Nourished

late nights bw

At the end of Jacob’s first week, I hobbled into my midwife’s office, bleeding and crying and snotting all over the place. She asked me how we were doing. “I’m bruised,” I said. “I’m bleeding. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Tell me I don’t have to do this, I begged her with my eyes.

She prescribed me heavy duty nipple cream and sent me off with a hug. “Nursing is a great way to take care of your baby,” she said. “But it is not the only way. What Jacob needs most is to be nourished, and to be loved. Nursing is not the only way to accomplish those goals. You’ve got to take care of yourself, too.”

***

At first, both my boys latched like naturals. For the first hour or so after birth, I congratulated myself on knowing what to do. Such a natural mother.

I was a fool.

Mere hours later with Jacob, my first, I began to experience intense pain when he would latch. One of the nurses encouraged me to self express with my fingers, to use a spoon to make sure he was getting the precious liquid gold, even if he couldn’t latch properly. So I did.

The next morning he was fussy, inconsolable. Another nurse asked me how long it had been since the last feeding. Four, maybe five hours earlier I had expressed some colostrum. Could it really be time to do this again? I was already bruised and discouraged. I registered the shock in her eyes: four to five hours? This baby needs to eat. Apparently I wasn’t a natural after all. A lactation consultant asked me to show her how I was feeding him and to my disbelief she praised me on our technique. Gold star, baby! I began to breathe easily again.

The relief was short-lived.

Once we were home, I dreaded feedings. He wouldn’t latch properly. He’d scream until he was red and then, once latched, would cause me to bleed. Even when we were lucky enough to latch well, I wasn’t producing enough to satisfy his hunger. I began to feel the prickle of fear and resentment every time he cried. And then I felt guilty—wasn’t I supposed to be enjoying this? Weren’t we supposed to be bonding?

At his first pediatric check-up, our doctor came through the door while he latched—well, for the first time in hours—and drank and drank and drank. I was ecstatic – Look! We’re doing this! Even so, we learned he had lost 10% of his birth weight, and they told me I needed to supplement with formula.

I felt like a failure. The words of the instructor of the hospital’s breastfeeding class rattled around in my head. She had told us she wouldn’t even talk about formula because she knew we wouldn’t “give in to the temptation.” She told us to be on the lookout for formula samples that would come in the mail. “Throw them away immediately,” she said. “You don’t want to give in at 3am when you feel like you’re about to lose your mind.” Pre-birth, I resolved to do whatever it took to breastfeed my son, no matter how I felt about it in the moment.

But at 3am, in the face of my screaming, (starving?) newborn, feeling like I was about to lose my mind, I “gave in” and followed the instructions of his doctor, feeding him the formula I had asked my husband to buy at the store that day.

I still felt like a failure—I wasn’t enough for him. But for the first time in his three days of life, he slept soundly and peacefully and longer than 45 minutes. Finally, he was satisfied.

***

I met with a lactation consultant a few days after seeing my midwife, and braced myself for a lecture. When she asked me how it was going, I burst into tears. “I’m not sure I can do this,” I said. I gasped for breath, struggling to find the words to speak the truth I hadn’t wanted to face: “I’m a sexual assault survivor . . . and I just . . . I can’t . . .”

There it was. Nursing my child was a triggering event. I resented my newborn and felt so ashamed.

She handed me a box of tissues and put her hand on my arm. “You don’t have to do this,” she said. “I don’t say that lightly; it’s my job to convince you otherwise. But you have got to take care of yourself. The most important thing you can offer this boy is your love and your presence. Take care of yourself first so you can give him the love that he needs.”

***

I pumped for a month. Every two hours I’d go up to Jacob’s room, turn on Gilmore Girls, and pump pump pump away. My mom and husband helped hold him and feed him and gave me a break to shower and rest. But then my husband went back to work and my mom went back home. He wasn’t content to sit with me while I pumped. He screamed. And screamed. And suddenly I was faced with a terrible predicament: do I sit here and pump and let him scream? Or do I skip the pump, pick him up, and feed him more formula?

I set the pump down. I made a bottle and brought him to my chest. And I stared into his eyes and sang him songs and told him how precious he was to me.

It wasn’t long before I saw the effects of bottle-feeding: Jacob and I both were sleeping better. The tension in my shoulders released. Rocking him and feeding him became my favorite time. My prayers shifted from laments and requests for peace to songs of quiet praise.

