Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Category: Birth

The World is Good Because it is Bad: A Letter to my Unborn Child

My Child,

When I was five years old, my family’s house burned down. To the ground. What was left was a smoky, black carcass that used to be our home. I still remember returning to the site where our home once was.

I didn’t understand. Not really.

hp0024

Me: Easter, 1987

We walked through the safest part of the site, our toes nudging burnt, sooty items. A comb. A jacket. That one stuffed animal that looked like a cat, but was really a mouse.

The smell. Oh. The smell. I will never, ever forget that smell. Smoke and soot and water and grass.

While our house was still on fire, flames still clawing at the windows, the fire trucks and ambulances arrived. I saw my oldest brother, Phillip, throw my youngest sister, DeAnna, from a window on the right side of the house. A firefighter caught her. She was just a toddler. I can still see her sobbing there against the backdrop of flames, wobbling on rubbery legs.

I saw my father climbing out of a second-story window, still in his T-shirt and boxers.

I wasn’t thinking about where my other brother and sister were.

I remember thinking,

“I wonder when the fire will be over so we can go home.”

I remember thinking,

“Mom is so going to be so mad when she comes home to see this.”

That’s the way a five-year-old thinks.

My mother worked as a part-time cake decorator for a grocery store on Saturdays. I never knew who called her that day. Someone had to make that call. I wonder now what was it like to put aside the bag of icing that she had been using to decorate a cake for someone else’s celebration… only to pick up the phone to hear that her world was on fire.

***

That night, we stayed in some stranger’s home.

I don’t remember the people, but they lived in a large, well-kept home in old North Dayton, presumably a family who had signed up to provide temporary housing through the Red Cross.

In the middle of the hardwood floor of their living room was a large, oval, braided rug. While my mother talked to the homeowners, my eyes traced the outer edge of the oval rug, around and around and around. Until it ended in the center.

I wondered what was there in the center, holding it all together.

oval-rug

Someone handed out some canvas bags from the Red Cross. Five bags. One for each of us. The homeless kids.

Inside, there were crayons and a coloring book. A toothbrush and toothpaste. Some soap. A towel. There might have been a T-shirt and sweatpants. I don’t remember for sure.

But I remember the smell of those bags. Sterile.

Like the smell of the hospital where we had just been. Where I had just seen my father hack and cough black mucus into a beige dish just minutes before he was officially discharged.

I remember holding that canvas bag, thinking that it was the only thing in the world that was mine.

Hoping that my parents could afford to buy it for me.

And then the surprise and gratitude when I realized that we didn’t need to pay.

***

We went to church, and the Sunday School teacher looked at me with wet eyes. In her quiet, shaky voice, she told me that everything was going to be just fine.

She pulled out some paper figures from a crinkled envelope. They were dressed in robes and sandals. One of them fell to the ground and I picked it up, feeling the fuzz on the back side. Then, she handed all the figures to me and I helped her arrange them on the felt board as she told the story of the Good Samaritan.

good-samaritan

My child, here is what I want to tell you.

Believe in the goodness of people.

Certainly, not every person will be good to you. Some will bully you. Some will mock you. Some will see you hurting and walk to the other side of the road to avoid you.

Do not expect kindness and empathy from those who have never suffered. Too often, they will find a way to either minimize your pain or blame you for what has happened to you. In their eyes, it will always be your fault. And if they cannot blame you for what you have done, they will blame you for what you have not done.

You really didn’t have it that bad. You should have tried harder. You should have asked. You should have done this. You should have done that.

But always, always, always remember this:

As long as there is injustice and trauma and pain and tragedy in this world, there will be empathy.

Because those who have lost and suffered and cried and bled will be the first to reach out to you when you need help.

Every. Single. Time.

Do not wish away misfortune and pain.

Because a life without either of those is a life without true empathy.

And empathy is what has kept the human race from extinguishing itself.

***

Have faith, my child.

Paradoxes abound in a world where we lean on logic to make sense of the hard times.

This world is good because sometimes it is bad.

Goodness and tragedy can exist at the same time.

God is both light and darkness. Fullness and emptiness. The loud, booming voice and the stillness beside you.

It is all so hard to understand now. Even as you grow and learn and experience, it is still hard to understand. Even I don’t understand it.

But my prayer for you is that you remain open. That you are always looking for more answers. That you never feel that you have arrived at the truth. Because your truth is not someone else’s truth.

But that doesn’t mean Truth doesn’t exist.

***

Some of us are lucky enough to have a life that gets better and better, from beginning to end. As Americans, that is what feels normal and right and just.

But the truth is, most of us don’t.

The truth is, much of the time, we don’t get what we want.

Most of us struggle. We fall. We’re pushed back. We lose. We become sick. We grieve.

And this can make us feel that something has gone tragically wrong. It can make us feel that life is unfair and has no meaning. It can drive us to determine that God isn’t real.

How could God be real when there is so much suffering in this world?

How could God be real when I am suffering so much?

What I want you to understand is that believing that life always improves from beginning to end is an illusion. In fact, some cultures in the world do not plot life’s path as a line, rising at equal intervals, ever into the horizon.

Instead, they see life as a spiral.

A constant moving away and returning.

14309450575_95ebb9ecf8_b

Photo credit, Jeff Krause, http://www.flickr.com

Moving away from what matters.

Returning to what matters.

Moving away from truth.

Returning to truth.

