No one knows where the time goes once they have kids. I’ve gone for long stretches on this blog, but the last time I wrote here I was in the hospital thinking I had many weeks before my baby arrived instead of what probably ended up as days. She was born 8 weeks early sometime around the supermoon. Lots of moms-to-be on the ward had experienced some type of complications, and the nurses told me Triage always filled up during a full moon, and it was the super moon and I was not exempt. New blood came and soon after that my sweet little one.
I wrote to her from my hospital bed, my womb becoming more volatile, my placenta threatening to detach, and I detested my body’s hostility, its urge to expel—to violently discard—the thing it was meant to protect, a desire to slough off, the super moon awake in my blood too. I felt it pool and curdle within me until there was no choice left, so I shed it, shrieked her out—no longer dull thuddings of a heartbeat in my belly’s moon—expelled her to another system of connectors, of wires to consult on a networked map of our trajectory on her small body so recently a part of my own.
My veins, nicked, rolled, blown, my body, all spent. And soon a forced separation as she spent three weeks in the NICU and I waded through a storm of postpartum hormones, tears, fluids, pains, and aching longing for the thing that was no longer just mine. And thankfully mothers (mine, Ian’s) and sisters and female friends to care for me. No one tells you that when you become a mother, you also become a child again, in need of care and tending to almost as much as the thing you birthed. And many women don’t get this care and you ache for them even while you can think of nothing but need—your child’s, your own.
They placed her on my vacated belly sometime between cutting the chord, aspirating and measurements. I felt a bit of what I thought I was supposed to feel, I kissed her skin cauled in my own blood. But before I could name whatever I was feeling she was whisked up, surrounded by a circle of doctors, then, I suppose off to the NICU. I forgot to follow her path as the numbing agent wore off, and I was left to endure the tug of stitches as they closed me back up with no new baby to distract me from the pain (before labor a nurse told me how rare episiotomies for preemies were, but not rare enough it seems).
It was four hours before I’d see her again. And I know some mothers are forced to go much longer, but that four hours seemed so wrong. They left the port to my IV in, and the larger connector in my back where the epidural had been. They wanted to be sure the anesthesia had no long lasting effects, and some other things I can’t remember. I fought and they kept deferring me, some labs were lost and reordered, I needed the epidural removed. I had wanted a natural labor but had given up that idea long before when I was hospitalized for complications that might necessitate an emergency c-section but thankfully didn’t; and with a pitocin-induced labor, some troubling heart rhythms that mirrored my contractions, and other complications it was still a dramatic enough labor and birth.
I sat in the uncomfortable delivery bed, trying to hold it together while my hormones surged. Finally I told them I was going down; they could leave the epidural in for all I cared. I saw my daughter get her first “bath,” warmed and soaped cloths under lights with no water in sight. I spoke to her of what we endured, noted the marks of her passage in the shape of her head, the fluids being washed from her skin, her desperately weary cry, still such a small sound even in its urgency. We had to watch mostly those first days; even holding could wear down her premature system.
Still in the hospital, a nurse reminded me to pump at regular intervals, my nipples sucked into the flanges and yielding nothing but air at first. The nurse came in at 4 am the day I was to leave the hospital without Alma. I couldn’t get back to sleep after that, so I ventured without my wheelchair (the farthest on my own in more than a month) down to the NICU, and the nurse caring for Alma let me hold her without even my asking. I bared my torso and they put Alma to my chest, she just in a small diaper that was too big for her 3 pounds and some ounces, and they draped us both with receiving blankets. I rocked her and sang to her and welcomed this new life.
Alma learned to feed first through a tube, and we celebrated the first time she was strong enough to suck on a pacifier, and later to drink even a few milliliters from a bottle. And that seemed wild too, to measure her intake in milliliters, not even ounces like a full-term baby, not at first. I tried several times in the NICU to put her to the breast, the lactation consultant always referring to her as my bear cub as she positioned my baby brusquely, cupping my breasts like beasts that must be willed into submission. (So many nights waking up to pump, trying to teach my body what it had born with nothing but this machine to wake its natural instincts, the only way to provide for my baby at that point. The one act of love I could do from afar.)
