Hope you like your nursery!
Hope you like your nursery!
When you’re awake, you light like a firework, your eyes glistening with energy and a slight darting agitation, always on the lookout for your next adventure. On the rare slower days you wake up hazily, mumbling “mama, tummy” and burying your face in my stomach, your eyes fluttering as you drift back to sleep. It’s why I selfishly enjoy keeping you up past your bedtime, why I’m often late for work, why our bed remains unmade at the end of a rushed morning. Because rumpled sheets, smudged makeup, a mismatched outfit – all give way to morning snuggles – stolen time in exchange for warm sugary kisses, nose nuzzles, and marshmallow hugs. With a forgotten phone and misplaced keys, I’m repaid with blanket forts and soft morning gibberish.
Today you cried yourself into a hacking cough, snot running into your mouth, as you clawed your way past my body to avoid timeout. You told me and your dad to “go away, go away over there!”, refused most of dinner, held your poised arm gripping a toy hammer over the glass panes of the cabinet while maintaining eye contact and questioning “no?” with a sly smile. When you know full well what is and isn’t “no” behavior. You try my patience, and have the ability to turn good days to bad in the span of minutes. But you are a walking, breathing ray of happiness that fuels my every minute.
You’re talking now in full sentences (in two languages!), singing songs and using words we didn’t teach you, repeating things we wish you wouldn’t, connecting so many dots I can feel the window of my being able to teach you things closing more quickly than I imagined. You can sing your ABCs (with a few blanks), and count to ten. Your favorite foods are fish, kolaches, hash browns, and chocolate cake (you are your mother’s son). You love trains, Legos, building things (without help), dismantling things, dancing, books, and taking selfies. You love other kids, your grandparents, and labeling any grouping of things of varying sizes as mama, dada, and baby. You have an unbelievable memory that has taken away our ability to falsely promise you things “tomorrow”, because you will wake up every morning for the next week reminding us of what you’re owed. You are sweet and highly considerate of the kids around you at the playground, but will not hesitate to resort to tantrums in the safety of your parents’ company. You understand humor and the art of misdirection, you beam when saying “I did it by myself!”, you fake cry when you have small stumbles but don’t make a peep when you have a real injury. You are as stubborn as you are cute, and with our first attempts at discipline your typical response is a ripple of giggles and a megawatt smile, because you know how easy it is to break mommy’s mean face.
You are 2 now. And I find it nearly impossible to remember a life prior to the last two years of the last thirty-one of my existence. Without question, it’s been the years with the most stress, the most worry, the most tears, and the least sleep. But we have been filled with the most laughter, the most memories, and the most unbelievable joy.
Happy birthday to our everything!
I awoke in the recovery wing of the hospital, surrounded by dim light and machines and the quiet flurry of nurses tending to other patients in the room. The male nurse taking care of me was a short, stocky man with dark hair and a wide nose. I watched through blurry eyes as he checked my machines and scribbled notes onto a file at the end of my bed. He saw that I was awake and asked how I was doing. “Great,” I muttered back. I was still high on anesthesia and wrapped like a burrito in hospital blankets – I tried to remember a time when I had felt more comfortable and safe. I had no thoughts besides the ones that spontaneously sparked like fireflies; no interruptions from past or future – just the fuzzy warm comfort as I shut my eyes and drifted back to sleep.
I woke again to the nurse offering me a spoonful of ice chips – I chewed on them absentmindedly, with each cold crunch clearing the haze like windshield wipers. The numbness was fading away as I wiggled my toes and removed my arm from the safety of the blanket womb to scratch a sudden sharp itch on my nose. The clock to the left of the bed came into focus – I had been staring at it for the past hour – looking at the short hand and long hand and circular string of numbers but not really understanding their significance until now. It was two-thirty. Two hours since the nurses had first wheeled me from the holding area to the operating room.
