I've given birth three times - and you know how much I've enjoyed each one of those three. I've also miscarried twice – once happily and with immense gratitude, the last time more sadly. But neither miscarriage was especially heartbreaking for me. The last one as much a soft grief for the passing of my years of fecundity as for that poor wilted flower bud of a Naomi who showed up in my dreams the night before letting go her tenuous hold on life. We had planned to name her Meridian or Raina or Marit if a girl. Toronto, Peregrine, Liam if a boy. But in my dream she was Naomi - a sad sweetness.
All in all, I'm glad to move on to the next phase of my life.
Don’t get me wrong. I love having been/ being mother to my three. Being a hands-on, fully-entangled mother is what – above all – I always wanted to do. I had always wanted to be –
as I got older I addeda mother – like my mom (which meant wide-ranging competence – clothes from flat fabric, bread from whole grains, fixer of toasters and builder of shelves. Meant also physical vigor, perfect teeth and a beautiful voice, much laughter and bad jokes and how-to-stand-on-your-head tutorials.)
a farmer’s wife – like my grandma (a job in itself and not just the lady who married Old MacDonald. For those who know, a job that includes sunrise shelling of peas, weeding, planting, raising chickens, irrigating the garden out back, sewing, quilting, baking pies, canning, pickling, churning butter, keeping the village post office, growing peonies and iris.)
a writer – because I wasn’t a sculptor and painter like my other grandmother (and which I understood would entail mostly responding from my shining mahogany desk to fan letters while looking out over the rolling fields below my window.)
But a mother above all. I chose my husband first and foremost looking for someone who would make a good father. Also wide-souled enough to make a healthy environment for the writing. Also trustworthy. Also physically exciting. (Sadly unromantic-sounding, I know, but not so bad a rubric after all.)an English professor - like Dorothy Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis (which obviously meant an English professor who wrote rather than a professor of English necessarily, and which I’d think of in flashing images of tweed and meerschaum pipes and bad teeth – though, thanks to my parent’s investment in orthodontics, only the tweed was really ever a potentiality for me.)
I desired my first daughter with an overwhelming desire.
And was floored by the hopelessness, anxiety and sense of betrayal that spilled into me in the weeks that followed. The first week I just gazed at her, a little dazed, a little unbelieving, and very sore because of difficulty nursing. Not that I didn’t love my baby, not that I didn’t treasure the way she yawned, her wise and ancient eyes, her dandelion tuft hair, the sweet smell of her, her brightness and the richness of her skin. But day after day, without ever enough sleep, with never no chance in sight for a full night to recover, with waking hours of constant vigilance and attention, that was harder rowing than anyone outside this story can imagine.
My husband, the youngest of two, had not been sure what to think of being a father, right up until becoming a father. Now with all the enthusiasm of a new convert, he declared his eagerness to have as many children as I wanted. “But the decision is all yours,” he said, for which I loved him, because I wasn’t sure we needed to have more than one.
And she was such a perfect one. So good-tempered, so patient. Once the nursing settled out, once I started getting sleep, the fog began to clear. Joy started to seep back into my life.
My second daughter I chose after a strong sense of certainty poured through me that it was time for another child. The day before my farm-grandma died I discovered that she was on her way here. The moment I laid eyes on her I was flooded with an overwhelming sense of care and protectiveness. Her birth had been relatively easy. I was increasingly sure of my mothering skills. And she was a beautiful and healthy child, exotic-eyed, silvery-haired. I breathed in the sweet, milky scent of her. Gratitude squeezed my heart like a giant sponge to see the gentleness between these two little sisters, Eldest's delight in the new baby, Middlest's emerging vivacity and instinctive clowning.
But there was no quick bridge over my grief at my adored grandma's death, the first death of someone close to me. Add in weight-gain, hormone storms, sleep-deprivation, a demanding new baby and a strong-minded toddler.
Add: that the rest of my family lived across the country.
Add: that my good husband had been asked to volunteer as the head of our congregation, working long hours visiting the sick and troubled, organizing and attending and planning, and all this after his long hours working all day in a software company.
Add: that my grad school friends were now professors.
Add: But it went beyond addition - my days fell under some unfathomable formula from trigonometry, a conundrum of differential calculus, unresolvable.
I was a mother who wrote small poems in haphazard snatches of time and labored over an ungainly novel that never came to birth. I was nothing.
There was a stretch of bleakness here, almost too hard to bear.
I remember one winter day deciding to do only what the cat did – drink water, lie in the patch of sunlight on the carpet, run down the hall, curl up on the couch – and that was a good day. Summer was better: I pulled out chunk after chunk of sod in my tiny yard to make xeriscape garden beds where flowers could bloom in the desert with as little water as possible.
The flower beds spread.
Every week I pulled out another border of sod. "You're such a hard worker," said my neighbors, though the inside of the house would not provide much evidence.
"Are you going to leave any grass?" said my husband when he came home to another pile of sod in the driveway and no dinner. I'd grimace, shrug, turn back to moving plants around late into the night, working by porchlight.
It sounds so innocent to tell it now. I walked the neighborhood, around and around. But there was a constant roaring in me. There were days I would not drive to avoid the murmurous urge to pull my car out in front of oncoming traffic.
