Guest post: Turn and face the strain

I’m delighted to have a guest post from Julie Fairey.

Like my gracious host Deborah, I too am living in a strange land these days, although I’ve managed this move without any actual physical relocation.

My days and nights used to be mine to command. Now I live at the beck and call of a tyrant, one who insists on using a foreign language that I am slow to learn. Wriggly has redefined how I see myself, and my relationships with others*. His tyranny extends to determining when I sleep and when I wake, even sometimes when I can eat, and the dictates of the Holidays Act and other relevant labour legislation simply do not apply in this area of employment. I’d like to think that one day I’ll benefit from Wriggly’s nepotism, seeing as how he is my son, although that slim hope of advantage seems a long way off at 3.13am.

On the whole I think I like this new life – certainly I am rather enamoured of the cause of all this change despite his obsession with sleep deprivation as a form of torture. I’m still working on getting that first genuine smile, but even without that I’m finding motherhood a rewarding experience.

The challenges of protecting and sustaining this new life have (so far) been very stimulating. I have always liked problem solving and planning, and dealing with Wriggly’s dictatorial nature has me thinking outside the square as never before. There’s a strange fulfillment in working out why he’s crying, and thus making a small baby happy, if even for a few moments. I’ll be back to paid work later in the year, but for now I’m mostly happy working out how to do things with only one free hand (or even on occasion no free hands) and getting a sense of satisfaction from managing a trip to the shops and back without assistance.

I’m also rediscovering the houseproud Julie who was buried under the stress of working a difficult job with longer than normal hours. I’d put housework in the Someone Else’s Problem** basket, we’d eat out whenever there wasn’t time or energy to cook, and generally I accepted that my home was going to have to be dustier and more cluttered than I really wanted. Now I can take control of all that for myself, at least as Wriggly’s demands allow.

But inevitably concerns of a feminist nature rear their heads, when one partner in a relationship is staying home to maintain the lives of three people and the other is out in the world earning the moolah to fund that life. Both are important, indeed vital, roles, but how to share them with some form of equity? Particularly when both members of this partnership have been living all our lives in a society which still tends to divide this stuff up along gender lines. If I hear one more person tell me “well that’s just the way it is” or “all women/men are like that” I may very well scream so loudly that Wriggly is shocked into silence for a good five minutes.

For now I am largely shelving my parity worries, as I focus on learning all the new skills that are suddenly necessary. Sooner or later the fair division of labour will have to be faced though, because already I feel my world has become somewhat smaller. Without the wonders of the interweb I suspect I’d have little to offer in the way of conversation except to comment on the bodily functions of babies. Even with the ability to read all about The World Out There online I find I generally end up talking about Wriggly sooner or later in every interaction.

And if I’m totally honest I do feel that I’ve gone from one stressful job to another, with little time off from the strain. While the core competencies of the two roles are significantly different, they have one key area of overlap – I find that the people I deal with most are constantly wanting something from me and often their desires are difficult to satisfy. As with my previous day job as a unionist, the best way to resolve the demands is usually to turn and face the strain as soon as possible. But that’s not always what I want to do.

I’ll keep navigating through this new land, for the rest of my life, and as the time served as a parent starts to mount up no doubt I will come to terms with how to embrace my new role without losing my old self. For now I’ll take my kicks from Wriggly’s gurgles and gurning, and accept that my payment will be in the currency of cuddles for some time to come.


* Eg, my parents are no longer my folks, they are Wriggly’s Nana and Grandad. Even the cat has a new moniker – Big Sister.
** Specifically the cleaners’ problem.


8 responses to “Guest post: Turn and face the strain

  1. I remember this all so well, Julie, from coping with the constant demands from a little ape – very stressful – to trying to work out how to manage to keep your career going. I don’t know whether you will be relieved or disturbed to hear that nine years later, my partner and I still haven’t sorted out how to manage the equity concerns… Just at the moment, his career is racing ahead, and mine is meandering. But my precious girls are thriving.

    I’m still not sure that it’s a trade-off that I’m happy about, but I can’t see a better solution available right now, for us.

    Which means that just when you are trying to learn how to look after your precious baby, an intensely stressful process, you end up engaging in a major renegotiation of your relationship with your partner.

    Those first few months with a new baby are lovely in so many ways, but also so very difficult.

  2. I think your concerns are concerns that just about every couple has and the decision over who does what is done on what works for them taking into account praticilites as well as ensuring balance between partners.

    There were many an eyebrow raised during my childhood because it was my dad that would often pick me up from school or accompany me on the school trips while my mum was at work. I’d like to think things have gotten easier but I suspect they haven’t.

