All I Need is the Air that I Breathe, And to Love You

It is 12:25 am on a Tuesday night and I am writing. Late night writing is not new. Certainly not for me. I used to do it all the time. When I was young and suffering from insomnia, almost nightly during high school. Then when I was older, in my twenties, and life felt like a never-ending tragedy, or a comedy, or maybe really a comedy of errors (as nothing that happened during my early twenties was truly tragic). In those days I would come home from a night out, stumble around my apartment looking for a cigarette, spend another ten minutes looking for a match, take a seat in front of the computer, and start madly typing away while searching for whatever was in arm’s reach that could double as an ashtray. The resulting stream of words was either a long-winded diatribe that I fantasized about delivering to some pompous jerk but didn’t have the guts to utter in real time, or an overly laconic (is that possible?) smattering of poesy about regret and aging (I was 23), or a drama-rama email to an ex that I would send in a fog and re-read the following morning in a fit of shame. I grew so used to this routine that by the time I turned thirty I started to forget what it was like to write. I mean to actually write. It took me a while to get it back, but I can feel, even as I type this lump of prose, that I’m forgetting again.

This is the first time in a month, a week, and a day (plus a couple “trimesters”) that I’ve sat at the computer to type a post for this blog. Exactly one month, one week, and one day ago my daughter was born. Linnea Anne Dion Rosenzweig. (Whew. Need to take a breath after typing that entire name. I’m praying Scantron doesn’t exist by the time she’s old enough to be taking standardized tests… well, what I’m really hoping is standardized tests don’t exist...) But I need to stay on track here. I have a deadline and I’m going to try and pound this out as quickly as possible. You see, Linnea just finished nursing and that means the clock is ticking. In about 120 minutes she’ll start squirming around, still mostly asleep; this will give way to gentle squeaking sounds, followed by more forceful grunting noises; then come the eyes opening, and the mouth, and finally: the wail. At which point I’ll scoop her up, pull the breast out (whichever feels easier, usually the left one), offer it to her and she will nurse for as long as she cares to – anywhere from four minutes to fifteen during nighttime feedings. Daytime feedings are longer, of course, and the rest of the day disappears in a haze of laundry, vacuuming, bouncing, rocking, singing, scheduling, dog-caring, and – if I’m lucky – showering. (I know I’m forgetting several key housework activities… Oh yes! Dishes!) Sometimes I sneak in a nap.

Naturally, I find time to check Facebook (come on, this isn't Bleak House). I “Like” a few posts, comment on a few status updates, and click on a link to some article about how the earth and its inhabitants are all going straight to hell. I round out the day by signing a few petitions, sending a text, and reading a few pages in whatever book I can manage to read (something undemanding). But none of this is important. What’s important is that I was wrong. I was totally wrong. Being a mom/parent/caregiver is hard. Like, effing hard. And here’s the other thing: it’s really effing rewarding.

What else was I wrong about? Oh. Yes. Labor. That was hard. Like, effing hard. I literally lost my capacity to see during contractions. My signature on the epidural consent form (the one I said I didn’t even need because I was going au natural, obviously) looks like my Chihuahua was the one given the pen and granted Power of Attorney. I was out of my MIND. The years of gymnastics, running, diving, weight-lifting, and such? The massage and progressive relaxation techniques? The badass doula and her birthing ball? The husband who proudly took the blows of both my flesh-bruising clenching hands and skin-piercing fingernails? None of this was enough in the final analysis. 

I caved. Got the epidural, took a nap, and birthed the baby as the early morning sun streamed through the windows. After the cord-cutting (the delayed clamping I opted for garnered me an extra ten seconds, at most) and after the Apgar scores, I laughed and joked with everyone, beaming and grinning with a brand new healthy baby in my arms… blissfully unaware of my midwife sewing up the tears in my still-numb labia and perineum.

The numbness didn’t last forever of course. In fact, it didn’t last very long at all. Nor did the euphoria of pushing a baby out of my body. Soon, I could feel the pain. And it wasn’t that amazing. The other un-amazing part was that I was sharing a “recovery” room with another woman. When they wheeled me into the room, I discovered she wasn’t there, but her television set was set to blast. My husband, Josh, used the bathroom we shared and warned me: don’t go in there. When she returned I saw that she was young, and her partner (also young) wasn’t the friendly type. He made several phone calls to unnamed associates whom he directed to such and such an address and ordered that occupants of said address should be “shot up.” “Oh,” the other woman said, “that’s rude.” They ate cheese steaks and cursed at each other, and at some point it started to thunderstorm.

