Can’t Hide My Crazy: Thoughts on Motherhood

16 Jun

 

 

julia

At my bridal shower several years ago, all of my friends wrote down little snippets of marital advice for me. My sister Rachel wrote something about how I ought to “hide the Moyal craziness” as much as I could. Now I’m not sure if we Moyal girls are crazier than other women (maybe we’re more passionate?), but I’ve never been able to heed her advice very well. Going through transition and change tends to bring out my nutty side, the part of me that wants to control things and goes into a tailspin when I can’t. Even when I’m in a season of positive change, like when I moved to Norway for a year, or when I started grad school, or when I married my husband—I still feel crazy and have an embarrassingly hard time with the transition. When I began grad school, I felt I needed to study every second and read every assigned page and get A’s on everything. When I got married, I needed to be the perfect wife, but I was unsure what that meant, and the confusion compounded my craziness.

Now, transitioning into a season of motherhood—and stay-at-home, round-the-clock motherhood, at that—the crazy is back with a vengeance. This time I have a little baby to try to control. I can hear you laughing, reader who has spent any time at all with real live human babies. They cannot be controlled. Even with Babywise, even with schedules and ideal wake times and the Baby Whisperer to solve all your problems. What worked yesterday might not work today. What worked this morning might not work this afternoon. A perfect nap day with a sweet-tempered baby might be followed by a day of 30-minute naps and unexplainable crying jags. The unpredictability alone is enough to make a person like me go bonkers, but add in the extreme stress a mother feels when she hears her baby cry (multiple times a day), and the emotions that come with such a world-rocking change of pace, role, routine, and even body… So let’s just say I’ve had my share of meltdowns since my daughter was born.

But here’s what makes me feel even crazier: the sense that I’m alone in these unstable, out-of-control feelings. Instagram is full of whimsical shots of babies with sweet captions about motherly love. Friends with kids barely remember the baby years. Some mothers in my post-partum group said things like they were loving every minute of motherhood, and that it’s been sheer bliss since their babies were born. Other moms with little ones are afraid to be real about how hard things are or how much they dislike their own baby sometimes. With the exception of the author Anne Lamott, the great Saint of All Normal Women Who Feel Normal Emotions, most people aren’t sharing the ugly details of this season of life. I get it. I don’t want to share, either, for at least five reasons at any given time:

  1. Someone reading might be desperate to have a baby and so far unable to. This makes the complaining mom completely rude and selfish and thoughtless.
  2. Someone reading may not have kids and judge the complaining mom, thinking, “What’s so hard about taking care of a baby?”
  3. Someone reading may have had children a long time ago, and now that their kids are grown, this person wants to scold the complaining mom about not cherishing these years while her kids are small.
  4. Someone reading may have four children and never experienced these types of negative emotions regarding mothering, and will judge the complaining mom as immature, selfish, and not cut out to be a mother. (OK, so I suspect this last one does not actually exist…but these are the moms who act like they’ve never experienced negative emotions about mothering, making me feel like a total monster who should never have had kids.)
  5. No one likes a complainer.

But there’s a difference between complaining and sharing your psychotic emotions so you can get out of your own head for a few minutes. I’m not into the type of articles that float around Facebook, all about how the author hasn’t showered in 2 weeks, forgets what non-spit-up-on clothes smell like, and only eats Cheerios off the floor for every meal. Those essays are ridiculous. My complaining is less about my baby (because let’s face it: she’s pretty much the best baby I could ever ask for), and it’s not even about the work of caring for her (it’s not rocket science, nor is it working in the salt mines); my complaining is actually about my own inability to cope with being a parent.

There’s a shame cycle in play: I crumble when a nap time runs short, or have a meltdown because I just need a break and when will there be a day when my neck doesn’t hurt and will my body ever be the same again. I experience these negative feelings (and yes, sometimes they are projected onto my daughter and I think ugly, resentful thoughts about how hard she’s made my life), and then I feel shame about the negative feelings and why I can’t just buck up and be an adult, and the shame creates even more negative feelings, till the crazy comes out and I tell my husband that I’m just going to get in the car and drive away and never look back.

