OK, not really for new moms only! But I have an essay up on Mom the Brave today, in their “Dear Brave Mom” category. It’s an open letter to the mommas of newborns…that’s such a crazy time; for some it’s pure bliss, but for others (like me!) it’s sheer survival. Head over to Mom the Brave and give it a read, or share it with any friends you have who are in that crazy, hazy newborn stage!
It takes me a long time to adjust to change—an embarrassingly long time. Motherhood, and taking care of a baby day in and day out, has been no exception. In some of my grumpiest, most melancholy, or—let’s be honest—crazy moments, Robert has said something to the effect of, “Well, at least I know you’ll be back to yourself around January 4…” referencing how it takes me about a year to adjust to any major change.
Adjustment is what I was longing for the first several weeks (OK, maybe the first few months) of Zadie’s life—to feel used to it. For everything to not feel so scary and unfamiliar. To not see Zadie as a stranger or little alien. I longed for relief from the new, from having to figure things out. You know how when you get a new job, you go home and dream about doing it? All day I nursed Zadie and changed her and bounced her on the yoga ball to get her to sleep. Then all night I’d dream of nursing her or changing her or bouncing her, or just of her crying. I’d wake from dreams that she was in our bed, and then feel so confused when she wasn’t, and look for her frantically before realizing she was sleeping peacefully in the bassinet beside me, where she always was.
My fear was that my resistance to change, my slowness to adjust would make me miss Zadie’s first year. I worried that I would wake up on her first birthday to find that she was finally not a stranger to me, and that I finally enjoyed being her mother, only to realize I’d missed out on her only year of true babyhood.
Thankfully, I started to enjoy my baby before her first birthday. It was slow at first—right around three months, I had moments when I was just in awe of Zadie, and sincerely enjoyed being with her and taking care of her. The moments of overwhelm and fear and exhaustion definitely were more abundant, but still. I look at a photo of us on Easter, back in March, when Zadie was almost three months old. She had started to truly smile, and to be less larva-like, and the smile on my face in that picture is the smile I always wanted to be on my face when I was with my baby. As I got to know her more, and as she became more active and playful, I began enjoying her more and more. This past month, Zadie’s eighth month on this earth, I feel like I’ve fallen totally in love with her. She’s just so sweet, so beautiful, so strong. She makes my mama heart swell with pride and love for her.
But now that I’m into Zadie as a baby, I’m preemptively mourning her growing older and bigger. In those early weeks I kept wishing for her to get older and bigger, so things wouldn’t be so hard and scary and I wouldn’t be guessing as much about how to take care of her. I thought the baby stage (and, let’s face it, the toddler stage) would be something I just had to get through, in order to have my daughter, a person with whom I’d have a lifelong relationship. But now I don’t want the baby stage to end—her sweet little gummy smile (no teeth yet!), her diaper booty, the way she scoots across the floor on her belly, the way it’s so easy to get her to smile, the way she squeals in delight on our walks at what I can only imagine is the thrill of seeing trees and flowers for the thousandth time instead of the millionth. I love the way she drops her head onto my chest or my shoulder when I hold her and sing “Jesus Loves Me” before her nap or bedtime. The way she’s so pleased with herself when she stands or bangs two toys together or claps her hands. The way she plays with her loveys in her crib for half an hour after her nap without even making a peep. The way she eats with gusto, like a little football player. How she brings stuffed animals to her face so she can give them open-mouthed kisses, and how she teases Asher whenever she’s holding a ball and knows he wants it, waving it under his nose and laughing. The way she holds her hand out, bent at the wrist, when she meets new people, as though directing them to “Kiss the royal hand.” Her new thing, burying her face in my neck shyly when she encounters strangers.
I spent the first few months of my baby’s life wishing time would speed up, so we could be done with the terrifying newborn stage. Then the next few months I was still future-focused, thinking things would be better or easier once she wasn’t nursing so much (true), or she could sit up on her own (also true), or some other milestone. Now we seem to have stepped into a crazy time warp, because it’s going by shockingly fast; every Monday I blink and it’s suddenly Friday. I know better now than to wish for a certain event in the future—it’ll come. Now I have more moments where I want to stop this train of life from moving so damn fast, taking my baby away from me.
