A baby’s cry

I was about six or seven years old. School had ended, and I was on the school bus, on my way back home. I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking, but I remember I was quiet, withdrawn from the chatter in the bus. I had not been feeling well that day at all, but I didn’t really know that I was feeling sick, nor did I tell anyone that I felt unwell.

The school bus dropped me off. As I walked towards home, I spotted both my parents standing in front of the door, waiting for me. Their faces lit up when they saw me, and they opened their arms with bright smiles. I don’t remember what they said. All I remember is their smiles– the warmth, the love, the familiarity. I was home. I was safe. And all of a sudden, I burst into tears. And as my parents opened their mouths in alarm, as they ran forward to hug me and ask me what’s wrong, I realized then that I needed their presence to finally feel safe to cry, to express in my childlike way that I am not well.

For some reason, this memory came to me as I sat at the waiting room for my optometrist. I was running out of contact lenses and needed a new prescription to renew them. Before the appointment, I had managed to put Tov down for a nap, and I had expected to be back within an hour, but the optometrist was late for my appointment– very late. I had to wait 45 minutes to finally see the optometrist. While waiting, I checked the nursery camera on my iPhone– oh no. Tov is up! He’s wiggling and wailing in his crib!

So there I was, waiting for the optometrist, while David was downstairs in his office stuck in a meeting, and Tov was just crying and crying with nobody to respond to him. My gosh, how that wrung my heart! I wanted to scream at the optometrist for making me wait for that long, jump into my car, zoom back home, and scoop Tov into my arms.

I used to hate the sound of babies crying. I found them as annoying as the sound of forks scraping the surface of a dish. Whenever I heard a baby wailing at the store, or on the plane, I felt my ears bleeding from the noises raking at my eardrums. But something incredible happened when my own baby cried– my heart swelled. My love for him doubled, tripled whenever he cried. It’s not like my baby’s wails are any less loud or shrill than other babies’. It’s just that…he’s my baby, and he needs me.

Often Tov cries for no apparent reason at all, other than simply reminding us that he exists. He’s been fed, burped, changed, played with, cuddled with, and he will still let out a cry, just because he can…and just because he knows we will respond, even if it’s in the middle of the night. Because as young and helpless as he is, he knows the power of his cries in the ears of his parents. He knows. Just as the seven-year-old me subconsciously withheld my tears until I saw my parents, because I knew nobody would respond as warmly and lovingly as my own parents could, two-month-old Tov intuitively knows that when he cries, my heart instantly wrings and swells.

I think about how God called David a man after his own heart. That is one of the most tremendous statements in the Bible, that God, who hates unrighteousness and injustice, would call David– a murderer, an adulterer, a rapist, and a failed father– a man after his own heart. But as I read the songs that David composed in Psalms, I wonder…perhaps God calling David a man after his own heart isn’t based on David’s qualifications, but on David’s ability to cry and wail to God with full confidence and assurance that God listens and responds. God called David a man after his own heart because David understood the heart of God– that His is a heart that wrings and swells when we cry out to Him. Calling David a man after God’s own heart isn’t a testament to David– it’s a testament to God– to His goodness and compassion and steadfast love. It is a praise to God, not David.

Just read out Psalm 62, in which David wrote: “Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.”

And Psalm 42, one of my favorite passages: “These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng. Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

What I sense in these psalms is that David knew deep into his marrows that he is beloved by God. So when he is downcast, he pours out his soul to God. When he is happy, he pours out his soul to God. To pour out your soul is to be fully vulnerable and authentic, to reveal every part of yourself, to express every emotion and thoughts, to be boldly free and naked before someone without shame, regrets, or fear.

I love that. God, I love that. Even as an infant, we are born wailing needing so much love, more love than even our parents can ever satisfy, more love than we as parents can ever provide. We were born to be loved, because God created us out of love, and anyone who understands that is a person after his own heart.

I write this as my son is snug and secure in a wrap around me. These days, he refuses to nap unless he’s literally stuck skin-to-skin to me. I’ve tried multiple times to lay him in his crib, but each time, he spits out his pacifier, wiggles and squirms in his swaddle like a little Houdini, and yeowls like a wet cat until I pick him up and hold him close to me.

So I hold him tight. Even though it’s inconvenient, there’s also a part of me that delights that he cries for me, that he knows he’s safe with me. So I lay his little head on top of my beating heart, a heart that keeps growing in love for him by the day. He settles down, closes his teary eyes, and rests in peace. I kiss the top of his head, breathe in that newborn fragrance, and think, “If I can love my son this much, how much more my God, my creator?” And so my soul pours out to God– with praise, thanksgiving, joy, love– for I am beloved by the one who is love.

Grandparents come to visit

My parents flew from Virginia to Los Angeles to meet Tov in late May.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m an extremely independent person. I think I wear my independence like an envelope– it’s how I present and package myself. I like being independent, and I like being known as independent. So I assumed a lot of things about what postpartum will be like for me– I assumed I wouldn’t want any visitors at the hospital, no visitors at home, no advice or gifts or meals, just everyone, please leave me alone to figure this parenting thing out on my own. That included my parents: I assumed I wouldn’t really need them that much.

I assumed wrong. The day we got discharged, as a hospital escort wheeled me out to the parking lot, she exclaimed, “You guys just seem so chill! Most of the other parents I’ve escorted always look so terrified and anxious. But you guys don’t look anxious at all!”

