When you first have a baby, lots of well-meaning but annoying people tell you to “sleep when the baby sleeps.” It seems like good advice, except it’s presumptuous and—like most things in life—parenting advice is not one-size-fits-all. What works for me may not work for you, and vice versa.1
In those early days when people would give me advice, I would just smile and ignore them. I still ignore people, but with less smiling. Right now, my baby is sleeping and I am awake because those glorious moments when the baby sleeps is sometimes the only “me” time a gal can get. The downside is that when your kid goes down for a nap, it feels like you’re cranking the handle of a jack-in-the-box because you have no idea how long he’ll sleep, or whether he’ll be in a decent mood to play independently when he wakes up. So you might just get into a rewarding task only to have to set it down again, maybe indefinitely. So you frantically do whatever you can, or maybe you just crumple into a heap on the nearest soft surface and scroll mindlessly through the Internet.
No one bothers to tell you that parenthood is a variation on Dante’s circles of hell. You get smug because you survived the newborn phase and your baby is starting to be cute and more person-like. And then the baby becomes mobile and you realize that you have never known what exhaustion feels like until right now, as you chase your newly-mobile baby from chewing on an electrical cord again and he beelines for the dog food and you start to rationalize internally that the dog food is grain free because the dog is allergic to life, so maybe it isn’t so bad for the baby. When a friend was here visiting with her one-and-a-half-year-old during my maternity leave, we locked ourselves and our sons in the unused nursery because it was the closest thing my house had to a “yes space” at the time. It’s the smallest room in the house: an 8×7 box missing only the padded walls. We have since turned our living room mostly into a “yes space,” with a couple of necessary exceptions.
As your baby ages, the parenting advice shifts. They start asking less about sleep, and instead throw out gems like, “any teeth yet? Is he eating solid food? Have you baby-proofed yet? Is he pulling up on things?” People have no boundaries with new parents; it is one of life’s strangest phenomena. I frequently have to fight the urge to ask intrusive none-of-my-damn-business questions of people just to give them the same sense of being off balance that I feel when they barrage me with pointed, specific questions about the state of affairs in our home. People mean well, I know. But this is a cultural oddity that I hadn’t expected to experience, and one that still leaves me reeling at times.
Not to mention, when you’re an anxious person, these questions might as well be resin-coated flaming arrows that will only stop burning if you bury them in a perfectly dug hole using a combination of dirt from beneath an olive tree in Nazareth and mikveh water that has also been blessed by a Catholic priest. What should be an innocuous question like, “Is he crawling yet?” instead sends the anxious parent through a trapdoor, down a winding and agitated spiral of second-guessing.
Should he be crawling? What age are they supposed to crawl? He isn’t even rolling over yet. What age are they supposed to start that? What if he never rolls over? What if he never crawls? I bet this person’s baby crawled straight out of the womb. The pediatrician didn’t say anything about it. Maybe she just feels bad for us. He’s probably never going to crawl. Oh, God, what if he doesn’t? We have a two-story house. Plus the basement. Why did we buy a house with so many stairs? What’s wrong with us?
Meanwhile, the well-meaning bunghole who asked the question is all wide-eyed and smiling while they wait for your answer, but by then you’re down a whole different trapdoor, trying to figure out whether you’re an ableist prick because so what if he never crawls? That won’t fundamentally change his amazing personality. Bodies come in all variations, and maybe his body that is not designed to be mobile. My cousin Nick couldn’t walk for most of his life and he was cooler than most of the people I know put together.
Trust me, I know that people mean well. I know that people just want to relate, especially if they have also have children. But, like the questions we ask pregnant women, why not shake things up and figure out a better way to communicate? How about open-ended questions like, “How are you? How’s your son? What has your family been up to lately?” I don’t have the answers, and we probably are not going to start a movement to make us more aware of new parents’ feelings. But I have seen that flash of, “How do I answer this? Why are you asking me this?” on other new parents’ faces and I wanted to be like, “DUDE. SOLIDARITY!” The first time I reflexively asked someone in recent months whether their baby was sleeping through the night, I immediately died a little inside and realized that I was not alone, and maybe I should be more aware and sensitive, even if there won’t be a movement.
My favorite parenting advice comes from people who have never actually been parents. It is a reminder for me to take a giant bite of humble pie with a hearty side of crow because I was that person before I had my son. I have strong opinions, and even before I had children, I squawked about how parents ought to handle their children. I have individually apologized to my sisters for being such a twatwaffle for 30 years, and I probably owe apologies in every direction for my misguided, sanctimonious naiveté. I should just stand on a stage like Oprah, arms outstretched, yelling, “And you get an apology! And YOU get an apology! And YOU get an apology!”
I had no idea how to raise kids, and my dirty little secret is that I still don’t, even ten months into this thing. Ten months ago today, I was trapped in a hospital bed in a room that felt increasingly claustrophobic with too many people around, wishing they’d all get out of my face and let me crawl off into the woods somewhere to get this kid out. Or maybe under someone’s porch steps the way stray dogs did when I was growing up in the south. Being introverted, not being allowed to eat, having too many people in and out, and trying to expel a tiny human from your body goes about as well together as Mentos and Diet Coke. By the time my son was finally born, 23.5 hours after they’d induced labor, I was beyond drained.
I am amazed and inordinately proud of myself for not completely blowing my top during labor, which may be part of why I have battled an ever-present, low-level anger for the past ten months. Because I was not emphatic about my desires, I did not loudly articulate what I wanted, and I didn’t eventually lose my shit and scream at some people (which would have been perfectly socially acceptable because I was in labor), I gave myself rage blue balls and have been trying to recover ever since.
