thoughts at 4 a.m.

Nearly every day, in the wintery pitch black morning, I have to explain to my three year old that it is a “daycare day”.

“Why?” she asks.

I start with altruism, “Because I like to help kids learn to read and it’s important to help people even if they aren’t our family.”

“Why?”

I decide to go for economics 101, “Because we need money to have a house and to eat good food and to go to the doctor.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s my job to take care of you and keep you safe and provide for you.”

“Why?”

This is about to turn dark. So you don’t die! is what almost erupts from my lips. Instead I circle back to simple truth, “Because mommy has to work.”

This satisfies her.

“I don’t want to go to daycare,” she mumbles around her thumb that’s since become lodged in her mouth out of boredom or worry.

I don’t want to go to work either. The rigamarole of bags and crying and shoe battles and trying not to look like the biggest shit show in the parking lot leaves me exhausted by eight a.m.

Once I’m there, I feel ok for a minute. I jump into the work. The smiles of the kids and the humor of my coworkers, who have become like family, warm me up a bit. But then, by mid-morning, I am tethered to a teat-sucking machine for a half hour and the doom and gloom set in again. This is my planning time so all the things that I said I’d do are not getting accomplished. And the shame-list of motherhood begins to swirl in my head too.

Is it worth it? No not really. Not on paper anyway. Children are expensive and exhausting and I haven’t eaten dinner while not also serving as a human jungle gym in about two years.

But what about the love? The snuggles? The smell of your baby’s head tucked under your chin? Surely these moments of joy outweigh the difficulty. But that’s like trying to measure both joy and frustration with the same tool, comparing a fever to an earthquake.

I look down at my milk dripping into the bottle and calculate my worth. The machine’s woo-woos starts to mimic words. Not enough. Not enough. Not enough.

There are minutes of my day that I channel some of the deepest zen I can find and later, I look back on that memory with feathered awe. I’m impressed with myself. But the truth is, in the middle of it, I have so much self pity and regret that you’d think my heart was made of stone.

I love my children. I wouldn’t trade them for the world, as they say. What I hate is the rat race. The suffocating and constricting parameters we shove ourselves into, where there’s no wiggle room for humanity to stretch. So we crack our skin trying to fit into these lives. We lower the bar even though that comes with the rising tide of shame. On a good day, we aren’t overcome by the waves.

Michelle Obama was right when asked about leaning in. “Sometimes that shit doesn’t work,” she said. People freaked out. Mostly because she swore but also because it threatens our very belief that if you just work hard enough then you can have it all. We were all taught to believe in the little engine that could. But most of the time it feels like you are being expected to chug up two different hills at the same time.

Perhaps instead of “leaning in” we need to lean out. Instead of balling up in fear at the center of the merry go round, perhaps I should be like the kid who hangs onto the railing and surrenders to the centrifugal forces that pull them that way anyway. As Eckhart Tolle says, once you stop battling the “isness” of your life, then you can begin to accept the story that is forming before you.

Can I accept a story in which I’m only kind of good at two vocations? Can I accept Macaroni and Cheese for dinner for a third night this week and that someone thinks I’m a flake at work because I’m always late? Maybe. Little by little, I think I might be capable of letting go of the measuring stick that requires perfection. But that would require people to not judge me… My brain begins to calculate the specifications of the story that I am willing to accept. Acceptance never starts with the word But…

Here we are again, in the pitch black morning. My baby boy has miraculously slept all night and I’m sitting at my desk weighing the cost-benefit of checking on him to make sure he isn’t dead. And my three year old is curled up on my lap, sucking her thumb, and watching me type with one hand.

“Is it a daycare day?” she just asked me.

“Yes, honey,” I told her.

But she doesn’t ask me why. Maybe she is accepting the “isness” of this story. Maybe I should too.

stretch

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I am a working mom.

Most of the time I have made peace with this reality. But tonight it feels like I’m being asked to walk the plank. I’m an anxious, weepy mess. Which causes me to cling to my tiny baby while snapping at my ornery toddler at the same time. As Daniel Tiger would say – I have “mixed up feelings.” (I also have mixed up feelings about only being able to quote Daniel Tiger these days…who am I?)

I know there are many ways to experience humanity on this planet and many many ways to be a mother. And sometimes that means calling on the service of another nurturer to help care for your child. But my heart hurts tonight. It never quite feels right. I just don’t know how to make peace with handing my three month old baby over to a perfect stranger. And if you look at pure numbers, my children will be cared for by someone other than me for 54% of their waking hours. That doesn’t include the date night I may want to go on or the errands I might need to run without children in tow. The mom guilt is so deep right now it feels like I might drown in it.

I can’t say that I’ve been a particularly stellar stay at home mom for the past four months. The first month was filled with so many hormonal roller coasters and toddler tantrums that I think I may have blocked it from my memory. Months two and three had some rhythms – with trips to our library story time, playdates, and walks to the park. But by month four I found myself ancy to do adult things and never watch another episode of Doc McStuffins again. If I were able and chose to stay home with my kids I’d definitely need an attitude adjustment.

