Feature: Three Millennials on Motherhood – #IWD 2019
Millennials have long been branded the “snowflake generation”. A mix of self-centered, over-sensitive, and ignorant, this term is generally understood as being derogatory, meaning millennials don’t have the emotional wherewithal to make it in the world.
But millennials are now doing the hardest job of all – they are becoming mothers. A recent survey shows that over 1 million American millennials are giving birth each year, which will increase over time.
We asked recent millennial mothers from the US, the UK, and the Netherlands about their experiences of motherhood.
Hi Malu, Ruth, Louise! Thank you so much for talking to IdeaSphere. First off, what has your experience of motherhood been like so far?
Malu: To be honest it has its ups and downs. I’ve always wanted to become a mother, ever since I can remember. But when the first pregnancy test came back negative, I was secretly relieved. Not because I wasn’t pregnant but because I was disappointed I wasn’t pregnant. Now I sort of knew for sure it was something I wanted to do, not something expected of me.
Motherhood itself has been interesting. My eldest (1.5) is now at that age where they most resemble some sort of combination between a parrot and a sponge. They soak up everything they see and then give it back to you at the most unexpected moment. Suddenly there is this miniature person living in your house having opinions about how she dresses and what she eats.
Ruth: I’m only two months into it but so far, so good!
Louise: Fantastic, I have loved becoming a mother. That doesn’t mean to say that it hasn’t been hard, though!
And does that experience match your expectations? What did you expect motherhood to be like in the 2010s?
Malu: Before we had our first we took a long holiday together to sort of close the chapter of just the two of us. We used it to talk about who we wanted to be as parents and how we would like to accomplish that. Looking back on it I think we were pretty naïve, but it has also helped us to understand each other better and to know what to expect from our partner as a parent.
There are things I now do as a parent that I looked down on before I had children - like the amount of TV you allow. Old Me would have said, ‘no TV before they are 2 or three’, but now if I have to cook and the eldest has a tantrum and the youngest wants something I know I’ll turn it on for half an hour. I try to put on something fairly educative but they have a mind or their own (and know how to control an iPad).
Ruth: Millennial parenting is definitely different. I don’t read parenting books, I read blog posts and watch videos online. The lactation consultant, the elderly paediatrician—they all recommend websites now. And while I’m not vlogging about this experience or posting a video of my delivery or breastfeeding online, I have really learned a lot from other millennial moms who did and I’m grateful to be learning the ropes with this kind of social media available. I imagine my mom would’ve just had books and the advice of her mom, sisters, and friends. But social media allows me to access the advice of other new and experienced moms 24 hours a day, and it greatly broadens my network. These videos and blog posts from other moms make me feel less isolated, and they have the answer to every question I’ve had so far about my baby (often at 3 a.m.). I guess one challenge to parenting in this environment is knowing when to stop Googling—although most of the time it yields an article that educates me and helps to ease anxiety, it sometimes leads me down rabbit holes that make anxiety worse or just waste time I should be enjoying with my daughter.
Louise: I think I knew it would be life changing so I was prepared for that. In terms of motherhood in 2019, Google is a lifesaver. My search history must look like the ravings of a mad woman but night-time feeds are the prime time to look up the answers to bizarre motherhood questions (think ‘does a single spot on the left forearm mean my baby is getting smallpox?’ and other similar musings). There have been so many new developments in the last 20 years that make life easier – Deliveroo is a godsend in the early days, and my breast pump has a rechargeable battery, meaning I can pump on the go, including on work trips – the window seat of aeroplanes (plus a poncho!) makes an ideal pumping station! Insta-mummies are rife, which is both positive and negative. There is a growing trend for ‘real-mummy’ grammers who don’t mind posting photos of their piles of dirty laundry. But there are still a lot of showy posts that leave you feeling irritated at best and inadequate at worst.
What are the challenges of being a new mother in 2019?
Malu: Because I married relatively young (I was 25, and had just finished Uni) I started looking for my first job with a ring on my finger. And when you’re a married woman in your mid to late twenties, employers look at you differently. Of course, being in the middle of a financial crisis didn’t help. But my now co-worker told me that they actually discussed my eventual maternity leave after my job interview. I’m proud I still got the job but it also pisses me off. If I were a man no one would even talk about if and when I want to have children. I think as long as mothers have a longer maternity leave than men it will always be a point of discussion.