I know I need to have more grace for myself. Lately I’ve been reminding myself that I went from pretty much just taking care of myself and my dog (and my husband, on occasion), to becoming a full-time, round-the-clock caregiver to a completely helpless being. That is enough to make anyone lose it once in a while.

So what do we do, when the crazy bubbles up inside of us? Calling my sister always helps. Getting out of my own head, where the baby’s sleeping habits have taken on the importance of issues like global warming and conflict in the Middle East. Telling myself I can take a break; it’s OK to space out sometimes while the baby is on her activity mat; it’s OK to leave her for a few hours with my husband on a weekend, and not just to go run errands.

And gratitude—I’m terrible at that one, but it’s truly a game-changer and a healer. Looking into my baby’s eyes and getting that hit of oxytocin, feeling overcome by how utterly beautiful she is, singing Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” to her, and kissing those soft, sweet, smiling cheeks.

Gimme a Break: Thoughts on Motherhood

7 Jun

 

THOMPSON-40I just read about a German tradition wherein day care centers take their 3-year-old charges out to a farm for a multiday retreat, sans parents. The kids take the train into the country, each carrying a little knapsack containing their snacks, loveys, and letters from parents. The parents receive newsy text message updates each day, giving glowing reports about the preschoolers having fun and feeling happy, without even a hint of homesickness.

All I could think was, Can we have a program like this in the U.S., but for 5-month-old babies??

Zadie turned 5 months on Saturday, and I celebrated by being away from her for 5 hours—the longest we’ve ever been apart, since she took up residence in my womb over a year ago. It was glorious. But, it was not enough. I don’t want to sound like a complainer. But my need for a break is similar to my need for sleep in those early weeks when Zadie was a newborn and waking up multiple times a night. I longed for not just one good night’s sleep, but a week’s worth. I knew that such a sleep deficit could not be filled with one 8-hour stretch of shuteye. And now I’m in a place of really, really wanting a break from being a mother. It’s been so all-consuming—between breastfeeding exclusively and being a stay at home mother, there’s not a lot of breaks built into my life right now. I have to ask for them, and plan for them, and pump milk for them.

I’ve never run a marathon, but it feels like I’m on mile 12. I’ve already come so far, but my legs are aching and my heart is pounding and I’m just kind of over it, but I’m not even quite halfway yet! I need a second wind somehow. A true break (the kind I’m dreaming of, spending a couple days in Palm Springs sipping cucumber cocktails by the pool) is simply not feasible right now.

But really, this isn’t a marathon. A marathon means you keep running till you’re done. You don’t sit down in the shade and drink a lemonade for 10 minutes; that would throw things off too much. But since I had Zadie, I’ve subconsciously thought a few times that I need to just keep my head down and keep going for the next year, because any kind of break would just feel like a tease; nothing would be enough. But it’s not like on her first birthday, Zadie magically starts taking care of herself.

What I’m realizing is that motherhood isn’t a marathon; it’s a journey.

On long journeys, you do take breaks. You do take rests. You take care of your body and your mind so you can keep going. You meet friends along the way and help each other, share your resources, watch each other’s backs.

I guess that’s part of why I wanted to come home to California so badly. Sure, I was making friends in Denver, other moms who could help me through. But here I have so many more, and I have friends who knew me before I was a mother, before I was a wife, before I was an adult, even. They see me more, in my wholeness, and I think I really need that in this early part of the journey when it feels like being a mother is swallowing the rest of my identity.

I’d love to hear from you mothers. How do you take rests on the journey? How do you rest when there’s no break in sight? How are you supported by and how do you give support to the other women you know on this road?

Letting Go of My Past Self: Thoughts on Motherhood

11 Apr

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“After a while you could get used to anything.” This quote, from Albert Camus’ The Stranger, struck me as profound when I read it as a senior in high school. The main character says he believes he could live inside a dead tree trunk, with nothing to look at but “the sky flowing overhead,” and little by little he would have gotten used to it.

