Before we brought my daughter home from Guatemala, but after we had received referral pictures of her at three days old, my partner and I went to the Printer’s Row Book Fair – one of my favorite festivals in Chicago. My goal, besides finding beautifully old books, rich with story and perfectly absorbing sentences, was to find books for the baby. I wanted plastic books for gnawing and board books for her curious toddler years. I had no idea then how my life and our daily rhythms would change when she came home.
Before parenting, I always packed my days full of somehow worldly purpose. Two or three nights a week and most weekends, I attended meetings, managed projects, or practiced plays for performing onstage.
On the weekends, I also slept in, baffled when my partner would wake at 7:00 a.m. claiming she couldn’t sleep any later. Bursting with energy and good humor, she’d throw on some clothes, head downstairs, and right-away make coffee. I usually stayed in bed so long I had to turn the coffeepot back on to begin my morning – or make a whole fresh pot! Usually, my partner was showered and dressed and well into her day’s projects by the time I made it downstairs – rearranging furniture, mowing the lawn, or maybe she’d been to the grocery store and back already. Sometimes, she’d make me eggs, or walk in the front door with Dunkin’ Donuts French Vanilla coffee for me, or a Boston cream donut, before I even knew she’d been gone. I would smile brightly, not speaking. Not yet. Speaking for me came later in the morning, after I’d had some coffee, after I’d sat in a chair briefly with a book or just my thoughts, and steamed myself awake, the aroma of coffee encircling my face. Slowly, my muscles would unclench and I would stretch out into my day, warm, newly open. Now, I awaken differently.
On the weekdays then, I barely uttered four sentences before arriving at work. My voice was sometimes still froggy when I arrived at the office, so colleagues would tease me, asking if I’d had a late night. Often I had, although not for the reasons they insinuated. I’m a night owl by nature. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a morning person. Parenting a young child has become a whole new dance for me.
Even on those rare pre-parent occasions when I did manage to climb into bed before 11:00 p.m., I still eased into the morning slowly and came alive truly at night. You want to schedule an evening meeting to discuss the eradication of racism within the LGBTQ community? Sign me up! A weekend workshop to practice the words of children telling their own stories for the stage? I’m there! An after-hours performance in the dim basement of a coffeeshop? Whether I was on the stage or in the audience, my answer forever had been: Yes, please!
My partner has a different rhythm. Hers changed less than mine when our daughter came home. Of course, she’d spent her entire adult life raising a child, and grew into herself synching her rhythm to the needs of her family – which for thirteen years primarily meant her daughter and herself. But there is something powerfully internal about her pacing, too.
My partner watches television nearly every night. Then she bounds out of bed – still – every morning, full of ideas and excitement. When she came home from a recent road trip, I meant it when I told her, “You fill the house with happy!” Even if sometimes her happy is a bit early in the day for me. She makes big plans with me in the morning as I stare, bleary-eyed, over my first steaming mug of coffee while our now-seven-year-old dances around the room on a Hogwarts broom, deeming us each characters – hybrid characters, based on the Harry Potter series but with dogs and powers uniquely identified and practiced by our daughter. She imbues herself, and sometimes us, with fast-flying powers, invisibility powers, always-being-right powers, and evil naughty powers. (As in, “They made me do it! My powers. I can’t turn them good.”) I’ve learned over time not to use my powers in any way that might cause her to lose a race, an argument or a battle because then she will always – invariably – take them away.
But my partner makes big plans in the morning with everyone. It’s when her brain works best. We discuss family visits, vacation destinations, big purchases like a cottage or a car or a new beanbag chair in the morning. I have learned to adapt. Sometimes.
My brain, on the other hand, works best at night. I’ve tried to engage my partner in many sticky conversations at night. She can tell you! Typically around 10 p.m. I’ll introduce a discussion about us, our family, our relationship, our children, about a new writing project, a new colleague, or a new direction for my life. She listens as best she can, but with or without warning, invariably after ten minutes, she falls asleep. I can’t take offense. I mean: I could, and I did for a long, long time, but it’s just how her brain is wired, and how my brain is wired, and at the beginning and end of each day, our pacing is simply out of synch.
Over nearly ten years of being together, we have learned to adapt. Truly. She has been known in recent years to sip coffee, still wearing her pajamas as late at 9:00 a.m. And I have been known to go to bed at 10:00 p.m.
This trip to the Printer’s Row Book Fair was before these changes, though, when I still burnt the midnight oil and she still woke up on weekdays at 5:00 a.m. for the trek to a corporate job in Naperville. We cherished this day in the sunlight surrounded by books. She’d wander ahead. I’d lag behind. I’d become so immersed in a book that I’d turn page after page while she zipped up and down two aisles of books. We found books for ourselves, and books for our lovely daughter – the beautiful baby in the picture with chubby cheeks and dark features, with just the faintest dusting of deep black hair – but the book which has stayed with us, with paper pages and illustrations you can get lost in, which we didn’t introduce to our daughter for three more years, was City Rhythms by Ann Grifalconi. Published in 1965, it tells the story of a young boy growing up in New York City.
Our daughter still loves this book. It’s one of the few she’s kept from her pre-reading days.
“Listen,” says the young boy’s dad. The city has a rhythm all its own. You can hear it if you listen. (I can’t share the exact quote because our daughter now seven years later has taken it into some domestic cave and despite my reading every title on every shelf, peeking under furniture and rummaging around in the back of both our closets as she was falling asleep, I have not been able to find it. And yet – I saw it earlier this week, laying on a precious pile of artwork and books with bookmarks thrust inside.)
But I do. I hear it. Our family has a rhythm, too – the mood varies, the tone, the style – but every day, every morning, every night, if I listen, I can hear our family has a rhythm all its own. We’ve been making this music for a long, long time and the truth is, every day, quiet and loud, patient or proud, downcast, outcast, first or last to wake and thump my heels on the floor: I love this song.