Sixteen weeks and two days ago I had a baby.
Here she is at two months, lying in the moss near Galway Lake in upstate New York at her dad’s family summer house:
Charlotte was born midmorning on March 18, one day after her expected delivery date of Saint Patrick’s Day.
In the middle of my first night with her, alone in the hospital and doing her first middle of the night feeding, I had the first of many experiences of the cosmic connectedness of motherhood. In the hospital bassinet beside my bed, Charlotte made small whimpering sounds to ask to nurse. She was instantly calmed by feeding; her latch-on reflex was intensely strong. Nursing her, it was as if all the unfed newborns in the world were calling to me; the babies of wartorn places, the babies abandoned by the side of the highway in China, infants of mothers on drugs…babies not being held or fed or calmed in those first hours of life.
In the days and weeks and months since this first night, I’ve been alternately enjoying and grieving what can only be described as birth-induced amnesia of self. The nurses in the maternity ward helped this along by never referring to me as Kate; I was only “Mother,” “Mom,” or “Mommy.”
Five months before, I sat on my therapist’s couch, propped up by several pillows, my hands folded in an unconscious prayer pose over my pregnant belly. This was my second New York City therapist. He was, like my first New York City therapist, a Jewish man, only he was about 60 years younger. I like to think that my Jewish therapists help to round out my Catholic upbringing. This new therapist was listening to me talk about my perennial issue: feeling like I was too complicated to manage. “I feel as though I’m always sitting in front of this control board filled with tiny knobs, and that I can never stop making micro-adjustments.” My therapist smiled and said, “Well, having a baby is like having just one big knob.” He mimed turning a knob about three feet wide.
In this new state of mind, I kept writing. Here are some early motherhood notes.
Charlotte is sleeping and I am not.
They say you should sleep when your baby sleeps, and there is good sense to that advice.
They say, don’t worry about cleaning the house or getting work done.
I am desperate for sleep, for rest that goes on and on until I am refueled. But I’m equally in need of putting experience into words. I need the practice of re-seeing, of translating. To read this later will be a treasure. And it takes so little to write it now; just a willingness to sit and wait for the chatter of my shoulda-woulda-coulda brain to die down.
Charlotte’s grunting and gasping in her co-sleeper, but by now (18 days old) I know these are normal sleep noises for her. Sometimes she sounds as though she is lifting something heavy. Other times she makes a squeaking like a gull at sea.
When I have the brainpower, I sit and write a bit of the story of her birth. I worry that it has faded too much in memory now that the pain of labor has subsided; all that remains is an easy fatiguing and waves of contractions that come and go as the womb shrinks back to its pre-pregnancy size of a pear.
She’s awake now. The grunts have turned from sleep-noises to calls for Mom.
I woke Charlotte up with the vacuum cleaner; testing out the idea that many babies sleep well with white noise like dishwashers and vacuums. Our vacuum is maybe too harsh sounding; it’s more high-pitched than some. I discovered that ours was clogged with cat hair and the thick twine fibers from the cat scratching post. I crouched in front of the kitchen trashcan and pulled them out with my fingers.
Charlotte is asleep now. She fed while I tried to eat sushi with as little effort as possible. I was concerned that she was getting frustrated while breastfeeding; she’d start off fine but then break off, get sprayed in the face, have difficulty latching back on due to the slipperiness of the nipple and then, when I lifted her out of the way to stop the flow of milk and clean her face off, she’d cry and wriggle with agitation until I put her back at the breast, only now she’d be flailing and frenetic in her attempts to latch on and would be crying and getting sprayed with milk. Today I soaked through 3 different shirts in similarly distressing feeding sessions. So during dinner I paid close attention to her and watched for her signs of needing a break, and adjusted her positioning and my hold on her to help keep her latched on. She’s getting bigger every day so it’s no surprise that she needs new positions, but it means I can’t do anything else while I’m feeding her.
Which is fine.
Almost 3 weeks after Charlotte’s birth, the rhythm of nurturing a baby is beginning to make sense to me. Divided attention does not work. Layers of a goal-directedness are dissolving into responsiveness like consciousness does in the solvent of sleep. Sleep, feed, nurture her into sleep, then myself. Tiredness dissolves the urgency of my old kind of intellectual work like the morphine I was given in labor changed my brain’s perception of pain.
