Moms Without Help

How do moms without help do it?

That’s the question Charlotte asks Miranda in my favorite scene in the new Sex and the City movie. CharlotteOut for a fabulous night with the girls (even after a not-so-fabulous time trying to get ready home alone with the Lilybird). and Miranda, the two moms of the fabulous four, create a drinking game of sorts as they confess to each other the hard things about motherhood that they feel ashamed actually thinking much less articulating. Charlotte, who fans of the show will remember had been desperately hoping for a family since her first marriage, feels deeply guilty about how effectively her two daughters are driving her crazy. Miranda, who has quit her law firm, admits that as much as she loves her son, being at home with him isn’t enough. She misses her job.

They both admit that being a mom is just hard. Full stop.

Of course you love your children more than you can even put into words. Of course your heart has grown in ways you never thought possible. But it’s hard work. And then Charlotte says what I had been thinking, “And I have help! How do moms without help do it”

Miranda exclaims, “I have no [insert a well-deserved profanity] idea.” And they drink to all of the mothers who don’t have nannies and housekeepers.

There was a distinct smattering of applause in the theater.

Maybe there were more moms like me in the theater that night who had barely made it out the door for a rare night on the town with their girlfriends (my friend’s company threw a fabulous screening).

First Lily insisted on coming into the shower with me. (For non-toddler mothers read: shrieking loudly, wailing, banging violently on the shower door.) Then after I managed to get us both reasonably dried off and partially clothed, she suddenly got freaked out—I mean almost hyperventilating scared—when I turned on the blow dryer (obviously I don’t do this often!). I had to bring the ever-patient pooch, Pali, in for a tummy blow-dry demonstration (crazy dog loves blow dryers) to show her that it was okay. Then, the fuse blew in our apartment because the ancient wiring in a lot of city places can’t handle blow dryers easily. And the fuse box is down two flights of stairs on the outside of the building. Guess how easy it is to get to this while half-dressed home alone with a toddler who wants to walk down and then up every stair herself? Oh—and I was trying to still manage to feed Lily a decently healthy supper that included something other than cheese sticks so she’d be ready for a bath and bed when Stephen got home.

Whew! Sound tiring? It was.

So, how do we moms without nannies and maids do it? Sometimes, I also have no [insert well-deserved profanity here] idea. 

Occasionally I manage to impress myself with how I’m managing to still produce a film in between moments of toddler chaos (I did manage a three-month production road trip, after all). Sometimes it’s even fun to realize what I’m capable of. 

Example: Three weeks ago we needed to shoot an interview with one of our subjects way out in the East Bay. The shoot would take most of the day, and while we used to wear Lily around in an Ergo while filming, she’s way past the age when that can happen now. She needs to be out of earshot. But she’s still nursing, and leaving her at home for 8-10 hours with a sitter seems like more than either of us can handle. So, we brought her and a babysitter with us. We also brought our dog, thanks to the prompting of our interviewee who reminded us that he has a big yard.

I wish I had a picture of our caravan heading out over the Bay Bridge. Husband and me in the front seat, reviewing our filming priorities for the day. Sitter and Lily in the back seat, eating snacks and reading books. Camera, sound equipment, gear loaded in the back. Wait—make that Husband and me with our dog on my lap in the front seat—no room elsewhere for the pooch!

I was able to put Lily down for a nap in an upstairs bedroom while we set up (seriously glad to be nursing still at times like this), and after she awoke, the sitter took her on a long walk to a park while we shot. It wasn’t always pretty, and sometimes it was downright nuts, but we did it. At the end of the day we had a great interview, our daughter had had a fun field trip, and I felt like I was still managing—even if just barely—to contribute something valuable to the world we'd brought Lily into.

That was one of the good days. 

