The more alone you are in parenthood, the more alone you are in parenting.
One hundred years ago you’d have a child surrounded by other women: your mother, her mother, sisters, cousins, sisters-in-law, mother-in-law. And you’d be a teenager, too young to have had any kind of life yourself. You’d share childcare with a raft of women. They’d help you, keep you company, show you how. Then you’d do the same. Not just people to share in the work of raising children, but people to share in the loving of children. –Elisa Albert, After Birth
My daughter was six months old the first time I brought her from her birthplace in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to my hometown in upstate New York. I had recently accepted a new job in Boston, and we were moving back east. Benna and I had flown ahead of my husband, Jason, who had stayed behind to pack up our house in Eau Claire and drive the U-Haul. The stopover in New York was Benna’s first time meeting her extended family.
It was, in retrospect, poor timing. Though New York was at the height of summer lushness, we were living in a blackout world. I mean that literally. We were the midst of sleep training Benna, and it was taking weeks, not days, as the books had promised. The exhaustion was total—at my mother’s house we cocooned ourselves, heavy curtains drawn, white noise blasting from the iPad, blotting out the world. Months of sleep deprivation had made my daughter wired and fussy, in need of three to four naps a day, all of which were taken in a dark room while she nursed and dozed in my arms. At night, I closed the upstairs bedroom door behind me after singing her Lucinda Williams bedtime song, and listened to her scream herself to sleep. Some nights, it took less than 10 minutes. Other nights, it took up to an hour. Sticking to the plan without Jason there to enforce my resolve was torture, and my mother, trying to be supportive, would whisk me outside to the patio to wait out both her granddaughter and daughter’s crying.
There had been two babies born in the family that year. Benna is three months older than her second cousin, my cousin’s daughter. My cousin’s family lives in our hometown, and his child was born surrounded by the same people who surrounded me in childhood. When we all got together during that visit, it was starkly obvious how different the two babies responded to their relatives: my cousin’s daughter delighted in being passed from aunt to uncle to grandparent, while Benna balled her fists at my shirt collar and clung. If someone besides me so much as looked at her too long, she cried and rooted at my breast, running away the only way she knew how, back into me.
At the end of the trip, my mother, who desperately wanted to bond with her only grandchild, gently accused me of hogging Benna. “It feels like you don’t want us to bond with her,” she said.
All those trips upstairs to nurse. All that time bundled in the Ergo carrier while I walked her around and around the backyard. I didn’t know what to say. It was true that Benna had hardly left my arms all week, and it was true that those first months alone in Wisconsin had made it so that only Jason and I had grown accustomed to answering her cries. But I didn’t know how to say that, although my love for my daughter practically pulsed inside of me, a living, needful thing, I was lonelier than I’d ever been in my life.
As a writer with a day job teaching at a small liberal arts college, I’m used to my personal life entering the classroom. Privacy isn’t much of a priority for me—I regularly friend students on Facebook, where they can see me in all my oversharing glory—but in classes about writing personal essays and memoir, it’s nearly impossible to erect a boundary between instruction and experience: the instruction is about how to capture real experience on the page. Plus, my published work is readily accessible online, and I can’t stop my students from reading it. What might come across as a cavalier persona in the classroom is really just my acceptance that I’ve entered a discipline in which my ability to teach depends, in part, on my comfort with being open with my students, showing them how I’ve translated my own life, including its failures and pain, into something artful.
So I wasn’t surprised or offended when a student mentioned in class this week that she’d read some of my articles here at Role Reboot and noticed a trend. “It seems like parenting can be hard for you,” she said, not unkindly. This student had an extensive background in childcare as a babysitter and nanny, and while we scrolled through pictures of my daughter Benna on my phone one night after class, she’d told me how much she loved being with kids Benna’s age. For her, caring for children was a balm on other wounds. She sweetly offered to babysit, if we ever have need.
We have need. Jason and I haven’t even celebrated our anniversary this year. But a night out in Boston is expensive enough without throwing the cost of childcare on top. We just can’t afford to spend $300 strengthening our marriage that way.
