As usual, Ben’s alarm woke Haley when it went off at 5:30am. She didn’t move, but she felt him sliding out of bed, trying to be quiet but failing miserably. She heard him use the bathroom, then come back into the bedroom, open his dresser drawers, put on his gym clothes, and leave. Haley’s mood moved quickly from annoyed to envious. She missed those days – the early morning wake ups, the tough workouts, the sweaty Spin classes, the delayed onset muscle soreness she felt in her body the day after she increased weight on her lifts. Mostly, though, she missed feeling strong.
Now, she hadn’t seen the inside of a gym in well over a year. She felt like she hadn’t left the house in over a year, but that obviously wasn’t true. She took Ava to doctor’s appointments, she went to the grocery store, and occasionally if she wasn’t too sad and Ava wasn’t too fussy and it wasn’t raining outside, they went to one of the local library’s Mommy and Me classes.
She closed her eyes and tried to go back to sleep, but a few minutes later she heard Ava stirring. She got out of bed, bleary eyed and messy haired, and lifted the baby from her crib. She changed Ava’s diaper and took her into the kitchen for breakfast. She fed Ava mushy baby food from a jar, and in between bites she brewed a pot of hot coffee. After Ava was finished eating, Haley made a couple of Eggos for herself in the toaster oven.
She was halfway through her breakfast when Ben came home from the gym to get ready for work. “Hey,” he said. Then he eyed her plate of waffles drizzled with maple syrup. “Are you sure you should be eating that?”
Haley’s blood boiled, but she calmly pushed her plate toward him. “You can finish,” she said, and she stood up and went into the living room to play with Ava.
It was no secret that Haley’s postpartum body, and before she gave birth, her pregnant body, disgusted Ben. As soon as it became obvious that she was pregnant, he’d had little to no interest in a sexual relationship with her. His desire dwindled as Haley’s pregnancy progressed and she got bigger and bigger. She told herself that it was fine, she’d lose weight and get back in shape and everything would go back to normal. Except there’d be a baby.
The expectation was not the reality. Haley failed at breastfeeding, which she’d counted on being able to do, and which was probably at least a small part of what made her feel so depressed. Breastmilk was the best possible source of nutrients that she could feed to her baby, it literally came from her own body, and formula was expensive – yet she couldn’t handle it. She couldn’t even figure out how to feed her child in the most natural, motherly way there was.
The point was that Haley gave birth and never completely lost her baby weight. Despite her best efforts, she remained solidly 20 lbs heavier than she was before she’d gotten pregnant. She’d never been tiny or skinny but she’d been a healthy weight for her height, she’d exercised regularly, and she generally ate well while still allowing herself the occasional cookie, slice of pizza, or glass of red wine. She was of the “everything in moderation” philosophy.
Now even her sweatpants were tight. She felt huge, and she felt powerless to do anything about it. She tried to count calories and eat healthy, low calorie foods during the day, like clementines and raw vegetables, but by dinner she was so hungry that she’d polish off a bag of chips or a row of cookies before Ben came home from work. She couldn’t exercise because she had no time anymore. Ava still didn’t sleep through the night, she was up every two or three hours and since Ben worked and Haley didn’t, giving Ava her bottles in the middle of the night was Haley’s responsibility. Ben went to the gym early in the morning, so Haley couldn’t exercise then, and he worked all day, and when he came home he was too tired to watch Ava so Haley could work out or shower or really do anything to take care of herself. So exercise was now a part of Haley’s past. The most she managed to do now was a few half hearted sit ups during Ava’s naptime, as if that would help at all.
Ben bounded downstairs, dressed in his work slacks and a button down shirt, his laptop bag over his shoulder. “See you tonight,” he said in Haley’s direction. “I’ll try to be home early.” Haley knew he wouldn’t. He kissed the top of Ava’s head and was out the door, the to go cup of coffee Haley had poured for him in one hand and his phone in the other.
Haley inhaled and sighed deeply. She smiled at her small daughter. “Just you and me now, kiddo,” she said.
After breakfast, Haley and Ava went into the living room, and Haley clicked on the TV and put on a children’s program for Ava. Ava was immediately enraptured by the moving pictures on the television and stared at it with huge, unblinking eyes. Ben hated it when Haley let Ava watch screens, he didn’t think children that young should watch TV or use tablets or play games on their parents’ iPhones, he thought that they should be finger painting or learning the alphabet or doing some other mind enriching activity. But sometimes, TV time was the only quiet time Haley got while Ava was awake. She mindlessly flicked through each social media app on her phone – Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat. They were all boring now, mostly her friends posting photos of their kids and commenting on photos of other people’s kids. Haley did her duty and left a “So cute!!!” comment on her cousin’s photo of her twin kindergartners and uploaded a recent photo of Ava. There, she thought, as she hit submit, job well done.
