You've probably seen this viral comic about the "mental load" placed on women. Many articles have been written discussing it, and I'm about to write one too! I think back to the lowest point in my adult life, the two years right after having my son. It was so traumatic, I couldn't watch the first season of Workin' Moms without ugly crying while laughing. It was what I later learned was what Brené Brown called "knowing laughter:"
“Laughter is the evidence that the chokehold of shame has been loosened. Knowing laughter is the moment we feel proof that our shame has been transformed. Like empathy, it strips shame to the bone, robs it of its power and forces it from the closet.”
I never wanted children. I did, however, want to gift a child with receiving the love of my family and friends. I knew their love was so great, that whatever child I had would get to benefit from their richness. And what a shame if I didn't have one to receive it. There's so much love in my life, I felt there was room for another person.
Then I actually had the child. I was so offended by how degrading childbirth was... you're just so vulnerable, naked on a table, with strangers, helpless to escape the situation until the child is out, your fever is gone, your stitches are in, your ability to use your legs is back, and you've signed all the paperwork. Don't get me wrong, I had a wonderful experience. The medical staff was empathetic, competent, caring, communicative, supportive, knowledgeable, etc. But childbirth itself is serious and ugly business. After giving birth, I was like, "oh, I can see how women can die from this." I was also way more passionate about needing abortion to be widely and freely available... because what the hell was that horrible thing I just went through back there?!? If that is something I would have no choice but to go through upon getting pregnant... I'd cry from horror at every positive pregnancy test. By the way, I would do it again - biology has a wonderful way of making us forget the bad stuff and remember the good stuff.
Once I got home from the hospital, I was useless. I did not expect that - I thought I'd be able to take care of my child. I thought I'd be back on my feet within a week. But no, I had to be vulnerable again - my parents came to help. My husband did all the shopping. I needed everyone to take care of me like an invalid. I was horrified by it all - how did single moms do it?!? I could not imagine doing anything other than keeping the baby alive.
I was breastfeeding thinking that would help me to lose the baby weight. But it turns out breastfeeding makes you hungrier too, so you overeat. Nobody tells you about the horrible constipation either. Also I got PUPPS, which you can't use cortisone cream on if you're breastfeeding... so that was a nightmare. Then I got mastitis. Then I had an allergic reaction to the antibiotics prescribed for it. Then I got shingles and had to make my husband wash everything constantly to keep the baby from getting chicken pox from my weeping shingles.
One day soon after leaving the hospital I was so ravenous I found myself eating like an animal, hunched over my bowl of pigs' feet gnawing at the cartilage, angry at my food for having bones in it, slowing down the efficiency with which I could get that fat in my body. I had a moment of self awareness and looked around at my family, seeing them eating with human table manners. I burst into tears (yay, hormones) at my lack of self control and "togetherness." Having a baby makes you lose your humanity, people.
Over the next few months it was the typical lack of sleep, feeding, changing, laundering, bottle washing blur. There was no time for self-care. Standards go out the window. The house got dirtier and dirtier. One day, we were flying to visit my parents and I found myself packing for everyone right after work. My husband got home from work and had bought burritos for dinner. He ate his, then took a shower. I continued to pack, ignoring my need to eat and shower. I felt the need to poop too, but it could wait - we needed to catch that flight. On the flight, I held my baby as he continuously spit up and fussed on the plane. I changed him in my lap. The entire time, my husband was watching something on his iPad, headphones on, arms crossed, leaning away from us so he wouldn't get spit-up on himself or his stuff.
When we got to my parents' house, as soon as we walked in the door, I was running on empty and didn't know what to do first, as everything needed doing right now: shower, eat, drink water, poop, pump, and sleep. I ended up opting for pumping, drinking water, and then sleeping. I kept waking up to take care of my baby, who was not ok with sleeping in a new crib. The next morning, I was able to poop, shower, and eat. After all my needs were met, I was finally able to assess what happened. Emotionally, I was increasingly angry and resentful of my husband. After getting my needs met, however, I was able to figure out what happened, and to communicate without the same anger as the night before.
