Portrait of one mother

She
is busy
picking up
pouring out
meeting
needs.

She
is careful
keeping
watch
time
memories
peace.

She
is thirsty—
motherhood
doesn’t deal out gold stars—
what about her
needs
likes
wants?

She is still
surveying
her home, life,
the small miracle they created,
she knows
to him, she is
rest
She smiles.

She needs 
                  peace.
      wants
                      rest.
She is
Love (d).

Beautiful

She looks in the mirror

violet crescents shadow

the delicate space below

her tired eyes

ring fingers tap cold cream

trace new wrinkles

etched in the corners

and here’s

an annoying pimple

in her reflection,

//

her eyes move to

her softened belly, 

once ballooned to carry a baby

small breasts,

once swelled to feed that baby

two arms —

she flexes twice —

her arms have never been stronger

nearly three years later

her baby still begs to be carried.

//

Once upon a time

she picked at her flesh

and prodded 

and planned

stepped on a scale

let a number dictate her 

joy

her diet 

she aimed to reign in

what she now knows is wild and free 

and maybe aging

isn’t something to 

fear like they taught us.

//

This time 

she drinks in her reflection

and calls it

evidence of

pain

evidence of

bliss

evidence of

a woman evolving.

she calls it

Lessons from 2019

The Cut recently informed me that although some people don’t keep a diary, most of us have inboxes that serve as a “fossil record of our lives.” In other words, ancient emails are a window into our stories. Reading this, a small chuckle escaped my lips. I’d been sifting through emails the day prior for evidence to corroborate dates for an essay I was revising. What struck me most about my old messages was their tone. My voice seemed strange yet familiar, young but not naive, kind yet scared. Who was this woman? Me but different.

On this 20th day of December in 2019, 48 hours from my 34th birthday and 12 days until New Year’s, I wonder: Who was I on the cusp of 2019? And who will I become in 2020? The whole truth lies not in emails but stories —  lessons — from the time between. 

One: Why does it ache?

Trapped with my mouth wide open and torso at a 45 degree decline, I examined vintage Chicago posters while the dentist finished cleaning my teeth.

“Well, that’s it,” he said, putting down the floss. 

“So, you’re sure there’s nothing wrong?” I asked him, craning my neck to the side.

“Your teeth look great, though you’ll probably want to start flossing more — the gaps between them grow wider with age.” With the flick of his switch, my chair whirred to eye level.

I repositioned myself and tried again: “It’s just my teeth, they were so achy.” 

For weeks they’d ached, pain fading in and out. They hurt first thing in the morning and at bedtime. They occasionally woke me up at night. They hurt whenever I switched from one activity to the next, almost as if my teeth were petulant children demanding my attention. I brushed, flossed and went back to work, ignoring them. 

Little mouths needed brushing, dishes of every size kept piling up in the sink and deadlines too were stacking up in my planner. Visiting the dentist never made it on my lengthy to-do list; it got lodged in my brain someplace between almost out of dish soap and don’t forget to file your check requests before sabbatical. 

“Right.” The dentist nodded.

I licked my teeth and tasted fluoride. “And now they’re fine,” I said. Coincidentally, the week I made the appointment, my pain disappeared.

The dentist shrugged his shoulders and stood to leave. We’d already gone over this — no evidence of grinding or gum disease. No cavities.

“Sometimes these things have a way of sorting themselves out.” He smiled and moved to the door. Conversation closed.

It bothered me that the dentist didn’t have an answer. What caused the pain? I wondered, picking up my complimentary toothbrush and toothpaste and summoning my driver. I zipped up my jacket and waved goodbye to the receptionist. Moreover, how did it heal?

Outside crisp leaves tumbled across the street and wind cut through my jacket. Fall in Chicago is a short, poignant season one must be careful not to miss. The neighborhood trees were showing off gold, crimson and burnt orange and I realized I had the entire afternoon free before my son returned from school. I could go for a run in the woods or cozy up with a good book. Maybe I’d start a chili.

Waiting for my ride it struck me: I was no longer in a hurry.

I’d replaced piles of dishes and deadlines with extra playtime and travel. After months of making appointments for my son but not myself, I had an eye exam, annual check-up and this dentist visit. I was officially on leave from work and yes, life was slow.

For now.

Eventually sabbatical would end and working motherhood would sink its claws back into me. I smiled up at the gray sky. I wanted to hold onto this feeling — hope — and carry it with me to the next season. I wanted to start paying attention to pain, and to its release.

Two: A messy dilemma

I hold two passions in my heart: one is my family, the other, my career. I’m lucky I landed my dream job as a magazine editor. I’m doubly blessed I realized my dream of becoming a wife and mother. I’m living the dream.

