expansion

There’s an indulgence to this little stretch of time. This time when my family is holding steady: me and the boys. My mom. When my work is solid and beloved. I am not restless. I love my home, and the labors to which I set myself. My children. My city. And my friends! Good Lord, my friends. This morning – on my little drive to the church – I counted some twenty humans who saved my life this year. Who saved my life. They did.

I spend time alone. When the boys aren’t with me – when I let myself sink into that – I choose who to be with. Where to go. I explore. I read when I want. I drink cheap wine and listen to music I adore. I stretch out in bed. I wake up slowly. I listen to the coffee as it brews. I miss the boys and feel out of sorts. I long for them, and then just walk with that. Is is okay.

I date when I want, and find pleasure in it. I don’t need it. I sit in our little chapel during the Eucharist on Wednesdays and love everyone so much I ache. I stand at the threshold between church and chapel on Sundays and take in all those faces. All those stories I’ve come to care about. All those stories now entwined in mine. I love them all with perfect madness. I am dizzy from loving them. I say, “it might kill me, all this love.” And friends say, “Thank God we’re not called to survival.” It is okay to die for love. There is resurrection.

And in this fertile space – when I let it feel fertile and not barren, which is all in the looking – I have learned some things about me. And I like that too. New discoveries. It feels indulgent even to be breathe deeply enough to make those.

Like: here’s one secret this year has taught me.

I still love cities. The anonymity of a crowded sidewalk. The voices. The coffee cups, and alleyways, and sharp buzzing air. But now I can be charmed by wide open countryside. And also by small towns with rundown two-block-long Main Streets. These spaces all have gifts to offer, and I can see those gifts now with grateful eyes.

And they call to me. Maybe I’ll stay in this solid, old house. It is sweet and stable and never showy. It is two miles from my beloved downtown. I could finish the basement some day; put in a second bathroom. Restore the fireplace. Lay tile. When it needs a new roof, I could put metal up there. I could love it that long; offer myself to it that fully. It is good and it is enough.

But maybe, too, these boys and I will land in a smaller town somewhere nearby. A town with a little grocery a block away where I could send the boys on their bikes to grab butter or lemons.

Or on some stretch of land: a barn with old rafters, tall trees to explore, winds that spring up and startle. With farmers for neighbors, and pitch black nights, and stars all over the place.

Those landscapes surround this beloved city, and I’ve ventured out into them, and I like what I see. They sing to me quietly, and I find myself open to their songs.

Isn’t that lovely? The invitation to feel open to possibility? I have so few answers these days, and I’m learning to settle down in the face of that.

Here’s a pretty prayer I pray sometimes.

May I open my heart and mind to continuous growth, unexpected change, and the perpetual unsettling, liberating expansion of being alive. May I have the courage to name and sanctify this moment that is shaping me into the image of the ever-evolving Divine. Blessed are you, our God, the Renewing One of the world, who has allowed me to reach this time of transformation.

Amen.

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on loneliness and a deep, deep well

I’ve been really struggling lately with the nights away from the boys. Standing in the doorway of their room. Feeling something like paralysis. Knowing it will serve them if I use that time to rest, but struggling to do so.

I met someone amazing, someone with whom I share much connection, but I discovered that I’m in no way ready for that. It was escapist: not the connection, but the timing. As wretched as it is, I need to be standing there in the doorway of their room. I need to be alone when I do it. And I need to unlearn the things about myself that the end of my marriage taught me. I would be nicer to have someone kind unteach me those things, but it wouldn’t be real that way. It would be a propping up. I need the quiet. I need, even, the loneliness. And here’s something I’m proud of: realizing that I need that made me want it. And wanting it made me willing to take it. And that makes me feel brave in a way I’ve never felt brave before.

But brave or not: the loneliness. It is awful. The heartache of losing a marriage against your will. As a friend recently (and gently) pointed out to me, how we experience divorce depends a lot on our subject position in its ending. If we didn’t want it to end, if we lost our partner and time with our children through no choice of our own, the feeling can be a little like hostage taking. It can feel like being robbed. Still, all these months later, it makes me sit up in bed gasping in the night, struggling to breath.

Loneliness. And so I decided to reach out to a group on social media, a group of queer moms. And what’s come of that has been remarkable.

Here’s what I wrote in that space:

Hi all. I’m hoping for some community. My wife ended our marriage last year, and we’ve been slowly transitioning our boys, ages 5 and 3, to a two-home family. Until recently, they spent most of their nights with me, but that is shifting now to a more even division.

