Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Category: Poem

These Holy Hours

1:00 a.m., 3:00 a.m., 5:00 a.m.

These are holy hours

when the soft rooting of newborn hunger stirs the silence

And weary, warm exhaustion is brushed aside once more

In these holy hours

new life feeds and grows, minute by minute

Neurons connect and thicken

their paths beginning to deepen

Eyes open and drink

swallowing light and one familiar face

Eyes, free of shame and guilt and secrecy

Eyes that stare and stare

Eyes that wonder

These are holy hours

but hours for which no one wants to awaken

save the mother, whose body craves the contact

In these hours

ordinary actions become superhuman feats

witnessed by no one

In these hours, maternal instinct strengthens and sharpens

and all other desires recede

and it is mothers who detect and interpret

even the smallest of signals

In these hours, love is quietly knitted together

one diaper, one feeding, one burping at a time

In these holy hours

two human hearts rest closely together

synchronize and slow

synchronize and slow

the inside, now the outside

These are holy hours

when questions of creation come forth

and the shells of sacred mysteries begin to crack

under the magnitude of these most ordinary of moments

Their rays of light shining through

Revealing new truths in the Whole Story

Beginning of beginnings

These are quiet, still hours

when the rhythm of the present slows

suspended between the past and the future

when memories and hopes and prayers

swirl and mix

creating new galaxies of possibilities.

These are holy hours

When the Divine bends down to offer mother and child

a blessing that washes over them

and pulls them underneath into an ocean of warm sleep

once more.

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Cure for the Election 2016 Blues

Like other Americans, I’m working hard to detach this election year from my emotional well-being.

I’m reminded of this clip from The Tudors (one of my favorite series of all time), in which two of Henry VIII’s advisors discuss a translated poem about what it means to have a happy life.

On the left, Henry Cavill plays Charles Brandon, one of Henry VIII’s lifelong advisors. On the right, David O’Hara plays Henry Howard, another member of the court.

What strikes me about this scene is the emptiness of a life lived in the pursuit of power. Both of these characters spend years and years scheming and blackmailing that result in some gruesome plays of power that end the lives of others. Including thousands of innocents.

All in the name of rising above others.

But in the end, the things they long for are things that they could have without any power at all.

They long to live the lives that many of us are living right this moment. 

While this election season drones on and we watch politicians seeking to bury each other in quest of power, let’s not lose sight of what truly makes a happy life.

The happy life be these, I find

The riches left, not got with pain

The fruitful ground, the quiet mind

The equal friend, no grudge nor strife

No charge of rule, nor governance

Without disease, the healthful life

Wisdom joined with simplicity

The night discharged of all care

For much of human history, no place like this has existed in the world. I think our greatest challenge is to exist in the tension between seeking to improve this nation while still being grateful for it.

Let’s keep it in perspective.

Let’s remember that we owe many of these elements of a happy life to the simple fact that we live in this time period, in this country.

We have come a long way from the days of burning people at the stake for being the wrong kind of Christians or having our heads cut off because of our political dissension.

Let’s remember to love what we have.

stamps

 

What I Used to Believe

cross

I used to think that a spiritual life was carefully lived

Flawless, or close to it

I learned about The Box

I learned how to crawl inside and close The Lid

How to feel comfortable inside it

The Box was for my own good

The Box would keep me safe

But the waters flowed in anyway.

And when I ran out of air, I pushed The Lid off.

***

I thought that was the end

That there would be no room left from someone like me

Someone who hated the Box

Someone who wanted to understand the Lid and the Walls and why the Box has four of them.

***

But then a truth: That to be Christian

is to believe that the sacred can become profane.

And the profane can become sacred.

To believe that life is full of these moments

When the two sides blend seamlessly from one to another

Life does not progress at an even slope, rising ever into our American horizon

No.

Life takes you away and brings you back.

