Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The mother and the child

I've got words stumbling around inside of me that have been sifted loose by my reading lately on postpartum practices in America. They don't feel very eloquent, but then again they might be. There seems to be a fair bit of pain and confusion around becoming mothers - matrescence as one of my books puts it. I can't speak for many of my friends because this isn't something that comes up casually, but, as I start on the earliest stages of trying and preparing to understand and help other postpartum women, the stories I've come across suggest that perhaps my story isn't so very different from other women.

My journey into motherhood was a fragile, brittle thing. My mother is a broken woman as was her mother. My paternal grandmother was reserved and had fought her own battles. My mother-in-law is a dear woman but can't quite seem to meet me on my own impulsive yet over-thought level. Her mother was rather similar. Possibly the most motherly woman I've ever met was my husband's paternal grandmother - Mamaw. A little woman living on a farm with her garden and her cows who loved people. She might not appreciate me saying this, but she had just enough squish for proper grandmotherly hugs. Her enthusiasm for her children was boundless. Although I only knew her briefly, I loved her dearly. She was, in some ways, the most mothering woman I knew for some years.

So when I say my journey into motherhood was brittle or fragile, I mean that it was like spanning a gorge with a thick cable and asking me to climb into a basket and hoist myself to the other side. I didn't have generations of women around me to make the way across plain and safe and carry me over on their experience, compassion, and wisdom. Looking back, I believe I felt alone. A man cannot take you there. It takes a man to be a mother, but I'm not sure he can make you one. Men have different burdens, and it's like asking a freight train to grow wings and fly to Cairo. Eventually you just can't get any closer no matter how hard you try.

All through my pregnancy I tried to face my fears and worries about becoming a mother. I read the books and talked to my counselor and took a childbirth class and tried to soak up the faith that I too could make this journey. If you'd seen me wresting through transition it might have all looked like a front. I don't know because I didn't make it that far. After I started to bleed they rolled me back into a very bright room with a very narrow table full of people who suddenly looked very different in their surgical gear. I remember thinking, insofar as I could think while pumped full of drugs, that there was supposed to be a cry. There is supposed to be crying at births. I waited and waited for that first cry. In my heart I think I'm still waiting for it - that moment when your baby cries and you're flat on your back on a narrow metal table, but it doesn't matter because life has snapped back into focus because your son has arrived. Instead I had a very quiet birth and a near sighted squint at a very baby looking baby (drugs remember) in a plastic box before everyone got wheeled away to their respective destinations.

I'm not sure what happened afterwards. If I tell you a thing didn't happen, and you happen to be one of the few people reading this blog who can say for sure that it did then don't feel the need to call me out. Why? Because it wasn't enough. If you think that words said once or twice to a woman who has just been through that sort of birth are supposed to sustain her through the process of matrescence then you're wrong. You are fully and completely wrong. I've had two people come back to me later and say they should have been more supportive - my husband and my childbirth educator. This is not to say that other people didn't do other things for me. This isn't about what they said but about what they left unsaid.

When I really met Jacob it was over twelve hours later. Allen was there as well as the NICU nurse. Other people had gotten to hold him and watch him sleep before I'd done much more than touch his hand. Instead of me, his mother, introducing him to the world I felt like I was the stranger being introduced. Not having the benefit of that birth rush I've heard about and being under the influence of some pretty powerful painkillers the whole experience felt awkward and somewhat flat. In my head I was telling myself over and again,

This is my baby. My baby. The baby that isn't inside me anymore. The baby that surprised us nine months ago. This is my baby. This is Jacob. I don't know how to hold him, but this is my baby. This is Jacob. I was afraid he wouldn't be cute. I like him. He's a sweet little boy. My little boy.

Just about every single one of those thoughts had a tiny little question mark hovering over it. It's like I was having to remind my numbed and drugged body of something that I thought it would know instinctively - that it should have known instinctively. What I desperately needed was someone to affirm my motherhood. I needed a cloud of witnesses to say "These two belong together. They are mother and child and therefore holy in the same way that all God's most common and precious miracles are holy." Instead I had a parade of nurses telling me how to care for him, grandparents who were impatient to hold him (which they can't do in NICU), and a stream of uncles and aunt and friends who cooed and smiles and spoke warmly of modern medical technology. It was an atmosphere of love and thankfulness and yet it did so little to help me cross that great gorge of motherhood. My cord across the chasm felt fragile indeed.

