The Federalist’s lady writers somehow decided that I should write an advice column. I don’t feel especially wise, but they had questions and I had opinions, so here’s the inaugural column.
If you also have life questions for a thirty-something, working mom who has been happily married for ten years, has five young kids and strong reality-based convictions about being a woman and just about everything else, email your question to me at joy[at]TheFederalist[dot]com. I won’t name you if I answer your question in a column.
What if I told you that pregnancy takes practice to get really good at it. What do you think after five babies?
I definitely think being good at pregnancy takes practice. So does being a mom. I see every new pregnancy and child now as an opportunity to improve my parenting and character. Each child teaches me something new and helps me grow in a new way as a person.
At some point, preferably before I hit at-risk pregnancy stage at age 35, I would love to have more kids, in fact. Babies are adorable and make me so happy. The bigger kids are wonderful too.
At this point I know automatically all the things to do about being pregnant. I have all the clothes and all the habits and workarounds memorized. After five no-drugs natural births, I know how birth works and it’s not frightening beyond all reason like my first was (not my favorite thing, for sure, but thankfully it doesn’t last that long). So it’s much easier for me at this point to add another kiddo than it was when I was moving from one to two or two to three. In fact, my first three pregnancies were unplanned but my subsequent two were planned. This is partly why.
After two or three kids, the emotional and physical costs to having more are lower, and the benefits remain high. In economist speak, the marginal costs go down for having a baby once you’ve already had two or three. As economist Bryan Caplan writes in his parenting book, if you’re going to have any at all, you might as well have one or two “extra” (if practically possible, of course). We already have all the clothes, and the bikes, and the beds. We’re already parenting and up at night and setting seven places at the table. Why not do all that another measly two years, especially considering the long-term benefits?
I like babies so much and really look forward to having another wonderful person in my family, plus the grandkids and spouse and spouse’s family and all the wonderful lifelong things that baby is likely to bring into my life, if I am blessed to live long enough. If not, I still will have given the world a wonderful and increasingly rare gift: the gift of a loved child with stable, married parents who will take him or her to church and teach him or her responsibility and generosity.
My friend feels depressed and like she is wasting her potential being a stay-at-home mom (one child is almost 3, one 6 months). Is it okay to feel like being a SAHM isn’t enough, or should stay-at-home moms be satisfied with “where they’re at in life” with caring for little ones?
One of the things I love about working while being a mom is getting to use my brain in a different way. It’s a great contrast to and relief from the nursing and napping and child training. But also it’s utterly exhausting and I don’t think lots of SAHMs understand what they might be asking for when they think the grass is greener over here on the working mom side.
If she never wants to have a minute to herself and thinks that is a worthy trade for getting a break from potty training, this friend should be aware that is a huge tradeoff she’s probably going to be making by working when the kids are young. Sticking one’s kids in a childcare center is off the table for me because it’s risky for the child, even though it can make things easier on mom in the short term (i.e. before she has to deal with the fact that she hasn’t trained her child or developed her parenting skills, and he’s emotionally underdeveloped at age 9, that he’s essentially been herd-parented by peers and the iPad, etc.).
I work full-time, at home and flexibly, with my also-working husband caring for our kids during most of my work hours (a babysitter my kids love comes 6ish hours a week). We have five kids ages 1 to 8. From where I sit, then, being a SAHM looks pretty darned good, honestly. But that’s what SAHM and working moms both tend to do: look at all the good things about the other mode of living and not understand all the things it costs people to live like that.
On balance I think SAHM as the primary orientation (working part time or less) is the ideal motherhood spot for most women before their kids are all at least school-age. The majority of American mothers happen to agree. It’s also the ideal motherhood spot for children, which is much more important of course.
Also, having a toddler and a baby is the hardest time of mothering. Once you get that toddler potty trained and starting to read, you are home free. If that child has a sibling to play with at that time, you are even more home free. This hardest time span with a baby plus toddler lasts only about a year at most, and this mom should consider whether a decision made under high stress to address a short-term difficulty is likely to be truly the best one for her family.
Certainly it is far better for mom to decide she will be the one to shoulder temporary family burdens than to pass them on to her tiny children by leaving them for significant periods of time during the years they truly need her most. “Being There,” by Erica Komisar, is a great book to read to help shore up her understanding on that point.
When you have essentially two (or three!) helpless little people at whose beck and call you are 24/7 for a year or two solid, that is the time a mom needs the most encouragement and to hear that if she sticks it out another year the rewards will start to pop up. So this mom is feeling desperate partly because of where she is in mothering right now.
That pressure may not actually be about an intrinsic need to work per se, but an emotional need to get a break from this intense work she is doing at home with her children. That is a wholly legitimate need and meeting it will help her be a good mother who enjoys being with her kids more, which is also good for the kids.
I suggest this mother start or join a book club or some other way of getting adult-only time and conversation. Maybe a crafter’s circle, or taking a class from some local institution — even or especially a practical and fun activity like a cooking class. In my town we have things like advanced sourdough baking and fruit tree grafting classes that look awesome to me except I don’t have the time or energy because I’m working.
She should feel free to ask her husband — or another family member, a single friend who wants to support families, or a friend with whom she can trade child caretaking — to take on the kids for her once or twice a week for two hours so she can go get a coffee with a friend or while reading a truly challenging book, or take a Pilates class or whatever. The first time or two she might want to just get away and think about what direction to try first.
She also should consider making a routine for her week that includes regular time with fellow moms and their kids, as being at home with babies all week can get so lonely and stir crazy. Also, if the kids’ naps and quiet times don’t align, training them to do that will help mom get a bit of quiet time in each day that will help her put her brain back together and get a needed rest break.
She could make a plan along these lines, then try it for 3-6 months. And if it turns out at the end of that time that she feels more fulfilled and less crazy, perfect. If not, her baby is by then approaching 1 year old, is beginning to wean, has regular sleep and eating schedules, and is easier and more emotionally stable to have dad or grandma or a babysitter care for him a few hours at a time while mom seeks and then works a part-time job.
Also, facing dilemmas and conquering them is how we grow as people. Bad feelings tell us something is wrong. They can be a clue that we need to learn something, or grow in some certain way. Being mindful of this potential prompting to grow as a person and mother will help her actually accomplish that.
This mother should consider that this conflict she’s feeling may be not a call to lean out of her home but a call to lean into her children. I have often found that the very moment I want all these crazy kids to Just stop and go away! is precisely the moment I need to turn and face them and start fulfilling my duty as a mother to set aside my comfort to meet their needs.