But that is not my story. My story is one of a woman who is the insurance provider and the steady paycheck for my family. And I also love to teach, a job that seems to bring out the best in me. So it’s not like I hate my lot in life. I’ve heard the juggling metaphor. And the many hats. And the feminist in me says “lean in”. But I know that, for me, being a working mom means I am going to have to stretch. And when you are stretched, there are no additional resources added to account for the increase in demand. It’s the same pot of time, energy, and positivity that will have to cover all parts of your life. This leads to a general shitty feeling about all parts of your life.

I guess I’m not looking for the perfect anecdote or anyone to attempt to silver-lining my situation. I know my children will be fine. I know it’s good for them to be social. And I know eventually they will have a great immune system (tell that to my daughter who ended up with hand foot and mouth disease TWICE in a year). I just kind of want to say “this sucks” out loud and maybe hear a few “amens” in response.  

Tomorrow I will stretch. I will pour myself into my work because it’s important and world changing. And then I will try to save a little positivity for my sweet children who are sure to test me when we enter the witching hours. Because who I am to them is also world changing. And when the house dips below sanitary levels of clean and my toddler has watched the lemonade stand episode of Henry Hugglemonster for the third time that day, I’ll lower my bar and try to cover myself with as much grace I would a dear friend.

Please send wine. And Oreos.

#momoftheyear

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I write this in a space of nap-panic. That moment when you lay your precious babe down and you start to list all the things that you need to accomplish. You can usually separate the list into two categories.

Things you should do:
laundry, dishes, sweep/mop floors, plan meals, take down birthday sign that’s been up for a month, put away cooler of soda from birthday party that’s been in the back yard for a month, write thank you notes for lovely gifts from lovely people from birthday party that are now a month late, put laundry away that you didn’t get to last week, put this week’s laundry away, clean bathrooms, make easy-to-grab breakfast foods for the week, lesson plan the lessons you didn’t get a chance to plan for work, etc., etc.

And things you want to do:
take a shower, drink coffee, take a nap, bake some cookies, shop online, write something down so all the thoughts that have been trapped in your head for a month don’t cause it to explode or shut down, etc., etc.

All the while you are in a state of distrust – bracing yourself for a little grunt or cry because there’s a very real possibility that said nap could last as little as 10 minutes or as much as three hours. Panic, layered with distrust, and a smidge of resentment on top that you won’t ever get to the want to do list. And then you hear the little, annoying voice of perspective…remember when you watched that show about how many people around the world live with so much less and no luxuries like coffee and naps and you told yourself you’d never complain again…yeah, stop being such a selfish person. And then the guilt train comes barreling through, leaving you pretty smashed and miserable.

But today I chose to write first. Even if it means I don’t get meals planned and I have to feed Mila another freezer French fry. I really need an inner-pep talk because this week I feel like I totally bombed in the mom department. Maybe even in all the departments. Here are just a few of the things that went wrong…

  1. I lost too many items to count. From my house key (which led to me having to drive for over an hour to pick up keys from Mike while my daughter was starving and cranky and crying) to my spill-proof travel coffee mug (which led to a Kindergartener spilling my coffee all over an important book…and then I found said mug on the kitchen counter three days later, right next to the sink, in plain sight…which led to me yelling, “What the f*** is wrong with me?” in a heap of desperation, right in front of my child).
  2. I forgot to bring home the precious, time-consuming, pumped breastmilk from school two days in a row. Then when I remembered to bring home the two forgotten bottles, I left them in my school bag and they spoiled overnight. So I didn’t have a single drop of milk to send with her to daycare. And when I picked her up she was signing for milk in such a panic, you’d think she hadn’t eaten in a week.
  3. I managed to clock my child in the head twice. The first time, she bit my leg and I unconsciously swatted her head like you would a naughty dog. She cried and I cried. And then yesterday, I attempted to put her high chair tray on while she was sitting in it and bonked her with the wooden arm right in the eye. Not even an hour later, I pinched her leg in the belt buckle of her car seat and last night I knocked her over with the dishwasher door. Pretty soon I’m going to have to start explaining the bruises at daycare…

#momoftheyear. Add to it all the things I didn’t get to at work. And the house? Yeah…we have a fruit fly infestation that would make your skin crawl.

Then yesterday, I saw a commercial with Misty Copeland in it. It was for yogurt and it showed her doing all these different activities. She was cooking, she was painting, she was dancing up a storm and it ends with the tagline, “be unstoppably you”. Inspiring? I suppose it intended to be and maybe it was for others. But for me, it just made me feel so inadequate. Why are we as women expected to always have our multitasking shit together? Lean in, be unstoppable! Eat yogurt!

No disrespect to Misty Copeland but one thing I did notice, she wasn’t wrangling any children while trying to cook or holding a crying baby while walking the runway. I can’t run marathons and I can’t perform with the New York City Ballet. Last week, however, I nursed my growth-spurting baby who didn’t want to be set down while standing at the stove cooking oatmeal. Safety hazard? Probably. Supermom moment? Most definitely. But somehow, just because my house was a giant wreck in that same moment, I seem to discredit how bad-ass I was. Why do I only focus on the negative? I realize that I’ve gotten into the bad habit of always keeping track like a hall-monitor ready to pass out demerits any time I mess up.

How many of you reading this, actively “momming” or not, feel like you failed more than you succeeded this week? This negative-focus can’t be healthy, especially if it’s actually more normal to not have your shit together. I’m willing to bet that most people are running at about 60% success each day (don’t quote me on numbers, I’m not an anthropologist yet). We constantly have to let something important slack or fall off the plate in order to do something else that is equally important. Maybe we need to start grading ourselves on a curve.

