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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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Measuring Up

The inchworm is what I remember most about the day I learned I was the tallest in my kindergarten class. Green, thick, and smiling, it froze mid-crawl on the paper ruler my teacher had taped to the wall. 

He may have worn a ball cap, he may have been crawling toward an apple, I’m not sure. My memory is hazy on those details, as well as the number my teacher marked on the paper beside him.

What I do remember is my five-year-old head was taller than the worm, and my chest puffed out with pride knowing that I had grown.

I might have even stood a little taller.

And then my teacher said the words that changed everything: “Oh my! You may be the tallest in the class!”

Up until that moment my eyes had been fixed on the grinning worm and the length of his journey. My universe was made up of me, the worm, and the wall. But at the sound of my teacher’s voice I turned to look at the children gathered around us.  The tallest? 

A great chasm opened up between myself and the rest of the class: I, giantess. They, inchworms.

I wish I could tell you I then entertained some sort of Daniel Tiger make-believe, stomping towards my classmates like a mighty queen of giants.

Instead, I slumped my shoulders forward–a move I had yet to realize would become a signature–and shuffled back into the crowd. It’s not fair, I thought. It’s not like I had birthday-candle-wished it true. 

What did it even mean to be tallest? Was it a good thing? Playground games with the boys had taught me it was always best to be first. Biggest. Strongest. I was none of those. 

But I was tallest.

I learned some things about being tall over the years: Height meant people assumed I wanted to talk. That I was older and more sociable. That I would play basketball and volleyball.

But I was shy. And uncoordinated. I didn’t measure up to the perception of who they thought I’d be.

I would learn, of course, that height had its advantages. But those rewards paled in comparison to what I perceived it would feel like to be fade into the background. What it would feel like to be petite and feminine and small. 

Looming large physically meant I had no chance at normalcy, and, I believed, at belonging.

Somehow, even in kindergarten I intuited this, and as any good Enneagram type 4 would do, I leaned into my differences.

“Erin’s been putting on her one-woman shows again at school,” I heard my mother remark in a tone that was hard for me to identify, though she was smiling.

I asked her what she meant.

“You’ve been playing dress-up in the treehouse again! And telling your friends stories? It’s great.”

The treehouse. Hanging from the top of the classroom ceiling, two stories up, was the most magical playhouse, designed to look as if it were perched atop a verdant tree. 

Inside the treehouse was a costume trunk of endless possiblities.

I could be a princess or a witch or a toad or a dragon. I could be a tiny worm. I could be each of them, just by trying on a different hat and telling a different story. 

So this is how I learned to survive: When I didn’t measure up in the ways I wanted, when I fell short of what others expected of me, my imagination provided solace and salvation.

I dove head-first into that costume trunk and designed who I wanted to be.

Now, as I stare at the mirror image of her 37-year-old self–exhausted, hunched, and puffy, yet flirting with the joy of true self-knowledge–I wish I could go back and take that precious girl into my arms and whisper:

You are a giantess. And you are glorious. Take up just as much space as you need.

This post was written as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “Measuring Up.”

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Stay Awake

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“The scenic route is the only route. Life is short. Stay awake for it.”

Yesterday I was surrounded by aunts and uncles and cousins, all tied together by blood and history and promises. Looking in their eyes I could see my grandpa, my grandma, and the kids my dad and his siblings once were.

It was a special kind of magic, to remember the good and the crazy and the befuddling, and in the midst of the memories, also celebrate what’s to come: two weddings, new jobs, beautiful homes.

There are decades of family memories in this place, in the foothills of the mountains. I have traveled so much in my lifetime I often forget how many places I can actually call home. 

Maybe the path back to the start of things is more winding for some than for others. It’s been that way for me. 

But here’s what I know: I want to be awake for it. I want to pay attention. And I want to grab tight to those people who know what it’s like to inhabit this skin—more than I ever realized—and never let go. 

Love you, Denver. Love you, Thompson family. And thank you for reminding me of who and whose I am. ❤️

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