Around and around and around.

Until we arrive at the center.

Until we return to God.

What you’ll learn as you walk this path of life is that over and over again, every time you return, you will be caught by the hand of God.

That hand of God is your mother’s voice when you come home with a broken heart.

It’s the friend who sits with you at your father’s funeral.

It’s the doctor who tells you that there is no heartbeat. But it’s not your fault.

It’s the teacher who tells you that everything’s going to be just fine, even when her eyes say otherwise.

It’s the non-profit organization that steps in with a bag of normalcy on a very strange day.

It’s the stranger who opens their home to you when you’ve lost everything.

My child, be that hand of God.

Be the one who gives and comforts and heals.

As Mother Teresa has said…

The good you do today, will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway.

My child, welcome to this wonderfully complex, sometimes painful, but always beautiful world. It is my hope for you that when you face the hard times, that you are still able to see the larger Truth.

With all my love,

Mom

Global Billing: Wait, You Want Me to Pay Before the Baby is Born?

Let’s imagine that I need knee surgery.

Let’s say the total estimated expenses for my knee surgery are $20,000.

I have “fairly good” health insurance (at least these days…) so I will pay my $1000 deductible and then 20% of the total costs as co-insurance, which is $4000. And of course, we’ll be paying with our credit card which has a 10% APR (because who has $5200 in their savings account anymore?)

When will I pay for these costs? After I have the knee surgery, right?

Ah, but then the surgeon says, “Yeah, we’re going to need you to pay for the procedure in full, at least a month before your scheduled surgery.”

Wait, what?

Seriously?

And this is becoming a standard practice for obstetricians now. Take a look at these discussion forums, in which mothers talk about the different variations of this wonderful billing protocol called “global billing.”

In some cases, you may have the added bonus of paying two deductibles if your baby was conceived in one calendar year, but born in the next. (Which, by the way, is anyone who conceives a baby from April-December.)

(And in case you’re wondering, it’s also terribly expensive to not have a baby. When I miscarried last year, our out-of-pocket expenses were $1500 for a D&C.)

Global billing can be useful. It simplifies all the billing involved in prenatal care by bundling all the prenatal visits and the obstetrician’s fees for delivery into one big package.

When I had my first child, that obstetrician also practiced global billing, but she didn’t send me a bill until all the services were performed. Then, we got a big, fat $3000 bill about a month after our daughter was born.

That was exciting.

money

***

With this pregnancy, our estimated out-of-pocket expenses begin at about $1400, just for prenatal visits and delivery.

And then there’s that lovely line in the letter explaining that they would like to start immediately collecting payment for all of these services… at my next appointment.

At 23 weeks.

Oh, and…

“These fees are to be paid in full by the 35th week of your pregnancy.”

Their administrative assistant delicately told me that these expenses would not include the hospital costs or ultrasounds.

So let’s add those expenses here:

  • One ultrasound at 20 weeks. (about $300)
  • Any non-stress tests.
  • My hospital bed for 2 days: $1720 (20% of $8600)
  • My baby’s bed in the nursery for 2 days: $1120 (20% of $5600)

Even if I don’t use it. That’s right. Even if I room-in the whole time, I will be paying for the availability of the nursery bed. Ha!

  • Anesthesiology fees, if I have that.
  • That newborn hearing test machine that will roll into my room and seem like a good idea. ($400. Not covered by insurance).

I mean, really. What other medical procedures do physicians require to be paid for in full before you have them done?

And by the way, I really hate referring to birth as a medical procedure. I did all the work until the baby came out. I humbly acknowledge how many people were required to pick up the aftermath of the birth and take care of me during recovery, but I was the one doing the “medical procedure” for the first 34 hours.

Maybe I should be paid. Ha!

When I told my husband about all of this, his response was, “They aren’t getting a dime until after January 1st!”

You know, when next year’s FSA accounts go into effect.

You know, after the baby is born.

The good news is the hospital’s billing department is agreeing to let us start paying after January 1st. Nice of them, huh?

But really, isn’t it a bit strange that we have to request this?

Book of Life and Death: A Book Review

I picked up this book at a library book sale a few weeks ago. Two middle-schoolers handed me a grocery sack and said that I could fill it with as many books as I wanted for $5.00. This was one of the books that I grabbed.

Signs of Life

I’m so glad that I did.

***

Signs of Life is a cogent blend of journalistic investigation and memoir that explores hospice, palliative care, and our modern preference for treating the human body as a battle field and death as failure. But it’s so much more than that.

Brookes shares stunning observations and insight about the dying process and the grief that follows it. He does more than gather facts. He narrates his mother’s last six months as she slowly dies from pancreatic cancer. This bittersweet combination of history, science, and human experience provide a multi-layered approach toward understanding this topic.

I was first struck by one of Brookes’ first arguments:

The more we try to avoid death, the more likely we are to end up with exactly the death that we fear the most: helpless, afraid, in pain, alone. (p. 24)

Brookes combines interviews with doctors and hospice nurses along with his own experience with observing the dissection of a human cadaver to show us the absurdity of treating death as failure even though death is absolutely certain.

Who knows whether our panic and hand-wringing in the hospital corridor are at the thought that someone is dying, or that someone is dying the wrong death, in the wrong place? (p. 205)

This observation, I feel, is key to unlocking some of our modern discourse around death. We all know that we’re going to die. But when our moment has come, we’re encouraged to deny that it’s happening. This isn’t my time. This isn’t the way.

