We made it.

I’m sitting in my car in the parking lot of the U.S. Air Force medical center on RAF Croughton in Northamptonshire, England, counting down the minutes until I can take my breast pump off. It’s chucking it down outside, the rain whipping across the small base in lethal waves. My in-laws came to stay with us for a few days, so at least I don’t have to worry about feeding and caring for a newborn in-between my four-hour round trip today. Once I transfer my milk into storage bottles – carefully and while sitting in the passenger seat – I can begin the long drive home. The procedure I came for took only a few minutes: paperwork, some chit-chat, the shot. Aside from the immediate pain in my left arm and mildly swollen lymph nodes 24 hours later, my second Covid vaccine has been no big deal. Unless, of course, you’re talking about the big deal that being fully vaccinated in this pandemic means you can travel again. Which I’m trying to do for work. More on that later.

I wrote a blog about my daughter making it through the fourth trimester – that period in a new human’s life that should still be development inside the womb, but isn’t because otherwise the head would be too big and would kill the mother – but I never published it. Probably for the same reason I haven’t written for a while this time: sleep deprivation. It takes many forms and sneaks up on you in different ways, but it’s all the same thing. Not enough sleep means you stumble around every day (and night) just trying to make it through. And when you do have a moment of down time (when the toddler’s at preschool and the baby’s napping, or when you have help from your mother or neighbor, or when one’s on the playmat and the other is watching “Thomas the Tank Engine” once again), forty things jump to mind that you’d like to do. Take a shower. Drink hot coffee. Sleep. Walk the dog. Work out. Get dressed. Write. Plant seeds in the garden. Clean. Make cookies. Call your sister. Read. Send baby announcements. Cuddle your husband. Fix the blinds. Telework. Draw. Each of these has personal benefits to you; each invests in an aspect of your life worth topping up, but you can only pick one. The rest of your day is spent caring for a tiny person who will otherwise die without your nourishment and help, and guiding a toddler through her emotional end-of-day routine before tucking her into her big-girl bed, hoping this time she’ll sleep through the night. It’s exhausting in a completely different way to anything else I’ve known.

I was simultaneously prepared and unprepared this time around. Some aspects are easier – you’ve already got the baby clothes and supplies; you know how to breastfeed and bathe and swaddle a newborn; you know when to expect certain milestones and regressions – and it’s harder in others: I assumed I wouldn’t be sore breastfeeding this time, that the first six weeks would be easier, that the lack of sleep wouldn’t get to me as much. Those assumptions made the first few months harder than I imagined, which threw me for a loop mentally, especially combined with a global pandemic and a husband who couldn’t help out as much as I wanted because of his master’s course schedule. And I knew it could have been so much worse.

Jack is definitely easier. He was born bigger and, despite my unexpectedly sore nipples again, has put on weight consistently. He gave me 3-4 hours of sleep at night from the get-go and started sleeping 7-8 hours once he hit that magical 10-pound mark. (He’s currently in the first sleep regression, but he’ll still go a long time between feeds at night, even if he is waking up for every other reason.) His neck is incredibly strong, so we’re already working on sitting. And he only poops twice a week. That’s right. I didn’t know it was a thing either, until I called the health visitor because I thought he might be constipated and she laughed and told me not to tell my parent friends. Oh, and this boy smiles. He started way earlier than Beaner and loves interacting with faces, copying whatever you’re doing and then usually laughing about it. Which makes the fact that his farts could be sold as a nerve agent slightly more bearable when he off-gasses. Which is frequent. And sometimes wakes him up at night. Which is a little funny even when you’re tired.

I keep wondering if we’ll have another kid. I know it’s too early, both physically and mentally, and I want to give us some distance before we answer that question, but it’s a big question. I’m 37, classified as a “geriatric mother” already, and we have two healthy, wonderful children. I feel pulled in two directions. If we continue to have healthy, wonderful kids, I’d like more of those, please. I come from a family of four kids and my husband comes from a family of three kids. We’re both used to siblings. Another one might be nice. On the other hand, I selfishly don’t want to put my body through 40 weeks of pregnancy and 6-12 months of breastfeeding again. I also don’t want to put my mind through the unknown months of trying to conceive, and not knowing if we’ll make it full-term. I definitely don’t want to put my marriage through the stress of the newborn stage again, at least not without dedicated help. And, honestly, I’m tired of being on call 24 hours a day. It’s not just breastfeeding – at least that’s fairly consistent. It’s not really getting an adult moment to myself, not being able to sleep without one ear open all night, not getting to set the agenda for the day that I want. This is probably a primary caregiver lament; I’m certainly not the only one who wishes for help or a break or me time. I don’t wish to be single or child-free again, but I do wish this stage would pass faster, even when people tell me I’ll wish it would last forever. I understand what you’re saying, but I also need my sanity back.

I try not to feel guilty about these totally normal feelings. I knew before having kids that I probably wasn’t the stay-at-home-mom type. I like working, whether that’s flying attack helicopters or writing or weeding the garden. I like making a paycheck, having an income. I like having career goals. I do also like being a mother. I like the challenge of raising children to be happy, productive members of society. I like that I have offspring, that my children are half me. I like seeing my toddler find her independence and grow and learn and explore. I like seeing my newborn gaze at the world, smile at me, laugh. I guess I just wish the majority of the burden of child-rearing (time and responsibility) wasn’t on my shoulders right now. I wish I had a more equal work-life balance. And I wish child care wasn’t so bloody expensive.

I’m trying to get back to Germany for work. For a second, it looked doable. Even with the on-base hotel full-up. Even with the on-base child care facility fully booked (hello, German nanny?). Even with the rental car coming out of my own funds. But as of this morning, I’m not sure. The UK isn’t even on the authorized list anymore. We’re classed as a country carrying a virus variant of concern. Unless I’m exempt because of my vaccination or military status, there seems to be little point in trying to help out in-person when I’m not allowed in and even if I was, two-thirds of my time would be spent cooped up in a hotel room with my newborn. I might as well be teleworking from home again.

So, the pandemic strikes once more and puts my plans into a tailspin. I’m confident this, too, is just a phase, but I’m ready for life to return to normal.

I think everyone is.

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