My foot slipped from under me,
knocking the other out of the way,
but I recovered and said to myself,
"It's a slip and not a fall."
– Abraham Lincoln
Photography was a gem for me. It helped me cope during Jon’s deployment. It gave me a much-needed creative outlet during my “playtime” in medical school. And as my skills grew, my camera grew. And my business grew. Capturing life was honorable and enjoyable-it reminded me of why living and loving and friendship and faith were such important bookmarks.
But the irony came when I didn’t want to take pictures of my baby. Without iphones and Instagram, I’m not sure Thatcher’s first months would be captured. My memories of them are formed through photos—my own mind provides only deep space of sleepless nights, feelings of inadequacy, and innocent threats to my own self-worth. I felt frozen, symbolically cold. Looking back, I realize now that I did things because I was supposed to. I took him for walks. I gave him tummy time. I dressed him and changed him and fed him. And I suppose that I loved on him.
It was months before I finally starting loving him.
I cringe even writing that. Mom’s are supposed to love their babies. A new-mom-friend texted me last week and told me that she couldn’t wait to pick her baby up after their nap. Another cried at the thought of going back to work. The harsh truth is that I wasn’t in a good place. My valley was deep. I couldn’t wait to put Thatcher down for his naps—my space bubble was invaded all hours of the day and night. Going back to work wasn’t negotiable for me, and so we dealt emotionlessly with the throes of pumping and feeding and nursing and schedule changes and long-call-shifts and unpredictability. I shed no tears over my return to the job—if I’m honest with myself I was excited to get back to the only scheduled thing in my life.
The fog started lifting around the 10 month-mark. I was back to (and well-below) my pre-pregnancy weight. My boobs were finally tamed and I no longer had to bite Popsicle sticks during nursing sessions. We’d successfully made it through 4-failed-“Get Your Kid to Sleep” books, 1 horrendous OB call month, 35 days of Daddy being away, and 7 months of working-pumping-not-sleeping-during-residency insanity. And while I was certainly still feeling insane, the communication between Jon and I was finally turned back on. We started to connect again. He’d found his way through the spiderweb of feelings I had spun and figured out how to best support me. And I took my “my kid screams all the time” earplugs out long enough to listen to his feedback.
We’d made it through the lowest point in our relationship. And though involuntarily and probably subconsciously, I’d started to hike out of my own valley.
I gave up my cleaning schedule. My floors were swept every 2 weeks and collected crumbs and dirt and mud and tears and dust bunnies in between. I’d managed to plant a garden during the summer (I needed something to do during the 2+ hours of cry-it-out each night) and felt satisfied about the freezer stocked well with harvest. Our marriage was growing stronger—slowly and painfully, but growing. And miraculously, Thatcher had survived my black abyss that clouded the first months of his life. I finally started to enjoy him—the smiles and babbles and food-fights and habits that he had developed shone light into the fading darkness.
His sleeping is still irregular. But around 15 months, another month of OB-call shifts forced him into a more rigorous schedule. We are still waking up 1-4 times per night. He is almost two. I’m waddling now from another baby on the way (1 month and counting). And the truth is that I’m in a much better place. Sometimes memory gets in the way of living. In this case, though, it is memory that provides life. I didn’t realize the depth of my despair as a new-mommy until recently—friends having babies and being in such different places than I was served as a hot-plate of reality that what I referred to as a “blur” or even “post-partum adjustment” was depression. It was true and real and unsympathetic.
The scientist in me still attributes it to changing hormone levels, a c-section with maximum intervention, and a personality that goes against the grain of deep sentiment. But I’m learning to be a realist with my feelings and call things as they are. And although it has taken me almost 24 months to fully admit it, I was depressed. Those months were hard and dark and the despair ran deep. The feelings of inadequacy plagued every breath and utter exhaustion filled every space in my life. The self-criticism was ruthless and pungent—its stagnant odor piercing everything from body image to baby gear. I think if I am honest with myself, I’ve always viewed depression as a form of mal-adaptive weakness. In other words, something that certainly was not me.
But it was me. And in many places, it still IS me.
There is a certain amount of fear that hops alongside the depressed—like a remora on the back of an aging whale. The fear dictates feelings and hopes and dreams and emotions. And when pressed the wrong way or twisted the wrong direction, it bites.
My 4-inch surgical scar was just the beginning.
My identity as a mom is still in flux. The truth is that I hope it always will be. Stagnation forms blood clots and smelly ponds—two things my heart and life don’t need. I’ve had to re-evaluate my priorities (more than once), (try to) give up my self-fulfilling desires, and learn the hard way that I’m not number one in my life. Perhaps this is obvious to most mom’s. Our culture feeds a pre-packaged meal of low-fat love and chemically-laden falsities when it comes to parenthood. The glam is highlighted in golden sparkles and the trenches are made out to be for weak ones. But the truth, as I am learning, is that LIFE happens in the trenches and valley’s and deep, dark places. It is dirty and tiring and dangerous and sometimes it is stagnant.
Babies come and leave cuts and scars and bruises. They give us wrinkles and gray hairs and saggy stretch-marked skin. Along with the package of parenthood are free sleepless nights and bubbling frustration over spilled fingerpaints and cultural fallacy that bunnies and fulfillment are at the end of each rainbow. But also with those sleepless nights, toothless smiles, and (out)bursts of joyous emotion from unregulated toddlers is rich, rich reward that cannot be duplicated or imitated. For as much as Thatcher has taught me about parenthood, he has managed to teach me more about myself—my selfishness, my commitments, and my timeline—none of which were ever mine to control in the first place.
Many days of the week, I am still a disappointment. I lose my temper. I find myself playing with the fire of high expectations. And what I’m guilty of most is missing the blessings disguised in unpredictability.
Maybe parenthood itself is a valley. And on our way up to sea-level, maybe we are meant to brave the rocks and dirt and smelly pond water. It is inevitable that we will stumble. We will learn to work hard and play harder. We will learn to love the trenches--and decorate the walls with Pinterest crafts and clean the floors every 2 weeks because it is all we can mentally handle. And somewhere along the way, we’ll learn to embrace our scars. The old ones that have healed with keloids and memories. The unexpected ones that have branded us in places we didn’t want visible. And the ones yet to come that will shape our failures and our futures.
On our way out of that valley we’ll encounter inclimate weather, lose pavestone, and setbacks. We’ll inevitably emerge with new scars—the result of lose soil and clumsy footing. But I keep trying to remember that when I find myself face down on those dirty floors of mine, the ones that haven’t been cleaned in 2 weeks, that I’ve only slipped.
It is a slip, not a fall.