This isn’t a confession, but it feels like one, and that’s why I’m writing it.
You may know me as Paige of “Jeff and Paige,” and of course I am also Paige, just plain old Paige, mother, wife, and writer. I have written for years about everything from climate change and sustainability to my own recovery from an eating disorder years ago. Now I’m feeling all the threads of my life experience coming together as I feel called to share about my recent postpartum journey.
After our second child, Alice, was born, the rich and complex experience of pregnancy and birth was deepened as I was overcome by extreme postpartum anxiety.* A week after Alice arrived on the scene I stopped sleeping. Make no mistake, she was sleeping. I was not. A creeping dis-ease and otherworldly anxiety was taking over. My four-year-old, Wolf, needed me, in a desperate way that would reassure him he hadn’t been replaced. My breasts were engorged beyond belief, “I’ve never seen a woman so engorged with her second child,” is the direct quote of my midwife, Elizabeth. Physically, other than the engorgement, I was fine. I had triumphantly and joyfully birthed our sweet baby girl at home in our own bedroom. The pictures of me holding her, moments after she arrived shows the bliss that birth can bring.
This made things almost more confusing in my muddled mind, what was the problem? Why couldn’t I relax, or sleep, or even really sit still for very long? I slept less and less. And the less I slept the worse the anxiety became. It grew from a dull roar that I could manage to a screaming pitch that was taking over my life. When I did fall asleep it was fitful and I was visited by strange primordial dreams and images.
I recognize now that it was a passage, a transition, powerful and ripe with meaning, but I lacked any outside help, rituals, or references to contextualize what I was experiencing. I told no one what was going on. I didn’t have the words.
Not that they didn’t notice. My mom, who had come to support our family, and my husband Jeff, were bewildered. They knew something wasn’t quite right, my eyes seemed vacant, I couldn’t carry on much of a conversation, I bit my nails and pulled restlessly at my hair, and the initial outward joy of greeting our daughter had vanished.
As Alice entered her first week of life my hormones and brain chemistry went haywire. I felt as if I were having a never-ending panic attack. Relentless waves of inexplicable fear rolled over me, their crests coming faster and faster.
The pain of contractions seemed preferable, at least that pain was temporary, at least it could be breathed through, and seen by others. The fear was tied to nothing. I wasn’t having thoughts that caused fear, I wasn’t worried about the baby, I was just experiencing the physical sensation of panic. This was part of why I couldn’t say anything to anyone about what was going on, there seemed to be nothing to say. I worried I was going insane and that I would never feel the ground under my feet again.
Luckily I got mastitis.
My breasts were not releasing enough milk, the baby couldn’t eat the volume of milk I was making, and despite my best efforts with castor oil, cabbage leaves, herbal tinctures, and cold and hot compresses, infection set in. I’d been up most of the night pacing my bedroom when a fevered sleep overtook me. My body was grateful to be asleep.
On the morning of the sixth day I woke up freezing hot and shaking. I was sandwiched between my newborn and four year old gasping for air, drowning in the covers.
“Help.” I cried, voicing the word that had slowly been building inside of me. “Jeff! Mom! Help! Help me!” I tried to stand but I was too dizzy. My mom and husband came into the bedroom.
“Something’s wrong.” I said, “something’s really wrong.”
I tried again to stand but it was hard to see straight. My stomach hurt.
“I feel like I can’t breathe.” I stumbled to the bathroom with my mom’s help. Jeff picked up the baby, and soothed Wolf. His face was shattered with worry. Sitting on the toilet I tried to cry but I couldn’t get the tears to come.
“I think I have a fever,” I heard my shaky voice tell them from the bathroom.
“Please call Elizabeth.” There it was, the first clear sentence that had come out of my mouth in days.
Okay that’s a really succinct version of this moment. There were way more tears (mostly Jeff’s it was his 40th birthday, and his parents were arriving from the airport in an hour) a screaming baby, a whining and bewildered four year old. Plus I was still waddling around in adult diapers and spraying warm water on myself after I peed. It was a mess. Thank god for my solid, caring and level headed mother who has been there for me every step of the way in this life. And for my midwife, thank god for my midwife.
Stay tuned for Part Two—Help Comes
This is Part One of a series of posts about my postpartum experience and the resources available in my community (and beyond) to help mothers partners and families with the delicate and profound postpartum transition.
