small hands to hold

I am in my sister-in-law's bathroom, crying over photos that aren't mine. The woman is leaning against him, looking down, cradling wine in delicate fingers. And he is holding her below the breast, eyes bright, as if he has the sun beneath his palm. She warms him to the bone. 

And I do not know whether I'm crying with happiness for them, filled to the brim with light spilled over, or with sadness for the ease in which they walk through life. No small hands to hold, no milk to be spilled, no messes to mop. The only bodies they must mind are their own, slowly in the morning, fingers finding forgotten places, and with fire at night, restless, wanting, aching, holding tightly. 

And then, I cry with sadness for them, for the lack of small hands to hold, the emptiness of her breasts, the waking in her womb, wondering, aching, wanting, bleeding, fit for holding but cannot hold tightly enough. Not now. Not yet. 

What a marvelously feeling time this is, postpartum. The entire world is moving beneath my skin. 

we could hear them singing

Last night we opened the back door of the toy shop and the entire world had been soaked in pastel pink and gold. After what seemed like a year of solid fog and snow and rain, the sun woke from its slumber and kissed the underbelly of each cloud with color. We could hear the angels singing.

And this morning, the sun woke again and thought it ought to stay for a while. It's warm out. I can feel how much my skin needed this - every inch of me is sighing in relief. We have walked a mile already at least, up and down Washington Street, Aspen tucked against my hip, or in the stroller, or waddling along beside me, and Finn pressed soundly against my chest. I imagine what my heart might sound like to him, something loud and familiar, and I smile.

Aspen fell asleep in the stroller and napped under the pine trees in the park. Finn was napping, too - a miracle of a day - so I parked for a while and listened to the sounds of the river moving, of cars starting and stopping on the street above, of my own heart rattling in my ribs. The sun cradled my cheeks like two hands. I exhaled. Something about that part of town - the park, planted in the middle of main street - reminds me of sun-licked days in San Francisco, walking everywhere but to class, knocking elbows with strangers, inhaling cigarettes, sour piss pavement, magnolias, lingering heavy bacon and eggs and maple syrup. 

There was a steady undercurrent of magic humming today. The angels singing, I think. I've forgotten to listen for them, until now. 

3 weeks

He made it home last night after two days away, only to be called back again to mind the floodwaters in the north. Both babies finally slept, breathing slowly beside one another. I climbed over two tiny bodies and found his, warm and safe and breathing slowly, too. I woke him gently and he held me there for a while. Touching skin to skin has been so rare since Finn arrived. I drink in the smell of him, the warmth of him under my hands, whenever I can. 

After a while, he slipped back into a khaki colored shirt and pants and fastened a belt around his waist. He stuffed clothes and toothpaste and cords and knives back into a pack and balanced it on one shoulder.

"I'll see you soon," he told me. "You'll be alright. I'm proud of you."

"You'll be alright. I'm proud of you," I repeated, nodding.

He left while the moon was still high in the sky.

For the last two mornings, I have woken before them both. Finn is tucked against my left breast, nipple hanging from his mouth. He grunts and squirms and opens one eye, and I pat him on the bum to settle him. Aspen is on my right, head against my armpit. It's tight here, in one room. We are always in a pile, arms tangled with legs tangled with diapers and pajamas and sheets and socks and milk, milk, milk. I am somehow enchanted by the smallness of our space, though. There's something magic about the closeness of it all. I have been learning patience, and gentleness, and the art of speaking softly.

I've found, too, that being alone with them both makes me a better mother. When there is no longer an option, when mothering is the only thing I must do, I do it much more gently, with more grace, with more flexibility. With each breath, I surrender to the greatness of what I'm doing. I am a home. A harbor. A light. Subtle. Enormous. Surrounding.

I think that this is what I'm meant for, after all. 

home

In the morning, I tuck a robe around my shoulders and shuffle my milk-sticky body through a frozen living room, a frozen hall, and into the kitchen. The world outside the window is pale, damp, defrosting. I pour some peanut butter puffs - the ones I called lazy and then tossed at the grocery cart anyway - into a bowl and top them with milk. I pick a spoon, start water for coffee, flick the light switch with my elbow. 

Back through the hall, back through the living room. I can see my breath.

I hand the bowl to Aspen and she spills it immediately, half on the carpet, and half on the brick beside the fireplace. I sigh audibly. "Sorry, mama," she says. She is harvesting peanut butter puffs from the carpet with her fingers, one by one.

We spray the carpet and blot with a towel and explain that this is Nama's house, that we are guests here, that we are so very grateful and that we must be extra careful not to make a mess.

