Some Thoughts After Weaning My Toddler

Yesterday morning, for the first time, my daughter didn’t ask for milk. It was a relief. It was a tiny heartache. An hour later, she handed me her half-eaten apple, complaining of a sore throat, and said, “Maybe milk can help me.” She poked my breast, checking for contents. I offered a hug and some vitamin C spray. (I still can’t say whether it’s really over, whether she is “officially” weaned.)

Thirty-three months is a long time to breastfeed. I would’ve nursed even longer if I hadn’t felt so physically drained. It took me a while to make the connection and to begin the weaning process. There seems to be very little in the way of literature or discussion around breastfeeding and its impact on energy levels and stamina.

Promoting breast-is-best requires a positive spin that doesn’t always include the complexities and demands of breastfeeding, truths that are more often revealed in conversations among nursing mothers. Still, no one out there said to me, you’ll feel so much better once she’s weaned, except for a best friend who nursed her child into toddlerhood. I witnessed her energy spike after her son weaned; she was more animated and even spoke more quickly. I realized we’d been occupying a sort of cocoon, a space where everything slows, and she’d broken out of it.

Breastfeeding necessitates a slow pace; it casts a biological spell allowing the mother to connect with her infant. For me, breastfeeding was at odds with returning to a “normal” pace. In the beginning, it was almost immobilizing. There were also other factors slowing me down, like recovering from a long and traumatically painful birth. (An essay I want to write: the postpartum mental health gap in our system.)

While I admire women like the artist Hein Koh, seen here nursing her newborn twins while working on her laptop, I have mixed feelings about these kinds of photos because they are misleading. They perpetuate the notion that women can and should do it all, that professional ambitions can never be temporarily tabled and that taking time off means sacrificing a career, that the postpartum period of recovery and mother-infant bonding only lasts a short time and is the same for every woman, and that breastfeeding and caring for children is not valid (and exhausting) work in itself.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to double high-five Koh, a mama who is breastfeeding twins and multi-tasking, a woman who is brave enough to show the world what is possible. But let’s not confuse what is possible with what is typical. I consider Koh exceptional; she inspires the same awe I feel watching an Olympic gymnast catapult her body into the air. It’s spectacular, but it’s the furthest thing from average.

At five-weeks postpartum, I was breastfeeding my infant as naturally as Koh appears to be in her photo. I, too, gave the appearance of physical ease with this task. Less visible was the mental drain and exhaustion. All of my energy was spent on the daunting work of caring for my infant daughter; I was hardly capable of composing a coherent email, let alone returning to work. For so many other women I know, breastfeeding wasn’t easy at all; it was challenging, difficult work. Every feed required singular focus and tremendous perseverance.

Singular focus is dismissed by our culture and multi-tasking is glorified. We must always be doing at least three things simultaneously. And we wonder why we’re perpetually overcome by anxiety. What happened to doing one thing very well and moving on to the next thing? (Says the woman currently negotiating a toddler tantrum while typing these words.)

This piece on ScaryMommy addresses the disservice of perpetuating these myths around “having it all” and calls for reform of U.S. Family Medical Leave Act. I couldn’t agree more.

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A Summer Afternoon

On the heels of a 3-day migraine, toddler finally over the cranky rash-virus, no plans with friends, no additional children to care for, no essay due, no freelance project, just emails to answer. A blank white calendar square. The to-do list, half on paper, half in my head, is forgotten. Struggling to wean, big fat milk ducts bulging and achey. She naps briefly, then we head to the playground, where she races to the swings, cherub-cheeked smile under the brim of her hat, whooshing through the air. I capture the swing and say “1-2-3 blast off!” before releasing it. She laughs and laughs. Running, sliding, exploring. Her legs, longer now, climb with greater ease. My wobbly baby is suddenly surefooted. Suddenly, suddenly, that’s how they evolve. She scrambles up some steps and has her face in what appears to be poison ivy or sumac before I can reach her, so that decides it. We head home where I sit her on the counter and rub the last of the Tecnu soap all over her cheeks and arms while she says, “It’s okay, mommy, don’t worry, I’ll protect you.” And then for good measure, I put her in the bath. And after the bath I squirt breastmilk, cure-all, on her face and she laughs, “milk sprinkler!” We take a long walk in the hot sun with her new trike and she practices pedaling. Eventually, eventually, we arrive at the ice cream shop. I get chocolate and she gets vanilla and we share. The day’s delicious sweet spot. Both of us covered in sticky ice cream drips. When it’s time to go, she’d like to stay. Coaxing doesn’t work. I carry her a bit as she wails, then set her back down on the trike, where she continues to wail under the bright sun for the entire 30 or 40 minutes it takes to slowly walk home. And then it’s okay. We drink water. Her big brown eyes, they kill me. Her wispy hair. I kiss her cheeks and her neck, smell of baby and sweet sweat and ice cream. So in love, so in love with my girl.

