I’m interested in what you might call the domestic.
This interest is both personal (I garden, I make jam, I like to decorate, I got a little obsessed with Marie Kondo a couple years ago) and intellectual (read this). At a terrific?conference on motherhood a year ago, I was fascinated by a discussion of how motherhood isn’t all about the domestic noise?or domestic bliss?we think it is, not necessarily about the diaper genie and spitting up and sleep training (I know, I know). No, said the three amazing mother-writers: it’s also about the way time and space and identity close up, spread out, open, and morph when one becomes a mother. Memory fails. Projects go unfinished. Sleep deprivation turns ordinary occurrences into the stuff of magical realism. In other words: motherhood is about the diaper genie and spitting up and sleep training?but very much also about how we relate to those mundane things and still keep our sense of self.
Is this a struggle? That’s an understatement.
Now, dads change too?of course they do?but mothers are frequently hit with a tsunami when their kids are born: a tsunami of love, sure, but also the invasion of?a new kind of physicality that isn’t, always, welcome. Your body becomes something other the minute you get pregnant, in service to another human in a way it’s never been before. And this changes women. I know new moms who left academia after their kids were born, who realized they were in the wrong field entirely, moms who hated being mothers, who deeply resented breastfeeding. On the other end of the spectrum are the moms who, before they had kids, swore they would be rigid and scheduled and ended up soft, pliable, co-sleeping and nursing til their kids were three, all in a haze of domestic bliss.
But in some ways, the largest change when one has kids is the way one relates to the space at home. It may be that before having kids you were out every night, and your preferred dinner was takeout. You may have sent your laundry down the street. You may have worked in the evenings. Or slept until nine every day. You may have scarcely been home.
Once kids are on the scene, though, the center shifts drastically.
To the kitchen. The kitchen is like the eye of the hurricane.
I spend so much of my life now on simple food prep, it’s astounding.?I’ve always been into cooking and eating well, and I’ve worked a bunch in the food industry, but food prep became something else entirely when I had kids. Sometimes, when I see myself pumping one breast with my left hand?while shoving a sandwich into a reusable sandwich bag with the other, while reminding B not to forget the lunchbox of leftovers in the fridge as I pause to lift?a bite of cereal into my mouth, I have to laugh just a little. Into a bottle goes the milk, into a lunch bag goes the sandwich, into the backpack goes the grownup lunch, there’s a mad flurry to leave the house?and then it starts all over at dinnertime.
And then there’s the laundry. Oh boy, the laundry.
How one baby can make the laundry multiply four-fold, I don’t get. Granted, we do cloth diapers?most of the time?and that is a labor of love. But even without the dipes, we’re folding and hanging and dryering and putting away all. Day. Long. Perhaps it’s the spit up. Perhaps it’s that the baby’s arrival coincided with L’s penchant for wearing a new pair of pajamas every damn night. Probably it’s about the drool on the sheets and the bibs and the spit-up cloths.
Oh, and the sleeping.
Sometimes, at night, I feel the energy of the four of us in our various corners of the house, like we’re breathing sleepy life into the space between the walls. It’s a funny sensation, one I didn’t have when L was a baby. This past year, at various times we’ve slept in many different?configurations:
Baby S and I in the bed together,?nursing all night long.?B on the couch.?L in the lower bunk is his room.
Me in the lower bunk, L in the upper,?baby in his crib, B in the bed.
B back on the couch. Baby all by himself in the bedroom, L and I in the lower bunk together.
For three nights? L and S in their room together and B and I in our room?together.?(Domestic bliss.)
Aaand, since that didn’t work out so well, now B, S, L, and I in our bedroom, L on the floor, while S works it out in the boys’ room.
It’s musical beds around here, people.
Of course it’s easy for all of this?noise?to seem like the end-all-be-all of parenting. But is there still?intellectual curiosity to be found, that sense of morphing, that sense that the mundane has become something magical?
Two nights ago, out of nowhere, L, who’s been moody and teenagery of late, said to me out of nowhere, “You’re my family, mom,” and looked at me in this earnest, loving way.
“Do you want to hear a song about that?” I asked, and then I sang him this.
L crying, pressing his earnest little brown-eyed face, his big mop of blondish-brownish tangly hair into my belly.
