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A little less than a month ago, I had a baby, an 8 pound slip of a thing who, in some charmed moments, lies quietly looking out the window from his bassinet:
And I’m tired. In my head I’ve been writing about his magical-yet-crazy birth for weeks now, and about what it’s like to start fresh with a newborn at 43, with a seven-year-old, but hey, little known fact: when you have a new baby, even one who sleeps occasionally, you don’t have a lot of time for things like WRITING. Or showering. Or paying bills, or making dinner, or gardening, or any of the things you used to find gratifying and easy of a day. So the blog post goes unwritten, at least for now.
Which is why it’s so lovely to have a friend like Mike Dockins, who sent this gem yesterday. Mike and I have been writing postcard poems to each other for a couple of years now, but we took a long hiatus last year. Then bam, Mike started us up again with “Postcard with Pebbles & The Bogeyman,” which sums up a lot of my feelings about (re) new (ed) motherhood pretty perfectly: the chores undone, the chores undone, the chores undone?and the boys less little, less little, less little, until one day: gone.
POSTCARD WITH PEBBLES & THE BOGEYMAN
?for L and S
Susie, once again you?ve emerged from Ye Olde Creation Workshop to deliver unto us another squealer?someone to keep L company in the blue Berkeley dark, to help him stalk the Bogeyman, someone even with whom to conspire?against you, old friend?years hence, a list of undone chores dangling unreasonably from your unreasonable lip, the boys slouching over chipped Legos, dusty fire trucks, cobwebbed Darth Vaders?the toys of their childhoods sprawled like an ancient star map across the rug?& clutching god-knows-what intolerable species of techno-gadget, good grief, their eye-rolls locking the planet in a terrifying terrestrial wobble. Look at you: nightly rippling the Bay with the Aeolian wind of your Aeolian words, inviting little tsunamis to lap against the lifeless, lifeless pebbles, your autumn hammock no longer lying in a heap waiting for summer, but carrying you, Mama, all a-sway & lovely & wine-dark as you watch Orion?s belt whip the rooftop with barbaric yawps, all cocooned in that perfect & impossible womb, your boys little, less little, less little with each barbaric lash.
? Mike Dockins, 2016
If you want to read more of Mike’s fantastic work, check him out at the Tupelo Press 30/30 project, kind of a poet’s answer to NaNoWriMo, where he’ll be writing a poem a day all November.
“No one really loves me except you,” L tells me one recent night, because he’s mad at his dad for taking away his Pokemon cards at bedtime.
“Lots of people love you,” I tell him. “Especially Dad. You’re just angry with Dad right now.”
He wants me to tuck him in that night. He wants to tell me about the upsetting thing that happened at recess. He wants to hold my hand on the way to school the next morning, for me to head up to the second floor (dragging my 30-pounds-heavier body up the steps) to show me how the guinea pigs in his second-grade classroom have grown. Do I say yes? Of course I say yes. Because I know that I am the sun, and L is the earth. He always knows where I am in the world. I am his?life raft, his?default, the one who really counts.
Luckily, we can also be apart. L is secure without me. He does not, as I did at seven, dread leaving mom for?school or a play date or a sleepover. When he’s not mad about Pokemon, his dad is the coolest?person in the world, his other life raft. When they have “Guys’ Night”?a phrase I came up with to describe any night it’s just the two of them?he’s delighted, can’t wait for me to leave. Once, after B and I returned from being in Hawaii for five days, he asked us to go back. I guess I don’t make meatloaf like my mom does, or indulge quite like Grampa.
I hold onto this?I think they call it “secure attachment,” those psychologist types?gratefully. I feel like maybe it means we have done something right. I do not want L so attached to me he can’t be apart. Honestly, the idea terrifies me. But still I find myself surprised by how true and deep his love is for me, by how fully his understanding of the world revolves around mine, by how, when he comes home from a birthday party or a weekend away with his grandfather it is to me he beelines, his mouth full of words. “I had so much candy, Mom, you wouldn’t believe it,” he says, or: “We went to the zoo, Mom, and out for sushi, and watched a movie, and…” or simply an urgent “Mumma. Mumma. Mumma?” and I await what comes next.
I am his touchstone.
And here at 39 weeks pregnant with his little brother, it’s making me pensive. Early on in this pregnancy, I suffered from an intense depression. It surprised me, and it made me feel really, really ashamed. I had engineered this pregnancy using the best 21st-century technology; I had finally won at the infertility game. I was supposed to be so deeply grateful and humbled to be pregnant I should have been falling over myself. Instead, I felt like I wanted to die. I couldn’t stop crying. I’d walk all over town, sobbing, feeling like I wanted to vomit, my perpetually full bladder pressing into my yoga pants like a reminder of the crazy thing we’d done, the crazy mistake we’d made. Eventually, once the feelings abated, I realized that intense hormones were mostly to blame?but also, and this surprised me, grief: all those long, infertile years, it was just L. There was something so beautiful and redeeming about his constancy that I knew I would finally be giving up. I was terrified of betraying him, and of losing him as my one and only: the inside jokes and the tuck-ins and the way we just get each other.
Because, truth is, he is my touchstone, too, my measure of nearly everything.
