When I opened my eyes I couldn’t see. The light was harsh after the self-imposed darkness I had plunged myself into for all of the five minutes it took to push my first baby out from my body and into the world. As the time had come to push, my midwife asked me if I wanted to see, and, thoroughly disgusted by the thought (I had, after all, watched the movies in our prepared childbirth classes), I chose instead to shut my eyes. I was so intent on not seeing the miracle of birth, and screaming to my husband not to look, that it came as a shock to hear the words “she’s a girl!” and realize my daughter was here. We reached for each other, both blinking, both wet, both startled by our surroundings, and I heard my own voice crying, “she has red hair,” just like my own. I collapsed against my husband as he wrapped his arms around his new family, and through the tears and the kisses I looked at my daughter and knew she was, without question, the coolest thing I had ever done.
I am determined not to let my daughter get in the way of my studies. It looks so harsh, written out in black and white, but it is the truth, the hard truth I have to face as punishment for having a baby in graduate school. Most of my friends say I will never succeed, and I am determined to prove them wrong. A select few say of course I can do it, a baby shouldn’t stand in the way of a Ph.D., and I want them, desperately, to be right . . . at least sometimes I think I do. As a woman at the turn of the millennium I can have it all: the husband, the child, the education, the career. But I stop to wonder, as I save my work and turn to pick up the baby, if I really want it all. If the legacy we have fought for as women is the ability to choose to do anything, what happens if I simply want to choose to be a wife and a mother? I couldn’t do that; it would feel like a betrayal. I have a legacy to uphold, and now an example to set for my child. I nestle her against my chest as we rock, and I nurse her. I sing to her, talk to her, tell her stories of strong young women much like the woman she can grow up to be. And I read to my daughter. Goodnight Moon. The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The Baby Goes Beep. Then, with a nod to my studies, I read her The Giver. We walk into the kitchen and marvel at an apple.
My life has become a series of moments, an odd amalgamation of dirty dishes and thesis research, dirty laundry and comprehensive bibliographies. Added in to this already complicated mix, my daughter now serves as the connective tissue linking fragments together as my time is separated and divided, measured and spaced, by her constant needs. I write a paragraph and stop to change a diaper. I read a chapter of a book and stop to nurse. I revisit my paragraph, dismiss it as derivative, delete it, and change another diaper. I re-read the chapter I didn’t absorb the first time, and stop again to nurse. These constant pauses give rhythm to my day and provide a cadence to my life. I begin to refer to my daughter as my little comma, the requisite pause at the end of every task. I type another sentence, delete it, then turn and pick her up once more. My comma. My caesura. My Selah.
I am in awe of my breasts. I’ve spent the bulk of my post-pubescent life indifferent to them, these strange lumps that disfigure my clothing and serve as constant reminders of the end of my dream of dancing professionally. At best, they are toys I don’t even play with, at worst they are twin nuisances that must always be lifted, supported, and covered. But now, I feel like my daughter is the Rosetta stone for the world of boobies. With her in my arms, I finally understand my breasts.
My determination to breastfeed was almost overpowered in the first few weeks of being a nursing mother. Her unrelenting need, the indescribable pain, and the realization that, although no one makes a nursing bra in a 34G it is, in fact, a size, (and I’ve got it) all combined to make me wonder if that pasty-looking gunk in the formula cans is really all that bad. But with help from a lactation consultant and a certain amount of personal grit we stuck it out, and as she moved from the 25th percentile on the baby growth chart to the 70th, the 90th, and then clear off the curve, I realized I had found a new passion. Nursies fix everything, my husband proclaims, as my daughter nurses when she’s hungry, nurses when she’s tired, nurses when she’s bored. We have good morning nursies, good night nursies, comfort nursies, silly nursies, marathon nursies. I am amazed at the contentment she finds at my breast. She pats my chest and plays with my hair, hums to herself while she eats, and occasionally laughs so hard my milk squirts out her nose. I am at a loss to see what’s so funny, but I am glad I can provide such happiness for my daughter.
Through her eyes, I have new respect for my breasts. I discuss this with her as she eats. They aren’t all bad, I tell her. They can get you dates. They can get you jobs. They can get you out of speeding tickets. And they mean the world to little babies. I pause when I see my husband shaking his head at me, then change my tune and tell her, don’t you ever let me catch you using your breasts to get attention. God gave you a brain and that will always be your best asset. I launch into more inspiring stories of intelligent women who have done great things until she falls asleep, milk dribbling everywhere, the picture of peace and contentment. I wonder if I believe the things I am telling her.
