Parenting journal: Before and after

I have been trying to write some version of this post for more than a year. This version took me two weeks and it is finally what I wanted to write (which is, of course, nothing like what I originally thought I needed to write). I don’t think I could have written it earlier.

This is a long read; it’s the equivalent of about 10 pages in a book.

(L to R) Me, April 2015; me, now

Me, before becoming a parent (BP): Hey!

Me, now (ME): Hey!

BP: You look… good!

ME: (rolls eyes) Ha. It’s okay, you can say it.

BP: No, I mean — compared to — you have a kid —

ME: I want us to be honest with each other.

BP: (Pause, deep breath) Okay. You look good, but tired. Really tired.

ME:  I am tired. And I look tired. And fat, unshowered, and my skin is bad. And this is a cuter outfit than I’m usually wearing.

BP: Um. Um, yeah, maybe, but you look better than a lot of moms! You also look… older. More than I expected.

ME: Yeah. Same here. I mean it surprises me too.

ME: So. I have, like, an hour before I have to get back to Owl with the sitter. I know you want to be kind, but I don’t have time for anything except honesty. Everything you’re thinking, I’ve already thought. I can handle it. We need this talk.

BP: Right. (Takes a deep breath, nods) Right.

(BP stares at ME, eyes traveling all around ME’s face and body.)

ME: (sighs) Look, why don’t you just ask me why I’m fat.

(BP recoils reflexively, looking horrified.)

ME: I know you’re thinking it.

BP: Fine, fine. Why are you… I mean you’re not that fat. (Her eyes go involuntarily to ME’s midsection.) But, like, I saw you when you were pregnant. You were one of those seriously glowing beautiful pregnant ladies. And you barely gained any weight. How did— (gestures at ME)

ME: Yeah, I don’t love it. I always think I look pretty decent until I see pics of my whole body and am like, oh my god, that is a post-baby belly for sure. I looked so fucking good before I gave birth. It wasn’t anything I did, though. Every pregnancy is different, they say, and in my case I just didn’t feel like I could eat that much. I wanted to, but I felt sick every time I ate a normal serving of anything. So I didn’t, and whatever I ate just went straight to Owl. I lost weight everywhere else on my body. I mean, you look at my photos; my face is skinnier, my arms are skinnier, I’m actually slimmer everywhere except for the belly.

BP: So you gained weight after she was born.

ME: Yeah. First it was because I was so excited to eat again, and to eat all the things I wasn’t supposed to eat while pregnant: sushi, deli meat, raw cheese, all that stuff. But also, I was nursing, and that makes you SO hungry. Have you seen the pics of my breakfasts during the newborn stage? I ate like a teenage boy. And the nurse told me to. “You need calories,” she said. “Drink milkshakes.” Plus I was up at all these weird hours and you know how sleep deprivation makes you hungrier.

BP: Yeah. (Looks dubious) But didn’t that get better after a while?

ME: The terrible newborn sleep schedule did, but by then I was already in a ton of sleep debt that I haven’t been able to make up at all. The four month sleep regression hit — she had been sleeping through the night until then — and then the ninth, and some of those nights I was sleeping even less than I had when she was a newborn. There was one night when she woke every hour. That messes you up. After awhile my ridiculous hunger started to taper off, but by that time I had pretty much lost the ability or interest in eating according to my hunger cues. My schedule was based on Owl’s needs, so I couldn’t always eat when I wanted to, and meanwhile food was such a reliably and quickly good thing that a lot of the time I just ate because it felt nice.

BP: I guess I do that too.

ME: It’s sad, but at some point I realized I was reaching for sugar or fat or carbs just because in the middle of a busy, tiring day, food felt like the only nice thing I could do for myself. I mean, I didn’t have time or energy to take care of myself properly. But I could have this yummy thing.

BP: (grimaces) That’s rough. Is that still happening? I mean, is it getting better?

