To raise a child with additional
needs is to inhabit a different country from those around you. You will have
your own customs, rules, rituals, habits, mores and vocabulary. People may
visit, but they will never truly know what it is to live within the border.
During our time inside this country, my husband and
I have developed our own code. It’s a language only we understand.
By and large, we are very different people, he and
I. Will loves jazz and sports, in that order; I am highly averse to both, to
the point of despair. He’s a Londoner, born and bred; I grew up in a series of
small Celtic towns that he would find unthinkably claustrophobic and scant on
good coffee. I wouldn’t dream of leaving the house without finessing every
detail of my outfit, even if I’m going to the corner shop; he would wear a
paint-stained, fraying, decades-old sweatshirt to a party, if I didn’t stop
Nevertheless, we share this secret language, which
we use every couple of weeks or so, sometimes more. We can conduct
conversations in it entirely without words, so that no one else around us knows
we are communicating or what we are saying. It is an argot evolved from
necessity, from desperation, from love.
We were on a bus recently with our three children.
It was late, it was snowing, everyone was tired and the bus was crowded. I was
squeezed on one seat with my two youngest children. Will and our eldest were
strap-hanging in the aisle.
From behind us came a noise: a crackling, rustling,
splitting, then a specific crunch-crunch-crunch. My head spun round on my neck,
as did Will’s. We took in our fellow passenger and his snack for a split second
before I shot from my seat, hustling my daughters ahead of me, locking eyes
And so began our wordless conversation.
He tilted his head, meaning, “Is that person eating
nuts in the same airspace as our daughter?”
I narrowed my eyes, which meant, “Yes, I’m afraid
He frowned, to say, “Don’t let her breathe in until
we get off the bus.”
I shrugged, implying, “Don’t worry, I won’t.”
We ushered our baffled, uncomprehending children off
the bus and into the snow, miles from home.
I realize this sounds like a deranged thing to do,
so let me explain. When our middle daughter was quite young, we learned that
she had an immune disorder. Born with chronic eczema, she was distressed and
uncomfortable every minute of every day and didn’t sleep through the night
until she was 6.
She is prone to sudden and severe infections. She is
allergic to a long list of things, some of which can tip her into life-threatening
anaphylactic shock. Just the inhalation of a single particle of nut dust could
kill her within 10 minutes. Life, for her, is a series of dangers, strung
together, one after another, like beads on a thread.
So our family exists in a state of high alert. Will
and I must constantly be thinking about how best to protect her — as well as
trying to minimize the impact of her condition on her siblings. From the moment
she wakes to the moment she goes to sleep, we are engaged in a waltz with
peril. We are trained in resuscitation, in emergency medical action plans, in
We never leave the house without her medication. We
taught her brother, age 7, how to dial for an ambulance and to say: “This is an
emergency case of anaphylaxis.”
Her condition and all its attendant cares is what
makes up our secret language, its grammar, its vocabulary, its punctuation.
This daily battle on behalf of our daughter is the semantics of our silent
communication, which runs on an invisible wire stretched between the two of us,
at all hours of the day.
Wherever we are, whatever we are doing — working,
having meetings, taking phone calls, watching films, eating with friends — this
issue will be there, at the forefront of our minds. It runs through us like
mica through granite.
In the interest of full disclosure, the above is the
expurgated version of our relationship, edited to make us sound like virtuous
and unified parents. The truth is that he and I can also argue like fiends. He
is mulishly stubborn and I am unfailingly volatile. He is a stickler, a
rationalist, and I have been known to throw things, while not exactly at him,
then near him.
We are both exhaustively lexical people; we can
dispute the ideal method to cook scrambled eggs for a startling length of time,
the subject spiraling outward to encompass other extraneous flaws, neither of
us willing to give way. His constant music and iPhone habit can tip me over the
edge; my stockpiles of shoes by the front door and penchant for constantly
rearranging furniture infuriate him.
There is, however, a sense of solidarity between us
on this one issue. We never argue about how best to take care of our daughter,
not because we always agree — far from it — but because we know we need to
channel every atom of energy into protecting her and her siblings. Family life
can be fraught at the best of times, but if one of you suffers a complex
medical condition, it is something that affects all of you; every member of the
household must face the stress and challenges.
Last winter, Will and I were in the throes of a
disagreement that had lasted for more than two days. We whispered furiously at
each other when we were alone; we shot dark and freighted looks across rooms;
we sent each other long, vexed text messages.
I forget, now, what exactly we were feuding over.
Probably some minor domestic detail. All I do know is that the moment my
daughter started to feel unwell at the dinner table, the argument that had been
so all consuming evaporated, like steam. By the time her throat had swollen and
she was losing consciousness, we were assuming our roles, running seamlessly
through our well-rehearsed action plan: I administered the adrenaline, he
called the ambulance; I raised her legs, sending the blood back toward her heart;
he cleared her siblings from the room.
What I’m saying is this: If you are a couple raising
a child who for whatever reason — physical, mental, neurological, immunological
— requires you to go the extra distance, there will be stress. Enormous stress.
You will be tested in every way, beyond limits you didn’t even know existed.
Under these circumstances, you must not, in the
smoke and noise and welter of the battlefield, mistake your partner for the
enemy. You have to recognize that they are coming out of the same trench as
you; they are facing the same enemy.
It’s crucial, when you are under fire, that you
don’t lose your head and discharge your weapons at them. Because no one else
will understand your situation, the rules of your tiny country, like they do;
even your closest friends, sisters and parents won’t have seen you at your
It is Will who has seen me cry after Googling side
effects and survival rates and medical statistics. It is he who has taken the
keyboard out of my hands and said, “Enough.” Only he knows, really, how many
times a night I got out of bed and applied emollient and wrappings and bandages
to my daughter’s skin. Only he knows how little sleep I got. Only he has
witnessed my frustration and grief at the cruel ignorance of others.
It is he who has sat with me, beside her hospital
bed, his hand gripping mine. Only he, among all my acquaintances, comprehends
what it is like to witness our child sink into the clutches of anaphylaxis, to
see the color drain from her face, to watch her features swell, to hear her
breath rattle and strain, to wait by the door, holding her, desperately
listening for the spiraling wail of the approaching ambulance.
So, yes, we can fight like preschoolers about jazz
and shoes and sofas and when, in the cooking of scrambled eggs, is the optimum
time to put in the butter. Maybe we need to. Maybe these are the small radiator
keys that need to be inserted into our marriage in order to drain off the
excess steam that builds and fizzes inside its structure.
When it counts — when it’s a situation of life or
death — all that stuff and strife is forgotten. The secret code kicks in, and I
know one thing: He and I will stand, teeth bared, between death and our
daughter, unquestionably united, saying, Get back, get away. You’re not having
her. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not any time soon.
8 LITTLE WAKE-UP CALLS YOU NEED TO RECEIVE BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE
You’ve come a long way, and you’re still learning and growing. Be thankful for the lessons. Take them and make the best of things right now.
For my 18th birthday, many moons ago, my grandfather on my mom’s side gave me four lightly-used flannel shirts that he no longer needed. The shirts were barely worn and in great shape; my grandfather told me he thought they would look great on me. Unfortunately, I thought they were odd gifts at the time and I wasn’t thankful. I looked at him skeptically, gave him a crooked half-smile, and moved on to the other gifts sitting in front of me. My grandfather died two days later from a sudden heart attack. The flannel shirts were the last gifts he ever gave me, and that crooked half-smile was the last time a directly acknowledged him. Today, I still regret the little thing I didn’t say when I had the chance: “Thank you Grandpa. That’s so thoughtful of you.”
This was a huge wake-up call for me—one that has served me well for over two decades now.
And here are eight wake-up calls for you—some important lessons worth learning before it’s too late:
1. You might not have tomorrow to say, “I love you.”
About a decade ago a coworker of mine died in a car accident. During his funeral several people from the office were in tears, saying kind things like: “I loved him. We all loved him so much. He was such a wonderful person.” I started crying too, and I wondered if these people had told him that they loved him while he was alive, or whether it was only with death that this powerful word, love, had been used without question or hesitation.
I vowed to myself then and there that I would never again hesitate to speak up to the people I love and remind them of how much I appreciate them. They deserve to know they give meaning to my life. They deserve to know I think the world of them.
Bottom line: If you love someone today, tell them. If you appreciate someone today, tell them. There might not be a tomorrow. Today is the day to express your love and admiration.
2. Your judgments of others are often inaccurate.
You will never know exactly what another person is going through or what their whole story is. When you believe you do, realize that your assumptions about their life are in direct relation to your limited perspective.
Many people you believe to be successful are extremely unhappy. Many people you think have it easy worked their tail off achieve what they have. Many people who appear to be wealthy are in debt because of their extravagant tastes for material possessions. Many people who appear to you to be old and uncool were once every bit as young and hip and inexperienced as you.
3. Not trying is why most people fail.
It’s not the mistakes and failures you have to worry about, it’s the opportunities you miss when you don’t even try that hurt you the most. Trying always leads to success regardless of the outcome. Even mistakes and failures teach you what not to do next time. Thus, every outcome is a lesson that makes you stronger and wiser.
Your life will get better when you get better. Start investing in yourself mentally, physically, and spiritually. Make it a priority to learn and grow every day by building positive rituals and sticking to them. The stronger you become, the better your life will feel.
4. Patience does not mean waiting and doing nothing.
Patience involves productive activity. It means doing your very best with the resources available to you, while understanding that the results you seek are worth the required time and effort, and not available elsewhere for any less time and effort.
Patience is the realization that the quality of your life is much more significant than the quantity of things you fill it with. Patience is your willingness to accept and appreciate what you have right now, while you put forth a steady, focused effort into growing toward your dreams and goals.
5. You don’t need anything more to be happy.
Intuitively, you already know that the best stuff in life isn’t stuff at all, and that relationships, experiences and meaningful work are the staples of a happy, fulfilling life. Yet you live in a consumer driven society where your mind is incessantly subjected to clever advertising ploys that drive you, against your better judgment, to buy material goods you don’t need or even want.
At a certain point, the needless material objects you buy crowd out the emotional needs advertisers would like you to believe they are meant to support. So next time you’re getting ready to make an impulsive purchase, ask yourself if this thing is really better than the things you already have. Or have you been momentarily tricked into believing that you’re dissatisfied with what you already have?