Watching Star Trek together one afternoon, (ignoring the American Association of Pediatricians’ recommendation that children not be allowed any television until the age of two, and wondering, again, if anyone in the American Association of Pediatricians actually has children) an ad for Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Special comes on. I am disgusted and move to flick the channel, then spot my daughter. She is bouncing with glee, waving her arms and squealing as voluptuous women press their goods up into the camera. I laugh at her delight; to her, this must look like a smorgasbord. You would be disappointed if you met those ladies, I tell her. None of their nursies work, and half of them are plastic anyway. In a moment of revelation, I realize I am infinitely superior to the Sports Illustrated swimsuit models. And at the moment, better endowed. I twirl with my daughter and we laugh, until I ask myself, why do I need to do anything else? Why am I in grad school, again? The tagline from an internet post rings through my head as we spin: “I make milk; what’s your superpower?”
This morning, with only minor assistance from my husband, I managed to get the baby in the car seat, the car seat in the car, and the stroller in the trunk (with about a quarter inch of clearance on all sides) and transport a fed (twice), changed (once), dry (momentarily), rested (thankfully), bundled (under protest), happy (finally) 12-week-old with me to campus for an 8:00 meeting with my (male) advisor. To the list of triumphs I should also add figuring out how to both un-collapse and re-collapse the stroller, attach and detach the car seat from its stay-in-car base, attach and detach said car seat from the stroller, and navigate my way from the parking lot clear to the other end of campus without having to use any of the many paths that involve stairs. I am also showered, fed, dressed, and wearing a modicum of makeup. Truly, I am superwoman.
As I navigate the stroller back to the car while the temperature plummets and it begins to sleet, I congratulate myself on being able to continue my studies and not succumb to the vagaries of motherhood. I can do this, I am doing this, and all the people who doubted me, including myself, . . . but I stop short. I have taken a wrong path and am about to push the stroller down a double flight of stairs. Undaunted, I turn around. We are now walking into the wind, as the temperature continues to drop and I search for a place to safely steer the stroller. My daughter begins to cry. She is hungry, tired, and cold; I have lost my way and cannot find a path that doesn’t end in stairs. My daughter begins to cry louder, her piercing wails accelerating my heartrate as I frantically steer the stroller around another building in a vain attempt to get back to the parking lot. I am lost, my fingers are numb, and I can only imagine how my poor baby feels. There is nothing for it but to press on, and as I hurry I start to lose it. Soon I am crying along with my baby, the tears freezing on my cheeks after having smeared my mascara, clown-like, in streaks down my face.
The parking lot is finally in sight, and as I break into a run I spot an old roommate walking toward me with her new husband. They are dressed immaculately, crisp suits and woolen trench coats whispering “money” as they clip across the barren ground. I make a vain attempt to pull myself together as my roommate prattles on about campus recruiting for the multibillion-dollar company she and her husband both work for. Then she asks to see the baby. I pull back the blanket, and my precious, chubby-cheeked, rosy-lipped baby has de-evolved into a purple ball of frozen, snot-covered misery. My roommate recoils, murmuring something about “how adorable” as she shudders. I try to explain, to say my daughter usually isn’t like this, but my former roommate is already hurrying away, clinging tightly to her husband’s arm in an attempt to ward off any possible contagion that might someday make her be like me. She is secure and confident in her choices, and she is rich, warm, childless, and content. I am bawling along with my baby on a busy street in a college town, the balancing act I pulled off this morning crashing down around me. Who am I trying to fool, I ask myself as my daughter and I cry buckets of tears and snot. I can’t do this.
