Why Women Should Stop Saying They Are Lucky to Get a Maternity Leave

We need to stop viewing parental leave as a perk and start treating it as a basic workers’ right that millions are currently being denied.

The conversation is the same at every playground, library, or mommy-meet up. A bleary-eyed mother walks in with an irresistibly tiny newborn strapped to her chest. The questions pour in:

“Oh how sweet! How old?”

“Boy or girl?”

“Is she a good sleeper?”

“Do you stay-at-home or work?”

“How much maternity leave do you get?”

The new mom diligently answers all the questions, even the one about having a good sleeper, to which the answer is clearly, “No.” But when it turns to maternity leave, she perks up.

“Well, I’m home for 12 weeks. Which I know I’m really fortunate to get. And I’m really lucky, because the first six weeks are paid. I can actually take four months off, and I’m really grateful I have that option, but we can’t go without my salary that long. So I’m just taking three. But I’m really happy I can even do that. And that I get paid at all, because I work for a small company so they don’t have to pay me. I know how lucky I am.”

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Mothers fall all over themselves explaining the gratitude they have for getting any amount of maternity leave, paid or unpaid. We treat any mention of time with our families with extreme humility and appreciation, lest we appear callous to the millions of parents who have no access to paid leave. Mothers on maternity leave know exactly how fortunate they are.

Most parents in the workforce don’t have any paid leave to appear grateful for. An estimated one in four employed mothers return to work within two weeks of giving birth. Only 12 percent of private sector employees in the U.S. receive paid leave from their employer. The federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) only guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid time off, and only for certain employees. Just over 40 percent of workers in the United States are not eligible for FMLA.

But should we really consider ourselves “lucky” for having time off to care for our family? Or should having access to paid family leave so parents can care for their most vulnerable family member without fear of losing their jobs be considered a basic workers’ right?

I’m pretty sure that I’ve never heard anyone gush about how lucky they felt that their employer adhered to federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards. It’s been a long time since anyone has praised their boss for recognizing the standard 40 hour work week, honoring federal holidays, or paying overtime when required by law. We consider these to be basic parts of an employment agreement, whereas parental leave is still considered a luxury.

Anyone who has ever spent time caring for a newborn knows that it is anything but luxurious. Care for a new family member is vitally important work, and the effects of a too-short leave are measurable. One study found that mothers of three-month-old babies who worked full time had greater rates of depression, stress, and poorer health than mothers who stayed at home. The study found that down the road, working mothers ultimately had lower rates of depression, but returning to work after a short leave had a negative impact on maternal mental health.

Women who receive paid time off are also more likely to return to work, work more hours, and also earn higher wages – factors which are good for businesses looking to avoid turnover. When mothers work more hours for higher pay, it impacts a family’s financial security not only in the first few months after birth, but for years down the road.

Maternity leave can also influence how long a mother breastfeeds – one study found that women who returned to work after at least six weeks were more likely to be breastfeeding when their child was six months old. Paternity leave has numerous benefits as well, from better behavioral and mental health for children to fathers taking a more active role in family life.

It is clear that caring for a newborn or newly adopted family member is much more than a time to take a break from your job to enjoy your new family. The consequences of this important work extend much farther than one’s own nuclear family and yet American companies still treat paid leave simply as a perk, like free coffee in the break room or attending a conference in Hawaii.

There is nothing wrong with being grateful for every moment you have to care for a new family member, or being thankful to work for an employer who recognizes the need for rest, recovery, and bonding during this time. Recognizing the fact that millions of mothers and fathers are forced to return to work before they or their child are physically and emotionally ready is certainly laudable.

We need to stop viewing parental leave as a perk and start treating it as a basic workers’ right that millions are currently being denied. We can feel grateful to have access to paid leave and indignant that others do not. New families benefit when they are able to spend time together without worrying about losing their jobs or foregoing months of income.

We should all be so lucky.

5 Ways to Foster Free Play This Summer

While we might be tempted to schedule and program our children all summer, a balance of time for free play can be extremely valuable.

Summer is coming, which for some of us means that our children will be spending a lot more time at home with us (their parents) or with their siblings. Other children will be entering new childcare settings or camps that are less academic and perhaps less scheduled. For children who have spent the better part of the last nine months in a more structured school or daycare environment, this freedom and flexibility could be an awkward transition. The issue may be even more pronounced in this day and age, when the amount of time children spend engaged in free play has actually dropped by an estimated 25 percent since 1981.

As with any change in routine, learning to appreciate the flexibility that summer can offer doesn’t come without a few bumps in the road. Learning to adjust and to be creative and self-directed in free time are some of the most important lessons of childhood. 

Active free play helps children develop physically, become better at self-regulation, and get along well with others. It’s also a boon to parents, if I may say so myself. While we might be tempted to schedule and program our children all summer, a balance of time for free play (whether in a childcare setting that encourages it or with you as a parent) can be extremely valuable. The bumps will be worth it!

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Here’s the good news: there are simple strategies that can help children to adjust their routines and develop skills in self-directed free play. Here are five research-backed tips to help your child ease into summer and capture its full potential.

1 | Ignore your kids (within reason)

There are going to be times when your children need or want you to join in their play, but before you do, consider saying “not right now” or “I’ll join you in a little while.” Then, try to walk away or be unavailable (keeping safety in mind as needed). If they ask again, calmly and lovingly repeat what you told them, “I will be able to join you in about 20 minutes, but right now I need to clean up the dishes from breakfast.” 

