A (Long) Note on How I Feel About Expecting Twins

My mother used to say, “Don’t have more kids than you have hands.”

Or maybe it was less prescriptive: “I didn’t have more kids than I had hands.”

Whatever the semantics, I have always thought of it as real, practical advice. She had two kids. I only ever wanted two kids.

For a long time after my son was born, I struggled to even imagine having one more. He was the kind of baby who slept in twenty minute bursts and who nursed round the clock. If you want a label, he was/is High Need or Spirited. Shortly after his second birthday, he stopped napping altogether. I coped with the high demand of this child with a lot of attachment parenting solutions, not because I wanted to (though much of it was in line with my natural instincts), but more because I was drowning most days, and attachment kept us afloat. If I had a second baby, I knew most of my first approach would not be practical. You can’t lie with a baby for every nap and night-time sleep with a toddler to also take care of. So I decided, Not now. Maybe not ever.  [Read more…]

Why We Shouldn’t Ask Parents to Control Their Kids

I’m a parent, so I occasionally come across articles and Facebook posts and real-life comments like this: “That mother needs to control her child.” 

I’m sure I’ve seen a toddler throw a tantrum at a grocery store and made a quick judgment about the choices her parents made that led to this unpleasant episode. Inconsistent rules, maybe? Not enough real consequences? Too much TV? When I was pregnant, just about every time my husband and I ate out, there was a crying baby near us, and I felt personally put out by the awful noise. This was all before I had my own kid, of course, which is why I understand the impulse, even if I’m no longer sympathetic toward the people who say, “She needs to control her child.”

What I know now is how very little parents can “control” other living beings. We can model for them, provide structure, discipline and support them, and make choices that give them the best chance of making choices we like, but “control?” Not really. And as a parent, the idea of full control of my son doesn’t feel good. I want him to be the one, as he grows, to moderate his behavior, something he will have to learn through practice but which, to an extent, is determined by natural biological development. I want to support him on that journey. 

Other than the unrealistic expectations we place on young kids, whether that’s for a baby to stop crying or a toddler to accept the adult logic behind not buying a twenty-dollar Cookie Monster pillow, my real problem with this idea of control is how it traps and burdens parents. I think mothers are generally held responsible to a greater extent than fathers, just because of gender norms and prevalent myths of motherhood, but I know this applies to fathers too. Frankly, if you are the adult who appears to be responsible for a baby or child, people will expect you to rein the kid in, somehow.

As a mother, I’ve heard the call for control loud and clear, but it started earlier than that. Before I had my son, I learned to control myself as a girl: how I dressed, how much space I took up, what I could say and how loudly, what emotions I felt and how strongly, where I walked, whom I let touch me and how and when and whether I was clear about wanting it or not. I learned the hard way how little I could control, although it took years of trying to make myself more vigilant, more rigid, more impenetrable first. The more I tried to control the world around me, control people’s reactions to me, control the way people treated me, the more out of control I felt. When bad things happened, I analyzed all my choices. I felt responsible, even when I wasn’t.

In my early postpartum period, I was afraid my baby would cry in public and I wouldn’t be able to soothe him. I was afraid I would have to breastfeed him, and someone would see my breast and harass me. I didn’t know how to give my breast to my baby without keeping my body contained, the way the world expects. Meanwhile, I was struggling with postpartum anxiety and depression, and spending all day at home with my crying baby was suffocating, terrifying, and so exhausting that I experienced panic attacks regularly and a troubling buzzing sensation in my head. I wanted to be with other people, but the need for control meant I couldn’t. 

In pregnancy, women’s bodies are policed by complete strangers. Are you drinking caffeinated coffee? You should exercise but not too strenuously. That allergy medicine could cause defects in your baby. God forbid you sip a bit of wine. Anything that goes into a pregnant body will either help or harm the baby that comes out, so goes the general wisdom; therefore, women must monitor and control themselves to the point, sometimes, of suppressing their own needs. Even the shapes pregnant bodies take are up for judgment, whether a woman gains enough or too little weight and where she carries it. Then, when the baby has been born, it’s how quickly can she get the weight off and back into the body of a woman who has not carried and birthed a baby.

