I’ve written on Offbeat Families before about my desire to take a very short maternity leave. I opted for a shortened leave because I really love my job and knew I’d feel out-of-place staying home for any extended period of time. I knew that was the right choice for me. As it turned out, my daughter had awesome timing. She was born on a Friday night (after I got back from work!), I left the hospital on Sunday morning. I spent the next week at home and returned full-time to work the next Monday. This was totally made possible by the fact that my husband and I are lucky enough to have both our families close by.
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, my husband takes our daughter to work with him. He works at his family’s business, so when my daughter is there she is with her grandparents, father, one uncle and three aunts. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, she spends the day with my parents, who are semi-retired and run their own business, and three of her four aunts on my side. After work and on weekends, she is mostly with my husband and me (although relatives stop by often).
This week, I was able to leave work early. I went to my parents’ house to pick her up and, having a key, walked right in. I saw my father (all 6 ft. 6 in, 250 pounds of him) giving her a bottle while my mom was talking to her, trying to teach her Gaelic. It made me realize something profound: I’m not my daughter’s only “Mom.” Heck, I’m not her only parent. Neither is my husband. Our daughter is parented by a dozen loving, awesome people, each of whom is shaping her, guiding her and helping her grow. It is already happening — last night, when she heard me speaking German on the phone, she smiled and laughed. I realized that she already has memories of my father speaking German to her and remembers his language — and him — fondly. She is already becoming a product of her family.
I worried initially about how my daughter would fare being passed around so many people. I worried a bit about whether this would affect her ability to bond to me in any way. I am happy to say that no such thing has happened. She reaches for me when I pick her up at night, in the mornings and other times. But she also smiles and reaches for my mom when I drop her off, and for my husband’s parents when they come into the office. She has formed a bond with each person who cares for her. She knows already that each of these people love her, and she has bonded with all of them. It has validated the choices that I made.
I’ve had to do a lot of thinking about what “parenting” actually is, and who a parent is, as well. I, before giving birth, assumed that parenting was something that was done solely by the actual parents of a child. Other relatives would come in and out, caring for a child but not parenting them (since that was not their role). But what is parenting, other than providing for a child’s physical needs but also their emotional, spiritual and other needs as well? I can’t say that I’m the only one who does that (or even the one who does it the best).
Yes, I am part of the group that parents my daughter, but I am not the only one. I cannot imagine denying her the incredible formative experiences that she is getting now, and that she will continue to get. I am comfortable saying that I am not my child’s only parent. She has over a dozen! She has all these people who are equally invested in guiding her, loving her and seeing her grow into a responsible adult.
In the eyes of society, I may be her parent more than anyone else, but I do not feel that way. I adore her more than life itself and want only the best for her, but I’m sure the others feel much the same way! I cannot place myself in a position above them, or as having more authority. Both my husband and I were blessed to have remarkable mothers and fathers. We think it’s outstanding if they can be “mom and dad” to our daughter as well. I’ve had friends who struggle to get it when I explain that our daughter has multiple “parents.” They say “Well, you’re the mom and they are the grandmoms — it’s different.” But is it so different when we all are providing much of the same thing?
I totally get that this is a very unique situation. Many parents do not have families close by. Many relatives are not close by, are not equipped to help with childcare, do not want to, etc. We are incredibly lucky to not only have families that are close, but who have volunteered to help us and parent when we cannot. Their selflessness helps my husband and I achieve our goals and be a better family overall.
I initially doubted whether or not I was making the right choice in choosing to work so soon after birth. But every day since has proven to me that I made the right choice for me. My daughter does not have two parents — she has six times that.
So what has the one-week maternity leave taught me? Above all else, that it’s only possible because of the support system I have. It’s taught me that babies bond to those who love and provide for them and that there’s nothing wrong with not wanting to stay home. I got my freedom back when I realized this.
I hope that when my daughter is old enough to attend school and draw a picture of her family, like everyone else, she can draw not three people, but all of us. I’ve realized that how we categorize families — nuclear, extended, nontraditional, etc. — has failed us. What do you call a family like mine, where so many people are so close together and equal partners in raising one (for now!) child? I’m not sure! Like so many others, we’ve found ourselves in a bit of an undefined territory.
I realize now that there is nothing “extended” about us, and that is really an awesome thing.