Then There Were Three

Then There Were Three

By Tyrese Coleman

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It is October, 2012, and I am eight weeks pregnant. There is a pain in the left side of my lower abdomen. I’ve ignored it for several days now. The pain has grown, so much so that I feel like I can see it. It started out less than a pea, a tiny piece of stone, a dot of irritation I felt when I lay down or twisted in the wrong direction. Now it is a pebble sharpened to a point, always jabbing me. It is increasing in size, and by the time we reach the hospital, it may be an actual knife, rough and carved from rock. Sharp enough now that each slice makes me bleed. Early on, I muttered a fleeting prayer: thank God, I am not bleeding. But now, the blood is why we are going to the hospital. It is slight, bright red, and clearer. I’ve used the bathroom at least ten times. Each wipe: brighter and redder; the knife: sharper and deeper. The woman behind the hospital’s reception desk tells us to have a seat. Kevin doesn’t know I want to cry. I am not going to cry. I am strong. I am calm. I am going to sit here with the coughing woman, the man holding his hand wrapped in a towel, the big pregnant lady whose boyfriend has his face almost inside his cell phone screen, the little boy sleeping on his father’s lap. I will sit here and be calm, but I’ve got to go to the bathroom again. When I am done, there is so much blood I have to wrap toilet paper around my hand and forearm in the shape of a maxi-pad, wedge it between my legs, and waddle toward the front where Kevin is waiting, and still I am not going to cry. I am not. Because if I cry, Kevin will cry. He will know how bad this really is. But I stop on the way to the waiting room and tell a nurse,

“I’m pregnant. I’m bleeding heavily. I’ve made a mess in the bathroom.” She says to sit in one of the hallway chairs, don’t go back out there, they will get me a room, they will get my husband. And maybe it’s her voice, or her face, just how nice she is…but now I cannot stop crying. I cannot stop bleeding. There is a knife inside me stabbing its way out.

***

New Year’s Eve, 2011, and we are celebrating the best year ever.

I can’t remember the name of this place, but the colors inside combine to make gray, a black and white film: white tables, white floors, a white fireplace pitch black inside; transparent acrylic chairs reflecting brilliant firelight; long windows exposing the night’s darkness shadow the room into gray with dots of gold and silver from candles and glittery paper hats. Our group sits at a long table near the front of the restaurant. I am drinking champagne and eating expensive food and laughing.

My girlfriend and I slip outside to smoke. I face the building to light my cigarette because of the wind. The spark warms my hands, briefly turning them a blood-red orange.

“I think we might try to have a baby,” one of us says. We are thirty-two. It doesn’t matter which one of us says this. We both are saying it.

We say, “I think this is a perfect time.”

Smoke rings around us in the cold air. I don’t mention that Kevin and I have already started trying. The second half of 2011 was a series of playful kisses and groping, porn watching, morning boning—and afterward—knees to my chest or my legs up against the headboard, a stack of pillows under me directing his boys to their destination. Unofficially-officially “trying to conceive.” Unofficial, so you can’t be upset if it doesn’t work. Right?

I kiss my husband at midnight—it is sloppy. I am drunk. Toasts for the New Year! My eyes closed, I press my lips against the opening of a slim sparkling glass.

***

“How far along are you?” the ER doctor asks.

“Eight weeks with twins,” I say.

She says she wants to see if I am dilated. There isn’t a gynecological office: no stirrups in the ER room. My feet are at the edge of the cot, knees making a wide V, eyes pressed shut, but there is so much blood the doctor cannot complete the exam of my cervix. When she is done trying, we—Kevin, the nurse, and I—clean up the room: remove the wet sheets, wipe down the plastic mattress, lay new coverings. I pull on my underwear and pants, since they haven’t given me a gown yet, probably haven’t even thought to with everything moving so fast. I can feel the blood rushing out of me with every movement of my body. I am clothed, covered in blankets, yet I am shivering cold…from the hemorrhaging? The hospital air? The failure? I lie back, rest my cheek against the gurney’s metal rail, and moan from pain. They will give me morphine, the nurse says, to make me feel better.

I lie on my right side because it hurts too much on my left. The left side of my stomach is being sliced to pieces, though I can’t imagine what is left to hack. My insides must be shredded meat by now. I tell the doctor this. I tell her about the pain on the left. But the blood is all she needs to know.

She is not a gynecologist; she explains many times. I need an obstetrician. She is not one of those either. She cannot say what is wrong with me, yet I overhear her tell the nurse to page the on-call gynecological surgeon for an “emergency D&C.” D&C. DCDCDCDCDCDC&C, D&D, C&D, D&C…the letters are backwards. They turn back around, and twist, and loop in my head until they stop meaning what I know they mean—Dilation and Curettage, dilate and cut it, cut it out, it sounds like “dilate and cut it out”—and the letters running together calms me like a chant…DNCDNCDNCDNC…or a native dance call…CNDCNDCNDCND…or a drum of thunder marking the end of the world, the end of bleeding, pain; the end of my one and only pregnancy.

***

Having children means a part of me lives even after I die, and I am afraid of dying.

This terror is a solid, concrete thing, you know, not an abstract concept of Man’s Greatest Fear. This terror is black and heavy. So heavy, it pins me down onto my bed sheets, crushes my chest at night—always at night when my mind is free to be captured. Panic removes air from my lungs, and I breathe fast, as if I’ve been running. But it doesn’t matter how fast I run, how hard I fight. Death will get me.

***

September 2012. The fertility specialist is using a long beige wand to see inside me. After a year of unofficial-official, after stabbing myself with needles full of hormones, taking pills for polycystic ovary syndrome, pills to develop my eggs, prenatal vitamin pills, after working out and slimming down, after boring, uninspired, timed intercourse without porn—after all this—I am, finally, pregnant.

She turns the ancient black and white screen to us and points to a blob with a dot inside the size of less than a pea. “There is one,” she says. Her finger circles another blob, “There is the other.”

“What does that mean?” I ask. Kevin squeezes my hand, I hear him say under his breath, “I knew it.”

“There are two,” she says.

“Shut up. Stop lying. You’re joking,” I say, and I don’t know why, but my heart beats harder.

“I never joke about these things,” she says, then as warmly as she can muster, she adds, “Congratulations.”

Kevin and I walk down the hall hand in hand, stiff with fear. Do we call our parents now? Yes, let’s call them when we get to the car. What did you mean you knew it? I just knew it. Well, I didn’t know it. We worry about the after: how we will afford two children who are the same age, how to soothe two crying babies, how to spread ourselves enough to cover both with love. It is one thing to know you are having a baby, quite another to find out you are having two. It doesn’t occur to either of us to worry about the “during,” the now, this pregnancy.

The bulletin board outside the clinic’s examination rooms are covered in photographs: portraits, letters of thanks, holiday cards. I never noticed before just how many include twins or triplets. I stop to stare at the smiling faces. I’ve got to remember to send a photo of all of us when the time comes.

***

I never thought I would have children. Never thought I could have children. But that never stopped me from trying. Lost my virginity at fourteen and never looked back. Spent my entire twenties having unprotected sex. Yet, no baby or even a pregnancy scare to show for it.

At seventeen, when my best friends and cousins were having babies, I told my boyfriend at the time—my cheating boyfriend—that I missed my period. It was true, I was late. But I knew I wasn’t pregnant. I’d missed periods before, went months without having one. There was nothing unusual about that particular month except that I knew he was cheating on me. I told my mother the same story. I don’t know why. Maybe her knowing would make my budding fake pregnancy come alive. She was surprisingly calm. She had given birth to me at seventeen. We bought a test, but I started my period before I took it. I called my boyfriend and told him. He claimed I had lied to mess with his head. I didn’t deny it. He never talked to me again.

I had two serious boyfriends in my twenties, one of whom was also trying his hardest to get me pregnant. We never spoke about marriage. He was already married, I believe. He was a Nigerian immigrant who stayed in this country way past his student visa expiration. He joked about having a wife. I joked about us having a child. We would make beautiful babies, he said; with his dark-brown skin and my light-brown skin we would have medium-brown skinned doll babies with good curly hair. When we fucked, he forced himself into me like he wanted inside my womb, as if the act of making a child was the reverse of birthing one.

But I still never got pregnant.

And, what was so magical about pregnancy anyway? Why did I want it so much? You are tired most of the time. Nauseated. Emotional. Bloated. When they are big and ready to pop, pregnant women complain about anything and everything. Yet they are there, carrying that child, and you wonder what it is that they have to complain about. Because those women are still, very much, full with baby.

***

The ER doctor ordered a sonogram. The tech is a man. He sits next to my shaking naked thigh. The machine he uses has a colored monitor, state-of-the-art. He’s searching in me with a face I cannot read. I cannot look at the screen, although I could see it clearly from my position. I don’t look partly because my eyes are closed in pain, but mostly because I don’t want to see the black hole that is my uterus. My babies were in there the last time I saw inside, two minuscule Teddy Grahams floating in outer space.

He twists the wand to the right.

“Does that hurt?” he asks.

“No.”

He twists the wand to the left. I howl.

Silence.

Silence.

Silence.

Si—

“Well, there they are,” he says.

“What do you mean?” I say.

“They are still there,” he says. He clicks and clacks on a keyboard, turns a knob, and I hear the familiar thumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthump of their rapid little hearts.

I turn my head, open my eyes. I see them. I breathe, but I have no words. And then, I cannot breathe. I can only close back my eyes from the sting of fresh tears and squeeze down some air in between gulps and gasps. And Kevin is holding my hand; he is kissing my hand, his mouth wet from the tears that run down his face.

“The third one is in your left tube,” the tech says. “I’m surprised your doctor missed it.”

The ER surgeon removed my fallopian tube—and the baby stabbing me to death from inside it— laparoscopically, without cutting me open or disturbing my uterus and the two other babies inside there. I never even knew someone could do that: break into my body, remove a vital piece of reproductive organ, and leave without disturbing a fly on the wall—a burglar in the night, my surgeon.

I’ve had surgery to my reproductive organs before. When I was in my twenties, I had a colposcopy. That’s when they scrape abnormal, in my case, precancerous cells out of your cervix. I woke from the procedure mumbling about having children. “Can I still have babies? Can I still have babies?” the nurses told me I asked. I never found out what they said to me in response.

In the recovery room, my surgeon tells me the tube ruptured, it had to be taken. I could have died. He gives me his condolences for the loss of my third fetus. The irony—how I started this whole process to make death feel less inevitable, less devastating, yet it ending up bringing me even closer to the damn thing—makes me want to laugh and cry and sleep. There are glimpses of my frightened plea after my colposcopy that flash in my memory, in the same way, I imagine my life will appear to me before I die. What’s funny is that, now, awake from a procedure I learned saved my life, saved my two surviving babies’ lives, the last thing I would think to ask is if I can have more children.

And yet, I think, maybe I wanted that third child—the one I didn’t even know I was carrying. Until later, when my mother, holding one of my infant sons asks me, “What the hell were you going to do with three babies?”

***

There are still nights where I wake up sweaty, black death and fear crushing me. I bury my face into my husband’s fleshy arm; his skin against my forehead reminds me that I am not dead, that I am alive and breathing and probably dreaming, just dreaming. But those nights are different and less frequent, and when they happen, I remind myself of my two kids sleeping in the room across the hall. They mean I can live forever.

***

My twin boys are three.

My cubicle at work is covered with images of them: inside their open-air cribs at the NICU, dressed as skeletons on Halloween, holding miniature footballs while looking confused, smiling up to me as I kiss them in the park.

My coworker asks, “When are you going to try for a girl?”

I say, “Don’t you put that evil on me,” and laugh as if I am joking.

Author’s Note: During a visit following my fallopian tube removal, my fertility specialist asked for permission to document my case for a medical journal. She said mine was the first example of an ectopic pregnancy combined with multiple embryos attached to the uterus that she had ever known of; “rare” is how she put it. I said, “Sure, why not,” thinking, if you don’t write about this, I most certainly will.

Tyrese L. Coleman is a writer, wife, mother, attorney, and fiction editor for the online journal District Lit. A graduate of the Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University, her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, PANK, mater mea, a website celebrating black mothers, Mothers Always Write, and elsewhere. Reach her on Twitter or at tyresecoleman.com.

 

Celebrating Their Birthday

Celebrating Their Birthday

By Kelly Burch

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My father was my sadness, and my daughter was my light. 

 

My daughter’s first birthday—my father’s 52nd—was celebrated in the psych ward. There was no candle, and a nurse held the knife used to cut the cake. I had to call and plead in order for the baby to be allowed to visit my father, speaking first with a nurse and then with the unit manager. Normally, children aren’t allowed beyond the locked doors that mark the start of the psychiatric wing.

“Please,” I begged. “It’s their birthday. Both of them.”

My father was my sadness, and my daughter was my light. I couldn’t celebrate the joy of her first year without thinking about the deep sorrow that year had held for my father. I couldn’t bear to celebrate another melancholy birthday with my dad, or find hope for his future, without the healing balm of my baby’s smile. After all, without the baby, we may all be forced to confront the lunacy of singing “Happy Birthday” to a man currently hospitalized for depression.

  *   *   *

The morning that my daughter was born, I awoke in the hospital with the OB-GYN by my bedside.

“The induction hasn’t taken,” he said. “But your blood pressure has stabilized. We’ve consulted with Boston, and they said we can send you home, or we can try Pitocin. We’ll let you decide.”

Frustrated but still hoping for a somewhat natural delivery, I waddled out of the hospital without a baby.

“Sorry Dad, not today,” I said as I called to wish him a happy birthday. Even through my own exhaustion I could hear the disappointment in his voice.

But on the drive home, I began feeling the rhythmic tightening in my stomach that had failed to happen during my three days in the hospital. My water broke right around the time I was supposed to be going to my dad’s birthday gathering.

“Going back to the hospital. Don’t tell anyone at the party,” I texted my mom. We had already had one false alarm, and there was no need for everyone to come running.

But a first-time grandmother can’t control herself, and the cake and ice cream were left abandoned as my siblings and parents rushed from the cook-out. After holding out all weekend, my daughter came so quickly that I didn’t even know my family had arrived, waiting just on the other side of the locked doors that separated the maternity ward from the rest of the hospital.

When my family came in to meet the baby, my father was the last through the door, his hulking frame looking timid and unsure.

“Happy Birthday,” I said.

As I watched him cradle his first grandchild, I hoped that the baby would make a difference. I wondered if a 7-pound infant was the key that could break into the icy depression that had held my father captive for eight years, correcting his chemical imbalance and bringing him back to me.

At the same time, even in my postpartum haze, I knew not to expect a miracle. Just weeks before giving birth, I was downstairs, in the hospital’s Emergency Room with my dad. As I swayed my ever-widening hips in an attempt to soothe my aching back, I listened as the nurse asked my father, “Do you take drugs?” and “Are you thinking about hurting yourself or others?”

Hospitalizations were something I had been through many times with my father’s bipolar disorder. But at eight months pregnant, this felt different. As I helped him through the E.R., hoping that he would be deemed sick enough to warrant one of the few beds reserved for psychiatric patients, I felt completely drained. That night I curled myself around my belly, wondering how the baby inside would remember my dad.

