This is the last time

This is the last time

I am going to ask it: Where is my wife?
Aren’t the changelings in folktales
the babies, not their mothers?

This baby mine, yours, no doubt. Not
in my mind. My misgivings remain
all for you today. For all these months faith

overshadowed disbelief, now I am tired, love turns
toward eclipse, so hard to glimpse this long night
the brightness we expected

together. Where is my wife? I lied,
I’m asking again. I want to stop but
can I? I won’t. Where is the woman I chose

and chose again, the woman whose laugh has become
an empty cup? Never mind the questions. I am
feeling for her hand in this limp dark.

I will drag her back into her new body.

 

Suzanne Swanson from What Other Worlds: Postpartum Poems Ytterli Press

Advertisements

Who Am I Now?

photo of baby & MamaPOSTPARTUM  —  WHO AM I NOW?

Suzanne Swanson
from “Collective Thoughts” (the Newsletter of the Childbirth Collective),  Vol. 10.3, Fall 2003
download pdf version

There’s plenty to love about postpartum, especially your baby.  Still, over and over what I hear from women is “I never thought it would be like this!”  There’s an element of surprise—and sometimes shock—to becoming a mother of a child who lives not inside your body, but outside:  fussing, crying, nursing (or refusing to), sleeping (or not), peeing/pooping – and doing any of the above at all hours of the day and night.  Many, many women are simply not prepared for the constancy of childcare, for how a baby rightly requires a mother to give over her time and energy  Many a mother is  surprised at how much she wants to tend her baby through her exhaustion even though life is different than she may have expected.  Other mothers feel guilty that they don’t feel as attached to the baby as they imagined they would, that life seems only an endless round of unfinishable tasks:  there’ll always be another diaper, another cry for milk.

Honestly, I don’t think anyone can really know ahead of time what it will be like to care for her own child (especially her first), so I’m not sure that there is a terrific way to prepare for that emotional charge, no recipe to follow to get ready.  But I do think that it may help to expect the unexpected:  you may not recognize yourself or your life after the baby arrives.  Some of the possible changes?  Relationships with your partner, friends and family.  Work identity.  Social identity.  Spiritual perspectives.  That is, Big Stuff. That is, you’re not looking forward to an adjustment but to a transformation, and the nature of transformation is that it’s not under your control.   And your life is probably not going to be transformed into one that matches the mother-baby ads in glossy magazines.

For most of us living in this culture, this time and place, Planning, Control and Management are guideposts, icons.  They are valuable skills to possess and use; they carry us through our tasks in most workplaces.  They can help us figure out whether to give birth at home or in a hospital, how to choose a midwife and a doula.  But they can’t entirely meet the needs of mother, baby or family in the first unpredictable weeks, or even months, after birth.  And a woman who is accustomed to having her abilities to plan or control or manage determine her identity and value is vulnerable to feeling that she’s not doing a good job as a mother, even if she is thrilled with her baby.  Many of us feel this way; it’s not abnormal or strange or unusual.  What a challenge to open my identity to chaos and fluidity.   Often the baby helps out:  she stops crying after a diaper change, she coos and smiles , she begins to nurse well when you try a different position, and a mother begins to feel “I know her” and “I can flow with this”  or  even just “we’ll make it.”

But sometimes the baby is fussy; nothing seems to help.  Sometimes a baby may be a very quiet child who is easily tended, but not very responsive.  In either case, the balance of “This is tough, but it’s worth it,” may be hard to come by.  Sometimes a mother is so rooted in being good and right and accomplished that she judges herself harshly for not being able to solve her baby’s colic or keep her house pre-baby clean or maintain a pre-baby marriage or recover physically as quickly as she thinks she ought.   Some of us are “wired” toward anxiety or worry, and that can lead to self-doubt and depression.  The critical voice, however it enters, can be insidious: while some of us may demand of ourselves, “I should be able to impose order on this chaos,” others   might think, “but I should be able to deal with chaos, be at ease with it.”   Either way, we’re not being caring and careful and matter-of-factly realistic with ourselves. Instead, we’re performing for some audience, internal or external.

