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In the absence of ‘the village,’ mothers struggle most

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Dear mothers,

I'm writing you today because I can no longer contain the ache in my gut and fire in my heart over an injustice that you and I are bearing the brunt of.

Though this injustice is affecting everyone, mothers not only feel its burden more than most, but we also feel disproportionately responsible for alleviating its pervasive and deeply damaging symptoms, which is adding hugely to the weight of the world we're already wired to carry.

The injustice is this:

It takes a village, but there are no villages.

By village I don't simply mean "a group of houses and associated buildings, larger than a hamlet and smaller than a town, situated in a rural area." I'm referring to the way of life inherent to relatively small, relatively contained multigenerational communities. Communities within which individuals know one another well, share the joys, burdens, and sorrows of everyday life, nurture one another in times of need, mind the well-being of each other's ever-roaming children and increasingly dependent elderly, and feel fed by their clearly essential contribution to the group that securely holds them.

I'm talking about the most natural environment for children to grow up in.

I'm talking about a way of life we are biologically wired for, but that is nearly impossible to find in developed nations.

I'm talking about the primary unmet need driving the frustration that most every village-less mother is feeling. Though the proverb "It takes a village to raise a child" has become cliché, the impact of our village-less realities is anything but insignificant. It's wreaking havoc on our quality of life in countless ways.

In the absence of the village…

—Enormous pressure is put on parents as we try to make up for what entire communities used to provide.

—Our priorities become distorted and unclear as we attempt to meet so many conflicting needs at once.

—We feel less safe and more anxious without the known boundaries, expectations and support of a well-known group of people with whom to grow.

—We're forced to create our tribes during seasons of our life when we have the least time and energy to do so.

—We tend to hold tight to our ideals and parenting paradigms, even when doing so divides us, in an attempt to feel safer and less overwhelmed by so many ways and options.

—Our children's natural way of being is compromised, as most neighborhoods and communities no longer contain packs of roaming children with whom they can explore, create and nurture their curiosity.

—We run around like crazy trying to make up for the interaction, stimulation and learning opportunities that were once within walking distance.

—We forget what "normal" looks and feels like, which leaves us feeling as if we're not doing enough, or enough of the "right" things.

—Depression and anxiety skyrocket, particularly during seasons of our lives when we instinctively know we need more support than ever but don't have the energy to find it.

—We feel disempowered by the many responsibilities and pressures we're trying so hard to keep up with.

—We spend money we don't have on things we don't need in an attempt to fill the voids we feel.

—We rely heavily on social media for a sense of connection, which often leads us to feel even more isolated and inadequate.

—We feel lonely and unseen, even when we're surrounded by people.

—Our partnerships are heavily burdened by the needs that used to be spread among communities, and our expectations of loved ones increase to unrealistic levels.

—We feel frequently judged and misunderstood.

—We feel guilty for just about everything: not wanting or having time to be our children's primary playmates, not working enough, working too much, allowing too much screen time in order to keep up with our million perceived responsibilities, etc.

—Joy, lightness and fun feel hard to access.

—We think we're supposed to be independent, and feel ashamed of our need for others.

—We make decisions that don't reflect our values but our deeply unmet needs.

Perhaps most tragically of all, the absence of the village is distorting many mothers' sense of self. It's causing us to feel that our inadequacies are to blame for our struggles, which further perpetuates the feeling that we must do even more to make up for them.

It's a trap. A self-perpetuating cycle. A distorted reality that derives its strength from the oppressive mindsets still in place despite our freedoms.

Here's a new mindset to try on for size.

You and I are not the problem at all. WE ARE DOING PLENTY. We may feel inadequate, but that's because we're on the front lines of the problem, which means we're the ones being hardest hit. We absorb the impact of a broken, still-oppressive social structure so that our children won't have to.

That makes us heroes, not failures.

No, we're not oppressed in the same ways that we used to be (nor in the ways other women around the world still are), but make no mistake about it:

In the absence of the village, we're disadvantaged like never before. We may have more freedoms than our foremothers, but our burden remains disproportionately, oppressively heavy.

Since the beginning of time (and until very recently), mothers have borne life's burdens together. We scrubbed our clothes in the streams while laughing at splashing toddlers and mourning the latest loss of love or life. We wove, sewed, picked, tidied or mended while swapping stories and minding our aging grandmothers. We tended one another's wounds (both physical and emotional), relied on one another for strength when times were tough, and sought counsel from our community's wise, experienced and cherished elders.

Village life fostered a sense of safety, inclusivity, purpose, acceptance and importance. These essential elements of thriving were built in.

