31 March, 2011

My Mother Used to Say

My mother often used to say, “the umbilical cord is never cut.” As a teenager, I never liked that remark, because I took it to mean I’d be tied to my mom forever and could never be free. When she said that, she often followed her remark with, “just you wait.” I’d cringe and then stomp, or sulk, away, and wish I had some serious space from my mother.
I know now what she meant was a mother doesn’t stop feeling her baby inside of her. I don’t mean the latter literally. I don’t actually still feel those first tiny bubbly movements like a minnow in my womb, a human glass of champagne kind of feeling, nor do I feel those foot pushes against my spine that made me uncomfortable for two straight months of my pregnancy, nor do I feel those sweet little hiccups, where I called to my husband to “come feel this” and we laughed together as we placed both our hands on the underside of my big belly where our daughter worked on strengthening her diaphragm.
What that phrase means to me is that when my child is gone from my sight, I still feel her connection to me, viscerally if not literally. And though the phrase refers to the umbilical cord, I imagine many moms of adopted children feel the same way about their own kids. I imagine many of us, when separated from our children, feel their absence, and feel loss and longing at the same time.
My time now is spent in full-time motherhood, and most days I love it. I love watching my daughter grow, learn, laugh, be excited about new things (especially when meeting a new friend or learning a new skill like jumping up with both feet). I feel grateful I have this opportunity to be here for her. Yet, I’m not gushy or over-sentimental about this short time of getting to be a full-time mom. Many days I can’t believe my main identity is now “picker upper of many small toys,” or “swing pusher,” or worst of all, “time-out monster.” I daydream all the time about doing other, more glamorous or lucrative, or, even, dangerous things.
And most days, all I really want is to shower by myself without worrying what she’s getting into while I’m in the bathroom – my daughter is not the type to go play quietly and neatly in a corner while I bathe, and I don’t believe those kind of children exist. But the other day when my husband happened to be home in the morning and I told him the night before (yes, I have to schedule a private shower) I really wanted to take a shower without having to worry about what was going on in the living room or, worse yet, put my daughter in there with me like I used to do only a few months ago because she’d scream the whole time I was in there even if her dad was watching her, and even though I took that shower with the water scalding hot, and soap dripping all over me without worrying it would get into my daughter’s eyes, even though I had enough space to shave my armpits, and I didn’t once have to stick my head out of the curtain to listen for screaming or crying or general mayhem, I missed her. I actually missed her sitting in the tub between my legs, the water running down her feathery hair. I missed her looking up at me with her wet eyelashes like starpoints all stuck together. I even missed her saying “mommy pick me up,” and then rocking with her as the tepid water ran over us both. That old cord is powerful and baffling.
Today is not one of those days of loving full time motherhood. My duaghter woke up too early, right as I sat down to write, and she has been whining much of the day. I couldn’t wait for her naptime just so I could write for a few minutes and then, maybe, run off to pick up toys in peace, or actually cook something toward a healthy meal for dinner. But in the same moment I am finally breathing and relaxing for the first time since seven this morning, I miss my daughter, I feel her absence. I understand what my mom meant all those years ago.
While I was pregnant, another wise woman, now a grandmother herself, said to me, “just enjoy being pregnant because it’s the only time you’ll know where your baby is and what she’s doing.” There's truth in that statement, too. Once we are mothers, there’s no going back: there is no freedom or space. There is a lot of longing and loss and worry. But there is also connection and love and nourishment from the inside out. What blessings those mysterious umbilical cords are.

