Picture this: you’ve been enduring, for the greater part of 24 hours, the rollercoaster of labor, and your precious new offspring is emerging. This is the moment you’ve waited nearly 10 months for! There’s a ring of fire, and with a final push, he’s here! He takes in his first breath of air, and the sight of him takes your breath away. Silent, grateful tears stream down your cheeks, while a tearless cry sounds out from his tiny, powerful lungs. Then, a person — staff, maybe, but who knows — startled by your baby’s cry, walks past you, takes a split second glance at your cradled product of love, and dismisses, “Oh, it’s just another baby.”
Hopefully, that story will never be true. If it ever does happen, and if it happens to you, I hope your elation with your little creation will cause you to have deaf ears to the words of the careless stranger.
However, this is my fair warning, whether or not that specific instance happens: you will be confronted with bizzare and rude reactions. I believe this is in part due to a culture that is decreasingly child-centric, and in part due to some wider toxicity in our culture.
For instance, the cries for mandatory, paid parental leave — and maternity leave in particular — can only stem from a culture that de-prioritizes the mother-baby dyad to begin with. Although I haven’t found historical data for mothers’ workforce participation that includes the age of the youngest child, my inclination is to believe that in the valuable early months and years of a baby’s life, families (and their employers) historically found a way for the moms to be present. Even slaves were given a month off (which, horrific as I find that to be, is more time than many American moms take off today). After the first postpartum month, slave mothers carried their babies with them to work, so the dyad was preserved. And while women have had to work in some fashion as far back as Adam and Eve, you could still count on around half of U.S. mothers staying at home — within the reach or earshot of their needy children — as recently as the 1960s. I’m not necessarily trying to discourage the well-intentioned efforts of those who are pushing for more family leave by typing all of this; I merely think it’s ironic that people of an earlier era prioritized the postpartum season more, without any political calls to action.
What adds to the irony (or maybe what explains it) is that in the 1960’s and earlier times, the birth rate was far higher than today. You might think that as precious few children as women bear in our country today, that our prioritization of these few would be higher than those children born in our more fertile past. However, I wouldn’t expect much sympathy for your parenting troubles, or joys, today. There are simply fewer mother-child dyads who can relate to you.
Here’s a bizarre story from my friend Erin, who mothers 5 children. “I was at the grocery store and this woman comes up to me and says, ‘Those aren’t all your children are they?’” Erin corrected the woman, telling her that they were all hers. “Well you must really love kids I guess,” the woman replied, puzzled. Erin, dumbstruck, couldn’t figure out if she should say, “yes I do,” or “I suppose you don’t really love kids?”
Although Erin’s children definitely outnumber my own, I’ve had numerous similar experiences. I can’t count the number of times strangers felt compelled to speak to me these words: “you have your hands full.” “Well, you have your hands empty, loser,” is what I always feel like saying to the person who apparently is bored in life, has an overinflated view of how much I care about their opinion, and either had 24/7 hired help to manage their own children, or didn’t procreate at all.
The reason I don’t act on my feelings by giving oration to those thoughts is because I recognize that such judgmental and cruel words, even if true, could be poisonous. I don’t believe in fighting poison with poison. I’d rather just model dignity to my children. Also, I’ve been able to bury most of these memories in the past now that my husband and I have found ways to avoid bringing our kids in public to begin with (“Praise!” says the lady who interrupted Erin’s grocery errand).
All of this brings me to the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2018 Word of the Year: toxic. In OED’s explanation for their choice, material as well as political and cultural references abound, but none speak specifically to a toxic culture towards childrearing, or towards merely being a human. Perhaps (and I hope, sadly) I’m only noting this broader toxicity in our culture because I am only living in the isolation of my particularly toxic region.
This is where I’m about to make myself vulnerable, because it’s within the realm of possibility that other women are having entirely different, more positive experiences than I am here…. I know that in south Florida, we have a large retiree population (out of touch with kids?), and we are geographically out of the Bible belt (not that I’m trying to be a real missionary). I don’t know how to verbally communicate with a third of the population here, and if I travel down the road just a little bit south, that statistic gets far worse. If I try to go on a walk or a run around my neighborhood, my “good mornings” and “hi’s” are rebuffed on average about half the time, maybe more. The same goes for my salutations given to pedestrians on my sidewalk as I garden in the front yard or read to my kids on the porch swing. I don’t want to confess that this is really demoralizing to me, but honestly, it puts me into Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody!” poem every single time. However, I worry that by turning off my friendliness and becoming numb to fellow pedestrians and neighbors, my children, too, will become hard hearted. If I try to instead make a life on social media, I still feel dumpy about the world, and worse, withdrawn from the people who are tangible in my real life (and I know I’m not alone in this feeling). If, though, I immerse myself in many of the real life opportunities not far from me — women’s organizations and even Bible studies — I feel I can never be vain or affluent enough to belong here. If it weren’t for the traumatic experience I had with my neighbors trying to arrange a neighborhood Tinkergarten meeting in our park a couple years ago (don’t ask about it), I would put out there a proposal for a “greasy-haired, no-make-up, spit-up-on-your-shirt, parent’s coffee club, in which you’re only allowed to host if your house is a mess and you only got one leg shaved this week.” Just so I belong somewhere.
I’m not this bitter or pessimistic of a person, as a general rule. Fortunately, we’ve derived ways to detox ourselves of this culture, even if we have to do it by our lonely selves typically. I’m praying, reading, and continually learning something new (currently, Physics II). We escape to nature at least once a week, and that always has a cheerful impact.
If you’re also feeling like one of Dickinson’s nobodies, I’d love for you to join me on some of these nature outings! I can promise you, too, that when I see that sweet baby of yours, I’m going to want to adore his little face and toes and learn his name — and I’ll want to learn yours, too! Maybe some years from now, OED’s word of the year will be something entirely different. Spunky? Congenial? Hopeful? What do you think?