motherhood

The Gift of Exhaustion

I work from home, which happens to also be the place I live and care for my 11-month-old baby. When I first had him, people told me that newborns slept for 18 hours a day. 18 hours! I can get so much done, I’d thought. They didn’t tell me that would only be true if I held him for the entire length of time.

So I strapped him into the Ergobaby and played rain noises on my phone, and we walked around the yard till he dozed off. Then I sat at my computer and wrote with him snuggled against me. We could have an ocean in our backyard by now, with all that rain.

The Jackcific.

We live in a society where things are automated. Where we develop systems to help us do things quickly and more efficiently. My husband works in IT and loves optimizing processes. When we got married, I expected companionship, teamwork, love, but I also got organization, systems, and a label maker. We developed a schedule for dishes and bills and storing seasonal clothing.

And so, I’ve learned to automate childcare. Is that not what child-proofing is? A guarantee that you don’t, in fact, have to be watching them every single second?

We have our outlets covered and the stairs gated and we generally do our best. Jackson explores the below-knee world. Coffee tables, rugs, the bases of chairs and lamps.

But still, he demands more attention now. A fact that he alerted me to by dropping my car keys into the toilet the day after we “baby-proofed” the whole house.

I wake up every morning with a to-do list, including my work assignments, the projects I’ve assigned myself, and a litany of laundry and housework. Taking care of the baby is assumed. It never goes on the list.

But there comes a point every single day where I am too tired to watch Jackson and. I can no longer switch between cleaning and watching Jackson. Or writing and watching Jackson. Or arguing on the phone with my health insurance company and watching Jackson.

There comes a point when all I can do is watch my baby, and it feels like failure.

I read a study that said every time we switch back and forth between two tasks, we’re burning glucose, which is of course why we crave cookies when we’re multi-tasking. We think we’re saving time, but it takes inordinate energy.

I step back from my desk, slump cross-legged on the floor and roll a ball to him. He lights up. We are playing a game!

I’ve never been good at taking a sabbath, but sometimes it takes me. As suddenly and forcefully as if I’ve been blindfolded and kidnapped in the middle of my day.

Some days I read him half a story, or as much as I can manage before he wriggles out of my lap. And some days I’m so tired I just lie on the floor and let him crawl over me, and this too, he thinks, is a special delight.

It’s the moment I give up. It’s the best moment of my day.

Top image: Bekah Russom via Unsplash 

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motherhood

Flyover state of mind

The morning before the eclipse, all I think about is not blinding my 5-month-old baby. I drape his carrier in a blue swaddle and hustle him into my friend’s house like a body builder carrying a teetering log. I’m terrified that the cloth will slip and he’ll take a wayward, devastating glance at the sun.

Inside Emily laughs at me. “I don’t think the blinding part starts for a while. Want to watch them while I make lunch?”

“Sure,” I say and scoop up her newly mobile 7-month-old Elizabeth who’s already scooting her way toward the kitchen. Jackson whines under the mobile where I’ve laid him, and I pick him up in my other arm. He vomits on my jeans and the play mat.

“Everything in my house smells like curdled milk,” I say, putting them both down and reaching for a towel.

“I don’t even notice it anymore.”

I sit Elizabeth up and hand her a pink plastic cup. She drops it and crawls toward Jackson, reaching a damp hand into his hair and grabbing on.

Gen-tle,” I say, uncurling her fingers one at a time as Jackson screams.

A crepe sizzles in the pan.

“He’s been constipated ever since he started solids a week ago. At least I think so. What’s their poop consistency supposed to be like at this age?”

“It shouldn’t be diarrhea, but I don’t think it should be as hard as an adult’s either.”

Jackson yawns and rubs his eyes, pinkening the delicate skin of his eyelids. He takes a slow, dizzy blink. I rub his back, put him down in a pack-n-play in Emily’s spare room, listen outside the door until, finally, his cries sputter to a stop.

We grab our cardboard, opaque-lensed glasses and head out onto the porch.

