Waking Up to Motherhood: Doubt, Dance, and a Donut Shop

{This Mother’s Day, I am sharing the story of my eldest daughter’s birth, which is, in a way, the story of my own new birth. I think all moms know that motherhood looks very little like a Hallmark card. But as we share the truth of our experience, I believe we will be stronger, more connected, and more grateful for the power of motherhood, in all its pain and joy.}

Arden grabs the bag with her dance shoes, water bottle, and notebook, smiles a goodbye, then dashes out of the car. I smile back and say, “Have fun!” just before the door slams. The smile sticks on my face, matching hers, till I realize she’s missing something – her mask. I open my door to the cold and shout across the snowy parking lot, “Your mask!”

She races back, secures the burgundy cloth over her nose and mouth, and is off again. I watch her run up the steps to the glass double doors, open them wide, and walk confidently into the building. This my first time taking her to the College of Piping for step dance lessons. This is one of the biggest dance schools on the island, with a world class performance program. It’s almost an hour’s drive from our house, but she was just thrilled to get dancing again. It’s been nearly a year since lessons were cancelled at our local club.

My husband took her last week for her first lesson with the brand new instructor and head of the dance program, and another eleven year old girl she had never met before. It would be just the two dancers in the class, to allow for social distancing. Arden didn’t bat an eye when I told her I wouldn’t be the be the one coming with her to very first lesson, because of a book club I’d already committed to. That’s how I could tell she was really excited. She didn’t need me there.

Now, tonight, I watch her go into the College, tall in her dance leggings, wearing her new hair scrunchie (all the old fashions are new again), and looking so grown up. She just wants to dance, and her feet lead her, as if by instinct, down the halls to the mirrored practice room.

I’m proud of her confidence. And I feel a pang, as if something within me has stretched into a new shape.

I drive down the road to the Tim Horton’s to wait somewhere warm till the class is over. There are a few old men sitting in booths, shooting the breeze and sipping their double-doubles. I sanitize my hands, sign the contract tracing form, and order a lemon tea and an old fashioned sugar donut. They were my favourite when I was pregnant with Arden.

I settle myself at a booth in the corner. There are two women sitting not far from me, and I hear pieces of their conversation. They are talking about babies, and one tells the other how she knows she’s not ready for “all that.”

Are we ever ready? Suddenly I am taken back to over a decade ago. I remember what it was like when Arden came into the world. How un-confident I felt.

*

What had started as a normal labour after my water broke progressed overnight into a dangerous situation. The baby’s heart rate was too low, too weak. It all unfolded so quickly. One minute they were prepping me for a regular C-section. Micah changed into scrubs and we went somewhat nervously together down the hospital corridor to the OR room, him walking beside my bed-on-wheels. The next minute we were stopped outside the OR door.

“We’re sorry, your husband can’t come in with you,” a nurse told me gently. “We need to put you under so we can get the baby out right away.”

I turned to Micah and grabbed his hand frantically. “Make sure you hold the baby skin to skin!”

“You’ll need to give your him your glasses,” the nurse said.

I handed them over. “Call my parents and tell them what’s happening!” There was no more time. I was wheeled in, and the double doors shut behind me.

I went in alone, and half blind. I tried to breathe. I tried to pray. I had been instructed to lie flat on my back. A fetal heart monitor pressed into my abdomen, recording the troubling signs of fetal distress. Once I knew it was inevitable, I just wanted it to be over.

I waited and waited for the drugs to kick in and release my consciousness from the gripping pain of contractions. The doctor and nurse were only half paying attention to the labouring woman in their care as they discussed after-work plans and commented on the medical supply inventory. This was nothing new to them. It was all new to me. My first surgery. My first baby. “Hurry up, hurry up,” was all I could think.

Finally, the sleep came.

~

The first thing I notice when I wake up is how sore my throat is. My world is still dark, but I can hear noises nearby, among them the voice of a woman. A nurse? I can’t yet open my eyes.

“Water.” I try to speak the word, but my lips have forgotten the form, and my throat is too dry.

“Water,” I try again, this time between a whisper and a croak, but it’s enough to get the nurse’s attention.

“You’ve been out a long time.” Her voice sounds cheerful but distant. “How are you feeling?”

“Water.” I repeat. “My throat is sore.” I hear her bustling away to fulfill my request.

