I’ve been uninspired to write lately, partly because I have been swamped with work, single mothering, holidays, and I started my master’s in September…finally. Life is hectic, per the usual. But mostly I think the gears in my head have just been sort of spinning. And spinning. And spinning. Sometimes these gears feel stuck, and even when I know writing can help me get them “unstuck,” I choose to linger a bit longer in the stuckness of it all, trying to understand these complex, shapeshifting things in my head called feelings.
Recently I ordered invitations for my firstborn’s upcoming 10th birthday.
10 years of being a mother. Holy cow.
I think about how I used to want my own children so very much and it felt like it was never going to happen, and then it happened, and now we’re long past the baby stage. That part of me anticipating motherhood and the newness of being a mother is buried in the past. Time feels like sand slipping through my fingers, impossible to contain, as evidenced by this growing boy I have who is almost as tall as me. I’m on a fast train to middle age.
My son’s birthday triggers a flood of feelings, especially because having him was not what I expected.
I was 29 weeks pregnant when I thought I had the swine flu, went to the emergency room, and three hours later delivered this ugly little old man of a baby who was immediately whisked away. I wouldn’t see him for another eight hours. Doctors would never know why I gave birth prematurely. They had no explanation for me. This is not how it was supposed to happen.
As I was still hooked up to an IV, a NICU lactation nurse showed up with a giant machine and broke the news that this monstrous thing was how I was going to express milk. A 29-weeker wasn’t going to be able to drink, so I’d have to freeze everything. I had just felt the baby’s first kicks a few weeks before this nightmare started and hadn’t even gotten to the part where I contemplated breast pumps. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.
When I went to see my baby for the first time, I had to walk down a long corridor, past all of the rooms of moms with their crying babies, past the nursery with “regular” plump, healthy newborns, all the way to the NICU where they beep you in past double doors and give you a robe to put on and make you scrub your hands raw. Once you are wearing a face mask, a nurse opens the doors for you to enter a dark room full of incubators and flashing lights and a chorus of beeping machines remind you about the precariousness of life for these fragile babies.
My kid was in the corner, his isolette covered with a sky blue blanket that had Santa rubber duckies printed on it. The nurse lifted the blanket as I stood nervously aback, and there he was, hooked up to tubes and wires and wearing the tiniest of diapers. All 2 lbs. 15 oz. of him.
I could not hold him, but I could touch his foot with my finger if I asked permission. It would be another week until they let me hold him for the first time. This is not how it was supposed to happen.
I stayed in the hospital for three days, going up and down the long corridor to deliver milk that it would take 12 attempts to express just a few drops, but I was determined. Becoming a human cow felt like the only thing I could do in that moment other than stare at my alien baby through the plastic walls of his incubator.
On my discharge day, I remember my husband wheeling me to our car, past the gift shop with the “welcome baby” balloons, my arms empty, my deflated belly reminding me of the incomplete experience, and me sobbing inconsolably as we left our baby behind in the NICU. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.
For two months, I went back and forth to the hospital 2-3 times a day to deliver breastmilk and hold the baby against my bare chest for skin-to-skin contact. One of the things I remember was noticing the other new moms interacting with their partners. I would catch a glimpse of the guy’s hand on her shoulder. I overheard the banal conversations between the other couples when we’d be sitting in our babies’ cubicles, a curtain separating us. The difference was that I was alone. Always alone. All of the time. My 6-year-old stepson was living with us and the hospital didn’t allow children inside during flu season, so my husband and I had to take shifts. Other people had normal deliveries and took their babies home right away, but I had to sit in a hospital room with my preemie, asking permission to touch him and not having anybody to hold my hand or rub my shoulders, nobody to chit-chat with during the visits, and nobody to console me when I wept with worry and fear and resentment at the universe for handing me these cards. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.
Yet here we are, ten years later. The worries and pain of the NICU experience are no longer present in my life. My son is smart and funny. He’s a happy kid who hugs me everyday and still sneaks into my room in the middle of the night, and I let him because there was once a time when I had to ask permission to be near him. He has far surpassed what I expected out of a son.
The NICU was important in my life. I didn’t know it then, but I know it in my bones today. It taught me important lessons I needed to know for when I would become a widow years later.
I learned how to be a single mother in the hours and days and months when I sat in the hospital alone.
I learned how to sit with uncertainty and fear.
I had to think about my child first, and not just about how I felt.
I learned that sometimes there are no answers as to why something happens. There is no grievance department for everything that goes wrong in the universe.
