Grief and Gray Days

Today the sky is a mask.

The clouds huddle together so tightly there appears to be no sun at all, just an endless swath of dull white.

white sky day

I cried after dropping Leo off at preschool today. Not because he was crying, not today, though he did say goodbye reluctantly, clutching his stuffed purple bunny close to his chest.

On Tuesday I kept him home. He had the beginning of a cold. That’s what I told myself as we cuddled on the couch watching shows while I worked on the computer. I could have sent him. If I worked, I would’ve had to, but I have the luxury to make these decisions. Sometimes I end up second-guessing them, but not this time, not after he said this:

Chin down, lip out, my little guy said, “I don’t like going to school.”

“Why not, honey? Aren’t your teachers nice?”

Big sigh. “Yes, but I don’t love playing with them as much as you.”

This made me tear up, partly because it seemed overly generous. The truth is, I kind of suck at playing. I think I was better with his older sister, probably because I didn’t have a smart phone. No Facebook to scroll through to break up the tedium of children’s games.

I tried to make up for it by leaving my phone behind when we went upstairs to his room later that day.

We made up a game inspired by his current favorite movie, Inside Out, which I also love. If you’re not familiar, the movie centers on emotions and memories, things that I have intimate knowledge with and interest in.

Using a bunch of small gray plastic balls from a building set, we pretended they were memories. “Core memories,” he called them, referencing the movie, and then we rescued them from the memory dump, over and over again.

That’s the thing about playing with kids. They want to do the same things, repeatedly. Nothing gets old. They don’t get bored of games, and they don’t get bored of you. A gift, really.

At one point I found myself staring out the window at the tree branches moving in the breeze, most of the leaves gone, a few hanger-oners hanging on.

I was reaching the edge of discomfort, the moment when I’d normally grab my phone or reheat my coffee. The kind of moment I imagine happens during meditation or yoga, when you think you can’t sit still or hold that pose a moment longer – but you do, you can.

There is a reward in staying.

I shifted my gaze to my son, staring at the tufts of soft blond hair standing up around his head like chicken fluff. The light from the window turned it translucent, illuminating the lone freckle in the center of his scalp.

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I recently heard about the pregnancies of two friends, well, one is more of an acquaintance, but the other feels like a friend. These are not people I know in real life, but online. Fellow writers, mothers.

Both times I felt a deep pang upon hearing the news. A painful wrenching. It took me a while to figure out what it was.

The first time it manifested close to disgust. Another baby? I thought about what that would mean to me – loss of freedom, inability to write, onslaught of sleepless nights. It seemed like a hideous mistake. Foolishness. I backed away as if I had stumbled upon a sleeping bear, careful not to rouse it.

Then, a few weeks later, another reveal on social media. I studied the woman’s picture, while examining the twisting sensation in my stomach. The luminous smile and bright eyes, her face already glowing with the mystery and otherworldliness of pregnancy.

That’s when I understood what I was feeling. It wasn’t disgust, or jealousy. It was grief.

I have two children. The youngest just turned four and while I assume it’s possible for me to get pregnant again at forty, I don’t want to. That phase of my life, new motherhood, which encompassed the entire decade of my thirties, is over for me.

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Never again will I hold the secret of pregnancy inside my body or feel the let down of milk fill my breasts.

There is grief in this realization. My son stopped nursing in late June, a week before my fortieth birthday, days before I left for a writing retreat, leaving my children for the first time in my life.

He asked to nurse one last time, on the phone during Facetime. “I want to nursy,” he said in a small sad voice, using our word, and my own face crumbled for a moment. “When I get home,” I promised. But when I got home he didn’t ask, and I didn’t offer. That part of our relationship was over. Six months later, I wonder if he remembers.

Motherhood is an endless cycle of letting go, a constant reconfiguring of rules and boundaries. You have to be flexible, quick to shift and shed. These are things I struggle with in regular life, and as a mother, even more.

I wrote my congratulations, my mazel tov, with genuine love to my online friend and her growing family, while simultaneously tending to myself, as I move out of one realm and into another.

