Surprised by Joy

I don’t even know if this thing works anymore, but I’ll give it a try.

Hello, BlogLand! I’m alive and all. Sorry for disappearing. I have a litany of (actually valid) excuses, but none of them really matter as much as this:

The sweetest and most adorable baby ever born.

Really, I probably could have found some time to write in the past two months, but every time I had the choice between cuddling Stormy and not cuddling Stormy, I pretty much picked cuddling Stormy. Granted, the selling of the house and the zillion showings and the broken dishwasher and the slew of (delightful!) visitors meant that I had less baby-cuddling time than I wanted, so I was even more loathe to give up what remained.

Being smitten with a newborn is a new experience for me. I’ve said for years that I’m just “not a newborn person”, that I really start liking my kids a lot more when they can sit up and smile and interact, and that I don’t really get the melty-swoony baby love most women seem to feel. All that is true, but secretly I’ve always believed that’s because I’m a little bit broken, as a mother.

The circumstances surrounding my first pregnancy were pretty much the perfect set-up for post-partum depression, but I still blamed myself for all of it. My bad choices led to a bad situation for a new little life, and my inability to feel joy (or anything at all) seemed to me a direct result of those choices. Not a result — a punishment. A just and fitting punishment, to fail as completely at being a mother as I had at being good, chaste, and worthy of love. As more unexpected lives joined our family, I became entrenched in this perspective. I would continue to have children, continue to fail them, continue to fail utterly in a vocation for which I was ill-suited and perhaps incapable. In the meantime, it seemed only fitting that the one MFA program I applied for rejected me. Why should I spend the energy and passion that I should feel for my children in pursuit of poetry and writing? So I stopped writing poetry, for the first time since I learned how to write.

Of course, I couldn’t quite stop writing, but I never took it seriously. It was like a pathological hobby, something I had to do in order to remain even marginally sane, a preventative measure to keep me from descending into truly abysmal depths of mothering suckery. Even when people told me to take it seriously, told me to write a book, asked me to write a book, I said I couldn’t. I told myself I didn’t have time, but the truth was that I couldn’t let go of the idea that I didn’t deserve to write a book. I didn’t deserve to do what I loved, when I daily — hourly — managed to so spectacularly fail the people I loved.

That was the worst part of my twisted little psychological torture — I love my children and my husband, fiercely. I love them so much that at night, when I watch each of them sleeping, I feel almost suffocated by the weight of my love for them and the bitter knowledge of my failure to give them what they need, what they deserve. It always seemed like the right kind of hell for me to suffer. Of course I should be reminded of my basic inadequacy — my essential selfishness, the deep and irreversible worthlessness at the center of my being — in the most painful way possible. But I could never forgive myself for how unjust it was for them, for my family. They deserved better than me, but I was all they had. I couldn’t leave them without hurting them, so I had to settle for hurting them in a thousand smaller ways, a million daily disappointments.

Understand that in ten years, I never fleshed this out so clearly. It was a kind of subconscious oppression, something I knew and felt as true without entirely understanding. Then Isaac was born, and it was like the sun came up for the first time in a decade.

Yes, the birth and recovery was physically traumatic, but psychologically liberating. I didn’t welcome feeling beaten down and battered as a just punishment for being a crappy person, but neither did I resent the physical trauma as yet another link in the chain of my life sentence. It just was — a suffering I did not enjoy but suffered gladly, for by it I had this child.

This child, who I adore. This angel baby, whose smiles light up the world. My son, who by his existence has taught me what grace is, and mercy, and love. I can feel it like liquid running through my veins, the freedom to believe that I am not a failure, that I am not broken, that my love for my family is not stunted and inadequate but real, vivid, and abundant.

I still have to choose, and sometimes that choice is harder than others. Some part of me whispers how wrong I am for feeling such joy only now, at the birth of my fifth baby, and how unjust it is for the older four. But I am no longer under the tyranny of self-hatred. I can say to myself, yes. It is unjust, and I will always mourn the loss of their infant days. But it would be more unjust to wrap myself back up in chains that have fallen away, to deny my family the joy I feel in our life, joy that has so long eluded me.

Of course I’m not a perfect mother, and I never will be. But it doesn’t seem like a noxious lie to say that I am a good mother, and that my family is living, breathing mercy, grace, and joy. In fact, it seems true. And just, and fitting.

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