BY SPRING of my internship year I was exhausted, I’d gained 10 pounds, and my periods had stopped. I assumed that months of 36-hour hospital shifts fueled by coffee and vending machine candy had finally taken their toll. But when summer arrived, my schedule eased up, and the waistband of my white uniform pants continued to tighten, I considered another diagnosis.
The obstetrician determined that I was well into my second trimester. On the top of my chart she wrote, in large letters, LATE REGISTRANT, a term I’d previously only heard applied to teenage girls who arrived in the emergency room in labor, complaining of “stomach ache.”
This inauspicious start to my pregnancy — which produced, a few months later, a small but otherwise perfect baby girl — may have shaken what little confidence I had in my ability to care for an infant. I’d been the youngest in my family, and my babysitting career had ended after one outing, when a brat plastered bubblegum in my hair. Certainly I’d learned nothing about tending babies in medical school.
So I did what I knew how to do: I studied. The day after my daughter’s birth I waddled to the maternity ward’s class, “Bathing Your Newborn,” and took notes. I invented the same kind of mnemonics with which I’d crammed for anatomy and biochemistry: lie Baby on her Back in Bed (to prevent crib death). And, of course, I bought books: Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care, T. Berry Brazelton’s Touchpoints, and Frank Caplan’s The First Twelve Months of Life.
I found these books unhelpful and, to my deep shame, boring. My own baby fascinated me. I could stare at her for hours. But babies in general and, especially, advice about babies were, to me, dull and irrelevant. What did it matter how long the experts said you should let a baby cry before picking her up, or at what age she should crawl? My baby crawled when she crawled. When she cried, I picked her up. The only thing I remember from any of those manuals is the famous first line of Dr. Spock’s: You know more than you think you do. I wasn’t sure this statement was true, but it provided some comfort. After all, if millions of parents since 1946, when Dr. Spock first published Baby and Child Care, had needed such reassurance, at least I wasn’t alone in my feelings of inadequacy.
Looking back many years later (I’m currently planning that five-pounder’s wedding), I think that at least part of the reason those baby books failed to assuage my anxiety was that, as with my exhaustion and weight gain, I’d misdiagnosed it. I wonder, now, if I was really less worried about whether my baby would thrive than if I would, whether the book I needed wasn’t so much “How to Be a Mother” as “How to Be a Person Who Also Happens to Be a Mother.”
Several books written in recent years, including Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness, and Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun, address the conflicts parents face in trying to satisfy their own professional and personal needs and desires while raising children. But I suspect that if they’d been available to me as a new mother, these books, like those of Drs. Spock, Brazelton, and Caplan, might have left me cold. When my second child was a year old I was fortunate to be able to start practicing medicine part time. I didn’t need an expert to tell me that my kids liked having me around, or that I was too tired to lean in any further than necessary to help pay the bills.
A book I think I would have liked, however, is Megan Stielstra’s new essay collection, Once I Was Cool. Stielstra, author of a short story collection, Everyone Remain Calm, also takes on the subject of work-family balance, though the essays in which she does so (“Juggle What?,” “A Room of One’s Own in the Middle of Everything”) are not her strongest. Stielstra is at her best when she tackles a more fundamental balancing act: between who we were before we became mothers and who we are after our children are born.
In her youth, Stielstra frequented a Chicago club called the Aragon, especially when her favorite band, Jane’s Addiction, played. Stepping outside to escape the drunk and rowdy crowd, Stielstra recalls in her collection’s title essay: “Inevitably, I’d stare at the building across the street, with its crumbling yellow brick, its iron balconies, its turret. I want a turret someday, I’d think.”
Stielstra gets her turret, along with a mortgage that goes underwater when the condo market crashes, a husband, multiple part-time jobs, a cancer scare, and a delightful but endlessly demanding baby boy. Now entering middle age, Stielstra hears music blaring out of the Aragon nightly from her home and tries to make sense of her new life, which exists, literally, across the street from her old one. The proximity invites comparison: “Fifteen-year-old me made out with boys who wore eye makeup,” Stielstra writes. “Thirty-eight-year-old me drinks Cabernet and plays ‘I Would For You’ on repeat.”
Many of these essays began as performance pieces — Stielstra is the literary director of Chicago’s 2nd Story storytelling series — and have an appealing urgency. Stielstra’s prose reads like something your friend needs to tell you right now, before she even takes her coat off. Occasionally this conversational style feels unsatisfying, as when “awesome” (or “fucking awesome”) shortcuts the nuance Stielstra shows herself so capable of elsewhere. But when Stielstra addresses readers directly, as if she were at the mic and her readers were in the audience, she is both engaging and very funny.
For example, in “It Seems Our Time Has Run Out, Dr. Jones,” Stielstra recalls the evolution of her adolescent crush on the adventure hero played by Harrison Ford:
I didn’t want us to play in the mud anymore; I wanted us to … well, I had these feelings, you know … God, how do I word this? “Nocturnal activities,” is what Indy always says, and — don’t look at me that way! Like you don’t have fantasies!
