Things I Learned While Traveling With an Infant

Earlier this month, Aaron, Nora and I took our first ever road trip as a family. Fittingly enough, we visited Laurel, her husband Adam, and their little hobbit Samwise. Nora has now left her home state and visited somewhere new.

It was totally spur of the moment, which may have been the only way we would have been able to do this. Over-planning would have killed us. And we learned… that it wasn’t that bad. We had moments of stress, for sure, but we also had moments of joy and fun. I learned a lot in this inaugural trip.

  1. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. A five hour drive turned into a six and a half hour drive. I thought for sure we would spend ten hours for a five hour drive, so I feel like this is a win. Baby girl did a pretty good job with the long drive, as long as one of us was in the backseat, entertaining her with funny sounds, stories, and toys.
  2. It’s easy to over pack. Especially when one whole duffel bag contains cloth diapers.
  3. Another baby’s schedule may not sync up with your baby’s schedule. This was the hardest part about the trip. Nora is an early rising, late to bed type of baby. Samwise is a late rising, early to bed baby. They fed at different times. They napped at different times. At any point during the trip, one parent or the other was either feeding or sleeping a baby. Lucky enough, there was some time when Samwise and Nora got to actually interact, but it was relatively rare.
  4. Toys can be an everyday object. It was much harder to drive home than it was to drive to Laurel’s house, especially since we took an hour detour in the wrong direction to see another friend. (Crazy, but worth it.) Nora, on the way back, was not as excited about the car seat, even with the parent in the back. When we pulled over at a Subway for dinner, she had energy to burn. And she took it out on a closed bag of chips. There was something endlessly entertaining about the crinkly paper and the rattling contents inside. She shook that thing like a rag doll.
  5. Seeing friends in person is important. No matter how many emails, phone calls, and text messages you exchange with a friend (and there have been many these past few months), nothing beats seeing someone in the flesh. We got to hug each other’s babies, laugh, and chat in a way that was very important for me and Aaron. We were finally around people who knew what we were going through, because they were experiencing it themselves.

During the trip, we visited the Madison Children’s Museum, ate Indian food, visited rummage sales, and ate ridiculously good chocolate truffles. We watched baby-led weaning in action and got excited for our own (soon) experience with solid foods. We compared cloth diapers. Most importantly, we all relaxed around each other and I think, grew a little more centered in the process.

And now we know, we can leave the state and live to tell the tale.

Five Months

Dear Nora,

Each day, you are becoming more interesting, more of an infant and less of a newborn. Don’t get me wrong – I loved you as a newborn. I spent most of my days just holding you and talking to you, and I will treasure that time always. But you as an infant is much more fun. You observe, react, and respond in a way that shows me that there’s a little person in there.

For example, just last weekend you have learned to cough. This isn’t a symptom of illness. (We’ve checked your temperature a couple of times.) This is you realizing that you can use your vocal cords in a whole new way. So you play on your play mat and cough to yourself, because you can.

You also have become much more interested in our faces. You reach out and touch our lips when we read to you. You grab onto your daddy’s beard. You pet the side of my face. You stick your little fingers in our noses. I think this is your way of figuring out how faces work.

You’re still pretty obsessed with our hands. In fact, you sleep best during naps and at night if you have your little hand curled around one of our fingers. This is most often Daddy’s finger, but sometimes at night, I slip my finger into your hand. Even in your sleep, you tighten your fingers around mine.

Speaking of naps, you went through a mini-sleep regression this month. You had a harder time settling down for naps for about two weeks, which was a little hard on us. Luckily, this week you seem to be coming out of it. You take naps about every two hours, for anywhere between fifteen minutes and an hour. You most often nap in Daddy’s Balboa Sling. But a few times this month, you slept next to Daddy on the bed, during your nap.

You’re on the brink of two big physical milestones: sitting up and rolling over. You’re much better at sitting up, right now. You can sit independently for a few seconds at a time. For rolling over, you can push over (tummy to back) when you’re wedged onto a pillow. But, if you’re lying flat on a surface, you just try to push and get frustrated. When you’re on your back, you can rock to either side and you can almost make it to your tummy, but not quite. I think by the end of next month you’ll have figured it out.

This month, we had two big events. The first was that you got your very first hotel stay. We had to repair water damage in the kitchen and living room ceiling, so we took you and the kitties to an “extended stay” style hotel to live for two days. It was right across from the Mall of America, and yet, we never visited the mall while we were at the hotel. What was most interesting to me is that even though you were with us, you seemed to sense that this wasn’t your house. You were a little harder to settle down and a little out of sorts while we were there. Said, our younger cat, also felt the same way. He followed us around wherever we went (in the two room space) and kept waiting for something bad to happen.

