Thoughts 2 years postpartum

(Warning: TMI to follow)

I posted about my son’s birth five months postpartum. A poem I saw a poem on Facebook the other day that inspired me to revisit the experience now that two years have passed. After all, when I originally posted, I was in the trenches with a colicky baby who still slept in 45-minute to 3-hour stretches, and was adjusting to life as a working mother.

Looking back, however, I still feel as I did right after my baby was born: I never want to do that again.

Now, that doesn’t mean I won’t have another child. Maybe I will decide one day that giving Remy a sibling is worth it. I don’t know. What I do know is that if I ever do that again, I’m getting some kind of painkiller.

This was the biggest smile I could muster.

I realize that the pandemic definitely impacted my birth experience. Like probably all expectant mothers in 2020, my prenatal care was severely limited, and my isolation almost complete. But even without the pandemic, I believe it would have been isolating and traumatic.

The poem resonated deeply with me. It was written by a mother and contrasted the care her newborn received with the lack of care she experienced. Numerous well-baby visits and one, almost perfunctory 8-week check for the mother.

That doesn’t mean that mothers don’t want their babies to have the best care. Of course we do! In fact, it seems like most mothers virtually disappear into their new role, sacrificing themselves for their child. (That, in itself is a problem too, although I don’t have time to go into it right now.)

That’s why it is so disheartening that the medical care new mothers receive mirrors this disappearing.

The United States has a surprising lack of postnatal care. It also has the highest maternal mortality rate of any industrialized country, over half of which occurs postpartum. And that number just keeps growing, especially since 2020, and especially for black and Hispanic women.

Studies have shown that many more mothers sustain undiagnosed injuries during childbirth than previously thought. One study found that, among higher risk women, 29% had undiagnosed pelvic fractures, and 41% had pelvic floor muscle tears. And it took some women up to 8 months to heal. It’s estimated that up to 15% of women experience injuries that never fully heal.

Mostly, women don’t complain, because they figure any discomfort is just normal. Or, if they do, often their concerns are dismissed for the same reason.

Don’t get me wrong: we should definitely recognize pregnancy and birth as a normal part of life. But there’s a difference between a healthy view of birth and minimizing the fact that pregnancy pushes the human body to its limits. And that’s before actually giving birth, which is “arguably the most traumatic event the human body can undergo.”

If we do talk about the blood and tears of birth, we feel the impulse to say, “but it was so worth it,” afterward. As if we cannot hold both extremes in our hands at once—the limits of endurance and the love we have for our babies.

I don’t remember any postnatal care, although I’m certain I had an appointment at some point. I have a vague memory of holding my baby on my stomach so he wouldn’t cry as a nurse briefly examined me.

What I do remember is the 4 months it took for my tear to fully heal. The restless leg so bad my limbs would thrash out against my will. The awful sweating in the days following my son’s birth as my body shed excess water weight.

Being unable to walk without help for 4 days afterward. Breastfeeding through the pain for two years until my son finally weaned himself. Crying in the shower as memories of the birth flooded my mind. Crying because I felt like I didn’t matter, like it shouldn’t affect me this much. After all, birth and motherhood are “normal.”

Over a year after the birth of my son, I had a regular checkup with my doctor. She took one look at my cervix and asked if I had had an unusually fast or traumatic delivery.

“No,” I said, because there had been no complications. It was an 18-hour intense and horrible event, but in a strictly medical sense it had gone quite well. Still, my doctor informed me that my cervix hadn’t quite healed yet from the delivery.

How many women, I wondered, are walking around asking themselves what is wrong with them, why can’t they get “back to normal” like they’re supposed to, when their bodies still hold evidence of birth? Scars where no one can see them, where no one has stopped to check.

To all those who said birth is beautiful

I want to say you’re either a liar or delusional… but that wouldn’t be very nice. And it’s (probably) not true. I’m sure for some bringing their baby boy or girl into the world was, in a way, beautiful.

