The to do list isn’t as long as it was before Ingrid was born. We have all the gear already. But it’s still a long list, and the weeks are going fast. And the biggest task—figuring out how to finally feel ready for this baby—is not one I’m sure how to accomplish at all. I plug away at it, quietly, inside, all the time.

And, in the meantime, I creep through the to do list, and take care of Ingrid, and work.

On Tuesday I interviewed a man who, the next day, would move into a new home, a group home for people with mental illness. We met in the living room of his old house, an extraordinarily dim and, dare I say it, depressing place, with sagging furniture and grayish walls and still air. While we talked he didn’t move his body at all. His face showed less emotion than any face I can remember seeing. I took several photos of him, and they all came out blurred, as if there were no sharp edges to his body.

When I asked him how he felt about the upcoming move, he hesitated. Mixed, he said. I like the room I have here. I can hear the traffic going by at night, and it calms my thoughts. I said, like the ocean. After a second he said, Yeah, like the ocean.

It was ninety degrees outside, humid and clear. I drove home along a highway I rarely drive on, and the suburban landscape—one I usually think of as sort of a wasteland—felt peaceful, full of green and air.

As I drove, I heard on the radio a story about a hundred-year-old collection of flowers made of glass. They interviewed the novelist Jamaica Kincaid, who said of seeing the glass replicas for the first time, I began immediately to think that real flowers were the imitation...that the flowers I saw before me in my garden were an imitation of things that were in glass. And they recorded Mark Doty reading part of the poem he wrote about the collection:

He’s built a perfection out of hunger
fused layer upon layer, swirled until
what can’t be swallowed, won’t yield
almost satisfies, an art
mouthed to the shape of how soft things are,
how good, before they disappear.

I ended the day feeling this all must add up to something, but I still don't know what.


Afterbirth Stories

A friend of mine who’s pregnant with her first child wrote recently about her worries these days: At times, it scares me and I wonder if I’ll actually be able to do it without drugs and intervention. I was nodding right along until I realized she was talking about giving birth to the baby, not raising it.

I don’t blame her for focusing on the major step of getting the baby safely and happily from the inside to the outside. Birth is huge, and as we waited for Ingrid I put a lot into preparing and hoping for an unmedicated, low-intervention birth. But these days the perfect birth experience is laughably lower on my wish list.

Partly this is because Ingrid’s birth was almost dreamily good. I mean, let me be clear: It was fucking hard, and the first words out of my mouth after she was born were I’ve never been so glad to be done with something in my life. But she came out safe and healthy, and I didn’t have to have surgery, and the hospital people barely touched me, and I felt the whole thing. It was what I wanted, and for no logical reason I’m proud of how it went even though I believe that luck, circumstance, and a couple of good decisions contributed much more to the outcome than did my strength or will.

I hope this birth goes that well, and I’m doing what I can to have it go the way I want it to. But I also feel I was more than a little naive, back then, letting the big ol’ boulder of birth obscure my view of the thousand-mile, snake-infested desert* that is baby’s first year.

I think it’s a mistake a lot of us make, even those who aren’t as stunningly ignorant as I was about the specifics of life with a baby, and it’s an understandable mistake: The Birth Story genre casts a strong spell—stronger, I think, than the scores of mother memoirs on the shelves. Birth stories have beginnings and ends, and their length, when properly edited, is suited to a few minutes’ reading or a half-hour TV slot. There is room for complication and drama and emotion, but not so much that things ever stray too far from the narrative thread before the inevitable resolution: a baby appears in the world. Movies end with births.

I wrote an ultra-long account of Ingrid’s birth, which maybe I’ll even edit down sometime and post here. And no doubt I’ll do the same after this baby’s born. And I still love to read birth stories.

But now, after experiencing a good birth and a tough, tough first many months of life with baby, I’m far more interested in reading—and writing—about how we survive and thrive after the end of the birth story.

* I know, I know. But have you been in the desert in spring? It is as stiflingly hot as ever but there are cacti flowering with the most breathtaking icy pink blossoms.


Tuckered Out

After breakfast Ingrid and I usually have a little reading time on the couch. Last Saturday morning, we read, among other favorites, Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Tom Kitten.

Recently Ingrid’s gotten the hang of asking about specific words she doesn’t know, often to my befuddlement. You know Mem Fox's Time for Bed? Good gracious me, says the big snake to the baby snake. You’re still awake. Ingrid plants her hand on the page to keep me from moving on. What does gracious mean?

Anyway, Beatrix Potter wrote Tom Kitten in 1907 and it’s surprisingly appealing, still. (Except when Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit smacks her naughty kittens for losing their clothes. We skip that.) But it includes a few words that aren’t exactly in daily use in our house. Ingrid asks about all of them. Burst I could handle, no sweat. Pinafore, ok, I have a rough idea. Tucker, though, when Ingrid asked about it Saturday, sent me for the dictionary.