It can take time for kids to adapt to being bored and find their own way to be “un-bored,” but they’re going to need some time to feel boredom and the desire to resolve it if they are going to learn. In her book Balanced and Barefoot, Angela Hanscom notes that it can take kids a few days to adjust to the entirely unstructured schedule of her summer camps that encourage active outdoor free play, but eventually kids get used to and embrace this freedom.

2 | Play with your kids

I know I’m contradicting myself, but both can be valuable! Scientists agree that some play must remain child-driven with parents either not engaged or just watching, but there are also opportunities for parents to reinforce the value of play by getting down on the ground (metaphorically or literally) to show their children it’s valuable to them too. 

I know it can sometimes be hard to go along with the game your child has made up, but showing them that they have come up with a really cool solution to entertaining themselves and others can be a powerful reinforcement tool. You can also model creative out-of-the-box thinking while you’re engaged in play. Take a deep breath, call up memories of your own childhood, and dive in (but not all the time).

3 | Encourage and Affirm

The positive parenting perspective on encouragement versus praise is a great way to look at your role in supporting free play. Try telling your kids what you admire in their free play or asking them questions about what they’re doing. Instead of blanket praise like “Good job” or “Thanks for playing by yourself for so long,” use specific encouragement like “Wow, this game really gets us moving – how did you come up with this idea?” or “You worked really hard at this castle, didn’t you?  I’m glad you didn’t give up!” 

This type of encouragement can reinforce their problem-solving and creative behaviors so that they’re more likely to repeat them in the future. This doesn’t mean you can’t ever praise their good behavior or accomplishments, but you can use your praise strategically to affirm positive behavior. I like this list of guidelines for how to use praise appropriately.

4 | Provide “true toys” that enable children to create their own story or use

Examples of “true toys” include plain wooden blocks, baskets full of random craft supplies, or dolls. Outside, this could include things like cut up logs, sticks, balls, mud piles, and items simply found in nature (like a tree or a steep hill at your local park). How children use these “toys” or other items is not prescribed and thus they’re free to be creative and novel. Try your best not to interfere with or judge how they’re using these items. Taking risks is an important part of childhood. Frugal Mama has a great list of toys that encourage free play and Angela Hanscom discusses the true meaning of “brainy toys” in this blog article.

5 | Find friends who can agree to unsupervised playdates

Unfortunately, the notion of a child running down the street to knock on a friend’s door and then spend the entire day playing with them is not familiar territory for some modern children. Whether due to safety concerns, busy schedules, or more time in childcare (as is the case in my household) this just isn’t happening as much. This has sparked the free-range kids movement and all of the inspiration and controversy that comes with it. Whether you believe in letting your third grader walk by themselves to the store or not, you can draw inspiration from the idea of reducing scheduled, structured time in our kids’ lives and inviting them to wander freely (even just on your own property). 

Involving other kids can lengthen the time that children are willing to spend on their own, and can invite them to inspire each other with new ideas, even problem-solving when they run into conflict. Find a few other parents who ascribe to this philosophy and get their numbers so you can text them on a moment’s notice to invite their child over or even, gasp, send your child to knock on their door. (I know, this seems against some of our ingrained tendencies to plan, plan, plan, but you can do it!) Once they’re at your house, do your best to let them loose without your guidance.

Most of all, be patient. If your child isn’t used to coming up with their own entertainment they’re going to struggle with free play. Commiserate with them, understand them, and encourage them when they make progress. Staying strong and creating a culture with free play a part of what’s expected in your house will bring around the change you’re seeking.

The Poverty Rate Would Be Cut in Half If Women Received Equal Pay

A new study points to a surprisingly simple solution to reducing the number of children and families living in poverty: decreasing the pay gap.

When you have young children, it seems paychecks often don’t stretch far enough to cover the costs of daily living.

Diapers.

Doctor’s bills.

Groceries.

Another new pair of shoes for the child who won’t stop growing.

But for many families in the United States, making ends meet often isn’t possible at the end of every month. One in six families with children under the age of 18 in the United States live in poverty, which is defined as having an income less than $24,339 for a family of four with two children. For these nearly 37 million families, the cost of raising children is an even greater stressor.

Families headed by single mothers make up nearly a quarter of this group. Nearly 40 percent of female-headed households with children under the age of 18 live in poverty.

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Decreasing the pay gap could reduce poverty

But a new study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) points to a surprisingly simple solution to reducing the number of children and families living in poverty: decreasing the pay gap. Women currently earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by men, a disparity which causes millions of women and children to live in poverty, according to the study’s authors.

If women in the United States received comparable pay to men, the poverty rate would be cut in half, says researchers at IWPR. For all working women, the poverty rate would fall from 8.0 percent to 3.8 percent. The number of single mothers living in poverty would be nearly halved if women were to achieve pay equity.

While all women would benefit from receiving wages on par with what men make, the stakes are even greater for women with children. 43 million children in the United States live in families where the mother works. If these mothers were paid wages comparable to what men receive, nearly 26 million children would benefit, and the poverty rate in these families would be cut in half.

So why do women earn less than men?

The reasons are complex. Women tend to work in industries that pay less than men do, but this doesn’t mean they’ve chosen to earn less. Women who work in male-dominated professions are not more likely to see a significant boost in pay. In fact, it’s the opposite. While there are exceptions, women on the whole will earn more in a female-dominated profession than a male-dominated one, even if male-dominated ones pay more.

The reason why women don’t automatically earn more working in a male dominated profession? Discrimination. Discrimination remains a significant factor in the wage gap. Even if men and women had the same career opportunities and the same levels of support for child-raising, the wage gap would not automatically disappear. Researchers estimate that up to 38 percent of the gap is attributable simply to discrimination against women.