But that just begs the question: What’s wrong with me?

The last word I would use to describe my birth is beautiful. Excruciating. Long. Isolating. Definitely not beautiful.

Other mothers have described an overwhelming feeling of love once they hold their baby in their arms, or said it was so worth it, they would do it a thousand times over. I had none of those feelings. There was no all-consuming love that washed all the pain away. The strongest feeling I had was astonishment. For some reason I was still shocked to find that there had actually been a baby inside me! Other than that, I was too exhausted after eighteen hours of contractions a minute and a half to five minutes apart to feel much of anything except relief that it was over.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my baby boy. I didn’t want to put him down for even a moment for the first two months of his life. I laugh in delight when he smiles, makes funny faces, and trills his enjoyment of the world. I hold him close and breathe in his scent and tell him mommy will always, always love him.

But still, there was no moment of “I didn’t know I could love this much!” after he was placed, slimy and wet, on my stomach, the cord still connecting us to each other. If there was a rush of endorphins to help me forget the pain of childbirth, I couldn’t tell. The second night, when the baby wasn’t screaming, the memory of the pain kept me awake crying. The memory of a pain that sent chills and heat washing over my whole body until I felt like I was going to pass out, a pain that made me not care that I was crying out or that strangers were seeing me naked. The memory of the way my body took over and pushed without my permission—out of control. The “ring of fire” that just kept getting worse, and worse, and worse until I didn’t even feel my skin rip apart because everywhere else hurt so badly. A pain that made me turn to my husband once it was all over and I was holding my baby against my chest and say, “I don’t ever want to go through that again.”

Four months later, I still don’t think I ever want to go through that again.

But then women have given birth every day for thousands of years. It’s a normal part of life. I didn’t even have any complications or anything to make it extra difficult.

So what’s wrong with me?

The question haunts me every time I get a moment to think, which (thankfully?) is infrequent since Remy was born.

I remember the videos we watched in birthing class. The women laboring hard and long, but without cries of pain—with cries of joy when they saw their baby for the first time. One of them was actually walking from the toilet to the bed when the baby came sliding out into her astonished hands. All of them were able to get up after a few minutes and take a walk with their newborn down the hospital corridor. There is NO WAY I could’ve been standing when he came out, let alone strolled down any corridors afterward. For three days, I could barely make the few feet from the bed to the bathroom. I had to lean on my husband and pause after each step to breathe heavily, feeling like my lungs couldn’t get any oxygen no matter how much I gasped for it.

There was nothing beautiful about it.

In fact, it seemed like a cruel joke. You go through the equivalent of running 6 marathons, through excruciating pain, and then you have to try to recover from this event with barely enough sleep to keep you alive! Four months later, I’m still lucky if I get three consecutive hours of sleep at night.

But again, that’s just what moms have to go through. We wear the scars on our bodies, and it’s normal. My experience is not unusual. Not like the woman who labored 30 hours and whose baby broke her tailbone. Not like the woman who labored 32 hours and passed out afterward. Not like the women who have multiple children (how?!).

So why can’t I let it go?

What is wrong with me?

Breathe

I am driving when anxiety stirs in my stomach. It is small at first, and I think that it is just one of those random spurts that come and choke my heart for a second and then pass. But it grows. As the wipers swish away the rain, I find myself unable to breathe. Suddenly, I am terrified that my husband is going to die. He’s going die and I will be shredded into tiny bloody pieces by the force of his loss. I will never be able to tell him about my day again. I will never recover. Panic claws at my throat, and my chest aches like someone is sitting on it. My head feels like it’s floating, unbound from my body. There’s not enough oxygen.

A panic attack. I haven’t had one in a while, not since my doctor doubled my dose of antidepressant. God, don’t take him from me. Please don’t take him from me. I force myself to breathe—in four, hold five, out seven.

He will cover Josh with his feathers, and under his wings Josh will find refuge. We will not fear the terror by night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness.

