In Defence of Help

A few months ago, on my way to an appointment, I met my daughter’s childminder in the park. Eleanor heard her voice, clapped her hands in delight, and tried to undo her buggy straps so she could run to her. I handed off Eleanor in her buggy, along with her backpack of snacks and necessary toys, and walked towards the Underground as they continued on their way.

They were going on an adventure to deliver a special letter to Father Christmas – which they had completed and decorated to the max the previous week. I heard them chattering as they walked along, and for perhaps the millionth time I felt an uprush of gratitude for the world’s best childminder and the relationship she has built with Eleanor.

Prior to having Eleanor, like most people who do not have their own children, I wasn’t fully aware of the extent to which the newborn and toddler years can be utterly and completely draining. Coming from a big family, I know children and childhood well, but I had never been in the sole charge of a child. I had always had someone (my mom, another sibling, a grandma) to hand the child off to. But when that child is yours, and when you realize that they can need you at any point and for any length of time in the 24 hour cycle – so you are “on” 24/7 – it becomes really overwhelming, really fast. 

And, as much as I am big advocate of mothers – if possible – being the primary caregivers of their children in the early years (and the research is really backing me up on this one – if you haven’t read Erica Komisar’s book, give it a look), I also do not think it is at all desirous that she be the sole carer of her children. As an obvious point — Hopefully Dad is around and highly involved – because fathers are absolutely necessary in the lives of their children.

But in an ideal situation, grandma and grandpa would also be within driving distance. Aunties and Uncles would be around for occasional babysitting and shenanigans. Close friends from down the street would want to trade off babysitting for alternating date nights. And so, by default, from the safety of her primary care, your child’s circle would widen, her ability to bond and connect with trusted people would open up, and the primary carer would have necessary support.

About six weeks after I had my daughter, I found myself in a strange situation. I was experiencing incredible back pain, and intense pressure low in my pelvis. Some mild bleeding had started. A visit to the gynecologist confirmed what I suspected. I had a small piece of retained placenta, and my body was trying to get it out. The doctor wanted it out ASAP before my serious problems – like infection – cropped up.

As they ran through various possibilities – surgery being the first thing they mentioned – my mind could only circle around one thing: who was going to take care of my baby? If I did indeed have to have surgery, they wanted my husband to be with me. A hospital isn’t an ideal environment for a new baby to just hang around. So: Who would take her? Who would feed her? Who would know how she likes to be put to sleep? Who would know when she wanted to go for a walk?

I love my friends, but the majority of them here have zero experience with children, viewing them as a kind of curiosity along the lines of a puppy, with no clue about the minutiae of love and labor which is actually involved in childcare. The one person I would trust implicitly lives far on the other end of London and has a brood of her own. And we have no family here.

In that moment, as the doctor outlined possibilities (ranging, I found out later, from worst case scenario to best – because all I really needed was an outpatient procedure which took 45 minutes) it became clear that we needed a person.

We needed a person who would approximate a grandma, an auntie, a best friend, who was a constant, steady, and frequent presence in Eleanor’s life. Who would widen Eleanor’s experience of care and love, but who would also be there if an emergency arose and neither of us could be with her.

Because, here’s the brutal truth: I can’t think of many situations more difficult for a young child than being thrust into the care of a total stranger for an extended period of time, by parents stressed out in an emergency situation. And you can’t predict emergencies.

So, when she was eight months old, Eleanor started going two mornings a week to a childminder who was an automatic click with both Eleanor and with me. Two mornings a week, for three hours, and then four hours when she could go that long without nursing, I suddenly had free arms, and some physical and mental space in which to move.

And so, what started off as a structure put in place for my child, also became a necessary part of my own life.

Suddenly I had time to write again, to work on projects I had put to the side, to take on the occasional coaching referral, and to – let’s be honest – get a nap if we had endured a rough night of teething or fussiness. And suddenly – who would have thought?! – I began to feel much more like myself.

I was always absolutely thrilled to get Eleanor back, to see what she had done, and now – at this point in time – hear about the adventures she’s enjoyed, but I was and am so grateful to exercise different parts of myself.

Mothering is currently my primary and full on work – and I wouldn’t change that, and boy do I feel privileged to be able to say it. But I am not a one dimensional creature. I am not only a mother. I have other interests and pursuits – just like anyone else. To be able to spend SOME time with those other parts of myself is vastly and hugely uplifting. It contributes to the fullness of who I am.

But of course I did receive some push back. From strict attachment parenters, it was posited that perhaps even small amounts of time away would be harmful to my growing baby. To which I can only reply with what I have already said: When have babies ever been cared for only by their mothers? Do you not have a mother or sister or brother or friend who comes and occasionally holds your child or takes them to play?

From those who do not have children of their own, I got slightly disdainful lifted eyebrows. “But…you don’t go to work. Why would you need someone else to watch her?” To which I can only respond: Try working around the clock every day for the next few months and get back to me on that. 

And then, of course, there are those concerned with “privilege.” Not everyone can afford to have childcare. You are obviously privileged. Your opinion doesn’t really matter. Yes. I have an acquaintance who said that. Yes. That’s why I don’t call her a friend. To which I can only respond, among many, many other points (and that’s probably a post for another day): Childcare was our solution. But it is not the only one. 

Notice that I am not simply advocating that you hire someone. What I am doing is pointing out that in normal circumstances family is present and friends are in the same space of life as you, and your child will by default have a wider circle of care than just her parents. And she needs it.

Furthermore, if you have chosen to stay home full time with her, you need some time too. Motherhood in all its beauty and laughter is also hard, sometimes thankless work.  Put your oxygen mask on before tending to your baby’s. Seriously.

However that looks – whether you have become close with your neighbor and can trade off mornings of care, or you have a friend who loves kids and wants to come over and play once a week – carve out some time for your child to play with someone else, and for you to spend time pursuing other parts of yourself.

It will benefit both of you.

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