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Sunday, July 21, 2013

a mommy's story - Annie Bacon - a Dash of fear and love

Another mom full of guilt for our Confessions of Mama Guilt series. Guilt about birth and labor. Guilt about her work relating to her son's sickness. Guilt about not being or doing enough ... guilt I know you moms can relate to. It's hard to imagine our children being sick, even worse when it's unexpected and unexplained. Thank you, Annie, for sharing your story. You're a talented writer, I hope to hear more from you!

(all photos from Annie Bacon)

my ridiculously large pregnant belly. this was at 36 weeks and I had Dash at 41.

Son: Henry Dashiell Mulder, born October 2011

1.      When is the first time you recall feeling this Mama Guilt of feeling like you failed, did not do something right, or like others were judging you?

My labor started at 3am on a Friday and by 4:30am I was in a 3-1-1 pattern, which continued unabated and sometimes speeded up, for 56 hours. At hour 12 when it was discovered I was only 2cm dilated, I felt guilty and embarrassed that I must have been doing something wrong. 

At hour 42 the midwife said to me “you just need to decide to have this baby” and I was deluged with guilt that it was my fault that the labor wasn’t progressing. 

I felt guilty because I had to give up the noble ambition of the Home Birth, due to this “failure to progress.” At hour 50 I felt guilty because I had regressed from 8cm to 6 while at the hospital and had to abandon the Natural Birth and get an “evil” epidural and be pumped full of Pitocin, which obviously meant my child would be born with 7 heads and no arms. 

At hour 56, the ultimate guilt … I’d failed completely to do the thing my body was made to do, and now someone else would deliver my baby. I wouldn’t get to see him being born, or give him the peaceful, natural, vaginal birth all the books said he’d need in order to be a good human.

In the intervening months I’ve fought with this guilt. I’ve fought the looks of pity I get from some mothers who say with their eyes “aw, poor you, you were a victim of the over-medicalization of birth by the dominant patriarchal culture.” 

I’ve fought the urge to wonder what else I will fail at before my time on earth is done. I’ve combed through the birth story, (documented by our Poet in Residence (my best friend Geoff) who attended the entire labor and birth), to see where I went wrong in my efforts, what I should have done differently or better.

Here’s how I found peace with it all: Motherhood isn’t about what I want. It’s about finding the balance between what I want and what has to be done. And it sure as hell isn’t about being able to do it all myself. This was a powerful and much needed lesson in accepting help when it is needed.

Also, Dashiell is already epic. So it makes sense that his birth story would be epic too.

My biggest sense of Mommy Guilt now is that I haven’t been able to protect my baby from all the ills of the world. More on that below.

                                            our first family photo, he was 8lbs 6oz at birth

2. Before you became a mom, what type of mom did you think you'd be? Give at least 5 words to describe the mom you imagined yourself being.

Fiercely loving. Strict. Playful. Engaging. Overwhelmed.

3. Look at the words you mentioned in #2... are you those words now? Would you call yourself those words now in describing how you are as a mom? Would others use those words to describe you?

I am happy to report that I am not only the kind of mother I hoped but so much more. 

About a week before I had Dash I woke in the middle of the night with this sense that a long-hibernating part of myself was waking up. My Mother-Self was waking up, and I was going to love it. And I was going to be really good at it.

While there are many things I could do better, I do think I’m a great mama. I am fiercely loving, strict on the things that require strictness, playful and engaging. I’m surprised how little Motherhood overwhelms me though. 

Many other things overwhelm me, but motherhood has become a sort of respite and regenerating (even if sometimes physically depleting) experience for me.

The words I would add: sacrificing, attentive, encouraging, easy-to-manipulate-when-he-gives-me-that-sweet-baby-look, and gushing.

5 months and 20lbs, so fat! exclusively breast (aka "Bacon milk") fed

4. What has been the scariest moment of your motherhood adventure so far? Why? What do you wish someone had done for you or said to you in that moment?

6am on Friday December 21st, 2012. The Winter Solstice. The End of the Mayan Calender and the End of the World. Aka the hour at which I handed my 13 month old baby over to strangers who intended to cut him.

