WFPP Guest Post: Can Mama Bear Let Go?

Welcome to the Womanist/Feminist Parenting Primer, PhD in Parenting-style. Annie brings to the WFPP her usual informative flair on the subject of leaving her children in the care of her partner while she leaves the house to work.

Annie wishes to include this disclaimer: This post gives the perspective of a male-partnered cis woman who carried and birthed her two children (“mama bear”). The biological facts and societal assumptions discussed in this article may not apply in adoptive or surrogate situations or in non-heterosexual relationships.

Can Mama Bear Let Go?

A baby develops a connection to its mother as it grows in the womb. That connection is reinforced as the mother holds the baby to her breast for the first time and then over and over again. Biology and society place the mom as the primary caregiver for new life. In her book, The Female Brain, Louann Brizendine, M.D. describes what happens after a woman gives birth to a baby:

For the human mother, the lovely smells of her newborn’s head, skin, poop, spit up breast milk, and other bodily fluids that have washed over her during the first few days will become chemically imprinted on her brain – and she will be able to pick ut her own baby’s smell above all others with about 90 percent accuracy. This goes for her baby’s cry and body movements, too. The touch of her baby’s skin, the look of its little fingers and toes, its short cries and grasps – all are now tattooed on her brain. Within hours to days, overwhelming protectiveness may seize her. Maternal aggression sets in. Her strength and resolve to care for and protect this little being completely grab the brain circuits. She feels she could stop a moving truck with her own body to protect her baby. Her brain has changed, and along with it her reality.

Brizendine goes on to explain that for a woman who does birth a baby, this is perhaps the biggest change she will experience in her life. But increasingly, people are realizing that despite this strong biological connection and despite society’s assumptions about a mother’s role, the birth mother does not have to take on the lion’s share of the nurturing and caregiving. Whether the parents choose equally shared parenting, whether the birth mother is the primary breadwinner, or whether the non-birth mother chooses to induce lactation to share in the primary care duties, there are many scenarios where mama bear…the one who carried and birthed that baby…may need to let go. If we want to achieve the goals of feminism, we need to not only ask for more options for mothers, but also ask their partners to step up and be more than a babysitter. But we need to give them the space to do that. We mama bears need to be willing to let go a bit.

Letting go, for me, had two parts. First, I had to be able to separate myself both physically and emotionally. Second, I had to be able to trust my partner to take over a significant portion of the nurturing. In this post, I’ll share some of my thoughts and experiences about letting go as a working mom whose partner is a stay at home dad.

Separating myself

Physically turning and walking out the door as your child tugs at your pant legs and screams “MAMAAAAAAA” is excruciating. Listening from the other room as your partner fumbles through a difficult parenting moment when you feel you have the answer requires patience. Being a slave to a breast pump instead of holding your baby snugly at your breast is tough. In her post Where’s the numbness?, Naomi from Mama’s Apple Cores wrote:

So, why on earth do I want to turn our world upside down so that I can be the one home? It seems so selfish, but I just can’t move beyond this strong feeling that I need to be home. I try to embrace what we have and focus on the richness of our life, and I do okay for a few days. And then one day I go crazy wanting to be home. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I scream. Drive and cry. Drive and scream. Panic attacks. Feel like I’m losing my mind. Maybe this is just my personal instability and being home would not solve that? Would I be happier if I was home? Would I be more stable? Or is this just a combination of me and lack of sleep?

For me, focusing on and getting the most out of the time I had with my kids was critical. When I was home, I babywore, breastfed, co-slept. That meant that even on the days when I did have to go to work, I could still physically be attached to my children for around 14 hours of the day. I never understood so-called “experts” who suggested a 6pm bedtime for a baby in a crib in a separate room. That would have devastated me. That would have meant seeing my child for 15 minutes in the evening and maybe an hour in the morning before work while trying to get ready and get out the door. Not an option.

Giving something to my baby while at work helped to. I pumped breast milk at work for my son until he was 12 months old and for my daughter until she was 18 months old. I would think of them constantly during the day and even get caught humming Elmo’s song over and over again as my brain connected with them despite our physical separation. The drive home was long, very long.