Long before I had children, I mourned that they would never meet the boisterous, gregarious man who raised me. They wouldn’t know the man who ran for mayor on a whim; the man who always had the next big idea, and was ready to shout it from the rooftops; the man who was apt to scoop up his nieces and nephews, tossing them too high into the air until they were consumed by laughter and their parents exchanged nervous glances.

That man had been snatched away from me by mental illness. I loved the sullen, subdued person left in his place, but I was heartbroken that my kids would not know the same version of my father who helped me discover creativity, and taught me to buck the norm. The poet and author who gave me my greatest joy—writing.

But as I looked at my father holding the baby on the day she was born, I had hope. I saw genuine joy radiating from him for the first time in nearly a decade. My daughter, swaddled loosely in the hospital blanket, nuzzled into my father’s bright coral shirt, a garment too cheery for the man who was wearing it. The massive man with paunchy cheeks, who was clean-shaven and showered only because he knew his family was visiting for his birthday, looked down at the baby with awe.

These two souls were connected, entering the world on the very same day, half a century apart. They were linked through me, but also independent of me, with a relationship I would never be fully privy to.

The year that I was expecting, I celebrated my birthday at 38 weeks pregnant. “Maybe she’ll be your birthday present!” people would say. Although I smiled, I hoped the baby would leave that day for me.

However, when I thought about her sharing my dad’s birthday, two weeks after mine, it just seemed right. Through the foggy years of his depression, I visited him on his birthday and tried to make my rendition of “Happy Birthday” sound as genuine as I could. But it seemed hollow and insincere to sing of happiness to a person who couldn’t find any joy at all.

For years, I repeated the ritual and the saying, but I knew he wouldn’t have a happy birthday, and wasn’t likely to have many happy days in the coming year.

But then, that day became theirs.

“I was hoping she would come on my birthday,” he had said when he met the baby.

He hadn’t expressed hope in the longest time.

Author’s Note: My daughter is nearly two now. After being hospitalized on her first birthday, my father began doing better. He is currently on his longest stretch without a hospitalization in nearly a decade.

Kelly Burch is a freelance writer and editor living in New Hampshire. She shares stories about mental health, mothering, and anything else that catches her interest. Connect with Kelly on Facebook, or via her website to read more of her work.

Mom Blame

Mom Blame

By Katy Read

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 8.13.17 AMMy son was a couple of months old when he introduced the nightly practice that we came to call The Board.

It would happen at bedtime. The parenting books all said you should establish a soothing routine. I would sit in the gliding chair, turn the lights down, rock the baby as he nursed one last time. I might whisper a lullaby or run softly through Goodnight Moon (or, okay, flip through a magazine or watch ER). The idea behind this peaceful ritual was to send my son the message that it was time to relax and get ready to sleep.

He got the message, all right.

As soon as the lights dimmed and the gliding began, my son would pop his eyes open, fling back his head, straighten his legs, and arch his back. He would turn his tiny body board-like, rigid as a two-by-four.

It wasn’t the rocking, my singing, or even one of those gory surgery scenes on ER. By day, my son loved—indeed demanded, loudly, often in the middle of a store—to be held and rocked. But at night, he would resist it using the only weapon he had (besides wailing, of course, which he would deploy the moment

I set his board-like body into his crib). My son already was learning how to impose his young but steely will. He would not go gentle into that goodnight ritual.

The Board complicated our evenings. But putting babies to bed is always difficult—everyone knows that. Things would get easier, I kept hearing. Sure enough, a few months and many raucous bedtimes later he began sleeping through the night.

Boldly, I got pregnant again.

*   *   *

A few years ago, I discovered how different my views about raising children had become—different from those of other people, different from those I had once held myself.

I was gossiping over coffee with a group of friends, and the talk turned to one woman’s young nephew, whose recent behavior suggested some kind of problem.

“It’s just what you’d expect,” the aunt said, shaking her head, “the way he was raised.”

The young man, a gifted student, had dropped out of college and moved back home. He had no plans for his future. No job. No friends. Didn’t date. Rarely left the house. Slouched in front of his computer all day.

“No wonder,” the woman continued. “Janet was always so clingy and overprotective. When he was little, she wouldn’t even leave him with a babysitter.”

“Well, but you can’t put all the blame on Janet,” said another family member. “It’s Dave’s fault, too. He stood back and let her smother him.”

I hesitated to add my own opinion. The young man was not my relative. I didn’t have all the facts, and maybe it wasn’t my business. Once, though, when he was little, his family had brought him to our city for a visit. I remembered the parents walking through a hard rain to take their son to a children’s museum.

“Don’t you think it’s possible,” I finally said, “that whatever has caused this behavior, it’s not the fault of either of his parents?”

The faces around the table were frowning, skeptical, perplexed.

*   *   *

At one time, I might have reacted the same way. I used to see a kid with a problem, from a toddler acting up in a restaurant to an ashen-faced teenager begging for spare change on a street corner, and assume that the parents had screwed up. Spoiled the kid or neglected him, been too harsh or too lenient, allowed too much sugar or too much TV.

It worked the other way, too. If a child was cheerful and responsible, obviously his mother and father had raised him right. The parents were often happy to agree. Yes, well, we always made sure we set limits/were consistent/ate dinner together as a family.

I don’t make those assumptions anymore. Or, if I start to do so out of long habit, I catch myself. These days, when I hear a mom or dad boast about some parenting triumph or other, I have to restrain myself from asking whether their supposedly well-brought-up offspring might simply have been born that way.

*   *   *

It’s one of the enduring images of my older son’s early years. My husband and I still secretly chuckle about it, not just because it’s funny and cute—my children have said lots of cute things—but because it’s such a textbook illustration of the qualities that would come to define our son. Our laughter is affectionate, even a little proud, but it is tinged with frustration.

Picture him at three years old: sturdy, round-bellied, the size and shape of an elf. He stands in the kitchen wearing green flannel footie pajamas, curls flopping over his forehead, feet firmly planted like a tiny lumberjack about to swing his ax. He has misbehaved in some way, and my husband has warned him that if he keeps it up, he will be placed in time out.

My son glares up at his father from his knee-high level and points at him with a fierce pudgy finger.

“No,” he replies, his little elfin voice stern. “I will put you in time out!”

Struggling to suppress our amusement, we fail once again to grasp the implications. Toddlers drive everybody crazy, right? It will get easier, we keep hearing. Soon, soon.

*   *   *

Why do we so confidently trace the behavior of children, even of the adults they become, to the actions of their parents? Why are we so certain that fathers and mothers (let’s face it, especially mothers) have control over how their kids “turn out”? It’s a measure of how deeply these assumptions are embedded in our culture that the questions themselves seem almost absurd.

Sure, most people believe, theoretically, in some confluence of nature and nurture. But the nature part is invisible and baffling; even scientists have barely started to grasp the complicated machinations of our genes. Nurture is much easier to sift through for clues.

And, man, we are desperate for clues. Wondering about our own paralyzing shyness or obsessive neatness, we think back to what our parents might have done or said to make us this way. We draw a connection with our father’s aloofness, with our mother’s white-gloved insistence on keeping the bedroom tidy.

The sages who serve as our guides to human nature—philosophers, psychologists, novelists—have compared babies to unmolded clay, white paper, blank slates just waiting for their parents’ chalk. “Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge?” asked seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke. “To this I answer, in one word, from experience.” The importance of family environment in particular in shaping character was touted by early twentieth-century scientists. For those times it was enlightened, if a bit ridiculous, for behaviorist John B. Watson to boast that he could take some random infant and “train him to become any type of specialist I might select—a doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and, yes, even into a beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”

These days most people, unlike Watson, would consider the difference between an artist and a doctor at least partly the result of talents and penchants. Career choice aside, though, the notion that humans are profoundly malleable—that a model upbringing produces a model child, that a child’s flaws reflect her parents’ mistakes—has taken hold, been culturally internalized, come to seem self-evident. The concept appeals to Americans’ faith in our endless capacity for improvement, in our confidence that hard work—in this case, raising children—pays off. Helping to popularize and legitimize the notion is the ever-growing parenting-advice industry. Desperate parents want suggestions for controlling their children, and a book that throws up its hands is unlikely to rule the best-seller lists.

The idea is entrenched enough to be satirized on The Simpsons. In one episode, Bart gets arrested and sent to jail, and a distraught Marge moans that she’s “the worst mom in the world.”

“It’s not totally your fault,” Homer Simpson consoles his wife. “All these years, I watched you turn our son into a time bomb and yet I did nothing.”

*   *   *

I started paying attention to the way other children acted. At our daycare center, I noticed that at the end of the day most kids simply walked out the front door. They did not have to be slung over their parents’ shoulders as they thrashed and screamed and kicked off their shoes. At the park, I saw toddlers riding serenely in their strollers, gazing at dogs and birds—not straining against the straps and howling to be freed, as if held hostage by a kidnapper. I observed kids quietly sitting on the sidelines at sporting events, kids waiting patiently in line at the grocery store, kids behaving as if they wanted—even strove for—adult approval.

What was especially mystifying was that the parents in these situations were rarely seen coaxing or scolding or bribing or cajoling or threatening or tricking or punishing to achieve this compliance. I concluded that they had already done all that work behind the scenes, using some carefully formulated mixture of discipline techniques to lay a solid foundation of obedience.

Obviously, I was doing something wrong, though it wasn’t clear exactly what. Should I impose tighter limits or pick my battles? Show more empathy or less? Loosen up or crack down? Be a drill sergeant or a therapist? And whichever course I picked, was I following it with unswerving consistency, or were there times—late at night, in the car, at a party—when I might be letting some slight human variability slip into my approach?

Seeking guidance, I combed parenting books, which assured me that my children’s behavior was well within my control.

“But how do you want your child to turn out? What will your child need from you in order to become the person you want him to be?” ask best-selling authors William and Martha Sears in The Discipline Book: How to Have a Better-Behaved Child from Birth to Age Ten.

The books promised to make our lives easier with endless strategies for taming kids, from putting them in time-out to plunking them in soothing baths, from setting strict limits to offering multiple choices, from pasting stickers on a chart to counting 1-2-3, from gentle reasoning to the robotic suppression of my own anger (which many of the books warned would only reinforce the undesired behavior).

I tried the suggestions (except the soothing baths, grasping at once the difficulty of deploying this technique in the checkout line at Target) but could not manage to achieve the promised results. When I offered my son multiple choices (blue shirt or yellow? broccoli or carrots?), he would pick (c): None of the above. When I drew up a chart to reward obedience, he quickly found a way to beat the system—1) deliberately misbehave, 2) obediently stop when told, 3) receive another sticker—until I caught on to his ruse.

I would muster all my self-control, determined not to lose my temper, but my son was equally determined and far more ruthless. Sooner or later I’d blow and hear myself yelling. And that, all the books said, you must never, ever do.

In the books, time-out meant ordering the child to his room and keeping him there for one merciful minute per year of age, during which he would cool down and emerge ready to play nicely. In our house, time-out meant dragging my son shrieking to his room as he clung to walls and banisters, pinning the door closed with a chair or pulling against the knob with all of my weight while he battered against the other side like a starving wolverine. A handful of minutes in captivity would only enrage him further, so that a five-minute confinement for some minor infraction could turn into an ordeal stretching through the afternoon.

I used time-outs anyway, if only for a few minutes of raw-nerved peace and a sense that justice had been served. But they did not produce any detectable long-term change in anyone’s behavior. Except my own. Which was deteriorating.

*   *   *

I switched from parenting books written for the general population to books geared for a particular type of kid, manuals whose titles contained words like “spirited,” “challenging,” “defiant,” “explosive.” These euphemistic terms only hinted at my son’s complex character, which blended the qualities of a particularly indomitable two-year-old with those of a particularly self-assured teenager.

My other son, just seventeen months younger, was more cooperative, more even-tempered, more willing to acknowledge adult authority, more eager for approval, more readily repentant, more kid-like. Though they had been subject to more or less the same parental treatment, the boys were developing into different people. That should have been a clue.

But its meaning was obscured for a while by what the two boys, often mistaken for twins, had in common: energy, daring, a sense of adventure. Some kids are content to splash happily at the shore; mine weren’t satisfied unless the waves were lapping at their earlobes. Some kids hide behind their parents when strangers appear; mine would chat up passing pedestrians or the guy repairing the refrigerator. Some kids sit cross-legged and rapt during story time at the public library; mine would become loudly, theatrically bored and have to be taken from the room. While horsing around at a cousin’s wedding reception, they knocked over a potted palm that only a heroic dive by my husband—picture a man in a suit and tie, soaring Superman-style across a hotel party room—kept from crashing onto the wedding cake. I loved my sons, but most days with them were exhausting and exasperating.

This need not be so, people kept suggesting. Teachers, relatives, therapists, friends, and a few total strangers offered advice, solicited and otherwise, on how to discipline my sons, as if the boys were a couple of young mustangs who, in the hands of a skilled wrangler, could be broken. Listening to my stories, friends would ask “Well, have you tried … ?” as if the solution to years of struggle might materialize in a few seconds of reflection. Parents of mild-mannered, compliant children—kids who could be counted on to sit for hours, patiently coloring, while the adults chatted—would give tips for transforming my boys into easy kids like theirs.

The advice-givers were mostly polite, but their words held an implication with which I was already grimly familiar: I was doing something wrong. The proof was in the boys’ misbehavior itself, prima facie evidence that I was screwing up. If I were raising them right, they’d be fixed by now.

“Our kids used to try that kind of nonsense,” my father-in-law remarked. “We got them over it pretty quickly.”

“If you’d just resolve yourself to putting them in time-out whenever they misbehaved, pretty soon you wouldn’t have to do it very often,” a friend advised, as though my sons weren’t already sentenced to their rooms for part of just about every day.

“I see you’ve gotten stricter with them, and I like it!” said a teacher, thinking she was giving me a compliment, on a day when my sons capriciously decided to be more cooperative than usual.

After a while, I began to wonder how many of the advice-givers were really in a position to advise. Sure, most had experience raising kids. But none of them had raised my kids.

*   *   *

Behavioral geneticists—scientists who study the influence of genes on behavior—have for years been defying the philosophers, novelists, and even many psychologists by arguing that parents do not stamp personality on a child. Though in most cases the powers of nature and nurture are impossibly entangled, these scientists have attempted to tease the two forces apart by studying separated twins (who share nature, but not nurture) and adopted children (who share nurture, but not nature). Researchers involved in ongoing projects at the University of Minnesota and the University of Colorado, among others, claim their studies indicate that genes account for roughly half of a child’s personality—and, still more controversially, that the other half, though apparently shaped by the environment, does not appear to be much influenced by parents.

The Minnesota team found that identical twins raised as strangers in separate homes wound up just about as much alike as twins raised together from birth (and more alike than non-identical siblings raised together). In other words, although none of the twins’ personalities were identical, what differences existed did not seem to come from having different family environments. In similarly surprising research on adoptive families, the Colorado team found that adopted kids and the siblings with whom they were raised resembled each other in personality no more than would any two strangers plucked off the street.