I think we need to take the phrase “I feel like a bad mom” out of our vocabulary. With the exception of a few people who aren’t actually able to parent their children safely and consistently, you are never a bad mom. And every time you’re tempted to hashtag “momoftheyear”, stop and try to remember that you actually are mom of the year to your baby. They wouldn’t want to be accidently clocked in the head by anyone else. You’ve already won the award by everyone making it to bedtime relatively unscathed (including you if you are one of the lucky moms of a biter).

I know I haven’t said anything other mom-bloggers (Moggers? Bloms?) haven’t already said. But I think it bears repeating – don’t be too hard on yourself! Averagely succeeding is succeeding. Frozen French fries have calories and that counts as food. And it might just distract your kid long enough to put away a dish (or pour a glass of wine).

Here I am three hours later…thank you little girl for the gift of time. I hear her murmuring in the other room. My dishes are still piled high, the fruit flies are feasting, but I’m feeling significantly more at peace. #momoftheyear

© 2016 D. Willson

then comes a baby in a baby carriage

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“How’s motherhood?” she asked.

I hadn’t seen my friend since Mila was born. Moments before, she commented on how huge my boobs had gotten since we saw each other last. This reminded me that I had forgotten to pump that afternoon. No wait, I had forgotten to pump twice. Which means I inadvertently told my body that “demand” was going down and I immediately started worrying about my “supply”. I said this nonchalantly out loud. My friend looked at me as if I said I liked to pee on the floor.

She is young, in her early-twenties, working night shifts, and posting artsy bathtub selfies on Instagram. I was a lot like her once. When breastfeeding was still an uncomfortable topic and my body untouched by gravity. Where my evenings were reserved for unending “me time” and I could sit on the couch and just relax, no one to care for, and nothing but household chores to do that could always wait till the next day. I recall that it was deeply lonely. But I missed the emptiness a bit. I was briefly jealous of my twenty-something friend’s freedom.

The snorting laugh of my baby snapped me back to my reality. She was thrilled with herself for tasting my shoulder and trying out her new upper and lower teeth. It was all perfectly comfortable. Talking about breast pumps and being chewed on by a baby. My new normal.

My friend repeated her question about motherhood. I was distracted. Between blowing raspberries on my daughter’s neck and trying not to drop her squirmy little body, I’m not sure what I said. Probably that motherhood going great. The exhaustion on my face and my disheveled head-to-toe look I’m sure told a different story.

On my drive home, I began to think about what I would have said if I had an hour or so and an editing pen. What motherhood really has been like for me.

At first when we started “trying” for kids, I would imagine what it’d be like to have a human that depends on you pretty much 24/7. It felt terrifying. I banked on the theory that everyone told me, “you’re never really ready for kids,” and pushed my fears aside. But months of negative pregnancy tests transformed fears of not being ready to become a parent into fears of not being able to become a parent.

We joyously got pregnant after eight months of trying but lost the baby just a few short months in. I was crushed (no, worse…trampled, demolished, destroyed), driving a need for motherhood so deep into my bones sometimes I couldn’t breath. When we were given the “go ahead” to try again, I wished on shooting stars, I prayed every night, I even wore a necklace with a little baby elephant charm on it for good luck.

Mila came a year and nine months later. She was every wish and hope and blessing wrapped up in a perfect little package. I had checked off all the boxes. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage. 

It might have been Post-Partum or the “baby blues”, but even though I had exactly what I had been dreaming of for over two years, becoming a mom was simply not fun at all, especially in those first few weeks. Even with another human attached to me, I felt isolated and trapped. And nothing reveals the darkness in you quite like when you scream at your tiny little newborn to stop crying because you’ve tried everything else and it all feels hopeless and impossible. You find yourself sitting on the floor in the middle of the night, madly crying and squeezing your baby (a little too tight). You think of all the characters in the movies who laugh crazy laughs and end up in a padded room and you start to understand how they might have gotten there.

People would coo at my daughter and say, “You love your mama the most, don’t you?” I would look around and wonder to whom they were referring. Surely she didn’t love me the most. She didn’t even know me! The me she knew was smelly and moody and slowly cracking up. It felt like I was playing “house” for a while. I did my mommy things and said my mommy words and we all survived that short season of newborn life.

Eventually though, it became much easier. Caring for her was almost like caring for myself. As if she were just an extra arm or something. It didn’t feel like an additional list of tasks to complete every day, it felt like breathing. Only every once in a while did those early feelings return of being trapped. Like in the middle of the night, when she’d wake up again for the fifth time, I’d swear under my breath or pray to the great God of infant slumber that she would please, please, please, please go the f*** back to sleep. (I have a theory – that God hangs out in heaven with a mirror and deflects these desperate prayers back down to Earth as a bit of a joke on new parents. It’s not funny God…no one’s laughing.) But these moments were almost always paired with something so beautiful, I can hardly remember them. Hardly…but maybe that’s due to the sleep deprivation.

