Ah, it’s all coming back to me. The cracked nipples, that slightly sour smell of witch hazel and healing flesh, the endless bleeding, the Ibuprofen tablets the size of horse tranquilizers—and the indescribably sweet smell of the top of my new baby’s head.
I love all baby smells, even the mustardy poops which my husband refers to as “baked goods” because they smell strangely sweet. Even the milky puke. Even that fold in his neck where strange odors, probably associated with trapped breast milk, linger and lurk, which no baby washcloth seems to eradicate for long. My two-year-old, whom I usually find delicious in all ways, climbs into my lap and I am painfully aware that she smells like a human being, whereas Johnny smells like he comes from a much better world. Even the moment I pulled him out of me, covered with blood and yellow slime, he seemed to smell like herbs, or fresh-cut grass.
I love breastfeeding, even though the first week was so painful my toes curled every time he latched on. I am even coming to love the forced bed rest while my dainty parts heal, and have made an untidy nest on both the downstairs couch and our bed. I’m surrounded by large glasses of water, eye-pillows, sections of the New York Times and my laptop. I listen to Elizabeth Mitchell’s wonderful children’s CD You Are My Flower and put the two Woody Guthrie covers on repeat: “1 Day, 2 Days, 3 Days Old” and “Little Sack of Sugar.”
Here’s the part I don’t love: the six o’clock weepies. Even though I know they are just hormonal dips (plunges feels more the correct word), while I am in one, I seem to forget everything I know, like that 80% of women suffer from baby blues. That in a few hours they’ll be gone. They remind me of labor contractions—the waves are intolerable while you’re in the middle of riding one, but once you’re out, you forget the pain.
Thoughts make the pains worse, and the thoughts that inevitably accompany the tears go like this: soon my parents will die, soon I will die, soon my babies won’t be babies but surly teens who will surely choose to listen to some kind of music I will find intolerable (and “not music”). It’s all downhill from here, in short. What’s the point? Moreover, when the weepies strike, I forget that I’m not the only woman who’s ever had them; instead I feel ashamed and defective and I don’t want to tell anyone how sad I am, so I don't call my friends or family. I just read the New York Times and check the polls on realclearpolitics.com obsessively.
Also, I miss my work. I miss playing guitar, singing, performing, writing, coaching. I miss the small families of writers who come to my house twice a week and bring me outside of myself and into their creative worlds. When I’m in Six O’Clock Weepyland, I think, “How can I do my job as an artist, coach and facilitator and also do my job as a mother?”
So imagine my amazement when all of a sudden the national news started reporting that women all over the country were asking the same question right at this very moment: as a mother, how much do you have to give of yourself to your family, and as a (for lack a better word) Big Succeeder, how much do you have to give to your work and the people who depend on you?
I’m writing of course of Sarah Palin, John McCain’s new VP choice. Anyone familiar with my politics can guess how I feel about her—I wouldn’t vote for her under any circumstance because her politics and vision for this country are about 180 degrees from mine. I disagree with her about the environment, the war, the economy, and every social issue on the book. But I kind of identify with her desire to be all things to all people and to fill her cup to the brim, preferring it to spill over rather than leave a centimeter of a margin. I heard that when her water broke last April, she stayed to finish her speech and then took a plane home to Alaska to have her baby. That’s not THAT far removed from my showing up at Falcon Ridge knowing I could drop the baby any minute, or asking my OB two days before the festival if I could perform on the main stage the day after giving birth (just hypothetically). Don’t get me wrong—I’m horrified that McCain picked Ms. Palin and I don’t think she has the experience to be president, but I don’t dislike the gal. It’s nice that she’s supporting her daughter to have a baby at age 17, even though I question her judgment in running for VP knowing that would mean her daughter would be under intense scrutiny (and criticism) from the rest of the country as a result.
But how, I ask, trying to refill my water glass, juggle baby Johnny in his sling and get Lila a peach all at the same time, can she take care of a family of five, including a four-month-old with Down Syndrome (who, by the way, lives over 4000 miles away from Washington DC) AND be a (72-year-old’s) heartbeat away from the presidency? How good a job can she really do? What gives?
Yet I totally relate. As I sat bent over my breastfeeding baby, bawling my eyes out, my husband reminded me that last spring I had a full roster of clients, full writing groups, gigs every weekend, a book coming out and a CD I was recording, plus a toddler. “You were so busy I felt like I never saw you, and even when you were there, you weren’t there,” he said. What gives for me? Or, rather, what will I give up?
I don’t want to be only partly there for my husband and kids, and I also don’t want to give up any of the things I get to do now. I want to write a new book and make another CD this year. I want to write in my journal and keep up my meditation and exercise practices, and I want to coach all my clients and run my writing groups and take the kids to the park and the Y and the library and read to them and bathe them and tuck them in every night. Also, I want a social life and I want to have a weekly date night with my husband. But something has to give. At least, I suspect it does.
This makes me cry at 6 o’clock.
But in the mornings, I feel euphoric again--after all, I just gave birth to the cutest baby since Lila, and in general I live in the knowledge that I am the most fortunate person ever-- and Monday I took advantage of the relative dryness to make a bunch of calls to friends and family letting them know what was going on with me. “Right now I’m fine,” I said. “But by tonight I’ll be a sobfest again.” I got so much support from everyone, and one dear friend sent me this poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
Maybe nothing has to give for me; maybe nothing has to give for Sarah Palin, either. Maybe a day at a time, it’ll all work out—not perfectly, but in the messy, bloody, slimy way it always does. (Of course, if I mess up, it usually just means a song doesn’t get written or a book doesn’t get published. If Sarah Palin messes up, we might find ourselves at war with North Korea.)
Someone said to me a few days ago, “Whatever your kids are doing now they won’t be doing for long. Bad or good, it’ll change.” And last night at six o’clock I looked around and noticed the world did indeed seem a bit dimmer, but not as dim as it had the night before. I waited for the tears, and they didn’t come. “No feeling is final.” And the answer is the same as it always is: pay attention. Thoughts are not reality, so don't buy into them. Instead, whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your heart and mind. Get out of the fretful thoughts and celebrate this moment, even if it seems dim or mundane. Smell the top of your baby’s head, notice the curve in your lover’s calf, sculpt your sentences, savor that peach. “Don’t let yourself lose me.”