the invisible mom

I noticed early on in parenthood that my to-do lists actually got shorter. Not because there was less to do - HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA oh mercy no honeychild - but rather because there was so much more to do, over and over, for the rest of my life, that the idea of completing a finite list on a steno pad became adorably quaint, like when people tell you to "call" them, or when they do the rolling-down-the-car-window gesture as if your Prius window also makes souvenir pennies.

to be young
5 things to do
in a whole day

rather than
5 things to do
at the same time
for the whole day
merciful death

It's not news to anyone that a new mom has a lot to accomplish on a daily basis, but I've never met a new mom who hasn't had to struggle to accept the invisible productivity of motherhood.

You do your hardest work in front of only one witness, who cannot talk or form memories yet. SUPER HELPFUL, thank you, Junior.

Most of your work is maintaining the health and safety of that silent, spaghetti-necked witness, and so the evidence of a job well done is simply silence, the absence of harm. Most of your work takes place in your choices, in your body, in the words you speak into the air, rather than on paper, on screen, in front of a client or boss. There are no reviews, except from strangers who are concerned about whether or not your baby is wearing socks.

At its heart, a to-do list is a mechanism by which we can record our work, and therefore our value. A to-do list makes the invisible "phone call to Grandma for her birthday" an immutable black X that marks the spot where you adulted your face off and remembered to ask how her bowling league was going.

Look what I did. No, really. Look.

Whether or not you show your list to anyone or post it on Facebook, the evidence is there, on paper, proving that your day was valuable, that you are making progress, that you're capable and responsible. The list is how you know you're doing ok.

A new parent's to-do list, a comprehensive one, might read like this:

Section 1: Shit you will have to do over and over again and will never really be completed.
- diapers
- feed
- burp
- change baby into fresh clothes (again)
- change yourself into fresh clothes (if you have any)
- put baby down from nap
- laundry
- dishes
- change batteries in baby things

Section 2: Shit you have to do as the principal architect of a new human life.
- read
- sing
- track
- cuddle
- walk
- pump
- bathe (baby)
- vote
- learn sign language
- teach sign language
- oh fuck me, right, vitamin d drops
- and tummy time
- and buying a brush for that cradle cap
- make doctor's appointments
- keep an eye on that red bump
- read parenting books
- be engaged
- but not too engaged
- because it's important to teach the child the pleasure of his own company
- show your child that his needs will be met with love and care
- show your child that the world is safe and he is safe to explore in it
- babyproof everything
- it's not too early to start looking at elementary schools

Section 3: Shit you have to BE as the principal architect of a new human life.
- aware of the time since last feed/poop/pee/sleep, all the time
- informed
- patient
- opinionated
- kind
- respectful
- community-minded
- wise
- bottomless
- healthy
- stable
- strong
- confident

Section 4: Shit you have to do to take care of yourself after the legit physical trauma of childbirth.
- kegels
- ice pack
- squirt bottle
- change pad
- more kegels
- fresh ice pack
- change pad
- sleep
- eat food
- drink water
- bathe
- get dressed (if you can, if you even have clothes anymore, because your body is in the no-man's land between billowy, saggingly-empty maternitywear, and "I can't believe I was ever this skinny and I never will be again" pre-baby devastation.)

Section 5: Shit you have to do to take care of yourself after the massive emotional upheaval of childbirth.
- reach out to friends and try to be yourself (this is not always a small thing.)
- get out of the house
- connect with other new parents (this is not always a small thing.)
- remind yourself that you're capable of doing regular life things with a baby as your co-pilot
- have "me-time"
- make sure the baby knows how to take a bottle so you can have "me-time."
- make sure your partner knows how to give a bottle so you can have "me-time."
- connect with your partner (this is not always a small thing.)
- want sex from your partner (GET THERE OR YOUR MARRIAGE IS OVER)
- do not watch Grey's Anatomy
- do not worry about freak accidents, natural disasters, climate change, rare diseases, playground cripplings, pre-bullying sociopathic signifiers, alcoholism, flaky skin, self-esteem, forced masculinity, a Trump/Cruz ticket in 2016, or Zika. JUST DON'T.

