The Space Between Worlds

Several of you asked me how I was doing after Sibyl was born, and here, almost six months later, is an answer.  It’s a bunch of things I wrote in the first two months postpartum, all stitched together and edited.  It probably has a harsher slant than it would’ve if we’d talked in person, since I’m more likely to write when I’m feeling overwhelmed.  I mean, people I knew in person kept asking why I looked so well-rested.

You need to relearn your physical routines when you get a new baby.  So many things to mull over in the middle of the night: how to transfer her to the other boob, which body parts need to go where so that all the parts are supported, how to make it smooth enough that you don’t wake up Rebecca.  How quietly can you open a Luna bar in the dark?  Things like applying lanolin to sore-ish nipples take fifth place when you’re having to operate your whole body thoughtfully instead of by reflex. The only thing that’s the same is my conversations with Rebecca as we sit on the couch, swirling around over Sibby’s head.

I’ve been feeling like I’m not quite inside myself lately, more like I’m a cloud or a set of processes and concerns that drift around and aren’t limited by the edges of my body the way they usually are.  I can see that we’re a diffuse system, working together, rather than individuals. Rebecca is very concerned right now that our bodies be in sync, especially that we pee together.  There seems to be a thought that this will keep everything under control. Meanwhile, I’m an incarnate to-do list. I know what needs done, and I can even prioritize to some extent, but all of these to-dos are pretty basic stuff. I can tell you what’s going on in my life, but I have little idea what I think about it. I worry for myself when my insides feel a little too much like jelly and there’s a soreness low at the base of my belly and my blood turns bright red again. But I’m also trying so hard to keep track of what Rebecca and Sibyl might be feeling, trying to imagine their point of view, that I’ve become multiple, hardly attached to the needs of one body in particular. The other way I know I’m not in my own body is that have no idea which pants I can wear. The very pregnant me is so far away.

But I do know that the vague sadness of being pregnant in the midst of everything, not really being able to slow down and enjoy it–that sadness isn’t likely to go anywhere soon. I want to give Sibyl more than I can. (I want to give Rebecca more than I can, too.) I want to do nice things to make up for the moments I’m not holding her or don’t respond as immediately as I’d like. I know it won’t hurt her, but maybe it does hurt me. On the other hand, I have a lot of experience putting off a whining kiddo now, and that makes some of the cries seem a little less urgent. Melancholia, that’s where I am.

Baby blues? Yes, maybe, and I think it’s okay. I’ve been telling myself that our hearts are supposed to be broken open right now, and our lives are supposed to be torn open and remade. Your perspective on that is going to vary depending on your spiritual tradition, but I absolutely do see it as a spiritual process, not just a mundane adjustment process and not just hormones. And how is that not going to hurt a little? People ask me how I am, and normal words just won’t suffice.  Categorizing the ups and downs seems silly, and secular narratives about the postpartum period, with their preoccupation on postpartum depression, get it wrong in the same way that secular narratives miss the softening transformational work of pregnancy and birth.

So I want to come open, to let go and come out of my skin and be given over wholly over to my beloved. That’s what I did during pregnancy and the early days with Rebecca, and that’s not what I’m doing this time, as much as I want to. These days I feel like I need to hold it together instead, not make this a time out of time, keep to my routines–they say that’s good for helping your older kids through the transition–and figure out new solutions quickly. Trying to avoid Rebecca’s distress means trying to avoid my own, though, not really diving into its holiness, more holding on tight–same as during this pregnancy.

A couple months ago I was worried that I’d been holding on to everything so tightly that I wouldn’t know how to open up and let Sibyl be born. Then I realized that even though I’ve gotten less flexible as a parent–like I used to let Rebecca try more potentially messy ideas back when it was easier to clean them up–nevertheless, most of my parenting has focused on being flexible and open to the unexpected. And that’s how I labored with Sibyl, more consciously flexible than swept away. It worked just fine.

Still, I’m caught in the tension between wanting to contemplate the moment and needing to attend to the practical. All these processes happen at the same time. But the basic burdensome things like eating, well, aren’t those processes just as much a part of a holy cycle as our births and deaths are–just repeating on a much shorter interval? They don’t feel holy to me, though, they feel like I’m starting to get sick of putting together meals from the freezer. And I’m trying too hard to hold it together.

I started writing a blog post about this past year with Sibby asleep in my lap. It’s been hard. Rebecca had a rocky transition into preschool and I was really worried about her, but I couldn’t talk to my friends about it most of the time, because Rebecca was still stuck to me and listening carefully. I was tired at night and Rebecca’s co-op preschool absorbed more energy than I could afford to give it, without seeming at the time like it would pay it back.

But now that I’m sitting down to write about it, the post about my harrowing year isn’t coming. I feel content. I’m contented at the stuff I put together for the preschool and contented about all the dinosaur crafts Rebecca and I did, and contented about the things I learned. I wouldn’t want to trade this year in or take it back. So, I’m less ambivalent than I thought. After all, I got a baby out of it, and that makes pregnancy seem pretty worthwhile. I am missing some things I want in my life. But surprise!–that’s okay, for now. They’ll come in their season.

It’s magic how a new baby can do this, giving shape to what you worked toward, so that suddenly you have a synthesis, you can see your energy went to something living breathing beyond little you. And all your angst about the things you were worried about seems so far away, like you’ve traveled home for Christmas.

I’ve settled on the answer “discombobulated” for when people ask me how I am, but of course having a ready answer means that I’ve figured things out and that “discombobulated” is already starting to be less true. Indeed, focusing on all our needs nudges me back inside myself. If I was ever inclined toward maternal self-sacrifice, I’m not any more. It’s utterly clear that I should meet my own needs when they come up in the cue, because I need to eat drink write pee to take care of these two little people, even if they’re crying and protesting it. My job is prioritizer.

Though I’m coming back into my body now, I still haven’t landed back in normal secular time. It’s like when my mom died or Rebecca was born: at beginnings and endings, you have a perspective over the whole thing, not just the parts you usually see. There’s a whole life here, and it will be full with all kinds of things. I’m immersed in Rebecca’s infancy now, too, when I first became a mother. I’m wondering about my mom’s experiences when Si was born, and about my experiences meeting a new brother–except it’s less like ordinary remembering or wondering, and more like the amusement park ride where centrifugal motion keeps you pressed against the wall when the ground drops away. I’m living in circles, living in multiple times simultaneously. In haunted time.

What’s been making my experience so strange and vivid lately–aside from hormones–is that living with a new baby has all the elements of an initiation.  Ahem, I mean that disrupting your most basic physical habits is a widely used ritual technology for creating religious experiences and a new sense of self.   All those mundane physical worries that seem to distract me from contemplating my experience?  They’re actually an integral part of that experience.   And seeing the mundane and sacred as purely opposed is bunk.