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Motherhood and mobility

Monday, 06 December, 2010

This is something I've been thinking about for a while. It's really two things that are related—as will become clear.

1. Out and about

When it comes to mobility with a baby, it's all about your mode of transport—the options for which go roughly like this:

Sling/carrier

We were given a Baby Björn carrier by my stepsister. The first time we put Astrid in it, she cried. The second time, she got used to it. But she still wasn't fond of it—probably because she was too small for it. So we borrowed a Sleepy Wrap off a friend (which takes a bit of complicated cloth origami to put on), and she liked that from the beginning. I would take her to church in it, then rock her to sleep in my arms during the singing. It meant, however, that I had to dress her lightly, otherwise we would both overheat from the amount of body contact we had with each other.

When she grew bigger, we switched her to the Baby Björn, which is what I use now the most when I am not using the pram.

The other thing that was useful was the Phil & Teds carrier that other friends lent us (it looks something like this). It's like a portable bed for her. In the first couple of months, we could take Astrid to other people's houses and put her to sleep in it in a quiet corner or a darkened room while we ate dinner, watched DVDs or hung out with friends. Then Astrid outgrew it.

Pram/stroller

It's kind of bewildering the variety of prams/strollers available. (I think it's called a pram when the baby is newborn and has to lie down in it. The baby lies facing you because if s/he can't see you, it's like you don't exist. It's called a stroller once the baby can sit up in it unaided, holding up his/her head by himself/herself.) There are twin prams/strollers (two babies side by side), double decker ones, ones with skateboard extensions for toddlers to stand on, ones with toddler seats, ones for runners, ones that are trailers for bikes, ones that have a scooter attached, and so on. (Here's a Star Wars one.) The one I thought was the most hipster pram I'd ever seen was the Origami pram, which will fold and unfold itself at a touch of a button, features not only a holder for your coffee cup but a place to recharge your phone using the energy from the turning wheels, and an iPod dock so you can play your favourite music while you walk.

Astrid, being a newborn, is still using the carrycot with our pram. Because we have two of the same pram (one for the car, one for the foyer of our building), we keep moving the carrycot between the two. I'm looking forward to when we can convert them both to strollers and ditch the carrycot. The problem is, she's growing so fast that she may soon become too big for the carrycot before she is able to sit up unaided!

Pram driving is a bit of an art. It's probably not so difficult if you know how to use a trolley (not a shopping trolley; the other kind), but if you're like me and have no idea, you may end up wishing (like me!) that someone had created a “Pram driving 101” instructional video that spells out exactly how to handle things like curbs and stairs.

Going out with the pram is fairly easy—provided the carrycot is where it needs to be. Our apartment complex has a gate that allows you to bypass the stairs to get out. The lock is a bit annoying, and the gate slams instead of closing gently like the back gate, but not having to negotiate stairs is a good thing! Often I will take the pram up to the shops, where the underseat basket comes in handy for the occasional grocery shopping trip. (I don't know how people manage to get their grocery shopping done with children …) I've only been caught in the rain once, and fortunately I had brought the rain cover (so Astrid didn't get wet; just me! [Unfortunately it is really hard to push a pram and hold an umbrella over your own head.])

Car

This just involved buying and installing a carseat. There are ones with handles that allow you to remove the whole seat easily from the car (which is handy when you have a sleeping baby), but we decided not to get one of those (although if there had been one that worked with our pram, maybe we would have considered it …). The carseat is adaptable though: it will change as Astrid grows. However, as national child restraint laws stipulate that children must use a carseat up until the age of 7, we will have to buy something else once Astrid outgrows this.

Going out in the car is also fairly easy now. I can fit the pram in there (frame in the boot; carrycot in the backseat), and Astrid uses the carseat. It takes me a little while to put the pram together (because of the carrycot), but once I have, we're good to go. I've managed to do this at church, at the church retreat, in shopping centres and even parking in Newtown when I went to amigurumi classes at A Coffee and a Yarn.

Public transport

In NSW, children under 3 can travel for free on buses and trains. The few times I have caught public transport (and it's worth saying here that the full version of TripView Sydney for iPhone is totally worth $2.49—even if the buses don't come when their timetables say they will), I have used the Baby Björn carrier and sat in the more accessible seats on the bus with Astrid in my lap (facing forward when I'm sitting down as it's more comfortable for her). (I haven't tried the train yet; the one time I was going to get the train, I had an accident with Astrid: I tripped on the stairs and fell forward, and Astrid, who was facing forward in the Baby Björn, hit her head on the concrete. We took her to emergency to make sure she was all right, and the doctors gave her the all clear.) I haven't been game to try the pram with public transport: not all stations have a lift, and there really isn't enough room on the bus.

