“Making the decision to have a child–It’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
The very first time I met her I knew that it would only be a matter of time before she broke my heart.
Perhaps it was the hormones or just the deep cosmic connection with the Universe–The Knowing–that comes with the miracle of creating life.
Or maybe it was the overwhelming and excruciating love that I felt for my first born as they placed her in my arms. The extraordinary, impassioned obsession with this tiny creature entrusted to me by God. Beautiful, perfect, needy. How was I going to keep her from starving? What if she didn’t eat enough? What if she wasn’t warm enough? How could they just let us leave the hospital with her? How could they possibly trust me to keep this child alive? I intermittently sobbed and beamed at our newborn bundle of joy.
In the first week of post-natal hysteric delirium that followed, it came time to take my daughter in for her first office visit with her pediatrician. I was still sobbing as I sat in the waiting room with my own mother, having decided that my mother would stay with us the first two weeks of our new daughter’s life, so my husband could save his paternity leave for when I had to first go back to the office.
I kept weeping to myself and nobody, “She’s going to break my heart. She’s going to leave me someday.” I felt sorry for the poor newly-minted doctor who had the bad luck of being the only doctor in Gaithersburg, Maryland with room in her practice for us. Had they given her a class in medical school about dealing with crazy new mothers? Apparently I was so pathetic, the nurses decided to remove me from the waiting room and place me in an unoccupied office until the pediatrician was ready to see us, ostensibly to give me some “privacy,” but actually because I was scaring all the little children and their parents waiting for their well-child visits.
The pediatrician was valiant in her efforts to comfort me. “Now, now, of course you love your new daughter very much. Of course this is an emotional time for you.”
“But she’s going to grow up and leave me,” I wailed. “She’s the love of my life and she is going to break my heart. How will I ever be able to do anything else again other than spend 100% of my time making sure this child lives?”
Add to this the tears you shed as a new mom just from being so very tired all the time and I guess that is why they call it the “Baby Blues.”
Luckily, at the time I gave birth, I had been working as a corporate associate at a large law firm with a generous paid maternity leave policy. It was also fortunate that the baby hormones eventually wore off and I was able to pull myself together enough to actually raise this astoundingly breathtaking child, as well as do whatever else it takes to get through life.
I felt like such a disgrace to feminists everywhere. I was a Harvard-educated lawyer with a coveted position at a prestigious D.C. law firm, for goodness sakes. Shake it off and be a real woman. Bring home that bacon and fry it up in the pan, why don’t you?
And into the office I went.
When I did return to the firm, I pretty much cried non-stop for my first three weeks back on the job.
In my defense, while on maternity leave, September 11th happened and especially since we were living in the Maryland suburbs of D.C., the world had seemingly changed overnight into an unsafe place for raising a child or even venturing downtown. It only made sense that I should remain home to protect our baby.
Upon surviving several rides on the D.C. Metro Red Line without incident, and after getting back into the swing of things, I eventually reentered the “real” world in order to help provide my offspring all of the advantages in life. After all, it would take both me and my husband to pay the mortgage on and furnish our beautiful suburban 4 bed/2.5 bath colonial with unfinished basement. And let’s not forget all those diapers, educational toys and baby gear and clothes from Baby Gap we were going to need or the ballet lessons and the Ivy-League college and graduate school this undeniable baby genius was going to eventually attend.
Of course going back to work wasn’t the same. I definitely had the distinct feeling that I had left for maternity leave a star and come back from maternity leave a pariah, which was probably partially my fault due to all the weeping, but also due to the fact that in the three months I was at home (a) we had been attacked by terrorists, People! and (b) the economy had pretty much gone to Hades in a hand basket due to the loud popping of the dot.com bubble. When I left on maternity leave there were several part time women associates and of counsel making work-life balance seem completely plausible in Corporate America. When I returned from maternity leave, all the part time attorney-moms were mysteriously (or not so mysteriously) gone. Only the moms who had already made it to partner had survived and perhaps it was my imagination but they all seemed a little more standoffish than before the decimation of the World Trade Center and that gaping whole in one of the five sides of the Pentagon.
But I digress.
The point of all this ranting is that I WAS RIGHT. My heart is already breaking and my daughter is not even 11 years old.
