I just spent the afternoon listening to the legendary author and feminist Gloria Steinem. Among the topics she addressed was the issue of democratic heterosexual households. She argued that society has convinced us there are “male” qualities and “female” qualities. However, when we realize that the “qualities necessary to raise children – patience, nurturing, attention to detail, empathy” – are HUMAN qualities, we’ll have taken the first step towards a democratic household.
Why don’t many men readily display these qualities? She argues that it’s because they haven’t been given the opportunity to raise children. Which brings me to my story.
My husband and I have what you’d call traditional gender roles. He works outside the home; I work within it. When we’re together on the weekends, I’m still on the clock: making the food, holding the limits, and managing the logistics, as I do during the week. This is both convenient and devaluing to my husband.
I recently decided to step away from my home for 12 hours every Sunday, leaving my husband 100% in charge of the home, the children, and the schedule. I’m launching a couple of projects and wanted time to work on them, but I also knew that I needed to give my kids and husband space to build their own relationship.
Is my husband thrilled about it? The jury’s still out. Is my absence pushing him out of his comfort zone and allowing him to become more organized, patient, and empathetic? Yes. Is he rocking it in his own way? Absolutely.
Switching roles one day a week is helping both of us cultivate qualities that have lain dormant for a long time – qualities that make us more human, more whole. And this is slowly but surely leading to a more equal partnership.
The road to true equality is long, rocky, and treacherous. The archaic claws of tradition and enculturation threaten to pull us back at every turn. But I’m strengthened by the words of Gloria Steinem, who reminds us that “women are not going to be equal outside the home until men are equal inside it.”
An American friend and colleague who lives in Asia recently shared with me that her in-laws had moved out of her house. They had been very involved in raising her children, so I asked if she missed having the help. She texted back, “No. I’m forced to be the mom and it’s what my kids want and what family is supposed to be.”
As I sat staring at her words on my screen, the last seven years of my life – my entire parenthood journey – flashed before my eyes. I remembered how both times I had a baby I told myself that I’d stay home with them until they were three. And how, by the time they were each 15 months old, I was desperate to find a job – any job – that would transport me away from the solitude, burden, and relentlessness of motherhood.
Though I enjoyed my teaching job, it was also a band-aid that covered up the rawness of parenting and kept its suffocating weight at bay for ten hours a day. Yes, as a teacher I was still working with children. But, they were other people’s children, not my own. The responsibility for my students’ outcome didn’t rest solely on my shoulders.
Ironically, my hyper-focus on work ended up dragging me, kicking and screaming, back to stay-at-home motherhood. The burden of a more-than-full-time job dictated the rhythm of my children’s days. My night-owl son struggled mightily with 6am wake-ups, and spent the day being angry and uncooperative. My daughter cried daily at drop-off for two years, was constantly sick, and threw massive tantrums. I fretted and lost sleep over other people’s children, all the while downplaying the struggles of my own.
Like an illness that forces you to slow down and reassess your life, their cries for help finally broke through to my mothering instinct – that part of me that for several years had lain curled up in a ball, shaking its head and refusing to fully engage. Mercifully, conditions at work conspired to push me in a new direction, and finally one day I packed up my belongings, picked up my children, and drove away.
Homeschooling became my new project, and I threw all my energy into re-creating a mini-classroom at home. But my children were only vaguely interested in the materials. They played outdoors, built intricate LEGO creations, read lots of books, and reveled in their new freedom. And while I fretted over incomplete lesson plans, a voice from my heart told me: “Leave them alone. They’re doing the work of childhood. You go work on yourself.”
Crap. I’d been avoiding working on myself for years. “Teacher” was a label that had allowed me to work on others. But I was no longer a teacher; I was “just a mom”. Being a mom meant I had to become reacquainted with the vulnerabilities of motherhood. I had to examine my own shortcomings and anxieties, lest I inadvertently pass them on to my children. I also had to identify and dissect my triggers, and remain present through the chaos. I had to move past society’s cognitively dissonant perceptions of motherhood, and craft a definition that rang true to me.