Dusk descends around us. Across the street a child perches in a fruit tree and stares into the hole he’s punched in a cereal box to watch the shadows of the eclipse. He glances backward at the sun before training his eyes again like a scientist down the barrel of a microscope. Emily’s dog Archie drops a slobbery rope chew toy at my feet, looks up expectantly.

The light turns rosy, like the light in Paris at twilight. Then red, like a storm is coming.

“12 years ago, I was in astronomy class in college, and I remember wondering where I’d be in 2017,” I say.

Back then I couldn’t conceive of such an outlandish date. At the time I’d struck a deal with the green-eyed singer-songwriter who sat beside me in lecture to meet up for the eclipse.

“You’re so urbane,” he said when he saw me walking across campus in a bright red pea coat. “I’m waiting for you to figure out how powerful you are.”

I laughed. “Are you scared I’m going to realize my potential one day and leave you all in the dust?”

“Terrified.” He was serious.

I’d pictured myself waking up in a New York loft each morning and walking to a light-flooded coffee shop with my laptop. I imagined myself straightening my blazer while an announcer at a bookstore listed my achievements. “And now, our keynote . . . “ he would say.

Emily adjusts Elizabeth’s floppy white hat, shielding her face from the sun. “Josh and I were already dating back then, so he wasn’t a surprise. The baby wasn’t really a surprise. But Nashville, I didn’t see that coming. I thought it was a flyover state.”

It’s largely the way I thought about new motherhood back then. A flyover state. A time I’d wade through while waiting to get back to the important stuff.

The neighborhood goes dim and still. The lawnmower puffs to a stop, the sounds of traffic fizzle. I can hear the children across the street shout and chatter. A ring of white light halos the sun, and we take off our glasses.

Emily’s serious face goes giddy. “This is actually incredible.” Elizabeth whimpers and squirms. “I know you’re tired, Baba,” she whispers, shifting the baby on her hip. “But something amazing is happening.”

Goosebumps crawl up my arm as I watch the white corona of the sun glow. A planet twinkles nearby.

I feel brazen and wild staring directly at the sun. I think about Jackson, snoozing in the guest bedroom with my phone making fuzzy white noise. I think about how he’ll be seven when the eclipse comes again, how I’ll be thirty-seven. Another age I can’t quite imagine.

My legs start to itch, and I swat a mosquito that’s come out to enjoy the cool, dim false night. The cicadas croak.

A sliver of blinding sun appears on the right side of the moon, and I have to will myself to look away. I glance back up for just a moment and then blink away the spots.

The neighborhood brightens.

“The light is different from before the eclipse. More hopeful, somehow,” says Emily.

Inside she puts Elizabeth down in the nursery and heats up the skillet again. We eat more crepes–strawberry Nutella this time.

“I was so looking forward to being fit again after I had the baby, but” she pauses, “these are good for the soul.”

I hear a whine from the direction of the guest room.

“I think that one’s yours,” she says.

Rested Jackson is happy, flirtatious. He beams at her, his jaw hinging fully open when he laughs.

“There’s that Jackson smile,” says Emily, and I feel myself swell with pride.

I hold him by the armpits and swing him up and down, and he chuckles and coos.

I pack him into his car seat, gather all of his lovies and spit-up rags and blankets. I think about how I’ve chosen to spend my brief time on earth tending to the basic needs of this human, pouring my life into his. Changing soggy diapers, anticipating his hunger and fatigue, matching tiny socks.

On my way out the door, I stop to smell his sweet, mild head. He sighs and grins at me and reaches for my chin, eyelashes ringing his stormy eyes.

“What have a I done to deserve such a spectacular baby?” I sing to him, clicking the car seat into place. He babbles and chirps and I run a hand along his silky fine hair. But when sit in the driver’s seat and close my eyes, I still see them: spots of light, afterimages of a different dream.

 

Top image: Bryan Minear via Unsplash

motherhood

Vessel: thoughts on motherhood and the body

People kept telling me I didn’t look pregnant. At 5 months, my sister-in-law studied the slack of my shirt over my flat tummy.

“Can I touch it?”

I hesitate. “Sure.”

There’s nothing there but the slight pouch from my slouchy posture, a relic of adolescent shame about my 6’0 stature.