Pay inequality is problematic for everyone

While pay inequality is a significant obstacle for women and the children they raise, it has a broader effect on our economy as a whole. The United States would have produced $513 billion in 2016 if women were compensated at a rate similar to men, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Having a tough time picturing what $513 billion injected into the economy would mean? That’s 16 times the amount that the federal and state governments spent on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families in 2015.

The effects of childhood poverty are real and troubling. Children living in poverty experience inadequate housing, health care, and childcare, and fewer educational opportunities. But the consequences of poverty go much deeper. Impoverished children are at a greater risk for poor academic achievement, behavioral and social emotional problems, physical problems, and developmental delays.

So where is the money that we aren’t paying women going? In large part, to combat childhood poverty. Economists estimate that childhood poverty costs the U.S. economy $500 billion a year through higher medical costs, increased crime, and reduced productivity and economic output.

What’s the outlook?

Women are slowly but surely making progress in combatting pay inequality. Women now earn 80 cents for every dollar a man earns, up from 77 cents in 2002. Experts expect women to achieve pay equity in 2059. At that rate, today’s kindergarten girls will be celebrating their 47th birthday before they finally earn the same as men. In the meantime, another generation of children will be subjected to growing up in poverty.

Equal pay is far more than a “women’s issue.” Pay equity would do much more than just improve the lives of hard-working women. It would strengthen our economy and improve the lives of millions of children who depend on their mothers’ earnings. If we are truly serious about combatting childhood poverty, we need to first look at reducing the gender pay gap. Doing so could drastically change the future for millions of children.

Why the Grandparent Battle Cry of "My Kids Turned Out Just Fine" is Invalid

A lot has changed since grandparents were parents themselves, so it’s critical for them to keep up with the latest pediatric guidelines.

How many times have you argued with your parents or in-laws about how to take care of your kids? I can remember numerous heated discussions with my mother-in-law in particular when my children were infants. She just didn’t understand all the current parenting rules. Why do they have to sleep on their back? Why can’t they have a blanket in their crib? Why can’t they eat that food yet? She often said, “I didn’t follow any of these rules and my kids grew up just fine.”

Well, it turns out that these disagreements should not be taken lightly and modern parents should stand their ground. A new study from Norwell Health, New York State’s largest health care provider, warns that grandparents who practice outdated health guidelines – sometimes based on myths and old wives’ tales – can put their grandchildren’s safety at risk.

As of 2012, more than seven million grandchildren in the United States are being raised by nearly three million grandparents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This trend is due to factors including the opioid epidemic, parental incarceration, or problems with parents’ physical or mental health. This number does not even include many of us who are raising our children but still rely on our parents to watch our kids while we’re at work, out of town, or even out on an occasional Saturday night. However, a lot has changed over the decades since these grandparents were parents themselves, so it is critical for them to keep up with the latest pediatric guidelines.

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The study was conducted by surveying 636 grandparents in the United States. Researchers where shocked at how many health-related questions the grandparents responded to incorrectly. One issue highlighted in the study is that 44 percent of the respondents mistakenly believed that ice baths are a good way to bring down a very high fever. In reality ice baths pose a hypothermia risk.

Another major concern involved sleep guidelines. Almost a quarter of the grandparents in the study did not know that infants should be put to sleep on their back, not on their stomach or side, to prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). When asked whether scrapes or cuts heal better with or without a bandage, 68 percent of grandparents did not know that wounds should be covered.

Staying up to date with new parenting advice can be quite challenging, especially in this fast-paced technological society. With every new Facebook post or breaking news story, parents need to evaluate how that information impacts their children. So it’s understandable that grandparents might have difficulty keeping up.

If your parents are helping to take care of your kids, then it’s critical to build a positive, working relationship with them so that you can feel comfortable leaving your precious ones in their hands, and they can feel confident that they are doing everything properly. It’s really our responsibility to continuously educate the grandparents about the latest guidelines, and their duty to be willing to listen and learn even if it contradicts how they raised us years ago.

If you know that your parents will be involved from the beginning then start getting them educated about the latest parenting do’s and don’ts while you’re pregnant. Here are some ways to keep the grandparents involved and in-the-know so that they have the tools they need to successfully care for their grandchildren in this day and age.

  • Take grandparents shopping with you to purchase or register for all the baby equipment. Spend the time to explain why your baby needs these items and how they work. For example, when we were kids, we were not strapped into a rear-facing five-point harness car seat.
  • Buy your parents special books about being a grandparent or copies of the parenting books you’re relying on.
  • Bring grandparents along for parenting and baby safety classes offered at your local hospital, community center, or baby store like Babies “R” Us.
  • Once the baby is born, invite the grandparent caring for your child to pediatrician appointments so they can hear firsthand what the doctor recommends. Give them a chance to ask questions as well.
  • Introduce the grandparents to the same resources you’re referring to for the latest child safety news, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Healthy Children website and Baby Center.

New Study Says Your Parents Should Be Asking to Babysit

A recent study suggests that grandparents who babysit are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s.

As a parent of two preschoolers, my day usually ends with me melted into the couch.
The crazy thing is that I’m still relatively young and work at a sit-down job. There’s just something about constantly chasing, correcting, and taking care of preschoolers even for those few short hours when I’m at home that makes me bone-tired.
So anytime my parents or in-laws offer to watch our little ones, I get really happy. That is why I’m so excited about a study – even if it’s a relatively small one – which suggests that grandparents who babysit are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s.
 
