Having a Baby 15 Years Ago/Having a Baby Today: Two Perspectives

Having a Baby 15 Years Ago/Having a Baby Today: Two Perspectives

Having a baby 15 years ago versus having a baby today: how much has changed? Ellen Painter Dollar describes her experience as a new mother at the turn of the millennium, when technology wasn’t so readily available. As a new mother in 2015, technology looms large for Jennifer Palmer, who feels she is constantly navigating the challenges of parenting in the digital world. 

Having a Baby 15 Years Ago

By Ellen Painter Dollar

I welcomed the new millennium in stretch pants, my three-week-old firstborn guzzling at my breast. In the weeks leading up to January 1, 2000, I worried little about “Y2K”—the catastrophes predicted due to our computers’ inability to decipher a year abbreviated as “00.” I was too consumed by the impending and then actual arrival of my tiny girl, and too skeptical of doomsday thinking, to fear government dissolution or planes falling from the sky.

Twenty months later, on September 11, 2001, we would learn that planes falling from the sky was a legitimate thing to fear, though the planes would be brought down not by inept technology, but by old-fashioned human rage. We learned, in blood and fire, just how fraught with both promise and peril our increasingly global connections can be.

As evening approached on September 11, the day’s many charged legacies—for our nation, for parents and children—were yet unknown. All I knew was that I had a 20-month-old who was blessedly oblivious as I watched the towers collapse, my hand clamped over my mouth so I wouldn’t frighten her with horrified whimpering, and that we had plans the following day to go to the beach. I called my friend Cathy and asked, “Should we go? It seems wrong. But what else are we going to do?” What else indeed, especially with a child not yet two years old? So off to the beach we went—me and several other moms whose firstborn children were all around my daughter’s age, and who were the first real friends I made after becoming a mother.

Having moved back to my hometown 11 months before my daughter’s birth and begun telecommuting from home part-time, I often went days without seeing anyone other than my husband and the Kinko’s clerk, to whom I would deliver faxes and page proofs bound for my DC-based employer. While I took to motherhood easily, reveling in the tactile pleasures of caring for a newborn, I needed friends. Online community was a fledgling endeavor, friendship not yet something to be tallied in a sidebar. I met my friends the old-fashioned way—awkwardly and in person, after reluctantly signing up for a local new parents’ class. After our six-week class ended, we would spend the next half dozen years meeting weekly in our homes as our brood grew to 17 children, then graduate to book discussions, dinners out, and rare weekends away as our kids grew. These were the friends with whom I spent September 12, 2001, at the beach.

We, of course, had no cell phones on which to scroll through the latest news while keeping half an eye on our toddlers. But I won’t give into the temptation to look back with pure nostalgia at a time, only 14 years ago, when an hour’s drive to the beach could effectively shield us for one blessed day from the worst news many of us had known in our lifetimes.

To be sure, I am grateful for the brief respite we got that day from 9/11 and its frightening implications. I wonder uneasily what it means for our spirits and our families that such separation from the world’s terrors, such complete attention given to our beloved ones, can now be achieved only with a deliberate act of will, or a trip somewhere remote.

But social media and wi-fi allow me to nurture a writing career along with a home and a family, to comment knowledgeably on the day’s news from the window seat in my dining room, the dog underfoot and occasionally a sick kid in the next room. These virtual connections, too, are laden with promise and peril.

Parents must learn to bear the unsettling truth that our children belong to the world as much as to us. In a poem titled “To My Children, Fearing for Them,” Wendell Berry asks, “What have I done?” Yet even as he grieves his inability to save his children from witnessing and bearing suffering, he also cannot “wish your lives unmade, though the pain of them is on me.”

That Wednesday afternoon, as we dug in the sand and wiped sunscreen onto scowling faces, we must have thought of the pile of steel and debris and bodies smoldering just across the Long Island Sound from our sunny idyll. We—perhaps especially my friend Carol, heavily pregnant with her second child—must have wondered, “What have we done?”

But the image I most clearly recall from that day is of driving back into town, my daughter and my friend’s little boy asleep in their car seats, their deep, steady breath giving off the exhausted contentment of a day at the beach. No, I could not wish these lives unmade, though the pain of them, the agony of the fallen towers and whatever horrors these little ones would know in their lifetimes, was firmly on us.

Questions about how to ease our children into necessary but heavy knowledge have long been part of parenthood. In the past 15 years, such questions have become more immediate, more daily, as the world is never farther away than the smartphones in our back pockets. What has changed since I had my first baby is that the divide between public and private has become far murkier; we must choose more deliberately between engagement and solitude, attention directed outward and inward, and fight to give ourselves fully to each pursuit at the proper time.

