Defense against the darkness

“Welcome, everyone,” the instructor said, her legs folded into a neat lotus position, her face beaming a peaceful, earth-mother glow. “Let’s start by going around the room and sharing what brings you joy.”

It was my second day at postpartum yoga, one of countless mommy & me activities I’d joined shortly after Mac was born, and I was the first of 15 or so new moms, sitting in a semi-circle of yoga mats, to take up the question.

Mac takes yoga class very seriously.

I’ve never been comfortable with public speaking, even in an environment as safe as this one, where half the audience didn’t speak English yet, and the other half was consumed with the newborn beetling on a blanket in front of them. So I was relieved that this, at least, was an easy question, one that I’d developed a stock answer to years ago.

So much easier than last week’s “What has motherhood brought into your life?” (My answer: uh, a baby?)

“I love to swim in the ocean,” I said confidently, keeping one hand on four-week old Mac as though she might suddenly decide to get up and run away, “especially when the water is warm and there are beautiful fish to look at.”

Nailed it, I thought, relieved that I’d redeemed last week’s poor performance.

Mom #2: “My daughter’s laugh just lights up my world.”

Mom #3: “Getting to share in my son’s learning experience.”

As the sharing rippled around the room, my anxiety ratcheted up. Every other mom in that room shared something about her child as her source of joy. I was the only one who said anything even remotely unrelated to family.

Dammit. Another F in the grade book of motherhood.

The first time I saw Mac in the NICU—really, the first time I saw her, save a few blurry seconds on my chest right after her birth—I remember a feeling of utter detachment. Foreignness, not familiarity.

When we brought her home, I knew I was supposed to talk to her, to find joy in this new life in my charge. I knew I was supposed to sing and cuddle and nest, but my nonsense songs sounded phoned in, my narration of our daily activities forced. I wasn’t quite sure to make of this creature whose arrival had shattered the sense of self I’d spent over 30 years cultivating. I felt reduced to cracked nipples, a deflated belly, and various traumatized body parts to be poked, measured, stitched, consumed.

All around me, I heard my peers singing the joys of motherhood.

Parenting a newborn bored me out of my mind.

They reveled in the gifts of maternity leave.

I itched to sneak back into my inbox.

They spoke in rapture of the unmatched love they felt for these squishy new lives.

The strongest feeling I could muster was ambivalence.

As soon as I was able to leave the house, I found myself taking long walks with Mac in the stroller. I didn’t know what else to do with her, or with myself. We walked against the darkness and against my raw emotional state and through the long still hours of the day.

I had nothing left that was mine, and, I believed, nothing to give. All around me, the darkness closed in, and it left me ragged and brittle. I couldn’t summon the reserves to return calls from loved ones and perform the happy new mom dance. The red badge tallying up new voicemails from friends inched upward, unchecked. At least once a day I’d dissolve into tears for no apparent reason. Over and over, I counted down the minutes of each monotonous cycle of nurse-nap-now what?

I was sure I could muscle my way through it, through sheer force of will. I signed up for every mommy & me group I could find. I went to postpartum depression support groups. Postpartum anxiety groups. Homebirth* and babywearing and stroller fitness classes. I set a record for answering icebreaker questions wrong. I kept adding more and more activities to my calendar, all the while hoping I’d uncover a diagnosis for my disinterest.

If I could name it, maybe I could find a way to cross that threshold into feeling like a mom.

They say the first three months—the fourth trimester—are the uphill battle. I’d say eight months is closer to when I began feeling like I might come out the other side of this reasonably intact.

There has been no watershed moment, just a series of small cracks in the darkness. The moment when I hear Mac and Nathan playing in the next room, and I find myself thinking, spontaneously, “That sounds like fun,” and wish I were in there. The moment when her happy shrieks make me laugh harder than I have in months.

I wish I could say that I wasn’t still emotionally raw. There are still jagged, brittle days, when my resilience is whisper-thin and the darkness closes in over my head. There are still mornings when the prospect of leaving the house or checking even one item off my to-do list leaves me feeling defeated.

