Sunday, June 27, 2010

Feeding Cedar

Cedar hasn’t been taking the bottle lately. This is troubling if I ever want to get away for more than a few hours at a time. He took it easily at first when he was around six weeks old and he quickly gulped down five ounces of my breast milk. But then we must have waited too long between tries, and the next time my husband offered it to him, he refused. Ever since then, it’s been a struggle. He might be coaxed to take a couple ounces over a couple hours, but mostly he’ll just play with the nipple, then spit it out—and that’s if he’s in a good mood. If he’s tired or hungry, he’ll howl and scream and finally, my mom or Matthew will call me to come home, whereupon I’ll rush to offer him my breast, poor baby, so hungry and upset he won’t even take it at first.

And then, he’s fine. It hasn’t been that long, so he’s not starving, and he’s not a baby to stay upset once his needs have been met. So he’ll go from crying and screaming to smiling and laughing within minutes.

I know it’s hard for my husband when Cedar won’t take the bottle from him, and when he sees how easy it is for me to placate him by offering him my breast. We don’t want him to learn that if he refuses the bottle, he’ll eventually (and in not too long) get the breast, so it’s best that I stay away during our attempts now, because it’s too hard for me to sit there and listen to him wail when we both know that I have what he wants. By that same token, I am not the ideal candidate to offer Cedar the bottle, because I would never last the hours it might take before he finally breaks down and takes it; I don’t know if I could even last for twenty minutes. It’s too hard when I’ve spent the first three months of my life doing everything in my ability to keep him from crying, to suddenly play tough love. Enforcing discipline has always been my weakness.

I don’t blame my baby for preferring and loving my breast. He came out of the womb with a natural instinct to root and suck, it was the very first thing that was offered to him after he was born, and ever since, he’s spent a great amount of each day at its side. Even though I’d taken a class in breastfeeding, I still was not prepared for how glued I’d be to that chair and boppy, how huge and full my breasts would become with milk, and how much a newborn baby needs to nurse. Cedar would often nurse for over an hour, and when he’d finish he’d be back on it within another hour or sooner. At night, I’d lie on my side and nurse Cedar in bed, but his latch was not always great, sometimes I’d finally get up and go sit in the living room after half an hour of him slipping and sliding off my breast, with me propped on my side, squeezing my breast with my hand to make a “nipple sandwich,” teasing his mouth open wide, and guiding his face in the right direction, all while trying to aim a flashlight at his mouth to aid the process, yet not shine it in his face so he’d wake up too much.

In the beginning, you had to feed your baby every two or three hours to ensure that they were gaining enough weight. Now, most nights I put him down around eight p.m., and he doesn’t wake until three a.m. for a quick snack in the dark. We no longer need the aid of a flashlight. Instead, all I do is wave my nipple in the area around his mouth and he will open wide and clamp on like a champ. Then he’ll wake again around seven for a longer feeding. During the day, though, Cedar still feeds every two hours, and sometimes more. I think I have an oversupply of milk, so he fills up fast on the “foremilk” which is less nutritious and sustaining, and doesn’t get as much of the “hindmilk” which would keep him going longer. But I also suspect that this boy just loves to nurse. It’s comforting to him, it’s how he feels safe and secure, and it’s what my breasts were made for. And after surviving the first month when it seemed I was nursing more often than I wasn’t, when his latch would sometimes hurt, I was getting clogged ducts, and when I was, frankly, sick of sitting in that chair, unable to do much else but surf Facebook—after surviving that first stage where nursing was more of a duty than a pleasure, I can now say that I enjoy nursing, that I love this special bond that I have with my baby, and that I already know it will be hard for me, and for him, the day we need to start giving this up.

What do I love about nursing? I love the fact that every nutrient Cedar needs to grow healthy and strong is stored inside my body; I love this symbiotic relationship, I love that we can go anywhere and I have what I need to provide for him. I love how easy it’s now become to rest his head in the crook of my arm, pull out my breast and nurse him, how we are no longer dependent on special nursing props, how his latch is now perfect no matter what, how we are old pros at this routine. And I love it when he stares in my eyes as he sucks, and sometimes pauses to break into a smile. I love the soft tickle of his mouth on my nipple. And how his mouth still moves in rhythmic sucking motions as he sleeps.

