All morning I’ve been imagining The Onion-style headlines that would appeal to women who’ve faced the uncertainty of giving birth. You know, headlines so obvious and wry they’re hysterical to those of us who’ve been there: “Local Woman Can’t Predict When She’ll Go Into Labor” and “New Study Reveals Ina May Gaskin, Birth Guru who Claims Labor Can Be Beautiful and Orgasmic,?Full of Shit.”
Yesterday I was in for some routine testing at the hospital when the nurse got nervous. “Do you know you’re having contractions?” she asked. I did not; I was chilling in the chair with the contractions monitor on, drinking an Izze, excited to spend time?with B, who had taken the afternoon off. We’d just come from a meeting with our midwife, Gwen, and were planning to do some shopping as soon as I was finished. A trip to prenatal yoga, dinner out, an evening doula meeting (yup?we packed it all into one day), and home to bed. I’d been looking forward to it all week.
But then there was a doctor at my side telling me we should go upstairs to?check my cervix, make sure I wasn’t?effacing or dilating.
Going into labor? At 36 weeks? When I wasn’t feeling a thing? Of course, if I was honest with myself, I was having some Braxton Hicks, and yes, they might have felt a little stronger than before, but still?
No, I thought to myself. No, no, no, no no. And then: I’m not ready.?
And then: panic.
I am not good with uncertainty; I am not good with change. I always think, in times when I don’t know what’s going to happen next, of a line from a Mark Halliday poem that goes, “I am not?at all a?Hindu, I’ve never been a?Hindu/I want to keep things?” The thing about birth, though, is that you don’t get to keep anything, really; not necessarily your dignity, and certainly not your general belief that you’ll know what comes next. And not your schedule; you don’t get to keep that. To wit: the shopping trip, the dinner out, these plans were aborted as I sat in triage with a bag of IV fluids dripping into my arm, my eyes glued to the contractions monitor, trying to remember everything I know about giving birth, trying to stay calm, trying to not feel guilty for having been more than a little dehydrated (which, apparently, can cause contractions).
“I think they’re slowing down,” B said, and then there would be another one, and we’d both feel that same sense of panic.
The thing is, at 36 weeks, this baby is really almost quite to term. If I did go into labor, they probably wouldn’t stop it. The baby would (likely) be fine. I would (likely) be fine. But somehow, despite knowing about the vast uncertainty around when labor will start, I’ve been holding tightly onto my last four weeks: my last four weeks with my Triangle Family, before we become a square; my last two weeks at work and finishing up the writing deadlines I’ve made for myself; and most significantly, my last two weeks to process both the difficulties of what happened when I gave birth to L and the confusing feelings?of having wanted this all these years but now, faced with it, feeling afraid of the change.?Because a lot of old dark feelings have been welling up, a lot of anxiety and trauma and sadness and I’m just not quite ready, emotionally, to hop back in. I realize I may have to, but I’m not quite ready to.
“The contractions have spaced out since we put in the IV,” the nurse said after a while, and I felt a wash of relief. There they were, on the monitor, looking less like seven Golden Gate Bridges stacked end to end and more like some gentle, rolling midwestern hills. “The midwife says you can go home,” she continued, and we walked out of there shaken and fragile but not, at least, in labor.
At ten p.m., back at home, B pumped up?the birthing ball and I packed?a hospital bag. Just in case, I told myself. Just in case. It’s a good reminder to get our ducks in a row. The emotional stuff, I can’t predict when that will be resolved, but at the very least I can have my bags packed and my car seat installed and my birth plan written.
And I can remember that this is the great reality of childbirth and of everything that comes after: there’s no predicting. You just have to stay in the moment and take what comes.
I am not a Hindu; I like to keep things. But I also have to let them go.
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About a year ago, I blogged about reading Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and how it, well, changed my life. When my mom came to visit a few months later, she told me she could really see my “work with that Japanese woman,” and I wracked my brain for whom she might have been talking about (then had a hearty laugh?it sounded like Marie Kondo had been in my house with me, tidying up, an image I loved). I purged books and clothes and?a lot of papers, and while I still feel there’s way too much clutter in my house, I’m also pleased with my new sock-folding system and the way my closet looks and how pared down and tidy my bookshelves have become.