This research suggests that whatever similarities we notice between typical children and their parents comes not from anything the parents say or do, but from the genes they pass along. In other words genes—not rules, habits, or role modeling—are why the children of avid readers become bookworms, why the children of aggressive parents become bullies, why the children of neat freaks grow up to keep the floor under their own beds dust-bunny-free. When kids whose parents smoke or abuse or divorce grow up to do those things too, the research suggests, it’s not because they’re mimicking behavior they witnessed growing up, but because they inherited their parents’ tendencies. Same goes for the offspring of responsible, careful, well-adjusted parents.

Many people are resistant to, even offended by, this idea. It seems to overturn everything we understand about families; it makes the hard work of mothers and fathers appear superfluous. Parents don’t matter?! Even many psychologists don’t accept the concept, and when you tell a layperson about it—I can vouch for this—you likely will see her stiffen, frown, and mount an indignant rebuttal.

Not that there isn’t room for argument. Perhaps the researchers’ methods are flawed, their measurement instruments clumsy, their conclusions premature. Anyone who has followed the recent dieting debate over fat and carbs knows that information isn’t infallible just because it comes from somebody in a lab coat.

But when I first heard about this research, I was intrigued. Maybe our belief that parents are responsible for molding their children’s characters is one of those flat-earth-type cultural assumptions that people of future generations will come to see as pitiably flawed. Maybe it will someday seem as absurd as the notion that mothers cause their children’s schizophrenia or autism, as doctors declared in the 1950s (condemning a generation of mothers to wrenching guilt and depriving their children of effective treatment). Maybe shaping personalities is not the most important aspect of parenthood anyway—how many of life’s other important relationships are measured by the degree to which one party unilaterally and permanently alters the other’s personality? Isn’t this, in every other case, usually considered impossible (note to self: don’t mention this argument to spouse)?

Some might see this as a shocking abdication of responsibility, but the thought that I might not be solely accountable for my sons’ behavior filled me with great relief.

*   *   *

Still, I might have shrugged it all off as so much esoteric theory if it weren’t for an experience I had, soon afterward, that demonstrated for me the realities behind the research. My epiphany occurred, of all places, in a shoe department.

I was alone in Marshall Field’s, checking out the sale items, relishing the vaguely guilty freedom of an afternoon with both boys in school and no pressing assignments or chores. My eyes fell on another shopper, a woman accompanied by her three small children. I felt a surge of empathy, knowing how impossible it was to get any real shopping done in the company of even one child, let alone three.

But then I noticed that the woman was strolling nonchalantly among the clothing racks, stopping now and then to hold a blouse up for inspection or to finger the fabric of a jacket. She looked about as carefree as I felt, sans the guilt. The trio of preschoolers followed her through the aisles like quiet little ducklings, the oldest one pushing the youngest in a stroller whose handles were taller than he was. Not one of the kids was whining with boredom, or begging for a snack, or running to hide inside a rack of dresses, or pushing the stroller on a demolition course into other customers’ shins, or scampering over to find out what it’s like to run down the up escalator.

The group reached ladies’ shoes, and without hesitation the mom strode in to check out the footwear. My mouth literally fell open as she began to try on sandals. Without being told, the children fanned out around her to watch. The woman examined one style after another, pivoting her foot this way and that, half ignoring her brood. Which she could easily do, because the kids did not once try to snatch up pairs of stiletto pumps themselves, put them on their own feet, and clomp around. They just stood there.

Ordinarily, witnessing this kind of scene, I would feel stirrings of envy and shame. How did she get them to act that way? Why won’t my kids do that? Is she a better mother than I am?

This time, though, those questions barely crossed my mind.

These children were so astonishingly docile that all at once I knew their behavior was not the result of any clever discipline schemes their mother might have employed. This woman had not coaxed, tricked, threatened, or beat them to get them to act like that. She hadn’t made her children that way. They just were.

And with that I understood something else: No technique or book or tip, no sticker chart or consequence or 1-2-3, not even the world’s most soothing bath, would ever turn either of my sons into that kind of kid. Those children and mine might as well have come from two different planets. They had different natures.

And once I figured that out, I began to comprehend a few other things.

*   *   *

The day my older son was born, I lay on the delivery table and watched his face as a nurse carried him over to meet me. He wasn’t crying. His eyes were wide and flashing about, his head swiveling, his mouth an awestruck O. He was taking in everything his newborn senses could absorb: the lights, the sounds, the cool air, the blurs of color and motion. He had no idea what all this stuff was, of course, but he did not appear afraid of it. He looked fascinated.

His father and I turned to each other, thrilled and terrified. “What do we do now?” we said.

Ten years later, we’re still wondering.

When your kids don’t act like the children on television or in books do—when they are not as fragile or malleable or angelic as you’d been led to believe all children are—you’re forced to shed the idealistic gauze through which you once viewed motherhood, cut the velvet bows, drop the pretenses. You give up hopes of languid picnics, of delicate sandwiches eaten cross-legged on a blanket, and make do with fast food on the fly at the playground. You let your kids pick out cheap Halloween costumes at Target rather than toil over hand-stitched outfits that you know they’d probably refuse to wear. You lose, early on, your high squeaky mommy voice and instead begin addressing your kids in the ordinary straightforward tone you use with adults, because you find that your kids respond best to frankness. You remind yourself, over and over, that the only time the word “good” means “easy” is when it’s applied to children.

Your romanticism dissolves, leaving behind a wintry clarity that, you discover, has a beauty of its own. No longer do you envision every moment of motherhood as rosy and wonderful.

But now, when something genuinely wonderful happens, you know to trust it.

Until my sons were about four and five, my husband and I considered having another child. I was sure raising three children was humanly possible—I had seen other moms do it. Eventually, though, I noticed that those other threesomes were usually the patient, obedient sort of kids. That settled it. My husband and I resolved to stop at two, and we made the decision final with a rummage sale.

On the day of the sale my older son sat with me in the front yard. I had promised the boys I would share the proceeds from their toys, and my son was eager to help move the merchandise. He spotted a small elderly woman gingerly examining an assortment of items from the garage, including the little vehicles that the boys had pedaled around the driveway before they’d graduated to bikes with training wheels.

My son sprang forward to assist. The woman told him she was shopping for something for a grandson. Polite but determined, my son guided her along with helpful questions. How old was her grandson? What colors did he like? Would he fit into this little blue convertible? Or maybe he’d prefer this fire engine? Did she notice that the ladders were detachable? Would she be interested if the price were a dollar lower? The grandmother beamed at the suave five-year-old salesman and asked him questions right back. They chatted amiably for a few minutes, and when she settled on the fire engine, my son offered to help her put it in the trunk of her car.

“Oh, he’s marvelous,” the woman said, glancing back at my son as she handed me money for the truck. She turned to me with twinkling eyes. “You must be a wonderful mother!”

Had I been honest, I might have told her I could no more take credit for my son’s ability to charm a stranger than I could for his capacity to drive his parents crazy. I might have confessed that his personality was unfolding in directions that, like it or not, I could only watch with helpless amazement. I might have held forth with my views about nature and nurture and parental influence or lack thereof. But just then, gazing at this smiling grandmother, I felt a blurry tingling in my eyes and a tightening in my throat and for a few long moments I could not speak at all.

Author’s Note: For years, the discussion of raising “challenging” children has been dominated by so-called experts, who have helped sustain the myth of a disciplinary panacea. Meanwhile parents, myself included, have hesitated to speak up, partly out of reluctance to publicly criticize our children, partly out of shame or confusion over our own presumed failures. The first turning point, for me, was realizing how many traits associated with the challenging child—determination, assertiveness, energy, curiosity, self-assurance, vitality—are prized when exhibited by an adult. The second was coming to see that, under the right circumstances, those traits can actually be pretty great in a kid. Recently, when interviewing the author of a particularly reprehensible parenting book, I mentioned that my sons were often difficult. “Would you like some help changing them?” the author asked patronizingly. “No thanks,” I said. “I’m not interested in trading them in for different kids.” The remark left him sputtering, but I meant it.

Katy Read’s essays, articles, and book reviews have appeared in Salon, Working Mother, Real Simple, Minnesota Monthly, Chautauqua Literary Journal, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and other publications. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two sons.

Brain, Child (Winter 2005)

Counting Stars

Counting Stars

By Amanda Linsmeier

countingstars

The tattoo my daughter likes to touch is a scattering of stars. There is one shooting star—representing my son—and five little stars. Those are blacked out, and small. Their light never came to be.

 

“Mo-om!” my son calls to me in the harried minutes before dinner. In haste, I join him and his 20-month-old sister in the living room.

“What is it, sweetheart?” I ask, wooden spoon forgotten in my hand. A bit of sauce drips on the laminate floor. I let the dog lick it up.

“She took my tractor!”

My spirited 5-year-old had us, and all his toys, to himself for almost 4 years. It is a struggle sometimes to share. To learn to give, to let go. And his baby sister can be feisty. As he rips the toy from her tiny hand, she reaches out and whacks him in the face.

Before I even try to handle the situation, my son stomps off, murmuring under frustrated tears, “I wish I didn’t have a sister.”

Usually, my oldest is gentle and patient with her. On a recent afternoon, I walked past the living room with a basket of laundry and there they were, unprompted, sitting close, holding hands. It was one of those cup-runneth-over moments.

However, when one or both of them refuse to share, or are in the way, or something else equally annoying, occasionally that phrase comes out, and I cringe internally. I think about what his father and I went through to have a second child, his baby sister, who looks at him in such adoration, but I don’t say anything.

My first pregnancy ended in miscarriage. It was quick, and straightforward, at 7 weeks. All the same, it broke my heart. When I conceived my son a couple months later, I was terrified. But, he came along, born spontaneously on his due date, beautiful and healthy. After that, I did not worry. I had mastered the secret, I thought. When I conceived shortly after his first birthday I smiled wryly. I was both scared and thrilled he would have a sibling so close in age. It never entered my mind that would not happen.

After dinner, the kids and I dance while their father watches in amusement. Our son is silly, and spins around. Our daughter, taking after me, loves to dance. She wants to be held the whole song—which I repeat three times, so by the end I am sweaty and out of breath. Even as a petite toddler, three dances is work. I peel off my cardigan as we take a rest. She climbs onto the couch, reaching for the stars inked on my shoulder as she has before. Curious, as if she’s asking, what is this? Why is this there?

“Pretty?” I ask and she nods. My son keeps spinning. He knows what the stars mean. Or maybe he’s forgotten. I wonder if he remembers all the times we said we were going to have another baby but didn’t. The last couple of times I didn’t even tell him. I hated to see that look in his eyes when I said, “The baby is gone.”

Perhaps it was just my own grief reflected in his eyes.

The tattoo my daughter likes to touch is a scattering of stars. There is one shooting star—representing my son—and five little stars. Those are blacked out, and small. Their light never came to be. Those are my first five losses. The siblings that never happened. One before my son. Four after him. I haven’t had the second shooting star for my daughter added yet. Or the tiny stars that came after her. I’d like to end this permanent art with one last shooting star, one more sibling for my babies. I’m stubbornly waiting for that to happen, and then I will book my next tattoo after birth and weaning. Somehow one of my fears is my son will not be as thrilled to hear we’d be having another baby as he was when I finally shared I was pregnant with his sister, at over 20 weeks along.

When we had told him the news, he kissed my belly, talked to the baby. He relished the anticipation of his sister’s arrival.

When she was born, he referred to her as “my baby.”

“She’s my baby,” I’d laugh as I soaked up the feel of them both in my arms. “Mine and Daddy’s.”

“No,” his black eyes never wavered, “She’s mine.”

The years in between my two children were fraught with doctor’s appointments, testing, and research. I learned I’m the carrier of a genetic condition, which causes miscarriage about half the time. When I questioned the genetic counselor on my stats, worse than 50%, I was told, “It’s just a numbers game.” Upon receiving my diagnosis, somewhere after loss #3, my husband and I struggled with the decision whether or not to continue trying. Well-meaning friends and family told us to be happy with what we had. And we were. But I didn’t want to let this disorder win, when it had already stolen so much. Damn the genetics. I am glad now we pushed on. Glad I can someday tell my children, who may likely carry the same reproductive challenge, that I didn’t give up. That it was a long, hard road, but I fought. And in the end, I won.

We ease into bedtime calmly. Both children are clean and sweet when we settle them into their shared room, another struggle sometimes. But tonight, they are ready for sleep. My daughter goes right to the crib, with the warm bottle we still allow her. And my son, my sensitive boy, curls into bed with a favorite stuffed animal and the chunk of amethyst I gave him to keep away nightmares. My husband and I kiss them and shut out the light. As the door closes, I hear my son croon to his sister, “Good-night, baby. Love you.”

I smile, and my heart blooms.

Author’s Note: My husband and I are overjoyed to be expecting our third child, due this fall. Our daughter waivers between curiosity and disinterest. Our son is thrilled. Both children occasionally kiss my belly.

Amanda Linsmeier lives in Wisconsin with her husband and two children and works part-time at her local library. Her flash fiction has appeared on the WOW! Women on Writing blog, The Muffin and her debut novel Ditch Flowers will be released by Penner Publishing in the upcoming months. You can find her on Facebook.

 

Image: dreamstime.com

Breaking the Law of Averages

Breaking the Law of Averages

By Jill Storey

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 6.10.49 PMI was always a sucker for the clarity of math, especially statistics. I loved the way statistics brought order to the world, sweeping the messiness of ignorance and chance into a neat pile of percentages. Because of statistics, I was never afraid during thunderstorms. The odds of being struck by lightning are one in 600,000 every year, which, it seemed to me, was virtually a free pass to sit on the porch during a storm and watch fissures of lightning rip through the heavens.

When I took a statistics course in graduate school, probability formulas drew me in with their soothing logic. People and events became numbers, and when I plugged those numbers into formulas, I could make sense of problems that had seemed shapeless and shadowy. Probability theory was a kind of faith: It gave answers to why things happened and a set of commandments for making choices. Luck and fate had no place in my belief system.

It wasn’t until much later that I understood the answer a famous physicist gave when asked why he hung a horseshoe over his front door. “I have been reliably informed,” he answered, “that it will bring me luck whether I believe in it or not.”

*   *   *

The atmosphere of the prenatal ultrasound lab at the university hospital was as clinical as its name. No soft-focus posters of smiling babies or of young mothers gazing soulfully at their half-moon bellies here—just the hard plastic and bright steel of machines and monitors, the toneless hum of fluorescent lights.

But I didn’t mind the sterile room, or even the standard-issue thin cotton gown I was wearing, through which I could feel the cold vinyl of the examining table along my back. I was eight weeks pregnant and extremely happy about it. I had been married earlier that year at age thirty-six, and my husband, Richard, and I were eager to start a family. I had read the medical literature and learned that the odds of my getting pregnant quickly were slim. According to the statistics, less than fifty percent of women my age become pregnant within the first year of trying. But within two months I was clutching a pregnancy test, an oracle in a white plastic stick with a glowing pink line that seemed to shout Yes! You’ve won! Because of my age, however, the baby had a higher risk of genetic disorders, so I was here for an ultrasound to determine what type of prenatal testing I needed.

