Half-Baked

Dear Nine Year Old Boy,

I used to write twice yearly letters to you; on your birthday and your half birthday. Over the past couple of years the urge to do so seems to have been buried under three kids and the birth of a new career.  But you turned nine six months ago and that seems like a rather big deal.  I think often “he’s half done”.  Assuming you go off to college at age 18, you now officially have less time left “at home” than you’ve already spent here.

I want to remember and I want you to know that I had a great time with you tonight.  Your dad left for a regular night class that he teaches and your sisters were sound alseep by 8:30.  My to do list sat on my phone telling me that I should work but, well, rather childsihly I just didn’t want to.  This happens almost every Tuesday and Thrusday night when your dad has class.  I am bone-tired at the end of the day not wanting to start another round of work and your face lights up as soon as I step out of the girls’ room, wanting to just spend time with your mom.  I choose you over work nearly every time.  I’ve been lucky that for the past nine years we have usually enjoyed each others company; I’m not naive enough to think that will remain the same through the next nine years.  

So instead of working, tonight we sat on the couch and talked about the difference between introverts and extroverts.  Seeing the light bulb go off in your head as you realized that I was an introvert too and that were both similarly oddballs was priceless.  I know that you feel so very different from, well, just about everyone most of the time. You talked to me tonight about how you like to sit alone at lunch, daydreaming. You specifically seek out a space to yourself. You explained that you were perfectly content with this arrangement but recently one of your P.E. teachers has taken it upon himslef to sit with you. Apparently he tries to discuss sports with you, asking if you watched the recent basketball playoffs. You seemed utterly bewildered as to why he would be doing this. I had to stifle a laugh at the thought of him asking you about your favorite teams; he clearly can’t imagine your world where a nine year old boy lives in a house without cable or even turning on network TV for months. Once I explained about introverts and extroverts you looked so relieved. And we decided to very politely tell the P.E. teacher “Thanks for thinking of me” but “No thanks.”  

Tonight I didn’t snack mindlessly in front of my computer but instead we ate a snack together.  After all the battles we have over getting you to eat a variety of healthy food it was nice to let me guard down and just sit and the same table and eat with you (even if you just ate crackers, cheese, and applesauce – again).  Then you read to me from Harry Potter #6 (it is about to get SO MIND BLOWING – you have no idea – I am bursting to tell you about Horcurxes) while I made your favorite cookies (garbanzo bean chocolate chip – bizzare but awesome – just like you).  I took over reading Harry Potter to you while we muncehd on warm cookies. Words really are inadequate to express the satisfaction and joy it brings me to see you immersed one of my favorite book series of all time (FYI – the other series that holds my heart are the Laura Ingalls Wilder books).  I get goosebumps just thinking about you reading them to your own chldren one day.

I know that the words of your 37 year old mom won’t always carry so much weight for you, but I want you to know:  I think you are a very cool dude.  I love you and you are perfect just the way you are.  I don’t “get” everything about you in the way that I used to when you were little.  I really don’t find fart jokes funny.  I can’t understand why you resisit basic hygine such as showers and brushing your teeth (Seriously – what is up with that?).  And graphic novels just seem awfully busy and distracting with all those pictures .  But tonight made me feel like we get each other in the ways that matter.  And even though I don’t understnad everything about you, I love you enough that I have already bought one of your next birthday presents:  a thriteen volume set of your favoirte graphic novel series (Chi Sweet Home).  Nothing says love like the antics of a Japanese kitten in graphic novel from!  Happy half-birthday my not-so-little man.

And the One Become Two

For the past ten years I’ve shared my body with a small person. From the moment when sperm joined egg to create Older, until a few weeks ago when Baby nursed her last, I mostly willingly, sometimes grudgingly, often joyfully nurtured a small person in the most physical of ways; first through pregnancy then through nursing. When I weaned Older long ago, just after his third birthday, I was a bit wistful at how my firstborn had grown but I can’t say I was sad. I was nursing nine month old Middle at the time and was happy to focus my physical nurturing on her alone. When Middle weaned herself four months into my pregnancy with Baby I was again a bit sentimental, but mostly I was relieved that I no longer had to share my exhausted pregnant body with anyone other than my growing baby. I have a hard time writing it; have barely spoken it aloud, but Baby has not nursed in many weeks. She has weaned. For the first time in ten years my body is solely my own.