Now? We're being forced to create all of that for ourselves within a society that has physically and energetically restructured itself around a whole new set of priorities. It's a profits before people model that threatens the well-being of nearly everything we mothers are wired to protect.

Though I'm optimistic and hopeful by nature, this dilemma has left me discouraged many times over the years. How does an entire nation of mothers shift a storyline this massive while individually and collectively weakened by the absence of the very thing we so desperately need?

Major cultural shifts in prioritization, structure and power are clearly in order (and I do believe they're happening, however chaotically). In the meantime, each of us has a choice to make:

We can buy into, make peace with, and conform to the way things are, or exercise the freedoms our foremothers and fathers won for us and commit to doing our unique and essential part in creating change, starting within us and working our way out.

You and I aren't likely to experience what it's like to raise children in an actual village, but that's okay. That's not what this generation is about. This generation is about waking up to who we really are and what we really want, and resetting society's sails accordingly.

Playing your part in the re-villaging of our culture starts with being wholly, unapologetically, courageously YOU.

Here are a few tangible steps you can take whenever you're ready:

1. Get really clear on one thing.

The fact that you're struggling is not a reflection of your inadequacies, but the unnatural cultural circumstances you're living within.

2. Own + honor your needs.

Most mothers are walking around with several deeply unmet needs of their own while focusing almost exclusively on the needs of others. This is precisely the thing that keeps us from gaining traction and improving our circumstances, both individually and collectively.

3. Practice vulnerability.

Rich, safe, authentic connection is essential for thriving. Cultivating this quality of connection takes courage and a willingness to step outside your comfort zone. What you want most exists on the other side of that initial awkward conversation or embarrassing introduction.

4. Own your strengths.

What makes you feel strong and fully alive? What lights you up and gives you energy just thinking about it? Who would you be to your village if you had one? Tapping into your strengths and engaging them is one of the greatest ways to attract the kinds of people you want into your life, bless and inspire others, and build a sense of community in ways that fill rather than drain you.

5. Become an integral part of something.

Whether it's a knitting group, dance troupe, church, kayaking club or homeschool collective, commit to growing community around one area of your life that enlivens you or fills a need. Use the connections you cultivate within this community to practice showing up bravely and authentically and asking for what you need, whether that's support, resources or encouragement.

6. Do your part + ONLY your part.

Though it's tempting to fill our lives to the brim with commitments that make a difference, doing so only further disempowers us. Read Essentialism by Greg McKeown if you struggle with this one.

7. Learn self-love + self-compassion.

In a culture of "never enough" it is essential that we forge healthy relationships with ourselves in order to be able to fend off the many messages hitting us about who we're meant to be and what makes us worthy of happiness and love. In fact, I see self-love in action as the greatest gift our generation of mothers could possibly give to the mothers of tomorrow.

8. Speak your truth.

Even when you're terrified. Even if it makes you the bravest one in the room.

9. Imagine a new way.

Where we're headed looks nothing like where we've come from. Creating the kind of future we want requires envisioning that future and believing a new way to be possible. Get specific and think big. What do you want?

I've tasted village life.

—During college, when my tribe of idealists and dreamers were all within walking distance, and we'd yet to subscribe to "adult" social rules that told us what what was most important.

—When my young adult cousins lived with us for several months at a time. I've never enjoyed motherhood more than those days when I knew that the needs of the children, home and its individuals were joyfully shared among eager, loving souls.

—On retreat with other women, when each of us was reminded how very similar our struggles were and how very desperate we all feel for consistent support, everyday interaction, healing, lightness and ease.

—At outdoor festivals, when the village is re-created, if only for a weekend of camping, and everyone settles into a communal way, cooperative rhythm and lighter state of being.

—During the time I spent with Mayan mothers in impoverished rural Mexico. There I witnessed the blessings made possible by the presence of a tribe, however disadvantaged.

My soul was fed deeply during those time periods. Every time I get a taste of what we're missing, I become strengthened and hopeful again. THAT is the energy needed to create change. THAT is what the powers that be don't want us to feel.

I have no idea what the future holds, but I do know this:

We're supposed to be crying, celebrating, falling down and rising together.

We're supposed to have grandmothers and aunts and neighbors and cousins sharing the everyday moments, guiding us and helping us see the sacredness in the insanity.

We're supposed to be nurtured for months postpartum, cared for when we're sick, held while we mourn, and supported during challenging transitions.

And our children are supposed to cradled and allowed to grow within the social structures WE deem best for them.

Find yourself, then find your people. Or do it the other way around. Just don't settle. Don't ever settle for a way of life created by those who don't honor your soul and cherish your babies.