The second event was much more fun. My friend Casey’s family threw us a baby shower. They gave us some really awesome books, including my new favorite, Beautiful Oops. I can’t wait until you’re old enough to play with the pop-out features of the book on your own. They also gave us some cute clothes in a bigger size – which you’re going to fit in before we know it.

That was our month, little girl. We had some adventures and a lot of fun together. I cannot wait to see what your next month holds!

Love,

Mama

20 Things that Changed When I Became a Mother

Macro 31: 27 - 5 & 9 of 15

Image by Denis Giles, used under Creative Commons license

  1. Before becoming a mom, even when I was pregnant, I always envisioned myself as “me” with a baby.
  2. Now, I know better. I feel like a whole different person, as if someone entirely new inhabits my body.
  3. I feel like a Fifteen Game puzzle, with too many squares out of order and not enough room to maneuver.
  4. I focus less on more things and I focus more on one thing.
  5. My body is (still) no longer my own. It has a function beyond me – sustaining another human being.
  6. I really understand, perhaps for the first time in my life, the beauty of free time.
  7. I steal free time in twenty minute bursts while my husband helps the baby sleep.
  8. I think much more about how my actions and words appear, reflected in my daughter’s eyes.
  9. It hasn’t stopped me from cussing too much, but it should.
  10. I wear mom jeans, while I wait for my post-pregnancy stomach to shrink. Really.
  11. A party that starts at 8:00 PM seems awfully late.
  12. I wake up at 5:00, even on the weekends.
  13. My hair is thinning out, after months of remaining thick.
  14. I don’t mind (as much) the bits of silver I see, peaking out from my curls.
  15. When I can’t sleep at night, I listen to the way my husband and baby sleep.
  16. I no longer leave the bed.
  17. I realize that every person has a mother, that he or she was loved enough to be carried and born.
  18. I wonder if that person still loves him or her and if that is enough.
  19. I am softer now.
  20. Softer in my skin, softer in my mind, softer in my heart.

 

Heart

                            Photo by Andreanna Moya Photography, Creative Commons

When my son was twenty weeks old, we first saw his heart on the ultrasound screen. It was Valentine’s Day, 2011. The sonographer showed us the walls of the four chambers, fluttering white on the black screen. She told us nothing to evaluate the shape of his heart, its strength, its rhythm. She just showed it to us. Here. This is what you have built. And we watched the miracle of its motion, the way it expanded and contracted like hope. We waited for the doctor, who told us how beautiful our child was, as though we did not know. That night, at home, I wrote to my child. I told him how the undulating contractions of his heart looked like a pale butterfly on the black screen. In the dark of our bedroom, I whispered to him of metamorphosis.

The next time I caught a glimpse of my son came just hours before he was born. Healing hands glided over my knotted muscles, slowly untwisting the tension of three days and nights of labor, unsticking the stubborn bone blocking my baby’s path. The hands hovered over my hips and their owner told me what she saw. A black butterfly. Blue and yellow on its wings. Here, in the clean white arc of your hips. Fluttering forward and back. Forward and back. Do you see it? I thought of his heart, undulating like wings, and I nodded. He came quickly then. Within hours, he emerged slick and wet and alive, as if from a color-stained chrysalis. His father and I held him as he cried and his pulse raced with life.

Less than a month later, my husband and I sat in a dimmed room with a man examining our child’s heart from every imaginable angle as it quivered blue and red on another screen. The ceiling was lit with hundreds of tiny lights like stars which did nothing to drive away the dark. He angled the wand against our son’s thin chest and froze frame after frame after frame of his ghostly heart, searching for some fragility to explain his thinness and the blue cast to his lips. I thought of my heart, of his father’s, which were both born faintly whispering secrets. I wondered what our son’s heart had to tell; I wondered if it were over-burdened by the murmuring of secret things. Finally, the man spoke. Here. I’m not the cardiologist. This is not official. But his heart is beautiful. We carried the mystery in our arms along with our son as we left the hospital, and I began to understand the uncertain footing I stood on as a mother. But after that, he grew. His beautiful butterfly heart grew. And I grew, too.

Samwise,

I have seen your heart from a hundred angles. I have seen it in black and white. I know its depth and width and height. I know its walls and hollows. I have seen how it beats against your ribs like a winged thing and throbs with color. And for all that I have seen, your heart is a coffer of secrets. This is what it means to be a parent: to know you from before your first breath yet spend a lifetime waiting for you to reveal who you are. Here I stand, watching you open your chest of secrets one shining sliver at a time.