One thing that I was unprepared for was how conspicuous you are, going about in public with a baby. You can't just blend into the background and be invisible; everyone notices you, and complete strangers will often chat to you, saying stuff like, “What a cute baby!”, “How old is she?” and “Look at all that hair!”, and (occasionally) touching your child (holding her hand, stroking her leg, etc.) Sometimes I really don't want the attention (particularly when I'm tired or when the stranger is offering unwanted advice). Sometimes I have to work really hard not to be rude. But often I find it nice that people are interested and are friendly to babies, and it's sometimes a useful springboard to getting to know other people. (For example, the other day at the bus stop, I met a lady who lives in our apartment complex.)

Logistics

What is the point of the above? Well, it's to illustrate the complexities of going out with a baby. It's one of the biggest changes I've had to make since becoming a mother: I can't just leave the house; I have to plan what's going to happen and what I have to bring. Whenever we go out, the nappy bag comes with us (it's a Golla backpack that I used to carry my laptop in; I find it much easier on my back than those over-the-shoulder nappy bags that most mothers have). The nappy bag contains the following:

Oh, and sometimes my hat too (wide-brimmed and squashy). With Astrid in the Baby Björn and the nappy bag on my back, I can cope pretty well (and can even carry a bit extra if need be!), but obviously I can't walk like that for long distances, and I'm sure it will get harder as Astrid gets bigger and heavier.

Whenever I go out, I have to consider the following:

So for example, I wanted to see whether Astrid could handle the bus and a trip to the city. I tried a trip to Newtown first, and she coped fairly well with that (if she faces me in the Baby Björn and I'm walking around, she will usually got sleep after some noisy complaining). Then we caught the bus into the city (and she slept in my arms in the Baby Björn, but the jerky nature of the bus woke her up a few times). I went to a mums and bubs movie session at Event Cinemas, George St (in which I was the only mum with a bub), but she didn't sleep much during the movie (because it was RED and there were a lot of noisy explosions and the like). Event Cinemas may have had change facilities upstairs, but not downstairs where I was; they had a disabled toilet but the floor was disgusting (but when you have to go yourself, you don't have many options), and I changed Astrid's nappy in the area where women normally check their make-up. Unfortunately she had soiled her clothing (most uncharacteristic!), so I also had to change everything she was wearing, and also most unfortunately, all I had in the bag at the time was a singlet. So she spent the rest of the day in a singlet and a disposable nappy (which made me feel like such a bad mother, but fortunately the Baby Björn covered her up pretty good so no one could tell unless they looked closer). I walked around the city for a bit, and Astrid fell asleep in the carrier for most of it. I had lunch in the food court of the Galeries Victoria (sushi; good one-handed food), and ate with Astrid lying on my lap. Then I fed her in the new Westfield Sydney—in one of those areas with those lounges where people sit and rest—and she threw up all over me (although a friend told me it's technically not vomit; it's called posset, and it happens when the valve in a baby's stomach doesn't quite close). A bystander helped me clean up the mess with napkins, but I had to retreat to the ladies' toilet to clean myself up a bit more (remember, I had no change of clothes for me. Luckily most of it went on the breastfeeding cloth and on my skirt, and my skirt dried fine). Poor Astrid was quite cranky by then. I was also a bit frayed in terms of nerves, so I went and got a drink from EasyWay (which I had been looking forward to) and we went to sit in Hyde Park. Unfortunately it then started to rain, so I figured it was about time we went home. And she fell asleep (more or less) on the bus back.

I think that particular excursion was probably the most significant in terms of ambitiousness and the things I learned about being out and about with a baby. Talking to other mums has been helpful too. (My mother's group have been particularly informative about what it's like to catch planes with babies—something I'm not heaps keen to do yet.)

I wish there was an iPhone app that worked a bit like a cross between Urbanspoon, Maps and Show Me the Loo: it would show you your present location, the nearest parents' room/toilet facilities with change tables, child-friendly cafés, and so on, and you could see some of the comments other parents have made about their experiences. Developers, if you're reading this, feel free to steal the idea. I reckon it's an app that people would even pay for!

2. Looking after mummy

MIA

So why is all that stuff about mobility relevant? Bear with me a little longer. Lately I've been reading a book called MIA Missing in Action: How mothers lose, grieve and retrieve their sense of self (Anne M Smollon, iUniverse, Lincoln, 2006) on Bron's recommendation. (You can read the initial chapters at Google Books.) I've been finding it really helpful and interesting—helpful because it deals with the mental stuff I was talking about in the post Bron commented on, and interesting because it gave me glimpses into what the lives of other women are like—particularly women who have more than one child.

