A few years ago, when I was newly pregnant with Charley, my husband and I had our first real married fight. It was at the beach in Chicago. It was July and the water was frigid, but the sun warm. The beach was fairly crowded and in front of us there was a family of four. I don’t remember much about the fight, I knew there were important topics discussed, but I have thought of that family many times since. A funny thing happens when you become pregnant: you become hyper-aware of every mother, father, baby, and family near you. You scrutinize their every movement. Would I be a mother like her? With a baby carrier and no stroller, her hair long and unkempt? Or would I be like the mom over there with the shiny new stroller, and tapping away on her iPhone? You notice which mothers are thin again, which dress well, and become depressed by their small numbers. It must be motherhood, it makes you fat and haggard, you conclude, clutching your belly nervously. That’s what I was doing during our first fight, when I was barely pregnant and still wearing a bikini at the beach. I was silently inspecting the family in front of me. The parents were on their beach chairs; they had dark hair and looked relatively fit. The kids were cute, older, maybe just in elementary school, a boy and a girl, and they played and crawled in the sand quietly. The parents were talking, and occasionally laughing, but I couldn’t hear their words, the wind carried them away. Instead, I noticed their facial expressions and actions. The looked happy, but lurking there underneath the happiness was this tired, bored feeling. They were at the beach, but not really there.
Now, as a parent, I completely understand them.
We spent this past weekend with our five-year-old niece, which was a taste of having two kids. It was exhausting. Her energy was totally different, and the sweet moments between her and Charley were rare. Instead I spent most of the weekend feeding them (on opposite schedules) and mediating conflicts (seriously, I need a law degree for this). It was the constant, ‘she has this turn,’ ‘you have the next turn’ that really wore you out. So I finally understand the couple at the beach with their two kids. It wasn’t that they weren’t happy. Instead, what I didn’t see was all the work it took to get there. But perhaps the journey matters more than the destination?