Many people get a taste of full-time parenting right after a baby is born, thanks to the family-leave policies in some countries and at some businesses. What is it like to be at home with a baby? Nobody does a better job of describing that experience than Anne Lamott, author of the bestselling book Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. At the time of her son’s birth, Lamott was a single mother running out of money. On the other hand, she was on the brink of literary stardom and she had a support squad that couldn’t have been more generous and reliable. Going back to the extra stressors: she was a person prone to depression and substance abuse. And going back to the positives: she had a religious faith and community that was a source of strength and comfort. She is just one person, of course, and one with a distinctive pattern of strengths and weaknesses, but I think she captures what many a new mother feels, and many fathers as well. What we feel is an absolutely overpowering mixture of desperate love and total exhaustion and irritation.

Lamott and her friends can’t get enough of little Sam: "None of us could take our eyes off him. He was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. He was like moonlight.” But she is constantly sleep deprived and the baby is colicky. "I’m crazy tired. I feel as stressed out by exhaustion as someone who spent time in Vietnam.” The intense love and enjoyment run throughout her journal, but it’s mingled with fear.

Before I got pregnant with Sam, I felt there wasn’t anything that could happen that would utterly destroy me. ... But now there is something that could happen that I could not survive: I could lose Sam. I look down into his staggeringly lovely little face, and I can hardly breathe sometimes. He is all I have ever wanted, and my heart is so huge with love that I feel like it is about to go off.

At the same time I feel that he has completely ruined my life, because I just didn’t used to care all that much.

When the colic goes on too long and Lamott can’t take it any more, she knows to seek help, so her son will be safe, but she also puts her most horrifying thoughts on paper.

The colic was very bad last night. Actually, it is bad almost every night now. Everyone is supportive and encouraging, but the colic still makes me feel like a shitty mother, not to mention impotent and lost and nuts. I can handle the crying for a long time, but then I feel like I’m going to fall over the precipice into total psychosis. Last night at midnight it occurred to me to leave him outside for the night, and if he survived, to bring him inside in the morning. Sort of an experiment in natural selection.

When postpartum depression is involved, the feelings evoked by a new baby are even more mixed and painful. Then again, at the opposite extreme, there are "good” babies who rarely cry and who sleep through the night, and “good” parents who have the fortitude and patience of saints. For the most part, the early days do tend to be intense—a mixture of the highest highs and lowest lows. Lamott’s book is a classic not because her feelings are so bizarre, but because they’re so bizarre and yet also so typical.

But those are just the early days. After a few months, Lamott’s baby starts to sleep regularly and is no longer crying and fussing all the time. I also found that after a few months, even with twins, I could live, sleep, function, read, and resume a reasonable percentage of my former life. Let’s focus, then, on childcare after the earliest days. Is caring for children the sort of occupation that can add up to “the good life”?

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