My perinatal therapist diagnosed me with postpartum anxiety, and with her help I learned to re-tell the story of feeding Jacob as one of great hope and love: rather than give in to the fear of failure or let my heart grow bitter from resentment, I had chosen to change course so we could flourish in our new relationship as mother and son.

In those days I began to see how inextricably linked self-care is to the well-being of our children.

***

With Henry, it was different. I wasn’t sure how it would go—would I be triggered again? I told myself I would nurse him for the first three days, at least. I would make sure he received the colostrum. And then I would check in with myself. Three days passed and I continued to nurse. My milk came in and I continued to nurse.

And something strange happened. I began to enjoy this time with my son. We had figured it out. We did it together. I quietly rejoiced as he fed, feeling so much pride and love and connection.

Rather than triggering me, he was healing me.

But I still wasn’t producing enough milk. I could tell he wasn’t eating enough. So we began to supplement.

As much as I was (mostly) enjoying the time nursing Henry, I couldn’t figure out how to stick it out for the long term; we had a big move on the horizon and my stress level was at all-time high. Jacob, only 19 months, needed lots of love and attention in the wake of his baby brother’s arrival. I didn’t know how I would make the time to pump to increase my supply.

When, in his second week, Henry began to clusterfeed, my confidence dwindled even further. Feedings became more painful, he became more frustrated, and the old familiar feelings of dread and resentment began to creep their way into my heart each time I heard him cry.

On day ten I made cold cabbage compresses and stuck them in my bra.

***

Today, both kids have oatmeal in their hair and peanut butter on their faces. Jacob hates tomatoes while Henry eats marinara by the spoonful. Both boys are great eaters and generous with their affection.

They are nourished and they are loved.

There are still those moments, as I hold them close before bed, when I dream of how wonderful it could have been. I am wistful as I imagine a calmer, more integrated version of myself who could have handled the stress of the moments that come barrelling so quickly at mothers so soon after birth. It is easy to long for a more idealized version of the mother I wish I was and could have been.

But then I remember I am doing the best that I can. I nourish myself these days with food and sleep and long showers and slow runs by the ocean. I take care of myself well so that in the ever-present stress of motherhood I can attempt to present my children with the best version of the woman I am today.

And that, I am convinced, is enough.

This post originally appeared on the Good Mother Project

Splinter

jakeandmamabw

Jacob ran out the front screen door, exclaiming, “Christmas wreath!” in his two-year-old toddlerese. It was early December in Hawaii and the wreath I had picked up at the local Target was our lone Christmas decoration. With a deployed husband, two small children, and an upcoming holiday trip to my parents’ house on the mainland, I felt justified in skipping all the trimmings.

He couldn’t believe his luck – not only had I brought home a wreath, but also wrapping supplies. “CHRISTMAS BOWS!” he squealed, and immediately insisted we add one to the wreath. Why not. So I picked him up and steadied him as he added a huge, shiny red bow.

“Yay! I did it!” he grinned ear to ear and as soon as I set him back on his feet, he began to do his signature celebratory dance.

I was distracted for a few minutes, chatting with Monica, our nanny, as she updated me on the day’s events and prepared to go home. I didn’t see the moment when the splinter got lodged in the tender skin of Jacob’s foot.

At first, he didn’t want to let us see. He ran around the house, favoring the foot, insisting he was okay.

We were finally able to corral him, and when we saw the splinter’s size, we knew we needed to act quickly. Monica saw the horror on my face (how do I even do this?) and graciously offered to stay and help.

As I carried my screaming child to the well-lit bathroom, tweezers in hand, I couldn’t help but think of my thirteen-year-old self, spinning around barefoot on the hardwood floor of my parents’ kitchen, ending up with a splinter the size of a toothpick. I finished that day in the Emergency Room. The nurses rolled their eyes at me until they caught a look at how big it was and realized someone needed to cut it out.

Like mother like son. Please God, don’t let it be that bad. Not when Tim isn’t here. He’d know what to do.

Monica said she had experience removing splinters from thrashing toddlers, so we decided she’d take the tweezers and I’d hold him steady.

