Over Memorial Day weekend, I strapped Hattie into her Ergobaby carrier and boarded a MARC train for DC, and then a Metro to Arlington, where we spent a mellow overnight visit with my parents. On Monday, the sun came out after weeks of cool and cloud, and it felt incredibly good to be out of Baltimore, moving around the world, and to be able to move around the world with the kiddo by my side.
(The week before, I’d poutily exclaimed to Jesse, “I haven’t been out of Charles Village in a year!” Which isn’t strictly true, but sure felt that way.)
The weekend before that, Hattie turned one. We threw a little party for her at her favorite park near our house. I made cupcakes, and a dozen or so friends came and showered us with children’s books. Jesse brought a bubble wand that delivered on its promise to make giant, person-sized bubbles, and Hattie chanted “Bubba! Bubba!” in her husky baby voice which I will miss so much, even as I can’t wait for her to talk more.
During the party, a friend who is also in the MFA program and thinking about parenthood himself asked us: "So, was it the hardest year of your lives?"
I said no without much hesitation, and Jesse did too. I was sort of surprised that I did, but I thought about it again and couldn’t come up with any other answer. No, it wasn't the hardest year. But why not? And what kind of year was it?
While I was pregnant, I made a deliberate effort to hunt down and read books that claimed to tell the “truth” about motherhood, which I imagined as the deep and dark stuff, or all the ways that motherhood isn't fun, or isn't fulfilling, or is actually kind of traumatizing or life-destroying or whatever. I guess I wanted to be prepared. Some of the books were better written than others, and while most of them were intriguing in at least some way, most didn't completely live up to their own hype (Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman was an especially notable offender in this way, and even The Mother Knot, a memoir from the seventies that does make the author’s experience of new motherhood sound genuinely troubling, ends with her and her husband deciding to have a second kid). And anyway, at some point late in pregnancy I became too tired to read books anymore, and/or I stopped caring about the dark side of motherhood, which I was going to find out about soon enough in any case. I read War and Peace instead, and then I spent the final couple of weeks alternately lying on a crib futon in the middle of my living room, rolling achily from side to side and waiting for it to be over, and doing weird exercises (crawling on hands and knees figured heavily in them) to try to flip the baby into a more ideal birth position.
When Hattie was finally born, I wished I had spent more time reading about baby care, and less about the instantly irrelevant topic of giving birth. (Though maybe there was a lesson there: the first year of a baby’s life involves many cycles of making yourself an expert on things that quickly become obsolete.) My reading about angst didn’t come in very handy either, because I had neither angst, nor any time to think about it if I had. I told myself to expect postpartum blues, but they didn’t come. The worst I felt was anxious, sometimes, consumed by the responsibility of keeping a tiny helpless person alive. Everything was heightened, almost psychedelic, and most of the time, I loved that, though it wasn’t always comfortable. “If she dies, I’ll kill myself,” I thought, repeatedly, and nothing ever seemed truer. I cried every day, at least once with joy, because of loving her so much, and sometimes from tiredness, and often from overwhelming thoughts about humanity: children have died, mothers have starved, war has incurred on peaceful family life. I felt skinless and borderless, oozing beyond my edges, and it was horrific & wonderful, satisfying the way that knocking down a sandcastle is satisfying.
So much of the first year has been the bittersweet process of coming back from, well, that. You stop crying every day. You stop crying whenever the baby cries. You learn how to put the baby in a carrier, and one day you leave the house and walk around the block. After a while you take her out in public, to the kind of place you used to go, just a few weeks ago but also in a different lifetime, and there are people there, other, ordinary people who have been working and watching TV and drinking beer and dating and going to movies and who have no idea that the world has ended and then begun again. And it’s comforting to be around them, to smile and pretend that things are like they always used to be.
Things aren’t like they used to be, but they become a more reasonable facsimile. You start being able to predict when you might be able to sleep, and then you start sleeping for longer stretches. You night-wean, and sleep-train, and suddenly you are in possession of the most unprecedented, glorious thing: twelve hours during which you can not only sleep, yourself, a whole night unbroken (you’d thought four hours at a stretch was pretty fancy, and while you had realized that it would be possible to go on forever like that, you have to admit this is better), but also do whatever you want for a few hours. You eat dinner with your husband, at the table, off plates. You watch a show. You read again, not BabyCenter articles on your phone about what does it mean when your baby does X, but real books.
She rolls over (she does it when you’ve popped for a moment into the other room, and as you re-enter you run over to her, keening and weeping, as if she’s just grown up and graduated from college before your very eyes). She sits up on her own, she crawls, she makes sounds that turn into words. She smiles, which is the one thing she’s done truly ahead of developmental schedule, and then she just keeps smiling. Her long, gut-wrenching bouts of crying in her first weeks turn out to have been due to hunger brought on by your low milk supply. You begin pumping like a maniac, and you start to supplement with formula: reluctantly, but of course it is the right thing to do. She’s happy and she thrives.
Although you are afraid that as time goes on you will not feel the same way about the baby as you did at the beginning—because how could you top that, how could there be anywhere to go but down—you realize that somehow it isn’t like that, and every week you love her more.
It really was a nice Memorial Day. Hattie’s grandma and grandpa took her to the park across the street for a couple of hours so I could write. We put a hand-me-down swimsuit on her and took her down to the condo complex pool, where she splashed around in the water, hesitantly at first, and then with gusto. I went up the street to the Courthouse Whole Foods, and realized how much I have missed a bustling city street scene lately. The store was thronged, Arlington’s hilarious preppie affluence in full effect. I picked up milk for the baby and a vegetable for dinner, and then of course I was pulled, like a metal filing toward a magnet, to the row of fancy crackers, the embankment of imported cheese.
I kicked off the summer sitting on a bouncy metal patio chair, with a fancy-cheese nibble and a glass of box wine at sunset, my parents by my side and my baby asleep in the other room, feeling grateful for so much stuff it makes my head spin to think of it all.
A busy year, yes, a changeful year to be sure, but not the hardest one. Nowhere close.