The weaning happened much as I had hoped it would. Uncomplicated by another pregnancy or a new sibling I wanted to allow her to wean on her own. My mother joked that I would be nursing her until kindergarten and I think, quite honestly, I would have happily obliged. However, of her own volition, around Christmas Baby began to skip days of nursing more frequently. Her intervals would stretch to four or five days at a time without Mama’s milk and although part of my brain was pleading with me “offer to nurse her!” I wanted her to steer this process so I neither offered nor refused. She began to comment on the saltiness of the milk but then quickly followed her comments with the reassurance that “I like it salty.” She is a perceptive and intelligent girl; although I never asked her I could tell that she knew our nursing days were numbered. She skipped a week of nursing and when she nursed again I snapped a photo of us in the dim evening light. I wanted to capture her last nurse and I knew it could be any day now. This went on for several weeks until about a month ago when she fell asleep nursing in my arms for the last time. I have a picture of her, long curls draped over my arm, head resting on my breast, long lashes fanning out from her closed eyes, breathing out her sweet milky breath.  

A few nights ago, during the circus that is bedtime with three children, Baby asked for “Big Na-na”, her special term for nursing. I was surprised and hoped she would be distracted by bedtime stories. I should have known better; she has a steel-trap memory. After a couple of books she asked to nurse again, special blanket in hand. I gathered her into my arms and settled her on my lap in the big upholstered rocking chair I have nursed all my babies in. I told her, as plainly and gently as I could, that the milk had dried up; it was simply what happened if one didn’t nurse for a long time. “I forgot!” she wailed; a primal cry escaping her chest as she buried her head in my dress. “I was on a break. I just forgot.” she bargained in desperation. I held her close and my eyes filled with tears as her eyes spilled every tear her body could muster. I told her I loved her over and over. She mumbled, through her sobs, that she would miss big na-na. And then I heard her draw in a deep breath, pause, and say that she would have big na-na again “when I nurse my own babies”. I squeezed her tight and whispered in her ear that I would help her with her babies. Her cries calmed and she pulled back and smiled. “We could be next door neighbors” she stated tentatively. “I would love that” I told her and the truth is I can imagine no better future. She then giggled and said with a deep sigh “Big na-na is over. But we can always have chocolate.” I laughed and reassured her that we would certainly be eating chocolate together until we were old ladies. We held each other, giggling and rocking, for a while longer. I felt that in that moment we understood each other perfectly; two sides of the same coin.   

It is clear to me, as well as to her, that it isn’t the nursing, per se, that the both of us are grieving. She woke up at midnight two nights ago and came to snuggle with me in bed and when I asked what was wrong she told me “everything is changing”. The days (and nights) of nursing my children when they were young have been, altogether, nothing short of magic. Now that I have two school aged children, it’s harder to feel the magic with them. The deep connection we forged when they were young is still there but it’s all too often buried under gymnastics practice, homework, and a pile of socks. I am ashamed to admit that some days I don’t really feel it at all. Perhaps because she is the youngest of three, I think that Baby can see the magical bubble of uninterrupted time with Mama is rapidly slipping away. The end of nursing is a marker of the end of an era; an era that has a lot more to do with being her Mama’s little girl than with milk.  

Parenting is a never ending succession of both loss and discovery. The child that wakes up every morning is inevitably a little bit different than the child that fell asleep the night before. Every milestone is both a joy and a death. Most of us cannot remember the last time our child crawled, the last time they called us “Mama” instead of “Mom”, the last time they padded sleepily down the hall and asked to sleep in our bed. At least I have the beauty of a picture and a perfect memory of the last moment that I was a nursing mother. 

