Thea’s Birth

I’ve been a mom for just over a week now. While I did write a long, rambling, mess of little Thea’s birth story while I was still in the hospital, this is the first time I’ve sat down to think about what the past eight days have brought. Joy, sweetness, an emotionally indescribable sense of responsibility, snuggles, laughter, fierce admiration for Nick’s capacity for love and support, exhaustion, some fear, guilt, anxiety.

People keep telling me to sleep when the baby is sleeping. I’m supposed to be sleeping right now. Nick is watching Thea sleep. There is absolutely nothing dramatic going on. We cleaned up the Christmas chaos this morning. And yet, here I am, wide awake. Lying in bed, I hear what might be Thea crying. It’s an ambulance three towns over. Or the whir of the construction site down the block. Or the opening of the fridge door downstairs. Then I get to feeling guilty about not sleeping. Or not doing my pelvic floor exercises yet. Or not walking. Or walking too much. Or worrying about my milk supply.

I once read that to be a mother is to have your heart permanently living outside your body. I was reminded of this aphorism after one of many mid-night feedings when I lay, exhausted, in bed, listening to the rhythm of Thea’s breathing, trying to determine if she was falling asleep or fussing, maybe still hungry or just smacking her lips in satisfaction, and it was as if there were two layers of me. One exhausted layer about to drop into deep sleep and one wide awake layer watching over my baby.

I knew labor would be painful, and I tried to stay in shape so I’d be strong for delivery. I thought I might go without an epidural. I told people this was because I’d heard the recovery was easier, because I wanted to be able to walk around after my baby’s birth, because I heard it might interfere with breastfeeding, but if I’m really being honest, it was because I wanted to prove that I could, because being “tough” has always been an important part of my identity.

Well, let me say that the pain of labor was unlike anything I could have ever fathomed existed. I had in my head that I’d try to focus on contractions like intervals around the track. HA! Who cares about intervals around the track, really? I mean, it’s for fun, even when I was a more serious competitor (in college), it was, by definition, for sport.

Because my labor progressed so quickly (I went from dilated to a one when my water broke to dilated to an eight in just over four hours), I didn’t have a very long period of time in which I felt in control of anything. I was able to breathe through contractions for about an hour, and I tried the pain management techniques I assumed I’d use throughout (the birthing tub, holding Nick, visualizing riding over a wave, staring at a spot on the wall), but fairly shortly after labor began, contractions were lasting about a minute and a half with just about a minute in between, and I was in so much pain that I shook uncontrollably throughout each contraction. I wasn’t able to react, just to exist. I felt like an animal, not because I was fierce and in touch with my primal instincts, but because I could not even think. After trying an hour or so of nitrous oxide (which, for the record, did absolutely nothing except make me dizzy), I asked for the epidural.

While the epidural did allow me to rest, it also slowed down my contractions, and with each contractions, Thea’s heart rate decreased a bit. I could see the nurses and midwives watching the monitor, and although they told me there was nothing to worry about, I knew that wasn’t quite true: they were all watching the monitor. Then, even though I wasn’t fully dilated, they asked me to start pushing to bring Thea down, which I knew wasn’t typical, and made me even more scared. So, when I tried motivating myself to push by thinking about the last hill at my high school state course, or finishing 400s on the track, it just felt dumb. What I was really thinking was “I don’t care what happens to me, I have to get my baby out safely.” Usually what I’m thinking during a 400 is something more like “don’t be a wimp; you want to earn your beer tonight!” At one point, in what I now realize was an attempt to boost my confidence after I expressed worry and fear, the nurse told me she’d heard I ran marathons, and asked how many. Everyone in the room made a big fuss when I said “eight” (I’m not sure where that number came from; I’ve run five, but I wasn’t really in a position to count them up just then). The thing with pain in a marathon is, again, really, who cares. If you have a bad marathon you feel like crap about yourself for awhile, and maybe even feel like absolute garbage in your legs and head and bowels for days, or even, in a really bad case, weeks, but I’ve never feared that a life was on the line when I hit the wall at mile twenty or went out too fast on a hot and humid day.

