Today is Harriet's second birthday, and my father's 53rd. She is currently outside running around with her Papa, a testament to the change she has brought into his life, and all of ours.
My daughter’s first birthday—my father’s 52nd—was celebrated in the psych ward. There was no candle, and a nurse held the knife used to cut the cake. I had to call and plead in order for the baby to be allowed to visit my father, speaking first with a nurse and then with the unit manager. Normally, children aren’t allowed beyond the locked doors that mark the start of the psychiatric wing.
“Please,” I begged. “It’s their birthday. Both of them.”
My father was my sadness, and my daughter was my light. I couldn’t celebrate the joy of her first year without thinking about the deep sorrow that year had held for my father. I couldn’t bear to celebrate another melancholy birthday with my dad, or find hope for his future, without the healing balm of my baby’s smile. After all, without the baby, we may all be forced to confront the lunacy of singing “Happy Birthday” to a man currently hospitalized for depression.
Read the rest of this story in Brain, Child Magazine's blog.
"C'mon baby, let's go."
I hear myself and cringe. My foot presses the lock on the stroller and I double back toward my toddler, who lags about 20 feet behind me.
"What did you find?" I ask, watching as she sifts through layers of damp leaves. In the distance, the dog sprints from tree to tree, determined to cover more ground than we will.
Of course, the pace of life changes when you have a baby. But even a few months ago we would cover miles in this park, my daughter tied contently to my back and my legs carrying us through the thick woods.
Now things have changed. We're on toddler time. We've been walking for 20 minutes and have not even made it out of the parking lot.
"Buddy, bring me a stick," I say to the dog, accepting that he won't be tired out by our walk alone. As I toss it to him, I praise each leaf, rock and stick that my daughter picks up. We never make it out of the parking lot.
On the way home, I begin making a plan. We'll eat lunch, and then its naptime. Time to compress a day's work into two hours, if I'm lucky. I eat and pee before the baby falls asleep so that I don't need to waste any of that precious time. Forty minutes for an edit test for a new website. Another forty if I would like to write for them as well. I'm swift and focused, moving through each task with clipped precision. With seven minutes left on the timer, a cry breaks my focus. I quickly wrap up the test, submit it and walk to the nursery.
Being a mom - especially a working mom, and even more so one that works from home - is all about balancing. Sometimes that balance looks more like juggling. I'm learning that the key to keeping everyone happy is knowing when to speed through the to-do's, and when to just take it slow.
In the afternoon we go for another walk. We make it half a block before my daughter spots a sewer drain.
"Wow," she says.
I smile to myself, finding joy in her wonder. I sit down on the side of the road and find rocks for her to toss into the abyss. I don't know whether we are there for 20 minutes or 45. I just wait until the novelty has worn out, and that little voice says, "All done."
Last year I spent my Mother’s day waiting.
I was just fifteen days away from meeting my daughter – although at the time I didn’t know that – and the end-of-pregnancy expanse stretched infinitely before me. I was waiting to kiss ten little toes, and to inhale that special scent that only newborns have. Most of all I was waiting to assume the identity I had been looking forward to taking on for my whole life – mother.
Now that baby bump is toddling around the house, causing a remarkable amount of chaos for an 18-pound being. My daughter has been constantly transforming over the last year – from a docile infant into cooing baby, and now into a headstrong toddler who knows just what she wants.
Mother is such a strong role in our culture; moms are praised for being giving and selfless, the backbones of our families. Last year, I couldn’t wait to become enmeshed in that role, learning from my mom and my grandmothers. I was waiting for a magical change to wash over me, and yet when I finally emerged from the sleepless nights and relentless nursing sessions I was surprised to realize I was still myself.
“Oh my god, you’re somebody’s mom,” a friend said when we met for drinks recently. “That’s so weird.”
Weird indeed. This past year has been at once strange and completely natural. I love my daughter, and am amazed how easily she has fit into my life. But at the same time, I’ve realized that I don’t define myself by my relationship to her. I am a mother, yes, but also a writer and a wife, and all the things I was before giving birth. I’ve added a passion, but I haven’t replaced any.
More importantly, I’ve realized that nurturing those passions is just as important as nurturing my little one. In order to be a woman that my daughter is proud of, I devote time to the things that make me feel strong, smart and healthy in mind and body.
This year, I’ve learned that just like any other humans, moms are multifaceted. They have likes and dislikes, hobbies and shortcomings. My new perspective has prompted me to ask the mothers in my life questions that don’t pertain to raising little ones (although they get plenty of those questions, too). I’ve had wonderful conversations, talking to my aunt about death and to my mom about relationships and identity. If anything, being a member of the mom “club” has let me humanize the mothers in my life, and connect with them on an even deeper level because of that.
