On Balance

Published on October 9th, 2014 | by Suzanne Cope



I sat by my almost one-year-old’s crib, eyes heavy and a cup of coffee close at hand. He was wide awake and was playfully resisting me picking him up to start our morning routine. So I started reading him the book closest at hand. I was barely through the first paragraph when my eyes welled with happy tears. “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.”

I am not a sentimental mother, nor a guilty one. I am the breadwinner of the family and my songwriter-husband stays home with our son while I teach college and write. And while the Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was published right around when my son was born, I had been following her tenets for most of my working life. Even with an infant, I was still free to lean in while my husband, Steve, took on the bulk of childcare. I hoped that these efforts would get me to a position where I could make my schedule around future soccer games and science fairs, while still advancing professionally. My husband and I agreed early on that this arrangement worked for our family right now, financially and philosophically. I was happy that I was the one who left for work most mornings, while my husband’s temperament was better suited to watching an almost-toddler. While I loved my son – very much so – his conception and birth were not the stuff of miracles and overwrought emotions, despite that I was, for the moment, crying at his feet.

That morning was eighteen months after I was told that I had a miscarriage. I had gone in because of “spotting” a few weeks after I learned I was pregnant, and when the doctor matter-of-factly gave me the news, I was actually quite relieved. I had finished my doctorate a few months beforehand and had just committed to an ambitious writing deadline. Steve and I were both striving to make connections in our respective fields in New York City. And there were always museums to visit, and new cocktail bars to try. Steve kept an eye out for songwriters he wanted to see perform, and I sought readings. The day I came home from happy hour and, on a hunch, took a pregnancy test, Steve poured me another glass of wine as I gazed at the blue cross. This was not the plan. Or rather, it was the plan, but about two years too soon. Sure, we owned an apartment and had jobs that paid the bills, but I wasn’t ready to give my life over to motherhood. I began mourning my changing social life, home life, and let’s face it, body, to have this child.

Which is why when the doctor told me I had a miscarriage a few weeks later, I did not cry, or feel anything other than relief. It was true: I was amazed at what my body could accomplish. But I was looking forward to having a few more years to “lean in.” I went back to my life as the young professor, the writer, the academic. Steve played gigs and had songs placed in an indie movie, a reality television show. And then, two months later, I said to Steve, “I think I’m pregnant again.” But we were so careful! The ultrasound confirmed I was starting my second trimester – we never had a miscarriage to begin with.

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The next few months we reluctantly wrapped up our pre-baby lives. I worked hard to complete projects and Steve started saying no to gigs too close to our son’s arrival. Friends organized a shower and I explained to the chair of my department that I should make it to the end of the semester, with a due date during finals week. I kept to my hectic schedule – travel, the gym, live music, even a glass of wine with dinner – unapologetically. I swore I would not be defined by my pregnancy. I was not a vessel. I cringed when my belly stared showing, and when colleagues, who once asked about my research and teaching, began inquiring after my health. I felt my identity start to slip through my fingers as my child grew more and more apparent to the outside world. And while I was amazed that there was a living being growing inside of me, I also felt at equal times host to an alien. Sometimes my lack of sentiment worried me, but I trusted that the flood of hormones would kick in at birth, and the mothering instinct would switch on, as so many birth narratives claimed. But until that moment happened, I wanted to hold tight to my identity as a serious professional. I was already feeling the repercussions of the compromises that would have to be made – or would be made for me – after I became a mother.

And then, at almost 32 weeks pregnant, my water broke. At first I figured this new leakage was one more unfortunate symptom of a growing, and increasingly inconvenient, pregnancy. But a few hours later I realized the seriousness of the situation. We rushed to the hospital and I was placed on hospital bed rest. In a moment, my life was redefined. I could no longer resist being seen as a vessel, for that was all that I was inside the hospital walls. I was no longer called by my name, but referred to as “Mama” by the rotating shifts of nurses who woke me every few hours to check my vital signs, and those of the baby. My new reality, forced upon me weeks before I thought I had to be ready, was rife with compromise. I wouldn’t be finishing my semester. From my hospital bed, I was still cognizant of looming deadlines, but I knew I could only do so much. I had presentations and even a job interview scheduled in the coming weeks that were in jeopardy. And with or without that promised flood of mothering hormones, I had to be okay with that. I knew those days that seemed so interminable would be a mere memory months and years later. But despite understanding this, I was there, in that hospital bed, my baby’s host my primary role, and the resentment and disappointment were very real.

He was born two weeks later and my husband wept at the sight of him. I was relieved that he was healthy, despite facing a few weeks in the NICU, but I didn’t shed a tear. In the coming weeks I visited, a few hours a day. Later as I helped teach him to eat – the last skill he needed to master before coming home – I felt some guilt wondering if I should be there more often, even if I wasn’t always allowed to hold him, but I never cried. As I split my time between the hospital and the rest of my life, I rushed to finish projects, droving from the hospital to my presentations and interview and back again. Whenever I was away from the hospital, I felt like myself again.

That hormonal wave of mothering instincts did catch up with me, but slowly, more like a tide coming in. By the time Rocco was home, and for the next six months, I became the proud mother, filling my smartphone with photos and videos, reading about milestones and scouring the new parent’s listserve for hand-me-downs.

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Then my new semester started in the fall, and at a new school. I was offered that job I interviewed for less than two weeks after Rocco was born. They never had to know that I had a baby at home. But I found myself telling my new colleagues about my smart, growing boy. I made friends by sharing stories, and found that balancing a young child and a new job was a way to find common ground. There were others like me – those who had worked hard to earn their degrees to get to where they were professionally – and at a competitive college, this hard work was only intensifying. So many of my fears from my pregnancy were unfounded, I discovered. Not every new parent wanted to be defined by that role, and many also wanted to continue to lean in to their career between planning play dates and researching baby-led weaning. But I also realized that just because I found myself relaxing into – even enjoying – my role as a new parent, didn’t mean that my fears from before weren’t valid.

But it wasn’t until that morning on the floor, after countless kisses and thousands of photos, after months of making my own organic baby food, of waking up in the middle of the night to check on my sleeping boy because to lose him in his sleep, however unlikely, was a fear that kept me awake – that I realized I had finally been engulfed by a rising tide of motherhood. My own path to embracing this role may have been unconventional, but I didn’t regret a single step. That winter morning, I knew Rocco needed his breakfast. I would soon have to deliver him to his sleeping father as I found a suitable outfit for work and packed my lunch, but in that moment I felt that I could have laid on the floor and read him that book all day, weeping at the realization of my love for him. Yet my love for him, for my family – even for myself – was also what dried my eyes and picked him up. All of my leaning in enabled me to support my family while my husband stayed home, to have the choice to be known as a working mother – or just as a working professional, if I chose. I was justified in mourning my childless life, just as I did not have to feel compromised by embracing my dual role as a mother and a career-driven woman. Maybe I couldn’t have it “all”, but I could have this: the happy tears of a mother who loves her child dearly, and the ability to walk out the door each morning and become anything I wanted to be.

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About the Author

Suzanne Cope has published essays, stories, and articles in Blue Lyra Review, New Plains Review, Danke, Foliate Oak, Edible Boston, among others. Her upcoming book Small Batch: Pickles, Cheese, Chocolate, Spirits and the Return of Artisanal Food is publishing in October 2014 (Rowman & Littlefield). She earned a PhD in Creative Nonfiction Pedagogy and an MFA in Creative Writing, both from Lesley University. Suzanne teaches writing at Manhattan College and the University of Arkansas, Monticello MFA Program and is at work on her next book project.

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