Turns out it’s a ruffly thing that women used to wear around their necks, which is why you can’t tell from the illustration what it might be; to the untrained, twenty-first century eye it just looks like part of the pinafore.

Even cooler than finding out what a tucker is was introducing Ingrid to the dictionary. Don’t tell anyone this, but I’ve been known to read dictionaries. Especially the “regional usage notes” and such. Mmm, love that. So much that a couple of years ago for Christmas A gave me the first two volumes of the Dictionary of American Regional English. Best present ever. So it was pretty neat to sit next to Ingrid on the couch with her little feet pointing off the edge of the cushion and the big book spread across both of our laps, finishing up my cup of tea and turning those thin pages. She was impressed with the size of the thing and all the little illustrations and the big shiny letters on the finger-tabs cut into the edges of the pages to mark each section. A moment for the baby book, for sure.

But apparently not quite memorable enough for my seive of a brain: This morning after breakfast Ingrid toddled up to the couch waving our copy of Tom Kitten and saying Want to look for tucker! Thinking she meant Tucker, I heaved myself off the couch to search the shelf for the latest Leslie McGuirk book we’ve checked out from the library. When I handed it to Ingrid, a tantrum started to brew immediately. She shook her head, teared up, and whined No, no, no!

This is Tucker, I said. Didn’t you say you wanted to read Tucker? More tantrum. Several fruitless exchanges. Finally I extracted from her: Tucker in the big book. How painful is this to read? We went through at least two more rounds of non-communication before I figured out what she really wanted to do was look up tucker in the dictionary again.

And so we did.



A’s job has him traveling a lot. Several times each year, he’s away, sometimes for up to six weeks at a time. So my year as a mom is punctuated with weeks of doing it on my own. It’s hard, but I’m unexpectedly grateful for it, too.

The first time A went away, Ingrid was four months old, nursing constantly during the night, napping for no more than 20 minutes at once, and screaming throughout most car rides. A was away for three days, and I just about lost it. It was unseasonably, stiflingly hot and humid outside. Halfway through his absence, loopy with exhaustion and desperate to get out of the house, I took Ingrid to the mall to walk around in the air conditioning, and she had a cranky fit I couldn’t soothe her out of. I remember sitting on a bench in the middle of the mall, holding her against my shoulder as she sobbed and squirmed and I barely choked back tears myself, and whispering What am I going to do? What am I going to do?

The next time was the following January. He was away for six weeks, and I dreaded it right up to the day he left. Dread can be useful; it made me prepare. I signed us up for a full slate of toddler activities, lined up visits with friends old and new, and got my folks to fly into town for a few days in the middle of it, all the time expecting all hell to break loose anyway. And things ended up going just fine. A would call when he could, every few days, to ask how it was going, and I’d say in a tone first tentative and then shocked, It’s fine. Everything’s going just fine.

That trip of his was a milestone. Ingrid was nine months old, and it was the first time I remember feeling like I might be able to get on top of this mama thing after all. Ingrid and I had figured each other out, and the fact I could handle things on my own for so long made me realize I was finally getting comfortable in my new-mom skin. I’d also learned some important rules:
  • Use all nap and post-bedtime time for relaxation and sleep.
  • Housework that can’t get done while the baby’s awake doesn’t need to get done.
  • Don’t cook. There is a reason you can purchase Indian food in packets.
  • Plan at least two outings every day.
These things work. Right now, for example, A’s been gone almost three weeks and there are thick globs of cat hair on the carpet and petrified Cheerios on the dining room floor. But me, I feel great. I’ve been writing, and thinking about writing, and sleeping almost enough, and picking currants, and keeping the garden more or less alive.

The exciting and weird corollary for the rules of solo parenting happiness is that most of them work while you’ve got a partner around, too. In fact, for all the sympathetic words and gestures I get when I tell people my husband’s away for several weeks, daily life without him, short-term, isn’t as different from our family’s norm as you might think.

Don’t get me wrong. It is more joyful to have A around. There is more laughter in the house, and more silliness from Ingrid, and more energy, and life all around is just lots more fun. I miss him when he’s away. Lots.

But when he’s here there isn’t necessarily a ton less to do. With two adults in the house, there’s a need to prepare actual meals rather than eat omelets three times a week. There’s more laundry, more dishes, a larger volume of encroaching clutter and dirt to deal with. A does a good share of this stuff, but he also works full time and does things around the house that I never do, whether he’s here or not, i.e. mowing the lawn, swinging Ingrid around by her feet, certain cleaning tasks that are never high on my priority list. So my days are no less full, and as a result I need no less time for rest and quiet thinking.

