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Being a mom completely reshapes who you are

This is not Tami (photo selected from online)

Interviewed by Caixiu Zhou

My name is Tami I have two children, my son Ethan is fifteen and my daughter is two. I'm an anthropologist, I do research in Southwest China. I've been lived in Kunming, and I've also just spent a lot of time going to and from northwest Yunnan, and southwest Sichuan.I am based in the United States in South Carolina now.


The new identify they give me

It's such a huge transition in my life. When I first had my son, it was so many years ago well fifteen right. He made me into a mother like you become a different person. When you take responsibility for someone else, and it was just a completely profound transformation. And then you know you learn along with your child, like each phase you need to figure out how to be a good parent and how to support what they need.

Also to find the difference between what your child needs and wants and what you might think is good for them or what you might project your own wishes onto them. So, I really learn so much from him and lots of patience for sure, as well as is marvelling it has you know creativity and his bravery and his sense of humor and just fearlessness.

Then with my daughter, it was a very different circumstance. She was born during Covid and I was so excited to be pregnant again and looking forward to her birth. At the same time the whole circumstance of Covid and everything else just a lot of change in my own life. It made me apprehensive as well. Because of that I worked really hard to kind of re learn what it meant to give birth and draw the strength that I could from the stories of other people, because I did forget a lot from the first time round so many years before. 

By the time that she was ready to come out I just felt very empowered I would say. And I had just really gathered my team and gathered my resources, put photos around. She was born in a home birth which was very special and so it's been really magical with her.

I think because of Covid and because the rest of the world really slowed down and even shut down, while she was tiny, I was able to really immerse myself in parenting. I felt a lot of pressure to do other things when my son was little, but with her was like okay this is going to consume all your time and you know to be strong just keep up your strength and keep up your energy, and just like really kind of immerse yourself and becoming a parent again.

Of course I'm still parenting my son. Also is this just very special as well as a very emotional time.


Special experience during pandemic

Normally when people talk about giving birth at the pandemic time, they feel depressed or anxious because like everybody's locked down and they can't go out. But for me, because of the pandemic, I have a lot more time with my children.

Absolutely I was anxious and apprehensive. My daughter’s due date was May 8th, in the United States everything shut down on March 16th. that was when we found out there's no more school and that's kind of our days, and that's actually my birthday also so it was kind a dramatic moment where it was like okay this world is changing very fast and there is a period where the hospitals were only letting one person in. Like basically they're only letting the mother in and no one could come with.  We know from best practices, that this is a terrible thing to do to a mother especially when the staff were so scared of catching Covid, that everybody was just really limited contact.

This was in 2020, because of that there was actually a birth course through Facebook, the course developer made it free as a kind of reaction against this horrible policy and also part of an activist stance. She is both a midwife and a mother I believe, it was such a treat to be able to immerse in this community and in this kind of weekly wisdom passing. I felt you know because it was so difficult and such a challenging time that I was able to really kind of leaning into that challenge.

I remember with my son he was born in a birth center and the design of the birth center was you birthed the baby, you kind of clean up a little bit and you rest very little bit and then within a short time you go back to home. It was literally six hours after he was born that we went back home. I remember just leaving the birth center was in a business center, places a bakery of people getting coffee and we left something like 6 am maybe it was 8 am, people were getting coffee, getting breakfast, and it was so strange to see the world just continue, when like everything was different I mean I had just birthed this amazing baby. It was very strange to me that the whole world wasn't just stopping everything.

With my daughter, she was born we didn't leave, we stayed put for a long time. Also the different model where the midwife came to us. So okay I literally didn't leave the place where she was born for a long time and there was no expectation that I should because of the pandemic ,I appreciated that.


Being a mom completely reshapes who you are

I think being a mom completely reshapes who you are. I'm still who I was before, and again with the pandemic it enabled me to continue being involved professionally and active professionally in a way that I just couldn't before.

