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. 

The Shift

As it is for most things, it was for this, too: my thirtieth birthday anxiety greatly exceeded the perils of the day itself. The anticipatory anxiety was for naught. (Though, when does worry actually prevent the ominous from occurring? Alas, never.) Then again, I wasn't nervous so much about the actual day as about the internal and external shifts I believed should take place naturally. Would I make these shifts in the way that I felt I should? 

Would I start wearing sensible shoes? (Oh wait, I already do.) 

Would my face wrinkle overnight? (Not possible, thankfully.) 

Would my house look and feel like a home? (Start by lowering expectations.) 

Would I feel settled? (Will I ever?) 

The day came and went, and it was a sweet one. But nothing really changed. I felt no sudden mature urges to take out the trash, fold the laundry, plan meals, bathe the dog, or send birthday cards on time. I do feel some need to find meaning outside of making my own life comfortable. 

I used to find meaning in my daily work, and at the end of each day I knew that I had worked hard and helped others because I was mentally and emotionally exhausted. To do my job effectively, I forced my introverted self to pretend to be an extrovert. Now, I spend most days mostly alone, reading articles, writing papers, and getting frustrated with statistics, and I know I’m not contributing in the same way I used to.

Perhaps, some day, will, children make my life feel more full of meaning? I have always thought I would have kids, but just to be certain I really did want them—and was not just doing what I thought I should or what people would expect—I read Meghan Daum’s anthology, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. I poured over the book, captivated by the life stories of these writers and mesmerized by the certainty they felt about their decisions. Yet I was undeterred, and still want kids.

Perhaps there is a place for religion, or a community of people formed around a religion? It won’t be Christianity, because even though there are so many wonderful Christians I know, I’ve been repulsed too many times by those who call themselves followers of Christ. (In the current case of Syrian refugees, I just don’t understand how someone could truly understand what these people have endured and still think that Jesus would want them to reject refugees out of ignorance and fear.)

I mostly enjoy going to synagogue with Jacob, though I feel like an outsider. As if having red hair isn’t enough to set one apart, I don’t know which pages to flip to, I almost always forget to flip the pages the opposite way, and I know zero Hebrew. The community feels welcoming and sincere. Reading books like The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret helps me understand Judaism just the tiniest bit more. (I highly recommend listening to Terry Gross interview him; it is one of my favorite podcast episodes of this whole year.)

What else feels meaningful? Reading emotionally laden and psychologically rich novels like Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. Planning ahead to make a satisfying meal full of nutrients. Hanging out with friends' babies. Going out for a fun meal with family—and watching the family scarf down sardines!

I’m hoping I have decades left, but there’s no way to know, right?

Crazy Books, Continued

One of the wonderful (and possibly self-fulfilling or even egotistical) aspects of blogging about books is that some of their authors are alive, a smaller percentage of those authors are on social media, and an even smaller number of them actually respond when mentioned in a tweet. Well, lucky me, that happened! In my post earlier this week on books related to mental health, I mentioned two of Dr. Julie Holland's books. I included her twitter handle in my tweet about the post, and she favorited it. I have no idea if she read it, but I still feel like that is pretty nifty. 

So that makes me hesitant to mention some of the drawbacks to her earlier book. (What if she is actually reading this? Does that make her cool and in tune with her readers? Or overly concerned about public opinion? Or does that just make me seem paranoid?) Anyway, I feel like I need to qualify my earlier praise of Weekends at Bellevue. At some points, I was appalled by her hastiness and tough-guy attitude toward her patients. To be fair, she realizes that this attitude is problematic and off-putting to some, and she does work to change it. Nevertheless, it's concerning to see a physician relate patient stories in such a callous tone. Here's an example: 

After I spoke with the hand surgeon and got him to agree to come down, the patient changed his mind, and decided he didn’t want anyone to touch his hand. I got really pissed off then. I argued with him for a while and got nowhere, and then I called him a pussy ... “You’re just chickenshit to have the surgeons sew your hand.” I ridiculously believed I could double-dog dare him into having sutures. He was handcuffed to the chair.
— Holland, 65

It's admirable that she allows herself to be this vulnerable, on the one hand; though on the other, it's disarming and worrisome to see a doctor--a psychiatrist no less--not only think, but also express, such contempt for a patient. She writes more about her "need for self control" with her therapist, Mary. 

Medical school seems to be part of the problem, as she discusses early in the book: "Everywhere, instead of people, I learned to see pathology. I was learning to think like a doctor" (25). I want my doctors to see me as a person! To see only my pathology is to see only a small piece of who I am, and it may even mean missing out on key information that could lead to a diagnosis. 

Her softer side emerges at times. She conveys her conflicted feelings about leaving patients locked up all week while she went about her business in the outside world. She tells other stories of how she exceeded her duties to make sure a patient remained safe from him or her self. I was confused about her references to her attraction to other doctors and her brazen efforts to have sex with male doctors at the hospital. 

But what drew me in were the intense stories she tells of other people's madness. Stories of people who lose grasp of reality due to severe circumstances or childhood abuse are disheartening and frightening. We don't know what will put us over the edge and, possibly, into the hospital. On this subject, Holland writes, 

There is a diaphanous membrane between sane and insane. It is the flimsiest of barriers, and because any one of us can break through at any given time, it scares all of us. We all lie somewhere on the spectrum, and our position can shift gradually or suddenly. There is no predicting which of us will be afflicted with dementia or schizophrenia, who will become incapacitated with depression or panic attacks, or become suicidal, manic, or addicted. None of these states of mind are uncommon, and all of us have friends and family who are suffering with some degree of psychiatric illness.
— Holland, 292

Despite a few reservations, I truly applaud Dr. Holland for sharing her personal journey, as well as the experiences of so many psychiatric patients, with the world. By revealing all these stories, she helps to diminish the stigma that some people feel for having or seeking treatment for mental illness. 