If I hadn’t had, during the past two years, those stretches of time where it was so clear that the vacuuming and all the other shit didn’t need to be done as much as I needed to stay sane, it might have taken me even longer to figure out how to free up the time I need and to realize what a difference it makes to take it.



When people ask me how I’m feeling about the baby coming, I start out being honest. I’m worried, I say, about how we’ll do it. In response, people are universally upbeat: You’ll be fine. The second one’s always easier. Maybe this one will be a good sleeper.

Here is what I would say next if I could reliably say any of it without crying:

After Ingrid was born, I didn’t feel good. For a long time.

It’s hard to admit. I didn’t want to be anything less than blissed out by her very existence. I had imagined and anticipated her babyhood as a sweet, gentle time, and in a way it was.

But also I was anxious. A lot. About what might happen to her. About nothing and everything. I was set on edge by sounds—her crying, especially, but also other things: the TV, certain people’s voices—that seemed louder and rawer and more grating than usual. The farther from Ingrid I was, the more of my skin seemed to be missing. I dreaded leaving her to return to work, and at the same time I desperately needed breaks from her, from all the physical contact and all the vigilance. I guiltily fantasized about moving away alone, and I felt so ashamed about craving solitude (a bad mother! contemplating abandonment!) that I didn’t talk about how very much I needed a break, even to A, until months and months later.

The speed of Ingrid’s growth—the constant change—unnerved me. The pace of it felt violent. Boxing up each set of outgrown onesies, I felt so sad and weirdly lost, like I wanted to grab onto something but didn't know what.

Possibly more than anything, I needed sleep. Sleep I wouldn’t get for months and months and months. Many mornings, I was so tired I cried as A put his shoes on and left for work. How am I going to make it to the end of this day?

I was isolated. It’s embarrassing to admit how isolated I was. I’d assumed that being alone with a baby would be like being alone, which, for me, means invigorating, renewing. I didn’t count on being so drained by it and so lost without any point of reference. What are three-month-olds like? Do they all do this? I had dear friends with children who lived far away, and I had dear friends without children who lived nearby and worked all week, and I read a lot of books, but that wasn’t enough. Ingrid was born in May, and it wasn’t until September that I joined a parent/baby class and started to understand what a difference it made to see other babies and talk with other parents.

But it was still a long time before I started to feel better. It was a long time before I even realized (or admitted) how bad things had been.

There was joy all along: Ingrid was beautiful. She was precocious. She was snuggly. She had the world’s most kissable cheeks and the ineffable quality of being the world's most magnificent child and, my god, she was finally here. But the joy was always at the edges. I was never just happy being a mom, I was uncertain but happy or, more frequently, exhausted but happy.

One evening this winter as I sat with Ingrid while she fell asleep I realized that I felt really content. Nothing notable had happened that day; I'd just had a really good time hanging out with Ingrid, doing the things we do together. It was the first time I remember feeling simple contentment without at the same time having to hold something else down with both hands. I'd been feeling better, gradually, for many months, but this was the first time I remember feeling at home and right and simply happy. Ingrid was about 20 months old.

This is all hard to admit, not only because I’m so sad that it went that way, but also because it seems so silly in the face of a whole world where people, all the time, raise kids in poverty or sickness, or lose children, or aren’t able to have them in the first place, or confront a million things worse than anything visible in my life. But neither that nor the fact I longed for a baby for years before we were lucky enough to have Ingrid changes the fact that her first year on earth utterly knocked me on my ass.

I don’t want to turn this blog into some kind of therapeutic spot. There’s already a nice lady getting paid for that. But this is a big part of our story, and I want to try to tell more of it as I start to make more sense out of what happened and what to do next.


White Petals on the Road

The catalpa trees are blooming here. Do you know catalpa trees? They have heart-shaped leaves larger than my hand and, right now, big clumps of white blossoms.

I took a (fantastic) poetry class a few years ago, and the teacher told how she drove by a catalpa tree just after it had shed all its petals, and, wanting to remember the image, she wrote something wordy about fallen white petals blanketing the dark road. And then she forced herself to take out the bullshit. What is that, really? It’s white petals on the road. And she used those words in a poem much later. Seeing the catalpa trees blooming reminds me to keep things simple, to ask, What is that, really? and write down the answer.


The Stopping Spots

This morning Ingrid and I were messing around in our front yard while my indefatigable mother, in town for several days’ visit during A’s three-week work trip, divided hostas and dug weeds and transplanted painted daisies. First we played with rocks, and then we pulled some weeds, and then Ingrid decided to run.

She is reliably awkward at going down steps, so I was fairly sure she wouldn’t dart off the curb and into the street, which is pretty sleepy, trafficwise, anyway. But she took off in a fairly determined way down the sidewalk, as quick as her funny little flailing-arm toddler run would take her. I waddle-jogged after her in the 85-degree heat. She clearly thought it was a hilarious game. Stop, turn around, let sweaty, pregnant Mama get about 15 feet away, then tear off at top speed again.

