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Thursday, December 10, 2015

What I Learned on My Maternity Leave

This is intention No. 952 to write this blog since my second son, Joshua, was born eight weeks ago. For the first four weeks, even walking up to turn on the computer seemed an insurmountable task in the midst of feeding, pumping, changing, washing and the interminable newborn screaming that made it impossible to think straight.

A few days ago I turned on the computer, opened a page, and I started typing - only to have Josh wake up three minutes later.

I may not finish again today. But it seems essential and important to record these learnings.

See while the world continued on its way ... while Paris burned and San Bernardino wept ... while Donald Trump spewed inanity and Americans cowered and wondered, holding tightly to handguns and maybe one another -- I wiped a newborn butt, to the tune of 20 diapers per day. I waited for him to fart and looked up techniques for releasing newborn gas. I may have purchased a device called "The Windi."

I wondered: did he weigh enough? Too much?

I drank supplemental "milkmaid" tea. I iced my chest. I put a heating pad on my chest.

I took antibiotics for a breast infection. I applied cream for thrush. I got strep throat and took antibiotics again.

I took a probiotic to get rid of all those antibiotics.

I wondered what I was eating that was making him cry.
I wondered what I was eating that was making me cry.

I stopped eating dairy, caffeine and chocolate. I drank my first beer since becoming pregnant and then gave that up in case that, too, was giving him gas.

My Google search history was dominated by searches about boobs and poops. My 3-year-old wondered what had happened to our special bond. My husband wondered where his dynamic, successful wife had gone - replaced by a quivering, anxious, insecure new mom.

We thought this time we had it down - that we'd learned and now, the second time around, we were pros.

Except each new child throws you back again. The same emotions, fears, joys and thrills - tempered perhaps this time but there nonetheless.

My first son was born when I was just 27 years old - living in a 1BR apartment in the San Francisco Bay Area, and finishing up my seminary degree to become a Lutheran pastor. I had no maternity leave and no break from classes, but I also had no job for the first 11 months of his life.

Now I had a new congregation who depended on me, a fellow pastor awaiting my return, and a 3-year-old who had already moved across the country just months before this new little brother had shaken up his reality once again.

I told myself that this time I wasn't going to gain the 70-some odd pounds I had the first, but despite eating healthier and exercising more -- it happened again. A cashier at Costco asked me, two weeks after Josh's birth, if I was pregnant again already -- despite the newborn in my arms. I comforted myself by thinking: at least I still look pregnant and not merely massively overweight.

I told myself this time I'd give birth naturally, and I ended up with my water breaking almost a week late - failure to progress - failed epidural - and eventually, an emergency C-section that all but guaranteed that this would be my last child. With the C-section came the ugly abdominal reminder of womanly failure, the slow progress and retightening of stomach muscles and skin that had been stretched beyond what seemed possible.

There were pads for everything, everything leaked. I felt homely and ashamed and yet at the same time filled, remarkably, with love and wonder and amazement. I begged Joshua to sleep and then when he did I awaited his reawakening eagerly, rushing to his side: "I missed you!"

It's no wonder my husband thought I was crazy. The hormones, the sleep deprivation, the loss and reintegrating of identity -- it was crazy.

I read the news each day as I nursed Josh: Syed Farook, Paris, Cruz, Rubio, Clinton, Trump, China -- a big world was out there and my world had become so small. I forgot my accomplishments, as a writer, as a speaker and a preacher - and my sole worth became tied to the size of two stomachs: was Josh's big enough, and was mine small enough.

Around 7 weeks old, back from a trip to the in-laws for Thanksgiving and just about over a familial bout with strep throat, my husband Ben and I seemed to stop merely surviving and be able to take stock of our lives. We worked on a morning routine with our 3-year-old and started a loose schedule with our newborn. We took family photos on the beach and I tried not to cringe at the size of my butt. I started to breathe purposefully, occasionally. I would be returning to work in one week, and I knew once there I would miss this time - even if I had spent a good part of it wishing it away.

Maybe you've been on maternity leave, or home with a newborn, and you can relate to this. Maybe you're wondering about the alien who has replaced your wife after the birth of your newborn. Maybe you're pregnant and wondering what to expect ...

I know your experiences won't be mine. But I can at least be honest and share the lightness and darkness of an incomparable time in a woman's life. Because when all you read is: "I am panicking about going back to work, I can't bear to leave my baby -- and your baby has been screaming for 3 hours straight and you are missing your professional setting and the vocation God has given you -- maybe it's time for a balanced approach, full of love, admiration, and maybe even some humor.

Here's what I learned on my maternity leave:

1. It's not fair. The very fact that MAternity leave is guaranteed and PAternity leave is mostly a pipe dream shows the unbalanced approach we Americans, and most of the world, have to parenting. After a major abdominal surgery, most men would be laid up - waited on for six weeks with Netflix and healthy meals and physical therapy appointments. They certainly would not be tasked with the care of a newborn, who would rip at their nipples until they bled, and refuse to allow more than 37 minutes of sleep at one time. These men would also not be expected to "enjoy every minute" of this "recovery" time. My husband is a wonderful, loving, devoted man and father. He also will never understand what it's like to give birth, and then stay home alone with a newborn five days a week while he returned to work. I've often thought what would really be great is if men could nurse while women recover from childbirth - but God decided to give us gals all the fun.