ME: (shrugs) Kind of. Sometimes. It doesn’t help that we’ve had to rely so much on takeout. I need more vegetables, but I don’t have the energy to prep them, and you know how I feel about pre-cut veg. Thank god it’s at least summer, so there’s a lot of fruit and it’s so good and easy. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t be getting any fiber at all. Sometimes I actually manage to cook, but I can never count on that happening. And even if I do, I’m still tired, so I’m still reaching for the snacks to get me through the day.

BP: I’m guessing you don’t have time to exercise, either.

ME: (long sigh) I try. I need more movement in my life. I want it. But it’s hard. I have to find time, and I have to find energy, but also I have to find both of those consistently enough for the exercise to do any good — which is probably the hardest part. I recently started physical therapy for the wonky stuff that happened to my body with pregnancy and delivery — for my pelvic floor (BP looks horrified) and separately for my back — and that’s helped a lot, much much more than I would have expected with relatively little time commitment. But that also sucks, because it makes it really clear just how much more I could improve if I had more consistent time and energy, but I just don’t. My back PT even gave me just one exercise to do every day — just one; it takes like five minutes — and I managed to do it every day for a week and then I stopped.

BP: What?!

ME: I’m just so tired. I don’t want to move any more than I have to, even though I know that’s counterproductive. Also, it’s a stomach exercise, so I don’t like to do it right after eating. And quite often the only time I remember to do it is after a meal for whatever reason — maybe that’s the only time I get a chance to take a breath? So yeah.

BP: What about first thing in the morning? Before eating?

ME: I’ve done that, sometimes. I should try that more often. I just forget, a lot of the time. I wake up before I’m ready, and Owl wants to nurse, and when she’s done her diaper needs changing, and then I’m hungry, and I have to get going on making tea and breakfast before Owl demands my attention again — you’re right, I should probably just try it first thing in the morning. I’m sure five minutes won’t make that big a difference, these days; she’s not as demanding as she used to be, as far as my attention goes. At least first thing in the morning. But, you know, five minutes isn’t that much, and I don’t know if I can manage more than that.

BP: It’s something, though, right?

ME: Yeah. Thank you.

BP: So… um, how is it? All of it? I’ve read your blog posts, and I really appreciate how upfront you are in those. It sounds really hard. Like, really really hard. But you seem… you don’t seem as, I dunno, downtrodden as I would have expected, given what you write. Like some of the stuff you say, I feel like I would just be, like, curled up in a corner crying. But you’re here and you’re smiling and you share cute stuff about Owl and (digresses into squee-ing) SHE IS JUST SO CUTE; OMG; I CAN’T BELIEVE WE MADE SUCH A CUTE KID, OMG. Sorry.

ME: (proud and amused) I know. I never thought she would be this cute. And she is actually just a really cool person, even at this age. I like her, besides being her mom. Another mom told me yesterday that Owl has “presence”. She does.

BP: Yeah!! (BP and ME grin at each other with identical expressions of foolish fondness.) I don’t, I don’t really know what I’m trying to say. It’s just… you talk about how hard it is, and I can see that. But I can also see how much you love and enjoy her. Everybody says it’s so worth it, having a kid. But I don’t know how to reconcile those two things. I’m not saying it’s not worth it, I just… I don’t have anything to compare it with, you know?

ME: Yeah, I hadn’t either. I mean (rolls eyes at self) — you know. Gah. Yeah… I am not really into the whole “worth it” phrasing. Do you remember C– told us that the highs are amazing but the lows are absolute hell? That’s a little closer to how I feel, maybe, but I still feel like that doesn’t really describe it. (Sighs in frustration) I hate, hate saying that it’s not something you can understand unless you have a kid, but there is some truth to that. It is just a completely different way of existing. It is really hard to explain what it’s like. I keep trying; I know this is important. The only explanation I’ve been able to come up with is it’s like I used to live on Earth, and now I live on Mars. And I can tell you and tell you what it’s like to be on Mars, but you don’t live there. You don’t experience the different weight of the air and the different gravity, the completely changed landscape and atmosphere and — gah, I’m not a planetary scientist, I don’t remember all the differences between the planets. But you know what I mean? It’s not that Mars is better than Earth. You just don’t live there, and I do. And the longer I live on Mars, the harder it gets to remember exactly the weight and feel of living on Earth. Even though I did it for more than three decades.

