There’s a lot of talk about declining birth rates and a COVID-induced baby bust but you wouldn’t know it around here, in the suburban Midwest, where the labor and delivery ward was so packed that they didn’t initially have a room for me when I went into labor 10 hours before a scheduled induction. By the time I would have otherwise checked in the next morning, my fourth child was crying lustily (is there any other way for a newborn to cry?) and trying desperately to suck on her fingers. We named her after my mother-in-law, a legend of a mother whose second yahrzeit (Jewish anniversary of her death) is today. So it’s a different kind of Mother’s Day in our house, both because we are still very much grieving and processing that loss (and the even more recent loss of my father-in-law) and because having a newborn does not lend itself to the kind of gift that I, like many mothers, usually prefer, which is time by myself.
People keep asking how the transition from three to four is going and I keep joking that by the time you get to a fourth kid, any transition is minimal to nonexistent simply because you have nothing left of yourself anyway. But this is not exactly true because while solo bathroom time was already a rare treat and sleep hasn’t been the same for nine years, I did have one thing that was still just for me: the writing. And by the writing I mean the pockets of time that I managed to carve out over the last three years since my third kid was a newborn. I now recall these time pockets wistfully: the Sunday mornings when my husband would take the kids out and I could sit down in front of my computer with a hard-won cup of coffee, the afternoons of screen time I magnanimously disbursed when I had an interview to finish editing, or the hour after we tucked the kids in when my brain still kind of worked. These days, between the brain fog (do these sentences make sense? Nevermind, don’t tell me, it’s better if I don’t know), the “naps” of unpredictable length, and the nagging mental load of figuring out a time to pump so that I can theoretically, at some point in the future, get a little extra sleep or leave the house for longer than three hours, the precious little time I used to spend at my desk is virtually nonexistent. I am only writing this note right now because my husband has taken the three big kids out of the house and because the baby has kindly agreed to a concurrent nap. And because I am choosing to use this gift of time to write instead of eat.
In the past, this turn of events has sent me into a panic, especially when I was two kids deep and one chapter into my dissertation, petrified that the rest of it would never come to be. I’ll never forget the fear that I had traded one type of generation for another and I will always be grateful to the writers I encountered when I was a less geriatric mother who first gave voice and validation to those uncomfortable feelings. At this very moment, as I type while the baby sleeps noisily next to me (for how much longer, who can say), I think of the (at this point somewhat over-quoted) Maggie Nelson line: “Here’s the catch, I cannot hold my baby at the same time as I write.”
But now, a finished dissertation and two additional children later, I know that the time, the energy, the ideas, they will all come back. I know that babies don’t need to be held always and forever and that at some point this one will also have a regular nap schedule or spend the better part of an hour building elaborate Magnatile structures. I know that, actually, sometimes you can hold your baby and write if you’re willing to use the Notes app. And I know that I know what to do with those small pockets of time and those small ideas briefly jotted down by thumb, that many small pockets and small ideas can add up to something bigger, eventually. In an essay I’ve been trying to write on deciding to have a fourth child in the middle of a pandemic, I put it this way:
“Like all neurotic writer-mothers, I have seen myself in Alice Notley’s ‘for two years, there’s no me here’ and injected Maggie Nelson’s talk about going to pieces, skirting obliteration, into my veins. But by now I have seen myself split and cohere and split again enough times that it has come to feel like a stable identity. I have gone to pieces before and I have seen the pieces come back together, sometimes in surprisingly fertile ways.”
I wrote that while I was still pregnant and I stand by it, but I’m still anxious for the pieces to come back together and I also know that, to the extent that the process can be accelerated, figuring out a new childcare situation will be key to speeding it up.
For now, time is short so I’m going to end this post somewhat abruptly rather than risk never sending it out at all (being at peace with imperfection is another lesson I seem to have to re-learn with each baby). Happy Mother’s Day and happy writing to all who choose these two different forms of exquisite torture – I am so thankful that you have chosen to be a part of this (rapidly growing!) writer-parent community. Stay tuned for some really exciting interviews coming your way over the summer!