Smollon's thesis is basically that mothers who find themselves unhappy and unable to cope are actually suffering from grief—grief at losing their sense of self. She is a social worker with a background in grief counselling, and she realised this when she went through a particularly dark period in her life, not coping with the business of childrearing and motherhood. The book is the result of what she learned from that time.

It's a short book. In the initial chapters, she outlines the extent to which a woman's life changes when she becomes a mother (e.g. change in status, earning power, body image, self-esteem, fatigue, hobbies etc.)—in other words, how much mothers lose and therefore how much they must grieve over. (A few examples: I don't listen to music as much anymore because I need to hear Astrid's cries; my wardrobe is now divided into clothes that I can breastfeed easily in and clothes I can't, and I don't tend to wear my nicer clothes anymore because I don't want to spoil them; and there are now a whole bunch of things I can no longer do [e.g. go out] because I am looking after Astrid.) She then talks about the signs, symptoms and stages of grief; how that grief affects the mother's context (her relationship with her spouse, her relationship with her children, etc.); and finally how to deal with it and move forward.

Self-care vs. selfishness

Reading the book confirmed a thought I'd had at the back of my head as the weeks went on and the newness of babydom wore off. The thought was about the importance of self-care. I realise I'm treading on Peter Brain Going the Distance territory here, so let me take a few moments to explain why I think it's important.

I'm not talking about selfishness here, but self-care. I think when we talk about this sort of thing, we fall into all sorts of trouble because the concept of “‘Me’ time” sounds overly self-indulgent, whereas workaholism and extreme self-sacrifice somehow comes across as more acceptable or godly. (I write this not to negate Lee Carter's excellent article on motherhood in Briefing #353; I think her point about sacrifice, drudgery and motherhood is a good one, along with the parallels she draws to Christ's self-sacrificial works.) But I think Peter Brain's metaphor of the marathon is just as appropriate for parenting as it is for ministry: you have to pace yourself for the long haul. The issue with “‘Me’ time” is more to do with the idolatry of the self and finding personal fulfillment in something (or someone) other than God; the beauty of self-care is that you're doing it under the sovereignty of God—that you, as a creature made in his image, are worth looking after for the purposes of being able to serve him and his people during your time on this planet. See the difference? One is motivated by self-interest; the other is motivated by selflessness (to use a preacher's turn of phrase). One involves living for oneself; the other involves living for Jesus.

So as I read Smollon's book, it seemed to me that she was saying that this loss of self that mothers often feel had to do with poor self-care—that all these mothers thought that they had to sacrifice everything and just grin and bear it—all for the sake of their children, who would usually not appreciate it because they're children; they don't really understand. Then the mothers wound up unhappy and depressed later, unable to pinpoint what was wrong in their lives, unable to change anything and, curiously, unable to ask for help (perhaps because they couldn't pinpoint what was wrong).

The problem is, this loss of self can lead to serious issues down the line. Consider this quote that Smollon records from a woman named “Elizabeth”:

I remember thinking that it was all downhill from here. I had graduated from an Ivy League school, a goal I had set for myself, and now there was nothing more to achieve. I was home all the time with my two kids, two very strong-willed kids at that. One day we were outside in the garage getting ready to play in the snow. It was such hard work getting boots and gloves on, fighting for the hats to be put on their heads. And I knew all along that they'd be done playing in less time than it would take me to get them ready. I could feel the tension building inside of me. I was getting frustrated because they weren't listening to me. I finally blew. I was raging. I just lost it. My husband came home right at that moment. He was angry at me for being so out of control. He made some comment that I was a failure as a mother. Minutes later I was upstairs, alone in my bedroom. I remember the feeling vividly. I must have felt despair because I was thinking that suicide was my only way out. I was in a place where I couldn't think of any good times with my kids, only all the work, sacrifice, and the constant expectations of me. There just seemed like this dark future at that moment. Suicide was my only thought of how to get away. I couldn't think of any other way to fix things, to make myself happy in this situation. It must be despair when you can't even think to do anything but kill yourself. (p. 53)

It seems to me that looking after yourself (like looking after your marriage) is one of the best gifts you can give your child. From memory, Peter Brain argues similarly in Going the Distance—that a pastor looking after himself with the aim to last for the long haul in ministry is one of the best gifts he can give his congregation. In a sense, it's a godliness issue for everyone: God gave us the gift of rest so that we could rest and recharge, and then forge ahead in the marathon that is the Christian life whether we are single, married, parents or otherwise.

