Things I wish I understood about being a mom before I became one

Infant Insomnia by KelleyBean86 via DeviantArt

I like to think I’ve learned a few things in the six months I’ve been a mom. Most of them involve how much poop/barf/cereal you can leave on furniture before it’s permanent, but there are a handful of lessons that run a little deeper. Keep in mind this is my experience; your mileage may vary, etc.

All your emotions now go to 11.

A friend warned me about this, but for some reason I thought I was immune. I’ve lived with depression and suicidal ideation, endured mania, fallen in love on a first date, and had over-affectionate feelings for cats–I’ve run the gamut. But none of that prepared me for babyfeels. New levels of fear and joy unlocked the second she was born. No rejection has ever sliced so fine and sharp as her refusal to nurse; no smile has ever healed so easily as her first.  The way her cries of distress paralyze my soul; the bone-deep satisfaction of her giggles. Every emotion I’ve ever had is suddenly raw with unfamiliarity, as if it’s never been handled before, almost like I’m experiencing things the way she is–for the first time. It’s both amazing and terrifying.

Mother’s intuition isn’t automatic.

There is no switch that flips when you have a baby and now you magically know how to feed, clothe, clean, and soothe it. No matter how nurturing you are by nature, there are things you have to learn like any other skill. Much like learning a foreign language, you pick up concrete things first (diapers, food) and then move on to abstract concepts (tired vs boredom vs gas). You develop mother’s intuition by becoming a student of your child; what looks like an innate sixth sense from the outside is really the fruit of experience.

You forget those precious first days.

It’s heartbreaking but true. The first 6-8 weeks are brutally beautiful., and I didn’t feel like I came up for air until after 12. You have no idea what you’re doing, you’re exhausted, there’s so much crying and so few answers, and you can’t stand how cute they are. But no matter how many pictures you take, endless days and sleep deprivation slowly rob you of what you wish you could hold onto forever. The closeness of nursing, the wonder of holding them for the first time, the moment they look at you with recognition, how tiny their newborn body feels in your arms. You know you did it, but the realness is gone, like it happened to someone else. I’m convinced that it’s this forgetting that makes us want to have another baby–we want to remember.

Your body is different: forever.

I’m not talking about muffin tops and stretch marks (although they’re certainly a factor). I’m talking about being physically reshaped. Your bones and muscles and tendons are subtly changed by nine months and thirty hours of increasingly hard work. Your butt and hips don’t hold up your pants they way they used to, now too broad and round. Your shirts and bras have shifted position, a little fuller and lower. Your face is changed. You walk differently. One day you look in the mirror and realize that this body isn’t the one you started with. And that takes some getting used to.

Every choice has a consequence you can’t foresee.

Breastmilk or formula. Attachment or babywise. Parent-led schedule or baby-led schedule. TV or no TV. Back to work or stay at home. Your baby’s life is shaped by the choices you make every day, big and small, and you have no way to know if they’re the best ones. It is so, so easy to let fear take over and make you obsess about every possible option and outcome. But there’s no right answer, and no matter how unsure you are, you still have to decide. You have to use what you have and know and trust that it’s going to be okay.

You’re never alone. You’re alone all the time.

I’ve never experienced anything like this paradox before, and it’s hard to wrap words around. As an introvert, I like spending time alone, often going days without stepping foot outside, but I wasn’t prepared for feeling isolated while being tethered to someone. You’re juggling the baby’s feedings, sleeps, baths, and playtime while caring for the house and your partner, all while trying to shoehorn in food, sleep, and hygiene for yourself. You spend more time with your baby than anyone else; you’re constantly in contact and on call. But it’s not like they can converse about world affairs or help with dinner, so you end up feeling desperately lonely. And given everything you’re managing, it’s hard to connect with someone who doesn’t secretly poop themselves. When you finally do, you’re so relieved to speak in polysyllables that you swear you’ll get out more. Then you don’t because it’s so much easier to just stay home. And it starts all over.

Your best isn’t good enough.

No matter how hard you try, you’re going to flub something. It’s going to happen. You’ll mistake gas for hunger and make it worse. You’ll sacrifice naptime to run errands. You’ll nurse too soon after a beer. You’ll give meds when you’re not sure if it’s necessary. You’ll forget to buckle them into the carseat. You’ll drop your phone on their soft spot. (Yes, I’ve done all of these.) Control is an illusion; perfection, doubly so. And you can either let that be a prison of condemnation or accept that fucking up is inevitable and be set free. As a recovering perfectionist, I’m working hard to break out of jail. Every day, the bar gets lowered a little, which is actually a good thing. It means I don’t have to be Mom of the Year every day. As long as we survive until bedtime, we’re good.

Don’t wish it away. Don’t look at it like it’s forever.

