10 Months (and a few days) of Motherhood

I passed my books to the clerk at the library, who then handed them back to me, saying, “Your due date is August 22nd.” I wanted to tell him, “No, my due date is and always will be September 29.” The phrase due date is forever imprinted in my mind in relation to the birth of my child, the most monumental shift in my identity and existence. 

One of the books I chose today is called The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby. I’d noticed it before in bookstores and passed on it, my own "fifth trimester" come and gone, but seeing it now, at the library, I reached for it to take it home for free. While I’m usually leery of books that make such lofty promises, I figured there was nothing to lose by checking it out. With a cover checkered with check boxes of to-do list items, it seems relevant, painfully so. 

It pains me, too, that this is a women’s problem--managing life after baby, that is. There are fatherhood books, but most are hyperbolically comic, the joke being that dads are helpless when it comes to babies. (Of course, this is patently false.) But I feel helpless when it comes to babies! I’ve figured a lot of things out by necessity: how to pack a diaper bag, how many extra sets of clothes to pack in a diaper bag, how to make funny faces and sounds to entertain the baby during a pungent diaper change, how long to bake zucchini until it becomes soft enough to be consumed with only the stubs of two teeth, how to read the fine print on nursing pads, how to weigh the merits of various baby gear sites in order to purchase the least frustrating option in a given genre of baby paraphernalia, how to cut a band aid in half length-wise and adhere it to the baby mid-squirm. 

The mental load, the all-consuming nature of motherhood, the endless to-do list: no matter how it is configured, whether as sociological phenomenon, physiological or emotion reaction, or task-oriented approach, motherhood overwhelms all else, most of the time. And when it doesn’t, when I neglect to order guacamole in addition to our burritos simply because the baby likes it, I feel guilty. 

I do not forget her tears. An hour or so after she falls asleep at night, I turn to my phone to re-watch a video of her from earlier in the day. I agonize over whether to keep a band-aid on her finger while she sleeps. I worry that she is too cool, too hot, too sandy, too sticky. Do I read her too many feminist empowerment books, so many that she’ll wonder why I keep insisting that she can be whatever she wants to be and do whatever she wants to do? 

Last year, when I was pregnant, I promised myself that my writing would not become all about motherhood or babies, as though there were something inherently wrong with that. My impulse is to write about what I know, and how I see the world, and with a child now, all of that has changed. From uncovered outlets and sharp coffee table edges, to healthcare policy and the gender pay gap, I am concerned for her, and I see all of these obstacles with her in mind. 

So when I happened upon Sarah Menkedick’s new book, Homing Instincts, I felt relief and validation: writing about motherhood is, indeed, real writing. The tedious parts of motherhood don’t render the experience simple. There is complexity and nuance in the experience of raising and caring for a human being. And just as I hope we all respect mothers out in the world (those who are feeding their babies, or toting them on planes or buses, or merely trying to buy groceries) because we were all babies once, and we all needed our mothers, I would hope that we can all see the richness in delving into the complexity of becoming and being a mother. 

Menkedick's op-ed in the LA Times just prior to the book's release captures this tension: 

I am standing before a small audience in Columbus, Ohio, apologizing for what I’m going to read. “It’s about motherhood,” I say, then quickly qualify, “but you know, more than that! It’s about stories, and self, and the meaning of home.” I have been doing this for months, explaining the book I’ve written as something along the lines of “about motherhood but not really,” until finally, in front of this audience, the absurdity of my intellectual scrambling strikes me. What male writer feels the need to atone for essays about, say, war? I imagine him hurrying to clarify: “But really they’re about the human struggle, triumph over adversity, and the meaning of self.”

As I carry on as a mother to my precious little person, and as I read and write about this experience, I feel the tiniest bit more reassured, thanks to her, in the daily struggle and worry and delight that encompass what motherhood is to me. 

Nine Months Out

As of 8:38 this morning, Rebekah has been part of the world for nine months. This doesn't mean that she has been outside as long as she was inside; she was inside for 40 weeks, and it's only been 39 on the outside. (That final week of pregnancy felt interminable, and I will not let that week be forgotten!) 

I'm feeling a bit wistful as I recall my intense, even agitated anticipation of Rebekah’s arrival and the agony I endured to bring her into this world and into my arms.