There was a time I didn’t know what the terms “general anxiety disorder” and “panic attack” meant. I just called the times when life got too much to handle “freaking out.” Several times. . . okay, many times I left class completely and utterly overwhelmed. I would practically run to a secluded spot outside and collapse to my knees in the dirt, hyperventilating, heart pounding, vision swimming because of a single homework assignment. I didn’t understand what was going on. . .  and neither did the people around me.

Once, a few months after I received my anxiety diagnosis, my RD sat me down with a cup of tea to challenge me to get ahold of my life. “You’re causing your friends to worry about you,” she said. “What can you do to manage your stress level?”

“I’m doing everything I can to manage my anxiety, but sometimes it just gets so intense it needs to come out. So I go somewhere by myself and freak out for a little.”

“But you shouldn’t ever need to freak out.” Those were her words.

Apparently, I should just decide to not have a panic attack. I should never be out of control. I should rewire my brain chemistry and hormones with a snap of my fingers.

If only it was that easy.

Four years later, I force my fingers to relax their grip on the steering wheel. Electricity is zapping through my ribcage, my head is faint, and my chest aches worse than ever, but I keep breathing. I am okay. The fear is not the truth. I am able to stay in the part of my brain that knows this. I have kept this attack from blowing out of control. This is not because I told myself I “shouldn’t need to freak out.” It’s because I educated myself about anxiety disorders and panic attacks. It’s because I told myself it was okay—I am not a bad person for not being able to stay under control. The anxiety, the panic attacks. . . they are not me.

But they are part of what has made me me. Whether I wanted them to or not.

So, as the rain coats the pavement, I don’t get angry at myself or discouraged that it happened again, I just breathe.

 

 

 

 

Dreaming Small

Dream Small

People say to dream big. But what if that’s too much to ask?

Don’t ask me to have grandiose plans for the future when I am just beginning to accept today. For nine years, the future has been an ominous cloud, a place for nightmares to come true. Dreaming big about the future isn’t an option for a lot of us.

So, instead I practice dreaming small. I stare out the window at the leaves reaching up to drink the rain. I make a cup of tea as I work. I cook dinner without dreading the endless cycle of sleep, wake up, work, sleep, die.

Small things, I’m beginning to believe, are attainable.

We put too much emphasis on the future, on having everything figured out. “It’s okay to dream small,” I want to shout. Just live in today. Just dream about tomorrow. This is what I would tell them, the people like me:

Dream of getting a good novel from the library. Dream of creating something beautiful out of paint or clay or beads. Dream of walking in nature, feeling God’s breath whisper through the tress. Dream of doing something—just one small thing—that you want to do just because you want to do it. Dream of saying no to the next person who steps across your boundaries. Dream of deciding to eat that chocolate muffin without any guilt. Dream of taking the one step that’s in front of you instead of worrying about the next 270.

Don’t be afraid to start small.

Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

Life is made of little things

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Traffic thins as I head north from the Cities. The walls on either side of the highway dip down into the earth and the fields widen. When I exit and turn left onto a country road, I roll down the window and let the air whoosh in. It smells like the breath of a thousand leaves, of dirt and watery sky.

No exhaust and tar bogging down the air.

A painted turtle, its pointed nose lifted to the sky, waddles across the pavement. I swerve slightly to avoid a crunch beneath my tires. The truck behind me does the same. There are no turtle crossings in the city. Even if there were, it wouldn’t make it three inches before being squashed.

Life is made of such little things: a turtle crossing the road, the smell of rain, the sound aspen leaves make as they tremble like green coins in the wind, the curling smoke from a burned-out candle, the dimple in his left cheek when he smiles, the warmth of socks straight from the dryer. But it’s so easy to miss. It’s so easy to skim over life as I rinse dishes and wipe counters and drive an hour to work. But as cornfields stretch into apple orchards and untamed forests, I vow.

I will pay attention.

I will look at the world and be filled with wonder at all the tiny, beautiful things.

