On a sunny Saturday in early August, my sister Marnie and I took Abel, my almost-three-month-old son, for his first walk at the Norris Reservation in Norwell. For the most part, this summer’s extreme rains and humidity have made walking in the woods unadvisable. But this day was different: dry and cool, and pretty much bug-free.
To avoid the mosquitoes and at least some of the heat, Abel and I have been favoring the beach for walks. I carry him in a sling or a chest-carrier, where he falls asleep almost immediately and stays asleep until it’s time to return to his car seat. But at the Norris, he stayed wide-awake, looking around the whole time. He seemed especially to like the boathouse on the North River, where we stopped to sit for awhile and enjoy the view. It was so serene there, with the tide coming in, the golden, late afternoon sun reflecting off the river, the gentle breeze . . .
The serenity of our surroundings stood in sharp contrast to the way I was feeling – the way I have been feeling for the better part of the past three months. Becoming a mother has been a joyous and yet at the same time traumatic experience for me. Fiercely independent and an admitted control freak, I find myself having to let go of my old ways and let my infant son call the shots. This has been a huge challenge for me, and the radical shift in lifestyle makes me feel depressed and anxious. It’s not that I’m having problems mothering my son – it’s that I have to redefine who I am. Change has never been easy for me.
My husband and my immediate family have been incredibly supportive. They remind me that I am a good mother, doing a good job. “Abel is happy and thriving,” they point out. “And you’re going to get through this, and come out the other side feeling confident and strong.” I need their encouragement, because for at least a few hours of most days I find myself overwhelmed, acutely self-judgmental, or worrying that I’m never going to feel better. I was definitely feeling that way as we set out for our walk.
I am the older of two sisters. Marnie and I freely admit that we didn’t start to get along until I went away to college. As kids we tolerated each other, even enjoyed each other’s company sometimes, but mostly fought for our parents’ attention. As teenagers, we had periods of camaraderie mixed in with all sorts of cattiness and competition. We finally started to get to know each other, for real, about ten years ago, in our early-to-mid twenties. Things have improved steadily ever since.
Until recently, I was the eternal older sister. Marnie would often come to me when she was upset or confused and I would try to advise her. But I would never discuss my own issues with her – it didn’t even occur to me to do so. When we didn’t see eye to eye, we could be very mean. The truth can hurt, and perhaps we relished inflicting some of that pain, carrying out our childhood one-upmanship in a different fashion.
Our relationship had been improving over the years, but when began thinking about having a baby, Marnie and I really began to grow close. She had recently moved back to Marshfield, after living in Seattle, Colorado and the Berkshires during the past decade. She made a commitment to stick around. She said, “It’s about time I showed you some support.”
It was a new thing, treating each other like equals, and it took some time to get used to it. Instead of me taking the role of the older, wiser sister, I tried to view Marnie as a peer. Instead of only looking to me for answers, Marnie began to tune in to when I might need support. In time we found that we could talk more easily with each other, finally permitting our common past to unite rather than divide us. When Abel was born, Marnie fully embraced her role as doting Aunt.
This came just in time, as these days I need all the support I can get! I was having an anxious day when we stepped into the Norris Reservation, worried that my depression would never end, or that it would prevent me from bonding fully with my son.
“Don’t you see the way he looks at you,” Marnie pointed out. “He adores you.”
“You’re a great mother,” She said. “I think you’re more bonded than you realize.”
“You’re doing all the right things,” she told me. “Abel is a happy baby.”
“You’re doing a great job.”
I can’t tell you how encouraged I felt to hear those words. It’s so easy for a new mother to get caught up in trying to do what’s “best” all the time – especially for people like me who constantly strive for perfection. It doesn’t help that the experts change their mind on what’s “best” every five years or so. There’s a lot to be said for “good enough.”
I’m so used to being the strong one, the one who knows all the answers or who can offer solace at a time of need. But here I am, needing more support than ever before. I’ve always received it from my parents and husband, and now my sister too. It’s so gratifying to know that she is there for me, with her own special wisdom.
Walking in the woods, we thought back on how much our lives have changed in the past decade. We’ve been through some good times and some tough times, and learned a lot about ourselves in the process. Most importantly we’ve truly become sisters.
By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, correspondent
Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.