“NO THANK YOU, MAMA!” He sobbed the words I had taught him to say when he doesn’t want someone touching him, when he needs his space. “I hear you, baby. I know you are saying ‘No thank you,’ but Mama and Monica have to do this to make you feel better. I am so sorry.” He screamed, and it was heartbreaking, shattering, to hear my child crying from the depths of fear and distress, pleading with me to stop the pain I was allowing.

Tethered so firmly to the present moment, he was too young to understand sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. How could I convince him to trust me?

His tears brought tears to my eyes as I held him tightly, clutched to my chest, holding down his kicking legs and flailing arms.  Monica was the essence of calm. She spoke quietly, reassuring him, doing her best to efficiently remove the splinter.

When it was done, we smiled at Jacob. “You did it!” I squeezed him. “I am so proud of you.” He drew a big, shuddering breath and said, “Thank you, Mama.”

***

It’s no secret that in recent years I’ve been working through some anger with God. This all-knowing, all-loving, ever present Father has allowed so much heartache and pain in my life, the lives of my loved ones, the lives of people all over the world. I’m over it. It hurts so much and he allows it to get worse. So I kick and I scream and I buck and I cry. I’m like a toddler who can’t be consoled, who doesn’t want to listen to assurances that God knows what he’s doing and that ultimately there is a greater plan.

A few months ago, not long before Tim deployed, I was in church and the pastor asked us to imagine being in the presence of God – what would be like if we were standing face to face? I suddenly had this image of me pummeling God’s chest. Just hitting and hitting and yelling and screaming and crying. And he held me. As I hit him and kicked him and said “NO MORE!” He just held me. He didn’t chastise me. He didn’t tell me to buck up. He didn’t tell me I knew what I was signing up for when I became an Army wife. He didn’t tell me to stop being a baby. He didn’t let go of me and say “I don’t deserve this from you,” or “Have you forgotten all I’ve given you?”  He just held me with love and confidence and grace. He let me struggle, but never without assuring me with his strong arms and tender gaze.

***

How do we teach children to trust? It’s a tricky thing. Jacob and I have talked about it quite a bit since the splinter incident, and while I realize it’s going to be a while before he completely understands, I think the basic idea is starting to settle in.

I try to explain to him that I would never hurt him on purpose, that I am here to protect him, to keep him safe, to help him be healthy. That if I ever allow him pain, it is because I know it will be better on the other side. And that in the midst of the pain, he can always turn to me for comfort. Always.

Deep down I know that God is like that, too, because I’ve experienced him to be that way. In the middle of pain, and even in the middle of anger, I still know the God I am wrestling with is a God of love and patience and goodness. I have experienced his overwhelming peace at the strangest times, as nonsensical as it may seem.

He’s teaching me, in these anxious days, how to trust him again. He’s bringing me closer to the light, examining all the splinters I’ve lodged in my heart: the fear, pride, and self-pity he knows will fester if we don’t work together to dig them out. He reminds me, tenderly, that sometimes things have to be more painful before we can heal.

***

I don’t have a scar from the toothpick-sized splinter; in fact, I can’t even remember which foot endured the pain. But I do remember the path to healing was a long, embarrassing one. I showed up to middle school on crutches and had to explain why I couldn’t walk (I uh…got a huge splinter? When I was, uh…dancing around in my kitchen?). Later that week a lymph node swelled so badly I thought I was seriously ill. The doctor assured me it was just my body’s way of fighting an infection that must have begun before the splinter was removed. He gave me some antibiotics, and that was that.

It was done. But it took surgery and drugs and a week on crutches before the pain began to abate. The ER doctor’s scalpel was just the beginning.

When it comes to healing, there are no quick fixes, and that’s true of our hearts just as much as our earthly frames. It’s one thing for me to turn to God and acknowledge that I’m angry and hurt. It’s another thing entirely for me to hand over my heart and let him get to work. Just like Jacob, I’d much rather run away and self protect. And even when I do ask for help, God doesn’t magically make the splinters disappear; he removes them one by one with the precision and care of a surgeon. He takes his time, and he makes no promises that it won’t hurt.

It’s up to me then, whether I want to keep screaming and thrashing. He’s going to hold me regardless. I have to believe that as he holds me, my tears bring tears to his eyes, and with whatever progress we make, he is proud.

I am still learning how to say thank you.