The past week had been a collage of painful moments, most that I had successfully been able to stop thinking about but none that had lost the sting of their first occurrence. A trail of moments that meant nothing at the time but now served as clues – God’s way of preparing me for the final blow – but none that I picked up on until it was too late. There was the pregnancy test that kept getting false negatives, the first appointment where the sonogram technician disputed my calculation of being eight weeks along – when the baby’s growth looked more in line with five. The call from the doctor saying my progesterone levels were low and that I should start taking a hormone supplement “just to be safe”. Then the visit last Friday, when I was finally able to see my little baby bean in the sonogram and had my happiness swiftly stamped out by the utterance of three word phrases – “there’s no heartbeat”, and then, “I’m so sorry”. And then vague echoes of a busy doctor’s office continuing business as usual around me, pregnant women at various stages milling around me like a joy of life parade while I held back tears. I clasped my hands as I waited for the surgery scheduler to assign my time, trying hard not to think about the baby still inside of me.
I didn’t know how to mourn for someone I had never met, that was not even really a someone yet but more of a something – without a heartbeat and without a gender – but so much more than a something. My only memory was a black and white amorphous shape vaguely resembling a baby, but still my baby – for whom I had lived and dreamed, twenty four hours a day for sixty three days. What I was told was a “chromosomal abnormality” (in layman’s terms a spontaneous act of biology and nature) could only be translated in my head as personal responsibility. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something I could have done. And had I done it, had there been no abnormality – would I still have my baby? Thoughts flashed of the life that could have been – who would they have grown up to be? What would their mark on our family, and the world, have been? What and who had I truly lost? I clung to the blame because if there was a reason, I could hope to find some semblance of closure. Helpless, blameless pain haunts you like a faint whistling of the wind indoors on a still summer day. Clear and succinct, invading your head but escaping logic – you listen for it again but it hides, waiting to reappear when you’ve begun to believe again that you’re happy and sane.
The tears came fast in torrential pours, then would dry up again as fast as they came. I cried for the loss of my son’s only sibling, for the love I already had for our child, for the shortcomings that ended the life of my child before it could even begin. I cried because I had seen a photo of our baby who was no longer living but still a physical part of me. And I cried for no reason at all.
Our bed has become a chalkboard of sorts. If you could peek into our bedroom in the wee hours of the morning, an aerial view would reveal a different letter formation every night. Last night, and most nights, you’d see a bold Helvetica H. Steven and I forming the parallel lines, and little Beckett completing the character with his perpendicular line across the middle, his head resting squarely on my stomach and his feet across Steven’s lower abdomen. After a few hours the letter changes. Now, an N as he rolls to his side, his face nuzzled against the top of my thigh and his feet searching for their favorite ottoman – Steven’s eyes, nose, or mouth. My half-dreams flip through their nightly rotations, always staying within the same themes: struggle under an unmoving object (rock, bus, building), or being on the losing end of a fight, many times ending with a roundhouse to the face K.O. by my opponent. On the rare occasion that our chalkboard forms a roman numeral III, I’m flying through unfettered blue skies, wind in my hair and clean air rushing through my lungs. Then, as backwards N takes formation, the storms roll in and I’m struck down by lightning, my nose cracked awake by the back of an oscillating head.
It’s not an ideal sleeping situation, and we didn’t start out this way. Like any good first-time parents, we brought our perfectly swaddled bundle of joy home armed with a plan. Brains full of strategy, we tag teamed on baby books and had schedules typed out like we were training a Navy Seal instead of a newborn baby. And like every first-time parent, we were humbled by how utterly unprepared we actually were. We had read the books, but our baby hadn’t. He laughed (vomited or pooed) in the face of our schedules (our actual faces), covered our plans in tears and snot, and guzzled our last shreds of dignity down with my breast milk. A baby cannot be conditioned like a Pavlovian dog – you cannot teach something to respond to a bell when the bell makes them cry and gives them gas.
