Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: the hard stuff

Running

I started running this week.

Normally, I stay in the warm back room of our house and work up a sweat doing cardio kickboxing, yoga, or high-intensity intervals.

But nothing has been normal for the past three weeks.

running

Image from Shutterstock

***

Shortly after finding out that our baby had no heartbeat, it was time for all the Christmas festivities. My daughter’s daycare went on a break. No rest for the weary or the brokenhearted. Mercifully, my husband took vacation so that we could share the household chores while we waited for me to miscarry.

Christmas Eve.

Cookie baking. Church. Stockings. Christmas Vacation.

Christmas.

Cinnamon rolls, sausage, eggs, coffee. Gifts. Home Alone. Cookies. Salad. Pierogies. More sausage. Wine. More coffee. More cookies.

And then the long stretch between Christmas and New Year’s. Unstructured hours with a two-year-old. Read: attention span of two minutes. Snacks. Haphazard attempts at potty-training, (No peeing in your panties!). Obvious (yet interesting?) observations. (Mama have eyes? Mi-mouse have eyes? Daddy have eyes?) Repetitive songs (Daddy shark, de-de-de-de-de-de-de, Mama shark, de-de-de-de-de-de). Tantrums (No!!! Go away, Mama!).

The weather was miserable. Warm, torrential rains. Flooding. A deep gray settled over the sky for days. I looked out the window of our kitchen and shrugged. Figures, I remember thinking.

But there was also periodic laughing at our daughter’s new stretches of speech that didn’t quite coincide with the present situation. In Target, looking at the DVD, Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, she said, Oh no! What happened to us?–perhaps asking why the Peanuts characters were screaming as they crowded together in a raft.

After the D & C, I rested. I cramped. I bled. I took the Motrin (I never could tolerate Vicodin). I stopped eating cookies and chocolate. I dumped the leftover bottles of wine. Then, I ate sweet potatoes, kale smoothies, salads, and chicken. I started going back to bed at 10:00 and started getting up at 6:00.

Daycare resumed on the Monday after New Year’s. After I dropped my daughter off at daycare, I breathed a sigh of relief. I got in my car, turned the music up, and drove home. I had one more week off before I needed to return to work.

Now, I can really take care of myself, I thought. I went home did some cardio kickboxing for 40 minutes. I felt better. I vegged out with The Office. I finished Brene Brown’s new book, Rising Strong. I ate broccoli and salmon and rice for lunch.

And then…

I decided I wasn’t done exercising. I decided to run.

And it. Was. Cold.

But I also didn’t care.

I borrowed my husband’s headphones. I put on a long-sleeved shirt and fleece-lined jacket. I turned on Pandora on my phone. I stretched.

Then, I went for it.

I knew better than to break into a sprint. So I jogged. I made it two minutes. I took a break. I jogged again. Two minutes. Break. Repeat. I watched the house numbers on the mailboxes grow higher and higher.

We live next to a huge, beautiful park and as I rounded a corner, its trees came into view. I picked up the pace. Then, I took a break.

Then, the hill.

I was going to do this thing. I was going to go as far as I could. I was tired of playing the Why me? script over and over again in my head. It was pointless and sucked up all my energy. It was time to start playing a new script.

I can come back from this. 

I won’t let this swallow the best of me.

I have been through worse. I have felt worst.

I can be a real badass when I decide to be.

Even if this happens again, I’m going to be okay.

***

In The Gifts of ImperfectionBrene Brown gives ten guideposts for wholehearted living. As I read through them, two of them struck me as the lessons that I’m learning right now.

  • Cultivating a resilient spirit: Letting go of numbing and powerlessness. (i.e., dumping the cookies, the wine, and the Why me? script)
  • Cultivating intuition and trusting faith: Letting go of the need for certainty. (i.e., having the willingness to try something new, even if I don’t know if I’ll be any good at it)

***

I pushed into the hill, taking deep breaths, pulling in the oxygen, pushing out the burning in my legs. I kept my eyes on the ground and told myself, one more step, one more, now to the next mailbox, one more step.

When I reached my limit, I was halfway up the hill. I knew today would not be the day that I got to the top.

And that was okay.

I walked the rest of the way up the hill, turned around, and made my way down.

I’m normally a cold person. I’m always seeking warmth.

But as I started descending that hill, I could feel the blood warming my fingers. I could feel the warmth everywhere. It was 20 degrees, but I felt warm.

And I had done that.

In a dark, cold season of my life, I had made myself warm.

Running is not my usual routine, and I probably won’t stick with it in the long run (pun intended). Maybe I’ll go back to kickboxing. Maybe I’ll start swimming (although I’ll need to find a pool to do that.)

I’m open.

But sometimes, to get out of a rut, to change the script, to start over, you need to do something different.

 

 

Through Miscarriage

December 3, 2005

And so today, I give myself to you, to share our lifetimes together, be it the best times or the worst.  And if I ever want out, I promise to you to remember today.  To remember you, to remember the first time that I ever saw your face, to remember every tear we shed in joy to cover every tear we’ll someday shed in pain.  I promise to never give up on you, on us, or our life together.

***

When you love someone who is hurting, your first thought is to find a way to make their pain go away. But as you live with someone who is hurting, you begin to understand that covering the pain doesn’t help them. And erasing it is impossible.

The only way out of pain is to go through it.

All you can do is listen.

Wait.

And be ready with open hands when they finally reach out.

***

December 31, 2015

We step off the elevators and round the corner.

Maternity Unit, the sign reads.

A hospital employee scans her ID and the doors open for us.

“This way,” she passes another sign. Maternity Triage.

I think, Here? This is where we’re going?

While my nurse prepares a space for me, I sit on a bed across from a curtained area where a woman breathes and moans. It sounds like she is nearly in active labor. When she is silent, I feel jealousy. When she moans, I feel compassion.

“Why are we here?” my husband asks. “Just to kick you in the teeth while you’re down?”

***

I knew what kind of guy I was falling in love with when we ended one of our first dates by sitting on the monkey bars of his old elementary school.

We were 21 years old, enjoying that hazy week of post-Christmas and pre-New Year freedom. Life was full of movies and eating out and driving nowhere in particular while listening to Radiohead.

We climbed to the top of the bars, our breath coming out in white puffs. The night sky was clear and studded with stars. I was freezing. Absolutely freezing.

And I didn’t care.

We held hands.

Then he said, “I forgot the specific heat of steel was so low.”

I laughed. And laughed.

He was the one. I already knew.

***

 “We just need to get your IV started, draw some blood, and do some paperwork,” my nurse says as she taps away on the computer’s keyboard. She has mercifully moved us to the back of triage, away from the laboring women. “And then you’ll be all ready.”

I lift my hand to my lips and close my eyes. Start an IV… Here we go.

“Are you okay?” she asks in a tone that really means, Are you feeling a lot of emotions right now?

But I’m not thinking about the fact that my baby has died. Not right now. Instead, I’m wondering how hard it’s going to be for her to find a vein.

“So my veins are really small and they roll…” I warn her.

“Let me just take a look.”

She places the tourniquet high on my left arm, rubbing, prodding, tapping. She examines my forearm, somewhere comfortable. Then to the right arm. Repeat.

“Okay, I see what you mean,” she says.

Back to the left forearm.

The cool alcohol swab. The stick. The immediate sting, the burn. I squirm. I yell. The needle pulls away.

I know she hasn’t found a vein.

As I start sobbing, I reach out for Doug and bury my head in his neck. All of my emotions rush forward. All of my thoughts from the past two weeks explode in my consciousness and I let them run wild.

Our baby has died.

Two and a half weeks ago.

I want to let it go.

I don’t want to be its tomb anymore.

Isn’t it enough that I’m ready to let it go?

I don’t want to hurt anymore.