Change-making right alongside you,

Beth

A version of this article was originally published on Revolution from Home.

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Student loan debt is a major problem for many mamas and their families―but it doesn't have to be. Refinancing companies like Laurel Road help families every year by offering better rates, making payments more manageable or helping them shorten their loan term.

If you're ready to start taking control of your student loan debt, here are five steps that could help you conquer your student loan debt and get a loan that works for you.

1. Understand your refinancing options.

Like motherhood, managing student loan debt is a journey made much easier by experience. If your eyes start to cross when you hear variable and fixed rates or annual percentage rate, start your process with a little education. Laurel Road offers a user-friendly resource hub with student loan refinancing guides and articles that can help explain your options and get you started on a more informed foot.

2. Potentially improve your credit score.

Your credit score is important because it provides an objective measure of your credit risk to lenders. It also has an impact on many aspects of your finances, so it's a good idea to understand and track your score regularly. To try and improve your score, pay your bills on time—your payment history is one of the most important factors in determining your credit score. Having a long history of on-time payments is best, while missing a payment may hurt your score. Another action to improve your credit score would be to keep the amount you owe low—keeping your balances low on credit cards and other types of revolving debt, such as a home equity lines of credit, may help boost your score. Remember, good credit scores don't just happen overnight, but taking positive financial steps now can lead to more positive outcomes in the future.

3. Get a better understanding of your current loan benefits.

Different loan types have different benefits and you want to make sure you don't lose any valuable benefits by refinancing your current loan. Before you're ready to apply for a better option, you need to know what you have. Determine your loan terms (how long you have to pay off your loan and how much you're required to pay each month) and find out your current interest rate.

When you took out your original loan, especially if it was a federal loan, everyone who applies is given the same rate regardless of their personal credit. When you look to refinance, companies like Laurel Road look at your credit score and other attributes to give you a personalized pricing option―one that's often more competitive than your original terms. However, it is important to know that federal loans offer several benefits and protections, including income based repayment and forgiveness options, that you may lose when refinancing with private lenders (learn more at https://studentloans.gov). Try Laurel Road's Student Loan Calculator to get a bigger picture perspective of what it will take to pay off your loan and the options available to you.

4. Pick the terms that fit your lifestyle.

Your long-term financial goals will determine what refinancing terms are right for you. For example, a 3- or 5-year loan means faster payoff times, but it will mean a higher monthly payment―which might not be possible if you're planning to purchase a home or looking to move your toddler to a more expensive school. A loan with a longer term will have lower payments, but more interest over the duration of the loan.

Want to see what your options are? Check your rates on Laurel Road. They'll perform a "soft credit pull" using some basic information (meaning initially checking your rates won't affect your credit score ) so you can make an informed decision. If you do proceed with the application Laurel Road will ask for your consent on a hard credit pull.

5. Don't miss out on discounts.

With a little research, many people can find opportunities for lower rates or discounts when refinancing their loans. For example, if your credit isn't the best, look into the possibility of adding a cosigner who may help boost your rate. There are also many associations and employers who offer student loan benefits. Laurel Road partners with a number of groups and employers who offer discounts on rates―so check with your professional associations or HR to see if any options are available to you. Finally, talk to your financial institution, especially if you're planning to take out another major loan like a mortgage. In some cases, having another product with an institution can get you a preferred customer rate.

This article is sponsored by Laurel Road. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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Dear second child,

I see you. In the background, laying on your activity mat. I am frantically peeling a banana to appease your big sister's demands while cleaning milk off the floor.

You reach over and grab your toy and I am SO proud of you. I see you.

You smile and coo to yourself and tears threaten to spill from my sleep-deprived blood-shot eyes.

You are 4 months old and I have so many things I've been meaning to do. I want to cuddle you on the couch while reading all the books I loved reading to your sister.

I want to help you explore sensory bins, feeling the rice that I dyed various vibrant colors between your sweet little fingers.

I want to lay with you in the grass, gazing at clouds and soaking in the feeling of you discovering your world.

But your sister just disappeared with a red crayon and has been quiet for far too long. So I dash to her, disappearing from your sight.

I am so sorry.

I want to sit and stare at you and memorize every smile and giggle.

I want lazy days in bed like I had with your sister.

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I want to spend hours just laying in the sun at the beach with you while you nap out in the fresh air.

But there are no quiet, cuddly nursing sessions. There are no cozy, carefree days. It's all business and I'm operating on survival mode right now—and barely keeping it together.

You are so sweet. So happy. You fill our days with laughter and joy. But right now, you are in your activity center while I make dinner.

The guilt overwhelms me as I watch you out of the corner of my eye during another negotiation with your sister over what we will eat tonight.

