It happens to everyone at some point in their parenting careers.
After two long nights of screaming and refusing to eat, your precious baby finally cuts her first tooth… and then immediately proceeds to cut the next three. You go without sleeping for more than an hour and a half at a time for a full week, and guess what, it’s also time to help your cousin decorate for her wedding, and the home inspector is coming on Tuesday morning, and the house is a complete wreck.
In desperation, you reach out to a friend, a family member, or a social network. I need some sleep, you type at 2 am on day seven of the Teethe-a-thon. I don’t know how much longer I can take this. Four teeth in one week! As you sit in the bluish glow of the computer screen, crying baby in your lap, you are on the verge of tears. Or maybe you have gone over that verge and you are actually crying. All you want in the world is to fall asleep without hearing the familiar whimper starting back up.
Then you look up and see that someone has already replied to your post. Your aunt, who lives in England, checking her Facebook before she heads to work.
It seems hard now, hon, but cherish these moments. It all goes by too quickly. You will miss these days when they are over.
It hits you in the gut. Now you are crying from exhaustion and frustration, and an extra dose of guilt. Somehow you are supposed to be enjoying this. The threat of that future day when you will sit, old and alone in your rocking chair, with only pictures of your children to comfort you, comes into lurid detail in your mind. If only I had taken the time to enjoy it, you will think to yourself. Maybe my babies wouldn’t be in prison halfway across the world, and I wouldn’t be old and alone, dressed like Grandma Clampett, crying myself through the evening in this squeaky rocking chair…
Threatening future sadness to mothers who are not currently enjoying taking care of an infant is a common reaction. Very common. And it seems like the greatest offenders are people who have already had children, but their memory of those days is buffered by years or decades of nights of unbroken sleep. I would challenge you to find an online exchange about the difficulties of infant care that does not include a post from someone, warning everyone to start enjoying their work because they will feel sad later when these days have passed.
In some ways, it is a natural reaction to counsel a new mother in this way. To be sure, there are elements of having an infant that are easy to miss – the warm little bundle, those squeaky baby sounds they make, the glow of meeting this little person, the wonder of the tiny fingernails and eyelashes.
The thing is, these kinds of loving reflections take up about 5% of your time as the parent of an infant. For the other 95% of your day, you will be trying to figure out how to keep her from screaming, and trying to figure out how to do something – anything – about the state of the house. You will get all your clothing from piles in the living room. For the first week you will ask, Is this dirty or is it clean? By the second week, you will stop asking, thinking instead, Does it matter? You are motivated in all of your work by the overwhelming love you feel for your baby. But love doesn't clean the house. Love doesn't fold laundry or make dinner. And love doesn't erase the effects of sleep deprivation.
If we think about the “enjoy it now because you will be sad later” warning in terms of a situation parallel to baby care, we can see how ridiculous it is. Let’s say a friend of yours has just had her elderly father move in with her. He has Alzheimer’s and other health problems that keep him housebound and in constant danger of injury. He can't move around on his own. He gets bored easily but can’t always connect with the conversation provided by your friend and her visitors. Sometimes the television shows confuse him, and sometimes Dad thinks that his daughter is a nurse he met in France in 1944, or his wife, or his mother. In many ways, this situation is comparable to taking care of a newborn.
If your friend came to you, crying, spilling her frustration about how overwhelmed she was with all of her new responsibility, would you pat her hand and say to her, I know it seems hard, but enjoy this time while you can, before it’s over.
Probably not. It would sound cold, and punishing, and morbid, and besides that, such a response would lack compassion for the daily struggle of taking care of someone so needy, and for the sudden change in lifestyle your friend would be facing. Likely you would offer whatever comfort you could, and then offer to lighten the load in some way – to bring dinner, to go with her to a movie so she could get out of the house, or just to come and sit with her for an afternoon that week, so she can have conversation with someone who doesn't think the Germans are attacking.
So why is it okay to send out dire warnings to mothers of infants that they should enjoy their 24-hour-a-day caretaking role? Does guilt about having the wrong feelings really ever lead anyone to a greater enjoyment of their challenges? Instead of telling moms that they will be sad later because they are feeling frustrated today, Aunt May in London should offer comfort, compassion, or something humorous to lighten her niece’s load. Something as simple as “I’m so sorry you are feeling frustrated right now” can go a long way. Guilt is not a motivator for positive feelings. It’s like applying dry ice to an aching heart. Shaming someone for their feelings and warning them of future sadness if they don’t change only serves to isolate the woman who already feels alone.