The ultrasound technician spread cold gel on my stomach to smooth the movement of the transducer wand over my skin. Richard and I watched the images on the screen next to us as she moved the wand back and forth, but the blurry white smudges against the background of a black triangle were as inscrutable as the Milky Way.

“Did you take fertility drugs?” asked the technician. She was probably asking because of my age, I thought. When I said no, she probed further. “Clomid, assisted insemination, anything?” Again I told her no. She asked when I conceived, and when I told her the date, she seemed to distrust my answer. I could practically set my watch by my menstrual cycle, I said. She continued circling the wand over me. My husband gripped my hand.

“I’m going to have the doctor take a look at these pictures,” said the technician. She was gone for five long minutes. My husband and I whispered to each other. Was I having twins? Why didn’t she just say so? Why wasn’t she clear on my conception date?—it was right there on my chart.

The doctor came in and sat down, with that serious half-smile doctors wear in an attempt to soften bad news. “Sherry says you didn’t have any fertility treatments?” he asked. I thought the sound of my heart thumping would set off the ultrasound monitor. “I didn’t,” I replied. “What’s wrong?”

He pointed to the image on the screen. “You have three fetuses.” Now I could see three wavery little beans on the monitor.

“You mean I’m having triplets?” I asked. My husband looked stunned.

“Well, not anymore,” replied the doctor. “I’m afraid you’ll be lucky if one survives. One has a good heartbeat. But it’s only the size of a typical six-week-old fetus. One is even smaller and has a weak heartbeat. One, I’m sorry to say, has no heartbeat at all.”

I tried to make sense of this information. Was I still going to have a baby? How many? Does one fetus with no heartbeat get subtracted from two live ones? The arithmetic overwhelmed me. I looked at Richard for guidance. How is it possible for grief and hope to coexist in the same equation?

Richard finally spoke. “So what do we do now?”

“Come in next week, and we’ll check to see if those two are growing,” answered the doctor. He paused. “I’ve never seen a triplet pregnancy without fertility drugs. They’re very rare.”

Rarer, it turns out, than a lightning strike. Natural triplets—those conceived without fertility drugs—occur in only one of every eight thousand pregnancies. Since the odds of being hit by lightning are one in 600,000 every year, if I live to be eighty-five years old, my lifetime odds would be about one in seven thousand. Better than the odds of having the hearts of three babies beating a tiny riff in my womb.

One week later, I lay on the same exam table. This time, the doctor did the ultrasound himself. I didn’t watch the monitor as the wand danced its clumsy waltz over my belly. I couldn’t bear to see them if I couldn’t keep them.

The doctor put his hand on my arm. “I’m sorry,” he said gently. “There are no heartbeats.”

I nodded mutely.

“I’ll call your OB/GYN. You can wait to miscarry, or Dr. Lee can do a D&C.” He left Richard and me to adjust to our new future, wiped clean of anticipations: no happy announcement, no due date, no baby. Times three.

I hated the thought of the little bodies inside me, entombed in my uterus. We went straight to Dr. Lee’s office. The procedure was quick and efficient—”Here come the cramps; count to ten; breathe; you did great”—and I went home to ponder the question, why me?

*   *   *

The ancient Greeks believed that the gods controlled everything: birth and death, earthquakes and droughts, the color of your child’s eyes, the deer that crossed your path three days in a row. For more than two thousand years, across continents, people continued to believe that whatever happened was part of a divine plan. Whether their gods lived on Mount Olympus or ruled in heaven or appeared in the form of an eagle, people took comfort in the idea that there was a reason for everything.

Then came the Renaissance, which encouraged scientific inquiry and the questioning of old ways of thinking. One of the questioners was an Italian mathematician and gambler named Girolamo Cardano, who discovered the laws of probability. I picture him at his oak desk at the University of Padua, two ivory dice clenched in his hand. Over and over and over again, he rolls the dice across the desktop, tallying how often each number comes up. I wonder if the sound of ivory clattering over the wood began to irritate him, and if he spread his handkerchief down to soften the noise. Perhaps his hand began to cramp, and he had to switch to his left hand. How long did it take—days, weeks?—to discover that lucky sevens came up not when he blew on the dice, or said a prayer, but, on average, one out of six times? Did Cardano—weary from lack of sleep, black dots dancing in front of his eyes even when he rested them briefly— swear off gambling after he learned that the probability of throwing snake eyes or double sixes was 2.8%, and no promises to heaven would ever change that?

Or perhaps my image of Cardano is all wrong. Maybe he simply worked out the calculations on his slate one warm summer afternoon when no students came seeking his counsel. If so, I doubt he stopped gambling. It’s easier to ignore mathematical theory than the reality of a cramped hand.

*   *   *

Six months later, I was pregnant again. Like a gambler switching blackjack tables after a big loss, I switched to a new doctor, a new chance. We didn’t tell anyone about the new pregnancy; we hardly talked about it ourselves. Unlike the first time, I didn’t dare get excited. I didn’t wonder if it was a boy (fifty-one percent chance) or a girl (forty-nine percent). I just counted the days until my ultrasound appointment.

That day never came. Six weeks into the pregnancy, while sitting in my office developing a spreadsheet, I started bleeding. I called Dr. Raskin’s office in a panic. “Go home and lie down,” the nurse advised me. “There’s nothing we can do.”

This time, I didn’t need a D&C. My uterus was already emptying itself, cramp by painful cramp. I was upset, of course, but it was easier this time, since I had never seen the peanut-shaped ghost on the ultrasound monitor. The embryo’s wisp of a heart never beat through the technician’s wand. This was just average bad luck, I tried to tell myself. After all, one in five pregnancies ends in miscarriage. The cramping stopped after a couple of days, and I went back to work.

A few days later I was absorbed in my spreadsheet, tinkering with the sales projections, when I felt a cramp. A pause, and then another. Damn, I thought, I didn’t bring any painkillers. I tried to work, but the cramps became sharper until I could no longer concentrate. I figured I’d better call Dr. Raskin, maybe get a prescription painkiller. When I got through to her office, she told me to come in right away. “You’re not supposed to be cramping anymore.”

By the time Richard and I arrived at her office, sharp waves of pain gripped my pelvis. The pain was so bad I was afraid to tell the doctor about it; I had the irrational thought that if I didn’t admit the intensity of the pain, it would stop, and I could go home and return to having an average miscarriage.

Dr. Raskin immediately ushered us into her office. She tried to palpate my abdomen gently, but I gasped at each probe of her fingertips. Richard watched helplessly.

“What do you think it might be?” he asked.

“It could be that you didn’t actually miscarry,” she replied. “Cramping at this stage is consistent with a tubal pregnancy, but your fallopian tubes feel normal.” I knew something about tubal pregnancies, where the embryo, on its way from the ovary to the uterus, implants in the fallopian tube instead of completing the journey. There the embryo grows, stretching the tube until it bursts, ending the pregnancy and destroying the tube. One to two percent of all pregnancies are tubal.

There is a story about a statistics professor who lived in Moscow during World War II. When the German planes strafed the city, the professor never rushed to the air-raid shelter with the rest of his neighbors. “There are seven million people in Moscow,” he explained. “What are the odds that a bomb will hit me?” One evening, his neighbors were surprised to see the professor huddled in the shelter with them. “What made you change your mind?” they asked. “There are seven million people and one elephant in Moscow,” the professor replied. “Last night, they got the elephant.”

But I couldn’t be the elephant. Not me, not this time.

After all, Dr. Raskin said my tubes didn’t seem swollen.

“I’m going to send you across the street to ultrasound. We need to figure out what’s going on. Do you think you can walk there, or shall I find a wheelchair?”

“I can walk,” I said, still trying to mask my pain and fear. Richard and I took the elevator down and crossed the busy street.

“Do you want to rest?” he asked.

“No, I just want to get there quickly.” When we entered the lobby we saw that only one elevator was working and dozens of people were waiting. “Let’s take the stairs,” I said. My panic somehow propelled me up four flights of stairs. As we entered the ultrasound waiting room I turned to Richard and said, “I think I’m going to pass out.”

The next thing I knew I was lying on a table in an ultrasound room. Richard and a woman in a white coat hovered over me. I was exhausted, light-headed, and peacefully, blissfully pain-free. “What happened?” I asked.

“I’m Dr. Sorenson,” the woman replied. “You’re probably in shock; don’t sit up.” She didn’t need to warn me; all I wanted was to lie there, luxuriating in the quiet, calm absence of pain.

Again the cold gel and the wand moving back and forth as if my abdomen were a Ouija board. Dr. Sorenson watched the screen closely. “There’s a lot of fluid in your peritoneal cavity,” she said.

“Fluid?” I pictured my womb floating on gentle waves.

“Possibly blood. We don’t know. I’m going to call your doctor.”

Dr. Sorenson returned a few minutes later. “We don’t know if this is a tubal pregnancy, and the only way to find out is to look inside. Dr. Raskin is waiting for an operating room to become available.”

An orderly transferred me onto a gurney and wheeled me into the emergency room to wait. The gurneys were lined up in two neat rows, each bed holding a patient facing a sudden crisis. Next to me, a heavyset woman rolled her head back and forth, muttering, “Help me Jesus! Oh, Jesus, Jesus, please help me!” Across the aisle a man held a woman’s limp hand and explained to her, “You OD’ed, baby. I found you on the couch.”

While Richard left to call my family, a nurse sat down next to me and asked how I was feeling.

Physically, I was only sore, but I was exhausted and frightened. “I’m scared,” I said.

“Tell me what you’re afraid of,” she said gently.

“I’m afraid I’m hemorrhaging or something.”

“Don’t worry, we’re monitoring you, and you’re doing fine. Is there anything else?”

“Yes,” I whispered. “I’m afraid I’m going to lose my tube and I’ll never have a baby.”

“Women can get pregnant with one tube,” she said. “We’re going to take care of you.” The noise in the room seemed to recede. I closed my eyes and tried to believe her.

*   *   *

After the surgery, after I stopped throwing up from the anesthesia, after they let me wet my parched throat with ice chips, Dr. Raskin came in and sat next to me. “It wasn’t a tubal pregnancy, Jill,” she said. “It was similar, though. The embryo implanted in your ovary, and your ovary ruptured. That’s what made you pass out. The fluid they saw on the ultrasound was blood from the rupture. I saved some of the ovary, but it was pretty messy.”

I tried, in my woozy state, to absorb this news. “My ovary exploded?” I imagined my ovary, a small bright planet in the darkness of my abdomen, bursting open in a shower of fireworks.

“Well, basically, yes. It’s called an ovarian pregnancy. I’ve read about them, but I’ve never had a patient with one. It’s so lucky you were at the hospital when it ruptured. Otherwise, you could have died, you know.” She patted my hand. “I’ll let you rest now.”

She left the room and gently closed the door. I turned my head into the scratchy pillow and, for the first time all day, I cried.

*   *   *

There is a concept in probability theory called “independence.” It means that in any set of random occurrences, such as a set of ten coin tosses, each occurrence is completely independent from those that came before it. In other words, if you toss a coin nine times and it comes up heads each time, the probability of it coming up tails on the tenth throw are still fifty percent, no more, no less. The outcome of the tenth throw has nothing to do with the outcome of the previous nine. So now my pregnancies comprised a set of two random and independent occurrences.

My triplet pregnancy was one in eight thousand, and my ovarian pregnancy was, I learned, one in ten thousand. According to probability theory and the doctors, these anomalies were completely independent of each other. I know the ancient Greeks never would have believed that. But did I How could not just one but two such improbable things have happened to me.

In biblical times, communities sometimes identified guilty people by the drawing of lots, believing that God would cause the lot of the criminal to be drawn. Rabbi Isaac ben Mosheh Aramah, a fifteenth-century scholar, was more cautious: He thought that the casting of a single lot was a chance occurrence, but if that same lot was drawn repeatedly, it was a sign from God that the person was guilty. My lot had been drawn twice, from thousands and thousands of lots. What did it mean? It was easy to believe in random chance when other people suffered misfortunes. When my turn came, though, I felt cursed.

*   *   *

Two days after the operation, Dr. Raskin came into my hospital room. She sat down next to the bed and sighed. “Bad news, I’m afraid. Your blood tests show that we didn’t succeed in removing all of the fetal tissue, so it’s continuing to grow. But since the pregnancy was outside your uterus, a D&C won’t work.”

It sounded like science fiction. Pieces of a baby gripping my insides, trying to regenerate. “So what do we do?” I asked. “I’ve consulted with some of the specialists here, and we’re going to try an experimental drug, methotrexate. It’s used in treating cancer, but studies have shown success in using it to abort pregnancies. It should kill off any remaining tissue.”

So my pregnancy was a cancer, my body turning against me. I received the drug that afternoon, and, a couple of days later, my pregnancy finally let go.

When I left the hospital, Dr. Raskin told me that I needed to treat my body as if I had broken my pelvis. No one knew how long my recovery would be or what my chances were now of getting pregnant.

*   *   *

If I were living in Greco-Roman times, I would consult astragali to find out if there was a child in my future. Astragali, which were made from the knucklebones of animals, were similar to dice, except with four numbered sides instead of six. The person seeking to know what the fates held in store or to make the correct decision would pose a question and then throw four or five astragali. Each possible combination of numbers corresponded to an answer from the gods. Reading through the translations of the meanings of various throws, I came upon one interpretation of a throw that made me feel as if the gods were reaching through millennia to tell me something:

Three fours and two sixes. God speaks as follows:

Abide in thy house, nor go elsewhere,

Lest a ravening and destroying beast come nigh thee.

For I see not that this business is safe. But bide thy time.

The name of this combination of astragali was The throw of child-eating Cronos.

*   *   *

I followed my doctor’s advice, took a leave of absence from my job and abided in my house. But over the next days and months, my body continued to betray me. First an infection landed me back in the hospital on IV antibiotics. Then, about a week after I came home, a sharp pain in my pelvic region took my breath away. Five minutes later, another one. The pains were intermittent, like knife stabs, so intense it made the pain from my ovarian pregnancy seem like mere menstrual cramps. Richard took me to the emergency room, where they examined me with the ultrasound machine. The exam found nothing amiss; the “ravening and destroying beast” did not appear on the screen. Maybe it was a symptom of scar tissue forming from my surgery, said the doctor. A shot of painkiller and I was sent home. The following week the pains came again. Another trip to the emergency room, another ultrasound, more baffled doctors. They sent me home with powerful painkillers that made me vomit uncontrollably. The episodes recurred several times. I was afraid to go out, afraid to be left alone. “It’s just pain,” shrugged one doctor, dismissing my fears.

There was no name for whatever was attacking my insides. There was nothing I could look up, no facts, no variables this time to calculate the odds of these episodes occurring. I was weak from the surgery, the recurrent and unpredictable pains, the emotional toll of repeated loss.

