Monday, June 19, 2017

Review: Being There

Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters by Erica Komisar, LCSW
Date: April, 11 2017
Format: hardcover
How did I get this book? borrowed from library
Goodreads | Publisher | Author

I imagine the title of this book alone elicits one of two reactions from most people -- nods of agreement or it gets their hackles up. As a general rule, I don't read a lot of parenting books and only picked this one up from the library because I really liked an article the author wrote on the children's book site Brightly (affiliated with the book's publisher): How Reading to Your Children Helps You to Be a Present Parent. Parenting advice in general stresses me out, but how books and reading help us be better parents is the kind of advice I find encouraging (imagine that!) Reading is just one example of how we can better connect with our kids, but this book goes way beyond that and is a rather forceful argument for the need for more present parenting (with a HUGE emphasis on mothering) when kids are very young.

I did find this book interesting and useful, but as a whole, it was a bit hard to swallow. I guess that is sort of the point and Komisar says right in her introduction that readers who already have kids may not like what she has to say and may feel guilty or uncomfortable. She has a point when she says, "As a therapist, I am in the business of making people feel uncomfortable so they can change and ultimately live happier and more satisfying lives." She is also hoping to reach readers before they become parents, but I don't honestly know how many non-parents are going to pick up a book like this. If any do, it certainly gives plenty to consider and it does an admirable job of conveying the enormity of parenthood, its responsibilities, and the fact that a lot of things change when you have a kid. Believing your life will go on exactly as it was, just with one more along for the ride, is (in my opinion) a pretty dangerous -- and unachievable -- illusion.

Komisar asserts we would all do well to confront and work through any of our own childhood traumas or difficulties before we become parents ourselves. I'd venture a guess that very few people put "see a therapist" on their list of things to do before starting a family or while pregnant. And while I see the author's point, without a HUGE sea change in how mental health is viewed in this country, this seems like the kind of thing only a privileged few realistically would (or could) do.

Komisar also asserts she is not anti-feminist and is not anti-working moms. She is a big advocate for better family/maternity leave policies and legislation and the need for more flexible workplaces. She argues this makes economic sense for companies as well as being good for families. She also gives zero free passes to stay-at-home or work-from-home moms -- even if you're physically around more, according to Komisar's research and experience in her practice, there is a whole lot you can still screw up. (My husband thinks reading this was a bad idea because I'm already too hard on myself -- and he's probably right.) She addresses ways to best handle daycare or other caregiving arrangements, how to better understand how young children process your absence, and how to help them with those transitions in a healthy way.

As someone who is primarily home with my son, I had a lot of questions about how to actually do what she is asserting is best for babies and toddlers. She does give a lot of practical, concrete examples and advice, but I was still left feeling a bit like she is saying that (ideally) everything should be done by the mother all the time and that you should avoid as many distractions as possible during waking hours. She mentions the need for a support system and laments the rarity of extended family support with child-rearing, but I was having trouble figuring out what exactly she envisions this support system doing because she is so, so focused on interaction between mother and child. She mentions the importance of fathers too, but again, I'm a bit at a loss for concrete examples of the role she feels these other people play in a child's life from birth through age two.

I think it is excellent advice to be less distracted when we are with our children. I already know I need to be on my phone less and it's something I am working on. But when she talks about moms needing support and not being isolated, I think she is overlooking the fact that phone contact is one way to be in touch with loved ones and friends during the day when you are otherwise alone with your child. It's not face-to-face, but sometimes messaging is all we have. Even recognizing my own need to cut back (and asking my husband to do the same), I'm a bit tired of vilifying phone use. And the way this book discusses moms on their phones just reinforces the idea that everyone is watching you and judging you -- like you need a sign on your head justifying why you are on your phone to the rest of the world or you're just another mom who's ignoring her baby, like everyone these days, isn't technology just terrible?

And she even cites things like washing the dishes or cleaning as distractions that don't allow us to be present. I am all for dumping the expectations of a spic-and-span house when you have littles in the house, but there is only so much you can let slide. You're going to run out of dishes at some point or you're going to start sneezing your brains out because it's been way too long since you last vacuumed (or is that one just me?) I understand we should limit our distractions, but if we focus almost entirely on our child during his waking hours, there just are not enough hours remaining to leave the rest of everything to when he's sleeping. And if she acknowledges a need for moms to rest and recharge (which she absolutely does), there has to be time for that somewhere too, not just frantically cleaning, catching up on work, showering, and (maybe) getting a halfway decent amount of sleep. I really would have loved to see a sample schedule for a week that shows how she suggest we fit it all in -- and by "all" I really do just mean the bare minimum of what is needed to keep things reasonably afloat, not the "all" that means everything is perfect all the time.

She repeatedly says that it is never too late to change or repair our relationships (which is encouraging), but over and over and over again, there are statistics that make it seem as if you don't get those first three years right, your kid is (probably) in big trouble. Oh, and any of your own emotional issues can likely be traced to how you were mothered yourself, which I think is rather unfair. She tries really hard to not play the guilt or blame game, but (to me), it seems to be there in between the lines anyway, to some extent. She says there is no such thing as a perfect mother, that children don't actually need a perfect mother, but rather a "good enough mother," and that babies are generally forgiving of our mistakes as long as we continue to try to meet their needs. But I'm having a really hard time determining what exactly "good enough" is when there are so very many things we shouldn't be doing (and things we should be doing better) and she's throwing around terms like "subtle forms of emotional abuse and neglect."

