New Motherhood

"The Weight": Repost for Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness Month by Cara Stolen

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To say I was blindsided by Royce’s cleft lip and heart defect would be an understatement. I didn’t see it coming, not for one single second, and the trauma of his birth forever changed the course of my motherhood journey. July is National Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness Month, and to help raise awareness I’m re-posting one of the most vulnerable essays I’ve ever written about my experience.

These days, I hardly notice Royce’s scar, and his birth defects only come up twice a year: at his yearly well child appointment and the dentist. But his mild cleft lip was once all I thought about and all I (heartbreakingly) saw. And it forever clouded the way I think about and experience pregnancy.

The CDC reports that, in the United States alone, about 2,650 babies are born with a cleft palate and 4,440 babies are born with a cleft lip with or without a cleft palate, ranking craniofacial anomalies among the most commonly occurring birth defects. While there is a link between folic acid intake during pregnancy and cleft lip and palate, there’s still a lot to learn about the occurrence of these types of defects.

Looking for ways to help fund research and treatment? ACPA (American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association) is my personal favorite. An easy way to donate is to visit smile.Amazon.com where you can donate a portion of each purchase to the non-profit organization of your choice. Select “Cleft Palate Foundation” to have Amazon donate directly to the ACPA on your behalf.

Another great way to help? Donate to your local children’s hospital. Often, private donors help bridge the gap between what private insurance covers and the balance owed by families. These private financial assistance programs can be lifesavers for families like mine.

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The Weight


June, 2015

The house is unbearably hot, but the sound of the window-unit air conditioners rattles my already frazzled nerves, so I’ve turned them off again. I stand in the tiny downstairs bathroom, looking at my foreign postpartum body in the mirror and watching as tears stream down my face. There is silence on the other end of the phone in my hand, my mom waiting patiently for me to get the words out, to take some of this weight from me and shoulder it as her own. I desperately try to control the tears, control my emotions, control the grief that I can’t even accept as grief yet.

‘He’s not the perfect baby I pictured. It’s just...I’m sorry, I’m just really emotional. I think it’s my hormones.’ I stammer between sobs. I turn from the miserable stranger in the mirror, and walk away disgusted with myself.

I feel a heaviness in my body. Much heavier than the tiny 7 pound newborn sleeping upstairs. Heavier than anything I have ever tried to carry before. Too much weight for one person to carry alone, but I am stubborn, and unwilling to admit that I need help.

***

May, 2016

‘How old?’ the middle aged checker asks as she scans my cart full of groceries. I am preoccupied with keeping my very active 11 month old from grabbing the candy, or gum, or yanking my card out of the chip reader again, so by the time I realize she has spoken to me she is staring pointedly, as if I have snubbed her.

‘Oh! I’m so sorry, I didn’t hear you!’ I’m flustered, and my face feels hot, the weight of her gaze making me feel as though I should be better at this. ‘He’s 11 months!’

She turns to face him, and he leans as far away from her as possible in the seat of the cart. ‘It’s ok, buddy, you can say hi if you want,’ I say as I grab his hand and bounce it up and down in my own.

‘It’s ok,’ she says to me, her expression not exactly matching her words. ‘Would you like a balloon?’ she asks him, in what seems to be an attempt to make us all feel better about this awkward interaction. She turns back to me and raises her eyebrows, asking permission.

I nod, and smile. ‘He loves balloons, that would be great.’

She turns behind her, and untangles a ribbon from the web attached to her station, then hands the balloon weight carefully to him. ‘Here you go buddy, this will make that ouchie split lip of yours feel better.’

I can’t hide my confusion and irritation, and I feel my face contort into a look of pained annoyance. Knowing that she is referring to his Cleft lip, I stammer out a thank you and wheel the cart to my car.

After unloading the groceries and safely securing my son and his balloon, my hands shake as I call my husband in the parking lot. But he doesn’t answer, and I am left burning with anger, and irritation, and, if I’m honest, shame. Why can’t I get over this? Why do I even care what some stupid middle aged woman says about my son’s appearance? I drive home with tears streaming down my cheeks, overcome with the weight of it all.