But there’s one room in this house that remains a veritable shit hole at almost all times: L’s bedroom. Until about a month ago, he was holding onto the broken, decapitated green dragon pi?ata he’d had for his sixth birthday (he’s seven in two short weeks). He has an entire cubby basket dedicated to paper airplanes that were folded at least three months ago. There is an unopened puzzle that I keep suggesting we regift. Artwork?drawings, clay figurines, broken colored pencils, and markers in every shape and size and color?spills off the “art table” and onto the floor. And the bin full of “stuffies” is overflowing. I think he has every kind of mammal in there, as well as a beloved alligator and some sea creatures. Once or twice a month, we wrangle and wrestle and bribe until the room gets clean enough to be vacuumed, and I find myself surreptitiously recycling drawings of lightsabers and Luke Skywalker and mythical animals, wondering whether I’m sending off the work of a future genius or just a cheerful, Star Wars?obsessed kid.
L’s art area after I reworked it last year. Almost Pinterest-worthy, no? This lasted about a week.
The whole thing?drives me insane. Sometimes, I ogle Pinterest like it’s porn. I see these tidy, fun, colorful kids’ bedrooms with bunk beds and neat filing systems and clothes all hanging in rows in the closet. Why, I think to myself, can the clothes never make their way into the dirty clothes bin in MY kid’s room? Why must?there be floods of tears when we consider recycling the pi?ata after eight long months (he’d named it, and everything)? And I should add that this is not a kid who gets new toys every week (though the grandparents do keep him in new stuff on, I’d say, a quarterly basis). The same blocks and Legos and animal figurines have been in the rotation since he was three; the marble game is still a hit; the markers get used until the end of their colorful little lives.
He just. Can’t. Part. With. Any. Of. It.
L’s art area today. MUCH more representative of what it usually looks like.
I try not to holler and yell and fight with L, but I would say that most of our arguments center around his inability to get rid of stuff. I worry because for me, my head can only be as clear as my space, and when I enter his room I start to sneeze (this may be psychosomatic) and it makes me tense. I love to see him happily drawing away, but I also worry that the capless markers will stain the rug. Most of all, I just want to simplify, and that doesn’t seem to be within my son’s psychic reach. Simplicity? No. He prefers chaos.
“It’s good to get rid of things,” I tell him. “Really.”
This conversation reminds me of one I’ve had with my parents, who live in a whole house that’s something like L’s room (not as messy, of course, but about as packed with stuff). My dad can’t get rid of anything. He must own 5,000 books, and they spill out of the bookshelves and into boxes and onto the floor. In the attic, my parents house the discarded things of their three children (I fully confess to contributing to this), along with hundreds of letters and items of clothing and artifacts (and an insane amount of luggage. Like, probably thirty suitcases and duffel bags, if I had to guess). I know it drives my mom insane, because she tells me. I know she desperately wants to pare down and simplify, because she tells me. And so when L gets into his mode?”Recycle all but five paper airplanes,” I say, and he replies, “I’ll recycle five, total”?I feel a bit like my mom, craving a simpler life and a simpler space, but not sure how to get it.
I guess this is what it’s like to be a wife?or a?parent: you have to accept difference in your family and the very basic reality that not everyone feels the same as you do. But I can’t help but wonder whether, for L, his penchant for holding onto stuff is a bit like the way he holds a grudge, or the way when someone has done him wrong it takes him at least twenty minutes to work through it. When L is upset, he just needs to be heard?sometimes for what feels like hours.
And maybe, I suppose, when I push and push for him to get rid of stuff, I’m just not really hearing him say this: this is my room, and this is how I want it to look. I am my own person. A messy, complicated, and hoarding kind of person, but nonetheless, myself.