Yet these two dreams often seem at odds with one another, and though I believe that’s a false dichotomy, there are days I curse motherhood for crippling my career and days I blame work for my lack of presence with my family. Both are lies. Both are true.

When my son’s weeklong spring break from school approached,  I submitted my vacation days and cleared my calendar just for him. In my planner, I sketched out daily agendas: on Monday, we’d go to Cafe Little Beans, on Tuesday, we’d stay home and watch Disney movies, on Wednesday, we’d take a nature walk, and so forth.

Wednesday arrived and I loaded up my son Jack and our dog Gus into the car and drove to the forest preserve for our walk. The sky was clear and blue, pale green buds sprinkled trees, and when we approached a clearing, I let Gus off leash for a romp in the grass. Jack pointed and giggled as Gus sprinted out into the empty field. “Go on buddy,” I said, gently pushing him forward. The ground was moist and smelled of yesterday’s rain. With a little coaxing, Jack made a beeline for Gus, who appeared to be drinking out of giant mud puddle. 

“Oh no! Wait. Honey, don’t go in there,” I yelled out, waving him back. 

“Mommy! A mud puddle!” He said, stomping his feet with glee. 

Too late. In an instant, Jack’s shoes were caked with black-brown mud. Then he plopped on his bottom and the mud speckled our dog’s white fur. Safely positioned on the edge of the puddle, I sighed, thinking of the bath they would need later. This was not on my agenda.

“Mommy!” Jack cried, pushing himself back up. “Come splash with me!” 

I didn’t want to go in, but in that moment I knew I could either be the mom who played in the mud or killed the fun. I had only 10 minutes left for this walk and zero supplies for clean up. This would surely dirty my car, delay our daily agenda and screw up Jack’s nap schedule. Plus I was wearing white-soled shoes. No matter what, this was going to be a mess.

“Mommy! Mommy!” my son called again, grinning. Gus let out a little bark.

This time, I didn’t hesitate. I stepped out into the mud to play.

Three: Brave

What I remember most about our conversation was his attitude. Leaning over his scotch at the bar top, my friend was the definition of casual. This was the same carefree guy I knew from college and also someone entirely different. He was a pastor, after all.

So when I confessed to him over drinks I still had doubts about my faith, I couldn’t have predicted what he said next. 

“Imagine how it feels when you’re the pastor,” he said throwing back a swig of scotch.

My mouth dropped. I stirred my seltzer water and searched for the right response. “You too?”

“I mean, who hasn’t?”

What I’d wanted from him was theology. Wisdom. A Bible verse to help me grapple with why my husband got sick and my dad got sick and why people kept getting shot by angry white men with assault rifles. I wanted an antidote to doubt.

Instead of that, he offered, “Me too.” My pastor friend understood the doubts and the questions and the creeping worry that death was just the end. What I wanted wasn’t what I actually needed. What I needed was a companion in doubt.

This conversation wasn’t an anomaly. I talked to many other pastors this year who echoed similar sentiments.

On a walk in the woods, I got to know a pastor who admitted she didn’t have the best answers to age-old faith questions related to suffering. At coffee, my pastor listened to my frustrations at length and nodded with understanding, quietly holding space for me.

Over pancakes, one very important pastor I admired told me he hoped I’d write about it — my doubts. I wanted to tell him I’d been trying to write about doubt and pain all year. Instead I sat and sipped my coffee.

I often wrote in the literal darkness. Early in the morning before my family woke. Late at night when they were asleep.

Entering the darkness in words doesn’t necessarily stump me, it’s the getting out that does.

Another pastor whose writing I adore wrote this of darkness: “Those of us who should follow Christ, therefore, should expect a lot of darkness. That is where God finds us and also sends us.”

Later, when it was time to make edits to a story I wrote that seemed too sad and irreverent, I discovered a shred of Hope threaded through my prose. I set down my red editing pen.

Perhaps exploring doubt is a sign of evolving faith. I’m finding there’s beauty in the darkness. I’m learning to pay attention to my pain — and joy. I believe I’m entering 2020 a little braver than before.

I wrote this post as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “2019.”

The dance

They call it the longest, shortest time for a reason, yet every time I glimpse you teetering between boyhood and babyhood, I’m startled.

Like at baby Chloe’s birthday party, while she investigated her first cupcake from her high chair, you begged for a slice of watermelon cake. You licked up the green icing and tore away into the prairie grass faster than I could holler, “Where are you going, buddy?” Light rain streaked down from the gray sky as I watched you from the gazebo thinking surely he’ll stop soon.