 

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Mothering Through the Darkness: Anthology of the Postpartum Experience

MOTHERINGTHRUDARK

“My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me. My shallow heart’s the only thing that’s beating. Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me. Til then I walk alone.”  
– I Walk Alone by Green Day

I felt so lonely as a new mother. Isolated, ashamed, angry, and ungrateful. None of which was appropriate since I had gotten exactly what I wanted – a healthy baby girl.

Looking back, it was shame that silenced me. How dare I be miserable when I was holding what I wanted in my arms? So I swallowed it all, and it ate me up.

I loved my baby. Deeply. During moments of peace, when she was sleeping and I wasn’t crying with exhaustion or despair, I’d stare at her beautiful face and trace her features with my eyes, wanting to memorize every curve, every angle. I relished the shape of her sweet bow lips, the delicate slope of her nose, the way her chin met her throat, the way that throat would undulate with milk, even in her dreams.

I loved my daughter. But I didn’t love myself. Many days I was full of self-loathing for failing at motherhood. For not loving it enough. For not feeling grateful enough. For not excelling at it, acing it, as I had many things in life.

All around me, other women seemed to have it together in ways I did not. As the months went by, and years, this grew more apparent and deepened my shame.

I never sought help and I was never diagnosed with postpartum depression. I answered the questions the midwife asked at my check-up and came out “clear.” But my perceptions of PPD were wrong. Just because I didn’t feel compelled to injure my daughter or myself didn’t mean I wasn’t hurting deeply.

What I needed was the voices and compassion of other women, other mothers, reassuring me I wasn’t alone. I needed the kind of help my father and husband couldn’t offer me, though they tried.

That is why this anthology, Mothering Through the Darkness, edited by Jessica Smock and Stephanie Sprenger of The HerStories Project is such an important book. It would’ve been a lifeline for me.

In a marketplace where there is a glut of books about prenatal and infant care, where are the books about mothers? Where are the books about PPD in all its nuances and variations?

Now there are thirty-five stories, including my own, “Afterbirth.” Writing it helped release years of pent up pain and shame. I cried as I typed, the words pouring forth, as if they had been waiting for a way out.

When the beautiful book finally arrived, I was thrilled, but a little hesitant to read it. Would I be triggered by my co-contributors’ painful stories?

To my surprise, the answer is no. If anything, I am buoyed by our similarities, by the facets of my story that I recognize in theirs. The commiseration that I longed for seven years ago has been gifted to me now.

If you know of a woman in the maelstrom of new motherhood, or recovering from it, please consider letting her know about this book. Or perhaps, pick it up yourself.

No one should walk alone.

Becoming Mother: Book Review

becoming mother cover

“New mothers need to hear the other voices of the postpartum period – ones that talk about the scary, the unpleasant, the embarrassing, and the downright soul-testing. We need to tell these stories because there is comfort in seeing that we are not forging an entirely new path. In fact, we are walking in the footprints that other mother have left behind.”

– Becoming Mother by Sharon Tjaden-Glass

When Sharon asked me if I’d be interesting in reading and reviewing her book, Becoming Mother, I immediately said yes. From what I read on her blog, and through our online conversations, her ideas about motherhood meshed with mine and I couldn’t wait for it to arrive.

But when it finally did, I stared at the beautiful cover and hesitated.

The idea of traveling back to my grief stricken pregnancy and intensely challenging postpartum period was like gazing into a deep well, whose cold dark interior I knew intimately, and for the most part, tried to avoid.

I had delved back there last year when I wrote an essay that is now part of the anthology, Mothering Through the Darkness. But it’s become apparent to me that the transformation into motherhood is not something easily exorcised – and maybe it shouldn’t it be.

When I finally took the plunge and began reading, I became instantly immersed in Sharon’s story of her pregnancy and childbirth. Yes, some of my painful memories rose up, but I forgot about the flip side – how light almost always accompanies the dark.