Four Months

Dear Nora,

This month felt like our first “normal” month as a family. In our previous months, there was always something special or different going on. There was my maternity leave, which was very special, and holidays galore. This month, there was less celebration, but just as much fun. This month, we each settled into our routine.

You’ve been spending your days with Daddy, now that he’s in charge of daytime care. You two have routines each day and routines for the flow of the week. Daddy has figured out, by observing you, that you have your own special rhythm for the day. Your cycle begins when you feed. Then, you have about an hour of play time followed by a half an hour to an hour of naps. When you wake up, you’re about ready to eat and you two start all over again.

During your play time, Daddy has developed exercises with you, to help strengthen your body. He even has special names for them, which you seem to recognize. He pulls you up to sitting (upsies) and he lays you back down (downsies). Then, he pulls you to standing (up) which you really love. You’re getting very good at standing on your legs, without a whole lot of support. He also rolls you like a log (rollsies) and flies you like a superhero (supergirl). You still don’t like laying on your tummy, but you sure like flying like a superhero.

Throughout the week, you have different activities for different days. Mostly, Daddy likes to cook and bake with you. I think as soon as you can, you’ll be helping Daddy in the kitchen. Grandma Jean had Daddy cracking eggs when he was old enough to stand on a chair and I think you’re headed in the same direction. I am so happy to see the relationship that you are developing with Daddy, by spending each day together.

For the two of us, I see you less than I used to, which is hard. I miss you so much when I’m at work. I love the time we get to spend together in the evening. On most nights, we spend time reading board books or playing on a blanket in the living room and I give you your bath every evening. I also help you to get to sleep before bedtime, which I’m getting better and better at every day. I treasure every minute we spend together.

Even though it was a normal month, we did have a few special events. On my birthday weekend, we had all of our friends over for a poker party. You got passed around to all of our friends, which you seemed to like. You had so much fun that night that it was difficult to get you to sleep, which never happens. You’re a very good sleeper. You also attended your first birthday party, for  the son of a friend of Daddy’s. We went to the Eagle’s Nest playground in New Brighton and you got to play in the baby play area. I think you liked the mirrors the best.

Your biggest development is that you learned how to laugh this month. It started slowly at first. In fact, your very first laugh was a sarcastic laugh. I blew bubbles on your tummy on the changing table and you uttered a very deadpan, “Ha. Ha. Ha.” Daddy got you to laugh your first real laugh, when he pulled you to sitting in his lap. For a while, you only really laughed for Daddy. But one day, I came home from work and when you saw me, you laughed a real laugh for me. I was so happy to hear that sound.

You also have become obsessed with your hands this month. You constantly have one or both of your hands in your mouth at all times. You like to pull on your tongue with your fingers and have your hands in your mouth when you make sounds. Your hands are constantly slimy with spit (ew!) and you suck on your fingers and thumbs noisily. You also like our hands. You like to chew on our fingers with your gums. Sometimes, you just like to hold our hands and look at them. It’s pretty funny to see you grab our big hands with your little bitty hands.

Nora, even though it was a normal month for us, I think we had a great month together. I love how each day you wake up happy and ready to play and cuddle with me and Daddy. You are such a joy to be around and I constantly feel lucky that you came into our lives. I love you, big girl.

Love,

Mama

Fail Better

I am writing this two days before her four month birthday. She is strapped to my chest in a stretchy wrap I made for us. I am trying to type quietly, so she can sleep. Every so often, she rubs her face against my chest, and burrows deeper into sleep. I love moments like this, when her head is close to my heart and we breathe in unison.

This is the month where I returned to work fully. It was (and is) a big transition for me. Sometimes, I think I’m doing it well, but most of the time I feel like I’m failing spectacularly. This week, felt like mostly failing.

I had a week where my work schedule changed daily. I started as early as 8 PM and ended as late as 4 PM on some days. On others, I started as late as 11 AM and ended as late as 8 PM. At work, I feel like I accomplish a fraction of what I used to acomplish. I can blame this on the almost eighty minutes of pumping or cleaning my pump parts that I do throughout the work day. But I also just feel like my output is less, as if I am constantly playing catch up during my day.

At home, I only get to see Nora for a few hours each day. And those hours are filled with eating dinner, feeding her, bathing her, and getting her to a nap or to bed. It’s transactional – these are the tasks we need to do, so that she is happy and healthy. Gone are the leisure days of my maternity leave, where I could read her books, play with her, and feel like a hands-on parent.

