The writer spent her life working with children, and longing for her own. So when she finally did become a mother, she was shocked by how uneasy she felt.
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When I was 34 and seven weeks pregnant, my partner and I traveled to visit a friend, her husband, and their two kids. We didn’t tell them about the pregnancy—having just had a miscarriage a few months earlier, I didn’t want to say a word to anyone until I, hopefully, made it to the second trimester. But spending time with the kids, especially 4-year-old Cassidy, I carried the sweet secret that soon I might have a child of my own.
I read to Cassidy; I listened to her stories; I admired the toys and dress-up clothes she showed off. She insisted on sitting next to me when we went out to eat, and I happily obliged. It was clear that she adored my attention, and I basked in the pleasure of sharing her 4-year-old world for a few days, of being more in demand than her own mom. Several weeks after my partner and I returned home, Cassidy’s mother wrote to say that I’d appeared in Cassidy’s dream and she’d woken up in tears, missing me.
As a shy, lonely teenager, I was perhaps most at ease with the children I babysat. I loved being invited into their imaginative play and responding to their unfiltered emotions, offering encouragement or consolation as needed. I was terrible at sports, but I could play catch in the backyard. I couldn’t draw anything beyond a stick figure, but I could sit and color alongside a small child. Babysitting made me feel competent: mature, calm, friendly, even cool. I knew how to listen, and I knew what to say. At school, among my peers, I slipped through the noisy halls feeling awkward and unnoticed. When I walked into someone else’s house as the babysitter, I was welcomed, taken by the hand, made to feel at home.
Mostly, I took care of preschool- and elementary-aged children, but there were a few babies too, and I remember that it was delightful to go into their rooms when they stirred after napping and see them stop crying when I lifted them into my arms. Unable to narrate the details of their world, infants weren’t as compelling as the older kids, but I found a certain solidarity in the silent gaze of a baby. Like me, he was paying close attention, yet he kept quiet, watching and waiting for his time to come.
Seven months after I’d gotten to know Cassidy, I gave birth to my daughter. Now my partner and I had a child of our own—the girlhood dream I’d been afraid might never happen for me—and I was miserable. I sat on the bed with my baby and wept. I listlessly pushed her stroller around the neighborhood, a pointless errand, since the only place we were headed was back home.
It’s hard to say how much my despair stemmed from hormonally related postpartum depression; or the pain I felt with breastfeeding; or lack of sleep; or the fact that, though I was 35, it seemed I’d just begun my career and now I had a kid to juggle too; or the disconnect between my experience and cultural expectations surrounding becoming a mom: that it’s inevitably a blissful (if busy) time, defined by the overriding swoon of falling in love with your baby.
Motherhood didn’t seem to evoke in me any of the qualities I’d found so satisfying about taking care of other people’s children. I didn’t feel competent and calm; I felt overwhelmed, unprepared, impatient. Identifying myself as a person who got along well with kids, who liked them and knew how to relate to them, had given me a certain kind of confidence. Confronting my new status as mother filled me with doubts, with dread.
Motherhood was constant—not an occasional job, an engagement to mark on my calendar. It wasn’t an entertaining play in which I had a cameo role. The parents were never coming home to thank me for my services, slick my palm with bills that I would bashfully acknowledge. We were the parents: not thanked; not paid; not sent out into the vast starry night. I’d thought having my own child would be amazing, and it was, sometimes, in the way it sometimes feels amazing to be alive—if you’re not otherwise focused on it being frustrating, disappointing, tedious, difficult, draining.
Also, I’d changed. The more I’d become a part of the adult world—the world I had feared I would never fit into—the more it felt like my place, my people. I wanted to be fully involved: working, writing, talking to old friends and making new ones. I no longer defined myself as someone who was good with kids when there seemed to be a whole bunch of people much better at it than I was, including many of my daughter’s teachers and babysitters, and a lot of other moms I knew. Nor did I want to position myself, at least not primarily, as a good mother. I wanted to be someone who had chosen to be a mother in addition to all the other things I was.
After my second daughter was born, it was easier in many ways than it had been three years earlier, the first time around. The shock had lessened. My anxiety about how to do all the things that needed doing wasn’t quite as acute. The best part was that my 3-year-old daughter was thrilled by her new role as big sister, and when I felt low, I relied on her example. For her, it was pure joy to see the baby, help with the baby, try to amuse the baby. When she focused her attention on her sister, she did so with utter enthusiasm and pride. And when she was on to different interests and activities, she left the baby to the care of others without a second thought.
Recently, a young mother I know told me that she’s now working full-time and has a nanny for her 2-year-old son. “It’s going okay, but I miss him,” she said, her sweet face full of maternal angst. I nodded sympathetically, but honestly, I couldn’t relate. For years now I’ve been spending whole days away from my children—leaving them with their father, caregivers, and teachers. Sometimes they’re too preoccupied to notice my imminent departure; sometimes, they’re even eager for it. “When are you going to leave?” my older daughter asked once, crouched happily next to the babysitter, while her dad and I were taking too long to get out the door.
Many times, though, they’ve gripped me so tight I’ve had to pry their fingers away from my neck. They’ve cried, watched me from the window with mournful faces, attempted to run out after me. I’ll admit that this woeful demonstration hurts my heart a little, but here is my guilty secret that I refuse to feel guilty about: I don’t feel bad when I drive away.
I know my children will be fine; in fact, I believe they will be better off for their encounters with other loving and lively caretakers. I know I will be better off for the uninterrupted hours of investing my energies elsewhere. Too often, it seems to me, the mother-child bond is valorized in a way that reduces women who are mothers of young children to a state of self-sacrifice. Too often, mothers are expected to be everything to their children at the cost of limiting women’s opportunities and identities. I want my children to see me as a full person, and I want to help them on their path to becoming their own independent selves. And I don’t want us to take each other for granted.
Sometimes, peering at my daughters in the rearview mirror as they tell me about their day, or sitting on the couch—as instructed—to witness an impromptu performance, I imagine that I am just now getting to know them. Rather than having spent time with these two almost every single day since I gave birth to them, I’m just now entering the scene. Their babysitter, let’s say.
What charming people they are, I think. So bright, so funny, so self-possessed. I would like to keep going with this gig. I hope, when I come by again, they’ll be happy to see me. I hope their mother will keep asking me back.
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