I remembered lying on the floor after huffing my way through a tortuous pregnancy workout DVD, and how the instructor would say in her adorable lisping French accent, “Now lie down and connect with your baby,” and I felt my future daughter flipping and gliding beneath my fingertips. Reading Sharon’s description of a similar moment, I was transported back to my own magical moment.

That’s why Sharon’s book is not just a guide for new mothers, but any woman interested in stepping back in time. There are gifts of memory and wisdom to be gleaned from retrospection, and realizing the complex and often contradictory feelings of new motherhood are not unique or unnatural, but a shared journey.

The Review

Becoming Mother is divided into six main sections, starting with Pregnancy and going all the way through the first year postpartum. Sharon writes in present tense pausing between sections with a thoughtful reflection. This unique structure keeps the pace brisk and offers the reader breathing room during transitions.

Not unlike active labor.

One thing I particularly appreciated is how the book maintains a sharp focus on the mother’s experience even after the baby is born. Instead of the mom getting shunted off to the sidelines while the newborn takes the spotlight, we remain with Sharon as she processes her physically and emotionally taxing labor and delivery.

With eloquence and clarity, she explains the ramifications of her doctor forcibly breaking her waters (without permission) and another doctor’s cold comments while stitching her up. These moments leave scars, as deep as any C-section, yet invisible to the naked eye. Sharon boldly pokes holes in the popular yet condescending mantra, “all that matters is a healthy baby” with her honest and wrenching account.

While she opted for, and succeeded in having, a natural birth, this book in no way fits tidily into any single style of mothering. In fact, Sharon blows up the assumption that mothers should opt for one style over another, encouraging women to pick and choose what works for them and their babies, and to honor flexibility over any dogma or parenting camp.

We follow Sharon into the heady and delirious days of new motherhood and for her in particular, the painful struggle with breastfeeding. She goes into great detail about this specific challenge, and what initially feels like failure.

A relatable and painful subject for many women, but any mother will certainly understand the hard-earned lesson of reality knocking against theory.

When we’re pregnant we make decisions and proclamations that often get thrown out the window when the baby arrives, thus, the crucial need for flexibility and self-forgiveness. It’s okay to change your mind, or your mindset.

Sharon captures the beauty and awe of new motherhood, as well as the less glamorous aspect of anxiety and loss with thoughtfulness and clear-eyed intelligence.

The first year of motherhood is trial by fire. No matter how much preparation or research you do, nothing can truly prepare you for the change in lifestyle, change in self, loss of identity, and the need to forge a new one.

Yet most of us try to find answers. We take classes, read books and blogs, and ask friends. Pregnant women, and their partners, are often desperate for knowledge. But most stories we hear tend to be on the extreme ends of the spectrum.

There’s the horror story variety: “My labor was 37 hours long and I almost tore in half,” and of course the classic, “You’ll never sleep again!”

While the other side oozes with pure joy and positivity: “I fell in love with my baby right away!” and, “I can’t imagine life without children.”

Neither extreme – no matter how true for the teller – is helpful for new mothers, most of whom are craving realistic answers that fall somewhere in the middle.

On the last day of my childbirth class, I remember one father asking our instructor the question on all of our minds. “But what is it like?”

We all knew what he meant by “it.” He wasn’t referring to the topic being addressed; he wanted to know what being a parent looked like, felt like. He wanted details, minutia. The truth.

I remember people laughing a little, nervously, because we all knew the question couldn’t be answered, certainly not in a few pithy lines on our way out the door. Yet we listened and hung on every word, hoping for some wisdom to carry us to the other side.

This is what Sharon’s book does – she invites the reader to come along with her on the journey of pregnancy, childbirth, and new motherhood and doesn’t hold back. She gives readers the truth, her truth, of course, but with universal sentiments and her own hard-earned wisdom.

“It’s not about being a good mother. It’s about being the right mother. For this child. In this moment… seek to be the right mother. Every day. And if you can do that, you can find peace in the chaos of motherhood.” (page 266)

Becoming a mother is not something that happens in an instant when the baby arrives. It’s something that continues to happen, for years, maybe for the rest of our lives as our children grow up, and one day, grow away.