Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
A Work in Progress


I'd like to say that my first thought, when the doctor held my son up for me to see, was that he was adorable. But that's the fiction writer in me kicking in, urging me to revise. "Adorable" wasn't what I was thinking at the time. My first thought was that Alex was real -- a real live screaming baby who seemed, at a quick glance, to have all his parts. After that, I simply wanted to sleep. I wanted to sleep more than I wanted to hold and nurse Alex, though I'd spent nine months imagining the moment when he would be placed in my arms for his first feeding, a wet, slimy, precious thing, my reward for months of nausea and countless nights of sleeping with odd-shaped pregnancy pillows that promised but never quite provided comfort. My entire body had been working toward this moment and yet here I was, numbed with medication after an unexpected cesarean, exhausted, and thrumming with fear. Alex was real. A real live baby with baby needs, a frighteningly powerful set of lungs, and (I would soon learn) a serious aversion to napping.
What had I gotten myself into?

I wept my way through the first couple weeks, as the parenting books warned I might. I wept because of hormonal changes and lack of sleep, because my newborn had insomnia, and try as I might I couldn't get him to sleep for more than a few scant half-hour stretches a day. I wept because I'd spent months imagining what a perfect mom I'd be, but now that Alex was on the scene I kept doing things that proved otherwise. One afternoon, during a quiet spell, I actually forgot he existed and nearly jumped out of my skin when he sneezed; for an instant, before I came to my tired senses, I thought the house was being burgled by someone with a cold.

"That's nothing," a close friend said when I told her about this lapse. "When Zeke was a newborn, I forgot he was in the car with me. I went into Starbucks." She was in line, waiting to order, when the friend she was meeting walked in and said, "Oh, I thought you were bringing the baby!" My friend -- who lives in Florida, not the best place to leave a baby in a car if you're going to accidentally leave one -- said she felt like the worst mom in the world as she ran out to retrieve her sleeping baby.

"Yeah, but at least he was the kind of baby who slept," I said.

And though I'd been wary of vaccines before Alex was born, I now guiltily looked forward to the doctor's appointments that included shots, because it meant a several hour stretch of recovery sleep for him and a blissfully quiet afternoon for me. My husband -- a man who hates loud noises, likes routine, and needed several years of convincing before agreeing to try for a baby -- thankfully adapted in a nanosecond to this new wailing presence in our lives. But Ed was at work during the day, I was alone with Alex, and the fussing and flailing rattled my nerves to the point where once, as I was trying to wrestle him into one of those miracle swaddle wraps, I broke down crying and yelled, "This isn't what I signed on for, Mister!" As if I could guilt a few-week old into submission. Then I had the very fleeting thought that maybe I could call a friend of mine who'd been trying for some time to get pregnant and see if she wanted Alex, that maybe Ed would be okay with this idea, and we could go back to life as we'd known it before.

Yet despite this and other crazy wayward thoughts -- all fleeting! -- I fell in love. It happened during those quiet hours of nursing, and those moments after nursing, when I stared into my son's face and marveled at how malleable his expressions were. I melted each time he opened his eyes wide and pulled his mouth into a perfect little "O," when he furrowed his baby brow and pushed his bottom lip into a pout, or when he gave me that gassy grin that somehow made him look like Steve Buscemi, minus the teeth.

But along with falling in love -- and maybe this, more than hormones, explains the weeping -- was a feeling of falling away from myself. By the time I had Alex I was thirty-eight and very much set in my ways. Sure, I had obligations before I became a parent -- classes to teach, papers to grade, meals to cook, etc. -- but I also had time for what seems, in hindsight, like indulgences: reading a few pages of a novel over a cup of coffee, meeting a friend for a weekend hike or an evening drink without a thought about playing hooky for a few hours. Now free time felt like hooky, and sometimes precious minutes of it ticked by while I fretted over how best to use it -- should I nap? take a walk? attempt a new short story? I wanted to write again; wanted to sit, uninterrupted, at my computer for hours; wanted the freedom to painstakingly craft a single sentence, then delete it, then try again. I missed my writing sessions more than anything, because it had been during those self-indulgent hours (they seemed self-indulgent now) that I'd always felt most like me. Now I was me-plus-one, and I wasn't sure how to keep my own needs in sight. As the days blurred together, days in which I somehow barely managed to carve out fifteen minutes for a shower, I wasn't sure I'd ever have time for my writing again.

