Last year, on this day, I went into labor on the first Sunday of Advent. I didn’t realize this at the time; I was skipping church each Sunday in favor of sleeping in late with my skeptical husband, trying to catch up on the sleep that was being robbed each night by back pain and frequent trips to the bathroom. I was still working full time during the week, toddling through each day behind an impossibly huge belly, only vaguely aware that I was about to give birth in the season of The Birth.
Not that I had to attend church to be reminded of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and all that. I saw them constantly, most often and most depressingly in the forms of bobbing, inflatable lawn ornaments with cartoonish faces – Mary wearing a shapeless blue tarp like a rain poncho, Joseph looming limply over her, and somewhere in there a blow-up Christ child. These were only their nightly forms; in the day the little air pumps would get turned off, presumably to save someone’s power or dignity, and the Holy Family would wilt completely into a pile of plastic on the front lawn.
That wasn’t the only version of the nativity scene around, of course. But one commonality among them was that Mary tended to look remarkably clean and, well, refreshed for someone who just labored in a barn all night. I did not look so serene after giving birth. I looked traumatized, like a shade from the underworld, leaning back against a pillow literally soaked in sweat, my eyelids swollen from being clenched shut for hours, the eyes behind them marbled with burst capillaries.
What were we thinking on that long-ago St. Patrick’s Day, my husband and I? What made us imagine we could do something as reckless as create another human being? There was no divine command; no angel appeared to me in a blaze of terror and light to say this is what you must do. It was just us, Michael and me, feeling frisky and perhaps a little bored and so full of love that we needed to make another body to contain it, to catch what was spilling over.
We had no idea what we were getting into, this business of incarnation. How can anyone? It must be entered blindly. Did Mary know how it would end? The angel told her all the good stuff, son of God, reigning forever and all that, but did his eyes whisper something else, some foreshadowing? With this honor comes the promise of pain.
There is no record of this warning. But perhaps Mary knew it somehow, if only in her marrow. Even the divine Word, becoming flesh, shriveled down to a cluster of unknowing cells to speak only the language of the body. When the Word was in Mary, doubling and unfurling from fish into human, what did he know in that enclosed sea, the tiny god-being, of truth or sin or certainty? Warmth is what he knew, and watery movement in filtered orange light, and the hushed sounds of voices outside.
The word was made flesh, yes, but what about after? Did Mary tear as she split herself open in the stable? Was she alone with him at all, her first and perfect child, before the men trailed in to worship him?
I know one thing. Mary didn’t stare herself in the mirror, perusing her postpartum body with a mixture of horror and fascination like I did. But she must have noticed the metamorphosis, the enveloping of her girl-body into the flesh of a mother: heavy breasts blooming with violet veins, and a soft, spongy belly – perfect for cuddling God. She must have felt the buzzy tightening of her ducts releasing milk, the rawness of her nipples those first few days. And of course she must have bled, like her son one day would, for weeks.
This is her body, broken in birth; how do we remember her?
I kept my eyes closed almost entirely during labor. I labored in darkness, descending deep within myself, trying to burrow under the pain that was radiating to my spine in hot jolts. But at that last moment – at once an epiphany and an annunciation – my mother pulled away the cool cloth covering my eyes and in a rush of water and dazzling light my son spilled into life and onto my stomach, covered in blood and goo, and we touched for the first time, skin against skin, along the length of our newly split bodies.
So much is said about the ripped and tortured and dying body of God, but what about the body he came in? The one like my son’s, tiny and hungry with skin soft as ash, and hands that spring open like little stars, grasping in the air for something, someone.
I am grasping, too, struggling to funnel this moment into language, to find words that can touch its vastness – such flimsy tools, these clusters of letters, but they are all that I have.
We are embodied words, all of us. We are bundles of language and skin, the consummation of some impulse or desire, some word brought to fruition.
What word is it that my son incarnates? Mary said yes. We said: let’s.
Yes, let’s. Let’s give this word a body and welcome him into the world. And look! Here he is now, our word made flesh, warm and wriggling in close for a drink of sweet milk.