I want so badly to slow down, sing to you, dance with you in the kitchen, babble with you while I prepare dinner. But I am so distracted. So exhausted.

I feel like I am failing as your mother and I am sorry.

The rush of dinner, bath time, stories and bedtime is a blur. You love bath time and I make sure we spend an extra few minutes together, laughing as you splash and kick in the water.

I love these few moments we have. We read stories in your sister's room before shutting her door and saying goodnight.

This is our time now. Our last nursing session of the day. I snuggle into the chair with you, kiss your head, and breathe you in.

I stare into your eyes and memorize every inch of you. I tell you how much I love you and how wonderful you are. I say I love you before laying you down in bed and sneaking out of your room, the door closing gently behind me.

I did it. I survived another day. A wave of delight and gratitude washes over me, taking the guilt away with it.

You, my second child, are so incredibly special. I love you so fiercely and I am so proud of you. You learn and grow every day and I admire you endlessly. I am in awe of you. I am thankful for your easygoing nature, your abundance of giggles and infectious smiles (seriously, you are the happiest baby I've ever met).

I love our small moments together—when I catch a glimpse of you in your car seat mirror and am overcome with love. When you fall asleep on me while we're at the park pushing your sister on the swing. Our middle-of-the night feedings where I can take all of you in and snuggle you peacefully in the 3am silence only a mother knows.

I don't remember life without you and you complete me in a way I didn't know was possible. And you deserve my very best.

I try, little one, I really do.

I try to make sure and slow down. To dance with you in the kitchen. To give you those extra minutes of bath time. To rock you in that chair a little longer.

I want to sing to you. I want to read you an extra book. I want to pause. To stop. And see you.

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Many mothers-to-be find comfort and confidence in the idea that our bodies are built for birth. It's a mantra that has helped many through labor, but too often this idea is tossed around not to help mothers get through birth, but to discount its difficulty.

Our bodies are incredibly powerful, but so is the myth surrounding their ability to recover after birth. Yes, birth is natural and normal, but it is also really, really hard on us. Society needs to acknowledge that so mothers can get the support and time they need to heal.

A new study published in the journal Science Advances found pregnant people and extreme distance distance runners have something in common: Both groups push their bodies to the limit of human endurance and potential. It turns out energy expenditure among extreme athletes pushing their limits is only slightly higher than that of pregnant people.

Simply put: Science proves It's no wonder you're tired mama, being pregnant takes so much energy.

Science also suggests that giving birth is harder on a person's body than running a marathon, and while athletes are resting and getting treatment for their injuries, too many mothers are trying to walk theirs off.

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In a lot of ways, running a marathon and giving birth are very similar experiences. Researchers note that in both cases, we tend to forget how painful the event actually was, and in both cases our bodies are pushed to extremes. Researchers suggest childbirth is as traumatic as many endurance sports.

But runners step up to the starting line well rested. When women step into the birthing suite, they're already exhausted.

According to Holly Dunsworth, an associate professor of anthropology at of the University of Rhode Island, mothers in the last weeks and months of pregnancy are "pushing right against the possible sustainable metabolic rates in humans."

"We max out toward the end of pregnancy," Dunsworth told the BBC. "Those last weeks and months of pregnancy are tiring." We are starting our race feeling as depleted as runners feel when theirs is over.

To energize for labor, "moms should remain hydrated, and ensure that they are getting enough iron and protein", says Diana Spalding, a midwife, pediatric nurse and Motherly's Digital Education Editor.

And when runners get hurt, they get help. Moms often don't.

A 2015 study out of the University of Michigan found that 25% of postpartum mothers have "fluid in the pubic bone marrow or sustained fractures similar to a sports-related stress fracture." Two-thirds of the women had injuries similar to a severe muscle strain. The research suggests up to 15% of moms sustain pelvic injuries that don't heal, and we're just walking around with them.

According to Janis Miller, the lead author on the study, when an athlete gets one of the these injuries, they end up in an MRI machine getting checked out. When a postpartum mom has the same issue, it's downplayed and often undiagnosed. This leaves women confused and concerned about symptoms, and unchecked physical problems can put a strain on maternal mental health.

"We have this thing where we tell women, 'Well, you're six weeks postpartum and now we don't need to see you—you'll be fine.' But not all women feel fine after six weeks nor are [they] ready to go back to work, and they aren't crazy," Miller said in a media release.

As Miller recently told the BBC, mothers often don't even know when they've torn a muscle like the levator ani. A tear in that muscle can cause pelvic floor problems and even prolapse, and it's the kind of thing kegels aren't going to fix, but many moms are told that with kegels and time they'll feel better, when the injury is more serious than that.

