on names, naming, and being named

Yesterday, on Transfiguration Sunday, my Episcopal parish included a renaming liturgy in their Eucharist and blessed my new name. This is a piece I wrote as a response to that moment, but it is actually a piece that is directed at everyone who has supported me and continues to support me and my family during my transition. Most likely, if you are reading this, it includes you, too.

The thing about transitioning is that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Transitioning is a very private thing that happens in public, and it can be a lonely thing, too. It is a lonely thing to be the only trans person in a lot of your spaces and not know if or how or when to talk about what is happening with you. It is a lonely thing to be demonized by people who don’t know you, or to be asked very personal questions by those who do because your body is suddenly no longer private but in the public domain. It is a lonely thing to suddenly find yourself the Other in a way you never were before, an outsider because of this thing that makes you different but also makes you you. Queer friends have told me it gets better, that you find your people and learn to tune out the hateful rhetoric, and I hope that’s true. I have, at least, learned to read headlines, skim articles, and to never read the comments on any think piece about trans rights–nothing good happens when you do.

For most of my life, I didn’t know that Mees could exist, that is, that I could exist. I didn’t know there could be more than the half life I had been living, that I didn’t have to live with crippling depression and dysphoria (or even that there was a name for what I felt!). And I still don’t know what Mees will look like–literally, I don’t know what my own face will look like when this transition is over, which is a very odd feeling, I can tell you–but also more metaphorically. I don’t know what it will be like to move through the world as a trans man, as a brother and a son and a husband where once I was seen as the opposite. Or to be our daughter’s father instead of her mother, even if I will also always cherish being the one who carried and birthed her. Mees is taking shape, but it’ll be a while before I can see him clearly, I think.

But the flip side is also true–the thing about transitioning is that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and that is also a blessing. It is a blessing because whether you knew it or not, you are all transitioning along with me. Every time you call me Mees, every time you say he or his, you are helping me imagine Mees into being. That is an incredible gift you are giving me, and I want you to know that. I felt all kinds of emotional when we wrote the renaming liturgy, because here was a church not just tolerating me, but loving all of me, even the parts I had always been told were wrong and shameful. I spent so much of my life hiding, and I don’t have to anymore; not even in church–especially not in church.

Transitioning means different things for different people, but for me a lot of it is about taking up space. That is part of the reason I chose the name Mees. Mees is a Dutch name, from the Biblical Bartimaeus, who you might recall is a blind man Jesus heals in the Gospels. But for me the story is less about healing and the restoring of sight and more about that before he heals him, Jesus asks Bartimaeus: what do you want me to do for you? I like to think that Jesus didn’t ask him that because he didn’t know, but because Jesus knew that something powerful happens when people are asked to name themselves and their needs.

I learned early on that the world is not kind to people who are different, and that was enough to keep me trapped for a long time. I wish I had known a long time ago that confronting this truth about myself would make me more whole, not less. I wish I could have spared myself all those years of trauma. But I know this truth now, and once I did, I also knew it would mean more than just a new name, it would mean taking up space as the entirety of myself, as Mees. You should know how much it means to me that I don’t have to do this alone, but that you are here to walk this path with me, and with us. Thank you.

on coming out as transgender–and myself

Find out who you are and do it on purpose. 

DOLLY PARTON

I.
If you are my friend on Goodreads, you may have seen my reading interests shift. Somewhere in the past year, the LGBTQ tag began to appear more frequently. I read memoirs, academic tomes about queer theology, and histories. I searched my library’s catalog and realized most of the LGBT fiction was to be found in the young adult section, so off to the teen corner I went. I read romance novels that were sexy and sometimes cheesy but not heteronormative. And finally I read book after book with transgender in the title. And I cried while I read those, and then I reached for more, because here were my experiences laid out across the page. I sobbed because it turns out there were words for what I felt, there was a whole system of language that could articulate and explain what I’ve known as long as I can remember but never knew how to express. I cried because there was the proof that there were other people like me, that I wasn’t alone, and that I wasn’t broken. I was just transgender.