“I’m so lucky you’re my family, Mom,” he cried, and then I found myself crying too, telling him, “I’m so lucky. How did I get so lucky to have a kid like you?” The two of us there (in the kitchen! Where else?), embracing, loving one another, grateful. Wow.
And then we went and read Harry Potter with B while the baby slept.
A few months ago, I wrote this blog post when I was feeling vulnerable about my impending child. After wanting him so fiercely for so many long years, the prospect of his arrival was completely freaking me out.
To be expected, I suppose. Change is hard.
A few weeks ago, in a yoga class, the teacher moved us from upward dog to downward dog.
“Easy through the transition,” she said. “Take it slowly,” and I immediately thought to myself, Oh. I’d forgotten.?
To take it slowly, I mean.
As I’m writing this post?and, full disclosure, I’m scheduling it for a couple weeks out, so who knows what I’ll be feeling by the time you read this?I’ve been having a bit of a hard time. Feeling vulnerable. There’s been so much joy in my life, with my summer off, with Baby S growing into this little kid who grabs my?eyeballs and imitates me hooting like an owl and grins and kicks his legs whenever L walks into the room. So much joy.
And yet, so much change: he doesn’t fall asleep on my shoulder after nursing in the middle of the night anymore, his weight there like a little warm delicious bean bag. Most nights, he fusses and wriggles, and I think, why haven’t we successfully?night weaned yet? (But I digress.) We moved him into L’s room, and while I could barely contain my joy at having my bedroom back, another small piece of me thought, He'll be going off to college any minute now. Click To Tweet
And more than all of that, I’m feeling like I’m finally coming out of the postpartum period and finding myself again: my angsty writer self, the one who agonizes over her success and whether she’s any good. Yup, I’ve been tossing around those old dark beans.
Transitions are difficult. As poet Mark Halliday says in his beautiful poem “64 Elmgrove,”?about losing his first love:
“I am not at all a Hindu, I’ve never been a Hindu/I want to keep things?/what I can’t lose is the feeling that things are/taken away because I haven’t understood/the right way to hold them close.”
What is the right way to hold things close? I don’t know, but I’m really trying to find out.
Before you gasp in horror and clutch your pearls (or think to yourself, what’s the big deal? We’re super into?sleep training at our crib, homeys), hear me out.
There was so. Much. Crying. Going. On. Anyway.
So much. At bedtime, in our arms, out of our arms. At 12:30 a.m., probably because we’d ended up rocking him?down five hours earlier and there’s this little gem called Object Permanence to worry about (wait. I fell asleep in their arms, and now I’ve awoken in the crib, and I’m only a baby and what the f%^k is going on, here?!). Then maybe again at 2:00 a.m. And at five.
It all came to a head the night B and I were cowering in the living room holding each other, unsure what to do next. One or the other of us had just rocked Baby S back to sleep in our arms, placed him gently back in the crib, and tiptoed out?only to have him burst into wails two seconds later. It was hours before he should have wanted to nurse at this point. I think I nursed him anyway. More tears, as soon as his body hit the mattress. There?we were in the living room, whispering to one another, wide awake, neither of us sure what to do. Click To TweetI probably nursed him again. B probably soothed him again. I dunno. I’ve repressed it. Eventually, some or all of us went back to sleep.
The next day, bleary-eyed, I did some reading online. I called a trusted friend. I realized I was officially at the end of my rope. With L, I had nearly a full year of sleep patience in me before something had to give. With S, I made it to 8.5 months. I didn’t want him to be miserable, but I also really suspected that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t really loving all the crying either (if he desperately wanted to be soothed, then how come no amount of holding and rocking and nursing satisfied him?).
And we thought, sleep training? Cry it out? Maybe?
We realized, from doing a bunch of reading, that bedtimes really were the culprit. If he had a bad bedtime, or if he fell asleep in one of our arms, he wouldn’t be able to self-soothe in the middle of the night. Besides, the bedtimes were predictably the worst, just the worst, so much drama, 45 minutes of crying and rocking and soothing that wasn’t really working. So, we decided, we’d start there. We’d just…leave him to work it out.