This is what I tell my nine month-old in the mornings now, when I’m giving him a breast milk addendum to his blueberry oatmeal and nuggets of scrambled egg. He’s easily distractible and pops off repeatedly to stare at the cat, or his dad, or the window, or the magic of his own hand. And now I ask him, “Are you sure you’re done? Because the girls are going to work.”
Yes, after three months of meandering routines and on-call milk from the tap, “the girls” and I are back at work, caught in the whirlwind of teaching and prepping and pumping and attending an absurd amount of meetings. And Michael is in full-swing stay-at-home-dad mode.
Part of me feels relieved. Summer comes with weighty expectations. You’re supposed to do fun! exciting! things that other people will find interesting, people who inevitably ask, after regaling you with tales about ice climbing in the Himalayas or spooning with dolphins in the Caribbean: “So, what did you do this summer?”
I hung out. I played with my baby and my nephews. Once, I thought briefly about going camping and had ambitious plans to take a road trip to a wedding, but neither of those relatively minor excursions panned out. I picked some berries. And I ignored the Internet for an extended period of time because the endless pictures of other people doing their fun! exciting! things was beginning to make me feel dissatisfied with my slow-going, home-bodied, berry-picking life.
Aside from unreasonably lofty expectations, summer also wreaks massive mayhem to any sense of routine, which, before I had a baby, was refreshing. Now? Not so much. As August dwindled, both Michael and I began to anticipate the return of some structure and consistency to our lives. Wide-open days become unwieldy after awhile.
So when the deserted campus was once again overrun with (mostly) eager students and colleagues, I felt and welcomed the electricity in the air that comes with a new school year. It felt good to inhabit my office, to be alone and have a task to anchor my mind. It felt good to lose myself in the unending possibilities of syllabi tweaking. It felt good to work.
But underneath this honeybee enthusiasm – deep in the sticky hive of my mother-mind – I felt something else: the steady drone of guilt.
Ugh. Guilt. I know it’s an inevitable part of mothering. This was recently illustrated to me a couple months ago when I swung Julian up to my shoulder a little too harshly, making him veer awkwardly and start to cry – obviously not anything serious, but I felt bad nonetheless and said as much. My mom, rather than reassuring me that this was no big deal, launched into a rather terrifying story about my brother almost drowning as a young boy because of (what she perceived to be) her negligence. She wasn’t chiding me; my expression of guilt had simply triggered her own reservoir of the stuff. I could palpably feel our mother-guilt pooling and undulating as we looked into each other’s haunted eyes, and I thought to myself, “This is motherhood. I will now feel guilty, about something or another, FOREVER.”
Some of the time, I am fine. Some of the time I tunnel headlong into whatever I’m doing at work and manage to stay focused. But then my milk lets down, and I think about my baby, about the reality of our physical separation. I check my phone to figure out whether I need to pump (in which case I spend the next 15-20 minutes marooned at my desk, lamely scrolling through Facebook with my left pinky) or whether Michael has time to bring Julian by for a nursing session.
This should be the ideal scenario, of course. I am lucky to have a job with the space, flexibility, and proximity to accommodate nursing, and I feel a surge of giddy joy whenever I see Michael and Julian appear in my office door. As soon as I know they’re en route, I watch the clock in anticipation and listen for Michael’s familiar plodding tread on the stairs.
But then, after Julian eats and crawls all over my office, pulling books off the shelves and eating paper from the recycling bin, they leave. They leave and the office feels empty, eerily quiet. I find myself wondering about how long Julian’s nap will be, and if he’ll wake up crying or not. I wonder if he misses me, if he thinks about the fact that I’m not there.
Tuesday was the hardest day this past week. On Tuesday, the wonderful flexibility of my job backfired. Michael brought Julian by for some milk, and as I watched my baby gleefully tear apart old copies of my maternity leave paperwork, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be there. Tuesday is a day I don’t teach, so I use the time to prep classes, grade, meet with students, write – all necessary parts of my job. But as soon as the thought presented itself – the thought that it was selfish of me to be in my office when it was possible to be at home – I couldn’t unthink it. I gave into the guilt, went home, and spent a frustrating and futile afternoon trying to work from there.
I’m sick of the should voice. The voice that tells me I should be working when I’m with my baby and that I should be with my baby when I’m working. I don’t know where this voice is coming from, but I can’t give it what it wants.
