The following is an excerpt from Amanda Watson’s new book, The Juggling Mother: Coming Undone in the Age of Anxiety, in which she finds herself nine months pregnant with her second baby, multiple balls in the air.
On a spring Thursday in late April 2018, I attended a four-day skills-training workshop on campus when my second pregnancy was full-term. Other participants chuckled at my stamina and ambition as they took turns asking when I was going to pop. Responding to their amusement, I felt so proud of myself – the ultimately productive subject who could host a baby’s last few days of gestation while leaning in to professional development through a rigorous training program.
My body was begging me to slow down through low aches and pains that were gradually intensifying, but my determination to overrule its signals enhanced my self-esteem even more. I would not succumb to fatigue. My body would produce in one way, and my intellect would deliver in another.
The workshop was externally accredited, and active participation in all components was mandatory and closely monitored. When I emerged from a morning session on day two, my phone lit up with messages about my son spiking a high fever at daycare and needing to be picked up immediately. My mom, who had been out grocery shopping on her day off, was already on her way. A wave of mixed feelings washed over me – anxiety about the potential causes of my son’s temperature, sadness that he was feeling sick and maybe scared, relief and gratitude that my mother could come to his aid, and stress that I needed to arrange his care for the next day. My parents, who work full-time anyway, were leaving town for a funeral, my in-laws were already out of town, and my partner was tied up with a big project at his office.
The rest of the afternoon was a blur as my focus flickered between participating in the workshop and imagining how things were going for my mom.
She took my son to a walk-in clinic, fed and medicated him, and then took him to her place in a nearby suburb to care for him. On my drive to my parents’ house from the campus workshop that evening, I phoned everyone I knew who had young children in the city, looking for tips on emergency child care for Friday, as Cormac could not return to daycare until he had been free of a fever for twenty-four hours.
I was guilty, afraid and resentful
At this point, the workday was ending, and none of the centres or nanny services I called had space on short notice. I was desperately hoping for success at a drop-in centre but also feeling guilty and afraid that my son would be dumped somewhere new, without warning, and possibly when feeling sick. I considered the potential scenario of dropping out of my workshop and felt instant resentment in the middle of my chest as I recognized that my partner was certainly not considering staying home for the day, nor was he making these phone calls. As an academic, I have more flexibility in my schedule than my partner does, so these care accommodations nearly always fall to me.
When I arrived at my family home from the workshop, I felt relieved to see my brother, son, and parents hanging out in the living room, looking just fine. I shambled to the couch, the pangs in my pelvis betraying my active day, and continued scrolling through my phone looking for caregivers. My dad took me aback by saying my name and, holding eye contact, asking, “Are you okay?” I told him, “Yes, of course, I was okay,” and explained that I was only stressed about arranging child care. But I felt my face screw up and avoided bristling.
Not having solved the problem of care, I cried silently on a late drive home, with my sweet, feverish son in the back seat, feeling utterly unravelled and sore.
Back at home, my partner put Cormac to bed while I waddled out to replace our broken thermometer and pick up groceries. On that late-night trip, an acquaintance’s part-time nanny returned my call and agreed to provide care for the next day. Relief. While my partner worked at the computer in the living room into the wee hours of that morning, as he customarily did, I cleaned the house, prepared food, and left notes on Cormac’s routine and preferences for a woman I had never met. I got us up early the next morning so I could take Cormac to another neighbourhood in town to pick up the nanny and get to know her on the ride back to our place.
Despite the low stakes in this story, I have never been so close to my emotional brink, which I think is saying a few things.
My son was fine, and the world would not have ended had I dropped out of the workshop. In hindsight, I feel guilty for not staying home with my son, embarrassed that I am in a family situation where my partner is not shouldering more home-management labour, and amused that when I hit the pillow for a few hours’ sleep that night, exhausted, I could reflect on the irony that I was in the process of writing a book about The Juggling Mother.
I was pulled apart by competing devotions to capitalist productivity, to a performance of competent mind and agile body, to an executive feminist refusal to have my paid labour undermined by that of my male partner, to complicity in sexist divisions of emotional and care labour, to culturally sanctioned versions of good womanhood involving pregnancy and reproduction, to a misogynist rejection of the real demands of pregnancy, and to caring for my lovely and sick toddler.
This time, coming undone was not a performance, nor could I conceal or express it properly. In the parking lot of our building that Friday morning, as we scrambled to get on with our commutes, my voice shook as I told my partner, “Things have gone too far for me.” I was too tired and too depressed to keep up the juggling act.
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