Half Empty, Half Full

Originally posted February 2010, concerning when Littlest was 2-3 months old.

When we were pregnant, I didn’t grok the asymmetry of fatherhood and motherhood. I knew I had the boobs and would be doing the nursing; I hadn’t expected the corollary that Milky would then spend her first two months sacking out in my lap in full-bellied bliss. Usually I enjoyed it; sometimes I didn’t, but not enough to move her; either way I became default baby-holder. That means I needed to make arrangements to take a shower or go to the bathroom or get a snack, whereas Ted was still in the world where he could simply announce that he’s taking a shower or even just get up and grab the Doritos, like a normal person would.

I resented that, and then because resentment was uncomfortable, I embraced the role instead. I reminded myself that taking care of Littlest is my choice and I could’ve made other choices. Good as far as it goes, but I’m afraid that our experiences with a newborn will teach us who we are as mother and father, that we’ll keep this uneven model of parenthood even when the initial reason for the pattern has disappeared. If I happily stay home with our baby during the day and curl around her at night, then how do I avoid having a disproportionate sense of responsibility for Rebecca when Ted and I are both awake and at home?

When I went out on New Year’s Day to pick up lunch for myself and our partied-out house guests, I left the two-and-a-half month old Littlest at home with her daddy. On my way out I asked, “If the baby cries, you’ll grab her, right?”–all the syllables enunciated and a little too loud, the voice of ostentatious patience. He said he would and away I went.

As soon as I got in the car, I wondered why the hell I was talking to Ted like that, as if he were an idiot. I don’t need to tell him to check on his daughter when she’s crying. He’s better than that, duh, and it’s not like he’s ever let her sit and cry. Later it occurred to me that I might’ve been giving my voice to old resentment. But I think the particular form it took, paranoia, is also a cultural memory of all the hurt voices I’ve read lamenting husbands who weren’t there. My irritation isn’t entirely mine, either: it’s a sympathetic memory of my mother complaining that she couldn’t leave us alone with my dad, even for an hour, when we were little. He wasn’t a deadbeat so much as he was a new doctor completing his fellowship, but he wanted my mother to hire a babysitter.

Later on I apologized. Ted said it wasn’t a big deal–I’m not sure he’d noticed it–said that moms are weird about leaving their babies. Right, the reciprocal stereotype that makes being talked down to more tolerable.

I’m not beating myself up about this, but it scares me sometimes how easy it is, especially on days when I’m busy and off-center, to slip into somebody else’s feelings about motherhood. This one’s a heavy fuck-me-up feeling, too, the conviction that I’m solely responsible for my daughter’s well-being and that no one else will help me. At least it’s falsifiable.

Despite having been anointed with the cultural mantle of “mother knows best,” I’m trying hard not to steal our daughter from Ted when she cries and not to assume that my opinion about her is necessarily right. But those gender roles are seductive. I’ve got this sense of blessed assurance from being a new mom, which is totally not what I was expecting. I feel better about myself now than I have in years–more capable, more stable, less anxious. Sufficient. I feel like the person I knew my mom was when I was little. Maybe her gracefulness wasn’t just a facade for the kids?

It’s even shown up in my dreams. Like for years I’ve dreamt about trying to keep my head above the water, but now in that dream I can swim, no problem. Sure I’m using my newfound ability to keep our baby’s head just barely above water, but my dream-self has gotten better at other stuff, too. I had a dream last night where I was the calm, responsible one on a college scuba diving trip.

I think most of the change is because taking care of a new baby is a saner lifestyle for me than grad school was. My day-to-day life is telling me different things about myself than I’m used to hearing, and it only took a month or so for the expanded sense of possibility that I talked about in my last post to coalesce into a new sense of what kind of person I am.

I feel like somebody handed me a magic mask and inscribed my body with a new set of symbols. I’m giddy about being handed a new self, a little worried that some parts I like about that self are a lie or won’t really fit in the long run, and I’m wondering how much I can tinker with the parts Ted and I don’t want. Because the label of motherhood has too much positive mojo not to want in on some of it, even if it’s not equally accessible to Ted.

The more I see Rebecca as a person, rather than a job, the easier it is to accept that Ted and I are going to have separate relationships with her. Now I see my sense of moment-to-moment responsiveness to Rebecca more as part of my relationship to her, which is different from Ted’s relationship to her, rather than an expression of job duties. I don’t know where that leaves traditional gender roles or the abstract ideal of equality between mothers and fathers. I do know that the shift has everyday benefits: now that I’m thinking less about equality, I’m more comfortable telling Ted when I need a break from Rebecca, as well as offering to hold her again when she fusses.

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