I get emails every so often from young women who want to pursue a career in writing and ask if I have any advice to help them find their “voice.” And what I tell them, every time, is this: just write. A lot. Because if you’re generating content every single day, as much as you can, your voice just comes out; you can’t stop it. It’d be too exhausting to be disingenuous that much.
And in some ways, I’ve experienced something similar with motherhood. When I thought about parenting before I ever became a parent, I figured I’d approach motherhood the way I’ve approached most things in my life: by consciously evaluating pros and cons, deciding on the best course of action, and then doing just that.
You know how people say “Oh, when I’m a parent I’ll do X, Y, and Z”? Usually “I’ll do things differently than my parents did”? Well, maybe you could parent in exactly the way you’d like to for an afternoon…but for years? Decades? All that stuff that was drummed into you by your parents just comes out, and the overwhelming amount of time that you spend with a person who is absolutely dependent on you in every way casts everything that you are into sharp relief.
It is unbelievable the extent to which becoming a mother slams you over the head with your own strengths and limitations.
Something that has been interesting for me to discover: there is nothing more important than my son. Nothing. Kendrick used to have trouble getting my attention when I was writing, but now all he has to say is “You gotta see this” and I’m on my feet and running into the other room to watch our son bestow his lopsided smile on a light fixture, or stare in awe at his best friend PianoBird (it’s a piano that has wings and tweets; don’t ask), or just lay there and be his adorable self. I knew that you were expected to feel that way, and I sure was planning on saying that I felt that way…but honestly? I anticipated feeling a little put out on occasion by how much time and attention the baby was going to require. I expected to be pulled in a million directions, and of course to do whatever it was that I needed to be doing…but to really want to be doing something else while I was doing it.
The fact is that I am not a particularly patient person. I’m just not. But now? Patience – total, calm focus – is one of the qualities that I would say I display more than any other. I can stand for hours in a single spot in a dark nursery, doing mini toe-lifts to achieve the perfect rocking motion, and putting down the baby and picking him up again over and over (and over and over). And it doesn’t bother me. Me, who can’t even get through a half-hour TV show without needing to simultaneously check email, read a magazine, have something on the stove, and clean. If my son is crying, I want absolutely nothing else more than for it to stop, and I will do anything in my power to make that happen…but I don’t want it to stop for me. I want it to stop for him. And there’s a big difference there.
For the baby, my patience feels infinite. But I am still me, and I still have an enormous capacity for frustration. And while all those mothers on Facebook with their “Oh, it’s just so blissful!!!” status updates are most certainly giving you at least part of the truth along with a healthy dose of annoying – new motherhood is nothing short of extraordinary, and, yes, blissful and filled with the kind of love that you just did not know existed (and I’m not saying that lightly) – there is no way to duck around the fact that it’s also anxiety-provoking and stressful, if only because you just really want to do it right so very badly.
Also: adapting to an entirely new way of living on very little sleep is just really freaking difficult.
And all that anxiety about whether he’s hungry or hurt or just crying for no reason, or what to do about my deadline when I can’t put him down for long enough to type, or how to get all the errands I have to do done when it’s too cold to take the baby out, and the dogs are going stir-crazy, and it’s 3PM and I haven’t brushed my teeth yet and why is there no more coffee creamer left…well, like I said: it does not go onto the baby. He gets a reprieve while he figures out for sure whether or not his hands exist.
So where does it go?
Squarely onto the shoulders of my husband.
I had heard that marriages required an adjustment period after a baby’s arrival, but the truth is that after a rough patch early on in our marriage we’d become so weirdly good at communicating that I sort of thought we’d be granted a pass on that one.
For awhile there, things were tough with us. Not bad, exactly, and certainly not malicious…just…different, and different in a way that made me sad. We were just so serious so much of the time, and bore very little resemblance to the lovely fantasy I had in my head of these lighthearted, blissed-out-24/7 parents, drunk on joy and wonder over what they’d created.
But that goes back to what I was saying about how when you’re a new parent it’s hard to dictate the kind of new parent you want to be: even though I had truly internalized how vital it was for me to pay attention to my relationship despite the fact that we had a new baby to take care of, and even though I truly believe that the very best thing that we can do for our son is to have a happy, healthy marriage…I couldn’t do it. For a couple of weeks there, I couldn’t even see Kendrick; all I saw was our son, and what needed to be done for him, and if everything was fine with him there were a million other things that needed to be taken care of before I could turn my attention to my marriage.
It’s not that I wasn’t trying – I was still trying to make Kendrick’s favorite foods, and put on a little makeup before he came home, and have actual adult conversations like actual adult people (none of these, by the way, were things he asked or expected of me – they’re things I wanted to do because I felt they were important to me) – but even though I was going through the motions of doing those things, it was like I had blinders on, and my husband was on the outside of those blinders, and pretty much anything he said or did that wasn’t directly helping me handle this new responsibility made me nuts. I just didn’t really care about how his day had gone, and that’s something that I’m used to caring about very much. I started feeling competitive about who was working harder; who had the tougher day-to-day schedule. And this scared me – I worried that our relationship would never again be what it once was, that we’d never again have the times together that made us so us.
But I figured out soon enough that you can’t micro-manage how you are in those first few weeks; when life as you know it is thrown into total (and in many ways totally wonderful) disarray, you just are who you are, and you have to have faith that who you are is someone who loves your partner, and is loved in return…and when the waters calm down, there you’ll both be.
I suppose what I’m saying is that it’s so important to be thoughtful about your relationship, and approach it with care and attention…but you can also take a minute off once in awhile, when things get really crazy. During those couple of weeks when things were weird between us, we made the decision to not panic or make grand statements about the future of our marriage or who we were and how we had changed now that we were Parents. We were just sort of gentle with each other, and allowed each other to go off and be perhaps less than the partners we had come to expect…mostly because what we had built over time gave us the faith that we’d both still be there waiting when our life returned to something like the one we knew. The work that we’d put into learning how to communicate, as it turned out, wasn’t for nothing. It created a foundation, one that built up over time, and one that let us bend when we needed to.
And now, as things are smoothing out and we’re getting into our parenting groove, we’re finding a new kind of normal. The blinders are off, and we’re us again, just hanging out by the Christmas tree with our little dogs and our baby boy.
Brand-new parenthood changes things, for sure, but when the storm settles you’re still both you. There’s just one more “you” added to the equation.