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But, as with most studies, the takeaway isn’t as simple as that. The study included 186 Australian women between the ages of 57 and 68, 120 of which were grandparents. The women in the study were given several cognitive tests. Those who watched their grandchildren for one day a week scored higher on the cognitive tests than those who did not.
Those who watched their grandchildren for five days a week, however, scored lower on the tests. The researchers suggested that those grandmothers who watched their grandchildren for five days a week may have performed more poorly due to feeling overextended from their efforts.

Social interactions protect the brain against aging

This isn’t the first study to suggest that personal interactions have positive cognitive effects on the minds of the aging. A study of 2,249 women aged 78 or older found that those with larger social networks were 26 percent less likely to develop dementia than those with smaller social networks.
In another study, 823 dementia-free men and women aged 80 or older were tested on the loneliness scale. Those who scored highest on the loneliness scale were more than twice as likely to develop dementia as those with more social connections.
All of this evidence seems to suggest that the more personal connections and interactions we have as we age, the better our brains seem to fight off the cognitive effects of aging, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Time to take a few minutes and thank your parents for babysitting your kids. Not only is it giving you some much needed time off, but it’s also providing some major benefits to them!
Here are a few other gains your parents can expect when they watch your kids:

They are less likely to be depressed

According to a study including 374 grandparents and 356 adult grandchildren, the stronger the relationship between the grandparent and grandchild, the less likely it was for either to experience depressive symptoms.

They can spoil their grandkids (and it’s okay)

My grandmother used to take me and my siblings to the dollar store when she watched us overnight. I used to love picking out whatever I wanted – a G.I. Joe or some super sugared up treat. She’d let us rent movies, eat ice cream, and stay up late. It was the best.
Parents have a harder time spoiling our kids without setting some sort of precedent (in their minds) that we then have to fight against later. I love that my parents and my in-laws can spoil my kids.

They can be an extra source of love

Our kids need all the love they can get, and the special kind of love that grandparents exude is special. They love unconditionally and without needing to focus on the hard disciplining that we have to do.

They provide wisdom and new perspectives

My grandmother told me how she grew up on a farm and lived in a single-room house with seven other children. As you can imagine, they were dirt poor. Having this conversation with my grandmother opened my eyes.
It gives me a better grasp and appreciation of my own life circumstances. The next time our internet is out, I have enough perspective not to freak out. I want the same for my kids.

They increase the well-being of our children

A study of 1,500 children showed that those whose grandparents were highly involved had fewer emotional and behavioral problems.
To all the grandparents reading this, thank you for what you do. You make a bigger impact on all of us – including yourself – by loving on our kids.

The Five Stages of Grief When Your Child Calls the Babysitter Mom

The gratitude for a fabulous caregiver runs deep. Until your kid calls them mom.

Full-time work was my only option after our daughter was born. We savored ten weeks of unpaid bonding before I bought a bigger pair of khakis and headed back into the office, breast pump and lactation cookies in hand. While I responded to emails and analyzed incident reports, my daughter was off on her own adventures – with her daytime family.
I was thrilled that we found such a perfect caregiver for our perfect child. She was doted upon and attended playgroups, Bible studies, and walks to the farmer’s market. By four months old she was part of a social circle a sorority sister would envy.
 
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It was the community I wanted to create for her, if health care benefits and mortgage payments hadn’t been calling my name.
When our caregiver moved out of town, a sweet social media goodbye post had messages from a half dozen women who were strangers to me, professing how much they would miss my daughter’s presence in their weekly gatherings. I loved the love my girl had received and wanted that to continue.
Luck and Craigslist granted us a new caregiver with equal passion and involvement, just as my daughter’s babbling was turning into possible words. Lisa was a former Head Start teacher who lived adjacent to a park only a block from my office. Jackpot.

Denial

At the beginning it was no big deal when we arrived for our 7:23am drop off and my daughter continued to murmur “Mamamamama” as I handed her over to our lifesaver, the woman who made our day-to-day possible. Words were new, probably not even words, and she said “Mama” to everything – my boobs, the dog, her fist. She didn’t really mean to call the babysitter Mama, I reasoned. It was just her tongue practicing and her voice finding its pitch.
After months of vocal warm-ups, the party tricks my daughter demonstrated at those morning exchanges progressed. As she began to walk, she also began wobbling into the sitter’s arms shouting “Mommy!” before collapsing into a warm welcome hug.
Lisa and I both feigned deafness and focused on the day’s sleep and bowel movement report, neither of us acknowledging the “M” word.

Anger

Then I got back in the car. WHAT. THE. FUDGE. Except I didn’t say fudge. “THIS is why we should have gone with a day care instead of an in-home setting,” I would lecture my husband as he drove me to work. “I bet the women at the YWCA don’t get called “mommy.” There are boundaries there. They are WAY more professional. Besides, there would be so many different caregivers it would be CLEAR to our child that THERE IS ONLY ONE MOMMY.” He nodded with what looked to me like agreement but was actually avoidance. He knew this irrationality was rooted in my own insecurities and not in legitimate concern for our daughter’s welfare.
My husband wished me a good day as I slammed the car door and huffed off to my desk, vowing to produce even more milk than the day before – the one thing her daytime Mommy couldn’t provide.
By the time I returned home each evening, the anger had evaporated. My baby fluttered her eyelashes, called me “Mommy,” and nursed herself to sleep. We were still BFFs, even if we weren’t exclusive. Our family didn’t switch to a daycare. Truth be told, my daughter’s woman-on-the-side was fantastic. They went to the park and the library. They sang songs and nursery rhymes. My girl was in love with the brothers her second family provided. The pros were overwhelming, and finding childcare gives me hives, so I began a new tactic.