I mentioned last week that I had an essay in a new book anthology called Show Me All Your Scars: True Stories of Living with Mental Illness (In Fact Books, 2016).?I felt like a million bucks when the essay was accepted. I’d responded to a call for submissions that a friend sent?with a lightning bolt of an idea, and then I wrote the essay with something of that same lightning-bolt intensity. There is nothing better than those moments, when you’re a writer, when the work kind of pours out of you and you can feel that it’s good, that it’s powerful, that it’s?flowing. To?have that recognized, with an acceptance letter from a reputable literary journal?there may be?nothing better. When?I learned that ultimately, only 20 essays were chosen from over 600 submissions, and mine was one (I think publishers like to tell writers stuff like that to stroke their very fragile egos, and it works!), I felt, again, just great: proud and honored and humbled and?grateful.
But when the book arrived last week, there was that title staring me in the face: True Stories of Living with Mental Illness?and a catchphrase that went something like: “In these pages, you’ll meet twenty people surviving mental illness”?and I was one of those twenty people.?It was enough to make a girl feel a little, well, vulnerable, especially when I excitedly emailed my mom and my mother in law and people close to me to tell them and then wondered if I’d freaked them out.
“What interesting company you keep!” my mom said. I understood her hesitation to be really excited for me; if L. published?an essay?about something deeply personal?I’m sure I would feel a similar sense of disquiet. So?I immediately felt this urge to qualify, e.g.: “the essay isn’t about MY mental illness, of course…”
But of course, it is.
The?mission of SMAYS?is to demystify mental illness, which is still, in this country, roundly feared and loathed. To talk about it. To admit to it. And so, while my essay in the book, it’s true, is much more about someone else’s mental illness?about a romantic friendship I had in my twenties with a guy who’s a diagnosed schizophrenic?it is also about my anxiety, and my belief that at the end of the day, even those who suffer from the deepest kinds of madness have something in common with those of us who suffer from more “acceptable” forms of it (depression and anxiety).
As I say in my essay, “We are all at least a little bit crazy.”
Last August, right before I left California to spend two weeks with my family in Maine, I got an email from an editor at Creative Nonfiction?(the literary journal that houses In Fact Books) saying that they liked the essay I’d written and were interested in publishing it, but that they?needed me to strengthen and revise one part before they decided for sure. So off I went to the East coast, to be with my close-knit and very boisterous family, all of whom were on vacation, while I also had a two-week deadline to revise this incredibly personal essay that I’d come to care very, very deeply about. And so, for those two weeks, I lived a double life. I was half-present with my family, drinking wine in the evenings, laughing, joking, going for paddle board rides in the ocean and attempting to relax, but inwardly, I was completely obsessed with?the essay. Every spare moment I had, I was holed up in my room, writing. Or at least, shifting commas around and looking for entryways into what felt like dark and difficult territory.
Then I’d emerge, smiling and happy and in my bathing suit, ready to go for a swim.
It was all a bit?jarring. What felt so difficult about it, I think, was that even then, in the writing stage, I felt some sense of shame for the work. I was writing about meeting?a man who was obviously troubled, at?a time in my life when I decided to take on some of his trouble, because I was troubled, too. I was in grad school at the time we met; I was learning that I suffered from anxiety; I had bestowed upon myself this weird eating disorder that involved not consuming an ounce of fat and running for an hour every day; and I was also learning how to be an adult (read: making choices I wasn’t sure my parents would approve of). I was learning that something that sounds just terrible, and terrifying, on paper?I am sleeping with a diagnosed schizophrenic who’s on welfare?can, in reality, be something safe, real, and very much?okay.
It had taken me fifteen years to get the opportunity to really reflect on?this strange and powerful friendship that I had kept from most of my family at the time, sure that they wouldn’t understand. And there I was on vacation with them, writing about it.
But I did it, and the revised essay was accepted.
And so, at the great risk of freaking out my mom, here is a short excerpt from my essay?”A Little Crazy.” Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll consider buying the book (details below). It’s full of powerful stories.