My nurse rubs my knee through the blanket covering my legs. With my eyes squeezed shut, I can hear her sniffing. That is how I know that she is crying too.

***

Shortly after we started dating, Doug saw his mother for the last time.

Lost to her delusional world of paranoia and conspiracy, she cut everything and everyone loose. Parents. Siblings. Husband. Children. Grandchildren. As she slithered away from everyone who loved her, she curled into herself as a last means of self-protection.

In a last ditch effort, Doug tried to talk to her one last time. That was thirteen years ago.

When it ended badly, I held him and his tears darkened my sleeves. I cried with him as he mourned the loss of his living mother.

It was just one of the first emotional storms that we weathered together.

***

I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. But after I came to grips with the words no cardiac activity, I was ready to let go.

The nausea left. The fatigue lifted. My metabolism picked up.

But no blood.

No spotting.

My body held on. It refused to let go.

So I knew this wasn’t going to be easy.

How do you find your way into a body that doesn’t want to open up?

***

My nurse re-examines my right arm starting at the forearm. She rubs and prods my arm, moving down until she is gripping my fingers. She rolls my fingers this way and that, my knuckles moving in waves. The cold swab, the sting of the needle again.

So much hotter and sharper.

I yell. I cry.

She pulls the needle out. “I’m so sorry, hon… I’m going to ask someone else to take a look.”

My teeth start chattering. I start shaking. Doug continues to hold me as I heave.

***

I remember the True Love Waits campaign of my teenage years. Our church’s youth group strongly supported sexual abstinence before marriage.

Sex is the most special gift you can give your partner, a speaker crooned on one of the free promotional VHS videos that our youth group received, along with a catalog to purchase TLW rings and attire. Don’t you want to give your partner the best?, the speaker asked.

As if sex with your spouse is always sacred.

As if sex with your spouse is never selfish or disconnected.

Bullshit, I say.

Sometimes, sex is Oh my God, I need you right now. Sometimes, sex is I love you so much. Sometimes, sex is well, it’s been a while so… Sometimes, it’s we better do it tonight if we want to conceive in this cycle. Sometimes, it’s we’re not going to be able to do it again for the next six days so…

So, bullshit, I say.

Sex isn’t the most intimate gift you can give your partner.

The most intimate gift you can give your partner is your vulnerability. Taking the risk to show the face that you hide from everyone else.

That’s intimacy.

Sex in marriage is a given.

But vulnerability in marriage is not.

***

A second nurse comes to my bed. She rubs her hands together as she circles me, searching for opportunity. She goes for the crook of my left arm.

Burning, pain, more tears.

Then she goes for the soft underbelly of my left wrist. Hot, searing pain sends me shouting and swearing. My legs and feet brace against each other, rubbing up and down, trying to feel anything besides the searing pain in my wrist until she finally pulls the needle free.

“Is it always this difficult to find a vein?” the second nurse asks sensitively.

I shake my head. “It’s because I’m so dehydrated. I always drink a lot of water before a blood draw, but I had to fast for the anesthesia.”

The nurses talk quietly of calling in anesthesiology.

I wonder if we can just leave. Just pick up our things, get the Cytotec on the way home, and spend the night cramping and making bloody trips to the toilet. Even if my body doesn’t want to do that, at least it would be familiar with the process. At least maybe it would let that happen.

I continue to cry into my husband’s shoulder, where a dark circle of tears grows.

***

The last time I cried this much was when my father passed away.

On the night before the funeral, I tried to explain to Doug how I was feeling.

It’s like our family has been holding onto this rope for the past ten years and life is spinning us around. Everyone’s letting go, and flying out in different directions. And soon, no one will be holding on anymore. There will be nothing left of this thing that held us together for so long. And it makes me wonder what family really is when you all let go of the rope.

***

The anesthesiology nurse brings in warm compresses. My first nurse brings in more blankets. Your hands are so icy. Maybe the warmth will help.

More prodding, more rubbing, more tapping, more discussion.

Here? This one looks promising. Oh, what about this one? Wait… is that a tendon? Are you kidding me?

Through my tears, I start laughing. A delirious, dark laugh. I open my eyes to see both of the nurses eyeing my husband’s hands.

“He’s got some nice veins,” I say. “That’s why I married him.”

They chuckle with me.

“Too bad we can’t do him,” one of them says.

The fifth stick—in my right hand.

The sixth stick—underneath my left arm.

My arms are throbbing. My physical pain peaks. My emotional pain flatlines.

Then miracle of miracles—the seventh stick.

The vein that finally accepts the IV, just above my right wrist.

Ecstatic to have finally accessed a vein, the anesthesiology nurse immediately threads it, forgetting to draw the blood.

“Does that mean you’ll have to stick her again?” my husband asks.

My first nurse nods.

He uses his fingers to wipe the sides of my face.

“Let’s give her a break,” my nurse whispers.

***

The cool IV fluid snakes its way through my veins. The image starts a train of thought.

I think about the anthropology unit that my students were studying just before we left for Christmas break. We learned that in the Mayan world, snakes were symbols of transcendence, creatures that could cross easily between two worlds: the world of the living and the world of the dead.

I wonder how I can become like them.

I wonder why it has been so difficult for me to cross back into the land of the living.

At night, my mind replays and replays the silent, motionless figure, floating on the ultrasound screen. Those definitive words, No cardiac activity.

During the day, I feel the weight of simply living while carrying the dead with me. Everywhere I go.

I think about letting go. The prayers, the wishes, the ways that I have resumed my old life. Wine, coffee, sushi, deli meat.

Hoping the mental clarity would speed things along.

Hoping for blood.

***

I open my eyes for the first time in thirty minutes. My blanketed legs are covered in empty needle packages, gauze, and tape. My arms are bandaged here and there. My first nurse pulls a new needle from its package and lets it fall among the rest of the debris on my legs.

I don’t even care anymore. I just want this to be over. I give up.

I go slack in Doug’s arms.

But with the eight stick in the right hand, I tense and cry out, “Mother fuck!”

“Look, she can’t do this anymore,” Doug says. “I’m shocked she hasn’t passed out yet.”

Back to my left hand, the ninth stick. It slides in, no sting.

“Okay…” I mutter. I lean back against Doug’s shoulder. “Okay… This isn’t awful. I don’t like this one, but I can do this one.”

A silence in the room.

“It’s not coming out fast, is it?” I ask.

“No, but it’s fine. Just relax,” Doug says.

“Deep breaths, Sharon. Relax,” my nurse says.

A whole minute passes.

“Try making a fist if you can,” she encourages me.

I try, but closing my hand knocks my fingers against the needle. I imagine not having hands or arms. I imagine sliding out of this moment and slipping into the future.

Another minute passes.

I loosen my grip and focus on being empty.

Because that is what this is.

A complete emptying.

Of emotions.

Of plans.

Of life.

Of death.

Letting it all go.

And hoping that there is something left at the end of it.

***

To move like a snake, you need to give up your arms, your ability to hold on to anything. That’s how snakes flow seamlessly from one world into the next. They don’t cling to anything.

At the same time, nothing can hold on to them. Snakes need to dodge and evade. They need to slip through fingers. They don’t linger in memory or balk at the future. They exist only in the present. They can move easily between both worlds because they don’t love. Nor can they be loved.

But I have loved. Even if my arms could not hold, I have loved.

This is the pain of miscarriage–to love without reward. There is no newborn cry. No tender face or fingers or toes. Perhaps not even the knowledge of knowing the gender of your child. The pain of miscarriage is to love without the possibility of a future. There is nothing but love and pain.

My journey back to the land of the living will not be seamless. I will not slide smoothly past all of these memories, emotions, doubts, fears, and uncertainties.

Because I have loved.

The challenge, then, is to learn how to move through the pain even though I still love.

***

“So this is the consent form to have the procedure of dilation and curettage,” my nurse holds a paper on a clipboard. I carefully lift my right IVed hand to sign it.

