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.




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