What is your happiest moment?

Before my first child was born, I assumed that the moment of her birth would be the pinnacle of all my life experiences.

To put it bluntly, this did not turn out to be so.

My daughter was born when I was 24 years old at the end of an easy pregnancy and fairly straightforward delivery. I’d spent most of the previous nine months narrowing down names and daydreaming about finally having a little person around whom I could love as much as I wanted. This was the kicker of motherhood for me—the idea that there would finally be someone in my life who needed all the love I had to give and would never (until adolescence, anyway, by which point I would have regained my cool) tell me I was too much or too intense. I couldn’t wait for the moment when I could love this baby on the outside as much as I’d loved it on the inside.

After thirteen hours of labor, I grit my teeth, bore down, and within a handful of pushes, she was out. She came out silent but began screaming just a few moments later. She looked exactly like an alien, and yet she was the most perfect creature I’d ever laid eyes on. I had only a moment to look at her before my doctor, concerned about my uterus’ delayed contraction, possible hemorrhaging, and the likelihood therefore of surgery, handed her off to a nurse to be brought to the nursery.

I was finally given the all-clear hours after her birth, and that was when I realized I hadn’t actually really seen her, except for that one fleeting moment. So I decided to take a walk. I gathered the back of my hospital gown with one hand and dragged my IV pole behind me with the other. As I shuffled down the hall toward the nursery, I recited what I remembered from my glimpse of her: Black hair. Mohawk. Red lips. Covered in gunk.

I reached the nursery and stood in front of the window, staring at the babies and waiting for that maternal feeling to wash over me. I stared through that window at the four or five little baby burritos, all fast asleep in their bassinets and what I felt, instead of elation or excitement or gratitude, or even subdued resignation, was horror. I had no idea which one was mine. They were all bathed—no gunk. They were all wearing hospital caps—no mohawk or black hair. They all had red lips. I stared and stared, desperately trying to intuit through the glass some precious me-ness, some essence that only my baby could have. Hadn’t I carried this girl around for nine months? Hadn’t I fed her from my own body? Hadn’t I nurtured and protected her with my own blood, my own heart? What kind of a mother was I, to not recognize my own flesh and blood, mere hours after she’d been inside of me?

I shuffled back to the room, shaken. My entire life, I had known one thing: I was going to be a mom. I had only just started, and already, I had failed. If I wasn’t good at being a mom…what was left?

In the following months (and years—I finally relented and accepted a prescription for antidepressants about two years later when my second child, a son, was six months old), I struggled mightily with that question. Had I somehow carried, nourished, and given birth to the wrong child? Maybe my child was out there somewhere, being raised by someone who was as terrified of her as I was of this fragile creature.

For terrified I was. It was ridiculous. She weighed seven measly little pounds, for crying out loud; she was the most breathtaking little baby; she didn’t even cry much (for an infant). And yet, I was scared to death of her. I held her when I was nursing and when she was inconsolable (which never helped, but it was all I could think of to do) and let others take over the rest of the time. I was sure that the more I held her, the more opportunities there’d be for me for me to screw up. It didn’t help that she was always staring up at me with her piercing, bright blue eyes, her mouth in a solemn straight line. She would keep her gaze on me for minutes at a time, and I just knew she was thinking things like, “I know what you should be doing right now, and if I could speak, I would tell you,” or “It’s only because I’m pre-ambulatory that I’m putting up with this nonsense.” (She was using the word penultimate in casual conversation by age three; it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if she was thinking the word pre-ambulatory as an infant.)

Friends commented on how generous I was with her; apparently, most new mothers are wary of passing their babies around. I welcomed it. I figured there wasn’t anything I could offer her that she couldn’t get in abundance with anyone else (including milk—nursing was going terribly for both of us).

I would look at her and see that she was beautiful, and see that she was vulnerable, and see that she resembled me, and I would dig and dig and dig, but I simply could not find that feeling, the one that I had, in my mind, already named mother. My fears led me to believe that we would never have a bond. How could we? We were like ships passing in the night.

And then something unexpected occurred at her one-month checkup. After all the measuring and weighing and warnings of dire consequence should I so much as use a Q-tip on her, the nurse came in to give our daughter her scheduled vaccinations. I laid her down and held her hands in mine as instructed. The nurse unwrapped the band aids and double-checked that she had the right syringe. My husband stood by, looking for some way to be of use. The nurse pinched my baby’s skinny little thigh in her gnarled fingers and pushed the needle in. Beneath my fingers, my daughter’s whole body spasmed, and her pitiful little face jumped as a shriek of pain, insult, and betrayal came ripping out.

I felt a fury rise up in me, the likes of which I had never known. My animal instincts, long-buried beneath modern niceties like civility and custom and humane behavior, told me that this nurse posed a threat and that the threat must be vanquished. It was only because I had been raised to behave as a human being and not, in fact, as a howling she-wolf, that I didn’t rip the needle out of the woman’s hand and throw her against the wall. How dare you? I wanted to scream. That is my child!

The moment passed before I had time to act on my crazed desires, and the baby, clearly much tougher than I was, stopped crying. As I gathered myself and walked out of the doctor’s office with my family, I poked and prodded that phrase cautiously: That is my child.

The thought had come unbidden, and I suddenly realized that it was true. For the first time since she’d been born, I had a moment of hope on which I could rest. I was not the mother I’d assumed I would be—and I did indeed mourn that fact—but when I found myself willing to injure a complete stranger for the sake of my daughter, my attitude changed from What have I done? to I may not have even the slightest clue what I’m doing, but at least my basest instincts are intact.

