A Bit Like Their Glow

I’ve been thinking a lot about this intersection: being home with my two daughters right now and the fact that for the first time in the history of this country a woman may become its president. H. was born in Chile, a country that is hardly free of misogyny, but which has elected a female leader—twice. Here in the U.S., I am hopeful that the year of V.’s birth will be the year we do the same. She has the potential to grow up, in the words of Michelle Obama, taking it for granted.

In Chile, women are also given six months of paid maternity leave, far exceeding the U.S.’s standards. If I were working full-time here, I would already have handed my four-month-old baby over to someone else for 40 hours a week, before she rolled over or started to laugh. I have the utmost respect for the mothers who do this, many of them my friends, and I think it should be acknowledged that they often do so because they must—in order to keep their jobs, their insurance. Because this is the value system as it stands.

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I also have the utmost respect for the other mothers staying home right now. As a mother, I am choosing to do so, though there is an inherent contradiction. We do not stay home. We go to music and art classes. We walk the dog and watch the caterpillars creep across the sidewalk. I run all the errands and go to all the appointments with kids in tow. When we are home, we draw and sing and read and read and read. H. plays her guitar and says “please sing with me” one week and “please don’t sing, Mama,” the next. V. begins to roll and find her toes and squeal in such quick succession. I see it all as it happens.

It can take all I have to keep these two ladies happy and safe. There are eruptions of opinion and tears and wants, from all of us some days. When it quiets down, I might see that I’m in yoga pants at 4 p.m. on a Thursday though I haven’t done yoga properly since 2011. Since before I was ever pregnant, before everything I wrote was about him, before everything that I do is for his sisters, his legacy. His quiet heart nevertheless beats in the background of my days spent putting trains together with H. and nursing V., whose coos are the sweetest sound. Her grip on my finger is now intentional and strong, and nothing has ever made me feel as grounded. My girls are sisters. They look at each other already in a way I, as an only child, have never looked at anyone on this earth. That, on a daily basis, is remarkable.

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This active motherhood is ideal. It’s all I ever wanted, in an ethereal sense before loss, and in a desperate sense after. It doesn’t come without sacrifice because this is unpaid work, this rearing of the future. I must assign its value within a culture that places a much higher premium on monetary returns. Instead, it’s measured in the songs H. sings, the towers she stacks, the meals we share, the best friend down the street we explore with nearly every day. It’s measured in the breast milk adding rolls to V.’s thighs and the hours she sleeps across my lap. She stirs, sees me, smiles, and settles back down. Where else, really, do I need to be?

The fact that it’s also good for me and a heart once shattered has to count, too. This time mends that part of me. For much of it, I don’t think I physically could have left, and I honor the privileges and the sacrifices that allow this healing. I have needed the constancy as much as H. has. By now, when I am exhausted and pulled in all directions with V. here too, it means I can almost feel like any other tired, active mom. It also means the 100th time we put the puzzle together is still a call to be present. Because for all the monotony of being home with a toddler and a baby, there is so much that will prove ephemeral about it. The fireflies have been out this summer, and this motherhood is a bit like their glow—so bright I think I’ll never forget the adorable way that, for example, H. re-enacts her memories:

“Stuck in the rain together, Mama!”

Pure glee under a pink paper umbrella in H.’s room around noon on a Tuesday.

But the very next day, I want to hear her say it again, just to be sure the tenor of her two-and-a-half-year-old voice rings eternal. Of course, it can’t. It’s part of everything that keeps moving. One day she will want all the toys on top of her and the next day she won’t. The snuggles that have ended our day her entire life are getting shorter. She has dreams to get to, adventures to wake up and chase.

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Motherhood is encompassing, no matter how we mother. Whether we pursue the juggle at home or while we work outside the home. Both add value to our children’s lives. And one day, before too long, I will swap one value for the other. Until then, I do my best to raise them and to write. To let other mothers express it perfectly, it feels like this and this. What Rachel Kessler writes in the latter, is so, so true:

“It turns out that writing a thoughtful, intellectually stimulating essay with an alive, awake baby is like doing your taxes while Prince licks his guitar right behind you. Also, it is your maternal duty to save Prince from being electrocuted.”

I edited the other day while V. slept. But soon enough H. was emptying my desk drawers and announcing that she needed my chair—the one I was sitting on. As I looked around at the scattering of pens and notepads, I realized she was playing office, as I did so many times around my mother as she worked throughout my childhood. That is where I first edited in fact… circling the words I knew and underlining the really big ones I didn’t in the testimony she transcribed each night. I remember the sound the paper made, almost like a zipper, when she folded and tore the perforated borders of those 1980s print-outs. She discarded the scraps into a basket under her desk, their nightly volume measuring just how hard she worked, at great value and at great cost. My mom told me recently she is experiencing with H. some of the things she missed with me in order to support us. I thought about what Chelsea Clinton said in her Democratic Convention speech about the daily, dated letters her mom left for her when she traveled and how much she valued them. Value is in the sacrifice. Either way.

