Strength & Softness: The Middle Way

by Mary Skerrett Koff

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Ahhh...motherhood. Here’s my story, with all of its bumps and bruises and beauty. I never “needed” to be a mom. I was never a person who was hell-bent on having a baby. In fact, the idea scared me a little bit, especially the whole giving birth part. Give me a dog or another animal, and I will love that being up like you’ve never seen, but I wasn’t sure those mothering instincts would transfer to a baby (side note: they did, whew!). But I was also was open to it and thought it would be an amazing adventure with the right person. At the end of the day my attitude was, if there were meant to be a child in my life, there would be.

And, today, I can say that Isaac Finnigan is here! He is a 6-month old bright light in my life like I never ever could have imagined.

The journey to Isaac’s being here has been a windy one. My husband and I had several misfires along the way. We were older when we got married, so I was surprised and delighted that, at the age of 42, I could even get pregnant. I was kind of amazed at my body and felt like something was trying to make its way into the world - but for whatever reason the timing or physiology wasn’t right: before Isaac, I was pregnant three times, all resulting in miscarriages between 8 and 11 weeks; the pregnancies also resulted in all-day-all-night nausea from about 4 weeks on.

At the end of each of those three pregnancies, when we were told it wasn’t viable, there was, on my part, a small feeling of relief that I would soon feel better. And this was a weird feeling for me - I didn’t really have the feelings of sadness and grief that I had heard other women talk about. I felt better physically, and, since it was so early on, I didn’t feel super bonded to the being inside of me. It was more like my body was telling me “not this one," and I trusted my body and nature to make the best call, even as I felt frustrated that so many weeks were “lost” and guilty on some level that I didn’t feel sad “enough.” Ultimately, I learned to accept my experience as it was; it didn’t have to be the same as anyone else’s. I learned to not judge myself; that acceptance was powerful.

Three years later, after more twists and turns and lots of sitting and pondering our path, we turned to science to help us get Isaac. IVF is an amazing thing, and we participated in a study that brought the costs way down. And miracle of miracles, at 47 years old, I found myself pregnant. And ... it stuck!

The physiological pattern was the same: the nausea kicked in and leveled me. Only this time it stuck around as Isaac grew. First trimester...second, and, yes, third...nausea all the way through. He was healthy and growing, and that was great. I, however, was nauseated and low energy and foggy in the head. Toward the end of the pregnancy, the nausea was so constant that I wondered if it would ever go away; I just couldn’t remember what it felt like to not be nauseous.

Needless to say, my relationship with food totally changed, and so did most aspects of my life. Cooking and eating were some of the things I had previously very much enjoyed. Cooking was a centering, grounding activity for me. In fact most of the things I did to center spiritually were no longer an option: exercise, coffee with friends, hiking, being out in nature. I even went to see a therapist to see if I had any symptoms of depression. After a long and very open talk she determined that there was no clinical issue, but that I was just “in the hull of the boat.” That was a phrase I hung onto daily. Texting and messaging with other moms who had been through it was a lifesaver - even if they only had it the first trimester, their empathy, the understanding of just how debilitating it can be, and the reminder that it was temporary were incredibly helpful.

The three misfires we’d had previously had given us some experience in how to deal with the nausea. I'd needed a soft place to land, and I saw David doing his best to try to provide it. I could see that there was some sort of intellectual understanding of the fact that I didn’t feel well, but he was not fully comprehending the depth to which it was affecting me – how could he? I don’t think I would have understood it had I not experienced it. I mean, take just my reaction to smells. Often smells he couldn’t even detect. The smell of food cooking, once a signal of a cozy and fulfilling home, now made me want to open all the windows or simply just get out of the house. How can you describe this to someone who has never experienced it? We both improved with incremental acceptance of each other each time.

