I’m awake again. My husband is saying to the squirming baby between us: “come on buddy, you’ve been nursing all morning.” It’s true, I realize, remembering like a forgotten dream the last several hours of half-awake contortions, baby talk, and soggy nipples. My entire body feels sucked dry this morning, like every morning, despite the many quart jars of water I down all day. My son is spitting out the pacifier and breathily mouthing whatever he can put his face on: my cheek, my knuckle, my shoulder, my clothed chest, my hip when I sit up in bed.
When I wake for the fourth or fifth time, my husband is dressed and about to leave for work. He is handsome in a button down shirt, grey hair brushed back from his face. I think: they don’t deserve him. I am greedy, and I want him here with us. Someone has to make money though. Today, I am grateful that it’s not me.
My baby is twelve weeks old today.
Twelve small weeks ago we met this boy face to face, after over a year of trying, over forty one weeks of waiting, a full day and night of labor, and a morning of pushing. If I had kept my job or found a new one after we moved, I would be going back to work now. Maybe even sooner. I remember my former boss in the coffee shop when I told her I was pregnant: “I’d really like you back by June…”
Twelve tiny bundles of seven short days each, and I’m supposed to leave already? According to the United States federal government, twelve is the magic number. Employers are required to grant their full time employees who have worked for over a year twelve big weeks of unpaid leave for qualifying medical or family events. Your position is protected, and if your employer provides health insurance your coverage is uninterrupted. If you accrue paid vacation or sick time, it can be used, but otherwise the leave is unpaid. Only three states in the US offer a paid leave, and very small businesses (the threshold varies by state) are not required by law to offer any leave at all. The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world not to offer any paid parental leave.
Twelve weeks. At moments he seems huge, but he is so much still a tiny baby. When he kicks his legs out straight during the early morning diaper change, refusing to be bundled back into his footie pajamas, I picture those tiny feet flexing in his ultrasound. I can still feel those feet pressing into my ribs, or more often into the side of my belly during those late transverse weeks. Every single day, more than once, I stare at him in absolute wonder that I grew this person inside of my body and then did the work to bring him out. And now here he is. I’m not over it.
At twelve weeks I am barely beginning to settle into a rhythm that seems sustainable. It’s demanding, but it’s sustainable. A natural flow has emerged from the happy, sleepy chaos of the first few (many) weeks. He goes to sleep in his crib between eight and nine PM. He wakes a few times but generally sleeps until somewhere between the hours of one and five in the morning, at which point one of us changes his diaper and brings him into bed. The milk marathon commences. We rotate through nurse, pacifier, sleep, fuss, pacifier, nurse, sleep — again and again, until he stops falling asleep, blows out of his diaper, or I’m so exhausted by trying to half-sleep while being groped and clawed that getting out of bed is worth it. And now I’m supposed to get dressed in not-yoga-pants, do something about my hair, and go pretend to care about the demands of people outside of this bubble.
Women do it. A lot of women do it. I can’t even fathom how single mothers do it, and I will be grateful forever that I have an incredibly hard working partner who supports us. I’ve heard and read countless stories of women going back to work at four weeks, at three days after delivery, because they can’t afford to stay home longer. As if caring for a perfectly helpless little creature while recovering physically and emotionally from birth is some kind of luxury vacation.
Increasingly, I hear friends running the numbers and realizing it is more cost effective for one partner to stay home than for both to work and pay for childcare. Child Care Aware of Washington provides average childcare costs by region: in Pierce County, where I live, the average day care cost for an infant under eleven months old in April 2015 was close to $900 per month. In nearby Seattle, the average was nearly $1500. Add in the cost of commuting, professional shoes and wardrobe, lunches out, formula or pumping supplies… will the day care cloth diaper my child? If not, I’m buying disposable diapers as well, which over time cost more than you might think. I cringe when I remember how often we paid for take out dinner after we both had long days at work. We save hundreds of dollars every month now because I have time to shop and cook more efficiently. The expenses go on and on, and don’t account for the unaccountable: the bonding, the emotional connection, the joy of simply being there for all the little moments.
I’m not saying it’s for everyone. Having done this for a short while now, I feel thoroughly amazed by the sheer volume of work every mother does, whether in or out of the home. I feel more committed than ever to honoring the right of every woman to make the choice that is best for her and her family. I’m so humbled when I think of my mother, staying home to homeschool my sisters and me. I’m so impressed by my friend who leaves her babies every morning to teach math and science to highschoolers. I love that my journalist friend freelances from home while she hangs out with her ten month old, and I’m in awe at her focus.
I don’t know how long I’ll stay home. Longer than twelve weeks. At least through the summer. After that, it’s hard to say. I certainly see the appeal of leaving the house to go to work. I still feel confused about my identity as someone who doesn’t work outside of the home. I still hear myself scramble when people ask how long I’m going to stay home: how I used to have this really awesome, demanding job, but then we moved away, and with the crazy timing it just didn’t make sense for me to get a job before the baby came — as if moving out of state is the only legitimate reason for an educated woman to stay home to care for her child.
These days I am working a little from home, doing data entry for my midwife. I put in a few hours per week, spread out over many naps, and I bring home a tiny little paycheck. I’m embarrassed by how much better it makes me feel. To be able to answer the frequent question of when I’m going back to work with “actually, I’ve been working!” As if all those diapers, nursing on demand, constant comforting, and almost equally constant laundry are not real work. I make dinner and keep my house medium clean, too. I devalue the “women’s work” of child raising and house keeping just like everyone else. I’m still working on it.
Maybe I’ll manage to get a few more hours done per week in the future. Maybe I’ll feel ready to work a few days outside of the home when he’s a little older. Maybe five days a week. Maybe there will be another baby, and I’ll start the whole process over again. For now, I’m doing my best to soak up this time, which is so short. To fully appreciate it. To not feel silly for watching him sleep. And to pray he saves his big milestones for when his Papa is home to see them.