Being vulnerable is exhausting. It’s also some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. Someone on my Facebook page wrote: “Homeschooling is a gift you will never regret giving to your children.” And I’m starting to realize that, in addition to homeschooling being a gift to my children, rediscovering motherhood through homeschooling has been a gift to myself. It’s a gift I never even knew I wanted, and one that I now can’t imagine living without.
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When I was pregnant, people who knew I was a Montessori guide would say: “Wow, you’re going to be such an amazing mom!” My standard, humble reply was: “I’ll be a mom, like any other mom.”
But deep down inside, I had my list of things I was sure I would NEVER do, buy or use as a parent. That list was long and it was judgemental.
My mom and her best friend took me shopping for baby items. “You’ll need bottles,” they said. Of course not, I’ll breastfeed on demand.
Sippy cups? Waste of money, my child will go from breast to glass.
Pacifiers? My child is not a sink that needs plugging. How would YOU like a piece of plastic inserted in your mouth?
Stroller? I’ll babywear, thank you very much. And I’ll make my own wraps while I’m at it.
Co-sleeping? Goes against the child’s need for independence and will interfere with my marriage!
Puffs? Who would feed their child little bits of cardboard?
Disposable diapers? Only cloth for my child!
You get the picture. And, if you are a parent, you can probably tell what happened next. (You can stop laughing now.)
Zach came into our lives, and my “Never” list went out the window.
No disposable diapers? I was on bedrest for two weeks after giving birth, so they were out of the question until I was able to do laundry. And traveling with cloth? You’ve GOT to be kidding me.
No pacifier? After eight weeks of the “nurse baby until he falls asleep, then unlatch and watch in dismay as baby wakes up, rinse and repeat” routine, I bought five different brands of pacifiers. Zach took a pacifier for three merciful nights, and then started sucking his index and middle finger. Hallelujah, praise the Lord.
No stroller? Sure, I made my own slings and wraps, got an Ergo, and wore my baby religiously (front, side, and back carry) – until he got so freaking heavy that my back started giving out. Now I love our BOB almost as much as I love coffee. And that’s a lot.
No bottles? Zach demanded breast milk ferociously every 90 minutes, day and night, for the first three months of life. I still remember the first day I pumped and was able to leave my baby with my husband for more than an hour while I went to get a haircut. The clouds parted, the angels sang, and I bought stock in Tommee Tippee.
No sippy cups? Because taking IKEA glasses to the park makes perfect sense, right?
No puffs? Take a hungry 99 percentile toddler with no capacity for delayed gratification to a restaurant and you’ll be throwing puffs at him faster than you can say “we’ll take our food to-go”.
No co-sleeping? While Zach has been sleeping in his own room since he was about 6 weeks old, there are plenty of nights (especially when he’s teething or sick) where he’ll come into our room at 2:00am. Thank goodness for king-sized beds, is all I can say.
So, after two years of parenthood, is there anything I will absolutely NEVER do? Yes.
In the past couple of days, even with a really bad cold, 13-month old Zach has made huge leaps in the “sequences” department. Last night he took his sandbox shovel to the open dishwasher (while I was loading it), put it in the top rack, pushed in both racks, and closed the dishwasher door. I thought he was going to pull out the silverware, as he tends to want to do, but I waited a moment before leaping to action and just stared, slack-jawed, until he closed the dishwasher door and toddled off.
Earlier that same day, he used the potty and, with some help but absolutely no prompting, picked up the receptacle, poured it in the toilet, flushed, and closed the lid. Then today he found a piece of plastic on the floor, picked it up, went to the trash cabinet, opened the door, put the plastic in the trash (I helped him lift the lid) and closed the cabinet door.
I watched him accomplish all of this with the appropriate motherly pride, but then my over-worked, sleep-deprived, foggy momma brain had an “uh-oh” moment (like Oprah’s “aha” moments but less “hallelujah!” and more “holy crap!”):
HE’S BEEN WATCHING.
Yes, this 25-pound ball of boundless energy has been taking in our every move. He’s watched me load the dishwasher and empty the potty, and that’s great. But he’s also watched me fling shoes into the closet, shove dogs off the couch, and leave books on the floor. In the classroom you analyze your every move; you walk gracefully and speak quietly. At home, between the chaos of dinner, dogs, and diapers, it’s all too easy to forget.