6. You aren’t perfect, and neither is anyone else.
All humans are imperfect. At times, the confident lose confidence, the patient misplace their patience, the generous act selfish, and the knowledgeable second guess what they know.
And guess what? You’re human—we all are. We make mistakes, we lose our tempers, and we get caught off guard. We stumble, we slip, and we spin out of control sometimes.
But that’s the worst of it; we all have our moments. Most of the time we’re remarkable. So stand beside the people you love through their trying times of imperfection, and offer yourself the same courtesy; if you aren’t willing to, you don’t deserve to be around for the perfect moments either.
7. All the little things make a big difference.
Life isn’t about a single moment of great triumph and attainment. It’s about the trials and errors that get you there—the blood, sweat, and tears—the small, inconsequential things you do every day. It all matters in the end—every step, every regret, every decision, and every affliction.
The seemingly useless happenings add up to something. The minimum wage job you had in high school. The evenings you spent socializing with coworkers you never see anymore. The hours you spent writing thoughts on a personal blog that no one reads. Contemplations about elaborate future plans that never came to be. All those lonely nights spent reading novels and news columns and comics strips and fashion magazines and questioning your own principles on life and sex and religion and whether or not you’re good enough just the way you are.
All of this has strengthened you. All of this has led you to every success you’ve ever had. All of this has made you who you are today.
Truth be told, you’ve been broken down a 1,000 times and put yourself back together again. Think about how remarkable that is, and how far you’ve come. You’re not the same person you were a year ago, a month ago, or even yesterday. You’re always growing… stronger!
8. Excuses are lies.
Make no mistake, there is always a lie lingering in between a dream and too many excuses. And the lie is you lying to yourself.
The excuses and explanations won’t do you any good. They won’t add any value to your life or improve the quality of it by even the slightest margin. To fulfill your calling and get where you wish to go in life requires more than just thinking and talking. These feats require focused and sustained action. And the good news is, you’re perfectly capable of taking whatever actions are necessary. You just have to choose to actually do it.
No one else can succeed for you on your behalf. The life you live is the life you build for yourself. There are so many possibilities to choose from, and so many opportunities for you to bridge the gap between where you are and where you want to be. Now is the moment to actually step forward.
Now, it’s your turn…
Today, I hope you will have another inspired day, that you will dream boldly and dangerously, that you will make some progress that didn’t exist before you took action, that you will love and be loved in return, and that you will find the strength to accept and grow from the troubles you can’t change. And, most importantly (because I think there should be more kindness and wisdom in this crazy world), that you will, when you must, be wise with your decisions, and that you will always be extra kind to yourself and others.
wedding, he introduced me as his wife. I don’t know why this startled me so
much, but each time he said it I shrunk inside.
My mother, in an effort to
keep me humble and rooted, likes to remind me of embarrassing facts from my
childhood. Her favorite one lately: I marched up and down the hallway belting
out “Here Comes the Bride” with a sheer beige curtain over my head as a veil.
If anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my 5-year-old voice
proudly said, “a bride.”
When my older
sister overheard this, she said, “You can only be a bride for a day, idiot.
What do you want to do with your life?”
I thought about
it briefly and corrected my answer: “A wife. I want to be a wife.”
In my mind, the
image remained the same: a radiant woman, front and center, dressed in full
bridal plumage. Only a vague sense of a spouse entered this fantasy. A hazy
outline of a man, wearing a tuxedo, hovered in the background like a waiter
ready to fill my water glass. The idea that a bride, or wife, requires another
person to define it never occurred to my childhood mind. A bride is a starring
Not so much, I
realized much later, as a wife.
When I met my
future husband in my mid-20s, I had long forgotten my childhood fantasy. Both
of us were anti-marriage. Products of bad divorces, we bonded over our aversion
to the concept. Late at night in bed, postcoital, eating toasted baguettes with
butter and feta cheese on top, we talked and mocked that worn-out, passé
deal,” I said, swallowing a bite of bread. “If either of us is unhappy or
unsatisfied in this relationship, we can leave. It’s that simple.”
“We only stay
because we want to be here,” he said. “Not because of some ancient ceremony
sworn in front of a hundred relatives we hardly know.”
that, we had sex again.
Three years later, when I
was pregnant with our first child, my mother pressured us to marry. We
resisted. Still, we stopped using the breezy measure of happiness as a basis
After our second
child was born, instead of discussing marriage, we joked: “If you want to
leave, go right ahead, but you have to take the kids with you. That’s right,
take the barfy, snotty, wailing children with you. Enjoy your single life!”
through the next few years broke, in law school, and raising toddlers until my
mother-in-law died suddenly from cancer. Under stress and bereavement, both of
us felt a desperate need to celebrate something. Anything.
“We could get
married?” he said, hesitantly, one night after we’d put the children to bed. He
stood next to the sink with tea towel thrown over his shoulder.
“What about a
commitment ceremony?” I said, scrubbing a stained pot.
“But then we’d
have to get a lawyer to draw up documents to have the same rights as married
people,” he said. “It’s easier to get married. It’s like an all in one.”
“I don’t know,”
I said. I balanced the dripping pot on the dish rack. He picked it up and began
“You should have
the protection of marriage,” he said. “Besides, it’s cheaper.”
And with those
words of romance, we decided to get married.
wedding, something happened that surprised me. He introduced me as his wife. Of
course he did. I don’t know why this startled me so much, but each time he said
it I shrunk inside. A coil inside me tightened. Noticing my reaction when we
were out one night with friends, he asked me on our way home why I had such a
physical reaction to the word.
“I hate it,” I
said. “It’s like you’re talking about someone else. Not me.”
“But I like
calling you my wife.”
“Can we use
“It’s sounds too
economic. Or like we’re in a Western movie.”
“You can say,
‘That there’s my pard’ner. She dun gun sling with the best of ’em.”
“You want me to
use a weird accent every time I introduce you?”
I don’t want to
be introduced at all, as anything other than my name, I thought, but I did not
say this out loud.
For years he
went along with it (without the accent) and called me his partner or spouse.
But eventually, after five or six years of parent-teacher interviews, silent
auctions and cocktail parties, I gave up and said, “Forget it, just call me
wife. It doesn’t matter.”
warning signs in a relationship, when compromise becomes defeat. I gave up on
something that mattered to me.
A subtle shift
occurred during these years. As a wife, I cleaned more toilets, arranged more
dinners and social events, laundered more clothes, paid more bills, picked up
more socks off the counter than my previous unmarried self. I even bought an
iron — and I’d never ironed anything in my life. These tasks, things under the
rubric of “what wives do,” became chores I resented, yet also felt fiercely
territorial over, as if they gave me value and worth.
“wife” was a role that I cast myself in and then tried to make fit. Rarely, if
ever, did I communicate this internal tension to my husband.
Last fall, I met
with my lawyer to hash out a separation agreement. After 18 years together, we
were separating. Two children, two cities, four degrees, four homes, five cars,
one cat, one dog and six hamsters later, we began the process of untangling our
lives. From wife to ex-wife.
I am the third
generation of divorced women on my mother’s side. Does it run in the family? A
genetic flaw? The idea of marriage for me has its demise, divorce, built in.
The understanding of wife is one I inherited, and despite all my efforts I was
not able to transcend or redefine it for myself.
Would my husband
and I have stayed together had we not married? Likely not. The problems in our
relationship existed from the beginning. One recurring disagreement stays with
me. We had this fight many times, but the version I carry around in my mind now
and replay at various times when I doubt myself occurred at a restaurant about
a year before we separated.
“You have no
ability to collaborate,” he had said. It was our date night, or what had
functionally become fight night. “Do you know how frustrating that is?”
I lowered my
voice so the table beside us couldn’t hear. “What do you mean?” I said. “I
compromise all the time.”
about working together to make decisions, instead of one of us making a
decision and the other one putting up with it,” he said.
“But we talk
about decisions all the time,” I said. “We talk and we talk and we talk.”
“You don’t get
it,” he said, refolding his napkin. The candle flickered between us from the
force of his breath and then stilled. Neither of us said anything for a long
When we got
home, I looked the damn word up. Collaboration. Yes, yes, I understood
correctly: the “action of working with someone to produce or create something.”
That’s what I thought I was doing.
But it doesn’t
matter what I thought because if there isn’t a shared
understanding of a concept between two people — “collaboration,” “marriage,”
“husband,” “wife” — then language fails. And maybe he was right. I didn’t get
it because collaboration assumed a person, a whole self, rather than someone
who feverishly, with distressed eagerness, struggled to maintain a role.
The confines of
wifedom fall away quickly.
habits return; I bike around the city again. Shopping at thrift stores, like I
did in my early 20s, has become a Saturday thrill. I don’t have the same
compulsion to get things done. At night, I lie on the couch in front of a fire
and, like my dog, watch people walk down the street. Hours go by, pleasantly
depression? Contemplation? Loneliness? Time spent in my own company for no
purpose whatsoever. I don’t have a word or label for it. What do we call a
woman who places herself at the center of her life? We have no language for
afternoon, when my children were with their father, I found my old wedding
dress in the back of my closet, still in its original garment bag, still with a
wine stain from the reception. I quickly undressed and slipped it over my head.
Like a gothic bride or a ghost, I drifted through my house paying bills, then
later scrambling eggs for dinner dressed in this full-length champagne silk
I don’t want to
be a bride anymore when I grow up, but every now and then I still like to dress
Raising children has become significantly more time-consuming and expensive, amid a sense that opportunity has grown more elusive.
Parenthood in the United States has become much more demanding than it used to be.
Over just a couple of generations, parents have greatly increased the amount of time, attention and money they put into raising children. Mothers who juggle jobs outside the home spend just as much time tending their children as stay-at-home mothers did in the 1970s.
[Coming soon: A newsletter for parents with evidence-based guidance and personal stories for a transformed life with kids.
The amount of money parents spend on children, which used to peak when they were in high school, is now highest when they are under 6 and over 18 and into their mid-20s.
Renée Sentilles enrolled her son Isaac in lessons beginning when he was an infant. Even now that he’s 12, she rarely has him out of sight when he is home.
“I read all the child-care books,” said Ms. Sentilles, a professor in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. “I enrolled him in piano at 5. I took him to soccer practices at 4. We tried track; we did all the swimming lessons, martial arts. I did everything. Of course I did.”
