The Bitter & the Sweet: Reflections on Motherhood

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May 9, 2013

I had other loves before I became a mother. One of them was poetry, to which I had devoted myself for years, most intensely during the two years of my MFA. Another was Judaism, and at the time of my pregnancy (both of my pregnancies — the one which ended in miscarriage, and the one which gave rise to our son) I was a student in the ALEPH rabbinic program, studying toward rabbinic ordination.

Rabbi Barenblat and her baby, 3 years ago.

When I became pregnant the second time and it became clear that this pregnancy was going to stick, I did what I usually do: I read books, and I made lists. I tried to learn everything I could about parenting an infant. I tried to finish all of my coursework weeks in advance just in case the baby came along early. I was on top of things.

And then our son was born.

My memories of the earliest months of parenthood are blurred by that perfect storm of surging hormones and sleep deprivation. In retrospect, I can’t imagine how we survived sleeping in 45-minute increments, much less learning how to care for a newborn while doing so. Even more disorienting: I wasn’t sure who I was, now that I’d had to set aside my identities as student, writer, scholar. In that one long day of labor, it seemed, I lost access to almost everything that had previously defined my existence. The exceptions were those stalwart souls who made the effort to stay actively in our lives despite the colicky infant — and, however faintly, poetry.

There is a Talmudic saying that “more than the calf wants to suckle, the cow yearns to give milk.” I had learned this in rabbinic school as a metaphor for how God relates to the world. God, my teachers taught, yearns to pour blessing into creation. God is bursting with blessing. Our prayers prime the pump and cause that blessing to flow. Now that I was a nursing mother, I had a whole new understanding of what it might feel like to be God, prickling with the urgent need called forth by our hungry wailing.

The week after Drew was born, I started writing a poem. It began with these four lines:

Was God overwhelmed

when Her milk first came in

roused by our thin cries

for compassion?

—El Shaddai (Nursing Poem), Waiting to Unfold, p. 15

By the end of that week, I had one new poem on my hard drive. I posted it to my Velveteen Rabbi blog, determined to cling somehow to some fragment of the person and the poet I had been before my life became circumscribed by the nursery gliding rocker and my brain turned into a sleep-deprived and hormone-fogged honeycomb. To my surprise, people read it, and responded. I read their comments on my phone while I rocked the baby, and their emails gave me heart.

The next week I looked at the repetition which already seemed endless (nurse, burp, spit-up, diaper, rock, nurse again) and wrote a sestina. Sestinas make use of repeating teleutons (end-words); I had used that form in previous years as a way into the more repetitive passages of Leviticus. This time it was the Torah of my own life unfolding which sparked the poem. I managed to get it online by the time we hit the two-week mark. And again, people responded, and the feedback loop sustained me. In the moments I snatched for writing, I felt a little bit of continuity with the Rachel I had been before. And in the moments when others responded, I felt that I wasn’t alone.

I had spent some two years writing weekly Torah poems and sharing them on Velveteen Rabbi. They were divrei Torah (Torah commentary) in poem form, and writing them each week allowed me to engage both with the weekly lectionary and with my background in creative writing. The best of those poems were collected into my first book, 70 faces, released by independent Montreal-based press Phoenicia Publishing in January 2011 on the very day I was ordained a rabbi.

Writing a weekly poem was a comfortable discipline, and one I started missing as soon as I’d wrapped up my Torah poems project in order to work on the 70 faces manuscript. Writing a weekly mother poem became my new creative outlet. My poetry mentor Jason Shinder (zichrono livracha / may his memory be a blessing) used to say, “Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work.” If parenting a newborn were going to get in the way of writing poetry, then I would write poetry about parenting a newborn.

I didn’t bother trying to ensure that the poetry was pretty:

Seven weeks in

I am rubble, strafed

by a round-cheeked pilot

who attacks at random

with his air-siren wail…

—Besieged, Waiting to Unfold, p. 19

It wasn’t a matter of consciously resisting sentimentality. I wrote from where I was, and that place was not a place of rosy soft-focus.

When our son was two and a half months old, my mother sat me down and told me that she thought I was suffering from serious depression and she wanted me to seek help. I had heard the same thing from my husband. I didn’t believe them. It seemed simple to me: we had changed everything irrevocably, that was all. Life would never be the same, I would never be the same, and weeping my way through every day was just the new normal.

But it’s rare for my mother and my spouse to make the same suggestions, so although I was dubious that I would ever feel different, I agreed to try. I managed to drag myself back into therapy, even though leaving the house with our infant felt overwhelming. I started a course of antidepressants. I didn’t think anything would happen. This is one of depression’s most pernicious tactics: it whispers in one’s ear that this is normal, this is the way life is, this is the way life has always been.

And then one morning I woke up and something had shifted.