***

We typically view the concept of living in physical terms: breathing, heartbeat, and brain activity. But this is limited, as those of us who have watched our loved ones fade away piece by piece can attest. In an especially insightful passage, Brooks defines living in terms of our ability to be creative, even in the most mundane sense. As his mother’s health declines to the point that she struggles to continue her silversmithing, Brookes explains how losing this ability to create is a kind of death.

Any action is an act of knitting the past with the present to create the future, of making things that will exist that will have consequences, that, like earrings, will still be there to be given away or shown off. Inaction, the stricture of a sterile environment, severs the connection through time and thus suspends life, as if death had soaked like a beet stain backwards through time and saturated the fabric of life still left. (p. 168)

Our ability to create, then, becomes the vehicle that connects our past, present, and future selves. As Brookes narrates his mother’s dying, we see her selves slowly detach from one another: first, from her future self, and then from her present self. What remains in her final days is a self that digresses further and further from the present world until she is nearly completely engulfed in her past.

It makes me think of what my mother told me about my father in his last days. Suffering already from Parkinson’s and depression, my father died of complications after he fell and broke his C-2 vertebrae. Several days before he passed away, my mother walked into his room in the nursing home and he asked her if she had “his whites washed.” She asked him what he meant. He said that he needed his whites washed so he could get ready for his shift at the bakery. In his mind, he was living in a moment that had happened thirty years earlier.

***

Brookes also expresses the experience of grief in words that resonated deeply with me. Here are several quotes that need no explanation. They are just pure, simple truth. I underlined them. I starred them. I nodded ferociously.

I had thought that grief was a sign of lack of completeness, a wailing for the piece of the self that is missing, and as such, bereavement is necessary for us to individuate, to be whole. Now I saw that individuation is a machine’s notion of humanity: we pour into each other like inks in water. To be complete is not to be unaffected, or if we are separate, we are also part of something else, something we have in common, that infiltrates us at every cell. (p. 210)

Somehow grief had given me an exquisite awareness of the difference between the things that were suffused with life and those that lacked life energy, or abused it. (p. 211)

I felt as if I were breaking myself into little pieces and feeding them to vultures… The difficulty comes in the crossover between the inner and the outer worlds, having to deal with the pressures of the material world at a time when we have just been somewhere else. (p. 247)

I didn’t have the energy—and perhaps above all I didn’t want to have to be the one to spell it all out: I was wounded, and I wanted someone else to take care of me, someone who understood it already. (p. 248)

***

About a year ago, I opened up about my own experience with connecting birth and death in a blog post called “What Labor and Death Have in Common.” In summary, I feel strongly that experiencing the pain of childbirth pushed me into a space where death came up alongside me—and I allowed it to stay. I didn’t panic. I didn’t fear it, simply because there was no time to fear it. I was consumed by the waves of contractions. And so I entered a space where my body and mind went to mute and all I could sense was… quite frankly, God.

This experience was so profound that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wished that there were some way to fully convey what I had sensed during these hours, but language couldn’t fully articulate it. I felt that I had grown a new pair of eyes that could see a whole new view of the world, as if I had learned how to bend light to hit objects in a new way.

I wrote about this in my book, Becoming Mother, but I placed it in a separate appendix at the end of the book, not totally sure that all readers would truly understand what I was talking about, or perhaps be turned off by too much “woo-woo.”

So imagine my surprise when I read Brookes’ account of how he felt after had said good-bye to his ailing mother and accepted her impending death. His description of walking alongside the inevitability of death mirrors perfectly my own experience in childbirth and the first few days that followed.

I was of this world, but not affected by it, my mind unencumbered by gravity. Remarkable thoughts kept occurring to me… It was as if I had burrowed through all the rubble of tedious necessity in my life and found myself in a chamber lit by some unknown source, walls covered with pictures and hieroglyphics… I felt immune to trouble or hardship; I couldn’t imagine anything that could defeat my spirit. It was as if I had an umbilicus to God… The euphoria lasted about five days… (but then) I felt like I had lost my soul: I simply couldn’t think myself back to the state of grace I had known… Being so close to death, it seemed, was offering me wisdoms that I wasn’t using. (pp. 193-195)

I could have written these exact words about my own encounter with experiencing and witnessing life’s beginning.

In fact, in my own book, I write these words:

I felt the presence of God for the first time in the darkness of a shower, hours past sleep deprivation, and in the hardest hours of labor. In those sacred moments, punctuated with pain, I was finally truly aware of a portion of the self that is beyond the body and beyond the mind. My spirit soared into the foreground. And there, in the quiet darkness, as water spilled over me, I was connected to the Divine. Its energy flowed into me, took control, and pushed me forward. It stayed with me for days. It caused me to glow. (p. 274)

After such a profound experience, I also went through an opposing wave of emotion, feeling that I had lost my center. I kept trying to get back to those moments of clarity and spiritual connection, but it just wasn’t possible.

I had a similar experience when my father passed away, though not nearly as profound. And it truly made me a believer that those who draw near those moments of birth and death also enter sacred spaces. Life coming in. Life going out. Life all around.

***

After I finished this book, I flipped to the front matter to check its year of publication and noticed a stamp from the library on the inside cover. Discard, it read.

I laughed. The irony was too much.