I never imagined that I would spend nights away from my babies. I have meaningful work and deep friendships and yet: parenthood is far and away my strongest joy. The nights the boys spend away from me are crushing. I can hardly bear their absence from our home, from their bed. Not adding an extra blanket before I fall asleep; not checking their breathing; not having my youngest wake up in the night and stumble in to me; not hearing my oldest call for me in the early morning. It is anguish.

I have an incredible support network, a strong prayer life, and well-established comfort and coping measures. And yet: those nights feel endless. I’m not really asking for advice, but I would love the witness of any of you who have experienced loss of this nature. I would love just to feel a little less alone.

The response? Dozens and dozens of comments from mamas who have experienced the same loss. Who are still in the depths of sorrow. Who are past that, mostly, and healing. Who have found strength and power and new life. Who haven’t yet. Who have drawn closer to their children. Whose children are struggling still. Who say:

Yes.

And: I went through this. 

And: Your words brought tears to my eyes because I remember.

And: This is crushing. I know. I know it is.  

You are mourning. It will get easier. 

I am so sorry for your pain. I am so sorry. 

You are not alone. We are here. 

Sister: you’ve got this. 

Know how they knew to say all that? Because every bit of sorrow I’m feeling has been felt before. And is felt now. And will be felt again.

I spent much of the first twenty-four hours after their comments started rolling in crying.

Though community and community experience is extremely important to me, I’ve been mostly coping with this in specific terms (i.e. with regards to me and my boys). I think that’s all I could handle. I wasn’t ready for empathy: for thinking about the scale and scope of this pain out there in the world. I wasn’t ready to know this was a community unto itself.

The thread on that page exploded the privacy of my experience, which felt a little like diving into a deep body of water: water that is anguish and pain and loss, but also water that is shared. That is healing. That spans time and space.

I have felt these past days a deep sense of connection with all of the moms who shared, and with the countless mamas and papas and parents who have had to face this loss. It is not a source of connection I’d have chosen us to share with one another, but it is a source of connection, and for that reason it is also a gift.

We suffer, and then we grow strong at those points of suffering. Maybe like the Japanese tradition of adding gold where pottery cracks: we grow beautiful there. What I saw in that thread was pain grown beautiful.

The moms on that thread, they offered me wisdom, and bravery, and honesty. They witnessed to me so that I could witness to them. Now when I stand at the door to my boys’ room, I know I’m doing it in the company of many. In blessed company. It is a deep well, and water heals.

these boys

Today, like so many of us, I drove my big kid to school: in Bram’s case to his final year of Montessori preschool. He was nervous and reluctant, and also curious. He ran out the front door and kicked rocks around the driveway for awhile. He wanted to listen to Cloud Cult’s “Transistor Radio” on the way. He sang along, like always. I said, “That journey his grandpa sends him on? That’s like your journey, Bug.” I watched him gathering his nerve in the rearview mirror. I listened to him slow his breathing.

I’m writing this from a table in the coffee shop where I wrote a lot of my dissertation. Where we came after we lost E. Where we brought B the first time we left the house with him. That was a lifetime ago: two lifetimes, literally, for my kids. Not long ones, but of course we’d do well not to measure life by length.

At four-and-a-half, Bram is a firestorm of passion, focus, curiosity, and brave imagination. He is self-conscious about his physical abilities: nervous on playgrounds and critical of how he runs and bikes, as if someone has told him he isn’t good at those things (though to my knowledge no one has). He holds back nothing on the creative front, and is steady in his confidence in himself as an artist. If he asks you to describe some recent experience, to remind him of a detail from an encounter, it’s so he can go home and draw it. He’s a storyteller: he tells tales silently, with colored pencils, for hours; with Legos in deep concentration; in a loud, dizzying voice as he spins around the house. He is a careful and kind brother, son, grandson, and friend. He holds his fingers up in the shape of a square to tell me he loves me. I think he’d make eye contact for hours.

When I told him that some people think we are all of the figures from our dreams – so he’s not just the little kid who’s scared; he’s also the beast chasing the little kid – a smile stretched across his face for whole minutes. When I asked him if he wanted to finish a drawing he had started earlier in the day, he said, “I don’t want to, mama, I need to. An artist needs to finish what he starts.” He told me on a walk to the library last week – out of the blue, at an intersection – that he wants to be a baker, a construction worker, and a priest when he grows up. This would surprise no one who knows him.

At two-and-a-half, Lou is a wild and beautiful creature. His will is fierce and seems to come from somewhere profoundly deep within him. He is built mostly of courage and curiosity, and he’s like a cat: capable of immense and startling acts of love and loyalty, but on his terms. Once while working together with Play-Doh, he said – without even looking up – “I miss you when you’re at work, mama. I love you too now.” We just kept working. He has a head full of blonde curls, lashes that go on forever, and the last vestiges of the skinny bird arms and legs he had at birth. We still call him Birdie, and it still fits.

