I knew a woman, Monica, who had three children in 39 months, all girls. I went to visit her with my one perfect toddler, she was eager to give away baby stuff and I was pregnant again. She had been a respected, innovative theatrical lighting designer up in Los Angeles but now lived in San Pedro, the only place they could afford to buy. It was a sometimes thirty minute, sometimes two hour drive depending on traffic but even if it had been ten minutes, Monica couldn’t make it. She couldn’t go anywhere with three kids under the age of four, no help, little money and a husband who worked so far away that he didn’t make it home most nights until after the girls were bathed and fed and he himself so exhausted that he ate and went right to bed.
I had met Monica some years before when I was an actress. I’d watched her climbing up poles and scenery with the agility of something between a mountain goat and a butterfly. She was slender and beautiful and was always there when needed, early in the morning until late at night.
Now she sat in the sunny back yard nursing one daughter and looking after two others. She was dressed in a well-worn, milk stained cotton shirt, her once sleek tummy loose from the most recent infant.
I asked her how she did it, how she managed. Truthfully, I was a little afraid of having a baby and a toddler together, afraid that I would get cross or tired or leave someone in the bath accidentally or just not love them enough. Was I mother enough to do a good job to two people at the same time?
She said that she imagined it was a little like being in the loony bin or a long prison sentence; that after a while you got used to it.
She did get used to it and so did I but in fact it made us both a little crazy. We had both spent years in the theatre, trying to create a completely artificial world in which beauty and truth might be attained through hard work and grace and a lot of people helping. Now we were grounded into the world of feeding and burping and cleaning up our children’s pee and poop and even using the words ‘pee’ and ‘poop’ on a regular basis. After seeking truth on stage for decades we now used phony euphemisms for genitals, sex, anger, our partners, everything. And we did so joyfully.
We were both of that first generation after The Pill, when women could actually chose not only whether or not to have babies but even when and how. Some rich women chose to schedule Caesarian sections because they did not want to go through vaginal birth. I couldn’t imagine that for myself, I would never have opted for surgery over not having surgery. I had been a hippie of a sort and I wanted everything, or as much as possible, to be natural. I felt a great kinship with all the women before me, not just my ancestors but everybody’s ancestors, all the moms who had crouched in fields or sat on a low three-legged stool or had birthed during war or during work, those who could have their babies at home in leisure and those who had been rushed to hospitals. I wanted as little interference with the process as I could manage. My husband and I, he reluctantly, me eagerly attended natural birth classes at the Zen Center in Los Angeles and it all seemed so easy, so natural, so truthful, so right.
As anyone who has gone through it will tell you, labor is rightfully named. It’s a lot of work and you’re not in control of most of it. It helps to have practiced breathing and letting go because that baby, that young soul, in most circumstances really, really wants to come out and they do much of the work as best they can. However, they don’t care how long it takes, how much it hurts or what else gets messed up on the way out. They are on a different mission, the only mission really, which is to enter this wonderful world and take a big gulp of its air.
That isn’t the part that makes you crazy, later you come to realize that was the easy part and at the end of it they hand you a baby.
The hard part, the part you have to get used to, is the part where ‘you’ as you were, if you are Monica and me, has to either change or at least go underground for a decade or so, preferably both. Every day with an infant and toddler is a day in which your needs don’t come second, or third, they don’t come in at all. A shower, with one kid asleep in the next room, the door open, and the other on a chair on the bathroom floor becomes a somewhat rare treat. You must forget about cooking from the Silver Palate Cookbook and instead become good at squashing zucchini through a Moulinex for the one who isn’t dining exclusively at Chez You. I used to see mothers with their make-up on and some kind of hairstyle that had required a brush, wheeling silent toddlers through the aisles of the supermarket. I watched these same sorts of mothers with even more make up on in restaurants with quiet, compliant children picking cheerios neatly off the high chair tray as I marched one wailing, teething baby up and down the rows and my toddler crumbled up crackers and jettisoned them into the booth behind us with maniacal glee. I didn’t resent, ever, having my wonderful children but I did wonder why I didn’t seem to be very good at this job. It was the best one I ever had, bar none. The working conditions were shitty, the pay nonexistent, and the hours, the hours! But oh, those little faces, those chubby, perfect fists with their otherworldly grace and gestures, those gurgles, those smiles. I didn’t just get used to it, I treasured it. Because I was a stay-at-home Mom I did not miss their first word, first step, first anything. Those milestones became more important to me than first readings, dress rehearsals, opening nights and the wrap parties had been, all rolled into one.
With us or without us though, our children do grow up and when I finally had a little time to think about myself, I was no longer myself, exactly. I had, without even trying, become a different woman. One movie star said that if you go to look for the girl you were before you were a mother, you will not find her, she is gone forever. I was used to being a certain kind of woman, of artist, of sexual being and just when I was getting used to that I had to become someone else, and that, as the poet said, “has made all the difference.”