Then I flipped back to this passage:

To talk only of death makes death triumphant. The best thing we can do for the dead and for ourselves is to give them back their lives. It’s a kind of resurrection. (p. 232)

I feel that this is what I’ve done for Signs of Life today, as I retell its story, hoping that it finds even more readers 20 years later.

A Response to “Meternity” author, Meghann Foye

Few things incite my anger as quickly as the characterization of maternity leave as “vacation.”

In a recent interview with the New York Post about her new novel, Meternity, author Meghann Foye suggests that maternity leave allows mothers to take a step back from their lives and find their focus. She reports that she felt “envious” that mothers would leave the office to pick their kids up while she stayed behind to “pick up the slack.” Her sentiments led her to believe…

… in the value of a “meternity” leave — which is, to me, a sabbatical-like break that allows women and, to a lesser degree, men to shift their focus to the part of their lives that doesn’t revolve around their jobs.

After reading this interview, I was infused with rage and resentment. I ranted about this interview to some colleagues (because I read it at work–where I actually have a few moments to read something on the Internet).

I am far from the only one. Here’s what Jenn Mann, author of People I Want to Punch in the Throat, posted about MeternityAnd if that’s not enough, take a look at the Amazon reviews for the novel that started this whole mess.

meternity

Understandably, hoards of American mothers have rushed to the social media crime scene of Meternity to put in their own two cents about Foye’s misguided attempt at humor. Many of their comments focus on their frustration about the fact that Foye has completely misrepresented maternity leave. This is true. Foye presents “meternity leave” as a parallel path for women without children to take in order to focus on self-discovery.

But she misses the mark completely.

Her concept of “meternity” isn’t parallel to maternity leave–it’s the exact opposite.

Which is why mothers are so freakin’ pissed.

***

Contrary to what Foye assumes, when I was on maternity leave, I had never before thought so little about what wanted in life. What I wanted–nay, needed!–in life was at the very, very bottom of the priority list.

Time for reflection? When?

Here’s 24 hours with a newborn. Midnight-1:00: nurse, change, soothe. 2:00-3:00: nurse, change, soothe. 4:00-5:00: nurse, change, soothe. Etc. And that’s when everything is going well. Throw in some bouts of baby gas, constipation, colic, the fact that you haven’t showered in three days or that you’ve got four visitors in your home… I think I may be preaching to the choir on this point.

The first time I was able to finally step back and reflect was when I returned to work and my daughter was in daycare. While Foye sees “meternity leave” as a way to reflect on her life, the reality is the privileged American mothers who actually have maternity leave need to end it in order to have the time and space to reflect.

And let’s not forget all the American mothers who don’t get maternity leave, be it paid or unpaid. Then, there’s the mothers who must return to work ASAP because they’ve run out of vacation days and sick leave (two unfortunate misnomers that feed the ignorance about maternity leave). And what about the mothers who stay home and are immersed in care-taking day in and day out? Are their lives full of reflection?

It’s no wonder that so many mothers are absolutely incensed that (once again) care-taking has been written off as a kind of leisure activity.

***

Meghann, let’s level with each other. It is especially hurtful to hear maternity leave compared to a vacation when it comes from another woman. I’m assuming you’ve experienced times when you’ve been the target of presumptive, uninformed judgments from men who don’t have a clue.

But let me be fair, Meghann. You have indeed made a spot-on observation about maternity leave:

From the outside, it seemed like those few weeks of (new mothers) shifting their focus to something other than their jobs gave them a whole new lens through which to see their lives.

You are right, Meghann–but it’s not because new mothers simply have time off from work, which is how you envision “meternity leave.”

The reason that mothers emerge with a new focus is because they have been plunged into a nonstop, grueling training program that schooled them in quickly distinguishing what was important and what was simply window dressing. Through pain, blood, and tears, they learned how to put aside hunger, frustration, exhaustion, and self-doubt in order to find the strength to keep mothering.

They learned how to get rid off all the noise and distractions in order to find a place to drop the anchor so they could hold on while the storm waged on.

That’s how mothers redirected their focus. That’s how they “found” themselves. Not by traveling and thinking and reading and ruminating. They did it through boots-on-the-ground training, every hour of every day for weeks. And then for months. They did it through self-denial, arguments with their spouses, and constant reassessments of how and when they could have social lives and personal time.

Becoming a mother is an ongoing lesson in humility, beginning from that obvious (yet still surprising!) realization that your baby cannot thank you for getting up four times at night. Your baby doesn’t thank you for suffering with a torn vagina just so he could emerge into this world. In fact, your baby can’t even really have a conversation with you for another two years.

So those early weeks of new motherhood are training for a lifetime of not being thanked or even acknowledged. And while we continue to feel annoyance and frustration about this, new motherhood does a remarkable job of tempering our emotional reactions.

But everyone has their limits.

So maybe you can understand why we get pissed when one of our own gender joins in the obliviousness of calling maternity leave a vacation. We get frustrated because what we do during our leave is often done in the dark, with no thanks or acknowledgement.

In fact, that is one of the reasons that I wrote my book, Becoming Mother. When I was pregnant, I noticed that there was a true dearth of books that actually took a pregnant woman into what it’s like to become a mother. There were plenty of books about the physical side, but nothing really that dealt with the emotional and mental upheaval, which is truly what makes maternity leave so necessary for coping with new motherhood.

