I wasn’t cut, a laser burned me open. A pyre upon which my life before becoming a mother floated up in smoke. After all, I did have a new life, in my arms, looking up at me expectantly.
After the C-section surgery, a steady rotation of nurses entered my room and squeezed my breasts without asking for permission to do so. They leave behind the scent of their sanitized fingers on my skin. The hospital where I give birth to my son is committed to the wonders of breastfeeding. There was an abundance of informational material about breastfeeding available.
Breast milk is a strange warm-sweet flavor—a kind of marshmallow melted into lukewarm hot chocolate—type taste.
I am lactose intolerant.
I hated breastfeeding.
Despite my disdain, there I was, being a good mama. The best possible mama.
The most organic of all the mamas!
When I couldn’t produce enough milk for my baby I ordered formula from Germany— the land of sugar/GMO-free happy cows. I spent too much money. I couldn’t remember what dreaming was like. Walking into the bedroom where we co-slept with the baby, signs of sleep deprivation would have smacked you in the face: craters under the eyes, bodily odors signaling the need for an adult shower, ambiguous piles of clothing creating walking hazards.
And somewhere in the middle there I was, a whole organic mess.
I sat in the stupid grey recliner chair, shoving my big ole’ boobie into my son’s mouth, placing cool gel pads and lanolin salve on my bleeding nipples in constant rotation. Squeeze, bleed, ice, repeat: all day long. About every 90 minutes I could be found pumping away at my breasts.
I was really trying.
Just off Highway 14, somewhere in the Santa Clarita Hills halfway between the L.A. Valley and the expansive deserts beyond, I had the first post-delivery meeting with my Doula, a Black woman, who glowed when she smiled and always smelled beautiful.
How are you really feeling? Tell me…
Even my response to “How are you?” felt tired. I launched into telling her all about my new-mama struggles. It felt so good to just be talking to another adult who wasn’t my co-parent. I ordered a chicken-chipotle-avocado sandwich as the baby slept soundly in his carrier next to us.
She exclaimed at all the weight I had rapidly lost:
I felt inadequate in feeding him but feeding myself was an entire issue all on its own.
Feeding myself has been an issue since my own mother left me when I was about 2 years old, then returned to steal me away from the rest of my family. Even when she had me in her custody, she was never present enough to remember that I needed to eat at regular intervals. Now, my trouble with food is always there. There in the Kool-Aid cravings, my constant tea intake, my obsession with waffles and putting foods that have no business being in the fryer in the fryer, fried ice cream anyone?
I was recently on a farm in Tennessee at a writer’s retreat. Over the course of a rainy night, magically, three baby sheep were born. I excitedly observed the new additions from a quiet distance and my eye caught the mom of two twin kids. She had clearly taken favor to one, head butting the runt out of the way and ignoring the little one’s cries. I hate to admit that I got it though. I got how this totally overwhelmed new-sheep mama needed a little extra help recovering and bonding with both of her babies.
Major news: we are also mammals.
Bonding is work.
Nothing terrifies me more than the thought of my capacity to hurt my son.
When I lamented about the woes of breastfeeding my doula tilted her head and warmly gazed at me, “You know you can just stop. You don’t have to continue. If it’s not working just stop.”
This was my first taste of liberation as a new mother.
The imaginary standard of the ideal mother was something I aspired to.
I thought aiming for perfection or completely eschewing my own needs would ensure I didn’t have to face my biggest fear of being an awful mother. Ha!
That was a cute thought.
In retrospect, how did I not know better?
What happened to my radical-queer-feminist informed practices?
The truth is, I know how I lost my compass.
I did not have a blueprint on mothering that didn’t require my own starvation.
My mother had other bizarre practices informed by her bouts of delusion as a result of undiagnosed mental health struggles, such as force-feeding me milk. I stopped drinking milk as soon as I was able, the very smell of it bringing on bouts of nausea. I had SO much milk when I was little. I sometimes think this may be why I have never broken a bone, so much for all the other broken parts.
By the time my son was six months old, I was struggling with thoughts of suicide.
As usual, I tried to figure out what was so wrong with me.
