Written April 25, 2020
What do Sheryl Sandberg, Jim Henson, and my pregnancy have in common?
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Sometime around month 4 just into my second trimester, I distinctly remember waking up with a sudden feeling of massive life failure: “I’m 33, 4 months pregnant, and what life accomplishments do I have to show for it?” Laying in bed, I started recounting my 6-year-old childhood dreams and ambitions: (1) becoming a famous artist (2) publishing a novel (3) competing in the Olympics (4) becoming a housewife (5) finding a late-stage career as a Supreme Court Justice. When Daniel woke up, I told him about these dreams and how I felt disappointed that I have so little to show for my adult life. He laughed, kissed me on the head with a condescending “Oh you”, and then fell back asleep.
After that morning, I brushed off that feeling and hoped it was my version of pre-baby jitters. But it kept nagging at me in the subsequent weeks. I googled famous artists. I read about their lives and thought,”If I wanted to be a famous artist, I’d so something weird and abstract to convince people that I’m a philosophical genius for splattering paint on a canvas, or painting a big orange square, or taping a banana to a wall!” (Note: I never paint). I read about female runners and their training plans — “normal” people who were teachers, nurses, engineers — who qualified for the Olympic Trials in the marathon (sub-2:40), and how they got there (Note: the last time I ran a marathon was in 2007, and it was WELL over an hour above 2:40). Searching for “morning sickness cures”, I read a blog from a female executive who said she followed Sheryl Sandberg’s advice and worked even harder through her pregnancy, despite her constant morning sickness and exhaustion, because you have to, “establish yourself before you go on maternity leave” (Note: her blog piece annoyed me so much, I stopped reading once I got to that sentence). I became obsessed with Jim Henson*.
Within 2 weeks, I worked myself up into a frenzy of megalomania. Every night for a week, I hounded Daniel about ideas on what I could do to “accomplish something“, even though I had no real concept of what the something was. I shamelessly and relentlessly sought his praise. I asked him about what his dreams were (his reply, “I mostly just think about how I can make more money to support us, and then how I can stop working so I can focus on my projects”). It was the first time he couldn’t relate to my fears, and I truly confounded him.
In hindsight, these feelings were a mix of hormones, fears, and the reasonable realization that my life was going to fundamentally change — that my time would be out of my control, and replaced with a much deeper sense of responsibility. That vague, shapeless shadow of inadequacy was some concoction of fearing for time lost, and a deeper anxiety about a very unknown future.
Those feelings reminded me about how I thought of motherhood in my early 20s. Years ago, I once naively told a friend that I felt that I would eventually reach a point in my life where I’m sick of just working on myself. That’s when I’d be ready for children. A decade later, what I learned instead is that you never really stop (or want to stop) working on yourself; that motherhood is an expansion of your current journey filled with unknown mazes, new challenges, and different foes.
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Over 4 months have passed since the peak of my megalomania. In that time, we traveled across 3 countries and settled in London. One day, my worries left as quickly as they came. I’ve since become busy and distracted with things (like swollen feet, a sore back, and 3am 9-month insomnia) that have nothing to do with art, philosophy, or Jim Henson. Today, I no longer wake up in a panic about those things I haven’t done, or calculate the gap between my childhood expectations and my current reality. I have not started painting, nor have I begun another novel. One day I plan to, but it doesn’t occupy the same space in my mind. After savoring a good, lazy morning in bed (which I know will soon disappear), I’m content and at peace.
In a beautiful and unpredictable way, COVID-19 has shown Daniel and me what we need to be happy. It’s forcibly shaken things back into perspective. In a (mostly) empty house, with uncertainty about the future, we find no greater pleasure than laughing together over a meal, feeling our baby move, and relishing in the day-to-day accomplishments as the world moves upside-down but keeps plodding forward with or without us.
So with this, Dear Darling, I want to tell you a bit about two counteracting but balancing forces, joy and fulfillment.
*Looking back, this is the only one that is legitimate. After watching The Dark Crystal and The Labyrinth, you have to admit that Jim Henson is a genius. How does one invent muppets? How can the same man who creates Kermit the Frog also make something so horrific as the Skeksis?
Soon you’ll realize there are a lot of distractions in this world. When you’re young, you’ll find excitement and joy in small things – like stepping on grass for the first time, hugging a soft teddy bear, or being tickled. You’ll feel comfort when we put our arms around you, and I hope you feel loved each time. If I have done things right, you’ll never lose the ability to still find joy in those things no matter how old you are.
Joy is all around you. It never leaves, but sometimes you lose sight of it if you become too distracted. If you feel lost one day – which I know you will, even if we do everything we can to protect you from it – just stop and listen.
But joy is just one side of the balance: You also need fulfillment, a far more elusive, fickle friend. Unlike joy whose presence can be captured by just slowing down and absorbing the moments around you, fulfillment is something to work for. Take it from me. I spent over 10 years actively learning how to find fulfillment, and it wasn’t until I was 26 that I really understood what it was. You won’t find it in a certificate, a record, a time, or a thing that you can hang up on the wall. You’ll find it in knowing you can do these things – in the confidence of knowing you’re strong and resourceful; in the small steps of that journey that got you there; and in the friends you meet along the way. You know the ending of the Odyssey. You don’t give a synopsis of it and say, “Well, the main point of the story is he got home.” You talk about Polyphemus, Aeolus, the Sirens, the archery competition, and so much more in between. Those things in between, the glue that ties them all together, and the knowledge that you are the hero in this story – those are the things that will give you the deepest sense of accomplishment.
You’ll have to forgive me that my motherhood journey will be filled with new challenges, since fulfillment isn’t something you just reach and stays with you forever. Sometimes, we have to continually work for it. Our journey together will have bumps, as I move into a different stage of adulthood and as you begin exploring your childhood. I don’t have a playbook, and I don’t have lines to rehearse. No one has written one comprehensive enough because no one can predict the future. My own mother said this about her journey, “I never understood what it was to love unconditionally until I had children. I became an adult when I had you, but I couldn’t have predicted it.”
And where does daddy stand on this? Your daddy always says he married me because I could be his frontier partner. For us, this means we split the work both professionally and at home. So you’ll see just as much of daddy as you will me, and I hope that makes you as happy as it does for us. After all, daddy is so excited to have a captive audience listen to all his ideas!
So while the long journey ahead remains a mystery, I’m pretty determined to teach you everything I know about joy in these first few years. I want to keep things as simple as possible until you’re ready for your journey to fulfillment. I hope that by teaching you joy early, you’ll always have something strong to lean back on when the search for fulfillment becomes tough. We’re going to stop and listen to birds when the windows are open. We’re going to feel grass between our toes when we picnic in our backyard. We’re going to count at all the different colors of flowers. If we start this early, I hope you’ll never lose that sense of happiness and think of us when birds sing, when grass grows in the spring, and when flowers bloom rainbows in April.