In our society it is common for the mother to take over the lion’s share of parenting duties, even when both parents are working. As women we have an innate desire to care for everyone but ourselves and try to appear unaffected while doing so. We feel that we should be able to manage everything that is thrown at us, and we assume that we are lacking in ability or in selflessness if we try to hand off some of the responsibilities to our partners. We do our best to care for our family, manage a household, become educated, develop a profession, volunteer our time and organize events. Sometimes, the burden can become too much. Sometimes, we need help. I have had to learn the hard way that in order to survive parenthood with your marriage intact, you will need to have trust in your partner’s abilities and let go. Feeling overwhelmed as a mother has become an expectation, but it doesn’t have to be.
When our first child was born three years ago, we had appeared to have seamlessly transitioned into parenthood. As an obstetrical nurse I had gained knowledge and confidence that I knew would help me become a new mom, by handling newborns, helping other mom’s learn to breastfeed, and dealing with various postpartum complications. In addition, I was planning to be off for the full year of maternity leave (score!) and to breastfeed exclusively.
Having these experiences led me to automatically take over most of the tasks that involved handling our daughter. I was the one getting up at night, changing her dirty diapers, giving baths, feeding and rocking her to sleep. In trying to prove to myself and other’s that I was capable of looking after my daughter on my own, I inadvertently shut out my partner. An example of this is when my daughter was just born. My husband had taken some days off from work after she was born. On the second day, I told him that he should go back to work. “I got this”, I said honestly. At that time I was trying to be helpful to him and our family, but in retrospect I did him a disservice by not allowing him the time to bond with our daughter in her first few days of life. He let me do all of the care because frankly, I knew how to do it better thereby leaving him with no opportunity to get better.
My daughter and I bonded easily right after birth and I immediately wanted her all to myself. I wanted to hoard to myself all of her tiny fart smiles, her milk-drunk baby snuggles and her many adorable facial expressions. I had a hard time letting other family members hold her and would run to console her as soon as she let out the tiniest whimper. I took the role of mother to the extreme, like everything else I had accomplished in life. I researched everything possible about parenting a newborn, rarely spent time away from our daughter, went to mommy groups, made baby food, read her stories and built blocks. My whole life began to revolve around this tiny being. It was all I could talk about, because it was all that I did. I was becoming all-consumed with motherhood. I loved being a mom, But I began to lose myself. It was a sad revelation, and my husband began to pay the price.
I continued as a mommy know-it-all extraordinaire for a good six months, and then things began to unravel from there. I began to feel burnt out and in desperate need of alone time. I started shutting down and not talking to my husband, and blaming him for not being supportive or involved enough. My daughter had come to expect mommy to be around all the time and liked the way I did things the best since it was all that she knew.
She developed stranger anxiety early on and wouldn’t play on her own. She also had a hard time bonding with my husband. There were nights when I was at ends wit and just wanted to have a half hour to myself in a relaxing bath, but all I could hear was my daughter screaming downstairs. “Why can’t he just settle her and give me two minutes of peace?” I would think to myself. But it wasn’t from lack of trying, he was doing the best he could at the time. Whenever I would offer suggestions on what our baby liked, he would infuriate me by responding, “but she doesn’t want me. She just wants mommy. She doesn’t act the same way when I do it”. Didn’t he realize that I just needed a break? That I was one step away from having a nervous breakdown? That I couldn’t handle being on-call 24/7 any longer?
Nope. He sure didn’t, because I never told him. Why? Because for the first six months of my child’s life I made everyone around me think that I was a self-sufficient mommy machine, incapable of making errors and never requiring assistance. It became expected of me to do all of my daughter’s care and laundry and cooking and cleaning, but eventually all of those responsibilities began to weigh down on me. I felt like I had lost who I was as a person. It took a lot of crying (both from our baby and me!) and frank discussions in order for my husband and I to iron out our parental duties and what each other’s expectations were of each other. I really wished that we had done that from the very beginning.
I had a much different experience having my second child, partly because I had learned my lesson on trying to take on too much and partly because there just were not enough hours in the day to do it on my own (kudos to single moms. You rock!) I am happy to report that our family has survived my control-freak tendencies. I am learning to relinquish some power and the relief from the weight on my shoulders has been immense. Now, our house looks a lot more chaotic with our second child than with our first, but I am actually more relaxed about it. My husband and I know each other’s abilities and we can tag team bed times and baths. We can get our kids to sleep in record time. My son has an amazing bond with my husband and I can leave him with the kids to go kickboxing or run errands with no remorse. Letting go of the need for control has allowed me to find who I am again.
If you’re about to have a baby, try not to push everyone away like I did. If they offer to support you, take them up on it! No one doubts your parenting prowess. Let your partner become a part of your baby’s life. Even though you may have read more parenting books than they have or you have more experience with children, your partner will have a lot to offer as a parent. Give them a chance to learn, and lean on them for support. And if you’re still pregnant, talk about what you expect your roles to be before baby even comes. It will make your relationship stronger in the end. Trust, mutual respect and communication will be vital to the survival of your marriage in the early stages of parenthood. In the midst of your chaotic household full of runny nosed children, overflowing garbages and piles of laundry it will be worth having another adult on your side. And once your busy home becomes a barren nest, they will still be there to hold your hand.