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Student Midwife Life: The Forest for the Trees

Student Midwife Life: The Forest for the Trees

I had other plans for my #70midwifebloggers post. Something better researched. More topical. Some lovely commentary or analysis on what’s currently happening in the world of midwifery today. Oh, and did you hear that there was a royal baby born recently too?

But no. Today, managing to write a blog post, ANY blog post, in my currently-overwhelmed student midwife existence is enough. More than enough.

So what I’m going to write about is the overwhelm. I don’t really have any answers for it, but for me, writing always helps.

It’s hard to be a student midwife. Having been on both sides of the equation before, both a student and qualified midwife, I can say with confidence that once you qualify, it’s easy to forget just how hard it is to be a student. There is a sort of misty, rose-tinted glass effect that happens once you qualify where you start to look back on your student existence fondly–you may even start to think that you had it easier as a student. I think that’s because once you qualify, the sudden weight of responsibility that sits so firmly on your newly-qualified shoulders feels so stressful that it’s only natural to want to return to your more familiar student existence before you had so much responsibility, and to therefore view your student existence as the easier of the two.

But being a student again, currently, reminds me of just how difficult student life is. Learning is hard. Becoming something new is hard. Being in a nascent, in-between place is always challenging–no longer a layperson, but not yet confident in your role and knowledge as a clinician, not yet fully-formed in your opinions or identity, not yet having acquired all of the skills and experiences you need to be competent. Uncertain in so many situations. Wobbly and tentative, and constantly being presented with new situations and new experiences you’ve never encountered before. It’s an uncomfortable place to be.

Then, add to it this the demands of student existence. Students work 12-hour shifts, sometimes with no lunch breaks (and sometimes not even a chance to wee), just like a qualified midwife does, except that once you return home from said shift, the expectation is that you’ll be studying and researching and writing papers during your down-time, instead of vegging on the sofa and watching Netflix all day. (And trust me, after some of these shifts, vegging on a sofa is all you want to do, and is just about all that you’re fit for!). Down-time when you’re a midwife is essential for replenishing your stores. There is endless research detailing exactly how important this is, especially in caring professions where you give so much of yourself at work. If you don’t recharge your batteries, you burn out, it’s as simple as that. And as students, we need this just as much as any qualified midwife does. EXCEPT we have even less time for it.

The to-do list is intimidating. I have a massive assessment due in 10 days which I should be writing right. in. this. moment (except I’m not, I’m blogging instead, to take a break and recharge said batteries). I have physiology modules to complete that I am WAY behind on. I have case study scenarios to be writing up. I have a presentation on varicella which I should be starting to think about at this point, but I’m not because I’m still too snowed under by my more pressing assignments. Oh, and don’t even get me started about the OSCEs, yet. I am an ostrich with my head in the sand about those–la la la la la! Year Two is seriously intense! (Brief shout out to all my fellow Year Two compatriots out there–man, I feel you!) And on top of this I am currently on-call for three women whom I have case-loaded and who are due any day now (and I have heard nary a peep from them yet), so I could be called to a birth at any moment. Just like qualified midwives, students also live their lives on tenterhooks, always thinking “maybe I should nap now, in case I’m up all night”. It’s always in the back of my mind, the maybe-I’ll-have-to-drop-everything-and-GO. And if you have kids, like I do, that feeling combined with the what-in-the-world-will-I-do-for-childcare-if-I-get-called-rightnow-? feeling is pretty stressful.

And then there are the mentors. Nearly all of whom are LOVELY. But even with the nicest and most supportive mentor in the world, it’s still exhausting to have to work with and prove yourself to new mentors again and again. To have to build a rapport, not just with the woman or couple that you’re caring for, but with your mentor as well. To have to build a rapport while simultaneously being evaluated and assessed by your mentor.  And to also have to constantly adjust yourself to different people’s approaches and philosophies and styles of care, while simultaneously trying to form your own, fledgeling philosophy and style of care in the process. And sometimes the mentors forget how hard it is to be a student. Sometimes their expectations are too high. Sometimes your personalities don’t quite mesh. Sometimes they’re having a bad day. Sometimes you’re not nearly as well supported as you were hoping to be.