I also love how no one else but me can fill this role for him. I admit I felt a slight tinge of sadness the first time he took the bottle so quickly, sad to know that I could be so easily replaced. But mostly I was grateful, knowing that my future sanity would rest on his ability to take a bottle. Matthew was happy too, of course, that he could finally take part in this feeding routine, and be able to offer his son such an essential part of his life. I want Cedar to also associate my husband with nurturing and an ability to be fed. And I certainly don’t want it to be a struggle each time, and for Matthew to feel demoralized and rejected. So we need to keep working on the bottle, giving it to Cedar more frequently and deliberately, choosing a time of day when he is least tired and thus likely to refuse. Yet still I admit I am happy that Cedar will always prefer the breast, and that he will always associate mama with her unsurpassed ability to soothe and provide.

This might sound naïve, but I didn’t realize what a huge part of our life nursing would become. Matthew agrees, saying how breastfeeding is about so much more than just food, but more like medicine, for Cedar-- and for me. “You should write about how the umbilical cord never goes away,” he said when I told him I was writing this post. “Yes, it’s true. The phantom umbilical cord,” I nodded.

Nursing is the most intimate way of expressing the bond that exists between Cedar and I. At times, it can still feel like a tiring duty, yet now that we’re out of the exhausting, all night feedings, sore nipples, raw and ravaged stage, breastfeeding has become so much more of a welcome pleasure. A gentle, comforting ritual where the two bodies of mother and child, can, once again, join together as one.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Childish Delights

Before Cedar was born, I never knew babies very well. As a nanny, I’d cared for plenty of toddlers and preschoolers, but anything younger was still an abstract entity: cute, but slightly frightening. Delicate, fragile. Liable to cry if you held them wrong, or if they sensed that you weren’t comfortable.

This baby stage of motherhood was the one that I was the most unsure of, the one that was the most unknown. I’d never rushed to hold another’s baby, afraid that my inexperience would show itself quickly and that the parents would secretly be happy when I returned their child to their arms. But the learning curve is sharp and forgiving when you are with a child 24 hours a day. And I’ve quickly learned that it’s not the end of the world if you let their heads flop a little now and then when attempting some multi-tasking maneuver and that their necks aren’t that fragile. I’ve also learned that there is not just one way a baby likes to be held, and even if they have a preference, that preference is always changing. The best thing to do if they are fussing is often to switch their positions again and again, back and forth, rocking and bouncing and shushing, until you find something that works. You just keep experimenting-- and try to remember to trust your instincts-- in addition to all the advice you take in from people and books.

Before Cedar was born, I suspected that babies were pretty amazing, but I never knew this in my bones. Babies were cute, but I preferred interacting with two-, three-, or nine-year-olds, or even middle schoolers for that matter; all these other stages of childhood development were much more familiar. Since I’d never gotten the chance to get to know a particular baby intimately, and since babies can’t express who they are in ways that are as immediately apparent as older children can, I’d never gotten to know or even to sense the huge gift of getting to know the specific feeling and preciousness of a baby. Especially when that baby is your own.

Now, although it is too early to put into words the “personality” of this baby of mine except, I already know the feeling of my child, the spirit of this being that has arrived and that will eventually evolve into distinct character traits as he continues to learn how to express what he wants and who he is. Every day, every week, my baby continues to change, and every day this being delights me. I especially love our time together in the morning. After Cedar wakes around 7:00, I change his diaper, then bring him back to bed to feed him—and hopefully lure him back to sleep. Sometimes this works, and other times he is too wakeful, so I’ll give up on extending my own sleep for now, and lean over his face and we’ll look at each other and smile and make noises in a call and response. Or I’ll prop his back up against my raised legs,or lay him against my chest for some “tummy time” on mommy, letting him take in his surroundings from new angles and perspective. I love, oh how I love, his early morning eruptions of smiles, gurgles, and coos, sounds that even now are evolving into language.

Where does this happiness come from? Not come from any rational chain of thoughts, but rather, a spontaneous place of being. A bubbling wellspring of unfiltered existence, a place inside all of us, except that as adults, it is harder for us to experience this place because we live too much in our minds. We unconsciously rush to name, analyze, and judge everything that filters through our awareness. Yet with a baby this young, there is no thought process, no sense of even being separate from mother or caregiver, from world. Life is a continual kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, and noises. Moments of discomfort or pain do not come with a story or a self who is experiencing the story.

Babies are so raw and pure it hurts my heart.

