A piece I wrote about motherhood and renegotiating the relationship distance runners often have with pain is up at Women’s Running. I’ve been trying to write about running + pregnancy + motherhood for a long time and am glad I found a home for part of that story.
In history class, we learned, a piece of social history meant to supplement the march of dates and legislation that took up most of our textbooks, that the generation who lived through Great Depression held on to expired cans of food and scarps of twine in case times should again require such complete efficiency. In a recent essay in The Atlantic, Arielle Bernstein points out something that had been bouncing around in my head for awhile:
[I]n order to feel comfortable throwing out all your old socks and handbags, you have to feel pretty confident that you can easily get new ones.
The same might be said for our relationship with any number of less material goods. Emotional or abstract things we hold onto, of course, but I’m thinking specifically of food.
I grew up and then taught high school in a wealthy suburb where anorexia was one of the most common struggles facing teenage girls. And, maybe because was an overweight kid who was then not an overweight kid, I spent a lot of time reading about eating disorders, trying to tame my magnetic fascination with what I knew I shouldn’t admit to finding admirable. When we had to pick a health class topic from a list of sexually transmitted diseases, addictions, and mental health issues, my cross country teammates and I reliably made posters about eating disorders. In one Lifetime movie that my best friend and I loved to watch, a pregnant bulimic woman used carrots as a “marker.” She’d eat a regular amount of foods, polishing it off with carrots, and then binge. Then, when she purged, the regurgitated carrots would be her signal to stop. It has been–eighteen?–years since I saw this movie, and I can still see the way that scene was composed.
Certainly the psychology of eating disorders is more complex than the rate of occurrence in affluent communities would suggest. As a college distance runner and then a cross country and track coach, I’ve known enough women for whom food is a fraught issue to understand that it’s not just about perfectionism or a history of abuse or the media or control anymore than it’s just about affluence.
Of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Bernstein writes:
But beneath some of the self-help-inspired platitudes about how personally enriched you’ll feel after you’ve discarded items you don’t need, there’s an underlying tone of judgment about the emotional wellbeing of those who submit to living in clutter. Those who live in KonMari homes are presented as being more disciplined: invulnerable to the throes of nostalgia, impervious to the temptation of looking back at something that provokes mixed feelings.
That those who refrain whose aesthic is marked by minimalism are, “[i]mpervious to the temptation,” “more disciplined” might just as well be said in the context of how we fill our bodies.
We went out to dinner with Thea tonight, which meant that the entire period of time we’d usually be cooking, eating, and cleaning up dinner after she’s asleep was just quiet down time. I started reading the latest issue of The New Yorker. Nick gave me a subscription for Christmas, and the issues just began arriving.
I started subscribing to The New Yorker when I was sixteen. Back then, I think the cover price was about $2 (it’s $7.99 now!) and the mail must have been much slower or something, because I remember the magazine always arrived on Thursdays. I love Thursdays. You haven’t started using the weekend up yet, but the week is basically over.
Anyway, on Thursdays, I’d get home from track and take a shower and then get in bed and start reading from the front cover. I’d read the letters to the editor, and I always read the Goings On About Town section all the way through. I felt like I’d reveal myself to be the unsophisticated, 16-year-old rube I really was if I didn’t. And, I liked to imagine that someday I’d go to the music and theater venues whose addresses looked as though they might be in the East Village. My memory of the section is mostly black and white photographs of pale women smoking, looking artier, skinnier, and smarter than I felt (or was, or am, or ever will be).
But, now, I feel such a nostalgia for the safety of those Thursdays. I’d read until my mom called up that dinner was ready. Probably a lot of the time I was in a bad mood about the grade my European history teacher gave me or the phonies at track practice talking about who they’d ask to prom. But, my memory of those years between the time I stopped feeling like an adolescent alien and when I went off to college is of feeling absolutely surrounded by love. And how lucky. To feel the love of my family, which made me feel safe enough to feel the anticipation–Thursday-like–of growing up.
Today, sweet Thea is one.
