The messy business of expanding your heart

It’s barely 6 am when my 3-year-old’s arm flops onto my belly. What time is it? When did he come in here? Where’s the baby? Whew. Our 8-week-old is tucked into the curve of my C curl, soft milky breaths warm against the skin of my chest. From my other side, his big brother’s hand presses, taps and squishes my tummy. “Mommy, your tummy is so squishy. SO squishy. I love it, Mommy. Thanks, tummy, for our baby.” Tears spring to my eyes. Perhaps all the care I’m taking to speak to and about my body with kindness is making an imprint. I shift slightly to my back so my arms are around both of my boys, and my patchwork-quilt heart breaks a little bit bigger.

In this second postpartum season, I’m doing small tangible things to foster acceptance of the new-again shape of my body. Christening the still-deep-red striations on my belly, hips and thighs—“tiger stripes,” to my 3-year-old’s delight. Clicking “purchase” on a pair of jeans with a stretchy waistband and a number on the tag that my closet hasn’t seen yet. Showing up at yoga even when I feel wobbly all over. I’ve been here before. I know I’ll find balance in table pose again without trembling, and I know that by the time this baby is taking their own trembling first steps, these tiger stripes will have faded to silver.

But what about the new shape of my heart? As the fibers of my physical being are knitting themselves together, so is my heart, reorganizing itself into a new shape. One that can love not just one, but two little boys in infinite measure.

Like many second-time parents, I worried in pregnancy about how the transition would affect my relationship with my first. I hung an affirmation in my birth room: “My capacity to love myself and my children is growing.” I believed that, logically. Of course there will be enough love for this second baby.People care for multiple children all the time. My mother-in-law has four! But growing a heart isn’t a neat and tidy process. In fact, it turns out to be about as messy as growing a human.

It’s as bone rattling this second time as it was the first—day three postpartum rolls around, the hormones drop and the bottom drops out from under me. I’m floating in a lagoon of something that feels a bit like grief, a bit like joy, a bit like homesickness. What is this feeling? A sense that the entire universe is imbued with the divine, and that my capacity is stretching to be a part of it. Gratitude so enormous it’s threatening to swallow me whole. I don’t know what it is, but my face is wet with tears and I feel like my heart is breaking. Then, splat. The bottom closes back up and I’m hitting the ground running. How do I nurse the baby and help my toddler on the potty? How do we manage preschool drop off? Bedtime? What about when I return to work? And my heart breaks afresh with the realization that though I have more love, I have no additional hours. My oldest will not get less of my love, but overnight, he gets less of my time. This precious blue-eyed newborn will never get the afternoons of face-en-face with his mama that my first had. My gaze often darts away to cries of “Mommy, look what I made!”

My heart won’t just smoothly, seamlessly, grow to its new size. Instead, it seems, it will be a litany of small heartbreaks that create the space needed for this expansive love. I imagine a patchwork quilt, a maze of seams joining scraps of precious cloth with rainbow threads. My heart is not breaking to its destruction. It’s breaking bigger.

When I was a little girl, my mom would tell my sister and me, “I love you more than lollipops, and applesauce, and taters, too.” This sweet memory evolved into a game I play with my toddler in quiet moments. Me: “I love you more than snow, coffee and campfires!” Him: “I love you more than Elsa’s castle. And marshmallows!” And so on. This week my big told my little he loved him more than Lake Superior, and in watching my firstborn love on my newborn, the swell of joy broke my heart ever-so-slightly bigger, again.

It’s dark again now. Both boys are asleep, and my body yearns to join them. But I find my mind wandering. Maybe it’s the “I love you more” game, the sweet milky breaths or the sturdy little hands finding me in the pre-dawn dark that do for my achy, expanding heart what an elastic waistband does for my body—acknowledges its new shape in small, accepting ways. Reminds me that a break makes space for more love to enter. So that when I feel my heart is breaking as I swim in a sea of hormones or try to put infinity x2 love into a finite number of hours in a day, I’ll remember it’s not just breaking. It’s breaking bigger.

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