A Light in August

 

We named him August because he came in the late summer of our late thirties – in part a private joke about how my snarky grandmother called my uncle, born 12 years after the last child, “her fall crop” — but also because it was true. We named him that because he was our harvest.  A yield we didn’t expect, born out of a fallow season, a crop we weren’t ready for, didn’t quite have capacity for, but still rushed around to gather, amazed.

August was such a surprise, that it only made sense to think about his arrival as something preordained or magical, a blessing for the hardship that had come before.  I joked with my friends, saying, “you know, I wasn’t clapping my hands together and thinking, ‘Okay! The twins are finally in kindergarten, I’m anxious to finally re-focus on my career, my husband and I have just reconciled after a four-month separation following his relapse, rehab and recovery –  it’s a FANTASTIC time to get pregnant!’”  Friends were calling, wanting to know how Steven was, how I was, and were we back together. And to them I would reply, “Not only are we together and in a strong recovery, but guess who’s got a bun in the oven!” For someone who has has always had what Anne Lamott calls “teeny tiny, little hardly worth mentioning control issues,” this felt unsettling and even embarrassing.  I felt like a knocked up prom queen, a good girl who had gotten herself in trouble. It took my best friend reminding me that I was actually married to the father of the child, that it wasn’t my dentist’s baby, to help me snap out of that.

But the unease persisted, this sense of conflict around the feeling that the timing was all wrong, with so much uncertainty and fear fresh out of the turmoil of recent months.  And I also felt a great weariness. Having twins within DC’s beltway while Steven finished his doctorate and postdoc internship, and I patched together consulting jobs, exhausted me. Having a baby six years after that, six years older, felt strangely like a generation later.

I felt old and tired and scared.  And so in the private whispering room of my heart, there was a great ambivalence about this baby.  I then layered tremendous guilt on top of this, after the years of infertility, the desperate longing for a baby, the rounds of IUIs and IVFs that ultimately brought us our twins.  So I cried often, usually when I’d go up to check on the children on my way up to bed, whispering I’m sorry into their sleeping heads. I’m sorry I won’t be able to give you as much of me. I’m sorry I’m tired all the time. I’m sorry that I never even intended or planned this.  I denied myself the celebratory aspects of pregnancy – I wouldn’t let anyone throw me a traditional baby shower, even though I had long since given away baby things. I didn’t think I deserved that kind of attention since I wasn’t exactly glowing and gushing about this new life.

All I could do was circle the drain on trying to make sense of it all – What did it mean? Some days, my better days, I could read it as new beginnings, as an incredible gift born of our healing – and other days it felt like the unraveling chaos of the past year was taking a new form.  I spent half of that last trimester napping or waddling after Henry and Charlotte, wanting to wear a T-shirt that read, “I’m damn near 40 and 7 months pregnant in a Louisiana summer: Do. Not. Fuck With Me” (which, sadly, would have easily fit on my girth.)  And the other half was spent on a hamster wheel in my brain, trying to untangle the Gordian knot of meaning within this quickening. Making sense of it felt so critical because without it, there was only randomness and entropy and my raft floating out on some uncaring sea.

During my 38th week of pregnancy, against the advice of my OB, I went to a 4-day silent retreat 200 miles away. It was hosted at a 300-year-old Jesuit monastery in South Louisiana, where they send the old Jesuits out to pasture.  Between sessions, I walked the halls behind an elderly father, our gait the same, slow and shuffling, both with a lot to lose if we risked hurrying.  One of us exiting, stage left, the other a vessel for ushering in new life, stage right.  It was there, in the quiet and under the live oaks, that I learned to let go the need to make sense of the pregnancy, and instead work to hold out a little space for August’s birth, a space for the inexplicable wonderment of it, without having to analyze it.

The retreat leader read Martha Postlethwaite’s poem, “Clearing,” and it rang a bell in me, clear and deep.

Do not try to save
the whole world or
do anything grandiose.
Instead, create a clearing
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there patiently,
until the song
that is your life
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognize
and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself
to this world
so worth of rescue.

I met with Paula, the retreat leader, privately, where she told me more about her own experience of ambivalence and sorrow surrounding the pregnancy of her second daughter, when her older daughter and husband were killed by a drunk driver in a car accident.  Paula didn’t try to fix my discomfort and uncertainty, nor talk to me about the sacredness of motherhood or the incomparable joy and meaning of a new baby and how I would love him instantly. She seemed to know that that would only compel me to berate myself for not already knowing or feeling those things.  Instead, she simply and profoundly held out a greater space of love and compassion, encircling me, and told me to stay authentic to whatever I am feeling.  And that that would be enough.