In general, I am tired. I am tired from physically providing all of the food for my daughter, every day. I am tired from waking up at 5 AM, or more likely 4:30, each morning. I am tired from missing quality time with her and quality time with my husband. And in those moments of sheer exhaustion, I feel like I’m failing.

It’s hard to explain now that I’m two days in to a three day weekend. But I woke up at 4:45 on Thursday with an overwhelming sense that I am doing it all wrong. Aaron and Nora were up and playing in her bedroom and I thought, “Babies shouldn’t be up at 4:45. She must not be getting enough sleep. I’m doing it wrong.” This sense led to a full-scale meltdown. Never mind the fact that Nora is a natural morning person (so far). Never mind that she wakes up to be fed around this time every day and doesn’t settle down again until a 6 AM nap. Never mind that she naps every two hours during her day. At that moment, I was terrified that I was breaking her ability to sleep through the night, a skill she has yet to develop.

Thinking about this perceived failure, I started to catalog all of my other failures as a wife, new mother, and worker. I am not working as I hard as I used to at work. FAILURE. I barely have time to see my husband during the week. FAILURE. I don’t pitch in with the chores around the house, as much as I should. FAILURE. My two cats are utterly neglected. FAILURE. I don’t know if I spend enough time, or the right type of time, with my daughter. FAILURE. I have nightmares about missing meetings at work and not being able to call in, and nightmares about dropping the baby, often in the same night. FAILURE.

Like most perfectionists, I have a debilitating fear of failure. It’s not that I’m unaccustomed to it. I’ve failed (or almost failed) plenty throughout my life. I almost failed out of high school, much to the shock of most people who know me as an adult. I need to be good at everything I do, or everyone might find out that I am not as smart/capable/resourceful/functioning as I seem (or as I think I seem).

Knowing this about myself, I have chosen to embark upon a path that is littered with failure. There is no way in the world that I will raise a child successfully without failing at something. We all fail at some part of parenting, because we are all human. I realized this weekend, after sleeping in until 6:30 on Saturday and recovering precious sleep, that I need to embrace failure. I picked this motherhood path, not because I would be a perfect mother. I wanted to share the love I have with my husband with another person. I wanted to work on something hard and meaningful with him. I wanted to contribute someone awesome to the world. In order to do all those things, I have to fail and fail often. I now just have to learn how to accept my failures and failings.

In the midst of my panic about my parenting and personal failures, I thought that I need to figure this out before Nora can remember me failing. Now I know this is wrong. I need to teach her how to fail well, to fail better. Every time that she learns something new, she will fail first. I want to show her and teach her that she can pick herself up and try again, try more passionately, try with more skill and experience. Not because she will one day be perfect, but because one day she will do better than the day before. This is what we are going to work towards, together.

Missing This

I get the impression that it’s pretty standard to get a little verklempt when packing up the adorable tiny clothes that no longer fit your adorable tiny person. I’m no exception to the verklemptitude, as I’ve discovered a few times already; our five-month-old is wearing 9 month clothes, thanks to his weedy height, so I’ve stashed two rounds of clothes into boxes so far with the requisite sniffle or two. But I’m not sure if this next bit is as universal: I also get teary when I stow the clothes he can’t yet wear in the dresser: the rummage sale bargains, the gifts from family and friends. I try to imagine the boy that will be that tall, that broad, and I realize it will be a boy who doesn’t coo softly to himself. It will be a boy who doesn’t need help to stand—over and over and over again—so he can jump and dance. It will be a boy whose fluffy cloth-diapered butt doesn’t swing like he’s doing the hula as he balances precariously on two feet. It will be some other boy, who is in some ways still this familiar child and also someone else. And while watching this “becoming” is exciting and wonderful, there is so much I will miss about this boy as he is right this moment.