While this kind of intensive parenting — constantly teaching and monitoring children — has been the norm for upper-middle-class parents since the 1990s, new research shows that people across class divides now consider it the best way to raise children, even if they don’t have the resources to enact it.
There are signs of a backlash, led by so-called free-range parents, but social scientists say the relentlessness of modern-day parenting has a powerful motivation: economic anxiety. For the first time, it’s as likely as not that American children will be less prosperous than their parents. For parents, giving children the best start in life has come to mean doing everything they can to ensure that their children can climb to a higher class, or at least not fall out of the one they were born into.
“As the gap between rich and poor increases, the cost of screwing up increases,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who studies families and inequality. “The fear is they’ll end up on the other side of the divide.”
But it also stokes economic anxiety, because even as more parents say they want to raise childrenthis way, it’s the richest ones who are most able to do so.
“Intensive parenting is a way for especially affluent white mothers to make sure their children are maintaining their advantaged position in society,” said Jessica Calarco, a sociologist at Indiana University and author of “Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School.”
Stacey Jones raised her two sons, now in their 20s, as a single mother in a working-class, mostly black neighborhood in Stone Mountain, Ga. She said she and other parents tried hard to give their children opportunities by finding affordable options: municipal sports leagues instead of traveling club teams and school band instead of private music lessons.
“I think most people have this craving for their children to do better and know more than they do,” said Ms. Jones, who works in university communications. “But a lot of these opportunities were closed off because they do cost money.”
“Parent” as a verb gained widespread use in the 1970s, which is also when parenting books exploded. The 1980s brought helicopter parenting, a movement to keep children safe from physical harm, spurred by high-profile child assaults and abductions (despite the fact that they were, and are, exceedingly rare). Intensive parenting was first described in the 1990s and 2000s by social scientists including Sharon Hays and Annette Lareau. It grew from a major shift in how people saw children. They began to be considered vulnerable and moldable — shaped by their early childhood experiences — an idea bolstered by advances in child development research.
The result was a parenting style that was “child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor intensive and financially expensive,” Ms. Hays wrote in her 1998 book, “The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood.” And mothers were the ones expected to be doing the constant cultivation.
The time parents spend in the presence of their children has not changed much, but parents today spend more of it doing hands-on child care. Time spent on activities like reading to children; doing crafts; taking them to lessons; attending recitals and games; and helping with homework has increased the most. Today, mothers spend nearly five hours a week on that, compared with 1 hour 45 minutes hours in 1975 — and they worry it’s not enough. Parents’ leisure time, like exercising or socializing, is much more likely to be spent with their children than it used to be. While fathers have recently increased their time spent with children, mothers still spend significantly more.
Ms. Sentilles’s mother, Claire Tassin, described a very different way of parenting when her two children were young, in the 1970s. “My job was not to entertain them,” said Ms. Tassin, who lives in Vacherie, La. “My job was to love them and discipline them.”
Of her grandchildren, Isaac and his three cousins, she said: “Their life is much more enriched than mine was, but it definitely has been directed. I’m not saying it doesn’t work. They’re amazing. But I know I felt free, so free as a child. I put on my jeans and my cowboy boots and I played outside all day long.”
The new trappings of intensive parenting are largely fixtures of white, upper-middle-class American culture, but researchers say the expectations have permeated all corners of society, whether or not parents can achieve them. It starts in utero, when mothers are told to avoid cold cuts and coffee, lest they harm the baby. Then: video baby monitors. Homemade baby food. Sugar-free birthday cake. Toddler music classes. Breast-feeding exclusively. Spraying children’s hands with sanitizer and covering them in “natural” sunscreen. Throwing Pinterest-perfect birthday parties. Eating lunch in their children’s school cafeterias. Calling employers after their adult children interview for jobs.
The American Academy of Pediatrics promotes the idea that parents should be constantly monitoring and teaching children, even when the science doesn’t give a clear answer about what’s best. It now recommends that babies sleep in parents’ rooms for a year. Children’s television — instead of giving parents the chance to cook dinner or have an adult conversation — is to be “co-viewed” for maximum learning.
An American phenomenon
At the same time, there has been little increase in support for working parents, like paid parental leave, subsidized child care or flexible schedules, and there are fewer informal neighborhood networks of at-home parents because more mothers are working.
Ms. Sentilles felt the lack of support when it became clear that Isaac had some challenges like anxiety and trouble sleeping. She and her ex-husband changed their work hours and coordinated tutors and therapists.
“Friends are constantly texting support, but no one has time,” she said. “It’s that we’re all doing this at the same time.”
Parenthood is more hands-off in many other countries. In Tokyo, children start riding the subway alone by first grade, and in Paris, they spend afternoons unaccompanied at playgrounds. Intensive parenting has gained popularity in England and Australia, but it has distinctly American roots — reflecting a view of child rearing as an individual, not societal, task.
It’s about “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” said Caitlyn Collins, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis whose book, “Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving,” comes out in February. “It distracts from the real questions, like why don’t we have a safe place for all kids to go when they’re done with school before parents get home from work?”
In a new paper, Patrick Ishizuka surveyed a nationally representative group of 3,642 parents about parenting. Regardless of their education, income or race, they said the most hands-on and expensive choices were best. For example, they said children who were bored after school should be enrolled in extracurricular activities, and that parents who were busy should stop their task and draw with their children if asked.
“Intensive parenting has really become the dominant cultural model for how children should be raised,” said Mr. Ishizuka, a postdoctoral fellow studying gender and inequality at Cornell.
Americans are having fewer children, so they have more time and money to invest in each one. But investment gaps between parents of differing incomes were not always so large. As a college degree became increasingly necessary to earn a middle-class wage and as admissions grew more competitive, parents began spending significantly more time on child care, found Valerie Ramey and Garey Ramey, economists at the University of California, San Diego.
Parents also began spending more money on their children for things like preschools and enrichment activities, Sabino Kornrich, a sociologist at Emory, showed in two recent papers. Rich parents have more to spend, but the share of income that poor parents spend on their children has also grown.
In states with the largest gaps between the rich and the poor, rich parents spend an even larger share of their incomes on things like lessons and private school, found Danny Schneider, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues in a May paper. Parents in the middle 50 percent of incomes have also increased their spending. “Lower socioeconomic status parents haven’t been able to keep up,” he said.
Besides having less money, they have less access to the informal conversations in which parents exchange information with other parents like them. Ms. Jones recalled that one of her sons liked swimming, but it wasn’t until he was in high school that she learned about swim teams on which he could have competed.
“I didn’t know because I don’t live in a swim tennis community,” she said. “Unfortunately colleges and universities tend to look at these things as a marker of achievement, and I feel like a lot of kids who have working-class backgrounds don’t benefit from the knowledge.”
Race influences parents’ concerns, too. Ms. Jones said that as a parent of black boys, she decided to raise them in a mostly black neighborhood so they would face less racism, even though it meant driving farther to many activities.
This is common for middle-class black mothers, found Dawn Dow, a sociologist at the University of Maryland whose book, “Mothering While Black: Boundaries and Burdens of Middle-Class Parenthood,” comes out in February. “They’re making decisions to protect their kids from early experiences of racism,” Ms. Dow said. “It’s a different host of concerns that are equally intensive.”
The growing backlash
Experts agree that investing in children is a positive thing — they benefitfrom time with their parents, stimulating activities and supportive parenting styles. As low-income parents have increased the time they spend teaching and reading to their children, the readiness gap between kindergarten students from rich and poor families has shrunk. As parental supervision has increased, most serious crimes against children have declined significantly.
But it’s also unclear how much of children’s success is actually determinedby parenting.
“It’s still an open question whether it’s the parenting practices themselves that are making the difference, or is it simply growing up with college-educated parents in an environment that’s richer in many dimensions?” said Liana Sayer, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and director of the Time Use Laboratory there. “I don’t think any of these studies so far have been able to answer whether these kids would be doing well as adults regardless, simply because of resources.”
There has been a growing movement against the relentlessness of modern-day parenting. Utah passed a free-range parenting law, exempting parents from accusations of neglect if they let their children play or commute unattended.
Psychologists and others have raised alarms about children’s high levels of stress and dependence on their parents, and the need to develop independence, self-reliance and grit. Research has shown that children with hyper-involved parents have more anxiety and less satisfaction with life, and that when children play unsupervised, they build social skills, emotional maturity and executive function.
Parents, particularly mothers, feel stress, exhaustionand guilt at the demands of parenting this way, especially while holding a job. American time use diaries show that the time women spend parenting comes at the expense of sleep, time alone with their partners and friends, leisure time and housework. Some pause their careers or choose not to have children. Others, like Ms. Sentilles, live in a state of anxiety. She doesn’t want to hover, she said. But trying to oversee homework, limit screen time and attend to Isaac’s needs, she feels no choice.
“At any given moment, everything could just fall apart,” she said.
“On the one hand, I love my work,” she said. “But the way it’s structured in this country, where there’s not really child care and there’s this sense that something is wrong with you if you aren’t with your children every second when you’re not at work? It isn’t what I think feminists thought they were signing up for.”
Exercising during pregnancy is generally
safe and can reduce the risk for several conditions including excessive weight
gain, gestational diabetes and preeclampsia.
Always consult with your doctor before
starting any exercise routine, since certain conditions can make it more
Doctors recommend about 30 minutes of
exercise a day — or 150 minutes a week — but no more than 45 minutes per day,
which can increase your risk of overheating and dehydration.
Aerobic exercise, including jogging, is safe
during pregnancy, but you should be able to carry on a conversation while
active. Start slowly if you rarely exercised before pregnancy or are obese.
Avoid inherently risky activities, such as
scuba or sky diving, contact sports, horseback riding, gymnastics or downhill
skiing. Hot yoga and hot pilates are also unadvisable since they can increase
body temperature too much and endanger the fetus.
If you notice warning signs of early labor
or pregnancy complications, such as vaginal bleeding, breathing problems, or
painful contractions, stop and contact your doctor.
Both times I’ve been pregnant, I’ve felt conflicted about
exercise. On the one hand, I was often tired and nauseous; napping felt way
more appealing than sweating. On the other hand, I wanted to do what was best
for my baby and ward off extra pregnancy pounds. So I began hunting for the
perfect prenatal workout. I tried what felt like everything — elliptical
machines, yoga, power walking and even weightlifting, which elicited a number
of concerned comments from gym-goers to “take it easy.”