Before I had Mila, I thought for sure that if I just reached the next rite of passage that I’d feel better about living on this earth. While becoming a parent didn’t really fix anything, it has transformed me. Motherhood has chipped away at my pride, my perfectionism, and my attempts to control this wild ride. I’ve hit my head on things way more than I ever used to. I’ve found my pant’s zipper down more times in the last eight months than I have in my entire life. My house is pretty dang gross these days. And I’m pretty sure I pee every time I sneeze now. Life still has its super heavy moments. There’s still loneliness and worry. Make that ten-fold worry about doing it right and having enough money and trying to make sure you haven’t “pruned” the wrong synapses of your baby’s brain by letting her look at the TV too long.

But within all this real-life-shit, there is so much more joy than I could have ever imagined. There are heart-exploding moments practically every day. I feel things for my child that I have never felt for another human before. It’s as if we have always known each other. My girl is wild and silly one moment and then completely concentrated and serious the next. She gets deeply distraught when I set her down sometimes. I know it’s probably just a passing phase, but her need for me (and I for her) feels spiritual. I know the days of her looking at me as if I’m the very best human on this planet are limited. People in the grocery store like to remind me of this all the time – “enjoy every minute, they grow up so fast!” Seriously, why do people say this? I don’t go around saying to middle-aged people, “Enjoy every minute, you are over half-way done with your life!”

I live in “the now” much more than I used to. Not necessarily because I’ve learned how to be all Dalai-Lama zen but because I’m too busy and sleep deprived to think about tomorrow. I find myself thinking more about each season of life and the good and bad that come with each. Not because I’m necessarily more reflective, but because Mila’s baby clothes have helped me section off each stage of her little existence into convenient three month increments.

Maybe I didn’t need an hour to explain myself to my friend. What I wanted to say to her, maybe even to my younger self, was something trite, and not original, and perhaps a copyright infringement:

Motherhood is the hardest and the best thing I’ve ever known.

Before I became a mom, people would always say this to me and I didn’t like it. I thought those words were a reflection of the person’s attitude, not their reality. And I really didn’t want the first part to be true, especially if I was signing up for that gig. But it’s the truest thing I’ve heard so far.

© 2016 D. Willson

Six Days Left

 

In exactly six days, I have to return to work. And amid trying to savor all the moments and carpe the diems, I have been feeling all sorts of doom and gloom.

There is nothing that is going to change the outcome of this week, and as a result, I feel like I’m walking the plank. Except, I’m being asked to drop my baby off at the end. It’s morose and disturbing (and a grossly inaccurate metaphor for daycare). My feelings of dread have distorted my view of her future care providers. Clearly, they are going to pinch her and make her cry. Obviously, I am the only person who knows how to make her smile. No one there is going to love her the way I do. Who is going to kiss her cheeks till she giggles?

I’m also feeling some pretty intense fear. First, I’m scared that I’ll lose my bond with my daughter. Will she be angry with me? Will she feel abandoned? What if I come to pick her up and she reaches for the teacher instead? Though it’s hard to admit, I’ve got a serious case of jealousy towards those who get to spend all day with her. In case you haven’t heard, she is the smartest, cutest, loveliest, and most adorable child on this planet. And I have to miss exactly 53.6% of her waking hours due to work. Frankly, I’m pissed about it.

In addition to losing her, I’m afraid that I’ll also lose the mother I’ve become. I’ve already given up my sanity, due to sleep deprivation. Every night as I lie in bed and try to fall asleep, I listen on high alert for her to breath or whimper or fidget, anticipating her waking up, which could be any second. I only let myself sink into relaxation about 20%, so that the climb out of restfulness isn’t too steep. Why even bother to sleep?

And with this literal torture method, I find myself resenting motherhood in the evenings. Anxiousness sets into my belly the second I lay her down for the night because I know the “anticipation game” is about to commence. When I return to work, and begin giving my pitiful stores of energy away for eight hours a day, what will be left of me to give to her when I get home? Will she come to know me as a discombobulated, anxious, and resentful mom?

On the flip side of this, I also worry that this pervasive deep-care for my daughter may have shooed out any sense of care for others. Before she came, I poured myself into my career and took up the flag that is education and changing lives. But lately I find myself saying “who cares” when I think about returning to work. Am I really trading time with my flesh and blood for budget proposals and new curriculum adoptions?

I guess I should clarify. I do care about kids still. In fact, I care about the little creatures in a different way now. I had an inkling of maternal love before that girl came into my life. I thought my mama bear came out as I fought to protect the kids that I’d built relationships with across the years. But I realize now it was more like an aunt bear or a cousin bear.

Now I see those kids with my fresh, mama bear eyes. And I get mad. I wonder why that little five year old has to sit through something so dreadfully boring that they bury their head in their hands and choose the negative attention instead. Why do we have to take what we know about kids and learning and fit it into thirty-minute boxes of “services” and “subjects”? And then I think, why the heck am I the cheerleader of this?

Gee, I’m going to be really fun to work with this year.

Then the shame comes. Shame on me for not appreciating the good job I have and the health benefits that come from it and the beautiful, hard-working people that I work with. Shame on me for not being grateful for the 139 days I did get to spend with her without worrying about my job. Shame on me for thinking I’m the only person who could take care of my daughter. “It takes a village”, you know. And shame on me for not viewing this transition in a positive light and modeling “a good attitude” for her.

