Sweatpants

 

Picture it: a Friday afternoon in summertime. An old house on the tip of a peninsula in coastal Maine. A mother, a father, a sixteen-year-old boy with Down syndrome, and a terribly shy fifteen-year-old girl who could count on one hand the number of Jewish peers she’d ever had (none of whom she spoke to anymore). Suddenly, thirty or so big-city Jewish kids descend upon the scene with their backpacks, sleeping bags, tents (they were all going to camp out in our backyard), and — most importantly to naive, impressionable me — their cool. They were so cool. Every single one of them. Even the losers of the group were cool. I couldn’t believe all the cool I was suddenly witness to. These kids were from New York City!

I’ll be honest: I don’t remember much about them, other than the fact that they ruined our septic system by flushing paper towels down our toilets (instead of using the porta potties my parents had paid for), and that my parents were incredibly stressed out the entire weekend, trying to figure out who was actually in charge since it was hard to tell the adults from the teenagers, and the fact that after a fairly short amount of time, I was eating, laughing, joking along with them, to my own amazement. Who would have thought that this nobody from nowhere would have had anything to say to these Somebodies from Somewhere?

But I’m sure you’re wondering where the sweatpants come into play here. After all, that’s how this whole post started, right? Well, the truly lasting impression I have of this group is that of the young women. Probably half of the group was young women, between the ages of fourteen and sixteen (I’m guessing now), and they all looked like me. This was the first time I’d seen curves on a group of women outside of my family, and it was intoxicating. I was one of those early-blooming gals; that, plus the fact that I kept blooming long after everyone around me was done made me rather uncomfortable a lot of the time. When I was about eleven or twelve, I started to realize that I indeed looked different to myself but also to the men around me. I started to realize that sometimes this worked in my favor; sometimes it worked against me. I had no clue how to navigate this, so I studied all the women and girls I could find. I watched my sister, my mother, my aunts, and every girl at my school. My heart as a writer really came in handy here; I studied them as fully as if I were creating a whole cast of characters.

The problem was that, apart from the women in my family, I couldn’t find anyone who reflected me to myself. I went to a high school where the vast majority of girls were very athletic and petite; those who weren’t were largely overweight. I was so so so unathletic, and while I felt fat, I had the perspective to realize that I wasn’t literally overweight, I was just curvy. And those in my family, while gorgeous (to my way of thinking) were all…much older, and thus, entirely unhelpful.

These girls who had suddenly found themselves at my house were like beacons to me. They were hippy and busty and sexy and curvy and they knew it. They wore what seemed to be their summer uniform the entire weekend: sweatpants with the waist rolled down and fitted t-shirts. I don’t think I can overstate the impact they had on my sense of myself as a viable sort of future-woman. Watching them was like watching my self, only a self that had not yet been realized. The way they moved and laughed and spoke (and, yes, flirted) and inhabited their shapes spoke volumes, and it gave me what felt like permission to do the same.

The day they left, I donned their uniform, just for a few minutes, just to try it out, and it felt good. It may have been the first time I’d practiced dressing to enhance this new shape as opposed to dressing in spite of this new shape. I don’t think I dressed particularly modestly before, but I dressed the way the skinny girls around me dressed, which — not surprisingly — made me excruciatingly uncomfortable and self-conscious. In this new outfit, I felt self-conscious, but in a completely different way. I felt like the way I’d been made and the way I’d been shaped had been done on purpose. I hadn’t just been thrown together haphazardly, consequences be damned. I had been formed as a continuation of a line that goes back to ancient times. I saw myself in the mirror, and I looked like my mother and like my grandmother and, probably, like her mother and all the mothers before that. I turned my eyes toward my shape instead of away, and I saw that, as a matter of fact, I could use it, and I could love it.

Fifteen years have passed, and I like to think I’m much more mature about my body now. I married an exceedingly kind man who seems to dig me, and I’ve mostly come to terms with the fact that, in almost any group, I will be the hippy one. When that designation becomes too tiresome (as it sometimes does, especially in this world of skinny jeans and bikinis with summer fast approaching), I like to stage a little mini-protest. I pull on my sweatpants, roll down the waist, and put on a fitted t-shirt. It doesn’t look as cute as it did when I was fifteen, but it serves as a reminder that my body, though not the straight and narrow I wish for sometimes, is worthy of love and grace and acceptance.

And…maybe…a tiny bit of showing off.

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I’ll tell her when she’s older…

The other day, my five-year-old daughter asked me about when she was a baby. We’ve been nannying for friends and their infant daughter; as a consequence, my children (especially my oldest) have been questioning me about every aspect of their babyhoods: what they did in my tummy, what they ate, where they slept, their first words, when they cried, why they cried, and the most interesting to date–exactly how they made it out of my tummy. (They thought the answer to that one was pretty gross, not that I can blame them.)

I haven’t yet figured out exactly the right way to answer her questions. What I remember is despair, terror, and an overwhelming sense of being up against something I could not possibly manage. I was twenty-four years old when she was born (I turned twenty-five ten days later). I’d been married for fourteen months and had lived in Virginia for fourteen months (I grew up in Maine and married a Virginian). My husband and I were completely broke, and I know everyone says that, but I mean we were completely broke. (This was equally due to our station in life and the fact that we were both financially inept.) I worked as a part-time cashier at a Thrift Store owned by a addiction recovery center and homeless shelter; my husband worked insane hours in the call center at the GE plant in town, a job that made him absolutely miserable, and everything was hard. Anyone who’s ever been in a new marriage knows exactly what I’m talking about. Nothing about our situation was unique, except that it was our situation. I had wanted to be a mother for as long as I could remember (when I was three years old, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I responded with “the old lady who lived in a shoe and had a hundred kids”), so when I found out I was going to have a baby, I thought we all would live happily ever after. I’d spent my entire adolescence and early adulthood taking care of other people’s children, so I was sure I knew how to do all I would need to do. My husband and I–while we struggled mightily with all of the typical newlywed struggles–loved each other madly, so I assumed a baby would just add more love to the mix. And while I had struggled with depression and knew I was at risk for PPD (post-partum depression), I figured that getting everything I’d ever wanted would be a pretty good antidote.