Finally, let’s not forget the work itself. This is demanding, all-encompassing heart work. This is physical, 12-hours-on-your-feet work: lifting, pulling, stretching, leaning, walking, running, pushing gurneys work. This is emotions so big you sometimes think you’ll burst. This is balancing a myriad of conflicting demands, coursework and motherhood and busy schedules and shifts, hospital policies which don’t align with birth plans, feathers that need to be smoothed, bad news that has to delivered with such sensitivity and care, personalities that have to be carefully navigated, emergencies that are terrifying and heart-rending, beauty so raw that it will sometimes make you cry, and sometimes sadness so raw that it feels too heavy to even hold. Mothers who need more time and support than you have to give. Resources that aren’t available, so you cobble solutions together, piece together equipment with tape (literally and figuratively), think fast on your feet, and sometimes fill needs from your own stores (which then need replenishing).

It’s daunting. And yet, every day, from this scary, in-between, uncomfortable place, students bravely get up every morning and put themselves out there again. That’s what the course requires of you: dedication, commitment, time, energy, focus, love, and putting yourself out there again and again and again. Making mistakes, and picking yourself back up, again and again and again.

It’s easy to forget why you’re doing this. It’s easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. The big picture is vast, and you get so bogged down with the minutiae–why does preeclampsia cause proteinuria, what are the warning signs of obstetric cholestasis, how many weeks into the pregnancy before you start to measure the symphysis to fundal height, why does diabetes increase the risk of macrosomia, what are the diameters of the pelvic inlet–that you lose sight of the horizon. You find yourself wondering why you’re away from your family SO MUCH. Why you’re so tired all the time. Why you thought this was a good idea. Most of the student midwives I meet are so passionate about midwifery care, about making positive change in people’s lives, about making midwifery care better. But if the candle flame isn’t fiercely protected, it’s easy to accidentally blow it out. This is why so many students midwives leave the course, and given how desperately the NHS, and the UK, need midwives right now, we honestly can’t afford to lose a single one.

So what helps you stay the course? What helps to keep from losing sight of the goal? What ensures that your flame continues to burn brightly? I don’t have all the answers, not by a long shot. But what helps me is community. Knowing that I’m not alone. Talking with my friends and student peers who are on the course with me, who totally get it. Being part of online student groups and Facebook groups and the chaotic, messy twitterverse.  Leaning on my family and friends. Having dinner out with my friends (who I really wish I got to see more often). Laughing. Watching Game of Thrones (even when I know I should be studying). Cutting myself some slack (easier said than done!). Exercising–even (and especially) on the days when I think to myself: I’m just too busy to go for a run today (those are the days I most need to run)! Hugging my kids, kissing my partner, sucking up oxytocin whenever I can, and reading an extra bedtime story to my kids just because I want to. Cooking good food for myself (and then eating said food)!

This pin board helps me as well. It’s a silly thing, I know, but it sits over my desk and I find myself looking at it a lot while I’m studying. When I forget why I’m doing this, these pictures are a visual representation of my answer. This is why. Women and their families deserve this type of care, and it’s my privilege to be able to provide it.

So, I’ve used up an hour that I should have been using to write my essay on HIV in pregnancy. But maybe this post will help other students remember that they’re not alone either. And if that’s the case, that’s an hour well spent, and a good reason to blog.

Holding Space

Holding Space

Recently, a good friend of mine, Elizabeth Purvis, who works in a magical, nurturing, life-coaching space (she would term it manifesting, I’m pretty sure) posed a very simple, but pithy, question: “What does it mean to hold space?”  And just this very evening, I was tagged in a post giving compliments and shout-outs to beloved midwives, and the idea of holding space bubbled to the surface again in my response. I’m taking it as a sign that the Universe is telling me I really need to write a thing or two about this idea of holding space, so here goes!

What DOES it mean to hold space for someone?

In one of the best articles I’ve read about this to date, the author, Heather Plett, defines it in this way:

[Holding space] means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.