When I was experiencing those first weeks of motherhood, I kept thinking, “Why doesn’t anyone talk about this? This is insane! This is so unbelievably hard that I can’t believe no one talks about this.” And while there were plenty of books on first-time motherhood that took the shape of humorous confessions, no one was really being real with me.

So I wrote a book that would be real with new mothers.

Book-Cover-Becoming-Mother-Kindle

I wrote it to cast light on the hidden side of maternity leave.

I did this so that others could sympathize and perhaps even advocate for new mothers. After all, the United States is one of only two countries in the world that doesn’t have paid maternity leave–and that won’t change as long as this country holds onto the myth–even jokingly–that maternity leave is a vacation.

***

While everyone seems to be having their pound of flesh over the absurdity of Meternity, I’m looking for my compassion for Meghann.

Okay, she doesn’t have children yet. Okay, maybe the closest she has come to someone who has taken maternity leave is her view of the empty desk that she sees at work. But the gravest error that Meghann has made is choosing a subject that she doesn’t know much about. And then going so far as to write a novel about it. And then approaching that subject from an angle that provokes the ire of millions of mothers.

Put simply, her gravest error is a lack of humility.

But I’m venturing to guess that she might be learning that lesson now.

I could have written off this whole concept of “meternity” as very poor taste and a lack of social awareness. I could have just rolled my eyes, stewed at my desk while eating my lunch in fifteen minutes (so I could finish grading final exams–because I don’t have time to grade at home), but this is too important of a moment to let it go.

This is the moment when we need to say something. This is the moment when we say, “Knock it off with the vacation comparisons, already.”

It’s not funny.

It’s not even cute.

At best, it’s feeding a culture of misunderstanding.

At worst, it mocks what mothers of newborns actually experience.

On natural childbirth: An honest confession to first-time moms

If you try to give birth without medication for approval or respect from others, you probably won’t make it. You will reach a point when you don’t give a shit anymore what anyone thinks of you.

In the hardest hour of labor, my husband said to me, “I’m so proud of you.”

Do you know what I said?

Fuck pride. I don’t care about pride anymore.”

About an hour before the transition stage (or "when the shit really hit the fan")

About an hour before the transition stage (or “when the shit really hit the fan”)

And I so did not.

So what kept me from getting the epidural?

It wasn’t because I had read enough books and blog posts about the benefits of natural childbirth.

It wasn’t because I didn’t ask for one.

Oh, I did.

I got to my point when I begged my husband and my doula. I was in full transition mode, complete with 45-second double-peaked contractions, with only 30-second breaks between them.

I was in agony.

But my doula said, “The worst part is over! You’ve only got another 45 minutes before you can push. Let’s get you in the shower.” (She was right, but I didn’t know it at the moment.)

So why did I listen to her?

Time.

When you only have 30 to 45 seconds of pain-free moments at a time, the last way that you want to spend them is on making decisions. You spend the first 15 seconds in complete gratitude that the pain is gone. Then, the next 15 seconds trying to enjoy the sensation of nothingness. And only in the last 15 seconds do you think, Oh no… It’s coming back.

Pain unleashes the animal in you—and animals don’t really make decisions based on higher order thinking.

So don’t admire me.

Or if you want to admire me, admire me for the ability to cope with pain until it became unbearable. Because I don’t deserve any admiration for being able to cope with unbearable pain. I didn’t cope with it. I was just completely incapable of doing anything besides letting the pain come.

This isn’t to say that I regret having an unmedicated childbirth.

Because as a result of this unbearable pain, I encountered a truly transcendent experience in which I felt connected to God. I won’t go into detail here—I’ve already done that in my book. (Help a mom out and buy a copy here!)

But I want to clarify that I didn’t decide during my pregnancy, “You know what? I want a spiritual awakening. Yeah. I want to experience a spiritual rebirth while I’m giving birth to another human being.”

Give me a break. Who does that? Not this one, I assure you.

The initial reason that I wanted to give birth without medication was because I had read a lot of books about the phenomenon of “cascading interventions” in childbirth. Oh yeah, Business of Being Born and Ina May Gaskin and Dick Grantly-Read. All of them. And after that 20-week ultrasound, my maternal instincts started kicking into high gear. I wanted to do whatever I could to protect this child. But that rationale only survived as long as my ability to reason. And once pain pushed me into a mental space where I couldn’t rationalize anymore, anything was possible.

Perhaps this is why a 1999 study of mostly white, highly educated women in their early 30s (i.e., me) found that 43% of the women who said they would “definitely not” get an epidural—indeed got one.

I am not shocked at all by this. Neither do I judge. Because, ladies, the only thing that stood in my way from an epidural was time and my birth attendants. My husband and doula knew what rational Sharon had previously decided and they had promised to give me support as long as I was willing to accept it. It wasn’t my incredible willpower or my amazing capacity to be a “good mother.”

Good grief. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re a good mother because you of something that you did.

Hear me out on this one. You’re not a good mother because you had a natural childbirth, or breastfed your baby, or never let your baby cry, or never felt ungrateful in the face of new motherhood challenges.

You are a good mother because of who you are. Not because of what you do. Or don’t do.

As Rachel Martin repeats over and over again on her blog, Finding Joy—You are enough. What you are—all of that—is what makes you a good mother.

Please don’t fall into the trap—as I did early in new motherhood—of deriving your value as a mother based on what you do.

Because you will fall short.