23 March, 2011


I’m thinking today of a woman I saw yesterday, waddling in the grocery store with the gait only a “my due date is tomorrow” mother-to-be can have. This woman plans to birth at the same birth center I labored at for thirty-six of my fifty-four hours and with the same midwife. I wish her Godspeed. Literally, I wish her a modicum of speed and a lot of God, and the original meaning of the word: a successful and/or prosperous journey. I wish for her the natural birth experience she is hoping for by choosing a midwife over a hospital.
The challenge of writing about the karma most likely wound (wound, as in tied up, but also, wound, as in injury?) around my birth experience has brought my writing to a halt altogether, so I’ve decided to let that gigantic topic simmer for awhile longer in the back burner of my mind while I simply write instead about how crazy it is that I am not at all surprised to hear yet another woman I know giving birth ended up having her child by cesarean section. Two in the last week of just women I know, I’m sure there were hundreds more. I’m sad I’m not surprised and, yes, yes, those babies are both healthy, and one of them probably did need to get the heck out of his mama as quickly as possible, but, still, I so wonder about the necessity of that major surgery so often executed. The other woman I know labored for over forty hours, most of it naturally, and so, I empathize with the exhaustion and the simple wanting for the pain to be over. But, really, isn’t it sad how these days I’m more surprised to hear that a woman gave birth with no intervention, no drama, nothing but her own body rather than the opposite?
A friend in Germany posted a question on Facebook the other day asking why women aren’t more outraged about financial inequities in our world; you know, the old deal that women, still, in 2011, aren’t paid the same as men for equal work. I wanted to post back that I am outraged, but also very tired. But I was too tired to post something intelligent. Later, I thought about whether I might feel less tired if I had, indeed, birthed my baby the natural way. If I had felt that power, just for a moment, that “if I can do that I can do anything” feeling. To me, the over-occurrence of c-sections on women is yet another way, consciously or not, for women to remain not equal in our world. For women to not know, (and, yes, for men to hold at bay), their amazing power.
I’m sure mothers who had blissful, even orgasmic, births will argue their babies still cried all night long, or still, at two and a half years old like mine, are sucky sleepers who suck every ounce of energy away from them. But at least they have the memory of that feeling of power, which could lead them to do fantastic things. Me, I have to conjure that power not from memory, but from serious meditation and conscious effort to connect with a strength, which has to do, for me, with God’s power – a universal, innate internal force. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as Dylan Thomas said. The force that through the mother births the baby, I say. In other words, Godspeed.
Of course, to conjure that feeling through meditation is spotty at best when my child won’t go to sleep until eleven at night and then wakes at two a.m., and five a.m., and, so on and so on. To not fall asleep while meditating is a challenge, much less find the quiet and space. But I know meditation like that is what I have to do to feel my power, or better yet, God’s power and will inside of me, moving through me, I do make the effort. And perhaps many women who did give birth through their natural places also have to use meditation to get back to that memory of power, which then allows for them to activate for equality, fairness, kindness. Still, for the sake of using memory – especially in the face of exhaustion and energetic children – to more quickly remember one’s internal power, I wish for the woman I know due today with her first child, and all those I don’t know, much Godspeed.