I’ve found no salve, no drug, no practice, no magic cure. It’s just time. Time that I’m still taking. It’s finding my mom tribe, whose company helps me feel less broken. It’s getting creative with making space for myself. It’s letting Mac’s smiles and babbles start to knit together a defense against the darkness.

I’m 16 months postpartum and I’m still finding my way through.  

*Luckily for me, just intending to have a home birth means you’re welcome at these groups. So I got my cake epidural and ate it too. 😉

 

Show your mama some love

Hey hey, it’s mother’s day!

What are you getting for that special lady in your life? I know, it’s a dumb hallmark holiday, but you bet I’m taking advantage. I’m writing this post to help you find mother’s day gifts that don’t suck. NO BATH BOMBS, husbands. NO BATH BOMBS. And also to assist my own husband in finding me the perfect gift. I don’t want him to stress out too much.

What can I say, I’m a giver.

Time alone

Take the baby and give her some time to herself. To do … whatever.

Yoga. Binge on Netflix. Stare blankly into space.

My dream life.

Sleep. Sit at a coffee shop and slowly sip a latte and leisurely read a book. Pee alone. Cook or do laundry without ‘help’. Literally, whatever.

Note: This is the gift I want most pretty much all the time, but this won’t work for all mamas. We all have different comfort levels around how soon and how long we can be away from the baby. You probably know where the mama in your life falls on the spectrum; if not, ask her partner.

Time with you

If your mother is not a NEW mother, meaning if you’re not a baby, give her the gift of your presence. Take her to lunch, take her for a massage, most importantly, BE NICE TO HER.

Or, if she recently became a grandma, give her the baby and GET OUT OF THE WAY.

 

Instant MILF Milk Bath!

Ahah I know, I just said don’t give her bath stuff. But, there’s an exception to every rule. Becky sent me these (delicious, hilarious) milk baths and the sheer joy I experienced reading the names and descriptions was as good as that soak.

Donate to a political candidate that won’t punish her for being a mother.

I’m a little enraged by all this healthcare business. All I can say is, take care of mothers by literally helping to make sure mothers get taken care of. If you don’t have the cash money to give, then use your voice to speak up for women and mothers.

Shit Tote

Because we’re just up to our elbows all the time. Might as well throw some rainbows behind it.

There you have it, my no bullshit guide to mother’s day gifts. Sorry for all the shouting. I don’t know what came over me.. oh, no wait, I do, I wrote this on the same day this tweet came true:

Once I simmer down, I’ll be back to share the story of my first mother’s day, which involves public nudity and urination committed by an adult.

Sleep and weird juju past life shit

After coming clean about just how not-picture-perfect our sleep is, I found myself buttressed on all sides by solidarity from my community. It feels good. Almost even better than the first cup of coffee in the morning: just knowing I’m not alone, this is normal, that Mac will find her way to longer periods of sleep in her own precious time.

I then ran across this article, which only solidified that feeling of being at peace with this current reality:

Ignore the chorus telling you you’re doing it all wrong and you need to wean or leave them to cry or sleep train or give them solids or get a sleep consultant or perform some weird juju past life shit on them because if you don’t you’re not “respecting their need to sleep”.

(Yes, I’ve been told that too – and it’s bullshit).

Ignore it. You’re doing great. This will pass I promise. It’s long and hard and awful (so, so awful) but you’re not alone.

You’re not a martyr – that favourite word to attack sleep deprived mothers with – you’re just trying your best.

I see you trying.

You’ll sleep soon.

So will they.

via The Spinoff

I highly recommend the whole thing. It literally brought me to tears, and I don’t think I can entirely blame the sleep deprivation or my (still elevated?) hormones for the weepiness. Sometimes it just feels so good to be seen and validated.