According to Dr. Margie Davenport, Ph.D., director of the
Program for Pregnancy and Postpartum Health at the University of Alberta in
Canada, the belief that it’s dangerous to exercise during pregnancy is common —
but it’s wrong. “We recommend beginning exercise or continuing to exercise as
soon as you become pregnant,” she said. In most uncomplicated pregnancies,
exercise is safe and tied to a reduced risk for many complications including
excessive weight gain, gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, back pain and depression. For
anyone worried about the safety of exercise during pregnancy, like those judgey
gym-goers, Dr. Davenport and her colleagues recently published a systematic review in the British Journal
of Sports Medicine, which analyzed 46 studies, and concluded that prenatal
exercise does not increase the risk of miscarriage or death of the fetus.
The research I consulted, along with the obstetrician and
maternal-fetal medicine specialist I talked with for this guide, agreed with
Dr. Davenport: In most circumstances, exercise is good for both mom and baby,
although there are important things to keep in mind.
WHAT TO DO
the differences between safe and unsafe exercise
Most of the time, exercising during
pregnancy is safe, but nevertheless “it’s really important that women speak
with their health care provider to see if they have any contraindications, or
medical reasons that they shouldn’t,” Dr. Davenport said.
According to the American College of
Obstetricians and Gynecologists, women with certain health conditions —
including certain heart or lung diseases, cervical issues, pregnancy with
multiples, persistent bleeding during the second or third trimester, preeclampsia
or anemia — shouldn’t exercise while pregnant at all.
ACOG’s guidelines also
note that if you have certain conditions or habits, such as heavy smoking, high
blood pressure, overactive thyroid or are morbidly obese or underweight,
consult with your doctor before exercising, because the benefits of exercise
may not outweigh the potential risks.
how exercise can help you
Exercising during pregnancy isn’t just about
keeping off extra pounds (although it also does that). According to a recent review published in the British Journal
of Sports Medicine, pregnant women who exercised in various ways had about a 40
percent reduced risk for gestational diabetes, gestational hypertension and
preeclampsia. Studies also suggest that women who exercise during pregnancy
are less likely to
become depressed and develop less severe low back and pelvic pain.
Regular exercise can help with labor and post-delivery recovery, too, by reducing the odds of having an
instrument-assisted delivery — a delivery in which forceps or a vacuum
device is used — and lowering the risk for
urinary incontinence after birth.
precautions before and during exercise — and avoid risky types
To reduce the chance of developing low blood
sugar, you should eat before exercising, said Dr. Raul Artal, M.D., a professor
and chairman emeritus of the department of obstetrics, gynecology and women’s
health at the St. Louis University School of Medicine. Smoothies, fruits, nuts
or whole-grain crackers are good choices. Drink water to stay hydrated, too,
and don’t exercise outdoors at temperatures above 90 degrees. That’s because
heat stress in the first trimester, such as from saunas and hot tubs, has
been linked with birth defects of the brain,
nervous system or spinal cord. According to recent research, though,
exercising when it’s not really hot out does not increase core body temperature
enough to cause problems. In fact, research suggests that exercising during
pregnancy is linked with a reduced risk for neural tube defects.
ACOG recommends that pregnant women avoid
the following activities, which could pose health risks:
Contact sports such as ice hockey, boxing,
soccer and basketball
Activities with a high risk of falling, such
as downhill skiing, water skiing, surfing, off-road cycling, gymnastics and
Hot yoga or hot pilates
you can do regularly
“Oftentimes, women think that exercise means
going to a gym, and it doesn’t,” said Dr. Diana Ramos, M.D., M.P.H., an
obstetrician and medical director for reproductive health at the Los Angeles
Public Health Department. “It’s as simple as walking.”
Other activities ACOG recommends include
swimming, stationary cycling, yoga, pilates and low-impact aerobics such as
jogging and pool aerobics. What’s most important is that you choose an activity
that you’ll be able to do regularly. My favorite prenatal workout ended up
being one I did in my basement —
where I was conveniently shielded from intrusive bystanders and just a few
steps away from the essential re-fueling station (aka my kitchen).
ACOG’s guidelines recommend
that pregnant women exercise for 150 minutes a week, or about 30 minutes a day,
five days a week. They caution against exercising for more than 45 minutes at a
time because doing so can increase the risk for low blood sugar, which can make
you lightheaded or dizzy. If you didn’t exercise much before you got pregnant,
or you are obese, it’s O.K. to start with as little as 10 minutes of activity a
day and “build it up at a rate that is going to be sustainable,” Dr. Davenport
said. Dr. Davenport also pointed out that some activity is better than none at
all — exercising for fewer than 150 minutes a week still provides some
Aerobic exercise, such as jogging, is safe
for women who were active before they got pregnant. Guidelines recommend that
women be able to pass the “talk test,” meaning they can carry on a conversation
while exercising. More intense exercise may also be O.K., but Dr. Gregory
Davies, M.D., a professor and chair of the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine
at Queen’s University in Canada, pointed out that very little research has been
done to address this question. “Most, if not all, our knowledge about safety
and pregnancy benefits is based on research protocols that reflected moderate
exercise, at most,” he said. The same goes for strength training, so if you’re
going to lift weights, don’t overdo it. A 2015 trialfound that pregnant women can safely lift
10 pounds or less, but studies haven’t evaluated the safety of heavier
that your body is changing
During pregnancy, a woman’s joints become
more relaxed, so it’s important not to overstretch, Dr. Davenport said. It’s
also wise to avoid activities that require jumping or quick directional
changes, which can stress the joints, too. Balance becomes less stable after
the first trimester, which is why it’s also important to avoid activities that
require careful balance, such as skiing. To stay safe, invest in supportive
shoes — don’t go for your daily walk in flip-flops — because “you really need
the right support for your feet,” Dr. Ramos said.
ACOG also suggests avoiding exercises that
require you to lie on your back during pregnancy. Doing so can restrict blood
flow to the heart, which might also restrict blood flow to the fetus. Usually,
if this happens, you will feel light-headed and nauseous, Dr. Davenport said,
which you can take as a sign to sit up.
WHEN TO WORRY
According to ACOG, women who experience any warning signs while
exercising such as vaginal bleeding, regular painful contractions, amniotic
fluid leakage, difficulty breathing, dizziness, headache, chest pain, muscle
weakness, or calf pain or swelling should stop and contact their health
Dr. Margie Davenport, Ph.D., associate
professor of kinesiology, sport and recreation and director of the Program for
Pregnancy and Postpartum Health at the University of Alberta, Dec. 5, 2018
Dr. Diana Ramos, M.D., M.P.H., medical
director for reproductive health for the Los Angeles Public Health Department,
Dec. 5, 2018
Dr. Raul Artal, M.D., professor and chairman
emeritus of the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and women’s health at the
St. Louis University School of Medicine, Dec. 6, 2018
Dr. Gregory Davies, M.D., professor and
chair of the division of maternal-fetal medicine at Queen’s University in
Canada, Dec. 10, 2018
women are more susceptible to foodborne illness than most people because their
immune systems are weakened.
like salmonella, campylobacter and Toxoplasma gondii can be harmful to a
pregnancy, but experts are particularly concerned about Listeria monocytogenes,
a bacterium that can cause infection that can have devastating
minimize listeria risk, avoid foods most likely to carry it, such as certain
types of processed meats (unless they’ve been thoroughly heated), smoked fish,
soft cheeses and unpasteurized milk and dairy products.
research on moderate alcohol consumption during pregnancy is mixed, experts
have said that abstinence is the safest bet.
your doctor suggests otherwise, you can keep your morning coffee, as long as
you limit yourself to 200 milligrams of caffeine or less per day.
you ate the wrong thing? Don’t stress. Discuss it with your doctor, who can
give you tips on what, if anything, to do next.
WHAT TO DO
Take care with
certain types of processed meats
are dozens of bacteria, viruses and parasites that can linger in foods and
cause illness. Experts are particularly concerned about listeriosis — a
bacterial infection that can cause seemingly mild or even nonexistent symptoms
in pregnant women, but which can be especially dangerous to an unborn baby —
including causing miscarriage, preterm labor or stillbirth.
infections during pregnancy are rare. Between 2009 and 2011, according to the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were just 227 cases in
pregnant women in the United States. But research suggests that pregnant women
may be up to 20 times more vulnerable to a listeria infection than the rest of
immunity is altered when you’re pregnant, and that makes you more susceptible
to serious consequences of foodborne illness,” said Dr. Zoe Kiefer, M.D.,
M.P.H., an ob-gyn at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Nearly
one-quarter of all listeria cases in pregnant women in the United States result
in fetal loss or death of the newborn, according to the C.D.C.
outbreaks tend to occur in certain ready-to-eat meat products such as hot dogs,
sausages, and store-bought, meat-based salads such as those made with chicken
or ham. Cold cuts and deli meats are a common source, too. In fact, on April
17, 2019, the C.D.C. reported that
at least eight hospitalizations and one death were linked to a listeria outbreak
among sliced deli meats and cheeses at several deli counters across four
states. Other outbreaks have been caused by refrigerated pâtés, meat spreads,
smoked seafood, carpaccio, produce like cantaloupe and lettuce, and dairy
products like ice cream and soft cheeses (more on cheese below).
of cutting these high-risk foods from your diet completely, Mary Saucier
Choate, M.S., R.D.N., a food safety field specialist at the University of New
Hampshire Extension, recommended cooking foods that can be eaten hot to an
internal temperature of 165 degrees, or until steaming, since high temperatures
kill the bacteria. A hot open-faced turkey sandwich or a fully cooked hot dog
would do the trick. Or, consider making your own alternatives, such as freshly prepared
salmon salad (made from canned salmon), egg salad or a peanut butter and banana
have said to keep fruits and veggies (with the exception of sprouts; more on
that below), in your diet unless there’s an outbreak. Cooking produce is another
way to minimize potential risk, said Dr. Haley Oliver, Ph.D., an associate
professor of food science at Purdue University.
general, keeping kitchen surfaces clean, thoroughly washing fruits and veggies
and properly storing them (like keeping cut melon refrigerated) can help keep
Be flexible with fish choices
is packed with nutrition and is an important addition to many people’s diets,
especially if you’re expecting. It’s not only high in protein and essential
vitamins and minerals, but supplies healthy omega-3 fatty acids that aid in
your brain and heart health, and in your baby’s brain and retina
doesn’t make fish an all-you-can-eat food when you’re pregnant, though. Most
fish contain some level of mercury, a metal that can cause brain damage as well
as vision and hearing problems for babies exposed in the womb. But certain
types tend to contain more mercury than others. Large, long-living fish like
bigeye tuna, swordfish, shark, king mackerel and orange roughy have the highest
mercury levels and are best avoided.
health agencies recommend that pregnant women eat two to three servings (8 to
12 ounces) of fish per week, including a variety of low-mercury fish including
cod, flounder, salmon, sardines, shrimp or canned light tuna; or one serving
per week of moderate-mercury fish like halibut, snapper or albacore tuna.