I haven’t spent much time around a newborn since my brother was born 24 years ago. Of the things I was not prepared for, despite understanding logically, my baby’s vulnerability has been by far the most world-altering. From the moment I started suspecting the monitor showed signs of Thea’s distress, I understood something fundamental had changed in me.

Of course this change is a good one, and a necessary one. But, there have been a few moments where I’ve felt sad about this change. Not so much sad that I’ve changed, but sad for the part of my life that’s over. I’m no longer just my mom’s daughter, but a mom myself. It’s hard to explain what about this makes me feel so nostalgic and emotional. My mom told me that having kids made her realize how much her mom had loved her, and I think that’s part of what overwhelmed me about my love for Thea–the understanding of a kind of fierce, protective, unconditional, terrifying love that I didn’t understand before. It makes me feel a fiercer love toward my own mom, too. It makes me feel connected to generations of women before me in a way I hadn’t anticipated, and even more broadly, to women in general.

I chose midwives for my prenatal care because I liked the idea of treating a low-risk pregnancy as a phase in life rather than an illness or a disease, but the word itself means “with women.” I have never felt so strongly that I was with women than I did in the hours of and immediately after labor. Not just the women in my family who’ve come before me, but the women in the hospital who responded when I said I was scared, who tried to remind me that I’m a marathon runner, who brought Thea to my chest after she was born, who gave me stitches and helped me to the bathroom, and talked through the importance of my recovery at discharge, who gasped at the scabbed state of my nipples after three days of breastfeeding… being with these women has shaken to the core the way in which I perceive dependence and need for assistance.

Watching my little girl sleeping, unable to sleep myself, I am filled with hope that she’ll be kind, and strong, and tough, and independent, and thoughtful, but also that she’ll be able to ask for help, and understand the beauty of receiving it.

A Bonus Run

A few weeks ago, I had what I assumed was my last run. I felt okay while I was running, and wasn’t worried that anything was wrong for Baby Scone (or I wouldn’t have been running to begin with), but felt so much pelvic pressure, and felt so slow that it just wasn’t fun. I had to stop frequently and never really got into a rhythm. I was happy to have made it running off and on (more off at the end) for 37 weeks of pregnancy, and ready to take the longest running hiatus of my life as I waited for labor, delivery, and the necessary recovery time to come.

And then, yesterday morning, I went for a run. It was unseasonably warm. I’ve been on maternity leave long enough now that I’m getting a little antsy, and I just had this feeling that it would feel good, rather than painful, to run. And it did. I probably only ran about a mile, in five minute increments. But, I saw another runner out there, and felt some community with him (though since I was behind him the whole time, he didn’t see me or know about our running community bond). The high from the mile run lasted for hours. It was interesting to observe this because, I didn’t feel free, light, fast, or like I could run for ages, the feelings I usually associate with runs that give an hours-long high. I just felt like myself.

I am Thankful

Today was my third day of maternity leave, and even though I tried not to, I really thought Baby Scone would be here by now.

I was so exhausted, mentally, emotionally, and physically, when I left work on Friday, that I was actually hoping for a day or two to myself, just to sleep and clean and organize. Monday flew by–a doctor’s appointment, I’m still coaching, so I went to practice, did some writing, organized things… Tuesday, my mom and I went for a nice walk by the beach, it was Nick’s birthday, so I went all-out making a nice dinner. And then today. It was raining and cold when I woke up. I zipped around prepping for Thanksgiving in the morning, and then feeling kind of wiped out, settled in for a rainy afternoon.

And then I started to get really sad.

