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All the little spaces

Monday, July 15, 2019

Rowan is one month old today, and I’m typing this one-handed as he dozes/nurses in my other. I’ve had three major emotional meltdowns in as many weeks, likely from the cumulative effects of sleep deprivation. There’s a reason they use it as a form of torture, you know? Of course the beauty and cuteness and sweetness continue, but mixed in there I have 1) definitely screamed at and hung up the phone on someone I dearly love, 2) with hostility and not a hint of humor or affection, criticized my husband’s conversational style in front of a friend, and 3) had teeny tiny fleeting thoughts of homicide toward someone who is better off unnamed, though I can assure you it was not Rowan, passed in a moment, cleared up with a little sleep, and involved absolutely no intent or planning.

When people say that parenthood is hard, and particularly emphasize that motherhood is hard, I am coming to suspect they aren’t just talking about the actual mothering. That, for me, continues to come naturally, and is (mostly) a source of joy and wonder. Even in the middle of the night, when Rowan needs to eat two or three times and I’m the girl for the job, I still feel the bond between us–me the milked, him the milkee. He hasn’t even smiled yet, but he has mastered throwing up on me, and still I’m willing to do anything to take care of him. Thankfully, that part is okay–so far, at least.

What’s harder is how this little person is changing my relationship to everything else. Not just to the big, obvious stuff like my husband, my work and time, my energy and my body and my finances. I anticipated these changes, and I was right to. But it’s other stuff as well. Little stuff. Grocery shopping. Cooking. Going to Target or Starbucks (which I haven’t attempted yet). Even taking a walk or a shower (which I have). Let’s not even start on the topic of taking a you-know-what. All of these things are much more complicated than they used to be. I can’t yet predict when Rowan will need to eat, so venturing out into the world as a nursing mom is daunting (though I trust it’s damn hard with formula, too). The built environment isn’t designed for babies and their caregivers. It just isn’t.

***

The other night as we were crawling into bed, Thomas said he couldn’t have predicted the way having a baby would change his life. He said that he welcomes the changes, but it’s an adjustment. I was so exhausted that I didn’t want to talk, but I’m glad I mustered the energy to ask him where he feels the adjustments the most. He said, “It’s all the little spaces. Spaces that used to be for me, and for us as a couple. They don’t exist anymore. Now all the little spaces are Rowan spaces.”

That’s what I’ve been feeling too. Because even when Rowan is sleeping, life is all about being ready for when he wakes. When he wakes, he needs.

I’m grateful beyond words that I get to have this experience. Many people who want it more than anything else are struggling with fertility challenges, some of whom are close friends. So I hope it’s okay to talk about what’s hard and what’s beautiful, both. Because I need this outlet, where I can use adult words and sentences. Even those crafted one-handedly.

My victories right now are small. Instead of time at my easel, which now I get in microdoses of 10-20 uninspired minutes, I celebrate these: My first trip to the grocery store (baby slept through it while I frantically stashed groceries in his stroller), baby’s first bottle (I’m not longer his only option for food delivery), and managing to shower once a day and eat a few meals.

It’s baby steps around here, y’all. Rowan isn’t walking, of course. The baby steps are mine, and for the time being, all the little spaces are Rowan spaces.

Unnecessary Terrors

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Baby Rowan, 11 days old

He told me one time he forgot himself & his heart opened up like a door with a loose latch & he tried for days to put it all back in proper order but finally he gave up & left it all jumbled up there in a pile & loved everything equally.
–Brian Andreas

When my son Rowan was born almost two weeks ago, I was nothing if not prepared. I’d gathered all the essential gear and several non-essentials, too. I’d cleaned the house and shopped for groceries as if I would never have another opportunity shop or clean again. I’d frantically bought last minute baby care things from Amazon Prime, thinking I probably wouldn’t have time for that, either.

And, I’d collected stories. Lots of stories.

Stories is a nice way to put it, because most of the stories I’d gathered were nightmares. Nightmares about breastfeeding, infant illness, postpartum depression. Nightmares about failures to bond, loss of selfhood, the horrors of endless sleep deprivation and the unshakeable exhaustion that comes with new motherhood. Nightmares about c-section deliveries and what could go wrong during and after surgery. Lots of stories.

My husband says this is my personality; I’m a worrier, and worriers tend to prepare for the worst. This is true. But plenty of other people, in-person and on the internet, played their part. I’m not on social media anymore, but still the internet is full of narratives about how hard it is for new moms, about the inequities between men and women raising children, about our awful society that doesn’t support families. I added all of this information to my file of nightmares. If motherhood was an endless hardship, an epic sacrifice, then at least I wasn’t going into it alone.

***

Leading up to the birth, many people asked me how I was feeling. As in, was I feeling prepared? I never knew how to answer this. If I said I was feeling prepared, they’d tell me I could never be truly prepared. If I said I wasn’t feeling prepared, they’d say the same thing, only with a more ominous tone.