All the seeds are curled tight

but I believe with a perfect faith

that they will open: I know

beneath the snow red tulips

are forming. Today plate glass

presses me like a dead flower

but soon I’ll pop in three dimensions…

—Mother Psalm 1, Waiting to Unfold, p. 24

I was still exhausted; I still craved sleep; but I didn’t crave oblivion. Life wasn’t the same as it had been before we had a child. But I was able to begin to discern how life with a kid wasn’t a diminished version of our old life — it was a new life, enriched in unfathomable ways by the presence and the growth of the new human being in our care.

Maybe most importantly for me as a soon-to-be-rabbi: God, Who had seemed absent during the darkest weeks of that winter, with Whom I had become uncertain how to speak, re-entered the frame. In that week’s poem, I was able to reference Ani ma’amin, “I believe with a perfect faith”: not in the coming of Moshiach, necessarily, but in the possibility of progress, the dream that things will get better than they are.

So many things change during the first year of parenthood. I had to learn how to be someone new: not merely the Rachel I had been before, but a new person who was now someone’s mother, accountable to a tiny being with (what seemed at first to be) limitless needs. Our marriage had to shift on its foundations. And our son changed most of all: from a mewling newborn to a baby who learned how to focus his eyes, to smile, to grasp, to rock, to crawl, to walk. Seen while they were happening, his changes were incremental. But seen now from a distance, the map of that first year dazzles me with its diversity, like forests and mountains and patchwork fields seen from an airplane’s vantage.

I went into motherhood without any real awareness that I was entering the trenches. Before I became a mother, I knew I had one friend who had suffered postpartum depression, but she lived far away. I hadn’t seen its daily unfolding. And besides, I didn’t think it would happen to me.

I also didn’t think that my feminist spouse and I would struggle to find a new balance of household labor, or that I would resent his ability to leave the house at will. (We did, and I did, desperately.) And I didn’t understand the magnitude of the shift from being an apparently sovereign individual (subject, of course, to God, but God doesn’t rule my life the way an infant did) to being a sustainer and nurturer of a tiny being, always putting other needs before my own.

That first year of parenthood was a crucible. It forged me, forged us, into something new. I would not, now, go back to the life I knew before or the person I was before.

But becoming a mother was also the hardest thing I have ever done. Harder by far than graduate school. Harder than hospital chaplaincy or walking by someone’s side in their grief.

There are times when parenting is an unalloyed joy, and at those times it’s easy to feel connected: with my own mother and grandmother, with all the mothers I know, with all the mothers who have gone before me and who will come after me. I feel cradled in an endless chain of blessing.

And there are also times when parenting is hard. Miserable. Exhausting. Overwhelming. For those of us who have to wrangle postpartum depression, those times may wildly outweigh the sweet ones, for a while. I wish I could find every mother who feels the way I felt in those early months, and say to her: it’s going to be okay. You are not alone. It won’t always be like this.

Beyond that: feeling this way doesn’t disqualify you from motherhood. There shouldn’t be shame in not savoring every instant of exalted motherhood. And feeling that anhedonia, that inability to savor — whether it’s fleeting or recurring — does not exclude one from the community of mothers, the chain of connection as far as the human imagination can see.

Some of the poems in Waiting to Unfold still make me laugh. One begins “I want to burn that nursing bra.” Another, “Don’t chew on your mama’s tefillin.” (That’s a line that, I suspect, would not have been written in an earlier era.) The first year of parenthood intertwines wonder and laughter with terror (oh, that first struggle with croup!) and grinding exhaustion. All of these are necessary parts of the journey.

Our son is now three and a half. We have different adventures now: playgrounds, favorite books and songs and cartoons. And different struggles, both his and ours. But this is still the journey we began when he was that puling newborn, when everything was terrifying and new. And I still experience the journey through the twin prisms of my feminism and my Judaism.

As both a feminist and a Jew, I believe that no task could be more important than rearing the next generation of human beings, who will (God willing) continue the work of healing and perfecting the world. This is the holiest work there is. But sometimes it’s miserably hard. Just like anything else that’s really worth doing.

I’m not sure the sweet would be possible, or would be as sweet as it is, without the bitter being part of the picture, too.

[T]hose who sow in tears

will reap in joy, and you

are the joy I never knew I didn’t have…

—One Year (Mother Psalm 9), Waiting to Unfold, p. 66

I think it’s important to be able to talk about the bitter. Maybe that’s part of how I ensure that the sweetness still prevails.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, a Rabbis Without Borders rabbinic fellow, is the author of the just-published “Waiting to Unfold,” (Phoenicia, 2013, poems about motherhood) and “70 Faces” (Phoenicia, 2011, a collection of Torah poems) and is a contributing editor to Zeek. She is also the Velveteen Rabbi. She was ordained by ALEPH in 2011.

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