15 March, 2011


When I was pregnant with my daughter, I read a lot of books. Probably too many books, which filled my head with the ideal scenarios and situations and images of the ideal newborn experience from which, of course, our reality was a far, far cry. But before the baby was born, I made plans. And when you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.
I was completely onboard with breastfeeding my child from the get-go and planned to nurse her for at least two years. I would do the on-demand feedings for the first few weeks of her life, but my plan was, a short time after that, to nurse her only when she woke up or was awake and not to nurse her to sleep. The purpose of this plan was to not make her dependent on nursing to fall asleep and to let her learn at an early age to self-soothe. I learned this idea from a Baby Guru woman’s book whose name I can’t remember but whom a friend of mine, who had a wonderfully quick six-hour labor birth in a tub, told me about.
Well, I didn’t know several things. First, I didn’t know how much utter exhaustion takes away one’s determination to implement plans. And second, I won’t speak for all babies, but mine simply loves nursing herself to sleep. She wanted to fall asleep at the boob from the very start with a passion that equals men’s desire for sex. In fact, after all we went through to get her out of my body, when she should have been so exhausted and traumatized as to not care about feeding, or after which, at least, a lot of other babies would have been disoriented and would have needed to take several stabs at suckling before they got the hang of it, my newborn girl latched on to my colostrum-filled breast like she’d been nursing for years, her lips open wide over the entire areola and her nose just barely touching me while suckling happily until she fell asleep right next to the soft roundness of my bare skin.
I was so exhausted from the extra-long labor and c-section and, of course, I loved the feeling of her nuzzling into me like that, and since she was brand new, I didn’t even think about the fact that we slept together in the hospital bed, which is a rare enough experience since the nurses don’t like that sort of behavior because they’re worried a tired mama will smother her child. Then, maybe a half-hour later, when my baby daughter nursed for the second time in her life, she suckled rapidly and I felt my uterus contract and felt that gush of blood. The blood felt like an animal running out of my body, or really a litter of animals, weasel-like animals, running out of my body, and then everything after, the team of people to save my life, and my daughter snatched up from my breast while nestled there. She screamed from the utter disruption of her peace and contentment.
When I hemorrhaged, my newborn baby was completely interrupted from the one passion she already had going, and I think the experience affected her deep in her little psyche. With all the afterwards complications that happened, all she cared about was nursing. Every day, in the hospital, then out, she nursed like a champ. The only real trouble we had was that for a while, maybe a week, my milk came in too fast for her and she choked and spit, not able to handle the speed of the let down, but we tried a few different positions and learned how to manage. For the first week or two, I didn’t worry too much that she fell asleep at my breast many times; I said I’d implement my plan later.
However, what I didn’t know was that actually getting her to go to sleep without the boob took an act of congress. We tried everything to get her to sleep sans breast – walking, swaddling, putting her in the vibrating chair and then, my husband’s idea, to put the vibrating chair on top of the rickety clothes drier while it ran, which worked for a few tries. But in her little mind, I think she knew we were trying to fool her, trying to distract her from her passion. Before her birth, I said I’d never use pacifiers because I didn’t want my child sucking on plastic, but after nights and days of no sleep for anyone, I gave her a few pacifiers to try to help soothe her off to a restful slumber; she spit them out, far enough they’d hit the side of the crib, and then she’d look at me like “are you kidding me with this thing?” She was not accepting substitutes.
I remember sitting up with her one day when she was exhausted and needed sleep so bad she was in complete meltdown mode, crying and wriggling her little hands right out of the tightest of swaddles. I finally, at that moment, gave in about my plan, at which point I let her nurse herself to sleep, where she fell asleep with that blissed-out eye rolling look that little nursing babies get. I called my friend, a mother who did the whole “no going to sleep at the breast” thing with her first daughter, a child who later would sleep three hours for naptime and twelve hours straight at night. I complained, “My baby wants to fall asleep at the boob.” My friend, misinterpreting what I said, thinking I meant that my baby accidentally fell asleep at the boob and therefore wasn’t getting enough milk, said “Oh just strip her naked so she’s a little cold and will stay awake.” At which point I said, “No, you don’t understand, the only way she wants to fall asleep is at my boob.” “Oh,” my friend said, knowing I was screwed for the next several years.
So, needless to say, I never got less exhausted, only more so, and while I tried and tried to get my child on a schedule, and put her to bed in her crib night after night and nap time after nap time with a fuzzy toy and soothing songs and low-lighting and a white-noisemaker, she resisted for seventeen months. For seventeen months, I stood over her crib, patted her back, even left her for an entire week to “cry it out,” which really did not work for my child; she’d press her face against the crib, her lips mashed, her eyes devil-red, her scream desperate until I swear she foamed at the mouth, crying out nothing but crying herself into a frenzy. And even if, by some miracle, she did go to sleep on her own, she’d wake up twenty minutes later, or maybe an hour if I was lucky, and be wailing for the boob.
Seventeen months of all of this non-sleeping. What can I say? I gave in. I threw my plan in the toilet. I said I didn’t care if I turned into a human pacifier. I’d tortured her long enough. And the toil on both of us had worn me out. I could not stand the struggle one more day and I could not stand getting up several times a night for one more night. I told my husband, “sorry,” made him buy us a king-sized bed, and nursed her to sleep in our bed.
After that, she’d nurse to sleep every nap time and night time and never cry. I sold her crib. Her bedroom became a playroom. By sleeping with us, she rarely woke up, and if she did, usually during times of teething or if she’s got a cold, I’d just roll over and let her have a little boob and she was out again and I stayed horizontal and felt far more rested when I got up. Even if she had a cold and couldn’t nurse because her nostrils were too stuffed, if she had her face by my boob, her open mouth breathing on my nipple, she still fell asleep with little hassle or fuss.
When her two-year birthday came around, I thought for sure she’d be interested in weaning, and though we certainly nursed a lot less and for only a short time, she was still nursing. She’s now two years and four month and she sometimes simply falls asleep while I’m reading her a book, and for a while over the holidays when she was sick, she didn’t nurse for several days in a row. Recently, she’s gotten into this set-up of liking to fall asleep with “book and boob,” where she nurses while I read, which is sometimes awkward.
I worry sometimes that she’s never going to wean herself and some day I’ll just have to force her off the boob. But at the moment, I’m not interested in traumatizing her more. I’m interested only in healing her from that initial trauma of being ripped away from my breast by allowing her time and energy when she needs closeness to her mom. Really, her time at the boob, which for some reason in the last week, she’s taken to pronounce as “be-ub,” like she’s a French-o-phile or something, is quite small, a few minutes at best. And until she’s totally comfortable on her own, I’m here for her. I just hope she’s comfortable on her own before, say, her ____ (fill in the blank) birthday…

