Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Five Things Year One of Motherhood Taught Me

1. The Term Sleep Deprivation Has Developed All New Meaning
My whole life, I have been a lover of sleep. I'm, admittedly, a night owl but I've always required a minimum of six hours. Ten keeps me honed to exist in the world with gusto. I can go without a lot of things for long periods of time: food, water, creature comforts like showers and toilets, but sleep has always been my deal-breaker. When I was in college pulling all-nighters during exam week or binge-reading books for writing projects, I only thought I understood sleep deprivation. Motherhood has taught me that real sleep deprivation starts with a thirty-six hour labor and delivery and is then followed by five days of being awake with a newborn (seriously, five whole days virtually winkless) before taking your first three-hour nap. I spent the first two months of my daughter's life periodically sobbing because all I wanted to do was sleep. That first four-hour stretch at the start of month three... Good Gods! It was like the world came into sharp focus and things started to make sense again. I didn't even know people could live on so little sleep. I don't think I dreamed for the first six months of my daughter's life. Now, if I get four consecutive hours of sleep I feel amazing. Experiencing real sleep deprivation due to the introduction of an infant really informs ones understanding of sleeplessness.
Photo by Meghan Murphy

2. There's No Anxiety Like That Of A Mom Trying To Feed Her Child
Breastfeeding is hard. It may be natural, but it isn't a skill that comes to all mothers naturally. So many things can start wrong and go wrong, especially without the right support. Breast may be best but bottle keeps a Mom from going insane. I struggled for my milk to come in after I was handed a lip and tongue-tied baby who lost over a pound the first week and didn't gain weight for nearly two more. My girl and I overcame the odds and we actually maintain a breastfeeding relationship at almost one year. It's a small miracle and a testament to my bullheadedness and, quite possibly, my lack of good sense. As a breastfeeding advocate I also understand why bottle feeding is important and necessary for mothers. Watching food move into your child keeps you from losing your mind when you have no idea if they are eating enough or at all. Breastfeeding didn't come easy or fast for us, I pumped and bottle-fed, and I very nearly gave up trying to breastfeed. I was a wreck every day for six weeks before we hurdled the major obstacles in our way and baby and I both finally learned how to breastfeed. That said, there is no anxiety like that of a mother trying to feed her child. It is an all-consuming, guilt-ridden vortex of self-doubt and self-deprecation. No one can prepare you for it and, whether true or not, it feels like everyone from your doctor to your mother-in-law to your Great Aunt Ethel is judging you for any choices you make with their well-meaning advice. The pressure of that kind of anxiety (life or death of your little one) could shake a normal person apart. It's a wonder mothers survive.

3. You Can Not Shower For Three Days And Still Go Out For Tacos
Seriously. Hygiene standards shift drastically when you have a child. I remember a time when I wouldn't go to the mailbox without having showered and brushed my teeth. Now? Sniff test. Swish some day-old coffee. Good to go. Because if a new mom wants tacos bad enough a new mom throws a sweater on over her pjs, packs up the baby, and goes to get tacos--shower be damned. It's amazing the things a new mom can get away with when they have a baby under age one in tow. Like poop-splattered jeans in a bookstore. (But that's another story for another day.) Society seems to give new moms a year long pass on the whole hygiene thing, and even if it doesn't, as a new mom you don't really give a flying fart what any one thinks... because tacos.

4. Motherhood Makes You Want To Be A Better Human
Self-reflection takes on new meaning when you have a baby mirror sitting in front of you. Looking into my daughter's eyes makes me want to be the kind of person she can be proud to call Mom. Right now she thinks I'm the most amazing thing in the world. Food comes out of my breasts at her beck and call and that is fairly amazing. But at some point she's going to learn the truth about me. That's a reality I have to embrace. Part of that embrace is realizing I need to be a better human if I'm going to close the gap that is her inevitable future disappointment. The things I've neglected to do for the betterment of myself become a priority for the betterment of my child. She will watch me, how I treat others, how I treat myself, my planet and my passions, and scrutinize how I attend my challenges and defeats. This will be the first bar by which she measures her world and her experiences. A new mom sees all her flaws, failures, and shortcomings with startling clarity when the birth of a child places her at the apex of that child's world. That encourages me to want to become more.

