I unpack the bag and pluck out my fears—
used tissues pinched by fingertips—
the truth of me smeared and hidden
lest anyone see I’m leaking.
Cringe and flinch at the caricature
my husband’s ex must make of me,
the time she caught me coveting her
well-lit composition and poise.
My finger tap, a signal
she was neither out of sight nor out of mind.
My envy was lint in the side pocket
that, unballed, began as threads
from past betrayals and itchy scabs
I picked until they oozed.
In youth I feared deep loneliness,
the loss of power in a room of men,
a roving eye that paused for me but never
Now the vows babies mortgages
bind me tight just as I wished.
In exchange, my solitude, a price I paid
with loose pennies from my purse.
I was as round as a meal, as pregnant as a pause, a hen in the chicken coop tending to my eggs. Our friends outside circled around the picnic and my blood drained out in clumps. The fibrous exodus of a hoped-for future inscribed farewells on the surface of the water. I sealed my heart to slow the flood And returned to the party, a tomb.
Here’s the thing about motherhood—it is the entrance into a perpetual, fluid experience that you can influence, but you cannot control.
It is a state of relationship to a child born, unborn, yearned for and not yet. It is a moment where you cease to be the primary protagonist of your story. Your storyline splits and there are two versions: the you that you knew before and the us. This is not to say that your needs or desires as a person cease to exist, but rather that your purpose becomes deeply intertwined with something other. Your locus of control shifts. Diverts. It’s no longer just about you.
Getting to motherhood is messy, regardless of how it happens. Whether it was an instance of failed birth control, or an exhausting marathon of hormone injections and timing, or a phone call on an afternoon that the paperwork is complete, the stars aligned, and you’ve been granted the chance to share a life with a child you haven’t met. None of us gets a guarantee.
I have been pregnant twice but have one child. Like so many, my path to motherhood didn’t progress in a linear fashion. My husband and I experienced a pregnancy loss the first time we conceived. It was devastating. There was nothing we could have done to change the outcome, and it was a too-personal example of the unpredictability of life.
I adore my son. He is light and exploration. He is curious and confident. His hunger is a guttural grumble that will not cease, and even when I’m cleaning bodily fluid off of his tiny body and mine, the exquisite intimacy of our duality is palpable. I reflect often on the specialness of this force we set into motion that grows and learns of his own accord. I can influence, but I cannot control.
I watch him first observe, then practice, then emulate basic words. His shaky muscles propel a reach and a grasp until, after repetition and willpower, they push and pull his body into sturdiness. His brain makes connections between events that I did not weave together. The light switch and the lightbulb. The drop of the spoon and the clatter on the ground. The wiggling fingers lifted in salute, and the corresponding wave from the stranger on the sidewalk. No amount of organic food, scheduled sleep and wake windows, educational toys, or screen time limits can ensure who he will be. I can influence, but I cannot control.
His firsts are my firsts, too. I flex shaky muscles in ways they haven’t been used. I learn to navigate a new body, unfamiliar in both its form and its habits. Thinned hair, widened hips, a moon cycle unpredictable in its intensity. I toddle through the world in continual surprise that the assumptions I took for granted have changed. A yoga squat is easy. A full body plank is hard. I learn how to hold the squiggly line of a kid as I thread him through a sweater. I realize he has preferences as he smacks the spoon of chicken and lentils away from his mouth. I become proficient in a language I didn’t know—one where pitch and tone of a cry tells me the depth of pain or the shallow unease of over-tiredness.
On this Mother’s Day I lay in bed for ten greedy minutes and suppress the guilt that my husband is doing all of the morning child-rearing tasks. Because of the holiday I can get that guilt into a dense, flat circle about the size of a dime, but it never goes away. With the space left behind from that guilt vacuum, I instead write this:
If you, too, are in the slippery throes of uncertainty, the unease of newness, the frustration of circumstances you used to be able to hold tightly in your grasp, hello. I am here, too. Even if no one brings you French toast in bed, or your child is waiting on a diagnosis, or you are in the umpteenth round of IVF and can’t see the reward on the horizon, know that you are part of something larger than yourself. We are here, the other mothers swaying in the breezes of change, and we see you. Big hugs on this day, of all days. You are enough.
Artists and interior decorators know the meaningful impact negative space can make. It is the high ceiling, the white canvas around a complex shape, the emphasis of that which is not the center of attention. And sometimes, they play with this concept. What can the piece be if the negative space is the focus, when more is actually less, when the absence centers us and brings us something we hadn’t expected? It is Rubin’s vase, Escher’s tessellations, the Japanese garden.
I reflect today on what Ursula K. LeGuin translates from the Tao Te Ching as “The Uses of Not.” I am often focused on what I need to do, who I need to be, the things I must provide. My best friends share, half with laughter and half in lament, about their chronic exhaustion. They are the best and brightest among us, and we are all tired. Why? Who whispered in our ears that to be of value we had to give it all? I question if we should want the brass ring if the contest emaciates us in the process.
I was very tired yesterday evening. I pushed through a long day of work and back-to-back meetings with that five o’clock hour shining like heaven from my pit of darkness. That peaceful light was an illusion, however, since leaving work means clocking in as a mom, holding down the fort as my husband, Alex, walks the dog, planning for dinner, sneaking in some laundry or dishwashing, and also choosing between quality time with Alex, relaxation, reading, writing, and exercise. I squeeze so much of my favorite parts of life into the last hours of the day. Most of what I live for happens after the sun has already descended.
Somehow, I pushed myself to a yoga class. I knew my body needed to move after sitting still for so long. In those sixty minutes, our teacher led us through a series of asanas, or poses, designed to help us reconnect our minds with the reality of our bodies. She encouraged us to set down the busyness at the edge of our mats and, each time our minds reached out to pick that busyness up, to gently bring our attention away from there and back to our breath.
I found myself expending effort to unweave exactly the mindset I’d worked all day to knot together. The efficiency and rapid multitasking I used from 8:00 to 5:00 were crowding into the rest of my life. I felt guilty when not accomplishing two things at once or missing items on my personal To Do list. I constantly calculated the opportunity cost of choosing one priority over another. I needed to carve negative space back into my day. The air moving in and out of my lungs was the focus.
Hollowed out, clay makes the pot.
Today, as I plan my day and week, I am working to protect moments of rest throughout my schedule. In those minutes where I am not obligated to do anything, I can replenish my resources and strengthen my mental acuity for the realities of my professional life. I bring my best, most empathetic and strategic self when my wick isn’t burned down into the candle wax.
What about you? Does rest feel like a luxury that you need to deprioritize for more urgent matters? Is it a reward that you crave once the work is done? What if the work is never done? Perhaps you, too, could be sustained by the reminder that rest is not a reward, and it’s not meant for occasional self-care. It’s a basic human need. And living without it is diminishing our creativity, our empathy, and the core quality of our lives.
Naked as a babe I stand,
and survey the damaged hills
and valleys of my skin—
familiar landscape made foreign.
If my body was the temple,
you were the holy spirit
that craved a fragrant sacrifice
of blood and milk to bless
the world with hope.
I wonder now at what I am:
the other side of a miracle.
The altar stained, the crowd dispersed,
Remember when the angels sang,
the earth split, the sea rose?
What wonders to behold!
Now my belly is a billowed shroud,
the body gone, the body risen.
I am the imprint, faint and faded,
touched by God.