I want my heart to sing with gratitude.

Otherwise, I will stay here, powerless, trapped, while life whirls on, carrying me in its pounding current. I must remember that it is made of little things. I must pay attention. I must remember this even when the night hits and clouds suffocate the sky and I wonder if I’ll ever find my way to morning.

 

Numbness

In the 3 minutes and 30 seconds it takes for my bagel to toast, I lie on the floor with my Bluetooth speaker sitting right above my ponytail. It plays Jewish Violin Music, the high notes like cold water, trickling over the top of my head to my fingertips. I close my eyes and only feel what the music tells me to feel:

Longing. So much longing.

Anguish so deep it darkens your soul but is still somehow beautiful.

And then the toaster oven dings and I eat and I write an essay about Deism, Concurrentism, Divine Compositionalism, and Occaisonalism. But outside the window, the row of skinny evergreen trees sway in the wind like a row of hooded monks in prayer.

To Be Still

To be still

Outside the library doors, the snow is giving body to the wind. With all the delicateness of each flake and the way the multitude of them looks like the sweeping and folding of a silk scarf, there is power there. It blurs the line between earth and sky, it cocoons you, but it can also slurp you off the road, kill you with disorientation and cold. I step out toward the campus shuttle, and I can’t tell where the sidewalk ends and the road begins. I feel along with my boot tips until I reach the island of warmth of the shuttle. It fishtails over the road toward our apartment, and I worry about Josh driving home in our rust-bucket car with its summer tires.

Back at our apartment, I sit on the exercise ball and stare out the window. The evergreens that serve as a privacy shield between the apartment building and the houses on the other side, the same kind that are always in cemeteries, sway like a line of hooded monks in prayer. I remember when I was little and my brother and I would go out to play. It was one of my favorite things to lie down in the snow and look up into the snow. The flakes began as flat whiteness, then a blur of indiscriminate motion, like when you stare hard into the dark, then they would appear, tiny and always coming at you, like shooting through stars, until nothing else seemed to exist. The important thing was the silence, the noticing and listening.

To be still.

Snow, even in its power and force and flurry of motion, creates stillness. It’s partly how it pads the earth, partly how it muffles all sound, partly because it draws the sky in close, and maybe partly, even mostly, because it stops us in our tracks. We like to think, we humans, that we can control everything. Or at least that if we did, everything would be better. In the second Back to the Future movie, when “Doc Brown” gets out of the DeLorean in the year 2015 it is raining. He checks his watch, and the rain stops right on schedule. If humans haven’t learned to control the weather, they can predict it to the second. Personally, I don’t think we’ll ever figure out how to control weather, or even predict it with total accuracy. Snowstorms like this remind us that we aren’t in control, that there are forces bigger than ourselves. Even in Minnesota, where we take pride in pretending to be above the elements, we are forced to shut down schools and businesses when snowstorms hit or when the temperature drops to forty-below wind chill. It reminds us of our humanity.

I’ve forgotten how to be still.

Even now, watching out my window as night descends and the flashing lights of snowplows pass in my peripheral, I do not go out again to lie down and listen. It’s not just the bother of dawning snow pants and jacket or that I would mar the pristineness of it. It’s that part of me is afraid I will stare up into the white, with the trees shifting beside me and the distant roar of the road, and I will realize I don’t know how anymore. My mind cannot quiet itself. I used to stop and notice and listen. When I was thirteen and fourteen, I spent hours on end lying in my crab apple tree in a hammock I fashioned out of a bed sheet and some rope, staring at the interplay of light and shadow on the leaves or the morphing of clouds. It was the only thing that filled me with life. Now, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve truly been still in the last six years.

My first year at the University of Northwestern, I took a Writing of Place class. The teacher constantly talked about paying attention. “Don’t hydroplane,” she’d tell us. Yes. Yes, this is what I want. I want to pay attention, to listen, be still.

But how do I be still in a world that spins 1,040 miles per hour?