Sometimes it still stung when she remembered that this was her job now. Haley had never been extremely career focused, but she’d gone to college and had a job in marketing when she met Ben. She’d known that she wanted children, of course, but she had always thought that she’d go back to work after she had babies. She kicked herself for not thinking it through further. Daycare was immensely expensive and putting Ava in daycare would essentially cancel out any income she brought in, so the logical decision was for her to stay home with Ava until she was old enough for school, or preschool, Haley thought hopefully, because preschool would come sooner than regular school. Plus, Ben didn’t like the idea of strangers raising their children.
When Ava started to get fussy, Haley put her down for a nap, which usually only lasted an hour, an hour and a half on a good day, and two hours if a miracle happened. Immediately after Ava was definitely asleep, Haley grabbed the baby monitor and got to work. She washed the dishes, cleaned the kitchen, picked up baby toys, swept the floors (no vacuuming, lest the noise wake Ava), cleaned the bathroom, made a shopping list, threw a load of laundry in the wash, folded the clothes that were in the dryer, ironed Ben’s work shirts, and started planning Ava’s first birthday party. When she was done, she took a five minute shower, hurriedly washing her hair and body under lukewarm water because she didn't have time to wait for it to get hot. She was combing out her tangled mass of wet hair when she heard Ava crying and went to get her.
After lunch, she spent the afternoon trying to keep Ava out of trouble. She felt too guilty to let her watch TV again, but Ava was walking now and she got into everything. For the rest of the day, Haley was hunched over, following Ava around, making sure she didn’t hurt herself or break anything. Every time Haley told Ava “No,” Ava would burst into tears. Haley couldn’t take her eyes off Ava for a minute, and it was exhausting, the chasing and the saying no and the crying and the comforting, over and over and over again.
I don’t hate my life, Haley thought to herself. This is what working moms dream of doing. This is the dream. I get to spend every minute of every day with my kid. What’s better than this? And the tiny, voice in the back of her head responded, working and building a career. Helping to bring in money to support your family. Going to the gym. Going to the movies. Hot baths. Showers that last longer than five minutes. Date nights with Ben. Girls night out. Lazy Saturday mornings. And then she felt an immediate, sharp stab of guilt and she shoved those thoughts away, out of her mind, like they'd never happened.
In the evening, before Ben was home, Haley went into the bathroom. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, and she had to look away. Her hair was frizzy and straggly, so she put it in a ponytail so that she looked a tiny bit more presentable. Her face was still hers, but rounder, chubbier, and she had the pale skin of someone who didn’t spend enough time outside, and she had dark circles under her eyes. She closed her eyes and sighed deeply, allowing her unhappiness to spill over, and just for a moment she took off her happy mom mask. Her eyes filled with tears, and she let them spill down her cheeks. She didn’t have to worry about her mascara running because she hadn’t worn makeup in months.
She snapped out of her trance when she heard the door open, and she rushed back into the living room just before Ben walked in. “Hey,” he said. He smelled like fresh, cold air. Before he could even take his jacket off, he asked, “Why is she watching TV?”
“I had to go to the bathroom,” Haley said. “I needed to occupy her for a few minutes, Ben. It’s not a crime to let your child watch television.”
“I’m aware of that, Haley,” Ben said, already annoyed and frustrated with her. He put his bag down and took off his shoes. “What’s for dinner?” he asked.
She’d completely forgotten about dinner. Ben thought that since Haley wasn’t working, it was her job to make sure dinner was ready or almost ready when he got home. She racked her brain for a quick answer that wouldn’t reveal that she hadn’t thought about dinner at all, but before she could respond Ben sighed in frustration and rolled his eyes. “Come on, Haley,” he said, walking further into the house. “You don’t do anything all day and you can’t manage to cook dinner? You’re so lazy sometimes.” He opened the fridge, which was sparse because Haley hadn’t gone to Trader Joe’s. He found some leftover pasta and put it in the microwave, and then he grabbed a head of lettuce and chopped it up on the cutting board.
Haley checked on Ava, then wandered back into the kitchen. Ben was eating the pasta. He left the bowl of lettuce with tomato on the table for her, with a bottle of fat free ranch dressing sitting next to it. Another not so subtle dig at her weight. She’d sneak an ice cream sandwich later. She dutifully ate her salad in the living room while keeping Ava out of trouble. She drowned the lettuce in fat free ranch while Ben ate his pasta and scrolled through his phone.