"In the extreme, we're asking for some women to strengthen a muscle they might not even have anymore," Miller told the BBC. "What is often observed as weakness is actually torn muscle."

The science shows that childbirth can be as hard on the body as running a marathon, and can even result in similar injuries. But even when injuries are not a factor, anecdotal evidence suggests giving birth is harder than running a marathon.

Just ask Amber Miller, who once ran a six-hour marathon and then gave birth all on the same day. "Giving birth is definitely harder than running a marathon," Miller told The Guardian. "Give me a marathon any day."

[A version of this post was originally published on February 5, 2019. It has been updated.]

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It's Father's Day and dads around the world are getting some love from their loved ones, and we are loving all the adorable posts on Instagram today.

Celebrity dads are getting (and dishing out) a lot of love today, and these 10 Instagram posts, in particular, are melting our hearts.


James Van Der Beek 

James Van Der Beek will always be Dawson to many millennial mamas, but to his five kids he's just "Daddy." His wife Kimberly posted the cutest pic of James with their kiddos, Olivia, Emilia, Annabel Leah, Joshua and baby Gwendolyn.

James posted the same photo to his own account, with a caption that may make you cry.

He wrote: "For me, being a father means having that quiet little voice inside of you that says 'Be a better man,' get louder and more consistent... to the point where you can't really remember where that voice ends and where you begin. It means being tired beyond what is probably healthy, and patient beyond what you previously thought possible. And even though you know you're far from perfect... being a father also comes with an unshakable awareness that all your actions have consequences - context that reaches far beyond your own self-interest. It's scary to feel that interconnected with the rest of the world - especially with your heart now walking around outside your body - because it demands more personal responsibility... but it will make you a better man. Of at least that I'm sure. #HappyFathersDay to all the imperfect dads out there, trying their best and learning on the job.👊#fatherhood"

That post gives us more feels than any episode of Dawson's Creek ever did.


Today, our Istagram and Facebook feeds are filled with evidence that today's dads are doing more than any other generation of fathers. Congrats guys, you really deserve a Happy Father's Day!

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The bond between sisters is special, but Jill Noe and Whitney Bliesner have a unique bond that goes beyond just being siblings. As twins, Jill and Whitney shared a lot throughout their lives, and when Jill became Whitney's surrogate they even shared a pregnancy.

As first reported by Today, Whitney has a rare disease called NF2 (Neurofibromatosis type 2). Because of NF2 she lost the vision in her left eye and hearing in her right ear, along with partial hearing loss in her left ear. The condition makes pregnancy risky, and the disease is hereditary.

Whitney and her husband, Pete, wanted to start a family, but adoption and surrogacy fees seemed to be putting parenthood out of their reach. Until Jill stepped in as their surrogate.

"We have always had a strong connection, I do think this experience made our connection stronger, for sure," Whitney tells Motherly, adding that she's sure that when Jill eventuallu has kids of her own the sisters will likely bond over motherhood, too.

Through IVF, Jill carried donor eggs fertilized with Pete's sperm to make her twin sister's family, and on June 7 Jill delivered Whitney and Pete's son and daughter, little Rhett and Rhenley.

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"Going through this with Jill was so easy," Whitney tells Motherly. "We both had no idea what was going to happen or how we would deal with stuff during this journey. We had our ups and downs, but I think that's life, and in any situation you would experience that. But with my sister, there was a sense of everything was going to be ok, like always. We always get over our annoyance and disagreements with each other very fast with no hard feelings. It was just a great experience to have with my best friend, my twin sister."

Rhett and Rhenley are keeping Whitney super busy these days (with twins, someone is always hungry!) but she's making time to share her story because she wants other people who can't physically be pregnant to not give up on their dream of being a mom.

"It's not about blood or biologically carrying a kid that makes you a mom, it's the unconditional love, care, and security you give a child that makes you a mom," she explains.

Whitney continues: "Even though you aren't carrying or blood-related, you still have those feelings of babies being yours!"

Whitney calls Jill her best friend and Jill says the feeling is mutual, telling Today that she knows Whitney would have done the same for her if the roles where reversed.

"She's always wanted to be a mom and her disease has already taken so much from her. I wasn't going to allow (NF2) to take this opportunity from her, too," Jill said. "It just felt like the right thing to do. Our family is so strong and so supportive of one another, especially since Whit's diagnosis in 8th grade."

Thanks to Jill, Whitney is now living her dream, taking care of her two adorable babies.

Jill is an amazing sister, and Whitney is already an amazing mom.

[A version of this post was originally published June 14, 2019. It has been updated.]

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