When I got pregnant, I felt like I’d done something almost absurdly reckless.
I loved my life. It was the life of a young, relatively free, career-hungry woman who could stay out late and maneuver the crowded sidewalk of a summer night downtown in skinny, confident heels. Not that I did that so much. But I could. And the could was crucial.
Except for the occasional frantic sense of my own unimpressive smallness in a rushing, pantingly ambitious city, I was great. Fantastic! Wildly lucky! Why mess with that? I couldn’t say, exactly. Something to do with a niggling biological curiosity. A quiet urge that held a whiff of destiny.
I knew that having a baby was going to change my life. I knew it the way you know that falling in love is exciting before you’ve fallen in love. Of course, I didn’t know in what ways exactly and how it would actually feel. I blithely hoped that the baby would be healthy and as cute as possible and I would be happy with it and then continue being the same person I’d been, just with a healthy, cute, preferably calm baby installed in my home.
The world seemed to support this vague plan. “Get your body back!” went the incessant chant of the postpartum literature. In fact, it started in pregnancy: “How to manage your pregnancy so that the weight will be easier to lose later!”
“Get your old life back” was the mantra underlying so much of what I encountered about new motherhood. The message was clear to me: you have your baby, you try to look like you didn’t have your baby, and then you try to act like you didn’t, too, as much as you’re able.
A couple weeks after my daughter was born, I was pushing her around in circles in her stroller outside my apartment building. I looked like crap, I’m pretty sure, because she’d been crying for whole days straight and going around in circles in the stroller was my only trick, aside from offering her my miserable, battered nipples. An acquaintance from down the street saw me and stopped to say hello.
“Wow, there’s the baby!” he said.
“Yup,” I said, smiling with proud exhaustion.
“So,” he said, “What else are you up to this summer?”
It wasn’t the most thought-out question, and it made me laugh a lot, later, in private. But he was onto something. Lots and lots of people asked me some version of that question within weeks of giving birth. What’s next? they wanted to know. When are you getting back to your normal life? What about work? Are you thinking about work yet.
In many ways, I’m the same person I was without a child. Sometimes I see myself hurrying by a mirror with her on my hip, and it’s truly ridiculous. No way. Someone take that baby away from me and put her in a safe and stable environment. I’m not a mother. I’m just me. What the hell do I know about raising an entire person?
In many ways, I’m strangely confident. Her face opens into urgent joy when she sees me and she lifts her chubby hands imploringly and I think, “of course. I am hers. She is mine.”
It’s true, I haven’t been to a movie since my daughter was born six months ago. I have only been to a couple parties. I have worn heels only a few times. My body looks good to me, but also, I care significantly less about the way it looks, for so many reasons that I won’t try to work them into this essay. I don’t intend to stop doing the work I was doing before she was born, but I find that I can forgive myself for not being as far along as I once thought I absolutely had to be. I find myself rearranging my priorities, giving myself a chance to slow down and look around. And that most venerable of NYC traditions, the single-minded focus on career at the expense of everything else, rings suddenly hollow. When people press it on other people or themselves, it sounds tone-deaf and a little sad to me. Some of the things that I thought I’d miss seem small and distant. New things have taken their place.
But the biggest change I’ve experienced since becoming a parent is giving myself permission to let myself be changed.
Now, I’m not afraid of my life being different, I’m afraid of trying to force it to be the same.
Which doesn’t mean that I no longer believe in having a date with my husband or hanging out with friends or working for money or any of the basic old things that are always important. It’s just to acknowledge the truth: I am transformed. In too many tiny, mundane ways to catalogue. In all of the really big ways of the soul.
And because of this new reality, I think it’s perfectly OK to be inconvenienced and blown away and totally turned around. Something big happened here. Something big and permanent and stunning. And anyway, life is change, no matter what, baby or no baby. We can’t help but transform and move forward until we find ourselves somewhere entirely new. That’s the exciting thing. That’s the whole point.