Bargaining

Each time we were alone I would coach my girl. “Okay Baby, let’s practice again. Mommy!”
“Mommy.”
“Mommy!”
“Mommy,” she repeated again.
“Very, very good.  Now who are we going to see tomorrow?”
“Mommy?”
“NO. Lisa. You are going to see Lisa.”
“Mommy Lisa? Mommy Lisa?”
“Okay. Fine. You are going to see Mommy Lisa. But I am your real Mommy.”
I could agree to that compromise, for a time.
The milestones began piling up and my daughter’s understanding and use of language grew exponentially. She found new words for endless food items, cartoon characters, and colors. She demonstrated a particular knack for names, greeting each of our neighbors individually and asking about extended family members regularly. Still, there was one name that she didn’t say quite right. “Mommy Lisa” persisted.

Depression

My daughter weaned herself around sixteen months. Instead of viewing this change of events as rediscovered freedom, I calculated it as a loss. There was no remaining physical need that only I could provide. Fueled by the accompanying shift in hormones, my thoughts spiraled into regrets.
I recalled a poem, cross-stitched and hanging in my mom’s hallway, about “babies not keeping.” That poem was right; I was missing out on her childhood. “I never should have gone back to work. We could have maxed out a credit card,” I proclaimed, as I imagined not just the daily needs, but the fun outings that would form my daughter’s core memories, all starring Mommy Lisa as the main character.
I made plans to start a savings account for her future therapy fund; a fund with enough copays to explore her feelings of neglect and uncover at least of glimmer of devotion from her absentee working mother.
And then, the veil lifted.
One Friday night, I carried her in the backpack downtown. It was the night the art galleries stay open late – we were there for the people watching and free cheese. She had just learned about farting and yelled to every stranger that we passed, “I farted!” and laughed hysterically to herself. We shared an ice cream cone and met Clifford the Big Red Dog outside of the library. We walked home when I felt an actual fart and feared solid repercussions would soon be running down my back.
The next day over her morning egg she looked at me and said, “Mommy, we met Clifford.” Yes. Yes we did.

Acceptance

It was the first time she had relayed a memory to me. It was barely twelve hours later, but my daughter recalled a special moment that only she and I had shared. My daughter demonstrated what I should have recognized all along: when I am not there, she can think of me. There is room for both mommies in her mind, in her heart, and in her life.
Lord knows that I need a job and we need a caregiver. She still spends a lot of waking hours with Mommy Lisa. They have adventures and share secret french fries at McDonald’s Play Place, but I am at peace with our reality. Which is why, this week, when my daughter drew a picture of “a daddy and two mommies,” instead of panicking, I paused for a moment of thanksgiving for a babysitter she deems worthy of my favorite name.
This article was previously published on mothersalwayswrite.com

Keep Your Dot: How to Make Your Stay-at-Home Partner Feel Supported

It isn’t about competing for who has the harder job. It’s about acknowledging that everyone needs their turn in the center.

A tricky element of being a stay-at-home parent is that sometimes I share my job with my husband. I’m on kid duty most of the time because he’s employed full time, but when he’s with us, he’s a fully participating parent. The problem with this arrangement is that it also entitles him to complain about our kids when they get annoying (which they do), and that actually kind of annoys me.

I read an article about Ring Theory (or the kvetching order) a while ago that stuck with me because I think there’s a way to apply the concept to everyday life, particularly the experience of being a stay-at-home parent. This could be the secret to reducing the feelings of resentment, jealousy, isolation, and under-appreciation that can so easily build between spouses when one is employed full time and the other bears the load of day-to-day child care duties.

Ring theory explained

Ring Theory is all about how to avoid saying the wrong thing to someone who is grieving, ill, or coping with a tragedy or crisis. The aggrieved person is illustrated as a dot in the center of concentric circles. The nearest circle represents the person closest to the aggrieved, like their spouse. The second circle contains the next closest group, like the person’s children or parents. The further out in the circle you go, the looser one’s connection to the aggrieved becomes.

The rules of the kvetching order are simple: “comfort in, dump out.” We offer support to people in circles closer to the center than us, and we vent to people in circles further away. The person at the center (the dot) earns the right to dump out to everyone else since they are suffering the most.

 

This makes intuitive sense when we’re dealing with sad situations. We know better than to say to a new widow, “I’m so distraught about the death of your husband. It makes me think about how hard it would be if I lost mine, and I’ve been losing sleep over it.” We’d never expect her to be concerned with our lack of sleep when she’s dealing with the loss of her husband. Instead, we offer our condolences and work through our personal emotions with someone more removed from the situation.

Applying ring theory to everyday life

When it comes to stay-at-home parents, I think of us as the dots in our personal kvetching orders. I’m certainly not comparing raising children to a tragic event. It’s the opposite experience, but it is a physically and emotionally demanding one. Stay-at-home parents get little respite, so the parallels I’m drawing between traditional Ring Theory and life at home with kids are related to the dynamics of support and communication people in the center of the circles need, not necessarily the experiences that put them there.

According to the theory, stay-at-home parents should get the chance to vent about the hard parts of being home with kids, and our friends and family have to listen, especially the person in our closest ring, like our spouses or partners.

Our partners also have their own kvetching orders for their jobs. When we ask, “How was your day, dear?” We’re signing up to hear about idiotic bosses, incompetent co-workers, grueling schedules, or boring meetings. The difference in our kvetching orders, though, is that I never get to hop into the center of my husband’s rings because I never do his job, but he jumps into mine pretty regularly, and there in lies the rub.

