The Making of a Mother

In less than a month my youngest daughter is about to become a mother for the first time. Like most new mothers-to-be, she has a lot of concerns and questions. Many of them are about her baby: What are babies like? How do you care for them? What will her baby look like? What if she’s a difficult baby? Even more, at this point, are about labor and delivery. My daughter has done a lot of reading, but of course nothing really prepares you for the real thing.

But there’s one question that’s not addressed very often and that is: how will I know how to be a mother?

I try to reassure her that she’ll do fine, that she just needs to trust her instincts and get her cues from the baby, but the truth is, it takes a lifetime to learn how to be a mother. I’m 59 years old and I still don’t get it right. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the process of becoming a mother it’s that it only just begins when the baby is born.

The new mother is only on the brink; she doesn’t really have a clue what she’s in for. And I’m not talking about all the sleepless nights and demanding days. I’m talking about the changes that she will go through as she learns how to adapt to her new identity.

Because that’s what it really happening: you don’t just produce a new person when you have a baby, you become a new person. It’s like you give birth to two people: your baby, and yourself.

There are tons of books out there about child development, but not so many about the mother’s development. Everyone takes it for granted that a woman’s maternal feelings will bloom as soon as she sees her new baby. And while it’s true that a woman will feel different, she may not know exactly what it is that she is feeling. It’s not a given that she’ll be overcome with joy. She might also be hit with a huge sense of responsibility which scares the hell out of her. Or/and she may not feel anything at all except relief that her ordeal is finally over.

I can’t predict how my daughter will feel when she meets her baby for the first time. She’s a very wanted baby, so I don’t think she’ll feel dismay. But my daughter is also a worrier, and she might be overwhelmed by this tectonic shift in her life. And as the days unfold, she’s sure to wonder if she’s cut out to be a mother. She might even feel panicky about the fact that there’s no going back to the person she was before.

It’ll take some time before she’ll begin to feel comfortable as a mother. But she needs to know that it’s a continuing process.  There are tests along the way, but no final test to prove that you finally “get” it. In fact, there’s no guarantee that you will feel successful as a mother. Women tend to judge their worth as mothers on what kind of persons their children turn out to be. But there’s no magic formula for turning out perfect children.

When I had my first child, I was bound and determined to do everything right by her. I certainly wasn’t going to make the mistakes my own mother had made. And maybe I did avoid my mother’s mistakes (for the most part). I just made my own mistakes.

Probably the most important lesson a woman needs to learn about being a mother is that she is not, and never will be, perfect. And her children won’t be perfect either. We’re all flawed human beings trying to help each other to grow into the best persons we can be.

What I mean by that is: mothers are not the only ones doing the teaching. The process also works in reverse: our children teach us what we need to know to become better human beings. We just need to be willing students.

Don’t expect to learn to be a mother overnight. And definitely don’t expect yourself to be perfect. Just be patient and willing to roll with the punches. Life will teach you what you need to know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Women’s History Month: Does Being a Mother Count?

I should have written this post at the beginning of the month instead of at the end, but somehow the fact that March was Women’s History Month got pushed into the background of my mind. And isn’t that what usually happens to women’s history? It’s always getting pushed into the background. It’s always been that way and I fear that it always will be.

Sure, more women are being recognized for their accomplishments these days. But will they be considered noteworthy in the future? Will Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin receive as much attention among biographers and historians as Barack Obama, for instance? (How many women know that Geraldine Ferraro—who just died the other day—was actually the first woman vice-presidential candidate?)

And even though women’s studies has become a staple of almost every university’s curriculum, how many people really know anything about women’s history? Or even care?

What I find amazing is how little women know about their own history. Naturally, feminists and women’s studies majors know a lot. But what about the average woman? Does she know how many women we have in Congress? Or who was the first female candidate for president? (Hint: it wasn’t Hillary Clinton.) Or what role women have played in war and peace?

What about this little tidbit?