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H. is reading to herself now, this magnificent toddler of mine. I catch her flipping the pages and saying most of the words exactly as they appear on the page. Reading books by the dozen every day is part of my work right now. I may not be paid for it, but it is paying off. And I will allow that to feel right. Now, imagine, as Judith Shulevitz recently posited in The New York Times:

“What if the world was set up in such a way that we could really believe — not just pretend to — that having spent a period of time concentrating on raising children at the expense of future earnings would bring us respect? And what if that could be as true for men as it is for women?”

Ryan, I know, would love that.

What I’m not sure any of us parents know how to do is explain this world as it is right now; we are leaving it to them after all. While social atrocities are anything but new to our time, they seem a particularly out of control, frequent, and hopeless bombardment. I don’t have a single answer besides to continue to love. So I turn back to these creatures, our entwined world quite small right now, but enormously important in terms of what is growing. I listen to a daughter introduce her mother as the future leader of our country, and I feel hopeful that love will continue to win.

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V’s feet. Photo: Lindsey Trent, Sweet Pea Photography

A blueberry bagel for you, Bluberri.

The long dress and its navy stripes and the picture I have of us in it.

Hearts, so many of them this week. I’ve found them all, I promise.

Your sisters in the morning. H. drawing chalk lines on the deck. V., here with your toes.

The heart books H. chooses to read over these days when its somehow possible to miss you even more… Now, as I close the door to her room we say to each other: “I carry you in my heart.” One day I will tell her and V. that I carry their brother, too. I carried him first.

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Piling into the car and driving to the nursery we visited last year on this day so H. could find the coy fish and the lilies. I turn off her music, find my own, and let it spill. I listen again and again:

Do you like walking in the rain?
When you think of love, do you think of pain?
You can tell me what you see
I will choose what I believe
Hold on, darling
This body is yours,
This body is yours and mine

H. exploring, her red backpack on for our big adventure. She peers over the concrete shelf and splashes at the lily pads. We find the small fish and then she goes looking for their mommies and their daddies, the bigger fish. V. sleeps in the stroller and H. holds my hand and I steer my brood through a tradition in a place where we haven’t lived for all that long. After lunch, we plant the rainbow pinwheel H. picked out in the herb pot on the deck and draw hearts.

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And after dark, the girls asleep, Ryan and I light the heart sparkler. There are drops, full but spaced apart, that fall on my bare shoulders. It’s almost rain.

The next day your littlest sister has her first round of vaccines. The temporary pain in her cries reminds of the deeper, enduring pain we didn’t ask of you. As we wait for the doctor, I fill out the form that screens for postpartum depression since, our doctor tells us, 75 percent of new mothers will experience some form of it during their baby’s first year. I wonder why I wasn’t screened after I had babies I couldn’t take home; only after I had babies I could. Nevertheless, I answer questions along the lines of:

Are you able to laugh at things just as much as before, not quite as much as before or not at all as much as before?

 

Before what, exactly? I want to ask.

Later in the day, I take your first little sister out for a walk with Ruby and inside the span of half a block, this happens. You heard the questions about walking in the rain, about laughing, and you answered for your mama. Thank you, Lorenzo.

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It Will Get Done

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This may be the best parenting advice I’ve received since V. was born, from a mother of three:

“Just let shit go… it’s ok. It will get done. Sleep!!!! Enjoy your baby.”

I’ve thought of it when the clutter, literal and metaphorical, rises, and thought I’d share. It applies to so much, I think. Shouldn’t we let go of all the non-essentials we can? We should accomplish in time, but also rest, also enjoy. No one gets to the end of her life and reflects on all the toys she put away. All the same, I’ve been meaning to tell you about two pieces published the month V. was born. It was nice to feel productive as a newborn nested on my chest, after the work had been done.

Most naps I still hold her and soak in her peace. Even though, if H. is also asleep, it’s the time I could technically “get something done,” like washing, drying, and folding the laundry. Or, returning email. Or, showering. Or, publishing a new post. But when the house is quiet, these respites of ours are also the only time I have to revel in her, the beautiful chaos of raising two momentarily settled down to our eye contact. After she closes hers, I close mine and drift, not to sleep, but into this kind of hum because I’ve decided to let the rest wait—the laundry and the peanut butter dried to the plate and the words lining up in my mind. I try to float there as you do on the surface of the water, hands softly sculling, part of your body in the water and the rest somehow not.

