Category: bonding

The Mother Wound

Eleven days after Julian’s birth, when I was still in those waning throes of the so-called Baby Blues, I sat down in a rocking chair to eat some yogurt and check Facebook while my newborn son pawed absently at the air on the bed next to me. This was a customary scene. I remember that the sun was actually out for once, if half-heartedly, and I’d flung open our thick red curtains so December-born Julian could understand that Oregon was not a land of perpetual night.

But if I was feeling good that morning, the sensation was soon replaced by growing dread when I saw my sister-in-law’s status: “Hugging my little ones a little tighter today. Can’t imagine what the parents are going through right now. Praying for all of the families that have been affected by this tragedy.”

Even though I immediately felt a sense of I don’t want to know, I somehow found myself on Google, reading a headline about dozens of elementary school CHILDREN being gunned down.

“Oh my God.” I cried out and flung the iPad away from me, as if burned. And that’s not just an offhand simile; I felt physical pain reading those words. They leapt from the screen and pierced me.

I didn’t even try to read beyond the headline – it would be days, in fact, before I allowed myself to glean the whole story. I just crawled onto the bed next to Julian and held him close to me, my lips against his warm fuzzy head, and tried not to think of those parents, who had cuddled with their babies like I was doing in that moment. If they were once me, I could be them. And that was not something I felt capable of facing, then or now.

That was Sandy Hook.

This week I encountered the nightmarish horrors of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, not through the news – I’d been unabashedly avoiding the news since the whole birth control mandate debacle early in my pregnancy – but through social media. Wanting to be an informed citizen, especially about issues concerning women and children, I tried, I really tried to read the article from The Atlantic, but again, I couldn’t make it past the first few words without feeling assaulted, without wanting to be sick. This time I wasn’t at home, where I could sedate myself on baby-love and shut out the world. I was in my office, alone, and so I just sat at my desk and cried.

And now Boston.

I have a recurring fantasy that involves me running a marathon – or a half-marathon, if I’m being more honest with myself – and having Michael and Julian at the finish line waiting for me. This is not a recent fantasy; I’ve had it for years, before Julian even existed, and there was just a cute, nameless baby in Michael’s arms. This image spurred me on when I ran my first (and only) half-marathon in New Orleans in 2011. There’s something about running for someone and towards someone.

I’ve been dodging news stories again, but I know that an 8 year-old boy was killed today in Boston. He was at the finish line. He was waiting for someone. And someone was running for him, toward him. And now that someone will keep running that race, she’ll forever be reaching for the line where he’s waiting to collapse against her in a sweaty hug. But she’ll never get there. She’ll be running for the rest of her life.

This is what it is to be a parent, to live always on the brink of grief.

And that’s just if you’re one of the lucky ones who get to linger on that edge, if you’re not plunged into the abyss entirely when the worst happens.

Never before have tragedies struck so near and cut so deeply.

On the one hand this might be a good thing. Violence is more abhorrent, more intolerable, to me than ever. It’s too easy for me to see Julian’s face when I hear of someone, especially a child, being victimized.

HOWEVER.  The thought of my baby being harmed by another person takes me to a violent place immediately.  A place where I would murder to protect him, no question. I know I should be a pacifist, and I want to be a pacifist, but I also know that I would kill to keep my child safe.

You may have heard about the “trolley problem” – a nifty thought experiment that forces you to consider whether you would sacrifice a life that is dear to you in order to save the lives of many others. This used to be an interesting philosophical problem to mull over; now there is no mystery. My heartfelt apologies to anyone on that imaginary trolley, but I would save my son. Always, always, I would choose to save my son.

A couple of weeks ago I attended part of a writers conference, and one of the keynote speakers discussed Kierkegaard’s reading of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. I missed about 80% of his talk, because I was off pumping breast milk, but I caught the tail end, and I was surprised at my distasteful reaction to the biblical story itself. The story was hardly new to me, having grown up in a Christian home, but sitting there in the audience, missing my infant son, my breasts newly emptied of milk for him, I felt utterly disgusted by both Abraham and God. What a sick, twisted test of faith.

I know one thing: that would not have been me up on the mountain, knife raised high. I would have called God’s bluff from the start. And, if need be, I would have turned my back on him. That might make me a terrible Christian, but I don’t even feel like I’d have a choice in the matter. Motherlove is in my veins, and the force of it is as overpowering as God must have seemed to Abraham. This Motherlove is ruthless and all-consuming, in an Old Testament kind of way.

All that to say, I have been changed. Not that I used to be uncaring or calloused before, or that I did not love incredibly deeply – I wasn’t, and I did. But I am wounded now in a way that I have never been.

Being a mother is like living with your heart outside of your chest. You have tethered it to another impossibly fragile life, and there is a wound leftover, a hole that will never heal.

* * *

I am only four months in. My son, who hasn’t quite mastered rolling over yet (so close!), is probably safer now than he will ever be. But already I’m wondering: how can I live like this, under the threat of such incomprehensible pain, without it swallowing me whole?