I’ll spare you the gory details, except to say that there was one?only one?moment when I felt a little?awful about the situation. I thought cry it out took months on end of heartache. Nope. It?took a mere two nights before Baby S was crying just a tiny bit at bedtime, then not at all. He did not wake up emotionally scarred. I’ve told him so many times since then that I really love him. He appears to believe me. He appears happier, in fact. He had stopped being his ridiculously smiley self for a while there, you guys. (It goes without saying that so had I.) Now? He’s back to normal. Bedtimes, knock wood, are a breeze, a little cooing and wham, down. He is crying so much less now than he was before. Wow.
I know baby sleep is always a work in progress, so I won’t jinx anything, here, but suffice to say we’re all just delighted by this turn of events. Now to finish?night weaning and figure out early wakings and naps (again, it’s a process, did I mention?).
What are your baby (or big kid, or, hell, adult) sleep dramas? I love hearing from you.
I like parties. I’m an extrovert, and a foodie, and I like an excuse to have a drink or two, so sometimes I get a liiiiittle excited about throwing a bash.
Of course, with children, especially an eight-month-old baby,?parties are that much harder to pull off. I decided to go for it anyway. I hired a sitter to handle Baby S for two hours before it started. I pulled in the amazing chef sister-in-law.?I said yes to everyone who offered to bring food, and darned if we didn’t have a hell of a nice afternoon in the backyard, feasting on gluten-free, mostly veggie food (plus a giant Momofuku pork butt brought by other master chef friends).?I’d made a scavenger hunt for the kids (PM me for the list! It was a total hit), and a slideshow for the birthday man/boy, and a friend brought a gorgeous cake. My musical pals and I?even played “Hotel California” live since it was a hit in 1977, the year he was born.
“I’m sorry I haven’t seen you in so long,” I said to a couple of friends I dearly love and don’t see very often.
“I know,” they said. “We figured you’ve just been in Baby Mode the past few months.”
Baby Mode? I thought. Nah. Try Survival Mode.?
Baby Mode, to me, conjures images of the first ten weeks. You barely put on your shirt, because you’re nursing all the time. You sleep when the baby sleeps. You accept all offers of food. (I’m sensing a theme!) Your washer and dryer run constantly. You inhabit the world in a haze of blissful love and exhausted blues, sometimes yo-yoing between the two. If you’re lucky, you’re getting paid for this time to bond with your baby, or your partner is home for a few weeks, or your mom or mother-in-law has come to visit. If you’re not, you’re a bleary-eyed mess, lonely, hungry, sore, confused. It's a time you'll scarcely remember, because you're so busy trying to sleep and get the baby to sleep that your memory is shot. Click To Tweet
Looking back, though, that time last fall sounds really, really nice.
Not that I want to return to it, exactly, but it sounds warm and fuzzy and soft-edged and not at all like what came after: the stark reality of returning to work full time when the baby was four months old. Here’s what that looked like:
Dropping the baby off with a nanny I barely knew and feeling like an anxious wreck about it
Trying to find work clothes that didn’t have spit-up on them and that could be easily lifted over my head in a cramped “Nursing Mothers” room at school
Having no idea what was for dinner on any given night, because who can plan ahead?
The washer and dryer running constantly, but the laundry never folded
Trying to be an activist mama, carting the baby around to political events on my light days and later, exhausted, wishing I hadn’t
Hungry. All. The. Time.
The nagging sensation that I was parenting two kids at home?and 75 more?in the classroom
Drinking a large green tea before every class so I’d find the energy to make comma splices more exciting than whatever was distracting my students on YouTube, Snapchat, or Instagram
Deciding around Spring Break that it was futile to even think about blogging, writing, or submitting work until the semester was over
It wasn’t?all bad, of course. After we got into a groove with childcare, I appreciated the sensation of what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas (if the baby took a crappy nap on a Monday, well, it just wasn’t my problem!). There are always great moments in the classroom. And I like a challenge. But since February I’ve needed?some space to breathe, to read, to write, and to meditate, and there’s been absolutely no space. Most Americans are familiar with this sensation, I know. Most Americans exist at least part of every year in survival mode. And we working moms? We’re there much of the time.
And so, readers, I’m delighted to announce that I am officially on maternity leave again. The nature of my job, and the nature of California’s Paid Family Leave laws, have made the stars align: I’m not?teaching this summer term. And I’m beyond psyched about it. I have 14 million writing projects to attend to?and I might even go to yoga occasionally. And learn how to use the crockpot. And fold some laundry. And spend some un-rushed, unfettered, blissful time with my kids.
