This is what I tell my nine month-old in the mornings now, when I’m giving him a breast milk addendum to his blueberry oatmeal and nuggets of scrambled egg. He’s easily distractible and pops off repeatedly to stare at the cat, or his dad, or the window, or the magic of his own hand. And now I ask him, “Are you sure you’re done? Because the girls are going to work.”
Yes, after three months of meandering routines and on-call milk from the tap, “the girls” and I are back at work, caught in the whirlwind of teaching and prepping and pumping and attending an absurd amount of meetings. And Michael is in full-swing stay-at-home-dad mode.
Part of me feels relieved. Summer comes with weighty expectations. You’re supposed to do fun! exciting! things that other people will find interesting, people who inevitably ask, after regaling you with tales about ice climbing in the Himalayas or spooning with dolphins in the Caribbean: “So, what did you do this summer?”
I hung out. I played with my baby and my nephews. Once, I thought briefly about going camping and had ambitious plans to take a road trip to a wedding, but neither of those relatively minor excursions panned out. I picked some berries. And I ignored the Internet for an extended period of time because the endless pictures of other people doing their fun! exciting! things was beginning to make me feel dissatisfied with my slow-going, home-bodied, berry-picking life.
Aside from unreasonably lofty expectations, summer also wreaks massive mayhem to any sense of routine, which, before I had a baby, was refreshing. Now? Not so much. As August dwindled, both Michael and I began to anticipate the return of some structure and consistency to our lives. Wide-open days become unwieldy after awhile.
So when the deserted campus was once again overrun with (mostly) eager students and colleagues, I felt and welcomed the electricity in the air that comes with a new school year. It felt good to inhabit my office, to be alone and have a task to anchor my mind. It felt good to lose myself in the unending possibilities of syllabi tweaking. It felt good to work.
But underneath this honeybee enthusiasm – deep in the sticky hive of my mother-mind – I felt something else: the steady drone of guilt.
Ugh. Guilt. I know it’s an inevitable part of mothering. This was recently illustrated to me a couple months ago when I swung Julian up to my shoulder a little too harshly, making him veer awkwardly and start to cry – obviously not anything serious, but I felt bad nonetheless and said as much. My mom, rather than reassuring me that this was no big deal, launched into a rather terrifying story about my brother almost drowning as a young boy because of (what she perceived to be) her negligence. She wasn’t chiding me; my expression of guilt had simply triggered her own reservoir of the stuff. I could palpably feel our mother-guilt pooling and undulating as we looked into each other’s haunted eyes, and I thought to myself, “This is motherhood. I will now feel guilty, about something or another, FOREVER.”
Some of the time, I am fine. Some of the time I tunnel headlong into whatever I’m doing at work and manage to stay focused. But then my milk lets down, and I think about my baby, about the reality of our physical separation. I check my phone to figure out whether I need to pump (in which case I spend the next 15-20 minutes marooned at my desk, lamely scrolling through Facebook with my left pinky) or whether Michael has time to bring Julian by for a nursing session.
This should be the ideal scenario, of course. I am lucky to have a job with the space, flexibility, and proximity to accommodate nursing, and I feel a surge of giddy joy whenever I see Michael and Julian appear in my office door. As soon as I know they’re en route, I watch the clock in anticipation and listen for Michael’s familiar plodding tread on the stairs.
But then, after Julian eats and crawls all over my office, pulling books off the shelves and eating paper from the recycling bin, they leave. They leave and the office feels empty, eerily quiet. I find myself wondering about how long Julian’s nap will be, and if he’ll wake up crying or not. I wonder if he misses me, if he thinks about the fact that I’m not there.
Tuesday was the hardest day this past week. On Tuesday, the wonderful flexibility of my job backfired. Michael brought Julian by for some milk, and as I watched my baby gleefully tear apart old copies of my maternity leave paperwork, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be there. Tuesday is a day I don’t teach, so I use the time to prep classes, grade, meet with students, write – all necessary parts of my job. But as soon as the thought presented itself – the thought that it was selfish of me to be in my office when it was possible to be at home – I couldn’t unthink it. I gave into the guilt, went home, and spent a frustrating and futile afternoon trying to work from there.
I’m sick of the should voice. The voice that tells me I should be working when I’m with my baby and that I should be with my baby when I’m working. I don’t know where this voice is coming from, but I can’t give it what it wants.
Of course — just processing out loud here — maybe this isn’t all about guilt. Maybe this is about me being territorial. Maybe part of me is threatened because Michael and Julian are honestly completely fine when I’m not there. Or maybe – I’m feeling an inner ding ding ding! as I write this – maybe I’m feeling guilty not simply because I’m missing out on time with my baby, but because I actually enjoy being at work.