There is debate, however, over whether some types of tuna are safe for pregnant women to eat at all. In 2014, Consumer Reports analyzed Food and Drug Administration data and found that while canned light tuna on average was low in mercury, the amount varied greatly from can to can, with some containing unsafe levels of the toxin. Since there’s no way to tell which can is which, or which type of tuna the can contains, the group recommends avoiding all types of tuna while you’re pregnant. Talk with your doctor about the best diet plan for you.
Take care with raw foods
fish known to harbor parasites (such as the anisakiasis worm, which can cause
abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea) are typically frozen before
they’re sold for consumption as sushi in the United States. Freezing can also
halt the growth of bacteria like salmonella, which may be present.
freezing is not foolproof against foodborne illness, explained Dr. Christina A.
Mireles DeWitt, Ph.D., an associate professor of food science and technology at
Oregon State University. And it doesn’t prevent cross contamination. Most
people’s immune systems can handle the temporary G.I. distress resulting from
eating a contaminated food, said Dr. DeWitt, but pregnant women and their
babies are at higher risk for complications (as are young children and the
elderly or immune-compromised), so it’s best to avoid uncooked fish, such as
sushi and raw oysters, when you’re pregnant.
also best to avoid raw or undercooked meat. While most pregnant women are
advised to avoid cleaning their cat’s litter boxes due to the increased risk of
infection from Toxoplasma gondii — a parasite that thrives in cat feces — about
half of the yearly toxoplasmosis infections in the United States result from
eating food. Common sources include undercooked pork, lamb and wild game meat;
as well as raw fruits and vegetables (which could contain infected soil).
the F.D.A.’s “heat chart” for
instructions on how to ensure your meat is fully cooked. And wash your hands
with soap and warm water after touching soil, sand, raw meat, cat
litter or unwashed vegetables. The F.D.A. also recommends thoroughly washing
and, if possible, peeling, fruits and veggies before eating.
Abstain from alcohol
some studies suggest that light-to-moderate drinking — defined as no more than
one drink per day for women — is no big deal during pregnancy, there’s enough
evidence to the contrary for many experts to agree that no amount of alcohol is
safe. A 2013 review of 34
studies, for example, concluded that women who drank up to three drinks per
week throughout their pregnancies were more likely to have children with behavioral
issues like poor impulse control or difficulty interacting with other kids than
women who didn’t drink at all.
during pregnancy has been linked to an increased risk of fetal alcohol spectrum
disorders, such as fetal alcohol syndrome, which can lead to facial
abnormalities, improper growth and intellectual disabilities. A 2018 study published in the journal JAMA
estimated that as many as 5 percent of children in the United States have an
really don’t know what amount is safe,” said Dr. Kiefer. So for now, skip the
Avoid unpasteurized drinks
or the process of heating foods to kill harmful bacteria, has made many foods
safe for pregnant women to consume. But be on the lookout for milks, juices,
dairy and other products that haven’t gone through the process.
unpasteurized milk can harbor germs like listeria, salmonella, campylobacter or
cryptosporidium. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics said that since no
studies have found any benefits of drinking unpasteurized milk, pregnant women
who drink milk and milk products should only consume those that have been
pasteurized. (The same advice goes for infants and children.)
juices sold in the United States are pasteurized, including all that are
shelf-stable. But some refrigerated juices sold at certain types of stores like
high-end chains, local organic juice joints, corner bodegas or farm stands may
not be. If you don’t see a label stating a drink has been pasteurized, ask
whether it has been. If they’re not sure if it has, skip it.
Be choosy about cheeses
with refrigerated meat and unpasteurized dairy products, cheese can harbor
listeria and other pathogens. But unlike the “cook it or skip it”
recommendation for meat products, the advice on cheese isn’t always
general, the softer — and wetter — a cheese gets, the more you have to worry
about pathogens surviving and growing. Bacteria like moisture, said Dr. Dennis
D’Amico, Ph.D., a professor of food microbiology at the University of
Connecticut, so pathogens tend to grow on soft cheeses more quickly than they
grow on harder ones.
you go from a mozzarella with high moisture to something like a cheddar or a
Monterey Jack, the risk is starting to go down,” said Dr. D’Amico. Dry, hard
cheeses such as a traditional Parmigiano or a Pecorino Romano have virtually
zero risk of foodborne illness, said Dr. D’Amico.
cheeses made with unpasteurized milk are by far the riskiest: C.D.C. estimates
suggest they’re as much as 160 times more likely to cause foodborne listeria
infection than soft cheeses made with pasteurized milk. But even pasteurized
soft cheeses are not risk-free: A 2018 C.D.C. report revealed that there
were 12 times more listeria outbreaks linked to pasteurized soft cheeses
between 2007 and 2014 than there were between 1998 and 2006. One such outbreak
in 2015 hospitalized 28 people — six of whom were pregnant. Latin-style
cheeses, like Queso Fresco, have been implicated in more outbreaks than other
the F.D.A. says it’s O.K. for pregnant women to eat soft cheeses made with
pasteurized milk, Dr. D’Amico and other experts have suggested that pregnant
women consider avoiding them to be safe.
If you drink coffee, stick to one cup
of research has linked consumption of coffee and other sources of caffeine to
increased risks for miscarriage, preterm birth and
low birth weight babies. But the research isn’t clear on how much is safe to
consume. Most public health groups, including the American College of
Obstetricians and Gynecologists, agree that limiting caffeine to no more than
200 milligrams per day will not majorly increase such risks.
tell my patients it’s O.K. to have one cup of coffee daily,” said Dr. Kiefer,
no matter your stage of pregnancy.
caffeine content can vary depending on what you drink. At Starbucks, a shot of
espresso has 75 milligrams of caffeine; whereas its Tall-sized brewed coffee
drinks have closer to 190 to 280 milligrams. The English breakfast tea I
ordered at the coffee shop that day probably had around 50 milligrams.
keep in mind that caffeine can pop up in unassuming places, such as in decaf
coffee, colas, iced teas, energy drinks, kombucha and chocolate.
Avoid raw eggs
can carry salmonella, a bacteria that can cause infections resulting in fever,
nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and dehydration. And if you’re infected during
pregnancy, symptoms can be so severe that they may lead to serious
complications for both you and baby.
can’t withstand high heat, so eggs cooked to 160 degrees or more will be safe
to eat. Cook eggs thoroughly until the whites and yolks are firm and no clear
or runny sections remain.
liquid eggs sold in refrigerated cartons are pasteurized and likely won’t have
the potential to make you sick. Pasteurized shell eggs probably can’t make you
sick either, though these are harder to find. Also remember that raw eggs can
be found in seemingly innocuous foods and drinks, too, such as Hollandaise
sauce, Caesar dressing, eggnog, raw cookie dough, aioli, meringue, mousse and
handling raw eggs, wash your hands and disinfect surfaces they’ve touched to
prevent cross contamination.
A.A.P. guidelines have advised pregnant women to avoid eating peanuts — and to
delay introducing them to high-risk children (such as those whose parents have
allergies) until age 3 — so as to prevent peanut allergies in their children.
But as peanut allergies increased despite this advice, and more research
emerged, the A.A.P. rescinded that recommendation in 2008 (and reaffirmed their stance in
some pregnant women still haven’t gotten that memo.
anything, newer research suggests that allergen exposure may reduce food
allergy risk. A 2014 study of
more than 8,000 women and their offspring published in JAMA Pediatrics, for
example, found that moms who ate peanuts and tree nuts (like almonds or
walnuts) five or more times per week during, shortly before or shortly after
their pregnancies had kids who were 69 percent less likely to develop nut
allergies than those whose moms ate them less than once per month.
good news, since nuts are good sources of the protein, healthy fats and
vitamins and minerals that pregnant women need.
raw sprouts — including alfalfa, mung bean, radish and clover—are risky for
pregnant women. “Seeds may become contaminated by bacteria in animal manure in
the field or during the postharvest stage,” said Choate, the food safety field specialist
at the University of New Hampshire Extension. These bacteria can grow to high
levels during sprouting, and are impossible to wash out. To play it safe, ask
for your sandwich with no alfalfa sprouts, and for the bean sprouts to be left
off your pad Thai.
Review the recalls
few days it seems there’s another healthy food we’re told to avoid due to an
outbreak, from romaine lettuce to tahini to sliced melon. To stay on top of the
latest news, sign up to get notified about alerts and recalls from both the
F.D.A. and the Department of Agriculture by email here. You’ll also get an email when the recall
is over, so you won’t unnecessarily need to limit your diet for longer than you
something on the “do not eat” list? Don’t freak out. The chances that one
slip-up will damage your pregnancy are relatively slim, said Dr. Kiefer. “If a
patient calls me and says, ‘I had a ham sandwich,’ I try to reassure them that
they’re probably O.K.”
You do need
to worry, however, if you experience symptoms that could signal actual food
poisoning, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, chills or dizziness; or
any signs of preterm labor such as cramping or bleeding. If you have any of
these symptoms or if you’re unable to keep fluids down for more than a few
hours at a time, call your doctor or head to the E.R. so you can be monitored
for hydration and treated as needed.
that before-you-knew-you-were-pregnant party night, bring it up with your
doctor. While experts have said that no amount of alcohol is safe, one isolated
exposure to alcohol may not cause problems for you or your baby, said Dr.
Kiefer. Talk with your doctor about concerns you have regarding drinking at any
point in pregnancy, especially if you’ve had any significant alcohol intake
since your last period.