It’s hard for me to put in words the awe and love I feel for my baby, and by extension, for all babies (but of course especially for mine). Naturally, I feel a huge responsibility since I am the one who provides this child with his nutrients and care most days, all day long. And I reap such a huge reward as I see my child’s awareness of the world evolving, not to mention his recognition of and delight in me. There is a deep satisfaction that comes from being so needed, and from having one’s job so clearly defined. Even if I am exhausted and long for a break and more time for myself, at core there is no question that I will do what I have to do to take care of this child the best I can, which makes it easier to surrender to this new role.

Much of it boils down to instinct. Genetics. Blood. Myth. The human drive to procreate, and the motherly drive to nurture, protect, and love. One of the only jobs in the world in which you are asked to give and give and give so much, and where the reward is not material nor visible to others, but instead felt in the rushes you feel every day as you are given the chance to love, so wholly, another. It is true that there could be many sorrows ahead. There is risk involved; there is no guarantee that you will have the kind of relationship with your child or your new family that you envisioned. But you invest all your energy in this being and you trust in the unknown, because you have no other choice. Raising a child can be as spiritual a path as any religion or philosophy. For what other kind of path but a spiritual one envelops everything and plunges you forward with such devotion, because it’s the only direction to go?

I feel so blessed that I have the opportunity in this life to watch another being, my son, take in everything from his very first breath onward, and to witness how all of these lights, colors, sounds and movements are slowly now transforming into specific people and environments, imprints and impressions. And I love being the one who is here to help him interact with the world for the first time, as he slowly begins to learn to support his own weight, and eventually, to call each thing by name.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Woman, Writing, Alone

This is the third time I’ve gotten away to write in a café in the ten weeks since Cedar was born. I plan to do this every weekend now—to take advantage of my three hours or so agreed upon by my husband when I can escape the house and the needs of my baby. To steal away quietly after Cedar’s been nursed and before he has a chance to decide again that he’s hungry or tired and wanting the comfort of his mother’s voice, body, and last but not least, breast. And I realize now how much I need this time; it’s more important to me than I can probably yet understand.

During the first month, recovering from surgery and learning to be a mother was all so new and overwhelming that I barely had time to shower, much less think about writing—though I did manage to scribble a few short entries in my journal, which were usually interrupted mid-sentence. And during the second month, I was just learning how to take care of Cedar alone after Matthew went back to work, so a lack of “me” time seemed a given. But now, I’ve become comfortable and confident enough in my role as a mother, and Cedar and I have settled into enough of a routine for me to begin to miss and crave my old rituals, and to notice how their departure has begun to take its toll.

I miss writing. I need these few hours to decompress, sit, journal and be out in the world appearing in the disguise of my former identity: a woman, alone, writing. Only now, beneath this cover, my breasts are full and heavy with milk, my shoulders and neck sore from nursing, and my body tight from too many days gone by without yoga or exercise. And now, a part of me too always has one ear cocked towards my baby; at the same time that I begin to unwind into this silence of solitude, I also can’t wait to go home and to hear how it went for those few hours we were apart.

These days, my time to do anything besides care for my baby is relegated to short windows and bursts. Cedar’s content for a few minutes in his chair? Quick: make breakfast, get dressed, or make a phone call. Cedar’s finally soundly asleep somewhere besides my arms? Quick: throw in a load of laundry, take a shower, or pay a few bills. Take your pick of a million small tasks that normally could get done in quick succession in a few hours. But now, crossing these things off my list can take weeks. However insignificant in themselves they may seem, I cross them off one by one with satisfaction.

Multi-tasking with an infant is not easy, and I feel better about my day if I’ve managed to do something else besides care for my baby. Most satisfying of course is when I actually manage to write something, spewing out bits and pieces of my new life as a mother. Fragments, that I may or may not find the interest or motivation to return to when I finally arrive at my next opportunity when I can become again: a woman, writing, alone.

I don’t want to complain too much lest it seem like I’m unhappy, because for the most part we are doing really good; in fact, things have been easier than I anticipated. Cedar is a sweet and mellow baby, and I have been proud of my ability to parent alone when Matthew is on the road four days each week for work, proud of the way that I manage to care for my baby and myself, trying to get out of the house and do something each day, be it taking a walk to the pond or going to parenting groups and reaching out to other moms. For the most part, I do what I need to do to stay healthy, happy, and sane.

