The sun is shining and birds are chirping as leaves float lazily from the canopy of trees surrounding my suburban home. My children shout with glee in the yard and my baby coos in his high chair – three healthy little humans without a care in the world. At the same time, stories of disaster and devastation intertwine with the smells of supper as I listen to the radio while doing the day’s dishes. This month has seen record-breaking hurricanes and chart-topping earthquakes, as well as hydrogen bomb threats, racially-motivated shootings, terrorist attacks, a refugee crisis, several famines, and countless other tragedies occurring simultaneously all over the world. Is it just me, or has the never-ending stream of bad news turned into a flood all of a sudden? My idyllic life bears no hint of the horrors too many on our planet are facing, and yet, their suffering keeps me up at night and gnaws at my happiness. Read more…
For the past three weeks, my Facebook feed has been full of cute kids wearing new backpacks holding signs declaring their first day of school. Worn down by the virtual peer pressure, I asked my husband to take “chalkboard portraits” of our kids as they headed off for their respective first days. I felt sad to miss the excitement as my son reunited with his friends for pre-kindergarten and as my daughter set off for her very first day of preschool. But for them, every day is exciting so they were not concerned that I was not present to drop them off or pick them up on that first day. Although I believe it is important to celebrate milestones and emphasize the importance of getting an education, the first-day-of-school photos are not really for our kids’ sake. They are for us, the moms and dads trying to mark a moment in time by drawing a chalk line in the sand. We fawn over the photos with current nostalgia, knowing that we will look back on our little darlings at the end of the school year and marvel over how much they’ve changed. Read more…
We have been friends since before we were born; our fathers’ bond bringing us together long before we had a say in such matters. We have always lived hundreds of miles apart, but our mutual affection kept as close as we navigated the unartful process of growing up in parallel, even when we could not be together. I remember whispering late into the night about musical shows we would put on for our parents, and later, about crushes we would never reveal to our folks. We have shared heartbreaks, dream jobs, cross-country moves, and familial angst. But when I got married and started a family, while you continued your pursuit of passion, it seemed like we did not have much in common anymore.
Now, on the eve of the birth of your first child, I feel closer to you than ever. I have known you my whole life, but not even I – not even you – can know how motherhood will change you. You will get advice from every side, often contradicting itself (for example, “do whatever you need to do to stay rested,” versus “avoid using any ‘crutches’ to get your baby to sleep or else you will establish bad habits”). I am always available to you should you have any questions, but I will limit my advice to a single mantra: Just DON’T. Read more…
Yesterday, I saw a deer in the road. She was standing still, right in the middle of the road as a queue of cars formed behind her. As I was beginning to worry that she was confused, a young fawn appeared from the brush by the side of the road. His mother held her crossing guard position as he bounded across, but did not follow him. Sure enough, a moment later a second little deer appeared from the woods. And still, the mother deer did not move. Finally, after what seemed like minutes, the smallest deer I have ever seen tentatively made her way across the street. A knot rose in my throat and tears came to my eyes. The doe was risking her own life to protect her children. It was her natural instinct to stay near her young, to ensure they had enough to eat, and to keep them safe.
I went back to work today. I had hoped it might be easier, seeing as this is my third return to work after having a baby. However, it is also the end of my last maternity leave, and that makes it almost unbearable. I do not know if I will ever again have the chance to spend three uninterrupted months with my beautiful children and supportive husband. For the rest of my life, I will have to make do with crumbs of quality time – a long weekend here and there, a glorious two-week vacation once or twice a year, and stolen moments on sick days and holidays. Despite the many challenges of having a newborn and introducing a fifth person into our family, I did my best not to take a single moment of the last 11 weeks for granted. (Don’t get me started on how ridiculously short that is by global standards, or how inhumane it is that as a federal employee I do not get a single day of paid maternity leave, but had to save up my sick and vacation leave over the past two years in order to have a chance to bond with my newborn – I covered that in a previous post.)
As I was leaving this morning, my children smothered me in hugs and kisses and told me how much they’d miss me. Unlike my previous maternity leaves, my 4- and 2-year-olds now understand that I work in an office, that I stayed home for awhile after their baby brother was born, and that I would eventually have to return to my day job. A few days after our baby was born, my eldest asked when I would have to go back to work. I assured him that I would be around for a long time and that we would have lots of fun as a family before then. Even as I put on a brave face for my son’s sake, my heart ached when I contemplated that day. Today.