On November 11, 1865, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was awarded a Medal of Honor for her service as a surgeon during the Civil War. She was the only woman to receive such an honor, the country’s highest military award. Unfortunately, in 1917, Dr. Walker’s medal was taken away, along with 910 others, when Congress changed the rules of the award to include only “actual combat with an enemy.” Dr. Walker, however, refused to give back the medal and wore it every day until her death in 1919. After her death, she was re-awarded the Medal of Honor in 1977.

Too many people reduce women’s roles in life to that of wives and mothers. For example, Susannah Wesley is known as the “Mother of Methodism” not because she was a preacher or minister, but because two of her 19 children went on to found Methodism.

Probably the most revered woman in the world is Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is known for her faithfulness and obedience to God in her role  as a mother.

These examples aren’t meant to diminish women who are mothers. I happen to believe that being a mother is an incredibly difficult job and that women who are mothers deserve even more credit than they are given. (Ironically, though we put mothers on a pedestal, we do little to support them. America in particular is notorious for not being mother-friendly. )

Ever since  Louise Story’s article appeared in The New York Times about college-educated women choosing to stay home with their children, feminists have raised the question of whether or not being a stay-at-home mom (SAHM) is the best use of a woman’s talents and education.  And recently, when Natalie Portman announced at the Academy Awards that being a mother will be the greatest role of her life, she was castigated by some feminists for implying that all of her personal accomplishments paled in comparison with being a mother.

I think some feminists look down on SAHMs because they think of motherhood as something that just happens to you, not something you had to work at to accomplish. Perhaps that’s true of the pregnancy, but there’s nothing passive about being a mother. Perhaps Portman was thinking of the awesomeness of motherhood when she called it the greatest role, but she will soon find out that it is possibly the hardest role to execute satisfactorily.

Feminists who put down motherhood are wrong on two counts:

First of all, being a mother does not mean that you can’t still accomplish things other than motherhood. Elizabeth Cady Stanton had seven children and she is known as one of the most important First Wave feminists.

Although she enjoyed motherhood and assumed primary responsibility for rearing the children, Stanton found herself unsatisfied and even depressed by the lack of intellectual companionship and stimulation in Seneca Falls. As an antidote to the boredom and loneliness, Stanton became increasingly involved in the community and, by 1848, had established ties to similarly-minded women in the area. By this time, she was firmly committed to the nascent women’s rights movement and was ready to engage in organized activism.

Secondly, a woman can be extremely influential as a mother. Not only can she shape the values of her children, she can also leave her mark on their world by working for causes that impact her children. Most of the women in the book The Maternal is Political write that they became politically motivated precisely because they are mothers.

Wouldn’t it be revolutionary if women went down in history as being as influential as men, not in spite of the fact that they were mothers, but because of it? Cindy Sheehan is a good example. When her son was killed in Iraq, she found her mission in life and became an extremely vocal anti-war activist. However, the fact that she is a woman and mother has diminished her influence in some people’s eyes: they’ve pegged her as some kind of crackpot. Will she be remembered in history as a famous mother? Only time will tell.

 

 

 

Does Motherhood Make You Poor?

Ann Crittenden, a former New York Times reporter, writes in her book, The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued, that motherhood is the biggest reason why so many women live in poverty. And if not in poverty then they still lag behind men in wages and job advancement. Until a woman bears a child, she is relatively equal to a man in terms of ability to compete in the job market. But once a little bambino enters the picture, all that changes.

Some people dismiss this argument with the old canard, “No one made them have children; why should society have to make adjustments in order to accommodate them?” I’m really tired of hearing that. For one thing, it takes a woman and a man to make a baby. So why does the responsibility for raising it fall primarily on the woman? And don’t tell me about all the house husbands out there who consider themselves the primary caregiver. They’re so few and far between their numbers are almost negligible. (According to the 2006 U.S. Census Survey, there are over 160,000 stay-at-home-dads in the United States compared to approximately five million stay-at-home moms.)

Besides, stay-at-home parents of either sex suffer from the same economic problems: no income of their own, devaluation of what they do in the home, less work credit for the purposes of determining Social Security benefits, no money being paid into pension funds, and difficulty getting credit. It’s just that so many more stay-at-home moms than dads makes this a women’s issue.