Labor and birth forced my attention down to a pinpoint on the sensations in my body. There was no more mind-body split, no ideas outside of my body. There was pressure, and pain, and fear. Divided attention was impossible there too. There was an openness in my mind because of this singular focus, and all of the sensations of labor were seared into my memory whole and vivid like dream images. So birth was a stream of images. And being with Charlotte, when I give in to the current of what my body-ruled mind wants to do, is an unfathomably rich stream of images too.
And now I feel the fatigue seeping in. I hear Charlotte making bird noises in her sleep from the other side of the bookcase (I’m in my office area). I’ll go to sleep now too.
On our bed. Charlotte is sleeping on her side with her head thrown back and her fists balled up at her face. We fell asleep together about and hour and a half ago, lying face to face. Two nights ago Charlotte started having back and forths with Ben in which they stuck out their tongues at each other. Now she is demanding interaction after her late afternoon/evening feedings with me. Long eye contact, hand and foot play and lots of vocalizing with each other.
4/13/11….. 26 days old
Late afternoon. Charlotte is asleep in her carrier after an hour of dancing and singing her around the dining room and putting her on her tummy on the bed.
Days and nights have settled into a rhythm of 3-hour shifts. It’s a challenge to stay ahead of the bleak mood lethargy induces, to get up and move put Charlotte in a carrier and start doing chores despite feeling like sinking into sleep. Sometimes I’m able to keep my attention on what’s right in front of me. More often it flits away to the book I’m reading (Homicide: Life on the Streets) or to thoughts about returning to work. The mornings between 3 and 8 are the hardest. I’m exhausted in a way that calls up the literal connotations of the word. I feel completely spent, like some essential fuel tank has been sucked dry.
Sitting at the head of our dining room table at 6 minutes to 7. Charlotte is sleeping in her big brown stroller under a mound of knitted blanket from her Grandma Laurie. Her eyes are slitted open, she makes gasping, grunting, gulping wheezy noises. Sleeping is effortful. She sneezed big this morning after Ben sprayed saline up her nose to loosen her congestion. Three big wet sneezes. She squirmed and stretched her body out on the puff comforter when we laid her down between us. She arched her back and pointed her toes and looked up at us seated over her. Her eyes were wide open. She is looking much more purposely now.
Yesterday we played on her yellow quilt on the floor. She is excited to learn about her hands and what she can do with them, and she has such clear ambitions! She wants to reach out and grasp things; my face, my shirt, her own mouth, the sheep toy Grandma Elizabeth brought…and when she fails she gets frustrated and waves her arms and legs spasmodically. It is so much like being with my six year old quadriplegic student, the one I taught at home. It brings me right back to lying next to him on the rug at his house and watching for the effortful, controlled movements buried within the convulsive, spastic ones that constrained his attempts to express himself and explore even the simplest toy.
I remember how surprising it was that his father would sit with him on his lap in front of a wooden train set that he couldn’t reach, let alone hold or manipulate on his own. I remember how his parents nodded and acted enthusiastic when I showed them how to attach popsicle sticks to dolls for him so that he could hold and move them on his own, and then….seeing that they never attached a single one to a toy.
I remember how attaching a thin marker to a pig figurine let him finally hold and control a toy and make play moves that I could respond to.
I remember all that year in school with him trying to teach paraprofessionals how to communicate with him by giving choices and asking yes or no questions, and seeing that the only people who really learned it were other five and six year olds.
Wednesday, May 11
I often think about how I’d like to write a book about my experiences becoming a teacher and learning specialist. These thoughts come when I am in the thick of a feeling of grace; one of those transcendent, luminescent moments when I am slowed down enough to tap into the raw feelings I used to feel when I first started to help children in school. These are moments when I forget the feel of my professional armor and am pierced by the pain of sympathy for a child.
