So this is what it's like: coming up for air.
I feel like I've been underwater a long time. And I'm re-learning how to breathe.
Buddy Boy and Miss Bee are 17 months old now. They sleep through the night (usually). They are done nursing. They eat solid foods, take regular naps, have amazing personalities that are a joy to watch unfold. They are often, but not always, fun.
My body is my own again. Changed, but mine. Which feels awesome.
We are out of crisis mode, folks. It's been crisis mode for almost 2 years around here, with a twin pregnancy, and then twin infants, and also a third child not quite two years older than her siblings. And now our reality is shifting into something else. And while it feels good, it's also kind of scary, to be honest.
I am beginning to glimpse other people again. To look up in the present moment and really see them. But I feel clumsy. Out of practice. I feel awkward in some ways, trying to re-enter the world I used to know, where I could connect with other people and see them and hear them and take time for them. Prioritize them.
Here is what I know has been true for me: as the new parent of twins, and a young toddler to boot, pretty much all I could see, think, touch and feel for the past two years was exactly what was in front of me. Which was usually myself, or some small and needy person(s) attached to me. There's not been much perspective in my life. There's not been much room for other people's lives, struggles, hopes, fears, challenges, or joys. I have been too tired for anything else. Too completely spent.
For me, after getting through a tough twin pregnancy, I knew that the first year of Buddy Boy and Bee's lives was going to be about survival. I was mentally prepared to put my nose down and just get through it. And I did. Nursing around the clock. Changing a ridiculous number of diapers. Hardly finding time to take a quick shower. Being so tired that I didn't even know if it was early morning or late afternoon.
There is a reason that prisons use sleep-deprivation as a torture device. And sleep-deprivation is brutally cumulative for parents caring for multiple babies at once.
My wise mother-in-law tried gently for many months, before Buddy Boy and Bee were born, to get me to schedule some hired help. "No, no, no!" I resisted. "I am not a new mother. I've done those sleepless newborn nights before. I've breastfed a baby before. I'll get through it. I'll be fine."
When Buddy Boy and Bee were 6 weeks old, and I had slept no more than a 45-minute consecutive stretch in that same period of time, I called my mother-in-law in desperation and told her she was right. (Suspiciously, this is not the first or the last time she has been so!) Then I got some help. My mom had been staying with us since before the babies were born, but her two-month stay was quickly coming to an end and I was terrified about what this would mean for me. So we hired a night nurse to help 3 nights a week for the next 8 weeks, until the babies were nearly 4 months old. I went on sittercity.com and found our wonderful nanny, who started working with us when the babies were about 3 months old. Although our nanny's hours have reduced steadily over time, she still works with us a few mornings a week.
Being able to hire help like this when I needed it most is insanely privileged, I am well aware. And yet, my family was in a position to do it. And so we got the help. And for this I feel overwhelmingly grateful.
Having the help that I've had, and that I feel so grateful for, makes me realize how ridiculous this idea is: that we, as mothers, as parents, are supposed to do this around-the-clock parenting job alone. That somehow, for the first time in human history, we're not supposed to have aunties, grandmas, sisters, cousins, sisters-in-laws, and neighbors helping us rock our babies, cook and share some meals, take out the garbage, fold the laundry.
I remember, long before I had kids, thinking that Hillary Clinton's "it takes a village" shtick was so corny. Now? Okay, I still think it sounds corny, but also that it's absolutely true. It does take a freakin' village! And yet the expectation that so many moms put on ourselves (me included!), and certainly that society puts on us, is to do it all alone. To raise well-adjusted kids, pay the bills, cook healthy meals, eat meals together, have a career, have a good sex life, get the laundry done, organize the entryway, make time to exercise... That our successes and our failures as moms and dads depend, somehow, on this "go-it-alone"-ness. That our worthiness depends on it. That asking for help, or receiving it in any way, is a sign of weakness and failure.
