I read an insightful piece by NPR blogger Lateefah Torrence today. She is a new mom, and as I have lots of friends who are pregnant or new parents, I thought that her observations were particularly timely, namely, her observations on how difficult parenthood is. She writes, "Before I gave birth, I heard all the parents say it is the toughest job in the world. But I thought it was difficult like the Peace Corps. In my mind, parenting was 'The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love' because of the physical labor and never-ending hours. Oh, I was so very, very wrong. Perhaps as a non-breeder, I didn't listen to the truth or perhaps it's a big parenting secret: It is the emotional and psychological drain of being a parent that will kill you."
I can relate. The nature of parenthood overwhelmed me, too. I am a fierce athlete, a diligent student, an industrious worker. I am a Jack-of-All-Trades. I have something of a Superwoman complex. Certainly I was surprised at how hard it was to be a brand new parent. It had very little to do with trying to heal my body, learn how to nurse, and adapt to sleeping in 2-hour intervals. It had everything to do with the emotional toll of new motherhood.
Let me put in into perspective. I love my brothers. No, I mean I really, really love my brothers. I have been fiercely protective of each of them since they were born. I would get up with my mom for her midnight feedings for both of them. I have cooked for, cleaned up after, and cared for them. They have confided in me their deepest secrets, insecurities, and aspirations. In the days after I gave birth, (at which both brothers were present--and cried openly), I told the older of my two brothers, "You know how much I love you two? Well it's nothing like that." Sure, I cook, clean, and care for my daughter's needs. Lord knows that during those first 6 weeks my body was an absolute wreck from childbirth and lack of sleep. But as my fellow blogger points out, the sheer exhaustion is emotional rather than physical. As a mother, there has to be something chemical or spiritual about the connection, something potent and addictive about your child. Perhaps it has something to do with growing a being inside of you and carrying it around with you for 9 months of pregnancy, (and another 9 months in a Moby Wrap, in my case). Whatever it is, I am consumed with thinking about her, worrying about her well-being, watching her sleep, gazing at her pictures, mulling over her personal development, planning for her future, wondering about her joy or pain every hour of every day.
I love my brothers. I love my parents, my husband, and my friends, for that matter. But I had no idea how different all those would be compared to the love I have for my child. When my daughter was a few weeks old I told my Mom, "If you love me even half as much as I love Zen--thank you. I didn't know anyone could love me that much."
And I have bad news for the other parents out there--it doesn't get any better. I was waxing poetic about my love for my daughter to my Aunt, and she told me that she loves her sons just as deeply to this day. As we discussed it more, I was slightly terrified to realize that she loves (and worries and hope and dreams for) her sons as much as I do for my daughter. But they are grown men! Speaking of grown men, my grandmother sent a care package of candy and Giants gear to my brother because, as she put it, "It's hard to have one of my babies so far away!" He's a 26-year-old law student in Boston. He's hardly a baby, and for that matter he's not terribly far away. But from her perspective, one of her darling progeny was so far from home that she aches for him. Just today I overheard two co-workers talking about all their worries over their sons who are heading back to college this weekend. They have so many worries about the trip there, where they will live, how they will pay for gas, what kind of roommates they will have... If Mom happens to call when I'm sick I play down my illness because I'm afraid she will drive 2 hours to my house to give me a sponge bath and force-feed me Filipino rice porridge. She has done it before.
I'm terrified that I will have to carry this burden for the rest of my life. When she goes to kindergarten I will probably fret over the teacher's credentials, the class size, and the school's standardized test scores. I will still be obsessed over her personal development whether she plays soccer or the violin, competes in karate or a cheer competition, plants a garden or paints a picture. I will always worry about my daughter's well-being, even when she is 16-years-old with a new driver's license and out past 9 pm. I will probably sneak into her room and watch her sleep when she's a gangly, awkward 12-year-old growing into her new body or a grown woman sleeping beside a baby of her own. When she breaks a bone or has her heart broken I will wish that I could hurt for her so she could feel no pain. Then again, every little thing about her, from the smell of her soft caramel hair to her tenacious determination to her carefree grin are unspeakably delicious--and loving her is worth a lifetime of all the tough stuff combined.
I fantasize about marrying the nanny.
Let me be clear, I'm not a disgruntled husband pining after some hottie European college student who plays dress-up with my daughter. On the contrary, I found a loving, experienced, down-to-earth woman who has become the integral third parent in our family. When Erika arrives in the morning we sit at the breakfast table and chat about the celebrity news du jour. I give my daughter a kiss and a big hug, and then she reaches out for Erika and waves bye-bye to me. When I come home from work Zen chatters excitedly in gibberish to me about her day at the playground/waterpark/zoo. The house is tidy, and the daily chores are done. Like a caring relative or mentor Erika gives me insight into my daughter's development and offers advice that helps me be a better parent. As I have had to deal with difficult situations over the past year, (like family drama or putting my trusty 16-year-old dog to sleep), she has been there with a kind word or a hug. She sends me picture messages of my daughter doing silly things throughout the day. We text each other about trash reality TV over the weekend. She brings me desserts. I bring her flowers. We share recipes. If were weren't straight married mothers, I would think this was a match made in heaven.
I read an article today by a woman who has had 10 nannies in 7 years. She was complaining about the nightmarish caregivers who have paraded through her life, and I was shocked and dismayed. First of all, I would never leave my child with someone I couldn't trust. When I went through the process of finding the right caregiver, I did extensive research, visited three licensed daycares, found 50 nanny candidates, interviewed eight candidates, and ran background checks on five. More importantly, when I finally picked the person I would trust with the single most important thing in my life, I committed myself to treating her with the level of respect that job deserves. My child's caregiver is responsible for her physical, emotional, and cognitive development on a daily basis. She is the protector of my child's health and safety when I am not there. That is a more venerable job that my boss, my physician, the neighborhood police officer, and the president combined!
It is very hard to be a working mother. That is a painful but brutally honest statement. The only way I can juggle the many hats I wear is to have a third parent in the household. I have given a lot of tips to fellow new mothers about everything from prenatal fitness to breastfeeding to how to use baby carriers. However, the single greatest piece of advice I can give to any mother is this: find a good caregiver. Whether you are a working mother, stay-at-home mother, or anything in between, you will need a break from your child for a variety of reasons--and needing a mental health break is a totally legitimate reason. As a mother, there is no worse feeling than being nervous about an irresponsible relative babysitting your child while you go on a date with Daddy, or feeling guilty about leaving your child at a daycare that you suspect is neglecting your child (or worse!) while you are at work.
Have reasonably but responsibly high standards for your sitter, nanny, or daycare provider. Communicate your expectations clearly and preferably in writing--even to your own mother. You would be surprised what other generations or cultures think is acceptable. Mike has fed Zen chocolate bars for breakfast. Most importantly, treat your caregiver with the utmost appreciation and respect. They deserve it.