Wobbling Toward Grace, Part 2 :: The Days of Beautiful Chaos

Wobbling Toward Grace, Part 2 :: The Days of Beautiful Chaos

*This is a Part 2 of a series. Read Part 1 here.

I was old when I became a new mom, and maybe that was what isolated me from the colleagues I had called friends. Also what made me overly protective and what motivated me to take 58,000 photos of my baby every week. I am also an introvert who found myself pregnant at 43, filled with a delight I had never expected I would, or could, experience, and which I had talked myself out of believing would ever be part of my life, talked myself into believing I, for some reason, didn’t deserve. And, like many new moms, I kept weird sleep hours. It was preternatural some nights. I would wake up wondering what had woken me up, and thirty seconds later, my baby boy would rustle in his side-sleeper, in the first stirrings of not-alert-yet infant midnight hunger.

walking with smartphone, Wobbling Toward Grace, Part 2 :: On Being Imperfect

I didn’t spend much time talking with grown-up human people.

I did spend a lot of time on my phone.

Specifically, in this Facebook group a friend from a different lifetime had added me to, a “mommy group” that doesn’t exist anymore. The group’s tag line was “because where else will we talk about poop?”

I joined Facebook in 2004, back when members prided themselves on how close to the double-digits their sign-up number fell. And there were some years when I posted all about everything, and other years when I posted nothing about anything; but when I was pregnant with our first child in 2013, I wrote letters to him every week, and posted excerpts from some of them. It was the most meaningful Facebook participation I had known in 9 years. And it was like a secret world, because most of the people I saw on a day-to-day basis in the three-dimensional world didn’t read them, or didn’t talk to me about them, and the people who did read them were all over the map. we didn’t see each other on a daily basis – except on Facebook.

And suddenly, I had a new man in my life, a tiny man who needed everything I had to give.

I didn’t have a lot of energy for department drama or room to care whether that one colleague I had tried so hard to be friends with was gossiping about me. Whatevs. Still, home for the semester on our made-up version of maternity leave, I had a lot of time for conversations. Some I had out loud, while nursing the baby or wheeling his jogger stroller down the block or rocking him in the rocking chair to get him to sleep. Most, though, I had inaudible interactions, using one thumb on the silenced touchscreen of my iPhone, chatting with other mommies.

I spent so much time on the phone, velcro-child affixed to my torso, that I developed arthritis in my left thumb.

Mommy groups can get a bad rap, and sometimes they deserve it. This one was different. It had one rule : Don’t Be A Dick. (I still try to live by that one.) Respect of other mamas’ choices and beliefs was a given; and in the years I was part of the group (until its founder dissolved it), I witnessed infractions of that rule I could count on one hand without using all 5 fingers. It was a good group, a good place for all kinds of weird mamas … including me.

my baby boo and me, circa december 2013, Wobbling Toward Grace, Part 2 :: On Being Imperfect

The group gave me a necessary connection which I couldn’t quite explain. I met women from the East Coast, from the West Coast, from other states in the South. Moms from Texas and Oregon and Minnesota (where, for some reason, there was a concentration), from Israel, from Sweden, from Japan. I got to ask the questions I didn’t have anyone local to ask. Like, why does my newborn’s poop have sesame seeds in it, I have never fed him a sesame seed and he only eats BOOB so far and how much do I need to freak out about this … and some lovely mama would answer that all newborns’ poop looks like sesame seeds, and everything was normal, and he was fine, and I was fine. It calmed me down until the next of the Thousand Thousand Things I Did Not Know And Had To Know To Keep My Baby Alive arose, when I would post in the group again, letter after painful letter with my left thumb, and wait for the reassuring blink of a new notification, and read the words from another mama in the night.

And it was night about half the time, because our baby could not sleep unless I was wearing him – not in a baby-wearing device, I mean, but literally wearing, as if his home were still underneath my skin. The rest of the time, the rest of that confusing, thrilling, daunting, upside-down-life when my little person was brand new, feels like a fog of dim afternoons. It was night inside me no matter what hour of the day. I rocked my baby and kissed his head and basked; and rocked my baby and kissed his head and cried, wondering how on earth I was going to take care of him and make sure he was safe, happy, healthy, kind, curious about his world, excited to learn, and had the things he needed.

I panicked, and I couldn’t explain it.

“Honey,” my husband suggested, concerned about my anxiety. “It’s all OK.”

Wobbling Toward Grace, Part 2 :: On Being Imperfect

“I don’t know how to do all this!” I responded once, in tears.

“You’re doing great!” my husband said gently, holding my hands. “He” – the baby – “knows you’re doing great. Abigail in Portland doesn’t know how to be his mama. Abigail Adams wouldn’t know to be his mama – you do.”