What hasn’t changed is our agonized awareness that, as Wendell Berry also wrote, “We who give life give pain.” Our children have always been subject to the promise and peril of human connection, heirs of legacies that stretch far beyond our own family trees.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work explores the intersections of faith, parenthood, disability, and ethics. She is author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012), and blogs for the Patheos Progressive Christian Channel.


Having a Baby Today

By Jennifer Palmer


My daughter was born one fine spring morning in 2014. By that evening, several family members and friends had met her in real life. But many more had “met” her online. Cradling her to my chest with one hand, I used the other to update my Facebook status, announcing her arrival, and the response—dozens of comments and hundreds of likes from my small circle of social media contacts—came within moments. In the intervening year, I’ve added photos and videos of her every few months, and, while none have come close to matching that first post’s popularity, such updates garner far more interest than the other things on my wall.

My use of Facebook isn’t the only way that technology has affected my parenting. Constant communication and access to instant information are so ingrained in my way of life that I have a difficult time imagining what it would be like to have a baby without them.

Often, the consequences of having so much technology available are obvious: take my tendency to consult the Internet when I have a question. Prior to becoming a parent, I thought nothing of this habit. After all, as my husband often notes with a wry smile, “Google knows everything!” It was only natural, therefore, when my daughter seemed to lag far behind her peers in certain milestones, for me to type “infant developmental delays” into the search bar. Overwhelmed by the quantity of conflicting information available on the subject, I learned my lesson: today, when questions arise about my daughter’s health and development, I consult my mom, my husband, or my pediatrician, but rarely my search engine. I may know less—a crime in today’s information-saturated world—but I also worry less.

Other times, the effects are less clear. Like many Americans of my generation, my phone is nearly always within reach. It is more than just a phone, of course; it is my calendar and my camera and my shopping list. I use it to read and to shop and to write. I listen to audio books and music. I text daily photos of my girl to her grandparents and her dad. In recent months, I have become ever more aware of how much I look at my phone as my daughter has become more curious about her world. She sees me holding it, lunges for it, and I wonder what it teaches her to see her mother so enamored with this inanimate device. How will it affect her, in the years to come, to grow up surrounded by screens?

There’s this, too, as I think about parenting in today’s modern world: there you sit, reading my words, and somehow, I don’t feel quite so alone. I send my words out, talk about what it is to be at home with my baby and know that you read them, that you can relate. I read the words of others, too, blogs about parenting, about modern womanhood, about life, and feel as though these long days at home with an infant are not so lonely, as though somehow I have community and connection, virtual though IT may be. My introverted personality tends towards the ease of Internet relationships; with such an avenue open to me, I must force myself to cultivate meaningful connections in my hometown. While online friendships are valuable and words have power to heal, nothing compares to a physical hug, to a meal shared. With only so many hours in a day, determining the balance between the virtual world and the real one can be challenging, to say the least.

My challenge as a new mother in 2015 is to navigate the ever-changing digital world of social media and smartphones and 24-hour-news cycles, keeping the good and discarding the rest. It’s a task more difficult than it sounds, for I cannot always determine the ways in which the marvels of the modern world influence my thinking, my relationships, my life. I know, too, that the challenge which will only grow as my daughter does. Today, I need only govern myself, a skill I’ve yet to master; the time will come when I will need to guide her as she explores the World Wide Web, show her how to avoid becoming ensnared in its sticky strands.

Though I cannot always quantify the ways in which technology changes the way I parent, I know this: at its essence, mothering an infant, even in 21st century America, requires but a few things. Patience. Kindness. A willingness to shelter and care for and feed a small, helpless human being. Community. Love. Though the details may be different, though my day-to-day may bear little resemblance to that of those who have gone before me, I suspect those things have remained constant throughout the ages.

Jennifer Palmer worked as an electrical engineer until her daughter was born, but has always been a writer at heart. She now scribbles in her journal between diaper changes, composes prose in her head as she rocks a baby to sleep, and blogs about finding the beauty in everyday life at choosingthismoment.com. She lives with her husband and daughter in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California.

Freedom Tower photo by Scott Boruchov

Image: dreamstime.com

The Day You Really Became A Mom

The Day You Really Became A Mom

By Susan Buttenwieser

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Up until this morning, your anxieties revolved around your parenting abilities. You’d been consumed with fear, even before your daughter was born, never felt so inadequate.


You are on the corner of 6th Avenue and 11th Street when it happens. Right in front of Ricky’s, pushing your three-year-old daughter in her stroller, as you head home. Just like hundreds of other days, weeks, moments.