Over and over again.

You will forget the diapers at home when you go out. Or feed your baby—God forbid!—formula when the breastfeeding struggles are more than you can bear. Or maybe you’ll be the only mother at the playgroup who doesn’t know that many kinds of rice contain arsenic. (Oh my God! I’ve been feeding my baby arsenic!)

If you value your worth as a mother based on what you do and not on who you are, then you will constantly be beaten down by all those messy and imperfect moments of motherhood. They will beat you to a pulp and drive you into an incessant loop of I’m a terrible mother. I’m no good at this. This baby deserves better than me. It’s my job to protect this child so they will get through life perfectly, and I’m failing!

Don’t give in to this self-destructive script.

You are a good mother because of who you are.

Not because of anything that you do.

Don’t reduce the experience of motherhood into a checklist rather than seeing it as it really is–meaningful and contextualized interactions with your children. That’s where the nurturing happens. That’s what kids remember later on–not all the other stuff that we waste our time obsessing over.

Wholehearted motherhood is so not a competition—and that is actually what the experience of laboring without medication taught me.

Because when you are in the hardest hour of labor, you can no longer compare yourself to anyone else. You can’t see anyone else vying for first place. You can’t even see yourself. And all you care about is the present moment.

But if you insist on treating motherhood as a competition, you will lose every single time. You may not show it to others, but you will feel the sting of failure, over and over again. And then you will plan how to make everyone else believe that you are still a winner.

Oh, so exhausting.

Why not save your mental and emotional energy for something more important?  Why not learn this lesson now before you become that too-perfect mom that no one relates to? It’s so much better to hang out here down in the masses of messy motherhood than it is to be floating high above everyone, dangling from a thin string, just waiting for the helium to run out.

Come on down.

Join the crowd.

***

Like this post? You’ll love “Becoming Mother.” 

Book-Cover-Becoming-Mother-Kindle

A down-to-earth journey into new motherhood and a great gift for first-time moms.

“Why the cover?” a.k.a. “The Birth of This Book, Part 4”

So why is my face covered?

Book-Cover-Becoming-Mother-Kindle

Two reasons.

  • I want the reader to be able to see herself in that situation.

But perhaps more important…

  • This picture represents that loss of identity that new mothers experience.

When you are hanging in that transitional space between who you once were and who you are not quite yet, you experience a profound loss of self. All of the tasks of caring for a newborn remind you hourly of your shifting priorities—baby first, then tend to your aching body, then feed your hungry stomach, and if you have time, allow your tired self to sleep.

I am faceless because this is no longer about me. It is the final humbling that new motherhood imposes on a woman. After the birth, attention suddenly shifts away from you and to the baby.

Certainly, part of you is happy to see so many people coo over this tiny new life that came from you. This is the sacrificial part of motherhood that everyone reveres and respects.  It says, “Don’t worry about me… I just care that my baby is okay.”

But what about that other voice?

The voice of the tired woman in you whose body was just ravaged by a baby being pushed out or pulled from you. You know the one I’m talking about. The one that suddenly screams out, “Hey! HEY! I’ve just been put through the wringer here! How about a hug or some kind words? No? Then, get the hell out of my house so I can get some decent sleep! I’m exhausted! Do you know that I haven’t slept in 48 hours?”

That is the voice we don’t want to acknowledge. It exists, but we don’t like it to speak because it challenges that notion of what it means to be a good mother. We think it makes us bad mothers. So we shut it up. We tell it to be quiet. We tell it that it is not allowed to exist.

Or worse, we deny that it’s there.

Through this shift in attention and society’s expectations of new mothers, we are humbled.

This humbling serves a purpose. It crushes and grinds the borders of your identity into fertile soil so that a new identity can take root and grow. Pieces of you may remain the same, but they are now rearranged and reordered according to your new roles and responsibilities.

And why the title? Why “Becoming Mother?”

It’s a reference to the common experience that all new mothers go through. “Becoming a Mother” doesn’t connect with the reader and tell them that there is any reason to care about this book. If I were that reader, I would immediately think, “Who cares about you becoming a mother? Good for you. I’ve got my own story, thank you very much.”

But the title “Becoming Mother” refers to the common experience of identity shift that all mothers go through. The identity of mother transcends cultures, countries, and time itself. It is why I was able to so easily chat with a Qatari mother at a conference this past May. It is why I have something to say to the mother in the chairs across from me in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. It is why I now have different reasons for crying about anytime I yelled at my mother when I was a teenager—I can now empathize with how much those words probably hurt her.

Continue reading My Gift to You, First-Time Mothers

“Becoming Mother” is now available for purchase. Get your print copy ($12.99) here or a Kindle copy ($6.99) here.

“The picture that said more than I ever could” a.k.a “The Birth of This Book, Part 3”

Just an hour and a half after I gave birth, my husband took this picture.

IMG_4813_A

We didn’t plan it. I just asked him to take some pictures. He took three. This is the second one.

When we looked at this picture on his computer, somewhere between four and seven days postpartum, I couldn’t help but stare and stare and stare at this picture.

My God… I kept thinking. This moment is… is…

Something.

I didn’t know what to call it. I still don’t have a word for it. But let me try to explain what I see when I look at this picture.

I see my former self. She’s not a mom yet. She doesn’t really know what that means. She’s a career-driven, goal-oriented, academic, hard-working woman for whom grace was a nice idea, but not something on which she could hang her hopes. But now, this unexpected moment of grace has descended on her–and she’s choosing to accept it.

