My husband, son and I were sitting at one of the outside tables of our favorite coffee shop in New Orleans. I was struggling to feed my son biscuits and gravy and to hold him back from running in the street while also trying to enjoy my iced coffee. There are always great people at this coffee shop and for the ten + years that I have been going here - it’s been guaranteed that I will meet someone interesting if I’m in the mood to talk or at the very least I will overhear snippets of enlivening conversation. Today there was a couple sitting behind us with a new baby. A young and hip looking couple and they were with the girl’s parents. Their baby gear was perfect for the occasion - an expensive stroller with a lovely bassinet, and the mother wore a gorgeous nursing dress which she deftly moved the baby under while continuing her adult conversation. The new father was a jazz musician and he was discussing his upcoming tour in Amsterdam. The new mother asserted to her parents that she and the baby would be joining him, as usual, on the tour. They really had it down. I recognized exactly what stage of parenting they were in, remembering it from my own life. The baby was all of two weeks old, and they were still leading the lives they had led for the last 30 something years, only now with a cute sidekick in cool baby gear. The baby was not yet in charge. I am not begrudging this couple their ideas about parenthood. I am sure they will take that trip to Amsterdam and the child is lucky to have creative and adventurous parents. I am simply sympathising with their future selves as I see them going through what I think is a common stage in parenthood - the period before you really realize just to what extent your life is irrevocably changed. And contrary to what advertising, movies, TV, and sometimes other parents will tell you - it doesn’t always feel as if it's All for the better immediately.
When my first son was born I lived in Bushwick Brooklyn. I had lived there on and off from 2004 until 2012. I had a really nice lifestyle there. When I first moved to the area there was only one coffee shop and a handful of restaurants - you would run into the same people every day, giving it a really great small town inside a huge city vibe. By 2012 there were more new business then I could ever name. There were often throngs of people just walking around, including tourists from other countries. Bushwick was on the map and the party was literally at my front door. I knew a lot of people from having been there so long and I really felt at home. I took my baby with me to endless art openings, rooftop parties, feminist rallies, museums - and even to my dirty art studio sometimes. I tried painting in my studio while he sat nearby in bouncy seats. I tried taking him to the bar on the corner where I used to enjoy sitting outside with my laptop for a few hours sipping on a beer and saying hi to friends walking by. It was sort of fun to have him with me and still be able to go out. But something was missing.. I wasn’t actually very happy about the situation. I certainly hadn’t found anything resembling balance yet. I was the mother who was mourning the loss of her old life while simultaneously trying to still live it. I was Not the mother whose heart “grew two sizes” when she looked at her sleeping baby. All around me I saw mothers who you could really believe when they said things like “I’ve never known love like this before!” and I wondered what they had that I didn’t. Even though I had a son I had the strangest sensation that the word mother didn’t really apply to me - it wasn’t my identity yet. I told my grandmother I didn’t feel like a mother. She said “It takes a while.” Now that was something I hadn’t considered. According to the lines I’d been fed my whole life, nothing would be more natural than feeling “like a mother.” Then I recalled something my grandmother had said to me a long time ago. It was something harrowing and frightening. I was young when she made her confession to me, still in college, and I remember being absolutely shocked. What she told me was that she felt like running away after her kids were born. I’d never heard a woman say anything like this before.. or even intimate it. Life is complex and I should mention that she also regularly referred to the time when her children were between newborn and five as the sweetest of her life. So much so that her advice to me if I had children was to try not to work full time during those years when the kids were young, but to stay with them and protect their innocence. Like many mothers she was able to feel these two strong emotions at the same time. Grammy was young when she got married and had kids, and she did it all within a span of two years. Before she found herself married to a man she had met a mere month earlier (she and my grandfather had a whirlwind romance), then moved across the country to a place she had never lived, and then finally with two small children both under two years old, she had led quite a different life. She had been a young professional - using her considerable artistic talent to illustrate Wonder Bread packaging and other products at an advertising agency in the large and exciting city of Atlanta Georgia. She worked hard and stayed out late with other young people like herself. She earned her own money and at the tender age of 22 was probably just starting to enjoy her independence. You can see how the shock of new motherhood had probably been very jarring to her. How long did it take her to reconcile her old life with her new one? How long before she found balance in that era when it was surely seen as very selfish to talk of such daffy notions as “finding balance”. How long before she felt like a mother? It takes some letting go of the old you to make space for the new you - the you that is a Mother.
After some mellowing into motherhood, and especially after the birth of my second son, I can see what the happy and in-love mothers had that I didn’t have right away. It was presence. They had made peace with their new lives. They may have had something worked out that allowed them to have whatever time they needed to themselves so that they could be fully present with their children at other times. Or maybe they were just wired differently. Quite possibly the hormones from breastfeeding were working for them as nature intended and the high flow of oxytocin was nudging them toward that head over heels in love sensation. For whatever reason they had the maturity to truly slow down to their child’s pace of life instead of always trying to bring the child’s pace up to their own. It takes a newbie a while to figure these things out sometimes, but once you do, it makes for happier parenting. I’ve by no means changed completely. I still take my kids many places most parents wouldn’t. I travel with them as much as possible and I never turn down an invitation to go camping. I attempt to paint with my older son - and can’t wait until he is old enough to have more sustained interest in that sort of thing. I fully expect that my kids will grow up attending many art openings and other somewhat adult activities. But I do all these things now with more respect for their stage of life and attention to their needs. And I do these things with less anxiety about losing my old self. I know I am duty bound. And I am rising to the occasion with an awareness that my old pursuits will still be there when my children need me less, but that I will never be the same.