To be frank, I never thought I would like the drooly, leaky, needy infant stage especially well. I always thought babies were cute in small enough doses, but I entered this journey because I wanted to parent a person, not because I wanted to have a baby, per se. As a former middle school teacher, I envisioned myself being both more adept with and partial to small people who were…well…more like small people than babies. You know: verbal, capable of feeding and pottying themselves, creative and funny and surprising. Since becoming a parent to this baby, however, I’ve made some unexpected discoveries: I don’t mind diapers. The sleepless nights of nursing do eventually become routine and manageable. The neediness, while sometimes somewhat overwhelming, is also heart-breakingly sweet, like when he clutches tightly to my thumb to drift safely back to sleep at night. And the creativity and the humor seem to make their appearance even before the verbal skills. To my surprise, I have not yet been bored with the drooly, leaky, needy stage we’re mired in because even as those aspects stay monotonously static, something—and often many somethings—is new every single day. Something unexpected will trip his emerging sense of humor. He will be newly fascinated by some shape or color or texture and stare at it endlessly, reach for it over and over again. He will startle both himself and me with a noise he’s never made before, or in one swift movement, he will do something neither of us knew he could. He will practice his emerging skills with an unmistakable look of pride and excitement. I love bearing witness to this newness. I even love listening to him grumble with frustration as he chases an elusive ball or accidentally drops his spoon for the twentieth time just as he gets it to his mouth. He foams at the mouth when he fusses, by the way. I don’t know if that’s normal, but even those frothy mounds of spit bubbles are endearing in their own way as they mark the boundaries of the abilities he is constantly testing.

Shortly before the hobbit was born, a well-meaning supervisor pulled me aside after a training. “Go home,” she said. “Have a healthy baby. Love your baby. But don’t forget that you are a smart, talented woman, and you need something more than to stay home with your baby.” Even at the time, I remember feeling taken aback that she felt she could say this to me, since we’d worked together for less than six months, and certainly had never become closer than colleagues. Still, her words are perhaps part of the reason that I have struggled mightily with the fact that I’ve turned down two part-time jobs since Samwise’s birth, one of which was offered by that admonishing supervisor. To be fair, I have one part-time job already. To be more fair, it’s very part time, I do the vast majority of it from home, and I would love to drop it entirely.

I know a lot of smart, talented women, many of whom have kids of their own. Like many, many women in our society, they are working moms. And among them, I often feel alone because virtually every one of them says that being a stay-at-home mom would not be or would not have been a good fit for them; they need more. Or they at least need something else, part of the time. My feelings may change as my child changes, but for now, despite my record of chronic overachievement, I don’t feel that way. I love being home with my son, sharing these small moments with him, and I find myself reeling at how much he has already changed in the short months since his birth. Contributing to my current lack of employment enthusiasm is the fact that the work I do is something I do because it’s part time and from home, not because I am emotionally invested in it, which is something far different that what is faced by women who became pregnant when they have inspiring careers aligned to their passions. And, to be honest, I’m intoxicated by working less because of the opportunity it offers for me to chip away at the list of personal passions for which full-time work in education (especially the all-consuming, amorphous work hours known by those educators who are truly committed to education) never allowed enough space: neglected writing projects, unread books, the development of groundwork for the first projects my husband and I will undertake with our shared business.

But, like so many, many mothers, no matter what combination of work/partner/personal life/mothering balance they strike, I feel guilty. I feel like I should want something more or different. I feel that being content to be home with my child demonstrates a lack of ambition and a willingness to “waste” my talents. I feel somehow defective or lazy because I don’t long to be in a classroom or an office somewhere. At the very least, I feel decidedly unfeminist. I feel guilty that I don’t feel called to be superwoman, balancing full-time work and full-time mothering with aplomb. I feel guilty that I want a slower pace of life and that I am willing to take it as long as our budget can bear it. And because of the choices and needs of most of the mothers I know and respect, I also feel isolated. I question this decision. I window-shop for full-time jobs. When I start figuring the costs of child care, however, the likelihood that we’d need to buy a second car or to move to a bigger city rather than continuing to share a home with my mom in Small Town USA (a situation which has been a gift for both parties), and the fact that all these added expenses would mean that I’d spend almost all my full-time income to cover the costs of taking a job…well, I haven’t yet seen a job compelling enough to inspire me to choose to pursue it beyond the window-shopping stage.

I talked with a good friend about my guilt complex after I turned down the most recent job offering. She’s a university professor and mom to a preschooler; with her husband’s self-employment status and her nontraditional hours, they cover all their child care needs between them. I don’t think she ever wanted to stay home full-time; she’s one of the moms who was working her dream job when she got pregnant. Still, she was able to look at me and say exactly what I needed to hear: “You have a whole lot of years ahead of you to be a working mom.”

She’s right. I do.

All too soon, I will find myself in a classroom or an office again. Until then, however, I am going to try to set aside my guilt and just love this, right now. Putting away those clothes Samwise can’t yet wear—but will, very soon—is an exercise in understanding how much I will miss these transformative first months. I already do miss them. Each day I feel as though I am watching one day race into the next, bringing new wonder with it even as the miracles of earlier weeks grey and fade into forgetfulness. I feel so blessed to be able to be here to see it all and to mark its presence and passing. When life is full to bursting in this way, the last thing I want to spare space for is guilt.

