It was Rosh Hashanah, and I was 7 months pregnant and unable to understand and accept what this new baby meant for our little triad. Which was really a dyad between Y and me, with Anne hanging out on the outskirts. The bible/Torah story that’s always read on Rosh Hashanah is the Akedah, or the Binding of Isaac. The one where God tells Isaac to sacrifice his son that he loves so much and went through all kinds of fertility issues to have, and wasn’t able to have him until he was like 694 years old and the wife that bears this child was like a thousand years old. So Abraham prepares the accoutrement for the sacrifice and asks his son to come with him up the mountain and totally carry the wood for the burning. His son thinks they’re sacrificing a goat like they always do, and Abraham doesn’t tell him otherwise. So they’re walking up this mountain, and suddenly Isaac is like, “where’s the goat, dad?” and Abraham’s like, “well, it’s you” and ties Isaac to the altar and raises the knife to slaughter him and then God is like “Ok, don’t really do it, I have a goat for you right here” and then a goat appears and they sacrifice the goat instead, and who knows what that walk back to the house was like.
Anyway, so my uterus and I are listening to this story at the service and in the self-centered and dramatic manner of the only child who is also pregnant, I’m totally identifying with this story. But not in a tests-from-God sense. Every time I feign excitement with Y about the new baby and let her feel the baby’s movements and look at clothes for the baby, etc. I feel like we’re climbing mount Moriah and I know, but she doesn’t know, that she’s the goat.
I told my therapist this because you can be that dramatic in therapy:
“I feel like I’m Abraham and Y is Isaac”
“I don’t know what you are talking about because I was not raised with religions, but it’s about betrayal?”
It’s about betrayal. Betrayal changes a relationship forever. It shakes the foundation of everything, and cracks it open so that it becomes something else, something unsafe.
The day N was conceived we happened to be in the Bay Area for a wedding. Our donor was there, too. I remember anxiously, absent-mindedly ripping apart a positive ovulation predictor test as Anne and I huddled in the bathroom and discussed whether we were going to do this. “I don’t think Y could handle having a sibling,” she said. I agreed. But I couldn’t let it go. All night I couldn’t let it go, I felt seized by something huge. The spirit of a child who wanted to come. A little egg knowing there’s sperm nearby. Hormones. I don’t know. Anne finally agreed we would try just once and if it was meant to be it was meant to be. Out of our hands. Your crazy hormones. Don’t worry, it won’t work, it took 18 months to conceive Yael and I wasn’t exhausted, underweight, and breastfeeding 6-8 times a day then. I thought of all my straight friends who were “not, not trying.” No one’s going to actively take on the role of ruining their child’s s life but hey, if it happens…
Two weeks later I gagged at the stinky feet smell at Yael’s gymnastics class. A crappy weeks-old trader joe’s orange was the most delicious, perfect thing I had ever tasted. The two bright blue, glowing lines on the test slammed into my eyes as I absentmindedly looked up. I had been staring at Facebook for the five minutes, still sitting on the toilet, amazingly having forgotten what I was waiting for.
I couldn’t connect with the baby throughout the pregnancy. There were scares, there were reassuring ultrasounds, there was so much movement from early on, and yet it felt so wrong to even talk to him. Y is my baby. Y is the one that I talk to and sing to and explain and teach and laugh and delight with. He wasn’t here, really. In my head he was frozen in the blastocyst stage. I called him “Blasty.” Electricity, multiplying cells. Y was here in her full complexity. She was everything. And it was all going to explode. I couldn’t make room. I breastfed her through the pregnancy.
I sent her to school at the beginning of the school year because I knew I would need that time with the baby when he arrived in January, and I wanted her to have time to adjust to school before then. She was not yet three. She was intimidated by other kids, had no interest in being cared for by other adults, had never had a baby sitter or any non-family member watch her in her life. I left her there in this wild jungle of people who were not desperately in love with her and who wouldn’t be able to read her every response and provide completely attuned reactions and connections. I left her because of this person in my uterus whom I was incapable of imagining or connecting with. After I left her,clutching her froggy, her lunch box, her oversized back pack, I sprinted back to the parking lot faster than I thought my pregnant self could run, sobbing, blind with tears, nauseous from grief and guilt.
And then Blasty arrived, the most beautiful birth I never could have imagined. He was light, he was perfect, and oh my god I loved him.
Anne went home to nap Y a couple of hours after N was born because she had never napped by herself or with grandma. The doula (who had only been present for an hour of the unpredictably quick birth, and I think felt badly to leave) and I chatted awkwardly while N slept on me. Y came to meet her brother, I made sure I wasn’t holding him, he “gave” her his “I’m sorry I was born and ruined everything” gift (A Daniel Tiger trolley that moved and played songs and had all the characters) and she brought cupcakes. We sang happy birthday. She dutifully exclaimed about his tininess. She asked to nurse. The shocked but professional L&D nurse that was the designated breastfeeding coach remarked that I might not have enough milk to feed both kids, and we’ll see what the doctor has to say. (Three days later he had far surpassed his birth weight, information which was conveyed to me as I tried in vain to keep my milk from spraying all over his chart at the doctor’s office). N and I spent the first and only night alone in the hospital so Y could have one parent home with her.
