Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Having Number Two: A Clear Yes or No

Up until recently, I’d pretty much convinced myself that I was going to be okay with just one kid. I cringed when I imagined how hard it’d be to take care of a newborn and a toddler at the same time. I cringed when I imagined how I’d go back to having hardly any time to myself, even less so than the first time around, and how I’d have to put all my teaching and writing projects back on hold. My husband was pretty much in the same boat.

With one, we could gain back our freedom to travel sooner—whether on weekend trips with just the two of us, or family trips that involved more distant locales (even China, I fantacized, for several months… we could rent out our house, take up in some quaint town (or tolerable city), immerse the whole family in Chinese).

Then there was also the question of money and space. With just one child, we would not be pressed to add on to our one bedroom cabin as quickly; we would not be forced to take out a loan before we felt like it was a smart financial decision. Hell, if other factors outweighed a desire for more space, we could even put off remodeling indefinitely. It’s been working out just fine the last couple months with our bed in the living room. Plenty of families all over the world wouldn’t blink an eye at raising a family in 850 square feet.

It wasn’t that I’d made up my mind or anything; I knew that there was a distinct possibility that I could feel totally differently in a year. But when I’d see moms with a baby and toddler and feel a wash of relief that I wasn’t them as opposed to envy, I thought that was a pretty good indicator that I was happy with what we have. Cedar is an awesome kid. But he wasn’t an easy baby with all his food sensitivities and sleeping challenges. He’s bright, active, and will keep delighting and challenging us for years to come. He’ll have plenty of playmates; I don’t think he’ll be lonely. And meanwhile, Matthew and I continue to reclaim vestiges of our former adult life back.

One of the major elements that we’ve recently started to reclaim is sleep. Cedar is finally sleeping through the night, pretty much every night, in his own bed. That doesn’t mean he always gets enough sleep, seeing that he wakes up around 5 a.m. But we no longer have to spend half our night listening for his waking whines, then rushing in to put him back down before he fully wakes. He no longer depends on nursing to fall asleep, and he knows he won’t get any milk from me now until 5 a.m. (which I’d like to try and change to even later; that’s the next goal).

In addition to all this, he just recently started going to sleep without anyone staying in the room with him until he drifts off. This feels huge! We do our usual stories, I leave, then him and Matthew say night-night to various animals, objects, and people, and then they turn on the noise machine, say a final night-night, and Matthew walks out and closes the door. Brilliant. This whole shift happened quite effortlessly one night after Matthew had enough of Cedar squirming about, climbing on top of him, and keeping himself up by distraction. Matthew decided to say goodnight and leave that night—and Cedar let him without a cry of protest. So that was it. Matthew then did the same thing the next few nights, staying in the room for an even shorter amount of time, and Cedar hasn’t protested at all. The most he’s done is get up and crack the door open, listening, then shut it and go back to lie down. I wish I could see what he looks like as he lies there going to sleep on his own and know how long it takes him, mostly to bask in the pleasure of my little guy getting to be so independent and taking so many changes in stride. But I don’t need to see him to know how good it feels to have an entire evening now where me and my husband can both relax, off duty for hours, by ourselves.

So needless to say we’re pretty happy about all this, and it’s probably no coincidence that now that we’ve FINALLY gotten over this poor sleeping hump, I’m lo and behold a bit more open to the idea of having another. It’s totally ironic, yes, that the minute I start sleeping better I’d begin considering being thrown back into total sleep deprivation and chaos. And on top of this, I’m thinking about weaning soon—almost looking forward to it as much as I’m dreading it—and I don’t exactly want to go straight from weaning to nursing again. I’m banking on having at least a good few months, if not more like a year, to remember what it feels like to not be producing milk as a primary occupation.