I held up my hand and told my husband I have five basic physical needs: sleep, food/drink, hygiene, going to the bathroom, and pumping. I told him if I ever ask him to take responsibility for the baby so I can fulfill one of those needs, he had better find a way to say "yes." I told him if I am down 3 out of the 5 needs, saying "no" or "wait" are not options, because I would've already asked for help before it got to that point. If he ever let me get to that point again, I would be furious, I told him. He took it to heart and things have been way better ever since.
Tracking my baby's sleep, food, and bowel movements became my life. But my life was already full without him. So something had to give. And that something was someONE - my husband. I vowed that the invisible labor would need to be visible to him - oh, are the dishes not done? Are you not an adult human living here who could do them if they needed doing? I learned to let go of control - who cares HOW the dishes are done as long as they're done? Can we agree that if the baby is mostly my job, all other jobs are mostly his?
Yet this is also a false belief. It takes a village. Only in America do we go things alone. And it's horrible and unrealistic and makes for miserable living. When did being a "good mother" include "killing yourself?" There's just too much to do these days. I was adding to the burden by trying to grow in my career. And fighting to have the pumping room - they kept having a masseuse use the room for 6 hour blocks... when and where was I supposed to pump?? I learned about the first shift (work), second shift (home maintenance/invisible work), and the THIRD shift (professional networking). I started attending TAP and NAAAP events, leaving my kid with Daddy while I networked. If I could plan it (also why was it me who had to plan it), I would get a babysitter so we could both attend. I attempted to do all three shifts, leading to my having an anxiety attack at work.
I tried asking my boss for help - I said I needed more flexibility and to have less work on my plate so I could pump without stressing about about too many meetings. I told him I probably needed to scale back to about 70-80% of what I was doing. He told me this was something all first time parents go through (he had three children himself) and that sometimes women choose to leave the workforce (his wife left for over a decade). I knew right then that he was suggesting I do that. Really, I need 20-30% of give and he wanted me to just get out of the workforce? I wasn't about to do that, because I wanted to be the change I wanted to see in the world. Working moms are freaking heroes, have something to contribute, find meaning in work, and their 50% trumps some people's 100%. I didn't need the money - I had saved just so I could have the choice to be a stay at home mom... it was the principle of the thing. I refuse to let jobs remain a rigid 40 hour work week with soul-draining expectations. We need to reimagine work. I had seen too many innovative companies having daycare at work, having dogs in the office, and having unlimited vacation time. Time to be my own hero.
It took hiring a transformational coach for me to reach out and ask for help outside of my husband. It turns out asking for and receiving help can boost your energy so you show up happier and healthier. As a mom, you're the center of your family... you are the sun. And if you're burning out, all the orbiting planets suffer. Growing up I absorbed a lot of my mother's resentment at needing to be the "perfect" [insert role here] at all times. She was unhappy trying to keep up with everything, and I always felt I was failing at life because I couldn't help her with it. I felt responsible for her happiness the way she felt responsible for everyone around her. She modeled that behavior and it was the source of my self-flagellation.
Transforming my mindset to give myself more grace allowed me to give my husband more grace and gratitude. I had the mental and emotional space to see his contributions to our family and to appreciate them. I learned how to open my mouth and actually communicate it to him - so he would feel seen and valued. Our baby is three now, and I can now say he has a happy home - we are all three of us happy.
My mother did a lot of invisible labor as the third daughter in a male-valuing culture before coming to America. She would completely relate to that viral mental load comic by Emma. I related too. Luckily, the revolution starts at home, and thanks to my transformation and my husband's support, we got through that challenging time in our early parenthood. It's like we went through a crucible and went through a mind meld. He can read me better now and can step in to help me with tasks or gift me an afternoon or whole day off. Today, he's just as likely to remember the kid's dentist or doctor's appointment because we use a shared Google calendar. He is just as likely to plan an activity for the family. He is the main cook and baker in our family. He is just as likely to brush the kid's teeth, change him, discipline him, and play with him. He is just as likely to ask for flexibility from his work so he can take our kid to something. We are proud of each other.