(By the way, moms expecting number two, I really wouldn’t worry too much about perfectly arranging the delivery room meeting. Your child will very quickly figure out what having a sibling means, no matter how many PBS Kids-themed toys mysteriously accompany him out of your uterus.)
I remember the high from the first days, a reparative birth, a beautiful, albeit jaundiced baby, N lying in the early January but still New Mexican sun, Y playing with her trolley, Anne not yet back to work. “Feeling of well-being” I said out loud.
It quickly shifted. I realized immediately I couldn’t nurse Y four times a day anymore. I cut out nursing sessions, replacing them with totally insufficient games of mommy and baby animals cuddling. One day, when N was a couple weeks old, Y suddenly demanded to nurse in the evening, knowing this wasn’t an option. I denied, and held her, and she screamed, her tiny body shaking, curled up in my lap. We were both consumed, swept away in her despair. My tears fell on her little head as she shrieked and sobbed “I want my mommy!”over and over.
I found myself quickly putting the baby down if I heard her coming into the room, like I didn’t want to get caught. I felt I only had two ways to respond to her despair- feeling it for her and helplessly suffocating in it or pushing it away and becoming cold and impatient, and I wildly swung between the two.
I never asked her to help with the baby, I felt like that would be disrespectful salt-rubbing. And she was certainly not interested in helping. But I soon found that she was interested in how we interacted with him. She loves silly words and delighted at his babbling as he grew older. She resented him for sure, she wanted me back for sure, but she didn’t want me to neglect him in order to serve her. She kind of cared about him. She showed me a family picture she drew, and it included N. I expected to see him depicted maybe off to one side, away from the family, upside down, being eaten by a stegosaurus, but he was right next to her, between the circle with dots that was mommy and the circle with dots that was mama.
It stayed really fucking hard for a while. I couldn’t figure out how to attune to and groove with both of them at the same time. Those moments of awkwardly holding her while I nursed Nuri in the rocker, my guilt so huge we were all almost flattened by it.
But, from her teachers at school, and her dance teacher “She’s adjusting incredibly well. I’ve seen absolutely no signs that anything has happened. She’s still just so happy.”
Once, while I was nursing Nuri, she fell and started banshee screaming, and I felt myself move through the familiar series of startled, agitated, annoyed, guilty, concerned, and then I watched her pick up her stuffed froggy for a snuggle instead of asking me.
She suddenly started chatting up other parents at the park. She started to dress herself, she worked at it until she figured out zippers and buttons. She played on her own, holding court in elaborate pretend worlds of ducks and frogs and the nutcracker and lady gaga and human hearts. All of this made me sad to watch, the compensations of a child abandoned. But it’s also possible that she was starting to thrive and I couldn’t see it though the blurry, nearsighted lens of my guilt, my clinging to this role of being her everything, even as it stretched, distorted, and snapped, impossible to sustain. N’s arrival had pushed her out of the nest, I had pushed her out of the nest, and it was possible she was flying loop-the-loops and sky-writing, but all I could see was that she wasn’t in the nest anymore.
Now she confidently enters new situations. She sets skillful, polite boundaries with other kids (most of the time) when she feels she needs to- a skill most adults I know, myself included, don’t have. She runs into her brother’s room screaming “quiero ver a Nunu” when he wakes from a nap, she comforts him when he’s distressed (and yeah, the distress is often because she’s taken something from him or knocked him down.) He thinks she’s the most amazing slightly scary and unpredictable but completely awesome blurry whirlwind that ever was. Y’s relationship with Anne has seriously deepened. Our family is more balanced.
Last Rosh Hashanah, N was 9 months old. He slept against me in the carrier during the service, as I reflected on and marveled at this past year. The rabbi was visiting from a renewal congregation in Philadelphia. “I heard an interpretation of the Akedah that I love, and haven’t heard often,” she said, “that the goat symbolizes the child that the parent tries to own.” The child that I was enmeshed with, clinging to, trying to own and control was the goat. And the sacrifice I dreaded and fought against and finally succumbed to was the release of this perceived ownership and projection and control. And it was exactly what needed to happen. It might have also been wisdom that was gripping me that sleepless night, in which I decided, (against our previous well thought out decision), to crack open my existing relationship with my daughter. A type of primal wisdom that takes you to a mountain top and asks you to kill the thing you think you love, which, unbeknownst even to you, is the thing that had kept you both bound.