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Finding Motherland

Journalist. Mother. Denver’s First Lady. In three short years, I lost the self I’d always known. Could I ever find my way back?

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We had meant to move out of my husband’s one-bedroom bachelor pad months before the baby came, but the new building that we were supposed to move into remained stubbornly under construction. Late in my pregnancy, when the work had continued for more than a year past the original completion date, I marched into the office of the construction manager and announced, “I just wanted to let you know that my cervix is dilating.” This bulletin did not have any perceptible impact on the building’s construction schedule. Finally, we just decided to move in anyway, even though the apartment wasn’t finished. We didn’t have a hood for our stove, we didn’t have a shower door, there weren’t any shelves for our clothes or our books, and we had to put cardboard on the countertops, which hadn’t been sealed yet, but we were able to set up the crib in the baby’s room. We thought we were ready. Two weeks later, the baby arrived. He was long and skinny and unfurled like a spider. I couldn’t fall in love with him, because I was already.

When the baby was two months old, my husband, John, decided that it was the right time to run for political office. His logic: The mayor at the time couldn’t run again due to term limits, and there wouldn’t be an open seat again for 12 years. On the other hand, both John and I were more accustomed to living alone than with each other, as we had married the year before after a long-distance courtship. Plus, we’d just had a baby. I wasn’t sure that I agreed with his sense of the timing, but as a former political journalist I was intrigued by the idea of seeing a campaign from the inside. Only with the benefit of hindsight did it become obvious that John would be phenomenally good at the job. At the time, the whole thing was more of a lark. We attempted to think through the question of whether we could handle a political campaign and parenthood simultaneously, but we didn’t have enough data. What did public office involve? What did it mean to be a parent? I told myself that the baby didn’t seem like much trouble.

At the same time, I found it oddly difficult to adjust to my new role. Not in terms of feeling attached—when the baby woke up in the middle of the night, I couldn’t have been more pleased, as I felt absurdly delighted to have more time with him. But it was hard to get used to the consequences. As the tiles went up in the bathrooms and the slate went down on the balconies and my husband raised money in $3,000 increments, I kept thinking, “Any moment now I’m going to get a few good nights of sleep, and then I’ll become my old self again. I’ll get back to work, and life will return to normal.” Months and months slipped by before it began to dawn on me that things might never return to normal.

Our lives were turned upside down by my husband’s success at the polls a few weeks before the baby turned 1. When we sought our escape from the madness of flower bouquets and phone calls, the only place that I could think of going to was Ireland, a country that I have returned to every two or three years since I was born. Both of my parents were raised there, and I grew up visiting our extended clan. I suppose that I craved reassurance that I still was who I had been, or maybe I needed to return to our family’s homeland now that I had just started a family of my own.

I forgot to consider that a trip to Ireland wouldn’t give my husband the same emotional boost when I made arrangements for us to drive (on the wrong side of the road) from Dublin to Cavan, from Cavan to Monaghan, from Monaghan to Donegal, and then from Donegal back to Dublin again, visiting as many as possible of my 50-plus first cousins and 20-odd aunts and uncles. We drank copious amounts of Irish whiskey and ate smoked salmon on brown Irish soda bread at various parties that were held in various counties. We did have two nights on our own, which we spent by the Donegal coast, but by then even I had realized that whatever we were having it was not a vacation. We had just been through a grueling political campaign, and this was our time to rest before the work of governing began, but rest was not what we did. The itinerary that I’d planned was about the least child-friendly one imaginable, and our son never adjusted to the time change. The fights that took place in our rental car as we drove along the ragged Donegal coastline were even more spectacular than the scenery. John accused me of arranging an overly taxing vacation; I charged him with being insufficiently grateful to me for letting him run for office. Now, however, those topics seem like just the flora. Underneath stood the granite dilemma: Before the baby had been born, I’d entertained visions of co-parenting, visions in which my husband and I would spend equal amounts of time with the baby and devote equal amounts of energy to our careers. By the time we confronted the rugged moors of Donegal, however, it had become clear that this vision of equal parenting wasn’t going to come true. The reality was that John’s career could no longer accommodate full-time parenting, or even half-time parenting—while mine could. And this meant that I wasn’t going to become myself again. My old self, I mean—a person who was defined primarily by work, a person that I missed desperately. Motherhood was a new world, and as I was about to learn again, every immigrant who arrives in a new world inevitably acquires a new identity.

