WO Midstream ArtBy Lynn Shattuck

They move north and west. The low weight of eggs in their belly propels them. Their bodies move through the saltwater, past the glittering lures of fishermen. They turn and twist until finally, suddenly, they are home.


In the morning, I wake up just as Violet begins to stir. I kiss the soft slope beneath her chin, smelling the faint scent of my own milk. She moves into a light sleep cycle, her mouth pulling up into a sliver of a smile.

Her eyes open. Round and blue, they burst with light. She smiles with her whole round face and her eyes half close into little crescent moons. Her mouth turns up to meet them, a crinkle mid-nose. Thin tufts of reddish hair bend in several directions. At just over a year old, she is nothing I expected.

“Hi baby girl,” I whisper.

“Mama!” I hear from downstairs. I ignore the sing-song call of my son for a moment.

“Mama!” He hollers now, his voice louder and coarser.

“Let’s go see Maxie,” I whisper to Violet. Scooping her up, we head down the stairs to Max’s room.

“Hi Mommy!” my four-year-old roars as he runs to greet us. I shift Violet to make room in my arms for Max. Max does a little dance and charges toward us, crashes his way into a hug and begins vigorously rubbing the baby’s head. “Hi Biiiilet!” he greets her.

It is Wednesday, which means that my husband left for an early meeting before the rest of us were even awake. The day stretches ahead of us, unstructured. We parade down to the kitchen, my focus set on procuring coffee. Violet clings to my hip like a koala cub. “I wannnn booberries!” Max whines, trailing after me. I wannnn coffee, I think. For a second, I think of the days before I had children. Sweet quiet moments with my journal and a cup of coffee. No one clutching at my body or barking demands.

“I wannnn booberries!” Max repeats. Do we have blueberries? I wonder.

“Can you use your regular voice please? I can’t understand you when you whine,” I lie.

“IIIII wannnnn booberries!” he yells. I take a deep breath and set my half-filled coffee mug down and plop Violet onto the floor.

“MAMA!” she protests. Her arms lift toward me in a V her face crumpling.

“Just a second, Vi,” I sigh.

“I wannn Dada!” Max shrieks. Me too.

It is 7:15a.m. There are about twelve hours to fill until bedtime.


Each August just as the stores were starting to display number two pencils and Trapper Keepers, my mom, dad, brother and I drove out to the cluster of streams near Juneau, Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier. In the shadow of the glacier, a receding mountain of ice that varies from a cool blue to dirty grey, we watched the spawning sockeye salmon. We’d tromp down a short dirt trail towards a stream, my dad holding the prickly Devil’s Club bushes out of our way with his jacket. The four of us stared into the water, trying to spot the fish. My dad, who was as at home in the Alaskan soil as he was behind the desk at his insurance agency, was always the first to point out the salmon. At first, all I saw were slippery, mossy rocks or an errant pine branch leaning into the stream. But after a few minutes, our eyes adjusted and we could see that the water was clogged with fish, their green heads and red bodies a surprise splash of Christmas in the ebbing summer.

A few weeks later, we would head out to the glacier for another glimpse at the salmon. This time, the fish that were still alive were tattered. The vibrant reds and greens that had bloomed to attract mates had faded. Their fins were mangy, their bodies battered by the rocks and the current. When it is time to breed, the salmon stop eating and devote what is left of their life force to propelling the babies they will never meet into the wet world. My brother and I would point out all the dead ones floating in the shallow streams or beached on the rocky banks. “There’s one! Gross!” we’d say, plugging our noses against the overripe stench of fish.

We peppered my dad with questions.

“Why do they have to die after they lay eggs?”

“Why do they smell so gross?”

“How do they find their way back to this exact stream where they were born?”

“Nobody really knows,” my dad said, his eyes moving from the fish to the mountains stretching above the stream. Last year’s dusting of snow at the mountaintops had only just melted; soon it would start to collect again. My dad’s eyes roamed the mountains as if the answers were buried somewhere in the green and brown. “Nobody really knows.”


“Why are you stopping, Mama?” Max asks from the backseat. It’s late morning, and in an attempt to break up the day, we’re out for groceries and gas.

“Because there’s a red light.”

“But why?”

“Because…because we have to take turns with the other cars,” I say.

“But why? Why, Mom?”

“So we don’t get in an accident, Maxie.”

“Oh,” he says, and for a slip of a second, he is quiet. Blissfully quiet.

Sitting at the red light, I practice the breath we do sometimes in yoga, breathing in for three counts and out for five. Two, three, fo-

“Mom! Why is the gym there?”

“I don’t know. It just is.”

“Why is Bilet asleep?”

“Because babies need lots of sleep,” I sigh. Because she was tired of listening to your questions and plummeted into the sweet release of slumber. I pull up to the gas station.

“Why are you going here?” he asks.

“I’m going to put some gas in the car, Maxie. I’ll be right back.”
“But wh—”

I close the door a bit more forcefully than necessary. Breathing in the rich smell of spilled gasoline, I glance at Max through the window. He is smiling at me. His lips are still moving.

Max’s whys are exhausting, and the lack of quiet is maddening. But there is something more. Each “why” brings a small, orange burst of panic. It’s the same panic I’ve felt when starting a new job, when I am getting to know someone I admire, or when I realize I still haven’t learned to cook: the fear that I am a complete fraud and will soon be found out. How long will it be until he’s asking me the questions I truly can’t answer—questions about why people do bad things, why do people have to die, why will the sun someday burn out? Through the car window I can see my son’s beautiful blue eyes, full of complete trust that I know the answers to all his questions. He has no doubt that I am lightly holding his world.


Science, like my father, has been unable to completely explain how the salmon find their way back—against the current and all odds—to the very stream where they hatched. Some believe that the fish can smell their way home, having imprinted the subtle trail of scents on their journey to the sea. Others believe that the earth’s magnetic fields guide them, pulling them home like a magnet.


As a child, words were my home. I scrawled poems about rainbows, and curled up in my closet, devouring Judy Blume books. Later, I wanted to be an actress, a therapist, a musician. It took me ten years to earn my bachelor’s degree as I traipsed from one major to another, attending four different colleges in three different states. I wrote and stopped, wrote and stopped, never having the courage to commit fully to writing, though it is one of the few things I’ve loved without pause. I’ve worked at a retail women’s boutique and for a professional hockey team. I’ve slung coffee and I’ve temped. I drove from my homeland of Alaska to Maine, where a warm, braided force tugged at me from beneath the cobblestone streets, urging me to land and build a life. At times, I wrote. But facing the blank page often felt like swimming against a fierce current—too painful, too many sharp stones to batter me.

Then, I had children. Fatigue and lack of time edged the words out—and most everything else, too.


Like me, the salmon are also changelings. In the winter, they leak into the world from their pink, opaque eggs, already orphaned. Oblivious to the white world above, they burrow into the gravel. They soak in the nutrients from the egg that once held them. They wait for spring.

As they grow, they sprout dark spots and lines for camouflage. Their gills and kidneys morph, preparing for the migration from freshwater to saltwater. They hover near the sea. Their bodies turn iridescent. They enter the ocean, swimming into the unknown.


On the days Max is at preschool, Violet and I go for walks through the cemetery. I strap her into a baby carrier, and her eyes widen as they take in the sweeps of green, the yellow bursts of dandelions, the leaning tombstones. When it becomes too much world to take in, she rests her head against my chest. She doesn’t know that I don’t know the answers, that I worry about money, marriage, mortality. That at nearly 40, I still don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up. She doesn’t know that I’m not sure if I’m going to turn left up ahead and walk towards the duck pond, or go right at the gravestone encircled with fake flowers and angel statues. But there is the weight of her head, her full white cherub cheeks against my chest. My heart, her first sound. Her eyelids dip and open, dip and open. She slips into sleep. I turn left, towards the raspy call of the ducks.


In sixth grade, we had to write about what our life would be like in twenty years. I will have two kids, I wrote. I will mostly wear sweaters and jeans. These turned out to be true. But I also wrote that I would live in Alaska and take my place in the family insurance business.

Maybe, sometimes, we can map out the big milestones of our lives. But there is no way to predict the quirky details: At 38, you will have a torrid, wholly unexpected love affair with Brussels sprouts. You will take a road trip that plunks you down in Portland, Maine. The evil fashion trend of skinny jeans will infect the world. Your son will have the same blue eyes of your brother, who will die at 21. Your daughter will have red hair and skin the color of pale cream.


In the sea, in a liquid vastness that dwarfs their home streams, the salmon spend the thick of their lives. They dart from orcas and seagulls. They eat and grow. After a year or two or three of wildness, they retrace their journey. They head home, following the familiar curves of shore, their bodies swiftly adapting from salt water to freshwater, from a wide life back to a narrow one.


Today, between waking and bedtime:

One dance party to Footloose, two to Gangnam Style.

Max pulls his pants down in front of my dad, shakes his bum and says, “I’m going to poop all over Papa!” before laughing hysterically.

Max refuses to get in his car seat after preschool. I sit in the front seat to wait as he cackles and attempts to launch himself into the passenger seat next to me. My blood boils.

Violet takes a handful of stilted steps before plopping herself belly up on a beanbag, like lazy royalty.

“Gentle,” I say to Max. Twenty-three times.

One moment where Violet blows on a little yellow piece of plastic like a horn. This makes Max laugh, which makes Violet laugh. They spray spittle on each other. They are a small pair of insane people, and I melt.

How easily the salmon seem to shift gears, how they shape-shift, while I still flounder from the shock of parenthood. From the jolting pace of the days, the stop-start of tantrums and hugs, vicious boredom and sweet toddler skin.


They make their way home. Slowly, steadily. Perhaps the vibration of home echoes in their small, electric hearts, pulling them north. At the end of their journey, just before they breed and die, their fins go crimson. Their heads turn pine green. They brighten, ready to mate.

Afterwards, they are brittle and wasted. But they are home. They are completing what they were born to do, fulfilling their fate.


As the sun retreats, I glance around the living room. Peanut butter is smeared across Max’s face, hands and the couch. A small smudge stiffens a tuft of Violet’s hair. The floor is strewn with trains with little grey faces, popcorn seeds, and, not surprisingly, a small army of ants. My husband sits in his chair, still in his work clothes, absorbed in his iPad.

My husband and I used to go to the movies. We used to talk to each other. I used to move so often that I kept the boxes to anything I owned that was electric. Ten years have passed in a breath and suddenly we have two kids and a house and we are tired.

Tired and lost. My mind is full of half-finished goals: organize our finances, learn to cook, de-clutter the house, write a book. I feel like I am swimming upstream. I miss the wide, wild sea, the taste of salt on my lips.

How do the salmon do it? How do they find their way home without signs? Without anyone to tell them they are moving in the right direction, to bear left here, to steer clear of that stream over there? How do I know if I’m doing anything right? When there is no supervisor at the end of the day to say, “Hey, nice work today.” Or, “Um, it looks you could use some help over here.” If the kids are alive, somewhat clean and somewhat fed, I guess it’s a successful day. But there’s no one to tell me that, no sign.


And then, sometimes, there is. At the mall the other day with Violet, I pushed her stroller, the blare of music and lights exhausting us both. As her eyes opened and closed, attempting sleep, I stopped to glance at the mall directory. Amidst the blocks of stores, doorways and bathrooms, I spied a small yellow triangle. You are here.

I often feel lost and irritated, and my jeans have unidentifiable smears on them. But if I pull back from the map, I can see I am somewhere in the middle of a lovely, twisty, hard maze of a life. I am a right turn past here, a zig-zag short of there. My life is not circular like the salmon; I am not consciously predestined. But I am making my way, sometimes pushing upstream, sometimes easing through salty seas. If I can remind myself that I only need to follow the next curve of shore, I am okay. I made my way from Alaska to Maine, from alone to tethered. My body carried two babies and now they are here. Now we are here.

And now, finally, they are sleeping. Their sweet pink mouths suck, a body memory of comfort, of home. Of me. Their faces, round and soft, are constellations I could have never envisioned. Blue-eyed, creamy-cheeked and dimpled, they are my little moons. They look like the future: different than I would’ve imagined and lovely. Dreams wind through their heads, unseen and unknown to me; already they are separate, already they are full of mystery. My fingers find the keys and softly click. I breathe and wait for the magnetic pull in my chest, in my fingertips. The copper smell of rocky streams. And like the salmon, as I begin, I remember: It is words that ground me, that pull me home. You are here.

As a mom of two young children, Lynn Shattuck attempts to balance diapers and laptops, yoga and running, and tucks as much writing as she can into the remaining nooks and crannies of her life. Besides writing for her blog, http://thelightwillfindyou.com, she is a featured columnist at the Elephant Journal and blogs for Huffington Post. She also has pieces in the anthologies Clash of the Couples and Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor.





Newborn yellow chickens in hay nest along whole and broken eggs

By Dierdre Wolownick

“Number One’s rolling!”

My son’s finger shakes in anticipation. I follow his stare and see one perfect white egg roll onto its other side. All around us, people gasp.

Kids of every size and ebullience level fill the museum; we’ve been jostled and stepped on all morning, elbowing our way through airplanes and plumbing, the human body and impossible machines. Science-in-art. Hands-on things to push, pull and measure. But nothing has so captivated as this little warm pyramid of glass with sixteen eggs in various stages of hatching.

Nothing to push, pull or touch, no moving parts, absolute silence. It doesn’t seem like an exhibit that we wouldn’t be able to tear our little movers and shakers away from.

Yet here we stand, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, motionless. I never knew my son or daughter could stop moving for that long.

A tiny speck of beak pokes out through a hole in Egg Number One. People cheer. I don’t, but I feel like it. Everything gets blurry. Has it really been so many years since I was part of this mystery? For a fleeting, foolish moment I want to do it again. I want to be that chalice of life, and create something glorious, something that will make people teary-eyed. There’s no glory in fame, prestige, money. Renown is fleeting. This alone is glory.

The top of Number One cracks almost all around. Now there’s no more room near the exhibit. Looking through the glass, I see faces of every age pressed as close as they can get. I hear whispers only; even the tiniest children respect the sanctity of this moment.

What hard work! The chicks that have already hatched lie exhausted, laboring just to breathe. I remember the exhaustion. Will I never feel that way again?

Both my kids squeeze even closer to the glass. Number Two has rolled over, in the bumpy, unsure way of an egg. But then there are more gasps, and children point and whisper-shout and pull on sleeves or arms. Number One is out!

Everything is blurry again. I get angry with myself for a moment, but then a ball of red and yellow goo flops onto the metal mesh, out of Egg Number One, and everything else is forgotten.

How ugly it looks! — eyes almost as big as its head, beak covered with red and yellow fluid, down plastered to its tiny, quivering body. None of that diminishes the excitement buzzing around the glass pyramid. The parents are all smiling. You can tell some of them have forgotten where they are. They, like myself, have gone back in time.

The kids are all in the here-and-now. Most of their comments consist of “Look at that!” or “Mommy! Daddy! Look!” The exclamation points are audible. This is a moment to be shared, and remembered. My own are bursting to tell Aunt Diane, who stood before this very exhibit so many years ago — in another lifetime — but never actually got to see one hatch.

Some of the onlookers whisper things like, “Come on, move!” or “Go ahead, do something!” But it just lies there, its little body bouncing rhythmically, breathing for the first time.

I discover I’m holding my breath, and let it out. Did I expect to hear a cry? For an unexpected moment I feel again the unbearable anguish of silence between what we’d thought of for nine months as “the end,” and the cry that marked the beginning. The beginning of those million little anguishes. Of fears we didn’t know we had.

Will I never feel them again? That prospect fills me with bleakness. Never a great ogler of babies, I’m amazed to find myself wanting another.

My husband and I decided, so many years ago, that two was enough. And I’m too old. If we’d married earlier, if I’d had the first two younger, maybe…. But now, at our ages, it would ruin everything. We’d both be exhausted again, have no time for each other again. And the two we have are so good together. No, we made the right decision.

And yet…

Another chick, hatched a few minutes before we got here, stumbles over and pecks at “our” chick, once, twice. People gasp. “Don’t do that!” chides a small voice.

I try to remain detached. Do they eat the amniotic fluid from the others? But it isn’t working. Doesn’t it hurt them to cut the cord? I wince as they place my warm newborn on a cold, metal scale.

We have to leave. There are other places to see, we can’t spend our only day in the museum watching chicks hatch. It’s over. I’ll never feel that way again.

Author’s note: The toughest decision of all: To create — or not — another human being! The awesomeness of that choice has resonated with me forever; before I was even old enough to have children, I remember wondering, “how do you know how many to have?” This incident gave me at least one answer.

Dierdre Wolownick lives and writes in northern California. Her work has appeared in parenting and children’s magazines, as well as other types of publications, in many countries, and her short fiction has won First Prize from the National Writer’s Association. She has lived and worked on several continents, and geography is one of the main ‘characters’ of her novels.





Milk and Cake

Milk and Cake

beauty child at the blackboard

By Sarah Bousquet

Last week it occurred to me, I’ve stopped counting my daughter’s age in months. It wasn’t a conscious decision. It just tapered off, which I suppose is typical after age two. This morning I measured her height on the pantry door frame. She’s grown an entire inch since we last measured her on her birthday in January. Then I started counting days on the calendar and discovered her half-birthday is exactly halfway between her dad’s birthday and mine. I told her we’ll bake a half-birthday cake.

Her legs suddenly look so long. “She’s stretching out,” my mom says. That’s what it feels like too, stretching, both of us. Drifting from our perfect dyad, stretching toward autonomy. The evolution of nursing newborn to nursing toddler-the dramatic growth and change, the intimacy and beauty-is almost impossible to capture. From balled fists to dexterous hands. From curled toes to toddler feet flung in my face. It feels like only months ago I sat glassy-eyed and thirsty, nursing my newborn, so voracious, it felt like she was sucking milk from the bones of my back.

There is the magic of that transition from cut umbilical cord to latched breast; nine months of nourishment invisible, now suddenly right before your eyes. And you see how perfect the design. For us, breastfeeding was that easy. Instant and harmonious. Nursing my baby evolved almost as unconsciously as my heart pumping blood.

The triumph of a body doing what a body does was packed with meaning. After nearly three years of struggling to conceive, I became pregnant naturally, much to my surprise and elation. For months and then years I had worried, wondered, researched—why wasn’t my body working? My pregnancy was an answered prayer, but one fraught with anxiety. The act of breastfeeding, just moments after giving birth, my daughter’s perfect latch, allowed me to see my body in action. It was the assurance I was providing everything she needed, the empowerment of a body at work.

When my daughter was six months old, a hyper clarity bloomed. I would listen to conversations, observe the behavior of others, and have sudden insights, new depths of understanding. I remember saying to my husband, “It’s the strangest thing, I feel like I can almost see right through people.” I called them popcorn epiphanies, these realizations that came in quick succession like kernels popping in the pot. I tried to write a few down, but they felt indescribable and came too quickly.  The lactating brain is plastic and creative; new neurochemical pathways are forged during the process of breastfeeding. I felt the changes in myself as surely as I saw the changes in my daughter. As she awakened to the world around her, taking in sights and sounds, babbling and laughing, intelligent eyes holding my gaze, I too became more alert and aware, both of us growing together.

I more often use the term nursing, which feels all-encompassing and true. Because breastfeeding is about much more than nourishment. It is medicine, comfort, bonding, security. You have only to nurse a toddler who has just finished a breakfast of banana pancakes to understand that nursing is pure contentment. Pure peace.

And sometimes pure hilarity. When she’s in her father’s arms calling out, “Goodnight, Mommy! Goodnight, milks!” When she charms and cajoles, “How about milks on the couch? Sound like a plan?” Or when I step out of the shower, and she’s there handing me a towel, her face so full of glee, calling out, “My milks! My milks!” Such celebration of my body. Such love.

I’ve been reflecting as it begins to taper. I’d never set any specific goals around nursing, no timelines or numbers. I have followed my baby’s cues and my body’s cues. And I will follow that wisdom into the next phase, as we grow together, celebrating the glittering increments, marking the door frame, baking half-birthday cakes.

Sarah Bousquet is Brain Child’s 2016 New Voice of the Year. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at https://onebluesail.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.


The Best Parenting Advice I’ve Heard

The Best Parenting Advice I’ve Heard

Mother With Baby Suffering From Post Natal Depression

By Julie Vick

When my first son was a few months old, I was bouncing him on an exercise ball at 3:00 a.m. to try and get him back to sleep. It was the third time I had been up with him that night, and I was scrolling through an online parenting board on my phone reading posts from others in the same predicament. There were plenty of people lamenting their situations, but one post said, “Just cherish every moment, they won’t be that little for long.”

I understand where such thoughts are coming from, but reading them on a discussion board in the middle of the night only added fuel to my sleep deprived fire. I was going on three months where I had not slept more than a four hour stretch at a time, and even those four hour stretches were a rarity.

The humor and adrenaline that had carried me through the first weeks with a newborn was waning and the reality of my fragmented and sparse sleep was setting in. My mind felt fuzzy and jumbled during the day and my husband and I had both logged enough hours bouncing our baby on an exercise ball at night to earn us a spot in the Guinness World Records book for ball bouncing between the hours of midnight and 4:00 a.m.

I could have arguably stayed off my smartphone during these late night sessions (and one piece of advice I read indicated the light from the screen may be disrupting my baby’s sleep), but I found it comforting to connect with a web of other sleep-deprived parents in the same situation. My friends in the physical world who had babies all seemed to be sleeping just fine, and I wanted to find others who understood. And I did.

But some online commenters would inevitably try to spin the situation into a positive like, “I actually enjoy the few moments of quiet bonding time when the rest of the house was asleep.” This was not my experience. I was not enjoying 20 minutes of cuddle time once a night while my son ate and then peacefully drifted off to sleep; I was up multiple times watching the hours until I had to be awake for work tick by as I struggled with a wide-eyed three-month-old who would cry the minute I tried to lay him down.

In the early days of parenthood, it seemed like so many things were set up as dichotomies: breastfeeding or bottle feeding, bed sharing or having your child sleep independently, cloth diapers or disposable diapers. When I got frustrated, I often felt bad that I wasn’t just enjoying the fleeting moments of my kids’ childhoods more.

Then I heard an interview with the writer Cheryl Strayed. While discussing the advice column she had written, she mentioned that it’s okay to experience two opposing truths at the same time. While she wasn’t talking specifically about parenting, when I relate this advice to parenting it’s one of the most helpful things I’ve heard.

You don’t have to be in just a pure state of thankfulness or frustration – you can feel both at the same time. When you are up with a baby in the middle of the night you can be both frustrated at your current state and appreciative that they won’t be small enough for you to rock to sleep forever.

You can be disheartened when your toddler has another potty training accident, but understanding that it is one of the few things in her life she  is trying to have control over.

You can want to pull your hair out when your preschooler refuses to eat anything but saltines with no broken edges on them for dinner, but aware of the fact that he will likely diversify his eating habits as he grows.

Many parenting choices also don’t have to be so black and white. You can feed your kids both breast milk and formula. You can use cloth diapers at times and disposables at others. When you look for a middle ground, it’s often there.

Now when my younger son wakes up at night it’s rare, but my husband or I are still sometimes hanging out with him for a couple hours in the middle of the night trying to coax him back to sleep. When he looks at me with wide open brown eyes that seem to ask, “Why can’t we just get up at 3:00 a.m.?” I can be both frustrated and entertained.

Julie Vick is a writer living in Colorado and has been published in Brain, Child,  Washington Post On Parenting, CountryLiving.com, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. You can read more of her work at: http://www.julievick.com/


Flash Fiction: Motherhood is Natural

Flash Fiction: Motherhood is Natural


ussr-young-mothers-talking-near-a-fountain-at-a-park-ek3h74By Erika Murdey

Jill sits on a park bench at the fountain to rest her feet—she finds it harder to move in her fifth month of pregnancy. She had needed to get out of the house, to enjoy the sunshine and warmth. Other women sit around the fountain too: a woman in a blue skirt with a baby, a woman with red hair who looks eighteen months pregnant, and a woman in a yellow dress cuddling her own infant.

Beside her, the woman in the blue skirt takes a bite of her sandwich, chews it for a moment, and plucks the soggy lump out of her mouth and stuffs it past her baby’s lips.

“Oh, are you baby-birding?” the woman with red hair asks.

The blue-skirted woman smiles. “Yes, it lets my darling Juniper experience new flavors and textures.”

“How delightful!” the woman in the yellow dress says.

“I love it too. Such a natural experience for the baby. Maple loves to baby-bird, doesn’t she?” the red haired woman says to her stomach. Jill starts when a small white face pops out of the woman’s belly, skin damp, red hair plastered to its skull.

“You’re kangarooing?” asks Blue Skirt.

“Yes, I had a pouch cut into my abdomen right after she was born. It gives her the comfort of being in the womb, and she always feels close to me.”

“I did too!” says Yellow Dress. She then lays her infant on the towel-covered park bench. “So much nicer than pushing my little Boxelder around in a buggy. Those things are always being recalled.” The women shudder together; Jill tries to muster a small shake of her shoulders to fit in. Yellow Dress strips the infant of clothes, then diaper. The full diaper disappears into a plastic bag. Jill watches as the woman proceeds to lick the baby clean.

“Kittening?” Blue Skirt asks. Yellow Dress pauses to wipe a greenish-brown streak from her mouth and nods. “I kitten my baby too, but I wonder if it’s too late to kangaroo her?”

“Hard to say,” Red Hair says. “I wouldn’t imagine so. Though if you had wanted to cichlid your child, then it would be too late.”

“Cichliding? I never heard of that.”

“My friend had it done before her baby was born. She made the doctors unhinge her jaw when she discovered she was pregnant so the skin of her face could stretch. Now she carries little California Redwood in her mouth wherever she goes.”

Yellow Dress stops for a moment and claps her hands together, “Marvelous!” Her baby raises its glistening arms as though to fend off the next approach of the pink tongue.

Jill shifts on the bench. “I was thinking of suggesting Sea Horsing to my husband.”

The three women jerk their heads towards her, eyes wide. “What is Sea Horsing?’

“You know, like how with sea horses the male carries the eggs to term? I bet he’d fall flat to the floor if I mentioned it.”

Red Hair sniffs. Yellow Dress raises her eyebrows. Blue Skirt says slowly, “I never heard of Sea Horsing.”

“It’s not a real thing,” Jill says, “I was joking. But didn’t you wish sometimes, when you were feeling all sick and huge, that your husband was the pregnant one?”

The three women turn away, whispering among themselves. Jill sits for another minute, listening to the crashing water of the fountain, before walking home.


Erika Murdey is a student of the Central Michigan University MA program in English Language and Literature with an emphasis in Creative Writing. No human children, but more fur-babies than any reasonable person could be expected to count.




world-explorersBy Alicia Rebecca Myers

I could tell you how a stranded Robert Bartlett walked 700 across an iced-over Chukchi Sea, how Robert Burke traversed the latitude of Australia but died from exhaustion after turning back from a mountain called Hopeless. I could hold court on malaria and capsize. I could list disappearances.

I mitigated anxiety by reading about explorers on Wikipedia. Their failed attempts at discovery, their terrific demises. This wasn’t an exercise in schandenfreude. I took no pleasure in frostbite, in swells. I called up extreme scenarios the way a surgeon might review dark particulars before entering the operating room. I received the past as a safeguard, as if empathy could preclude the unknown. I lingered longest on those who logged the most distance.

There were very few female deaths to parse because there are very few female explorers. I reinterpreted phrases. Phrases like “New Land of the Codfish,” which suddenly described my pregnant body.


In my mid-twenties, I backpacked for three weeks, solo, through Eastern Europe. I had been managing a student travel agency on the Upper West Side while enrolled in an MFA program. New York City felt invasive, and I suddenly wanted not to talk. The halfway point of my trip was Budapest. After spending a bleak afternoon in the bowels of the Terror Museum, where I learned about Hungarian victims of the communist regime and contemplated gulag torture, I signed up for a pub crawl, desperate to be around people again. I worked hard to get my forints worth of Soproni and do justice to this particular pub crawl’s injunction to “make a transcendental bond through drinking.” I made that bond with Kyler, a curly-haired Canadian who dressed like a lumberjack. Kyler was handsome and non-threatening (important after a day touring the Terror Museum), and he had interesting things to say about politics and art and pilsners. I invited him back to my boatel. “THAT’S A HOTEL ON WATER,” I kept shouting, because I thought it lent me an air of sophistication.

Kyler and I stayed up all night, mutually transfixed in the kind of heady rapture that only comes from getting to share your best self with a stranger you’ll never see again. His attentiveness was like his burly frame: it filled the room. I felt like I was back in 1987, sitting across from the roll of unopened paper towels I’d positioned on the dresser so that the Brawny man’s gaze never left mine – except that Kyler had his own questions: Who’s your favorite poet? What have you learned so far by traveling alone? Would you rather be trapped for a day on a deserted mountain or a crowded subway car?  I answered honestly: Bishop, it’s lonelier being alone, crowded subway car. Then Kyler  asked the question that up until then no man had ever asked me directly: Do you want kids?

The topic of kids had come up before in my handful of serious relationships, but somehow never seriously. I’d discussed children plenty of times with my classmates, drunk in a bar, in the context of how our parents had messed us up and in doing so, had given us something to write about. But up until that morning in Budapest, baroque light filtering through my dank boatel porthole, I’d never had a man look me in the eye and ask if I wanted kids. I was experienced enough to know that Kyler wasn’t asking if I wanted kids with him. Still, I surprised myself with my answer, words I’d never spoken aloud. I felt like I was admitting I didn’t believe in God.

“No,” I said, reaching for my crumpled dress.

Later, we staggered above deck and drank coffee in view of Margaret Island, an island named after a childless 13th century female saint.


I met my husband Dan a few days before my thirtieth birthday. I didn’t believe in a biological clock since I had never heard mine ticking. My last relationship, with an opera singer, had lasted only a month. Alex had liked that I was a writer, a woman unconventional and messy, a woman whose kitchen table was an industrial spool she’d dug out of a neighbor’s trash. He had liked that when one of us couldn’t find something I’d ask, “Well, did you check the spool?” and we’d shine a flashlight down into its hollow wooden center. I broke up with him because I lost interest.

Dan and I emailed and talked by phone for weeks before we met in person. I was his boss. I had been hired as head of Human Resources for a small academic summer camp start-up in Brooklyn, and Dan, a poet living in Iowa, had been instated as director of our newest program. Actually, I’d picked Dan out of a catalogue long before the company had hired me. My roommate and Dan had taught at a camp together. One time, I’d found a brochure for that camp lying open on our couch and pointed to a picture of a lanky Jewish guy in a longshoreman’s cap. Dan was frowning, towering over an amusement park sign in the shape of a gopher that read, Must be no taller than me to ride this ride. I told my roommate: “I’m in love with this guy.”

I started spending less time directing Human Resources and more time wooing Dan. I secured him a slapdash staff and a total of six campers, but mostly devoted my energy to drafting witty, frank emails. The first time Dan and I spoke by phone, I had the distinct sensation of opening up, like I’d been preserved in a jar all these years, boiled and sealed. The unlidded feeling wasn’t sexual. More of a prescient joy. It was late April. Boats whizzed by on the Hudson fifteen stories below. I knew, in a way I’d never known before, that we would mean something permanent to each other.

Dan arrived a month later in New York for director training. He called me the minute he landed and showed up outside my Lorimer apartment at 2:00 am. I met him, barefoot, under a street light. It was both familiar and exhilarating. We slept together immediately. We were inseparable.

A tornado tore through Brooklyn that August, the strongest ever on record to hit the city. I watched from the grated window of my first-floor apartment as pitas from the bread factory across the street floated by like life preservers. Dan would be returning to Iowa to teach in just a few days. There was no longer a distinction between my heart and the weather. My sadness was tied to the solipsistic notion that I had begat high winds and destruction. I waded to my office in DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) to discover everything intact but my desk: the ceiling above had caved in, lath and plaster piled high around my drenched computer and waterlogged files. I felt like nothing could survive in the wake of Dan’s leaving, least of all me.

Dan got on a plane. I got fired, downsized by a storm. I would fall into a fitful sleep by counting down the distance between us. Mile 997, mile 998, mile 999. I started assisting Sharon Olds, spent hours formatting her manuscript One Secret Thing, poems about the drawn-out death of her mother. In ghosting over her lines with my fingers I was internalizing some greater message of loss. I began to connect the ache of missing Dan to the forfeiture of a future family. Dan and I mailed a stuffed penguin back and forth along with missives full of love and longing. I grew practiced at typing the word “mother.” Something inside of me was shifting, had shifted.

Five years later, we were married. Two years after that, I was pregnant with Miles.


Towards the end of my first trimester, I heard a story on NPR about Louis Armstrong, how as a street performer he would tuck pennies into his mouth to prevent other musicians from stealing from him. My earliest sign of pregnancy had always been a metallic taste in the back of my throat. I wanted to stash our son inside me forever, keep him out of circulation. I imagined safeguarding him, my own private treasure, settling for a life of ghostly kicks to avoid a grisly, protracted birth scene. Or even worse, loss.


I began swimming three times a week at the start of my second trimester because of something I’d read about the movements in freestyle creating a streamlined birth canal, a luge tube the baby could simply slide down. I conceived of myself as a smooth centaur. No one knew I was carrying a child when I was in the pool. My hindquarters were hidden. Whenever I eased into the water, acclimating to the chill, I thought of Peter Artedi, the naturalist credited with fathering Fish Science. I had learned of him accidentally, a detour in my cataloging the bad luck of explorers. He drowned in an Amsterdam canal after a night of drinking. He had spent his whole life studying aquatic depths, the minutiae of structure, but no amount of studying could have prepared him for what it felt like to go under that way.


We moved across town on my thirty-seventh birthday, also the beginning of my third trimester. Our 600 square foot one-bedroom wouldn’t have accommodated our expanding family. The Georgia heat was indefensible, and I was far too big to be of any real help. I offered to scrub the baseboards of the old house, but mostly I just sat and ran a cloth over the same spot, my hair in a do-rag, pretending to be a Victorian washerwoman. I cursed at Dan in a trussed up cockney accent and called him my costermonger, I word I’d only just learned from a BBC drama. It means someone who sells fruits and vegetables in the market, but I was using it to refer to a husband who was making me pack and unpack all of our worldly belongings when I was being sucker-punched from the inside.

And then: just as we’d finished unwrapping the bubble tape from all our breakables, just as we’d mopped the floor with organic baby-friendly cleaner, Dan got the call that he was one of three final candidates being considered for a tenure-track teaching job in upstate New York. The college was requesting he fly up for an interview that week. I was suddenly faced with the prospect of moving again, this time 2000 miles, at 37 weeks pregnant. I looked to our two cats. We would have to do the trip by car, for their sake and for mine. I was too pregnant to fly. The cats sniffed at the familiar couch like it was a stranger.

While Dan was away interviewing, I spent every afternoon underwater. I was in the locker room, massaging mango-scented stretch mark cream into my expanding belly, when he called to let me know he was offered the job. I watched as my naked reflection in the mirror answered the phone, watched as my mouth gaped at the shock of the news. I was starring in an avant-garde theater production with no costuming budget.

That night, we discussed the pros and cons, as adults do, doodling half-lists on a napkin. Cons: leaving our support system of friends, my parents nearby in North Carolina, and a trusted team of midwives. Pros: greater financial security, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I agreed to move to a strange town in the country, sight unseen, under one condition: a visit to Hershey Park. We joked that this concession sounded more like a concession stand, as in candy, as in sweet.


It was late July in the South when we embarked on the long journey north. At a rest stop along I-95, I attempted some light yoga on the grass and decided it would be easier to give up and live there, next to a picnic table, walking distance from not one but two vending machines. On my back with my arms outstretched at odd angles, I looked like a broken sundial, measuring distance, not time.


At Hershey Park, I slogged from one chocolate room to another. Crowds parted. I cradled a mountain of Krackel bars in my arms, then abruptly decided to buy none.


Our half-domesticated feral cat, Girlfriend, got out of her carrier back at the Residence Inn. She bolted into a bathroom cabinet and hid behind sink pipes. Dan wrapped his left hand in a towel and attempted to dislodge her, yanking blindly, his face angled towards me in dread. The cat hissed and thrashed against metal. When Dan produced her, he was bleeding profusely, claw marks up to his sleeve. In my mind he was Hugh Glass, the 19th century American fur trapper who was mauled by a bear, left for dead, but then regained consciousness. For six weeks, Glass crawled 200 miles solo across Missouri until he reached the Cheyenne River and built a makeshift raft to safety. Dan assured me he could still drive.


A waitress at Denny’s mistakenly wrote paincakes on our check. I repeated, “I will consume rather than be consumed by contractions. I will consume rather than be consumed by fear.”


A week later, we met our New York midwife for the first time. After she listened to me recount our recent upheaval, how our furniture still hadn’t arrived and I was sleeping on an air mattress that stayed deflated on my side, she handed me two pamphlets. One on placenta encapsulation. The other on postpartum depression.


As my due date loomed, I devoted my final weeks to reading about Ina May Gaskin and homebirthing. I practiced mindfulness by chewing raisins, one at a time, very, very slowly, trying to visualize harvest conditions. I tackled pain tolerance by submerging my fingers in bowls of ice. I took a Lamaze class with Dan to perfect rhythmic breathing and a hypnobirthing session to learn traditional Chinese acupuncture techniques: mainly how to massage my butt joint. I became an acolyte of the theory that language instills in us our real fear of childbirth, that by merely reframing pain as pressure we can transcend the horror of contractions until they become expansions.

Like an explorer, I filled my hospital bag with essentials: an eye mask, a tennis ball for butt joint massage, a green cotton halter I’d ordered from a company called Pretty Pushers. Their tagline is “a stylish alternative to unisex gowns.” They promise that “you won’t have to show your backside.” I made a pushing playlist and instructed Dan that it was his duty to see that Miles was born to Sondheim’s “Being Alive.” I wrote NO EPIDURAL NO PITOCIN in all caps on my birth plan. In those final weeks, I informed anyone who didn’t ask that I was going to labor on the shores of Lake Cayuga, about five miles from our house, regardless of the time of day, until I could no longer talk through contractions. But first I would cook up a protein-heavy meal. Maybe make organic oatmeal in the crock pot. Once I was full, and comfortably dilated, we would drive the speed limit to the birthing center, where I would ease into a whirlpool and deliver our son in water, under soft lighting, my wrists smelling faintly of lavender oil.

Because pregnancy requires the ultimate relinquishing of control, because I had suffered three early miscarriages, it made sense, this need to wrangle my labor into the Platonic ideal of labor.


Miles was nine days late. I spent the morning of my labor watching a Woody Allen movie at the closest theater, a thirty minute drive. The August heat was so oppressive that once inside I removed my shirt. The only other patron was a woman who must have been in her nineties. I had the distinct thought that she would probably die before the baby came.

On my way home I stopped at the grocery store. There was nothing I needed. I paced the baby aisle, stumbling like a rabid dog, cradling my belly like a basket. On the way out, I copped two cookies from the “Free For Kids ONLY” bin. I stuffed them in my mouth, laughed as a chunk fell to the floor. Miles triggered the automatic door well before I passed through it.

That night, I accompanied Dan to a campus cook-out on the boathouse lawn. He was due to start teaching in four days. There was a lavish, homey food spread: hotdogs and hamburgers, coleslaw and baked beans, all kept warm in chafing trays. The coleslaw was clumpy and tasted of blue cheese. I swallowed five hot dogs, hardly chewing them. I was a championship eater and my only competition was myself. I rested my sticky hands on my stomach. A faculty member introduced herself. “Any hour now!” she said, poking my shoulder. I returned for a sixth hot dog. I filled a cup with ice and kept my pinky submerged in it while making small talk, only I thought of it as big talk, I was so huge.


I went into labor suddenly, at 2am, with contractions lasting sixty seconds and spaced five minutes apart. There was no time to soak oats or wade out. When we arrived at the birthing center (forty minutes away), a cheerful attendant informed us that due to a “baby storm,” there was only one room available: the one without the whirlpool tub. I managed to dress myself in my stylish and modest green gown, only to rip it off moments later and sit in the shower, defeated and splayed, while Dan hosed down my exposed backside.

It turned out I didn’t want to be touched. At all. I needed the opposite of touching. I refused everything I’d prepped so hard for. My midwife and the team of nurses referred to me as The Silent Laborer. Through a fog of hurt this sounded like a cancelled Jennifer Love Hewitt drama.

For over ten hours, I labored naturally to full dilation in a state of pre-language. I was a mime in an ashram, freed from the burden of words, pain still undeniably pain. My water had to be broken with a crochet hook. Our 9 pound 4 ounce son wouldn’t descend. Ten centimeters dilated and still not progressing, I begged for an epidural. Begged. My midwife calmly referred back to the all-caps portion of my birth plan. I denied having ever written it.

I labored for a total of twenty-two hours. For weeks after, my husband would bear the remnants of thick blisters on his hands from where he had held up my legs for traction. After four hours of pushing, I didn’t care what music welcomed Miles into the world. The last hour of fire and crowning was beyond comprehension. According to Dan, Miles made his midnight appearance to Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love For You,” a song celebrating infidelity from the point of view of a mistress.


As painful as labor was in the moment, its end would usher in an analgesic forgetting. In the immediate aftermath of birth, as soon as my squalling son had been placed on my chest and had listed successfully onto my right nipple, I felt capable of anything: eating the entire three-tiered pastrami sandwich I demanded my father-in-law bring to me in the delivery room, for example, or walking unassisted into the recovery suite.

At 4:00 am, guided by endorphins, I rose out of my adjustable bed to unpack and correct some bad birthing center feng shui by moving a lamp and draping a receiving blanket over a tray table. I must do it all, I thought to myself, and I wasn’t even sure what it was.

I had the bravado of an explorer, one with the unfounded confidence and determination to press on – westward! – regardless of poor conditions. I was thinking specifically of Henry Hudson, who, after spending the winter of 1611 cooped up with a starving crew stuck in ice, still insisted on setting sail for the Northwest Passage as soon as the ice cleared. Like Hudson, I also wanted to keep going. I was at the helm of my own Discovery, deluded in spirit, unable to acknowledge a torn perineum and a low iron count.

But Henry Hudson’s men mutinied against him. They put Hudson, a few loyal crew members, and his son in an open boat, then set a course for England. A journal indicates that Hudson oared feverishly to keep up with the ship, whose sails were unfurled to garner maximum speed. He couldn’t. This was me: repentant of my boundless stamina, claustrophobic in the wake of the world, alone in strange waters with my son. I kept sounding out his name to the clock on the wall. It felt apt. Miles. How far I was from the person I had been.  


It was as if I had trained months for a marathon, all that pre-dawn incline running with silly miniature water bottles velcroed to my middle, only to be handed a server apron at the finish line and told I was expected to show up for my restaurant double shift. I’d treated labor like a one-off, like a task accomplished. We had the glut of paraphernalia, the Ergo and the bouncy swing and the snot sucker and the diaper cream, all crammed into a nursery with its magical attention to detail. The mason jar with the electric candle on the windowsill. The stenciled grinning menagerie. I remembered only a few days before, raking my hands against the walls of this room like it was Narnia, a remarkable land I had stumbled into by accident. A land I could leave.


There was mesh underwear and clots the size of a teether. Curled up in our bathtub, I placed a desperate call to my septuagenarian mother, crying, asking her to administer an enema. My nipples were raw and chaffed. I hadn’t slept in 96 hours. I hadn’t realized the kind of tired I would be, nauseous tired, how tomorrow would be replaced by a never-ending today punctuated by mere pockets of sleep. Without that recalibration, the gift of closure disappears. Years of yoga hadn’t prepared me to live in the moment this way. I Googled “longest a person can survive without sleep,” only to discover I would be dead in seven days, like the Chinese man who couldn’t stop watching a soccer tournament.


If depression is a rendering of the self invisible, then what I experienced was acute visibility. Seeing that my son’s eyes were my eyes, that his lips were my lips, allowed me to feel unprecedented self-compassion. I connected immediately with Miles. I reconnected with myself more slowly.


I had never dressed a baby, or nibbled on tiny toes, or put a newborn down for a nap, or lowered an infant into a car seat. I had changed exactly one diaper – I’m not even sure if it counts if your college friend did most of the changing while you offered at the last minute to “stick the sticky tabs,” like you were a gymnast attempting a tough landing. Caring for our son is exhausting, but rewarding, physical, like planting by the moon, using your hands, sweating, nothing like the cerebral life I’ve cultivated, nothing like it at all.


My love for Miles is an unfamiliar love, a contradictory love. It simultaneously multiplies and tethers me. I anticipate his waking a split-second before he wakes. I startle and touch Dan’s face in bed next to me, expecting anything warm to be him, a vulnerable bundle of need. When I nurse, I am being drawn down into the earth, stabilized, but also released of some weight that has held me back my whole life. Sometimes at night I play a sinister game of questioning. Would you die for your son by train? By axe? By wheel? By sandstorm? By stonefish? The answer is yes. Always, unflinchingly, yes.


Miles and Dan and I live in unmapped wilderness, in a geothermal house, with a view of a lake, in a small rural upstate town. If, as Khalil Gibran writes, pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding, then joy is a walling-off. A family of ten deer comes to feed in our yard every dusk. I count them out loud to our son. One deer for each centimeter I was dilated, a distant memory of pain, of distance itself.


Author’s Note: I wrote this essay when Miles was still a newborn. He’s now a rambunctious 15-month-old with a mullet and a penchant for dragging large objects across the room. My writing process has changed so much since becoming a mom. I finish more because I’ve had to jettison perfectionism. I hope this serves as encouragement for other women who are considering a family but are afraid that children will compromise their creativity.   

Alicia Rebecca Myers is a poet and essayist who holds an MFA from NYU, where she was a Goldwater Writing Fellow. Her work has appeared most recently in or is forthcoming from Best New Poets 2015, The Rumpus, The American Literary Review, Gulf Coast, jubilat, The Carolina Quarterly, The Fairy Tale Review, and The Southern Poetry Anthology: Georgia. She has also had a poem featured in an NPR Radiolab podcast in conjunction with the NYC based performance series Emotive Fruition. In February of 2014, she was awarded a residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center in Nebraska City. Her chapbook, My Seaborgium, will be released by Brain Mill Press in 2016. She teaches at Wells College. You can find her online at aliciarebeccamyers.com.



Letters From My Father

Letters From My Father

Weathered Rusted Old Mailbox

By Amy Monticello

We like to have a destination when we walk. A place to arrive. Life with a baby is easier with small goals, the day divided into manageable hours. An hour of tummy time. An hour of napping. An hour at the thrift store, hunting for cheap treasures.

Boomerangs, with its orange block-lettered sign and kitschy window displays (a chess game set up mid-play on a wicker table with matching chairs, a mannequin wearing a vintage fur-trimmed dress looking into heavy mirror rimmed with embossed gold), sits just a few doors down from the Goodwill and its junkier junk. In the gentrified neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, three miles west of downtown Boston, Boomerangs serves the young white professionals like us who drive the rent up and pay more for their plastic art deco chair, their distressed leather jacket.

Our 8-month-old daughter, Benna, quickly became bored in the racks of women’s dresses. She began to fuss, drawing stares, so my husband and I wheeled the jogging stroller down the ramp into the back of the store, where unsteady bookshelves line the walls, hoping to distract her with the children’s section. We picked out a hardcover copy of Make Way for Ducklings, an adorable story set in Beacon Hill, and a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for when Benna is a bit older and can sustain attention for chapter books.

I don’t remember either of my parents reading to me, though I’m certain my mother did, must have. She had custody of me from the time I was two, and I had started memorizing my books by then. But she didn’t remember Where The Wild Things Are. When the Spike Jonze film based on the book came out, it was James Gandolfini’s voice, pure northeast Italian-American, that made a memory of my father’s voice percolate up from somewhere deep inside, an almost tactile memory of the book and how the wild things made me feel: frightened at first, and then smothered in comfort, like the furry pile of themselves they make in the film.

While my husband distracted Benna with her rattles, I pulled a new-looking kid’s book from the shelf. It was called Not So Rotten Ralph. The story features a lanky red cat with green, globular eyes that plays practical jokes on people and gets sent to feline finishing school in an attempt to make Ralph good. It’s not exactly highbrow stuff, nothing comparable to the subtlety of Maurice Sendak or Margaret Wise Brown, but the title reminded me of an old boyfriend by the same name, Ralph, who was also mischievous. I court nostalgia where I can.

When I cracked the still-stiff spine, an unopened card fluttered down to the dirty tile floor of the store. Its envelope was still crisply sealed and folded, preserved like a clover by the covers of the book. It’s true that have no respect for other people’s memories—I once combed through every one of my husband’s photos from college, trying to determine if his ex-girlfriend was prettier than me. I tore the envelope open immediately.

“I have a perfectly good reason why this card is late,” said a smiling cartoon beaver on the front. Inside, the card’s punch line: “I wanted to make your birthday last longer!” The card was signed, “Love Grandaddy and Pam.” Included was an uncashed check for twenty-five dollars dated December 1994. I was twelve years old in 1994. I remember braces. Frizzy, curly hair bluntly cut and hanging triangular around my face. My first love, John Lacy, moving away in the seventh grade. My first experience with unshakeable sadness.

I couldn’t stop wondering about the card, and why it had gone unopened. Did the mail arrive at a bad time—the middle of dinner, or the climax of a toddler’s tantrum? Did its recipient, the grandchild, feel slighted by its lateness, or simply uninterested in the banality of the accompanying book? Or was it the child’s parent who felt slighted, maybe carried inside them a legacy of disappointment? Missed school plays. Unacknowledged report cards. Did they grumble at the card’s sheepish joke, and then stash it in a place where it couldn’t hurt the heart of someone too young to understand that people sometimes forget, or are self-absorbed, or simply too busy, or unable to send a birthday card on time? Or was it simpler than I was making it, the card and check simply misplaced and forgotten in the chaos of a home with young children?

And what about the sender? Grandaddy. A man in a relationship with someone who was not Grandma. A man who later found Pam, and cared for her enough to sign her name to his grandchild’s birthday card. A man who wrote out, in careful cursive, a twenty-five dollar check and placed it inside a card that makes a subtle nod to shortcomings.

My own father, dead two years now, often gave money as a present. Sometimes for no reason at all, he would slip me a twenty, a fifty, even a hundred dollar bill. It used to upset my mother, the way he spoiled me without cause, the way he used money to show love, dropping me off at her house on Thursday evenings loaded with shopping bags from the mall. Buying love, she said, though we both came to understand it differently. He once sent me home with a check for five thousand dollars. Give this to your mother, he told me. I didn’t know then that he’d heard we needed a new roof put on our house, but that my mother couldn’t afford it. And yes, sure, he still loved her. He was sorry. But the money came without strings—it always came without strings, or at least, the strings were no more than a hope that she’d call him occasionally, let him tell her a joke over the phone.

My father’s grief was simply part of how I knew him. It made him vulnerable, easily pierced, even preemptive in his need to know I loved him. He lived in the apartment above my aunt, his footsteps muffled by brown shag carpet and the sound of the television, the History Channel or a Yankees game. Occasionally, his need would grow so loud that it required immediate relief. Here, hon, he’d say, handing me the fresh-from-the-bank bills from his wallet. Then he waited to hear the words. Thank you, Daddy. I love you so much.

A friend once told me that having children shifts the center of the narrative, our own past usurped by our child’s future. Still, it’s impossible for me not to project. Not to install myself in others’ stories—even, and maybe especially, my daughter’s. In The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison writes, “When bad things happened to other people, I imagined them happening to me. I don’t know if this is empathy or theft.” I’ve been thinking about this. I’ve been thinking about what it means to feel sorrow on someone else’s behalf, if it’s ever possible to feel their sorrow, or just supplant it with our own. Desperate for rest, we sleep-trained Benna when she was six months old. Making the decision to let her cry was agonizing, so I made a secret stipulation in order to agree to it; I would inhabit what I perceived as my daughter’s confusion and fear. My mother has abandoned me, I imagined her cortisol-flooded body telling her. Perception is reality for a baby—I couldn’t show her I was right outside her door unless I opened the door, and the point was not to open it. I didn’t do what experienced parents recommended—take a shower, go for a walk, stick earplugs in to cancel the sound of her crying. I couldn’t allow myself to be spared and reduce my family’s overall suffering.