If a woman stays home with her children and then there’s a divorce, statistics show that she gets, to be blunt about it, screwed. Current child support guidelines are usually based on the income potential of each parent, which means that the SAHM is forced to go into the workforce no matter how ill-prepared she is or what the ages of her children are. Child and spousal support (the latter of which is increasingly rare) are usually not enough to make it possible for the mother to continue to stay home with her children.

While it’s true that the courts usually take into account the lower earning potential of the woman (merely because she is a woman), more often than not she’s held responsible for more of the child support than she can afford. At the same time, the man, who is no longer considered the primary breadwinner, has more income at his disposal (especially since his expenses have declined). Women are more likely to descend into poverty then men after a divorce.

And then there’s the issue of employability when a woman has children. While she may choose to work part-time or take on less-demanding jobs because she has children, often that decision is made for her. The female lawyer is passed over for partnership, the female professor has a harder time getting tenure, professionals of all types make less money because of time they take off for children. And that’s not even taking into account the fact that the majority of women in the workforce have jobs that are not as generously compensated as “men’s jobs” because they are seen as “women’s work.” (For example, the garbage collector makes more than the waitress.) Not only that, but when males do enter traditionally female occupations, they are often paid more than the women are for doing the same job.

Not every woman who has children is poor. But the facts show that having children makes it more likely that a woman will have a lower standard of living than women without children. And they most definitely will be more likely to be poor than men with children. Because no matter how you slice it, mothers usually end up with the short end of the stick income-wise. And considering that they are trying to support society’s children on their lower incomes (or no income at all), this is a situation that needs to be rectified. If we profess to care about our children, that is.

Source: Women in the Labor Force: A Databook by the U.S. Department of Labor.

House Republicans Jeopardize Women’s Health Care

Last Friday (Feb. 18)  House Republicans voted 240-185 to ban federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

I find this incomprehensible. Planned Parenthood is a respectable, indispensable source of health care for low and middle income women that has been around for 95 years. For some women it is their first, and sometimes only, contact with gynecological health care. Since we still don’t have universal health care in this country, that’s not likely to change any time soon.

Planned Parenthood is not an abortion mill. Only 3% of its services have to do with abortion counseling and procedures. That means that most women who walk into a Planned Parenthood facility do so for birth control, breast exams and Pap smears, and testing for STDs.  [Planned Parenthood’s 2008-2009 annual report states: “For the three million patients our doctors and nurses saw, we provided contraception (36 percent of our total services), testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections (31 percent), cancer screening and prevention (17 percent), and abortion services (three percent).”]

Estimated savings from this proposed bill are $347,000. That’s peanuts in a $3.6 trillion dollar federal budget, but one-third of the yearly income for Planned Parenthood. Where is that money going to come from if the federal government withdraws its support? But if the fact that Planned Parenthood offers abortion services at all bothers some people, then why not cut the amount being given to Planned Parenthood by the amount of its income that comes from abortions: 3%?  Why take away all federal support of an institution that provides essential health care for over 3 million women a year.?

Ironically, those who argue for limited government intervention are more than willing to put the government in charge of what women can do with their bodies. Government should never be about restricting choices, but about freedom.

Some argue that the private sector will have to pick up the cost of abortions. What that means is that all women should have to pay for their abortions completely out of pocket unless they’re victim of rape or incest or their health is compromised by a pregnancy. Because more and more health insurance plans are refusing to pay for elective abortions, and some won’t pay for abortions under any circumstances. In some instances, women are being forced to buy additional riders for abortion coverage. That’s ludicrous. Women don’t plan to have abortions any more than they plan to get cancer.

If these lawmakers were really concerned about cutting the budget, they should be for, not against, abortions. For example, one of my daughters recently had a D&C after a miscarriage. It cost $4600. If she had had an abortion when her baby’s abnormalities were first diagnosed, it would have cost approximately $350-950 at Planned Parenthood. [Source here.] If she had not had a miscarriage or an abortion, but her baby had been born with severe complications, it would have cost a great deal more.