That was the afternoon, lovely and exhausting. I wonder, does it sound like nothing? And then I think, who cares? I know if I read this three years from now, I’ll be grateful to my younger self for trying to the find the words, for taking the time to describe it, for capturing a slice of day in all its tiny glory.

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Milk and Cake

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Detail of Camila’s Ceremony by the artist Alonso Guevara.

It occurred to me just last week, I’ve stopped counting my daughter’s age in months. It wasn’t a conscious decision; it just tapered off, which I suppose is typical after age two. This morning I measured her height on the pantry doorframe. She’s grown an entire inch since we last measured her on her birthday in January. Then I started counting days on the calendar and discovered her half-birthday, June 11, is exactly halfway between her dad’s birthday and mine. I told her we’ll bake a half-birthday cake.

Her legs suddenly look so long. “She’s stretching out,” my mom says. That’s what it feels like too, stretching, both of us. Drifting from our perfect dyad, stretching toward autonomy. The evolution of nursing newborn to nursing toddler–the dramatic growth and change, the intimacy and beauty–is almost impossible to capture. From balled fists to dexterous hands. From curled toes to toddler feet flung in my face. It feels like only months ago I sat glassy-eyed and thirsty, nursing my newborn, so voracious, it felt like she was sucking milk from the bones of my back.

There is the magic of that transition from cut umbilical cord to latched breast; nine months of nourishment invisible, now suddenly right before your eyes. And you see, how perfect the design. For us, breastfeeding was that easy. Instant and harmonious. Nursing my baby evolved almost as unconsciously as my heart pumping blood. From singular being to synchronistic dyad, nourishing and nurturing on the primal plane.

When my daughter was six or seven months old, a sort of hyper clarity bloomed. I would listen to conversations, observe the behavior of others, and have sudden insights, new depths of understanding. I remember saying to Chris, it’s the strangest thing, I feel like I can almost see right through people. I called them popcorn epiphanies, these realizations that came in quick succession like kernels popping in the pot. I tried to write a few down, but they felt indescribable and came too quickly. How Breastfeeding Changes Your Brain speaks to the plasticity and creativity of the lactating brain. I felt the changes in myself as surely as I saw the changes in my daughter, both of us growing together.

I more often use the term nursing, which feels all-encompassing and true. Because breastfeeding is about so much more than nourishment. It is medicine, comfort, bonding, security. You have only to nurse a toddler who has just finished a breakfast of banana pancakes to understand that nursing is pure contentment. Pure peace.

And sometimes pure hilarity. When she’s in her father’s arms calling out, “Goodnight, Mommy! Goodnight, milks!” When she charms and cajoles, “How about milks on the couch? Sound like a plan?” Or when I step out of the shower, and she’s there handing me a towel, her face so full of glee, calling out, “My milks! My milks!” Such celebration of my body. Such love.

I’ve been reflecting so much as it begins to taper. I’d never set any specific goals around nursing, no timelines or numbers. I have followed my baby’s cues and my body’s cues. And I will follow that wisdom into the next phase, as we grow together, celebrating the glittering increments, marking the doorframe, baking half-birthday cakes.

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Not-So-Young Mom

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This post has been in the works for over two weeks, eked out in bits of stolen time, back-burnered by the bigger priorities of mothering, essay writing, and paid freelance projects. This morning I set up my toddler with Cheerios and Daniel Tiger, but she was back in thirty seconds talking to me about her toothbrush and the cats and the zipper on her shirt, asking for milkies, please. There I sat for a few stolen minutes–why do I always feel like a thief?–trying to shape my thoughts around  A Portrait of the Artist As a Young MomKim Brooks’ article in New York Magazine.