In spite of our crippling failure, we received our gold stars for each of the lessons learned in year one –let go of control, do your best, it will get better, it is totally and most definitely worth it. And the biggest gold star of all – he at least still sleeps in his crib. We reached the top of the parenting mountain, we stood our ground, and as a reward we got to keep one last souvenir from our old life – our marital bed! Until we didn’t. Somehow, in the midst of teething, sickness, not eating, not sleeping – we cried uncle. A friend once told me that “parenting is just various levels of giving up” – you have to pick your battles. For us, the battle we chose to lose/win was sleep. The only way to make it through those endless days of work, tantrums and aggressive games of food airplane (OPEN YOUR MOUTH DAMMIT!) was to get a good night’s rest. And the only way we were getting a good night’s rest was with a toddler between us.
It started out slowly, which allowed us to continue our denial – he spent half the night in his crib, and the other half with us when he’d wake up around three am crying for mama. Then three am became two am. Two am turned into ten pm. Half the night in his crib became the whole night in our bed. I laid awake many nights, with his fingers up my nose or nails digging into my belly button, wondering where we went wrong. I grimaced thinking about how painful a ten-year-old’s kick to the face would be; I sighed imagining the hieroglyphics four kids in a California King would create. But then the positions became more bearable. I’d wake up to his head resting on my chest, his hand cradling my cheek. In the middle of the night he finds me to snuggle, sometimes wrapping his warm body around me and sometimes smashing his soft lips into my cheek or eyelids. And in the morning when he blinks groggily awake, he smiles at me and says “mama”, taking my face into his little palms. It is magical. And though I’m fully aware that I’m sliding down a slippery slope (on skis), I no longer think about sleep training, or books, or rules. I think about the little boy that will one day wipe my kisses from his face in front of his friends, who will no longer want me to walk him to the bus stop, who will eventually go off to college. Though I have so much of his life left to experience, there are still those fleeting moments that I’ll never get to experience with him again. So for now, we’ll continue our letter formations, and I’ll savor the tangled sleep with my baby.
Maternite – perfect souvenir from the Barcelona Museu Picasso
February 21st, 2014 – the last day I nursed Beckett came at the end of a week-long chaos parade, its start marked by Steven’s departure on an eleven-day work trip to Europe. He was going to London first and our plan was to meet in Barcelona, taking advantage of the “cheap” trip and opportunity for some much needed marital bonding time. Seven days would be the longest I’d ever been away from the baby. On top of the separation anxiety (more mine than his), I finally had to face reality – it was time to stop breastfeeding. We were already at month fifteen, three months longer than I had originally planned and a year longer than I thought I would last. He was drinking whole milk and fully transitioned to eating solid food, so there was no longer a physical need for us to keep going – outside of my addiction to our twice a day nursing sessions. Being gone a week meant if I didn’t wean him in time I’d be stuck lugging an electric pump with me overseas (not an option), or feeling engorgement and other possible side effects of going cold turkey (migraines, cramping, sadness) while on the trip. “I’ll start in a week,” I thought.
Three weeks passed and I was still doing two-a-days; it was my last chance to drop one of the two feeds. I did, but clung on like my life depended on it, sometimes trying to extend the solitary feed by re-latching after he was finished. The day before Steven left, the baby was hit with a fit of vomiting. After a long night of cleaning and worry, I drove to my parents’ house Wednesday morning with a cloudy brain and puffy eyes – minus one husband and plus one sick infant. I was blessed that same evening with my own stomach virus, no doubt caught from the baby. I had made sure to clean every trace of throw up from his body but hadn’t been as thorough with what landed on me. I fought through the discomfort for another night – I could never really distinguish real sickness from the effects of sleep deprivation – and had a full fledged virus by Thursday morning. It ravaged my body for two days and left behind two new friends – a sore throat and body aches. Between the stress of preparing the house to be sold, packing for Spain, and figuring out how to take care of a 15 month old (thank God for grandparents), the double illness put me over. After receiving a steroid shot at an emergency clinic and going on a fruitless search for a pharmacy open past six pm, I reached sanity depletion that Saturday night.