“Happiness is solely a matter of where you put your attention.” ~Anonymous.*
*I’m not sure who to attribute this quote to, if anyone knows please let me know.
Each glorious day arrives and ends. The One who witnesses, our capital ‘S’ Self, watches it all pass without commentary, or judgement. The small one, mind, ego, thought, chatters, makes trouble, takes issue with the way things are never quite right…
…If only I didn’t have a headache
had gotten more sleep
didn’t forget my computer for the meeting
wasn’t doing a performance today
wasn’t worried about politics
was spending the day with my kid
if only, instead, I wish…
When we become fully present to the moment there is no problem. There is not even opportunity, there just is. The fullness of what is. My teacher Jennifer McKeown calls it “the is-ness of what is.” Coming into presence we find that the small-self, with its needs, wants, demands, and resistances, collapses into infinity. Then we do it again, and again, and again, all day long coming back to presence the second we notice attention has left.
Walking down the stairs, thoughts come about the day, what will I do later if I don’t finish the…” Caught! Stop. Return, hand is on the grooved wooden banister, feet sink into the carpet, sun shines through the window, the body breathes. Presence. Over and over, all day long I practice.
My heart rate is up, a thin sheen of sweat builds at my temple, they’ll be home any minute… or maybe not, maybe I’ve got two more hours. I wanted to put the laundry away, play music, finish up loose ends for work, meditate again. I catch my body moving in jerky spasmodic motions, not sure where to turn next as the thoughts bombard my attention. I compulsively check my phone to see an update on their ETA. I’ve had 24 glorious hours of quiet, calm, unscheduled time.
I’m so grateful.
It’s not enough.
I need to get out of here! If I get out of here before the come home, I can finish up a couple more things before…
…before all of my attention is focused towards my child…
…before I’m at the mercy of whatever mood he’s in…
…before any rational planning and accomplishment of tasks is totally impossible.
I can’t believe how wrapped up in anxious thoughts I’ve become, I practically run out the front door to be sure I don’t accidentally see my son and husband before I’m ready to reengage with them. I realize I forgot my wallet a block away. I sneak back into my own home, terrified that I’ll hear the creak of the back door as I open the front.
Terrified that I’ll see my son’s chubby face and deep brown eyes light up at my presence,
that I’ll feel my hear melt,
my arms open,
my to-do-list fade into oblivion.
End of summer marks time passing,
watching beautiful child grow,
almost three now,
a blink and an incredible journey.
Each moment presents itself full of glory, fear, pain, love, pleasure, trepidation,
as though it is all that ever was,
gathering all focus and attention,
a storm’s lightning flashing.
And then it is gone.
The next moment upon us,
waves in the storm surge, unbearable in their intensity
or almost unnoticed in their mundanity.
And where are You? We, within this?
What are we?
We are not the waves.
Are we the shore eroding with each crash?
Are we the flower ripped from the bank?
The tree nourished by the moisture?
The water after it calms?
Where is our attention?
On the rock, the plant, the roots, the movement?
Or on every single one and ourselves too.
All as One.
The watcher and the experiencer,
never swept away and deeply touched,
dry to the bone and soaking wet
in every unfolding moment.
You make me want to sing. You make me want to write poetry, to dance. It’s as if when you passed through my birth canal you broke open great crashing waves of creativity that I thought were fancies of my youth, left long ago to die. On your sixth day of life my parents went home. I was moved to tears all day by the feeling of their absence in our home and simultaneously filled with surges of joy as your father and I worked through our first day alone with you, as parents.
That evening we ate dinner and listened to music. Dad was in the kitchen while I held you on the couch–still too sore to sit at the table. Both of us sang to the music, songs we’ve loved throughout our lives. Dad while cooking, and I looking down at you in my arms. As I opened my mouth to sing a new voice exited my lips. The voice of a mother, louder, stronger, more powerful and also more vulnerable. The cries of your labor loosened my jaw, dropped my soft palate, allowed a new openness. As I raised my voice to join your dad’s tears flowed from me, hot and fast, drenching my shirt like the breast milk that pours from me now, every time I hear you cry.
These tears, this experience of bringing you into the world, has let open my heart to the fullness and also the emptiness of love. The fullness while I connect with every parent on the planet who has known the joy of ushering new life into being. And the emptiness which is the love that underlies all in every moment, even when we cannot seem to see. The love that moves people through their lives.
