Creating in the middle of things

Two weeks ago I wrote here that I was launching an “artist residency in motherhood” and would be posting here I hoped weekly, as a way to share what I was working on and keep myself accountable. Well, Owl developed a fever so things got a bit harder for a week, but I kept doing what I could for my practice — which, as per my manifesto, includes physical movement as well as creative work. Here’s how it went, meltdowns, aching nipples, and all:

Written in my private journal on Monday April 24, 10:46 AM

“The day has started auspiciously for my new ‘artist residency’, even if I’m quite sleepy… Owl actually let Erik take her for a walk this morning; it’s been probably 2 weeks since he was last able to do that. I lay around for a bit before rousing myself to do the daily movement multivitamin, properly, on a mat on the wood floor instead of amid toys on the rug while Owl and Erik sleep. It does make a difference in how well I do the exercises. I didn’t get to finish because Erik and Owl came back and though he started breakfast, after awhile she became upset that I wasn’t closer to her. But knowing I’ll have some breaks this week, I was mostly okay instead of feeling desperate…”

6:20 that evening

“Erik is watching Owl but I’m still on borrowed time because we should really eat soon… Still, it feels major to be sitting here writing rather than cleaning the kitchen, putting away the laundry, or making dinner — all of which need to be done and probably tonight. I suppose if I ignore the housework it’ll still get done eventually, whereas if I ignore my writing that’s just writing that isn’t going to get done.”

Written in my journal on Friday, April 28, 7:30 AM

“I was meant to have the time from 7-9 to myself… but Owl is still recovering from her illness and she wouldn’t let me leave her sight till now — and even now I’m just writing this in the dining nook and I can hear her plaintively saying ‘ma-ma-meh’ from the bedroom where Erik is trying to entertain her. I may have to abandon this…

I’m always tired after a trip to San Jose, but Owl woke early today for the second morning in a row, and last night’s drive back to Oakland was hard. She fell asleep but woke again within five minutes and was inconsolable. I tried everything I could think of, with Blippi entertaining her the longest (2.5 min!), but finally we had to exit because she was screaming and screaming and grabbing for me. I nursed her but she cried again after, so the three of us went out underdressed into the breezy night and walked for maybe 5-10 minutes. Then we put her in the car seat again and she fell asleep almost immediately and stayed asleep till we got home, and though she woke upon leaving the car, she was able to nurse easily back to sleep. And her fever broke, too.”

Quickly scribbled self-portrait sketches in multicolored crayon, Lisa Hsia, 2017

Written in my journal on Saturday, April 29, 10 PM

“I’m writing this from the bedroom, kneeling at the edge of the bed using it as a desk, a SolarHelix propped up next to me with the duvet bunched up behind it to block the direct light from Owl as she sleeps. Erik is taking his first shower in days, I just had mine… and tomorrow Erik will try to give me a couple of hours to work in the morning if Owl will allow it, which is not guaranteed as she was still quite crabby today in spite of her fever having gone down to 99-100ºF. But even the possibility of private time is buoying…

Yesterday night was difficult. I was so tired even in the morning. I took Owl to the doctor, and she cried and screamed in the exam room, though she slept soundly on the way home — but she woke when I took her out of the car seat. I didn’t get to eat the lunch Erik had ordered for us until after I’d nursed her for quite some time and yet she only slept for a very short time and woke crabby after I’d just started eating. Later I managed to unpack and put away our delivered groceries, and do some laundry, and give her a snack; by late afternoon I was trying hard to entertain her through my own exhaustion and a developing plugged duct. There was so much complaining and howling and I was so wiped by the time Erik finished for the day, he discerned this and ordered us dinner so I wouldn’t have to think about it. I lay around resting/stressing while he started feeding it to Owl, but after I joined them I’d barely taken a few bites when Owl started flipping out and she cried so hard she threw up multiple times on my lap — then I was sitting there with a still bellowing baby and vomit in my hand and on my foot and on my clothes and on her clothes and it was all such sensory overload, especially after the rest of the day/week, I had a really strong and visceral desire to do the thing [my nephew] does when he’s overwhelmed, which is to complain very loudly and slam his hands down repeatedly (hitting himself or others or whatever’s in the way) and then simply yell… except of course I couldn’t because I was holding Owl and trying to calm her down. So I just shut down instead and had a hard time even speaking to convey this feeling to Erik…

Eventually, I don’t remember how, we got Owl and me reasonably cleaned up and finished dinner, with Erik feeding me since I didn’t have hands to do it myself. And then he gave Owl a bath, but she kept crying, and freaked out every time Erik tried to pick her up. He suggested we all go for a walk together; I really didn’t want to but I also felt I had to because it was clear Owl wouldn’t calm otherwise. And even that took several tries until I thought to put on my sweater while Erik buckled Owl into the carrier, so she knew I was coming too. But the walk did us all good.”