I was able to get my antibiotics Sunday morning, following panicked teary calls to my mom and husband. Beckett was fully recovered by that point and I struggled through a seemingly endless morning of keeping him entertained. I gave up on the idea of rest and carted him from playground to playground attempting to expend his energy – I was hopeful I would cash in on a long nap time. The rest of the day was a blur but a feeling of normalcy seemed within reach by late evening – I finished throwing my clothes into a suitcase and collapsed into bed.
The Monday morning of my flight I was at my parents’ house where he’d be staying for the week. When the time came I interrupted his playing and grabbed his hand. “Milk?” I asked. His eyes went wide with excitement and he held his arms out to be picked up. I happily obliged and took him to my sister’s room where we settled in her large leather armchair. It had been almost two days since our last session; my virus had robbed me of any food to produce milk for him. It was a convenient natural weaning system but I was sad I couldn’t savor the last few days as planned. He nursed for a few minutes before pushing off, and an immediate sadness washed over me. I realized it was almost over. He lasted a little longer on the other side before pushing off again – I tried to re-latch him but unsuccessfully. “That’s it?” I asked him, “no more milk?” He smiled at me and waved his hands back and forth, signing “all done”. He was all done…forever. I tried not to cry as I let him back onto the floor and he scampered off to the living room to find his toys. In many ways it was the perfect ending – I would have had a harder time had he not been ready to let go – but there was no scenario that didn’t make me want to cancel my trip and get him back to our nursing routine.
In those last few minutes we shared I ceremoniously stroked his head, pushing strands of hair at his temple behind his ears and squeezing his little hands. I watched the rhythmic sucking of his mouth, the curve of his little nose, and counted his eyelashes – soft wisps that were nonexistent when he was born. There were few times if any in his busy days as a toddler that I was afforded the luxury of staring at his face, so I tried to memorize his features and capsule this moment in time. Nothing would fill the space he was leaving behind.
The first time I nursed was an hour after Beckett was born – we had just been moved from the delivery wing to post-partum, into a cozier room with a smaller bed and sleeper sofa for newly minted Dads. It was noon and we were going on no sleep from getting to the hospital at midnight the night before. I was still riding high on the adrenaline from labor, but could feel that and the epidural slowly wearing off – little spurts of pain were dully peeking their way through the curtain of numbness. I’m not sure if it was the medicine mask or because my nipples were still a blank canvas for the pain experiment that was about to begin, but the first time was extremely pleasant and almost gratifying. The baby who had been living inside me for the last nine months was now in my arms, his tiny mouth searching hungrily for sustenance, sustenance my body was providing. And there was no pain, just the strange feeling of my body being used in a new way, the only time that your internal functions re-calibrate for the sole purpose of keeping another being alive. It was surreal, and I was in love with it.
And then we were home, 2 days and 24 feedings later. I was still in good shape, as feeding the baby in the beginning is more of an exercise of practice than it is necessity – the baby’s stomach was still too small to consume much in the way of ounces, and he still had a good stockpile of nutrients from being inside the womb. Another day or so passed before the feedings began to wear on me – by this time the sleep deprivation had started to kick in, and I became fixated on counting how many hours of sleep I had gotten the night before. The first night – two hours. TWO HOURS, not even consecutively. I couldn’t stop thinking about it – the sun was rising, our baby was still crying, and I didn’t understand how I was supposed to make it through a whole day of taking care of him on such a small amount of sleep. I was dizzy and force feeding myself giant jugs of water every thirty minutes because per the lactation consultant, I needed to flood my system with water to help with milk production and the recovery process. I made Steven turn the heat up high. As everyone else in the house dressed in shorts and tank tops to withstand the temperatures, I was wearing multiple layers and wrapped in two blankets while shivering. It took all the willpower I could muster to remove the blankets and layers, take off my shirt, and expose my breasts so that the baby could feed. Freezing nipple was covered by a warm suckling baby mouth, but with it came searing pain. Unbelievable pain that made everything go white and squeezed giant tear droplets from my eyes. “Why is your face all wet?” I remember Steven asked during a feed. “It is?” I said. I didn’t even know I had been crying. I trudged on, through the sometimes hour long feedings, hoping at some point that it would get better, but it didn’t. The pain would go in and out, sometimes bearable and sometimes not, as I willed myself to stare at Beckett’s face and remember why I was doing this – “this is for him, not you … for him, for him, for him” – I chanted over and over. But then came the bleeding – things went downhill from there.