Sometimes in the depth of night, Julian stirs, begins to cry himself awake, and I put my hand on his chest to calm him back into sleep. My hand easily covers his torso, and I can feel his tiny heart against my palm, fluttering like a hummingbird. Not so long ago, this heart was beating inside me; our twin organs shared both body and blood. Now I swear I can feel both hearts there, beneath his matchstick ribs. Mine echoes in the beats between his, a desperate murmur, a plea: don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop…

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Breast is best, but my nipple f****** hurts.


I grew up with a fairly utopian view of breastfeeding. My mom nursed me until I was three, long enough for me to creatively name her breasts “Nippy” and “Nipple.” She was a La Leche League member and always talked openly about the physical and emotional benefits of breastfeeding for both baby and mama. My mom describes her “perfect moment” as the day I was born, mid-November 1983. She was the only patient in the tiny small-town hospital in Idaho and spent the day nursing me as the first snowfall of winter drifted down outside, insulating us from the world. Apparently I was an eager eater from day one. That image of us, skin to skin in snow-muffled silence, has taken root – and even though it’s a story that’s been told to me, not an active memory, I trace the narrative of my life back to that moment.

Of course, the beatific picture of breastfeeding has been countered by less romantic experiences gleaned from other women, stories about cracked nipples, chronic pain, engorged breasts – and, perhaps most horrifically, one friend who had mastitis and looked down during a nursing session to see her baby choking on a mouthful of blood.

I went into labor with these two extremes in mind – either I was going to be one of those lucky women who entered seamlessly and painlessly into breastfeeding, or I was going to have to suffer through it, teeth gritted, for the good of The Child. Of course, like most things in life, reality runs between these poles. At this point, one month in, I am beginning to genuinely enjoy breastfeeding  but those teeth-gritting, expletive-muttering moments have not yet completely vanished.

So, here is my candid assessment of breastfeeding thus far: the good, bad, and ugly.
 
The Bad

Breastfeeding was a total rollercoaster at first. I’m not someone who has very, um, hardy nipples, so the first couple of weeks were like boot camp for my boobs – my nipples needed to toughen the hell up. Left Boob was a quick study; I had some soreness and a milk blister on that side that healed quickly, and nursing was pretty painless after a week or two. But Right Boob… well, Right Boob is lagging. Right Boob will not be recruited for Special Forces. Right Boob will be cleaning the latrines.

Sometime in the first week, my right nipple cracked, and the lovely fissure that formed there has yet to disappear. It keeps almost healing, taunting me with its progress, only to suddenly gape open and begin hurting again, especially after Julian has one of those squirmy feeds where he goes after my breast like a frantic little lap dog with a squeaky toy. I’ve tried copious amounts of lanolin, expressing a bit of milk on the nipple after each feeding, those “soothie” gel pads – pretty much anything you can google, I’ve given a shot. Most recently, I’ve been doing these saline soaks after breastfeeding, followed by a little Neosporin and some Monistat, to make sure I don’t get a fungal infection (yum!). This seems to be helping, so I’m hopeful. Maybe Right Boob will finally pony up.

Googling about breastfeeding gets annoying, though, as most websites proclaim that breastfeeding should be “absolutely painless” only a few days in, or you’re doing something wrong dum-dum. Well, I’ve met with two lactation consultants who have told me Julian has a good latch. One of them was a little purple lactation pixie (purple hair, purple earrings, purple scrubs, purple glasses, purple shoes) who said that, with the amount Julian was nursing, if we didn’thave a good latch my nipples would look like raw hamburger. Oy vey. So, it’s a little frustrating to have the internet gods constantly tweaking my new-mom insecurities. Maybe they just have a different definition of “painless.”

Aside from that doggedly persistent fissure, the other worst part about breastfeeding is thankfully over: engorgement. A few days after giving birth, my milk came in with a vengeance, transforming my breasts into giant, rock-hard torpedoes. My last day in the hospital, I took a few slow waddle-walks around the ward, and I noticed that it was suddenly difficult to breath deeply. Of course, my mind initially jumped to worst case scenario land and wondered if something was wrong with my circulation or my heart  until I finally figured out that it was just because my breasts were so damn heavy. My lungs were having to do battle with the boulders on my chest in order to inflate.

That hardness made it difficult for Julian’s tiny little mouth to latch on, so I spent a couple of incredibly frustrating days trying to feed my hungry baby from breasts that were too full to function correctly. Those were the worst moments: Julian wailing with his hunger cry, confused by the aching brick I was trying, unsuccessfully, to maneuver into his mouth – and then I’d lose it, too, and just start sobbing, feeling utterly inept and desperate. (It doesn’t help that engorgement coincides with the sudden hormonal abyss that women careen into a few days post-partum.)

But, like I said, that part is over, and Julian latches like a champ now, most of the time  except when he gets all dainty on me, puckering his mouth in a small “O” as if he expects to be served tea and ladyfingers. I much prefer when he claps both fists around my breast and goes to town like he’s chowing down on a giant hoagie.

 
The Ugly

I’ve always had a bit of a boob complex – at least since puberty, anyway. I was one of those lucky ones that “developed early.” I was certainly the first in my female circle to deal with armpit hair and probably the only girl in the entire sixth grade who needed to wear a bra. And, just so you know, it’s not cool to have breasts when you’re the only one. (Luckily, in seventh grade, boobs starting sprouting around me willy nilly, some even larger than mine, so I could breath a sigh of relief.)