That wasn’t true. There were plenty to be anxious about; we just didn’t show it, because everything had happened so fast, so soon, that we were suffering from whiplash and had no mental space to even feel anxiety. Right before we were discharged, the pediatrician told us Tov showed concerningly elevated levels of jaundice, and recommended we take him to the ER the next morning for another blood test. That day, Tov was so drugged out from his circumcision that he could barely sip 10 ml of milk, even though it had been more than four hours since his last feeding, and the lactation consultant had told me he really should be drinking at least 40 ml every two to three hours. The kid was so tiny at less than 5 lbs, fresh out of the NICU, looking a little orangey-yellow in the face, and he was coming home alone with clueless parents who didn’t even know how to buckle him into the car seat, how to burp or swaddle him. I wanted to borrow a couple nurses and take them home with me, because I had questions about questions I didn’t know. When we got home and parked the car in the garage, David and I looked at Tov and then at each other: OK. What now?

That was when I really, really wanted my abba and omma. It wasn’t even about asking them for help with the baby. I just wanted their presence, to feel safe and secure at a time when I suddenly had to provide safety and security to a fragile child of my own.

My parents arrived late at night on a Monday, while Tov was sleeping soundly. David picked them up at the airport and brought them home to meet Tov. Concerned about bringing germs and viruses, parents had said they would keep their N-95 masks on and just look at the baby in the crib. But once they saw Tov sleeping, at times puckering his lips and wrinkling his little forehead, they simply couldn’t help themselves– they gasped; they laughed in wonder; their hands naturally reached out to stroke his cheeks, his hair, his little bundled body.

And I didn’t care at all. I wanted them to touch my son, to embrace and kiss him, because I wanted Tov to receive all the love I’ve always received from my parents from birth till now. Because Tov needs his grandparents’ love. And because a mother also needs her mother.

The next morning, my parents came to our house with three huge boxes full of ingredients they had bought from the Korean market. They bought so much stuff that my fridge could barely stay shut.

Only parents would eagerly fly across the country to physically labor in their grown-up children’s house. I may be almost 35, but in my parents’ eyes, I need as much care and nurturing as Tov. As soon as they walked into the house, my mother was already tying an apron around her waist. Every day, all day she pottered around the kitchen, soaking and stir-frying seaweed for seaweed soup, marinating sesame seed leaves and cucumbers for kimchi, brewing dates for date tea, stewing pork ribs with spices for bak kut teh– all “warm” foods that’s supposed to help me recover postpartum. My father helped mince onions and garlic, vacuumed the whole house, watered and pruned all the plants in the house. Every evening before dinner, he prepared a devotion and prayed earnestly for 15 minutes while the food my mother prepared turned cold.

My parents came to our home with hearts full of love and arms full of blessings. And yes, they also came with fistfuls of unsolicited advice. Like all Asian parents, they were obsessed with avoiding anything cold.

“Aigo! Aren’t your feet cold?” omma exclaimed when she saw my bare feet.

“I just showered and didn’t have time to put on socks,” I said.

“Aigo!” abba exclaimed when he saw my feet: “You should put on some socks!”

“I will, soon!”

A few minutes later, omma: “Ommoh, it’s so chilly in this house! Hurry. Better put on some socks!” (It was 72 degrees inside.)

A minute later, abba: “Are you going to put on socks?”

Me: “Oh my God! I already said I will!”

This obsession with keeping the body warm went on the entire time they were with us. Just as they worried about my cold feet, they worried about Tov being cold. They closed the window when we opened it. They closed it again when we opened it again. Any time there was a slight breeze wafting into the house, they slammed the windows shut. They insisted on wrapping Tov in a blanket, even though we told them he easily overheats. They snuck an extra blanket over him when we weren’t looking. They exclaimed, “Aigo, I think he’s cold!” every time Tov sneezed, or grunted, or wailed, or fidgeted. My mother herself wore two layers of pants and woolly socks all day. And they both completely freaked out when they found out we fed Tov breastmilk straight from the fridge.

“Shocking!” abba muttered, wrapping his arms extra-tight around his grandson as though to protect him from any future cold beverages: “Unthinkable! We could never imagine ever feeding a baby cold milk!”

I expected all this to happen. I expected myself to get annoyed, and I did. Yet I also enjoyed every moment with them, because even their unsolicited advice and nagging were, in a way, loud proclamations of their love.

Abba left earlier on Saturday to preach on Sunday, while omma stayed an extra week with us. Every single day, any time he could, abba held Tov in his arms. When Tov made a noise in his crib, abba would zoom right over and scoop him up. He’d plop Tov (bundled in extra blankets, of course) on his round belly and just stare at him for hours while munching on glutinous corn on a chopstick, praying silently, or sometimes dozing off himself. Tov never napped as well as he did in his grandpa’s arms. He just melted right into his grandpa’s warm embrace, sleeping without stirring for three hours.

My omma, too, loved watching Tov. When the boy was especially fussy during the evenings, omma would prop him on her lap and sing to him– fun, silly Korean lullabies about fat papa bears and playful mountain rabbits, and the classic “Jesus loves me” hymn. Sometimes, she sang her own prayers for Tov in Korean and Mandarin to the tune of “Jesus loves me.” As she sang, “God, raise this child to be like his name, that he would enjoy your tov, and be tov and blessing to all!” Tov stopped fussing and just stared at his grandma with wide, bright eyes.

Oh, how full my heart was during those moments! Tov felt like the biggest gift I could give my parents– the joy of holding and loving the child of their child, the fresh marvel and joy of being grandparents. How powerful is this parental love, that it keeps flowing down from generation to generation without losing its purity and radiance. I want Tov to soak up all his grandparents’ love, all the way to his marrows. I want my parents’ prayers for Tov to move the hearts of every angel in heaven to keep and protect him from evil and brokenness. I want Tov to remember the scent and warmth from his grandparents, even if he won’t yet remember their faces and snuggles and coos. Few other things warm a mother’s heart like seeing her child be loved by others.

