Musings on language, images and life

Month: August, 2011

On Vulnerability

I tip-toe over to my daughter’s cradle and furtively place my hand on her belly to feel the rise and fall of healthy breathing (a common new mom compulsion, or so I’m told), a gesture that elicits what sounds like an exasperated sigh from my already very independent 2-month-old. I breathe my own sigh— one of relief, that is— and curl back into bed next to my husband. I watch Lyla squirm a few times, furrow her brow, and sigh again before settling back into a comfortable position. Each squirm makes my heart ache in the best possible way, and I close my eyes and sink back into this new state of being— one I can only describe as a state of vulnerability imbued with incredible strength.

I rarely think of myself as a vulnerable person. I will admit that I’ve been vulnerable at times during my life, but it isn’t a term I frequently use to describe myself. I’ve always associated vulnerability with weakness, something one (especially women) must fight against in order to be successful in life. This philosophy had served me well for many years— at least I thought it had until I discovered the beauty that lies in allowing oneself to become completely vulnerable.

The events surrounding Lyla’s birth taught me exactly what I had been missing all these years. With each movement felt or heartbeat heard during my pregnancy, I fell deeper in love with the powerful little being growing inside me. As I labored to bring her into the world, I felt both my body and soul open to the possibility of loving more than I had ever thought possible. This opening, this complete surrendering, left me more vulnerable than I have ever been in my life. In the first days at home with her, I kept her on my chest constantly (unless her dad was holding her), needing to feel her near, needing to show her how much I loved her.

As the days passed, out of this feeling of vulnerability came the knowledge that I was a capable mother. As my physical strength improved, so did my mental clarity and emotional energy. Combining instinct with research, I continued to care for my child, a process I had begun ten months earlier. As I nursed her, bathed her, and took her out into the world, I felt both invincible and completely exposed. This vulnerability/strength dichotomy is inherent to my experience as a parent. Each day is trial by fire, and I come through it feeling more confident, more aware of my daughter’s needs. I fall even deeper in love with my child, which leaves me feeling vulnerable… and the cycle starts all over again.

Before I became pregnant, I had a conversation with a good friend who described parenthood as being completely willing to sacrifice everything for one’s child, even one’s own life. I didn’t doubt this was true, it was just that I had no context for this type of emotion at the time. I understand it now. I understand it on a visceral level, and I know that this desire to protect and ensure the survival of one’s  child is in and of itself and act of strength.

When Lyla was two weeks old, I was invited to sing back-up on one of my dad’s songs at the Compassionate Friends International Conference. This organization exists as a support network for parents who have lost children at any age, due to any circumstances. This year’s conference was organized by my beloved aunt, who lost her daughter (our dear cousin) in a tragic car wreck sixteen years ago. Dad and his musicians were asked to kick off the morning walk to remember with his song “Walk in the Light.” As the song began, I looked out into the sea of parents who had gathered to remember their sons and daughters. Many of them had pictures of their children on their t-shirts. I ached for them. I also admired them more than words can express. In their eyes I saw the utmost pride and love for their children—these souls who continue to live on in the hearts and minds of their loved ones. I saw incredible strength, strength that I cannot even begin to imagine. Just as it was difficult for me to understand parental love before I became a mother, it is nearly impossible for me to fully understand the type of strength it takes to carry on in the memory of a child who has left this world.

What I do know is this: It is only through allowing ourselves to be open and vulnerable that we experience true and deep love. Of course, this state of heart-wrenching, exhilarating, all-consuming love is not just reserved for parents. It is accessible to anyone who dares allow him or herself to enter into this precarious and sublime state of vulnerability. From what I’ve witnessed so far in my very new journey as a mother, out of this vulnerability comes unimaginable strength, the strength to care, to act, to love unconditionally every day of our lives, whether our loved ones are still with us or not.

We will walk in the light of their memory,

Run with hope in our hearts,

Fly on the wings of love all our days…

All our days.

(Excerpted from “Walk in the Light” by Dan Westmoreland)


Breast Interests

“Mama Jen?” Dad said quietly from the hallway. “I think she’s still hungry.”

I was already headed in her direction. She had been crying for two minutes or so and, as any breastfeeding mother can tell you, my milk ducts had already responded en force.

