I wanted to draw out the epilogue from my favorite podcast, and it seems rather silly to go through all that trouble without posting the art to someplace public.
In the midst of new motherhood, I have been writing. It’s very difficult. My words tend to fail me even when I’ve got my head on straight, and Henry and Eleanor constantly draw my attention in a million directions. But sometimes, usually on Friday when my mom and dad come to watch them, occasionally in the early mornings while they’re still asleep and my brain won’t turn off, I have a few minutes to write stories.
Something that helps to bring my mind into a making space is I light a candle. I’ve fallen in love with the scents from Cantrip Candles in particular, because of the way they design the scent to provide an immersion into storytelling. I wrote an entire short to their “walk in the woods,” and I’ve got a “stonemoss chapel” I keep burning when I’ve got time to work on my novel. It doesn’t always work. I’m distracted easily, there’s always something else to do, and I’m sure I could pick up the twins’ bedroom a little better before getting started, but that eats away minutes and…
It is much faster to light a match. Writing can feel selfish when there’s so many things to do. It’s time immersed in my own head, away from the twins and my husband. I should be present for them. But I can’t be consistently present, and the minutes I steal for a few jotted words help in the long run. Writing clears my head, organizes my thoughts, banishes demons…
or at least befriends them. (both the short and the novel attempts to befriend them)
So I light a candle, and the ritual sets my fingers toward words. Some of them make a story, some make it here, and some are just notes to return to, places in the story that need work, characters whose motives have become more clear now that I have less time to overthink them. And all of them are progress. I have to remind myself of that. This is progress. This is care. This is how I center myself when the babies won’t sleep through the night and my nose is dripping with a winter’s cold and I can’t remember if I’ve spoken to my husband or only rehearsed a conversation silently for 45 minutes. (sorry, honey <3)
It isn’t selfish to have a self. Light a candle.
Once, a long two and a half months ago, I had plans for lullabies. I typed out the songs I knew well enough to sing the melodies and printed the lyrics for myself to tack up in the babies’ room. And I’ve mislaid it, like so many things lost in the shuffle of new parenthood. It’s probably somewhere in the office, which I’ve cleaned recently. Everything is in its proper place now, so I’ll never find it.
The pages of lyrics turned out not to matter so much. I sing to them constantly, narrating my actions as I move through bottles and diaper changes and tummy time. Youtube is often employed to calm them down with dance parties in the evenings, and I sing babblewords along with Sofi Tucker and Jain and Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Sometimes, if I’m animated enough, I can get Eleanor to laugh. Henry’s laughs are more elusive. He seems to only laugh when his sister is laughing.
Happy songs can be anything, but the need for structure around bedtime had me returning over and over to a song from Adventure Time. “Everything Stays” was from the seventh season, and it repeated over a series of episodes about Marceline the Vampire Queen. If you look it up, you’ll find versions sung by the song’s composer, and ones sung by Marceline’s voice actor. Both are lovely in different ways. The lullaby in the show was sung by Marceline’s mother during an apocalypse; one she remembered for a thousand years. It was a sweet and quiet moment between her and her mother, and it stuck with me enough that I kept returning to the song even when I couldn’t remember any others. But in the show there’s only one verse, and it takes several rounds of singing to complete the bedtime sequence for two babies.
“Let’s go in the garden; you’ll find something waiting
right there where you left it lying upside down.
You’ll know once you find it, you’ll see how it’s faded
The underside is lighter when you turn it around”
It turns out there’s a second verse, which I found when I was looking to see if I had the lyrics right. They were right enough, but I couldn’t sing the second verse. The problem was with the last line.
“Go down to the ocean; a crystal tide is raising,
The water’s gotten higher as the shore washes out,
Keep your eyes wide open even when the sun is blazing,
The moon controls the tide; it could cause you to drown.”
I have saved both my kids from suffocation too many times in the past three months to sing the word “drown” without crying*. Typing it now has my own voice ringing in my ear, shouting for Henry to breathe as I smack his back and turn him around to suck at his nose with my own mouth. It really only takes one taste of life threatening mucus spat onto the floor to make the word “drown” forever distasteful, so I faltered over the last line until I changed it.
“Find a little seashell, there among the rubble.
It will gently whisper what the ocean’s about…”
Two verses still make for a very short song, and the search for lyrics that wouldn’t make me cry got me thinking of verses beyond what was written. Because we’re in Washington, my next thought was of trees. It took some spinning to find a proper sentiment, but I’ve finally landed on the right words, and they’re now a part of the lullaby I sing every night.
“Go into the forest, look the trees are swaying,
the ground is slightly swelling as the forest breathes in.
If you’re feeling lost you can lay among the mosses
and ask all of the mushrooms where you ought to begin.”
The verses keep evolving as I sing to them. We’ll take the song into the mountains, to the river, to the old house, to the lake… wherever I can make a few more verses fit, because when the song is going the kids are happy. But it always comes back to the chorus, which has become almost a mantra, one I can fall into when the kids are yelling in stereo and my brain feels like its being squeezed.