Oh sure, I’ve felt tiny whispers of this achy-breaky feeling before (I mean since the whole pediatrician waiting room incident), like her first day of preschool when she didn’t need me to stay, and the day she was totally fine going to kindergarten and how every day I have dropped her off at school she walks right off after merely asking me to check her face and hair to make sure she looks all right and then I watch her as she walks off confidently and cheerfully to her classroom (unless of course I’ve embarrassed her by the way I’ve dressed or shouted hello out the car window to one of her friends), and then she slinks away angrily formulating her lecture that she will give me later on appropriate parent behavior.
But that’s just it.
Now she doesn’t even need me to drop her off at school. Lately on most days she has started getting her own sufficient self to school, riding off on her bicycle with her other ever-more-independent neighborhood girlfriends. She doesn’t need me to help her get dressed in the morning. Actually, she is more likely to help me get dressed these days (Lest I embarrass her, and let’s face it, she has really good taste) and unlike before if I came into her room in the morning, she has recently told me to please be mindful that she needs her privacy.
She is maturing before my very eyes. I am trying to write a book for my daughter about growing up but apparently I’m not writing it fast enough. She gets herself ready. Puts on her own sunblock and helmet and shouts “Goodbye!” over her shoulder and she races out the door. She’s started making her own goal and life-lists. She goes longer stretches of the day without my seeing her or her needing me. I mean I know that she needs me, but recently it has been things like insisting that I show her how to shave her legs, driving her to three different stores to find the exact shorts she needs for her dance team, or discussing the different cell phone options and plans that she will pay for herself by doing chores around the house.
I kind of laugh about it with my husband over the breakfast table, because on the one hand this is what we want. We are proud we almost never have to keep after our highly-responsible daughter. We encourage her independence. In fact we sometimes (not-so) secretly long for the freedom that will come when our children are finally off at college and we will start traveling blissfully around the world enjoying life and congratulating ourselves that we raised healthy and well-educated children who will most likely solve world hunger, or cure cancer or discover a new species of fish in the Amazon River.
Honestly, if you do your job right as a parent, you slowly and steadily work your way out of your position. In fact, I heartily believe that the whole point the Universe entrusted this child to me in the first place was so that I would be there to help her find her wings and fly away. This is why her father and I have been sacrificing to sock hundreds of dollars away each month in our children’s college accounts. They are supposed to grow up to be self-reliant and productive members of society who don’t need their mommies and daddies.
I also realize that this whisper of heart-ache I am hearing now is not going to be anything nearly as loud as the heart-wrenching ROAR I’ll hear when that day actually comes only seven years from now when our first child does indeed go off to college to fully be her own person. And then when our son goes off only three years after his sister, I guess my husband and I will really have to deal with the empty nest heartbreak then.
I suppose these little pangs are a reminder for us to cherish what time we have left of their childhood and not take even one little second for granted. It is also a good reminder to not feel guilty about working less than at full capacity right now. I can tell that it isn’t going to be long before I’m going to need to go back to work full time to fill the void that will be left when the children launch from the nest into the great wide open sky.
This must be what Billy Joel meant when he wrote, “This is the time to remember, for it will not last forever. These are the times to hold onto. Cause we won’t although we’ll want to.”
I should keep this in mind whenever my children annoy me, or complain that they are bored, or want me to do this or that with them even when I’m tired and I just want to be left alone.
I will have plenty of time to be left alone in just a few short years.
Although I am comforted by the fact that despite going days or even weeks without calling my own mother, I did end up moving back with my husband and children to my home town to be physically near my parents and extended family. My own mother is always a phone call, text or two minute drive away for me to share with her the latest achievement of–or funny story about–her grandchildren.
I am also comforted in the knowledge that we never really stop needing our parents completely, despite the fact that we all do grow up and break our mothers’ hearts. And because they love us so much, they accept that we are going to do so, and then they watch us go, happy for every phone call and chance to be needed and even happier when we don’t need them because they have successfully raised us to stand on our own two feet, strap on our helmets and ride our bicycles out into the streets of the world.
Because that’s what it is to be a mother.
Originally published in the Wiley Online Library. The Tragedy of Social Learning When the Learning is Anti-Social It is always too soon to tell the future, especially in the era...By Peter T. Coleman