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?
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.