The day I dropped omma off at the airport, I felt a deep loss. David too said he felt weirdly sad saying goodbye to my parents. It wasn’t just about the convenience of having two extra pair of hands in the house. It was the security and comfort of having our own parents with us, like the coziness of a weighted blanket on a cold winter night, because every parent needs their parents, whether they’re five weeks old or 50. While taking care of my child, I– this proud, stubbornly independent, grown-ass woman– ached to also be cared for by my own parents, to once again be somebody else’s baby.

When we become parents, we see our own parents with new eyes. While my parents were here, abba and I talked about the way my brother and I were raised. I have my own minor grievances about the way I was raised, and I shared some of the instances when I felt my parents had wronged me, or misunderstood me.

Before Tov, some of those grievances still felt a little sore. But I was surprised to discover that the rawness of those childhood memories had faded away. Instead, new healthy skin had formed over that wound– the skin of empathy and compassion for my parents who were once in the same position as me: clueless, fumbling, clumsy, and fallen, but doing the best they can with the best love I could ever receive from a flawed human here on earth. Nobody loved me as fiercely and brokenly as my parents– and nobody loved me as well as they did.

My parents were raised very differently in a very different culture, and that generational and cultural gap will always be there between us, but this new unity of parenthood has unfolded a bridge between our two worlds.

Tov is five weeks old today. He’s chubbier and slowly growing out of his hospital blanket. His needs are more urgent, at least from the way he expresses it. At times, when his needs are not immediately met– (really, because this boy cannot speak! He just scrunches his face and wails! How is a mother to know if he can’t speak his mind. Speak, boy, speak!)– he gets particularly agitated, his hands clenched into little golf ball-sized fists, his legs kicking, his face all wrinkly and red.

It doesn’t matter to him that I’m holding him in my arms, showering him with kisses, showing him in every way possible that I love him. It doesn’t matter to him that I’m exhausted, that I haven’t had more than two hours of uninterrupted sleep for five weeks, that I lost the thing that was most important to me– my freedom– to him. He doesn’t appreciate this love, not yet– he just takes and takes as though receiving love is the most natural and expected thing in the world. Right now, he’s still very young, but one day, I’ll disappoint him even more. I’ll snap at him, dismiss his feelings, misunderstand him, force things on him– all the things parents do when they’re busy or selfish or tired or anxious, or simply loving their kids as best as they can with all their shortcomings.

Perhaps, one clear indication of maturity is when the child can look at all the mistakes of her parents, and respond with compassion and empathy. I hope one day Tov will do that for me– and if I’m lucky, I won’t have to wait till he has a child of his own.

Why he is Tov

Tov hates diaper changes.

He hates it especially when it’s in the middle of the night, when he’s half-asleep, drowsy from feeding, and I place him on his changing pad and tug off his soiled diaper. The moment he hears that diaper tape stripping off, he yowls. His mouth opens wide, tiny teardrops squeeze out of his scrunched eyes, and a howl bursts out of his tiny lungs, surprisingly loud and strong for someone who’s barely 5 lbs. He flails his twiggy arms, kicks his little pink feet, wiggles and squirms and wrestles as I try to put a fresh diaper on him. You would think I had strapped him onto one of those medieval torture boards. One time, he screamed so loud and so pitifully that David jumped awake and scampered out of his room in alarm (he must have sleep-walked, because he says he doesn’t remember this).

Sometimes I laugh out loud, because Tov looks so piteous and pathetic as he spreads his arms out as though crucified on the cross, wailing and yipping. Other times, even though I know changing diapers is for his own good and not in the least bit harmful, my heart breaks, because he’s clearly distressed about being laid bare and naked on a cold changing pad, the water wipes frigid and startling on his warm skin. I may know better, but I’m still his mother, and a mother hates seeing her child cry so miserably, even if it’s for the silliest reason. So whenever Tov expresses his displeasure during these diaper changes, I try to calm the guy by repeating, “You’re good, Tov. You’re good! Everything’s good.”

I’ve heard many mothers say their heart breaks as they watch their newborn. I didn’t really get that. Why would your heart break? I thought you were supposed to be overjoyed or something, but certainly not heartbroken. What a strange way to describe your feelings as you meet your newborn baby.

But I think I kind of get it now. Tov is so tiny that I can hold him in the crook of one arm. As I watch him sleep in his crib, a small figure dwarfed by a 52 by 27 inch mattress, his eyes shut in downward slits, his little chest lifting up and down with each feathery breath, my heart breaks. As I feed him, my thumb and middle finger supporting his head so it doesn’t loll about, as I watch his toothless mouth blindly root for food, my heart breaks. I don’t know how else to describe this feeling– it’s a love so wide and so deep and so tender and so mysterious that it breaks my heart.

My heart doesn’t break because it’s sad. It breaks– instinctively, naturally– because I’m gazing at the purest form of vulnerability in humanity. I can’t think of anything more vulnerable than a newborn babe. They’re utterly helpless, wholly fragile, yet radiating so many primal needs– not just for food, sleep, and shelter, but for love, for contact with another human being. From the moment he was born, Tov needs human touch like he needs air. I sense it, and I instinctively give it: I can’t help but kiss him all over every time I see him, even when he’s wailing (and mind you, I HATE the cry of babies) because his vulnerability triggers a tenderness inside me that is so wonderfully human yet so gloriously sacred.