Having a routine helps. It is hard at first. But after a while you and the kids kids realize that each morning Mommy gets up and goes to work. She stays there for a while and she comes home not long after their afternoon nap. Once you realize that there are five days (or whatever it may be for you) where you have to plow through it, but you can then spend two days focusing on your kids, it gets easier. At least it did for me. But a big part of it getting easier was knowing that my kids were in great hands, which brings me to the next part…

Trusting my partner

To have peace of mind when I go out the door or even while I focus on a task in one room while my partner parents in another room, I need to trust him. For me, trust means knowing we agree about the big things and understanding that the little things don’t matter that much.

My partner and I share the same basic attachment-based parenting philosophy. We both agree that leaving our kids to cry it out is not an option. We both agree that breast is best and that our children were going to be given breastmilk exclusively as infants. We both treat our children with the respect that human beings deserve. Knowing that we are on the same page about the big things is what allows this mama bear to let go. I know of other couples where one of them believes in crying it out and the other doesn’t. Where one thinks it is fun to sneak an infant a McDonald’s sundae and the other one wants the baby exclusively breastfed. Where one regularly humiliates and spanks the children and the other believes in gentle discipline. When parents have such vastly different parenting philosophies, trust is difficult and I know a lot of moms who take it all upon themselves so that they do not have to leave their child with the irresponsible or abusive person they chose to raise children with. I am so thankful that I am not in that position.

But letting go also requires not freaking out about the little things. For me, much of how I parent is about the way that I want to relate to my kids. It is about the relationship that I want to build with them. It is about the way that I want them to see me. It is about what I want to teach them and the values that I want to pass on. But the reality is that every human being will have to deal with a large variety of different teachers, bosses, friends, partners, colleagues, and so on over the course of their life. They will not all relate to them in the same way and I think it does children good to learn different ways of relating with different people. Being exposed to different parenting styles will help prepare them for that. The little things are just not worth sweating. They will not make that big of a difference (if at all) in how your child turns out, but stressing over them will have a big impact on your anxiety levels and on your relationship. Your partner needs to know that you trust him or her to make good parenting choices when you are not there (or even when you are) and that even if he or she does have a bad parenting day, that that is okay too.

Finally, your kids need to see that you trust your partner. I like to remind my kids as I am leaving that they will have a fun time with Daddy. I ask them when I get home what fun things they did together. I try to show them that I am happy to see them develop that bond and to have that special time with their other parent.

Hibernating?

In my experience, yes…mama bear can let go. But maybe not forever. I go on dates with my kids to reconnect. I need extended vacations with my kids to deepen and strengthen our relationship after long periods of hard work and repeated separation. This summer, I’m looking forward to hibernating for a few months with my kids while papa bear ventures back out of the cave for a bit.

Annie is the mom of two kids, Emma (age almost 3) and Julian (age 5). She tries to stir up issues and spark discussion on the art and science of parenting at the PhD in Parenting blog.

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21 Responses to WFPP Guest Post: Can Mama Bear Let Go?

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Someone gets it! It’s HARD to be a WOH Mama!

    I read half this post and then ran to the ladies room in my office to cry. It is so wonderful to know that someone else knows what I am going through. And it feels good to be validated that there is a biological reason to feel so sad about having to work outside the home.

    When I came back to work 2.5 months after I had my baby, other women comforted me by saying “don’t worry, it only gets easier.” How wrong they were. If I had known then that 16 months later I would be crying in the bathroom after reading a blog post like this, I don’t know if I could have even made it this far. But honestly, I have no choice. I AM the primary breadwinner. I AM the mama bear. It’s not easy to be both.

    I worry now that the other women in my office, unlike the woman who wrote this post, simply numb themselves to the pain of separation. I do think keeping yourself engaged in parenting (especially attachment parenting) opens you up to the pain every single time you leave for work, and every single time you think about your child throughout the day. It’s there for me. The guilt, sadness, and worry. Every. Day. But so is the intense love, joy, and wonderment that having a child is all about.

    • July:

      For me, it did get easier. It doesn’t mean that it is always easy, but it is easier now than it was when my baby was 6 months old. But I don’t think your colleagues are necessarily right to assume it gets easier for everyone. I think some people adjust better than others. I also think some people do numb themselves and others don’t.

    • @July-I have a 16 month old as well and was home for the first 3 months before going back to work. I am like you. It did not get easier. Not one bit. It hurts Every. Single. Day.

      I am familiar with Annie’s blog and a big fan and as usual she lays things out so concisely. She has very specific criteria that is being met so that this situation works for her and I don’t know about you, but that is not the case for me. My father watches my son, while I am at work and while I know he loves him and looks out for his best interest at all times, I am not always confident that my values as a parent are being respected. That makes a huge difference. Annie has created an environment that allows her to get quality time with her children and nurture those relationships. My current schedule doesn’t provide that and I know that is a large part of my unhappiness too.

