On Baby-Mama Yoga And Being Someone I Don’t Know If I Am Yet

I’m going to baby-mama yoga tomorrow with my friend Sita. And I am so, so nervous. Yesterday I worked up the courage to ask Sita how the baby-mama yoga was focused. What I really wanted to know was, was it a baby-mama class, or was it a class for mamas with post-birth bodies, who happen to have babies in tow? I framed the question, “Is there a focus on the post-natal body?” She responded right away, that usually, yes, but that the teacher had lots of experience with all kinds of adoptive and surrogate mothers.

Why are surrogate mamas always in the same category as adoptive mothers? Why am I bristling at being in the category with adoptive mamas? Aren’t they as much a mama as anyone else? Yes, I know intellectually, they are. But I am bristling because I also know, that in the mommy-blogger world, and in the social media world, and in the world writ large- they are not. 

And I know I am a real mama, because I am sitting in front of this laptop with two sweaty babies on my chest, and two boppys at my feet, and there are half eaten bottles and folded up diapers strewn about, and I know I am going to wake up to feed and cuddle these girls, every two hours tonight, and I would do just about anything for them, because they are squishy and cute and silly and weird and mine. 

But sometimes I feel like I am not enough of a mama to take up space in a post-natal class that has a focus on post natal-bodies. Just the word postnatal makes me nervous, highlights my alterity, makes me feel like I am not enough, because I am not post-natal. And yes, I know this is about me, not about the discursive life of the word post-natal, or its placement in the yoga class title, or even the mamas who are post-natal. And sometimes also, I feel so incredibly sensitive around people who don’t know, especially others who don’t know me and don’t know the story, and ask all kinds of endless questions that have SO MANY assumptions built into them, assumptions that cut to the heart of why I feel so awkward and sometimes, so sad, and occasionally, feel the need to lie about how I got these gorgeous twins.

New moms chatter away about birth stories. They talk about how their vaginas are torn to shreds and how their nipples are cracked and bleeding, and how their jeans still don’t fit. Just FYI: my vagina is not torn to shreds, my one normal nipple is normal and my other one has no feeling so I don’t know how it is, and the only problem with my jeans is that I made them all into cut-offs. And so, despite the fact that I have a really freakin awesome birth story that I’d be de-lighted to share if they asked, I feel weird, like I am not enough. Like I am not a real-enough mama. Like I won’t fit in. Like the popular girls will turn their backs and like no one will play with me because I can’t understand how it feels to have your body experience total disorientation because of a spectacular event like the making of a person. I do understand how it feels to have your body experience total disorientation because of a shitty event like cancer. But it’s not the same, and I also understand that.

I am nervous because all the other mamas are not like me. I am nervous I am taking up space that is theirs- postnatal space. Space written into existence because they needed it, because they didn’t have it. I’m enough of a feminist scholar to know, that women’s body’s have historically been seriously marginalized and that this kind of space is sacred. I’m enough of a critical pedagogue to know I don’t really fit. I’m sensitive enough to know I could disrupt this gentle balance.

My friend Sita asked what I was worried about.

Everyone who knows me, who knows the story? Insanely kind. Kind to the tune of doing yoga with me, kind to the tune of giving me their extra breast milk, kind to the tune of sending me boxes of their old baby clothing. So, so kind. Even people I don’t know well, who just know of my story.

But people who don’t? The woman who whispered to me, “breast is best” as I poured formula into a bottle? I looked her in the eye, and told her my doctor said breastfeeding would kill me. It’s true. The many who inquire if the twins are “natural?” Can someone please tell me what kind of baby is unnatural?!?! Like what would that even look like? A wooden baby, like Pinnochio? The people who inquire after how much we paid the surrogate, who balk at a baby costing too much, as if a person has a price tag. All these people are people I don’t know well. All these people are people who don’t know my story. Every. Single. One.

On the other hand, I was so reassured by a self-declared “so passionate about breast feeding” mama, who said to me, “what you’re doing is amazing. It would have been a triple full time job to induce breast feeding. What you’re doing is perfect.” Yah, triple full time job, especially with one tit, two babies, and a set of hormonal supplements that most likely have killed me. A triple full time deadly job.

And so I worry. I worry about how I will be perceived. I worry about what they will think. I worry about going into the baby-mama class.

I am the most worried about being in the baby-mama class, and about the grief hitting me, slamming me, cracking my heart wide open, making my eyes fill with large, juicy tears. Because you know what? I may never be done grieving the fact that I didn’t carry these two beautiful girls. I am at peace with the fact that someone I love dearly and respect more than I can explain in words did carry them, and I am eternally grateful: but I’ll always carry the grief that I couldn’t do that for my own sweet daughters.

