Mothering consumed everything. Nursing you day and night and responding to your every whimper took up so much time and energy that there was no opportunity for anything in the way of adventurous or artistic pursuits. Swimming in a sea of postpartum hormones, my every emotion became amplified. I tried to maintain a semblance of the “old me” while responding to our new baby’s round-the-clock needs, but it wasn’t really working. That part of me, the pre-motherhood self, began to pack her bags, saying something to the effect of “Let’s take a break. I’ll call you later.”
MY PRE-MOTHERHOOD PLANS
I had lots of conversations in my head with her about the plans we had previously shared. What about our idea of starting a design firm in New York City or all of those creative projects yet to be realized? Peter and I had only been married nine months; what about the exciting getaways we had imagined? She could see the writing on the wall. It was clear that those dreams and aspirations would have to wait. Wishing me all the best, she tiptoed out the door.
I remember being certain that I would continue my career after having a baby. I didn’t realize that for me there was no after; at least there wouldn’t be for several years. At first I just couldn’t accept that fact. I was a product of the sixties; it was assumed that a woman could and should handle both a career and a family.
HAVING IT ALL
As a young girl, I had been told that I could have it all, unlike the generations before mine where women were expected to stay at home and play a supportive role to their spouses. As often happens, the pendulum had now swung in the opposite direction. The sixties had changed all of the rules, allowing women to break free of the homemaker role and pursue a profession. In 1987, for a woman of my generation to consider devoting her days exclusively to a young family reflected a failure to take advantage of all that life could offer.
Although we were fortunate enough financially that I didn’t need to get a job, choosing to stay at home with our baby didn’t feel like enough. I didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of earlier generations. Who would I be without my professional identity? Was I less than adequate if I couldn’t handle both? Besides, I wanted to go back to work. I loved my job, and I missed that world where interesting conversations and design projects filled each day. The isolation of being a new mother was both unexpected and confining. As much as I loved you, Coleman, I longed for my old life. The world had promised that I could handle both.
That’s how I found myself traveling to Italy for a project when you were only eight weeks old. Nancy, a good friend, offered to come with me and help care for you while I was working. We had first met one rainy Düsseldorf afternoon in our neighborhood cafe. She was sipping on her Milchkaffee at a table covered with yellow legal pads. I was seven months pregnant with you. A native Californian and Stanford graduate, she had married a German man, moved with him to Düsseldorf, and was working on her graduate thesis.
We connected immediately, our friendship lightening the isolation we both felt from living in a foreign country. She had known you since birth and bonded with you from the start. When I told her about the offer I had received to do lay-out work for an upcoming catalogue, Nancy said she would be happy to take a break from her writing and accompany us to Milano.
It all seemed possible. Or so I thought. My job was to style clothing in attractive, graphic patterns for the photographer, and I found myself racing between the layouts and your hungry cries. Hurrying to you, I tried to nurse before any breast milk leaked onto my cool black dress. I expressed milk so that Nancy could feed you, but you refused the bottle.
I could hear you crying as I arranged endless combinations of shirts, pants, and sweaters that matched the seasonal handbags, belts, and shoes. None of the work mattered to me. I could only think about you. With Nancy’s help, I camouflaged my exhaustion from work combined with round-the-clock nursing. I also tried to suppress my longing to simply hold you in my arms.
IT’S MY JOB
At the end of the week, I returned home to our Düsseldorf apartment. I threw down my briefcase and fell onto the couch in a heap of tears. I found solace in nursing you, my rather bewildered Coleman. Curled up on the big brown couch with you in my arms, the choice became clear. I had a job—a job that wasn’t going to go away. It didn’t allow for weekends off or a fat paycheck. It wasn’t chic and definitely not hip. It wasn’t going to make me a worldly success, and I was not going to feel validated by my feminist ideals. I had to let go of all the ideas about what my life should be. I could not abandon you, this little soul whom we had invited into our lives. Not now, not yet. Not ever.
It was such a powerful realization that I sat upright on the couch. I wanted to put you first. In order to do this right, I needed to learn to accept the moment just as it was, imperfect with loose ends and unmet expectations. It was time to stop being so critical and judgmental of myself. Your appearance altered what I had previously imagined to be the course of my life and life’s work. I was in completely new territory, and acceptance was clearly the best approach. The kitchen might be a mess, the bed unmade, the career on hold. Those all became distant concerns when compared to your needs. When you were happy, so was I.
A LINEAGE OF LOVE
Even though I wasn’t a natural “baby-person,” I found myself swept into the role by a force beyond choice. Perhaps it was born from the experience of being loved so thoroughly by my own mother. Hindsight nuances our understanding of the present, and as a new mother, I leaned into the memory of the love I received as a child. I wanted to pass that same experience on to you. I wanted to continue that lineage of love. This desire allowed me to consciously embrace the role of motherhood with all of my heart, despite the fact that it meant putting other parts of myself on the back burner.
I took a deep breath and intentionally exhaled (almost) everything that was getting in the way of truly experiencing peace with this decision. All of the self-imposed expectations that had kept me from fully relaxing into what was right in front of me began to dissolve. I inhaled all of the love I felt for you. Exhaling, I took all of that love and surrounded you with it. A few more breaths like this and a stillness entered my being. My jaw relaxed and my shoulders dropped. The nagging judgments released their grip. My priority became you.
A BALANCED LIFE
To create a balanced life, I needed to attend to the necessities of each day. A new baby needs its mother. I needed community. While I might not immediately be able to return to work, I could certainly keep you with me and engage in all of the daily tasks of life that kept us both from being isolated. Shopping in the outdoor markets, visiting friends, taking daily walks along the river, teaching you how to swim, cooking together, and of course playing would fill our days. A deep wave of both loss and well-being washed over me. I switched you to the other breast.
Excerpted from The Road Home: A Letter to My Children by Mimi Morton Buckley.
Mimi Morton Buckley has worked as a potter, architect, visual designer, school founder, writer, and mother of three. She enjoys humor, stillness, and helping things grow. Happiest when surrounded by friends and family, she can often be found on a mountain in Northern California with her very supportive husband and a collection of well-loved animals.
Photo at top of Mimi and her family.