Counting the joy

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Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

It’s 2:21 a.m. and I’m wide awake, snug in my bed. My toddler son, who is fighting a cough, finally nodded off an hour ago after a never-ending interlude of cuddling, shushing and patting.

Eyes squeezed shut, I try and will myself to join him in peaceful slumber. But half a dozen worries crowd my mind: Is this a sleep regression or is my son’s cough serious? I forgot to call the pediatrician yesterday. Am I a bad mother? Am I working too much? We are facing a serious family issue this summer. How will we survive this painful chapter? Will it break us?

I am mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted, yet sleep evades me.

So I count breaths. I count sheep. I count to-dos. Nothing works.

I think back to a year ago, when my son was just a baby who battled sleep. Some nights, when he was overtired, no amount of shushing or patting would soothe him. I used to rock him and sing Bing Crosby, “When I’m worried and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sleep, and I go to sleep counting my blessings.”

It didn’t always help him, but it helped me come back to a place of calm when all I wanted to do was break down and cry myself.

OK, Bing. Back to counting.

1. My son relaxed on our couch in the crook of my arm, his tiny fist stuffed with graham crackers, gaze fixed on the TV screen, head bobbing to the music of Moana. Blessing.
2. How he gobbled up green beans, carrots and ravioli for dinner—from my plate and his—and smiled with contentment. Blessing.
3. His squeals of laughter when I tickle his belly. Blessing.
4. New words and phrases: “bubble, Cheerio, thank you, where’d you go?” Blessing.
5. Generous hugs for dada and mama before bedtime. Blessing.

6, 7, 8, 9 … Dozens upon dozens of ways my son lights up our lives and shines light on the extraordinary gift of each moment on earth. His very existence the most joyful blessing.

Some point during all this counting I fall asleep.

At last, rest for this weary mama. Blessing.


Sometimes when we are overwhelmed and overloaded, taking a step back to give thanks for all that brings us joy can usher peace into our lives.

If you are having trouble with sleep too, try this: Breathe. Notice joy. Give thanks. Rest.

 

The boy who lived

For so many—myself included—Mother’s Day is complicated. The day I became a mother was … complicated.

After hours of labor and an emergency C-section, I almost lost my son.

He wasn’t breathing when the doctor delivered him. I kept waiting to hear his cries, but all I heard was silence. Then nurses calling for backup. Then the medical team, trying to revive him.

I sobbed heavy tears, afraid I’d never meet my son.

Then he joined in, softly at first but gradually stronger. Relief, joy, awe — the sweet, sweet sound of my baby crying.

10 hours later – Cradling my son in my arms for the first time in the NICU took my breath away. Looking at his wrinkly, pink face and tiny hands, I nearly forgot I was sitting in a wheelchair, body aching from labor and surgery. Heart aching from the trauma, I held him close and thanked God for him.

This is motherhood: a forgetting of self, an outpouring of love, tremendous sacrifice punctuated by bursts of happiness. It is magical and terrifying. It is bittersweet.

Today I’m grateful for my mother and mother-in-law, for mom friends and family, for others who mother. I’m thinking of friends who grieve and suffer on this day. And I’m giving thanks for the boy who lived and made me a mother.

A change of forecast

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Usually when we come home from work and daycare it’s straight indoors for dinner, bath, stories, bedtime. But tonight the May showers broke, the air was warm and it smelled like daffodils and sweet, wet grass. Tonight we lingered outdoors.

You toddled around the sidewalk, marveled at the growing plants and dug in the garden, unearthing a hidden bottle cap. Eyes shining, you held it out to me and smiled. How does a simple object bring you so much joy?

I want to bottle up all the goodness in this moment and carry it with me everywhere. For days I’ve been carrying something heavy, holding my breath, praying, waiting, hoping for life’s storms to break. I am pleading for a change of forecast.

It’s getting late so I scoop you up and we greet your daddy at the door. Your clutch your treasure in your mud-stained palm and show it to him, giggling with delight.

Seeing the world anew through your eyes is breathtaking. You stop me in my tracks and startle me with sunshine, even on a cloudy day. Growing boy, you give your mama hope.

Making peace with my post-baby body

It happened on a Tuesday morning. I stepped on the scale and it there it was, the number I’d been longing for—my pre-baby weight. Seven months had passed and finally all 50 (yes, 50…) pounds I’d gained via pregnancy were gone.

This moment I’d built up in my head, this goal achieved felt strangely anticlimactic.

Despite all my work to “bounce back,” deep down I knew the truth, and the truth is this: my body will never be the same again. Since giving birth the skin on my stomach is a little stretchier, my butt’s a little saggier, my laugh lines are a little deeper. My hair is perpetually shedding. My hands are starting to look like the way I remember my mother’s hands looked when I was a child, etched with extra lines and wrinkles.

My body will never be the same again.

As a new mama I’ve made peace with this fact, though it’s taken me some time. When I first got pregnant, I didn’t fully comprehend the physical and mental transformation I was about to undergo. There’s a lot that has been said about how becoming a mother changes your sense of identity, but I think that the natural, slow progression of women’s bodies postpartum is not talked about enough.

