Before I had children I lived in San Francisco with my husband Chris. We’d been together as a couple for a long time. I was working at a daily newspaper, covering criminal justice. I had recently completed a master’s at UC Berkeley. I was 33 when Sofia was born so I’d been working a fair number of years before she was born.
How did we decide to have a baby? As we approach a lot of decisions, it was kind of through the side door. We’d been to a series of weddings over the summer and hearing all these beautiful vows and imagining all the couples together making their own families… We were flying home from one, still in our formal wear, and I turned to Chris and said, “why don’t we try to have a kid?” And he said, “okay.”
The arrangement was that I would take a maternity leave and then go back to my old job. I didn’t know how it was going to end up. We didn’t ever discuss Chris’ life changing because he makes the majority of the income. I think probably that was the beginning of our relationship becoming more traditional in terms of gender. From the moment she was born was the beginning of my life changing dramatically and Chris’ life changing dramatically, but in a secondary way. He still had to get up and go to work. I didn’t ever return to that kind of lifestyle—I still haven‘t—where I’m getting up five days a week to go to a really stressful job with those kinds of demands.
I think I thought a lot more about having a baby—the birth—than I thought about having a child. I was afraid of, but looking forward to the experience of having a baby come out of my body. I couldn’t even conceive of what it would feel like to push a baby out. I couldn’t believe I would be capable of that. Because of that I made the experience a lot more painful than it needed to be, because I didn’t want any drugs to mask the feeling. That’s kind of how I’ve approached parenting from the beginning. I had an idea of how it was going to be which may not have always been the easiest way. Looking back on that first labor, I want to wrap my arms around my younger self and say, “Honey, there’s nothing wrong with using medication.”
What initially surprised? Having the baby on the outside. It wasn’t about me anymore. It wasn’t my experience with my body. There was this other person who could make her needs known. Having to respond to this new person was an incredible surprise even though it was obvious. I had never been in the situation where I had to be there to take care of her always. It continues to be a surprise now. How much they really require.
It’s made the landscape of Chris and my relationship a lot more clear. Before we had children, we had the luxury of avoiding each other’s large feelings. If we were mad, pissed or unsatisfied with something, it could kind of just be there. Maybe it would come up or maybe not. Both Chris and I are not particularly confrontational people. After children come, you have so many more complex variables, accommodating a child. In some ways, in a negative way, it’s created a fundamental resentment. I think where we argue is around the fact that our life is less carefree now and it’s kind of because we have kids. If we didn’t have kids, our life would be easier, if less rich and joyful. There’s this unspoken shameful reality that if we didn’t have kids, we could go out any time we wanted and money wouldn’t be this big stress. On the other hand, there are ways that I love Chris now that I never would have had a chance to see, if we didn’t have kids. Also, just the birth of our children. From that moment, the way he was there for me — almost in an animal form. He was my mate. That experience has had a lasting effect on our relationship.
There’s that old expression, “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” I’ve told Chris that the way to my heart is through our children. He can bring me flowers on Valentine’s Day and be really sweet to me, but when I see him with our kids, that really melts me. It makes me love him even more.
Having kids has made it easier for me to really love and appreciate my parents. I’m the youngest child in my family. I’m sort of the black sheep, weirdo in the family. I’m the one who really went off and created my own life the most compared to my two siblings. A lot of my identity has been forged in opposition to my mother and my sister. And yet ultimately I’m the one in the family who is imitating my parents the most. I’m married with two kids and both my siblings are single. The reality, all the experience of parenting, has built my empathy for my mom and what she’s gone through to raise us. I respect the choices she made a lot more. I am more compassionate toward the complaints I had about her parenting.
Chris and I live pretty simply. If we had a higher need for money then I would be working fulltime. My skills don’t bring in as much money as Chris’ can, but I could be making more than I am. Luckily I don’t have to. I like being there for my kids when they get out of school. I wouldn’t want to stay at home fulltime or home-school my children, but there is a balance that works well right now. I used to be a lot more ambitious about proving myself to and impressing other people. A couple of years before my second child was born, I took a creative writing class and started going back through my old journals and finding things I had already been writing that were character sketches. Naming that creative work and starting to take it more seriously, is something I needed to do. Now I’m writing a pretty complex play. I’ve had pieces of it staged and read by actors. It flows out of my previous work interviewing and reporting. I think what’s happened is I’ve become more pragmatic about my work life, the money-making part of my work life. I don’t really get as much of a sense of myself from it. It’s important that I do my job well. I enjoy it. But it’s really in the playwriting, in the creative writing, that I feel I’m able to express myself and understand things I’m thinking about. I feel good that I bring in some money, but it’s become more and more important to me that I still have time to do this other creative work. It’s not like I’m devoting a whole lot of time, but still. I think I was afraid of venturing into that creative work before I had kids. Without having my girls, I don’t think I would have seen myself for who I really am or have the courage to see myself for who I am. I was a lot more timid about expressing myself before I had them.
How have I changed? Having gone through the experience of parenting has allowed me to accept myself as an ordinary person. I’m just an ordinary person. I’m not some super competent person who is always good at everything. I really did expect myself to be good at everything before I had my kids. I’ve kind of had it pummeled out of me really. I can’t be. Always making the right choice and saying the right thing. I’m constantly yelling at my kids and apologizing for saying the wrong thing and having to apologize and wanting to apologize and modeling that I am a real ordinary person with limits. That little bit of self-acceptance has let me be more myself.
Have my aspirations changed? There is a bit of scaling back. I imagined living in a much bigger house in a more cosmopolitan city, doing more traveling. I have come to actually realize that I’m not good at having a more complicated life. I’m better at having life be as simple as I can make it. Just juggling all the things about life with two kids, that’s almost more than I can handle.
To live here, and have to work more for less, I’m very frustrated by that. My mother and sister live close by. Chris’ family lives close by. If it weren’t for family, I think we probably would have moved somewhere else. But there isn’t really another home to go home to. We can live here now in our flat, but eventually we won’t be able to. But getting a larger place in this area is just crazy. I do resent it. I do feel a bit of entitlement. I grew up here. We should have a bigger space. We’ve had to talk about it a lot. It matters that we be able to stay close to our elderly parents, not just for our sake, but our kids’ sake. They’re a big part of our kids’ lives. Not worrying about money all the time. I don’t know what that would be like. Not knowing makes it hard to miss it.
Hardest? It’s forced me to look at myself. It’s what so amazingly rich. It’s also horrifying to have to see myself for who I really am: my impatience, my tendency with my first child to have an expectation about what she should be like or doing at a certain point in her life. I could have probably been married to Chris for my whole life and without kids, there’s probably a lot of myself I would not have had to face up to. It’s not horrible qualities. It’s again that sense that I’m just a regular person who has limits on how much I can give.
Best thing? I’m a much happier person. I am. Also I feel like I’m a better person. I feel like I’m a kinder, more compassionate person and less self-centered. I’m often processing memories of myself as my daughters go through certain phases. I’ve been able to enjoy and process a lot of memories in a meaningful way that has added this whole layer to parenting that is rich and fascinating.
Advice? Go easy on yourself. Getting up in the morning or middle of the night, whenever you start your day, just get yourself somewhat dressed and go outside and meet other people because the experience can be so isolating the way our society is set up. It can be easy for us to be too hard on ourselves. I expected myself to make the transition right away. Just know that you’re going to make the transition into motherhood eventually, but you can’t rush an experience like that. Let it go at its own pace. There’s going to be good days and bad days. Mothering yourself through the experience is important.