My son was born on my birthday.
February 22: George Washington’s birthday. Drew Barrymore’s birthday. And mine.
My phone pinged with Facebook notifications as I stood over the hospital trash bin and retched. Three times I emptied my stomach of the apples and peanut butter my husband had lovingly sliced a few hours before. Once into the trash can. Again. And then again into the birthing tub laced with lavender essential oils.
Fiercely feminist, I’d always been ambivalent about having children. I’d watched my peers spawn with nary a twinge of jealousy, content with my books and my yoga. I told myself, “If it happens: great. If it doesn’t: great.”
On our first date, I teased my future husband, Robb, that I’d likely go the way of Sylvia Plath, making the kids sandwiches and sticking my head in the oven.
Six months later, drinking champagne on a pier overlooking Tomales Bay, we were engaged.
A year later, I was pregnant. Robb promised parenthood would make me a better yoga teacher. I rolled my eyes and took a swig of my chai, wishing it were vodka. He was right. Motherhood has made me a much better yoga teacher.
But I was unprepared for the shattering.
Labor was awful. Quick, brutal. The contractions rolled relentlessly, one after another, my body dehydrated from the vomiting.
I thought of my farmer grandmothers on the Nebraska prairie, popping out babies and heading back out to weed the rhubarb. I thought of my mother laboring in a Minneapolis blizzard, 35 years ago to the day. I thought of the magnolia tree blooming in our front yard, certain my pelvis would fracture.
I watched his head crown in the mirror while Nona, with her fanny pack and paint-flecked hoodie, who’d rushed over from renovating her office on a Saturday, guided. Nona, all earth and grit and no-nonsense warmth. She plopped him on my bare chest and he nursed right away. Duke, named for Ellington, the jazz great, and for clear, unpretentious strength. He had startling blue-grey eyes just like his daddy’s, old soul eyes, the same pert nose, the same big lumberjack hands.
During my pregnancy, I’d hiked every day, always the same 50-minute trail, pausing at the top to whisper-pray to my belly: “May you be strong and vital, vibrant and beloved; May you always remember that you are a precious Child of God, that you are a bodhisattva, an awakened one.” And he was. He was everything holy. Seven pounds two ounces of divine love incarnate. A revelation in embodiment, in heart-cracking, mind-blowing love.
But I felt violently erased. Self-immolated. Gone.
Motherhood was magical, yes. Unspeakably so. But why hadn’t anyone warned me about the grief?
The first few months descended into a weary haze. My world had turned upside-down. Duke was sleepless, always-hungry, colicky, wanting only to be in my arms. I sat in a rocker and nursed for 20 hours a day, my shoulders and neck aching, head spinning, nipples cracked. I bounced on a yoga ball for three hours every night, cradling Duke to my chest, chanting OM Namah Shivaya until my voice was hoarse, trying failingly to get him to sleep.
I couldn’t lay him down. I couldn’t take a walk. I couldn’t escape to the living room for 10 minutes to get back into the asana practice I’d missed so much during my pregnancy.
I mourned every aspect of life that had disappeared overnight: urbanity and autonomy, cocktails and solitude. Sleep. Teaching. Quiet mornings reading the news over coffee. My sanity-sustaining asana practice, the long creative hours alone, my previous monastic-ascetic writer’s life. The freedom to shower, to brush my teeth, to leave the house.
Desolate with postpartum depression, I drained my breasts, slathered on nipple butter, nursed-finger-fed-pumped in an insomniac cycle and dreamt of getting on a plane to Paris and never coming back. In Paris, I could drink martinis. In Paris, I could read a book, alone, in a cafe, not wearing a nursing bra. In Paris, I could be Simone de Beauvoir, smoking a cigarette, spouting existentialism.
No wonder every mother is bitter and resentful, I thought. My life is over. Everything I loved is gone. Every moment, every breath, lost to this barely-sleeping, always-hungry little boy.
After 10 weeks, desperate to feel like myself again, I went back to teaching one class a week. That 90 minutes of teaching yoga was the only time I ever felt like I knew what I was doing. It was a respite, a sanctuary, a salve.
As I walked around the hot room calling out instructions, worrying privately whether milk was leaking through my shirt, I felt at once so at home and completely alien in my new-mother’s body.
Driving home from class, I gripped the steering wheel tenuously, trying to will myself from veering off the Richmond Bridge. Nothing made sense anymore.
Most religions have a name for sacred desolation. In Christianity, there’s kenosis, meaning the Christ-like ethic of self-emptying. In Buddhism, there’s sunyata, the void, pregnant with possibility. In Hinduism, there’s the transformative fire of Shiva, the Destroyer, who dissolves all that is into chaos and death to make space for new life. (Shiva, who’d obliterated my hip-urbanite identity and turned me into the very milk-leaking, child-orbiting mama I’d long feared becoming. Shiva, who’d shattered my ego, that part of me that thought I was my body, my practice, my career — all absent in the wake of childbirth.)