So I tried to express ambivalence, which I certainly felt; I gave a guarded, cautious response that covered as many bases as possible. “Sort of prepared. As much as I can be, you know, given that I can never be prepared.” While I said this, I secretly fingered the worn corners of my file of nightmares, knowing that all manner of struggles awaited me on the other side of pregnant. I guess there was comfort in this, the thickness of that file, growing like the mysterious baby inside me.

***

My parents had their first kid in their late teens; the next two came shortly after. I was born into poverty to two parents who had traumatic childhoods and no time to heal, find themselves, or go to college before they married and had a family. Times were different then; they were just following the social clock laid down for people with their cultural, socioeconomic, and familial backgrounds. As a result, my childhood was its own nightmare; I have very few memories that aren’t tinged with the deep dread of when the next fight would break out, when the other shoe would drop. A worrier I am, but I came by it honestly.

By the age I am now, 38, my parents had finally called it quits on their unfortunate union. Mom and Dad then began what I’ve had my entire adulthood to work on—healing past traumas, learning new ways of relating to myself and others, and becoming a reasonably well-functioning person. Somehow, when I gathered stories of what to expect from early motherhood, I failed to factor in my current circumstances. Unlike my own parents, my husband and I have a stable, healthy relationship. We are middle class. We have decent careers in jobs we find rewarding. We know ourselves fairly well. We’ve both been to therapy. I quit drinking entirely, and Thomas almost never drinks anymore. We have hobbies and interests, and a lovely, peaceful home. We can be trusted to water our yard and houseplants. We keep our cats alive. We get routine dental care.

We are privileged, lucky, fortunate–all of it. Unlike so many people, we do not live from crisis to crisis.

***

The logistical preparation I did for the baby was helpful. When we brought Rowan home, I had a serious surgical wound in my abdomen. The pain was milder than I’d predicted, but I was still limited. Strategically placed baby beds, diapers, wipes, swaddling blankets, and burp cloths eliminated unnecessary trips up and down the stairs. Frozen food made for simple meals. A clean house was just plain nice.

But as for the nightmares, so far they have proved untrue. For all my preparation, I never once considered it could actually go well.

Yet going well it is. I’m recovering quickly from the surgery. Rowan arrived a little on the small side, but he’s perfectly healthy, and he’s gaining weight quickly. Nursing has been easier (and so much sweeter) than I anticipated. The whole experience of taking care of his little being feels natural and just…right.

***

I was so scared to get married, and a hundred times more scared to have a kid. I didn’t think I could do it, and on some level didn’t think I deserved to. I certainly didn’t think that freedom, joy, belonging, and connection could come from such massive family commitments.

Tomorrow marks two weeks since Rowan was born. Since we brought him home, I’ve cooked several yummy meals. I’ve started a new painting. I’ve taken a few trips to the grocery store and a couple walks around the neighborhood. I’ve spent precious time with friends and family. Sure, I’m leaking breast milk, but I’m also taking showers every day. Occasionally I even nap.

Admittedly, my relationship to time is different now. While Rowan sleeps, I can accomplish in an hour or two what used to take me several. And yeah, I know it won’t always be this way. Babies change quickly, they need more things, they motor around, they make bigger, stinkier poos, they get sick and get their parents sick. Eventually we’ll have to teach him about climate change and institutionalized racism and cancer and death. We’ll try our best to expose him to wonder and prepare him for our difficult world.

That being said, I was wholly unprepared for feeling an unbearably big and deep love for my baby boy. Nowhere in the stories I collected, at least not the ones I noted or archived, did I expect to experience the kind of overwhelming love for Rowan that I continue to feel.

***

The other day, when I tearfully shared my impossibly vulnerable joy with Thomas, he looked in my eyes and said, “Good thing love isn’t something we have to prepare for.”

I’ve lived most of my life with a lot of unnecessary terrors, and the guards that come with that kind of fear. Now Rowan is here, and I’m starting to think my husband may be right.



Reaching

Monday, May 6, 2019

Over the years I’ve been so many things, occupied so many different roles and identities, relationships and interests. All have involved a kind of reaching. Reaching outward, upward, inward. Reaching away. Reaching toward. I developed myself through reaching.

At best, reaching is a form of stretching that engenders growth. But reaching can also be distortion, taking shapes that aren’t true. I’ve done my share of both kinds of reaching.

So it is with terrified awe that I get out of bed tonight and pad downstairs to contemplate the upcoming birth of my first and probably only child, who at this moment moves in my belly like a sharp-finned fish poking my ribs.

Fishboy Rowan James is scheduled to arrive in approximately seven weeks. Whenever he arrives, I know that my relationship to reaching will change forever. For almost 40 years, I have done the reaching. Now, Rowan will reach for me.

He will reach for the heart, the breast, and the spoon. His reaching won’t stop there, of course; it will go on and on. I will, I trust, want to reach back, want to meet his needs. I hope my capacity to reach back is as natural and instinctive as the good moms I know are promising it will be.

But even so, I will no longer be organized primarily around my own needs, desires, or whims. I suspect this is what led a counseling colleague, himself a father, to recently pop into my office, congratulate me, and cheerily call parenthood an “ego death.”