Kvetching-Order applied to stay at home parents and working partners

Keep your dot to yourself

After my husband has had a long day of his own and walks into chaos at home, he rightfully and occasionally gets frustrated with the kids’ loud, whiny, or unruly behavior. It does take a lot for him to get to this state because he’s a loving and calm man who is genuinely happy to come home to us, but he’s human and carries the burden of supporting our family. Our kids are non-stop curious little creatures, and that isn’t always a winning combination after he’s had a stressful day at work.

When I hear the impatience creeping into his voice, I think about how I’ve had to keep calm for the last eight hours that I’ve been alone with the kids, and how I’d really love to pass the baton to him, the man in my closest circle, so that I can be the one to lose my cool and let off some steam. But the rules of Good Cop – Bad Cop require one of us keeps it together. When he’s already reached his limit then I’m required to continue playing a comforting role, essentially erasing my dot and thus my shot at being supported.

Of course, this characterization isn’t necessarily fair to my husband. The stressors of his day don’t disappear when he opens the front door. He should feel at ease to express himself in his own home, and I’m the perfect person for him to talk to about the kids. Who better to understand the nuances of our family life than me? Yet I’m still miffed when my dot must move aside to make room for his when he re-enters the realm of active parenting (in which I’m perpetually immersed). After all, he already has his very own set of rings and I don’t want to share mine.

Stay-at-home parents already share everything with our kids, all day, every day. Our time is not our own. It’s devoted to the often mundane chores needed to keep the household running and to our children to keep them fed, clothed, bathed, safe, and stimulated. In return, our kids eat whatever food we’d prefer to enjoy, in peace, alone. They interrupt us no matter what task we’re trying to complete. They watch us use the bathroom. I’d at least like to have exclusive rights to vent about all of this and I want to be an ineligible receiver when it comes to complaints about the kids.

Imagine if the situation was reversed. Let’s say my husband is a dishwasher in a restaurant, and I join him at the end of his shift. He’s been steadily washing dishes for the last seven hours. I start doing it for twenty minutes and begin commenting on how the water is scalding my hands and that my back hurts from bending over. That would sound ridiculous, wouldn’t it?

It’s like venting to the widow. Sympathy is probably the last emotion he’d feel for me. Incredulity, frustration, and indignation would likely come first. This is how it feels as a stay-at-home parent when our partners walk in the door and make themselves at home in the center of our circles.

“I can’t take the kids’ high pitched screaming anymore. It’s getting on my nerves.”

↓↓

“I give you credit for taking care of the kids all day. Their shrieks are really hard to handle.”

The solution

There’s a really simple work-around to this, though, and it’s all in the delivery.

If my husband says, “I can’t take the kids’ high pitched screaming anymore. It’s getting on my nerves,” my immediate reaction is one of defense. “Oh, please. Don’t whine to me about that. Try listening to it all day.”

On the other hand, if he says, “I give you credit for taking care of the kids all day. Their shrieks are really hard to handle,” I will be so much more receptive to the complaint he’s voicing. As if by magic, his “dumping” comment that fishes for a consoling response from me is transformed into a comforting comment that validates my experience – my job – and I’m more than willing to listen to him and commiserate. We both win, and he still has the opportunity to complain about the kids or (gasp) about me to other people in his personal set of rings.

I imagine this theory works for any couple dynamic, not just a single-income family, and I’d be curious to know how you see it playing out in different circumstances. After all, this isn’t about us competing for who has the harder job. It’s about recognizing our respective rings, honoring the role we play for each other within them, and acknowledging that everyone needs their turn in the center. I’m not a marriage counselor, but I’m quite certain that if every couple drew their own set of circles and remembered to “comfort in, dump out,” we’d all do a lot less kvetching, particularly about each other.

How NICU Stays and Unexpected Challenges Affect Maternity Leave

Most mothers plan meticulously for their baby’s arrival but for an unlucky few, a premature delivery can derail every expectation.

The first months of a child’s life are a critical time for bonding, care, and recovery, but for many American women, those weeks are overshadowed by work and financial stress. And when a baby is born early or with special needs, that stress is intensified.

Most mothers plan meticulously for their baby’s arrival but for an unlucky few, a premature delivery can derail every expectation. For Rebecca Meredith, a first time mom with an uncomplicated pregnancy, delivering at 33 weeks was a shock.

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“I had my regular check up with my doctor at four pm and there were no problems. [That night] I went to the local hospital to check if I was leaking amniotic fluid with nothing but my purse and didn’t come home for three weeks after I was life-flighted to a hospital two and a half hours away,” says Meredith.

A few months earlier, Meredith’s husband had gotten a job in a different state and the couple had moved cross-country. Meredith had taken a new job at a Montesorri preschool and daycare while going through the process of transferring her teaching certification.

Ineligible for paid leave, she had initially planned to return to her job when her son was eight weeks old; he would attend the same daycare where she worked. But when eight weeks had passed, her son was the developmental equivalent of a one-week-old baby. The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) staff had advised the couple to keep him out of daycare for a year if possible because his increased risk of infection was too great. Having left her family on the other side of the country, Meredith had no choice but to quit her job.

Meredith’s story isn’t uncommon. In the United States, only 12 percent of private sector employees have access to paid leave. For many women, this results in returning to work well before what is considered ideal. A shocking one quarter of women in the United States are back at work within two weeks of giving birth. Many of these women are mothers of premature infants who decide to keep what little maternity leave they have for when their baby comes home from the hospital.

Even the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides little coverage for mothers. FMLA only covers employees at workplaces with more than 50 employees who have worked there for at least 12 months.

Meredith, like roughly 40 percent of Americans, did not qualify for FMLA. Even if workers are covered by the law, FMLA is only a guarantee of job security after 12 weeks. It does not require an employer to pay an employee who is on leave. Many parents, especially those faced with unexpected medical bills from a NICU stay, cannot afford to take unpaid leave.

