At 3:58 p.m. on December 16, 2013, the midwife laid my newborn son on my chest. My eyes met his and my heart was suddenly an unbearably small container for the intense flood of love that washed over me; I felt as if it shattered. In a single moment, I was utterly transformed. I don’t know how long I stared at him, but I do know I was transfixed by his eyes, unable to look away. Later, I would look at photos taken of this moment and be completely shocked to see how filthy he was, covered in the various fluids that accompany birth. I hadn’t noticed; to me, he was perfect.
In the years leading up to my son’s birth, I had attended several meditation retreats, alternating between sitting and walking meditation with some yoga asana for days on end. I had experienced incredible states – expansive states, where the seemingly solid edges of my body evaporated; states where I felt flooded with love, joy, peace and other qualities that seemed to vibrate endlessly in all directions or simply permeate the space around me in profound stillness. None of this compared to the experience of giving birth. Nothing could have prepared for that moment. No amount of anticipation could have allowed me to imagine the intensity of seeing my son for the first time.
I had also encountered and released many difficult states during meditation retreats. Fear, sadness, anger – my body trembled with these powerful energies and I came to know them intimately. I had come to feel comfortable with difficulty. I, more often than not, allowed difficulty as I had learned an essential truth: underneath these immensely difficult states lies a peaceful, loving wholeness that can never be overpowered. And yet, I was wholly unprepared for the difficulty of the early months of motherhood. Blindsided, in fact. I felt like a child myself, fumbling my way through the raw newness without grace or skill.
After a couple of weeks of riding the post-birth high, I began to crash and crave sleep. My son was on the opposite schedule. I soon learned that he does not like to sleep. In the early weeks, he was colicky and could cry for hours at a time. When the colic passed, he fought sleep with all his might, even if the insistence on staying awake meant he turned slowly (or not so slowly) into a cranky, crying mess. Oh, I read all the books. I tried everything. I rocked him, let him sleep on me, tried putting him down drowsy but awake, started a ritual of lullabies and bouncing on the yoga ball, watched for sleepy signs and watched his wake times like a hawk. The boy, sweet as he is, is also determined and willful and his own, unique self, and he does NOT want to sleep! He often only slept 10 broken hours total in those early months, including naps, all day. Once he slept 7.
I, on the other hand, love sleep. I’ve never pulled an all-nighter. Not once. Not in college, grad school, never. I knew all too well that lack of sleep would turn me into a cranky, crying mess and I welcomed sleep like my dearest friend.
And yet, like everything else in parenting and life, this was not totally good or bad. The lack of sleep brought many difficult things into my life and I do not mean to underemphasize that fact. There are much gentler ways to grow and learn valuable lessons. There are much kinder ways for a society to support the transition to parenthood. I passionately believe that we provide woefully inadequate support to parents in this country and thereby cause some unnecessary and greatly-amplified suffering, but that is a whole other article. I do, however, see that I’ve gained some wisdom in the sleepless months that passed; that my prior yoga practice helped prepare me to grow into this wisdom; and as my ability to spend large amounts of time in class and on the cushion disappeared, parenting became my yoga.
If you want to face some of your most pernicious habits, you can sit for days in silence or you can simply have a child! I had tendencies toward perfectionism for much of my life, a tendency that I kept at bay in my yoga practices. I thought of myself as a recovered perfectionist … until my son was born. Suddenly my desire to take perfect care of my tiny, dependent son came roaring to the surface as I lacked the sleep and self-care practices to keep that habit in check.
It became quickly clear, however, that perfection and control in caring for children does not exist. I cannot set a goal and work towards it, ticking off the steps as I go, oh so gratifying to my sense of self. My son will sleep as much as he wants to sleep. (Yes, there are things I can do to support him in sleeping, but it’s up to him to actually close his eyes and drift off.) He will eat as much as he wants to eat. No matter how hard I try to create a calm, happy, supportive environment, he will have difficult feelings that I can only witness compassionately – holding him in my arms (sometimes for hours and hours) – letting him know that he is so deeply, deeply loved. I cannot control his feelings. Though the project manager in me would love it if there were a certain set of steps I could follow, there is no manual for the wildly-messy, achingly-beautiful journey of caring for tiny new beings. There is only listening to your heart and letting go, letting go, letting go.
I put together a support plan, bringing in people to help with my son so I could sleep. And I noticed that all along, the pain of feeling like I was failing intermingled with the joy of watching my newborn son grow by leaps and bounds into a beautiful baby. Joy can knock the wind out of you, or nearly blind you with its brightness. Anger and grief, when tended to, can shift into fierce compassion. The intense highs and lows of the early months of parenting began to blur together until they felt like one steady pulse of life streaming through me. The excitement for finally-oh-finally a moment of down time merged with the ache of being away from my son. The joy of holding him in my arms coalesced with the desperation of hoping he would go to sleep. Tears of awe in watching him master new skills and blossom into his own self flowed into tears of sadness in letting go of the brand-new newborn. The more I ceased to cling to the joys and fight the sorrows, the more it became a dance – certainly not yet effortless, but much more graceful.
And thank goodness for that. The growth of humans, tiny and not-so-tiny, is such an incredible thing to behold. With absolutely no input from me, and with what appears to be no input from his rational mind, the program of growth unfurls itself within my son and before I know it he is smiling, cooing, rolling over, scooting, saying “mum mum” and “dat dat”. And to think eight months ago he existed in the temperature-controlled, watery home of my own body! It’s nothing short of miraculous.
More than anything, parenting has been a lesson in “dying fiercely to my plan and living into a bigger story,” as Karyn Thurston put it so brilliantly in a recent article. Ishvara pranidhana, in other words. When I fully embrace my humanity, I am better able to let go of my small sense of self with its plans and expectations, and allow life as it is. Certainly I live this truth well on some days and forget it completely on others; but hey, no one is perfect.
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