Dilation. From Latin, dilatare. “The process of becoming larger or wider.”

Curettage. “A surgical scraping or cleaning by a curette.”

Curette. From French, curer and from Latin, curare. “To cure.”

To enlarge and cure.

***

Staring at the overhead lights in the OR, my anesthesiology nurse clicks a vial of medication into my IV.

“You’re going to start to feel light now.” She rubs my forehead, my hair. Her eyes are bright, but sad. It makes me think she has been through this, too.  “You’ve been through a lot, so just rest now. We’ll take good care of you.”

A final tear slips out of my right eye. She wipes it away.

What I think is, This isn’t working. I wonder when this stuff will finally kick in.

***

Loving is easy. Even natural.

It’s living with love that is hard.

The only way to avoid heartbreak is to choose not to love.

But if you choose to love, grief will take you down into the land of the dead. As you struggle with the grief, you will bleed. If you panic, your struggle will tear away pieces of you. If you panic too much, you will rip yourself to shreds, like an animal caught on barbed wire.

But if you can lift your head when the blood comes, you will see that the bleeding comes from hooks, buried deep in your flesh. Hooks to everyone who loves you. Hooks to your spouse. To your children. To your family. To your friends.

If you can lift your head while you are still bleeding, you can see who is still holding on to you. Then, you can reach up and take the hand that is reaching out for you.

You can move together.

You can climb out.

You will be scarred. You will be stretched. You will be larger, wider, and more flexible.

But the next time you’re caught in grief, you’ll remember to stop and see who is holding on to you.

And who you need to let go.

***

“Sweets?”

I know that voice.

“Hey, baby girl.”

His warm hand on my face.

“Doug?”

“Hey, Sweets. It’s all over. You did great.”

What I remember is

… to remember every tear we shed in joy to cover every tear we’ll someday shed in pain.

What I think is

We can get through this. I promised him I wouldn’t give up.

What I say is, “My wedding vows.”

“What? What Sweets?”

“My wedding vows,” I say louder. My eyes flip open. Light and shapes.

“What about them?” he leans closer.

“I meant them.”

He rubs my hand. “Sweets…”

“I meant them. I want you to know that.”

Design by Franchesca Cox, 2010

Design by Franchesca Cox, 2010

 

 

Underneath Miscarriage

IMG_20160103_134054

A Christmas card we received on the day we found out.

 

Death surrounds new life, but it largely goes unnoticed. It starts in a womb where the death, birth, and growth of cells happen every month. A tiny fertilized egg trusts its fate to this volatile environment. Sometimes, it works out. Sometimes, it doesn’t.

About one year ago, I wrote these words in one of the final chapters of my book, Becoming Mother.

I just recently lived to experience the pain of these words.

Truth be told, I had a miscarriage before I was pregnant with my daughter. But it happened immediately after I got a positive home pregnancy test. Just as quickly as the news came, it was taken away. It felt like a mistake. Oops! That wasn’t meant for you.

I was never able to really own that pregnancy.

But this miscarriage, this one that just happened, this one is all mine.

This pregnancy was different. Every pregnancy is different, they all say. But from the day of ovulation to the day this baby’s heart stopped, I felt that something was off. Although I’ve never been one to place much trust in intuition, my radar was on high alert this whole pregnancy.

On the day I ovulated, I felt like I had a war going on inside of me. My right ovary hurt, my right Fallopian tube ached, my uterus contracted and tugged in hot spasms. I had never felt anything quite like this, so my brain settled on the idea that I was miscarrying. Although… how could that be? I’m just now ovulating!

I came home from work, still in pain, still confused. By the next day, the pain was gone, but I was so bloated and swollen I had to wear loose fitting pants.

As timing would have it, my annual gynecological exam was the following week and my midwife told me that it had probably been a ruptured ovarian cyst, especially since the pain was now gone.

Okay, an ovarian cyst… Strike one. But maybe I can still get pregnant.

And I did.

After I got the positive pregnancy test, I calculated my expected due date: August 1, 2016.

Huh… That doesn’t sound right.

I re-entered the date of my last period. Same answer. Of course, it was the same answer, but it didn’t seem right. It didn’t feel right.

I gave the pregnancy test to my daughter and told her to give to my husband. I thought it would be cute. He was still in bed, still groggy. He rolled over, looked at it, and asked if there were two lines there. I said yes.

He seemed underwhelmed, so I asked him what was wrong.

“I’d just feel more comfortable about this if you hadn’t had so much pain when you were ovulating.”

Husband doubting the good news. Strike two.

At five weeks pregnant, I was reeling. I had lost my emotional footing. I was so irritable that I couldn’t stand myself. Absolutely everyone was pissing me off. A colleague belaboring a point. My husband leaving dishes in the sink. My daughter not wanting to get in her car seat. My students not doing the reading. Every time someone pissed me off, I had to talk myself through it. This is a stupid thing to be upset about. You’re only feeling this way because you’re pregnant. Calm down and don’t say something that you’ll regret later.

And then the foggy thinking. I was so much foggier than I remember being at the end of the third trimester with my daughter. One day, my brain switched over from knowing it was Tuesday to thinking it was Wednesday. I rushed to create a lesson plan for my Wednesday class in one hour when I had another day to do it. Only as I was about to walk to the class did I realize that it was really Tuesday.

At six weeks pregnant, the extreme fatigue started. No. Let’s be real. It was extreme exhaustion. Between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. every day, I was utterly useless. I had to work, sure, but I was completely checked out mentally. If I could leave work early, I did. Once I made it into our house, I immediately crashed on the sofa. Not enough energy to get upstairs.

This baby was kicking my ass. And I still wasn’t telling anyone about it, save my  mother.

Then at seven weeks pregnant, on the morning of Monday, December 14th, I was brushing my teeth and looking in the mirror. And I had a horrible thought.

I’m not pregnant anymore. 

I wasn’t reeling.

I wasn’t foggy.

That day, I was tired, but not nearly as exhausted as I had been.

Maybe I’m not pregnant anymore.

What a morbid thought! What the hell is the matter with you! Think positive. Maybe this is just going to be an easy pregnancy. 

That week, my digestion slowed to an absolute crawl. I started eating smaller meals more frequently, and I felt better. Then, the nausea started to kick in and I took comfort in it.

See? There. I told you.

At eight weeks and one day, I went in for the first ultrasound. For days, I had been prepping myself mentally for this.

But why?

I had never had an ultrasound where a doctor had given me bad news. They had always been exciting. I had always left with either good stats or pictures to show off.

Yet in my head, I went over the scenarios.

A baby in a Fallopian tube.

A dead baby.

A baby with no head.

A baby with no legs.

Two babies, both dead.

After each scenario, I would chide myself.

What the hell is the matter with you! What kind of mother are you to be thinking such morbid thoughts? You’re going to become a self-fulfilling prophecy if you’re not careful.

Imagining my child dead. Strike three.

***

In the days after I received the bad news that the baby had stopped growing at six weeks and six days (i.e. the day before I had my first thought that I was no longer pregnant), I felt the full gamut of emotions.

Anger.

Sadness.

Frustration.

I wanted to know where I had been when this baby’s heart stopped beating on Sunday, December 13th.

Was I in church? Had I been reciting the liturgy? Help, save, comfort, and defend us, gracious Lord?

Was I singing “We Need a Little Christmas” to my daughter as we drove home from church?

Was I napping?

Was I doing a prenatal yoga video, my hand resting over my abdomen in shavasana pose?

I was so furious.

***

“How are you doing, baby girl?” my husband asked me on the day after we found out. The house was quiet. Our daughter in bed. Christmas Eve still a day away.

I shrugged.

“What are you thinking?” he asked.

“Pshhh… You’re not going to like what I have to say.”

“Just say it.”

