Right after my baby was born and I started maternity leave was when I understood that there are really and truly 24 full hours in the day. I am a creature of routines and plans who needs eight-plus hours of sleep a night: having an infant was a crisis of existential proportions. My daughter was a perfectly healthy, difficult baby, and I was horrified and confused by the amount of guesswork in her day to day care. Should we put her down at scheduled times of day or go by wake times? Was she hungry or was she tired? How should I best feign feeling bonded to her? And most importantly, why the fuck wouldn't she stop crying?
Something that worked one day (getting her to sleep by walking her in the baby carrier) would cease to work the next. The hours passed like centuries. I would watch the clock impatiently all day, increasingly desperate, waiting for my husband to come home from work so I could hand her over. On Friday nights he would say, “It’s the weekend, let’s stay up and watch a movie” to which I would answer, without humor, “Friday is no different from any other day of the week to me.”
There was a Groundhog Day quality to life that I found unbearable but had to be tolerated. I told a close friend I felt depressed, but not in a mysterious way, in a way felt like a normal response to an objectively bad situation (she agreed).
As my daughter got a little older and started to develop discernible routines I recovered some inner resources to cope with the crisis I was in. I had no work, no hobbies, not even a Netflix show I could focus my attention on. Literally the only thing I could control -- in my entire life! -- was my reaction to the situation.
With a sort of bitter, I’ll-laugh-about-this-someday-but-not-today attitude, I steeled myself to try to see the daily cycle of her infuriating, blank baby-ness and my own failure to be a loving, tender parent as an opportunity to constantly start over. Did she wail uncontrollably at the postpartum drop-in mothers group, was my walk with a friend and her docile baby of a similar age spoiled by unexplainable crying (yes, yes)? Today may have sucked, but tomorrow was coming, and it was going to be almost identical in ways I couldn’t control -- might as well experiment with the bits I could. It wasn’t magic, and admittedly this approach worked best on shitty days when knowing I had little or no control over the situation offered me badly-needed comfort. But it was all I had, and I’ve found the muscle has gotten stronger the more I use it.
My daughter is now 20 months old, and I've tried to hang on to this attitude in her toddlerhood, a period I find both much more interesting and also very challenging. On the days when I disappoint myself as a parent I try to remember that I can still start over at any moment, that I can, in theory, choose to not lose my cool as she dawdles on the walk home, hits me when I do something that displeases her, or declares “ALL DONE” before having tried a bite of dinner. Would I give anything to actually be able to control her? I would. Do I disappoint myself regularly, sometimes daily? Yes. But this is the only thing I’ve found that works.
This willingness to see myself and my relationship with my daughter as changeable, not fixed, is not something I have been able to transfer to other parts of my life, namely work and my partner. The conditions of those parts of my life feel permanent, defined, immovable as boulders. As my daughter gets older, as her long-term memory improves and the human tendency to fix people in place develops, I know our relationship will inevitably head in that direction. I’m going to attempt to resist that. I know I will be working against both of our natural instincts (and probably capabilities as well), but I have grown attached to the sense of possibility and hope that believing each day is a chance to start over creates.
Leda Marritz lives in San Francisco and listens to a lot of podcasts
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