And can it go the other way? Will Benna someday be wounded by the absence of the grandfather she never knew? Will I desire her to feel wounded? To mourn because I mourn? When I tell her about her grandfather, what will I emphasize so she will feel his absence particularly? He would not have changed a diaper. He would not have babysat by himself. He would have come to visit, but only if my mother drove him. He would have paid for dinner. He would have been amused by fine motor skills, fascinated by language acquisition. He would have told jokes about her seriousness. He would have liked that she doesn’t go readily to other people. He would have been proud, and said so.

He would have doted on her, spoiled her. I think he would have loved her; I think he would have allowed himself that. When I say all of these things, will I be doing so to satisfy a curiosity, or to make Benna feel more loved? Or will I say it to see my grief reflected back to me?

Last week, as my father’s birthday loomed full moon on the calendar, I attempted to wear the locket where I keep a tiny bag of his ashes. Because of my daughter’s exploring hands, I rarely wear jewelry anymore. She was immediately drawn to the locket, an anomaly on my person, which is otherwise so familiar to her, my body just an extension of hers. She gripped the delicate braided chain and pulled with determined hands. Afraid of it breaking, I took the locket off and tucked it back into my jewelry box.

But I wanted to put something of my father into her hands. So I took his Yankees baseball hat off the bookshelf where I keep it. The inside of the hat once smelled of his scalp, but not anymore; it smells like nothing now, or of our house, which I can no longer smell. Benna wasn’t interested in the hat. Again and again, I placed the hat in her lap, on her head, on my head, and again and again, she flung it aside, looking for something more exciting to play with. I tried to snap a picture in the few seconds when the hat was still in her possession. I heard my father tell me not to do this. Not to manufacture a moment between them. He didn’t like when the seams of an emotional performance were showing. In the pictures I took, it was clear what I was trying to do. The seams showed. I deleted them.

I became a writer in part because I want to make the things I’ve lost come back to me. John Lacy, who moved away in the seventh grade. My ex-boyfriend, Ralph, who was not so rotten. I create mirages of them. I imprint them onto the world as I live in it now by writing essays where they walk across the pages, back into my hands, my life. My daughter and my father missed each other. There isn’t anything I can do to change the end of his life and the beginning of hers. She will not recognize the smoke-and-dander smell of his scalp faded from the inside of the baseball hat. She will not beam him like a hologram into her books, her family holidays, the time we spent together in her infancy, nursing away the days already forgotten. She may never understand the happiness my father would have felt to know the sale of his business left a small nest egg for us.

The money came a year after my father’s death, when we settled his estate. And just like that, with a check, he was part of things again. The money bought clothes and a convertible car seat for Benna, and an extended maternity leave for me that kept me home with Benna for a full eight months. His money bought us 14-hour days of nursing. Every thirty minutes or so, Benna rooted and latched, and I settled us into the couch so I could watch her ears—perfect replicas of mine—twitch as she swallowed. As my milk let down, suppressing dopamine for prolactin, a surge of sadness crested from my belly to my throat, and sometimes, I would cry. The narrative collapsed then, my story and my daughter’s folded into waves of milk. I nursed my daughter because I could, and I could because my father was dead.

Money, I want to tell Benna, is time.

Of course, it’s only my imagination that can project my father into a life lived long enough to know his grandchild, or, perhaps even more astonishing, to meet another woman. Pam. In line at the bank, maybe. A companion after so many years in that apartment above my aunt,. An embarrassment of riches—a partner and a grandchild—in the twilight of his life. I imagine a happiness so unexpected, so total, it makes the days on the calendar fly, his beloved grandchild’s birthday temporarily lost in the blur of new joy.

But then, he remembers. “I’m gonna run to the drug store,” I picture him telling Pam. He yanks on his brown winter jacket and the Yankees hat. He drives the ten blocks. He peruses the sparse selection of cards, knowing he has to acknowledge his lateness somehow. The imperfection of his love. He wants to give more than the mea culpa of the cartoon beaver, so he writes the check out at the post office. Twenty-five dollars is a lot of money to a toddler.

He signs the name his granddaughter gave him. Grandaddy. Traces the “G” in darker ink so it will be clear.

Drops it in the mail and trusts it will arrive.

Author’s Note: Benna can now recognize my father in photographs, and even calls him Grandpa. Perhaps just as importantly, she can also recognize Mickey Mantle.

Amy Monticello is the author of the memoir-in-essays Close Quarters, and a regular contributor at Role/Reboot. She is an assistant professor of English at Suffolk University in Boston, MA, where she lives with her husband and almost two-year-old daughter.





Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now

I worry that my son might not understand what I’ve tried to be. And if I were to be killed, Willard, I would want someone to go to my home and tell my son everything—everything I did, everything you saw—because there’s nothing that I detest more than the stench of lies. And if you understand me, Willard, you will do this for me.

—Kurtz to Willard, Apocalypse Now, 1979

I recently asked my kids about their first memories.

“What was it?” I asked. “What’s the first thing you can remember?” Without thinking, both recalled early images of bold blue macaroni and cheese boxes. They had consumed Kraft by the case at daycare.

“You don’t remember anything before eating macaroni and cheese?” I pressed. I was fishing for proof my parenting fuck-ups weren’t set in stone, floating around in their psyches like a laminated list already prepared for their future therapists.

“Nope,” Andrew, my youngest, assured me. “I just remember playing at Amy’s house and eating mac and cheese.”

Relief set in. Thank God for the hypnotic effect of video games, Finding Nemo, and processed cheese products. I hadn’t been discovered. They don’t know.

I hate babies. I fucking hate ’em. Though I birthed a couple, was one, and acknowledge that everyone I know must have been a baby, I’d rather take my rotund shape out bikini shopping in bright fluorescent lighting with my mother-in-law after eating three helpings of shrimp and broccoli Alfredo than coo over babies, pretend they’re cute, or lie to unsuspecting parents that their baby looks any different than every other swaddled and gurgling creature at the hospital. Babies, I’ve learned, rob us of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; they’re anti-constitutional.


I’ve always hated babies. I didn’t even enjoy being a baby. My first memory is of standing in my own crib screaming my lungs out at my tired mother. Perhaps this explains why I’m an only child.

I grew up in Georgia, where the only moneymaking options for a gangly preteen girl were babysitting or prostitution. Since the latter was illegal and possibly dangerous, I chose the former to earn the money to buy a second copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, having thoroughly worn out and scratched up my first one. I learned early on that babysitting young kids wasn’t so bad. After all, they’re easily placated with television and macaroni and cheese. Babysitting actual babies, on the other hand, plunged one into the eighth circle of hell, which I believe is only one step above being frozen in your own shit.

Babies do one thing: they demand. Whether it’s food, wiping, shoulders to puke on, or pacifiers, they pull you into their own shit and demand more. After one particularly harrowing session of babysitting, Baby-in-Crib (whose name I’ve either forgotten or deliberately purged) screamed at me so loudly that I all I could do was curl up, fetal position, in the corner of its nursery. I pulled myself together enough to feed it and change it and keep it safe for a couple of hours until its owners returned from their date night. I stopped babysitting babies after that. Later, in college, I worked briefly as a nanny. There was a standoff with a six-month-old. I lost. That’s all I’m legally obliged to say.

I don’t have a good explanation for most of what I’ve done, including becoming a mother. Some primordial urge must have set in when I was three years into an otherwise blissful marriage. At least I think it was blissful. I’ve got kids now. I can’t remember.

A craving to propagate the species infects some of us at a vulnerable age for reasons that only God and Darwin understand. The copulating part of this whole process is great—over too soon, but great. However, the forty-eight-week gestation period followed by infancy? That first time around, it’s boot camp. You’ve got this outside force compelling you to obey, bending your will, breaking you down. That first tour of duty is the longest.


“The Horror! The Horror!”

William was born in the middle of a hell-hot August to parents with too few skills, living in a steamy, two-bedroom apartment near the University of Illinois. My husband Bryan and I were graduate students, working our way through various degree programs to put off the inevitability of real life. But real life can’t be delayed when you’re carrying nearly ten pounds of dude inside of you, a dude who eventually attempts an exit just below the left lung. William never turned, never got into position, never did anything but suck his thumb in utero, urinate, and kick the piss out of my bladder. He couldn’t even manage to get out on time. Two weeks past his due date, he was content just to sit there, contorting my torso and rewiring my colon to suit his emerging limbs. My OB/GYN was on vacation the week William was due, so I consoled myself that managing to hang on in the sweltering heat was good, since it meant Dr. Shepherd would be back to facilitate the “blessed event.”

The details of birth are redundant and repetitive: push, breathe, scream, curse, try not to take the sharp objects away from the medical professionals so you can stab the responsible party.

William didn’t cooperate, so they shot me up with Pitocin, the induction cocktail, which I endured for about twenty-two hours. Thankfully, Dr. Shepherd needed to get to a party that night, and when he decided he was bored waiting for me to deliver, the nurses pitched the Pitocin and slapped me down on the table for a speedy C-section. Actually, the chatter between Dr. Shepherd and his nurses about his impending party kept me preternaturally calm in the middle of the chaos that is surgical delivery. Emergency sections are very different beasts from planned ones; my second son, Andrew, with the giant-but-healthy head, arrived via a planned and particularly organized C-section. Those are downright leisurely. I’d do that again any morning: have baby extracted, do some mild nursing by midday, then enjoy a little happy-hour gin and tonic at four. But the last-minute emergency variety left me resentful of William, who necessitated the drugs, the shaving, the strapping down of my arms, and the colon cleanse a nurse performed on me because my bowels had shut down after the trauma. We were not on good terms when he got here, and his incessant screaming upon arrival didn’t endear him to us immediately. Yet we managed to get this squirming pile of flesh into the infant car seat and safely back to our suddenly tinier apartment.

As in my early babysitting endeavors, I managed to feed him, change him, and keep him healthy and safe—except this time, no parents were coming back after date night. No one was coming to relieve me. He stayed with us, curdling our nerves from five every afternoon until he passed out just before ten at night. He was inconsolable. What to Expect When You’re Expecting doesn’t inform the reader that the life-sucking malady known as colic will steal your soul and tempt you to make a deal with the devil at the crossroads if only this kid will shut the fuck up. Seriously, editors, get that into the updated fifth edition.


“Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon.”

Gas drops. Baby Tylenol. Rocking. Nursing. Nursing upside down, on the left side. Sleeping with the head in an upright position. Sleeping in the bouncy seat. Putting the baby down. Letting him cry it out. Picking the baby up. Driving around the neighborhood. Sound machines with whooshes of the ocean or a mother’s wombed-up heartbeat. Special bottles that limit air in the baby’s tummy. Trips to the pediatrician. (They love those, at $250 a visit). Listening to a mother-in-law, who claims everything will be fine, and talking to helpful neighbors, who prescribe shots of whiskey.

We tried them all. Some remedies worked for a tiny bit of time, but escape was the only consistent antidote. I resorted to making multiple trips to the grocery store between five and ten in the evening. I dashed to the store at 5:45 p.m. for diapers and again at 6:15 for gas drops, followed by a final 8:30 trip to get some toilet paper. Anything to avoid the baby. My husband would remember we needed milk and then, two hours later, he’d go back for a box of Cocoa Puffs. Between excursions, we managed. Barely. But only because of the Cocoa Puffs and The Waltons reruns, with their infectious family bonding. And boxed wine, left over from our friends’ wedding.

Late one hot August night, about two weeks after William was delivered, Bryan and I sat sobbing on the edge of our bed, the very same bed that had conspired with us in this act of procreation, wondering when those proverbial “real parents” would come and get him. We were grateful he was healthy and normal and had all those feelings parents are supposed to feel. But we wept.

“Damn it,” I cried, sobbing so hard the bed rocked. “This . . . feels . . . like . . . a war zone.”

“I know,” was all Bryan could get out through his own broken sobs. Bryan is quiet, introverted. He never complains because that would draw attention and take effort. Agreeing with me that he felt we had made a huge mistake was like Mother Teresa admitting publicly that cleaning the lepers in Calcutta sucked.

We were sure we were inadequate and inept. William was a perfect baby, except for the colic, and he deserved parents who knew what the fuck they were doing. Not us. We were losers.

“Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon.” Martin Sheen’s improvised madness at the beginning of Apocalypse Now kept replaying in our heads day and night. They—in-laws, midwives, people from Walton’s Mountain—tell you that having a baby is the greatest moment in your life, a real turning point. That’s true. It is a turning point, but one with innumerable casualties. Bryan and I had to face the fact that we’d been attacked. We’d never been so vulnerable.


“Horror . . . Horror has a face . . . And you must make a friend of horror.”

Not only did I get hit from the front with William’s colic, I was flanked from the rear by postpartum depression. Postpartum depression is the face of horror.

Like a good scholar-mom, I researched solutions. My favorite helpful advice comes from the Mayo Clinic’s website: “Postpartum depression isn’t a character flaw or a weakness. Sometimes it’s simply a complication of giving birth. If you have postpartum depression, prompt treatment can help you manage your symptoms—and enjoy your baby.” Indeed, postpartum depression is a complication of birth. Enjoy your baby? You mean the blood-curdling screams, the engorged breasts that have to be pumped at work, the spit-up perma-stains on every article of your clothing, and the bondage to a colicky creature who keeps you from date night? I’ll be sure to remember all of that during my leisurely stay in rehab. Thanks, Mayo.

Friends, you think. You’ll call friends. Good idea. Wait, but your friends all adore rocking their little ones at two in the morning, quietly singing them back to a gentle sleep after nursing, listening to Baby Bach, and finally turning on the plastic fish aquarium that swirls magical realism all over the freshly painted nursery like an acid trip with Hunter S. Thompson. Your friends and family already think you’re an asshole because you’re not finding that the joys of infancy match the charming version of babyhood perpetuated by America’s Disney-addicted culture.

As a last resort, I checked with my doctor. After a month of uncontrollable crying, I figured this was beyond the “baby blues” What to Expect had described. This was dark. I was in the shit. Dr. Shepherd said it was normal and offered me a mild antidepressant. But again, I did my research, and—like my other new-mom friends—I was nervous about drugs in my breast milk. Even though it’s supposedly safe for babies, this particular antidepressant’s ever-increasing list of side effects includes sleepiness, nervousness, insomnia, dizziness, nausea, skin rash, headache, diarrhea, upset stomach, loss of appetite, abnormal ejaculation, dry mouth, and weight loss. Great. So I’d be less sad but abnormally ejaculating. No thanks.


“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Babyhood invites mothers—the good ones—to spontaneously visit. Friends, your Episcopal priest’s wife, and your sweet cousin all seem to find their way to a mother in need. Babies can provoke terror in those of us under the influence of postpartum depression, but they can also inspire pure unadulterated kindness in people who have survived the Burroughsian Interzone of infancy and lived to tell about it. That is how we have survived as a species. Evolution be damned: we’ve survived because of the tenacity of hearty Episcopalian women.

It was week four of hell. I’d turned down Dr. Shepherd’s antidepressants. I was suffering from a horrific rash under my swollen, nursing breasts. I had already gone back to work just three weeks after William was delivered; I had no maternal leave, just a handful of sick days.

I was grading a set of papers on a Saturday in late September when I heard a quiet knock on our apartment door. It was Mary Hallett, the hearty, no-nonsense wife of Father Tim Hallett, pastor at St. John’s Episcopal Church on campus, where Bryan and I had been wed three years earlier. I expected the pastor’s wife to come calling. A few of the kindhearted church ladies had already delivered pans of lasagna and chicken casseroles, and I guessed (correctly) that Mary was here with her signature chicken-noodle soup, a particularly tasty version of the classic healing brew. She handed me the pot of soup and some fresh bread, nodded toward William in his bouncy seat, then turned to me and offered, “Let me grab your laundry while I’m here and I’ll take it home for a wash and fold.”

It struck me that, unlike all the other visitors, Mary wasn’t here to coo at the baby; she was here for me.

“Lord no,” I replied, blearily. “That’s okay, Mary. I got it. Bry and I are fine.”

She looked at me with her gray eyes, brushed her salt-and-pepper bangs to one side, and stated in her efficient Episcopalian voice, “No one is fine after they’ve had a baby.” She pulled out a big mesh bag she’d brought over.

I could see she was serious. I scurried and grabbed Bry’s jeans and my bra from the bathroom floor, underwear from a cardboard box in the closet currently serving as a laundry basket, and random shirts thrown off near the bed by two dazed parents flopping down at night in defeated exhaustion. I put everything in the mesh bag and sheepishly gave it all to this woman, my pastor’s wife, a woman I knew well but not well enough, I thought, to hand her our undies.

When Mary returned the next day with our fragrant, sorted, and neatly folded laundry, I nearly sobbed. It wasn’t anything like the war-zone feeling Bryan and I had a few weeks earlier in our bedroom. Mary handed over the mesh bag of laundry and hugged me. I was overwhelmed by her kindness, unable to even utter a “thank you.” I think she could tell I didn’t want to let go of her. But I did let go, my eyes welling with gratitude.

“I’ll be back next Saturday,” she said. And sure enough, there she was with her determined smile and her laundry bag.

I have never forgotten Mary’s matter-of-fact benevolence. I felt saved by soup and fresh laundry. Fortified with this reminder that the human heart heals, and nurtured by something as simple as the fresh scent of Tide mixed with a hint of lavender Snuggle, Bryan and I managed to get through those first months without binge drinking, overdosing on antidepressants, or running away to a cabin in Maine. We managed. I hadn’t conquered parenting, but I at least felt like this episode had ended with the kind of neighborly kindness so ubiquitous on Walton’s Mountain.

Parents get their lives back only if they stop at one baby. Few do. Most of us are possessed by a demon that attacks when your kid is about two or three, infecting your soul and whispering: Your life can be like The Waltons. Every week a new adventure in which John Boy, accompanied by apprehensive younger brother Ben, pulls Elizabeth out of yet another creek while Mama makes her a new dress out of love, grandma’s old quilt scraps, and used kitchen towels. Have more kids. Have even more kids. It’ll be just like The Waltons.

The Dark Lord loves seventies television in syndication; it’s one of his favorite weapons of mass destruction. I couldn’t fight off the demon possession that talked us into a second one. He may have had colic too, I can’t remember. The second time around, I said to hell with the side effects and took the damn drugs. I was much happier.

Incredibly, there are moms who thrive on infancy, who continue making babies and manage to can ten quarts of pickles and tomatoes in the process. The Spillmans down the street made seven babies, and each one was a natural-born caretaker for the next brother or sister in line. The Spillmans do great babies; we don’t. Bryan and I stopped at two. (Actually, The Waltons’ demon encouraged me to go for more, but my body couldn’t, or wouldn’t, sustain another.)

But here’s the thing: Babies evolve into smart-ass kids who talk, memorize the track listing to Led Zeppelin IV by age three, learn piano, collect football cards, make heart models in sixth grade, and finally learn how not to trump their partners in euchre. Both of mine, now fourteen and eleven, weathered both infancy and toddlerhood and are nicely settled into the hormonal cauldron of high school and middle school, which is, compared to the flashback-inducing horror of babyhood, a cakewalk. (For me, at least, if not for them.)

Toward the beginning of Apocalypse Now, Willard hears on tape Kurtz narrating his symbolic nightmare/dream of a snail “crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor . . . and surviving.” I’ve lived on that straight edge, and let me tell you, it’s scary but bearable—if only you can laugh and let a nice Episcopalian lady do your laundry.

Amy Penne earned her PhD from the University of Illinois while carrying her son William—who inspired this essay—in her gut. She teaches, writes, and takes care of her husband and two boys in a frigid old house on the prairie. Even though she hates babies, she thinks being a mom is probably worth it.

This piece has been excerpted from Oh Baby! – Available now.

Buy the Book

Why I Don’t Regret Taking All Those Baby Photos

Why I Don’t Regret Taking All Those Baby Photos

By Christine Organ

004_Zappier_5135 copy

I have a list of parenting regrets about a mile long. Wasting money on an expensive rocking chair and signing my three-year-old up for soccer, for instance.

But one thing I don’t regret, however, is the excessive photo taking—and photo sharing—during my son’s first year.

Though I’m no shutterbug by any means, after my son was born, I took hundreds—if not thousands—of photos and then shared a culled set with family and close friends on a regular basis. I quickly filled memory cards, and given the frequency and quantity of photos shared, I have little doubt that when my family saw an email from me with the subject line “You’re invited to view my photos,” they rolled their eyes and groaned. They may have even deleted the email without ever opening it. One could hardly blame them. I was relentless.

I was also desperate.

After my son was born, like many parents, I stumbled into the trenches of new motherhood. I was consumed by loneliness, confusion, and exhaustion that bordered on delirium. But in addition to the typical first-time parent anxiety, an inconspicuous (and untreated) case of postpartum depression pushed me further into an unrecognizable void. At the time, I knew that something wasn’t quite right, but I didn’t know what. I didn’t know why I hated being a mother, why everything was so hard, why I couldn’t shake the baby blues. All I knew was that the old me had disappeared, my joie de vivre had vanished, and every day was an uphill battle as I tried to claw my way out of the deep ravine of shame and guilt.

The abyss of postpartum depression—not to mention the resulting shame and self-loathing that this illness brings with it—is a dark place whether a woman is diagnosed or not. Most days I felt as if the lights had gone out… on everything. Living in denial about what I was feeling and experiencing, I did the only thing I thought to do at the time: I took pictures. A lot of pictures.  

Back in 2006, during the pre-smartphone era, I relied on my trusty Canon digital point-and-shoot to photograph everything from first smiles and giggles to diaper blowouts and messy faces. I took photos of my son with our dogs dressed as Santa and his reindeer. I took photos of my son wearing new clothes, and then sent a few snapshots to the giver of the outfit. I took photos of him drooling and crawling and playing with Tupperware. I uploaded the photos to my computer, spent hours editing them, and inundated my family with album after album.

The photos weren’t my only distraction, however. Along with hundreds of digital files, my computer also housed a document that I refer to simply as “The Spreadsheet.” A complex color-coded chart, The Spreadsheet documented every minute of my son’s life—the time he spent sleeping, eating, or playing—in half-hour increments. Convinced that if I could only “crack the code,” mastering the art of baby-caring would be a whole lot easier and I, in turn, would be happier (or at least less miserable).

As if that weren’t enough, next to the computer that housed the photos and The Spreadsheet was a stack of books taller than my baby about everything from sleeping training theories to post-baby marriage tips. I highlighted, tabbed, and took notes. I was convinced that locked within the pages of these books was The Answer to all of my parenting woes.

By throwing myself into the photos (the taking, editing, and sharing), meticulously maintaining The Spreadsheet, and voraciously reading parenting books, I believed that I could somehow find a way out of the darkness. Or, at a minimum, distract myself enough to make the darkness less scary and all-consuming. Distraction, it seemed, was key.

These days, however, distraction is marked as the enemy. Mindfulness, on the other hand, seems to be the holy grail of parenting. Truth be told, I am a staunch proponent of mindfulness—or paying attention, as I like to think of it—not just with respect to parenting, but with all aspects of my life. And excessive photo taking—not to mention the quest for (and obsession with) the perfect photo—is just one more way that technology runs the risk of thwarting mindfulness. When we are behind the camera we are, in essence, focusing on how we can preserve a moment, instead of paying attention to the moment itself. And as a result, the excessive photo taking, documenting, and micromanaging has the potential of distracting us from the privilege we, as parents, have to simply bear witness to our children’s lives.

But sometimes—typically in those desperate, in-the-trenches times—we need distraction for precisely the same reason. We need distraction to keep us from falling further into the abyss. The distraction—whether it’s photo taking or baby-book reading or Facebook scrolling—gives us a way to pay attention without becoming overwhelmed, a way to take it all in without losing ourselves under the weight of it all. It is mindfulness with a buffer.

I’m not sure why I took so many photos. I’m sure boredom and loneliness played a role, but perhaps the root of it went deeper than that. Maybe I subconsciously hoped that each flash of the camera would shine a light into the dark pit in which I felt I was living. Maybe I hoped that each click of the camera, each activity recorded, each page tabbed would bring me one step closer to the light. Or maybe the milestone-preservation, information-gathering, and documentation were a manifestation of my need for control during a chaotic time.

Whatever the psychological reason, however, the taking and sharing of photos—along with the spreadsheets and documentation, the book-reading and the note-taking—became my lifeline, a tool to cope with, and then recover from, postpartum depression. Not only did they distract me from the darkness in my own mind, thereby saving me from falling further into that dark pit of despair, but they created the world in which I wanted to live.

And while they may have glossed over my reality, they also blurred the harsh and jagged edges enough so that I could zoom in, using a fisheye lens to focus on the beauty that was my son.

Christine Organ is the author of Open Boxes: the gifts of living a full and connected life, which is a collection of stories about the paradoxes of parenting and the fullness of life. She writes at www.christineorgan.com, and you can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo: Megan Dempsey



005_Zappier_5138 copy

Something about that quiet companionship in the dark was a comfort to us as children, and again as mothers, too.


When you stop sleeping, really stop sleeping except for forty-five minutes or an hour at a time, your eyes have to work harder to focus. Your muscles feel like gelatin. Your hands shake. And when you haven’t slept, and the small vulnerable thing that is your few-weeks-old child settles on your chest, radiating warmth into your sore muscles, whispering tiny warm breaths onto your tired skin, it is really, really hard to stay awake.

Night after night, for Liddy’s first months, my husband and I took shifts holding her up straight and still, to minimize her reflux and let her digest the calories she so desperately needed. When my turn came, I would sit on the couch with my knees pulled to my chest and cradle her there against me, keeping her body, and mine, upright, trying to stay awake, praying she wouldn’t slide off onto the floor or press her tiny nose and mouth into me and stop breathing.

My sister Megan had diagnosed Liddy’s reflux before the doctors, hearing her pained gulps and grunts through the phone. Megan’s own daughter, Corinne, was born just ten weeks before Liddy; Corinne’s reflux was confirmed when she stopped breathing in her car seat and went to the hospital in an ambulance. So the girls shared the same illness, the same long nights. And Megan and I were on similar schedules, up every hour or two to feed, hold, and soothe. We held them for thirty minutes, an hour, or sometimes, for the rest of the night.

This was in the time before texting and smartphones, so first Megan and I tried keeping each other company through email. But it was difficult to keep Liddy upright and still while I typed, and the keyboard’s clicking and the blue glow of the screen made her restless. The murmurs of my voice relaxed her, though, so Megan and I developed a system. We set our cell phones to vibrate and kept them beside us through the night. We could call each other without the risk of disrupting our rare opportunities for sleep.

Our late-night phone calls came to resemble our childhood sharing a bedroom, whispering to pass the time when we should have been asleep. Even after our older siblings moved out, leaving us with our own bedrooms, Megan continued to stay in my room at night. Something about that quiet companionship in the dark was a comfort to us as children, and again as mothers, too.

When Liddy did sleep, I’d sometimes wake to a missed call message, then check my email to find a hastily written message right in the subject line: “HELP. Up all night no sleep.” Or, “To Liddy from Corinne. You up?” OR, “WAIT WAIT do not call. Cannot find cell phone and ringer is on.”

“Daylight savings time is going to screw us,” Megan said once. “We’re not frigging farmers.”

I burst out laughing.

“Stop!” she said. “You are going to shake her.”

We talked about the girls’ health, about our toddler boys’ antics, but mostly we spoke about mundane, silly things. But often, we just relaxed into silence punctuated by the girls’ shallow breathing as they relaxed into sleep.

“Is she asleep?” One of us would say, eventually.

“Yeah. I think I’ll try to lay her down.”

“Bye,” we’d whisper, and hang up. We’d release our finally-settled babies from our tired arms, and fall into our own brief sleep before it was time to start again.

Karen Dempsey is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. She has written for the New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at www.kdempseycreative.com. or follow her on Twitter.

Photo: Megan Dempsey

Having Kids Strengthened My Marriage/Having a Kid Strained My Marriage: Two Perspectives

Having Kids Strengthened My Marriage/Having a Kid Strained My Marriage: Two Perspectives

Having children together is a big step in any couple’s relationship and one that will invariably affect the dynamic between them. For some people, like Zsofia McMullin, the arrival of a baby can put a strain on the marriage. For others, such as Carinn Jade, the joint act of childrearing can pull a couple closer together.


Having Kids Strengthened My Marriage

By Carinn Jade

My husband and I met in law school, both of us on the clearly marked path to becoming lawyers. We built our relationship on equal ground, walking parallel and in the same direction. With a healthy chemistry, complementary personalities and a similar vision of marriage, careers and kids, we felt confident as we moved swiftly towards our future together.

We were in sync, but we never learned to operate as a unit. This reality set in only after the outpouring of love and support that held us up during our engagement celebrations fell away, and everyone else moved on with their lives once the wedding was over. We knew we were expected to do the same, but we didn’t know how. We felt unsure and alone as the new entity of “married couple.” We dealt with those feelings of isolation in very different ways, causing our parallel paths to hastily diverge.

We broke the vows we’d made—love, honor, cherish, for better or worse—like naughty schoolchildren testing boundaries, and no one came to save us. When we arrived at the point of collapse, we faced one another with the daunting choice to stay together or divorce. On paper, it would have been easy to leave: we had been living apart, we had no children, we had absolutely no idea how to fix us. Yet neither one of us could do it. That visceral knowledge has proven powerful beyond measure. Surviving that period created some sort of invincibility shield that has protected us from everything else life throws our way.

Once our marriage was on solid ground, we dove headfirst into starting a family. While we waited for the baby to arrive, I soothed my anxiety with knowledge, reading dozens of parenting manuals. When our son was born, colickly and high maintenance, the books went out the window and we operated in a constant state of emergency. Our strategy was nothing less than all hands on deck. Our teamwork was shoddy, our interactions tense. But as our son grew, we grew, and soon the parenting machine ran without mechanical failures.

Our second child completed our transformation from individuals into a team. With a toddler and a newborn, we quickly learned to operate not only with efficiency, but with gratitude for the other adult in the room. My husband’s extra pair of hands provided the relief I needed after a long day at home, his office stories kept me sane amidst a sea of cartoon theme songs, his sense of humor kept me laughing when I wanted to cry.

Despite the fact that I’ve held full-time positions during my six years as a mother, our division of domain always remains shockingly traditional. I’m the lead parent and he’s the lead provider, but we manage careers, money, childcare and household chores together. It’s never easy or simple, but it’s part of our lives. We do all the cooking and cleaning and childcare by ourselves. We don’t have a bankroll to fund tropical island vacations. We are mired in the unsexy, mind-numbing details of domestic life, but our marriage thrives because we work as a team to set and achieve the goals for our family: we debate approaches to discipline, we budget for Legoland, we squirrel away money for higher education.

We do not share all marital responsibilities equally, but we maintain tremendous respect for one another. We treat each other with as much kindness as we can muster. We make no space for contempt and bitterness. We put all our effort into empathy and communication. At the end of the day, I suspect our marriage looks like so many that are strained. Many an evening we’ve gone to bed angry, exhausted and frustrated. But by morning’s light, we shed the tension like the cloak of night. We begin the day in the same bed, as part of the same team.

It helps that I think my husband is as interesting and entertaining as the day we first met. We love doing the same things, we enjoy the stories the other brings to the table, and our vastly different perspectives offer a wider view of the world than we could ever have alone. Do we annoy each other? Yes. Consider the other’s ways of doing things mildly infuriating? Of course. But after eleven years of marriage our initial chemistry has deepened into an unshakeable rapport. I’d rather spend my days with no one else.

Friends often want to know our secret to having a stronger marriage after kids. Sometimes I dip into my well of possible answers: live in close physical proximity to one another (think: Tiny House, or a 1000 sq. ft. apartment), find someone who shares your interests, pick a partner that makes you laugh. If you’ve got nerves of steel: bend your marriage until you find its breaking point and work your way back. But the truth is I don’t have a single ingredient that ensures a relationship will thrive, with or without kids; I only know the magic recipe is one you have to make together, even when the kitchen is a mess.

Carinn Jade is a mother, lawyer, yogi, writer and habitual non-sleeper. She tweets @carinnjade and publishes parenting essays on Welcome To The Motherhood, both in an effort to distract her from the novel her agent has in submission.

Photo: Somin Khanna


Having a Kid Strained My Marriage

By Zsofia McMullin


The story I like to tell about how having a child strained my marriage takes place on the third day of our son’s life. We had just arrived home from the hospital with our tiny, precious baby. My parents were waiting for us with dinner and a house warmed against the snowstorm winding down outside. All I wanted to do was eat a bowl of soup and go to bed.

But we had bills to pay. As in, some of our utility bills were due soon and when my mom offered to help us, my husband immediately accepted and asked her to take them to the post office. But first, I had to write those bills—we’ve always done it this way, because my husband has horrible handwriting and is distrustful of online payment.

So there I was, ripped and bleeding and sore and so, so incredibly tired, writing checks to the electric company. I remember sitting there, thinking that this was absurd, that I should really just tell my husband to cut me some slack and deal with the bills on his own while I took a shower. But I think I was even too tired to do that.

Five years later, I am sort of able to laugh about this. But at the same time I know that first moment at home has come to symbolize how our marriage changed almost instantly when our son was born. All of a sudden, I had needs and wants and priorities that were completely different from what they were just mere days earlier. My husband’s world jiggled a little with the new arrival, but then it settled right back to where it was before.

I don’t want to paint my husband as insensitive, nor do I want to suggest that keeping our marriage strong is his responsibility alone. Clearly, there are two of us in this relationship, and if there is strain, we are both at fault.

But still, that discrepancy between how my life has changed since our son arrived, in the mind-blowing way it can for mothers, and how his life has stayed the same continues to be a fault line in our marriage. And yet, I have come think of it as a gift, as something unique that I carry as a mother, along with my stretch marks. My husband didn’t get those either, that’s just the way it is.

Before kids I was able to be more tolerant of my husband’s eccentricities and whims, I had patience for whatever “typical male” behavior would surface and just roll my eyes and then roll with the punches. I was a lot more forgiving with him—and with myself. Once our son was born, however, whatever grace or patience I had left me. What was once a cute, quirky personality trait that made me smile during our dating days, became a huge annoyance, a problem. My husband didn’t really change—I did.

Having a kid was not the first strain on our marriage. There was the usual tension during our newlywed years caused by not being used to living together, by not having enough money, by moving around for jobs and constantly compromising about careers and where to live. “We made it through those all right,” he said. “Having a kid is just another one we have to get through.”

But to me, this is not some kind of a race to clear hurdles. This strain feels more abiding. We will always be parents, our son a permanent fixture in our relationship, the third point in our triangle. We will always have differing views on how to raise him—we are getting better about negotiating those differences, but the conflict is there nevertheless. And frankly, I will always be a mother first, and a wife second.

We married pretty young—we were both 26. Looking back I realize I was too young to be able to determine what I would need the father of my child to be. At that point, there was just no way to imagine us as parents. The roles were too unfamiliar, too open to interpretation and circumstances. Sure, he is loving and tender and gentle and flexible and caring and understanding. But how could I possibly have known how he would react when I thrust a baby in his arms? I was surprised, for instance, that even bleary-eyed with exhaustion my husband loves order, that he is a disciplinarian and says things to our son like, “not while you live in my house.”

The truth is, we don’t know what life would have done to us without a child. The arrival of our son strained us, but it hasn’t broken us. We have good weeks and bad weeks, days when we can be patient and kind and forgiving and days when we can barely look at each other through our resentment and anger. It has been hard work to get to this point where we know that, although the way we express our commitment to our family is different, we are both motivated by love.

Our marriage has changed—I don’t know if I would call it a rift, but there is a separation there, a distance between who we used to be, how we used to be together, and how we are now.

Zsofia McMullin is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Butter, and several other publications. She blogs at zsofiwrites.com and she is on Twitter as @zsofimcmullin.


The Bird Family

The Bird Family

WO Bird Family ArtBy Liz Blocker

In the thick heat of a June afternoon I walked out my front door and down the stairs and nearly stepped on a dead baby bird.

I saw it just in time, and stopped, my foot hovering over the tiny, flattened thing. The sun baked my neck and shoulders; sweat dripped from my scalp onto my forehead. Careful, slow, I withdrew my foot back to the bottom step. I wanted nothing more than to escape into the cool air-conditioning of my car. But still, there was this thing, this dead thing.

The baby bird was small, barely the size of my palm, and half-naked. That was my second thought: why is it naked? Its pink skin was patchy: in some places downy with new feathers, in others, bare and bald and shiny, like the scar from a terrible burn. I wanted to cover it up, dress it, shroud it in feathers. But feathers would have meant it was ready to fledge, and then it wouldn’t have been there at all. It lay on its stomach on the sidewalk, neck weirdly twisted, wings stretched out across the ground as if, at the moment it fell from the nest, instinct took over and it made a first, impossible attempt to fly.

I should move it, I thought; I can’t just leave it here. But no, I’m skipping ahead. That was my third thought.

First there was the rush of nausea and the burn of bile in my throat, and then I thought, the universe has one sick fucking sense of humor.


My wife and I had been watching the robins for months. First, in early April, there were just the two adult birds. They were nearly identical, with glossy grey backs and warm orange breasts. The female was slightly smaller, and slightly duller than the male – or at least, that’s what we guessed, standing at our bedroom window the day they first arrived, watching our guests busy themselves on our front porch. The world was still cold and gray, and the arrival of two robins, family-bent, seemed like the first true sign of spring.

“Which one is the female?” I asked, craning my neck to look over my wife’s shoulder.

“They look the same. Maybe the smaller one?” she answered after a moment.

“Maybe they’re both male,” I said.

“Gay robins, hon?” Jen turned her head back to look at me, smiling, teasing.

“Maybe not,” I laughed, and slid my arms around her waist. “Maybe she’ll get pregnant the same time we do,” I whispered. I couldn’t help but feel a little envious of the robins: they, at least, didn’t have to find a donor and make ovulation charts and, eventually, enlist the help of doctors to start a family. With a sigh, I laid my hand over my wife’s flat belly.

She leaned back into me, warm and soft against my chest. “Maybe they will,” she whispered.

“So – we let them stay?” I phrased it as a question, even though it wasn’t, really.

In the silence that followed, we considered the birds, framed against the backdrop of a clear spring sky. Our front porch was small and already crowded; seated on the two wide chairs, we’d be less than a few feet away from the new family.

“We can’t sit out there with them,” Jen said. Again, it wasn’t a question.

“No. They might attack us,” I said, drawing on something I thought I had seen or read, sometime, somewhere.


I nodded. “Birds can be very protective of their young,” I said, and my wife accepted my guess as fact. I was the resident animal nerd, the only member of the household who considered watching an episode of National Geographic the perfect way to unwind.

The problem was that we loved that porch. When the weather was mild enough, we ate breakfast and dinner there in relative solitude, relaxing as the sun rose or set over the city, and watching below us as our neighbors walked with strollers or dogs into the large, quiet park behind our house. In Boston, the months of warm weather were brief and altogether precious. We rarely missed a chance to sit outside.

I looked at the robins on the porch; they were busy. One – the male? – brought long strands of thread, straw, and grass, while the other bobbed and pecked and wove everything into a surprisingly solid little bowl.

“We’ll eat inside,” my wife said, and I agreed. We both knew there was no way we’d kick them out now.


If I leave it, there will be flies. I stood above the little corpse, long past my first and second and fifth and tenth thoughts. The seconds ticked by, measured in drops of sweat. I had to move the dead nestling; I couldn’t move it; it had to be moved.

I’d tried to do something, three or four thoughts ago. I’d stepped with care onto the sidewalk next to it, found a stick – there was no chance I could touch it with my bare hands – and bent down to prod it. Where to, I didn’t know. My plan hadn’t progressed beyond the stick. But as my face drew closer I could see the wrinkles on its snapped neck, the dull yellow glaze of its eyes. I reared up and dropped the stick, and stood still again.

Who could I ask? Our dead-end street was quiet and still in the suffocating heat of the afternoon. No dog-walkers or babies to be seen. The only person nearby was my wife, and she was out of the question.

My wife, I thought. Shit.


Late April, and the robins were well-established on our porch. We knew there must be eggs, because Birdy – the female robin, whom Jen named in a burst of creativity – spent all day and night sitting on the nest. Mr. Bird – the male, whom I named in an equally creative burst – took over for small amounts of time, most likely when his mate was off finding dinner for herself, but he was always nearby. (It wasn’t until later that I realized we had effectively named our pair of robins the Birds, which made the female’s name Birdy Bird, poor creature. I tried to rectify this, but it was too late. The names, as they have a habit of doing, stuck.)

Weeks passed. We checked the nest obsessively, emailing and texting each other updates:

“Birdy isn’t on the nest! How long can she leave the eggs? I hope they’re OK.”

“Mr. Bird just took over. Birdy is hungry.”

“Nothing yet. I’ll keep watching.”

We knew we were too involved, but we were helpless to stop ourselves. We watched the robins as if they were our own personal Downton Abbey: desperate for updates, obsessed with the plot twists, hanging on every hint and gesture for a sign of life. It was thus far much more productive and successful than our own year-long attempts at nest-building.

One morning in early May, on my way out to my car, I saw a speck of blue on the ground. I was running late, but the color was so bright that I stooped down for a closer look. It was an egg: tiny, speckled blue, and shattered. The shards were bright against the dull pavement; the yellow yolk was brighter. The colors were beautiful and vibrant, so different from the brown and pale green of early spring. In a twist of irony, those broken pieces seemed more alive than anything else on the street.

Later that evening, we found two more eggs, scattered in pieces along the concrete. The nest was empty, the robins gone. We stood at our window, staring out at the porch as the sky dimmed towards night.

After a long time, Jen asked, “Do you think they’ll try again?”

I shook my head, and closed my eyes, and turned away.

It was no more than a few weeks later that I glanced out the bedroom window and saw Birdy standing on the nest. She fluffed her feathers, shuffled her feet, and settled down on three round blue eggs with a little shimmy of satisfaction.

I pumped my fist in the air, and I swear Birdy winked her round black eye back at me. “Us too, Birdy,” I whispered, and grinned.

The Birds were back, and everyone was pregnant.


I stood on the sidewalk, sweating in the June heat, thinking. There was no reason for Jen to come outside. Not now, not today, not while she was still recovering. But tomorrow – or the day after –

Flies were gathering around the dead bird already. Crawling on its pink skin, sucking liquid out of its eyes, laying eggs. There would be maggots soon. Without thinking, I clapped my hands at the insects. They rose in a wave above the body, then resettled, slowly, like leaves floating down to the earth.

I couldn’t bear the thought of Jen seeing this; I knew I had to move it myself, now. If I couldn’t protect her from loss, at least I could protect her from this.

I shivered in the heat. The thought was clarifying, cleansing. It removed the paralysis and freed my body to act.

There are so many things that could have happened in that moment, so many ways I could act. There is the action that I took, for example, and then there are all the actions I could have taken, that I wish I had taken – a wish so fierce that as time passed it became palpable, visceral, like a memory itself.

This is what I wish had happened:

With slow, methodical movements, I walked to my car. Found a plastic bag. Walked back and picked up the stick. Didn’t think about the Bird family, the broken eggs, the weeks and months of patience and hope. Laid the bag on the ground, open, like a hand. Used the stick to push. Closed my eyes when the flies rose in a protesting cloud. Ignored the scrape of skin against the concrete, the dark patch staining the ground. Didn’t flinch when the wing got stuck on the bag, had to be jostled, then shoved, then tossed in a flopping movement of skin and bone and flies. Held my breath. Tossed the stick into the bag. Tied it. Didn’t think about Jen, or the Fallopian tube she no longer had, or the living bulge inside the tube. Didn’t consider that just yesterday a doctor had gathered up a different body, also tiny, also now dead, also the result of weeks and months of patience and hope, and disposed of it. Didn’t think, didn’t breathe, didn’t look around, walked to the trash and opened the lid and dumped the bag and ignored the flies that slipped inside and put the lid back over the hot dark hollow of the bin and let out a breath and walked away.


Wishing for something doesn’t make it so, of course. Why must some lessons be learned over and over again, before we remember them? I don’t know what happened to the tiny dead bird, the lost child of our robin family. I don’t know, because I wasn’t the one who laid it to rest.

This is what really happened, regardless of what I wish was true:

I shivered in the heat. The thought of Jen seeing the body was clarifying, cleansing. It removed the paralysis and freed my body to act.

I looked at the corpse, already dotted with flies. I looked up at the sky, hazy and blue, and felt the sun wash my face with heat. And then in spite of that clarifying thought, in spite of everything, I walked to my car, and drove away.

When I came back hours later, the body was thick with flies. They rose in a protesting cloud as I passed, then resettled, slowly, like leaves floating down to the earth. By the time I’d opened the front door and disappeared into the cool dark inside, they were feeding again, but I didn’t look around to watch them. I turned away, and left them behind.

They were still there the next morning, and barely moved when I walked past them and got into my car. I shouldn’t know this, because I turned my face away when I walked past, but I remember that there was no movement in the periphery of my vision; the flies knew I wasn’t going to bother them.

Later that morning, Jen went for a walk, slow and careful, with a friend. The baby bird was there when she left, darkening the sidewalk with its cloud of flies. It was still there when she returned from her walk, but when I came home hours later, the body was gone.

We wondered who had moved it. Maybe it was a dog-walker, rescuing the corpse from the jaws of her pet; or maybe it was our neighbors, cleaning up the sidewalk for their upcoming open house. Whoever it was, I like to imagine that they were gentle and careful; that they disturbed it as little as possible as they scooped up the tiny body and threw it away.

All I know for certain is that by the time I got home that evening, the only thing left on the sidewalk was a small, dark stain; and even that disappeared in the next cooling wash of rain.


And this, too, really happened, two or three days later:

Outside, the air blazed with heat. Inside, I stood in the air-conditioned break room at work, staring at the long list of texts on my phone. Picture after picture came flying in from Jen: Birdy and another, much smaller bird standing on the porch; Mr. Bird perched on a telephone wire, watching, a worm dangling from his beak; Birdy and Mr. Bird and two little fluffy feathered babies hopping down the sidewalk towards the park.

The pictures scrolled by quickly, too quickly to believe. I went back to look at them, again and again, but they didn’t change. It had cost them multiple losses and patient effort, and taken three months – an eternity in bird years – but the Bird family had fledged at last.

And one day, I thought, ours would, too.

Author’s Note: Fourteen months to the day from when this story took place, my wife gave birth to our own nestlings. A sweet, calm boy and a feisty little girl sleep peacefully behind me as I write this note. Soon, they’ll wake, and with wide open mouths will call to their parents, demanding and insistent as only the very young can be. I can’t imagine any better ending to this story.

Liz Blocker lives in Boston with her wife and newborn twins. Her essays have been published in The Toast, Role/Reboot, and in the forthcoming issue of The Dallas Review.

Milk Machine: One Donor Mom’s Journey

Milk Machine: One Donor Mom’s Journey

By Krystal A. Sital


We meet at the side of the road, in parking lots, and on rare occasions, in our homes. Our clandestine encounters are often laced with surreptitious glances thrown over our shoulders but end in tearful embraces, an alliance, an understanding, a mutual love so deep, we carry it forevermore.

The first time I donate my breast milk to another mother, my husband and I organize and label five hundred four-ounce bottles into three coolers, a total of 2,000 ounces that could feed a newborn anywhere from two to three months. As we stack the bottles like bricks and I register the pleasant click-click-click of the frozen bottles being wedged together, my two-year-old asks, “What’re you doing? What’re you doing with Mommy’s booby milk?” My six-month-old rolls around on the floor as we try to explain that we’re giving away her sister’s food. “But that’s for Emi,” she says, “that’s for my baby sister.” How perceptive to know the milk is for her sibling. But this time around, breastfeeding, albeit with obstacles, has been successful thus far.

After my first daughter, Amelia, had spent three weeks in the NICU, I realized how precious this liquid gold was. For some babies, it could be the difference between life and death. For Amelia, who was delivered two months early, it probably was. I had an oversupply of breast milk; only a very small percentage of women do. Unable to directly breastfeed Amelia due to a host of complications, I became a slave to the pump, allowing it to suck everything out of me at the times I would normally feed my daughter. By the end of our year long journey together, I’d racked up thousands of bottles of breast milk and I could proclaim she was one hundred percent breastfed—not in the traditional sense—but the nutrients worked their miracle nonetheless.

The second time around was no easier than the first and so I locked myself away in a room with Emelina to make breastfeeding work. Just the thought of that mint blue Ameda pump had me ready to puke. While I vowed never to pump again, I physically needed to and that blue brick stayed anchored in my house for the better part of a year. I only pumped twice a day yet filled bottles at a time, stacking more than a thousand in my freezer within six months. Though we had a rocky start and I was perpetually frightened that it would all fall apart at any moment, we were, again, running out of space. The freezer drawer now creaked when opened. There was no denying it needed to go. This is where Willow came in.

I find Willow after searching on a few sites tailored to mothers looking for breast milk for their babies. I’m surprised by how many sites there are and how many women are desperate to acquire only a few bottles. When I post I’m willing to give away a large amount, I’m plied with questions—Where are you located? How do you handle your milk? What is your diet like? When can you meet? There was no decision making on my part, I just went down the list and responded to other mothers in the order in which they sent me emails. Their stories were heartbreaking and I wanted to give milk to all of them, I even thought of parceling it out but in the end I thought it best used as sustenance for one child at a time. Many things didn’t pan out for the first few responses—location, diet, allergies—but eventually Willow and I got the timing right and we connected via phone.

“So,” says Willow, “about how much do you get in one pumping session? And can you remind me how many ounces you’ll be willing to donate?”

This is a question I’m both proud and timid about answering. “I pump about 10 to 15 ounces per session twice a day. And I have 2,000 ounces to give to you.”

She is completely silent save for an almost inaudible, “Wow.” I want to say something, I’m about to say something but I hear her crying. Willow shares her story with me. When she was a teenager, she underwent a procedure that rendered her body unable to ever produce human milk among other things.

“Krystal,” says Willow, “I will pay you how I can. I can give you bottles and bags, pay for the pump rental, just let me know.”

“Willow, I’m giving this to you and your baby. I already have everything I need. Please don’t think you have to pay me in any way.”

Willow breathes into the mouthpiece, “This is a tremendous gift.”

*   *   *

“Charge her,” people tell me, “you will make so much.”

Why should I? I wonder. If we didn’t use the milk and no one took it, I’d have to pour it down the drain. I look at Amelia, at how much she has grown in two years. From that frail, three-and-a-half-pound baby with skin hanging off her bones to this vibrant two-year-old with sass and brains. If I could help another mother in any way I could, I wanted to. I was done hoarding my stash. Now, when I sit down to pump, I feel a surge of excitement strike through me and I count the ounces I accumulate knowing I can give yet one more to another baby in need.

We meet Willow and her two children at the back of a restaurant. She is parked right next to the dumpster. Being my first exchange, I approach her with trepidation. I’d even brought my husband with me just in case. We’d been caught in traffic and Willow had been stuck waiting for me in the cold for half an hour. The brisk winter air forces me to stuff my hands in my pockets. She has a girl and a boy their ages not much different from our children. When Willow emerges from the car, she embraces me with such tenderness and love I know I will think of that moment for years to come. She caresses Amelia’s cheek and blows our sleeping Emelina a kiss.

In the midst of hoisting the coolers from our trunk to hers, Amelia starts bawling and at first we’re confused but I’m able to discern, “Mommy, that’s my mommy’s milk. Give it back, that’s my mommy’s milk.” I try to muffle what she’s saying by pressing her against my shoulder but for a two-year-old, her enunciation is near perfect.

“Sugar plum plum, Mommy is giving her milk to another baby, to help another baby. Don’t worry,” I say, “your baby sister has enough milk. Mommy has enough booby milk for Emi.” The tears subside but the upside down U is prominent on her little mouth, her bottom lip quivering away.

Willow attends to her own crying children. I wave to them and blow them kisses, the two of them as precious to her as mine are to me. As Willow and I hold one another in an extended embrace she whispers into my hair, “I don’t know how to thank you.” To which I reply, “You already have. You’ve shown me where my milk is going. Thank you for the opportunity to meet your family.”