Last year on Mother’s Day, I was heavily pregnant, suspended between two worlds – things as they were, and things as they would be. Not knowing what to expect, I focused on my hopes for myself:
I hope that I'll have taken time to be present, I wrote at the time. If life does fly by as quickly as they say, then there is no sense wishing any of it away… I hope that I will have been kind to myself… Most of all, I hope that in 25 years I will be surrounded by a loving family, just as I am today.
Looking back on my first year of motherhood, I realize this message was one I got right. During the first year you have little choice but to be present for the good and the bad, because it turns out the infant phase is as tough as they say. But it is also true that one smile from a troublesome baby can leave you feeling overcome with love, and muttering, “You are just too darn cute.” As for kindness – well, without the kindness of others, and the kindness to forgive myself for my shortcomings, the first year would have been impossible.
Today I’ll be celebrating Mother’s Day with my little family of three, and with my extended family, acknowledging aunts, sister and grandmothers. As we celebrate the contributions these moms have made to our family, I’ll also take a moment to appreciate them for their whole selves – real, beautiful, flawed individuals – just like me.
Ed Note: This article first appeared in Foster's Daily Democrat on Mother's Day.
Once upon a time, my writing was my baby. I loved it, and lavished it with attention, and in my free time I couldn't wait to spend some quality time with it.
Then, I had a baby, and my writing was displaced. It wasn't just a matter of finding the time. More alarmingly, for the first time ever, I just didn't want or need to write. I wasn't writing online, or in my journals. The only writing I've been doing it the kind that pays my bills, because a job is a job.
I've always loved the Joan Didion quote, "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking." For as long as I remember that's been true. Through my dad's mental health struggles, I wrote, and it was therapeutic. I wrote through my travels, and through my pregnancy. But then the desire was gone.
The last eight months have been a jolt, tougher than I could have imagined. With so much intensity day to day - the good, and the bad - it seemed impossible to write about what I was experiencing too. I just had to ride the wave, and live it here and now. And boy was I relieved to realize that other writers feel the same way. Sometimes, you just have to experience things, without worrying about finding the words to describe them.
Luckily, like most love affairs, the flame that has died down can spring back up with a little care and attention. And with all those month stored up, I should have plenty to say...
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. But for a new mom who has just had the most primal and exhausting experience of her life, the pictures are worth so much more -- this coming from a mama who makes her living putting a value on words.
When I heard about Kim Finn and Stork Photography, I knew I wanted a photographer at the Burchling's birth. Everyone thought I was nuts -- after all, birth is messy, graphic and unpredictable. But it's also beautiful and miraculous, and as a long-time birth junkie who loved hearing about entrances into this world, I knew I would like something to look back on to help me remember when our family grew from two to three.
I am so glad that I did. Having the photographer at the birth was a gift -- to ourselves, to our baby and to our families. Without Stork Photography we never could have captured moments like this:
I could tell the baby how her Mimi went to get coffee, and the baby chose that time to decide to come immediately; how my mom walked in thinking she was just saying hi to me, only to find her granddaughter snuggled in my arms; but when you see the pictures you can feel the emotion that even the most talented writers can't capture.
For our family that lives on the other side of the world, sharing the birth story photos was a way to make them feel like they experienced the birth as well.
And that is priceless.
I had it all figured out.
I had nannied. Twins. Overnights. Special needs. I knew babies.
I'd read the books and the blogs, from the humorous to the medical. Talked to parents. Formed opinions. I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
Then, I had a child, and it all went to hell.
I should have known I was in trouble during labor. After three days of a hospital induction the baby still wasn't coming, so we were sent home. We got there, and my water promptly broke, thick with meconium. With that, my med-free water birth went out the window as I was hooked to monitors and planted in a bed. This baby was literally shitting on my plans before I had even seen her face.
In the coming days and weeks other dominoes fell. My vows against co-sleeping lost out to my desire for two hours of uninterrupted rest. Exclusively breastfeeding wasn't as important as supplementing formula to get my skinny girl to grow.
All of this in the midst of accommodating the overwhelming needs of the tiny dictator.
"How is the.... adjustment going?" one mom friend asked, with a knowing look on her face. "I remember thinking it was hell on earth," the dad of a two-year-old told me. "Welcome to the secret society," my aunt said, "You can't understand it until you've done it."