Another challenge I didn’t expect was the crippling load of information that gets dropped on you the minute you become pregnant. I had virtual strangers coming up to me and asking – no – telling me what I should and shouldn’t eat or do. And Google doesn’t help at all, there are so many conflicting websites and opinions around that it just makes you more insecure about what the right course of action is.
Ruth: Maybe trying to “have it all”? I’m a student now so that’s quite compatible with new motherhood, but my husband and I both want to work (and commute) while having a few kids, and neither of us will really have the option of part-time work. His mom can help with childcare, but even without that issue, I am starting to realize how challenging this plan may be for us. As a general matter, there are still very few jobs that allow women the flexibility needed to be a mother and have a career at the same time.
Louise: I think I thought I could do it all – juggle work in between breastfeeding, nappy changing, swim classes etc. Having a Smartphone means I’m always connected to work, which is both a blessing and a curse. I have gone back to work part-time and my little boy goes to nursery two days a week. My intention was to spend the other three days entirely focussed on him. However, I end up making calls and sending emails during his nap times. My favourite time is our swim class every Tuesday because I have to escape my phone.
On the good days I feel super human, having managed to keep a small child alive for 12 hours and send some emails and squeeze in a few work calls. On the bad days (when I haven’t managed to fit everything in) I feel like a terrible employee and an appalling mother.
Do you think there are appropriate social structures in place where you live to support you?
Malu: I love living in the Netherlands. I still think we have an amazing social security structure although it’s been declining in the last 10 years. I have 16 weeks of paid maternity leave in total. You can choose to stop working 6-4 weeks before your due date, but you have to stay home at least 10 weeks after the baby is born (so for example, if you choose to stop 6 weeks in advance but your baby is a week late, you get an extra week). With my second pregnancy I had a lot of health issues which meant I couldn’t work full days any more. Together with a workplace physician and my manager we came up with a solution of working less hours and adjusting my workload accordingly.
For fathers it’s a whole different story. In 2018 there were two days of paid paternity leave, now in 2019 it’s five. We were fortunate that Petter’s current employer thinks this is as insane as we do and gives him two weeks full paid leave.
What I really love about having a baby in the Netherlands is “Kraamzorg”. (Kraamzorg is a service provided in the Netherlands where a maternity nurse provides postnatal care to the mother in her home for 8 – 10 days after birth.) We’re a country of fairly level-headed people, we don’t like to make a fuss. Most women don’t want medication during childbirth and prefer to have the baby at home. Although I chose to have my babies in the hospital it’s normal that you get sent home as soon as you can use the bathroom (which can be after 2 hours). But the great thing is, after that you won’t be alone. The first week you get help in your own house, someone to teach you the ins and outs of caring for a baby - how to wash them, how to change a diaper, how to breastfeed, how to keep them warm. They even clean your house and do your laundry. This makes the transition to being a parent so much easier, especially because it’s in your own home with your own routines and familiar surroundings.
Ruth: I don’t know all of the details since I’m in school, but once I’m working I believe I will get 12 weeks off, paid by my employer.
Louise: We are lucky in the UK compared to America and the Netherlands – there is more normalcy around taking a lengthier amount of maternity leave. Paternity leave is a different story though. Although it’s an option to take an extended amount of leave as a father, I know relatively few dads who have actually taken it. This may be partly due to the lack of support for breastfeeding mums returning to work. In other European countries it’s the norm to have ‘pumping rooms’ in offices and for companies to provide a hospital grade pump along with a milk storage fridge and rules carving out the time mums need to pump during the day. I work from home so am able to pump as I go on my work days. If I’d been going into an office, though, I would probably have had to stop breastfeeding, which would have been heart-breaking.
Is there any other type of social structure or support that you would like to receive?
Malu: I would love to be able to determine my own maternity leave with my partner. Like in Sweden and Germany where they have a fixed number of days/weeks that you can split. Apart from that I’m actually quite happy.
Ruth: One thing that was not covered by my U.S. health insurance was prenatal classes like Lamaze (healthy birth practices for safe childbirth and labor) and Infant CPR. It would be nice if these were included, not least for the social aspect. The other parents we took the Lamaze class with happen to be the only people I know who had their first baby in the same year as we did, and it has turned out to be a great support network.
Louise: Having given birth in the Netherlands, I was lucky enough to have a Kraamzorg for the week after my birth. This was an incredible service but perhaps it’s too much to hope that the UK’s NHS could sustain such a thing.
