My cousin Wendy is turning forty years old. More than anything else in the world, she wants a partner, a family, a baby. Recently, when I called and said I wanted to fly down with Lizzy to visit, she said no, that seeing me with my toothless smiling baby was too hard for her right now. I felt sad, but understood. I know what it is to long for what I do not have.
Ten years ago, I lived in San Francisco with my friends Barbara and Dafna, and their one-year-old daughter, Ruby. They embraced me as part of their family and welcomed me into their lives. It was a warm and loving home we shared, but each night as I climbed into my loft at the far end of our flat, I knew that they had something I yearned for, something that seemed hopelessly out of my reach. The years I spent with them were wonderful, but bittersweet.
Now it’s a decade later and I have a family of my own. A partner, a grown stepson finding his way in the world, and two young children I have birthed, a boy and now a baby girl. I wanted this family more than I’d ever wanted anything. I know I am blessed, that I have gifts beyond measure.
Nights I nurse Lizzy, when she rolls over in the crook of my arm, half-asleep, and pulls substance and form from my breasts, I relish the miracle of her being. I revel in the fact that all she is has come from my body, that I helped to make her, and now can only stand back and watch, amazed, as she emerges as her own person. In the quiet still intimacy of those moments, I am filled with gratitude.
Yet some days I feel I am drowning in motherhood. Two young children are unrelenting in their presence and their needs. With one child, there were substantial breaks moments of peace, balance, and autonomy. Time for me to feel like there was a “me.” With two, there is always a child to care for.
This is what my friends meant when they said the work of two was exponential. The diapers, the dishes, the food, the limit setting, the endless projects, injuries, struggles, noise and testing tumble forth ceaselessly, day after day, night after night. Vacations roll around and I numbly realize nothing is going to change. The days stretch out in front of me with a terrifying sameness. I come to realize that drudgery is the thing I fear most.
Yet I have chosen this life. I sought it passionately and embrace it with my whole heart. Parenting has been the most fulfilling, transformative thing I’ve ever done.
The paradox staggers me. How can I love these children more than life itself, and then the next day or the next moment feel as if I’m being rolled over by a steam shovel, the me I once knew, obliterated?
After the third day of never going to the bathroom alone, I start feeling desperate for a moment, a thought that is my own. As the house and family close in on me, I see two options escape or surrender.
Tonight I got to escape. Dinner out with my friend KZ, mother of two-and-a-half-year-old twins. We met at the Palomar, shared a beer and talked over chicken mole and red snapper. I told her how used up and empty I felt, how much I needed to walk down the street unencumbered by a diaper bag, a sling, a baby or a child’s hand. “I felt like crying all day,” I said.
KZ’s recognition was absolute. “There’s always a sea of tears,” she said. “They’re right below the surface. I can feel them, but there’s never enough time to let them out. And then the next day, there are more. There’s just an endless sea of tears.”
Our conversation moved on to other things, and too quickly, our time was up. I walked her to her car and dawdled downtown, looking for a present for my father. Then I walked home. As I crested the hill to our street, I saw Karyn and Lizzy standing out on the sidewalk together. Just a little light was left in the sky. A warm breeze fluttered the pink knitted blanket wrapped around them. Lizzy looked sleepy and soft in Karyn’s arms. I felt a searing sense of love. I kissed them both, gathered Lizzy in my arms, and carried her inside to nurse. As I felt her suck and swallow, the stress of the day melted away, and gratitude filled me once again. I was home with my family, just where I wanted to be.