II.
Transitioning is a very odd thing, because it is something intensely personal and private, but it happens in public. I have half a dozen versions of this post sitting in my drafts folder, because I didn’t know what I wanted to tell you. I’ve written about very personal things on this blog, but always in a measured and curated way, with a narrative I shaped myself, generally after a lot of processing. I believe in speaking truth, telling stories, and breaking silences. But when it came to this post, I didn’t know what that would look like.

I could write about how I was still in elementary school the first time I realized I was different, and just how quickly different was internalized as deviant and shameful. How I always felt like I was on the outside looking in, that there was always something separating me from other people. Or how hellish puberty is when your body changes in ways you desperately don’t want it to but can’t control–and for that matter, how pregnancy was even worse. I could write about just how much energy I spent on policing myself and trying to perform femininity in socially acceptable ways, and how I never could make that feel like anything other than pretend. I could write about the studies that estimate that 41% of trans people try to kill themselves—that’s at a rate nine times higher than cis people—and how I fit in those statistics. Or what it’s like to look in the mirror and not recognize yourself, what it’s like to be so disassociated from your physical self because the alternative is just too much to bear. Or maybe I could write about how lonely I have been and how often I prayed to be normal, to somehow be not-me, and how that wish was never granted. Because all of that is true, and I have so many stories of heartbreak, pain, and self-loathing I could tell you. There is a reason most of the trans narratives you know are narratives of trauma.

I hesitate, though, because it’s not the whole story, and not even the most important part. I’d much rather write about how realizing I was trans took away so much of the anguish that was a daily and normalized part of my life, and gave me so much peace. How it made me finally believe I am perfectly and wonderfully made just as I am, to use the psalmist’s words. And how my husband told me I was glowing when he picked me up after my first masculine haircut, and just how indescribably amazing gender euphoria is when all you’ve known is dysphoria. I’d rather write about how I am still me, that if anything, I am more me than I used to be. How friends have told me they can see what this is doing for me and how much more comfortable with myself and happy I seem. And how I know transitioning isn’t exactly an easy process, particularly in this political climate, but compared to living the rest of my life in the body I had, it’s absolutely the easier option. I’d rather write about how for the first time in my life, I make sense to myself. To appropriate Yeats’ poem, the center can hold. For the first time in my life, things are not falling apart, the center holds. I’d much rather write about that.

III. 
The observant reader may have noticed a name change in the header of this blog. I’m slowly switching names and pronouns; though I don’t dislike my birth name, it also no longer feels like me, and I have chosen a new one, Mees. There’s a story behind that too–one of many new stories I have to share. Ask me and maybe I’ll tell you sometime.

IV. 
In April, I found myself in an exam room at a hospital clinic in San Francisco, learning to inject myself with testosterone. I walked out of that clinic in a daze, with a new hormone in my body and a prescription in my hand so I could give myself weekly shots going forward. I don’t remember much of the drive home, honestly, my head spinning with the reality of what I had just done. This was happening; I was transitioning.

That night, as I was brushing my teeth, tired and not thinking of anything much in particular, an unfamiliar feeling crept up on me. It took me a while to figure out, but I finally realized that what I was feeling was happiness, an equilibrium, a tiny bit of feeling at home in myself. I cried then, too, because I didn’t know I could feel that way. That, I think, is what I want you to know, and the story I want to leave you with. I’m 32 years old and I finally feel like a whole person, in a way I couldn’t even have imagined when I was 7 or 15 or 28 years old. I finally feel like me.

on Easter when you’re not ready

Lent, I could do. Easter, on the other hand, Easter was harder this year.

I had surgery to repair my fourth degree tear on March 5, the day before Ash Wednesday. A surgeon and a resident made their incisions and reached inside to repair what had been broken when my daughter was born. I had three procedures done in 3.5 hours–I will spare you the details of what exactly they did, but I will tell you that they used a chevron pattern for some of the sutures, or so the surgery notes later told me.