I was the sweet young wife, with the sweet young family, married to the sweet young bishop of an aging congregation. My first miscarriage was my third pregnancy, entered stupidly and (yes) angrily, to hush up the comments of doting older neighbors and members of our congregation – to me, Aren’t you going to have any more children? or worst – to my daughters, Ask your momma where’s your little brother? I decided I might as well get on with it, get it over with. Which is no way at all to welcome a child into this world.
And wasn't, thank God. And I did thank God.
I cried out, briefly, when the nurse midwife told me my hunch was right, that the fetus had died, that I would soon miscarry. Tears filled my eyes, fell, dried on my face. And I stayed up through that nightlong process, reading Barbara Pym’s Less than Angels, hiccuping and laughing until more tears rolled down my cheeks.
No grief the next morning. Relief.
And I felt come into me a strong upwelling, a sending, almost in words, No. Not like that. I will tell you – in My way – when it’s time to have a child. What I want from you now – is just this: that you raise these two dear ones I’ve put in your care, and also – (there was another assignment – more literary - which doesn’t pertain here).
I hired a babysitter once a week, began volunteering in an adult literacy program, later helped to open up a new literacy center in my own town and became its director, focused time on that second assignment. In time, we moved here to greener hills and softer climate and my husband’s schedule simplified. My daughters started school. I taught a poetry workshop at the elementary.
I remember one day walking up the hill to our house here and feeling that the burden I’d been carrying for so long had dried at last.
Had lightened. And become wings. Honestly - though I don't know how to explain this - for a minute I felt the tugging at the back of my shoulders.
I memorized Levertov’s poem “Stepping Westward” –
If I quote poetry too much, it's because these were the friends who murmured peace in my ears those long months when I was too alone inside my private bleakness.. . . There is not savor
more sweet, more salt
than to be glad to be
and who, myself,
I am, a shadow
that grows longer as the sun
moves, drawn out
on a thread of wonder.
If I bear burdens
they begin to be remembered
as gifts, goods, a basket
of bread that hurts
my shoulders but closes me
in fragrance. . . .
The years that followed my recovery though were particularly sweet. When I finally conceived my son it was out of a great well of peace and because again, a strong spiritual sending and a brimming up of desire for this child whom I named before he was born: Laughter Flourishes. His babyhood was easier.
Maybe because this time I didn’t pretend uber-competence. I told people that I would be unavailable for a month afterwards and banned visits for two weeks, “No, I don’t want meals. I don’t want phone calls.” I took a break from some of my obligations and maintained only those that nourished me best. I gave myself a year to make it back across that wide water.
The first night home, my milk still not in, I slept through the night, while Fritz walked the floor with our new son. When I woke suddenly in the morning and rushed through the quiet house, searching for them, I found both boys asleep on the couch, heads back and their pale necks bare. The baby under his father's chin, gumming his father’s little finger. “Father-son bonding,” Fritz shrugged off my tearful, laughing gratitude.
A week later, the first day of school, I met my two young daughters at the door. “Oh, Mom, you look tired. Here, give him to us. You go take a nap.” In that moment, I vowed, come hell or high water, I would do what I had to do to be near and available to spell my daughters – day by day if necessary – whenever these two marvels become mothers in their turn.
A few years later, what was to be the last time I miscarried began as a unifying joy of expectation for our whole family, and then became a unifying bittersweet soft sadness.
And despite my in-laws' valiant tongue-biting and my own mother's "Are you sure you don't want more? You do them so well," I 've never felt prompted since to embark on that perilous raft out across the river to ferry across another life.
Because of the difficulty I have with the after part of giving birth, I would not ever want to embark without a strong reassuring prompting. Which is not to say that now I would unwish - that I would go back and sidestep those bleak years. That hard baptism.
I’ve called that time – to myself – a plunge down into dark waters – and an arcing up – a dark rainbow whose lessons of hope have remade me more deeply than simple and easy happiness would have done.
My ancestors were handcart Mormons in the snowbound, starving Willey handcart company and like them, it was "in my extremity" (though an extremity that would have looked like ease to them) that "I came to know God." In the very heart of that bleakness I remember kneeling at the rocking chair – two babies finally asleep and Fritz still at his meetings – sobbing and railing at God. I was not comforted at the time when I felt His Presence come and sit there with me that night. I should have been amazed, singing hallelujahs at the deep and wise closeness I suddenly felt - that undeniable, attending, listening, ancient and deeply-knowing presence. At the time, though, it enraged me that God was there, that I could feel God there and close, and doing nothing to fix me.
I wanted to be fixed and made just fine right then. God just came and stayed with me until the fixing and the becoming fine grew up around me and within me. God was not afraid of my sadness or rage, was not frightened away by my railing and impatience, but instead taught me by just standing beside me, walking with me day by day, listening to me as I climbed my way out of that post-partum valley.
I have found the memory of that experience very sweet since. A lesson showing me what exactly it means, that business about bearing one another's burdens, mourning with those that mourn. What it means to accompany. To be with. To walk together.
So. My story, for you, my friend – not after all about postpartum depression – but how I lived past that bleakness. How I came into a deeper kind of knowing.
How I know that God is there.
Is More than just the sum of everyone else’s platitudes.
Is Deeper than my sorrows.
Is the Firmament on which I can trustingly stand.
Is the Water and the Rising.