Fortunately, I had some experience with new worlds and old worlds. My mother grew up on a dairy farm called Cornaslieve, in County Cavan. She spent her childhood herding muddy cattle down narrow lanes and eviscerating chickens. During the summers, when we visited the family who still lived at the farmhouse, my grandmother would offer us cracked coffee mugs of warm milk that had come straight from a cow. This was disgusting, as far as I was concerned, since milk was supposed to be cold and come from the fridge. My mother urged me to drink, but I wouldn’t, even though I didn’t like disappointing my grandmother by refusing her gift. In matters of the flesh, I often wonder if I can live up to my mother’s earthy standards.

My parents immigrated to the United States in 1966, when I was 1. I grew up in suburban New Jersey and spent most of my childhood reading books. The green card that identified me as a legal resident of the United States bore wavy green lines and a picture of a young-looking version of my mother, holding a fat baby—me. Once, when we were returning from one of our annual family vacations, a U.S. customs official held me back, protesting that the baby in the picture could have been anybody at all. To him, the card was an inadequate screening device. To me, it was a talisman, a physical representation of the dual loyalties that I felt, and I kept it in a box of treasures. My brother and sister were born in this country, but our parents gave all of us the blessing of two childhoods—suburban New Jersey’s bicycles and lakes and canoes, and rural Ireland’s cows and pigs and tractors. Equally exotic were our forays into my father’s hometown of Dublin, an urban world of bookstores and bridges and double-decker buses.

I was part of the first generation of first-generation immigrants to grow up with a real connection to the place that their parents had left behind. The immigrants who’d come before had cut their ties, but we maintained ours, thanks to the convenience of airplanes and telephones and emails. A tremendous amount of energy went into defeating the Atlantic Ocean’s attempt to divide us from our kin. My mother laid out patterns on the carpet and sewed clothes on the kitchen table to save money for those precious weeks with our cousins. The rest of the year, she told us stories that seemed wildly improbable in the sanitary suburbs of New Jersey—lessons from a grittier reality—such as the time that she’d accidentally chopped off her brother’s finger with an ax or the time that she persuaded a workman with palsy to cut her hair with his dirty shears, or the time when her father sent her to live with a spinster aunt for several years so that he could reduce the number of mouths he had to feed. It only occurs to me now that my mother must have been reassuring herself by telling those stories—reassuring herself that a person could go from that rural past to this suburban present and still remain intact. But not unchanged. My mother and father became different people than they would have been if they had not left. It took them decades to realize what had happened—to realize that they could never move back, to realize that they were already home.

As I got older, the intervals between my trips to Ireland grew longer. A series of writing jobs took me to Brooklyn, New York, and then to Austin, Texas. Along the way I became a person who prioritized work over everything. Of course I had the fever that grips everyone who is the first to grow up on American soil—that burning need to prove oneself. But I was also addicted to the nature of the work itself. Work didn’t mean hard labor—it meant adventure, freedom, surprises. One hot afternoon, I was hurtling along a forgotten highway in West Texas on an assignment, when I suddenly found myself in the middle of the Permian Basin—pumpers on all sides, as far as I could see. A little while later, I spent election night in a hotel room in Austin, smoking cigars with pollster Matthew Dowd, while campaign manager Karl Rove locked himself in the bathroom with his cell phone and yelled at George W. Bush. I loved the first-row seat on life that is a journalist’s privilege, loved the solitary nature of writing. Printed words have always been a refuge, the place where I have felt most at home. I feel about my computer much the same as my mother feels about her garden; I am enslaved to it, and it liberates me.

