Something happens to me in the springtime. I get giddy; I get dreamy. I read other people’s tweets, their links to their work, their self promotions, and I think about all that’s possible, all that’s ahead. I want to do everything. I can do anything. Can’t you smell it in the wind?
This week I burst into tears when I watched a slow-motion video of my baby girl laughing. Throughout the days now my husband, the reluctant texter, sends me photos and gifs and updates on our girl, on their days together. They teach me things. I study my girl’s expressions intently when I’m taking a pump break in the basement of my office, in a sterile room that so many other women have used. I bring my laptop with me each time, ostensibly to get some work done, but mostly I find myself swiping my phone back and forth, up and down, staring at her. Thinking, wishing.
There are the dreams you have before you have a baby and the realizations you have after you have a baby and sometimes they don’t match. Sometimes, things you want have to be placed in a temporary hold because other things are more important right now. This spring, I am reading other people’s work and I am thinking, “I should write about this, and that, and pitch it here, and there” but then I remember the reality of my days right now. They are packed. They are rushed. I wake up bone-tired but alert, always alert, always listening for my baby’s cry and her breathing, always reading and intuiting her needs. I play with her and read to her and then I go to work and try to cram everything in. Where I used to have ten hours, I now have eight. Where I used to have unlimited time, I now have limits.
The world feels very much on Pause for me right now in all aspects except one, the most important one, which isn’t on Pause after all but instead is very much on Fast Forward. My girl is sitting up. She is teasing me, playing games with me. She is testing me. She is growing at such an alarming rate that all I can do is watch and marvel, and point out the flowers that are blooming.
We lived in a pink house that summer. The top floor of a two-story rental, the deck was so rickety we would have “deck counts” every time we had company over. I’d open the screen door and ask, how many of you are out here? and then listen for the numbers echoing back in the starlight.
Five was the limit, and even that was pushing it. We laughed and rolled our eyes at our paranoia, but at the end of that summer, the deck of a similar house up the island collapsed, so the risk was real. (A decade later I’d meet a friend who actually did experience a collapsing deck, this one at her college rental house in Michigan. She broke her leg. A newspaper article about it is still her first hit on Google.)
We were 19 and 21; carefree workhorses; young enough to work two jobs each day — 10am to 4pm, then 4:30pm to close at another place — and still find time for parties and bars and midnight beach gatherings. I eschewed the sun that year, for some reason; white as a ghost, I’d sneer at the tourists with their tan lines as I rang up their tee shirts and jewelry, their island trinkets. I was jealous, though. What good was living in a pink house on the beach if I was always stuck inside working?
I’ve never been a fan of springtime, but now I am craving the warmth and the light. Today, though, is gloomy. When my baby and I walked through the house on our regular morning routine she didn’t have to squint her eyes when I pulled back the curtain and opened the blinds; the moon was still out and the sun was filtered through too many clouds. She looked confused. Where was the brightness? Was it really daytime? I kissed her plump face — cheeks for days, that girl — and assured her it was.
The pink house is gone now. A few years back they finally knocked it down, rebuilt it, like so many things on the island after Hurricane Sandy. Someday I’ll walk my little girl past it. The sun will be on our backs, pounding, prodding us along the street. We’ll be holding hands and squinting at the brightness. Look, I’ll tell her. Mama lived there for a summer, just one, and managed to not collapse.
Today is my first day back at work full-time, after a transition period of part-time work. I like working, and I like my work, and I’ve always gotten immense satisfaction from leaving my house each day and entering a building full of people with purpose. But there are Feelings today.
Way back on a cold afternoon in January, when my husband and I could only get our girl to sleep if we took her for a walk (ask me anything about the streets of Park Slope, I know them by heart), we began talking about my return to work. I started crying, even then, even knowing that I wanted to go back, that being a full-time caregiver is not for me. Even knowing that it was far away. Because the thing is, this whole parenting-while-working thing is a lose-lose and a win-win situation at the same time. I lose whether I stay home or go back to work. But I win, too, just in different ways. And the struggle is figuring out which ways are more important. More pressing. More long-lasting.
There are Feelings, too, about time. Having a baby makes the passage of time very real. Time is counted now in a way it wasn’t before — how many weeks is she? How many weeks until this milestone happens, or until we have to look out for that? Before my maternity leave, the reality of it felt distant, surreal. I couldn’t even picture the springtime. Now, poof, it’s over*; I am here at work wearing flats and lightweight jackets. I am here, walking past tulips and waiting for drizzle. Spring is springing, and I am back at work, and I’m sad. Not about working, but because it means time has passed. And it’s just going to keep passing.