Here’s the thing. If I wasn’t 37 and a half years old, I wouldn’t be in a hurry. I’d say, let’s wait until Cedar is at least four or five, out of the toddler stage, before we even go there. Let’s give ourselves a few years off from this early intensive stage of parenting. Let’s get our finances together and remodel first, and let’s not kid ourselves about how long that process might take in itself. Let me also get my teaching life that much more established, not to mention self-publish that dusty manuscript of memoirs that I’ve been saying I’m going to publish for so long. Let me achieve some major goals that make me feel good and satisfied as a writer, before I dive back into the intense beauty and torture that is mothering a newborn. In other words: let’s take our time and think about it.

But the reality is, I don’t have a ton of time. After you hit 35, it becomes significantly harder to get pregnant each year that passes—the curve sharpens dramatically. I know people over 40 who are trying to get pregnant now, and who are mourning their belated realization of just how much difference a year makes at this stage. I know that if I were to decide that I did indeed want another one, I should just bite the bullet and do it NOW, or in the next year at least, because wouldn’t that suck to finally decide you wanted one and then to not be able to get pregnant?

Other people my age seem to know this too, because there’s been an explosion of births in my world this spring. I know of seven or eight women in my son’s preschool co-op class alone who just gave birth to their second or are due in the coming months. Then there are my friends on Facebook; the three babies born recently on my block; two of my oldest, dearest friends; and, finally, my sister who gave birth just last Friday.

Seeing people get pregnant and hold their new amazing babies doesn’t have anything to do with my new (old, revitalized) line of thought, does it? Nah…. Of course having lots of pregnant women and babies around me is tugging at my tender heart strings that holds this process up as one of the most amazing gifts in life of all; of course it is. But I also want to make sure that I’m not just caving to some kind of socially accepted norm and unspoken peer pressure—the kind that carves into our psyche from the time we are young that families are supposed to consist of two parents and two or three kids; and that it’s the most natural wonderful thing in the world to want more than one.

I told my husband the other day, the same day we went to meet my sister’s new baby, that I wanted to talk to him about the possibility of having another. He immediately got defensive and antagonistic, forcing me to play devil’s advocate and act as if I indeed knew I wanted another one, when what I really wanted to do was just explore and hash out the idea verbally, see how it sounded saying it aloud, return to the part of me that had always imagined I’d like to have two, a pair of playmates, a pair to grow old with, share holidays with, share affections with, preferably a daughter and a son, the so-called “perfect” family.

I also told my husband the story of some friends of ours, a couple who was trying to decide if they wanted to have another. After much soul-searching they finally decided that no, they did not, they were fine, they were done. And then the minute they decided this and made it real, they realized that they did indeed still want another. It’s that element of regret at play. Wanting what you could have had, but didn’t choose.

The thing is, how many parents ever regret having a child, whether that child is number one or number five? It seems like once you have a child, once they are real and breathing and in your life, there are few who would ever, on a deep soul level, regret having that child. The thought would be unspeakable, for that baby was here and thus meant to be. It might have made your life insufferably hard for many years, but in the end, it was worth it right? You wouldn’t have had it any other way? Or is it simply such an unspeakable taboo that we never hear from the parents who do?

That’s how it seems to work. Once they are here, you can’t imagine them never having been here. But what if you wanted a child, but never had one? Or never had the second one? It seems like the possibility to regret is much greater. I am almost 40, but I still have many years ahead of me to nurture students and to write and publish books. I am almost 40, but I don’t have many years ahead to have more children. This, my dear husband, is why I’m now starting to talk to you about this. This, because it does feel like now or never time. This, because even though we are both still on the fence, we love each other deeply, and if we do want this, we can make it happen. This because it will always be scary to contemplate something so huge as to choose to bring another life into the world and your life. But it will not always be possible to do so.

This is what I don’t want: I don’t want to passively choose to not have another one (by letting time slip away) because of money or space issues. Those are the things that we can figure out, make work. And nor do I want to passively choose to have one (how could you, really?) because of a fear that I would regret it if not. If we have another one, I want it to be because we are so fucking excited by the possibility of being able to experience the miraculous process of coming to know a new being so intimately related to the both of us, and yet so ultimately unknown and mystical, and to know all the joy and riches that such a darling spirit could bring into our lives. That leap of faith.