But you didn’t.

You just kept running farther and farther into the wild and when you wouldn’t respond to my calls I knew what had to be done, I couldn’t let you keep going so I chased after you myself.

Caught at the edge of the trail, you collapsed into my embrace, eyes shining, mouth stained with frosting, bubbling over with laughter.

(A few days ago, we fell asleep on the bed in the afternoon, your tired toddler body curving into mine. At two and a half years old, you rarely nap with me, not the way you used to when you were so small and sweet. Beforehand you’d refused to go potty, spit out your carrots, threw a tantrum. I woke trapped under the weight of your head in my right armpit, eager to wriggle free. Then I noticed your softened face and the heaviness of your eyelids. You looked angelic. We stayed that way for a while until I slipped out of the bed and let you dream alone.)

In that open field, I’d held you and pleaded, “Jack-Jack, please don’t run away from me like that again. You made Mommy very scared!” Your eyes widened and you nodded your head gravely, like maybe you understood. And we walked hand in hand back through the tall grass back to the gazebo.

Growing up, it seems, is a dance of going out on our own and coming home to rest. We are in the dance right now, you and me, and I’m trying hard to give you the space you need and trust that you’ll know when you need to run back to me. Honestly, on the long, hard days I want to run away from it all. But the truth is, my big-little boy, I need you too. More than you know.

So how about this? We keep up this holy dance, growing apart and together. Two souls in the world — bonded by love.

Let it be love

“Wait, you still have to stay in his room at bedtime?” she asked, a hint of pity in her voice. We sharing stories and dinner in my home and my least favorite parenting topic had arisen.

“Yeah,” I said sheepishly. “With all his ear infections and our failed attempts at sleep training, he just never got the hang of falling asleep on his own.” I looked down and cut at my lasagna. “Honestly, it’s easier this way.” 

“Oh honey, that’s so hard,” she said. It was definitely pity. “It sounds like you need some time for you.”

There was so much more to the story – how much better his sleep was compared to year one, how most nights I dreaded our exhaustive routine but occasionally I savored it — but I couldn’t bring myself to tell it. I took a bite and nodded, searching for how to change the subject.

“So, tell me about your new project…?” And with that, I steered our conversation forward.

// 

There’s something I need to tell you: I’m a bit of an overachiever. I took honors classes from grade school through college. I racked up extracurriculars — choir, cross country, steel drum band, student council — like girl scout badges. For the majority of my short life, I measured my life in grade point averages and activities mastered. The higher, the better. 

Naturally, when I achieved my goal of getting pregnant, I began to research every aspect of motherhood. I dove into Expecting Better and my app from The Bump, then lost myself in the mesmerizing world of Mom Influencers. Square after Insta-square they lined up proof of motherly excellence: heart-melting images of swaddled newborns, perfectly styled nurseries and stunning family photo sessions caught at the golden hour. 

I wanted that shiny life. Honestly, I still want it, even though I now know those images don’t tell the whole story. Not the back-breaking pain of labor and sleep deprivation or the piercing fear of your child dying. Nor can they fully convey the heart-bursting joy of seeing your child’s first radiant smile or lulling him to sleep with your favorite lullaby, the one dad used to sing at bedtime until you outgrew it. 

In 2019, it’s easy to engage in performative parenting — documenting our children’s wins online in exchange for “likes” and a little boost of satisfaction. Raising kids can be so thankless sometimes, and it feels good to be validated. But motherhood is not a race to be won or a course to be aced or a song to be mastered. Motherhood, I’m finding, is terribly difficult to measure. Deep down I know this, but I go ahead and try anyway.

//

“Please eat your peas,” I said, pointing to my son’s plate.

“I don’t want to!” he responded, edging his plate toward mine.

“Please honey,” I pleaded, nudging it back. I could have written this scene a plethora of ways, all varieties of vegetables and moods and tactics, all leading to the same, stubborn answer:

“No!” he shouted, crossing his arms. We sat at the table in silence, glaring at one another. In his eyes I saw his characteristic spark of defiance. Oh please not another tantrum…

“Fine,” I said icily, yanking the plate away. “Let’s get you cleaned up to play.”

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve tried to push healthy food, how many times I’ve thrown up my hands and accepted my son will eat a medley of snacks for dinner. 

At the next meal, I’d try again, hoping this time the broccoli or fish or whatever I was pushing would stick. Some days it worked; most days it didn’t. I didn’t think I was doing such a bad job because I’d heard from moms in my circle that I’m not alone in this struggle. Then I got this text from my husband.

Him: Jack’s underweight

Me: Wait…what

Me: By how much?