“What am I thinking? I’m thinking, what a waste of time. What a waste of effort. We had this all planned out so that I’d have the longest maternity leave possible, given the holidays and the academic year. And now, it’s just all gone. All that coping with irritability and the fatigue and the nausea…  All of that time… My birthday, Thanksgiving, our anniversary, and now Christmas… all of it spent emotionally invested in this thing that didn’t go anywhere. That’s what I’m thinking.”

But I held back.

I didn’t tell him that I was also thinking, Let’s just get this over with so I can move on. Let’s cut this thing out of me so I can replace this empty hole with something living. Something more worth my time. Let’s just get on with this so that I can stop being so damned depressed and start feeling happy again. 

Doug leaned back in his chair, a frown on his face.

“It wasn’t a waste of time, Sweets. Don’t think that.”

I shook my head.

“It wasn’t a waste. We made something special. Yeah, it didn’t last very long, but it was something we made together. And I think that’s nice.”

His words cut me. And what I bled was the truth that had been too painful for me to admit.

I had loved this baby.

Yes, this six-week-six-day-old baby, which medical textbooks call a “fetus.”

I loved it.

Me. The pro-choice woman who had also been comfortable using the word “fetus” instead of “baby.”

I loved this baby.

All of my anger and frustration had been window dressing for the simple fact that I was sad to lose someone that I had loved.

And here I was, denying it. Because denial was easier than facing the truth. That I had lost someone that I had loved. That I could feel so strongly about this baby that I would never meet.

I would be the only person on this planet that would ever know this baby the way that I did. And here I was, calling it a waste of timeA waste of effort.

I was so ashamed.

***

I said my good-bye to this baby on Christmas Eve after a long, desperately needed workout. Sweating, lying on the floor in the back room of our house, I rested my hand over my abdomen and cried.

I don’t want you to think that I didn’t love you because you couldn’t live up to my expectations. Just because your heart stopped beating… it doesn’t mean I didn’t love you. You didn’t have to be perfect. You didn’t even need to be fully formed. I still loved you. It doesn’t help me to imagine that you might be better off dead if you had some chromosomal abnormality–because I know I would have loved you no matter what your problems were. I would have taken you in whatever form you came. 

Because that’s love.

Irrational.

Wholehearted.

All-in.

***

This miscarriage has brought gratitude into full view again. When we’re deep in pain, we’re suddenly able to look back and identify all those moments when we should have been feeling gratitude–but we chose to feel a thousand other emotions.

Like it or not, I’m re-learning the humility of waiting. Waiting to heal. Waiting to pick myself back up. Waiting to try again.

But perhaps the waiting will be good for the part of me that foolishly believed that I could just remove death and replace it with life, just like that. A switcheroo before I would have time to deal with the pain of this loss. In a Facebook world brimming with good news and happy times, loss has become even harder to deal with. “Happiness” becomes the new default setting, and everyone seems to be experiencing it. And so it’s easier these days for loss to feel abnormal.

But the truth is, the abnormal is often the normal that we just don’t talk about in polite company.

Perhaps I need to learn that again. Perhaps I need to remember my own words.

Motherhood does take away. But it also replaces. Sometimes our hands are empty and sometimes they are full. And accepting this truth helps me find contentment and joy.

About one year ago, I wrote these words.

But it was just recently that I was reminded of their power.

 

Waiting to Miscarry

Here we have the fetus…measuring at 6 weeks… 6 weeks, 6 days actually.

No cardiac activity.

White outline, dark figure. Too dark.

Head, legs, arms.

Motionless, floating, silent.

You should be at 8 weeks, 1 day…Normally, we’d see some cardiac activity by now… And it’s measuring so small… I just really think this isn’t going to be a good outcome.

A warm tear. Another. Another.

Tissues. More tissues.

These things happen in about 16% of known cases.

Hand on my shoulder. Kiss on my forehead.

Take the time that you need, Sweets.

Pants, then shoes, then laces.

Make an appointment for next week.

Yes, Tuesday’s fine. Anytime. It’s fine. Thank you.

Only one exit out, so back through the waiting room.

Pregnant women, hands on their bellies, their fingers slowly scrolling on their phones.

Tears in the hallway.

Tears in the elevator.

Tears in the parking garage.

Tears in the car.

Hands on the steering wheel.

Tissues.

More tissues.

All the tissues.

Out of tissues.

***

Who do I need to tell? What do I say?

When did I lose it? What was I doing? Where was I?

When will the bleeding start? When will this be over?

I can’t do this again.

But when can we try again?

I knew things weren’t going to be the same this time… but this?

Why?

Why?

Why?

***

A blurry drive home.

My body, now a tomb.

My mother’s car in the driveway.

Her hug.

This is so hard.

My daughter’s hug. Her smile.

Mama sad?

We play.

We eat dinner.

We visit a park lit with Christmas lights.

This is her Christmas now.

We walk the path with everyone else.

Christmas music plays.

It’s the most. Wonderful. Time.  Of the year.

My daughter’s laugh. Her high-five to Minnie Mouse.

Her wide, bright eyes.

Life.

Joy. Delight.

The drive home.

Storytime.

Mama, Row, Row Boat.

Singing.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.

Night-night.

A fire in the fireplace.

More tissues.

Dr. Pepper and bourbon.

Heavier and heavier.

Heavier still.

The fire burns, my husband drifts off.

My hand on his head.

Warm.

No more tears.

Numb.

Waiting for pain.

Craving pain.

Pain would complete me.

I am divided.

Half-alive, half-dead.

Partly grieving for what I’ve lost.

Partly grateful for what I still have.

***

My body, a tomb, but there will be no resurrection.

There will be no miracles, not even if I believe.

White outline, dark figure. Too dark.

It’s dark, dark everywhere.

The winter solstice has just passed.

The darkness slowly leaves. The light slowly returns.

I wait for it.

The Things You Can’t Leave Behind

I’ve spent most of my life counting.

Adding.

Subtracting.

For most of my life, everything has been numbers. Everything has had a price.

When I started to work at 16 years old, I learned that even my time had a price: $7.14 per hour. Eight hours of cashiering, standing on my feet, and pushing Target credit cards on customers–that was worth $57.12.

Minus taxes.

Plus the ten percent discount on anything I bought there.

Minus the cost of uniforms.

Minus the cost of gas and car insurance.

Plus a hot dog if I got to work the food court—and if there were any left at the end of my shift.

***

When I started college at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, I was surrounded by new rules that I didn’t understand.

Why didn’t she finish her fries? Is she just going to throw them away?

Where did this “North Face” brand come from? Everyone here is wearing it.

Am I going to what? Rush? Rush what? What are you talking about?

At some point in my freshman year, I learned that thirty percent of my classmates were coming from families with an average income over $200,000. Over $200,000.

Oh.

I couldn’t even imagine it. $200,000. It was an astronomical figure. It was fourteen full-time Target cashiering jobs. Fourteen!

I was fairly certain that my parents may have managed to pull in about $75,000 together, at the height of both of their careers (but then downsizing and disability stepped in.)

Although I moved solidly into the upper middle class when I married my husband (yes, I’m one of those kind of women), I still don’t feel like I belong. For me, this new social class is a coat that I’ve been trying to zip up for the past ten years. I can’t ever get the zipper to the top to keep everything in place because it keeps getting stuck on past assumptions and expectations.

I feel this tension at odd moments—when I’m talking with another mother who is pushing to get her 2-year-old in the next class, because he can already count to twenty. Or when I overheard a group of college girls talking about when their flights leave for home. Or how about when I was sitting with other members of my church, and they were talking about just how many activities their kids have to do to get into college. Orchestra, soccer, show choir, it’s outrageous!

I find myself nodding politely in these situations, fake smile across my face, Oh yes, that’s a tough spot.

I feel like a liar.

I feel like an impostor.