5. Having A Child Can Stitch Together A Broken Heart
My mother died suddenly and I fell to pieces. Only a few people truly know how terribly my grief consumed me. I lost my way. I felt I would not recover. I felt nothing could mend the gaping hole that opened up inside me. My mother was what I used to define me. I was lost without her physical presence as a touchstone in my daily life. Despite my remaining family and loving husband, I felt my existence was without purpose. In my grief, I planned two funerals for my mother. I spent four months putting my hands on everything in her house that she ever touched trying to give something meaning. I traveled over 10,000 miles to her homeland and spent a month trying to heal whatever broke apart inside me by seeking her footprints in long ago eroded soils. I couldn't shake the image of me and Mom holding hands in front of that damned window after my miscarriage crying together. My husband indulged me and we bought a whole new house because of my need to open a new chapter, erase those memories, and try to step forward without her. It wasn't until I learned I was pregnant, one year and twelve days after her death, that I felt anything outside the purview of my grief. First, I felt fear. How could someone this broken become a mom? Then I felt a different kind of sadness. How could I enter motherhood without my own mother here to guide me? And then, one day, I felt hope. A baby was coming. Day by day, piece by piece, my daughter's existence knit together the severed shards of my heart and it began to beat once more with purpose. After a year of heartbreak, I had been gifted nine months of hope and now nearly a full year of pure joy. My child came to me when she was needed most. I'm not one who easily believes in divine interventions, but there is a part of me that often wonders if my mother sent me a daughter to dry my tears. At the very least the universe seemed to know that I'm made for a mother-daughter pairing. With my daughter by my side my heart, though still aching, feels suspiciously whole once more.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

I Can't Write About Dragons Right Now

I want to write, but I can't write about dragons right now. Or amateur sleuths. Or ghosts. Or star-crossed lovers. Or any of the open fiction projects I have a file for on my desktop. Why? Because less than four months ago I became a first time mom. I'm in charge of an entire tiny human. And that shit is scary. At nearly forty years of age, unsure I even wanted to enter into motherhood, the head trip of becoming a mom has been pretty all-consuming. Some days I can barely remember to put on pants.

Prior to Baby P's arrival, I'd sketched out a schedule for my writing projects and set what I thought was a reasonable calendar of deadlines for these projects. That plan is out the window, along with everything I didn't know I thought about being a mom. My head is so not in the novel-writing game because I'm traumatized by my graceless entrance into parenthood. How do I know I'm traumatized? My first lunch meeting out with my writing partner had me feeling like I had PTSD. That's not what it was, I was actually suffering from FTMS--First Time Mom Syndrome. I experienced anxiety and paranoia. Sounds were too loud and lights were too bright. Everyone was moving too fast as I hovered over the baby in my lap awkwardly breastfeeding as the waitress set down a small plate of sushi that would take me three hours to eat. My eyes darted from side to side like a crazy person. I was out with a baby and in over my head. Never mind the sleep deprivation, which incidentally creates a situation where words like fork and soup completely leave your vocabulary. There's just not a lot of room for fictional characters in my noggin right now because I have all this new mom baggage.

No one warns you about the sheer immensity of the new mom baggage.
They mention it. But never tell you how big it is.
It's because they don't want to terrify you.

This realization that parenthood is hard isn't a surprise. Ninety-five percent of the people I know are parents. I'm late to the game so everyone I know has said, "parenthood is hard" while their ankle-biters throw open ketchup packets in their hair. I thought I had a clue, after all, I've seen a lot of other peoples' kids, but as I look back through the fog that has been my three month introduction to parenthood, I have to say, "Holy Diaper Pails, Batman! What the fuck have I done?"
This shit is madness.
Will I ever drink a hot cup of coffee again?

Parents often tell non-parents that one can't prepare themselves for what parenthood means. I never discounted those warnings, but boy was I still blindsided by some things.

Every expectation I formed as I anticipated the arrival of my child, whether reasonable or not, was altered, dismantled, or destroyed.