In the waiting room, the doctor told my husband they had been successful, more successful than he had originally thought would be the case. I didn’t hear any of this, of course, I was in the recovery room, with pain that wouldn’t let itself be tamed. I spent hours floating above and then crashing down into the pain, over and over again, as the nurse worked to find a combination of drugs that would keep the pain at bay. My hospital bill had a whole row of charges simply labeled “DRUGS,” expensive evidence, as it were, of the hours I spent wordlessly crying–suffering–in the recovery room. It’s a hazy memory, but a strong one, and I wonder if it will fade.

At my four week check up, I got a copy of my surgery notes. That’s when I learned I had been sewn up in a chevron pattern. I thought, that’s fun, a chevron pattern. I didn’t know sutures could be done that way. During the car ride home, I studied my surgery notes, trying to understand the complex medical jargon and mapping it to what I remembered or what I had been told. I read and reread them because I was curious and fascinated, I think, at this peek into the medical world, but also because I was still trying to make sense of what had happened that day when I was unconscious–present, but not there.

A couple days after my surgery, one of our priests made a house call to mark my forehead in a belated Ash Wednesday ritual. Although I deeply appreciated her visit, I didn’t really need the reminder of just how fragile we are, how mortal. Two years ago, on Ash Wednesday, I was pregnant and bleeding, hoping I wouldn’t lose our baby; this year, I was in bed, bleeding again, hoping now for a body restored.

My Lent was spent in bed, healing. It lined up neatly with the church seasons, I thought ahead of time. No need to search for a Lenten practice, my practice this year would be to heal and recover mindfully. I could do that. I picked out books to read, planned to make my way through the Psalms in a month, had my Book of Common Prayer at hand so I could say Morning Prayer from my bed on Wednesday mornings instead of with our little prayer group at church. The first two weeks were brutal and went by in a haze of pain and carefully timed opioids, with a Saturday night ER visit and an extra trip to the hospital clinic thrown in for good measure. I endured it with varying amounts of grace. I knew this would be hard, and it was, but I also knew I could make it through Lent because I could look forward to Easter.

But then the weeks passed, the forty(six) days of Lent passed, and I was still in bed. It became clear I would miss out on Holy Week and would not be in church for Easter. The foot washing would still happen on Thursday, Good Friday would be beautifully solemn and sober, the fire of Easter would be lit at the Vigil on Saturday night, the cross would flower on Sunday morning, and I would not be there to witness it.

I did receive communion that Easter Sunday, not at a beautifully decorated church with a choir and musicians and the people I know and love, but at home, on the makeshift sick bed in the living room. I took the bread and wine with mixed emotions: grateful my friend came by to give me communion and so extended our church community from the sanctuary up on the hill to my living room; sad that I wasn’t yet where I wanted to be and was going to be for a while yet. To be honest, I was more sad than grateful, but as I tasted the wine, I realized there was something else there, too. There was hope.

Hope because the familiar actions of the Eucharistic liturgy performed in my own living room reminded me that the resurrection does not depend on me. The resurrection happens whether I am feeling it or not, whether my body is whole or broken or somewhere in between. The resurrection doesn’t wait for me to be ready; the resurrection is, and there is hope in that.

As a former Calvinist, I know how to do Good Friday, how to feel the weight of my sins and sins of the world around me and contemplate the chasm between me and God. As an Episcopalian, I know how to do Easter Sunday, how to celebrate the resurrection and love in its purest form. But this year I am learning how to do Holy Saturday, how to wait in a liminal space, how to live in the in-between between hurt and healing, between death and new life.

on Mary, Advent, and me (a reprise)

“We do not own stories, and when we try to limit them, squeeze the life out of them, lose the love that gave them to us and fall back into that fatal human flaw, pride, hubris, we’re right back to Adam and Eve who listened to the power of the snake instead of the creativity of God.” Madeleine L’Engle, Bright Evening Star: Mystery of the Incarnation.