Six weeks later, the attacks ended as mysteriously as they had begun. The doctors cleared me to try to conceive again. Months of hope punctured by disappointment passed. I had more surgery to clean out the scar tissue from the rupture the doctors thought might be preventing pregnancy. By now I was thirty-eight, and my doctor thought I should try fertility treatments.

The fertility specialist recommended I start with a drug called Pergonal, delivered in a series of injections that stimulate egg production. He told me the statistics: Women my age have about a one in twelve chance of getting pregnant with the drug. With my medical history, probably less, and the process would be expensive and time-consuming.

The statistics were discouraging. Would it be worth trying? For thousands of years the Chinese used the I Ching as an oracle. The questioner cast stalks or coins or dice and matched the pattern with one of the sixty-four hexagrams. The I Ching’s explanation of the hexagram foretold the person’s fate. That changed, according to scholar Richard Wilhelm, the first time a person, instead of passively accepting his fate, asked what he should do. By taking his “fate” into his own hands, he turned the book of divination into a book of wisdom.

Maybe I could change my fate. I went for the fertility drugs.

I conceived the first month of treatment. At six weeks, I again offered my belly to the ultrasound machine. I again watched the black-and-white screen, that modern crystal ball that had so often been the bearer of bad tidings. In the swirling snow on the screen, a shape coalesced: a constellation of white dots with a quivering star at the center. One fetus, one strong heartbeat.

*   *   *

During my pregnancy, I knew there was still much that could go wrong. I could miscarry (ten percent probability after confirming a heartbeat); the fetus could have a chromosomal defect (one percent chance at my age) or be afflicted by some random disease. But I realized that I couldn’t control or even predict what was going to happen by paying attention to probabilities. Pregnancy statistics, like all statistics, rely on samples, a group chosen to represent the whole. A sample, then, is simply a metaphor; it suggests a larger truth, but it is not the truth itself. I could interpret the metaphor in my own way.

My faith in probabilities hadn’t protected me from ending up as an outlier; luck, it seemed, didn’t care what I believed in. But what did I believe now? I thought about how runs of good or bad luck seem to inevitably run out, just as, in laws of statistics, everything regresses towards the mean. Maybe luck and fate obey laws of the universe that we simply haven’t discovered yet.

I decided then to let go of the statistics. In past ages, even the most brilliant mathematicians didn’t dare calculate probabilities, because to do so meant challenging the mysteries of the divine.

*   *   *

I gave birth to a baby girl on a rainy November night. There were no stars out to witness her arrival; there may have been lightning in the far hills. The nurses wrote down her vital statistics; she was, to everyone but us, an average newborn.

Twelve years have passed now. Our daughter is very good with numbers. She is also extremely lucky at games of chance.

Author’s Note: I am still fascinated by both the science and the psychology of probability. Most people are overly concerned about low probability events (e.g., plane crashes) yet nonchalant about higher probability events (e.g., car crashes). As a math-minded person, this never made sense to me, but now I understand it better. When you’re the one out of ten thousand—whether it’s having a rare disease or winning the lottery—it feels as if you’ve been singled out, separated from the rest of the world. If no one shares your experience, your suffering seems more intense and your joy more special. For me, the lightning bolts I endured in my quest to have a baby were blunted by that most ordinary of joys, the birth of my daughter, and, two years later, the birth of my son.

Jill Storey lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children. Her articles and essays have been published in Salon, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, BabyCenter, Ms. Magazine and other publications.

Brain, Child (Fall 2008)

Thirteen Windows

Thirteen Windows

By Kristen M. Ploetz

13windows

I’d never actually counted the windows in our house though before we’d left for the hospital.

 

My daughter is the only reason I know we have thirteen windows on the first floor of our house. She didn’t tell me—I had to count for myself, before she was born.

It was hard at first, to make sure I had counted right. Was it twelve or thirteen? Should I count the tiny crank window visible from inside our kitchen but covered up by vinyl siding on the outside? Yes. I’d count that one. It would make it easier for me to relax if I included them all, even the hidden ones.

I wasn’t at home when I was counting. I was in Labor & Delivery. I was laboring to deliver her. It was my last ditch effort at warding off the epidural. Translation: I didn’t want to give up control. If only I had known it was just the beginning of my ceding power where she was involved.

Like my usual pattern of preparing for big moments—particularly monumental tests of mental and physical stamina—I waited until the last possible second to study and strategize. Actually, I didn’t wait. I avoided it wholesale for forty weeks. Other than a cursory weekend course about childbirth offered by the hospital, I neglected to do much else until the very last minute. I even wasted the extra time my daughter gave me when she arrived a week after her due date.

In essence, I thought I could wing an unmedicated childbirth. I convinced myself that I’d have control (or at least good fortune) even after the contractions started. And why not? I had been able to maneuver similar successes in so many other areas of my life. This would surely be no different.

Then the contractions started.

I was never able to get the knack of the exercise ball movements designed to loosen my hips and lower back. All measured breathing ever did for me was induce vertigo. Maybe the New Age music on the cable TV station would force me into a meditative state. But it didn’t. Especially not after my husband fell asleep on the couch while tracking my contractions. By then I was just irritated and uncomfortable.

I must have read or heard somewhere to repetitively and visually count something while in labor in order to gain focus and determination. I’d never actually counted the windows in our house though before we’d left for the hospital.

Turns out, it’s actually really difficult to remember how many windows you have while it feels like your uterus is being turned inside out and clamped repeatedly in a vice.

Starting in the living room. One, two, three, four, five, . . . “Our mothers are wondering how things are going,” interrupted my husband.

One, two, three, . . . “I just want to see if you’ve dilated any more,” interrupted the obstetrician on duty.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, . . . Boy, I’d really like a sandwich right now.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, . . . I’d lost count. I needed to start over. Did I start in the living room or the sun porch? They both face the street. I couldn’t remember.

One, two, three, . . .

Somewhere during those two days of contractions it became clear that my plan was not to be followed through. Too many variables, some within my control and many not, came into play.

Her heartbeat dropping.

My heartbeat racing.

My husband waiting in the hallway while another man crouched behind me and ever so gently traced my spine with his finger.

There was no pain, no fainting. All my fears, unfounded. Is it possible that he used a magic needle?

Legs that were seemingly not my own lay heavy and immobile under the thin hospital blanket.

Let the mothers in. We would all wait together. It didn’t feel quite right, but nothing else was going according to plan, so why not.

I could not do it the way I had set out to do. Yet I mourned the childbirth I didn’t have only for a short while. It’s hard to do otherwise when the ultimate reward—the one you’ve been waiting for—comes into your arms safely all the same.

Now, more than seven years in, I still know that I have thirteen windows on the first floor. I count them when I am struggling through a tough run or clawing my way through a migraine. It seems to work better for these lesser tasks.

I also now know this: I have no control over how deeply I love my daughter, much less how life will ultimately unfold, both for her and for me. Perhaps there really never was any proper preparation for that if only because there are not enough windows to count.

Kristen M. Ploetz lives in Massachusetts with her husband and daughter. Her essays have appeared with Literary Mama, NYT Motherlode, The Humanist, and Mamalode. Read more of her work at www.littlelodestar.com or connect with her on Twitter (@littlelodestar).

Photo: canstock.com

Self Preservation

Self Preservation

By Antonia Malchik

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 1.02.09 PMAn hour into my peach canning session on a hot August afternoon, I’ve peeled five batches of fruit. I’ve long since ceased to think about how the ripe, sinful flesh, blush-colored and naked, always brings to mind Georgia O’Keeffe paintings and sex. Instead I hustle, doubtfully eyeing the diminishing, discounted box of orchard-run peaches, the ones that have fallen off the trees and bruised. I picked them up three days ago at a farm five miles away. Some are already growing mold. The waste angers me as I cut away bruises and green fuzz, sometimes throwing away most of a peach, but I haven’t had time to get to them. The wedges pile up in the pot, splashing into squeezed lemon and leaking peach juice. Even as I pick up the pace, I try to remember that I’ve chosen this time-consuming and unnecessary hobby, that it’s a process to enjoy. I move the knife too quickly against the naked peach in my palm and it slips close to my thumb.

Water spits constantly onto the hissing gas burners. I’m working alone, lifting peaches from a boiling pot into an ice bath. The skins slip off peach-flesh—dusky, firm, and slick. The peaches are freestone variety, chosen for their rich flavor and the ease with which the flesh falls off the pit. They boil for a scant thirty seconds to release the skin, no more than six at a time in the pot because that’s the most I can dip in and out before the fruit begins to cook.

Upstairs, the baby wakes up crying. I brush sweat-soaked hair out of my face. His nap lasted thirty minutes less than usual. I’ll have to wrap up early. The baby’s fingers are too eager and his curiosity too persistent to allow him near an activity that requires scorching hot burners and my full attention. I’ll be lucky to finish this half after he goes to bed tonight.

The last six whole peaches come out of the pot. I slough the skins off as fast as possible, turn off the boiling water, put the gigantic pot of skinned, sliced fruit on a back burner; contemplate washing up the bowl full of shed skin and pits, the knife and cutting board, the lemon juicer, the thick puddles on the counter splashing silently onto the floor, before everything turns sticky and mixes with cat fur.

Through the baby monitor, my son’s crying increases in intensity and violence over the rattling of his crib bars against the drywall. I stop wiping the counter and try not to begrudge his theft of my time alone. But the resentment comes anyway: Get me. The fuck. Out of here.

*   *   *

Everything about canning season, including the crying from upstairs, reminds me of my son’s birth. My first attempts at this old-fashioned practice took place a week either side of his delivery, seven weeks early. Bored with pregnancy and summer heat, my husband and I played at freezing peaches in sugar syrup on one oppressive Wednesday in August. We made jokes about the pornography of the fruit and covered the kitchen with juice and sugar. The next Sunday we bought a box of tomatoes, thinking to cook them down and likewise install them in freezer bags. By then I was, unknowingly, already sinking under the effects of HELLP Syndrome, a rare, often fatal pregnancy illness. Complaining of stomach pain, I put off the tomato project and went to bed. I thought I had a mild case of food poisoning. By Wednesday, my liver was failing. The obstetrician performed a Caesarian while I was unconscious. I met my son thirty hours later, after the machines in Intensive Care stopped monitoring my breathing.

The next Wednesday, my son was still lying in Neonatal Intensive Care with the other tiny, sick premature babies. The doctor had called at seven a.m. to warn us they’d found a second air bubble next to his lungs and might have to move him to a tertiary care center two hours away. I can’t leave him, I kept saying to the nurse, who’d heard the same from countless discharged mothers and would continue hearing it long after my child was strong and growing. I kept putting off withdrawing the tip of my thumb from his miniscule fist, the only part of him we were allowed to touch until they removed the chest tubes and oxygen sniffer. I spent the drive home twisted in tears. I didn’t want to stop crying, thinking somehow it kept me connected to him, forty-five minutes away.

Nine o’clock at night my husband found me blanching tomatoes in the kitchen, stripping their torn skins.

“You should be resting,” he said.

“I need this.” I fished six tomatoes out with the slotted spoon and tried not to cry. The incision from the C-section ached; my feet ached; my head ached. But the movement from box to pot to icy bath to bowl, knowing I was making something without having to eat any of it, kept the tears at bay. “I need to do something real,” I said.

Splash, roll, split went the tomatoes. Their skins didn’t slide off like the peaches’ did. I had to peel them, papery on top with a squishy underbelly dripping watered-down red.

*   *   *

I’m descended on both sides from families in which competence is the predominant religion: the ability to make things, fix things, grow things. The knowledge that you could scratch out a life far from the conveniences of modernity. For my paternal and maternal grandparents, food was simply about survival. But more than that, its production and preservation defined the value of a woman. My Russian grandmother kept my father and his siblings alive during World War II by digging potato beds and scouring the woods for mushrooms after working double shifts managing the metallurgical lab at the weapons factory. On my mother’s side, my forefathers went West to Montana, where the women, no matter how soft they’d begun, grew hands puckered and hard from the sweltering woodstove, the endless kneading of bread, the maintenance of the vast pickling crock, the coaxing of vegetables from the water-starved soil of Eastern Montana, the drying and preserving and pickling that ensured—they hoped—a winter free of hunger.

The summer my little sister was born, another August, my mother sweated, short and swollen, over a stove bubbling with jars of beans drowned in vinegar. Dilled pickled beans became her signature side dish. In later years, every time a jar was opened she restrained my sisters and me from eating the entire thing at one sitting, and we would negotiate over the chunks of pickled garlic on the bottom.

I was four that summer. My mother grew her own beans, and I marched colanders full of them from the garden to the quart jars waiting in ranks on the counter. The jars lay on their sides, each dosed with feathery dill leaves, cloves of garlic, dill seed, and crushed red peppers. They waited to be packed with beans and filled with vinegar.

In many families, this would be a story about the harmony of the kitchen, mother passing down to her daughter the practices of her pioneer grandmother. But it isn’t. My mother didn’t want me kicking my heels on the alderwood kitchen stool, didn’t want me snapping the tops off the beans with eager, sloppy fingers. She didn’t want me there at all.

“Sweetheart.” Snap, snap, snap went the beans. She worked fast over the chipped enameled colander, her huge belly pushing her well back from the sink. A light-blue kerchief kept her blond hair out of her face. “Go outside and play.” Stuff, stuff, stuff went the straight beans tighter and tighter into the jars. The rogue skinny curled ones landed on top, once she’d set each jar upright again.

I studied the orange diamonds worked into the ugly brown kitchen carpet. I didn’t want to go play. I wanted to help. But my mother’s explosive temper was formidable. Her statements were not requests or suggestions; discipline was another thing she had brought from frontier farm life: brisk and painful. I slid off the stool and went out to the garden with my toy tin bowls, where I pretended to make a soup of Jerusalem artichokes and red currants.

The dilled beans joined the rows of jams and jellies and crocks of melon balls in liquor already established in the cool earthen root cellar below the back porch. After my little sister was born, my mother was happy to let me help change diapers, but shooed me away from the bubbling in the kitchen, where she was squishing bitter chokecherries for jelly into a conical metal sieve.

It would be easy to say that my mother practiced and maintained her frontier-woman, pioneer-wife skills because she loved them, the rhythm and movement of the seasons and the process itself. Part of that is true. Canning was also the only way she could escape from motherhood and still keep a fingertip in the creative life she passionately wanted. She chafed at being a mother of small children. More than anything, she wanted to spend her time writing stories, a dream she put off until my sisters and I were grown.

Raised to believe that the only time well spent is spent producing something or fixing something, she could not bring herself to throw her children on neighbors, friends, or her own parents so that she could write. Who would have understood, then, in that small Montana wheat-ranching town, where everyone was poor and few women worked outside the home and the only daycare was a bedraggled part-time place run by the local Kiwanis in the basement of a church?

Canning was the only household activity that was marginally creative and belonged solely to her. She did not want help. On the contrary, she wanted her husband and daughters far away for long days so she could devote her energy to an act that would for a time both soothe her artistic urges and satisfy the expectations of her competent, long-dead grandmother.