I remember with my son I was in graduate school at the time, there was a big conference that I would have loved to come to, but there was no way I could do it, you know he was very little, maybe two months old and I just couldn't manage that.

Then with my daughter like everything amazingly moved online, like you could go to conference's online, you could listen to webinars, you could do support groups online. With my son we went to a group for new moms and babies, but it was really hard to get there, it was about a thirty-minute drive, he would cry a lot on the way in the car. It was two hours there, so it was enough time that it felt worth it but then you know thirty minutes back home. It just felt like an ordeal but with her it was like you just log on and you can mute yourself if you need to, you can disconnect or reconnect, and it was just beautiful to be able to be still connected socially but not need to physically go through all of the movement.

When she was even a little older, and we had done sleep training and so she was sleeping through the night. I even was able to do some interviews. I worked as a consultant for an evaluation company and I conducted interviews with faculty in all different parts of the world.

I think that it's you know like you say there's so many decisions along the way. I used to work at a university full time and I'm really glad I was able to do that. I’m also really glad I’m no longer doing that now that my daughter is little. I'm still doing a lot of projects it's the kind of thing where if I get to the end of the day and I just can't you know master the energy to finish something. It's not like I have a whole set of students waiting for me to hand the papers back, there's a little bit less pressure and a little less urgency. I recognize more that it's just a brief period where she's so little, it's okay to kind of step back a little bit from work and enjoy those moments before returning to the kind of intense professional life.


They are the best gift ever in my life

There’re so many beautiful moments right and just you know the snuggles and the laughter and just thing your child's personality come out, just realizing like you know this little person is a part of you.

I was talking about how my daughter is learning Chinese and also learning English at the same time and this afternoon we were doing some sorting and she was playing in a different part of the kitchen then came over to where she was and there were papers all over. As I was making it messy before it became organized again and she said wow  乱七八糟的, and it's so funny because you know gosh how do you even translate that like,  it's just a very colloquial expression, just things all over the place.

I teach her Chinese at home, so you know clearly I'd say that she picked it up and she used it so appropriately so this is so fun to see how her mind is developing and tell us all working’ I mean that's the great thing is just to watch your children learn and grow and handle frustrations and handle challenges.


Those changelings we have to face as mum

 In terms of the challenges, I mean there's so many. Right like yesterday when I put her for a nap and just trying to be patient, recognizing that she's doing the best she can. I think that's the thing everybody's doing the best they can and is this part about giving each other the grace to feel respected and feel loved and nurture each other as you go forward. The more you realize is that you're worked up about that the more he's going to resist but sometimes it's just about backing off and just letting it be and then sometimes coming sideways.

Actually this morning my daughter didn't really touch her breakfast and we had to leave to walk her brother to the bus and we just didn't have time to have a fight over it, so I just said okay you know you're not eating let's go and then when we came back a little later, we kind of talked about on the walk like maybe we'll go back and we'll have some more breakfast when we get back, she sort of got used to the idea and then when we got back she did eat all of her breakfast and refills.

I think sometimes it's just about making them think it's their idea. It's giving them the space because probably she wasn't hungry enough when she first got up.

We're about to start a new school year for her, so I am at the point now she is almost two and a half and I am at the point where I'm ready to go back to do more work. In fact, I'm already doing more work and it's just getting more challenging to balance and so just wanting to make sure it's a school she is returning to, so it's a really good environment and she's got good teachers but it's just a new start, so I feel a little bit of the loss of being able to spend so much time together. You know in Chinese there's expression like 交给老师, you know I'm kind of handing her back over to the teacher and just hoping I can trust that.

Also the Chinese I am so proud of her that she's learned so much because she's at the age or she's just picking up so much language. Because we're spending so much time together picking up all the Chinese from me but then as soon as she spends more time with the teachers, she'll pick up more and more English from. I just hope I can help her sustain the kind of Chinese language that is developed.