Yes, there’s always the chance that she/he could have a birth defect, or be a terribly difficult bad seed. (I have yet to see, Dear Kevin, but it’s on our queue). But chances are, they wouldn’t. And even if so, then they’d be meant to be ours to love and grow with anyway. I know of no other “path” than parenthood that rocks your world so tremendously, and that if you choose to accept and let it, will transform you in brilliant ways in the making. Despite all the sleep deprivation, time alone deprivation, and undeniable challenge and hardship.

What I want is to take a poll of all the new moms of two out there and to ask you: tell me the truth, how hard is it? How much sleep do you get, how much time do you get to yourself and with your husband? How much harder is it to balance the whole work-family continuum with two than one? Do you ever get pangs of regret?  I want to hear from the new parents, not the seasoned ones who have made it past the hardest years and are now coasting in the land of “kids are in school during the day” and “couldn’t imagine it any other way”. I want to hear from the newbies because if we do choose to go this route, I want to know what I’m in for. I don’t want to fool myself into thinking I might be that much wiser at hiring help or carving out more time for myself this time around that I’d avoid all the depressing, suffocating pitfalls of new-immersion-motherhood.

I’ve already heard sentiments from moms of two young ones about how it now feels like a “break” when you “just” have the baby to watch, and not both kids. My selective memory is remembering the days of long stroller walks where you could have long continuous conversations with other new moms and get exercise at the same time while watching the baby, and thinking, that wasn’t so bad… But then simultaneously wondering if this kind of activity would be the closest thing to a regular “break” that I’d get in a long time. And, of course, my problem is that I don’t just want your typical mom “breaks” to go work out, go to the spa, or to read on the couch—I want those too, yes, on occasion, but mostly I want time to write and do my work (writing and teaching)-- work that doesn’t pay much if any money.

So my conundrum has always been how to afford a babysitter to do my work that doesn’t pay for a sitter, and still have time left over for yoga or walks or necessary mental health breaks. In short, if I decide to have another, am I deluding myself if I think that I’ll somehow manage to have time for all of these? I can handle a sacrificial period without for maybe six months or so. But after that, I want back to it. I want to write, I want to teach, I want to work. This calling is like another child of mine, one I must take seriously. I don’t want to return to that deep motherhood cocoon quite so wholeheartedly as I did the first time. I want that elusive work-life balance.

My husband (and my selective memory) would do well to keep reminding me about how miserable I’ve been at times during the last couple years, and how it is only just in the last six months or so that I’ve had the energy, resolve, and time to teach again, in addition to everything else. Nobody needs to remind me of the joy of motherhood though. That reminder is breathing and singing and screaming with me every day.

Anyway. I know that after hashing it all out, by myself and with my husband, I know that in the end it won’t be a rational decision. It will either be a clear (but slightly fearful) yes or a clear (but slightly wistful) no resonating from within my heart.  

Monday, July 2, 2012

New Life

Yesterday, my dear friend gave birth to her baby. When we heard the news that she'd gone into labor we lit a candle and, when it went out the next day, we lit another one which we'd keep lit until well after the baby was born. Each time I saw the flickering flame, as I went about my daily tasks or got up to go pee in the dark, I was suddenly reminded again of what was going on for her, at this very moment, imagining her in the throes of the wildest, most intense ride of her life.

Today, I’m feeling immensely grateful. Grateful for the birth of her baby. Grateful that my husband is taking the week off, and letting me have a stretch of three mornings to go write. And grateful that on Friday we will take off for our first camping trip of the year, to Mt. Rainier, and that the weather is actually forecast to be sunny!