“It’s so big. It’s just so big.” I said to your dad when he joined me for dinner from the kitchen.
“I know.” he replied. and we sat across from each other, with you between us, and sang while we cried.
This was written on November 17th, 8 days after Wolf was born. It’s a part of a collaborative journal that my husband Jeff and I are keeping for Wolf. Thanks for reading. I’ll keep working on posts.
I feel you move inside of me and fall in love with every action. What are you feeling when you squirm your hands and legs and elbows? Your tiny fingers tickle me in places no one has ever touched. Your mysterious presence becomes more solid and more mysterious every single day. I wonder if you can feel my feelings? I wonder on what level we are communicating with each other. I think you like it when we perform concerts, you love the joy of dancing, the sound of music, and all the children’s voices.
I’ve been working hard to get the house ready for you, but really I’m getting it ready for me. You don’t care if the cupboard are de-greased or if your nursery is blue or white or pink. Yet the urge to create a clean, welcoming nest for you is overpowering at times. I’ve been thinking lately that it’s funny how we spend so much time thinking about what we’re going to “do” with our babies after they arrive. Who will hold them? Where will they lie down? Who will take care of them while I “do” the rest of my life.
I got caught up in that too, and instead I am now focusing, not on what I will do with you, but just being with you. I can’t wait to be your mom. I can’t wait to look in your eyes and touch your skin and hold you in my arms. All the rest will come when needed, I don’t need to figure anything out. You are not a distraction or an interruption to my life, you are life. My life. Your Dad’s life. Your own life. Life.
I feel that I hold inside of me, my greatest love and my greatest teacher.
Synonyms for become: transform, change, passage, metamorphosis, development, evolution, alteration.
All of these words apply in their own way as I move through the journey of pregnancy. I have always identified with the symbol of the butterfly. Its metamorphosis from egg, to larvae, caterpillar to chrysalis, and then its magical transformation, using something that biologists call “imaginal cells,” to become a butterfly, resonates with the constant change that we experience as living beings. Before a caterpillar can become a butterfly it must die to its former self. Literally, the immune system of the caterpillar resists the change, fighting the new cells until it’s immune system fails and metamorphosis can occur. The new self cannot exist until the old one dies.
This story of the butterfly speaks to me again, in a new way, as I become a mother slowly more everyday, and as my baby grows wondrously inside of me.
This is an excerpt from the journal I’ve been keeping to my new baby.
I am becoming a mother
and you are becoming my child.
We will perhaps never be as close again as we are now-
made of one body,
nurtured by the same food,
fed by the same spirit.
We are one with all the world.
There is no separation between what each of us truly are,
though you may grow to think there is.
I will do my absolute best in every moment to teach you with my actions, words, and choices that this is so,
that oneness and connection rather than separation and loneliness, are the rule,
though the world is filled with all things.
Still, I will fail, again and again, to live from oneness
and I will surrender to this failure and in doing so, show you the way.
The enormity of your tiny presence in this life leaves me full of a new kind of living.
For you, for love, for me,
I vow to let my highest self live this life.
A note to my readers and to myself.
It’s been many month since I’ve posted here. I’m realizing I need to free myself even further from any kind of constraints in this space. I started doing this “challenge” to get myself to share writing, but it’s acted as a trap in it’s own right! I’ve been searching for some kind of a theme or a framework to write within, and I think this is what has held me back. It’s made me feel that if I’m going to post something here it has to be really worthwhile. But that brings judgment into the picture, and that’s the last thing I’m looking to add to my daily life.
The reality is I just want a place to write and share that writing with others who are interested in reading. Instead I’ve stopped myself from writing what’s actually going on, what’s really present for me. In part that’s because there have been life changes that I wasn’t ready to share on the internet, in part because I was censoring myself unknowingly. So here’s what’s next, whatever comes!
And so the aforementioned life change… I’m pregnant. This journey has been the most profound, mind-alterning, perspective changing experience of my life. It’s been too hard to write and somehow not mention it, hence the months of silence.
No more “challenges” just words. The ones that come through me, the ones that seem worth taking the time to type after I’ve written them in a notebook. Thank you for reading.
Meditation takes us nowhere, it is not a step in a journey it is a settling back into life.