Being a mother brings this capacity to feel others’ pain roaring back. The German word “Mitleid,” or “suffering with” is more apt for me than “sympathy.” The stab of seeing Charlotte’s month-old face crumple in startled pain after her first immunization was intense unlike anything I’ve felt, though it hits the same nerves as times I have had children cry in real anguish in my presence. In those times, the pain I felt in sympathy was a revelation of connection. Learning empathy for other people saved my life, I think. I don’t think I really had it before college, and even then, it was easily overruled by own discomfort.
I want to slow down and write about being with children and growing as an adult, as a person who nurtures and helps. I feel dull and speeded up at work; not tuned in. Cold. Being a mother is forcing a slow-down, but I feel a split in my lived life and my intellectual life. I want to settle in and ruminate.
Thursday, May 12
The end of a long day alone with Charlotte at home. Today was Hat Day at my school. I missed it. I’m not sorry. I hate wearing hats. I also hate school traditions that are designed make a school seem “fun” and where I’m supposed to act “goofy” according to some rule. I’d rather just be in a school where having real fun is understood as vital to learning.
I feel disconnected emotionally from my students, detached. The pregnancy and now the baby are foremost in my mind and are the primary focus of my energy. Apparently there is a psychoanalytic term for it: Primary Maternal Preoccupation.
In contrast, I feel intensely connected to my writing work here at school. I’m working on a curriculum documentation project that feels endless; but I am contributing to its endlessness. I am trying to fix a problem that is like a hydra, with the proverbial constant sprouting of new heads.
But writing is a non-negotiable for me, and the curriculum project’s endlessness is my clue. I need things to connect, to add up, to become a creation. I need to turn every aspect of life over and over, in microscopic detail, and I need thinking and writing projects that force me to distill the details into a small container, spilling the excess over the sides into the continually refilling pot.
Friday, May 27
It’s 6:20 AM. Charlotte slept from 8:30-4:45; another eight hour night. At ten weeks, I am told, this is a rare and special thing. It seems to me that Charlotte realizes that I need to have sleep too so that I can return to work. Yesterday was the most natural-feeling day. We flowed in and out of togetherness at school. She spent time with the art teacher in the art room, the secretary in the office, and one of the principals. She has many surrogate moms at school.
I’m poised here at a precipice in my mind, with images and feelings cohering into new ideas that will slide me into a higher level of being, a place of greater kindness and patience and listening ability. A place where I am more quiet and observant and wisely responsive. Wisdom…that’s the feeling. The reason why I felt connected to Vajrayana images of wisdom is that they are non-dualistic. And they are IMAGES, with labels, for sure….but primarily images.
And do you know what brings new images, a push into the next level of relaxed being? Difficulty. Working on the edge of capacity, pushing through (or getting pulled through) the place where I am saying over and over, “I can’t do this. This isn’t working.” Getting pushed past the verbal-only level of protesting, doomsday mind activity…that’s what I guess is meant by ego in Buddhist teaching. Working with difficult situations teaches me again and again and again, relentlessly, that my perfection is impossible. There is only work. With practice, I can get closer to an effortlessness in work, a feeling of magnetic connection and self-propulsion, an influx of energy from being with others. Slamming head on into difficulty with my mind open and vulnerable is the vehicle for change.
Yesterday Ben drove Charlotte and me to work. It was already hot out and was slated to be an 80+ degree day. The elevator at work was still broken so I wheeled Charlotte in her stroller into a vacant office on the first floor.
That was a day that was filled with pleasant industry. The rhythm of childcare and teaching was just right.
Saturday, June 25
I sat for 15 minutes just now, after waking up next to Charlotte.
I felt the effects of what even a short, focused sit can do: pulling my mind’s jittery tendrils into rest for a few moments of just being. That’s not entirely accurate. What I felt was that I’d entered a refuge, a safe and protected space, and I felt the awe and reverence that I had in the Himalayas when I’d stood beneath the stupa in Leh, the Shanti stupa. Awe of what? Reverence for what? It’s a purely experiential thing that I am hard pressed to put into words. All I can say is it literally took my breath away.
That’s where my writing leaves off. I’m going to post this thing; it’s 8:07 AM and Charlotte is waking up.