To stay present with my own self and feelings when walking out an especially hard path is enough.  Create a clearing in the dense forest of your own life…

Maternal ambivalence is a forbidden topic, a third rail unless it’s couched within a wry wink and joke about “needing some mommy juice” or the old Calgon line.  If we reference this dark doubt or resistance, then we need to quickly do a kidding/not kidding grapevine-shuffle step with a little Dios Mio! ending, lest the judgment “bad mother” form. And why? Why should they be causally connected? I suspect it’s because we’ve elevated motherhood on a pedestal of sanctity.  And from this tiny, suffocating nose-bleed section of the rafters within our culture, actual 3-dimensional mothers are likely to layer on guilt or loneliness or a sense of inadequacy when trying to square the circle with whatever is calling them: more time and focus, an intellectual life outside the home, the decision to have a child or not have a child.

It would be much more equitable and save a great deal more energy if we could dismantle the pedestal thing entirely and talk frankly and bravely about the ambivalence of motherhood that is both completely unrelated to how fiercely we love our children, as well as just as characteristic of the station as its joys and heart-achingly sweet blessings.  Rather than leading with “mothers” in the subject line, if we could have a conversation about people who wear, among many other garments that make up their identity, the scarf of motherhood — then we might be might be more open to holding out compassion for women’s difficult feelings and choices before, during and after pregnancy.

In my own case at this time, the question wasn’t whether to have the baby, but how to interpret its meaning in my life, how to be “expecting” in the face of such uncertainty, and frankly whether I would be okay in the aftermath of an surprise pregnancy. My heart found comfort in final week of pregnancy when I discovered it was enough to create a clearing for the wonder of it, the total baffled amazement of this baby after so many doctors had said “might as well adopt” — without understanding, without really knowing what the future held.

During the delivery, my OB – who had forgiven me – knew I wanted this birth to be a VBAC, a more positive experience than the surgical delivery of my premature twins 6 years before. I’m not sure if she also knew how much I also needed to feel connected to this baby.  She asked me if, in the final push, I wanted to reach down and pull him out myself, so that my hands would be the first to touch him“I CAN ACTUALLY DO THAT??” I remember serenely screaming.

When I caught August by his little shoulders and pulled up to my chest, he opened his eyes, clear and knowing, and looked at me. He looked directly into me.

Annie Dillard, who wrote as finely as if she were discovering the whole world for the first time, spoke of her visits to an obstetrical ward in For The Time Being, observing the babies who had just been born as they were taken to the examination table.  She talks about witnessing the few moments before the soul fully inhabits the body, and the eyes become shuttered within murky interior life of a newborn. There is a small window when the babies’ eyes are open wide and alert, an untethered soul looking out, frank and intentional, the startling democracy of a one human regarding another.

That was how it felt with August, this little light that wanted to be born, looking directly at me, into me, miraculously despite my fears and doubts, even my dread.  My ambivalence and dark thoughts – which I validate as real and forgivable –  didn’t sink me, and my unknowing didn’t undo me.  August approached anyway, moving closer towards the clearing I had made, growing stronger and more radiant, like an approaching friend on the nighttime road — someone dear, but as yet unrecognized — swinging a strange, but welcome lantern.

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In Ikea, everything is a good idea

There’s a ghost Elizabeth I’m always chasing.  She’s an inch or two taller, always finds time to exercise and read the news, and owns incredibly efficient shelving and modern storage solutions.  She’s close enough to the actual Elizabeth for it to be possible to imagine merging into her – if I could just find the right professional-yet-casual sundress, email platform and/or new front door paint color.  I’m not alone, of course, and it’s why marketing is a field and advertising an even bigger one.

Talking about advertising’s insidious reach into our homes and bedrooms and kitchens and minds is interesting, but not particularly important to me. (I need a colander in my brain that’s constantly filtering interesting from important).  What’s important to me is tracing the path from the place where we each get pinned on the hook-end of longing back to what it means about what we need to listen to – or reconcile – or even forgive — within ourselves.

This map is important.  And within the map, it’s tracing back to the source that’s the juice.  The best therapist I’ve ever worked with (and let me tell you, there have been a few) was masterful at holding me in the “I don’t know” moment by saying, “Try.”  Try to know, she would implore.  And then had no problem allowing silence to take over while I squirmed and then ultimately, finally, practically against my will but worn out from resisting –  tried.  Trying hurts.   There’s enormous resistance. And my therapist was a horrible, wonderful, evil genius fairy godmother for insisting on it.