When it was first published, the subtitle read: “Is Parenthood the Enemy of Creative Work?” Interestingly, it now reads: “Is Domestic Life the Enemy of Creative Work?” I suppose “domestic life” is more all-encompassing? Either way, I was eager to read this piece as the writer-mom juggle is my current life story and the reason I began this blog. I expected to be shouting an internal hell, yes as I read Brooks’ essay, so I was surprised when I found myself countering her.

First, I think “enemy” is a little harsh. When I’m searching for time, undistracted moments to get the words down while simultaneously juggling the demands of caring for a young child, I see domestic life not as the enemy but as a competing priority. It’s the entire reason I began this blog: to find time each day, to stay tethered to myself, to recover my writing voice, to connect with other writers, to see if I can hack this thing amidst the endless demands of motherhood and life.

Here Brooks encapsulates the recurring thought in my head before I became a mother, the reason for so many stops and starts with writing and art throughout my 20s and 30s:

“…a lot of people glamorize the idea of being an artist. But of course then they find that actually it sucks and that no one gives a fuck and that they can’t succeed and they can’t monetize it and they can’t even get their work out into the world and it’s really hard and thankless and they’re spending untold hours at it and their friends are becoming successful in their chosen, normative fields and they’re like the weird loser who’s going to be a writer…”

Guess what’s also thankless, involves untold hours, can’t be monetized, and is largely undervalued by our culture? Motherhood. And perhaps it’s this kinship between art and motherhood that makes them feel so incompatible. Doing both doubles the frustration of working long, unpaid hours that are also invisible to the outside world. Brooks turns to other writer-moms for answers, asking, “Why is it that writing (or really any creative pursuit) seems to be in such conflict with parenting?”

“Because the point of art is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe. And that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.”

“Art, itself is inherently subversive. It’s destabilizing. It undermines, rather than reinforces, what you already know and what you already think.”

Again, I see kinship. Art is all of those things, subversive, destabilizing, undermining, and so too is motherhood. What else subverts your entire existence the way motherhood does? Becoming a mother destabilized my life. It undermined what I thought I knew. Nothing else has taught/teaches me so well how to make meaningful art like the journey through motherhood. It’s the making of art while mothering and managing domestic life, the limited time, the depleted energy, the distraction, that presents challenge. There is also the rarely-mentioned matter of economic resources. It reminds me of some of my favorite advice on writing from the author Joy Castro:

Be happy with small. Some days you can only write a little. Some days you can’t write at all. Leisure, class, and the absence of family responsibilities have a great deal to do with who manages to find time to write every day. I was a no-book writer for several years, and then a one-book writer for several more. Don’t flagellate yourself if you’re not one of the lucky ones. Do what you can, and persist.”

Don’t flagellate yourself if you’re not one of the lucky ones. I spend more time in this state of self-blame than I care to admit, perpetually trying to carve out writing time while also feeling like I’m failing at every turn. Then the brilliance of Aya de Leon sliced through my failure rumination with Portrait of the #WriterMom as a Member of the Working Class. This is the essay that made me shout hell, yes.

“Because domestic labor (raising children, keeping house, doing the emotional work of relationships) isn’t seen as labor, women are robbed of the ability to see ourselves clearly for the labor we do in families: most mothers are part of the working class. Although there is great variety in the conditions of our lives, we spend most of our time engaged in arduous, entry level labor. Yes, we love our families, and it has its rewards. But it’s work. We do the work of raising people for the society. Our labor is consistently exploited. No pay. No labor unions. No national policies to support us.

Contrary to popular myth, artists are also part of the working class. Not the artist identity, but those of us who are actually busy steadily making things. This is another delusion of our society. Artists are associated with privilege and elitism. To be sure, in our society it is a privilege to be able to work with one’s mind and to be able to put one’s visions out in the world. But the actual doing of the art is work. For most artists, this work is either unpaid, or very poorly paid. Few of us can make a living. We often work in terrible isolation. We have few unions and guilds to protect us except at the highest levels. Our labor is also consistently exploited.

Although the labor conditions of motherhood and artists are both bad, the system maintains its power by teaching us to blame ourselves. Mothers spend a great deal of time feeling anxious and guilty that we’re not doing it right. Artists spend a great deal of time feeling insecure, discouraged, or fraudulent. Both groups would be served by understanding that these labor conditions are so terribly under-resourced that they set us up to fail or to always feel like we’re failing. If our lives as moms or artists aren’t going well, we are taught to believe it’s our personal deficiency, when it’s actually a function of the society’s structure.”