I wait, thinking only of water. Am I awake? Water. Why is my throat so sore? Water. Emergency. C-Section. The baby. The baby? Where was the baby?

“Is the baby ok?” I call out. I am still in darkness. I am so thirsty.

I hear her footsteps come closer. “Yes, the baby is just fine. You had a little girl. She’s been waiting for you.”

I open my eyes and reach for the paper cup she holds out. The water is cool relief down my throat. I begin to adjust to the light.

When I finally see my little girl, she is tucked into Micah’s scrub shirt, screaming her head off. His chest hair is a poor substitution for her hunger. He looks relieved to see me. “She needs you,” he says.

I get situated on the hospital bed, still groggy, but anxious to hold her, to meet her at last.

“Arden,” I whisper, taking her in my arms, for the first time feeling the exquisite weight of a newborn. My newborn. My daughter.

Her face is red from crying, but she soon soothes to my skin. I am half bewildered, half overjoyed, all in love. I hardly know how this happened. I am a mom.

~

I didn’t know how it happened. That’s the thing.

This thought didn’t come to me till a few weeks later, in the parking lot of a hardware store in Summerside. My mom had run in to pick something up that we needed at the new house. We got the keys eleven days after Arden was born, and it needed a lot of work before we could move in. Arden was sleeping tentatively in the car seat behind me. My body was still tender from the C-section. In the quiet of the car, the agony of the last few weeks burst over me afresh.

Seven days and nights in the hospital with a jaundiced baby who wasn’t growing fast enough and had a hard time eating, cracked and bleeding nipples, lactation consultants pushing and lifting and pumping, sleep interrupted by nurses and vitals checks and midnight weighings and the incessant neediness of a hungry baby. Then, the days at home nursing through undiagnosed thrush, nursing through the night, nursing through the pain that shot out my toes if I didn’t curl them tight enough. I wasn’t sure if I would ever feel awake again. I wasn’t sure I would ever feel like myself again. No one told me this is what it would like to become a mother. No one told me it would be so hard.

I felt the tears gush down my face and I sobbed silently, trying not wake the baby in the back seat. I wasn’t sure I could handle any more of her crying.

And that’s when it hit me. I wasn’t even there for her birth. How can I call myself a mother when I don’t even remember the moment I became one?

If I had been awake the moment she had separated from my body, would it have been easier to accept the nourishment she demanded from me? If I had pushed her through the birth canal myself, mind and body in cooperation with the labour, would the bonding have come more naturally? She was taken from me, to save her life quite possibly, but I felt I had lost something along the way. Her birth happened to me. I nodded my assent in twisted panic, but did I really give birth at all?

*

I take a long, slow sip of lemon tea and dust the sugar off my coat. These thoughts haunt me still on days I question my own motherhood. Some women seem born to be moms. They take to children like geese to water, while I have often felt more like the ugly duckling trying to herd cats. Still bewildered.

I look at the clock behind the counter. Ten more minutes till I need to pick her up. I miss the sound of tapping shoes while I wait. In her old class, I would sit in the lobby of the local Lions’ Club, listening to the rhythmic stomping. It always amazed me how they progressed from a scattered cacophony of missteps at the beginning of the term to a steady stream of feet in unison. And Arden had the rhythm in her bones. When she put her foot down, she meant it. Confident. Demanding. At times exhausting.

Who was this girl who was so unlike me?

Whoever she was, she was the one who made me into a mother through a mysterious and terrifying process of fear and joy, resistance and surrender, desperation and wild love, the constant reshaping around each other as we learned to live as connected yet wholly separate beings.

Are the contractions ever really over?

I am surprised at the heat that rises in my face, here in the coffee shop. I felt cheated out of her birth. I wanted to be there. There’s always been this voice that’s whispered – “You’re a fake. How can you call yourself a mother?” And the darkness of that birth-sleep maybe helped me believe it on days our connection seemed so frayed.

But then I remember other people who slept their way to new creation. Adam, when God reached into his side and formed Eve out of his bone. Jesus, who spent three days in the darkness of death to birth his own bride. Perhaps I’m in good company after all.

There’s a hiddenness to birth, even when the female body is opened wide and screaming at 10 cm dilation, or split surgically under the lights of an OR room. Do we ever really know how any of this happens? Don’t all mothers come to the place where the only thing left is to die to everything we know and can control and let ourselves be remade from the inside out? Let the life out and dance all over our expectations and identity till we find ourselves broken, baptized and resurrected?

