Watering the desert

It looks like my Artist Residency in Motherhood updates make more sense every two weeks instead of one. It’s been almost a full month now since I wrote my manifesto and in that time every week has seen at least one of us sick or ailing in some way.

Since I last posted, life has gone like this:

May 8

Owl fighting off a cold, therefore clingy. I have breast/nipple pain and a headache.

May 10

Jackie sent me freesias for Mother’s Day. Inaugural get-together with a parent group I’ve formed. Mended a chair while the babysitter brought me food and helped me with Owl.

Vintage chair mended in three colors of thread

May 11

I’m sick. I guess that’s why I’ve been so tired.

May 12

“I’m really glad for [my sacred Friday morning writing time] because I’d forgotten so much of my week and this has given me a chance to bring it back… now I see it’s been a full, rich week rather than just one that passed me by.”

May 13

In San Jose for a Mother’s Day girls’ day out with my mom and sisters: my first full day without Owl since the day she was conceived 23+ months ago. I ate food without feeding someone else. We did some shopping. We took as much time as we wanted. No one needed us. It was wonderful.

May 16

Still in San Jose, developed a painful plugged duct overnight. Sat on my sister’s bed holding a hot-water bottle to my breast, crying. My parents took Owl for much of the rest of the day and I took Motrin and napped.

May 17

Still in San Jose, duct still plugged. My mom took Owl out to play — first time anyone besides Erik has taken her someplace. More rest for me until that night, driving back to Oakland, when we had to pull over after ten minutes because Owl screamed and screamed. Nursed her in a parking lot, then walked around until security told us we had to leave. Then she fell asleep for the rest of the drive while I spaced out and brainstormed a self-care sketching project.

May 18

Back in Oakland, wondering why I’m so exhausted and out of patience. The thought comes, “I hate my life,” but immediately I think no, no, I don’t — but I do hate the balance of it right now. I grab a moment at the laptop and write,

I hate that I clean the floor under Owl’s high chair more often than I write in my journal. I hate that I spend more time responding to someone else’s cries than I do listening to my own thoughts. I hate that we’re mostly living off takeout but when I do make space to cook, like tonight, I feel like screaming that at the end of a day of cleaning and tending and devising and aching, I now have to cook as well. I would say I’m behind on everything that matters to me except I’ve barely had an hour to even think about what matters to me anymore, besides mothering. People told me this would get easier after a year and it has, to an almost unbelievable degree, but it’s still so demoralizing — especially from 3-5 PM on a weekday.

Erik takes Owl out in the evening and I watch a video of a conversation between Oprah and Michelle Obama. Michelle says, “You have to take control of your time and your life, or other people will gobble it up.” I grab at her wisdom and her experience. It’s so true. So true. And she would know.

May 19

In doing my Friday journaling I realize why I was so worn out yesterday: I took Owl out to play, did three loads of laundry, washed and put away dishes, cleared the fridge, put away delivered groceries, prepped and cooked dinner and made bread pudding, pumped my left breast every 4-6 hours and washed the pump parts each time.

“Honestly, in writing about my day I feel pretty awed by myself, that I got so much done AND cared for Owl and took her out and wasn’t an absolute wreck while recovering from the plugged duct and having just come back from a 5-day trip.”

Lisa, selfie while journaling at a cafe

May 20

Saturday starts with solo writing time and a shower and beautiful quiet. But Erik has work catch-up to do. The middle of the day finds me tired and on the verge of tears and feeling like a bad person for wanting more rest when I’ve had “so many” breaks lately. Erik makes dinner, takes Owl out, and I meet Adwoa for bubble tea and re-learn how to go out with a friend without baby. It feels weird, but good. When I turn up at the cafe Adwoa says, “I haven’t seen you in bright colors in so long!” It hasn’t been on purpose, but it’s true that nearly all my nursing clothes are in darks or neutrals.

May 21

In doing my Sunday journaling I realize burnout needs recovery, not just momentary breaks. This is why every hour I get to myself feels like a drop of water thrown onto the desert. I guess this artist residency is a chance to figure out what I need and how to get it, not just for my creative self, but for the whole self that happens to include the part of me that’s an artist. A chance to turn the desert into an ocean. Or something like that.

In looking over this first month of residency — which is possible since I’ve recorded so much of it in my journal (a departure from my first 13 months of motherhood) — I’m able to see patterns: my constant confusion about “why I’m so tired” when, upon review, I see that the conditions of my life are simply exhausting (though still easier than for many others, I don’t forget); that I’m always trying to find moments to create and rest and figure out what I need, even in the middle of everything; that I’m tense, jittery, and shell-shocked during the times I get to myself, because I barely remember how to be a solo, autonomous person anymore. I am proud of myself that I keep trying.

I’ve been surprised over and over this month to realize how much more tired I feel — not because I am more tired (though I might well be), but because I’m taking the time to think about it. Some of that is the journaling and the opportunity it gives for reflection. Some of it is the residency itself and the reverb effect of having articulated my needs. Some of it is that taking breaks makes me hungry for more, not because I’m ungrateful for them (which I spent weeks worrying about), but because they’ve made me see just how great and untouched is the core of my need. Drops of water in the desert.

When I was seeing a wonderful therapist back at the start of this year, she helped me to own myself as an artist. When she asked how that felt, I told her it was like having a solid place to stand on after years of being tossed around by the current. I’ve come to that bit of land in the past — that feeling of deserving to call myself a real artist — but it was always by accident, like I’d been swimming and flailing all over the ocean and then stumbled onto the edge of the rock. But now I know where it is, and I can always come back to it.

So what happens now? she asked.

I want the rock to become a landmass, I said. Or an island. I want it to be bigger, so I can build a studio on it: a place that’s just for me and anyone I care to invite, a place to make art, a place to sit with friends and make tea and talk about working and life, a place to store all the things that inspire and interest me so I can peruse them at my leisure. A place with big windows and good light and everything I need. A place just for me.

I’ve been thinking about this, consciously and unconsciously, in the months since that conversation. It is an unwelcome condition of our beautiful, but small, apartment that I do not have a space that is just for me. Before we had Owl, that was fine — Erik and I know how to give each other space even in the same room — but the life of a mother and child, especially in a breastfeeding relationship, especially when I’m highly sensitive and an empath, blurs all divisions of self and time and body and need. Which is to say, since having Owl, even within my own self there has not been a space that is just for me. And I don’t like that.

Logistically, I don’t know how to untangle this, because I am still — and I still want to be — Owl’s primary caregiver. But it’s looking more and more important that I figure it out.

To mix my metaphors: I need to find out how to turn my desert into that island in the sea.