I had feared this would happen and yet, in the months before my son's arrival, I'd also foolishly and secretly held out hope that Alex's presence would free me of my artistic desires. I'd thought that maybe, once he was born, I could quit the troublesome novel I'd been working on for years; I could let it go without regret. I didn't make a living as a fiction writer though I'd been trying to for nearly two decades, and so woven in with my love of writing was a choking sense of failure. When I was pregnant with Alex I remembered what I'd told my boyfriend back in college when he asked if I someday wanted to have kids. "I don't know," I'd said, full of youthful confidence. "I want to see what happens with my writing first." Recalling my own silly pronouncement, I thought: Here I am at thirty-eight, getting ready to give birth to a back-up plan. Would Alex trump my urge to write? Once he was on the scene, would I be able to let go of all those unpublished manuscript pages, file them away for eternity in some cobwebbed corner of the basement, without regret?

A friend of mine, a fellow writer, said to me once in the days after her daughter's birth: "It's like my life before was so stupid." I remember her words because at the time, I was hurt by them. Or maybe frightened by them. I didn't listen to what she was trying to say about her own experience; instead, I heard her words as they related to me and feared I was stuck in the realm of stupid. By then I'd started to have maternal urges, but I was still a year out from meeting Ed, and several years out from getting pregnant. Eventually, during my pregnancy -- especially during those final months and then weeks, when it felt as if my writing days were numbered -- I thought about my friend's words a lot, and wondered if I would have the same reaction. A big part of me hoped I would. I wanted Alex to become my only concern, my only need. How simple life would be.

But that didn't happen. Motherhood didn't cure me of my desire to sit in my basement office and nurture sentences into existence, to shape those sentences into stories that perhaps no one would ever read. Even during the early weeks of Alex's life, when everyone insisted that I should "nap when the baby naps" (may I receive a cosmic kick in the pants if I ever offer this advice to anyone), I was aware of having put an important part of myself on hold. Writing, it turned out, wasn't something I could easily give up.

It was hard to admit this, and hard to talk to anyone about it. My writer friends, the ones who are also parents, swore I'd eventually find my way back to writing, but I didn't believe them. And Ed couldn't quite understand the sense of loss that was so intricately tied to this new beginning for us. When I look back on those first few weeks and then months of Alex's life and my struggle to adapt to my new role as a mother without losing sight of myself as a writer, I think of a moment I shared with a stranger in a grocery store. I was there with Alex -- trying to shop for dinner, keep his fussing to a minimum, and prevent his precariously balanced car seat from tumbling off a rickety shopping cart -- when I saw a woman who reminded me of me. Same long, mouse-brown hair that looked as if she might have slept on it wet the night before, same thrown together sweat-pant-and-tee-shirt-type outfit, same distracted, slightly confused look. Not that I'd ever seen this expression on my own face, but when I saw it on her I knew it was the same one that came over me while performing dull domestic tasks. The striking difference between us was that she had five kids -- one in the kid seat of her cart, one standing in the back of the cart, two buzzing on foot around the cart, and the last one, the oldest, moping behind. I was staring at her in awe, trying to figure out how she possibly managed, when one of her free-range kids knocked another into a salad dressing display and several bottles crashed to the floor. For a moment, before turning to deal with her salad dressing-splattered children, the woman locked eyes with me, smiled a sort of wistful smile, and said, "I actually have a law degree. I used to be a lawyer."

Just a few months earlier, I wouldn't have understood why she was saying this. Was she going to sue me? Claim this mess was my fault? But now I did. She was saying: There's more to me; I'm not just a woman trying to reign in a gaggle of kids in a grocery store.

There's something more to all of us, of course. We all have a variety of interests and needs. Not a complex revelation, yet driving home from the grocery store that day, I felt as if I'd received a message: I was a mom and a writer. Somehow, I was going to have to be both. Somehow, between diaper changes and middle-of-the-night feedings and grocery shopping and quality time with my husband and endless attempts at singing-lulling-rocking-swaying-begging Alex to sleep, I was going to have to fit in time to write.

But how? But when?

"Will I ever get back to it?" I cried to a friend, who was also at home with an infant, over the phone a few days later. I'd called her in despair because Alex had just managed, during a diaper change, to projectile poop on the wall near his changing table. I was regretting not having used a semi-gloss paint in the nursery (why didn't the parenting books warn me about this?), and I was really, really, really missing my old life.

"Of course you will," she assured me. "Can you write while Alex naps?"

"Do babies nap?" I asked. I was so tired my eyeballs hurt.

"They're supposed to."

"Well, mine's broken. Or maybe there's an off button I don't know about. Before I had Alex, everyone told me that babies slept all the time. All day long, they said. Why did they tell me that?"

"I don't know," my friend said. "I heard the same thing."

We talked for a few more minutes, wondering where all those sleeping babies were, speculating about the lives of those lucky parents. We commiserated about the need to nurture ourselves in order to fuel up for nurturing our children. But how? But when?

Then Alex began to fuss and my friend's daughter let out a squeal that sounded like one of the baby dinosaurs from Jurassic Park, and we got off the phone.

