Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Postpartum

I get a feeling of nostalgia so thick it makes my throat constrict every time I drive by the hospital where my kids were born.  I look at that red brick building, where my life has been so completely and irrevocably changed, and I have this nonsensical urge to run inside and climb into one of the beds, as if that could transport me back to those seminal moments of meeting each of my children for the first time.  Some part of me wishes I could live forever in those initial moments of discovery, wrapped in thin hospital sheets and holding the life that has just come out of me.

I can't help but feel like the months after having a baby are this highly unrecognized sacred period, a metamorphosis every bit as haunting as pregnancy itself but one conducted, in our society at least, quietly and unceremoniously by the mother alone.  

So much of pregnancy is a sort of public exchange, a dialogue between the truths your body cannot hide and all of the eager onlookers who who cannot help but notice.  There is a feeling when you're pregnant that your body belongs to everyone else, that because you are no longer just yourself, you are somehow everyone's to appreciate.  Whether you like it or not, hands will gravitate to you, rubbing the stretched out skin of your belly, and well-meaning fellow moms will ask whether you plan to have a natural birth or one of those (I can only assume) completely unnatural medicated affairs.  At best, it is a time of community that makes you feel you are connected with all women in this ancient rite.  And at worst, it is a prolonged period of physical discomfort leading steadily up to the worst pain you can imagine, punctuated by unsolicited advice and the telling and retelling of all of your friends' worst pregnancy and labor nightmare stories.

Being pregnant is like having a spotlight pointed on you everywhere you go, with strangers often pointing you out in public or just smiling at the very sight of you.  Then the baby arrives, and the spotlight leaves you as abruptly as it arrived.

I think that's why some women struggle so terribly with the aftermath of giving birth.  It can feel like you were full of the light of new life for so many months, and then you gave birth and the light went right out of you.  You wake up a week into the adventure of parenting to find that you are stitched up, perpetually unshowered, feeling like everything you wear just contributes to an all over doughy appearance, leaking milk, emotional, and exhausted.  The stomach that everyone wanted to rub is now deflated like an old balloon.  You have this divide in your closet, as in your life -- pregnancy vs. pre-pregnancy -- and you find yourself straddling the two worlds, no longer cleanly on either side of the line.

Although I hear there are some lucky souls who bounce right back into the clothes and the feelings and the life they had before, for most of us, getting back to ourselves again after pregnancy is a process.  Our bodies, our emotions, our schedules are all somewhat unrecognizable to us for a while.  The dynamics of our lives have changed so drastically, and our very identities seem wrapped around avoiding or soothing this little stranger's mewling cries, a sound as pitiful as the bleating of a baby sheep yet one that can cut right through us like an electric shock.  Time falls away as their day/night confusion becomes ours, too, and the blocks of time we measure are the distance between feedings and diaper changes.  The rest of the world is doing as it's always done, but we are still in yesterday's pajamas on the couch, feeding the baby yet again, burning through shows on Netflix or scrolling through Facebook on our phones.

The daily process of keeping a newborn alive, though the individual acts are tedious, is a thrilling experience.  It is both the smallest and largest thing you have ever done, with moments somehow simultaneously full of the contents of a soiled diaper and a rapturous delight over having created life in your own image. You watch the dried up stump that used to be the spot where an umbilical cord attached you to your child; you watch it shrivel up and fall off, cheering for the fresh skin of the belly button that is revealed beneath it.  You watch that grizzly passage and can only dimly recognize it as evidence of your sudden separation, your own transition from two passengers to one that takes a while for you to fully absorb as you might still be feeling phantom kicks for weeks to come.  It can feel so poignantly happy it reads like sadness, or maybe it just feels that way to me as my postpartum hormones go depositing existential dilemmas along the fault lines of this tectonic shift in my world.

I realized today that I've been back to work for almost a month. But how can that be, when I am quite certain it was just yesterday that I held my baby girl for the first time? How well I know this time around that these moments are fleeting.  Every single time she smiles, I break into a grin with her, as amazed as if it were the first time.  She is a marvel, and in seeing her tiny newness, our older boys are miraculous to me all over again, too.  They were once small enough to be bathed in the kitchen sink, once had those same creases on their wrists from the baby fat on their arms, once smiled for the first time, once slept in my arms with their long eyelashes brushing their round cheeks.

