Marriage And Early Motherhood, Part I

The baby is up to date on The Walking Dead.

When I first approached Meg to do an interview with me about early motherhood, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to get out of it exactly. It’s not so much that Michael and I are even in a place where we want kids yet, but I’m definitely in a place where I want to be able to talk about wanting kids without having to spiral down into hyperbole. So much of what’s available for conversations about parenting is either fear-mongering, or condescending, or prescriptive, and none of it allows for me to safely express my anxieties about having children in a space where I feel like I’m being given platform for honest discussion (both online and off). And if the 500 plus comments from our open thread on the subject are any indication, I’m willing to bet that the same goes for a lot of you.

Over the past few years APW has played the role for me of best friend’s big sister, who will tell it like it is. So, I thought maybe an old fashioned sleepover-type confessional could be the answer. As some of you might know from Meg’s pregnancy announcement last year, Meg and David are choosing to keep their family life pretty private, so this might be the most I ever get out of her on the subject. Meg will be the first to tell you that she’s no expert on child-rearing (her words were “I’ve been at this for exactly four and a half months. You can call me in for expert advice when I’ve had ten kids.”) Which means that this interview is not meant to be in any way prescriptive, nor is it meant to represent the experience of all new mothers everywhere. Rather, in the same way that I once found solace in these pages hearing that marriage wouldn’t fundamentally change who I am if I didn’t let it, and that a career move isn’t a prison sentence, this interview gave me the reassurance that having children doesn’t mean getting on a roller coaster ride and enduring it until it’s time to get off. When Meg and I first started talking about this interview, she told me, “I don’t want to offer any advice on motherhood, other than the magic that is overnight diapers. The rest is just thoughts from the trenches. Your mileage may vary.” I think that just about sums it up. So here is part one of Marriage And Early Motherhood (part two to follow next week). May it spark a non-terrifying conversation that makes you feel a little better too. Maddie

That Gut Feeling

Meg: Are you going to set the scene? Wisteria. A lime popsicle. The sun. Chicken enchiladas, cooked by Meg’s husband.

Maddie: [Laughing] Yes. The enchiladas were really good. Ok, so one of the first questions people asked in the comments of our open thread was about the issue of confidence with the decision to have kids. Because I think a lot of people are concerned that if you aren’t 100% certain that you want, want, WANT a baby, that you have no business having one. And I’m curious what your take is on that?

Meg: Yeah, I think that’s bullshit. There’s this Elizabeth Gilbert quote in Committed where someone says to her something like, “Having a baby is like having a tattoo on your face. If you’re not sure about it, you shouldn’t get it.” And I just don’t think that’s true. There are very few decisions in life that you’re that sure about, period. Right? And I think that probably anyone who is 100% sure about having kids and never has any questions about it, that is where I might question whether or not you knew what you were getting into. Because you’re committing to a very big life change, and the scary thing about having kids is that it’s the one of the few things in your life you can’t get out of. The dirty secret about marriage is that if it doesn’t work you get a divorce. Yeah, it sucks, and it’s going to fuck up your life but you move on. The scary part about having a kid is that it’s irrevocable. So if there isn’t some part of you that’s like, “Uh, is this a good idea?” I just worry that you haven’t applied your analytical self to it.

Maddie: I feel like there’s this thing that’s happening, where there’s celebrity pregnancies are really oddly sexualized, and then in educated, urban communities there is this glorification of pregnancy and motherhood. I’m curious how you anticipated, and also dealt with that. Because that’s something I’m scared of… having to explain why I’m either bottle feeding or not using cloth diapers, or on the flipside having to explain doing all those things… I guess, it’s the whole mainstream versus indie thing.

Meg: Right. In some ways we were protected because we’re so early in our friends circle having kids.

Maddie: Which is hilarious also.

