a letter to volcano on her first birthday

Dear Volcano,

It’s October, which means you are almost a year old. If you’d been born on your due date you would be one already. Your duedate was my first day not going to work last year. Instead of getting on the train to go to school, I walked all the way around prospect park. It took me an hour and a half to do the whole 3.5 miles. The sky was clear blue, the trees were just starting to turn red, and I was thinking what a nice time of year it was to be born.

It was actually two more weeks before you were born, and it would’ve been longer if we had left it up to you. I don’t know much about what the weather was like on that day. It looked sunny through the hospital windows. When our midwife arrived in the middle of the night she was wearing a little short-sleeved shirt, so I think it must have been warm out. When we took you to see your pediatrician for the first time one week later, it was cold. I didn’t have many warm clothes for you so I put a too-big fleece sweatshirt on you and wrapped you in two blankets for the walk over.

It was viciously, bitterly cold for the next five months. I bought a little space heater for the apartment to make sure you stayed warm. We used to sit on the floor while I changed your diaper with the warm air blowing on us. You would look around and kick your legs up and down. You’ve always had such long, lean legs. Even when you were a tiny baby who could barely move, your legs looked like they belonged to a teenage track star, or a ballerina. When we brought you to school for the first time and our principal saw you standing on a lab bench, she said you were a “perfectly proportioned little human” — you never seemed to have the stumpy legs or fat rolls that most babies do.

I loved our winter together before I went back to work. I had been prepared for newborn parenting to be incredibly difficult, but it wasn’t at all. I had read all these things — in books or blogs or lists titled “27 things every parent has felt but was afraid to say” that people posted and reposted on Facebook — that had conditioned me to think the first three months of your life would be a painful slog. I was expecting to be so tired I didn’t feel human. I was expecting to experience moments of regret over irrevocably changing my life by having a baby. I was prepared for moments of disliking you or not knowing what to do with you, and I was going to tell myself it was normal. But none of that happened. I have no doubt that it IS normal, and if you ever have a baby and feel unhappy or overwhelmed by parenting, I hope I’ll be there to help you and tell you that it’s okay to feel how you feel. But I also want you to know that when you were a newborn, we were incredibly happy together. I was tired sometimes, but all I really had to do was snuggle you and nurse you all day long — I didn’t mind being a little sleepy. You cried sometimes, but it was always easy to soothe you with bouncing or nursing. You were a wonderful newborn and you have been a wonderful baby all year. You gave me a sweet, easy, blissful introduction to parenthood and I’ll always love that about you, even when you become more difficult or contentious. (When does that happen? Three? Seven? Thirteen? Sometimes I wonder if those future difficult phases will be just as overhyped as the newborn time was, but I’m prepared for something a little bumpier, I promise. You don’t always have to be sweet and easy.)

I don’t want you to read this in the future and think you were a quiet, placid baby. Not at all. You didn’t sit around sleeping or lie contented in a bouncy seat on your own. You have demanded engagement and stimulation from pretty much the moment you opened your eyes. You are intense, expressive, celebratory. You delight in the world. When you were tiny, you loved to look at your black and white fish drawing. You would shiver with paroxysms of glee as you looked at him, wiggling your whole body from your shoulders to your toes as you smiled. (That fish was the first thing you smiled at, right after you turned one month old. Yiayia said the first thing I smiled at was also a drawing, so I wasn’t offended.) Now that you are older, you are constantly moving, joking, laughing, careening around the world like a happy little pinball.

So you are demanding, but easy. You don’t speak many words, but you communicate. You don’t walk, but you race. (Well, that’s not entirely true. You do walk; you took your first independent steps a looooong time ago, back when you were nine months old. But your balance isn’t great and you choose to crawl, cruise, hold hands, or drive your pushcart most of the time.) You are picky, but voracious. You are not what I expected, but you are everything I wanted.

ASL sign for mama

a year goes by

I definitely had this thought around lunchtime: if I don’t post something today, there will be nothing in my archives for 2014.

I often think of the poem I used to have pasted in the front of my journal, way back when I wrote in a paper journal with glittery gel pens, and its description of unrecorded days slipping away like bits of cleaving ice into a dark ocean. if a day is an iceberg, what is a year? perhaps an entire small continent, disappearing under the swells of a relentlessly rising ocean?

2013 was the year I became a mother, but 2014 was the year I became a working parent, and for me at least, that has been a whole different level of mothering. in a way, it’s been the thing that has fulfilled all the platitudes about having a baby when merely having the baby failed to do so. it’s hard, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. at least once a day I find myself questioning the decision to do it at all. at least once a day I find myself thinking that if I didn’t do it, I’d be missing out on some of the most important and rewarding parts of my life. it’s exhausting. it’s exhilarating. it makes me wonder who I am and what happened to the person I used to be. it makes me feel like I’ll never be enough. it makes me feel like a superhero.

last week, one of my students gave me a christmas card. inside it she wrote, “I’m sure you are the kind of parent your students wish they had.” the truth is I often think about it the other way around: I hope I’m the kind of teacher I wish my daughter will have.

I’ve been trying to fulfill those hopes and wishes for a year now. it’s hard work. it’s good work. and when I look back at my mostly unrecorded year, I don’t regret it. this was a landscape worth exploring.

(I do wish I’d been better about journaling. maybe I need to tape a poem to my laptop.)

first fortnight

volcano was born on october 14, two weeks overdue, perfect except for her unwillingness to be birthed. at first, with both of us swollen and dazed from the ordeal, she just looked like a generic baby to me — an adorable and adored baby, with a charming cleft chin and invisibly blonde eyebrows — but on the morning of the second day when I picked her up from her bassinet, I was startled to find my own infant self in my arms. it wasn’t just that volcano had my nose or my lips, it was that she suddenly resembled my baby pictures so exactly that I may as well have woken up 32 years and 70 days in the past. it would have been a shift almost entirely in time: volcano and I were born in the same hospital, and from our postpartum room we could see the front door of my childhood apartment building, the rooftop where my mother strung up clotheslines of my diapers to dry in the sun, the same hudson river I remember watching from our sixth-floor windows.

the first days of parenthood are surely overwhelming no matter what, but caring for my doppelgänger made my sense of immense responsibility all the more surreal and extreme. I held my sleeping self in the corner of my arm, tilting my head away from the tapes and tubes of the hep lock. I fed my hungry, gawping self, pulling my rosebud baby lips into the right shape. I watched my husband read myself a board book. I watched the nurses take my tiny six-and-a-half-pound self away to be given a hepatitis B vaccine, and returned with a bandaid that wrapped around my entire thigh. it was as if I had accidentally stumbled into a time loop, and the only way out unscathed was to take perfect care of this child who would grow up to become me. if I didn’t, it seemed reasonable to assume that I would cease to exist in adulthood.

two weeks later, volcano still looks a lot like me, but I’ve gotten used to thinking of her as my daughter, not myself. it helps that the variations in her hairline are clearer now, and that sometimes she lifts the inside edges of her eyebrows in the exact same way that her father does.

what is there to say about becoming a mother that hasn’t been said before? it is almost embarrassingly easy: hold the baby; feed the baby; kiss the baby; instinct makes all the decisions for you. it is almost devastatingly difficult: a walk around the block is a staggering accomplishment; you will continue caring this much about another human’s wellbeing for the rest of your life. it is simultaneously obvious and impossible. the truth is I don’t feel particularly different. I have no sense of being truly changed by the birth of my child. she arrived into a space in my identity that had existed for years, and having it finally filled feels, so far, more inevitable than transformative. and yet, and yet… everything is different now forever.