Even in yogic philosophy, there’s the ubiquitous symbol of the lotus, blooming and radiant in spite of being rooted in the murk.
But speaking that desolation was terrifying. I was a yoga teacher. I was supposed to weather the storms of parenthood with grace: be positive and perky, measured and resilient, lose the baby weight in a flash, thrive on green juice and quinoa whilst wearing my baby like a kangaroo.
I pumped in the parking lot between classes. Nursing had taken over my life. Mantra-like, in time with the whirr-suck of the pump, I repeated to myself: Joan Didion did this. Ruth Bader Ginsburg did this. Hillary Clinton did this. They managed to salvage their intellects, their ambitions. Surely I can, too.
At the heart of yoga is the unassailable reality of impermanence. Whether life feels glorious or unbearable, it all passes. Little deaths flame into shimmering births in an ongoing vinyasa, a perpetual dance of the breath. Whatever life looks like now, it won’t always be this way — and that is a great blessing, and a deep sorrow, all at once.
It won’t always be this way: In the depths of that dark first year, those six words saved me. Even now, two years in, I sigh exasperated hallelujahs at times that It won’t always be this way. And every time Duke passes out milk-drunk on my lap and his perfect lips purse, I weep silently that It won’t always be this way.
Daily my son reminds me that yoga’s got less to do with the body and everything to do with the breath; that it’s a psychological practice cloaked in Lycra and pretty poses. I learn to stay present in the moment and ride the waves of joy and agony, letting go of old selves in the perpetual process of constant recreation.
February 22nd will never be my birthday, just mine, ever again. Just like nothing in this world will ever be only about me, ever again. Forever now there will be a piece of my heart walking around in the form of a bright little boy. Forever now the choices I make will be directly tied to someone else. He is my greatest teacher. My short guru. The one who brings me from darkness into light.
In these difficult first years, new lotuses have bloomed.
The pleasant surprises of my marriage and subsequent pregnancy have resuscitated my relationship with my mother. We text swingset photos, giggle through FaceTime sessions, lament over teething fevers and stuffy noses. The ego-shattering that was my having a child has wrought a rich new connection that we’d never had. I am softened, awash with compassion, to a degree I never imagined possible.
And I’ve found new ways of being. I wrote the notes for this essay one-handed on my iPhone while Duke nursed. I stretch at the kitchen counter while he eats his oatmeal, mashing his banana over the sounds of NPR. I practice for an hour every day while he naps, and my body now is stronger than it was pre-pregnancy. We make lentil vegetable soup together in an 8-quart crockpot while he precariously, proudly, pours in the turmeric and the cumin.
I bet Ruth Bader Ginsburg had a crockpot.
Buddhist philosophy embraces the concept of anatta, or no-self; that idea that there are no essential identities or realities, that all creatures are made real only through interrelationality, wound inextricably together in the web of being. Our selves are ever in flux, ever being co-created.
We are only ever made real in relation.
That first year, Duke only slept well when he was connected. Curled up on my lap, sprawled on Robb’s chest, tucked in under my elbow. He’d reach his big Paul Bunyan paw out and land it square on my sternum, grabbing a chunk of my shirt in his little fist, burrowing his head into my armpit. It was like he sensed, he knew, somehow, that he needed to stay extra close to me, to remind me, to breathe into me, that truth of relationality.
Slowly, surely, over the course of his second year, Duke has learned to sprawl. I’ve gotten good at easing his heavy, slumbering body into bed and inching silently away to unroll my yoga mat in front of the baby monitor downstairs while he naps. He’s learned to rest in his own space, to trust it, to know I’ll always be there when he wakes up.
We are never simply our own. We belong to one another. Babies remind us of this, most especially in the moments wherein we think we are wholly autonomous. The fallacy is in ever thinking we are separate.
I see that now. I know it, deeply. That this hungry, colicky, mama-attached little baby came into my life to teach me what it truly means to release the versions of ourselves to which we’re attached; to leave behind the illusion of separation.
My old friend Claudia said it best: that once you have a child, your heart grows so huge, it stretches to the edges of your skin.
On February 22nd of last year, Robb and I hosted an unremarkable little party. My mother flew in early from Nebraska to help. We hung some bunting and taped a mylar balloon on the mailbox. Duke blew out a waxy #1 candle. It was sweet, and fleeting.
I turned 36, quietly, in the background. It’s not about me anymore. And that’s okay.
It won’t always be this way. That’s the pain. And that’s the beauty.
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