“You can sit up now.”
I shimmy my body upright and lay eyes on my sleeping bundle in her stroller by the window. I pull the gown tight around my new postpartum body, soft and full, a version of who I once was, a version of who I will be: a temporary state.
“Everything is good. You can resume all normal activity and basically, do life as usual.”
I look at her and give a feigned smile. There is no life as usual. My life has changed forever.
She sits down on her small round swivel stool, crosses her legs, puts her hands in her lap and crosses them too. She uses her foot to scooch herself forward a few inches, looks over her glasses and asks, “And how are you?”
My baby is six weeks old and we are both healthy. We had a rough start — well, it was rough for me — she didn’t eat (wouldn’t and couldn’t, actually, we were having serious problems with breastfeeding) and was close to being hospitalized because she wasn’t gaining weight or wetting diapers. She still wasn’t sleeping well, but in general, she was being a normal newborn.
But how was I?
I was different. I was unsure. A little lonely. Out of sorts.
I was happy. I was sad. I was resentful. I was grateful.
The midwife unfolds her arms and leans forward in anticipation of my answer.
“I’m doing okay.” I nod definitely, and half smile. It’s not that I was unhappy. I just wasn’t … happy.
Can’t that be okay?
She looked at me with kind intensity, as if looking through rippling water and trying to see what lay at the bottom.
“How’s the baby?”
A peanut with tons of hair. I just look at this child amazed; I cannot believe she’s mine.
“How are you sleeping?”
Sleep!? Ha! But seriously, when I can sleep, yes, I go right to sleep.
“How are you eating?”
Do fistfuls of trail mix count?
No. (Dead honest.) I just feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.
She asks more questions, gives me handouts and information and encourages me to call back for an appointment if anything changes or if I feel like I need some help.
With sincerity, I thank her and say I will.
How are you?
We brought our three-year-old adopted daughter home from China in December and this is the question I get asked most these days.
And it’s the one question I don’t know exactly how to answer. I want to say, and usually do say, “Good!” because, let’s be real, that’s what everyone wants to hear. Heck, it’s the answer I want to hear.
She’s so healthy and looks so happy (“at least from your Facebook posts”) and I smile, grateful, because much of the time, she is. But for a moment, I wonder what people would say if I only posted pictures of her tantrums, or of the dishes I leave on my kitchen counter so many nights.
Here’s my honest answer: I am not good. But I’m not bad, either.
I’m in a state of transition, which is temporary. We are a new family of six, which is permanent.
I won't always feel the way I do now, but I’ll never be the woman I was last year, before we boarded a plane taking us half way across the world and back.
In time, I’ll find a new normal, and even then, I’ll need to be willing to change, as kids don’t like to play the same rhythm for too long.
Motherhood is full of content-to-coexist contradictions.
A few weeks after we were home from our adoption trip, an older man at church stopped me with a gentle hand on my shoulder. I’m good friends with his daughter and knew he was deeply supportive of our family. He squared me up, looked through his bifocals with soft blue eyes and said, “How are you, Sonya?”
A thousand thoughts of how to answer sprinted through my head. I’m fine. We’re good. One day at a time! So grateful. Overall, really well.
All were true.
What I didn’t want to say was I’m tired. Emotionally exhausted. Sometimes I feel like I’m barely hanging on. I might need to cry if we keep talking too long.
What’s the most honest I can be without being too honest?
“We’re good!” I said with a practiced smile.
He gave me a pleased nod, closed his eyes for just a second, not a blink, more like a do-over. “Good. But how are you?”
I wanted to melt, to collapse on the floor and tell this grandpa that, much like our new three year-old daughter, I was also full of big emotions I couldn’t name or put my finger on. I was good and bad and nothing, all at the same time. I was happy, for moments, sad for others, and getting through our days as well as I could.
But that’s not the answer you give in a church hallway, even though I knew he read through my my body language and between the lines of the script I recited.
I looked straight into his eyes, shrugged my left shoulder up slightly and said, “I mean, it’s a big adjustment. But I’m good.” I excused myself and he nodded his head in hard-earned understanding.
Not long after this interaction, my family had dinner with another newly adoptive family. Our husbands stood in the spacious kitchen while the kids played in the living room. The other mom and I sat at the table next to abandoned half finished dumplings, each of us with a glass of wine in hand and asked the other, “How are you — really?”
I told my friend about my urge to soften, to sanitize my answers when someone asks how we’re doing. How, unlike my typical heart-on-my-sleeve self, I’m measuring the amount of honesty I give; I’m freshly sensitive to a person’s reactions, as if saying It’s hard is no longer an objective statement, but a reflection of my own lack of preparation, parenting skills, or emotional fortitude.
My friend told me about the advice someone gave her before their adoption: Think of the transition as a family in the same way one would with a newborn.
“Your family age is the same as the time you’ve been together,” she told me. “We’ve been home for about six weeks, so even though our kids are three, it’s like having a six week old. You’ve been your child’s mother, physically and emotionally, only for as long as you’ve known her. So yes, it’s totally normal for it to feel new, demanding, and exhausting.”
Naturally, there are differences in the physical and hormonal aspects to giving birth, yet I couldn’t deny how so much of what I was feeling reminded me of having a six week old.
I thought back to that first six week visit, over a decade ago: How I was overwhelmed with gratitude and awe, yet not quite comfortable with my new child either. How I loved her more than life, yet wasn’t sure how much I loved motherhood. I felt brave, but scared to venture too far away from home; fierce, but so fearful of never finding a new “normal.” My life was singularly focused, take care of this child, yet every decision was intricate and complex. My marriage had a new sense of purpose, but our old ways of communicating weren’t working. My baby was easy, but at the time, it just all seemed so hard.
I remember how I felt at the three-month mark, as if I’d been in training and even though it was still difficult, I could run these miles without needing to stop and catch my heaving breath (or cry on the bathroom floor). And how, at six months, life became routine; and at a year — I couldn’t imagine things any different.
I need to remember: adjusting to any new rhythm of motherhood takes time.
Maybe it’s not an adoption, but a first baby or first foray into the overwhelmingly active and emotionally draining 18-month to three-year-old age; maybe it’s a big move, a new job, a new diagnosis, or that one of the kids is in a remarkably tough phase.
I want it to be okay for me, for you, for all of us to say I’m good and I’m not good. I’m happy and I’m sad. I’m tired but yes, I’m sleeping. And when I’m not sleeping, well, I’m doing my best to rest. I’m unsure about a lot. I’m lonely, but I also need to stay close to home. It’s nothing anyone can fix and it’s not a complaint: it’s just life right now.
I want to be able to sit with all these mixed emotions, to be complex and honest and real. With myself first, and everyone else next.
The next time someones asks How are you? I want to forget measuring my answers and truthfully say: I’m okay.
And be okay to leave it at that.