The Virgin Mary has had an outsized influence on my life, which is remarkable if you consider that I’d never really heard her story until I started going to church as a teen. More precisely, Mary has been the bane of my existence since I converted and learned her story and, more importantly, that I was subject to it. What I learned, what was imprinted on me in too many ways to mention, was that Mary was a virgin, Mary was meek, Mary was mild, Mary was a mother above all, Mary was who I was supposed to be because I was a girl. I was not any of those things, even when I tried. I was not like Mary, but I learned I should be.

The Mary that was taught to me—as I wrote about last Advent—was a caricature, an idealized role model. That Mary is a mute, sweet mother who can only stare adoringly down at her child. That Mary had her humanity taken away from her, her strength, her bravery, the way she was afraid but stepped forward in faith anyway and answered God’s call. Frankly, this is bad storytelling. You only have to read the Magnificat in its entirety to see that Mary had more than a little fierceness in her, and better writers than I have celebrated her for it. And yet that is a version of Mary I never got to know.

I know a lot of women find empowerment in Mary’s story and consider childbirth and motherhood in a sacred light. I don’t want to discount that. I feel that, sometimes, I do. As I’ve made my way into motherhood, I’ve gotten glimpses of grace, places where Mary’s story and mine intersect. I cherish those glimpses and the ways in which giving birth has given me a new understanding of the gospel. In a way I didn’t before, I understand the ordinary and the extraordinary intertwined in that manger. I can feel the messy and embodied glory of the incarnation in a visceral way now. I cherish those glimpses and new understandings, and yet I find myself wanting more.

Patriarchy aside, it’s not the centrality of motherhood or even virginity that gives me pause. Motherhood is a radical act and if you loosen the bonds of patriarchal discourse, virginity can be read the same way. It’s that Mary is so often only allowed to be those things.

Mary embodies all my anxieties about being female. She gives a face to all my fears that because I was born a woman, because I am a mother, I will not be allowed to flourish outside of those spaces. That I will always be “woman” and “mother” first, and myself second. That my gender will forever determine what I can do, how far I am allowed to go, and it will never be as far as I want. And worse yet, that there is something wrong with me for wanting more than my family can give me or society says I can have. And so every time Mary is reduced down to her womb by a careless preacher, that message sinks in a little deeper. Every time Mary is relegated to women’s spaces, as if she doesn’t have something to teach the whole church, I become a little smaller.

Each year during Advent, I sit in the pews and want more for Mary. I sit in the pews and want more for myself, too. I want us all to be able to look towards her and see ourselves reflected in her. I want us to recognize the bravery and strength she possessed, and recognize that she expressed that bravery and strength first through childbirth and motherhood, but it–and she–was by no means limited to that sphere. Mary as much as any other disciple can teach us to take our own step forward in courage and say yes to God. If only we would let her.

on embodiment and resurrection

Christ has no body but yours,
no hands, no feet on earth but yours,
yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world,
yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
no hands, no feet on earth but yours,
yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

–usually attributed to Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)

In February, in a moment of quiet meditation, I walked the labyrinth during our church’s women’s retreat up in Healdsburg. I had these words in my head and was thinking about what it meant to be Christ’s hands and feet on this earth. I was thinking about the incarnation and embodiment, about what it means to have a body. And as I walked the path, I thought about how sometimes, when I look in the mirror, I don’t see a body, I see a palimpsest of experiences layered onto an external frame, layers and layers imprinted on my skin by abuse and violence and the neglect that came after.

I see the hands that struck me and the body that kept forcing itself where it had no right to go. I see the other hands and the other bodies invited later out of loneliness and desire and a desperate need to overwrite the damage done, the bodies male and female whose presence defied the easy categorization of sin and virtue. I see the lines that marriage engraved on my body, lines that exude a love and respect I didn’t know existed. I see how hard I tried to nullify my body, first through food and neglect, later through exercise and discipline. And I see how after years of attempting to dominate and conquer it, I finally surrendered to my unborn child and let my body do what it would.

