Two years after my first child was born and one month before I learn that I’m pregnant with my second, I take the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan and set out on a twelve-mile walk up the length of the island. The plan is to make it to the Cloisters, a museum located in the furthest reaches of Upper Manhattan. For months now, I’ve fantasized about a getaway, but my high-flown plans—a solitary train ride, a remote beach—have been edited down to a walk: a walk through an adjacent borough, a walk that will happen before dinner and inconvenience no one.
I decide to take Broadway, the only street in Manhattan to run the length of the island. The elegance of this fact appeals to me, but really I just don’t want to think about directions. Unlike all those male flâneurs in literature, I don’t have the luxury of getting lost.
Taking Broadway turns out to be a good move. I forgot how nice it feels to just walk in one direction without pausing or recalibrating. I start at the corner of Chambers, above City Hall, and although the sidewalks are crowded, uneven, and cluttered with that ubiquitous New York City scaffolding, I manage to find a rhythm. Passing through Chinatown, SoHo, and Union Square, I start to feel swept along, as if my momentum is originating outside my body.
By Madison Square Park, I look over the wide lawn and remember standing in this grass two years earlier after a doctor’s appointment. I was hugely pregnant and holding a chocolate shake while scanning the park for a seat. I spotted a remote rickety chair at the very moment that a man in a backpack set eyes on it. He was young and fit. I was spurred by exhaustion and a raging sciatic nerve. Guess who nabbed that chair?
I remember sitting there, watching people enter the park and look glumly at the long line in front of Shake Shack. I had recently started to pay close attention to the mothers, taking note of their gestures and voices. They seemed at once invisible and on display. Many of them seemed to speak louder than necessary to their children, as if their words held a secondary message for anyone within earshot. It was apparent that mothering in public was yet another form of female performance I’d have to learn.
In the early days, when it took nerve just to leave the house with my baby, it helped to have kindred friends. One day I was out with a friend who also had recently had a baby, and we passed a store window displaying magazine covers. One cover featured an actress who was famous in the 90s for her role on a TV drama but whose chief selling point of late is her large brood of children. In the photo, she had on a gauzy blouse and cradled a newborn who wore nothing but a floral crown.
“That baby looks cold,” I observed.
“Put some clothes on that baby!” crowed my friend, channeling a busybody grandmother on her stoop.
Beside the photo of the actress was a teaser: “As a mom, I appreciate the small stuff!”
“No kidding!” said my friend, as her baby looked up at her curiously. “I also like small stuff. And since I had this cutie, I’m this new, surprisingly sexy person who doesn’t sleep anymore.”
“Oh, totally,” I nodded rapidly. “I’m just so pretty now. I don’t experience any rage.”
Back then, it didn’t take much to prompt conversations like that. The Phantom Contented Mother loomed over us, everywhere, like a demented parade float. All we could do was toss up the occasional dart in the hope of deflating her.
* * *
Years ago, when I first arrived in New York, it seemed impossible that so many people could be strangers. Eventually I got used to routinely seeing thousands of faces I didn’t recognize—faces that were not linked in any way to my past. And these days it’s my own reflection that feels unfamiliar. It’s hard to know yourself as a mother when the mirror is clouded with centuries of received opinion, theories, stories, and buzzy internet commentary, and when mothers themselves are mostly absent from the decision-making that affects us most. The Phantom Contented Mother trolls me—trolls all of us. She says she has only my best interests at heart, and she sincerely believes I’m making this more difficult than it needs to be. She’s beginning to tell me to cherish every moment when I pop in my earbuds and turn up the volume.
* * *
About an hour into my walk, my arms start to feel heavy. It’s as if I borrowed them from someone else and they’re not a good fit. What if gravity were dialed back for a minute? Would my arms float up like wings, and would they feel more or less like mine? I’m mentally pulling up a chair for a riff on proprioception and zero gravity, when I feel it arrive—guilt. It always comes without warning, passing over my chest like fluorescent lights being turned on in a stadium: thunk, thunk, thunk.
My daughter is at preschool. My husband is at work. The papers I have to grade can wait. But there it is. Guilt operates in the subjunctive mood: If I were a better mother, I would be holding my daughter in my lap right now and teaching her about the life cycle of cicadas. But guilt can’t decide. It also wants me to write another journal article, complete another job application, give everything to my career, fulfill the promise of my degree program. Meanwhile, the interviews I’m doing for academic jobs leave me numb (even when they go well). It’s possible (in fact, it will turn out to be true) that I don’t even really want those positions, but guilt ensures I can’t see this clearly. Some subterranean corner of my mind—a dark, seditious basement in the Lean In empire—understands that the values of academia are at odds with the messy, varied, frankly unambitious life I want. But guilt won’t let me see this yet.
I know, of course, that structural inequality is the problem. Mothers are railroaded out of academia, and many academic mothers even make choices that move themselves, inch by inch, out of contention for the “real jobs.” I even co-authored a book chapter on these problems—a publication credit that I sincerely hoped (oh the irony!) would bolster my career prospects.
