Tag Archives: marriage

Having a Baby as a Life Organizing Strategy

A miracle occurred in my house on Sunday: my two year old slept all night, by herself, in her bed. For the first time in her life.

Finally, she sleeps!

I’ve written about my children’s terrible sleep before, so this bears repeating: my twenty-seven month old daughter slept through the night for the first time last night. I remember that it was also April when my older daughter started sleeping through the night, too: something about the spring after turning two must flip a switch in the brains of my children that says, “Hey – sleep is grand. Let’s do it some more.”

This means I slept through the night, too! For the first time! In over four years! I woke up at 5 am and could tell that it was way later than I typically got to sleep before being called back to the kids’ room. I squinted at the clock to bring the numbers in focus and couldn’t quite believe it. Then I fretted in bed for thirty minutes, assuming that she had not woken up because ya know, she was probably dead. 

It’s funny: co-sleeping is so often characterized as reckless endangerment of a child, but to me it offered ironclad knowledge that my kid hadn’t suffocated. I felt like a neglectful Mom when I woke up the next morning, having slept all night in luxury and not made sure my child was alive once. But she was alive! And I missed her little body in that moment, her snuggly ways and how she always jams her feet under my side. I know she will probably continue to wake up sometimes (like, ya know, the very next night), but I also expect that, like her sister, this will be the start of her kid years. She’s not a baby. She’s almost not even a toddler. She’s almost a kid. I’m almost to a place where I might sleep, all night, in a bed, maybe even with my husband (if he doesn’t snore).

So it might surprise you (it certainly surprises me) that I’ve been thinking a lot about whether or not I want to have another baby. Not only did my youngest child do something that tells me she’s not so little anymore, but it’s my breeding time of year. I got pregnant with Robin in June, and Holly was accidentally conceived during a post-finals week high in May two years later. My body is telling me it’s time to get back on that horse: my body really, really thinks it would be a good idea to get pregnant yesterday.

My heart also kinda wants a baby: I love newborns, I love fat baby faces and snuggles, and I’d love to see my 4-year-old dote over an infant (she often asks me to have another baby, and often asks when she can have a baby). And there’s nothing like the anticipation of a new baby. It has this open possibility that is scary but intoxicating: you know life is going to change completely, and you also know you are about to fall hard for someone completely new and wonderful in ways you can never anticipate and never knew you needed. I found this especially true with Holly (our 2nd) because we were no longer so terrified of the baby thing, so we really enjoyed her infancy and getting to know her little personality. The idea of seeing what else our genes could come up with is tempting. A brown-haired child (finally)? A boy? It’s not that different than gambling, in a way – and it has tremendous emotional and cultural payoff. Nothing is as hard as having a small baby, but on the flip side, nothing is as powerful. In the right circumstances – support, security – a desired pregnancy is enormously LIFE ORGANIZING. It has its own gravitational pull, a centripetal motion that brings everything else into focus and order in a way that’s really gratifying.

I’ve been rereading The Feminine Mystique and one of the themes that comes up again and again is that women have another baby to solve problems in other areas of their lives. I say this not as judgment but as fact: I think anyone committing to having a child does it for myriad reasons, some selfless or laudable as “in the child’s best interest” and some personal, relational, and complex. I didn’t have kids when I did because the timing was perfect and we have pre-established college funds, etc. It was a complicated blend of biological imperative, life timing, and personal desire. In Friedan’s analysis, women of the 50s and 60s kept having children because they’ve been culturally conditioned to see mothering as the only valid use of their time and abilities, and when their littlest becomes independent, they have a personal crisis. I don’t think that’s the case any longer: certainly, all the women I know understand that there are many paths to a fulfilling life and work can be a part of that; but at the same time, we still expect, and experience, an intense devotion between mother and child that can feel and be engulfing at times. It makes sense that coming out of that, and deciding to end that time (no more kids) creates new space for questioning and wondering that’s a bit scary to negotiate.