I feel like at any moment, someone is going to figure out that I don’t belong here and call me out on it.

***

It wasn’t until I got married and we joined our bank accounts that I felt like I could really breathe. I had about $50,000 of student debt from my undergraduate degree (working while going to college didn’t make that much of a dent). Thankfully, my graduate degree came for “free.” All that was required of me was two years of my youth and my commitment to teach and grade stacks of essays for first-year composition courses.

Although my husband got a job as an electrical engineer as soon as he got out of college, I stumbled around academia and the world of on-line education for five years until I couldn’t stand making $18,000 per year anymore. During those five years, my time was segmented and measured unevenly. $11.00 per hour for the on-line tutoring job. $18.00 per hour for grading standardized tests on-line. $1200 for teaching a three credit hour course for ten weeks. Multiplied by three courses. Minus any benefits. Divided by the uncertainty of knowing if I had a job in another ten weeks. No one could decide how much I was worth and so *I* couldn’t decide how much I was worth.

From my first year of teaching at a university, 2006. Making maybe $17,000 per year for teaching a full-time course load.

From my first year of teaching at a university, 2006. Making maybe $17,000 per year for teaching a full-time course load.

When will we have full-time jobs? Well… we want to stay small. And your pay is similar to what others are being paid for the same work elsewhere, sooo…

Although everyone wanted a piece of me, no one wanted to take a big enough piece that they would have to insure me. And they certainly wouldn’t take a big enough piece of me that would require them to accept any criticism or–as I call it–“guff.”

Do your job, keep your opinions to yourself, and we’ll all get along fine.

As fortune would have it, when I finally decided that I had had enough of academia, the floodgates of international students opened and ESL teaching jobs became abundant where I lived. Full-time jobs for everyone!

Benefits? Yes! Full benefits! Can you start tomorrow? Do you have friends we can hire?

Ah, life.

***

It wasn’t easy for me to make the mental shift into the middle class.

I remember a few weeks after we got married in 2005, my husband and I were shopping for a Christmas gift for my parents. We decided to buy them new sheets and a new comforter set. We stood in Target and all I could do was look at the price tags: $69.99… $89.99… Oh, here’s one that’s only $49.99! I picked up the cheapest set of sheets and handed them to my husband.

He turned the package over in his hands and then gave it back to me.

“Sweets, we should get them nice sheets.”

I looked back at the price tags. Is he really okay with spending $69.99 on sheets? I reluctantly picked up the more expensive set.

He shook his head and picked up the $89.99 set.

I was dumbfounded. That set hadn’t even been a possibility in my mind.

“You don’t think that’s too much?” I asked.

“No. They’re your parents.”

I bit my lip.

“What about the comforter set?” I asked.

“Okay,” he turned to look at the options on the shelves. “Which one do you like?” he asked.

“We’re still getting a comforter?”

“Yeah, that’s what we came for, right?”

“I just didn’t know we were spending so much money.”

“It’s Christmas. It’s your parents. How much money did you think we’d be spending?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know… maybe $50?”

***

We had a lot of these conversations early in our marriage. Me, constantly dumbstruck that we had enough money to go out to eat several times on the weekend; constantly amazed that my husband never, ever looked at the prices of food when he bought them; constantly waiting for a bill to come in the mail that we couldn’t handle.

That moment never came.

Maybe I was so surprised by his somewhat cavalier attitude toward spending money because he also came from a working class family. He was the youngest of six kids. A Catholic family. His father was a carpenter, his mother a stay-at-home mom. Money was always tight—but somehow they made it work.

And that was how I remember my childhood. My father was a baker (and later a bakery specialist).

Dad in his element, 1990

My father in his element, circa 1990.

My mother was a cake decorator. Our family of six moved from rural Minnesota when I was four to a rough part of Dayton, Ohio. We adopted my youngest sister (my biological cousin—a long story) and became a family of seven.

In urban Dayton, I learned the difference between poverty and working class.

Poverty was the children at my school who descended hungrily on their hot school lunch trays,  ripping the plastic film that sealed them, scraping the sides of each compartment clean. Not one carton of chocolate milk went into the trash.

Poverty was a friend’s house that I visited when I was six—its carpet spotted with dog shit.

Poverty was that friend’s refrigerator, warm to the touch, holding ketchup and orange soda.

I was not in poverty.

***

When I was seven, we moved away from the urban Dayton to a working class suburb, Huber Heights, Ohio. There, we rented a three-bedroom ranch house for the seven of us. My parents got a room. My two brothers got a room. My sisters and I got a room. It was 1,080 square feet of close quarters. We furnished it with a living room set from Rent-A-Center and my parents even splurged on a Nintendo (five years after its original release date).

But it was home.

Sadly, one of the best kid pictures we ever took. I was especially proud of my pink sweatsuit. (circa 1989)

Sadly, one of the best kid pictures we ever took. I was especially proud of my pink sweatsuit. (circa 1989)

***

For me, I still see the world through working class eyes. I feel deep compassion for issues like increasing the minimum wage, providing universal, affordable health care, and fighting food insecurity. I’ve seen the difference that an extra $100 can make. It means a week of groceries from Aldi. It means you can afford to stay home from work while you’re sick.

Seeing the world through upper-middle class eyes feels like an exercise in putting on someone else’s glasses. Everything is distorted. Prices seem too expensive. I underestimate how much my time is worth. But it’s more than money. I also do this with possibilities and opportunities. The world is not my oyster–at least this is my default mode. I have to jazz myself up with positive self-talk and assurances that things can change. My life can be different. I can reach the goals that I have set for myself. If I lose that rational, optimistic side of my brain, I become a prisoner to my own self-doubt.

***

Growing up as a child of a working class family shaped my core identity. It set limitations and boundaries on my dreams. (Maybe I could be one of those typists in a courtroom!)

It taught me that my chief value as a human being was determined by what I could do for others, especially when I could be used to help someone else make a profit. In those situations, I had the most value. I wasn’t explicitly taught these lessons. Instead, I learned them by observing my father put up with a stressful job his whole life, rather than looking for another job somewhere else. I saw his fear of the uncertain–the fear of redefining himself. He was a bakery specialist. That was who he was, damn it. How could he be anything else?

***

I’m keenly aware of my own struggle to define and redefine myself.

Fat girl, thin girl. Poor girl, rich girl. Retail girl, academic girl. Single girl, married mother. All of these boundaries I’ve crossed and all of those that still remain ahead of me.

And yet…

…it’s not like crossing over, as if you leave those things behind.

I’m still overweight and poor, a retail worker and a single girl.

It may have been years since others have seen these facets of my identity, but they are still there, buried beneath the others layers of self that I’ve put on over the years.

I still have all of those identities. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to leave them behind because they are too much a part of who I am.

Who I am is… every version of myself that I have ever been.

These are the things I can’t leave behind.

***

This might be the biggest weight upon my shoulders as I consider parenthood–knowing that the life that I build around my daughter is creating its own set of assumptions, limitations, and boundaries. This life that we are creating for her is also creating things that she won’t be able to leave behind.

This cannot be avoided–it is a part of socialization.

But I feel that one of my greatest responsibilities (perhaps even greatest “calling”?) as a parent is to create opportunities for my daughter to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

Because this fosters compassion.

And compassion, I believe, is the only thing that has ever changed the world for the better.

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.

Talking about the hard stuff: Teacher as agent of social change

**Disclaimer: This post is quite off-topic compared to my usual posts about motherhood, but, hey, I happen to think a lot about other things, too.

Every now and then, some topic comes up in my advanced speaking and listening class that causes me to put on my social-justice-superhero cape and tackle an issue head-on. Sometimes, the topic is the death penalty. Sometimes, it’s death with dignity.

This term, it was rape.

First, some background: I teach English to international students in an intensive English program. In other words, I’m teaching adults who want to earn a college degree… but don’t have strong enough English skills to do so yet.

