Most people get flowers when they give birth—I got a 2-pound
baby and a failing liver. Thanks to a critical bout of preeclampsia, my foray
into parenthood was marked with medical urgency rather than congratulations.
There were no balloons or cigars passed around, just worried glances and the
hum of machines checking vital signs.
When I went in
for a routine exam during my 28th week of pregnancy, I felt fine. The
look on my doctor's face when she took my blood pressure for the third time,
however, made it clear that I was far from the healthy, glowing pregnant woman
I imagined myself to be. Even after I was admitted to the hospital a mere 10 minutes later, my husband and I figured it was all a fluke. After all, I didn't
feel sick, and we had months to go before our daughter was due.
It never occurred to me that I wouldn't be able to choose what circumstances my daughter would be born under.
But within two
days, my liver was in danger of failing from a second pregnancy complication
called HELLP syndrome, and I was rushed in for an emergency C-section. It was twenty-four
hours before I was well enough to see my daughter, Layla, and almost a week
before I could touch or hold her. She spent eight weeks in the hospital, over
which time she endured more medical invasiveness than most adults could bear.
During that time, we held it together—mostly because we had to.
immediate danger was over—when my husband and I knew that Layla would be fine—that's
when my real trouble began. I was incredibly grateful to have my daughter and
my health, but I couldn't stop mourning the pregnancy and childbirth I thought
I was going to have. I desperately wanted the entrance into parenthood that I
expected, the one I had planned so carefully for.
Just two days
before I was hospitalized I had been leisurely touring St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital
wondering what kind of birth experience I wanted. I was torn between the birth
center—relaxation tubs and bragging rights on giving birth "naturally"—or a
hospital room, where there were sweet, sweet epidurals. It never occurred to me
that I wouldn't be able to choose what circumstances my daughter would be born
under, and it certainly never crossed my mind that I could end up with a sick
Later, I was
thrown another parenting curveball when I didn't feel the sense of all-encompassing
joy and love for Layla that friends and family told me would come. (One friend
told me that the welling of love she had for her son felt almost like an
emotional orgasm.) When a colleague asked me over lunch what new-mom emotion I
found most surprising, I had to admit that it was ambivalence. Now, the
frightening events surrounding Layla's birth certainly influenced how I felt
about my daughter—I was too afraid to feel the incredible love I had for Layla
because I still feared losing her—but as the months went by, I was able to
compartmentalize the post-traumatic stress and sadness I felt about how my
daughter came into the world.
Americans are desperate to figure out why, exactly, they are so dissatisfied and anxious over parenthood.
was something else. Something that no baby book or words of wisdom prepared me
for. It wasn't unhappiness so much as an unsettling sense of dissatisfaction,
an itch of emptiness that was accompanied with overwhelming shame for not
feeling "completed" by parenthood. This was not what I expected.
Parenting needs a paradigm shift, plain and simple. The
American dream of parenthood—the ideal that we're taught to seek and live out—doesn't
come close to matching the reality, and that disconnect is making us miserable.
Fewer than 5
percent of American families employ a nanny. Most
parents don't spend over $500 on a stroller, or use cloth
diapers. Hell, most mothers don't even breastfeed for longer than a few months,
despite all of the hoopla over breast being best. What is being presented to us
as the standard of parenting—through books, magazines, and online media—is
really the exception. The truth is much more thorny, and not nearly as
desperate to figure out why, exactly, they are so dissatisfied and anxious over
parenthood. They seek advice from every Tiger Mother or bebe-raiser to help with their parenting woes. But looking to other
cultures—or, more accurately, generalizations about other cultures—is a
fruitless search for a quick fix.
 "No one has nannies—so can we please stop writing about them?" Sara Mosle. Slate. February 4, 2010.
 "Breastfeeding Data and Statistics." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. August 2, 2011. http://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/data/
parenting is too complex to lead one to believe that a brutal schedule of piano
lessons or a croissant will magically erase the nuances and troubles that go
along with raising children. Parental leave policies are woefully inadequate—if
not nonexistent—at most American workplaces, and many mothers worry about
losing their jobs or being forced onto the "mommy track" once their child is
born. Parents are paying exorbitant amounts of money for child care, and
feeling guilty to boot about dropping their kids off. Social expectations about
what constitutes a good or a bad mother haunt every decision, and the rise of
the parental advice industry ensures that moms and dads feel inadequate at
every turn. Our children bring us joy (most of the time) but the parenting
hurdles—whether systemic or personal—are still there, unchanging.
Parents can no
longer smile pretty, pretending that the guilt, expectations, pressure, and
everyday difficulties of raising children don't exist or that the issues that
plague so many American families can be explained away in a how-to guide.
Fifty years ago,
Betty Friedan wrote the groundbreaking book The
Feminine Mystique about "the problem that has no name"—the everyday
domestic drudgery that made a generation of women miserable. Today that problem
has a name (and quite often, poopy diapers). The problem isn't our children themselves;
it's the expectation of perfection, or, at the very least, overwhelming
happiness. The seductive lie that parenting will fulfill our lives blinds
Americans to the reality of having kids.