Of course — just processing out loud here — maybe this isn’t all about guilt. Maybe this is about me being territorial. Maybe part of me is threatened because Michael and Julian are honestly completely fine when I’m not there. Or maybe – I’m feeling an inner ding ding ding! as I write this – maybe I’m feeling guilty not simply because I’m missing out on time with my baby, but because I actually enjoy being at work.
On Tuesday, truth be told, I wanted to work. I wanted to stay in my office and power through and get some stuff done, but I felt compelled to be home, simply because that was in the realm of possibility, and I seem to have absorbed the cultural expectation that babies should be with their mothers 100% of the time. Given the choice between being with her baby and being at work, a good mother should want to be at home right? But I’m the bad mother who wanted to be at work.
So that’s where we are, the girls and I, stuck on the “damned if you do or don’t” merry-go-round. When I’m working, I feel like a bad mother – especially if I’m enjoying myself. And if I come home leaving a lengthy “TO DO” list smoldering on my desk, I feel like a bad professor.
We’re too hard on ourselves, we mothers. Remember that Time cover? “Are You Mom Enough?” Those editors knew exactly which button to push with that headline, exactly which wound to prod. I never feel like I’m mom enough. But who does? Who could possibly meet all the demands, all the steaming piles of should we heap on ourselves? I know it’s bogus, I do, but still, I keep shoveling.
And so, at the dawn of this new week, this new school year, I would like to raise a toast, to all you pump-weary, guilt-haunted, stretched-beyond-the-limit mamas. Despite what you may feel, you’re more than mom enough — say it with me now! — and the girls and I salute you.
[SIDE NOTE: I referred specifically to “mother-guilt” here, because I’m honestly not sure if men feel this same pressure to be constantly present to their children. Is the guilt a dad thing, too…?]
My last post on “the mother wound” was hard to write. It was deeply heartfelt, but – let’s be honest – a little bit of a downer. I’m certainly glad I wrote it and that so many other parents, men and women, identified with what I described. (We’re in the trenches together, people!!!) That said, I’m feeling completely emotionally drained from simply existing through this past week, with its various horrors. Perhaps you can relate. So, today I’m keeping it simple and happy, folks. I’m going all Pollyanna on your ass.
Oh, and one more thing: to my readers who aren’t yet mothers but who might-be-sort-of-contemplating-going-down-that-road-one-day-maybe – I realize much of what I write involves exposing my worst parenting moments, which might be somewhat of a deterrent, so this post is dedicated to you:
A Few Things That Have Surprised Me About Motherhood (In a Good Way)
1. Poop Immunity
Right before sitting down to write this post, I was trying to put Julian down for the night. Just when he was teetering on the edge of deep sleep, he launched into a forceful, sustained grunt and proceeded to enthusiastically expel a geyser of poop that burst forth from his diaper and totally slimed his pajamas.
Non-mamas: this description probably grosses you out. But I have good news! If you’re anything like me, when it’s YOUR baby pooping, you won’t be grossed out at all. You will have poop immunity. Not only will you not be grossed out, you might actually acquire an academic interest in said poop. You might even feel a tiny thrill of curiosity when changing a diaper, a sense of anticipation not unlike what you feel on Christmas morning as you begin to unwrap the special package baby has laid for you and wonder: How much did he poop? What color will it be?
I have such powerful poop immunity that I actually like the process of washing his cloth diapers. Yes, this is totally weird. At least, I can understand how it might appear weird to others, but it seem perfectly natural to me. When it’s time to wash Julian’s diapers, I start filling the washer to let the soap dissolve and proceed to make neat piles of his dirty diapers on top of the lid. The poopy diapers get their own pile, so I can assess how much he’s pooping and inspect the color. Is it a bright soylent green? Or perhaps the ideal rich, mustardy-yellow with orange hues?
I realize that poop immunity may be compromised once Julian starts to eat solids, when his nice, frothy milk-poop will transform into run-of-the-mill gross human shit. But for the moment, it’s no big deal. So don’t worry too much about the poop thing.
[Note: poop immunity also includes pee, booger, ear wax, and drool immunity. Spit-up immunity may or may not be included, especially if it’s chunky.]