On Tuesday, truth be told, I wanted to work. I wanted to stay in my office and power through and get some stuff done, but I felt compelled to be home, simply because that was in the realm of possibility, and I seem to have absorbed the cultural expectation that babies should be with their mothers 100% of the time. Given the choice between being with her baby and being at work, a good mother should want to be at home right? But I’m the bad mother who wanted to be at work.
So that’s where we are, the girls and I, stuck on the “damned if you do or don’t” merry-go-round. When I’m working, I feel like a bad mother – especially if I’m enjoying myself. And if I come home leaving a lengthy “TO DO” list smoldering on my desk, I feel like a bad professor.
We’re too hard on ourselves, we mothers. Remember that Time cover? “Are You Mom Enough?” Those editors knew exactly which button to push with that headline, exactly which wound to prod. I never feel like I’m mom enough. But who does? Who could possibly meet all the demands, all the steaming piles of should we heap on ourselves? I know it’s bogus, I do, but still, I keep shoveling.
And so, at the dawn of this new week, this new school year, I would like to raise a toast, to all you pump-weary, guilt-haunted, stretched-beyond-the-limit mamas. Despite what you may feel, you’re more than mom enough — say it with me now! — and the girls and I salute you.
[SIDE NOTE: I referred specifically to “mother-guilt” here, because I’m honestly not sure if men feel this same pressure to be constantly present to their children. Is the guilt a dad thing, too…?]
Just now, after spending about thirty minutes getting Julian to fall asleep for the night, I turned on the kettle to make some tea, sat down on the couch, and typed those two words.
Then, right on cue, as if he could sense that I was on the verge of productivity, Julian started crying, and I went back in to soothe him to sleep again.
What a perfect little microcosm of what my life is like at the moment. I’m all over the place. If writing happens at all, it happens in fragments between the napping and feeding and cleaning and folding and diapering and bathing and baby-entertaining.
This post, in fact, is emerging from the primordial ooze of notes that I tapped out one-handed on my iPhone in the dark with a half-asleep baby suctioned on one boob. That is what writing looks like for me these days. That is what life looks like.
My college roommate used to give me grief about being an “overachiever,” an accusation that rankled me at the time, but I’ve recently realized that she was totally right. She had me pegged. I’m an overachiever – a condition that is fundamentally at odds with the reality of parenthood.
I’ve been running myself into the ground the past few weeks, trying and mostly failing to do dozens of things at once — to be, simultaneously, a stellar mama/writer/wife/professor/blogger/homemaker. I’m in the throes of my second head cold in only two weeks. My left eyelid has been twitching for three days straight. I’m ragged.
Ergo, I’ve decided to make some changes. First, I’m going to train my hair to go several days between washes, so it will hopefully be less obvious when I don’t have time to shower. And, second: I’m going to become a mediocre blogger. On purpose.
By that I mean that I’m no longer going to painstakingly follow the 10 Commandments of Successful Blogging (of which there are only, actually, 5).
Commandments #1 and #2: Post 2-3 times a week. Post only on weekday mornings.*
(*Because apparently only weirdos like me do most of their online reading on nights and weekends.)
This is probably my one chance in life to be a despot, so I might as well take it. Instead of holding myself to a specific number of posts for week, or specific topics, I’m going to write whatever I want to write, whenever I feel like writing it.
I can’t post 2-3 times a week. Let’s be real. My life is too unpredictable and chaotic. And sometimes, when I actually get a baby-free, work-free moment, I don’t feel like writing. Instead, I might feel like watching British crime drama from the 90s, courtesy of Netflix. (Plots were so much more thrilling when no one had a cell phone and everyone had a terrible haircut.)
No blogging schedule for me. I want to write when inspired, and when I have the time and energy to craft something meaningful. I need to give myself permission to take breaks from the blog when I need to, when life demands it of me, without feeling guilty or panicked that my readership will suddenly disappear.
Commandment #3: Find your “niche” and stick with it.
Ugh, the dreaded niche.
If a wry mommy blog married an ambivalent feminist blog in a Quaker church with an irreverent priest officiating, and a scattering of academics and celebrity gossip columnists in attendance, this blog would be the strange progeny of that union.
I used to worry a lot about this niche thing. When I wrote about being a mama, I worried that I’d alienate my readers who aren’t parents. When I wrote about feminism, I’d worry that I’d alienate the mommy crowd. When I wrote about faith, I worried that I’d alienate the feminists. And so on.
So I guess my niche is not having a niche. My blog is all over the map, because I am all over the map. I don’t feel like I belong to any one camp. None of the labels quite fit. But you know what I’ve realized? That’s probably true for many of my readers. Here we are, wandering through life, never feeling like we quite belong anywhere, and the irony is that the people around us, the ones who seem so secure in their identities and tribal affiliations — well, they probably feel like misfits, too.
