Well, friends, it's no secret that motherhood has changed my whole outlook on life and parenthood has turned our house and our marriage upside-down. That's generally what happens when two people have a child. My friends who are single parents by choice and by circumstance also describe having their lives, houses, and relationships turned upside-down during the dawn of their children's lives. It's both natural and unnatural; Natural because the act of having children is so neatly woven into our humanity . . . and unnatural because selflessness is immediately required of us forever after, and selflessness is less than natural for all human beings. We have to work at it. We're lying if we say that we never begrudge it.
Now that I have about 21 months of distance between myself and the event that was my son's birth, I can see a few things more clearly than I could then, and I have a few assurances and encouragements I want to share with other moms. It doesn't matter if our children are yet to come or 20 years out of the womb - these truths apply. Let me share the skeleton of this story with you, friends.
On a Sunday afternoon I was standing out in the backyard, taking pictures of things in the garden, as I still often do. I took a picture of this beautiful little creature. Then I went inside and packed a few bags.
At about 11 p.m. my husband packed our car, complete with a spotless new carseat and a bag of baby things. I lumbered into the passenger seat (I was about 12 days overdue at that point and "lumber," I did).
We bought taco bell on our way to the hospital - my last meal before I would be induced. Classy, right?
At midnight we were checked in to our hospital room and the induction process started. For those who don't know much about induced labor, I'll share this: there are 2 sorts of inductions . . . favorable ones and unfavorable ones. Basically, that means that the body has either prepared itself for labor already or it hasn't. I was an unfavorable candidate for induction because the baby hadn't even "dropped" yet. But it was more than time and he had to be born one way or another. We were told ahead of time that it would likely take more than 24 hours for the labor to unfold. We were mentally prepared for a long process.
We had a good friend who was interested in becoming a Doula. She'd been doing research and reading and agreed to come with us to try the Doula thing out! It's one of the best choices we made. Alicia's presence with us was reassuring and helpful. She offered us judgement free advice and support the whole time. And it was a long time.
By Monday morning nothing had happened. I was having contractions, but I could not feel them. They were too small. The room was too hot and the air conditioner wasn't working. The nursing staff was very busy that day and the process of furthering the induction happened more slowly than planned. My midwife checked in that evening and found that the room was too hot and the labor was not progressing. She moved us to a different, cooler room. She stopped the induction so that I could eat a meal (you can't eat food when you're being induced, friends). I took a shower.
That night they started the induction again with more aggressive medication.
Sleeping in a delivery bed is almost impossible. And having a constant IV drip of fluids, as is required with induction, creates a huge amount of swelling . . . everywhere! I felt like a balloon. I was sleep deprived and hungry. My head hurt. Still no active labor.
Tuesday came. I began to have small contractions again, but still none that I really "felt." The baby hadn't "progressed" at all. Alicia came up with some stretches and things we could try to see if we could get the baby to move. One of them worked! I had my first painful contraction sometime in the afternoon. Yay for Doula's!
I've never been so happy to experience pain in my life.
The nurse on duty at that time took note of the progress and came to enforce some walking - trying to help us with moving things along. On one of those walks around the maternity floor, my water broke on its own! To put that into perspective: usually the water will break when some "progress" has been made - I was laboring with almost no notable "progress."
The pain increased by about 100 million percent. It quickly became clear that the baby was turned around backwards and I was experiencing something called "back labor." Back labor is no joke. I worked through that for several more hours, making all kinds of horrible noises with every single contraction - and they were quite close together because of the induction medicine.
Knowing that I was overtired and that the labor had stalled, I agreed to have an epidural, hoping that the loss of pain might move things along and help us to avoid surgery.
Fortunately, that was the case! Things moved along after that. Alicia and my husband both got a bit of sleep and I rested for a bit. Eventually, in the wee hours of the morning, our son was born without complication.
They handed him to me - the joy of my heart. It's still a vivid memory for me, 21 months later. I can close my eyes and picture every detail of the hospital room. I can still remember sounds and smells. Alicia brought me a diet coke - I really don't like diet coke - but it was the best diet coke ever!
By about 4:30 am we were in a recovery room on the other side of the maternity floor. Nurses and pediatric doctors came in to clean the baby, weigh the baby, and give the baby shots. Then a shift change came around 6 am and our room was flooded with new staff introducing themselves and doing their first rounds. My blood pressure was being taken constantly. A little later in the morning phone calls and visits from family started coming in.
We hadn't slept in almost 3 days. And after everything my body had been through, I didn't have any energy. I was in need of some serious recovery. But it was the dawn of this unwieldy, selfless love . . . and more than recovery time, I wanted to hold my new baby.
Messages about my motherhood bombarded me immediately. Are you a mother, Reader? If you are, then you know. No matter what choices you make or how the delivery of your child takes place, you are overwhelmed with messages about what and what not to do. What you should or should not have done. Even people who love you very much pour words out on your exhausted head - and some of the words you take in during that time might stick in your heart longer than they need to. That was true for me.
The worst of this came with all the many expressions of concern for my well being. It seemed innocent in the moment, but it carried a weight of judgement that has followed me around like a dark cloud these 21 months.
We chose to nurse. Mothers who have done this know that it can come easily or not so easily. It can begin with difficulty and be alright after about 5 weeks of practice (5 weeks was the magic mark for us - things got way better at that point). It can start easily and become difficult later (I have friends who have told stories about that). One thing is for sure, though, it immediately requires more effort from the mother than from anybody else. She has to be available constantly . . . and she really needs to be able to trust herself. But trusting in one's self when others are full of doubting words is really difficult.