There is something almost too metaphorical about it, how love mirrored evil here and transversed the same routes, how pregnancy and childbirth ravaged my already-broken body, breaking it now out of love, not hate, and in sacrifice, not submission. My body, once marked by evil, came to be marked by love as I conceived, carried, and birthed a child. Marked by more trauma, yes, as I tore so significantly and it took so long to heal, as a traumatic pregnancy gave way to a traumatic birth, but also marked by love.

But love doesn’t erase hate, I don’t think. It added another layer to the palimpsest, so that now when I look in the mirror, I see all the things that came before, and I see a body that was a home to my daughter and is a home still. I see a body my daughter reaches for, arms she wants to be held by, legs she likes to hide behind, breasts that fed her and gave her comfort, a torso she climbs all over when we play jungle gym together on the living room floor. I see how my body is a place of safety to her, and although it is not yet that for me, it makes me hopeful that it one day could be. That the evil wrought on my body could one day fade to the briefest of lines, present but almost invisible between all the marks of love on my skin.

When I walked the labyrinth, I thought about what it means that Christ has no body now on earth but mine. I thought about the particulars of that statement–no body but mine. Mine. I thought about what it means that Jesus returned to his own brutalized body after his resurrection and offered his wounds as proof to his disciples. I thought about all those things, and then I thought about my own body, and I prayed. I walked and I prayed a prayer of grief and thanksgiving for all my body had suffered and all it had done, from the ways it was violated to ways it grew and nurtured my daughter, and for the role it plays in my own ongoing resurrection, scars and all.

on Mary, mother’s milk, and me


12G77__92255.1447969985.350.350I recently added this icon from Uncut Mountain Supply to my collection. It’s a Russian icon of the Theotokos the Milk-Giver, and it reminds me that birthing and caring for Jesus was how Mary answered God’s call and that there is more than a little of the divine in the messy, embodied experience of being a postpartum woman.

Two months after I gave birth to my baby, I went to a church convention, where we gathered to worship and pray and vote on church business. The theme that year was ‘women in ministry,’ and I was looking forward to a celebration of all the ways women serve God and the church.

It didn’t entirely turn out that way, at least not for me. I cried through one session’s opening prayer and sobbed during the next day’s lunch break. Not because I was away from my baby, although I’m sure the hormones coursing through my body had something to do with it, but because I was a nursing mom. Being at the convention meant I had to pump every three hours, but being a woman in a man’s world meant there was no space–literally or figuratively–to do so. So I pumped in the busy bathroom, in the stall furthest from the door I could find, sitting on the toilet seat. And when I was done, I accidentally knocked over the milk while trying to disentangle myself, and I cried. I cried the way only new mothers can. I cried out of exhaustion and humiliation and shame.

After twelve months of nursing and pumping, I no longer have any fucks to give about all of this. In fact, at a recent event at the same location, I told them I’d need to use a conference room during breaks and just pumped there with my trusty nursing cover and a book to pass the time. When I was interrupted by two male staffers–neither of which had clearly seen a pump before–I calmly told them I would be done in fifteen minutes and they could have the room then. But two months in, all I felt was embarrassment about my unruly postpartum body and the process of making milk, this thing my body did, this thing that everyone says is so important yet receives so little support. That day, when I went back into the room where all the clergy and lay people were singing an opening hymn, I didn’t join them in song. I was too upset to sing. I stood there with tears in my eyes as I told myself that the men surrounding me, who I could only see just then as the gatekeepers of the church, those men had drunk from their mothers. That they may be powerful now, but that their mothers had once done for them what I was doing for my child. And it suddenly struck me that Mary mother of God had lactated. Mary knew what it was like to have milk leak from heavy breasts, to feel your body respond to the needs of your child, to feel the pins and needles of milk letting down and the ache and even pain that comes when you are away from your baby for too long. I stood there and I reminded myself it was a holy thing I was doing. And my tears turned to tears of fury that this was happening during a convention meant in part to celebrate women.

