It was a stupid can of beans that took me down.
My daughter was born in the water on a sunny morning in September. Hers was my second birth at home, my fourth altogether, and like every other time, the moment I nestled her wrinkly little body in my arms, I was intoxicated with a euphoric mix of relief and adoration. It soaked deep into me as she discovered her voice, expanding and contracting it until the gray of her skin turned pink and she settled against my chest like a helicopter seed meeting the ground after a whirling journey through the air. The first thing I said was, “Hi, baby girl.” And then, “God, I’m so glad I never have to do that again.”
It was beautiful-ish, but not without its drama. My daughter’s umbilical cord was wrapped so tightly around her neck that it snapped in half when she emerged. After a fountain-like spray of blood escaped, my midwife was able to clamp and unwrap it to avert any major crises. I thought nothing more of it after that, since all seemed well. Sure, my bathroom looked a little like a murder scene—nothing that a few towels and some photo shop wouldn’t take care of in the pictures—but yes, it was beautiful-ish, the way birth usually is. The messy, miraculous, bloody, scary, exhilarating, unbelievable kind of beautiful.
For any mom, those first days—weeks—after having a baby are sort of like a dream. Not a la-la land, floating-on-air dream. I know they have irreplaceable, magical moments in them that make everything worth it. They do. But the time in between those sacred moments—the majority of the time—you spend in what I would call a state of total disorientation. You’re in and out of half-sleep, living in what suddenly feels like someone else’s body. Your boobs leak. Your nipples hurt. Your whole crotch is a landmine. You’re told that clots up to the size of a golf ball are normal. Nothing about this feels normal. And you have this new, amazing human with the tiniest, most perfect little fingernails you’ve ever seen before in your charge.
It’s no less disorienting the fourth time than it is the first. If you’re lucky, you have the edge of knowing deep down that things won’t feel that way forever, but still each time throws its challenges at you. In the case of my daughter, she really struggled with nursing. All three of my boys, while we had our small hiccups in the beginning, caught onto nursing pretty quickly. My daughter’s trouble with it wasn’t only a struggle for me from the obvious standpoint of her nutrition. It was also that over the course of bringing my boys through babyhood and into toddlerhood, nursing had become so heavily intertwined with the way I parented. Upset baby? Put him on the boob. Need a nap? Put him on the boob. Need to get 8 hours of sleep for work the next day? Sleep with him on. the. boob. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing with a baby who couldn’t get on the boob, so I was hell-bent on fixing it.
It took ten weeks. Ten outrageously taxing weeks. As it turned out, the umbilical cord had squeezed her neck so tightly during the birth that it distorted her esophagus, interfering with her swallowing mechanism. After multiple sessions with a specialist five hours up the road, who has a degree in some special kind of craniosacral voodoo, we were able to resolve the issue. Those ten weeks leading up to that point, though, were nothing short of brutal for all of us.
I was constantly fixated on her, waking every 2 hours to finger feed her (google it), weighing her before and after every feeding. Pumping incessantly. Labeling and storing milk. Worrying about my supply. Taking weird supplements that made me smell like maple syrup. Washing pump parts and syringes and my hands like crazy. All of this alongside trying to be a mom to my boys and a wife to my husband, albeit not a very present one. I was frazzled. Spread thin. Stressed to the max and exhausted with no end in sight. I was busy robbing myself of the joy of getting to know my new baby, my very last and my only daughter, because I was so determined not to let anything threaten what I thought of as our only chance to bond. As my only chance to mother her successfully.
I have a special talent for living in irony. I probably don’t have to tell you how backward my thinking was. It’s simple enough to see from the outside, and everyone who looked at me tried to tell me. From the inside, though, I was blind. I needed to hit a tipping point to be able to see it for myself, so the universe delivered it.
Back to the can of beans.
I’d just finished juggling my morning routine of feeding my daughter, getting the boys dressed, piling them in the car, and driving them to preschool. I came back home with just enough time to prepare a crockpot meal I’d planned for dinner that night while my daughter slept in her carseat. And by “just enough time,” I mean to the minute. I knew the rest of my day would consist of several rounds of the lengthy weighing-feeding-weighing-pumping cycle we’d established, so in my mind, this really needed to get done if I wanted to have dinner on the table at a reasonable time. I was half way through preparing it when I realized I was missing a (somehow crucial?) can of beans listed in the ingredients of the recipe.
It was like a movie scene. I slowly inched my back down the pantry door, parked my ass on the kitchen floor and opened the flood gates for a good, ugly cry. I felt like a failure, like the worst mother in the world, because this can of beans was supposed to be in my pantry, and it wasn’t. I’d planned the meal and written the ingredients on the grocery list, and still, the flipping can of beans wasn’t in there.
So, I cried on my kitchen floor while my baby slept and my crockpot meal sat half-made on the counter. I cried so hard I was half tempted to get up and watch myself in the mirror. I’m pretty sure this would have been an award-winning cry if I’d had an audience. And after a little while, I realized that I wasn’t crying about beans. I was feeling overwhelmed—like the weight I’d been carrying was about to suffocate me. Like I didn’t know up from down anymore. I felt like I couldn’t take on a single other thing to fix, not even the stupid beans, because there were too many things that needed fixing, and I wasn’t even doing a good job of fixing them anyway.
There’s something cleansing and honest about tears. They cut through the film and strip it away, leaving our eyes open to the sting of fresh air. And everything is just a little bit clearer for a minute.
I could see it then: Mothering is walking through a desert without a map. It’s hard to tell if what you’re walking toward is real or a mirage, and by the time you get to it, you’ve already set your sights to the next horizon. There are so many more miles to go. On this journey, you get to choose what you pick up and haul along with you. The secret is that more is not better. More is heavier. More makes it harder. We should only carry the responsibilities that are ours. Nothing more and nothing less.
It wasn’t my responsibility to fix everything, and anyway, nothing needed to be fixed in order for me to bond with my daughter. I didn’t need to get oriented against a map before I could be a good mom to her. I was a good mom the second her skin pressed against mine, because I loved her. That’s my only responsibility, and carrying it by itself feels so much easier than all of the extra junk I slung over my back.
The desert might sound like an uninviting and lonely place to walk. Sometimes, it is. But when you learn to travel lightly, you’re able to see the majesty in the terrain, and you notice the blanket of stars above you. And that’s when you know without a shadow of a doubt, there’s no place better.