Poems & Essays

21 Nov

A Vocabulary of Growth

General/Column 3 Responses

Shiro plum (Prunus salicina): Understory species bearing yellow gage fruit.

It’s dripping with fruit in the front yard when we move into our first home with our first baby, just a few weeks post-birth. Suddenly, we’re grown-ups, with a mortgage and a newborn and a plum tree. These are overwhelming gifts—sweet, relentlessness, and heavy.

Even when, at night, unseen hands begin to plunder the branches, leaving them obviously barer in the morning, we still can’t keep up with the tree. It litters our lawn and sidewalk with gold.

Overgrowth: An unusually abundant, luxuriant growth.

The comments unsettle me. Look at those rolls. Good job, mama. Our breastfed first-born is not yet three months, but I’m breaking out the 6-12 month clothes— boxes of hand-me-downs I’d carefully sorted and labeled during pregnancy.

People seem eager to praise our girl’s rapid growth, and credit me for it. This makes me feel a little like a Jersey cow, and my daughter a calf by extension. But that makes me overly sensitive, so I learn to change the subject. I wonder if I’ll ever be the right amount of sensitive again.

I can’t think of anything special I’m doing to contribute to her growth, other than nursing when she’s hungry and taking my vitamins. If my daughter were less chubby, would it mean I was doing a poor job? What about naturally smaller and slighter babies? Aren’t their mothers doing a good job, too?

I tuck an owl-patterned onesie into a grocery bag, where I’m hastily piling outgrown outfits while the baby naps. I haven’t even cut the tags off.

I should be grateful. I should feel proud. I shouldn’t worry. I should worry. Worrying diminishes milk supply. Pumping boosts it. I should pump while she sleeps. I should sleep when she sleeps.

My thoughts tangle together, catching on splinters of contradictory advice, jumbling the tasks on my mental to-do list: switch out clothes, schedule check-up, make jam.

Growth: (n) Development, progress.

By summer’s end, the Shiro branches are finally empty, and there are sticky clusters of jam jars in the cupboards, along with odd kitchen items thrown together in the haste to finish unpacking. First rains have stirred up dormant grass blades and weeds, which we’ll mow, eventually. Maybe.

I’m rocking our girl by the window, looking out at the tree, still bright green. With the blur of the first three months nearly behind us, I take a cautious breath, inhaling the wet earth. Is it possible we’re through the woods?

Undergrowth: Saplings grown in the shade of larger trees. See also ‘understory.’

At her three-month check-up, we stare blankly at lines on a growth chart: a rainbow bled of color, charged with the unhappy task of defining normal growth for a wholly unique being. If baby is “following the curve,” we should rest assured she’s getting enough nutrition. If she’s “falling off the curve,” we should worry that she’s not.

Suddenly, normalcy exists out there, in the impassable world. The mystery of our daughter—the beautiful mess of becoming her parents—becomes something to measure, and measure up. But how can you measure growth, really? Who gets to measure it? Who sets the scale? Who gets to say you’re doing it “right”?

I think about the birth, how every time I’m asked to tell about it I stutter and stammer, searching for entry into a thicket of emotion surrounding bare fact. I circle the perimeter, beginning with midnight contractions, starting over at the doula’s arrival at our house, skipping ahead to the rush-hour hospital drive.

In the end, I’m dismayed to find myself reaching for numbers, dividing an experience that felt like it happened outside of time into hours spent laboring and pushing.

Snip snip, chop chop. With each number I force an artificial shape onto wild vegetation. Imposing a plotline onto the birth seems to make it into something less than the whole.

How many naps is he taking? How much does she weigh? At playgroups and picnics, I get the sense that numbers don’t mean much to us as parents, yet something compels us toward them. Maybe we think paring down to details will afford us foothold on terrain that keeps shifting beneath us.

Overgrowth: A tangle of growth occurring at the top of trees.

Are we supposed to prune in late summer or fall? Or maybe winter? We’re not sure, even after reading countless articles: Prune in mid-summer. Prune during winter. Definitely don’t prune in winter—you’ll invite infection.

Months pass. Our shears rust in the shed. Finally on an unseasonably warm February day, I pull into the driveway to find my husband standing in the yard, a ring of shorn branches at his feet. The tree looks butchered, and I wonder how it can possibly rebound.

But by spring, new buds appear, then a cloud of blossoms. Suddenly it’s June again, and our daughter’s first birthday. That’s when I realize there are no fruits, just an overabundance of branches.

Growth: (Noun, countable and uncountable.) An increase in size, number, value or strength.

Nearing 16 months, our daughter’s weight plateaus. But her strong-willed spirit begins to emerge like a bright green shoot from its pod: rapidly and as if from nowhere.

It’s like the sprouts that show up between grass blades in our side-yard, from the bin of pinto beans I sometimes set out for her to scoop and pour. We pick the sprouts and examine them, see how the speckled bean shell sits on top of the uncurling leaves, like a little hat.

When it’s time to put the beans away, or hang up the dress-up hat and get ready for lunch, she throws her little body on the ground and wails. I see these storms as they approach, watch her face crumple into a silent cry gathering energy.

Again the conflicting advice pours in, and again I sift through it for wisdom. Do I ignore her behavior, label and validate it, put her in her crib until she calms down? Do I try to distract her with humor?

Mid-summer. That’s the best time to prune an established plum like ours. We’ve missed the window again, and right now I’m afraid I’ve missed a window with her, too.

I held and comforted her through the growth spurts of infancy, empathizing with the pain of expansion I had felt during pregnancy. But now we’re entering a new kind of growth, where we’ll each have to learn from our mistakes. And this is only the beginning. I take a deep breath and reach for a reserve of calm, for strength to help her navigate her feelings as I navigate my own.

I know it’s tough, I tell her. I crouch beside her on the grass and grasp for words. But we can do it. Let’s do it together.


Melissa Reeser Poulin is a poet and prose writer. Her most recent work appears in Hip Mama, Mothers Always Write, In Good Tilth, and Ruminate Magazine, where she recently won the 2016 Janet B. McCabe poetry prize. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and daughter. More at melissareeserpoulin.com

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  1. Shanna Powlus Wheeler

    November 21, 2016 at 8:43 pm

    This is such an intricately woven essay, full of art & truth. Thank you, Ms. Poulin & MAW, for the gift of this piece.

    • Melissa

      November 23, 2016 at 2:00 am

      Thank you so much, Shanna! I appreciate the comment and thank you for reading.

  2. Nancy Brier

    November 24, 2016 at 4:50 pm

    Beautifully written. A little gift on this Thanksgiving morning.


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