I learned I could do hard things.
I realized I could persevere without somebody rubbing my shoulder. Nobody needed to hold my hand. It would be nice, but it won’t make or break me.
I learned that we are stronger than we think we are.
It’s the holidays, which means grief is the uninvited guest at the dinner table. It happens when grief is fresh. It happens years later, even when you think you have compartmentalized and organized all of your pain and neatly tucked it away in a drawer to forget about.
But grief inevitably finds its way back to you. It is a part of you forever, whether you wanted to keep it or not.
It often happens in the most expected, unexpected way. You can be going about your business thinking how great it is to decorate the house and gather with family and friends for holiday cheer, and then all of a sudden you hear about a family going to pick out a Christmas tree and it triggers your mental meltdown. Suddenly you are struck by the reminder that you will never, ever be able to go with the kids and their dad to pick another family tree…ever. 2015 was my last time. Ever. That was it. Done.
It is difficult to reconcile, even almost four years out. Sometimes it doesn’t feel real, like it never actually happened. Life has moved on and reality has changed, making it difficult for me to even retrace my steps back to those distant memories.
But I know it was real. I feel it in the hollowness of my existence– that space inside of me, empty, unresolveable.
That’s how the holiday blues set in.
The tricky part is that in many ways I feel like I’m more heartbroken over the idea of my late husband. Sure, I miss him, but I miss the idea of what we had– the nuclear family. The security of having a partner in my life. The idea of what a happily-ever-after was supposed to look like. Not this. Nobody wishes for this. This isn’t fair.
We mourn a lot of thoughts and expectations.
That Christmas tree story had me wallowing in a lot of sad thoughts. Like, why haven’t I met someone suitable yet? And why did I get stuck with three kids on my own, 24/7, without signing up for it? Why do other people get to go home to their partners and stay married for 50 years? Why does my pain feel so invisible to others? Why, why, why?
There is nothing like the holidays to remind you of your solitude and loneliness. I’m not talking about kids. Yes, I have kids. They are great and they certainly fill my house with noise and neverending action. But it’s an incomplete fairy tale.
I know the big feelings pass. They always do. I have learned how to wait them out, kind of like letting the flu work its way out of my system, and then I feel better and happy and all is right in the world, or at least as much as it can be.
As I cried before Thanksgiving and wondered why me and why us and how did this happen, I tried to pause and ask myself: what is this teaching me?
It’s one of my coping mechanisms that I have worked on. I don’t always have an answer, but for some reason asking myself this question softens the sharp edges of my existence. What is it teaching me?
Maybe I just hate the idea of wasting time and it feels more palatable when I can cling to the faith that this– the good and the bad– has something to teach me. It is weaving itself into the fabric of my being as we speak. There is purpose. It has meaning. Every person and experience and feeling and thought is a part of my existence, and it all makes me stronger and better if I choose to see it that way.
I know that when I am mourning the idea of what I used to have, then it’s just me resisting reality. Ideas and thoughts are not real. They are merely guides, and sometimes they lead us into the wrong direction. We can’t always believe them.
I’m not entirely sure what I am learning right now, but I think it has something to do with understanding that happiness is not found in other people, and that my worthiness is not attached to another person’s existence. I am working on that.
As I write this, I am in full Christmas spirit mode. Lights up. Tree up. House decorated. Cookie making in progress. Friends and family. Holiday blues digested and out of my system for the moment.
I feel happy with the story I am creating right now, on my own, even when it doesn’t always feel complete. But that’s just life, right? Never really complete, until you die.
So we learn to embrace the hollowness, the feelings, the good and the bad, the painful and delightful, and everything that makes our human experience unique and miraculous and also very unremarkable.
The truth is, as different as we are, we really aren’t very different. We’re all variations of the same, and so is our pain.
For those of you feeling the holiday blues like I have been, I see you. I feel you. It’s not easy. Your feelings are valid, and you get to do whatever you want with those feelings. It’s okay to sit with them for a while. But sometimes we have to tell these feelings that they’ve overstayed their welcome if they haven’t moved on. My holiday wish for everyone is that you have the chance to find space for new experiences, new people, new days, new traditions, new opportunities to seek happiness and joy, and also have new opportunities for more heartache– it is the cost of doing business. The business of being alive.
I look at my almost 10-year-old, who I am now raising alone, and I think, “You were so worth it.” Our lives are so worth it. Miraculous and unremarkable, but all of these feelings inside of us make the human experience exceptional and rare. I hope you can embrace it and know you are not alone.