Enjoy every moment.

Just being able to breathe into this time. I'm just enjoying the moments. I think that because of the space between my children, again I just realized how brief the little, tiny phases and so I'm just trying to take things slow and enjoy with her. My son he's busier and busier and so when we have time together also just we like to hike a lot and to go into the mountains and just enjoying that time together.

I think the other thing I should say is singing we really like music we like singing together and my daughter now can sing like the ABC song and happy birthday. I also sing with her like kind of in a funny way I hope no one's offended but like起来,不愿做奴隶的人们……I will say get up, get up, all of a sudden, she would start singing it. But I don't know as many Chinese language songs they do English so I just sing in English a lot but yeah it's fun.


Love brings you Achilles' armor as well as his heel.

When my son was born, and I like to say I birthed my son. When I birthed my daughter, it's like an active thing, it wasn't just a passive like all of a sudden the baby came out, I was just really unprepared,  I mean I had taken the birth class and I had learned what I could but until you physically feel a baby you know coming through your body and  what it's like to help that baby out into the world.

My labour with him was only four hours from the beginning to the end, very fast. It was a little bit like I didn't have a chance to really adjust to it before he was already coming out and ready to be born. 

With my daughter, I just had a better sense of what was awaiting me, and also from everything that I read from that birth class reading from the book written by the midwife who was from the farm and those kinds of books I just had a better awareness of like this is up to me, and I just need to draw on all of my own power to help her out and I didn't have any medication or anything like that. That moment you know with her also was a very fast labor like it was kind of most of the day you know.

I lost my mucus plug in the morning and then for a lot of the day was having slow contractions, very very slow. It just felt like a little cramping and then there was a point in the evening where it got a little more intense and then I started timing the contractions and then again it was very fast between the time I started timing and the time it got like very close together and not very long I realized okay gotta get the midwife here and gotta get myself in position and everything.

Then about the time the midwife came really again it was time to birth that baby, but there was this point where I just kept pushing her head out and her head would come out and then would go back in. 

I pushed again and you know like all the power and so hard and so intense and quite back in and then I just realized you know okay this I just got to do this, and it's up to me and I just need to like with all the strength that I have like push it out. I like to say I roared my baby out like I gave a big roar and it was like herculean effort that she came out that I pushed her out.

I think that's a really good metaphor, what it's like to become a mom. You have to take all of your strengths and help them out into the world. that's what when people talk about it as a passive thing, it's like oh no and I know every birth is different but in this case thank god I was able to have a safe healthy birth like that and with such good support such good midwife and. so I think that that's the flip side of like knowing your power and then when you're in that vulnerable time it's a little bit easier.

I will say you know the whole situation of the pandemic and being so close to there, it made it really hard for me to let go.

So, I'll give you a couple of examples, first of all, I did co-sleep at the very beginning and then, but I realized after co-sleeping with my son for a very long time I realized I needed that separation. So, I did get to the point where I was putting her in her crib at night in a different room but I had such a hard time doing that, like I was almost panicked about it, I had the monitor it was all fine it was all safe but I was just not comfortable about it. She wasn't sleeping very long at that time, it was probably just a couple of few hours at that time, but still it felt very scary for me to go to sleep while she was asleep and just feeling like what if I didn't hear her and what if she needed me and I didn't come. I felt much better if I was awake, but you know at the end of the day you have to just trust that your child will be okay and pray.

Other times I'd feel vulnerable, you know especially given the pandemic and so many things like it was scary to see anybody. We were vaccinated and we didn't know as much as we know now about how the disease is transmitted. There were so many scary moments and we just really stayed home a lot and really limited how much we were out in the world.