I drive back to the College and pull up to the sidewalk. A minute later she bounds out of the doors and into the car. “Mom!” She rips off her mask and is beaming. Her toes are still tapping. “I learned two new steps tonight!” I give her a big smile. Her face is flushed from dancing, and I enjoy her back seat chatter on the long drive home.

Mom. All I can do is keep waking up to what this means. Keep my feet in the dance, even when I don’t know the steps. Keep embracing the shape-shifting reality, half mystifying, half marvel – all in love.

I am a mom.

~

Lindsey Gallant

S.D.G.

Why the blackbird sings after supper

Three days after Easter I see my first red-winged blackbird by the river.

I was sitting on the porch after supper. It was my son who spotted them first, and told me, face flushed with excitement. Then I realized I had been hearing them for the last ten minutes, but my eyes had been focused elsewhere. I hadn’t recognized them.

As soon as I begin to scan the bushes, I see him. He perches in the young sugar maple, calls loudly, and ruffles his bright patched wing as if to say, “Look! It is me. I am here!”

Birdsong of all kinds sounds through the mist of the chilly evening, giving the valley a hidden, intimate feel. An eagle appears from the blurred edges, noiseless, a shadow that merges into other shadows of spruce upstream. But I am fixed on the flash and fortissimo of red by the river.

Why do birds sing in the evening? A dozen reasons there may be, shrouded in mystery, to my understanding at least. But I know one of them.

The red-winged blackbird sings after supper to remind me that spring comes to every valley, and my own shall be exalted.

~

Lindsey Gallant

S.D.G.

Kingfisher

{A concussion recovery post}

I saw the kingfisher for the first time today, and I cried.

He flew onto the dead ash tree from somewhere downstream, and I recognized him by the dart of his wing and the shape of his head.

I can’t remember the word for that shape of a bird’s head.

Russet. Ruff. Crown. Crest.

Crest. That’s it.

I find it by slow association.

So many words seem to have flown clear out of my brain. Or perhaps not out, but somewhere further in, behind a wall of protection. Like gates shut up for fear of flood.

They are in there and I have to coax them out, or sit silent enough on a stump till I seem part of the riverbank to them.

Nothing now is on demand in my brain.

It’s a live stream, and I have to wait for the current to bring me what I seek.

Only sometimes the crested bird flashes into view before I even know how much I needed to see him.

I reach for the camera in my pocket, but he sees my elbow twitch and is gone before I capture proof of his presence.

There are just bare grey branches and the blue spring sky, and the river, quivering.

~

Lindsey

S.D.G.

View

It’s been very difficult to write post-concussion. My visual system is one of the main areas that’s been affected. I’ve been keeping a little notebook handy to jot down thoughts when they come. Sometimes the gap between the penciled words and published words is rather long! It’s April 8 as I hit publish, though I am backdating the post itself to March 12 to reflect the timeline of my recovery.

~

Through the narrow gap in the curtains
I see
A woodpecker excavating
A blue jay observing
A mourning dove resting
A chickadee cracking a seed.

All this through a narrow central field of vision,
my weakest focal point.

And how great a mercy that all have gathered here,
so my weak eyes do not have to wander to find a picture of joy.

Now I can close them
and have the beauty within,
a knowing without seeing.

~

Lindsey Gallant

S.D.G.

Molasses in February

The page is before me. Blank.

My words are like dried molasses in the corners of the carton. I need the sweetness to pour, but all I can do is hold the container upside down and wait. The spoon is shiny, concave in expectation. It trembles in my hand, next to the open spout. What I thought I had within me will not come out. I squeeze and tap, shake and coax. I prop it up against the canister of flour, balance it on the open mouth of the spoon. I can do nothing but wait.

The recipe sits unfinished. The oven is preheated. The goods promised. The appetite whetted. How long will this take?

I have a name for this slowness now that at first was only a confusing cluster of dysfunction in my body. Concussion. My pen feels clumsy in my fingers. The screen hurts my eyes if I stare at it. My mind is off-balance somehow, and it scares me a little, four weeks in. The words won’t come, though I can still sense their presence.

It has taken time and tears just to put these phrases together, and now I am tired. Hungry, too. But I am molasses in February.

~

Lindsey Gallant

S.D.G.