Newborns develop so rapidly in their first months of life. My husband and I swear we see changes in our son even day to day. He is smiling and just starting to laugh, a chortle that seems appropriate for his balding head and grumpy old man face. I wish I could nestle him inside my suit jacket and keep him close to me as I venture back into the professional world. Even with my children’s initials jangling from a charm bracelet on my wrist, I feel naked without them. They are like phantom limbs that are not a part of me and yet I do not feel like me without them.
I started this blog four years ago after I left my first born to return to a not-my-dream job and was struggling to hold on to the person I was before I’d taken my maternity leave. I sought a balance between “me” and “mom.” For example, if I wanted to go to a friend’s birthday party but it was during my son’s nap time, I’d just put him in the carrier and let him nap there while I caught up with my friends. When my husband and I were invited to visit friends in Vienna, we jumped at the chance and tacked on a week in Budapest as well. Our 18-month-old could not have cared less about the museums, palaces, memorials, and gardens we dragged him to, but we wanted to see it all so brought him along for the ride. In the evenings, I would carve out “me time” for scrapbooking, creative writing, jewelry making, exercising, knitting, reading, etc. I jealously guarded that time, believing it was something I was owed after all the sacrifices I had made for my child. After all, that’s what the articles, blogs, OBs, celebrities, and mamas’ groups say: “You need to take care of yourself before you can take care of your children.” It’s the oxygen mask approach to parenting: you must fit your own mask before assisting others.
Nearly 4 and a half years into my parenting journey, there is no longer much distinction between those parts of myself that I identify as “me” and those parts that are “mom.” I still go to my friends’ birthday parties and travel the world, but now I make sure that I am home by bedtime and that we go to kid friendly places. To
celebrate my birthday this month, I tried to have a full day of me time with an adults-only trip to a waterside park with my husband. We had fun riding the biggest slides together, but I missed our children the whole time and regretted not bringing them along. Their happiness is my greatest joy, their struggles my greatest challenges. Despite the oxygen mask advice, making my family my first priority – above my work and even myself – feels right to me.
We recently visited a dear friend who just had her first child. “Everything feels different,” she told me. “Nothing will ever be the same,” I acknowledged. The birth of a mother is a one-way trip. I could put on a suit, head back to the office, and take up the matters I was working on before my child was born, but something has fundamentally changed. Values, priorities, and perspectives shift. I don’t think my boss would say I am a less effective attorney since becoming a mom, but I don’t take my work as seriously or personally. That is probably a good thing, but even if it was not, I am powerless to change back to the self-sacrificing go-getter I was before parenthood.
After four years, it still feels unnatural for me to leave my small children. Even though I know they are in the very capable hands of my husband, I miss them terribly. All day today, in an effort to comfort me, my colleagues reminded me that I am setting a good example, and they pointed me to studies extolling the many ways children benefit from having a working mother. Others told me they couldn’t wait to go back to work after they had their children. They pointed out that I now get to sit in a quiet office and talk to adults instead of drowning in dirty diapers and spit up all day. That all may be true, but selfishly, I’d rather spend these precious early years with my children. They will be pushing me away soon enough. Over the last 11 weeks, I held them close as much as I could. It was noisy, chaotic, messy, exhausting, and difficult, but I would not trade that time with my family for anything. Now I will have to work even harder to connect with my kids and husband when I get the chance, and try to help them understand why I have to leave them to go to work. I know the leaving will eventually get easier on all of us, but right now, it is so hard.
Calling it a smile does not do it justice.
All human beings smile – at a joke, to be polite, upon seeing a friend.
You don’t just turn up the corners of your mouth.
Dimples appear in your chubby cheeks, like the imprints of angels’ kisses.
Your tongue peeks playfully from your wide, toothless mouth.
Your nose crinkles almost imperceptibly, making space for the happiness that takes over your face.
You cannot speak, or even laugh, but when you look at me with joy the rest of the world falls silent.
Our noisy home, our busy lives, our troubled world, all stands still when your face lights up with what is too brilliant to be called simply a smile.
Thank you for shining your light on me.
