Since Abigail Tucker’s book, Mom Genes: Inside the New Science of Our Ancient Maternal Instinct, was released a few days ago, I’ve been listening to the audiobook whenever I get a spare minute—while doing dishes, folding laundry, waiting in the school pickup carline, rocking the baby to sleep. My nine- and seven-year-old sons were fascinated by some of the stuff I was learning, like the fact that some of their fetal cells remain in my body while some of my cells carry on in theirs through a process called microchimerism.
The book thus far has me in awe of the radical transformation that is motherhood. My youngest child, the darling fifth one, is now eight months old. I’ve found that the changes of motherhood, particularly during the postpartum period, are difficult to describe without adopting a tone that is either overly dramatic on the one hand, or too light-hearted and cutesy on the other. But highlighting the hard science—that motherhood changes the brain and is unlike any other human experience—leaves me feeling vindicated for all the times I found myself overwhelmed by the experience of it. Women who become mothers are left to grapple with changes—in lifestyle, but also in emotions, motivations, and questions of purpose and identity—that we feel acutely but are little understood by a world in which the expectation too often is that you take your six weeks of leave (if that) and bounce back to life as before, but with a baby in tow.
Reflecting on my postpartum experiences, I can see how important time off after birth was. By far the smoothest transition was after the birth of our fourth son, when, thanks to a generous employer and some other factors, my husband and I were both able to take three months off from any work with a deadline. It was a glorious time. We were able to bond and establish routines. Perhaps it was a fluke or chalk it up to his placid temperament, but our baby slept well, breastfed well, and I recovered well physically and emotionally. After some of our other births, I’ve tried to do too much too soon and struggled, not feeling fully functional for much of the first year of my baby’s life, dogged by feeling like I can’t quite catch up to the momentous change that just occurred and resentful towards other obligations that take away some of the energy that I want to devote to the new human in the family.
But the reality is that for poor and working class moms, even a generous child allowance will likely not make sufficient maternity leave practical for a family living paycheck to paycheck, as so many of the stories of women I’ve interviewed illustrate.
After the birth of her fourth child, Brittney, a single mom working at a pizza shop, took unpaid leave. “We do what we gotta do,” she said, explaining why, when confronted with the stress of bills going unpaid, she tried to go back to work when he was five weeks old. But because her doctor’s note said six weeks, her employer told her to wait.
If money were no object, Brittney would like to take six months off after the birth of a child. She hesitates as she tells me this, as if it’s too good to be true: “I don’t know, that seems crazy to me, but I definitely do think that’d be a better age for the child.” She explains that “a month and a half isn’t a lot of time to get their sleeping and feeding habits down. If you are doing formula, you don’t even know at a month and a half if that formula is really going to work. That’s about the time they’re rejecting a formula.” Breastfeeding never felt like a real option with the quick turnaround to work. And while it’s easy to dismiss breastfeeding as a “women’s issue,” breastfeeding disparities have real effectson the health and wellbeing of children and last into adulthood.
Perhaps most concerning to Brittney was the question of if her son would get the care a newborn needs for optimal development. “Are they getting the attention they need? Because at my daycare it’s about ten babies to two women.” It’s worth noting that research suggests there are some adverse outcomes associated with nonparental care in the early years, though outcomes are mixed and vary for different groups of children and different types of care.
Savannah, a married mother of five, remembers having “separation issues” when she left her six-week-old daughter at daycare to go back to work at a nursing home. Her daughter was born with respiratory issues and spent her first Christmas in the NICU. Savannah says that she spent her daughter’s first six weeks of life just “dealing with her being sick and getting her to breathe better and then by that time it was time to go back to work.” Savannah says that she felt like she wasn’t a good employee during that time. “Instead of actually focusing on my job, I was paranoid, and I’m like, ‘What if something happens to her, what if she ends up having a breathing problem and nobody pays attention to her?’ I would always have thoughts running through my head as to what could go wrong because she was still so tiny. And I still wanted to be the one to take care of her.”
A phrase—“poverties of the heart”—from legal scholar Erika Bachiochi’s response to American Compass’s Family Income Supplemental Credit (Fisc) proposal comes to mind. There’s a sadness that comes over the conversation when women who felt rushed back to work after giving birth talk about that time. Missed milestones, intense stress and worry, exhaustion, the feeling that you’re never getting that time back. A growing body of research suggests that a mother’s intuition about the importance of attachment during these early months, and even years, is right.
And if the mother/baby bond is a psychological building block of trust, then establishing it securely matters a lot for the future of the institutions that conservatives care about—including the family, marriage, and the marketplace. For those interested in charting a path forward with the fewest unintended consequences while making paid leave a reality for all parents, the work of AEI scholar Angela Rachidi is an excellent place to start.
Motherhood is a big deal—no mere sentimental construct. As Abigail Tucker’s book reminds me, it is difficult to imagine a more concrete, visceral, embodied experience, or a relationship with such far-flung influence, extending even to the stability of civilization itself.
Shouldn’t we honor it with more than flowers and chocolates?