This morning, she turns her head to the side and says, "Not our house?"

"No, my love. We are just here for a while, until we can have a home of our own."

She finds the idea of this remarkable. "My house? For me?"

I nod, folding the milky towel in half, and in half again, trying to soak up the dark spot from the carpet. "One day, we will have our own house. And maybe you and your brother will have your own room. You can paint the walls whatever color you'd like. And you can make lots and lots of messes." 

She thinks for a while, and then runs into the garage, where KC is changing the baby into a tiny sweater and pants on our bed. 

"Daddy!" I hear her call over the sound of Finn's tin can cry, "We'll have a house! My own house! And we can make lottsa messes, daddy!"

I breathe in. Breathe out. I walk back through the hall, into the kitchen. I pour more cereal. Add more milk. Breathe in. February burns the halls of my nose and wakes the parts of me that are still sleeping. I have never been more content, more happy, less needing, more awake. These days are fast and full and altogether lovely.

We have been homeless for 6 months.

I am grateful. I am trying to be more grateful. And still, I have never ached more strongly for our own space. Not even for myself, but for her. For him.

One day, one day, one day. I am not worried. I can see it rising behind the lids of my eyes, just there, just out of reach. For now, I will make a home for them in the palm of my hands, in the crook of my arm, in the songs I sing as they fall asleep, in the sound of the rain, in the stillness of my breath. 

the mothers

There was an afternoon at Union Hill, as I waited to meet my friend, Emily, that I found myself surrounded by mothers. And it wasn’t obvious in any way, because only one of the many mothers had the child tucked against her breast. She cooed to him softly and moved pale hair behind his ear. He was still so new, and she so new, too. She had never been so needed, her body so kneaded, her eyes so heavy, her heart so full. 

I sat against the white brick and watched her, sliding my hand from one side of my belly, to the other. Within the warm walls of my womb, my son hiccuped and rolled. My second child. My skin had been well worn, shaped like clay between my daughter’s palms. I was a mother of two; one without, one within, waiting.  

To my left, the second mother sat alone and cracked the spine of a book. We said hello, and then I let her be. In another life, we had known each other better. But time splits ties in odd ways. Slowly, surely. 

Three years ago, she called me from the airport while she waited for a plane to fill with fuel and take her to Norway. “It happened this morning,” she told me. “I didn’t even know I was pregnant, and then there she was, soaked in red. She was so small. Barely the size of my thumb.”

She felt her womb empty in waves. And though her body was unchanged, she was a mother then, in that moment, when she buried the tiny girl in the daffodil planter beside the terminal. She thanked her daughter for coming, uninvited. She thanked her for leaving, unbidden.

There was a softness that leaked into the corners of her eyes during the quick weeks that she carried the child. In the cafe, she caught me trying to spot it. I nodded, and looked away.

While I waited, the third mother came in with the breeze. 

Lauren ordered a Gibraltar at the bar and carefully carried it back to a table. She sipped a milk-foam oak leaf from the rim of the mug and smiled. When we were seniors in high school, she casually mentioned her pregnancy one afternoon over mint chip ice cream.  

“I met him hiking in Yosemite,” she told us. “I knew I was pregnant right away. I just felt an enormous shift. Something like the Earth moving. Not physically, but energetically. Right here.” Lauren pressed a palm to her womb. 

“I called him the next morning,” she continued, “and he told me that he didn’t care what I did about it. It wasn’t even an option. I can’t be a mother yet. Not yet.”

I watched her write something in a notebook and then take her empty mug to the counter. 

But you are a mother, now.

After a while, Emily joined me by the brick wall and asked how I had been feeling. 

“Round,” I laughed, “and ready to meet him.”

She clicked her tongue and smiled. “I’m sure. Can I get you anything?”

While Emily ordered a coffee at the counter, a young man passed by the door to the cafe and stopped at the bench just outside. I didn’t know him, but I could feel his tired heart through the brick and the plaster. 

He sat rocking his child fiercely in the autumn air, a babe so small that her head still had to be tenderly cradled between his rough-skinned thumb and index finger. He shushed her gently, right beside her ear. The baby waved still new arms and suckled clenched fists blindly.

“She’s hungry,” I told Emily. “Do you think he knows?”

Emily sat across from me, shuffling papers and shaking the ink from the tip of a pen. 

“If he doesn’t, he’ll learn. Fathers acquire that sense more slowly than mothers, but it comes just the same.”