The third night home is when my milk finally came in – I had no idea that it hadn’t yet but knew instantly when it was happening. All the books describe the signs to you – the flowing feeling down from your shoulders, the breast fullness, the tingling sensation, but they never tell you about the transformation of your breasts into two giant balls of pain. If I hadn’t already read up on it I would have thought that someone had shot poison into my shoulders and my breasts were engorged from the infection. I remember screaming out and running to the bathroom to get a warm compress that I pressed gingerly against what felt like stones on both sides. When that didn’t work I stood under the hot shower and clutched my breasts, crying as they surged with pain, blood still trickling from my nipples.
I equate the first few weeks of breastfeeding to being a vampire hostage. There were days when I laid in our room all day and all night, lights dimmed in an attempt to sleep but drifting in and out of consciousness while I sucked down water and approved pain medication. Going to the bathroom sometimes required assistance and was like an obstacle course, I struggled to remember a time when I could pee without being scared my insides would fall out. Food was brought to me on little trays, an old wives’ tale buffet of pork products, cabbage, and other vegetables that were supposed to increase milk production. Every 1-2 hours the little prince was carried in and I was to begin my usual routine of undressing and adjusting myself into the most comfortable position possible, I’d imagine the same way a sentenced man shifts the weight between his feet as he stands before the firing squad. Then of course came the feeding. The range of emotions flashed like colors through my brain as the baby ate, switching positions, falling off then latching back on, taking long gulps then short shallow sucks – red, white, blue, purple – the pain rainbow in all of its glory – bad, worse, and blackout.
The weak moments were unlimited – I had a lot of stops and starts and times when I would wail to Steven in the middle of a feed that I couldn’t do it anymore. He and I had both been adamant about going the minimum 3 months at least until I went back to work, but I was beginning to wonder if I’d last 3 weeks. “This is just not right, it’s not supposed to be like this.” He was always concerned and as much as he encouraged me to keep going, he was the first to give me the out I needed when he saw how miserable I was. “It’s not worth you being in this much pain, I think you should stop.” Strangely, knowing that he was okay with me stopping was what kept me going. I’d tell myself that tomorrow would be the last day, and tomorrow would come but I couldn’t bring myself to stop. As long as the baby continued to need me, I would bear through it.
In the wee hours of the morning I was nestled in the rocker in his room, nursing him in the dark with the glow of my iPhone being the only nightlight. Every day during this time I was trolling the breastfeeding forums – led there by a slew of Google searches – “when will breastfeeding stop hurting?”, “benefits of breastfeeding”, “proven benefits of breastfeeding”, “minimum breastfeeding term”, “breastfeeding pain”, “nipple pain”, “latching techniques”, and the ever popular “I hate breastfeeding”. It wasn’t getting any easier but it helped to know so many other moms were struggling like I was. I kept wondering why no one had warned me – someone should have twisted my nipples really hard then stuck them with needles and said “there, that’s what it feels like. Enjoy!”.
But I kept going – I’m not sure how but I did, and miraculously in month four, things finally started to turn around. It stopped hurting, and his feed times were shorter and more predictable. By month five I found myself looking forward to our time together and realized that it was one of my favorite things about being a Mom. Now, in month fifteen, I’m having trouble admitting to myself that I’m not ready to wean. Two years, do I dare?
It’s been twenty-one months since I first found out I was pregnant, twelve months since our baby was born, nine months since I returned to work, five months since he started daycare. To say the past two years have flown by is an understatement. I still remember in month six of pregnancy when we were still in the midst of putting together his nursery how far away having a baby seemed. I used to stare at the small mattress in his room and try to picture him there, a swaddled baby with a mystery face that would morph in my imagination from Steven’s mouth to my eyes to his nose – a mish-mashed image created from my wandering thoughts and the grainy Dave & Buster’s “make-a-child” photo affixed to our fridge.
