I have a friend whose baby is nine months older than Rebecca, and recently she and her husband decided to do a romantic getaway before their next baby comes. That sounds nice, I said, whenever she mentioned it. Was I really oblivious that she was nervous about leaving her daughter? I really was. Despite having been a stay-at-home parent for over a year now and having read a lot about other mothers’ experiences, I apparently still haven’t gotten it through my head that leaving your baby can be hard to do, even when your baby is more like a toddler and even when you’ve got someone you trust and who isn’t unduly put out to look after her. Lots of people leave their babies every day, so how bad can it be?
I wrote most of this post sitting in a condo in Maui in early September, while my husband went diving without me. He and I had taken scuba lessons together for our second anniversary, back in 2003. Falling in love with the Californian kelp forests was what finally saved me from being homesick for the Midwest. And on every trip to Hawaii since then we’ve gone diving as often as our bodies would let us, passionately, and afterward we snuggled and slipped into early naps and agreed the trade-off between sex and diving was a good one.
This September I still wanted to dive, but not as much as I didn’t want to leave my baby with the sitter again. I was too anxious to sleep and eventually lay in bed crying, because I kept thinking about Rebecca being unhappy.
Everyone I talked to reassured me that leaving Rebecca for a few hours wouldn’t hurt her, and I agreed. I’d decided before we left that diving would be worth some amount of unhappiness for her, and I figured based on Lise Eliot’s book, What’s Going On In There, that she wouldn’t be scarred by my unusual and relatively short departure. Babies are statistical creatures; they register their parents’ normal patterns of responsiveness, not so much the exception that proves the rule. The babysitter added that I shouldn’t feel guilty, because Rebecca needs to learn to let people other than her parents take care of her. Yes to that, too, but my anxiety wasn’t about that kind of fear or guilt.
When we went diving two days ago–the first time we’d left Rebecca with a stranger, though our beloved housemate Shayna was also around– she cried most of the four and a half hours we were gone. The main reason I don’t feel guilty about it is that I hadn’t expected things to go so badly, but also, I don’t generally get guilty about that sort of thing. You can’t fix someone else’s feelings, and anyway, I’m not the only one who she could’ve stayed with happily, so I don’t see any particular guilt adhering to myself. The practical questions bothered me, though: Is ten-and-a-half months a good time to learn being left with a stranger? When it’s someone she won’t form a lasting relationship with? Under these circumstances? Because dive boats leave well before Rebecca wakes up, and I’d be alarmed, too, if I woke up on vacation and my family was gone.
What I felt guiltier about was potentially flaking out on Ted. The conventional parenting advice I’ve read says you need to make sure to spend alone time with your husband after you become parents, with the subtext that he’s kind of a diva and he’ll leave you if you don’t choose him over your baby. It’s another stupid stereotype that’s not true of Ted, right? Talk with him, Christina, instead of assuming that he wants you to go diving at any cost or that he doesn’t care about our daughter’s happiness. But I wince when I imagine myself objecting to having fun together. Will I become a living embodiment of the burdens of parenthood, like someone he’d be happier without? Will he get into the habit of relying on me to veto ideas that might not suit Rebecca, until he forgets that he’s as much a parent as I am, and that I’m not just a killjoy? So the mainstream conjugal advice to new parents has teeth.
The other problem is that I don’t just want to have fun with Ted; it’s that I want to be fun. Or at least interesting. The feminist parenting advice I’ve read says that kids need interesting mothers. Now, short of a catastrophe, one dive wouldn’t be enough to help in that department, but if I don’t go all in now and enjoy scuba diving just as much as I used to, then will I still be a diver the next time we come to Hawaii? Or will it become just one more thing we did before kids?
Still, I keep coming back to the question, what if Rebecca cries most of the time we’re gone again? I know it’s likely, and I know I could stop it. It doesn’t matter that she won’t remember being left with a stranger or be scarred by it. That’s like saying it doesn’t matter that those Canadian doctors were groping women under anesthesia.
Before I became a parent, I figured that crying was just something babies do, not grievous human suffering. I figured you can’t take a baby crying too seriously, because babies don’t understand a lot of things. They cry even when you’re doing things that benefit them–say, like helping their parents live like whole people with healthy marriages–and other times they cry for things that could hurt them, or for no apparent reason. It’s the parents’ job to be rational adults and analyze the trade offs.
But what I notice now is that those statements about babies are true of people in general: We all want things that will do us no good, and we all cry in the face of things people say will benefit us. (See me crying and going through wad of kleenex as I think about leaving Rebecca with the sitter.) Even so, my own best interests remain mine to determine, not anyone else’s, because no one else has the first-person perspective to evaluate what I get out of an experience nor the authority to set my goals for me. By contrast, babies’ desires get dismissed as mistakes. Sometimes parents do need to disappoint, anger, hurt, and challenge their children–but some of the rhetoric used to justify that? It wouldn’t fly if it were applied to someone who had full status as a person. I’m uneasy talking about conscience in connection to babies’ desires, but my reticence probably has less to do with logic than with the fact that we as a culture have decided that parents should “escape” sometimes and that babies’ opinions about it don’t count.