“I’m sorry. I know you need to work. She ate the two bottles you brought, but I think she needs more.” My parents had kindly offered to watch my 5-week-old daughter so I could carve out a couple of hours to spend in front of my laptop finishing up a project for a client. In anticipation of my work night, I had pumped two bottles, the only “liquid gold” I could manage extract between Lyla’s nearly constant feedings.

I sped over to the chair where Mom was holding Lyla, rocking her and soothing her with a voice I hadn’t heard since I was a child. “She needs her mama right now,” Mom said with knowing eyes. Bending down to scoop up my red-faced babe, I briefly cursed myself for thinking I could maintain a vital career and be the type of mother I wanted to be. Clearly I was failing on both counts.

Lyla and I retreated to my parents’ living room and her hungry little lips latched onto my heavy breast. I tried typing with one hand while cradling her in the opposite arm. When that proved too tedious, I began making a mental list of all of the things I needed to accomplish before the week was out— maternal, personal and professional tasks. I felt my blood pressure rise.

When I was only 3 or 4 months pregnant, Mom asked me if I was planning to breastfeed. She beamed when I responded with a resounding “of course!” “You’ll love it,” she cooed, slipping into a dreamy, nostalgic state.

I do love it. I love that my body can produce everything that my quickly growing daughter needs. I love that I can give her something that no one else can. I love that we have moments throughout the day (and night) that are reserved for just the two of us.

But some days I’m just a human couch with milk spigots (my sister’s apt description). On those days, each time I try to perform basic hygiene or get out of my mismatched pajamas, each time I try to respond to an email, each time I try to go to the bathroom, pleading little sounds and eyes draw me back and we nurse…and nurse…aaaaand nurse.

I am grateful for the ability and desire to breastfeed my daughter. I am also grateful for a lifestyle that allows me to do so. I work primarily from home, and most days I am able to complete that work and have plenty of time to spend with my darling “nugget.” Both my husband and I have worked hard to be in a position where I can work part-time from home in a fulfilling career and mother Lyla in the best way I know how.

What’s more, I have an incredibly supportive husband who cooks, cleans and never misses a chance to interact with his daughter. Even though I know we have worked hard to get here, I still can’t help but feel like I won the lifestyle lottery. Most days I don’t feel like a woman “oppressed by motherhood” (French writer Elizabeth Badinter’s theme de préférence), nor do I feel like I’m somehow less of a mother for maintaining a career (a common American maternal anxiety). I feel like a pretty great mother, actually.

Then why have I felt so “off” these past few days? So torn? Searching for the answer, my mind traveled back to the conversations about breastfeeding I’d had with my mom before Lyla was born. Well, she didn’t work while she was breastfeeding me, I reasoned, so there you go. All she had to do was concentrate on me and my needs. She must have been happy with that. But I knew deep down that wasn’t true. My mom has never been the “housewife” type. She’s a woman of action, a woman of vision. I know there were times when she felt cooped up when she was at home with us. I also know that she loved that time in her life more than words.

How did she do it? The answer came to me as soon as I asked the question: she has always been wonderful at living in the moment. For better or for worse, I have always excelled at speeding ahead into the future, relying on multitasking and overloading my schedule to get to the next step, the next level— either personally or professionally.

That was it. In the best interest of my daughter, and in my best interest, I would have to swap out my lens, to adjust my perspective.

So, I’m taking a page out of my wise mother’s book and trying my darndest to stay in the moment. Yep… easier said than done, but this truth reminds me of the importance of trying: If there’s anything lovelier than my beautiful daughter nursing merrily while never breaking eye contact with me, I have yet to experience it. I know these days will pass too quickly and someday, like my mom, I’ll speak of breastfeeding in rhapsodic terms.

I also know that I have a great support system. When Michael gets home from work he’ll be there to play with Lyla while I do my work, or bathe, or have a glass of wine—whatever I feel is the top priority at that moment. When I greet him with un-brushed teeth, tangled hair and tired eyes, he’ll immediately know what kind of day I’ve had: a human couch day.

Today was one of those days. “She only sees me as a food source,” I lamented. “She doesn’t play with me like she does with you. She doesn’t smile at me as much.”

“Yes,” he replied. “But you’re the reason she’s so happy and healthy. You’re the reason she’s growing so well. Plus, I saw her crack a few smiles while you were talking to her in French this morning.”

“You’re right, she did like that,” I remembered as I stepped into the shower.