Leaning into motherhood

(Shutterstock / Dmitry Melnikov)

(Shutterstock / Dmitry Melnikov)

Back when I lived in Brooklyn, I commuted to work on my bike. It gave me a lot of time to think. Once I passed my mid-20s, I spent a lot of that time imagining how little my life would change when I had a baby. I was living in Red Hook, a waterfront cul-de-sac of a neighborhood that was rapidly gentrifying and still quite poor at the same time.

I imagined myself riding the same route, the same bike, with a baby somehow safely stacked on. I was already carrying a lot of stuff with me — work clothes, gym clothes, books, lunch. I would just cram diapers, fresh outfits, toys (BPA free, of course) and all the other things that a baby needs and wants in a day into my overflowing panniers. I wondered: At what age is it safe to ride a bike with a baby? I saw toddlers and little kids, mostly riding European style in front, mostly with their dads (who tend to be more adventuresome with their children than moms). There was no doubt in my mind that I would have a baby, keep my job and commute as I always had — by bike.

Sitting in my office, typing away, answering calls, I would imagine where I would put the baby bassinet and bouncing chair. I worked in SoHo for the Arms and Security Initiative, a progressive think tank where I did research, writing and resource development about military issues. My office was just me and my boss. The infant would sleep in the bassinet. I would nurse her and then she would play in the bouncy chair while I came up with new ways to argue for a common sense foreign policy in which the use of force was a last resort. Perfect, I thought. Totally doable.

I was living in a series of dingy, neglected, periodically rat-infested apartments with a partner who worked incredibly long hours during the week and large portions of every weekend and who was constitutionally unsuited for — and adamantly disinterested in — fatherhood. We struggled financially despite having good incomes. Nevertheless, I saw a baby fitting seamlessly into these lives.

It wasn’t that I wanted to “have it all” in an ambitious, striving kind of way. It was that I assumed that I could have a child — children even — without my life changing at all. Like most other women, I believed that the older I got, the harder it would be to have children. No wonder I fantasized about baby-bike commuting and a new life not upending my old one.

However, four months after our wedding, Patrick and I got pregnant. There is no reason to think we’ll have a problem when we start trying again — even though I am going to turn (ahem) 40 in April. I think that Jean Twenge’s article in the most recent issue of The Atlantic should be required reading for the 20-something me. Twenge addresses the prevailing wisdom on declining fertility: “The widely cited statistic that one in three women ages 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying, for instance, is based on an article published in 2004 in the journal Human Reproduction. Rarely mentioned is the source of the data: French birth records from 1670 to 1830. The chance of remaining childless — 30 percent — was also calculated based on historical populations.”

In the article, she talks about how “baby panic” leads women to have babies with the wrong guy, turn down career opportunities and worse — all “based on a few statistics about women who resided in thatched-roof huts and never saw a lightbulb. In [David] Dunson’s study of modern women, the difference in pregnancy rates at age 28 versus 37 is only about 4 percentage points. Fertility does decrease with age, but the decline is not steep enough to keep the vast majority of women in their late 30s from having a child.”

Thank goodness I did not have a child in my late 20s/early 30s. Now that I am a mom, I find it hysterical to dialogue with the me of 5 or 6 or 11 years ago on the topic of motherhood, career and change.

Commuting five miles by bike with an infant in New York City? I am sure someone does it. My hat is off (and my helmet is on) to them. I was barely brave enough to do it myself and I had my fair share of scrapes and scary moments and two relatively serious accidents. I can’t imagine putting a baby on a bike. Seamus was 6 months old before I got used to driving with him in the car. I still don’t like it. I would rather walk — no matter how hot the weather and how heavy the kid. Nothing about getting a baby in and out of a car or bike seat is easy.

Working a full day with a baby peaceful and unobtrusive by my side? When he was an infant, I could — if I planned everything just right — type for 20 or 30 minutes at a stretch while he nursed and slept. I could even string a few of those together. Through diligent time management and with lots of support and flexible deadlines, I managed to write this column more often than not. But, I did it in the comfort of my own home, spread out over three rooms, wearing sweatpants and completely on my own schedule. I never stopped to consider what would have happened when my imaginary New York baby developed a mind of his own, a penchant for movement, an appetite for power cords and small pieces of carpet and a very loud voice. It happens pretty fast.

Seamus is a year old now. He barely naps and doesn’t spend all that much time alone. Writing involves a lot of wrestling the pen, or mouse, or paper, or keyboard out of his hands; being a skillful distractor; and making use of the early morning and late night hours. There is no more nurse-typing. He puts his foot in the crook of my elbow and pushes the whole time he is nursing.

Doing it without an enthusiastic, capable and 110 percent-there partner? No way. No chance. I need my husband Patrick. He cooks, cleans, shops, listens, laughs, comforts, problem-solves, and is present and active. Most people hand the baby back when he starts to cry, but Patrick is that one person who takes the baby when he is red in the face with tears streaming down, and catching his breath for a new round of screaming. He walks out of the house and down the block, only to return later with a sleeping angel on his shoulder.

I don’t want to have it all. I don’t need to “lean in” — a new concept by former Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg to help women get ahead in the workplace. Both of those are above my pay-grade at this point anyway. I don’t always get a lot done. Sometimes my daily list of accomplishments (and yep, I keep a log) is a single line: “cut baby’s finger and toenails.” But it won’t last forever. It will be gone in a flash. Time moves fast — that is one thing my late-30s self knows better than my 20-something self. I will not always calculate accomplishment in terms of crescent moons of fingernails.

What am I really doing these days? Helping to grow a happy, whole, secure, confident, kind boy. He meets people’s eyes. He smiles and guffaws and plays peekaboo in the grocery store. He really does bring light and joy wherever he is.

Most of the time, when people ask, I tell them he was born that way — sunny, happy, outgoing. But it is not quite true: He is loved that way. His joy and development are worth making time and space for; they are worth the change and adaptation they require. I can lean in to that!

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