The other day I asked my friend, who grew up in Brazil, if they have the saying, “shame on you” in Portuguese. She said that wasn’t really a thing there. I’m thinking we should consider moving soon.

After shame, I start to feel self-conscious. You see, all I want lately is to just be a mom. To do mom things and think mom thoughts. It took me a long time to quell the inertia of working life and to slow to the speed of baby time. I don’t want to go back. But I have enough non-breeder friends that, when I see myself getting lost in this thing called motherhood, I can feel/hear their judgment from miles away. Actually, it’s probably just my former non-breeder self that is doing all the judging.

I went from a passionate, career-driven woman who wanted to get her doctorate to a woman who is annoyingly obsessed with her kid. I talk about poop and breastfeeding and snuggles way too much. And everything has become a song. Going in the car, putting on our pants, cooking spaghetti. I’m three colorful-turtlenecks short of becoming The Wiggles. Good god, it’s embarrassing.

And then comes the joy. I’ve felt more joy these past four months, in heart exploding quantities, than in many years combined. Not just happiness. But JOY. Like dancing in the streets kind of JOY and dogs playing fetch kind of JOY. It washes over me with so much intensity that I laugh and cry at the same time. I’ve never done that before. Yeah, maybe it’s hormones. But it’s also fulfillment and God all wrapped up in my new sense of self.

As you can see, I’ve mixed myself quite the cocktail of emotional instability. Rational thoughts need not apply this week.

My sister (and many other mothers) have told me that parenthood is the best and hardest thing to experience. I’m understanding that all the way into my bones right now. With every minute that feels like an hour and hour that feels like a minute of these next six days, I guess I’ll just resolve to feel it all. Even when I think I might be cracking up.

Now excuse me as I go take a good, long hit off the smell of my baby’s head while I still can. I’ve become quite the addict these days.

© 2016 D. Willson

what has become of me?

Standing in the dining room the other day, I looked down at myself and asked my husband, “What has become of me?”

I was wearing some dirty crew socks, droopy maternity shorts, and a red, long-underwear style shirt with no bra. Over the top of this classy ensemble was a hot pink fuzzy robe, worn wide open, Cousin-Eddie-style. And my hair…oh, the madness! I caught a glimpse of it in the mirror that morning and it was a cross between Grease Lightning and a nest made out of straw.

I’ve seen a lot of inspirational quotes and memes lately encouraging moms to take care of themselves. They recommend “radical self-care” and “refueling” and “do you, boo” because a car can’t run on fumes forever and neither can a mom. And this is so very true. In fact, I’m guilty of not even doing rudimentary self-care. Like, sometimes I even have to tell myself, Go poop now…don’t wait. Take care of yourself. Otherwise, several hours will pass and I’ll realize I’ve had to go since that morning. It’s that ridiculous.

Aside from needing to tend to my digestive health a little more carefully, most days, I’ve actually welcomed this new state of being. Mila doesn’t care a lick what I look like (yet) and it feels really nice to not worry about it. My makeup drawer has been nearly untouched for months and my yoga pants are wearing thin. Easy breezy. Not exactly a Cover Girl, but I hardly care.

Hardly. Until I slow down and catch a glimpse of myself. And then I have a momentary break down and cry out, “What has become of me?”

Almost six years ago, my dear friend Marguerite and I got together while I was visiting Michigan. I was twenty-six years old and preparing for my wedding that summer. Marguerite had just become a mother.

As we walked around her old neighborhood, Marguerite asked, “So, do you think you and Mike want to have kids someday?”

I explained my trendy, yet practical hesitation of over-population and shared honestly about feeling too selfish to be a parent. Marguerite said that she could see where I was coming from but she really hoped I would become a mother someday. She went on to explain that she never knew she could ever be so patient and that it brought out a beautiful part of her that she never knew was there. The notion that parenthood could yield growth in self-love was surprising to me.

Today, four months into this new role of mother, I see exactly what Marguerite meant. I’m surprised by how easy it is to put my cell phone down and be present. I never knew I had so much motivation in me to get outside and look closely at a leaf. And that patience Marguerite spoke of is there too. I can hold my baby close, while she screams in my ear, as long as it is needed, and not wish I was anywhere else. Motherhood has unearthed a version of myself that I really rather like.

I know I’m only in the first leg of this journey called parenting. I know the resentment of lost “me time” and the anger of peanut butter sandwiches shoved into the VCR (that problem is pretty much obsolete…) and the exasperation of grocery line tantrums are on their way. And I’m not saying that I didn’t chug a glass of wine last night after she woke for the third time in an hour. Parenthood does not make you fart rainbows, necessarily.

But I am really loving it. Even when I look like a deranged version of Maxine from the greeting cards. I see a heart of gold, tarnished by years of self-focus and simply growing up, getting its sheen back.

In the book mama, bare compiled by Kristen Hedges, a woman writes about her life before motherhood:

Even as I remember the girl who was before you, I can’t wrap my heart around a time when you weren’t with me, as though you were something always carried, somewhere in my girlhood and my singleness and our early marriage, something always waiting to come and break and mend everything, all at once.”

What has become of me? I have been broken and mended, all at once. I am disheveled and tired but patient and strong. I have become a mother.

