Bravo, Meghan Markle, for saying what we all feel. In an open letter to American lawmakers this week, the Duchess of Sussex acknowledged that the birth of her second child, daughter, Lilibet, in June, had ramped up the intensity of parenting her young family with Prince Harry.
She wrote: ‘Like any parents, we were overjoyed. Like many parents, we were overwhelmed.’
Her observations about life as a mum-of-two were part of a wider call for politicians, in the States, to level-out the playing field by providing paid parental leave to all after the birth of a child. The pandemic, she said, had exposed longstanding fault lines in communities where paid parental leave does not consistently exist but an invisible crisis concerning women and childcare does, with millions dropping out of the workforce to look after their kids full time.
Meghan’s letter adds a powerful voice to a debate that spreads to the UK too - the offer, to parents, of greater choice over how they balance their need for income and desire to raise children.
Her acknowledgement, as part of this, of the unspoken reality that welcoming a second child brings - euphoria, yes, adoration, yes, but weeks and months of exhaustion and dismay as you figure out, through bleary eyes and half drunk cups of cold tea, how on earth you parent more than one at a time, is important too.
Yet Meghan’s clarion call towards equality fell by the wayside in some corners of the internet (perhaps unsurprisingly given its collective will to divide.) She instantly faced backlash, suggesting that her privilege - she and Harry live in one of Los Angeles’ most exclusive neighbourhoods - negates her right to grumble about motherhood, to admit that, yes, welcoming another child, can be overwhelming.
But, why, as parents, do we still insist on pitting ourselves against one another when Meghan’s letter articulates a reality for all of us who have a second or third child (or however many more) - that each one is a game changer. She is in no way blind to the lifestyle into which her kids, Lili, four months, and Archie, two, have been born - an upbringing far from her own, in which a visit to the $5 (£3.60) all you can eat salad bar was a welcome treat from her hardworking parents. She writes of her and Harry’s experience of parenthood, this year: “Like fewer parents, we weren’t confronted with the harsh reality of either spending those first few critical months with our baby or going back to work…we wouldn’t have to make impossible choices about childcare, work, and medical care that so many have to make every single day. No family should be faced with these decisions.”
In the same way that her letter advocates for greater choice for families other than her own, isn’t Meghan’s recognition of the all-consuming early days of growing your family a reality that also belongs to many more than just her? That the more tiny humans we have, the harder it is to keep hold of a little bit of ourselves, to grow their selves and to sustain relationships, work, a home and our health all at the same time?
My two oldest boys (I have three) were born 15 months apart, a choice my husband and I made based on my fertility and years of treatment to get pregnant. The joy of having them in my arms could not have been any greater and yet there was not a day during that first year that I didn’t pray they would both sleep at the same time so I could just breathe. Or put a wash on. Or breathe AND put a wash on. Like many, I juggled work and parenting and, with that, the guilt and the overwhelm only grew greater. As Meghan puts it in her letter: “The working mom or parent is facing the conflict of being present or being paid. The sacrifice of either comes at a great cost.”
Hers is not a complaint, it’s a simple but too often unspoken truth that many of us are living. Circumstance is a great divider and a huge determinant of our experience of parenting and being parented and it is right that this is recognised and understood - but that deluge of emotion and exhausted fogginess that comes with giving birth to a second, caring for and getting to know them while answering to the demands and daily whims of a toddler, as Meghan and Harry are with Lili and Archie, is universally intense. Overwhelming.
Let’s not mark this out as a woman moaning about her choice to have a second child - because it is not. Let’s look at it for what it is: an open and honest acceptance that physically and mentally, practically and emotionally, parenting each new child is hard. It presents a juggle and choices that, as Meghan says, go back 20 or 30 years, even longer: “…decades of giving time, body, and endless energy,” in pursuit of stability.
Recognising that is no sign of weakness, neither is it unique to circumstance. It is, in fact, universal to parenthood. And it’s absolutely fine to admit that.