Our students primarily come from two countries, but, trust me, we have all kinds of students. The motivated. The goofballs. The hapless wanderers. The spoiled rich kids. The budding scholars. The “I-here-for-vacation-only-Teacher”s. The lost. The dreamers. The future politicians. The victims of their own self-doubt.

We have them all.

Some days, I leave my job feeling like nothing that I do makes a difference. Some days, I feel that my students don’t care about anything besides this grand illusion that they can just extract the essence of this “academic knowledge” from the university and then infuse themselves with all of it, like a patient hooked up to an IV. (And, hey, there are days when I totally wish that I could simply transfuse all of them with a healthy dose of phonics).

It’s hard for my students to understand that all knowledge is culturally situated. No knowledge is pure of the context and culture in which it is taught, so they can’t simply absorb academic knowledge at an American university without absorbing pieces of American culture along with it.

Hell, it was hard for me to understand this when I was their age (and I was struggling with these ideas in my native language). In my freshmen English class in college, I struggled particularly with an excerpt of Paolo Freire’s Pedadgogy of the Oppressed, for two main reasons:

1) I couldn’t understand the excerpt because–even though I had been an Honors English student in high school–my reading ability wasn’t developed enough to easily parse out academic English

2) I had no personal experience to understand Freire’s “banking concept” of education.

With the help of some in-class discussions, I finally understood Freire’s “banking concept” of education.

Yes! I get it!

But why did he write about this? Everyone knows that this is how people learn. You listen to your teacher, memorize, and repeat.

Well, maybe not in English, but for math and science, that makes perfect sense.

Oh… wait. Freire thought the banking concept was bullshit?

Oops.

And even though I eventually understood that Freire was decrying the widespread belief in the banking concept of education, I still couldn’t quite understand what he meant about critical pedagogy or transformative social justice. What did any of that mean? How did empowering citizens to transform society have anything to do with getting an education?

Wasn’t an education just learning how to do your future job? Wasn’t that why we were all studying in college? To become teachers and doctors and lawyers and business people? That was why were studying, wasn’t it?

Wasn’t it?

This is where I got stuck. And I think this is where my students get stuck, too.

***

As a teacher, now reflecting back on Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I not only understand Freire’s argument to move education into the realm of social justice, but I also understand how limiting the definition of “education” to “technical skills for a job” keeps a population from making societal change.

It keeps us believing in the American dream, that if we just work hard enough, all of our dreams will come true. Even worse, it keeps us believing that the poor, the uneducated, and the imprisoned are in those positions for the sole reason that they chose to be. That they have earned their lot in life solely because of their lack of enterprise and effort. In this extreme sense of individualism, no other factors are strong enough to influence a person’s life as much as his/her individual ability and effort.

I believe that teachers are especially situated in society to confront these myths.

***

At the same time, I am an agent of this very narrow view of education.

I deliver language lessons.

For the purpose of increasing my student’s English language proficiency.

For the purpose of them preparing for jobs.

My job description does not include any language about the necessity of teaching for social change. Although my particular university does boast about its Marianist values–one of which is social justice–my primary job is to deliver instruction that helps my students improve their English, and (hopefully!) develop their ability to be independent learners.

***

And yet, I found myself in a classroom of international students with a teachable moment ripe in the air. One student had just said that he thought boys and girls should be taught together until they are 10 years old.

Why? Because it would decrease the instances of rape.

I did a double-take. “Did you say rape?”

He nodded.

“So this is a problem in your country?”

He nodded.

I thought for a moment. “How does putting girls and boys together in the same class decrease the number of rapes?”

He shook his head for a moment, as if processing the idea. As if figuring out how to phrase something that was so obvious that it didn’t usually require words.

“It’s just, maybe it happens more when there are a lot of girls together in one room. When there are boys and girls together, I think the rape will be less.”

Oh boy.

This is the moment that language teachers dream of–that moment to engage. That moment when language takes it rightful place as a conveyor of ideas, not this monolithic body of knowledge that my students need to acquire before they can actually communicate.

This is the moment when my students move beyond the in my country, we do this, and in my opinion, it’s very important because...

This is the moment when I have a choice–to confront age-old, culturally embedded stereotypes about gender and violence–or to move on in the language lesson because of my fear of the emotions that the discussion would summon forth.

I chose to engage. Carefully. But to engage nonetheless.

“What causes rape?” I asked.

Silence.

“Anyone?”

Silence.

“Is rape going to happen if a lot of girls or women are gathered in one place and a man is teaching them?” I asked.

Slience, and then a quiet, “…maybe.”

“Okay. Here’s a question: Why do people rape?”

Silence.

“Why do you think people rape?” I repeated.

“…maybe because the woman is dress very… not nice. Maybe too sexy.”

I didn’t laugh or roll my eyes. I just shook my head. “Nope.”

Someone else spoke. “Maybe because she walk alone at night.”

“Nope,” I said.

“But I know a story, Teacher,” one student said. “One woman, she walk alone at night, and this happened to her. It terrible.”

“I agree. It is terrible. But it’s also not her fault.”

Silence.

“Listen, rape is not the woman’s fault.” (I used “woman” because for this group of students, the concept of a woman raping a man is totally impossible–but that’s another topic).

At this point, I could see the fierce agreement in the eyes of my female students.

“People rape because they want power or control over someone else. It’s not because a woman is too sexy. Rape isn’t about sex. It’s about power and control. And rape happens over and over and over again… Why?”

Silence.

“Because we don’t talk about it,” I said. “Because rape is so shameful that we’d rather go to our graves not talking about it then to invite that shame onto our families.”

At this point, the heaviness in the room was palpable.

“Isn’t that right?” I asked.

Around the room, heads nodded. Even those of my male students.

“Rape happens because of power and shame,” I stated emphatically. “And unless we start talking about it, it’s going to continue to happen. Can you imagine if this happened to your daughter? Your sister? Can you imagine how you would feel if you couldn’t do anything about it because you didn’t want people to know about the rape? Can you imagine this?”

And at this point I could see on their faces that they could imagine this horrible reality–because some of them had lived it.

One of my students softly said, “It’s happen in schools sometimes, but also it’s happen a lot in families. Like between cousins.”

Heads nodded.

***

Some days, I leave work feeling like nothing I can do makes a difference.

Some days, I leave work feeling like this is the only thing that I can do that makes a difference.

Initiation

Remember this clip from An Officer and a Gentleman?

(courtesy MovieClips.com)

Initiation seems to belong to the realm of men, with the exception of a few tough women that fight to be in their ranks. Go G.I. Jane.

But what if I told you that initiations like these happen to far fewer men than they do to women. Mothers in the room, please raise your hand. Look at all of those hands. Mothers everywhere can look at this video and pinpoint a moment in those early weeks of motherhood when they felt like Richard Gere in this clip.

In the first days and weeks of motherhood, you start to feel that everything defies logic. New motherhood forces you to

1) become a living paradox

2) experience counterintuitive physical and emotional reactions

3) occupy your world upside-down.

Cultural anthropologist, Robbie Davis-Floyd (2003) refers to these types of experiences as a  specific technique in rituals, known as “strange-making.” Consider these brief examples—and if you’ve had a baby, mentally check off the ones that you experienced (probably all of them).

A Living Paradox

Motherhood is full of paradoxes that bend and break your previous expectations and prepare you for accepting everything that is coming down the line.

  • In pregnancy, you are single, but double.
  • In labor, you go to a hospital, but you’re not sick.
  • In recovery, you become a source of nourishment, while you are a convalescent.
  • In the postpartum period, you are not “you” anymore, and you don’t know who you are becoming.

Counterintuitive Reactions

Throughout that first year of motherhood, you find yourself occupying all sorts of strange mental, physical, and emotional spaces. In these new and strange situations, you find yourself stretching beyond your previous capacity and behaving in ways that you never expected.

