I believe there a couple of factors that might explain this. For one, I waited until later in life (37) before becoming a mother — and this, despite the other doomsday articles that warned against having a baby after 35 — so my sacrifices are fewer. I don’t feel as though I am missing out on any other exciting opportunities.
Second, I live in a city (Amsterdam) where parental rights in the work place, including longer maternity leaves and shorter work weeks upon return, are strongly enforced, making it easy to achieve a healthy work-life balance. And also, I believe I already paid my dues because I spent my entire pregnancy in a deep and miserable hormonal funk.
And perhaps most importantly, I have an easy-going child. This is an incredibly fortunate stroke of good luck, and I know better than to take it for granted.
When friends ask me how my life has changed since having a baby, I often have to pause to think about it. In many ways, my life hasn’t changed that much at all. When we eat out at restaurants, we make reservations for 6:30 instead of 8 (we tried 6 p.m., but it really doesn’t feel right). When we travel, we stay at spacious Airbnb apartments instead of the pint-size rooms of boutique hotels. When I splurge for a designer dress that will only be worn once, it comes in size 6-12 months. We don’t go the movies anymore, but instead we spend our time at museums. (Unless there’s a new Marvel Avengers sequel. Then we’ll arrange for sitter.)
In some ways, my life has even improved. Having a baby is the perfect excuse to bow out of all the social obligations I used to dread. My social agenda is now better curated and far more enjoyable for it.
I believe the studies that warn of the misery of parenthood do serve a purpose, if only to dismiss the (used-to-be) prevailing notion that having a baby is the greatest joy a person will ever experience. Of course raising a child isn’t a consistent source of gratification. But it isn’t an inevitable spiral into depression, either.
I remember once hearing that the love you feel for your baby fills your heart in chambers you didn’t even know existed. I don’t know if that’s a quote attributed to one specific mother or if it is common wisdom voiced by mothers everywhere. In any case, it’s a well-worn phrase I’ve heard repeated, so I have no problem bringing it up myself, if only to point out that it sets the bar impossibly high for a new parent. There is really never any question to whether you will love your child (to those reading this article without children: the answer is an emphatic yes). But like any loving relationship, there is still work involved. Make no mistake about it: you will experience frustration and exasperation. You will be forced to make compromises you resent. And although you love your baby fiercely, sometimes you will be too exhausted to remember it.
My relationship with my daughter has its obvious ups and downs. And I can even tell you exactly when these extremes occur:
Down: Tuesdays, my work-from-home day, when I valiantly attempt to be an attentive mother, a devoted employee and an effective homemaker all at once and fail miserably in every possible scenario.
Up: Friday afternoons, when I pick my daughter up at daycare. If she were a puppy (and I make this comparison far too often to be acceptable), she’d greet me with a hearty bark and a wagging tail. We have an entire weekend ahead to spend together.
Up: Monday morning, after an entire weekend spent together, when I can put her back in the hands of another reliable caregiver who can fight her nap time resilience (hopefully with better luck than me) and attempt to get her to eat tomatoes.
I do realize that, unlike some other parents, I have it good. The fact that my job allows me to work four days a week (including that aforementioned work-from-home Tuesday) means I get to minimize any guilt about neglecting my daughter. And it also means that I have three days a week when I can drink a cup of coffee while it is still hot and go to the bathroom without an audience.
Don’t get me wrong. There are parts of my former, non-baby life I do achingly miss. I miss those spontaneous Friday nights at the office when someone says, “let’s get a drink,” and before you know it, it’s 2 a.m. and we’re at a salsa club, executing perfect triple spins on the dance floor. I know from experience that a night of dancing can’t be planned. It either happens by happy accident or not at all. And even though none of those “let’s get a drink” nights at the office have ever realistically ended up with me showing off expert salsa moves on the dance floor, I miss the possibility that it might one day actually happen.
I do realize, too, that writing about my good fortune as a mother could be the equivalent of kicking a sleeping dog. I know when I talk about how easy it is to travel to foreign cities with my daughter or to share a plate of tapas with her at a food festival, I’m tempting fate. Any day now, my super flexible and adventurous daughter could develop a stubborn streak. She’ll become a picky eater or a terrible sleeper and we’ll find ourselves adapting our lives to accommodate her needs.
Isn’t that how all healthy, happy relationships are supposed to work?
Once upon a time, happiness was the question and the answers were straight-forward. Marriage. Children. We know now it isn’t quite so simple. The pursuit of happiness is an ongoing, evolving process.
But if you ask me? Having children is a step in the right direction.
Jennifer van der Kwast is an American writer who has been living in the Netherlands for four years. You can follow her on Twitter @jennifervanderk.
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