Conservatives like to cite the irresponsibility of single mothers and “welfare queens” as one reason why our federal budget is so high. And yet they are willing to severely cripple the effectiveness of one organization that helps women to be more responsible about when or whether they will have children. Shame on the House Republicans and anyone else who votes for this proposal.

Read Rebecca Traister’s excellent article about this issue here.

Why You Should Care About Reproductive Rights

Just because a person is pro-birth control does not automatically mean that he or she is pro-abortion. I wish pro-lifers would get that through their heads. Some groups like the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops and the Family Research Council are pushing for changes to the health reform bill that would make it harder for women to get birth control. The bill, as it now stands, provides women with birth control coverage as preventive care. Get it? It’s to prevent pregnancies and the fewer unintended pregnancies, the fewer abortions. Why isn’t everyone behind that?

But the Catholic Church and various right-wing pro-life groups insist that birth control is a “lifestyle” choice, and that women therefore do not have a right to it. That’s ludicrous. Couldn’t you say that any kind of medical or dental check-up or procedure is a lifestyle choice? After all, no one says that you have to have screenings for various cancers, but let’s face it, if you don’t and you end up with end-stage cancer, your health costs are going to be much higher than they would be if you had caught the cancer in its early stages.

The same goes for preventing pregnancy. Birth control coverage is a lot less expensive than the costs associated with pregnancy.  The average hospital bill is $5,000-$10,000 for a vaginal delivery. Add at least $2,000 if you need a C-section. These figures do not include the medical costs associated with nine months of prenatal visits, ultrasound costs and other lab costs. If your baby is born premature or with health problems, neonatal costs can range from a few thousand for a short stay to more than $200,000 if your baby is born more than 15 weeks early. And that’s not even taking into account the costs you incur after having the baby! [Source:  Cost of Having a Baby.]

One reason pro-lifers are against birth control is because some of them think that birth control causes “mini-abortions,”  (i.e., they cause fertilized eggs to be expelled from the uterus before implantation can take place). While that might be true of some forms of birth control, there are many other options that definitely do not. (It’s also important to note that this can happen naturally, causing what is known as “spontaneous abortions.”)

The National Women’s Health Information Center provides a fairly exhaustive list of birth control methods on their website. Some of the methods they list do not have abortive mechanisms, some of the methods they list do have abortive mechanisms, and the rest of the listed methods are subjects of much debate. [Source.]

The United States has the highest rate of unintended pregnancies of any other industrialized country. (Nearly half of all U.S. pregnancies are unplanned. [Source.]) And that’s in a country where abortion is legal. It’s estimated that 4 in 10 unplanned pregnancies end in abortion. If those pregnancies were prevented in the first place, 1.2 million abortions a year would be eliminated. [Source.] So why is anyone in their right mind against birth control coverage in health care plans?

Obviously, if you’re one of the 4.8 million in the U.S. who doesn’t have any health care coverage at all, you’re going to find it even more difficult to pay for birth control. Is it any surprise then that 42% of women obtaining abortions have incomes below 100% of the federal poverty level ($10,830 for a single woman with no children)?  And that 27% of women obtaining abortions have incomes between 100-199% of the federal poverty level?

You don’t have to be pro-abortion to be pro-birth control. But if you don’t want to be in a position where you have to decide whether or not to have an abortion, then you need to care about your reproductive rights. Don’t let conservatives take away the only means that most women have to prevent pregnancy. (Abstinence is not an option for most women. Forty-six percent of women who have abortions had not used a contraceptive method during the month they became pregnant. Of these women, 33% had perceived themselves to be at low risk for pregnancy, 32% had had concerns about contraceptive methods, 26% had had unexpected sex and 1% had been forced to have sex. [Source.])

Women can and should control their own fertility. We are the ones who have to be responsible. In a perfect world, men and women, conservatives and liberals, pro-lifers and pro-choicers would work together to make sure that every baby is not only wanted, but cared for. But until that day comes, we need to be aware of what is being done to erode our reproductive rights and to fight against it.