The year my son was born was painful, but it was also the year my super powers were unlocked. That first year of motherhood was the year I rose into myself.
I was lucky, I know, not to have any severe forms of postpartum depression or any number of routine physical or emotional post-birth afflictions experienced by many women. All things considered, it had been an "easy" pregnancy, and though the labor had been long and painful, it was relatively uncomplicated.
Still, the transition to motherhood is always hard, and Josh and I had very little by way of a support system.
I had a year left in graduate school: a full two semesters left in a program that I'd seriously considered quitting each previous semester for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the workload. The coursework had seemed unreasonable, but still achievable when I was a childless student without a job or other commitments. Now it seemed impossible to me as a nursing mother whose hungry baby, the Provost had made it abundantly clear, was not welcome in the classroom.
I had a few friends, but none that could babysit regularly, and we could not afford childcare. Josh was tired. I was tired. Marshall was a scrawny child those first few months. He'd start to get the knack of nursing, but then I'd be away long days at class three days in a row, and he'd get confused by the bottle Josh provided.
After half a semester, one of my eight-week quad classes ended and my schedule, mercifully, loosened just a little. I skipped as many of my classes as I could without receiving a penalty so that I could take Marshall off the bottle. Because dammit I was not going to let my child remain underweight so that I could listen to a professor talk at me about the importance of inerrancy or why he believed in a single authorship theory of Isaiah.
Wasting my time was one thing. Unwittingly contributing to my son's undernourishment was quite another.
Once Marshall was able to breastfeed exclusively, he started to gain weight, just as our family doctor had said he would.
"Why don't you take him to class with you and nurse there?" Dr. White had asked. He was very Catholic, very natural birth friendly, and very pro-nursing.
"I tried, but...." a sob caught in my throat and I couldn't finished. Josh explained to Dr. White as best he could.
Dr. White raised an eyebrow. "You should tell these Bible professors to read their Bibles," he said. "Isn't there something in Isaiah about God being like a nursing mother?"
I laughed painfully. "Yes, I'm writing a paper on it."
Now, off the bottle, my son gained mass and I gained fortitude. I learned to work quickly and efficiently. I had less time, but packed more umpf into each moment. Faced with the potentially paralyzing fear of failure at academia due to motherhood (or, rather, failure because academia is build for white men of leisure), I gradually became at peace with the idea that my contribution to the world is not reducible to my academic achievement.
I think I also learned (dare I say it?) how to be happy.
Fuck it. Fuck it all. Fuck the ivory towers and the scent of libraries and the coffee-fraught all-nighters spent on double-spaced papers. I'll trade this rat race for sore breasts and the smell of my baby's face and sleepless nights and exhausted days.
I couldn't cast off my academic burdens just like that, but I learned not to be so frantic. I worked hard, but I took leisure seriously, too. I set up a reading stand and read my textbooks while breastfeeding. I sat on the couch nursing Marshall on my left side and hand-drafting a paper on my right (typing requires two hands, alas). I bought an electric rocker (blessed be its inventor!), which sometimes calmed Marshall long enough for me to translate some Hebrew homework.
But when I couldn't viably squeeze in homework, I let myself be happy. When there wasn't enough time (and, really, there never was), I just enjoyed my child. I took him on walks in the stroller. I made myself nice coffee. We watched so so many episodes of Poirot together. When night came and I was too tired to concentrate on dense school reading, I indulged in an essay from Alberto Manguel's volume Into the Looking-Glass Wood.
In these days, I also learned how to be sad. This is the power that doesn't always make it into the superhero folklore: learning to channel the energy of grief. Letting sorrow be. Letting yourself be taken by sorrow, but not eternally swallowed by it. Managing sadness, forging it into a tool.
I can't tell you how I did this because I don't really know myself. But I remember the day that I realized that as long as I was a mother of a small child, my emotions would affect not just me, but my boy. (The truth was that they affected my husband also, but I was less aware of this at the time.)
I don't remember the day (it was probably in those tremulous first weeks of the semester), but there was an afternoon at home when all the stress came to a head.
Josh was at work. I was alone with Marshall and that old demon impostor syndrome. I'd been unduly shamed by the administration for attempting to bring my child to class to breastfeed. I knew I wasn't a bad mother. But I was a bad academic. I was the mother's body highly prized by evangelicals until it had the gall to want acceptance in other spaces. The mother's body branded "unprofessional" so long as there was a baby on its hip.
And that afternoon, with the sky swirling dark and sheets of rain slapping against the living room window, I lost it. I cried. Hard. Wailed, even. I let my grief loose into the world.
As I cried, the baby in my arms cried, too. I honestly don't remember which of us started first, but we both kept at it long.
After a time, I stopped crying and rocked Marshall until he was calm, too.
It was then that I saw the power of sadness, and knew that I could not be careless in how I managed the expression of my emotions. If I wasn't careful, I might pull my child into my pain in unhealthy ways.
I determined to guard myself. I knew suppressing pain wasn't healthy either, but I decided that from then on I would determine when and where I expressed sadness. I learned how to stop and breathe when I was frustrated, angry, hurt, or feeling depressed. I let myself cry, and feel, but if Marshall was with me, I breathed deeply and conjured a gentle rain instead of a raging storm.
Now that Marshall is a little older (three) and we can talk about things, I am more apt to express around him because we can talk about it.
"Are you crying, mama?" he asks. He offers to bring me a "foo" (his word for toilet paper or tissues).
"Yes," I answer.
"You're not crying?" he says with a question-like lilt at the end, as if he wants it to be a true statement, but isn't sure it is. "You're not sad?" he says with a worried smile of disbelief.
I take the proffered foo. "Yes, I'm sad, Marshall. Did you know that it's okay to be sad sometimes? That it's okay to cry?"
He nods slowly. "Yeah," he says.
I take him in my lap. I hold him as the storm runs its course.
After the rain has passed, I say, "Why don't you pick a book and I'll read to you?"
We both know the pattern. There's always a story after the rain.