Sydney McCall Patel
Why Didn't Anybody Tell Me?
Updated: Feb 17
The shock of parenthood in the U.S.
by Sydney McCall Patel, Marriage and Family Therapist, Marin County, California
Time and again parents walk into my psychotherapy office in Marin county wondering what’s wrong with themselves and when they describe their situations, I can’t believe how well they are doing given their circumstances. Specifically as mothers, it seems we have learned to point our fingers at ourselves rather than the situation. It doesn’t mean the therapy process bypasses investigating how we contribute to our own psychological suffering, but the reality is much of the time our internal symptoms are directly related to our external conditions. Our work together frequently includes uncovering creative ways to ameliorate these deeply challenging circumstances. It’s just unfortunate we first have to beat ourselves up.
Jody is 35 with a 3 month old, her voice sounded shaky during our first phone call as she expressed that she doesn’t think she’s cut out to be a mom. She feels she’s a total failure and can’t stop imagining different scenarios where her child gets seriously hurt or dies. Her baby is colicky and hardly sleeps at night and they can’t afford help. Her husband works construction and is away most of the day and couldn’t get more than a few weeks off from work to provide support. It has been night after night of fragmented sleep with no relief for Jody and now she has to return to her job the following week as a hairstylist. She’s worried she won’t be able to perform at work. She says there are days she regrets ever having had a baby.
In therapy we can do an assessment and if someone is exhibiting symptoms of depression and/or anxiety we can provide a diagnosis and then apply to extend parental leave. It’s illegal for there to be repercussions for doing this at work. We can become aware of our needs and how to communicate them to those who can help. We can come up with practical ways to get support at night and breaks during the day. One of the issues is that mothers often think that they should be able to do it all by themselves, and if they fail at this, it means they’re not a good mother. It is a prevalent and insidious belief that we haven’t done a good enough job at dispelling.
The most common line I hear from new parents is “Why didn’t anybody tell me?”. What they are referring to is the absolute insanity, on so many levels, of being a parent in America at this time. Their faces look puzzled, stuck in disbelief as if they await someone telling them it is all a prank. The longer I do this work of supporting adjusting families the clearer the problem becomes and honestly, the more frustrated I get. From our weirdly structured isolationist society, to our country’s forty plus hour work week and pitiful parental leave policies, expensive daycares and then the incredibly low amount of sick leave and vacation days people can take in a year, we have made it unfeasible for the majority of American families to experience parenthood without extreme stress.
The worst part is it’s our kids who are the ones who really suffer. They are vulnerable, little dependent beings that are like sponges soaking up the energy around them. Yet somehow we are still not connecting how our lack of parental support directly impacts our children’s psychological well-being and the sanity of our future generations.
Attention is love. Kids need our positive attention so they get to internalize it for the rest of their lives and feel they are truly loved. This internalized sense of well-being and self-worth creates sound adults who contribute to society. Nevertheless, with our current policies we are pulling parents away from their kids at the most formative time. Normally, one parent is left alone to take care of the baby which can be exhausting and then they wonder why they aren’t happy doing it. It’s a terrible set up! And because of inadequate policies in the U.S. our overall happiness level as parents is significantly lower than all other developed countries where policies actually care for the family structure. (See The Happiness Gap Study)
When I had our son I remember being absolutely stunned by the costs of getting a night doula and daycare. It quickly became clear that we would have to sacrifice financially to get the help we needed to thrive. This was a big decision we were fortunate enough to be able to make and without it I’m not sure how we would have survived. It was, and still is, scary when I imagine the millions of families that don’t have the luxury to make such a choice. If we don’t have extra dough to spend or live in a real community where we can lean on others to consistently care for our kids, which from what I can tell is pretty rare, then having a baby takes a huge toll on American families.
So if you are at home wondering why you aren’t enjoying every second with your baby as you sit there alone in isolation and worry about the immediate future of having to go back to work, please know it is very likely nothing is wrong with you even though sadly that is what we tend conclude as women. You are probably tough as hell and this self-flagellation is just hurting you when what you need is boatloads of self-compassion because you are stuck in a broken system and need help. From my view it is not the parents who should be flogging themselves, but rather our policies that need to be seriously whipped into shape.