Sap that I am, I can't imagine seeing the postpartum period as anything but a beautiful, humbling, sacred time.  It reminds me of how in yoga they say namaste, which means something akin to "the spirit in me honors the spirit in you."  I think of it as saying "every meaningful thing that I am sees every meaningful thing that you are," and I hum that thought as I kiss our infant daughter goodnight.  The best of me regards the best of her; all of my potential stands in witness to all of hers.  I see both the light in me and the light in her, both of us still glowing like pieces of a meteor that have split apart as they came through the atmosphere, made of the same stuff and still shaped like each other, still hot from impact but cooling and coalescing into forms of our very own.




Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Things We Hold On To

"Do you realize
All the falls and flights,
All the sleepless nights,
All the smiles and sighs,
They brought you here,
They only brought you home?"

                              ~from July by Boy

I've been listening to the same song for months.  When I first heard it, I only caught a few of the lyrics, but the few phrases I caught, tucked as they were into a kind of lilting lullaby, were so sweetly reassuring that I had to go look it up and listen the whole thing.  And it was one of those moments when you find just the right song for a moment in your life, like it was written just for you.  It was even called July, the month I was desperately praying I would bring my little girl home.



I've been absent from this space for a long while now. At first, I told myself it was because I was so tired, that I couldn't focus enough to write through the first trimester fog.  But, as the months passed, I had to admit that I wasn't writing because I only had one thing to say, only one thing on my mind, like a mania and a sickness at once, the never ending obsession with meeting this baby.  There were so many nights when I lay awake in terror, sure that something was wrong and all this pregnancy would yield was yet another heartache.

Strange as it seems, when I found that song, I held on to it for dear life.  I listened to it over and over, reciting the words like a mantra.  I would imagine playing the song for our daughter in the hospital room while I held her head just like the song said and tried to make her understand how she had come home at last, carried in on the kind of joy that can only come in the wake of grief.  The kind of joy that is so raw and acute, so welcome that it just goes rushing into all the dark places and scours them clean.

Some evenings, I would lay in her nursery and hold one of her tiny dresses, listening to that song on repeat because as long as the song was playing I could believe I would get to play it for her one day.  I would look around at everything, the crib I had meticulously painted spindle by ever-loving spindle, the quotes from children's books we had hung on the wall, the little bedside table I had spent weeks shopping for only to go back to the first store and buy the very first one I found.  I would look at it all and, as long as I was listening to my song, I could almost believe she would sleep there one day.

~ ~ ~

Tonight, I put our Eleanor in her crib and let my hand linger on her chest to soothe her.  She was not quite asleep, and I knew that meant I might be back up in her room in a few minutes to comfort her.  The room was dark, but from the light in the hallway, I could still see her room faintly.  The mobile I made for her hangs over her crib and clinks softly in the breeze from the fan.  It is a tinkling sound almost like rain that we both sleep with now.  I listen to it over the baby monitor, waiting to see if she has fallen asleep, and I hear it when I wake in the night, too, a staccato lullaby for the both of us.  After all those months of worry, waking in the night from nightmares to lay in bed and feel the frantic rhythm of a racing heart, after those many long nights of fretful waking and waiting, it's hard to describe how beautiful that tinkling mobile sounds to me. 


These days almost everything reminds me of how light I feel.  Every twist and bend reminds me I no longer carry the physical weight of pregnancy, and every time I hold our daughter, I can feel the weight of that old worry slide right off of me.  These good, long, hard days of raising three kids can almost feel like the saccharine denouement of an 80's feel good movie.  I could not say when I've been happier.

And while I am so good at waiting for the other shoe to drop, right now I'm holding on to this lightness for dear life.  I am smiling and breathing deep, happy breaths.  I am saying thank you to myself a thousand times a day like a constant prayer or a protective spell or maybe just a mantra.  I am sinking into the aura of hope and joy that just comes off new babies like a vapor.  I am realizing again and again how Eleanor was brought home, but also so was I.

