A Mother’s Clock
Time follows no standard when you become a parent.
Photographs by Daniel Arnold
Text by Lydia Kiesling
Produced by Eve Lyons
The change began during pregnancy. I started breaking all of life down into units of weeks, first out of anxiety that the newcomer wouldn’t stay put, and then out of desperation that it would never come out. But only once the baby emerged did I truly begin to understand a motherly aphorism popular on parenting message boards: “The hours are long but the days are short.” The minutes crawled by, but I’d find that a week had passed and all I had to show for it was a slightly fatter baby.
There was never a question that I would return to work after this baby was born: My family needed the income, and working for a wage was fundamental to my sense of self. I was ambitious, albeit in a somewhat vague way, and I had better parental leave than most Americans get — six weeks partially paid, six unpaid. As with my paid leave, my choice to go back to work was an enormous privilege; my income, at that time, exceeded the astronomical cost of child care. There was no real obstacle, as I saw it, to going back to my 9-to-5 administrative job.
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Two weeks of leave were squandered while the baby hung around in utero longer than anticipated. When she finally arrived, I watched the minutes of my maternity leave slip by like a time-lapse video. I developed a tic: Sleep-deprived, I would count on my fingers the days until I had to surrender this tiny creature to day care. I was lucky because it had all gone well, and the baby was healthy and cried what I was told is a normal amount for a baby. I, on the other hand, cried all the time. I was also the happiest I’d ever been. Let me reiterate that I know I had it good.
I returned to work when she was 10 weeks old and spent a few months doing a dance I’ve seen performed by many mothers I know: dallying too long at meetings until I thought my breasts would explode, taking my shirt off in a freezing server closet to pump, looking at pictures of the baby on the phone and crying, dropping and losing tiny pump pieces and crying more. I gave up pumping and eventually gave up the job — not because I didn’t want to work, but because, in part, the flexibility that parenting requires did not seem to align with the (objectively good) working life my husband and I had. Like male politicians who experience sudden, embarrassingly late revelations about misogyny once they have daughters, I developed new, strong opinions about how work and home are conceived of in America.
I have two children now, one in preschool and the other scrambling inexorably out of babyhood. I can still see a younger, thinner version of myself running up the street, desperate to get home in time to spend a few minutes with my firstborn before she was put to bed, but it’s harder now to call up the particularly painful urgency of that bereft, desolate feeling. I spend more time, to be honest, thinking about time in relation to money, and the amount of money required to be away from them so that I can do the work I want to do now.
I’m a freelance writer now. I earn less money but, with two children, pay even more for day care and preschool. Sometimes, when I run into them on the street or at the cafe where I work from time to time, my neighbors ask, “Where are the babies?,” surprised to see me in or near the home without my usual sidekicks. Sometimes people congratulate me on my ability to publish a book while having children in a way that leads me to believe they don’t know I pay for the privilege. I don’t find these kinds of remarks offensive so much as informative. I am too lucky to be offended — to have child care my earnings alone can’t always cover, to work from home in a sweatshirt that says “I love cats,” to procrastinate on paid work with housework, to cook dinner before the children are underfoot, to have a choice about all of these things.
Because I have a choice, and because the math doesn’t work, we are moving away from our too-expensive city. Continuing to pay for time away from the children I would cheerfully die for is, apparently, more important to me than trying to set down roots in the place they were born.
Sometimes I scroll through Twitter to read reactions to proposals about universal child care, which has become one of my primary political hopes. “Raise your own kids” is one response I’ve seen to calls for an improvement to our current, deeply inequitable and unsatisfactory system. “Can’t feed ‘em don’t breed ’em,” is another — maybe my least favorite saying of all time. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that these hit a nerve.
My brain holds a set of competing beliefs within it: first, that these people are jerks, and second, I don’t have what it takes to be home with my children every day, and am thus unsuited to the solemn work of motherhood. It is hard not to absorb, on vulnerable days, the voices that tell us that voluntarily putting your kids in someone else’s care is a moral failing; sometimes the call is coming from inside the house. I have a friend, also a working writer with young children in preschool and day care, and we text one another, in our low moments, that one of our greatest motivations for working is to forestall the possibility of spending all day, every day with our children.
One of my other friends with children tells me that she tries to remember that she is presently living in the golden years, the good old days, and to enjoy them while they are here. I think about this a lot. What are the things that I want to keep with me? A memory of my older daughter saying “bracenip” instead of “bracelet.” The three seconds, never enough, when the little one, who is always moving, always doing her comic run-waddle through the house, stops to be picked up and puts her head on my shoulder. I hope I can keep forever the feeling of holding them when they were small, a feeling of overwhelming physical happiness that I pray will get us through whatever familial struggles are sure to come.
So many moments of their childhood are already gone and lost to memory, and I’ve mostly made peace with the fact that I don’t get to retain them all. I’m working on making peace with something else, too: that being the mother I want to be means being away from them for many of those long hours and those short, swiftly fleeting days.
Daniel Arnold is a photographer in New York. Lydia Kiesling is the author of “The Golden State.”
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