Maybe this is a treatise on our mortality. I don’t know. I just know that I see infinity in my gorgeous girl’s eyes. I just know that I love her and I want to spend all day with her. I just know that I love her and I don’t want to spend all day with her; I’m not cut from that cloth. I love her and I don’t want to spend all day with her and I don’t want to feel guilty for that, but I do. And what a waste of emotion and time, two things that I’m always already nearly tapped out of.
*Only it wasn’t poof. Not really. My maternity leave has been equal parts exhausting, difficult, loving, calming. (All within the same hour, usually.) In the early days of parenthood when I hated it all (sorry/not sorry) I would count on that passage of time; telling myself it would fly by is what got me through some nights. #RealTalk
Over on LinkedIn, I wrote about my big old moon face and why Lego has missed the mark. (They’re related, promise.)
At an old job I had a sharply-dressed coworker who let me tag along to sample sales. At one, held at an old bank in midtown with ornate architecture and a world-class view of the Empire State Building, we walked up and down rows of shoes, their boxes open, tissue paper raining down. It was winter and we carried our bulky coats and kept a close eye on our Blackberrys. We were on the clock.
C.’s style of dress was city chic but approachable, punctuated with a range of heeled boots I always coveted. So when we shopped together that cold day I must have been subconsciously inspired by her and my eyes landed on a pair of structured ankle boots I knew I had to have. The heel was a little taller than I normally wear – I’d learned my lesson by then after years of crossing the river by train and bus in heels that left their marks – but it was a wedge, and the boot was lined with buckles that served no utility but screamed confidence.
I bought them. They were more than any other shoe I’d bought, ever.
When I wore them for the first time, the unthinkable happened: they hurt. Like, badly. Like The One with Monica’s Boots. I tried again, and then again. Both times I had to give up before I even left my apartment, switching into something that fit me properly.
So they went in a pile in the back of my closet, where I would occasionally spot them and wince. For years those boots stayed on my mind. I thought if I could just wear them one more time I’d break them in perfectly; I thought if I just wanted it enough, I could learn to withstand the pain. They moved with me from apartment to apartment, across two rivers, through a wedding, a baby. I still loved the look of them, and as my style evolved I realized they would fit me (aesthetically, anyway) even better now than they did when I bought them. So out of the closet they came. I was going to give them another try, dammit.
So I brought them into work one day last year, intent on wearing them, finally. I changed out of flats and buckled in, ready to take on the day (and with it, the world). But I guess I forgot that even though my style changed, my feet, alas, did not. The boots still hurt. They hurt so much I hobbled right back to my office and took them off. It took years, but they finally broke my of my will.
I’m back at work after a maternity leave and today I found those boots in a drawer. They’re still beautiful, and they’re certainly not doing anyone any good sitting in there. So tonight I’ll take them home and leave them on the stoop outside my apartment, which is the Brooklyn way of donating things we no longer need. I’ll think of C. when I do it, and of the job where I met her, the friends I made there; the way the city, the world, seemed so close to me then. How everything felt possible. How it all was possible.
But mostly I’ll be thinking of how good it feels, how free, to let go of things you’ve been carrying for years and have never really needed.
My mother has begun telling me how gentle I am, how quiet. When I tap my iPad, even. When I speak, when I close kitchen cabinets. I start to take notice. It turns out I’ve even been saving the unloading of the dishwasher for nighttime, when I can see how quiet I can be, like it’s some kind of personal goal.
When I watch TV I keep the volume low, so low even I sometimes have trouble hearing it. I mute commercials. Daytimes are fine, but when the sun sets noises seem to multiply. I speak in a hush starting at 7pm. I sit on my couch, baby asleep in her nearby room, and keep the remote close, finger poised over the volume button.
We are very close here in my Brooklyn apartment, and something about that closeness makes me shrink up and drop to a whisper. There are three bedrooms here but they are small, and that is being generous. I watch House Hunters and cringe at the greedy needs of the homebuyers who decline entire houses because their walk-in closets are too cramped. I think back to Sri Lanka, where I helped build a house for an entire family. They were thrilled to be getting two rooms to share between them, to be getting one bed.