So you see, I am holding on to these days, this homecoming, this extended birthday party.  I am savoring our last time for all of these firsts, our last first smile, our last first time to watch one of our sweet babies learn to roll over.  I am leaning into this life we have been given, this crazy, wonderful time of raising three children and finding and re-finding ourselves in the process.  I am remembering how we all are brought home, inch by painful inch, to a place where we find sometimes, at least for a few brief moments, that all the weight falls away and we remember how light we can really feel.


Friday, July 18, 2014

Any Day Now

I was just about done setting up for one heck of a pity party.  The table was set and the balloons were blown up, and one of those world's smallest violins was just about to play some maudlin tune.  At first I didn't even see it coming, but as the evening wore on last night, my mood was growing darker and darker.  I had half a dozen things on my to do list for the evening, but instead I was sitting in the living room, listening to my children play video games and letting the weight of my worries rest on me like ten thousand pounds of borrowed trouble.

There's a funny thing that happens at the end of pregnancy.  You get to the point where the doctor tells you that if you go into labor, they won't try to stop it, and from that moment a realization creeps in that any day could be the day.  I find myself looking at things around the house -- at the little messes and the things I've been meaning to fix for how long now and the random piles of hard to organize stuff that never seem to get put away -- and thinking I need to fix that right now, right this very second, because if I go into labor today, those piles will still be there, junking up the counter when baby comes home.

I've got eleven days left until this baby is scheduled to arrive, and I alternate my free time between frantically doing the last little things that feel like they must get done, adding to my lists of things I don't want to forget to get done, and collapsing on the couch in exhaustion.  At work, I have a post-it note with the list of things I need to remember to take care of if I go into labor suddenly: set the out of office email, grab the laptop, don't forget to grab my purse and the only umbrella we seem to own these days.

At night, I wake uncomfortable from sleeping on my side, lumber to the bathroom, and then lay awake in the dark waiting to feel the baby kick because I can't remember exactly the last time I felt her move.  And just when I start to panic, she gives me a hard kick and decides to keep me up another hour with a series of aerobic jabs.  So, I lay there and think of all the things that need to be done or discussed or decided in the next eleven days.  We still haven't called the pediatrician's office to make sure he's taking new patients.  I think we need some hats in the newborn size, but goodness knows if babies even need hats in the heat of a Texas July.  And we haven't decided on a middle name yet.  Why can't we just commit on that already?

People tell me that it's getting so close or they can't believe I'm still working.  They ask if we are so excited and if we have everything ready.  I know they mean well, and so I don't have the heart to say that eleven days feels just as far away as eight months felt at the beginning because I don't think I'll be able to believe that this baby is really going to show up until I am holding her in my arms.  And I don't know how to say that we are equal parts excited and terrified at just how excited we are because we can't stop thinking what if something goes wrong again.  Or how to say that we have all the necessary items to bring a baby home, but I still can't stop cleaning and organizing and doing everything I can drum up to keep myself busy and pretend we are actually bringing a newborn home in a few weeks.

Even though we have eleven days left, I know it could happen any day now, and sometimes that sends me into a panic.  Because the way my brain computes that is: any day now, we could have another surprise.  Another loss, another heartache, another scary diagnosis, another stay in the NICU, another meteorite that might slam into us and throw us so far off trajectory that we aren't sure how we will ever get back. That could happen any day now, and no matter how much I clean or work or organize, I don't know how to get ready for that.

So last night, by the time I tucked the boys in their beds for the night, I was all ready to throw one grand ole pity party.  The sky was working up a rumbling mid-summer thunderstorm, and I was lying in bed watching old episodes of Law and Order, counting all the things that could still go wrong with this pregnancy.  I was thinking how, when I try to imagine what this baby will look like, I can only see a fuzzy place, like a blurred out, not-suitable-for-TV image that keeps me terrified nothing will ever show up to fill in that fuzzy, unsure place.

But also, I couldn't help thinking of something my mother said on the phone earlier in the evening.  She said, "Be excited.  I have peace about this."

I turned off the show to wait for sleep, but the lightning was bathing the room in intermittent strobes and this baby had just started her nocturnal aerobics.  I thought about what my mom had said, that command to be excited already, and about a message a friend had sent earlier in the day to check on me.  I thought about how all the people who know and love us understand how hard it is for us to be excited about this, and yet they still want that for us.  Not because we are supposed to be excited, but because they don't want us to miss out on all the joy of anticipating what's to come.