Like a good song, life moves in circles, in waves

Return and repetition

Sometimes, we call them breakdowns or failures

But we are made for this

We are made to

return

relive

perfect

***

So if you’re carrying the cross, thinking there is a finish line

Lay it down, already

If you carry it to prove your struggle to be holy

Lay it down, already

Don’t carry the cross to prove your sacrifice

Carry it because you must

Carry it now because someday you won’t be able to

Carry it for someone else

***

I am belief and despair, strength and weakness.

I am tension and struggle and doubt and hope.

I am happiness and grief, delight and disgust.

I am handshakes and cold shoulders, warm hugs and hot sex.

I am Christian. I am worldly.

I am sacred. I am profane.

I am perfectly unholy.

I am rising above my humanity and succumbing to it.

I am what makes God smile.

I am what makes God cry.

I am all of these now

But I may be none of these tomorrow

But no matter what shape I take

I am always Loved.

Our Children are not Our Children

“Do you ever worry about your kid getting involved in drugs?”

I chuckled a little at my colleague’s question. We had been standing by the coffee maker–him getting coffee, me getting tea (since I’ve cut back to one cup of coffee per week)–when he blurted out this question.

I can always count on this particular guy to strike up a deep conversation, while peppering it with inappropriate humor. He’s one of those people whom you can tell is surveying the entire world about questions that are important to him. It’s as if he is cataloguing everything he learns for the moment when he needs it–and then his effort will have been worth it.

“So she’s only two,” I said as I filled up my cup with hot water. “But I know what you mean… I had the drug talk with her last week and psshhh… it was hard.” I kidded.

He looked to the side. “So I guess she’s still hitting up the crack pipe at night?”

“Well, clearly whatever I say isn’t going to stop her, right?”

We laughed and clinked our coffee cups.

“Cheers,” I said.

A moment passed.

“It’s just…” he looked around the room before lowering his voice and continuing, “I have this friend whose kid got into some trouble recently. And this friend–he’s like doing everything right, from what I can tell. But his kid got still into heroin.”

I nodded as I ripped open a bag of tea and dunked it in my cup. “Man… that sucks. I hear it’s because heroin is so cheap right now.”

His eyes grew wide. “I know, this is what I’m saying. If it can happen to this guy’s kid, you know, who can’t it happen to?”

I shrugged.

“Doesn’t that make you worried, as a parent?” he asked. “Or maybe I don’t know this friend as well as I thought. Maybe there’s some crazy stuff going on there…”

“Well, you don’t know that, right?”

“Right, of course, just…”

“Yeah, I know… It does worry me, but just a little. I mean, right now, she’s only two, so this isn’t really going to happen tomorrow or anything. I still have complete control over what goes in her.”

But as soon as I said that, I instantly doubted myself.

Did I have control over her?

I wrote in my book about the illusion of having control over pregnancy, childbirth, and your child’s development. We do so many things for the purpose of having control over our children, but in the end, this control is an illusion. We never have been and never will be in control of our children.

I knew I had to amend my statement.

“Okay, actually, I don’t really have control over her, even now.” I explained my rationale and he nodded.

“So what do you do? Do you worry all the time?”

I thought for a moment, watching the water in my cup growing darker and darker.

“I’m thinking about this quote from Khalil Gibran. I first read it when I was pregnant–and it really struck me. A few of the lines goes like this: Your children are not your children…They come through you, but not from you. And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.”

children are not your children

He nodded, sipping his coffee.

“And what I think he was saying was that children aren’t our puppets. And they aren’t our reflections. We shouldn’t get lost in the illusion that we have control over them. We are responsible for protecting them and teaching them, but neither of those things are the same as ‘controlling.'”

“That’s true, that’s true… So you think it’s an issue of how we see ourselves as parents. Maybe there’s nothing he could have done about it. That’s what I’m hearing.”

“So… you have to see your role as a parent in the right light… but also I think you’ve got to make sure your child’s needs are met…

Do they feel loved?

