the mothers

There was an afternoon at Union Hill, as I waited to meet my friend, Emily, that I found myself surrounded by mothers. And it wasn’t obvious in any way, because only one of the many mothers had the child tucked against her breast. She cooed to him softly and moved pale hair behind his ear. He was still so new, and she so new, too. She had never been so needed, her body so kneaded, her eyes so heavy, her heart so full. 

I sat against the white brick and watched her, sliding my hand from one side of my belly, to the other. Within the warm walls of my womb, my son hiccuped and rolled. My second child. My skin had been well worn, shaped like clay between my daughter’s palms. I was a mother of two; one without, one within, waiting.  

To my left, the second mother sat alone and cracked the spine of a book. We said hello, and then I let her be. In another life, we had known each other better. But time splits ties in odd ways. Slowly, surely. 

Three years ago, she called me from the airport while she waited for a plane to fill with fuel and take her to Norway. “It happened this morning,” she told me. “I didn’t even know I was pregnant, and then there she was, soaked in red. She was so small. Barely the size of my thumb.”

She felt her womb empty in waves. And though her body was unchanged, she was a mother then, in that moment, when she buried the tiny girl in the daffodil planter beside the terminal. She thanked her daughter for coming, uninvited. She thanked her for leaving, unbidden.

There was a softness that leaked into the corners of her eyes during the quick weeks that she carried the child. In the cafe, she caught me trying to spot it. I nodded, and looked away.

While I waited, the third mother came in with the breeze. 

Lauren ordered a Gibraltar at the bar and carefully carried it back to a table. She sipped a milk-foam oak leaf from the rim of the mug and smiled. When we were seniors in high school, she casually mentioned her pregnancy one afternoon over mint chip ice cream.  

“I met him hiking in Yosemite,” she told us. “I knew I was pregnant right away. I just felt an enormous shift. Something like the Earth moving. Not physically, but energetically. Right here.” Lauren pressed a palm to her womb. 

“I called him the next morning,” she continued, “and he told me that he didn’t care what I did about it. It wasn’t even an option. I can’t be a mother yet. Not yet.”

I watched her write something in a notebook and then take her empty mug to the counter. 

But you are a mother, now.

After a while, Emily joined me by the brick wall and asked how I had been feeling. 

“Round,” I laughed, “and ready to meet him.”

She clicked her tongue and smiled. “I’m sure. Can I get you anything?”

While Emily ordered a coffee at the counter, a young man passed by the door to the cafe and stopped at the bench just outside. I didn’t know him, but I could feel his tired heart through the brick and the plaster. 

He sat rocking his child fiercely in the autumn air, a babe so small that her head still had to be tenderly cradled between his rough-skinned thumb and index finger. He shushed her gently, right beside her ear. The baby waved still new arms and suckled clenched fists blindly.

“She’s hungry,” I told Emily. “Do you think he knows?”

Emily sat across from me, shuffling papers and shaking the ink from the tip of a pen. 

“If he doesn’t, he’ll learn. Fathers acquire that sense more slowly than mothers, but it comes just the same.”

She pushed dark hair from her eyes and chewed her bottom lip. Everything about her physical presence was warm and full and maternal. She was like a harbor where ships might go when fleeing a storm. The fourth mother. Wide hips, tender skin, lips fit for singing, for soothing scrapes, for smiling softly. A birth worker, she had watched half a hundred women tear through the veil: from Maiden, into Mother. 

And yet, her own womb was still. Though they charted and counted and held one another close, still she bled. Her children waited quietly within her, a thousand silver beads, quaking with hope and promise. Whispering, one day, one day, one day.

We sat quietly for a while, listening to the grinding of beans, the shoosh of steaming milk, the tap of empty cups against wooden tabletops. I thought to mention the strangeness of the room to Emily. The way we had all collected like that, mothers of many, in many different ways. Five of us, holding one another sweetly, without touching. 

But I sat still and listened instead. 

The mothers, we mothers, inhaled and exhaled and heated the room in a subtle, ancient way. Like the Earth moving. Like fire catching from one branch, to the next, to the next. Somehow forming a harbor, a holy space. Whispering together: we have you, we’re here, you’re safe, you’re loved.