Then the other thing that was really difficult was when both of my children went back to school at the beginning of the pandemic time. So, my son went to high school and at the time he wasn't vaccinated because it wasn't available yet. That was scary sending him with a whole school of people who you know in the US, not many people wear masks. Just knowing that there's this big bad thing out there and sending him into that that was scary. Feeling like it's a big school, they don't know him and is he going to be okay? I think being together for the year made it harder to have that separation. I know he thought I was very silly because I really wanted to know every time like where he was and when he got in the car and anything like that.

The other thing that was really difficult was when my daughter started school, she was sixteen months old, and it was just a morning preschool wasn't a lot of time but it was so hard for me to leave her because we had been together all the time during the pandemic. Because it was so scary to have anybody with her, everybody seems like they could be a potential disease factor and so I just couldn't leave her really. I would go into the school with her, and she'd never been in the school setting before she was so little. I’d go into the school with her, and the teachers had a policy the school had a policy for covid that you could only stay for fifteen minutes. Then the teachers would have to like literally to send me out and she was fine you know she was totally fine, but it was really hard for me. It was kind of like saying good night to her and letting myself fall.

By the time we got to the end of the year I was able to kind of laugh at it with their teachers. I'm sure it was so hard for them because the parents really aren't supposed to stay in the room that long, regardless of Covid rules, it’s just messes up there. I was even picking her off after just a short time, so I think that's where you see like the vulnerability of just can my child face the world without me? But now she loves going to school I mean she really enjoyed it the whole time, but it was just me I had to wrap my mind around like okay she's gonna be okay without me. In the end we all did get covid in January of 2022, but it was not bad. We were both vaccinated at the time my son and I and then I think my daughter had some protection because of the breast milk that she was getting from me in my immunity and so thank God we were all okay.


There are so many challenges.

I think that we don't treat childcare as an important value as we should. In this respect, China is much better than we are. I know it's not perfect but in China there are two things going on. The first is that there's an expectation that grandparents will take care of babies and toddlers. On the other hand, there is a very robust system of kindergarten starting at age three that lasts for the entire day and feed children and take care of them the whole day. So that a mother can go back to work in a pretty normal way from that age.

It's a difficult thing I think to say that for three years, you're on your own, but then we've got to do once the child turns three. But we just don't have that system here in the US. it's so hard to find a spot in a center that's high quality. The center my daughter is in is a morning preschool, it's 8:30 am to 12:30 pm.

They eat lunch there, we send the lunch with the children and they don't heat it or anything like that so it's just kind of up to you to put an ice pack in or put it in a container. In China we're used to like having warm food and that kind of thing but there's really no way to do that over there I just don't put ice in it usually, so it stays from temperature at least. But then there's the whole rest of the day.

Now, I've signed her up for after school care as well, so she'll be able to stay till five thirty. They'll probably pick her up early but that's just a huge problem for mothers. I say mothers because it's usually the mothers are the ones that are really responsible for making sure the child is taking care of. In my daughter's school,  the dads are often helping with the drop off.  They bring the child or they'll pick the child up, but it's really the mothers who are most involved with the kids.

Also paying for childcare is really hard so. I know in China it's changed a little bit in recent years. Basically, there's help from the government to pay for childcare and the really good kindergartens are subsidized by the state, but in the US, there's really no subsidy. There’re some forms sometimes in a location like in a city or in a particular state, they may have some support for childcare. When I was in graduate school when my son was born, we did have some subsidy for his childcare but with my daughter there isn't anything.

So, it's just up to the family to cover. For example, this year, the tuition for her is 750 dollars a month, and that's for five mornings a week and two afternoons. So, it's quite a lot and it often is like a pretty big part of a family's budget. Also finding quality teachers is tired and that's why we're in a kind of part day school because I feel like the teachers there are much better than the teachers stay at the centers entire day. Anyway it's just a very hard thing to find good childcare.

Then I also have to say just overall society. Thinking about my son like are unfortunately in an age where there are shootings all the time in the united states. With gun violence, talk about feeling vulnerable and being anxious about your child going in the world. I don't really fear like okay he's gonna have a situation at school today but you know, we just have had so many crazy things. There was a twelve year old boy last year who killed the classmate at his elementary school, just that kind of insane thing that you just really don't expect to happen and you wish what never happened, so that's the other thing that I think is this very scary as a parent.