But it’s important to get here, to the words… though by the time I will really get going on this post, H. will be waking up. The laptop will be closed and pushed to the bottom of the bed and I will have the great privilege of holding H. as she slowly wakes up, a new routine she has instigated. As she tucks her arms under her belly and against my chest, V. will continue to nap alongside us. It will be all of five minutes, but this short rest of ours will fill up a part of my heart in a way nothing else can, and I will be grateful I didn’t miss it. I will remind myself of my friend’s words, that it’s all ok. My girls are here. They are healthy. They need me in ways they never will again. They cannot wait. The words will simply have to until another day rotates back to another hands-free hour.

And so it does. Herewith, two pieces marking new stages of the journey:

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I recently reviewed Poor Your Soul by Mira Ptacin for Literary Mama. Mira lost in the way we did. Her first baby. Incompatible with life. A heartbreaking decision. Being a writer, she also wrote it all down in this first literary memoir about TFMR. It’s incredibly validating to emerge from the margins with this kind of recognition. Within choice, however, our stories differ, as they should. As Mira writes of all that leads to choices like ours, there are:

“the moments and experiences that came before her loss, and the moments and experiences before the baby, the moments and experiences before those.”

And the moments and experiences that follow, I might add, because no story is ever only its ending. I’ve done my best to lay those down, too, with the story and its truth in a memoir of my own. It will be four years this Thursday, after all, since I held Lorenzo. So many moments before and since, though that one hour often feels like the nexus, connected now to the births of my daughters.

You may read my full review here. I encourage you to read Mira’s book and support these experiences.

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I’ve also gotten to a new aspect of the truth thanks to the On Coming Alive Project. Its founder, Lexi Behrndt, lost her infant son to CHD and asked me to participate. In so doing, she provided an opportunity to ask myself how I come alive on this journey, with its hearts and its words, and the little sisters it has led to. I took stock of where I am in my kind of motherhood, in its humbling tumult of joy and challenge and redemption. It is always and forever rooted in the most difficult decision Ryan and I ever had to make, but also in love and protection and mercy. So I come alive with that knowledge.

You may read my full answer to the question here, and I hope you’ll explore the other stories gathered around this idea of hope rising up from the ash. The Project includes stories of parents whose love and protection led to different answers. Even if so many of us arrive at loss, the story, again, is not only its ending, so they must share theirs and I, four years on, must continue to share mine.

Thank you to all of you who continue to read.

Little V.

I learned recently that in Korean culture, new parents traditionally didn’t take their babies out of the house or introduce them to family and friends for the first 100 days of life, at which time, a milestone birthday was celebrated—and still is. This custom stems from a time when childhood diseases were more common and the need for protection greater. I love this and still see a need for it, not just because our babies are the most vulnerable among us, but because we as their parents need this time, too. We’ll never have it back…

quite…

like…

this.

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For the past month, I’ve held in my arms as much as I can a brand new baby girl. Our second daughter, Little V, I’m calling her. Where her brother brought our parenthood, where her sister brought our happiness, V. has brought our peace. She has embodied it since the beginning and in so doing, inspires it. And, at night, when it’s just us in the big chair in our own little halo in the dark, she looks up at me with a heart-shaped face I swear to you I dreamed of, one with stories to share.

These first weeks, we have spent many of our daylight hours skin-to-skin. In the beginning, it aided nursing such a peacefully sleepy babe and then it became the magical bond it is known for, among offering many other benefits. I was able to do so much of it because Ryan was home for a time and my mom was also here, bless her, to entertain H., bring me the turkey sandwiches I’ve missed, stock our freezer, fold our laundry, and simply mother me so I could mother in turn. Because I knew H. was loved and looked after I could do for V. what I did for H. when she was brand new. I won’t soon forget holding one sleeping daughter while hearing the other’s laugh down the hall, and closing my eyes with that sense of relief in knowing my living children are finally here (much more about that over on PALS).

Now we are on our own. Ryan is back at work and my mom back in California. I have the joy of H. playing at my feet as I nurse. She climbs up on the ottoman, holding her lamb and its blanket the same way I hold V. and we read all her old books that now line V.’s shelves. Overall, she is rocking big sisterhood—loving and curious from the outset—and I am so proud of her for rolling along with such a major life change. “So tiny!” she says of V. And, “Where’s baby sister? I see her?” when she wakes up in the morning. She is eager to hold her, to play, to show her things. It is hard to temper her two-year-old energy until baby sister isn’t quite so tiny.