*   *   *

These exchanges were usually short. But, I’ll never forget these women—their tears, their words, their beautiful families. I gather their stories along the way just as they gather mine along with other donor mothers. We share the most intimate parts of ourselves with strangers and in the end only the most beautiful thing blossoms from it.

On our way home that first day, Amelia chants in the car, “Mommy give milk to another baby. Mommy give milk to another baby,” and each time she says it, she wants to be acknowledged. She repeats that for days, weeks, and months to come, my very own cheerleader reminding us all.

Krystal A. Sital is a PEN Award finalist whose work has been published in Salon, Akashic Books, The Caribbean Writer and various other literary journals. She lives in the suburbs of New Jersey with her husband, two children, two dogs, and quite the assortment of writing jobs. Follow her on twitter: @krystal_a_sital.

Photo: gettyimages

Cyber Kidnapped

Cyber Kidnapped

WO Cyber Kidnap ARTBy Becki Melchione

“Someone is using photos of your babies and claiming that they’re hers. I thought that you should know,” the comment on my blog stated, “she did the same thing to me.” I clicked on the embedded link to Facebook and someone named Melany Lucia.  Right there, on my screen, were my daughters whisked away, “Ready for a trip to Rhode Island,” according to her caption.  Sitting at the table in our Baltimore apartment, I stared at my photo of my daughters on her timeline. Who would do such a thing? Who was this woman? Why would she steal a photo of someone else’s children and post them as her own?

I had kept a blog of my twins’ first months for all of our long-distance friends and family to see.  I thought I was being careful, not including full names or location information.  From this way of sharing our first moments with our newborns, Melany had stolen four photographs of Olivia and Madison. The images themselves were no different than what any other parent of twins would take, two swaddled babes sleeping, two bright faces side by side smiling, two sitting in their double stroller.

As a new and exhausted mom, I was just getting used to the amount of attention twins attract.  To say people notice twins is an understatement.  Grandma-types smile and coo, teenage girls squeal “how cute,” and middle-aged fathers flash a knowing smile, almost every time I leave my home with my sky-eyed babies.  Maybe because twins are unusual.  Maybe because people desire the type of bond they have, one that begins months before their entrance into the world and lasts a lifetime. Or maybe because stories still abound about twins speaking in their own language and having a telepathic connection to each other.

I’m not sure what the attraction is. At first, I thought that the curiosity and adoration that Olivia and Maddy inspire was harmless fun.  But there have been incidents that put me on guard.  Some people run up, camera stuck out like a weapon and take a shot.  The first time it happened was at a big bash that our apartment building throws at the beginning of summer.  A young guy appeared out of nowhere, snapped a couple of photos, and took off before we could even react.  “What was that?” I turned to my husband Luc.

“Probably just someone taking publicity pics,” he responded. That the photographer hadn’t asked permission was odd, but I shrugged it off at the time.  It’s not like he tried to touch them.

A few weeks later, at an art festival downtown, a complete stranger who looked to be a little drunk or high, walked up to me, Luc, and our daughters in their our double stroller.

“Can I hold one?” she slurred.

“What?” Luc blurted, like he hadn’t heard correctly.

“Can I hold…”

Once he processed what she was asking, Luc responded with an emphatic, “No.”

“Why not?  You got two.  You can watch me the whole time,” she reached out to grab Maddy’s hand.

“NO,” Luc repeated louder, moving to stand between the stroller and the woman.

“I’ll sit right on the curb there,” she persisted.

“How many times do I have to say ‘NO’?” he said loud enough for passersby to turn and look.

We walked away quickly, not looking back.  “You know, you have to be very careful with the girls.  Don’t let them out of your sight for a second. Someone might want to steal them,” Luc  worried, anxious about the intentions of strangers.  Over-dramatic as usual, I thought.  He hadn’t seen as many of the smiles, winks and good wishes that the girls inspired in complete strangers as I had.

Then someone cyber-stole our girls.

Melany had posted, between risqué selfies of a pretty woman in black bras and tight white tank tops, curled blonde hair and caked on make-up, photos of a three or four year old girl, my twins, and a couple of disturbing images of a newborn with a breathing tube and what seemed like too many wires attached to her.  I raced through reading the first screen. Relationship status: Single. Lives in New Bedford, MA. No employment information.  Born on January 1, 1990. Who the hell would post this?  Who would believe that she had the time with four children under four?  Not a real mother, not like this.  She must be crazy.

A noise from the twins’ bedroom ripped my attention from the computer screen.  If I didn’t get Olivia before her moans turned to cries, she’d wake Maddy too.  I shut my laptop, tiptoed into their room, and saw my Olivia’s wide eyes through the crib rails.  I scooped her up and held her a bit too close.

The minute both Olivia and Maddy were safe in their cribs for the night, I returned to the demented world of Melany Lucia.  She claimed all four children were hers, that the last was born premature and remained in the hospital.  Between visits to the hospital, she said that she was taking day trips to the beach and going out dancing.

One entry turned my anger into fury. “Ella is dead. I don’t know what to do,” she wrote under another photo of my daughters.  My body grew hot, my hands shaking, my chest constricting.  I clicked the picture to see the responses, six likes and a couple of comments, all by men of various ages and races.  “So sorry for your loss,” some idiot in a baseball cap wrote. “Luc, come see this! Someone stole Olivia and Maddy’s photos and is posting them as her own kids. And look, she killed Maddy!”  He read the page, made a quick judgment,  “She’s obviously disturbed, but it’s just a picture. Don’t worry about it,” and walked away.

But I couldn’t let it go.  At that moment, all I needed to do for the safety of my daughters was to get to the bottom of this, of who she was and what her intentions were.  I combed through all of her posts.  Her account was less than a year old.  All of her friends were men.  She posted about being single, going out, having trouble paying her rent, taking “her” kids to the doctor and hospital what seemed like way too often.  “PM me” she’d written a few times to men who commented on her posts about needing money. That’s it! She must be trying to get money out of them, I figured, somewhat relieved that her intentions weren’t worse.

Stories of kidnapping, sexual and physical abuse milled about the foggy anger in my head. They didn’t come into focus though, because for me, those thoughts were impossible to even consider. One thought beaconed in my mind: I didn’t want my daughters’ photos there.  Who knew where it might lead? Into the hands and mind of a pedophile?

Facebook recommends reporting any offensive images as well as contacting the poster directly.  I reported the images, but none of the four options —  It’s annoying or not interesting; I’m in this photo and I don’t like it; I don’t think it should be on Facebook; It’s spam — accurately described my problem. There wasn’t a button for “Someone stole these photos of my child” or even “Someone is posting my photos as their own” and no place for notes to explain why a picture of a couple of babies was offensive.  Furious at the woman, at Facebook and at the whole internet for making this too easy, I messaged her: “REMOVE THE PHOTOS OF MY DAUGHTERS IMMEDIATELY!”

Her response? She blocked me so I could no longer see her page.  Feeling helpless, I turned to my Moms of Multiples’ (MOMs) Facebook group and asked for advice.  One mom suggested shaming her in the comments; another mom suggested having as many people as possible flag the children’s images. So I declared war, enlisting troops, over thirty moms from my MOMS group, to report the photos of my daughters.  It was really all I could do when she stole my family and my only recourse was waiting for Facebook to do something about it.  If not for the real life Olivia and Madison needing me, I would have spent countless late night hours tracing her digital trail, planning my revenge.

After two days of changing my passwords and increasing my privacy settings on every social media account I had, in between feedings and diaper changes and play time, Facebook notified me that it removed the photos I reported.  After posting this update and asking for confirmation, my army of moms reported that Facebook also deleted all of the other photos of cyber-stolen children from the grip of this woman. Although the whole episode took place over a few days, the powerlessness of the situation permeated every second of every one of those sixty-six hours.

With the rescue of my daughters’ photos confirmed, I didn’t feel the relief I expected.  In its place was an awareness of a vulnerability that I’m still unable to fully comprehend and a glimpse into the level of vigilance that I will need to keep my children safe.  Social media has made it easier for my in-laws in California to see my daughters’ first day of school and friends from London to Buenos Aires to hear their singing, but its downside is exposure to the unknown. I like to think that I’m building the foundation of a loving and trusting mother-child relationship that will help protect them from the harm others may want to cause them. But in cyber-space, I am out of my league.  There, I already failed when photos meant for loved ones were hijacked and I unwittingly aided in my daughters’ cyber-kidnapping.

Last time I checked with my husband’s login, Melany Lucia’s Facebook account no longer existed.  Maybe whoever Melany was simply created a new account with a different name.  She might still be using my daughters’ photos.

Author’s note: When this happened, almost two years ago, no one I spoke with had even heard of baby role play, or cyber-kidnapping, as I called it. Now I’m thankful that awareness is being raised as a result of a handful of stories that have cast light on this dark part of the Internet.

Becki Melchione is a writer living in the Philadelphia area with her husband and twin daughters. Although they’re only toddlers, Becki’s mom instinct tells her that neither will be allowed a Facebook, Instagram or any other social media account until they’re in college.



Notes to My Self of Ten Years Ago, When I Was a New, New Mom

Notes to My Self of Ten Years Ago, When I Was a New, New Mom


You are doing okay. You are doing great.

You are not actually losing your mind. Okay, you are, but you will get it back. For the most part.

He will sleep, I promise. He will one day be an amazing sleeper. (His yet-to-be-born sister is another story. Worry about that later.)

It doesn’t matter if he watches a second episode. Really. Close your eyes for a little while. You’ll both be better for it.

When you first begin to wonder if you are depressed? You are. Ask for help, accept it, as much as you can. You will be okay.

Staying home will be good for you both. Returning to work, when you do, will be good for you both.

Your first day back, you will go to a conference and forget everyone’s name. It doesn’t matter.

Those women in your moms’ group will still be in your life ten years from now.

The remarkable young women you hire to care for him will love him like no one else. You’ll get to watch them grow up, too, and go on to have families of their own.

When you briefly meet a single mom in the coffee shop who tells you, with a teary smile and newborn strapped to her chest, that she’s trying to do it all on her own, you will write down the moms’ group info for her. Ask for her phone number. You will worry and wonder about her, years from now.

You will find moments to relish, like when he falls asleep in the car and you have nothing to do, in these low-tech days, but sit and wait. And rest. And breathe. You will relive these moments on a far-off, bittersweet evening when he falls asleep in the car after a long day and you have to ask his dad to carry him because he’s grown so heavy you simply can’t any longer.

That favorite pacifier you can’t find when he really needs it? You will come across it a long time from now, when you reach into the pocket of your heavy brown sweater. He will have long forgotten it by then—but you will savor the slight weight of it in your hand for an extra moment before you tuck it in a drawer.

He will fall out of love with fire trucks but continue to love dogs. One day—not yet—your little family will be ready to get a dog of your own that he will love and you will remember these days, how he scans the park for dogs and squeals softly and pants at them.

Your instinct to surround him with the kids who make him laugh and delight in himself—that is a good one. The time will come when you can no longer choose his playmates; you’ll want him to look to the friends who are kind and funny.

Watching him become a sibling will make you see and understand and love your own siblings in a new way. Watching him torture his sister, well… He will love her and he will be cruel to her, except when they are banding together against you. But she is the one who will make him laugh most even though he will never admit it.

The thing that terrifies you most, the fear that you could lose him, will almost come to pass years from now. It will come close. But after the surgery, the hours in the ICU when you watch him sleep, when he gets better, when he comes home, you will be a better parent than you have ever been because you will really know that you cannot control these things. You will become a freer parent. A freer person.

In the future, there will be nights when you will sneak a kiss on a sweaty, sleeping forehead because he won’t otherwise allow it and you will watch him sleep (remember—he will sleep) and you will know: I did okay.


Photo credit: Megan Dempsey

Dadima’s Basement

Dadima’s Basement

By Mary Anne Williams

WI 15 Dadima's Basement ArtAt thirty weeks pregnant, my daughter’s rhythm against my drumtight belly is strong enough to wake me now. Usually, I drift back to sleep. Tonight, however, I hear the heavy footsteps of my Indian mother-in-law above me; I am in the basement of her home in Portland, Oregon. My sons call her Dadima.

I hear water boiling and can picture how Dadima slits cardamom pods with her fingernail, crushes cloves, and adds the spices to Red Rose teabags before pouring in the steaming water. She will sit in her home office, drinking her late-night cup of tea, working until her eyes begin to close.

Dadima has worked like this her whole life—she used to wake at 4:00 a.m. to make tea for her father before starting her homework. Her work ethic led her from Mumbai to New York. But it was grief that drove her even further West; after she was widowed she left the East Coast, where she had obtained three graduate degrees. She moved to Portland and started her life over.

Her home in Portland is a place of new beginnings. At nineteen, my husband and I fell in love here, in the romance of a sudden snowstorm. I had been intoxicated with the unnamed spices I smelled in his hair, his exotic middle name, my understanding of his culture.

Five years later, there was another beginning in this basement. It was the first place I stayed after my eldest son was born. Tonight it looks the same as it did then: there’s the pale blue patterned arm chair where I learned to nurse. Moonlight spills through the window the way it did the first night back from the hospital.

Inside me, my daughter nudges again. I want her to know the story of those first few weeks with my first baby, Jesse, her oldest brother. She is the only one of my children who may give birth to a child someday. And if she chooses this glorious burden, she too will have to swim amidst the judgment and support of other women, the expectations of her cultures.

Someday, when I tell my daughter the story, I will reassure her. Even though the tension from my difficult labor and postpartum period nearly tore Dadima and me apart, the darkest times can be overcome. If they try, people can heal and learn to understand each other. I will tell my daughter about a recent time when Dadima stayed with us, in our home in California:

Dadima and I were sitting in the playroom rocking chairs, side by side. The room was encircled by windows, and that evening the sun was setting, leaving pink wisps of cloud in a purple sky. My second son, Boman, was screaming while my husband put him to bed.

“Why does he scream like that?” Dadima asked me. “What’s wrong?” For a moment, I felt the familiar tension in my neck—I remembered how she used to ask me so many questions after Jesse was born, questions I couldn’t begin to answer. But I have more confidence now, so I took a breath and told her the truth: there is always something else Boman wants before bed—more milk, another book, one more chance to pee—and when it is denied and bedtime is final, he screams. At last, he collapses, snuggles up to the offender and his long-lashed eyes flutter closed.

I expected a lecture about how we should stop Boman from screaming, but instead Dadima just laughed. “KK was just like that!” she said, speaking of her youngest brother. “There was always some drama. He was always screaming about something. And just imagine in India—the neighbors would come to the door, giving advice. Not that anything they said made one diddle of a difference!”

I started laughing, too; I could picture the scene so well.

I love the sound of our laughter together.

*   *   *

When my husband and I found out we were expecting our first baby, I couldn’t have pictured how Dadima’s neighbors would line up to give advice about a wayward child. I didn’t understand Indian culture or even American culture and did not follow the typical approach of either culture to a new baby’s birth. According to the oldest relative in my husband’s family, an Indian daughter traditionally returns to her mother’s home for the final weeks of pregnancy and the postpartum period. Her mother gives her all of the guidance necessary in the early weeks of the baby’s life.

Meanwhile, in my experience of American culture, the woman is isolated in her own home. She receives short visits from friends and family, and occasional meal deliveries. No one wants to disrupt her bonding time with her baby, or give too much advice. It’s assumed—sometimes falsely—that she wants space. I was guilty of this assumption. When a close friend had a baby before I did, I didn’t call for weeks after the initial congratulations, worried I would disrupt her. Later, she told me the isolation made her depressed.

My husband and I were both graduate students that summer our eldest was due. Although we were settled in California during the school year, we chose to return to Portland, Oregon, our hometown, for Jesse’s arrival. We hoped to be surrounded by old friends and family who would care for us. My own parents had moved from Portland several years before, so we stayed with Dadima. No grandmother was more thrilled to have her first grandchild under her own roof. She even offered to host my parents after the baby was born, so all the grandparents could enjoy their first grandchild together.

In the first several years my husband and I had dated, I tried to impress Dadima. During the summer, I returned to Portland and worked in her massive garden. Surrounding her house on all sides, Dadima’s garden is magical: filled with berries for neighborhood children, unique flowers, vegetables and rose bushes planted in memory of her husband. During those same early years in our relationship, Dadima remodeled her basement, perhaps as a way of gaining a roommate after her son left home. She created a small apartment there, complete with its own bathroom, kitchenette, and an enormous window that filled the dark basement with sunlight. That summer, I spackled walls by Dadima’s side, squished paint-filled sponges into the cement floor and rolled light gold paint on the walls of the new bedroom.

Despite my attempts to please her, I didn’t feel Dadima fully approved of me. It was subtle, mostly in the form of rumors. I heard she thought my clothes were too tight, that I lacked the ambition of her family. Still, Dadima was friendly to my face, even telling me I should live in the basement apartment during the following summer. When trying to decide about this offer, I opened the curtain of the basement window. Dadima had planted pansies that climbed down the window-well. It felt like you were living in a hill of purple flowers. I stayed—not just that first summer, but several more. She refused to take any payment from me. The basement became my home within her home. It was the space I wanted for Jesse’s arrival.

I assumed we would stay in the basement apartment throughout my pregnancy and postpartum period. But Dadima had another plan. “In India, we don’t let pregnant women go up and down the stairs,” she said. “I want to give you my own room.” Dadima had a sunny bedroom on the main floor, next to a bathroom, but the bathroom would be shared with anyone else who stayed in the home, including her and my parents that summer. I assured Dadima that I could use the railing when climbing and descending the stairs and that I would be much more comfortable in the basement apartment with my own bathroom, but it seemed she had an unwritten list of reasons we shouldn’t stay there. “There are spiders down there,” she said. “What if a spider bites the baby?”

I was puzzled at her sudden resistance—I had stayed in the basement many times in the five years prior. I couldn’t understand why it was no longer acceptable. Once, when I was first dating my husband, one of his friends had given me a piece of advice about Dadima: “Choose your battles, but remember if she pushes you and you don’t agree, push back harder,” he said. “She just wants to see how much you really want it.” So I pushed back—I wanted that basement apartment. Dadima promised me everything I asked for. When we drove up to Oregon I was confident in my success.

*   *   *

Dadima’s late husband Robi was orphaned when he was sixteen. When Dadima and Robi married they were isolated in upstate New York. After my husband was born, Dadima spent long hours working on her dissertation while Robi watched the baby—there were no trusted elders around to help them. Because Dadima had no experience with in-laws herself, she was guided by the powerful hand of culture to determine the appropriate approach to a new grandchild and a foreign daughter-in-law.

I still don’t know how long it took Dadima to prepare for our arrival that summer—countless hours in the garden, gathering strawberries to make jam, pruning so every flower blossomed to its full potential. When we arrived, we entered her house through the front door. A jasmine vine climbed around it and whenever anyone passed through the doorway, Dadima would breathe in and say, “Oh, it smells like heaven!”

Inside the house, the smell of jasmine was overpowered by the scent of cooked food—Dadima must have been cooking for hours before we arrived. Cinnamon and cardamom-flavored rice, dal, greens cooked with ginger and garlic, and coconut flavored curry with tomatoes from the garden. The pale wood floors shone, the dishes were all washed, drying on thin towels on the reddish-pink granite counters. I felt a warm glow of love and appreciation for this woman who had done so much for us. But when I walked by her room, I saw the sign on Dadima’s bedroom door. Written with her beautiful cursive hand- writing, the sign welcomed my husband, the baby and me to her bedroom.

My heart started pounding. I slipped into the kitchen again and opened the door that led to the basement. I held onto the railing, trembling as I descended. My fear was confirmed: the basement apartment was filled with boxes.

*   *   *

My mother likes to tell a story about me as a two-year-old. In her brief absence from the kitchen I opened the fridge, climbed to the top shelf, and brought down the pale plastic pitcher of juice all by myself. But when I tried to pour it into my cup, the juice rushed to the lid, popped it off, and spilled all over the floor. I’m sure my mother scolded me, but she was also clearly delighted with my independent spirit—something valued in American culture.

Perhaps because of my parents’ respectfulness toward my desires, I was shocked when Dadima ignored my specific requests, favoring her own beliefs about my needs instead. At first, we moved into her room as she had clearly wanted. But my cheeks flamed every time she burst into the room to try to feed me more berries from her garden or another piece of toast. I felt like a child again, my “right” to make my own decisions stolen on the eve of my entrance into adulthood.

Perhaps my lack of control during that period was my introduction to motherhood. My midwife tried to warn me about my controlling tendencies. “You can’t prepare for labor,” she said. “You have to live in the moment.” She told me to stop making lists. But even she was upset when she realized I was not staying where I’d wanted to nest. “I just hope your hormones can overcome that,” she said.

Dadima’s eyes were shiny when my husband told her I wanted to stay in the basement instead of her room. “I was just trying to do the best thing for you,” Dadima said, addressing me and not him. “You can stay wherever you’d like in my home.”

I cleared out the boxes in the basement, scrubbed the shower and arranged the baby clothes on a shelf by myself—Dadima was teaching classes that week. But I was relieved to nest alone. When she was there, Dadima hovered over me when I walked down the stairs, and clucked her tongue in disapproval when I hung laundry to dry on the line.

*   *   *

I didn’t understand Dadima’s behavior during my first pregnancy until I was pregnant with my daughter, five years later. The revelation came when I was drinking tea with an Indian friend in her living room. The sun glared down at us through her West-facing windows while Jesse, Boman and her son played together on the tan carpet. She served my tea spiced with black pepper and my daughter kicked, perhaps tasting the flavor in her own way. Somehow my friend and I began talking about our sons’ births and it all came out—the silent battle with Dadima over where we should stay in her home. My friend burst out laughing when I told her. “Of course she didn’t want you going up and down the stairs,” she said. “In India, we don’t move at all that last month. My cousin was shocked that you were swimming in your state, but I told her that is just how you do it here.”

In the end, my daughter came out easily—all of that swimming, living in my own home, and giving birth two previous times helped my third labor proceed smoothly.

But the summer I stayed at Dadima’s house, when I was in labor with Jesse, I learned the horrible truth that so many mothers face: babies don’t always come out when they should. Instead of the homebirth I’d envisioned for Jesse, we ended up at the hospital, my husband slumped in sleep in the chair next to me. Pitocin dripped into my arm, augmenting my labor. When I cried out my husband jumped to help me. But the pain swallowed me before I could feel the comfort of his hand on my back.

Thirty-seven hours after my water broke, the doctor pulled Jesse from my body, unwrapping the cord from around his neck during the final pushes. She placed him on my chest as I requested. There are pictures of that moment, but I have no memory of it. I can only remember the emptiness—my once-hard stomach suddenly soft, the absence of Jesse’s little body inside, the deeper shock of labor that left me too tired for joy.

My first memory is seeing my husband and Jesse gazing at each other—by this time Jesse was already swaddled and quiet. Suddenly, Dadima strode in, looking younger than her sixty years, her hair jet black, skin glowing. I later learned she had sat in the waiting room all night.

I tried to protest her entrance—the doctor was still stitching between my legs.

“No one is looking at you,” Dadima said, reaching for her grandson.

At the hospital, I was the annoying patient, the one who called in the nurse at 2:00 a.m. because of a mild rash on Jesse’s chin. The nurse assured me it was nothing to worry about. I heard her chatting with another nurse outside my door afterward. “New mom,” she said. The other nurse laughed.

I couldn’t sleep that night, despite the nurse’s reassurance. Instead, I listened to Jesse breathe. He made a sound like the cooing of a dove. He never made that sound again. The second night in the hospital, he screamed. I was ready for sleep, but too terrified to let him out of my sight. When we arrived at Dadima’s house the next day, I finally fell asleep in the coolness and comfort of her familiar basement, my fingers touching the edge of Jesse’s thin cotton blanket as though the slightest connection would protect us.

When I woke, it was dark. Moonlight spilled through the window. The rest of the room was veiled in shadow. I looked into the co-sleeper next to me. My two-day-old baby was lying in a pool of black blood. I didn’t even know I could make a sound like that. It was more than a scream. The room was flooded in light—my parents and Dadima flew into the room. Dadima forced a pinch of salt under my tongue. I heard Jesse crying and suddenly I realized that what I had seen was no longer there; instead of blood in the co-sleeper, there were clean white sheets. Jesse was in my arms, crying. I was naked.

That’s when I thought I was going crazy. And deep down, I blamed Dadima.

Now I look back and wonder if the hallucination was a way of warning me that Jesse was in distress. He nursed a little bit, then slept again. I stayed awake, listening to him breathe. In the gray light of morning, he was still sleeping. I couldn’t wake him, even when I squirted creamy-gold colostrum on his full, beautiful lips. When I checked, Jesse’s diaper was dry, and it had been 12 hours since it was wet. I called the doctor, hoping for assurances, even the condescending ones of the hospital nurses. Instead, I was told to bring him in right away. I later learned that because of the massive heat wave that was sweeping the city, dehydration had been a problem for many babies.

I was one of many, but when I came to the doctor, I felt alone in my failure. Jesse was losing weight—already at the lowest he should be before he started gaining it back. I suddenly saw how sunken his dark eyes were, the pale yellow tinge of his skin, the way it didn’t spring back when pinched. The doctor recommended formula and a lactation consultant’s guidance. After failing to experience a homebirth, I didn’t want to fail at breastfeeding, too. My husband drove me to a friend’s house, a lactation consultant. My friend held Jesse under an A/C window unit until he screamed. My throat felt full listening to him wail, but this time, when he latched on I felt the tingling sensation of milk rushing to his lips. Her diagnosis was that Jesse was too hot to stay awake. Dadima’s house had no air conditioning and every time I’d nursed him there, he slept within minutes of sucking and could not get enough milk or trigger my supply to increase.

When we came back to her home, Dadima sprang into action. She called hardware stores to buy a window air conditioning unit, but all were sold out. So she started calling friends, trying to find an air-conditioned home where we could stay when the temperature climbed above 100. At last, she secured a house that belonged to a Nepali friend of hers.

In the way of many thriving communities in India, friends, nieces and nephews were constantly in and out of the house. Although I craved time alone with Jesse, it was more important that we stay in a place that was cool enough for him to learn to nurse. I tried to set myself up in a quiet bedroom at the back of the house and was poised for nursing, about to stuff my nipple into Jesse’s small mouth, when Dadima burst through the door. She was dragging one of her friend’s 20- something male nephews behind her.

“Don’t worry!” she said to me, perhaps seeing the blood that rushed to my cheeks. “He sees the neighbor nursing all the time.” I tucked my breast back into my shirt. “Come closer!” she said to the young man. “Isn’t my grandson beautiful?”

By the end of the week, Dadima had secured an air conditioner that she bought from a neighbor for double the price. But even the relief of the cool air hissing from the window unit and Jesse’s resumed excitement for nursing couldn’t make me feel better. It felt like every time Dadima gave Jesse to me, he was crying. I waited for relief from Jesse’s constant demands for milk, for my husband’s summer job to end, and for the ceaseless advice and questions from Dadima to subside. Instead, each day felt darker. The only moments I felt like myself were during my daily walks with Jesse. He snored in his carrier and I rubbed his bare feet while we drifted among the leafy elm trees near Dadima’s house. Once, when he was almost six weeks old, Jesse looked up at the elms’ green leaves as they whispered to each other. He smiled. I thought I might be happy again someday.

Dadima confronted me shortly after. She called my name, but didn’t acknowledge when I entered the kitchen from the basement stairwell. Instead, she washed dishes for a while, fluorescent lights overhead casting their jarring light into the porcelain sink. Her elbows shook when she scrubbed. I knew her fingers were cracked from the dish soap—ever since my parents left a few weeks before, she had cooked all the food and washed almost all the dishes. Each time she finished a pot, she banged it into the dish rack.

I stood behind her for a moment, Jesse sleeping in my arms. At last, she turned to face me. Her eyes were dark. “We need to talk,” she said.

When I’d tried to confront her once, she’d asked me if I wanted tea in a high voice. This time, her voice was low.

“I would never have let her hold Jesse by herself,” Dadima said.

Earlier that day, I had come upstairs to find that the same neighbors who had sold us the air conditioning unit were crowded around Jesse. Under Dadima’s supervision, it looked like the neighbors’ two-year-old daughter was preparing to hold Jesse. I had erupted and snatched Jesse from Dadima’s arms.

“How could you think that of me?” Dadima said. “I would have let her pretend, but kept Jesse in my own arms.”

“How am I supposed to know that?” I snapped. I felt the blood rush to my cheeks. I began to jiggle Jesse gently—maternal instinct or rage.

“But how could you think that of me?” she said again.

I took a deep breath, trying to calm my voice. “You don’t do what you say!” I said. “Before we came to your house this summer, you told me we could stay in your basement.” I paced across the hardwood floor. “But you cleared out your room instead. Then you said you would give us time alone with the baby. We’ve had almost none. You even promised me your nephew wouldn’t be staying here this summer. Now he is living upstairs.” Mention of him reminded me to lower my voice. But my whisper sounded harsher. “You never asked me about any of that.”

“Why would I ask you?” she sounded genuinely surprised. “I didn’t want to trouble you. I just wanted to do the best thing for you.”

*   *   *

By the time my second son, Boman, was born, I had become a different person. I had made it through sleepless nights, illnesses, ER visits, nineteen months of nursing and another labor. I had gained confidence as a mother, and loved to see Dadima play with both of her grandsons. There was a part of me that accepted the period surrounding Jesse’s birth had been a clash of hormones and culture; the emotional American’s desire for space and freedom battling the more supportive, but occasionally suffocating love of Indian family.

Still, it was when Boman was eight months old and Dadima picked me up from a minor cyst removal surgery that I began to truly understand Dadima’s perspective. As always, it was Dadima who was there to support me through the transition; she insisted on being there throughout my surgery and recovery period. She asked how I felt when I got in the car. I admitted it was worse than I expected.

Back when I had tried to impress Dadima, I had dreamed that someday she would open up to me. She would tell me stories of her past—her childhood in India, her romance with Robi, her struggles as a single mother after he died when my husband was only four. But as the years ticked by, she was silent. If I asked her about these early years, it would appear she didn’t hear me. Suddenly, on this drive home from my surgery, Dadima began to talk.

She told me about the scar on my husband’s stomach, a long horizontal line that I have run my finger over countless times. Their pediatrician had claimed my husband had pyloric stenosis. In these cases, the pyloric sphincter doesn’t close properly, so the baby vomits up any consumed milk. Dadima didn’t remember those symptoms, but she remembered how stupid the doctors made them feel. When my husband was two weeks old, the doctors promised her there would be no scar and took him for surgery. In the end, the surgeons cut him open, leaving a scar so intimidating on an adult that I can’t even imagine how it looked on a two-week old baby. The trauma of leaving a newborn in NICU was not the end of their ordeal; Dadima and Robi didn’t have the money to pay for this surgery.

In that moment, I suddenly understood why Dadima seemed so unfamiliar with newborns, why she hovered over me, wrote us generous checks, came and stayed with us during these times of transition no matter what we said. Her own postpartum experiences had been even worse than mine—she must have blocked many of the memories. But she could remember her needs. She was trying to give me everything she did not have—a loving support network, financial help, and most of all, a wise elder woman who could coddle, cook, and teach during these challenging moments.

*   *   *

This time, when I am pregnant with my daughter, we arrive at Dadima’s home to visit. Jesse and Boman run into the garden, picking blueberries from the bushes, laughing with delight. As usual, Dadima has cleared out the basement, and washed every set of sheets in the house.

I hug her, feeling a rush of love for her extraordinary generosity, for never holding a grudge against me even when she has seen my worst side.

“Thank you,” I say. “Everything looks beautiful.” I don’t respond to her unspoken offer of her room. She knows I will choose the basement. My sons know, too. They come in from the gardens, and Jesse, now four, opens the door to the basement stairway.

Dadima tells my husband to carry the bags; she wants to make sure my hands are free so I can hold onto the rail.

“Watch out for the spiders!” she says from the top of the stairwell. I look up to Dadima, and even from the basement I can see the laughter in her eyes, and in the background is the faint hissing sound of water boiling for tea.

Author’s Note: When I found out this piece had been accepted, I sent it to Dadima to see if she felt comfortable. She was incredibly supportive, and it brought us even closer together. It helped us talk even more openly about the cultural issues we still have. As for my daughter, she is now a joyful, walking ten-month-old, and while I am enjoying her babyhood, I look forward to the day when I can share this story with her.

Mary Anne Williams is a recent graduate of Pacific University’s MFA in Writing program. She lives with her husband and three young children in the Bay Area and writes about intercultural relationships and family.

Art by Elizabeth Rosen


Our Birth Stories

Our Birth Stories

By Katy Rank Lev


Sharing our birth stories with our children.


“Will Mommy be the next person in our family to die?” my five-year-old asked my husband as I lay on the sofa, drugged up on Vicodin. My grandmother had died a few weeks earlier and we’d just brought our third son home from the hospital. The birth had frightened my husband and me—a crash cesarean, blue baby, initial Apgar score of 4.

We’d done pretty well preparing the older kids for labor, we thought. We explained the essentials of a baby’s arrival, told them I’d be making some sounds at home as my muscles squeezed and we’d drive off to the hospital, where I hoped to push the baby out of my vagina. Late in my pregnancy, this concept caused my sons to barge in on me in the bathroom and beg, “Let me see up in there,” thinking they could catch a glimpse of their new brother while I peed.

I told my boys there was another way babies entered the world. “Sometimes, if things seem unsafe, a doctor has to cut the baby out from Mommy’s belly,” I told them. “That’s what happened with you and your brother.”

There’s nothing like a new pregnancy to spur young children to ask about their own entry into the world, and since my boys each arrived after long labors with nurse-midwives and doulas, followed by heart decelerations and hurried Cesareans, I found these questions the hardest to answer.

Was I born the wrong way? Was I sick when I was born? Did I hurt you when I came out the slice in your stomach?

I’ve been wading through my own sadness, my own lasting fear at hearing my babies’ heart rates slow until the inevitable distress surgery. I hadn’t considered how it would feel to share these birth stories with my actual babies. I can’t seem to find a way to explain without upsetting them.

After my new baby was stable, my mother left me at the hospital to pick the big boys up from daycare. My oldest and most sensitive son immediately asked, “Did they have to cut the baby out?”

He sighed deeply upon hearing they had. “Oh. Just like us.”

Our older boys came to the hospital to visit, and they felt uneasy seeing me in bed, a tangle of tubes and wheezing compression cuffs. They wanted to hug me, but couldn’t figure out a way to get up close. They walked around to my least-encumbered arm for a squeeze and a smile. As the doctor came in to check on me, my oldest asked to see his scalpel.

My kids came to visit each day in the hospital, and each time a staff member entered the room, my son asked to see the scalpel that had delivered his brother to us. Eventually, one of the midwives sat down with him to explain that the blade from the scalpel is discarded after each operation, that the handle remains in the sterile operating room, and nobody can go to see it.

Not until his question about my dying did we really understand his fear and concern about his brother’s arrival, possibly his own, too. A birth affects everyone in the family, we realized. It’s his story, too.

We saved my placenta to plant under the hydrangeas in the back yard, and when our doula came to the house to visit, she spread it on the dining room table and explained every bit of it to my wide-eyed boys. She showed them the umbilical cord where the baby was attached to me on the inside. She showed them the sac where the baby lived. She showed them the placenta that nourished the baby while he grew. Finally, she showed them the incision that cut straight through the middle of the placenta, where the obstetrician worked so quickly to bring their youngest brother Earthside.

This hands-on experience seemed to bring some closure to everyone. We showed the boys my incision and told them how every day, my body felt a little healthier. We talked about how each of them is healthy now, and how their baby brother was just fine after he got a little extra oxygen.

I tell them it’s ok to feel afraid, because remembering it all makes me feel afraid, too. Not every baby slides into the world peacefully. Thankfully, our family has lots of arms and shoulders to hug when we feel sad about that. As I press their tiny bodies to mine, I feel their hearts pounding in their chests and each day, the stinging fear of their frenzied arrival echoes with less force.

Katy Rank Lev is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. Her three feral sons inspire her work covering parenting, women’s health, and family matters. 

Photo Credit: Jeni Benz Photography

Just Between Friends

Just Between Friends

By L. Bo Roth

justbetweenfriendsThe noisy school gymnasium held dozens of women in their underwear, kicking boxes around with their feet. “Welcome to the Endless Knot Warehouse Sale” read a sign over the door. In the dim light, it took me a minute to adjust. Lining the periphery of the room were rows of clothing racks—roughly organized by color—filled with long dresses in rayon and silk, big blowsy caftan tops, and flowing pants in bright prints.

The empty cardboard boxes in the center of the gym, I gathered, were used to push around the floor to collect all the discounted clothes you wanted to buy. People were in this for the volume, clearly. Prices were slashed, and deals were to be had all for the price of ridding yourself of a little vanity while you stripped in front of three dozen women you’d never met, shoving them aside for some face time in one of the mirrors.

I’d just left my dance class and was still sweaty, but this didn’t seem to deter anyone else—at least not the folks from my class who waved me in from across the room. “Come on, there’s great stuff here!” they yelled. It was a bit of a stretch to think of summer caftans with winter rain pelting down, but I gave it a go. I’d just lost 50 pounds and had very few summer clothes that fit. After a bit of digging, I had three shirts in my hand and was heading to the back when I heard a familiar voice.

“Laurieeee!” she yelled.

I looked. I stared. I had absolutely no idea who she was.

“Laurie. It’s me. Greta!

Oh. My. God. “Greta? Is it you? I…didn’t recognize you!”

And I didn’t. The woman standing there bore so little resemblance to my old friend that I stood there, stupified.

“Well, that’s because I’m so fat!” she said with her hearty and familiar chuckle. She spat the word and it cracked like a whip.

It stung.

Greta, whom I hadn’t laid eyes on in years, was almost twice her previous size, which was never small to begin with. Greta, who’d made my kids dozens of macaroni and cheese “cocktails,” who’d giggled with me through endless Weight Watchers meetings, and snuck me out early so we could power-walk the lake, this same Greta was now zaftig. She looked like a completely different person.

I was at a loss for words, which is saying something. If we were still close, I might joke, “Hey baby, you’ve taken another step towards Goddess-hood!” But what I really would have said in the old days was more along the lines of, “You? How about me? I’m over the top!

Except that I wasn’t. And I didn’t know her that well anymore. She was huge and I wasn’t. Not anymore.

I spoke carefully. “That’s not it,” I said, with what I hoped sounded like surprise. “It’s your hair. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you with long hair.” True fact. She always had what her husband once lamely called “butch hair” (boy, that was a memorable dinner party) and now it was shoulder length and straight. She looked incredibly tired and kind of washed out.

“But look at you!” she shouted, smiling. “You’re so skinny! Tell me. How’d you do it?”

I had met Greta ten years ago, back when we joined a playgroup for moms of toddlers. These were also, as it happened, the Weight Watchers years for both of us, when she was the one who lost 50 pounds (and I, instead, got pregnant). Days when she invited me over for fabulous lunches of soup and grilled eggplant sandwiches with goat cheese. (“And only four points! Do I rock or what?”) while our kids chased each other around the backyard. Years of last minute dinner-parties, always at her house, always with plenty of wine and where our gang of toddlers were easily lured to the upstairs playroom with endless refills of fish crackers and juice. She was the Martha Stewart of our tribe: crafty, helpful, a wizard with handmade gifts and fabulous baked goods at a time when some of us—okay, me—struggled to put out generic cheddar and saltines for playgroup.

Once I came to her house the night before Halloween, frantic beyond measure—me, anxious, gulping tea—while she calmly sewed my daughter a costume. She decorated sugar cubes for my baby shower with petal-pink flowers of liquid candy. She made chocolate-covered strawberries for playgroup, and often greeted me at the door with a pan of hot homemade scones when I was having a bad mom day.

When my second-born died from complications of heart surgery, the whole world sent me nice condolence cards and offered to help, but Greta showed up on my porch with a wooden box she’d painted red and decorated with gold stars and charms of baby booties and angels. “For memories,” she said. “It’s a memory box to put things in.” She brought scones, then, too.

People said they wanted to help, but it was Greta who came over with food, or walked me around the lake, who took care of things when grief overwhelmed me. And when I finally, after several miscarriages, got pregnant again and was about to give birth, she came along as labor nanny, playing card games in the birthing room with my eldest daughter, and then took what seemed like hundreds of hideous crotch shots as my son’s giant head came out, went back in and out and in again in an endless drama of childbirth hokey pokey. At 3:30 a.m., she picked up my sleeping daughter and held her up like a rag doll. “Your brother is about to be born! Watch, watch!”

I’d say we were close.

But seven years later, that baby boy is eight and I hardly know Greta anymore. I have this jumble of things I still know about her. Things that I don’t really know what to do with. Things that hang in the air when we meet like this, unexpectedly. That her husband drinks too much. That her daughter is mean. That her mother is meaner and finally died a few years ago. That she remodeled their house into a palace I’ve never seen. That she loves red wine and heavy dark beer, that she can cook anything without a recipe, and can throw a dinner party at a moment’s notice, with food it would take me a week and three cookbooks to plan.

Remembering the good times comes easily, like the summer day she made ginger carrot soup and we slurped it up on the wide concrete stairs of her front porch. When we laughed till we cried when her daughter cut her own hair with dull scissors, making her look like a tiny Edward Scissorhands. And Greta, frantic on that stoop when that same toddler decided to dump scouring powder in the VCR and put broken glass in her sister’s bed, all in the same afternoon. (Like I said, that girl was a challenging one.)

For the years we were in playgroup together, I hugged her children, and wiped their snotty noses without a second thought. I held her hand when her husband was cruel, I told her she looked beautiful in red because it was true, and praised her cooking like it was manna from heaven. We traded clothes and made each other laugh with snarky jokes only mothers of toddlers could appreciate, and she made me believe I was entirely fun. I offered pep talks and silly laughter over late afternoon beers if that was called for. And I told her, whenever you need me, just call.

But she stopped calling. I can’t pinpoint the exact day and time Greta began to pull away, but pull away she did.

Maybe it’s human nature to deny the truth, or maybe I was just determined to keep my friend, but it’s tricky to read the signs what with chasing toddlers, or running to the store for more of those orange fish crackers our children survived on. Each time she put me off, I told myself she was just busier than usual, or that maybe her phone machine was on the blink, since mine had recently gasped its last. On the other hand, on the hand I refused to look at, I’d lost most of friends after my baby’s death—my grief was too much for them, or maybe their fear was too much, they admitted six months (or two years) later—but Greta was one of the loyal holdouts; she stepped up when so many others dealt with it by avoiding me altogether.

I loved her. I couldn’t imagine losing her.

But still, she turned away. I invited her to my son’s first birthday party—a simple afternoon on a picnic blanket under the lilacs—but despite my pleading, she begged off. Not long after, she agreed to take a walk with me, when I asked point blank, what was going on. “Can you tell me what’s wrong? Did I do or say something?” She looked away and avoided my eyes. “I’m fine,” she said, picking up the pace. “We’re fine. I just don’t like to talk about all that emotional stuff like you do, okay? Can we just leave it?”

And so for a while, I left it. I let her set the rules and tried to follow them, sweating it out to stay fun because, after all, Greta was one of the few who knew where I’d been and the road I’d traveled. She knew what was hard, and she knew why. Even if she wouldn’t talk about it.

So I stopped calling so often. First I’d let a week or two go by. Then a month. I stopped by her house once to give back a dish, and she stood there at the door, lovely as ever, but never invited me in. (Back in the day, I’d let myself in and flop on the couch.) I could smell stew cooking on the stove, bread baking in the oven, and the smell was heavenly, and I told her so. She dismissed it with a wave of her hand as ‘just dinner,’ but we both knew company was coming and I was no longer on the guest list.

The second time this happened I decided stopping by wasn’t such a good idea, and moved on to emails, each one shorter and sweeter, each one ending with an invitation. “Lunch sometime?”

I’d say. “A quick walk around the lake? I’d love to see you.”

In some ways, losing a friend is harder than bearing a death, because when someone you love dies, they’re not down the street cooking dinner for someone else, or shopping in your local supermarket, or laughing with their new friends as they walk the lake, just like you used to do.

Somehow, years went by. It seems inconceivable, now, that I could move on without this friend whom I’d leaned on through the hardest days of motherhood, whom I’d laughed with, changed diapers with, traded horror stories with, cried with. I moved on because I had to, because I had no choice.

She just wasn’t that into me. And she wouldn’t tell me why.

Eventually, I fell into a pattern of checking in with Greta about once a year just for old times’ sake. I’d write and tell her I missed her, because it was true. I’d tell her something funny, tell her I thought I saw her car at the co-op the other day, does it still have that dent in the back left fender? And how are you these days?

And yet here she was, years later, in the flesh at the mobbed mumu sale, miles from home even though we only live a few blocks from each other, asking me—with a big friendly smile—how I’d managed to lose weight. Her face was smiling, open, receptive, like she really wanted to know. As though all that time hadn’t passed at all.

The irony was not lost on me. Yes, we’d spent years sharing the most difficult challenges of mothering, but then we spent more years where she never once picked up the phone. And here she was, out of the blue, wanting my secret to weight loss success. Waiting for my answer.

“Um….Atkins?” I stammered. “You know, very low carb. Lots of broccoli. No sugar and no alcohol, can you believe it?” (Wine had, after all, been our secret sauce for surviving toddlers.)

We gamely updated each other on our kids and their stats, but it felt perfunctory. The hole of those years felt too big, like it could swallow me in one gulp. Because in all those years, as the rhythm of a life filled with her laughter and Martha Stewart moments faded, I’d been forced to find my own rhythm. I had learned to live without those dinner parties and giggly afternoons; I had to find new people and discover what I really wanted to do with what little free time exists for mothers of small needy children.

For whatever reason, I was no longer worthy of Greta’s free time. And while it took me far too long to accept it, I realized, standing there with my old friend I hardly recognized, that despite all these years of missing her big heart and her laughter, maybe she was no longer worthy of mine.

We stood there chatting, me feeling a little awkward about my weight loss success, she with a couple of caftans in hand, while bright tropical shirts flew over our heads and frantic women kicked their boxes and said, “Do you mind?” to get us out of the way.

And we ran out of things to say.

We looked at our watches, and I realized I felt trapped standing there with my three little shirts. Greta had a full box at her feet, more shopping to do, and I suddenly needed to go outside in the pounding rain just to breathe. I asked her to call me sometime, as I always do. We both knew she wouldn’t.

Reading this now, it’s tempting to drum up patchwork answers. Some- thing that would give reason or neatly explain how someone who stood by you through the best and worst days of motherhood could walk away with barely a word. But now I’ve got another way of looking at it.

Maybe motherhood and friendship is like a big, 2,000-word jigsaw puzzle. There’s a picture there, a beautiful one, and together you work on it, piece by piece, bending over the table, celebrating each time you find a match, a piece that deliciously clicks into place, the big picture growing more clear. But in our case, maybe Greta and I got to the end of that beautiful picture and a key piece was missing. There’s nothing much to do then, but take a photo before you crumble it up and put it away. And be glad for the time spent, the memories of muddling through, happy for the pieces you shared.

Author’s Note:  I wrote this piece eight years ago, but, thanks to Facebook, I found out Greta was divorcing her husband, selling her lovely house, and moving across the country. One night before she left, I took a deep breath, grabbed my husband and knocked on her door to say goodbye. She greeted us with a huge surprised smile, poured us a glass of wine, and caught us up on the last ten years—at least the high points. We didn’t bring up what happened but we did laugh a lot. It felt a bit like old times. And despite everything, it was pretty great.

L. Bo Roth is a Seattle writer, editorial consultant, and pitch coach. This is her second piece for Brain, Child.

Art: Oliver Weiss

When Breastfeeding Was Gross

When Breastfeeding Was Gross

By Rachel Pieh Jones


Whatever the reason, I thought breastfeeding was disgusting.


When I gave birth the first time I was barely twenty-two years old and my braces had been removed just a few months earlier. My husband and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment in a downtown, low-income high rise with primarily east African neighbors. I didn’t know how to change a diaper and wasn’t sure I liked babies all that much but here came twins, ready or not, one boy and one girl.

They terrified me.

After they were born, I knew I was strong. I had given birth both vaginally and by c-section inside of a single hour, an experience I now call a vagi-section and one I don’t recommend. But I doubted I was strong enough for this: two tiny, perfect, utterly dependent human beings, now my responsibility.

Did I mention that they terrified me? They cried. They peed. They slept (sometimes and not at the same times). They needed me in ways I had never been needed before. They even needed my actual body and attached quite voraciously to my breasts.

I thought this was gross.

It might have been the sheer overwhelming nature of twins at such a young age. It might have been that I had never enjoyed baby-sitting, that few of my friends had babies yet, that my body and life had undergone this unplanned and radical transition in the first fourteen months of marriage. It might have been simply that I was young and immature.

Whatever the reason, I thought breastfeeding was disgusting.

These had previously been for visual effect, tactile pleasure. They were not faucets and they were not functional. But suddenly they were and they were out of my control. Spraying like fire hoses, swelling like elephantitis, releasing with the unexpectedness of a volcano. They leaked, sprayed, cracked, swelled, dribbled, bled, bloated, got infected, burned, itched. They left me with soggy bras and stained t-shirts. They puffed up so much they barely fit into those bras and t-shirts and I cried while trying to button a blouse for church.

Now, as I look back and remember those sleepless nights and sleepless days, I can’t believe we tried to go to church at all. That I tried to wear clothes at all. I’m amazed that I didn’t creep around the apartment in a bathrobe or buck-naked and shun all adult contact. I’m shocked that I thought I could make this twin thing work and make it look easy.

I had assumed being a mother was something I was physically designed to be and surely this would make it an activity I could easily master. I had ovaries, a uterus, breasts. This body was made to, among other things, reproduce. So why was keeping two little people alive and happy so hellishly difficult?

Now, that logic looks ridiculous. Most women do have ovaries, a uterus, and breasts. And yet, many women have a hellishly difficult time getting pregnant, going through childbirth, breastfeeding. It isn’t supposed to be easy and it isn’t supposed to be something I can control, kind of like spurting milk. Bringing people into the world is hard and when it happens, I can only call it a miracle. It stands to reason that keeping people in the world would be equally hard, keeping them happy and healthy infinitely harder. All of it always and forever a miracle.

My third child was born five years later, a singleton and a v-bac (vaginal birth after cesaerean) or, to use my word, a v-bavs (vaginal birth after vagi-section). She was born in Djibouti and after her birth, my husband rolled me in a wheelchair to our room. We were two parents with a little more experience on our side than the first time around, and one baby. One baby! I started to nurse her and she latched on and then there was nothing else to do. No other baby to hold. My husband started playing cards. I stared at this baby. She knew exactly what to do and over the next few days as my milk came in, I grew more and more stunned by the beauty of it, by my body producing what her body needed. It made me dizzy and humble.

Now I was older, now I had done this once-gross thing before. Now I was in awe. Breastfeeding was no longer disgusting. Not easy, mess-free, or pain-free this time either, but miraculous. Like everything from conception to delivery to survival outside the womb, like fertility treatments, like adoption paperwork and bringing the kids home, like the wild endeavor of raising human beings. All of it always and forever miraculous.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

Birth Control’s Invisible Mommy Majority

Birth Control’s Invisible Mommy Majority

gty_birth_Control_pills_thg_120306_wmainI went to the doctor—a new doctor, actually, since we’d changed insurance and had to switch physicians. As checkups go, it was a bit uncomfortable. Unlike my old practice, where they take action only if, say, you drop a body part in the waiting room, this new gal was on her game.

First, she busted me on my three-glass-a-night Chardonnay habit. Then she followed up with a series of passive-aggressive questions about my general health. (Sample: “As your physician, I’m happy with your body mass index. How do you feel about your weight?”) Then we got to the female stuff. She flipped through the pages of the file sent over by my old doctor. Two births, two miscarriages, a few stubborn ovarian cysts, and a fifteen-year merry-go-round of vaginal infections. A thrilling read, I’m sure.

I still had just the one sexual partner? Her pen paused over the file. Uh, yeah, that would be my lawfully wedded husband of about two million years. And were we still sexually active? Yes, I said, resisting the urge to add, define “active.” And we were still using—she double-checked the file—the diaphragm? She smiled up at me so brightly I felt sure she was about to burst out laughing.