Heather then goes on to explain eight things which a person does when they’re “holding space” for someone, including giving people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom, only giving as much information as the person can handle, ensuring that they keep their power through the process (or in other words, not taking their power away from them), keeping our own ego out of it, making them feel safe enough to fail, giving guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness, creating a container for complex emotions, fear, trauma etc., and allowing people to make different decisions and have different experiences than we would choose for ourselves.

Which means, to my way of thinking, that midwives are the original space holders! (And, for the record, although I am writing this post with midwives in mind, holding space at a birth is in no way the sole purview of midwives! Doulas, nurses, doctors, partners and family members can also be exemplary space holders! The pictures for this post are taken from my first labour, and the woman seen in each of these photos–watching, murmuring, encouraging, pouring water over me, massaging hour after endless hour–was my good friend and beloved doula, Kristen, who held space for me like no one’s business through fifty. six. hours. of labour. I would have been lost without her, and still to this day cannot thank her enough for what she did for me.)

Holding space is what midwives do, day in and day out. When I read a woman’s birth plan, I’m always very conscious of the fact that I’m holding a woman’s hopes and dreams in my hand, which is no small thing to be entrusted with. We all know that birth plans don’t always go according to plan, but as a midwife you’re a facilitator, keeping the woman’s desires and expectations foremost in your mind while helping her to navigate the journey that she’s on. You’re the guide, the translator, the sherpa. You can read the environment and terrain, you have a map, and as you’re traveling with her, your job can include any of the following: reassurance, support, course correction, managing expectations, cheerleading, nonverbal cues, preventing interruptions, creating silence, actively listening, validating, explaining, teaching and demonstrating.  If the birth veers away from the hopes and dreams and expectations, the manner in which you support a woman through the transition has a resounding, life-long impact on her. Research has demonstrated this again and again: if care is delivered in a compassionate and respectful way, if a woman feels like she was listened to and was part of the decision making, if true informed consent is given, then the woman can come away from a birth still feeling empowered and whole even if none of it went according to “plan”. If respect is lacking, if imbalanced power-dynamics are at play, if decisions are made without input, if actions occur without explanation afterwards (not to mention thorough, supportive debriefing), then a woman often comes away from her birth feeling disappointed (at best) or traumatised (at worst). And we know these feelings carry into the immediate postpartum period, which not only increases the risk of postnatal depression, but also shapes the woman’s identity as a mother, and impacts her agency and her belief in herself, which in turn has a knock-on effect on her children as well. Again, no small thing to be entrusted with! Doing this well means choosing your words very carefully. Planting seeds without being proscriptive. Breaking news at just the right moment, in just the right way, without overwhelming the couple. It’s constantly walking a tight-rope, a balancing act of myriad pushes and pulls–energy levels, personalities, non-reassuring fetal heart tracings, medical realities, hospital policies, staffing levels. It’s knowing that every room in the birthing center is full, so best not to mention the birthing tub that she can’t have. When you start to think about the complexities, it all begins to feel quite daunting, and yet the best midwives I know feel like their work is a calling rather than a job, and love their work so fiercely that (almost) they would do the work for free (and to be honest, I think this is something the NHS is well aware of, and takes advantage of to the fullest, which is not a good thing by any means).

And you’re holding space not just for the woman, but for the partner as well, who is on their own journey from partner to parent, and often needs encouragement and guidance on how to better hold space for the woman too.  It’s hard to watch someone you love going through pain and doing something so difficult, and this can sometimes make partners feel helpless, scared and even guilty.  I’m sure many other birth workers can speak about births they’ve been at where the partner wasn’t holding space in a helpful way, and how a simple word–maybe try rubbing her like this…I don’t think she can answer those questions right now…why don’t you sit here and then she can lean back against you in between contractions…would she like a sip of water [handing water bottle to partner, so that they can then offer it to the woman]…speaking in whispers if peace and quiet is called for…demonstrating through your own example how best to support her–can make a big difference in a partner’s ability to more optimally support their loved one. And then, of course, there are those moments when the love is so beautiful and present in the room that you feel privileged just to be able to witness it, and no input from you is even needed. I can think of many such moments at births which even now can bring tears to my eyes when I recall them. A toddler telling her mother that she’s doing great. A partner making his girlfriend laugh in between contractions which otherwise have her crying in pain.  A husband telling his wife that her vulva is every bit as beautiful now as it was before the difficult repair she just had (I kid you not, this is actually something I overheard at a birth; talk about knowing just the right thing to say at just the right moment!).

