It’s one of my clearest memories from early motherhood: I’m driving home after running errands, with my 6-week-old son in the backseat. The drizzle taps relentlessly, endlessly on the windshield. Because I’ve miscalculated everything—feedings, diaper changes, stroller assembly and disassembly—we are behind schedule and in rush-hour traffic. From behind me comes the hiccuping cries of a newborn who wants out of this situation right now.
My chest tightens. I feel a migraine nibble at my eye sockets. He’s going to scream at any moment. I can’t believe this is my life. Where did my carefree days go? I pass a drive-thru Starbucks that is calling my name, but no latte for me. I hear a whimper. A wail. Oh my goodness, thar he blows …
And that’s when it hits me: 18 years. I have entered the prison of motherhood and it will be, at minimum, 18 years until this backseat jailor sets me free. A wave of terror grips me, and I burst into tears.
Cut to 14 years later. The baby is now a teenager, and two younger siblings have followed. My children no longer stand between me and my life. They are part of my life. I barely recognize that panicked new mom—but I remember her, and I am struck by how different she was than the newest mother I know, my friend, Orley.
Motherhood came so quickly to me that it practically caught me unawares. But Orley has waited for this many years. Back when we met in college, in 1989, I remember her telling me she wanted only to marry, stay home and have six kids. Six kids! I said. Yes, she said, she loved children.
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But while I met my husband at 25, married him at 27 and started having babies at 31, Orley became a schoolteacher and went out on dates. One date after another after another, always with a positive attitude, always sure that this year, she would meet “the one.” In the meantime, she pursued a master’s degree in education and studied for a Ph.D. She became a godmother and surrogate aunt to my children and those of her many, other friends with kids. And she watched, and she listened.
My children no longer stand between me and my life. They are part of my life.
Then one day, in the summer of 2010, she went out on a hike with friends and met Ed. A year later they were married, and she gave birth to their first, and probably only, child, Maxine, this past December.
Since I first catapulted into parenthood, I’ve seen so many people become first-time mothers and fathers. I find it amusing to listen to their pre-partum plans of how they will run their perfect house and raise their perfect child. You have no idea, I find myself thinking.
But the only thing I remember Orley saying throughout her pregnancy is that she knew having a baby would not be easy, that she was prepared for sleepless nights and a baby prone to crying jags. She had, she said, no illusions. I found myself concerned that she’d heard so much about the downside of parenthood that she wasn’t prepared to experience the joy.
I needn’t have worried.
I went to visit her and Ed in the hospital a couple days after Maxine was born. The baby started to fuss, then cry in Orley’s arms. Orley tried to nurse her—nope. They checked her diaper—dry. She’d just woken up from a nap. What was it?
I figured I’d see that frantic look in Orley’s eyes, the one I’ve seen on countless new mothers’ faces at moments like this. But she just smiled and turned to me. “Doesn’t she have the most beautiful cry?” she said. “I think her cry is the most beautiful of any baby’s in the hospital.”
All those things I wish I could tell my younger self—that babies do grow up, but they don’t grow small again; that you can have a career again, and you can have quiet time again, but you can only be a new mother once. All those things, I see now, Orley learned from watching all of us.
Waiting, especially waiting for a very long time, is never fun. But it must be true what they say: Good things—like blissed-out motherhood—come to those who wait.
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