But, of course, I still have my down days. Days when Cedar resists napping, and I am exhausted, and end up watching too much trash t.v. or never getting out of the house. Or days when I already feel bored by this new life, wondering if some variation of this feeding, napping, stimulating, and soothing routine is what I primarily will do now for years on end, and depressed by how distant I feel from my former identity and working routine as a writer.

Gone is the daily journaling, much less the hours on end to work on long-term projects; gone is the huge rush of motivation I had during the three weeks I spent at Hedgebrook before giving birth to Cedar, where I was able to produce pages upon pages of my new book each day; gone is my most recent surge of hope and determination to publish my memoir, a project that’s been with me too long, especially now that the latest round of rejections have trickled in and I have neither the time nor drive to research a new round of small presses or agents. And while I’m on this rant, gone too now is my motivation to spearhead new creative nonfiction workshops in more venues across Seattle, to update my website and “market myself”, or to reach out to new people to work with one-on-one.

Yes,I am aware that I am still in an early stage of this grand adventure called parenthood, a stage that, like all others, will evolve and pass, and I trust that I will return to the projects that are most important to me. But still I must confess that I’ve been feeling slightly depressed, or rather, ambivalent, right now about the future of my life as a writer. For, right now, and probably forever, nothing could feel more important to me than raising my child. And in a certain light, it really is that simple. Goals that have been important to me for so long, like publishing my book, have faded in their intensity.

Yet then I ask: how much of this new ambivalence is an authentic reaction to the immensity of how my life has changed, and how much is a defensive reaction born of my current state of weariness—and fear. Fear that says, if I’ll never get to return to my writing life in the way that I used to then I might as well lower my expectations, rather than pine for all the time and energy I no longer have. And fear that says, if it was so challenging to keep writing and trying to publish before life with baby, how am I ever going to keep up with it now? These days I feel lucky if I manage to work on one small writing-related task each week, like for instance, this blog. How will I ever write another book?

I want to be clear: I love being a mother. I love it with an intensity of emotion I’ve never known before, and I suspect that this love is only going to get stronger. But there is also a part of me that fears that I will slowly become, first and foremost, a stay-at-home mother -- who writes a bit on the side. Mother, being the dominant identity. And writing, more like a hobby. I’ll look back on my former drive to publish books as youthful optimism, and I’ll settle for lighter goals, like, well, this blog.

For years now, it has taken so much conviction for me to keep writing and calling myself a writer, especially in the earlier days when I was more afraid of other's judgment and had none of the small successes under my belt to “prove” that I was serious. Even when I had lots of time, it still was never easy to commit to this path, this path that does not lead to promises of financial stability much less public acclaim. So now, with only a fraction of the time I had before, yet still with so many goals unfulfilled-- without a book contract, with so few publications, and with so many insecurities each time I step up to teach a new class—perhaps it is only natural for all my dormant, writing-related fears to return.

I think what I am most afraid of is forgetting why writing matters so much to me. Forgetting that writing is much more to me than a career or a chain of rewards (i.e. grants, publications, praise), but that this is my practice, my spiritual practice, a path that I have now cultivated for years. This is not to say that those grants, publications and praises aren’t important, because they are. And it took me a long time to figure all this out—to arrive at the place where I could bridge the private, spiritual practice side of my writing, with the public, publishing and wanting to share my work side. For a long time now, I have no longer been satisfied just writing for myself, yet any accomplishments and praise I gain from others are hollow without the innate knowledge that my writing is feeding the deepest part of me—without that internal, wordless understanding of why, for almost fifteen years now, I’ve sat down to write each day.

Until now. Now, I face a challenge that so many women have faced before me: the question of how to balance motherhood—this huge, enormous role-- with everything else I once held sacred. I know I am not unique, nor am I particularly strong and resilient. I am just one woman, in a chain of many, who has been handed what feels like the most important job in the world—to nurture and care for a child, to feed and help gently shape a new compassionate seed of life—and then left to figure out how to merge her old sense of purpose with her new one.

Throughout my pregnancy, I knew I was preparing for something huge, but there was no way to really understand what this was exactly until I arrived here-- brimming over with protective instincts and a love that is all-consuming. Living a completely new life, yet still connected by a infinitude of threads to my old one. Exhausted at the end of each day, and beneath this weariness, hungry, for just a few moments to remember in my body what it feels like to be a woman, writing, alone.


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