Grace, Identity

Pink Scrunchie

On my 40th birthday, grinning and in love with life, I slipped in the mud and fell on my ass.

Okay, fine; it wasn’t actually my ass; it was my hip and leg and chest — my entire right side caked in mud from the impact of hitting the slimy, muddy hill intent on ruining my afternoon.

I felt like an ass, to be sure. I was listening to some indie emo song as one does when she turns 40, and as I fell I reached out my hand to catch my fall and ripped out my wired earphones, because of course my air pods weren’t charged and I still have wired earphones because I am old and set in my ways.

I turned around to see a whippersnapper in his late twenties and, presumably, his father, whose white beard and sunglasses glinted in the sun as he waved to me wildly, shouting, “ARE YOU OKAY?”

That did seem to be the question of the week. Turning 40 had me feeling pensive, taking stock of my life, reading old journal entries and grieving for the girl who got so many things wrong, celebrating the times she seemed to do right.

I turned to the bearded man and laughed, waving off his concern. I was buoyed by the idea of how ridiculous I must have looked, in my muddy white tee and pink velour scrunchie. Hilarious.

When I was 20 I would have been so embarrassed, I thought. I would have wished to be swallowed by the muddy ground that knocked me from my feet. I would have tied the event to my identity, certain that I would forever be “the girl who falls in the mud,” when all I wanted to be was shiny and perfect.

This day was different.

I had laced up my shoes and walked to the park a half mile from our house, a quintessential western Washington shoreline—autumn leaves, a rocky beach, a view across the water. After a (very) rainy morning, the sun won out over the clouds, and the waters of the Narrows were sparkling. As I walked, I felt a spring in my step, like I used to as a child, ponytail swinging.

I was full of memories from the night before: a romantic dinner at my favorite Italian restaurant with my favorite guy. A drive along another shoreline, this one in West Seattle, which flooded me with memories of my single days. Remembering the joy and promise I felt as I once jogged along those waters, wondering if that smart and witty man who had captured my interest would write me back again.

And memories from before that: the first time I set my eyes on the Puget Sound, soy latte and journal in hand, when it seemed so clear that I needed to move to Seattle.

I belong here, I had thought then. I belong here, I thought now. My chest expanded as I acknowledged that truth. I’m right where I need to be. This place. This place right here, with the love of my life (who did, in fact write back, many times).

It was in the midst of this reverie, bouncing along, grinning at every stranger I passed, that my feet suddenly lost purchase on the muddy trail.

Whoomph. On the ground.

The mud covered my side so completely that I needed several wide maple leaves to slough it off; I laughed as I drug my hands along the damp grass in an attempt to clean them, too. So this is 40, I thought, grinning wildly as I picked myself up and followed the path into the woods.

My therapist reminded me today that after turning 40, we’re still allowed to be imperfect. She laughed, “We don’t magically turn into Yoda, I can tell you that, 5 years in.”

Maybe that’s why a slip in the mud on my 40th birthday felt like a tiny moment of grace. Because of course I don’t have it all figured out. Of course I’m going to keep falling down. Of course I’m going to end up covered in mud and shaking my head at my inherent lack of attention to the path beneath my feet.

For now, I’ve decided my pink scrunchie is my new favorite accessory. I’ll wear it to remind me of how I want to show up in the world: with a belly full of laughter, an eye for kindness, and hands ready to dig into the earth to uncover what is useful for today.

pink scrunchie + gray hairs + messy bun
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co-breathing

The one thing they told me at the hospital, more important than “breast is best,” was that I should never, under any circumstances, co-sleep with my child. I was a new mother in a state-of-the-art hospital in the Pacific Northwest, attended by midwives and nurses of the crunchy variety. The veracity with which the nurses warned me against the evils of formula, and the fact that they had rid themselves of a nursery apart from the NICU, choosing instead to implement the policy of mothers “rooming in” with their newborns, had prepared me to be bullied into an attachment-style parenting I wasn’t sure I agreed with. 

I had not been prepared for the strict instructions to nurse my child, swaddle him, and leave him in the bassinet while I tried to rest.

He was precious and surprising, this new creature, with his loud voice and deep brown eyes. He was content as long as I held him to my chest, and as exhausted as I was, I could think of nothing more satisfying than closing my eyes and sleeping to the rhythm of the rise and fall of his tiny breaths. 

I didn’t know then, that this is not only natural, but good—this desire to be close, sharing breaths, sharing peace. I didn’t know that what I was providing for him in those moments—and what he was providing for me—was the quiet calm of co-regulation, a response of our nervous systems, calming each of us as we stared into each others eyes. 

And we needed this, he and I, after the previous hours of transformation and trauma. My body, torn in two, as he came into the world. His body, ejected from the safety of his warm home into the overwhelm of new sensations: light, touch, sound. We were both in need of healing. We were both in need of safety. We needed the peace brought by the other’s presence.

But I was tired. So tired. I longed for someone to take him from me, turn off the lights, and acknowledge my deep need for rest.

We didn’t sleep much in those first weeks, he and I. All his little body seemed able to handle was about 45 minutes at a time, unless I was holding him. My days were spent on the bed in our guest room, watching movies and snuggling my baby, so afraid to lie down with him and close my eyes, lest I roll over onto him and crush him as I had been warned so often by the nurses.

The nights were the worst of it. My husband was a medical resident with brutal hours and immeasurable stress, so when Jacob’s screams pierced the dark, I wasn’t only worried about my newborn’s sleep. One early morning, in an act of desperation, I returned to the guest room, tucked Jacob into the crook of my arm, and gently laid us down together. His cries quieted and breath slowed, and as I breathed I tried to let our closeness calm my fears. 

Seven years later, we know now that his body is especially sensitive, thanks to his beautiful, neurodivergent brain. He craves closeness, but on his own terms. I often sense the need to ask before I snuggle him, and I am the one whose touch he allows the most. We still watch movies together, now on the couch, shoulder to shoulder. He presses his leg into mine, leaning his head against me. Sometimes he likes it when I rest my head on his, too. When it’s time for bed, he likes me to crawl in next to him, pinned between his body and the wall, so I can read him his favorite bedtime book. I measure my breaths and modulate my voice and witness him drifting off. 

In sleep, his face doesn’t look all that different than it did as a baby.

I think about that first night in the guest room, my heart pounding wildly as I weighed the odds of lying down next to him and offering him my presence so he—we—could sleep.

Please, I whispered into the darkness, please keep him safe. Let me wake if he is in danger. Please.

My face turned toward his, his breath on my cheek, I succumbed to the sweetness of this moment that was ours alone. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and slept. I slept and he slept, and we lay together breathing until rays of sun crept through the window and danced upon the bed. 

He was awake, watching me, quiet and content.

When we rose, I gave him a bottle, because that’s what worked for him.

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