February 16, 2010

Olympic Parenting

olympicsOur life is a little topsy turvy right now. Since Friday, everything has turned to high performance sports, national pride and parties. Parties everywhere. Which I can’t attend (or don’t have the energy to attend). On top of travelling frequently this month, I’m participating in my own Olympic event, trying to keep all of the balls in the air.

In the spirit of this nationally syndicated event, I would like to introduce my version of the Olympics, mommy style. The following list includes all sanctioned events by the international governing body. As this event is still in its infancy (pardon the pun), the organising committee welcomes proposals for the addition of new events.

Rhythmic Cleaning (Long Program): In this event, competitors endeavour to clear the competition area of clutter and debris (may include week-long hidden bottles of milk, ground-in chocolate and packages of tiny stickers) while remaining cheerful and light-hearted. Competitors are judged based on speed, use of floor space, and creative interpretation.

Short-Track Store Sprint: This event encompasses a number of challenging aspects, including a high-speed toddler dash, moving hazards and human obstacles. Competitors are equipped with high-speed shopping carts and must negotiate narrow race lanes. Judging is based on avoidance of hazards, efficient use of available energy and time to reach the finish (stray toddler).

Combined Toddler Aerials: This event brings together the precision required for the toddler dinner toss and the aerobic fitness of the playground jungle gym chase. Competitors demonstrate agility, grace and speed in execution, using air speed and velocity to gain distance and height. Penalties are assessed for touching the ground or breaking form.

Colic Marathon: One of the most challenging of endurance events, this sport requires competitors to battle exhaustion and mental fatigue while completing circuits around feeding stations, rest stops and change tables. Competitors place based on sequential finish, which is often extended based on penalties for foul language, crossed eyes and evidence of performance-enhancing substances such as caffeine or Nyquil.

Bedtime-Cross: A battle of both physical and mental acuity, with multiple competitors on the field simultaneously, attempting to intimidate and overpower the competition. A high-contact sport, this event often results in sustained injuries and bruised egos. The competitors advance through a tournament-style ranking, until one competitor emerges victorious and can demonstrate repeated success in all aspects of the event. Athletes often benefit from cross-training with competitors within the Combined Toddler Aerials event.

We have been practicing our skills here for competition and I must say, we’re probably not in top performance form yet. We may need to wait, oh, another 11 weeks (ack!) for immersive re-training in the Colic Marathon. It will be challenging but surely rewarding, although I’m not sure it’s really a sport I will ever exceed in. I may just fall asleep at the medals ceremony and miss my moment of glory.

Have an event to add for consideration? Feel free to submit below. Happy Olympics, everyone!

February 1, 2010

On Money, Roles and Our Ingrained Ideas

According to this article, for 96% of the population with kids under 18, the typical life story goes something like this:

  1. One or both parents work.
  2. Mom gets knocked up.
  3. Mom takes requisite time off work (6 weeks – 1 year, depending on which socialist regime country you live in).
  4. Mom makes choice to either stay home and take care of kids indefinitely (30%) or go back to work (66%), putting kids in care.
  5. Dad continues as primary wage-earner, albeit with a little less sleep.
  6. Cycle continues with subsequent children until both parents emerge victorious and slowly get their life back as kids are shipped off to boarding school grow older and more independent.

For 4% of the population, like our family, we diverge around Steps 3-4 and do a complete role reversal with Daddy staying home and Mommy going back to work full time. While we are blessed with the option of a year of maternity leave (albeit at a much reduced wage) in Canada, which is distributable to either parent, some of us aren’t in a position to qualify.

We had the perfect storm. I made the higher wage by a substantial amount, while hubby’s work had been on a steady decline over the previous year before we had Version 1.0. In addition, I had been self employed for six months before we had our child, which meant that although I had worked enough hours over the past 12 months to qualify for insurance, they calculate how much you get based on the previous six months. Though I had been working, it had not been insurable earnings as I was self-employed. So basically we ended up with no social security net, no parental leave or employment assistance income. We had no choice but for me to go back to work after my daughter was seven weeks old. In Canada, this is pretty much unheard of.

Because it is still most likely that the father is the primary wage-earner in the household, and because we all have pretty much guaranteed jobs to come back to after a year off, it’s usually the mom that takes the time off. Makes sense, now that I know about the physical side effects of pregnancy and newborns. However, a loving and dedicated father can do just a well caring for baby as a mommy can. But is it that simple? I can tell you, emphatically, “No”.

