Monday, April 6, 2009


We spent an hour or so this morning visiting our next-door neighbor and her sweet new baby, Charlie.  Each of my girls got to take a turn holding him, and they were both breathtakingly still and gentle (and strangely proud) as they supported his tiny, wobbly body.  Charlie's big brother was romping all around, alternating between joyous rambunctiousness and wailing despair, much as Annie did when she was the newly-christened big sister; the house had been invaded by all those newborn-y things (teeny-tiny diapers, breastmilk storage bags, the bouncy seat); and my neighbor was, I suspect, both blissed out on newborn love and the most tired she's ever been.  

I was reminded of my own similar experience, now over two years ago, balancing the needs of a newborn with the demands of a toddler.  Back then, I was the household's attending surgeon:  my presence was required every single minute of every single day.  I was nursing exclusively; nobody could "fill in" for me and do the procedures I usually did.  There were no sick days, no vacation time.  No matter how tired that surgeon is, how weary of performing the same procedures over and over, she must show up every day and every night or those in her charge will not thrive.  

We're not in that phase, anymore.  Now, it's more like I'm the on-call ER physician.  She might get a day or two off, here and there, and there might be whole stretches of time during the shift when it's quiet and nobody needs her services.  But at any given moment, her pager will go off, and she must drop everything she's doing to attend to the emergency.  Other doctors can fill in for her, but her patients notice when she's gone, and they complain.  Sometimes lots of emergencies happen simultaneously and the ER physician has to perform triage, deciding which need gets first priority and which problems will be dealt with later.  

This phase is less physically exhausting (there's more sleep to go around, for sure) but more emotionally draining.  It's hard to start something (a piece of writing, a phone call, dinner) and give it my full attention, knowing that in all likelihood I'll be interrupted at least three times before I'm done.  It's less predictable, harder to quantify.  I recently finished the book The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer (and my book club will discuss it next week); here's a section I highlighted that I think describes this phase particularly well:

There was always so much to do:  There were lists and plans and schedules that were essential to a well-run household and that were still laughable, almost hysterically, tedious.  You, the brainy, restless female, were the one who had to keep your family life rolling forward like a tank.  You, of all people, were in charge of snacks.  Your hands tore apart the cellophane on six-packs of juice boxes, while your head cocked to hold a cordless phone into which you spoke the words "Maureen?  Hi, it's Mason Buckner's mom.  I'm calling to set up a playdate with Jared."  

You had to say "playdate" - that nonword that had been so easily welcomed into the lexicon - and you had to say it without irony.  Certainly, you could focus the thick, keen lens of your intellect on the greater world if you wanted . . . but you would have to do this on your own time, between plans.  You were the gatekeeper and nerve center and the pulsing, chugging heart of your family, the one whom everyone came to and needed things from.  You were the one who had to coax that unconscious child from his bed, day upon day.

After the girls held Charlie, I scooped him up and onto my left shoulder, paused to smell his small green pajama-clad wad of a body, thought about how, if Jemma had been a boy, we would have named him Charlie (after my dad).  And wondered (still, again) if this ER doc has it in her to go back to the surgery rotation one more time.

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