Friday, June 20, 2014

Not all on our own

Reading this excellent post made me think about many things. In essence I agree; Me Time is often over-emphasized, over-rated and, worst of all, over-indulged, as in the notion that you are allowed to do almost anything that will make you "happy" or more comfortable. 

However, it is true that motherhood can be draining. It is a joy, it is the greatest project of my life, but it is also hard, hard work 24/7. I will even venture to say that so far, things haven't even really become easier as the children grow. The challenges are simply different. Sure, I get more sleep now than I did when I had newborns, and my day is more orderly, but frankly, breastfeeding and changing diapers was more... straightforward than handling some of the behavioral problems and educational choices we are facing now. 

Before we reminisce about how our great-grandmothers did it all on their own and didn't ask for any help or time off, I would like to step in and say I don't believe it was the case at all. Childcare wasn't the exclusive task of the mother. Our great-grandmothers lived in a much more supportive community, and often close to family who could offer some help. A woman of that time could, perhaps, see her mother on a daily basis; or perhaps she lived near her sister, who had children of the same age, and each of them could take a turn watching the little ones. Or if there was no family nearby, neighbors would often step into its place. I'm not saying it always happened, but it was common.

When my children were toddlers, I had basically two choices: either I stay home with them all day, every day, no breaks (my husband worked long hours) - or I put them in daycare and I'm away from them all day, every day. But I didn't want or need to be away from my children all day; I only needed an occasional break to refresh me and provide some variety. 

In the past, it was common to let young children play outside and explore on their own - such young children that today it would be considered criminal neglect. The outdoors were safer, and there was almost always some responsible adult outside at every hour of the day. This is actually the case where we live now. I can let my daughters (now 5 and 3 years old) walk to the playground on their own, or take a peek around and see which of their friends are at home, or go and visit their aunt and cousins. Everybody does that with children of a similar age, and they are always at least within hearing distance of an adult. People visit each other often. Women with new babies get meals delivered to their homes. There is no feeling of every household being a little island of its own. 

My great-grandmother used to have a maid. Not a live-in maid, but someone who came on a regular basis and helped around the house. You will say, "it may be so, but she didn't have a washing machine." That is true - however, according to my Grandma, the children wore the same clothes all week and only got clean ones for Shabbat. You can imagine how those clothes looked at the end of the week (there were five boys in that family!). Can you imagine not giving your child fresh clothes to wear every day, perhaps more than once a day? If my daughters get a little stain or spill on their clothes - and it happens often, as you can imagine - they start to wail and beg for a change, and sometimes I have to put my foot down, especially if it happens an hour before bath-time. 

So what is my point? Feeling tired and drained is bad enough. Feeling guilty because you are tired and drained and you don't think you are supposed to feel this way is far, far worse. It is perfectly normal to want to feel refreshed and rejuvenated by doing something different. This doesn't always have to involve spending time away from your family - I have learned to say yes to my husband's offers of little escapades in the middle of the week, even if there are dishes piled up in the sink. 

I have learned to put my feet up in the middle of the day for a short while, and to lock the bedroom door and say, "Mommy is resting". Usually this means only a few minutes of lying down, with or without a book, but sometimes I manage to steal a cat nap. 

I have also learned to enjoy my children more, and to participate in their fun activities rather than frantically say, "oh, good, they are occupied. Now let's proceed to the next thing on the to-do list." 

I know there are Moms out there who are struggling; who live far away from any family, and in places where it is uncommon to rely on friends or neighbors. Who spend all day, every day with their children and are so exhausted that a day in the office may seem like heaven sometimes. What I would like to say that it is normal to feel tired. It is normal to want help. And if you live in the way many live these days - a relatively isolated nuclear family - your best and only source of help will probably be your husband. 

Before you feel guilty ("he has been working all day!"), remember that a break can mean not only putting your feet up, but also simply doing something different from what you did all day. I used to be all of a "no, no, let me, I'll do everything" person. But then I realized that after my husband comes home, or on weekends - after he has had time to eat and rest, and do some of his own stuff, of course - he is perfectly happy to take charge of some childcare and household tasks, and doesn't see that as a burden. There is a novelty in that to him, because it's a change from what he has been doing all day and all week. 

