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As I wait for my wife to return home from her first solo overnight trip in seven years away from me and our four children, I can’t help but think of what an ungrateful, unknowing, lazy husband and father I am.

I’ve watched the kids before and am by no means “patriarchal” in the negative sense of the term. I am actively involved in the everyday demands of raising children and caring for the home. But what she does and what I do are two different things. I do arithmetic, thinking I’m doing algebra, while she is in a constant state of doing calculus. That’s right, motherhood is like calculus, as in, that’s the only way my man brain can comprehend what goes into mothering a human being. It’s something incomprehensible and admirable and beautiful.

Put simply, calculus is the way of studying change in all of the physical sciences. The science of mothering is not on the list of physical sciences, or if considered a science at all, it falls into the realm of the social sciences. But mothering is just as much a physical science as is physics, engineering, and economics.

Here’s a simplified definition of what calculus is all about: very, very small things become big things. Through successful analysis of the big and the small, calculus helps us to understand both.

Motherhood takes a very small thing — let’s start at the very beginning, with the embryo — and does to it something that no one else can. She nourishes it, keeps it safe and protected, helps it to grow, without even seeing it and at great physical, mental, and emotional sacrifice, until nine months later that little seed of life is now a big thing — a human being — and she proceeds to do a very big thing to that big thing: expelling the infant from her body in such a way that “labor and delivery” is the gold standard of extreme pain measurement (it’s a 10 out of 10).

Also extraordinary is the super-human feat that takes place from the time the infant and mother first meet until many months later when the baby is sleeping through the night. Now is when calculus begins to really kick in.

In a line graph, where the x axis is health and the y axis is happiness, the mother represents one “function” and the child another. Mother must take into account the fact that day by day both she and her child are changing at different rates. Through all of this, the mother must care for her own happiness and health and the child’s happiness and health in a way I cannot.

See the early child care book section for the many theorems and equations and derivatives involved in mothering, even at the early stages of life.

This is calculus.

NewbornsI’ve witnessed first-hand the early events of mothering three times. First, with twins, who at two weeks old in the picture here (while trying in vain to capture a picture for their birth announcement), I was ready to throw in the towel on the whole fatherhood thing. This is not what I had signed up for, I thought.

But wait, how is it that I was driven that mad? I was at least sleeping a little. My wife was going through a physical/emotional tormenting endurance test I have never witnessed from anyone, ever. No sleep, little food, ummm recovering from child birth, screaming babies (they wouldn’t stop!) — do you know our neighbors in the apartment next door actually MOVED to the next building over because they couldn’t take the crying infants? It was insanity. Insanity. But I was mere arithmetic. She was calculus.

She already knew them in a way I did not. She was bound to them in a way I was not.

And that was just the beginning. That was entry-level calculus. I won’t call that pre-calculus because pre-calc was when she learned how to put up with me, arithmetic, probably a typical man who stubbornly resists change and nuance at all costs. With growing children, the calculus of motherhood gets even more daunting as the months and years pass.

Calculus deals with the infinitesimal or fractions of fractions of small little minute details and shapes and equations that help to solve a bigger question. Likewise, the big helps to solve the small. The many infinitesimal values lead you to the solution. And the solution in calculus is a complex equation to take into account the ever-changing nature of all the moving parts.

The big question the mother asks in the calculus question is, “Who is this child and who can they become? What can I do to help them get there?”

As much as I like to think that I think in that way, I don’t. For example, let’s take the last 30 hours watching my very own four children ages seven and younger.  It wasn’t horrible. It was productive but not nearly as productive as I thought it would be. It was great to be with my children and have some exclusive “daddy” time.

But I can’t help but measure myself against my wife and flunk in the process. She does this every day I am out of town. And as a stay at home Mom, where I might only be semi-productive on a Saturday, she is super-productive every day. And she doesn’t even know it. My mother did the same with her five children. My wife’s mother with her six. Even the mother of one takes parenting to a level that I can’t touch.

Of the day today, the bad stuff is easy to remember: the fighting, disobeying, crying, hurting, shouting, messing, not flushing.

There was quite a bit of good stuff as well when they were being sweet and cuddly and good.

Then there’s the infinitesimal: the feeding (constantly) the communicating (constantly) the how do I care for myself (I didn’t shower or shave or even brush my teeth or wait a minute — I don’t think I drank any liquids today) and I’m left to wonder how she is still going through the same challenges as those she met in the first horrendous weeks of their life when she was inaugurated as a mother. Only now, the variables have changed in a much more complicated way – another calculus attribute. And through all of it, she is somehow put together. So confident, organized and managing everything elegantly. The kids eat well, they sleep well, and they are learning so much. Overall, they are great, well-rounded kids. I can’t help but wonder how my kids would be different if it was all left to me….

I could never touch what she has done for these precious children. Their future is bright because of her.

The difference between her calculus and my arithmetic is she knows and is trying to solve the infinitesimal details of these children — the thing in which calculus is made for —  and she is finding who they are in the process and doing what it takes to make them better. She’s also trying to tweak her own behaviors and influence theirs in a way that will turn them into something big, something wonderful.

I will always do what I can as a husband and father. But the difference between her and me, I very willingly acknowledge, is she knows calculus, and I don’t.


I can’t find the birth announcement — until I do, this is the second best photo of the pack.


Listen to the podcast episode where I discussed this post.