Speaking of which, here’s another post about baby sleep that might make you feel better if you’re in the thick of it right now. I read this one originally before I became a parent and before I had any awareness of high-stakes arena of the Sleep Training Games, and this paragraph stuck with me:

The thing is: babies aren’t convenient. They don’t fit our adult schedules. They shit and throw food all over. They need a great deal of time and attention and sacrifice and love. But they’re not supposed to be convenient. They’re babies. They’re growing like crazy and their bellies are tiny and they may need to eat more often than every 12 hours. They need to be cuddled and touched and loved. They need to be responded to, cared for, met with tenderness. And I feel certain that one day we will look back at “sleep training” (even that phrase makes me crazy, like you’re training a cat to pee in a litter box or something) as a terrible, psychologically-damaging socio-cultural error.

via Rachel Meyer Yoga

No matter where you or your little ones fall on the sleep question, here’s to finding our way through the long dark nights and the too-bright days.

 

Pump’n’Go: your guide to mobile milk-making

Whenever people (ahem, men) express anxiety about pooping in public or in a new place, I have to admit my sympathy is pretty limited.

Pooping anxiety ain’t got nothing on pumping anxiety.

First of all, everyone accepts that people need a place to go to the bathroom. Dedicated places to pump, on the other hand, are few and far between. With pooping, there’s no lugging equipment around. When you find a spot, it’s pretty much guaranteed to be private; the chance (at least in the developed world) that you’ll have to pull out your goods and sit there basically naked for 20 minutes or more is pretty much nonexistent. The only thing you have to wash afterward is your hands. You don’t have to find a way to store your output and keep it on ice.

As a breastfeeding mama who travels quite a bit, and is a travel nomad — meaning I usually am not visiting an office where I can leave my stuff or hide out in a private room with my pump, I’ve had to get creative about where to take care of business.

My lessons learned are definitely not a complete guide to this inevitably stressful situation, but I hope they’ll help if you’re traveling without your baby and need to pump on the go.

What to bring

  • Your pump. (DUH, I know). But double check that all the pieces are there; I had a pumping emergency when I arrived at our retreat and realized the tubing was missing from my pump. Luckily a fellow mama there let me use hers, and I was able to avoid a true boob emergency.
  • Pump wipes. You won’t always have access to a place to wash your accessories, so I carry these wipes for on-the-go cleaning. I’m pretty sure they’re just repackaged baby wipes, so you could also just snag some from your LO’s diaper bag rather than buying yet another niche product.
  • Milk bags. I love these bags for pumping on the go because they take up so much less space in your bag and then cooler. The Medela ones come with little adapters for your pump so you can pump directly into the bags.
  • Ziplocs: the milk bags are notoriously leak-prone. I seal them inside ziploc bags for safer, drier travel.
  • Lunchbox or other small cooler. True story: my husband used my pumping needs as an excuse to buy a Yeti, but holy hell that thing is a bear to drag around. I carry a lightweight lunch box cooler with me, and try to transfer to the fridge, freezer, or Yeti as soon as possible. I’m constantly asking for ice from Starbucks or other casual food joints. Most of them will just fill up your cooler if you ask, and not charge you the 10 cents or whatever, especially if the barista is a woman.
  • Blanket scarf: something to hide the ladies under. Plus it’s lightweight so easy to pack or wear. God knows you’re already lugging around enough stuff.

What NOT to wear:

  • Dresses that don’t allow you access to the goods without taking them off. See: my first mother’s day experience. Oh wait, I haven’t told anyone about that except my husband. Maybe I’ll share this mother’s day…
  • Tops that will show wetness, or that can be stained by breast milk. Sayonara, silk.
  • Pants that are not forgiving when you sit down. Your midsection is likely to be exposed for at least part of your pumping adventure … so I like to choose pants that, even if they aren’t super flattering on my exposed core, at least don’t exacerbate my mom-pooch and muffin top.  (High-rise FTW).

Where to do the deed

Luckily, pumping rooms are becoming more and more frequent, but that doesn’t mean they’re a dime a dozen yet.

  • Nordstrom: their women’s lounges often have Mothers’ Rooms, with everything you need to pump or breastfeed: outlets, comfy chairs, a sink with soap and paper towels, and some semblance of privacy.

This is one of many reasons I will always be a loyal Nordstrom customer. Also, their shoe section.