Nearly a year later, my son was a year and a half years old and I hadn’t yet found my answer. I was attempting to wrap myself up into a straight marriage with a regular career, a house, and two dogs who could hold me up and protect me from the ghosts that would invariably come knocking.
The ghosts of my past came at night, when I stared at my son, while he slept, imagining, to the point of tears, all the horrible things that may happen to him on any given day. I worried about him falling, I worried about the sugar levels in his food, I worried about his friends at daycare. I was suffering from postpartum anxiety & depression to be sure.
I worried myself numb.
I knew then that the stakes had been raised.
I began to look at him distantly when he started crying. I’d hide away from him or I’d become physically sick when I disciplined him, certain I was causing him irreparable harm.
Just a few weeks after my son turned two years old, I was diagnosed with a rare type of ovarian cancer. For medical treatment due to the cancer diagnosis, I moved nearly two thousand miles away from my son so that I could play the long game of staying alive.
Moving away meant I had the space to examine myself as a mother away from my child. I quickly realized that staying alive would require a deeper commitment to sustaining myself with care and love. I recognized that my son is my primary source of sustenance for purpose in this world and he cannot be the only one to sustain me. If I was going to carry on in my body with my body’s unique stories then I would have to learn to provide myself with nurturance.
During the nearly two years I spent away from my son I began to ask myself questions about joy, delight, radical self-acceptance, love, and rest.
I was honest with myself during this time: I no longer wanted to be a full-time parent.
When I pushed past the many shades of judgment, the immense guilt and grief at losing my idea of what being a mother would be like, I started to get to an important truth: if I was going to fully be the mother I wanted to be to my son, I would need to spend a great deal of time away from him doing the things I needed to sustain my well-being.
Did you know that most baby animals are not raised by both parents?
When I think about how the best of myself comes out it is always in the way I love the people around me. Identifying as a queer femme Black woman has meant prioritizing an expansive way of being in relationship to the people around me. I feel more grounded, authentic, and securely connected to other people when I am the most queered version of myself.
In crafting a more hetero-normative home, in a subconscious way, I think I was trying to push away the sometimes crushing ailments that come with being queer and out in the world. Maybe my set-up would give me more room to deal with the internal injustice of my trauma without as much external drama.
In a way, this turned out to carry some truth. A lot of the ways I’ve been able to take space are due to my co-parent being a white straight cis-male in the world. Because he doesn’t share in my struggles, my co-parent was able to take over full-time parenting so I could recover and step into who I needed to be as a mother—something we had discussed as a possibility before my son was born.
My problem, as it turns out, isn’t me. My problem is and always has been the ways I am responded to by the world around me for being my full-authentic (queer) self. Who I am is not a problem.
To be queer is to be our authentic selves in so many ways; none of which includes shame.
I spent so many years either further harming myself or being harmed by others. While away from my son, I practiced remembering that I am “out” or, that I am out here in the world being my radical dope full-ass self all day, every day. I began to remember, from the holding offered by my Black doula, that I get to make choices that are good for me about everything and especially about my relationship with my son.
I got real with it, I began attending to where guilt was living in my body and mind, I released; I started to study what radical self-love looked like for me. I allowed Black queer feminism to serve me daily, I quieted internalized judgments for mothers who don’t parent full-time. I collaborated with my co-parent to shape a dynamic wherein my son receives stability, love, and presence from both of his parents according to our capacity.
I am at a local pharmacy store making photo prints of pictures taken during the past week’s visit for my son. This is one of the many ways I stay connected with my son. The sales associate points to the prints and says,
“Cute kid. Is he yours?”
I reply, beaming as always, that “Yes! He is! He cute huh? ”
We begin to discuss where I am from, things related to travel, and then I mention that I will be out of the country for a bit. He stares at me and then asks what I have come to expect as a typical line of questioning from strangers,
“But don’t you miss your son? When you are away? Don’t you miss him?”
“Uh. Yeah. Of course, I do… but he has a great life, his dad is dope and my son is happy.”
I’ve gotten used to changing the subject.
But here is the real answer:
I miss him greatly when I am not with him.
He would miss me more if I was not here in the world.
If I don’t go away from him, I risk losing myself, and I risk him losing me.
So, I decided to not be there all the time and now I know that I am there just the right amount of time for both of us.
I chose sustainability.