Meg: Right? Because I’m, what? 32? But we have a couple of friends who have kids… our friends who have kids have kids who are either five or thirteen (we have a lot of friends that got pregnant right after high school, or are a little older than us, or who just don’t have kids at all.) There was no one that was contemporaneously having children. So we were able to do things the way we thought were logical, which has led to some interesting social moments later, when we were around parents, because we, like, didn’t know that everyone got an infant car seat and it just didn’t seem logical to us, so we didn’t get an infant car seat. We got a convertible car seat, and then we didn’t have an infant carrier to carry the baby around with and I totally looked like I was making a political statement when I was out with other mothers. But that sort of protected me in some ways. I did feel a lot of pressure around the, what I call the Cult of Whole Motherhood: give birth at home, don’t have an epidural, don’t ever bottle feed, etc. Though ultimately a lot of that stuff worked itself out. I sort of fundamentally (no surprise here, the whole site is built around this) am just not a dogmatic person. So I went into labor being like, you know it might be nice not to get an epidural, but we’ll see, I had a pretty precipitous labor so—our doula actually said it was the most intense labor she’d ever witnessed—so I got an epidural. I had milk supply issues right away, so I supplemented with formula. Because it seemed like the baby was going to starve if we didn’t. And now, he’s 95% breast fed. So I sort of worked it out by doing what was logical. But there does have to be a certain amount of just tuning out what different people want you to do.

Do Your Hormones Eat Your Rational Brain?

Maddie: Shifting to post-baby, one of the questions that really struck me in the comments of the open thread was whether or not you can avoid your own hormones? And this idea that there’s a lot of inevitability built into having a kid, in that you can say you’re not going to want to do X, or you can think you don’t want do Y, but once the baby’s there and your hormones kick in, it’s a whole new ballgame.

Meg: Sort of yes, sort of no. I think the way the narrative is built is really damaging. You’re not going to become a new person unless on some level you want to become a new person or are secretly hoping you’ll become a new person or are just really embracing that. So this whole idea that “You just don’t now, you just don’t know”—I think in the big picture I don’t know that that’s actually true. I knew I wanted to keep working, and people said “Oh you just don’t know, you just don’t know,” and, well, no. I know who I am, right, so I do want to keep working.

However, you don’t know what your hormones are going to do. But the idea that your hormones take over your rational brain is not true. I was not aware the I was physically going to go through withdrawal having the baby in daycare, I was going to be physically shaky at first because my hormones were at conflict with my rational mind. My rational mind wanted to be at work, but also my baby was happier in daycare, I was happier with him in daycare, but my hormones were telling me something else. So yes. In some ways you can’t avoid your hormones and they are super powerful, and they’re going to do what they are going to do, but your rational mind is still as much in play as ever.

Maddie: When it comes to a lot of the other stuff that I think people try to caution you about: the lack of sleep, how much attention they need, how many physical needs they have, I know a lot of people expressed concern over just being able to function as they know themselves in those early days and whether or not they could physically survive it.

Meg: [Laughing] Everyone has physically survived it since the dawn of time. Everyone has not physically survived childbirth, so without modern medicine, you should probably be worried. But everyone has physically survived having a tiny child. You’re going to totally physically survive it. David wanted me to tell you that it’s not so bad.

Maddie: Of course he did.

Meg: What former APW staff member Alyssa told me before I gave birth was that you can be tired, or tired and mad about it. Just choose tired. And that’s totally the case. You’re going to be tired. If you physically give birth to the child, your hormones are actually going to help you. I, in some ways, did a lot better than David did, because my hormones were there to help get me through the chopped up sleep. But at the end of the day, it’s not as bad as it’s sold, at all. There are still days where I’m exhausted. We’re still up and down all night, but good things are always hard, in my experience. But for me the good was so big, that the fact that it was hard just sort of made sense. I still actually really miss the newborn days. (And a lot of people don’t. Everyone experiences it really individually.) But I really miss that bubble of brand new person-ness. There was the whole lack of sleep that came with it, but it was this amazing sort of magical time.

Pretend Your Feet Are Broken

Maddie: How do you think the newborn phase would have been different if you hadn’t had the kind of self-employed schedule and flexibility that you have? Because I feel like a lot of our readers are probably in 9-5 jobs where they don’t have that kind of flexibility. Or can you even say? I just want to get at the bigger cultural thing of how we structure new parenthood.

Meg: Well, what I will say is I went into thinking “Oh the British are so lucky. They get a year off. The Canadians are so lucky. They get nine months off. I wish I had that option.” And I came out of it thinking [Breaks for popsicle. Gets brain freeze] I came out of it thinking “Thank God I’m not British because if I were British I would have felt huge pressure to stay home for a year.” I was really unhappy just being at home one on one with the baby at a certain point, after David went back to work. And he was really unhappy. The baby and I are both extroverts, we were both getting bored.