Sweet Baby Robin

Pregnancy really forces you to get your shit together. You get house projects done, you quit drinking or smoking, you start eating better. Suddenly, you are flying through your dissertation or push a big project at work through because you want to be done before the baby gets here. For some women, pregnancy is really good for them: they love their bodies, sometimes the hormones even relieve persistent problems like depression or anxiety. In some marriages I know, the time around pregnancy and birth is a time of harmony in the home: conflict and disagreement are set aside while both parents focus on the new baby. It might not be “right” but babies can temporarily repair broken relationships, broken minds, and broken bodies. The needs of an infant are urgent, primal, and utterly reasonable (love, food, clean bum). Priorities become crystal clear. Life makes sense. Nothing quite brings together personal desires, biological urges, and cultural cache quite like babies. And I think it does allow us to kick down the road some stuff we’re just not up for yet. Betty Friedan specifically asks,

What if the terror a girl faces at twenty-one, when she must decide who she will be, is simply the terror of growing up – growing up, as women were not permitted to grow before? What if the terror a girl faces at twenty-one is the terror of freedom to decide her own life, with no one order to which path she will take… What if those who choose the path of ‘feminine adjustment’ – evading this terror by marrying at eighteen, losing themselves in having babies and the details of house-keeping – are simply refusing to grow up, to face the question of their own identity?

I hope I’ve made it abundantly clear that I’m not sitting in judgment of people who might have babies to defer dealing with life problems or “facing the question of their own identity.” Nor do I think people who want to have lots of babies or who are in the middle of growing their families are necessarily “avoiding” growing up. I’m just speaking to my experience and from observation that sometimes we have babies for reasons beyond a simple “I want another baby.” I’m in the middle of the “terror” Friedan describes right now, albeit 10 years later than the women Friedan writes about, because both my childbearing years and my whole vocational concept are coming to an end at the same time.  So, I have to be aware of the fact that I might be fantasizing about another baby not just because I want another baby or it might be fun or good. It might also be – hell, it probably is largely because – I’m not sure what’s happening next in my life, and having experienced the power and pleasure of mothering a baby, that seems like an awesome option. My very own brilliant and wonderful partner wrote me this email back in February when we were trying to make sense of this emerging obsession:

I do think you should try to think about this stuff in the context of grad school falling apart. I remember after grad school feeling suddenly very old and somehow more aware of my own mortality. There’s something about being launched into the real world that is very disconcerting and makes you feel like there’s no time, or that you have to make up for lost time or something. In your email you say, “I always wanted to mother a lot of kids but maybe I’m just not cut out for that, and that’s ok, but kind of sad to acknowledge.” To me that sounds like a classic I just got out of grad school and I don’t know what I’m good at anymore statement. It makes perfect sense that you would want to replace your sort of stillborn grad school career with the thing that made the most sense to you and brought you the most fulfillment, but the reality is that you might not actually want to go through with having another baby. I can see how the idea of having a fresh little person to dote on would seem attractive to you right now. It’s unfortunate that the thing you are fantasizing about (having a baby) is also inextricably linked with some of the most unpleasant memories you could possibly conjure up (months of nausea, vomiting, sleep deprivation, etc.)… The point I’m trying to make is that you might need something new to think about. You might need something new to obsess over.

Jolly Baby Holly

This is why I’m not making any big decisions right now. As much as having a third baby might be a great thing for our family, I don’t want to get pregnant because I’ve tried nothing and I’m all out of ideas when it comes to life after grad school. I don’t want my knee-jerk reaction to the fear of what’s next to involve a human life – at least not a new human life. Having a baby is compelling but it would also shut down a lot of possibilities – writing? A magic job that may or may not be in the works? Moving? Travel? The point is, I may not know yet what I want from my future, even though my instinct is to grab on to something for dear life. I want to keep as many doors open as possible and go through the terror of “growing up,” as painful as it may be, because I want to keep possibility open and see if life surprises me. So right now? I’m sitting tight with my two kids, watching some Spongebob, and doing some more writing.

Can somebody refill my magic please?

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:

  1. Margeaux is enormous.
  2. 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!

What?

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.