The Thief of Joy

Failure to thrive. We’ve been barely out running that label since my daughter’s first few weeks of life. She had a tough start to breastfeeding between a tongue and a lip tie, a tiny mouth, a tight neck, an undiagnosed dairy intolerance, and a traumatized mama. Her weight dropped fast and by the time we got it creeping up again, she was already behind. At first her height shot up, growing 7 inches in her first 4 months of life. I took comfort in the idea that the calories were at least going somewhere and that I had enough extra milk to donate to my friend’s baby. Then she just…stalled.

Her ties were revised, I cut out dairy, she had no reflux, never spit up, never had gas, had weighted feeds where she transferred appropriate amounts of milk. She had panels of bloodwork that all came back beautifully healthy and perfectly normal. We even had an ultrasound done of her heart. My hope that starting solids would be the big turn around never panned out either. With every monthly weigh in, her percentiles crept down a little more. Mind you, after her initial loss coming home from the hospital, she never once lost weight again. But the rate at which she gained was painful. Everyone but the pediatrician told us she was just tiny, not to worry. I told myself over and over, if she could just maintain a growth curve, I could stop worrying. But every month she just kept falling.

My sister-in-law called it the thief of joy this worry about her size. She was right. Every month felt like a failure of my body and my ability as a mother. I had fought so hard to breastfeed and many times I couldn’t enjoy it because I wondered if I was wrong even when I knew I was doing what was right for us. My mind went over everything I could think of. Did the accident and stress from everything make my supply plummet? Should I have kept pumping? Does my body not put enough nutrition in my milk? It didn’t matter that she breastfed on demand night and day and refused anything that wasn’t me. It didn’t matter that she self-regulated and ate healthy solids. It didn’t matter that never once did my baby act as if she was starving. In fact, this kid doesn’t know what lethargy means. She never stops moving from the moment she wakes up until she passes out at night. Yet, no matter how many times I threw it out, the worry kept creeping back.

It took 9 months before we had a weight check that didn’t send my heart plummeting into my stomach. As I changed her diapers and cuddled her up to nurse, I would whisper to her, “Please baby, I just need you to put on 15 oz this month, the bare minimum, just 15 oz.” And then I would plead for 12 and then 10. Just grow a bit faster, little one. When she grew an entire inch and put on a whole pound that month, I was elated but also frustrated because we didn’t know why. Nothing had changed and the next month, she was back to her normal pattern. We couldn’t figure it out, and I couldn’t let it go. And that’s the kicker: I allowed it steal my joy. I was the one who, after due diligence, couldn’t shut out the idea that if I just let it be, I might miss something that was wrong and fail my baby. I could reassure other moms that their babies were perfect and healthy while looking at my own daughter and wondering what I was missing.

The day of Aeryn’s 15-month check-up, I heard the words I had been waiting for over a year to hear. When I asked her pediatrician if I needed to bring her in for another weight check in between appointments, she said, “No! Relax. Enjoy your summer.” When I shared the exciting news with a few close friends and family, one of them sent me back this message: “She’s perfect! Isn’t it funny, we always say not to compare ourselves to others, yet we are compared  to others from the moment we’re born.” Talk about staggeringly profound. Don’t we call comparison the thief of joy? Until my friend said this, I didn’t realize exactly what my sister had already named even though her phrase resounded in my head constantly.  I wasn’t letting my daughter be exactly who and what she was. Already I was holding her up for comparison even if it was in the most innocent of ways.

It’s in our nature to compare things to each other; it’s how we make connections and understand our world. We use metaphors and analogies to explain new concepts, and we look for similarities to forge connections and differences to expand our horizons. The problem comes when our comparisons become our basis for validation. The only thing my daughter compares with a value judgement is my snack to her snack (spoiler: she always picks mine). If I’m going to name my number one downfall on a daily basis, it’s handing over my peace and my joy to that thief named comparison. It could be appearance or talent or lifestyle or circumstances or a hundred other tiny details that find me checking to see where I measure up and, more often, where I fall short.  I desperately want things to be different for my daughter, yet here I was caught in the trap almost from the day of her birth about comparing her to a chart of averages. She deserves more than that. And so do I.

My daughter is tiny; it’s part of who she is and I love who she is. People comment on her size all of the time, and I just smile and say, “Yep, she’s a peanut!”  I laugh when she still fits in a six month dress because she’ll try to take the stairs two at a time if you’ll let her and she’s stretching to her tippy toes to be able to ride the tricycle right now. My girl never lets being tiny stop her from enjoying anything because she is not defined by any one characteristic. Her identity is rooted much deeper and more solidly than that, and she lives out of that security even if she can’t fully comprehend it yet. I find myself in a place of not fully comprehending my own identity and, more days than not, I fail to live out of a security that is rightfully mine. I can spend so much time worrying about what I am teaching Aeryn that I can forget to learn from her.

Since being in physical therapy, I have noticed how perfectly my daughter moves her body. She doesn’t have to think about the right way to squat down and pick something up or correct her gait as she walks. Every movement is natural and right and stems from a body that only knows how to do things the way it was designed to. After learning how much I had to correct, overcome, and re-learn from a car accident and a lifetime of bad habits, I love watching my girl move with such ease. She knows how to move like she knows how to breath. It’s the same with her confidence and security. She knows who she is and whose she is and where to return to for safety at the end of the day. I know these things for myself, but I have to think about them. It requires effort to live out of that knowledge every day; it requires undoing old habits, re-learning what is right and true.  But I want that. I want to drop the comparisons, not because I am telling myself to, but because I am so convinced of my own worth that I see everybody else’s value and there is nothing to compare. I want to enjoy who I am and who my daughter is without any caveats, including size.

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