Me: What did the doctor say

Him: I don’t know but he is in like the 16th percentile or something

Me: Oh God

Him: She kept drilling me about what he eats and drinks

The revelation brought me to my knees — I wasn’t feeding our son the right food. I wasn’t feeding him enough. I wasn’t . . . enough.

This wasn’t the first time I’d felt like I was falling behind as a mama. 

Once my son’s teacher reported that he’d been tripping and falling down too much at his Montessori school and maybe he should get involved in some sort of physical activity? That made me feel physically ill. Or there was the time our expensive sleep consultant told me I’d nursed my son for too long, implying that I’d “ruined” his ability to soothe himself to sleep. Gut punch. And, yes, there was that dinner table conversation about bedtime that left me swimming in a sea of self-doubt.

//

Her voice is sharp and judgy; she’s constantly criticizing me:

You shouldn’t have yelled at him that way.

You should have faxed in that medical form last week.

You shouldn’t be on your phone right now — play with him.

You should have been there for his big milestone, instead of at work.

More than any other marker, not the shiny moms on the internet or the ones I know IRL, my inner critic likes to remind me of all the ways I’m not measuring up as a mama. Ever the overachiever, she grades me against her great expectations.

My mom stayed home with my brother and me when we were little. I don’t remember the years well, but I do know she was an excellent mother — kind, patient, generous, slow to anger. Still is. I wish I could give my son what I had growing up, not what I’m actually giving him. Fits and spurts of weekday parenting plus long weekends doesn’t feel like enough to me. Often I feel I cannot keep up with motherhood and my career — the pace, the demands of each is too intense to do either very well.

So how do I address this nagging feeling I’m not measuring up? One option might be to ignore or reject it. Good in theory, but harder to execute. Another option might be to make peace with my inner critic, and maybe even give her a little compassion. It’s only human nature to compare yourselves to others, so why not just accept it? Plus swapping stories with fellow mamas has lent me some fantastic tools and tricks for navigating the grueling early years.

An additional way might be to consider what I’m measuring when it comes to motherhood. Yes, the importance of nutrition and sleep and education cannot be downplayed. (If you’re wondering: My husband and I did make a plan for our son to get his weight back on track. And bedtime’s been getting better.) But what if there was something else I could use as a benchmark?

In my work as a freelance parenting writer, I’ve found one theory of child development that keeps turning up, no matter if my story is about teaching your child to tidy up or to inherit your values. That common thread is: What we model, our children inherit. Children soak up the words we speak and the actions we take and reflect them back to us like a mirror.

Could it really be quite that hard and that simple? On the one hand, this is great news. I hope my son mirrors my commitment to relationships and health and creativity. On the other, I don’t know if I can live up to that sort of pressure. My flaws — my pride, my people-pleasing, my workaholism, my perfectionism, to name a few — are not what I want to pass on to him.

Thankfully, to borrow from a Lutheran pastor I heard preach last summer, “There’s grace for that.

There’s grace for the mom who yells. For the striving mom who always feels like she’s failing. For the mom who’s angry and overwhelmed and in need of a little validation. For the mom who invests so much in her children she forgets herself. For the mom who misses her freedom and wishes she could be more present. (I’ve been all these moms and more.) The good news?

Graces lift us up when we inevitably stumble.

//

Last week my son and I were in his playroom, sitting thigh to thigh in his mini Pottery Barn chair, chewing on a couple of chocolate chip cookies. Summer sunlight was streaming through the windows, and, as we chomped away, I relished the cookie’s sweetness. Out of the blue he remarked, “Mommy, sometimes I get mad.”

The simple expression stopped me mid-chew. Minutes ago he’d thrown not one but two tantrums when I explained that we could not have a popsicle and a cookie right now, we had to choose just one for dessert. This unexpected utterance made me think maybe all those episodes of Daniel Tiger and conversations about forgiveness were starting to sink in.

“I know buddy,” I answered, rubbing his back with one arm. “That’s normal.”

“Sorry Mommy,” he said, rising to wrap his arms around me, crumbs tumbling off his lips and fingers. “I love you Mommy!”

My eyes smarted with tears. I sure know I stumble often as a mama, but if my son can hold onto this sweetness, I will consider my work excellent.

“Oh honey, I understand,” I said, kissing his cheek and pulling him in tighter. “I love you too.”

If I’m going to measure anything, God, let it be love.

