Emmett Ever made both me and J mothers. That was three years ago yesterday. We are not the same people we were before the 19th of January 2011.
But two years ago yesterday – on the 19th of January 2012 – Bram made me a mama. Cheers to my kiddo, and boundless gratitude, for that great good gift.
Before I started teaching, I believed (without thinking on it too much) that somewhere around 95% of a classroom’s dynamic was a product of the professor. What I very quickly learned was that so so much of what transpires there is born of the particular, inexplicable, complex relationship(s) between and amongst everyone in the room. This must be true of parenting too – of family building – and so it will be such a journey to learn myself anew as Dragon’s mama. Still, if I had to guess, I would say these first two years of mamahood have been and will remain formative. When I think of motherhood, I see his face, not mine. Even as that becomes more complex – when Bram’s is not the only face I see – it could never be overridden.
But when someone says mama, Bram thinks of me. I am all he knows of what that word means (though not, of course, brilliantly, what the word mother means, as his sense of that is broad enough to encompass two very different parents). The responsibility of being his only mama is sometimes staggering: the terror that something will take me from him, or him from me. The sense of consequence in all of my actions. Sometimes I wish I could believe in an interventionist God. [I am, by instinct more than doctrine, a subscriber to the benevolent but absent creator + human will take on things.] But sometimes I would like to imagine that something other than me and J and of course our circle – something much, much bigger – is deeply and powerfully invested in Bram’s well-being. So yes: the responsibility of mamahood is staggering. But mostly? That I am this thing to him: his mama? It’s just the best feeling in the world.
Truly, I can hardly believe my blind, stumbling, good fortune at getting to do this work. I don’t fool myself that I’ve earned this chance, or that I set myself up for it. I’m not sure what I thought parenthood would look like, but even as it (my fantasy) no doubt involved more rest than actually accompanies this life, I could never have imagined anything as… heart.full as this.
So: this. An angel-sweet, bittersweet, demanding life that, with rare exceptions, I could laugh out loud from the joy of living.
But the details. First: non-gestationality. Wow, what a heavy subject this was two years ago. How threatened I felt. How much terror. I am overjoyed to tell you that almost all of that shit is gone. All of the jealousy. Any lingering doubt about my centrality, my equality in our little boy’s eyes. All that remains is some birth/loss trauma (no small thing, of course…this deserves more of my time than I give it, more care) and an anger that usually barely rises above annoyance that some people still do and always will think me and my NGP cohorts somehow less than. But that’s about them. For my part, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t believe in fate, but I do feel built to be Bram’s parent. Soul.blood.bones. He is mine. I am his. Other NGPs have said that the beauty of this kind of parenthood is in the choice to love, but I don’t feel that way. Loving my son feels no more a choice than breathing.
Cognitively I know how much work it took to let go of the insecurity (and I did work. I did.), but I don’t feel it in a concrete way. Or I can’t access it anymore. Instead, I have the sense of deep fear and longing having been lifted from me. Being relieved of it, as if overnight. And maybe, in the end, that’s what happened. At any rate, I now have my actions to look back on – the ones that were born of fear – and that’s interesting. I can see the behaviors that insecurity led me to in B’s early months: the possessiveness around J’s family, the obsession with equality between J and me, the burning envy about breastfeeding. I feel actual giddy bliss at the belief that none of this will be present this next time round, and though I wish I hadn’t felt it with Bram, I can’t regret it. It was what I needed to grieve, to connect, to get here. And I’m proud of the things I braved: the support I gave J in her breastfeeding journey even when it sometimes broke my heart to do it. Because now? Now I know that we are equal parents not because we’re the same, but because we each bring him what we have to give. Because we surrender ourselves when he needs us to. And now I can see that I’m not the only one who was called to surrender. J did so too – with too little acknowledgment – letting me mother our child in my way, giving me the space to be home even while missing him fiercely, expressing gratitude for my mama-nature, nevernevernever claiming privilege. She stepped back when I had him. I stepped back when she did. We have given him our best, and we’ve let each other do that, and I’m proud of us for that because it wasn’t always easy. My litmus test is in stranger interactions. I used to light up when people assumed (as they almost always do) that I gave birth to my son. Now I’m thrilled to tell them that I didn’t. Let them watch us and (un)learn.