That time in my pregnancy passed, thank God, and next week, or maybe tomorrow, or maybe in three days?who knows??our lives will all change forever. It makes me weep a little, to write that (but what doesn’t, these days?). I’ll have a new baby in my life, a new planet for my sun. Maybe this one will want his dad more. Maybe this one won’t get my jokes. With this one, I won’t be able to play the “who’s the cutest person in our family?” game (L: “you!” Me: “No, it’s you….”). Maybe this one won’t be a talker like L. Undoubtedly, he’ll be different. Undoubtedly, in some ways he’ll be the same.
But I won’t be, ever again. And L won’t be, either.?And I’m smiling when I write that, because in the end, you know, it feels just fine.
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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Just over seven years ago, my son L was born in Oslo, when B had a Fulbright and I got pregnant and we stayed awhile. It has felt, all these years, like something out of mythology, our 15 months in Norway, L’s birth, the four months postpartum until we came back to the States and lived with our parents on and off for over a year, finally “settling” here in northern California. Our lives are so very different now than they were then: Leo’s babyhood is gone, our friends are different, the climate is different, everything.
And yet, when we went to Norway a month ago, there was a way in which absolutely nothing had changed. There was our Norwegian dad-type, Petter Andreas, picking us up at the airport looking exactly the same, and our good friends whose cabin in Sweden we invaded for one beautiful week?despite their kids being now 12 and 10 and 8 and a three-year-old we’d never met, they were almost exactly the same, too. In two weeks we slipped into this state of noticing difference and appreciating sameness. And oh, the comforting, perfect sameness. B and I loved living in Norway, loved almost everything about it. When we left in 2009 I cried?like I hadn’t cried in years, a visceral, wrenching kind of crying; leaving there was the biggest of losses. So?being back felt like slipping into my?parents’ house again at Christmastime when I was?in college: the familiar smells, the dishes I knew were coming for dinner, the scent and feel of my?old bed.?And thank goodness, because a part of me had worried that it wouldn’t feel that way, that Norway would feel not so much familiar and the same but foreign, alien, other.
But no: it all felt very much like the home it was all those years ago, eerily familiar, and when we left this time, there were those wrenching tears again, those eviscerating, devastating tears. It is hard to love a place, and people, who live impractically far away.
Midnight sun in Norway, circa June 2009
I’ve changed so much in the seven years since we left Norway. When I look back on who I was in 2009, I see a woman who didn’t yet know what it was to parent, and to have finished a book, and to have learned how to be a working mom, and all those things that are so central, now, to my identity.?But in one fundamental and surprising way, I’m the same now as I was then.
Readers, I’m pregnant again.
Those of you who follow my stuff know that this is A Big Deal. I’ve published articles about my infertility over the years. Not being able to conceive has been a large part of my life, because we started trying to make L a sibling before he turned two and all these years, our second baby has loomed, an idea, in the background. We gave up, we started again, we decided to adopt, we decided not to adopt. And so imagine my surprise when one of those newfangled, new-age fertility treatments actually?worked and I found myself, in January, morning sick as hell, hormonal, and needing to pee every ten minutes?PREGNANT.
A pregnant me in the Frogner Park, next to the fetus statue
I am not a young pregnant person; I am right on the tail end of my waning fertility or even a little past. I have a seven year old. I have not changed my own child’s diaper in years. I have slept through the night for, oh, six years now.?And along the way of these past eight months of being pregnant I have felt more than a little fear and anxiety about starting over again, even as I’ve felt joy (and more than a little disbelief) that we’re starting over again. The pile of worries I’m contending with, it’s big.
And?that’s why the trip to Norway was so perfectly timed. My birth with Leo was long, complicated, and at-times harrowing, and I’ll be honest that giving birth again is at the top of my worries list at the moment. L’s birth, his origin story, if you will, has?been a part of the Mythology of Norway all of these years. Perhaps because we left so soon after he was born there’s a way that I’ve been dislocated from his birth, like something relegated to the far-back reaches of memory.
So when we were in Oslo a few weeks ago, we took the bus to the hospital and showed L where he was born, and I remembered riding that damn #20 bus up Kirkeveien for my appointments; at the end of the pregnancy, I was up there twice a week for ultrasounds and fetal heart monitoring because they were worried there was something wrong with the baby. We showed L the cemetery adjacent to the birthing rooms where, a sober midwife told us when we first met, the cycle of life was completed. I remembered B walking a hungry and traumatized two-day-old baby around that cemetery when my milk hadn’t yet come in, L so utterly tiny and helpless and beautiful in his little?hat with the stars on it.
And somehow being there made it all more real again, in ways that were hard and in ways that were good. I think every woman, if she’s honest, has some PTSD after giving birth, and standing in the lee of that hospital building looking out at the cemetery, I felt mine. But then there was my seven-year-old beside me, just himself, on his actual birthday no less, whining about how long the walk was going to be back to the #20 bus.
Just our lives, just us, how we’ve been all these years, only very soon, about to change completely.
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As I was ruminating on this post, I really appreciated Annie Reneau’s “Actually, it DOES Matter How You Give Birth,” which you can read here.?Thanks, Annie!
I'm working from the premise that motherhood is not just all diapers, tantrums, and setting limits. It's interesting. Okay, sometimes.