Blunt Trauma

I ran into another mother this weekend that I hadn’t seen in a long time. She remembered that I had been in school to become a lactation consultant and inquired how that was going. I told her where I was working now and that I was very happy with my job. She responded that it must be such a nice, relaxing job; that she didn’t “imagine it was very stressful.” I blurted out “Well we had two infants with catastrophic brain injuries this week and one near maternal death, but other than that…,” I trailed off. Based on the stricken look on her face, my response might have been a bit harsh but she hit a nerve.  

This job is endlessly emotional. I am working with people during the with the most dramatic moments of their lives. There is a great deal of joy. There is also immense frustration, exhaustion, and sometimes despair. The sad truth is that with over 200 births a month we see stillbirths and other tragic outcomes on a regular basis. Last week was rough. My boss quit without any notice shaking up the entire staff and leaving the entire labor, delivery, postpartum, and neonatal intensive care unit “motherless”. We had two infants with severe brain injuries transferred to another hospital. We had one mother nearly bleed to death after childbirth. I spent my days ping-ponging between rooms with pink robust infants and two rooms where a mother sat alone, her door shut tight so she could not hear other infants cry, hooked up to a breast pump, hoping that her baby might someday be well enough to take some of her milk.The worst part of my job is that I have no way to follow up on any of these mothers and their infants after they leave the hospital. I remember their faces, their bleeding nipples, their magical new babies, and their empty bassinets and I wonder what happens to them. In my old career I used to sometimes bring work home; papers to read, emails to catch up on. I don’t need to do that any more. But I do bring my job home. I think about the mothers and babies when I am home in bed. I worry about them, stress over them, and wonder if I did enough to help them. 

Natural High

My freshman year of college I was in Air Force ROTC. It was all part of my grand plan to become a pilot and then eventually an astronaut. The university I attended was far too small and nerdy to have an ROTC program so I had to travel to a nearby large university once or twice a week to play Air Force officer in training. I thought that plan would be completely manageable along with being on the volleyball team, majoring in physics, and adjusting to life on my own. I failed in spectacular fashion, literally; earning the first “F”s of my life in math, chemistry, and physics. I also realized that I wasn’t particularly good at following orders. About the only thing I enjoyed about ROTC was the memorization that was required as part of our drills (I have a nearly “photographic” memory for anything I hear) and singing the Air Force song. The item I most dreaded about ROTC was PT, or physical fitness training. PT was heavy on the running and, my god, did I HATE running. I was always the slowest in the group, my legs itched terribly (years later I found out I have exercise induced allergies), and I was just plain bored. When I quit ROTC at the end of my first semester of college I thought “And now I will never have to run again.”
Fast forward 19 years and I am a regular runner now. I don’t usually post on facebook or talk overly much about how much I love to workout now as I feel like I sound a bit like religious zealot. “Join the church of running and ye too shall be saved!” So I will preach to you, all half dozen of my blog readers! Working out is awesome. Regular exercise is, quite honestly, my antidepressant. Nearly daily workouts have made me a more patient mother and better person. Running is still hard, but it’s a good challenge that leaves me feeling like a I conquered something. Occasionally though something magical happens when I’m running and it doesn’t feel difficult but joyful. Today was a rough day at work; the worst kind of day with bad outcomes for a couple of infants. I was so down that after work I thought about just going for an easy walk. After I arrived home, I put on my running clothes and started down our block. I was hit by a blast of cold wind – it was in the upper 40s – very cold for daytime weather here. I thought about turning back but then I was struck by the intense sense of gratefulness for my healthy body and I knew that walking would never keep me warming enough in the chill. So I took off running and oh what a run it was. I ran the fastest I have in over a year. I literally lept over curbs and obstacles. At the end of 5 kilometers I didn’t feel tired but euphoric. I don’t think I have felt this “high” on life since the moments after Baby’s birth (nothing beats the oxytocin rush following natural childbirth for a high). By the end of the run I was actually smiling, probably somewhat goofily, but much like being in labor I didn’t care how I looked. I felt like I could have run forever and only stopped because I had to pick up Baby from school. I wish I knew what exactly made this run so amazing. I think the hard day and the cool weather were both factors but it felt more magical, almost spiritual. Who knows exactly. What I do know I am going to be chasing that feeling again and again. Come and join my cult!

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