A while back I put out a call for questions
and promised to answer them over the next few months. I believe I
answered two or three and then proceeded to neglect the rest, not
because I forgot about them but, well, I don’t really know why. The
procrastinator in me kept saying I’ll return to those questions next
time I sit down to write.
And yet there’s more to it than that.
A number of the questions had to do with friendship and how my relationships have changed since I became Elias’s mommy, or since I became the parent of a child with special needs. I have thought about this question every week of every month of every year since Elias kicked his way into the world four months premature. But I find it hard to write about. Even now.
The truth is I’ve had very few friends run away over the past five years, but I’ve gradually removed myself from social circles as my energy shifts and flows inwards.
I seem to carry no extra energy for turning acquaintances into friends or for nurturing relationships that weren’t solid prior to Elias’s birth.
I’m usually the one who doesn’t call back. I’m the one who doesn’t extend an invitation to our house for dinner after being invited to theirs. I’m the one who forgets birthdays and goes months without calling to say hello.
Luckily, I live in Alaska, where social etiquette holds less weight. And I'm also lucky that my closest friends, here and back East, will call me again, if I don’t return their first call. And they don’t pretend to fully understand, to know what I’m going through, but they ask and listen and tell me they care. They’re not afraid to pull me back when I slip away.
I think some of my falling into family, and away from friends, is a natural progression of parenthood; as well as the result of being married to my best friend. My relationship with Nick satisfies a lot of my friendship needs for companionship. And plus he gets it. I mean, he really gets it.
But it’s more than that.
In the beginning, we weren’t allowed to bring Elias into public places because of his weakened immune system; so when other new moms gathered for playgroups and shared their transitional stories, I nursed Elias and listened to public radio or Jack Johnson.
Even when Elias grew stronger, and we could bring him out into the world, I found myself hesitant to make plans. There was a sense of normalcy at home that shattered when in public. Only when we compared Elias to other kids his age did all his delays and impairments announce themselves with glaring lights. At home Elias was our normal. Our light. Our joy. In public he was a curiosity, different, disabled, sick, handicapped, crippled. A child with special needs, an awkward conversation stopper, a subject to avoid, a source of pity, a reason to stare, a reason to look away.
In those first years, the sleep deprivation mixed with chronic grief made the idea of a night out with friends implausible. I remember trying it once, joining three friends at the Snow Goose, none of whom were parents yet, and feeling such an intense loss for words.
I sat at our table, staring at the dark bottles behind the bar, unsure how to join the conversation. It was almost as if when my water broke at 24 weeks, I lost confidence in myself to carry not just a pregnancy but anything through. A task. A relationship. A project. A complete thought.
One of the women I met that night is still a dear friend--maybe because she never needed me to be clever, or because she had experienced a significant loss of her own, or because sometimes two souls connect and it doesn’t matter what grief gets thrown at them, the bond holds. I run into the other two every so often and we are friendly but I wouldn’t call us friends. After that dinner, we stopped trying.
Even as I write, almost five years later, I can still remember feeling inadequate as I sat at that brewery table. And this is why I’ve avoided this question, on how my friendships have changed since the arrival of my son, because its not so much about Elias, but more about my own sense of self that has diminished.
I don’t feel proud writing this.
And I’m not saying it for sympathy or to be told that I am capable or strong. I’m saying it because this thought of my self as less than needs air. It is the part of me that defines my worth based on what I create. The little girl who looked with longing at the drawing on the desk next to hers and felt she would never be good enough. The pleaser who wanted to be beautiful and talented in everyone else’s eyes but looked in the mirror and only saw flaws. It is this shadow part of me that views Elias’s challenges as a reflection of my own failings.
I never wanted to be the mother who measured her own worth by her children’s accomplishments and yet here I am. The ugly honest truth. And if I don’t deal with it now, if I don’t give it surface, then it will end up as Elias’s burden to carry.
As if he needs to carry anymore.
So yes, my friendships have changed-- and not so much because of my friends’ inherent discomfort with Elias, but because of my own. Laced with my lioness love for Elias is a sense that I somehow failed. I failed to live up to the image of the full-bellied woman grunting and pushing and willing her child into the world. And I failed him.
As I lay on the stretcher in the operating room, my legs shaking with fear, aware that the doctors saw Elias’s foot and they couldn’t hear his heart beat, and the anesthesiologist told me he had to knock me out, that it was the only option, do you know what I thought?
“Thank god, let me go.”
I wanted to close my eyes and disappear. I couldn’t handle the fear. This is how my story of motherhood began. A far cry from the homebirth of my dreams, in which I reclaimed the power of childbearing from the sterility of hospital walls. No, in my moment of bringing forth, I rode away on a dreamless drug-induced sleep. I sank into nothingness and woke to “He’s alive but I can’t tell you he’s going to survive.”
It is from this beginning that I need to find my way. To reclaim my maternal power even if I entered motherhood through a mechanical door. To integrate the story of survival and transformation—of the NICU and kangaroo care and pumping and hovering and asking questions and learning and saying yes to surgery and therapy and special education and adapting and growing and accepting and changing—into the ideal.
From this place, I can make myself more at home at my friend’s spotless table. And besides, I’m sure there’s a scratch or two underneath the polished surface.
--Excerpted from Following Elias, originally published on Parents.com. Copyright 2009 by Meredith Corporation. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.