With her unwashed hair wadded into a bun and a breast pump whirring away under a nursing cover, my friend, a newly minted mom, asked me a daunting question: "When will I feel like myself again?"
I stammered. "Suddenly and then all at once?" She winced at the pump's torture, then looked at me sullenly. I tried again. "Sooner than you think?" I could see from her face that she knew I was lying. "OK, kind of never, but not in a bad way." She stopped the pump and leaned over to check on her freshly evicted tenant in his Moses basket, lightly tracing his face as she began to cry. "Oh," she said, not soothed in the least. So far my "Welcome Baby Jack" visit wasn't nearly as cheery or supportive as I meant it to be.
I remembered the early days at home with my first baby when I felt the same way as my friend: figuratively and literally drained. I also had to pump because my baby was born a bit early and had a weak latch. I was tethered so tightly to that damn pump that it almost felt like I had two babies, and the pump was the more demanding one. It was easier once I was able to feed her straight from the tap, and easier still when she began eating solids. I regained my sense of humor, started to lose some of the baby weight and felt more energetic, but I didn't feel like my old self. When my baby was seven months old, I returned to work, which felt sort of normal, except that I didn't feel complete when I wasn't with her, like she was literally a piece of my body snoozing in a crib at a day care center about a mile from my desk.
Now that my baby is 5 and her little brother is 3 1/2 (the half is very important to him), it's quite clear that my children aren't merely my phantom limbs trouncing about the playground, but assuredly their own people with firm opinions about which version of "Let it Go" is acceptable (i.e. not the pop-ified single that Siri selects when I ask my iPhone to play the song) and the ideal way to play with trucks (by filling up a big truck with smaller trucks).
At some point I became "me" again, but not the same me that I was... and that's not a bad thing. I'm no longer free to blow off a bad week by boozing it up until all hours of the morning and then sleeping in for the entirety of a Saturday. That's a healthy development, I think. Instead, I merely knock back a couple of beers and then wake up at seven in the morning and attack the new day by washing the kids' accidents from the night before out of the bedding and fixing some quick scrambled eggs.
Actually, give or take a bit of a paunch and periodic financial strain, having kids has improved my life and, by extension, me. At some point after my second child made it into toddlerhood intact, I developed a kind of confidence I never had before. I am capable! I get stuff done! Our little world may be a bit of a mess on a day-to-day basis, but my husband and I can do this parenting thing, maybe not exceptionally, but at least adequately, and that's enough. I don't want to brag, but my kids only very rarely swear, and that's an astonishing accomplishment considering the things that have come out of my mouth over the years.
It's not all frolics in the park and dandelions blown. I don't know when, if ever, I'll stop feeling the pull of endless needs and to-dos. I can focus for only so long before my mind drifts to what are they doing, what are we going to cook for dinner, did I remember to buy a present for what's-that-kid's-name party this weekend, what if there's an earthquake right now and I can't get to them right away, and so on. I worry about them as automatically as I breathe.
They've opened up this terrifying vulnerability in me that I didn't know I could bear, but I do. I recently had to sit through my kids' first school lockdown. It seems a fellow with an automatic rifle was camped out on a roof near their preschool, so the children were ushered inside for the better part of a day while I agonized over the live newscast about the situation and wished that I were on lockdown instead. Not being physically present to protect them every moment of every day is excruciating, but likely necessary for raising kids who learn how to do their own laundry before their thirtieth birthday.
So I have changed. The old me is gone, but she would have been anyway. Of course I'm a different person now than I was five years ago! A lot of it is because I'm a mom now and have responsibilities beyond my own self, but not entirely. I'm pretty sure that even if I didn't have kids, I wouldn't be stumbling home at just before dawn with a tear in the knee of my stockings and Jägermeister in my hair at age 34. I really want to give myself the benefit of the doubt on that. Still, having children certainly accelerated the process.
But how could I explain to my friend the shock of change that comes with becoming a parent? As her finger lingered over Jack's still-jaundiced cheek, I handed her a tissue and said, "It's worth it." I explained that pretty soon she'd be taking Jack to the playground swings for the first time, and I don't know what it is exactly about swings, but kids are crazy for them and when my kids are happy, even when it's because of something silly like a swing, it makes me happy. I reminded her that pretty soon Jack would be talking, walking, and expressing his very own, unique personality. Pumping isn't forever. Bottles aren't forever. Nappies aren't forever.
I didn't dare try to sell her that oft repeated line about how it all goes by so fast and so she ought to cherish every moment. Elderly women of the world: you can keep trying to convince new parents of that nonsense, but it's not going to make taking care of a tiny helpless human any easier. Instead I used another cliché: it's a marathon, not a sprint. One day my friend will look in the mirror and see her regular self, even if she won't ever go back to being exactly who she was before she had Jack. No one ever said that people aren't supposed to change and if we're doing it right, change goes by another word: growth.