Zoe Kiefer, M.D., M.P.H., an ob-gyn at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in
Boston, January 2019
Saucier Choate, M.S., R.D.N., a food safety field specialist at the University
of New Hampshire Extension, January 2019
Christina A. Mireles DeWitt, Ph.D., an associate professor in food science and
technology and director of the Oregon State University Seafood Research and
Education Center, January 2019
Dennis D’Amico, Ph.D., a professor of food microbiology at the University of
Connecticut, January 2019
Haley Oliver, Ph.D., an associate professor of food science at Purdue
University, March 2019
who’ve given birth have postpartum pelvic floor issues that can require
physical therapy. Look out for peeing when you laugh, sneeze or exercise, or
for very frequent urges to pee.
pelvic floor issues isn’t just Kegels (and a lot of people do Kegels wrong).
sex hurts after the first few times, go slow, use lube and try non-intercourse
forms of sex. If it still hurts, see a pelvic floor physical therapist.
If you feel like
something is falling out of your vagina, you may have prolapse. Consult your
doctor for a referral to a pelvic floor physical therapist.
Scar pain is
common after both C-sections and vaginal births even up to a year postpartum.
Scar massage may help.
If your back,
shoulders or hips hurt, make sure you’re carrying your baby and baby gear on
both sides of your body equally, and see a physical therapist.
When I was pregnant, I read four books on pregnancy and two
on childbirth. I read no books on what my body would be like during the first
year postpartum, because I had never heard of any. During that first year, many
people are underinformed about their own bodies, even as they learn vast
amounts about their babies. Many of us are cleared for sex and exercise at six
weeks postpartum, but a body that grew another human can take much longer than
that to heal — and can be permanently changed in some ways.
For this piece, I discussed health in the first postpartum
year with two ob-gyns, a nurse, two physical therapists who specialize in
treating postpartum bodies and two mothers. All the experts said many people
have questions about what is normal, and they recommended calling your
obstetrician, midwife or primary care provider if you’re concerned about
something specific. For many symptoms, a next step will be a referral to a
physical therapist. The experts stressed that you don’t have to live with pain,
discomfort or leaking urine, and that your health is as important as your
WHAT TO DO
Don’t ignore concerning changes.
Peeing a little
when you sneeze, laugh or exercise is such a classic postpartum symptom that
many assume it can’t be fixed. Not so. It’s called stress incontinence, and
it’s a symptom of a problem with your pelvic floor, a set of muscles that
stretch, bowl-shaped, between the tailbone and the pubic bone. Urge
incontinence, in which you feel the need to urinate very frequently, feel you
have a very small bladder or feel you can’t hold it, is also due to pelvic
floor muscle stress.
If you have any
kind of incontinence, a good first step is a referral to a physical therapist
who specializes in pelvic floor issues. “Being pregnant puts stress on your
pelvic muscles” because of the weight of the fetus, said Dr. Tamika Auguste, an
ob-gyn at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. Vaginal
delivery or a C-section can further stress your pelvic floor, especially if the
C-section was unplanned and occurred after some amount of labor. “Oftentimes
women don’t always recognize immediately how much of a toll that still took on
their vaginal canal and pelvic floor,” said Alison Colussi, D.P.T., a physical
therapist specializing in pelvic health. Muscles that stretch during delivery
can either remain too loose or over-tighten in response.
Do pelvic floor exercises — but not just Kegels.
When you think
pelvic floor, you probably think Kegel exercises — in which you contract your
pelvic floor muscles. But Kegels are not always helpful, and they’re hard to
learn how to do properly on your own, Colussi said, so it’s best to visit a
physical therapist if possible. Some women’s pelvic floors are overly tight,
“in a constant state of mini-Kegel,” as Colussi puts it, which Kegels would
only exacerbate. Even when pelvic floor muscles are weak and need strengthening,
“the focus is much more on finding the full range of motion of those muscles,
which includes both relax and contract,” Colussi said.
part is hard. I tried to do it while on the phone with Colussi. “I’m not
entirely sure if they’re relaxed or not,” I told her. “Am I actually trying to
contract something accidentally?” She laughed. “I hear that 10,000 times a
day,” she said.
said, patients come in looking for an exercise to do for 10 minutes every day.
“But the question is not what’s a good exercise,” she said. It’s more about how
people move in every one of their daily activities, from getting out of bed to
picking up mashed fruit off the floor to lifting babies out of their cribs.
The proper way to pick up that
mashed fruit or a baby in a car seat is to squat down, keeping your center of
gravity over your hips and not tilting forward. Then exhale, engage your abs and
straighten up using your leg muscles, not your back.
Don’t put up with painful sex.
It’s common to
feel discomfort or pain the first few times you have penetrative sex after
childbirth, but after that, don’t put up with it. The first step is of course
to go slowly and be gentle with yourself. Often ob-gyns will advise using an
over-the-counter lubrication product, because breastfeeding suppresses estrogen
production, and estrogen produces lubrication, explained Dr. Alison Stuebe,
associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and chair of the taskforce
that wrote the newest American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists guidelines for postpartum care.
But lube is just a beginning, our experts all agreed.
In addition to
dryness, pain during sex can be caused by pelvic floor dysfunction, other tight
or stretched muscles or scar pain from a tear or episiotomy during a vaginal
birth. Sex can hurt for patients who’ve had C-sections as well, because both
C-sections and the process of pregnancy can stretch or tighten muscles. Ask
your obstetric care provider for a referral to pelvic floor physical therapy.
Dr. Stuebe also
directs patients to “The Parents’ Guide to Doing It,”
an episode of “The Longest Shortest Time” podcast with sex advice columnist Dan
Savage as a guest. Savage discusses types of sex other than penetration.
Unfortunately, some women experience pain with any kind of sex, usually from
increased nerve sensitivity, said Colussi.
Seek help if you feel pressure in your vagina.
Some women come
to Colussi saying they feel pressure in their vagina, like something is
obstructing their bowel movements, “or like a dry tampon is half falling out of
me,” she said. Sensations like these could mean a pelvic organ prolapse, when
an organ (uterus, bladder or urethra) shifts from its original position or
presses against the vaginal wall. “Prolapse is probably the thing women are
least prepared for,” said Colussi.
can be fixed with surgery or alleviated with a pessary (a support in the vagina
to prop up the prolapsing organ), but milder prolapses can be managed just by
lying down more frequently and avoiding high levels of pressure in your
abdomen, Colussi said. “Oftentimes for a woman it feels a lot worse than it
actually is,” she said, but in other cases prolapse can be more severe than it
feels, so it makes sense to see a health care provider. To better manage
pressure levels in your abdomen, don’t bear down when pooping; and exhale
instead of inhaling or holding your breath when you exert yourself. If you find
yourself grunting and then holding your breath when you lift something heavy,
try exhaling instead.
Ask your doctor about scar pain.
If you feel pain
in your C-section scar or scar from a tear or episiotomy, see your medical
provider. A doctor may recommend scar massage or scar mobility treatments from
a postpartum physical therapist. However, be aware, scientific data on the
effectiveness of scar massage is limited because it has barely been studied,
Dr. Stuebe said. A 2011 paper concluded that scar massage is “anecdotally effective”
but found that surgical scar massage of any kind had only been studied in a
tiny sample size of 30 patients. Scar pain is common. A year after giving
birth, a study found, 18
percent of women who had C-sections still had pain at the incision site, and 10
percent of women who had vaginal births still felt pain in the vagina or
perineum (the area between the vagina and the anus).
Learn to carry your baby on both sides.
Carrying a baby,
lifting a baby and holding a baby while breastfeeding are hard physical work,
especially for women who were pregnant. Your posture and movement habits change
during pregnancy from carrying around extra weight in new places, and your body
also produces the hormones relaxin and progesterone, which loosen your
ligaments and joints.
design doesn’t help. “Car seats and cribs have changed drastically” in recent
years, said Colussi. They’re carefully designed for infant safety, but not for
parent ergonomic safety. Infant or “bucket” car seats are heavy, and usually
parents carry them in their nondominant arm, causing muscle imbalances. She
recommends that parents practice early and often carrying their babies on both
sides equally. “Cribs are hard because the rails can’t go up and down anymore,”
she said. Colussi recommends that parents, especially shorter ones, place a
step aerobics stepper next to the crib.
If pain persists
after making these changes, physical therapy is a good idea.
Use proper form for sitting up.
If you feel a
gap in your abdominal muscles, you may have diastasis recti, in which all the
layers of the abdominal muscles, the rectus abdominus, separate in the middle.
This happens normally during the latter part of pregnancy to make room for the
growing uterus, but if it persists at your six-week postpartum checkup, ask
your provider, who may refer you to a physical therapist. To avoid putting too
much pressure on these muscles, avoid crunches or sit-ups, and when you sit up,
don’t sit straight up using just your abdominal muscles: Roll onto your side
first and use your arms.
WHEN TO WORRY
If you have
shortness of breath, pain in your chest or seizures, call 911.
If you have an
incision that does not heal, a temperature above 100.4F, too much bleeding
(soaking one pad per hour or a blood clot the size of an egg or larger), a red
or swollen leg that feels painful or hot, or a headache that does not get
better with medication or is accompanied by vision changes, call your medical
If you had
gestational diabetes, make sure you get screened for diabetes according to your
medical provider’s advice.
If you had high
blood pressure (pre-eclampsia) during
pregnancy, make sure your blood pressure is monitored according to your medical
provider’s advice. (You are still at risk for pre-eclampsia up to six weeks
If you quit or
tapered smoking or other drugs during pregnancy, see your medical provider for
a postpartum support plan. The stresses of life with a baby can lead to
Debra Bingham, Dr.PH.,
R.N., professor of nursing at the University of Maryland and executive director
of the Institute for Perinatal Quality Improvement, Aug. 23, 2018
Tamika Auguste, M.D.,
obstetrician-gynecologist at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, Aug. 27, 2018
Colussi, D.P.T., physical therapist at Physical Therapy Center of Rocky Hill in
Rocky Hill, Conn., Aug. 27, 2018
Alison Stuebe, M.D., M.Sc., associate
professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina
School of Medicine, Aug. 27, 2018
Every Mother’s Day, Maggie Nelson, her husband Mike, and their three young children head to the cemetery to take a family photo at the grave of their daughter, Emily. She was stillborn in 2010, but her twin, Mikey, now 7, survived.
“People say, ‘That’s kind of sad,’ but I can say, ‘I’m a proud mom of four. Here I am with all of them,’” Ms. Nelson, 39, said of the photos of her and the kids gathered on the grass by Emily’s stone plaque. A Bloomington, Ill., kindergarten teacher, she is a member of an unofficial sorority of women who experienced acute grief while postpartum.