Unexpectedly—rather late in the game, to be honest—marriage brought me to Denver, Colorado. Now I was a long way from Cornaslieve, and when I became pregnant I knew nothing about birth. Along with a dozen other couples, my husband and I took birthing classes from a vivacious suburban housewife with red hair who’d had five kids. We heard about her epidural that didn’t work, her epic tear, how her breasts had become infected. Friends told me other war stories, of labors that lasted for days and concluded in emergency C-sections. I read in my medical records that I had a “borderline pelvis,” and the larger I got the more I became preoccupied with the question of how we would get the baby out. Consequently, I spent almost no time thinking about what would happen once he’d been extricated—a classic case of planning for the invasion and not the occupation.

When I asked my mother about her experiences, she told a different kind of story. She had delivered me in a London hospital ward. It was her first time, but she knew a lot about birth already, because she was working as a midwife. She gave birth naturally, while my father avoided the ordeal by watching Burt Lancaster in The Train. “I didn’t really feel any pain,” she said. After the event, my mother wrote a letter to her sister Kathleen in Ireland. “The baby was born at 11:40 a.m. today with a little help from the doctors,” my mother had written. “I’m a bit tired, but much too excited to sleep. Larry came in to see me as soon as I got back to the ward. I only saw the baby for a few minutes. She weighs 7 lbs. 9 oz., and is a healthy baby. I feel like roaring so loud I’d be heard in Cornaslieve without a phone.”

I fixed on the idea of managing birth naturally too. I didn’t want an IV, didn’t want a heparin lock, didn’t want constant monitoring of the baby. I wanted what my mother had had—a glorious, unfettered triumph. My husband, who wished that he could avoid the terrible physicality of the birth scene by watching a celluloid Burt Lancaster in The Train, became increasingly skittish. He wasn’t alone. Our obstetrician reacted to my plan with polite skepticism, as if she thought I was going to get walloped sideways by birth. And when we presented the plan to the doctors on duty at St. Joseph hospital at 4 in the morning, after we showed up declaring that I’d gone into labor, they displayed a weary tolerance, as if they’d seen this kind of wishful thinking before.

The early contractions hadn’t hurt much. “Mostly crampy, not intense,” I had scribbled in a journal, sometime around midnight. Later, in shakier penmanship, I’d written, “No pain?” After I started vomiting, however, I woke John up and said it was time. Even the doctors who’d seen it all seemed surprised that I was already eight centimeters dilated by the time we arrived. It was too late for an epidural, which was fine with me. I hate needles. In the delivery room, a large crucifix hung on the wall, reminding me of the crucifixes that my grandmother had placed all over her farmhouse. A doctor told me it was time to push. I was tired and didn’t push hard enough until a drill sergeant of a nurse barked at me to get the baby out now. Our son was born soon after. Such an easy birth seemed like a happy accident—I wasn’t sure I could claim any credit for having inherited my mother’s excellent genes, but I, too, felt like roaring.

In the first days after he was born, our son nursed and nursed, but kept making strange birdlike noises. John rocked harder and harder, until he was tipping the rocking chair backward and forward in wild swoops; still the baby cried. We didn’t realize that he was starving because I wasn’t producing enough milk until a visiting nurse diagnosed the dark red marks on his diapers as “brick-dust” urine, a sign of severe dehydration. She told us to use bottles, but the baby wouldn’t take a bottle, so we fed him formula through a tiny tube that we inserted into his mouth while he nursed. Milk—I’ve never been able to meet its challenges. John sensed without being told that I was devastated by not making enough to feed our child. He went out for a walk and returned with a wristwatch in a velvet box.