I’ve never quite thought of myself as a Mommy Blogger. I?ve never felt the urge to post photos of my dear little ones with their new haircuts, or links to recipes like these surprisingly delicious muffin-tin mini meatloafs with broccoli stem slaw, which we whipped up for dinner last night with some roasted sweet potatoes and the last artichoke from the garden. I certainly haven’t felt?the urge to write blog posts about sleep training, say. Until now.
Why? Because the baby’s sleep?drama is?giving me an existential crisis. And existential crises? They?re more of my bailiwick.
It was a rotten strange weekend. The Hubs was at a conference in Utah from Wednesday until Sunday, and wouldn?t you know that L picked that exact window to come down with the flu. Now, L is a pretty great sick kid; I?ve only had to wash vomit off the rug once in his life so far, and mostly he listlessly reads comic books and watches Wild Kratts or Planet Earth and demands occasional snuggles.?Best of all, he?s tended to get sick on the days I don?t teach, or when I?m on summer/winter break. This, of course, is a blessing and a curse: I don?t have to miss classes I?d later have to make up. I do have to miss my break time, though, when I make writing to-do lists a mile long and often pick up some freelance work.
In any event, way back when L was my only, these sick days were kind of mellow and nice. Then Baby S came along. Until recently, BS?ha! Get it??has been a promising sleeper. I won’t lie and say he’s been a great one, but certainly a promising one. Low-drama bedtimes, somewhat predictable night-waking, solid naps. Until sometime?a week or two ago, that is, when he started fighting those bedtimes, hard. He just needs some extra comfort tonight, we thought to ourselves. So we went in to soothe him. Then we went in again. And again. And again. The next night, the same.
Then something catastrophic?happened: he stopped being able to settle his body at bedtime. He’d start impulsively pulling himself up to standing, his new skill. Once up, he’d realize he didn’t want to be there, but he couldn’t figure out how to get down. So he screamed. At first, this happened only at bedtime, and after much soothing?me leaving, him wailing, me going back in, rinse, repeat?he’d fall asleep. Then it started happening at nap time. And in?the middle of the night. Did?I mention B was in Utah, and L was sick??This weekend, my boys and I?certainly had our share of mellow and nice?butI spent most of Friday night rocking a baby, feeling like I was going to lose my mind. Click To Tweet
Sleep training, for those who don’t know, involves, well, training your kid to sleep better. While really it can mean any kind of attempt at getting a kid to adopt a schedule, for most of us the phrase?immediately conjures the practice known in these parts as Cry It Out (CIO), e.g., leaving your child to cry until he figures it out/falls asleep. This philosophy?engenders deep enthusiasm from approximately 50% of parents and cries of “child abuse!” from the other 50%. I can’t muster either sentiment about CIO, having never done it. I remember when L was a baby, and I was bleary-eyed with exhaustion, realizing that my parenting philosophy, while not in the attachment parenting camp, nonetheless didn’t allow me to just leave L to cry. I believed something about trust, and not leaving him alone in distress. I believed in going to him when he was upset. It felt very fundamental to my ethos as a parent, in fact, this basic notion: that I would meet his emotional needs. Clearly, if he was crying really hard, he had some emotional need I needed to meet. Right?
So we didn’t ever do CIO.
This second time around, my urge is still to go in to a crying baby. I still believe all that stuff I believed eight years ago. But circa three a.m., or at bedtime after a very long day, sometimes that resolve wavers. I wasn’t working when L was eight months old, for one thing. I also wasn’t 43. And I hadn’t seen the ebbs and flows of a child’s emotional life yet and realized that kids are actually pretty resilient. So when I find myself?making dramatic teary statements about self-harm and/or feeling like I’m just not capable of pulling off this whole parenting thing anymore, a sensible little bird pops up on my?shoulder and whispers, just?go back to bed and pull the pillow over your head, Mama. He’ll?be okay.?
And honestly? I think he will. I don’t know which way this will end up.?Knowing?us, we’ll continue to take some middle ground route, nudging S at bedtimes and at nap times. Or maybe we’ll give in and let him?cry it out. I certainly wouldn’t judge a parent who made that choice, given the way I’ve been feeling lately.
