The other day I woke up before six to make my mother's blueberry buckle, it's a coffee cake we make when blueberries are become plentiful in summer. I had just gotten word from a friend's husband that their baby had arrived safely on July 4th, just a few days after Gwendolyn's 11th Birthday. It had not been an easy birth for this friend, and in a number of ways reminded me of Gwendolyn's (an experience I wrote about here).
I woke up that day wanting to deliver her a coffee cake. This felt irrationally important, but as I creamed the butter and the sugar, I understood it to be a instinct toward healing. Among all the upside down confusion of my own difficult medicalized birth, one happy thing I remember is the banana bread my friend Katherine brought me. It was sweet familiarity wrapped in aluminum foil, an anchor of loving normalcy, a reminder of the things that could still be counted on while everything else changed by the minute.
Somehow offering that to another mom, showing up in her hospital room as evidence that the blueberries are still fresh and a coffee cake can still be made was important to me. Maybe more important to me than to her. She did me a great service receiving my cake, and for that I am grateful.
When I walked into her room and saw her leaning back into the mechanical hospital bed, wearing a black nursing gown just like the one I had, it was like looking at an old picture of myself.
"Hey, friend, how are you?" I asked.
Her baby was swaddled tight, but not in her arms. She was nuzzled in with her grandma while Dad stood nearby.
"I'm ok," she said. "The baby's good, " she smiled looking over to the left toward her own mother holding the baby. "I'm ok."
We stared into each other's eyes, and for a brief moment, water rose to the edges of our lashes. Neither of us would let ourselves cry. She and her baby were safe and healthy. This was a happy occasion, and yet, the tears were there.
So many tragic things can happen in a life, a c-section seems hardly cause for grief and anxiety, and yet for me, and I think maybe for my friend too, it was a difficult thing, made especially so by the fact that I had the idea that an educated, healthy, feminist woman should be able to avoid that kind of medicalized birth. It turns out, this was the first of many ideals that motherhood was going to complicate for me.
When I think about it now there are so many things I would tell myself. So I decided to write some of them down.
Dear Baby Mama,
I hear you wondering what happened to you and wondering what you could have done differently to avoid the c-section and all of what felt so violating and wrong. I know there is a part of you that wonders whether this is your fault, whether you should have negotiated harder with the doctor, or taken less drugs, or more drugs, or changed the outcome. I know you wonder if you are a cog in some medical-political machinery and that you have absorbed the words of all those amazing birth activists who speak of gentle and ecstatic births. And the way you have absorbed it has made those births right and yours wrong.
What I want you to know is that in this lifetime you will get to have normal births too, and what you will learn is that the minute your first daughter's cells started dividing inside you, you started to live a new kind of life that you have no idea about yet. A life that you are not prepared for, a life that will catapult you into territory in which the ideas of good and bad, better and worse, or doing a "good job" won't serve you.
You will learn in no uncertain terms that there are things that cannot be undone. There will be scars and imperfections and disappointments. You will not be able to improve things sometimes. This will be terrifying for you. But ultimately it will also be one of the best things for you. It will be like an existential bell ringing to remind you that your job here is to live the experiences of your life--not to fix or control them, but to live them, to meet them honestly, and with as much love as you can muster.
You will learn this and forget it a thousand times. You will want to recover from your surgery quickly and you will want want the baby to sleep through the night already and you will want your life to feel "yours" again as soon as possible. You will want so many good normal things to come quickly, as if they will be signs that everything is alright.
What I really want is to lean close to you and smooth your hair and whisper quietly into your ear, sweetheart, you are alright, it is alright, it is ok to let all this go. In a hushed voice I want to say that that the bud breaks before it blooms.
People will tell you that in three months it will get easier, which is true in a way, but what really will make it easier will be to let your life be different, to let yourself be a little broken, a little tired, a little overwhelmed, or maybe even a lot of all of those things.
This is the best thing that motherhood is going to teach you, that even at your worst, you are still ok, that good grades and promotions, publications and achievements, none of that can ever compare to you, just you, showing up for your life. That, sweet one, is the beginning of love. It is the beginning of everything good. And as hard as it is, Baby Mama, you are doing it, on these first hard days you are doing it.