While I was the person making starts and stops with writing and art during my 20s and 30s, settling for office jobs that felt much safer, de Leon was “the type of artist who hustled.”

“In my life, I’d already had to learn to make a living from my creativity, because, prior to having kids, no one was going to underwrite my creative career. Not my parents, not my partner. Not any wealthy patron or institution. I have certainly learned to hustle even harder as a mom…”

The learning curve has been steeper for me. I’m learning the hustle now, and motherhood is my teacher. Mothering steals almost every hour, and yet nothing else has taught me so well about the art of time management, about fine-tuning my own habits in order to find every spare pocket of time. I had no idea how much free time I had, nor such an acute awareness of time escaping, until my beautiful baby subverted my life. As much as caring for my child seems to drain every resource, as inefficient as it feels to edit while breastfeeding and rolling balls of play dough, motherhood also serves as catalyst and companion. Not since my 20s have I been so eager to describe, to capture, to explain, to story-tell. I would argue that, for everything motherhood steals from us, it gives back twofold. Eventually Brooks arrives at this place.

“Despite everything, I have to say that having the kids grew me up in a way nothing else could have. And basically, I needed ten years of mothering before I was like, Whoa, hey, this is what I’m meant to write. And now I’m working on a novel that I love and it feels like the kids gave me that by remaking me.”

Motherhood literally reshapes our brains, our bodies, and our emotional lives. The new me, the writer-mom me, is the writer who wakes at 4:30am and spends nights at the library, the writer who finishes, the writer who submits her work, the writer who bears rejection, the writer who finds her courage again and again.

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The Joy of Age 2: 59/365

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I love age 2. Exactly where we are right now at 26 months old.

I love my daughter’s laugh, when her heart-shaped mouth blooms into a smile and her head tilts back and she laughs so hard I can see every bright white tooth, rosy apple cheeks pushing her eyes into happy crescents.

I love that she’s able to repeat any word I say: triceratops, guacamole, spectacular. I am in awe of the way she strings words into sentences. I love our conversations.

I love watching her deftly manage a spoon. The way she requests cinnamon for her yogurt. The way she calls it yogurk.

I love watching her climb and navigate obstacles. I love watching her play. Scooping up dirt with her shovel and dumping it into the bucket, and then dumping the bucket out and beginning again. Discovering an old board in the yard that bounces, and balancing her way across.

I love the way she cajoles and charms, especially for breastmilk. She knows that things are changing and I’m not always up for nursing, so she smiles irresistibly and makes an “L” shape with her finger and thumb and says, “Lil bit more milka.”

I love to listen to her count and recite the alphabet.

I love the way she will sometimes call to us the way she hears us call to each other, “Sarah! Chris!” and “hey, babe!”

I love the way she cares for her cats and notices the birds, squirrels, deer, and turkeys. The way she says, “shhh” when we walk by the spot in the woods where the owl lives. The way she shouts, “bald eagle!” The way she collects stones and puts them in her pockets.

I love the way she pretends her doll is crying, and then holds the doll to her chest and sways back and forth humming, hmmm hmmm hmmm. I love the way she makes up stories with her dollhouse people just like I did.

I love that she loves dinosaurs and knows nothing of princesses.

I love watching her delight in a St. Patrick’s Day parade. Waving, clapping, running across the green, making friends, holding hands, dancing.

I love the process of learning to sing. The way she asks me to pick her up, hold her hand like a dance partner and twirl around. Then commands, “Sing Down by the Bay, mama!” The way she sometimes repeats the lines and other times sings along with me. The way she tests her voice as it moves from speech to song. It’s one of those unanticipated miracles you stumble upon during parenthood.

There are so many of these little miracles unfolding every instant. I wish I could cast a net big enough to catch them all. I’m sure I will wake up tomorrow with a fresh list.

 

 

 

Well Visit: 51/365

Today Isabella had her two year well visit. She has never had a sick visit. I realized today in the waiting room, I wasn’t nervous. And why should I be? I don’t know. Doctor appointments make me anxious – or they had, until today.