Shortly after Mackenzie was born, I turned to my mother and said, “This week has been the longest day of my life.” I was in pain, the baby’s cries petrified me, and time made no sense. My mind grasped at imaginings of an easier future where I didn’t have to nurse with cracked skin (or at all) and the nights were uninterrupted. But I knew I had to stay present or I’d miss the most precious time of my daughter’s life. I’m constantly wanting to be elsewhere/when, anxious to get to better times, if only this would stop or that would change. But that’s how I end up with regrets, how I’m blinded to what’s precious right now. I will always regret wishing away nursing–and getting my wish. Reality is that momming doesn’t get easier; it just changes. You (I) have to remember they’re only this little once. This is the most they’ll ever need you. Don’t rush because it’s hard. Don’t miss it.

Love wins.

So much of what I’ve learned about being a mother has been hard. A lot of it no one talks about, some of it I didn’t believe, and the rest requires stretching myself in uncomfortable ways. I never had a love-tsunami wash over me like a lot of moms describe; it trickled in quietly. But on the days when she’s crying and I’m crying and nothing is okay and darkness presses in, that slow, steady love is a life preserver holding us both up. It makes her happy to see me after a hard-won nap. It makes me cling tighter when she’s angry. It makes each morning new. No matter what happens today, tomorrow is a fresh start because we love each other in a way that I don’t fully understand. And that’s enough.

Writer’s note: I cut a point from this list because it’s so important and potentially inflammatory that needs its own post. Stay tuned.

Quick, before the baby wakes up

Remember when I had a blog? Yeah, me, neither.

*gets locked out after too many incorrect passwords*
*blows spiders out of comments section*
*tries to remember how a keyboard works*

So, uh, turns out that having a baby takes up a lot of your day.

Stop laughing.

Okay, you can laugh a little bit.

I said a little. Geez.

The last time we talked, I was still T-minus a month or so to babyhaving time. It’s been…a bit…since then. Miss Mackenzie is pushing six months old now and looking more like a person and less like a happy meatloaf every day.

Mackenzie 4 months
I’m told she gets her judgy stare from me.

What you’re seeing here is the primary reason I haven’t posted, novelled, tweeted, or done anything much since the spring.

I’d heard tales of moms who wrote their first book while nursing their newborn, and inspired and filled with wild optimism, I figured I could at least keep a steady, if slow, pace with Apple of Chaos during feedings and naps. Shouldn’t be too hard, right?

Yeah. No.

There’s another (very long) post I could write on all the things I didn’t expect about being a stay at home mom with a baby-baby who also wants to, you know, do stuff that requires focusing for more than 10 minutes together. The joy, the despair, the exhaustion, the anger, the fear, the simplicity, the pride, the loneliness. The feeling that I’ll never do anything except manage someone else’s food and sleep for the rest of my life.

Don’t misunderstand. I love this squirmy ball of poop and giggles, and I will cut you if you wake her up.

But I miss writing.

There’s not a lot more to say about it at the moment. Babies are masters of the fake-out. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on things, they flip out, regress, or explode. They force themselves into the center of your world. You adapt or die. Or at least sob quietly while pushing a stroller around Walmart for an hour and a half praying the next price check doesn’t wake the baby.

Not that I’ve done that.

(I’ve done that.)

Right now, I’m taking it easy–which I’ve said in my last, like, four posts–and fighting the voice saying I’m a disappointing failure because I haven’t written a full book while learning to be a mother.

Thankfully, my husband now watches Mack every other Saturday 9am-2pm so I can escape to Starbucks and write. I’m not novelling yet, but I’m working towards it. Other projects have insinuated themselves into the hierarchy–my leadership course is all speeches this year, plus I landed a sekrit projekt but I’m not sure how it’ll be received, so I’m sitting on it–so I’m constantly juggling priorities. Alone time is precious these days.

I still hear Cora’s voice asking what’s next. I still brush against Jack every now and then. Their story isn’t over. It’s just waiting for me to learn how to write it again.

There are days I touch who I used to be: the expansive, creative woman in control of her time and who bathed regularly. Most days, though, I’m the uncertain, worried new mom trying to find something to laugh at so she doesn’t cry about what she’s afraid she’s lost.

Sorry, that got a little maudlin. Here’s another cute baby picture:

Mackenzie sleeping

Basically, I popped in here to say that I haven’t forgotten about you guys. I miss you the way I miss writing. I want you to know I’m working my way back, slowly but surely. This is a hard time in my life, but if baby-having has taught me anything, it’s that nothing is forever. We’ll be together again soon.

Until then, my loves: See you ’round the ‘verse.

Love in the time of burnout (or: how I killed and resurrected my writing career)

Love is the key by Tea Photography via Deviant Art

Burnout is real, people.

I know you know that, but it’s worth repeating.

What you might not know is that it happens to folks who aren’t “professionals”–rookies and amateurs (which was all Olympic athletes until the late 80s, just for perspective). People in love with their art, whatever it is, and are desperately trying to turn it into a paying career. People who haven’t made it but are hustling to do so. People like me. People like you, too, maybe.

That’s what happened when I quit writing last summer: I burned out.

I wrote my first book on a whim for NaNoWriMo 2012. It was a release valve, a fun project solely for my own enjoyment, just to see if I could do it. When it was done, people asked to read it, so I figured what the hell and self-published. To my surprise, it sold. And then people started asking what else I was working on. Eventually, I came up with Cora Riley, which started as a stand-alone but that had other plans for itself, sprawling out to become a five-book urban fantasy epic.