He is maddened by any suggestion of passivity: he wants to push the stroller, cook the food, wash dishes together, turn all the pages, get himself dressed, put on his own shoes, and fasten his own seat belt: “not you, not you!” If you look away for a second, he’ll sneak off to the snack drawer and situate himself on one of the benches at our dining room table with an absurd number of pretzels or graham crackers. If you call him from another room, he’ll run to you full force, shouting “My am coming!!” He is rarely cautious, though he avoids deep water and new people, and he constantly asks me to drive more slowly. Like his brother, he loves teases and inside jokes, and his eyes light up when he’s in on something. His favorite song right now is Josh Ritter’s “Cumberland.” It is entirely possible to imagine him living happily in the country. If you pretend to forget song lyrics and sing them wrong, he’ll say, every time and with endless delight in his voice: “not like THAT! Like this!” and sing them the right way. He’ll repeat this as many times as you’re willing. If he’s sad and you offer him a diversion, he’ll often say, “Okay. That would cheer me up.” If you’re sad, he’ll offer you pretend strawberries until you smile. Strawberries, every time. His favorite game is the Run-Hug, which his Pomo invented. It is exactly like it sounds.

This is a picture Bram came home and drew after meeting a girl he found magical. She is seven, and a dancer. Those marks are the colors he’s decided are good for making skin tones. He is always working on craft. Those are her hands folded in front of her body. She’s Native American and was wearing traditional clothing: those are feathers, moccasins, and bells at the bottom of her dress.

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This is classic Lou.

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This is a drawing Bram did of our church awhile back. Every time he sees it (hanging in my office), he says quietly to himself: “I need to do a new one.”

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These are tombstones the boys made when – as is his way – Lou killed a fly and – as is his way – Bram cried over its smashed body and made us bury it. Lou gave this task the cursory attention that he sensed his brother would require. Bram wrote this on his: “Dear God, did the fly have a good life? Was it sick or was it not? [Something illegible to me.] In your name we pray. Amen.”

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And this is a typical market Saturday: Bram with his best friend, Clara, sure of their little world together; his brother following behind: ever curious about B & C’s activities, but also absolutely on his own quest.

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complicity

Here in Michigan – and in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee – we were recently told by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that our marriage equality ban would not be overturned. We should wait for the public to vote on our rights again, we were told. You are not fully worthy, we were, once again, reminded.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a moment from years and years back: a moment that I regret. I was on a peninsula walk – a lovely and a regular Charleston thing – with some graduate school friends. I was fresh out of the military, fresh out of the closet, and freshly in love with the new life of letters I was living. All of the four or five friends I was walking with were straight, and the most beloved of them – a husband and wife I adored with the reverence of a thirsty person coming accidentally across a glass of water – were Catholic. Their faith, to me, was a gift. It never occurred to me that it was exclusionary. That it could hurt me. Politics aside, I am a deeply religious person with no religion. I have a heart full of God-love and no known God. So M and N were lovely to me: faith-filled and sure and endearing and honest and whole in their brokenness. They were of-God and loving them made me feel of-God too. We talked about everything on those walks, but on this particular night we landed on the subject of PhD schools and their competitiveness. M was a year ahead of me in our MA program, and she brought up a student who’d been a year ahead of her, and who was now in his first year of a prestigious PhD program. She said – this sister I’d waited a quarter of a century to meet – that he’d gotten in, of course, because he was gay. So much privilege in these academic settings, they all agreed. With her Catholic faith and her long blond hair, what advantage would she have to draw on when her time to apply came along? They all nodded. Charlie was living this dream we all shared because he was gay. And I said nothing. And in and of itself, that’s not great. But what haunts me now is: I figured she must be right. I probably – if I could see myself in my mind’s eye the way I can see them, all these years later – even nodded too.

I thought of that moment for what must be the thousandth time when the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided against decency last week. I thought of all the lessons I’ve learned since I was first told that Charlie – and by proxy I – walked with privilege. Since I consented to that ignorance with my silence, and maybe even with agreement.

But of course, M wasn’t right. And agree with her though I did – discounting how small and afraid I’d been made to feel in favor of this sisterhood for which I longed – I lost her friendship anyway in what was to date the most painful abandonment I’ve ever experienced. And so not standing up for myself, for Charlie, accomplished nothing aside from making me feel small again (and again and again). I wouldn’t relive too many moments in my life for fear of ending up somewhere different from here, but I would relive that one if I could. I would say no. I would say it with love, but I would say it firmly because they were wrong in a way, in exactly the way, that lets folks live with the inequity of our times. That lets them sleep at night.