BP: Yeah, I guess that makes sense. It’s frustrating, though! Because I might never live on Mars! (Rolls eyes) I mean, I guess I’m going to, because you are. But I still want to know what it’s like! It’s such a huge thing! So many people have kids and there seems to be such a divide between people with kids and people without them, and that doesn’t seem fair. I want to understand! It’s… scary, not being able to imagine it. I am freaked out about having a kid.

ME: I know. I know. That’s why I keep writing these blog posts, that’s why we’re having this conversation. I really want to bridge that gap and I want to do it without being condescending, because I fucking hated that. Hate that. But it’s hard to describe things accurately even in the best of times, and once you have a kid your time goes away, your energy goes away, and when things are really bad — like during those sleep regressions — even my perspective went away; I didn’t trust my own thoughts anymore; it was horrible. At that time I almost couldn’t write because I didn’t even know what was what anymore.

BP: That sounds bad. (Thinks for a moment) I’m not sure that’s ever happened to me.

ME: Yeah, I don’t think it has. It was bad. And you know what else it was? It was so lonely. I felt like there was no one I could talk to. Erik was as exhausted as I was, and also I didn’t want to keep telling him how tired I was, because he tried to help, but he didn’t have anything left to help with. All my friends with kids — they got it, but they were all going through their own thing, or they were equally busy and we never had more than a moment to talk at any given time. It’s hard to really open your heart to someone when every five minutes one of you is getting interrupted and might not be able to come back to the chat window until 24 hours later! I really missed my friends who don’t have kids, but I didn’t feel like I could reach out to them either.

BP: Why not? I know they, we, don’t really know what it’s like, but I’m sure they would have really wanted to help you. I read your blog posts and feel so sad for you. I bet your friends would have loved to know some way they could have made things better.

ME: I know. I kept telling myself, people love you, they want to support you. But I didn’t know how to make that happen. I didn’t have the energy to explain everything, not that I even knew how to articulate it, and I also was so sleep-deprived that I didn’t know if my feelings made sense anymore; I was worried about bothering people with something that wasn’t even that big a deal.

BP: But you were so miserable!

ME: I know!! But I was, like, gaslighting myself — I would be up at 3 AM crying, but I couldn’t tell if it made sense to be that upset, or it was just 3 AM talking. I was afraid I was just a bad mother and a spoiled person and no one wanted to hear my problems because they weren’t real problems.

(BP looks sadly and sympathetically at ME.)

ME: And, also, all my closest childless friends were going through their own stuff at that time. [Redacted] was super depressed, [redacted] was super busy, [redacted] and [redacted] were having job problems and housing problems and money problems and it just felt like the worst timing possible for pushing my problems onto them. I already felt like the worst friend for not being able to be there for them. But I had no emotional energy to listen to their problems, only to spill my own. And how is that being a good friend?

BP: I’m sorry.

ME: Well, so that’s how it went. I was really angry at them, frankly, for leaving me alone when I wanted their friendship so badly. But I also felt like I had nothing to give as a friend, so why the hell would they want to talk to me? And I was, as I said, not in a position where I could explain any of this. It’s only now that I’m able to talk about it without letting hurt and anger get the better of me. And I’m only able to do that because I’m talking to you and not them. And Owl is a year and a half old, which is, like, a blink in parent time, but for non-parents that means I’ve been out of the loop for more than a year… I’m not even sure what’s going to happen with some of those friendships, honestly.

BP: Oh come on… if they can’t understand, they’re not real friends. I can’t imagine any of your friends doing that to you. I mean, I don’t know what it’s like to be a parent, but I do know it makes you really busy and tired. Everyone understands that.

