I get the impression that it’s pretty standard to get a little verklempt when packing up the adorable tiny clothes that no longer fit your adorable tiny person. I’m no exception to the verklemptitude, as I’ve discovered a few times already; our five-month-old is wearing 9 month clothes, thanks to his weedy height, so I’ve stashed two rounds of clothes into boxes so far with the requisite sniffle or two. But I’m not sure if this next bit is as universal: I also get teary when I stow the clothes he can’t yet wear in the dresser: the rummage sale bargains, the gifts from family and friends. I try to imagine the boy that will be that tall, that broad, and I realize it will be a boy who doesn’t coo softly to himself. It will be a boy who doesn’t need help to stand—over and over and over again—so he can jump and dance. It will be a boy whose fluffy cloth-diapered butt doesn’t swing like he’s doing the hula as he balances precariously on two feet. It will be some other boy, who is in some ways still this familiar child and also someone else. And while watching this “becoming” is exciting and wonderful, there is so much I will miss about this boy as he is right this moment.
To be frank, I never thought I would like the drooly, leaky, needy infant stage especially well. I always thought babies were cute in small enough doses, but I entered this journey because I wanted to parent a person, not because I wanted to have a baby, per se. As a former middle school teacher, I envisioned myself being both more adept with and partial to small people who were…well…more like small people than babies. You know: verbal, capable of feeding and pottying themselves, creative and funny and surprising. Since becoming a parent to this baby, however, I’ve made some unexpected discoveries: I don’t mind diapers. The sleepless nights of nursing do eventually become routine and manageable. The neediness, while sometimes somewhat overwhelming, is also heart-breakingly sweet, like when he clutches tightly to my thumb to drift safely back to sleep at night. And the creativity and the humor seem to make their appearance even before the verbal skills. To my surprise, I have not yet been bored with the drooly, leaky, needy stage we’re mired in because even as those aspects stay monotonously static, something—and often many somethings—is new every single day. Something unexpected will trip his emerging sense of humor. He will be newly fascinated by some shape or color or texture and stare at it endlessly, reach for it over and over again. He will startle both himself and me with a noise he’s never made before, or in one swift movement, he will do something neither of us knew he could. He will practice his emerging skills with an unmistakable look of pride and excitement. I love bearing witness to this newness. I even love listening to him grumble with frustration as he chases an elusive ball or accidentally drops his spoon for the twentieth time just as he gets it to his mouth. He foams at the mouth when he fusses, by the way. I don’t know if that’s normal, but even those frothy mounds of spit bubbles are endearing in their own way as they mark the boundaries of the abilities he is constantly testing.
Shortly before the hobbit was born, a well-meaning supervisor pulled me aside after a training. “Go home,” she said. “Have a healthy baby. Love your baby. But don’t forget that you are a smart, talented woman, and you need something more than to stay home with your baby.” Even at the time, I remember feeling taken aback that she felt she could say this to me, since we’d worked together for less than six months, and certainly had never become closer than colleagues. Still, her words are perhaps part of the reason that I have struggled mightily with the fact that I’ve turned down two part-time jobs since Samwise’s birth, one of which was offered by that admonishing supervisor. To be fair, I have one part-time job already. To be more fair, it’s very part time, I do the vast majority of it from home, and I would love to drop it entirely.
I know a lot of smart, talented women, many of whom have kids of their own. Like many, many women in our society, they are working moms. And among them, I often feel alone because virtually every one of them says that being a stay-at-home mom would not be or would not have been a good fit for them; they need more. Or they at least need something else, part of the time. My feelings may change as my child changes, but for now, despite my record of chronic overachievement, I don’t feel that way. I love being home with my son, sharing these small moments with him, and I find myself reeling at how much he has already changed in the short months since his birth. Contributing to my current lack of employment enthusiasm is the fact that the work I do is something I do because it’s part time and from home, not because I am emotionally invested in it, which is something far different that what is faced by women who became pregnant when they have inspiring careers aligned to their passions. And, to be honest, I’m intoxicated by working less because of the opportunity it offers for me to chip away at the list of personal passions for which full-time work in education (especially the all-consuming, amorphous work hours known by those educators who are truly committed to education) never allowed enough space: neglected writing projects, unread books, the development of groundwork for the first projects my husband and I will undertake with our shared business.
But, like so many, many mothers, no matter what combination of work/partner/personal life/mothering balance they strike, I feel guilty. I feel like I should want something more or different. I feel that being content to be home with my child demonstrates a lack of ambition and a willingness to “waste” my talents. I feel somehow defective or lazy because I don’t long to be in a classroom or an office somewhere. At the very least, I feel decidedly unfeminist. I feel guilty that I don’t feel called to be superwoman, balancing full-time work and full-time mothering with aplomb. I feel guilty that I want a slower pace of life and that I am willing to take it as long as our budget can bear it. And because of the choices and needs of most of the mothers I know and respect, I also feel isolated. I question this decision. I window-shop for full-time jobs. When I start figuring the costs of child care, however, the likelihood that we’d need to buy a second car or to move to a bigger city rather than continuing to share a home with my mom in Small Town USA (a situation which has been a gift for both parties), and the fact that all these added expenses would mean that I’d spend almost all my full-time income to cover the costs of taking a job…well, I haven’t yet seen a job compelling enough to inspire me to choose to pursue it beyond the window-shopping stage.
I talked with a good friend about my guilt complex after I turned down the most recent job offering. She’s a university professor and mom to a preschooler; with her husband’s self-employment status and her nontraditional hours, they cover all their child care needs between them. I don’t think she ever wanted to stay home full-time; she’s one of the moms who was working her dream job when she got pregnant. Still, she was able to look at me and say exactly what I needed to hear: “You have a whole lot of years ahead of you to be a working mom.”
She’s right. I do.
All too soon, I will find myself in a classroom or an office again. Until then, however, I am going to try to set aside my guilt and just love this, right now. Putting away those clothes Samwise can’t yet wear—but will, very soon—is an exercise in understanding how much I will miss these transformative first months. I already do miss them. Each day I feel as though I am watching one day race into the next, bringing new wonder with it even as the miracles of earlier weeks grey and fade into forgetfulness. I feel so blessed to be able to be here to see it all and to mark its presence and passing. When life is full to bursting in this way, the last thing I want to spare space for is guilt.