1 week

I opened the door to the bathroom and released the lavender steam that had built during my shower. KC handed me the baby and I fixed him to my breast, taking care to press lightly on the tender spots of skin, still swollen with new milk. I eased my arms, one at a time, into a navy robe, the one I had bought for labor but had quickly shed during transition because it made me feel sick and uneasy. But for postpartum, it had been perfect.

"You look like a mother, now, holding the baby like that." KC said, smiling up at me from the bed. "Not that you didn't before, but it's grown on you. You've grown into it."

I nodded, agreeing. I felt it in my bones. 

"I think that somehow, feeling his birth entirely helped me to shed that final part of grief I felt when I lost my old life. The one I had before I became a mother. It's almost as if I didn't fully believe it until now. But here it is. Here I am."

In an hour, I'll have been a mother of two for exactly one week. This postpartum period has been much better than the first, for a thousand and one reasons. We're home, firstly. Though not quite in a home of our own, we have family nearby, within reach, and friends, too. Folks to keep us fed and warm and comforted. We have received loaves of sourdough bread and soft baked oat bars to keep my milk rich, and soup and puddings and casseroles, too. Food truly is the most wonderful gift to receive during the first forty days. I have been enjoying it slowly, gratefully.

Physically, I feel less pain than I did in the weeks following Aspen's birth. I didn't tear this time, and I think that has helped the healing immeasurably. My bleeding has slowed, my milk has balanced, my head only aches every now and then with that warm kind of foggy fatigue that comes coupled with a new babe.

We are moving slowly, here in our nest. Even with two of us, it takes hours to do the things that a week ago, only took minutes. Aspen has been adjusting as well as you might expect a two year old to adjust to such enormous, fragile things. She is needing, too, and we are being patient with her. Laundry waits wet in the machine until we find a breath to switch it over. Dishes stay caked and soaking until the evening, or the next morning, or the next night. We eat when we can. We touch when we can, gently, with intent. Apologizing for short tempers often. Traversing each tender day with grace, and care, and forgiveness.

I am feeling well. I am feeling loved. And I have so many to thank for that.

the fisherman's wife

Tonight, I had a vision of myself in a past life.

I was a fisherman's wife, and I was a mother then, too. A slow moving, gentle one, with hair fish-tail braided down my back and two babes that clung fast to my knees like barnacles. Our home smelled like mud and like the stark salty greenness of seaweed, and our windows were always half fogged from the constant rolling pot on the stove - fish bone soup, boiled potatoes, cabbage leaves cooked in oil. 

In the vision, I saw myself standing tall, a lighthouse, breeze at my back, watching my children collect stones by the tide. I was a mother only, and that was enough.

That can be enough in this life, too.

As I round the bend from a mother of one, to a mother of many, the question has been humming like cool air between my bones: What kind of mother do I want to be?

And I think that the answer is becoming stronger daily, as he lowers himself within me, as he rolls and hiccups and prepares his body to be born. Like half-fogged windows wiped clean, I can see the reflection of myself: healed. Whole.

I want to be a harbor for my children. Low-waving lamplight, glowing softly, gently, guiding so quietly that I am more a feeling than I am a sound. I want the thought of me to summon the smell of cinnamon, of ginger, of spices warming in milk on the stovetop. I want to touch softly, speak gently, praise often, spill kindness. 

"I am your mother," I tell them. I close my eyes. I wipe the fog from the window and touch myself between the shoulder blades. "I will mother you, too."

waning

Tonight you sat on my lap and I combed December tangles and a patch of old honey from your hair. It's not often loose - when you're just past two, it's much easier to keep it in a braid or a bun or a handful of bobby pins. I picked the knots gently, one at a time, until the comb ran clean through hair colored like earth and amber and sunlight. When I straightened the waves with the palm of my hand, they reached nearly to the center of your back. My God, how has the time tricked me so quietly! 

The hours I have left as a mother to you alone are waning, sweet girl. We've been sick for a month, it seems, with winter in our bones and a cough in our lungs. You've been needing in so many ways, dragging your tiny body into bed beside me, begging me to rock you, wiping snot on my skin and singing softly in a half-sleep, "Hold me, mommy, hold me." 

