Friday, May 2, 2014

One Mother's Brain

I have a decision to make this morning. My six-week-old baby is sleeping. I might have five minutes, or I might have a couple of hours. I would like a shower. I would like to have some kind of breakfast that requires two hands for eating.  I could go back to sleep. People keep telling me, “Sleep when the baby sleeps,” and it’s good advice, but it’s advice that ignores how vital these quiet moments are—moments when I can channel, however briefly, the person I was until March 16. But that’s what makes the moments overwhelming, too. If you have a couple of hours a day to claim an identity, what does it mean when you spend that time loading the dishwasher, or checking email, or snapping pictures of the baby and uploading them to Facebook?

I need to write. I have a book contract to fulfill, and the August 2015 deadline is hurtling toward me, but as I shuffle through the possibilities for these quiet hours (or minutes), it’s hard to imagine making real progress on that ambitious project, though I’d like to write, I’ve been itching to, and I know that even a paragraph would be better than nothing. But these other thoughts are circling my head, the ones I’m jotting down now, and again, I feel like I’m making a self-defining choice, and it’s one I’m not entirely comfortable with. Because I’m writing about motherhood. What’s more, I’m not saying anything original about it. I’m tired. I’m struggling to claim an identity. Blah, blah, blah. It’s new to me, but it’s not new at all, these thoughts. And I confess that I don’t particularly enjoy reading essays about parenting, even the self-deprecating sort. Maybe this will change with time, as I become more used to this new role, but I find I’m still in the pre-parenting mindset when it comes to these conversations: bored by the mediations on tedium and process, annoyed by the self-righteousness and naval-gazing.

Last weekend I was on a panel at a book festival—I was included with a group of thriller writers, and I was certainly the least thrilling among them—and an audience member asked us each to answer, “What are you afraid of?” And I found myself doing the thing I hate: I immediately started citing my new status as a parent. I talked about how hard my pregnancy had been, how the hormones had triggered very bad anxiety and hypochondria, and how, for the first time in my life, I experienced real and consistent fear that something bad could happen to me, or to the baby. It was the truth, and I guess that redeems it somewhat, but it was also kind of a cheap move, after the other panelists said things such as “spiders.” Parenthood shouldn’t be a trump card.

Or this: a friend sent me a link to a Cheryl Strayed essay about her 43-hour natural childbirth, and the essay soon appeared in my Facebook feed, posted by another friend. This friend applauded Strayed’s fierceness, and the replies to the link were an accounting of war wounds: lengths of labor, C-sections, gargantuan birth weights. I had to stop myself from typing, “I had an epidural, and it was FABULOUS!!!!” Then I spent the day thinking about the essay I could write about the taboo of pain relief—how the nurse teaching my birth class represented epidurals as procedures that could turn a beautiful labor experience into a joyless, sensationless series of unnecessary medical interventions that often domino into cesarean; how most of my peer group these days seem to train for natural birth and see an epidural as a failing of some kind, a last resort. But again, here I was, considering wading into a parenting topic in a manner I’ve always scorned: defensively, argumentatively, determined to take a personal choice and turn it into a socio-political stance, as if someone else’s decision to use the Bradley Method might invalidate my own positive labor experience.

I worried before my baby was born that motherhood would hijack some essential part of me. People talk a lot about Mommy Brain, a term I hate. Would I get stupid suddenly? Would I lose interest, even temporarily, in the things that had previously mattered to me? Would I lose my edge as a writer? That all seems silly now, or mostly silly. I’ve been surprised, in fact, by the extent to which I feel exactly like myself, only with a child to take care of. At the hospital following the birth, I kept hoping for moments when I could finish the Laura Lippman novel I was reading before going into labor. The desire hadn’t left me, but of course the opportunities to read those first nights were rare. That was the difference, the only one of significance that I’ve noticed. Opportunity.  
To illustrate that, here I am: another day, another nap. Another set of choices. I’m bolting down a couple of slices of leftover pizza. I don’t think there’s much left to say this time, but there’s something left, and I can’t quite figure out what it is. It’s an all-too-common problem for me as a writer—finding the final thought, figuring out how to put it into pleasing words—but now I’m up against the clock. If I don’t say it now, it may be another day before I can say it. Or a week. Or maybe I’ll give up, minimize this document, and let it sit on my desktop until it seems too dated to post.

But I want to put something into the world that isn’t a baby photo. So here it is, half-formed, and the only final thought I can offer is to the note the lack of one. 


Myfanwy Collins said...

This is so well said, Holly.

Susan McCallum-Smith said...

Wonderful, just wonderful. I had a similar experience on the birth of my twins, it is the availability of opportunity that changed not my essential nature. I still yearned to write - I still felt like myself - only plus children - the difference was that before my girls arrived my ability to express my essential 'me' didn't need to be protected, I simply 'was,' I didn't need to scrape slivers of opportunity from the day to ensure I had a chance to create - whereas now I do. And the struggle to do that is tough - not just through a simple lack of time - but because the 'world', culture etc, has different expectations of me. So, hold your ground. Don't let (what I call) the cult of motherhood subsume you, or try to convince you need to feel / think / act a certain way. As for those yarns and clips about birth etc, jeez. The night my girls arrived I was sitting in a bubble bath reading the New Yorker, oblivious. We adopted and one of its perks (apart from being able to drink like a fish through my entire 'pregnancy') is that as soon as I mention it, all the eagerness to share birth stories somewhat dry up Try it with strangers if anyone ever gets nosy about how you brought your own miracle into the world! And good luck with book - you'll do it, no question.

Jennifer Hester Mattox said...

Hi Holly. Your response to my question at SOKY was even deeper than what you mentioned in the blog, and I thought you touched on something so very true. Before the birth of our first child, we think we know fear, but we don't. It's not until we hold this fragile human being in our hands, one we brought into this world, that we begin to see the world differently. Spiders, fear of drowning, public speaking...these things can scare us, but they don't reach into our souls--and make us willing to give up our own lives, if necessary--the way fear for your own child's life does. I think your answer was perfect.

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