Right where you left it
But it’s still changing
Daily and nightly, every so slightly, in little ways
When everything stays”
*the list of what will make me cry has gotten considerably longer since i’ve become a mother. Nonexhaustive list includes; Disney’s Robin Hood, certain tracks from Penguin Cafe’s The Red Book, dnd podcasts, Ducktails (2017), and any violins in crescendo.
I am hooked to a breast pump and my babies are fussing. Eleanor just cried out in earnest and I can only watch her from the monitor to ensure she’s not in trouble. They ate recently, their diapers changed, the swaddles wrapped to favorite positions. Eleanor: legs tight, arms free to stretch over her head. Henry: one arm pinned, the other free to press the binkie to his face. They wake and fall asleep with some regularity as I wait for the pump to finish its work, and I think about crying.
I recently saw an Instagram post that I probably shouldn’t have. A friend with a new baby liked it, and as someone with a new baby who belongs to a similar demographic, Instagram’s algorithm threw it on my feed. It talked about the sinister origins of “cry it out”—a sleep method apparently created by a man who thought babies were being coddled too much. In decrying its methods, I began to worry that I wasn’t holding my children enough. I quickly remembered the rules of social media: the post was not anything personal, and I scrolled away before I could reach the last slide or clicked on something to learn more.
I didn’t scroll fast enough. Here I am days later, thinking about that post, about how holding your child to quiet them is the natural way of parenting. Humans are social animals, we live in groups, there should always be arms to hold baby. Holding baby keeps them calm and calm earns trust and without trust baby will never sleep soundly…
I saw a lot of advice in the months I spent preparing for their arrival; don’t rely on swings or they’ll never sleep without it. Don’t use a binkie or they won’t ever latch. Don’t let baby suck their thumb or they won’t ever stop. Don’t move baby after they’re sleeping or they’ll become disoriented. Don’t use mobiles; they simulate flying predators and stress out your baby. Don’t use formula if you can help it; breast is best* breast is best breast is best.
My breasts didn’t start producing milk for a week and a half after my cesarean, and in four days from birth Henry had lost an entire pound. He only started with 5lbs 5oz. There wasn’t much to lose.
When we met our pediatrician, she told me that my children had lost too much weight and I was to start them both on a high calorie formula meant for preemies. This was direction, not advice, from a confident woman who radiated an air of experience*. I wanted to hug her. I needed that permission from her, because the nurses were insistent that I feed my children from my dry nipples when their tiny premature mouths could not fit around them. Even with the mothers in my life reminding me that fed is best, the cult of breastmilk got into my head and made me feel inadequate. I couldn’t feed my kids. What kind of mother am I?
Even now, I can only produce about 80% of what they need. They get the rest of their calories from formula. Erik has mentioned if they were one baby, I’d be producing 160% of their needs, and I remind myself of that while I ask WIC to include formula with our benefits. I mention it to the woman on the phone as well; they are two. Their needs are greater than a single baby, and I am only one woman.
When they are both crying, I try to be 160% mother. Sometimes I can be. When they’re both crying for food, I set them both up on a pillow and see if they can each take a bottle from my hands. But sometimes Henry is crying so hard that he thrashes away from the nipple in his mouth and he needs my full attention. Sometimes Eleanor falls asleep while eating and only takes in a third of what she should. And sometimes they’re crying to be held, but they’re still too small and floppy for me to safely cradle them both. One goes in the swing or under a mobile, while I tend to the other.
I don’t care if they fall asleep in the swing. I don’t care if the binkie causes nipple confusion. We’re already past the stage where I can get them to latch onto my breast (is best is best is best). I don’t care if the mobile simulates predators because it got my daughter to smile and quiet herself mid-meltdown and it gave me the time to feed my thrashing son. And if none of this is enough to calm them, one just has to cry.
It hurts when they can’t stop crying. Sometimes one will rile the other and both are inconsolable. But I can’t let it into my heart, because crying will happen even if I could be 180% mother to one baby 100% of the time. They can’t talk yet, and the world is confusing. The world is confusing for a 36 year old woman who can talk (even if she chooses not to.)
There is a lot of advice for mothers, a lot of it contradictory, or simply unfeasible when combined with the rest of the advice received. There is not enough time in the day to incorporate all of it. And when I am crying along with my kids, I wonder if I’ve done something wrong. Maybe Henry won’t calm down because he spent too much time on his tummy today. Maybe Eleanor is mad because she spent too little. Maybe I’ve missed something key when I was flooded with a thousand small suggestions for a perfect baby, a perfect night’s sleep. Or maybe I can listen to my pediatrician, and let the rest of the noise land wherever it may lie. I will use whatever tricks and cheats it takes to make my kids happy. And when they fail, I will hold my kid as soon as an arm becomes available, and apologize for the wait, and rock with them while they calm back down.
Henry and Eleanor came as a pair. They will never know a world in which they don’t have to share me. I’m not half a mom to them because my attention is split. Although it can feel like I’m only half of what each of them need, but I am wholly theirs.
I don’t have a solution for this feeling. Maybe if I write it out, I can scroll past it. Keep scrolling. There’s baby pictures below.