It’s hard to maintain this level of unresolved conflict. And so I wander around the apartment, picking up my daughter, putting her down again, searching for a decent, clarifying metaphor.
“My life is an overturned bucket of Legos,” I say, gazing husbandward.
“Yes,” he says, smiling. “But you can build things from those pieces.”
“You build things,” I say, stomping off—a full twelve feet, which is as far as anyone can get in that apartment.
I’m pissed off all the time. I never knew such simmering anger was possible. I’m angry when I fall asleep, angry when I wake, angry as I sit cross-legged at the local play space watching toddlers stumble adorably toward miniature kitchens. Angry while answering student emails. Angry when I finally get time to write. Angry even when I walk into the living room and my daughter is perched proudly on a mountain of throw pillows and I fall all over her with kisses. Yes, somehow, angry even then.
The day she was born I wasn’t angry—just amazed. A nurse wheeled her large, imposing crib beside my bed and then had the audacity to walk away. The crib was equipped with shelves of tiny diapers, and it was my job to put them on and take them off at appropriate intervals. It was my job to keep her alive by conjuring milk from my body.
A mother is a bifurcated monster, split down the middle between good and evil. You don’t realize the force of this narrative until you have a baby. The question of whether you will be good or evil determines everything. Will you sacrifice all, or will you destroy your child through neglect, accident, or cruelty? In those early months, vertigo struck as I climbed the steep staircase to our apartment with grocery bags in one hand and her car seat swaying in the other. By some unspoken rule, all horrifying potentialities had to be compiled, collated, pondered. I could drop her! I could place her gently into her bed and then go tearing down into the street, never to return. I could. I could. I won’t. But I could.
* * *
Around 42nd street, the world snaps open like a pop-up book. Tourists float under the towering video screens. Someone in an Elmo suit waves desperately, as if drowning. People are selling tickets, giving away tickets, trying to make their voices heard among the traffic and crowds. Then Times Square is behind me, and Broadway continues north in steady cadence of bodegas and eyebrow threading salons.
I eat lunch at a diner in the Upper West Side and continue uptown into Morningside Heights. Soon the elevation of the city changes. I’m in Washington Heights where the landmass of the island tapers to a finger bounded on three sides by water. At 172nd St., the marquee outside the United Palace Theatre offers passersby two choices: “Come on in or smile as you pass!” I won’t come in, so I tug my face into an experimental rictus. A woman pushing a cart darts a worried glance at me.
The day is turning overcast, and it occurs to me that if this were a movie, the sky would open dramatically, and I would stride on, hair streaming—a solitary, majestic figure. Instead I have a life in which I can’t take a shower without someone lying on the floor outside the bathroom door and insistently calling to me, first coaxingly and then with growing intensity (hint: it’s not my husband).
That’s what’s so hard, I think—the loss of solitude and how that loss demolishes and rebuilds you into someone wild-eyed. I mean, what could be weirder than all this? Fetal cells from my daughter, left behind at birth, inhabit my body, infiltrating my blood, my liver. They are transforming my brain neurons even as I wander uptown. She’s inside me, part of me, but she’s also out there in the world—a contradiction I can’t begin to solve.
After being alone for so long, I am suddenly extremely Not Alone, and I’m also aware of how precarious this state is. It’s something all parents understand, and it’s why studies and statistics showing that parents aren’t happy make me want to cackle and wave my arms. It’s probably true, at least in the beginning, but happiness is just…the wrong metric. They should instead ask how often new parents breathe in deeply, filling their lungs. I wish I could revisit my old life (which came with its own problems. Let’s not romanticize) just for a second—just to catch my breath.
* * *
It’s late afternoon when I finally push open the heavy doors at the Cloisters. I drop off my backpack with the coat checker, descend to the restroom, and climb back upstairs to the illuminated manuscripts, the carvings of grotesque beasts, and the tapestries. I love the tapestries—those wall-sized medieval works of embroidery that depict falcons, unicorns, and castles. The stories they tell feel so remote from modern life that it seems incredible that they have survived in their brightly-colored perfectionfor 500 years.
After an hour of looking around and then learning that the museum’s snack bar is closed for renovations (reader, I almost cried), it’s time to go home. I descend the steep stone staircase outside the museum with shaky legs. When I board the train, rush hour is underway, but I find a place to sit by the doors. For once, the subway seems modern and thrilling, bearing me swiftly through neighborhoods it took me hours to cover on foot.
This must be how it felt to ride the train in its earliest days. I remember reading that the first prototype for the New York City subway system was a pneumatic tube that extended one city block. Riders boarded a single streetcar, and a blast of compressed air sent them rolling to the nearby station, and a second blast of air returned them. I look at the riders near me: a woman frowning into her book, a pair of teenage girls dozing with backpacks in their laps. Had we been alive back then, would we have lined up to take that strange new ride? It sounds ridiculous, dangerous even, but it must have been irresistible to get an answer to a question you didn’t even know you had: what’s it like, anyway, to be launched through the dark, pushed only by air?
Featured Image Credit: Daryan Shamkhali