    As for the new identity, that’s a toughy. The last time I saw you I remember thinking, ‘here’s Julie’s face but it seems to be oddly attached to a heavily pregnant person.’ It seemed a little surreal. On one hand, you were Julie a person that I’ve known for a very long time but on the other, you were becoming a mum. One identity I am familar with while the other is completly alien and trying to reconcile them was and probably will still be difficult. You aren’t just Julie, but you are also not just Wriggly’s mum and you my find that the two identites change depending on you are with and what you feel like at the time.

  3. God, Julie. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that you were my NZEI field officer for a number of years (you know, yay ECE) and I didn’t even know you were pregnant! I’m trying to figure out the last time I saw you. I’m guessing a while ago…….anyway, good for you.

  4. Even with the ability to read all about The World Out There online I find I generally end up talking about Wriggly sooner or later in every interaction.

    Honestly, don’t stress about that part. The baby is the main event for now. You (and hopefully your partner) will catch yourself debating nappy brands with other couples. It doesn’t last forever.

    The renegotiation-of-the-relationship Deborah mentioned is a really major part of being together as parents in the long term, and it’s not always easy. I certainly had to grow up a bit.

  5. I remember the first few months after my daughter was born as a time of identity crisis. I think I might have told you how I found myself sleep deprivedly going to myself “who am I? who am I?” It’s additionally confusing because there is so much societal weight and expectation attached to to the word “Mother” some of which I didn’t feel applied to me at all. I wasn’t suddenly going to start wearing gingham aprons. I seem to remember a few months in it suddenly crystalised that though I was a mother I was still me- which may seem self evident but I found it a great relief. All the same I still find in just about every new situation I’m in when I introduce myself I invariably bring up the fact I’m a mother at an early stage and I’ve noticed other mothers tend to do this too.

    Renegotiating relationships was also a tricky part of the first year or so. My relationship with my parents, my in laws and my sister all changed and some friends dropped by the way side

    I don’t have the answer to the gender division of labour issue. Still working on it day by day. I think it does cut both ways though. I remember my partner being annoyed when his parents would defer to me as the authority on the baby when he had been just as actively involved in her care. There’s an awful lot of children’s literature and popular culture that treats fathers as invisible too.

    Hang in there Julie, it does get easier.

  6. It is a hell of a trip this motherhood thing, isn’t it?!

  7. Thanks everyone for your comments, and especially to Deborah for the opportunity and the promotion. Sorry for the delay, as I suspect you will all understand online time is rather restricted these days!

    In some ways I think I still haven’t really reconciled that I’m a mum. I can’t imagine right now that if I ever meet anyone new ever again I will introduce myself as a mother. I have no idea what I will say – probably, if asked what I “do” I’ll say I work for a union but I’m on maternity leave.

    But of course that will all change with time (Wriggly isn’t even 2 months old yet), and be at least a bit dependent on whether I stay at home, go part time, go back to full time work, etc. These are decisions that can’t be made right now, although I will be back to my normal job for the second half of this year at least, to allow my partner to take 6 months off to care for Wriggly (he is really into it!)

    It’s funny, I thought that the nine months of pregnancy would prepare me for being a mum. I thought it would be like getting married – when we first got engaged I didn’t want to get married, I just wanted to be engaged, and over the course of the engagement I definitely shifted to wanting to be hitched. But actually while pregnancy prepared me in some ways for the physical side of motherhood, and the practical tasks, it in no way helped with the identity thing. I am still a little startled that I’m not pregnant anymore, and that the baby is on the outside now.

    Jackie – don’t worry, last time you saw me (last round of PUMs, to ratify the KTCA settlement) I was only just starting to show to those who knew I was preggers. I haven’t exactly shouted it all from the rooftops – even quite late in the pregnancy I was still running into people who got a shock. I’ll be back at work in July probably, see you sometime after then!

  8. This was a wonderful post. I forwarded it to a friend of mine who just learned that she is expecting a child. I think she will find lots of food for thought here.

    Everyone has added much to the discussion, so I’ll echo Russell Brown’s comment that the baby is the Main Event. My wife and I have alternated these roles, mostly as economic necessity has insisted, so I have experienced both sides of the stay-at-home/bread-earner equation (with male qualifiers, of course.) From the bread-earner point-of-view, I felt a lot of guilt not being there to see how my infant son was growing, so when I came home, I was hungry for the latest news about burping, pooping, feeding, eye contact, and all that wonderful stuff. Yet I can recall being starved for news from the outside world when I stayed at home. It’s good to have a spouse who takes interest in both things.