They’re Made of Meat

by cbcabeen on April 1, 2010

About when Littlest was 4 months old, i.e. February 2010.

When she wakes me at night, she’s not staccato like an alarm clock. She squiggles against my belly, kicking my legs, quietly groping for a breast with her eyes closed, until I’m awake enough to do something about it. I roll onto my side, lift up my pajama top, and help nipple find mouth by the light of the clock radio. She pulls my stripey Dr. Seussian pjs back down around her nose and they smell rich with spilled milk. I usually fall asleep before she’s done. Sometimes she does, too, which may be why she’s back in an hour or two wanting more. A couple times per week she wakes up hardcore, because of gas or needing to pee (most nights she holds it till morning, then fills a couple diapers back to back, or if I have my act together, pees in the sink). Then I may spend an hour rocking and swaying and bouncing her back to sleep. I wrap my mom’s scarf around us and think about how she enjoyed rocking me when I was small. Not so bad.

She pillows her head on my boob until my side aches and I risk rolling over. That’s as far as I get though, because I want to creep into Ted’s room, but I’m stuck fast in my desire for her. Besides, she doesn’t stay asleep without me, even if I leave her my mommy-scented pajamas. Sometimes I play it like I’m doing something nice for Ted by “letting” him sleep by himself or go out at night, not involving him in the work of night parenting. It’s more complicated than that. Because I crave physical closeness with Rebecca as much as with him. When all three of us sleep together, though, there’s no room and I stress about waking him up every time I roll over to switch which nipple is on tap.

But sometimes chance or thirst or a sore pelvis hits me while she’s nursing and I’m wide awake after she’s done. I remember how Ted used to find his way to my dorm room at three AM in the winter when the computer lab closed, and I’d laugh at how cold he was. I remember coming back from summer break after my first year in college, and even though I didn’t love him yet, we nestled like spoons on his bed. I felt so content, and that rush of well-being took me by surprise. I said to myself, huh, the arms of a man really are a good place to find happiness–and it’s been true ever since, too, despite what they tell young women so that they won’t have sex “for the wrong reasons.”

Some nights I want to think more than I want to sleep, especially after days when Littlest has wanted all my attention and I feel like each hour we spend is territory clawed out from the future. I write journal entries in my head, repeating the same fervent phrases over and over to myself: I think the best way to explain new motherhood is by comparing it to adolescence. Everything is new and, OMG, important and sometimes I have the hardest time believing that temporary changes aren’t forever.

Becoming a parent has the vividness that being a teenager did, for basically the same reasons. A bunch of physical and emotional changes show up like a construction team to build another storey onto you. (The project goes late and over budget, se la vie.) That’s true even if you’re not nursing, because parenting is physical work, and you don’t need to be a biological mother or a woman for it to have additional hormonal effects. When I was a child, I didn’t understand what the big deal about boys was. Same thing with babies, up until I got pregnant. Now I’m amazed at the contentment when I’ve got a sleepy baby heavy my arms. My sense of well-being reaches for embarrassing platitudes about biology and evolution: I was made to care for a baby. The tricky thing is I used to have a similar sentiment of rightness when I got up in the night to study, even though perhaps my ancestors didn’t evolve to be grad students.

What happened to that feeling of rightness when I was studying, anyway? I thought it would protect me from burning out. I thought my joy and love for my work meant I’d make it. But a bunch of stuff happened and some of it still comes back to me in the dark. I set the date for my Ph.d candidacy exams, a month in advance, and what came next?  That month my dying mother got access to the medical equipment she needed to come to California one last time, two of us were hit and killed by cars–my Uncle Jerrell, who was with his wife on a walking path in a park, and our dear housemate’s brother, who was walking across the corner to a bar in Vegas. My sister got engaged, Ted and Shayna’s relationship deepened (ahem) (with my blessing, but it still took processing), and my brother-in-law took sleeping pills to get out of the family Thanksgiving and then had a psychotic break and got involuntarily institutionalized.

My uncle’s funeral was scheduled for the week of my exams, so I decided I’d reschedule them the following quarter and defend my prospectus at the same time. Instead I got mired down editing the prospectus, partly because I was too emotionally drained to work on it. I lost both my enthusiasm for the project and contact with my committee. For a while I reoriented myself toward teaching, and then got burned out on that, too, after my mom died. But what if I had taken my exams? Would my experience have taught me something different? Isn’t it weird that our lives are so fragile? Or is it just when the rubber hit the road, family was more important than anything else?

But we were all made for many things.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

blue milk July 19, 2011 at 12:04 am

I know I keep saying this, but your writing is so beautiful and so full of so many great observations.

cbcabeen July 20, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Thanks! Don’t think I get tired of hearing it. :) Though I’m up for nitpicky discussions and being wrong, too.

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