I know that there’s nothing to be gained by comparing myself to someone else, especially where mothering is concerned. But there’s a new mom in town who is just so damn happy about the whole business that I can’t seem to help myself.
Like most first-time moms, Happy New Mom has fully immersed herself in all things baby, but with a confidence I’m not sure I ever had. I can still vividly remember the feelings of fear and failure that dominated my first days (ok, months. FINE, years.) with my oldest. Diaper changing, feeding, bathing, soothing, swaddling … when my colicky baby presented me with the opportunity to meet his basic needs, he also presented me with the opportunity to freak out. And I took it. Every time. But not Happy New Mom; it all comes so naturally to her.
I watch her as she clutches her baby to her chest, and her smile spreads from ear to ear; her joy is palpable. Meanwhile, I’ve perfected the art of hiding from my children. It’s a powerful combination of providing television and individual cups of dry cereal, followed by my very slow and very silent retreat to the other room. (That’s some hard-won Mom Wisdom right there. You’re welcome.) When they do find me, approaching with arms outstretched like an army of tiny zombies, I try to demur, citing a lower back that has been crying out for mercy for the past month.
I watch Happy New Mom settling her baby, just so, into a darling pink stroller, doing laps around the house when the weather is too bad to go outside. Down the hallway, past the staircase, through the play room, skirting the kitchen, around and around, tireless, her baby content with the simple routine. Meanwhile, I assemble mountains of toys and activities for my children, but no matter what I do I’m met with the same response: “We’re bored! Can we watch a movie?” And for some reason, this feels like a reflection on me. Sure, kids, let me just grab the cereal.
I watch Happy New Mom as she rocks her baby before bed, sharing a story (or two! Or three! Or four!) while feeding a bottle, tenderly shushing and patting, and finally snuggling into bed with baby wrapped in her arms. Oh yes, they co-sleep. Of course they do. Meanwhile, I’ve invested significant time and effort into keeping my children out of my bed at night. I start by pretending not to hear their cries exploding through the monitor while I gently nudge (swiftly kick) my husband to attention. I’ve been known to hiss “We don’t negotiate with terrorists!” when night waking becomes too much for me. And I religiously lock (and bolt, and chain) our door … just in case.
So, who is this Happy New Mom, you ask?
She is my two-year-old daughter, Macey. And the tender loving care she gives to her new plastic baby is giving me a complex.
Mothering did not come naturally to me. Heck, it’s not natural to me now. Six years in, this lack of mastery is something that I’ve made peace with. But I’ve become a bit … sensitive … about it lately.
See, I’ve spent most of the past six years in limbo, treading water as we decide where our family is going, waiting for the right time to make plans for the next stage of my life: the stage where I’m not home with my kids full time. With so many factors to consider - Would we have another baby? Would my husband get that promotion? Wouldn’t it be easiest for our children if I stay home until they all go to school full time? - I rarely thought about what I needed. I guess I thought that I needed to be ready for whatever everyone else needed, and that we’d get to me eventually.
But after another long, sick, isolated winter, it became clear that waiting to see what we were going to do next wasn’t working for me. So I applied to graduate school and was accepted to the program of my choice this spring, about three years ahead of schedule. I started school this fall, and I’ll be working full time in two short years.
I’m thrilled! This is what I’ve dreamed about forever! It’s the first step in the next stage of our lives!
It doesn’t feel the way I thought it would. I thought I would feel excited, joyful, and triumphant, finally free from everyone else’s needs and from a role that never seemed like a good fit anyway; instead, I feel a nagging discomfort that’s hard to pin down.
I feel it when we interview nannies, and the sweet girl in front of me says that it’s her calling to take care of young children. Bless it, I think, it’s not mine. I feel it when my son’s preschool teacher suggests some simple routines to help my children curb their naughty behavior, and I burst into tears. Because I’ve been trying — and failing — to implement these very same routines for the past six years. I feel it when, completely drained at the end of a long weekend at home with the kids, I think to myself I can’t wait to go back to school tomorrow! And — apparently — I feel it when I see my two-year-old daughter tirelessly, lovingly, tenderly care for her plastic baby.
I thought it would feel like I’m moving forward, and I know that I am. But I can’t stop thinking about the thing I’ve left behind. And no matter how many times I remind myself that I’m raising my banner in victory, in celebration for a difficult job well done, I look out of the corner of my eye and all I see the white flag of defeat.
Some women thrive in the role of taking care of small children full time, and that is a beautiful thing. I wish I was one of them. I’m not. And deep down, I know that that is okay. But right now, in this time of transition, it doesn’t feel okay. Instead of embracing what I’m becoming, I feel like I’m admitting that I’m not who I tried so hard to be. And, as so often is the case with parenting, there’s not much I can do but sit in the discomfort of this stage, trusting that everything will feel different with enough time and distance.
And until then … maybe I can hide that damn plastic baby.
Guest post written by Andrea Burkly. Andrea is a career woman turned stay-at-home-mother turned full-time-graduate-student. Before she spent all of her time writing papers on psychoanalytic theory, she wrote lots of essays on motherhood which you can find on her blog, The Me in Motherhood. She was part of the cast of Listen to your Mother in Chicago in 2014 and 2016, and her work has been featured previously on Coffee + Crumbs. Much to her surprise, she currently lives about two miles from where she grew up in the suburbs of Chicago with her amazing husband, two wild boys and one darling daughter, and a dog the vet appropriately deemed “very strange” during his last annual checkup.
Photo by Emily Gnetz.