So that part was a journey. Other things have been easy from the word go. Early mamahood is all about touch, and to me, that is the level best. Holding, rocking, wearing, smooching, snuggling, spooning, bed-sharing, huggies. That near-constant bouncing of early infancy. The full-throttled hug of toddlerhood. It’s the sweetest part of my present world, and it’s all instinct for me. Easy as blinking. Even when I crave physical autonomy, I’m ready to have B back within touching distance within hours, or sometimes even minutes. Carry you, mama (he means “carry me”) are, even at thirty-plus pounds, still some of my favorite words. And I am SO LUCKY that this child is the deeply affectionate being he is. He’s not one to just sit in a lap forever, but he rarely goes more than a few minutes without wanting some kind of contact. Affection seems to be, for him, the touch point that it is for me: the rooting mechanism, the grounding. Whatever size he is, my arms are built for holding him, and I could do it forever.
I also have a likely delusional – no doubt inherited from my oddly optimistic parents (especially my mom) – gift for staying pretty happy most of the time. For seeing the good. And that must be catching because our son has it too. I’m not sure I would have thought of this as something I desperately wanted to pass down before, but it’s become clear to me that it’s my greatest strength, and it thrills me to see one of our children inherit it. Bram is delighted with the world. Beside himself. In love. It isn’t that he doesn’t experience pain, or frustration, or struggle. It’s just that he doesn’t stay there: his instinct is for beauty. “I hear you, Bug,” I think when I watch his expressions of joy. “That we should be here is nothing short of a miracle.”
In Bram’s infancy, though, I felt lonely a lot of the time. That and the early insecurity were the First Hard Things. I was deeply isolated and uninspired, and too tired to know how to change those things. Now that B is communicative, this is better. If he were going to be in preschool, I would be more daunted than I am about Dragon’s first year. And I am nervous because I’ve learned that, physical sweetness aside, I’m not quite suited to infancy. I don’t struggle to attach, and I’m not resistant to the FULL ON NEED that is that first year. But my pleasures are about communication, and that’s just barely there, in the way I mean, at least. I love the pint-sized snuggles, but I crave eye contact. Purposeful kisses. A squeeze around my shoulders. For me, the first year is hard-earned and lonely. But I’m hopeful that B’s increasing personhood will keep the isolation at bay this time round. And I know there’s an other side to infancy now. And especially: I know the delight that lives there. It will be hard, but I feel ready for it.
I’m also not great at the socializing with other local parents part. I see a couple of parent-friends occasionally, but mostly the “mom group” bit of this at-home gig is uncomfortable for me, and I’ve just avoided it. There’s only one other local kiddo who Bram regularly hangs with: we do things as a family with her family, and her at-home dad and I have a standing three-hour-a-week care swap, so C and Bram spend at least six hours a week with one another. But this has started not to feel like enough because our son is social. I’m not sure how to go about fixing it, so I mostly just put it off. We DO go places (the tennis courts at our gym, regular storytimes at our library, a coffee shop that lets Bram sit on the counter and watch the Chemex pour, a restaurant where everyone really does know his name, a park where we regularly bump into neighborhood friends), so we’re social enough I think. But Bram’s obsession with geographically distant friends – and his elation over any mention of the local friends his does have – suggests that he’s ready for more regular contact with peers. This is daunting to me.
I also have to shut something down to do this work, and it’s not a slight part of me. To change another diaper, to keep crayon off the wall, to clean up under his highchair Another Time Today, to build another obstacle course of pillows and push carts and musical instruments, and then to tear it down, again… it’s a monotony that requires the absence of a part of my brain that wants (needs?) something invigorating to bother getting up. I sometimes feel only half awake because of this. Even when I was writing my dissertation, I felt vaguely turned off. I’m not sure how or when it will end, but it is, if not painful, vaguely uncomfortable.
But then there’s marriage. This one is hard to suss out because along with the trials of shared early parenthood, my marriage has also weathered a lot of loss. Loss is hard on marriage. It’s also endured whole years with both J and I outside of our respective comfort zones: her pregnant, nursing, female bodied in a way that causes her psychic discomfort; me feeling barren, unwomanly, broken in a way that causes anguish. The easy ways in which we fit have been absent for spans of time, and that has been difficult at best, and debilitating at worst. But even now, still very much in the throes of that, I can see how we’ve been called to find different points of connection, and how we’ve answered that call. I don’t think we’re there just yet, but I sense a new balance coming in our marriage, a new sweetness marked by our mutual willingness to fight and seek and struggle for one another. Even a new passion born of the (surprising?) realization that we’ve remained an us through all of this: that we’re here, together and grateful and having grown.