For example:
I never expected to be labor for over thirty hours.
I never expected as a natural childbirth supporter I'd choose to have a c-section.
I never expected to be bed-and-sofa-bound for twelve days postpartum.
I never expected my child would have trouble nursing, because breastfeeding is natural.
I never expected my I-don't-hold-babies-husband to be better equipped for parenthood than me. Therefore, I never expected antidepressants.
I never expected to have days that I hate my cherished pets and wished they didn't exist.
I never expected to look at my child and ask myself over and over, why don't I love her?

It's not that I went in with a list of expectations and I was disappointed. Most of these were expectations about how things would go that I didn't know I had. How weird is that? Apparently, I was pre-programmed for motherhood to disappoint me, and I've been grappling with it ever since.

I clearly don't know much about parenthood. I'm trying to get better at it. What I do know is, I have a lot of shit to work out and get off my chest before I can write dragons. There's just no space next to the pile of dirty diapers and milk-coated bottles. It's time to clean house.  

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

How I Miss the Writing

How I miss the writing. It's been over two years since I've written here. Nearly a year since I've written anything. How strange. I had every intention of reinventing this space (once again) into something meaningful, if only to me. My mother's death and my tribute to her marked, in a way, the beginning of an end. Reinvention silenced this space while I wandered away from writing altogether.

I sought out a writing life in 2005 because I had a story to tell. I went back to college with the intention of writing a book. A book of our life, my mother's and mine. Over time, during my writing classes, my truth evolved into a larger truth, and evolved, yet again, into fiction. Into other stories. Even though Mom's story has always been there I've never quite been able to write it. Words lie in wait, but I'm never able to string them together into anything more than sentimentality and passages with little stamina beyond a graceful, articulate moment. Mother's story has defined me as a person and as a writer. It has also stalled me and allowed me to doubt myself time and time again.

Now I've lost my mother, I've traveled to her homeland in Thailand, and I've birthed a daughter. I'm irrevocably altered. How crazy is the universe that I now find myself in life on the other end of what I thought defined me as a writer, being the daughter of my mother. I'm now the mother of a daughter and nothing quite looks the same. 

Words to the page is how I processed things until Mom's death. I tried to use writing in grief, but somehow, for some reason, the words ran out. So, I stepped away. Grieved outside the words. I think I grew. I hope I did. I needed something to happen to me. I think it has.

I'm feeling out the words now. Experience has changed me. I'm not even remotely the same writer I was before. The many stories I began before death and birth touched my life are stalled out because I have yet to find my way back to them. I'm redefining what Mom's story means to me--what my mother, my travels, motherhood, my daughter, and my writing mean to me. I hope exploring words reconnects me back with this act I love and realize I lost. How I miss the writing.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Something True

I have reinvented my blog space more times than Madonna has colored her hair. By now anyone who has read the plethora of online journal incarnations I have attempted are rolling their eyes, breathing with a heavy sigh, and thinking, Is she really gonna to do this again?
Haven't we been down this road?
Photo taken by M. Ladner 2012 Delaware

Yes. Yes, we have.

But in the spirit of blind support and mindless positivity let's hope for the best. I'll at least endeavor to not delete content this time. That's a pretty big hurdle in of itself.

I've been asking myself a lot of questions in the last several months. Big questions, little questions. I have a need and desire to explore these questions. Something about losing someone does that. Especially someone anchoring to your life and your identity. Someone like a mom. Because I write, writing through these questions can sometimes be helpful. It's just where I'm at right now.

One of the little questions I've asked myself is, why can't I seem to stick with a blog concept? I seem to like to blog, yet it's clearly an incredible struggle.

I really thought about this.
Two things happened.
#1 I experienced a rise in heartburn inducing anxiety.
#2 The word concept kept popping into my head like a neon strobe.

Odd, one might think. Why be anxious? Why is having a clear concept creating this level of anxiety?

The easy answer is neurosis. But I think it is a complication to do with a fear of the word concept flashing repeatedly in my head.

