Dear Care and Feeding,
I am finding it hard not to resent my husband for being able to return to normal life after the birth of our child. Don’t get me wrong, he is very active and present in our child’s life. We have a happy 4-month-old, and he is always playing with him, holding him, caring for him etc.; he’s definitely pulling his own weight where the baby is concerned. He also works full time from home, so I am happy to care for the baby while he earns money.
I think, though, that I’m realizing the massive gulf between being a primary and secondary parent. I regularly have to hold our child while going to the toilet when nobody else is around. My idea of socializing is having someone come over to hold the baby while I fold laundry. If I want to have time away from my son, I need to decide at least 24 hours before, pump milk, find a suitable babysitter and then pump while I’m out. He can just… leave and know I’m here. He’s been able to go to birthday parties, to the gym, for walks on his own, just because he wants to. And while I’m happy for him to do things that make him happy, I also resent that freedom.
Whenever I try to think of a practical change my husband could make to support me, I can never think of anything. He’s so good at responding when I ask for help. I just want to stop feeling resentful all the time. Is how I’m feeling just a normal stage of motherhood?
— Missing Spontaneity
You’re correct about the massive gulf, and your feelings are not only valid, but probably familiar to many readers (and to myself). I will start by telling you that it does get easier with each milestone of independence. Once you are no longer breastfeeding and/or pumping, leaving the baby is less of a gamble. Once he is potty trained you can ditch the cumbersome diaper bag. And so on. Some families handle these early infant days more equitably than others (or they have hired help to get them through it), but yes, in my experience this is a normal stage of motherhood for many mothers. It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, because you feel tethered to the baby, and even tethered to the house.
The most important thing you can do is talk to your husband about how you’re feeling. Loss of independence is a really big adjustment for new moms, but its impact isn’t tangible and easy to see to our partners and friends. I can recall a conversation when my first son was a baby, and I asked my husband if he minded if I went over to HomeGoods or something; he looked at me like I was a crazy person when I profusely thanked him for the opportunity. I’m sure he was completely baffled by why I was so grateful to go to the store—but of course, the trip wasn’t about the destination, it was about the ability to spontaneously leave with only my wallet and keys in hand. I swear I have never felt such freedom before or since. The conversation with your husband doesn’t have to put any blame on him or ask him for any alterations of his behavior; it’s just helpful to know that, even if you can’t change certain things, someone is at least listening to you.
But is there anything you can change? Yes. Remember that it will be incremental at first. That’s OK though, because you’ll be creating habits that you can build on as your baby grows up. First, when you, your husband and baby are all in the same room, get up and leave. I don’t care what you do—pluck your eyebrows, make a coffee, pull some weeds, hide in the bathroom. You’re training yourself and your husband that parenting duties can trade off. He’ll get more solo time and practice with the baby, and you’ll get a few minutes where you can remember what it is like to be an independent human being.
The other idea is to establish a night or two where he’s the primary parent. You can do something social, or go out and run errands, or just sit around the house knowing that you don’t have to be keyed in to hear baby’s cries. This isn’t about dad “babysitting” (a phrase and concept that I know enrages many of us on principle) but rather just about recreating that sense of independence that is no longer always available to you.
Finally, you say your husband is a great helper, which is awesome. You may find, with time, that you get tired of feeling like you have to ask for help. I don’t know what the chore breakdown is in your home, or how involved your husband is in making/attending doctors appointments, beginning new milestones (like solid food), switching out the clothing sizes, and other baby-related tasks, but many women come to find a few years down the road that they got into the habit of doing all the “kid stuff” and most of the “house stuff” simply because birth and breastfeeding (and maternity leave) put them in the primary parent role from the start and they never left it. If you think that might be you in a few years, I strongly suggest doing what you can to curb those habits now. My friend really enjoyed the book Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live) by Eve Rodsky. It might give you some ideas for ways you and your husband can ensure equitable participation in both your home and parenting responsibilities.
Catch Up on Care and Feeding
Dear Care and Feeding,
I very recently put the clues together that my first-grade daughter has face blindness, or prosopagnosia. The evidence is overwhelming. She can’t recognize people by their faces, which all look basically the same to her. I’m tempted to go talk to her class, even though the year is almost over. My daughter was really excited at the idea of asking her classmates to say, “Hi, it’s me, so-and-so” when they want to engage with her at recess, and to understand that if they wave to her this summer and she doesn’t react, it’s not that she’s rude or doesn’t remember them, she just can’t recognize them confidently until they say their name.