But I must remember… I must remember that he’s watching. And learning. Incarnating, is the word that Dr. Montessori used. Making into one’s flesh. Constructing himself from the indiscriminate impressions he takes in with his beautiful, powerful, 100-billion-neuron absorbent mind.
So often we focus our parenting energies on “teaching moments”: spouting nouns ad nauseum, choosing the perfect picture book, or refereeing toddler interactions on the playground. We fail to notice, however, that babies and toddlers really learn the most when they are given the time, space, and framework to explore, experiment, and reach their own conclusions.
Zach is transitioning from babyhood to toddlerhood, a process that’s as enthralling as it is exhausting. Meals are messy food-flinging fests; underwear and diaper changes are full of protests; getting him dressed often ends up with me chasing him across the room while he crawls away with his shirt half-on; and I seem to spend half my time averting disasters and the other half dealing with bumps and bruises.
In all this chaos, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that each mess, protest, and bruise is in reality a learning opportunity for Zach. I don’t have to do anything overtly educational to help him learn – no preaching or teaching are necessary. I just have to be consistent with the routine, establish limits, and let him experience life and consequences within those boundaries.
Last night during dinner, Zach was focused on drinking water from his glass. Every time he brought the small cup to his lips, two-thirds of the liquid would run down his chin and onto his bib and shirt. He was clearly surprised whenever he felt the cold water hit his chest, but he was determined to repeat the activity. In my state of exhaustion, I silently bemoaned the mess he was making on the newly-cleaned floors. My husband, however, pointed out that Zach had learned a lot during that meal, and that’s when I remembered that learning happens all day, every day, as long as we allow it.
Additionally, there are so many things Zach has discovered in these past few weeks because I was too busy to pay attention to him! He figured out how to walk backwards with his push wagon while I was doing dishes and couldn’t get his cart out of a corner; he discovered how to scoop sand into a container while I was chatting with a friend at the park; he learned how to transition from one piece of furniture to another when I was talking on the phone and couldn’t offer a helping hand.
Of course, there’s a fine balance between giving your child space and neglecting them, but in the helicopter parenting society in which we live, most children would benefit from a little more breathing room. So, the next time you’re tempted to jump in and teach – don’t. It might be just the learning opportunity your child needs.
Our daily rhythm involves spending an hour at the park between morning and noon naps. Before Zach was mobile, I would lay out a blanket on the grass and he would be content rolling, playing with toys, and watching the other children. I would push him on the swing for a few minutes, which he loves, but for the most part we would just hang out on the grass and Zach would do his thing happily while I chatted with other care givers (i.e. nannies and grandparents).
Zach has recently started wanting to pull up to a standing position and crawl up steps, and the best place to do this (outside of his movement area at home) is the toddler play structure at our local park. I put him down on the sand near the structure and get out of the way so he can crawl, explore, pull up, tumble (safely, of course) and yes, even cry when he’s frustrated. His concentration and determination are a joy for me to witness, and his occasional tumbles and ensuing complaints are an opportunity for me to “sportscast” what happened, let him know that I’m standing by him as he works, and offer vocabulary so he can eventually identify his feelings.
Sadly, this fascinating experience has been marred by three other caretakers, who seem to not understand my hands-off approach. There’s a nanny who tells me I should do what she did with her charge: “teach” him to climb up the structure by holding and guiding his body until he’s able to do so on his own. Another nanny seems to think children do well with constant noise and chatter, so she screeches and blathers to all the babies on the playground, and in so doing messes up Zach’s concentration. But the one who drives me nuts is the grandfather who can’t bear to hear Zach cry. If my son cries out from frustration or in response to a harmless tumble in the sand, he’ll immediately run over and give him a toy to make him stop crying. One time, he even half-jokingly asked if I was Zach’s step-mom instead of his real mom, because I didn’t go into panic mode every time my baby took a tumble in the sand.