Those instinctive kisses, that tender ache, are the sound of my heart breaking– or rather, it’s the loosening and softening of the rigid fibers of my “grown up” heart, so immunized to the harshness of this world, so desensitized to the sanctity of human life, so cynical to the condition of mankind. That’s the moment when I think about the day God created man and woman in His image. He glued together the whole universe for the pleasure of us humans, and declared, “It is good”– or in Old Testament Hebrew: “It is tov.”

We named our son “Tov” at a time when things weren’t “good.” David had just lost his mother to a car accident. She was a healthy, vibrant 64-year-old woman with at least 20 more healthy, vibrant years to live. One second she was on a walk she’s been on for years, and another second, she was gone. A month before, she was visiting us in Los Angeles, meeting my parents for the first time, learning to make kimbap from my mother, and beaming proudly next to David during our belated wedding pictures. Tragedies like this one remind us of how little control we have over our lives, how quickly life extinguishes, like flame on a matchstick. There’s grief, and there’s shock– shock that we had dared to forget about Death that awaits all of us.

On a lesser scale, things weren’t all that “good” for me career-wise. I was in the midst of an uncertain job transition. For someone whose identity is so wrapped around my career, it was an incredibly stressful time, in addition to dealing with losing my mother-in-law so suddenly, and dealing with the constant grief of my husband as we experienced our first Thanksgiving and Christmas without his mother. I too was reflecting on the fragility and vanity of life, but also the fragility and vanity of my own ego, identity, and self-worth.

Yet in the midst of this all, even at times when God felt far away, when “good” things seemed absent from our life, when I felt insecure and destabilized and unsure, I felt God’s presence. He was there, with us. He is here, with us. And His presence feels…good. Like Psalm 23 says, His goodness (tov) and mercy followed us every moment; His rod and staff comforted us. I sensed God’s goodness during the quiet still times, as well as during those tumultuous moments when an internal war raged inside me. Things suck majorly, but He is good. He was and is always good.

“Tov” has different shades of meaning. It means “good,” but not just in the simplistic English sense of “good.” In Hebrew, the definition of “tov” is rich and expansive. That word “tov” is used hundreds of times in the Old Testament to describe God’s goodness, His creation, our relationship with God, our relationship with each other, the community of believers. “Tov” refers to how things were meant to be, the way God created and intended, when heaven and earth marries into one. As such, “tov” is God in His whole perfection– perfect harmony, perfect righteousness, perfect justice, perfect peace, perfect love, mercy, patience, and grace.

This world we experience right now is not what it was meant to be. Death was not meant to be. Pain was not meant to be. Loss was not meant to be. Pride, ego, strife, bitterness, rage, jealousy was not meant to be. I know this truth deep in my soul, that something was not right with our world, but we also have hope, because we know God is in the midst of restoring this world. We see glimpses of tov– that wholeness, that goodness– in this world: through the mysterious peace and comfort in our soul; through the supernatural kindness and love of others; through moments like Tov’s birth, when we experienced God’s pleasure and delight in His creation.

My relationship with God has softened a lot over the years as I get to know Him more. As a child, I would sing “Jesus loves me, yes I know,” yet the image I had of God was a stern father with his arms crossed, shaking his head in disappointment each time I messed up. I would imagine him saying to me, “I love you, but…” Always a “but.” “I love you, but why did you do this and that?” “I love you, but you’re still not there yet.” “I love you, but it would be better if you did this and that.” I may be secure in God’s existence, presence, and salvation, but that mental picture of a disappointed, head-shaking father doesn’t exactly entice me to run to him for comfort and encouragement, or fall in love with him.

In the past several years, I’ve been reworking some of my twisted perceptions of God’s heart towards me, and especially so in the last three weeks as I hold my son in my arms, heart breaking at his utter vulnerability. There are many things I wish Tov would do– I wish he would gain weight faster, nap longer, eat more in one feeding, fuss less in the middle of the night. But whether he meets these wishes or not, I look at him, dirty diaper and wailing and all, and I think with fullness of heart, “I love you”– full stop, period. No buts.

The more I read the Bible and understand the Gospel, the more I reflect and experience who God is through the valleys and the green pastures, the more I realize that when God sees me, He smiles and says, “You are tov.” Despite all my sin and shame, He sees me through the finished work of Jesus Christ on the Cross, and sees tov restored in me. During those moments when I struggle and suffer and strive, I think God looks at us the way I look at the naked vulnerability of my son, and just as my heart breaks, His heart breaks.

That’s why we named our son Tov: Because not only is he just the most perfect creation ever, not only did he bring so much good into our life, but because he is the living reminder of God’s goodness, an imprint of God’s thumb, the warm, aching beat of God’s heart towards us: Tov.

He is Tov, and my prayer for my son, for as long as I live, is that he will be tov to everyone in his life, and spread the goodness of God to all. You are tov, Tov.

Two weeks update

It’ll be two weeks tomorrow since Tov was born.

They say the first two weeks are the hardest. “They” say a lot of things. Another group of “they” also warn, “You think now’s hard? Wait till [fill in blank].”

I think I get it: Parenting is hard. I never thought it would be easy, so it wasn’t a shock that I’d be sleep-deprived; that my brain would soften into mush from lack of intellectual/social use; that my body is now a non-stop feeding machine.

No. What surprises me is how much I actually do enjoy being a mother. Who would have thought? Not I. Not the person who didn’t want kids because she thought she could never sacrifice her personal comforts and conveniences; not the person who never really liked babies.

Indeed, my life has changed. It’s not even like it’s evolved– it’s been replaced by a completely different life, at least for now. I have very little autonomy over my life now. My entire day is currently controlled by a tiny human being named Tov.

