I come at life like a blunt instrument. I throw myself head first into whatever is coming and ask questions later. This strategy has had mixed success — sometimes it’s exhausting, sometimes frustrating, but mostly it has forced me to move forward, no matter what. It’s a pattern that has been hardened and rewarded through some pretty rough years, but I’ll get to that.
Professionally, I’m a proud civic-tech nerd, veteran of Obama ’08 and founding tech director for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (yes, the one with Elizabeth Warren – another blunt instrument). Personally, I’ve moved cross-country several times in my life, most recently after leaving my awesome CFPB gig to get married. Then we up and moved to London, where I threw myself into a new city, job and life. The ad hoc, impulse, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants life was working for me.
Until I got pregnant.
You can’t be a blunt instrument with a baby. Those things are delicate. But then again, people have been having kids for centuries, right? I married a wonderful guy; he’ll be a great dad, and hey, we were lucky enough to conceive early on! OK, I thought — we’ve got this.
And then the onslaught began. Advice, books, ominous links, comments about breastfeeding. I was told by every-frickin-one that I needed to “nest” and “prepare for baby” (along with some shade: “You?! As a mum!?! That’s hilarious! Your house is a mess!” Thanks, I elected the president; I can handle this.)
For a life lived on the fly, suddenly there were instructions that I was supposed to read and rules that I was supposed to follow, pre-established norms of behavior and milestones to meet (including knowing what those milestones were in the first place).
Having a baby! Turns out it’s an industry. And, for some people, a religion.
Most people have the North Star of their family to guide them through the whole child-having process. If you’re lucky, you have the bedrock of a solid childhood to refer back to and the reassuring presence of parents to lend advice and, when the time comes, raw diaper-changing manpower.
I was not lucky. See, my parents died when I was little — my mom when I was seven and my dad four years later. So I can’t help but feel like I am missing a few reference points that might be a part of a non-traumatic childhood experience.
While it wasn’t non-traumatic, I had a wonderful childhood. We lived on a cattle ranch in the sandhills of western Nebraska. I was a real cowgirl who rode horses to school and preferred playing in trees to playing indoors. Mom was a leader — the first woman in any activity she pursued (quite an accomplishment in the cattle industry), gregarious, quick, brave. Dad was a creative entrepreneur — he managed to create a new, highly successful cattle breed and ran a profitable cattle ranch at a time when no one else was. He was also hilarious, clever and loved playing tricks on friends.
And then, suddenly, everything changed — I woke up one morning to learn that mom had died from an aneurysm overnight. My dad married my stepmother, and together they had my awesome brother. And then Dad died from a stroke. Both were shocking, sudden events with no time for goodbyes. There I was, age 11, parentless. Let me tell you, there aren’t many books or advice columns that offer advice on what to do in this situation. So I made my own rules and learned to make my own path.
[pullquote]Having a baby! Turns out it’s an industry. And for some people, a religion.[/pullquote]
After dad died, I moved around a bit and finally settled in Lincoln, Nebraska with family friends who became my guardians, Nick and Ann. They have three daughters, and living with them was exactly what I needed to get some much-needed stability and be removed from the drama that surrounded a potential custody battle. They took me in, gave me a big hug and put me back on track after a few rocky months. They never tried to replace my parents — they gave me something different and it worked. To this day, Nick and Ann’s house is still home. So maybe I’ll revise the above: Actually, I was lucky.
So this is what I was working with as I stared motherhood in the face. There’s nothing to bring up your demons quite like a tiny human relying on you for everything in a scary, uncertain world. What does a non-traumatic childhood look and, more importantly, feel like? I didn’t find these answers in the (introduction to — that’s all I could manage to finish) one pregnancy book I read, so I struck out on my own.
I set out to find out these answers. I’ve been surrounded by the most amazing people who, collectively, have become my community and my family. Why learn from a random book when you can learn from the best people in your life? During the course of my pregnancy, I reached out to some of my favorite people to ask them their parenting pro-tips. The process was fantastic — it connected me to being pregnant, helped build a community of amazing parents and armed me with pro-tips. Now that I’m a parent of an almost-9-month-old boy, I can say that was a bit part of grounding me. And maybe shaping my blunt instrument, just a little.
Nine months in (thank you, generous UK maternity leave!), here is some of the advice we’ve used to guide us:
Children aren’t generic
When I worked at the CFPB, I had the honor of working with now-Senator Elizabeth Warren (and yes, she really is that awesome). She talked a lot about being a new grandparent when we started the CFPB, and this advice resonated:
“I never thought of my children as children. I just thought they were interesting people…Children aren’t generic, and they don’t need to be talked down to or hustled around like objects. They are smart and interesting and adventuresome and highly individualized.”
I think about this often and use it as a framework for decision making. I try my hardest to allow my son’s personality to develop into its own (unless he grows into a jerk, then we’ll have to work on that) and to not force my personal preferences onto him (other than sweet potatoes, of course). And she’s right — he is super interesting and opinionated and adventuresome. So thank you, Senator Warren.
Just say yes
I met one of my dearest friends in college and, along with her husband, they have become pro-parents. Carina and Brian both have successful careers (she’s a doctor, he’s a bio engineer), ski, hike and raise their awesome daughter (and soon to be another!). Their advice is something that has helped us make some of our crazier decisions:
“From the beginning, we have tried to incorporate our daughter into our lives. Kids think that normal is whatever they are used to doing. If you can keep some semblance of your ‘before baby’ life, then you will both be happier.”
We have embraced this with gusto. When our baby was eight weeks old, we traveled from London to Sydney, Australia for a three-week adventure/work trip for my husband/family vacation to the rain forest. He not only experienced (slept through) Daintree, crocodiles and golden orb spiders, he also got his various immunizations to keep him on schedule. Since our first trip, we have road-tripped across the western USA (from Seattle to Montana to Park City to Moab to Breckenridge to Denver), visited my guardians and family in Nebraska, went back to Australia via five days in Dubai, took the Eurostar to Brussels and traveled across the UK. Why did we do this? Because staying together as a family while my husband had to work was a top priority for us. We’ve incorporated our kid as much into our lives as possible — and are stronger for it.
Just say no
Saying no is just as powerful as saying yes. I have always had low tolerance for bullshit, and I’d say my tolerance has dropped to historically low levels since having a baby. I try to only commit to what’s important to me and (politely) decline things that aren’t necessary. Nine months in, my biggest example of saying “no” has been not going back to my old job and damn that feels good. Here’s to each of us taking our power and decisions and owning them — yes and no.
The fucking laundry can wait
Sometimes, advice just screams at you and you know it’s right on. My cousin, Rosemary, runs a successful ranch and cattle business and raises four boys and is a leader in the cattle industry. Her advice:
“The fucking laundry can wait. Go take a nap.”
Yes. Thank you. So can the dishes and cleaning the high chair.