By Andy Steiner
Excerpted from Blindsided by a Diaper by Dana Hilmer
The other morning, I was digging around for something in the
back of my closet when I found a framed photograph I’d stashed
there in one of my fits of manic tidying.
My two-year-old was in the other room, busy pulling all of the
books out of her older sister’s bookshelf, so I had a moment to sit on
the bed and wipe the dust off the glass with my sleeve. When I was
younger, I dabbled in photography, and this was a black and white
I’d developed and printed myself. I was so proud of my work that I’d
framed it. Every time I moved to a new apartment, I hung the picture
up in my bedroom.
Later, when my husband and I bought our first house, we followed
tradition and hung the picture on the wall across from our
bed. It stayed there for seven years. Then, a few weeks before the
birth of our first child, we decided to rearrange our bedroom to
make room for the bassinet. Somehow my photo looked out of
place hanging over a bassinet, so we took it down and replaced it
with an old poster print that we deemed more appropriate for an
My husband and I started dating in college. I’d taken that photo
one sunny weekend morning. He lived in an apartment near school,
and his bedroom was on the chilly converted sunporch. We’d spent
the night before on his futon under a pile of quilts, and when I woke
he was asleep on his stomach, his arms splayed out across the pillows.
I spent several quiet minutes admiring how the late-morning
sun cast shadows from the blinds across his bare shoulders, then I
slipped out of bed, took out my camera, which I sometimes carried
with me in those days, and snapped a few shots.
Later, when I printed the roll, I fell in love with that shadowy picture,
the way the light played on his warm skin, the way it reminded
me of that particular lazy sunny morning—and of the night before.
Because the photo was a close-up, viewers had a hard time figuring
out what the image was, but I knew, and I treasured that secret. At
first, hanging the picture on my bedroom wall was a public declaration
of my love; later, when the bedroom wall became ours, the
photo was an important reminder of our shared intimate history.
I realize now that we should have been able to read the deeper
symbolism when, in less time than it took for me to roll out of bed
and grab the camera on that long-ago morning, the imagined needs
of our baby-to-be supplanted our lives as lazy, sensual, childless
adults and transformed us into parents.
Obviously, we knew—intellectually at least—that the long anticipated
birth of the baby swelling in my belly would officially
make us mother and father. But we didn’t fully realize the responsibilities
those titles held. Few of our friends were parents yet, but those
we knew had already frightened us (intentionally or unintentionally)
with horror stories of sleepless nights, diaper rash, and colicky cries.
One couple, parents of a then three-year-old girl, kept saying
they hadn’t had a chance to see a single movie since their daughter
was born, and the idea sent shivers up and down my still-child-free
spine. Under the mistaken belief that a person could bank movie
time like spare change, we spent the months leading up to the due
date seeing every movie we could stomach. Even if we didn’t have
time to see movies right after the baby was born, we figured,
we’d see a lot now so we’d have plenty to talk about with our friends
later. (Little did we know that for the next several months, movies
and their plotlines would suddenly feel trivial compared to the
more pressing realities of sleepless nights, diaper rash, and colicky
As “countdown to baby” continued, we bought parenting books
and took a childbirth class. In the evenings we’d sit in bed together
and talk for hours about what we had learned, noodling about baby
names and planning for the future. I worried (I’m a worrier at heart)
about how introducing a child into our lives would change our relationship;
my mostly easygoing husband fretted to a much lesser
degree. The changes I anticipated were textbook: dried-up sex life,
child-care versus career juggles, body transformation. I kept a journal
during that pregnancy, and I scrawled my “worry lists” there. In
what has been a typical pattern in our relationship, I showed my
husband my lists, and he gently countered my worries, reminding
me that a well-lived life is a series of calculated risks. That was an
important reminder for me at a time of such doubt and change.
All this mental preparation took time, but that was okay. Even
though our days were filled with paid employment and the distracting
busywork of getting ready for a child, we actually had time to
spare. Time for my worries, yes—but we also had time to touch and
admire and ponder each other’s bodies, especially my rapidly
changing one. And time to look each other in the eye and talk until
we got tired of talking.
Six years and two children later, the idea of talking until we get
tired of talking seems incomprehensible to my husband and me.
But there were times not that long ago when we did just that—on a
When Time Was on Our Side
In the years immediately following college and graduate school, we
were rich with friends. We had a tight bunch of buddies, most of
whom we met at the small, urban liberal arts college we had both
attended. Though life had scattered some of us, a strong core group
remained in the city. We formed a family of sorts, supporting each
other, sharing inside jokes, watching movies, going on weekend
trips, laughing, debating, falling in and out of love. Often, we’d
gather at a nearby coffee shop or in one of our homes, and in the
winter we had a standing weekly ice-skating date.
