By Abigail Rasminsky
Looking back on the first year of motherhood, and answering the “What do you do?” question.
I am sitting at a café for one of the few hours of the week I have to write. Before my daughter was born, a year ago now, I called myself a writer and this is what I did: went to coffee shops (or to the library or to my desk at home) to work. As my year of mostly full-time parenting has worn on, I’ve had a harder time answering the What do you do? question.
Across from me in the café is a young woman with what I’d guess is a four-month-old. He is slouched on her knee, eagerly gumming Sophie the giraffe, the ubiquitous baby toy. With the little boy occupied, Mom is sipping her coffee, chatting with a friend. I’ve been so distracted by them, so caught up in how little a four-month-old does—he just sits there, drooling! How easy!—that I’ve gotten little done. Instead, I’ve been gazing at them longingly, missing that phase already. And yet: I know full well that I didn’t love it when I was going through it, although I think I told myself that I was. Trapped in a cycle of broken nights, on-demand nursing and a shifting marriage, I certainly didn’t consider it easy.
Is this the story of early motherhood for so many of us? Not loving it in the present and then telling ourselves we did? Or telling ourselves we should have? Or that we will next time? Claiming that one particular phase was so much easier (or harder) than the stage we’re in now? When do we begin to rewrite history? Why do we erase the difficulty?
For the first few months of my daughter’s life, I wondered why anyone would do this again, and yet all I feel watching the pair in the café now is just that: the impulse to start over. Next time, I tell myself—although having another child is a subject my husband and I haven’t even broached—the baby will fall asleep in my arms and rather than feeling exhausted and relieved (finally!), I will instead feel—what?—happy? satisfied? grateful? proud? I’ll understand that that alone is enough, for now? I’ll remember all these thoughts from my past-the-first-year-mark perch?
With the fog of Year One lifting—and with an entry into what’s becoming a truly delightful, exhilarating time with my daughter—I’m suddenly realizing how much pressure I put on myself throughout the year to actually write, to do my “job,” and how little of that I actually did. I had the idea—from where, exactly?—that at four or five months (when we’d all be, according to various sources, sleeping through the night), I’d hand my daughter over for a few hours, open up my laptop and pick up from where I’d left off days before giving birth—brain, memory, ambition in full working order.
By four months, my baby was still waking every few hours, and while I did find a marvelous babysitter, I used those hours to swim—my body weightless and free and mine alone—and later, to teach. The notes I took in my phone while she napped in the stroller were the closest I came to really writing.
But now, staring at that mom in the café, I can finally see what has eluded me all year: If she can get out of the house, and she can look as put together as she does, and she can get her kid to sleep (and she is, swaying with him, his cheek resting more and more heavily on her breastbone), what else is she supposed to do? The job of raising a human—the labor of it—is extraordinary, but it folds in on itself. You have a beautiful person growing right before your eyes, but when she is always in front of you, it’s almost impossible to see. My husband recently went away for three days and claimed that our daughter was so much more grown up when he returned.
“Really?” I said, baffled. I had spent those three days felled by my daughter’s stomach flu, barely getting by. I had hardly noticed whether she was wearing pants.
And yet, what I should have felt was pride—that this had happened because of our trips to the park and readings of We‘re Going on a Bear Hunt, from all the pointing out of dogs (now “DOGGIE!”) and buses (“BA!”) while rolling through town, and all the times I stopped her from eating an electrical wire.
Like a lot of mothers I know, I often focus more on all I haven‘t done this year: the unread books, unfinished essays and applications, the anxiety of a career on hold. Perhaps I’m just saddened by how little value I’ve placed on what I’ve actually done this year, which is raise a sparkling, hilarious, bold little person; a girl I watch from across the sandbox with a bursting, incredulous heart.
Mostly what I feel is sadness: for beating myself up? For not feeling a sense of accomplishment? Because she’s growing up “so fast,” as they say, and I’ve spent much of her early life just trying to get by? Because my life is flat-out unrecognizable from what it was a year ago? That we pour our whole selves into a person so that she can eventually leave us?
My mother calls these the sacrificial years. The sacrifice feels so enormous when you’re in the midst of it—see: book-in-progress unopened in a computer file—but even as a new mom, I am already experiencing how quickly things shift. This month, the baby—who is really no longer a baby—will go to daycare and I’ll have four hours a day to myself. I know that I will feel a tremendous sense of loss that this time is over—no more will I be the woman with a baby strapped to me, swaying her to sleep, our bodies breathing together—even while I rejoice in the new freedom.
Abigail Rasminsky holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in The New York Times; O: The Oprah Magazine; The Morning News; The Forward; The Toast; The Millions; and Dance Magazine, among other publications. She lives in Vienna, Austria. More at Abigailrasminsky.com.