Suffice it to say, I was wrong on every single level. She came nine days early, after a relatively easy thirteen hours in labor. We had the best nurse (Nurse Rose, if you’re reading this, we still think of you all the time!), a comfortable room, a fantastic doctor, and everything seemed like it was likely to go smoothly. When she came out, my first words were “I know I only think this because I’m her mother, but she is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!” (She was covered in slime and vernix, her skin was a mix of deep red and deep purple, and she had that alien, cone-headed appearance common with naturally-birthed babies.) The second thing I said was “Let’s do that again!”, to which my husband just laughed.

She was born before our hospital began their procedure of putting the baby on the mother’s chest immediately after birth, so the first thing that happened was that they took her to the scale, wiped her off, wrapped her in a blanket, and gave her to my husband, while the doctor finished with me.

As it happened, my uterus didn’t contract like it should have, and I was bleeding much more than they want a new mother to. I didn’t realize anything was wrong until the headiness of the first few minutes had worn off, and still no one had handed my baby to me. When I asked what was wrong, I was given that sweet pat on the hand that nurses must learn in nursing school and told not to worry. My husband asked what was wrong, and he was told that our doctor just had to work a bit harder than usual to slow the bleeding. What this turned into was about forty-five minutes of him kneading my abdomen (my already sore abdomen) with his fists and intermittently checking my insides. This continued hourly for the rest of my hospital stay. I found out hours later that the doctor was afraid I would need surgery, which is why they didn’t give me my baby right away. After my husband had held her for a while, they took her to the nursery to give her all of the shots that babies need. All told, I did not get a good look at my daughter for at least the first two hours of her life. I think about this constantly–to this day, she is not particularly snuggly, and she is preternaturally determined to do all things with as little help from me as possible–and I always wonder if, had those first two hours gone differently, would the next six months have been different, too?

(I don’t want any of this to read as a critique of the care we received at the hospital. Five years later, we still talk about how well we were treated by the doctors, nurses, and other staff. Their care was of the highest quality, and we are grateful for everything they did for us.)

When I was able to walk, I decided to go down to the hospital nursery and see my baby (I still hadn’t gotten to see her face.) My husband was fast asleep, so I slid out of bed, held the back of my hospital nightie closed with one hand, and dragged the IV down the hall behind me with the other. I got to the nursery and stood at the window, looking at all the babies. That night, there were only four or five, so I didn’t have too many to choose from. Those I could see were all wrapped up and lying in their bassinets, some awake and squirming, some fast asleep. They all were wearing their little hospital hats, so all I could see of any of them were their squishy little faces. I think that’s the first time that my sense of myself as a naturally good mother was shattered.

I went back to my husband and shook him awake, crying. “I’m a bad mom,” I sobbed. (Poor thing — he’d slept about two hours of the last forty-eight, and now I was crying incoherently on his shoulder.) “I went to the nursery to see her, and…I have no idea which one she is!

Thus began several months of my perception of who I was being torn down. I had trouble nursing; she had trouble latching (although I didn’t learn that that’s what the problem had been until about a year ago); I had trouble sleeping, even when she was sleeping soundly; I would jerk awake from my few deep sleeps, sure that she had suffocated or been misplaced or choked or any number of things; I was completely incapable of doing anything resembling laundry or dishes or cooking; I didn’t know any other mothers; I hated where we were living; I would beg my husband to take sick days so I didn’t have to be alone; my mother flew down to stay with us multiple times; my mother-in-law would come on other days so I wasn’t alone; my best friend visited us from Charlotte and told me she was scared for me; I could barely even look at my daughter without feeling the crushing weight of failure; I was positive she could sense my fear of her and would thus grow to have deep-seated trust issues that would prohibit her from ever having a healthy relationship. My sense of perspective was so wildly off-kilter, I could barely sense one day passing into the next. I counted on my husband to do everything except feed her, certain that the more time I spent with her, the more I would screw her up. The two of them would gaze at each other, and I would watch them thinking it would always be the two of them…and me. How does he just…love her like that? I would ask myself. Where is his fear?

By the time our son was about eighteen months old (a total of twenty-two months) I had begun to even out and gain some confidence. It took my husband, my family, multiple moms’ groups and the friends I made in them, prayer (from TONS of people), and pills to get me back on track. Now, five years later, I recognize that I am a good mom, despite all my glaring weaknesses. My children will inherit some quirks from me that will certainly make their lives more interesting, but they will also gain from the perspective I’ve found as someone who struggled so fiercely.

But…when my daughter asks me what she was like when she was a baby, what do I tell her now? I can tell her what other people noticed about her, that she was cute, that she was an easy baby, that she noticed everything and knew exactly how to keep an entire room of adults focused entirely on herself, but I’m afraid to tell her what she was like to me when she was a baby. She was the scariest seven pounds I’d ever laid on in my life.

Sometimes I leap ahead in my mind to when she is an adult and she has her first baby. I wonder if she’ll be fantastic at it right away, like I assumed I’d be, or if she will struggle, too. I think she’ll probably be fantastic, since she is at everything else. But if she does struggle like I did, I hope I’m blessed to be there beside her, praying with her, holding her in my arms, and telling her all about what a terrible time I had, too.