Every year since 2000 (my freshman year in college), my dad and I have run a local 5 mile Turkey Trot. There have been years when I was in pretty good racing shape and ran myself into an exhausted stupor at the race. Other years, I was more excited about the breakfast afterwards, but regardless, there has not been a year in the past 14 when I haven’t run as hard as I could, on the given day, on Thanksgiving morning. My high school coach works at the finish line, friends I haven’t seen in years show up on the starting line, and whether it’s an icy 20 degree morning or a weirdly humid 60 degree morning, I start the day doing something I love. For the past several years, we’ve had a family pasta dinner the night before including our close friends. The pasta dinner goes back well before I’d even met Nick, and has covered years that ran the gamut from lonely to joyful and everything in between.

In what I’m just beginning to understand is not in the least unusual for parents, my mom and dad are selflessly walking the race with me tomorrow. Nick and my brother are racing. This year, it didn’t work out to have a pasta dinner. My family was picking up my brother at the airport, our friends have a lot going on right now, I have virtually no appetite…. For a while this afternoon, I tried to tell myself it was nice not to be humming with the adrenaline of pre-race excitement, but by dinner time I was feeling pretty down. I love routine and tradition, and when I heard my parents and brother in the car on the way home from the airport, all on speaker phone, I suddenly felt so sad about the ways this year will be different–no wine while we wait for dinner to cook, no pre-race nerves, no falling asleep at my parents’ house so we’ll all be ready to go early in the morning–even though I know that the reasons for these differences are wonderful and joyful.

I did cry a little. Because I miss the pain of racing, and the satisfaction it brings. Because I’m a little bit scared about labor, and if I think about missing pain too much I realize I probably have plenty of Turkey Trots worth of pain in store for me very soon. I miss my friends who are busy and am afraid that having children will put a chasm between me and people I love who don’t. But, then, I started thinking about Thanksgiving.

I’ve had Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “I am Waiting” stuck in my head ever since I showed my students a video from last year’s Poetry Out Loud competition. Probably because I feel engaged in the most epic waiting of my life. After my tears, though, I tried to borrow the rhythm of the poem and repeat the line “I am Thankful.”

I am thankful for parents who love me unconditionally. Never has either of my parents made me feel they wished I were anyone other than who I am (stubborn, sometimes ornery, weird, obsessive, occasionally myopic, a girl, a runner, a writer…) I truly hope I can be anywhere near the kind of parent that I have. I don’t have a list of things “I’ll never do.” I want my home to be as full of love and nurturing and adventure as the one I grew up in. This fall, both of my parents have changed their schedules to wait for deliveries at our house so that we could feel more settled by the time the baby does arrive. My mom has met me for walks, helped me organize our new house, listened to my repetitive and often indulgent stream of consciousness about pregnancy. My dad has traveled to Hartford to watch the girls on my team race, and though I know he does love supporting my team, it dawned on me after the first few trips that he was also there for me. Just in case.

I am thankful for my health and Baby Scone’s health. This pregnancy has been easy, in spite of the tears and fatigue. Having a little taste of what being anemic or uncomfortable does to my feelings of self-worth has been eye-opening to how deep the connection between physical and mental health is.

I am thankful for my husband. One of the stupid things I’ve been indulging in while pregnant is reading online message boards about pregnancy. A huge portion of the posts on these boards are from women whose husbands refuse to work, humiliate them about the weight they’ve gained, are having affairs, or in other ways hugely negative forces. Nick has picked up extra tutoring jobs, assembled more furniture than I realized we owned, broken down garbage bags full of moving boxes, and defended me against my worst critic–myself–on hard nights.

I am thankful for my running family. There are a lot of times when teaching feels like an isolating profession. Despite being around other people all day long, it’s easy to feel on the defensive against helicopter parents, administrators with whom you don’t see eye-to-eye, and even colleagues who view themselves as part of a different departmental faction. Coaching is different. The girls on the team threw me a baby shower (the pinkest event I’ve ever witnessed), the boys coach mapped out three different routes from the All State Banquet to the hospital where I plan to deliver, and team parents have offered me rides, given the baby track-themed onesies, and offered words of kind empathy.