ME: They do, but — oh god, I really don’t want to say ‘but they don’t really understand’ — how can I put it? Well, how about this. I know you haven’t had any really close friends become parents. But even the ones you weren’t that close to, after they had kids, didn’t you kind of wonder why they disappeared so completely? Even though you knew they were busy and tired? Didn’t you secretly think, ‘but surely they must have a little time’?

BP: (looks embarrassed) Now that you mention it, yes.

ME: Didn’t you look at their Facebook posts, their Christmas cards, whatever, and think, ‘dude, so-and-so is such a MOM now’? All they ever post about is their kid, and how they’re doing all these family things together? Didn’t it seem like they’d crossed over to the other side?

BP: Yeah. Yeah, I’ve totally had those thoughts. (Side-eyes ME) As you know.

ME: And didn’t you feel kind of secretly hurt, like, ‘oh, I guess they don’t have time for me anymore because I don’t have kids, I don’t understand what it’s like, my child-free life must seem really frivolous and unimportant’?

BP: Um. Yeah. I did feel hurt, yeah, even though we weren’t close. Especially with [redacted]. Even with [redacted], which is stupid, because we never talked anyway! But it felt like they’d left me behind and moved onto something more… socially approved, I guess. Like they’d graduated to being grownups and I was still a silly kid who couldn’t understand how it was all ‘so worth it’. I felt like they probably didn’t want to be friends anymore.

ME: Exactly. And I guess if you were one of those people who always knew you wanted kids, you’d probably have kept in touch with them more, you’d be eager for the time you could join their ranks, but since you weren’t sure — and I know you were, are, really unsure —

BP: — I felt like I might be left behind forever.

ME: Yeah. Like that friendship was just over, regardless of whether you wanted it to be. Well… well, the stupid thing is, after I had Owl, I felt the same way.

BP: (blankly) Wait, what?

ME: I looked at my friends without kids, who clearly wished me well but didn’t know what to say, and like… it’s hard to help someone who can’t tell you what kind of help she needs, I get that, and I also get why you would stop texting or checking in, because it’s awkward to hear over and over that someone is having a hard time when you feel like there’s nothing you can do. But every time I needed a friend, and no one was there, it felt like my childless friends had moved on from me.

BP: …

ME: I mean, not all of my childless friends. Many of them have been wonderful. But with others… I felt like they were looking at me, dismissing me the way I’d dismissed my friends who had kids, like, ‘oh, she’s just a mom now’. I felt like they didn’t want to be part of my life now that I had a kid and had to bring her everywhere. Like I had become uncool and boring… and the worst part was, I had! I was so tired I could barely make conversation, and even when I could, the only thing I could talk about was my kid because that’s all I knew anymore; that’s all I did all day, was look after Owl. I literally had nothing else to talk about, and I knew how boring that was for someone without kids.

BP: It is kind of boring, no offense.

ME: I know it is. I could hear myself — I could hear myself with your ears — and I knew what I sounded like. But it wasn’t because I’d lost my previous interests or my critical thinking skills or my desire for civic engagement or whatever… it wasn’t because I’d changed as a person. It was because I literally had no time or energy for anything except taking care of Owl. I mean I basically couldn’t even take care of myself. It felt shitty. That’s one of the big reasons I wanted my old friends so badly, because I wanted them to remind me that I still had meaning outside of motherhood; I wanted them to tell me, ‘you still matter, we still care about the part of you that’s not at the forefront right now, we haven’t written you off,’ but I didn’t know how to ask for that and they didn’t know I needed it. At the time when I most needed validation for myself as a person, it felt like all anyone could see was ‘mom’.

BP: But that’s so sad! That’s — that’s so sad!! Do all new moms feel like that? No wonder you felt lonely! I feel bad. I should have been more there for my mom friends.