For me, I know that when I've asked for help, or hired it, or just received it somehow from people who love me, I've felt soooo grateful. But also inside, secretly, I felt ashamed. Just the act of asking for help, or admitting that I needed it, made me feel like I failed at something that I didn't even know I was supposed to succeed at: doing it all myself.
"Shame drives two big tapes," says Brené Brown in her brilliant TED talk about listening to shame. "'[You're] never good enough.' And if you can talk it out of that one? 'Who do you think you are?'"
And this shame-filled way of thinking about myself as a mother -- either that (1) I'm not good enough, because I haven't done it all alone; or (2) that I'm not worthy of anyone's empathy or relateability, that I should not talk about any piece of my story that's genuinely difficult, because I've had the privilege of help so "who do I think I am?" -- has been very damaging to me. It's shut me down. It's denied me a way of moving authentically in my relationships with other people, especially other moms who are, it seems to me, doing it more alone than I've been able to.
I am not a person who grew up with "paid help;" my mom and dad, it seemed, juggled it all. My aunt, who had a toddler and twins as close in age as mine, but in the 1950's, had to boil water to wash her babies' diapers, and she seems to have done it all alone. The voice in my head says I should be able to do it, too, especially since all I need to do to get clean diapers is log into diapers.com and 48 hours later a box of them arrives at my door! Even now, as I am older and I see these stories more realistically -- my mom and dad lived close to my grandparents, who helped, and were part of a parent co-operative that took turns babysitting each others' kids; my aunt had other women relatives who helped -- it still seems, when I make this futile comparison to them and other women who are mothers, that I am a failure at "doing it all".
My level of discomfort with having paid help, and with how hard these first two years with twins + toddler have still been, has resulted in my social behavior tending towards two extremes. It's affected how I show up in my life on a regular basis. The first extreme is self-absorption and embarrassment at my lack of control with handling three small children. This is what I feel every time I pull my minivan up, Buddy Boy and Bee in their car seats, to pick Junebug up from preschool: like everyone's eyes are on me, with my three rows of seats in the minivan, some small child of mine screaming, my hair greasy and my jeans stained, as I'm trying to hold a conversation about lah-dee-dah. I feel like an octopus. Taking up too much room. A spectacle. Grasping and flailing.
In these moments my go-to behavior is to play up the chaos and the difficulty of my life, and to wax apologetic. "I'm so sorry I am ten minutes late! Of course, Buddy Boy had a big poop just as we were leaving the house! And Bee was still sleeping so I had to wake her up and change her, poor thing. Aaaak, thanks for putting Junebug's shoes on and bringing her down the stairs for me!"
Even as I am saying these things, I hear myself and wish I weren't saying these things. I wish I were saying, genuinely, "Hi, how are you?"
But my words reflect how I'm feeling. I'm sorry to put you out. I'm sorry I have this huge, embarrassingly un-hip, and un-environmentally-friendly, family. I'm sorry I can't get my shit together to pick my daughter up on time. And I must be a very special kind of disastrous person because... I have people who help me!
The other extreme is the "I can't complain because I'm better off than so-and-so" feeling. The "I have it easier than my mom/aunt/friend/neighbor/woman in poverty who has 11 children and carries buckets of water up the hill from the river on her head" narrative. This feeling is what produces the shut-down behavior in me. The me who just stands by passively while my closest women friends bare their souls about the challenges of motherhood, not wanting to complain (but not allowing myself to connect!). The "I can't complain..." me is the one who avoids, diverts, changes the subject, says something deflective, attempts to be charismatic, funny, light and witty, talks about the Bachelorette instead.
So I'm working on it: learning how to come up for air without denying, glossing over or hiding what the truth of these past two years has been for me. Figuring out how this period of my life, broad swatches of which I frankly can't even remember, has forever changed me. Accepting the whole truth of having some difficult parenting circumstances thrown my way, coupled with the financial ability to, for the most part, deal with it. Accepting the whole truth of having received people's help and weaving that piece genuinely into my story, while not letting this truth diminish my own mothering story or worthiness. Learning to hold my multiple realities in one hand without looking away or dropping them.