What the media tells us about mothers’ bodies

In the U.S., the media and our culture celebrate the beauty of the glowing, expectant mother. There is nothing inherently wrong about this.

Here’s the rub: The messages a mother hears change quickly after she has given birth. She is exhausted, hormonal and experiencing a seismic life transition and what does the media say a new mother should focus on?

Well, for starters, her baby, but also her “post-baby body.”

Really?

Yes, really. Women—especially celebrities—are expected to drop all the healthy weight they gained as part of pregnancy ever-so-quickly, practically the moment their baby’s out of the womb.

Almost as soon as Beyoncé had her twins, entertainment sites were covering her weight and shape. (See: this, this and this.)

All women face this obstacle

We ordinary women feel the pressure, too. After I had my son, I felt unnecessarily anxious about dropping the extra padding I still carried, even though I knew holding onto this weight was completely natural. This certainly wasn’t in the forefront of my mind what with so much else to worry about, namely, figuring out how to care for my infant son, but it was still there, lurking in the background. As I recovered from my C-section and struggled to make sense of the trauma of Jack’s birth, I was troubled by the worry that my body would stay “big.”

I know I’m not alone in this.

Mamas, I wish we could give ourselves some grace about our postpartum bodies, but popular culture is working against us. Whether we believe them or not, we internalize messages we receive from the media we consume that promote the archaic lie that a woman’s worth is measured by how small she is. (Being pregnant is the one time this “rule” is suspended but even pregnant women have body image issues and wish their pregnant bodies looked a certain way. I’m working on a future post on this too–stay tuned.)

As media companies embrace more body-positive messaging, I see the tide turning, but overall we in the U.S. continue to be obsessed with judging women for their bodies. The thinner, the smaller, the better.

Health and fitness companies prey on postpartum women’s insecurities, encouraging new moms to buy their [protein shake/workout program/coaching service] NOW to get their pre-baby body back.

What the media and health/fitness industry fail to mention is that this set of expectations is not healthy or normal. This pressure to get back to normal (whatever that is) is harmful and quite frankly, offensive.

The early days and weeks post-birth are an incredibly tender and trying time physically and emotionally. Your body is healing and yet it’s also being tested with the demands of caring for an infant. That’s enough in and of itself. If you haven’t lived it, it might be hard to understand but trust me: that’s enough. Just live and let your body heal.

Yes, I know this is easier said than done. A wise friend once told me that it takes a woman’s body 40 weeks (give or take a few) to transform and bring life into the world, so she should allow herself that time or more to recover. This advice was a great comfort to me as I struggled with my postpartum body.

My journey

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I titled this article “Making peace with my post-baby body” — how did I do that?

First, I managed my expectations from the start of my pregnancy. I knew from the mamas in my tribe and from books and articles that pregnancy and birth would change my body–for good. I also knew that breastfeeding would help me lose some weight naturally, over time.

It’s one thing to know this, but it’s another to live it.

Early on after I gave birth to my son I hit a weight loss plateau for a few weeks. The number on the scale wasn’t dropping the way I thought it should. During this time I worried I had some sort of thyroid issue, that my body would stay this way forever. I realized in my worrying I was being ridiculous and I had other, more important things to worry about (i.e., taking care of our son), but I still worried.

I kept breastfeeding, drinking water and eating healthy meals when I could.

At six weeks postpartum, I was cleared by my doctor to start working out again. I joined my local yoga studio and started going to classes here and there while my son was napping.

I remember the first time I got on my mat after having Jack. I barely recognized my body in the mirror. My body was lumpy and weak. I felt a bit like I didn’t belong.

But by the end of class, I felt transformed.

I felt calm, powerful and refreshed.  My body remembered yoga and it craved more of it.

Going forward, whenever I could find a free hour away from baby, usually 2 to 3 times a week, I’d go to my studio. Practicing yoga made me feel more confident and grounded.

Early on one of my instructors began class by talking about intention on and off the mat. “What is your intention for this class, this season of life?” she asked. 

In that moment I realized that my intention would need to be patience. I would need to trust that my body would heal the way it was meant to, slowly and over time. I needed to stop stressing that my body even defined me–what defined me was my character, my roles as a mother, wife, daughter, sister and child of God.

Buoyed by my intention of patience and the truth that our bodies do not determine our self-worth, I began my journey toward body peace and acceptance.

And wouldn’t you know, slowly the weight began to come off. However there are ways my body has changed that are permanent, and I know once I stop breastfeeding I’ll go through another whole set of changes. I have simply acknowledged these changes, then acknowledged that they have nothing to do with WHO I am as a person.

Maybe that’s why the number I recently reached on the scale isn’t so important anymore.

I’m making healthy choices, but I also have a healthier mindset towards my body. It was my journey over the last 6-7 months toward self-acceptance during which I cultivated a deep peace and comfort with change. 

Now that’s something worth celebrating.

Have you ever felt insecure in your own skin? What helped you cope?