My younger sister had a baby this week: a beautiful, healthy, baby girl with fuzzy hair. At our house, Margeaux is the baby, but holding my niece, I was struck immediately by two thoughts:
- Margeaux is enormous.
- I WANT A BABY.
Neither of these is exactly true, although Margeaux does have deliciously chunky baby thighs and a round tummy. Snuggling Paige, I felt a mix of longing and sadness and relief, that I won’t have those newborn moments again.
I don’t miss the sleepless nights, obviously. That kind of physical fatigue is awful, deadening. At our house, it inevitably led to middle of the night shouting matches; when Dorothy was a baby we had to institute a rule that anything we said to one another between midnight and 6 am didn’t require an apology in the morning. We recognized that when 3 am rolls around and it seems like you have been awake forever and it will be dark forever and this night will never end and this baby will never stop crying it is possible that you will shout something like “You will never understand how I feel right now! She’s not latched on to your body 24 hours a day! IT’S LIKE YOU DON’T EVEN HAVE A BABY!”
I don’t miss the physical fatigue. Although Margeuax doesn’t sleep through the night, nursing and cosleeping have been a tremendous relief for me. I’m sure in an alternate universe where I have no children I would be even more well rested, but mostly, I feel okay. I am certainly not stumbling around in an exhausted haze the way I remember doing in those first few weeks. These days, I struggle with a different kind of fatigue. There’s no longer a 24 hour per day demand for my physical presence, but the intensity of their waking hours some days leaves me similarly deadened.
Partly this is because they are too little to have much independence: someone has to make (and clean up) the meals and the snacks, turn on another episode of Dora, get the crayons off the counter, find the stickers, remind them not to run willy nilly in the parking lot, snap the princess dress up dress in the back, tie the ribbon leash on the stuffed giraffe, resolve the dispute over the iguana puppet. I have heard parents say that you shouldn’t get involved, that they need to practice solving their own problems and that conflict will bubble up and blow over whether or not you intervene. Apparently those people’s children are destined to be brokering Mid-East peace treaties while mine are ruling tiny nations as benevolent dictators. My girls fight hard, and they don’t back down.
To be clear: they don’t fight or bicker constantly. They love to play together, and most of their day is spent in a swirl of pretending. “I’m the mama and you are the sweetie,” Dorothy will say, and then they put on hats and drive the laundry basket to the grocery store. Or they are vets taking care of sick animals, bandaging stuffed animal ears and legs with ribbons. Or they are teachers, or pilots, or explorers, or doctors, or princesses, or ballerinas, or some strange combination of the two. Bathing suit, tutu, and a toy stethoscope? Ballerina doctor. Sparkly dress, sun hat, and backpack? Explorer princess.
The fights spring up out of nowhere: one minute they are happily playing fairy princess school and the next minute they are sobbing and screaming and occasionally even hitting or pushing. I NEED THE GIRAFFE AND SHE HAS THE GIRAFFE AND I AM THE GIRAFFE DOCTOR AND SHE CANT BE THE GIRAFFE DOCTOR GIVE ME THE GIRAFFE NOW NOW NOW! Or this gem from a couple days ago: I PUT MY MAGIC ON THE LADDER AND SHE TOUCHED THE LADDER AND MY MAGIC GOT ON HER AND I AM OUT OF MAGIC AND ITS NOT FAIR!
The sharing disputes are fairly easy to resolve: set a timer, accept that there might continue to be tears until someone loses interest. But ladder magic?
The emotions, the needs, the desires are so intense these days. When they are happy they are overjoyed and when they are sad the world is ending and when they are angry they fling themselves at one another or the floor full force. I’m realizing more and more that my parenting energy is spent helping them learn to manage the tides of their emotions: yes, you are sad that the balloon deflated, let’s acknowledge that and then shift our focus to something that makes you feel happy, like drawig a picture of the balloon. Yes, you are angry, let’s work together to solve this problem. Use your words to say how you feel, ask for help from a grown up, think about how the other person feels too. Can I use my mama magic to refill your magic?
None of this work seems like it should be exhausting, not in the way that actually going without sleep is exhausting. But at the end of the day, when they are finally tucked in, the relief is tremendous, and the desire to check out mentally with a cocktail and tv is fierce. During their waking hours, I feel held open, spreading myself wide to shelter them, trying to be chef and nurse and peacemaker and traffic cop and chauffeur and teacher and maid and cruise ship activities director, trying to make sure they are whole and healthy and safe and joyful. It’s not that they need me every minute, it’s that the moment of need could be any moment, so I can never really be present or focused on anything else. I am always waiting, listening, watching out of the corner of my eye for tears or danger. By the time bedtime comes and everyone is safe in dreamland, I have so little left. It’s hard to find the energy to be really present in conversation with T, or to focus on a book, or writing, or anything that requires more thought than rum punch and Dancing With the Stars.
Last night at my book club (wine club) a friend whose sons are in high school and college pointed out that although they need you less as they get older, the worries you have are so much bigger. What if they are in a car accident, what if they lose the scholarship, what if they make terrible decisions about drinking or drugs? Thinking about the scope of those fears, I felt grateful for the fights over ladder magic and the pink My Little Pony.
Holding my niece at the hospital, I felt keenly aware of how quickly time passes, how quickly they grow to be chubby crawling babies like Margeaux and then explorer princess doctors like D and Lucy. How can it all happen so fast when the days themselves feel so endless? How can I be more present for them and for me, not caught up in nostalgia for baby days or impatient for the next milestone? Would these issues seem less fraught if I worked less, or more, or if we all went on an epic road trip?
I’d like to spend another hour writing, thinking, but Lucy’s sitting at the other end of the couch drinking chocolate milk, and T is patiently emptying the dishwasher, and it looks like it might be a good morning for a bike ride. Time to pour the next cup of coffee and gather my strength.