Taylor and I attended his high school reunion at the five month mark of my pregnancy, and I wore skinny jeans, a floral print t-shirt, and a leather jacket.

“I thought you’d be showing by now,” said one friend, giving me a vertical scan.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” I say, as if I hadn’t noticed until this very moment.

But at seven months my body bows with the pressure of a growing baby boy. My legs look tiny all of a sudden, but it’s only because they now live in the shadow of a mountain of belly, stretched out pale and taut like a drum.

I wear a sweatshirt every day that I can because I feel naked in t-shirts, the way they hug my tummy, offering a glimpse into the biological process of division and growth that feels primal and private.

Louise Erdrich writes about how she eats with her baby’s body in mind. Thinking of her tiny nascent fingernails, she eats Jello.

When I snack or cook meals, I mostly think about the moment I will step onto the cold, unforgiving metal scale at my doctor’s office.

After gaining almost no weight the first trimester, she commented that I’d gained an entire 5 pounds in one month.

“Weight gain is,” she pauses, reading the numbers, “reasonable.”

My world tilts and sways.

“And your blood pressure looks great,” she carries on, “still taking the vitamin D.”

But I’ve lost her completely.

“What do you mean ‘reasonable’?” I interrupt her.

She looks up from her computer. “We don’t usually like to see more than five pounds in one month, but you were underweight to begin with.”

I can’t hear her the rest of the appointment. I know she mentions something about childbirth classes and finding a pediatrician, but the details are lost to me. I’m a net through which all the minnows and goldfish can pass. I only catch the whale.

As a kid, a friend and I would always complain that we were fat, waiting on the reassurance of the other that we certainly were not. She was the fat one. No, I would say, am.

One night on the pull-out couch of my parents’ basement we rehearsed our roles again, spooling out the dialogue like a prayer rug bare at the knees.

This time she paused. “Some people say they’re fat just because they want people to tell them they’re skinny.”

I blinked in the darkness.

“Well,” I said, groping for an answer. “I just don’t like the word ‘skinny’. I mean, skinny. It sounds gross. Like you have too much skin or something. Like an elephant.”

I wasn’t as gifted at improvising as I was reciting a script.

But in truth, I loved the word. All the words. Slip, sliver, waif.  I loved them all. I wore them like a beauty queen’s sash resting on my neatly defined collar bones. Matchstick pants and cigarette jeans and pencil skirts.

“You’re only six months?” said my mother-in-law’s housekeeper when she saw me at a Christmas party. “You can’t hardly tell.”

The woman is as tall as me and probably outweighs me by 75 pounds. She’s carried and birthed ten children, and now presides over a small army of grand babies.

“Yeah, not yet,” I say, holding my sparkling cider. I run my fingers around its lip. “Probably soon.”

“I guess you’ll blossom all at once,” she says, smiling.

I try to start using words like this. Blossom, bloom, flower, bud.

But it’s hard to think of these words without also thinking of wilt, wither, droop, pucker, fall.

When panic grips me and I start googling celebrity mom beach bodies, I try to remember how scared I was to get married. Even in love, I wondered how much I would miss the attention of other men, gathered piecemeal in sidelong glances at the grocery store, in the lingering conversations I had with cops I worked with at the hospital.

But then I did get married. And it was like I’d been scraping dew from blades of grass my whole life because I never realized there was a river behind me.

I threw away my bucket and went to swim.

And maybe this baby will be like that too. Maybe when I put a face to the kicks and jabs, the pounds and inches, the small deprivations, I’ll be glad that he grew inside of me, stretched and molded me. Into someone more maternal and less self-involved. A bigger, better vessel for love.

grief, motherhood

Leo: snapshot of a small grief.

I was in the kitchen multi-tasking my way through an elaborate quiche recipe. I sizzled bacon, caramelized vegetables, leaned my body weight against the rolling pin as a crust began to take shape.

When I heard the doorbell, I felt a little thrill of anticipation. Maybe I was getting an early Christmas gift or a product sample for my job.

But when I opened the door, a blonde woman about my age tugged at the sleeves of her sweater and looked away.

“Hi,” I said, almost a question.