I also had a really hard time distinguishing between what she describes as perfectly normal for a toddler and what she describes as problematic behavior or symptomatic of deeper issues. I could read one section and think "phew, OK, all that toddler stuff we're dealing with is just par for the course" and another section and think "or maybe my kid is completely screwed up already?" There seems to be a fine line, at least to a lay person who does not have a background in child psychology and development.

She also says things like the pain and hardship of being sleep-deprived in order to make sure your young children feel safe and secure, especially at night, is worth it. She maintains that the worst sleep deprivation is in the earliest newborn days, but that night waking (and night comforting) are normal through the first three years. In my own personal experience, it is really hard to be engaged and present in the way this book describes when you are exhausted all the time (and what about people with more than one kid?!) I hate letting my son cry at night (and we've tried waiting varying amounts of time before going in depending on his age and other factors), but my ability to concentrate and be more engaged definitely suffers when I am chronically not getting close to enough sleep.

The best parts of this book? The Debunking the Myths of Modern Motherhood chapter was very interesting and a more general discussion of the principles found in the book as a whole. I think those are really great conversation starters in terms of how society views motherhood, babies, children, and what is truly best for families. (And I don't mean a one-size-fits-all solution or a return to some past era that gave women less choices -- that's no good for anyone.) The other chapter that really got me thinking was Why Don't We Value Mothering? In general, society tends to devalue "women's work" and that is problematic. I'm really trying to let Komisar's bold statement that "All mothers are working mothers" really sink in -- because I need to hear it and because it is true. We all have differing circumstances, desires, choices, etc. but parenting is hard work, period. No matter how much or little else you do in addition.

The book is well-written and engaging -- I read it in just 2 days (partially thanks to the fact that it was due back to the library the day I started it and I couldn't renew --oops!) It was very thought-provoking and is making me re-examine how I interact with my son on a day-to-day basis. There are plenty of things I can do better, but I feel like there is a lot of pressure to mother the right way and it's really overwhelming. This book tries very hard to be a balanced, realistic view of varying family circumstances and I think it more or less achieves that despite my rambling criticisms and questions. I do think it's my own perfectionist tendencies (and, of course, she has something to say about perfectionism too!) that views many of her recommendations as overwhelming (if we shouldn't be so distracted when we're with our kids, we should really never be distracted, right? But of course that is completely unrealistic and impossible.)  I would really, really love to talk to someone else who has read it, so if you do, please let me know!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Reading with Kid: A Work in Progress

My son turned two at the end of April. I don't know how my baby is now a full-blown toddler -- he has been for quite a while now to be honest. Looking back at "1 year ago today" or "2 years ago today" pictures on my phone kind of kills me. It's such a cliche, but the time really does fly by so fast. And, no, I was not prepared for toddlerhood. AT ALL. I thought having a baby would be the biggest life adjustment, but now I'm not so sure. Going from having a needy, cuddly baby to a stubborn, ants-in-his pants toddler has been an education for sure. Babies and toddlers change so rapidly that whenever I feel like I sort of have a handle on a particular stage, it's onto a new one! I feel like the same thing has happened with my reading since he was born. I figured my reading habits would change once I became a mother, but I didn't anticipate how frequently they would continue to change as the months went by.

In the early days, I read far more than I thought I would because I read when I was pumping. I really hated pumping, so getting to read a book was a bit of a treat to help the time pass. I wasn't reading anything heavy or difficult, but I really surprised myself with how many print books I was finishing during the newborn days. It also helped that I was awake for way more hours than usual, so while I was so very tired, I was reading quite a lot as well.

After that short-lived phase, when he was completely on formula, I would sneak a few pages while feeding him or rocking in the rocking chair. These were oftentimes when he was sleepy -- and small enough to basically fit in one arm. I'd prop up a book and read so long as he was content, which was pretty often. There wasn't much better than snuggling up with my baby and a book during that stage.

Then, as he got a bit bigger, but wasn't verbal yet, I went through a big audiobook phase. I read aloud and talked to him SO MUCH throughout the day, that I didn't feel bad popping in headphones while we were out on walks and he was happily looking out at everything around him and soaking it all in. (I think we both needed a break from the sound of my voice, to be honest!) I listened to multiple Diana Gabaldon marathon audiobooks with no trouble at all over the course of several months. And if I could get the audiobook for my book club selection, I never had any issues finishing before our meetings. I did have a really hard time getting through print books though -- they were taking me forever because I didn't have much time for sitting still, non-audiobook reading.

Now at two years old, my son is talking up a storm, so I no longer listen to audiobooks while he's chatty -- which he always is when we go on walks. Occasionally, I will put on a children's audiobook in the car or on my phone with the speaker turned up, but it doesn't happen all that often. At this stage, he's much more engaged when a real-life person reads to him and he has pictures to look at. So for now, I'm back to a slower pace for audiobooks since I am mainly listening when I am not on solo kid duty, doing housework, after he's asleep, or on the occasional kiddo-less walk or drive. But when it comes to print books, I'm finding I have more time again! My son is getting better at playing on his own (as long as I'm in the room or nearby), but I can't be on my laptop or he's all over it trying to push buttons and "play" with it. So that means I can't get any work done during playtime, but it's a lovely "excuse" to read a chapter of a novel, dive into a graphic novel, or even to read some more "advanced" picture books for my own enjoyment. I think it's good that he sees me reading rather than on a screen and will be even more important as he gets older. As it is, I still think I spend too much time on screens and it's something I am trying to work on. Just yesterday he came over to me at my desk in the evening and said "no more computer!" Out of the mouths of babes, right?

So, if you're a parent, I'm curious how your reading has changed since your kiddo(s) came along? Any tips or tricks to cut down on distractions and screen time also appreciated!