The week I packed up my breast pump for the last time, I received a call from a dear friend. She just left an early check up with her daughter, and she knew this was the beginning of all the “lasts” that come with a newborn. Having just wrapped up the past nine years of either gestating or nursing my children, I was keen to her sentiments of loss, mixed with a strange array of expectant hope.
“What’s it like? Knowing that you’re finished with this stage of your life for good?”
I thought, just momentarily, about my response. In the years proceeding, I idolized this upcoming time of my life. The dream was that I would be fit, rested, and free from the progesterone-induced fog brought by all my sweet blessings. Now that the moment was here, and I attained none of the characteristics I previously idolized, confusion set in.
“I don’t really know what I’m doing now. Before, I always knew what I was supposed to do. My life was tethered to my infant, my daily rhythms completely dependent on hers. Now, I’m not totally clear what my role is around here.”
My friend laughed, the explosive, reverberating kind that mixes disbelief with humor. And, in good faith, I started chuckling as well. Since, truly, I knew that my role, the one that I’d been anticipating all these years, was just starting. Now, we got to raise our girls.
At thirty-nine plus weeks with our fourth daughter, I waddled, with a toddler on my hip, to our church basement to stuff Easter eggs on the way to a prenatal appointment. It was a multi-generational gathering, complete with delightful women full of sage wisdom.
“Is your husband ready to be done too?” one asked me, reaching past the bunny stickers to the tiny packs of jellybeans.
“I don’t think so. He really likes babies. Or, at least he likes snuggling with babies and then handing them off to me for the heavy lifting.”
A good friend of mine, just a few years removed from the newborn phase, smiled across the table. “I bet he’s really going to like the next phase too. The part where he’s not so reliant on you for the heavy lifting. In the next phase, I think the guys can really give back. They no longer have to stand helpless in the corner waiting for mom to show up.”
Until that moment, I hadn’t ever noticed that my husband’s role was not well-defined in our rhythm of new babies. He was willing to do any and everything that he could, but truthfully, there’s really not action to take when mom runs the show.
As the years continued to unfold, and we began our second decade of marriage, our roles as parents continued to evolve. The comfort and angst of prior stages melted away, and we were charged with finding a new rhythm with our four growing girls. As often happens when I am faced with something new, I try to control, force, and organize my way into a plan that might work for all of us.
Maybe I wasn’t nursing a baby anymore, but I was determined to still act as commanding officer around our house. The girls knew that if anything was going on in any of their lives, I was going to be present and involved. Even as the involvement increased, and the stress, in turn, mounted, I never had the good sense to look across the table and ask my husband for help. I dragged my heels and white-knuckled my planner until I could no longer manage our lives with the grace required.
I was blessed with a partner who wanted to help, who invested in our girls with the same level of dedication as me. I was unwilling to relinquish the illusion that our lives couldn’t run without me at the wheel. If he could do just as good of a job as me, what was my role here anyway?
Fast forward a few years, and we raised a glass with close friends to toast my husband’s degree completion. Chardonnay and appetizers passed under an umbrella shielding us from the sweltering sun, and I allowed myself to take a deep breath. On top of his job, he worked for the past two years to complete a degree to further advance his career. Our youngest was still a toddler when he started the program, so no one cheered louder than me when he finished.
“What are you going to do now, with all your free time?” our friend winked, knowing that free time was an illusion we lost more than ten years ago.
Thoughtfully, with a smile, my husband replied, “I’m sure my girls will find ways to keep me busy.”
I set my glass down, and as is atypical for me, I didn’t speak for a few minutes. As the conversation continued to swirl around me, I marked this moment. Must write in planner: allocate activities to husband. Plan amazing things to accomplish while he handles the girls. I could see the illusion of my fit, rested self coming back into view. Now, maybe I could make it transform from an illusion to a reality.
His laughter broke me out of my daydream. I looked up and locked eyes with the man I’ve loved perpetually for more than half of my life. What I had right in front of me was the partner I always wanted; someone who was willing to raise our children alongside me with every piece of his being. And I was too busy making check lists and bossing my way into the next incredible thing our family would accomplish to notice.
In the months that followed. I intentionally relinquished the parenting pieces I previously claimed as my own. What I witnessed was the realization that our roles have been here all along. I just needed to let them fall into place.
When I looked, I saw a father who reads Harry Potter aloud until they fall asleep and coaches the first-grade soccer team without missing a beat. I saw a dad who patiently walks behind a preschooler on two wheels for the first time, knowing that she’ll need more support and encouragement than her older sisters. I witnessed a parent who shares his passions for college sports, and who has developed a love for baking with a middle schooler who’s obsessed. And I watched a man model his faith through his actions, showing his daughters characteristics we hope their partners will espouse one day.
Even through witnessing all these areas where my husband was helping me, what was really going on beneath the surface was much greater. By parenting together, each leaning into our individual strengths, we each gave the other the opportunity to learn to love ourselves in these evolving roles. What was once uncomfortable at best is slowly becoming a new rhythm of normalcy.
I often think back to that conversation with my good friend, right after I closed the door on the infant stage of our family. Rested and fit are still an illusion, but I’m a little clearer on my role. Squishy babies are delightful, but I believe there is so much more ahead as we raise our family. And even better, I’m completely clear that the most loving step I could take as their mother was to step back and let their father find his stride.