I'm not a one concept girl. So in the sphere of blogging, writing, finding an expanding audience, and connecting with a population of people--the end goal for most who write publicly--without concept I'm ineffectual and terminal in relevance. That is something that is true. Something I know. Knowing that truth makes it hard to stick to my guns and write about me. Because me is so many rarely connecting and chaotic pieces--pieces only connected because it's me. Also, I don't think me matters much to anyone but...well... me. It feels selfish and pointless. 

Futhermore, I've sat in a lot of rooms with bloggers and writers that talk about the importance of clear concepts when developing audiences and platforms for books and blogs. The importance of direction in any writing project is, well, important. So, I'll say with a continued lack of profundity, not being sure of oneself and what one sets out to accomplish can create problems. Problems of finding readers. Problems of effectively communicating. Problems of the project becoming merely a form of intellectual and emotional masturbation. Yet, not being sure of myself is the only thing I'm sure of and ultimately something I would love to write through in a public forum (for a few reasons I'll touch on in a later post). And though ME!ME!ME! and WTF? are useful and amusing hash-tags, I'm skeptical of how awesome a writing concept it may prove to be.

Nonetheless that is exactly what I wish to write about. What I propose. A listless, chaotic, self-absorbed space in which to talk about me, my writing and life insights, my experiences, and the thoughts in my head. That is also something true.

Monday, July 14, 2014

41 Days

I'd always intended to write about my mother.

The idea of a mom-inspired story is something I considered as early as elementary school and the notion clung to me, sticking like chewing gum to my hair. I imagined it as a thing in my brain that wouldn't wear away, something I'd have to strip out or cut myself from completely. It's the reason I applied to college in 2005 at the age of twenty-eight when my retail management career took a turn. I thought if I went to school, worked toward an English degree, followed a program with a creative writing emphasis, well, I thought all of that would give me a place to start. I really had no other goal in sight. I never thought I could become a proper writer. I dreamed about it, sure. I told everyone I knew that my academic and professional intents were grander. I even hoped my degree would lead to greener pastures. However, I never actually believed I possessed the talent or skill. I only ever hoped to learn enough to write a story about my mom and, maybe some day, share it.

Nujorn Downs May 10, 1948- June 3, 2014

In those years it took to finish my degree I toyed with a lot of other story ideas and grew slightly more confident in my ability. I also began a memoir, drafted the start of several fictionalized true-to-life mother-daughter stories, and wrote a couple of personal essays--my mother the bones of all of them.  It wasn't until I graduated in 2009 and spent a year finding myself that I realized I wasn't getting anywhere with the mom story. I tucked it away. Wrote other things. Played at being a fiction writer. Waited for something to happen. Still, five years later, the only publication under my belt is an essay about her that was published in the university's journal.

My mother passed away on June 3, 2014. Forty-one days ago. I didn't imagine I'd write about her post-mortum. At thirty-seven years old that thought never occurred to me. Not once.

I had thought about the many trials and struggles I might have to overcome writing about things she or my family members may not want me to write. Especially since mine is the kind of family that often leaves things unsaid and my mom was the kind of woman who taught the hard lessons, often the hard way. I thought about giving Mom joint authorship, including verbatim passages of a story she'd written about herself for me. I pictured a stark dedication page with only the words For Mom printed in italics. I even thought about what conversations might surface with her friends should the thing ever get published and people who knew her read it. What would she say or think knowing a story I wrote about her was out in the world? How would she feel holding something like that in her hands? Maybe I just wanted the story to end with her. But that was something I imagined happening years from now--my mother sitting white-haired with thoughtful crinkled-eyes and a tight uncertain smile. In my mind, I saw my pages in her gentle work-roughed hands. Careful, concerned, and maybe even a little bit proud. That's where the story belonged. After all, it would be ours. Hers. Finishing the story any other way wasn't an option.

To say I'm lost without her, fuck, that sounds so cliche, doesn't it? But I am. I'm lost. Wrecked. Uncertain. At times, immobile. Unfinished. I've spent the last month trying to find meaning in putting one foot in front of the other, getting out of bed, like everyone asks of me. But most mornings I wake and I can't breathe. The first and only thing I can do is cry. Or in the case of spending two weeks traveling with my fifteen-year-old niece, in those instances, I expend a lot of energy putting up fronts and forcing myself to not cry. Sounds desperate, right? Dramatic even. It is. I'm not unaware. The truth, unbalanced as it might be, is my mother was the skeleton that I fleshed my entire identity onto. Everything I am, everything I will be, and everything I try not to be. All of it is her. Now I'm left, without her, trying to figure out how to exist in a world in which she's no longer a part. And that's bullshit.

