As first-time expecting moms and dads, we read up on pregnancy, on labor and delivery, perhaps on breastfeeding, and, if we are wise, on baby sleep.
But most of us fail to read up on the profound ways having a child will affect our lives, particular our partnership with our spouse.
Contrary to what some of your colleagues at work may believe, having a baby is not some kind of convenient excuse for a months-long staycation. Having a newborn is like a bomb going off in your life. You and your partner transmogrify from well-rested, well-adjusted, social people to a tired, infrequently showered, and low-EQ zombies.
As difficult as this transition is, few books or blogs tackle this huge life shift. It is a startling lack, given the profusion of books on pregnancy, delivery, baby sleep, and the first year with baby. Perhaps no one wants to deliver the bad news to glowing first-time mom-to-be. Or perhaps we all engage in a collective forgetting that allows the human race to survive.
Whatever the reason, the result is clear: Many new parents woefully underprepared, left to navigate the marital challenges of early parenthood without a map or even a compass, and often with profound sense of isolation and loneliness, despite how commonplace these challenges are. It’s the reason books like “How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids” are written.
I would like to recommend two books that help–in very different ways–new parents-to-be prepare for the emotional toll of being a new parent.
The second, which I describe below in detail, is Arlie Hochschild’s The Second Shift.
Since The Second Shift’s release, the phrase “the second shift” has entered common parlance to describe the unpaid labor that parents–mostly moms–do after getting home from their “real” jobs.
Hochschild meticulously documents this pattern through a series of in depth interviews with parents in the late 1970s and early 1980s
Hochschild’s book, which popularized the idea that women work a “second shift” taking care of the kids and the home after they get home from their jobs, was based on interviews with parents in the late 1970s–before we had cellphones, the internet, or social media.
Given that these interviews occurred nearly 50 years ago, when I first picked up The Second Shift, I expected to see only a distant resemblance to modern parenting. But while some of the traditional gender roles many of the parents she interviews espouse feel pretty dated–most new parents I know at least espouse equality between partners as an ideal–the book as whole feels like it could have been written today.
The unequal division of domestic labor she describes and how it affects parents individually and as a couple applies to nearly every couples I know with young children.
in particular, two phenomenon she describes resonated with me: (1) The Supermom and (2) “The Going Rate.”
Cultural Phenomenon #1: The Going Rate. “You should be so grateful that your husband helps with the kids. Your father never even changed a diaper.”
The problem: We tend judge our husband’s contributions not by whether they are equal to ours, but by how they measure up other dads’ contributions. This isn’t only a “female problem”. Sometimes new dads themselves fall into this trap, responding defensively that they do more than Joe down the street, who doesn’t even mow his own lawn, when their wife complains that they are not doing the dishes enough.
Worsening this problem are the dramatically different expectations our culture holds for moms and dads. Once, while my husband briefly watched over our then two-year-old and four-year-old at the airport as I raced to the bathroom, an elderly woman walked up to him and told him, “You are such a great dad”. He received this praise, so far as we can tell, for having managed not to lose or murder his children in the 5-minute period he was alone with them. No stranger has ever walked up to me to tell me that I am a great mother, not when I was wrangling three kids down the grocery aisle, not when I patiently read to my child with huge bags under my eyes, never.
Is it damned hard to buttress ourselves against the constant onslaught of these subtle and not so subtle messages. Our brains are bombarded with the idea that dads just need to show up to be a good parent, while moms need juggle everything while looking like an Ingram #fitmom celebrity and maintaining the false cheer and acquiescence of a Stepford Wife.
Moms, does your son have his shirt on backwards? Did your kids forget to say please or thank you? Have you lost that last five pounds of baby weight? Is your house a bit messy? Do you have spit up on your shirt? What’s wrong with you?
Moms get dinged for all these cultural infractions. Dads get a total pass.
Did he play ball with the kids outside for a an hour? Did he make them pancakes for breakfast? What a wonderful involved father! How lucky you are to have such a helpful husband!
Trust me, once you add The Going Rate to your lexicon, you see this phenomenon everywhere. And once you do, you can start more effectively countering the “soft bigotry of these low expectations” for new dads.
Cultural Phenomenon #2: Supermom–she cooks, she cleans, she crafts, she has the energy of 5 women on 4 hours of sleep. Not to mention the hair and skin of a supermodel, as she rushes out the door to her fabulous high-powered job.
New moms confront the Supermom ideal everywhere, at home and at work, on TV and the Internet. Like the lithe blonde girls in beer commercials, it’s a marketing staple.
And why Supermom image so effective at selling products to new mothers? Because she doesn’t exist.
Most new moms long for the days when we had time to do our hair, put on makeup, work out at the gym, feel generally well rested, and kick up our feet for a couple of hours after a long day. It would be lovely if we were that relaxed with our of course perfectly behaved children. And if buying a new whiteboard or type of vitamin might get us one iota closer to that family ideal, we are more than willing to shell out some cash.
This myth of the Supermom has not lost its cultural resonances. If anything, with the rise of social media, and our daily exposure to our friends’ and families’ curated daily high points, it may be a more relevant sources of angst for moms today than 50 years ago.
We are all guilty to some degree of perpetuating the supermom myth. We upload our perfect vacation pictures from the glorious moments on the beach, but leave out our kids’ spat over a shovel that took half an hour to resolve.
And while, yes we all recognize that Facebook and Instagram tell only part of the story, it is hard to get our tired brains to go the extra step of imagining the rest of the picture: the lack of sleep, the dishes left in the sink and laundry heaped on the floor, the epic screaming fest that proceeded the adorable newborn curled up in her crib. We know that everyday travails and hardship are lurking in the background. But because our animal brains do not see it, we don’t feel it.
Some celebrity moms are now leading the charge to dispel this absurd and frankly harmful notion of motherhood. Serena Williams, Pink, and others, as privileged as they are, have begun talking about some of the common challenges of combining motherhood with work, of missing milestones and feeling overwhelmed. But we can all chip in, by sharing not just our highlight reel but getting real with others, in person and on social media.
The other thing I would love to see new moms do is send this book to expecting dads. It’s hard to share books like this with your partner, especially once you’re already deep in the trenches of new parenthood.
But with your guy friend who whole heartedly believes in women’s equality, whom we all know is all too likely to fall short just like so many other well-intentioned new dads? That’s a much easier conversation. So let’s do our part to support fellow moms.
What’s your favorite book about becoming a parent? And what book do you wish your partner had read before you embarked on this new journey together?
Please note: This post contains affiliate links. Clicking on these links helps support my blog and research. Access to scientific articles is absurdly expensive! I have only linked here to books that I personally read, enjoyed, and would recommend to my friends and family.