Yesterday, my online birth story workshop also ended, and next Monday, my “letter writing” workshop at the Hugo House will begin. In between the two, I have this wonderful week ahead of me that, despite the usual childcare duties, chores, and sleep deprivation, still feels like a vacation. A good part of this sense of pleasure I think comes from having completed the birth story workshop—a goal that started out as an idea, that I dreamed of long ago, then planned and advertised for, made a reality, dove into, and accomplished on my own. My daily work of motherhood on the other hand is also deeply satisfying and challenging, but it isn’t a job that one ever “finishes” and is thus allowed that sense of satisfaction that comes from something that has a clear beginning and end.
The birth story workshop was deeply satisfying in so many ways. I love the process of helping other people find the time to write, delve into their memories, let go of expectations, find their voices, confront their sorrows and joys, and go deep into their interior landscape. And I especially loved doing this within the context of writing about the births of our children—such a profound experience that so many of us women go through, and yet that the world at large so rarely gets the opportunity to hear about in detail.
Prior to being pregnant and preparing to give birth myself, I don’t think I’d ever heard a birth story told in person. Perhaps I remember a crazy video of a birth shown in a high school science class (or am I imagining this?), and perhaps I’d read some brief account here or there (right?), but to actually hear what it felt like, what it looks like, how many hours or days it could span, and all the variables of what could happen? Nope. Not a clue. How about you?
Why is it that we don’t collectively hear or know more about childbirth and labor? Well, for one thing, once the baby comes, parents are usually so overwhelmed and deeply immersed in the intense care of a newborn and the desperate hope to catch up on their sleep, that there isn’t exactly time to sit down and tell everybody about the crazy ride they have just been on. And yet, no matter what happens in a labor, no matter if it lasts four hours or four days, it is nothing less than profound. Think about it. Birth. All of our metaphors for talking about the journey that a person, a country, or a culture go through can be framed through the lens of birth and death. All of us are born—again and again and again—as we go through different cycles in our lives, different lessons, journeys, travels, jobs, tragedies, accomplishments. These are the stories we live for, the stories we look towards for all of our hope and inspiration. And all of this movement, all of these lessons and cycles and metaphors stem from the actual physical process of a mother giving birth.
When you strip life to its core, we are left with the image of a newborn baby, naked and screaming and thrust into this new life through her mother’s birth canal. Covered with bodily fluids, connected the darkness of the womb through the lingering pulse to the umbilical cord, so dependent on the care of others to survive, and yet nevertheless out here for the first time in the world, in the light, taking in your first breaths on your own.
It’s crazy really to think about birth. What happens, how it happens. The countdown of days, then hours, as the mother’s uterus starts to contract, as the baby signals to mother it’s readiness to be born. It’s crazy, really. Crazy beautiful and intense. There is nothing else like it, this journey that mothers prepare for, this need for her to let go into the experience—to let go of fear, expectations, inhibitions, life as you know it. To know that everything you’ve just done to prepare for the birth is both enough, and also could never possibly be enough to prepare you for the unknown journey of this labor—what it will feel like, how long it will last, how you will respond, how you will know yourself—or not know yourself, not even identify with a sense of “self”—in the act of giving birth.
My dear, dear friend of many years, perhaps many lifetimes, just gave birth yesterday. I still have not heard the details, but I thought of her throughout the day and night each time I looked up and saw the candle we’d lit: burning, a constant reminder that while we were going through the daily acts of our lives, she was in the throes of sweating, breathing, and pushing—of what will probably be the single most intense act of her life. Unless you count her own birth—or her own death. Neither of which most of us are able to remember and put into words.

Giving birth to our babies, though? We do have the capability to translate and preserve these stories. For ourselves, for our loved ones. And as much as giving birth is an “out of mind” experience, as much as we seem to forget so much of it in its aftermath, there is still so much of the experience that we can convey-- for ourselves, and for others. To help us touch upon the mystery that is life, the mysteries embodied within nature and our internal cycles, the mysteries embodied within this act of a new life coming into the world.
Who are you, who will you be, little one? Why is it you, chosen, for this couple, and not another? Why is it you, only you, that is meant to be the one to radically alter your mother’s lives? How is it that birth happens all around us, every day, and yet there is only this one small window, when the memory of labor is still fresh and the sense of your unfathomable newness to this world still so breathtaking. Before long, at least on the surface, all the human rituals that we attach to babies seem to take precedence, or at least this is what we see and talk about: the cute outfits and photos posted on Facebook, then the endless conversations about feeding, burping, and sleep.

