First Year of Motherhood: Fighting Contentment

Over the last year or more I’ve been amidst an ongoing conversation with a friend of mine. Through a long course of reflection, this passage below is where they are. Where are we, America? Earth? Universe? Share your thoughts in the comment section at the end.

“I have struggled in the past six months to shape (frame) an open letter regarding maternity leave into a meaningful and grippingly relevant story, the likes of which might charge political leaders to take action on protections for new parents in this city and/or state and/or country. My mind has cycled through the excuses - I have come up with  many - but I realize now that my heart just isn’t in it in the same way it had been before motherhood. I have become content with my situation in much the same way, I would imagine, women before had become content with theirs.

Let’s rewind.

A week before my due date, I’m sitting at my computer in the office, a pregnant vessel of hormones and nerves, freaking out about how little time my husband and I had agreed we would each take away from work to be with our still unborn, but very soon to be newborn, child. My emotions ranged from despair to fury - a set that was surely being felt by the little guy inside, but I couldn’t shake them that day. I sent off a vent session email to my mom with an infographic showing paid maternity leave throughout the world. Of the two countries, in the entire world that did not offer anything by way of financial or job security as a mandated protection for either mothers or fathers, the United States was one. Of all of the things that people could find to argue about within our society, maternity/paternity leave, I thought, should be one that everyone could agree on. What better way to create a healthy and productive society than to begin life with the care and nurturing a baby needs from their parents and provide adequate time for parents to adjust to such a life changing event? (Should this be elaborated on?) Then, why, has America not moved toward measures to build this into the lifestyle of the American way similar to every other country, developed or not, in the world?

The easy answer I had was that America has been broken, politically, for far too long - perhaps for my entire lifetime and certainly since I’ve had the right to vote. If I’ve learned anything in the last two years, though, it is that I need to involve myself more in this civic process. I thought starting locally on an issue that I was passionate about and directly affected me now might help to make bigger waves eventually and would give me practice for tackling other issues along the way. During my 10 week maternity leave, I spent every day with my new baby boy healing, learning, growing, thinking - the list goes on. Toward the end of my leave while giving my baby his daily outdoors time via a walk, the urgency of parental leave came back in full force. I could not shake the belief that I was being shorted the time I needed in order to ease into life with a child and to help him ease into the world. We found ourselves parked on a bench mid-walk, 8 week old Baby sleeping soundly beside Mother furiously drafting a letter directed to local governmental leaders explaining our story and why America should do better for working parents and their children in the first year(s) of life.

Like all complex issues, the reasons to support new families begins at the simplest, for example, fried brains from lack of sleep and then quickly spirals down into an abyss of societal disrupt, economical instability and the deterioration of family. Suddenly, the weight of this list of reasons cripples the mind and emotions into a state of hopelessness. As I tried fleshing out my letter, new reasons kept emerging and I felt this hopelessness begin to take over and stall me out on progress. Knowing that continuing this effort would soon end me, I put the letter aside and focussed on the things that I could control - being with my new little family in the moment and trying to enjoy to the fullest those moments that we did have together.

Back to the present.

Looking back at this last year, and looking at, or acknowledging the situations of others, I feel very fortunate. I am fortunate because I work for a company who has given me monetary protections to spend time with my baby. From birth, 6 weeks of Short Term Disability - 8 if baby is birthed cesarean - in addition to 3 weeks of Paid Parental Leave. I am also legally protected from losing my job under the Family Medical Leave Act for the first 12 weeks to handle the introduction of the baby into my life. Now that I’m back at work, I’m allowed flexibility in my week to help juggle the additional life in our family. I am grateful because I work for a company that values my life, my family, and my career. They offer me what they can and better benefits than many women and men before me. This security in finance and career is probably the largest factor contributing to the contentment I feel now. I knew the parameters of my timeline - I treasured every moment with my baby boy measuring his growth in inches, pounds, and development of skills and personality. I have little to really complain of, right?  

As we settle into a lifestyle with the addition of a baby, we become content with the fact that life is actually going alright, quickly forgetting the stress that ran rampant just several weeks prior. Our brains have been conditioned to suppress the pain or work through it. With a baby, our hearts tie us tightly to family; caring for that one tiny little life takes precedent. In both the mind and the heart, we stack priorities against one another.. Mine is weighted heavily toward being a mother and a partner - next toward making a living so we can stay in our home and continue feeling safe and secure in our life as a little family. Projects that once seemed so important have fallen in rank to the point at which I feel I don’t care. Then I’m reminded - I am in a position in life that I can and should prioritize some space for people that are not as fortunate - and this is where I’m at today.

Unfortunately, there are many who are not in a position like mine. As a thought exercise, I wondered if, contentment and security was all relative. Does a women with 6 weeks of disability feel ok with heading back to work so much sooner because that is how she provides for her family? If I survived my perceived stress, couldn’t she survive hers? …. Frankly… what a dumb thought. Of course we can do better - we are America! I realized contentment is this “disease” that we have not been able to cure - one that strikes in all areas - but parental leave was one area I was so very passionate about for so long. The one for which I thought I could write about and contribute to making a difference for families in this country.

The thing that keeps this on my mind despite the fact that I’ve lived through it and feel content is that I am empathetic to women who have it worse. I should write for them if not for me - I need to voice my concerns still remembering that having no protections for families starting out DOES hurt the family DOES cause undue stress CAN slow development of children IS a burden on society from birth throughout life. We are the only developed country that does not address this as an issue - and in the world we live in - this is problematic if not only for optics. We can and should do better.”

Ashley Ochiagha