This time, however, things are different. Thirty minutes ago, you were on the roof of your building. Watching with your neighbors in stunned silence, as if unable to decipher what you were witnessing. The tallest building in New York City pancaking down on itself. It was there, the South Tower was just there, with a burning airplane inside. Then it was totally gone, replaced by an enormous cloud of smoke, like the aftermath of a detonated nuclear bomb. How many people had been in there, people who were certainly no longer alive. You couldn’t conceive of it, no one could.

The first person who spoke was a woman instructing her boyfriend to take a picture. “I can’t,” he said, though his camera was on a tripod inches from him. Then everyone was in motion with the sickening realization that the other tower could fall down too.

You were frozen at first. Finally it hit you. Your daughter at Pre-K, several blocks away. Even though you didn’t feel remotely safe, she should be here, with you.

In the stairwell, you could hear a neighbor’s tortured moans. Her boyfriend worked at Windows on the World. It was a sound you never heard a human make before. Her wailing continued throughout the entire day, a never-ending soundtrack.

The streets and sidewalks were complete pandemonium. Filled with people crying and clinging to each other, helplessly looking downtown at the smoke and debris snaking through lower Manhattan, and a blank space where the South Tower used to be. The North Tower still stood.

You ran the whole way to your daughter’s Pre-K. When you got there, she said good-bye to her teacher and calmly got in her stroller. She didn’t seem afraid as she sat there, waiting to be taken home, expecting you to make it okay for her. Expecting your most basic function. To protect her. No matter what. Even right now.

Up until this morning, your anxieties revolved around your parenting abilities. You’d been consumed with fear, even before your daughter was born, never felt so inadequate. All the other parents came across as organized and cheery and prepared. You were none of these things and less. Lackluster, late and always making emergency stops at delis because you forgot something at home or lost it on the way. And in the dawning of this new millennium, retro-domesticity was an obsession with the other parents. The list of their skills felt endless, everything from making bagels and play dough from scratch to hand-stitching their own children’s clothing. Meanwhile, you were barely getting through the day.

But then, there is this moment that changes everything. Rushing home from Pre-K with your daughter in her stroller, you reach the corner of 6th Avenue and 11th Street, right outside Ricky’s, just as the North Tower falls down. People go crazy when it happens, start running uptown, away from it, as if it will come crashing down and smother you all. The grouchy cashier from Ricky’s bolts outside, looks downtown and screams when she sees that it too has completely collapsed. That the World Trade Center no longer exists at all.

You try somehow to get through the next few hours and days. You take your daughter to the nightly candlelight vigils in Union Square, to the school next door housing out-of-town firefighters, and help set up makeshift beds. You do regular, every day things, like going to the playground, to friends’ homes. There is even a party, all the parents welling up when the children sing “Happy Birthday” in their high, hopeful, three-year-old voices. A week later, you find out you’re pregnant with your second daughter.

But during that moment outside Ricky’s, as people are literally running for their lives, your parenting anxieties have become a vanished luxury. There isn’t time to worry about what the other parents are doing. You have to go with your instincts.

Maybe there is more to being a mom than craft projects and baking. And maybe what your daughter really needs is for you to stay focused on what is right in front of you: her.

For once, you have no hesitation about what to do. Bending down, you pick her up out of the stroller. Arms wrapped all the way around her, you cradle her face in the crook of your neck, in the midst of this swirling, panicked, out-of-control crowd.

“That’s right,” a man rushing past says. “Hold onto her.”

And you do.

Susan Buttenwieser’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Teachers & Writers magazine and other publications. She teaches creative writing in New York City public schools and with incarcerated women. She read this piece at a Listen to Your Mother, NYC event in 2013.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

War on Terror

War on Terror

By Francie Arenson Dickman

photo-5My daughters leave for school at 7:30 in the morning, which makes for an early start in our house. I’m downstairs doing all of my least favorite activities—unloading the dishes, making lunches—in the dark while my children are upstairs doing the things essential to get ready for school, like doctoring an invisible pimple with makeup from my bathroom or checking the Instagrams posted in the 30 seconds since they last checked. If they have time after this, they brush their teeth and get dressed. These are the days, the ones when they wind up in the kitchen without me having dragged them there, that I feel buoyed. I don’t bank on them anymore, I’ve adjusted expectations but nonetheless, I don’t expect much worse. So I was surprised the other morning, surprised in a bad way, when, with my head in the dishwasher, I heard my phone ding. This particular sound signaled that I was being summoned by my daughter.