I’m pretty sure most parents at one time or another have formed opinions on the way other parents educate their kids. I do it in my head all the time, I must admit, but I don’t go around voicing my opinion (unless someone asks what I would do from a Montessori perspective). I would love to give a piece of my mind to the mom who threatens to hit her two-year old or the nanny who keeps telling her charge that he’s going to fall and break a leg. But I don’t…
I have a dear friend who has sworn off going to playgrounds because she couldn’t deal with other parents helicoptering over her well-behaved and independent little girls. I’m not at that point – yet – but I am starting to feel her pain. I try to point out to the caretakers that I believe in letting the child develop at his own pace and take ownership of his successes and failures. I try to explain that when Zach cries, it’s not because he’s in pain but because he’s expressing his frustration, which he has every right to do. I ask them: What’s the rush? They never seem to have an answer to that one…
Dear readers, have you had similar experiences? If so, how do you handle them?
When Zach was a newborn, we had a hammock set up in our family room/bedroom. I spent several nights dozing with him on that hammock in the fog of early motherhood. We eventually took it down to put up the mobiles, but a few days ago Zach was grumpy, so my husband decided to rock him. Within minutes, our baby was asleep with his hanging wooden ring safely tucked in his hand (check out the toes!!)…
When my husband’s younger sister was a baby, she received as a gift a cloth frog that could assume endless poses due to its birdseed innards. Over thirty years later, the frog – named “Bleh” – still lives in my in-laws’ basement. We recently received Bleh in the mail with a request that I clone it, since the poor amphibian is losing its stuffing through tiny holes in its fabric. Using an old pair of yoga pants and a felted green wool sweater, I whipped up Bleh the Second in two nap times and a swim lesson. Zach cracks up every time he looks at the frog… Wouldn’t you?
And finally… What do you do with a baby who refuses to sleep on his bed? Why, you let him choose where he wants to sleep, of course! (If you look closely, you’ll see he took his stuffed animal with him!)
I knew that home birth was right for me ever since I did my Montessori Children’s House training, learned about Dr. Frederick Leboyer, and read “Birth Without Violence” (click the link to download the free pdf). In the course we discussed the importance of a natural and intervention-free birth, and I knew that in the current obstetrical climate of unnecessary interventions and C-sections my best chance at going natural would be to stay away from hospitals. I got pregnant for the first time at 35 years of age, and knew that if I went with a traditional OB I might be put in the high-risk category simply for being an “elderly primigravida” (what a pathetic and inaccurate term). Then I would be guaranteed a slew of ultrasounds, interventions, and scare tactics that I didn’t need.
I enjoyed a fabulous pregnancy, with perfect blood sugar and blood pressure (thanks to healthy lifestyle choices), and no complaints other than constant peeing. We chose to birth at home and hired an amazing midwife who had caught over 1,200 babies. She and her assistant supported our decision to avoid ultrasounds and doppler, and empowered us to have an intervention-free pregnancy. I used the techniques on Spinning Babiesto ensure Optimal Fetal Positioning, and baby got and stayed head-down from around 5 months of gestation!
On January 18, I was 6 days “overdue” (nothing to stress out about in my book, since Mother Nature has her own plans, but I sure was uncomfortable). Every day since my due date, my mom, an acupuncturist, would stimulate points that encouraged labor, but nothing seemed to be working. I would get a few gentle contractions but they would soon fizzle out.
I tried everything except cod liver oil to get labor going. My belly was HUGE, I had gained 60 lbs., my knees, hips, and back were killing me, and I was just done with being pregnant. I seriously had to pee every 10 minutes (do you KNOW what hell that is???), and to make matters worse, several times a day the baby’s head would land on a nerve and I would get shooting pains down one leg. I was pretty miserable.
My first labor pains started on the night of the 18th, after I almost choked on an orange. I started coughing and when I caught my breath, I felt a true contraction. They continued over dinner and throughout the night. I was able to sleep through some of them and breathe through the ones that woke me up, so I didn’t bother timing them or calling my midwife.
The next morning they were still there, 5 minutes apart. My mom and I went for a walk at noon and although I could still talk through the contractions, they were definitely picking up strength and were very regular. After our walk, I texted the midwife and then I started nesting hard-core, preparing the birthing room and making the bed. While doing this, I got one very strong contraction that took my breath away. From then on they started coming at 2-minute intervals, and I couldn’t talk through them anymore. I really felt the need to stay active, and I kept thinking how at the hospital they would’ve strapped me down to a bed by that point!