2. The Queen of “No”
Not surprisingly, I used to worry a lot about how being a mother would impact my career. To be perfectly honest, before having Julian, the epicenter of my life was work. I’d spend my bike ride home dissecting the workday in my mind, replaying class discussions and mentally assembling to-do lists. When I’d arrive home – nearly every time – I would try to open the back door with my office key. Clearly, I had a hard time not bringing work home with me. This is not to say that I did not have a rich and satisfying relationship with Michael – I did and do. But my thought life, my energy, and my identity were completely tangled up in my job. Probably to an unhealthy extent.
Because of this, I had a hard time setting boundaries with work; I said yes to pretty much everything and probably, frankly, cared a little too much about students’ and colleagues’ opinions of me.
Now, however, there has been a cosmic shift. Now, when I bike home, I pedal as fast as I can, anticipating that moment when I can walk through the door and see my husband cooking dinner while wearing a cute baby whose face lights up when he sees his mama. Now, I try to avoid bringing work home with me whenever possible, and I’ve become so adept at it that I’m constantly behind on grading.
And I’ve never said ‘no’ so much in my life! It’s glorious! Life-changing! And, because I’m pretty much always breastfeeding or pumping, I have an airtight excuse. A guilt-free ‘no’ is a beautiful thing.
Ultimately, having a baby has shuffled my priorities in a way that is healthier for me. Even though I am busier than I’ve ever been, I actually feel like I have some balance in my life and that my roots are where they should be: with my people.
2. My Muse is Back
Writing is my first love. Writing is in my bones. But going through the process of researching and writing a PhD dissertation pitched me into a creative wasteland for years. I forgot what it was like to feel inspired, to feel aflame with words and have to scramble to catch them before they turn to ash.
But just a few weeks after having Julian, I felt that spark again; I felt ignited. And — SPOILER — I started a blog. I am now writing more than I have in years. More than that: I have rediscovered the joy of writing for myself again, not for grades or for a degree or for tenure. Just according to my own selfish whims. And it feels GOOD.
I’m not saying becoming a mother will make you a writer, but it might unlock something inside you, some creative force that’s lying dormant. Motherhood is such a many-colored, monstrous, magnificent thing – you are continually rocked and dazzled by cataclysmic surges of joy and fear and hope. And all that tumult needs an outlet. For me, it’s writing.
4. I Love My Body. (Seriously.)
I worried about the body thing. Sure. I worried about getting fat and having saggy boobs and a little pooch that would force me to wear “Mom Jeans.” But to be perfectly honest, I feel more at home in my own skin now than I ever have. Or since puberty, anyway.
A few months ago, I wrote about wanting to embrace my post-baby body:
“I had worried, prior to giving birth, about what my body would look like afterwards, and contemplated the maneuvers I could take to erase all physical traces of pregnancy and childbirth – but now that feels wrong, like a betrayal. My abdomen is doughy because it grew and housed my son, keeping him warm and cushioned in his water world. Scrambling to maintain the illusion that life does not etch itself into our cells and skin – this seems not only futile but disrespectful to me now.
In reality, I will never “get my body back.” Maybe I’ll get back into those beloved jeans, maybe I won’t, but either way, my body will remain permanently marked, physically and emotionally, by motherhood. And I want to love this incredible, life-giving flesh I inhabit – even the pillowy bits. I want to love it whole.”
Weirdly enough, I’ve managed to cultivate a pretty consistent feeling of affection and respect toward my body, even though I haven’t gotten back into running, or into my favorite pair of pre-pregnancy jeans. My hips are wider. My breasts hang low with milk. My stomach peeks over the edge of my pants. But every night, and several times throughout the day, I get to curl up next to my baby while he wriggles against me for a drink of my milk. In that moment I am filled with gratitude for this body, for its incredible, life-sustaining machinations, and for the nerves that fire up my skin so I can feel his glowing warmth and the roving touch of his inquisitive limbs. In those moments, I can’t help but think: This is why I have a body. This is the texture of bliss.
* * *
There are terrifying aspects of motherhood, absolutely. There are moments of despair and paralysis and UTTER BOREDOM. But woven through those moments is joy like I’ve never known. A rich, mustardy-yellow kind of joy, with orange hues.
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…