Of course, it’s a little more complex than that. There is a gigantic layer of grief, a thick slab of heavy concrete. For starters, becoming a mother for the first time when your own mother is dead is complicated. Plus, there was the swirling vortex of emotion about giving birth to my first child—a son—while trying to process what it must be like to lose your oldest child, your son. Plus, my college mentor died just before my son was born. Not to mention the loss of my sister’s on-again-off-again-since-they-were-kids partner and co-parent when my baby was only seven days old. There was grief in all the corners of my birthing room, and it settled heavily into my house and life in the days and weeks that followed my son’s birth.
Strangely, I think that if we hadn’t lost Mark (my nephew’s father), the grief would have felt manageable. There was a shared hope between my sisters and me for those first few days following my son’s birth. He was no messiah, but his birth gave a sense of promise, like clouds clearing just enough after a long and devastating storm for you to see the sun starting to emerge. It didn’t last, and I haven’t been able to emotionally go there yet, not for any period of time, because I had to pull up my big girl panties (which were made of mesh, and stuffed with ice, Tucks pads, and Preparation H because childbirth ain’t no joke) and take care of my newborn.
My labor process was also different from what I would have liked for a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here—not because I don’t want to, but because I also can’t seem to go there effectively. Part of the reason I haven’t written here much is because I am not over the hurt and difficulty of that experience, may never be over it, and every time I try to write about anything, I come back to that like a boomerang.
In the early days and weeks following the little lion’s birth, I chattered nonstop to close friends and family, trying to process the hard stuff by talking it out. Maybe if I just got it out of my body, I could let it go. I could give little pieces of it away to others, and they could take it away, one stone at a time, and I could find peace. So, like an unhinged teenage girl at a church lock-in, determined to stay awake all night, I sat in my air conditioned house as the summer melted into fall, and I babbled a million miles an hour to my loved ones about unexpected indignities and traumas. For most of those visits, at least one of my swollen boobs was flopped out of my shirt. I was usually in a dirty bathrobe, milk stains everywhere with the unique stench of hormone sweat emanating from my hairy armpits. I realized after one friend left that I had been sitting for an hour and a half facing her on the couch with my legs crossed, unaware that my robe had come untied and I was pointing my overgrown lady flower right in her face. Gaia bless her sweet hippie soul, she didn’t utter a word about it, at least not to me.
There was no dignity in those days, and because I never slept when the baby slept, I didn’t care. I still mostly don’t. I am coming to terms with my truth that I will never do femininity in the same way I did before my body grew another body and then split open to bring that little soul into the world. The essence of being a woman does not resemble the glossy ads that sell everything from cheeseburgers to underwear, which is what we are culturally told femininity should look like. To be totally honest, the best acting out of femininity I have ever seen was performed by men. At my first drag show twelve years ago, I had to reconcile the reality that I would never appear as flawless as the Queens on the stage. This particular show comprised gay men who identified as men, with the exception of performing in drag shows at Club Fusion. These men had zero desire to ever swap out their anatomically male body parts. Rather, they tucked them away before they plucked, coiffed, puckered, dabbed, curled, and shimmied their way into perfectly executed “femininity”.
What it means to be feminine has shifted for me like a tectonic plate, will similarly continue to move, and is unlikely to land back where it was before I became a mother. What it means to find peace in the storm of this life has also shifted. I have not yet gotten a solid grasp on either, nor have I nailed down what being a parent is supposed to look like or how to be the valedictorian of it or whether I’m even close to the mark most of the time.
Defeatist though it may be, the best I can muster is, I’ll survive.
Or, perhaps, the bleaker and truer, it is what it is.
Some people think that phrase is stupid. It is what it is. Of COURSE it is what it is. There are a lot of platitudes that seem pretty stupid, particularly if you haven’t sustained a boatload of grief. But grief, loss, trauma, and pain have this way of grabbing you by the chin, looking you square in the eyes, and telling you to sit down and shut up because you don’t know or control shit.
It is what it is. You are reminded that you are small, and that you can control only yourself in this life, and in light of that, it’s probably best to be as good, kind, faithful, warm, and engaged as you can with the moment you have.2 Because it is what it is, time marches on, life goes on, obla di obla da, shama lama ding dong.
Every time you think, “This is it, this is the grief that is going to be too big to survive; it’s going to sweep me away and I’m finally going to die of a broken heart,” life or God or the universe or chance or whatever pulls a grumpy cat and says, “NO.” Because you won’t die of a broken heart, even if you sometimes wish you would. You will keep going. Time will march on. Life will unfold all around you.
And you’ll keep moving forward, whether by actively putting one foot in front of the other, or being dragged by the scruff of your neck. Shoot, even if you swim to the bottom of a bottle to keep your head above water, or find some other vice as an outlet, or just stop going to work and drift and give up on life… you’re still moving forward. Life is still happening.
That’s the beauty and the crux of it: the leaves still turn in the fall, everything still blooms in the spring, the clock keeps ticking, children keep growing, and somewhere right now a stray dog is quietly pushing out a litter of puppies under someone’s porch.
1 Except vaccines. That shit’s universal. The resurgence of antiquated diseases since the anti-vax movement emerged is infuriating and scary for those of us who have a penchant for proven scientific research. Our leader is Neil Degrasse Tyson.
2This is not to say “cherish every moment.” Nobody cherishes every moment because it’s decidedly un-human to be able to do that.