It is December 31, 2001, and I am four months pregnant with my first child. We’re having a quiet a lobster tail dinner at Palette’s, my mom and stepdad’s art-themed restaurant in Chicago. We have the best seat in the house, with a view of the frescoed ceiling and wrought iron statue of Icarus, the mythological figure who flew too close to the sun with wings of wax. This is the last New Year’s Eve we will spend here; like Icarus, Heinz had a plan for the space that was too ambitious. Somebody will take over the lease and it will become just another Italian restaurant.
“So, what do you plan to do after the baby is born?” Heinz casually asks. He’s on his third glass of champagne; I’m saving my one for the stroke of midnight.
“Hire a nanny, and go back to work.” At 35, I’ve finally found something that feels right and have every intention of finding another job as a staff writer on a TV show. Babies sleep most of the time anyway. I’ll hire a nanny to do the boring work of watching the baby while I’m busy crafting pithy plot lines and crisp dialogue. It’s not like I’m going to miss much. Babies don’t really get interesting until they can walk and talk, right?
My mom smiles. “Good for you.”
“Hmm,” Heinz says. Then he gets that look on his face. Having had many heated debates with him over the years, I know this is the beginning of trouble. Still, I take the bait.
“What?” I say.
“Nothing, I’m just listening.”
“You obviously have an opinion, so why don’t you come out and say it?”
That’s when he gives me some version of how he knows me better than I know myself. How going back to work and leaving the baby with some nanny will never work for me. My mom defends my decision; she was a working mother and look how great I turned out. My husband wisely stays silent. By then I’m so worked up I am on the brink of tears.
“I’m just being the Devil’s advocate…” he says.
“That’s enough,” my mom snaps.
“Five, four, three, two, one. Happy New Year!” Just like that, it is 2002, the year that I will become a mother.
As my belly grows, I develop a detailed plan for how I am going to get the baby out. Egged on by a friend I meet in a prenatal yoga class, I become obsessed with natural childbirth. I want no medical interventions – no C-section, no episiotomy, and absolutely NO DRUGS. I could probably put a wee bit more thought into what I am going to do with this baby after it is born. There are vague notions of private school like the one I attended in Chicago. And pre-school. Every kid goes to preschool nowadays. The birth itself, though, I have that totally covered.
Except, not really. I do not plan for a 36-hour labor, a nearly 10-pound baby, or the fact that I will fall madly in love with this child from the first moment I hold him in my arms. I have no way of knowing that the very act of creating another human being will bring all the deficiencies of my childhood bubbling to the surface. The alcoholic nanny who cleaned out our liquor cabinet and left a pile of vomit in the front hall closet; the community college student who got pregnant; the barely literate woman who stole half of my mom’s clothing; and the nicest one of all, a sweet Vietnamese girl who was deported. Enabled by my husband and his upbringing of benign neglect, my raison d’etre becomes the creation of a Leave It to Beaver life, updated for a modern audience.
There are plenty of parents with partners who earn enough so that they don’t have to work, but few who forego any help at all. For the first three years of my son’s life, I am that rare bird. I cannot grasp the concept of the nanny-housekeeper; a caretaker who spends hours each day with my child during his formative years should be held to a higher standard than a person tasked with scrubbing the toilets. There is a beloved nanny culture among the affluent; my inability to buy into that puts me in the vast minority. I get used to being the only mom at the park, surrounded by nannies who are often more focused on chatting with each other than the toddlers in their charge. I see nannies taking kids to birthday parties, and waiting in the doctor’s office while the kids get vaccinations. I feel superior to these kids’ working moms until I find myself at an adult dinner and someone asks the inevitable question: “What do you do?”
The focus on career is such an American thing. My stepfather, the same one who knew me well enough to know that my hire-a-nanny-and-go-straight-back-to-work plan was never going to fly, is from Germany. He thinks that question is just plain rude and refuses to answer it (he’s a former chef and hotel executive, nothing to scoff at). There’s also the dreaded, “Do you work?” Man I hate those words. Just writing them makes my shoulders rise up to my ears, and heat radiate through my body. The short answer is, yes, I do work. And I approach motherhood with the same intensity, creativity, and thoughtfulness that I have exhibited in every other career I’ve ever had. Among my responsibilities: reading to my son (with voices) several times each day. Taking him to concerts with kid performers like Justin Roberts at McCabe’s Guitar Shop. Drawing, painting, and carving pumpkins together. Playing with Legos. Baking cookies and pies and making costumes from scratch. And lunch. I do not go to Soul Cycle, followed by lunch at Neiman-Marcus while my son stays home and eats chicken fingers. We go out for nice meals together. He develops a taste for gruyere cheese and learns how to behave in polite company.
If I had to pay someone to replace me, it would cost a minimum of $25 per hour for 12 hours each day, five days per week. But that’s the mathematical reason, when the real one is emotional. Nobody can do what I do as well as I can, because I’ve got skin in the game.
I am pregnant again, and exhausted. Mary Poppins is unavailable, so I settle on a day care with young college students studying early childhood development. For a few hours each week I run errands without stopping to change diapers. He likes being around other kids and can’t wait till his baby brother is old enough to play. Boy number two emerges, charming and brilliant, so I am forced to fall in love with him as well. I am overwhelmed by these two gifts I have been given, that are exactly what I wanted but nothing like I imagined. So why am I sad? I’ve thrown myself so deeply into motherhood that I’ve lost the other parts of my identity. I feel terribly guilty about cheating on the boys with time for myself, but I also think I might die if I don’t start writing again. So I sign up for a novel writing class at UCLA to give myself some deadlines. And I hire a nanny recommended by my close friend from college. Ana is good with the baby and he seems to like her, but I never do. Early on, I catch her in a lie and decide not to fire her because I am afraid to trust his care to a total stranger. (Refer to the above description of my own childhood caretakers). By the time the big one is in private school and the little one is four, he complains that Ana does not read stories as well as I do. A year later, he complains because she doesn’t read stories as well as he does. Eventually we work in a few young women as babysitters. But going out is never as much fun for me as dinners in the den during Family Movie Night.
Today that first baby who captured my heart is in 9th grade. The second one is in his last year of elementary school. They are two very different but equally self-possessed, outrageously creative boys who perform well academically. They are athletic but not overly sporty, have sophisticated culinary tastes, and wicked senses of humor. Thanks to all those Family Movie Nights, they also have an unusual grasp of 70s and 80s pop culture. Can I take credit for the way they’ve turned out? Yes. Is it all because I leaned in to motherhood instead of my writing? Another favorite expression of my German stepdad: other parents have smart children, too. And some of those other children come from mothers who work full time and leave the bulk of parenting to outside help. If I were the Flash, I could run back and create an alternate timeline, one where I’m a television staff writer who squeezes in as much quality time as I can with my boys on weekends and holidays. Am I as conflicted by that choice as I have been over the years with this one? And what difference do all the insignificant moments make to a child, anyway? It’s impossible to say. I only know what they mean to me, and that is everything.