Yes. Okay. I’m forty-four years old and I still use a diaphragm. Feel free to lean over with that Sharpie and draw a big L for Loser right on my forehead.

What do you think of when you imagine diaphragm sex? Hot, spontaneous quickies in the middle of the day on top of the new HE washer? Parking the kids at Grammy’s and booking a dirty weekend away, the kind where you don’t even care what city you’re in because you’re not planning on ever leaving the hotel room?

It’s entirely possible to do those things using the diaphragm as your method of birth control. Possible, but not probable. No, the venerable diaphragm, that cheery latex dome with its alarmingly over-springy coil, its demure petal-pink clamshell housing, its absurd beige “flesh” color (I defy even the most militant feminists among us to tell me the color of the inside of their vaginas. It’s dark in there, people!) … no, the diaphragm conjures up visions of exhausted missionary-style coupling in the dark on a random Wednesday night with one ear cocked anxiously for the patter of little feet. That’s diaphragm sex. Or that’s its reputation, anyway.

*   *   *

Lying awake after just such a marital encounter (one of us had allergies acting up, the other was freaking about work and couldn’t relax), I started wondering about mothers and birth control. Was it my fault I was still using the same method I picked out when I walked into the Planned Parenthood clinic in Ithaca, New York, at the dawn of the ’80s? Or has there been a kind of eerie silence about the whole topic, a distinct lack of progress, a pall over the land even?

We’re a capitalist/consumerist society, I don’t deny it. So why isn’t Big Pharma kissing my butt? I’m a marketer’s dream: like many other mothers, I’m an educated purchaser with a steady income, the primary decision-maker for my household of four plus one domestic animal. I have sex regularly, I need reliable birth control that doesn’t trash my health—come at me, baby, show me the goods!

Companies are constantly trying to hawk mothers new personal care stuff they’ve invented or invested in: ten different kinds of diapers, a dozen varieties of toothpaste, countless new ways to tame the menstrual flow, stop various body odors, soften scales, whiten, brighten, and exfoliate. Pharmaceuticals have developed new medicines to treat depression, head off migraines, settle the stomach, soothe us to sleep and keep us there for the night, and, yes, help our men-folk get it up and keep it there.

Yet in twenty-odd years just once has somebody managed to pitch me better birth control—the beloved Sponge—only to rudely yank it off the market while I was distracted birthing my first baby. (It’s back, by the way, as of last fall, but too late to stem my crankiness.)

Is it the products—is there simply nothing new to offer, no better way to stop egg from meeting sperm? Is it me—am I somehow missing the marketing message? (Entirely possible: I’m a cynical consumer, a miserable shopper and a mule about what I do choose to buy.)

Or is it mothers—are we considered some kind of invisible, or perhaps untouchable, market? As women with children, mothers bring a unique perspective to bear on the topic of family planning. On the one hand, having seen that life comes out of us, we might feel less insistent than before that we be able to artificially start and stop the fertility process at will. On the other, knowing better than anyone how hard it is to birth, nurse, nurture, and raise a human being, we’re arguably the most motivated users of birth control.

Could it be that our saintly halo of motherhood obscures the fact that we’d like to be able do the nasty without repeating the baby part every time? This last bit would be particularly ironic, considering birth control was made legal—in this country anyway—thanks to tireless efforts of Margaret Sanger, who championed its use specifically as a way to help the mental, physical and emotional well-being of “sick, harassed, broken mothers.”

But once birth control broke out of its marriage bonds during the swinging ’60s and women’s-libbed ’70s, maybe mothers’ concerns got left on the dusty pharmaceutical shelf. Is birth control, like, say, fashion, now considered the province solely of the young, nubile, and childless? Drifting off at last to sleep, I thought it might be worthwhile to dig through the detritus of our consumer-centric culture to figure out what part, if any, moms play these days in family planning.

*   *   *

When asked about how women find out about and choose new methods of birth control, doctors, nurse practitioners, reproductive rights advocates and even pharmaceutical marketers tend piously to intone, “That’s a decision best made between a woman and her doctor.” Oh yes. The very phrase conjures up comforting visions of serious, quiet consultation between a mom and her health-care pro on just what the perfect contraception is for that precise moment in her reproductive life.

I have two problems with this scenario. First, women’s health care providers can be and often are influenced by the bombardment of literature, free samples, and logo-encrusted office tchotchkes (Post-It notes, light-up ballpoint pens and so on) promoting whichever birth control method the pharmaceuticals are currently?pushing, all of which?reduces significantly your?chances of having a frank discussion about older, lower-profile?(or maybe that should be “lower profit margin”) methods.

Second, I’m sure somewhere in this land there are new mothers who don’t arrive for that first four-or six-week post-partum office visit exhausted, lactating, overwhelmed, fighting depression, jiggling a possibly colicky infant in one arm while trying to keep a jealousy-enraged sibling from committing infanticide in the office. Those women, I’m sure, get the fully informed story on their myriad birth control options.

For the rest of us—and I speak here as someone who wept through her entire post-partum checkup, pre-occupied as I was with slow-to-heal stitches of a number so staggering it can’t be shared in polite society—that office visit might not be the most opportune moment to make decisions that are literally life-altering.

If you’re one of those moms who missed out on the full rundown, here, cribbed directly from vast, deep and authoritative resources of the Planned Parenthood web site, are your choices for birth control as of summer 2006: the Pill, the Ring (NuvaRing), the Patch (OrthoEvra), implants (Implanon), the Shot (Depo-Provera), POPs (Progestin-only birth control pills, sometimes called the mini-Pill), the hormone-releasing IUD (Mirena), the non-hormonal IUD (ParaGard), the diaphragm, the Cap (FemCap), the Shield (Lea’s Shield), the male

condom, the female condom, the Sponge, spermicides, fertility-awareness methods, male sterilization, female sterilization, emergency contraception (Plan B), continuous abstinence, continuous breast-feeding (Lactational Amenorrhea Method), outercourse, withdrawal.

That’s a lotta choices, there’s no argument there. What’s notable for mothers?

Well, first of all, hormones are still all the rage. Joining the venerable oral contraceptive (the Pill), which is by far and away the leading method of reversible birth control in the United States, are the Patch, which you change once a week, the Ring, which you change once a month, the Implant, which lasts for up to three years, and Mirena, a hormone-releasing IUD that can be kept in place for as long as five years—all new ways of delivering hormones into your system.

Are hormonal forms of birth control safe for mothers? Study after study after study says yes (as the editors of the activist women’s health tome Our Bodies, Ourselves point out, the birth control pill is the most intensely researched medication in history). But there is a “but.” New mothers who return to the Pill, or another combined-hormone method using estrogen, soon after giving birth will interrupt lactation, points out Leon Speroff, M.D. at Oregon Health & Sciences University in Portland, Oregon.

And estrogen, present in the Pill, the Patch, the Ring, the Implant, and the Depo-Provera shot crosses into a baby’s body via breast milk. Health activists like Judy Norsigian, co-author of Our Bodies, Ourselves, caution that we don’t yet know enough about what kind of changes it may or may not cause to the baby.

For those reasons—cessation in breast milk and an uncertainty over the long-term effects of estrogen on infants—breastfeeding mothers are generally counseled to choose estrogen-free birth control methods, says Susan Wysocki, president and CEO of the National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health, based in Washington, D.C.

The second bit of news: The IUD is back from the dead. Increasingly, what those new moms are being advised to try, says Wysocki, is intrauterine contraception—either Mirena, which contains progestin or the hormone-free copper ParaGard.

For anyone—like me—who came of birth-control consciousness in the 1970s or 1980s, the idea of any IUD being sold in the United States is anathema. Because IUDs ran the risk of perforating the uterus or causing severe pelvic infection, they used to be offered to women who had already had one child, on the (offensive) premise that, should her fertility be permanently impaired, at least the injured mom had managed to pop one kid out.

Worse, it turned out that one brand of IUD, the Dalkon Shield, was liable to wick bacteria up into the uterus, causing thousands of women to suffer severe pelvic infections. Twenty women died, the manufacturer declared bankruptcy, and all IUDs were pulled out of the American market.

Flash forward thirty years and it’s a whole different ballgame. New, improved, and, according to both manufacturers and a wide range of health professionals, safe IUDs are back on the market and once again being aggressively marketed to moms. Consider this warm-and-fuzzy language from the makers of Mirena:

You have enough to do with a family and full life. You don’t have time to think about birth control … You don’t want to waste any of the little precious time you have for intimacy. Especially if it’s spent fumbling with condoms or dealing with diaphragms to pre- vent pregnancy. Mirena long term birth control lets you be spontaneous. For up to five years, you can enjoy birth control freedom and intimate moments whenever the mood strikes (and the kids are in bed).

Notwithstanding that nasty side-swipe at the diaphragm, the reasons for marketing IUDs to moms are backed this time around by some sounder medical reasoning. IUDs should be used by women who are at low risk for sexually transmitted infections—that is, women who have just one sexual partner, like, you know, most moms. IUDs are usually easier to insert in women who have had babies already; they’re best for women who want long-term but still reversible contraception; and, owing to the upfront costs associated with insertion, which must be done in a health professional’s office, they make most sense economically for women who’ll keep them in two-and-a-half years or more, according to Wysocki. Who fits those categories best? Mothers.

But the biggest news since I last hit a Planned Parenthood outlet: Emergency contraception is now available. When I was in my early twenties and just starting to play the please-God-don’t-let-me-be-pregnant game, there was only before and after when it came to birth control. If you messed up on the before part—either by not using any contraception or having your method fail on you—you had a baby, had an abortion, or dodged the bullet (that time, at least).

Now women have a third, in-between option: emergency contraception. If you’ve been too busy these past few years looking for binkies under the crib to follow the headlines, you could easily have missed the news that the emergency contraception pill Plan B, the progestin-only pill taken within a hundred twenty hours (five days) of unprotected intercourse, is now legally available in all fifty states. (You can also use certain combinations of regular birth control pills as emergency contraception or have an IUD inserted within five days of unprotected sex.)

In the press and in its own marketing materials, Plan B seems aimed squarely at the twenty-something market, at young Sex-in-the-City-types who had one too many Mojitos and woke up with a problem on their hands.

But I wonder why it isn’t promoted more to mothers. A woman with an infant, a toddler, and a kindergartner on her hands is just as likely to mess up her Pill prescription as a single working girl who has at least nights and weekends to take care of her bodily needs.

And consider these two facts: According to the National Center for Health Statistics’ National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), in 2002, twenty-one percent of women fifteen to forty-four years of age reported their most recent birth was “mis-timed”—meaning, the baby was wanted, just not then. Twelve percent of that total were deemed by the women to be “seriously mistimed”—that is, occurring two or more years too soon. The study doesn’t specify, but at least some of those mistimed babies are likely be moms with birth control mess-ups on their hands.

And this, which we do know about mothers specifically: Sixty percent of women having abortions are already mothers, according to Lawrence Finer, director of domestic research at the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit reproductive-health research organization. Sixty percent! That figure alone certainly puts to rest the idea that emergency contraception is needed only by young and/or childfree women.

Even though its advocates argue than Plan B can go a long way toward preventing some abortions, the EC pill has had a long hard battle toward legitimacy. In some states, pharmacists who object to Plan B on moral grounds are being encouraged not to fill prescriptions. And politics inside the FDA have long delayed hearings that would pave the way for Plan B to be available over the counter (at press time, it looked like the hearings were finally going to go forward). Politics aside, for mothers, Plan B is news we can use.

*   *   *

Talk of politics and Plan B brings up an ugly realization many of us mothers might not have had the time in the past couple of years to properly contemplate: Whatever method we’re using, we had better really trust it, because our backup options are under serious attack.

Like a lot of other women, I try to stay up on the issues, but it’s hard to know where to channel your outrage and still have energy left over for the parts of your life you can control, like love and joy and the cleaning up of the kitchen at the end of the day.

So sure, I knew about South Dakota, which this spring passed a ban on nearly all abortions—including rape, including incest—in an effort to push the issue up to the Supreme Court. And I knew in a vague sort of way that pharmacists were being encouraged to refuse to fill Plan B prescriptions.

But I admit it, I was shocked when I started reading past the headlines and got caught up in a hurry on what’s been going on with women’s reproductive rights in this country. The New York Times Magazine‘s “Contra-Contraception” (May 7, 2006) by Russell Shorto details the truly shocking efforts by some religious and political groups on the far right to oppose contraception—any contraception, even within a marriage. Jack Hitt’s “Pro-Life Nation,” also in the Times Magazine (April 9, 2006), details life in El Salvador, where every single type of abortion is illegal, no exceptions, and women are thrown in jail for having back-alley abortions.

The Atlantic‘s June 2006 cover story by Jeffrey Rosen maps out what will happen in the U.S. if (and some on both sides of the issue now say “when”) Roe v. Wade is overturned. (Picture fifty states, each battling over its own definition of when life begins and what a woman’s say in that process should be.) Cynthia Gorney’s June 26, 2006 piece in The New Yorker digs into the hearts and minds of South Dakotans after the abortion ban was passed there and finds deep ambivalence.

Dana L’s wrenching personal essay in the June 4, 2006 Washington Post, “What Happens When There Is No Plan B?” chronicles how her inability to get hold of emergency contraception in time forced her into having an abortion. The excellent, ongoing coverage of the various chips and blows to birth control in Salon’s Broadsheet column online.

To be sure, not all mothers, not even all feminist mothers, support abortion. But a staggering majority of people support the right to use contraception: Ninety eight percent of all women who have had intercourse use some form of birth control at some point in their lives (according to the NSFG).

Clearly, a lot has happened while we’ve been off birthing our babies. But what will it take to turn the average already overwhelmed mom into a contraceptive activist?

Our Bodies Ourselves‘ Judy Norsigian is fairly blunt, and fairly pessimistic, in gauging the political involvement of regular Americans. “The problem here is an assumption that this is a right that won’t be taken away. Right now people don’t believe it could happen,” she says. “We’re going to see limited activist activity until access to abortion is pretty much taken away,” she predicts.

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, knows of at least one group of mothers who are taking notice. “We’ve been talking with women who were very active in the reproductive-choice movement, perhaps in college, before they had a family,” she reports. “Now they’re married, working, raising children who are in middle school or high school or grown and out of the house, and they’re saying, what happened to all that I worked for when I was so active so many years ago?”

Keenan says mothers have two good reasons to keep their head in the reproductive game. First, mothers need to be aware that the political emphasis on abstinence-only sex education and limited access to birth control for young people creates a miasma of misinformation that can put their teenagers at risk for STDs, AIDS, and unwanted pregnancy.

Second, she says, is simply this: “We need to stand up for the values of privacy and personal freedom, and there’s a responsibility that comes with those. We have an obligation to stand up for that freedom.”

For those who can’t, don’t want to or aren’t ready to trade Prego-strolling for placard-carrying, Keenan offers an easier path to activism—voting. Not just in presidential elections but in the upcoming mid-term elections, and in other state and local elections, where many reproductive battles are currently being waged and most certainly will, in a post-Roe world, be fought.

“Even women in predominantly pro-choice states like New York and California cannot assume they’ll forever be protected,” Keenan says. “You cannot assume that someone else will be protecting your reproductive choices.”

*   *   *

As the only female child of a Catholic father so opposed to birth control he wouldn’t let us fix the cat, I had to go elsewhere to find info on contraception when the time came. Where I went was Our Bodies, Ourselves, not the new colorized version, but the old newsprinty one with the young, cool-looking feminists with the long straight hair and the no bras, carrying signs telling the government to keep their laws of our bodies.

All these years later, I realize how much that book influenced both my personal decisions and my politics. The young me chose the diaphragm for some good reasons: thanks in part to Our Bodies, Ourselves‘ deep reservations about the Pill, back when estrogen doses were sky high and side effects were multiple, I wanted contraception that was as chem-free and low-impact as possible. (Special shout out here to all the moms who use natural family planning, a truly chem-free alternative that requires more math than this English major can handle).

The older me still wants those same things, which is why, in the end, I’ve stuck with my dorky diaphragm all these years. On a personal level, obviously it’s time for the devoted father of my children to step up to the plate and get the big V.

On a political level, things aren’t so clear cut. I started out wondering why mothers don’t have better birth control and wound up thankful we have any at all. I guess it’s time to re-engage, however reluctantly, in the same-old fight from three decades—keep yer laws off my bod. If you need me, you’ll find me on top of my HE washer, exercising my constitutional rights.

Author’s Note: Lying on the couch late one night, watching Sex in the City reruns on Lifetime, I nearly spit out my Chardonnay when Carrie announced to the other girls that her diaphragm was stuck. Wait, Carrie Bradshaw uses a diaphragm? Never mind that particular detail makes no sense, plot-wise, in the show. I say, welcome to the sisterhood.

Brain, Child (Fall 2006)

Daunted Yet Determined

Daunted Yet Determined

By Rachel Pieh Jones


Can climbing twenty-two flights of stairs lead to quick deliveries?


The day I gave birth to twins I walked down twenty-two flights of stairs. I was twenty-two years old. We lived on the twenty-second floor of an apartment building in downtown Minneapolis. The building had two elevators that were often broken and on July 26, 2000 both were broken. I was thirty-eight weeks pregnant and roughly the size of a beluga whale. Stretch marks crisscrossed my stomach in between faded temporary tattoos of stars and planets, and blue ink marks where my husband had drawn a map of the world, boundaries of continents loosely guided by the stretch marks.

If these babies didn’t come out soon my stomach might explode. My belly button had long ago spread flat and had been turned into an imaginary mid-Atlantic island on the map. I ate meals with my plate balanced on top of my belly. I wore a dress my mom sewed for me. I called it a dress because it had flowers but it was a tent with holes cut out for my head and arms.

The apartment was ready, as ready as it could be for one bedroom and four people. My husband and I turned the bedroom into the baby room—two cribs, a double stroller, a rocking chair. No room for a changing table. The dresser was in the closet. We placed our two bookshelves side by side in the living room to form a makeshift wall between the two-person table and our bed. We had a two-seater couch rescued from the garbage dump, a television, and a bicycle.

It would be cramped but it would be home. Kind of like my belly had been for the past nine months for these two little people.

I had a doctor’s appointment, to strip my membranes a second time, on the morning of July 26. The morning the elevators were broken. With my husband’s hand on my back and my belly looming before us like a hot air balloon, I teetered and tottered down those twenty-two flights of stairs.

The apartment building primarily housed east African refugees. Ethiopian, Eritrean, Somali. The stairwell reeked of fried onions, cumin, and sweet smoky incense. During the first months of my pregnancy, I would be crammed into the back of the elevator behind people going to work and these smells that I otherwise would have enjoyed, triggered violent morning sickness. I would lurch from the elevator toward the laundry room wastebasket to vomit before going to work. I don’t remember the smell from this particular day. All I remember thinking is, “I hope I don’t fall down. I hope I don’t give birth in the stairwell.”

I had exercised on snowy winter days on these stairs. I ran down them to the ninth floor to watch the Olympics with friends. My husband and I used to race on the way to work, one of us taking the elevator and one of us taking these stairs. Who would get to the parking garage first?

I walked up these stairs the day I thought we were loosing the baby, before I knew there were two babies. We went to the hospital, the baby/babies was/were fine. We came home, the elevator was broken. My husband half carried me up the stairs and I stopped on every other landing to rest on the stained gray tile floor, to breathe, and to try not to vomit.

I don’t know if it was the twenty-two flight descent that morning or the stripping of my membranes. I don’t know if it was simply the day the babies were ready to come or if it was the threat of being induced. All I know is that same afternoon back at home while my husband watched after-school cartoons, I started having contractions.

This time, we rode the fixed elevator down.

Five years later in Djibouti when my water broke with our third child but contractions failed to ramp up, the Somali midwife sent me home. It was September 11, 2005 and approximately 115 degrees with high humidity. My feet had bloated to the size of water-logged mangoes and I had gained more weight with this one girl than I had with the twins. I wanted this baby out. Out!

We lived on the upper floor of a duplex. The staircase was made of mismatched brown tiles and chipped cement and had an aluminum banister that was disconnected from the wall on one end and clattered each time I gripped it. I stood at the bottom of the staircase and looked up. How badly did I want this baby out? Sweat dripped down my back, sweat dripped down my front, streaming over my rounded belly like a waterfall. I took a lumbering step. I took another.

I climbed up and down those stairs twenty-two times, a practice I don’t recommend to anyone. I might have lost track of the number, it might have been twenty-seven times. I was twenty-seven years old and I like when numbers match.

And, I gave birth a few hours later after an intense labor experience that lasted exactly twenty-seven minutes.

Twenty-two? Twenty-seven? What I know for certain now is that climbing up and down staircases while nine months pregnant is incredibly difficult. I stood at the bottom, or top, of those staircases daunted yet determined. I also know now that daunted yet determined is ultimately the only way to enter this parenting gig. Grab that rickety banister, slip your arm around your partner, one step in front of the other. And start to climb.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

The Accidental Exclusive Breastfeeder

The Accidental Exclusive Breastfeeder


“Accidentally” becoming an exclusive breastfeeder.

Let me start by saying, I’m no lactivist. I think breastfeeding is great, if that’s what you’re into. I think formula is great, too. I’m pro-feeding-your-baby in whatever way works best for you and your family.

When I was pregnant with my son, I kept an open mind to my feeding options. I figured I’d give breastfeeding a try, but I wasn’t sure it would work for me. I have a thyroid issue and while it’s usually manageable, it can get in the way of milk production for some women. I always assumed my partner and I would do some kind of combo feeding. Breast milk when I was there and awake; formula when we wanted a night out. Plus, I knew I’d be returning to work when my kiddo was about eleven weeks old. It was hard to imagine that I’d be motivated to keep up with all that pumping.

What I didn’t realize when my partner and I were making our plans was that the baby would be demanding a vote.

I had a pretty rough delivery and when the pediatrician saw me looking like death warmed over at our one-week appointment, he took my partner aside to recommend I get some rest—some real rest.

“Give the baby a couple of bottles,” he said. “Take two six-hour naps.” And then, to drive it home: “The baby’s fine. I’m worried about you.”

Six hours of sleep seemed like an impossible dream, but on the chance of grabbing even three consecutive hours, my partner dutifully tried to give our son a bottle. He wasn’t having it.

Our son wouldn’t drink the next bottle either. Or the next one. Or the next one. He wouldn’t drink from any of the eight kinds of bottles we tried. Or the cup, or the spoon, or the syringe, or the supplemental nursing system my partner taped to his finger. He wouldn’t drink expressed breast milk or any of the varieties of formula we tried to give him. He wouldn’t drink them cold or warm. He wouldn’t take them from my partner, or me, or a babysitter. He would not drink them in a box. He would not drink them with a fox. You see where I’m going with this.

He was a good eater, a chubby baby, but he would take it straight from the tap and no other way. There went my brilliant plans for combo feeding.

As the weeks went on and my start date at work approached, I started to get nervous. My schedule meant that three days a week, I’d be leaving the house at eight a.m. and wouldn’t be getting back until close to seven in the evening. I’d be gone for nearly eleven hours, which was the equivalent of four good meals for my ten-week-old baby. They seem so fragile when they’re so small.

I called the lactation consultants in near-panic. They assured me that he would be fine. He wouldn’t starve to death while I was at work. “When he’s really hungry,” they said, “he’ll take the bottle.”

Only, he didn’t. I would come home from work at the end of my twelve-hour days to an angry, screaming, and really hungry baby. And then he’d eat all night long. Needless to say, it was not an ideal situation for either of us.

I kept pumping at work to keep my supply up. We continued leaving bottles of expressed milk for him, a few ounces each. The babysitter warmed them, the baby refused them, and down the drain they went. It started to feel like such an amazing waste that I began donating some of the milk I pumped.

I found several women through Human Milk for Human Babies whose babies had bad reactions to formula, and who didn’t pump enough milk to meet their babies needs. Reading their pleas for donor milk made my heart heavy. Their babies hadn’t gone along with their plans either.

When I finally weaned my son, he was about fourteen months old. He still wasn’t drinking from bottles or cups or anything else, despite our continued offerings. But I’d already done way more breastfeeding than I bargained for and, after that and nine long months of pregnancy, I was ready to go back to sustaining only one body. The pediatrician assured me that my son would start taking a cup when the breast was gone and, this time, he was right.

I sometimes find my way into conversations about breastfeeding on the playground or at the library. When I’m asked, I tell the truth: that I exclusively breastfed my son. In some ways that sentence is the secret password into a club I never wanted to belong to. Sometimes the women in this club are supportive and open-minded. But sometimes, they can be pretty judgmental toward women who make other choices—or have other choices thrust upon them.

It’s at those moments when I feel I really don’t belong. I still don’t have a problem with formula. I think my son and I both would have been happier and healthier people if he’d been willing to drink it from time to time. It’s good to have ideas and preferences and plans, but it’s also important to remember that our babies don’t always go along with them.

Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Mom

Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Mom

By Dawn Davies

Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 5.04.33 PMStay up late on a Sunday night reading a book about a woman in medical school because you have gotten it in your mind that you, too, want to go to medical school. Not now, of course, but someday, when the kids are older.

Read long past the time when you should be asleep, until your eyes drip tears of exhaustion. Your husband is out of town on business, and you have allowed all three children to sleep in your bed, though you fear that, like feeding a begging dog from the table, you are creating a habit that will be impossible to break. Program ‘911’ into the instant dial function of your portable phone and nestle it next to your ribs in case someone breaks in and you have time to hit only one number.

Go to sleep and dream about vampires. Wake up ten minutes later to the sound of crying. It is the baby: let him nurse you dry. Notice the deflated shape your breast takes as it lies across the mattress. Go back to sleep. Wake up again to the sound of crying in the distance and locate only two of your children, sleeping curled and stiff, like the victims of Pompeii. Break the suction and peel the baby off your boob, then get up. Kick the Labrador off the bed, call him a nasty name, and then trip over him in the dark as you follow the sound to the children’s bedroom.

The smell of urine surrounds you. In the corner, the three-year-old is sitting on the wood floor in a swath of streetlight, marinating in a pool of pee, her footie pajamas half off, yet twisted and inside out enough to render her as helpless as if she wore a fuzzy, size 4T straightjacket. Note the eviscerated night diaper oozing from under her buttocks.

Change the child. Sop up the pee on the floor with your husband’s favorite bath towel. Pray that the child was not sufficiently stimulated to be interested in truly waking up. When she rubs her eyes, lay her gently in her own bed. Do not speak. When she falls asleep, return to your own bed because the baby is in it and he could roll over onto the floor. When the child hollers out, “I can’t sleep,” play quietly with her in her room. Crawl into her bed with her. She is warm and round and soft and trying to wheedle a story out of you. She calls you “Beautiful Mommy” and “Angel,” and her dimpled baby hands explore your face sweetly, so you read to her until your words begin to come out garbled and you wake up from the sound of your own snoring amplified inside the Little Golden Book covering your face. The child is gone. You hear her in your bedroom shaking her tambourine and shouting the same, “Stick out my wiener!” she heard the next-door neighbor’s six-year-old future predator calling out of his upstairs window the day before. Note: it is 5:37 a.m.

Bring your hands up like an orchestra conductor and cue in the baby’s cries. Unzip the five-year-old’s pink Dr. Dentons and tell her to go use the potty. Outside, it is still dark, but you know that when the sun comes up, it will not be satisfying because the godforsaken Northeast, where you live, is exhibiting a record streak of cold rain, so bone chilling and wet that the sight of the sun, even for fifteen minutes, would make you weep for joy. You have not seen it in weeks and everything around you looks grey, including your own skin. At 6:15 a.m., take the children downstairs for breakfast because, even though you are exhausted, the onus is on you. It is always on you.

Let the dog out the back door. Put four frozen waffles into the toaster and make a 13-cup pot of coffee. Add sliced bananas to the children’s plates so you can at least say you offered them fresh fruit. Let the baby transfer all of the food in the dog’s bowl to its water dish, because he is happy doing it and, for three minutes, not hanging off your kneecaps. Drink your coffee. Drink it. The children pull all of their toys out of the toy box and scatter them around the house. Your resources are low and you do not know what to do with this day. Even though your husband has a burgeoning career at a newspaper, and you own a starter house, you are broke, nearly as broke as you were in your student days, when you worried about gas, and groceries, and paying the utility bills, only back then you could get a second job or sell some marrow in a real emergency, and now you are tethered to three other people who will die if you don’t feed them, and whom you can’t leave alone for five minutes.

Decide to take them to church because the day before the five-year-old asked, “What is church?” and because church is free. Remember the few times in your single days when you attended a local Unitarian church which offered a loose Pagan ceremony culminating in a barefoot group dance down the aisles with percussion instruments and pan pipes, and sexy, lean, bearded vegan men who scoffed at the Establishment. Look up “Churches” in the Yellow Pages and decide on a Methodist one a few miles away. Without yelling at the children or the dog, whom you find eating the crotch out of your only pair of stockings, get everyone dressed for the icy rainstorm that is predicted to last all day, choosing leggings, velour jumpers, and tight turtlenecks stretched down and popped over their enormous heads, making their hair collect static-like plasma balls.

Think of the ‘A’ you got in inorganic chemistry the semester before you met your husband in college. Think of the noble gasses, of neon filling thin, rounded glass tubes shaped into seedy, blinking signs in the window of a bar, a bar that serves whiskey—which you would like to drink—and of argon, and a gallon jug imploding when the oxygen is sucked out of it. Think of small amounts of krypton in a flash bulb, and of everything you know going up in a mushroom of white. While you get dressed, the girls rub their socks into the area rug and shock the baby with the tips of their fingers, making him laugh and cry at the same time.

Stuff their arms into their coats, fishing at the end of the sleeves for fingers to pull through to the other side. Think about rolling a condom onto a limp nob. Notice how, in their winter clothes, your children look like blood-stuffed ticks. They complain, like they always do when wearing coats, about being too hot. Ignore this and pack them into the nine-year-old wreck of a Saab and wonder if your husband is up yet and reading the paper in a quiet, clean hotel room on the other side of the country.

Find the church and park in the only spot left in the parking lot, which in the sleet looks impossibly far away from the church door. Carry the two younger children, who are now crying because the freezing rain is whipping them in the face, dragging the hem of your long, wool skirt in icy, slushy mud puddles as you go. The five-year-old, who must walk by herself, trails behind, stomping her boots into dirty potholes out of spite.

The service is pleasant and easy to endure. The choir sings hopeful songs about God’s love out into the clean, warm space, and neat, controlled people occasionally look at you and smile. Do not see one toy truck or Barbie littering the carpeted aisle and there is a faint smell of Lemon Pledge and old-fashioned perfume, the kind that would be found in matron ladies’ bosoms. All of this makes you want to go home and clean your own house. It makes you want to start over. It makes you want to confess something wildly, something that will make you feel better, something that will wipe your slate clean, although you know the Methodists do not practice confession.

When the service ends, wander down to the coffee hour in the basement. Look around for people who don’t have that glazed, New Testamentesque appearance, and absentmindedly switch the baby to your other hip to fill out a visitor’s card. Drink coffee. Notice that the L.L. Bean denim jumper/hunter green turtleneck ratio is high, too high for your comfort, perhaps nearing 70 percent. Get cornered by a woman in one such jumper whom you fear is a designated ‘greeter’ after she immediately begins asking you questions about yourself. Put your guard up. Lie when possible, especially when projecting the idea that you have your shit together, and that everything you do you are choosing to do. Nod when she mentions Sunday School and mothers’ groups, knowing you will not join these things.

Corral the children and force them out of the church, which they now don’t want them into their car seats. Insert the key into the wretched Saab, and for good measure, since you are in the church parking lot, pray that the car will start. Turn the key and accept the dull ‘click’ that follows to be punishment for teasing that soft kid, Jeffery, in fifth grade. Think about Karma, think about Jesus, think about the Holy Spirit coming down and filling you up like sunshine fills an empty room, renewing your mind like the minister preached during church. Squint your eyes. Try to make it happen. Feel nothing. Realize you don’t know how to pray.

Pop the hood and get out. Suck on the rain dripping off of your lips and stare into the engine as if you know what you are looking for. Jiggle the battery connectors and see a spark. Hear the children whining from inside the car and note the love of Christ the parishioners exhibit when they drive by you, blank and faceless. Mutter, “What the cuss frigging fudge muckers!” at them for not stopping to help, and marvel at this particular combination of almost-curses you have vowed to use ever since the five-year-old has asked you to stop being so foul.

Turn the key again. Sense a slight difference in the way the car doesn’t start and feel a surge of hope. Get in and out of the car eight more times, jiggling the battery cables and listening to the car almost start before it finally does, yelling, “Bite me,” into the open air only twice. Drive away in pouring, freezing rain, blasting whatever you can on the radio, which is Hootie and the Blowfish, to drown out the sound of the baby’s shrieking and the animated discourse between the three-year-old and the five-year-old in the back seat.

By the time you pull into the driveway, the baby is sleeping so hard he looks drugged. Bend over to scrutinize the depth of his unconsciousness and lift one of his lids to see if his eyes are rolled up—a sure sign that he is sleeping deeply. Take the two older children inside, intending to leave the baby asleep for the four more minutes it will take for him to be sleeping deeply enough for you to carry him inside without waking him, because you really need him to take a nap and get out of your life for thirty minutes. That’s all you are asking.

Check the answering machine for messages. There are none. In the dining room, while watching the car out of the window overlooking the driveway, read stories to your other children until your eyes start involuntarily tearing and closing. Lie down on the floor and suggest they play “Doctor Heals,” with you as the comatose patient. Lie like a corpse and drift in and out of sleep for perhaps four minutes while your children drop feathers, to which you are allergic, onto your face. Feel a nice, tickling sensation on your fingers.

Wake up to discover they have colored all of your knuckle joints with the indelible black magic marker you told them never to touch. Both girls are sitting on top of the kitchen counter eating a plate of cookies. There is a spilled bottle of delicious looking, ruby red antibiotic pills next to the five-year-old’s thigh, the ones you were prescribed for your quarterly sinus infection. Ask her if she opened them. When she says no, grab her shoulders and shake her, asking this time through clenched teeth if she ate any of them. When she says no again, multiply the number of pills you take per day (three) by the number of days you have been taking the pills (three) and subtract the total from the total number of pills that should be in the container (ten days’ worth). Thanking the God you just went to visit, find 21 pills on the counter. When your child asks to eat one, shout, “NO!” then hug her hard. Wonder how many milligrams of amoxicillin it would take to kill a thirty-four pound-person. Imagine yourself sweeping the crayons and paper and glitter off the dining table and laying your five-year-old across it, performing a gastric lavage with supplies you happen to have lying around the house, then see yourself walking in slow motion, down a hospital corridor in a white coat and stethoscope, your hair flowing perfectly behind you, forgetting the now-closed bottle of pretty drugs next to the candy fiend that is your child.

Suddenly jump up from the table and run outside. Find the baby shrieking in the car seat inside the nearly sound-proof Saab. Bring him out. Ignore your neighbor, the tire-shaped, middle-aged gossip, who is looking at you through narrowed eyes, and imagine how far this story will make it around the block by the time lunch is over. Go inside and nurse the baby, tuning out your other children for as long as you can, which is less than a minute, since one of them is jumping up and down on your feet and legs and the other is trying to ride the dog. Think about Sophie’s Choice and imagine, if you had to for survival only, worst-case scenario only of course, which of your children you would give away if you were forced to in order to save yourself and the other children. Weigh the pros and cons logically. Scare yourself with your own thoughts.

When the baby wakes up enough to put him down without him bucking and screaming and flailing, the phone rings. Lunge for it viciously, hoping it might be your husband. It is a lady from the Methodist church calling because you filled out the visitor’s card an hour and ten minutes earlier. It’s part of their ministry, she says, to reach out to newcomers. Leave the room to take the call, because you are considering pouring your heart out to the strange lady on the phone. Imagine her soft, grandmotherly bosom smelling of perfume. Imagine pressing your head against it and sobbing. Imagine the kind of hugs you could receive from these partridge-shaped church ladies. Remember standing outside of the church with the hood of your car up while all of these ladies and their husbands drove past you in the rain. When shrieks ring out from the living room, hang up the phone and rush back into it in time to witness your three-year-old flat on the floor, with the baby on top of her in a wrestling hold, trying to gouge out her eyes. Tell the five-year-old, who is climbing up the armchair to knock it off and to “stand up and just sit there.” Separate the fighting children and smack the dog who has jumped into what must have looked like a fun foray.

Calm down. Suggest to the three-year-old that the dog might like to play while you change the baby’s diaper on the couch. Watch her roll the dog onto his back for a belly rub then jump onto its extended leg, self-performing the Heimlich maneuver. When she vomits up several bites of cookie and one bite of cranberry bread and starts crying, jump up, and with one foot on the baby to keep him from rolling off the couch, reach for the three-year-old. When the baby starts crying, ask the five-year-old to hold him, and when she says, “No!” holler at her, making her cry, too. Don’t care when the dog immediately begins eating the vomit from the floor, as he is doing you a favor and you now do not have to clean it up. You must go somewhere where there are other people, you think, because you are so lonely you could scream, and besides you want to shake someone and this frightens you. Call your mother. Listen to the phone ring empty on the other side of the line. Call your husband’s hotel and leave a message. Take more Tylenol. Drink coffee.

Feed them grilled cheese sandwiches. Give the crusts to the dog, who has become an expert beggar since the children were born. Think about slipping under the table for a quick nap while they eat.

After lunch, stuff them back into their coats and boots and drive to the mall, cruising a few extra minutes around the mall parking lot until all three children are so deeply asleep that they could be hung from their heels and not awaken. Envy them. Park the car and decide to rest your eyes for a few minutes. Tilt back your seat and rest, feeling a deep fatigue behind your eyes, hoping that you will not fall asleep with your jaw gaping open to the point where you and your family resemble a Mafia hit to passers-by. Fall deeply asleep. Wake up to utter darkness with dried spittle crusted on your chin. Freak out, shouting, “Jesus Christ!” until you realize it is the middle of winter and only 4:30 p.m., 30 minutes after you fell asleep. Stare at two worried mall cops slowly circling the Saab with flashlights.

Drag the children into the mall and walk around. Thank whatever God you hope might exist for their public behavior, which for a change is orderly, calm, and obedient. Stop in the food court to buy them a giant muffin the size of a cauliflower with your last ten dollars. When your three-year-old starts hopping up and down and grabbing her crotch, yelling, “I have to do a dinky!” stuff the muffin into the diaper bag, then herd the children to the bathroom. Beg the three-year-old not to touch anything except the toilet paper and her own pants. Put the baby down and help the three-year-old onto the toilet, then go back out and unzip the five-year-old’s sticky zipper, and guide her into a stall. Stand near them so they won’t be abducted, until you notice the baby toddling out of another stall with festoons of toilet paper streaming from his mouth. Grab the baby and remove from his mouth a gray mass of wet paper molded into the shape of his hard palate. Hope that it came from the roll in the dispenser and not from the toilet.

Grabbing the baby, race back to the three-year-old, who is now shouting, “Mommy, close the door. Strangers can see my ganina!” Hold the three-year-old’s door shut while the baby bucks and kicks and flails in your arms, and the fiveyear-old initiates a display of linguistic skill by saying, “It’s not ju-nina, stupid, it’s bu-gina.” Don’t dare put the baby down because he might fling himself back onto the filthy bathroom floor and crack his head against the tile, possibly rupturing one of those fragile arteries that could cause a hemorrhage in his brain—you read about them last night in the book about the woman who went to medical school and now, for as long as your children are your responsibility, these arteries will forever worry you. Impress yourself by discussing in depth the types of bacteria that might be found in a public restroom with the five-year-old who asks questions about germs.

When the three-year-old, out of the blue, asks to get her ears pierced, look at your watch. Sigh. When she says it will help her look more like you, exhibit poor judgment and say yes, because this is the child who calls you “beautiful Mommy” and “Angel,” the child who knows how to use a gentle touch to get exactly what she wants from you. Walk to the piercing place quickly, lugging the bucking, screaming baby, as the five-year-old attempts a precise depiction of how much and how little it will hurt. At the piercing place, ask the three-year-old if she is sure and when she says yes again, whip out the credit card you only use for emergencies, then help her pick out a pair of heart earrings. Watch carefully with her as a slightly older child gets her ears pierced without crying.

Let a young sales clerk hold the baby. Sit in the piercing chair with the three-year-old on your lap as she looks around brightly, yet shyly. Love her to death. Feel like her betrayer when, after the piercing girl stabs her simultaneously in both ears, the three-year-old starts shrieking and does not stop. When the baby, never one to miss out on anything, howls along in concert with his sister, kneel on the floor of the piercing place and rock them. Yell, “No!” when the five-year-old asks you to buy her a fur-covered diary. Look at the three-year-old’s ears and notice that the earrings are wildly askew, and that that the piercing girl has completely botched the job. Get angry. Demand a refund, and although you are not ordinarily a nasty person, smirk when they tell you to come back for a free re-do when the holes have closed up. Tell them if they ever see you again it will be in court. Drag your screaming three-year-old and the rest of them three hundred yards through and out of the mall to where you parked the wretched rust-heap of a Saab. Feel the same small stab of disappointment you usually feel when you see it hasn’t been stolen. Buckle everybody in. Straighten up to get out of the car and hang yourself on the clean shirt hook. Ask the three-year-old to unhook you.

When you try to start the car 20 times and the engine doesn’t turn over, yell, “Fuck!” as loudly as you can. The sound of it echoes in the air and the five-year-old starts crying. Unbuckle everybody. Pick up 56 pounds of wretched children and carry them a hundred yards back into the mall to a pay phone. Call the AAA that your parents gave you for Christmas last year—a subtle hint that they do not think your husband is a good provider, with your finger plugging your other ear to block out the sound of the five-year-old who is still weeping, clearly trying to recuperate from your profanity. Wait for a tow truck while the mall shops close around you. Your three-year-old, recovered from the piercing ordeal, flounces about asking strangers, “Do you like my new earrings? I used to be a girl without earrings, but now I am a girl with earrings. My mommy made me get them,” then quietly, “It really hurt,” and the baby eats a third of a jumbo pack of sugarless gum and its foil wrapper.

Stand outside under an awning while the rain spits around you. Spot a tow truck trolling around the parking lot and run through dark puddles of slushy water as you chase it down. The tow-truck guy jumpstarts the car in the two minutes it takes you to buckle everyone back into their seats. Snort when he warns you to not stop anywhere else on your way home. Dig the leftover muffin out of the diaper bag and hand chunks of it to the children. A sense of frantic futility fills you as you drive down the highway, and you glance back at the five-year-old tracing raindrops on the window, the three-year-old, her crooked earrings in her beet-red ears, sucking her thumb, and the baby burping mint. They sit silently, slumped and broken-looking in their car seats, and it is here where your own tears unleash like rain from the clouds in your sky that have been living over you for months, for—truth be told—who knows how long. Cry hard as you drive down the highway. Imagine, on impulse, taking this highway south instead of north, and driving to a place filled with bright light and warmth and sunshine. Imagine pulling over, releasing your children into a field of flowers, where they happily chase butterflies into the distance, getting smaller, smaller until they are gone. Then imagine getting back into the Saab and following the road to a bridge suspended over a rushing river, and speeding up as you drive over the rail of the bridge, straight into the warm, blue water. Hate yourself. Hate everything about who you’ve become and what you are destined for and how much everybody needs you all the time, and as you pull into your dark, icy driveway, realize this: you will never go to medical school. Carry your sleeping children, one at a time, into the house, putting them straight to bed in their clothes. Kiss their sticky mouths and filthy cheeks and whisper, please forgive me, I promise to do better tomorrow. Feel like a crappy mother and wonder what kind of a doctor you would have made if you can’t even manage three healthy children through one long Sunday.

Check the answering machine. There are no messages. Wake up to check the locks on the doors and bring the portable phone into bed, making sure 911 is programmed into the instant dial function. Fall back to sleep to the sickening sound of the cat licking itself at the foot of the bed and dream of fat, milk-white lizards crawling through the round letters of the alphabet.

Author’s Note: It took me 14 years to write this piece. I would start it then stop, telling myself that no one would want to read anything in second person. But I needed the second person for two reasons: first, I was trying to capture how overwhelming it felt to have three really young children, and writing out the minutiae gave some sort of tribute to what mothers go through every day. More important, I needed the distance of second person, because every time I wrote “you,” I didn’t have to write “I.” I was depressed for a time after the birth of two of my kids, and I didn’t give it a voice for several years, because I was ashamed of it. I no longer am. Being able to see humor is what gets me through hard times, and I’d like to think this piece gives a voice to that as well.

Dawn S. Davies is an MFA candidate at Florida International University and the fiction editor of Gulf Stream Magazine. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in River Styx, Ninth Letter, Saw Palm, Cease, Cows, Fourth Genre and others. She can be reached at www.dawnsdavies.com.

Artwork by Katie M. Berggren

All This Rocking

All This Rocking

WO All this Rocking ARTBy Jessica Latham

One hundred rocks. My husband tells me that’s how many times he sways our nine-month old son when it’s his turn, when my back is too tired from strapping our baby in the carrier, when my hipbone feels bruised, when another hour of our baby attached to me will make my skin crawl.


It’s a Thursday afternoon and I am putting my son down for a nap. I must have rocked him at least one hundred times. The carrier cups his meaty legs as his head tilts to the right and parted lips quiver on my breast. Yes, he must be asleep. Past his head, I stand and stare at the phone in my hands. Which part of the story did he fall asleep to? On my phone, I read from books, novels and self-help, parenting and inspiration. The sound of my voice seems to soothe him and I hear my own life in the words of other women, strangers tied into the same web of motherhood.

His lips slip off my skin as I alter my stance from swaying to stillness. Now that he’s asleep I will finally have time to write. But where? How? Texting on my phone takes too long, but the sound of the keys on my computer might wake him. I rock. I sway. I look. On the bedside table is my journal, hidden under a stack of books – Anna Karenina, Simplicity Parenting and Hafiz’s poetry, The Gift, each of them sadly neglected since his birth. Bookmarks are shoved into the front and centers of each book and in the journal, which has far fewer words than I’d like. When was the last time I opened it? I slide the books aside to reach for the journal and a pen. I glide and rock, sway and shake my way ever so gently not to wake him. I decide to leave him sleeping on me. Still standing, I open the book of blank pages, prop it against the dresser and begin to write.

My nipple presses against his cheek and his ear is folded on the lip of the Bjorn. Our stomachs press toward one another like the delicate contents of a sandwich. His tummy, so pure and full, hits the scar above my pelvis, the one I press with my fingers, hoping each time it will somehow disappear. My bellybutton, almost perfectly aligned with his, still projects outward.

“A hernia?” my aunt asked me once.

“I don’t know.” I gave up searching for answers a long time ago and have come to terms with the disappointment of my battered body.

I must be at three hundred rocks now. My son sucks the air, his lips pursed around an invisible nipple. I press my phone to check the time and a light highlights a prompt for my password, one I put in so my son would stop accidentally calling people from the thrill of biting, sliding, pressing and hitting. I’m ashamed he already uses my phone, copying the constant use of mommy’s life raft. I’m ashamed of what others would hear if my son dialed unknowingly. Not unkindness to my son, but the tiresome bickering between my husband and me, both overworked and overtired, projecting our anger and pointing fingers at one another.

“It gets easier,” my mother told me, “after six months.”

But it’s been more than six months. Did she lie to give me hope during the first weeks because she couldn’t stand the thought of what her daughter had endured? A difficult delivery, swollen labia, stitched stomach, numb left foot, bloody breasts, constipation and a CT scan showing signs of an infection, a blockage of the intestines due to an internal cut during surgery resulting in pain worse than contractions.

“Most women are gone by now,” the doctor had told me after my sixth day at the hospital.

“And do most women go through this?” I cried, fragile and wounded.

“I think it’s time you think about possibly getting some help.”

“What do you mean?”

“An anti-depressant. Your records show you’ve tried and done well with Zoloft.”

“I don’t need anything.”

“What do you say we get you back on ten milligrams to start? Women in your situation often need some assistance when bonding with their baby begins with difficulty.”

“I’m not having trouble bonding with my baby,” I said. “He is the only bit of light I see in my new life. My problem is not my child. My problem is the pain. The frustration. The shock. I cannot eat. I cannot sit up, move or walk. It appears I cannot even feed my child from my own body.”

“This will help with some of your frustration,” he said, his tone softening.

“Fine. I’ll take it.”

“We need to get you better so you can go home.” He continued scribbling secrets on a pad then walked out of the doors into a hall of women walking about, smiling with visitors and planning their departures.

The lights seemed too bright, the wall too white. Was I in an insane asylum or a birthing recovery room? Were the balloons, flowers and stuffed elephants in my imagination? Were my meals and medicines part of a new life here permanently? Or was this all a dream?

I left, still swollen despite three days of starvation, only morphine and water filling my aching body.

“I don’t even have body odor.” I said to my husband the day we left.

“That’s because you’re not eating anything, love.”

Those nights in the hospital I sat thinking, how long did we dance during labor, rocking rhythmically as one? How many steps did I take, my son’s body wedged into my own? And, once home, how many sways in the night did we share, his tiny folded wing across my shoulder, my distended stomach shifting like a bag of sand?

After two weeks my shocked body, previously unresponsive to cups of warmed prune juice and three laxatives per day, finally awoke and began releasing wildly during our newborn’s photo shoot. I wanted to laugh, but this was not a joke—it was bullying by some sort of a wicked god that sent me back questioning my actions in this life. This isn’t how birth recovery is supposed to be, I thought. Was I naïve and ignorant to have hoped and wished for some other reality of birth?


I turn the page of my journal, my hand scribbling memories I’d pushed aside. Words I’d locked away now emerge like wild birds that have been caged for far too long. The rustle of the thin sheet of paper causes my son to stir and his eyes flutter. “Shhh,” I shush as I rock and sway. I drop my pen and cup my two hands around the base of his head. My legs bend and straighten, shift and shake until his eyes are still once more. I pick up my pen and continue piecing together bits and pieces of my life on the lined paper as if the words themselves will comfort me when I see them before my own eyes.

A friend came over last week to meet the baby, but mainly to talk business over beers with my husband. No break tonight. After eleven hours with my son, he’ll be bathed, dressed, fed and put to bed by me. I bring our friend upstairs and don’t know why. Perhaps because I’ve forgotten what adult interaction entails. Is it appropriate to tour just the downstairs of a home or must I lead him up the stairs? It’s so silly to think of the tiny interactions forgotten when handshakes and home-visit formalities are traded for wiping bottoms and celebrating shaky first steps. As we tour the home, my husband’s friend politely says, as if hearing the conversation in my head, “No need to apologize about the mess, you have a baby.” How long can I use my boy as an excuse for my messes, my pain, my exhaustion, my bolts of unhappiness and shrills of joy? How long must I defend and explain my parenting decisions?

“He sleeps with us,” I tell him as we enter my son’s nursery. I see the shock in his eyes. “He runs the house,” I say and laugh, trying to make light of his judgment. The crib is bare, covered in long black and white hair, used each night only by our two cats. Why do I care what this bachelor thinks? Because he’ll judge me? Because, as I feared, he’ll tell my husband later that night, “You need to be tougher, you need to let your son cry-it-out.” Because I cringe at those words. Because, when I’m alone, I imagine myself, like a lioness laying beneath a tree with my cub curled into the crevices of my body, where I can rest without the need to explain co-sleeping, carrying, or any other modern label.

We move into the master bedroom. “We did some rearranging a few days ago.” I tell my friend as he glances at the folded bed frame and box spring leaned against the wall of our bedroom. So our active crawler does not fall, we deconstructed the bed and left only a mattress on the floor. A blanket is spread between two pillows on our mattress, a mini bed where my son sleeps between us. A battle I won—my son and I won. He fussed when we tried the crib and the co-sleeper, and so between us he went.

He still wakes two to three times each night. After nine months, I still wake as foggy as the mornings when he was a newborn. He turns and I turn. He begins sucking slowly, then picks up speed, waking me, bringing me back to the reality that my breasts, like my body, only provide half of what he needs – just as I couldn’t push him through after the countless hours of labor. I tap my husband’s back.