“My friend did not seem like the stereotype of schizophrenic that I knew from movies and television. He did not hear voices anymore, at least as far as I could tell, and he was never violent. He was obviously depressed, though?depressed in a way that suggested sadness from some place far beyond the present. Sometimes, he became slightly manic, and he frequently became confused. Often, when we talked, I wondered if we were having two separate conversations. He might, for instance, lapse into sullenness, into silence, as though he?d forgotten I was there; then, all of a sudden, he?d brightly ask a question only tenuously related to what we?d been talking about. Some days, his veneer seemed so thin he was almost translucent, like the smallest insult or hurt would break him.
“Many times I wondered if our friendship was worth it: the bad moods, the sudden decisions that our evening was over, the weird outbursts of criticism.
“But at other times, Will behaved like an endearing child, entirely genuine. Unlike most of the guys I knew, he did not resort to ironic retorts or mannered responses. He had the laugh of a ten-year-old, this sweet, bubbling peal. One day, he invited me over to play a rented video game. It was a Saturday, and I had planned to spend the day relaxing after a week run like boot camp: exercise, teach, fast, write. So I said yes. Will couldn?t handle any hint of violence, and the game was a lush but G-rated fantasy, something about a princess who needed to travel through a maze to reach her castle. We played it on his aging, thrift-store television for hours. I remember the day as though we spent it happily, goofily stoned, but we couldn?t have been: Will didn?t put any substances into his body besides chromium picolinate and copious amounts of vitamin C. But being with him sometimes felt like an altered state.
“And after we?d played the video game, we pushed aside the controls and had sex on his bed. We had this implicit understanding: that we would still have sex. Not always; months went by when we were, simply, platonic friends. But then we?d fall into bed together again. I welcomed this. I had no compunctions about it, no hang-ups. I didn?t care or know if he slept with other people. I didn?t possess jealousy or longing where he was concerned. For the first and the last time in my life, I didn?t equate a sexual relationship with love or the pursuit of partnership.
“Not that I didn?t love Will, in my way. We shared a rare kind of intimacy. We made gluten-free toast in his kitchen at 2:00 a.m., eating it, giggling, in our underpants. I saw him through a fractured, dissociated breakdown in my apartment after a thunderously loud Lucinda Williams show, the only time I saw him approach behavior I might call aggressive, though all he did was yell. We wrote an article together once. (He insisted I take the whole byline, though he had paced around my apartment feeding me lines like I were his secretary: ?No wait, write this, write this??) I watched him engage with the world as if he were doing everything for the first time: trying out a job, losing a job, finding a new apartment, beginning a new project. Because Will?s life had once shattered to pieces, he didn?t care what it would take to make it presentable, defendable, normal. For me, every venture felt like an obligation, a step on a ladder that led somewhere I was supposed to want to go. With my anxiety and my stupid eating disorder, I spent all my time climbing, and climbing, and climbing. What was at the top? I don?t think I knew.”
If you’re reading this, you might have noticed that things look a little different over here at susiemeserve.com. I’m delighted that my month-long project to overhaul my website is officially complete (though the experts tell me I will continue to tinker for weeks and months to come). I’m really happy with how things look and feel on this new-and-improved site.?I’d love for you to take a look around, see what’s new, and read some of my published work?(all neatly organized, now, on the “Writing” page).
Things to note:
My blog is now called More Than a Mother. As you’ll recall from my last post, “Writing Motherhood,” I’ve decided to embrace writing about my experiences parenting L (and, uh, more). You should still see these posts in your WordPress reader or in your inbox if you’re a follower. As ever, thanks for reading, sharing, “liking,” etc.
If you’d still like to get my posts the easy way, do nothing at all. If, however, you’re not yet a follower and you’d like to become one?or if you’d prefer to receive emails from me about new blog posts AND other happenings (I’ve just had an essay out in a new anthology; I’ll be doing a reading in Oslo, Norway, this summer), then please sign up using the form that pops up when you read or on the one that?appears in the sidebar on the Blog page (just to your right). I promise to keep email to a minimum! I know none of us has as much free time as we’d like.
I’ve got a new Facebook author page! If you like what’s going on here, please “Like” me over there as well.
Thanks, as ever, for all of your support.
Back next week with more news and tales of being More Than a Mother.