Do you have the ability to leave your baby in childcare at your workplace?
Malu: Not at my workplace unfortunately, so it’s no option to breastfeed your baby when you start working. There is however the option to use a breast pump. Employers in the Netherlands are required to give you a private room with running water, electricity and a fridge you can use to pump. You’re allowed to use up to ¼ of your working day for pumping, so for me that amounts to 2 hours a day for nine months after you go back to work. Lots of women choose to just leave early or start late so they can feed the baby and not pump but use formula during the day.
Daycare is quite a problem in the area I live in. Because there are so many young families waiting lists can amount to almost 2 years. I hear it’s better in Amsterdam where they actually try to lure parents with gifts but where I live (Utrecht) you have to be content with whatever they give you, which means being flexible with your days. Fortunately, once you have one child in, the other gets priority over other children. Because of a new law implemented in 2019 the situation has actually gotten worse. Before it was allowed to have one caretaker for 4 babies, now it’s only 3 babies per caretaker. Which is obviously beneficial to the babies, but makes it harder and more expensive to find a good spot.
What is one thing you wish society understood about mothers?
Malu: I wish people would remember what it was like to have children, and I mean really remember. Not just the good times, but the times you think you’re just going to cry with exhaustion or frustration. Maybe then they would be more careful in the advice they deal out. It can make you so insecure as a new mum or dad.
Ruth: Some people seem to think that babies need to be quarantined away from the public. This results in a weirdly segregated society where many people have never held a baby until they day they move to the suburbs and have one of their own. Worst of all, it exacerbates the feeling of isolation that new parenthood can bring, especially for breastfeeding moms whose baby-dictated schedule doesn’t allow for going out much, especially in the early weeks.
I appreciate friends who are willing to change the way they socialize with me a bit in order to allow the baby to join, and I wish more people realized how easy this is. While of course some settings are not ideal for a new-born, and new parents won’t be able to make very concrete—or many—plans like they used to, it is so important for parents to maintain their social network throughout this experience.
Louise: I miscarried early in my first pregnancy, and I was completely naïve to the fact that that could happen at all. If I could change one thing it would be that people talked about this more. It should be included in Sex Education classes at school and conversations about this topic should be more commonplace. One in three women suffer a loss like this, yet I remained completely ignorant that it might happen to me. I peed on a stick and three minutes later I was a mum, whether or not that baby made it to full term – the size of the baby makes no difference at all to the choices you make as a parent and these choices start immediately after finding out you are pregnant. Keeping pregnancy a secret until after 12 weeks just encourages the culture of secrecy around this type of bereavement. I’d encourage anyone expecting in the early days to tell a family member and a couple of friends who would be there for them if the worst should happen.
How has having children changed your life?
Malu: Strangely enough, it has made me more relaxed. I’m kind of a control freak. I want things to go my way. I used to be really stressed out if I knew I was going to be late to an appointment and I really put quite a lot of pressure on myself to do everything perfectly.
When I had children I realised you just can’t control everything or you’ll burn out in no time. When there is a poopy diaper the moment you’re headed out the door, you have to change it first – you will be late, it happens. The sooner you realise as a mother that it’s better to just go with the flow of your children than trying to hold on to your old routines, the more relaxed and happy your family will be. Don’t get me wrong, I still love the old Dutch child rearing principle “Rust, Reinheid, Regelmaat” (calm, cleanliness, consistency) but it works better when you adjust to your children instead of the other way around. We now have an almost two year old who loves bedtime and sleeps for 12 hours straight and our little one is already almost sleeping through the night. Because they sleep so well our evenings are spent with friends, watching a film or doing something for ourselves which makes me a more happy/relaxed mummy.
Ruth: The big picture answer: it’s been the most beautiful experience of my life. I’m in love with a new person who loves and needs me in a way no one ever has, and I get to watch her grow before my eyes. She’s super chunky and cute and I could kiss her all day. The nitty gritty answer: Having someone who depends on me and needs to nap and be fed so frequently makes traveling—even one block to buy more milk—a much more complicated endeavor!
Louise: My whole world has become infinitely bigger yet incredibly smaller all at the same time.
Ruth is an American law student living in New York City. Malu, who is Dutch, and Louise, who is British, both live and work in the Netherlands.
*Please note that this article does not pretend to capture the experiences of all millennial mothers. It represents only the select views of those interviewed by IdeaSphere. If you would like to share your experience of motherhood please leave a comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.