Would you go into the kitchen late in the evening and start cooking? I wouldn't, because by late evening I have seen enough of the kitchen for the day. But my husband is often inspired to cook or bake after he has come home from work, or on Fridays. For him, it's recreation, not a chore. Also, often I'll have tired, squabbling kids in the evening, but the moment there's a knock on the door, they run swift as the wind to open and are so good and happy when they are around their father. Why? Because we all benefit from a change. The children, too. 

I realize there are also single mothers (and often not by choice) out there. My heart truly goes out to them and I hope they, too, find the right healing balance for themselves and their children. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Waiting for the perfect moment: part 2

Life is so busy these days that it barely allows me time to breathe, let alone blog, yet for some days now I've wanted to write an addition to my previous post

The indecisiveness, the going back and forth and back and forth that is so common these days, does not only apply to getting married. For many young people, it's the same with the choice of a profession. I know so many people who started to study something, spent a year or two at it, only to drop it and flit on to something else. There are also people who spend years upon years without even trying to figure out what they want to do with their life. I'll take this opportunity to say I am not judging individuals; I am observing social trends. 

The same attitude is prevalent regarding motherhood. "You must be completely prepared"; "you must have your life at perfect order"; "this isn't a decision you should rush into" - and perhaps you should not, but the fact is that today, many women only start trying for a baby after their peak of fertility has passed. Thus, we have an ironic situation when millions of women spend the best part of their fertile window running in panic from the possibility of having a baby, and in later years frantically try to reclaim their chance at motherhood. 

Of course there are some basic requirements to parenthood, such as being married adults and not living under a bridge. But to say that you must have so-and-so in savings, because it takes so-and-so to raise a child (usually people come up with some ridiculous amount of money), or that you must "give your marriage a few years to build it up" - and if you don't do that, you are irresponsible - well, to be very blunt, I don't buy it.

Our first child was a honeymoon baby. I was 23 when I became a mother. Was I "prepared"? No; I most definitely was not. I spent most of my pregnancy wondering, "what am I going to do with a baby?", and then I was overwhelmed. By love, but also by all the demands of motherhood, by the sheer amount of work, and by how much my life changed all at once. There was no trial period, no soft initiation. I was kicked head-first into Mommy Boot Camp. 

But guess what? I am beyond sure I would have felt exactly the same way if I had had my first child at 33. There are just some things you can't prepare for theoretically. You have to dive in and experience them. 

Our second child, too, wasn't conceived at exactly the "right" moment. For one, I didn't count on such a small age gap. I didn't feel prepared; I needed more time. Then, my husband was unemployed. Money was tight. Tension was running high. Not a great time to have a baby, right? However, everything worked out just fine. My husband found a job and, though having two under two was taxing at the time, now I love having two children close in age who do everything together. 

Should we have waited until our marriage was "established" before having children? That is to say, should we have waited to see whether we haven't made a mistake, with the option of a polite goodbye hovering always in the air? Some would say so. Not long ago, I read an article by someone who suggested that the first year of marriage should be a "trial period", during which birth control must be used - and if the marriage doesn't work for some reason, well, that's goodbye then and no harm done. The article was written by a woman who claims to be Orthodox. I cringed while reading it. Marriage means commitment; lifelong commitment - not a year after the wedding, but at the moment the husband and wife are joined together. You want insurance? Sorry, you can't have it. That's life. You dive in and make the best of what you have.

I don't think being married for a long time before having a baby would have made any difference. There was a certain status quo between us, as a couple with no children yet, which would have remained, I think, much the same - regardless of whether we had just one year to ourselves, or five years. This status quo was shaken when our daughter was born; we had to re-adjust, and along the way found completely new aspects to each other. Seeing my husband as a father contributed a new, deep, and very important layer of my getting to know him. It was a turbulent time for both of us, but waiting wouldn't have changed that. It would only have postponed what had to happen anyway. 

We are still relatively young, but already I look back on some things we have done - how we scrubbed down the hideously dirty place we lived in for the first 6 months of our marriage; us sleeping on air mattresses all that time; me packing like crazy while being pregnant, preparing for our next house move; it was hard, but we brimmed with confidence. I see young people taking such enormous projects upon themselves - they travel around the world, build houses with their own hands, get married, have children - and all of it without doubting their decisions or their chances every step of the way. Youth has confidence; you'd say it can be a pitfall, but it can be a strength too. New undertakings are harder as we get older. Precisely because we are wiser and know all the many things that could go wrong. But that knowledge doesn't strengthen us, it only makes us more vulnerable because of doubts and fears that don't do much to improve our actual situation.