Christiana Stafford, another first time mother, also faced the unexpected after giving birth to her daughter. After one week in the NICU, her daughter was diagnosed with Down syndrome and a heart defect that is common in babies with the syndrome. Stafford and her husband soon learned their daughter would need heart surgery before her first birthday, forcing Stafford to re-work her maternity leave plans.

Stafford went back to work when her daughter was 10 weeks old, saving the last two weeks of her paid leave and FMLA leave for when the baby would need surgery. “It was heartbreaking to have to decide to take her to daycare earlier than we expected,” says Stafford.

The weeks leading up to the surgery were filled with stress. “It was just a whirlwind of emotions and information all jam-packed into a few days and months,” says Stafford. “Having a baby with unexpected Down syndrome, having a baby with an unexpected congenital heart defect. And, hoping and praying she didn’t get sick in the weeks leading up to her surgery, which would have pushed it out even farther. When your kid’s in daycare, that’s nearly impossible.”

After her daughter underwent heart surgery at five months old, her supervisor ended up letting her take an additional third week of leave despite having exhausted her FMLA. Having a child with special needs also means extra doctors, specialists, and appointments. Stafford says she has to be careful now how she budgets her time, alternating with her husband for appointments and keeping an eye on how much available leave she has every time she gets her paycheck.

Paid maternity leave has numerous benefits, from increasing women’s labor force participation to decreased employee turnover to better health outcomes for parents and children. But with few American women qualifying, millions are left scrambling to even keep their jobs after a premature or special needs baby is born.

Back in the fall, paid parental leave received plenty of attention from both presidential candidates. In his campaign, President Trump floated the idea of a six week paid maternity leave for mothers who give birth. In the spring, he appeared to endorse paid leave for both mothers and fathers, but has yet to offer any details on the plan.

Critics worry his plan might not be enough to meet the needs of families facing unexpected circumstances. For parents caring for high needs infants, six weeks might not be enough time to even be discharged from the hospital.

“Parental leave is not this one-size-fits-all thing,” says Stafford. “So many variables can come into play.”

Why You Should Take a Maternity Leave as a Stay-At-Home Mom

The first few weeks of having a newborn should be full of rest, quiet, and bonding. That’s hard to achieve if you have other kids and a house to care for.

Anyone who has ever cared for a newborn knows that maternity leave is far from a vacation. When you are a stay-at-home mom, those early months, which are supposed to be full of rest, recovery, and relationship-building, can end up simply being stressful. Adding a newborn on top of other household responsibilities (primarily that of caring for older children) can make for a hectic few months.
When my first son was born, I had little to do while on my maternity leave other than take care of him. We could survive on take-out and frozen pizzas for a few months, and there wasn’t much mess to clean up. But by the time I had my second, life was another story.
 
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We couldn’t afford to keep my oldest in daycare those first few months because our income had dropped significantly. Frozen pizzas weren’t an option with a dairy-allergic toddler who needed more variety in his diet. And the mess had multiplied 10-fold. Caring for a newborn wasn’t difficult – the hard part was caring for a toddler while caring for a newborn.
I decided I would take things as easy as I could those first few months to give myself a “maternity leave” from household obligations. When your work is caring for your family, there is only so much you can outsource. But everything you can, you should.
Here are some tips on how to take a maternity leave, even as a stay-at-home mom:

1 | Get help, and space it out

My mom had planned to fly out as soon as my second son was born. But because he was born a month early, she had prior obligations and couldn’t come for three more weeks. In the meantime, my mother-in-law and sister-in-law came to stay with us a few days at a time.
Having help caring for my older son in those first four weeks was invaluable. The first time around, all the family had piled in for the first few days and then headed home right as my husband was going back to work. Spreading out family visits over several weeks gave me a better chance to focus on my newborn.

2 | Don’t clean your house

Sure, pick up some toys occasionally. You probably want to load the dishwasher once a day and take out the trash when needed. Do laundry when you are out of clean underwear and out of the mesh stuff as well. That’s it.
Don’t scrub the baseboards, dust ceiling fans, mop the floor, vacuum cobwebs. If the windows get so sticky with fingerprints they start to look like frosted glass, draw the curtains. Let the grass grow long. It’s supposed to be better for your lawn, anyway.
If anyone asks you what you want for the new baby, tell them a visit from a housecleaner. If you’ve got all the baby gear already, this will do you far more good than another set of onesies.

3 | Don’t cook either

Here’s a recipe for you: a few chicken breasts (or thighs), a jar of salsa, some salt. Add in a can of black beans and a cup of frozen corn if you’re feeling fancy and your kids aren’t screaming yet. Dump in your slow cooker and cook on low for six to eight hours. Serve over rice, on salad, or in tortillas.
That’s about the only thing I cooked for the first few months of my “maternity leave,” unless you count frozen fish sticks and chicken nuggets. I didn’t want to chop, stir, or sauté until I could do so without holding at least one or two children. If you order take out, don’t feel guilty. Just get something that leaves you with lots of leftovers.

4 | Put those tax dollars to work

Did you know that for $1.35 a year, you can get hours of babysitting in exchange? It’s a heck of a deal. For less than two dollars per person in taxes, PBS will teach your children about anything from emotions to elephants. Nursing a preemie required at least two hands, and thus my oldest son repeatedly decided to take advantage of my preoccupation by repeatedly diving off the couch.
So I turned on Daniel Tiger. Every time baby went to breast, he went to the screen. Eventually, he started trying to convince me that baby was hungry even when he wasn’t just so he could watch some more of his favorite show.
I felt guilty at first, but more and more, we started to use the jingles Daniel Tiger sang to help himself through difficult situations. Research shows that children who watch shows like Daniel Tiger learn empathy and other school readiness skills.
So let go of the guilt, and know that a little high quality, educational television won’t hurt them. After a few months, he watched less TV, and we had gained several new coping skills.

