“When you’ve got kids, it’s like you won the lottery,” a man once said to me. When my first daughter, Enna, was born three years ago, I felt a shock of pure joy that hit me in the solar plexus, the same spot where crushing loneliness used to snatch my breath away in my single days. Each night I go to bed happy because I know I’ll see her and her seven-month-old sister, Athena, in the morning (or, let’s be honest—I’ll see at least one of them sometime around 2:30AM). If the sky were falling, if the world were ending, this is what I would seek: the deep, oceanic pleasure of loving a kid, of being loved back.
It’s just all those moments before the sky falls that I need to figure out. Because, as my husband will tell you, I have a gift for complaining, and it has only grown since I got the one thing I always truly wanted: kids.
I whine about my fourth-floor walkup, my lack of dishwasher, my sleep-striking three-year-old, the constant fountain of spit-up from the baby, the fatigue, the frustration, the continually regenerating pile of laundry, the heart disease I must surely be developing since I haven’t exercised in 14 months, and the fear that I will pass on my gratitude-deficiency and my myriad other attitude problems to my kids. Right now, I’m complaining about how much I complain. And while I realize the incredible luxury of this litany of complaints—I’ve got a good roof over my head and enough money to pay the rent—my biggest grievance is about the thing my new and fortunate life is missing the most: me.
Before I had kids, I had the luxury of time, which I spent on creative pursuits, many of which I luckily got paid to do. I drew. I painted. I sewed. I wrote songs. I invented recipes and made yummy meals. I played guitar. I wrote—get this!—fiction. Also: I exercised regularly. I socialized on average five nights a week. I traveled for work to faraway lands, and I had at least 17 days a year when I didn’t worry about money. In short, I had a fully formed identity that had nothing to do with children, a rich intellectual, creative and social life.
When I’d imagined motherhood, I saw myself continuing those creative pursuits, bestowing my love of friends and culture and nature on my kids, teaching them the joy of crafting, leading them on walks through the park, and inventing exotic, organic baby foods to expand their palates.
But this is the reality: most days my kids are eating foods from shiny, squeezy packages, and 87 percent of my time is spent trying to distract them so I can ferociously—but unsuccessfully—tidy our apartment. Then I shuffle them off to bed as quickly as possible so I can sit on the couch, drooling, eating takeout and watching Homeland. Suddenly I am a bad cook, a terrible craftsperson, a talentless musician. I can barely read a novel, let alone write one. I hardly recognize myself, and it’s not just because I’ve had so little sleep in the last three-and-a-half years that I practically have a permanent tattoo of dark circles beneath my eyes. It’s because I’ve gone missing, leaving in my stead this creativity-free zombie whiner.
Now, shedding my old self isn’t all bad. There was plenty in my former identity that I longed to change, and I wouldn’t trade my current married-with-children existence for my excruciatingly lonely but much more culturally satisfying former life for a second. My children are beautiful, snuggly, smart and smell like sunshine (and a little bit like spit-up). I recognize my good fortune in having them, and in the ways that they’ve allowed a more nurturing and patient person to emerge from within me (this person visits a few hours each week, in between episodes when I’m literally crying over spilt milk). But it’s hard to feel grateful for mothering when I feel like I’m doing such a bad job at it much of the time, and when I feel like I’ve exchanged almost everything else in my life to do it.
While I admit that I’m naturally inclined to see the glass as half empty, I’m certainly not alone in feeling unmoored by motherhood. Most women I know, except the ones who are eerily indefatigable and relentlessly positive, undergo some version of an identity crisis when they become mothers, and feel like they fail at it somehow. And the predicament, I think, has cultural roots. Modern moms expect to excel at every aspect of womanhood: domestic goddess, creative force, monetary achiever and world’s greatest parent, whose toddlers are raised on baby Mozart and are properly primed for the Ivy League. Our generation has been told that we can be anything we want to be. But we seem intent on being everything we want to be, all at once. And when we can’t do that—because, ladies, there just aren’t enough hours in the day—we feel disappointed in ourselves.
Lest you think this is all selfish whining, I’d gamble that losing all my creativity in exchange for procreativity isn’t great for my kids, either. Imagine if President Obama’s mother had been too depleted to pursue higher learning and drag her children to faraway lands? I want to help steer my kids into good citizens, but in order to do that, I have to be one myself. Which means I have to, at the very least, summon the energy to leave the couch.
Yes, I know, there are women with young children and vocational struggles and household appliance-deficiencies who still manage to cultivate gratitude. People unhampered by sleep deprivation, who exude patience and whose sunny disposition brightens the darkest days. Maybe they have more oxytocin, or serotonin, or religion than I do, or some other secret ingredient that allows them to be grateful while still molting the very core of their identity.
For the rest of us, though, I think we need to profoundly alter our self-expectations, to steel ourselves against a culture that suggests we achieve vocational success and mom-of-the-year at the same time, while prepping for the marathon and winning the laundry battle. We need to admit that the great gain of children comes with loss: loss of time, money, motivation, energy, identity and sleep, which is no small thing. To admit that parenting is distinctly unglamorous, that it can rob you of cherished parts of yourself, that is harder to do than most of us thought, and that it might make us crave things like dishwashers instead of literary fame. I think it’s okay to disdain parts of it, to suffer through the strain of parenting, as long as that suffering doesn’t color over the beautiful parts of it, too.
Because that, I think, is the key to getting back to gratitude: to allow those small and glitteringly beautiful times to shine. I don’t think I’ve lost all gratitude since having kids. It’s that the shape of gratitude has profoundly changed. It comes in these intense moments, punctuating the long daily slog of housework, tantrum management, fatigue and the eerie new reality in which I hardly recognize myself. On either side of the slog are the most concentrated and powerful of joys, from seeing my kid walk for the first time, or kick a goal, or slip her arms around my neck unbidden. In these moments, I know what that man meant about winning the lottery. If I luxuriate in those moments, they provide me with enough fuel to crawl from one to the next.
To be grateful for the good stuff—the 1.6 hours of snuggling I get every day, even if some of it is in the middle of the night when I’m desperate to sleep—I have to let myself off the hook about the bad. To on occasion leave the house a mess so I can spend more time playing with my daughters. To worry less about succeeding at some impossible ideal of womanhood and instead stay present in that moment of placing my cool hand on my daughter's forehead to see if she feels feverish. To stop and listen to her when she tells me that she'll only play Princess with the girls if she gets to be the police. To laugh when the hot slap of spit-up cascades down my new sweater. And to bid fond farewell to the old me and embrace the new one: an overachieving but continually failing part-time worker and part-time mom who does the best she can.
For I do realize that the great tragedy of life would be to get to the end and realize that I had it good all along, if only I’d stopped complaining long enough to realize it. And I know that I need to revel in how things are instead of rail about how I want them to be.
And I will do that, just as soon as I clean the kitchen, take a nap, throw together something vaguely nutritious for dinner, take a seven-second shower, earn a paycheck and, oh right—raise my kids. Because let’s not forget that even though I’m almost too tired to rise each morning, my girls are the reason I get out of bed.