“When the baby is 3,” my mom told me on the phone the other day, “a mother gets half her chi back.”
I expelled a puff of pent-up hot air and asked, “And the other half?” No answer.
I spend about half of each day with my daughter, who will be 3 in June. During her half of the day, we go to storytime, gymnastics, the park. We dance in the living room to the “Moana” soundtrack. The other half of the day, my husband takes her, and I sit at my desk, trying to write. I am living a life of halves. Half an orange, half a sandwich, half writer, half mother. Oftentimes, I toggle back and forth between the two modes, from gymnastics to essay, from bath time to think piece.
As a result I often feel that I am merely a series of functions happening in a mist. I am not embodied in anything, work or motherhood, but rather caught between the two, the space between halves.
For years I managed to avoid this particular conflict: that is, the sense that I wasn’t fully present either with my work or my baby. I suppose it helped that I was writing a book about motherhood, so life fed into work and vice versa. I was also writing only in three-hour increments: brief and sometimes transcendent breaks from the whirlwind physical demands of motherhood. When writing time was over I felt released from a separate universe back into the dominant one of applesauce and chubby thighs and poo.
Yet as my baby has become a toddler — playing more on her own, less physically dependent on me, able to head out for whole afternoons with family members — I have been left floundering. I am uncertain of boundaries, uncertain of how much of me is now separate from her, how much is still intensely conjoined, how much forever and necessarily so. I am uncertain about what sort of me is emerging from this new mix. Because there is always a new mix: This is the one thing I have learned from parenthood.
I do not need to be so absorbed in the act of caring for her that I can’t, say, read a poem, or get lost in thought while cooking dinner, or write in my journal as she colors. There is just enough space and time for a little more me, for the things I’ve always done and love doing, but not enough space, time, or attention to really do them completely as I used to. There is just enough give to wonder at an altered landscape of creative possibilities, at this new and yet familiar emerging self, before I am yanked back into motherhood.
If I get half my chi back, I think it will be a different kind of chi. My energy, priorities, and vision have changed. Yet the notebooks are the same, the squint at the screen is the same (“You’ve had that look since you were in high school writing on X-Files fan forums,” my sister informs me). The behaviors I took for granted as mine, essential to my pre-parenthood self, are still in place. The person inhabiting them is neither entirely the mother, defined wholly by dedication to her baby, nor the writer who came before, but both, and that both is something I am trying to construct day by day.
I remember the incredulity I felt when one morning I went to make the coffee and the baby stayed alone at her table to draw. In the beginning this independence lasted just long enough for the espresso to brew, but after she turns 2 there are 20-minute intervals in which she holds tea parties alone in her room. We are both aware now that at times we are doing different things, we are in different spaces. In some ways I feel more of an adult than I did when she was 1, when I would participate enthusiastically in all of her play. I was her world. This made my world simpler, my priorities and identity clearer. Now our worlds are less of an eclipse and more of a Venn diagram, the spheres of our distinction expanding.
She constructs her world in defiance of mine, and often on the intuitive basis that I am no longer reliable. When I say there are no chips left she says, “Let me see.” When I say we can’t have ice cream for breakfast she demands, “Why.” When I say we can’t touch our butts she declares, “But I like touching my butt.” Why should my logic defeat her logic? It is clear to her that my authority derives from a realm she can’t access but also that my authority is whimsical, and she can discover herself in probing its holes, its limits. She peeks beyond the boundaries of the possible that I have marked; in the mornings she sneaks upstairs with the dog and only when the silence grows conspicuous do I realize that she’s not even in range.
I am dismayed to take for granted what once were so utterly precious: the small moments when she is occupied and I can reinhabit my mind. I no longer feel sheer, simple gratitude for them, but rather a new confusion, about how to build my life, about the person — mother, writer — at the center of it.
I have enough time and space now to pick up where in many ways I left off in pregnancy nearly three years ago, but the thread is not the same. It’s as if I left the thread of that life trailing on the highway out of Pittsburgh and now I’m in another dimension where the metaphor isn’t even threads anymore, it’s one of those energy balls at the science museum filled with a thousand lightning bolts that coalesce at the warmth of a hand.
Adrienne Rich points out that most of the literature of parenting presumes that developing individuality is “the child’s drama,” when in fact the mother, too, “needs to struggle from that one-to-one intensity into new realization, or reaffirmation, of her being-unto-herself.”
If the struggle of infanthood was that of merging, of relinquishing the idea of a self, the struggle of toddlerhood is to emerge from this myth of oneness into an acceptance of separateness, uncertainty, perpetual becoming. It is to embrace the constant, often stressful, sometimes thrilling tumult of parenthood, where I construct a solid and meaningful and loving world for my daughter so that she may continually pull the rug out from under me. Each time I wonder, now what do I do, now who am I?
While the baby is occupied in the bath, making Pig and Sheep drive an imaginary car together on the faucet, I read Wendell Berry. In “Wild Geese,” he writes:
As in love or sleep
Holds them to their way, clear
In the ancient faith
What we need
It is this I repeat to myself: What you need is here. I start with the little openings, the small separations. The poem, the silence while the tea is steeping. I seek, in the space between halves, a new way of being. I remember, like Elena, the daily reminders of becoming: “Let’s pretend we on a train to California!” or “Be careful with hippos” or “Daffodils blooming!” or the current favorite “I did it all by myself.” Little affirmations, constant, steering us forward on a hidden course.
Sarah Menkedick is the author of “Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm,” out this month from Pantheon. She tweets @sarahmenkedick.
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