February 13, 2014

A Letter to My Pre-Mama Self, One Year In


First of all, yes: that is still your name. In the past twelve months you have become mama and mother and mum, comfortable and soft and sing-songy and milk and bread. These are complex, intricate, beautiful things. They fit around your body like a winter blanket. But you are also still Em, still girl, still woman and partner and writer and dreamer and wanderer and springbud and bonfire and hawk. Sometimes it will surprise you, this speaking of your name, this connection to the you that was you before you became Mom. You will feel awe: that that you and this you can coexist. You will ask, How? Twelve months in, I will tell you: it doesn't matter. You can figure that out later, if you still want to. Think instead of the Why. Think instead of how wide and deep and expansive you are.

Second, it will be okay: all of it. You will be scared of so many things. The labor and delivery, the tending of this helpless human being, the moment when the food prepared by family and friends runs out and you will have to leave your son, your tiny son, for the longest forty minutes of your life in order to buy bread and milk and a few minutes of alone time. You will feel helpless, in those first 3:00 a.m. mornings, when you have been pacing the floor, rocking, shushing, and still he cries. You will feel helpless when the thrill of his first steps wears off enough for you to sense the insinuation: that this is how it starts, the walking away. There will be weight charts and pureed yams and a fever and a rash and a fall and a bruise and all those many many hours you are gone from him, working. You will doubt yourself. Everyone doubts themselves. You will read message boards and consult books and ask colleagues and finally buy the thing that is meant to fix the other thing, and then two days before it arrives, whatever was troubling you (and him?) corrects itself, heals, disappears as if it had never existed in the first place. Twelve months in, you will have a slightly bruised child who cannot move his feet fast enough to enter your embrace. It's okay, you'll tell him. You will spontaneously craft a lullaby that hinges on those two words. And you will sing it over and over, a mantra, a truth.

Third, ignore the machine. And by machine, I do not mean the swing or the bouncer or the mobile, although in a way I guess I do. Ignore the societal impulses behind them. Ignore the articles and blogs and experts and any kind of other that makes you feel less. As a new caretaker, you will be susceptible to the message that if you don't buy or supply the right kind of that thing, you are doing it wrong. Don't believe this. But when you do (because you will), try to be gentle with yourself. Remember that women birthed babies in caves, carried them on their backs wrapped in animal skins, fed them meat that had been too long in the sun. And still these children grew, and became strong people, your ancestors. Let the Expectations of Motherhood slip from your forehead into the dust of our repeating history. Then walk forward, your small boy nestled in your arms. Twelve months in, you will know that this is all he really needs.

Fourth, you will need to learn to ask for--and receive--help, especially from other mothers. Especially from your own mother, who you'll understand and appreciate more than you ever have.You will say Thank You over and over. You will say, I get it now. Twelve months in, these women will feel like a sturdy net around you, and when you think of them, the long rope of their linking arms, you will feel held up.

Fifth (perhaps it is inevitable, what with you holding your baby, kissing your baby, tickling your baby, rocking your baby, bouncing your baby), your relationships with others--especially those who are not mothers--will shift, and sometimes suffer. For the first time in your life, you will struggle to return emails. Texts will be forgotten within moments of your reading them. You will remember Thank You cards, but birthdays will pass without you even picking up the phone. On an eagerly anticipated ladies-night-out, you will sit with your dearest friends, childless, and wonder at yourself, your inability to focus, your inability to express, their inability to see. You will tell them about your son's first laugh, about him finding his feet, and they will smile and sigh and say something kind, which always used to be enough, but isn't any longer, and you won't be sure why. You will want to talk about it with your husband, but by the time you arrive home, both he and the baby are sleeping, and in the dark and milky fog of morning, you will lack the energy to pick up the pinpoints of yesterday's thoughts. So another conversation floats off unhad. Another morning passes where your husband--before he leaves to work in a world that feels a millions miles from yours--only knows that you are tired. Another day fills up with baby and baby and baby, darling baby, and you tell this wee one all your secrets, wanting desperately to be known. Twelve months in, though you will be getting better with birthdays, this is still what you'll want.