I was fortunate because I had an LC among my church friends. She consulted with us for several weeks to make sure that things worked out. We had a supportive pediatrician who worked with us and reminded us not to worry so much about weight gain for a week or two. And I had Alicia, who texted, visited, and called to make sure that we were getting our confidence back as things progressed.
But still . . . the messages stuck in my heart:
- Why didn't you just do surgery? Wouldn't a C-section have been more responsible given the difficulty of your labor?
- Why didn't you just let somebody give him a bottle after those first few tough days? If you'd gotten more sleep you would have been a better mother.
- Why didn't you ask the nursing staff to take the baby to another room for the night so you could rest? That would have made everything better for you and your husband, and then you would have done better bringing the baby home.
- Why didn't you give up the nursing sooner? If you'd gotten more sleep more often you would have liked parenting more than you did initially.
Have you heard any of those messages?
Maybe you've heard those messages, but you've heard them flipped around? I know plenty of women who were unable to nurse or who had to have emergency surgery . . . or who elected for surgery . . . and then in the end they felt judged for their choices or circumstances - as though they could have done a better job bringing their baby into the world.
Oh, Dear Mothers, we don't have time to "maintain these regrets." They are feelings we carry, and so we have to respect them for what they are. We have to acknowledge them so that we can look after our own healing . . . but these judgements aren't part of the beautiful story being woven into your life as a mother. These are just regrets that other people have, being turned over on your head . . . on my head. And, as a good counselor once told me, "Those aren't your stones to carry. They're heavy. They'll wear you out. And they belong to somebody else. Don't pick those stones up. You have rocks of your own to deal with."
Dear Mama, there is no "better mother." It's you. You're the mother of your own child. Our mothers did the best they could with what they had and that's all we can do now. Wishing this or that, regretting this or that . . . these things can only distract us from the beauty our children are holding up in front of us every day.
Parenting is difficult from the moment it begins. It begins before the baby is even born. It begins while we're trying to decide how to plan for the new life and how we ought to welcome the new life. As soon as the ball starts to roll we're playing catch up! Always one step behind. As soon as we open the door on this unique intimacy, others are bombarding us with their thoughts and opinions . . . . and we're trying to decide how much to trust and who to trust. We cannot expect perfection from ourselves or from others as the lives of our children unfold.
Comparing our birth stories and how easy or difficult various things were for us or others can only hurt. Comparing is not the same as sharing.
I got a beautiful lesson from my mother in the early days of my son's life.
As I struggled to rest and recover and feed this new baby, my mother quietly talked to me about how normal and natural it was for all of this to be exhausting and confusing. She quietly spoke to me about how beautiful the baby was and how beautiful I was and how life-like and real all of it was. She was helping me to normalize this new life. She offered very little "advice." She just talked to me a lot about how beautiful I was and how beautiful the baby was. She would tell me, "He knows you already. When you talk from across the room, his eyes look your way even though he can't see that far yet." and "Do you notice how much his breathing calms down when he's around you? That's because you're his mother."
I will never ever be able to thank my mother enough for those early days.
When my son was a little over a month old my husband had to travel for work and so I went for a few weeks to my parents' home. My mother would be talking on the phone to relatives and friends and I'd hear her say, "Sarah came to stay with us because she said she knew she'd eat well and have good support. I think that's so smart. Don't you think that was smart of her?"
When the rest of my unstable new mothering world was full of confusing noise, my mother's voice was always there saying, "This is exactly right. I know you're scared, but you're doing exactly what you can and it's just fine."
Listen - whoever you are and however your mothering story has been unfolding: It's enough. You're enough. It will be whatever it is. Your baby knows you. your baby recognizes you. Your child and you have a unique relationship and no words from anybody else can change the fact that you brought this child into the world. You're the Mama. However it happened - it's ok, dear one.
However you feel about it is ok, too. Just make sure that your feelings are your own and are not feelings being fed to you by somebody else. Because families and friends are close and can be noisy, we have to make sure that we are aware of which words come from our own hearts and which words come from somebody else's. Usually the words we take in from others aren't meant to hurt us. They often are intended for help or encouragement, but when they are weighed down with worry and concern from others they can weigh us down with a sense of judgement or guilt. Even shame. We have to protect our spirits during this mothering adventure by maintaining an awareness of who said what and whose feelings are whose.
Along the way I've come to see that many of things that hurt me so much in those early days were not arrows intended for me. They were old hurts that belonged to other people . . . people who still were reliving parts of their pasts. Some days if I'm not careful I forget this, I try to take those old words onto my shoulders again. Fortunately, the voice of my mother often comes back to me . . . and I remember: I'm his mother and it happened exactly how it did because I am who I am. God knows all about it. We're here now and we love each other.
If I had it to do over, I don't think I'd make different choices. I think I'd just trust myself more.
Over the next several weeks I'm going to be writing songs for parents, about this adventure of mothering. I'm doing this because a good friend of mine, Lauren Robinson, who is a Doula in Knoxville, TN, challenged me to think about songs through this lens. As I began to think about this yesterday, I remembered my story all over again and recognized that I could still use more of that same encouragement my mother offered to me . . . and I figured that if I could use more of that same encouragement, so could many of you.
Check out Lauren's website here: https://www.laurenrobinsonbirth.com
Of all the choices Robbie and I made as we prepared to welcome our son, working with a Doula was one of the best. On top of our wonderful Doula care, we also experienced judgement free care from an excellent nurse/midwife who facilitated the birth of our son and looked after my recovery. These women were an extension of the voice of my mother during that whole process - reminding me that this was how it was, and that it was enough.
I look forward to sharing songs about motherhood with all of you, and to sharing words of encouragement, too.