She pushed dark hair from her eyes and chewed her bottom lip. Everything about her physical presence was warm and full and maternal. She was like a harbor where ships might go when fleeing a storm. The fourth mother. Wide hips, tender skin, lips fit for singing, for soothing scrapes, for smiling softly. A birth worker, she had watched half a hundred women tear through the veil: from Maiden, into Mother. 

And yet, her own womb was still. Though they charted and counted and held one another close, still she bled. Her children waited quietly within her, a thousand silver beads, quaking with hope and promise. Whispering, one day, one day, one day.

We sat quietly for a while, listening to the grinding of beans, the shoosh of steaming milk, the tap of empty cups against wooden tabletops. I thought to mention the strangeness of the room to Emily. The way we had all collected like that, mothers of many, in many different ways. Five of us, holding one another sweetly, without touching. 

But I sat still and listened instead. 

The mothers, we mothers, inhaled and exhaled and heated the room in a subtle, ancient way. Like the Earth moving. Like fire catching from one branch, to the next, to the next. Somehow forming a harbor, a holy space. Whispering together: we have you, we’re here, you’re safe, you’re loved.

1 week

I opened the door to the bathroom and released the lavender steam that had built during my shower. KC handed me the baby and I fixed him to my breast, taking care to press lightly on the tender spots of skin, still swollen with new milk. I eased my arms, one at a time, into a navy robe, the one I had bought for labor but had quickly shed during transition because it made me feel sick and uneasy. But for postpartum, it had been perfect.

"You look like a mother, now, holding the baby like that." KC said, smiling up at me from the bed. "Not that you didn't before, but it's grown on you. You've grown into it."

I nodded, agreeing. I felt it in my bones. 

"I think that somehow, feeling his birth entirely helped me to shed that final part of grief I felt when I lost my old life. The one I had before I became a mother. It's almost as if I didn't fully believe it until now. But here it is. Here I am."

In an hour, I'll have been a mother of two for exactly one week. This postpartum period has been much better than the first, for a thousand and one reasons. We're home, firstly. Though not quite in a home of our own, we have family nearby, within reach, and friends, too. Folks to keep us fed and warm and comforted. We have received loaves of sourdough bread and soft baked oat bars to keep my milk rich, and soup and puddings and casseroles, too. Food truly is the most wonderful gift to receive during the first forty days. I have been enjoying it slowly, gratefully.

Physically, I feel less pain than I did in the weeks following Aspen's birth. I didn't tear this time, and I think that has helped the healing immeasurably. My bleeding has slowed, my milk has balanced, my head only aches every now and then with that warm kind of foggy fatigue that comes coupled with a new babe.

We are moving slowly, here in our nest. Even with two of us, it takes hours to do the things that a week ago, only took minutes. Aspen has been adjusting as well as you might expect a two year old to adjust to such enormous, fragile things. She is needing, too, and we are being patient with her. Laundry waits wet in the machine until we find a breath to switch it over. Dishes stay caked and soaking until the evening, or the next morning, or the next night. We eat when we can. We touch when we can, gently, with intent. Apologizing for short tempers often. Traversing each tender day with grace, and care, and forgiveness.

I am feeling well. I am feeling loved. And I have so many to thank for that.

the fisherman's wife

Tonight, I had a vision of myself in a past life.

I was a fisherman's wife, and I was a mother then, too. A slow moving, gentle one, with hair fish-tail braided down my back and two babes that clung fast to my knees like barnacles. Our home smelled like mud and like the stark salty greenness of seaweed, and our windows were always half fogged from the constant rolling pot on the stove - fish bone soup, boiled potatoes, cabbage leaves cooked in oil. 

In the vision, I saw myself standing tall, a lighthouse, breeze at my back, watching my children collect stones by the tide. I was a mother only, and that was enough.

That can be enough in this life, too.

As I round the bend from a mother of one, to a mother of many, the question has been humming like cool air between my bones: What kind of mother do I want to be?

And I think that the answer is becoming stronger daily, as he lowers himself within me, as he rolls and hiccups and prepares his body to be born. Like half-fogged windows wiped clean, I can see the reflection of myself: healed. Whole.

I want to be a harbor for my children. Low-waving lamplight, glowing softly, gently, guiding so quietly that I am more a feeling than I am a sound. I want the thought of me to summon the smell of cinnamon, of ginger, of spices warming in milk on the stovetop. I want to touch softly, speak gently, praise often, spill kindness. 

"I am your mother," I tell them. I close my eyes. I wipe the fog from the window and touch myself between the shoulder blades. "I will mother you, too."