Saturday, July 19, 2008

the fifth stage of labor

You know sometimes how you sit down to start and write a post, knowing full well that despite best intentions, someone is going to take something the wrong way and get all mad? That's the feeling I have right now.

What I'm going to write now is my comparison of being a "working mom" (that is to say, WORKING OUTSIDE OF THE HOME), and the experience I've had staying home with Cal full-time for the past few weeks. This obviously, is only my own personal experience with a single, reasonably well-behaved kid under unusual circumstances. We just moved, my stay-at-home-ness is more of a hiatus from the norm more than anything else, and in some ways, we are treating it as such, both in perpetuating the vacation-y "So, what fun things should we do NOW?" carnival-like atmosphere of our days, as well as knowing full well that I have a full-time job to start on August 4th. NONETHELESS, these caveats in place, I will aim to compare, and I'm just going to write what I've been thinking about and be totally honest with my experience. Because the results I have come to have surprised me, and therefore, I thought they might surprise you. Well, maybe some of you.

Before I finished residency and I was looking ahead to this month off from with Cal, I thought that my major issue to deal with would frankly be boredom. My boredom, I mean. Let's be honest people, it's fun to be with your kid, but lots of the things that kids like to do when they're not quite three are sort of boring to us as adults. That's why I was so frantically mining all my collective resources (internet, guidebooks, you guys) for FUN KID ACTIVITIES before we moved down here. The prospect of spending all day every day building elaborate Thomas the Tank Engine landscapes in the living room did not bode well for the prospect of me maintaining enough sanity to not be stripped of that newly minted Georgia medical license. A whole month with no scheduled activities? What were we going to do all day?

(You regular stay-at-home moms can laugh now, it's OK.)

I am going to be honest and say that whenever people told that staying at home with your kid was just as hard if not harder as going to work full time, I didn't really believe them. First of all, I was a resident, so I labored under the conception that NOTHING COULD BE HARDER THAN THIS. Secondly, I thought, huh, staying at home with my kid? That's what I do on weekends. That's what I do when I'm on vacation. That's not hard. Working is hard. And you know, I still see my own point, but what I failed to grasp was the fact of doing something every single day without a break makes it harder. The fact that I'm not coming home to my kid after work or spending my days off with him makes it harder. Because there's no day off from that. There's no change in routine to make it fresh. It's just the same thing all the time.

Sure, obviously with work, there were things, physical hardships that make the workday more taxing than spending the day with Cal. At present, I don't have to wake up before 5am, for instance. I'm rarely rushing with the same kind of urgency as in the hospital. There's not that same baseline level of adrenaline coursing through your veins. For the most part, I can eat when I want, pee when I want, even take a break when I want now that we finally got the cable hooked up and I've discovered the miracle/curse that is Noggin. So what makes it hard? pre-July me would want to know. Sounds pretty relaxed to me. Wake up late, play with Cal, go on fun outings to the park, to the Children's Museum, to the Aquarium, to ├╝berbounceha├╝s. What's hard about that? Sounds fun to me! Sounds like a vacation!

And you know, it is fun. Cal and I have been having a really good time these past few weeks. Honestly, I haven't had this much uninterrupted time to spend all day every day with him since my maternity leave, and he's obviously a lot more fun to be around now, walking and talking as he is. I mean, I think that even when I was a resident, we spent a good deal of quality time together (considering), and I have never (despite occasionally working long hours and having a nanny and all that) doubted or worried about our closeness or the strength of our bond, because it has just never been an issue. Cal is just a very happy, well-attached kid, this much we have gleaned, and been told by others.

The ways that staying at home full time with your kid is different from working outside the home are sort of difficult to explain unless you've actually been in this situation yourself, and yet I will try. The ways that staying at home becomes hard is the endlessness, the relentlessness of it. When you have a young child, there is a constant sense of need, and when you are the sole caretaker of that child, you are the only one who can fill that need. So you are constantly, constantly attending to someone. There are obviously parallels working in medicine--substitute patient for kid, or in some cases, high-maintenance attending--but the difference is that in medicine, especially in the OR, you work as part of a team. You're not the only one there. Sure, each member of the team is concerned with a different aspect of patient care, but you're all working together, in synchrony, in harmony, towards the same thing. When you're at home with your kid (or kids--can't even imagine that), most of the time, it's just you. You dealing with all The Needs. And that can be tiring, even if you're not, like, lifting heavy boulders or doing CPR.