What of the dancing? I’m happy to tell you I still dance around barefoot in the kitchen; to be honest I’d rather have the joy of dancing than live my life on the lookout for loose wood. As for Jacob, until we refinish the porch I try to make sure he wears shoes in the front of the house.

But I don’t catch him every time. I won’t, because he is full of life and curiosity and he’s just going to keep running and dancing. It is inevitable he will find pain along the way. But I will be there to hold him when he cries, just like my Abba holds me.

 

The Miracle of (im)Perfect Timing

img_2113Two kids under two was never part of my plan.

My husband, whose sister is a mere 14 months his senior, assured me having kids close together would be not only good planning (get those hard years out of the way) but also a good investment in their friendship (he counts his sister and her husband among his best friends). My brother is six years younger than I am, and as much as I have always adored him, the years between us often seemed like eons. I figured there was probably a happy medium. Perhaps we’d try for a second baby after the first was potty trained. Or in preschool.

I am what you might call a “small plate person” – introverted, prone to daydreams, preferring a whole afternoon alone with a book to an adventure with friends – I don’t do well with multi-tasking. I knew myself well enough to know that having two kids in the span of two years would be asking a lot of myself, especially if I wanted to do it well and with any semblance of grace.

Which is why it was so strange to me that, when my first was 10 months old, I found myself saying to my husband, “Maybe I don’t want to wait much longer to get pregnant again.”

Now, if you think this occurred to me because first children are often a breeze compared to their loud and feisty younger siblings, let me set you straight. Our first, our wonderfully vibrant Jacob, is anything but easy. He (and therefore I) didn’t sleep more than 45 minutes at a time for the first two months of his life. And this was just the beginning. Often a solo parent due to my husband’s rigorous medical residency schedule, I spent the majority of my days intently interacting with my very extroverted, very loud, very intense son. I couldn’t even leave him on the play mat for the two minutes it would take to reheat my coffee without him screaming as though a piece of heavy furniture had fallen on him (this tendency did not help with my postpartum anxiety).

So why the change of heart? Partially, because at 10 months, Jacob was slightly less challenging and more solid and less prone to breaking. He had teeth and could eat Cheerios and was cruising and laughing and snuggling. We had fun together, even inside jokes. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. The newborn months may have been terrible, but they suddenly felt light years away.

I had survived. I knew I could do it again.

I began to think about my upcoming 34th birthday and how I only had a year before my womb would be considered “geriatric” (can we please come up with a better word for this?).

Originally my plan had been to wait another year, after moving the following summer, wherever the Army would send us. But then I began to think about the potential for my husband to deploy (even though he assured me it wasn’t likely to happen so soon).

Also, it may have been momnesia.

My husband was ecstatic. When can we start?

So, when Jacob was 10 months old I quit taking the pill. You know how it goes: we weren’t trying, but we weren’t trying to NOT. After one particularly romantic evening, I thought I felt a twinge in my belly and I thought Oh my – did we just make a baby? A couple weeks later I took a pregnancy test and with mixed feelings read “negative.”

Mostly I was relieved. I started doing the math and realized if I had been pregnant, the due date would be a mere six weeks before the Army moved us God knows where. I thought to myself, Maybe we should wait a couple more months so we’re not moving with a newborn and a toddler.

Five days later I realized it was time to take another pregnancy test. This time it was positive.

When the first trimester nausea hit (so much worse this time around), and each morning I found myself sprawled out on the floor eating saltine crackers in front of Daniel Tiger with my son, who couldn’t even walk yet, I thought, How am I going to do this?

I comforted myself with the idea that this baby was meant to be. It might not be my timing, but it was the right time for him or her. The last time I checked, God doesn’t consult me about his plans.

I told myself if we had waited, we wouldn’t be having this baby. This baby is the one who is meant to be ours.

And sure enough, in May, seven weeks before we had to move, our sweet Henry was born. We knew right away he was my husband’s son. He looked just like him, and, unlike Jacob–intense and emotional like his mama–Henry eased into life with a gentle spirit and a love of sleep.

There was a peacefulness about him that drew us in, a quiet calm that almost had us fighting over who got to put him to bed. During a stressful move, quiet time with Henry became a welcome respite. When we learned my husband would have to deploy only a few weeks after starting his new job, Henry’s presence became not only an anchor to the present moment but the embodiment of hope in our family’s future.

In the face of our fears, his slobbery kisses were like christening, his coos a benediction.