In Ikea last June, I saw this swing – the Flurge – a cocoon-like swing which could be hung from the ceiling, taking up a relatively small space in a corner to offer a child a little private, swinging hideaway.  I bought it immediately, thinking about Henry, my 8-year-old who has struggled with sensory processing issues.  We’ve had Henry in tons of OT since he was 4 and, at the start of each weekly session, his occupational therapist would put him in a special, enclosed swing to help him “organize his vestibular system”.  He focuses more, knows where his body is in space, and even better performs motor planning (like telling his hand how much pressure to give the pen to effectively write), after certain organizing exercises like swinging.   His OT, a brilliant and compassionate young woman who looked like she was in the 7th grade, would end each session by giving me a list of homework to do with Henry.  Wheelbarrow to build shoulder strength, “cross-crawl” exercises to better connect his right and left brain hemispheres, sand paper letters he could trace with his fingers.   But the pace of work-kids-dinner-laundry usually meant that I’d be shouting something from the kitchen on the night before his OT appointments like, “Henry, get out your sand paper letters!” or “Hey kids, have a wheel barrow race, whydontcha?”  I felt tipped forward under a tremendous yoke of guilt that I was not finding enough time or energy to give him these extra, critical doses at home.

So when I saw the Flurge, it ignited in me so much of how I feel about this constant quest to find new resources for Henry. Under the clean, bright minimalistic lights of Ikea, it fused the tactical with the strategic in a sleek Nordic nonchalance. A tool that would help Henry in a deep and powerful way, and propel him to full mind-body integration as well as redeem me as a mother.  Much in the same way as Athleta makes me feel that a biking skort would engender amazing core strength AND a sense of meaningful intellectual contribution in the world AS WELL AS flirty athletic day-dates with my husband. We all get that.  That’s the hook-end of longing.  But it’s not the source.  It’s not why I bought the Flurge.

Try.  Try to know.

If I had spent half a minute with a reality check, I’d have seen what Steven saw and said immediately when I brought it home:  “How am I going to hang that? I don’t think we have studs in the playroom ceiling and it’ll pull the dry wall down.”  In the heat of the moment (read: 6-8 months) I obviously interpreted this as a personal failing on Steven’s part.  Where was his can-do spirit?  His resourcefulness? His basic carpentry skills?

I bought the Flurge because I am afraid that I can’t give Henry enough on my own.  That if I can find a smart, energetic OT and the perfectly Swedish-engineered umlaut of a device, I can crack the code to help him thrive in the amazing, quirky, brilliant way his soul is arcing towards.

But if I am trying, really trying, there’s more. If I stay in this feeling and try to get to know it, then in that difficult meetup, I recognize the less-than-flattering reality that the Flurge was always more about me than Henry. I’m wanting a hyper-designed balsam-wooded device to prove I am an amazing mother.  That I am doing it Right. That I am getting an A.  That Henry’s sensory and motor challenges are something I own, and can control, and can thereby treat as a task to tackle, conquer and cross off the list.  Rather than the reality —  that it’s an integral part of him and his own journey, wholly separate from me and not without its own gifts, which I can attend and aide, but never fundamentally own.  As hard as the realization can be, I also find it an enormous relief to know we only walk next to each other, touching shoulders, but never really carrying the other – even our own children.

All this was a slow dawning. For nearly a year, the Flurge sat in its package on top of the dryer, an emblem of failure, wrapped in cellophane resentfulness.  I would bang shut the dryer door, wondering how Steven could live with himself.

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The Flurge that almost destroyed my marriage

I recently read a so-so article with the amazing title, “America’s Obsession with Adult Coloring Books is a Cry for Help.” Remembering that title when I saw the Mother’s Day display at World Market – two dozen different adult coloring books from mandalas to botanicals, Asian-motifed bathrobes, and winewinewine – made me want to both laugh and cry in a wild, hysterical bark.  A national cry for help, in sandalwood and lavender and pino grigio! Do you love your mother? Then facilitate that grown-ass woman the ability day drink in a bathrobe and color hummingbirds with children’s craft supplies in a quiet, and likely angry, desperation.

The article talked about coloring books being just on the whispered cusp of productive mindfulness, without quite being self help, therapy or exercise for burned out, overworked, overstressed people looking, frantically, for something a little healthy to take the edge off.  But what the article didn’t touch at all was a cry for help for WHAT?  The article did not try to know.

We don’t need a protective psychological barrier to advertising and marketing so much as we just need to be willing to Try.  We don’t necessarily need more boundaries, we need more awareness, and a strength that doubles as self-forgiveness.

Try to be willing to make a map that starts on page 47 of Athleta (or your own magazine of choice) and run your fingers along it until you come to the source, and then pause there, gently, tenderly, they way you might when you discover a hidden nest, or a note a child has written, or maybe even your younger self.

Stay there until you know its bulk and heft, its shape and its texture — stay there until it becomes familiar and you become kind. Acceptance is trying too.