Chaos enveloped us then: The furniture was in the wrong place, the boxes remained unpacked, and we never knew when the work crews were going to arrive. One morning a workman burst into the bedroom where I was feeding our son while I had half of my pajama top off. “Oh my god!” he hollered, then vanished. The parallel chaos of the mayoral campaign was just beginning when the baby developed a terrible cough. Sometimes, he went into long spasms that would cause him to throw up all of the milk and formula that we’d struggled so hard to get into him. Our pediatrician sent us home, saying that it wasn’t serious because the baby didn’t have a fever. At night, though, the coughing got worse, and I made frantic phone calls to our medical plan’s emergency hotline. I told one nurse that the baby was turning blue. “Oh,” she murmured, “that doesn’t sound good.” She suggested that I take his temperature again. Finally, a second doctor diagnosed our son with whooping cough, a potentially fatal illness that arrives surreptitiously, without a telltale fever. The condition used to be called the 100-day cough, and we soon learned why. My husband went from nowhere at all to the front of the political pack before the baby stopped bringing up his milk.

Somewhere in the middle of all the pandemonium, a lactation consultant stopped by to see how we were doing with our complicated feeding routine (after the visiting nurse had discovered our predicament, we’d qualified for a series of free visits). She frowned as she assessed the situation. “What I see is a new mother who is under stress,” the lactation consultant concluded. This observation struck me as hilarious. It felt like a ridiculous understatement, yet for some reason it had never occurred to me. I had never thought of motherhood as stressful. Wasn’t it supposed to be bliss?

What I see, when I look back on that time now, is a new mother who was so distracted by the tumult around her that she’d forgotten to notice what was happening to her identity. Unfamiliar with the accent, uncertain of the local geography, I kept telling myself that I was a visitor here—soon I was going back to who I’d been before. Obviously the baby was a permanent addition to our lives, but this wasn’t going to prevent me from becoming myself again. Yet I never quite managed to return. Not to work, not to the person I still remembered as me. Motherhood is an alchemical process: It works on you gradually, day by day, and then suddenly all of your essential properties have been altered. America had worked on my parents in the same inexorable manner. Nobody at JFK International had explained to them when they arrived that they would have to slowly surrender their hopes of returning to an earlier incarnation of themselves—slowly give up their identity as Irish—and it wasn’t obvious to them that this would be required. In America, though, nobody knew much about their years in Ireland; back in Ireland, nobody could comprehend their American lives. They had a past that was discontinuous with their present.

Before the baby came, when I’d tried to figure out how I would reconcile work with a child, I had felt only deep confusion. I wasn’t able to imagine life without the freedom to hop on a plane to chase down a story, yet I wasn’t able to imagine putting an infant into daycare, either. When I was pregnant, some women who were friends with my husband took me out to lunch and to tell me how much “help” they thought I needed. I was too new to my husband’s income bracket to be comfortable with the casual use of euphemisms like “help,” which my own mother and her mother before her had done entirely without. Did I mention that my grandmother had 10 children? One died in childhood, but she raised the other nine herself. I decided not to make any decisions; we’d have the kid and then figure it out.

When it became clear that my husband’s interest in politics wasn’t just a midlife crisis, I decided to take time off from my own writing. I unpacked our moving boxes while the baby bounced in his bouncy seat, and worked on policy papers for the campaign while he napped. It all felt very temporary. I assumed, without thinking about it too much, that I was going to become the same completely work-oriented person that I’d always been as soon as the campaign ended—that my career was going to resume full-tilt, too. But John won and our son grew used to spending time with me. And I grew used to spending time with our son. I still missed writing desperately, but when the campaign was over I found that I couldn’t bear to go back to work full-time.

My husband hammered out a family-friendly schedule that let him come home to put our son to bed four nights a week. John relied on found lullabies, adult songs put to new purpose. My favorite one, which I would listen to him sing over the baby monitor, was an old Bonnie Raitt tune about the border:

Your sweet and shining eyes

Are like the stars above Laredo,

Like meat and potatoes,

To me….