I am a misfit. This is a misfit blog. The misfit blog of a despot who will write about whatever she wants and post on a Sunday evening if she feels like it.
I might write about baby poop. I might write about sexism. I might write about how depressing it is to shop for a swimsuit after having a baby. I might write about how The Bachelor is weirdly like a modern retelling of the biblical book of Esther. I might write about how I used to love my cats, but now they mostly annoy me, because my house feels like it’s teeming with whiny creatures who NEED something from me ALL THE TIME.
This is Mama Unabridged, right? Time to un-abridge myself.
Commandment #4: Promote your blog on social media.
Bleccch. This is the worst rule. The most effective, I’ll admit, but also the most soul-killing. My relationship with social media is truly love/hate. I love that it enables me to connect with interesting people and ideas, but I hate that it makes me feel like I’m in junior high again, awakening long-dormant anxieties about popularity and appearance and achievements and being part of the “in” crowd.
I have a Facebook page for this blog, and I occasionally post interesting links or anecdotes on there, but I honestly don’t do much, because I don’t want to be annoying. I know the Blogging Commandments say I should be blowing up your newsfeed with awesomeness multiple times a day, but, well, I’m too busy trying to find time to drink the cup of coffee that I have now reheated NINE TIMES since this morning. So…
Twitter is the worst. Most of the time on Twitter, I feel like I’m talking to myself in a crowded restaurant. Sometimes Twitter is interesting and useful. Sometimes it just triggers my outsider complex, which is why it can be helpful to buffer my tweets. (If you don’t know what that means, buy yourself a congratulatory drink and vow NEVER TO FIND OUT – just rest assured it is not something dirty, even though it sounds vaguely like Scottish sexual harassment. “Come on, luv, let ol’ Seamus buffer your tweets…”)
Long story short: I’ll keep using social media, but in sporadic intervals, with regular Sabbaths in between. I’ll do cameos. I’ll be that unpredictable sitcom neighbor who might burst through the door at any time, make a few wisecracks, and then disappear again.
Commandment #5: Write well.
I’m going to break all the other rules, but this one I’ll just bend. Being a mediocre blogger doesn’t mean I can’t be a good writer. I’ll keep the goal of writing well, with the caveat that sometimes I won’t. Sometimes, like right now, I’m just going to write crap and then post it. There is no muse here. There is only mucus and toilet paper – because, yes, I’m one of those people who views actual Kleenex as an extravagance.
But, in all seriousness, this is the only rule I care about. What I love about blogging is that it keeps me writing regularly, and it enables me to connect, even momentarily, with all sorts of people who—for whatever reason—resonate with what I write. That’s pretty cool. So, I’ll try to write interesting things for you to read. And sometimes I’ll succeed.
And now I’m going to break one last commandment by refusing to end this post with anything inspiring or poignant. Instead, I’m just going to end with a video of my baby laughing because his dad is waving dirty socks in his face. You’re welcome.
My last post on “the mother wound” was hard to write. It was deeply heartfelt, but – let’s be honest – a little bit of a downer. I’m certainly glad I wrote it and that so many other parents, men and women, identified with what I described. (We’re in the trenches together, people!!!) That said, I’m feeling completely emotionally drained from simply existing through this past week, with its various horrors. Perhaps you can relate. So, today I’m keeping it simple and happy, folks. I’m going all Pollyanna on your ass.
Oh, and one more thing: to my readers who aren’t yet mothers but who might-be-sort-of-contemplating-going-down-that-road-one-day-maybe – I realize much of what I write involves exposing my worst parenting moments, which might be somewhat of a deterrent, so this post is dedicated to you:
A Few Things That Have Surprised Me About Motherhood (In a Good Way)
1. Poop Immunity
Right before sitting down to write this post, I was trying to put Julian down for the night. Just when he was teetering on the edge of deep sleep, he launched into a forceful, sustained grunt and proceeded to enthusiastically expel a geyser of poop that burst forth from his diaper and totally slimed his pajamas.
Non-mamas: this description probably grosses you out. But I have good news! If you’re anything like me, when it’s YOUR baby pooping, you won’t be grossed out at all. You will have poop immunity. Not only will you not be grossed out, you might actually acquire an academic interest in said poop. You might even feel a tiny thrill of curiosity when changing a diaper, a sense of anticipation not unlike what you feel on Christmas morning as you begin to unwrap the special package baby has laid for you and wonder: How much did he poop? What color will it be?
I have such powerful poop immunity that I actually like the process of washing his cloth diapers. Yes, this is totally weird. At least, I can understand how it might appear weird to others, but it seem perfectly natural to me. When it’s time to wash Julian’s diapers, I start filling the washer to let the soap dissolve and proceed to make neat piles of his dirty diapers on top of the lid. The poopy diapers get their own pile, so I can assess how much he’s pooping and inspect the color. Is it a bright soylent green? Or perhaps the ideal rich, mustardy-yellow with orange hues?