In the past year, I have loved more deeply than any depth I could have imagined. I have been more tired and more hungry–that includes running 70 miles a week back in the old days. I have felt more pure joy, more intense responsibility, more gut-wrenching fear. I have cared less about how my stomach looks in a bathing suit or how fast I ran my long run than I ever could have imagined was possible. I have also felt both more profoundly connected to other women, specifically to my own mom, and more lonely for female friendship than I ever have before.
Navigating friendships post-parenthood isn’t just difficult because time is trickier to manage and priorities have shifted, but because I am not the same person I was before. Every other major change I’ve gone through–graduating from college, starting my first job, changing careers, even getting married–has just felt like the culmination of what I’d been building toward, if not forever, for a long, deliberate time.
There are moments when I’m moved to tears by the memory of the hug the lactation consultant gave me when we had to start supplementing. Or by the mom in line behind me at Stop and Shop who offered with only gentle kindness to pour formula into our bottle while I paid so Thea could eat just a few seconds sooner. And, of course, by the realization of the love that my own mom has always had for me. But between these kindnesses of strangers and the central, important relationship with my mom is this vast gulf where I imagined I’d easily find friendship.
But there are times when I feel like I’m standing on the other side of a gulf from women I’ve known for years. I don’t want to be anywhere other than my side of the gulf but I miss my friends. I still care deeply about education and writing and reading and running and bleeding-heart politics. I know that no one–a mother or not–wants dinner conversation to be a litany of milestones another person’s child has accomplished. But, among some friends, especially those who don’t want kids, and with whom I can remember rolling my eyes at “those kind of parents,” I feel hamstrung. Self-conscious of sharing more than a sentence or two about the most important part of my life, I’m uncharacteristically withdrawn or resort to reminiscing (which always seems like the sign that a friendship is in its twilight).
I didn’t expect making new friends to be so hard. I thought I’d naturally get along with someone at the library story time or the new mom group. But, at the story time, I want to make sure Thea isn’t eating the books and I don’t want to complain about how hard it is to be a mom. I love being a mom, even the hard parts. I know I am lucky that I can be with her as many hours a day as I am. I don’t want to read books called Go the F— to Sleep or take pictures of my daughter crying and post them with sarcastic hashtags on social media.
Maybe the core of it is that I’ve never been much of a joiner.The only team sports I’ve ever done are cross country and track. And, of course, what distance running is all about is feeling compelled to push yourself beyond your own limits for the sake of the common goal you share with your teammates rather than about communicating mid-game for a strategic play (had to think for awhile about what the thing is called when teams move in a certain way in order to get the ball to a certain place…).
The tension is perhaps that now I feel so intuitively that I can no longer be an individual just doing her bit. I’m part of a family. And I’m part of this much bigger group–of women, of mothers. It’s the most intensely personal connection I’ve ever felt to a group of people, but at the same time the work of motherhood is so specific and so singular to my family.
Yesterday, I watched from across the internet as a woman I’ve never met in real life (though, we have shared tweets on topics ranging from Marilynne Robinson to supplementing with formula to racing half marathons) went after an ambitious goal. Just over a year after having a baby girl, Sarah trained for and then hit the Olympic Trials Marathon standard. She’d just missed the standard right before getting pregnant. A year later, she said she was barely running 15 miles a week.
Never in my wildest, most competitive running days of dreams has an Olympic Trials Marathon standard been on my radar. But.
When I read about Sarah’s finish time, which I did while kissing Thea on the cheek and trying to sneak a glance at my phone before she put it in her mouth, I cried. I thought about her sweet girl, just a few months older than mine, about how someday when her daughter is older, she’ll understand that her mom qualified for the Olympic Trials in the marathon.
Later in the day, I saw a picture of Sarah’s face at the moment she realized she’d hit the standard and I cried again. The picture is so much bigger than running. It’s a visual that speaks viscerally to the pure joy from conquering a daunting, scary goal that at times must have seemed crazy, impossible, or futile.