But the truth is, we all sleep at night (or, you know, when our kids let us). Because the suffering injustice causes is often invisible. Even allies, even queers: we’re all just used to it. Shamefully used to it.

But this needs to be said: it is degrading in a way that lingers. In a way that makes Charlie’s supposed privilege laughable.

I still remember – not abstractly, but intensely, bodily – the humiliation of campaigning against the marriage ban in South Carolina. The things people said to me. The shame of standing in line to vote on whether or not employers should be allowed to fire gay employees in Kalamazoo. The terror of nearly being run off a cliff, literally, because bigots in a big truck in rural Ohio didn’t like our bumper sticker. The humiliation of being told – while holding my brand new and so deeply wanted baby in my arms on his first day of life – that my name had no place on his birth certificate. The humiliation of this exact scene again two years later. How small I felt taking the stand in a covert hearing in another state to ask (beg, plead, with money we didn’t have) a judge to grant me parental rights over Bram. The wave of nausea I feel each time I imagine what it will be to explain this, all of this, to my children. I still remember these and dozens of other shameful, terrorizing, humiliating moments: where I stood, the faces I saw around me, the tight chest and rush of blood and suffocation.

All of these wounds, this fear, this degradation? It’s real. I carry it all in my body in ways I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand. And I know that compared to so many, I’ve been profoundly lucky. I’ve suffered so little.

I’ll never be the girl on that peninsula walk again, in part because of these experiences. And so I’m not sorry to have lived them. I also know what a privilege it is to follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before us, and so I am proud to be here. But it hurts me that I probably nodded that night. It hurts me the way this dad’s reaction now hurts him. It hurts me that in my desire to be loved by those friends, I walked with them in their careless bigotry. It’s funny, how often it’s the small moments that continue to haunt.

Notes on NGPhood

When I mentioned awhile back that I was sending a care package to a soon-to-be non-gestational mom, a reader asked if I might share what I offered in that package. I wasn’t going to do it (simply because it felt personal), but then I realized that lots of us are NGPs, and that if I did I could solicit YOUR advice too! So if you’re a non-gestational parent, and you feel called, please comment here about what you most wish you’d have known when you first became an NGP. I think non-gestational parenthood is a profoundly sacred, stunning, largely undiscovered terrain, and I love welcoming people to it. Help me welcome this friend and other readers?

So here, with minor edits, is what I came up with.

9.9.14 (and 9.26.14 and 9.30.14, but who’s counting?)

Dear E,

As I write this (hahaha: as I started this. two weeks ago…), Bram is asleep in our bed and Lou is resting on my chest. The Bird is cutting his first two teeth, so he’s in a lot of pain and needs triple the usual snuggles (which, let’s face it, is already a lot). You are mere weeks (days? minutes?) from meeting your first son for the first time, so though these boys keep me crazy busy, you’ve been on my mind a lot lately.

I read once that 80% of American women bear and raise children. In that same study, I read that less than 2% of women adopt. I’m not sure we have statistics yet for women like us. Though it’s growing, I know it’s not a big number. I’ve come to love the intimacy I sense amongst the mothers in our small community. It makes me feel like we’re a tribe, and like our job (aside from caring for our children, of course) is to care for one another. When I think about what kind of caretaking might have been most meaningful to me when I was about to meet Bram for the first time, the word that most comes to mind is reassurance. So – though you are a different person with no doubt wildly different needs from me – I thought I’d pass a little of that along so you could carry it in your back pocket in case you ever find yourself in need.

First of all, gestationality aside: you’re about to be a parent! Oh my goodness, the great good fortune of that. Because beloved friend: being a parent is the best thing in the world. It is fierce and unmatched. You can call me anytime to tell me that Tata [Bram’s nickname for her baby] is the smartest kid on the planet, or the most exhausting, or both of these things at once. Really: 2 in the morning, just pick up the phone. Even years and years from now. I want to hear all about it.

But that “years and years” part brings me to this, which is the most reassuring thing I’ve ever learned as an NGP, and which I wish I’d known all those years back: this is a marathon. It’s, like, a thousand marathons, one right after the other. It’s as far from a sprint as a grain of sand is from the entirety of enormous Russia. So everytime you panic about something you wish you could do more of, or a moment you don’t think you nailed, or a time when you have to leave for work and Tata and K are both in tears (sorry, K) and your heart is breaking because it’s way too much to balance, know this: that moment is just one grain of sand in all of Russia. Everything will come. I needed it All At Once at first, but now I know that it just comes. And it’s okay to let it.