I wrote this post as part of a blog hop with Exhale — an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood led by the women of Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “Measuring Up.” Image credit: Phoenix Feathers Calligraphy

Becoming

I don’t think anyone can fully prepare you for how pivotal it is to become a mother. It’s not that they don’t try. In fact, when you’re expecting, you may find everyone from your great aunt to your coworkers to well-meaning strangers dole out parenting advice. Whether they’re parents or not, many know the searing ache, the bliss of parenthood from their own lives and feel the significance of this new chapter of life of which you’re on the brink.

The journey to parenthood is in and of itself a new chapter, one that for many women and men is full of hopes and heartache. I remember this pain well. Several summers ago, while vacationing with dear friends from college and their families, I stood sobbing in a bathroom stall, wracked with envy. The only childless couple on the trip, my husband and I watched as their beautiful children shared hugs, spread joy and spilled Cheerios.

At the time, we were months into trying for our first child, and it wasn’t going great. For one, after months off birth control, my hormones were all out of wack. Getting pregnant was supposed to be easy, I thought. But now, at 30, it had become clear conceiving a child was much more calculated than others let on. I worried that my body was failing me. I worried we’d waited too long. I worried that my deepest fear — that we wouldn’t be able to have a child — might be true. Over that long weekend, while I observed my friends love on their littles, the thought that dominated my consciousness was, “I want that. Badly.”

Little did I know, I had that. I was actually pregnant with my son, and the hormones were making me tired beyond belief and weepy. The next chapter of my life was already underway.

Flash forward to today. Today is Mother’s Day, and I am actually spending part of it alone in a Starbucks writing. Time alone is a true gift for mothers of small children like myself. It’s what I asked my husband for this holiday, and he graciously granted my request.

Now I am two years and counting into motherhood and feel like an old veteran. I know this sense of security is sketchy at best. Like the time after my son began sleeping through the night consistently, but then began to act — as toddlers often do — in new, headstrong ways. Because I’ve been there before, I know I’ll forever be encountering new challenges and delights. Or, as my coworker and friend Karen says, “Bigger kids, bigger problems.” The constant change of motherhood is exhilarating and unnerving.

But going from expecting to birthing a baby, that change, that new chapter of life is monumental. And not just because your baby is changing. You are too. Those early, grueling months of learning to change diapers and feed a baby on demand are a time of becoming.

In her piece, “The Birth of A Mother,” reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks says it’s “an identity shift, and one of the most significant psychical and psychological changes a woman will ever experience.” I read this piece weeks into new motherhood, and it brought me so much peace and clarity, I teared up. This year I even had the privilege to interview Sacks for an article I wrote for The Everymom. When we spoke, Sacks said it’s time for us to shed light on this major life transition so that new moms know they’re not alone in their mixed feelings.

I only need look back on my posts from the early days of my son’s life — when caring for a newborn was all consuming, when sleep was a battle, when I felt a love so strong it scared me (still does) — to know the weight of learning to mother.

One of my favorite writers, Shauna Niequist, begins her book, Present Over Perfect naming a period in her adulthood in which she experienced dramatic change as a “sea-change, the journey from one way of living to another.”

And that’s exactly what happens when you become a mother. With a newborn in your arms you toss all your old habits and ways of living out the window and learn to live with and care for another person. Your person. You are no longer alone. You trade freedom for a new way of living. You are a mom! Niequist goes on to say this about her major life transition:

This is a love story, like all my favorite stories. It’s a story about letting yourself be loved, in all your imperfect, scarred, non-spectacular glory. And it’s about the single most profound life change I’ve yet encountered.”

–Shauna Niequist

I could say the same about my motherhood journey. And I’ll add this: loving my son was the most profound life change I’ve yet encountered. Being his mom is one of my life’s greatest love stories, and it’s still unfolding.

About a month before I gave birth to my son, I started this blog. Since 2008, after I graduated from college and became enamored with blogs, I wanted to have my own. I made a few feeble attempts at blogging over the years but in December 2016 I finally committed. In committing to this blog, I not only committed to writing, I committed to myself, to my story. I was beginning to believe that my words might matter to others.

Then, in January 2017, Jack was born and writing our story has been a tool for me to process, heal, share and reflect on all the highs and lows I’ve encountered throughout motherhood. What a gift to be a mother-writer, what an incredible gift. I look back and see my journey of becoming is written in my heart and on the page — of this blog, my journal, other publications.

In writing through motherhood and sharing it with others, I’ve connected with many other parents — a great blessing. Parents of older children often respond to my stories with comments such as, “Savor it!” and “This time goes so fast.” God, if they only knew just how much I agreed with them.