*I am certain this slogan caused more anxiety for me than any cries I have heard from my children. I spoke with friends who are mothers who know that formula fed children vs. breast fed children are no different when they get to school age, and yet I had internalized this stupid slogan enough to just cow to the night nurse who told me I needed to try latching the kids before she’d get the donated breastmilk for them. It also poorly affected my decision making skills on whether to ask for donated breastmilk or formula while we were still learning the kids needs.
*thank you, Dr. Kathuria. Your guidance in that moment and every moment since has eased my mind immensely.
I was on a gurney in the OR, a paper sheet pulled up to keep me from seeing the teams of nurses surrounding my open belly, and they asked me which child I wanted to hold first. I would hold one, skin to skin, and my husband who sat behind me would hold the other. It was my choice. I had to choose.
How do I decide what is fair while my body is cut open and my head is swimming with drugs? I asked for Eleanor. She was born first, so it’s only fair I should hold her first, right? The nurse went to grab her and I told my husband he could never tell our kids I asked for her first. They placed her on my chest and I held her while the doctor began sewing me up and I loved her and I was scared for how small she was and how unfinished she looked and also, as they put Henry on my husband’s chest, I was afraid that I’d already failed him. I was asked to choose between my children, and I asked for his sister.
Early in my pregnancy I was already worried about my own social failings. I read something about how babies read expressions and in a mild panic I texted a friend. I don’t always remember to have facial expressions! Especially not when tired, and I’m going to be tired with two infants to take care of! The kids won’t see me smile, how can they come to trust me when I’ve got my serial killer face on?! My friend reminded me that my kids won’t have the same societal expectations that come with a woman’s neutral face. Maybe it’ll even be good for the kids to know that neutral does not mean angry or cruel.
They calmed me in that moment (Thanks, Collin <3), but expressions are only a part of the insidious fear that crops up in social contracts. I rarely know what is correct, so I focus instead on what is fair. I’ve come to understand it as “The Tally.” How many seconds of eye contact have I given during this conversation? How long have I been talking? How much space am I taking up here and is it equitable to the median space taken by everyone else? The Tally asserts itself when I’m in an unfamiliar social space. It’s especially loud when I feel the need to perform.
I had never been a mother before. The pressure was on.
The Tally started whispering at the hospital when the nurse placed my daughter on my chest. It got louder that night when I had to attempt breastfeeding. Who eats first? How many pictures have I taken of each? How much time have I held one child in my arms?
This is not to say that my first days with my children were dominated by The Tally. There were other anxieties that come with hospital stays, but mostly there was love and curiosity and one extremely nice breakfast with my husband while the kids slept in their bassinet and we got to enjoy the view out of the eleventh floor of the hospital. And then it was time to leave.
Henry was in his car seat. He was smaller than Eleanor, small enough that the nurses needed to make sure he’d fit, and his car seat was on a cart pushed by my mother. Eleanor was in my arms while I sat in the wheelchair, waiting for Erik to come to the front of the hospital with the car. It was a long wait. My mom got a text from Erik about car troubles, and left me with the outtake person and the kids to figure it out. When they came back, Erik said the car was gone.
“The car was stolen last night. We’ve only got Henry’s car seat, so you and Henry will ride home with your mom and I’ll wait here with Eleanor for her to come back and ferry us home.”
He’d worked out the plan with mom before talking to me. A plan makes it less scary. I love my car. It was bad that it was stolen, but there was a plan, and in that moment, I had a small revelation:
“Henry can’t be mad that I held her first, because he’s going to be the first one I bring home.”
Somehow this balanced the books on love in my brain, and Erik and I started laughing. Yes, I was crying, too, because my car was stolen and I was leaving the hospital and I was so not ready for all the things I didn’t know about being a mother, but in that moment The Tally couldn’t touch me. I brought my son home, and sang to him until his dad and sister and grandmother arrived and my husband and I held each other and cried with relief that we’d all survived the scariest days we’d had as a couple.
It didn’t break The Tally. There were moments in the weeks after coming home that I worried people were holding Henry more than Eleanor, or taking more pictures of one than the other. But it shifted The Tally to actions outside of myself, and I can set those aside more easily. I settled into a rhythm with the kids. It does not matter who eats first, so long as the time between eating is roughly the same. Everyone is held, eventually.
And I love them. Easily and individually. Henry watches everything with stoic curiosity. Eleanor smiles and tracks your eyes. I don’t have to tally my minutes with them because there are enough minutes now that I’ve lost track. And the big disparity; who do I hold first, who do I bring home, was balanced for me.
Time makes The Tally small. Time enough to lose track of my facial expressions and eye contact until I’m just existing and accepted for existing in that space. It’s been six weeks with my children, and it’s easy now to love them equitably. I always loved them equitably. And from the beginning, my heart knew that love is not a pie to be parceled out until there’s no more pie. I love my husband wholly, and my son wholly, and my daughter wholly.
And my cat, too.
And when The Tally returns, I can tell it to fuck off. I’ve already balanced the books.