© 2016 D. Willson

milk (part 3)

Photo by Brooke Collier. brookecollierphotography.com

The days that followed felt less like a Christmas miracle and more like a bad hang over. I limped about the house with an aching vagina, while my boobs leaked everywhere. And I was out of my mind exhausted. I don’t even think there is a word to describe how fucking tired you are in those first weeks. I felt like a two year old who had missed their nap. Except, way worse. By dinnertime I had lost my ability to positively interact with adult humans. And in the middle of the night, I’d sit on my side of the bed feeding Mila while sobbing my eyes out.

But little by little, nursing got better. It took two more trips to the lactation consultant, lots of reading on kellymom.com and La Leche League resources, and umpteen emails/texts to my sister asking, “is this normal?”

On one of the visits to the lactation consultant, I learned that I had overactive letdown, which caused Mila to cough and gasp every time she ate. To compensate she would flick her tongue to keep from choking on the milk, which in turn caused my nipples to become terribly bruised. She suggested lying down while nursing so gravity would help control the amount of milk she was getting. Even though it was pretty inconvenient, it worked like a charm.

I even stopped being so negative with myself. In fact, any time it felt hard, I channeled my frustration into a little pep talk to Mila. “We’ll get it, girlfriend. Let’s try again. We’ll get it.”

I may have really been talking to myself.

While the mechanics of breastfeeding were improving daily, there was one part that continued to be disappointing. I never got those super happy feelings while nursing. Instead, every time I’d feed Mila, and we’d settle in, I’d get this terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. Like doom or that everything was falling apart. It was predictable and depressing. I chalked it up to hormones and sleeplessness.

When my sister came to visit, I mentioned it to her while complaining about how much I didn’t love breastfeeding. I was surprised when she said that there was a term for what I was experiencing. Apparently there’s a condition called “D-MER” which stands for Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex. Which basically means that, while most women get a fantastic rush of oxytocin, giving them all these loving, amazing feelings, some women’s bodies do the opposite. They get a rush of anxiety and deep hopelessness when their milk lets down.

For eight weeks straight, I thought I was just super depressed and that I just happened to notice it while feeding her when I slowed down enough to think. But learning that there was an explanation for those feelings was very helpful for me. When we’d settle in to nurse and I’d feel that anxious rush, I’d tell myself: This is just a mixed signal from my brain. You’re ok. Everything is ok. Somehow naming it helped me cope. And as time has passed, though I still feel it, the rush has become far less piercing.

If you had told me on day one that we were going to make it a week breastfeeding, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had told me in week four that I’d ever wean her off a nipple shield and breastfeed in public, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had told me in week eight that I’d ever enjoy breastfeeding, I would have told you to shut your pie hole.

But I’m there now.

Right now Mila Marguerite is lying in my arms nursing. I’m doing it one handed, nipple shield-less, while typing with the other. Her little hand is sweeping up and down my left arm as if she is saying, “There, there mama. There, there.” I look forward to it now and I know that I will miss it when this part of motherhood comes to a close.

I’m not writing this to convince anyone of anything. I don’t want to make anyone feel guilty about how they feed their kid. Formula, boob juice, Kool-Aid, whatever. (OK, don’t be a dummy and feed your infant Kool-Aid.) But I get it. Breastfeeding was really, freaking hard. I think the only reason it worked for me was that I tapped into a huge network of support. (THANK YOU to those who helped).

This piece is just a little, personal manifesto of something I followed through with that was really quite difficult. Which is a big deal for me. I don’t run marathons. I got the stupid (but glorious) epidural during birth. I’m really not a disciplined, tough it out, kind of person. But here we are, my girl and me, nursing with the best of them. And I’m proud of myself. Motherhood has sparked something in me that I didn’t know was there.

And if you are also on this journey, it’s in you too. I’m sure you’ve noticed it. You are doing things you never dreamed possible – and you are doing it with inexplicable love and grace. Your days (and nights) are laced with both joy and pain. And they will fly by, as I’m sure everyone and their mother likes to remind you. Just remember, whatever it is you are trying to figure out, you’ve got this mama.

© 2016 D. Willson

milk (part 2)

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Photo by Brooke Collier. brookecollierphotography.com

Our first night at home with Mila was a very determined and complicated dance. Mike would hold her as I tried to squeeze little beads of milk out of my boob onto a spoon. Then we’d put it in her mouth. She would soothe for a second as I let her suck on my pinky finger and then she’d remember that she wanted food and start screaming again. So we’d repeat the process. Pass her to dad, massage the boob, collect three tiny drops on the spoon, put in baby’s mouth, let her suck, scream, repeat. After several rounds, then we’d try to get her to latch on with the shield. It felt like a nightmare. And our Wednesday appointment with the lactation consultant felt like a million years away. Surely our baby was going to die of starvation.

The next day, as I continued to work with Mila to latch on, I angrily thought about how “beautiful” everyone told me it would be. How I’d be washed over with drug-like oxytocin as I gazed into my baby’s big eyes. But this was not the case. It was worse than anything I could have imagined. It was a circus-act of attaching a plastic shield to my boob as I juggled a screaming baby and tried to prop pillows and keep her flailing arms from knocking the shield off. But my knowledge of what was “best” brought me stubbornly back to it, breathing through the pain and hating every second of it.