Do they feel like they belong?

Do they know they can talk to you without judgement?

Do they know that they don’t have to work to earn your love?

…It’s all of those things. I think a lot of kids try out drugs when their needs aren’t being met.”

“Yeah, but don’t you think some kids get into drugs just because they’re curious?”

“Absolutely. But you’ve also got to tell your kids the awful things that drugs can do to you. You can’t watch them all of the time, but maybe if you’re honest about what can happen…”

“Hmmm…”

I sipped my tea. “But I really think that a lot of it is about their needs. If you meet their needs, maybe they’ll be less likely to look for other things that will.”

We were quiet for a moment.

“It’s easy to talk about this now… when she’s still small and this whole scenario is still very far way. God, I hope I don’t eat my words later on.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll make sure to rub it in your face,” he assured me.

“Thanks!”

We clinked cups again.

On Turning Two

Look_of_wonder

What does it mean for you to turn two?

It means…

You are free will.

You can choose to let go of my hand in the parking lot—and then run away from me.

You sometimes refuse to wear a shirt that doesn’t have a fish on it.

You can change your mind in half of a second—Iwantyoutoholdme-NOIDON’T!

You want to use the potty, but you still are surprised by poop in your diapers.

You like the idea of putting on your own pants, but you are too impatient to follow through.

 

You are new strength.

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You are strong enough to climb out of the car seat as I’m trying to buckle you into it.

Bonus—You can also climb out of the shopping cart.

You can hit—and it hurts.

You can run, run, run, head tilted so high to the sky that don’t see the toy that you’re about to trip over.

 

You are exploration.

You will smear peanut butter on your chair just to see how it looks and feels.

You will climb on the mulch pile—because you can. Oh, you can!

You will turn your Cozy Coupe upside down, climb inside, and sit on the inside of the roof.

You will put Mr. Potatohead’s ears into your ears. Every time.

You will grab that shiny wine glass or knife from the countertop when you see it peeking out from the edge.

 

You are expression.

On_Turning_Two

You can tell me

up

milt (a.k.a. milk)

bu! (a.k.a. bug!)

hodju (a.k.a. holdyou, a.k.a holdme)

mama!!! (always with a !)

daddy

bunny

ruff-ruff and moo (It’s “dog” and “cow!” How many times do we have to tell you!)

vroom

mama toffee (mama’s coffee)

and the increasingly popular, potty!

You ask ‘sat? to things that I have to call a thingy (“it’s a sprayer thingy… it’s spraying asphalt.”)

You will repeat anything and everything, trying the words out like new shoes.

And you say far more than I actually understand.

 

You are interaction.

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You hug all of your classmates. All of them.

You can offer me a blanket—and then pull it away at the last second with a giddy laugh.

If you see me eating something—anything—and you will walk over with a sweet smile and a peesh?

You find it funny to “hide” by curling into a ball–right in front of me–and waiting for me to say “boo!”

 

You are emotion.

Your face contorts into horror when it’s time to come inside.

You crumble into a tight ball when you’re not allowed to watch “the ammals” (a.k.a TV)

You lower your head and cry tiny silent tears when I yell about your drawing on the wall.

You flail your arms when I try to help you wash your hands.

You burst into tears at the sight of another child crying.

And you can cry, cry, cry, for no reason at all.

 

But turning two doesn’t change some things.

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When you are in pain, you still cry out for me. Always for me.

Your heart is still happiness, curiosity, eagerness, and compassion.

And that look of wonder that I saw on your face in the first week of life—it’s still there.

 

And with your turning two, it means things for me too.

Even more patience.

Even more boundaries.

Even more gentleness.

Even more compassion.

Even more attention to what we all say to each other.

Even more letting you make mistakes.

Even more keeping you safe.

All of it happening, all of the time, on this crazy ride of growing-up.

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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.

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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.

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December 2008

Parents Visit July 2012 003

July 2012

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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.

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