I think I’ve put together a good, short, interactive, age-appropriate lesson. I’m sure her teacher would let me do it. I’d run the whole lesson by my daughter to make sure she feels good about it. But my fear is that she might someday regret that everyone knows this thing about her, and she might wish she’d kept it quiet. It feels like a big decision to “out” her on this, as a 6-year-old can’t really think through all the possible consequences. (I mean, neither can I, really.) But asking her classmates to identify themselves feels like an easy accommodation which could improve her social experience a lot. What would you do if you were me?
— To Tell or Not to Tell
If it were me, and my daughter was amenable to it, and if the teacher was open to it (better yet if she agreed it was needed in your daughter’s case), I would do the lesson/ask the kids for the accommodation. There are so many things in elementary school that happen to a kid that their peers remember/focus on (good, bad, and neutral) that copping to having a disability feels like a relatively low-risk move. Especially considering that it’s a condition that could cause a lot of social misunderstanding or even bullying from ignorant kids. Doing the lesson gives your daughter the ability to ask for what she needs (which friends should be willing to give) and provides the kids a chance to do right by her and hopefully be her advocate if some kid on the playground tries to stir anything up. It also might help your daughter acclimate to asking this accommodation of others as she grows and gains more independence in the world. So those are the potential benefits. The risks are that she later resents the violation of her privacy (and there is no way to know if that will come to bother her) or that she will get teased or ostracized by her peers. The thing is, her disability makes that latter point a risk whether you do the lesson or not, which sort of renders the concern moot in your decision.
Other neurodiverse kids don’t often have the luxury of keeping their disability a secret, and due to the push in many school districts towards integrated classrooms, disabilities are simply more visible to kids than they were when I was growing up. I don’t know where you live, but in the youth programs I run, and from what I can see of my son’s elementary school experience, there’s a lot more emphasis placed on accepting and celebrating differences. To me, it feels like the possible payoffs of teaching “the world” how to interact with your child outstrip the risks associated with it.
I do want to encourage you, if you haven’t already and if you are able, to seek the counsel of a physician who can explore an official diagnosis and then guide you and your daughter toward additional resources or strategies to use as she grows. If she truly has this condition, it will likely be with her for her whole life, so establishing care and counsel from the start will be important.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m not a parent, but would love to get the perspective of someone who is. I run a community garden in a suburban area outside of a major city. Local individuals and families get plots that they can use how they please, with a few exceptions. A new family with young children recently acquired a plot and a conflict has arisen. Another plot in the garden features mainly lavender and other pollinator friendly plants, to help support bees. The parents in this family have been complaining about this plot, saying they are worried about their children being stung by the bees, which often has several buzzing around that plot. I explained to them that this plot is well within our rules and the woman responsible for it is a longtime member of the community garden. They claimed I was making the garden an “unsafe and hostile place for kids” and have even taken to complaining on Nextdoor! As someone who isn’t a parent, am I being unreasonable to their concerns? This has never come up with other families who use the garden.
— Uncertain Gardener
Nope, you are not unreasonable. I’m a conservation educator, so it’s taking a bit of restraint on my part not embark on a lecture here about the value of bees (who are, quite simply, essential to agriculture and planetary health). But also, just speaking logically, bee-friendly gardening is almost ubiquitous in private gardens, schools, park districts and even urban planning initiatives. Lots of people are cultivating exactly the kinds of plots that appear in your garden.
To offer an olive branch to this family, though, it’s very possible that these parents are “indoor folks” who have read the books about how lack of time in nature is incredibly detrimental to children’s well-being and are attempting to change their habits to give their kids more exposure to the outdoors, which is great. But it’s not uncommon in these situations for nature-newbie parents to find that prospect rather daunting in practice, especially from a safety perspective. Nature has stinging insects, yes, and also poison ivy, snakes, tree roots for tripping, bacteria, and more. When you don’t know how to co-exist with these threats, the instinct for some folks is to just remove them completely. Unfortunately, that’s precisely how we got into the trouble we are in now – with kids spending their outdoor time in structured sports and on playgrounds instead of in the woods and creeks of decades past.