But I know it's my own fault. I want it to be her fault. At best, it's our fault.

I'm still unable to write the thing I meant to and, yet, I need desperately to strip her out of me piece by piece. To get her as far away from me as I can without letting go all together. Letting others hold onto her for me so I can pull my shit together and figure out what living without her means, because in this moment, I can't see how to be anything without her. I need to write her, write me, write us, if only to find a way to see and feel something about my mother other than loss and grief.

Grief. It is a funny thing, isn't it? I'm told again and again that there's no right or wrong way to process it, but I wonder. Mostly, people advise me to distract myself, move forward, remembering the happy times, and focus on the people I love and who love me that are left. It's solid advice. I do have a husband, a father, and a brother all left mourning the loss of my mother as well. They need me. I have nephews, nieces, friends, and other family that want me in their lives for future-centric milestones. I have pets that require feeding. Plants that require nurturing. Projects that need attention. I know that some days that is exactly what I should do. Try my best to move forward at all cost.

But days like today? Days like today I feel I have to breathe my grief. Ingest it. Live in it and roll around in it until the stink of it begins to emanate from somewhere deeper inside me. Why? Unfinished business. More than that, I'm my mother's daughter. She showed me how to wear the hard knocks and the ugly truth of personal history on one's sleeve like uniform stripes. Every scar. Every bump. Every tremor. Not everyone can live like that, but if you can I've seen that you can survive almost anything. And she survived much. It's part of what made her so incredible, so loved, so generous of heart. She was wholly unapologetic for her ugliness and her beauty, even in her moments of uncertainty concerning both. A beautiful contradiction of strength and weakness.

I wrote a eulogy of sorts for her memorial that made nod to that idea.

My mother taught me the hard lessons.
Work hard.
Learn all you can.
Give generously.
Love fiercely.
Depend on nobody.
Nobody but Mom.
These are the lessons a survivor teaches her daughter.
She showed me what the strength of a woman looks like.
She also taught me never to waste words.
Say what you mean or say nothing at all.
Yet, she used many words--telling me stories of Thailand, sharing her philosophies, telling of her joys, her disappointments, and her sorrows.
Most of my life has consisted of me, sitting at my mother's feet, listening to her words.
I believe that is why I am a writer. And why I am who I am.
Yet, I feel wasted and wordless, wishing I knew what I should say.
But mostly I feel I have no idea how to live life without her.
She was my sun and moon.
My north and south.
She was my darkness and my light.
She was my beautiful contradiction and taught me the balance of existence.
To say I will miss her, or that I loved her, seems inadequate.
So the only words I can really use to tell you what she was to me are:
She was my mother.

It's funny that now, when I read those words, I'm not as sure what they mean. Not exactly. I know when I wrote it over a month ago and read it the meaning was clear and true. Weighted and meaningful. Today, though, the words seem clouded. Fogged by weeks of erratic emotions and wandering thoughts, giving the lines a feeling of a thing sentimental and trite. I imagine in retrospect this whole endeavor will feel that way to me. Everything comes full circle. Regardless, my mother was neither sentimental nor trite. Nor do I endeavor to have such descriptors for myself, or my words, but I realize this is a process. Maybe that's why I feel compelled to move forward with this displayed therapy. However personal. However raw and unfiltered. The world can help to keep me in check, or I can at the very least give myself a perception of control and boundaries whilst I stumble my way through figuring out what I meant, what I mean, and what I mean to become. If nothing else, it's a new start in the wake of a tragic end. Is that not the very definition of a worthwhile story beginning? Somehow even that doesn't seem to matter so much.

Messy pieces are the most I can promise. I'm told by those who know this kind of grief that it is a process. A journey, which I hope will help to bring me back to whatever I'm meant to do.