Holding space as a midwife means creating an environment where the woman in labour feels safe, able to do or say whatever she wants, growl or pace or moan in whatever way feels right, but also an environment where she feels protected and contained (and hopefully in such a way that this protection and containment is invisible and completely non-intrusive). If I’m doing my job well, I’m the safety net, the life-guard on duty, watching and observing but for the most part doing very little.  If I’m doing my job well, I can create an environment where the woman feels free to listen to her body, to follow her own instincts and labour in the way that seems best to her, ideally supported by her partner and support team more than by me.

Holding space also means seeing the big picture for the woman. She is lost in her labour, moving from one contraction to the next, unable to see in front of her, or behind her. It means supporting her in the moment when she is convinced that she can’t do it–even when you know she still has a long way ahead of her, and things are only going to get harder. It means telling her, sometimes again and again, after every contraction, that yes, she can do it. Yes, she IS doing it. Yes, she can. Yes, she IS. It means having faith–faith in the woman’s body, faith in normal birth, faith in her strength, in her perseverance, in her ability to push her baby out–and holding that faith for her even in the moments she she has lost her faith. It’s like shining a torch for her, a light in the distance that she can walk towards, a voice calling her when she’s lost in the maze of labour. It’s knowing that YES, she can do it, and never wavering in that belief, even when she is convinced that she can’t. You can’t do the work for her, but you know that she can do the work for herself. You give her the gift of that faith, and when the woman does climb the impossible mountain that she was convinced she couldn’t climb, afterwards she feels like she can do anything. The faith you held for her becomes a truth that she believes about herself. That is what you’re holding.

Holding space is also protective. Birth is wildly unpredictable, and uncontrollable. Birth plans don’t always go to plan. Hopes and desires for specific outcomes can be trampled. The baby sometimes has very different ideas about the manner in which s/he would like to be born! And sometimes there are true emergencies which require quick, focused action with very little time for communication until after the fact. Sometimes holding space is about preserving a woman’s dignity through the chaos. Sometimes it’s about literally giving her something to hold onto–a hand as you race back for an emergency cesarean, a familiar voice that she can hear through the beeping machines and commotion. Holding space means giving a woman time to grieve and process (after the fact) and a warm, non-judgemental listening ear to allow her to debrief. Postnatal listening and letting a woman tell you her birth story (and sometimes she needs to tell it over and over) can help her to understand and contain the experience.

Which brings me back to two of my favourite quotes about midwifery (and about holding space), from the Tao te Ching, written by Lao Tzu in 5th Century BC China:

The midwife completes her work by doing nothing. She teaches without saying a word. Things arise and she lets them come. Things leave and she lets them go. Creating, not possessing. Working, yet laying no claim. And when her work is done she forgets about it, and it lasts forever.

 

Imagine that you are a midwife.  You are assisting at someone else’s birth.  Do good without show or fuss.  Facilitate what is happening rather than what you think ought to be happening.

If you must take the lead, lead so that the woman is helped yet still free and in charge.  When the baby is born, the woman will rightly say: “We did it ourselves”.

What does holding space mean to you?

 

Sealing Birth

Sealing Birth

I’ve been finishing up the requirements for a Sacred Pregnancy Belly Bind and Sealing course which I started years ago, but was never able to complete thanks to the birth of my second son, which threw me for a bit of a loop. Two years later I’m finally coming back to it again, and have been enjoying it very much. At the heart of the course are the skills needed to do a bengkung belly bind (pictured below), but the course is about more than just the physical binding itself. It’s also about learning how to create a sealing ritual to honour the birth and provide closure for the woman, as well as supporting her through her postnatal journey–both of which are sorely lacking in our modern world!