But this fourth time, the nausea did not go away - and my husband was not shy about letting me know that it was hard on him. I am someone who tends naturally toward the caregiver side of things. But during pregnancy, the roles reversed and I needed to be cared for. I was giving all that I had to Isaac, who was growing like crazy inside of me, totally healthy and awesome. Whatever life force was left over was put toward showering, trying to find food, working and maybe going for a walk. And that was on a good day. There was nothing left after that.

Before, I'd had a lot more space for my husband, for his wants and needs; the reality during my pregnancy was that I was less soft and less patient. This was, understandably, very hard for him. He told me he felt pushed away and deprioritized. This was so hard for me to hear. On my end, all I needed and wanted was some acceptance of how life had changed for me. And some empathy. Just hey: you’re doing great. I love you as you are and I’m here for you no matter what. And I did hear these sentiments, for sure. Even on the worst of days, somehow he managed to want to hang out with me and trust that the “old” me was in there somewhere. But while I knew he wanted to be there for me, alongside those supportive words were phrases like “I want my wife back.” Which to me translated to: “You’re not giving me enough.” That was really hard for me to hear because there was no solution that I could provide.

In addition to feeling hurt, I also felt resentful. I thought about how he behaved when he had the flu for a couple of days. How his personality and behavior changed. This wasn’t me making a conscious decision to leave him out or not prioritize him or our marriage. Why could other women understand this so well but he could not?

Well, we muddled through, and once Isaac entered the world, I was instantly in love. As SOON as David put him on my chest I got it. I didn’t know that I would! I was so relieved to feel that about Isaac and to just want to be around him, like all the time. The snuggles, the smells, the sounds. He is an easygoing, happy guy and I feel so lucky that he is here with us.

But all the other things that I'd heard about started happening, too: the mom being the gatekeeper, the dad feeling like less of a priority. Plus sleep deprivation and hormones and trying to figure out how to co-parent...we were still in transition, and on the heels of an already challenging nine months.

Then an interesting thing happened. I decided to look at the challenges as a gift. As I leaned into the idea that maybe my husband was right, that the woman he married had gone away, the more it resonated with me. But not in a bad way. And maybe she didn’t actually go away as much as she was “added to.” Scientific research has shown that there is a bit of rewiring of women’s brains during pregnancy and childbirth so that we are, to some degree, different people when we come out the other side. As I leaned into this even more, I came to believe that this new version of me is a new and improved version, and she is on her way to being a much more authentic woman, wife and mother.

David and I both did the best we could during a challenging time. We will never thoroughly understand the experience the other went through. But we needed to fill ourselves up, or at the very least let the other one off the hook for not being able to give us what we perceived we needed. What better prep is there for parenthood? I can now understand, without resentment, that he missed me, and begin a process of education of how and why I’ve changed. He may not be the exact same person from before the pregnancy - he may actually be someone better.

And I am learning how to stand in my strength without anger, and I am learning how to stand in my softness and compassion, without capitulation. It’s a bit of a pendulum act right now, and can be bumpy at times as the pendulum swings from the “before” me, to a new slightly over the top me that’s not quite as soft as before. Sometimes she shows up like the new sheriff in town, guns blazing, instead of bringing that quiet strength. But I am confident that with practice and mindfulness, the pendulum will hover more right in the middle, holding strength and softness together at the same time. The middle way is my way, and it’s becoming much more natural for me to be there. That is the authentic me that is waiting to appear.

I’ll be honest, it is hard for a recovering perfectionist to see that I may have missed the mark, even given that it was the most challenging time in my life so far. So my job is a living amends, to myself and to my husband. I do this by catching him doing things well, and by catching me doing things well. By seeing us both as open, strong, compassionate, forgiving and easygoing. Finding those things in us each day and rewiring the grooves. Falling back in love, reconnecting with these new and improved models of us, as husband and wife and mom and dad. To have compassion for those parts of us that got hurt, and allow them to let us grow. For both of us, to understand ourselves and each other, get out of blame and into compassion. That’s where the good stuff is. The authentic new me holds strength and compassion together as one. Once the pendulum stops swinging, I think the new version of me is going to be pretty awesome.

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