There was a great cartoon in the New Yorker magazine a couple of weeks ago; it pictures a mother driving with her three kids in the back seat. The kids were hollering, fighting, and, one could safely assume, had very sticky fingers. The mother’s eyes were narrow slits in the rear-view mirror. The bumper sticker or the back of the car reads: I’d rather be working.
Over the past six weeks, during which I have been home with my newborn and two young children, one of whom is being toilet trained, I admit to hatching numerous plans to escape to my quiet office and its spacious rooms, far from the unquenchable, insatiable mouths of babes. But now, as the midpoint of my maternity leave is incomprehensibly already behind me, I contemplate returning to work with apprehension. Is it possible that this period of time is almost over? That to these days which fold over each other and melt together, clouded in the haze of interrupted sleep, will be added the extra responsibility of functioning in the work world?
A friend told me that when she returned to work after having a baby, she was asked how her vacation was. A colleague of mine once called maternity leave a “three month sabbatical.” Given the state of affairs of maternity leave policies in the US, I feel lucky to live in California, where there is a generous state-based maternity leave policy , and to work with a group of understanding and generous women. But even in California, it is standard fare to be required to take all of one’s vacation and sick days at the beginning of one’s leave. Even in the most flexible of situations, there tends to be an unspoken idea that maternity leave is a type of vacation. In Israel, it is even called chufshat leidah – a birth vacation.
Almost a century ago, Virginia Woolf argued that in order for a woman to become a writer, an artist, to express herself, she needed the means and the physical space to sit and be – a room of her own. As I sit here, between the bookends of family responsibilities and work responsibilities, it occurs to me that perhaps the room that women need today is a room in time. Abraham Joshua Heschel described the Jewish Sabbath as a “sanctuary in time,” and, in a cover piece in the Sunday Times’ style section last week, Judith Shulevitz noted the modern desire for the revival of the Sabbath. People are coveting “sweetness and slowness.” As an observant Jew, I treasure that particular sanctuary. But it is a communal sanctuary. As a woman, I want more; I want a room of time of my own, to sit hovering between the two forces, family and work, that have thoroughly penetrated the house of my hours.
Somehow, I’d imagined that maternity leave would provide that temporal space of possibility. I had had such hopes for the chunks of time which fall amidst the feedings and the cleaning and the cooking, those chunks of possibility, unstructured morsels.
Novels were to be read. Scrumptious meals were to be cooked. Great films were to be watched. And more. Novels were to be begun; poems completed. Untended friendships were to be nourished. The piano was to have been played. Not to mention that closets and bookshelves and drawers and toy-chests and shelves and the garage were to have been organized and cleaned. And – I was going to spend special time with each of my older children, together and alone, playing in parks and going to libraries and teaching my older daughter to swim and ride a two-wheeler and giving my two-year old my full attention, for once. And wonderful dates with my husband, too. Movies and restaurants and theatre and music and perhaps, even, a night or two away.
Instead, when those pockets of time arise, I find myself wandering within them, wide-eyed and lost. They seem simultaneously vast and fleeting, and the knowledge that when I have finally settled into them and inhabited them, they will already have begun to wilt, that I am grasping at air, keeps them at bay. I wander from one temporal room to the other, aghast that so many are behind me, so few left. Isn’t this how life is, really? And isn’t it our relationship to those fragrant slivers what ultimately defines us? At first, during them, I planned for them. Then I ignored them, filling them wildly and quickly. Then I mourned them. Now, I creep into them quietly, so as not to disturb their fertile possibilities, and I watch their reflection in my own eyes.