This is about as deep as it gets for a 17-year-old, and to be honest, the line has stuck with me as a sort of mantra through different transitional times in my life. The discomfort of change can be paralyzing, depressing, crazy-making, or can just plain suck. But I’d remind myself that I could get used to anything. Working at a summer camp where I had to be ready to leave my dorm at the ungodly hour of 6 am every morning? Sure, it was tough at first, but I got used to it. Reading a required 1,200 pages a week as a grad student? Of course it was intimidating, but I got used to the workload and to spending Saturdays in the library. When I became a teacher, I thought I’d never get used to getting up every day in front of a bunch of kids, but I did.

And back in January, when I suddenly had a tiny baby to care for, and had to learn to handle her and wash her and change her, when I spent hours a day on the couch learning how to feed her, I knew that at some point in the not-so-distant future, I would get used to this, too.

It’s the less tangible parts of my new role as a mother that are harder to become familiar with.

It’s like when I got married and became a wife. It didn’t take long to become accustomed to the weight of my wedding ring on my finger, or for waking up next to my husband to feel normal. But it took so long to get used to my new identity as a wife, to get used to a totally different way of being in the world: married rather than single.

So it is with motherhood. I’m no longer staggering under the workload of caring for my baby. I change diapers all day without blinking an eye. I can strap Zadie into her car seat or wrap her up in a sling with ease. I settle down to nurse my baby a half dozen times a day and (usually) don’t think twice about it. I haven’t slept in since New Year’s. All of these things I’m somewhat used to.

What I can’t get used to, though, is the sheer weight of responsibility I carry now as Zadie’s mother. It is my job to protect her, nurture her, and sustain her with my own body. The diapers and the breastfeeding will stop one day, but the responsibility I have for my daughter will continue for years. While it’s an incredible privilege to be her mother, if I let myself think about it much I feel suffocated by the burden I carry for her health, her happiness.

Recently I had a bit of an existential crisis about it—I longed for the days when I was only responsible for myself. I wanted to hop into a time machine and go back to my early twenties, to my traveling days, to Israel and Australia and Norway and Ireland and the rest. I wanted to strip off the heavy cloak of motherhood and be free again. I felt a weight in my chest that felt remarkably like grief, and then I realized: it is grief. I’m mourning the loss of my old self. She started dying during my pregnancy and now she’s gone forever.

I read a little devotional yesterday that had these words to share:

Out of Christ’s death comes life, and so for us. If there’s something you need to pronounce “dead” or “deadly” in your life, pronounce it. If there’s something of your past life that’s simply on a ventilator, let it die. It’s the only way you will know life, know the resurrection life that Jesus promises.

That desire to hop into a time machine was a wish to bring the dead back to life. But the only way to experience life now is to accept the death of my old self and embrace the new one. On that first Easter Sunday thousands of years ago, women who were mourning Jesus’ death arrived at his grave to pay their respects, but instead angels and an empty tomb greeted them. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the angels asked.

Why do I look for life in my past? The only life I can experience is here, now, in the present. That’s where God is working, that’s where the Holy Spirit is hovering over the darkness in me. A few years ago I wrote an essay called “To Be Born Over and Over Again,” and I had no idea how true my words would become.

In Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, one character says, “To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to die one hundred deaths.” And this, truly, is what I am resistant toward. I am resistant toward those hundred, those thousand deaths that make up a true, growing life, keeping us from stagnation and decay. The death of dependence as I walked into adulthood and learned to pay my own bills and manage my own affairs. The death of childhood friendships as we diverged into different life phases—marriage, children, singleness—and could not keep our ties tight enough. The death of dreams, of relationships, of innocence, of longtime habits and sins, of ideals and ignorance. We all die these deaths.

And yet if we have lived long enough to be marked by death, we know by now the great mystery that death brings life; all births require a kind of death. To live is to die a hundred deaths, but you might as well say to live is to be born over and over again. It is the approach to that birth that we fear and resist and see as death. But the pain of letting go of my girlish dependence made way for the birth of the woman Joy. One day, this fear and pain of giving up my independence will make way for myself to be born again as a mother—just as the literal pain I endure will bring forth my own baby.