***

February, 2016

‘Can I ask you something about his lip?’ a friend asks nervously. I am standing in a freezing cold arena, waiting to watch my husband rope. My son sits perched on my hip, completely enthralled by the bawling cattle, the horses, and the ropes flying through the air.

‘Sure.’ I say. But I already know what he will ask. His wife is pregnant, and I can see the worry and fear written all over his face.

‘Did you know about it before he was born?’

The question that so many people want to know, but are afraid to ask.

‘No. We had no idea. They missed it in all the ultrasounds. We didn’t find out until he was born.’ My answer disappoints him, and his nerves fill the space between us. I glance away, desperate to find my husband in the crowd, but it’s too late. His fear has added to the burdensome weight I carry, and I am left shifting my son from hip to hip, trying to balance my load.

***

August, 2015

Her name escapes me, but I remember her face. They have driven all night, ten hours from Eastern Montana with their son, at the urging of the rural hospital where he was born. She tells me about the rare genetic disorder that was discovered in utero, and apologizes for nervously checking her cell phone.

‘We have two older kids at home. I had to leave them with my mom…’ Her voice trails off, distracted by a message on her screen.

Glancing again at her son, I am taken aback by the tubes, and by the severity of his birth defects. Desperate to look away, I look around the waiting room we are sitting in, and see wheelchairs, and specialty medical equipment, and sick children everywhere I look. Each one of them accompanied by an exhausted, burdened caregiver.

I smile at the woman as she looks up at me again. So badly do I want to say something, anything, to ease her suffering. To ease my own suffering. But as I look at our two sons, side-by-side, I know that I am the lucky one. In the competition of ‘who has it worse,’ she wins. Every time.

When they call our name from the orange doors of the Craniofacial Clinic, I am surprised by how hard it is for me to get to my feet. I struggle under the weight of it all: the infant car seat, but even heavier, my grief, my shame, and my guilt.

***

February, 2017

The room is too dark, the couch is too soft. I am distracted by the mess of paperwork on the desk in the corner, feeling an overwhelming urge to tidy it up. I don’t want to be here. I have known this day is coming for weeks, and I’m still not ready.

‘Let’s see...where did we leave off?’ My therapist’s voice is calm, and I’m surprised by the anger I feel toward her. I want to shake her shoulders and scream in her face: ‘YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHERE WE LEFT OFF!’ Instead, I twist my sweaty hands in my lap, waiting for her to read through her chart notes.

Half an hour later, I have shredded three tissues, and sit surrounded by paper shreds, like a naughty cat, or nervous toddler. It has taken all of my strength to tell her what details I do remember of my son’s birth story, and I am emotionally spent and exhausted. ‘It’s ok to let yourself grieve. It’s ok to use the word traumatic.’

There it is. The permission I’ve been waiting for. The invitation to set down my baggage, and leave it in this dark, messy room. But I can’t. I look into her kind eyes, pick up my heavy bags, and struggle out the door, thinking of the mamas in that waiting room. The moms that have it worse. The moms that deserve their grief.

***

June 30, 2016 06:00

‘Will Mom or Dad be accompanying him back?’ the nurse-that-looks-too-young-to-be-a-nurse asks. The four of us are crammed into a tiny pre-op room, seated awkwardly around an iron-railed hospital crib that I refuse to stick my 12 month old son in. My husband and I exchange pained glances. We have discussed this already. It will be me. While I asked to be the one, part of me hoped that he would fight me on the issue.

When it’s our turn, I gather my sweet boy in my arms. He struggles against me, wanting to walk on his own and explore this new, strange place. I desperately try to stay in the moment with him, to see every detail of his face: his crooked grin and chubby cheeks, his white blonde hair and gap between his teeth; to remember how he looked as God gave him to me. But the hallway to the operating room is too dark, and I am distracted when the room itself looks everything and nothing like I expected it to. I need a minute. I want to scream at everyone to be quiet, to stop moving. I’ve been anticipating this day for 393 days, and now that it’s here I’m not ready.

***

June 30, 2016 14:00

I follow a different nurse down the same hallway, this time headed for post-op recovery. My heart beats in my ears, making it impossible to understand what he is saying to me. As we enter the recovery room my eyes frantically scan the cribs for my son. My heart jumps when I spot him: sitting on a nurse’s lap, in a tiny mickey mouse hospital gown, clutching his grey blankie with the hole in it.