Here’s how a day looks like for us now:

David and I take turn on shifts. Since he’s still working and I’m on a 12-week parental leave, and since I’m the only one who can breastfeed, I handle the bulk of taking care of Tov. I watch Tov from about midnight till 6 or 7 am. Then David takes over for about three hours while I catch up on some sleep. Those two hours or so are the longest stretch of uninterrupted sleep I get for the whole day. I’m usually up between 10 and 11 am, starting the day by immediately breastfeeding Tov, putting him down for a nap, then gulping down coffee and breakfast before working out. Then I feed Tov again, pump for 20 minutes, rush in a shower, and try to squeeze in a few chores before the next feeding session. My lunch is usually lying half-eaten on the kitchen counter, waiting for me to take a bite any chance I have.

David helps out intermittently throughout the day– watching Tov while I cook or run errands, changing his diaper while I pump, re-swaddling him when he wiggles out of it, sterilizing the bottles and nipples, cleaning the house, cutting up the countless boxes of Amazon deliveries we order for Tov. After dinner and a walk, David watches Tov from about 9 pm to midnight while I sneak in an hour of “me” time and then nap about two hours in preparation for the night shift.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It’s only been 14 days, but it already feels like half my life.

Much of it is a mental game. My mind refuses to let my body feel tired, so my body keeps chugging away, though how sustainable this lifestyle is, time will tell. David is exhausted. You’d think he would take advantage of the full night’s sleep, but some nights he wakes up every hour to check the camera in Tov’s room. One time at 3 am, I saw David shuffling into the nursery and leaning down the crib to peer at Tov.

“Why are you up?”

His voice and eyes still crusty with sleep: “I had a bad dream.”

“About what?”

“About Tov. I dreamt that he was not OK.”

I’ve had those dreams too. One night I laid Tov on my chest because he kept fussing, refusing to sleep until I held him skin-to-skin. I fell asleep with my arms around Tov, and dreamed that he suddenly began shaking violently from a seizure. I startled awake in terror, only to find him still sleeping peacefully in my arms, his body temperature matching mine, his heartbeat pumping away.

Sleep deprivation isn’t the most challenging thing about taking care of a newborn– it’s the doubt that my child is more resilient than he looks. He’s just so tiny, so utterly fragile– not even 5 lbs, with skinny arms and legs, and a weeny head barely the size of a grapefruit. Currently, my goal is simple: Keep Tov alive.

When I was pregnant with Tov, I remember wanting him out of me asap so I can stop thinking about miscarriages and stillbirths. I thought it would be more reassuring to be able to physically watch him. Nope. Now that he’s out, we apparently have to worry about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and jaundice and weight loss and excessive sweating and overheating and low immune system…and the list goes on.

One night in bed, I did some research on SIDS, and that was the worst thing to do when I was trying to go to sleep. It seems like literally EVERYTHING is a hazard. Infant rolling to his side? He might DIE. Infant not sleeping on his back? He might DIE. Infant not producing at least six diapers a day? Might DIE. Infant sleeping peacefully in his crib? Guess what! He still might DIE! For no known reason at all! How is it legal that the hospital let us take this fragile creature home without a paramedic? No wonder studies say for every child she has, the mom may age two additional years: There will always be something to worry about, frankly because so many things about raising a human being is entirely out of your control, out of your expectations and plans and goals.

And yet…that timeless cliche: It’s all worth it.

Every midnight, when just as my brain entered deep sleep, David quietly cracks the bedroom door open: “Hey Mom? Wanna trade?”

The first night he woke me up like that, I complained, “Why are you calling me Mom? I’m not your mom.”

“Because you’re a mom now,” he replied simply.

How bizarre. One minute I’m writhing in pain in the hospital, cussing my lungs out, and now I’m a mom who willingly wakes up at midnight to feed a child every two to three hours, sometimes every hour. From the moment Tov was born, everyone at the hospital called me “Mom.” “Hi Mom!” the nurses would chirp as they enter my hospital room, “Time for your IV drip!”

I had no name. I was Mom. I don’t know if I like it. But I don’t dislike it, either. Because I did become a Mom. I’m someone’s Mom.

I’m a Mom who wakes up at midnight eager to see my boy again. I’m a Mom who can’t help kissing my son’s little pink face every time I see him. I’m a Mom who now watches my child sleep for entertainment. I’m a Mom who does all this all with inexplicable joy and wonder.

How incredible, this maternal love that burbles out of me like a deep mountain spring. It defies logic, since logically, this kid is a major pain in the butt. He sharts on me, whines a lot, demands food all the time, sucks the nipples dry, does not contribute to the household chores or finances, can’t even talk properly to explain why the heck he’s crying at 3:30 in the morning. Really– he’s just a giant drain of money and time and energy. Yet I would do anything for him– things I wouldn’t do for other babies, or even for myself– simply because…I’m his Mom.

When Jesus taught us how to pray, the first two words are: “Our Father.” Or Abba– a colloquial, intimate term for “father.” I always found that so profoundly touching, that that’s how God wants us to first call Him. Not Lord, not The Almighty, but Father, Abba. And now that I’m a Mom, I think about this often from a mother’s point of view.

Tov is not old enough to call me Mom or Omma, but when he cries out, I respond instantly. Even if it’s sometimes just to sit still and wait to see if he’s able to self-soothe back to sleep, I respond instinctively– my ears are perked, my mind alert, I’m actively listening and attentive to his needs. I’m looking forward to learning more about God’s attributes as a mother. That’s one of the wonderful things about the way God created us in His image– He imbued in us characteristics of Himself that we naturally imitate on earth, an incarnated reminder of His character and His heart towards us.

