I go back to work this coming Monday, and no one would be more surprised than the me of three months ago to learn that I HAVE MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT IT.
On the one hand, my movements and (part of?) my mind will less tethered. On the other, Per is curiouser and curiouser, as free with smiles as he is stentorian stares, and easily amused by the smallest things, many of them on his person. Not to mention that we’ve finally developed a rhythm, the bald man and I, that is almost predictable — a far cry from that first day home alone with him, where, feeling daunted by the hours before me, and also, vulnerable bordering on pathetic about the state of my calendar (read: empty) (because a full Outlook calendar is a sign of a life well-lived, HA), I wrote out a list of things to get done, and how much time I was to spend doing each of them. The list was something for me to pin my psyche to, and, if the checkmarks are to be believed, I obeyed about two thirds of it, though the schedule I’d begun to lay out (“8:30 – 9:30 – work on Blunderbuss,” “11:00 – 12:00 – yoga”), was quickly scribbled over, in childish loops that belied my helplessness. In the end, “yoga” was scratched out altogether, and replaced by “run,” and I remember that my husband arrived home to me already in my running clothes, wild-eyed and fairly twitching from the need to burst from the apartment.
By the 24th of January, the lists revolved solely around writing, and had lost their time buckets. By March, they were weekly, and I’d stopped feeling the need to check items off. Based on this textual evidence alone, I’d say, then, that it took me about two months to get into the swing of maternity leave. And what does this swing comprise of? How have I filled my days? Let me count the ways, all seven of them.
I write during Per’s nap times, just as I’d hoped. By stacking forty five and sixty and even the odd ninety minutes together, I’ve written more this winterspring than I normally do in a year: the better part of a first draft, a short story (which came harder than the draft, let me tell you), an essay for Man Repeller, and this blog of course. I haven’t figured out its gist yet, but I’ve gotten in the habit of updating it. Sometimes, it’s nice to write what you know; at any rate, it’s a nice break from writing what you don’t.
I grew up eating truly wonderful dinners, courtesy of my mother, a naturally gifted cook with masterful technique to boot (as a college student, she staged at what was then the best, and fanciest restaurant in Boston (granted, there was not a whole lot of competition)). On any given Monday, we might eat osso buco, with little spoons for the precious marrow, or a stew of mussels and fennel, heady with ginger, or orecchiette with massive amounts of cream and parmesan and sundried tomato and studs of prosciutto, or leg of lamb with its small, emerald pot of mint jelly. Which is to say that from an early age, I knew good food, and yet, as an adult, I rarely bothered making any. Sure, I could produce reasonably successful dishes for dinner parties and the occasional sleepy Sunday, but most of the time, I’d make something akin to the (currently? still?) trendy “grain bowl,” while my husband ate sheaves of pasta, with olive oil and garlic salt. After Per was born, though, I began to cook dinners in earnest, several times a week. Cooking is a much welcomed gear shift after a day of nursing and writing and placing various brightly-colored stuffed animals within my son’s line of sight, relaxing but also productive. For recipes, I most often turn to New York Times and Bon Appetit — the former’s tend to use ingredients that are easy, in this city, to come by, and have truly helpful comment sections, while the latter’s alway up my sauce/dressing game. Four months in, I have a boatload of new recipes, but, much more importantly, I have the techniques and flavor building blocks that allow me to go off recipe, successfully. For instance, tahini just LOVES being whirred up with miso, salmon digs a quick sear followed by a low, slow roast, sumac can be subbed, exuberantly, for lemon, and a little bit of mashed anchovy or black garlic will add funky — but not too funky — depth to the most basic pasta dish.
[The above two mat leave facets aren’t to pat myself on the back, by the way. This is not a “nevertheless, she persisted.” It’s just to say that, provided you have a healthy baby, just one, who naps, it’s still possible to carve out time for yourself, and use it how you please, provided your pleasure can be found within the confines of your home.]
On that note, I will now do the opposite of a back-pat and tell you that I have never spent so much time on my damn phone as I have these months at home, breastfeeding. The thing to do is not have my phone anywhere near where I’m feeding or I WILL check Instagram or read articles that do not spark joy, or imagination, or anything other than vague boredom, but are easily digestible. Refinery 29’s Money Diaries, for example. The idea of them appeals to me — so voyeuristic! — but the reality is rarely worth note, IMHO. Yet I’ve read, oh, fifty of them by now. This despite having the Kindle app, which is always stocked with at least one new read (generally something that falls into the good-but-not-necessary-for-the-shelf category, though occasionally I find I’ve categorized incorrectly and end up buying the paper version as well). So yes, the thing to do: put the phone in another room, and delete Instagram every few days, and disable its notifications. I’ve also started doing unwired Sundays. It started with phone-free Sundays, but I ended up spending the equivalent time on my computer, so I ditched that too. Very doable, especially when the weather’s nice. (Which it is, like, 7% of the time.)