“Do you have a cat?” she said, managing to look me in the eye for a split second.

“Yeah.”

Her eyes drift down to my growing baby bump.

“I think it’s been hit by a car.”

My breath caught.

“Is–is it dead?”

“It was moving a second ago. I just had to get out of the street because this car–”

“It’s fine. Thank you for telling me,” I said and scrambled to grab my phone.

I pulled my sweater around my stomach and ran out into the yard, through the drainage ditch and into the street.

I looked in the direction she’d pointed, and there he was, 12 pounds of white fluff completely in repose.

Anyone who knows cats knows that they only sleep this way–sprawled out completely, belly exposed–when they’re safe and it’s upward of 90 degrees. Leo laid like this in the middle of the street on a November night.

He didn’t move when I ran up to him.

I stood over him and said his name. Nothing.

Kneeling in the street, I called Taylor. “Leo got hit by a car.”

“What?”

“Leo got hit by a car,” I yelled, my jaw tight and my teeth grinding through each syllable.

“Hold on, I’m almost home.”

I picked him up. Leo always had a long, slinky body that relaxed when you held him, but this time he was completely limp, like he would fall apart if I didn’t gather him together in my arms and hold on tight.

I carried him home and laid his body onto the cold concrete, leaning over to listen for a heartbeat. I smelled the same earthy, clean smell he always had, like laundry whipped dry by the wind. But I didn’t hear a thing.

I watched the headlights of Taylor’s car drive up fast. “I think he’s dead,” I said, breaking down into sobs.

Taylor leaned over his broken, velvet body and listened.

“He’s not dead,” he said, and snapped into action. “Go get a towel.”

I volunteered to drive because I couldn’t stand the thought of holding Leo all the way to the animal hospital. But his half-open eyes stared at me from out of the towel.

“Babe,” I said as gently as I could. “I think he’s gone.”

Taylor looked down at him and then back at the road.

When we approached the animal hospital, the receptionist took one look at the bundle Taylor was carrying and my tear-strewn face and picked up her phone, punching four assertive digits into the number pad.

“Triage at the front,” she said into the receiver.

Another woman walked up to us, “Is he breathing?”

“No. Hit by a car,” said Taylor.

She hesitated, but the other receptionist came from behind and took Leo’s swaddled body into her arms, running into the back. A man paying his bill at the counter kept his eyes on his paperwork.

A woman with frizzled blonde ringlets led us to a private room in the back with a leather couch and said she’d come back to update us as soon as she could.

I blew my nose and stared at a large print of a dog snatching a frisbee out of the clear blue sky.

Two minutes later the woman came back and said, “We’re doing CPR on Leo but I have to tell you I’m very concerned about his chances of recovery.”

And I think how many times I heard those lines when I worked as a chaplain in the ER, always pronounced by a doctor to someone who’s not me.

“‘I’m very concerned’ is really the best phrasing,” said one of the doctors at an ethics seminar I attended for the free sack lunch. “It communicates personal care far more than just, ‘I’m not sure,’ or ‘chances are low.'”

I wondered if vets go through the same training.

She left and I said to Taylor, “He’s gone. I thought he was gone.”

And he was.

Later, the vet techs brought out Leo’s body in a cardboard casket and we carried him to the car, its headlights still on and the keys sitting in the cup holder.

At home, Taylor snapped on a headlamp and gloves, and carried a shovel out into the backyard. I expected the ground to be dark and soft like potting soil, but the dirt was full of rocks and roots like thick ropey tendons. The hammer clanged with each heave.

I stood beside him in my puffy winter coat and cried. The trains at the nearby station screeched to a halt one after the other, their brakes a chorus of high-pitched moans.

“Goodbye, Leo,” I managed after we’d placed him in the ground, my voice breaking.

“Goodbye, buddy. We love you,” said Taylor as to scraped the scattered dirt into the grave.

I went inside and tried to pick up the reins of my three or four tasks in the kitchen, but I was slower then, dazed. I wandered from oven to stove to cutting board as if surrounded by alien machines.

I felt the baby kick, and I stopped to place a hand on my belly, listening.