So tonight, around midnight, when David wakes me up at the end of his shift– “Hey Mom?”– I’ll roll out of bed, tired and sleep-deprived, but willing to love on my child, because I’m his Mom.

Tov’s birth story

This post is for my newborn son, Tov Jun Lee-Herrmann, born May 4, 2022 at 5:51 a.m., weighing 5 lb 1.5 oz and measuring 18.5 inches. He burst into the world yowling 5 weeks earlier than his due date, a tiny but strong, wiggly human bean meeting the world with curious eyes. I am not a scrapbook mom, nor am I good at taking pictures, but words, I have plenty. Here is our birth story.

“I think we need to go to the hospital.”

It was about 4:20 am, and I had to shake David out of a deep REM sleep before he finally rustled awake.

“Wha?” he mumbled.

“Wake up, we might have to go to the hospital again.” At that moment, I felt another contraction building up, and I bent over onto the bed, moaning.

And so it began. Tov’s birth. His conception was a big surprise. His birth, at five weeks earlier than expected, was also a big surprise. We weren’t ready for either, but no matter: Tov was ready for us.

———–

Whenever people asked me my due date, I told them June 5, but added that I have a feeling he might be born a little early. Lots of mothers say they have a “mommy intuition” about their babies, and sometimes they’re wrong. I knew my “intuition” stemmed mostly from a desire to be done with all the aches and discomforts of pregnancy. But our baby had been measuring small, so I didn’t want him coming out too soon.

David and I had made a bet on when he’ll likely be born. David said June 2. I said I think he’ll be born between week 37 and 38. Either way, we thought we still had at least several weeks to prepare, and let the list of “things to do” pile up unchecked. We were both wrong about the due date (but I was closer, so I win).

We had our baby shower on April 30. It was a casual and simple but lovely event. I near broke my back prepping most of the food, spending more than three hours baking a three-tier confetti cake from scratch the night before, and getting annoyed at myself for once again, overestimating my capacity to do it all. I had also been suffering awful cramps for days– painful, gnawing aches in my lower abdomen that felt like bad menstrual cramps.

I was not a joyful mama. I remember mostly feeling irritable and tired and uncomfortable the days leading up to the baby shower. The morning of the shower started out terrible. I did not have enough sleep. My back ached; my uterus ached. I found out that the three-tier cake I had spent hours making had slid onto the floor into white creamy mush. Several people texted me last minute saying they could not make it to the party for various reasons. A friend who had planned to fly out from Baltimore to help me assemble the charcuterie canceled her flight two days before the party because of an unexpected work situation. I felt ugly and mean, mired in one of those moods in which I latch onto anything to worsen my irritation. I was even tempted to just cancel the whole event, because I hate these sort of events and why am I doing so much work for what would surely be terrible anyway, blah blah whine whine.

David, too, was feeling the stress. That week had been emotionally fraught for him, and therefore for me as well: His father was in town– the first time he visited without David’s mother. It felt weird to have him here without his wife. He walked around the house unwhole, like he’d lost his limbs.

“Lee would have helped you with the baby shower,” David’s dad said repeatedly: “She would have loved being here for the shower. She would have been so excited.” And that, too, was echoing in David’s mind, and my heart broke for him, yet I confess that during my meanest moments, I also felt pity for myself: We couldn’t have one moment of pure celebration for the new baby, one special moment of “us” as soon-to-be parents, and one moment of honoring me as a very pregnant, soon-to-be mother, without death casting a heavy shadow over it all. I think I was mostly too busy to really process all these tangled, twisty thoughts and emotions, but they were there, pinching and inflaming my inner peace and joy.

So that morning, three hours before the baby shower, I snapped at David. He was incredibly emotional and weepy that morning, and my mean state didn’t want to make room for sympathy or empathy. I just wanted to get the day over with, and any display of vulnerability, of having to be a caregiver, felt burdensome.

We would have hosted the party with frayed nerves and tension had David then not asked, “Can we please pray? I feel the enemy attacking us. I really feel like we need to pray today. We haven’t been praying enough.”

“Fine,” I said, and kept my stony expression as David prayed out loud. And though I still felt irritable, my cold heart melted, drip by drip. We needed that moment of prayer, even if it was just for five minutes. Why do we always forget this most vital practice to shalom? We need to pray– not just when we’re feeling sad and chaotic, but every time, any time, anywhere. I also felt assured. My respect grew: David is a good husband, and he will be a good dad.

And from then on, instead of rooting for things to get annoyed about, I found genuine gratitude: My friend Lindsey sacrificed her Saturday morning to help me assemble chicken salad sandwiches, chop vegetables, and everything else I needed to prepare a mini feast. She saved the party. I couldn’t have done it without her. My friend Olivia, who couldn’t make it last-minute from Baltimore, provided more than half the stuff for the charcuterie– a magnificent cheese board, five kinds of cheeses, gourmet preserves, dried fruit, nuts, crackers…she went all out, and refused to accept any payment from me. Another friend, Chelsea, opened up her charming beach house in Manhattan Beach to hold the event– and that space turned out to be perfect.

About 30 people came to the shower, many driving a long way. I don’t know of anyone who gets excited about attending a baby shower. Well, I know I myself never found those all that exciting, so I felt weird asking people to attend mine. But people came, bearing smiles and mazel tovs and gifts, showering us with their love and blessings. (Tov, remember these people. The blessings they sprinkled on you that day are like fairy dust, glitters of generosity and good will that I hope you’ll sprinkle on to others.)

