I kept swiveling my head to check the backseat of my car and, finding it empty, felt a twinge of panic. When I returned my eyes to the road, I'd press down slightly harder on the accelerator as if I were escaping something.
In a way, I was. I'd just left my three-month old son overnight for the first time and, despite the pangs of fleeting anxiety, it felt absolutely fucking wonderful.
"What I really needed were two nights of uninterrupted sleep to try to make my brain function."
Like almost every decision you make as a new mother, this one was fraught and some people judged me for my choice to pack up and leave my near newborn for three days and two nights to finish editing a novel my editor wanted by the end of the month. I told myself I needed two days of silence to read through the manuscript and write. But what I really needed were two nights of uninterrupted sleep to try to make my brain function the way it did before hormones and lack of sleep drove a truck through my prefrontal cortex.
"Who's watching him?" a mom "friend" said to me with a note of derision. I cringed. "His other parent is watching him." "I just can't imagine leaving my baby like that. She just needs me so much." I could almost see her chest swell with a self-righteous satisfaction. It was the truth though. Charlie has two parents who try their best to share parenting. My husband, Nick, is a perfectly competent human and caregiver even though he sometimes refers to taking care of our kid as babysitting. Still, I over-prepared him before I left, making little piles of outfits, enough for a week, and pointing out the location of baby things he already knew how to locate. From the furrow of Nick's brow I could tell he was disappointed that I didn't trust him enough just to walk out the damn door, but that he was also grateful for the help. Despite his eagerness for the chance to try to take care of Charlie on his own, deep down he worried that he didn't know what the hell to do. I kissed him and told him not to worry. I don't know what the hell I'm doing most days either. Parenting, I have come to learn, is mostly about being terrified of doing everything wrong all the time, googling maniacally, hating everything Google tells you, and then winging it.
Parenting is mostly about being terrified of doing everything wrong all the time, googling maniacally, hating everything Google tells you, and then winging it.
Even packing for my trip was liberating once I realized I didn't need to worry about bringing clothes that would make it easy to whip out my boob out at a moment's notice or ones with fabric that could withstand pee, poop, vomit or an iteration of all three. A whole section of my closet—one untouched for almost a year revealed itself to me. Hello, raw silk caftan. I missed you. As I drove north up the California coast I thought of a name for what I'd done and decided to call it THE GREAT BABY ESCAPE despite the fact that sounded like a movie with Jack Black and/or that guy from The Office. I did feel like I'd escaped something, like I'd broken free. About an hour into the three-hour drive to a small resort on the coast on the border of Mendocino, I stopped checking the backseat. The baby was not there. My muscle memory finally accepted that. I got out of the car at the first beach I saw and parked next to an SUV where a mother was changing her toddler in the backseat. He bucked and yowled, grabbed his diaper, ripped it out from under his butt and shoved it at his mother's fluttering chest, smashing poop into her chambray shirt.
"That sucks," I mouthed to her as I got out of the car and offered her one of my La Croix's from a cooler in my front seat. When I left her to walk down to the water I felt relief wash over me that poop on my shirt would not be in my immediate future. It's a cliché to say I felt lighter as I strolled along that beach, but that's what it felt like. I realized that I hardly knew who I was anymore without my baby literally attached to me all the time. When I returned to the car I rolled down all four windows without worrying about blowing dust in Charlie's face and blared the Hamilton soundtrack as loud as I wanted, unconcerned about waking him. The car smelled of red vines and string cheese and strong deli coffee brewed at a seaside bodega instead of breastmilk poop and organic baby shampoo. I hadn't ridden in the front seat of a car for more than ten minutes in three months and never without fear that a pacifier would drop out from between tiny lips and cause a crisis. Being in the car with my son, who despises his car seat with the vigor of a caged chimpanzee, is so fraught I'd forgotten I ever enjoyed being in the car. I pulled over at nearly every vista—Shell Beach, Goat Rock point—places with wonderfully silly names and relished getting in and out of the car without a stroller.
At check-in I asked the clerk if I could use their kitchen freezer to freeze my breast milk. She nodded, avoiding eye contact with milk stains forming a Kandinsky down the front of my caftan. She handed me a single silver key to check into my room and it all felt very clandestine, like I was about to have an affair. I sank into an armchair and quietly enjoyed the sunset, forgetting for a moment that it was likely witching hour at home and that Charlie would probably wail inconsolably until the sun went down. For a beat I felt bad for Nick, but not so bad that I didn't pour myself a glass of wine and wait to call until I knew the baby would be asleep. My own sleep that night was less glorious than I'd planned. I woke twice in the middle of the night. One time I was sure I heard a baby cry, but it was the screech of an animal, maybe a bobcat. The second time, my breasts had created a pool in the king sized bed. Still I slept soundly the rest of the night and because I had gotten more than an hour and a half of continuous sleep I felt as rested as if I'd taken a sedative. The most wonderful moment of the morning was realizing I could open my eyes and not have to move. I didn't have to be anyone's mom from the second I placed my feet on the floor next to the bed. I could just be a person. For two days, I could just be a person who didn't have to do absolutely everything for another person. In the couple of months after my son was born I teetered between postpartum depression and crippling anxiety every day. I think most new moms teeter on the brink of something. How could they not? All of your time and energy is suddenly taken up by another human, another human I might add who doesn't particularly even seem to like you for the first month. Your body often feels like it's been ravaged by a savage beast. You don't sleep. You forget to eat. It's too painful to work out. Sometimes you can't remember why you married your husband. I finished editing my book in those three days away, but more importantly, for the first time since I peed on that stick a year earlier, I felt completely myself again. Three months into being a mother I had to leave my baby in order to learn how to miss him. I learned what it felt like to long for my baby, to ache for him with every muscle in my body, something I couldn't do with him in such close proximity.
I'm pretty sure he didn't even notice I was gone. I walked in the door and his face lit up like it does every time he sees me after I disappear for five minutes. That's really one of the best things about babies. He shoved a squirmy hand in my mouth and I inhaled his sweetly sour neck smell and the unmistakable whiff of breast milk poop and I squeezed him as tight as it is okay to squeeze a baby and whispered in his ear that I missed him and loved him. Getting away let me rebuild my reserves. It reminded me what I was like before I was a mom so that I could go back home and be a better mom.