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Are You My Mother?

Having a baby without money for childcare meant losing touch with my professional self

Illustration: Michelle Kondrich

I learned I was pregnant with my daughter twice. The first time was a few days after my first book came out. I went out onto our stoop with a cigarette and a glass of white wine and looked up at the full autumn moon. But if it’s full, I thought after a minute, I should have already…

I prefer this story, the one about the moon. Because the second time I learned I was pregnant with her — after I went back in to my husband, and he told me that my period was only 24 hours late, and I waited a day or two and eventually bought the actual pregnancy test from the drugstore, as you do — I stood in our living room, looking at a pee-splattered hunk of plastic, and yelled, “Ohhhhh, shit.

I was thinking, I guess, of the wine and cigarettes, which were now over. I was also thinking of the book and whether there would be other books; I was thinking of who would watch the baby while I was writing and whether I could pay them. I was pretty sure I could not. My husband held my hand and gave me a pep talk. We had once lived in New York, he reminded me, on a combined income of $30,000 a year. He now had a comfortable middle-class job, even if most of the money did go to student loan payments. I had gone from being a WordPress blogger to published author. Both of us had done the impossible. Both of us knew how to make a life out of scraps and loose ends. We could do this!

My husband was so sure we could do this that he did not, in fact, Google “average cost of daycare New York City.” If you do, you will learn that daycare for an infant in New York City averages $1,800 a month—$400 more than our rent. There was one local daycare we could uncomfortably afford; it had a yearlong wait list, and the staff exclusively spoke French. The owner politely conveyed that she would prefer to reserve the spot for a child with French-speaking parents. For one frantic moment, I considered scamming her — I’ll just fake the accent! She’ll never know! — before realizing she would, of course, know, because she was French, and we’d already been speaking for several minutes.

A mother transitions from being a person — a relatively autonomous being whose time and money belong to her alone — to a life-support system for someone else.

Something had to give. I was the one who “worked from home,” who had “flexible hours”; I was the one whose milk the baby woke up crying for. “Something” had to be me. I tried writing during her naps; this was easy when they were three hours long, harder when they dropped to two hours, and impossible when they dropped to one. I got a babysitter for eight hours a week, and then for 12, and left the baby with her father on weekend afternoons. Still: Flexible hours, for a writer, don’t mean that you work whenever you want to. They mean you work whenever someone else wants you to; you maintain a permanent state of availability, always ready to drop everything whenever news breaks or an editor emails wanting a quick 500 words.

Having a baby is also about availability. It’s about stopping work at 10 p.m. because you know you will have to get up at 2:30 a.m., and 4:30, and 6. It’s about leaving the email unfinished or closing a book mid-paragraph when the nap ends and you hear her grumbling in her crib. It’s about following the brain-development guidelines that mean you not only couldn’t watch TV news when the baby was awake, but you also couldn’t listen to podcasts or talk radio or anything noninteractive with words in it. It was about learning that if you so much as scrolled Twitter on your phone, she would find something dangerous to wedge into her mouth: the cap from a plastic water bottle, a nickel, or, in one barely averted incident that still haunts me, a dead waterbug. It was about not looking away.

Maybe it’s always this way. A mother transitions from being a person — a relatively autonomous being whose time and money belong to her alone — to a life-support system for someone else. Only women with tremendous resources are able to maintain the fiction of an unchanged life, and they do it only by offloading all the work and boredom onto other women. I felt the loss. My public self, my career, or relevance, or basic ability to communicate were constantly on the verge of drifting away, and I had no assurance I could get them back.

So we drifted off into motherhood, the baby and I.

“I have given up my membership of the world I used to live in,” writes Rachel Cusk in A Life’s Work. “When we go for a walk I see young women in the street, beautiful and careless, and a pang of mourning for some oblique, lost self makes my heart clench. I look down at my daughter sleeping in her push-chair, the dark fringe of her lashes forming arcs on her pale skin, and a contrary wind of love gusts over me; and for some time this is how I am, careering around like a crazy, febrile gauge trying to find north.”

So we drifted off into motherhood, the baby and I. Everything I did was massively important, and none of it was relevant to anyone but her. I created a nap routine. I read her at least two books every day. I made up lullabies with her name in them, one to the tune of “You Are My Sunshine” and one to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” (I’m not good at melodies.) The constant feedback loop of life as a writer was so engraved in my psyche —flushes of dopamine and flattery when a piece went over well, gouts of verbal abuse and threats when I touched the wrong nerve — that I had trouble understanding the world without it. When my daughter was a colicky newborn, I’d play Brian Eno softly and massage her stomach like the books told us to, watching the LED stars we’d hung over her changing table reflect rainbows in her dark eyes. I had no idea what she was thinking, or what to think of myself. What would they say if they saw us, I wondered. They, the public to which I’d formerly broadcasted every flickering emotional impulse and half-worked-out idea; they were a concern I couldn’t get rid of, a phantom limb that ached in the rain.

They became less real as she became more so; a person with a sense of humor and a favorite toy (a stuffed red cyclops that I won at Coney Island and that she somehow pulled off a shelf; nothing else will do) and a taste for cheese and Cheerios. I still missed myself; I still had moments when my husband asked for something during my hour of typing time or when the baby woke up too early from her nap, and I felt like a horse that someone was trying to saddle. I felt I might bolt. Nevertheless, every day, I read to the baby. Because babies only love books if they see that you love them. Because someone read to me, and that’s the only reason I write anything at all.

Her favorite book is Are You My Mother? It’s about a mother bird that leaves for work — “I must get something for my baby bird to eat,” she said… so away she went — and all the trouble her baby bird gets into trying to find her. The baby shoves Are You My Mother? at me, several times a day, exclaiming, “Mama, Mama! She means either the book’s title or the book’s most troublesome character or me. Or she means all three: She means I am a bird who leaves the nest and comes back. She has been watching me, forming her own opinion of me, all this time — my daughter, who I named for the moon.

Author of “Trainwreck” (Melville House, ‘16) and “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers” (Melville House, ‘19). Columns published far and wide across the Internet.

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