Since suffering through that impossibly difficult first year with a challenging baby, I have never really allowed myself to get into a groove as a mother. This isn’t a sob story about how kids constantly change and ruin your perfectly laid plans. I gave up those expectations years ago. I have learned to really go with the flow in practice. Yet in my mind, I find myself always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Four years and two kids later – despite many more good days than bad – I constantly wonder “when is it going to be like that again?”
I thought I was prepared for the shock of new motherhood. I was ready for the responsibility, I had longed for a child for years, and I had even had my fair share of practice with all-nighters and general lack of sleep. Of course I had also heard the whispers that babies were so easy. All they did was eat and sleep, right? What could possibly be so hard about that?
I had a baby who did nothing but eat and scream. As in all the time. He cried if he wasn’t being pushed around in a stroller outside throughout the day, whatever the weather. Between the hours of four p.m. and eight p.m. he cried no matter what you did. I get chills when I think about how strung out, stressed out, and down and out I was during that time.
Around nine or ten months he started to sleep in the stroller as I pushed him around. By a year we had something that resembled a schedule. I can remember writing in my journal how good it felt to not have a screaming baby on my hands at all times. By that time he was mobile and verbal and he just seemed happier, as if he had been trapped in that baby body and hated every moment of it as much as I did.
Having finally nailed down a schedule after a year of trial and error, I hated to see things change. Of course, that’s exactly what babies do — they change all the time. He dropped from two naps to one, he moved into a toddler bed from a crib, he was informed he would have a baby sister coming soon. But even with all that change between his first and second birthday, he and I had a rhythm to our dance, and we kept up with the constant music changes effortlessly.
Yet I was always nervous.
What if things went back to those early days? What if I couldn’t figure out how to deal? What if I couldn’t find a solution to his problem (which of course, would become my problem)?
Even though I could have breathed a sigh of relief, I never did. Things never got as bad as those first few months, but I always dreaded they would. So I never really got comfortable as a mother.
When my daughter came along, I braced myself for the worst. I read and re-read every sleep book, I practiced every swaddling technique, I tried out every sling/carrier on the market.
Turns out it was for nothing.
She was one of those “easy babies” I had heard about. She did nothing but sleep and eat. She required no tricks, no gimmicks, no fuss. She brought to light the kind of baby I thought only existed in parental folklore, designed to make me feel horrible about myself.
I still didn’t relax. I waited, slept with one eye open, anticipated the point when my abilities as a mother would implode the way they did in those first months with my first born. Of course, those days still come because as much as things have gotten easier with my first-born, he remains a challenging child at four years old (I can’t lie).
He woke up last night at one a.m. wanting to sleep in my bed. I let him crawl under the covers and hoped he would fall back to sleep like nothing had ever happened. No such luck. He wanted a story (I said no), he wanted a drink of water (I said no), he wanted me to fetch his stuffed monkey from his bed (you know what I said). When his requests went unanswered, he simply flopped around in our bed, preventing me from falling into slumber. After two maddening hours of this I told him to close his eyes and try to relax, at which point he looked up at me and said, “mommy, I’m sick of having to sleep every night” as if I was imposing some sort of torture upon him.
This is what it has been like since he was a newborn.
Even after we passed the colic stage, he fought sleep like an enemy. I doubt if this will ever change – it’s just a part of his DNA – but my responses have adapted. I don’t love those sleepless nights, but they don’t own me like they used to in that first year. Yet I let them bring me right back to that place in my gut where everything feels wrong and I will never get it right. Is this sinking feeling really just leftover anxiety from those first few months of first time motherhood?
Overall, the really tough days — where my oldest pulls out every trick in the book to avoid going to school, my youngest slaps a child at the park, and no one wants what I’ve made for breakfast, lunch and dinner — are few and far between as they grow out of toddlerhood. To be honest, most days I have things under control. I generally consider myself rested, far from oppressively overwhelmed, and I never, ever wear yoga pants (unless I’m in yoga class).
But I still just can’t get comfortable.
I worry every time I lose sight of them for an instant at the playground. I anticipate them being bullied at school. I stress about how common rape culture is in the U.S. Even if nothing “bad” happens in their lives, my abilities as a mother will be tested daily navigating unhealthy competition, peer pressure and struggles with self-esteem.
So when is it that I get a break, as a mother? I’m not talking about a spa day or peace in the potty. I’m talking about a period of time when you just go through your days in the parenting zone. I want to feel good about how I’m raising them while not worrying about what potential issues await in the near future. Does that happen? Will it ever happen for me?
I often wonder if I missed the train to that magic parental comfort zone during my first challenging year as a mother — like it came and went without me ever getting on board. Now I’m thinking I’ll never find my way there.