  • You’re so tired that you’re awake again.

I haven’t slept in 26 hours, but I’ve got my second wind.

  • You’re in so much pain that you’re numb.

I missed a dose? I must have gotten used to it.

  • You’re so happy that you’re sad.

(while sobbing) This is so wonderful! I don’t want it to end!

  • You’re so thankful that you’re afraid.

This child is the greatest gift that I’ve ever received. What if something happens to him?

  • You’re so frustrated that you’re laughing.

(while laughing) Can this day possibly get any worse? No way in hell!

Your World Upside Down

Finally, you encounter situations in which the world seems to have been turned upside-down. Incredible new sites, sounds, and experiences become “the new normal” and help reshape what your life is becoming—and in fact, who you are becoming.

  • Before: You never really used your arms for anything, except maybe lugging groceries and bags.
  • After: Your arms are prime real estate—the site of constant cradling and rocking.

 

  • Before: You knew what time it was when you looked at the clock.
  • After: When you wake up, you wonder if “2:00” means 2:00 a.m. or 2:00 p.m.

 

  • Before: You and your partner spend your days working, having conversations, and making future plans.
  • After: You and your partner spend your days changing diapers, learning how to swaddle, and googling information about how to give a newborn a bath.

All of these types of “strange-making” shatter our previous mental categories into pieces. They create a new reality and new norms. And in the wake of all this time, both parents are able to throw their hands into the air and say, “Oh, what-the-hell-ever” or “I give up on things being perfect.” “Nothing makes sense anymore” or “Everything that I thought I knew is completely backward.”

And this—is a wonderful realization.

That’s just the point.

What-the-hell-ever, indeed.

Take a look at Richard Gere again—that is a broken man. That is a man who went into basic training expecting that he needed to “take it like a man,” but was only able to fully prove himself worthy by surrendering and telling the truth: “I got nowhere else to go.”

Reaching this point of surrender is so, so necessary for what comes next—the mapping of a new identity as mother onto your current identity of woman. And over and over again throughout pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period, you experience so many situations that crush all your previous reasoning and logic. And if you are a person that holds strongly to logic and order, this can be especially difficult to accept.

Because the first year of motherhood is full of experiences and emotions that defy all logic—and for good reason. They help you recreate new expectations and new standards for your life. It pulls you in all directions until you are doubled, tripled, and quadrupled. Like the physical stretching of pregnancy, the first year of motherhood stretches your mental and emotional capacity. But growth is hard. It is painful. And with each doubling of yourself, you are prone to self-doubt and a total re-examination of who you are. You may feel that you have totally lost control.

But over time, you begin to accept that, sometimes, what seems paradoxical is really just the tension between who you were and who you are becoming.

Angry, but in love.

Selfish, but sacrificial.

Desperate, but confident.

Afraid, but courageous.

And if you can find comfort in being a fluid self and allowing yourself to be swept away on the winds that have caught your sails, you can stop worrying so much about the irrationality of the whole process. You can stop agonizing about how beaten down you feel every day. Because you understand that all of these emotions can co-exist in the same mind. And so the impossible and illogical not only become possible, but true.

And if you’re on the verge of new motherhood, I guarantee you—you will reach this point of surrender, too. You may completely flip out—as I did (read more about this in my forthcoming book). Or you may have a less dramatic—but equally powerful—moment of clarity, when everything is boiled down into a single truth: as long as we’re all alive, nothing else matters.

Forget the way that you expected this whole experience of new motherhood to be. And embrace what it actually is. Dirty laundry, paper plates, a water bottle that needs to be refilled (again), hair ties, granola bars, and the smell of spit-up from just about everywhere. One unfinished day after another. Uncertainty about what tomorrow will be like. Hell, uncertainty about what the next hour will look like.

Hang tight, future mother. And when you hit your breaking point, remember that this is the tension between who you once were and who you are not quite yet.

 

References

Davis-Floyd, Robbie. (2003). Birth as an American Rite of Passage. (2nd ed.) Berkeley: University of California Press.

 

Giving Grief a Voice

Life has a way of returning to its origins. Even though we see life in a straight line, with an ending far, far from the beginning, it’s only an illusion. And believing in that illusion makes our loss even more devastating. Because grief bends our dreams of that straight path and guides us in a truer, but entirely different direction. And so it can feel that life is coming off the rails. It can feel like a deviation, even a punishment.

But if you pay attention, you see that life goes in a circle. We think when we’ve reached the end that it is so far away from where we began—until we realize that we have actually returned. You are born curled up. You die curled up. You are born with chaotic, meaningless sensations and you lose them again just before you die. We spend a lifetime loving and building relationships only to have them replaced with loss and grief. It is the honest brutality of balance. It doesn’t make us losers. It simply makes the circle complete.

And once this realization sinks in, you can see how the future can reach all the way around to touch your past, leaving you in awe of the present, now unfolding. You begin to understand a fraction of all the beauty that there is in the human experience.

But only if you acknowledge that love eventually comes around to grief. And if you can accept that, you can find the courage to love boldly. To lose boldly. And to pick up your grief and keep walking.

Because if your decision is to stop moving forward, it doesn’t mean that you stay in one place. Life will continue to drag you miserably forward. You just choose to live in denial of the changes that are already happening around you. Because Life is dynamic. You can try to slow its changes, but you can never, ever live in stasis.

~~~~~

The events of this past year of my life have made this circle all the more clear to me. It took an expected source to draw me closer to the certainty of grief.

It took the birth of my daughter.

A few weeks after my daughter’s birth, I knew that I had fallen in love with her—but it was quite different than when I fell in love with my husband. When I looked at my husband in those first months of dating, I saw life. He was young and strong. I saw my future life with him. The certainty of death was a distant event—something that would happen to us after a lifetime of stories.

But when I saw my daughter’s tiny body, curled up on me for warmth, I saw vulnerability. I imagined how devastating a respiratory virus could be for her in her tender state. When I saw her, I had to acknowledge the frailty of life.

And so becoming a mother drew me closer to the certainty of grief someday. And in this way, it prepared me for what happened just months later.

~~~~~

 This past June, my father passed away.

His brothers spread his ashes over their favorite fishing spot in Pebble Lake, Minnesota.

That lake is where the family cabin once stood. It was small. You couldn’t really call what it had “rooms” because the walls didn’t go to the ceiling. It had tall partitions dividing the cabin into a kitchen/living area and two tiny sleeping areas. No bathroom—but there was an outhouse. The kitchen had a large farm sink, like a trough, and an old-fashioned pump that you wailed away on to bring well water to the surface.

Obviously, there was no television.

But, God, we loved that place as kids. Our excitement built as our station wagon crawled over the winding road, sending gravel popping here and there. We snaked through the forest and down a steep hill until we were at the shore. When we got there, all five of us abandoned our parents to the task of unloading the car. Then, we threw on our bathing suits and trunks and raced to jump from the dock into the lake. When we swam, our legs brushed against seaweed and the occasional surprised fish.

SCN_0035

And we fished. A lot. Dad would take my brothers out on an aluminum row boat and teach them how to cast. When they returned with a bucket of fish, we would watch Mom clean the fish, chopping heads off their flopping bodies, scaling them, and then removing their organs—all done without hesitation. (Growing up on a farm sharpens the clarity of the food chain.) We squealed to see her peel the spine of a fish from its flesh in one straight line.

And that is where part of my father’s ashes rest. In that simple, quiet place where there was only family and nature.

