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…
I have a new goal in life. Someday, I would like to experience a visit to the pediatrician that does not involve me having a complete meltdown. Luckily, so far, I’ve managed to not have said meltdowns actually in the doctor’s office; they come later, like aftershocks, when I’m at home and can fling off bra and dignity and really let loose.
The first, and more epic, meltdown happened two months ago, at Julian’s two-month appointment. I’ve written elsewhere about my somewhat reclusive new-mama behaviors. I wasn’t one of those adventurous new moms who go straight from giving birth in a hospital to shopping for non-maternity jeans in Anthropologie, baby tucked in a perfectly-wrapped Moby.
I was more like a furtive coyote mother whose den is being encroached upon by Evil Humans, and she is forced to dart out into the night, pup dangling precariously from her jaws, in order to survive. At least that’s how it felt, every time I ventured beyond the warm womb of my house with a newborn. As you can imagine, I didn’t get out much.
So this inaugural visit to the doctor’s office, which is about a 35-minute drive away, felt like a BIG DEAL. I prepared a list of questions I wanted to ask the pediatrician, imagining that she would be a warm, uplifting Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman knockoff who would make me feel competent and normal and reassure me that everything’s fine, and I’m doing a great job, and my baby is healthy, and maybe we could come over to her house later for some hearty pioneer cooking and meet her white husband who nonetheless has the Soul of an Indian.
I particularly wanted to ask her about Julian’s breastfeeding habits. He’d just started doing this weird snacking thing, where he’d dive toward my boob like he’s bobbing for apples, eat aggressively for five minutes, and then just pop off, totally done, totally uninterested in my attempts to lure him onto boob number two. (Spoiler: he’s still doing this.) He seemed sated, but I wasn’t sure he was eating enough.
This anxiety was fed by my tendency to play the parenting comparison game – yes, already, just two months in. Some friends of mine have a baby with these amazing fat rolls all over her cuddly body. Even on her forearms. She’s a delicious Stay Puft Marshmellow Baby, and I used to look at her pictures and wonder, where are Julian’s forearm rolls? Is he not eating enough? Do I have wimpy milk? Then I’d go google “failure to thrive.”
I brought all this new mom anxiety to the appointment with me, hoping to have it dispelled. The visit started out well enough, but by the time the doctor came into the soulless exam room, Julian’s pleasantries had disintegrated into hysterics. On top of missing naptime, he had to get undressed and redressed TWICE, because the first medical assistant completely bungled his measurements. (She’d concluded, for example, that his head was 22 inches around, which was only about EIGHT INCHES OFF. Julian comes from large-headed stock, but that there’s mutant territory.)
Our doctor, who more closely resembled a female Woody Allen than the winky-eyed Jane Seymour, seemed totally weirded out that he was fussy. “Is he always like this?” she asked, looking a little alarmed, because apparently she is the ONE pediatrician on the planet who has never had to examine a crying baby.
Finally, after the poking and prodding, Julian fell asleep on Michael and I told her about his eating habits.
“There’s no way he’s getting what he needs in just five minutes.”
That’s what she said.
There’s no way he’s getting what he needs.
I looked over at my baby, who suddenly looked emaciated. He was curled up on Michael’s chest, asleep, no doubt dreaming that he was writhing in the middle of a milkless wilderness, surrounded by shriveled boob cacti. I could almost hear his tiny tummy growling.
There’s no way I’m giving him what he needs.
This, by the way, is THE WORST THING you can say to a new mother. At least to this new mother. For those first two months, breastfeeding was a physical and emotional rollercoaster, and to hear that we were still doing it “wrong,” that my baby was apparently starving, was beyond distressing.
The doctor also seemed particularly bothered that he wasn’t sleeping well at night and that he was only in the 20th percentile for weight (even though he was in the 80th percentile for length and the 98th for head size).
Well, I want to see those the other babies in her practice, the ones who are apparently safely in the 50th percentile in everything, who apparently never scream when being prodded by incompetent medical assistants, and who apparently sleep through the night from birth. SHOW ME THOSE BABIES.