Blissful Body

Tonight, I got home early, hoping to do some mama/baby yoga with Nora. But then,  I learned that what she needed was a feed and a nap, tout de suite. Even though I know in my bones that what she needs comes first, I felt disheartened. I thought, My day job and my mothering is why I will never lose this damn baby weight.  But like a good mama, I swallowed that impulse and did what was right for her in that moment. I fed Nora and waited for her to get tired.

While I wound her down, we listened to this Ani DiFranco song on my iPod and I sang to her:

Lately, I’ve been glaring into mirrors, picking myself apart
You’d think at my age I’d thought of something better to do
Than making insecurity into a full time job
Making insecurity into an art

And I fear my life will be over
And I will have never live unfettered 
Always glaring into mirrors
Mad, I don’t look better

And now I’ve got this tiny baby
And they say she looks just like me
And she is smiling at me with that present infant glee
Yes, and I would defend to the ends of the earth
Her perfect right to be, be, be, be

I teared up as I sang to her because I know that she doesn’t have that nagging body hate that so many of us women carry around with us. She is still learning she has a body and each day, as she discovers some new limb, it’s beautiful and fun and frankly, something to try to shove in her mouth. I wondered how long I get to keep her like this, keep her happy in her perfect working body? I want more than anything in this world to not burden her with that heavy baggage. Step one is to release my own burdens about my body, which is so much easier said than done.

Now, as she lays against my breast bone, comforted by the sound of my heartbeat and the movement of my breath, I am telling myself that my body does good work. I may not get as much exercise as I would like and I may not always eat as healthfully as I should, but my body is good. It is a source of comfort and nourishment to my child and a thing of beauty, even as it settles into its new shape. I was once as blissful in my body as my daughter and I want to mirror that bliss back to her as best as I can, for as long as I can. That’s my new job.

Gratitude for Thirty-Five…Three Days Later

A graph illustrating the typical adaptation period with a newborn and new parents, given to me by my doula and tacked up on my refrigerator. 

On Tuesday, I turned thirty-five years old. At the beginning of the morning, I started making a list of all the things I was grateful for, hoping to get to at least thirty-five. I included gratitude for big things, like the addition of my daughter Nora into my life and the way my husband has embraced fatherhood, and for little things, like avocados and sleep sounds at night. I had high hopes to post it on Tuesday evening, in my twenty minutes of wakefulness after Nora goes to sleep.

But then, I left my half-written list at work. No worries – I could rewrite a smaller list after Nora goes to sleep. But then, Nora fussed at her last nursing session and it took longer than normal for us to get her to sleep. And then, a friend called to wish me happy birthday and I had a short whispered conversation with her. And then, I had to return my mom’s two calls. Suddenly, it was nine o’clock and I was crawling into bed, with no list and no plans for writing one. This is my life now, I thought, before passing out cold.

I would have posted my list on Wednesday, but like many WordPress bloggers, I decided to black out my site to protest SOPA & PIPA. Then on Thursday, I got food poisoning. Blech. Now, my aptly numbered list of gratitude seems less and less important the further I get from a timely posting.

Instead, I want to express my gratitude for one thing: time. On Wednesday, I went to the same New Mama’s class that I have been attending since Nora was two and a half weeks old. I was exhausted and numb and I had no idea what I was doing as a mother. All of the other mothers seemed much more together and their older babies were awake and reactive. I attended each week, got to know some of the moms, and slowly I’ve gained my footing as a mom. I know that a lot of my newly gained confidence came from listening to the older moms and attending that class.

As the “older” moms gained more experience and returned to work, they dropped off the class and newer moms joined. On Wednesday, I was the mom with the oldest baby, outside of the teacher. I listened as moms of three-week olds and five-week olds talked about the difficulty of mothering  brand new babies. Their babies only sleep and eat and want to be held. They have trouble going to the bathroom, for fear that their babies will need yet another nursing session. They curse their Moby wraps, for being too hard to figure out on 2 hours of sleep. I thought to myself, “Oh yeah, that’s right. This was really effing hard at first.” 

I remembered how many times I broke down sobbing, because Nora wouldn’t latch properly or I couldn’t leave the house because she screamed each time she went in a carrier or car seat. I remembered having to set my alarm to wake her to eat every two hours at night and cursing her when she would wake up fifteen minutes before the alarm sounded. I remember feeling, above everything else, that surely I was the most incompetent mother who walked the earth, because I couldn’t do any of it. I could manage registration and counsel wayward students at work, but I couldn’t get my baby to stop crying. That was the hardest for me, the feeling that I couldn’t master one single skill and floundered at all of them.