I see my daughter. She doesn’t understand anything around her–with the exception of me. She understands no other sounds, save the sound of my heartbeat. No other voices, save the sound of my voice and her father’s voice. No other smells, save the scent of my skin.

I see that we are tagged, claimed, and wrapped up by the hospital. The gown and diaper generalize us into “patient” and “baby.” What would be private in our own home is public in this room. I even wear some of my blood on the outside, peeking through the backed-up IV.

And yet…

I don’t feel owned or degraded in this moment. I remember feeling like nothing else existed in the world except me and her. When I see this picture now, I distinctly feel that this moment happened even though we were surrounded by policies and protocol. In fact, maybe it happened despite all of the policies and protocol.

In this picture, I see that we are still untouched by the world and all of its noise. We don’t have anyone telling us how to be yet—no advice, no comparisons. Nothing to tell us if we’re “doing it right.” We are not worried about where we’re going or how to get there. We are just two halves of a whole.

We just are. And that’s enough. Just being is enough.

I see the simple beauty of living in the present moment.

Labor forced me to live in the present moment, but here I see myself finally applying it of my own free will. Instead of plunging into the trap of worrying about how I’ll ever take care of a newborn, I’m choosing to be grateful in this moment. All I’m thinking about is this tiny person who needs me. And because I am grateful, I don’t feel overwhelmed by this.

This is the purest form of motherhood that I can imagine.

And I’m never going to get back to this moment.

This moment is beautiful because it was so temporary. But I don’t mourn the loss of it. I only feel tremendous gratitude that we were able to exist together in this space, however short it was.

I thought about this picture a lot as I worked through the concept of this book. When I finally decided to write this book as a memoir, I kept circling back to this picture. I see this picture as the turning point in this journey. Becoming a mother isn’t a switch that you turn on—it’s a direction. It’s a turn toward your child. Everything else settles around you in this new position.

I wanted readers to see this moment right away. It evokes so many questions, “When was it taken?” “Where was it taken?” “How were you feeling?”

Yes, these are superficial questions.

But as you travel with me in this book, you begin to realize the magnitude of this moment and your appreciation for it grows.

Continue reading “The Birth of This Book: Part 4”

Order a copy of “Becoming Mother” here

What labor and death have in common

I had been told that labor was painful. That it could last for days. That drugs help.

But I never expected that experiencing labor would mimic the process of dying.

I first realized this when I wrote a poem about giving birth. As I reread a certain group of lines, I saw the connection. Here, I describe what it was like when I fought against the pain of the transition stage of labor.

I clutched. I gripped. I clawed. I seized.

I groaned. I moaned. I moaned. I groaned.

I reasoned. I pleaded. I begged. I shrieked.

 I cursed. I cried. I cursed. I hated.

I doubted. I despaired. I questioned. I bargained.

 Until I surrendered.

 And then I believed.

The turn in this poem (highlighted in bold) shows me giving in to birth and allowing myself to feel the pain. And this helps me re-imagine labor—as a form of dying. It’s right there in the lines of the poem—You go through all the same stages of grief. Reasoning, pleading, begging, cursing, hating, doubting, despairing, questioning, bargaining

And finally surrendering.

Unbearable, incessant, rhythmic pain will do that to you. It will grind you down into the salt that you really are.

Some who read this may think, Oh God, that sounds awful! I would do anything to avoid all of that. No one should have to suffer.

Part of me agrees with you.

And part of me now acknowledges that suffering can also open your eyes to greater truth—realizations that you cannot grasp until all of the anchors have been ripped free and you find yourself floating away on powerful currents. But there is beauty in surrender, in reaching the edge of your abilities and reason, and acknowledging that you are not so important that you can’t be completely humbled. That you are not so special that you just get to say “pass” on this one.

IMG_4747

And that is what labor and dying do–they reduce you. They re-orient your compass to true north. You are not the center of the universe. You are a small part of something much greater and much more powerful than you will ever be. We call it “God,” but that word is not enough. No word will ever be enough.

So stop fighting.

Stop grand-standing.

Stop asserting your own will and power.

Just stop. And feel.

Perhaps it is a combination of belief in our self-importance and our own powerlessness to protect that self-importance that drives us to try to control birth and death. Perhaps this partially accounts for our eagerness to hook ourselves up to machines which we believe to be more powerful than our own bodies. Or even to distrust our own bodies’ signals in favor of data pouring out of those machines.

Certainly, there is a time for using medical technology to mask or relieve our pain. When our bodies run amok with cancer and chronic, degenerative diseases—conditions when nature goes haywire—I am grateful to live in a time and place where I have options for healing or palliative care. But there is also a time to acknowledge what birth and death really are—natural processes. Stages of life. And denying or being afraid of them only intensifies the pain.

In my own experience, I know now that the urge to fight childbirth and escape the pain originated from outside of me.

It crept in when the doctor told me that I wasn’t progressing quickly enough,

or when the lines on the EFM monitor pronounced double-peaked contractions,

or when the doctor suggested that I could make all the pain go away if I just got the epidural.

After each of these in moments, I doubted the power of my body to get through the experience.

They knew what was going on with my body more than I did. That was how I felt.

But then I regained my focus. And I was able to take myself into a space where it was just me, the pain, and the moments between the pain.