The more alone you are in parenthood, the more alone you are in parenting. Yes, I’m sure Benna would manage without us for an evening, even if it meant tears. But the thought of her crying with a stranger puts a damper on the idea of going out. Why spend money to worry over our glasses of wine?
In All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting, Jennifer Senior examines the effects of geographic isolation on today’s parents. “The social lives of parents are also affected: without the most reliable, most psychologically reassuring, and (above all) most affordable form of babysitting—namely, grandparents—a simple evening out with one’s spouse is a much harder sell,” she writes.
But many parents have been forced to eschew what Senior calls the “pop-in” culture of trusted family members, friends, and neighbors. Jason and I, both academics, have moved five times in 10 years for work, a common experience for the new, migrant academic on the job market today. Migrant professionalism isn’t limited to academics, either—according to Senior’s research, those with college degrees move away from their extended families, with many industries requiring potential employees to relocate in order to take important job opportunities. In such a competitive market, you’re likely to have to imagine yourself doing what you want to do in places that weren’t part of your original dream. While that has been an exciting part of our lives—experiencing so many cultural ecosystems of American regionalism—having a child has placed enormous pressure on Jason and me because we have started over so many times. It takes time to build relationships strong enough to include one another’s children in the dynamic. Most of us love each other’s kids because we love their parents first.
I interviewed for my new job when Benna was two months old. I went on two interviews, actually, and was offered both positions. One would keep us in the affordable Midwest, at a university with a daycare facility on site. The other would stretch our budget to the limit in Boston, and would probably preclude us from ever saving enough to buy a house. But as soon as I hung up the phone after receiving the Boston offer, I knew we’d go there. It would put us within a half-day’s drive of my mother.
Things are getting easier, though, just as they were promised to do. Benna, almost 3 now, has a stronger interest in making new friends. This fall, she started at a neighborhood daycare/preschool two days a week, and she’s thriving there. She also has a regular sitter two other days a week, and after two years together, they are firmly bonded, and we think of her sitter as part of our family structure.
But of course, the presence of these wonderful caretakers still costs money. Jason and I still trade off childcare duties between the two of us most of the time, and although we have a happy life with our wonderful daughter, we live in the throes of omnipresent stress. We want to give more to the jobs we’ve worked so hard to get. We want to give more to our child (though it’s hard to tell if that’s because we have specific goals we’re not meeting, or because the parenting “experts” have turned the parent-child relationship into yet another full-time job). We are tired all the time.
But really, it is getting easier. We’re coming up on our third year in Boston, the longest we’ve spent in one place since we left graduate school in 2008. We have lived in the same neighborhood all this time, and finally, we run into people we’ve come to know well on the streets of Jamaica Plain—mostly, other parents who frequent the same playgrounds, music classes, and daycares we do.
Over the weekend, we took Benna to an apple farm outside of town, and pulled into a field-turned-makeshift-parking-lot at the same time as our neighborhood friends and their almost 3-year-old arrived. And then, car loaded with New England apples and pumpkins, we found ourselves driving through the nearby town where some of my college friends now live. Benna has visited with those friends enough now that she feels comfortable at their house. While the adults sat in the living room and talked, Benna watched Sesame Street in our friends’ bedroom, eventually falling asleep.
At some point in the evening, I saw one of those friends in the kitchen with Benna. He had crouched low to talk with her at eye-level, and I could see from the look on her face that she was thrilled to have his attention, and he, sweetly invested in their private chat.
“She’s happy here now,” my friend told me later. “It took some work, but now she comes over and knows where she is.”
He was right. My daughter has a little outpost of home there now. And there’s something singularly special about seeing her through the eyes of people who aren’t paid to be with her, aren’t expected to because of blood. Our on-site village is small, and our distant one relies on Skype, and I’ll always wonder what it would be like if Benna grew up the way I did, traveling in a family pack, each home of a grandparent or aunt or uncle just an extension of my own. But maybe she will get something new. Maybe she will learn how to nurture her relationships in a way that honors their voluntary nature.
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.