The Stressful, Dreary Life With a Very Small Stranger
Why is it so dang hard for women to tell the truth about new motherhood? Sure, there’s nothing like a fragrant-headed, milk-drunk baby draped over your shoulder like lichen. But when newborns are not happily gorked to the gills, they have two modes: screaming and boring. They are far less interactive than Super Nintendo. Early mothering is mostly an exercise in tedium and exhaustion.
Older infants are unpredictable, a festival of ear infections and passionate needs to play with household objects that can kill them. Toddlers have an uncanny ability to throw tantrums at the least opportune times (say, during a preschool interview), as well as a wearying love of repetition. They will force their mothers to sing “This Old Man” 800 times in a row, to load up the damn Play-Doh squeezer-pump thing over and over and over, to push the big-girl swing until carpal tunnel sets in. Yes, motherhood is fulfilling and delicious. But there’s always an undercurrent of worry that you’ll never have a career or torrid romance or private time or perky breasts ever again. And there is a distinct lack of honesty, in the media and among many actual moms, about how simultaneously stressful and dreary life with a very small stranger can be.
Which is why I so loved Judith Newman’s new book, “You Make Me Feel Like an Unnatural Woman: Diary of a New (Older) Mother” (Miramax, 2004). You know someone isn’t going to sentimentalize motherhood when her memoir opens, “The first thing I thought when I saw my sons was, ‘I wonder if they’d look less like space aliens if I penciled in their eyebrows.’”
Full disclosure: Judith is a good friend of mine. But I don’t just love this book because Josie and I are characters in it. (Though I must admit that I was delighted to learn that a woman Judith defined as a Momzilla — i.e., a monstrously obsessive, competitive parent — called my toddler a “prodigy” and a “freak.” All those flash cards I used in utero must really be working!) (Note: That was a joke.) (Really, it was French language cassettes.) (Again, joke.) No, I love this book because it is both hilarious and wrenchingly truthful about how hard new motherhood is. And when Judith talks about how true love creeps up on you, it’s all the more powerful because it’s not surrounded by Hallmarkified goop.
For instance, she writes about how she used to offend people who’d casually ask of her newborn twins, “So, are you in love?” She’d say, honestly, that at her age she could only love someone she knew, and she didn’t know them yet. “What people call ‘love’ with babies is the tenderness that comes from pity, combined with the urgency of being needed like you’ve never been needed before,” she writes. “We love the touch of a baby’s skin, of course, and those fragrant hot heads. But it took many months for them to become particular — not generic babies, but my babies.” She discovers that love comes through the repetition of all the mind-numbing daily tasks that add up to motherhood, not through any profound, biological mama-connection. “The real love comes not from DNA but from the wrestling on of the onesie, the relief of the burp at 2 a.m., the nail clipping and the nose suctioning and the glorious silence of satisfaction when the warm bottle reaches trembling lips. Curiously, love comes from fussing, not from gestating. But nobody could have convinced me of that as I was shooting another vial of Fertinex into my a— at six in the morning.”
Ah yes, the Fertinex. The first third of the book deals with Judith’s battles with infertility; the parade of doctors and injections, the way lovemaking changes from something primal and fun into something grim and circumscribed. (Jonathan and I called it “the Bataan Sex March.”) Judith describes her husband gazing at her at the required moment “with about the same degree of pleasure as Sisyphus looks at a rock.”
And in becoming a “geezer with children” (she was 40 when the twins were born), Judith learned she was far from alone. More women are having babies later in life in the United States than ever before. In the past 10 years, the rate of birth among women aged 35 to 39 has risen 30%. Among women aged 40 to 45, it increased 47%. And for women aged 45 to 49, the rate shot up 190%. In just 10 years!
“There are so many older moms now because fertility medicine has gotten better and better,” she told me. “And of course because people are waiting longer to have children. I don’t want to scare women too early, but we do have to look at the realities of the situation: First it gets harder to have a baby and then it gets a LOT harder. I really do think for a generation of women who believed they could have it all, it was truly shocking that having a kid turned out to be so difficult.” (And I wonder whether we high-achieving, late-blooming Jewish girls had a harder time believing it than most.)
Perhaps because we’re waiting longer for our bundles of joy, perhaps because for many of us those bundles were so hard-won, or perhaps because we now live in a culture that treats children as Prada-bag-like trophies, moms seem increasingly, loonily competitive. Judith tells the story of a woman in the neonatal intensive care unit who approached her, demanding, “What were your twins’ Apgar scores? Carter got a 10.” (Apgars do not test your probability of getting into Yale; they test breathing, reflexes, color and pulse within five minutes of birth, on a scale of 1 to 10. At the time, Judith didn’t know what Apgars were, only that Henry and Gus had received a 7 and an 8. “They got an 11,” she told the Momzilla.)
As the twins get older, they emerge as real characters. Gus is tiny and dark and knits his brows anxiously like Woody Allen; Henry is chubby and blond and blue-eyed, a baby played by a beer-can-crushing frat boy. She writes of Gus’s mortal fear of Lena Horne, who appears on a Sesame Street video. (Trying to comfort a sobbing Gus, Judith’s husband, a retired opera singer, croons, “Yes, sweetheart, of course she’s frightening. She looks like she eats people.”) She writes of Henry’s inquisitive pointing, accompanied by a Homer Simpson-esque “Doy?” (Translation: “What’s this?”) When he doy?s a nude statue, she tells him “That’s art.” He repeats, “Aht? Aht.” The next day, he points to his penis and exclaims excitedly, “AHT!” (Judith writes, “I started to correct him, but then I thought, ‘What the hell.’ If he’s like most men I’ve known he’ll spend the rest of his life thinking of his ___| as a masterpiece anyway. ‘Yes, honey, that’s art,” I said.’)
And unlike any other parenting memoir I’ve read, Judith’s book talks extensively about the strain having new babies puts on a marriage. Today, her relationship is on much more solid ground, thank God. But now battles loom about whose religion to raise the children in. (Judith seems to be losing this one. I recently heard Henry announce, “I like Jesus Crisis!”) As the kids age, she’ll have to deal with issues like schooling, faith and how to raise enlightened men. I smell sequel!
Write to Marjorie at [email protected]