It will seem an impossible task this growing—for all of you. But you’ll do it anyway.
Dear 28-Year-Old Almost-Mom Self:
I see you in the hospital bed on the third day of your labor, trying to bring your daughter into the world. You are exhausted and must push one more time.
You have had two professional jobs since college—and a professional job awaits you after your allotted six weeks of maternity leave. You have had to travel for conferences and this has allowed you a glimpse of the diversity of the United States.
You and your husband own a small home, you have health insurance and own one good car (the second car has a suspicious rattle). You have done all these things, yet you are still terrified—terrified of the physical pain you are experiencing, terrified of how your life is about to change, terrified that you won’t be the ever-elusive “good mother.” You try to imagine a new reality where you have a baby who needs constant care and you can’t. You cannot imagine taking a baby grocery shopping or on trips. You know this will soon be your reality, but you are unable to fathom not being able to simply go see a movie or stay late at work if you need to.
Your daughter has a tough time being born—her collar bone will break, she will be severely jaundiced, after nine long days in the hospital, you will bring her home. She will be tiny and sleepy in a car seat you can’t imagine her outgrowing.
You cannot imagine how she will grow. You know human beings start out as babies. You aren’t stupid but to see it every day—to try to put on a sleeper that fit last week that no longer fits her this day, this will make you strangely teary, as if you sense that she will always continue to grow in ways you cannot imagine.
You will be depressed.
You will love your daughter more than anything but you will have little support. You are the first of your friends to have a child. You don’t want to impose. You don’t want to complain. You don’t want them to know how hard you are struggling, on how little sleep. Your husband will use up his week of leave while your daughter is still in the hospital. You are on your own.
You’ve never had a good relationship with your mother. Plus, your mother had seven children and doesn’t want to hear you complain about your single child. If things had been different, you might have grown closer to your mother during this time—you understand her burdens in a way you never have before. But she does not want you two to be closer. Not really.
You somehow make it through the first year—through expensive day care. Through ear infections (so many ear infections), tonsillitis, hand-foot-and-mouth disease, so many colds. Through the changes in your relationship with your husband. Most of these changes are good as you work toward a new united goal—taking care of the baby.
You are still depressed but functionally so. You are amazed at mothers who treat parenting like it is nothing. You think you have good instincts and your daughter seems happy but you worry. About working. About all the illnesses. About whether it is bad you and your husband don’t have “date nights,” which everyone seems to think are so crucial, which you can never find a babysitter for. Your idea of a date night is to put the baby down at 7:30 and pop some popcorn and watch TV or read a Stephen King novel.
You worry about sleep training, which you end up doing because with all of the ear infections (thankfully mostly banished when your daughter learns to walk and sits up more) she doesn’t know how to sleep through the night. Now that the ear infections are banished, you know your depression will ease if you can just sleep in a six-hour block consistently.
You worry about money. Babies and illnesses are expensive. You take a cut in pay for a more flexible schedule so your daughter will only have to be in daycare three days a week. You have all the advantages a mother can have—marriage, health care, employment, a home, and still this is such hard work.
You wonder if you are doing something wrong. If you are weak. How could you have not known how hard this was?
The years pass. You have another child—a son. You feel more confident but the postpartum depression comes again. You make the difficult decision to “stay home” with your two children, at least for a while. Day care for both children (and this is in the year 2000) would have been over $1,000 each month. You make about $30,000 a year before taxes.
Your son is not in daycare and has a single ear infection his first year of life. You love being home with them—more sleep, less stress, but you miss things like business cards and a work number. You definitely miss your paycheck.
When your son is about a year old, you begin to have time to write—your dream—something you have always imagined yourself doing. You will write both creatively and do things like edit text books, start a community-based writing workshop, write content for web pages and write press releases and newsletters for your previous employers. You will cobble something together. No one will ever tell you this, but much of the next 15 years will in no way look like any plan you have had for your life. Much of your career throughout your child-rearing years will look like a tinker-toy model—a little cheap, not the most sturdy, but kind of fun and creative.
There will be tragedy in the next 19 years—you will lose people you cannot imagine losing. You will watch both your daughter and son struggle in ways that will break your heart. You will watch in helplessness as they lose their grandparents, experience their first crushes, do not make teams, do not win the trophy or the ribbon. You will watch them fail and you yourself will fail.
You will say things you will have to apologize for. They will see you in all of your flawed humanity—your eating disorder, your depression, your love of words, your sarcasm, your grief, your love of movies, stand-up comedy, and Mexican food. They will love you in spite of all of these things and perhaps because of them.
It will seem an impossible task this growing—for all of you. You will no longer think that moms with kids in school “have it made.” (That was a good one, younger self.) You will continue to be terrified as they learn to drive, as they ride with friends, as they enter locker rooms where things are said which you have no control over, as they spend days away from you at camps and tournaments, and weeks away from you at college.
For now, they always come back to you. One day they may not. You also cannot imagine this.
Do it anyway, 28-year-old Self. Give one last hard push.
Telaina Eriksen is an essayist, poet, and an assistant professor in creative writing for the Department of English at Michigan State University. She runs a film review blog Catch Up Films with fellow Role Reboot contributor Chelsea Cristene. Eriksen lives in East Lansing, Michigan, with her husband, her teenage son, her teenage daughter (who comes home occasionally to get groceries and do laundry), a Sheltie, a pit bull, and a cynical former barn cat.