My Oldest was born in early May and we had summer together before I went back to work that fall, teaching high schoolers how to write. I’d been vetting daycares since hitting my second trimester and felt very comfortable sending him to daycare, inasmuch as a new mom is ever comfortable letting her baby leave her side.
The plan was to fully immerse myself in mothering from May until August 28th when I’d report for duty at work. Oldest and I “practiced” being apart for a few days the week before so it was all to be easy-peasy by the time the real deal rolled around.
Let the snickering begin by all the folks who’ve parented and worked full time. I was as much of an emotional wreck as you can imagine.
Anyhoodle, I dutifully woke up at 4:30 every morning so I could pump breast milk for him. Then I’d get myself and him ready for the day. One last nursing session and we’d head out to greet the world.
I looked like a pack mule. A baby in a baby carrier, Medela breast pump, lunch bag, and tote bag filled with students’ essays. My days fell into a predictable pattern. The bags would fall off my shoulder and bang into my leg within three feet of the car. Oldest would begin crying before I backed out of the driveway. And I drove those essays back and forth to my home many times before I got them graded.
If you know much about either breastfeeding or teaching you know that there is this wee sticking point in all my fine tuned planning. Time.
Even though I nursed Oldest as much as I could in the hours he was with me, I spent many, many hours away from him and I only had one lunch break and one prep period in which to pump.
By December, it was becoming apparent that I wouldn’t nurse him until his first birthday which was another one of my well-crafted plans.
My last day nursing him is as clear a memory today as when it happened nearly 14 years ago.
He latched on and rubbed the hem of my shirt, just like always. And then he spit out my nipple and let what milk was in his mouth dribble down his chin. He refused to nurse ever again.
It was a Saturday and the sky looked like snow might be headed our way. The lamp in his room was on, making the fish that Mister Soandso and I had stamped around the perimeter look bright and cheery. My tears pooled on the caramel-colored hair on his head, shimmering there until gravity took hold and they rolled off and disappeared.
And that moment I knew anyone could mother my son.
I no longer had absolute value to him.
Now, obviously that moment had lots of emotions wrapped up in it and I was dealing with undiagnosed postpartum depression as well. Truthfully, no one could have been his mother in the same way that I was or am. But I wasn’t fully wrong either. It isn’t producing breast milk for a child that makes a person a mother and I knew that if something were to remove me from his reality, I could be replaced. My value had its limits.
That is a reality I still wrestle with all these years later. Not wrestle in the way of, “oh dear, someone else is just as able to make Top Ramen for Oldest as I am.” But wrestle in the way of what is our value? And how do we know our self-assessment of value is valid?
I am a special snowflake in that I was raised in a home that withheld approval and affection, and then entered professions where approval is a capricious thing indeed. Back when I was that harried teacher packing breast pumps and essays, there was no way of assessing my real value as a teacher. As someone in youth ministry, there is no way of assessing my true value as a youth minister.
So what I will always be searching for, I cannot find in a professional realm. And the personal realm is also tricky.
Take the parenting gig. If we do our job well, they eventually leave us and hopefully spend more time looking forward than behind as they jump from the nest. But it’s hard to know if we did a good job, and heaven knows we could probably have done better, at least in certain situations. I remember watching Titanic when it came out in 1997. While all the weeping girls around us were going gaga over Jack’s tearful demands that Rose stay on the raft, I focused on Jack thinking only about this girl he had just met but was so captivated by…I thought “he’s not thinking of his mother at all.” Now, obviously I was projecting a bit there. It was cinematically and logically ok that Jack be thinking of this young woman rather than his mother. But three years later as I rocked my own son to sleep night after night, I wondered about when and who would captivate him so much that in his last moments, he would think of that person and not me. I knew then what I live today — I have value with my children but it is evolving into a very different thing than it once was. And as heart-wrenching it is to no longer have the power to make everything all right with a hug and kiss, it is good and right to watch my children get and apply their own bandaids these days.
Growing up means a series of reinventing one’s self. Trying to find meaning in the everyday and find ways of adding value to the landscape. And perhaps it’s because I’m now on the downhill side of my 40s that I find myself really wondering what my value is anymore.
Its easy to tally up all the failings and shortcomings. That’s a sort of math I excel at. But I’m not sure I know how to figure my value. This isn’t some problem 9th grade algebra with Mister Pierce could have prepared me for. Is there a foil method for figuring out my value as a person? Wife? Mother? Employee? Writer? All the other hats I wear such as recycling sorter, parallel parker, or painter without taping first? Do I still have value and if so, how much?
I know this is an impossible task, this pondering of what my value is.
But it is also my reality, this pondering of what my value is to myself and to others — especially the people whose opinion matters most to me. Most especially my children who don’t count on me for their actual existence anymore but whose bodies I still re-cover with fallen blankets and foreheads I still kiss in the darkness of night.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll make brownies or chocolate chip banana muffins so that they at least value my baked good offerings. Last night’s dinner didn’t go over so well, so I must make amends.