I’m sitting here at the kitchen counter writing for the first time in awhile. The essay I’d started back in October is a mess. (In part because I tried to get feedback on it before it was ready for that.) I’m out of writing shape because during the past several weeks, I’ve run or cleaned or done Christmas things or end-of-the-season coaching paperwork when Thea napped, and at the end of each day the essay feels a little less urgent and it’s a little more tempting to move it to my mental trash folder. Didn’t work out, move on, no further action required.
It is so easy to make excuses not to write. Or chase any big, scary dream. Writing is hard. It’s messy. Some essays or chapters or entire book-length drafts do get thrown out, and some that feel ready and fully formed will never be published. But, I am going to put myself out there, on the starting line in the rain. I owe that to Thea.
She is my light and my joy.
(I think credit for the photo above goes to Sarah Lesko, Oiselle’s Head of Corporate Development)
I wish I were the kind of person who could open her home to a stranger. I wish I were even the kind of person who could open her home and pour her next door neighbor a cup of coffee. But, although I really do try to be generous both spiritually and materially, that kind of generosity–generosity of privacy might be one way to say it?–is not something that comes naturally or even feels right for me.
I’ve been thinking about this particular trait. Sometimes it feels like a shortcoming, and other times it just feels like who I am. Short, curly-haired, runner, mom, writer, protective of my private space.
A few months ago, when the photograph of the drowned Syrian toddler first went viral, my husband and I spent a long time talking about what we could do to help. We donated a little bit of money to Save the Children, and I thought I’d like to volunteer to help refugees who might eventually come to Connecticut.
In September, a time when refugees might come to Connecticut felt so far away as to make the entire notion feel abstract. Then, yesterday a family of three Syrian refugees were welcomed to Connecticut after being turned away from Indiana.
I’m still not an open-my-home kind of person. I wish I were, but, truly, I am not. I watched a video today of volunteers on the Greek island of Lesbos who were welcoming arriving refugees. The volunteers took the small children off the dinghies first and wrapped them in blankets, even aluminum foil, to keep them warm. While I recognize that our geographic location here in Connecticut makes it unlikely that I’d be needed to provide first aid or respond in such a physical manner to refugees from Syria, or anywhere else, the work those volunteers were doing really resonated with me. I do think–hope–I’m the kind of person who could be generous in that way.
I’ve been thinking about the things I could do to help. About the things the talented, generous, kind people I know could do to help. But I still can’t figure out how to get started. Is there a coat drive? A food drive? I could make a meal. I could help a child with homework. I could gather up books. I’m sure that in little spurts all over the country, people are doing these things, but I’m not sure how to tap into networks and systems that already exist. Organizing systems is definitely not my strength, but the need for some sort of central place for people interested in helping to gather–even if only online–seems so clear. What is a way that a teacher or an artist or a mom or a lawyer or a grandfather can help here in Connecticut? I’m asking non-rhetorically.
Last fall, I was at a cross country meet, seven months pregnant, perched atop a hill in the woods, screaming as loudly as I could for the girls on my team as they passed by about a third of the way into the race. A spectator, either someone’s clueless dad or a pedestrian who’d set out for a walk in the park and stumbled across this race in the forest, chortled (really the only word for it) at me: “I hope you’re not in high school.”
Before I could reconsider the words, I was speaking: “Really?” I asked, “as though my life wouldn’t already be hard enough if I were pregnant in high school, and then on top of that, you say something to me?” Infuriatingly, he just laughed again. He wasn’t an evil man, and I don’t think he consciously set about to provoke me. It’s hard to articulate exactly what set off this rage, though certainly it was rooted in the notion that I was about to be the mother of a daughter. While I hope for her own ease of living that she does not find herself pregnant as a high school student, that she could be felt profoundly important.
Last year, I was on a run with the girls on my team, when one asked me, “are you a feminist?” I explained that I was and felt a new sort of comfort in saying so as a new mom. I had a teacher, a new mom herself, who made me proud to call myself a feminist. I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. Happy. Strong. Independent. Loving. By the time my athlete asked me if I’d call myself a feminist on that run, I had a lot of the same outward signs that have made that teacher’s feminism cool. So, I didn’t just say yes, I launched into it. About what the word feminist means, about how I couldn’t believe that in 2015, there are still–many–young women who are afraid or ashamed or unwilling to call themselves feminists.