A few months ago, each of my daughters assigned to my phone a unique ringtone, or text tone as I believe they are called, so I can identify who is in need without looking up from whatever I’m doing, in this case, putting away dishes. The text tones, like their cries as babies, are easily distinguishable. One is upbeat and silly. It sings “you’ve got a text message” in a goofy voice. The other is a single, repeated call, like a sick wolf or a train about to run you down. It is appropriately entitled Suspense. Any time I hear either’s sound, I hold my breath, since as with their infant cries, they both tend to text me reflexively, and primarily in times of discontent. “Not having fun here, come get me.” “Forgot my lunch.” “Pants ripped.”

So, with trepidation I shoved the wok from last night’s unappreciated stir-fry into the drawer and shuffled to my phone. It was after 7, no one had yet appeared in the kitchen and the lone wolf had just called. This couldn’t be good, I thought, and it wasn’t.

“My hair didn’t crimp right,” the sentence read. Actually, it wasn’t a sentence because it didn’t finish with a period or any other form of recognized punctuation. Instead, at the end of the line were 4 emogis, little smiley faces; the ones she chose had tears coming out of their eyes.

I paused for a moment to soak in the reality that my home had devolved into every other home in America that housed kids in what I like to think of as the terrorist years. The irony didn’t escape me either that my daughter and I were feet away from each other and rather than storming down the stairs to show me the aforementioned hair, as I would have done, or even screaming, she didn’t make a sound. If I hadn’t have checked the text, I wouldn’t have known anything was wrong. I decided that in this case, it was probably better if I didn’t make a sound either.

So against my impulse and better judgment, I typed back, “I don’t know what to tell you.” I used a period instead of an emogi.

I waited. No little dots issued forth to indicate my daughter was responding. I figured maybe she was busy uncrimping her hair or better yet, cutting it off, as I had once done after a perm gone bad. Or maybe, if I was lucky, she was putting on clothes as it was now ten minutes after 7.

My other daughter had already strolled into the kitchen and was now eating cereal. “What’s going on with your sister?” I said. Since we were face to face, I was allowed to use actual words to communicate with her and she managed to use some in return.

“Don’t know.”

My daughters are twins and they are twelve. They were born two weeks after 9/11 and for the first months, years actually, of their lives, I, like the residents of Lower Manhattan lived on a constant state of high alert. My adrenaline worked overtime. I’d gained 60 pounds while pregnant and lost 70 in the four months after. My hair turned grey. I developed Ulcerative Colitis. I’d lay awake at night on edge, waiting for signs of unrest over the baby monitor, which I see now, was the precursor to the iPhone. My father who was born in 1931, a solid 70 years pre-Sept 2001, could never understand the monitor. “When they really need you,” he’d say, “you’ll hear ’em. If you respond every time they whine, they’ll never shut up”.

I also remember my father telling me, “You got two to three rough years ahead of you, then it’ll all be ok.”

“But then,” added my mother, who was sitting next to my father on our couch, “it won’t be.” They each held a baby, having stopped by for one of their 10-minutes-is-all-we-can-tolerate visits.

At the time, I focused on my father’s words. They hung in my head, a beacon of hope as the minutes ticked by, the nights grew quieter and life, as he predicted, got easier. I no longer trembled for hours on Sunday nights before my husband set out for the week. I gained weight. I dyed my hair. My colitis went into remission. As the horrors of late 2001 faded with time I, like all Americans, slipped into a state of complacency, where I lived happily until now.

I stormed upstairs to find my daughter maniacally wetting and brushing, wetting and brushing. All of the hair supplies in her arsenal had been brought forth to the counter. The mirror, along with her sweatshirt, was splattered with water. I have to give her credit, her hair was worth the 4 tearful emojis. The back of it, which I learned had been braided loosely by her sister, hung in a gentle wave whereas the sides, which she’d done in a series of Medusa like braids, had produced a wild, Amazonian look, reflective of her text tone, I thought, as I stood in the war zone that was her bathroom and tried to not laugh.

“I’m not going to school,” she informed me, adding for impact that she also had a pimple in her nose that was making it hard for her to breath.

“I too feel it hard to breath,” I told her, “due to the pimple now sitting on her countertop.”

She rolled her eyes. I grabbed her brush and did the only thing I could think to do. I pulled her hair into a ponytail. Yet unlike years ago when I had sole control over hairdos, she was now armed with the motor skills to yank the hair band out of her head and the verbal skills to inform me that the ponytail was off center. Then she grabbed a headband, and of course her phone, and stumped her way downstairs. I decided to declare a victory as at least in body, she was headed in the right direction, a step closer to the door.

I freely admit these days that I drop my kids at school with the same joy with which I once welcomed the babysitter. Time to regroup. Settle my nerves. I color my hair, I do some work, and reflexively, I do as my daughters do. I call my mother to complain.

Francie Arenson Dickman’s essays have appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.

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