…But the birthing process, and the first terrified and joyful weeks, will be raw, because that is an essential quality of new life. And I must labor again when I agonize over my children’s taking flight from our nest, and I must be reborn as another woman, another Joy, and learn to give birth to other ideas, relationships, and dreams. Oh God, let me never resist the deaths and the births that make up my life.

And that’s still my prayer. That I won’t seek the living among the dead. That I won’t stagnate and refuse to die or to be born again. That I will be changed, marked, by the deaths and births in my life, and become a better self because of them.

Does Being a Mom Make You Less Human?

9 Mar

 

heidi-klum-mom-lgnThere’s this language of “being human” that’s passed around among mothers, especially new mothers. “I actually showered and put on makeup today,” says the mother of a newborn, “and I finally feel human again!” Or, from one more experienced mom to another: “Around 6 weeks is when I started to feel like a human again.” My sister talks about how, during her daughter’s newborn phase, she was in “creature mode.” Talking with my dad the other day about some freelance work I picked up, he said, “I’m glad you have some projects to work on so you can feel like a person again.”

I completely understand what they are saying. Showering and putting on makeup makes me feel human again. Going to a coffee shop alone and working on my computer for a while made me feel more human. So did hiking with friends.

But what I’ve been wondering is, why do the early days of motherhood make us feel less human? Why would my dad assume I don’t feel like a person, now that I’m a mother? Is there anything more human than bearing and nurturing human offspring? Yet we go from taking care of ourselves, from driving around town and drinking iced coffees and working in offices and socializing with friends, to hunkering down in our houses, often just one room in our house, so it feels like a cave, and our minds are filled with thoughts of the baby–is she hungry? tired? not tired enough yet for a nap? cold? hot? distressed? bored? overstimulated? There is very little brain space for anything else. On top of that is the sheer physical work: the nursing, the carrying, the rocking, the bouncing, the diapering, the bathing, the cleaning. One can fill a 12-hour day purely with stuff of the body: feeding, eliminating, cleaning up after the food or the (baby’s) elimination.

Maybe what makes us feel less human during this time is that we are closest to our animal selves. We are not focusing on self-actualization, we are not pondering questions of ethics or philosophy or economics; we are not taking in master works of art or classic literature. We are eating, sleeping, taking care of our young, tending our wounds from the trauma of childbirth; we are living from day to day, almost incapable of looking far into the future. Even the non-anxious among us are filled with primitive fears, worried about the immediate safety of our babies and our homes.

I guess I don’t have a tidy way to conclude these thoughts. I wish that our society respected motherhood as a true part of humanity and personhood. And I wish that this season of being my most creaturely self would make me feel more human, instead of less. Maybe in the long run it will. Right now I feel completely separate from the self it’s taken my whole life to become, through chance and experience and discipline and curation. But I chose this path of motherhood with the hopes that it would grow and change and add to that person, and I am sure that one day I will look back and be glad I took this path that leads through the forest of my animal self.

 

My Baby, The Person: Thoughts on Motherhood

11 Feb

When I was pregnant, my husband always made a point to say we were expecting a child, or expecting our daughter, rather than expecting a baby. I’m not sure why–maybe because he was more excited about the child part than the baby part. To be honest, neither of us were over the moon about babyhood and all that comes with it–the milk, the diapers, the spit up, the pure helplessness of the baby and total responsibility of us as parents (did I mention we are both youngest children??).

And here we are, in the thick of Zadie’s babyhood. She still can’t even hold her head up. She grunts and cries and sucks her fists and eats and poops more than anything that small should. At first she was just a little creature to us, just a bundle of needs; or, as one of our friends put it, thinking back to his own son’s newborn days–just a little day ruiner. I mean, she doesn’t even smile yet! Sometimes it was hard to feel connected to her, and not simply see her as a burden.