I felt, oddly, like a conduit. Now that I had born a child my husband had a son. Our parents had a grandson. Our church had a new member. I could see rather clearly my son's relation to all the other people around him, but I had a hard time seeing his relationship to myself. I saw my role as trying to manage and foster all these other relationships when I should have been cocooned safely away with my son learning how our relationship worked. What I needed desperately was someone who looked at Jacob and saw a child and his mother, and my faltering, needy heart never heard that message as loudly as I wished. Instead Jacob would insist on nursing when other people wanted to hold him or fuss at loud noises instead of being cheerfully passed around to one and all, and if he was "good" and I expressed concern at being gone while someone watched him I was dismissed as almost extraneous. I had people whom I thought were my friends who didn't even bother to learn our story before making flippantly unhelpful remarks about parenting.

So what did I want? I wanted to be surrounded by people - women of my family and church - who would sit with me while I tried to make my cut and drugged body catch up with reality and encourage me again and again that Jacob and I belonged together and that I would be a good mother. I wanted these women to take their experience and their kindness and build a tall fence about my baby and me so that we could be shielded from ordinary cares and instead learn to love each other. No - so that I could learn how best to love him. Jacob needs no training. He used to bob and shift his head around until his could see my face before he fell asleep, and he'd swing an arm up over me to touch my chest or my neck. He still does that. I have always been the uncertain one. There's still a corner of my heart that wants that birthing experience of having someone see your child for the first time and say "Him - he belongs with her, and that's exactly where he's going to go."

Now, nearly eight months later, I feel as though I've crossed the chasm safely. This isn't about whether or not women require certain things in order to become mothers. This is about the loneliness and uncertainly that I encountered in my own journey to motherhood. It's about a postpartum culture that start and stops (if you're lucky) with some homemade meals and a few late night facebook chats with the mom up the street and just how very little that does to succor a mother who is finding her own journey across the gorge more perilous than she hoped. Someday I hope to find that mother and say, "He belong with you. You're going to do great. I'll be in the kitchen cleaning up if you need me."


I wrote the above in those highly philosophical hours between midnight and 2am, and now in the daylight I wish to add a couple more observations. First, this is the story of a woman who has very few real connections to wise and loving mothering and who entered motherhood in a rather traumatic fashion. Take away one of those factors - a loving and present mother or a peaceful birth and bonding experience - and you'll likely end up with a woman who is rather more satisfied with her postpartum experience. Secondly, upon reading this story, you may at some point feel like asking, "Well, why didn't you just ask for help or support or encouragement." The simple truth is that I and, according to my recent reading on matrescense in Western Culture, many other women simply do not have the voice to ask for these things and for some women it's only years later that they realized what was lacking in their own postpartum experience. That said, I agree that if I'd been able to ask for them that there were women in my life who would have tried to support and help me in the way that I needed. However, the more common experience - my experience - is that when the feelings don't work the way we wish, when we get tired and discouraged, when we doubt ourselves and our connection to our child our instinct is to turn inwards and seek the problem within ourselves.  We are encouraged to be ok with being exhausted and emotional. There are plenty of "there there's" and "that will pass" and "I remember those days" to go around. What was missing were more statements like "Look how happy he is with you" and "Don't you love that new baby smell" and "I'm so proud of how you're taking care of him." Mothering is not all by instinct, and we need a safe and supportive place to begin to feel like mothers. We know we're tired - we've been up all night. We know we're tough - we've been through physical and emotional turmoil different and/or harder than anything previous to this. What we need is constant reassurance that we're ok - because we feel so very inadequate to care for this tiny soul who looks at us with big eyes that take and take and take from us because we are Mother and yet somehow reflect all the wonders on the universe.

For more reading on this subject I recommend Mothering the New Mother by Sally Placksin.


  1. Natalie, thank you for this. It is insightful and beautiful. I think it will also be a big help to doulas, birth and postpartum, to understand how to help better! HUGS!!!!

  2. Natalie, you might not remember me, but I remember you from years ago and I just stumbled across this blog. I apologize in advance if it's creepy to comment. (It's a little creepy. I confess.) My first daughter was born six years ago this Thursday. There was a prolapsed umbillical cord, an episiotomy, and an emergency c-section. I just want you to know, I want you to know, that it is a hard thing and no one will understand. Not the cruncy hippie mama that wants to blame you for it and not the people who say "Well, healthy baby! No problem!" My second child, my son, was born 15 months later and it really wasn't until he came that the emotional scars began to heal. By the time my next daughter came five and a half years to the day, I can say I was healed and able to enjoy (really!) that c-section. So, all of this to say, be kind to yourself mama. It takes some time, but you'll look at your little guy later and you'll see that the trauma of being "splashed and slashed" and being separated from your baby, and not having the kind of "birth experience" you'd pictured didn't keep you from bonding with him. And you'll be able to bless another mama. Prayers for you. Susan Smith