I have been equal parts exhausted by the demand for my warmth and my arms and my attention, and grateful for it. I am your everything, and you are mine. I am not shared. You are not shared. For now. Not for long.

For months, it seems, I've been writing the same thing in my planner at the beginning of the following day: "Redefine your purpose. Unravel your business ideas. Figure out what matters." And when I find a moment, if I find a moment, I haven't quite figured out what I mean by any of it. I've been feeling (as always) that I need to be more. That I need to leave some kind of profound mark across the world, with my writing, with my work, like a scar in the desert, or a great, white-topped wave out at sea. I blame social media for a seemingly never-ending infection of life-envy. I have been learning to shake it without completely shutting it out. 

The last year has taught me a great many things, but most of all, it has shown me how desperately I need absolutely nothing but this. Being her mother. Being yours.

Now, as our days together grow pale with change and the light within my womb glows brighter to illuminate the space between us, I have stumbled upon a great well of contentment in mothering. And oh! how much more joyous we all are when I can be a mother, and allow the pressure to become something greater to release in smoke. Maybe this is the most important thing of all. I am great already. I am enough.

Tonight, I'll flip to the 17th of December in my planner and cross the words from the page. In the margin, I'll write:

My purpose: To be gentle, to be kind, to be patient, to be present; to Mother first, not second. To honor my Self when needed. To be confident in the importance of this.

My business, unraveled: I will continue to write, for my Self first. Money will come, if it may. I will not force my words to pay my bills. I will focus on being at the shop, and improving the shop. That is the place in which my family has planted roots. That is where we will grow, together.

What matters:

Ahh, what matters.

The tangible, the tangible, the tangible. The things that can be felt on the skin and held in the palms and inhaled, and warmed, and touched. The shop. My community. You, and him, and the new one, and my Self.   

37 weeks

It has been so many weeks, and yet not many at all. I have carried you for nine months. Together we have felt the days turn from ice, to fire, and back to ice again. You push a stubborn foot at the skin beneath my ribs and you are growing, and turning, and getting ready.

I am getting ready, too. 

I drove down the hill from an appointment with our midwife today and the late winter afternoon had the sky colored pastel pink and a liquid kind of hazy. There was fog spilling like a frozen sea in the distance, over the hills, the tops of the waves painted orange and milky golden by the setting sun. Winter is empty, empty, empty. Starved of leaves and life and color. But it is strange to see what beauty can be held between empty palms. There is a quiet magic in the bare tree bones smiling gap-toothed and wild, gnarled grey ground gilded gold by fallen leaves, the rush of hasty daylight, the quick heaviness of night. Your sister was born into a damp season, one of abundance and harvest and reds and yellows singing from the treetops. Your season is beautiful, too. Perfectly empty and clean and ready to be filled by the warmth of you.

Time is moving slowly. Time is moving quickly, too. I am nearly a mother of two. I am a mother of two already. I've felt a great urgency lately, as you twist and shove between bones so strangely fit for holding you. Aspen was the first, and she came and conquered the Motherland and made me hers. I was changed, all at once, and it was painful, and it was beautiful, and it’s taken until now to realize just how magnificent I have become. 

Things are going to be different this time. I am needing, and I am fragile, and I am deserving of care and help and warm, healing hands. It took 28 months to learn, but I know now. You will come, and I will let you shape me gently, surely, between kneading, milk-sticky fingers. But you will not break me, sweet boy.

I am a mother, now. I am your mother already.

And together, in the pastel emptiness of winter, we wait.