He’d been sick for days and spiraling downwards as doctors at different hospitals tried to figure out what was wrong. He was basically in a coma, with a raging fever, a limp burning noodle. They finally identified that it was a very serious and very big infection in and around his right femur, which had come out of absolutely nowhere, and which needed immediate surgery. For all of the playful imagining about what the end of the Mayan Calendar might have meant, it suddenly occurred to me that it might mean The End of My World.

For that two hours I could barely function. I wasn’t crying. I wasn’t in obvious distress. 

But I was emotionally and spiritually paralyzed. The guilt was profound. It was my sole duty as his mother to protect him and I had so obviously failed. Was it my fault that this was happening? Did I not take good enough care in his hygiene? Did I not notice signs of an infection brewing earlier? Could I have prevented this?

Another thing that I am only recently realizing I’ve been carrying since then – and through the 6+ months of piggy-backing illnesses that have followed– is an even more profound guilt. 

I am a musician and I had recently (before pregnancy) composed a Folk Opera in which there are multiple characters who have lost children, including one of my main characters. The “children” lost are also based on actual people (whom many of your readers might remember: Ian Nelson, Hannah Jackson, Eric Campbell, and others). This meant that I spent a lot of time meditating on the profound pain of losing a child. During that time it was so clear to me that no matter how I try I could only ever be sympathetic to the pain and never empathetic unless I’d lost a child of my own.

When suddenly it looked like I might lose my own, I was ravaged with the guilt that some unknown force took that to mean that I WANTED to be empathetic to that pain! Until I admitted this only a few weeks ago, I carried the fear and guilt that I had somehow manifested all of this pain into Dash’s life, that I had actually caused it to happen. 

As soon as I said it out loud I realized how silly it was. But sometimes we latch onto fear without analyzing it.

14 months, first hospital stay after the osteomyelitis and surgery. the very second the doctor let him get off the bed he limped over to this thing and started playing. his other leg is one big bandage from the surgery

5. How do you know you are a good mom? If you don't feel like you are one now, when will you know you are? What needs to happen to make you feel like a good mom?

It’s a good question that I don’t know how to answer, but I’ll try. Take this with the grain of salt that just because I think I’m a good mom to my baby (now a toddler) doesn’t mean I’ll be any good at parenting him when he’s 17 or 21 or 40.

My guess is that what makes me good at being a mom is being able to not take things personally with him. 

To realize that I am his guide (and he mine, but that’s another story), and he needs my help to figure out how to navigate the world. So when he’s kicking me, he’s asking for my guidance about whether that’s okay. When he’s melting down, he’s asking for help learning how to express himself emotionally.

When I can see his behavior objectively, I think I am able to be loving and responsive. Of course, I can’t always do this. A few weeks ago in a moment of chaos to which he added by repeatedly yelling “MAAAAAHHHHMMEEEEEEE” from the high chair, I turned to him and yelled “Dash! MELLOW!” He paused for a second, smiled and parroted back on repeat “Mellow! Mommy Mellow! Mellow!” Which made me laugh and got me back to the good state of not taking things personally.

6 weeks old, already 10lbs

6. How do you cope with having a baby with an unexplained illness? How does your relationship withstand that stress? How do you parent a sick child? What has helped you through this sickness/medical situation? 

Some days not very well. Some days I am in a constant panic. Some days I am okay. The hardest part is not knowing whether we’re through it, or whether we’ve even seen the worst of it yet. The absolute worst is not having any concrete answers about why it’s happening in the first place.

What has helped: Dash is resilient and never complains. He bounces back so fast. He responds quickly to treatment. He was walking as soon as he could. He was laughing as soon as he could. He eats as soon as he’s hungry again. He doesn’t know how to feel bad for himself. He only knows how to be in the moment he’s in and as soon as he can, to get back to the things he knows how to do. He inspires me not to linger in a state of self-pity.