I spent the next two years turning the series into the foundation of an empire, cranking out three full-length novels and twelve short stories set in the Forgotten Relics  world. My schedule was merciless; outline to Amazon, including two edits and crowdfunding for each book, averaged nine months. I tirelessly posted on social media, angling for new followers, creating images with book quotes and asking questions to develop engagement for better visibility. I appeared at conventions, speaking on panels with distinguished authors and hawking books in vendor rooms. I attended writing workshops. I recorded videos. I started a Patreon. I squirreled away non-FGR ideas for when I finished the series so there’d be no gap to slow my growth.

I worked and worked and worked. The money wasn’t great yet, but there were other measuring sticks. I had a (small but fierce) audience who spread the word and spent money when I published or crowdfunded. I had good connections–friends,even –in the writing world who encouraged and advised me. I had offers to collaborate, invitations to anthologies, legit good reviews, and a rising number of likes, shares, and comments.

It was working. I was making it.

But by April 2015, I hated everything. Especially writing.

At the time, I didn’t understand why. All I knew was that I had a dull, tightness in my chest and that sitting down at the computer made me psychosomatically sleepy. While I kept showing up, it took more and more effort to get words onto the page or post, to be engaging on social media, to make the ask, to answer the email, to fill the well–to do the work. My head hurt, my heart hurt, and nothing I was doing felt good anymore.

In short, I’d run out of fucks.

And so I quit.

I quit as if I’d never come back. I packed up Elle Belle Media into cardboard boxes and shoved it into storage. I dismantled the Patreon. I stripped this site and unbranded my social media. I backed up my files and hid them in my hard drive. And then, same as you flush everything you know about calculus after the final, I let Forgotten Relics slip down the drain, along with my expectations of writing fiction–or anything–ever again.

I was out. I’d failed. I couldn’t hack it. Time to move on.

Honestly, I didn’t miss it. Not at first. I was simply enjoying the huge relief of pressure. While all my deadlines and goals were self-imposed, they were crushingly real. To suddenly not care about followers, likes, income streams, or wordcounts was freedom I hadn’t had since my first entrepreneurial days in 2009, six years and a wildly different path ago. I spent my days working part-time, watching House, being pregnant, and generally not doing much of value.

But by the time Christmas rolled around, I started to get itchy. I wondered if I really was never going to write again, a thought that gave me panicky chills. New directions were suggested–spiritual memoir, creative nonfiction–but that only made me itch more. I realized that I wanted fiction back. At the very least, I wanted to finish the series I’d started. But I wasn’t sure I could. The idea of returning to that straining, never-enough life made my sphincters clench. Not exactly the right attitude for your alleged dream career.

The breakthough came quietly, in a thin but steady drizzle, until it formed what should’ve been obvious from the beginning: I’d sucked all the joy out of writing.

I’d done everything “right”–scheduled, networked, engaged, diversified, shipped, funded. It should’ve worked. But the key to creative work is the artist’s love for their creation, and I’d traded that for success dictated by numbers rather than soul-satisfaction. I started treating writing as have-to instead of want-to or get-to, an obligation I increasingly resented. I was fishing for approval while burying my bereaved muse under impostor syndrome and algorithms.

I didn’t love writing anymore because I’d chosen a path without love.

Needless to say, I felt like a complete twat. I’ve literally spent years exhorting other people to cling fast to the joy in their work, to give the finger to how you’re “supposed to” do things and let their inner artist run the show (within reason, obviously). And here I was, a sorry victim of ignoring my own advice.

But underneath the ashes of that mortal embarrassment was the spark. The love of the work, the joy of spinning a tale, the elation of creating new worlds and people and seeing what kind of trouble they can get into and out of.

I laughed at myself when I realized what I’d done to destroy my love of writing; I cried when I realized the spark had survived the torch I’d set to it.

That’s when I knew I could come back.

It’s been a cautious return. Knowing I’m prone to squeezing the enjoyment out of creating doesn’t magically negate the tendency. I have to be mindful about my attachment to social media and analytics; I have to be gentle and balanced with my goals; I have to check my heart and keep praying for guidance. I have to hold it all lightly. Which is hard for a recovering perfectionist with a rep for producing high-quality work at a ridiculous pace.

But I’m doing it. A day at a time, a sentence at a time–I’m doing it. And although it’s harder work in some ways, it feels so much better.

So. That’s the story.

Here’s the take-home:

The world will always tell you it’s not enough. It will always come up with reasons why the way your spirit steers you is wrong. It will always show you a better way. It will always compare you with someone else and find you lacking. It will never be satisfied.

The world does not have your best interests at heart.

Fight back. Don’t let the world define your success. Listen to the voice inside that sings along with creation–little c and big C. Remember that the joy of your art is what brought you here. And no matter how many followers or sales you have, that joy must be your constant, your guiding star. You may never make it big, but that’s not the point. Not really. The work is a gift, and gifts are meant to be used, to be shared lavishly, not gripped so tightly they suffocate.

Let it be easy. Hold it lightly. Do it with love.

Do it for love.