I know, you’re probably holding the world’s smallest violin in your hands. And I know I probably sound like an entitled biotch who just wanted her suburban cushy hospital and nice nurses who didn’t stick their heads in to say “what’s up?” every four hours before quickly disappearing again. But this isn’t a class issue. This is this: I just had a baby. I had no idea what the fuck I was doing. My hormone levels had plummeted. My dog was home alone and is terrified of rain. And from across the curtain I can hear the TV blaring “you are not the father!” from the mouth of Maury Povich. Across the curtain a couple was bickering. Across the curtain a strange man was barking insults into his cell phone. I asked the nurse if it was possible to be discharged early and she said, curtly, “yes.” Great! “But the baby has to stay.” OK. “Thanks,” I said, “We’ll stay.” A few minutes later someone brought a tray of food. I hadn’t eaten in 24 hours and although I wasn’t hungry, I knew I needed calories. I lifted the lid and found a steaming hunk of meat. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t want to be a pain in the butt, and I’m sure this is going to sound annoying, but do you have a vegetarian option?” She looked at me for a few seconds before saying, “No.” Then she turned around and walked away. Believe me. I wasn’t expecting to be pampered. I wasn’t expecting an emotional afterglow. I knew it would be difficult. The first hours, days, weeks even. But this was a ruder awakening than I’d bargained for, and so, for the first time throughout the whole experience I looked at Josh, started to talk, then broke down and cried.

I really would have cried the rest of the time we were in the hospital, but it simply wasn’t an option. First, I had a newborn to take care of. Second, I needed to learn how to breastfeed. How to breastfeed correctly. In my glee at the baby being able to latch on, I let her latch on any which way she liked. This meant that 24 hours later, my nipples were ravaged. Next, I needed to figure out how to use the bathroom (toilet and shower) with vaginal stitches, swollen lady parts/genitals, and pain/insane tenderness such that touching the area was out of the question. I also needed to put on a brave face for my in-laws, be there for Josh (he was really the one that was there for us) and try to make sure we’d crossed all our post-partum To Do items off the list (calls to various companies/offices: insurance, human resources, benefits, etc.) 

Before we left, unfortunately, the hospital made us watch a graphic video about Shaken Baby Syndrome. Part of their policy, they said. Although I appreciate the advocacy efforts, this was not the right time for me. Due to hormones, or my own highly emotional/sensitive disposition, I’d already been fretting over the treatment of babies. Not just my baby. Not just Philadelphia babies. But all babies. Everywhere. Throughout history, present, and future. When I looked at Linnea I couldn’t imagine anything more vulnerable or more needing of care and love. I tortured myself by recalling news stories detailing violence done to babies by adults; stories of orphanages where babies were left alone all day, without touch or talking; babies that suffered illness and hunger. I don’t know if these thoughts were happening through my own volition or not, I just know they were happening. And they were awful. The video of a man violently shaking a defenseless newborn did not help. The image stayed in my mind and would come to the surface every few hours, as if to say, “no matter how happy you are, there is a baby somewhere suffering.” That thought, along with similar horrors were enough to keep me pretty depressed the first couple weeks.

I asked some girlfriends about their thoughts in the days following birth and received the kind of response that even if it doesn’t fix the issue, gives hope. “Totally normal. Happened to me, too.” My doula dropped off my placenta pills (I had it dehydrated and encapsulated) and I started taking those, daily. My parents came to town, and my aunt, and best friend, and Philadelphia friends came to see the baby and help us and keep us sane. My husband and I went on drives, grocery shopping, and to book stores. Turns out you can do all those things with a baby! I knew that before, but immediately after having a baby, it’s hard to imagine…


Luckily, in time, the thoughts started to spread out, and lessen in intensity, and by Week Three/Four, I was able to focus on the present. And on my baby. (I could describe what my nipples and vagina were going through those first two weeks, but I’ll trust you get the idea.) When I saw her, sleeping, or crying, or nursing, or just shifting gently in my arms, I saw the unimaginable. I saw someone who came out of my body, who was made by her dad and me – and everyone who came before us. I saw something that needed me to be happy, and present, and active in the things I can fix, not dwelling on all the hideous shit that I can’t.

“Warm my hands,” Gramma says. “They’re cold.”
She slips her hands inside my cupped hands. Her hands like two small mammals burrowing inside a hollow, hunkering down against each other, against the coming freeze.
“I used to worry about you,” she says, “but I don’t anymore. You’re over the wall.”
“What’s the wall?”
-          Michael Hainey, from “After Visiting Friends”

This morning we brought Linnea to her one-month pediatric appointment. She was due for her Hep B vaccine and as the nurse prepped the needle I put my finger in her little hand. Her tiny fingers closed around mine. As the nurse stuck the needle in her leg, I started to breathe heavy and fight the desire to push the woman back, screaming: get the fuck away from my child! After the shot, Linnea cried and I held her and shushed her and she quickly calmed down and started looking around the office putting her little fist into her mouth signaling she wanted to nurse (it never ends!) and then we strapped her into the car seat and walked out of the office, onto Locust Street. Construction was blowing dust at us and the cars didn’t seem to give a damn if you were pushing a stroller or not. But. I was freaking glowing. My baby was healthy. I was her mommy. And Josh and I were on our way to get a cup of coffee. Which of course I never drank. (I can’t seem to finish or even start a cup of coffee anymore; other stuff keeps interrupting me and by the time I get back to it, the coffee is cold.)

Tomorrow morning we’re getting three windows replaced and Josh is dropping the car off to get inspected. Later in the day we need to move the living room furniture back into the room from being in the kitchen. We had the ceiling redone and then Josh wanted to touch up the painting. With a newborn, however, I’ve learned that whatever is on your To Do list for the day, expect to get only one of those items actually done. Hopefully we’ll get the couch moved back in. If not, c’est la vie.

Abbi Mireille Dion, 2:46 AM, July 30 2013

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