extend the family

Bringing up a child in a tv-free home with just me and full-time employee Josh wasn’t always easy. It will be even more difficult with Althea (baby #2, the 9 week old) since Maya now watches a 2 (or 3) 20 minute shows most days. Maya started with television when she was 4, I think. I was very sick and Josh had to work. I put March of the Penguins on the computer so she could watch something while I was sleeping next to her. That was the beginning of the end of her tv-free life. Part of why we kept her tv-free was because Josh and I are both huge fans of television. We were not at all convinced we would be able to offer the entertainment to Maya in any form of moderation. It turns out this is a great risk especially when things got tough as a parent.
Very committed to the idea of keeping Maya tv-free for a while, sometimes I’d get “weak” and want to just have a break. I’d go to a few people — you’d be surprised how very, very few people in this world subscribe to this radical notion that a child’s life might benefit from no screen time — and ask for help and advice. The best answer I got was, “sounds like you need more support.” When I’d get that twinge of oh-my-god-if-only-I’d-feel-comfortable-with-one-episode-of-Sesame-Street-so-I-can-have-a-freakin’-break, I’d remember “I need more support.”
Fast forward to this past weekend we spent with my parents at their summer place. I remembered back to those days as a new mother sometimes struggling against the temptation to use the television as a babysitter. “I need more support.” Well, over the weekend when we were all together it was even more obvious to me. The use of television as a sitter and needing more support is deeply connected. With my parents there, it was easy to slip off to the bathroom or even take on a project like cleaning out the car. Not a big deal to ask someone to sit with a sleeping newborn, or play with a cute bundle of squishy sweetness. Not even a big deal to ask them to change diapers since it was only an occasional thing. And, of course, they were great company to Maya (almost 6) who was full of things to say as they did their work on the property and in the gardens. My brother and sister-in-law were there, too, which was like icing on the cake.
Having a group of adults around, even just one extra, like I imagine they had generations before (or perhaps they still do in worlds different than mine) makes all the difference. That little moment of sanity, of being “off duty” for even five minutes at a time is all that it takes for me to stay in the groove of completely loving parenting. It’s only when it’s non-stop with no break and no break in sight that everything starts to crumble. And, it’s doubly true with two children.
I think now of all the single parents I’ve known. Those parents who not only were the only parent involved–the partnership of a fully involved father makes the work much less difficult–but who also were without any extended family nearby. It makes me tired just thinking about it. Makes me want to run away and never come back just imagining what it must be like to be “on” all the time. And I mean all the time. Even if their child is in daycare so they can work, the child is still their responsibility. If s/he gets sick, who will pick them up? If the parent gets sick, who will take the child to daycare? The obvious list goes on.
When I was pregnant with Althea we considered hiring a post-partum doula. What this job entails is basically someone who comes in and fills the role I imagine was filled by extended family in the past. Laundry, cooking, watching the baby so the parents can sit on the porch with a cold drink for ten minutes, cleaning, shopping. Life. Help with life. But hiring a doula costs money. My parents offered to help — they are generous that way — and came up from Boston. But, then, they went home. And no matter how involved Josh is, most of the parenting is my job. At this point it’s because of the nursing responsibilities. But, later, it will be because he works a “regular” job while my business is something I do in odd hours (whenever I can manage it). Our friends are all families with super involved fathers, but, for a variety of reasons most of running or managing the household does come under the mom’s list of responsibilities.
What is the solution? Hiring a stranger to come in and help is an option for some (I’d do it if we could afford it). Staying close to family is another option, though mostly unappealing for so many of us and simply impractical for most. Living with our extended family would be ideal but, again, in my world that’s rarely even considered. And, truth be told, I prefer it that way.
Perhaps one thing we can do is simply acknowledge how near impossible it is to do it all ourselves. Take help where it comes (a group of mamas here in Maine cooked and froze and delivered many great meals for our family after Althea was born). Ask for help when it’s needed. And, whenever possible, spend time with our extended family (blood related or friends) to get those much needed few minutes wherever we can.
It’s not easy doing it myself (not discounting Josh’s role at all, see above explanation). And, it’s not easy asking for help. The help my parents give us is more valuable than any cash we could spend (if we had it) on someone coming in to help. Their help is free, loving, and at times with only a bit of exaggeration it feels life-saving. So, thanks, Mom and Dad. :-)