As the lone married couple in the group, my husband and I
always had each other to fall back on, but our friends—and our relationships
with them—were central to our lives. Until we gave in to
our breeding impulses and became parents, it seemed like our
world would always be the same—comfortable and easy and satisfying.
But somehow, while we were distracted by our little daily dramas,
the wheels of life kept turning, and we were getting older.
Things were about to change.
Before I had children, I thought I was busy, and I was, in the
singular, focused way of the childless professional. In the years leading
up to the births of our children, I worked as an editor at a
newspaper, and, later, at a magazine. At both jobs, I’d often assign stories
to freelance writers, women whose circumstances (children, partner,
busy household, ambitious professional goals) now match mine.
These writers were busy juggling everything, I realize now, but I
have to confess that at the time I often had to fight the impulse to
see them as dilettantes, as stay-at-home moms with a bit of extra
time on their hands—empty, desperate hours they filled with
writing projects. When, occasionally, the sound of these writers’
children crept into our telephone conversations, I’d feel a mix of
pity and frustration. I was sorry that they had to spend so much of
their days trying to keep children entertained, that their overwhelming
breeder impulse had sidetracked their careers, but I
was also frustrated that they couldn’t keep their children out of
their professional relationships. If kids needed to interject themselves
into phone calls, I thought, imagine how quickly they could
screw up a marriage. (When I think back on how I felt then, I didn’t
really think of kids as marriage wreckers, being that I am the
youngest child of happily married parents, a couple whose relationship
remains spicy, romantic, and loving after sixty years and six
In fact, for a few years in my midtwenties, I pretty much decided
I didn’t want to have children. Change makes me nervous, and children
equal major change. I liked the life my husband and I had
made for ourselves. I felt busy and happy and mostly satisfied. Children
have a tendency to upset the apple cart, to mess things up and
make noise when you’re on an important call. I wanted our tidy
little life to stay the way it was. I felt safer that way.
My husband, Mr. Change Is Good, didn’t agree.
I’ll never forget one particular conversation: We had been away
on a weekend trip, and the drive home, like all of our prechildren
drives, was filled with long, uninterrupted conversations about
work, family, friends, future. Somehow the subject of children was
raised. I talked (at length, I’m sure) about my freelance writers,
about their marginal careers, about their intrusive children. I said I
wasn’t sure I ever wanted to have kids.
My husband is a kind, funny, understanding man, but he can also
be passionate. I always knew he loved children, that he enjoyed
being an uncle to our many nieces and nephews, but I had no idea
just how deep the desire to one day be a father ran inside his heart.
“If you don’t want to have children,” he told me, clenching his
jaw, “I want to find another way to be a father.”
We had a friend whose lesbian sister and her partner had asked
him to be a sperm donor; we also knew a young man in college who
made extra money by making donations at a local sperm bank. On
some base, embarrassing level, the idea of someone else carrying my
husband’s child made me feel sick to my stomach. I couldn’t imagine
this happening. The truth is that even in the earliest, most carelessly
passionate moments of our relationship, I’d always felt a biological
desire to someday conceive this man’s children, a desire I’d managed
to bury under other ambitions and careful plans. And so, a few years
and several long conversations later, we set out to make a baby.
I remember when we finally told a group of our friends that I was
pregnant. Their reaction was awkward, stunned silence. In that
moment, it seemed to me that the earth’s plates shifted, that my husband
and I (and our unborn child) stood marooned on one island,
while our single, childless friends occupied another. The water relentlessly
swirled around us, pushing our islands farther and farther apart.
But the wheels of life kept turning, and eventually the tides
shifted back. In a few years most of our friends started having children
of their own or settling down in other ways. The pull of biology
was clearly inescapable. Try as we might, our lives couldn’t stay the
Even if we chose not to have children, we’d still be different at
thirty-eight than we were at twenty-eight. Our relationship is now
almost twenty years old, and together we’ve weathered sickness,
doubt, death, and in our daughters, new life.
I could keep bemoaning the fact that parents are so much busier
than people without children, that a life that felt fully occupied
before babies was nothing, nothing even close to life after birth.
But it’s not that exactly. The truth is that children demand time
and attention, and there’s only so much time and attention to go
around. Still, life with small children isn’t the same as meeting
deadlines and juggling meetings. It’s a series of rude interruptions,
surrounded by short bursts of trauma, wrapped in a blanket of overwhelming
This is the truth: Children are living organisms, planted into the
earth of your relationship, and like plants, they need to drain the
earth of nutrients in order to survive. Before children, the nutrient
that our relationship was rich in was focused time alone. Our own
little offspring need focused attention to thrive, and because
there’s only so much time for that attention, we have given up most
of our spare focused time to our children. What’s left for us are
time’s dregs, but we try to make the most out of them that we can—
to stay up late, to talk to each other, to laugh, and to make love.
