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For the first three years of my kid’s life, I was terrified to be left alone with him.
Here’s what I knew, pre-motherhood:
Work: I’d held a job since I was 16 years old. My jobs through the years had a psychic power over me; I felt beholden to them, as I’m sure many women do. I went to work no matter what. When my beloved dog of 10 years died one Sunday night, I wasn’t even a few minutes late the next day. I cried in the conference room when I needed to.
Me-time: I am a homebody, as is my husband. We both cherish a well-worn routine that rises and sets and never challenges us in any real way. It’s just, the world is so extra. Venturing into it is overrated.
Twilight depression: I am prone to bouts of hopelessness that are usually brought on by change or doing too much, both of which upset my routine, which, see above. My routine stabilizes my mood; my emotions demand routine.
Enter motherhood! Pow—all those old standbys bit the dust. I became a mother when I was nearly 33, so I had a long, long time to nurture a life of doing whatever I wanted. That first night at home with our child, we put him in his bassinet, read for a little while, kissed each other, and turned out the lights. Ah, life was the same, only we had this new sweetie. What luck! Fast-forward 45 minutes, when the sweetie woke up. Then woke up 45 minutes after that. Repeat for the rest of the night, and many nights after. By dawn, I felt like we’d been deposited in our home, only something was off. The walls were closing in, was that it?
I devoted myself to getting back to the me I’d been before. I yearned for my maternity leave to end, for my child to sleep through the night, for my husband and me to be alone. Only then would the cloud of baby blues lift, I told myself.
Lift they did! My child began sleeping like a champion; I went back to work; our evenings were our own after 7:00. I had conquered this parenthood thing with only a teaspoonful of shit to eat every day.
But still. I feared the days when my husband had to travel, or if my baby was sick and couldn’t go to the nanny share. The idea of being alone with him felt torturous. What would we do? I imagined those days as pastel smears, lost days during which I’d be trapped while someone slowly erased me, my edges vanishing until I wouldn’t even be a person. Miss work? Me?
Worse: What if I did something wrong? The darkness I’d survived in those early newborn days, plus my unwillingness to be his full-time caregiver, even for a day, had convinced me that I meant well but was defective nonetheless. Surely I’d unwittingly scar my child for life; it was only a matter of time.
I marveled at my child’s sitters that they could do what they did day after day. I also pitied them.
People began asking us when we were going to have another before our first was even a year old. (It’s a tic; people literally cannot help themselves. “When are you going to try for another?” It just spills out of their mouths like surprise barf.) We laughed ruefully, the way only parents who grew up hating sleepovers and going home early, in tears, from sleepaway camp could laugh. More change? Us? We’ve had our fill, thank you very much. One child felt like more than enough of an intrusion to count, but not enough to truly affect our lives.
But emotions are weird. We started joking about having another. We’d look at early photos of our child, and my husband would yell, “Call the doctor! Time to get the IUD removed!” And then we dropped the joking part of it, and then I was pregnant again.
Unlike my first child, my second demanded to nurse immediately and didn’t stop for 36 hours, when my milk finally came in. He refused bottles and refused Dad. He wanted me and only me. The empty arms and me-time my first had allowed me now seemed like a revelation. “Wow, we had it easy,” we mused to each other, in the broken, watery way only parents of newborns can muse. How could I pump at work if this freak wouldn’t take a bottle? How could I leave him for nine hours a day when he hollered if I left him for nine minutes?
(Aside: Why do we as Americans expect mothers to leave their months-old babies in the hands of others under the threat of losing pay and/or their jobs? Have you ever seen a baby who is only a couple months old? Did you know they can’t make themselves a sandwich or, like, move all that well? Have you ever witnessed the boobs of a nursing mother when her baby is that young? They swell and leak and hurt and it’s all we think about — I might be listening to you prattle on about mergers, Jerry, but inside I’m thinking, Wow, it’s like I’ve got two hot coals lodged behind my nipples. Please, Jerry, release me from this meeting so I can pump in a windowless conference room while quietly crying and scrolling through Twitter! What on earth is wrong with us? And while I’m at it, evolution should have created lactating males by now, okay?)
We began agonizing over whether I’d go back to work. Me? Not work? Me??? But ultimately, that’s what we decided. My second-born demanded my presence, and paying for childcare would have eaten up almost my entire paycheck anyway. I would be a stay-at-home mom—me, she of no experience entertaining/teaching/nurturing children day after day. Jesus take the wheel.
Still, I kept my oldest at his nanny share. At first it was because I was exhausted. I could drop him off and take the baby back with me, and we could sleep most of the day, something I badly needed. But then it became about my old fears. I didn’t know what to do with my child. I didn’t know him the way I had convinced myself I did.
Or maybe I didn’t know myself, what I was capable of. Here I was forced into this new role as nursing mother, which kept me trapped in the exact way I’d dreaded. And it sucked! It did. But meanwhile, my new baby was teaching me to surrender to motherhood, a role I’d desperately wanted, but only, as it turned out, on the surface. As long as most of my life remained the same, being a mom was tolerable.
Now my life was entirely different. The nanny share ended, and I had to face the idea of centering my days on my two small boys. I was besieged again with that witchy, shrill chant: What will we do all day? At first, I overscheduled us. Grocery store trips, gym, toddler classes, militant nap times — every moment had to be filled, or else they’d get bored and…what? Turn on me? Brandish torches? Drive me into the basement to fulfill my destiny as a feral mother who eats her own fingernails?
Really, I just feared that they’d see who I really am. Flawed, hapless, desperate not to lose myself. If I made mistakes, they’d turn into serial killers or Republicans and I’d have only myself to blame.
Here’s the kicker: I make mistakes every day. Sometimes hourly. I have no idea how much screen time my boys get, because I use it as a babysitter. I bribe them with treats, and I curse and cry in front of them. I carry children and diaper bags and library books and snacks and sippy cups and groceries, sometimes all at once, from the car, back out to the car. I look at my phone while we’re at the park and one of them skins a knee and I feel terrible. I eat bowls and bowls of shit, and the next day I start all over again. Onward we trudge, my boys and I, a team. I’ve slowly adapted. We’ve adapted. Every evening, when my husband comes home, I feel like I’ve done it. We’ve survived, even if some days it feels like we’ve only barely made it.
And it turns out that letting your child witness your imperfections is a good thing. They should see how you handle making mistakes, that failure is an option. My boys watch me very closely, and I watch them try on my behavior, seeing if it fits. Sometimes, that means you hear them mutter, “Oh, great, I got the fuckin’ old maid,” as my five-year-old did the other night during our evening game time. But it also means they know how to apologize, try again, that anger and sadness are normal. They see that making mistakes is a fact of life, and through my time with them, I’ve learned to forgive myself for being a mess. It’s an important rite of passage for all of us to realize that there are no perfect people in this world, that moms have just as many hangups as the average superhero.
My kids like the bad guys better, anyway.