And I tried to explain a dozen things I didn’t have words for. Like – I missed being at work, where I had spent my 20s and 30s building a reputation as a professor and scholar. I missed knowing I could buy a plane ticket today and be in Paris next week, lost in an archive or at a café table with my notebook open flat on the tiny table, hours just walking and musing and being in my little interior world.

Sometimes awareness makes a feeling worse. I saw in full glaring detail the privilege I had just to be able to stay home with my newborn, to have the kind of job where (even though the university doesn’t have an actual “maternity leave” option) my department chair and deans were willing to work with me so I could stay home for these first indescribably wonderful months. I was so grateful, and so inside-out emotionally, and felt so guilty being unhappy about anything at all. I talked myself out of talking about it until those moments when I woke up my husband by accident (or by breast-pump percussion) and found myself weeping stupidly, unable to articulate what the matter was.

The matter was me.

I missed knowing who I was on so many levels. While pregnant, I had been fat and happy. Me, only rounder : me+. I had never in my life loved my body. And then for 41 weeks and 6 days, my body and I moved beyond just “détente cordiale” – we Wobbling Toward Grace, Part 2 :: On Being Imperfectbecame partners in an exciting venture, fellow travelers, collaborators on the Best Project Ever. For the first time in my 40-something years, I was grateful for my body, grateful to my body, for accepting this adventure and fostering a whole new life within me.

But then our baby was born, and my body fell apart.

It wasn’t just the sudden need for shirts in plus sizes, or the fact that my boobs seemed to explode every 45 minutes. In the hospital, I’d had to have 2 epidurals and an urgent C-section because my little boy’s heart had late decels. They gave me enough fluids for fourteen horses and I couldn’t pee for a day and a half. My legs were so swollen I couldn’t put weight on them right away. I had to haul myself up and down our stairs five times a day, doctor’s orders, to get all that fluid moving and draining, and it felt like climbing up a hillside of spindles. Then came the random thumb numbness and six weeks of immobilizing headaches and the day my husband looked at my face in alarm. “What??” I asked, panicked. “Your eye,” he said slowly. “It looks – droopy. Like you had a stroke.”

I looked in the mirror. Sure enough, my left eyelid had fallen about halfway down over my eye, like a window shade someone got interrupted letting down. It took 3 neurosurgeons and a stroke specialist in New Orleans to diagnose the problem. My carotid artery had dissected. Nobody knew why. “Why” didn’t matter as much as fixing it. I have a family selfie I had taken the night before my eyelid slipped. It was the last time my eyes both had the same shape.

There was so much physical need for the next several months that I shoved my emotions to the back of our disorganized pantry and engaged in a kind of magical thinking. You know, like “everything happens for a reason” and “we’re gonna get through this because we just have to get through it,” and even while uttering affirmations I carried a cartoon anvil at the pit of my stomach and felt like I was walking underwater. Sedated.

ankle swollen in last weeks of pregnancy, Wobbling Toward Grace, Part 2 :: On Being Imperfect
waiting for fluids to drain

I would never have said I had postpartum depression. I wasn’t at all depressed. I was anxious. 100% of the time. 1000%.

And since it wasn’t sadness, and since I have a lifetime of experience not talking about my mental health, I didn’t think I needed a doctor. When I did see my doctor – who is lovely and insightful and one of those rock-star women who, if she didn’t have up-close and personal acquaintance with my reproductive organs, I would absolutely want to be “it’s Friday, let’s ditch the kids and husbands and go for martinis” friends with – she asked if I was depressed and I said “no.” Because I wasn’t. I didn’t know that postpartum anxiety is also a thing, or that PPD can also manifest in racing anxious thoughts.

Mamas, if this sounds familiar, raise your hand. I know we can’t all see each other while reading, but I hope you (yes, YOU) are aware how many other mamas just raised their hands.

I had fallen into a trap I think probably many moms do. Maybe especially older moms? But not exclusively older moms, women who have put having babies on hold in order to establish careers and prove themselves in a professional environment. I had to be all-capable, The Woman Who Could Do Everything; handle every situation, preferably all at the same time. The successful professional woman, the woman who runs a 7-minute mile, the writer who keeps publishing two articles a year and a weighty book besides, the SuperMom bringing her baby to work and demonstrating what women are capable of in a changing society. Oh, and – without asking for help. I was terrified someone would see through the cracks in my system. “I can’t do it,” I whispered into the wisps of my baby’s fragrant hair. “But I will. I’ll do everything for you.” And then I would sob silently into that same silky hair because I couldn’t tell anyone what I knew. I couldn’t let on that this amazing gift I had received, this beautiful blessing, came with the certainty of failures.

wispy baby hair, Wobbling Toward Grace, Part 2 :: On Being Imperfect
wispy silky hair on the most perfect baby head

I knew I would fall short.

