Surprise

Ingredients for a perfect Mother's day weekend:
-turning in final school assignment on Friday.
-glorious Saturday birthday party for a glorious five year old.
-early Mother's Day hike up the same Mountain that you saw five years ago with your sister, mother, husband and new daughter.
-beloved mother, husband, and children accompanying you on that hike.
-fancy, pansy brunch later on that day.
-e-mail message with the following guest post written by the sister that witnessed you become a mother five years ago.

My sister became a mother this year. Her son is the luckiest child ever to have the parents he has. They are truly incredible parents. What a blessed family they are. What a blessed sister I am. Happy Mother's Day, Sis. I love you. And Happy Mother's Day, friends.

Now, here's my sis. Please give her a warm welcome. I'll see you all back here next week.



SURPRISE

My son turned five months this week. His five month birthday arrived several days before Mother’s Day. How strange, how surprising that this year Mother’s Day means me. Five years ago, I spent an especially fine Mother’s Day greeting my brand new niece, Rachel, who was born the day before. I was at her birth alongside my sister (with her husband and our mother) when Rachel came tumbling out, landing soon after on my sister’s belly, with piercing eyes as she looked at her mother, then at each of us, not complaining as she was passed from arm to arm in those weepy, happy first moments.

Two and a half years later, I cried from the other coast as my sister went into labor with Hannah. I cried because I couldn’t be at her birth – I was struggling with professional demands at the university where I teach and couldn’t make it away that October, or even a few months later at Christmas, only meeting my spirited new niece the following summer when we all gathered at my mother’s Midwestern home. I also cried for another reason – here I was in my late thirties with no child of my own on the horizon, despite a growing collection of nieces and nephews. I cried all day as my sister labored. As many a doting childless aunt knows, there is a great joy but also a sad spot in accompanying the childhoods of one’s sibling’s children. Those tears brought resolution and that month D. and I decided to begin trying to have a child.

In the intervening two years I have stayed close to my nieces through my sister’s blog. I see them once or twice a year, but holiday visits don’t replace day-to-day growth and discoveries. Raehan’s vivid writing lets me see them much more clearly than they can see me (which is sad), but I take what I can get. Since the theme of this post is surprise, I have to say that I have been amazed and awed by this blog. I’m not just amazed because my sister is such a good writer (I knew that already), nor because she brings people I love to such astonishing life, but also because of all of you. What an amazing, caring, funny, spirited, poignant community! I’ve started to comment just a little on a few sites, but I’ve been browsing and lurking for a while, especially those of you who were pregnant at the same time I was. As with my nieces, I know you better than you know me, but since I can’t quite see myself starting a blog anytime soon, you’ll have to be content with this post. My little sister has very big shoes, and I was humbled when she asked me to guest post.

To continue the story – becoming a mother did not come easily. We tried on again, off again for about a year and a half. We felt like we were leaping into the abyss – at the time, we were teaching at different universities in cities five hours apart, struggling with two-career academic challenges, both untenured, futures uncertain. But the biological clock kept ticking and we knew it might be now or never. It’s hard now to recall the anxiety of that period – I was struggling to finish a book that I needed for tenure while commuting five hours on alternate weekends, trying to keep track of my fertility and all of the stress that involves. Slowly, however, things fell into place. My book got finished, D. got a job only an hour and a half away, my professional situation looked a little more stable. Then, as I described a few days ago in a comment on Angie’s site, I turned 40. I got my period that birthday morning, while visiting my other sister and her kids. I was devastated. As a generally cheerful person, I never expected to be hit so hard by a simple birthday. I sobbed to D. some gibberish about heading over the hill, it was downhill from here. Luckily he talked some sense into me on the train ride home, reminding me of so many new things that we were beginning at that moment. I resolved to try one more month, then get myself checked out at a fertility clinic. No need! That month, I conceived. And 38 weeks later, Jeremy was born.

Jeremy surprised us by arriving over two weeks early, while I was still finishing up my teaching for the semester. We were counting on those last two weeks to get ready – clean the house, set up the nursery, buy the carseat. But my water broke and we found ourselves on the way to the hospital, astonished that we were actually going to have a baby – now! Having been at Rachel’s birth, I was prepared for a tough labor, but hoped for a quick pushing stage like my sister. Surprise! I found the labor surprisingly manageable, as I bounced on a birthing ball and D. helped me do yoga breathing through the contractions. But my pushing stage was much more difficult and painful than expected, lasting seven hours as the baby’s head lodged in my pelvis and my pitocin-induced contractions turned wimpy. My all-natural birth plan went out the window. But I narrowly avoided a C-section thanks to Jeremy’s resilience, along with two midwives and doctor who gave me every chance to keep pushing him out. Jeremy was taken to the special care nursery for monitoring after the tough delivery. I was manic as I woke up every two hours and rushed through the hospital corridors to nurse my baby. He seemed to get the hang of it and by the second night, he was rooming in with me.

Two days later, we brought him home. We were joyous and awed as we took him out of the carseat and unwrapped his winter bunting. Our son! We snuggled close on the sofa, staring at this child that had fallen into our arms. He seemed unfazed by his new environs, but our house – bought only months earlier – seemed somehow transformed, glowing and resonant as I nursed our new baby to the CD my sister had burned for me (yes, the same playlist of favorites she posted here last summer!).

