love set you going like a fat gold watch

I’ve always loved Sylvia Plath, though I think she is a kind of Rorschach blotch that says more about the interpreter than the interpreter can reveal about who she really was. We are all such mysteries to one another, even to those most intimate to us. Biographers and scholars and angsty teen girls, 20-something poets, thirty something mothers who don’t find time or inspiration to write anymore amongst the dirty laundry and the floor needing vacuumed and the grocery lists and the car licensing due dates are all grateful someone gives their inner state such apt utterance. Her motherhood poems speak to me at this point in my life, while her father issues and black moods spoke to me in another. I think people mythologize her in unhealthy ways because of her suicide, and that bookend has made her legendary in a way that sadly eclipses her craftsmanship, not unlike Kurt Cobain and so many others.

If I remember correctly, she wrote Ariel by getting up at something like 4 a.m. on a daily basis, to have the luxury of being a mind separate from others, to work, to think, before the children she was raising without her husband awoke. It is hard to think freely in the proximity of other people, and sometimes we have to escape into ourselves, even from those we love more than our own selves.

But the dark hours of early morning are heavy, too, with the duty of parenthood. I think often of my father rising at 5 a.m., packing lunches, stoking the fire, as well as working out in the basement before his work day began. There’s a poem by Robert Hayden, Those Winter Sundays, that describes his own father doing the same:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Perhaps daughters are different, because while we may have never thanked my father explicitly, we knew the extent of his labors for all of us, and we loved him for it. His hands, too, were cracked with his labors, and calloused from years of them. We sometimes helped stack the wood that he split with a Zen-like cheer and a practiced, masterful efficiency he had developed over many years of swinging an axe. My father was an artisan, in his way, and a soft spoken, gentle man, and our home was warm, though I think sometimes of his quietness, his gaze into the horizon, and I wonder who he was to himself, what thoughts were his in his quiet mornings carved out to be alone with them.

Mornings are my own, for now, until the night wakings, the haze of 3 a.m. nursings begin, the blue hours of dawn and the contented murmurs of an infant become my life again. That is not a complaint. There is something deeply content about those moments, and quiet, and transcendent.

Is that quiet blissfulness merely oxytocin? Merely, as if the brain chemicals that code are experience are somehow less real for being chemical and determined by forces other than our inner monologue that thinks it is our true self? So much of the self changes in this pregnant state and the nursing, caretaking state later, in response to biology’s programming, chemical surges that seep into and color the narrative we tell ourselves about who we are and what matters, that it often unnerves me.  Another line from Plath’s Morning Song:

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
With my son, I felt almost alien to myself, life-long brooder transformed by my body’s responses to pregnancy into a contentment I hadn’t felt before, though with a vulnerability snaked through it that found me sobbing over news coverage of the BP oil spill in the Gulf that had begun over the three days while I was induced and in labor (and which they’d wisely hidden from me until after the birth), news stories about the ugliness and exploitation that come so readily to us from all over the world. I felt such joy at my son’s being and yet such fear and worry for a creature that must learn about suffering and death and I, helpless to lighten the burden of such knowledge, with no answers to give, despite all my own years of wrestling with questions about what it means to be alive, to love, to try to connect with anyone in this fragile, beautiful. painful world.
For a long time, that contentment inoculated me from much of my own sadness. All it took to keep me happy was enjoying the presence and infectious joys of my happy little infant, and then toddler, and on and on. He is no less a wonder and no less a joy to me, but as the years have progressed, I could feel that biological contentment drain gradually from me and the old clouds return, but in a strange way, it wasn’t a bad thing. I felt like my mind was my own familiar dark wood again, though my son will always be the sun filtering through the canopy of leaves, the birdsong, the sweetness within it. It is easier for me to believe in my own mind and its workings when it incorporates the shadow as well as the light. I feel less sharp, somehow, when my contentments dull me.
Along with nursing comes a kind of isolation, because you and your infant are on a timetable that doesn’t correspond to those around you, and there are times when you do choose to be alone with your baby to nurse. I’m of two minds about this, because I am a shy person and I don’t want to feel vulnerable and exposed to the scrutiny or bear the burden of the intricate symbolic politics of it all when I’m waiting to pick up my son from school, for example. While I fully support women who want to nurse publicly and not feel obligated to cover and I think it’s good for us as a society to accept and support that, there are some times I don’t want to, and I feel like that also makes a certain kind of unintentional gesture of acquiescence to cultural prudishness. I don’t want my breasts to be a political arena, and I don’t want to feel like my own awkwardness with my own public nudity makes me somehow less feminist.
On the other hand, there are some places where I am comfortable enough that I feel like it should be a non-issue, with family or friends, but it clearly is going to make others uncomfortable about what they or their children are seeing and so, whether it’s right or not, you find yourself ducking into side rooms for half hour chunks of time to spare the awkwardness of relatives at family BBQs and that kind of thing. When you’re in the early phases of caring for an infant, you two are alone at home most of the time, and the majority of your discourse with the world is cooing monosyllables and listening to yourself babble and babble, though the call and response of it all and the sing song of an infant is beautiful in its own right. You often miss adults, and belly laughter, and naughty jokes, and talk about the weather, so having to shut yourself away from it when you have the opportunity to participate in adult silliness is incredibly frustrating. When family refuses to even come inside your house because you are nursing in the living room and they’d rather just wait on the porch and yet you’re too damn stubborn to move or cover, yeah, that’s awkward and sort of rage-evoking. (There’s a whole speel I could get into about the weirdly personal nature of formula versus breast milk commentary from family, and the pressure and guilt I see some women put themselves through regarding output, but that’s a rant for another day.)
So here I am again, wrestling with myself and being gradually internally transitioned into and to change far more still into cow-heavy blissfulness. And I do have so many reasons to be happy. Our genetic tests all came back with good results and all seems to be well. The test revealed that we’re having a daughter, which is what I’d hoped and perhaps even intuited, and which will probably bring a pleasant balance to our home. Maybe fewer tentacles and explosions and a little bit more fairy tales and lace around here, though with my tomboy genes and our feelings that a child should choose for itself what it likes (rather than only providing traditional gender specific options), there might just be more engines and dinosaurs and toy cars to fall over, and that’s okay, too. We heard her heartbeat for the first time yesterday, and our son was with us, too, smiling and burying his face into his dad’s neck, overwhelmed a bit with it all, but happy. Same here, really. Overthinking and conflicted and broody about it all, but in my way, happy.
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images of mothering…