Sometimes, I catch myself wondering how different life would be now had we waited to get pregnant with our second, especially during this time of transition and separation. Certainly, Jacob and I would have more quality time and fun adventures to the beach and the park. I’d get more sleep. I’d only have one nap to plan my days around, one bath time and bedtime, only one size of diapers to buy (and change). Life would be simpler. Easier.

But then, I wouldn’t have Henry.

At seven months, he still looks just like his daddy, except his daddy has teeth (and, now that he is deployed, a “silly mustache,” as Jacob would say).

When he smiles at me, I see my husband: his kind blue eyes, his impish grin, his calm and steadfast love. What a gift.

And I have to think, as I rock him to sleep, maybe the timing was pretty perfect after all.

Originally appeared on The Good Mother Project

Waiting For My Missing Piece

crown-gecko-1302347_1280The lizard was tiny and speckled brown, and it ran across the carpet of the new master bedroom as Jake and I played on the floor. Excited to show my toddler a creature he’d never met before, I pointed to it.

“Look, Jakey! A little gecko!”

With the speed and curiosity inherent to boys of his age, my little scientist jumped up, ran to the gecko, and promptly pinned it down by its tail.

The gecko kept moving; the tail did not.

After our first week living in Hawaii, in a house without furniture or air conditioning (with a toddler and a newborn), my coping skills were at their limit.

Without thinking, I squealed. “Oh NO!”

My little boy came running back to me, wide-eyed, almost shaking with fear. “Mama!”

As he threw himself into my embrace—something that happens so rarely these days—I took a deep breath and prepared myself to do damage control. “It’s okay, sweetie. Geckos’ tails grow back. She will be okay. I was just surprised!”

“Oh no,” he repeated, hanging his head. “Oh no.”

How quickly things change from the time our little ones cannot comprehend the words we speak over their heads to the days when they absorb everything we do – our words, our tone of voice, our knee-jerk reactions. The responsibility we carry as parents suddenly shifts from not only providing them their physical needs but ushering in a safe emotional space to inhabit as well.

I held him close and whispered reassurances, but I could feel the weight of what happened settle onto his small shoulders.

Our summer was one of immense upheaval—we introduced him to his baby brother in May and seven weeks later packed our things and said goodbye to the town and the friends who had been the only home he’d ever known. On my mind throughout most of this was how he would handle so much change with so little consistency to cling to.

At a time when we should be phasing out bottles and maybe even diapers, here came a little brother who claimed my attention 24/7 with feeding and changing. And thus my toddler learned the words “Me, too!”

At a time when he needed more supervision and coaching to better understand boundaries and structure and measures of safety, I was distracted and sleep-deprived and ever-ready with the iPad.

At a time when he most needed his Mama and Dada to be loving and encouraging and kind, we were stressed and impatient and short-tempered.

All the while I kept telling myself, Just get through the summer. Soon, my husband would start his new job with more consistent hours. We’d find a church and community to remind us to keep our eyes lifted up and hands extended out toward one another. We’d find a routine and finally figure out how to parent two under two. We’d celebrate all we’d accomplished and the blessed fact that kids are resilient and thrive on even the simplest offerings of love.

Then came the news of my husband’s deployment.

Read more on the Good Mother Project

 

You Can Do This

pill box feetFriends, here’s the truth: Life has been HARD recently. Hard hard hard hard.

Hard.

Not necessarily tragic or traumatic or full of drama – just HARD.

You ever have one of those seasons? When it just feels like you can’t catch your breath or catch a break?

We are in the middle of one of those. It’s like monsoon season over here, with a newborn and a toddler and a house full of boxes and a husband who may or may not be deployed this year. It’s been hard.

And being the highly sensitive emotional introvert that I am? Well, let’s just say I’ve lost my cool more than once.

So yesterday, in the interest of self care, as soon as my oldest was down for a nap I handed the baby to my husband and declared, “I’m going up the Pill Box Trail!” I laced up my new purple sneakers and headed out.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into, stubbornly climbing my way up the steep, overgrown embankment making up the initial ascent. All I knew is that I wanted to see the Pill Boxes, I wanted to sit on the edge of the graffiti-covered concrete and stare out into the blue. Whatever came before that would be worth the climb.

So I whispered to myself “It’s okay, you can do this.”