Last week, during a series of sleepless nights (never blog that your child is sleeping well), I was feeling the kind of anger towards J that one can only feel towards a co-parent between the hours of 1 and 4am. A righteous, burning anger that seethes because you won’t express it, and you won’t direct it at your child, and you can’t not feel it because you need sleep. It was her shift with him, and nothing she was doing (just like nothing I’d been doing before) was working. I (silently) blamed her not because it was her fault, but because she was the only one there to blame. But then in the middle of her rendition of Tom Waits’ “Time,” she did something. Something that probably no one else in the world would have seen as meaningful, but which – in the unspoken layers of meaning that come through years of shared living – can only be read as love. She changed a line from “the boys just dive right off the cars and splash into the street,” to “the Boysies just dive right off the cars and splash into the street.” She did this thoughtlessly, at probably 3am, while pregnant and exhausted and facing a full work day a mere couple of hours away. Replacing one word for another that would make our son happy. And in that moment, I loved her with even more ferocity than I had been angry, with more of my whole soul than I would have though possible a few years back, back when we had time for us, when we were matching puzzle pieces and there was only one another to worship. I said nothing. I just moved my foot closer to hers under the covers, below our wide-awake son’s restless body. She was right there with me. We were in the trenches together, and she could communicate that with one tiny shift in language. This, more than anything else, is what marriage means to me right now. It is heavy and sometimes too much: baked pudding in an age of sorbet, as I once read somewhere about something else. It is worth its weight.
In the more worrisome camp, there’s mamahood and friendship. Much more than anything truly Bram-related, this feels like a point of profound failure. I believe that I used to be a great friend. I knew how to love that way, which matters to me. Now I think I’m decent on the right day, and downright lousy on the rest. I can actually deal with the absence of self-care that attends early parenting, but this feels like a wound when I think on it too long. I have been blessed with a number of close women friends – beautiful, smart, talented sisters – and for the most part, parents themselves or not, they’ve stuck around. Only one of my friendships has been truly harmed by my distracted distance, though the sting of that is not slight. But the rest are suffering, and I’m at a loss as to how to handle that. It’s a constant feeling of insufficiency: the e-mail that I either ignore or answer too hastily, while B plays in the other room or once he’s asleep and the dishes are high and the laundry too. Voicemails left unreturned, demonstrating none of the gratitude and joy I felt at having received them. There’s not enough of me for both the kind of parent and the kind of friend I want to be, and so friendship pays the price every time. Ironically, parenthood has been a gift in this regard too: has brought me new sisters who share this kind of life, who need never even to have met me to know me. But I feel that I fail even those new friendships. I am bested.
Finally, there’s work. Teaching, which used to bring me deep pleasure. Research, which used to at least excite me. Hours spent in a too cool, deliciously quiet library. Coffee at my side, stacks of articles. The thrill of ideas discovered and communicated. But now it’s all a little… well… smaller. The classroom is not without its joy, but everything that takes me away from my child – even worthy students – feels like a burden. I have more than a work/life balance. Work is an aside, albeit one that, without childcare, I have to force awkwardly into most solo moments, which takes its toll. Still: I am lucky in this department. But there’s a painful new fact: that my other loves – even bright, sweet, powerful teaching – fall short. It’s hard to know how to meet this shift.
So that is plenty. Mamahood at two years. I’ve read little on the subject, which I’m sure is clear here. I believe in attachment. In simplicity. In unconditionality and immense patience. I’ve let in some of the research that has been laid before me on these concepts, but in a lazy unseeking way. I resist learning more because I trust myself, which is itself a gift. I feel deeply flawed, of course, but equal to the work. Worthy even in imperfection. Or because of imperfection, probably. I’ll close with a slideshow of some mama + Bramble photos from the last two years. I recently put together a 300 picture photo album from our last two years as a family. The memories, they are sweet. All pain aside, what remains is love.