“He needs a bottle,” I whisper.


He slides out of the bed. I hear his sleepy stride against the floor, the stairs and then – POP – the sound of the microwave opening. It takes eleven seconds for the water to match the temperature of my own milk. With moonlit eyes, my husband mixes the powder and comes back into the bedroom. With my son’s eyes closed, I guide the bottle into his mouth and pull my shirt down. He sucks methodically.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper as my husband settles back into bed. I’m sorry that I cannot provide enough milk so that our son needs a bottle that you have to make. I’m sorry that I cannot go downstairs myself because he’ll wake up and I no longer have the energy to put him back to sleep, or the courage to ask you.

I had tried mixing formula with cold water from the bathroom sink, but he wouldn’t drink it. Another battle won by our son. I’m tired of changing diapers on my hands and knees because he cries when he’s put on his back, so to the floor we go, as if playing a game of chase. Tired of screams in the car that come out of nowhere. Tired of the constant lack of breath. Breath. Breath. How often do I forget to breathe? How often do I apologize that I cannot do everything for everyone? I’m sorry for all of my faults – the ones I can control and the uncontrollable. And I’m sorry, in all of my exhaustion, that I’ve lost the love for myself.


My husband will wake two hours after heating the bottle and leave for a meeting with friends at a coffee shop before work.

“And what about me?” I asked him again last night. “How can I want to make love with you when we can’t even talk? We are strangers to one another. I am a stranger to myself. Do you hear that I need time? Just an hour to myself. Even less.” To shower. To go to the bathroom. To write. To be alone. To do nothing.

He gives at times, but I’m in an extreme state, overworked, exhausted, and I pity myself for having no family around, for spending one of my only free hours in counseling, during which I worry if my son’s alright or if he’s crying. For wondering when it will get easier, if it will get easier. Though my body is healed, so they say, I still take my frustration pills and share stories of highs and lows with a kind woman who lets me cuss and cry, who lets me lay down on her couch and then get back up a bit more refreshed. The tiny blue pills, and the tiny moments in these sessions, like my tiny boy, hold a power that magically changes my perspective.

I lift my pen and look down at my son’s eyelids, like shells of pearl. How could such loveliness have come from me? From within me? And for me to learn from, watch grow, and raise?


“He’s an angry baby.” The doctor’s judgment and conclusions, just days after his birth, made before my son was even given a chance, echo in my head. If only I could show that doctor now. If only I could show him my nine-month-old’s sweet laughter, his smiles and peaceful face. Each time I give more and more of myself to see my son’s contentedness. When people comment, “What a happy baby!” I want to give myself the credit, I want, out of all my selflessness, to at least be selfish in owning the fact of my son’s happiness. I want to tell them how I’ve given up showers and manicures, trips to the hair salon and gym – I trade all of this to wear him, hold him, feed him, play with him and tend to his requests. Will it all pay off in the end? When he’s grown, will he carry on without a therapist? Will he feel independent and safe?

I try to find the courage to imagine a sibling in his life. But each time a moment of good passes, a sleepless night returns, a cry in the five-minute car ride sends chills down my spine, making me realize that for nine months I’ve completely forgotten how to breathe.


I gasp and drop my pen. A slight sting pierces my breast, my son’s growing teeth biting down. I try to rock him back to sleep, shoving my other breast toward him for just another tiny moment alone, not truly alone, but at least silent, for more time to write. But he purses his lips, hits my shoulders with his hands.

“Ok, you’re up.” I say.

I look down and he smiles, four teeth showing now. I set down my journal and, like most things in my life, my thoughts remain half-complete, unfinished and hanging. My life is a series of interruptions: showers stopped, split ends hanging from my head. Like an orgasm ending too soon, a plate of dessert dropped on the floor, a plug pulled from my body – I feel taunted, stuck between on and off.

As he wakes, my eyes focus. I am broken from my memories, taken out of the hospital and back into my bedroom. I unfasten him from me, set him down. He stands with his hands in mine and we walk together, his chubby feet shuffling across the floor. Our bodies rock from side to side, like a boat lilting back and forth. As I steady him, I imagine for a moment that the tiny life between my hands could believe I am a steady anchor.

Using writing in all forms as an essential and gratifying outlet for her busy mind, Jessica Latham writes regularly for Mothering Magazine. She is assistant editor of Yukei Teiki Haiku Society, a Japanese poetry journal, and her work has been featured on NPR’s local station, in Literary Mama (forthcoming) and various poetry journals. Learn more about Jessica’s work at www.rowdyprisoners.com.

The Photograph

The Photograph

By Irina Reyn


The significance of showing colleagues and friends a picture of the baby.


I don’t want to admit I have a baby. As far as most people know, I’ve had no baby. I’m afraid once I admit the existence of the baby, my life will be helplessly slotted in a certain very closed category. Peruvian Zumba instructors will accommodate their routines for me, my hairdresser will advise me to cut my hair as appropriate to my new role, rolls of flesh will no longer be contained by waistbands, I will be included in the kinds of conversations I fear and excluded from the ones I’ve always wanted to enter. I already prefer dinner at five o’clock and buying paper products in bulk. I’m one step away from what I imagine as a gray version of life, the long purgatory of errands before death.

To have a baby is to become one thing: Mother. The Mother may have a variety of symbols ascribed to her in our culture (Freudian punching bag, cheerleader on the soccer sidelines, vaccine denier, etc.), but in society’s eyes it is a classification with specific boundaries.

“Didn’t you just have a baby?” a colleague stops me in the hall. “You look great. I couldn’t tell at all.” She is looking me up and down the way you’re allowed to do for some reason when faced with a post-birth body.

“Thanks.” Because I know it’s a compliment, and this is the appropriate response.

“Where are the pictures of the baby? Have I missed them?” she asks. She waits politely for the phone to come out, for scrolling and cuteness, dimples and funny hats. “I bet she looks a spitting image of you.”

“I’ll post them soon.” But I keep my phone tightly wedged inside my pocket.

After a while, she starts moving away with her tote bag filled with student papers. “I’ll look for them on Facebook.”

For many months now, I’ve posted no photos on Facebook because all my fears of becoming Mother are encapsulated in the Photograph.

Like many new fathers, my husband has become an amateur photographer, adjusting light and angle, restlessly seeking the elusive smile. He doesn’t have a Facebook account, and has been fielding inquiries from his side of the friendship spectrum.

“They’re bugging me for pictures of S.,” he says. “How about the one in the cat pajamas? In the frog costume? Doing that thing she does with the fists? How can you resist?”

“Ok, I’ll do it later,” I promise. But I don’t.

Sure I take pictures, but I hoard them, enjoy them in privacy. How can I tell my husband that if I post a photo of S. certain men might not find me attractive, the eyes of my child-free friends will film over, my mentors will file away my former ambitions. I will be scanned past. I will slowly go underwater and emerge in a land I never wanted to inhabit. The baby in my photograph will inevitably be paired with me as my creation.

“Photographs furnish evidence. A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened,” Susan Sontag once wrote. That’s exactly what I’m trying to avoid, the evidence of my annihilation.

When I see others’ baby pictures, I see past the actual baby being represented. What I look for is everything around the baby. How is the relationship of the parents? Do they look sleepy? Conflicted? Invigorated-joyous or exhausted-joyous? Are they handling it fine or are they as shell-shocked as me? A picture of a baby is never about the baby, it’s all the breathless hope surrounding its subject. What compels people to post so many baby pictures—is it a brimming over sensation, where the emotion is too large for someone to keep to herself? Is it a selfless act for the viewing pleasure of grandparents and other relatives? Is it a more engaging equivalent of diplomas on the wall, life’s accomplishments marked, noted? Is it, as Sontag writes “a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power”?

An old friend who is a very good non-professional photographer offers to take black-and-whites of S. and us. Perhaps, I reason, I require the excuse of high art in order to disseminate a picture into the world. A black-and-white picture might distract from the subject matter, focus viewers’ attention on the photographer’s craft.

She comes over with her Canon and tells us to pretend she’s not there. She will alternate between unstaged and staged shots.

“I’ll just be in the background snapping away,” she says, because she knows me too well and is trying to set me at ease.

I focus on engaging in the kind of activities that will make S. smile. She likes a Russian game in the vein of “This Little Piggy” called “Tochka, Tochka,” where a body of a baby is deconstructed into dots, circles, cucumbers (better not ask) and other shapes in order to finally create “an entire little person.”

I’m aware of being stiff, unnatural. The game is being played artificially, with too much enthusiasm. When I scoop up S., she twists away, almost too big and unwieldy in my arms already. I imagine the entire scene through the eyes of anyone looking at the final product. It’s like a science fiction movie, this transformation into Mother. Almost immediately, I want the session deleted.

The next day, I have lunch with Lynne, a friend in her sixties, a wonderful writer and poet and critic with two children. She published her first book at forty, when her children were already teenagers. Although she had been writing for many years, she became a mother first, then a mother-writer. I ask her some conventional questions about balancing career and motherhood, leaving out all the things that will make me sound even crazier than I am.

“We didn’t think about all this stuff until it was too late,” she says, shrugging. “We just had the kids. No one expected it to be easy.” Then she took out her phone and showed me a picture of her adorable granddaughter. “Now show me S.”

And I scroll through a few from the photo shoot of the day before. The pictures are not as hard for me to look at as I’d assumed. In fact, they are so special I can’t believe I ever wanted them gone. One or two capture S. as an “entire little person,” an expression I can imagine will be gone soon, that would, if not for photography’s ability to freeze time, be lost forever.

“She’s just beautiful,” Lynne marvels.

I find myself wading into that soft place of pride and achievement. The burst that radiates back to me, that fills me with a seeping, saturated warmth. I was numb before the act of showing pictures, but now I’m unable to stop. I keep going, scrolling further back into the archives, more pictures than my friend ever wanted to see: S. on changing tables, positioned in the center of fluffy rugs, under mobiles, in snowsuits, at the breast, asleep, awake, in tears.

Before this shifting array of babies, I understand that I can’t stay in the closet forever. I’ll be posting one of these pictures on Facebook and waiting for every single crumb of response, even the one from my colleague at work. It overpowers the fears about becoming an archetype of Mother. The evidence we need, the proof we so badly desire. Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.

Irina Reyn is the author of What Happened to Anna K: A Novel. Her website is irinareyn.com.

Note: The author has not yet made peace with her predicament. Thus, Photo Credit: Veer

A Letter to My Waiter … From Me and My Baby

A Letter to My Waiter … From Me and My Baby

By Asha Jameson

photo 4

To My Waiter,

Thanks for working tonight and I’m sorry you’re waiting on people instead of enjoying a meal out yourself! Oh, and sorry to have caused that little grimace on your face when you saw me and my baby at your table.

I’m a complete and utter foodie AND a new mother. I’m also an ex-waitress of 15 years. Let me assure you, I’ve read everything and will DO everything to make sure this experience is pleasant for you, me and the people around us.

I’ve made sure she’s not tired. I’ve made sure she’s not hungry. I’ve brought a plethora of toys, books and other distractions with me. If she melts down, I will leave, and most importantly, I have chosen this restaurant carefully! And while I don’t agree that babies should be banned from fancy restaurants, like the chef for Alinea in Chicago expressed on Twitter, I definitely know which restaurants will work for us, and which won’t.

Hope you don’t think I’m rude, but here are some suggestions that might make this a little easier on everyone, including you…

1) Please bring me a menu right away, not 15 minutes after I’ve sat down. I only have approximately 17 minutes total, so that can make the difference between a smooth and enjoyable meal, and having to spend your time packing up untouched food to go!

2) However talented you are in carrying 12 hot plates at once, please don’t hold them over my baby’s head while serving them. It stresses me out and can make for a really serious situation.

3) Please don’t place my full-to-the-brim martini glass directly in front of my baby. The glistening liquid and tantalizing skewer of olives are pretty much the most exciting thing she has ever seen. (“Oh my goodness, that’s AMAZING! I NEED to grab it NOW!!!”)

4) I want the check as soon as you bring my food. If I want dessert or coffee, I’ll let you know. I’ll also have my credit card ready for you, so please don’t drop a check and disappear on your smoke break for the next 30 minutes, please. (Totally me 15 years ago! )

and finally,

5) If you smile at me or offer some help, somehow, I will be overcome with happy feelings and gratitude. This will result in me leaving a HUGE tip and complementing you to your manager on my way out.

That’s all. Thanks again for all that you do.



The lady with the bags under her eyes and spit-up on her shirt, carrying the bottle of 1994 Burgundy.


Asha Jameson is an attorney who lives in Oakland, CA with her husband and 9-month-old baby girl, Clover. She writes about balancing work and family life for the blog, www.hearsayandhappiness.com, under the pseudonym “Hope.”

The Disappearing First Year

The Disappearing First Year

By Abigail Rasminsky


Looking back on the first year of motherhood, and answering the “What do you do?” question.


I am sitting at a café for one of the few hours of the week I have to write. Before my daughter was born, a year ago now, I called myself a writer and this is what I did: went to coffee shops (or to the library or to my desk at home) to work. As my year of mostly full-time parenting has worn on, I’ve had a harder time answering the What do you do? question.

Across from me in the café is a young woman with what I’d guess is a four-month-old. He is slouched on her knee, eagerly gumming Sophie the giraffe, the ubiquitous baby toy. With the little boy occupied, Mom is sipping her coffee, chatting with a friend. I’ve been so distracted by them, so caught up in how little a four-month-old does—he just sits there, drooling! How easy!—that I’ve gotten little done. Instead, I’ve been gazing at them longingly, missing that phase already. And yet: I know full well that I didn’t love it when I was going through it, although I think I told myself that I was. Trapped in a cycle of broken nights, on-demand nursing and a shifting marriage, I certainly didn’t consider it easy.

Is this the story of early motherhood for so many of us? Not loving it in the present and then telling ourselves we did? Or telling ourselves we should have? Or that we will next time? Claiming that one particular phase was so much easier (or harder) than the stage we’re in now? When do we begin to rewrite history? Why do we erase the difficulty?

For the first few months of my daughter’s life, I wondered why anyone would do this again, and yet all I feel watching the pair in the café now is just that: the impulse to start over. Next time, I tell myself—although having another child is a subject my husband and I haven’t even broached—the baby will fall asleep in my arms and rather than feeling exhausted and relieved (finally!), I will instead feel—what?—happy? satisfied? grateful? proud? I’ll understand that that alone is enough, for now? I’ll remember all these thoughts from my past-the-first-year-mark perch?

With the fog of Year One lifting—and with an entry into what’s becoming a truly delightful, exhilarating time with my daughter—I’m suddenly realizing how much pressure I put on myself throughout the year to actually write, to do my “job,” and how little of that I actually did. I had the idea—from where, exactly?—that at four or five months (when we’d all be, according to various sources, sleeping through the night), I’d hand my daughter over for a few hours, open up my laptop and pick up from where I’d left off days before giving birth—brain, memory, ambition in full working order.

By four months, my baby was still waking every few hours, and while I did find a marvelous babysitter, I used those hours to swim—my body weightless and free and mine alone—and later, to teach. The notes I took in my phone while she napped in the stroller were the closest I came to really writing.

But now, staring at that mom in the café, I can finally see what has eluded me all year: If she can get out of the house, and she can look as put together as she does, and she can get her kid to sleep (and she is, swaying with him, his cheek resting more and more heavily on her breastbone), what else is she supposed to do? The job of raising a human—the labor of it—is extraordinary, but it folds in on itself. You have a beautiful person growing right before your eyes, but when she is always in front of you, it’s almost impossible to see. My husband recently went away for three days and claimed that our daughter was so much more grown up when he returned.

“Really?” I said, baffled. I had spent those three days felled by my daughter’s stomach flu, barely getting by. I had hardly noticed whether she was wearing pants.

And yet, what I should have felt was pride—that this had happened because of our trips to the park and readings of Were Going on a Bear Hunt, from all the pointing out of dogs (now “DOGGIE!”) and buses (“BA!”) while rolling through town, and all the times I stopped her from eating an electrical wire.

Like a lot of mothers I know, I often focus more on all I havent done this year: the unread books, unfinished essays and applications, the anxiety of a career on hold. Perhaps I’m just saddened by how little value I’ve placed on what I’ve actually done this year, which is raise a sparkling, hilarious, bold little person; a girl I watch from across the sandbox with a bursting, incredulous heart.

Mostly what I feel is sadness: for beating myself up? For not feeling a sense of accomplishment? Because she’s growing up “so fast,” as they say, and I’ve spent much of her early life just trying to get by? Because my life is flat-out unrecognizable from what it was a year ago? That we pour our whole selves into a person so that she can eventually leave us?

My mother calls these the sacrificial years. The sacrifice feels so enormous when you’re in the midst of it—see: book-in-progress unopened in a computer file—but even as a new mom, I am already experiencing how quickly things shift. This month, the baby—who is really no longer a baby—will go to daycare and I’ll have four hours a day to myself. I know that I will feel a tremendous sense of loss that this time is over—no more will I be the woman with a baby strapped to me, swaying her to sleep, our bodies breathing together—even while I rejoice in the new freedom.

Abigail Rasminsky holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in The New York Times; O: The Oprah Magazine; The Morning News; The Forward; The Toast; The Millions; and Dance Magazine, among other publications. She lives in Vienna, Austria. More at Abigailrasminsky.com.

The Baby: Word Problems

The Baby: Word Problems

Inspired by G.A. Ingersol’s “Test


You have 30 minutes to answer these word problems.


1.  The baby must eat every two hours during the day and every three hours at night. This is from start of feeding to start of feeding. If the baby takes forty-five minutes to eat and it takes an additional seven minutes to burp him and change his diaper, how many times does his mother shower in the first month of his life?


2.  The baby is not as sleepy as the literature suggests. One night he sleeps for two hours, then two more hours, than three twenty-five minute chunks. The next night he wakes up twice as many times, but the total amount of sleep is the same. The third night he sleeps for four glorious hours, but then refuses to go back to sleep at all. By night five, how many baby sleep books have the parents desperately consumed in their quest to get their child to match the peacefully sleep babies on their covers?


3.  The baby has a fever. That much is clear to the mother before she even picks up the thermometer. She can tell just from pressing her lips to his smoldering forehead. But the doctor wants to know how high. The first reading, taken under the armpit, says 101.4. She tries again to confirm and gets 100.0. The forehead thermometer gives three different readings: 102.1, 101.0, 98.8, but she’s very skeptical of that third one, since the baby was swatting at the thermometer with his chubby fist. Assuming she reports an average of all of these temperatures to the patient pediatrician who is waiting on the line, how confident will she feel administering the suggested dose of infant acetaminophen?


4.  The baby is pointing at an apple and saying “ke-chaw” over and over and over again in his insistent little voice. The father has asked him if he’s hungry, but he says no. He doesn’t seem to want to touch the apple, but he goes on saying “ke-chaw, ke-chaw, ke-chaw.” The apple is green, average in size, with a longish stem and some yellow dappling on the top third. The baby is probably:

a) over-tired

b) a genius

c) lying about being hungry

d) teething


5.  The baby’s cold abates, but now something else is bothering him. It could be teething or nightmares or a sudden fear of the dark. In any case, he is waking in the night and it takes, on average, forty minutes to get him to go back to sleep. Assume the parents divide the nighttime wakings evenly. If the father works long days as a high-school chemistry teacher and the mother works evenings and weekends in a restaurant, and the baby wakes an average of three times per night, how much will the parents spend on couples’ counseling in the subsequent year?


6.  The potty training books are firmly in two camps. No, three camps. No seven camps. Perhaps each is in its own camp. The first one says to begin at eighteen months. The second at twenty-two months. The third says to start on the baby’s second birthday. Another says to wait until the baby is ready. Another says to wait until the parents are ready. One says to bribe the child with M&Ms and special underpants. Another says to keep the child naked all day. Another says to gate the child in a room with a tile floor. There are others, too. So many ideas. If two of them are written by pediatricians, and two by child psychologists, and one isn’t even really a book, but more of a blog, whose advice should the mother and father heed?

a) the author with the most letters after his name

b) the one that suggests doing what the parents wanted to do anyway

c) the one with the happiest-looking baby on the cover

d) whatever inklings and inclinations come from their own guts


7.  The little flowerpot is covered in neon-colored pom-poms. There are twenty-six in all. Seven of them are green, four are yellow, six are blue, two are pink. An unspecified number are orange and purple. Assuming the baby spent an hour and a half making sure each of the pom-poms was stuck on just right, and given that it’s not even Mother’s Day or her birthday or anything, how long will it take the mother to tear up before pulling him into her warm embrace and whispering thank you, sweet boy into his hair, which smells like sugar and sunshine and just a tiny, tiny bit like Elmer’s glue?

The Mouth of My Grave is Open

The Mouth of My Grave is Open

By Rachel Pieh Jones

non-muslim cemetary in djibouti1

A Djiboutian custom during pregnancy, and for forty days following childbirth for restoration, protection and health.


“The mouth of my grave is open.” This is what Djiboutian women say during pregnancy and the forty days following childbirth. “Qabrigayga afka ayaa furan yahay.” They mean that they could die, or the baby could die, at any time and they’re right. The infant and maternal mortality rates in Djibouti are among the highest in the world and aren’t helped by rampant female genital mutilation and limited access to quality healthcare.

I learned the phrase when I was pregnant with our youngest, Lucy Deeqsan, who was born in Djibouti. My friend Awo taught it to me and explained it as a request for prayers for protection and health.

Djiboutians had other ways of procuring protection during these vulnerable days like observing a mandatory rest period of forty days following childbirth during which mother and infant remained indoors. This sounded like paradise. Forty days to rest, bond, and recover.

“If you need to go outside before the forty days are over,” Awo said, “put a nail behind your ear. Or a knife like the one people put under their pillows at night. That way you can fight off the jinn who might attack.” Jinn are mischievous devils, or genies who wreak havoc on humans.

“Also, don’t look at the baby when you nurse her,” Awo said. “The jinn will know how much you love her and will make her sick or take her away.”

Seven days after Lucy’s birth our neighbors planned to sacrifice a goat and have a feast to protect her and guarantee a long, healthy life.

“The blood of goats can’t protect her,” my husband said. He explained that our faith relied on the one-time, all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus. “But we’d love to have a party.”

The men came to an agreement that since we believed God had a plan for Lucy’s life or death and since our neighbor believed a sacrifice would help, he would sacrifice a baby goat instead of an adult. There would be less blood, my family could enjoy the meat without believing in its saving power and the neighbors could enjoy the meat and feel relieved that they were contributing to Lucy’s well-being. Plus, there could still be a party.

Friday morning a halal butcher slaughtered a tiny goat in our front yard. During the feast I remained indoors and ate blue, yellow, and pink rice with hot sauce and broiled goat from aluminum platters the neighbors carried into our living room. At the end of my forty days of rest there would be a party for women but this feast was primarily for men and for Lucy.

Outside, neighbors and friends lounged on pillows and sipped Coke, smoked, and dug into the feast with their right hands. My husband read prayers from the Bible and the Quran. The men took turns holding Lucy, taking pictures with her, and whispering blessings over her.

Lucy and I (mostly) stayed indoors during the forty days postpartum. We ate the goat meat. I never placed a nail behind my ear and I stared at Lucy while she nursed, devouring her with my eyes. We prayed for health. After forty days the mouths of my grave and Lucy’s grave quietly closed. We had survived.

Nine years later, our graves are still closed. I still pray for health. Sometimes I am half-tempted to slip a nail behind my ear, if that would guarantee a long and healthy life for my daughter. Anything, to guarantee I will never lose her. But I don’t believe in guarantees. I don’t believe in magic-like phrases or nails or goat’s blood.

Sometimes I wonder if it might be easier if I did, at least I would feel more in control. But this would only be an illusion, I don’t believe in control either. How can I? I don’t know who will carry a gun into the elementary school or who is wearing a bomb underneath their business suit in the restaurant. I can’t see malaria or ebola or cancer cells. I can’t decide who is too drunk to drive every time I enter the freeway or how long prison sentences should be for pedophiles.

Djiboutians know this too, that’s why they say the mouths of their graves are open. That’s why they sacrifice goats and put nails behind their ears. We all attempt to wrangle whatever sense of authority over our lives we can muster. Maybe that is why I find it natural to have faith in something I can’t see or touch. I have no confidence in my own authority. Some trust in nails, some trust in the blood of goats, some trust in their own competencies, I trust in an unseen God. I’m weak, I might and probably will, make bad choices. I can’t save my family from the train barreling down on us. I choose faith.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

The Disappearing First Year

The Disappearing First Year

By Abigail Rasminsky


Looking back on the first year of motherhood, and answering the “What do you do?” question.


I am sitting at a café for one of the few hours of the week I have to write. Before my daughter was born, a year ago now, I called myself a writer and this is what I did: went to coffee shops (or to the library or to my desk at home) to work. As my year of mostly full-time parenting has worn on, I’ve had a harder time answering the What do you do? question.

Across from me in the café is a young woman with what I’d guess is a four-month-old. He is slouched on her knee, eagerly gumming Sophie the giraffe, the ubiquitous baby toy. With the little boy occupied, Mom is sipping her coffee, chatting with a friend. I’ve been so distracted by them, so caught up in how little a four-month-old does—he just sits there, drooling! How easy!—that I’ve gotten little done. Instead, I’ve been gazing at them longingly, missing that phase already. And yet: I know full well that I didn’t love it when I was going through it, although I think I told myself that I was. Trapped in a cycle of broken nights, on-demand nursing and a shifting marriage, I certainly didn’t consider it easy.

Is this the story of early motherhood for so many of us? Not loving it in the present and then telling ourselves we did? Or telling ourselves we should have? Or that we will next time? Claiming that one particular phase was so much easier (or harder) than the stage we’re in now? When do we begin to rewrite history? Why do we erase the difficulty?

For the first few months of my daughter’s life, I wondered why anyone would do this again, and yet all I feel watching the pair in the café now is just that: the impulse to start over. Next time, I tell myself—although having another child is a subject my husband and I haven’t even broached—the baby will fall asleep in my arms and rather than feeling exhausted and relieved (finally!), I will instead feel—what?—happy? satisfied? grateful? proud? I’ll understand that that alone is enough, for now? I’ll remember all these thoughts from my past-the-first-year-mark perch?

With the fog of Year One lifting—and with an entry into what’s becoming a truly delightful, exhilarating time with my daughter—I’m suddenly realizing how much pressure I put on myself throughout the year to actually write, to do my “job,” and how little of that I actually did. I had the idea—from where, exactly?—that at four or five months (when we’d all be, according to various sources, sleeping through the night), I’d hand my daughter over for a few hours, open up my laptop and pick up from where I’d left off days before giving birth—brain, memory, ambition in full working order.

By four months, my baby was still waking every few hours, and while I did find a marvelous babysitter, I used those hours to swim—my body weightless and free and mine alone—and later, to teach. The notes I took in my phone while she napped in the stroller were the closest I came to really writing.

But now, staring at that mom in the café, I can finally see what has eluded me all year: If she can get out of the house, and she can look as put together as she does, and she can get her kid to sleep (and she is, swaying with him, his cheek resting more and more heavily on her breastbone), what else is she supposed to do? The job of raising a human—the labor of it—is extraordinary, but it folds in on itself. You have a beautiful person growing right before your eyes, but when she is always in front of you, it’s almost impossible to see. My husband recently went away for three days and claimed that our daughter was so much more grown up when he returned.

“Really?” I said, baffled. I had spent those three days felled by my daughter’s stomach flu, barely getting by. I had hardly noticed whether she was wearing pants.

And yet, what I should have felt was pride—that this had happened because of our trips to the park and readings of Were Going on a Bear Hunt, from all the pointing out of dogs (now “DOGGIE!”) and buses (“BA!”) while rolling through town, and all the times I stopped her from eating an electrical wire.

Like a lot of mothers I know, I often focus more on all I havent done this year: the unread books, unfinished essays and applications, the anxiety of a career on hold. Perhaps I’m just saddened by how little value I’ve placed on what I’ve actually done this year, which is raise a sparkling, hilarious, bold little person; a girl I watch from across the sandbox with a bursting, incredulous heart.

Mostly what I feel is sadness: for beating myself up? For not feeling a sense of accomplishment? Because she’s growing up “so fast,” as they say, and I’ve spent much of her early life just trying to get by? Because my life is flat-out unrecognizable from what it was a year ago? That we pour our whole selves into a person so that she can eventually leave us?

My mother calls these the sacrificial years. The sacrifice feels so enormous when you’re in the midst of it—see: book-in-progress unopened in a computer file—but even as a new mom, I am already experiencing how quickly things shift. This month, the baby—who is really no longer a baby—will go to daycare and I’ll have four hours a day to myself. I know that I will feel a tremendous sense of loss that this time is over—no more will I be the woman with a baby strapped to me, swaying her to sleep, our bodies breathing together—even while I rejoice in the new freedom.

Abigail Rasminsky holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in The New York Times; O: The Oprah Magazine; The Morning News; The Forward; The Toast; The Millions; and Dance Magazine, among other publications. She lives in Vienna, Austria. More at Abigailrasminsky.com.

You’re Having a Baby

You’re Having a Baby


What words of congratulations would you offer to friends soon having a baby?


My friends Wes and Harmoni will soon have a baby girl—no; Harmoni will have the baby; Wes will look like a cat in a bathtub—and I want to tell them things. It’s going to be great. It’s going to be horrible. I’m supposed to write beautiful things about the greatness and funny things about the horror, but none of it’s true because the whole thing, like everything, is a mess. Someone shot a white-winged Pegasus and it’s bleeding tropical punch. Like that.

This morning I read a little essay by Shunryu Suzuki about the way the white cloud is independent, though it nonetheless depends on the blue sky. I hope this makes Wes and Harmoni feel like they maybe understand something in the uncertain mist of a confused confusion, because exactly. Enjoy your baby.

I remember holding my daughter Lola in the hospital and retching like I was choking on a hairball. This is not a beautiful image. But what I know today is that the boundary of the self with whom I had always identified was cracking—I was hacking apart—and sort of, well, vomiting or spilling out to encompass Lola within the boundaries of that identification. I was now her. She was me. The experience of having a baby is akin to what mystics attempt to articulate as Ultimate Reality. I attempted to express this Reality with a metaphor about vomiting on the baby. I warned you. It’s messy.

There will come a day when you, exhausted, think “All I do is take care of this baby.” And there will come a day when you, elated, think “All I do is take care of this baby.” However, both these thoughts arise in relation to your small self. In both cases, forget your former self, hack up your hairball, and get the baby some juice. Just, with your whole heart, get the juice. No matter what you want or how you feel, the baby wants juice, like mountains and rivers, without end.

Once, my son Jaydn took off running like a mad laughing fool toward the street. Exploding into a sprint, I exploded as well into an atom bomb of math. If Jaydn is running X, I am running Y, and that car is moving at Z MPH, will the world end? Yes! The world’s about to end. I snagged him by the collar, the car honked, he wailed, and I screamed from some original place in the deep pit of my stomach where anger and joy are not yet sussed out into differentiated forms of screaming. Do you understand? I was saving myself. Clouds are clouds and skies are skies. Everything depends.

This, among other things, will probably happen. Wilco’s On and On and On will play in the background, down low, as your baby naps and you breathe without a sound. When you peek in the crib to check on her, something in the air and the music will collide—gasp, and your baby will appear, appear, appear—someone—against the profound background of possibly nothing; erupting, emerging in your eyes as irrefutable proof that this world is, yes, definitely something but—more than that—it means something too. This is significant. My god, you will think, silently. My god, my god, my god. Just this, with not a single word to say.

In addition to inducing speechless insights into the suchness of the world, the baby will also, at many turns, thwart your expectations. Vomit on your shirt. Cry all night. Freak out in restaurants. Essentially, the baby will intuitively detect what you want and act in direct opposition to all your desires. This is the baby’s way of completing you, making you whole, yinning your yang. Here is where I quote Carl Jung. “To this day God is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions, and change the course of my life for better or for worse.” So, yeah, when your baby contradicts, opposes, and spoils all your plans, she is actually channeling the forces of God, calling you beyond yourself, revealing to you the beauty that inheres in the deflation of ego and self-forgetting. It’s only a shirt.

Your baby will be a many faceted jewel that absorbs and reflects every form and color in this whole zany world. Cradled by the world, she supports the world. Everything that ever happened, and everything that will, conspire to be expressed in the simple magic of her appearance. Announced, a song, all of it, a wee baby girl. Congratulations.

Love Song to My Belly

Love Song to My Belly

WO Love Song to my Belly Art

By Goldberry Long

“My therapist is helping me make friends with my belly,” a fellow student had said back when we were in graduate school. She was beautiful, a former Las Vegas dancer, long-legged and flat-bellied and given to giggling. Once she gave a reading and giggled at the jokes in her story, her hands clasped behind her like a little girl, her chest out, her belly a good friend, flat and beautiful to behold. She rocked back on her heels, giggling. Rocked herself forward, giggling. She had it easy. Easy to be friends with such a friendly belly.

I was not friends with my belly, never had been. We were uneasy acquaintances, eyeing one another in the mirror, my belly a measure of my appetites, swelling; I turned to the side, balefully eyeing my belly, thought: I look pregnant. I was not. I dug in my fingers, Oh loaf of white bread, Oh unwanted blubber, Oh enormous failure. Under the fat I could feel the hard flat muscles of me.

Or the other, friendlier belly, sloping plain of white smooth skin down between the proud bones of my hips, triumph of beauty, exalted hollow, dearest. My belly was not my friend; my belly was my art project, my sculpture, my stubborn failure. It fought me, enemy mine. Eat, eat, eat, it said, and I fought back but in the end it always won, grew, ruined itself.

Thirteen, I stepped on a scale, and my mother said, “You better watch it!” I watched. I watched my mouth and for a month my mouth took in a only a daily egg, a daily orange, round pure foods, holy as communion, and my belly rewarded me, hipbones, the white plain, like Death Valley, the sand there.

Years passed, and I watched it, my belly, watched it wax and wane, exercising its tidal pull on me.

Lying beside my lover, he traced the curve of my waist, laid his hand on the smooth flat sands of my belly. This is my favorite part, he said, possessive. I preened, pleased. My belly growled. Later he called me a black hole. So true, said my belly. I can hold the universe, said my belly. Multitudes, it said. Stay empty, I told it. Stern.

My pregnant belly held a life, and this confused me. It was a stubborn enemy, a soldier for my child within me. My belly said, Eat, Eat, Eat, and I had to eat or be punished, on my knees in the living room, heaving bile. Every two hours I must eat, even up at night writhing with the pain of a starving woman — I won’t I won’t — but then I must; I am force-fed a banana at 3 am until the pain settles, the baby settles, my belly hums it to sleep, satisfied, pleased with itself. Thirty pounds in the first trimester, weeping in my midwife’s office: I’ll be one of those fat ladies who says, I used to be skinny until I had kids. My belly squeezed my liver, compressed my spleen, massaged my heart, pushed acid up my throat. Oh Belly, powerful, stubborn, furious belly.

I contain my belly and my belly contains my baby but it feels the other way around; I am trapped inside them both. There are no choices left to me. How many more months? I count them. How many more days? I count. How many hours? Countless.

And yet I love the baby. The baby inside the belly is the center of the universe. She is the one hot shining point of light from which all else radiates. There is no joy without the baby in my belly. A paradox. My enemy contains my life.

Thirty pounds, second trimester. Thirty pounds, third trimester. Round belly, hard, taut, and the life inside, writhing, kicking, squirming, beloved life—I can’t wait to get you out and hold you and therefore keep you safe, a delusion of grandeur; I know that in my belly you are safer than you ever will be in my arms, my daughter, my own: will you be friends with your belly?

In line at the coffee shop, I rest my palms on the high hard curve of my belly. There is no other sensible place for my hands. Captain, my captain, my belly. The baby kicks. They call it a kick, but it’s a slow turning, a whale, changing direction in the ocean of my belly.

And then I am a pebble, a grain of sand floating on an ocean of pain; I am only my belly and my belly is me and we are pain, and my belly howls at me: You see? You see?

And then they lay my daughter on my belly, my daughter still tethered to my belly, and I am her mother. She squirms and climbs my belly to my breast, and she eats, and eats, and eats.

I strap my daughter to my chest and for a long time no one can see my belly because my daughter is my belly.

My daughter walks at 10 months. Her belly thrust out proud. She giggles. She climbs high curbs. Her belly balances her. She strips herself naked, fondles her bellybutton, laughs. There is nothing in this world more beautiful than her body and its belly, the balance of her, the high fearless climbing that comes from her center, her very self, her belly.

We play bellybutton. That was where your belly was tied to mine, I tell her. Belly to belly. She nods, knowingly. Fingers her bellybutton. Possessive of it.

I run. I deny my body white things. White sugar, white flour, white potatoes, white rice, white pasta. My belly is once again the smooth sands of Death Valley, sloping from the proud bones of my hips. You’re so good, a friend says. I watch you, and you’re so good.

My belly asks why.

I lose the weight, but my belly wins. My belly, stretched, refuses solidity. It is fluid, with its traceries of silver, spilling over my waistband, sloshing to the side, galloping in its own rhythm as I run. My belly contains its multitudes. It doubles itself when I sit, triples when I bend. I cannot contain it.

There is another baby in my belly but that one dies inside me and for weeks I don’t know it until the doctor turns the screen toward me and lets me say it myself: There’s no heartbeat, I say. I ask my belly why. My belly has no answer. My belly, hollow, weeps blood.

My baby died, I tell my friend. My baby died, my baby died, my baby died. And then I feed my belly. Chocolate cake, red wine, potato chips, cookies, all of it. My belly sends it back. On my knees, on the floor, weeping, I think, Not enough. Bottomless pit.

My belly says, try again. My belly says, I have more for you. I contain multitudes. I contain the universe.

My daughter says, Mommy, why is your belly so wrinkly? Why is your belly so droopy? And mindful of the endless battle I wage, hoping to spare her, I say, My belly is beautiful. My belly says that it made you in there. It wrote you on my skin. Lies told to spare her. But my belly nods and jiggles its agreement. So true, it says.

And then there is my son. My belly, once again the fierce guardian. We make our bargain. Bananas at 3 am. Nine months measured in gains: 30 pounds, 35 pounds, 38 pounds, pain. The final gain, the prize, my boy.

My how he grows. He grows and he grows, and he lies beside me, cuddling, his hand on my belly. He sings it a love song: Juggly, juggly, juggly belly! I love your juggly belly! His hand makes it wobble, dance, sway between my hipbones, a sloshing mass, mud not sand, not smooth, wrinkled scars of the babies it bore, juggly belly. I want to be a bug, he says, so I can bounce on your belly! He inserts his finger in my deep hollow of bellybutton. I would live in here, he says. I would be safe and warm in here, in your belly.

I tell a friend, and she is horrified. Juggly! Oh no! Kids say the most terrible things! But no, I say, defending my son. I say, You have to understand. For my son, it is all joy. For him, what he feels is pure and good. My belly is the source of all comfort, all softness and warmth, all mother love. It is good. Saying this, I rest my hand on my belly, possessive. It fits neatly into my palm, as if they are made for each other, hand and belly. And then I know it is my belly I defend. My friend, my self, my belly.

Goldberry Long is the author of the novel, Juniper Tree Burning. Her second novel, O’Keeffe’s Girl, is under contract at Simon and Schuster. She teaches at University of California, Riverside.

Last Call

Last Call

By Daisy Alpert Florin


What surprises me is that the very thing I craved for so long when the children were small and seemingly always underfoot—space and time away from them—is exactly what frightens me now. 


When I was younger, I dreamed of having three children. Three kids felt chaotic, messy, and fun; three kids was the best kind of party. I feel incredibly lucky to actually have three children who kick my butt each and every day. My plate is full, blessedly so. So why can’t I stop thinking about having another baby?

I’m as surprised by this as anyone. The only time I ever thought about having a fourth child was soon after my youngest son, Oliver, was born five years ago. Late one night, I looked down at his soft pink cheek gently pulsing as he nursed and said to my husband, Ken, “Maybe we should do this again.” He turned over and muttered, “Maybe with your next husband.”

In the busy years that followed, that late night urge was packed up as definitively as the boxes of maternity clothes I sent to a friend right after Oliver’s birth with a note that read, Won’t be needing these anymore! But for some mysterious reason, I find it tickling my consciousness again now just when, by some miracle, we are almost on the other side. Oliver started kindergarten last week. Our house no longer looks like a nursery school classroom, and we’re finished with diapers, strollers and cribs. Yet the desire for another baby, long dormant, pulls at me. Please explain.

This is how Ken and I discuss whether or not to have a fourth child: he tells me it is a terrible idea, reminds me that we are old, have three other children to care for, and do I want him to have to keep working for the rest of his life? “You’re not exactly Mother Earth,” he adds as I grump my way through breakfast. I nod and agree with all of his reasons and we decide to move on. And yet, I can’t.

Despite circling around the topic again and again, we never really come to any resolution. And with both of us into our 40s, there is a very good chance that we may “run out the clock” on this particular decision. I don’t want to pressure Ken into making such a big decision, one that involves not only me and my wishes but every member of our family. But there’s something else that stops me from pushing the conversation further, something other than my reluctance to return to sleepless nights and the terrible twos. It’s because, deep down, I worry that my wanting to have another child is just a way to avoid facing the scary prospect of what comes next. For me, that is.

What happens to a mother when her babies grow up? I wonder as my daughter Ellie outgrows another pair of jeans and my older son Sam packs his bags for sleep away camp. What will I do with the freedom I’ve earned now that the rope that has tethered me to my children for so many years finds a little more slack? And since I’ve been a mostly stay-at-home mother for the past eleven years, I worry about job security. Is having another child merely a way for me to ensure against my inevitable slide into obsolescence?

What surprises me is that the very thing I craved for so long when the children were small and seemingly always underfoot—space and time away from them—is exactly what frightens me now. In the mornings, when my kids are at school, I vacillate between being thrilled at having the whole house to myself and terrified of being alone. During those quiet hours, fears float around me like ghosts. Is this what it will be like when everyone is gone? Have I given up too much for them? These disembodied thoughts pelt me from all sides, and a baby seems like the very thing I need to swat them away. And although I know another child would only offer a temporary reprieve, sometimes I can convince myself that’s all I need. Just a few more years and then I’ll figure out what I want to do with myself. I promise.

“You realize if you have another baby,” Ken tells me, “you’ll basically be 60 before everyone moves out.”

I have to admit this sounds both wonderful and nauseating.

Ken, who is my heart, has told me that he would try to have another baby if it was something I really couldn’t move past, but he asks me to look closely at my reasons for wanting one, to tease out the threads of maternal longing from fear of stepping into my future, some place only I can go. In the meantime, I ponder the decision to have another baby or to close that door forever, turning it over and over again in my head until it is smooth like a river stone.

Daisy Alpert Florin is a writer and mother of three. Her essays and stories have appeared in Brain, Child, Full Grown People, Kveller, Halfway Down the Stairs and Mamalode, among other publications. Visit her at www.daisyflorin.com.

Bedsharer’s Lament

Bedsharer’s Lament

By Olivia Campbell


If only you’d given birth to the kind of babies you can lay down anywhere after they fall asleep, and they stay asleep.


With a finally passed-out 17-month-old on your shoulder, you have to slither into bed as gingerly as you can: waddling on your knees like a penguin to the middle of your mattress, turning around and then laying back as slowly as possible—utilizing all the core muscles you have left after having two kids (sit-ups being absent in your recent memory) while sliding him carefully down your arm and onto his pillow—if you’re lucky, your arm won’t get stuck underneath him. Your precious 23-pound wrecking ball has already slept soundly on your shoulder while you peed and brushed your teeth with one hand, so you are feeling pretty confident about tonight’s sleep potential.

About 20 minutes after you both get all settled in (you know, long enough for you to be lulled into a false sense of sleep-security), it happens. At first it’s only rolling and writhing. You hope he will calm back down because it is dark and you are both under the covers. Exhausted after a day at the office and then chasing two wild boys around while your husband works late, you only have the energy left to offer a banal butt pat, served alongside a robotic “shhhhhh.”

He’s wiggling faster now, tossing and flailing as if his limbs are willing him to wake. He groggily requests “meh” as he pokes a finger into your chest. You quickly oblige, hoping the soothing act of nursing and resulting full belly of milk with lure him back to sleep, as it has so many night before. No such luck. First he turns so his feet are underneath him, then straightens his legs and sticks his butt high into the air. Next, he side-steps closer to you and slides both legs up along your top arm, until finally his straight, stiff body is planking across you at an angle: feet on your shoulder, mouth on your boob, nursing away.

After feasting on both sides twice, he sits up and alertly assesses his surroundings. Your greatest fear is realized. He was only taking a late-evening nap. Hey Ma-ma, 11:30 p.m. is playtime, get with the program! Don’t let him shake your stoicism; just pretend you’re asleep. That will work, right? Undeterred, he pokes a determined pointer finger deep down into your pillow a few inches in front of your nose and slides it slowly along the pillowcase toward you. His aim is to gauge the openness of your eyes, but he misses and stabs you in the cheek.

Realizing that “Da-da’s” absence significantly increases his play area, he begins rolling up and down your husband’s pillows giggling fiendishly, as if he’s on a lush grass-covered hill deep in the throes of springtime. Next comes flash dancing—quick bursts of running in place that crescendo in purposeful falling and artificially loud laughter. Then BLAMO! Out of nowhere, a sharp kick from a 5½-inch foot scrapes mini-razor toenails across your cheekbone. It retracts back quickly and then lands a heel squarely on your nose. It’s going to be a long night.

If only you’d given birth to those babies you can lay down anywhere after they fall asleep and they stay asleep (you know, the kind all your friends seem to have?). It was with your first son that you discovered the ultimate frustration of spending an hour dutifully walking your baby to sleep in a zombie-like stupor, only to have him wake up the minute you peel him away from your body and begin the slow decent toward his crib. You accepted that slithering into bed with a baby on your shoulder was your only chance for sleep.

Because of the severity of the potential danger that has been indelibly—if undeservedly—linked to bedsharing, some find it difficult to even admit. And those that do admit to it don’t dare confess to it being less-than-ideal at times, for fear of adding to its negative image. Most nights, it does feel like the best choice of all child-sleep-situation options available to you, but—like most aspects of parenting—it can be awesome at times and unbearable at others. It’s not all snuggles and Mr. Sandman.

You too are guilty of perpetuating this lie; your smug boasting to coworkers now hangs stale in the back of your mind, mocking you: “Bedsharing is so great! You know, we just love it! It’s the only way I get any sleep with a nursing baby.” You don’t remember sounding that nasal or superior. You felt so confident and convincing, proudly declaring your rebellious sleep situation. Now that you think about it, they clearly saw straight through you. C’mon, they see the dark circles under your eyes and hear the yawning.

“We couldn’t even have our son in the same room with us at night!” a friend admitted. “I was so not prepared for the amount of noise babies make—the grunting and snoring—I would never get any sleep if he was in our room, let alone our bed.”

“You co-sleep too?” your boss confessed with excited relief. “The twins sleep with us in our king-size bed because the one just loves to nurse. He uses me like a pacifier.” She waited many years to finally have children. She wants them close to her. Since she works full time, nights are the longest stretch of time they have to be together, but she doesn’t often admit to bedsharing. She definitely hasn’t told her pediatrician. You haven’t either, you know. If we can’t even broach the subject with friends, family or healthcare professionals without worrying we will be seen as someone who knowingly puts their child in danger, how can we have any hope of an open discussion of guidelines for safe practices and suggestions for making it more mutually enjoyable?

“They are getting so big now,” she continued. “I feel like it’s time to kick them out because they are taking up so much room, but I don’t know where to put them since they are used to sleeping with people.”

Yes, once you start sharing a bed with an infant (or two) you eventually end up feigning sleep while dodging kicks to the face from a 2 ½ -foot-tall bully; shouting “GO TO SLEEP!” as hope for the solace of slumber anytime in the near future slips further from your grasp. Recognizing the seriousness of your tone, your son collapses and curls into a ball next to you like a shamed puppy. Slowly, the nighttime ninja begins slinking down toward the foot of the bed on his stomach, disappearing under the comforter. Off the bed to freedom. Once he touches the floor it will be over. He will be running around the living room until 2 a.m. flipping the light switches on and off. You scoop him up and firmly lay him down next to you, forcefully inserting the comforter under his armpit. He senses you mean business and is momentarily peaceful. Eventually, the squirming begins again.

You remind yourself that not every night is like this; that you can only truly appreciate the thrill of your baby’s soft late-night cuddles and smiling early-morning awakenings after experiencing the agony of an errant flailing arm shocking you awake at 3 a.m. by backhanding your eye so hard you see only brilliant white. Like his brother before him, he too will soon have a bed of his own. You will once again revel in the decadence that is whole nights of deliciously uninterrupted sleep … unless you decide to have that third kid, anyway.

Olivia Campbell is a writer, dancer and mom of two feisty boys whose articles on parenting, health, natural living and dance have appeared in The Daily Beast, Mothering Magazine and The Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts Quarterly.

Photo: salon.com

The Accidental Lactivists

The Accidental Lactivists

By Mira Saxena Mother Breastfeeding her newborn baby

The Breast Whisperer was at our door. It was day two home from the hospital after the birth of my first child, and no amount of reading or lactation class preparation could have readied me for the elusiveness of “the latch.” I had a small coterie around me: my parents, my husband, and squirming in my arms, my baby daughter. My father let her in, the city’s number one Lactation Consultant; she brought a “hospital grade” breast pump with her into our daughter’s room.

Having recently abandoned any sense of nursing bashfulness in front of my father, I struggled to hold my baby while balanced on an inflatable donut pillow on the seat of the glider chair. I hoped, in my sleep deprived haze that someone in the room would take notes on how to use this new machine.

After a natural birthing class, my husband and I had decided to go “all in” with exclusive breastfeeding for as long as I was able. But the “alwaysness” of breastfeeding on demand had been staggeringly exhausting. My own mother was sympathetic to my plight, but she had never used a breast pump herself, and didn’t have tips to share.

The first night at the hospital after our daughter’s birth, my husband sat alone on a glider, in the hospital nursery, chatting with the nurses and letting our baby suck on his thumb (a technique suggested by our birthing instructor). She fussed in his helpless arms but he held firm, telling the nurses we didn’t want to introduce formula, or a pacifier, for that matter, while I caught up on a few hours sleep ready to try again to nurse as dawn arrived.

Learning to breastfeed was difficult. Repeated tries with an improper latch had left me so sore it was painful to continue trying, but I tried with my Medela pump to extract enough milk to keep my supply from dwindling. For those few days prior to our Lactation Expert visit, my husband learned to feed my milk to our tiny one with a hooked syringe and, again, his thumb in between my attempts to let her nurse. She was like a small baby bird drinking from a beak.

That afternoon, the Breast Whisperer explained how to use the new, mint green contraption, which we then rented for a few months—it looked harmless, in all its pastel glory. Soon I was in the groove, producing an ample supply of milk.

Fear of the painful latch, however, threatened to thwart even my best attempts to breastfeed. I tried to tolerate my daughter’s nursing, even as I was nursing my own raw anatomy, with my husband crouched at my side. He tried to distract me by reading poems of Wallace Stevens. Those tender moments are some of my most cherished parenting memories.

My own dad was a different story. With my husband at work, my sister living overseas and my mother traveling, my retired father volunteered to come over every few days and spend time with me and the new baby—he’d hold the baby so I could pump, sit with her while I ate or keep her company while I got some much needed sleep.

When our daughter was five months old, a hurricane blew through town, knocking the power out in our suburb. We had decamped to the city for a few days, where luckily, there was still power. But most of my hard won milk was in our freezer at home. Fretting over the spoiled milk, my husband drove back in the horrible weather—with a cooler—and he brought back the milk stash, on ice. My knight in rain-soaked boots.

It’s easy to look back on these mammary memories now, sometimes in amusement. I didn’t know about thrush, how a nursing mother’s diet could affect the baby, about hand expressing or clogged ducts. So much is thrown at women at the critical juncture of birth and feeding, and there aren’t always supportive people around who advocate not to give up.