Early in our married life, we used to meet up at home in the
evenings after work and talk about our days. We’d make dinner
together, discuss our problems, spend hours blowing them out of
proportion. These days, because we have very little uninterrupted
time to talk, the minutes we grab alone are stripped down to the
most important details: How was work? Is your boss still crazy? How
is your writing going? How are you feeling? What was hard for you
today? What do we have scheduled this weekend?
These days, our intimate moments usually don’t allow time for
admiring the play of sun on my husband’s shoulders. But parenthood
clearly illustrates that life’s opportunities are brief and therefore
must be seized.
At times I fantasize about guilt-free time away from our daughters,
about late-night talks and long, quiet mornings in bed. I must
admit that while appealing, the idea of being freed from our children’s
cycle of needs for any length of time is frightening.
This winter, my husband’s family encouraged us to leave the children
for a night and get away. We did, and in many ways the lessthan-
twenty-four-hour jaunt to Milwaukee felt like a one-week
trip to Paris. We lolled in bed, read the newspaper, ate dinner
slowly, watched a movie, talked, and laughed, returning home the
next day with our relationship renewed.
A month or so later, we were out for dinner with two other couples,
also parents of young children. I gushed about our amazing overnight
trip, and asked if anyone else at the table had thought about going
away for an extended period of time. We all agreed that we had fantasized
about the ultimate child-free getaway, but one friend
revealed the true parental conundrum when he admitted, “I don’t
know how long I could actually stand to be away from them.” We parents
dream about leaving, but we can’t stand to tear ourselves away.
If we can’t tear ourselves away physically, sometimes we let our
imaginations take us away. Lately, I—and my husband, to a much
lesser degree—have become obsessed with the details of our single
friends’ love lives. The other day, one of my best friends told me
about a four-hour makeout session she had with a boyfriend. Four
hours making out? Even when I was single, I may not have had the
patience required to make out for four hours, but the idea of being
able to attempt such an experiment sounds so freewheeling and
childless that it had instant appeal. While I’m not jealous of my
friend’s quest for true love, or of her tiresome wrangles with online
romance, I am intrigued by the adult-only content of her life, by her
many days spent focusing on her own concerns and nothing else.
I have another good friend, a notoriously unattached child-free
man in his early fifties. When I told him the story about my photograph,
he just laughed. “Time marches on,” he said. Whether you
have children or not, eventually everyone has to get out of bed.
What I think my friend was trying to say was that free time’s
downside is that free time can quickly turn to overanalytical selfobsession.
In many ways, having children has stripped our relationship
to its bare bones, and from this less-obstructed vantage point,
we’ve come to realize that too much reflection can sour even the
“You can only loll in bed so long,” my friend insisted. “Nothing
ruins a conversation faster for me than trying to do it in my pajamas.
In the real world, you can’t sit there and delve and explore each
other forever. You can only go so deep before you hit the bottom.”
So what have my husband and I learned about time, not just
mourned, from the fractured experience of raising children? We’ve
both tested and expanded our patience, that’s certain. Children’s
sense of time is so different from adults’. For them, time is condensed
(as in “When is Sesame Street going to be on? In fifteen minutes?
That’s soooo long!”) but also limitless.
On a warm winter day, the half-block walk from the bus stop to
our house can take forty-five minutes. It’s like herding cats, with
stops everywhere: to eat the snow, to argue when told not to eat
the snow, to climb the snowbank, to slide down, to take mittens off
to make a snowball, to complain about having cold hands, to get a
bucket to put snow in, to put snow in the bucket, to spill the snow,
then get more snow and artfully sprinkle the snow on the neighbor’s
front stoop, to sing each verse of a song learned in school that
day, to hug and topple the younger sister, to ask to play at a friend’s
house, to attempt (five times) to make snow sticky enough to build
an igloo block.
Through all of this I have to breathe deeply, to try to move at my
daughters’ pace, to follow my youngest girl’s circular path up the
sidewalk, to pick her up when she falls and wipe her nose. All this is
busywork, completely unimportant but at the same time heartbreakingly
important. The chaos and noise of small children rattles
our house until evening, and then a sudden quiet descends when
they are both finally asleep. Then comes the rush to accomplish all
the things that were not accomplished when they were awake.
Then comes sleep. Then morning. And it starts all over again.