The root of my dilemma is that babies and their desires are trivialized, which makes it hard to justify staying, and babies’ lack of person status is contagious, which makes it attractive to go. Being around babies apparently turns your brain and personality to mush, which is why you need to escape if you want to be “fun” or “live a little.” But if taking care of a baby isn’t life, then what is it? And what if a self isn’t something you can lose? I mean, what if you actually turn out to have a self no matter what you do, whether you stay home or go to work or go out for fun? What if babyhood weren’t forever, and in good time I could return to some passions and even find new ones? Platitudes about how quickly the time goes can sometimes be a way of saying that mothers’ needs right now don’t matter. But on the plus side, if Rebecca’s baby days are reduced to a hiatus in my life, then my choices don’t all have to be so fraught with portents for my identity and relationships. Just look at the situation as it is. At this moment.
What I am is worn out from having fun with our childless friends on vacation, instead of resting next to Rebecca while she naps. What I am is a woman who’s already made over 110 dives, and Ted and I already did the dive we were most looking forward to on Tuesday.
Rebecca won’t need to look back at good old mom and rue all the things I gave up for her, because in a lot of ways it’s not about her. It’s about who I am, and I don’t leave people I love to cry so that I can have–or even be–fun. Leaving Rebecca to cry while I dove might not damage her, but it could damage me to disavow how I felt about leaving her. Today staying home with Rebecca is standing up for myself.
I’d like to end this piece on that note, except it’s not that simple. Doesn’t my high-minded decision to let Ted dive without me reinscribe traditional gender patterns at home and on the dive boat? Even though I say that the decision wasn’t about fear, guilt, or sacrifice, it has the same effects as if it were, which makes my reasons for staying home seem kinda incidental. And even if I cast my decision as self-affirming, that could prove to be more of a rhetorical trick than a long-term solution. I found myself ensnared in differing imperatives about the kinds of selves a mother should be, but despite my apparent triumphant escape, I haven’t actually rejected any of them.
I don’t see myself as obligated to care for Rebecca in whatever way she chooses, but I’m not going to blow her off, either, and so we muddle through to a middle ground the same way I would in any other relationship. In this case, the middle ground looked like staying home but still paying the babysitter to take care of Rebecca so that I could write, Ted could dive, and Rebecca could see I was still around. She started screaming in a panic as soon as she saw the sitter–I mean, she was really, exceptionally disturbed–so I felt validated in my choice to stay with them. The problem is, “don’t blow her off” as a relational ethic looks a lot like another cultural mandate, “There’s nothing in particular that you have to do in response to your baby, as long as you worry about whatever it is you’re doing.” It puts moral weight on how you feel toward your baby, rather than on what you do, and the sort of worry it recommends is taxing, unpleasant, and potentially inconsequential.
I’m angry about how anxious I got, because I feel like the whole thing was a set-up where everyone played their scripted parts, but none of us knew quite what we were doing. In the story in the back of my head, an overly attached, emotionally self-indulgent mother is agonizing about leaving her baby. In the next scene she mans up and does it anyway, and in the third scene the baby is happy as a clam while the mom does her thing elsewhere. The whole thing was harder on her than the baby!–she laughs about it with other mothers over a cup of coffee, as a rite of passage they’ve all successfully been through. I know that’s how it’s supposed to go. The details of my experience may be idiosyncratic, but my anxiety is a cultural artifact, not wholly my own internal conflict, nor wholly private.
The fact that I was the one lying awake at night agonizing over whether to leave Rebecca happened not just because several conflicting relationships were calling my name, but because Ted and I have a gendered distribution of labor for worrying. I worry about Rebecca, and he worries about money and other logistics. So let’s not sound too smug and triumphant about wending my way out of the social pressures urging me to leave Rebecca, when I simply chose in favor of the stronger but less articulate social influence telling me to stay. This distribution of labor is ingrained in and part of my love for my daughter, because love is fundamentally social and hence cultural. We expect mothers to worry about their children as if it were a kind of piety–but only as long as their worrying is feckless and doesn’t compromise their ability to act like men, who are expected not to worry about leaving the kids.
Then we came home from Hawaii, and I let this piece of writing languish because I felt stupid about how anxious I’d been, and the whole thing seemed hopelessly bourgeois and trivial. It really shouldn’t have been such a big deal to leave Rebecca for four hours, right? But belittling this kind of worry is of course how I got into the situation in the first place, and I’d like to trade in my milquetoast support of other mothers’ departures in favor of something less trivializing. It’s ridiculous to pretend that my baby’s preferences don’t or shouldn’t matter, and especially that they shouldn’t matter to me, who spends so much of every day in conversation with them.