I typed out, into Facebook’s trademark grainy blue-grey text window, my fears and frustrations and panic attacks and the crazy pain-medication dreams (from yet another prescription that did not touch my constant headache). I posted how silly it seemed that driving to the Neighborhood Walmart with my baby and buying a pot roast had felt like such an accomplishment – and taken so much out of me.

“That first grocery store trip deserves a freaking parade,” one mama replied. I love that mama.

I posted about how sad I was that my body didn’t feel right.

“Your body is a temple,” another mommy commented; “and temples need restoration, right? Before you reno, you have to demo.”

(“I got that from HGTV,” she admitted in a follow-up comment.)

I told the mommies how confused I felt. How my baby would sleep peacefully until the minute after I had crept out of the room to go work in my study on the inenarrable book I was trying to finish writing – then, from the chair I had just lowered myself into, eyes still foggy with sleep, I would hear him start to whimper. He needed to nurse. So I heaved myself back out of the chair and sat in our rocking chair, nursing him and brooding about writing and feeling so guilty about having any feelings other than delight at being his mommy.

“It’s eerie, right?” a mommy commented. “Like … they KNOOOW. 👀”

“I used to put mine to sleep in weighted pants,” another awesome mama chimed in, and I gut-laughed until tears streamed down my face.

angry baby in ankle weights
weighted pants?

Weighted. Pants. It still cracks me up.

As a new mama, “I” had become plural. There was me, the me I used to be, and the me who had to be responsible for this fragrant wriggly gossamer life for the rest of forever. I didn’t know if the plurality meant “me+” or “me-,” this time.

I missed being able to go for a run or sleep in. Nobody had told me that alongside the joy of holding my beautiful infant in my arms, I could also mourn the feeling of carrying him inside me. His life expanding my ribcage and warming my bloodstream, his movements like tickles from the inside, the way I would place both hands on my belly and pray inwards, sending him love and light, and could see him in my mind, in my heart, swimming up toward that hand pressure and stilling with calm and tenderness. I could not have imagined that the gradual deflation of my swollen abdomen would bring me to tears, or that I would stop short with fear at the top of our staircase, feeling my way down carefully in case my arms gave out and I dropped the life that depended on me. I missed expecting.

Overnight, I had sunk from expectation into self-doubt.

I was “we.” We were “I”s. My own personal pronoun I, the me of me, was on hold, and in its place was this mixed-media collage of my book cover and a Moby wrap and crayons and lesson plans and a meeting I had to miss because the baby had a check-up and the meeting I had to take him to because we couldn’t find a sitter (and honestly I couldn’t bear to be apart from him) and the smell of his head and the smell of dried breast milk and spit-up all over my one clean nursing shirt because I hadn’t had time for laundry or a shower and I was too proud to ask for help and didn’t know who to ask anyway. And still, as exhausted as I was most of the time, as hard as it was to fit this new “me-suit” over a body I hardly recognized most of the time, all I had to do was lean in to his grasping little fingers and it all evaporated for some time. Sixty minutes? Twenty? Five? I’ll take it. Half my heart had migrated outside my body, and my body behaved differently, and the things that had occupied 100% of my time and attention just weeks previous no longer held my attention for very long.

“It will come back,” a mommy reassured me. “These are the days of beautiful chaos. It’s OK to call it by its name. Some days are a shitshow.”

 woman wearing hand-knit frog prince hat, Wobbling Toward Grace, Part 2 :: On Being Imperfect
One of the shit-shows : frustrated self hiding in unhappy-frog-prince hat

“ERMAGERD YES,” I replied.

“I used to call my own mom crying because I hadn’t slept in 3 days,” mommy Lauren offered. “She lives in another country, but she sent me a care package and a gift card for Panera because they deliver.”

“Genius!” mommy Kathy commented.

“I am CRYING with relief,” I typed.

It was the time before Mark Zuckerberg’s minions added the “compassion” emoji to Facebook’s range of reactions. A ❤️ popped up on the right corner of my comment. Mommy Sarah told me, without any words at all, that she got it.

And that was what I felt. Loved. Seen. Understood. And not alone.

I had one place where there was a community of mamas from all over the map. We lived in different ways. Some travelled for work, some worked from home, some were stay-at-home moms. Our common denominators: kids, poop, and being Mom.