Written in my journal on Sunday, April 30, 8 AM, at a bakery/cafe

Matcha latte, oatmeal with fruit, earbuds, pen, journal

“It was another tiring night, Owl nursing seemingly every time I’d dropped off to sleep. Sometimes I can sleep through night nursings but not now while it’s less comfortable than usual. Did I say we’ve decided it’s teething?

One thing about being here [in the cafe] this morning: there are several families with their babies of about Owl’s age and I miss her terribly even though this is — is it? — the only private time I’ve had all week!!

I had to stop writing last night because Owl woke up. I meant to continue after she’d gone back to sleep but I realized once I started nursing her that I was incredibly tired, so I asked Erik to put the journal and pen into my tote for this morning and I just went to sleep. But I’m still so tired.

[Following a long riff on partnership and communication] I am so so glad to be back to a point with journaling that I can write stuff like this. It’s taking a bunch of threads floating in my head and drawing them out and/or tying them together. When I don’t have the chance to do this on a regular basis, those strands just float around getting buried under each other instead of coming together to show me what I am at this moment…

Really it’s WEIRD that I — or any at-home parent — can even get through so many months on no private time or only as little as 2-3 hours a week.”

Posted on Instagram on April 30

Lisa Hsia making art with her daughter, in ink and crayon and paint

Noted in my residency log, Monday, May 1

“Took Owl to go visit a new friend who is an artist and a grandmother. We talked for a couple of hours and she showed me her studio, a repurposed room in the senior home where she lives. Realized how lovely it would be to have a space of my own like that where I can just accumulate things that are meaningful to me and that are inspirations or supplies, not just now, but for the future and for brainstorming. Perhaps I’d like to create some tiny version of that for myself — maybe a cupboard or a box or even just a Pinterest board (but no, I’d like it to be tactile)?”

Tuesday, May 2: Walked to mom and tot yoga, actually got some yoga done this time (unlike the last time I tried where Owl only wanted to nurse through most of the class).

Posted on Facebook on May 2, 1:27 PM

Motherhood is full of new experiences. Like this one: curled up at foot of bed eating takeout poutine with chopsticks while catching up on laptop stuff while Owl sleeps.”

Written in my journal on Wednesday, May 3, 8:40 AM

“Erik has taken Owl for a short walk, I have to leave for my Meetup lake walk in an hour, the kitchen is a mess, I didn’t have breakfast, it’s already not cool (supposed to be in the 80s later), and I’m so behind on both journaling and my bullet journal that I feel quite jittery already…

It’s very strange that even just a few weeks ago I was feeling okay on not very many breaks but now that I’ve had some I’m already feeling severely off-kilter after only two days without. But then I’m always grumpy in the heat. And I’ve been doing more physical activity than usual. And Erik worked so much over the weekend that it wasn’t exactly a weekend… although he only worked a few hours each day so I don’t know how that can make so much difference. Anyway, I’m feeling desperate again. Last night I was up too late — too tired to get up to go get ready for bed or shower, and still clinging to a hope that I could get some work done — and then I remembered I still needed to pump; Owl’s hurt my left nipple so much with teething that it became too painful to nurse on that side, so I kept her off it all day. While I was assembling all the many pump parts (had to dry some of them too, after the earlier washing), thinking of bed, and thinking of how I’d stayed up so late for no good reason, I just felt so angry. I rarely got this angry before I had a child. But I’m just so much closer now to all of my limits — mental, emotional, physical, I’m so often lonely and isolated, understimulated on an adult level — that anger is a new companion. It is not easy to stay calm in the face of having so few of my needs met (relative to what I’m used to).

It’s overwhelming to feel like this — like there are too many things I’m not caught up on — and everything then loses proportion.”

Noted in my movement log, later that day

“Around 5 PM, while Erik took Owl for a walk, I used You Feel Like Shit to decide what to do, because I still felt jittery and uncomfortable. I napped for 10-15 min with the help of one of the sleep stories on the Calm app, then showered.”

Posted on Instagram on May 4; these were possible with the help of a babysitter

14-month-old Ada standing and drawing with a crayon and a pencil

Sketch of 14-month-old Ada eating a chocolate chip cookies, Lisa Hsia

Written in my private journal on Friday, May 5, 8:20 AM

“Gad I’m so tired. And I need to leave here in just under an hour to get to my Meetup on time. Erik is taking Owl out to get them both some food and then he has a meeting and then will need to drive down to San Jose, which wasn’t originally in the schedule for today. So I am having chocolate chip cookies I managed to bake yesterday, and milk, and hoping that’ll hold me until I can get food at the meetup…

I was supposed to have a work session this morning from 7-9 and Erik was perfectly willing, but I chose to sleep longer. Owl woke this morning around 4 and bit my right nipple so hard I feared damage, but then wouldn’t accept my left and bawled for a long time and I had to rock her and talk to her; she wouldn’t accept Erik. Finally we tried nursing both sides again (they are both still sore 😦 ) and she fell asleep, but by then it was nearly 5 and both Erik and I had a hard time getting back to sleep…”