One of my friends mentioned that getting to know your newborn involves “welcoming the stranger” into your home and into your life, and lately Zadie has felt like less of a stranger. As the weeks have gone by, we truly are becoming attached to her, and it’s so different from the way you become attached to a pet (even as great a pet as Asher Lev!). It’s different because not only is Zadie a human, like us, but she is a person–her own person, with potential, with a future, with a completely separate identity from myself and from Robert.

When I was pregnant and full of fear and dread over what parenthood would be like, I read this beautiful quote by (who else?) Frederick Buechner:

The grace of God means something like this: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been the same without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.

After reading that quote, I finally saw my pregnancy and my upcoming role as a mother in the grand scheme of things. It wasn’t about me at all. I was a carrier, the one chosen to help bring Zadie into the world, not because I wanted her, but because God wanted her. He knew the party–life here on earth, and life forever afterward–wouldn’t be the same without her. It was my job to carry her and nurture her, to protect her and guide her; it wasn’t her job to make me happy or complete or anything else.

The “beautiful and terrible things will happen” bit gets me. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed thinking about Zadie experiencing all the good and bad of this world–the delicious feeling of swimming in a cold pool on a hot day, or the thrill of traveling to foreign lands, or the joy of deep friendship; also the scary things that can happen to her, the shame she might feel at some point, the heartbreak or violence. I remember many years ago feeling very cynical and asking my mentor why anybody brings children into this world. She had a sister with four daughters, and passed on what her sister had told her: she loved that she had helped bring into the world friends of God. People who would know the creator of the universe and be known by him. People who may know the joy and peace and hope of the Spirit.

When I feel like I’m drowning in my baby’s round-the-clock needs, sometimes I do well to remind myself that this is simply a very short season–one that every person must go through, one in which every person needs a parent to feed and comfort and care for them. My mother did it for me, and now I’m doing it for Zadie. And I imagine what she might be like at 5, or 20, or 45, and those blurry images get me through.

**I love the photos above because it looks like little 2-week-old Zadie is having a conversation with her daddy. (All photos by the amazing Shyla www.ShylaPhotography.com)

4 Weeks In: Thoughts on Motherhood

1 Feb

DSC_0923 - Version 2Four weeks ago today, I met my daughter Zadie for the first time. Four weeks ago, I became a mother. Of course I’m tempted to say this has been the most difficult four weeks of my life…but that sounds melodramatic, and also, I can think of much more difficult seasons, when I was in emotional turmoil over something or other, and thankfully I’m not in emotional turmoil as I start growing into my new role as a mother.

Don’t get me wrong–about 90% of this transition time has completely sucked, and of course there’s all the hormones and emotions. In some ways, it’s like getting married again–the welcoming of someone into every space of your life, and having to get used to them there, no matter how much you wanted them in the first place. The getting to know a person, their preferences and peculiarities and the dance between their needs and yours. The uncovering of your immaturity and selfishness at every turn.

But on top of all that, taking care of a newborn is so much stinkin’ work. I told my sister the other day it feels like I’m at boot camp, just endless discomfort, work and sleep deprivation, and I keep having the feeling of wanting to go home. I’m the youngest child, hence not exactly the nurturing type. Breastfeeding tests my patience multiple times every day. I think sometimes the hardest thing is the shame I feel at not being nurturing enough, or patient enough, for not loving every second of taking care of my beautiful, healthy baby.

Every year on New Year’s Day Robert and I reflect on the previous year together, from best moments and worst moments to best and worst books and movies. And we look forward to the year ahead, often choosing a word that we want to define that year. Three days before Zadie was born, I chose my word for 2016: JOY. I knew that change and transition has always been incredibly hard for me, even when it’s good change, and I wanted to choose joy over stress or anxiety or self-pity as I entered this new season of motherhood. I wanted to delight in my baby and in staying home with her and in being here in Colorado. And yet, joy is very low on the list of emotions I’ve felt these past 4 weeks. Self-pity is actually pretty high on the list. Frustration, too. I’ve definitely had moments of heart-swelling love for Zadie, and lots of moments of heart-swelling love and gratitude for Robert, who has been an amazing partner in all of this, but it’s been hard for me to truly delight in this season. Was that too much to ask of myself, at least this early, considering the hormones, the sleep deprivation, the physical recovery from childbirth?

