In a dark nursery, I see nothing but myself. Nothing to look at but a glowing clock that doesn’t move and a little swaddled caterpillar wriggling in my arms. We are sleep training our second child, using a method that worked with our first—but it isn’t easy. When the baby cries, you’re supposed to wait a few minutes before entering the room so she can learn to soothe herself when possible. If she stops fussing for even a moment, the clock starts over.
With your first child, these are the hardest moments. For the first three months, she is your phantom limb. The cries reach your muscles and your entire body locks up. Her strife is your pain, which sounds dramatic—but so is giving birth, and the feelings that come after. Posture all you want for Instagram, but no one gets through the fourth trimester without at least one deep dive into what your character is made of.
But in time, the baby does settle. She sleeps. And you forget how hard this all is… until your second child cries.
I thought I’d collected enough Mom Badges over the last three years that things would be easier with my second child. I’d racked up the Patience badge (from the sleep regressions), the Tactical Skills badge (from potty training), even the Parental Judgment badge (from flus, pneumonia, a flat head, ear infections, chronic constipation…). I’d gotten confident at handling the challenges of parenthood, while continuing my career as an attorney. People ask how it all gets done, but in truth, I stopped thinking about whether or how it could be done—I just did.
And as people often say about motherhood, it does get easier—in some ways. I know that each phase ends, if you let it. They will grow, if you let them. You grow too, as their mother, hearing a new voice in your head that speaks with the confidence of history.
The second time around, this voice will keep you commuting an hour each way to work in your third trimester, keep you cooking dinner for your family throughout your pregnancy while making diabetes-approved meals for yourself, keep you calm when your blood pressure drops dramatically during labor. And after your second baby arrives, it will tell you, for a while, that you’re completely fine.
Eight weeks after the birth of my second daughter, we are doing it. She is down to one feed per night, and we are all sleeping enough to form complete sentences the next morning. I’ve managed to avoid looking like a scene from Naked and Afraid, and I wear this composure like a medal. Our house is immaculate, our dinners are home-cooked and healthy, I’ve lost my baby weight. I’ve worked incredibly hard to make it this way—perhaps with the notion that if my stuff is in order, my mind will be, too.
Can you believe I got them both to bed by myself AND made dinner AND cleaned up AND started my fourth load of laundry? I’ll tell anyone who will listen. I stack the benchmarks higher and higher.
But staying at home is starting to take its toll. For someone with a half-dozen side hustles, it’s hard to watch the world go on without me, even for a short while.
And then my baby daughter receives her first vaccinations, and she is inconsolable. Every surface is hot lava to her jerking limbs, and she won’t stop bawling like an angry goat.
Predictably, my toddler seizes this opportunity to throw a tantrum because I forgot to buy her an emoji headband to match her new camp shorts. She “never wants to see me again!” Shocker. Bedtime turns apocalyptic as I maneuver the toddler down the hallway toward the bathtub, the baby still crying.
I’ve tried to balance discipline and sympathy toward our eldest these past few months, but in this moment, I choose truth: “Mommy is doing the best she can.”
We lock eyes and she understands. Enough for one day.
Now it’s midnight, and the baby is crying for the third time. To avoid waking our older daughter, my husband and I are silent on our tactical mission to comfort the baby: Up and down, in and out, why even bother to crawl into bed. It’s my turn. According to our sleep training rules, she can’t eat for two hours but won’t calm down. I can’t calm down.
Stumbling from her glider to the crib for the fourth time, I slam my toe into the crib leg. I clench down on my hand to not scream. She screams anyway. I hold her tightly, rock her deliberately. My shushing gets louder, as the book suggests. No sitting, Mom, she needs to rock. My legs burn from my first exercise class in months, but there are no breaks. She rides my energy and screams even more. I pace wide like a giant around her room. I hold her tighter.
For a moment, she quiets and her lips sour downward. She’s afraid.
And finally, I cry. It comes from my chest and makes no sound but the gasp for air. Hysterics with no noise, emotions that should stay buried in the night. In this first dark moment between us, I see everything I believe is wrong with me.
My daughters deserve a mom who gives her entire body, her entire night’s rest, night after night, with a smile on her face. Do better, I think, but I am not that mom. I will never hand paint a sign that says “Bless This Mess” for our laundry room, because I don’t embrace chaos. I will not pretend to “cherish every moment” when there are some—like this one—I wish we could skip right over. They need one of those moms. I can’t do this to them. I can’t do this.
I am selfish. My job is to make her better, but I wish I was her—the baby—just for a moment. To cry into someone’s boob and have my head stroked until I drift into ease and eventual sleep. Control yourself. The shame sinks in.
Mothering a newborn doesn’t get easier just because you’ve done it before; it’s not a case you study and can reference again. She is not a second load of laundry. It will take time to fold her into our lives.
I unwrap her muslin swaddle for a change and feel her feet between my fingers. She is a person again, not a caterpillar. Innocence.
She is doing the best she can. We both are.