At nine months old, Rebekah is a joyful, adventurous, social, and opinionated baby. She enjoys eating sweet potatoes, baked apples, halibut, broccoli, zucchini, and most of all (but perhaps not the best parenting decision), maple custard. She also takes pleasure in books, both reading and eating them. She scoots around our house, army-crawling her way to Schroeder’s crate, water bowl, and Duck & Potato Formula. But her story is hers to tell, and her privacy is important to me. Someday she can have her own blog, or whatever the informal medium of choice turns out to be in a decade or two. So that's all I will say about her for now. 

Because my precious time to write is limited (I’m working part-time at American University, tutoring days a week at Chain Bridge Speech & Language, and starting up my own writing center), and because we’re in the middle of a childcare transition, I can record only a few disconnected reflections at this nine-month mark. 

At times, caring for a baby—even my own!—is tedious and demanding. Nobody admits this, but it's the truth, at least for me and most moms I know. Everything a baby needs takes precedence over the first thing the caregiver needs, which, though taxing, is how it should be. So, when I'm caring for Rebekah with another adult, or when I get or a break from cleaning her tray—a task oh so irritating because the darn tray is just slightly too big to fit comfortably in the sink—or someone else changes her blowout diaper, or she doesn’t scream in the car, or I have a moment’s peace to take a shower at my own pace … at those times, some of the joy and tenderness of the early, sleepy days returns, and I realize, yes, this is what I wanted—this relationship with my own child—in spite of it all: disposing of the now-daily pungent pancake turds, the stocking and restocking of four different types of wipes (for diapers, pacifiers, pump parts, and her face after each meal); researching the best bibs with pockets and the least garish play pens; winding cords into plastic “babyproofed” containers; and scrubbing bottles and pump parts. Amid it all, I love her so much. 

On the subject of pumping, I have to say how wonderful it is to pump while driving: I know, it seems crazy, and I used to think people who did it had truly lost their minds, but now that I am routinely pumping in the car, I find it liberating to multitask so efficiently. I can adeptly turn my neck to look for cars in my blind spot while preventing the milk from spilling onto my lap. I can unscrew the parts while stopped at traffic lights. Most importantly, I do not have to ask random strangers for keys to lactation rooms.  

My body remains in milk production mode, which means that I cry reading articles about maternal mortality because it seems cruel and unnecessary to die while creating another human being and to leave that little person without you. And ll the news coverage about infant mortality, SIDS, car seats being installed incorrectly ... it means that when I leave her I worry that it's the last time I'll see her. I always kiss her on the top of her head and tell her I love her. 

It's not just baby-related news that evokes tears, but almost all the horrible news these days, from orphaned refugee children, to innocent people killed by the police, to all kinds of systemic injustice. Even reading the second chapter of Brave New World with a student was difficult (hint: don't read it if you have a baby!), so much so that I'm concluding that having a tiny, fragile, helpless being around makes me more sensitive to everything. 

When Rebekah accompanies me to the bathroom, or watches me shower—which she does if we are at home alone together because she will otherwise eat lint or hair gel—I sometimes point out my c-section scar and say, “You came out of there.” Because I want her to know that she’s part of me. 

And perhaps that’s part of my reluctance to stop breastfeeding: I long to maintain our intimate physical connection, for her to know that she needs me for sustenance, and literally, for life. 

At the same time that I know I will be thrilled when Rebekah starts to speak and use forks, I know that those milestones will mean that she wants fewer hugs and cuddles, and will need me less and less, or maybe just in a different way. I can't decide whether I want her to grow up faster or return to being a cuddly little burrito content to rest on my chest. This isn't ambivalence, because that's far too mild a word to capture the highs and lows, the triumphs and the despair, of early parenthood. 

Six Months of Motherhood

Six months in, and I still feel like an imposter when I say I'm a mother. "Mommy" feels slightly easier to get behind, as it's a term of endearment rather than an identity. "Mom" feels like it belongs to the voice of an older kid, not to the babbling of my little baby. "Mama" feels too earthy to me. "Mother" feels like an enormous responsibility, one that should require some kind of extensive exam, or at the very least, some kind of Saturday afternoon class that provides a certificate of attendance as proof of readiness for bearing and raising a child. 

Impracticalities--and the impossibility of preparing to embark on task so enormous as bringing a person into the world--aside, the word "motherhood" still feels foreign. I envisioned being a mother as the commencement of a new relationship between me and a tiny person. As it turns out, babies, even my very social baby, can engage in relationships in only the most limited of ways. 