Not “my life.” Life.
“Meditation is the highest form of prayer, a naked act of love and effortless surrender into the abyss beyond all knowing.” ~Adyashanti
Practicing meditation makes thoughts obvious, it lets us see them all dressed up in their different outfits–There’s fear wearing a red boa and black heels isn’t she tempting to listen to? But wait a second, oh look, there’s worry in a pink tutu throwing a fit about the trip we’re taking in a few weeks. And there’s nonchalance, stretched out like a cat in a sunbeam, smoking a cigarette without a care in the world. And here am I, watching it all go by.
I meditate everyday for 20-30 minutes. The gift of giving myself this time helps create the space for a higher Self to emerge, or for being to emerge, or presence, or for God to emerge… Whatever the noun it’s a time for that slow quiet still voice, that doesn’t say much, to be heard, or not at all.
I had a teacher during my graduate school studies tell me once that, our souls are quiet, shy things. “You can’t just go out clomping through the bushes, whacking away at the underbrush looking for them. You’ll never find them that way. But if you’re very still and patient you might be lucky enough to glimpse them out of your periphery, peaking steadily through the trees like a wild animal.”
The bushes I’ve been clomping through aren’t out there somewhere, but in here.
When I first started meditating I couldn’t believe how hard it was to sit still. Instead of discouraging me, or writing off the activity as a waste of time, I was motivated to try again. It seemed so simple, sit still for 5, 10, 15, 30 minutes everyday, yet it was more difficult than hiking a mountain or writing a book. I began with 5 minutes everyday and added on from there. Now my meditation is my favorite part of every day.
Once we start to see all those thoughts clambering for our attention, all dressed up with nowhere to go during the quiet of mediation, we can begin to recognize them in our daily lives. And slowly we realize also that there is a choice about whether to listen to what they have to say, whether or not we want to bring that fear forward into the world with her red lipstick, feathery boa, and stiletto heels, or whether we’ll act from somewhere deeper and quieter, giving that wild animal the space to come forward into the light.
When we let go of what we thought was going to happen, space is create for what is happening to blossom. I find myself over and over remembering this, and each time, the relief of the release is gorgeous.
Every time I hold onto something, that didn’t work out the way I thought it was going to, I get a beautiful reminder that my thoughts are based in nothing more than just that, thoughts, which is to say not much at all.
The last few months have been full. So full I haven’t had a chance to write anything I’ve wanted to share here.
And last week I woke up–my first day as a 34 year old–and noticed the temptation to pick up all the worries. Everything from not enough money to live, to not having time to buy cat food before I leave town, went through my brain in a great wave. It sounds ridiculous when I write it on paper, and more so when I transfer it to this computer screen, yet this is the content of this mind. And the stress response in my body to thoughts about the future is the same, whether it’s fear of homelessness or remembering to buy more kibble.
Each time I reach one of these moments I am asked to recommit to the practice of watching thoughts and not identifying with them. Here’s what I’m tempted to do.
Thought: We’re not going to have enough money!”
Reaction: check bank balances, solicit more work, draw up new ideas about how to get more. Create a story in my mind that the work I’m doing is not worthy. That I may have to switch careers, give up on creative work etc.
And this is a perfectly “normal” response in our culture. We give thoughts weight in America, and it because of this it seems to make sense to create actions based on what they say.
But what if I investigate the thought in the first place? Not believing it outright but questioning it? When I do this I see the thought out in front of me, not a part of me, but a thing to be looked at. And I let the questions come from the stillest part of myself.
Thought: We’re not going to have enough money!
Question: For what?
A: The future.
Q: For what in the future?
A: For the things we’ll need.
Q: Do you know you’ll need these things? What are they?
A: I guess not. I don’t know exactly what they are.
Q: What do you need more for?
A: To live.
Q: Are you living now?
Q: What are you afraid of?
A: I don’t know.
Like a persistent and patient three-year-old full of innocent curiosity I ask myself the questions that come, without judgment, until I get to the bottom of the worry, which is almost always some kind of fear.
And suddenly, as if it never were at all, the worry, the fear, the hurry, is gone. I haven’t solved anything, or changed anything, because the basis of the problem was false in the first place. I have no control over the events of my life, only choices about how I respond to the things that happen and from where in my self I reach out.