Also, when you work in The World of Adults, you are used to certain things. Like people obeying the rules of logic. Or being reasonable with their requests. Or having a baseline ability to follow direction. When you are with a three year-old all day, none of these things apply. How do you respond, for instance, when a three year-old tells you he refuses to go to sleep because it's morning, which means it's time to wake up? (It's 9:00pm.) Or when they request to be in two different places simultaneously? Or when they just sit down on the sidewalk and refuse to move for any reason, even though the bus is coming RIGHT NOW and that thunder and lightening means that it's going to start raining ANY MINUTE. There is no logic. There is no reason. There is you in Crazy Kid World. It's like playing Calvinball. There are no rules.

Additionally, I have noticed (and this may be more specific to my own situation) that being with Cal all day is also physically taxing. Most of it can be explained by the following:

1.) We are walking everywhere, or taking mass transit
2.) It is Georgia
3.) It is the middle of the summer
4.) Atlanta sidewalks are not exactly paved and maintained for strollers
5.) Where the hell did all these hills come from?

But by the end of the day, or even early in the afternoon, when we get back from one of our outings, I am DESTROYED. I am sweaty, I am exhausted, I need some water and maybe a cot to recuperate on. Probably things would be different if we were driving around in air-conditioned splendor, but let's not forget that Cal is almost 40 pounds. Sure, he can walk, but does he always want to? No. At least at work, after I lift the patient from the OR table to the stretcher (or vice versa), they're horizontal with wheels under them. (Aside: today, Cal turned to me and, apropos of nothing, observed wonderingly, "Wheels are kind of like circles." Yes, son, welcome to Mesopotamia, 3500 B.C. Behold, the birth of modern man.)

Third, I was not totally wrong in presuming that there would be moments of boredom. I mean, obviously, it would be the Perfect Parent thing to say that I am filled with wonderment and joy watching my child make their way through the world every second of every day--but the fact of it is that after my fifth visit to the Children's "Museum," which doesn't even have the courtesy of having any educational plaques or explanations or anything to read, I can feel my brain cells dying. Sure, you say, I could bring a book, or even my laptop, but those removed from the Lord of the Fly-esque microcosm that forms whenever more than three kids of preschool age get together need to know that CONSTANT VIGILANCE is the only think that will keep these kids from destroying each other. Cal especially is sort of a gentle giant, so I do tend to need to keep and eye on things or else next thing I know he's had his toy snatched from him, been beaten over the head with it, and then been pushed down a flight of stairs. These little hooligans! Quit manhandling my kid! HE'S A DELICATE FLOWER.

Plus, let's not forget all the other stuff you have to do when you're the parent who stays at home. Now, admittedly, I have it easy. I only have one kid, I don't have a huge house, my housekeeping resolve is, shall we say, minimal. But still, there is stuff to do, and when you're the one at home, you're the one who is expected to do it. (I admit that probably these expectations are internal, because I just have this notion that if I don't get any of the housewiffery done, my mother-in-law is just going to look at me and think, "What the hell is she doing all day?") But I am not a domestic person and I derive no intrinsic pleasure from cooking or cleaning or the like. It's just another thing to do while Cal is otherwise occupied.

Obviously, residency wears you out. The long hours, demanding environment, working overnight, all that kind of thing. No one is surprised when, as a resident, you fall asleep before 9:00pm out of sheer exhaustion. But what has surprised me is that these past few weeks, staying home with Cal, I've felt almost as tired, and gone to bed just as early. Maybe it's just the heat, or maybe I'm just, you know, elderly, but I can honestly say that spending all these days with Cal has really worn me out. It is tiring. It is not easy. And I have to say that until now, I underestimated these elements.

That said, again, I have to say: it's fun. Probably a lot more fun than most of the things I do at work on any given day. He's my kid, you know? I'm hard-wired to love being with him. Doesn't make it a piece of cake all the time. Doesn't make me not relish the two hours I had "off" yesterday. But there's such a bigger sense of purpose to it all, I guess. And maybe in the end, the stories that come out of it are more indulgent, more boring that stories that I have about work, and maybe even a little more esoteric in some ways, but I'm going to write them down anyway, so I can remember it all. If the end of residency has taught me anything, it's that life is transient, and things move quickly.

On Tuesday, Cal will be turning three years old. He won't be this age forever. But he's this age now. And I'm glad to have this chance to stop moving forward for a moment, take a breath, and just be with him.