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It is also hard to give to both at the same time. I knew it would be, but I didn’t take into account the tiny heartbreaks throughout a day… When H. needs me and I’m nursing V. When V. needs me and I’m coloring with H. When I’m holding V., and H. reaches her arms up for the same comfort. Sure, there is patience and baby wearing and independent play and workarounds and more patience asked of each of us. And as my cousin Ginger put it, what attention they may ever lack will be made up for by the relationship they get to have with their sibling. There will be love and learning there, too, in ways Ryan and I only daydreamed about as we entertained ourselves in our childhood homes.

I poured so much of myself into H., around the clock, I worry that even my best attempt with V. will fall short because, meanwhile, H. is jumping on the couch or coloring the refrigerator. It’s another tiny heartbreak, but it also makes me hold on a little longer in the night after a feeding or when I put H. to bed. It means Ryan gets to do more for H. as I tend to V. and vice versa. It means I let go of more, which is why toys are still scattered everywhere so that I can type these words while both girls manage to sleep at the same time. In those ways, maybe the girls will end up with even more of me.

Whenever I can, I look a little more closely at these creatures Ryan and I made because time is moving even faster now. H. suddenly has all the words. Just shy of a month old, V., too, has grown into another phase. With new strength, she lifts her head and wants to see what else is going on. Our compressed version of the first 100 days is already changing into something else. And I’m eager to follow her gaze. Then, of course, there are the moments when I witness, throughout a day, two of my children sharing space and time, and my heart goes and breaks in the best of tiny ways.

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Life Right Now

We are on the cusp. Each of us. The baby inside, due to be born though she is already our second daughter. H., due to become a big sister though she already hugs, talks to, feeds, and plays music for the baby. Ryan and I, due to be changed again by meeting one of our children.

The cusp is also in the air. Between winter and spring, and snow’s progress back to rain. An occasional burst of sun and stiff wind.

We take stock in these moments, ask ourselves, “What do I want to remember about life right now?”

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I want to remember all of H.’s little sayings as her language fits her world together: “Hand to walk,” she insists, even if she only requires escort to the other side of the room. “I need help,” a reminder that despite how large she looms in my view, she is indeed “weaker, slower, and shorter than everyone else,” (Harvey Karp, M.D., The Happiest Toddler on the Block). “Closer me,” to be scooted up to the table. “Ruby want the paci/the bubbles/the peanut butter cracker?” and her other toddler ways of asserting what is hers.

I want to remember all that she tries to carry, around the house, out and about, and even to bedtime. These days, naps require big puppy, little puppy, her music box, her orange egg, Elmo, and one of her books. Bedtime is a revolving door for: toothbrushes, toy coffee pots, washcloths, purses, her red baseball cap, and whatever else has captured her imagination so fiercely that day she can’t bear to let go, and I can’t bear to hinder these props of her dreams.

I want to remember that she insists on wearing either her pink crocks or her purple snow boots. No exceptions.

I want to remember how relatively down pat we have things right now: a 24-hour schedule which more or less includes a decent night’s sleep for all of us, Ruby walks, a lot of play and books and music and friends and tantrums and evidence of my child’s imagination at work by what she strews across the room, my few hours to work while she sleeps, dinner as a family, our ritual snuggle before night-night. On the eve of a blessed upheaval, I want to remember that it took months and months to get here and to be patient as I get my bearings once again, to let the beautiful chaos of it all just be.

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As only children, Ryan and I are in awe that H. is due to meet a living sibling—something we can give them that we didn’t ourselves have. (That is a rare feat in our privilege.) We are also aware of how this will shift our parenting. Already, we are trying not to compare them. They are each independent, as Ryan and I grew up feeling, and I want to foster that awareness as much as I want to nurture the special bond possible between sisters. I want to remember that parenthood goal.

I also want to remember that right now I feel brave. Emotionally, this pregnancy has been challenging. People see me as an active mom now, as they should, but I am also still and always a loss mom, and with that comes a certain kind of anxiety, often exasperated by “standard” prenatal care that covers the basics but doesn’t necessarily account for all we carry along with our babies.

In order to center myself I remember that right now, me and Baby P are on this journey together. We are helping each other through in ways no one else actually can. I had a dream about her the other night. Flashes, really. Sunlight streaming in over her skin so new, the crease in her chubby arms. Reaching out to bring her little curl of a body to my right shoulder, where H. used to fit. As it all gets closer, I’ve been nervous when I wake in the night, and the dream was calming. Maybe she sent it. Maybe she already knows what it’s like to be someone’s sister because Lorenzo is teaching her. Maybe Lorenzo taught H., too, and that’s why she is already so loving. Maybe, in that way, they will all teach me.

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