I keep thinking about this poem I’ve seen over the years:

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy. 

–Rabindranath Tagore

I dreamt of this year being full of joy; the reality of motherhood is that it is a life of service. My prayer, then, for this year is that as I live out the actions of being a mother, I will find my service to be joy.

 

Never Say Never (At 9 Months Pregnant)

30 Dec
JuliettePregnant

Yeah, that’s Juliette from Nashville, going into labor

There’s some things I expected to happen during my pregnancy that never happened (or at least, haven’t happened yet…we’ve still got a couple of weeks). Like, I haven’t had a stranger touch my belly or even ask to touch my belly. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had anyone, even close friends, touch my belly without asking. I’m very happy about this, don’t get me wrong. I just wonder if my face says, “Don’t even think about it”? Also, thankfully I have not had anyone say something to me in the manner of, “You look like you’re about to pop,” or, “Must be twins!” I don’t even know how I would respond to that…

But one thing people have done during this pregnancy, that is also pretty annoying, is ask about our plans for other children. Besides the one I’m focusing on carrying/nurturing right now. It’s like, let me see how this one goes, all right? But also, the truth? I have really hated being pregnant. Maybe there’s been a few sweet moments here and there of anticipation or wonder over the little life growing inside me. But mostly it’s been discomfort, pain, and an increasing horror over the (also increasing) size and shape of my body. I honestly cannot imagine going through this, willingly, ever again. I may have even said to Robert a handful (a dozen) times that I am never getting pregnant again. We don’t want an only child, so adoption it is! We’ve both always liked that idea anyway.

But the truth is, 9 months pregnant is not the time to being saying “never.” I’m still in the weeds, still climbing to the summit or trying to finish the marathon or whatever metaphor you want to use. The main thing is, I haven’t laid my eyes on the prize yet. I haven’t met my little baby or looked into her eyes or gotten to know her. I have a feeling that a year from now, my perspective on pregnancy will be greatly changed, because I will truly know what the pain and discomfort produced. One of my favorite bloggers, Emily Henderson, put it this way:

“I think your first pregnancy can be the least fun in a way because you don’t really know how amazing the reward is about to be. I really wanted a family and of course I knew that the pregnancy would lead to that, but it’s just so conceptual, so abstract before it actually happens. But for my second child I think I’m going to like being pregnant more because I hold the result of my first pregnancy in my arms every day, and I know now what I can look forward to at the end of those long nine months. You really don’t know the joy of being pregnant unless you can imagine the happiness of the result.”

Elsewhere, Emily compares pregnancy to a super long flight to some destination that everyone tells you is fabulous but you have yet to visit yourself. The first three months you’re in a cramped jump seat in the back of the plane, with turbulence, right next to the bathroom, and you’re uncomfortable and sick and wondering why you signed up for the trip in the first place. The second trimester they let you sit in economy class and you kind of forget you’re on a plane for a while, except everyone around you gets to drink and you don’t. Then the last month or so, they move you back to that cramped seat and take away any bodily comfort or pleasure and also deprive you of sleep and all you’re thinking is, this place I’m headed had better be as amazing as everyone says it is! And then the descent is super scary and everyone’s sure they’re going to die, but you don’t die, and you arrive at this wonderful destination, and it all seems so worth it.

So yeah. I really relate to that analogy, partly because I’ve done a fair bit of traveling and have even had those super uncomfortable, long-haul flights to places I’ve never been and wondered, “Why am I doing this again?” But every single time it’s been worth it. Every single time. Of course, the discomfort and sacrifice and length of pregnancy is worse and longer than any long-haul flight, but I imagine getting to know my little daughter will also be an incomparably better and sweeter adventure than any I’ve had anywhere on the globe.

So I guess what I’m saying is, stay tuned. After baby girl is here (well, probably several months after), I’ll be able to give my true and complete thoughts on pregnancy.

What do you think? Did you love being pregnant? Hate it? Fear it or desire it? Somewhere in between?

 

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