Here We Go

Today is my last day teaching this school year. I’m not sure when baby will arrive; it’s been strange to know that my life is about to change immeasurably but that the change could come at any time in the next month or so. I spend a lot of time “researching” early signs of labor and wondering if what I’m feeling is a contraction or a stomach ache or just an ache from loosening joints and extra weight around my middle.

When I first started teaching, I was scared. I was afraid the kids wouldn’t respect me. I remember using those windows of prep time for catching my breath, feeling relief at the opportunity not to be “on,” more than for grading or for prepping. I was newly single, having just ended a four year relationship that I’d thought at one point would lead to marriage. I was lonely, but I loved my job for the first time in my life. I was never bored. At the end of each week, I felt as deeply satisfied as I did exhausted.

In the years since then, I’ve grown more confident in the classroom, more certain that I”m in control, and less concerned that students might not like or respect me (though it is still absolutely awful to encounter a hostile student). The prep periods have become filled with student meetings, grading as fast as I can, and trying to do everything I can to maintain a work-life balance. Along the way, I’ve made some mistakes–bad assignments, teaching books in a weird order, not giving very clear feedback, getting too invested in one struggling student, or taking on more than I could reasonably handle (coaching three seasons, planning a wedding, teaching four different classes, three of which were new…). I’m at a different school.

Though I’m still never bored, I’m not bone-achingly tired by the end of the day, or even the end of the week anymore. I work in the same building as my husband, which not only is convenient, but also totally changes the sense of aloneness I felt in those early teaching years. I have an ally in the building (something I think most teachers feel they never have–it often feels like a lone man/woman trying to do his or her best by students, teachers, administrators, peers, and often without feeling that any of these many people for whom we are working so hard are actively supporting us, or even hoping that we’ll succeed).

I have spent more years teaching than I did in college and graduate school combined. I dedicated more physical and emotional energy to doing this right than I ever have to anything before–even running or my own writing. But, on Monday when our 5:00am alarm goes off, my husband will head to work and I won’t. I’ve thought a lot about what I imagine the parallels between teaching and parenting could be. The stakes are high (though please, never let me lose perspective and fly into the school on my broomstick when my little girl gets a B+), the physical and emotional investment intense, particularly in the first months and years. In trying to write out these parallels, though, I’m also struck by how little I can possibly know of what the next stage in this journey will be. Here we go.

I Don’t Care What it Puts Me Through

Now that my running has mostly become walking or waddling (this is what lifting my knees and going through running-like motions really looks like these days), I decided to download an audiobook for the days when I’m on the indoor bike or craving more privacy than walking around town 8 months pregnant affords). I’m listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love right now (a little late to the party on this one, I realize). I figured this would be a good choice because it’s a book I’d like to have read, but don’t feel compelled to actually savor one word at a time (like I do with Marilynne Robinson’s new novel). Yesterday, I was circling around the soccer fields at the school where I teach when Gilbert (who narrates the book) read this passage:

Still, despite all this, traveling is the great true love of my life. I have always felt, ever since I was sixteen years old and first went to Russia with my saved-up babysitting money, that to travel is worth any cost or sacrifice. I am loyal and constant in my love for travel, as I have not always been loyal and constant in my other loves. I feel about travel the way a happy new mother feels about her impossible, colicky, restless, newborn baby–I just don’t care what it puts me through. Because I adore it. Because it’s mine. Because it looks exactly like me. It can barf all over me if it wants to–I just don’t care.

This is how I feel about running. I’ve often thought about running as my first true love. A transformative, empowering, humbling love. I miss running (rather than waddling) immensely right now. I’m excited, nervous, eager for the actual newborn that I’ll meet soon, but I’m also scared that this new love will replace what has defined me for decades. Not because I have to be a runner, but because I know myself best this way.