During my first pregnancy, I was in truth a little ignorant about the many things that could go wrong. I had very vague knowledge about things like breech presentation or postpartum hemorrhage. I just figured that as I'm young and healthy, and am doing all the routine tests, and as I'm going to deliver in a safe place with all the necessary help available, all should be fine. And it was. Since then, I've had a lot of time to educate myself. I know more now, but did it make me healthier? Safer? No; it only made me more fearful. 

There really is no such thing as exactly the right time, or being perfectly prepared. All we can do is live life to the best of our ability, and hope for a good outcome. The rest, hopefully, will work out. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Waiting for the perfect moment

I came across this spot-on article today. Do you know what it's like when you've been thinking something for a long time, and then you read somebody else's very accurate summary of exactly what you meant to say? Well, that's what I felt as I was reading. I wish each and every one of my single friends could read what this man writes.

There can be, and are, many arguments to justify the trend of late singleness. "We are all individuals and cannot be shaped into one mold"; "early marriage is not for everybody"; "we need to mature as individuals"; "G-d has a special plan for each and every one of us" - all of which is true, but still there is no denying that people today are getting married far later than 25 years ago, or that extended singleness comes with a heavy price. 

One tendency I noticed people have is to wait until everything falls into place. Until we get the job of our dreams, or we are done with our exams, or life is less busy. This isn't only true about meeting people or getting married, by the way. Things are much the same with having a child or starting a big important project. We tend to delay until circumstances are "perfect"... and then (hopefully) one day we realize that time is slipping by and we plunge in and do what must be done... in still-imperfect circumstances. So what have we gained by waiting?

My husband and I got married just four months after our first date. We were planning a wedding as I was struggling to complete my hospital internship. Was it a perfect time? No. But we could have continued seeing each other for a year and it still wouldn't be a perfect time, because no doubt something else would come up to make life busy and stressful.

Did I get the perfect husband? Did he get the perfect wife? Did we even know each other very well before getting married? No; not in the sense we got to know each other later, living through ups and downs, having children, moving from house to house, facing periods of unemployment... we could have dated for years and it still wouldn't be like getting to know each other in the course of marriage, after commitment had been made. Of course there are some red flags you can see while you are dating a person, but in my opinion the excessively prolonged dating period which is now so common, or the custom of living together before marriage, are no guarantee of happiness or divorce-proof a subsequent marriage. Quite the contrary - such practices only reinforce fear of commitment and set us up for failure.

Not long ago I've read an article by one quite well-known rabbi (unfortunately, his name eludes me right now), directed at young men. He wrote that, though there have of course been very great and holy men who had married late, his general advice is to lower our financial expectations and get married young. Why? According to him, "youth has both excitement and confidence, which are good for starting and building a marriage. A young man is more likely to approve of a young woman he meets, without focusing on blemishes [both physical and spiritual]. He is less likely to fear failure, or to wonder whether he is mistaken in his choice. As people grow old, all of this becomes more difficult."

What does he mean? As we get older, we become more set in our ways, more critical, more skeptical, more cautious and less flexible. When a man gets older, he is more likely to marry an older woman as well. By this time, he has his own baggage and she has hers. Our fears and doubts are not overcome as we age, because nobody can promise us everything will work out well, no matter how well-prepared we are. In addition, the pool of singles has somewhat thinned out by a certain time, which creates further difficulty. 

What about this nagging "am I making the right choice?" - well, if you are reasonably compatible, and reasonably attracted to one another (you don't necessarily need butterflies in your stomach, but of course it won't do if you are physically repulsed), it is perfectly alright to proceed in good faith. There are many, many stories of good marriages which started very prosaically as good friendships; and also stories of great love that was gone very soon despite the two lovers feeling certain, at one point, that they were soul mates. 

You can be wise, you can be cautious, you can be prepared. But ultimately, getting married means taking a plunge. Of course, once you are married, it doesn't mean that your fate is sealed. You have a very large measure of control over whether your marriage will be a good one or not. But that is probably a subject for some other day.