I cried–sobbed, rather–again that day and the next, as one way or another there was no space for me and I received the message that this was something to hide. When I left a gathering so I could pump before the evening session would start, someone asked if I was headed back to the main space early. I didn’t actually get a chance to answer, as someone else–a man, which matters, I think–told them not to ask what I was doing and that I would be back. I think about that often. I’m not naming him because he meant well, I think was trying to protect me as he could tell I felt embarrassed and uncertain about it all. But at the same time, what I heard in that was that this was something to surround with shame.

Time and time again I have learned that breastfeeding is something we like to valorize but also like to pretend doesn’t happen. It’s part of a larger message the culture sends, that women’s bodies are only there to be sexualized and are not allowed to be anything other than perfect. That our only concern post-birth is to bounce back, to lose the baby weight, to erase any sign that our bodies created and nurtured an actual human being for nine months and sustained them beyond that too. That any problems after birth are women’s issues to be hidden and talked about among ourselves, costs we ought to bear and prices of admission we ought to pay gratefully if we can, and silently in any case.

Breastfeeding came at an enormous cost to me, and my therapist often gently asked me if it was time to wean my daughter. Every time I answered that I wasn’t done yet, it wasn’t time yet, that I recognized how much this was costing me but it wasn’t something I wanted to say goodbye to yet. But I am no longer embarrassed by the milk my body produces for my daughter. I will say the word ‘pump’ in mixed company, will take up space when I need it. And that little sentence from that tear-filled day, that acknowledgment that Mary lactated, has become a shorthand for myself. It is a reminder of the lengths women go to for their children and how different this is my body, broken for you sounds after childbirth. It is a reminder that it was precisely with her expanding body and the pain and mess of childbirth and the hormonal fog that comes after, and yes, even with her leaking breasts that Mary fully served God. It is a reminder of the beauty of the incarnation and how God works through our bodies, not around or despite them. And it’s a reminder that while I was created female and I chose to become a mother, it’s up to me to determine what that means and I refuse to allow any space for shame.

on birthing a child, or a creation story

The night before my daughter was born, a year ago yesterday, I woke up sobbing at 3AM. I’m not sure why this detail matters, but it does. The night before my daughter was born, I woke up sobbing at 3AM, and I cried until 5 when my water broke. I was both sure and unsure that it was my water breaking (how do you know what something is when you’ve never felt it before, otherwise known as the entirety of pregnancy), but the contractions told me it was serious. Right from the start, they lasted just under a minute and came every minute, every ninety seconds at most. There was no time to recover in between contractions, to employ any of the comfort techniques we had learned in childbirth prep class, to tell my husband how he could help. There was no time to breathe. There was only time to panic.

I didn’t have a birth plan. Have the baby, that was pretty much the entirety of the birth plan, although L. would add “in the hospital” to that, as the idea of a home birth was enough to give him heart palpitations. But as I got closer and closer to the birth, I wondered if I could do it, an unmedicated birth. I wanted to be able to do it. I wanted to try, and see what my body was capable of. I wanted to be tough enough, woman enough, to see it through. It turns out I wasn’t, but maybe it counts for something that I wanted to be.

When those contractions hit, so suddenly, so frequently, and so fiercely, the idea of an unmedicated birth went out the window. I wanted an epidural and I wanted it now. We live ten minutes from the hospital where I delivered, and that drive may have been the ten longest minutes of my life. On the way there, L. got stuck behind a car and if I could have, I would have yanked the steering wheel and made him pass that car myself.

And then we got to the hospital, and I promptly threw up a couple times in the trashcan outside of the entrance while L. tried to find a wheelchair to get me up to Labor and Delivery. I was panicking so much that I couldn’t let him find one for me, and I insisted we walk to L&D. So we did. We found the elevator, we took the elevator, we got to the nurses’ desk where they promptly checked me in and I probably said “I want an epidural” as the response to every question, that’s how much I couldn’t breathe. They coached me through the remaining contractions until the anesthesiologist could come, I signed the paperwork with blurry vision and shaking hands, and then–sweet relief. The pain was excruciating but the panic was worse, and the epidural took away both.