If she chooses to breastfeed, there are rules: not in public, not near food, not without a cover, not past a certain age. (Bottle-/formula-feeding parents are judged to the point of self-restriction, too, because breast is best, duh, what kind of monster are you?) We set feeding schedules and fret if the baby feeds more or less frequently than she “should.”  If the breastfed baby cries a lot, the focus immediately goes to the mother’s diet. Try not eating any dairy. Or broccoli. Avoid fatty foods at all costs. The problem is caffeine or chocolate or beans or sugar or chicken or citrus fruits or beef or tea or spinach or garlic… Just, for the love of god, figure it out because the baby is crying. No one else can change a mother’s milk, no one else can affect the baby’s diet, if that is even the problem, so the mother is solely responsible, grasping at eliminations and additions, regardless of her own dietary needs, her own enjoyment of food, her own emotional peace.

Colic, doctors say, is not harmful in the long run, nor is it preventable or curable. But they will still recommend diet restrictions for the mother and baby, holds, schedules, homeopathic treatments, gas drops. Which kind of says, “You can control this if you try.” And you should definitely try. 

Your baby doesn’t sleep well? Train her. 

Your baby explores his surroundings as he grows? Better make your house baby-proof. If he bumps his head, you better believe a stranger at the park will consider if you’re an unfit mother or father. 

When babies become toddlers, outside pressure really amps up. They become capable of making questionable choices like repeating the curse word an exhausted caretaker occasionally mutters in despair, and running away screaming in public, and hitting, and throwing things, and knocking down grocery store displays while shouting, “Mommy is a monster!” If you somehow escaped the need to control him before, now you are actively ruining thirty seconds of someone else’s leisurely stroll through Target, so. Throw your body on the bomb if you must, just contain it. Do not under any circumstances allow your child to spill over the lines of appropriate public behavior, even if his prefrontal cortex is not yet developed enough for him to regulate his actions perfectly, even if it means you have to short-circuit his meltdown by any means possible rather than using it as a teachable moment, even if you have no idea what factors conspired to create this embarrassing and uncomfortable situation and could not have prevented it. Her behavior is basically your behavior. You are inseparable, just as when you contained her in your womb. (Have you tried just putting her back in there for a while, just til she cools off?)

I’ve seen comments on Facebook, mostly from people who don’t have children, like, “If the parents spanked the kid, that would never happen.” I choose not to spank my child, though I wouldn’t dismiss it as one aspect of discipline for other families. The problem is what this comment is predicated on, the assumption that there is one reliable and totally effective way to control a kid. But let me say this again: we cannot control 100% of our kids’ behavior. And we shouldn’t be trying to. We need to feel less pressure to shut down our children and more support from those around us to sit in the discomfort of their behavior and teach them how to be mindful of themselves and those around them.  

Thinking of babies and kids as an extension of ourselves — our manners, our unsightly excess — forces us to live a lie and sets us up to fail spectacularly. If we think we can control them, what does it say about us when they act in ways we don’t like? Are we bad parents? Are we failures? And I mean this on a deep, identity level, where we assess our value. Should we take more extreme measures to demonstrate our control in other areas, exercising to excess, cleaning to excess, dieting rigidly? This lie of control forces some of us to stay home, exacerbating depression. It forces some of us to raise our kids under the constant threat of exposure, in a constant state of anxiety, thus teaching them the same ways of being in the world. We make our lives as small as possible because there is less that can go wrong that way. But it still goes wrong. It still goes wrong. 

Parents, I feel you in this struggle to raise healthy, mindful, respectful children. I’m sorry I ever expected control from you. I won’t anymore, and I hope others won’t either. 

On Sharing/Withholding Trauma Stories

The impulse is to start with a list. 

The first boy who asked me out wrestled me to the floor in a locked room and held scissors to my throat until I said okay. I was twelve. 