Aaand we’re back in the is-this-or-isn’t-it-a-back-pat vein! But, seriously, after Per was born, exercising went from being something I half wanted to do, half made myself do, to being something I needed to do. I’ve touched on this here, but when I run, I don’t really think about anything else, and I need those pockets of non-thought. On the days I don’t run, I’ll swim, if I can manage to get up early enough, or I’ll go on long walks with Per in his carrier (no zoning out there, but it’s great fun to experience someone else taking in with amazement what is so ordinary to you. Makes it un-ordinary, in fact.)
I can’t believe I’ve gotten this far without mentioning one of the stars of my maternity leave: guilt. “Your life is not your own once you have a child,” people will tell you (oh, will they tell you). While I generally manage to insert “completely” before “own” and carry on (as the above time-fillers attest), it’s rare I do so without a fair amount of guilt. Right now, for example, Per is busily exploring the cavern of his mouth with as many fingers as he can manage, in tandem with exercising his vocal cords, so that at times he sounds like a lion, at others, like a beatboxer. Ought I to be providing him with a more stimulating activity? Or, rather, an activity that requires my participation? Examining our reflections in the bathroom mirror, say, or turning the pages of The Year at Maple Hill Farm, and wondering why that farm’s spring appears to last so much longer than ours, despite their being in Minnesota? At the very least, oughtn’t I to be reading these words aloud, to enrich his latent vocabulary?
What was it that Emily Dickinson said, of hope? That it is the thing with feathers, fluttering and asking for naught? Well, guilt is the thing with tendrils, and they reach into everything.
(Mostly) Ignoring Advice:
Goodness, I get a lot of parenting advice, most of it unbidden, often in the form of passive observation or anecdote. My mother has an suspiciously high number of acquaintances whose babies died or were injured from seemingly innocent devices, to say nothing of those babies made fussy or hyper by their mothers’ diets. Another relative, who is otherwise quite sane, admonished me recently that pediatricians are morons, to be endured but not trusted.
Most of the time, I oohed and ahhed over the advice during the giving, and then immediately tossed it. (I mean, “pediatricians are morons?!?!”) That said, I did come across one piece of advice that has SAVED MY SANITY and is generally applicable enough for me to pass on, so here it is: during the day, pay attention to how long your baby has been awake, and use that as both a rough scheduler and a diagnostic. Eg, at just shy of four months, Per should be awake for two hours at the very longest. If he’s fussy a half hour or an hour after he wakes, he’s probably hungry, otherwise, he’s probably tired, and can be put down again. Very simple and also effective!
Hanging Out with Other New Parents (and Drinking All Their Beer)
One of my coworkers had her baby twenty minutes before I did. Another had hers seven weeks before. Together, we’ve formed a little bkmomsquad and, when the dads join, a bkparentsquad, and it is just so nice to have friends who are going through very similar BIG HUGE LIFE CHANGES. Sometimes we’ll do group outings, but most of the time we’ll just meet at someone’s apartment so the babies can be little hellions to their hearts’ content. There have been a few epic hangovers, and all of them were worth it.
This final facet is more difficult for me to write about publically. It is so specific, for one thing, and also, delicate. You can cup a butterfly in your hands, but you’d better have big hands (or a small butterfly). What I’ll say is that much more instinctual than I expected, and easier. Even those first few weeks — well, they were a blur, mostly, but what I recall of them is a hushed sort of contentment. It was very cold and grey outside our apartment, but inside, it was warm, and the lamps were always on, and there was music, my husband’s country playlists, or the one I made for Per.
Activity-wise, there wasn’t such a difference between night and day, but the mornings felt especially hopeful. My husband would make coffee and I would nurse Per and read about Laura Ingalls Wilder or the visiting dead and then I’d venture out with the dogs, and when I’d stomp back in, the wonderment would hit anew. Also, it would be time again to nurse.