  • Mamava: these handy little pumping pods are popping up at airports everywhere. I first discovered them in Austin, then also found pods in Oakland, CA, and San Francisco. These no-frills, lockable pods provide seating, outlets, and a mirror to help make sure you’ve rearranged yourself without any wardrobe malfunctions. Their app helps you find not only pods but other, user-submitted pumping-friendly locations.
  • Baby stores: this is a long shot, but if you’re traveling in the burbs, you may have a baby or maternity store nearby, and they often will provide a place for you, suggest other local options, or, at the very least, empathize with your plight. Friendly understanding won’t keep your pressurized boobs from exploding, but it does help lessen your mounting anxiety about said pressure.
  • When in doubt, just ask… I’ve ended up in random places for meetings, like hospitals, big office buildings, and cafes. You’d be surprised how willing people are to help. Some of them will get really uncomfortable, but I think that just encourages them to come up with a solution faster so they can stop talking about YOUR BREASTS. Ha. Some of the random places I’ve pumped are: in the lunchroom in a big office building, a doctor’s office after hours, the manager’s office in a restaurant, and in empty conference rooms.

    Don’t mind me, I’m just awkwardly pumping in this empty lunch room. Also take note of the blanket scarf. My only barrier between my boobs and hordes of hungry office workers.

None of those locations are fun, but they’re doable, and way less gross than a bathroom.

Now, if I could just crack the code of how to travel with a pump and ONLY a carry-on, I would be set. Any tips?

This is not a problem

This week, I posted on Facebook about a miracle: Mac slept for 2.5 hours after going to bed, with nary a squawk or a scream.

I hesitated before hitting publish on that post, because I anticipated that the collective internet would rise up with well-intentioned advice about how to get my 15 month old to sleep through the night. Or, you know, longer than the hour that is her usual cycle.

I’ve asked for sleep advice on Facebook before, and the internet was generous with its response. Mac was 8 months at that point—nearly half a lifetime ago!—and I felt that I had reached the end of my zombie rope. Little did I know I had at least another half lifetime in me of boobin’ all night.

In the last 7 months, we’ve tried all the things.* Our sleep book collection puts the Library of Congress to shame. We’ve cued and we’ve charted and we’ve shuffled. We’ve A/B tested lighting and sound and pajamas and beds and bed company and the number of books we read and the content of meals and the timing of baths.  We’ve done craniosacral therapy and we’ve night weaned and we’ve made her do hill sprints before bed.

And the results of all that study and research?

On an average night, my toddler wakes up 4-5 times before I go to bed.

Sweaty sleep hair is the cutest.

And I mean really wakes up. I’m not talking about little baby noises or the rolling over or the resettling. This count doesn’t include the times she self-settles. This is the number of times she sits and screams and needs some kind of parental intervention before midnight. After midnight, believe it or not, it gets better, or I’m just so zombie-like that I think it’s better. But it’s at least 3-4 more wake ups, usually to nurse, but sometimes just for a snuggle, before she gets up for the day.

Anyway, the point of all this is this: I spent months scouring the internet for proof that what we were experiencing was normal.

What I found were 10 week olds who slept from 8pm-6am. I found parents lamenting that their 3 month old still got up at 3am to feed, sometimes, but that they were solving that problem ASAP. Parents scolded each other for any night nursing, because babies don’t need that after [insert age of choice here].

I’m done wanting to throat punch those people, and more importantly, I’m done feeling inadequate.

I’m done thinking that her sleep is a problem to be fixed. She wakes up a lot and I’m tired a lot and she’s a happy kid and I drink a lot of coffee and this is where we are. If frequent night wakings are our great challenge then I count myself lucky.

My local coffee shop is also reaping the benefits, since I’m singlehandedly keeping them in business.

And the real reason I’m sharing this is because of that Facebook post I mentioned at the beginning. I did not get the advice I was expecting. Instead, I got solidarity, from fellow parents who are also not living up to the insane internet standards of baby sleep. So I’m coming out of the closet as a person who stays up all night with their toddler.

If you’re reading this, and you’re in the same boat, YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

* The one thing we haven’t tried is any version of Cry it Out. Friends assure it me works; their lovely children assure me kids come through the other end happy and healthy. It just doesn’t feel like the right course for us.