"He's just not himself," she said. "He doesn't want to play. He's not talking. He just leans his head on my shoulder and closes his eyes."
I left work early to pick him up, and I found him red, hot, and limp, like a strip of roasted pepper straight out of the oven. He leaned against me, staring listlessly and silently, his forehead burning against my chest. I brought him home, gave him some baby acetaminophen, and nursed him down for a nap. When he awoke, he was cooler to the touch and ready to play a little, but as the evening wore on, his temperature slowly climbed again and he began to droop. Overnight, lying between us on the bed, he radiated sick heat and squirmed himself awake every couple of hours to be cuddled and nursed back to sleep. The next morning, we went to the doctor's office - we happened to already have an appointment for his one-year checkup - where we were instructed to replace the acetaminophen with ibuprofen and call on Monday morning if the fever wasn't gone.
Before the fever, I had been feeling somewhat harried and distracted. Our holiday season this year was wonderfully full but also impossibly hectic - we flew to see my husband's family, my parents stayed with us in the city for awhile, I had old friends in from out of town, and I attended a birth. So early January found me feeling like a cartoon character who has just fallen out of a tree: dazed, dizzy, and crosseyed, with little birdies tweeting in circles around my head. I've been distracted and irritated at work, but also not especially looking forward to my time at home. With the baby, I have felt annoyed at being prevented from writing or housework or miscellaneous catch-up; alone, I have felt too wired and/or wilted to even think about attempting any of these things.*
Over the past several weeks, I've been taking the baby to the babysitter's on Thursdays, when I don't work, so that I can have a day to myself to get things done. (Note to new/prospective parents: after your baby is born, you will begin to feel smug about how very much you can get done when you are home with the baby. I absolutely guarantee you that this house of straw will fall down on your head around eight or nine months, when you can suddenly get nothing done when you are home with the baby. It's still amazing and wonderful and fun, but what with the fewer naps and the mobility, YOU WILL GET NOTHING DONE. I'm not trying to stress you out or anything, but there we have it. ) These Thursdays, while mostly a brilliant thing, are also a source of anxiety for me. The anxiety happens for several reasons:
- When I send the baby to the babysitter on a day that I'm not working, I'm spending money but not earning any.
- This extra-cost factor makes me feel like I have to use the time really really well and be really really productive, which, to no one's surprise, I often fail to do.
- I feel guilty sending the baby away on a day that I am not actually going to work. I have discussed this with my mom friend HA, and we cannot help but come back to the same feeling: it's one thing to be away from your baby and spend money on childcare when you are doing something that you MUST do, like work; it's another thing altogether when you are doing something that you WANT to do, something that might not result in the validation of an immediate paycheck. The trick, of course, is to take your own work and your own self seriously, seriously enough that the people around you take it seriously too. This is really hard to do, though, so you simply slink around feeling guilty about doing what you want to do, and feeling angry that no one is offering you any validation, even though the reason that no one is offering validation is that you are not demonstrating any conviction yourself. Ugh.
- It's a choice, not a routine. Every week, the babysitter asks, "Will he be coming on Thursday, too?" And every week, I must either say "Yes" and feel guilty or "No" and secretly wish the answer were yes. The solution here would be to make it routine - just decide that the baby will go to the babysitter every Thursday. But this is a hard decision to make, as it requires, as noted above, that I pull together the conviction that it's OK to send the baby away, even when the immediate exigencies of a 9-to-5 don't demand it, OK to spend money on "extra" babysitting, OK to treat my writing and my fledgling doula-associated work and the household as though they deserve the same time and consideration as a 9-to-5. Just like no one is going to come around with a magic wand and say, "You are talented!", no one is going to just show up one day and say, "You know, we all take your work so seriously. Why don't you devote an extra day every single week to it? Don't feel guilty about sending your baby away or spending extra money. It's worth it! And after all, your writing and doula work will be bringing in plenty of money soon enough!" That sort of pre-emptive validation is just not going to happen. I just have to do what I want and act like it's normal, but that's really hard, OK? It doesn't seem hard to you? Well, then, you try it, OK? You just FUCKING TRY IT AND YOU'LL SEE. (Sorry about that. Just slipped out.)
In any case, this post-holiday week has seen me feeling particularly ambivalent about whether I should send the baby to the babysitter on Thursday. My thinking was wobbling along as follows: On the one hand, after all the holiday brouhaha, it would be nice to get a good, solid chunk of writing time. On the other hand, I might just waste the day and feel really guilty. Also, the baby didn't spend much time at the babysitter's over the holiday, so maybe it would be mean to dunk him back in right away with a four-day stint. Also, we have a doctor's appointment Thursday morning, so I would have to drop him off after the appointment, which would only give me half the day anyway. But then again, DEAR GOD I WANT TO LIE DOWN AND READ A BOOK. But then again, my husband has to work all week and he doesn't complain about not getting one full day just to lie down and read a book, so why should I? But then again, he's not the one who nurses the baby overnight. Or who's using up immense stores of energy to make all that milk in the first place. But, hold on, remember, I won't just be lying down and reading a book all day - even if I wanted to, my anxiety combined with my short attention span would most likely not let me, and I'd probably get a sizable chunk of something done, even if it were just housework and not writing or working on my DONA certification or whatever. But fuck it, what if I were just lying down and reading a book? Don't I deserve it? JEEZ. (Remember, dear reader, that all of the above mental gymnastics were performed just to decide if I should send the baby to the babysitter for an extra half day this week. You see how crazy I am? DO YOU SEE?)
All of this agonizing, though, was for naught. My poor sick baby in my arms, I saw right away that it was out of the question to send him to the babysitter on Thursday - he needed to stay home with me and get better. It was an amazing relief to have the decision made for me, and an amazing relief to be pulled up out of all of my circular, anxious pro-ing and con-ing with the reminder that I am a mom, and my baby needs me, and that is really what all of this is about.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not glad that my baby is sick, and I'm not implying that his sickness was somehow a punishment for me not wanting to spend time with him, and I'm not implying that I've been taught my lesson and will no longer use Thursdays for my own work. None of these things are true. I'm sad that the baby is sick, and I don't believe the universe arranges itself to punish us or teach us lessons, and I will continue to use Thursdays for my own work - in fact, writing this posting has - almost - convinced me to make it a weekly routine. I just mean that it feels good to be reminded that I want to spend time with my baby, and that being a mom is the foundation of my life, not a distraction from it.
*I'm talking, I know, like this has been going on for a century. But if you think carefully about what I'm saying here, you'll realize that I'm only talking about this week - the past four or five days. This is what it's like when you have a baby. Every little phase, either on your part or on the baby's, every little bump in the road, seems like it has lasted and is going to last FOREVER. For example, when the baby was a couple of months old, he went through a phase in which he was awake between midnight and 3AM EVERY NIGHT. I thought I was going to die of sleep-deprivation and anger-at-my-husband-for-not-also-being-awake, and I was frantically consulting every baby book I had and scouring the internet trying to figure out WHAT COULD BE WRONG WITH MY BABY. Looking back, I realize that this phase lasted less than a week, after which things went back to normal, inasmuch as "normal" even exists in a house with a newborn in it. At the time, though, it felt like eons, and it felt like my baby would never be normal, ever, ever again. I think, after all is said and done, that the hardest part of being a new parent is continuing to maintain proper perspective, continuing to be able to separate the serious from the insignificant, the short from the long, the extraordinary from the normal.