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.
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.
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.