After they finished dinner, Haley asked Ben if he’d put Ava to bed that night. Again, he rolled his eyes. “I worked all day, Haley,” he said. “I’m tired. I don’t feel like trying to get her sleep. Besides, she never goes to sleep for me anyway, she just wants you.”
Yeah, Haley thought, because I’m all she gets. She made every excuse for Ben’s absence from their daughter’s days. In his mind, it was Haley’s job to take care of her and it’s not like Ava would remember anyway. In Haley’s mind, he was right, he worked all day, his job was demanding, his boss was obnoxious, they were short staffed, the new associates kept making mistakes and he had to correct them. To him, child rearing was women’s work, it was Haley’s job as the mother to do all the hard kid stuff, all he had to do was show up for ballet recitals and soccer games and make an appearance at birthday parties.
As Haley gave Ava her bath, which Ava surprisingly didn’t hate, she thought of how it was Ben who wanted to have a baby in the first place. He told her what an amazing mother she’d be, and imagine how adorable their baby would be, and how wonderful it'd be to be a family. Now it all made sense. He wanted a baby because he wouldn’t have to do any of the work; as the breadwinner he could avoid the part of parenting that was work and only show up for the fun stuff. For him, this was the perfect life – cute baby and a wife who, in theory, stayed home all day to care for their baby and made homecooked meals for dinner every night and ironed his socks. But for Haley, her job as the mother was relentless. It never ended, she couldn’t punch out and go home because this was home, and she was supposed to be happy here.
That night, after Ava was tucked into her crib, Haley went back into kitchen. She cleaned up the dinner dishes and washed Ava’s bottles so they'd be clean for nighttime feedings. She let the hot, soapy water run over her hands for longer than she needed to.
Suddenly Ben came up behind her and hugged her. She was so startled that she dropped the bottle was holding in the sink. She couldn’t remember the last time he’d shown her any physical affection, or any affection at all for that matter. She quickly dried her hands on a dish towel and placed her hands over his. He buried his face in her neck and mumbled something that Haley couldn’t hear. “What?” she said.
He pulled back and looked at her. “Ava’s almost one,” he said. “Let’s have another baby.”
She was unable to hide her shock. “What?” she said again.
He stepped back so he could look at her. “It’s the right time, right? They’d be close in age, so they could grow up together, like my brother and I did. And having one isn’t so bad, right? Adding a second kid would be easy, now that we’ve adjusted,” he said.
Haley couldn’t hide her distaste for what he was saying, her anger, her resentment that had been building inside her for months. “Ben, I can barely handle Ava. She still won’t sleep through the night. I’m tired. And I think I want to go back to work,” she finally admitted.
Ben laughed lightly and shook his head, putting his arm around her shoulders. “We talked about this,” he said. “Your place is here, with our kids. You know I want a big family,” he reminded her.
Yes, she did know. She needed to accept it. It wasn’t his fault that she hadn’t known that she didn’t want this. How could she have known? Her friends who'd had babies before her seemed happy. They seemed content and well adjusted to this major change in their lives. The working moms waxed poetic about how hard it was juggling work and motherhood, but how it was “so worth it.” The other stay at home moms constantly posted photos of every milestone their child reached because they were present for all of them and that was something to subtly brag about. The two groups, the working moms and the stay at home moms, resented and envied each other. The grass is always greener on the other side. For all Haley knew, she’d be just as miserable at work. She may as well ride it out in the comfort of her home, in her pajamas.
That night in bed, after she washed her face and brushed her teeth, Haley fell into bed, asleep as soon as her head hit her pillow. She laid on her side, facing away from Ben’s side of the bed. In the distance she could hear him playing a video game downstairs. Somehow he had the energy for that, but not the energy to hold his daughter until she fell asleep.
When Haley heard Ben turn off his game, she heard Ava fussing. She squeezed her eyes shut and silently asked Ben to check on her, just this once. After a few minutes passed, she didn’t hear Ava anymore, and she felt her body relax. Then she felt a hand on her shoulder, gently shaking her awake. “Hey,” Ben whispered. “Ava’s up.”
Barely holding herself together, her resentment and anger and frustration and exhaustion and loneliness threatening to bubble over into another mess she’d have to clean up, she rolled out of bed. She warmed up a bottle, fed Ava, and went back to bed once the baby was asleep. Again, she faced away from Ben, only this time he was next to her. A moment later, she felt his hand on her side.