The Parent Interview #3: Wanting to be a mom and a woman, too

Ingrid H. reached her mid-thirties without plans to become a mom.  She had a career she loved, passions and interests that she was afraid a child might curtail, and a warning delivered by a doctor decades earlier that her body might not be capable of bearing children.

But that all changed one fortuitous birthday night in May 2009. The result was a baby girl named Story and an unexpected transition to family life for Ingrid and her now-husband Gabe.

Over the last two years Ingrid has chronicled her life with Story and Gabe—first in Philadelphia and then out west in L.A.—in vivid, thoughtful, and thoroughly honest terms on her blog Pop Culture Casualty.  In the following interview she talks about life as a “mom/clown,” about yearning to go back to work after Story turned one, and about what it might be like to one day tell Story about all the adventures her mom had before she was born.

[N.b. You can read an introduction to The Parent Interview series here.]

1. First of all, tell us where you were in life—how old you were, where you were living, what you were doing—when you and Gabe became parents.

In May of 2009, Gabe broke his foot in three places and was unable to walk or take care of himself.  I was sympathetic and vowed to make his life as easy as possible, including lifting the ban on unprotected sex during a very careful birthday maneuver involving little to no movement on Gabe’s part.  After all, I had been diagnosed at the age of nineteen with dysfunctional ovaries that were unable to release viable eggs.  What is the chance that one lustful encounter between an invalid and an eggless Florence Nightingale could introduce one lucky sperm to one miracle egg?  Apparently, the chances are pretty damn high.

I was 36 and Gabe was 33.  Unmarried.  Unemployed.  One of us injured.  Gabe had applied to business school in the winter, but he hadn’t heard anything back yet.  I was searching for a new career and hitting nothing but roadblocks along the path.  It was hardly a good time to get pregnant.

But we rolled with it.  We embraced it. We both understood that sometimes life hands you just what you need.  Gabe went back to work and got accepted into an MBA program at UCLA. We got married and our humble lifestyle allowed us to be present in every way for the pregnancy, the birth and the first precious year of our little girl’s life.  Though it will never be the way it once was, Gabe’s foot healed.

2. You came relatively late in life to being a mom, after living what you describe as a “full life.”  At what point did you begin to think you might want to settle down and have a family? What, if anything, prompted that change

Let’s just get one thing straight, I never wanted to settle down and have a family.  I never wasted a day of my life fantasizing about my future wedding or coming up with the names of my future children.  When the doctor told me I would never be able to have children that fit very well with my lifetime goal to have fun.

I chose a graduate degree in international relations so that I could get someone else to pay for me to jetset around the world.  I moved from one major international hub to the next until I landed in New York. I chose a career that made enough money to live in style in a city that never failed to stimulate. But then something happened.

I was transferred to Philadelphia and suddenly my schedule cleared and the horizon flattened.  Just like the empty streets outside my Philadelphia bedroom window, there was no longer a bustle of people passing through my life. The absence of constant activity in my life was a chance to invest more time in my own development.  I took writing classes, started a new blog, performed in storytelling competitions, and spent more time alone.  I also met the man that would later become my husband, and then, well…I already told the birthday story.

3. Last winter, when Story was a newborn, you celebrated 17-years of sobriety.  You wrote, “It is my hope that you will never know me as I was before I began to work the twelve steps.” When Story is older, what do you think you’ll say to her about those years of your life?

Dear Story: 

When Mommy was very young, she was a lot of fun.  Maybe too much fun.  She got in lots of trouble and didn’t like herself too much.  While she made a lot of mistakes, these mistakes made her exactly who you know today.  Of course, life would have been much easier without all those mistakes.  But then she wouldn’t have all those awesome stories to tell your friends when they come over. 

Mommy did it all, so the bottom line here is that you are going to have a really hard time pulling one over on her.  Don’t even try it.  Oh yeah, and Mom is going to make sure you get all kinds of love and stuff so you never have to go down her path.

Xoxo – Mom

4. You wrote recently about a moment at home between you and Gabe that rang true for me: Gabe got on you for letting Story watch too much television, so you went a whole day without letting her watch any.  But that night you went out, and then came home and found that Gabe had given in and was letting her watch something on the iPad. Which is a long way of asking- how has having Story changed your relationship with Gabe? 