Laying there, I thought about how it all could happen any day now.  I could go into labor at any moment, and just like that I would be done with my last ever pregnancy.  Any day now this little girl could arrive, and when she does, she's not going to know or care what I've been through to get her here.  She's just going to know she needs her mother, the one whose smell she will recognize from birth.  She's going to know my voice and that she's hungry, though she will understand only basely, instinctively how to remedy that.  She's going to realize that the world is both quieter and sometimes louder than what she knows, that it's brighter and colder and less comforting, and she needs to be held close and loved and kept alive in ways she never before imagined she would need.

Any day now, I will need to be ready to take her into my arms and tell her, with some semblance of conviction, that it's all going to be okay.  That I know she's new and she's cold and she's scared, but she needn't worry about any of that because I will take care of her.  Because I am here, and she is so loved, and she will never understand how much we've been waiting for her, willing her into existence, listening for her heartbeat and feeling greedily for her kicks, desperate for any trace of her.

Eleven days from now, if not sooner, she will be here, and when she comes I had better be ready.  And I don't mean ready as in the baseboards have all been scrubbed clean and her clothes are all washed and organized by size.  I mean ready for her, to comfort her, to parent her, the only thing that matters and perhaps also the hardest part of all this waiting.

And just like that, as I was setting up that brilliant pity party, it all evaporated.  I realized that I can't ever be prepared for all the bad things that could happen.  And no matter how clean my house is, it won't make me ready for the only part that's really important.  But I can be ready for her, and so I will try to be, so achingly, hauntingly ready to see her and hold her and promise her it's all going to be okay.


Friday, May 16, 2014

Swallowing a Beach Ball, After Photos, and Mom Jeans

I will never be one of those pregnant women who looks like the same lanky version of her pre-pregnancy self who just happened to swallow a beach ball.  You can tell I'm pregnant from behind and above and below and pretty much any other angle you catch me at.  My hands swell and my feet swell, and I get cankles and a puffy face.  And you will probably never find me doing a photo shoot with nothing but a windblown sheet wrapped artfully around me.

In fact, I've always found the maternity photo shoot thing a little disconcerting.  Why are so many of them half naked?  Why are all of these women taking pictures of themselves in their underwear and then proudly displaying these pictures for God, grandma, and everyone else to see?

But my very smart husband has a point about those strange (to me) photo shoots. He says that for women who have spent their entire lives watching what they eat, obsessing about their stomachs, and finding their worth in their pant size, it must be incredibly freeing to step outside the popular beauty ideal and still feel, well, beautiful.  It must be a welcome change to smile over their own expansion, to look down and see a mound of stretched out skin and, rather than make that noise in the back of their throats that means they think they look fat and disgusting, reach out a hand to feel the roundness of it.  Hopeful and happy and proud.

He's right, though it pains me to say it.  I get that.  I feel that.

Maybe I don't always feel beautiful while I am pregnant, but at the very least I feel a suspension of the pressure to subscribe to the beauty standards of the day.  I love to watch my stomach grow, even though I never seem to get that perfectly beach ball roundness other women get.  I even love to be told I'm huge, though I understand that's not a welcome compliment to most pregnant ladies.

But even still, this window of being happily round is a small one.  For a few months, we can conditionally suspend the pressure of feeling like we are supposed to look a certain way, but it ends abruptly, certainly before our bodies have bounced back and often before our brains have even caught up with the process.  This reprieve is finite: there is a point at which it is acceptable to start looking pregnant (a moment that seems to fall right about the start of the second trimester, and heaven forbid your body dare to start before the allotted time) and there is a point at which we believe our bodies should suddenly stop looking pregnant (usually about 35 seconds after we push the baby out).

Because looking pregnant while you are pregnant is amazing and miraculous.  But looking pregnant when you're not pregnant is about the worst thing that can be said about you, or so it seems.  We have decided as a society that it's never appropriate to ask a woman if she is pregnant, so great is the perceived horror of being presumed pregnant when you are not.  That shape is only beautiful, apparently, when there is a baby in that beach ball.  Any other time, naturally, it's abhorrent. 