I’ve been pondering space lately. What we need, what we deserve. Whether. I love this city but in my long park walks with the baby I breathe in the wide roads, the stretches of snow-covered fields, the frozen lake, the geese. My lungs expand there in ways they can’t just a few blocks over, where the brownstones block the wind.
Last week I visited my sister’s new house and got turned around coming out of her master suite. For real. Then I put the baby to bed in the guest room (a guest room!) and even downstairs kept my voice low. “You can talk at normal volume,” everyone reminded me. But I kept forgetting. Normal volume, to me, has changed.
Anyway we always said we’d never collaborate but here we are, collaborating: we’ve just launched Writing in Real Life, a podcast series about writing, publishing, parenting, and marriage. Heady topics! Our first one is now up.
Fun fact: we recorded it on Monday night. By Tuesday I decided I hated what I said, so we re-recorded it Tuesday night, right after the State of the Union, when my head was spinning from all the live tweeting I was doing. I think this session is perhaps a bit less fun, but hopefully more informative than the original one.
I hope you’ll follow along!
I’ve begun noticing in earnest the lines around my eyes. Before, spotting them was a sign: of fatigue, of dehydration, of too many martinis, too much dancing. After a power nap, a Gatorade, they dissolved. Now they’re permanent; part of the angles of my face. They out me as a 30-something. They, more than any other part of my body, remind me that time moves quickly. That time is running out.
I have fallen in love with them.
In the mornings I take baby girl around the apartment to say hello to each room. Hello, kitchen. Hello, living room. Hello, office. Hello, daddy’s books, and mommy’s, and hello to g-mom, my baby’s late great grandmother, her laughing face in a frame on a shelf. Our final stop is always the hallway mirror, where we say hello to the pretty baby and her mommy.
Looking in a mirror while I hold my baby is when I feel most like a parent, when it hits me that I have done this Thing that cannot be undone. I have built a person. We look back at ourselves and smile. The weight of her sits in the crook of my neck, in my elbow, while we make silly faces and nuzzle each other like horses, like puppies, her body still warm from sleep.
In that mirror where I stick my tongue out at my baby I spot those lines around my eyes and wait for that sinking feeling, the one where I feel bad about getting older, about not using enough eye cream, about being a feminist who cares whether I have lines.
Today that feeling didn’t come. Instead, I smiled at my lines. Like my baby, they’re mine. I built those, too.
On Instagram, later, I scrolled past a photo of a celebrity, an actress my age. She has those lines and she is radiant, with her white hair and red lips and floundering career. So what. She has lines, and so do I, and you probably do too, and lines means we’re living. Lines mean we’ve laughed more often than not.
Last night we put our baby in her crib for the first time. She cried for five minutes and then dropped right off to sleep. We thought we got off easy, but then she woke up an hour later, cried for 38 minutes* (yes, we counted), and then seemed to look directly at the monitor to give us a Look. After a few minutes, she closed her eyes and slept.
She slept from 9pm to 5:45am straight, which means–if this trend continues–my husband and I have been given the gift of time.
With all that glorious time, I started thinking about what I should do with it. Not surprisingly, one of the first things that I had to set aside when I had a baby was reading. I knew it was a temporary break, but it was a break nonetheless. (I keep joking that I’m mostly excited about going back to work in February because I’ll have an hour of commute time…think of all I can read during that hour!) And I miss those worlds I used to visit. I miss the artfully arranged words, the universal truths, the racing action.
We all know books are a privilege, of course, and entire organizations are dedicated to helping underserved kids snatch some scraps of that privilege. (Like First Book, and Reach Out and Read, and Reading is Fundamental, in case you’ve got out your checkbook for end-of-year donations). But I started thinking about how reading itself is a privilege. Because, for most people, being able to read for pleasure means you have leisure time. It means you’re not working a second or third job during your off hours; it means you’re not taking care of someone or something. There might be chores to do or errands to run, but if you’re reading, chances are they’re not urgent.
I’m staying in this New Year’s Eve. My husband and I will put our gorgeous baby to bed and then have a crab cake feast, shipped from Maryland, and finally open that mead we bought on our honeymoon. My sister will be stopping by on her way to a party to lend me her ereader, which is shored up with books she’s assured me I’ll love. And while I don’t know when or if I’ll ever get to all of them, I know I will have some time in 2015 to read some things for pleasure. And for that I am so, so grateful.
Happy New Year–I hope it’s filled with things you’re grateful for too, whether it’s books or time or perfect babies or something else entirely.
* We practiced a version of sleep training recommended by our pediatrician.