Either way, I do know it will work out. It has to, right? L is a champion sleeper now, and was by the time he was one (after some really rough months). But in the meantime, I’m struggling. The nights have been sleepless more than sleep-more. The nap times, I dread. And my inconsistency about it all, my self-doubt, well, it all circles back to larger personality traits that I wrestle with constantly, like my inability to make decisions or plans and then firmly stick to them. I feel like, every night, I’m reinventing some wheel and second-guessing my decisions. Should I go in right away? Let him complain for five? Or ten? Or not at all? How long should I leave him between go-ins? Am I a bad person? Would that other mom I greatly admire let her kids cry? And why the hell can’t he just go back to the way things were a month ago and fall asleep peacefully?
All of which is to say, what’s pretty much a simple fact of life?babies need help with sleep?becomes some kind of referendum on my suitableness as an adult, made worse because I’m overtired. Let me tell you, there is a great irony to lying awake in the night worrying about your kid’s sleep when you just aren’t getting enough of it yourself.
And that, friends, is why sleep training sucks.
What’s your experience with sleep or sleep training? I’m all ears! Comment it up below.
I’m not complaining. Really.?But it does suck to be a working mom sometimes. I’m up half the night nursing. I rally at seven (fine, maybe 7:30), stagger into the shower, out to make tea. Rush the baby to the nanny,?rush back home?to plan class. Pump. Wash the pump. Pack up the pump. Pack up the class notes. Head to BART. Get to school. Photocopy. Teach. Pump. Teach some more. Leave. Pump again at home. Wash the pump. Pump. Pump again. And again. And again.
My Medela Pump In Style?has become a wizened old thing, with a dangerous teaser of mold in the tubing (pipe cleaners, stat!), dried breast milk and dust adorning the stylish black carrier bag, and the bottle labels worn clean from four daily washings (let alone the twice-a-week-which-is-way-less-than-they-recommend sanitizing). My Medela, a gift from a friend, is my constant companion; I perseverate, while I’m teaching, about forgetting it in the classroom or leaving it on BART. I blindly sense its presence, glancing down to make sure it’s right where I left it in the middle of a lecture on “theme” or “sensory details.” If I lost the breast pump, then where would I be?
Turgid. My breasts would be turgid. And the baby might?have to drink formula?(gasp!).?
Breast pump parts drying in plastic “grass,” one of the few baby purchases I have made (and adore) this time around.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m certainly not above formula. Baby S has consumed some in his day. But since I have these knockers that have been producing pretty well, and a baby with a champion latch (my friend said we should do a breastfeeding video!), and a whole lot of propaganda reminding me that “breast is best,”?I might as well use what nature gave me.?A working mom can only produce so much, however, and it is a little-known phenomenon (someone please tell me this happened to them, too?) that when the baby drinks from a bottle he drinks much more heartily.
To wit: In a day and a half, pumping three times a day and at?night, glass of wine be damned,?I produce three bottles. The next day while I’m at work? He might want?four. The math just doesn’t add up. When we’re home together, he’s fine; my boobs satisfy. When I’m not there, he’s like a ravenous little shark, demanding more, more, more (see above, under “the miracles of formula in a pinch”).
Working mom makes lunches for everyone.
And so, readers, I pump. I enter the “Nursing Moms Room” at school, praying a student doesn’t pound on the door after spraining her ankle on the stairs, mistaking the meaning of “nursing” in this context (this happened last week). I hike up my dress. I situate the pump, plug it in. Attach the flange to the yellow doohickey to the white doohickey. Turn it on. Pop ‘er on. Scroll through my phone if I can get a hand free. I have twenty minutes for this adventure, plus any time I might need to, say, pee, or make a photocopy, or eat a bite of lunch. God forbid I need to?eat some lunch!
And when I’m done, I pull the dress back down, hopping around on one foot struggling with the zipper on the back (why did I wear this trickily-zippered empire-waist?dress that’s tight across the chest? Oh right, because it hides my postpartum?belly fat). I pack my breast milk into my handy freezer bag, and head back to the classroom, a tiny bit disheveled and hoping?I don’t look like I just had a quickie in the hall with a stranger (I assure you, class, my breasts were engaged in a different pursuit). I teach, perseverating on the breast pump stowed beneath the desk.
Don’t let me forget you, I pray. We need each other now.