Lucky for me, the two most important men in my life kept me going until my daughter and I hit our stride and became a super breastfeeding duo. These amazing Dads taught me that sometimes men are the silent force behind the woman, stepping in when needed. I nursed our daughter until she was two and a half because of their early encouragement. Even though she was no longer the tiny infant, the glider was our favorite spot during those final years of nursing. It was also the place where I could reflect on the love that came from an early bond we all carefully nurtured, and created together.

Mira Saxena has read many an issue of Brain, Child with a sleeping baby in her arms. She writes often on parenting and motherhood and lives with her husband and two daughters in Washington, DC.

Learning to Talk to Myself the Way I Talk to My Kid

Learning to Talk to Myself the Way I Talk to My Kid



I was never fond of the sound of my own voice, but the moment his ears hit the air, my son loved it. I would sing to him in the middle of the night. I would read him books to see him smile. And when I ran out of songs and books, I would narrate what I was doing, how I was feeling. I would rattle off the names of objects, shapes, colors. I recited the pledge of allegiance and counted to a hundred. I talked so much my jaw got sore.

In fact, I talked so much, something dangerous happened: my internal monologue went external. I started jabbering out loud even when my son wasn’t around. Perhaps because I was speaking out loud, I found I was finally listening to what I was saying to myself. And I was not impressed.

Why are you so lazy? You need to suck in your belly. You shouldn’t have said that. That bra looks weird on you. Why haven’t you finished that yet? Do you need to eat this much dessert? You look tired. You are boring. That’s not funny. That was stupid. And on and on and on. I consider myself a pretty secure, confident individual, but the string of insults I was letting loose on myself, I wouldn’t say to my worst enemy.

In contrast, my interactions with my son were filled with affection and encouragement, acknowledgement and praise. The disparity was so severe that I decided to try a little experiment. I decided to make a conscious effort for an entire week to talk to myself the way I talk to my kid. No insults. No put-downs. No relentless questioning of decisions. Just kindness, understanding, and appreciation. No hate. Only love.

At first, it seemed almost impossible. The negative thoughts were like a rainstorm I just couldn’t control. When I got dressed in the morning, when I got distracted at work, when I ate, when I walked, when I drove, there they were. But, slowly and steadily, I started replacing them with positivity.

When I got ready for work, I looked in the mirror and said, Your skin is lovely. Instead of berating myself for being winded after climbing a flight of stairs, I admired the machinery of my body and how, fast or slow, it always gets me where I need to go. I called myself “curious” instead of “distracted.” I enjoyed my relaxation time, instead of chastising myself for being lazy. When I looked in the mirror, I focused on my eyes and not the bags underneath them.

The more I practiced, the easier it became. Whenever a negative self-thought knocked at my brain, I asked myself if I would say it to my son and, if not, I made a conscious choice not to let it in. When I speak to my son, my words are always carefully considered, even when I’m tired or stressed. I reserve harsh tones for danger. This seems to be to be a pretty good system. So how did I get so off-track when it comes to myself?

When I really stopped to listen, I was shocked and disgusted by the amount of negativity I was firing at myself, without even noticing it, all day long. I think about my one and a half-year-old son—my perfect boy, my dream come true—who is so amazing that I miss him when he sleeps. If anyone ever spoke to him the way I speak to myself, I would want to crush that person. And if I somehow learned that he was speaking to himself this way? Well, that would crush me.

I’m someone’s child, too. I know my own mother probably sent me into the world with the same mix of excitement and fear I feel (“This baby’s precious! Please be careful with him!”). Taking it a little easier on myself is one small gift I can give to her, mother to mother. Maybe with enough practice I can permanently shift my thinking and, with a little luck, pass my kinder, gentler, point of view on to the next generation.

I think part of the reason my son loves the sound of my voice so much is that it is always carrying kindness and love. I know that as he gets older, he’ll be hearing my voice less and less and his own more and more. I’m hoping that I can teach him to love the sound of his own voice, too.


Lonesome Road

Lonesome Road

By Molly McNett

sophialaurenSometimes I must get out of the house and its “chronic angers,” as the poet Robert Hayden put it. This particular night I fought with my husband—about what? I never remember—and slammed the door at eight-thirty, just after the kids were in bed. I was still nursing. And I was so heavy, thirty pounds overweight, although the baby was six months old already.

Was it dark? I think so. Or it became dark as I walked. The road is a natural place to be alone here, in rural Illinois. There are only animals, and their pastures—no people, no houses in sight. I seemed to be stirring the hot afternoon with the new evening as I walked: My face was warm and my hands were cold, and I could feel these opposing currents moving.

A hawk gave a raspy cry and swooped down from a tree, and then it was quiet. A deer jumped up from a bush in front of me, straight up over the fence and into the soybeans. She took three nearly vertical jumps and stopped, the soybeans up to her neck. She made a pretty picture frozen there in profile, with the fireflies lighting quietly all over the field. I watched them for a while. If I wanted to explain to a deaf person what music was like, I thought, I would show them this field. All these sweet, tiny lights, holding and releasing together or in turn, the whole field a silent polyphony. I was pleased with myself for thinking of this. I stood there watching and being pleased with myself.

A truck came by. I heard it approach from behind, and I stepped off the road, waiting for the noise to go away, to continue my walk. But after it passed, it circled back and pulled up alongside me. A man rolled down the window.

“You okay?”

“Yes,” I said, but I was startled, like the deer. I was half a mile from home. And it was dark.

“I thought you was someone I knew,” said the man. He sighed. “I thought you might be someone I knew.”

Whiskey on his breath. He was maybe sixty. No beard but unshaven. There was a gun on a rack behind the front seat: a hunting rifle. And behind it, the outline of a pissing Calvin on the window.

“This gal I’m looking for … She’s my wife’s daughter, but she run away from her dad and then come to my wife and me and she run away from us then, eleven days ago. There from a distance, I thought you was her.”

He’ll ask if you need a ride, I told myself. Say no, emphatically. Don’t act afraid.

“Did you call the police?”

“Oh, hell, they can’t do anything—she’s eighteen.”

His truck is idling noisily. Then he shuts it off, which makes me nervous. I ask, “What happened?”

“I tried to lay down the law on her. I says, you’ll be home at such-and- such an hour and you won’t have them friends of yours in my house or drugs and whatnot. I love you like a father, and if he don’t lay down the law, then I will.”

His “such-and-such a time” makes it all a little spurious. I have kids. I would never say their bedtime is “such-and-such a time.” It’s eight-thirty.

“You know what she resembles? Sophia Loren.”

I had no image of a young Sophia Loren, only someone matronly, an older “classy lady” whose picture I sometimes saw in women’s magazines in articles about How to Care for Skin at Every Age, along with maybe Catherine Deneuve, or Julie Christie.

He put his elbow on the window and leaned out.

“Why are you out so late?” It sounded like “slate.” Why are you out slate.

“I have a baby,” I said. “I can’t get away any other time.”

This was true: I could hardly get out of the house. I was trapped there. Suddenly I felt I’d confessed something terribly intimate. If he asked me to elaborate I might begin to cry— how important it seems, the fact that you are fat, at a time like this. Everything you say feels like an apology. Everything that happens interpreted through this layer of belly fat, ass fat, huge quaky boob fat.

But he didn’t notice. His eyes were squeezed shut, and he was shaking, softly. And maybe because my own misery had come to the surface, I felt I knew something about him, and why he cried. He was in love with his own stepdaughter. So he was not only drunk, but maybe crazy. Or dangerous. And the nearest house was my own, now half a mile away.

“She’s wild,” he sobbed. “I told her, I got to look after you like your own father would. I got to lay down the law. But them friends of hers … You can’t hold her down. You can’t tame her.”

I am disgusted by him. He is old, and grizzled, and drunk, and in love with a teenager. And yet his face is pitiful. His jowls hang down like some sad dog’s.

Just because you are not attractive doesn’t make you less susceptible to beauty: That is something the young imagine. My breasts are grossly heavy, my legs and face are swollen, but underneath these things I am the same person. I watch men and think of them in the same way I always have, because all love is a dream, whether it is manifest in your own flesh, or not. Even now I am dreaming that I can be mistaken for a young Sophia Loren—at least, on a dark night.

“That’s too bad,” I said to the man. Sometimes you just need to say it. I’m in love with my stepdaughter. I’m trapped in my own house.

He started up his truck and drove off, and I walked home, thinking that it’s hard to predict when people will find something in common. It might only be the fact that we are alive, of the same species, on a road at night. A road where everything is quiet, except for the high trilling of the frogs. A bull in the field with his low, gasping inhale. Coyotes, who sound dangerously close, their voices circling: Here I am, I’m coming, choose me.

Author’s Note: Sometimes walking is the only way to be alone. And it’s a fine one, easy to see as a metaphor, since you walk away from your life as you do it. For me, I’m walking away from my family who needs me, and my house which needs me, to a place where I am only myself for a little while, where I can have a different vantage on the day, or the argument, and so on. If I am angry when I begin to walk, I usually don’t return that way.

Molly McNett lives with her husband, son, and daughter on a farm in northern Illinois. Her writing has appeared in The Best American Non-required Reading, as well as many literary journals. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Brain, Child (Winter 2008)

photo credit: life.time.com

The Boob Tube

The Boob Tube

By Susan Vaughan Moshofsky

boobtube“Your nipples are inverted,” the nurse announced as she eyed me. Sitting in my hospital bed the day after I delivered Rachel, our first child, I hoisted each gargantuan breast into position to help our daughter “latch on.” At one day old, it seemed she’d sprouted teeth. I gritted mine through each brief breastfeeding session.

“You’ll need these,” the nurse explained as she handed me two clear, plastic nipple shields. Shaped like three-inch-diameter spaceships, their purpose was to help draw out my nipples, she explained while stuffing the little ships inside my nursing bra. Pre-pregnancy, I was a full-breasted woman. Now, I was practically a size 46 GGG: Wonder Woman without the waistline. At least with those qualifications, I knew I’d have no trouble breastfeeding.

Or so I thought. On my second day in the hospital, the nurse worried that Rachel was getting little, if any, milk, so she suggested formula supplementation. I refused, determined to succeed. New mom though I was, I knew that supplementing was the Dark Side. Would prevent bonding. A sure-fire way to shave off a few IQ points. A failure.

“Try tea bags,” one nurse suggested. I looked at her quizzically. “It helps with the pain,” she explained. Several cups of tea later, I dutifully applied the cooled tea bags to my nipples after each abortive attempt at nursing. After the tea bags grew cold, I replaced them with the nipple shields to make my introverts more extroverted. Another nurse demonstrated the “football hold,” but even that didn’t help. A few friends who visited shared their breastfeeding advice. “Oh, I could never get that close to my child if it was nursing time,” one friend reported. “My milk would let down all over the front of my shirt.”

Another asked, “Don’t your breasts hurt just before it’s time to feed your baby?” I rolled my eyes. They hurt all the time. Now I knew: breastfeeding is the female peeing contest.

By the third day, I had to admit my failure to the nurses, my OB/GYN, the pediatrician, visiting friends, and extended family. Could being discharged from the hospital help? Surely, breastfeeding would be more natural in the privacy of my own home.

But I was wrong about that, too. After a few more days of painful, home nursing sessions broken only by applications of cold tea bags, icepacks to the chest, and wearing the plastic spaceships, it was clear I would not be invited into the LaLeche League.

When Brett, my husband, insisted we call the doctor, sure it shouldn’t be this hard, our pediatrician warned that if Rachel didn’t have enough wet diapers, we should bring her in to his office. There, the doctor suggested we supplement with water until my milk came in. But a couple of days later, she seemed even hungrier—and angrier. And nursing hurt more than ever. It was time for formula and a lactation specialist, the doctor explained.

The specialist prescribed a Supplemental Nursing System, a contraption designed to stimulate milk production. The largest part of the device was an eight-ounce plastic bottle suspended upside down from a white, cordlike “necklace.” Two 1/16-inch surgical feeding tubes dangled from the neck of the bottle, each tube taped to a nipple. Rachel would nurse “normally” (if one could consider this getup normal) but would get formula from the tubes as her suckling stimulated milk production to such proportions that the contraption would soon no longer be necessary. Being rid of this “boob tube,” then, became my goal—every feeding, every day, for three long months.

Parenting books had pronounced nursing such a convenience: one could meet the baby’s need at any moment and in any location! Not with the boob tube! Before each feeding, I had to sterilize all parts of the apparatus by boiling them in a pot, fill the bottle with formula (after preparing that), remove my shirt and bra, dangle the bottle around my neck, get out the tape, tape a feeding tube to each nipple, grab Rachel, now purple-faced and screaming, from a helpless-looking Brett, hoist up a nipple, and finally, position her so she could latch on—over seven or eight times a day. No discreet feedings for me! I went almost nowhere unless I was guaranteed a private room.

After a few weeks with the boob tube, it appeared Rachel was taking less formula each day, but the lactation specialist felt we weren’t progressing quickly enough. To further stimulate milk production, she prescribed three-times-a-day hookups to a mechanical breast pump. Why not? We certainly weren’t entertaining guests under these circumstances! My life at the time was drinking tea so I could put the used tea bags on my nipples, wearing the Amazon-woman nipple shields, and looking like a permanent ad for a 48-hour bra. Add the seven or eight 45-minute boob tube feedings plus the thrice-daily breast-pump sessions, and I felt real sympathy for cows in dairies.

To pass the time one night while hooked up to the breast pump, I watched the movie “Frankenstein” with Brett. I felt like a freak myself, sitting on the couch, the funnel-shaped cone attached to my breast, and the hum of the pump’s motor muffling the creature’s roar in the movie. During a commercial, I reached proudly for the milk container to show Brett how much I’d produced (two ounces of milk after two hours of pumping!!)—and clumsily knocked it over. I watched helplessly as the precious liquid spilled onto the carpet. I know what it means to cry over spilled milk.

Desperate to reclaim any vestiges of self-respect I still had at the time, I vowed not to become some bathrobed slob, hair in curlers with nothing more to say at the end of the day than, “I fed the baby today, dear.” Though that’s all I did, I took pains to get dressed every day before Brett left for work. Then I’d boil the boob tube, prepare the day’s formula, and wait for Rachel to wake up so I could begin the arduous task of feeding her.

One morning I put the boob tube into the pot as usual, started the water to boil and headed downstairs to get dressed, but it was so cold, I decided to climb back into bed for just a few minutes. It had snowed the night before, and the heat hadn’t come on yet. Rachel was still asleep; the chilly house was peaceful and quiet. My plan: get warm under the covers while the boob tube was being sterilized, then run back upstairs and perform the morning feeding once the house had warmed up. Three months into this project, the lactation specialist now estimated Rachel was getting 80 percent of her nutrition from my breast milk—only 20 percent from the formula in the boob tube! With only 20 percent to go, I was determined to make the grade. But weeks of sleep deprivation pulled me into a deep slumber.

I woke to the smell of smoke. Racing upstairs through a gray fog, I rounded the corner to the kitchen, expecting flames. Instead, a black cloud billowed from the pot glowing on the hot burner. Grabbing the pot’s handle, I shoved open the deck door and sank the pot into the four inches of snow outside. I flung open every door and window and darted downstairs to find Rachel sleeping, oblivious to the danger.

I ran back upstairs, worried about the pot sitting on our wooden deck. It had melted all the snow it sat on. I looked inside the pot for the boob tube: nothing. Thinking the contraption had fallen out of the pot in my hurry, I retraced my steps but again found nothing. The boob tube must have melted; the black smoke, its cremation.

Without the boob tube, I couldn’t give Rachel enough breast milk. All my efforts would be wasted! I’d have to get a new device! And with the delay the snow might cause, I’d never get to the 100 percent point now, if it had ever been possible.

I squinted into the pot as if to find some insight. There, etched indelibly into the now-distended bottom of the pot was the word “Medela,” the brand name of the boob tube, and all that was left of the three months of turmoil.

Now it was clear. If ever I’d needed a sign to set me free from the prison of straps and tubes, free from the dread of hearing Rachel’s cry to be fed, this was it.

I reached into the cupboard for the formula and the one bottle we owned, feeling such relief. No more boob tube! No more hermitlike seclusion, sequestered away with Rachel and this odd contraption! I could now feed her with the bottle I’d been avoiding all along. Freed of the boob tube and the terrible mother-guilt that prodded me to exceed the limits of reason in my quest to properly nourish our child, I began to enjoy feeding her. No more wasted bonding time getting her “hooked up.” No more purple-faced, screaming baby. No more days measured by ounces, caught up in a competition with no winners.

Author’s Note: While I’m proud that I tried to breastfeed our daughter, it took burning up the boob tube to show me that motherhood is not a competition. I didn’t need to jeopardize my bonding with my baby just to prove that I could breastfeed, as if I were in some kind of Mom Olympics. Being freed of the boob tube helped me start that bittersweet journey of motherhood—that letting go of what I think is best to make room for what is truly needed.

Susan Vaughan Moshofsky is a mother, teacher, and writer who lives with her family of five in Portland. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child, Huffington Post, The Oregonian, and Seattle’s Child.

Now I Mother From a Distance

Now I Mother From a Distance

By Dina L. Relles

It is dark and still. The single lamp casts a warm glow on the orange walls. His tiny hand wrapped in mine; his chest rhythmically rises and falls with each breath, nearly lulling me back to sleep. I’m curled up in the rocking chair, my tattered gray t-shirt raised slightly, his warm body cradled around my soft, bare belly. He nurses.

I could hear a lone car drive by on 8th street. Otherwise, it feels as if we are the only ones in the world.

For most of his first year, my son would wake at 4 a.m. and cry out. Weary with the weight of months of sleep deprivation, I nevertheless traipsed into his softly lit room each time with meaningful purpose. To feed, to comfort.

Nothing changed when I went back to work. I would still nurse him before dawn and place him back into his crib for more sleep. Then I would start my day, fitting in a couple billable hours before the world awoke.

How I loved those 4 a.m. feedings. I never wanted to let them go. I savored the time alone with my son and the peaceful possibility of those early mornings. Years later, it’s still when I like to wake, when I write—my sacred, silent start of day.

But when my son was nine months old, I went away on business—a two-day stint to Dayton, Ohio for expert depositions. My mother came in from New York to stay with the baby. I’ll never forget receiving her call to my hotel room to proudly report that my son had slept through the night.

What I heard was that he no longer needed me.

Indeed, even when I returned home, he had weaned himself of that 4 a.m. feeding. Most mothers would be thrilled.

Why couldn’t I let it go?

Because this I knew. This was comfortable. These needs were simple, basic. I could do this. Even in my (light) sleep, my ears knew his cries; my body fed his without effort. I instinctively knew the rhythmic sway of midnight, the cries for company of 4 a.m., the subtle stirring of 6 a.m.

Some long for the sturdy that is One, the mischievous that is Two, or the inquisitive that is Three. For me, the newborn phase couldn’t go slowly enough. That time when you measure in days or weeks, not months or years. When my baby’s whole body fit snugly on my chest, when he was fresh and fragile. When a long walk outside was entertainment enough. When everything was new.

And so those early months of motherhood were filled with comfort and ease, like a favorite sweatshirt. I could have lived in them forever.

Now I’m in uncharted territory. Now we are five, and three, and 18 months—all at once. Now is dirt everywhere, monkey bars, and puddle jumping. Germs and lice. Now is impatience and bullies, bad influences at school, and requests for movies with too much violence.

Now is setting limits and testing them. Now is negotiating. Now is No! Stop! And Don’t Touch! Now is asking five times and still getting ignored. Now is a big boy bed that is too easily escaped. Now is defiant.

Now is discovery and fierce independence. Now is biking too far, too fast away from me. Now is hoping, with bated breath, that he remembers to stop at the corner. Now is skinned knees and gravelly palms.

Now there is a person I can’t wrap in a swaddle blanket and protect from the world.

Now I mother from a distance. My eyes working overtime to catch a fleeting glimpse as he darts fearlessly around the playground. Kisses must be invited. Embraces brief. Legs dangling.

Now is complicated. Now is uncertain. Curiosity about god and death. Now is more questions than answers.

The distance will only grow greater, I know. I recently met a middle-aged woman who told of her grown sons scattered around the globe—the closest lives clear across the country. I tried, hard, to imagine a time when my children wouldn’t be safe in their beds, under my roof. But I couldn’t. I can’t. Especially when it rains.

We want another.

Won’t we always? When will I feel ready to bid a final farewell to the early morning of my motherhood, with all its brilliant possibility, utter dependence, beautiful vulnerability?

But now. Now is “I love you” drawings and racing down the hall to greet me at preschool pickup. Sometimes letting me hold his hand. Now is discovering how his mind works. Learning who he is and seeing glimpses of who he will become.

Now is never still. Now is quickly turning into then. Now we are growing. Now we will figure out. Together.

Dina L. Relles is a lawyer, writer, aspiring doula, and mother of three sons. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Kveller, Mamalode, and Scary Mommy, and she writes regularly at www.dinarelles.com. You can find her on Twitter @DinaLRelles.

I Am Enough

I Am Enough

By Kristin Shaw

IAMENOUGHIt hit me like a two-by-four to the side of my head: stunningly shocking and painfully acute. My hands shook so much I couldn’t read a page of magazine text; I would lie in bed for hours staring at the ceiling, my brain unwilling to shut off. By the time I got to the doctor, I was sleeping two hours a night and I was Googling things like “postpartum anxiety inpatient programs” and “sleep aids safe for nursing”. I was frantic because I worried that Tylenol PM would dry up my milk supply and Ambien would give me horrific side effects; that made me even more anxious and nervous than I was.

My son was one month old.

Lying in bed awake for hours, I considered what it would mean to check into a hospital just to get some sleep. The desperation was overtaking my mind and I was locked in limbo, frozen.

My husband, Will, took over the 4 a.m. feeding so I could stay asleep once I fell asleep. My husband didn’t understand what I was going through, and recommended I walk it off, or take a run. All he knew was that I was always crying when our son was asleep and not sleeping when I was supposed to. I knew I needed help, and he slept on the couch for a few weeks with our son in the swing nearby as I fought the demons, which were licking my heels as I tried to run. The only thing that kept me from actually following through with checking myself into the hospital was the irrational, one-track thought that no one else could feed my baby. I needed to be with him to nurse, and I needed to hang on.

When the Zoloft finally got my sleep back on track, weeks later, and the tears finally dried up, I stopped treading water.  I stopped shaking. And I started fully enjoying more of the moments with my son. I had been trying so hard to put on a good show, and I truly loved being with my baby and took video after video and photo after photo of him, spending my days staring at his beautiful face. I tried not to let him see that I was struggling to maintain control, and I let down my guard only when he closed his eyes.

Those long weeks were hard on me, my husband, and our marriage. In the aftermath, we made a decision: we weren’t going go through this again.

We stuck to this major life decision for the last four years, with me asking the occasional “Are you sure?” every once in a blue moon.

I was 100% sure, until a few months ago.

I started to wonder if I was doing the right thing. I started letting baby fever get to me. I started believing those who told me that I was doing my son a disservice by not giving him a sister or brother. Many of my friends with children my son’s age had asked for a sibling; perhaps my son wanted one too and hadn’t said so yet.

One day, I asked him, “Would you like to have a sister or brother?”

He quickly and definitively said, “NO. I want a dog. He will be my brother.”

So that settled that question.

I have always loved babies. I’m the person who welcomes the mother and baby next to her on the plane, because I want to help. Now that I am a mother I feel like crying and my arms itch to reach out when I hear a baby cry.

I am plagued by the what-ifs and the worries of regret. Someone said to me, “You will never regret having another child.” But she isn’t 43. She had an easy pregnancy. She didn’t have postpartum anxiety.

My whole life, I wanted two children. My sister and I are close, and I thought that two kids was the magic number. Then I had my son and we decided to stop there. Perhaps part of this journey is facing down that part of myself that always dreamed about two children, and letting it fade away.

When I have a pregnancy scare, it’s exactly that—a scare—and it is terrifying. I have flashbacks of severe morning sickness and anxiety, and I hope, deep in my heart, that I am not pregnant. That should be sign enough.

Shhh, you might say. You’d be just fine. You are mom enough to handle two or more children.

Maybe so.

And maybe that’s what I’m worried about. I wonder if I am mom enough because I have not wanted to have more than one child.

Maybe I’m meant for the occasion to help friends when their spouses are on extended business trips and they need help with their children.

Maybe I’m meant to bring meals to new moms to make their day a little easier.

Maybe I’m meant to volunteer somewhere, helping children.

Maybe I’m meant to give all of myself to one little boy and raise him, with his father, to be the kind of person I will admire when he’s an adult.

I am mom enough.

I am mom enough for this one sweet, special, awesome boy. And that’s all that matters. Postpartum anxiety robbed me of time I cannot recover; but it can’t take away my passion for motherhood, in this form, with this one child. I am fulfilled and I am happy, and so is my son.

That is enough.

Kristin Shaw is a freelance writer and blogger; in 2013, her blog Two Cannoli was named a Babble Top 100 site, and she was recognized as Type-A We Still Blog awards finalist. She is a co-producer of the Listen To Your Mother show in Austin, was recently named a BlogHer Voice of the Year reader for 2014, and writes for the Huffington Post.

What The Living Do

What The Living Do

By Emily Rapp

BC_FA2013_Final_layout“Is this your first baby?” Any woman who is visibly pregnant has likely been asked this question by strangers in the grocery store line, other expecting women at the doctor’s office, random passersby in the street.

Pregnant women are often asked deeply personal questions in public: if this is our first child; how far along in our pregnancies we are; if we’re having a boy or a girl; if we have a name picked out. However indelicate these questions might seem, to some degree they make sense. Pregnant bodies are a visible symbol of life andgrowth. People like to engage with women who are expecting to give birth to another human being, which is itself a way of altering the progress of time, of literally changing the world by bringing into it a new life and new possibilities.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I loved answering these questions. As a woman with an artificial leg, I have had a problematic relationship with my body for most of my life, and was accustomed to fielding questions like “what happened to you?” I was well acquainted with our culture’s prurient interest in bodies that are considered “different” or “strange” or “wrong.” When I was pregnant with my son, I felt that my body was doing something right and good in the world; “what happened to me” was no longer an incident of limb loss that required an in-depth explanation. Instead, I was about to be amother. I finally felt normal.

I am pregnant now with my second child and how to fieldthese questions from strangers has become much more complicated since the birth, and then the death, of my first child. My son Ronan died of Tay-Sachs disease in February of 2013 when he was nearly three years old. Tay-Sachs is an always fatal, rare genetic condition that robbed him of all his physical faculties—hearing, sight, movement, and eventually the ability to swallow and process food. Ronan was diagnosed at nine months old, when he was happy and smiling and seemed “normal,” yet he had failed to meet any of his developmental milestones. Some of my most heartbreaking memories are trips to the doctor’s office where a nurse took his pulse with a tiny finger thermometer as he giggled and baby-flirted with her. Many times I watched that nurse’s eyes fill with tears, because here was a doomed child, a sweet baby with red-gold hair and long, pale eyelashes and chubby wrists and ankles who would not live to be a toddler, and whose life would unravel in a devastating way. It is terrible to look at your child and think he will suffer and then he will die.

“How old is he?” people would ask me when I walked Ronan in his stroller on the walking path near my house in Santa Fe before he began to physically manifest the signs of his decline. When I told them they might say, “Oh, it goes so fast,” or “You’ve got so much to look forward to,” and “he’ll be walking and talking soon,” and I would wheel Ronan home, weeping and furious with a horrible raging sadness about the wrenching and ridiculous unfairness of the situation. Sometimes I told the truth. I’d say that he was dying, that he would never talk or walk, and brace myself for the response, if only because I wasn’t ashamed of my son and didn’t want to act as if I were hiding anything. This didn’t matter to Ronan—his cognitive abilities were stalled at a six-month-level before they deteriorated—but it mattered to me. At home I would pluck him from the stroller and hold him and cry and wonder why this was happening to me, how it could possibly be happening to such a sweet and innocent boy. The whole order of the world was reversed—babies dying while the parents lived on.

Losing a child is every parent’s worst nightmare, but to be entirely helpless as an unstoppable, incurable disease takes a child from you, to be told by a doctor “this child will die,” and then to witness the slow fade of personality and then the body, is a situation that on many days I did not think I would—or wanted to—survive. And yet I did.

My desire to have another child emerged just after Ronan was diagnosed. I wanted to plan for another baby right away. My husband, my supportive parents, many well-meaning friends all questioned this course of action. My therapist, too, cautioned me about having another baby. She warned me about the dangers of having a “replacement child.” I found and still find the idea of a replacement child odious and horrifying although it is a documented term. No child is replaceable. A child is not a couch or a job or a great spot for your next vacation. I was 36 when Ronan was diagnosed. I did not have the resources for the complex fertility treatments that my husband and I would have needed to pursue to make sure that our next child was not affected with Tay-Sachs (both parents must be carriers for Tay-Sachs to manifest, andthere’s a 1 in 4 chance that a child will have the disease when this is the case). When I met with the fertility doctor he cautioned me that the next two years were crucial if I wanted to have another baby. The literature I read online and in magazines assured me that it would soon be too late for me to get pregnant. I was facing the combined loss of my child and my newly formed maternal identity—the future seemed to me a skeletal, miserable existence, a shattered and frightening world.

The only people who encouraged me to have another child in short course were the mothers of other children with Tay-Sachs disease, who understood perfectly. Of course you want to feel life again, one mother told me. I began to argue with my therapist that clinical terms like “radical acceptance” of my difficult situation and “replacement child” were entirely divorced from real-life situations. I wanted another child, in part, to anchor me to the world, to the after life of living without my son, butI never thought a new child wouldreplace him. I would have to live through what happened to him, but did I ever have to fully accept it? What would that look like? Of course these were questions that nobody could or ever will answer.

Although my relationship with Ronan’s father did not continue, we parented and cared for our child until his death. When I look back on those two-and-a-half years of Ronan’s care—the seizures and suction machines and medications and finally, a feeding tube through his nose, it seems thunderous and unimaginable. And yet my imagination conjures up these images with ease and I remember and mourn him all over again. Ronan’s absence in my life is present to me—with varying degrees of force and sadness—every day, and this will be true for the rest of my life. The memory of what was lost becomes its own reality and then lingers. This is true of the leg I lost and it is true of anything precious that is taken from us, any loss that changes our lives on such an epic scale. I don’t believe that people “recover” from loss; we can only hope to absorb it in a way that still allows for daily moments of happiness. Even this is sometimes a struggle, but it is one worth engaging in. We press on. We continue to seek life and love and meaningful experiences. Otherwise, what are we doing?

I met Kent, my current partner, aftermy husband and I had already separated and decided to divorce, putting an end (I assumed) to my hopes of having another baby. At this time, Ronan was still alive but entering his period of greatest and most rapid decline. When it became clear to Kent and me that our relationship was one that we wanted to pursue for the long-term, we immediately talked about having a child together. Both of us were older (I was 38 and he was 58) and we both wanted to be parents, me for the second time and him for the first. I got pregnant four months after Ronan died, in the midst of deep grief but also fully supported and loved by a partner.

*   *   *

I took the first pregnancy test before dawn. When the stick read “pregnant,” I was gripped by euphoria, fear, guilt and surprise, all at once. I ran into the bedroom and woke Kent up to show him the results. All of the competing emotions rushed in: the impossible desire to hold my son again, in real time, with my own hands, to smell his hair and kiss his face and touch his skin; and the great hope that this microscopic, newly formed child in my body would live on, first in the womb, and then in the world. This child would replace nobody, I realized. Ronan existed, and this child would exist. Yet I still wondered: could I find full joy in this new baby when his or her half-brother had died?

A few days later I didn’t think I’d need to worry about it. My first ultrasound at six weeks showed a gestational sac with nothing inside: no heartbeat, no fetal pole, no signs of the beginning of viable life.

“Well, it’s a no-go,” the doctor said, asif I had planned a party that had suddenly been cancelled. “Probably a blighted ovum.” My friend, Elizabeth, who had come with me since Kent was out of town for work, switched off the video she’d been taking to show him the next day.

I blinked at the fuzzy screen, the great space waiting to be filled. Ronan had been driven away from my house in the funeral home van only four months earlier. I would never see him again. This baby had disappeared—but where? The doctor snapped off his gloves and began to make quick marks in my chart. “I see from your chart that your son has Tay-Sachs disease,” he said.

“He did,” I said, still on the table, undressed from the waist down and wearing the flimsy cloth robe. “He died.”

He looked up. “You must be Jewish,” he said.

“I’m not,” I said. The room was cold. My legs were cold. “People think Tay-Sachs is a Jewish disease, but it isn’t.”

“It is,” he said.

“It isn’t.”

“You must be Jewish,” he repeated. Ilooked at him and repeated that I was not.

Elizabeth, sensing my agitation and increasingly annoyed, said, “Well, I’m Jewish, but I don’t think you can catch it from over here.” The doctor flushed red, said no more, and left the room. I never saw him again.

The next week I went to a different doctor, who found a strong heartbeat—a vigorous rapid thumping—and a baby forming just where it should be. Kent was with me, and when we saw the tiny form on the screen, we cried. Out of relief, disbelief, fear, happiness, and the idea of these feelings occurring simultaneously.

The pregnancy progressed smoothly, as my first pregnancy had. When I began to show and people began asking me if I was pregnant with my first child, I was determined to remember Ronan in my response, no matter how uncomfortable it made the asker. “No,” I replied. “I had a son and he died.” The conversation often stopped here, the narrative halted. When the questions first began I scrambled to make the awkward exchange a bit easier for the other person. “Sorry to throw that on you,” I’d say, smiling. But now I don’t. My new policy is: asked and answered. Or, as a relative of mine used to say, if you don’t want the answer, don’t ask the question. I don’t elaborate on how or why my first child died when some people go on to ask those questions (and they occasionally do); at that point I tell them that I prefer not to say any more. I don’t want to offer up the details of Ronan’s illness like the pieces of a tragic tale. But I want it to be known—to strangers, to everyone—that he was in the world, that he was fully loved, and that he was my first baby.

I believe that the real danger of having a child in the wake of child loss is the idea that the child who came first and was unconditionally loved will be entirely forgotten. This was an idea I could not and cannot bear. Ronan was singular even after his death. His half-sister will be singular as well, just as loved, just as irreplaceable. She is filling no space; she is creating her own, just as Ronan did, just as every child does. No person’s place is taken by another’s presence. I don’t believe a desire to have another child is a way of healing wounds, or a way of mitigating the great sadness of losing a child. This great joy and sadness can coexist, and in fact they must. This is the responsibility those of us who have lost children have to our living children: to remember. To make known to those we love and live with that each life has a precious place in the world and a significant purpose, no matter how short that life is or might have been.

These are uncomfortable thoughts for all of us, especially parents, because it is so painful to imagine the death of our children; we’d rather not think about it. In general we attempt to avoid thinking about death in this culture, and we pass this culturally sanctioned phobia on to our children. We think they can’t handle it, don’t know about it, but they do. They sense it. They’re humans. They know. It is our job to find an acceptable way to tell them; to make them understand the existence of death and life together. Years before I had Ronan, I met a woman who had framed her stillborn boy’s footprints and hung them on the wall between her bedroom and her living daughter’s. I thought that was just right; I thought that made sense. Death isn’t morbid or unseemly.It’s the inevitable end of any life.

To not discuss Ronan with my daughter, as I will one day,is to devalue both of them in some crucial and profound way. That said, it is not an easy story to tell someone. “Mom had a baby with another man before you were born, and that baby died.” I can see her, years later as a writer, trying to tell that story in a novel, in a poem, in some other book. To whom do these stories belong, and who is in charge of their safekeeping? This is not mine to decide. I can only tell my own truth.

What the living must do is remember.

Author’s Note: Writing about our children is a strange and necessary task as writers who are also mothers. When my son was sick and actively dying, I felt it was my duty to document his life in a meaningful way. I couldn’t save him, but I could save his story. After his death, I am still in the process of trying to make meaning from a situation that felt absent of all meaningfulness. Writing this piece invited me to consider again the strange ways in which chaos works, turning us toward joy and despair, and many times in unequal amounts. This idea of chance, luck, karma, however you name it, is one with which I have long been fascinated, and writing this reignited in me that intellectual interest.

Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir and The Still Point of the Turning World, which was a New York Times bestseller. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Redbook, O the Oprah Magazine, Salon, Slate, and many other publications. She is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. She lives with her family in New Mexico.

Illustration by Mikela Provost

Subscribe to Brain, Child

Two Lesbians and a Eunuch

Two Lesbians and a Eunuch

By Adrienne DeAngelo

TWOLesbiansWe had our son circumcised when he was five weeks old. It wasn’t what we’d planned.

My partner, Colleen, and I waited to find out the sex of our baby until the day he was born. But I can’t say I was surprised when I got my first glimpse of that tiny, finger-like appendage. I’d been secretly convinced all along that we were having a boy. Lesbians just had boys. I thought it was an order-of-the-universe kind of thing.

Not that I didn’t wish for a girl. After all, I understood girls. We were a household of girls. Even our cats are girls.

Our friends with children assured us that there’s little difference between the sexes for the first year or so, so we took some solace in the fact that we’d have time to adjust to having a penis in the house. For the moment, all we needed to decide was whether or not to circumcise.

But circumcision is a controversial topic, and the stakes were high for us. As a lesbian couple, we felt like people would judge us no matter what we decided. There was no dad for our son to look like. No religious custom to fall back on. We didn’t want to make the wrong choice. I mean, what did we know about the penis?

So I did some research. I read baby books; I conducted an extensive web search; I polled friends and neighbors. I found out that, while still a common practice, there’s no medical reason for circumcision. In fact, circumcision rates have fallen dramatically from the 1970s, when circumcision was the norm. One straight woman friend went so far as to tell us, “Sex is much better with the penis intact because of the friction.” (This was more than two lesbians needed to know.)

Other friends—gay and straight, men and women—told us they preferred the look of the circumcised penis to the uncircumcised penis. Colleen’s sister-in- law, a nurse (and someone we trusted implicitly), told us that if she had a boy she would circumcise.

In the course of our deliberations, Colleen and I talked about penises more than we had in the entire ten years we’d been together—possibly our entire lives.

Despite the overwhelming number of opinions, for us it came down to this: If there were a female equivalent of circumcision in the United States, would we perform it on our daughter? No, we decided. So why would we do it to a boy when it’s not medically necessary?

And that’s the last we thought we’d have to think about the penis for a while.

Thirteen days after Emmett was born, he developed a fever and had to be hospitalized. Other than the 101-degree fever, there was nothing obviously wrong with him. But because of the risk of meningitis, the hospital conducted every test imaginable, including a spinal tap. They gave him an IV drip and checked his vitals every four hours.

On our third day in the hospital, the doctors found the culprit: a urinary tract infection. Who knew infants could get urinary tract infections? As we found out, UTIs occur in less than five percent of all uncircumcised boys. A small enough percentage for doctors to conclude than circumcision is not medically necessary. And yet almost no circumcised boys get UTIs. Just our luck.

I could almost hear the collective chorus from my family: I don’t know why you didn’t have him circumcised in the first place.

We left the hospital after five long days, armed with a month’s worth of antibiotics and instructions to schedule an appointment with the urologist. If the infection happened again, it could cause kidney damage. We would need to have some tests done to see whether our son was predisposed to UTIs.

Back to the research. More often than not, I wound up at anti-circumcision websites that railed against the evils of circumcision and the medical establishment at large.

When we met with the urologist two weeks later, he recommended—can you guess?—circumcision. I felt the blood rush to my head. This is just what the alarmist websites warn you about. Sensing my discomfort, the urologist defended himself. “Believe me, I don’t routinely recommend a circumcision,” he said, “but given your son’s history and his tight foreskin”—I hadn’t read about tight foreskins—”I think it’s the best option.” He explained that the test our son needed to rule out an anatomical abnormality could even cause a UTI if he were to remain uncircumcised.

“But you need to get done it now,” he said. “I need to know by Monday morning at the latest.”

Emmett was already nearly five weeks old—late for a newborn circumcision. If we were to delay by a week—or even a few days—he would have to undergo risky general anesthesia. Or we’d have to wait until he was older.

It was a Friday afternoon. If we decided to proceed, our HMO could do the circumcision, the doctor said, but he’d have to pull some strings and we’d have to hope they could schedule us as soon as possible.

So here we were: Two lesbians who had decided to leave their son’s penis well enough alone now having to turn their attention back to what was quickly becoming a lesson in Murphy’s Law.

My overriding fear was not about the circumcision itself, but what people would think. It felt like our first real parenting decision was on trial for all to see. We were sitting in the car after our appointment, not thinking of our son but of how we would feel if we decided to circumcise.

I didn’t trust my own instincts, so I called two, three, four urologists’ offices for a second opinion. All the doctors had left for the weekend.

Colleen was sure we should schedule a circumcision. But she was tired of the hospital; she wanted it done at home. I abandoned my quest for more information and started to look for mohels. Some of our Jewish friends had their sons circumcised at home. One mom even had an older baby circumcised at home. Colleen decided that mohels had more experience than our HMO would.

I found a woman—technically, a mohelette—who was also a pediatrician. Her website, thebrisdoctor.com, was reassuring. I called and explained my son’s health history and age, and she agreed to do an at-home circumcision the very next day.

This would be her first non-ceremonial lesbian at-home non-bris bris.

In the hour leading up to the circumcision, we debated whether we should mark the occasion. Should we say something? Do we take photos? We considered purchasing a bottle of Manischewitz. In the end, we did nothing but watch: Colleen, her brother, her sister-in-law, and her mom gathered around the dining room table as the doctor pulled out a restraint board, a circumcision clamp, a surgical knife, gauze, and some other supplies. We watched as she numbed our son’s tiny penis with anesthesia. Colleen held his arms. Emmett didn’t cry, and it was all far easier than I imagined it would be.

Yet I am horrified by what appears to me to be a mutilation. If we had circumcised him from the beginning—before we decided it was medically necessary—I’d have believed we’d made a mistake.

A few hours after the circumcision we were resting comfortably on the sofa watching a movie. Emmett had been sleeping blissfully for several hours when the mohel called to check on him.

“Has there been any bleeding?” she asked.

“He’s been asleep since you left. Should we wake him up to check?” I said.

“Just take a peek in his diaper,” she said.

I slowly unwrapped Emmett’s diaper. It was clean. Then I saw fresh blood emerging from his gauze-covered penis. Then more. Colleen put the movie on pause.

Blood started to leak through the diaper and onto my hands. I picked our little boy up and moved from the sofa to the table where the doctor had done the circumcision. Blood oozed onto the table. I cradled the phone between my neck and my ear as I gingerly tried to apply pressure to the bottom of the penis and upwards, as the doctor instructed.

Emmett was now crying hysterically. “Take off your shirt,” I told Colleen, who was looking a little faint. “The doctor said to try to breastfeed him to calm him down.”

“Do you think you can rebandage the area?” the doctor asked. “No,” I said as calmly as I could, with blood spilling out over my hands and soaking the bottom edge of Emmett’s snap T- shirt. “Don’t worry,” she assured me, “it looks like more blood than it is. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” And she hung up.

Colleen was standing over the table—topless—with her breasts dangling over our son’s head, trying in vain to feed a beet-faced, loudly protesting baby. It would have been comical had it not be so frightening.

Not getting anywhere with a breast, Colleen decided to give Emmett a bottle. I was still applying pressure to his injured, exposed penis but I could not stanch the bleeding.

A few minutes later, with a bottle in Emmett’s mouth, relative calm was restored. He was still bleeding as I lamely continued to apply pressure to what was clearly the wrong part of the penis.

As I gazed down at my beautiful, bloodied son, I thought, “Oh, my God. He’s going to have to have his penis amputated and he’s going to hate us.” I now felt we had compounded a bad decision with an even worse decision. Our son would be the poster child for the anti-circumcision movement. Even worse, religious fundamentalists would turn it into a cautionary tale: Lesbians Castrate Own Son.

“Oh, that is a lot of blood,” said the mohel when she arrived, congratulating me on having been so calm on the phone. “When you opened the diaper, it must have pulled off the scab,” she said as she deftly applied pressure to the penis and immediately stopped the bleeding.

She stayed with us for nearly an hour, reassuring us and checking to make sure the bandage looked clean. Emmett fell asleep before she left, but I was plagued all night by fears of a bloody recurrence.

The bandage fell off on its own accord the next morning, and the incision looked fine. At last, the trial was over.

Two days later, the foreskin swelled. I snapped a picture and emailed it to the doctor. “Great shot!” she said. (It was her first penis photo by e-mail.) She told us not to worry, the swelling would go down in a few days.

She was right. A few weeks later, Emmett passed the urologist’s test with flying colors. He’s been fine ever since.

At last, Colleen and I could stop worrying that we’d made a bad decision about circumcision. Now we’re busy wondering if we can be arrested for e-mailing photos of a baby’s genitalia.

Author’s Note: I’ve spent the last thirty-six years of my life trying to make the “right” decisions. Being a parent has taught me that no one can make your decisions for you. If there’s a lesson our son can take from our experience, it’s to be conscious, considerate, and confident in his choices. I only hope that I can do the same.

Adrienne DeAngelo is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mother based in Oakland, California.

Brain, Child (Fall 2007)

A Future Letter From Your Crying Child

A Future Letter From Your Crying Child

By Emily Grosvenor

tumblr_n00zmmBaZQ1sn7lxto1_1280You were that mom who wanted to find the lighter side of things and connect with strangers over how hard it is to be around toddlers. You were the mom with the Nikon standing between me and a pair of open arms. I was the kid, your kid, the one holding the flower pot wailing my eyes out.  Your punchline. Your punching bag. A tiny guy with feelings larger than the Internet.

I cried. You snapped a pic. You tried to read my mind. You gave me a funny caption, one of those captions that gets at the very heart of what it is like to interact with someone who can’t use his words: “I planted a flower in the pot he gave me.” And then there I was with our pot, on a stranger’s website about stupid stuff toddlers cry about. 142,365 “Likes.” A book deal. And before I can even write my name, I’m on the cover because you were one of only three people submitting images who had a high-res camera.

I’m on page 35 in a book you had to buy yourself. That year, you bought copies for everyone in our family for Christmas. You handed it out at the office. Within days, everyone I met wanted me to show my sad face.

You really could have stopped there, Mom. You didn’t have to take my fame and turn it into an Internet empire. You didn’t have to start taking photos of my untouched dinners and launch a Tumblr called “Shit My Kid Didn’t Eat.” I actually ate that prosciutto and melon risotto, Mom. You didn’t have to mess up my birthday cake every year to get on Cake Wrecks. You could have left my prominence as a fleeting blip. Instead, it became a thing, like family game night, except every day and for the rest of my life.

You’d set me up on the porch with the flower pot and see if you could recapture the magic. I cried a lot at first. Not about flowerpots by the way. I was crying because it sucked, Mom. Getting your picture taken when you’re crying sucks. I stopped crying after a while, until I learned how you can turn on the waterworks and fake it. My face can’t actually make that kind of sorrow anymore, mom. Trust me. That shit can’t ever be that real again.

Over the years, my hair darkens and the lines furrow into my brow and my nose grew from its tiny nub, my teeth fall out and grow back in again, but I still there, crying for the camera, sure. But each year you record something different. There I am, as an eight-year-old, aware of the joke, mugging for the camera. There I am, 13, more than kind of annoyed, eyes rolling as far back in my head as they go. There I am, 14. I had asked you if I could wear one of those masks from The Scream and you said no. There I am at 16, flower pot in hand, giving you the finger. At 18, I still love you so I do it for you, Mom.

I tried to own it for a while. I tried to make it part of my identity. For a couple of years, I took myself all over the world with the pot. I held up the tower of Pisa with it. It sat on a wall at Machu Piccu. It saw the tulip fields of Amsterdam. I took it through the ancient bonsai gardens of Japan. I made some Pol Pot jokes backpacking with it through Vietnam. Kind of felt bad about that one. But really, all I wanted to be was that Nirvana baby, floating in a sea of aqua after the mighty dollar dangling from a fishing hook. I could have disappeared into normalcy until years later, when journalists would have to track me down to find out what happened to that kid with a flower pot. But that never happened, Mom. Instead, you launched your website with master SEO strategy, www.whyIlovepot.com and posted a picture of me crying every day with the same flower pot. For the next 23 years.

I’ve found some friends in this crying game. I’ve stopped short at gathering for the bi-monthly support group meetings of the kids that ended up in the book. They’re a whiny lot. The littlest things set them off. It’s almost like they think they can get attention by crying in public. There is a lot of group hugging. They’re all trying to recapture their lost youth or something. All of them seem to have some kind of unprocessed anger towards their parents. I follow their online ranting, though. All text, of course. Most of us don’t own cameras. Or kids.

Here’s the thing, Mom. You were wrong. I wasn’t crying because you put a flower in the pot I gave you. I was crying because you planted petunias.

Emily Grosvenor is a travel writer and essayist in McMinnville, OR. She blogs at www.pioneerperfume.com.

This image originally appeared on the blog Reasons My Kid is Crying

Subscribe to Brain, Child

Book Review: Mad Science

Book Review: Mad Science

By Hillary Levey Friedman

hilaryfriedmanBefore I became a parent, I got the most useful child-rearing advice I’ve ever received. While I was interviewing parents for my book Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, one mother told me, “Raising kids is a big experiment and I won’t know till later [if I did it right].” Thinking of child-rearing as a giant science experiment felt reassuring to me—kids are smart, they teach you things, and you can constantly generate hypotheses and test them out.

Shaun Gallagher’s recent book, Experimenting with Babies: 50 Amazing Science Projects You Can Perform on Your Kids,  takes this idea to the next level. Gallagher describes 50 different activities you can do with your child, from infancy through 24 months, to explore cognitive and emotional development, motor skills, and more. Each of these “experiments” is based on published studies (listed at the end of the book), some of which are based on new technology and others with insights that have stood the test of time. Gallagher presents them in easily digestible form—even for sleep-deprived parents of infants—listing the age range, complexity, research area, hypothesis, and takeaway for each. Not surprisingly as your child ages the experiments become more complex.

I am definitely part of the target audience for Experimenting with Babies; my toddler has participated in about 25 experiments at baby labs in the Boston area (which you can see in action here)—though not at any of the labs Gallagher lists on page 96.

As someone interested in baby experiments what struck me is that Experimenting with Babies is really a book about child development, though in a sign of our times of anxious parenting Gallagher has to issue a disclaimer that if your child doesn’t “measure up” you shouldn’t panic. In fact, this book would likely be interesting to those who aren’t parents but who are interested in human evolution and psychology.

For instance, I was most intrigued by the findings of Experiment 16, “Spider Sense.” In a 2007 study researchers found that babies aged 4-5 months gaze significantly longer at an image of a spider than at a scrambled image of a spider (24 seconds versus 16 or 17 seconds) most likely because “being able to recognize a spider, identify it as a threat, and keep away from it is a skill that increases one’s chance of survival.” Others don’t teach kids to recognize or fear spiders, it’s an evolutionary trait, evident at just a few months of life. This is just one of the many things babies do instinctively, proving they are amazing creatures no matter how much classical music we play them, or not (though if you are trying to create the next Mozart, note that Experiment 22, “A Capella Strikes a Chord,” shows that music without instrumentation is best for the 5-11 month crowd).

Of course not all of the experiments are equally as interesting or useful. Take Experiment 19, “Stress Busting,” which shows that your child is less stressed when you interact with him/her. This seems pretty obvious. While Experimenting with Babies is clearly presented and researched it would have been useful at some point, perhaps in a conclusion which I felt the book needed to tie everything together, to discuss whether or not all baby experiments and research are equally as good. Even a mention of how many children were included in each study would have been helpful. But the special boxes and the extensive website affiliated with the book are great additions chockfull of information.

Thanks to Experimenting with Babies I can now add to my list of useful parenting advice. When describing Experiment 44, “A Questioning Look,” Gallagher asserts: “You are your baby’s Google.” Your child has innate skills and knowledge, and s/he will keep developing over time, but in the end while your child is experimenting you are their go-to search engine. Be there for your child and experiment—and while you are at it be sure to get some cute snapshots, like this one of my own young experimenter in action.

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is a sociologist and writer. You can learn more about her work at www.hilaryleveyfriedman.com. She is getting ready to start experimenting with her second son, three-month-old Quenton.