 Dads_Ashes

~~~~

On the day after Easter, my father fell and broke his neck. Parkinson’s had gradually weakened his stability. And then there was the depression, aggravated by the loss of his lifelong career as a bakery specialist. So when it finally happened, the first emotion that I felt was relief. He was free from it all. Pain. Confusion. Depression.

And then I thought how terrible it was for me to feel relief first. What was wrong with me? Didn’t I love my father? If I truly loved him, shouldn’t my first reaction have been a piercing scream?

But it wasn’t.

My mother, on the other hand, was in shock. Numb. The way she said the words to me over the phone, the nurses called and let me know that Dad has passed away, delivered like it was an annoyance, The store’s out of mesquite turkey again.

Now that—that’s grief.

So I lowered my mental threshold of what I believed I was allowed to feel. I had only lost my father. I hadn’t lost a husband, a partner of 38 years. I wasn’t the one who was going to have to talk to the funeral home, the church, the newspaper, and all the relatives. I was just his child. Not even an only child—just one of five. And not even the firstborn—I was the middle child.

So I found my ranking in the hierarchy of grief and tried to express it appropriately.

This only worked for a few days.

As we drove from Ohio to Minnesota for the funeral, I started to write my father’s eulogy.

And I cracked.

I utterly cracked.

My husband was driving while I sat in the backseat next to our napping 10-month-old daughter. I was typing on my laptop, writing about what kind of man my dad was. I was fine. I was delivering facts, sharing stories. But then, I started writing to my dad. I started talking to him. I called him by name, Dad

And I knew I’d never again hear him answer when I called his name.

But I wished. I threw out my pleas to God to send my voice across the planes between us. I needed my father to hear me one last time. My grief was real. Even if my mother’s grief was profound, it did not negate my own.

~~~~~

My grief isn’t made of an empty space in bed or life insurance policies or coffins too small. It has its own shape, its own texture. But it is still real. It tells its own story. It carves its own wounds, leaving behind scars that could serve as fingerprints.

My grief can tell you what I’ve been through, my own journey of loss. It can tell you what I’ve survived. And it can tell you who I am becoming now.

And so I gave my grief a voice. I let it speak. And this is what came out:

I know how confusing it is to watch the person you love deteriorate from unknown causes.

And when the causes become known, I know how confusion can turn into guilt for having blamed him for not trying harder.

And I know how that guilt can morph into hopelessness when the truth sets in. That there’s no way to stop him from sliding down into death.

I know how it feels to wave good-bye to your parents as they move away to be closer to family—knowing that “family” doesn’t mean you.

I know the pain of realizing that your father’s smile has disappeared. And the pain of seeing the light go out of his eyes.

I know the awkwardness of navigating new conversations, where a silent nod replaces an animated laugh. Where you joke and kid the way you used to, thinking that it will help.

I know how it feels to serve a verbal volley only to have it dropped, ignored, or refused. Time after time.

I know the futility of trying to revive the past, knowing that it has ended long ago. But doing it anyway because you’re not ready to accept the changes.

I know how it feels to shut the door and burst into tears because you can’t deny what’s happening anymore.

I know how it feels to lose someone piece by piece until you begin to question what it means to live.

I know how it feels to love someone so much that you can’t stand to see him alive anymore. Even though it means a lifetime of heartache and homesickness for you.

I know that you can love someone so much that you have to let go and start walking away.

And I know how heavy a box of ashes can feel—only to be sickened moments later by its lightness.

 

But words sometimes aren’t enough.

So here’s another way of expressing my grief.

 

 

It took a lot of tears to make this video. More tears than I thought I had left in me, even months after the funeral. Optimistic people tell you that it gets better with time. That getting back to your routine helps. The honest ones give you a more realistic prognosis—grief doesn’t ever go away. It lives on alongside every other emotion you feel and every moment you live. You just learn how to carry it so you can press on. Sometimes, it can recede so far into the background that you forget it’s there. But then, a photograph deceives your eyes, only to have your hands ache in the wake of the truth—you still can’t touch him.

But what people don’t tell you is that grief can’t die because its source is love. It couldn’t exist without having loved. And if you love, you will one day grieve.

And so grief has helped me to see all the way around love. It has helped me to see that grief and love are connected. It has shown me that grief is not punishment or a sign of life gone awry. It is the price of loving. And I know now that I would pay that price every time. Every single time.

I know that someday there will be a new grief that needs to find its voice. I will take on its weight. But I hope that by that time, I will have even more strength to carry it. I’ll need to learn new maneuvers to manage it, but I know that grief means that I have loved.

And really, what else is there?

I ask you, if you’re grieving, what would your grief say?

Give it a voice.

Let it speak.

It can be incoherent and messy. Contradictory or nonsensical. It can be trite. Spiteful. Angry or furious. The point is that you let it say what it needs to say, in whatever form it takes. The point is to acknowledge that it’s there, that it’s real, and that it’s valid. The point is that you acknowledge that the pain that you are experiencing can transform you. It can make you stronger. It can help winnow out the filler in life so you can focus on what truly matters. It can make you that person of grit and fortitude that inspires others to believe in the resilience of humanity.

And know that life comes around. There will be more love. Not the same love, but more love nonetheless.

Always more.

~~~~

A month ago, my husband and I went to an open house for a house that was on the market near our apartment. Since my mother was visiting for my daughter’s birthday, she came too. We loved the location. The house was next to a park and just a block away from what would be our daughter’s future elementary school. We weren’t sure that we really wanted to move this year, but we went to the open house anyway. Just to see it… We told ourselves.

I stepped into that house and I felt… at home. The interior needed a lot of updating, for sure, but there was just something familiar about that house. I felt like I had been there before, a real déjà vu setting in, almost to the point where I felt like I knew in which exact kitchen drawer I could find a rubber band.

I held my daughter on my hip as we walked through the dining room. In the glass china cabinet, there was a framed wedding invitation with a wedding picture. The couple looked to be in their 50s. A second marriage?

We came around to the rec room, where my mom was sitting. She had a huge smile on her face.

“This is a nice house,” she said.

We left, thinking about the price. It was at the upper end of our price range. And the number of modifications…. So we looked at other houses. Newer, more updated houses. In more expensive neighborhoods. With granite countertops and jetted bathtubs.

But both of us just kept thinking about that house.

“Do you like that house?” Doug asked.

“Well… yeah,” I admitted, “But I’m afraid that if I like it too much, someone else is going to snatch it up. So I’m trying not to care too much about it.”

 

Doug secured a realtor associated with a local credit union. I asked him how the first meeting had gone.

“Good…” he looked away.

“What’s wrong?”

He shook his head. “He looks a lot like your dad.”

“The realtor? Really?”

“Yeah. Like a lot like your dad. He even talks like him. It’s weird. Like… it might be hard for you to see him.”

 

A few days later, I met the realtor when he accompanied us to a private showing of the house.

He wasn’t kidding. The realtor looked just like my father in his prime. Same build, similar voice. Same way of talking to customers. Even his story about how he began his career in real estate was similar to how my father had entered the bakery business.

“Yeah, my partner—who passed away a few years back—he said that I should try real estate. He thought I’d be great at it. And he was right! Been doing this for 34 years and I’ve loved every minute of it. Now, you have to understand that I know all of these neighborhoods. We specialized in this area… All this area west of Far Hills, through Kettering, Oakwood, and then down through here. We’ve sold just about every house on this street at one time or another.”

I could almost hear my dad saying, “I’ve opened all of the Cubs Foods’ bakeries in the tri-state region. All the way over to Chilicothe and down through Louisville.”

Wow. Just wow.

 

Later that afternoon, Doug went back with the realtor to continue their investigation of the house. While he was there, the owner came home and introduced himself to my husband. He explained that he and his wife had bought the house in 1977 and raised their kids there. A year ago, his wife passed away.

He put his house on the market.

He met a new woman.

They got married.

And now? What were his plans?

He and his new wife were moving to Minnesota. They were building a cabin on a lake.

 

And what will be our moving day into that house?

My dad’s birthday.

 

Life comes around.

It always comes around.

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