And then there are those other parents: the ones whose uteruses and breasts are involved. People will say hurtful things that make you feel less important than K. Because he’ll (likely) be nursing, he’ll go through phases where he only wants her. Like J, you’ll sometimes think you’re missing it while you’re at work. But those moments will be so short. Because then there will be phases where he laughs with his belly the second you walk through the door and you’ll think the world could stop right then because you’ll never be any happier than in that one moment. I mean it: your heart will explode, but somehow, miraculously, you won’t die. And then he’ll start saying your name. And touching your face while looking into your eyes. And only wanting you to do bedtime or bathtime or boo-boos or that one particular book for the eighteenth time that night. And when he’s a toddler? Well, all of our kids only want to be with you then: you’re the toddler whisperer. I guess I just mean that when I look back, I remember the moments that hurt me. And I think J does too. But it goes on, day after day. It goes on and just when you start to feel like some piece of it is just how it is, it changes and the landscape blows you away. And the sweetness washes everything else away: exhaustion, insecurity, doubt. Gone with the feeling of two little arms wrapped around your neck or the sound of a giggle.

The absolute truth is: I used to worry that I wouldn’t have the bond J had with the boys because she carried and nursed them. Now that’s just funny. And I used to worry that they’d never love me the way I love them. And now that’s funny too but for a different reason: because they won’t. They couldn’t. It’s not their job. And that’s not because I didn’t carry them; it’s because their only job is to be loved this fiercely, with everything I’ve got so they can learn how to grow up and love with their whole hearts too. It’s the first kind of love I’ve ever felt that has nothing to do with balance or reciprocity. And the freedom in that is mountainous. It’s so big. Whatever J and I – whatever you and K – have to pour into our children: that’s what matters. The rest of it just unfolds. And even while you’re off helping others to heal and serving the world, you’ll be growing love for this little boy. He is so lucky to have you as his mother.

So a couple of small pieces of advice. Take what you want and leave the rest, of course:

  • When he’s born, do lots of skin-to-skin. They’ll tell you that it’s gestational mothers who most benefit their kids; ignore them and take off your shirt. Feel his not-even-yet-washed skin against yours; you’ll never ever forget it. And then do it every day for weeks. When you get home. In the quiet. The second you walk in the door. The whole time K showers or makes dinner. For as long as you can. His soul will rush into yours.
  • Make sure your doula knows that she’s there to support you too. Make sure you have advocates in that room. You’ll be too vulnerable to advocate for yourself the whole time, and it is your job to be strong for K, not for anyone else. Other than K, your only job is to meet your baby.
  • Find a thing that’s just yours. A book. A baby carrier. A couple of songs. Rocking him to sleep at night. Whatever it is, hold on tight to it and don’t share. K will have nursing. Find your magic thing.
  • Be vocal with friends and family. Be clear about what you want to go by with Tata, and speak up when people say something that excludes you or when you need alone time with him and everyone else needs to go away. Even with K: speak up. It was hard for me at first to be honest, and so my attempts were ungracious. But this is new territory for so many people, and they need help learning. Speak up for your own motherhood, and everyone else will follow suit.

Finally, the contents of the NGP Care Kit that I meant to include with this letter, but your lady is scaring me into thinking your kid is coming before a real package could get there, so these are now the things I recommend bringing to the hospital just for you:

  • Ibuprofen (Because dude: if your wife has back labor you are going to ache for YEARS from giving her counterpressure. And because ain’t nobody there gonna wonder if you might be in pain.)
  • Dried lavender satchel (Because you might need to step out of the room and breath in and find your center sometimes. And why not smell some lavender while you’re at it? I’m sending this at least in the hopes that it gets there on time.)
  • Pen and notepad (Because there might be things you just don’t want to forget. And you might forget them because: dude. Meeting your KID.)
  • Granola bars or the equivalent (Do. Eat. You’ll need your strength.)
  • Lifesavers or the equivalent (Because one or both of you will need quick sugar.)

That’s it. You have everything else that you need. You are going to be amazing. Welcome to motherhood, my non-gestational sister. I was once told that the sweetest thing about NGPhood was that you got to choose to love your kids. I think that’s crap. I think the sweetest thing is discovering how wildly limitless your capacity to love is, that is has none of the cages they tell us it has, that there is no choice. That we, in the end, are just built of love.

Let me know how I can be here for you in the coming weeks and months and years.

