My daughter is 7 months old—she’s a funny, curious, adventurous little girl and she’s the light of my life. Before I had her, I struggled with recovery from eating disorders and depression. My pregnancy and these months with her were incredible, and I have never felt better. I’m about to go back to work and school full-time (12-hour days) and I’m feeling incredibly anxious about not being with her. Part of me just wants to quit everything and be with her all the time, but another part of me knows that having an identity outside of “mom” is crucial for me to be well. The battle between the two parts of me is starting to get me down. Any advice?
There’s this Erica Jong quote that I see from time to time. Usually it’s shared on Facebook or retweeted as a calligraphic image on a pastel background. Sometimes it’s illuminated by hearts, sometimes flowers. It goes like this: “Pregnancy doubled her, birth halved her, and motherhood turned her into Everywoman.” I’m not sure why it’s often shared in such a romantic way, as the original context makes it clear the speaker is voicing her fears about motherhood (not its triumphs), but in any case, I see it a lot.
Every time I do, I wish for a “Vehemently Disagree” button on Facebook, because I don’t think there’s any quote that more directly opposes my experience of motherhood.
I didn’t feel “doubled” by pregnancy. I was physically bigger, sure, but hardly “doubled.” I suppose, in a literal sense, I had two stomachs and four kneecaps, but that didn’t make me feel like two people. I also grew a penis for the first (and second!) time, but that definitely didn’t turn me into a man.
I didn’t feel “halved” by birth either. I felt tired. I felt weird and sore and sweaty. I felt strong. But “halved” seems all wrong. I didn’t feel like I had less of anything. I felt like I had so, so, so much more.
It was after I gave birth that I started to feel like I was two people. There was the person I’d been before: a writer, a wife, a watcher of bad reality television. And this new person: a mother, a producer of milk, an animated baby swing for my colicky infant. Really, I was living two lives, but most days there just weren’t enough hours or breaths or heartbeats in which to live them both well.
I’m sorry to say that, for me at least, there still aren’t. I often wish I could be in two places at once. That I could be doing my job (which I love) with passion and dedication, and that I could be at home with my children, hanging out with them all day.
It’s important to note, though, that this pull is not relegated to choices involving my children. I often wish I could go back and forth every morning between having long hair and short hair. But I can’t. Sometimes there are two movies playing and I’d like to see them both. But when I choose, I don’t spend the next seven years agonizing about the movie I didn’t get to see.
Perhaps that sounds like an unfair comparison, so I’ll make another. You’ve made other choices, too, ones with higher stakes, choices with lasting consequences. You chose a career. You’ve chosen a path in school. You chose to have a child in the first place, presumably with full awareness of all you’d be giving up. The difference, I think, is that society doesn’t put such a harsh, judgmental burden on those kinds of choices. This choice you’re facing now comes with a lot of anxiety because one wrong move and you might completely fuck up your child forever, right?
Here’s what I would urge you to keep in mind:
You sound like a loving, thoughtful, dedicated parent. Whatever choice you make, you shouldn’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise.
You won’t do anything that can’t be undone. If you quit work and school to stay with your daughter and realize you’ve made a horrible mistake, you’ll rebuild, you’ll re-enroll. Ditto the opposite. If you try re-entering the workforce and find it miserable, you’ll re-exit. There’s nothing you can do here that will irrevocably screw up your life (or your daughter’s).
Perhaps there’s some middle ground available to you that you haven’t considered, a kind of easing in. Twelve-hour days are long days. Is it possible to go back to work first, and start school in the spring? Or vice versa? You don’t mention the mechanism by which you’ve been able to have so much time off, maybe you can extend that for a little while as you “practice” being away from your daughter to see how it feels.
Most importantly, though, you’ve struggled in the past with mental illness, so self-care is paramount. You should lean toward the life that makes you feel safe and calm. You say that having an identity outside of “mom” is crucial for your well-being, so make sure you have that. That might come from work and school. It might not. But find it wherever it is.
The last bit of that quote I mentioned earlier is the part that bothers me most—“Motherhood turned her into Everywoman.” I want to tell you that it did not. You are still YOU. It’s OK to be a person and not just a mom. It’s OK to have needs that are different from (or even in conflict with) your daughter’s. She has her own life, too. It’s hard for us to remember when they’re so small, but she’s the lead character in her own story, not you. You have a supporting role in her movie at best, so make sure you’re the star of your own.
Aubrey Hirsch is the author of “Why We Never Talk About Sugar.” Her work has appeared widely in print and online. You can learn more about her at www.aubreyhirsch.com or follow her on Twitter: @aubreyhirsch