So, after having my fragile new mama soul adeptly crushed, we headed home with our scrawny baby, who now had Band-Aids on his spindly little famine legs from the two-month vaccinations. I spent the next twelve hours cuddling with him in his post-vaccine stupor, feeling like the worst mom on earth.
Throughout the next day, my anxiety held steady, a persistent buzz in the background. I fretfully watched the clock whenever Julian nursed, feeling a twinge of despair when he failed to eat for at least 15 minutes, which was the benchmark the doctor had mentioned.
And then, in the middle of the second night following the doctor’s visit, Julian stopped eating altogether. Cold turkey. Nada. Around 2 AM he stirred as usual, and I rolled over like a sleepy sow to let him eat, like always. But he didn’t eat. In fact, he started screaming bloody murder when I tried to get him to latch on, and it took a warm bath to calm him down. Somehow I managed to get back to sleep, lulling myself into believing that all would be well in the morning.
But it wasn’t. When we woke up, Julian was still refusing to eat.
It may sound ridiculous, but this seemed like an EMERGENCY. I was already obsessing about my baby’s finicky eating habits, worried that he was slowly wasting away, so when he’d refused to eat for about 12 hours, I panicked.
I would have probably gone into full meltdown mode at that point, but my mom managed to calm me down over the phone, assuring me that death was not imminent. I half-believed her, enough to make a successful call to the advice nurse, who suggested we try feeding him breast milk from a cup (we weren’t yet using bottles).
So, armed with this goal, this salvific task, I marched to the bathroom and began to seriously pump for the first time. After about 15 minutes, I had managed to fill two bottles with rich, frothy milk – liquid gold, it’s called, and in that moment I so believed it. Those two bottles were precious boons, brimming with an elixir that would coax my son back into functional babydom.
And then, as I was trying to detach the bottles from the pump apparatus, I spilled that liquid gold, all of it, all over the bathroom floor. Most of it was sucked right up by the bright blue bathmat, forming a large, demoralizing wet spot, and for a mad instant I actually considered wringing the milk from the mat. Then it hit me that there was nothing to salvage, every drop was wasted, my baby was going to starve to death, and I would have to kill myself.
THAT is when I lost it. We’re talking full-scale meltdown here. I collapsed on the bathmat in frenzied sobs, cradling it like a beloved corpse. I went all out. I made Scarlett O’Hara look like Mr. Spock. I pounded my fists against the floor, threw my head back, probably even choked out a few “Why, God? Why????” entreaties.
Even in the midst of my hysterics, it did not escape me that I was literally crying over spilt milk. That just made the whole thing seem even more tragic.
About an hour later, after I’d completely wrung myself out, Julian started eating again. Just like that, the switch flipped back on. Turns out that “loss of appetite” is a side effect of the DTaP vaccine. (THANK YOU, INTERNET.) Which no one thought to mention to us. After a long conversation involving my baby’s eating habits, no one thought to say, “Oh, yeah, and by the way, your baby might randomly STOP EATING FOR AN ENTIRE DAY.”
I came through this whole ordeal with a few nuggets of wisdom.
1) Don’t expect your pediatrician to make you feel normal. S/he is trained to see the abnormal.
2) Your doctor’s tendency to pathologize is like a hungry bear that hangs out at campgrounds and is now accustomed to humans. DO NOT FEED IT.
3) Don’t obsess about the numbers.
4) Don’t look at the clock.
Julian still snacks during the day — if anything, he’s an even more distracted eater now — and then gorges himself on half-hour-long feasts throughout the night. It’s not “normal.” That’s just what he does.
His cheeks have now grown so much that sometimes it looks like his face is melting. But he’ll probably never have forearm rolls. I’ve given up on that dream. Unless his eating habits stay consistent and he goes on serious night binges as an adult, in which case he’ll probably have all kinds of rolls. And I’ll love him anyway.