With all of my heart,

R

inside

When I was in my first year of graduate school, two of my friends had a debate about the difference between being proud and being prideful. It was one of those pedantic arguments early (and sometimes seasoned) scholars have, but it comes in handy as a frame for me from time to time. These last couple of weeks, I’ve used it in thinking about the relationship between motherhood and judgement. I say motherhood not because I think there’s something uniquely primary about parenthood in the feminine, but because there does seem to be something about motherhood that draws out insecurity and judgment. And lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how sad that is and how much we’re losing because of it.

A few months back, a close mom friend posted something to Facebook about the judgement working moms face from stay at home moms. And I remember wondering if I had contributed to this friend feeling judged. And the truth, awful as it is, is that I probably have. Because I am proud of being home with my kids. And so I am vocal. But am I proud or am I prideful? Because there is a difference, right? I hear the difference as this:

I could be proud of something I make sacrifices for and work hard to accomplish or I could pridefully use the fact of that something to feel better about myself.

In the case of being home, it’s mostly the former. But sometimes, sometimes, I know it’s the latter. Which is awful. And which is true. And which, this feels important to say, is a product of all the ways in which I feel not better but less than.

That particular mom gave birth to both of her gorgeous babies at home. She nursed her oldest until she self-weaned, and will no doubt do the same with her youngest. She is a mama-force. Those things make me insecure because my body failed at making babies. And because though I am fiercely devoted to my boys being breastfed, I will never be the one to breastfeed them. But those are points of pride for my friend. And they should be. They are markers of her strength. She is fierce and brave and maternal and beautiful and she should be proud. And – though this isn’t always easy to remember – none of that has anything to do with me.

Another friend and I were talking yesterday about the idea that in being an advocate for breastfeeding, one runs the risk of shaming women who didn’t or don’t. But how, my friend asked, can we avoid shaming while still criticizing the formula industry for convincing women in developing nations that formula is best even when their water supply is unsafe? How might we educate women – work against the decades.old.but.still.prevalent belief that formula is best or just as good – without shaming them for choosing against the breast (or for using formula when for circumstantial reasons the choice wasn’t available to them)? How can breastfeeding moms be proud without being prideful. And how can non-nursing moms hear that pride without feeling shame.

As parents and as people, we all have strengths and weaknesses. I am proud to be home with my babies (a privilege, I know, but also a sacrifice [of money, of a tenure-track career]). I’m proud that we co-sleep, and never yell or use physical discipline, and have never let our children cry it out. I’m proud that J does extended breastfeeding. I feel good about the fact that we eat the way we do, and don’t have a television, and are active. These things matter to me or I wouldn’t do them because they are all a lot of work.

But where I give my kids wonderful amounts of routine, I am not skilled at spontaneity. The spirited, wild, loud, messy, blast of a childhood that some kids have is not in the cards for these boys because neither J nor I would know how to foster it. Though I’m good at organized walks, Bram has to convince me to take him into the backyard because, well, it’s really outdoorsy out there. And frankly dirty. He’s already showing an interest in catching bugs and I am really, really, really not interested in doing that. I also show similar over-analyzing and over-explaining tendencies to Paul Isaacson from E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, and let’s just say that doesn’t turn out well for his kids.

These are only a few of my limitations as a person and a parent. But this is where I think the judgement&insecurity trope gets especially dangerous. Because I could learn to be outside. Maybe even to enjoy it if I had the right teacher. And what I can’t learn my children can get from other people. Because J and I are not enough for them. If I have any hope of not just seeing my own limitations reflected in them, I need and want a village. But a village can only thrive if our defenses are down. And those defenses run deep. So lately I’ve been wondering if it’s possible that the whole awful Mommy War crisis might really just be an inside job.

Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say I’m at my library’s storytime and I’m giving Louis a bottle (of pumped milk, of course, but no strangers who see us know this). And a mama who probably gave birth to her children in a yurt and nursed until they self-weaned at six comes in and gives me what I perceive as the old judgy eye for being such a failure as to give my kids formula. I take all of this in in a second: her long flowy skirt and her long flowy hair. The fact that her children have never had a haircut and probably only bathe one a week. All of these facts of her feel like implicit judgements of me. And I admire her. I sound mocking here, but the truth is: I’m jealous. She and her children are clearly one with the universe and my children and I are awkward and out of step. And so what I perceive as her judgement about my bottle feeding is loaded already. But the truth is, maybe she hasn’t even really looked at me. She does have all these free-range children tugging at her hemp skirt; she is busy with her own stuff. But I am judging me because not breastfeeding my own children is a source of shame for me. So I put that on her. Because even worst case scenario – even if she took note of my bottle and assumed it was formula and felt better about herself at my expense – her judgement is not about me. What it is about is all the stuff that got lost in my appraisal of her wild, earthy beauty. Which is to say: all the stuff that makes her feel like a failure. All the stuff she might even think I’m doing better. But all of that becomes invisible the second I take her personally. The second I use her glance as a chance to revisit my own shame.

