Let’s start at the Marine Corps Marathon 2015.
It was cold, very cold, as my husband Kevin and I fought our way through hordes of runners and spectators waiting to get through security. Towering, inflatable columns organized the vast crowd: runners expecting a five-hour finish time, over here. Three-and-a-half hours? Move farther up. Our ultimate aim was a four-hour finish, and our immediate one, to get to the corresponding corral.
It wasn’t my first marathon, so I knew we were in trouble. Our expected finish time would have put us in the middle of the pack, but running a little late that morning meant we’d run . . . a little late. As we crossed the start line, we dodged and weaved through slower runners, trying to catch up to where we’d meant to be.
I began to panic. It took nearly ten miles to fall into an easier rhythm, and by then, we’d expended far too much energy for the vast distance left in the race. As I mentally subtracted every mile marker we passed from the formidable 26.2, I tried to gauge what I had left in my body and my legs. Would it be enough?
After slogging through the last few miles at what could only charitably be called a “jog,” we crossed the finish line. I barely glanced at my watch; I knew our time was much slower than we’d wanted. Despite the exhilaration of having completed the course—amid cheers of thousands of spectators, no less—our finish felt less like a victory and more like survival.
An inauspicious start
Marathons are invoked as metaphors for anything and everything, and the meaning is usually the same. Pace yourself. Conserve your energy. Remember that this is the long haul.
The metaphor wasn’t far from my mind when I became a mother. My firstborn, Jude, was what everyone loved to call an “easy” baby: he slept predictably, smiled generously. I found myself repeating variations of this sentiment to acquaintances at church and strangers in the grocery line.
“He’s a great first baby,” I’d say. A warm-up baby, I all-but-consciously thought: one that got your blood moving, but didn’t leave you spent and sweaty. One that paved the way for other babies to come.
But even as I outwardly agreed that my son fell on the breezier side of the “easiness” scale, it honestly didn’t feel like that to me. I sweated through those first several months as I adjusted to life as a new mom: the constant feedings, the long nights, the neurotic Google searches; the loss of freedom, the loneliness, the adjustment to my own identity.
Some weeks I felt the thrill of the course ahead, especially when a new developmental milestone hinted at the little person my baby would become. But other weeks left me winded, especially once I began working part-time from home without any childcare.
The bumps and hills weren’t enough to deter Kevin and me from talking about another baby, though, and one frosty March morning, I burst out of the bathroom with a positive pregnancy test. Kevin and I gaped at it, giddy and grinning, and I waved him off to work that morning with a spring in my step.
Jude, then a year and a half, woke up sick an hour or two later. But unlike the fever-induced snuggles of past illnesses, this time he was so upset that nothing I could do would calm him down. He didn’t want to be put down; he didn’t want to be carried. He wasn’t hungry; he wouldn’t sleep. He didn’t want to watch Sesame Street; he didn’t want to read books; he didn’t want to play with his toys. I called Kevin in desperation, who came home from work early to help. It felt like failure.
What might have been a purely joyful day was the beginning of my panic. “How can I take care of two babies when I’m already struggling with one?” I thought. “How can I keep running when I’m already out of breath?”
A change of pace
My anxiety seemed to gain momentum a little bit more with each passing day.
Unlike the nervous jitters preceding Jude’s arrival, this was a fear of the known. With each familiar pregnancy symptom, more memories of what lay behind—and now, ahead—surfaced. Some were good: the euphoric joy of meeting our baby, the sweetness of a newborn napping on my chest. Some were bad: the rocky recovery from birth, the fear of doing anything and everything wrong.
I thought time would be on my side, would offer me a chance to adjust to the idea of being a mom of two. It wasn’t, and it didn’t.
The weeks that elapsed in slow motion when I was pregnant with Jude now took on the frantic quality of the milliseconds on a stopwatch. Meanwhile, my belly was growing at an alarmingly fast pace; by the time we told our families, I was already digging out my stretch-paneled jeans, and the numbers on the scale raced upward more quickly than I cared to know. Every glance downward was a reminder. At twenty weeks: on your mark . . . At thirty: get set . . .
A new beginning
As it turned out, time was more merciful than I’d imagined in getting me so quickly to our baby’s arrival. Of all the surprises of his birth—putting a brand-new face to the name we’d chosen, marveling at the shock of dark hair on his head, heading to the hospital a week ahead of his due date—the biggest one was peace.
He woke us up every hour that first night, but somehow, it didn’t feel as blisteringly difficult as the first few nights with Jude. He nursed well from the beginning—or maybe I nursed well. We cradled him with seasoned arms—the rocking, the shushing, the bouncing all second nature as second-time parents.
It was hard, of course. And it continued to be hard, especially once we had several weeks of sleeplessness behind us. But it didn’t match the picture in my memory and my imagination.
At some point, it dawned on me: maybe motherhood isn’t a marathon, after all.
All the races I’d run depended on how well I’d paced myself. The beginning of the race was usually a predictor of the end; each step was more difficult than the last. If I rationed my energy, I’d maintain my pace and hit my goal time. If I used too much too early, I’d end up limping toward the finish.
But while being a mom has gotten objectively more difficult—with no promises of getting easier anytime soon, if ever—what I didn’t count on was this: I got better at it.
The perspiration of the early days didn’t have to mean that day after day, year after year would only feel more and more difficult. Furthermore, I hadn’t depleted some finite reserve of energy. While I certainly can feel dangerously close to burnout some weeks, there is no shortage of ways to help restore my morale and my stamina: a half hour of playing the piano; watching Jude get excited over sticks, or helicopter seeds, or mailboxes; a big belly laugh from the baby. (A nap also does wonders, but those are hard to come by at the moment.)
And Kevin and I, we’re some of the lucky ones. We have a whole community of help by our sides: grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, godparents, friends. While we ran our marathon very much on our own two (pairs of) feet, we’re surrounded by support in raising our little family.
The baby is six months old now. We’re still not sleeping well; I’m still nursing more often than I’d like to be; Jude is as active as ever. But the days that are especially tough don’t darken the horizon as much anymore. I’m not even looking for a finish line.
These days, my running shoes lay neglected in our hall closet, and I doubt my legs would hold up to even a short jog right now (let alone a marathon). But I’m not worried. I don’t need them—literally or figuratively.