Parenting Out of the Silo

My first son was a few days old, and I still hadn’t surrendered to the new reality. The line between then and now is brightest in retrospect, and my mind hadn’t figured out what my body already guessed—that life was not the same. I still thought I was in charge, that I could make plans, that time was mine to control. Ha.

About a week or so into motherhood, I left the house with my baby—just the two of us for the first time. In preparation I fed him, changed him, dressed him, put him in his stroller, then gathered up a manuscript I was editing and navigated my way to a bench in the courtyard of our apartment building. It was a short walk, but suddenly everything along the way was either an obstacle or a threat. The dog down the hall, who’d been a friendly, galumphing creature just the week before, now looked downright menacing. The toddler he belonged to was no longer tiny but towering, his fingers full of germs. The elevator could get stuck. Or worse. The sky was too bright. But it also looked like rain.

There is no forever in parenting—just blinks and hiccups, a staccato blur. Figure out one thing, and another challenge roars.  Every so often you realize you are somewhere else entirely. Not in babyland but in toddlerhood, not new and unsure but confident—and now unsure about completely different things.

Once through the gauntlet, my plan was to somehow rock the stroller with one hand and scribble notes with the other. I figured that yesterday he’d napped at this time, so that must be his pattern, right? Babies, I’d heard, were all about patterns. Also, there was work to be done, a remaining deadline from my receding life.

I had barely gotten my bottom on the seat when Evan began to cry. Wail, actually. Shriek and scream.

Maybe, with experience, I would have known that the sun was in his eyes, or his blanket was too heavy, or he was testing out his lungs, or sometimes babies just cry. Maybe, with experience, I’d have waited it out and not minded if people stared for a few minutes. I’d have understood that this would pass instead of feeling it to be a declaration that I was a failure as a mother. But Evan was the first baby I’d ever held, ever nursed, ever parented, and in that moment it felt as if nothing would ever pass. In the first weeks and months each everything was its own forever—every doubt, failure, realization, revelation felt as though it had always been and would always be this way. He would cry into eternity. I would never write another word.

So I gathered up my things and I fled.

I wish, now, that I had lingered. Not just on that bench, but in that chapter. From my current perch, twenty-four years later, I realize that there is no forever in parenting—just blinks and hiccups, a staccato blur. Figure out one thing, and another challenge roars. You keep the balls in the air and the plates spinning and the feet stepping one in front of the other, and the days melt into nights, then dawn into days again. Every so often, during one of those dawns, you realize you are somewhere else entirely. Not in babyland but in toddlerhood, not new and unsure but confident—and now unsure about completely different things.

I am a writer. Looking back, I am stunned that I didn’t write any of it down. That’s the best way I’ve found to hold a moment—by putting pen to paper or words to screen, a permanent sketch for when memories fade. Yet I wrote almost nothing of those days, and now I recall them as though through a fog. When did he sleep through the night? How bad was the colic? Why can’t I remember his first smile?

I wish I had written because then I’d have it captured, held in amber, sharp instead of fuzzy, real instead of hazy stories. And I wish I had written because, Lord, would it have helped. I am a writer because I think with my fingers; I make sense of my world during the pulses it takes to transfer a thought from brain to page. As a new mother, for the first time in my life—the only time—I was too enveloped by an experience to write about it, so it knocked me flat.

It would also have helped to read the writing of others. To have truly understood that this experience was not mine alone. But when Evan was born, that wasn’t the way it was done. Parenting was still a silo, you and your experience parallel to but not touching all the others around you. You talked to friends, yes, sometimes, when you had the energy and inclination to be honest. You wrote in your diary, ditto, maybe. But the era of we-are-all-in-this-together had not quite dawned.

That is why I thrill to the new ways. And they are stunningly new—blogs and websites, an era of confession and counsel in which entire communities of strangers unite in capturing the moment and the message that no one is alone. A generation is letting their memories go out into the universe and, simultaneously, holding them tight. Memories and observations that would otherwise be lost to the haze of sleep deprivation and hormones are captured on a screen. In this world, affirmation, confirmation, sympathy, and advice are a page or a click away. It is imperfect, sure—don’t get me started on some of the commenters—but its upside is exhilarating. (The rest of the commenters—most of the commenters—are wise and generous.)

You hold in your hand a result of this changed world. It’s the kind of collection I wish had existed when I was in the thick of it. Filled with confession and compassion, chronicling all of it, making it clear that the early days are both singular and universal. When Elizabeth Anne Hegwood describes kissing her infant son’s “velvet hair,” willing him to stay a sweet baby; when stay-at-home mom Erin White confesses the unexpected “rage and loneliness” she feels at the sight of her wife getting dressed for work; when KC Trommer recalls the love, sublime but also common, she feels upon first seeing her son—they speak to me. They speak for me. They speak to and for us all.

From OH, BABY! True Stories About Conception, Adoption, Surrogacy, Pregnancy, Labor, and Love. 
To read the rest of the collection, purchase the book.