Also, I have an incredible partner. We support each other and take turns alternating between Cheerleader and Needs-Cheering. He can sense when I need it more than him and can switch himself into that role in the blink of an eye and vice versa. There are of course fights. Mostly about when to seek care, what care to seek etc. But we need each other’s love so much to get through this that we take the time to work it out and try to never let things fester.

As far as how my parenting changes, I have found that when we’ve been in the hospital I physically do not leave his side. Every day of every stay I have slept right there in the hospital crib with him, hospital rules be damned. If I have to pee or shower, my sweetheart, or a grandparent takes the spot. In general I have also extended nursing way beyond when I wanted to stop. I made it a whole year without ever “comfort nursing” him, but the intensity of the last few months threw that out the window in a second.

We also try to give him anchors, help him forge relationships with his doctors and nurses, and feel a variety of emotions (not just fear) when he goes to a hospital, or doctor’s office. We explain everything to him in simple terms just before it’s about to happen. When we arrive for a blood draw, for example, while we’re waiting for the nurse, I say “There’s going to be a pinch, remember? But it will be quick, and then it will be over.”  We get him excited about his vitals getting checked, he can walk/talk you through the whole series now. And we use fill-in-the-blank singing, which is AMAZING distraction during difficult procedures. We sing “Row row row your …” and he stops crying, thinks, and says “boat.”

And more than anything we let him be sick when he’s sick, and not a moment longer. We are adamant about getting back to our schedule and routines as soon as possible.

Even so … at the slightest sign of a potential recurrence or new problem, I break into a million pieces. Trauma is crazy like that. When it gets triggered it comes back full force. I’m counting on time to help me with that one. And meditation.

20 months ... always shining, always full of love 

7. What is your advice to another mom who experiences this Mama Guilt over breastfeeding, a birth experience that did not go as planned, worrying about a sick baby, etc.? What would you have wanted someone to say to you back during that difficult time?

My advice is to be gentle to yourself. Your story is yours and will never fit anyone else’s understanding of how things should be.

Also, although no one can promise you that everything will be okay, it’s okay to let them comfort you anyway. I found I sometimes felt angry at people who tried to say “it’ll be okay.” Like, how the frack do YOU know it will be okay?? The DOCTORS don’t even know if it will be okay! But really they are just trying to help you see beyond the panic of the moment, and to give you some solid ground to stand on for a moment. Take the support where it comes. You’ll need it, because you can’t go through these things alone.

Also … don’t start Googling based on what your child is being tested for. Just don’t. Wait until you have a diagnosis. There is so much to worry about, so much to fear. You don’t need to carry the worry that maybe it’s X-linked Agammaglobulinemia until you’re sure that’s what it is (which it is not for Dash, to be clear.) 
And as for those who judge you … Chances are, when they judge you, they have no idea what they’re talking about, and they probably have their own story that brought them to their judgments. It’s their problem if they think what you’re doing is wrong. Not your problem. Do what you need to do to be the best parent you think you can be. Try your hardest, do your best, and then be gentle in your self-analysis.

8. What did you learn from all of this medical health experience, about what type of mom or person you are? Is there any part of your response to it that you'd change?

You have a right to your medical records, and those of your child. Whenever your child is seen by a different doctor, a specialist, or in an ER request a copy of the complete medical file. Keep it with you, and make copies of it for your regular pediatrician. Even if your child is suffering “only” the normal childhood ills, you are the only ones who see the whole picture of his/her health, and you will be his/her best advocate through the years. Having all the details of your child’s care will help empower you should there be a need to put that advocacy into full force.

There’s nothing I’d change about my responses to the last 7 months, because I’ve learned from my mistakes and often that’s more valuable than doing it right. But it is a constant struggle to follow my own advice and stay in the moment, only worrying about what actually needs to be worried about. Meditating helps so I try to do it every single day.


Thank you, Annie, for such an empowering account of what this health scare has been like for you. I say "empowering," because that is what I read in every word you wrote. Serious strength in you, mama, and courage! I'd say Dash seems to have learned resiliency from you ... or maybe you learned it from him, you'd probably say the latter. Either way, I hope the road from here is a less bumpy one, with happy surprises along the way!

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