I had a flashback to my former life this morning at Hannafords. A hugely pregnant mom was wrangling her 2-year-old in the coveted, blue racing car cart (how I used to pray we would get that cart!), plying him with Goldfish while she finished her shop. Besides her trendy blonde bob and enviably kind, patient manner, I saw myself in this woman. Five years ago I too was hunkered deep in the Baby Cave, buying bulk diapers and navigating nap-time, anticipating a second round of newborn nursing and chronic sleep deprivation.
And today I was there shopping alone, in peace, enjoying my efficiency the way I’d enjoyed NPR in a quiet car en route to the store. I felt almost ashamed to pass the blonde mother on my way to the YoKids strawberry 4-packs. She looked reasonably well-rested and at ease with life, but still I wanted to tell her, “Look, it gets easier.”
I wanted to say, “More sleep is in your future.” I wanted to promise her, “One day you will tuck your children into their beds and they will sleep all night, for 11 or even 12 hours, and you will tiptoe, cautiously at first, into the wide world beyond the Baby Cave, where you’ll rediscover your identity, where you’ll get lost in a long book or dive into a creative project, where the father of your kids will transform from your weary comrade-in-arms (an ally in the ongoing battle against domestic entropy) into a hungry-eyed paramour.
All of you mothers of babies, I promise you— there is juice beyond the Baby Cave. Not a sippy cup of apple juice thrown on the floor, but your own inner juice, your vital essence, that sweet taste of selfhood which can get sucked dry in the exhausting early years of parenting. You know, of course, that I’m not condemning the Cave as a prison of suffering. The Cave is a milky, snuggly nest of love and some days I miss it with a fierce longing, a palpable ache to nurse a baby again, maybe a contented, rosy 4-month-old baby. How I long to be grounded by that warm 15-pound bundle!
But when I ask myself if I really want a third child, I realize I just want the chance to go back to when my girls were babies, knowing everything I know now.
Because there is this slow, juicy emergence from the Cave—a little like the proverbial butterfly coming out of her chrysalis, unpacking her cramped, dusty wings. Once she spreads them, the universe responds. Recently I’ve found myself in a generative cycle of abundance and opportunity. Opportunity for date nights, for travel, for hot tub parties with fun girlfriends, for unexpected doors opening in my work life. The biggest door involves leaving my family for a week this May, to attend a writing residency at the Vermont Studio Center. A whole week away! Two years ago, this would have felt impossible, been impossible. Now it is momentous but doable, with the rock-steady help of my man— who will hold down the fort in my absence.
Imagine. There was a time not long ago when I couldn’t even go to the bathroom alone, when I sat on the toilet nursing a baby and simultaneously reading Bunny Party to a cranky toddler. Now I’m planning what poetry books and sundresses to pack when I go away, and it feels unreal.
Take a few steps outside the Baby Cave and there is music—adult music, not just interminable Raffi singing “Baby Beluga” on repeat. There’s funk and punk and soul and reggae and sassy pop-tart Katy Perry going on and on about the hotness of “California Gurls” until I want to smack her or rewrite the lyrics myself to suit my current state of mind:
“Brattleboro Gurls, we’re unforgettable
Dansko clogs with parkas on top
Fleece and wool, ya know we’re all-natural
Oh-oh, ah-oh-ah, Oh-oh-ah-oh-ah…”
The mother I was in the Cave never would have sang this little song. I don’t think she had much fun, beyond the fun of playing bunnies and stacking blocks. Perhaps she was too dang tired. In contrast, last weekend, home alone without my man, I put the kids to bed and fizzed around the house like a live wire. A glass of wine… Prince on the stereo. Where did all this energy come from?
I shimmied into a pair of black velvet, zip-up tap pants and blasted “Little Red Corvette” in the yoga studio, checking my reflection in the darkened window glass. Who was that woman tossing her hair with fierce abandon? Some disassociation occurred between the mom who packs the lunches and drives the kids around and tries to make healthy dinners with cut-up carrot and celery sticks—who loves her children so much, sometimes there’s not a speck of her left— and this other wild woman vamping it up in velvet shorts, this creature who emerged like a goddess from the Cave.
She turns heads on the street, she meets strangers’ eyes, she walks out under the full moon, she climbs trees in the silver light. Burning sage in the March bonfire, she makes offerings to Venus and Jupiter, blazing together in the Western sky. Then she stays up writing past midnight, no longer at the mercy of her life.