Pregnancy and birth is all about opening, on so many levels: opening yourself physically, opening yourself spiritually and emotionally, opening yourself up to the vulnerability of a new and powerful love, and opening yourself mentally and psychologically to the needs of another human being (and being willing to put those needs first). Our western culture is fairly good at discussing the physical opening that takes place (just go to any childbirth class or antenatal prep class and it will be all about the stages of labour and dilation and what happens to your body), somewhat good at acknowledging the mental and psychological opening that takes place (but better at focusing on the baby’s needs than on the mother’s needs), and generally not so good at the emotional or spiritual opening that’s going on. Antenatally, there is the tradition of the Baby Shower (very popular in the US, much less so in the UK), which revolves around gift-giving and providing for the material needs of the baby but tends to gloss over the emotional or spiritual needs of the mom and the transition she’s undergoing. A Mother Blessing, based loosely on a Navajo tradition known as a Blessingway, is a newer tradition that’s been growing in popularity and does a better job of filling the emotional and spiritual void by honouring the mother and her journey and showering her with love and blessings from her community. However, this still pertains mostly to the antenatal time period, and is focused on the birth itself. Overall, in our modern society, very little attention is given to providing closure for women, helping them to ground and center themselves again after such a transformative experience, and acknowledging their new role as a mother. That’s where a sealing ceremony comes in.

After an opening, it makes sense that there should be a closing. A woman needs to be sealed, on so many levels. Physically, her womb and pelvis and pelvic floor need to contract again, after softening and expanding and dilating. Her abdomen has to knit together once more after the diastasis recti muscles have literally come unzipped.  Her blood volume shrinks and her blood pressure may rise again (slightly–this is normal, and has nothing to do with the stress of having a newborn!).  On a chi/ energy/ prana level, she has to re-balance herself and find her own, singular energy rhythms again, after having adjusted to holding her own chi as well as that of her growing baby.  Emotionally, she has to adjust to the sudden emptiness inside of her, after having grown used to sharing her body and feeling the baby’s movements inside her for months and months.  And even more importantly, she has to adjust to being the only occupant of her body again, reclaiming herself as a single entity, and feeling the wholeness of herself once more. Spiritually, she is going through perhaps one of the biggest transitions of her life, from maiden to mother, with all of the new uncertainties, vulnerabilities and identity upheaval that contains. It’s a very big deal–SO much is happening on so many levels, but in our western culture there is no formal way to acknowledge or honour this process.

Many traditional cultures around the world have sealing ceremonies and traditions which are an important part of the postnatal process. In China, new mums are encouraged to stay in bed for the first 30 days and are fed “warming” foods, often with lots of ginger and bone marrow in them to help . In India and traditional Hindu cultures, women remain home with their new baby for the first 40 days to help promote breastfeeding and avoid infection (interestingly enough, it takes about 6 weeks for a woman to fully establish her milk supply, which may be the underlying reason for this), allowing family and friends to care for her while she learns to care for her baby.  Bengkung binding traces its roots to Malaysia, where it’s part of the traditional postnatal care offered to women. But of course, in modern America and the UK, there’s often very little room made for the woman’s transition during the postnatal phase. The focus is very much on the baby. The early weeks of the postnatal period involve trips to the paediatrician (in the US) or home visits by midwives and health visitors in the UK, checking the baby’s weight gain before finally discharging the mother/baby dyad from care around Day 10. Well-intentioned family members and friends encourage the mom to “get her life back” or “get her body back”, set up feeding schedules and routines for the baby and attend baby classes and postnatal groups as a way of socialising, all of which require the mum to leave the house with her newborn at a time when she’s not fully confident in her new identity yet, and often still overwhelmed by the transition and the round-the-clock needs of her baby.