Section 6: Same shit you had to do before you had a baby and you still have to do, since having a baby didn't change the fact that you are an adult who lives in the government and stuff.
- get an oil change
- pay taxes
- call insurance companies
- make dentist appointments
- go to the gyno
- book travel arrangements
- go grocery shopping
- fold and put away laundry (like grown-ups do, come on, Katie, get it together.)
- clean your house to a basic level of safety (you know, the kind of house where mice don't think they've died and gone to heaven. Just there. It's not a high bar to clear. You can do it.)
- pay bills
- write thank-you notes for late baby gifts

Section 7: Hastily scribbled section of shit you have to do on the fly because WOW this day isn't going at all like yesterday.
- change baby's diaper in back of car at grocery store
- change baby's clothes in back of car at grocery store
- buy a towel at grocery store to lay in car seat for the ride home
- hose out car seat
- google "nipple confusion" because dammit
- change crib sheet
- change diaper changing cover
- google "baby poop leaky syrup consistency normal?"

it says here.
as if i could just
whenever i wanted.

Yeah, section 7 is the killer.

Honestly, it's not even worth writing a new parent's to-do list down, because any explicit plans that you made in the morning are subject to immediate suspension upon discovery of a baby leg rash, or that you don't actually know how to collapse your stroller yet.

As I look back over that list, I'm struck by how much of that work is internal - making emotional or intellectual choices, being brave, managing fear, punishing yourself, forgiving yourself, asking for help, learning, accepting, enjoying, resenting. Making milk. So much of our work is invisible, either because we do it behind our closed doors and drawn shades, or within the opaque walls of our skin. So much of what we do looks like nothing at all.

No wonder new moms are famous for talking about how "hard" it is, for shouting out the events of their days in excrutiating detail to all the old and infirm who cannot physically run from her. It's not just that we need to talk to adults. It's not just that we're simultaneously understimulated and overstimulated all day long and the buouy of normal chit-chat feels like the prescription.

It's that we feel like, "I did nothing today, but I did everything too. This makes no sense. My life feels unmanageable but I can't put my finger on why. I don't know if I love the baby yet but I know I can't listen to him cry. Tell me that my work counts as work. See what I did. See me."

In a world in which a person's value is measured by metrics, % increase, hours billed, presentations given, by finite packets of achievement as easy to swallow as Emergen-C, a new mother's worth ranks somewhere below the tap-dancing meth-head at Pike Place Market. That guy made 80 bucks today. All you did was take a walk, and then escort your baby through the stages of "baby" all the way back to "baby station 1" ("empty belly, clean shorts") about 18 times today.

Yep, you did "milk in, poop out, milk in, poop out," all day long. It's discouraging to be present for the entire life cycle of a bowel movement.

Oh, is the baby hungry? You must be back where you started. Again. Go forth. Achieve. Put milk in his body that he will either vomit immediately down your back, or crap in one hour, up his back. Wheeeeeeeeee... hope you like not getting promotions!


I wrote this post because of something Ryan said the other night. He said, "you work much harder than I do, but your work is invisible." I had never heard it put just that way before. 

Our work is invisible. That's why we make a point of frequently, persistently declaring that it IS work and it IS hard. That's why we feel like we're fumbling around all the time, constantly mired in self-doubt, never certain that we're doing this right, or even okay. That's why we lean on each other so much - other moms know why you're still talking to the cashier as he begins to ring up the person behind you. Other moms know how it feels to look at the list at the end of the day and hate yourself, thinking, "I've done nothing. Nothing. I just sat here all day."

Other moms, like me, know that you worked today. Your baby knows it, too. Someday that baby will have the fine motor skills to curve his perfect lips around the words, "thank you, mommy." That's when you'll get your promotion.

Buster just woke up so I have to go get a quick cuddle from his warm, sleep-damp body, change another diaper, get a snack in his belly (third today), and set up the race car track (again.)

I don't have time to tie this up neatly, but since I wrote this post primarily for new moms, I'll just leave you with this: it's invisible, but that doesn't make it imaginary. You are working your ass off. Keep it up.


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