It is the best of times, it is the most exhausting of times. Those first few days and weeks home with a new baby are never quite the fairytale we anticipate, or that we see on diaper commercials. Even those of us who have been through it once – or twice – before suffer from “mother’s amnesia” when it comes to the tough stuff. As we unpack the boxes of baby clothes in the weeks leading up to our due date, we coo over the tiny socks and imagine the snuggly cuddles of the little being who will soon fill those footsie pajamas. However, we do not seem to remember how quickly that sock will lose its mate or how many times those pajamas will need to go through the wash after a pee/ poop/ spit up incident. Some things come back quickly, like how to use the bathroom with a small person in your arms, but others take time, like how to avoid being peed on during diaper changes.
For my family, the biggest surprise when our baby boy came home was how much he cried and how loud it was. For the first few days, my four-year-old kept saying over and over, “I just don’t understand how such a small person can make such a big noise.” My two-year-old puts her hands on her head and complains that her baby brother is hurting her ears. Trust me, I can relate. He is usually over my shoulder, screaming directly into my ear. I would swear my first two children didn’t cry this much, maybe because I was able to give them more attention so was more responsive to their needs, but it is equally possible that I’ve simply forgotten. I definitely forgot how anxiety-inducing a newborn’s pain cry can be. His little face scrunched up, his body contorted, makes him the image of innocent suffering. Even when his discomfort is only caused by congestion or gas, my inability to soothe him is sometimes more than I can bear. Occasionally, we both end up crying.
In addition to the usual challenges of having a new baby, there are also difficulties
that could not have been anticipated. The day after my son and I came home from the hospital, my two older children woke up with fevers above 103 degrees. In the days that followed, my big kids wanted nothing more than to hug and touch their baby brother, so my husband and I had a full-time job trying to keep their germs away from our vulnerable new baby. I tell myself that we are all stronger, physically and emotionally, for having gotten through those tough first days as a family of five. Deep down, however, I suspect such challenges may be the rule, rather than the exception, in the coming year.
Despite the tears and tiredness, my month at home with my three children has been wonderful. I enjoy each of them so much and I’m very grateful for this quality time together. I am also incredibly thankful for the village of friends who have supported us as we adjust to life as a family of five. With my maternity leave half over already and “real life” looming on the horizon, I know I will need to continue practicing asking for help and leaning on those who offer a shoulder in the year to come. To muster the courage to do so, I look back on an affirmation I grew up with and which I still recite every year at Thanksgiving:
Let us be grateful when we are able to give, for many do not have that privilege.
Let us be grateful for those who share their gifts with us, for we are enriched by their giving.
And let us be grateful even for our needs, so that we may learn from the generosity of others.
I am so thankful for this new little man in my life and in our family, and I am working on feeling gratitude for the opportunities for growth he presents.
We have all heard of “pregnancy brain” and I’m pretty sure it’s been around since before there was science to confirm it. I can imagine ancient cave woman explaining to their partners that they forgot to tend to the fire because they were out hunting for herbs and it completely slipped their minds. Through my three pregnancies, I certainly found that my ability to multi-task was greatly reduced. There were also unexplained and temporary gaps in my memory, such as how to find my way to a friend’s house that I had visited many times before.
A Mother’s Day article in Wired Magazine presented new scientific evidence that pregnancy and childbirth change a woman’s brain and body, not just during pregnancy and its immediate aftermath, but for the rest of her life. These are dramatic and perhaps irreversible changes that may affect who she is and how she functions in the world. A woman’s brain shrinks during pregnancy, and new research shows that this reduction in gray matter persists more than two years after she has given birth, suggesting that change may be permanent. The affected area is in the front of the brain, believed to help people understand the minds of others. Scientists suspect the brain changes help mothers bond with their children. They could also benefit mothers in the long-term; one scientist found that rodent moms are better at mazes that their pup-less peers.
Additionally, a fetus’ cells enter its mother’s body through her bloodstream, and may remain there for the rest of her life. These cells become a part of the mother, integrating into her bones, organs, and even her brain. In studies of rodents, mothers of male pups had neurons with Y chromosomes in their brains. It is unclear if these fetal cells benefit the mother or cause harm, but there is increasing scientific consensus that bearing children forever alters a woman’s mind and body at the cellular level (and of course, on the macro level, too – I will never wear a bikini again!).
Parenthood is one of life’s transformative experiences, altering who we are, inside and out. Two weeks late but better late than never – Happy Mother’s Day!