That baby shower was only about 10 days ago, yet it feels like a lifetime away. That was Before Tov. Little did we know, it’ll be the last party we’ll be attending for a while.

——–

Tuesday, May 3. I woke up feeling some mild upper abdominal pain and lethargy. The day before, I had woken up feeling slightly nauseous and had projectile-vomited my breakfast, but had felt better after puking. But this time, all throughout the day, I felt like crawling into bed and staying there. I wondered if I should call my ob/gyn. But I had an interview that afternoon with an author for work, so I didn’t call my doctor until around 4 pm after the interview. She said it might just be gas reflux, but asked me to visit the clinic to get my vitals checked, just to be sure.

“I’m just going to pop over to my doctor for a bit,” I told David, as though I was making a quick grocery run.

David gave me a look of alarm: “Should I come with?”

“You can, but you don’t need to,” I said. “We’re just doing a quick check-up, for peace of mind. It’s probably nothing.”

David decided to tag along. And good thing he did, because my “quick check-up” turned into “you should probably go to the hospital,” which became an eight-hour observation. We didn’t return home until past midnight.

Here’s what happened: At my ob/gyn’s clinic, they strapped my belly for a non-stress test (NST). The baby’s heart rate was beating at about 170 bpm, which is abnormally high. His heart rate had never gone over 156 bpm before. We kept observing his heart rate, waiting for it to slow down, but it stayed above 170, at times leaping to 190 bpm. After more than an hour, my ob/gyn recommended we go to the hospital for longer observation. Again, I thought: Probably not a big deal. Baby’s just a little excited, that’s all. (I don’t know what’s with me– I always seem to assume there’s not a problem until it punches me in the mouth.)

By the time we reached the hospital, 50 minutes later (darn LA traffic!), I was feverish, shivering with a chill, and aching all over my body. My temperature was 101.6. The nurses strapped me up for a NST again, and once again, the baby’s heart rate was consistently above 170, sometimes reaching 200. That was when I actually got worried. They tested me for Covid (negative), flu (negative), and respiratory syncytial virus (also negative). They couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. They hooked me up to an IV drip and antibiotics. By 10:30 pm, the baby’s heart rate had thankfully dropped to a steady 150s, and my fever had gone down. I was experiencing some mild contractions, but otherwise, the doctor didn’t see clear signs of preterm labor, so she sent us home, telling us to come back if I start having contractions that are five minutes apart.

I knew I wasn’t feeling 100 percent, however. When we got back home, I was feeling hot and trembling with chills and aches again. I went to bed right away, hoping a good night’s rest would blot out the remaining virus or whatever’s ailing me.

4 a.m. I woke up feeling like I needed to pee. I would have lingered in bed a little longer, had I not felt some liquid trickling out of me. I bolted up– is that my water breaking? Or is that pee? Still heavy with sleep, I waddled to the bathroom and emptied my bladder. And that was it– no more trickle of unknown fluid. OK, phew. I guess it was just pee. Some random incontinence, which is normal during third trimester. I washed my hands, changed, and went back to bed.

Then my lower abdomen started hurting. This time, they weren’t throbbing menstrual-like cramps– they were sharper, deeper, coming and going in powerful waves. I lay in bed, trying to go back to sleep, but the pain only increased. By then, I had had only about three hours of sleep, and David was lightly snoring beside me, completely out cold. Surely this can’t be labor, I thought. I’m only 35 weeks along and I just came back from the hospital! But I couldn’t ignore this pain. It worsened until I was moaning, while my exhausted husband slept on, completely unaware.

I realized this was something different. I went to the kitchen, called the hospital, and told the nurse on call what was happening. She asked me the usual questions: Any bleeding? Strange discharge? Etc. “Come in if you feel really concerned,” she said.

And that’s when I felt another pain daggering me from inside, and I couldn’t respond to the nurse without gasping. Her tone shifted; she sounded more serious. “Come to the hospital,” she said. “OK,” I gasped.

So I woke David up. He got out of bed in a daze, barely registering what’s happening.

“Oooh, I’m so exhausted,” he groaned. “I don’t think I can drive all the way there again.”

I thought I might smack him, but then another wave of contraction began. My knees unbuckled, and I groaned louder than my husband. That’s when I saw his eyes focusing more, suddenly aware that I wasn’t just complaining about a minor ache anymore.

We had nothing packed. The next 15 minutes, we scurried about the house, throwing things into a suitcase just in case we had to stay overnight at the hospital. It took me longer because I kept having to stop as the contractions rolled in and out, no more than two or three minutes apart. Yet even as I dumped toiletries and clothes into the suitcase, I couldn’t believe I might be in labor. This can’t be happening, not now. I was a first-time mother– what did I know about contractions and labor?

But then I started feeling leakage again– not a gush, but uncontrollable leaks that flowed in little squirts. The fluid was clear, sweet-smelling. “I think my water broke,” I told David.

Somehow we got into the car. My pain level had gone from 7.5 to 9 by then. Or maybe it was 10. I was writhing and bellowing in pain, yet I underestimated my pain level to be at 7, because my mind just couldn’t comprehend: I thought labor was an hours-long or days-long process, with pain levels gradually increasing. How could I already be in the later stage of labor, with contractions only a minute apart now? My experience defied all the research I had read up on labor. But if I was in labor now and already in this much physical anguish, what would a level 10 pain feel like? Unthinkable!