The grief of fathers, adoptive mothers and other relatives after a family death is no less real, but postpartum women in mourning endure a particularly complicated blend of physical and emotional duress.
First, there are factors that can affect any new mother: the physical discomfort of childbirth, the lack of sleep and anxiety about the baby.
After giving birth, a new mother experiences rapid drops in levels of estrogen and progesterone and steep increases in prolactin. This can result in strong feelings of fatigue, irritability, insomnia and sadness known as the baby blues, which the National Institute of Mental Health says affects up to 80 percent of women.
This is not the same as the more intense, ongoing postpartum depression, which doesn’t reveal itself immediately, says Christiane Manzella, a senior psychologist who specializes in bereavement at the Seleni Institute, a women’s counseling center in New York.
Grief disrupts the body in different ways, with effects that can include a weakened immune system, a perilous situation for a new mother.
“I was a mess, to put it in a nutshell,” said Gayle Brandeis, 50, a Nevada writer whose mother committed suicide in 2009, days after Ms. Brandeis gave birth to a son. She experienced bouts of dizziness and had difficulty catching her breath. “I was really worried that my milk would dry out. I had a lot of stitches and walking was very painful,” she said. “I felt so disoriented in my body.”
Bereaved new mothers need people to remind them that there are no wrong feelings.
“It feels incredibly isolating because you’re supposed to be happy,” said a Boston-area 47-year-old mother of two who works in marketing and asked to be identified only by her first name, Susan. In 2012, when Susan was on bed rest with a high-risk pregnancy while living overseas, her mother died unexpectedly. She could not travel for the funeral and was able to attend only via Skype. When Susan eventually gave birth to a daughter, her relationship to her baby was not what she expected. Her daughter had acid reflux, screamed a lot and slept little.
“I thought there would be this bond that I wouldn’t want to break because she was somehow my mom incarnate. It wasn’t that at all.” Throughout this experience, Susan, like most grieving new mothers, wondered, “Is this normal?”
Pediatricians are on the front lines of spotting signs of postpartum depression in new mothers, since they see babies and mothers sooner and more frequently than obstetricians. Dr. Dafna Ahdoot, a Los Angeles pediatrician, has helped grieving new mothers who were anxious about their surviving baby’s health, concerned over whether they could take their newborn to an out-of-town funeral, or worried that their grief would negatively affect the baby. She advises grieving new mothers to prioritize their own eating and sleeping by securing help with night feedings and switching to formula feeding as needed if breast-feeding is too difficult.
Many therapists specialize in postpartum depression or grief and can address both. “It’s so hard to tease those symptoms apart,” says Juli Fraga, a San Francisco psychologist who specializes in postpartum depression.
A woman may think: “‘Why wouldn’t I be crying? I’m not sleeping.’” She helps her patients try meditation or breathing exercises to reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and then discuss, as needed, next steps like seeing a psychiatrist or integrative medical options.
Not all women have access to or even desire professional support. With initiatives like Therapy for Black Girls, the mental health community is working to build a bridge to African-American women who may mistrust medical institutions.
“African-American women are at higher risk for premature birth, and so we are losing our babies,” says Keisha Wells, a counselor in Columbus, Ga. “If you’re dealing with that and you don’t have anybody to talk to and you’re a person of color, that’s added sorrow.” Ms. Wells did not have access to this type of mental health care 11 years ago when her twin sons, born prematurely, both died. But she said she found comfort in faith-based support.
In the first weeks after a birth paired with a death, close loved ones can lighten a new mother’s load by making thoughtful executive decisions. Ms. Nelson’s twins’ room was painted half pink and half blue, and set up with two cribs. Friends repainted it and removed Emily’s crib. “Nobody asked,” Ms. Nelson said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to be asked. It had to happen, and friends and family had to take care of it.”
More than anything, most grieving new mothers need to express their grief. After Ms. Nelson took Mikey home, a friend brought over a picnic dinner.
“She put the basket on the counter, took both my hands in her hands and said ‘Tell me about Emily,’” Ms. Nelson recalled. She said she appreciated that opportunity. Other well-intentioned people misunderstood and said, “I didn’t mean to make you sad,” when she’d start to cry. She said she wanted to tell them: “Emily’s death makes me sad. You talking about her makes me hope-filled, it makes me proud. The tears are going to come, but let me do that.”
Many grieving mothers find solace in the stories of others, be they in books, online or in groups.
Ms. Nelson was intrigued by the show “This Is Us,” in which the main characters lose one of their triplets at birth and impulsively decide to adopt an abandoned baby. “The first episode made me angry that they were like, ‘We’ll just take this baby home instead,’ but when they later showed the raw emotions that she had, I was a little more on board,” Ms. Nelson said.
Mourning new mothers eventually find a way to honor both their lost loved one and their child using what is known as a continuing bond grief paradigm. Dr. Manzella said that it can be compatible with the ongoing waves of grief many mothers who have gone through loss experience, and that the thinking about grief has evolved from the “accept and let go” ideas in the classic “five stages of grief” model of the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. “Why not continue loving in absence and getting solace from the sense of love?” she said.
Sometimes, finding a way to mark the loss can help.
Each year, Ms. Nelson and her family honor Emily’s birthday a day before Mikey’s, since her heart stopped beating the day before he was born.
“I have my day to be sad,” Ms. Nelson says. “We go to the cemetery with balloons. The kids are fully involved. Then the next day is all about Mikey.”
Parenting can often feel like trying to survive amid barely controlled chaos, so having a wise, experienced grandparent to help out can be lifesaving. But if that grandparent has trouble adhering to basic boundaries, it can feel as if the chaos has maddeningly multiplied.
When families expand, there is a significant shift in roles and responsibilities — one that is easy to make light of until conflicts emerge. Frustrating as these conflicts may be, it’s important to keep in mind that lots of families experience them. Joanne Gottlieb, L.C.S.W., a New York-based licensed clinical social worker, cited religious practices, disciplinary styles, technology and diet as some of the most common areas for intergenerational parenting conflict.
“I would place ‘intrusive grandparents’ in the general category of challenges that adults and couples face in managing relationships with their respective families of origin, and with parents in particular,” she said. “This is a constant theme of therapy.”
So how to best navigate the convergence of these new roles so that everyone feels respected and valued?
The moment you notice a negative pattern emerging, deal with it quickly. Don’t wait until you are ready to tear your hair out to approach Mom or Mom-in-Law.
Choose a time when everyone is calm to discuss conflicts — and remember that your parent or parent-in-law has your best interests at heart, and your child’s too. Put the child’s needs first – not your own.
Bear in mind that child-rearing advice often changes from one generation to the next, so there are bound to be some ideas that a grandparent subscribes to — most likely ones that you were raised with — that you find outdated now.
It’s vital to remember, in the thick of it, why grandparents’ presence in your child’s life is so crucial. “Grandparent love and knowledge is essential to a child’s self-esteem and self-identity,” said Roslyn Hunter, L.C.S.W., a psychotherapist in New York. “They need to see themselves as part of something larger than their parents. They need to find their place and feel part of a family that has a history.”
To try to resolve conflicts, therapists suggest you should say what you need to say — clearly, respectfully and, if necessary, more than once. Meagan Hammerbacher, mom to a 3- and 5-year-old, is committed to clear and consistent communication with her mother-in-law — even if it hasn’t yielded the desired results just yet.
“I have asked my mother-in-law multiple times to please refrain from giving my children sweet treats and sugary drinks, and to consider the food that she generally feeds my children. Sadly, she rarely listens to my requests,” she said. Enlisting her husband to join the discussion was difficult at first, but she encouraged him to attend a few therapy sessions to feel more comfortable about opposing his mother, and now they are on the same page.
Such harmony between partners is the ideal first step in approaching tough conversations with a parent or parent-in-law, but it has not led to harmony in this case. “In all honesty I do not see the situation being resolved because his mother is of a different era,” Hammerbacher said. “I have realized that she is never going to listen to me and follow my directive, and it is not worth the constant fight with my partner because he does not want to fight with his mother.”
Until she feels ready to re-approach this conversation, Hammerbacher has decided to back off: “The only other resolution is to teach my children about healthy eating so they can advocate for themselves,” she said. “It is more likely that she will listen to my children when they tell her ‘Grandma, that food is not good for me!’ ”
Other parents live with their frustrations for the sake of the overall relationship. For Tanya Copenhaver, 41, continual conversations with her mother about her 4-year-old have been stressful, but she has decided she can deal with the dynamic. “I often feel judged by my mother when it comes to my parenting,” she said. “I used to let these things really bother me, and often, I still find myself starting to defend myself.” But she has come to realize that her mother truly does have the best intentions, misguided as her efforts sometimes feel.
“Often I bite my tongue and remind myself she means well and loves my daughter dearly,” Copenhaver said. “And I remind myself that the benefits of having my mom so involved in our lives far outweighs the frustration I feel.”
Grandparents find navigating this relationship tricky, too. Keesha Davis has strong opinions when it comes to her 1-year-old granddaughter, but over the course of her first year, she has intuited the best times to speak up and to remain silent. “I’m still adjusting … I’ve learned to just be quiet, observe and chime in when I really think I should chime in,” she said. Recently she had a disagreement with her daughter and daughter-in-law about giving their daughter apple juice while babysitting. While the mothers stood firm — no juice — Davis told me that they are open to advice in other areas. “I think they’re coming to terms with saying, ‘You know what, my mother is very logical when it comes to certain things,’ ” she said. “I’ve raised kids, I babysit kids. … So they do sit back and say, ‘Wait a minute. What she is saying is correct and we can benefit from listening.’ ”
Try to bear in mind that each generation has its own parenting beliefs, and parenting advice has changed over the years. Today’s grandparents put their babies to sleep on their stomachs and used crib bumpers — practices that are no longer followed. Parental bans on corporal punishment can also be perplexing for grandparents, many of whom adhered to the “spare the rod” justification for spanking.
In these cases, making your stance crystal clear from the start is of utmost importance, Gottlieb said. “The parent needs to communicate clearly that physical discipline is not permitted,” she said. “If the parent is not sure that the grandparent, or any caregiver, will respect this wish, then I would advise that the parent not leave their child alone with that person.” Try to avoid long explanations or arguments; your rationale can be as short as a simple reminder that cultural norms have changed, so much so that a child’s mentioning in school that he was hit could prompt a call to child protective services.