I have been just about every weight a girl can be, for a while at least: fat, thin, that somewhere in the middle where you feel fat but your friends tell you you're just thick or solid or curvy.  I have been up and down the scale looking for the weight that will finally make me feel like myself.  I have bought into all those after photos that seem to promise that when I finally get it all together, when I finally reign in the uncontrolled part of me that likes food more than I like myself, then I will have a glossy, perfect, kind of life.

But my experience was that I felt about the same about myself at every weight.   That is to say, I felt not quite enough no matter how much I had gained or lost, and though when the scale was going down I felt a certain sense of accomplishment, at no point did I ever feel like I had arrived at myself the way those after photos seemed to promise I would.  I think that for me, and for many women, there is no goal line for that drive, no point at which we have done enough to feel like we deserve to like the way we look at any given moment.

It was when I was at my thinnest that I realized my worth could never be read by the numbers on the scale.  It was when everyone was always congratulating me on how I looked but I was secretly sinking deeper and deeper into the early phases of an eating disorder that I began to realize that what was broken was not the type or amount of food I was putting into my body, but the fact that I had never felt like I had permission to like the body I had right then.  At any version of right then that my body had ever been.

We talk about things like beach bodies, as if only by displaying the proper amount of willpower can we earn the right to feel the sun beat down on us and the sand between our toes and the salt water kissing our perfect thighs. We talk about getting back into our pre-pregnancy jeans as if our bodies can just rewind to a previous incarnation, as if it's okay to want to be the way we were before this monumental change has happened to our lives.  As if we're not supposed to look and feel and be different because of the process.  We say we love being moms but wouldn't be caught dead wearing mom jeans.

After nearly three decades of being miserable because I didn't look the way I thought I should look, I decided to take a different approach.  I decided that instead of trying to make my body match an ideal I saw popularized by pretty much all forms of media, I would try to make my mind like the body I had.  As it was, in that moment.  And I decided that if my body changed, I would try to like that version, too.  

But in a way, going through pregnancy now is putting that new way of thinking to the test.  It's one thing to decide to like the way you look even as you step off the dieting roller coaster and give away the too small pants you were always sure you were going to fit in one day.  It's another, as I am learning, to look forward to embracing the messy postpartum body with acceptance and grace.  The only way I have ever faced a post-baby body is with the hearty chorus of "I can't wait to lose this weight" on repeat in my ears.  It was never a possibility to be okay with that in-between body that no longer housed a baby but still showed the stretch and strain of when it did.

It's amazing, though, how my perspective has shifted now that I am carrying a daughter.  I can't help but feel I have less time than I expected to figure this out because when she arrives, there are so many things I want to show her and teach her.  Starting with how to be brave and patient and kind, with how to be someone instead of just trying to look like someone.  And of course I want to show her, because she may not learn it anywhere else, how to love the body I have carefully carried and nurtured for nine months, the body I will feed with my own body for many more months, the body Sam and I will delight in as a miraculous creation, poring over the toes and the fingernails and the tiny little lines on the lips.  I want to show her how to love the body that eventually everyone will tell her should look a certain way but should really just look as it does, in all its own imperfect perfection.

My hope for her is the same as the hope I have for myself these days.  May she be full of life and love, may she laugh often, and may she be blessed with a body that allows her to dance and run and play.  And when she looks in the mirror, may she see more than the package that holds her all together.  May she be hopeful and happy and proud, whether she has swallowed a beach ball or even just looks like she did.

Image credit, used under Creative Commons license.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Hosanna and Hallelujah



Nico keeps accidentally calling it Black Friday, and though we've explained the difference between Black Friday and Good Friday, I can't help but agree with him a little bit.  It must have seemed black that day.  I doubt that any who attended the "festivities" on the original Good Friday would have called that day good.  To us, now, the outcome is good, but that doesn't erase the fact that it would have been a terrible day to live through. 

That's how it is when you're living in the story, not knowing what is waiting on the next page, not being able to see the end of the chapter, much less make out the words on the last page.  That's how it is being human, with our infuriating tunnel vision and our complete inability to see the future, with our desperate attempts to look at things with perspective despite being mostly glued down to the surface of a planet and into lives that tend to completely fill our vision.

