Thursday will be Esmé’s fifth birthday.

I am about to be the mother of a five-year-old.

It feels like a real milestone…one that has left me reeling a little bit.

It is sad to admit that anticipating Esmé’s birthday is still difficult for me, even after five years…perhaps, more accurately, especially after five years. The memories of Esmé’s birth are such a mixture of joy and pain for me.

In the last few days find myself struggling to keep my footing as I swing from intense feelings of gratitude, happiness, and love then to sorrow…and, admittedly, to the uglier emotions of anger and envy. This has been the case most years…but this year it is just all a bit tougher for all kinds of reasons–but most of all because of the milestone: Five. Five. My daughter will be five, and being the mother of a five-year-old is not at all like I thought it would be.

In the past I have tried to focus on the more positive emotions surrounding Esmé’s birthday (at least mostly) because the 14th of January 2011 was the day the best person I have ever known was born.

However, it was also the day that I began to understand that my experience of motherhood would not look anything like I expected–or like the experiences of almost everyone I had known up until then.

It was the day that my daughter was handed to me for a matter of seconds before it was clear she was not breathing well, and everything began to unravel.

It was the day that rather than laying in bed admiring my daughter, I worked hard to stand up and walk as soon as possible so that I could visit her in the isolation nursery.

It was the day I watched my daughter swept away to another hospital in a pod straight out of a science fiction story.

It was the day I signed “against medical advice” paperwork so I could follow Esmé–leaving the hospital approximately six hours after giving birth.

It was the day I went to be with my daughter, standing for hours, and receiving no further medical care, save for what I could offer myself in the dingy public bathroom on the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) floor.

It was the day I walked into the NICU and did not recognize my own child.

It was the day I could not stand to take pictures of her, because I didn’t want to remember.

It was the worst day of my life (at least it was until three months later when Esmé’s heart stopped)–it was the day my life started turning into something I did not recognize, and when I began to let go of all of the things that had defined me until that day. It was also the best day of my life–the day that I learned how fierce and focused unconditional love can make you. Both of these things are true–complete with the emotional contradictions associated with them.

Something broke open that day. There was only after…nothing before mattered. Nothing before was recognizable.

Since that day I have made my home inside these emotional contradictions. The joy and relief I feel when someone I care for manages to have an absurdly healthy baby–and the seething anger I feel when they talk about how difficult they find it. The sense that my daughter is so unbelievably perfect–exactly who she is meant to be–and the hard, obsessive drive I feel to find a way to help make her path in life easier, to make her well. The feeling that my daughter is both the most powerful and most vulnerable creature I have ever met. The sense that this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be–and that it was the only way it ever could have been. The strength I feel in my position as her protector–and the intense inadequacy that tells me constantly that there are some things I may not be able to save her from. The preparation for things to get worse, the hope that they will continue to get better.

The need to honestly lay bare and name all of my feelings, leaving myself defenseless–and the desire to lock it all up, and harden myself to save any additional pain.

These are the spaces I live in.

These are the spaces that broke open on January 14th.

They are shattered, jagged, beautiful spaces.

They are angry, pulsing, love-filled spaces.

They are animated with music and silence.

They are filled with shadows and light.

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