While we waited for the doctor, my mind drifted back to our first visit, just three days after her birth, when we had to pack our amazingly tiny creature into an impossibly heavy car seat and take her out into the world. I felt so fragile, like I might shatter. I was puffy and make-up-less and shaky as I breastfed my jaundiced newborn. It didn’t occur to us we’d be undressing her; we hadn’t even packed a blanket. What was in that diaper bag, a single diaper? My brain was processing minute-to-minute, unable to leap ahead and anticipate what might be needed at the pediatrician’s. It seemed outrageous that we were being forced to leave the safety our home.

Today I felt myself sitting there in my boots and my jeans, make-up on my face, hair recently dyed, breastfeeding my two-year old, a single diaper and two children’s books in my purse, completely self-possessed and confident in my mothering, knowing exactly what to expect. The well visits measure and weigh and assess all the growth and radical changes that happen to the child, the astonishing transformations. It’s easy to forget how radically we grow and change with them, the myriad ways we too transform.

The Truth: 27/365

Coffee. Below zero February morning. The truth.

The truth is my last few posts have been a struggle. You can hear it, right? No wind in my sails. The truth is we were sick and sleepless for two weeks with racking coughs. I don’t go to the doctor unless it’s dire, like broken bones or stitches. It’s all lemon water homeopathic cough syrup tumeric cinnamon bone broth humidifier wet sock treatment herbal tea around here. Between the sick and the snow, I’m feeling housebound and a little stir-crazy. We make our little outings… Yale Peabody Museum to see the dinos on Thursday afternoons when admission is free. The library. The grocery store, always multiple trips as I can only ever seem to buy two days worth of food. We made it to the playground those few warm days before the temperature plunged to subzero. But Lordy, being home in the winter with a little one requires creativity and imagination. Play dough and books and dress-up and hide-and-seek and dining room table forts. Little 25 month old nursling commands, “Sit on the couch, mama. I need milky!” I give in, and while she nurses, she flings her toddler feet into my face and says, “My socks are orange!” and I say, “Yes, your socks are orange.” And she says, “My socks are orange. It’s like red. But it’s not yellow.” And I think, she’s a color genius! I go on a brief hunt for my watercolor paper, which has to be somewhere in this house, because if I can’t get my writing done, then I ought to add some painting to the heap of unfinished projects. My sneakers look like a dog chewed the heels out. (We don’t have a dog.) I don’t buy anything for myself. Minimalism is good for you. Deciphering between necessity and luxury is good for you. Not buying into our culture’s compulsive over-consumption is good for you. Last week I binge-read The Chronology of Water and had a reading hangover. The writing entrances while the content guts you. And how did she write a book of short stories and a novel during her child’s first year of life? C’mon Lidia, please tell me you had a nanny. Things like that make me feel hopelessly inadequate. Like how am I not getting more done? (If you’ve read that book, you’re thinking, seriously, that’s your takeaway?) But even this paragraph, I’ve been writing it in five minute spurts for four hours, and I ask myself, is it even worth it? That’s how things happen with a toddler, in five minute spurts. Nine minutes if you’re lucky. Sometimes I think I would like another baby. I wonder if my sweet girl is missing a companion. And then I think everything is perfect just as it is. I think about my body going through pregnancy and postpartum again and my brain shouts, NO WAY! And then I remember it’s not up to me anyway. The universe waves its magic wand. Or it doesn’t. I want to write a novel. I want to write and illustrate a children’s book. I want to finish one damn essay. I think about homeschooling and veer off into Waldorf curriculums. I want to raise backyard chickens. What else having I been meaning to say? That Anne Lamott talk from a few posts back. She quantifies writing time and it makes perfect sense. She says if you’ve got three hours, that’s two hours and ten minutes of writing time. Ah, so true! Little light bulb moment. I would like to quantify writing time + toddler. After I painted that Phoebe Wahl valentine I listened to an interview with her on the podcast While She Naps, and while the conversation is mostly around running a small creative business, it drifts into feminism and motherhood and miscarriage and homemaking. It struck a chord deep in my heart, the love of homemaking and childrearing and creative project making and being there for ordinary moments. And I was surprised to hear Phoebe, this young RISD grad, declare, “To say that domesticity is synonymous with submission is to dishonor the thousands of years worth of strong and independent women who have acted as homemaker, and the men and women who continue to passionately fill this role of their own volition.”

Now, instead of getting self-conscious and editing the heck out of this post, I’m going to hit publish and go look for that watercolor paper again.