And the second I do that I make it impossible for her to be a part of my village. My children will never get filthy beyond my comfort zone playing with the goats outside her yurt, which is my loss, and theirs. And her children will never benefit from whatever strength I might have that they lack. Judgement kills the village. But in this case, the judgements were all mine. I will never even know what she really thought when she saw me.

So this is what I’m thinking lately. That it’s maybe sort of kind of possible to end the Mommy Wars just that simply. That it’s an entirely inside job. Because whatever her judgements are or aren’t, I get to decide whether or not to take them personally. And whether to listen past the look or the words that feel judgmental to hear what insecurities she might be propping up in herself. And whether to respond with openness to what she might be getting right, or to shut it down because I’m threatened. Whether to take her strengths as implicit judgements of my weaknesses or as invitations to grow and investigate and rely on others.

I love women. I trust women and I love them. This feeling of competition amongst women has always confused me. But as a mother, it feels especially dangerous. It’s an impossible utopia, I know, but isn’t it nice to dream of a community where kindness – to ourselves and to each other – takes over the spaces where we’ve let insecurity grow? I would like to think of the power I see in other women as interesting and admirable – and maybe even as an invitation – instead of as a threat to my own.

This photo was taken by another mom friend at a party last weekend. There are probably plenty of things that the mom who took this perceives as personal failures, but I am in awe of her. And when she looks at my family, this is what she sees. She doesn’t see all of my limitations, she sees this. Do you see what I mean?

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summer, this, now

Is it July? I think it might be July. This summer is just disappearing. Our new little squish is somehow fourteen weeks old(!). And his brother is half a month away from two and a half. Time. I’m not sure whose side it’s on.

But as it passes, we all change.

Our little Bramble Bug no longer wears diapers. He just, somehow, doesn’t. We’ve been at the potty learning gig for three weeks and one day and most days we are accident free. He doesn’t even wear a diaper when he naps now, and he’s yet to have an accident in bed. (Universe: please take the previous sentence only as a statement of fact and not as a challenge.) He still sleeps in a diaper at night, but it’s always dry in the morning, so we’ll stop that soon too. For the first two weeks I set a timer or kept track of the time and cajoled him into sitting every thirty minutes. Now I ask him to sit at transitions (if we’re headed out, if we’re starting a meal, before bed), or when he gets a certain look about him (parents of pottying littles: you know the one). But mostly, when he needs to go, he pulls down his shorts and unders and backs himself onto the potty and holds his penis down so that the pee goes in. All by himself. Same thing with poop. Just: does it. We have a potty on each floor and one in the car for travel. It is a new way of living, and getting here hasn’t been simple. But wow. But wow.

Other things Bram is up to these days: Taking on different personas. “I am Mr. Bill.” “I am Harold.” “I am the exhausted conductors.” “Introduce my name to Louis; I am Josh Ritter.” And READING. He likes to read the same books eight hundred million times, memorizing even complex narratives before moving on to something new. Grasping them. He and J just finished his first chapter book: The Trumpet of the Swan. Bram has been Sam Beaver a lot lately. Other recent favorites: Ty’s One Man Band; Peter and the Wolf (he’s read a few different narrative versions and watched [with rapt attention] the entire symphony twice); Journey (an incredible, words-free, contemporary, female-led, adventurous intertext of Harold and the Purple Crayon; The Little Island (which is Virginia Woolf-quality prose poetry, let me tell you); Grandpa Green (a recent addition to our collection from a kind friend);Otis; (which he recites more adorably than I can even handle); and about two dozen others that I’m forgetting. He also loves spatial work, so we do word-rhyming pairing puzzles, thirty piece picture puzzles, Duplos, and Imaginets on the daily. He builds “machines,” “construction sites,” “lawn mowers” (with which he mows the cats, his brother, our floor), and instruments (“this is a new kind of saxophone,” “this is a sort of slide trombone and trumpet,” “I haven’t seen this kind of instrument before”). He also, of course, loves to be outside. To get close to the ground and watch bugs. To splash in even the saddest puddle. To garden with his Bubbie on (beloved) Bubbie Days. He rarely lets me wear him anymore, preferring to walk almost everywhere we go (though sometimes when he’s sad or can’t sleep he still likes to be front wrapped). When he wakes up from naps he wants to snuggle, and though that’s tough as his brother is usually awake and in my arms, we make it happen. The other day, Louis let me lay him on the ground next to us and Bram curled up on my lap and, after a quiet couple of minutes, he said simply, “it’s hard being a big brother.” I waited a minute. “I bet, bug. It’s hard having another baby and not only being your mama.” True Things. And because I read Siblings Without Rivalry when Louis was first born, I left it at that.

