Many of us resist saying “help” as if it’s a four letter word idiomatically as well as literally. The phenomenon seems to be even more rampant in modern female professionals still struggling not to be viewed as weaker than their male counterparts and stay-at-home parents all too aware of the insipidness of their daily struggles to working friends and, even more scarily,* partners.
Before I gave birth to Viv (B.V.), I didn’t hear a single story of a young couple with only one child and a non-working parent needing childcare for anything other than the occasional date night. I looked at stay-at-home parenthood as a worthy and tiring, but not exactly difficult, endeavor. (Blame my mom for making it look easy.) When Viv writhed in pain and required essentially twenty-four hour tending, I repeatedly rejected the suggestion that we hire help, because of the expense and, more powerfully in my thinking, since I believed I ought to be able to handle it alone. I survived ruthless teasing as a chubby kid; participated in six sports in high school (seven if you count the men’s and women’s water polo teams separately); faithfully fulfilled the duties of “risk management chair” of a sorority (a much more challenging post than, say, “social chair”); delivered a college graduation speech without succumbing to nerves; enjoyed earning a law degree; walked into three classes of over thirty ninth graders an interloper (the first note I intercepted: “it would be fun if it was a young black teacher”) and left with teenagers grateful for my tough love; clerked for the best judge in the world; passed three bar exams (okay, fine, so one of them was passachusetts – still counts); pulled off the wedding of my dreams without stressing my way down the aisle; and worked on cases involving large companies, famous institutions, and millions of dollars. What’s more, I’ve always gotten along with kids like peanut butter jibes with jelly. I asked myself, “How could I possibly need to hire help to do a job that has been successfully performed throughout the history of our species with no education or training whatsoever?”
When I neared, and some would say passed, the point of complete physical and emotional exhaustion around Viv’s four-month mark, Ian’s parents offered to pay for childcare. The idea continued to chafe at my pride, yet with my rational reason for resistance removed I put a stop to my stubbornness. Seeing me still not at all comfortable with the situation, Jeannette suggested a “postpartum doula” rather than a nanny or a babysitter, since doulas strive to support both parent and child, generally possess superior training, and have a definitional limit on their term of service.
The process of finding a specific doula took a bit more effort. The first candidate lasted twenty-four hours. When she arrived, my mind registered “boy she’s big” but quickly jumped to a sweet Little Red Riding Hood-esque conclusion: “all the better to cuddle her, my dear.” At the time, Viv needed constant carrying and rocking (mind you, not rocking in a rocking chair, but standing bouncing). After an hour of not too slyly observing the two of them while I puttered around, I realized that the doula could factually and non-judgmentally be deemed obese and barely capable of making it up and down the steps alone. Yet I was the one who nearly had a heart attack when I saw her descending the stairs with Viv flung over one shoulder, squirming to be freed but pinned down with one hand, as the doula clutched the handrail for dear life with the other. Still, I found myself so desperate for help (now that I’d conceded the point) that at the end of the four hour block, I merely politely queried whether Viv’s care might be a bit physically taxing for her. The next morning I got my answer; she called in sick, her muscles too sore to get out of bed. Strike one.
On our second swing we lucked out with a fit, competent, and understanding woman who came a few times before Viv’s first hospitalization, brought us food in the hospital, entertained Viv so that I could speak half-intelligently with the doctors, and patted me on the back when I got the news about Viv’s hernia. Our pairing came crashing to a halt when we saw a sign advertising free H1N1 shots for parents and caregivers of patients. When I pointed it out to our new friend, she informed us that she does not believe in vaccinations. Not only is she not comfortable getting a flu shot, we learned, but also her three kids aren’t vaccinated for ANYTHING. The next day, Dr. Conn confirmed our fears: Viv couldn’t afford to risk it. Strike two seriously bummed us out.
Then along came Tina, and either our baseball metaphor morphed into the “third time’s a charm” expression or we cheated, switched batters mid-count, and Tina hit it out of the park. A former paralegal who had her sights set on practicing law when she first became pregnant, Tina carries herself like a dancer and is smart as a whip. (Readers of the “happy as a lark” aside in my last post will now ask, “Just how smart is a whip?” Apparently, a controversy boils around that one. Some believe the phrase originated as a play on words since a lash with a whip “smarts.” Others contend that “the sharp crack of a whip” is a metaphor for mental quickness. A third theory goes that during the era of carriages, the fashionable – i.e., those who looked “smart” – carried whips. I haven’t found evidence that anyone else considered the idea, which I rejected just as quickly as it flitted into my head, sorry Clyburn, that a party’s “whip” is generally smart.) In addition to being extremely knowledgeable about baby behaviors, irresistible to Viv, and exceptionally anal about completing tasks (with the last of the triad possibly garnering the most respect in my warped mind), Tina wins high honors for Gail-crazy-neutralization (of course Ian still holds several degrees and the world record in this type of management). Not once has she given me unsolicited advice. Instead, at the end of each session Tina writes down what she “tried” with Viv, as if she’s poking around in the dark as well and just keeping a log for her own peace of mind rather than in any way intimating that I haven’t achieved child-rearing perfection. Ain’t nobody here but us chickens. She also keeps any possible anxiety that Viv likes her too much (which I most certainly feel; then again, I turn green when Viv smiles overly warmly or frequently at Petra, her dolly) at bay by refraining from kissing her and by continually declaring that Viv’s expressions and actions reflect how much she loves her mommy: “Look, Viv smacked herself in the forehead with a toy. She loves her mommy!” I absolutely eat it up.