That afternoon during a particularly painful nursing session, I looked down to find the nipple shield was filled with blood. Freaking out, I quickly checked her mouth to determine the source and then realized that it was actually me that was bleeding. I remember thinking. Dear God, why is this so fucking terrible? How did anybody ever survive before formula was invented? And my heart lurched with equal parts dread and guilt every time anybody would say, “I think she’s hungry.”

At five o’clock, one of the local La Leche League leaders called me back. We had been playing phone tag since the night before. And while I am usually a very cautious call-screener, I answered the phone on the first ring. The kind woman introduced herself as Joy and listened carefully as I told her about the blood and how much it hurt. She asked questions and suggested resources. She stayed on the phone with me even when I could hear her own children demand her attention on the other side of the line. And then she asked if I’d like her to come over. I almost cried. “Yes, please!”

Joy knocked on my door an hour later, with her littlest one in tow. He was in his pajamas and looked sleepy. So did Joy. I invited her to my room where I had set up camp for my “postpartum recovery” and brought in some toys for her little one to play with while we talked. She asked if I would like for her to watch me feed Mila. It felt weird, this complete stranger, standing in my bedroom and asking me if I wanted her to watch me. I recalled how I said I’d never be that lady who just bares her boobs for all to see. But again, somehow, I didn’t care any more. I immediately started undoing my nursing bra.

After observing me fumble around with my feeding routine, Joy mentioned a technique called “laid back breastfeeding.” She had me strip Mila down to her diaper, lie back on some pillows, and put Mila on my tummy. Essentially, the goal was for her to wiggle herself up to my breast on her own. I had seen videos of brand new babies doing it straight out of the womb, army crawling up their mom’s bodies in search of the breast, and latching right on as if they were professionals. It was nuts. But I’d try anything at that point.

It didn’t really work…I had to help Mila get up to my boob (what a lazy little critter, she just laid there like a slug) and I still had to put my nipple in her mouth. But there was something very relaxing about it, even with a complete stranger watching. No one was grabbing my boob and trying to shove it into my baby’s mouth. I also noticed something different. When Mila spit the shield out, it was full of milk.

Joy looked at me and said, “I think your milk is coming in.”

It was like a Christmas miracle in mid-September. I had totally forgotten about milk because I was so focused on those tiny amounts of colostrum. I felt some serious relief to know that, while my brain was busy being Panicky-Polly, my body went ahead and did what it was supposed to. My boobs went from a dripping faucet to a bursting fountain in a matter of hours. At the very least, I could squirt this stuff into her mouth or pump it out. I didn’t care how, my baby was going to eat!

When Wednesday came I was both excited and nervous. It meant we could finally see a lactation consultant again but it also would be the first time leaving the house with Mila. My mom and I drove across town with a “hungry baby” as they instructed us to bring. Like three highways and a lot of traffic, across town. I cried the whole drive there because the radio kept playing songs that reminded me of a friend who had just passed away. Meanwhile, Mila screamed as if her life was over in the backseat and my boobs tingled and hurt in response. The Bluetooth connection between mama’s milk ducts and the sound of her baby’s cry is ridiculously good technology.

The new lactation consultant welcomed my mom and I into her little office with a bright beaming smile. She invited me to sit in a cushiony chair so she could watch me feed Mila. I unbuttoned my shirt for yet another stranger with front row seats to my topless show. Mila did an ok job of latching. I think she was showing off. But it only worked if I bent my body way over her and held my boob in her mouth, and only if it was on the left side.

After watching me for a bit, the consultant recommended that I continue to use the shield but assured me that I’d be able to wean her off of it eventually. She then weighed Mila as I nervously awaited the verdict. I expected her to immediately grab a can of formula and perform an emergency feed right on the spot.

“Good job mama,” she said confidently. “She is well within range of normal weight loss after birth. You are doing great!”

I almost looked behind me to see to whom she was referring. I couldn’t believe it.

Sure, we both really sucked at this nursing thing (no pun intended). It was annoying and hurt like hell and I didn’t think I’d ever be able to manage it in public, with all the acrobatics that were required. But my baby wasn’t going to die of starvation. So I vowed to try to make it to six weeks. Even though I really hated it. Like, a lot.

© 2016 D. Willson

milk (part 1)

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Photo by Brooke Collier. brookecollierphotography.com

I started having dreams about nursing the first time I was pregnant and they continued, through the grief of losing our baby, and into the joy of my second pregnancy. In most of these dreams, I discover that I haven’t fed the baby yet and a significant amount of time has passed since its birth. I run to the baby and it latches on immediately. It isn’t awkward. It’s easy and comforting.

In real life, however, the thought of breastfeeding a baby was terrifying to me. While I completely understood the Breast is Best campaign and respected and supported any woman’s right to nurse in public, MY breasts were meant for looking good in low cut tops and, let’s just say it, for sex. I felt like putting my fingers in my ears and saying “la, la, la” whenever I saw another article about the magic of the boob juice. I found myself searching for a loophole, a “This just in…Formula is Fantastic!” way out. But I knew it was simply my selfishness getting in the way. And I knew that in the end, I would probably choose it for my baby, as long as it was possible.

About a month before I was due to give birth, my sister sent me a link to a video about how to get a baby to latch on. However, I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. Watching babies breastfeed gave me the willies. Like watching surgery on TLC, back in the day before it was all about Honey BooBoo and duck-people. I told my sister thank you and proceeded to ignore it for several weeks.