The first few months were damn hard. To add to the mix, we had started a new business a month before my daughter was born, and I was eager and anxious to dive in and contribute. I’m an entrepreneur by heart and the pull was strong, as was the desire to not lose my professional “edge” (which has arguably dwindled ALOT since my child ripped most of my functioning intellectual prowess out of my head). I was visiting client sites with a breast pump and bags for milk. I had to pump in public washrooms whenever I got the chance. I am sure, to the others visiting the washroom while I pumped away in a stall, that the rhythmic squeaking coming from a few feet away was at best a curious noise and at worst a horrific half-time show which they did not want to be privy to.

As a result, of course, my milk supply dwindled and waned and my daughter did not thrive like she should, so we were forced to revert to formula to give her the nourishment she needed. She was already being supplemented as my supply was meagre, but I didn’t know enough then to be able to adjust and do nights and mornings. The fact that we had to use formula was enough stress and judgment to have made me throw in the towel, but I digress.

Additionally, the emotions and hormones and physical side effects of birth had not fully departed and I struggled a lot with feelings of guilt and sadness that I was missing all the little moments of my child’s development when I had to be away for a day or, worse, overnight. I was too overwhelmed with continued night feedings and exhausted from interrupted sleep to get back into any regular exercise routine and if I was working at home, I felt guilty for taking any time off to go for a walk or play with my daughter. She had colic and cried constantly for the first four months. She had reflux and didn’t gain enough weight, blah blah blah.

While things have definitely calmed now and we have hit our routine somewhat, I do believe it’s taken us a couple of years to get more comfortable. I still cry when I hear “Mommy COME HOME!” on the phone when I’m away for a night, and I still feel exhausted every day as we wrestle our little octopus out of bed with us. Even with a toddler, it’s HARD. And EXHAUSTING. We’re getting there. But then, in a few months, we have to start again. This time I will have little to no time off. We can’t afford it. We’re right in the thick of project work with my clients and my team is depending on me. I have wonderful coworkers and I work from home primarily, but no one can take away the physical stuff you have to get through, the breast feeding at night, the UGH fatigue and sleeplessness, and the sense of responsibility to this little newborn.

My husband – best father ever. Loving, caring, responsible, active, laid back and sweet. No issues there. But I do believe there is just something different between mommy and daddy in terms of ties to a newborn baby - that panicky sense of urgency, that desire to soothe and nurture, etc. It’s hard to explain and not something we choose, just something that comes along with the physical attachment at birth.

When I decided to be a working mom, friends and family both questioned me and looked at me funny. They shook their heads and didn’t believe that this was our only choice. That we somehow hadn’t done our math correctly and that EVERYONE has the option to stay home and WHY would you want to work when you could sit around eating bonbons for a year? SURELY it’s better for Daddy to work while Mommy doesn’t. It was so frustrating to feel like somehow we’d made a choice that was leading to more stress, when really we were like any other family who has to choose one parent working and one staying home because economically it made more sense than daycare when you weighed the financial options, and we really really both felt strongly about having our kids home with parents, just as my parents did. We just flipped the roles. Not everyone approved. In fact, many didn’t and still don’t understand. As if we’re trying to prove something to the world.

What struck me most is how much pressure there is on young women to get educated, get a good job, make good money, be independent, be powerful, ad nauseum. But when it came time to have kids, if they had done all this, they are expected to drop all of that and take the year off, care for the children and why the heck wouldn’t you?

Oh, the career will always be there.
There will always be work.
You can get maternity leave benefits.
Your children need you.
It’s not the right thing.

Actually, it was the right thing for us, as hard as it has been. And no, I would not have had the opportunities I have had if I hadn’t stayed working. Nor would we have been financially viable. I didn’t have benefits. I work. I am a professional. My husband wanted to stay home. He preferred it. Get over it!

Is it any easier for dads to keep working after their child is born? Do dads still feel that pull to be with their children? I don’t know. Is there a difference for one parent or the other? Or do dads just expect it is their role to keep working and adjust to that accordingly? I don’t know. I’ve had the privilege of working mostly from home, where I can be around my kid as much as possible. This is not all that easy and I have had to acquire an external office so I can actually get things done, and sound semi professional on my calls. But I am privileged, and all things considered, very happy.

I just wish everyone could see the full story, could consider a new perspective. As our economy continues to re-invent itself, we may be increasingly forced to make our family decisions like we do our business decisions, considering facts and outcomes without emotion or a tie to tradition. I can’t say I’ve met too many other couples in our scenario but would love to hear other experiences and feel a little less like the social anomaly.

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