Dear Mr. VP,
This might be a bit of a therapy session today. My apologies in advance. It gets there in the end, I promise.
I have been ruminating lately on how parenting can sometimes seem like one long exercise in guilt and anxiety. For the most part you don’t get to do what you want when you want to do it. You feel guilty for resenting this self-denial, and then you feel anxious about being guilty, and on and on. I think the majority of parents of young children have gotten caught up in this cycle at one point or another. You want what’s best for your kid(s) and it’s easy to feel that you aren’t doing enough, aren’t spending enough time, are damaging their small developing brains by taking time for yourself. And your kid is in on this game, letting you know in no uncertain terms that he disagrees with your decision to go out to dinner when in fact it is your duty and responsibility to be there for him at every bedtime until he’s 26. (Recently, I was told, “Mommy, I’m not big enough to sleep by myself. Maybe when I’m bigger. But I’m never going to move out.”)
This guilt/anxiety cycle started early for me, like perhaps the second I heard him cry in the Operating Room and I was strapped to a table and so I couldn’t do anything by lie there and assume eventually I’d get to see him. It didn’t help that I then chose to stay home, which had its benefits but ultimately allowed me no time for myself, and it certainly didn’t help that the incredible guilt over his difficult transition into the world compounded everything. Sometimes I felt like I was trapped in a room with no air. I stopped doing everything I’d found to help manage my anxiety — working out, spending time outside, reading, writing, seeing my friends — and spent every minute with G.
It was not a great two years for my mental health. I certainly treasure the time I spent with my kid, but finally going to back to work was like lifting my head out of a pool in which I was making the conscious decision to drown. It gave me the space to myself that I so desperately needed, and made me feel (slightly) less guilty about taking that time outside of work also. (Though were it up to you, I’d probably have stayed home.)
My saving grace during those years was an internet moms group. How millienial of me! I joke, but knowing I could reach out to moms across the world who all had kids of the same age, and even if it was 2:51 AM on the East Coast I might get a response from a similarly sleep-deprived parent, kept me going. About a hundred of us still talk, going on 4.5 years later, and they have continued to be my greatest cheerleaders and support system. I can’t imagine parenting without them. I wish I could mandate that every parent leaving the hospital get a similar immediate support granted to them, because I’m not sure that I would be quite as healthy as I am today without these folks.
You might have gotten this far and be asking yourself, “What’s the point?”
Here’s the point: when I got pregnant, I was set up to succeed. I was a healthy adult living with a partner. We planned to have a kid, and were lucky enough to be able to time this plan because neither or us had struggles with fertility. We were jointly making enough money to be more than comfortable. We lived in a home with enough space. We both felt secure in our employment. We had my family as a support system, and I had my moms on the web. We had excellent health insurance that left us with almost no bills from the hospital, despite my complicated delivery and G’s stay in the NICU. I got top-notch medical care during my pregnancy and was screened for PPD/A afterwards, though knew enough to downplay exactly how I was feeling so that I wouldn’t get flagged and actually have to talk to someone about my feelings. (I did do that eventually, and when I tell you that I lucked out in the therapist department, that’s for. real.)
Being a parent is hard. It is self-sacrifice, it is guilt-inducing, it is anxiety-filled. It is acknowledgment that for years of your life, you do not come first. It is giving up things that you want so that you can do right by your kid. It is getting home from work and keeping your jacket on until bedtime because between making dinner, making next-day lunch, reading Ranger Rick on the couch, finding the banana slug video, and hearing “Mommy, can you snuggle me?” you don’t have time to take it off. It is putting your head on a pillow every night and saying “At least I kept him alive and happy today,” even as you feel like it’s been a struggle not to curl up in a fetal position and just stay like that.
You want to force people with uteri to carry tiny humans to term, but you don’t do anything to provide them with a desperately-needed support network afterwards. You don’t want to provide people with birth control to allow them agency over their own reproduction. Parental leave is a joke in this country, and forces parents back to work before they feel they’re ready — you won’t do anything to change that. Repealing the ACA will prevent millions of people, including new parents, from accessing the mental health care they need. You don’t want to assure women equal pay, but neither do Republicans want to provide parents who can’t afford to care for their children any assistance to do so. And folks who are in one of the most vulnerable positions — those in abusive relationships — will likely have access to services slashed.
I have to tell you that my reaction to all of this is vulgar, and I’m just going to give it to you.
Fuck this. Why are we so determined to make life harder for parents? I mean, fundamentally, I know why. If you don’t have to pay for services for parents, you get to keep that money in your pocket and you get richer while other people suffer. That’s pretty crude, but it’s also pretty obvious, isn’t it?
If this parenting thing is hard for me, with all the privileges I’ve acknowledged and some I haven’t (for example — the white privilege that keeps me from having substantial worry about my child’s interactions with the police) then I know it is hard for every other parent who gives a crap. And if you are truly the family-values Christian you say you are, you’ll work to alleviate that. Unfortunately, I don’t think you and I have the same definition of family values.