I follow a lot of the unofficial dogma of conscious, feminist moms in 2015. No shirts emblazoned with “Daddy’s little princess/muffin/sweetheart”–no shirts emblazoned with anyone’s anything for that matter. I don’t dress her like a come-to-life themed baby Barbie. Her room is teal and yellow. A solar system mobile hangs over her crib.
There are also a lot of ways I’ve fallen short of what I imagine the ideal feminist mom is. I was unable to breastfeed exclusively. Not into baby-led weaning. I left teaching–exuberantly–when Thea was born.
Today I was running with Thea in the jogging stroller. We began to close in on a man trotting along in front of us. As I’m in the habit of doing to assuage my guilt over toting Thea along on runs potentially against her wishes, I pointed out birds, dogs, waves on the beach and shouted an occasional “wheeee!” when we picked up speed on a downhill. When we got close enough that the guy in front of us could hear my feet slapping or Thea squealing, he turned back and immediately picked up the pace. He started to sprint, looking behind him every minute or so to reassure himself that we were receding in the distance.
I went for it. I doubled down, told Thea we were in a race, and pumped the one arm that wasn’t steering the stroller harder. We couldn’t get him. It sort of felt like I was racing that same man from last fall, only both of us reborn into new forms. Me with Thea riding in front instead of nestled inside, him taunting me on my run instead of while I coached. What a tool, I keep thinking.
Yeah, I still think what a tool. But I also feel less annoyed or wounded and more fiercely protective, impassioned even. Me and Thea–we’re in this together.
Today we took Thea for her four month check up. I had it in my mind that we’d talk about sleeping and introducing solids. I knew she’d get weighed and measured. I also knew she was “petite” or, let’s be honest, skinny. Without letting myself acknowledge it, because she’s so happy and rarely fusses, I deep down, was worried she wasn’t gaining enough weight.
Breastfeeding has been much more stressful than I imagined. When I heard it was hard, I thought like, finding the right position or getting the baby to latch on properly, or managing leaking would be hard. I suppose those things are new things to negotiate in early motherhood, but for us they were not what made it stressful. Thea started nursing with a nipple shield because she had a tongue tie, and even after her frenulectomy she never would go back to nursing without it. She eats really slowly. A fast nursing session is forty minutes. Most are an hour. For a newborn this is okay, but by four months, most babies are at least a little faster. I had lunch with a friend and her baby the other day and the kid ate and went down for a nap in five minutes. Thea’s still snuggling into position at that time. One week (early on) I spent 70 hours nursing.
Anyway. Pumping, feeding, nursing, had all become sources of near-constant anxiety. I pump in the car on the way to and from track since I can’t pump while I’m coaching (which is usually when Nick feeds her). I’m glued to my phone during practice to see when I need to try to leave (so I can start pumping). I haven’t been the coach I want to be, and I haven’t really been able to explain why either to my high school girls or my male colleagues. I haven’t had a hair cut since before Thea was born because there’s no cell service in my hair salon and I was afraid she’d need to eat and there wouldn’t be a bottle for her. Since she’s still not sleeping through the night and I’m getting sleep-deprived enough to walk into walls, my parents have offered to do a house swap so I can sleep in my bedroom at their house and catch up. But I haven’t been able to say yes because we only have three bags of breastmilk in the freezer and a) what if she drank them all and was still hungry? and b) what am I supposed to do when I have an all-day track meet?
Writing this all out, it seems obvious that I should have just started supplementing. At least for the bottle Thea takes while I’m at work and unable to pump. But I had this idea in my head that formula would be like McDonalds and I needed to avoid it at all costs. I took Fenugreek, guzzled water, ate as much protein as I could fit in my stomach, bought different pumps, different flanges, tried different visualization activities, but not a single minute went by when I wasn’t worried that I didn’t have enough milk in my body or the fridge for my girl.