And once home, it was my mother who encouraged us and trusted we could do it. I jammed my breast into Alma’s mouth until she finally took it, and as she learned I cried through the pain as she sought sustenance. (But later the sweetness too, of a sleeping wonder you’ve created so peaceful on your chest. Closed-eyed stirrings, mouth open and searching for you and for life.)
It wasn’t until close to her original due date that Alma seemed to really wake up. Everything came together more smoothly for her then. We left bottles behind for the most part. She was alert for longer stretches in the day. Her cries had greater breath behind them. She was a solid body of need and it felt good to be needed.
There was so much to be regained after her birth. It had been months now since I had walked more than a few feet on my own, since I’d been allowed outside not in a wheelchair. We all celebrated the first time I was able to walk the dog a block, and then my longest trek out, a trip to Dairy Queen with friends.
Weeks passed, the delivered meals and houseguests dwindled, Ian went back to work. I drew my strength from Alma as much as she drew from me. We had to find our way in the day’s light that had only barely permeated my hospital room’s walls. I found uses for my arms beyond holding as I learned to wear Alma in a wrap. We set out on foot in the balmy summer, I sweated where she nestled in the wrap, but we were outside and it was wonderful.
I felt a hedonist indulging in decadences like breakfast on a tray I made for myself. I ate quietly with Alma asleep in her cot next to my bed. When she awoke I spent the majority of my day just feeding her, Netflix streaming in the background. As I healed and we developed more of a routine, I felt the urge to do more. My own pressures. I made and sold goods at an art festival soon after she arrived. Tried to assuage my guilt as I let her sit on a cushion while I spread out on the floor making things and preparing , remembering to her first few weeks when all I wanted was to hold her and sometimes couldn’t, worrying about how it might affect her development to let her alone. Because that’s what they tell you, every moment you are impacting your child’s development, how important interaction is, how damaging the lack.
But she was thriving, and I needed to as well. I felt the need to push myself to do more, to go out, to accomplish things. I pushed until I had to draw back, to slow down again. And now Alma is 7 months, and I go in bursts of activity, and then feel unable (or am unable sometimes) to do much but watch this one who is more a person everyday. The times I’ve wanted to do the most seem to have coincided with the times she’s needed me more.
In the midst of everything, we moved back to Michigan. We left the supportive community we found in Columbus, my dear artist friends who were always good for a much needed conversation, a challenging of the mind, and the offer to hold Alma so that I could feel like a separate being again. (Artists are great since they often have non-traditional work hours.) We have family much closer now, but we’re still trying to make this new place feel like home.
It’s hard to know what to say here about the identity questions, the doubt, what is inherently acquired when you become a mother, and what is expected by others or yourself. There’s probably not much to say that hasn’t been said before, though I think about it—the things only a mother can do versus what a mother should do or wants to do, how that separates and combines with being a woman, a partner. How to find who you are outside of this role once you’ve taken it on, how to define it so you and your partner are comfortable and not constricted. Mostly I don’t know the answers yet; I know the things I aspire to be, even when I have no energy or motivation to be them. I want to reclaim my identity as an artist that I lost to the corporate world and my own fatigue, but my creativity is spent elsewhere at the moment, if it’s spent at all. I wonder if shaping this one life really gives enough, if it’s okay that it’s all I have to give for right now. And then I don’t mind because I’m typing this and she’s on her side watching the screen with determination, her curious hands at the hem of my robe, as she babbles to me. It’s enough right now.
Now Alma is 10 months old, and it’s been a year since I was first hospitalized. Our days are taking more of a predictable shape and I find small moments to work in my sketchbook, attempt a poem, work on a design project. And spring is slowly arriving and we are taking walks again, finding patches of sun, smiling in the light. And I’m learning it’s also true that you can’t count on anything staying the same. I learn as she learns, discover everything anew as she does, and it’s a lucky life to live.