ME: I have no idea how other moms feel. No — scratch that — I actually posted about this in my favorite online moms’ group, recently, about ‘losing’ childless friends after having our kids, and you would not believe the amount of hurt and disappointment and grieving that came up. I thought I was the only one. Turns out my story isn’t even that bad compared to some. Moms miss their childless friends. They miss them so badly. And they don’t know how to bridge the gap — aren’t even sure the gap is bridgeable.

BP: I’m so sorry.

ME: It’s not your fault. No one explained this to you, and it’s because the only people who could have explained it were too tired. But it’s really real.

BP: I feel really bad. But… you’re right; I didn’t know.

ME: Yeah. I’d like to blame my friends; it’d be easier to blame them, but how can I, when I did the same thing, when I was you? (Sighs) There’s one more thing, though. And it’s… it might hurt to hear it. It might hurt a lot, and I’m not sure there’s any way I can say it to make it easier.

BP: (looks terrified) Uh, do I want to hear this? Do I — no, I do. I want to know.

ME: (a long, pained sigh) The brutal truth is, I often don’t have time for my friends anymore. I wish I did, and I hate that things are this way, but I literally DO NOT HAVE TIME. It’s not just a matter of being busy. It’s like… I used to have a hundred hours a week to myself, and now I have two, and friends don’t always make the cut. It feels horrible to say that, but it’s true. And if they do — if I do see someone or go out or talk on the phone or whatever — it’s at the expense of other things that also need to get done. I don’t even mean important stuff like painting; I haven’t painted in months. I mean stupid stuff like taking a shower or cutting my nails. I’m always, like, a week behind on cutting my nails now, and Erik has sometimes not showered for a week at a time, and — this will tell you how things are with us — I haven’t even noticed.

BP: (staring) You have two hours a week to yourself? TWO??

ME: I mean, not always; some weeks it’s more. Most weeks it’s more. But sometimes, yeah, it’s pretty much two. There have been weeks where we were all sick, one after the other, and then it might be a month of pure survival mode. I’m with Owl basically 24-7. Erik tries to take over sometimes, and our parents help if we’re in San Jose — which also takes time, going down there — and our babysitter comes once or twice a week, but it’s not enough; it’s never enough. Sometimes the sitter comes and I spend that time doing the dishes and laundry and catching up on emails because I am so behind on everything. Sometimes Erik gives me several breaks during the week, but they’re all in the evening when I’m already wiped and all I can do is just lie in bed playing stupid iPad games because my brain is gone.

BP: (aghast) But your writing time. You do get some writing time every week, right?

ME: I do, yes. And it keeps me sane. We only started doing that about four months ago; I didn’t have that during the worst periods of last year. Our agreement was that we would try to get me six hours of writing time each week. In practice, sometimes it’s only a fraction of that. There’s just no predictability, with a kid. And my break time doesn’t always line up with having energy to actually do anything. Plus, even when it does — this part surprised me — I need to decompress. It actually takes time to remember how to just be with myself, after so many hours of being ‘on’ all the time. I’m actually jittery a lot of the times I’m by myself. It’s like I’ve forgotten how to do it. My heart actually races.

BP: I didn’t know it was that bad. I always assumed you’d get more time off, I don’t know how. I mean, didn’t you have a date day with Erik recently? And you’ve had girls’ nights with friends, right?

ME: Erik and I have had one date day since Owl was born. One day alone together in 18 months. Just a daytime day. Not a day and a night. I have had two girls’ nights and one outing with Mommy and [my sisters], on Mother’s Day this year. And I get that writing time, if I’m lucky, a few times a week, but I’m always rushing back, and there’s that decompression time cutting into it too. Plus, aside from the writing, there are a million other things I also want to be doing, and there’s never enough time for that either. Stuff like cleaning out the apartment; we have a lot more clutter now, and less time to figure out what to do with it. There are so, so few breaks for an at-home parent. Or maybe for any parent. I never understood that before. I don’t know how Mommy did it, honestly.

BP: I don’t understand how you’re doing it either! It sounds brutal.