Mila entered the world screaming like a banshee and mad as a hornet. Her cries were adorable and overwhelming. And they didn’t stop for a good hour or so after she was born. The attending nurse told me to let her know when I was ready to try latching on, but assured me there was no hurry. We lay there, my girl and me, skin to skin, while her purple lips quivered and yelled about her disrupted life. All I could think to do was stick a boob in her mouth to quiet her down. So I told the nurse we were ready.

Boy was I wrong. Nothing says welcome to the world like frantically trying to force feed as much breast tissue you can fit into your poor child’s wailing mouth. The nurse coached me on squishing my boob into the shape of a hamburger and putting my nipple in line with her nose. It hurt. Oh, how it hurt. But somehow I didn’t care. This babe needed to eat.

The next twelve hours were a flurry of doctors and nurses checking in on Mila and me, diaper changes, deliveries of terrible hospital food, and chaperoned bathroom visits to help me fill my giant diaper with an ice pack. (Birth ain’t pretty folks. It’s straight up trauma for your hoo-ha). Interspersed were continued attempts to feed Mila. The nurses assisted, shoving my boob into her mouth, giving me tips, rubbing her cheeks, etc. But with each try, we didn’t seem to make any progress.

That night, a new nurse came on duty. She moved quickly, busily and was kind of brusque. I decided that her mother must have disciplined her with a switch when she was a child. After several times trying to latch, and her hands gripping Mila’s head a little too tightly, she told me that she wanted me to try something.

After a half hour, she returned to the room (which had since filled with several visitors) and announced loudly, “You have flat nipples, this nipple shield will help.”

Rather embarrassed by the public revelation of my failed nipple shape to everyone and their brother, I reluctantly tried the new contraption. The shield was basically a little nipple-shaped piece of plastic that had holes in it. And miraculously (at least it seemed to me), it helped Mila latch. But now that she could suck, I began to wonder if anything was actually coming out. The nurse reassured me that she was probably getting something. I wasn’t so sure and requested that the lactation consultant come see me.

Determined to figure this out in the meantime, I watched all the videos I could find, including the one my sister sent me. I was rather surprised to find that the image of the baby nursing did not disturb me any more. Though I was pretty discouraged at how GIANT the women’s nipples all were and the abundance of the milk that came gushing out. I felt like a failure. My nipples were small, and apparently flat, and squishy. Nothing compared to the swords those women in the video were wielding about.

I was also discouraged because every website I found warned against using a nipple shield as it could lead to “nipple confusion” and dependency. I could see Mila lying on the couch at the shrink’s office in the future – explaining how confused her mother made her by the nipple shield and that’s why she likes to torture animals now.

Meanwhile another nurse came on shift. She had a warmer spirit but very cold hands and each time she tried to help shove my boob into Mila’s mouth, I winced from the pain of my very sensitive nipples and her icy touch.To make things worse, the nice, cold-handed nurse told me there was a good chance that the lactation consultant wouldn’t be able to make it to see me. Which meant we’d be going home with a hungry baby and no check up until three days later.

I began to panic. I didn’t want to spend another night in that hospital with yet another nurse who was less than helpful. But what if my body didn’t make the “liquid gold” that all the videos kept talking about? Maybe I could have a nipple transplant, on account of their misshapen state.

Around four-thirty, however, a lady with helmet hair and lots of makeup poked her head in the doorway. She looked more like she was coming to sell me Mary Kay than to give me breastfeeding advice. But I was immediately relieved to have her help. She began by asking why I was using a nipple shield. I explained that the nurse told me that I have flat nipples. She rolled her eyes and said, “Your nipples are just fine.”

She then suggested that I hold my baby like a football, propped a bunch of pillows around us, and then assisted in shoving my boob in Mila’s mouth yet again. But like all the other times, it simply didn’t work. Mila wouldn’t latch on.

“Hmmm…” she pondered, then proceeded to inspect Mila’s mouth. “She has a little bit of a lip tie, which might make it tricky to latch on. Maybe you should continue with the nipple shield.”

Just then the consultant’s little phone/walkie-talkie thingy buzzed and she was paged to another room.

“I need to get going,” she said. “But let me show you how to hand express for now.”

She pulled a plastic baggy with a plastic spoon and notecard inside it from her pocket. Before she left, she showed me how to squeeze my boob so that tiny beads of colostrum would come out, then used the spoon to collect it, and spoon fed them to Mila who gobbled it right up. For the first time in 24 hours, I felt like I was doing something right!

But that confidence quickly faded after she left as I struggled yet again to get Mila to latch on with the shield. And by then it hurt so badly I was in tears. My sister suggested that I call my La Leche League leader. I hated calling people I don’t know, but I felt desperate. The call went through to voicemail and I left a weird, over-apologetic message.

“Hi. This is, uh, Detta Hogan and I just had a baby and I can’t get her to eat. My sister is a member of the La Leche League in Michigan and she told me to call you for help. Can you help? I don’t even know if this is a thing you do. Sorry if it’s not. Please call me back. That is, if it’s convenient for you. But we are going to leave the hospital tonight, so if you could get back to me soon, that’d be great…Sorry to bother you.”

© 2016 D. Willson