mothership and they are the satellite. You run this town. Put on your own oxygen mask first. Keep a piece of you hidden away somewhere. Feed it, cultivate it, and look forward to meeting the strongest, fiercest version of yourself that you will ever know.