The teacher of this yoga-baby-mama class told my friend Sita, her assistant, that she couldn’t promise no one would say any of those painful things to me, but that she doubted anyone would. Again, I bristled. What I heard was, “you needn’t be so worried, no one here would do that.” The thing is, whenever anyone says anything insensitive and I recount it later, it sounds wildly inappropriate. But in the moment, it never seems that way except in my heart. And really kind, really politically aware, and often really awesome people can say things that cut deep without even knowing it, without ever meaning to, without considering that what they assume about a mother and her babies, and the questions they ask with the intention of bonding could cut so deeply, so painfully, so harshly. I needed everyone to recognize, I was scared, and it was possible.

But my friend Sita urged me to tell the story, urged me to build community, urged me to be open and raw and honest. And she promised she’d be there to support me.

And when I think long and hard about the people I hold so close to me, the people who help me with the hardest things in my life- I realize I cherish those relationships because I have told my story, built community, been raw and open and honest, and supported the people around me to do the same. Because Sita is going to be there, and because I need other mamas, and because if I get hurt I know that my cancer-peeps Aimee and Kristina and Ashley will get it and support me, I am going. But I am scared.

In the middle of all this worry, all this uncertainty about whether I should take up this space, this fear I wouldn’t fit, this needing to tread lightly around the grief that comes from surrogacy that is rooted in cancer, I found myself in a flurry of text messages with some of my nearest and dearest cancer buddies- young women I would do anything for, young women who get me like no one else, young women whose friendship I cherish and hold close. There are four of us, and we have an epic group text going, that is a literal lifeline.

The text message that resonated somewhere deep inside of me popped up in one of these epic group text conversations. In the context of how our lives would be different if we hadn’t had cancer- and not the obvious stuff like marriages and babies and stuff we ALL know would be different, but the more core belief stuff around ethics, personality, and dreams- Aimee texted:

“It’s weird. Whenever I’m in a group of new people, it pains me that they don’t know what I’ve been through, because I feel that it makes me ALL of who I am. Kinda sad.”

She got it. One hundred percent. Someone finally articulated exactly how I was feeling. I didn’t want people to know, but I didn’t want them to not know, either. I wanted them to know who I was, but who I was was so fundamentally shifted because of cancer. My fingers flew. So often, in new groups, I feel the need to explain….

But I used to be more driven, but cancer. But I used to publish more academic articles, but cancer. But I used to win awards like the Vanier, but Cancer. But I used to know exactly what I had to do to get exactly where I dreamed of being, and I used to know exactly where I dreamed to be, but cancer. I wouldn’t be living in my mom’s old house, but cancer. I wouldn’t have moved back to the Bay Area, but cancer. I wouldn’t have had a surrogate, I wouldn’t have fed formula and other peoples’ breast milk, I wouldn’t have spent hours and hours decorating breast casts, but cancer. I would have taken a tenure track Assistant Professor position anywhere in this whole wide world, but cancer. I would have been ruthless about the job search, but cancer. I would have had my own pregnancy, but cancer. I would still be the person I always thought I was, the rigorous, sharp, cutting edge scholar with an artist-musician partner I love madly and big giant dreams and clear visions and constant travel. 

The truth is, I still kind of wish I was that girl, I still kind of want those others mamas to know I have the stuff she had, I’m made of the fire that burned inside her, I’ve got her moves and desires and jokes. Except it’s not true. I’ve re-evaluated. I want to be closer to family, closer to the land I grew up in, closer to the really old friends, closer to the dry heat, closer to the Bay. I want to spend afternoons with my babies and don’t have the same iron-rod commitment to being an academic such that I will move anywhere. Still, I want to be that girl, that professor, that smart feminist with tons of journal articles- but I want to be her on my own terms. And my terms have changed. I just have to get used to the new terms, practice saying them to myself, become comfortable in the skin that isn’t who I always thought I’d become. And I have to think about maybe, explaining myself to those new mamas knowing that maybe now, we share something more, even if I still yearn for a girl who never was, because as much as the chemotherapy killed the cancer cells, it also slashed and burned and killed something else, and underneath, a new person emerged.

So who will I be tomorrow, at this baby-mama class? I am going to try to build community. I am going to try and speak out loud and clearly about who I am. I am going to try to be raw and honest and real and hopeful.

