By Alison B. Hart
When my daughter was 9 months old, my old friend came to town to meet her. Like me, he was nearing 40. I had bought an apartment, married, and had a baby in quick succession. He was single and ambitious and wondering when he might start a family of his own. To a certain extent we were both late bloomers, but that was hard to tell in New York, a city custom-built for extended adolescence.
On the last day of his trip, we had some time before he needed to leave for the airport, so we walked through Brooklyn while the baby slept. It was a sunny day in winter and I was enjoying being out and social, just strolling down the street on a Sunday afternoon, listening to my old friend talk in unhurried, uninterrupted sentences.
“Babies are nice,” he sighed.
“You make it look so fulfilling. I’m tempted to get one of my own.”
“You should. You’d be a great dad.”
But I knew he wasn’t seeing the whole truth of my life, that this was a picture-postcard moment due in large part to our reunion and the baby’s slumber.
We passed a bar on Smith Street and the sweet stink of beer enveloped us.
“What on earth?” I stammered. “It’s 2:00!”
I’d been up for what seemed like days already, but I was aware that most people had just finished breakfast. So many responsibilities loomed ahead that would require my active concentration: dinner, bath, bedtime stories, extracting myself from the baby’s room before Mad Men came on. Surely, other people also had things they wanted to accomplish? It was much too early in the day to jettison all my plans by getting tipsy.
My friend just smiled. “Oh, honey,” he said. He might as well have patted me on the head.
And suddenly I was transported back to my twenties, when he and I first arrived in New York. At 2:00 on a Sunday afternoon back then, I was either at a bar, on my way to a bar, or sweating through a soccer game after which I would lug my sweaty gear to a bar with my teammates. Bars were what weekends were made for.
What I would have given right then, all those years later with my daughter’s nap almost over, for a cold one and some hot wings and no particular place to be.
Then it hit me: this was another case of good old-fashioned nostalgia.
I had a lot of hit-and-runs with nostalgia in the days and weeks after my daughter was born. Whenever I encountered people doing things that seemed virtually impossible for me to do with a child, I remembered the freedom I once had to do whatever I pleased. I could sleep until 10:00 on a Saturday. Hell, I could sleep all day. Before I had a baby to get home to, I could make last-minute plans after work: to see a show or play a game of pick-up or get dinner with a friend who needed to talk. I could get that third drink at the bar without a thought to the cascade of events it might touch off—more drinking, possible loss of wallet in bar or cab, killer hangover the next day. Before I was a mom, I was free to make an ass of myself or waste time or both.
But it didn’t feel like freedom back then. Mostly the options that were available to me when I was younger felt like the wrong options. In my twenties, I wanted stability. It was hard to enjoy myself properly when I was running up credit card balances I couldn’t pay off. In my thirties, still single and living alone, I wanted a life. I could go out for tacos 3 nights in a row (and often did), but only because I didn’t have anyone else’s tastes to consult. I would far rather have been in a relationship and stayed in for the night, preferably with someone who could teach me the difference between red wine vinaigrette and red wine vinegar. When my friends started having babies, I felt left behind. Freedom was lonely.
And what was so great about it anyway? I didn’t want to sow my oats; I’d had plenty of time for that already. When I met my husband in our mid-thirties, the fact that he was Marriage Material (genuinely kind, in possession of and familiar with the deployment of household cleaning products) was a development that thrilled, not spooked, me. Still, we took things slowly at first. We kept separate apartments for 3 years, resisting the pressures of the market to move in together and save money. I took a solo vacation to Barcelona, because I’d never traveled abroad alone and wanted to prove to myself that I could. He built a flotilla of rafts to ride down the Mississippi River with his friends, and gave serious consideration to joining the circus.
Maybe freedom was as simple as wanting to leave room in life for the unexpected. It was easy, even logical, to defer certain responsibilities and take our time pursuing our interests. It may not be like this in every city, but in Brooklyn, New York, waiting until you are 37 to start a family is as natural as riding a bike, growing a beard, and keeping bees on your rooftop.
I was ready to become a mom when I did. But sometimes I missed my old life. I felt so blessed, but also overwhelmed. In fleeting moments that first year, the awesome responsibility of being my daughter’s entire world knocked the wind out of me. When my friend left for the airport, I missed him, and I missed the me that used to be.