Postpartum is an opportunity to be doing that edgy dance of keeping the familiar beat while a partner is leading you through new and demanding steps and twirls.  How?  I don’t think we can underestimate the value of rest and concrete, physical help with meals, laundry, errands, older children — a base that allows you to deal with emotional challenges. Also:  Talking with friends, to sort out who you are becoming.  Finding families you like, so that you don’t feel so alone.  Staying grounded in your spiritual life.  Actively looking for even small ways to stay connected to your partner.  Your doula can offer even more suggestions.  The irony is that many women have trouble taking these suggestions.  Asking for help with meals means, oh-oh, ASKING FOR HELP, which can mean, in turn, “I’m not capable . . . and I should be.”  Talking with friends about feeling disconnected from your baby – or very attached but also very tired of household chores — can activate “What’s wrong with me?” if those experiences are not shared.

If you find yourself dismissing prenatal advice about how to get and use practical help postpartum, if you find yourself later wishing for help or advice but ashamed or guilty to ask for it, if you feel isolated physically or emotionally — it could be useful to explore what standards of mothering (or what picture of Mother) might be getting in your way.  Perhaps you can do that on your own, either musing or in a journal; perhaps you might find a trusted friend or a spiritual mentor or therapist to guide you. Sometimes breathing, meditation, prayer or yoga can help to quiet the mind’s “static” enough to be able to focus on and deal with this pull to perform.

I believe that attempting either to stay steadfastly the person you used to be or to become your own personal version of a Perfect New Mother — tying yourself to any particular standard or concept without leaving room for your actual experience – can be a significant contributor to postpartum distress.  You need room, room to be a different mother than your mother or your best friend or your colleague or the celebrity in the interview. Now in postpartum, and as your child grows, it’s worth noticing both your lovely ideals and your outrageous, unreasonable standards. We need to find a balance between “I’d like” and “I must,” ways to accept our mother-selves in all their quirky human variety.

first child

first child

                          Love was the way we felt all over every minute    Quentin Duval

the way he looks at us
    hungry
he draws us to him
    until we see

our old bodies
    no longer sufficient
they cannot hold
    the deep well
the horizon       we need

    now
his eyes
    to drink us
into the circle
    he has made

Suzanne Swanson from What Other Worlds:  Postpartum Poems Ytterli Press

answer/no

answer/no

darkness and the baby sleeps
darkness and the baby is awake and rooting
darkness and the baby sleeps and the mother wakes to inhale his
    breath
darkness and the mother’s dreams throttle her waking
darkness and the mother’s heart pounds her into waking from the dream

the mother dreams hands
the mother dreams, dreams a screaming
the mother dreams cool voices going cold, freezing
the mother dreams begging
the mother dreams no answer

this is a dream of the baby
this is a dream of the baby’s birth, his speed
this is a dream of time and no time, a dream of the clocks of the hospital
    and the timepiece of her body
this is a dream of the disbelief of the voices, her calling to them
this is a dream of their answer:  no, you are wrong, we will not
this is a dream of their answer:  no answer

the answer of the fast hands of embedded fear
the answer of hands without harmony, the answer of hands attaching, the bothered
    palm impressing
its answer on the heave of her belly, and the hand’s fingers seeking rough
answers from her cervix and the cervix says  open, thin ~
    and the hand thinks I need a problem and
an answer
and makes the reach for the scissors —
only one answer:  cutting that patient circle ringing the baby’s head

the baby is born, his body pulled into breath
the baby is born and the hands holding him are not his mother’s
the baby is born and the mother waits
the baby is born waiting for his mother, impatient for her new body

morning and the mother wakes to pain and impatient terror/dread rises
    in her like red climbing the thermometer
morning and the mother makes her baby’s breath milky
morning and the mother carries her baby and her doubt into the day
morning and the mother loses the day to fact and memory
morning and the mother calls herself no-backbone and
    not-even-for-my baby

the baby is born, the baby sleeps
the mother dreams
this is a dream of the baby
this is a dream of dulled hands hammering out a mother
this is a dream:  no answer

Suzanne Swanson    from What Other Worlds:  Postpartum Poems, Ytterli Press