When Taylor came inside his face was red and sweaty, and he dissolved in my arms. I’d never seen him sob before in the entirety of our marriage–it had always been me.

When he finished there was a wet patch the size of a fist on my sweater.

“Are you hungry?” I asked.

He sniffed. “Yeah.”

He left to shower, and I poured the cream, bacon, pear, and cheese into the pie pan. I noticed a rust-colored stain on the sleeve of my sweater as I set quiche on the metal rung of the oven.

I punched 3-5-0 into the face of the oven, pressed the start button, and I kept going.

Planting: A millennial's guide to motherhood.
motherhood

Planting: a millennial’s guide to motherhood.

I’m a millennial to my core. I fall in the correct age range. I took a year off after college to accumulate “experiences.” I completed a degree in theology which, as my grandmother keeps reminding me, will never come to any practical use or gainful employment. Like every 18-35 year old with their parents’ Netflix password, I binge-watched Stranger Things. (It was rad.)

Vocationally unmoored, prone to frequent brunches, convinced I have a unique creative talent of which the wider world should not be deprived, I’ve fit the criteria a little too closely until now.

But now, all of a sudden, my life is merged with a tiny dependent I’ve never met but am bound to in every way.

The first month I stopped taking my birth control, every day was an adventure. I bought a 25-pack of cheap pregnancy tests on Amazon prime and took one nearly every morning.

I came to expect it. The one dark red line, clear as a stop sign on the road. Not pregnant.

Then one day I took the test, went downstairs for breakfast, and forgot all about it as I perused Facebook and read the Skimm. When I came upstairs an hour later, I almost tossed it. But then I noticed a faint red smudge in the fluorescents of my bathroom.

I snapped a picture on my iPhone and uploaded it to my computer, fiddling with the contrast. It looked like a second line.

“I think I might be pregnant, lol,” I texted to my sister.

“What?”

“Look at this and see if it looks positive. Also, Flight of the Concords is coming to Nashville, I think we might get tickets.”

I went upstairs to take another one. This one came back with two solid, bold red lines. I sent it to Abby.

“That one’s not faint. Girl, you knocked up.”

Even as I read the words, I felt something in me clam up. It was funny until it was real.

Though we zinged text messages back and forth like it was our full-time job, I waited a month to tell my closest friends. Both around my age–late 20s–one was applying to medical school and the other was working as a server to save money to move to LA and pursue singing.

I watched their dreams play out over iMessage, feeling suburban and elderly in the wind tunnel of their adventures.

Pregnancy always seemed so beautiful in its pure idea form. On the horizon, a long, long way away.

“My adventures are over,” I told my husband as we sat in the waiting room, surrounded by women with taut, round bellies and their suited husbands, tapping away at smartphones.

“Kids are an adventure,” he says, but his voice sounds distant and uncertain, as he stares at the tiny plastic kitchen in the kid’s corner.

In my early 20s, I never bought furniture or art or anything that would hinder me the next time I wanted to move to Canada or live in an intentional community house for six months, or move home for free rent.

A classic millennial.

I spent so much of my 20s traipsing around the planet because I wanted to become an interesting person, someone who’d lived a whole life.

Jesus never mentions self-actualization. For him, we are transformed when we learn to care for others more wholeheartedly than ourselves, not when we sample wine on a heavily Instagrammed trip to California.

Maybe self-development as its own end can only work as a driving life philosophy for so long.

My parents never got to work in Glacier National Park or backpack around Europe, but still provided the solid home base that allowed me to venture far away. When I wrecked a rented scooter in Switzerland, they helped me pay the bill so I could come home. When I couldn’t find a job, they let me crash at their home and acted like they were happy to have me there.

So now I try to learn the art of tending things. I start growing my own herbs and (because I’m still a millennial) a collection of succulents. My mother-in-law has a printed rock in her backyard that reads, “As the garden grows, so does the gardener.” I try to trust that my own development doesn’t stop when I care for someone else–that maybe it blooms even more when I direct my attention outward.

This baby will need its own home to grow out of. It will need someone who has rooted down in one place, so that one day it can fly off toward its own adventures.

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