I realize that poop immunity may be compromised once Julian starts to eat solids, when his nice, frothy milk-poop will transform into run-of-the-mill gross human shit. But for the moment, it’s no big deal. So don’t worry too much about the poop thing.
[Note: poop immunity also includes pee, booger, ear wax, and drool immunity. Spit-up immunity may or may not be included, especially if it’s chunky.]
2. The Queen of “No”
Not surprisingly, I used to worry a lot about how being a mother would impact my career. To be perfectly honest, before having Julian, the epicenter of my life was work. I’d spend my bike ride home dissecting the workday in my mind, replaying class discussions and mentally assembling to-do lists. When I’d arrive home – nearly every time – I would try to open the back door with my office key. Clearly, I had a hard time not bringing work home with me. This is not to say that I did not have a rich and satisfying relationship with Michael – I did and do. But my thought life, my energy, and my identity were completely tangled up in my job. Probably to an unhealthy extent.
Because of this, I had a hard time setting boundaries with work; I said yes to pretty much everything and probably, frankly, cared a little too much about students’ and colleagues’ opinions of me.
Now, however, there has been a cosmic shift. Now, when I bike home, I pedal as fast as I can, anticipating that moment when I can walk through the door and see my husband cooking dinner while wearing a cute baby whose face lights up when he sees his mama. Now, I try to avoid bringing work home with me whenever possible, and I’ve become so adept at it that I’m constantly behind on grading.
And I’ve never said ‘no’ so much in my life! It’s glorious! Life-changing! And, because I’m pretty much always breastfeeding or pumping, I have an airtight excuse. A guilt-free ‘no’ is a beautiful thing.
Ultimately, having a baby has shuffled my priorities in a way that is healthier for me. Even though I am busier than I’ve ever been, I actually feel like I have some balance in my life and that my roots are where they should be: with my people.
2. My Muse is Back
Writing is my first love. Writing is in my bones. But going through the process of researching and writing a PhD dissertation pitched me into a creative wasteland for years. I forgot what it was like to feel inspired, to feel aflame with words and have to scramble to catch them before they turn to ash.
But just a few weeks after having Julian, I felt that spark again; I felt ignited. And — SPOILER — I started a blog. I am now writing more than I have in years. More than that: I have rediscovered the joy of writing for myself again, not for grades or for a degree or for tenure. Just according to my own selfish whims. And it feels GOOD.
I’m not saying becoming a mother will make you a writer, but it might unlock something inside you, some creative force that’s lying dormant. Motherhood is such a many-colored, monstrous, magnificent thing – you are continually rocked and dazzled by cataclysmic surges of joy and fear and hope. And all that tumult needs an outlet. For me, it’s writing.
4. I Love My Body. (Seriously.)
I worried about the body thing. Sure. I worried about getting fat and having saggy boobs and a little pooch that would force me to wear “Mom Jeans.” But to be perfectly honest, I feel more at home in my own skin now than I ever have. Or since puberty, anyway.
A few months ago, I wrote about wanting to embrace my post-baby body:
“I had worried, prior to giving birth, about what my body would look like afterwards, and contemplated the maneuvers I could take to erase all physical traces of pregnancy and childbirth – but now that feels wrong, like a betrayal. My abdomen is doughy because it grew and housed my son, keeping him warm and cushioned in his water world. Scrambling to maintain the illusion that life does not etch itself into our cells and skin – this seems not only futile but disrespectful to me now.
In reality, I will never “get my body back.” Maybe I’ll get back into those beloved jeans, maybe I won’t, but either way, my body will remain permanently marked, physically and emotionally, by motherhood. And I want to love this incredible, life-giving flesh I inhabit – even the pillowy bits. I want to love it whole.”
Weirdly enough, I’ve managed to cultivate a pretty consistent feeling of affection and respect toward my body, even though I haven’t gotten back into running, or into my favorite pair of pre-pregnancy jeans. My hips are wider. My breasts hang low with milk. My stomach peeks over the edge of my pants. But every night, and several times throughout the day, I get to curl up next to my baby while he wriggles against me for a drink of my milk. In that moment I am filled with gratitude for this body, for its incredible, life-sustaining machinations, and for the nerves that fire up my skin so I can feel his glowing warmth and the roving touch of his inquisitive limbs. In those moments, I can’t help but think: This is why I have a body. This is the texture of bliss.
* * *
There are terrifying aspects of motherhood, absolutely. There are moments of despair and paralysis and UTTER BOREDOM. But woven through those moments is joy like I’ve never known. A rich, mustardy-yellow kind of joy, with orange hues.