Then, we are rocking together, as we have so many times before. Just the two of us, in this strange room, in this strange chair, surrounded by strange and unfamiliar noise. I stroke his hair, and gaze into his beautiful blue eyes, so filled with love and adoration. I examine his stitches, surprised by how few there are, and he smiles his big toothy grin at me. My breath catches in my throat. What was crooked is now straight. What was ‘broken’ is now fixed. And, to my surprise, I miss it.

We rock and rock, until they ask to move us. A still spot in a moving picture. Just me and my boy, and the heavy bags at my feet.

On Rest by Cara Stolen

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From the window in my home office, I have a perfect view of the pasture closest to our house, where we feed our cows in the early spring. Every day, after I put the kids down for their afternoon nap, I stand at it for awhile. I’ve watched the snow melt and the sagebrush bud; observed the cows’ bellies widen and their udders expand as we draw closer to their due dates—signs of spring and new life.

Today, I lean against the warm glass and gently massage my lower back. I look for new calves and signs of labor in each expectant cow. In theory, that’s why I stand here every day: to make sure there isn’t a cow stalled in labor needing help to give birth. But more than that, I like watching the calm, quiet actions of our mama cows.

Our oldest cow, 1095, gave birth to her eighth calf last week. From this vantage point, I noticed her pacing circles around the pasture and knew it was time. An hour later, she licked her white-faced calf clean and then stood to feed him his first meal. I couldn’t help but grin, delighted by the miracle of life yet again.

I stretch to the side, then turn to face my desk. A stack of bills, an open day planner, two coffee cups, and a full email inbox await me. But as I start to sit, the washer chimes. I tiptoe down the hall and throw the clean clothes on our (still unmade) bed. On my way back to the laundry room, I catch sight of the kitchen, where dishes are piled in the sink and lunch remnants cover the island. I dash into the kitchen to clean up, telling myself it will only take a minute. With the dishwasher loaded and counters wiped, I head back toward the office, forgetting entirely about the clean clothes in the washer.

Glancing out the window on my way to my desk, I see 1095 and her calf making their way up the hill to the water trough. She nudges him gently with her nose, then steadies him when he stumbles on his still-new legs.

Observing other moms and babies makes me feel included. Part of. Because motherhood was created by God, and I’m filling a role he designed.

Ignoring the mountain of paperwork, I watch 1095 and her calf rejoin the rest of the herd. As her calf lays down, she touches noses with another, still expectant cow and swishes her tail at another cow’s calf, sending him back to his mom. Then she lowers to her knees and lays down beside her calf.

I pull myself away from the window and sit at my desk. Yawning, I take a sip of this morning’s (yesterday’s?) cold coffee, and read through my email. I respond to a few, delete others, and turn to tackle the paperwork on my left. I sort through it, tossing receipts and making notes in my planner of due dates and deadlines, but find nothing urgent. I should go fold that laundry, and make the bed. Maybe I’ll even have time to clean the bathrooms before the kids wake up.

Spinning around in my chair, I look out the window one last time. The whole herd is laying down now, all the new and expectant moms basking in the long-awaited warmth of spring after a longer-than-normal winter.

1095 tenderly licks her calf’s ear. I remember those early newborn days with both of my kids, but I’m struck by how little my mothering resembled hers. While she is completely present with her baby, I behaved much the way I do now and filled every moment with laundry and cleaning and work.

Trailing my fingers along the desk’s edge on my way out, I catch sight of the corner of my Bible, peeking out from under a power bill. It’s been a while since I’ve opened it—putting it off for a night I’m not so tired or during naptime after my chores are done. But that never happens, and every day my kids wake up from their naps to a clean house, clean clothes, and a tired, worn-out mom.

Why is it so hard for me to rest and let myself relax? If God created both 1095 and me for motherhood, why does her mothering look so easy and relaxed while mine looks so frenzied and exhausting? Did it take her eight babies to reach this point? Or does she just instinctively know something I struggle to accept: that God created us to work and rest?

The laundry can wait, I decide. I grab my Bible and tiptoe to the living room. Pulling a fleece throw from beneath the entertainment center, I sink into the corner of the couch and open its cover.