Or is it just that I’m resisting change once again? Realizing that at every new phase and age Zadie enters, I have to readjust and readapt my methods, my schedule, my very heart.
Remember the term FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)? When that term was in heavy rotation, I totally understood it and felt it often. I wanted to be a part of the action; I never wanted to be left out. As a single person, it was hard to commit to a plan because I wanted to know I wasn’t missing out on anything else. But after having Zadie, I moved from FOMO to FOGO—Fear of Going Out! I knew I was missing out on stuff; I had a newborn for goodness’ sake. But I was afraid of going out, afraid she might have a meltdown and I wouldn’t know what to do. As she got older, I found consistent naps to be the key to avoiding meltdowns, so I guarded naptime with the zeal of Gollum for his precious ring. But Zadie naps three times a day, and that leaves very little time for going out.
Recently I heard about Eventbrite’s GOMO (Going Out More Often) campaign, where they’re encouraging people to get out of the Netflix rut and go enjoy life this summer. It immediately struck me as a great way to remember to get myself out of my comfort zone and take Zadie on little (and maybe sometimes big!) outings as we resettle in Los Angeles, where there are amazing events happening all the time!
When Robert and I last lived in Pasadena, our absolute favorite summer activity was going to see free concerts at the Levitt Pavilion in Memorial Park in Pasadena. We’d ride our bikes to Pita Jungle and pick up some falafel wraps and dolmas to go, then settle on a picnic blanket with a thermos full of a refreshing cocktail and listen to live music.
It’s a bit tougher now with a baby whose bedtime is 7:00, but I know Robert’s been dying to go out more often, whether it’s a hike or to lunch at a fun place downtown or even camping (that’s pretty far-fetched if you ask me!).
So partly for Robert’s sake, and partly for my own sanity, I’m trying to GOMO this summer! I had the opportunity to put my money where my mouth is this week, when a close friend invited me and Zadie to visit where she and her family were camping at the beach all week. She actually invited us to stay a night or two, but I know my limits! Still, I decided to pack up a beach bag and hit the road with Zadie, heading out to Malibu on a day that was supposed to be in the high 90s here in L.A. I timed it so we’d drive during Zadie’s first nap, and hopefully she’d sleep in the car, and then driving back during her third nap, hoping again for sleep and also to beat rush hour(s)! I thought maybe she could take her second nap in the carrier while we were at the beach.
Well, guess what? Zadie was an angel baby all day. She slept the first 30 minutes of our drive, then studied her hands quietly for about 45 minutes. J She didn’t sleep on me at the beach, but she had a great time and played independently (read: chewed on a package of baby wipes) on a beach blanket for what felt like the longest time! And then she slept the entire 90-minute drive home. It was a small miracle. As for me: I got out of the apartment, drove through the vineyards and canyons to be greeted by the perfectly blue Pacific Ocean on the other side, caught up with dear friends, and enjoyed the cooler beach weather. And, I saw that maybe Zadie only needs 2 naps a day, so we’ve been trying that and it’s opening up a lot more time!
Over the weekend we went to a friend’s birthday brunch, I took Zadie to Trader Joe’s on my own (that was a first for us, believe it or not); we went to church for the first time since being back in L.A. (and she did great in the nursery!), and we ended the weekend hanging out at a local park, where a mariachi band suddenly showed up and Zadie had her first live music experience.
It all started with one little trip to the beach, and now I feel like the world is my oyster! It reminds me of a quote I once read that said something like, “Everything you could possibly want is right outside your comfort zone.”
What about you? Were you afraid to go out when you had a baby? Or did you just strap that babe on and go about your life? Any tips for someone who needs to GOMO? (Besides “just do it”—I don’t find that very helpful!).
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:
- 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.
- Someone reading may not have kids and judge the complaining mom, thinking, “What’s so hard about taking care of a baby?”
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
“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.
There’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.
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)