And even if it doesn’t work, it’s OK, because Aimee got me a t-shirt that says “Don’t ask me if my twins came out of my vagina.” And how can things not be OK, when you have friends who get you t-shirts that say that?

Purging the Cancer Art

During the time I spent having cancer, being treated for cancer, and then healing both from the cancer and the way the treatments that saved my life ravaged my body, I made a lot of art projects. I wrote a lot of blog posts. I needed ways to express myself, and so I made things. I made paintings and little books filled with words and sculptures and masks. And when we began to pack our apartment up into a crazy amount of boxes that we hauled with us to California, all these little projects began to surface. They hid between novels on the book shelf, they were tucked into drawers I emptied, and they were tacked to bulletin boards.

I made a big pile of these colourful artifacts of all shapes and sizes. I couldn’t muster the desire to pack them together with my books or clothes or other things. These things embodied my cancer time, my sick experience, the months I spent processing and healing. I wanted to leave them behind, but it seemed cold and heartless to throw them in the trash with the bathroom rug that we didn’t want and the broken lampshade.

The pile grew. On the top corner of my bookshelf, I found a plastic bag full of my hair. I cut my long hair before chemo began, and I had the stylist cut it so that I could donate my hair so that it could be used in a wig. But then I found out all this scandalous stuff about the organizations, like Dove and Locks of Love, that run those programs, and so the hair languished in a plastic bag on top of my bookshelf and I forgot about it until we were moving. Add to the bags of hair little boxes with hearts on the top of them containing all kinds of secret notes, sculptures of babies I wanted so badly and of my body with a hole in the place of the left breast, booklets filled with words blurred with water colour, sticks with stories engraved on the side of them… the pile was big. I debated about adding the basketfuls of pills still in my hallway closet, and eventually did add those pills. I was mortified at the number of bottles full of medicines I had amassed.

And now what?

And then I knew. I packed it all up, made Sam and the babies come with me, and we marched down to Jericho Beach. A couple months ago, I made this fake left tit out of clay and buried it at Jericho in a bra I cut and sowed together to make a pouch, which I nestled in a box I decorated with yarn and fabric. Because you know, they threw my left tit in the trash. So this was like a reparative thing, where me and some others cared about what happened to that left tit, and it should have been like it was when I buried it at Jericho.

So, obviously, all these projects should be buried with the tit. And so the babies came in the stroller, and I tossed in a giant bag of pink powder leftover from the video shoot, and then while Sam waited I dug into the shallow hole where we buried the tit and unearthed the corners of the box and the bra fabric- it was still there! And then I arranged the pony tails of hair and collage-masks and little boxes, and then I dumped the hundreds of pills on top of it, and covered it all with the hospital gown I wore in the music video, and finished it off by dumping the entire 5 pounds of pink powder on top. I covered it up with a few leaves, dusted my hands off, and felt really awesome about it. So, I stood up and kicked a few more leaves on top, and marched out of the under brush to where Sam was waiting, and we went for a walk on the beach.

It’s absolutely mind blowing, to me at least, how incredibly powerful making things, and doing things with the things you make, can be. Like really, burying all those projects made me feel so light. And when I was making all those projects, they helped me move through. And then, leaving them behind and walking away from them- my feet just felt so firmly planted on the ground, and my shoulders felt so square, and I felt so in control of my life, my fate, the world, my world.

And it was awesome. I felt renewed and so much lighter. It felt like the cancer was over. Like at least, the really shitty parts. And besides, if I ever need that fake tit or collaged mask, I know where they’re buried. Can you imagine if someone found that collection of stuff? They would be like what the fuck….? 

So that’s basically a really long preface to sharing these weird photos, which I love but would make no sense without all this explanation. Maybe later I’ll post the stop mo I made from the boob burial, too. That was cool, but too intimate (or so I thought at the time) to post here. So, without further ado, the photos…

The Twins Brought Into My Life…. Lies and Boundaries?

As soon as I step out into public with Luna and Sienna in tow, other women comment on my body. They tell me I look fabulous, they ask me where my stomach is, they claim I must have the secret all women want. It never occurs to them I didn’t birth the babies because I had a surrogate because I had breast cancer. It’s not even in the frame of reference. It’s like any boundary you might have around asking about others’ bodies disintegrates entirely when there is a little one burping on your shoulder.

