Owl is a week short of seven months, which is sort of mind-blowing for me as I can still remember when she was tiny (or even not born yet) and having a six-month-old seemed impossibly far-off. And yet here we are, past that already. From the perspective of this almost-unimaginable time, to the perspective of all past iterations of myself, some observations:
Having a baby is deeply satisfying in a way I never anticipated. I figured I’d love my baby but it is really more all-encompassing than I could possibly imagine. I always hated the condescension of “you won’t understand until/unless you become a parent” but I’m now forced to admit there is some truth to that. It really is a different way of existing.
This isn’t a bad thing, as I used to fear. I was always terrified of the way parenting rewires your brain and makes you obsessed with things that previously never interested you. I saw it as brainwashing, a forced and unwelcome reshaping. Instead, I find it’s like learning a new and deeply transferable skill — the way a serious education in dance transforms your proprioception, or moving to a new country transforms the way you think or speak or eat. It’s powerful, not deadening; it’s expansive, not constricting. I’m constantly amazed at what I can do that seemed daunting before, and how little time or energy I’m willing to give over to anxiety and second-guessing. (Granted, this is not true for everyone. In parenting as well as traveling — in all of life, I suspect — it is easier if you have support. Some money and good friends or helpful family can mean the difference between unending misery and exciting adventure.)
Moreover, babies themselves are more interesting than I realized — or, likely, I hadn’t realized that the allure of a baby is mostly apparent only after you’ve spent a lot of time with one. We tend to think of them as helpless little creatures who rely on us for everything, which isn’t untrue, but it’s also not the whole story. With what they have, babies are astonishingly autonomous, active, engaged problem-solvers with clear preferences and a lot of resilience. At six months Owl began to crawl, after a fashion, but quickly and in whatever direction she chose, and started to feed herself finger-food versions of what we eat. Although I have a fair idea of what she can do, she learns so much faster than even I expect, so it’s fascinating to give her as much independence as possible and watch what she’ll do with it. As an outsider without experience of babies, though, this isn’t obvious, because all you see when you hang out with a baby is whatever the baby happens to be doing during that timeframe, which is very likely to be merely eating or sleeping or fussing. It’s hard to appreciate the incredible feat that is their development without having observed that growth in action, day in, day out. (Likewise, it’s hard to understand the fixation on their poops unless you know that this is one of the best indicators of the state of their health!)
The flip side of that, though, is parenting is so tiring because you are there for it, day in, day out. I knew that was true, but until I tried it myself, I couldn’t fully know what that would feel like. About a month ago, as we were making our weekly drive down to San Jose, Erik asked, “Would you say this is harder than you imagined?”
I said, “No, I always knew it was going to be hard. What I didn’t expect is how. I thought it would be hard in a crisis fashion — everything going wrong at once, kind of thing. I didn’t expect the…”
Erik supplied, “The grind.”
So far (and thank god I can say this, not everyone can) nothing is hard by itself. But all together it can be hard, day after night after day. I mentioned this to my sister and she agreed, and added that she wonders sometimes if there’s anything she could have done to prepare herself better, which I’ve asked myself too. We both concluded there isn’t. I said also, though, if you offered to take Owl off my hands for a day I would say no! And she said she feels the same. Not every parent would feel that way but clearly we do. It is the most wearying thing I’ve ever done and yet it’s my choice to be there for it, 24-7.
That said, though, I often feel like I am more tired or more tapped-out than other parents seem to be, even though I’m well supported and resourced. I’m constantly wondering whether it’s because I’m a highly sensitive person, meaning I get overloaded more quickly than most of the population. It isn’t just being with Owl that can be draining, but dealing with the adult world at the same time. At times I’ve felt myself revisiting that awkward self-consciousness of adolescence, wondering if there’s something wrong with me because I just want to retreat so much of the time. (I mean, I know it’s fine. But I just feel so at odds sometimes with how everyone else seems to experience things, and in spite of having gone through that all my life, the feeling has never entirely become comfortable.)
Part of being highly sensitive is an increased reactivity to physical sensations (relative to most people). I think everyone knows that pregnancy and birth are a major physical experience, but parenting is too, and I don’t know if that’s acknowledged as much (certainly not in our public policy). Maybe it gets better with time and sleep, or after stopping breastfeeding; I’m not in a position right now to know. When I’m feeling particularly overloaded with physical, mental, or emotional input — which seems to happen almost constantly these days — It’s a bad cycle, with my busy brain and tense body feeding into each other and leaving me, sometimes, unable to sleep for hours at a time in spite of exhaustion.
Speaking of which, I have been realizing over the past couple of months that a child brings so much of her own momentum that I need to consciously build in space for myself if I want to have any. Writing, stretching, quiet relaxation — all those things are unlikely to happen unless I make time for them. And the same goes for partner time. I am not usually very big on structure, preferring freedom and flexibility, but everything takes more planning now (even as, paradoxically, all plans require more adaptability and compromise). So I’ve had to evaluate what’s important to me, and then make more of an effort to include those things in my daily or weekly habits — with the knowledge that some days this will happen, many days it won’t, but I have to at least make the effort or I’ll find those things disappearing from my life altogether.
Case in point: I wrote this post, a paragraph or two at a time, over a month of snatched minutes during Owl’s naps, often when I would rather have been resting myself. I wrote on the laptop (which I prefer), I hunted-and-pecked with the crotchety iPad keyboard, I even tapped notes into the phone while falling asleep. Occasionally I wrote a few sentences lying down beside her after she woke up and began crawling around, knowing I only had a few minutes, typing frantically while keeping half an eye on the edge of the bed and fending her off every time she got too close to it — or to the laptop. And I’m finishing it up now in Colorado, where we are on (working) vacation with friends. I’ve been feeling bad about how little I’m able to write but in describing my process of writing this post, I realize I sound determined. Maybe I am.