A man in his 70s with neatly trimmed silver hair and a clean shaven face sits at a makeshift table in the shadows on a quiet alley behind an empty tuk tuk. He wears nothing but a long green cloth tied around his waist and a headlamp strapped around his head. Beside him sits a woman his age, presumably his wife. They are sharing a meal- rice and something else from a common plate. They both look up at me and say something that I can’t understand, but they motion to my baby who I wear snug to my chest in a wrap, and they both smile broadly and nod their heads. “Yes,” I nod and smile back, “Baby.” I stop for a moment and lean down so they can see the baby’s face, asleep but still suckling at my breast.
Both the man and woman’s face brighten with joy, more deep lines appearing around their foreheads and mouths. In their joy I find a peace that eluded me a couple of hours ago. There’s something about a happy old Asian man’s face that says “bliss.” Adding the dimension of a quiet act of love in the simplicity of sharing a meal together makes me feel momentarily that I invited to invade an intimate space there in the street.
Sahana is nearly 8 weeks old, the most recent product of my own and younger marital bliss. She was born peacefully and naturally in water with my husband and a supportive midwife by my side in Cape Town South Africa. Familiar feelings overwhelmed me in the weeks after her birth- elation, expansive love, adoration, awe, and gratitude, accompanied by moments of sadness, grief, and loss. When my first daughter was born I wasn’t quite prepared for some of the more surprising negative feelings I felt- grieving the loss of the pregnancy process, the transformation of myself into a mother, and in that a muting of something within me.
When my second was born, I was more prepared for these waves of emotions, the ups and downs that accompany the surging hormones at work as part of the incredible perfected machinery of giving life. With him I chose to have my placenta dehydrated and put into capsules which I swallowed each day for a couple of months after his birth. I don’t quite remember feeling the emotional lows as profoundly, so perhaps they did what they were meant to do (in decreasing postpartum depression), but I suppose I could just as easily point to the distraction of a two year old and preparations for a year of work-related travel shortly after his birth.
With my most recent birth I went deeper into the rabbit’s hole than I have gone before. I thought because this is my third it would be easier in knowing what to expect more or less. I planned for my husband to return with my other two children to our home in Lusaka, Zambia to leave me with the newborn for two weeks in Cape Town so I could “enjoy” some quiet time with our third in relative peace and quiet in that first month. Indeed it was peaceful as she slept a lot in the home we rented in the mountains overlooking the ocean. It was serene, and perhaps for a mother two weeks postpartum, too quiet and peaceful, and I found myself lost in dark thoughts.
This may be my last pregnancy, my last birth, my last born, and in that I found myself post-birth feeling a profound grief. I lost myself in thinking about how small and inconsequential my life is, how fleeting our time here on earth is, and how quickly time passes. I forwarded the clock 20 years, then 40, and then 60, and found myself deeply depressed and in an existential crisis, searching for purpose in my life and life in general. I felt as though this process of giving life in all its rawness brought me closer in touch with the reality of death. I think this spin around these thoughts overwhelmed me and took hold in the empty space I created for myself to be alone.
Several weeks later I have climbed out of the rabbit hole and am trying to focus on the moment and relish in the happiness of now. Death is of course a certainty, but obsessing over it will not extend or enhance my life experience. Kenya was a brilliant start to this little global tour as I was able to reconnect with very good long-time friends and fellow mothers living there. Myanmar recharged my soul with the haunting peace and serenity of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Now here I am with my newborn in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. For better or worse, I had given myself (as a consultant) a short maternity leave and told my clients I would be available again for work beginning in October. So as of October 11, just shy of six weeks postpartum, I said goodbye to my husband, 5 year old, and 3 year old whom I had just recently returned to at our home in Zambia, and set off with my littlest life to Kenya, Myanmar, and Cambodia for three weeks of intensive work.
Sahana has been a great sleeper so I feel fairly well rested. She has been spending more and more time awake, with incredibly rewarding moments of happy smiles and kicking. But, like my other two who had milk protein allergies that caused a lot of tummy pain, I think she has the same and spends the majority of her awake time crying, sometimes waking from a peaceful sleep screaming. That means I probably have to cut out eating all things dairy from diet as I did with my other two (damn it I wanted that croissant!).
In the meantime, I had two hellish plane trips today from Yangon to Bankok to Phnom Penh. Luckily they were short, just over an hour or so each, but I couldn’t wait to arrive to the hotel to rest. I’ve also spent the majority of my time working long days for the past two weeks. Four hours into “resting” with an inconsolable screaming baby at the hotel and I started to go back down into the rabbit hole. I cursed myself for being ridiculous enough to be working, and traveling for work, with a newborn less than two months postpartum. Clearly I am not in my right mind.
I dropped my screaming bundle into the baby wrap and headed out of the hotel with her close to my chest screaming, into the darkened streets of Phnom Penh bustling with night life, tuk tuks, lights, and motorbikes. The noise of the traffic and voices drowned out her amazingly loud wails. In fact, the noise around us seemed to soothe both of us- she finally calmed down and stopped crying for the first time in four hours since arriving, and I felt invigorated by everything around me. At the street corner were parked 30 tuk tuks with the drivers lounging inside and out, a hammock strung up in one where a man slept. Across the street a large group of men sat in red plastic chairs, huddled together in an outdoor area, all focused on and cheering at a small boxed television set on a pedestal against the dingy cement wall airing a boxing match.
I walked on, avoiding rocks and puddles on the street, doing my best to hug close to the curb where cars, tuk tuks, and motorbikes were driving by. Women of all ages, some holding their own young children, were lined up on the sidewalks selling coconuts and fruit. Men and women’s faces alike broke into wide genuine smiles, pointing at the little sack of life on my chest and coming to peer at her suckling.
Now back at the hotel she sleeps peacefully beside me. I feel recharged, having spent a couple of hours looking outward, instead of inward. It was refreshing to melt into a city and feel connected to this time and space, and admittedly to forgot about everything in order to hyper-focus on not getting hit by a tuk tuk or car while walking down the street in the dark. I stopped and chatted in simple, broken English with tuk tuk drivers, fruit vendors, and patrons of the various bars and restaurants all named “Happiness” or “Happy Place.”
8 weeks postpartum, I think I may be close to feeling what my new “normal” is in terms of parenthood and hormonal balance. I have questioned myself at numerous intersections on this journey about heading out to travel for work trans-continentally with my newborn, and countless strangers and acquaintances have done the same (thanks!). But, here I am forced to look outward, straight into the face of the kind wrinkled old man sharing dinner with his wife. And here, for me, I’m able to find the grounding I felt was slipping away. Along with reconnecting with the part of myself that loves discovering new places and people- something that has nothing to do with being a mother.
And, no, I am not suggesting that mothers get on a plane with a newborn at 6 weeks postpartum to go walk around in Cambodia. But, if everyone’s fit and healthy and you have some leave time you are using anyway…it’s worth a thought!? At a minimum, it’s worth considering the ways that make us, as individuals, feel connected to the world around us after we spend so much time pregnant and birthing focusing inward.
Happy travels moms and dads!
**Disclaimer: All these photos are from last week in Yangon, Myanmar since I was too frazzled to walk out of the hotel with my screaming baby AND a camera today in Cambodia!