This story begins in Horseytown. Or, rather, on Horseytown, the road-map rug in my daughter’s room, named by the town’s intrepid founder.
Part of being a parent is recognizing which wish-fulfillment impulses won’t harm your children. Am I going to push my child who loves to sing toward the performing arts to compensate for my unfulfilled dreams of a life on the stage? Uh, no. Am I going to get her the road-map rug I always wanted but never had? Hell yes.
I chose one for her that felt calm and green. Horseytown is a little town — ’90s-child high five if your next impulse is to sing “it’s a quiet village” — apple-treed, pavement-laced with only a few cars and trucks, a few buildings, a peaceful, unpopulated soccer field its centerpiece.
Where are the horses? one might ask. Simple. We are the horses. Or, no, horse princesses, my daughter insists. Neighing, galloping horse princesses. So much for calm.
And, so, we were playing horse princess when the thing happened, inciting incident of so many self-care narratives: my daughter bounced her baby carrot of a fingerlet into my abdomen, saying, “Your tummy is squishy.” She said it neutrally, factually, because for her there is no other way to say it.
Except this isn’t a story about my body, not primarily. My big body — big before pregnancy, big after — is a fact, not a failure of willpower.
But even knowing what I need doesn’t make getting it easy.
So much postpartum self-care urges us to claim time for ourselves — and it’s usually implied that that time should be used for “bouncing back,” for reclaiming the bodies we had before we had children, as though that’s entirely possible.
Time, in relation to the postpartum body, we’re told, is merely misallocated. What tasks can be reassigned or let go? Do you have a free hour? That’s an hour that could be spent in the gym. Everywhere the words what’s your excuse?
My excuse: there are only so many hours in a day, and so few of them belong only to me. With limited time and energy available, I can prioritize my body or my mind. I choose and have always chosen my mind.
I need time alone. The most important tools I have for understanding the world are headspace, quiet, and time. Intellectually, I knew that taking care of another person would mean I’d have less of these resources, but I had no idea how much less. A poet, I barely wrote. A reader, I rarely read. And reading and writing weren’t luxuries. They were necessities.
But even knowing what I need doesn’t make getting it easy.
When you have a young child, making space for thought feels like an elaborate side hustle. It pays in quiet and can’t be observed easily by others. Losing baby weight is often an obvious marker for how many others approach self-care, an occasion for an awkward high five. Feeling like I might have figured out how to approach a poem I’ve been stuck on doesn’t necessarily translate to anyone else. Very few people want to high five me for that.
I wish I could say that I am diligent about asking for space and time, or that I use the time well when I have the windfall of a miraculously free hour. Sometimes I’m just too tired to do anything but play puzzle games on the phone when I know I could be writing or reading but I need time to just exist. Sometimes I don’t know how to ask for what I need because the asking feels almost petty when put in words: Can I go read at the cafe where no one’s crying? Would it be ok if I went to the museum for an hour? Can I go walk the trail by the river? Alone? Sometimes I need to muster courage to ask my husband if I can take a break from being on parent duty because I know he understands; the last holdout in giving me permission to relax is always, without fail, me.
While I’m at work and my horse princess is at daycare, sometimes I am able to carve out that sort of time, find a bit of that needed space.
One of the great joys of my job on a college campus is knowing that I have a small, beautiful art museum visible from my office window, a greenhouse behind my building, a quiet poetry reading room right down the hall. There’s a footpath by the Mill River that I can walk along after lunch. (There is, of course, a huge amount of luck and privilege that allows me to access spaces like these: I have a full hour at lunchtime to enjoy them, no one has ever made me feel unwelcome or misplaced in them, and I can access them on the cheap or for free.) Public libraries and parks are full of spaces to decompress and dream too. Even if museums charge entry to galleries, many have quiet free courtyards and atriums open to the public.
And my favorite recently rediscovered time-hack: my dad used to get us amped up for going to the carwash by saying, semi-ironically, “kids, we’re going on vacation!” I get it now; for five glorious minutes, the conveyor belt and the soapbots would handle everything. Vacation, indeed.
Finding that sort of time and space at home is another story.
In theory, I have a dedicated writing room, but it comes with a couple of glaring catches: currently, it’s full of boxes containing the whole of my childhood, the survivors of my parents’ move from my girlhood home — photos, letters, warping plastic tchotchkes, stickers, terrifyingly and yet, irresistibly, an envelope labeled “baby teeth” — there’s no comfortable place for me to sit, and the room has no door.
Even if there was a door to close, I have a three-year-old. I can’t exactly throw her a Baby-Sitters Club and tell her to knock herself out.
My conditions for writing are not ideal, in or out of the house. So most of my poetry these days is written in the cloud, a browser window open while I work to catch ideas, an app on my phone in a café at lunchtime. The phone’s portable and less fragile than a laptop, and it’s always with me. And here’s how I find time and space to write at home — and, in fact, how I am writing this right now: screen time.
It’s not ideal. It’s usually a compromise. It’s often a hustle.
I’d love to give my child the freedom to play independently away from the screen, but we’re still at the age of crayon on walls and all manner of spills, which I might be able to accept as the price of exploration — it’s also the age of chokeables and outlets and dread of accidentally open stairs. I don’t have the time or inclination to feel shamed by using the TV as a distraction. She engages and asks me questions about what she sees and I try to answer them and then get back to work. I’m not fully here nor there, and that’s how it has to be right now. I’m in the cloud.
So much of finding what we need postpartum is like this. It’s not ideal. It’s usually a compromise. It’s often a hustle. And it’s always complicated, like so many other parts of being a parent.
Sometimes I wonder if my child’s boisterous extroversion is a phase, or if it’s just her — I can try to teach her calm, but I can’t make her approach the world in a way that I recognize. My wild toddler may turn out to be an extroverted child and adult. She can take an 8’ x 5’ rectangle of carpeting and populate it with Horseytown’s commotion and noise. When I am with her, I am a guest of the horse princess and, so, I neigh along. I hope she will understand one day that I can stand in the same imaginary village and need to find peace there: the soccer field with no one on it, red truck going nowhere fast, an apple tree unbothered by wind.
About the author
Jen Jabaily-Blackburn has been making unconventional lullaby choices since winter 2015. A poet, her work has twice been selected for Best New Poets (2014 & 2016) and has appeared widely in journals and magazines, most recently Rattle, The Common and Massachusetts Review. She lives in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts with her husband and daughter.