One Week of Anxious Misadventures

Sunday: Cut own hair on whim. Keep cutting. Upon subsequent returns to bathroom, cut hair more. With desk scissors. Without looking in mirror.

Monday: Cancel yoga club. Heart beating too quickly. Postpone yoga for students until "unplugged lunch" on Wednesday, therefore rendering planning for said class yet more difficult. Leave immediately after school to return home to cut off more hair. Absorb self in work only to return to consciousness and find shoe eaten by dog. Dog still thinks dog is human. Should we have gotten a dog? A Jack Russell? A crazy Jack Russell? A highly distractible, footwear-munching Jack Russell with a leash fetish? Continue to ponder subject ad nauseam.

Tuesday: With apprehension, fit self into striped and slanted fitted dress. Remain at school until 7 PM to reorganize classroom, post recent student work on walls. Contemplate flammability of posting excessive paper on walls. Print alternately inspiring and cheesy unnecessary materials for unplugged yoga lunch from color printer and then feel guilty about doing so. Stay wide awake until approximately 12:30 AM to purchase and learn Adobe Photoshop. Edit panorama photo of updated classroom.

Wednesday: Slice overwrought (and probably over-photoshopped) images of fit people doing yoga into individual images to distribute to students for purposes of empowerment. Frantically wash strawberries and transport to school. Arrive late. Attempt to place moderately sized Tupperware into fridge. Two hours later, only one student shows up to unplugged yoga lunch. Drink water with a vengeance to carry my "Every Day In May" team to victory. (Consequently, rush in and out of class to use facilities while tallying number of vegetable and fruits consumed.) Feel irked about people not exercising, then am reminded that not everyone's first priority is winning and that not everyone displaces their less tolerable emotions onto a fitness competition. Consider origins of competitiveness. Biological? Sociological? Race through yoga with faculty and staff in brief time allotted between after-school commitments. Remain wide awake until approximately 12:30 AM doing something that seemed important at the time but can no longer be pulled from the recesses of memory. Who gets to come up with serving sizes, anyway?

Thursday: Snooze at least four times, with fear of rousing husband growing increasingly imminent. Consume outrageous amounts of water. Fear bladder explosion. Fret about potential accidental but justified copyright infringement. Laptop flashes evil message about space running out. Screaming happens. Dinner is made with help from lovely husband. Remain awake until almost 1 AM trying to catch up on blog reading and something else that was apparently not sufficiently worthy of space in brain.

Friday: Do not get out of bed. Shower, then walk dog (get sweaty), but not enough, so husband runs with dog, even though it's definitely NOT HIS JOB. Sweat too much for comfort. Ruminate on efficacy of deodorant. While driving, ask Siri to remind me to send emails. She does. Enjoy air conditioning, which has been switch on for the grandparents. Feel overwhelming sense of guilt for promising to attend school play and then crashing on couch. Wonder if it even matters if I go. If anyone will notice. Wonder if I will ruin their lives if I don't. Clean house to prepare for events on Saturday. Place allergy medicine in wicker basket in office. Stack clean laundry on chair.  Place items to be returned to Zappos in coat closet. Hope nobody brings a coat.

Saturday: Pull exhausted self out of bed to attend yoga class. (Must continue exercise regimen.) Feel sick during yoga. Does it still count for 10 points? Do chores. Clean house more. Wonder why putting items where they go requires so much willpower. Snip at husband for something he did right. Regret failure to call friends on their birthdays. Make lists of to-do items. Subsequently find that lists do not sync across all devices. Scream. Head becomes like 3 ounce toothpaste in leaky sandwich bag on a plane.

[Imagine neatly cropped image of Wikipedia entry on Dover Beach here. Blame my laptop.]

Sunday: Walk dog. Dog produces loose stools. Wonder if anyone is looking. They probably are, even they are beyond the line of sight. Attempt to scoop diarrhea from grass and fail. Extrapolation ensues: How are people who do selfish things seen by society? Are people more likely to clean up if others are watching? What does that say about us as individuals? Am I a terrible person if my dog poops twice and I only have one poop bag? Am I supposed to have the wherewithal to bring multiple poop bags? Is the elderly dude in suspenders judging me for not cleaning up? But we only went around the block. And it's still early in the morning. Sit on sofa for hours with Zappos app open. Wish app were not so well made so would not purchase so many shoes. Experience premature relief thanks to generous return policy. Cuddle with dog. Contemplate chopping off more hair. Decline to do so. Wish I had not cut so much. Sink into despair at the irretrievability of human actions. Attempt to record next episode of Fahrenheit 451 for students. Hard drive is full. Adjust Dropbox settings to make more room on hard drive. Dog mounts leg. Shriek. GarageBand sends cryptic error message. Bang head against laptop. Rack brain for something, anything, about Matthew Arnold, yet shamelessly look to Wikipedia to explain allusion on page 96 about "Dover Beach." Feel like fraud for not knowing everything about book prior to teaching it. Make another to-do list. Hope this one syncs across all devices and potential screaming will be averted. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.