I very much felt like my baby's mother when my obstetrician cut her out of me during an emergency c-section and hoisted her into the air and over the curtain that (ever so thankfully) blocked my view of my torso so that I could see her, dripping with blood and amniotic fluid, and coated in vernix, for the very first time. (I considered avoiding all mentions of bodily matter in this post, but decided in the end that the gory process of creating life must not be overlooked.) Since then, I most felt a connection to her when I was able to make her giggle for the very first time several weeks ago. Her staccato, cackle-like laugh signaled to me that inside this little helpless being is someone who will blossom into a real person, someone who will someday need me for more than mere survival. I wait in eager anticipation for her personality to emerge even more and for our emotional connection to blossom. As she learns who I am and we develop our rapport, and as I become not just the provider of sustenance for her, I imagine I will get to be her mother in an even fuller sense of the word. 

In our six months together, I have enjoyed cuddling with her and feeling the warmth and weight of her little body on my chest. I love to watch her try new foods and cackle with delight, and then seconds later, watch as her face sours in surprise as the flavor reaches her tongue. I am relieved and heartened when I can comfort her with milk from the source. I like to wear her in my baby carrier and feel her close to me. 

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I was aware that I would often be deprived of sleep and utterly exhausted; that has proven to be the case. (But let it be known that it's better to be tired than nauseated!) I was not, however, adequately prepared for the task of feeding the baby. Prior to her arrival, I focused on procuring the appropriate baby paraphernalia and readying myself for the birth. Plenty of people helped prepare me for the actual birth, but I had no idea how relentless the task of feeding a baby was. Six months in, I can conclude: There is no easy way to feed a baby.

Breastfeeding propaganda abounds, yet actual evidence doesn't support all the claims that its advocates state with authority. Breastfeeding is quite difficult, and certainly not intuitive for the mother or the baby. For a mother recovering from labor, surgery, or both (as was the case for me), and a newborn baby who can barely see and has only a tiny mouth with little strength to suck, it is a challenging process. It's a wonder to me that our species survived with breastfeeding as the sole mechanism for keeping infants alive for thousands of years. 

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It eventually worked for us, albeit with the assistance of six lactation consultants. For several months, I spent four or five hours a day feeding Rebekah. (I highly recommend The Good Wife and Madam Secretary as breastfeeding television; I can attest that the female protagonists of both are oddly empowering to watch while sitting half-dressed in pajamas all day.) Now that Rebekah can see well, and her mouth is larger, the process is much quicker. But it is not free! The milk, to be clear, is free. But pumping with a rented hospital-grade pump is not free. (To maintain a milk supply if you are not with your baby every 2.5 hours, you have to pump.) Insurance companies are, for the time being, required to provide a pump under the ACA. The pump I received from my insurance company is both inefficient and loud. Nursing tops and bras are not free, and unless you want to disrobe every 2.5 hours, these are essential. If you want to leave home, nursing apparel--shirts with flaps or buttons--is also a necessity. Other purchases include: milk storage bags, a bag for the pump, new parts for the pump (periodically), and a hands-free bra (if you want to be able to use your hands while pumping), among other things. I mention all these obstacles not to complain, but to make the point that breastfeeding is not free, easy, or natural. It has its advantages--not waiting when the baby is wailing hungrily, for example--but it is not without its challenges. 

Also, if you want to go out in public with the baby, you have to feed the baby in public. It sounds silly to say that, but women still face so much grief for feeding their babies. This level of discomfort from many people puts mothers in a tricky and unfair situation: either you stay at home and lose your mind, or you go out in public, feed your baby, and risk making other people feel awkward. At first I was very modest and would disappear into another room if I was at home or hide in a bathroom if I was at a restaurant. Now I feed her when I need to and am mostly able to not feel bashful. 

These are some of the bottles we tried.

These are some of the bottles we tried.

We endured about 2 months of her refusing a bottle. This meant that I could not be away from her for more than 2.5 hours at a time. We tried numerous bottles, sought advice from experts, and eventually, after many tears from all involved parties, she took a bottle. I learned that I was right: It was not a matter of willpower, or letting her get hungry enough, or not giving her the right bottle. She had some tongue and lip tie issues that made it difficult for her to drink. I now have the option of moving her entirely to bottles, but I'm hesitant to give up the one thing that I know will almost always calm her down. There is also less cleaning involved than if we were only feeding her with bottles, and at this point, less cleaning equals more sanity. 

