The Woman I Was Before I Knew

[Side shot of my right shoulder and face, turned toward the camera and smirking. Four-pound-twelve-ounce Fiona sleeps on my chest, naked and mouth agape, covered in a white gauze blanket.]

[Side shot of me, turned toward the camera and smirking. Four-pound-twelve-ounce Fiona sleeps on my chest, naked and mouth agape, covered in a white gauze blanket.]

Look at this woman. I found her yesterday in a computer file of photos marked Fi’s First Days. When I saw her, my immediate reaction was, Hah! I was tickled, delighted by her. I thought something about her was really amusing. But I couldn’t name my response much more than that. Hah!

Look how confident she is. Look how self-assured with that smirk. She’s holding a four-pound-twelve-ounce baby against her chest. She’s doing it because the baby curls easily against her chest, and she’s doing it because it feels good, and she’s doing it because the warmth of her chest probably feels good to the baby. But a sliver of her is also doing it because this seems like something a mother might do. Hold sleeping baby to chest. Smile.

And maybe that’s the first reason for the Hah: I know she’s using mothering models she’s seen already. I know she’s fairly confident those models will make her a good mother to this four-pound-twelve-ounce person. She even has a giant purple book with the words THE BABY BOOK printed on the spine. The book is a tome. It’s a bible. Her sister used it and her friends used it and it’s written by today’s guru in childrearing, so it won’t steer her wrong.

Of course she knows no child is a replica. She believes she will have to chart her own course the same way any mother has to chart her own course, because we are all unique little snowflakes, babies included. But the woman in this picture has no idea that in six months, she will never consult THE BABY BOOK again. She has no clue it will become irrelevant to her parenting experience. She has no idea just how unique her little snowflake is.

At four-pounds-twelve-ounces, her little snowflake is especially little, a fact about which the doctors and nurses at the hospital seem particularly concerned. This fact will grow increasingly worrisome to the woman, who will eventually seek an explanation. A nurse will draw a vial of blood. The parents will get a call. Fourth chromosome, short arm. Who needs that? this woman will think when her husband recites the nurse’s words, because the short arm must be inconsequential in its shortness.

But then a geneticist will order a round of tests, and this woman will become another woman: the kind who sings to a screaming seven-pound baby while a nurse tries (and fails and tries and fails) to insert the tiniest catheter up the baby’s urethra. The kind of mother who watches X-ray images of her baby’s renal function. The kind who holds her screaming baby while a doctor inserts a tube up the baby’s nose and down her throat. She will then have to get the baby, still screaming and still invaded with a nostril tube, to latch, to suck, to nurse. She will sweat a lot. This woman will become the kind who monthly walks the halls of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, carrying her baby in the portable car seat, clenching her throat to hold back the tears because, even as sun streams through the halls’ skylights, this is no-fucking-where near the kind of mother she thought she’d have to be.

Then therapists will start tracking the baby’s delays. Doctors will write failure to thrive on the baby’s file. Appointments with feeding specialists and nutritionists will be made. And the woman will eventually become yet another woman: a person who plays along, who buys the “have-to” messages and stresses over the “tummy times” and counts the spoonfuls of pureed peas and nearly pulls her hair out, trying to get her kid to be and do what kids with all their fourth chromosomes will be and do.

It will take a year or two. It will feel like it takes eons. But eventually, that woman will become me. A mother who found her way. Who learned to listen to her kid. She’ll learn to listen to her kid’s limits, her kid’s interests, her kid’s body’s warnings—the funky spinal curve, the occasional yellow skin. She will also listen to a most glorious sound: her kid’s faintest giggles like bubbles from the ocean’s smallest fish.

She will feel the universe smacking her straight on the forehead, saying, Wake up! Your kid is off the charts? Burn the charts. Your kid is perpendicular to the yardstick? Break the yardstick. Your kid is a gem. Revel. Get down to floor-level. See the star in her eye. Swim there, in the blue. Let her teach you. You are close-to-clueless about what it really means to be human on this planet. And you might never learn another lesson as beautiful as what she, this teensy mystery, is about to teach you.

Ah yes, all of this will happen. The newbie mother will become the worried mother will become the stressed-out mother will become me. Who’s still stressed-out, yes, but not in the I’m trying like hell and failing to swim against stream kind-of way. Just in the, Jeez, this river is sometimes rough kind-of way.

But right now, in this picture, this woman is at the start.

[Side shot of my right shoulder and face, turned toward the camera and smirking. Four-pound-twelve-ounce Fiona sleeps on my chest, naked and mouth agape, covered in a white gauze blanket.]

[Same photo as above. Side shot of me smiling with sleeping Fiona on my chest.]

Right now, she’s sleep-deprived only a few days. Right now, she’s not even sporting bags under her eyes. She birthed her baby four days ago. She believes her baby will catch up in weight. She believes if she keeps finagling the limp, four-pound-something body to her breast, if she keeps recording every feeding attempt, and if the intervals between feedings never exceed two hours, then the giant worry that is the baby’s weight will lift. She believes in normal, and she believes she and her child will reach it.

Ah, dear Reader, that’s it. That’s why I say Hah! to this woman. She believes in normal. She believes she and her child will reach it. It will hurt so badly when they can’t. And then, it will feel like flying when she lets normal go, because the hurt lifts along with it.

Dear reader, if you know me in person, you know that I am not confident about most things. If I said something to you yesterday, I have since thought of a new way to say it. If I made a decision last week, I am playing out what might have happened had I made a different choice. I rethink things. Many things. I still, to this day, rethink my high school prom hair-do.