I think maybe there’s a reason for the tiny eat-sleep cycles, in the beginning, beyond the baby’s survival: when you’re really busy and really tired, you don’t have time to dwell in the enormity of what’s just happened. I didn’t, anyhow. I did, though, have time to be frightened, and those first few weeks, I often was. And still am, for that matter, though the flashes are shorter, and easier to shake.
Anyways, as I mentioned, the first few weeks were a blur, but I did make sure to write observations down, every couple of days or so. I still do. The writing is scatter-brained, but no matter; the notes document those all-important whens, and more than that, they’re a mnemonic that triggers full-bodied memories, rather than the countries in Africa. Here are some excerpts, in chronological order.
- Day 1: You are the most beautiful being I’ve ever seen, especially when you’re sleeping, and more when you’re awake.
- Day 3: Vis à vis motherhood, my confidence in my abilities changes by the minute. And not in a positive linear (or exponential, hah) kind of way, but in jagged peaks and plunges.
- Day 12: You have dozens of expressions. Many are some riff on consternation or skepticism–brows furrowed or lifted, mouth set or purses. In my favorite of the shut-eyed subset, your face is serene and your mouth forms perfect o’s, like you are gently tasting the air. All of your open-eyed expressions are my favorite.
- Day 15: Yesterday you gave my bicep a hickey.
- Day 19: …this afternoon, you burst out of your chrysalis with such vigor that I wonder (fear) we won’t be able to stitch it back up tonight. Metaphors aside you’ve been up all afternoon, and baby, you bore easily.
- Day 21: You are three weeks old today. You still have chicken legs but your 0-3 kimonos barely snap.
- Day 31: You take up more space, now. Not just physically–there is also the sense of another human in the room, with interests and opinions, rather than a particularly delicate houseplant.
- Day 36: So yesterday, I think — I think! — you smiled.
- Day 42: …you’ve added a new expression to your phalanx of frowns and single smile: shock, which comes at bath time, when we lower you into the tub. Your eyes go circular and you gasp and clench your fists and I ought not to laugh but I do.
- Day 47: You are growing like a weed, and also like a mushroom, unfurling and extending and burgeoning. You lift not just your neck but your upper body off the floor, and you’ve discovered your fists fit nicely in your mouth. You babble contentedly on the changing tray, and smile multiple times a day, and last night, when I left you too long in your bouncer, you discovered your lungs had additional decibels.
- Day 59: Sometimes, you are so stunned by what you see you become afraid, but still you keep looking.
- Day 67: You open your mouth like your avian namesake, hellbent on inhaling the world. Then snap it shut and smile, delighted.
- Day 73: You’ve discovered a new way of staving off nap time: smiling around the pacifier as I attempt to slot it in your mouth.
- Day 76: I don’t want to jinx it but…the past two nights you’ve slept eight hours straight, in your little room.
- Day 78: You like to eat but I guess you’ve discovered there are other things worth doing. Among them, standing up in my lap with your arm around my shoulder, bobbing your wonder at the contents of our apartment.
- Day 82: Your father thinks you laughed, or tried to. Based on your smiles and constant vocals, I believe it.
- Day 92: You can now stay awake on short walks; you suck in the trees and brownstones and ice cream air, though sometimes the last blows fiercely and surprises you.
- Day 101: Every day you come more and more alive. On my lap, you stand and push against my legs; you babble insistently; you grab at rings and your big stuffed pig and your crinkle paper; you smile at faces from farther and farther away. You are getting closer to being able to sit independently—right now you eventually sag forward, but you do so slowly. Soon we shall sit face to face and talk of our days.
- :Day 112: I didn’t realize until we woke up our first morning in Mendocino and walked you along the roads how grey your palette had been, previously. Grey and dun and brown with only tiny strates of pale green. But Mendocino was riotously emerald, grass and redwood branches and moss and you sucked it up, the green and the blooming fruit trees and flower bowers. The sea was blue-green but you slept when we brought you to its edge, and a good thing as the wind would have shocked you.
- Day 114: Your hair is coming in — a blonde fuzz, as to be expected. And your eyes grow ever bluer. They are almond-shaped, not the Loeck marbles. Your nose is still snub; your lashes are still long and dark and lush. Your cheeks puff, especially when you stare down at me from your wobbly stand on my stomach. You growl and choke around your fingers, happily.
So there you have it. How I learned to stop worrying and love maternity leave. Monday, everything will change, though I don’t yet know how. And so I find myself in another liminal state, only now I have two sureties, two weights, two hearts to carry (i carry them in my heart).