A sharp cough stirs me from my dead sleep. I blink and freeze, holding my breath. Another cough, and then a thin wail rises from the monitor next to my head. “Mmmph,” my husband mumbles.
“I got this one,” I tell him and practically fall out of bed, tripping over boxes—still not unpacked—in my hurry to replace the baby’s pacifier before she realizes she’s awake and the whole night goes to hell, like last night did. And the night before—or the one before that? I am losing track of time.
In Ella’s room across the hall, the white noise machine grates on my ears. I fumble around the baby, who is sitting up and screaming while still technically asleep, to find a pacifier. Under my breath, I curse whatever fool decided these things should be transparent and virtually invisible in darkness.
Aha. Gotcha, you slippery bastard. Back in her mouth it goes. She sways like a cartoon drunk, her whole torso tracing a circle in the air, before she collapses face down in the crib. I wait, hands up, afraid to make a noise or even to shift my weight away from her, lest the invisible tether between her body and mine tighten and let her know her mami is leaving her here in this giant new room in the dark by herself.
The sight of her lying there so soft and small and warm—how can I sense that warmth from this far away?—melts me, and I forget the dread I felt when that first cough came through the monitor. I smile and tiptoe out of the room.
Back in bed, Jon whispers, “She go back down?”
“Mmhm.” I am already dropping off myself. Cough. Cough.
“Noooo,” I groan.
Jon sighs and throws the covers off. “I’ll try a bottle.”
Lather, rinse, repeat, until the alarm goes off at 5:30 and we begin the dance of getting ready for work with an active eight month old.
I am tired. I am cranky. The humidity has made makeup pointless, I haven’t had time to wash and blow dry my hair (a pixie cut! who doesn’t have time to blow dry a pixie cut?!) in easily three days, I am still wearing maternity shirts, and any grown-up shoes I owned before the move have yet to be excavated from boxes. I leave for the day looking like I am headed for summer camp, or an insane asylum. At daycare, Ella cries and clings to me, and I have to physically peel her off me and hand her to a woman she doesn’t yet recognize so that I can get in my car and drive two-plus hours to the city to a job that I have been behind at since I returned from leave five months ago. At 5:00, nearly twelve hours after getting out of bed, I hustle to my car to sit in traffic for another two-plus hours to get home, where my baby will likely already be headed for sleep and my husband will be so burnt out that all we can do is exchange grunts from opposite ends of the couch. If I am lucky, I will eat dinner. If I am very lucky, dinner will not be potato chips. Again.
I miss my baby, my Ella June, my little hurricane of opinions and noise and snuggles. I miss those days cuddled up on the couch during my (very generous) maternity leave, she and I a little planet unto ourselves while Jon circled us, a watchful moon, ferrying me coffee and the remote control. I miss Ella’s humor and babble during the week those midnight screams are almost all I get of her, and I count the moments to the weekend, when she and I can giggle and play instead of moving from one small crisis to the next.
And I miss my husband. All of this maintenance we do—of the baby, of the cats, of the cars, of our new home—has sapped us of the offbeat banter that is so much a part of who we are as a couple. It matters more now that he is a man and I am a woman. Somehow this shared experience of parenthood has served to point out differences I was never aware of before. What we need most right now is time to find our new selves together. Or maybe just some more sleep. Either way, it’s not happening this week, or even next.
Most of all, I miss me.
I miss my pregnant body, full of possibility, healthy and strong and powerful. Eight months into my pregnancy, I proudly wore an absurdly small bikini. Now I can’t even manage a pair of heels. I’ve only made it to yoga once since having Ella, and I’ve been sick with seven separate illnesses since she started daycare.
I miss my creativity. I haven’t written a word in months, couldn’t even finish writing the story of Ella’s beautiful birth. All those books I loaded on my Kindle for maternity leave? They mock me with their little “New!” banners, unread. Their sequels have been out for months, and I can’t get through a full chapter in day.
I miss my confidence. I question every decision I make now—going back to work after the baby, moving from our apartment in Salem, buying our first home in the boonies of central Massachusetts. I question my ability to succeed at my job, which used to be such a source of fulfillment for me. I question my fitness as a mother, particularly on those screaming drop off days—what kind of woman leaves her child like this when all that baby wants is more time with Mami?
“I feel like I am doing everything wrong,” I tell my mother after one particularly heart-wrenching departure.
“I remember those days,” she tells me. Her voice is sympathetic, but also wistful.
And that’s what gets me in the gut. She remembers those days, because they are gone. Every moment is another moment passing us by, hurtling Ella June toward childhood, adolescence, adulthood. She got a tooth last week—a tooth! Soon she’ll have a backpack and a license and a career and a home of her own.
This, right now, this is it. The big adventure, the life adventure, the everyday adventure. It’s hard to think of it that way some days. Some days I can’t remember the last time I had a full night’s sleep or a dinner that wasn’t cold already or a single day when I felt like a confident, capable, attractive human being—on these days, I feel like my life left me behind.
But if I can stop for a moment and remember what this is—a journey, a challenge, an adventure so beautiful that sometimes it just has to hurt—I can savor the midnight teething cries right along with the good morning giggles.