Moreover, I enjoyed the way I moved in the world when I was pregnant. Strangers would congratulate me, offering unsolicited blessings (and advice). Doors were opened, seats on the train vacated, inquiries about why I wasn’t at church / the gym / happy hour abated, and my normal activities – be it walking to work or having friends over for dinner – suddenly seemed herculean. I felt like a kind of superhero; even as I held a full-time job, cared for my family, stayed in shape, etc., I was also growing a new person. This constant multi-tasking appealed to my need to be productive, while also giving me permission to indulge in some rare downtime.
That was then. From the beginning, this third pregnancy was different. My husband and I did not tell anyone for months, and did not “go public” until I was already in my third trimester. Our reluctance to share our good news (indeed, this was a desired and intended pregnancy, so we thrilled from the start) was not for fear of a miscarriage, but due to a sense – more on my part than my husband’s – that by now, no one really cared anymore. Especially at work, where I will have had three kids in four years, I am afraid of being seen as “the pregnant / pumping one,” just a baby-making machine. Instead of glowing with pride when telling people I’m pregnant, this time I feel a bit self-conscious and hastily add, “This is the last one.” No one has accused me (yet) of over-populating the Earth (though I’d point out that someone has to have 3 kids to maintain a replacement rate of 2.1), but I do feel a bit irresponsible. After all, I’m the sole breadwinner for my family of four and we are barely making ends meet as it is. But my children are my greatest joy and I cannot think of any better use of my limited resources than to introduce one more to make the world (especially my world) a better place. Read more…
When I first arrived in South Africa in 2004, I refused to heed the safety warnings of friends and strangers. Of course, I had been told repeatedly not to walk around by myself, but walking the five blocks from the University to my guest house through a residential neighborhood in broad daylight seemed perfectly safe to me. A few days in to my time in Pretoria, however, a man in a pick-up truck pulled up beside be and insisted that I get in and let him drive me home. There was no way I was getting into a truck with a strange man – I wasn’t that naïve! The stranger was persistent, however, and followed me even as I picked up my walking pace. Finally, I agreed to ride in the bed of his truck to my guest house.
Not long after, I moved in with my boyfriend’s family so that they could keep an eye on me because my nonchalant behavior made my boyfriend (now husband) fear for my safety. I was jogging in their gated and guarded community one Sunday morning when a family stopped me on their way to church and begged that I please let them take me home. It seemed ludicrous to me, but I relented, and in the car they explained they were concerned I might be killed for my discman (remember those?!?).
A few weeks later, my boyfriend and I went to a BBQ (“braii” in South Africa) at his friend’s house in an affluent suburb. That evening, his friends were neither surprised nor terribly upset to discover that the car we had driven there in (belonging to someone’s mom) had been stolen out of the driveway. When I demanded that we report the theft, the police were similarly blasé and simply told my friend they’d keep an eye out for her mom’s car, but not to hold her breath.
Suffice it to say, while I fell in love with the people, culture, foods, and nature of
South Africa, I never did get comfortable with the general sense of constant insecurity that hangs over the country (and particularly affluent whites). Despite my half-dozen visits over the thirteen years since, and the improving security situation in the country, I continue to find the preoccupation with safety off-putting.
During a prolonged visit in January, my husband’s friends, now all young professionals with mortgages, nice cars, and retirement accounts, spoke of little else. One dreamed of moving to a community where the homes, shopping center, school, and other amenities were all contained within multiple layers of guarded gates. Another mulled whether a much longer commute would be a reasonable price to pay for a home on the outskirts of town rather than potentially expose her family to theft and violence in one of Pretoria’s most affluent neighborhoods. While my friends brag about their solar panels, in-law suites, and smart appliances, my husband’s South African friends were proud of their multi-layer alarms, video surveillance systems, and comprehensive insurance policies. The South Africans gave my husband and me a lot of grief about the current political situation in America, but I came home with a renewed appreciation for the many things we do not need to worry about on a daily basis – like our cars being stolen or our children being kidnapped.
The weather and wildlife were spectacular, but yet again, another adventure abroad has reaffirmed what I discovered long ago: The more I travel, the more patriotic I become.
It is almost automatic to wish friends, family, even strangers “peace and joy” at this time of year. These conditions (for they are more than fleeting emotions) are universally regarded as among the most desirable things in the world. More than just a Hallmark greeting, even the Bible repeatedly refers to these as the ultimate blessings in life (i.e., see Romans 14:17: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing.”). But what do we mean when we casually toss out these well wishes? Read more…