The first time I watched the video, I was a little fixated on her crop top. Not her voice. Not their voices in harmony. But her lace-edged top, a little expanse of navel visible as she swayed and sang. Perhaps I should back up. I was very pregnant with my first child. It was late August 2015 and hard to tell if the constant weight on me was the relentless South Carolina heat or the ever-present question of when this baby would come out.
I knew Joy Williams was a mother, as I was about to become, and there she was wearing a crop top. A crop top. Her stomach showing. Now, I feel nothing but kindness toward this past version of myself. I have always latched on to small, possibly meaningless things in the face of great change as a way of feeling my way through it. And I think when a 8.8 lb. baby is rounding your belly, pulling your skin taut, and shoving other organs out of the way, feeling curious about what the aftermath might look like is only natural.
It was the last hour of the work day and I rocked on my birth ball, listening in my headphones, again and again. Joy Williams and Haley Williams (of Paramore) had collaborated on an original song. Shot in black and white, the video documents their time in the studio recording this song: cheap saint devotional candles flickering, topknots, earnest swaying, collapsing in fits of laughter. The vibe was so definitively female and strong. I learned later that Joy had been a mentor of sorts to Haley, and this made sense: the clear current of sisterhood hums through the video—and I, almost but not yet initiated into another kind of sisterhood, listened to this song and felt emboldened.
I'm sure I was driving a respectable, responsible speed, but what I remember is hurtling through the night in my Honda, listening to Joy Williams and Haley Williams sing about heartbreak again. It's late September 2016. There's a carseat in the back, but it's empty. I am escaping. It has been a strained, sleepless summer that required me to keep moving full steam ahead, despite the presence of some significant, subterranean hurts that only my husband knew about. And because I am a woman, I did. I carried on, meeting the needs of my husband, my baby, my coworkers, my family. In August, I turn 27 and work all day; nothing changes. By September, I am coming unglued. Fraying at the edges. Worn thin. All those clichés for a cracking under a burden too great.
This time, the lyrics hit me first:
there is not a single word in the whole world / that could describe the hurt / the dullest knife just sawing back and forth / ripping through the softest skin there ever was / how were you to know / oh how were you to know
It reads dramatic. But it feels knowing and empathetic, the shoulder-bracing hug from a woman who knows you deeply and nods affirmingly, murmuring yes, yes, this sucks so much —
— which is all I needed after a summer of self-imposed silence and inner retreat. The female energy of that song washed over me, and I turned it up loud, letting Joy and Haley assure me:
for all the air that's in your lungs / for all the joy that is to come/ for all the things that you're alive to feel / just let the pain remind you hearts can heal
When I stumble upon the song again, in early 2018, I am hearing it muffled through the past. The headphones of 2015. The heart squeezing of 2016. I am under the water of all those feelings from before and I cannot get my head above it to hear it afresh, as it really is.
Which delivers me to this moment, to this realization, to this song's third, roundabout gift to me: I am underwater in the right now of my life. Not in a can't-swim, can't-breathe way—more like a good God I'll be tired when I haul myself out. Is there a nap as idyllic as falling asleep in strong sun after a long swim? Water drying on the back, evaporating out of swimsuits, the good kind of physical fatigue tucking eyelids in. I dream of naps in the sun.
I dream of naps, period. Life has cycled around again, bringing my second child and the sleepless nights that come with an infant. Jury's out on if I would wear Joy William's crop top. The aftermath of pregnancy and childbirth is not a mystery to me any longer; my belly has emerged the same, but a little stretched. Familiar, but stretched—it's exactly how I felt as a person after my first child. But this time around, my inner self often feels strange and new, caught in some contortion of in-between. Am I shedding or holding on for dear life? Honestly, both. Honestly, I don't know.
My heart is not breaking. This process—growing into a mother just as my two babies grow into boys—is not a bad one, far from it. It's just that as Joy and Haley's song orbits me around, past those earlier years, earlier me, I'm forced to see that I've changed, I'm changing. Orbit is the right word because it's a circle, a cycle, and see, I'm right back where I started before the first baby was even born: knowing that I will change, but not yet knowing how.