At fifteen, on a family vacation, I was separated from other girls and women by a man who worked at the resort, and he pulled my swimsuit from my hips to expose me, saying, “We have to see if you are a woman.” 

During the welcome meeting at my college dorm, we covered, almost exclusively, the importance of curfew and not leaving male friends unattended because in the past boys had gone to other girls’ rooms and raped them, which made me wonder why I’d believed an all-girl dorm was safer. 

In my twenties, a man asked me for cash in a parking lot, and my first thought was that if I got in my car, he might overpower me, rape me, kill me. It was the middle of the day. It took every bit of courage to tell him I was sorry, I didn’t carry cash, and pray he’d move on. Instead, he stuck his hand in my pants, and I gave him the three dollars I had. Of all the times I’ve felt violated by a stranger, this one burned the most because of the money, because this was a theft that anyone else would acknowledge. And then, when I sought counseling to work through lingering anxiety over that day, my male therapist asked if I regretted engaging with the man because, if I’d ignored him, nothing bad would have happened.  

And then there’s the long-term boyfriend whom I still struggle to speak privately about, let alone publicly, because I know my version of our relationship and his version will not match up: I was in an abusive relationship/he loved me. It’s far too complex to even begin to address here, compounded by the fact that, as soon as I say I was in an abusive relationship, the chorus asks, “Why did you stay? What were you thinking? How could you put up with that?” Or worse: “It takes two people to make a relationship.” When I was with him, I used what I now think of as The Boyfriend Filter: every time something terrible happened, I asked myself, How does he see this? and from there, I completely demolished my own lived experience, my own reality, in order to manage his behavior toward me. He taught me to do this. 

So did every school dress code, every self-defense seminar, every warning to be modest/pure, every rape case where the victim was blamed in the media, every teen show where the pretty girl eventually rewards the nice guy with her body because he tried hard enough, and on, and on. 

The impulse is to list every instance that proves the point, from the ones that stand out so starkly I still see the face of a man I made eye contact with for less than a minute fifteen years ago, to the ones that feel so small by comparison that I can trick myself into not feeling them—which is it’s own kind of tragedy. But if lists of violations and traumas worked, if they could break down the walls of willfull denial, then the brave people who have shared their stories publicly before me would have already accomplished this. In some cases, maybe it strikes a note with those already disposed toward empathy and compassion. I guess there’s hope in that. But the list of ways I’ve been violated is not for those who are already forming a dismissal of it before I finish.

This is the catch-22: I want even just one of my scars to be enough for another human to reflect, to care, to change; and yet, why must I prove that I’ve been harmed in the first place? It’s not enough to say, “I’ve been violated.” If my most horrific example won’t convince others, then the default is to initiate the onslaught, as if the sheer magnitude of all the violations taken together will then mean something. For those who want to understand my reality, this isn’t necessary, but for those who don’t, even the onslaught is futile. And then I’m back where I was before, filtering, trying to understand others so that I can find some way to get them to understand me. 

What I have learned is that this is pointless. A person who doesn’t want to see you will not see you, and at some point, it does more damage to keep trying than to disengage. I don’t owe my story to anyone. I share it sometimes, cautiously, filled with panic, because I’m grateful for the people whose own stories make me feel less alone and less ashamed, and because, the very worst constant in all these negative experiences of my life is the silence, how the most visceral fear and pain I have ever felt can be turned into a lie—how the certainty of what I feel in my body most intensely, through silence, can be taken from me, too. 

It feels defeating to draw a line, to say, “Here’s where I stop trying to convince them.” It feels like giving up. When adrenaline spikes through me and my breathing falls shallow, when my hands shake as they are now, when that spot in my abdomen pulses like the start of a charley horse, I worry that I’m letting fear control me instead of standing up for myself and others. But I didn’t save myself from a toxic relationship until I was willing to draw the line, to not need him to validate my reality. I don’t know what that means for sustaining a meaningful conversation around this issue. I just know that it was the most important rebellion of my life.