I’m doing everything in my power to savor this time, even when it’s boring (ever watched three episodes of Umizoomi in a row or cluster-fed a hangry newborn?) or hard to be present (when you have a million deadlines to worry about at work and dirty dishes piled up in the sink). That’s exactly why I’m writing through motherhood — so I can remember it. And give thanks for it. Also: I want others to remember too. Ultimately, when I give birth to a story and offer it up to others, I want it to be a gift that they might use to claim their stories as well.

My friend and writing mentor, author Callie Feyen wrote this about her daughter, “I am a writer because of her not in spite of her.” This resonated deeply with me. When I finally took ownership of my identity as a writer — when I realized I wasn’t just a journalist, I had my own stories to tell — was, consequently, when I became a mother. For that, I am deeply grateful.

A mother’s worry

“Jack got in a fight at school today,” she reports, pushing an accident slip toward me.

I take the slip and crouch down to examine a fingernail-shaped scratch on my son’s head. “Poor buddy,” I say, pulling him into a hug. I look up and ask, “What happened?” “He and another boy wanted the same toy,” his teacher answers. I pepper her with more questions — does this happen often, is Jack getting along with the others, is the other boy hurt — while Jack wriggles in my arms, eager to escape.

Later, as I slip Jack’s red Velcro shoes on his little feet, our eyes meet. “Honey, I’m sorry about your fight. Are you OK?” “Uh-huh,” he nods his head and looks away. I am not convinced. “Fights are gonna happen,” I go on. “We need to play nice with our friends. We say ‘I’m sorry’ when we mess up. And we forgive others when they hurt us.” The words hang in the air and I realize this is only the beginning. In three years, Jack will start kindergarten. Then he’ll face schoolyard squabbles and bullies and even lockdown drills. This thought hits me squarely in the gut.

One of the most painful truths of motherhood is that the more my son grows, the less I can protect him from getting hurt. I blink back tears. I take my son’s hand in mine and we walk out to the car in silence.

Later, at bedtime, Jack rests his head in the crook of my arms as I rock him back and forth. At two years old, his lanky legs spill over the side of the rocking chair. Together, we sing the ABCs, the rainbow color song and happy birthday (his current favorite). Someday he’ll outgrow this ritual, I think.

Despite Jack’s protests, I lift him out of my arms and gently place him in his crib. I kiss his head and whisper, “I love you buddy.” Jack stops whining for a moment. “I love you too, Mommy,” he sighs.

The world is harsh, but it is also beautiful. Although I cannot keep my son from experiencing pain, I can carry him with my love. And though I’ll never escape my unspeakable worries, I can hold onto this moment and let it carry me through the night.

Looks like surrender, feels like home

erin and jackI open the door and see him dead center in a sea of toddlers, tears streaming down his tiny, flushed face. “Mommy!” he sobs. “Oh poor buddy,” I say, rushing forward, folding him in my arms.

His teacher tried to reach me earlier, but I missed her calls. That Tuesday, while I sat in meetings, my son developed a fever — slight at first, but escalating to over 100. She reports she comforted him all afternoon, but he’s still in a lot of pain. My heart lurches. She, not me, held him. I feel like a horrible mama.

At home I treat his fever with fire engine red Tylenol, saving Motrin for bedtime. Even with painkiller, however, Jack is up every three hours that night, crying out in pain. I hold him; I rock him; I lie on my side next to his crib, rubbing his back, willing him to sleep while he writhes in discomfort.

Curled up on the cold hardwood floor, I feel angry. Angry because my son gets sick all the time, because my husband is away on business, because I know I’ll have to take yet another sick day tomorrow, because I’m selfish — all I want is to retreat to my warm, cozy bed. I will myself to stay.

I’m tired. I’m tired of juggling parenting and providing, feeling like I don’t do either well at all. At 32, I’m envious of 25-year-old me, who can go to bed early or stay out late — her choice; who can sleep in or get up early for a run — her choice; who doesn’t worry about interruptions — leaving work early or getting up in the middle of the night for her son. I used to be single — and free. My thoughts are interrupted by light breathing. Jack’s finally asleep.

The next morning, mercifully, Jack’s fever breaks. He still can’t go to daycare, though, so I call in sick, and we snuggle up in my bed — he watching Team Umizoomie on my laptop, me dozing in and out. I dream about my son’s first year of life, 3 a.m. nursing sessions, pumping, babywearing, washing bottles, complete and utter dependence, complete and utter exhaustion. I wake up grateful.

Eventually Jack’s hungry. “Waffle?” he asks. “Sure sweetheart,” I reply, peeling myself out from under the covers to shuffle toward the kitchen. I place an Eggo waffle in the toaster. I gaze toward my bedroom door. I know this in my heart: Motherhood is a place that looks like total surrender, with independence tugging at its corners. It’s also a place that feels like home.