Mostly, she pickled beans.

*   *   *

My son, the baby upstairs, is almost a year old now. A month of hell followed his birth, a month of breathing and heart monitors, a month of chest tubes and oxygen. We almost lost him twice. I love him with a fierce possessiveness I never thought myself capable of. Whenever he gets sick, I vividly imagine losing him, and I hold him tight and cry like an idiot.

We brought him home from the hospital when he was four weeks old, scraping the five-pound mark—lighter than the smallest of our four cats, barely the size of a bag of sugar—and still three weeks to go until his official due date. We’d been turned inside out through that month, our priorities shaken out and stomped on. The freelance copy editing career I’d planned on returning to seemed pointless beside his need for me, and mine for him. I couldn’t imagine ever being tired of his presence.

He cried for months. He nursed every hour and a half around the clock. He slept flat out on my chest every night until he was four months old. Each morning I woke up, back aching, to remember I would not have a minute to myself for at least thirteen more hours. I woke up to resent the life I now had, to resent the baby whose life I, an atheist, had prayed for. On the days when he cried the most, when neither the breast nor swaddling nor pacifier nor his bouncy chair could soothe him, the mother I dreaded becoming seemed dangerously close. The kind of mother I’d grown up with: angry, impatient, unhappy, frantic to have a day alone.

I envisioned terrible things that I don’t want to admit to, screaming back at him being the least awful. One day my arms, meant only for motherly comfort, felt weak after a desire for violence surged through them, and I laid him gently down in his crib, shut the door on his cries, went to the garage, and shrieked at the top of my lungs until I grew hoarse. Then I sat there among the dirty garage smells, trying to work out if I still existed, under the exhaustion and frustration and constant nursing.

I had never envisioned being a full-time, stay-at-home mother, yet there I was with a high-needs child I couldn’t imagine abandoning to daycare but one I couldn’t continue sacrificing every moment to. If I kept trying to devote myself—myself—to him, one of us would get hurt. I foundered, fumbling in the dark, looking for a way back to the person I used to be. Before marriage, before mortgage, before who I was became defined by the small, delightful, draining individual whose life I was responsible for.

Every now and then my father used to take my two sisters and me out for the day so my mother could write. We’d go fishing or run errands. When we came home, there’d be hot jars of peach chutney or dilled beans resting on the counter, but rarely did any writing get done. It’s a hard thing to battle those demons every day, the ones that tell you that putting pen to paper without knowing what will come of it is pointless or worthless. To do it occasionally is almost impossible.

It’s hard to admit how many years I’ve spent trying not to be like my mother, trying not to let an urge to create pickle in frustration. After I had a child, it was hard to find out that, I, like my own mother, felt I had to purchase the right to create by doing something useful. Much as I enjoyed the canning itself, I wanted the approval of my dead ancestors. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I could give my grandmothers and great-grandmothers a bright quart jar of peaches I’d put up and an essay I’d published, I know which one they’d be proud of.

When I started to can peaches and tomatoes, I was grabbing at anything that would restore a sense of self as someone other than a nursing, soothing, rocking mother. A hobby I could pick up the instant my son went to sleep.

It was surprising to discover I liked it. Now, when I turn down a social invitation in late August because I’ve got a box of tomatoes to put up, I do it because for the last two months I’ve been looking forward to skinning and bottling those just-ripened San Marzano tomatoes. The sight of those jars standing in ranks in our cool basement is immensely satisfying. It makes me feel … well, competent. And achieving those jars—the canning process itself—has a soothing rhythm that quiets all the tense, trivial thoughts I tend to obsess over during the day.

I know that my passion for canning is often a stand-in for something more. Sometimes I’m sweating over a boiling pot of blueberry-lime jam because I badly want to be sitting somewhere else with a notebook in hand. I’m reminded of my mother then. The difference is, I can change that feeling, acknowledge that there doesn’t have to be one predominant self—whether mother, writer, or competent frontier-woman—to feel whole. Canning, which began as an escape, has simply become part of the ebb and flow of who I am.

*   *   *

I put a lid over the stockpot of peaches, switch off the baby monitor. The kitchen is awash in canning detritus: a pot of cooling sugar syrup, three sticky knives, a dripping cutting board, the wide-mouth funnel and jar lifter, the dishwasher full of clean, hot quart Mason jars, the flies around the bowl of skin and pits, fruit flies still feasting on the box of uncut fruit. Peach juice everyfuckingwhere. I wash my hands and forearms where the fruit dripped. I step barefoot into an unseen puddle and wash that, too. Then I take a deep breath and look around the kitchen, preparing to shift mentally, if regretfully, from the time that is mine to the time that is ours.

Up in his bedroom, my son is facing away from me, and my heart turns over as I see how big he’s gotten, how vigorously he’s using the lungs that began life so tentatively. I pick him up and hold him against me until he snuffles and his crying slows. This year he might be able to eat those canned peaches. I won’t. All I need is to skin them, pack them in jars, dance through the kitchen, making my own little thing, over and over and over.

My mother’s lesson is now a lifeline: It’s the sealing in of self, hoping to get reacquainted with me later, when the diapers are done and the school bus has stopped coming by and rides aren’t needed to sports events or music lessons. When everyone can wipe his or her own bottom. When the babies are finally in college, on their own, busy with jobs and lives. Then, maybe, I can pop open the sealed lid of that jar and taste the self again.

Author’s Note: This is written with gratitude to my mother, for being who she is, and a request for the dilled beans recipe, please.

My older sister commented that this essay made her sad because my life with young children sounded so insufficiently rewarding. This got us discussing women (like me) who struggle with their sense of self after having children, and those (like her) who are generally happy with the balance they achieve, and why. When she said of herself, “[Maybe] it’s natural for me to err on the side of self-indulgence,” I thought her word choice said mountains about how easily mothers still judge themselves for meeting their own needs.

Our son is now three. Our daughter was born a year ago. She was nine days late, and we spent those tedious nights making more than a hundred jars of jam. We still have most of them.

Antonia Malchik’s essays have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Walrus, and the Jabberwock Review, among many other publications, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in upstate New York and can be reached through antoniamalchik.com. 

Brain, Child (Summer 2011)

Doing It All Wrong

Doing It All Wrong

By Susan Buttenwieser

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“Excuse me,” a woman approaches as you grip the metal rim of a garbage can on the western edge of Central Park. “Are you in labor?”

“Yes,” you pant, manacles tightening before an all-to-brief break. Your nose is inches from apple cores and plastic baggies filled with dog shit, as you focus on pain management.

The woman looks at you as if you are trespassing through her backyard. She is much more put together than you could ever hope to be. Wearing a business skirt/jacket ensemble with a leather briefcase hanging from her left shoulder, she’s probably the CEO of something.

“Well, I have three children, I’ve given birth three times and I can tell you that the breathing is really important. AND YOU ARE DOING IT ALL WRONG!” Her lips scrunch into an oval of disgust, her pupils black daggers.

You go blank, unable to think of an appropriate response. And then yet another contraction is upon you.

They’ve been coming steadily since early this morning when you first woke up. The thing you’ve been waiting to happen all these months is happening. And it’s happening right now. The baby is a week overdue so you’ve been walking all over the city, as your old-school doctor recommended to help induce labor. It’s one of those crazy beautiful, early fall days and you’ve spent most of the afternoon hauling your heavily pregnant body all over Central Park. A picnic lunch of Italian subs from Lenny’s and potato chips on the Great Lawn. A loop around the reservoir and back down to the lake where you stood looking at the statue of the angel for awhile before going to your doctor’s office.

After confirming that you were indeed definitely in labor, the doctor advised walking as far as you could back to your apartment. You weren’t even close to being ready to deliver, she explained. Stay at home until the pain becomes too much before calling her. Then she’ll meet you at the hospital.

You left her office and headed home, attempting to do the special breathing the way you were instructed in pre-natal birthing class. Inhaling and exhaling at just the right moment. Rhythmically to be able to handle the undulating agony. But you needed something to steady yourself through an extra-painful contraction. You reached for the closet object: a garbage can. That’s when you encountered the woman.

YOU ARE DOING IT ALL WRONG! It’s like the voice from the darkest part of your mind has somehow materialized into the form of this woman on the Upper West Side.

She gives one last sneer before turning on her heels and finally leaving you alone. You keep ambling along Central Park West, breathing in your own inept way. The late afternoon sun filters through fall-foliage tinted leaves. Reds and oranges and yellows spackle the tree-lined streets and avenues in this bucolic neighborhood. Every contraction causes you to buckle over. The pain comes at shorter and shorter intervals, multiplying exponentially, like some sort of sadistic algebra equation as the cervix dilates and the baby drops down into the birth canal.

The baby. A whole, entire, actual, real, live baby is somehow going to come out of an extremely small space in the very near future.

Once you reach your apartment, you remain on the couch, huddled in a ball, breathing and breathing, crazy with the pain. Finally, you can’t take it anymore, phone the doctor and take a taxi to the hospital.

But it turns out that despite your so-called inability to breathe right, you actually can do it just fine. Your daughter is born at three in the morning, healthy and okay. And the most incredible thing you have ever seen in your whole life. You break down when she arrives.

The first day back home, you wake up an hour before she does to stare at her. You walk around your neighborhood carrying her in your arms. “Look at this fucking beautiful baby,” you want to shout at everyone you pass. “She’s mine!”

You forget about worrying if you’re doing it all wrong. The woman’s words seem irrelevant. Being with your tiny, amazing daughter is the only thing that matters now.

Susan Buttenwieser’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Teachers & Writers magazine and other publications. She teaches creative writing in New York City public schools and with incarcerated women. 

Photo by Scott Boruchov

Pregnancy Endnotes

Pregnancy Endnotes

By Aubrey Hirsch

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You don’t commit to the idea until after the first ultrasound, when you’re about seven weeks along. Though you’ve produced enough positive pregnancy tests to build a small log cabin, you can’t believe it’s real. Your husband squeezes your hand in the elevator at the OB/GYN. They might look, you say, and there might not be anything there at all. That happens sometimes. He nods. He’s very accommodating of your doubts, even though he doesn’t share them.

But there it is, on the screen, a little blob of white pixels. It looks like a gummi bear or a wad of chewed gum. It’s hard to focus with the ultrasound wand pressing against your cervix, but there’s no doubt that it’s there. The doctor adjusts the wand and the blob starts to flicker. The movement is so fast you can barely see it, especially with the tears already starting to fill your eyes. That’s the heartbeat, she says, looking at one of you, then the other. Oh, you say it as if you are surprised, but you already know.

II

The thing that stuns you, though it seems obvious in retrospect, is that you can’t ever take a break. For every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month for nine (almost ten) long months, you are pregnant. There’s no negotiating that. You jokingly ask your husband if he wouldn’t mind taking over for a few hours so you can eat sushi, shave your legs, take a long nap on your stomach. His answer is always the same, I would if I could. The way he says it, his hand on your hand, his eyes locked on yours, you believe him.

III

You’ve heard those first subtle movements compared to bubbles or butterflies, but what you feel is more like gentle thumping, like a miniature heart beating against your belly. You read that these movements aren’t voluntary at the beginning. They’re like a series of tiny seizures. You imagine the fetus inside you, skinny and transparent, its impossible proportions, stiff-armed and shaking. It doesn’t sound very pleasant. But the image actually helps a little. When you’re feeling nauseous or tired or sore, which is pretty much all the time these days, you pay attention to your second heart. You press your palm against it and say, I know it’s hard, baby. But you and me, we’re in this together. It feels like solidarity, like you no longer have to suffer alone.

IV

Everyone keeps telling you it’s a miracle. They call it magical, what’s happening inside you. You know, though, that it’s science. Sperm meets egg. Egg meets uterus. Cells develop, differentiate, firm and fold. There’s the dividing, the lengthening, the genomic blueprint followed to the letter. Knowing all of this doesn’t make it any less special for you. There are still so many mysteries ahead. You actually feel grateful for the questions with easy answers.

V

You float through the first half of your pregnancy trying on two possible futures, two possible babies. You fantasy shop for both of them, building imaginary registries in your head. When you browse online, you click on both of the big, bolded links: girl; boy. You come up with a perfect name for each potential baby. Driving to your twenty-week ultrasound you feel nothing but elation.

But when the technician pushes wand into your side, points to the screen and says, “It’s a little boy!” you suddenly feel like crying. You want this boy, yes. You love this boy. But where is your girl? The little girl you’ve been dreaming about, whose room you’ve decorated in your mind, whose territory you’ve set aside in your heart?

On the drive home, you practice her name with your tongue as you fight back tears. You realize you’d been dreaming of two babies, and you’re only going to take one home with you. It’s silly to feel this way, you know, about a baby who never existed. Inside of you is your son, your survivor. Your love, now fired in sadness, grows fiercer.

VI

As you progress, you discover that pregnancy is a kind of performance art that you have to do any time you want to leave your house. At a certain point, there’s no hiding it and the questions come like rain on a cold morning. Over and over again you will say: October. You will say: Boy. You will say: Yes and No and We haven’t decided yet. Sometimes you will lie. You might say: Girl. You might say: November. You might say: Alice or Benjamin or George. You might do this just to do it, for the thrill of saying something new. Or you might do it for the flimsy sliver of privacy it lets you keep between the matinee and the evening show, when you will again pull on your shoes and venture into the world and cease being your name, or any noun at all, and instead walk under the flashing marquee of your adjective: pregnant.

VII

Everyone has opinions. To save your energy, you start agreeing with all of them. It becomes like a game, kind of fun actually. You’re going to breastfeed exclusively, right? Of course! You should use formula. That way the dad can help with the feedings. That’s the plan! Definitely get an epidural. Mine saved me! Definitely! Are you planning an all-natural birth? I hope so. Yes! Do you have a doula? Are you doing yoga? Are you being induced? Did you do the genetic screening? Are you drinking red wine? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Always, everything, yes.

It gets a little tricky when the people you’re talking to disagree with each other. In those moments it’s best to make a quiet exit. Trust me, they will be so interested in validating their own opinions that no one will even notice you’re gone.

VIII

The 3 a.m. feedings start weeks before the baby is actually born. Everyone keeps telling you to sleep now, while you have the chance. But the baby is up at three demanding cereal or almonds or fresh mozzarella. When he’s fed, he wants to play, kicking at your insides, rubbing up against your ribs. It’s hours before you’re asleep again and when you are, you dream of him.

IX

You’re eager to talk about something other than pregnancy, so you are excited to meet someone with your same job at a Memorial Day barbeque. Turns out she’s pregnant, too. She asks you all the typical questions about your due date, your childcare plans, your health.

You don’t respond in kind. Instead you gently deflect. You ask about her work, her classes, a paper she’s writing. You think you are saving this woman from having to repeat the same answers over and over and over again. You imagine that she must be dying for a break from talking about pregnancy. Doesn’t she, like you, still have this whole other life? Doesn’t that deserve some attention every now and then?