My midwife called and asked if I wanted her to come over. Since it was my first labor and I had no idea what to expect, I told her I would be more comfortable having her around. (I had taken natural birthing classes and read a million birthing stories and books, but when it’s the real thing you have no clue how far along you are, or how much or how little it’s supposed to hurt!).
When my midwife arrived an hour later (this was probably around 4pm), I asked her to check me (one of only two times I was checked during the entire labor). She told me I was at 4 cm and pointed out that the previous night’s contractions were probably effacing. She sent me to take a nap, but I could only try to relax through the contractions – there was no way I could sleep!! She told me not to moan through them yet because I would exert too much energy (great suggestion, by the way!). She recommended I make soft “ahhhh” noises (like you would do after a refreshing drink of water), which I did for the remainder of the labor until I hit transition.
When I got up some time later (I had lost track of time by then but it was dark so I figure it was around 7pm), she asked me if I wanted her to stay or if she should go for a while and come back later (I think she wanted to check how far along I was, but didn’t want to ask flat out, and I appreciate her approach.) I asked her to check me… I was at 7+ cm!! She made sure I had eaten and suggested I take a walk with my husband, whom I hadn’t seen the entire day (he came back from work while I was in bed, and they thought I was sleeping so he didn’t want to disturb me).
As soon as we started our walk to the park (which is only two blocks from our house), contractions started coming strong and fast, about every minute or so and lasting longer and longer. My husband gave me the most helpful suggestion of the entire labor: “They are just sensations, don’t put an emotion on them”. That became my mantra: “It’s just a sensation, it’s just a sensation”. I had to hold on to him every time a contraction hit – I barely had time to say: “Another one” and hold on for dear life, swaying my hips from side to side… But eventually we made it to the park and back.
I remember feeling pretty miserable in the park; it was very overwhelming to give up complete control of my body every couple of minutes!! I was also very gassy at that point and I since I was trying to relax my birth canal, I couldn’t very well squeeze my bottom to hold in the gas!! Let me tell you something, I am not a sexy birther!! It was the least enjoyable part of my labor…
When we made it home, I felt a little feverish. My midwife suggested I take a shower, and told my mom that the hot water would send me into transition (she didn’t tell me this, though!). She knew her stuff, because as soon as I came out of the shower the contractions began coming one after another and were SUPER long. I lost all control and just lay in bed on my side, moaning through them and rubbing my hands on the bed sheet (for some reason this helped). I found that if I could get my moan to vibrate at the same frequency as the contraction, it became a lot more manageable (I don’t know if that makes any sense, but it was SO instinctual to moan that way!).
At one point, I started shaking uncontrollably and ripped off my shirt, getting totally naked in front of my mom, husband, and both midwives (I barely noticed that the second midwife had arrived at this point, and they were quietly laying out their equipment near the bed).
Suddenly, around 9pm, the contractions stopped for a few minutes (thank you God!!) and I lay in bed catching my breath. Then my body was raised up by a different type of contraction, as if someone had pumped me full of adrenaline and picked me up by the shoulders, and I had to get on my knees and start grunting. The midwives watched me without saying a word. After a couple of these grunty contractions, I asked if I could start pushing and got the green light (by the way, I LOVED how my midwives guided me but never told me what to do, they just allowed me to follow my body).
I can’t say pushing felt good, but I couldn’t NOT push. I wasn’t making much progress, and it was hurting a lot, so my midwife checked me and moved the lip of my cervix out of the way. This hurt like the dickens, but then I felt instantly better. At this point I knew I had to get totally vertical so I hopped on the birthing stool the midwives had set out, and began pushing with all my heart and soul with each contraction.
I had a hard time grounding myself emotionally at this point; I was exhausted and kept yelling alternately, “Make it stop!!!” and “Get it out of me!!!”. I find it funny now, because neither one of my requests could be granted!! I looked at my midwives between contractions and told then, “I’m having a hard time staying grounded.” My midwife looked straight at me and said: “You are going to get your baby out”, and that’s the moment I realized it was just me and my baby. My mom says that I smiled, raised my head proudly, and started talking with my baby, telling him we were doing this together.