Furthermore, as Smollon argues, this is especially important for mothers because their mood often affects the rest of the household:

Children are remarkable in their ability to sense their mother's mood and internalize it. No matter what emotion a mother is feeling, a child can sense it and then reflect it back in subtle or demonstrative ways (e.g., biting, hitting, crying). (p. 73)

If a mother is calm and unstressed, her children are more likely to be too, and a well and happy family is a better environment for all its members.

The idolatry of motherhood

Looking at all this from the flip side, this is, in a sense, the reason why throwing yourself completely and utterly into motherhood may not be such a great idea. In the eyes of the world, it looks fantastic: people see that you're committed, they make comments about how much you must love your children (and, perhaps, how much your children must love you in return), and they elevate you as a model for other mothers to follow. However, if you do it to the point where you end up like the mothers Smollon interviewed in her book, I think you will end up with problems. I realise that this might depend on your personality; some women are more willing to embrace motherhood—or rather, to let motherhood embrace them—than others. (What I mean by that is that some women can throw themselves wholeheartedly and enthusiastically into the business of being a mother and enjoy themselves without losing themselves; others [like me] need something else to keep them going.) I think the problem occurs when you start thinking of your entire identity as defined by motherhood—instead of Christ. Once you start doing that, you're straying into the territory of idolatry. Be warned: God does not tolerate idols. He is a jealous God, and if you erect an idol in his place, he will tear it down. Guaranteed.

A side note: When I started reading The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood by Rachel Power, I found it curious how many of the women (including Power herself) spoke of their art as something they felt they had to do—that doing this made them a better mum (despite the guilt they felt for neglecting their children, which, from my reading, never seemed like serious neglect). I think I'd like to tell them that that's okay—that their desire to satisfy their creative urges is part of good self-care and that they should not feel guilty about it, because doing it is good for the sake of themselves, their children and their sanity.

R&R (rest and relaxation) for parents

So my thought about the importance of good self-care for the marathon of parenting translated itself into three things that must happen every week:

  1. Ben time (during which Ben takes care of himself by doing something fun and R&R-ish. This usually means going out with friends one night of the week. Our friends who are also parents find it astounding that Ben gets to go out so much);
  2. Karen time (more on that later);
  3. Marriage time (to use the terminology from The Marriage Course—i.e. time together as a married couple. This happens about once a week, and, as per the course, we take turns organising it. Activities vary: going for a walk, going out for dinner, watching a movie, getting takeaway, etc.)

Regarding Karen time: R&R looks very different when you're a mum. Babies change the way you do things. Your little person may not like being dragged wherever you go, so you have to be flexible and creative, and take the time where you get it. Sometimes you try things and they don't work. Sometimes you get lucky.

Certain activities on my old R&R list can't be done any more (e.g. going to concerts) or are harder (e.g. going to the movies). But I've found I've been able to continue doing things like reading, writing (and blogging!), watching DVDs and knitting in the time when Astrid is asleep during the latter half of the evening. (She will often go to sleep for a good 3-4 hours at around 7 or 8 pm.) During the day, it can be a little harder; the times when I've tried to go out and do nice things (hence all the stuff about mobility above) have generally been a little more stressful than expected. I expect it will get harder when she grows up, so perhaps then I will turn to options like babysitting and childcare. But I also need to be realistic: life has seasons, and there will no doubt be times when certain activities on my R&R list will be next to impossible (e.g. writing), while others may still be viable. The thing I have to remember is not to be reactive about it; I need to be proactive and plan ahead (as much as one can while still being flexible as a parent).

What do other mums do? I asked a couple of them in my mother's group. One talked on the phone while her daughter slept (she's an extrovert) or made plans to meet friends for coffee. The other was studying and so had no time for herself. The former mother had managed to go out for dinner once with her husband since their child was born; the latter had not, however, she did say that she and her husband saw more of each other now because she used to work days and he used to work nights. Nevertheless, from talking to both of them, it seemed that I have more time to concentrate on a specific task than either of them. I'm not sure if that's because Ben is at home most of the time, because I do less housework than them, or because I'm just driven to get stuff done. (I'd love to hear what you do; leave me a comment!)

I'd like to close with a quote from the page-a-day knitting calendar Janet gave me:

When my kids were little, I took them to the park for hours every day. I was extremely well regarded by the other mothers for my commitment to getting the girls tons of outdoor play and exercise. Little did they know I was only doing it for the knitting time. I spent many, many happy hours on a park bench avoiding housework, knitting away, and still being considered a good mum. (Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, Never Not Knitting Page-a-Day Calendar, 2010)

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