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?