A few weeks ago my husband and I took our first family vacation with our daughter Audrey, who had just turned 8 months old, in the Florida Keys. As I crawled into bed the first night, exhausted from an outing earlier that day, I thought, “We are finally beginning to feel like a family.” At 8 months into my daughter’s life this struck me as a very peculiar and uneasy thought.
The birth of a child is accompanied by so much hope and anticipation that I think we sometimes lose sight of the fact that parenthood is born in the same moment. When my daughter entered the world, my husband and I were immediately thrust into new roles of mommy and daddy. In my head, these roles would effortlessly fit and feel natural because we had planned and wanted this to happen for so long. We wouldn’t be perfect at it, and it would be hard at times, but I was so sure our instincts would kick in and in an instant feel like a bonded unity. But that’s not what happened.
Actually, I felt like I was in purgatory, like I was sitting somewhere between what I had known for so long with Justin and this idea I had that you just fall madly in love with not only your child, but being a family right from the get go. I was expecting a lightning bolt of love to hit me. While there was absolutely the feeling of love it came in these slow, gradual waves instead.
Our circumstances are unusual, and perhaps that has contributed. We are on tour with the national company of the broadway musical “Matilda”; my husband is an actor in the show and Audrey and I are along for the ride. In fact, Audrey was born on tour. I gave birth to her at UCLA on a Friday and just four days later we packed up our car and moved to San Francisco for five weeks, then Seattle, then Denver. Our entire existence as parents has been experienced in 21 different cities. Our daughter has been to 20 states, flown on an airplane 6 times and had her toes in 3 different oceans by the ripe old age of 8 months old.
It’s crazy and completely wonderful. I love that this is my daughter’s story and that she will always have this amazing adventure as a part of her life, although she will remember none of it. It comes with its challenges, however. We generally stay in each place for a minimum of two weeks, but recently we split up for six weeks: my husband bounced around to a new city every week, and Audrey and I crashed with my mom and stepdad.
Just as we landed at my parents home, Audrey turned 6 months old and basically exploded with developmental milestones. They were amazing to watch, but there was a sadness in each new discovery because my husband was missing it. Along with these new changes — her first tooth, her first real food — came new challenges. With each one, I had to adapt and adjust and make new decisions alone.
I kept my husband in the loop and we would FaceTime every day, but parenting is a hands on, learn-on-the-job experience. When it was 1am and my daughter would only fall back asleep if I kept her in my bed, I didn’t call or text my husband to discuss it first — I just made the decision. She and I got into a rhythm, and it didn’t include my husband.
Justin and I have been a couple for almost 15 years. I often imagined him as the father of my children; I think that is probably what made this time away so difficult. I had been so utterly excited to watch him be a dad and be a parent alongside him, and we weren’t getting to do that. I don’t necessarily regret the decision to be apart for those six weeks that turned out to be full of so many developmental milestones, but it made me realize something. Being a family doesn’t just happen because you acquire a member and all of a sudden have a new mouth to feed and body to clothe while you continue on with your life. You become a family through time spent together, sleepless nights, active days, a few tears and lots of laughter. You have to witness each other in your respective roles day in and day out.
While the nature of our schedule may be unusual, I have a suspicion that even for new parents who are in place and present with each other and their child daily, there is a process of becoming that all families must go through. The first four months of a baby’s life are so primitive, and their needs so basic. As parents we try in the best way to meet them through the intense challenges of sleep deprivation and, for mothers, while letting our bodies heal. Those first months are so much about survival that there is little room for the emotional component of this new unit. Then for most parents, right as that time is over (if not sooner) one or both have to go back to work. Life has to go on. The time to sit in a room and just be together becomes so limited and rare that we couldn’t possibly make the transition from couple to family without stumbling all over ourselves in the process.
For us, it was only when Audrey’s cognitive abilities started to kick in that our real family relationships began to form. We transitioned, slowly and then quickly, into a period of discovery of our baby as a human with a personality, ourselves as a mom or dad, our partner in their newly acquired role, and the unit as a whole, this family. I now watch my husband every day and am in awe of him as a Dad. I find myself learning about him as Audrey’s father just as much as I am learning about Audrey herself. I have the privilege of watching him figure her out, and she him. And I have the challenge of standing back when I perceive that he is struggling, reminding myself that he is more than capable of figuring out what she needs and better yet, coming up with his own way of making things work.
I now recognize that perhaps I bought into the myth that babies bring joy. I had always envisioned all of the good that a baby brings; the smiles, the snuggles, the happiness — all of which is true. But they also bring confusion, overwhelming chaos, doubt, fear, anxiety, and frustration. I’m not complaining. Having a baby feels like the greatest thing I have done so far in my life; in fact I want more of them! But it’s no wonder that with all of these emotions present, “being” a family is less of a solid structure and more of a fluid movement. It’s malleable and ever changing.
The uninterrupted stretch of togetherness that we had on our vacation was precious. At the end of that week, we got on a plane and go back to our reality of being that little gypsy family who carry only what they need in the trunk of their car. I am not naive enough to believe that from here on out our vacationing selves will transfer completely to our everyday life, that the sense of family I felt then is now fixed and permanent. But having those few days to clear away all the other stuff, to be in a space where we are obligated only to each other, grounded me. We didn’t purchase any souvenirs. We took only a handful of pictures. But the sensation of feeling my husband and my daughter as my family was indelible.
Sara is a yoga teacher.
Image: Marc Chagall, “Over the Town” (1918)