Listening to them, I realized how far I’ve come in just fifteen weeks. It’s not to say that it’s no longer hard or I’ve figured everything out. I haven’t, not by a long shot. I know I’ve got years and years of learning how to do all of this. But I’ve grown accustomed to the work. I’ve had time to develop a few systems and screw up a few times. I’ve untangled the Moby wrap and I’ve learned how to pee with the baby in another room.* I’ve gained competence at the basic skills of keeping a baby alive, fed and happy, after weeks of drowning in incompetence.

It’s also helped that Nora, through the gift of time, is becoming more self-sufficient. She can play on a blanket for ten whole minutes at a stretch. She no longer fusses when I put in her one of our carriers. She nurses like a pro. She’s also smiling and babbling and every day becoming more like a person and less like an eating-sleeping-pooping machine.

I’m grateful that I’ve had the time to watch her develop and to figure some of this out on my own (and with the help of other more experienced mamas). I’m so grateful that I’m having this experience in my middle thirties, since I know so much more about myself than I did when I was in my middle twenties or even early thirties. And frankly, I’m grateful that I never have to go back to those days of parenting a brand new baby and that overwhelming feeling of desperate incompetence. That time is long gone.

*I know that just by writing this, I’m jinxing myself. Nora will now proceed to go on a nursing strike and nap strike after starting teething early. I’m doomed.

Birth Matters

Creating this space was Jessica’s idea. Although both of us tend to mark time in our lives by writing, my writing tends to be more fragmented and half-formed. Jessica is far more accomplished at polishing and publishing than I am,  so it comes as no surprise that by the time I finally trucked my patoot into our shared blog project, she had already populated it with a variety of thoughtful posts. All of which means that my first visit here was as a reader, not an author. The bonus of being late to the party is that she’s already started the conversation, which makes it easy to jump in with something to say, though sometimes the words needed to sketch out this new reality for someone else feel frustratingly elusive.

I suppose it’s worth starting with the birth of the hobbit, Samwise. (Our babe is so dubbed on this blog thanks to his small stature, big feet, love of the outdoors, general good nature, and his voracious appetite. Think breakfast, second breakfast, elevensies, brunch, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner, supper…the list goes on. More on that in another post, I’m sure.) One of Jessica’s first posts really resonated with me: her reflections on what it meant and means to have a low intervention birth, free of pain medications. Like Jessica (and my mother and my sister-in-law and a handful of my friends), I guess I, too, “went all frontier woman” for my birth. If, that is, you discount the fact that I birthed in a hospital after 9 months of awesome prenatal care, regular chiropractic, and a very opportune visit to an acupressure specialist. Not exactly a rough scenario, in many ways. But, realistically, what many people are interested in is the epidural or lack thereof. There was no epidural. There was, however, more than a week of near-total sleeplessness, thanks to an extended prodromal labor and the intensity of the days-long, post-birth adrenaline rush. There was a shopping stint at the local food co-op when contractions were two minutes apart, prompting the deli manager to check on me as I stood, silently swaying, at the end of the hot food bar next to the veggie korma. There was an emergency response team frantically searching the ground floor of the hospital for me at one point. There was also a lot of blood. And as I lay in bed hours after the birth, wide-eyed and trying to calm my racing heart, I told my husband, “I want to do that again.”

Birth is predictable, in the sense that some steps have to happen for a natural vaginal birth to take place. You gotta grow that baby. The cervix has to dilate and efface, the uterus has to forcefully and progressively contract, the pelvic bones need to move and the ligaments stretch, and that baby has to work its way out from the snug safety of the womb to take its first breath in the wide expanse of the world. However, births are far from predictable. Variables such as the mother’s and baby’s health, their physiology and proportions, the baby’s positioning, the stressfulness of the environment, the support the mother has as she labors, and how prepared and informed the mother and support people are about the process of labor—all these things matter profoundly in determining outcomes and the path that will be taken. Some women or babies need and benefit greatly from the interventions offered in hospitals. However, most healthy, prepared, and well-supported women can give birth with minimal intervention. I was lucky to be one of those women. I’d had an uncomplicated pregnancy, great prenatal care, a lot of birth education, wonderful doulas, a well-positioned and healthy baby, and as the descendent of Norwegian immigrants, I had the bonus of being a larger-than-average woman who gave birth to a perfectly average-sized babe.