“I would say that one of the frequent issues is cultural, particularly for immigrant families,” Hunter said. “Grandparents expect parents to follow cultural traditions from the old country. Parents often resist because old traditions are not practical for modern life.” In these cases, it’s important to avoid the instinct to be dismissive or overly critical of a practice that you may not understand. After all, your parent raised you. Talking through the reasons for your parenting decisions, and listening to grandparents talk about their own philosophies, may not lead to a quick solution, but it will help promote understanding and reduce discord.
Hunter reminds parents that they have the final word. “It’s important to remember that grandparents do not actually hold more power than the parent — even if the grandparent in question is providing some kind of support,” she said. If a parent asserting herself to advocate for her child jeopardizes the relationship with the grandparent, or vice versa, that is a different issue. “In either case the child’s needs are not being put first,” Hunter said. “The adult’s needs are being put first with the child being used as a tool.”
Parenting is a lifelong job; it doesn’t end when a child has entered adulthood. You are charged with creating a safe, nurturing environment for your child, as well as learning from the wisdom and, yes, missteps of your parents. A three-generation dynamic should feel fluid and mutually supportive, especially during times of conflict, experts stressed. Demonstrating positive examples of communication and compromise with a parent or parent-in-law will help your child navigate her own approach to problem solving, as these are skills that “make emotions and the world feel manageable,” Gottlieb added.
Finally, it always helps to take a deep breath and remember that your child has different needs from the other people in her life. Despite Tanya Copenhaver’s occasional misunderstandings with her mother, she is willing to turn a blind eye from time to time for the sake of offering her daughter a crucial childhood benefit: “Grandma’s house isn’t home, and grandparents get to have a different relationship with our children than we do,” she said. “When I’m not there, it’s O.K. if my daughter eats an extra candy or gets to eat applesauce, graham crackers and a marshmallow for lunch. Those are memories she will have forever.”
Remembering her own loving relationship with her grandmother, she added: “I can only hope that my daughter gets to experience that special bond with my mom.”
HOW TO BE A SUPPORTIVE PARTNER DURING PREGNANCY (AND BEYOND)
Numerous studies have shown the benefits of having a partner who is supportive or perceived to be supportive. Conversely, having a partner who is perceived to be unsupportive is a predictor of depression and anxiety both before and after a child’s birth.
Start early. Being a supportive partner begins in the months before delivery, when an expectant mother’s anxiety levels may be rising about giving birth and the changes a baby brings.
Make a plan for your supportive role both during and after the baby’s arrival, but be flexible. There’s no script for how things are going to go.
New research indicates that supporters may need support of their own: They can feel isolated or rejected but question the legitimacy of their experiences.
you’ve watched any movies with birth scenes, you may have noticed that the
partner’s role often fits into one of two categories: He — and it’s always a he
— is a comically inept second fiddle, fainting just when he’s needed most, or
else absent entirely, inhaling a cigar in a nearby pub.
dated archetypes exist for a reason. What actually comprises a supportive
partner has only come into focus in recent years, as fathers and same-sex
partners have become more central to the birth and all that comes after. But
the research is resoundingly clear: A strong mate makes a difference. Having a
supportive partner is good for everyone involved, including the baby.
scientific literature is less clear on what specific strategies best support
pregnant women — it’s tough in a clinical setting to isolate the benefits of,
say, a well-timed hug or a promise to handle 3 a.m. feedings. But the three
researchers I spoke to distilled their studies into some real-world advice.
WHAT TO DO
Connect with each other well before the due date.
This should be
even more of a priority than buying the right stroller. “The focus is so much
on practical needs,” said Dr. Pam Pilkington, Ph.D., a perinatal psychologist who
practices at the Centre for Perinatal Psychology in Melbourne, Australia, and
founder of Partners to Parents, a resource site developed
by a team of researchers and psychologists at Australian Catholic University to
provide guidance for partners. “During pregnancy, people perhaps don’t focus on
the couple relationship, or supporting each other emotionally as much as they
terms, this means talking often and openly about how you’re both feeling —
anxious, excited, uncertain, whatever it is, Dr. Pilkington said — then
validating each other, making sure you both feel heard and accepted. An
example: After a month at home, a new mother might say, “I feel trapped here
all day while you’re at work.” The supportive answer here is not, “I need to
work so we can pay the bills. Why don’t you get your mother to come help?”
Rather, a validating answer would be: “I’m sorry that you’re feeling pinned in
place. It sounds like you’re missing seeing your friends at the office.”
Trying to build
mirroring-and-validating skills during the relative calm before your child’s
arrival will help cement your bond for the challenges to come, Dr. Pilkington
Make your good intentions known.
of service to another is what’s known in scientific vernacular as “offering
social support.” Researchers call it a mysterious force that has tangible
benefits. “There’s a magic about social support,” said Dr. Christine Dunkel
Schetter, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and psychiatry at UCLA who has
studied its effect on stressful situations, including pregnancies. “And the
magic is that when it’s really working in these kinds of situations, it’s about
things that take place between two people. And it’s about what one person says
to the other, or does, that makes them feel better.”
Part of the
magic of social support?Even when an expectant mother merely perceives that
she has a supportive partner, she’s more likely to come through pregnancy happy
and healthy, research shows. Studies have variously found that partner support
is associated with better birth outcomes and lower levels of distress and depression
among both mothers and infants.
But follow-up is
key, too, said Dr. Dunkel Schetter. If you don’t actually come through on a
promise to assume half of the diaper-changing duties, the benefits of perceived
support quickly trail off.
supportive partners will learn that the best kinds of support are nonverbal —
offering a hug during a low emotional ebb. And the support should be offered
unconditionally. “The person giving it can’t say, ‘Now you owe me, you’re
obligated, I’ve done so much for you,’ ” said Dr. Dunkel Schetter.
program developed by the Yale School of Nursing, provides social support
instruction, among other services, in a group setting for women and their
partners; it’s now available in health-care facilities around the United
States. (You can find a nearby location on the website.)
Take a birthing class — but be open-minded when the day arrives.
Classes like the
Bradley Method, which teaches that childbirth can be managed through deep
breathing and the support of a partner or labor coach, can be helpful in making you feel more
prepared, and offering a sense of what to expect. But Dr. Pilkington pointed
out that birth is not the same as being a cast member in a play. The baby
sometimes rewrites the script. Things take unexpected turns, or the mother’s preferences
before going into labor might change 12 hours in. The partner should avoid
rigid thinking about how it was supposed to go, and instead help the mother
roll with whatever’s happening and support her choices along the way, Dr.
Have a plan for the weeks after the baby arrives…
the partner can draw up an action plan in which he or she commits to executing
certain helpful tasks. Maybe it’s late-night feedings if the mother is going to
pump breast milk or your baby is on formula. Maybe it’s a daily break that the
mom can count on, like taking the baby out for a walk so she can nap or take a
bath, said Dr. Pilkington.
… But be flexible.
Planning to do
those 3 a.m. feedings is one thing. The searing exhaustion that kicks in after
four weeks of doing that is another. During your child’s early life, it’s best
to expect some meltdowns. (The baby will cry sometimes, too.) Revisit the plan
anytime based on whatever challenges you might face at each stage of your
baby’s life. It’s O.K. to ask for extra support from friends and family, Dr.
Pilkington said. Both parents can use a break in the first couple of months of
their baby’s life.
Know your role with feeding.
One task the
mother generally handles alone is breastfeeding. But a 2015 studyled by the University of Ontario
Institute of Technology suggested that a partner’s active involvement —learning
how breastfeeding works and providing encouragement — leads to “significant
improvements” in breastfeeding duration. Then think of simple, commonsense ways
to step up: Helping the mother stay hydrated by offering a glass of water,
bringing healthy snacks and providing a comfortable environment, Dr. Pilkington
For parents who
can’t breastfeed or choose not to, Dr. Pilkington says it’s important to
remember they haven’t failed. “How parents feed their infant is a personal
choice that should be based on their specific situation,” she said. If the
mother is pumping, you can help maintain the equipment and offer to bottle-feed
using the milk. Parents feeding their baby with a bottle — whether it’s formula
or breast milk — can split overnight duties, one taking the 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.
shift, the other holding down the 2 a.m. to 7 a.m. slot, for example. Partners
using formula can make sure there are adequate supplies on hand at all times
and know how to mix it. Some formulas can be premixed and stored in the fridge for
up to 24 hours, which could save an exhausted mom from having to drowsily scoop
powder in the small hours of the night.
Expect that your sex life will change — for a while, at least.
This is a
biological imperative, so expect the temperature to be dialed down in the
marital bed post-birth (for a duration that depends on the circumstances of the
delivery; consult a professional). And even after you’re medically cleared,
that doesn’t mean you’ll feel the same or have much energy for sex early on.
Make a point to seek out alternate forms of intimacy, like hand-holding and
cuddling, Dr. Pilkington said. The key, again, is to maintain an emotional
connection and strong lines of communication.
Look for signs of your own stress, and act on them.
psychological effect on partners after a baby’s arrival is mostly a black hole
in the scientific realm. Dr. Pilkington noted that only 19 of the 120 recent
studies around pregnancy touched on outcomes for fathers or partners, and
researchers openly acknowledge the need for more research.
But the few studies that have been done show that fathers can struggle to
navigate this interlude. Dr. Zoe Darwin, Ph.D., a lecturer in maternal health
at the University of Leeds in the U.K. who has conducted some early inquiries in
this area, found that men often feel stressed and detached but want to keep the
spotlight on the mother and child. “The research that we’ve done,” she said,
“found that although some of the men we spoke with felt excluded by maternity
services, and had experienced significant stress in this period, they often
questioned the legitimacy of their experiences and their entitlement to
support.” If you feel yourself struggling, let your partner know, and consult a
WHEN TO WORRY
If you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, you may need more than a hug or the sage words of a parenting class. Seek professional help from a counselor.
Dr. Pam Pilkington, Ph.D., perinatal psychologist who practices at the Centre for Perinatal Psychology in Melbourne, Australia.
Dr. Christine Dunkel Schetter, Ph.D., professor of psychology and psychiatry at UCLA, expert on stress processes in pregnancy
Dr. Zoe Darwin, Ph.D., lecturer in maternal health at the University of Leeds in the U.K. who specializes in mental health and wellbeing during and after pregnancy.