Complicating my early admittance to puberty was the fact that I grew up in a religious context where boobs are basically seen as tantalizing bags of sin that should be concealed at all costs. I must have internalized that mindset to some extent, because I always wished I had the small, discrete breasts of a long-distance runner than, well, the ones that I’ve got. So, as you can imagine, it’s been unsettling to see my breasts double (triple?) in size throughout and after pregnancy. When Julian was first born, his head seemed completely dwarfed by one of my breasts, which just seemed a little excessive on Nature’s part – how could that little guy possibly need that much boob?

Yesterday I went for my first postpartum “run,” which was comical on many levels, most notably my attempt to cram my generous new ta-tas into a pre-pregnancy sports bra.

Of course, although I feel awkward about the sudden tightness of my shirts these days, breastfeeding has awakened a new brazenness within me. I am not shy about feeding Julian in front of people. Modesty? Qu’est-ce que c’est? Sometimes I wonder how many of our neighbors have witnessed my now standard Amazonian attire, as I shuffle around the kitchen in pajama pants, letting injured Right Boob get some air. Answer: No idea and I don’t care.

 
The Good

Even though I’ve spent most of this post kvetching, I have to say: the good of breastfeeding is really good.

I mean, my body is spontaneously producing a miraculous substance that meets all of the nutritional needs of my newborn – how amazing is that? A nasty stomach bug recently made the rounds in my family over the holidays – of the twenty-two relatives who were visiting, only four remained unscathed, including Julian and me. It was a relief to know, as loved ones dropped around us like flies, that my milk was pumping my baby full of all kinds of immunity-boosting goodness. And the fact that my wee snacker needs to eat so frequently meant that I basically spent the holidays in a comfy little nursing bubble, which probably helped keep the sickness at bay.

And the best of the good? My gooiest mama moments happen during breastfeeding. I look down, hypnotized by his face-at-rest, his eyes closed, as he makes little hums with each swallow, those pudgy cheeks earnestly working away — and then he’ll let out this shivery sigh of contentment and I just melt. And stare and stare and stare.




Mama’s a bit of a shut-in…

One month and two days into this thing called motherhood.

I find myself on facebook a lot more lately, peeking at other people’s lives – this new existence is isolating, though the isolation is pretty self-imposed. I could be one of those adventurous new moms who straps Baby to her and carts him around to all sorts of social functions, but I’m mostly quite content to stay at home, where I don’t have to wear a bra. So, for now, facebook is this window into the outside world, into the world I used to inhabit, where people get dressed in the morning and do exciting things like go out to coffee and try on clothes at Target.

Today, I even facebook stalked myself, scrolling back through my own timeline, looking at past posts from past friends, old status updates, feeling a little embarrassed about how carefully crafted my facebook persona is: mostly flattering pictures (some unrealistically so – those are always the best) and blurbs about various successes and milestones, carefully worded so as not to be too braggy, of course… Well, it all sounds a little tinny to me now. The facebook me is an ideal, a fiction of my own creation. And skimming through the years, I find myself wishing I’d constructed a more interesting story, one with more transparency about who I really was in that moment in time, what my life was really like – not just the noteworthy and witty stuff.

Of course, I’m still doing it – I’ve been plastering my wall with pictures of my newborn son. He is really cute, it’s true, but I haven’t really jumped to post more recent pics of his male pattern baldness and infant acne. On facebook, I said that he looks like a little monk (how cute!), but he more closely resembles Ron Howard’s brother


I’ve also avoided status updates altogether. What would they say?

–       “Today’s moment of triumph: taking a shower.”
–       “Every night my baby gets really tired and screams for an hour or so before he can figure out that he needs to just fall asleep.”
–       “Breastfeeding is going well on the left, but my right nipple has this fissure that just won’t heal. And I think it’s infected.”
–       “I like my baby.”
–       “I’m bored.”
–       “Bla bla bla Angry Birds.”

I’m already fighting the urge to make an ideal facebook persona for Julian, the baby who never cries, isn’t losing his hair, doesn’t spit up on me multiple times a day or grunt while he takes two or three loud shits every morning between 10 and 12, like clockwork. (Although, I suppose, regularity could be part of his perfect baby facebook persona.) Don’t get me wrong; I actually think my baby isperfect, just the kind of perfect that also gets fussy, shits, spits up, and goes bald. Perfection uncensored.

So, yes, this new life of motherhood is, so far, small and insulated — but also immeasurably deep. It’s a strange mix of the utterly mundane, monotonous, and frustrating — and then pure magic, sometimes in the same instant. I can list off, quite easily, the banal events of my day (breastfeeding, showering, eating, brief spurt of laundry, playing angry birds while breastfeeding some more…) during which I rarely leave my bedroom/nursery, but that would leave out the moments within those moments that open up and swallow me whole, as I’m looking down at this baffling, squirming life cuddled up next to me, breathing in his sweet milkiness, and I touch bliss.