Sometimes I wish I were Catholic. I find the idea of confessional strangely therapeutic, and I long for the catharsis of cleansing my soul through ‘fessing up to a man of the cloth. I confess, I would say, that not a single piece of clothing owned by any member of my family is currently folded in a drawer. I confess that I pretended to sleep through the baby noise this morning in hopes that my husband would take her downstairs (which he did). I confess that I left my cat’s throw-up on the rug on the off chance the other cat would eat it and I wouldn’t have to deal with it. I confess that I let my baby sleep on her stomach. I confess that I want to drop out of school. I confess that before I call my (single, childless, six-figure-income) best friend I make a list of things to talk about so I won’t accidentally talk about the baby and thus become uninteresting. I confess that I really want to drop out of school. I confess that sometimes I want a new best friend, one who understands this strange new world I’ve fallen into where the right color poop means you are a Good Mother. After weeks of green, spinachy-looking poop, I would call her triumphantly and say, we are finally back to seedy and mustard-colored! She would congratulate me on my poop accomplishments and we would arrange to go out for a celebratory coffee (decaffeinated, of course, because my new best friend would also be breastfeeding). Then she would show up at my house in tears, because she has no clean laundry and no way to do any as her washing machine has gotten completely derailed by a baby sock sucked up into the hose. And I would scoop up her snot-nosed, crying, stomach-sleeping, seedy-mustard-colored-poop-leaking baby into my arms and console her. Then we would zap hot chocolate in the microwave and sit on the couch with our babies amidst nursing pillows, baby blankets, spit-up cloths, and those stupid, washing-machine-hose-clogging baby socks. We’d watch Bridget Jones’s Diary. We’d laugh together over Bridget’s foibles and smile, smug in our knowledge that, if nothing else, at least we went and got ourselves sprogged up before we were thirtysomething. Bless us, Father. For we have sinned. We had our babies before our careers. And we’re loving every snotty, poopy minute of it.
The conference for which I’m trying to finish this piece is looming ever closer, and I’m scared to share what I write. I’ve spent the bulk of my writing career refusing to share, and it’s become a habit I’m comfortable in. I never submit anything, anywhere; with only one exception, I haven’t since I was in high school. I jokingly tell my family that I can’t submit my work, my pieces are my children and being rejected would be like having someone tell me I have an ugly baby. (Which, thank God, and with apologies for being so shallow, I am thrilled to say I do not.)
But now, the reticence is even stronger. My writing is not only my child, it is also with increasing frequency about my child — my real, flesh-and-blood, living, breathing, nursing baby. The thought of her somehow being rejected, or of my not being able to write well enough to represent her, makes it hurt to breathe.
My baby sits on the kitchen counter in the trendy, overpriced, ergonomic baby seat I swore I wouldn’t buy because I didn’t want to be one of “those mothers.” She chortles to herself as I empty the dishwasher, and, out of curiosity, I hand her a soft plastic baby spoon. She immediately puts the spoon in her mouth, and I am elated. My infant daughter is the next Amelia Earhart, Pocahontas, Marie Curie. I have given birth to the first female president of the United States of America, until a baby’s wail interrupts my reverie. The future president is now shoving a plastic baby spoon firmly into her right eye. She is not, in fact, the next Marie Curie. I scoop her up from her baby seat and we go and have a comfort nursie.
I just got off the phone with my advisor, and if my daughter wasn’t watching me I swear I would spit. The pressure is on, he admonishes me: finish your project or lose our funding. I wonder: if he knew how close I was to leaving, what he would say? I wonder what would happen if I left in the middle of the year, just scooped up my plump little baby and left. I wouldn’t wait until the end of the semester to go, and I wouldn’t leave everything tidied up behind me. I’d simply up and leave, tear myself out of the university and leave a gaping, jagged hole in my wake. My spine prickles guiltily at the thought. What a lovely mess I would make. Part of me just wants to say “I don’t care,” and wait for the lion to eat me.
I am in love with husband. I am in love with my child. And I want to leave the university. But could I do it? Could I turn my back on academia and spend my days just playing house and giving tummy kisses? More importantly, could I make myself stop there, or would that just be the first step on an inevitable slide into middle-aged suburbia, little chi-chi gardens, minivans, and (God forbid) scrapbooking? Could I go to a cocktail party, hold my head up high, and introduce myself as a stay-at-home mom? And who the heck is going to invite me to a cocktail party if I’m only a stay-at-home mom? I lean over to pick up my little one for one last nighttime nursie, and as she drifts back to sleep and we cuddle in the bed her chubby fingers stroke my hair, lying in a curl across my chest. My husband snores, rolls over, and reaches for me, and the three of us snuggle together for a moment. We are content.
And I know the answer to my question is yes. I can give it up; I don’t need the university. I can be a stay-at-home mom and a wife to my husband and be perfectly content with my life. I can go to the party (if someone invites me) and proudly introduce myself as just a mother. I can do it, I really can. If I have my Ph.D.