Subscribe to Brain, Child

Relieving Myself

Relieving Myself

By Heather Caliri

winter2008_caliriI attended the new playgroup with the best of intentions—intentions that included not yelling at the participants.

It started out well: Lucy, my daughter, gamboled over pillows while the two mothers who organized the Elimination Communication (or EC) group talked. They’d brought props: a plastic ice-cream bucket, a tiny white potty, articles, a book, their supportive husbands. And trump cards: their tiny, crawling, diaperless babies.

Besides the organizers, I was the only one actually practicing EC. As the two women shared with the six others how connected they felt with their babies, how much more hygienic and healthy EC was, I looked around at the wide-eyed newbies.

I wanted to yell, “Don’t believe them! Your whole life will revolve around your child’s urination! You’ll drive yourself insane!”

Instead, I stayed quiet, concentrating on keeping Lucy from choking on Mr. Potato Head’s face.

*   *   *

A few years ago my husband, Dyami, and I watched his brother and sister-in-law try EC with their second child, Ava. Their first child had gone the conventional route, using disposables until he potty-trained.

But Ava was diaperless from birth. My in-laws suspended her tiny bum over their sink. Sssss, they said as a cue, and presto-chango, she peed; once or twice a day, she pooped, too. They kept her on absorbent towels in bed and used a bowl in the bedroom at night. By the time she was walking at a year, she’d toddle over to her little white potty and relieve herself.

There were some chancy moments, like the time I held Ava when she was only a month old. “She’s really sweaty,” I said. Evelyn, my sister-in-law, laughed. “That’s not sweat,” she said.

And there was the time that Evelyn asked me to keep an eye on Ava in the living room. Ava made a few complaining noises. When I looked up, there was a snake trail of poo on the carpet.

Despite those misses, Dyami and I were intrigued. “Elimination Communication” sounded a little cute, but we liked the idea: learn our child’s rhythms rather than depend on diapers. We borrowed Evelyn’s EC book, Diaper Free, and read about the environmental benefits: no disposable diapers clogging landfills, no cloth diapers using water. The author pointed out that in countries like China and India, diapers are rare. And we were impressed that Ava never had to be conventionally potty-trained; instead, she grew up with a sense of her elimination needs and how to meet them.

But the clincher was what my brother-in-law Jamie told us when we asked whether it was worth the hassle. “Absolutely,” he said. “We didn’t have to scrape poop off of her butt several times a day. It was worth the few misses for that reason alone.”

So, in the months leading up to my daughter’s birth, we read a book called Diaper Free!, bought a little red potty, and prepared to try it for ourselves.

*   *   *

It didn’t start off as I’d visualized. Once Lucy was born, Dyami was the first to attempt to “communicate.” He stripped her diaper off, cradled her bum over the sink, and made the cuing noise, “Sssssss.”

We waited. “Sssssss,” he said again.

No pee. No poop. The only thing his attempt produced was a fussy baby.

After that, I gave up on trying for a few weeks, guiltily putting the cloth diapers on her. I had absolutely no sense about when she might soil one of them.

I reread Evelyn’s EC book like a bible, hoping for clues.

I joined an EC group online, hoping to learn by osmosis.

I e-mailed my sister-in-law. “I’m not feeling super-confident,” I said.

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” she e-mailed back. “You’re in the early days. Everything in our culture is telling you to put a diaper on her bum. Remember, you’re a maverick in the Western world.”

I’m a maverick, I told myself. I liked the sound of that.

I didn’t mention to Evelyn that we’d never actually gone without putting a diaper on Lucy’s bum. It would come with time, I thought.

Finally, I read in the forum that babies usually pee after they wake up. Aha! I thought. It made sense: After all, I peed after I woke up. After her next nap, I tried the sink again. “Sssss,” I said. Lucy went slightly cross-eyed, shifted her weight, and a tiny fountain of pee spurted from between her legs.

She was two weeks old.

I was hooked.

*   *   *

Elimination Communication is about trying to gauge your baby’s patterns, signals, and preferences, and facilitate her being able to pee and poop outside of a diaper—without punishments or rewards. The people who brought the EC philosophy to the U.S. had traveled abroad, or were from other cultures; diapers, they saw, weren’t necessarily synonymous with baby care. They felt that sitting in urine and feces for extended periods of time—or for any period of time—seemed pretty unhygienic. How much better would it be to eliminate the middle man (the diaper), and send the waste straight down the toilet?

Of course, for a newborn, a gigantic, noisy toilet can be scary (as I discovered the first time I held Lucy over it, only to be rewarded with instant screams). The bathroom sink, on the other hand, has a drain, a faucet to rinse off poopy bums, and a handy mirror to check progress and entertain the baby. After a few days, I got over having one of our two bathroom sinks serve as Lucy’s toilet, and kept a bottle of Windex handy when I did get grossed out.

But I’ll be honest with you: Hygienic or not, EC is a lot of work, especially at the beginning. It seemed as if every fifteen minutes, I was undoing Lucy’s diaper, taking her to the sink, and hoping I’d guessed right that time.

I caught my first pee after reading a list of “Golden Potty Rules” on the EC forum online:

1. Potty when sudden fussiness strikes.

2. Always potty before leaving anywhere.

3. Always potty upon arrival anywhere.

4. Potty on waking up from sleep.

5. Potty after an accident.

6. Potty upon getting out of the bath.

7. Always act on sudden random potty thoughts.

I’d expected all this pottying to be hard. On the forum, members likened EC to paying cash, instead of credit—pay now or pay later. I figured my hard work would pay dividends when I was through with diapers at a year and a half or earlier.

What I hadn’t expected was that I’d reap dividends on the front end. I was pleasantly surprised. The hype was real. I felt connected to my baby in a way I hadn’t imagined. She’d fuss, I’d take her to the bathroom, and she’d pee, visibly relieved. When she couldn’t fall asleep, I tried a potty break : Usually it settled her. Our laundry decreased dramatically, from a load almost every day to two a week or less.

We were mavericks. We were trailblazers.

Sometimes I felt superior. At Lucy’s first visit to the pediatrician, I took her to the bathroom several times while we were waiting. The nurse kept offering to hold her. I didn’t quite know how to explain that Lucy was the one using the toilet.

When the pediatrician came in, she noticed the cloth diaper and said, offhand, that we must be doing a lot of laundry.

“Not really,” I said. “We have her pee and poop in the sink instead of in the diaper when we can.”

She blinked a couple of times, then laughed. “Well, it’s not as if she can tell you she needs to go.”

I smiled in amusement. No, Doctor, I thought. That’s exactly what she does.

But sometimes EC got us into trouble. I decided to pee Lucy in the middle of a walk, and chose a secluded-looking half-wall outside of a local apartment building. I dropped Lucy’s trou and held her close to the stucco.

The only problem was that I hadn’t noticed that the wall faced the rental office. Apparently, the manager had a really great view of my alternative parenting technique. After a minute, said manager came out, a nicely coiffed blond woman in khakis.

“What are you doing?” she asked, sitting on the half-wall.

“Letting my daughter pee,” I said. Lucy was about three months old.

“Doesn’t she have a diaper?”

I patted the prefold on the grass beside me and used my best I’m-not-crazy voice. “See, in China and India they don’t use diapers.”

She nodded, clearly now convinced I was crazy. “Do you live around here?” she asked.

I pointed over the hill, then realized she meant in her apartment complex.

Question: Would it have been better if I were a resident ? Or better that she not know where I lived?

“I can leave if we’re bothering you,” I said, bracing myself. Suddenly it occurred to me that people get arrested for public urination.

“No, no,” she said. “I was just worried. I saw you take off her diaper and didn’t know what you were doing.”

Surprisingly, she didn’t call the cops (or Child Protective Services). She just wished us a good day and left.

It still amuses me to imagine her dinner conversation that night.

*   *   *

Being a trailblazer is tiring. On good days, I was a renegade, a virtuous environmentalist who could read her daughter like a book. But on those other days, the days when Lucy didn’t pee or poop in the sink, even though I spent half the day holding her over it, I wondered where my fabled connection with her had gone. I couldn’t tell: Was it her not being able to pee on-cue? Often, food allergies—or what I thought were food allergies—seemed to play a role in “bad” days. I’d eat dairy, or wheat, and the next day, Lucy would poop a foul-smelling, dark green liquid, pee every five minutes, and squirm from painful gas. Or was it me? Had I not tuned in enough or paid enough attention? What if I’d gone five minutes earlier? Or held her just a bit longer? Was it that we used diapers (unlike the true believers)? That I’d eaten wheat/dairy/soy/wine/peanut butter? Or was it just—normal?

And then there were those Golden Potty Rules. If you do the math, following the rules I’d found on the EC forum meant I was taking my daughter to the bathroom all the time. Which is one way to catch pees but is also a way to go insane. Often I’d spend five minutes holding her over the sink when she didn’t need to go. Perhaps it would have helped if I hadn’t been reading the EC forum all the time, increasing the likelihood of those “sudden random potty thoughts.”

I wish I could say that being in an online community and talking to other ECers helped. It didn’t. I never participated in my EC forum much, though I lurked. Every few hours, I tuned in, searching for clues. I read about “potty-tunities” and “nakey-butt” time. Waterproofing solutions for bedtime, travel tips, training pants, in-laws. Food allergies, aiming tips for boys, ECing through the stomach flu. “Graduating” from diapers, EC and daycare. EC full-time. EC part-time.

The posts that always riveted me were those about “potty pauses.” In the dreaded potty pause, the child would suddenly refuse to be held over the potty. No matter if they needed to go, they wanted no part in the process. Parents who didn’t keep diapers on their babies started having carpet and upholstery serve as diapers. Parents who thought their child had graduated from diapers put them back on.

I read about potty pauses like some people read the obituaries.

Two posts in particular soured me on the forum. Both were tirades (the writer’s words, not mine) by one of the most frequent posters. “There is no such thing as a Potty Pause,” she wrote. “You are failing to adequately adapt…You need to get more creative, more aware, more with the flow, and change your mind set .”

“It’s not that EC is hard,” she wrote the next day. “It’s that…you got a kink in your think.”

Some of me knew what she meant. Really, EC isn’t supposed to be about potty training. It’s not supposed to be results-oriented. EC is about better hygiene, connection, and communication.

The problem was that I am results-oriented. I like communication and connection as much as the next parent, but I also like convenience. And hygiene is all fine and good, but did I mention convenience?

Her comment about EC not being hard just pissed me off. She said all it took was a paradigm shift. Well, I hadn’t spontaneously produced one, thus far. And I refused to feel guilty about anything else.

I changed my settings so that the forum’s e-mails didn’t come directly to me—I’d have to go online to read. Which I haven’t done since.

Not reading the forum was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Turns out being a renegade makes me paranoid. I thought community was what I needed, but instead, community (for me, anyway) just turned EC into a giant pissing contest. I did EC looking over my shoulder, hearing the voices of the “successful” ECers critiquing my technique, second-guessing me, and making me feel inadequate. Perhaps if I’d participated more in the forum, put my fears and inadequacies out there, rather than just lurking, I’d have found comfort rather than judgment. Or maybe if I’d held Lucy over the sink just a few more minutes…

*   *   *

It wasn’t me going crazy that opened my eyes to how crazy I had gone. It wasn’t even the forum. It was Lucy.

Lucy turned eight months old and decided it was time for our very first potty pause.

Day One: Take Lucy to the bathroom. She screams. Quickly take Lucy away from the bathroom, fumble with the diaper while she screams and flails. Take Lucy back to whatever she was doing.

Three minutes later, she poops in her wool hand-washable diaper cover. Since I hadn’t invested in the more expensive fitted diapers (why would I, when we were doing EC?), the poo dribbles down her leg and stains the cover and the carpet.

Day Two: Lather, rinse, repeat. Literally: I washed those diaper covers every day, then hung them to air-dry overnight, only to have her poop in them the next morning. Crazy? Yes. But I kept thinking , Surely this is the last miss.

Up until this point, I rarely missed Lucy’s poops. Pre-potty pause, I bragged about this. “I almost never change poopy diapers.”

One thing I’ve learned as a parent: It’s not a good idea to brag about how you’ve figured out your child, unless you enjoy eating your words.

After Day Three of the pause, I realized Lucy wanted to go to the potty even less than I wanted to take her. And I didn’t want to take Lucy to the potty at all. I didn’t want to see a potty. I didn’t want to think about signals, or pauses, or communication. I wanted to keep a diaper on her and forget I’d ever heard about EC.

That’s when I decided to go to a real live EC support group I’d heard about it from a local midwife and went, figuring some community might make me feel better.

We all know what happened next: I was left choking down my screams while trying to make sure Lucy didn’t choke on Mr. Potato Head.

After the playgroup, I decided not to take Lucy to the bathroom if I didn’t feel like it. Period. At the beginning, that meant I just didn’t take her. I didn’t even change diapers unless I felt like it (until she started getting her first diaper rash).

After a break, though, I started taking her after she woke up, as long as she didn’t protest. Then it was just when we were out and she fussed but wouldn’t nurse. Dyami took her on the weekends when he was home.

Throughout these lazy days, I kept telling people how badly EC was going, how I’d pretty much given up. Until one day I realized we’d gone the whole morning without wetting a diaper.

Turns out we’d started practicing again without my noticing.

Despite what the experts, the latest parenting fad, or my own perfectionism would have me believe, I can’t control my daughter. Trying to live up to an ideal just pitted me against Lucy—and made me feel like a martyr.

But once I threw out the rules, I realized EC worked fine—when I made it work for both of us.

Today at a restaurant, Lucy kept squirming in the sling. I excused myself and took her to the restroom. The faucet was a clay pitcher set into the wall; the sink a brightly painted ceramic basin. When you moved a lever, the water poured out of the pitcher’s mouth into the sink, a never-ending stream. Lucy played happily with it, relaxed, and relieved herself.

It was as easy as that.

Believe me, we’re both relieved.

Author’s Note: After avoiding the EC playgroup for a while, I decided to go back. While I chatted with the other moms, I mentioned writing this essay. Unfortunately, I realized I was afraid of what they would think only after other moms asked to see it. A few days later, I e-mailed it out and waited nervously for responses. To my surprise, they said they could relate. It goes to show: My sense of isolation was self-inflicted.

Heather Caliri is a writer based in San Diego. Her work has appeared at Skirt! Magazine, Literary Mama, and BlogHer. She crafts essays each afternoon while her two homeschooled kids watch Disney Jr. Get her free e-book about post-perfectionist Christianity on her blog, A Little Yes.

Brain, Child (Winter 2008)

Subscribe to Brain, Child

Welcome to the Club

Welcome to the Club

What is Motherhood? is a Brain, Child blog series, with original posts from our writers, and reposts from some of our most favorite websites and blogs, all answering the universal question—what does motherhood mean to you?

06_Eileen_6403 copyI unlatched the bucket baby carrier and heaved it out of the stroller. It was only three weeks since my C-section, and I swore under my breath as I felt a pinch. But the stroller wouldn’t fit into the community center’s tiny bathroom and I didn’t have much choice.

“Oh look at him! How old?” a voice exclaimed over Brennan, and then, “I can take him for you.”

A blonde-haired woman with chic glasses smiled at me. She looked … not crazy. Looked, in fact, much saner than I must have in the moment as I stood there sweating with the adrenaline, exhilaration and exhaustion of brand-new motherhood. She had with her a baby of her own, a girl of about six months old. I left Brennan with her and darted into the bathroom. And I thought about how impossible it seemed that I had just handed my newborn over to someone whose name I didn’t even know.

Days before, my mom had climbed out of my car at the airport terminal for her flight back home, both of us weeping. I had no family nearby, or even close friends with children, and my husband’s two weeks of paternity leave were up. I was looking at a week of ten-hour days, all on my own.

A coworker had given me information on a new moms group months before and I had tucked it away. I’d never thought of myself as the support group type, whatever that means. But when I faced down those first long days alone with Brennan, I looked up the meeting location and set the goal of getting us there.

The blonde woman, Kathleen, led me through a door to where the meeting had already started. Moms and babies were spread out across a sun-lit room with wide windows. Some were cooing, others crying (babies but also, probably, a mom or two.) The smaller babies lay on their backs kicking while others crawled across the rug or even practiced standing; compared to tiny Brennan, the older ones looked like giants. Many of the moms looked more or less like I felt, as though they were seeing the world through the fuzzy veil of sleep-deprivation. But they also looked relaxed.

The group facilitator welcomed me and then said, pointedly, “We usually start at ten,” — it was a few minutes past — and I wanted to punch her in the face, or just leave. But I found a spot and sat down (I was too tired to leave again, anyway). Following the lead of the moms around me, I unfolded a flannel blanket and set Brennan down on the floor.

In the meeting, we simply went around the room and said how things were going for each of us. If someone had a question, the facilitator (who was actually great, despite her initial brusqueness) would respond, and then others might chime in. People had a whole range of ideas and approaches, ways of parenting that worked for them. But we shared a lot of the same worries, big and small. We were on the same learning curve. And we were kind to one other.

You could ask paranoid-seeming questions about eczema or poop frequency or cradle cap or how many layers for sleeping, and no one would roll her eyes and think, First-time mom. You could say, “Will I ever freakin’ sleep again?” “Does yours cry this much?” or, “I think I am losing my mind.” And people would nod sympathetically. No one would judge.

It’s hard for me to describe how these simple discussions and interactions impacted me. If the world opened up when I had a baby, so did my fears, self-doubts and insecurities. That day, the nagging feeling that I wouldn’t get it right — that there was a “right” way to be, as a parent — began to quiet, both during the course of the meeting, and after.

As I was packing my bag up, Kathleen came over.

“Hey,” she said. “We usually go to lunch afterward. You should come.” I hesitated. This was already a big outing for me. Up to then, my boldest destinations were the coffee shop and the CVS near my house.

“Really, it’s the best part,” Kathleen said, convincing me.

At the restaurant a few doors down, the staff exclaimed over us as we came in. “They’re so great here,” someone said. “They’ll even play with your baby while you eat.”

People began to put their baby carriers on the floor or onto chairs wedged solidly between the wall and table. I watched, enthralled. Fidgety babies were nursed or given a bottle or a toy. Menus appeared. Favorite dishes were discussed. And then —then — a couple of moms ordered Diet Cokes. It was like we were regular people.

That day that I had dreaded was the beginning of knowing that I would figure it out. And that I wasn’t, in fact, alone. Those women would go on to be my first real mom friends, and their babies would become Brennan’s first playmates. Most importantly, I realized that we could play both roles — caring, thoughtful, attentive parents, and women who just needed to set their babies down for a while and laugh over a Diet Coke.

Photo by Megan Dempsey

It Could Be Worse

It Could Be Worse

By Heather Tharp

Tharp.1It could be worse.

It could be worse.

It could be worse.

I repeated those words in my own mind for months leading up to the heartbreaking news that I had just received.

My baby, my first born, my son was in desperate need of another open heart surgery.  Except this time, his fragile, tiny heart needed a titanium valve to save his life.

It could be worse.

As I watched him grow weak, sick and lethargic over the last few weeks, I knew something was wrong.  I knew in my heart, my gut; that something was wrong with him.

His increasing need to be by me, with me, on me all day long seemed different.  He cried for me; to be in my lap, to rock in the chair and to sleep in my arms.  I wearily complied through exhausted eyes and rocked, cuddled and cried wondering what was wrong with my baby. I craved for normalcy.  Why did my baby have to be sick?  Why couldn’t he be healthy and happy?

No, stop it.  It could be worse.

As we went to the doctor’s office, I hoped and prayed that they would have answers for me.  With a glimmer of hope, we stepped into the waiting room.  I held him in my lap for the fear that if I put him down he would begin to cry inconsolably again.  As I held him, I looked around the waiting area at the pictures hanging on the wall; gleaming smiles of other little children that this doctor had saved.  Some of them obviously had other health issues, not just heart problems.  I sighed.

It could be worse.

The friendly nurse called his name and we went into the examining room.  After hours of tests, multiple doctors, and nurses rushing hurriedly around me, they told me the news.  “He is experiencing Congestive Heart Failure.”

Failure.  Funny choice of words, because that was exactly what I was feeling at that moment.  My baby was suffering, hurting, dying and I was powerless to fix it.  I felt completely out of control and had no way to help the situation.  I fought back the tears as they admitted him immediately to the Children’s Hospital.

The next few days were a total surreal experience as they tested, poked, x-rayed, and prodded my eight-month-old baby.  I sat on the sidelines, nodding and smiling; trying to understand all the medical jargon that they were throwing at me.

“Uh-huh. Ok. Mmmhmmm.”  Whatever, doc.  Just fix my baby, ok?  Make him be normal.  Make him laugh again.  Let him grow up to be a happy, healthy boy that can live and love like he deserves.

“Luckily, he has a pretty good chance at living a full healthy life after all this.  It could really be worse,” they said.

It could be worse.

It could be worse?  What could be worse than this?  My infant is getting ready for a surgery in which you are about to open up his chest and reach in and replace a part of his heart with a piece of metal!  It could be worse?

Turns out they were right.  It could be worse.  And in the days following his surgery, I met worse.  While my baby came through surgery with flying colors, I saw many other children on the pediatric floor that didn’t.

While spending the next nine days in PICU, I met quite a few other parents that were equally as weary as me.  While our dreary eyes met across the hall, we gave a polite smile or sometimes a glazed stare.

We knew what the other was going through; thinking.

We knew the feeling.

We knew that dread that we faced every time we returned from the bathroom, the cafeteria, or the vending machine for lunch.  That dread that hits you in the gut when there are three doctors standing in the room.

What’s wrong?  Why are they all in there?  What happened in the five minutes I was gone?

Oh, nothing?  Just some residents doing their rounds?  Ok, good, let me just take a moment because I think I stopped breathing for a minute there.

While spending those days on the PICU, I couldn’t help but notice that it could be worse.  While my guy was getting better each day, breathing on his own, eating, sitting up, and playing with toys; others were not.

While they removed lines and tubes from my baby, others were being wheeled down the hallway for more tests.

While the medicine drips slowly disappeared in our room, they popped up in the neighbors’ rooms.

While I was finally able to hold my fragile baby again, other mothers’ arms were empty.

It could be worse.

As the days passed, I met a mom whose baby had been in PICU for months.  Her son was sedated and hooked up to so many machines, I lost count after about ten.  As we chatted here and there, we became friendly and I found out that her baby was born with gastroschisis, a congenital condition in which the baby is born with the intestines on the outside of the body.  Her little boy underwent several surgeries to repair it and they were still trying to fix him.

It could be worse.

As we exchanged glances through the window that separated our children’s PICU rooms, I felt for her.  I felt guilty and selfish because I was cursing nature and God for making my baby suffer.  Meanwhile, this mother was feeling the exhaustion and anguish of her own struggles.

One day, as we were chatting, she told me how her husband had to stay in their hometown, which was about 100 miles away, because they couldn’t afford for both of them to miss work.  He would visit on the weekends and she would stay in the hospital with the baby.

I felt lucky because we had the luxury of living within driving distance of the Children’s Hospital.  My husband and I were able to see our baby every day.  My heart sank for her, having to face all this hardship alone without her husband by her side.

It could be worse.

Although, as we talked more, I realized how upbeat she was considering her situation.  She seemed so positive and optimistic.

During the course of a conversation, she looked to me and then her eyes motioned to the room across the hall.  There was a flurry of activity going on in there, with doctors and nurses rushing in and out; family members crying and holding one another.

She said to me, “You know, this kind of stuff really gives you some life perspective.  You know, how you think you got it bad and then you see others like that.” She motioned again across the hall with a nod of her head.  “It could be worse.”

Heather Tharp is a writer and teacher living in in the Midwest with her husband and two children. She writes about life perspectives and motherhood at http://www.dalaimama-ecogirl.blogspot.com/.  You can also connect with her on Facebook www.facebook.com/dalaimamablog and Twitter twitter.com/dalaimamablog.

Subscribe to Brain, Child


So Special …To Me

So Special …To Me

photo1Before my son was born, he was gifted a book called “On the Night You Were Born.” It’s one of those recordable books that lets you tape yourself reading the narration and then plays it back for your enraptured child as he or she turns the pages. It starts with this sentence, “On the night you were born, the moon smiled with such wonder that the stars peeked in to see you and the night wind whispered, ‘Life will never be the same.'”

In the story, the news of the child’s birth travels around the world and all of the flowers, animals and heavenly bodies remark in awe at the awesomeness of this incredible new baby (the listener). The book is replete with words like “magical,” “wonderful,” “special,” and, of course, “you, you, you.”

My partner and I read it together, exchanged horrified looks, and put it up on a high, high shelf in the hallway closet where it has stayed, collecting dust, until I retrieved it to write this article. We did not record our soft voices carefully pronouncing each word. We have not read it to our son, pressing a finger to his chest to punctuate each “you.” We don’t plan to, either.

Look, the hard truth is, my kid is probably not all that special. I mean, sure, in a “his DNA sequence is unique” way, I guess he is. No one else has his particular mix of guanine and cytosine, but I don’t think that’s what this book is getting at. This book seeks to extol my child as amazing and brilliant and remarkable simply for existing. But I was there the night he was born, and, in reality, the moon did not halt its orbit around the Earth. The polar bears at the North Pole did not dance all night. The ladybugs did not gasp in awe at the sound of his beautiful name. None of those things happened.

And more to the point, I don’t want him to think that they did. It seems a huge disservice to send a kid into the cold, unblinking world thinking that everything and everyone is all about him. That feels like an awful lot of pressure to put on so small a body. And such weighty disappointment when he realizes that, in fact, most of the people (not to mention polar bears) he’ll encounter may not care much about him at all.

Instead, my message to him is a humbler one. I want him to know he’s magical, wonderful and special … to me. I want him to know how much I love him. How much his father loves him. How much his grandparents and aunts love him. I want him to know that this love is a gift. It’s his no matter what and that he’ll have it forever, just for being him. I want him to know that this is a special kind of love.

When he’s older, I want to help him understand that there are other kinds of love that he must earn. That his friends will love him if he gives love in return. That his teachers will invest their energy in him if he shows himself to be willing to match their effort. That his lovers will expect devotion, tenderness, loyalty. That in jobs and hobbies and relationships, he will reap what he sows. That he will have to give to get. That there’s hard work to be done, if he wants to be noticed.

These are truths I don’t want to keep hidden from him. I want him to embrace them, and be prepared for them. So I’ll keep this book hidden instead. And when I fill his ears with love and praise in darkness and daylight, in the car, in the kitchen, in the wind and rain and sun and snow, it’s always the same message: I love you more than you will ever know. I love you just for being you. You are so very special … to me.

Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

Pregnancy Brain

Pregnancy Brain

By Mel Lefebvre & Lydia Christine Zilahy

pregnancy brainEver had that nightmare where the teacher calls on you to write on the board, and once you’re standing at the front of the class, you realize you don’t have any pants on? Well, this one woman we know did a grownup version of that in real-life.

Standing at her car after buckling in her toddler on her way to work, she was feeling around for something in her pocket when it struck her that her bright red holiday-themed underwear, complete with a ‘ho ho ho!’ and a North Pole postage stamp on her rump was all that was between her bare skin and the world around her. That woman is co-author of this article, and that day she was suffering from a serious case of baby-brain.

Being pregnant is a bit like being in a secret club, only you’re on your own for the initiation. No one tells you that you kind of lose your marbles. “I think it shocks every mom to learn that you may forget to wear your shoes to work,” says Shannon Seip, author of Momnesia! A Humorous Guide to Surviving Your Post-Baby Brain. “I also forgot to put the emergency brake on and my car rolled down into my bushes and I thought, what happened to me? I used to be a smart person!” says Seip, also the mother of two young boys.

Most of us will admit to feeling a bit more scatterbrained while the miracle of life blossoms in our womb. We forget things here and there. No big deal, right? Let us be the ones to welcome you to the baby-brain club. The club where an ease into sleep deprivation and not being on the ball, or even knowing where the ball is, are your new normal right alongside spider veins, stretch marks, and sore boobs. Baby-brain won’t cause long-term cerebral damage, but it will occasionally make you want to commit yourself.

Ignorance may be bliss for one of the more comically disastrous side effects of gestating, but while you still have your wits about you, get thee a notebook.

Maybe a whole stack, actually. And while you are at it, buy a mountain of sticky notes. As a novice to this club, your first assignment is to write out in multiple, in huge letters, ‘you are not crazy’ and begin decorating your house, your car, your office, and even your partner with these and other little reminders to help navigate your day. Why? Well, there are reasons why a pregnant woman might be on the forgetful side, apart from the fact that everything that goes into making a baby can mentally and physically bankrupt you. “There’s just a lot going on, especially with a first-born where the learning curve for a new mom is so sharp. You’re emotional, forgetful, and full of hormones. It’s a rough time,” says Seip. It is baby boot camp. All factors combined might make a pregnant woman feel like she’s losing her grip on reality.

Still think these horror stories only happen to a handful of people and that most pregnant women glow like those on magazine covers? Hate to tell you, it is fact, not fiction.

According to neuropsychiatrist Dr. Louann Brizendine, during pregnancy, “the body grows, and the brain shrinks—about six percent. The female brain is different from the male brain to ensure the survival of those who cannot take care of themselves. We aren’t antelope, we don’t just drop the baby and run.” Far from being antelope, take us, for example. Mel Lefebvre, mom to Corin, and Lydia Zilahy, mom to Bianca. Between the two of us, we’ve had five pregnancies. That’s five immense hormonal, physiological, physical, and emotional upheavals that have resulted in pants-less errands, leaving behind expensive equipment after covering events for work, forgetting how to spell (which, for two writers, is just a little more than embarrassing), not being able to form proper sentences while speaking and confusing our conversation partner, inducing much palm-to- forehead slapping once we realize that we don’t sound like the sophisticated, educated women we set out to be.

Thankfully, we have each other. Just when we thought we had finally crossed that line from being cute, quirky pregnant ladies to having completely lost it, we discovered we weren’t alone with our addled brains and abandoned thoughts. Though, comically and quite fittingly, many women have told us that while they did experience forgetfulness and memory loss, they can’t remember the details. And since baby sweeps us off our feet and takes center stage once the baby arrives, we don’t end up talking about memory loss. Toss into that mix a couple of studies that declared pregnancy brain a myth, and it can muddy-up an already foggy horizon. Whether it’s scientifically proven or disqualified as a real phenomenon, we can confirm that during pregnancy and the time that follows, it’s quite common, to, uh, forget things.

“I started forgetting stuff like crazy when I was pregnant, and I still can’t remember any of it,” says Madeleine Coyler, a Canadian four-time pregnancy-brain survivor and mother of three who lives in Saint Lazarre, a small town just outside the bustling city of Montreal, Quebec.

Like many of us, Coyler has packed up and left the house with her list of chores and a lack of focus so typical of members in club baby brain. “I will admit that I have, on more than one pregnant occasion, left my apartment, walked down to the parking garage, and driven halfway to work before realizing I was still in my fuzzy bedroom slippers,” says Coyler.

“My brain is mush,” says Sylvia Kroll, a Montreal resident and mother of two who has undergone three rounds of pregnancy brain. “Names and numbers have gotten ten times worse for me. I forgot my child’s name once, and I think I forgot my husband’s name at one point. He was ‘that guy there—you know!’ I even called my dad Babe once. When you’re pregnant, you get away with everything,” she says.

While rolling with the waves of memory loss can be entertaining at times, it can also be disconcerting for moms-to-be. “It is funny, and scary how much you lose,” says Kroll. As much as we’d love to kick our feet up for nine months and spend the time relaxing and snacking our temporary amnesia away, our attention is stretched to cover responsibilities at work and home. Inevitably, some things get neglected. “I couldn’t remember to open the mail for almost three weeks. Those things kinda fall by the wayside. I mean, really, it’s not as important as keeping your baby alive,” says Seip.

There’s a lot of pressure for women to feel like they can handle pregnancy with super-human grace and poise with perfectly packaged bumps, flowing hair and a glowing complexion. Donning our Superwoman persona and cape, we juggle pregnancy, careers, possibly other children, spouses, family, social engagements, fitness, and other exhausting ambitions. All the while, we have less energy, are sleeping less, battling pants, socks, and shoes with a growing midsection, and we’re less alert, always hungry, probably nauseous, and just want to curl up on the sofa with a bag of popcorn, some ice cream, and nap in front of a movie until baby arrives.

Lara Onaba, mother of Denzel from Peace River, Alberta, wasn’t sure if she suffered from any kind of mind-altering pregnancy silliness. But she put her finger on a contributing factor that made her realize there was something going on in the ‘ol noggin. According to Onaba, “I forgot less after Denzel was born. I think this was because my sole focus was no longer my body. When I was pregnant, I was hungry 24/7, and one day I was so tired I actually just sat down in an aisle at Wal-Mart. I found that I could use my energy to think more when I wasn’t so hungry!”

What Onaba expressed is something quite normal during pregnancy, and is what Dr. Brizendine, who is also best-selling author of The Female Brain and founder of The Women’s Mood and a Hormone Clinic at the University of California, San Francisco, says is a gentle shut down, catapulting the mom-to-be’s brain and body into a symbiotic state that takes care of the growing fetus. “High levels of progesterone kick in nesting instincts. The growing fetus in pregnancy wants your energy. The body is either turned on or turned off by hormones. Hormones are responsible for a behavior necessary for survival. Now, we don’t want Mommy using her energy to be as active—we want Mommy to eat, sleep, and rest. It is not about Mom becoming ‘stupider.’

The behavior the hormones create is anti-activity.”

The toll a growing human takes on our bodies alone is enough to preoccupy our thoughts and energy, and it’s supposed to. The idea that women feel they have to do it all while constantly needing to eat, pee, and chase sleep while growing a baby and saying goodbye to a life of non-motherhood or taking care of another child out of the womb at the same time is completely ridiculous. The unfortunate reality is that many feel the need to keep up our pre-pregnancy standards of living. Any other effort is substandard and reactions to having an off day (or month) are unforgiving. And women’s harshest critics are most often themselves.

“It’s a weird thing, prego-brain,” says Calgary resident Katharine Barrette, librarian and new mom of Audrey. “In a way, it made me really defensive if I forgot something that, say, people at work noticed. I’d feel I was being accused of being a weak woman in a weakened state, whereas if a male colleague forgot something, even if he was distracted by a personal situation, you would never hear anyone joke about ‘dating brain,’ or ‘divorce brain.’ It was annoying to be thought of as incapable,” says Barrette.

If we’re going to be superheroes while pregnant, arming ourselves with knowledge and facts might help us survive the nine months between conception and delivery. Shifting priorities and modifying standards might help ease the pressure of perfection. So will claiming some emotional and mental space for what is, truly, an incredible physical feat. “Set your expectations really low and focus on the things you did achieve,” says Seip.

In addition to having a whole new human growing inside you, your body produces a new organ, the placenta, de- signed to sustain your baby’s life. We need to make some concessions in needing some breathing room, and compassion for attention that is directed to the space between your ribcage and pelvic bone. With that in mind, the fumbles of pregnancy brain, like showing up to work in pajama pants, forgetting documents and meetings, or even your spouse’s name, are really not that significant.

So, relax a little. It isn’t you. Really. It’s your biology. There is an explanation for the physical changes we go through while growing our wee ones.

Part of that change happens in our brains, as Dr. Brizendine’s impressive six percent brain shrinkage statistic says, and there’s little many women can do to avoid momnesia. If anyone gives us a hard time, slap them with this bit of science and stand proud, perhaps in fuzzy bunny slippers, in the office, all the while having no idea where you put your glasses (they’re around your neck) or that important luncheon you’re missing as you dish out some prego justice.

During pregnancy, the blood flow to your brain changes. “Our blood actually gets shunted away from the forebrain to- wards the hindbrain. Our forebrain is where our short-term memory is and multitasking takes place. And the hind-brain takes care of the survival basics. We actually see on brain scans that the blood moves to the back of our brain,” says Paola DeCicco, a Montreal-based naturopathic doctor and mom to Alice. “Some studies show the brain does shrink, and others show that it doesn’t, but to me, it’s a no-brainer. Excuse the pun. It’s one of those things where your faculties are needed elsewhere. We channel our reserves into focusing on maximizing our energy on this new creature. All of that other information, like remembering phone numbers, remembering to pick up the bread, become secondary,” says DeCicco, whose private practice involves a lot of perinatal care and fertility work. A study by Diane Farrar and associates, published in the journal Endocrine Abstracts, confirms that pregnancy affects a woman’s spatial ability, or in other words, remembering where we put the darned car keys.

What does take our immediate attention are multiple trips to the bathroom at night, feeling our baby move while our center of gravity changes, cooing at ultra-sound pictures, and managing some basic functionality as our bodies adapt to being the mothership for at least one tiny passenger. If that doesn’t rip the super-hero cape right off your shoulders, don’t worry: there are still leg cramps, and needing extra support to haul your belly to turn over in bed as discomfort takes over where comfort left off.

Many pregnant women admit to being wide awake at four in the morning for weeks on end for no apparent reason. One prego-braniac says she took advantage of that time to make lists of the restaurants where she craved a meal and another just gave up and took to snacking on the couch in front of a movie in her last months of pregnancy before getting ready for work. Sleep deprivation is a tactic used by the military to prepare soldiers for battle at any time, yet it is something pregnant women and new parents must endure that is shrugged off as just part of the experience with the expectation that life can go on as normal throughout pre- and post-child living. “There is the theory that the sleep deprivation that happens during pregnancy is prep to get you used to it. By starting to change your cycle, it’s not as much of a shock when the baby actually comes,” says DeCicco.

In their book, Woman’s Guide to Sleep: Guaranteed Solutions for a Good Night’s Rest, authors Dr. Joyce A. Walsleben and Rita Baron-Faust give the astounding statistic that after the first year of birth, women accumulate between 450-700 hours of lost sleep. “That affects memory hugely,” says DeCicco. Chronic sleep deprivation of that magnitude catapults us into survival mode. “Your body’s chemistry has perceived that you’re under a large amount of stress. That kicks off a whole hormonal cascade and puts us into a fight or flight mode,” DeCicco explains. The hormones at work here are our body’s big-league players. Estrogen fiddles with emotions while improving blood flow to the uterus and is responsible for breast tenderness; human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) produces progesterone and estrogen until the placenta takes over; relaxin helps your uterus expand and is also to blame for your chronic heartburn because, as it’s fittingly named, it relaxes your internal passageways, from your esophagus to your bum; progesterone makes sure your egg stays safely implanted in the womb, and finally, oxytocin, the love hormone, is responsible in large part for our nesting behavior. “Take the word progesterone—’progesterone’—it is what keeps the pregnancy intact,” says Dr. Brizendine. Even our brain’s neurotransmitters take a hit. It’s like getting a whole new body for almost one year. “No one’s clearly identified the cause, but the phenomenon clearly exists and it’s obviously a hormonal component,” says DeCicco. With all of that in play, no wonder our brains feel a bit less tightly screwed.

Not everyone is so convinced that baby brain exists. More specifically, that any real and long-lasting changes happen to the brain, and that a pregnant woman’s cognitive abilities are any less than their non-pregnant counterparts. One study, published in 2012 in the British Journal of Psychiatry, ran multiple tests for cognitive speed, working memory, immediate and delayed recall on groups of pregnant and non-pregnant women and found that there were negligible to no differences in mental performance, dismantling what they refer to as the pregnancy brain myth.

Well, Helen Christensen and colleagues who published these findings under the title Cognition in pregnancy and motherhood: prospective cohort study, could be right, but that doesn’t make us feel very good at all. “I have no excuse, then, for what happened to me. It makes you feel worse!” says Seip. “Certainly, the word on the street is that momnesia is real,” she said.

In their concluding remarks, Christensen and colleagues state that memory loss during pregnancy is not inevitable, and may be attributed to all the other stuff that’s going on. “Perceptions of impairment may reflect emotional or unknown factors,” they say. “Women may have memory lapses, and change their focus to children and upcoming birth. This does not mean they have lost their capacities,” Christensen told WebMD soon after publishing her study. In a totally empowering finale, Christensen and colleagues state, “Not so long ago pregnancy was ‘confinement’ and motherhood meant the end of career aspirations. Our results challenge the view that mothers are anything other than the intellectual peers of their contemporaries.” And to that, we say heck, yes. That and, every woman is different. Some women declined being interviewed for our article because they never experienced any goofs or lapses in memory during pregnancy. They kept their pants on, remembered their children’s and spouse’s names, and never missed an important anything, ever.

Back in club pregnancy-brain’s corner, Dr. Brizendine supports the existence of placenta brain and armed us with the perfect defense. “During pregnancy, the brain actually shrinks—no one really knows why. There are many hypotheses. One is that there are all kinds of lipids and fats that live in the brain and that the baby takes what it needs—literally eating your brain. There is a cognition change that happens so that you walk into a room and forget what you went in there for in the first place—what we call the working memory. The change happens to the main function of the hippocampus, the area of the brain most sensitive to estrogen and progesterone. In the first few weeks of pregnancy, estrogen levels rise by about 30-40 times and progesterone up to 100.”

Whether or not your mind gets a little cloudy during your gestational period, some basic common sense can help make this time less stressful on your body. A mom herself, DeCicco knows that a little self-care is a big thing. “I definitely experienced firsthand the lack of focus and sharpness, and plenty of sleep deprivation for a good 18 months. I used Post-it notes to help in this time. My daughter is wonderful, but she was never interested in sleeping, and was exclusively breastfed. It takes a big toll,” says DeCicco. If left exhausted and drained, both Mom and baby are likely to be the worst for wear. The solution is to simply slow down and do less. “The baby, the pregnancy, and you want the calmer, lower-activity Mom. Mother Nature intended for you to really take good care of yourself. This is just the first step to parenthood, so get ready. Consider this Mother Nature’s training wheels,” says Dr. Brizendine. DeCicco strongly encourages pacing yourself with your new, pregnant body. “Like I say to Moms of any age who have that martyr syndrome, if you don’t take care of yourself, it’s your kids and family who suffer. You need to be the priority. You need to be the best that you can be so that everybody else around you who depends on you can benefit and be as good as they can be.”

Common sense can go a long way to helping women pre- and post-baby. Eating healthily and taking naps are two things women can do to manage their exhausted bodies and minds. “There are a lot of nutrients that are incredibly important and can affect brain chemistry and our ability to multitask. Iron and vitamin B12 are part of regular OBGYN screening, but very often, they’re low and patients are not told because it’s not a priority,” says DeCicco. A woman doesn’t need to test positive for anemia for low levels of iron to have serious effects on well being. Low iron levels cause sleepiness, yawning, breathlessness, and other signs of fatigue, which are also a pregnant lady’s constant companions. As a major transporter of oxygen, iron helps with mental focus and helps maintain steady energy levels. So from our willingness to get up off the sofa and go for a walk to basic cellular metabolism, iron, which we get from meats, some dried fruits, nuts, and dark leafy veggies, and B12 supplements, can be a hefty and almost easy fix for a bad case of prego-brain.

Another easy intervention is omega 3 fish oil. “It helps with Mom’s cognitive function, postpartum depression, and with the development of your little one’s brain and nervous system,” says DeCicco. It also helps to have a healthy breakfast with at least 16 grams of protein to start your day. A high-quality protein powder, one containing split peas (which have the highest protein content per serving of almost any protein source) can supplement the bowl of frosted sugar crunch you absolutely must have in the mornings. While pregnant, your metabolic demands are much higher, and we burn through food at a much quicker rate than our non-pregnant counterparts. It’s important to sustain yourself to avoid crashing, feeling irritable and anxious. Getting the blood flowing to the brain will help with baby brain by getting the oxygen moving. Mild exercise can help your mind focus, too. So take a walk, a swim, or find a prenatal yoga class to blow off some steam and bring your mind back to you and the baby.

In addition to taking it easy and napping when you can, one of the problems with baby brain is that pregnancy tends to be so focused on the baby. Any aches, complaints, or stresses Mom feels tend to be met with harsh criticism. Suck it up; this is all part of being pregnant; deal with it; and, what did you expect is some of the helpful advice a few women said they were given, inducing in us a knee-jerk reaction to reach for our super- woman outfit. What could help, actually, is to keep a notebook handy to jot things down so they don’t escape your addled brain. Carry, along with your notebook, an attitude check. If no one perished and the world as we know it did not end, go easy on yourself. For example, if you forget to pick up the bread, so what? A two-person-in-one mom machine’s sanity trumps a grocery list any day. Rather than throwing your arms up in frustration at your misplaced keys, glasses, or wallet, take a deep breath and let yourself be the princess you are, if only until baby arrives. This is your time. Chill out and let yourself be pregnant. In our society, brides seem to be allotted this ‘princess for a day’ mentality. You are pregnant. Guess what? In our club, you just became a princess for nine months.

It’s soothing to repeat Dr. DeCicco’s basic advice. Let yourself be pregnant, and roll with the expected and unexpected effects your body brings you during pregnancy. Work-related performance pressure aside, allow yourself to go with the flow, rather than just sucking it up and hiding our distress beneath super-woman garb. Throw the cape out. The world will keep spinning while you take some mental breaks to ease into fatigue, so don’t take on that extra project, and stay in on the weekend, hiding from social engagements now and then. And ask for help to manage your workload in the office and at home. You might gasp because Wonder Woman would never do such a thing, but guess what? She’s fictional, as is her uterus.

Authors’ Note: If you were reading this article and wondering why the numbers didn’t add up for pregnancies and children, we do count miscarriages and other losses as experiences in pregnancy. Our children, whether they walk with us or rest in peace, are a big part of our lives and we didn’t want to exclude them.

Mel Lefebvre is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Montreal Families Magazine, Montreal Gazette, Your Local Journal, Atlantic Salmon Journal, and the David Suzuki Foundation. She lives in Montreal, Quebec with her husband, son, stepson, bunnies, and cats, and still wonders what she will be when she grows up.

Lydia Christine Zilahy grew up in Montreal, Quebec. Losing a bet brought her to rural, northern Alberta where she got married, adopted an army of pets, and had the wonder of her life, a daughter named Bianca, and two angel babies. 

Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

To Gather and to De-clutter: A Mini-Meditation on Stuff—and Time

To Gather and to De-clutter: A Mini-Meditation on Stuff—and Time

Diaper Aisle 3 w grayLike most people (I mean, parents actually and maybe some grandparents, too), before the first baby, I spent an awfully long time in gathering mode. We acquired everything from unfathomably tiny items of clothing (we are Jewish; we weren’t observant of the have-nothing-beforehand rituals), a crib, crib sheets, bumper, and blankets, stroller, a soft carrier, a changing table, a diaper pail, diapers and wipes, and some baby grooming items, like the smallest nail clippers known to humankind. The things, most new, were so very curious, so filled with promise and mystery, and I think, ultimately, hope.

It was a little bit like back-to-school shopping, or filling a big backpack for some Outward Bound kind of experience, except instead of a classroom or a mounting our brand-new, mind-blowing adventure would be placed in our care—and off we’d go, a family of three.

I read up on the things and looked at catalogues and wandered through stores and felt nauseated (that was the pregnancy, at least mostly) and excited and overwhelmed. As I transformed my study into a nursery I shifted identities and I dreamt and I hoped and feared and tried up front to get it “right.” I set up treasures and picture books on the shelves in the sweet, little L-shaped periwinkle room. I’d fill a baby book with memories. I’d change diapers on the changing table. I’d set the babe down in the gigantic crib.

However pretty the room was, what I’d neglected to imagine turned out to be the import of room darkening shades on the windows. I guess that sums up what turned out to be my fatal retail error: real life isn’t like a glossy picture and real babies don’t need pristine anything. They aren’t pristine creatures, after all.

I didn’t gather as much stuff for the second, less for the third and for the last I didn’t really buy a thing (although a pink bomb arrived otherwise known as hand-me-downs). If anything, after the first two, while we still had more (and more and more) stuff, the thing I found myself studying and dreaming about and trying (again and again and again) to get right was proper storage for all that stuff and all those pieces and all those clothes someone would outgrow before the next kid grew into them. Seduced by wicker bins, metal bins, wooden shelves and plastic bins with lids, nothing truly worked.

Each time we approached the return to baby-dom, I froze. The moment I came to twice, once with the third and again with the fourth was the hesitance to walk down the diaper aisle at the supermarket moment. I knew we’d need diapers; I couldn’t quite comprehend that we’d be changing all those diapers, again. I couldn’t quite face knowing that I’d care about the color or consistency of poo. I couldn’t quite own up to the tether I’d be on—between me, a baby, everything ingested and everything excreted. By the third and fourth baby, I understood that’s what the diaper aisle meant.

At the same time, I also appreciated that the diaper era doesn’t last forever and that the accoutrements that seemed all-important, from wipes warmer to onesies, can be optional. I slowed my imagined need for lots of stuff. And now that we’re beyond diapers I can attest this is true—for once and for all.

Along with all those baby things we also accrued toys and games and books and blankets and stuffed animals. I carefully chose to have on hand for my boys the range of play options, not solely “boy” toys, so by the time our daughter arrived (last), we had baby dolls and a dollhouse along with train tracks and a legion of trucks. We do have three Barbies, now—and some My Little Ponies. And more things that sparkle, but anyway that’s not the point of my story: this all leads me to the other side of all that consumption—the moment when you’re done with so much gear and so many toys. It’s very freeing to realize we’re done with train tracks and wooden blocks and (almost all) the board books. It’s fine to let go of stuffies, even some of the most-loved ones. It’s like reclamation of space that will lead us to a renewed sense of house—as fitting the space in time we inhabit now. I will not lie; the process is quite consuming. Yet, as my playroom moves from engorgement, I have reached an amazing realization; the bins and shelves work best when they are not full.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

When All the Other Moms Still Have Babies

When All the Other Moms Still Have Babies

By Rachel Pieh Jones
A young American mom in Djibouti said her husband recently asked what she wanted and she looked at him, all crazy.

“What do I want? I don’t know what I want. I only know what the baby wants. Do I have wants? Do I get to have wants?”

Maybe not now, I thought. But one day, you will.

I didn’t say it out loud, though. The words, the sentiment, the experiential knowledge would age me, make me appear condescending and unsympathetic to this mom’s current loss of autonomy.

I wanted to talk about how when that day came she still wouldn’t know what she wanted and that it would take her months of floundering through guilt, feeling selfish, and being daunted by the sheer number of options to settle into what she wanted, who she might be, when she no longer had a baby or toddler.

That conversation didn’t belong in this conversation because I was talking with three women who still had babies and would most likely have more babies in the future. That was a conversation they weren’t going to have for another decade, give or take. By that point, I would be ready to talk about colleges and careers.

Next the conversation turned to stories of post-delivery mishaps (bladder control issues and emotional roller coasters, anyone?), questions of learning to navigate Djibouti Town with babies in tow, mutually-exchanged offers of hosting play dates, and about how taking photos on a monthly basis of children holding numbers or stuffed animals seemed far too overwhelming at this stage in life, how they were lucky to get their teeth brushed by the end of the day.

My own birth stories have dust on them, the photos (print, not digital) from the day I delivered the twins are practically yellowed and curling around the edges. Pulling them out from thirteen and eight years ago in an attempt to relate felt like dredging through history books. Thirteen years ago? That was before digital cameras were in every home, or phone. Eight years ago when my youngest (and last) was born was before Pinterest.

I am no longer woken by crying babies at ungodly hours. Instead I do it to myself, setting the alarm for 5:45 so I can squeeze in a six-mile run before my third-grader rolls out of bed to fix herself breakfast. I leave the house without diapers, snacks, or rattling toys. I no longer lock the bathroom door for five seconds of privacy.

I didn’t have much to offer these moms and listened with the fully alert brain and stain-free shirt of a woman no longer claiming Goodnight Moon is literature, no longer leaking fluid at nipple level. Their stories were delightful and hilarious, their loneliness and love for their families palatable.

I wasn’t that much older than these moms, two years older than the other mother of twins. I simply started having babies young. So young that when my youngest graduates from high school I could, in theory, still get pregnant.

On the other side of the room in which this conversation took place were more parents, of the gray-haired variety. They weren’t talking about kids or parenting, they were watching a recent home video someone brought back from Mogadishu, the streets calm and peaceful as life flowed back into the Somali capital after decades of violence.