For me, Good Friday has felt like a dark day since we got our Very Bad News on Good Friday two years ago.  Funny how quickly a day that should be about so much more than my own sadness can get co-opted into something entirely about me and what I want.  I don't mean to imply that my grief and my remembrance don't have a place in my personal story, just that if I could somehow see past them, past the closeness of this hurt and out into the promise underwriting the day on which my heart was broken, then perhaps I would in some way be lifted from the merciless gravity that can grind us deeper and deeper into the proverbial dirt of this life.

When I was younger, the church we attended put on a big Easter pageant every year.  The actor who played Jesus grew his hair out long and, shirtless and painted with blood, he carried a big wooden cross up the center aisle of the church.  It was silly theatrics, really, and I was always a little embarrassed for him.  Until the part where they nailed him to the cross, when the lights when out and all the music stopped and big men in Roman soldier costumes hammered loudly at the giant nails.  Though it was all so clearly fake, though I knew the man playing Jesus would be standing on a little platform and just holding on to the "nails" when they hoisted the cross up into its base and hit him with a single white spotlight, I still got a chill every time the lights went out and the sound of hammering echoed through the sanctuary.

Our little family is light on the liturgical traditions that mark this season for many people.  We don't get painted with ashes.  We don't give up things for Lent and are thus not salivating to eat or drink or have that thing we've sacrificed for 40 days. We don't get to watch an overdone Easter pageant like the ones I was in growing up.  Heck, I didn't even know hot cross buns were an Easter thing until Pioneer Woman made them.

The ramifications of the Easter holiday are talked about year round in our house, the sacrifice and the forgiveness and the hope that come from that day, but truth be told our traditions this time of year have more to do with fluffy bunnies and creme filled eggs than sacred rituals of faith.  In fact, I seem to forget how important a day Easter is for me until it arrives every year.  After I've dressed everyone in their pre-approved Easter outfits (complementary colors but not matchy-matchy because of course that's better for the pictures), after we've cleaned up the trail of plastic grass that has spilled out of baskets from little fingers completing the "did I get everything?" search down to the bottom, after we've eaten too much for breakfast and scrambled to load into the car and squeezed into our seats at church, after all that, a quiet finally comes over me.  And I understand, again as if for the first time.

I spend too many hours of every day struggling against the fact this place is broken.  I try to understand why people hurt each other, why catastrophes happen, why I am made to want things that are not good for me, even when I know they aren't good for me.  I watch Good Friday approach and think to myself, "Oh not again, I hate this day," forgetting that I can't see the end of the chapter any more than the people who lived through the original Good Friday could, forgetting that I can't really get perspective on what my loss means, or if it even means anything at all beyond being a symptom of living here in the dirt.  I hate that we are a world derailed, an often angry and dangerous and altogether floundering place.  I see the darkness in this life, and sometimes it can fill my vision.

But, on Easter, I can almost see past it.  I stand and sing songs that explain why that Friday was good, though it seemed anything but, and inside me a quiet space opens up, a little glimpse of glories promised.  I can almost hear the pounding of the hammer on those fake nails lodged in that prop wooden cross from years ago, and I get a chill thinking about the real thing.  For a moment, all the theological debates and all the culture wars and all the tunnel vision fall away, and I am reminded why I believe, why I still cling so hard to a sometimes shaky faith.  For a while, for just a little while, I get a look through the dust of this place and into things eternal, and a quiet kind of light takes up residence in me. 

Together we sing words like Hosanna and Hallelujah, and they come out without irony, a faithful chorus, perhaps all seeing past ourselves in unison.  And I come home to eat a big ham dinner, talking to my kids about what we learned, trying to explain supernatural concepts in words that don't fall flat, thinking of how eternity took root in me for a while and hoping it will for them, too, someday.  I come home buoyed and lit up and clear-headed, praying that glow doesn't go out before I can get the potatoes out of the oven, holding on to heaven even as I slip my Sunday shoes off and bury my toes in the grass, feeling the warm spring dirt under my feet.  Still tied to the earth, but somehow not as firmly, still singing Hosanna and Hallelujah under my breath.


Image Credit, used under Creative Commons License