Not long after his visit, while my daughter played peekaboo with her grandparents on Skype, I told them that I was thinking about nostalgia.
“What are you nostalgic about?” my parents asked.
“The time before she was born,” I said.
They both let out deep belly laughs, as only people of their generation can laugh at people of mine, even across technology they understand only minimally.
“But you just got started! You’ve got 35 years to go!”
They were right, of course. Intellectually I knew this.
Then a funny thing happened. Spring approached and, with it, my daughter’s first birthday. I don’t know if it was the seasons changing or the days getting longer, but now all I could remember about that chaotic, upside-down year was the week she was born. I remembered how tiny she was—on my chest, nursing for the first time; in the hospital bassinet, staring back at us with giant blue pools for eyes; asleep in my husband’s arms. I remembered how crazy it felt to have a baby in the car seat next to me on the ride home. The car seat itself seemed ludicrous, perhaps even stolen. It used to blow my mind when she fell asleep: to think that there were three, not two, of us in the apartment. Three heartbeats.
Even the hard times were transmuted by memory into something magical. Sure, those first few weeks were a riot of panic and exhaustion. And, yes, my body felt like it had been through a war. I barely left the house except for pediatrician appointments. But every single second was a complete surprise! I couldn’t appreciate it at the time. Not since my own childhood had so much been so new.
Looking back one year later, my vantage point lifted and tossed around by a rogue wave of nostalgia, I was awestruck by the adventure. All the mundane things—changing a diaper, shopping for rice cakes, commuting home from midtown—now felt incredibly special.
For days I felt tingly and alive just crossing the road. It was like that line in Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty-one Love Poems”: Did I ever walk the morning streets at twenty / my limbs streaming with purer joy?
I did not.
But why not? Why hadn’t I enjoyed what I had when I had it?
I don’t know. I wish I had, but it’s an impossible wish in any case.
The older I get, the more I suspect that wholeness isn’t a feeling that hits us all at once but something more like a long meal whose courses are spread out over years. You start with the hunger of youth. Savor the confusion of the lost years that follow. Pore over the delicacies that you can’t afford. Accept a bite off a rich friend’s plate. Drink a little, maybe too much. Expand in all directions. After some conversation and digestion, order more, this time maybe something to share.
For some of us, at least, maybe nostalgia isn’t a distraction from the present but a necessary experience of it. We get a second chance to appreciate now what we couldn’t the first time. Even when tinged darkly with regret or envy, nostalgia offers a path back to the pleasures hiding beneath. And when it’s connected to life’s purer joys—a long walk with an old friend, a sleeping infant, or a first birthday—we can be reborn.
We had a small party at home on the day my daughter turned 1. Her grandparents came, as well as a few friends and their children. It was still too cold to go outside, so after we stuffed ourselves with cake, we broke apart into predictable groupings. The men talked politics with the grandparents, the kids built towers around the baby, and the women snuck seconds (okay, thirds) in the kitchen. I told my girlfriends about the excitement I’d experienced over the last few days, reliving the birth of my daughter.
“Did it happen to you, too?” I asked.
Yes, they said, they were pretty sure it did.
“Will it happen every year?” I asked.
That part they weren’t so sure about. They couldn’t exactly remember. What parent can remember, years later, which solid food came second or which month the third tooth came in? Eventually rhythms establish themselves, and experiences come to us and flutter away, like the pages of a calendar, turning quickly.
The next year, I waited for it to happen again. There’d been many new developments in my daughter’s second year: walking, talking, talking a lot and in great detail. You could say she was bossing us around by that point, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But the newness of her was not something I registered anymore. The fact of our family was a given I’d long since accepted. I sat at the window in her bedroom, where I’d nursed so many days and nights but no longer did, and I looked out at the trees just beginning to bud and the quality of the sunlight altering. I waited for that tingly, just-fell-in-love feeling to take me. But it didn’t happen. I was in love already, had been for years. And I had been here before, on this block of Brooklyn, in this week of March, a mother remembering.
Alison B. Hart’s work has appeared in The Missouri Review and online for USA Today, HBO, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is the co-founder of the reading series at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn and holds an MFA from The New School. She is currently at work on a novel-in-stories.
Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.