07 March, 2011


A wise friend of mine sent me a card after my baby was born in which she wrote, “time does fly, although the actual minutes are never ending.” The front of the card is one of those faux 1950’s pastel paintings of a June Cleaver-ish mother happily feeding her infant while her other child helps hold the bottle. The caption reads “The first 40 years of parenthood are always the hardest.” I keep that card hanging over my desk where theoretically, as I writer, I write, but in reality, as a mother of a toddler, I pile papers, books, and cards until the computer is buried.
I’m forty-two years old and my child is twenty-six months old. My concept of time has changed over these last two years, from a perspective where I had a handle on the concept to one where time has become a mystery. On one hand, I can’t believe my child is almost two and a half – what happened to my brand new baby who was two weeks late, her body so overcook her hands peeled with an eerie whiteness that summoned Michael Jackson’s sparkly glove? What happened to that gummy smile that is now a sharp eye-tooth popping grin? What was life even like before my daughter learned to walk, and how come I can’t remember one of those days from only a year ago?
On the other hand, I know when my daughter was a newborn I spent countless hours walking that wailing child around the kitchen, hoping the pattering rhythm of my bare feet would ease her seemingly inconsolable discomfort. I remember rocking in front of the woodstove for hundreds of minutes while I sang lullabies to her. And I remember the one night, where after walking forever with her wrapped tight against my body, I finally collapsed onto the couch and she finally fell asleep on my chest. Many, many nights were endless in ways that surely conjured another dimension.
And if I had a third hand, which lord knows mothers could use, there are still many days where time still confounds me. A rare two-hour naptime passes by in nanoseconds. A minute-long screaming fit from my child certainly lasts two hours. Or my husband comes home from a supposedly long day of work but the laundry to be folded has nary a dent, dishes mounted in the sink have only grown and toys strewn about the living room indicate that not one second has actually passed in a ten hour day for me to clean that stuff up.
Before becoming a mother, I arrived at my desk in the early morning most days of the week. I lit candles to invoke the creative muses, I burnt sage in my office, I wrote pages in my journal, and I worked on novels, memoirs, and poetry. I mused, contemplated, and meditated – for hours. I cringe now to remember how I used to complain I didn’t have enough time to write, since I was a writing teacher then, which included papers to grade and students to entertain. A lot of those mornings, after a full nights sleep, mind you, I’d fall asleep in my chair, sometimes with a finger still on the key board so that when I woke I found pages full of the letter zzzzzz or some strange language like skafha[‘sdf hadfuaaaaaaaad9’d, to indicate I’d been sleep-typing yet again. These days, I can’t even remember what a full night’s sleep – much less a morning with enough time to both write and get in an extra nap – would feel like, but I can suspect that kind of time and space would feel like bliss.
I’m convinced having time to oneself as a mother is the measure of how sane that mother is. I have a friend who lives part-time behind me. She has a daughter about four months older than mine and most weekends that mom is out in the backyard trimming hedges, painting the house, bringing us canteens of soup or plates of cookies, and, one time, making curtains for this, her second, home, because her child consistently sleeps twelve to thirteen hours a night, and naps, still at two and a half years old, two to three hours during the day. As mothers go, this neighbor-mom has a lot of time to herself.
My child has been low on “good sleeper” continuum most of her little life. She’s not the worst sleeper I’ve heard about, thank goodness, but she’s only slept twelve hours in a row at night three times in her life (yes, I’m counting), and most days her nap, which these days happens only about three or four days out of a week, is about an hour and a half at best. Our sleep story is the usual saga for those parents whose children aren’t naturally good sleepers. We tried all the elements: darkened room, feeding before bed, music, nursing, not nursing, earlier bed-time, later bed-time, crying it out, not crying it out. The sleep deprivation for me was unbearable and after seventeen months of getting up at least once every night to try to get my screaming child to go back to sleep, I told my husband, “we’re done” and made him buy a king size bed. We put my kid in that bed with us, and the first night she slept through for about ten hours without waking, even though most of the time she’d be kicking one of us in the back while laying her head on the other one’s chest.
My daughter sleeps eleven to twelve hours a day, total, including if she takes a nap. The point of all this number crunching is that I have much less time than my neighbor, at least three to four hours by my count, in a day, to get things done. At least since my kid now sleeps through the night, I can get writing time in if I sneak around without making a sound in the pre-dawn hours. I actually cherish my few hours in my little office more than I ever did while languishing pre-baby with hours to stare out the window.
So, it’s true: I do often kvetch about not having enough time to write or to do chores still piled up all over the house (the thought of making curtains for my home is laughable). But, in the end, when all the hours are counted, the reality is I’ve gotten to spend more waking, interactive time with my child. And some day, like in only a few years when she’s more interested in her friends or the Internet or whatever other distractions await her, I’ll know these endless minutes and extra hours with my daughter are an invaluable gift, one that cannot be quantified, because time really does fly.