Sixth, your once wide world will focus itself, sharply. Every novel that features a mother and son will be read differently, as if it were about you and yours. You will see photos of boys, grown up young men, and you'll be startled by sudden tears. You will make dinner, make space in the living room, make plans or not make plans on the weekends, based on your child. Everything you write will somehow tie back to him. You will try not to do this, sometimes. You will worry over all your other aspirations. But twelve months in? Sister, give in. His gaze will not stay focused on you much longer.

Seventh, despite knowing number six, you will dream for two straight days about a National Geographic Fellowship. You will come across it on a Friday, after a week mashed between student essays, the frenetic end of your husband's semester, and your son taking twenty-one steps at daycare, and you will think this is the answer to everything. Yes, your brain will say, and you are off, researching water. Yes, your body will say, and you feel the future, the Philippines, your love and little boy, strolling barefoot along the sandy shores of Palawan. And your spirit, too, will say yes: yes to a year of writing, of reflective adventure, of us. The first night, you will hardly sleep for the vividness, the life, you have already created in your mind. The next day you are imagining a perfection that is--you'll see it later--a little over the top, a little straight crazy. Like perfect always is. But then, that night, something will happen, someone will say something, your baby will whisper a combination of round vowels that you'll interpret as the word roots. And something else about restlessness. And you will look at him, this bringer of old wisdom, and you will feel all that hot and frantic do! do! air that has been building up inside you release. You will pull him in to your chest, kiss his stomach, smile at your husband, and just breathe. Yes, twelve months in, it will surprise you--how short and how long life will seem simultaneously. How the present is the full and fluid dream.

Eighth, despite the postponed adventures, despite the expectations, despite the strained relationships and tired eyes and implausibility of ever mastering something you so desperately want to get right, it will be joy. Not all of it. Not every moment. But the moments that count. Those will all be joy. Joy when he first discovers wind. Joy when he first tastes orange. Joy when he bangs on the piano, giggling. Joy when he brings you another book, curious. Joy when he presses his forehead against yours, Mama. Joy when, at two months, you kiss his face repeatedly, and he smiles and coos and smiles, until you realize he has fallen asleep beneath you, just like that, covered with the comfort of your tenderness. You have known Big Love with your husband. You are a romantic, so this is not surprising; in fact, it is something you expected, something you were ready for even while it was new and undefined. But Mother Love. It is your chest squeezing. It is your bones breaking under the weight. It is a realignment of language, where this means that, and wait means yes, and always doesn't have a meaning because it has no opposite. Twelve months in. Twelve months in. Look at him, there, tearing another leaf off the philodendron, leaving sticky finger prints on the patio door. Listen to me: here, joy is capital-lettered. And it means hold on.

February 8, 2014

You, Outside

In the weeks before you were born, the temperatures dipped colder than they had in 1400 days or nights. Wind chills barreled in at -35'. People did not move about much. But you. Warm inside me, more perfectly comfortable than perhaps you will ever be again, you shifted and rolled and trembled and swayed. I sat on a Saturday morning with my feet up and my hands pressed against the sides of my stomach, contemplating the millimeters of skin, space, and time that separated us, for now. You were coming soon, any day or night. Barefoot and short sleeved, I did not care about the cold, thought only of the way I would come to know your familiar weight in a different place, hot and milky in my arms.

Now you are a year old.

This has been the coldest winter in twenty years, let alone 1400 days: wind chills at -45', school called off en masse, the outside world a frozen pane of white and gray and blue. I am not wearing short-sleeve shirts or going barefoot. The rings on my fingers slip, hang loose, and often when I am alone, driving here or walking there, I am so thoroughly chilled that I shake. I stuff my hands into my coat pockets, and sometimes, when the wind stops for just a moment, I notice how I've pressed my palms against my stomach, like I used to.

Because you are a year old now, a full outside-world-year.

It is cold out, baby. It is bitterly, bitterly cold. And this kind of cold will certainly come again in your lifetime. But we are northern people. The wind is music. We read poetry in ice crystals. We see white, and think: peace. We walk among the frost-covered blades of last year's grass, under a sky that is all breath, and it is a kind of baptism, I think, a kind of bone-deep purification. I come in from that place of being blown clean. I walk through the front door, through miles and millimeters of space and time. And just as my body warmed you for those months, those years of you waiting to be, I am the one waiting now, reaching. And you are the one, gathering me up, pressing your warm cheek to mine.

Thank you, Elliot, for choosing me. A life changing-year, and such joy.