That baby is now seven years old, and my husband and I have gone on to have three more children. It still surprises me how little I as a mother resemble my childhood expectations of myself. I love my children fiercely—I would die for them, and I would kill for them, and I would sacrifice everything for them. I would even, God forbid, play Barbies with them or carry on nonsensical conversations that last for hours and feature an ever-evolving cast of characters (there is almost nothing I hate more than Barbies and nonsense), but these truths have never borne themselves out in the ways I always expected. I have needed help and enormous grace in order to succeed at something that I thought should come effortlessly. I have needed to let go of standards I thought were nonnegotiable. I have mourned my own inadequacies in tiny stolen moments throughout these many long, long days. But that moment in the doctor’s office is one I fall back to again and again. At that moment, I came face to face with the fact that, to my own great surprise, I am a mother and that yes, this child is mine.

 

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So Saith the Lord

Recently, a group of friends and I were discussing the times in our lives when God had revealed to us a piece of His character. (I know–my friends and I are a real laugh riot. I can tell you’re jealous.) It brought to mind a moment from almost seven years ago, when my oldest child was only a few weeks old.

If you’ve read much of this blog before, you know that I dealt with many many months of untreated post-partum depression, a holdover from the many many months of untreated normal depression. This beast appeared in all of its disgusting and insidious glory within hours of my daughter’s birth. (If you’re feeling a little too cheery on this beautiful day, you can read more about it here.)

Often an episode of depression will announce itself in the form of anxiety bordering on the unhinged, balanced ever so precariously with the belief that I can plan my way out of trouble…if only I ever figure out the right plan. Add the care and keeping of a tiny new appendage, and I was a real gem in those days.

Enter the book Secrets of the Baby Whisperer, by Tracy Hogg. I inhaled this book. Hogg affirmed all of my instincts and made motherhood seem so much simpler than I had made it in my mind. She was famous for getting babies to sleep through the night within a handful of nights, before six weeks. The book outlines her method:

Lay the baby down, drowsy but awake. When the baby cries, pick him up and calm him and then put him back down.

This is supposed to reassure the baby that he is not alone but also provide an opportunity for him to learn that he is capable of soothing himself. In the book, Hogg gives several examples of clients to whom she’d taught this method; they all have stories of picking up the baby 88 times the first night, 43 times the second night, six times the third night, and zero times the fourth night (and ever after). This seemed like magic to me. If I could get my daughter to sleep…everything else would work. I could be a good mom, if I could only get her to sleep.

So, my husband and I decided to try it out. She was somewhere around three or four weeks old, certainly in the right age range to start this training, according to Hogg. We picked a night and spent the day psyching ourselves up for what we knew would be a serious test of our fortitude. We were prepared not to sleep at all that night, placing all of our hope in Hogg’s experience: by the end of the week, we’d have a baby who slept through the night.

Knowing how intensely mercurial my emotions were at this time, and how susceptible I was to stress, we decided to pray before putting her down the first time. Did we pray for peace, for strength, for discernment? No, nothing that spiritual. We prayed that it would work, that she would sleep, and that no one would kill anyone else in the process. Then we put her down and stood back to watch what would happen.

She started screaming. My husband picked her up and started making cooing sounds. She stopped screaming. He put her back down.

She started screaming. I picked her up and started making cooing sounds. She stopped screaming. I put her back down.

I think I can spare you a detailed account of the next eight hours and just tell you: the plan didn’t work. She didn’t sleep, my husband didn’t sleep, I didn’t sleep. Nobody slept. This was worse than I’d feared. I’d stopped marking our progress after the 50th time we picked her up–and that had only taken an hour or so. My body was tired, my mind was tired, my baby was tired.

And yet.

There was one unbelievable moment of grace, sometime around three in the morning, when the mind ceases to work rationally and is open to things like that.

I was holding, for the thousandth time that night, a crying baby, bouncing up and down on sore legs, trying to keep her quiet so that my husband–sprawled on the other side of the room–could maybe at least sleep for one minute, when it hit me: I was not upset. I wasn’t angry, or crying, or feeling anxious, or feeling disappointed, or even feeling particularly tired. I felt good. I felt useful. I felt like I was doing exactly what I should be doing. I was helping my daughter learn how to do a hard thing. I was being a mom. In that moment, I thought about how many times that night I had already held her and how I would gladly have held her as many more times as she needed me to. I thought how remarkable it was that she had cried eight trillion times for the same exact reason, and I hadn’t gotten tired of her yet. I hadn’t given up on her. I hadn’t even gotten annoyed.

In that moment, in that tiny quiet private moment in the midst of the middle of the night, I heard God speak. He spoke into my fears, my insecurities, and my unshaking belief that I was incapable. He said, “This is how I love you.”

This is how I love you.

How many times had I cried out to God for the same reason, over and over again? Hundreds.

How many times had I thought that I couldn’t do what God was asking me to do? Thousands.

How many times had I been angry with God for making me do a hard thing? Millions.

How many times had God picked me up, and held me, and made soothing noises in my ear, and then, when I was ready, put me back down so that I could try again? Every. Single. Time.

To God, I am that red-faced, shrieking, helpless three-week old, and He is the parent, so full of perfect love that He will pick me up again and again and again, through the long sleepless night that is my life.

I am His child, and He is my parent. He will never not pick me up.

People, I don’t know how to say this clearly enough: what happened that night (and what didn’t happen: the hissy fits and self-pity) was not from me. In almost seven years of being a parent, and with four children for whom I have an obscene amount of love, there has not been even one single night in the middle of which I was glad to be awake. I hate being awake in the middle of the night. Middle-of-the-night feedings and soothings are to be trudged through, with as little anger as possible. That one night, that magical night of grace, was a miracle. God used a sleepless night to reach down and reveal something to a tired and scared and lonely new mom: His unending patience, and His unfathomable love.

+   +   +

After such a mountaintop experience, we decided to try co-sleeping the next night.

That worked much better.

 

 

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.