      For me, the stress was too much and I actually just quit my job last week. My last day is next Friday. I bring in 50% of the family income, so financially, it’s probably not the wisest decision I’ve ever made. After doing this for over a year, it just didn’t make sense to continue this way-with me miserable and it having a negative effect on my son. My husband and I made the decision that we can live with the fact that we may lose our house. It was an extremely difficult decision to come to and a very scary move to be making but it is the right thing for our family right now. Being the primary breadwinner, I am sure you have even less choice. I know exactly how you feel, July, so I wish you all the best and hope that there are some changes that can be made to create a situation that is easier for you.

      • Wow, Michelle, that was a courageous decision.

        I totally agree with you that trusting the caregiver is a huge component in becoming at peace with WOH. In my case, I have my daughter in a home daycare 3x/week and with my mother-in-law the other 2 days. Like you, I don’t trust that my parenting values are being respected. I think it does make thing a lot more difficult, emotionally.

  2. Perfectly said. I am the breadwinner right now, and I have shed many tears because I have to be separated from my baby 5 days a week. Breastfeeding, babywearing and co-sleeping help to keep me bonded with baby, and I have always trusted my husband with her care.

    That said, I am SO SICK of pumping, and hope to day-wean my daughter by the time she is 1 yr old (she’s 9.5 months now). And we are working toward my husband becoming the breadwinner by the time our next child comes along, so I can try the stay-at-home thing.

  3. I think that giving up the role of primary caregiver (or even just a portion) is very, very hard. My daughter attended a group daycare while I worked part-time, and in some ways that was easier for me, because it wasn’t one other person that took over. I retained my position as ‘Mama Bear’, even though we were apart 3 days a week. I’m not sure it was better for her, but it was the best option we could come up with in our family’s situation. But for me? Much easier, probably, than surrendering my primacy.

    Thank you for sharing your story, Annie. I am certain that your children are benefiting from the shared parenting arrangement. Having that trust with your co-parent is very valuable. And I’m with you on the early bedtime.

  4. Amber, we are also doing daycare, and I feel so lucky to have been able to be off work for 10 months- one of the many good things about being a teacher is the ability (if you’re tenured) to take a true maternity leave (unpaid, of course).

    People also keep telling me it’ll get easier. I don’t quite know what to make of that. I think it’s easier to shut down the bad feelings with practice… but like July said, the pain is always there if you let it in. No one wants to leave a baby who is crying for them. I mutter to myself, “Don’t look back,” and quickly try to think of something else. I do not like that, but I also don’t want to give up a rock-solid, well-paying job that I enjoy in a shaky economy. (Or that’s what I tell myself so I feel OK about leaving my kid.)

    Nope, it’s not fun, and it makes breastfeeding a lot harder.

  5. You covered a lot of ground, Annie. I like how you are able to identify the things we need to think through as well as the decisions that you’ve made. It’s much easier to follow a thought process than simply model the results.

  6. Great post! Even though I’m lucky enough to stay home, I know that tugging guilt (and tugging child) when trying to step out for a much needed break.

  7. I don’t mean in any way to invalidate the emotions Annie describes, but some of the science she’s citing to back them up may be a little suspect. Nature magazine wrote that Louann Brizendine’s book “disappointingly fails to meet even the most basic standards of scientific accuracy and balance. The book is riddled with scientific errors and is misleading about the processes of brain development,
    the neuroendocrine system, and the nature of sex differences in general.” Many of her claims have been debunked elsewhere, as well.

    And while I agree that mothers become willing to aggressively protect their children, I don’t think that’s exclusive to female parents (or even to parents at all), nor is that strength generally considered to be due to oxytocin, which is the hormone released when mothers give birth, breastfeed, cuddle their children, etc., as implied by the Brizendine quote. Instead, it’s generally thought to be a surge of adrenaline that gives both men and women the strength to act in crisis situations.

    I’m not sure we need to rely on (incorrect) gender essentialism to discuss the very real conflicts that all parents may face in trying to balance work, primary parenting, and co-parenting.

    • occhiblu:

      I wasn’t aware of the criticisms of Brizendine’s work. Thank you for bringing them to my attention.