It’s funny, before my pregnancy I had no patience for cheerleader types (with the exception of my wonderful friend Vikki who despite being relentlessly and perkily positive herself appreciates and tolerates the catty, haughty, and snarky), always preferring the ruthless straight-shooter (case in point, another one of my nearest and dearest introduced herself to me as follows: “Hi, I’m Monica. I probably won’t like you. I don’t like most people.”). Then I surprised myself by choosing the ra-ra-shish-koom-ba midwife over the no-nonsense ob-gyn. Whenever I came in for a visit after sitting on my tush letting nature take its course, she’d exclaim, “Wow, you are doing an amazing job.” Instead of thinking, “Holy crow, is she full of it,” I thought, “Wow, I am doing an amazing job!” A different midwife served the same role during my labor. Viv clearly planned to join us with or without my help; I had recently become acquainted with Ian’s only competition for the title “love of my life,” my epidural; and the pushing exertion roughly equated to my pre-pregnancy stairmaster routine. But when she said, “You are awesome. I can’t believe how well you’re doing,” I beamed, just as I borderline gloated when the craniofacial doctor called Viv’s brow “perfectly shaped.”
In all seriousness, as we finally grow past the need for childcare, I want to express just how much we appreciate the optimism and encouragement of not only Tina (thanks again to Ian’s parents) and our family and friend “doulas” (my mom spent countless hours rocking Viv over the holidays; in January, our Aunt Betsy, Cousin Gaia, and Aunt Denise each visited to lend a hand; my childhood friend Natasha, who is training to become a birthing doula, also assisted us for a week in December; and both Jeannette and Vikki recently scheduled third stints), but also all of you who accept these posts in lieu of updates (like my sister who sends me lengthy, much-appreciated daily emails knowing that only on the rare day will I be able to respond with more than a few lines), offer frequent motivating messages through a variety of media (e.g., my dads, Judge and Mrs. E, the Perellas and their “operation burp cloth”), or simply read my musings without later sending me a list of typos and grammar gaffes. B.V., I always thought of the “it takes a village” proverb in the Hillary Clinton context of the effect on school-age children of non-parental actors like teachers, mentors, community leaders, sports heroes, etc. The saying honestly seemed to me like an easy way for policymakers and villagers alike to pass the buck. During this decidedly not fun roller coaster ride (the last few weeks continue to chip away at our optimism as Viv goes on and off the tube and the weaning wagon circling drags on; more on that soon), countless friends and family members have shared that, for them, even fulfilling the most basic parental duties for healthy preschoolers required a village.
I only wish stay-at-home parents would complain a bit more so that newbies like myself wouldn’t have to struggle with the feelings of inadequacy and shame that attend trying to do it alone. Moreover, if the Twitter and Facebook phenomena serve as any indication, widespread discussion of the seemingly inane daily challenges of baby-rearing could actually make them more interesting to those outside mommy-matinee/daddy-drama circles (think Ashton Kutcher having followers because he’s got followers and how the “like” function on Facebook multiplies the number of views a silly status update gets). Certainly (and based on the same logic that supports my crying in the workplace theory**), a bit more vociferousness would make topics like hormone swings, postpartum depression, exhaustion, tantrum management, and baby gear (just to name a few) more widely acceptable and stay-at-home parents less isolated. Hence this virtual shout: “Thanks village, I needed you, and I plan to keep right on calling.”
* Luckily for me, Ian displays exceptional interest in the minutia of Viv’s care.
** More women than men react to such emotions as anger, disappointment, and frustration with tears. I posit that if professional ladies, en masse, allowed themselves natural expression, just as many men do by responding to the same feelings with a raised voice and rough tone, waterworks would be neither as extensive – everyone knows it only gets worse when you fight it – nor as taboo. I never had a problem with the “screamer” partners; just the emotionality double standard rankles. Of course, my I’m-not-weak-or-sad-my-body-just-insists-on-doing-this-when-I’m-mad-let’s-continue-this-argument-as-the-tears-do-their-thing-in (like a sit-in, only rougher on the mascara) would do nothing to address the separate problem of women who react in the more typically male manner being vilified as bitchy or thoughtless while their counterparts are seen as simply demanding and focused on producing the best work product.