I Didn't Expect Having A Baby Would Cost Me This

Photographed by Molly DeCoudreaux.
Before my son Raffi was born last summer, I spent a lot of time freaking out about how much money it would cost to have a baby. There was the birth itself, a terrifying crapshoot: My insurance agreed to cover a home birth and prenatal care provided by home-birth midwives, but it was unclear what would happen if I ended up giving birth in the hospital, as a percentage of moms attempting home births do for one reason or another. And then there was the gear. Some items — crib, stroller, carrier, changing table, car seat — were clearly necessary. But other items — giant hideous swing, video baby monitor, sheep-shaped white noise machine — seemed optional, except that various websites and some recent initiates into parenting we knew, told us we absolutely needed all of them.

We did end up addicted to the hideous swing, and we still call the video monitor “the show” and watch it obsessively. And we lucked out with the birth, which took place in our bed just like it does on Call The Midwife. Overall, the initial outlay associated with the new roommate who lives with us rent-free was much less appalling than I’d thought it might be, especially because our generous friends and relatives gave us a lot of the big-ticket items as gifts and hand-me-downs. But while we didn’t end up ruined by the immediate expense of diapers and burp cloths, I vastly underestimated what becoming a mother would do to something I’d taken for granted: the ability to turn my thoughts into words, and to turn those words into a livelihood.
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Nine months in, I'm only just now realizing the many ways I set myself up to fail.

As a freelance writer, I’d always been able to fit my work around whatever else was going on in my life. While my paydays, like those of most writers, are often delayed or indirect, writing has been my most consistent source of income for most of my adult life. I thought I’d naturally figure out how to juggle my new responsibilities and my existing obligations and ambitions; I think I mentioned “writing while the baby naps” more than a few times when people asked me how I thought I’d do this. Nine months in, I’m only just now realizing the many ways I set myself up to fail. I had no idea how much having a child would change me — a cliché, but one that rings true for me. And since I draw on “me,” in one way or another, in order to make a living, the repercussions extend to every aspect of my life.

Before I start describing the pitfalls I encountered when trying to combine the kind of work I’m best at with the exalted, but financially unrewarding, work of taking care of a baby, I have to say up front that I know I’m fortunate to have choices that many women don’t. I’m incredibly lucky to have a freelancer’s somewhat flexible schedule and workload, to have a supportive partner who can also move his schedule around to accommodate mine, and to have found a babysitting arrangement we can afford that allows us both to work and to spend time with our baby. In a country where the law doesn’t protect women who are still, in my friend Lydia’s memorable words, bleeding into the giant maxi pads that you have to wear for a month postpartum, I feel bad complaining at all. But.

If, after a few months of paid or unpaid leave, I’d gone back to work at a full-time job — and by “a full-time job” I mean the kinds of jobs I’ve actually held, at media organizations or publishing-adjacent startups, not in an ER or a five-star restaurant — I probably could have gotten away with phoning it in slightly. As long as I was physically at my desk and responding to emails and performing my duties with baseline competence, no one would have noticed that I wasn’t giving 100%. Writing doesn’t work like that. If you haven’t slept, or if your mind is irretrievably elsewhere, you’re pretty much just screwed.

While I got back to some forms of work — answering emails, editing, maintaining the status quo — within weeks of Raffi’s birth, it has taken me so much longer than I’d expected to begin having worthwhile thoughts and ideas again. Back when I had the luxury of entire uninterrupted work days, I never realized that it takes a lot of non-writing time to be able to generate thoughts that are useful during writing time. It recently took me three months to get through two drafts of a long book review, which in prepartum life might have taken a couple of weeks.

And though lots of people have told me anecdotes about the brilliant women writers who’ve cranked out drafts of their novels while their infants napped, I did not find myself to be one of those women. Instead, I threw out 30,000 words of a draft I wrote at top speed when I was pregnant and worried I wouldn’t be able to focus once the baby came. It turns out panic mode is not, for me, conducive to my best work either.

it has taken me so much longer than I’d expected to begin having worthwhile thoughts and ideas again.

Also, let’s talk about breastfeeding, which for women who work outside the home at all actually means some degree of breast-pumping. Breastfeeding is fun and nice, but pumping is horrible. When I leave my baby with a sitter to go work in a nearby library, I pump in a stall in the public restroom; when I’m shuttling between meetings, I try to avoid monopolizing the john in establishments that only have one, squeezing my boobs out as fast as I can.

I don’t regret my choice to breastfeed, but I often feel that I didn’t have enough information when I made it. I even thought of it as a way to save money; breast milk, after all, is free, and formula is very expensive. But besides the indignity and inconvenience of having a plastic device suckle at my teat, often in a public bathroom, there’s the fact that my boobs’ schedule often interrupts my brain’s. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been just getting into a groove, thoughts flowing and typing fingers flying, only to be interrupted by the unignorable ache that means I’m going to have to spend the next 15 minutes hoping that whoever is in the stall beside mine isn’t too creeped out by the mysterious rhythmic suction happening next door. The costs of those lost moments are hard to quantify, as are all the costs I’m mentioning here. But that doesn’t mean they’re not real, or not important.

I don’t regret my choice to breastfeed, but I often feel that I didn’t have enough information when I made it.

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I could have chosen a different path, and maybe a more committed, more hard-core writer would have. I could have put my baby in full-time daycare at three months, fed him formula, and buckled down every day on my novel, my essays, my freelance writing, and my small publishing business. But it’s hard to imagine how I could have justified making those choices unless I’d had some reason to feel that they were absolutely necessary. While they are right for some women, they were not right for me. And besides — and this is the really bad part — the reality of creative work is such that, even if I’d done everything differently, I might still be stalled out, deleting and rearranging the words of a sinking failed draft.

I still hope for the best with my writing; I’ve surprised myself before, and maybe I will again. If I don’t get back on track, I’ll give up and work in some other way, because of course I will. I’ll do whatever it takes to help my family. On my best days, I manage successfully to trick myself into believing that the sacrifices I’ve made — and the ones I’ve been lucky, so far, to avoid having to make — will add up to something I can’t assess or foresee right now. Being around my son, having so much of my brain taken up by thoughts of him every day, isn’t making me richer, except that it is, in ways that money can never match. But money, not love, is what makes the world go round.
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