Again and again, Stielstra invites us to see what we have in common with her, and with various underdogs who make cameo appearances in her life, for whom she has particular compassion: the homely guy who likes the pretty girl at the bar, the abused teenager in Prague, the mentally ill delivery man, the elementary teacher sobbing in the girl’s bathroom.
All memoirists want their stories to resonate with their readers’ experience — or should. Stielstra makes this desire explicit, repeatedly pointing out parallels between her own and others’ lives. I can think of few other memoirists (and I’d consider Once I Was Cool a memoir-in-essays) who tell their own stories so much through the stories of other people — and in Stielstra’s case, the other people are often strangers.
In her title essay, Stielstra eavesdrops on a frumpy middle-aged mom and her eye-rolling teenage daughter standing outside the Aragon. To Stielstra’s surprise, she overhears the older woman say, “I saw a band play here called Jane’s Addiction.” Stielstra writes:
Part of my brain may have exploded.
She was in her forties, in a GAP logo sweatshirt with helmet hair. In my head, I’d slapped her with every possible generalization: suburbs, tourist, old, out-of-touch, uncool, everything I promised myself I would never become. Not once had I considered that there might be more to her story. There is always more to our stories.
The revelation of the uncool mom’s cool side alters Stielstra’s perception of the woman, and also opens up a new possibility for herself: maybe she really can, as it were, live on both sides of the street: club and condo.
In “Channel B,” the collection’s best essay — included in The Best American Essays 2013 — Stielstra again sees her own life more clearly through the life of a stranger. She describes, hilariously, the frazzled weeks when she was home with her newborn “in the frozen Chicago winter,” exhausted, charting poops on spreadsheets, and obsessing about all manner of impending disaster:
… have you read the Internet lately? Do you know what can happen to an infant if its mother turns her head for even a fraction of a second? Somebody’s always getting crushed under a Bungo or Bipbap, or being abducted from their own backyard […] and did you know some kid in the UK just got dragged off by a jackal?
Stielstra’s real problem, though, isn’t fear for her baby’s safety or exhaustion or even postpartum depression, but a kind of identity crisis:
We all have things about ourselves that we know to be true, and suddenly I couldn’t remember any of them. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t laugh. I couldn’t connect with my friends. I couldn’t see myself.
She finds reassurance through an electronic glitch: her baby monitor’s “channel B” picks up images and sounds of another baby — and that baby’s mom. One night, Stielstra tunes in as her neighbor weeps, and confesses:
I shouldn’t have listened.
But it was the first time since my son was born that I didn’t feel alone.
The connection Stielstra feels with the other mom isn’t merely commiseration, though. When the weather brightens and Stielstra sees the woman on the street pushing her stroller, she observes:
She looked tired — and interesting, like there were all sorts of secret things about her that were set on pause for the time being.
She looked like how I saw myself.
As with the frumpy mom in front of the Aragon, Stielstra finds in a stranger validation of her own complex identity, and ours.
Perhaps the sweetest commentaries on parenthood in Once I Was Cool are a pair of companion pieces about each of Stielstra’s own parents. In “My Daughter Can Read Just Fine,” Stielstra’s mom, a teacher herself, defends her daughter against a rigid elementary school teacher who objects to the young Stielstra’s precocious reading habits. In “Who Wants the Shot,” Stielstra recalls her dad, an avid hunter, teaching her how to handle a gun. In both cases, parents are most effective when they bring their own passions as people to their parenting — which is, more or less, Stielstra’s message. Not that she’s prescriptive — Once I Was Cool is no parenting manual — but she’s helpful nonetheless. Stielstra does what the best personal essayists do: pluck snapshots — and mirrors — from the quotidian stream.
A few months ago, as I was driving him to the airport for a college semester abroad, my youngest asked me: “Now that we’re all grown up, do you have any regrets about how you raised us?” I said, yes, two: I should have been a little stricter about the junk food, all those boxes of Cheez-Its and foil pouches of high-fructose corn syrup juice. And I wished I’d been a little less slavish about signing up for activities that no one really seemed to enjoy as much as hanging around the house: Cub Scouts and soccer and music lessons.
My son laughed. “That’s it, Mom? Cheez-Its and Cub Scouts?”
His handsome head disappeared through the security gate without turning for a last goodbye. I whispered the atheist mother’s prayer I say whenever my children travel far from me, which is often now.
My answer to my son’s question wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t entirely true, either. I can think of many deficits in my mothering, but few I’d call regrets. “Regrets” implies you’d do it differently if you had the chance, and I’m not sure I could. Like Megan Stielstra, like any mother, I have been, as a mom, who I am as a person — for better or worse.
Recently, on Mother’s Day, social media was flooded with pictures of moms: moms with babies slung to their chests and with teenagers towering over them; moms walking their kids down the aisle and moms in wheelchairs. I loved them all, but the ones I loved best were the old black-and-white photos of moms now long dead, from before they were moms: young women with lush hair and dreamy eyes. They didn’t yet know how much joy and pain children would bring; how much motherhood would change them, and how little.
How much they already knew.
Suzanne Koven practices primary care internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and writes the monthly column, "In Practice," in the Boston Globe.