How I coped with weaning my son

Erin and Jack

About a month ago in August, after a three-day work trip to Boston, I stopped breastfeeding my son. He was 17 months old, and my husband and I thought this trip was a good opportunity to wean him.  Prior to the trip, he comfort nursed twice a day, in the mornings and evenings. I dropped to these two sessions when Jack turned one–I’d planned to stop when he simply lost interest.

Jack loved nursing, and I did too. Yet over time, it became clear those two feedings were affecting Jack’s sleep. Bedtime wasn’t so bad, but I knew Jack needed me to fall asleep. Mornings, on the other hand, were a challenge. Jack rose every morning at 5 a.m. crying out for me to feed him, a call I loved and hated. I loved starting the day with him. I hated the 5 a.m. part.

On one particularly exhausting morning last spring, I took Jack to back to our bed, positioned him the crook of my arm and elevated his his head, then fed him, blissfully, until we both fell asleep. This became our new routine, and it was something I savored. Early mornings became much easier, until Jack’s wake-up time started creeping from 5 to 4:45 to 4:30 to 4 a.m. By summer it was clear something had to change to remedy the situation.

For months I was so afraid of what was on the other side of weaning. Weaning marked the end of Jack’s babyhood, even though he’d dived into his toddler phase in February, when he took his first steps. Once Jack was weaned our relationship would inevitably shift. In August, it was time for that shift.

A difficult transition

Weaning, like breastfeeding, was surprisingly painful. Unlike breastfeeding, where the pain is raw and physical, the effects of weaning hit me squarely in my heart.

The night after I returned from Boston, I led Jack through his usual bedtime routine, skipping his feeding. He’d already experienced three nights like this; I hoped it would seem normal. Standing at the foot of the crib, I cradled Jack and sang him a lullaby, the final step in his routine. He wrestled and craned his neck toward my breasts. “Milk? Milk?” he asked sweetly. My heart dropped.

“Mommy doesn’t have any milk now,” I answered gently.

“Milk? Milk?” Jack asked again, and I shook my head no. He screamed violently. I tried to stay calm, but I could feel the panic rising inside my chest. I put Jack down in his crib; he went ballistic. I picked him up again, he tried to nurse, then cried, so I put him down again. He cried harder. I hated that I couldn’t soothe him with nursing. I worried: Did I wean him too soon? Soon I was crying too–big, heavy tears.

The noise woke my husband, who was asleep in the other room. “Erin, Erin, are you OK?” he called out sleepily. Jack cried. I cried. Jack cried some more.

“No,” I finally blurched. “Help me.” I was so overwhelmed, I wasn’t sure I could last any longer. I wanted to run far away from this baby, this choice, this heartache. I tried to hold Jack and rock him, but he continued to wrestle. On the verge of collapse, I felt my husband’s loving arms encircle my waist. He stood behind me and rocked me–and our son–in his arms. “Shhh” he whispered, urging both of us to relax.

Jack finally fell asleep that night, but I couldn’t. I tossed and turned, plagued with anxiety. I couldn’t stop turning over this choice in my head. Had I made a mistake?

I loved everything about breastfeeding my son: the soothing effect it had on him, the bond it created between us, the feel-good chemicals it created in my body, and heck, the calorie burn was a nice treat. Most of all, I loved that it was a way for Jack and me to start the day together, and to reconnect after a long day, usually spent apart at work and daycare. Now our special time together had ended, and I was full of sorrow and doubt.

Morning came. Some time between 4 and 5 a.m., Jack called “Mommy! Mommy!” I felt so depressed I couldn’t get out of bed. I roused Jay and asked him to take over. I couldn’t do this, it felt too damn painful. Jay helped my son with his morning routine that day. For Jack, that morning and the one that followed weren’t as painful. Morning nursing sessions were easily replaced with breakfast. He had some moments of frustration about the change, but they paled in comparison to what we saw at bedtime.

Bedtime, which was once so easy, became a war. Jack didn’t want to be rocked to sleep. He didn’t want to be patted to sleep. He didn’t understand why we were skipping his favorite part of bedtime, when he reconnected with his Mommy. He was frustrated–he longed for his old routine. I did too, but I knew it was too late to go back.

Some nights I cried, but other nights I got angry. Once I got so angry at Jack for refusing to lay down in his crib I stalked out of his room and slammed the door loudly. “I can’t go back in there,” I fumed. My husband roused himself from bed and finishing putting Jack down.