A few days later, on her blog, she will write a lengthy and heartfelt post about wishing she had more pregnant friends. She will lament feeling like she has no one to talk to about her pregnancy, no one who understands what she is going through. And you will feel like the biggest asshole on the planet.

X

The stretch marks come overnight. While you’re sleeping, they appear across the top of your bottom, in a wide, red swath. It’s kind of sexy, you say to your husband, like you’re wearing a zebra-print thong, even when you’re naked. Some- times you believe that. Other times you are surprised how intensely you hate them. You think both of these feelings are okay. That they can co-exist, for a while at least. These are scars we’re talking about, after all. They will need time to heal.

XI

The baby is big and you are small and that combination makes for close quarters. By the end of the eighth month, there’s nowhere for him to go without putting pressure on an organ, snagging a tendon, rubbing up against an already tender bit of muscle or bone. He wakes you up at night with his calisthenics. You sigh and moan, turn over onto your other side with much effort.

One night your husband, dazed, mostly asleep himself grabs you and gently sways you, rhythmically, from your hip. You are so surprised by it that you don’t even notice the baby calming down, going quiet. Finally you realize he is rocking the baby to sleep. After another minute or so, he has rocked you asleep as well. And the three of you sleep together.

XII

Next time you think you’ll keep the due date a secret. As it approaches, everyone wants to know if you’re ready. Ready? READY?? Then the date comes. And goes. And then every- one wants to know where the baby is. Why no baby yet? When are you going to have that baby?

But no one’s more disappointed than you. This date was your anchor and now that it’s gone, you’re just sort of … floating. You ask your doctor when the baby will come. When he’s ready, he says. With no date to count down to, no finish line in sight, you feel like the pregnancy might go on forever. That you might never get to meet your son.

XIII

Of course the pregnancy does eventually end. In the hospital you change into the cotton gown, worn nearly transparent around its feeble ties, while your husband hurries home to get your bags. These are the last moments you will spend alone until you attempt your first shower some eight days later. And anyway, are you really alone, with the baby already readying himself inside you?

You roll the question around in your head until a nurse comes in, then another nurse, and then your husband. And then you aren’t alone anymore.

You can’t honestly say you enjoy those last few hours of your pregnancy, but there are a few joyful moments that you hold onto:

Catching a line of a song on your playlist that sounds like it’s telling you how strong you are.

The feeling of ice on your tongue when everything else in the room, in the world, seems to be heat.

The surprise you feel when your lungs keep filling with air long after you’re sure you have no breath left.

The way your husband looks at you like his heart is breaking, and healing, and being born.

And the moment the doctor arrives and tells you you’re about to become someone new.

Aubrey Hirsch is the author of WHY WE NEVER TALK ABOUT SUGAR. She currently writes a biweekly parenting column for The Butter. You can learn more about her at aubreyhirsch.com.

Art by Michael Lombardo

When Her Life Passed Through

When Her Life Passed Through

By Ann Tepperman

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It’s been 485 days since my mother died.

Four hundred eighty-five days ago I sat next to her on her bed, the only sound in the room the breathing machine and her heavy, thick, watery breaths. Her body was gently propped up with pillows so that she could face the setting sun through her bedroom windows. Her eyes were open and wild and she could no longer move or talk. The blood cancer had seeped into every cell of her. It had won.

I held onto one of her limp hands with one hand; the other rested on my swollen, nine-month pregnant belly. Inside me, swimming in quiet bliss was the daughter who would never meet my mother, her Nonna, except perhaps as spirit floating through the veil into the other world. I recall my mother having two final breaths: the second to last was from this world and the last seemed to be her breathing in the atmosphere from the other. Then she stopped. Then she was gone. And she is gone forever.

We were guarding my mother’s body, sitting next to her until the men in the truck came to pick her up. They wrapped her in a white sheet, preparing her to be taken away, and it was then that I turned my tearstained face to my husband and in agony asked him to help them carry my mother away.

Will the circle be unbroken by and by Lord by and by, theres another home awaitin, in the sky Lord in the sky…”

I watched my husband carry her body away in the most reverent and loving way. Even though we had been together for nine years and had (almost) two children together, at that moment we created a deep, inexpressible bond that carried us through this horrible tragedy and everything that was to come.

Three weeks after the death of my mom, my water broke. It was the middle of the night, and I was awoken by a surge of warm liquid pouring onto the bed from between my legs. We called the midwives and my husband began filling the birthing pool with water. Then we waited. And we waited, and waited. But labor did not come. So with a quiet, desperate longing to meet our baby, we retreated back to bed.

A few days later the midwives called. “We are coming over,” they said. “Today you are having your baby.” I scoffed. I was already past due, walking around with a broken bag of waters. I had decided this baby would stay put indefinitely. How could I possibly give birth without my mother?

When the midwives arrived, they handed me an herbal cocktail to induce labor. We sat together on the floor of my living room and I placed the tinctures in front of me. I closed my eyes and imagined opening up the space between the two worlds, a doorway I had locked, unknowingly trapping my daughter. And although fearful and reluctant, I took the herbs, practiced my hypnosis and waited. Slowly, after several doses and a forced inward focus, I began to feel the first twinges of labor.

I had been laboring for a few hours but my labor was inconsistent. I decided that I needed to be alone. I went upstairs, removed my clothing and sat on my bedroom floor. I began to sing. Slowly and quietly at first, the words of one of the oldest prayers from the Torah moved past my lips: “El na refa na la. Please God heal her. (Numbers, 12:13).” This small and powerful prayer was said by Moses to God after his sister Miriam had fallen ill. Like Moses, I was now surrendering to the most powerful force I could imagine. I, too, was asking for help and healing, and the surges of labor increased dramatically with every word of my heartfelt prayer.

Naked, on my hands and knees, my giant, pregnant belly brushed the white, wool carpet. I was gliding in circles, riding the long, strong surges of labor that arose from deep inside my being. I sang out louder and louder into the Universe, my voice embodied with full power and force.

Then time became surreal. I remember the midwives looking down at me from above. I remember the warm tub water. I remember stumbling deep into my husband’s compassionate eyes as I pushed and pushed and pushed. And just when I thought I could go on no longer, I gave one final push.

And she was born.

I had now stood at the gates of the death and birth of two of the most important people in my life.

I looked down at the baby in my arms. I had no idea who my daughter was. Up until then I had only been able to feel her through the veil of my own perceptions. I didn’t understand that the grief and suffering I had felt from losing my mother had been holding her back from entering fully into this world and into her own being.

It’s now been fifteen months since her birth. She’s talking and running, fiercely independent and full of warmth and compassion. I still grieve the way her birth transpired and often wonder if the loss of my mother and the emotional turmoil I suffered has left a mark on her. But just when I am doubting her strength, she shows me her spirit, her individuality and perseverance, and I am amazed. Independent of my life’s story, of all my grief, sadness, joys and losses, she is her own person and I just need to get out of her way so she can be born into herself and thrive.

Ann Tepperman has dedicated her life to raising the consciousness of others through her holistic psychotherapy practice and personal essays. She lives, loves, parents and meditates in Columbus Ohio. Learn more at www.anntepperman.com.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

Home Birth

Home Birth

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Of the many questions that surrounded my children’s births, “where” was simply not one of them.

There was my house, with its carpeted floors and plush interiors, its tight corners and two flights of stairs. And there was the local hospital, a sterile purpose-built environment. The former I considered a place where people live and watch TV and cook dinner. The latter I considered a place where people go to have medical procedures as safely as possible. Because I counted birth as an essentially medical procedure—a procedure, that is, during which lives are at stake—the distinction between the two locales couldn’t have been clearer in my mind.

So when Jessica Smock approached me with the idea of a feature-length article on the topic of home birth, I was dubious. Jessica and I had already written a pair of essays that turned on the issue of what constitutes a “good” delivery, a debate that illuminated the divide between those of us who view a baby’s entrance into the world as a means to an end and those of us who place a primacy, often a high one, on the process itself. As a woman who is firmly in the means-to-an-end camp, I had to admit to conceptualizing home birth as a rather extreme option on the “process” side, lingering somewhere at the far end of the natural-birth continuum alongside lavender candles and placenta-berry smoothies.

And yet it so happened at the time that a friend of mine was pregnant. This friend, Maria, is one of the most moderate mothers I know, a far cry indeed from the stereotype home birth tends to conjure. She vaccinates her children. They sleep in their own beds; they will attend the school down the road. She is not, in other words, a champion of the kind of anti-institution, “DIY” (do-it-yourself) parenting Emily Matchar describes so well in her book Homeward Bound, the introduction of which contains this gem: “From home births to diaper-free infants to hand-mashed baby food to extended breast-feeding, today’s parenthood often seems to take its cues from Little House on the Prairie.”

Which is why you might be able to imagine my surprise when, on a visit to Maria’s house for tea and cake in the late stages of her second pregnancy, she casually pointed out the pile of birth equipment stashed in the corner of her spare room. It sat there rather ceremoniously, a promise of the major event set to take place a few weeks later in that very spot. It would be an understatement to say I was shocked. But I also became very curious, very quickly. All of a sudden I wanted to understand: what is the motivation to have a baby in your own home?

And this is exactly what Jessica and I set out to discover. We found that home birth, for a certain segment of the population, is not really about answering the question: “Where will my baby be born?” It is about imbuing the birth experience with some sort of meaning that transcends the pragmatic task of getting a baby out of its mother’s womb. Often it is about control and demedicalizing the process of giving life. For once you remove yourself from the hospital setting, with its myriad of medical interventions, there is an inimitable opportunity to let your body lead the way.

Which sounds wonderful, of course, until your body doesn’t quite know the right way to go. Women have been pushing out babies since the beginning of time, fair enough. But women have also been dying in childbirth since the beginning of time, as have infants, in much greater numbers than they do now. A successful home birth might be statistically likely and it’s all well and good if you are in that majority. It can be catastrophic, however, if you are not. And the twist of the knife is that you simply cannot know ahead of time into which group you will fall, however straightforward your pregnancy has been. My sister-in-law, for example, suffered a prolapsed umbilical cord during her labor, a completely unpredictable setback. Had she not been in a hospital, her baby would have been lost.

Risk should be at the center of any discussion of home birth, though as we concluded in our piece, it is a subject about which it is near impossible to draw hard and fast lines. As such, the safety of delivering a baby in your house is one of the fiercest battlegrounds of reproductive medicine: the same data are interpreted variably depending on who is doing the interpreting; new studies with different protocols are drawn up to counterbalance previous studies. Home birth is also an arena that is handled differently in different countries, which affects the perception (and also perhaps the reality) of its safety.

In an astonishing development, announced after our article went to print, the UK has changed its guidelines on home birth and has done so rather drastically. In 2007, the guidelines advised women to be “cautious” about home birth in the absence of conclusive risk assessments. But as of last month the National Health Service is now advising healthy women that it is “particularly suitable” for them to have their babies at home as opposed to in a hospital. That in optimal conditions—low-risk pregnancies of women who have already given birth with no complications—delivering at home is safer because of the lower chances of surgical intervention, accident and infection.

Welcomed here is the idea that certified nurse midwives should play an increasingly important role in childbirth. More suspect is the notion that these midwives should be delivering 45% of Britain’s babies in an environment devoid of certain life-saving techniques should an emergency transpire. According to Amy Tuteur, who goes by the online persona “The Skeptical OB,” “homebirth is no safer than it ever was.” She considers the British development a matter of putting babies’ lives at risk for reasons of political expediency and economic cost-cutting. So too the chairman of the committee on obstetrics practice for American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has reiterated the college’s position in respect of the US, a country with a significantly different medical system from the UK: “We believe that hospitals and birthing centers are the safest places for birth, safer than home.”

What kind of practical effect the NICE guidelines will have is unclear. The home birth rate in the UK has been falling in recent years (2.3%), as it has been rising in the US (1.36%). Whether the new recommendations will ultimately put Britain on a par with a country like the Netherlands (where about 25% of births take place at home) is yet to be seen, as is whether the changes in policy on one side of the Atlantic will have any cross-cultural impact on the obstetric practice of the other side. And while home birth is still something I would never choose for myself, I will now be watching with interest as to whether it becomes a more common occurrence among my friends.

Just Breathe

Just Breathe

By Donna Maccherone

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Contractions of the womb are nothing compared with contractions of the heart, and the labor that comes post partum lasts much longer.

 

I will give away the Beanie Babies, the Ninja Turtles, the plastic pails and shovels still smelling of sand crabs and the sea. Out with old report cards and “I Showed Up” trophies. I’m decluttering. That’s the fashionable phrase, but what I’m actually doing is trying to empty the nest. I should be at least a bit wistful. I’m not. I’ve got a deep well of memories, but not enough storage. I want space.

What I am keeping is the tee shirt, men’s size medium, with the iron-on letters: BREATHE. Bright green, all caps, flocked, like old-school kindergarten flannel board letters. This is the shirt my husband wore in the delivery room when our daughter was born in 1986 and again in 1989 when our son came along.

The one-word command blazoned on the shirt was to remind me through the contracting and the pushing and the pain to do what would establish a rhythm for the contracting and the pushing, and ultimately assuage the pain. Did I breathe? Was there a rhythm? A lot of pain or a little? I honestly don’t remember. I mostly remember anticipating some great discomfort and not being happy about it. Twice.

The huff-and-puff strategy, intended to alleviate both mental and physical unease, was proffered during childbirth classes, which my husband and I dutifully attended together, but where he was much more engaged than I was. I just wanted it to be over, but first I wanted an epidural. I had an inkling that pain would eclipse any transcendence, regardless of how hard I panted. Maybe that was my problem. We were to breathe easily and calmly, drawing in awareness and blowing out pain. In with awareness… out with pain. In … out. Just like that. If only it could be that easy.

When I pulled the BREATHE shirt from the box of dusty mementoes, which included a hazy ultrasound photo that looked exactly like no one and nothing, I recalled the childbirth class in vivid detail: couples sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor of the hospital conference room, the pear-shaped women wobbling slightly; birthing coaches, spines aligned, breathing like practiced yogis. Of course the partners were better than the pregnant women, their diaphragms weren’t distended up into their throats by the bowling balls just under their rib cages. Nonetheless, we with the bloated bellies and swollen feet tried to maintain a modicum of dignity until one hyperventilated and had to be escorted out. “Exactly what not to do,” chirped the labor and delivery nurse in the teddy bear printed smock. “Don’t let your nerves get the better of you. Just breathe.”

What the inordinately cheerful nurse failed to say was that the word would become our mantra after the babies came into the world. As they screamed through endless bouts of colic and we wanted to scream right back at them but instead we thought, “Breathe.” When they blithely let go of our hands to get on the school bus and we knew what they were embarking on (life away from us) would often be anything but carefree. We smiled and waved and took that deep breath. On those days they came home crying over messing up, fouling out, failing a test, or losing a friend and we said to them and to ourselves, “Just breathe.”

Driving home from the pediatrician, the teacher conference, the counselor’s office with a scary diagnosis, questionable report, or trouble ahead.  Breathe … breathe … just breathe.