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This photo is from my book stash, a Mode Illustree from the 1880s, if memory serves. I love it because it seems so candid for a fashion illustration. The woman’s hair is down, which seems a rarity in these old illustrations, and the affection depicted is something universal and warm, one of the best feels motherhood has to offer, really.

But there are many feels in motherhood, and people don’t usually talk much about the not-so-pretty ones outside of Roseanne reruns or feminist discourse about the economics of human labor. Somehow it seems rude to talk about the less than blissful elements without airbrushing them away with platitudes. It is all worth it, of course, but for those of us with a gloomier turn or problems with touch or physical proximity, there is much to keep to ourselves.

I have my first doctor’s appointment in about two weeks, at which point I’ll be nearly 8 weeks, and I have a laundry list of things to tell her. Please don’t worry if I cry every time I get off of the scale, it’s fine, I just get upset. I always get upset after a pelvic exam, please don’t be alarmed. It’s an invasion of body boundaries thing. Rationally, I completely understand the necessity of what you’re doing and I want it to be done, but I can’t help crying at the feeling of being overrun physically. My pulse goes crazy at the doctor. It’s an anxiety thing, I promise. I’ve had an EKG done with my GP over this. Needles sometimes make me pass out. I’m sorry I’m so intense. I don’t want to be this way and am deeply embarrassed by all of the above.

Maybe it would be different if my being felt less defined by its physicality than it does at this moment, but somehow, pregnancy makes me feel reduced to it, caged by its hormonal upswells and digestive tempests, an automaton that can’t help dropping into sleep mode when resources so often deplete. Capsules to take, pressures to measure, fluids to fill. I wonder if it’s similar to the frustrations of aging, when the will is strong but the body takes primacy with pained joints, physical constraints and dangers, easier fatigue.  I can sympathize with that kind of frustration.

I have a sister who loves being pregnant and who is master of her domicile in a way that I can only marvel at. Sometimes I wonder if it is possible to be allergic to progesterone and that’s why I fall into an almost immediate depression while my sister beams with excitement and enjoyment of the feeling of bringing another person into the world. I understand her reasoning for her feelings, but those buoyancies and happy forward lookings can’t cut through the fog of whatever it is that descends on me when I’m gestating a kiddo. People admonish me, “Oh, enjoy it. It will be the last time. This is a precious experience.” None of those things are wrong, but there’s also a shit ton of pain involved in this experience, and somehow, no one used this logic to gloom-shame me when my wisdom teeth were extracted, even though that was the last time I’d have that particular experience.

I feel like even writing that sentence is somehow a shameful thing. My great aunties would be appalled that I would compare a miraculous event like bringing another precious life into the world to something like having a tooth pulled. I am being flippant, really, but the fact that a certain range of feelings seems unutterable among polite people is strange to me when it’s a process that also involves me being pantless in front of strangers. I can’t feel excited yet, and I certainly can’t will myself not to be afraid. People act as if it’s a waste that I feel such apprehension. There is some truth there, in the same way that feeling any anxiety is a waste of energy. Anxiety is a deep, dark well of anguish that you fall into and climb out of over and over and over again, and though you know the process is a waste, you can’t brick it over. You know that anguish lies waiting to receive you, and there’s no vigilance or act of will that will stop your fall back in.

The cultural image of mother in our time seems a cheery, breezy thing, laughably neurotic about nesting urges or food cravings or teary-eyed at silly little domestic spats, but on the tv and the ad spread she is dressed in Breton stripes with whitened teeth in a sunny kitchen in a sleek, orderly beige house, yelling through a smile for her kids to come to a healthy, gourmet dinner that she either whipped up in a spasm of uncomplaining efficiency, or better yet, crockpotted on her way out the door to work that morning and plated up on a dish set that perfectly coordinates with her carefully curated decor.  She’s heath conscious enough to make her own baby food, but not opinionated enough to be off-putting or difficult.  If she breastfeeds, we never see the tension when she has to decide between making people with old school ideas about it feel uncomfortable or having to isolate herself and the baby for half hour chunks of time when everyone else is at the family BBQ enjoying themselves. We certainly never see her snarling obscenities at her breast pump at work, while she sits cross legged on a dirty bathroom floor to reach a power outlet and cringes any time someone tries the door.

Clearly I have nothing in common with this woman, except maybe the occasional Breton stripe. But imagine my surprise and my happiness to find this portrait among the Schlesinger Library portraits of breastfeeding women, alas unnamed:

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That expression speaks volumes to my heart, somehow. I’m unclear what cultural images of motherhood were during the Victorian era, though I suspect it must have been seen as a celebrated role if it would be photographed in this way. I know that the seriousness of her expression is probably more about the way people carried themselves in portraiture of the era. But I can’t help but love that look and relate to something in it more than the plasticized expertise or earthy granola joy imagery of contemporary maternity. That expression says I love being a mom but this shit is complicated and I have a lot of feels and I will cut you if I have to.