I occasionally yelled “Stop!” and “Red light!” as convincingly as I could. And she’d stop, turn around, and go again. Laughing. Blatant, gleeful disregard for Mama’s authority, right? The Mean, Yelling Mama approach, which I’ve so far avoided, started to seem like a realistic option. I imagined myself taking the form of a mom I overheard at the grocery store last week, clearly at the end of her rope, growling, Get your butt over here or! Or! Else!

I caught up with her just before the end of the block and let her see the fullness of my grumpiness with the situation for several seconds. You need to stay close to the house where Mama can see you. I picked her up, and she flailed and cried in protest for a few seconds. Then I pointed out a squirrel climbing a chain link fence, which we watched together, and I carried her back to the house, thinking about solutions.

I set her down just where our walkway crosses the sidewalk and said, Let’s run together. Let’s find where the stopping spots are. We ran about 20 feet up the block. Here. See this grass growing up through the sidewalk? This is where you stop when you run this way. Then we ran about the same distance the other direction. See these steps? The neighbor’s steps? This is where you stop when you go this direction. We ran it together three times, me all sweaty and really not running but shuffling. I gradually let her take the lead. Where do we stop? Where’s the stopping spot? Oh, there it is! You found it!

And then I let her go on her own again. She stopped right at the stopping spot every time, turned around, grinned at me and clapped her hands, and then ran right back toward me, arms everywhere.

Boy, I said to her as we sat on the steps brushing the dirt off our feet before heading inside for lunch. I’m sure glad we found those stopping spots. Now you know where to stop when you go for a run. And, for a change, I felt like a pro.


Cold Turkey

Ever since we moved Ingrid out of our bedroom and into her crib last fall, I'd been sitting in the chair next to the crib until she fell sleep every damn night. Sometimes this took five minutes, some terrible times it took well over an hour. If I left the room before she was asleep, she cried inconsolably.

So I stayed, counting it, on my more optimistic days, as an opportunity for rest and meditation if not a good way to get anything very productive done during the evening. On the worst nights, I could barely fight my antsiness and frustration at needing to spend so much of the night sitting there quietly in the dark. I would gape with bitter, active jealousy at friends’ casual mentions of their simple and bounded bedtime routines.

One evening almost three weeks ago, I sat in the chair for 20 minutes as Ingrid chattered, rolled, and examined her toes. She showed no signs of being ready to fall asleep soon, and I had a list of things I wanted to do downstairs. And I just decided, in the space of about 30 seconds, that she did not need me in that chair and that she would be fine if I left. So I stood up, very gently told her, “Mama’s going to go downstairs now. You’ll be just fine. You can listen to the music box and snuggle with your animals. Goodnight.” And I left, and she cried for about three minutes, and then fussed a little, then and then didn’t make another peep until morning.

Lots—lots—of transitions have happened this way for us. Night weaning. Moving to the crib. Leaving her for the first time in a church nursery with people she barely knew. It’s always the same: weeks and weeks of (my) fretting about it, wishing she were ready, despairing that she showed no signs of being ready, limping along doing things the same old way and getting more and more worn down by it. Then, suddenly deciding things must change, steeling myself in anticipation of unhappy, gutwrenching toddler mayhem and getting, instead, almost cheerful compliance from Ingrid.*

I’d like to think that this pattern comes from some uncanny motherly ability on my part to tell precisely when Ingrid’s ready to make one of these big moves. And probably it does have something to do with my being in tune with what she can take.

But more than that, I think things keep happening this way because, though these are changes Ingrid naturally becomes more ready to accept as she grows older and more independent, they aren’t things she’d ever naturally suggest on her own or even accept if I gave gentle hints and nudges about them. She can only do them by following my lead. To be ready to sleep without nursing, fall asleep alone in the room, stay for an hour with new people, Ingrid needed to see that I was certain she could do those things and certain that she needed to.

I have no problem with being in charge when it comes to tormenting the cat or eating dirt or wearing clothes in public or sitting down in the shopping cart. But these things—the sleep, the separation—mostly benefit my own sanity, not necessarily Ingrid’s well-being (except – importantly – the well-being that comes from having a sane mother). I'm surprised at how hard it's been to prioritize that, and how long it's taken me to see that the "cold turkey" method is sometimes the only way to get things done.

This seems like a good time to point out that at times I have been known for being pretty smart. I have just about every brainy credential you could ask for, but darn if parenting hasn’t totally humbled me again. What a revelation: Sometimes things work a lot better for us all when I take charge.

*Except for night weaning. Nothing cheerful about that transition, and some truly blood-curdling screaming.