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Maddie and I were recently playing on the floor of her room when she discovered all of the family photo albums stored on a bookshelf. We sat down to look through them together – her favorite one was the one that had the most pictures of Kitty – and I got to re-live several of my past vacations with Brian on beautiful beaches. I was struck over and over again by the sheer decadence involved: not the amount of money we spent, but the amount of free time we spent. Looking at those two kids lying care-free on a sun-drenched island, I kept thinking, “What did we do all day?”

The idea of being able to wake when you want, go to sleep when you want, find food only for yourself, and pack a bag for the day containing only what you personally want is so foreign that I have trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that it was my way of life up until a very short time ago. That girl in the pictures seems so . . .

Free. Unencumbered. Weightless.

When I was in my early twenties I practically lived out of my car. I’d drive to a new city – say, Atlanta – for a few months, my car loaded with only what I’d need for that season. I’d do a show, load my car back up, and drive back to my parents’ house to wait for the next show. I had no lease, no car loan, no debt, not even a pet to tie me down. Sure, I had a boyfriend, but Brian traveled just as much as I did and we were rarely in the same city for more than a few days.

Even after we were married, we continued to travel and live pretty lightly. After a one-year lease on our first New York apartment we went month-to-month with no obligations. We got a cat who seemed pretty amenable to the nomadic lifestyle and the three of us lived on the road for a couple years, still pretty obligation-free.

I knew it couldn’t last forever, of course, and our life gradually became heavier. We began to like meals that didn’t include ramen noodles, and longed for crazy extravagances like health insurance. We found jobs that didn’t let you hop in and out of town every few months, and our cat began rolling her eyes every time a suitcase made an appearance.

And then, of course, came Maddie.

I spent much of my pregnancy wallowing in my last days of relative freedom. If I was tired, I took a nap. If I was sick, I didn’t go to work. If I didn’t feel like cooking, I ate a frozen dinner, ordered Chinese, or had, say, Girl Scout cookies for dinner. I knew this was going to be the last time for a long time that I’d be able to put my wishes, my desires, my feelings first. And I loved it.

Madeleine is nearing 11 months old, and my life is the complete opposite. If I am tired, I pray she’ll get tired soon and I’ll have nothing to get done like laundry so I can nap, too. If I’m sick, I still have to get up and take care of her. If I don’t feel like cooking, I still have to put together a balanced meal for her at the same time every day. My desires come last. My pastor Milind said you cannot truly understand what self-sacrifice is until you become a parent, and he’s right. My girlfriends tell stories of rejoicing because they had enough time in the shower to shave one whole leg, or enough time eating their lunch to read one article in a magazine. I recently saw a stack of books by my bed from when I was pregnant and on bed rest, and remembered how I chafed against the enforced idleness. Being forced to lie in bed all day reading, sleeping and eating sounds like a dream right now.

I have never been apart from her for longer than five hours at a time. If I teach a half-day course, I pump milk at every break. On my regular nights to teach, I leave at the last minute and race home as soon as it’s over. If I find myself in the city with a rare 10 minutes to spare, it’s usually spent racing through Buy Buy Baby for additional babyproofing supplies or sprinting through Whole Foods Market for more of Madeleine’s favorite dried fruits. Madeleine is weightier than anything else I’ve had in my life; she’s an invisible anchor that tethers me to my home, my life, and her weight is never lifted for more than a brief period of time. And though my boat may be bobbing about on the ocean, her anchor keeps me from drifting too far for too long.

My husband’s traveled a few times on business since Maddie was born, and God help me, I envy him. I envy him the fact that he’s spent a half-dozen nights not having to listen to the static of her baby monitor, or get up at least once a night to feed her or comfort her. I envy him that he got to go out to restaurants without checking his watch to see how soon Maddie would need to be nursed again, or without making sure he had an ample supply of Cheerios. I’m jealous of the fact that he was on a plane for several hours at a stretch and could read or sleep the whole time if he wanted. That he could sit in the airport and browse the bookstore unencumbered. That when he went out for the day, he didn’t have to double-check and make sure he had Piggy and Silky.

I love my daughter. I do. I love her with a strength and intensity that surprises me. I have yet to lose my temper with her, which I’m very proud of. And I have yet to be bored when I’m around her. Only occasionally do I feel too keenly the heaviness of her needs, of the hole in her that only I can fill, and when I feel her weight settling to heavily on my shoulders, I remind myself that this is but a season of my life and I will be missing it all too soon. I know that I chose to have this child, and that I’m choosing to raise her with a mom who is always present.

And believe me, I’m aware of how lucky I am to have that choice.

I look back on my unencumbered life with disbelief. I can’t believe I was ever that free, that responsibility-less. That untethered.

But you know what? I realize on those long, sleepless nights, as I dig down deep for that strength to keep going, to keep loving my job and the privilege it is to have it, that Madeleine isn’t a weight in my life.

She’s my ballast. She keeps me from flying off, directionless. She defines me; she is the Due North of my inner compass. She balances me; she’s the pivot point on the see-saw that Brian and I ride. Without her, I’d be a homing pigeon without a home. Brian supports me, finishes me out, complements me.

More than anything else, Madeleine defines me.

And as an anchor, she doesn’t drag me down. She helps me return to the center, to who I am, gives me a reference point.

It’s good to be thethered. It keeps me from being blown away at the first big wind.


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