It took us about 30 minutes, without traffic, to reach the hospital. I was holding onto the handle bar by then, and my moans were now little screams. David screeched up to the entrance, and the parking attendant, seeing my expression through the window, rushed up with a wheelchair, and told David he could just park in front of the entrance. I waited for that one minute between contractions to hobble onto the wheelchair. The elevator roll up to the labor and delivery unit felt like forever. A couple entered the lift with us. The woman was not in a wheelchair, and she looked peaceful, like she was on her way to the mall. They had a scheduled C-section that morning, they told us. “Congratulations,” I groaned from my wheelchair.

Level 3. Finally. The nurses at the front desk, like the parking attendant, took one look at me and immediately called for more nurses. A small team in scrubs greeted me in a rush. One nurse– I’ll never forget her kind face– leaned towards me and asked if I wanted an epidural. I was confused– right now? Right away? “Maybe I can wait a little longer,” I told her. Again, I thought I had hours left till delivery time, so I wanted to pace myself. Besides, I still wasn’t sure if I was actually in labor.

I’m an idiot. I had no time. I was at pain level 10, not 7. The contractions rolled like stormy sea, crashes of lightnings and thunder and jagged waves. I writhed and screamed and cursed. I don’t know how, but somehow the nurses managed to get me into a hospital gown, though I remember them gripping me by the shoulders and telling me I needed to stay still for a few minutes while they hook me to an IV. They called my ob/gyn, but by then, I was already 8 cm dilated. Five minutes later, I was 10 cm dilated. It was only about 5:30 am, 90 minutes since I woke up needing to pee.

I turned to that kind-faced nurse: “Um, I’ll get that epidural now!” I remember her saying nothing, just looking at me with sympathy. David was standing to the side, not knowing what to do. A nurse beckoned to him: “Dad, you can stand next to her now.”

And then I felt the urge to push. Or poop. Both. Gross. Everything about labor and delivery is just gross. Wet. Messy. Uncontrollable. Undignified.

Speaking of undignified. I had watched a dozen birth vlogs on YouTube, and had listened to a dozen women bray like a donkey, moo like a cow, neigh like a horse, yip like a dog while they were in labor. How undignified, I thought: What are we, farm animals? I imagined myself giving birth with my mouth firmly closed, silently, elegantly bearing the pain with grace.

HA! I wasn’t a farm animal. I was worse. I was a banshee. A banshee howling expletives. My screams and curses shook the room, probably woke up the entire block. They just blared out of me. I could hear myself sounding like a torture chamber, but that was the only way I knew to manage the pain without an epidural.

5:51 a.m. The dreaded ring of fire. And then…I felt him slide out of me. And there he was, in the midwife’s arms, purple and wrinkly and smeared with white gooey vernix, his mouth shaped into a triangle as he released his first cry on earth: “WAAAAAH!” Someone put a pink and blue striped beanie around his head, and they lifted him into my arms.

“Oh my God.”

I remember in one birth vlog, the mother immediately bursting into tears. “I love you! I love you sooooo much!” she repeated over and over again, sobbing and sobbing. “I love you so sooo sooooo much!”

All I could say was one phrase: “Oh my God.” I awkwardly, gingerly held the tiny 5-lb human being in my arms, just staring at him in silence.

I was simply in shock. The love and joy came later. Everything had happened so fast. Between Feb 1, when I first found out I was pregnant, and May 4, when I held my baby in my arms for the first time, three months had passed. Three months, from “oh my god I’m pregnant” to “oh my god he’s here.” How did this happen? Now I had a living, fragile, wiggling crying creature on my chest, his heartbeat pulsing on mine, his body heat warm and sticky, with so many urgent needs the moment he was born. He was no longer an invisible alien in my womb. He had a face! Ten tiniest fingernails and ten tiniest toenails. Little indented nipples. A nose. Blondish eyebrows. Blue-grey almond eyes that opened and stared, framed by teensy eyelashes. Pink gums, tiny tongue, skinny arms and legs. A human expression that looked like David.

And he was mine. Ours. Oh my God. Oh, my God. Life is so indescribable. Oh Lord. You created life so magnificently, it mutes me.

David cut the cord after a second of hesitation (why are men so squeamish with blood?). I had enough sense to ask my ob/gyn, who arrived just in time to hear the baby’s cry, to let me see the placenta. She lifted a disk of wobbly, bumpy, veiny black-red organ. “This is the miracle right here,” she said, with wonder and admiration in her voice, even though she’s probably seen several hundred placentas: “This here kept your baby alive. It is a thing of miracle.” She also showed me the bloody, deflated amniotic sac, and the spongy, twisty tube that’s the umbilical cord. I too was in awe. What hideous organs. Hideous, but magical.

“David! You want to see my placenta?” I asked.

“Nope,” David turned away, swallowing his bile. Well, he did good, all things considering.

After cleaning up the baby and checking his vitals, the whole delivery team cleared out, dimming the room and leaving David, the baby, and me alone in the room to bond for two hours. The two hours flew by. We kept staring at the tiny boy, touching his ears, stroking his full head of hair, laughing for no reason. Because the baby is premature, he needed to go to the NICU for 24 hours, so we soaked up the first two hours we had. (I was still running a temperature at the time, so I was no allowed to visit our baby for a whole day– understandable, but brutal.)

Tov Jun Lee-Herrmann. Tov is “good” or “goodness” in Hebrew (as in, mazel tov). I’d always loved that word since I read A Church Called Tov by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer. Jun is Korean for “handsome, pleasant.” My mother came up with that name. Lee-Herrmann because I’m a radical feminist (ha). I’ll explain his name in another post.

Tov is exactly his name. He is good. Beautiful. Perfect. God is good, perfect– tov. He had brought goodness into our life when we most needed it.

Today, as I write this, Tov is one week old. For us, it’s been 7 days into a new era: From Before Tov, to After Tov.