Every weekend was spent trekking from one baby store to the next, as we pored over online reviews of the best baby monitor and safest stroller, choosing swaddling blankets as if pale blue elephants instead of race cars would make a marked difference in his life. The list of “necessities” had been compiled from the advice of every mom and family friend I could survey. I had no idea what half of the things were and wondered how many of them would actually be put to use (turns out, all of them). Looking back, our time would have been better spent less on paint swatches and curtains and more on sleep and quality time with one another. In those first few months the perfect nursery served little more than a nice backdrop to vomit/poo clean-ups and sleep deprivation. A year later, I’m finally able to take a breath and see our experience with different eyes. With all of the ups and down, the only emotion that has remained constant is a sense of awe – I’m in constant amazement at the person that we created, his daily development, and his little personality emerging. Willful and full of wonder, he attacks every new obstacle with no fear and a five-toothed (and counting) smile. To wake up every morning and remember that he’s sleeping in the next room is like coming out of a good dream and realizing that the dream is a real.
There have been many times this year when self-doubt has crept its way into my mind. Questioning whether we were ready to have a baby, questioning in month five of his ongoing illnesses, not eating, and stagnant weight gain if we were doing something wrong. Times after an entire seven days of sickness and fever, when I’d stare at his face with sunken cheeks and tired eyes and feel his shoulder bones as I held him in my arms – questioning if it was our fault. Because that’s the hardest thing about being a parent – the responsibility of making decisions for your child, from day one on every aspect of his life. Deciding whether to breastfeed, how to sleep train, when to put them in daycare, whether to give them medication – the choices are dizzying. You have to play detective/scientist/doctor – study the situation, read the books, consult with as many people as possible, then ultimately make a decision where, unlike every other decision you make in life, you have no idea whether you helped or hurt the problem. A baby’s body is hyper sensitive and constantly changing, and at any one point when something works, there’s no guarantee that it will still work in a week. You just have to tweak the formula and keep the frustration at bay.
There will always be long days, bad days – in fact, the long days outnumber the good ones. Days where work has beaten me to a pulp, I get home to a messy house, stumble through a disastrous dinner preparation (or a fast food pickup), struggle with a baby who refuses to eat and screams like a banshee when I try to put him down, cries through his bath, and fights me on sleep like it’s some sort of capital punishment. Even as I go to bed wondering how I’ll make it through another day, I begin to miss him. Three hours of peace without him and I start to wish he would wake up so I could play with him again. In the morning when I hear him stirring I’m like a kid on Christmas morning, rushing into his room to find him standing, hair tousled with his little arms outstretched over the rails. It’s my favorite part of every day, when I get to hold him again – to feel his arms wrapped around my neck and his cheek pressed against mine. Everything just melts away and the reset button is pressed once again.
On the day of his birthday I was excited to leave work and pick him up from daycare, it was like the beginning of a new holiday. Inside his classroom the teachers had him ready to go; they had crafted a green birthday hat for him – made of construction paper with “It’s My Birthday” written in crayon on a circular badge on the front. He greeted me with excitement and I was surprised the hat was still intact; anything touching the face or head region usually got ripped off by curious hands in less than a minute. “Beckett had a great day!” They handed me a construction paper birthday card that all of his teachers and baby classmates had “signed” – adorable. My parents came over that evening with a takeout feast, small balloon, and cookie monster cupcake for him. Just like at his party the weekend prior, he gingerly touched the icing with his finger then shied away. No interest – he definitely inherited the sweets aversion from his dad. We ate dinner together with him agreeable and happy in his high chair, a rare occurrence. As I watched him pick up bite-sized morsels of carrots and chicken from his tray, I found myself again in awe that my sweet newborn who a year ago could barely open his eyes was now able to feed himself, and smile proudly at me while doing so.