***

Already things are changing. Pregnancy has slowed me down in new ways. I haven’t painted much in the past seven months. I take naps on my lunch breaks at work. I get winded walking up small, gradual inclines. I think, I should paint or write a blog entry, and instead, I just sort of lay there on the couch, watching the leaves move in the wind. It’s okay, I am making a human, I remind myself. But then I think, Gosh, if I’m this slow and the baby isn’t here yet, what’s going to happen to my creative drive after he arrives?

What indeed. I do know that when I transition into motherhood, I will have to temporarily suspend my notions of space, boundaries, and clear lines, all of which are the very essence of how I have learned to navigate in the world. Already, right now, my body is Rowan’s body. My attempt at sleep is his swimming pool. And he hasn’t even emerged yet.

I can think about this, but I can’t wrap myself around it, not in the quiet of my newly minted art studio, fresh flowers in a vase and a soft candle burning on my desk. In here I still have a reassuring sense of my space. Of me and mine.

***

Another colleague–a mom–recently told me, “Before I had my baby, I thought it would be my life with baby. After baby, I realized that the baby was my life.”

***

Well anyway.

I can say, at least from here, that I intend to keep counseling, writing, and painting. After all, Carl Jung said that nothing has a greater impact on a child’s psychological development than the unlived life of the parents.

However, when baby comes, I concede I probably won’t reach for the brushes for awhile. Paint brushes, that is. Bottle brushes, those are a different story.

Sources

Sunday, January 14, 2018

My last couple of aspen paintings were inspired by this photo, taken on a hike with my husband and brother-in-law just outside of Durango, CO last summer.


For a long time the photo intimidated me. So much information! I loved the wildflowers and the darkness at the back of the forest, but the aspen trees were so young, their limbs so delicate, and I usually paint mature aspen, and no grass or ground, just trees, leaves, and sky.

But my work was feeling stale and predictable. I needed to take a risk, to be willing to try and get it wrong, or be surprised by finding a new kind of “right.” First I made this painting. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but it grew on me quickly.

Young Aspen, 30 x 40″ (sold)

After I sold the painting, I missed it. I also wondered if that looser more wild way of painting was just a fluke. Some of my previous work has felt that way. No matter how successful the results, I could never reproduce the style. But I had some uninterrupted time on my hands, and I thought I’d give it a try on a larger canvas. I thought I’d try to show some of the depth of the forest, and the way the light was hitting the leaves and the ground. I was scared. Anytime I attempt to capture even some realistic elements of a photo in my paintings, I freak out. The familiar monologue starts up that I don’t have the skill or the training, and I should stick with what I’ve come to know, with what feels safe, and with what predictably sells. Sigh.

Thankfully, that’s no fun, while getting into new territory is. So I gave it a go, and I’m pretty excited about how it came out. So excited, in fact, that the next painting I’m about to start is sourced from an even more intimidating photo–one of Gum Root Swamp at dusk, with water. 

Summer, Durango, CO, 48 x 72″

Aspen Grove

Monday, August 21, 2017

Aspen Grove

48″ x 60″

My husband and I were able to hike in an aspen forest in Colorado during our honeymoon this summer. The leaves were still green but I could easily imagine them turning yellow, shimmering or “quaking,” and falling. When we got back to Gainesville, I painted the aspens.

I’m not sure there’s ever been a more compelling time to consider aspen trees as a meditation on human connection. Aspen groves are actually all one organism, joined underground by elaborate root systems. What appear as distinct forms are in fact individual expressions of a single living creature.

 

Cypress Swamp

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Cypress Swamp

30×40″

My husband and I recently bought road bikes. We’ve been riding the Gainesville-Hawthorne trail as much as we can lately, and it sure is lush out there. Thomas’s bike is significantly fancier than mine, and truth be told, he’s a lot stronger than me, too. This means we ride the first few miles together, and then I tell him to take off ahead of me, an arrangement we both enjoy since solo biking a long paved trail through the woods and cypress swamps is one of the most Zen activities around.

I’ve had this week away from work, which gave me a few glorious uninterrupted mornings to paint. I painted this piece today, a view from the Gainesville-Hawthorne trail that arrests me every time I bike past it.

Birds

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Lately I’ve been making some watercolor greeting cards, just for fun, and often to keep me sane during meetings. I like the cards but I don’t take them seriously–I think of them as childlike and somewhat trivial.

Bird Card

Recently I mustered up the kid in me and made a bigger version of the birds on canvas.  It’s a simple painting a child might enjoy. Who knows–maybe an adult, too.

Birds

Birds, 30 x 48″

The thing is, the more time I spend with children (and consider starting a family of my own), the more I feel like the trivial one (especially spending so much time in meetings). Meanwhile, the kids in my life see straight through trivialities. They hate sitting still and want nothing more than to feel the simple joy of making stuff, playing outside, and participating fully in life.

Bird Card

They use bright colors and simple shapes in their art.

They get excited when the sun wakes them.

They still love the birds.

Bird Card

 

 

 

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