But in all truth, I can say this to the woman in the picture: Woman, you will become a Damn Good Mother to this kid. You have no idea right now how much it will take, how hard you will work, how worried you will be. You have no idea how much research you will do, how many hospital visits you will make, how different your life will look compared to what you wanted. The scenarios about to unfold in your life will pry open your grip around many of your beliefs: beliefs about who you are, about why a person parents, about what makes a life worth living. You will be unmade before you are made. It will hurt like hell, and it will be a beautiful thing. Smile your confident if tired smile, new momma. Hold that four-pound-twelve-ounce baby close. I can promise you this: you will become a Damn Good Mother.

33 thoughts on “The Woman I Was Before I Knew

  1. It’s such a beautiful post, not just about motherhood, but about personhood and learning the confidence that comes when we open ourselves to who we have been asked to become. Thank you, Heather!

  2. “She believes in normal. She believes she and her child will reach it. It will hurt so badly when they can’t. And then, it will feel like flying when she lets normal go, because the hurt lifts along with it.”

    This. I love this. It’s so true. I don’t think, for me at least (not yet anyway) the hurt is all gone. But I do remember a distinct feeling of freedom when I accepted who my daughter was and ignored the normal.

    So well written. Beautiful.

    • Thank you, Oneinamillion. I still have other kinds of hurts emerge. And I suspect they always will. Fiona’s inability to tell me what she’s thinking–that one hurts a lot from time to time. But yes, there’s something magical about acceptance. It’s liberating and beautiful!

    • Your reply was just so beautiful and accurately describes the stage of acceptance I am transitioning into in regards to my daughter Olive. Before I couldn’t find the words that described what I was feeling in my heart and mind–so thank you for sharing those words! Best wishes!

  3. Reblogged this on The one in a million baby and commented:
    This blogger never fails to make me think and reflect. After a bit of a mini panic yesterday over life and doctors and work and everything else I have to fit into a day, it’s very nice to know there are other mothers out there who are doing and feeling something pretty damn similar.

  4. My favorite part: “Ah, dear Reader, that’s it. That’s why I say Hah! to this woman. She believes in normal. She believes she and her child will reach it. It will hurt so badly when they can’t. And then, it will feel like flying when she lets normal go, because the hurt lifts along with it.” I love it because it’s beautifully written and also, especially, because it’s so, so true.

  5. That is so perfect. I love it. You were and are even more beautiful this day! Several years ago, I made a video for families of children who had been diagnosed with a disease or who had been born with a disability or who had died. It is made up of parents, declaring what they would have told themselves on that day or the day before. The video is up on YouTube, still going strong with over 40,000 views — you might recognize some of the people on it, but I sure wish you were! Here’s the link:

    • “Her eyes will sustain you.” YES, Elizabeth, I love that video, and loved your entry the most, and remembered it forever. It sustained me. I think I watched the video two years ago. It’s so healing, talking to the former self, telling her what she needed to hear but could never know.

  6. Heather, I have been reading you (thanks to a friend’s introduction) for some time and marveling at your writing. This piece, however, speaks to my heart and comes to me at a fortuitous moment; one of great self doubt about my mothering. My son is “off the charts” and in moments of self-pity I repeatedly mourn the family I thought we would have. I am still working on reaching the moment of letting go, but this gives me hope that someday I will get there!

    • Jacquelynn, Thank you for reaching out. I’m honored that you read these posts. Yes indeed, have hope! Acceptance is a hard-earned place, and I’m not sure it comes in a single moment, but gradually, maybe in the same way that a sky turns from dawn to day. But you’ll get there!

  7. Sometimes when something in our lives forces us to rethink things we’ve long held close to us as true and unmake ourselves so we can reassemble with how we deal with what is instead of what we wanted things to be, that’s when we really get to our true self.

    Which is what you said here, only you said it better.

    Another great post.

  8. Heather, we have to believe in a new normal…our normal…different than anyone else’s Beautifully written and rings with such truth for me, a special needs mother of a special needs child. I heard a story once that started, “We got on the plane to go to Italy, and instead we ended up in Holland. It’s not that Holland is bad, it’s just not Italy.” I live in Holland, most moms of special needs kids do. My strength is in the Lord and I am beyond blessed to have this child without whom I would never have loved or cared or reached out or stretched or felt pain or felt joy the way I do. Thank you, Heather, and God bless you and your family.

  9. My niece, Lori, is 43 years old now. Your story brought back so many memories as my mom and I tried to feed her for her mom during the first weeks of life. My mom instinctively knew “something is wrong” before the doctors diagnosed Lori. What a snowflake she is today!!! Thank you for your story.

  10. thank you for this post. Normal – HA is right. I never thought it would be this hard, I never thought I would have a child, let alone two of them, diagnosed with something. It is so difficult to let go of that dream and I am so many years into it. I often wonder if there are other mothers out there thinking my same thoughts at the same time. I know there are, just wish we could all be in s room together sometimes. Thank you.

  11. You , my dear daughter, are an amazing mother and I am very proud of the way you are walking the path you are on. That teeny tiny baby has taught us, those who love her, more then could have been imagined, she truly is our tour guide of a wonderful road we have been blessed to walk. Thank you, for being the person you are, Heather which has formed you into a magnificent mother for Fiona and Petra .

  12. In tears. Inspired. Reminded. I *will* finish this paper! I am sorry I didn’t have it done when you needed it. It might not have helped, but maybe…thank you for sharing. I needed to member *my life* is not just about me.

  13. Pingback: Meet Bunz! | Team Bunz

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