It’s December 2015, and my life is not my own anymore. Our four-and-a-half pound premature baby hiccups in her makeshift bedroom, a breakfast nook in our new apartment surrounded by unpacked boxes. Every little sound, every grimace, pings my nerves. I am anxious for her and for me; worried I will never make a single friend with children, mourning what my husband and I had before. Everything changes in a literal heartbeat.
“Don’t worry,” say The Mothers – the collective mothers, the ones in Facebook groups, my friends’ mothers, the older women I know from work. “It gets easier. I promise.”
It’s March 2019, and in a second literal heartbeat, things change again. We feel more joy, less stress this time around, but she is still an adjustment. We overcompensate with our older daughter and try to keep her life the same. But the flow of household energy shifts, and she wonders why we all can’t read books together at bedtime anymore. She asks when her sister will know her. I wonder when I’ll ever stop washing bibs.
But The Mothers reassure: “Two is much harder than one, but it will get easier.” By now, The Mothers include actual friends who are mothers. People to laugh with you in the preschool parking lot when you’ve forgotten how to clip an infant car seat into collapsible wheels.
It does get easier, in some ways. I sleep without interruption. We live in a house with real bedrooms, and we have a community to lean into. We have routines, and schedules, and childcare, and chances to shower. We have date nights and long weekends. Our children love each other and can show that love. I can show them love without worrying sick.
Even I am guilty of doling out reassurance to new mothers. In fact, I just did last weekend, to a tired young woman at a beer garden with a sleeping newborn beside her. She saw me with the girls and was staring at us and smiling like she wanted to talk. She asked how old they were and was eager to tell me about her 14-week-old’s sleep patterns—oh girl, I get it. The words just slipped right out of my mouth: “It gets easier, I promise.” In the moment, I felt the need to pick her up. To lift her from that newborn triage with the promise that she’d become a functioning human again, which she will.
But in other ways, the promise is hollow, because it hasn’t gotten easier. As my daughters – particularly, my rising kindergartener – get older, I am realizing how simple the tribulations of potty training and sleep regressions actually are. Our challenges now are not just physical but logistical, intellectual, and emotional.
The most straightforward are her interests—she has them, so that’s good. But I am trying to pay closer attention so I can help her explore them. The activities for kids her age almost inevitably conflict with my work schedule, so we have to choose wisely, because we can’t do them all. And some of her interests are learned skills, like tennis and dance. She will need to practice and gain confidence, even if she makes mistakes and wants to shut down. Not all of that confidence comes from me, but some of it does. The same goes for her education. Sure, I’d rather rush through our bedtime routine because I just finished reviewing a brief and I still need to make dinner, but I know this book is a good one to sound out words in, so I do it. Not all of her skills will come from me, but it’s ignorant to assume my role can be outsourced. She needs more of my presence than ever before.
Also, her personality is changing—she’s pressing buttons. At day camp this summer, she’s moved up to the next age group with a larger all-girl bunk and teenage girl counselors. She can be rude and disrespectful. Sometimes, she’ll look me right in the face and do the exact opposite of what I told her, and I know she’s just trying to figure out boundaries and is probably exhausted, but I don’t like this side of her. We’ve had to rethink consequences, and it’s not always clear what the right answer is.
Because just as much I want to punish her, I also acknowledge she is becoming more like me. She is nervous—I see it. She always wants to be perfect and is incredibly hard on herself for being wrong. She is a deep thinker with questions too profound for her age. She wants all the attention and none of it at the same time. These traits are not learned behaviors; they are just who she is.
Most complicated of all, she is watching now. All the time. She is observing how I react and the things I say. The way my husband and I talk to each other. It’s a heavy thought but one that crosses my mind: my daughters will model the women they become after me, or they won’t. Either way, the onus feels different now, like I need to set a good example. I am trying to be more generous. I am trying to be kind. I am trying to be a better version of the person I actually am, for them.
Someday sooner than I realize, Hazel will become a tween, then a teen. She’ll be able to meet her own proximate needs, but her problems may be larger than hating our frozen meatballs at dinnertime. Even if my lessons continue, my control will be gone. I will need to hope she does the right thing when faced with hard choices. Holding my breath will be harder than what I’m going through now.
When each of my daughters was little, I observed something: every time I thought I couldn’t take a second more of whatever the challenge was, it would stop. A cease fire. And then just as life would seem to settle in, as we would adapt to a new rhythm and try to tell ourselves it had indeed gotten easier, something would happen again.
It gets harder again.
Let’s stop telling new moms it gets easier. This is not a fair promise for the hardest job in the world. We just get better at it. We just become more ready for them to change.