But in terms of that other sweet sweet soul: Lou is every bit as quick to smile as B was as a little, though when he’s not smiling, he’s still a Worry Bird. He has an unusual seriousness: he’s far easier to soothe than Bram, and so far he’s a decent sleeper, but he’s deeply watchful, almost vigilant. He loves singing, and lights up when you look him straight in the eye and sing softly. Really, he raises his eyebrows so flirtatiously it’s impossible not to laugh. He loves long hair (thank God mine is finally getting there), and his big brother, and being worn on my front and hip (he still cries when I put him on my back). He doesn’t love bouncing the way B did (thank the lord because my legs are worn out already), but like B he never ever ever wants to be put down. He is a thoughtful, owl-eyed, affectionate Birdie, and we are all head over heels for him.

And then his Pomo. J has had a tough postpartum period. I won’t go into details as they’re hers to share or not share, but since this baby was born she’s spiked regular, sometimes unexplained high fevers, battled stomach problems repeatedly, gotten mastitis twice and plugged ducts three times, and grappled with both postpartum depression and anxiety. And she was up for a great job that didn’t pan out, so she’s struggling there too. She has been and remains a truly amazing parent, but it has been a hard path. I am hopeful that things will ease up for her soon. She deserves some lightness. We both do.

And then there’s me. I’m finding it hard, at a little over three months in, to even get a handle on how I’m feeling. The swings are just unlike anything I’ve ever known before. Yesterday, Lou let me lay him on B’s bed for awhile and Bram and I grabbed a blanket, and crawled under it together, and got nose to nose, and hid from Monster Iris (the cat) for about fifteen minutes. It was hot under there, and his teeth needed to be brushed, and I could smell his skin and his breath and he just stared at me and we laughed and stared and stayed quiet so the Monster wouldn’t find us. It was one of the most intimate moments of my life; I wanted it to last forever. And just today, watching Bram’s little calf muscles jut out as he climbed the steps, so steady on his own. It’s like falling in love every day.

But I’m also a kind of bone tired. Like, I want to cry but it would take too much effort tired. And I believe that this will get easier, believe it in an “Ooh Child,” kind of way, but the Better that comes with Older Kids feels far enough away to be an oasis in a desert right now. I trust it, but it is so far out of reach. And my mom was in a highway car accident leaving our house last week, and though THANK GOD she’s okay, the terror of it has rocked me. And everything just feels relentless. It’s funny because J and my mom were frustrated with how I responded the night after the accident – how much I wanted to control the way we got my mom back home, the way we got her things from her van before they crushed it – but this part of my life feels like the opposite of control All The Time. The Not Having Control is unending. I don’t decide when I wake up, or fall asleep, or pee, or read, or bathe, or eat, or what I eat sometimes. I mean, really, right? Each moment I bound from toddler play to baby needs to baby play to reading to reading it again to cooking to cleaning to feeding someone to dressed for outside to do we need sunscreen? to please don’t let go of my hand when we’re walking to the park to do you need to let out some pee to does Louis need a diaper change to I really need to mow to the laundry is piling up to can I wait one more day to start diaper laundry to can we skip another bath day to if I wrap Lou I’ll be able to give Bram all of my attention but my shoulders ache to trying to remember the words of that song he loves to have I even looked at my wife today? to how can it already be almost midnight again? to how are they already awake again? And on and on and all over again. Relentless. But those moments, like the one under the blanket yesterday? Or Louie’s first attempts at a laugh? I mean, that’s what remains. The next morning, that’s what’s still there. I’m so happy. I’m also sinking. “Yes,” I want to tell myself, as I tell Bram when he’s struggling. “This is hard.” True Things.

One final bright light. A dear and remarkably beautiful friend’s book of poetry is coming out. Watershed by Laura Donnelly.* Somewhere within a collection of poems that I cannot wait to read – a collection of poems each of which is no doubt as graceful and brave and kind as its creator – is one poem I’ve read before. A poem she wrote about Bram coming into the world, and Emmett Ever, and all of it. I’ve only been able to read it twice. Its existence is both an honor and a confusing source of pain. But it exists. It exists because we have the great good fortune to know artists. Which is to be seen. Which is bewildering and so so sweet. Anyway, Watershed. Because I know Laura, I know it is a gift.

*That link will take you to the pre-release order page.

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