While I read a lot of books about pregnancy and birth, and one or two about breastfeeding, I read none about sleep. I anticipated (likely, incorrectly) that each author would have a pet theory that might work for some people but wouldn't be worth reading an entire book about. I knew that I would not be able to withstand even one night of "cry-it-out," the sleeping method in which you leave your baby in a room to cry until it falls asleep. That description is probably unfair because I have not read much about it. Nevertheless, I know that I would not be able to listen to her scream without intervening. When her lower lip quivers, and tears well and then pour down her face from the corners of her eyes, I feel a startlingly strong impulse to swoop in and save her. 

The first two months or so were easier than the last several, in that she now requires nearly constant entertainment and is not as portable as she once was. She grabs whatever is in reach and has already dumped one Chipotle burrito bowl onto the floor; not to worry, Schroeder happily cleaned it up. I was able to do things during those first few months when she slept all the time. I could make dinner while wearing her, which I did precisely once. I could write a few emails with her in the carrier, which worked several times, for about 15 minutes each time. I am behind on many things I have been meaning to do for many months now, including what I feel most guilty about, which is properly thanking everyone who gave us gifts, for which we are very thankful! 

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Six months ago today this little one joined us and changed everything forever. My primary responsibility is now to her--her health, safety, education, security, and well-being. We remain physically, intimately connected. It is an immense privilege to be her mother, yet motherhood, so it seems, is not without the emotional torment that comes with attempting to be everything she deserves in a mother. 

RESIST

Of the many horrible things that have happened since last Friday, the one I know most about is the confirmation hearings of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education. 

For that reason, and because I feel so strongly that her confirmation would hurt millions of children, I made some phone calls this morning.

Specifically, I called the DC offices of all the Republican senators on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions. 

DeVos has “donated” approximately $250,000 to five members of the committee voting on her confirmation. 

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If that were not enough, it is abundantly clear that she lacks fundamental knowledge on crucial education debates and federal education law. I am appalled that they are even considering approving her confirmation given her clear incompetence. If she were qualified and I disagreed with her, I would be upset; however, she so wildly unqualified for the position that I felt I must do something. 

I hate calling people I don’t know. It makes my blood pressure rise. I clam up and forget what to say. It makes me so nervous. 

I did it anyway, and here is what happened: 

Committee Chair: Lamar Alexander (TN) 202.224.4944 – Busy signal. Will keep trying! (Chairman Alexander limited the questioning during the first confirmation hearing and did not allow a second hearing after DeVos’s ethics paperwork was released. If he thinks she is qualified and free of conflicts of interest, he should not be concerned about what will arise from a second hearing.)

Susan Collins (ME) 202.224.2523 – Left a message explaining that DeVos is unqualified and has too many conflicts of interest, so please vote no on her confirmation. 

Lisa Murkowski (AK) 202.224.6665 – Left the same message.

Johnny Isakson (GA) 202.224.3643 – Left the same message, with the added information that I grew up in Georgia.  

Orrin Hatch (UT) 202.224.5251 – Mailbox was full.

Richard Burr (NC) 202.224.3154 – Left the same message, though added that I attended college in NC and hoped the senator would listen to my concerns.

Michael Enzi (WY) 202.224.3424 – Someone answered the phone! I spoke to a staffer and registered my opposition. She didn’t even ask if I lived in Wyoming.  

Dr. Bill Cassidy (LA) 202.224.5824 – Another live person! I explained that I am an educator and asked the staffer to tell the senator I would like him to vote against DeVos. 

Pat Roberts (KS) 202.224.4774 – The office was experiencing a high volume of calls, so I left a message registering my opposition.

Tim Scott (SC) 202.224.6121 – I spoke to a staffer to voice my concerns. He asked if I lived in South Carolina. I explained that I did not, but that because I live in DC and do not have federal representation, I hoped the senator would be willing to hear my opinion.

Rand Paul (KY) 202.224.4343 – I spoke to another staffer and asked him to pass along the message that I would like the senator to vote against DeVos.

If you're not sure what to say, at The 65 (a reference to the 65 million who voted for Hillary) you can find scripts on this and other issues. Resist! 

 

Prudence Be Damned (#babysFirstMarch)

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Farewell, Obamas, farewell. 

I did not agree with President Obama’s policies to improve education ("Race to the Top”), but I still respected his efforts to do something. I agreed with him on many issues, though not on all. Nonetheless, I trusted that his decisions were sound, that they were based on facts, that he took into account other viewpoints, and that he considered all options. Above all, no matter how much I disagreed with him, I trusted his competence. I cannot say the same thing for anyone in the current administration. 