He also found us a part-time nanny. She took our son in the mornings, which let me work for a few hours, and then I spent the afternoons with him.

That’s how I accidentally became a part-time everything: part-time stay-at-home mom, part-time professional journalist, and part-time political spouse. This is like trying to maintain residences in three countries at once. One evening, while I was visiting my parents in New York, I was home alone with my son when my cell phone rang. I had just sat down at the computer to check email. While I answered the call, my son noticed where I was sitting, and cried, “Mommy! Don’t work!”

“This is Ira Glass,” somebody else said simultaneously. “Did I catch you at a bad time?”

I had recently pitched a radio story to Glass’s show, This American Life, and now he was calling to talk about the project. He had another producer on the line, and they needed to discuss the tapes that I’d sent to them. “Oh, no, this is a great time to talk,” I told Glass. My son, who was now 2, bellowed again that I shouldn’t work, then disappeared down a flight of stairs.

“If this is a bad time, we could talk later,” Glass offered.

“Oh, no, this isn’t a bad time,” I insisted. I wanted to be a full-time journalist again too badly to put the phone down.

I found my 2-year-old in my parents’ bathroom, where he was emptying containers of beauty products onto the floor. Glass said he wasn’t sure that the radio story was going to work, given the material that he’d heard so far. My son rubbed hand lotion in my hair while I made the case for why I should reinterview the subjects that I’d interviewed once already. By the time the producers agreed, the goop in my hair had hardened into a firm crust.

I don’t know what to call myself these days. I’m not a stay-at-home mom, and I’m not a working mom, either. The best that I can come up with is a hyphenated identity, part one thing and part another—the stay-at-home-sort-of-but-still-working mom. Most of the moms that I consort with are expatriates from the land of work, too. They are in different fields (an architect, a college professor, an attorney, a food vendor, a psychologist, another writer), with different income levels, but they’ve all cobbled together schedules that divide their time between the office and the play date. We are bemused by the public debate between working moms and stay-at-home moms; we see both sides. We’re the women in the middle, the ones who’ve found a third way.

All of us had children far later than our mothers did, and this is not a coincidence. To become an expatriate from the land of work, you have to have been working for a while. I had been a journalist for 16 years before my son was born; my mother, on the other hand, had worked for only three years when she had me. “I could be in your world entirely,” my mother said. “I could enter totally into the make believe. But I was in my 20s then.” I have not been able to surrender to motherhood so completely. Practically speaking, what this means is that my formerly coherent identity has now fragmented into distinct parts. Before my son was born, I had only one persona, which kept things simple. I had one set of clothes and one set of friends and one kind of life to lead. Now I have play clothes, work clothes, and the political spouse wardrobe, and I spend an inordinate amount of time changing.

Once, my husband told me that he figured that I could handle a political campaign and motherhood at the same time because I was the daughter of immigrants. I think he meant that I am good at managing dislocation. And my parents’ belief that the Atlantic was no longer a significant obstacle must have played a part in my conviction that I could inhabit multiple worlds at once. Still, it has taken me three years to see motherhood for the blessing and the undoing that it is. Now that I have made an uneasy peace with my hybridization, I look back on that trip to Ireland differently. I misread the conflict: I thought that I was arguing with my husband, when actually I was at odds with myself over the question of how much I wanted to give to my son. America had told me that I, too, could put my career first, but Ireland gave me a mother who had put her children before anything. In the end, I find that I am more Irish than I expected to be, even if I am not quite as Irish as my mother still is. I am tethered to the past, I can’t let go of her legacy, can’t surrender my tie to that farmhouse. Otherwise, I fear that I will fail my son, who is going to need his humble heritage. My boy—my blood, my heart —is going to grow up a rich kid, the son of the mayor. Who will offer him warm milk in a cracked coffee mug, straight from the cow?

Helen Thorpe is a journalist, mother, and the wife of Mayor John Hickenlooper.

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