I’ve been thinking a lot about this intersection: being home with my two daughters right now and the fact that for the first time in the history of this country a woman may become its president. H. was born in Chile, a country that is hardly free of misogyny, but which has elected a female leader—twice. Here in the U.S., I am hopeful that the year of V.’s birth will be the year we do the same. She has the potential to grow up, in the words of Michelle Obama, taking it for granted.
In Chile, women are also given six months of paid maternity leave, far exceeding the U.S.’s standards. If I were working full-time here, I would already have handed my four-month-old baby over to someone else for 40 hours a week, before she rolled over or started to laugh. I have the utmost respect for the mothers who do this, many of them my friends, and I think it should be acknowledged that they often do so because they must—in order to keep their jobs, their insurance. Because this is the value system as it stands.
I also have the utmost respect for the other mothers staying home right now. As a mother, I am choosing to do so, though there is an inherent contradiction. We do not stay home. We go to music and art classes. We walk the dog and watch the caterpillars creep across the sidewalk. I run all the errands and go to all the appointments with kids in tow. When we are home, we draw and sing and read and read and read. H. plays her guitar and says “please sing with me” one week and “please don’t sing, Mama,” the next. V. begins to roll and find her toes and squeal in such quick succession. I see it all as it happens.
It can take all I have to keep these two ladies happy and safe. There are eruptions of opinion and tears and wants, from all of us some days. When it quiets down, I might see that I’m in yoga pants at 4 p.m. on a Thursday though I haven’t done yoga properly since 2011. Since before I was ever pregnant, before everything I wrote was about him, before everything that I do is for his sisters, his legacy. His quiet heart nevertheless beats in the background of my days spent putting trains together with H. and nursing V., whose coos are the sweetest sound. Her grip on my finger is now intentional and strong, and nothing has ever made me feel as grounded. My girls are sisters. They look at each other already in a way I, as an only child, have never looked at anyone on this earth. That, on a daily basis, is remarkable.
This active motherhood is ideal. It’s all I ever wanted, in an ethereal sense before loss, and in a desperate sense after. It doesn’t come without sacrifice because this is unpaid work, this rearing of the future. I must assign its value within a culture that places a much higher premium on monetary returns. Instead, it’s measured in the songs H. sings, the towers she stacks, the meals we share, the best friend down the street we explore with nearly every day. It’s measured in the breast milk adding rolls to V.’s thighs and the hours she sleeps across my lap. She stirs, sees me, smiles, and settles back down. Where else, really, do I need to be?
The fact that it’s also good for me and a heart once shattered has to count, too. This time mends that part of me. For much of it, I don’t think I physically could have left, and I honor the privileges and the sacrifices that allow this healing. I have needed the constancy as much as H. has. By now, when I am exhausted and pulled in all directions with V. here too, it means I can almost feel like any other tired, active mom. It also means the 100th time we put the puzzle together is still a call to be present. Because for all the monotony of being home with a toddler and a baby, there is so much that will prove ephemeral about it. The fireflies have been out this summer, and this motherhood is a bit like their glow—so bright I think I’ll never forget the adorable way that, for example, H. re-enacts her memories:
“Stuck in the rain together, Mama!”
Pure glee under a pink paper umbrella in H.’s room around noon on a Tuesday.
But the very next day, I want to hear her say it again, just to be sure the tenor of her two-and-a-half-year-old voice rings eternal. Of course, it can’t. It’s part of everything that keeps moving. One day she will want all the toys on top of her and the next day she won’t. The snuggles that have ended our day her entire life are getting shorter. She has dreams to get to, adventures to wake up and chase.
Motherhood is encompassing, no matter how we mother. Whether we pursue the juggle at home or while we work outside the home. Both add value to our children’s lives. And one day, before too long, I will swap one value for the other. Until then, I do my best to raise them and to write. To let other mothers express it perfectly, it feels like this and this. What Rachel Kessler writes in the latter, is so, so true:
“It turns out that writing a thoughtful, intellectually stimulating essay with an alive, awake baby is like doing your taxes while Prince licks his guitar right behind you. Also, it is your maternal duty to save Prince from being electrocuted.”
I edited the other day while V. slept. But soon enough H. was emptying my desk drawers and announcing that she needed my chair—the one I was sitting on. As I looked around at the scattering of pens and notepads, I realized she was playing office, as I did so many times around my mother as she worked throughout my childhood. That is where I first edited in fact… circling the words I knew and underlining the really big ones I didn’t in the testimony she transcribed each night. I remember the sound the paper made, almost like a zipper, when she folded and tore the perforated borders of those 1980s print-outs. She discarded the scraps into a basket under her desk, their nightly volume measuring just how hard she worked, at great value and at great cost. My mom told me recently she is experiencing with H. some of the things she missed with me in order to support us. I thought about what Chelsea Clinton said in her Democratic Convention speech about the daily, dated letters her mom left for her when she traveled and how much she valued them. Value is in the sacrifice. Either way.
H. is reading to herself now, this magnificent toddler of mine. I catch her flipping the pages and saying most of the words exactly as they appear on the page. Reading books by the dozen every day is part of my work right now. I may not be paid for it, but it is paying off. And I will allow that to feel right. Now, imagine, as Judith Shulevitz recently posited in The New York Times:
“What if the world was set up in such a way that we could really believe — not just pretend to — that having spent a period of time concentrating on raising children at the expense of future earnings would bring us respect? And what if that could be as true for men as it is for women?”
Ryan, I know, would love that.
What I’m not sure any of us parents know how to do is explain this world as it is right now; we are leaving it to them after all. While social atrocities are anything but new to our time, they seem a particularly out of control, frequent, and hopeless bombardment. I don’t have a single answer besides to continue to love. So I turn back to these creatures, our entwined world quite small right now, but enormously important in terms of what is growing. I listen to a daughter introduce her mother as the future leader of our country, and I feel hopeful that love will continue to win.