I may not have understood, but I would have liked a warning. Because while babies are adorable, the stress of having a newborn is unlike anything I could have possibly imagined. The mundane - like tackling the next feeding - meets the massive - like wondering how to protect this perfect being in this imperfect world. The result is a perfect storm of exhaustion and emotion.
Recently NPR asked "Why are new parents depressed?" The segment focused on men and women, and asked if as a society we were even willing to talk about the unpleasant sides of bringing home a new baby, or if it is still too taboo. Maybe it's silly to mention, because perhaps those who haven't experienced it won't understand, and those who have been there will just smile knowingly. But with all mental illness, it seems important to at least start the conversation.
As I end this post, I'm temped to write, "but one smile from the baby makes it worth it," or to clarify that while the last six weeks have been intense as can be, I'm definitely not depressed, just reeling from the new experience. And while both of those are true, those disclaimers play into the stigma, as I attempt to distance myself from people with the "real" problems.
Instead, I'll ask, what were your expectations of bringing home a baby, and what was the reality? Whether you've reproduced or not, do you think this is something that is discussed openly?
And now, I'll quit while I'm ahead, and follow that often-quoted and impossible to follow advice that makes it all sound so simple: "Just sleep when the baby sleeps." Ha!
Twenty-five years ago on Mother's Day my mom brought me home from the hospital.
I was her first and she had little idea what to expect from the baby wrapped in a green blanket, but that day began her journey toward becoming an extraordinary mother.
Today, the story has come full circle, as I celebrate Mother's Day with a swollen belly, just weeks away from meeting my own firstborn daughter.
Before today, this holiday has been about looking back. Acknowledging the amazing job that my mother has done raising four children. Thinking about my grandmother, who had 12 children in 15 years and worked in the family business throughout it all. Recognizing all the strong women in my life and thanking them for the lessons they have taught me.
This year, however, I find myself looking more toward the future than the past.
There are the immediate questions: When will the baby finally arrive? Will she have my freckles, or my husband's red hair? Is the infant phase really as bad as everyone says? Then, there are the bigger questions, the ones that I will not know the answers to for years or even decades. What will my journey through motherhood look like? Twenty-five years from now, will my own daughter be proud of her mom not just on Mother's Day, but on the other 364 days of the year?
Recently, my mom and I were traveling, stuck next to each other for hours on a turbulent flight where we were unable to get up. Just after I finally drifted off to sleep a hand on my belly woke me up.
“Was she moving?” I asked.
My mom ignored my question, keeping her gaze on my bump.
“It goes by so fast, Kelly,” she said. “So fast.”
A cliché, but spoken with such conviction that it was impossible to ignore.
This year, Mother's Day for me is about the hopes that I have. When I'm the one looking back and thinking about how fast time has passed, what do I want to see?
I hope that I'll have taken time to be present. If life does fly by as quickly as they say, then there is no sense wishing any of it away. I'll try to remember that in the last few weeks of pregnancy, when I'm sure that I cannot take even one more minute of carrying this baby inside. I will take the time to revel in the smiles amid the sleep deprivation of the infant stage, admire my daughter's persistence during the toddler tantrums, and appreciate her growing independence during the trials of raising a teen.
I hope that I will have been kind to myself. In a world that regularly reports on the “Mommy Wars” over parenting styles, I hope that I have the confidence to make the decisions that are right for me and my family. I hope that I won't judge another parent for choosing to feed by breast or bottle, or for establishing a curfew that I don't agree with. I hope that as I make my way through motherhood, I can build up friendships and bonds with other moms, rather than tearing them down.
Most of all, I hope that in 25 years I will be surrounded by a loving family, just as I am today.
Some people write Mother's Day off as a “Hallmark Holiday” — just another reason to spend money on goods. For me, Mother's Day has always been about spending time.
Today my siblings and I will have breakfast with our mom and give her what she wants most — an hour of yard work to kick off the summer season.
It's not perfect — if I know my siblings we'll be racing each other to pick the best bagels, and dodging to get out of working the roughest spots in the yard. There will probably be some cursing, and grumbles are guaranteed. At the end of the day though, we'll all come together, probably over ice cream, to acknowledge our mother, and the strong, connected family that she has nurtured.
As I look forward today, I hope that one day I will count my daughter among my best friends, just as I do my mom. As I stand on the brink of motherhood, I'm not nervous, because I know that I have one of the best examples around. And I can't wait for this baby to meet her.
Note: This piece originally appeared in Foster's Daily Democrat
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