And of course, we’re getting it wrong again and again. For one thing, very few women are recovering from a peaceful or empowering birth in the first few weeks.  Most are having to process and contain experiences that ranged from disappointing to outright traumatic.  As a midwife and lactation consultant, part of my job is to listen to women’s birth stories. Often I’m visiting with women in the first few days or weeks after the birth, when the experience is still very raw and they’re still processing it. Asking them to share their story can sometimes open floodgates of emotion for them, particularly if the birth was traumatic to them. A big piece of my job is to give the woman time to tell her story, in her own words and at her own pace–not just to share the details of it for the purposes of collecting her medical history, but to give her a chance to debrief. Even if she’s already told all of her friends and family about her experience, there’s something different about the listening you do in the role of a birth worker. It’s important to give her space, without judgement, and to acknowledge her experience. Sometimes sharing her story will bring up questions about it that she didn’t even know she had, which I’m sometimes able to help answer (particularly if the question is about something technical), and sometimes not (but sometimes just being able to formulate a question for the first time is helpful). Other times she doesn’t have any questions, but will simply repeat something over and over again, usually until it’s acknowledged (and here, echoing the woman’s words back to her helps tremendously; she might say at 6 different points in the story that she hadn’t really wanted to be induced, and saying a statement like: “You really didn’t want to be induced” allows her to feel like she was heard). There are many counseling tips and tricks that you pick up along the way, such as active listening, asking open-ended questions, reflection, paraphrasing, summarising and clarifying etc. But the root of it, of course, is listening without judgement, and holding space for her to be or feel whatever is coming up for her. This is an important part of sealing a birth, and can be very healing for a woman.

Mothering is incredibly invisible and unappreciated in our society. In other cultures, mothers are respected and honoured on a fundamental level which we seem to be missing. So much of our identity comes from what we do professionally. Just think of a dinner party with new acquaintances where everyone is going around asking you about “what you do”. When I was not working professionally but rather staying home with my children, I would often respond to these types of questions with something like: “Oh, I’m just a mother right now” (JUST a mother…), or “Not much”.  Not much! As if the enormity of my daily work–caring for my children, nourishing them with my body when I was breastfeeding, preparing and cooking meals for them, running the household, doing laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping and a gazillion other domestic chores, but more than anything else teaching them *constantly* by my words and actions and attitudes–amounts to nothing much at all because at the end of the day I had very rarely achieved anything, at least anything that could be crossed off of a to-do list or recognized by the wider culture as important.  The work is repetitive, monotonous, lonely and under-valued, and in our culture it’s very low-status work. One has only to read a book like What Mothers Do by Naomi Stadlen to see the damage this lack of status inflicts on women on a daily basis. Here we are working our guts out, but the idea of a stay-at-home mother in our culture connotes the idea of not doing much of anything (but actually, this applies to any mother, because even working mums still have to come home from their paid job to begin their unpaid job of mothering, and are most likely only recognised for the work they do as part of paid employment). And we wonder why women are suffering from postnatal depression and anxiety in higher and higher numbers, or why modern women today are struggling as much as they are find their way.  The author of this article eloquently points out that perhaps feminism has let women down on this front. I agree with that, but I also think it’s part of a wider malaise in our society: raising children and parenting the future generation is not seen as important, meaningful work, and this is a problem.

Which brings us back to sealing birth…rather circuitously.  We need to get better and sealing birth for women. We can do this formally, through a ritual like the one Sacred Pregnancy has created (or something that we create on our own), or informally through birth debriefing, but at it’s very heart sealing a birth involves acknowledging the transition she’s been through, recognising the incredible work she has done and is currently doing–the work of giving birth, which is in itself a monumental achievement, but also the ongoing work of mothering–and honouring her for this. Sealing birth won’t elevate the status of motherhood overnight, or fix the many deficiencies in our culture, but it can definitely help to make a difference on an individual level to the woman herself. And every woman who feels supported, recognised and honoured as a mother will bring that confidence to her vital and incredibly important job of raising the next generation, and shaping our society in the process.