When I’m feeling fiery and sassy and annoyed, I respond, “Do you always comment on the bodies of women you’ve never met before?” When I’m just not up for sass and sizzle, I nod and smile. The first is a conversation shut-down. It’s a sparkful boundary, one I am daring them to contest, to cross, to consider. In part, its done to chastise the other person because I am angry, it’s meant to make these weird, gendered ways of relating visible- its meant to be pedagogical. It’s meant to disrupt, to unsettle, to provoke something other than the everyday. The latter is an apathetic failure to say no, and in failing to set any kind of boundary, its an invitation to converse- it’s a willing participation in sustaining the fantasy of womanhood in which pregnancy and childbirth is so central. It’s a hefty sigh because I’m not part of that gendered fantasy, and it’s exhaustion at attempting to ward off awkward inquiry that centralizes my body as object lesson.

Neither feels right. Both feel like I’m telling a lie.

And the other night, it came up in a way that was higher-stakes than the checker in the grocery line, and while I could have made a feminist retort and rationalized it with language like intersectionality and in/visibility and discursive performativity, I didn’t. I just lied.

I was at a dinner for the faculty in the program I’m teaching in. The wine was flowing and stories were being shared of toddlers and families. And I blurted out, I have twins. And then they wanted to know how old. And then they wanted to know how they missed my pregnant belly in the interview. And then I lied about how I camouflaged it. I didn’t want to explain surrogacy. I didn’t want to explain cancer. I didn’t want to explain. And in not explaining, I was complicit in the way that other kinds of families are hard to see, I was complicit in so much. But I can’t always explain. And so sometimes, I lie. And they probably now think I’m a master at camouflaging very pregnant bellies, and that I’m so good at answering academic interview questions that no one even notices my body! That would be incredible… if disembodiment was the goal. It somehow is the goal– to be seen only as a thinker, a thinker without a cumbersome body— and simultaneously, not the goal, because the goal is to dismantle disembodied thought, and to embody theory and theorize embodiment. So whatever, they think I’m a fashion guru (haha) and that I know how to camouflage a super preggo belly. I’m not a guru and I can’t camouflage an enormous belly full of twins, but I didn’t have to explain surrogacy and cancer to people I hardly know. And later on? Whatever, when we are all #besties I’ll just explain, how I couldn’t explain, because it was too much, and I wanted to be both a disembodied thinker and an embodied dismantler of disembodied thought, all at once. Ah, but really. Mostly, these conversations are with strangers who assume. I used to play in a symphony and the conductor would say, “Don’t assume! To assume is to make An ASS out of U and ME.” She was onto something, indeed.

Sure, I need some boundaries around who gets to ask what about my body and the babies in my arms, but mostly, I need boundaries around my family and the way I live my life as a thinker, lover, writer, mother. I need those boundaries because everything is in upheaval: I’ve got a new job, we are settling into a new (old?) place, we have two newborns, and we moved countries. I’m just coming out of a lengthy healing from cancer process, I am trying to adjust to life post-PhD, and we’ve moved into the home I grew up in. My mom is moving into the newly-converted in-law unit, and we painted the kitchen blue and aqua. I don’t know how long we’ll stay, but for awhile at least, we’re here.

It’s lovely to have family and old friends around. And it’s also challenging as fuck. If you’re alive, you came from somewhere. So love ’em or hate ’em, you know what I mean when I say, it’s challenging as fuck. 

Plus, I wish everyone could read my mind, or failing that, that I could communicate with sidewalk chalk drawings and glitter dustings. Alas, neither is possible. And so I have to tell people what I want and what I need and sometimes they don’t like it as much as they would like glittery sidewalk chalk. But then I look at my two babies and I think, fuck it. I have to say what I need and what I want, and people might not like it, but I am a mama to these two babies, and I just need whatever I need to be able to do that the best I can. And these babies need a mama who pursues creative projects and writes like a madwoman, because I want them to follow those kinds of passions. And these babies need a mama who surrounds herself with people who inspire her, who make her feel alive and hopeful and full of ideas and possibilities.

So I am trying to tell people what I need and what I don’t need. And I am trying to not feel guilty about it.

I still feel really freaking guilty about it. But at the end of the day, I give zero fucks if I lie to the grocery store clerk, or even to my colleagues, because it makes my life a little easier, and the lies to the colleagues can be rectified later on, and we can laugh about it for decades. It’s a little harder to give zero fucks about the intensive guilt surrounding boundaries with family and those really close friends, but I definitely give the most fucks about the babies. And… maybe sometimes those kind of guilty feelings are good, because they mean we’re doing something for our selves instead of because it’s what seems right or what other people need. So, I still feel guilty about it. But I’m doing it anyway.

Lies and boundaries. Two things I’ve done more since having these beautiful, amazing, hilarious, brilliant, fussy twins.