Parenting is the final frontier of feminist progress. Most women I know, blessed with the privilege of self-determination for much of their lives, crashed into their feminist sensibilities when their little bundles of joy came along. If, like me, you’re a woman who finds a great deal of meaning and identity in her career, then the transition to being a SAHM can be a tough one. I decided to stay home after I had my second baby, hoping to be one of those moms who thrived on being with my kids. As it turns out, thrived is not the term I would use.
For me, the hardest part of the transition was navigating the extreme dependence and interdependence of my new life. I don’t like having to depend on others. I got pretty good at running my own life. Then, just like that, BAM. I depended on others for income, for time to think, for sleep, for the ability to eat sitting down. Suddenly I felt—I hate to say it—needy and desperate. I didn’t like it. What would bell hooks do? I asked myself.
One year later, I offer what wisdom I have gathered for others who decide to take on the hardest job ever.
1. Ditch the Labels—For Yourself
You are not a “good” mom or a “bad” mom. You are not a “natural” or a “failure.” You are a complicated human being with strengths and weaknesses, just like everyone else. I’m good at emotional validation, and I’m bad at crafts. I prefer a structured day but unstructured play. I hate being home for long, so I get us out every day. I am a stone-cold sleep trainer. Those are pieces of me as a mom. Just like with our gender identities, we need to think complexly and non-judgmentally about our mothering styles.
2. Let Yourself Struggle
Let’s face it: Life as a mom is unfair. Start with institutional patriarchy: the cost of child care, the lack of paid maternity and paternity leave, low wages, disproportionate numbers of single parents, the list goes on. Then there’s the daily struggle: breastfeeding, night wakings, physical changes, disruptions in your career. These are uneven burdens.
On my good days, I tell myself they are also a privilege. After all, I get the majority of snuggles and laughs. I get to see my kids reach their milestones and watch their personalities develop moment-by-moment. But it can be hard to be grateful when I’m so exhausted I feel like the world is spinning around me and I’m floating away from it. But it’s OK—be with your struggle. You don’t have to love everything about parenting. Use the anger to help guide you toward change, the changes you need. That might mean speaking out to change these injustices. It might also mean exploring the existential void (you know, the angst that asks, “What’s it all for? What is the meaning of this?!) These struggles are a huge part of what propelled world-changing feminists in the first place. They are healthy.
3. Do What Works for You, Just Like You Used To
There is a reason for all those parenting blogs and podcasts and books out there: No one really knows what they are doing. We are still navigating the terrain of parenting with our feminist ideology in tow. One great thing about scrapping those old gender ideas is that we get to create new values, new choices for ourselves. You are thoughtful and you have good instincts. If it feels right for you, do it. There are lots of right ways to do it. My second child taught me that all those things I thought I’d figured out with my first were simply hilarious! No one has it figured out.
4. Just Hand Him the Baby…
…assuming you are a woman with a male partner. If that doesn’t describe you, I imagine your struggles are different, and I am in no place to offer you advice.
It’s easier to feel like an equal in the workplace than it is in your marriage. The differences in our socialization will become glaringly, maddeningly clear after the babies come. There is interesting research showing that men and women with more nontraditional gender values tend to have lower marital satisfaction. I think this is because without the guidance of traditional values, we can have radically different expectations for each other.
Take this example: When that baby cries, your first thought will be, Okay, I’ll go get him. I don’t have the energy to ask my husband. His first thought will be, She’ll go get him. I’ll just lie here unless she asks me. A more traditionally minded mom might think, Of course. This is my job. A nontraditional mom might punch him.
Don’t punch him. Don’t hate him. Don’t have the “Who’s More Tired” fight. (For the record, you are the more tired one. I know it, and you know it.) Forgive him for his privilege. Teach him! Teach him good. Start by thinking like him. Just hand him the baby. After a particularly bad night, I threw the baby at him, said, “I need some sleep!” and went to the other room. Another day, after my husband napped on the couch for two hours, I wanted to scream. Instead, I handed him both babies and declared, “I’m going to Target!” I felt much better when I got home.
When my baby turns a year old, I’m going to eliminate the morning breastfeeding so that I can schedule mornings for my husband to go get him. I will keep giving him the babies until he protests. I put the burden on him to do the asking.
What surprises me is that when I do this, my husband is not angry. He seems grateful. He is glad I won’t be angry, and he won’t have to figure out what to do about it. Remember, you are the most important thing in the world to your partner. Deep down, he wants to know how to make you happy. He may get defensive because he is struggling with himself; he knows he should be helping you more. Go after what you want. He gets that. He’s a man.
bell hooks believes, “In future feminist movement we need to work harder to show parents the ways ending sexism positively changes family life. Feminist movement is pro-family.” We are fortunate to live in a time in which we can invent and re-invent our motherhood. We can teach our families how to imagine love that includes thinking critically about our roles. We can look into our partners and our children’s eyes and see their magical individuality, and show them our own.