Looking back, I think that I was very lucky in that I was able to seal my first birth pretty well. While I never had a formal ceremony done, I was lucky to have had a very empowering birth experience (I’ll get my two birth stories posted soon) and I happily recounted my birth story over and over and over to whoever would listen. I felt like superwoman–I felt like I could do anything, after having given birth! There was something about repeating it again and again, something in the telling of the story, that helped make it real for me, and helped me gain closure on it. The telling of it and the closer helped to translate the confidence I felt about my birth into a growing confidence I felt about my new role of as a mother (Breastfeeding? Pshaw! OF COURSE I can breastfeed. I just gave birth after all–I can do anything!) I also had loads of support and help from friends and family in the first few weeks after my first birth, which made it a relatively smooth transition. With my second birth, this wasn’t the case. Even though the birth itself was wonderful, joyous and empowering, the postnatal period became incredibly stressful due to a medical emergency with my 5 day old son, which threw everything off kilter. Also, since it was the second time around, my expectation was that of course I would be able to manage it, just like I had with my first…but in reality, I found the transition from one child to two children incredibly difficult!  And perhaps not surprisingly, I suffered from postnatal depression with my second son (again, I’ll share the story on here sometime soon). I think sealing is crucially important part of the birth experience. Was your own birth sealed? And if so, how was this accomplished?

 

Bengkung belly binding

 

 

My First Week Away From Them

My First Week Away From Them

I just spent a week away from my boys–the longest time I’ve ever been away from them since my eldest son was born five years ago. I went skiing with some good friends, entirely on my own, while my partner held down the fort in my absence.

I think I’ve been dreaming about this week away for nearly five years now. In the early, bleary-eyed days of new motherhood, when I was certain the exhaustion would kill me, I dreamed about mere hours away.  A week was unimaginable, but I would fantasize about someone taking my son and holding him for three hours while I took a nap. And in all fairness, there are several occasions when I can remember exactly that happening. My in-laws would babysit every now and then, or my partner. Once two work colleagues took him for a walk for two hours while I slept on the couch, and once, in desperation, I went to a friend’s house 10 blocks away and slept in her bed for three hours, as I found it nearly impossible to sleep–really sleep, deep and undisturbed–if the baby was anywhere in the house with me. Even his slightest whimpers, faint snufflings in his sleep, would set me bolt upright, in those early days, so any chance of a real nap would have to be done away from him.

And then, as he grew older, I began to dream about entire days away, and even entire weekends. I would imagine how glorious it would be, how unfathomably luxurious, to have an entire day to myself. To do the things I used to do, the things I took for granted, before I had children. To sleep in late, have a lazy morning in bed reading the paper, showering for a full, uninterrupted 20 minutes, enjoying a leisurely brunch at a local restaurant, lingering over my coffee–hell, on some days even an uninterrupted 5 minutes on the toilet felt luxurious, the stuff of fantasies.  I couldn’t imagine an afternoon spent browsing through bookstores or watching a movie, cooking a complicated meal from a new recipe book, knitting while watching TV, drifting off to bed whenever I felt tired, rather than trying to sprint through the evening’s interminable to-do list with the bed at the finish line and the distance between us growing longer and longer.

My partner would leave, often for work but sometimes for pleasure, and I would think about how much easier it was for him to have a week or weekend away. He was less tethered, his life carrying on in many of the same ways that it had before children, whereas for me my post-kids life was unrecognizable to my pre-kids life. I was often unrecognizable to myself.  Some days I would cry bitter, jealous tears about this. Some days I felt like I was the default option, taken for granted. He could head off on stag-dos and weekends away because I was at home, maintaining the routine, ensuring that naps were had and noses were wiped, food was cooked and cleaned up and cooked and cleaned up again, bodies bathed, teeth brushed and bedtimes kept. Needs were met. That was partly where the bitterness came from; that needs came before wants for me now, and that there was never time or room or energy for my wants, whereas my partner could still occasionally fulfill some of his wants.