While pregnant, I read a heartbreaking and thoughtful post on why the healthy baby isn’t the only thing that matters about the birth experience. It’s such a common thing to say when a woman has a particularly difficult birth experience that results in a lot of pain, in unplanned surgery, or in scars—literal or metaphorical—she will wear for the rest of her life: “You have a healthy baby, though. That’s the only thing that matters.”

A healthy baby is an amazing gift, and most moms who have babies born with health problems would be more than willing to bear their babies’ burdens themselves if it could but make their babies well. But, even so, it’s dispassionate and short-sighted to tell a mother struggling to make peace with a difficult birth that a healthy baby is the only thing that matters. The mom matters. Her experience matters. Her feelings about the birth, about what her experience does to her and for her, matter. The birth isn’t just the beginning of her child’s story; it is one of the most powerful and intimate chapters in her own story, and it colors the first few days (or weeks or months) of her developing relationship with her child. How amazing to begin with your child feeling that his entrance into the world was one of the most beautiful experiences of your life. It’s what I wish for every woman who chooses to have a child. It’s what my birth experience with Samwise was, even without painkillers, which may surprise some people. In fact, considering the particulars of the birth, part of why it was so intensely positive for me was because I had a team of people who cared about me and trusted in me, but I had nothing blocking or confusing the physical sensations of birth.

Birth is incredibly intense. I remember feeling nearly overwhelmed by the powerful surges rocking my body, remember feeling like surely my bones were creaking as they moved to create space for the baby’s path. But with the trust I had in my body’s capacity for birth, with my husband holding tight to my hand, with the hands of one doula stroking my back through contractions and the hands of the  other repeatedly offering a bottomless glass of ice water and murmuring words of encouragement as I labored, the strain and stretch of my body felt strong and productive rather than something painful that I wanted to escape. In many ways, it reminded me of the summer I rode my bicycle, alone and laden with gear, along the Pacific coast from Canada to Mexico: the burning intensity of the climb up seemingly endless peaks in northern California, the protesting joints and muscles the day I rode a hundred miles before sundown, the swell of emotion experienced when teetering on the nonexistent shoulder of a narrow, winding road wrapped around a sheer cliff that tumbled to the ocean, the feeling that surely, my body wouldn’t be able to keep on doing this, even as I knew it already was. With nothing to numb me from what I was feeling, I was startled to feel and instinctively identify details of the birth that I treasure. I knew, for example, when his ears and nose emerged because I felt them as tiny pops, each one like a miracle. The only true pain I felt−that is, pain that felt simply like pain, not like intense effort−was a white-hot, ripping sensation just after those three beautiful pops. It felt as though someone had grabbed hold of my son and was tearing him from my body rather than letting him come on his own time. It lasted only a second before vanishing. It turned out that one of his hands, snuggled securely and stubbornly next to his cheek, was more than my body had bargained for, and my labia had torn from the pressure just as he made his exit. Despite the initial hurt, however, it healed both quickly and comfortably in the weeks postpartum, thanks to the resiliency of the tissue and my doctor’s skill with needle and thread.

My labor started on a Monday afternoon and ended on a Thursday evening. It was a lot of hard work. That’s pretty much the nutshell version of my experience with labor: an all-consuming physical effort with a few mercurial seconds of pain. It has left me with my most treasured memories and a lot of wishes for my own child. The healthy baby matters, yes. But a healthy birth experience also matters. For the mother. For her partner. For the new family.

If my son should choose to have a child of his own someday, I hope he and his partner have as much laughter and joy and hope in the birth story they write together as his father and I have in his. I hope his partner is amazed by the power of her body, by how strong and resilient she is. I hope they find the most beautiful people, familiar faces and strangers, meeting them with open hands when they most need them. I hope my son and his partner discover new depths to the trust they have in each other as they navigate through the birth, an experience impossible to know and a path impossible to chart in advance. I hope my son knows, as his father does, what it is to lie awake in the dark and be the force pushing back against the contractions rocking his partner’s body as he lends his strength to her hips. I hope his partner knows the unshakeable stillness that follows a powerful contraction and that, in that stillness, she discovers that she is still herself even then, smiling and laughing and asking that white Christmas lights be hung to welcome the baby. I hope they both know what it is to hold their healthy baby for the first time and marvel that anything could ever feel so brilliantly alive. I hope that after the birth, when they are lying awake in the dark listening to the racing of their hearts and the soft breath of their babe, the words on both their lips are, “I want to do that again.”