I had big plans for my first maternity leave, the nine blessedly unencumbered months I'd spend away from my teaching job. First, of course, I intended to love, care for, and play with my baby. But no way was I going to become one of those goo-goo-ga-ga new mothers who can't think of anything but their child. While my son napped -- I was counting on long naps -- I'd rent films and watch the news. Most of all, I would read books: glorious novels, gorgeous poetry collections, spellbinding biographies.
Naturally -- you veteran moms are nodding -- it didn't work out that way. Here's how I spent my maternity leave instead:
I took care of my baby, and I slept.
At first, Sam nipped and napped around the clock, never sleeping long enough for me to hit REM myself. Just to survive, I adopted the whole sleep-when-the-baby-sleeps thing as my mantra. In a temporary burst of hopefulness, I did take a stab at Wuthering Heights early on, but after rereading the first four pages of it for the third time, I gave up, so muddled by sleep deprivation that I couldn't tell one character from another, much less figure out what was happening on the dark moors of England.
Things got better. Halfway through my maternity leave, Sam was sleeping through the night and taking a couple of gonzo naps every day, but by then I was no longer remotely interested in 19th-century novels. I was too busy deciding which adorable photos to send to my relatives, and writing blow-by-blow descriptions of Sam's milestones to send along, too. I was poring over What to Expect the First Year, getting a little thrill every time some new trick of his fell into the "He may even be able to" category of possible monthly achievements. Now, I'm not saying that every new mother loses her capacity for abstract thought and her engagement in the non-baby world. My friend Ann, for instance, was named Alabama's Teacher of the Year and spent the semester that was supposed to be her maternity leave giving speeches on education reform at organizations all over the state, while her baby slept in an infant carrier next to the podium. If anything, motherhood actually sharpened Ann's ability to focus on her profession.
But I've known more new moms who were a little embarrassed by what motherhood had turned them into. Women who once enjoyed foreign films, presidential politics, or the latest Cormac McCarthy novel find themselves wondering: Did I really just spend half an hour weighing the relative merits of rubber pacifiers over silicone ones? We can't really help ourselves -- motherhood, particularly new motherhood, is so absorbing it hijacks our brains as well as our hearts.
But just because a mom isn't pondering politics and art or the latest dire reports on climate change doesn't mean she isn't using the best of her mind. All the time I wasn't reading books or watching the news, I was thinking --about how to give my children boundaries that would make them feel secure but not thwart their natural sense of adventure; about how to foster curiosity and kindness and gratitude and good humor; about how to help my kids feel connected to the world but not entrapped by worldliness. Without realizing it, I was getting a crash course in human development and social interaction.
Don't mental activities of this kind count as real thought? Of course. It's not the kind of thinking that lends itself to lively cocktail -- party banter, though, so it's easy -- especially in the early months -- to think that motherhood requires you to check your brain at the door. Maybe that's why we all berate ourselves at times ("But I used to read The New Yorker!"). What I've learned in 11 years of motherhood is that real thinking, the deepest kind of thinking, often has nothing to do with current events -- "news" that ceases to be new, or sometimes even noteworthy, by the end of the day.
What a mom learns by knowing a child from its first tiny flutter is nothing less than how a human being is formed. Motherhood forces us to understand, if only so we can teach it to our children, what really matters in the small space we each have between birth and death. And the easiest way for me to learn this lesson is by living in deep, penetrating kinship with other human beings -- by living, in other words, in a family.
I'm glad I've reached a point in motherhood where reading novels and taking an interest in global events is possible again, and I admire the moms out there who get to this point more quickly than I did. But I still stubbornly insist that the weeks, months, or even years a mother spends focused on a child is a fruitful intellectual time as well. Even now what I discover from my children -- from studying my glad, inquisitive, compassionate, creative, and life -- embracing children -- still strikes me as far more enlightening, and far more permanent, than what I learn by tuning in to the nightly news.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing editor to Parenting.