My whole body, especially my breasts, ached for Jack. My hormones were out of control. I was irritable and grouchy, and also weepy and sentimental. I mourned the change in my relationship with Jack. Would we ever be close again? I kept googling “weaning and depression” and only came up with a few helpful results. I read all of them. I texted my mom friends for advice. I called my mom. I wrote in my journal. I went to yoga.  I allowed myself to feel sad.

A week passed and one day, Jack slept until 6 a.m. When I looked at my phone I could barely believe it. Finally the early rising we’d grappled with for 17 months was righting itself. We had made the right decision after all, I thought, and my heart felt a little lighter.

A silver lining: Reclaiming my time

Jack’s sleep continued to improve, and so did our moods. We were getting along better, learning to connect in new ways. The breastfeeding hormones were leaving my body, and after about two weeks of sadness, anxiety and frustration, I began feeling like myself again. The only thing that hadn’t changed? My body kept rousing itself around 5 a.m. each morning.

I’ve always been a morning person, but after giving birth to my son that shifted due to his schedule and my sleep deprivation. Honestly my whole world shifted when Jack arrived and I never thought I’d be able to reclaim my mornings–until now. I used to get up early to workout, but I had a pretty established evening workout habit these days. What to do with this time?

One of my dear friends is a full-time working mama and prolific, accomplished writer. I’ve always admired how she prioritizes her writing amid her many responsibilities as a manager at work and mother at home. She told me her secret: getting up early a few times a week to fit in writing. When she shared this with me, Jack wasn’t yet one, and I knew it would be a long time until I could try this for myself. At August’s end, I had an epiphany: the time was now.

Thus I began reclaiming my mornings and rising early to write. Replacing something I loved so much–nursing Jack in the morning–with something I love that’s just for me–writing–has been amazing. It helped me let go of the final dregs of sadness about nursing Jack, and it’s helped me move forward in my writing goals. It’s been about a month since I started, and I’ve worked on a handful of writing projects–some to pitch to publications, some to share in this space and on Instagram, others just for me.

I worried I’d lose steam but I haven’t. It feels amazing setting aside this time for myself to do something I love most mornings during the workweek. It’s only an hour or so, but writing in the mornings before Jack’s awake, making time for myself first thing, sets the tone for my entire day. As many mothers know, feeding a child takes a lot of your time an energy, especially when your child is young and you’re on call about every two hours. Now that I’m finally on the other side of breastfeeding,  I’m so grateful Jack and I were able to share that special time together and I’m also delighted to finally reclaim my time for myself. This is a new beginning for me; these writing sessions are my silver lining.

Children grow so quickly–from exclusive breastfeeding to fruit and veggie purees to table foods to weaning, from crawling to toddling to walking to full-out running, from cooing to babbling to words to phrases–and each time Jack grows I continue to be amazed and surprised. Sometimes, like with weaning, the change is especially hard. Other times, like when Jack started talking, I was thrilled.

What I’ve learned from this is that it’s OK to mourn change even while you celebrate a new beginning. Looking back, I can barely believe I breastfed Jack for 17 months. I’m grateful was able to and I’m grateful we had that time together. Although weaning Jack was painful, he is sleeping better, is more independent and we’ve grown to connect in other ways.

Here’s to difficult goodbyes and new beginnings. May you find your silver lining.

Are you an early riser? Have you had a similar experience with reclaiming your time after a major life transition? I’d love to hear from you–message me or comment below.

Summer mom

“I wanna be one of those summer moms who makes bucket lists and pool trips and spoils dinner with ice cream,” I lament to Jay while putting groceries away on Saturday.

I envy the summer moms. I see them strolling the neighborhood in their top knots and tank tops, babies in tow, seemingly schedule- and care-free.

Our weekends, in contrast, are a whirlwind of laundry, weeding and tidying up toddler messes—always prepping for the workweek ahead. “It’s hard when we both work full-time,” he says, rinsing dishes in the sink. I sigh.

My mom was a summer mom. She had summers off from teaching, and we went to our community pool often. My brother and I spent hours racing up and down the waterslides. We’d come home—soggy, spent and smelling of chlorine—then change into warm, dry clothes and collapse on the couch with cool, fruity popsicles. The memory is delicious.

It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m packing for a business trip while our son is napping. I spy my swimsuit in the closet and pause. In one swift motion I grab it and announce, “We’re going to the pool!” “Which one?” my husband asks. “I’m not sure yet…”

45 minutes later we’re at the neighborhood pool. I breathe in the smell of sunscreen, wiggle my toes in the cool pool water and revel in this perfect, 80-degree day. Our son is giggling at the mini geysers in the kiddie pool, and I can’t stop smiling. I’m deliriously happy.

I am a summer mom; I just had to believe it.

 

P.S. That night we totally had ice cream for dinner.