When you reach a certain age—mid-thirties for our generation—all kinds of people in your immediate world (tidily represented by Facebook) who had held off until now start to pop out babies. First, you hear the announcement, usually when they are about 3+ months (with a lesser risk of miscarriage), or else with the first cute belly shots, when they really start to show.
Then, depending on the person, you are reminded of their pregnancy through weekly updates on their changing sleep, eating, or energy patterns. We get updates about  finding out the sex, about going on a “babymoon”, pictures of the new nursery, and then finally those last posts when entering the final stretch of days left at the job, the Braxton Hicks contractions, and a mounting sense of anticipation, anxiety, and excitement.
Then: silence. Then: the first trickle of news, the baby is here! The name, the length, the weight. Then: the first photos. A giant wave of congratulations. The biggest news that one could possibly share. The greatest achievement to reflexively ‘like’. What’s not to like? A new being is here. No one has died in the process. Another fleeting reminder of the miracle of life. Something we’ve all gone through: the birth canal—or at least the transition from darkness and womb to air and light.
Then: silence. Mom and Dad (or Mom and Mom, or Mom and whomever she has) are exhausted. Learning. Overwhelmed. Busy. Swept up in a vortex of sleepless nights, breastfeeding, diapering and swaddling. On the sharpest learning curve of their lives. If they are lucky, they are brought meals, cared for by family, ushered into a cocoon of safety and soft voices, all for the love of the baby. If they are lucky, they are able to sleep a bit, to rest, to cry, to stare with wide open gaping mouths of sputtering love. If they are lucky, they have people around them to help them, to care for them as they are newborns themselves. If they are lucky, these same people make sure to give them their precious alone time, time to nap together as a new family of three, time to stare with mouths open agape, time to cry.
No matter the birthing experience, it is a proper response to cry. No matter vaginal or cesarean, no matter long or short, no matter tearing or no tearing, no matter boy or girl, healthy or not healthy—no matter the experience, there is no more appropriate response to the entrance of a new life into the world than to cry.
Oh, dear God, dear Universe, dear Allah, dear Nature, dear pagan gods of the underworld, dear unfathomable Unknown: a baby has been born.
Oh, dear mother, dear father, dear heartbeat, dear blood line, dear family and friends and all of my relations: you have helped give birth to a baby.

My dearest friend has just given birth. And soon, in a matter of days, my sister will give birth too. Just recently she asked if I could be available as a back-up support person, in case her husband needs help, or in case she wants me there at her labor. My heart leapt. Yes, of course! I will be there, if I can be. I had figured she was okay with just her husband being there, and also she’d probably assumed it’d be hard for me to commit to being there because of my responsibility for my son. I went ahead and scheduled a camping trip for the few days leading up to her due date, figuring it’d better to schedule it before the due date than after (as it is more likely that she’ll be late than early for first-time births). But now, I’m hoping more than ever that the baby won’t come early and that I’ll be able to be there for my sister and her husband. And, although I don’t assume this, that I might even get to witness the birth if she wants me there. This possibility feels akin to being offered the opportunity to go on a spiritual retreat of unknown proportions, for which you must commit to dropping everything in a minute, quite possibly emerging ragged and exhausted, but from which you can be absolutely sure you will emerge profoundly moved and changed.

Even if I only get to rush in with flowers and tears after the drama has unfolded behind closed doors, I am incredibly excited for my sister to give birth to her first baby, Cedar’s cousin, my niece.

I feel poised on the cusp of so much new life right now—with one baby just arrived, and another on its way. Also, with one workshop just completed, another on its way. And in between, this stretch of days left open to enjoy and revel in life, summer, nature, family, writing, home, my own incredible good fortune.

I love you, my sisters. I love you, my babies. I love you, my students, my teachers, my friends. I love you, my life.

Thank you for the never-ending, unfolding reminder that this, this act of creation, is what it’s all about.


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