Monday, July 9, 2018

At first I didn't love you: a letter to my daughter

Photo by Mon Petit Chou Photography

i. the long slog to proper feelings

For the first 20 weeks you existed, I felt nothing of you, nothing towards you. I walked around in a haze of queasiness and exhaustion, I saw my belly growing, ignored the people asking me the same questions over and over again: “How are you feeling?” “Can you eat that?” “Are you allowed to do that?”

People told me you should talk to your baby when you’re pregnant. Talk, sing, send loving vibes. It was on a long list of things you should do, right up there with eating fish for the omega-3 fatty acids (but careful to avoid the 85% of fish that have too much mercury), finding a pediatrician, taking a birthing class, and forming an opinion about all things controversial: breastfeeding, doulas, screen time, and eating placentas.

For several months, all of these suggestions felt like a never-ending stream of demands. And the worst demand of all was the demand to be excited—to be in love.

I felt inadequate. I didn’t love you yet. I thought I must be too self-absorbed, or anxious, or unemotional, or cynical, or depressed. I thought I was not a real mother. Your father loved you then, already. He would wake laughing in the morning and say, “Are you excited for our future child?” And I would whisper silently inside myself how can I be when I’m not sure this is really happening? and all I feel is queasy, my body changing awkwardly, and the fear I will never be good enough to raise a loving, compassionate human. Then I’d sit up to prepare for another day of choking down foods and lying face down in the chaplain on call room, praying no one would call.

I’m telling you all this not to minimize my love for you—but because you should know the kind of mother you have. A mother who takes a little while to feel things, who never seems to have the right feeling at the right time. A mother who will be straight with you, who will not pretend to know everything. A mother who will try to hear your uncertainties, to hold them with grace.

ii. the moment you touched me
It was a March weekend I really started know you. I was weary of the hard work of holding other people’s pain as a chaplain; I was weary of being a me wrestling with depression; I was weary of keeping together a life and a faith and a pregnancy that never seemed to match to the expected norm.

That week, I had dragged my weary self to a conference, “Why Christian?,” which draws people who are very aware of all the reasons not to be a Christian. Doubts. Judgment. Racial injustice. Science. History of violence. Patriarchy. Capitalism. 81% of white evangelicals voting for Trump.

There we all were, a room full of cynical Christians who yet hold to their faith because of Jesus, because of grace. A slate full of speakers being real about their doubts and frustrations. A church of honesty. If anything could cut through my own cynicism, my own spiritual exhaustion, surely this room would be it. Surely God’s spirit could cut through. And yet I was still disconnected, impenetrable.

Then I felt your kicks for the first time, and like a surprise of grace was awakened to love, your touches like a massage on my belly, on my tired soul. You nudged me, urged me to remember that there just might still be miracles.

A friend once told me that motherhood for her was the reawakening her spirit needed, her overwhelming love for her son giving her the space to reimagine a love that perhaps approaches the love of God. I thought of how hard it has been for the last few years to pray earnestly, to profess faith unironically, to love purely. I thought of how sorely I am in need of a reconnection to love, to grace. And as I walked to communion in church that Sunday—to receive into my body some ordinary bread that brings salvation—a whisper slipped from my lips before I realized what I was saying. “Baby,” I whispered, “what about you? Can you save me?”

A tear or two pooled in my eyes and the bread caught in my throat as I swallowed it down. Is this what I have come to? It is an entirely unreasonable question to ask you, entirely unfair demand to place on your tiny being. Far too many parents count on their children for some kind of vicarious achievement, some kind of vicarious joy, some kind of salvation. It is never good for the children.

And yet—I have been saved by others before, others I was supposed to be “helping.” In 2007 I went to Tanzania out of a desire to save the world. And Tanzania saved me—awakened my faith, broke me out of depression and cynicism, reminded me what joy feels like. I think this is more akin to what I mean. I mean that maybe through you God can shake me up again, show me that I am not here alone, that I am bound to you and you to me, that we need each other. I mean I have hope for sanctification through sleepless nights, seeing the wonder of the world through your eyes.

I hope for that, but it’s still far, far too much to ask of you. So I ask instead with you, for God’s grace to come to us both as we navigate this world together, you and me.

iii. finishing pregnancy well
These days your movements are less like a massage on my belly, more like an escape maneuver. These days I don’t ask you if you’ll save me, or if we’ll be saved together. I ask you if you want to come in one week, or two or four, and wait for your wiggles in response. I ask you if you want to live in North Carolina or Maryland or Virginia, and hold my breath because there is so much that is up in the air for all of us right now.

If I were up on all the suggestions and demands, there would be meals prepped in the freezer by now, and I would have read the books about sleep. I wouldn’t have skipped the swim today, and you would have a name.

If I were more well-adjusted, less needy, I’d be using my conversations with you to sweetly discuss my eternal love for you, instead of what you think of my career options. I might be thinking less about my own Big Decisions and Major Transitions and more about the spiritual work that is becoming a mother.

But I’ve learned over the past eight-plus months that there is no perfection in pregnancy or parenthood. There are too many expectations, too many questions. In every other area of my life, where I strive so hard to be the perfect friend, student, employee, disciple, wife, I’ve been able to fool myself into thinking there was a right way; I've been convinced that if I pressed in hard enough, I might get close to that right way.

With pregnancy and parenthood, the expectations were so many and the task was so great, that there was never any chance I’d do it right.

So for today, finishing pregnancy well means telling the truth, confessing the weakness, and waiting for the grace that seems more essential and beautiful every day you’re with me. 

The grace that will be my only hope as I usher you into this terrifying, heartbreaking, God-loved world.

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