Pregnancy and new motherhood have a curious effect on all of the people who are on the outside, looking in: they love to ask questions, to figure out what you’re thinking, how you’re feeling. “How are you?” I have always hated this question, the disingenuity of it, an empty parry of words to fill the air post-hello. We’re all guilty of it, including me: you ask, expecting a brief “I’m fine, how are you?” Mildly curious, at best. It’s clockwork. In the past few months there has been extra pressure for me to answer a bit more robustly, because I could hear the twinge of extra caring, extra curiosity - I was quite obviously pregnant, and later, quite obviously mothering a newborn, so the concern was smothered on. How are you? And I would begin the oral acrobatics of being truthful but not despairing, gamely injecting levity into my exhaustion. I’d rather plaster a photograph of my child on my face, a bar graph detailing the average hours of sleep I get per night: this is what people want, right?
I am going back to work tomorrow, after spending the past month out on extended maternity leave, and I am preparing myself for the deluge of questions. My alarm is going to go off around 5:30 am, which is roughly an hour or so after my daughter wakes, demanding milk. In fact, knowing this, settling back into sleep after that occurs will be nigh impossible. And then it will be time. I can already feel the biting air on my skin as I push the sheet back, the creak of the floor as I pad towards the bathroom. Washing my face, my hands, with wearied resignation: so this is it, then - double-checking my bag, slipping into my shoes, grabbing the keys that hang from their hook by the door. Fumbling back into my old routine, and leaving so much of myself behind. Eve, left behind. Me, folding myself back into a prescribed succession of tasks and responsibilities for hours and hours. Back into the strange, strained dichotomy of adult and child interaction, fielding multitudes of questions from young and old alike. Ms. Bruce, you’re back! Carla, you’re back! The winding hallways, the clanging lockers. Desperate glances at the clock.
The irony of leaving my child to attend to other people’s children is not lost on me. I’ve railed against negligent and cruel maternity leave policies and pumped ounce after ounce after ounce of breast milk and cried bitterly in the night and yet here I still am, staring down a creeping tomorrow that will snatch me away. How are you? How’s the baby? I will create assignments and grade those assignments and muster up smiles for the students, so young and loud and bright. I will peer at their antics and wonder how my tiny infant can ever grow into a preteen, a teenager. I will tell my class to be quiet, repeatedly, and imagine Eve, who babbles more and more every day. The final bell will ring and I will race to collect her from the babysitter, elated to see her, to hold her, dreading the next day when I have to say goodbye again.
None of this is permanent. She is cycling rapidly through phases of growth that mean each week is different from the last. The seasons are changing. I have changed, and yet, here I still am, standing at the front of this room, facing new students, my old ones moving steadily onward, on their way out. Teaching is weird like that. The illusion of stagnancy as children grow before your eyes, and then leave. As your child grows before your eyes. None of this is permanent. But this is how it has to be, right now. So I’ll cradle her tonight, when she’s clinging to me in sleep, soft and warm. I’ll say goodbye to her tomorrow, because I have to. Say goodbye to long, quiet hours alone with her, settling into Mother, holding the world at bay. And tomorrow, when they ask - how are you? - I’ll say what I’m supposed to say. Something truthful, but not despairing.