I learned How To Be A Mom isn’t something you can teach another woman. But you can be her guide, her Person-She-Can-Facebook-Message-At-3-AM, her cheer-squad. You can remind her that everybody looks great from the outside, in pictures edited for Instagram, funny family anecdotes posted on Twitter. There is enough crap in the world separating women from each other. People provide plenty of reasons to judge other women, to turn our backs, to respond with indignation instead of the willingness to give the benefit of the doubt.

Those endless nights nursing my baby and my anxiety gave into days turning into months of days and nights and days and nights and more months with arguments and accidents and birthday cupcakes and afternoon visits to the splash pad or the pool at the YMCA, my phone always at my side, that telltale rectangular lump in my back jeans pocket, tucked into the top of a sports bra, or in the hidden pocket of my boots. It’s still there. I whip it into visibility for Surprise-Candid-Picture #578, record 1 second everyday to make a yearly Family Movie, and type out snippets of a conversation furiously, trying to capture the all-around hilarity of what it means to Be Us.

Statue of nursing mother in Siem Reap, Cambodia (June 2014), Wobbling Toward Grace, Part 2 :: On Being Imperfect
Statue of Nursing Mother (Siem Reap, Cambodia; taken in June, 2014, during my first academic conference after having a baby)

I try to remember to use both thumbs now. But … now I have arthritis on both sides. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Two mildly un-opposable thumbs, for nearly ten years of memories and sayings and tiny moments of grace that bring back rushes of joy?

Worth it. And these memories remind me that, whatever else I’ve done wrong, whatever I’ve been afraid of, however isolating it might have been (and is!) to Be A New Mom, or just Be Mom, or in fact let’s be honest to Be A Woman In The World, I’ve done … OK. My kids are good kids. They are curious and funny and kind (well, most of the time) and opinionated (all of the time). They are strong, and strong-willed, expressive, intuitive, intelligent, quick to forgive. Healthy and happy. Am I a perfect mom? NOPE. Do the kids fight? Yes. Do they get disciplined? Oh, yes. Do I – on occasion – lose my shit? Do I question my life choices? Do I rage-broom the living room when they leave wrappers and toys on absolutely every single surface? Yes. Yes, I do.

I could do this part better. I could moderate my reactions. I could “center.”

I get discouraged sometimes, but I don’t give up. That’s part of Being Mom too, learning these two things simultaneously: I am capable of improvement. And … I do what I can. I can always do better; sometimes I do.

There is joy in letting go of the need to be “perfect,” all things to all people. I have found, as an eloquent mommy once told me in the middle of the night, that every day is a day of beautiful chaos. I give thanks, now, for all of them then and now; they go by so fast. (I wonder, if I weighted my baby’s pants now, would he slow down and let himself stay little – just for a little while longer?)

I posted a lot to Facebook in the beginning, from quiet gratitude for small things like watching my baby learn what purring cats feel like, to huge discoveries like when he started to crawl, when he first ate solid food, when I found out I had won a grant to move to Morocco for a year, when I got pregnant again, at 45 (!), when my golden-haired baby came home from his preschool in Rabat singing a nursery rhyme in Arabic. I learned how to locate myself within all the “I”s. I am a mom, a wife, a Catholic, a professor, a writer, a researcher, a student, a volunteer birth doula, a musician.

Sometimes Being Mom means allowing extra space for all the ways of Being Yourself.

The posts I treasure from those earliest days are the ones where I asked yet another question about some new hurdle I didn’t know how to manage, and to which a woman from across distance and experience responded, saying, “you’ve got this, Mama.”

I learned, am always still learning, I will forever be plural. There will always be Me-From-Before, and New-Mom-Me, and Mom-Of-Big-Kids-Who-Were-Newborns-Five-Minutes-Ago-😭; and alongside all of them a Seasoned-Mama version who can stand beside a new New Mom, put a ❤️ on her post, and type across the digital ether, “You. Are. Doing. A. Great. Job.”

symmetry, Wobbling Toward Grace, Part 2 :: On Being Imperfect me, in front of seminar room at the Université de Paris-1, Sorbonne, Wobbling Toward Grace, Part 2 :: On Being Imperfect me, running Baton Rouge half-marathon, Wobbling Toward Grace, Part 2 :: On Being Imperfect

Rosemary Peters-Hill
Rosemary is Associate Professor of French Studies at LSU. She is a proud member of an unusual family in which she mothers two small humans whose intelligence and sweetness astonish her daily. She married the love of her life, twice, and is grateful for the chaotic, beautiful journey they have undertaken together. Rosemary's hobbies include photography, mystery novels, Candy Crush, improv piano, crossword puzzles, and crafts … she also makes soap. She has 58,567 photos on her phone and has been known to play violin and try aerial silks in public – not usually at the same time.


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