Turning the Page
I remember sitting on the bed waiting for the phone to ring. I made figure eights with my fingers as I traced the stitching on the gold polyester quilt that barely wrinkled under us as my husband and I sat side by side awaiting our instructions.
After receiving the two-day, 10-cent tour of Beijing which inexplicably ended at The Great Wall — the furthest point away from hotel –we’d barely slept the night before. The next morning we boarded a flight for Nanchang with the dozen other couples in our travel group. Then, after a two-hour bus ride across parts of the country that made me feel like we’d traveled back in time, we arrived at our hotel, told our luggage had been misplaced and directed to check in.
The tiny woman who’d been our guide seemed a bit frantic for the first time since we’d met her a week ago. “There has been a change in plans,” she told the group. “The babies are here now. You’re not getting them tomorrow; you’ll be getting them tonight.”
We’d arrived less than an hour before. I would not be able to bring the small pink receiving blanket I’d tucked away in my bag for the occasion. We wouldn’t be changing into the “nice clothes” we’d been told to bring for our meeting with the orphanage officials who would give us our child. I ran a brush through my hair and tried to smooth out the wrinkles from the gauzy dress I’d been wearing for the past 10 hours.
Equal parts excited and terrified, I was waiting for the call that I knew would change my life but I could not even begin to understand just how much would shift in an instant. And so, after three miscarriages and an 18-month paper pregnancy, in November of 2005, at 6:20 in the evening on a rainy, humid evening in Nanchang, China my husband and I walked into a brightly lit a hotel conference room where a Chinese man I’d never met before placed a silent, terrified looking baby (inexplicably wrapped in three layers of clothing) in my arms. The other two people with him gestured to us to stand in front a white screen for an official photo. A flash went off.
And viola, instant motherhood.
Until that moment, I had always defined myself by my work. I was a writer who specialized in telling other people’s stories. By this time, I’d written four books and was furiously trying to finish the fifth while on the way to the airport. For the past year and a half I’d been working with a celebrity who’d taken up far too much time — and oxygen — from my life.
I’d grown used to her annoying late night calls when she’d had an idea about what to add to the manuscript. I didn’t think twice about it when my husband had said, “You know, you’re not going to be able to do this when the baby comes.”
The day we left for China, I was revising the manuscript for the paperback edition of the book to include the last set of additions she’d sent me. They had come in during the middle of the night, and against my better judgment, I’d checked my email one last time before we left. I had to see this through. I faxed the corrected pages to my editor before take-off and sighed with relief when the machine burped out confirmation of its receipt. I was done.
That was almost 12 years ago. I haven’t written a book since.
I kept a journal for the 12 days we were in China. The second night after we’d been given our baby, I held my new daughter as I stood at the window looking out over a darkened city half a world away. I thought, she is everything to me. And then — how am I going to work?
The same thought occurred to me several times for during of the trip as I realized pretty quickly I didn’t want to miss a minute of being with my daughter. How could I work like I always had and be the mother I always wanted to be?
The answer was I couldn’t.
For the first few months, I made a valiant effort. I wasn’t writing a book, but I was back to cobbling together a living with string of freelance assignments. Instead of staying up until 1 am to make a deadline, I was writing in 45 minute intervals when my daughter was napping or getting a bottle from her father. I couldn’t take those last minute assignments much to the annoyance of a (male) editor who I’d worked with for years. One day, when I asked him why it was taking so long to get paid for a certain story he said, “What do you care now? You’re practically a housewife.” I was so infuriated by his dismissiveness I don’t even remember what I said to him, but we haven’t worked together since.
When my daughter was a baby, I couldn’t stay awake past 11 o’clock and I no longer wanted to hole myself up in my office and write a story about a celebrity mother who wanted to be “hands on” on a Saturday afternoon when I could be in the park with my daughter.
This push-pull between my career and motherhood was constant – and I felt like I was failing at both. Then along came the Great Recession and the decision was made for me – I wasn’t making enough to justify a full-time sitter. I’d have to make due with doing what I could around dropping off and picking up my daughter, now a toddler, at preschool and putting everything aside during school vacations and sick days.
Months turned into years and here I am. I haven’t missed a minute of my daughter’s childhood.
I have no regrets. And I’m finally working on a new book.