Thirty minutes later, I hear my son’s door open. His feet pitter-patter down the hall toward me, waking his sister, but I can’t help but smile. He rounds the couch with a “Hi, Mom!” and clambers into my lap. To my surprise, I’m not mad that he woke up my daughter. And for the first time in I-can’t-remember-how-long I’m ready, and delighted, for them to be awake; rejuvenated and refreshed by God’s word.  


The Stillness That Remains by Cara Stolen

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The house is sticky and hot, filled with the odd aromatic combination of taco soup and blueberry muffins. I spent the morning in the kitchen and the fruits of my labor are laid out on our dining room table. Beside the soup and muffins, the afternoon sun streams through the patio door onto a color-coded list on the open page of my tattered notebook. Meals are written in neat rows, with careful lines through each to signify completion.

As I pace my ‘talking on the phone’ path around our rental house, I survey this scene with pride, and listen as my dear friend describes the grueling details of the first six months of her son’s life: the screaming, the colic, the lack of sleep.

‘I just know I’m going to have a baby like that,’ I tell her, thinking that mentally preparing for it will protect me from disappointment.

My belly tightens and I place my hand just below my right rib to feel his foot stretching against me. It’s hard to believe that my due date is only four weeks away.  

‘Maybe you’re right,’ she says. ‘I know I wasn’t prepared for it.’

Pausing, I grab the laundry basket at the foot of the stairs. A few months ago I took these stairs two at a time. Today, I’m panting when I reach the top. Our conversation turns to the drought rumors, and how unseasonably warm it is for May. As we say our goodbyes, I lower myself into the rocking chair that now sits in the corner of our room and cradle my swollen belly in both hands.

Rocking gently in the chair that my own mom rocked me in, I try to picture myself as a mom. Am I ready? The freezer is full, the tiny clothes are washed and folded, and the car seat has been installed for weeks. Keeping myself busy with physical preparations has served as an excellent distraction from my fear. But with my tasks completed, worry creeps into the stillness that remains. Will I be a good mom? I reach out to finger the lace on the borrowed bassinet and imagine putting our baby to sleep in it. I am so afraid that I will fail at this. I feel the baby shift in my belly, as if to comfort me. Will I be able to make peace with what I cannot control?  

I sink deeper in my chair and whisper softly, ‘ready or not.’

Across The Hall by Cara Stolen

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My alarm wakes me from a deep, exhausted sleep. It’s 5 am. Exactly 45 minutes ago I tiptoed back across the hall from your room and snuggled back under the covers of my cold side of the bed. I fumble for my phone to turn off the jingle, nudging your dad awake as I do, forgetting that I don’t have to whisper anymore. I sit up, and flip on my lamp—for the first time in 6 months.


It feels like an act of freedom, but is accompanied by the bitter aftertaste of sadness. For fifteen long months you slept inside of me, on me, or next to me. Your dad and I have exchanged sleepy good nights, heated words of anger, and loving words of appreciation in a barely audible whisper since you were born. We have grown accustomed to tiptoeing in our own bedroom. Silenced phones, flashlights, and showers in a barely lit bathroom have become normal.


But this morning was different. You were sleeping soundly in your own room when it was time for mommy and daddy to start their day. Ironically, we still caught ourselves whispering, even though we didn’t have to. Giggling, we congratulated ourselves on surviving the last six months. They’ve been long. And short. As any parent can tell you, babies distort time. No longer does time pass in a rhythmic, orderly fashion. Instead, hours can feel like days, while months feel like weeks.


This morning was the start of a new normal. A normal that will last much, much longer than six months. In a few weeks it will be hard for us to remember what it was like to tiptoe and whisper through our morning routine. But this morning the newness was palpable.


I’ve been waiting for this day for months. Dreaming of the freedom I would have when you were finally ready to sleep in your own room. Yet, even in my excitement, this morning feels a little melancholy. See, part of my heart is sleeping across the hall now. I missed it last night. I missed you this morning.


As with most milestones, this one is bittersweet. Your first clumsy toddle of independence. Preparing your daddy and I (and you) for the day you will fly our nest and spread your wings. Though that day seems like it’s a lifetime away, I know it will be here before I’m ready.