So, a kind but firm approach is called for here, and I suspect it’s one you are already deploying. It is not uncommon to find people who have bee phobias, but that is not a reason to change the contents of someone else’s garden plot. You can offer to move the plots to be furthest from each other (understandably that might need to wait for the next growing season), or offer a refund on their plot if there is perhaps a severe bee sting allergy that is making them feel unsafe. You might even think about hosting some bee-friendly public education events, though it seems questionable whether this family will attend. Bottom line, you are not the unreasonable party in this situation.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have two kids, 15 and 13 years old. I love them both dearly and they’re pretty awesome, but I am not a great mom. I try my hardest to do the right thing, but I seem to be in a constant state of screwing up. I kind of low-key ruin everything by saying the wrong thing or misreading a situation. I don’t think I am mean or cruel; unintentionally thoughtless might be the best descriptor.
Part of the reason is that I was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult and am still struggling with timing—particularly the timing of big conversations. Part of it is that I’m terribly introverted and the rest of my family (husband included) are wholly extroverted. I do better at expressing myself in emails instead of conversations because it gives me time to think of what I really want to say rather than deer-in-headlights thinking on my feet (which I am working on, but it’s hard!). Mostly, I just feel like if you tell me something, especially something big, I need about 30-45 minutes to process it before I can respond. And COVID has only made this worse.
I want my kids to feel like they can come and talk to me about anything, or ask for help, but I dread it because I know that whatever I say will be wrong and it will push them away.
Will this be enough for them? Will I be enough do you think? I’m so mad at myself for failing at this!
— Not the Greatest Mom, Sorry
Dear Not the Greatest,
About an hour ago, I had to reprimand both my sons for each making a mistake that got one of them hurt. When consoling my oldest (who had a lot of guilt over what happened) I reminded him that even grownups make mistakes, and I rattled off several things I’d messed up at home and work that day. I think he felt better, but who knows, maybe I bored him.
My point is, all of us are screwing something up. I’m not in your household so I have to take your word for it as to how frequent and how often your screw-ups are, but I try to look at my days or weeks on the whole: I think about all the times I was a great mom, all the times I was a good-enough mom, and then all the times I messed up. If I can say I have more tallies in the great and good-enough columns than the crappy mom column, I can rest easy. And the fact that you’re writing in about all of this tells me you earnestly care about being a good mom, and that is such a big part of the equation.
I don’t have teenagers yet, so this might or might not work depending on their dynamic and their relationship with you. But it seems to me that by sharing some of these sentiments with them, you might be offering your kids an important learning moment in terms of respecting how others move in this world. I think you do yourself and them a favor if you advocate for yourself in these situations. “I hear what you are saying, and I appreciate you telling me. I want to give you a thoughtful response, but you know I’m not great on-the-spot. Let me go think about this for half an hour and then come back and discuss with you. Does that sound OK?” Managers (at least good managers) deploy this tactic in the workplace when delivering bad news to employees – allowing the employee to leave the room to process the information and come back later to ask their questions or offer their counterpoints. It is frankly not uncommon for people to be bad at big conversations on the spur of the moment. The sooner your extroverted kids can learn that, the more empathy they’ll deploy as adults out in the world. You, and other parents of teenagers out there, might be thinking “that will never work,” which might be true. However, I remember a lot of lessons that my parents taught me in middle school that I wasn’t interested in at the time, but that have stuck with me now. So, while it might not functionally change how they relate to you in the moment, reader, I think the transparency and vulnerability now can make a difference in the long run.
The last thing I will say is not to be too hard on yourself. Many households have one parent who is better at “the big stuff” than the other, and kids grow up just fine. Is this an area your partner is better at? If so, let him be better. Again, I hate to pull from management practices here, but Gallup has an assement tool called Strengths Finder that I’ve used a lot at work. It’s an online quiz (and a book) that helps you determine your strongest, middling, and weakest talents in the workplace. The creators make a point of encouraging you not to immediately work on your weaknesses, but instead to first double down on your strengths, and then to work on your middling skills to bring them up. The idea is that if something is a weakness for you, it will never become a true strength; it might just become “less bad.” Conversely, middling skills can be come strengths, and strengths can become super strengths, which can ultimately help the organization far more in the long run. It might behoove you to consider what your parenting strengths are and how you can deploy them to the best of your ability. None of us parents do everything perfectly, but I promise you, in answer to your final questions, you are enough.