I could cross the room to join the conversation surrounding the video but somehow crossing the room felt too monumental. It would communicate that I was moving over, away from the babies and nap schedules and Fisher Price toys, stepping aside to let a new generation of moms fill in that space with their exhaustion and the exhilarating first steps that marked their days.

But these moms were my age peers, or as close as peers come in the small expatriate circle in Djibouti. These are the women who know how to use Twitter (though they lack the time) and who would listen to Mumford and Sons if the toddlers weren’t blasting The Wiggles. Or whatever toddlers listen to now.

Among parents the age-gap is often more related to the ages of our children than to our own biological age so if I want to be with women my own age and not sound like an old, boring been-there, done-that, know-it-all, I need to embrace the newness of their stories and not drag my ancient ones down from the attic.

If my husband asked me in that moment what I wanted, I would have said, “This. I want to listen to a new generation of moms.”

I know what I want now and it is to have brushed teeth, a clean shirt, and adult conversation while guarding the treasure these moms will learn. The baby stage was hard and beautiful. The elementary school stage is hard and beautiful. I’m assuming the teenage stage will be hard and beautiful.

I would have said, “What I want is to be the adult human face a mom looks at and doesn’t need to wipe and to be the empathetic ears a mom speaks to without using a sing-song voice.”

I earned my dusty stories, years ago. And I told them. Now is my turn to listen.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

High Needs Mother

High Needs Mother

By Lynn Shattuck

LynnShattuck_blogAfter my first son Max was born, I wanted answers.

My little red-faced infant wanted to nurse every twenty minutes. He woke up six or more times a night. The ‘quiet alert’ phase that we had heard about—the one we had imagined our peaceful, silk-cheeked baby silently gazing at us while inhaling the landscape of our faces—was non-existent.

Long days dripped by in a haze of milk and tears—both of ours. Our pediatrician said it wasn’t colic; nursing soothed him. And Max didn’t save his sadness for just the witching hour—any hour of the day or night was fair game. In my attempts to ‘fix’ my son, I lugged him to osteopaths and homeopaths. I went on an elimination diet consisting of brown rice and carrots. I spent hours with him hooked to my breasts while I searched the Internet for solutions. For ways to make him happier. To make us both happier.

In my research, I came across an article by Dr. Sears, a leading proponent of attachment parenting. Dr. Sears described ‘High Needs Babies”—how they tend to sleep poorly and require constant holding and attention. The article suggested my son’s temperament as who he was, who he was born to be. Not something to fix. I was a bit devastated by this theory; if I couldn’t fix it, the tears and sleepless nights would continue. We were already utilizing many of Dr. Sears’ suggestions for calming our ‘High Needs Baby’—co-sleeping was the only way for any of us to get rest. I carried him in the Ergo so often, I felt like the skin on my shoulders was absorbing the straps. I nursed on demand—and the demand was high.

The only thing that really helped was time. Ever so slowly, our nursing sessions stretched out. After about sixteen months, Max finally started piecing together four or six hour stretches of sleep.

Max is four and a half now. He’s been weaned for a few years, and he usually sleeps through the night. But he is still intense. When he’s happy, he’s down-to-the-toes effervescent. And when he’s not—which is often— he’s a shrieking, writhing tempest of misery.

We have a daughter now, too. She smiles and laughs easily and often. Loud sounds don’t phase her, and she weaned with little effort. At 21-months, she still requires a lot of care. But her whole being vibrates with ease, with lightness. I sense that life is much easier for her than it is for my son.

Than it is for me.

You see, I’m a High Needs Mother.

Before my kids were born, I practiced extreme self-care. I went to yoga and dance classes. Twelve-step meetings and therapy. I took long, slow walks and attended a Unitarian church. I signed up for retreats and workshops. I did all of this to help me feel normal, which has always seemed much easier for most people than for me. Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert. Maybe it’s because I struggle with anxiety and depression. Maybe it’s because I’m what is described as a ‘Highly Sensitive Person.’

My husband and I vowed that when we had children, I would keep up my rigorous program. We promised we would support each other in doing the things we loved and the things that kept us sane and happy.

And then my son arrived.

And I was the only one who could soothe him.

A few months after Max’s birth, I went to a yoga class by myself. As I backed the car out of the driveway, I felt half giddy. I also felt half naked without my son.

At the class, I breathed. I tried to root my body on my yoga mat, to let the ground cradle me like I so often cradled my son. In between surrendering to gravity, my mind wondered how my son was. If he was screaming. If he would take the bottle. If he would nap. During the closing shavasana, I felt the sharp zing of my milk letting down; even my body couldn’t fully surrender to the time alone.

When my son was twenty months, we discovered my husband’s work would subsidize part-time childcare. We enrolled Max two days a week in a nearby daycare. I had wanted children, badly. So why did I need to be away from my son? How dare I ask other people to care for him two days a week when I wasn’t going to be filling all of that time with paid work? When I might use some of it to go to a yoga class or do laundry or lug my laptop to a coffee shop and write?

My guilt was huge, but my need for a respite was bigger. When I dropped my son off that first day, I came home, melted onto the couch and cried. When I finally peeled myself off the couch, I wrote Max a letter. In my home, alone, all I could hear was the hum of appliances. For the next several hours, my body was all mine. I felt guilty and blissful, free and lost.

With time, the guilt shrunk.

I hate that as a mother, I felt like I had to choose between caring for my child and caring for myself. Because really, I can choose both. I can teach my kids—by example, which is perhaps the most potent way of teaching—that they are worthy of listening to their own needs. To the quiet, sure voice that might tell them they need a break. To lie on a yoga mat and sink deep into their own body and breath. To wander through a cemetery, alone, slowly enough to read the names on the gravestones. To sit down and write about how they’re feeling, or to surrender to sweet sleep for an hour.

When I take good care of myself, I am more present for my babies. I can play air guitar with my son and orchestrate dance parties to Footloose. When I don’t take care of myself, I’m a stringy, soggy, limp wash rag of a mother. Slowly, over the years, I have been able to add more and more self-care back into my life. To come back to myself and meet my own needs. To meld the person I was before having children with the mother I became.

Over time, I learned that there was nothing wrong with my son. He just happens to be a lot like me.

Lynn Shattuck is a writer living in Portland, Maine. She blogs at http://thelightwillfindyou.com as well as the elephant journal and Huffington Post.

This Is Our Last Baby … I Think

This Is Our Last Baby … I Think

By Jessica Rassette

JessicaRassette3There is nothing better than a baby bundle. A lump of baby all bundled up on your chest with their frog legs curled up underneath them. Chest to chest, heartbeat to heartbeat, their big fat cheeks covered in drool just begging to be munched on. Yep, nothing is better than a baby bundle.

I’ve been doing the baby bundle with our youngest a lot lately. He’s five months old and my baby bundle days are numbered. Any chance I get I grab that boy around his big ol’ belly and squeeze him as close to me as I can. Squeeze and tickle and coo and squeeze and rub his soft face, oh, the squeezes. He has two older brothers he’s been admiring for a while now, and he is just one gutsy, coordinated moment away from crawling after them. I know when that happens he’ll be all “pssht mom, no time for bundling this baby, I’m crawling!”

It’s ok, I’ve been through it before, but the hurt is a little more scorching this time. He is our last baby. While we haven’t done anything official to ensure he’s our last one, in my heart, I know. This is it. My husband knows it too, he was after all my biggest cheerleader when I asked my doctor about getting my tubes tied. But in the end I couldn’t go through with it. I gave a really lame excuse, like “I don’t feel qualified to make decisions for my future self.” But really, I am scared of being done making babies.

Don’t get me wrong, I complain a lot when I’m pregnant. Almost as much as I eat. A lot. Between the morning sickness, joint pain, back pain, hip pain, pain pain, and the mood swings, insomnia, general feelings of lethargy, discomfort, exhaustion, melancholy … I complain. A lot. But I enjoy a lot too. I can’t possibly get over that feeling of knees brushing across my belly from the inside. The inside! The fun of dreaming of a new baby and what he’ll look like. Or just that glowing feeling because I’m growing a baby. Then there’s the first cry, first smile, nursing, snuggling with a baby bundle. It’s beautiful, who isn’t scared to be done with all of that?

But back to reality, we have three boys. Our house, hearts, arms, eardrums are full, our pocketbooks empty. It’s time for me to climb out of my “in the trenches years,” take a shower, and try to make a name for myself while I raise these cute little hooligans. It is time.

Recognizing that our family is complete is as much of a loss as it is a blessing. We’re done, and it hurts. Every first milestone that our youngest achieves will be our last time experiencing it. No more fluttering fetus kicks. No more preggo glows. No. More. Baby. Bundles. And the list could go on and on.

It hurts a lot, and I need time to mourn the loss of my baby makin’ years. It was a good run, uterus, you done good. If my uterus had a tush I would give it a friendly little tush pat, like a burly football player in the end zone. That’ll do, pig, that’ll do.

But there’s good in this too. At some point, I think, we’re going to start sleeping again. As much as I love yoga pants I’m going to wear real clothes again someday. Our kids will become more independent, they’ll grow and become real people. I’ll even start showering (pretty) regularly, and maybe even be really important to people who don’t call me “mom.” There is a lot of good in this decision that, someday, I’ll appreciate.

But right now I’m still in the trenches for a few more years, and in mourning that this baby cycle will not renew itself and these days are fleeting. I’m squeezing up all the fat baby bundles that I can and appreciating everything I am experiencing for the last time. But let’s be honest, a part of me will always hope I can talk my husband into just one more. We are done having babies, but I’ll always leave that uterus door open just … a tiny … sliver …

Just in case.

Jessica is a blogger, photographer, and freelance writer in Nebraska. Blogs she contributes to include the Huffington Post and BabyCenter. She writes at www.bubandteebs.com

Photo: Istockphoto.com

Learning to Love Motherhood

Learning to Love Motherhood

By Chantal Panozzo 

Girl enjoying snowtimeRecently, both my two-year-old and I had “aha!” moments. Hers was: “Snow is cold.” Mine was: “Oh, so this is why people have children.”

I was never one of those women who felt born to breed. I didn’t have dreams about bridal gowns or babies. Even though I met my future husband when we were both 19, we felt no particular rush to do anything but enjoy our lives. We got master’s degrees at 25. We got married at 26. We moved to Switzerland at 28. When I wasn’t working, I concentrated on one thing: seeing the world’s wonders.

My husband and I were DINKS (double income, no kids). And we lived like it. We traveled when and where the spirit (and great airfare deals) took us. Warsaw for the weekend? France on a Friday? Notting Hill next week? Takoui, and sign us up. I printed out a map of the world and hung it on our fridge. After every trip, I colored in the countries I had visited.

Thirty-two years and 32 countries later, my biological clock began dinging and donging as much as the medieval clock tower across the street. The possibility to add a little bundle of joy to my life was slowly announcing its expiration date. Didn’t babies define happiness? I loved happiness. And even though I had plenty, I got greedy; I wanted more. So a year later, I was pregnant. When “joy” arrived I took her home, jubilant. But it wasn’t long—maybe 72 hours—before “joy” made me feel something else: sorrow. Instead of seeing the world, I was seeing spit up. I couldn’t help it; I missed my old life.

Did I have a mental disorder? Everyone I knew was congratulating me, saying how wonderful a baby was and how I should enjoy every moment. But all I could do was smile and nod and silently wonder, which moment did they mean?

Was it the moment when I dripped from every orifice in my body (orifices that before giving birth I didn’t even know existed)? Was it the moment at 3 a.m. when I was reminded I wasn’t a woman, but a cow?  Was it the moment when poop became the main topic of conversation at breakfast? (That is, if I even remembered to eat?)

The truth is, after I had a baby, my life as I had known it took a free fall. Warsaw on the weekend? I had taken less baggage to Warsaw than I did now to go across the street. Work out? Even if my husband was home, I felt like I had to ask his permission to leave the house. Go back to work? Great. I could feel guilty. Stay at home? Fantastic. I could feel like I had wasted my education.

The worst part was my dining room table. Where the silver candlestick holders had once been was a big, yellow electric breast pump slowly sucking the life out of me every time I looked at it—never mind when I used it.

I don’t know what I expected, but as a member of the Google Generation with everything from instant coffee to instant answers for “what airline flies direct to East Timor?” perhaps I assumed I’d also be graced with an instant love of motherhood. But instead I found myself silently regretting it.

Why did you want a baby? Stop. I wanted to stop asking myself that. But since that thought usually happened at the same moment I was sleep deprived and spilling some preciously pumped breast milk, it only egged on other troubling questions, especially if I saw a reflection of myself in a mirror. I had bags under my eyes and an extra ten pounds around my hips. My God, what did you do to your life? Stop. I didn’t want to ask myself that either. Especially when my daughter finally began smiling. But my protests did no good. My thoughts babbled more than my baby. And since they were mean and selfish thoughts, I didn’t share them with anyone. Instead, I let them ferment inside me like a Swiss Gruyere. For two years.

Then it snowed.

Of course, this particular snow was hardly my daughter’s first snow, but at 25 months, it was the first snow she registered. We watched it from our window. “Snow!” she yelled, “Pretty!” She remained mesmerized for at least nine minutes, practically an eternity for a toddler. “Out,” she said, “go!”

We prepared to go outside. That took approximately one decade. She wanted to wear her dirty diaper. She wanted to put her rain pants on backwards. And she wanted to wear her sandals. I tried not to remember my old life, when I left the house exactly eight minutes before the train to the airport was coming, tantrum-free and perfectly dressed for the weather.

Practically a lifetime later, which included several bribes in the form of Saltines, we were at the park. I took my daughter out of her stroller and set her in the snow. I was sweating from the effort it had taken to go two whole blocks from the apartment. Do something, I willed my daughter. Do something to make all the effort in getting here worth it. But she didn’t do anything except stand there as frozen as an ice sculpture. Then, to remind me she wasn’t a sculpture, she whined. And held up her arms for me to pick her up.

I sighed and held her for a few moments, debating whether we should just go grocery shopping instead. But something—let’s call it renewed patience—made me set her down in the snow again.

I began making little snowballs as she stood there. First I threw them. As her frown began to melt, I handed her little snowballs and she threw them. “More!” she said, until we had made so many snowballs that a patch of grass surrounded us.

“Walk,” she said. She took a hesitant step. “Snow,” she kept saying, as her pace quickened

When we reached the park’s fountain, that mercifully, was finally turned off, we made more snowballs and threw them into it. Each time a snowball self-destructed at the bottom of the fountain, my daughter shrieked with joy. “Snow!” she sang, her face registering total bliss, as if snow were the most amazing thing ever.

At that moment, I realized it was. Snow was amazing. It was white and cold and beautiful and I loved it. And that’s when I realized how much I loved my daughter for making me remember that.

I felt nothing but peace and happiness then. Thanks to my daughter, a new way of appreciating life had opened before my eyes like a flower. It was a world where small things were big and wonderful. It was a world where an airline ticket to an exotic country wasn’t necessary to find wonder. Instead, wonder was right in front of me, waiting to be discovered. It was in the form of my little girl in an over-sized pink coat and pink boots. She was going to make sure I didn’t miss a minute of it.

“Walk! Snow,” she said.

Inspired by her words, I began to sing a song I had sung as a child, with a newfound sense of awe floating along with the melody: “Let us walk in the white snow, in a soundless place. With footsteps quiet and slow, at a tranquil pace…”

My daughter smiled. “Mommy. Snow,” she said. She couldn’t have summed up the moment better—even with a verb. We threw another snowball in celebration of her 35-year-old mother’s ability to finally see snow as clearly as a two-year-old. I held her close, my lips warm on her cold cheek.

Then she decided to take off her gloves and my newfound love of motherhood took a commercial break.

“Aren’t you going to put your gloves back on?” I asked.

“No!” she said.

I shrugged, feigning indifference and made her another snowball, which she took with her bare hands.

“Oh,” she said, “cold!” She dropped the snowball like a hot potato and looked at me with the most wonderful expression: as if she had just watched a horror film.

“Snow is cold. That’s why Mommy wants you to wear your gloves,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. Then she cocked her head and looked up at me like I maybe, actually, might have had a few words of wisdom to offer.

Now there was something to love in a daughter. So as she held out her hands for me to re-mitten, I was smitten. Her tiny appreciation for my common sense was yet another reason, two years after becoming a mother, that I finally loved my new and wonder-filled life.

Chicago-based writer Chantal Panozzo has written about parenting, expat life, and Switzerland for the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. She is the author of Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known. Follow her on Twitter @WriterAbroad.

Fair Embryo

Fair Embryo

By Ellyn Gelman

Virus and Bacteria CellsI don’t want to get out of bed on my 30th birthday.  My soul feels bruised in some places, fractured in others.  I have been adrift in the sea of infertility treatments for five years.    I have ridden the waves of hope with my husband Dan, only to be pulled down into an undertow of disappointment.  We have come to the end of available procedures, discharged by the specialists.  We are not candidates for IVF.  For us it is over, until it is not over.

“Ellyn, phone call, outside line.” My curt, often abrupt administrative assistant stands in the doorway.

“Ok” I say.  I do not look up from the tedious monthly report due today.

My office reeks of cigarettes, I smoke them one after the other.  I have quit so many times I no longer consider the possibility.  Smoking temporarily fills the cracks inside me.

I hit the button on the phone connecting me to the outside line

“Hello, this is Ellyn.”

“Hi Mrs. Gelman, I am calling from the IVF clinic in New York.  How are you?”

“Okay?” My heart begins to pound.

“Great.  I’m calling because we have a new IVF procedure and we were wondering if you and your husband are interested in participating.  It is still considered an experimental procedure………” that is all I hear.  My mind shuts down, numb, unfocused.

We have been accepted into their zona drilling experimental program.  The zona is the outermost layer of the ovum (egg) and also worth 13 points in a scrabble game.  It is experimental because they have not yet had any success stories.  This is how it works.  Multiple eggs will be removed from my ovaries.  One sperm will be chosen for each egg and a tiny hole is “drilled” in the zona layer to enable fertilization (no need for a fast moving little tail).  The only thing the egg and sperm have to do on their own is, divide.  This all takes place in a Petri dish during the time an embryo is usually traveling down the fallopian tubes on it’s way to attaching to the uterine wall.

“I can’t do it.  I can’t handle the disappointment anymore.” I say. My head rests on Dan’s shoulder.

“Yes you can.  It’s going to work this time.”  Ever the annoying optimist, he wraps his arms tight around me.  We debate and I cry for hours.

I concede, “Okay one time, I’ll do this one time, promise we’ll stop here if it doesn’t work.”

“I promise,” he whispers into my hair, just above the top of my ear lobe.    Silently, I make a pact with God to never smoke another cigarette.

So it begins.  It turns out that a fast, hard thrust of a hypodermic needle hurts less.  It takes us three days to figure this out.  Dan’s first attempt to inject my butt with the prescribed hormone cocktail takes two tortuous hours.  I lay on our bed, pants pulled down, one butt cheek exposed.

The first hour we stare at the syringe. The needle is sharp and long, meant to reach muscle.  The liquid in the barrel contains all the hope we have for a child.

“You can do it,” I say.  I place the syringe in his hand.  We are both graduates of a one-hour course on “how to give an injection.”  Sweat is visible on his upper lip.  I look at him with as much confidence as I can muster.  His short dark curly hair sticks out in places, a result of his clammy hands nervously combing through it.  I know this is hard for him.  He is completely out of his element, but he loves me and I love him.

“Just do it, jam it in.  I won’t scream, I promise,” I say.  Irritation over time replaces fear.

“Let’s just go to the emergency room and ask a nurse to do this,” he says.

“Are you kidding me? We have to be able to do this. If we can’t do this, we are not meant to have a child.” I say.  I know these words hurt.  I am baiting him.  Maybe if he gets mad at me, he will just stab me with the damn thing.

He doesn’t bite.

“Okay, okay,” he says.  He repeats these same words many times.  I am still lying on my side.  The room smells like rubbing alcohol.  He has swabbed the injection site with alcohol twenty thousand times.

“Just do it,” I say.

Finally, he jams the needle into my butt, and pulls it right back out.  Every drop of liquid is still in the barrel.  We stare at the syringe.

“That’s it, I quit.”

“Okay, okay. I’m sorry, one more time” he says and pushes the needle where it needs to go.  The liquid causes my muscle to cramp but it feels good because it is done.  I roll over.  Dan looks like he’s going to throw up.  He runs to the bathroom.   Bent over the sink, he splashes cold water on his face.

“You did it!” I say.

I follow him and hug him tight from behind.  It is done, only nineteen more days of this to go.

“Thirteen eggs” Dan informs me when I awake from the anesthesia.  My ovaries, once the size of blueberries, are now baseballs. They hurt.

“Everything go okay with you?” I ask

“All good” he says with a laugh. “Let’s hope they pick some good ones”.

I smile.  His part in this is hard too.  While I am in the operating room, he goes alone into a room set aside for ejaculating into a sterile plastic cup. Then he passes the carefully labeled jar to a technician.  Through it all he maintains his sense of dignity and a sense of humor.

We wait for two days.

“You have a call, outside line”

I pick up the phone, “This is Ellyn.”

“Hi Mrs. Gelman, I am calling from the IVF clinic.”

I am cold, sweaty and silent.

“I am calling to let you know that there is one fair embryo”

“What does that mean?” my voice is barely a squeak.

“Well, it has not divided as many times as we like to see by now, but if it is still viable (able to grow) in the morning, it can be transferred into your uterus.  Don’t get your hopes up though, it is only one fair embryo.”

“Okay” I say.

Dan holds my hand as Dr. Ying transfers the microscopic fair embryo into my uterus. It pinches and I feel my uterus cramp. I like this doctor.  He is a mixture of eastern and western medicine.  He believes in visualization.

“For twenty four hour, think Velcro.  Embryo is like Velcro, needs to stick to uterus.” he says.

I don’t understand at first.  It’s sounds to me like he is saying WelKWo.  I stare at him.  He mimes Velcro. I get it.

“Remember, think Velcro,” he calls after me as I leave the procedure room.  For the next week, I pray and visualize Velcro like it’s my job.

Two weeks later, our pregnancy test is positive.  I am once again reminded by the IVF staff not to get my hopes too high, it is still early and this is a fair embryo.  There is nothing “fair” in the world of infertility.  Hope and faith is plain necessary, because the dream of having a child is too big for science alone.

We are their success story.  Our fair embryo implants and develops into a strong healthy baby boy.  He enters our world on July 11, 1992.  All the cracks in me begin to heal the moment I hold him. I never smoke again.

Ellyn Gelman is a freelance writer living in Connecticut.






Being a Mother’s Helper, to a Fellow Mom

Being a Mother’s Helper, to a Fellow Mom

By Karen Dempsey

0-30Brennan, Liddy and I sat by the gate, waiting for our flight to board. Holding sections of newspaper in front of them, they took turns reading aloud from fake articles on subjects like poop and exploding toilets, sending each other into fits of laughter.

The airport speakers rasped out: “Standby passenger [indecipherable name].” A few rows down, an adult-sized head of erratic blonde curls bounced up, followed by a chubby-cheeked miniature version of the same person.

“Okay, Isabel. They need us one more time,” the mom said to the little girl. She stood up to reveal a Baby Bjorn strapped to her chest and struggled to maneuver a floppy baby boy into the arm- and leg-holes.

An airline staffer looked on from the check-in desk, radiating impatience.

“This will just take one second, Isabel,” the mom said. “Just. One second.”

“His leg is stuck,” an older woman called out unhelpfully, her own arms folded across her chest.

I recognized the desperate look on Isabel’s mom. She was me, seven years before. I stepped toward her as she worked the baby’s errant foot down through the carrier hole. “I’ll watch the bags,” I said in a low voice, in violation of all those warnings posted around the airport.

She took me in with a grateful glance and mouthed, “Thank you.”

At ages seven and nine, my kids are just recently easy — even pleasant — when it comes to airline travel. And nothing makes that clearer than seeing another parent perform the juggling act I struggled with for so long.

The call to begin boarding came just as Isabel’s mom began nursing her baby. She stopped, he cried, and Isabel squirmed under a row of seats and refused to come out. The mom piled the two suitcases on top of her stroller and began negotiating with Isabel.

I reached for the stroller. “I can wheel this down.”

“I think we’ll be fine,” she said breathlessly, tugging Isabel out by an ankle.

But my hand was already on the bags. Brennan and Liddy were lined up with our bags and the other passengers had already boarded. “I’ve got it,” I said. “I’ll leave it on the jetway.”

She didn’t say anything as I walked ahead and I instantly knew I’d overstepped — inserted myself into her situation and probably made her feel worse. She’d said they were fine. Why hadn’t I let it go?

On the plane, Brennan and Liddy settled into a pair of seats across the aisle from me, pulled on their headphones and plugged into a movie. I looked at them — frightfully independent and funny, so much of the time now, and wished I could travel back in time to my early days as a mom and give myself a preview of moments like this.

I was still flustered about whether I’d crossed a line with Isabel’s mom. She would have figured it out. We all do. And I’ve had my share of “well-meaning” strangers interfere, like the librarian who warned three-year-old Brennan he looked cuter without his pacifier, and the woman on the beach who tried to distract Liddy out of a tantrum and made everything much worse.

But I thought back to the stress of boarding a plane alone with tiny Liddy and toddler Brennan, and the relief I felt the time a stranger took the infant carrier from my hands and deftly installed into the seat for me. He had a three-week-old at home, he explained. He was actually a pilot for the airline, “catching a ride home to see her.”

I remembered other moments when someone offered a small gesture that made a difference. When I was hugely pregnant with Liddy, I was struggling to collapse Brennan’s stroller on busy Mass. Ave in Boston, and a woman pulled over, hopped out of her car, and folded it up for me. “I just couldn’t keep driving,” she said, gesturing at my belly, with a huge smile. “Good luck!” And there was the time Brennan and I took the subway and got swallowed up in the crowds headed to Opening Day at Fenway Park. The stroller wheel caught in the door to the subway car, and a group of young guys in Red Sox gear wrenched it free for me, then ran onto the train whooping and cheering in triumph.

My reverie was suddenly interrupted. Two little stocking feet dangled in front of me.

“Sorry-can-you-take-him-I-have-to-get-Izzy-to-the-bathroom!” Isabel’s mom was behind my seat, literally dropping her baby in my lap in a deft move that only a parent can pull off — when she has someone on the other end who gets it. She must have scoured the rows for me when she realized she needed her arms free.

I cradled that still-sniffling little guy in my lap — the tiny flapping arms, the giant crocodile tears, and smiled. “Okay little man. You’re right here in my arms,” I said, and heard echoes, again, of myself years before, comforting my own tiny kiddos.

I looked over at Brennan and Liddy. They were completely oblivious.

“Are you having a tough flight, little man?” I asked the stranger baby. “Are you happy to be going home?”

In another five minutes, Isabel’s mom was back, still looking completely frazzled. But grinning. And here too was an expression I could interpret. Relief. (They must have gotten to the bathroom in time.) Pride. (They got to the bathroom in time!) Disbelief. (This stranger is holding my baby so I could get Isabel to the bathroom in time.) And gratitude. (This stranger is holding my baby so I could get Isabel to the bathroom in time!)

“Thank you,” she said simply. “So much.”

I was still smiling when Brennan, Liddy and I made our way through the airport to the baggage claim.

“Did you guys see that I got to hold that tiny baby?”

“What baby?”

“The woman from the airport?” I began. “We took her stroller onto the plane…?”

“You took her stroller onto the plane?” Brennan exchanged a glance with Liddy, confirming again their shared world view that adults, especially parents, are crazy.

I laughed at their expressions. Never mind, I thought. You kind of had to be there.

Karen Dempsey’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Babble and other publications. She lives in Massachusetts with her family. Follow her on Twitter @KarenEDempsey or read more of her work at kdempseycreative.com.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Any Woman’s War

Any Woman’s War

By Sarah Konstantonis

Every Woman's War ArtNot much longer now, I thought while tucking my legs underneath me, perched on the edge of hospital bed.  Any moment and the doctor will come through the door and confirm our discharge, and I take a final moment to revisit the familiar decor, the blue painted walls and stick on cartoon characters surrounding me. I had remained at my infant daughters side for the past 48 hours, unable to hold her tiny body while she sunbathed under lights to decrease her billirubin levels, cruel looking patches protecting her delicate eyes. Now the jaundice has sufficiently decreased and I could bring Analise home where we will join my husband and small children and finally settle into being a family of six. Analise is ten days old and sleeping in the plastic bassinet next to the bed. I look down at her face, pale, smooth and slightly translucent, a roadmap of blue veins visible beneath. She has a mop of feathery auburn hair and I hope that her eyes fluttering beneath thin lids will stay blue, unlike her brothers and sister. I feel so blessed, two daughters and two sons, a loving husband, a life I had always wanted.

It’s early spring, and the dreary view outside the hospital window is of a grey sky with a watery sun over a rooftop parking lot. I was sorry to have only sandals on my feet to carry Analise out to the car, it looks so cold out there, and I shove my icy feet under the faded hospital blanket. Tired of the stack of magazines by the bed, of flipping through the channels on the miniscule pay-as-you-stay TV mounted in the corner, I let out a sigh. Let’s just get on with this, I thought, staring at the door, willing the doctor to our room. I want to go home.

Soon there was a knock and our doctor stepped in with a small smile. She was my age, mid thirties and dressed professionally, with long dark hair swept away from her face. We had met two days ago but already I felt very much at ease with her. I think that under different circumstances that we could have been friends.

“We’re all set.” I say after greeting her, eagerly putting on my shoes. I lift the baby to my chest, wearing her new pink sleeper with the puffy white lambs. After two sons her entire wardrobe was varying shades of pink, and I relished it. “I guess that we’ll see you tomorrow?” I ask, still sitting back on the bed.

The nurse had earlier explained that for the next few days we would have to return Analise to the hospital every morning until her billiruben levels were below an appropriate level. What a pain, I thought mildly. But, if it means that she remains healthy, it’s a small price to pay. We can get back to our schedules and rhythms, albeit with a newborn thrown in the mix. I wonder, absentmindedly, if I should pick up a pizza for dinner on the way to the house.

“Sarah,” the doctor begins softly, “there is something else that I want to talk to you about.” Something in her tone caused my heart to beat faster. She took several steps towards the partially open door leading to the nursing station and closed it. As I watched her it’s as if time slowed down while the air in the room billowed out just before it shut.

“Does Analise look like any of your other children?” she asked.

I found myself suddenly defenceless against something that I had pushed out of my mind over and over since her birth. Something that none of the nurses had noticed, that my midwives, family and neighbours hadn’t commented on. Something that I had almost convinced myself wasn’t actually there.

The truth was that Analise did not resemble any of us the instant she came into this world, three weeks early and within an hour. The midwife had laid her on my stomach while I caught my breath and she looked up at me, covered in blood and life sustaining matter.

Her eyes… I thought with sudden alarm, a sharp and unexpected strike into my heart. But it wasn’t because they were open so soon, or because they were so beautifully blue. It was because these eyes were so foreign and yet vaguely familiar to me. There was no instant joy with her arrival, only confusion and growing inner conflict. There were so many differences from the other babies; the small folded ears, the slope of her forehead. All around me people were welcoming and joyous. No one showing any signs of concern, my husbands’ face a mixture of happiness and pride. Surely what I saw would not raise any flags. This is my child, I thought, I love her.

“She looks like Mickey Rooney.” I whispered to my husband and midwife, and we all had giggled, an effect from the nervous and excited energy around us. I finally sighed with exhaustion and relief while Analise scored a perfect ten on her Apgar Test. We’re safe.

Now here in this room there was no escape back to that moment. I was being confronted with my suspicions and there was nowhere to hide, my worst fear right in front of me.

“It’s Down Syndrome, isn’t it?” I said in a throaty voice I hardly recognized.

The doctor gazed at my precious baby for a moment, sleeping soundly in my arms. I had been so eager to hold her, now that I had permission. My sweet baby girl to complete our family.

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.” She said quietly.

A blood test ensued and I numbly agreed to genetic testing. Our doctor also suspected a heart murmur and we immediately went for an echocardiogram which revealed three holes in her heart, one having a fifty percent chance of needing surgery in two years. I called my husband at work to tell him the doctor’s suspicions and results. He said all the right things, that Analise was here and that we will love her no matter what. That she is one of us. We’re a family.

Once the lab left our hospital room with my baby’s vials of blood, I clutched her to me, gazed out the window and let the waiting tears flow down my cheeks. I wept for all the things I dreamed for her, entering a world that until one hour ago I couldn’t wait to introduce her to and now fiercely wanted to shelter her from. A place with words like retard and disability. A world that presumes to know her value and dismisses her potential. I cried because I felt so helpless, so small and alone, unable to protect her, unwilling to accept an inescapable reality.

That night in my own bed I was looking at my daughter’s face. It was the same but entirely different now and I wondered how my body could have betrayed me? It had given me a near perfect pregnancy. I had declined the indicative test that had been offered. My last son’s numbers had shown a higher chance for having a child with Down Syndrome and I had spent the remainder of my nine months worrying. I wasn’t going to do that again, I had thought. I would trust my body that all would be well. But it was my body that allowed this baby’s cell division to fail, that couldn’t put the pieces of her heart together properly. If only I had been stronger.

I read about a study once that a new mother could be blindfolded and choose her baby when it was held close to her face. She could instinctively recognize her infant’s scent from hundreds of others. Before now this finding had comforted me. Reflecting on it briefly while nursing my other children, thinking to myself, I would know you anywhere, little one. And now this person in my arms felt like a stranger to me. Her disability, our connection, was behind the curtain and all I felt was anger and fear.

It was another cloudy afternoon when I sat with Analise asleep in her bucket infant seat, waiting again for the doctor to tell me the result of our genetic testing.

“So, as we thought, Analise does have Down Syndrome,” she said conclusively, leaning against a small desk in a simple room. I knew this was true but a hidden part of me thought that maybe we were wrong, maybe there was hope.  I tried to ask a question that was rolling through the trenches of my mind.

“Was it because I…or because we…”I began but was unable to finish. Thankfully the doctor quickly responded after watching the tears pool in my eyes. “Neither of you are a carrier of the gene.” I bit the inside of my cheek, unwilling to cry, unwilling to react, other than to nod my head. At least I was not a traitor.

“One in approximately seven hundred babies is born with this disorder.” Our doctor said reassuringly “This could have happened to anyone.”

But it didn’t, I thought as I drove home that day. It happened to me.

How would I raise a child with special needs? My other kids seemed, by comparison, half way to adulthood. They could read, write and were quickly grasping issues such as world languages and currency. Both of my school aged children’s teachers had commented on their advanced vocabulary and creativity. I was behind enemy lines, uncharted waters. The next eight weeks were met with waves of thoughts and emotions from despair to tearful joy. During it all I grew to realize that my greatest ally was going to be my child, in those intimate moments that cause my heart to soar. I had to grow to know her, just as I had for my other children. Everything else would fall into place. We were in this together, her and me.

As we embark on this journey every milestone, however minute, feels more like a victory. Her first smile, gurgle, coo and giggle seem indicative of the amazing girl and woman she will become. There are times when miserable thoughts invade my day, oppositional fears for her future, but I am becoming better at ignoring them.

Some nights I wake in a hot bed draped in sweaty sheets. I am disoriented, shaking off the remnants of a dream I had of a daughter that was supposed to be. Like a missing limb, I can still feel her, or rather the idea of her, and I have to remind myself that everything will be all right. I reach out in the dark to touch the bassinet by my bed and listen to the small shallow breaths coming from within. This is my baby. Someone I would die for.

I realized there is a choice I have to make every morning, the choice to surrender. I surrender to the love I have for my daughter.

In the end we are powerless against things such as society, biology or a diagnosis. In the end we raise the white flag and pray. We find peace in the virtue of motherhood, that unending love, the primal bond that unites us to our children despite and because of our flaws. We hold on to our babies and to our faith that with every battle, we will come out the other side together, sometimes bruised, but complete.

Sarah Konstantonis is a freelance writer who has worked as a social programs manager and counselor in British Columbia, Canada. She enjoys writing short stories and is completing her first middle-grade fiction for publication next year. She now lives in Brockville, Ontario with her family and can be reached at skonstantonis@gmail.com.

 Subscribe to Brain, Child


Hearing Langston’s Smile

Hearing Langston’s Smile

By Kristen Witucki

Langston ArtI stood in front of the changing table wearing just my underpants and nursing bra. My husband James stood next to me so that he could learn how to change Langston’s diapers by touch. James was fully clothed in corduroy pants, a polo shirt, and a fleece pullover. Despite my lack of clothing, I was sweating in our overheated apartment — just knowing what James wore made me sweat even more. My stomach felt like a leaky balloon that wouldn’t fully deflate, my groin was still caked with blood from the recent birth, and my swollen feet felt like they couldn’t hold my weight another second. My fingers smelled, not unpleasantly, of the diaper rash ointment I applied religiously to Langston’s perfectly smooth bottom. His newness and fragility still made me tremble.

“When you put the diaper on,” I was explaining to James, “the two pieces of tape always need to be under the baby so that you can close the diaper from the back.”

Mom, who was watching in the doorway, said, “I have to take a picture of this demo, but don’t worry, I won’t post it on Facebook. I’m going to head home now. You two seem like you’ll be okay on your own.” I wanted to argue, to beg her to stay through the weekend, at least, but I didn’t. After all, I was supposed to be the mother now.

Because we are both blind, most of the doctors and nurses James and I encountered when Langston was born were skeptical of our parenting ability. Too tired to advocate, we kept ourselves surrounded by a pod of rotating friends and family members, until we convinced the medical personnel that a protective membrane always encompassed our family’s nucleus. They cleared us to go home on the Monday after Langston’s birth. Mom stayed with us for four more days. She woke up with me around the clock and helped Langston keep his hands away from my nipples so I could feed him. She changed some of his diapers and cooked simple meals from my childhood: grilled cheese and canned tomato soup, homemade meat loaf and baked potatoes. When mom came, towers of still unopened baby gifts filled the apartment, which, combined with her mothering presence, temporarily added to the chaos. Her laptop and work things took up part of the kitchen table, and an air mattress engulfed most of the living room floor at night. When she left, the homey clutter was gone. The gifts were organized, the air mattress was put away, her work things were in the car, and we were alone with Langston.

I didn’t realize that my mother’s baptismal gift of privacy was the beginning of the reverberating isolation of early motherhood, the kind when shouting into the cave only intensifies your own echo, and your only hope of escape is the bond you forge with your child. Surprisingly few people interrupted our privacy, given the number of visits friends and coworkers promised before Langston’s birth. Later people blamed their distance on the holiday rush and then on winter — Langston was born on the last day of November. And by springtime, he wasn’t new anymore. But I sometimes wondered whether the advent of social media made many of my sighted acquaintances feel as though they had experienced this new person in all his glory right from the convenience of their own screens. From the moment he was born, my relatives and the friends who visited took photos of Langston for me to post on my Facebook profile. I welcomed the pictures, because Langston, as a sighted child, might someday appreciate those glimpses into his early life. But displaying those for all of my friends, may have accentuated my loneliness during early motherhood.

I inwardly panicked on the day James returned to work when Langston was seven weeks old. It wasn’t just, “Who will change diapers and get the baby to sleep so I can have a break between feedings?” In a few short weeks, I had seesawed from longing for privacy to longing for adult conversation — any conversation beyond soothing a baby’s cries.

My days were all nursing and diaper changes, but during the snatches of time when Langston catnapped, I turned to the internet for companionship and support. To make room for baby things in the apartment, I had sold my desk, and now, after Langston was born, I sat cross-legged on my bed, the laptop propped on my knees. The bed was a cozy nook around which my activities could center. I could let Langston sleep next to me while I typed, or I could set up his activity mat beside me so he could stare at toys and kick his feet. I sometimes nursed him on the bed, too, propped up against pillows and the sometimes creaky headboard. But since James had gone to work, the bed was unmade most of the time, and the old quilt, comfortable but flattened by use, was crumpled back, exposing sheets that had enough holes in them to feel unattractive but not enough holes in them to throw them away. I was never interested in making the bed, but when James failed to get around to it, it reminded me of our newly disheveled routine.

One such day on the unmade bed, I received one of my perky weekly emails from BabyCenter, supposedly tracking my baby’s progress. This email cheerfully told me that my first reward for all the sleep deprivation was coming soon in the form of my baby’s first smiles.

Just then, Langston wailed again, even though he had barely slept for twenty minutes. I picked him up and wanted to cry along with him. Suddenly my longing for adult conversation and my pride in having learned to care for my son were eclipsed by my having missed something so small but apparently so monumental. I began to obsess over all of the things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t see which toys he preferred as he stared at the silken bars over him on the activity gym. I couldn’t follow his photographed progress on Facebook. And worst of all, without being able to see and respond to those smiles, I was not a real mother. I was just a milk dispenser and diaper changer. I would meet needs, thereby satisfying the skeptical medical personnel, but I would not be able to create a foundation for love. I imagined all those other mothers, smiling back and forth conversationally with their babies while my mouth felt cracked with the tension I felt inside. Not only was I not connecting to the outside world except through a computer, I was not connecting to the inside world of Langston’s life as a developing sighted baby.

On Valentine’s Day, another work day for James, neither of us bothered to give each other valentines. I wanted to ignore the holiday in support of those it left out. However, I was feeling left out myself, wishing James had chosen to stay home with me, choosing love over work, even though his work directly enabled our love for our new baby. Langston and I were on the unmade bed again. I had already nursed him three or four times that day, had changed countless diapers, and gulped down food and water during his brief naps.

I was bored with the repetitive music of the activity gym, one of the few electronic toys I allowed Langston. Even though he was still so little, I could feel my boredom seeping into him, making him fretful. So I picked up my Victor Reader Stream, an accessible digital audio player and recorder, and pressed the record button. I could feel the baby watching me.

“Daisy, daisy,” I sang, “give me your answer. Do.” The song was one my mom had taught us when we were little. Suddenly, Langston sang an encouraging note. It was little more than “aaaaa,” but I knew he was listening.

“I’m half-crazy,” I continued, my voice wobbling off key as I suppressed my emotion beneath the song, “all for the love of you.”

Again Langston sang, “ooooo, aaaaa.” As I finished the song, he responded to each line, and for the first time, I experienced the validation of call-and-response through the sounds of my son. “Are you singing?” I asked him. “You can sing it. That’s some good singing.” He answered each sentence with a musical variation on “aaa,” not imitating my music so much as he was imitating the act of singing, maybe inventing his own song. It wasn’t the first time I had sung to Langston, but suddenly we were conversing. I knew I was smiling at him and that he was smiling back.

After James returned from work and took Langston to give me a break, I uploaded the recording and posted the link to Facebook. I was overwhelmed by people’s responses, because unlike the photos in which I was a mere bystander, I had nurtured forth those early syllables. I was behind the camera. I was a mother.

The recording did not shatter our solitude. After all, people could now hear as well as see the baby right from the convenience of their own screens, and although it may take a village to raise a child, I’ve accepted that motherhood is, for better or worse, about the mother and the child, as it should be. But that recording was Langston’s first smile, and my first social and emotional connection with him.

Author’s Note: Two years have passed since Langston’s first smile. I showed him the recording of himself approximating song notes as a baby, but he’s more interested in hearing the more recent recording of himself saying “Hi.” Someday, though, Langston might ask about his infant self, and I’ll be able to give him a layered account of the experience. Langston knew I was blind from his earliest days, even though he couldn’t articulate it — just as I learned to mother him, he learned how to thrive as my baby, and I’m profoundly grateful.

Kristen Witucki earned her MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her first book, The Transcriber, became part of Gemmamedia’s Open Door series. Her non-fiction has appeared in Huffington Post, Literary Mama and the Momoir Project. She teaches English, creative writing, and Braille. She lives in West Virginia with her husband, her son, and her Seeing Eye dog. Visit her at www.kristenwitucki.com.

The Last Hurrah

The Last Hurrah

By Katherine Ozment

The Last Hurrah_ArtI am in the dressing room at Schwartz’s Intimate Apparel in an affluent suburb of Chicago. There is nothing intimate about the place. Signs in the front windows blare “Girdle Sale!” The overhead lights are a bright, unforgiving florescent, and the round, middle-aged woman with a bad dye job who greeted me at the door is now telling me to take my sweater off.

I used to be shy about my body, but nearly nine months of regular prodding and pulling and palpating by my obstetrician have excised whatever sense of modesty I once had. I remove my sweater without pause, and I am not even bothered when she stares directly at my chest for several seconds. “Okay,” she says as if she knows everything she will ever need to know about me. Then she disappears behind the click of the closing door.

I have come to Schwartz’s at the direction of several friends, none of whom know one another, but all of whom have babies and are thereby connected through the great ethereal web of mother wisdom. Before you get pregnant, you know nothing of mother wisdom. You see babies in strollers, but you don’t think about what brand of strollers they are or how they were chosen or if the cup holders are any good. You go about your business. And then your pregnancy test comes up blue and you begin to realize how little you really know.

The wisdom is given in small bits, like pearls, at first, but soon you realize there are entire categories of knowledge you must acquire now that you’re with child. I’d long since bought the Snap-n-Go, the Pack-N-Play, and the castle-themed saucer. I’d signed up for prenatal classes and swept a whole row of instruction manuals off the bookstore shelf. Now it was time to get down to business. It was time to buy the nursing bras.

My friends had told me that Schwartz’s was the place to buy nursing bras. The nursing bra Mecca. The nursing bra bomb. So here I stand, facing the mirror in the dressing room, trying to see what the saleswoman saw.

My stomach is an enormous orb, my skin stretched beyond what any Thanksgiving feast–or my wildest imagination–could ever yield. My satiny black bra pulls tight across the top of me, seeming to cordon off my ever-growing breasts like police tape.

In the midst of my reverie, the saleswoman returns, several bras clutched in her hands like caught fish. She stands in the doorway staring through thick-framed glasses, and it takes me a moment to realize that I am to continue disrobing, strip-poker-like, while she watches. Obediently, I remove my black bra. She instructs me to lean forward, and as I do, she whips a particularly thick, textured, flesh-colored thing around the front of me, pulls it taut, and latches it together across my back. I feel lassoed.

I look up and see my grandmother. No, it’s me, but my breasts are trapped like objects never to be viewed or even thought about. I feel mummified.

“Hmm,” I say, afraid to offend her. Maybe I’m supposed to look like this. I caress the top of the bra, as if contemplating its beauty and functional appeal. “Maybe something a little smoother,” I say. “I kind of like my bras smooth.”

“I know you do,” she says, as if she has known and disapproved of me all my life.

She reaches down and scoops up a smooth, white Olga. “Try this one,” she says. It’s a brand I wear in more normal times, and it feels better. The only difference is that this one has these two little snaps on either side of my breastbone for the baby’s easy access. I touch one of the snaps and try to casually undo it, but I feel her watching me, and I can’t get the snap undone. I pretend instead that I’m just scratching my breastbone.

“This one’s the wrong size,” she barks, grasping the material beneath my underarms and pulling it snug. I let out a small shriek, but she doesn’t seem to hear it. She is out the door again, leaving me to ponder my bloated reflection once more.

She returns with the same bra, this time in a 38D. A 38D! All my life I have wondered what it would feel like to wear a bra so deep into the alphabet. Long years I have dabbled in petty A’s and B’s, always curious if I would feel more beautiful, more womanly in a D-cup. But as she hoists me into it and explains that I’ll need the extra pockets of space for nursing pads, my visions of taut bikini tops and sexy, skin-tight sweaters disappear.

Still, it’s a good bra, so I tell her I’ll take it.

“Whew, that was easy,” I think. “I’ll be home in time for The View.”

But then, as if tossing a verbal hand grenade into the dressing room, she asks, “Do you have your nightgowns?” Like having one’s nightgowns is a matter of course equivalent to having one’s underwear. I don’t want to tell her that I usually sleep in sweatpants and one of my husband’s T-shirts. Women who come here wear nightgowns. They have robes. Probably even slippers.

“No,” I confess. “I don’t.”

“I know just the one,” she says. “Have you seen the ‘I Love Lucys’?”

I cannot even imagine what she is talking about.

“They’re just what you’re going to need,” she says, leading me to a rack of long, flannel nightshirts emblazoned with oversized, cartoon-like pictures. One features Lucy and Ethel stuffing chocolates into their mouths. Others are adorned with animals, some with Victorian footwear. But the one she has picked out especially for me is a virtual extravaganza of Oreo cookies–Oreos stacked on top of one another, Oreos dunking themselves in tall glasses of milk, Oreos floating free on a pink-and-blue-striped background.

“This is what you’ll be needing now,” she says.

What I’ll be needing now? And just what is going to happen to me now? I’m going to have a baby and suddenly need to wear cartoon-cookie-emblazoned sleepwear?

“I was thinking of something, you know, a little smoother,” I say. And then, “Something a little sexy.”

A small smile appears on her lips. It tells me that she thinks she knows more than I do about all this. That what I will really want will be that Oreo cookie nightshirt and I had better just get used to it. Still, without protest, she turns and marches to the back of the store. I follow her and watch as she pulls several nightgowns from a rack along the wall.

All the gowns she shows me are variations on a theme–floral prints with about five buttons down the center of the chest, topped with a tiny satin bow. They flare out at the hips and end somewhere just below the knees, and I can’t help thinking of the cotton A-line nightgowns I wore as a little girl.

It dawns on me that there isn’t anything sexy here. I think back to some of the items I noticed upon entering the store–plastic flower-dotted shower caps, “easy-to-fasten arthritis bras,” the flagrant “Girdle Sale!” sign–and I realize that this is the place you come when sexy is no longer the priority, when breasts aren’t so much erogenous zones as nutritive vessels. It occurs to me that my body has left the make-up counter. I am in the cereal aisle of my life.

“Maybe pajamas,” I offer.

“We have those,” she says, turning to the circular rack beside us. She riffles through the “large” section as I stand mute. She pulls out a cropped aqua-and-white gingham set. I can tell by the way her face lights up that it is a favorite of hers, and there is something so pure about her love of it that I wish I could love it too. The sleeves are cuffed in blue satin, and I think how easy my life would be if I could just be happy lolling around the house in gingham pajamas with blue satin cuffs.

“This is what you’ll want,” she tells me, and though I want to believe her, I know that she is wrong.

“I don’t think it’s my color,” I say.

She begins to flick the hangers across the metal bar with sharper motions, and I fear she’s losing patience. The next set she pulls out is similar to the previous one, except the top of this one is a tent-sized, button-down expanse of purple. The pants are purple-and-white gingham, slashed vertically at the ankle, for what purpose I cannot imagine. (Cowboy boots?)

“I think I’ll just take these instead,” I say, gesturing to a pair of flannel bottoms and a tight, scarlet top the likes of which I haven’t worn since high school. It is an impulse purchase, and it feels as it should: daring and wasteful and wrong.

I can tell she disapproves of my choice–that a tight, sexy top is not what the baby will need from me. But the baby’s not here yet. Except for taking my prenatal vitamins and trying not to drink, smoke, or sniff glue, there’s not much I have to do. For now I am free. In a few weeks, my son will come screaming into the world. The pain of that moment, and the joy, will transform me. I will enter the ranks of this woman. The knowing glance and the tone of self-assurance will be mine. I will look back on all that came before as if it were one big keg party–a frivolous, three-decade-long affair in which caring for others was easy because their very survival didn’t depend on it.

But I’m not there yet. I still have some time. And so, tight scarlet top in my grasp, I hand over my credit card and seize the day.

Author’s Note:  I wrote this essay when I was eight months pregnant and consumed with all things baby. The original ending was different. At the time, I had no understanding of what it would mean to be a mother, so I ended the essay with some pat image of buying a pair of blue baby booties in addition to the other things (which I did). But later, when revising the story, I realized that buying that tight red top at the end of the comically tortuous trip to the nursing bra store was my last gasp of reckless independence. At the time, I had no idea what was about to be lost–or gained.

Brain, Child (Winter 2005)

Katherine Ozment is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Boston magazine, where she also writes a weekly parenting blog. The baby boy she was pregnant with when she wrote this essay is now ten years old, stands up to her shoulder, and has two younger sisters, ages six and two. More of her writing can be found at katherineozment.com