ME: You do what you have to do.

BP: Could you… send Owl to a daycare, maybe? Like even just a couple of days a week?

ME: I’ve thought about it. The trouble is it’s hard to find one; there are long waitlists and I’m super picky; I mean, that’s why I’m staying home with her, because I trust my own care better than anyone else’s. Also daycare is like five to eight hundred dollars a week in our area, even if you’re only doing a couple of days. We could afford that if we wanted to. I just haven’t had the chance to really search for a good place. And it would be a hard transition on both of us, and honestly, it’s hard to muster up the energy for that. I like our current babysitter, and I want to have her come over more often, so that it’s almost like a partial nanny situation. But she’s busy, too; this isn’t her full-time work. So there isn’t an easy solution.

BP: Could you spend more time in the South Bay — I know you’d rather be in the East Bay — and have Mommy watch her more?

ME: I’ve thought about that too, but I’d feel weird. [My sister] needs her help too. I feel like any time I ask her to watch Owl, I’m taking help away from [my sister]. And [my nephew] and Owl are a handful to watch together. She could do it, but it’d be tricky, and I feel bad asking for that.

BP: Maybe you need to try it, though. Or try something else, daycare or something. I think you probably need even more of a break than you think you do. Knowing me, I mean you, us, we tend to take on too much and think it’s fine until it’s not. And I know how much you miss your art.

ME: I do miss it. I miss having more of a sense of myself aside from all this mom-ing I’m doing now, which quite frankly is both amazing and tedious. Sometimes I feel like my brain is expanding in so many incredible ways, and other times it feels like I’m deliberately murdering my intelligence. I would so, so love to have more regular and reliable time for myself. It makes me a better mom, actually. I’ve realized that I get most impatient and frustrated with Owl when I’m not having my own needs met. But it’s hard. There are so many choices and so many philosophies, but every family has to evolve in its own way. I’m making this up as I go, on less sleep and less brain space than I’ve ever had before.

BP: It sounds so hard to be a parent.

ME: It is, and yet somehow everyone — or at least most people, if not in this country at least globally — does it and gets through it, I don’t know how. I mean, our lives are laughably easy, compared to most. Which doesn’t make me feel any better. So we’ll get through it. I’m just trying to figure out how to get through it without losing myself to mothering, the way I was always so afraid of doing.

(BP puts her hand on ME’s arm.)

BP: I think you’re doing a really good job.

ME: (tears welling up) Thank you. Thank you. That means a lot, coming from you.

BP: I think you’ll be okay.

ME: I will. We will.

(ME wipes her eyes with the back of her hand.)

BP: Thank you for talking to me.

ME: Thank you for talking to me. I’ve wanted to sit down with you for months, but it was never the right moment. Thank you: for being who you are, and for laying all the groundwork for me now, for doing all the things you did. It’s because of all of that — because you were so fiercely determined to find your own path — that I’m still able to do that now, even though it’s been harder than I expected, and slower than I expected, and I’m still working it out. For a long time I thought I was betraying you — I mean, a year and a half is nothing in a lifetime, but in the moment it feels like forever — and I felt like you were disappointed in me, that I was letting us down. But now I don’t feel like that.

BP: (whose eyes are also suspiciously shiny) You’re doing the best you can. And it does sound like — I think I was judging you too much, you and other moms, because I just didn’t know how hard it really was. But after talking to you now, having read your blog, seeing you face-to-face… I really think you’re doing a good job. At both mothering and being yourself, as best as you can right now. I hope it’ll get easier. It’ll probably get easier.

ME: (a little shaky) That’s what everyone says. I think it’s probably true. I mean, it’s already way better than it was. Of course I could have another kid, and in that case I’ll just have to start all over again, but people do it. I’m sure I could manage it too, if I wanted to. And I might. I don’t know yet.

BP: (smiling, a little trembly) I think you’re pretty awesome.

ME: I think you are too.

(They hug, now both crying.)

BP/ME: Thank you.

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