Thinking back on the polite concern on my pediatrician’s face as she asked us questions about Thea’s milestones I feel so guilty. What kind of weird stubbornness or pride was making me think it was more important that I stick to some ideology than that Thea was gaining weight? She was happy, smiley, sleeping at least a six hour stretch, rolling over,… and then today I realized that even though she is doing all of those things, she’s not getting enough to eat.
I managed to hold it together through the conversation about how to supplement, to answer the questions I know were designed to ensure that she was developing appropriately (other than weight gain), and even through her shots. But, when I saw the lactation consultant I’d met with right after Thea was born, I burst into tears. I was holding a bottle of Similac, Thea was screaming (she wouldn’t nurse or take the bottle after her shots), Nick was exasperated and there was this woman I knew would understand why I was so emotional about this.
The lactation consultant at our pediatrician is an amazing woman. She’s not judgmental about supplementing or formula feeding. She’s funny, straightforward, and supportive. She runs the new moms group at the practice and many moms refuse to leave after their three months of “newness” is up. For all those reasons, I know why seeing her made me feel safe enough to cry, but all day I’ve been thinking about how I might have better explained all the complex, contradicting emotions involved with supplementing to Nick. I thought about googling something like “essay about how breastfeeding is emotional for moms” or “how to explain to your husband why having to supplement feels like failure.” Then I thought I’d try to write about it myself.
So, husbands, this is how your newly-supplementing wife might feel:
- embarrassment for not realizing sooner that I should be giving Thea more food
- doubt about every decision I’ve made regarding my body – how much I’ve run, eaten, had to drink, stressed (this isn’t really a decision, I’ve been a tightly-wound New England wacko my whole life as far as I know… even before I lived in New England)
- fear that Thea’s going to wean herself
- relief that she can now get as much to eat as she needs no matter what’s in the freezer
- gratefulness that formula exists and my girl can get bigger even if I don’t have enough milk to help that happen on my own
- rage that ONCE AGAIN women are made to feel guilty about every single medical decision they make regarding their bodies and their children. Why on earth are (some) women (including me) buying into the idea that we should forgo painkillers while in labor, breastfeed until our children are talking regardless of our work situations or milk supplies? I love nuzzling Thea against me and feeding her and plan told so as long as it works for us. But because that is what feels right for me and my girl, not because I was bombarded with “Breast is Best” signs when I was pregnant. I wonder what the public discourse around breastfeeding (not to mention support for breastfeeding) would be like if men could do it?
Sometimes when I’m nursing Thea in the middle of the night, I think about what we’d do if we were Russian refugees (I used to like to play that I was a Russian refugee as a child… very Cold War, right?). I’d nurse her to make sure she was quiet while the anti-Russian bad guys were near! Then I think about this story I read or saw about a baby that was miraculously silent the entire time he and his family were hiding from Nazis (I imagine this like in the Sound of Music when the nuns distract the Nazis and break their car). Having my sweet daughter has made me aware, sometimes to an obsessive degree, of the fragility of survival. I guess on a basic level, it’s scary, humbling and too close to the bone to think about what would have happened to me, or to sweet Thea in a time before formula.
A woman i know said that breastfeeding is the hardest thing she’d ever done. In my head, I scoffed at her. But I also remember where she was standing, where I was sitting, what our babies were doing, when she said this. I can’t say that breastfeeding is the most physically painful thing I’ve ever done the most or intellectually demanding, but it’s the long-term responsibility with which I’ve been tasked that matters most. And, what is perhaps most emotional of all is that despite the things I did because I thought they would help increase my milk supply or help Thea eat more efficiently, I had almost no control over this Very Important Thing. I couldn’t train for it, study for it, endure pain of it in a way that made me better at it.
And then, like so many things in motherhood already have, this whole episode makes me realize how lucky I am that the hardest thing I’ve ever done, or the greatest pain I’ve ever felt (labor) are still so much less hard and less painful than the paths that so many women are traveling for their children.
