It was 2003, and John Mayer was going to spy us in the crowd, pull us onstage, fall in real love, then travel backroads with us, writing songs about the philosophical depths of our experience at 22, and also about how hot we looked in a low-key real-girl way. I discovered out how pervasive this self-belief was when I attended a John Mayer concert and turned out to be one of 5,000 girls wearing a polka dot summer dress and trying to push my cleavage through the mosh pit to the front. I truly believed myself to be special, but there I was, just another semi-drunk English major yelling at the pseudo boyfriend she dragged to the gig that he needed to get her CHIPS (fries) asap.
Obviously, I hadn’t had kids yet.
When you have a baby — an act of metaphysical transportation that takes place on terribly cheap sheets while you listen grimly to the scratchy “birth playlist” you assembled for your iPhone — you learn that a) this is the most amazing thing you have ever done, and b) billions of women have done it before you.
You’re not even the first woman on the fourth floor L&D ward to do it, as my friend, who spent her labor on a gurney in the corridor of a Manhattan hospital, found. In most circumstances, you find yourself in a queue to blast your soul apart and greet a tiny, beloved new person, because your contraction readout isn't as exciting as the woman's in room 617. You're ready for the big moment but waiting on an OB who has seven other cervixes to check before yours.
One of the greatest revelations of parenthood for me was that, huh, turns out I’m not so unique or special after all. That it took me creating a whole other life, expelling it from my skeleton in a hellfire of blood, then tending to it like a sworn gatekeeper for every minute of every day to realize I’m not the central character in this pageant says a lot about how big my ego is — and tbh I’ve always thought I was pretty chill.
When I checked out of the hospital with my brand new baby, the staff cross-checked my wrist band with my daughter’s three separate times. Making sure I wasn’t trying to steal away with someone else’s baby seems prudent, but you have to admit that it was just as much an act of ass-covering as anything else. They wanted to make sure they'd matched up the right pairs, two ginger-heads checking out over here, two brunettes over there, amid the sea of identically exhausted new moms.
"Never shake the baby," they repeated after signing us out for good, satisfied with our patient IDs. We strolled down the hall with our baby in the carrier, free to abscond. "Never shake a baby!" the nurse sang out after us. All day, a production line of indistinguishable moms in saggy pants checking out: match the wristbands, here are some formula coupons, "count the wet diapers." To them, we all look the same.
Birth is utterly humbling. You get home and wonder who am I now?
We talk often about the urge to reconcile our identities as mothers with our ~aspirations~ as human beings; the trouble seems to me not that we can’t do it all if we have kids, but that maybe our megalomania is more self-defeating than usual when we have butts to clean and chicken fingers to microwave. It seems like perhaps our obsession with being Someone Important — with each believing that we, especially, deserve the money and the fame and the modular corner sofa — is the bigger issue. I think it's why we get so hung up on the indignities and oversights of hospitalized birth. Doesn't the doctor know about our birth plan? Doesn't the doctor know we once won a poetry prize?! We were the first person in our friendship group to know about Gotye!
We think it's all about us, that we don't hold our friends to the same esoteric standards of success that we do ourselves, but that's not true. I simply did not see my friends with kids until I had one myself. I looked at the Instagram handles changed to @kayleesmom with a pang of despair, grimacing at my phone.
On the other side, you see everything in technicolor. The complexities I suddenly took in from other people once I had a baby! The nuance in their approach to life, babies, and the cosmos! But even then, even after the gift of realizing, upon meeting your child, that perhaps all your priorities have been wrong up to this point, you wonder: pardon me, but can I also have bragging rights for something? What about the book I was going to write/marathon I was going to run/company I was going to start/airliner I was going to crochet-bomb?
And of course, in the world of achievement, of careers, having a baby is bad for all your ideas about success and being someone. It is a rigged game to begin with, and removing yourself from the field at 25 or 30 allows everyone else a free kick at their goals. When you get the double whammy of realizing you're just like every one else in the mat ward and realizing you won't get promoted likely ever, it's hard to deal.
Like every other old millennial who has found that sheet masks aren’t quite cutting it, I’ve been reading up on Buddhism, and the idea that maybe the self — centerpiece of self care, self belief, self esteem, self expression — is a concept as faulty as man’s collective belief that the universe is merely a giant toke created for him to choof into ash in under 300 years. I'm in the early stages of maybe being able to comprehend that the world is not about me — the less I even believe in the permanence of a "me" and the more I see myself as part of a bigger thing — the happier I'll be, the happier my contribution to the world will be.
“'I want the baby with the protective earphones' by the side of the stage," John Mayer, King of Egos, told the New York Times of his longing for the accoutrement of adulthood in 2017. "I wish there was somebody to throw me the 40th."
Oh my GOD would I be perfect for him now! A faceless mom-type, with capable womb, and slightly improved organizing skills (because with a baby you MUST LEARN TO ORGANIZE). If only he had found me! Of course the problem is that I'd be married to John Mayer, special only by association.
It's impossible to undo a lifetime's honing of your ego, but if we agree that being special is something we can maybe knock down a peg on the goals sheet, I do think we could all create a little space to just be. Because you won't always feel like a perfect match with that little baby in the ankle band, but to them, there is only one of you in the whole damn world.