Support that mothers hope to gain from the community

First of all, I think projects like this where we can hear each other stories and learn from each other's experiences are so important. I know I learned so much from reading those birth stories. I was in two different support groups. One was called centering pregnancy group. This a wonderful resource, every week the pregnant women get together for one hour support. just talking about what's going on, what are your challenges, and just recognizing that we all are going through challenges and also we're going through joys at the same time. That's a really good tone for what you're dealing with and we could give each other advice and offer ideas.

Similar format when my daughter was born and then I joined the same organization had a group for new moms. The facilitator was just this most wonderful person, you felt like she cared about you and really listened and really honored your story. With babies in particular, so many different opinions what do you do about feeding, what do you do about sleeping, those are the main ones, it wasn't judgmental at all. it was just like hears what we're doing.

It’s such a big gap between my babies, there were all these new products that I didn't hear about but through this group I learned like okay there's this swaddle and you wear this merlin suit and you know there's the shusher (白噪音仪) which is literally machine that goes shush,shush, a machine you turn on so the baby sleeps better. which noise machine and which everything and which breast pump and how do you use it. it was so nice to just have that community of support of people. 

I think moms can be really generous with sharing their ideas, sometimes it can get a little bit like oh I'm doing it right, you're doing it wrong, but for the most part I think people have just been lovely about being resourceful for each other. So, I would hope that people would continue to do that.

The other thing, that I'm really troubled by is the way that birth has become so medicalized, and how parents have lost so much choice, so much ability to choose. How they want their child to be birthed how they want their child to be treated as a brand-new baby, and how they want their baby to be treated in the doctor's office.

I'm speaking specifically about birth monitoring procedures and interventions during the childbirth process as well as things that happened right after the baby was born. Does everybody need the same kind of intervention? Hospitals now are just trying to minimize risk and that's not always appropriate. There’re some situations where babies are just fine and they don't need all of this intensive chemical input and artificial input into those tiny little bodies.

As much the research as I had done about it, the birth was fine, because we did that outside of the medical setting outside of the hospital setting. but once my daughter started school, she was required to have immunizations on a very specific schedule, without any regard for whether they make sense or not and without getting too deep into the discussion of should they be required or should they not be.

I'll just say that in Europe, there is one set of requirements, in the United States there's a totally different set of requirements. There are many vaccines that the US requires that Europe does not. I find it really terrible that parents aren't allowed to make the decisions that they think are right for their children, and still send them into school so it feels like there's a kind of a vice, like a kind of hands reaching out to choke you, and like make you do something in a very particular way. I think moms need to support one another in their decisions about how to handle that, but most of all we deserve the autonomy to decide for our own families and our own children what goes into their bodies and what doesn't and that's the other big thing.

Of course, for working mums, it would be so nice if everybody had a chance to take time with those little babies. In Sweden and Canada there's a whole year of birth leave and then in the US,  there's really very poor birth leave, very short and often unpaid, so people have to decide between earning their living or staying home with a tiny baby,  which often makes bad situations so just really trying to change policies so that women are better supported with the time to take care of their families as well as the quality childcare they need when they do go back to work.


It's a great Journey Afterall

I think the last thing to say is just how special and incredible this journey is, and scary and humbling and powerful all of the same time, like just watching a small person learn from you and absorb the world around them and then make it their own in ways that we scientifically know should happen, but you know that it's like a bit of magic every time, nonetheless. It's a part of both parents you know both of us passing ourselves on to our children and it's this incredible and I'm just so grateful for that opportunity and I hope everybody else can pause in the midst of all the exhaustion and the difficult moments, to just marvel and keep that sense of wonder that our children often have to.


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