Teaching and coaching and getting ready to move and trying to write as much as possible while I still have time, energy, and desire are in full-swing. Last week I made a six-tab excel spreadsheet titled “Ongoing To-Do List,” and I’m still feeling a little disorganized.
I’m still feeling pretty good physically, though I can definitely tell that I’m slowing down. I need more sleep; if I don’t get at least six or seven hours I don’t feel good, and by Friday, I’m ready for bed at 8:30pm. I’m less hungry (which is kind of a bummer, because I kept thinking that this would be the time I’d finally be drinking 2pm milkshakes guilt-free), but trying to be sure that what I am eating is healthy. Just because my belly feels so much heavier, running has been much more touch-and-go than it was even a week ago. Twice last week, easy runs turned into a mile jog which turned into a walk, though in between I also had some days where I felt pretty good out there. Because I felt so heavy and awkward running on Sunday, I decided to go ahead and plan not to run yesterday. I’m the type of person who’d usually prefer to run at least a little every day, and rarely takes days off, so this was a big step for me. I did the elliptical while I monitored the weight room at cross country practice, and then my mom and I went for a nice evening walk. I’m not quite ready to say my running days are over, but it’s undeniable that my running days are going to be less in my control. If I feel like it and it is comfortable, I’d still like to run some. If that doesn’t happen, then I will do my absolute best to be grateful that I made it this far running regularly.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m feeling “bad” emotionally or intellectually, but it’s alarming how distracted I am. I can feel myself struggling to focus when I’m reading at night, and often feel sort of distant and far away even while in the midst of a conversation. I’m torn by conflicting urges to read/think/talk about the end of pregnancy and the baby’s approaching arrival all the time, and constant, low-grade anxiety that there are so many other things to read, write, do, think, organize, clean before the baby arrives. Because we’re getting ready to move, I have been doing a lot of organizing at the house, but I’d say my strongest nesting desires are intellectual. When will I read the new Marilynne Robinson novel? When will I finish the revisions on the essay I drafted last month? Lurking beneath these fears, and a lot of the sadness I feel about my pregnant running days being numbered is the fear that I might not want to do these things again.
In theory, if I don’t ever want to run sixty miles a week, or write in the pre-dawn hours, or read “important” books–who cares? I won’t, supposedly, because I won’t want to be doing these things. But, I guess that’s not quite my concern. I’m worried that I’ll still desire these things that for years, my living memory in the case of reading and writing, have been at the core of how I see myself, will matter to me, but just not enough to muscle through exhaustion to get them done. If I truly didn’t want to ever train for a goal race again, I guess that wouldn’t bother me, but what I’m afraid of is that I’ll want to, and just won’t have the will or energy to make myself do it. I certainly don’t have the will or energy to get up and run at 4 (the time I have to run before work) anymore. While I’d like to think this is all sensible right now (need my sleep, don’t want to trip, not training for anything in particular), the idea that one of the things I’ve always been proudest off–my obsessive willingness to get things done–either will or should change.
Between the To-Do lists, I’m trying to enjoy the warm fall, the slowly changing leaves, the squash-centered recipes, and even the waiting.
People keep asking if we’re going to find out what we’re having. I find this to be one of the more baffling things people have asked me. More information? I once asked if I could get a full-body MRI just to find out everything weird and broken that might be in me–of COURSE I’m going to find out.
I read menus to restaurants, in their entirety, before going to a restaurant, even if I’ve been there before. I like to plan accordingly. If I’m going to get balsamic-glazed salmon, I’m not going to eat salad with balsamic on it for lunch. (As though my lunches were ever anything other than PB&J, but, you get the point.) Then, when I get to the restaurant, I read the menu again just to make sure I haven’t changed my mind.
I am in the habit of looking at the 10-Day Weather Forecast even when I’m not planning any trips, big races, or outdoor time in the next 10 days. I just like to be prepared. If it’s going to be 80 next Tuesday, I might want to wear my white skirt, which means, I don’t want to wear the only shirt that goes with it on Monday.
So, yes, when we can, we’re going to find out “what we’re having.” Other than a scone, I mean.