BY: Chantal Braganza
ILLUSTRATION BY: Jason Logan
There are two terms in parenting parlance for the messy, sleepless first months when child and mother adapt to postnatal life: “the fourth trimester,” as in the first 12 weeks after birth, and “matrescence,” the physical and emotional process of becoming a mother. While these concepts assume a lot—namely, that every child is born to the person who will raise them—they are a useful way to highlight what society would rather ignore about babies: Learning how to care for them is often all-consuming, anxiety-ridden work that, at minimum, takes months to get the hang of. Instead, diapers, colic and ever changing sleep habits are the stuff of sitcom shorthand for domestic drudgery that’s easily dismissed—not subjects of intellectual or creative inquiry.
When my first child was born, this was how I was primed to think my mat leave would be: late-night feedings, endless tubes of diaper cream and, I figured, a brain vacation from my day job in journalism, where I’d started to suffer from editor’s block—rewriting stories in my head to the point where it became difficult to get them down concretely at all. What I didn’t expect was that even when it was all-consuming, new parenthood would show me a way out of the slump.
In her 2015 memoir, The Argonauts, author Maggie Nelson notes, “I cannot hold my baby at the same time as I write.” She means this literally; part of the book was written while she was hooked up to a milk pump since she couldn’t nurse while at her computer. But the figurative element—the mental Tetris of where thoughts and words go—can happen even in those banal moments spent rocking a child to sleep. Plenty of writers have found inspiration in the work of motherhood, and for some, the act of parenting has influenced the form of the art itself. Toronto-born writer Rivka Galchen used the aimless nature of her postnatal brain in writing Little Labors, a collection that draws references as varied as 10th century Heian Japanese court customs and Keanu Reeves action films together, to discuss the absence of babies in literature.
If 90 percent of writing is rewriting, the care and maintenance that early parenthood entails is another version of it: repeating daily tasks over and over until you reach something more substantial than having mastered them. For me, it has encouraged an attention to human details—the specific sigh my baby makes when falling, full and fed, to sleep or how the smell of his drool changes before he cuts a tooth—that pushes me to trust myself with less of the time and space usually required to arrive at confidence in what I know. In my pre-motherhood life, I may have waited for just the right mood and moment to commit thought to language, to sit down and think about this passage and its words alone. Now, half of it—this essay, I mean—was written while I was patting my second-born back to sleep between naps. Otherwise, I may never have finished it.