With my brand new baby in arms, the first question I asked was, “What is a baby?” In fact, I asked myself that question every day after E was born. I was making up for all the times I didn’t ask it before the delivery. Somehow, in all the flurry of those nine months of incubation, I was concerned primarily with the birth plan, assuming everything following would be “natural.” After all, most of the young moms I knew seemed to be happy and relaxed. And those that weren’t puzzled me momentarily before I forgot them in the milieu of my single life.
One memory does stand out, however. My older sister married a number of years before I did. She gave birth to her first child the night before I started law school. I remember that sometimes she would arrive at family gatherings and quickly deposit her baby in the arms of the first adult she encountered. In hindsight, I realize she was desperate for a moment’s peace. At the time, I thought she was simply eager to share her bundle of joy.
My little girl did not seem much like a bundle of joy. She cried a lot. She ate a lot. I remember one time getting so frustrated at her that I laid her, crying, on my bed, and I laid next to her and started crying too. We bawled together for a minute before she became silent. I looked over at her. She gazed somberly at me with her giant almond-shaped eyes. I was embarrassed. Here I was–the mother–acting like a baby.
I didn’t have any quick revelation of the wonders of motherhood. I still wanted a job, but it was impracticable at the time; my husband was in transition between grad school and his job, and we were posed to move across the country. Also, at the back of my mind, I knew so many women who enjoyed motherhood, so I thought I should figure out their secret before giving up. After all, if I had the fortitude to pass the bar exam, couldn’t I discover the draw of full-time motherhood? So I soldiered on, one foot in front of the other, day after day.
I read books and articles on parenting. I applied and reapplied. And then one day, when E was about six months old, I looked in on her sleeping. For the first time, I felt a throb of deep emotion and knew that I loved her and would lay down my life for her. I knew that she needed me, and I wanted to give her my best.
It dawned on me around that time that she was a person. Although tiny and utterly dependent, she was a person. It’s a simple fact but often overlooked. Susan Schaeffer Maccaulay states it so well: a child is “an individual who thinks, acts, and feels. He is a separate human being whose strength lies in who he is, not in who he will become.”
We spend so many years of our young adult lives asking the question, “What do I want to do with my life and how can I get there?” The options seem endless like the sparkling expanse of the night sky. As you reach one milestone and then another, you find yourself in the delightful place where “reach for the stars” doesn’t seem like a hyperbole. You get into that good college. You graduate with honors. You land that big firm job or finance position in New York, that national campaign hires you and your candidate wins, or a big name sees your portfolio and gives you a design contract that provides the connections you need to keep clients coming for as long as you want them.
Babies do not fit in this narrative. The personhood of babies makes them a lot more than a box to check off. A baby is not a dream to have, a goal to achieve, or a possession to obtain. A baby is a person, a person whose physical, mental, emotional and spiritual development rests, fundamentally, with her parents.
In law school, I heard plenty from female judges and attorneys about how to achieve “balance” in one’s professional and personal life and how to “have it all.” They were light on details and heavy on general assurance that “you can do it.” I think these women meant well. The problem is that they were not asking the right question. They were interested in how to make babies fit to their goals and ambitions. However, they failed to discuss a more primary inquiry: “What is a baby?” Only after an honest assessment of a child’s needs can we talk about work/life balance.
So what are a child’s needs?