Routine

At our baby shower, my husband and I received over forty children’s books. To prepare for the baby’s arrival, I relegated my own volumes to the lower shelves of our cabinet, and carefully arranged his new ones alphabetically by author on the higher, more accessible shelves. This was my first act of putting the baby before myself. And I thought, This is the beginning.

As parents, we instinctively put our children’s needs before our own. We feed them before ourselves, unless we are about to faint. When they are upset, we cast aside any discomfort we may be feeling to focus on making them feel better. We keep them entertained during their awake windows and postpone all else—chores, hobbies, bonding time as a couple, our own rest—until they are asleep.

On weekdays, I leave the office at 5:00 pm, but don’t get to unwind until three to four hours later—after I’ve commuted home, whipped up and scarfed down dinner, played with the baby, fed him, bathed him, administered remedies for his eczema, read him a couple stories, bid him good night, turned off the light in his room, thrown in a load of laundry, eaten dinner, and washed the dishes. Generally in that order, although it isn’t uncommon for my dinner to wait until after lights-out. My calendar indicates I lose an hour a day to pumping, but let’s be realistic: it’s more than that. Minutes seep through the cracks of context switching, and pre- and post-meeting intervals when there isn’t enough time to dive into a more complex effort. I often wind up working one to three additional hours in the evenings to make up the time. It’s also because I don’t want anyone, least of all myself, thinking people become less dedicated to work once they become mothers.

That leaves me with maybe one hour, on average, to relax with my husband before we have to go to sleep and do it all again.

It helps to work from home twice a week. I save two hours from my commute and get some time alone. But it is still so damn hard. As much as I find everything about my baby the cutest and the best—as much as I love watching him eat, giggle at our interactions, splash in the bath, and discover the world around him—the weekdays really wear me down. I have to keep reminding myself that it is only temporary. Only five nights in a week, and then we get two whole days to go out and play. In a few more weeks, the baby will feed himself better (hopefully). In a few more months, I will stop pumping, and work will be easier (also hopefully). In a few years, the kid’s bedtime will be later, and we will be able to do more together in the evenings.

The last real fun I had was in mid-September, when I went on a work trip to California. I didn’t have part of my brain constantly counting the minutes I had to make it to the station for a train that would get me home by a certain time. Instead of hurrying home after work for the bedtime routine, I could socialize with fellow adults. Best of all, when I went to bed, I didn’t worry that the baby might wake up and cry in the middle of the night. The last night of the trip, we had dinner, S’mores, and an open bar out on the beach. The party then continued in the hotel hot tub and at the bar. It reminded me of earlier, carefree, spontaneous days. Maybe it’s sad that it happened on a work trip, but I felt warmer and fuzzier than I had in a long time. Without a baby to hold or watch, or a babysitter to relieve, I could almost fully enjoy myself.

I think it’s telling, though, that I haven’t for a moment regretted such a lifestyle upheaval. I do have periods of uncertainty, stress, and feeling overwhelmed. But other than that, I only find myself looking forward to when my baby will be just a little older, so he can enjoy things like S’mores on the beach with us. It is so rewarding to see how much he’s developed and learned in only nine months, and exciting to imagine all the years he has ahead.

These tough parts are only temporary.

Swimming

My entire adult life, I’ve loved being in the water.

I wasn’t always so fond of it. I learned to swim early, and spent several childhood years on the local swim team. We had practice two or three times a week, swimming endless laps during which we had to breathe as little as possible—ideally, we’d make it from one end of the pool to the other on a single breath. We were two, three, four swimmers to a lane, chasing each other like links of a roller chain, compelling each other to keep pace lest one slow down the whole system. It was stressful and exhausting. I actually fared well at meets, but I wasn’t competitive then. I don’t think I fully grasped what I was doing there, so the rewards for my efforts meant little.

When swimming “for fun,” I didn’t like the way the water clutched at my body, dragging down my limbs as I fought to wade around. Since it seemed taboo to wear “serious” gear like goggles, I would compulsively and frustratedly wipe my eyes any time a bit of water splashed on my face. The ocean was even worse for its unruliness. The constant waves and currents would chop up my straight, smooth strokes. When I ventured far enough for the sand to disappear from beneath my feet, my heart would drop in a flash of fear. In a pool, if you couldn’t reach the floor, you at least knew how many feet away it was, could mark the finiteness of its distance. In an ocean, who could tell?

It wasn’t until college that I was able to let go and enjoy myself in water. Then, in my mid-twenties, a switch seemed to flip in my mind. I suddenly wanted to start swimming regularly again. Maybe I needed to be free of coaches blowing whistles and parents pushing for ribbons. Maybe, since I had just moved into my own home and was living alone like a Real Grown-up, I craved the womb-like sensory experience. Maybe this was part of a bigger movement of reclaiming and refining the self.

Now it feels like a second home. Swimming feels easy and natural in a way that other exercises like running or cycling never have. And I view it as a way to escape, a way to lose myself in muffled weightlessness, freedom of movement, and repetition. My laps are almost meditative. Sometimes, the pool lane opens a channel for creativity as I work on my next blog topic or story concept. Other times, I work through something that’s been bothering me lately. Every stretch, I try to unlock a little more understanding, acknowledge a little more truth, and release a little more stress. This has become doubly cathartic since having a baby. Not only do I have more stress in my life, but I also hardly ever get time alone.

On land, at work or at home or even in the wilderness, we are surrounded by countless things we can touch and squeeze and throw. In the swimming pool, my body is isolated, the water acting as a buffer that makes everything else seem farther away. My body is liberated from everyday gravity, and my mind is free to be itself.