I pushed for almost three hours (which, looking back, feels like only about 30 minutes). My legs got numb on the birthing stool so I tried switching to a kneeling position leaning on the ball but I couldn’t get comfortable. I went back to the stool.
During one particularly hard push, I felt my water break. My brain turned off at that point – I wasn’t thinking that I was birthing a baby; I just knew I had to push and so I rode the waves of each contraction. A few pushes later, my son’s head started crowning and I felt the infamous ring of fire (hello, fire indeed!!!). I screamed in pain!!
My midwife asked if I wanted to touch the baby’s head but it took all the focus I had to keep pushing, so I shook my head no. (Later my midwife told me that a lot of women react the same way. I seriously wasn’t connecting what I was doing to the human being that was emerging from me; there was no goal, there was only the moment.)
Then I heard: “The head is out, now the nose, and the chin!” Then they started yelling at me to breathe, BREATHE!!!, so I stopped and panted while the baby rotated his shoulders out. With the next heave, I lifted my head, gave a mighty roar, and felt my baby slip out of me.
I sat on the stool with my eyes closed, and time stood still. At that moment, I died and was reborn a mother…
Then I heard my midwife say: “Hold you baby!!”
I opened my eyes in time to see and hear a huge bright-pink baby screaming his guts out. I held him under his arms and pulled him up towards me. The cord was very short so I barely got him onto my pubic bone. I held him there, rubbed his body, and talked to him while he continued to cry, and we discovered he was a boy!!! It was 12:07am on January 20; I had been in serious, active labor for 12 hours, had pushed for almost 3 hours, and gave birth to a beautiful 10 lb., 21.5 inch baby boy at home.
His cord was incredibly short (even the midwives were surprised, and they’ve seen it all!). It was stretched taut so the midwife told me we had to cut it so I could hold him. My husband cut the cord and I was able to bring my little boy towards me.
A few minutes later, I sat up to deliver the placenta and out wooshed a ton of blood!!! I was hemorrhaging because my uterus wasn’t contracting. I put my baby to my breast and he began to nurse like a champ, but my uterus didn’t respond. The midwives sprang into action and injected me with Pitocin, gave me Cytotec, and one more drug whose name I can’t remember, as well as several herbal remedies, acupuncture, and a chunk of raw placenta to eat (yum…not!), but the bleeding continued.
My midwife massaged my uterus non-stop and they worked on me for a long time. I kept praying that the bleeding would stop. I wasn’t in pain and my vitals were perfect (bp 120/80 the whole time!!), but I could see that everyone around me was scared.
My midwives told me they would do everything possible to keep me from going to the hospital. They worked tirelessly, with the intensity and skill of two highly trained medical professionals. They kept checking my vitals every 15 minutes, and I was doing amazingly well despite the bleeding. I was riding a wave of oxytocin and felt no fear. While they worked on me, my husband put our son to his chest and sang to him softly.
After a couple of hours, their entire supply of gauze and a whole roll of paper towels, the bleeding finally stopped, just as they were getting ready to make the decision to transfer me to the hospital. Then they were able to stitch up a jagged tear and do the newborn exam.
They asked me to sit up to pee (you have to be able to pee before they can leave), but when I tried to get up my blood pressure dropped and I almost fainted. I had to have a catheter to drain my bladder, and the first whole day after the birth I had to pee into a pot while sitting on the birthing stool that I had birthed on, because I was too weak to make it to the bathroom. Let’s just say this took my marriage to a whole new level of intimacy!
My midwives left around 7am, after working through the night without a break (you can see my midwive’s watch says 5:00am in the picture where she’s measuring our son). I was blown away by their dedication, professionalism, and unwavering trust in the female body. They came to check on me a day later and four days later, and gave me great nursing advice.
I was anemic and confined to quarters for 30 days. This suited me just fine, since it gave me time to bond with my baby without the pressure of incorporating myself back into the real world. With some natural treatments and a healthy diet, the anemia was gone within 4 months.
Having our baby at home was the most beautiful gift I have ever received. I know I made the best decision for my son, my husband and myself.