Published on May 19th, 2014 | by Rachael Inciarte3
Rachael Inciarte on Being an MFA Mom
When I decided to pursue an MFA out of college, I didn’t intend to get pregnant in the second semester of a three year program. Having an “oops” wasn’t even a likely scenario. My husband (then boyfriend) was living halfway across the country in Michigan. He was in the middle of his own graduate program, and our visits were highly irregular. The month we conceived we had only seen each other twice, and found out about the pregnancy together, a day before I was set to fly back to Boston. When I told him I thought I was pregnant, he did not panic. He drove with me to the pharmacy to purchase a test, certain it would be negative. “Wait, what does this mean?” He asked later, studying the used pee-stick. “Oh shit,” I said, “It’s positive.”
Choosing to parent together wasn’t difficult. We’d been dating since high school, and both of us eventually wanted children. We were surprised by the timing, but comfortable with the new direction of our lives. It was March, and my husband would graduate in summer. We decided to continue living separately until then, when he would move with me. It was draining to go through much of my first and second trimesters without him as a consistent physical presence. Especially difficult because with the exception of our parents, we kept the pregnancy mum until later.
Keeping the secret was hard for me. When anyone asked what was new, I imagined shouting, “At this very moment I am making a small human!” I attended meetings for the graduate literary magazine in a bar feeling oddly guilty, and fabricated unbelievable excuses for my sudden sobriety. I clamped my teeth over nausea whenever anyone brought food into workshop, specifically one someone who insisted on eating a cheese bagel every morning of class, making it impossible to concentrate over the powerful desire to vomit.
At 16 weeks, we finally shared the news. First, I sent emails to my fall semester professors, neither of whom I knew, asking if they would be willing to give me their syllabi ahead of time. My due date was around Thanksgiving, and I wanted to finish my work before then, just in case. They were happy to accommodate me, which was lucky, as I’m sure not everyone would have been as understanding. I even had one professor suggesting Shakespearean names for the baby!
Our families were supportive, but friends–most in their very early 20’s like us–thought we were crazy. While few seemed surprised that I was knocked up, many were shocked we planned to continue the pregnancy, and to parent. Into my second trimester I had people still suggesting abortion. Having those kinds of conversations became aggravating, so I stopped talking about it. I figured everyone would get the message when I had a baby on my hip. Because of this, my first days of classes in September were awkward. During one class, we were introducing ourselves with fun stories about how we were named. At my turn, I said, “I’m Rachael, and I wasn’t named for any special reason. But, I can’t decide what to name my baby. I’m pregnant, by the way, not fat.” The student beside me audibly gasped. I was seven months along by this point.
When Lee was born on his due date in November, I felt insanely grateful I’d finished my entire semester’s work ahead of time. I’ve been an insomniac my whole life, so I thought I understood sleep deprivation. But there was no way to prepare for how dysfunctional I became. The intense lack of sleep was brutal, but I also tanked the postpartum depression screen at six-weeks.
I remember fragments from Lee’s first months, many of the memories unpleasant. I recall wandering aimlessly around the maternity ward at night after 72 hours without sleep, being given a Xanax and a Percocet, and returned to bed by a nurse who then wheeled my son into the nursery. Vividly do I recount bloody nipples and rock hard breasts, the failure and shame when the pediatrician told me there was nothing wrong with Lee’s latch, instead that I was the problem. I’d cry, my ass pressing patterns into the couch because that’s where I spent all my time. I didn’t shower, and insisted that clothing was a farce. I couldn’t sleep because I worried about Lee, I couldn’t sleep because I was exhausted from not sleeping. I felt terrified to be alone with my baby, sure I wouldn’t be able to care for him. And, while I loved him in an abstract, obligatory way, I didn’t know him. I desperately missed the baby in my belly, whom I’d felt deeply connected to. I couldn’t fathom at all this child that had been pulled from me. I tried to be positive, focus on things that I liked about him: his eyes, black like polished stones, and the impossibly delicious baby scent that makes my mouth water.
Also, I was suddenly unable to read. For a writing student with lit classes, weekly workshops, and a thesis looming, this was unacceptable. I tried but could not make sense of the shapes of letters on the page. Whether the sleep deprivation or PPD was the cause, my husband needed to read every word aloud to me, so that I could give my peers their critiques in class and finish my own assignments.
People told me they were impressed, and that I was doing a great job. I sincerely thought I was being mocked.
I dropped to a part-time course load the following semester. This required paperwork and hoop-jumping so that I would not lose my scholarship. Fortunately, one of the women in the administration office recently had a baby, and fought for my case. By February, I had only one class to manage. I went to therapy and began a low dose of Zoloft. My husband got more time off work to help me. We finally fixed my son’s painful latch and my nipples stopped bleeding. We threw away the parenting books that made me feel anxious and inadequate.
And, slowly, things felt less urgent and less frightening. Lee began sleeping regularly. My brain remembered how to read. I enrolled in a summer course to make up for the credits I’d missed, and by the following autumn I was ready to begin my thesis year.
I discovered an opportunity being a full-time graduate student offered: I could be a stay-at-home-mother. I registered for evening classes, stayed with Lee during the day, then went to school after my husband arrived home after work. At first I struggled to reconcile myself as a student and a mom. It was hard to watch work pile up, to let things go undone, but it helped me utilize the little time I had. It seemed insane to sit with the laptop and think to myself: ‘Be creative now! There is only an hour to write something before the baby wakes up!’ Still, I did it.
I learned to be the mother that Lee needed, without having to give up my work, or myself. Because I felt good, I was able to enjoy my son. It was an odd shift, to go from scared shitless into a love affair with my child and motherhood. But, from a small sack of flesh, Lee became personable! And funny! And curious! Getting to know him is the great pleasure of my life.
In May 2013, I graduated from my program alongside my cohort. My parents, my husband, and my son were in attendance. Waiting for my diploma, I heard Lee begin to fuss somewhere in the crowd. I could feel a tug, urging me to go to him, at the same time as I waited eagerly for my turn to walk across the stage. It was already familiar, the feeling of being many people at once, and belonging wholly, comfortably, happily to all my roles.