While I felt reasonably prepared to be a mom, I was caught off guard by the sheer terror of that first night. I was convinced that there was no way our beautiful baby would last the night if we ceased our vigilance and went to sleep. So many odd grunts and snorts, irregular breathing, a kaeidescope of facial expressions – we had been warned that newborns were like this but it’s still a shock to hold that small warm sweet fragile mysterious terrifying being in one’s arms.

Happily, he did survive that night, and the next night, and the one after that, and slowly we began to realize that this small being was sturdier then he appeared. The next few weeks were the usual whirl of exhaustion and exhilaration, a sort of timeless period where you lose the ordinary sense of schedules and timelines and become immersed in baby time, as we and our son struggled so find some order and understanding in this strange new world. We are very thankful to my own mother who helped to smooth the transition to parenthood. She witnessed Jeremy’s birth and then spent two weeks setting up the nursery, cooking us meals, organizing our closets, and offering useful parenting tips that we now appreciate even more.

Here are five surprises I have encountered in the last five months:

1. I always knew I would breastfeed, as my mom had breastfed all three of us and my sisters had done the same with their six babies. But I didn’t know it would be so hard!!! I persisted through the first week or so of cracked bruised nipples and latching challenges, and just when I thought I had those mastered, ran into strange fussy eating patterns and mysterious supply issues that had me tearful and baffled. Breastfeeding in the early months is a zig-zag between ecstasy and anguish. There is nothing so sweet as when your baby is feeding peacefully at your breast. There is nothing so miserable as when for some unknown reason you can’t seem to feed your child. I got some terrific help from other mothers at the La Leche League online forum. I found I had an oversupply issue rather than undersupply, and now at five months things are MUCH easier. We are still breastfeeding and Jeremy is very healthy and growing well. While I don’t agree with LLL on all points, I appreciated the observation of one experienced mom on the forum who noted that breastfeeding is something you do with your child, not to your child, so you need to figure it out together. I currently spend a lot of my life doing it, so I’m glad that we now seem to be pretty much in sync.

2. I have been surprised by how unlike a baby my baby is. Actually, that was his daddy’s observation, but I’ll poach it from him. D. had previously had very little experience of babies, but his image of them was of passive, doll-like creatures that eat, cry, sleep, and poop. Our son does all of these things, of course, but is so much more active and expressive than we expected, even as a tiny newborn – and certainly now at five months. We have been fascinated and amazed as we interact with this strong-willed, observant, energetic and increasingly curious and playful little person as he learns to engage and absorb the world.

3. I have been surprised by how challenging it is to find the balance between helping him learn and letting him figure things out for himself. As he approaches each developmental hurdle – learning to hold his head steady, to grasp objects, to lift his head on his belly, and now to roll over – we want to nudge him along, alleviate his frustration, show him the way it is done. But I also believe he needs to experience the joy of struggle and discovery. How much frustration is too much frustration? How can I respect his own (somewhat jagged) rhythm of discovery? How much should I leave him alone as he works things out, and how much should I be right there at his side cheering him on? I know that this dilemma doesn’t let up anytime soon.

4. I have also been surprised by hard it is to do anything else while caring for my son. I feel very lucky to have a year at home with him, a combination of maternity leave and sabbatical. But I imagined it would be easier to get some work done on the side. Even though I’m not teaching, I have a steady stream of things I’d like to get done – grad students who need tending, reviews to write, emails to answer, final edits on my book. One of my colleagues told me that “half your brains flow out with your breastmilk,” and I now kinda get her point. For the first few months I was so completely absorbed by new motherhood (not to mention exhausted) that it was impossible to think of anything else. Now that I’m finally getting a bit more rest and we are finding our routine, it is still challenging – particularly with a baby who only takes half hour naps and until recently, wouldn’t take a bottle. I’m now escaping to the library for a few hours while D. takes Jeremy several times a week, but still working at a much slower pace than I had been accustomed to.

5. Finally, I have been surprised and delighted by watching my beloved D. grow with his son. First, there was the rush of emotion in the hospital when D. told me, with typical understatement, that he was “rather taken by” our shiny new son, who seemed to recognize his voice. Then the alarm a few days later when D. realized that Jeremy could tell the difference between us - the hungry little fella would take one look at his face and start to bawl. D. has struggled to figure out how hold and soothe him, and we’ve gone through a couple of “mommy only” periods which were a little hard to bear. But now Jeremy’s face lights up whenever D. comes in the room. I hear them laughing together right now on the baby monitor, playing upstairs in the bedroom. D. reads to our son, takes him for long walks, changes piles of diapers, plays with him on the mat, talks to him about everything, paces with him when he fusses, and now even manages to give him occasional bottles of expressed breast milk. I have loved watching us become a family, and look forward to many years of growing together.

With that I’ll close this Mother’s Day reflection. Raehan asked me to write what is in my heart right now, so this is it. This, and the intoxicating scent of our son as I scoop him up and kiss his warm head. Maybe sometime in the future I’ll treat you to some sisterly reminiscences about our childhood (and then Raehan can respond with her own, often quite different recollections!). Thanks, Rae, for inspiring me all of these months with this blog, and for introducing me to such a warm and fascinating community.