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On Aunties & Oxygen Masks

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My phone lit up with an ultrasound picture, then a baby bump picture, then a “I have some news” text from different dear friends all within the same week. My immediate reaction was confusing to me: a jolt of simultaneous ecstatic happiness, but also a deep sadness.

Let me explain: I’m a parent of young children. I am an early-career academic researcher and practicing family physician. I was on the front lines of the covid pandemic while caring for a 5 year old and a disabled elder. And recently returned from maternity leave after a somewhat unexpected pregnancy.

As I have gathered my thoughts about how to respond to these dear ones in my life, I keep returning to some truths about the reality of postpartum, parenting in this society, and ultimately a need for what I’m calling Deep Auntie Culture.

Before I had kids, I had no idea what my pregnant or parenting friends needed. Was nose-deep in my career as a trainee, and didn't want to "impose". You don't know what you don't know, and you don't know how to ask, and our society splits us apart from our elders who DO know.

By the time I was pregnant the first time, it was a wild time and I couldn't figure out why I felt so out of balance. Partly hormones for sure, but also because my body and soul needed nurturing, protection, soothing to let me make a baby. But all the messaging I received was to work as hard as I could before maternity leave. I was exhausted. I took time where I could, but as a clinical fellow (in training post-residency) I didn't know what balance looked like and again, didn't know what I didn't know, and didn't know how to slow down or stop work. I did end up stopping a few responsibilities because my body literally couldn't do it. But by then, it was time to have the baby.

Then came postpartum depression. A blank space, an absence of presence in my mind. A lacuna of pain I never want to revisit. I have never lived in a lonelier, uglier, more isolating time than PP with a partner back to work after 2 weeks. I didn't know how to ask for more help. I felt so ashamed of my suffering. People would check in and text, and I didn't know how to respond.

I finally found a new mama support group, and that kept the obliterating darkness at bay. A circle of mamas in the Mission District and I would gather, cry, and grieve the changes in our bodies, lovingly curse out our partners in their absence, and then go drink a beer. It saved my life.

When I went back to work, other parents (typically other mamas, lets be real) would make a point to stop, look me in the eye, and really ask how I was doing. How was pumping? Did I need lunch? How was daycare? I felt so embarrassed by the attention. I wasn't special!

I had so much internalized misogyny that I wanted it to seem like I was the same person as I was before a baby. That I was "the same" as everyone else. When in actuality I had completely transformed. Your priorities are totally shifted. You are still YOU, but your entire axis rotates differently now. Your ego is on the back shelf. It’s all about this incredible new being. Who is so purely innocent and a manifestation of love and hope. Who didn’t ask to come here to this flawed and painful world. Who totally and utterly relies on you.

You’re acclimating to this, yet all the other demands just keep on going as if your universe hasn’t been completely transformed.

Returning to work as a new parent in this context is, to put it frankly, a nightmare. Your body is only just beginning to heal. Depending on your delivery, some symptoms or issues may continue to evolve and need dedicated time and attention. Meanwhile, you're pumping between patients, hoping your supervisor doesn't comment on the whirring sound in the background (pro tip: wondering about what to say if you hear a pump on a phone call?? Answer: nothing!!!) while still tending to your healing wounded body. All of this as you're mentally and spiritually expanding to make space for this new being in your life as well.

Fellow parents at work were the only ones that understood this. The only ones who really saw. If we run into each other, if our eyes meet, we are exchanging that nod of solidarity because we’re so alone in this.

The damning, catch 22 is that now, now that I FINALLY understand what crucial support and nurturing pregnant people, nursing moms, and new parents need, I have absolutely NO bandwidth to act on them. Now I’m back at work with a 10 month old, pumping, running meetings, putting together grants and seeing patients. I am barely keeping my own oxygen mask on as I’m trying to keep postpartum depression at bay. Every day is a gruesome battle. I'm trying to stay alive on this planet and also nurture these two beings that rely on me and also sometimes show up for my partner and family members. All of this? It’s just not something I can easily say in the moment when I'm asked "How are you?"

But this is what I'm wrestling with; by the time you understand enough to be able to state how you are and what you need, it's kind of too late to ask for it for yourself. Although you hold this knowledge for others you care about, you are so desperately trying to not drown that you can't be actively sending lasagnas or booking massages for the other loved ones in your life that are beginning the parenting journey.

It’s not something I have easily been able to say to my loved ones who are newly pregnant. First of all, those growing new life need to be surrounded by what I can only call the best vibes: peacefulnes, joy, and nurturing. They need their blood pressures low and their minds in a positive space. Lord knows there’s enough to be stressed out about, I don’t need to add to any negativity. I don’t want to burst any bubbles as I see their open, expectant, happy faces. Their beatific statements about the delivery they want, the parents they plan to be, their expected approach to how they’ll handle the baby. And so I bite my tongue. I pray “I hope your journey will be lighter than mine was.”

The COVID world has just magnified this sensation – and it’s a bitter one, its one I keep tasting in the back of my throat. That feeling that once many of us have a child, after our pregnant bodies are low-key fetishized and delighted over, then we have the child and its like our bodies are crumpled up juice boxes on the side of the road. Literally no one seems to care about you – not policy makers, not bosses, not administrators, not even many colleagues or friends. With one exception: the other parenting people who are also equally abandoned by society, who are also desperately trying to hold on.

The only saving grace I know about are: AUNTIES (in the most expansive term.) If you didn't know, Aunties make the world go round. Aunties know what pregnant and parenting people need and they are hopefully in a life stage where they have a bit more space to act on it. Other cultures and societies, like the ones I come from, have a thriving culture of Aunties and I think part of my spiritual pain is that I feel so severed from inhabiting that reality. And it hurts.

So, to the people who haven't gone on this journey yet, I see you and I am in a rage as I type this hunched over a pump with my messed up, healing body. I long for policies of paid leave that actually let us HEAL. I long for workplaces where pumping isn't such a thing. I long for higher Earned Income Tax Credit. More than anything, I long for multigenerational households and an extremely strong culture of Aunties; Aunties who will lift up all of us in our healing, mending, growing stage of life.

And I promise that if I make it, and I finally achieve and unlock Auntie status, I will be out there nurturing the next generation like no other.

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