And here I am, a year and a half later, in my basement office at my computer. My writing friends were right: It got easier. A little. Since Alex's birth I've drafted two short stories and one essay. Ironically, they all center around a harried mom trying to find time to write. The novel I was working on before Alex was born has been shelved, along with a few new novel ideas. For now, short forms are all I can manage, stories that I can see the beginning and end of in a few-months stretch of time.

I started teaching again when Alex was around three months old, and so I write during breaks, when I don't have manuscripts to read. I write in short hour-or-two bursts during the weekends, while Alex and Ed play upstairs. The sound of Alex's footsteps comes through the floorboards. Sometimes the urge to play wins out over the urge to write, and I join them.

During the weeks, I've established a routine. Alex spends a couple mornings with my mother and a couple mornings with a babysitter. Also, thanks to a baby-trade arrangement with a friend, I have a few free hours one afternoon every other week. Sometimes I manage to dedicate a handful of those hours to writing. It took some getting used to writing while Alex was with the babysitter, because at first I couldn't stop thinking about what a slow writer I am -- sometimes only a paragraph or two per hour -- and I kept pausing to do the math, as in: Holy cow! This page, which I think might end up being an irrelevant tangent, just cost our family twenty-two dollars!! But I forced myself to stop doing that. Sometimes I shouldn't be writing -- the cupboards are bare, the house is a toy-strewn mess, the mountain of manuscripts I'm supposed to be reading is growing ever higher -- and yet I write anyway. I do this when I realize I've fallen too far off-kilter and need to get back in touch with myself.

Lately, I've been thinking about what a friend of mine, the poet Michael Henry, told my students when he visited one of my creative writing classes. A student asked what it takes to be a writer these days. After first frightening the class with "a serious writer has to be able to stand at the edge of financial abyss and ruin and laugh heartily," Henry turned serious and said, "I think you have to love it and you have to feel, very directly, how writing allows you to know yourself, and how it saves you."

I've come to understand, over the last year and a half, how writing allows me to know myself and how it saves me in small ways, again and again. Silly as it might sound, I think I'm a better mother for taking time off from Alex so that I can write about how hard it is to raise Alex. I'm still not the perfect mom I hoped I'd be. (Case in point: "If you let me brush your teeth," I heard myself say to Alex just the other morning, "I'll let you have a cookie.") But I feel whole again, and I think our family is better for it.

As for naps? Alex won't win any prizes in the sleep department, but he's gotten better. I still try to write while he's napping sometimes and I'm always snatched from my work mid-thought. His voice floating down to my office -- "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!" -- is like an alarm clock telling me it's time to switch roles. I always wish for just a little more time. But then, as I climb the stairs to his room, I anticipate his smiling face and his arms stretching to meet mine as I reach to lift him from his crib. He is a blank page at the beginning of a long and wonderful story, and I realize how extraordinary it is that I get to help craft it.

Jennifer Itell teaches creative writing at University of Denver and periodically facilitates writing workshops at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in 5280: Denver’s Mile-High Magazine, Redbook Magazine, StoryQuarterly, South Dakota Review, Cimarron Review and Women’s Studies Quarterly. She’s currently at work on a series of short stories about motherhood. She works on these stories when she’s not chasing after her son Alex, who’s nearly two and recently decided that he no longer needs to nap.

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People will say, "it goes by so quickly" and you won't believe them. And for a while you think they are morons because it isn't going fast at all. Then, about the time you start to build a balance, you realize, it is whizzing by, and I mean fast, jet fast, skydiving fast. Not that there is anything you can do about it.
I loved the line "There's something more to all of us, of course." How quick some people are to judge us, as if by becoming "Jeff's mom", we aren't people in our own right anymore, and have somehow dumbed down our brain cells. And "He is a blank page at the beginning of a long and wonderful story..."-- what a delightful way to think of of a young child! Well written.
Well said, Jenny. I've missed reading your words.
I read this essay over the top of a little round head who now wants breakfast. So familiar with that alarm clock! You've done a lovely job of describing the interruption that children bring, along with the wealth of new material. Well done.
Beautifully written, beautifully put. It does get easier, and easier. I think I went back to writing in part because of my daughter, when she was small -- because I wanted to show her what people could do, and because I wanted to show her how to be true to oneself. Now she's writing, too, and hearing her talk about how she loves it is truly remarkable.
Oh my gosh! I laughed, I cried, and then I laughed again through the tears. Beautiful and truthful. Bravo Jennifer!
I LOVE it! It's always a joy reading your work. What a gift to have your friendship in our lives too. I appreciate how by you searching for your self and finding fulfillment in your writing, you help me find me and be true to my calling. Thanks for another great story!
The best description that I've ever heard of the "It goes by so quickly" description of parenthood that contradicts what we are all experiencing at that moment in the trenches is this: The days are long but the years are short. Yes. Exactly.
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