It would have been very different for me if David hadn’t been able to take off. David took advantage of California’s Family and Medical Leave Act that says that both parents are entitled to six weeks off paid at 55%. So we took full advantage of that. And because of life circumstances we ended up with seven weeks, so we were home together for seven weeks. And it would have been really different for me, and I think it would have really shaped our family differently over the long term if only I had been able to be home. And if we have another child, I think we’re going to work really hard to do the same thing where we both take time off.

But I ended up only really taking seven weeks. He started some daycare after seven weeks and I was working pretty heavily before that anyway. The one thing that would have really changed things is if I didn’t want to go back to my job. I have some friends who had kids around the same time as us, some of them didn’t like their jobs and didn’t go back to their jobs because they didn’t like their jobs. They sort of used this as a way to transition. So if I didn’t really like my job, I think it would have been a different situation.

Maddie: So, I want to talk about David. One, because I like him. And also because one of the most liked comments on the open thread was “How has your marriage changed since having a kid?” It got like 150 exactly’s or something crazy like that. So I think people are afraid that after having a kid that it’s all going to go to shit.

Meg: Ok, so there’s a couple of things I need to parse out. And the first one is your actual relationship. Our relationship got a lot stronger through the pregnancy, particularly because it was difficult. I’m really glad that happened, because there’s naturally going to be things that happen directly after the birth that put strain on your relationship, so it’s nice that it was built on an even firmer foundation than it was. I didn’t think it could have been on a firmer foundation, and then I got pregnant and things were difficult and it sort of strengthened infinitely.

The second thing is the way your relationship changes directly after the birth. Directly after the birth you’re thrown together in a super close way because you both have incredibly strong feelings for this brand new person that nobody else shares in the same way. And you’ve just gone through this enormous thing together, of child birth. You’re also working together on a project, for lack of a better term, so it really throws you together. But there is this element of just, on a pure sort of hormonal level, and a pure the-way-nature-designs-it, you’re both, I think, just sort of overwhelmed with this love for this new person, and I think there is probably almost always a period of time where that sort of takes primacy to your relationship. We’re still sort of in that period, but there is obviously going to be a time that our lives will sort of re-balance as we settle in, and as the baby becomes more a part of the family, and as the baby gets old enough to, you know, be a little shit. And then it’s going to re-balance again and it’s going to be fine. So having a baby changes your relationship in ways that I think are both profound and also temporary.

But the third thing that has to be parsed out is the gender dynamics. And we have found those to be terrifically difficult, and I think that most people probably find them to be terrifically difficult. There’s just the fundamental imbalance that if you are a woman and you give birth to a baby, you have more demands on you. You had demands all the way through the pregnancy, which are super challenging (let’s not kid ourselves, you’re the one who went through birth.) But then you’re very much recovering. I had surgery, I’d put on a lot of weight. I was really deep in the recovery for probably about ten weeks, because I had other medical stuff come up. And then you’re feeding, which early on is like half your life, and they’re supporting you through that. So there’s all these demands that are on you, that are not on them. Which means that you really need to have a fundamental foundation of equality before you go into it. The reason we have been as OK as we have been is going into it David already did all of the cooking, David already sort of took the lead on the cleaning, which is not gender usual, but maybe should be! Because what happened was, I was in physical pain and tied to the baby all of the time feeding, and he was able to make sure we were fed  and make sure the house was clean, and all of that. And had that been primarily my responsibility and I was trying to walk him through it, I think it would have been a complete physical disaster, and an emotional disaster.

And then the final piece is sort of the way the world views it. It got much harder for us when he went back to work, because there’s a work culture where men are expected to have less primary responsibility. I also have a flexible job, but I think even if I did not have a flexible job, this would happen—because there’s this assumption that the woman’s job is always going to be more flexible. So, if the baby needs to be picked up from daycare, he finds it really hard to say, “I need to leave early because the kid needs to be picked up from daycare.” If he were a woman, then the reaction would be, like, “Well, of course, daycare is going to close. You gotta get the kid.” But because he’s not a woman, there’s sort of this unspoken assumption that, well, your wife can get the kid, are you slacking if you leave? So those outside pressures are what makes it really difficult, and then leads to changes in internal behavior, where the male partner can really start to act like, “Well, I’m just helping out. I just want to do what I need to help you. I just want to support you.” Which then ends up feeling like, “Why are you helping me? Shouldn’t you be in a primary role as well?” So, balancing outside pressures can be really difficult as well.