Let’s face it, having a baby tests a relationship.  Without the foundation Gabe and I built before Story came into our lives, I don’t know that we would have survived. We schedule romance because it no longer grows wild.  It has to be planted, nurtured, and plucked at just the right time.  Preferably on a night we can afford a babysitter.

We have both had to work on work-life/spouse-parent balance.  But on the other side, our shared love for Story gives us a bond that makes us both feel safe and warm.  Having a child on a shoestring budget means everything has to be negotiated, but we are a team and support one another in a way that has drawn us even closer. 5. For awhile after Story was born you were not working and you wrote, “I am my daughter’s main source of entertainment from the moment she wakes until the moment she goes to bed.”  How did you feel about that?

I recently accepted a job that no longer makes me a full-time mom/clown.  Story is in daycare two days a week, and she gets all sorts of stimulation from the other kids and teachers.  My first week back in the professional world was weighted with fear and self-doubt.  I was certain I no longer had the skills to be credible in a corporate environment.  I feared that the other skilled candidates in my interview group would see through my crisp expensive suit and see that I was a stay-at-home mom who spent most of her days preparing mac ’n cheese and dancing to nursery rhymes.  But somehow I fooled everyone!  It turns out I didn’t forget everything I once knew.  People actually think I’m talented and have something to offer! Adults want to be around me!

Going back to work is not a choice for everyone, and it’s not something that every Mom craves or needs.  But I discovered that this Mom needs it.  Since I’ve re-entered the work force, I’ve been a completely different wife and mother.  I didn’t know how much I needed to go back to work until I did it.  Now I just have to deal with the guilt of being away from my little girl.  But I think Story will be happier with a more confident Mom.  I can only hope it’s the right choice.

6. You also write very honestly about maternity and body image issues. You said, “I worry more about how much longer it will take for me to get my waistline back, my breasts back.”  How do you think men/husbands should approach all the physical changes that becoming a mom has on women?

One of the blessings of being an older mom is that I long ago made peace with the changes in my body.  By the time I got pregnant, I no longer saw my body as my chief offering in the world.  I feel confident that I offer a complete package of sensuality, intelligence, and vivaciousness to my husband. Being pregnant and feeling my body change in so many dramatic ways was truly awesome.  The shift in my body matches the shift in my priorities from looking sexy to being healthy and happy.

I also appreciate that Gabe that hasn’t changed the way he looks at me or lusts for me.  Gabe is very intuitive about my body image and seems to just know when it’s not a good time for me, so he shows me lots of love in other ways.

7. Last question.  I was interested in what you wrote about Story can infringe on your “very precious freedom” and how you feel “selfish” when you want things above and beyond what Story provides.  How content do you feel about the opportunities and constraints of being a mom?  

During Story’s first year I was entirely content being a mom. I read books on breastfeeding, made my own purees, and sewed baby clothes after Story went to bed.  But when Story turned one, something started to change.  She was becoming more independent and her needs were changing from care to entertainment, which left me completely exhausted at the end of the day.  At first it was fun thinking of new activities.  But soon I ran out of ideas.  Story wants to learn and grow and sometimes I just can’t keep up.

And something else was happening too.  With the weaning, came some postpartum depression.  I suddenly felt trapped in a role I didn’t choose, and our financial situation made it impossible for me to escape.  I started to resent the daily rituals and crave the feedback you get in professional environment.  I watched Gabe put on his backpack and march off to school and I was jealous. I was so wrapped up in Story’s life that I lost myself.

To find my way back we put Story in daycare, which had been unthinkable even a year earlier.  For two days every week I dropped Story off in the morning, crying and wailing, and I’d go sit in the car and cry myself.  Those were the times Gabe would remind me that daycare was good for Story.  And good for me.

I used the time to see friends, go to the gym, and work on a new career strategy. Now that I have more balance in my life, I’m more than content with the opportunities and constraints that come with being a mother. I feel overwhelming gratitude to have the chance to be Story’s mom. I love knowing that my love is shaping a life.  I am helping a little girl navigate her way in the world and it is precious and beautiful and awesome.

Additional posts from the “Parent Interview” series:

The Parent Interview #1: A dad looks back

The Parent Interview #2: Where Wall Street meets motherhood

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