      I chose to quote her because of the eloquent way she described the transition a woman goes through when she gives birth. However, she is certainly not the only researcher to look at this. It is about more than the aggressive will to protect children that you mentioned. There are other biological realities – for example, it is my milk that lets down when my baby cries, not my partner’s.

      However, I do believe that most differences we ascribe to men/women are as a result of societal influences, not biological. I do think that men are just as capable of caring for their children as women.

  8. I completely agree with you that learning to separate yourself and trust your partner are essential to being able to work outside of the home. I am still breastfeeding and co-sleeping with my 16 month old daughter and can really relate to your comments about the struggle it is knowing that we need my salary to get along but not wanting to be away from my daughter all day every day.

    I’d add one more item to your list, though. I think I have separation and trust pretty much down. My struggle is figuring out my own new identity as a mom. It’s definitely taking me down a road I didn’t even know existed. Learning to let go of one dream for another without feeling like one is giving up…that is not easy to do.

    Thank you so much for your post!!! It means a lot to working mamas like me!

    • That’s interesting Molly. I think for me figuring out who I am before having children was important. I certainly have a new identity as a mom, but I don’t think I’ve had to let go of my other identity. It has perhaps evolved, but I am still the same person I was before.

  9. Annie, You talk here mostly from the perspective of the mother (or father, or other adult caregivers). What about the perspective of the infant when this separation from the birth mother occurs? What does the infant go through, chemically or attachment-wise, when they are forced for whatever reason to be separated? Unfortunately, as much as we as parents can try to mitigate the crises that might occur in the infants mind when a birth mother goes back to work, we can never really know how it is going to affect the infant when the separation happens. (Are there studies that give us more information on this?) I can’t help but feel that, when possible, it might be better to err on the side of caution in preventing birth mother and child from being separated, if it is at all possible.

    • Trish:

      I think abrupt separation from the birth mother can be traumatic. That is why a gradual transition is important. I think if a family knows that the mom is not going to be the primary caregiver for most of early childhood, then it is best to have the person who is going to be the primary caregiver develop an attachment early on.

      In a post that I wrote about my husband, I have a picture of him wearing our daughter when she was just a few days old (http://www.phdinparenting.com/2009/06/20/an-attached-dad/). By taking an active role right from the start, she developed an attachment to him. My mother also plays a key role in caring for our kids and she was also involved in their lives right from the start.

  10. This is so interesting, and so useful. I had a full year off from things with my little girl, and even then leaving her for 3 days a week (even though I was visiting the nursery in the middle of the day for her to nurse) was wrench. She’s now, at 2, gone up to four days a week and it’s another wrench.

    But I have to remind myself that she is adaptable far beyond my expectations. Each time a change has occurred (like when I stopped going into the nursery to feed her in the middle of the day), it has been ME that has found it difficult rather than her. Each time we (myself and my husband) have explained to her what is going to happen, how things will be from now on, and assured her that everything is safe (and never quite knowing how much she has understood, but tone of voice helps, right?), she has rolled onto into the new situation with narry a waver, while I guilt myself consistently.

    In an odd way, it’s been both harder and easier for my husband. He had to return to work three weeks after she was born (two weeks paternity leave rolled together with one week annual leave) and then, he had to return again after he took a three month sabbatical to be with her from 9 months old to 12 months old. But there are fewer expectations of him from other people. No one expects men to take significant time off to spend with their infant children, so he got major fathering points for taking the time off that he did, for example. Whereas I feel the weight of other people’s approval/disapproval. When it becomes clear that I am “still” breastfeeding, I get the funny looks, not him.

    And as a consequence, I take it all upon myself. So for me, the “letting go” is the letting go of internally and externally imposed judgements. That is what, eventually, is setting me free.

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  12. Annie, thanks for this heartfelt post. I agree with the commenters that say being a WOHM is hard. I can relate to the inner struggle that Naomi writes about. But then I also think that WOH is the best for both my nearly 2-and-a-half-year-old and me. He needs the child play, education and interaction and I need adult interaction, mental challenges and a feeling of accomplishment outside of motherhood. Still, I think about him often throughout the day and the mornings when he asks if we can stay in bed instead of going to work and “school” are what do cause me to question whether I’m making the right choices. I have done my best to practice attachment parenting, breastfeeding (until he was 14 months), occasional co-sleeping, etc. though it hasn’t been easy. Trust and letting the little things go is the toughest. My mother puts it this way: If you are that bent up about every little thing that your child is going to encounter, then you should be the one there with him every day. I have to agree with her.

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