And I remembered in a flash the moments right before my youngest was born–before the move, before the malaise, before whispers of deployment–when the pain was too much and I didn’t think I could go on. I remembered my own hoarse whisper, coaching myself through labor, reminding myself that I could do hard things.

So I kept walking. And climbing. And scrambling. And even scooting on my bum when the trail got too steep. I was slow and perhaps even timid. But I was also tenacious. I kept going.

And I did it. And it made me proud: proud of the body God gave me. Proud of the strength I’ve been slowly building at the gym. Proud of the wisdom it took to take a break from the monotony of motherhood. Proud of the courage it took to stretch into the blue sky and the hot sun and the sandy rocks.

After three hours in the wilderness my feet were worn, clothes sweat-soaked, and fingernails caked in dirt. And when I returned and my oldest approached slowly, quietly asking: “Mama?” as though he wasn’t quite sure I was the same woman who left, I smiled to myself.

It’s about time he meets this version of me, I thought. It’s about time he sees me doing hard things. It’s about time he sees the brave woman I need to be to raise his brother and him well.

It’s about time I see her, too.pill box

Originally shared on the Good Mother Project Facebook page

Naked and Ashamed

water-767211_960_720As I anticipate birthing my second son in just a few short months, I recall a vivid experience I had just a couple of weeks before going into labor with my first. It was otherworldly and practically unbelievable. Terrifying and hopeful. But that’s the God I believe in: wild and full of grace.

My breath comes short. My shoulders heave. My body is a sob. The shower is hot, as hot as I can stand. Steam envelopes my nakedness. I am naked and ashamed.

I look at my belly, rounded, obscuring the view of my toes. I rub my hands along the curves of my new body, along my stretched stomach, my heavy breasts, my rounded hips, my aching back.

This body, so foreign to me in its peaks and valleys, so voluptuous, so striking – I can’t hide. When I leave the safety of this shower, this room, this house, all eyes are on me. Everyone watches. They want to look at me, really look at me. They want to touch me.

My breath is shorter, faster.

In a few short weeks, strangers’ hands will reach inside this body, inside the searing pain and extract an alien being—the alien being I’m told is my son—from between my bare legs. It is unfathomable. This love that I feel for this unknown child is unfathomable. This fear, that I will tear in two and never be the same, is unfathomable.

The white tiles on the wall to my left seem closer than they were before. I reach out my left hand and place it against the cool ceramic. I can’t stop thinking about childbirth, the unknown, the pain, the rending of skin, the veil torn between myself and the rest of humanity. Between living for myself and living for another. There is no going back. Fear hangs heavy about me, dripping down the sides of the shower, clinging to the droplets of water on my bare skin, seeping in from the outside.

I’ve read books on childbirth, on how to breathe through the pain, on how to train your mind to relax your body. The hours I’ve spent meditating and breathing and listening to self-hypnosis cues have set me up with peaceful, productive images to call upon from memory at a moment’s notice: a crystalline mountain lake, a rose blooming between my thighs.

But I know better.

It doesn’t matter how well I prepare my mind. My body has tales to tell, secrets. My mind and body were disconnected many years ago, severed by the unwelcome touch, the unwelcome violence enacted upon this skin, upon these breasts, these hips; on me, in me.

I squeeze my eyes shut, salty tears washed clean by the shower spray. My body is a minefield. What will set it off? The hands of a well-meaning midwife? The pain of what should be an empowering natural birth? Or worse: the paralysis of pain medication intended to relax, to soothe?

The water is still running hot as I wrap my arms around my chest, grabbing each shoulder blade and squeezing as tightly as I can. I was made to do this, I think. My body, this woman’s body. Designed for new life. I am caught between this courageous thought and the fear of total destruction.

He could destroy me, this child. Through the trauma of birth. This boy could be the traumas of all traumas, enough to finally wipe my beautiful, tender soul off the face of the earth. A final disconnection from all that is holy and true. I cannot seem to pull myself out from under this despair.

But then a thought: I am a new creation.

My breath catches, eyes open wide. Instant warmth radiates from the core of my belly, from the secret quiet place where my son dwells in darkness. Goosebumps prickle my skin.

I am not alone.

“Do not fear, for I am with you,” I whisper into the spray, into the heavens.

He will see me through this birth.