2. It's intense. Josh was entirely dependent on me, for everything - just as he was in the womb, except now he was out of it, and he was loud! I had no idea what he wanted. I lived in a perpetual state of anxiety for several weeks, especially after he lost more than 2 pounds after birth due to my milk's late arrival. I'll never forget that initial piercing cry, as he was desperate for food. Even after now chunking up nicely and becoming a regular chowhound just like his brother, he seems to never forget that urgency to eat: immediately.

3. It's as boring as it is intense. Work is often intense, but it comes with rewards and validation. Complete this task - write this sermon, plan this service -- and then celebrate as the Holy Spirit comes and people are filled with the message of Jesus Christ. On maternity leave, no one says as they walk away: "Hey GREAT diaper change! You really nailed that one. It hit me."

"Wow, AWESOME breastfeeding. So inspiring."

Instead Josh would often respond to my AWESOME nursing or diaper changes with sheer screams. He was, like his brother, a vocal child. I initially thought he was always hungry (see No. 2) which resulted in overeating and tons of tiny poops and farts.

But even though I was doing something immensely important, the day-to-day moments were boring. I didn't have anyone to talk to. I relished preschool drop-off so that I could say hello to an adult. Once Jake's preschool teacher hugged me and I felt tears roll down my face as I breathed heavily. It was pathetic and poignant all at once. I tried to plan one major outing a day. Trader Joes and Target never felt so wild and crazy.

4. It's lonely. I don't know why we Americans tend to do this, and maybe I contribute to this by isolating myself, but we tend to isolate our new moms. It's almost as if moms give birth, spend a couple of weeks with visitors and family -- and then in those crazy weeks from 2 to about 6-12 -- we leave them alone, waiting for them to emerge with shiny hair and flat stomachs, and children who survived the first three months without society's interference, or help.

I felt immense pressure to "look good" and to immediately slim down after giving birth. It consumed me nearly as much as the pressure to feed Josh enough and also somehow keep the house and my 3-year-old functioning. I'd done it once before - without another son - and I'd seen my friends do the same. You even see it on Social Media. Watch a new mom's Facebook page. There's the hospital photos, the one and two-week photos - and then things usually go dark for a month or two, perhaps with the occasional selfie or post to a mommy's group. The mom reemerges in month 3: thinner, heading back to work, with a child who now somewhat sleeps and eats in a regular fashion. All is well, except you didn't see the battle she endured to come out the other side.

With my first son I was able to join a new moms group through the hospital at 6 weeks, but this time nothing like that was offered and I couldn't really find much online. I went to one group, but only three of us came, and it was loosely organized. I called friends back home, called my mom way too often, and spent tons of time on Internet groups filled with new moms like me, obsessing over questions to which there was no possible answer except the passage of time.

I knew this intellectually, but I still bought the $20 gripe water in hopes it would help.

5. You always think your child is the only one who ... but he or she is probably normal.

I was convinced I was cursed with overly fussy, alert, wild, difficult children. Now I think perhaps I'm just overly honest and other people lie. And I'm impatient and overly Type A.

My pediatrician didn't help matters one day when I brought Josh in. He examined him, checked him out in the midst of a crying fit and said: "He's fine. He's just a REALLY fussy kid."

The dr went on to say that some kids will just sit and be content. But Josh was tense, super alert, super strong, and intolerant of much manipulation from outsiders. Perhaps it's no coincidence this description also fits me, my husband, and our older son.

You can't escape your genes when you have (biological) children. I'm sure even adoptive parents notice their traits rubbing off in ways they may not expect. But despite each baby's quirks, usually - things are normal. That incessant crying: normal, and will be outgrown. Just when you try just about every remedy possible, you realize - they've outgrown it and now something else is wrong.

6. There is no one way to be a good mom.

Right now it seems "attachment parenting" is en vogue. Babywearing, breastfeeding constantly, no schedules, cosleeping -- all are on the rise. This isn't really my nature. I like my space when I sleep at night, and in general. I also enjoy my identity as a working parent, and "attachment parenting" doesn't fit with my role as a full-time pastor.

So often I felt "less than." I bought the baby wraps -- and actually liked them. And this time I did decide keep breastfeeding, though it was mostly because I thought I'd lose weight - and only became manageable when I instituted a schedule and stopped feeding on-demand at 7 weeks.

There are also the CrossFit moms. The "glamourous" moms. The "Pinterest" moms. Whole ways of being. I saw it all at preschool drop off and lamented my own schlubby, disorganized, store-bought snack self.

But my boys love me, and I love them SO MUCH. As my leave ends this week, that's what I know most of all. That despite the lack of sleep, the identity crisis, the raging hormones -- having a baby INCREASED the love in my life. My capacity to love has expanded yet again and for that, in spite of Donald Trump and ISIS and the hatred that surrounds our world today, I am grateful.

I looked again today at those Christmas photos we took when Josh was 7 weeks old. This time I looked past my expanded waistline, that wide butt, the double chin -- and I looked at the expression on my face in the photo I took just with my husband.

It was recognizable. The same exact expression I had five years ago when we took our engagement photos in Minnesota: unencumbered by parenthood, marriage, "adult" concerns. We still looked at each other the same way. Love had endured, except now - I looked not only at him, but at our two little boys in that same exact way. Whatever size I was post-pregnancy, I looked the same because I was filled with unremitting love.

It reminded me that I was the same person I always had been, just swelled with life and with love.
I was exactly the kind of mom God intended me to be.

I was enough, and so was God's grace.