11 months

sweet love, I'm trying to remember when you were new. you would fold yourself like a paper swan at my breast, eyes closed, soul still somewhere in-between and hazy. but I can't recall much else. the memories of your first weeks have been wiped away by exhaustion's tricky elbow, and now, here we are. your knees knock at my belly and your arms stretch up over your head. you draw a circle with your finger on the glossy page of a book and ask, "dis? dis?"

there's a space that grows warm between our bodies when we lay to nurse at night. over time, as we live and speak and bleed energies into one another, this space will become thicker, more colored, more tangible. it will be cold at times, but mostly warm, quiet, and familiar. but now? the space between our bodies is sweet and untarnished, like milk, like honey. we have never been so pure. I think of this often. 

sometimes, I'm very tired. you've learned to kick and twist like an animal when you're taken from something you love.  (isn't it funny how early on we learn to cling wildly to the things we cherish?) you haven't yet learned to listen, or to be gentle, or to leave things you shouldn't have alone, so for ten hours of the day, I'm fumbling along at your ankles, gently guiding you away from the things that may sting or shock or cut you. and sometimes, I grow angry. angry at myself, really. yesterday, I thought to tell your father that I'd ruined my own life by having you. the words filled my mouth and turned sour, so I swallowed them. and I'm glad that I did, because the feeling passed soon after. 

I'm doing my best, sweet one. I'm trying to keep the space between our bodies gently smoldering with only love - never anger, or impatience, or blame. you've taught me many things. like the difficulty of patience, and how quickly I become overwhelmed, and the serenity of surrender. but mostly, you've taught me that I have a choice. in every moment, I am the one who decides: here, now, what will I offer?

1 year

one day, when we’ve both grown old in our bones and sun-stained from a dozen summers, you’ll ask me what it was like when you were new. 

in the beginning, I’ll say, you were very small and very still, and we didn’t realize the greatness of what we’d done. and then you grew. you opened your eyes and reached for the glasses on my nose, and just like that, you were the only thing we knew. 

it wasn’t easy to become a mother. the first year was another birth entirely, perhaps even more painful, in a different way, and there were a hundred hazy lamp-lit nights spent cradling you at my breast, rocking and humming and wondering what in the world I had done. 

but it was easy to love you. you were so velvety and veiled in fuzz, like an august peach. you smelled like milk and honey and i marveled at your purity, not only of your skin and bones and being, but of the air between us, so warm and colorless, not yet stained with any words or actions. 

you were new for such a short time, sweet love. and now, look at you. my god, how you bloom. when I think I’ve got a handle on your heart, you peel away and spill your spirit in a different direction entirely, always keeping me on my toes, forever unfolding and unfolding again. i can’t exactly drape words over this first year. it was milk stains and profoundly practiced patience and counting the coupled breaths you took as you were sleeping. but it was something else, too. it was the feeling of spring on the back of my neck, the feeling of something coming, something swelling somewhere between my skin and the air. a never-ending season of newness. of fumbling forward. of change. of grace.

and now, here we are. a year, to the day. we wake, we tangle, we collapse, we rise. when you ask me what it was like when you were new,  I’ll cup your soft hands in mine and say, “my dear, sweet love, it was the beginning of your life, and too, it was the beginning of mine.”

10 months

today we woke up late, all three of us in a tangle, and then i fixed french toast and eggs. i poured water over coffee beans and heard the neighbor's screen door slam outside. i thought about how nice it might be to make cinnamon rolls. i wrote, saturday, family brunch, cinnamon rolls, gold dust peaches, vanilla bean, on the chalkboard and nodded. the day was already hot and golden and milky. later, aspen and i ducked under the trumpet vines by our bedroom window and walked into town. i tried on three shirts and a dress in a fitting room while aspen sat on the couch beside me and took the gift cards i'd gotten for my birthday from the pockets in my wallet. i thought for a while and then bought the dress, because it was red and soft and made my cheeks catch flame. suppertime came and we ate and bathed and swept the floor. aspen and i stood by the parking lot and watched dad pulling thistles from the cracks in the pavement. our neighbor came outside to fetch the mail. she asked us how we were, and we talked for a while about eating meat, about the drought, about the grey cat who'd just had a litter of kittens under her porch.

i don't want to forget today. perfectly slow and ordinary. today, i woke as myself. today, i woke and my postpartum depression had lifted, like a fog, like old glasses, and i felt alive for the first time in ten months. i woke and i loved my daughter completely, more that i ever had. i woke in the hungry skin of a lover, of a mother, of a woman. i didn't even know how much i felt like a corpse until this morning, when i woke and every inch of myself was alive with love and wanting. today is the very first day; i am reborn.