What if it is true? What if the very presence of God is here now, waiting for me to fall into his arms, naked and unashamed?

Something in me shatters. A guttural cry like the mourning of Eve. And then—like a miracle, like grace—I barely, just barely—feel arms. Strong arms. Wrapped around me.

I look at my belly, rounded, obscuring the view of my toes. I rub my hands along the curves of my belly, for perhaps the first time feeling like I have permission to touch myself in such a way, to touch myself with love. The love that is not just for me. It is for the tiny baby floating in my womb, curled up tight and sucking his fingers, I imagine, like my husband and I saw on the sonogram.

I Want to Forgive

The sonographer sat my chair upright and told me we were finished. The doctor would be right in to discuss the pictures she had just taken during the twenty-week anatomy scan of our second child, another baby boy. As she turned to leave, she paused. “Wait.”

She studied the scans she held in her hands and seemed to change her mind. She looked at me blankly. “Actually, I need you to remove your clothes. I couldn’t get a good read of your cervix. I need to get a better look.”

Remove my clothes. Look at my cervix. She had to do an internal exam.

My throat went dry, my eyes wide. I looked to my husband, panicked, wanting him to help me, to pull me out of the spiral of anxiety into which I had suddenly plummeted. The room was silent. “You have to do an internal exam?” I asked. I needed her to confirm that’s what she meant.

Her response was annoyed, harried. “Yes, of course. You’re okay with that, right?”

No. No, I was not okay with that. She wanted to shove a probe inside me and she was acting like it was no big deal. Have some respect, woman.

I told her no, I’d rather she didn’t and then asked if I had a choice.  No, she said, not really.

Well, then.

She didn’t understand. In the dim light she didn’t see the blood rush out of my cheeks. She didn’t see the hairs rising on my neck or the goosebumps on my arms. She didn’t hear the quickened thrum of my heart in my chest.

She didn’t understand.

How could she? How could she know that the mere suggestion of an internal exam felt like a violation? How could she know that my body went on high alert as though it were about to be used without consent?

She couldn’t. She couldn’t know that my mind went to a different place, a dark place, where I believe the lie that I don’t have a say over the protection of my own body. How can you, if you’ve never been there?

I left that day full of grief and anger and frustration—a day that was supposed to be one of celebration and joy. Why had she been so cold? Could she not sense even a hint of my anxiety? Where was her compassion?

She was just doing her job. Maybe she was having an off day. You can’t blame her for being oblivious.

These are the thoughts I used to comfort myself as I tried to calm down and focus on the good news: the baby growing inside my belly was healthy and strong.

But the joy that would quietly bubble up was stifled by the heavy darkness that hung around me. Maybe a better woman would be able to let something like this slide, but I’m about as pensive as they come. I kept thinking: Another boy. Boys, who take advantage and ruin your self-image and put you in a place just like this, so you’re left dissociating from a normal medical examination because the memories are a nightmare.

The anger within me had been sparked by the sonographer but this all-consuming fire had nothing to do with her. I was angry at the men who had assaulted me. I was angry with men—all men.

Why would God make me the mother of two boys?

An illogical train of thought, perhaps, but a powerful one.

My husband held me as I cried.

Later that afternoon, I went to my son when he woke from his nap. Sleepy and snuggly, he rubbed his eyes and smiled. “Mama!” I held him close and smelled his sweet baby skin. My son. My boy. My sweet firstborn who loves his mama unconditionally, who is innocent and untouched by the world.

How can I hold such bitterness in my heart when these warm brown eyes are so full of love and expectation? How can I hang on to such hatred when his daddy has proved time and time again to be true and tender and kind?

I leaned into their love for the rest of the day.

The intensity of emotion I succumbed to that afternoon could not be trusted. I’m learning that slowly, again and again. I know that I must learn to identify triggers for what they are—triggers, not actual threats to my safety. I want learn how to dive into my emotions and then let them pass over me like a wave.

And I want to forgive.

I want to forgive the hands that betrayed my trust.

I want to forgive those who use careless words that trigger me.

I want to forgive myself for carrying these hurts for so long.

I want to forgive for the sake of my sons.

And I will try. Day after day I will practice gratitude for where I am and what I have and lean into the love around me. I will continue ask God to give me the strength to leave the past behind. Because walking in freedom is the only way I want to live.

Originally appeared on the Good Mother Project