The next few hours were some of the most peaceful and blessed of my life. I was about five centimeters dilated, and while we waited for the other five, L. and I rested together. We napped a little, talked about the last nine months and wondered what it would be like to meet our little girl, he read and I listened to an audiobook, and I did whatever the nurses told me to, thankful to not be feeling anything and have someone else be in charge. When I think about G.’s birth, I think about the beauty of those quiet hours and how they marked the transition from a family of two into a family of three for me.

Of the birth itself, I don’t actually remember very much. I had a wonderful nurse who taught me how to push and then taught L. how to coach me so I could push better and longer.  I remember throwing up in between pushes out of sheer exertion and exhaustion. I remember thinking I was done, I couldn’t do this anymore, and then hearing I was almost there, just one or two more and my daughter would be here. I remember my doctor asking if she could snip me, that they needed to do something, and me saying yes, yes, this baby needs to come out, do whatever you want. And then I remember feeling this terrible need to push, and seeing my doctor and nurse conferring in the corner, and not knowing how not to push, or even that sometimes you shouldn’t, so I did. And then suddenly I had a baby on my chest, my baby, and I cried, and spoke to her in Dutch and welcomed her and told her I loved her. I knew right away that she was mine, that although I had just met her, I also knew her on a deep and instinctual level. I was her mother and this was my child.

I kept that baby on my chest as my doctor stitched me up. The miracle hour, that first hour after birth hospitals and childbirth classes like to valorize? I spent most of that with my baby on my chest and my doctor sewing me up. Later I was told that she had gotten stuck a little bit, that although she was small, so was I, but I didn’t know that at the time. Later still, I would hear that because she has descended so rapidly at the end, I had sustained significant damage. I had a fourth-degree tear, the most severe you can have, and had torn through all my muscles and then some, something I didn’t even know could happen. I was warned that any future babies would have to come by c-section, something that meant nothing to me at the time and causes me to feel a strange kind of grief now. The next morning, when I got out of bed, I would see brown-red spots on the floor–my blood, now dried, that they hadn’t been able to get off the floor the night before. That detail, like the sobbing, strikes me as significant, although I can’t really explain why.

And then we were parents, and I learned right away what it meant to be a mother. It meant to nourish a child with your own body even as you bleed and bleed and hurt in ways you didn’t know you could. It meant going through major bodily trauma and then instinctively prioritizing the cries of your child above the deep, deep aches of your own body. That, perhaps, is why I haven’t written about this before now, because becoming a mother meant there was no time to reflect, no space to process or even feel my own pain–there was only my daughter and her needs.

In the months after G.’s birth, I learned that there is no bouncing back after baby, there is only a rebuilding, a recreation. I created my daughter, and in turn she created me. A lot of G.’s first year was lost to the fog of pain and postpartum depression, of slow physical recovery that wasn’t measured in weeks but in months or indeed a year now, of a dissertation that needed to be finished and the defense that followed, neither of which provided much relief. But this was also the year of me learning to trust my instincts, to stop caring as much about what other people thought, to learn how to notice my body and what it asks of me and to attempt to gracefully work with the pain I still feel daily, twelve months later, rather than fight it. I learned I could love my daughter and what she gave me and mourn what she took from me at the same time.

Becoming a mother introduced a richness into my life that I didn’t know existed. It’s a love that’s so different from anything else I’d ever experienced. I roll my eyes at the expression “mama bear” but I am one and if you even come close to threatening my child, my hackles rise and I fight rather than flee. Don’t let anyone fool you: we may like to think of mothers as angelic creatures singing lullabies in the nursery, but I am here to tell you that with motherhood comes fierceness–or at least it did for me.