One of the downsides to spending my meager babysitting funds to hire a sitter while we work is that there is almost no babysitting money for what I’m increasingly realizing is the all-important Time Off for Mommy. This lack of regular alone time leads rather rapidly to the Exhausted Place, a place very accurately described in two posts (part 1, follow-up) by Lauren Miller, a work-at-home mom and writer. As she writes, “This Exhausted Place is not a happy place.  It is a decidedly un-rosy place.  A place of half-empty glasses and partly cloudy skies.  A place where energetic, optimistic people become grouchy slugs.  Panic percolates.  Resentment builds. Unease settles in…”

And she’s spot on that it’s more than just lack of sleep that causes this.

Sure, insufficient sleep is part of it.  But that I’m-so-tired-I-can’t-think feeling comes from more than a mere sleep deficit.  It happens when we feel overextended, underappreciated and out of control.  It sneaks in when we’ve tried to do too much, when we can no longer see the trees for the forest (not the same as not seeing the forest for the trees).  It’s the consequence of a life lived to the edge of the page, without any margin.  Without any space between.

For me, part of the Exhausted Place comes from a feeling of doing this mostly alone. I should point out that I have probably one of the most-involved husbands around. He’s made choices so that he can primarily work at home, which means that I not only have much more help than other moms I know, but I also often have another adult to converse with over meals. If you’ve never spent 10-12 hours home alone with an infant, you likely don’t understand how quickly one starts to go more than a little bit nuts without someone around who can appreciate how frustrating it is to clean applesauce off of every surface (including the ceiling) of the kitchen.

No, by “alone,” I’m really talking about how isolated families are in our culture. We’re overwhelmed, sleep-deprived, and going crazy in unison, but we’re doing it in our own private homes, fiercely independent. By the way, I should point out that I don't think this is something that even moms with paid help are immune to; they just also have to juggle more paid work responsibilities likely with guilt over childcare realities. We're all over-extended and really, really tired.

I’m convinced that part of this exhaustion stems from the whole Western (and quite modern) idea of nuclear families living independently, all by themselves, often far from other family-support systems. These leads directly to lives lived on the very edge of the margin, and I don’t think it’s actually working very well.

Whatever we are—SAHM, WAHM, work-outside-the-home moms—we’re often too isolated, and the work is just too much to bear a lot of the time. We have play dates and lots of activities to distract us and help pass time in a way that we hope is educational and fun for our children, but that's not enough. We need so much more support (and I'm talking about political processes here too--my Swedish friend with 18-months of maternity leave at 80% pay with great, subsidized childcare programs shakes her head at what we consider "family values.")  I’m convinced this state of near-constant exhaustion is why cry-it-out ever became an acceptable parenting model. Of course it doesn’t make sense, and of course it completely grates against every maternal instinct we have, but without the extended family around to either comfort the baby or help with running the home so the mama can rest more, it’s just a way of coping and staying sane, even if barely. In many ways our affluence and the fact that we can afford to maintain separate residences for each nuclear family contributes to our isolation.

I just had a great chat with a sleep consultant yesterday (getting some advice on night weaning Lily), and we talked about how utterly exhausting modern parenting is for both parents, but especially mothers. We have added many roles in the past few decades, but we haven’t given anything up. By and large, we still carry the mental weight of running the home and social worlds in addition to whatever else we were doing prior to becoming moms. I can get really resentful when I realize that I’m the one who reads the parenting/developmental books, connects with other families, makes all the doctors appointments, buys/sells the clothes and toys, packs the snack bag, keeps an eye on the diaper supply, know about the recent infant tylenol/motrin recall, schedules the occasional sitter, etc., etc..

It really is a lot of balls to keep in the air, and I often cringe as I feel one or more falling. (Luckily Lily likes balls and would prefer them on the ground where she can play with them.) Changing my perspective on priorities, lowering my standards on house-keeping, and deciding that showers are optional when sleep can be gotten has a lot to do with how I'm staying (mostly) sane these days.

And, there's always love. As a mom friend said after commiserating about the challenges, "Love somehow provides that last bit of energy I need." 

Example #2: I started this post the day after watching the new Sex and the City movie, on May 27. It’s been 16 days since I’ve had a chance to finish it. 

That’s how moms without help do it.