5 | Be clear about what you can and can’t do

Maybe you can take the baby to her doctor appointment one day. But that doesn’t mean you can go grocery shopping, get an oil change, and swing by the pharmacy the next. Be sure to talk with your partner about how you plan on taking a few weeks or months to focus on the baby and will be happy to help with non-essential tasks – when you’re ready.
Your own mental and physical recovery is important, so set boundaries and expectations. If you volunteer or have other obligations, step back from those as well until you figure out how much time you can commit.
There’s no need – and really, no benefit – to try to be a supermom. You will eventually fall into a new rhythm and figure out how to balance taking care of a new life along with everything else that you do. Take a few months to recover and enjoy before diving back into caring for an entire household. You’ll be glad you did.

Staying at Home Versus The Virtue of Busyness

I might work hard, but I’m simply not as busy as I would be if I worked outside the home. Admitting I’d prefer not to be busy comes with a dose of humility.

I’ve never worked as hard as when I’ve been a stay-at-home mom.
I need to start with that because I’m about to tell you one of the main reasons I stay-at-home: I might work hard, but I’m simply not as busy as I would be if I worked outside of the home. Admitting that I would prefer not to be busy comes with a dose of humility.
Researchers from the Columbia Business School have put out at a paper claiming that the new status symbol isn’t how much money we are spending – it’s how we are spending our time. And the busier, the better.
The researchers showed participants in the study pictures of a woman wearing a Bluetooth headset (symbolic of a busy lifestyle) and another wearing headphone (representing a more leisurely lifestyle). The participants who saw a picture of a woman wearing Bluetooth rated her as higher in social status, financial wealth, and income. Likewise, researcher participants rated Peapod, an online shopping service, as having a higher social status than shopping somewhere like Trader Joe’s.
It’s no surprise that working mothers, who still tend to pick up a greater share of the housework than working fathers, are also more likely to say they constantly feel rushed. Four in 10 working moms report always feeling rushed, compared to just one-in-four stay-at-home moms and working dads.
While the constant rush doesn’t translate into a lack of happiness for working moms, it’s not the lifestyle I wanted for my family. I didn’t arrive at this decision directly. It took me a few years of staying at home to come to that conclusion.
 
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I quit my job after my second child was born. My older child had just been diagnosed with multiple food allergies, and my second was born a month premature and was in physical therapy. At the time, I was working three days a week, but paying for full-time care. We had been on the waitlist at the only daycare that had part-time slots since before I found out I was pregnant with the second. Paying for full-time care for two children meant the vast majority of my salary would go to childcare.
So I made the difficult decision to quit my job, which I loved. I worked from home for a few more months, bouncing the baby in his seat while I typed. Eventually, we turned my office into his nursery, and I joined the ranks of stay-at-home moms.
When I worked, I found plenty of articles supporting my conviction that working outside of the home was not only not harmful to my family – it was actually beneficial. The daughters of working moms are more likely to work outside of the home and earn higher wages. The sons are more likely to partake in household chores.
I read how stay-at-home moms who take five years off to care for a child can lose over $700,000 over their lifetimes through lost wages, wage growth, and retirement savings. I knew the quality of time spent with children, not the quantity, mattered most. I felt confident in my decision to be a working mom. When my circumstances changed, I didn’t know what to think.
While society has long pressured women to keep the home fires burning, the reasons given were never that convincing to me. “You can see each precious first!” (My husband was home for both of the kids’ first steps.) “You can be there to kiss every boo-boo!” (I never minded if someone else kissed their boo-boos.) “There’s no one like mom!” (Tell that to my kids, who are perfectly content with Dad, Grandma, etc.)
I knew, in my heart, my children would turn out fine if I stayed-at-home or if I sent them to daycare. But after a year of being at home with them, I knew I wanted to keep up this arrangement, at least for the time being. While moments of peace and quiet were rare in a house of toddler boys, we could at least forego the rush.
There was no bustling to and from daycare. There was no coordinating our vacation days, or negotiating which parent had more important meetings on a day one of us needed to be home to take care of a sick child. There was no trying to figure out something quick to make for dinner at 6 p.m. (Okay fine, there was less trying to figure out something quick to make for dinner at 6 p.m.) Adding a second child to the mix sped up the pace of our life, but staying at home allowed me to slow it back down a bit.
With multiple food allergies in our family, I spend a good amount of my time in the kitchen accommodating our needs. This means we often have hot bread cooling or fresh yogurt brewing on the counter. The boys and I spend hours outside nearly every day, exploring the hiking trails in our community. I can take my children to visit grandparents without having to clear vacation time with anyone. On weekends, we can go fishing instead of playing a frantic game of catch-up.
Busyness has become a virtue, and in modern society’s eyes, staying-at-home might make me an unvirtuous woman. Maybe admitting that I find not working preferable for our family makes me sound lazy or unindustrious. I don’t believe that anyone who is the sole caretaker of children can be criticized for being lazy. But I will gladly admit that I enjoy having more free time.
Without a doubt, I know my children will be happy and well-adjusted whether I stay at home or go back to work. Despite the daycare costs, we might feel more financially comfortable if I had stayed in the game. But as a whole, my family is happier when we’re little less rushed and have a little more time to stop and examine every bug along the way.