This past week I bid a sad, fond farewell to my maternity leave. I began working from home, logging hours during naps, after bedtime, and occasionally during Alice's & my playtime. It's been a real struggle - Alice hasn't yet established a set schedule (or we haven't created one for her), so figuring out the best time to attend meetings, head downtown, and try to get focused work done has been difficult. That said, I'm utterly grateful to have this time with her.
For most of my life, I've had two versions of my future - one is me working full-time while raising a family, finding tremendous pleasure in pursuing an ambitious career; one is of me working full-time as a stay-at-home mom, spending the days with my kids, managing a tightly-run home. I always assumed that I would prefer the former to the latter, largely, I think, because that's how I was raised. My mom somehow managed to be an ever-present part of my growing up while continuing to pursue a professional career. And yet, now that it is time for me to head back into the working world, I'm realizing that maybe this isn't the path I would choose, if given the option.
I think I'm mostly worried about becoming so harried with the day-to-day that I lose pleasure in raising and caring for my family. This maternity leave has been such a profoundly wonderful time. Even on bad days, when I can't get Alice to settle down, when nothing goes as planned, when strangers yell at me, I feel like I'm doing the most important work of my life. I'm not dreaming of Saturday, counting down the seconds until I can be somewhere else. I'm happy where I am, savoring each day with my baby. Truthfully, it's never like this when I'm working - even though I really love and enjoy my job.
I don't want to whine about this, because I'm going back to work for a fabulous group of people, in a somewhat flexible work environment. My colleagues love and dote on my daughter, and they will be so supportive of our expanding family. The work I do is meaningful, for the most part, and it is an exciting time to be where I am. But I have never been as happy there as I am when I see this beautiful smiling baby girl looking up at me.
I'm sure I'll find a balance, somewhere along the line. And perhaps this smile will remind me to forget about the grind and remember the love that defines me.
I am recovered from yesterday's nightmare. Here's why:
1. Last night, I packed Alice up and took her down to Le Monde, a restaurant in our neighborhood with a plethora of space for strollers. We grabbed a table outdoors and I ordered a dirty vodka martini and a salad. Alice sat quietly, observing passersby as I read, ate and sipped my deliciously strong drink. After about 20 minutes, Alice was ready to play, so I picked her up and she smiled and enjoyed watching people come and go.
2. This morning my in-laws sent me this lovely present with a note that said I am a good mother:
3. My iPhone 4 arrived today.
4. My brother is on his way up to New York for a visit.
5. Yesterday, in my anger, I wrote to the author of the Motherlode blog on the New York Times website and shared my frustrating experience with her. She published a comment about it!! Find it here.
The heat wave has finally ebbed. Temperatures are no longer triple digits. I decide it's finally safe to take my daughter outside. In an effort to be productive, we decide to go to the grocery store.
I pack Alice up in her infant stroller, which has horrifically wonky wheels, making steering a true challenge. But it has a nice big basket which will hold about three days worth of groceries if I pack them up with perfect precision. As we leave the apartment, my daughter smiles at her surroundings, happy to be out and about.
Forty minutes later, we make it to the checkout line. I notice Alice is getting antsy, so I unload as quickly as I can. "No bags," I tell the cashier - in order to get the groceries home, I have to line them up perfectly, like a mini game of tetris. Just as the cashier swipes the first item, Alice decides she's had enough. She doesn't fuss - she SCREAMS. She has never cried like this in public before. I'm horrified, and rush to pack up as quickly as I can. At this point, there are four people behind me in line, and they are clearly New Yorkers - standing, looking disgusted at me for bringing this wailing (but beautiful) infant into their lives. I try to sooth Alice - giving her the binky, gently push the stroller - but also work swiftly, desperately trying to get out of the store as quickly as possible.
Nothing I do is working to sooth Alice, so I decide to just focus on getting groceries packed and paid for so that I can leave and take care of this little one. Just then, I feel a gentle tap on my shoulder. I turn my head to see a woman in her mid-30s, with a child of her own hanging on her hip. For a brief moment I think, "Thank God! This woman is going to help me." But then it dawns on me - she isn't there to help. She's there to "give me advise."
Before I can say anything, this bitch looks at me and says, "Long term crying is very bad for the baby. It causes dama--."
Before she can finish her next unbearable sentence, I cut her off and say, "I've got it." She walks away.
The more I contemplate what just happened, the angrier I get. I am muttering under my breath, "How dare she? Who says this stuff? Who does she think she is?" I finally finish packing and get Alice out of there. And before I know it, I'm crying too.
So if you drove by Fairway this afternoon, you may have seen a young woman pushing a crying baby in a stroller full of groceries and steered by wonky wheels, crying herself and --- this is the best part --- leaking.
This is my favorite country song-of-the-moment, "House that Built Me." It's a beautiful story of a woman returning to the house she grew up in, trying to reconnect with the person she knew herself to be. It's haunting, and has left me thinking about the importance of place.
To any friends who know us, it's not surprise that Michael & I struggle with the best location to raise our family. We both grew up in Virginia, just outside DC, in suburban communities very different from the urban streets we roam now. Michael lived blocks from his grandparents, visiting with them almost daily. His house was on a cul-de-sac, with a sun room and fenced-in back yard. My house growing up was within walking distance of a little lake and a swimming pool, where my brother and all of our friends spent our summer days. Michael & I were surrounded by family and trees and lawns and green. We lived on streets where summer nights meant crickets and fireflies and barbecue. When we were growing up, we could spend evenings out with friends, drive around listening to music day and night. We could meet friends at church, spend time together in restaurants or at movie theaters without adults. We grew up in a place where freedom and youth found a healthy balance. These... safe, comforting, lush communities shaped who Michael and I have become. They gave us ambition and drive, and also romance and hope and self awareness. "The House that Built Me" reminds me of the best characteristics of these neighborhoods and leaves me wondering where we should be raising our daughter.
Don't get me wrong - New York is an amazing city and it offers a great deal for raising families. The obvious elements (diversity, culture) are actually less profound to me than the overlooked ones (sustainable living, visible reminders of why we should be helping the poor). But it is also incredibly challenging to find the right balance, to keep kids independent while keeping them safe, to protect them from cynicism while encouraging them to grow up aware of their environments.
Maybe I'm in a dreamy haze about my childhood. Maybe, like the song suggests, I'm trying to find a part of myself that I may have lost - a more innocent and less jaded self. But really I think I'm just wrestling with how Michael & I can provide the best for our children.
"But when she stepped off the train in New York, her plain little face looked beautiful for a moment, as if the future were opening before her and its glow were already upon her forehead, as if she were eager and proud and ready to meet it..."