Maddie: Because now that we’re talking about it, that’s kind of my biggest fear. I mean, Michael and I have a good partnership, but there’s still stuff that we’re working out regarding equality and I find that the hard part is this idea of “You’re just better at it,” and that’s still stuff we struggle with, like, “Can you make that appointment for me? You’re just better at it.” And I’m curious if that’s something you have to actively fight?

Meg: Luckily for me, David is just better it.

Maddie: David’s just a special guy. Can I make a disclaimer on the post that says David is very special?

Meg: [Laughing] David’s just better at a lot of crap than I am. So that helps. I’m genuinely not better at a lot of that stuff. He had to step up also in pregnancy in a lot of ways that I think really benefited us later on, because I was incapacitated in a way that I just couldn’t make appointments, I just couldn’t take care of things for myself. And if you have a less bad pregnancy, you might be incapacitated to a lesser extent, but you’re always going to be somewhat physically incapacitated. Which was good practice, because it was like, when you’re hugely pregnant, if your partner is like, “You’re just better at making appointments,” you’re going to be like, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

Maddie: Well that’s my fear is that, I know I trust Michael. I know that Michael would step up. But there’s this tiny voice in the back of my head that’s like, “What if I don’t have the kind of husband that can step up when I need it?”

Meg: Start practicing. Incapacitate yourself one day a week. Pretend your feet are broken.

Shower Strikes and The Walking Dead

Maddie: Ok, so I’m curious. Because I look at your relationship and it’s all fine and dandy, but I want to know, you know, are things getting done? Are the dishes getting done? Is dinner being made? Or have you had to make allowances for yourselves? Have things gotten more permissive?

Meg: Yeah, I mean, things have gotten… I wouldn’t say more permissive, but yeah we order in more than we did. In some ways, I feel like one of the reasons I’ve really taken to motherhood is I’m sort of a constant motion kind of person, I function best in constant motion. And it used to be that nights and weekends were not constant motion times. And I get a little glum if I don’t have things to do. And I’m always doing something now. I’m cleaning the floor, or making sure the laundry is folded, or unloading the dishwasher or whatever. And not in a gendered way, just in a “there’s a lot of shit that needs to get done” way. And for me, that has been very good, and I’ve sort of taken to it.

But I would say the sort of changes have been a lot less dramatic than you’re led to believe. There’s never been a day since I gave birth, including the day after I gave birth, where I did not shower. David was in there with me in the shower in the hospital room because I couldn’t stand on my own and there was blood everywhere, but I was like, “I’m going to take a goddamn shower.” Our house was very, very clean when we had a newborn, because it was a priority for me to feel like there was normalcy and feel like I was not living in a house that had just gone to chaos and there was baby stuff everywhere. There is still not baby stuff everywhere. I never wore sweatpants, I wore yoga pants.

Maddie: You’re making me feel terrible by the way. I didn’t shower today and I spent half of my morning in sweatpants. Thanks.

Meg: But my point is that I think everybody prioritizes different things, but for me, going into it, having a neat house and showering were super important so those happened. But I’m sure there are other things that you would prioritize that didn’t even occur to me, that didn’t happen.

Maddie: Like Dance Moms.

Meg: Like Dance Moms. I actually did watch a fair amount of bad TV. Weirdly, we also have managed—we are up-to-date on Girls. We are up to date on Project Runway.

Maddie: And the baby is up-to-date on The Walking Dead.

Meg: The baby is up-to-date on The Walking Dead! But what people didn’t tell me is that whatever is really important to you you will mostly be able to prioritize (in most situations, obviously there are exceptions and extreme situations that require more of your attention.) We did not have everything fall our way. We had a baby that was in NICU, and there were other problems, but we were able to prioritize what was  important to us. So I think that people really are going to be able to prioritize what’s important to them. Even if it’s not showering.

Maddie: And I do prioritize… not showering. I did do my hair though.

Meg: See! I didn’t do my hair! That is it. I did not do my hair. You could probably get your hair done every single day after having a baby in a non-extreme situation.

Maddie: I feel much better now.

Meg: But you would not shower.

Maddie: No, I would have my hair and eyebrows done, but I’ll probably be sitting around in sweatpants not showering.

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