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?

May 2006

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.