In an alternate reality, I am working out this morning.
I am lacing up my sneakers, slipping out of a quiet apartment into fresh, spring morning air, passing the bodega and its bounty of Instagrammable flowers, breaking into a light jog (the only sort of jog I know, who am I kidding) so as not to be late. I’m ducking through the door at SoulCycle , my boutique fitness drug of choice, where paying (a little too much) in advance for rides is a fantastic motivator for getting one’s ass to class.
I am inhaling that intoxicating grapefruit candle smell. I am noticing Mark Ruffalo is here—ohmygod, I loved him in The Kids Are Alright . I am Velcroing my rented shoes tight across my feet, snapping into the bike, turning up the resistance and headbanging, embarrassingly hard, to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church.” I am dripping in sweat, pedaling out my stresses, my pent-up, married working mom-of-two frustrations. This is my kind of culty cardio church, as sacrilegious as that will sound to actually religious people; I leave cleansed.
In reality, I am not working out this morning.
I am waking up at 3:47 A.M. to feed my almost-2-month-old son—only fair, considering my husband did the midnight feeding. I am shushing him (my son, not my husband) back to sleep at 4:30, wriggling back into my own bed, listening to his gurgles on the baby monitor, and praying in no uncertain terms that he is really going the f*ck back to sleep. But even when he does—bless him—I don’t. Instead, I’m running through my to-do list, including my mental housework : groceries (my 3-year-old daughter’s snacks rider is more meticulous than J.Lo’s), doctor and dentist appointments, furniture deliveries, work assignments, a dire need for a haircut, and, oh yeah, exercise. What a novel idea! Because even if I am not rushing maniacally to lose the remaining baby weight , I’d love to at least make a respectable start.
When I wake up three hours later, the apartment is not quiet. My daughter is watching Elena of Avalor , pointing her scepter at the TV as it blares magical-flourish noises. My son is gurgling. My husband—bless him, too—is pouring cereal and bargaining with our daughter to brush her teeth. I do not slip out serenely into the morning; I wade through a pile of boxes from our recent move; survey the bottles in the sink and princess costumes strewn across the floor on my path to the coffeemaker. My husband and daughter leave for work and school and my son blinks up at me from his little pod seat, twitching for a bottle. I am not exercising, for I am his bitch. In the hours that follow, I’ll feed him with one hand and type with the other. I’ll leave my lunch to get cold when he wakes up squealing to be fed. I’ll bring his Bjorn seat into the bathroom and say hi to him every few minutes while I shower.
This is maternity leave (or whatever version of maternity leave I’m navigating as a freelance journalist wading back into work before my son can start day care in a month). In reality, I am working my butt off, but I’m not working out, because getting out the door utterly alone to do so at my class of choice feels like conquering an American Ninja Warrior obstacle course. Right now, even at-home workouts are a challenge.
My days are a series of hard choices : Straighten up the apartment or shower? Shower or take a nap while my son naps? Take a nap or do Tracy Anderson’s postpregnancy workout DVD, the holy grail for “waking up” one’s latent abs? Go outside and breathe fresh air, or let my son, wrapped up in his sleep sack like a Hot Pocket, nap and drool on my shoulder, because soon he’ll be too big to do it, and I’ll look back and wish he could? As much as I want to submit to the sweet, burning pain of an hour with Tracy, as much as I want to look and feel like myself again, many times, the lure of a nap, or the cozy baby on my shoulder, win out.
This is maternity leave and this is motherhood: laying yourself bare and doing everything in your power to keep everyone alive, and loved…while trying not to lose yourself along the way. I did not work out this morning, or this afternoon, and I am not going to ladle on a syrupy sweet ending about how I am totally at peace with that because what I am doing as a mother is so much more important. It goes without saying that the day-to-day work of being with my son during maternity leave is more important than Spin class. To complain about maternity leave seems wildly bratty and cold; it’s the reason why “I hate maternity leave” is a fairly popular anonymous thread question on the dark Web of mommy message boards. As women we are supposed to possess She-Ra strength. We’re not supposed to complain, lest we fuel the (hilarious, really) stereotype that we are the weaker sex.
I know I’m lucky to have some semblance of maternity leave when so many U.S. parents don’t ; I know I’m lucky to have a baby at all. But my sheer luck doesn’t negate my longing to have slipped out this morning on my own. When maternity leave ends, I will both cry about the end of this brand-new-baby time together and be glad to regain some of my freedom, including my freedom to exercise. Today I will wish I could have sweat out my little sorrows, I will play “Take Me to Church” and headbang a little bit in the privacy of my living room, and I will let my son sleep on my shoulder. I will try every day to be there for him and his sister and live up to the literally awesome responsibility of their needs. And I will try to work out again tomorrow.
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