Politics aside, President Obama exemplified grace and strove for justice. He remained classy and polite, despite horrendous circumstances (i.g. welcoming the orange monster to The White House). Even when I wished he would slight the new administration, he didn’t. Somehow he found the strength to follow the traditional transition protocol and to welcome the new first family, despite the unusual circumstances. I know many people felt that he was doing the right thing to preserve our democracy, but I can’t say I agree. Part of me wishes he had lashed out at the grabber, even though doing so would be uncharacteristic. 

It’s up to us to protest in whatever way we can. I feel guilty when I read articles about how all millennials just post on social media but don’t take any action. I would call my representatives in congress, but unfortunately I don’t have one. Not one who can vote, at least. The approximately 600,000 residents of the District remain without federal representation. 

What is left to do? I can write, and I can sign online petitions, and I can march. Check, check, and check. 

The planning for the Women’s March on Washington has been controversial, as has the name itself. Its website is fairly lousy, and only today was the final map revealed. Plus there is the issue of men and their participation: 

It’s also interesting to see a relative lack of male enthusiasm interpreted as a problem that falls on women

Given all that, plus the crowds, the irritating bag restrictions, and the difficulty actually getting there, why march?  

  • To prove that we, the people, reject all things associated with the new administration, the most recent outrage (as of Friday) being the amoral and incompetent cabinet secretary nominees. (Not to mention the cowardly senators who will likely vote to approve their nominations.) 
  • To protest threats to dismantle the ACA, because everyone deserves to have affordable health care regardless of preexisting conditions. 
  • To show support for key provisions of the ACA, especially those that support families, mothers, and babies. 
  • To stand up for the humanity and the rights of immigrants, those with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, and women. 
  • To make it clear that we believe in the value of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. (Turns out that eliminating these agencies would fund the Pentagon for all of 11 hours.) 
  • To support the continued existence of journalism, the free press, and real news. 
  • To demonstrate against those who seek to control women's bodies because women's health shouldn't be a political issue. (Um, a gun requires more regulation than a uterus.) 
  • To reject the increasing influence of special interests and the 1%. 
  • To tell the rest of the world that we do not accept this reality. 
  • To express dissent and to always remember that this is not normal. 
  • Oh, and a million other reasons. 
Images by Shepard Fairey. 

Images by Shepard Fairey. 

We marched today. It was not the easiest way to spend the afternoon with a baby, and it might even be a little bit crazy to take a baby downtown for a crowded march, especially when one has to procure and pack all of baby's items in a clear plastic bag. But it was worth it.

Prudence be damned. 

We rode downtown on 2 buses without much trouble, only to see people walking every which way. (Given all the talk about entering the rally at Independence & 3rd Sts. with plastic bags of specific dimensions, I was surprised to see that there was a minimal police presence, no bags were being checked, and there were no barricades along the route.) We made our way from 9th & H Sts. down to Independence, which was blocked. We then walked over to 14th St. and were able to join the march there.

Hordes of people puttered along 14th St. by the Washington Monument and the African American History Museum chanting, among other things, "This is what democracy looks like," "If you want to build a fence / Build it around Mike Pence," "My body, my choice / Her body, her choice."

Some of my favorite signs pronounced: 

  • You can't comb over bigot 

  • NOT USUALLY A SIGN GUY BUT GEEZ

  • I've seen smarter cabinets at IKEA

  • I know signs. I make the best signs. They're terrific. Everyone agrees. 

  • I'm revolting because he's revolting (Dad's sign)

And this was my favorite: 

I toted Rebekah around in my carrier, and after a couple hours we ducked out of the march and over to his office so I could feed her. Plenty of men showed up to protest, as did a number of people with disabilities. I wish I'd had one of those amazing hats! 

I just hope this is not the end of the protest against all things terrible. It was heartening to see so many people turn out in DC with signs and chants. There was an energy to the crowd similar to what I experienced at the first Obama inauguration in 2009: the feeling that those crammed together on a cold day felt just as strongly that justice must prevail. The crowds both here and abroad were stunning. We are not alone. 

It would be easy to stop now, to get excited by the frenzy of the crowds, but to return home and do nothing. It would be easy to forget amid the chanting that real people's lives are going to get vastly more difficult in the coming days. It would be easy for us to participate this one day and not again. It would be easy to be distracted from the real damage he is inflicting by minor issues like the crowd size at the inauguration or Meryl Streep. I am not sure what to do other than stay informed, painful as that may be, and challenge the media when they excuse his behavior. But we must make our voices heard for the next four years.