12:56 that afternoon, at a cafe/bookshop

Lisa wearing Ada and drinking coconut water

“Not sure how much longer Owl will sleep in her carrier — my neck feels warm with her sweaty hair and forehead sticking to it — but as I’m always reminding myself, it’s about the attempt and about building a practice. We had a really pleasant outing with my Meetup; we had about 9 people and 3 babies… the older people especially liked playing with the babies, and since Owl fell asleep afterward I could walk to the Korean market to get kimbap for lunch, and then here to write. The walking, socializing, change of scene, and fresh air are all helping me wake up without even having had any tea!…

Even with my shoulders hurting it’s simply wonderful to be writing in a literary space again. Makes me feel an echo of how I used to feel in spaces like this: purposeful and hopeful and productive.

I’ve been longing for something more spatial lately with my art, maybe because my usually detailed 2D work isn’t so possible anymore with a baby, maybe because I’ve been so constrained in my own mobility, maybe because I’ve been thinking over our Japan trip and the Lee Ufan interview I read… about using art to point out space that already exists. Come to think of it, this is what I’m trying to do with my artist residency too — creating in the space that already exists, even if it doesn’t appear noteworthy at first. But how to make more 3D work? I’m completely unaccustomed…

On the other hand maybe the work itself can be 2D if the process is spacious…?”

Noted in my movement log that evening

“Had a half-hour restorative and check-in session with Phi before dinner. Important to remember that while I’ve been physically ‘doing’, I also need to be receptive and still and just listen to my body as well. In this case, I found that I needed that whole half hour to remember how not to be wholly tense.” 

Written in my journal on Sunday, May 7, 9:13 AM

“In the amount of time it took Erik to walk out to the bakery, buy me pastries, and walk back to drop them off for me, I have set up to write: made tea and gotten out the right cup and saucer for how I’m feeling, decanted some honey, poached a couple of eggs and poured soy sauce onto them, swapped out yesterday’s water glass for a new one and filled it, gotten dressed, opened a window. It feels really nice to do all these things for myself AND have the apartment to myself since yesterday was our anniversary and Erik for once didn’t have to work over the weekend… but my nipples hurt and my stomach was still troublesome after bad time the day before, and Owl didn’t want to be parted from me. So I was tired and ailing but unable to really rest, while Erik was tired and feeling like a failure for not being able to help me more. Eventually I fell asleep while listening to some Theta wave binaural beat video and Erik was able to take Owl for some short walks, I managed to eat, and I read through a lot of my saved Facebook links and all in all it wasn’t such a bad day, even if it didn’t go as I’d hoped.”

Posted on Facebook on May 7, as a direct result of what I wrote about in my journal

“This is something I just realized about early parenting.

1. Some phases are just terrible. They just are. You’ll get no sleep and you’ll get no breaks and your body will hurt and you’ll be all out of patience all the time and everything will feel like shit. And then the phase will end and everything will get better.

2. And you probably won’t remember how bad that phase was, or you’ll remember but you won’t recall the particulars, or maybe you won’t even remember it at all because sleep deprivation.

3. Humans are resilient and you’ll bounce back from the phase surprisingly well, all things considered. This is how the FB feeds of people with young children are full of pictures of zoo outings and cupcakes and funny incidents, rather than cursing and tears and ‘I can’t take it any more please help’ (actually, those last ones are there, just only in moms’ groups).

4. HOWEVER. Sometimes several of these terrible phases will bleed together in quick succession. The baby will be sick and then you will be sick and then teething and then your car dies and then work crises and then separation anxiety and then plugged ducts. That’s when someone will tell you it’s just a phase, it will pass, and you’ll go, ‘No, that OTHER time was a phase. But THIS misery has been going on for three months and therefore it is clearly NOT a phase and it is because I am a failure of a parent and a failure of a person and everything is shot to hell and I really, REALLY can’t take it anymore but how can I ask anyone for help because who wants to help a failure?’ (And then you would cry, but you can’t cry, because you’re too busy.)

5. But it’s not true. It has nothing to do with you as a parent or a person. Not that you’re perfect (because no one is), and not that 100 other people wouldn’t have managed the situation 100 other ways (because they would, and they will tell you so vehemently and at length, which is why we only share these things in trusted moms’ groups rather than on the internet at large or even maybe with friends and most definitely not with family), but PARENTING IS JUST HARD. And sometimes it’s harder than other times, and some KIDS are harder than other kids would be in that same situation, and that has nothing to do with your own capabilities. It’s just how things turned out this time.

6. So try to take deep breaths, even if all you can remember is three deep breaths in the whole of the day (or week), and remind yourself that sometimes it’s just hard, and comparing yourself to other people will only lead you straight to self-inflicted hell. Tell your people you’re having a hard time and let them help you (and if they won’t help you, cut them off because it’s THEM, not you).

7. And things will get better.

8. And then worse.

9. And then better again.”