With each contraction, my pain threshold rose and rose. I savored those moments between the pain, rather than focusing on the moments with the pain. When I was left alone, the messages from my birth attendants—my husband, my doula, and my nurse—were that what I was experiencing was normal. None of them acted like there was a reason to freak the hell out. I was not like other hospital patients, sick or diseased with a body gone haywire. What I was going through had a beginning, a middle, and an end. And what I needed was assurance that we were getting there.

It took some effort and planning to create this “birth as a process” environment in the hospital, where the assumption is typically “birth as a potential problem” in need of regulation and control.

But at least it’s not taboo to talk about birth like this.

Death, on the other hand, is far more likely to be seen as a problem, rather than a process. It’s the worst possible outcome. It’s failure. It cannot possibly be what we want.

***

My father died one year ago. Bipolar depression robbed him of his spark. Parkinson’s disease stole his smile and his gestures. Then, it ultimately caused him to lose his footing, fall, and break his neck. Gone was his ability to walk, and temporarily, his ability to independently breathe. He lay in the hospital for a month, unable to move and barely able to talk. When he recovered enough ability to lift his arms and breathe on his own, doctors started making plans for him.

Plans? Really? Plans for what?

My father was depressed. Unable to walk. Constipated and unable to relieve himself independently. His ongoing insomnia was exacerbated by the challenge of sleeping in a neck brace. It was a C2 vertebrae injury, so there was little hope of restoring many typical bodily functions—all of those small movements that we take for granted, but make us feel human. Feeding ourselves. Putting a shirt or shoes on. Picking up a pencil for a crossword.

HP0028

December 2008

Parents Visit July 2012 003

July 2012

SCN_0046

August 2013

So I wondered what these plans for the future were. Returning home? That seemed unlikely since he required someone to lift him and my mother certainly couldn’t do that. Going to a nursing home? Separated from his wife of 38 years. Confused by the constant shifts in caretakers, as nurses clock in and clock out. These were the plans? Were these the plans that the doctors would have wanted for themselves?

After my father fell, I admit that my prayers were not for him to heal. At best, they were vague prayers asking for God’s mercy or asking for God to ease his pain. At worst, they were prayers that his life would end soon. That he wouldn’t suffer in such conditions for weeks and months and years, according to the doctors’ plans. That his last moments of life wouldn’t be confusing or difficult. That he could understand what was happening to him so he could accept it instead of fighting it.

But then again…

Would I?

Would I be able to accept the end when I know it’s near?

These are questions without answers. Thoughts for the thinking, not for the deciding. At the end of life, it’s hard to know what we’ll want. Just as it is when we are in the hardest hours of labor. Our birth plans may be clearly and precisely articulated, but when the shit hits the fan, it’s hard to anticipate where everything will land.

But what I am sure of is that the experience of labor has prepared me for that winnowing down of self, that preparation to join a grand Divine, beyond human comprehension.

I think about what the end of life is like for women who have gone through labor. As they are dying, do they remember labor? Do they remember the way that it reduced their existence into a singular point? Are they better able to accept what is happening to them?

Is labor a special glimpse into the spiritual world that only women are fortunate enough to be able to access?

Because something happens once you become a link in that chain of life, a witness to life’s awesome resilience and power of renewal.

When you give life, life gives you something back—wonder.

The kind of wonder that results from the utter destruction of all your previous understandings and assumptions. The kind that forces you to re-examine all the surviving shards to see which ones deserve to go on and to acknowledge which ones have become dust, lost to the wind.

Wonder.

Over so many things.

How could my body do that?

How could this baby already be breathing on his own?

What will I do if this child dies? How could I go on?

Do all mothers feel this way?

What did I do to deserve any of this?

And Why?

Why Life?

Why Death?

Thoughts for the thinking, not for the deciding.

Like this post? Pre-order a copy of “Becoming Mother: A Journey of Identity” or Check out previous posts here.

Or watch this short related clip of me reading my favorite passage, in which I describe an unexpected spiritual moment.

Birth in (almost) Two Words

I worried. I wondered. I called. I waited.

I came in. I checked in. I sat. I waited.

I napped. I rested. I listened. I waited.

 

I paced. And paced. And paced. And paced.

I rocked. I listened. I breathed. I waited.

I rested. I breathed. I breathed. I waited.

I walked. I breathed. I breathed. I walked.

 

I winced. I grimaced. I breathed. I flinched.

I rocked. I leaned. I leaned. I rocked.

I crouched. I wretched. I puked. I moaned.

 

I clutched. I gripped. I clawed. I seized.

I groaned. I moaned. I moaned. I groaned.

I reasoned. I pleaded. I begged. I shrieked.

 

I cursed. I cried. I cursed. I hated.

I doubted. I despaired. I questioned. I bargained.

 

Until I surrendered.

 

And then I believed.

 

I moaned. I opened. I rested. I moaned.

I opened. I rested. I moaned. I opened.

I opened.

I opened.

I opened.

 

I pushed. And pushed. And pushed. And moaned.

I pushed. And pushed. And pushed. And moaned.

 

Until I saw.

 

I touched.

I remembered.

 

I felt. I cuddled. I nuzzled. I cradled.

I calmed. I soothed. I welcomed. I whispered.

I cried. I sobbed. I thanked. I cried.

And then I loved.

And loved.

And loved.

And loved.

%d bloggers like this: