I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Sometimes it’s tricky to be a mama, and sometimes we wonder if we are making the right decisions or doing what is best for our families and ourselves. This piece is to share how my daughter taught me to see that I am making the impact I had hoped.
My husband is awesome. Everybody loves him. He is patient, he is kind, he is fun, he is smart, and he is the best father. He’s the kind of dad who, from the moment I found out I was pregnant, was ready to tag in and do whatever he could to help. He bought me the pregnancy pillow, he put my socks on before bed every night because despite the size of my swollen feet, they were somehow still cold, he coached me so excitedly and enthusiastically through labor that I was actually smiling through contractions. Two hours of pushing later, and the love of my life was officially a dad.
Lucky for me, he’s a teacher, so when we had our daughter in early summer, he was home to be my support. I got a shower every day, I ate three meals every day, laundry was done, and I honestly never felt like I was alone. I wanted so badly to be able include him that I took a backseat whenever possible, as much as a breastfeeding mom (well attempting to be a breastfeeding mom) could. It may have also been that even though I had a 24-hour support system I was overwhelmed, and the backseat seemed like the safest place to be.
From the minute I gave birth, I was worried about how I would adjust going back to work. I had a nearly four-hour commute a day on public transportation and knew that I would see my kid for a scant two hours that would be made up of drop-offs and bedtime routines. I was sitting in my mesh hospital underwear, already jealous of my teacher husband who would get to pick her up at 3:00 p.m. and spend one-on-one time with her. I was preemptively resenting the fact that I would always be the leaver, and he would get to be her hero at the end of the day. I thought constantly about how my daughter would adjust to going from having two parents around all the time to being with strangers. I didn’t hold her as much as I wanted to because in a room full of eight babies, I knew she could not always be picked up. I couldn’t bear the thought of her crying for eight or nine hours (even though I had no idea if that would happen), and I wanted her to be prepared. Is it even possible to “prepare” a 12-week old? Sadly, for teachers, summer does not go on forever, and my teacher husband went back to work. I had some alone time with my girl, and to be honest, I don’t remember most of it.
I remember worrying about her weight because I wasn’t having a successful experience breastfeeding. I remember doing some tummy time and having some dress up photo shoots, but what I remember most is how big my husband’s smile would be when he would walk in the door. He would give me a kiss and immediately reach for her. Seeing them together made my heart burst, and another Daddy wrapped around a little girl’s finger was born. The end of my 12 weeks was fast approaching, and the anticipation of returning to work was crippling.
There were some positives. I liked my job. It was challenging, interesting, and felt very satisfying. I also had an amazing boss who allowed me to work from home two days a week. It gave me relief from the commute, and it allowed for an adjustment to daycare, and I will be forever grateful that she gave me that opportunity. On the days that I commuted, I was up at 5 a.m. to pump a minuscule amount of breast milk, get myself somewhat prepared for the day, and then wake up my sleeping infant because you know, Mommy has a train to catch.
My first day back commuting I cried the whole time I got her ready, until she fountain-peed all over me. She had never done that before. I mean, it was a huge pee that hit the dog who was shuffling nervously under my feet because he knew something was amiss from the routine. Tears turned to laughter, and I reached deep down for my grit and got her dressed.
We were always the first ones when daycare opened at 6:30 a.m. I had to catch a 6:52 a.m. train that was a ten-minute drive away, so this needed to always be a neat operation. It required tons of prep work, and a very small margin of error. I dropped off a slew of bottles, half of them formula and half of them breast milk because I couldn’t even pump enough for one full bottle for the day for her, put her bag away, buckled her in a little swing, gave her a kiss, and left the room without looking back. Then I would throw her empty car seat in the storage room so my husband could get it later and haul ass to the train. Most days I miraculously made it. I would get a seat, shove all my bags to one spot, take a breath and try and put my work brain on. By the time I got to my desk at 8:30 a.m. I was exhausted.
The way home was not much better. Running for trains, trying to get home to see my girl for a few minutes of playtime, which translated to: feed her, put her to bed, then start the second shift. It was a glamorous few hours of washing bottles, eating while standing, packing lunches, and measuring out more half-pumped bottles just to start the grind all over again. This went on for a full year. I decided it was time to make a move. I left my challenging, interesting, satisfying job and returned to a field I had previously worked in.
Switching back to my former career meant that I would be taking a massive pay cut, but my new job was in my neighborhood and the daycare was incredibly close. No more running for trains, no more missing her all day, just no more. This is it, I thought. This is my moment, the one where I am now my daughter’s hero and my amazing, awesome, wonderful, husband that everyone loves would now be in second place. I know this isn’t a competition, but as a wise fictitious race car driver Ricky Bobby once said, “If you’re not first, you’re last!”
Then the new job started, and it was not what I expected. While I had instantly clicked with my new work family, I was even less present than when I was commuting nearly four hours a day. The job entailed a lot of late nights and weekend work. While I anticipated some of it, the volume exceeded what I thought was expected, and so began my deep relationship with Moana and Sing. I am a TV watcher, and I always have been. I find it relaxing, I like to zone out, and in this case, I was desperately depending on it to help me get through morning with my daughter.
Having a five-minute commute was fantastic, but as I mentioned, my heroic husband is a teacher and was gone very early. This meant that every morning my daughter, who has major FOMO and gets up with the sun, was my responsibility for hours before an incredibly stressful workday would begin. My “moment,” my chance to be number one was fraught with anxiety of meltdowns, trying to balance my workload, cleaning the house, all while trying to be happy that I had finally got what I wanted. Inevitably, Moana, Sing, or some combination of the two would go on and I would pray that she would just sit there. I was home, and I was depending on movies to give me the time to process everything that was being thrown at me.
I felt defeated, I felt like an inadequate mother, and — if I’m being honest — being a wife was pretty far down in the order of priorities. The intense competition I created with my husband was waning, as I was completely stressed out and drowning further and further away from my goal of wanting to strengthen a relationship with my daughter that I perceived to be weak. I wish I could have taken my head out of the sand to see all the signs that she was giving me that I was indeed a powerful figure in her life.
It was not until I switched jobs, again, that I was able to start to see the light. This third job was a lucky right place, right time, right bosses, right everything, and the switch has been life-changing. Things started to balance out. I started to take a step back, and I was finally hearing what my daughter was saying:
“Mama, come watch Moana with me,” sounded like “Mama, I need your attention now,” which is really “Mama, I need a snuggle.”
“Mama, I need your help putting my shirt on,” sounded like “Mama, I’m trying to make you late,” which is really, “Mama, I want to tell you a story while I get dressed.”
After the third time going in to tuck her in, “Mama, I need a tissue!” sounded like “Mama, I am doing everything in my power to avoid going to bed,” which is really “Mama, I just need to see you one last time before I shut my eyes.”
Once I started to see the true meaning behind her words, it opened a whole world that I had been missing. I started noticing that if I was eating with my fork in my left hand, she would switch her fork. I started noticing that if I cleared my throat, she cleared her throat. I started noticing that she called me babe the way I called her babe. I started noticing that if she perceived I wasn’t feeling well, she came over and gave me hugs and kisses and told me it’s okay. She was mimicking me, emulating my actions, and I had been missing it.
The past year has been filled with moments of joy instead of despair over my inability to parent. It has been filled with conversations with my husband about how much I appreciate what he contributes instead of picking a fight over something insignificant. (It’s not perfect, but we are working on it.) Instead of living in the dark, I’m looking for the light and finding it where I least expect it.
My most recent example was from just last week. I was putting my daughter to bed after a particularly long day, and I was asking if she wanted her wild, beautiful curls up or down, and she said, “I want them up, just like you mama.” As I fumbled to find her hair tie in the dark, my heart swelled. She is the Ethel to my Lucy, and I could not be more grateful that I finally figured out how to recognize it.