We are somewhere on a stretch of parenting between the adrenaline-stoked days of babyhood and the beginning of grade school.
Our children have never been nappers. Silence in our house is not yet golden– it is only ever the space between a thunked head and a loud wail or a tell-tale clue that we should rush off to find the baby lest she be climbing the kitchen counter or finishing yet another a marker sketch on our unforgiving plaster walls.
Our babies are no longer portable little bundles in a baby carrier. If not for the park or the mountains outside of town, it takes an amount of strategy and artful manipulation to get them out the door that I would find hilarious if only I weren’t in charge of the negotiations.
I was both calculating and naive when I told my husband that I thought we should start our family when I was just 25 years old. The math was in my favor: 5-7 years overseas would afford me the ability to stay home with our children until they started school–by which point we’d rotate back to the States where I’d theoretically be able to re-enter the workforce at the same time my peers would be leaving in maternal droves.
I was naive in every other way possible.
At 25, I told myself that there was a way to both work and nurture very young children at the same time. I told myself that, with all the money we’d be saving on childcare, we could afford for me to hire a babysitter once in awhile for me to get away for a few hours a few times a week.
But it didn’t turn out like that. Our firstborn defied expectations–as most firstborns do. He needed more from me than I ever presumed I could give. There was no question of anyone else caring for him. For the first six months of his life, he stayed in my arms both day and night, while I ate, while I brushed my teeth and while I slept at night in the short hours between our marathon soothing sessions in which I would pace our dark bedroom, swaying and singing to him for hours in the middle of the night. I lived on peanut butter toast and adrenaline until he was 18 months old, by which point I couldn’t imagine any other way to live.
When Shiloh came along, a sweet bundle of blessed tranquility, I found I could not leave her either. It felt vital that I should someday be able to tell her that everything I ever did for her brother, I did in equal measure and devotion for her as well.
So, we’ve never had a nanny or regular babysitters. Not once has either child ever fallen asleep without me in bed next to them. I’ve been breastfeeding continuously, every single day, and–still now–for the last four and a half years.
My husband is an incredibly capable, enthusiastic and diligent father but as is true for a lot of stay-at-home moms, it’s only recently that we’ve gotten to a place in which I can sneak out a few mornings a week for a pre-dawn run or leave the house with my laptop for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon without one of the kids protesting. very. loudly.
I trade sleep for a very meager paycheck and write for myself in the margins of our days. I cook and throw dinner parties so that I can talk to other adults without having to pay a babysitter.
My friends and acquaintances have done some amazing things back home. A guy I used to work with just finished writing, filming and directing a film. Another friend co-founded an organization that’s spread like wildfire across America, garnering press in mainstream magazines, NPR, academic journals and even CNN. Everyone’s gone to grad school, traveled the world, become the youngest/brightest at something.
But I am 30 and I have accomplished not one of the modest goals I once thought I might have achieved by this age.
Sometimes I feel like I am a cautionary tale of what not to do with one’s 20’s. Would I be a better parent had I taken a decade to pursue my own dreams and ambitions before becoming a mother? Would I have more and better parenting tricks up my sleeve? More patience? Would I have done more good for the world by now? Have I been selfish as I’ve basked in the glow of my kids babyhoods instead of doing time on some humanitarian frontline somewhere?
I was practically a child myself when I became a mother, still conditioned to respond obligingly to requirements and chores over which I exerted little decision-making power. Parenthood is not terribly unlike childhood in this way–except the obligations are weightier and self-inflicted, the chores more unforgiving. Having had so few years between the obligations of childhood and the obligations of motherhood may have made the transition less jarring. There was no peak of adult freedom from which to feel I had fallen. No heights of professional success to gaze up at in despair from within those long, dark nights spent bouncing babies on my forearms.
Motherhood is a trip all on it’s own and the emotional fallout for our eldest as we moved him across the world three times in the first three years of his life has humbled me above all else.
But for how much our son–and later our daughter–needed me in those early months, my life seemed to hold no other meaning. Such singularity of purpose felt almost like a relief in contrast to the soul-searching I watched my peers engage in from afar.
Now though, I am the one who soul searches. There are some woman for whom motherhood is a vocation in and of itself and I am often envious of those women because I am not one of them. Motherhood is not that which gives me purpose, that which makes me relevant. It is the inverse that is true. It is motherhood, above all else, that infuses everything I do with purpose and with relevance. It is motherhood that makes me wonder how much of my duty as a mother is tied up in making sure my children see me in roles that do not, on the face of it, involve them.
For all of the childrearing philosophies to follow, the “sensory-activities” to copy off Pinterest, the preschool curriculums that I used to fret over when our kids were really tiny, our children learn the most from observing us, where we go, what we do, how we act, what we appear to value.
My children watch when I am kind and when I am not, when I am patient and impatient, when I follow through on my words and when I don’t. They watch when I try new things, when I face challenges. They watch when I sit at our dining room table pouring over news stories and poems in paper magazines and look up recipes to try in my cookbooks. In fact, it was when I realized how closely they watched me that I started reading and writing the old-fashioned way again so that they can see exactly what I’m doing instead of having to guess at the contents of my iphone screen.
They will hopefully learn from the mud puddles we stomp in, the water color pans we empty, the parties we host, the friendships we nurture, that the most beautiful moments in life are always messy in their own way. Creativity is messy and vulnerability is messy.
And they learn from the nights my husband and I stay up until 2am cleaning up after a dinner party, from the hundreds of times I make them grab a clean cloth to clean up their spills, from all the times we, and later the world, will hand down consequences for their actions that, while messiness is nothing to shy away from, neither should they shirk from the duty of cleaning up, reevaluating or starting over because there is beauty and balance on that side of the equation too.
But the older they get, the bigger their world gets and the more keenly I feel the need to make sure they see me in service of that bigger world too. I don’t think every child needs to view their parents in this light, I just have this unshakeable sense that mine, in particular, do. It’s the how and the what and how many hours and how to keep giving my entire heart to the loves of my lives while still carving out time for work that matters to me and that might matter, however abstractly, for my children.
Sometimes I wonder what I might accomplish if on all those mornings when I get up early to write if I ever actually had time to write something instead of opening my eyes and shortly thereafter my laptop–just in time to hear the pitter patter of little feet coming to find out why mommy tried to get out of bed without them.
I don’t know though that without those blissful work-derailing morning snuggles that I’d actually be much further along than I am now. People and ideas bloom when they’re ready–and usually more spectacularly for not being rushed through the process. The ideas that will move me most profoundly in the next few years are still babies themselves, not solid enough yet to bear weight and put to work. They want for education and shepherding and patience.
And maybe like my kids too they will eventually grow up, seemingly overnight and I will feel a pang of nostalgia for the night before when I rocked them to sleep and they were still my tiny babies, in need of nothing more and nothing less than all of my love.