But little by little, I started to have opportunities to leave. First an evening out with girlfriends after putting the boys to bed, so that they never even knew I was gone, and then an afternoon here, a morning there. A day spent at a conference now and then. I started working again, one day a week as an IBCLC at a breastfeeding drop-in (strangely enough, my day spent “working” often felt like a holiday), and then I began working two days a week, and then three. An avid runner, I began to train for another marathon about a year after my second son was born. I spent hours away, running. And then, for the race itself, I left for an entire weekend away with my partner, while the grandparents watched our children. Brief glimpses of my former self, snatched here and there like an exhausted swimmer coming up for air.

But now, for the first time, with a five year old and a two year old, I am finally in a place where I can go for a week and not feel like my absence will be harmful to them. In fact, I feel quite the opposite–that it would be good for all of us.  Good for me to be away, good for them to realize that they can manage without me (for a little while, at least), good for my partner to be on his own, and understand what it feels like to be the one left behind, holding down the fort, and good for them to see their daddy not just helping me, but single-handedly doing all of the tasks I normally do.  Good to change the routine and remind ourselves that we’re all flexible, that we can adapt. And for the record, my partner is an incredibly capable and involved dad. Leaving him alone with the kids for a week is by no means beyond him, or even a stretch for him, and I had absolutely no qualms about it. They’re in good hands.

And so, here I am, on my own for a week…and it’s been WONDERFUL! But it’s also felt like I’ve had an arm chopped off. I keep feeling the phantom twinges of my family all around me, as if I’ve lost something really important and keep forgetting what it is. I walk into restaurants and start to ask for a high chair before remembering that it’s not needed.  During dinner, I keep feeling like I should be doing a gazillion different things besides just eating my meal and enjoying the conversation. I should be reminding the older one to use his cutlery, reminding the younger one to sit still or he’ll spill his water, trying to get both of them to have a few more bites or else there won’t be any pudding, snapping at both of them to stop harassing each other, refilling plates and making pointed reminders about using napkins, cutting meat and retrieving forks off of the floor etc. etc. It’s as if I’ve gotten used to juggling eight balls while also eating a meal, and now all of a sudden the balls have disappeared…but I still feel like I should be juggling.

And how strange it’s been to move through the world unencumbered again!  To only have to think about myself and my own needs. To be the one traveling light, to sail through airport security in a matter of minutes. To board a plane on my own, with a good book to read and no mental checklists involving emergency snacks and drinks, knowing exactly where various toys, books, games and Lovies have been stowed, checking the batteries on the iPad which is the inevitable emergency back-up to the games and books, and making sure that nappies have been changed and wees had before boarding. To just get on a plane, sit down, put on my seatbelt and be ready to go. How unbelievably decadent! I can roll out of bed and be ready to go 20 minutes later, whereas usually dressing, cleaning, feeding and preparing my children to leave the house is a 1.5 hour long endeavor. The freedom and ease is staggering!

Our culture is really good about focusing on the positives of motherhood and glossing over the negatives, but in truth, motherhood is usually always a mix, and it’s important to acknowledge the dark as much as the light. So much love you feel like you’ll burst (!!), on a daily basis, but also so much uncertainty, responsibility, tedium, loneliness and isolation (and in many cases, depression and anxiety as well). Lots of dark in addition to the light, and rarely a perfect balance of the two. And in those first few days and months, nothing can prepare you for how swift the bulldozing of your identity and former life can be! I feel like the process of becoming a mother razes your identity to the ground, and then, in the wreckage of your former life, you slowly begin to rebuild your identity from the ground up, trying to figure out how to reincorporate all the pieces of who you used to be into this new shape.  And bit by bit, over time, you remember the things you used to enjoy and do on your own before motherhood, and learn new ways to do them again. But this week has made it very clear to me that you never go back to being the person you were before you had kids, even when you do get to the point that you can leave them for a week. All of those months and years fantasizing about time away, so that I could be who I used to be, even for just a little while, is impossible.  That person is gone. Those things I used to love to do before children, I still enjoy, but now they don’t feel like they’re quite enough for me, on their own, because I guess it takes more to fill me up now.

And I miss my kids like crazy. This time away has been nourishing and vital, and very eye-opening, but I feel like what it’s done more than anything else is give me energy to plunge back into the fray of parenting again. And be a better mother for it, as well. I can’t wait to see them again!