Years later, they called home and we heard regret or remorse or simple uncertainty in their voices. Perhaps we couldn’t tell them what to do, but we hoped they were drawing in awareness and blowing out the pain. The respiratory pause wouldn’t always make everything all right, but it could steady the nerves and allow time for some perspective.

Decades ago as I awaited motherhood, I feared the pain and doubted the transcendence. No matter. I got both. Even though—for all the classes and books (which only my husband read and then reiterated every chapter and verse to me when I least wanted to hear a word of it) and prenatal vitamins—I couldn’t be guaranteed fortitude for what lay ahead. Contractions of the womb are nothing compared with contractions of the heart, and the labor that comes post partum lasts much longer. Most of the time there’s not much a parent can do except breathe. Whether we do it with our eyes closed or open, sitting palms up in the lotus position or gripping the steering wheel with knuckles gone white, if we’re lucky, the transcendent moment follows exhalation. I know. My husband has the shirt to prove it.  We’re hanging on to that. Everything else is going to Goodwill.

Donna Maccherone is a mother, teacher, and writer who is still looking for some breathing room.

Our Birth Stories

Our Birth Stories

By Katy Rank Lev

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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

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

stairs

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 Photograph

The Photograph

By Irina Reyn

thephotograph

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

Check Up

Check Up

WO Check up ArtBy Carrie Friedman

My doctor asks me my symptoms as I hoist myself up on the examination table. He has just finished cooing over my three month old daughter, Dee, asleep in her stroller, bundled in a snowsuit on this unusually cold and rainy day in Los Angeles.

I start to cry as I list what I’ve been feeling for the past few months: exhaustion so extreme I’ve had to pull over while driving to take a catnap, painful abdominal bloating, and – I gesture to my tear-stained cheeks – “I’m very emotional.”

“Well, you’ve had a very stressful year,” he says.

I nod. There had been a lot of drama leading up to the birth of our long-awaited first child twelve weeks ago: the surrogate we had hired had been hospitalized halfway through the pregnancy, then threatened to leave the hospital, then tried to bar us from future ultrasounds and appointments. It was a mess, a near disaster actually, resulting in Dee entering the world early but, mercifully, healthy. All the feelings I had repressed during those long months – there was no other way to get through it – were finally coming to the surface.

What I don’t say to my doctor, can’t even utter aloud, is that I’m worried I’m really sick, that all the years of hormone treatments and failed rounds of in vitro fertilization have caught up with me at last, creating grapefruit sized tumors on my ovaries.

Because he’s been my general practitioner for over a decade now, my doctor knows I only come in with serious concerns. He has seen me at my worst and has become something of a friend ever since he consoled me when I sobbed on this same table years before, sharing what my fertility doctor had told me three years into our struggle to conceive: “Your body is fighting off the embryos You will never carry a baby to term. The odds of just getting pregnant are close to 1 in 100,000.”

What some might call hypochondria I know as something else. When my siblings and I were young, my parents always encouraged us to count our blessings and not get too cocky, reminding us that things can fall apart in an instant. Unfortunately, their attempts to cushion us from life’s inevitable blows made life almost impossible to enjoy and, from as early as I can remember, I was wired to be suspicious of good fortune to the point of actually fearing it. I always felt that if anything good happened to me, the universe would rush to balance it out with something awful.

As a parent, I knew I didn’t want to pass that world-view onto my daughter, but I wasn’t sure how to loosen its grip on my own life. Here I was, finally experiencing true happiness with Dee, and I was convinced I was dying, that this was the bargain, the price I would have to pay. Just once I wanted to allow myself to feel joy and really bask in it, without worrying about the torrent of clichés that could describe my fate, my punishment for such an offense: that the other shoe will drop, that the universe gives with one hand and takes with the other. That you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

So I’m uneasy with joy. There’s a certain security in being sad because at least you have less to lose. But now, I have this beautiful baby cooing in her stroller. I have everything to lose.

“Let’s check you out,” my doctor says, pressing gently on my abdomen.

“Hmmmm,” he says.

Hmmm? Is there a worse sound that could come out of a doctor?

“What is it?” I ask, starting to sweat. “It’s a mass, isn’t it.”

“There’s definitely something there,” he says, touching it from all angles. “I want to ultrasound it and see what we’re dealing with.”

Holy shit. This is it, the moment I’ve been dreading all my life. I think of all of the baby’s firsts that I will miss: when she walks, talks, reads, writes. Will she know how much I loved her? Will she even know I’m gone?

A few days ago Dee let out her first squeal. She surprised even herself when she did it – her smile turned to a frown instantly when she was startled by the echo off the walls. But my husband and I clapped, to encourage both her joy and the unabashed expression of it. In those moments, I’ve found myself taking mental notes: remember this time, tell her about this someday, write this down. Which leads to the closest I ever get to prayer: a silent recitation of my wishes for our child. May she know more joy than pain in life. And when she is met with disappointment or seemingly insurmountable challenges, may she have the courage to climb over or through them.

My doctor places the wand on my stomach. I’ve been in this position so many times before, and during every other visit I was hoping for something to show up on the ultrasound screen. But now I pray for ashy emptiness. What would a tumor even look like? I’m so sick with panic I turn my face away to watch Dee in her stroller. All I can hear are her sleepy sighs and the humming fluorescent lights above.

“Huh,” he says.

Huh?! Huh is even worse than Hmmm!

“Well,” he says, “it’s definitely a mass. Here, take a look.”

I turn my head to the ultrasound screen and can make out a round blob. I squint: on closer inspection, the round blob has two tiny offshoots that look almost like hands. And two more below that could be feet.

“You’re pregnant,” he says.

“Shut your mouth,” I say.

“No really!” he says, smiling now.

“You’re lying.” My face burns.

“It’s a miracle!” he says. “By the measurements it looks like you’re about twelve weeks along. You’re through your first trimester.” He shakes his head in disbelief.

I watch the mass waving and wiggling on the ultrasound screen. “Twelve weeks along? How is that even possible?” I say.  I still don’t believe him. I am more likely to believe it is a baby-shaped tumor that is so big it has its own heartbeat.

But then I think back. To New Year’s Eve. Exactly a week after Dee was born. The hotel room by the hospital. Applebee’s for dinner and several of their signature Bahama Mama cocktails.

“I’ve heard about this happening,” my doctor says now. “You and Steve must have finally been relaxed and boom! It just happened!”

I’m too stunned to correct him, to tell him that we were anything but relaxed. Our premature daughter was miraculously alive but had to wear an oxygen mask and a feeding tube in a hospital almost four hours from our house.

“Not relaxed, no,” I correct him. “But we were drunk.”

Suddenly some other things make sense too: A few weeks ago, the phrase “inexpensive fish” mentioned in a TV news story about rancid food made me vomit as soon as I heard it.

And how else could I explain my ravenous appetite? The other day, I pulled over at a food truck and, once back in my car, tore through a burrito, its contents flying everywhere as I inhaled it. I later found rice in my hair and three black beans in my bra.

I turn back to the ultrasound screen. I can see the little heart flickering away, as if keeping time with my heart. I’ve never fallen in love so fast.

It’s my turn to say “Huh” now. A miracle indeed.

The rain has stopped. Instead of heading down to the underground parking lot, I take Dee for a walk, mostly because I need some air and worry I’m still too overwhelmed to drive.

How many years, how many specialists, how many losses had there been? I’m trying calculate, to put numbers to levels of pain and loss – something that can’t be done.  It’s a sort of emotional whiplash: I’ve been so sad about childlessness for so long and now there’s a possibility of having two in less than a year? I’m already worried we won’t have enough time, love, and attention for two kids so close in age. Will Steve be excited or terrified? I look at my watch. I know he’s in a meeting right now, and I’m too shocked to call him. Besides, this is in-person news, not a voicemail or rushed exchange in the last minutes of a lunch break.

Dee is awake now – I can see her through the white muslin blanket covering the top of her buggy. She’s looking at me. She has my incongruent eyes and puffy cheeks – two things I don’t like about myself but love about her. She gives me the faintest smile. When she smiles her eyes smile too. Doctors say her smiles aren’t conscious yet – can’t be – but they don’t know my girl.

It’s so easy for me to get stuck in my head. But this baby’s smile through the billowy cotton brings me back to right now, reminds me to look at the sky, at how the rain has stopped. The clouds have moved on, over the mountains, unveiling this perfect day directly above us. The wet grass is the only indicator that it ever rained at all.

And then, as if on cue, my baby lets out her unfettered squeal of joy.

Head tilted to the sky, I listen to her and let myself bask.

Carrie Friedman has been published in numerous magazines and newspapers, and wrote the memoir, Pregnant Pause. Her latest project is the blog whatididntexpect.com. When she’s not writing, she’s loving life with her husband, beagle, and two daughters.

 

 

Not One of Those Mothers

Not One of Those Mothers

By Kate Trump O’Connor

Not Your Mother WI08The late afternoon sun spills across our table in the corner of the café, near the window. I’m going to confess something very important to you, so ignore the hovering waiter and lean in close.

I never thought I could do this. I never wanted to do this. I never, ever would have chosen this for me, for my one and only life, for my son’s one and only life. This? Mentally and physically handicapped? No way.

I lean over my coffee to emphasize my words as you clutch your cup, uncertain. I confess, before Thomas, my world was largely untouched by disability. Shamefully, I went on with my life, unaffected and unconcerned, and I never had to face my own ignorance. It was easy enough to turn my head the other way.

Then, one beautiful June day, I was forced to face it—and the face it wore looked just like his older brother’s, with smooth round cheeks, a tiny nose, and the deepest brown eyes.

*   *   *

Thomas arrived three weeks early on a sunny Friday in June. After an uneventful pregnancy, my early labor was a surprise, though not worrisome. We made it to the hospital with just enough time to drug me up, something for which in hindsight I am extremely grateful. Not for the physical pain of delivery—as a second-born, his birth was quick and almost too easy—but for the heart-wrenching pain and grief that came after.

Dr. T. is a calm and gentle man. He broke my water, saw meconium, and calmly explained that he would keep the baby from crying until he had suctioned our little one carefully and thoroughly. So when they rushed our new son (another boy!) across the room and huddled around him, we weren’t alarmed. Dr. T. betrayed nothing while, as I now know, he and the nurses worked to resuscitate my baby. I was too giddy to notice as ten, then fifteen minutes passed.

“He’s having a little trouble breathing, so we’re sending him to the special care nursery,” my doctor explained. I remember thinking that it was okay, that it was not a big deal, that these things happen all the time.

Then they brought Thomas to me for the first time, pink, swaddled, and crying. As I took him into my arms, he looked up at me and stopped crying. His dark, solemn eyes stared into mine, and we knew each other without question.

I had no idea, as I handed him back to the nurse for his trip to the special care nursery, that our brief minute together would have to sustain me for the unbearable weeks to come.

Maybe we should have been more concerned in those first minutes and hours. Maybe instead of making giddy phone calls and rejoicing in our new son’s birth, we should have been preparing ourselves. There were warning signs. His initial Apgar score was five. When I finally held him and said, “He looks just like his big brother,” my OB replied, “He does?” Only much later did I realize why he sounded a little surprised.

Hours passed. I was moved to my postpartum room, and still we waited to see him again.

*   *   *

I have to stop here for a minute. If I plunge ahead into the next chapter, you’ll pick up your coffee cup and hold it forgotten for long minutes, staring at me wide-eyed. It’s vital that I get this right so that you don’t do what we all want instinctively to do—put distance between my life and yours.

It’s not personal, I know. But as soon as I say anything, your imagination will stand at the mouth of that dark tunnel, the one my husband and I found ourselves hurtling down when Thomas came into the world. You’ll shake your head to clear the vertigo. Not your path in life. More power to me, but you could not imagine it.

I understand. Before Thomas, given the choice, I’d be leaning over your shoulder looking at some other mother with that same sense of sympathy and awe. “How do you do it? You’re amazing,” we’d echo in unison to that other mother who, but for the grace of God, the universe, Mother Nature, and random chance, could be us.

That other mother (who is not me, if only for one minute) sits a little apart. When she talks about her kid, there’s a certain look in her eyes, like she’s seeing something we don’t. She deals with so much, this special mother of a special child. She speaks a foreign language—of sats and meds, of OT and ST, of IEP and inclusion— that you don’t want to understand. It’s so hard and she’s such an amazing woman to deal with it all, and you know that you wouldn’t have the strength to do it.

You mean this as a compliment, this admission of weakness.

It’s not. It’s the verbal equivalent of throwing salt over your left shoulder. It’s a fervent and silent plea, Don’t pick me. I’m not one of those mothers. I’m not strong enough, I don’t have enough faith, my heart isn’t unselfishand radiantly kind. And what—oh, surely, I am the shallowest mother on earth, another reason I can’t be chosen—what will he look like? And will I be able to love him, truly love him?

You wish desperately to believe what we all say: Special mothers are chosen. God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. Even more, we seek to find ourselves lacking, wishing for the first time to come up short and prove ourselves unworthy. If God or the universe doesn’t give us more than we can handle, and I know I couldn’t handle this, then I’m safe.

I know all of this makes you uncomfortable: my child, the future you can’t or couldn’t have imagined for yourself. For your child. Two years ago if I had been told that at two days old, instead of being discharged home with me, my baby would be put on a lung bypass machine that circulated the blood out of and back into his body; that at two and a half months he would have open heart surgery; that at fourteen weeks old he would come home from the hospital, alive but fragile, with a feeding tube and an oxygen tank; that instead of holding him warm to my breast, the tiny infant I’d felt kick and roll inside of me would be nourished by the milk I pumped five times a day for months—if you had told me all of this, I would have said, Nope, can’t do it, find someone else please.

And if I had been told that my newborn son would be disabled. And if we’d known the first gift we would receive after his birth would come from the chief geneticist at the big-shot hospital, a book titled Babies with Down Syndrome? Certainly I would have paled and looked around. Me? I can’t be the mother you intend for this child. Surely you mean someone else—someone who hears all this and doesn’t turn away in fear. A woman who instead hauls out her breast pump, grabs a medical dictionary, calls the local early intervention program, and gets down to the business of mothering her special child.

Call the waiter over, I think you need a refill. I can see you’re still skeptical. You won’t let go of your certainty that somehow I am a different breed of mother. I know you’re wondering, so I will tell you. No, I didn’t get all the prenatal tests. No, we didn’t want to know. Yes, we chose the uncertainty and accepted the risk. We never really imagined our baby would be born anything but healthy and perfect.

Now, after all I’ve told you, I must concede: I am a different kind of mother. (“Ha!” you cry. “I knew it all along!”)

But let me explain.

Thomas is twenty months old now. At night I sit by his crib and watch him sleep, mouth open, the sleeve of PJs exposing too much wrist because he’s growing so fast. His pudgy hand rests on his baby-blue sheet, the one with the owls. His dark blond hair, exactly like his brother’s, curls in a cowlick over his smooth forehead. His plumpcheeks are covered with white medical tape, which holds the oxygen tube tight in his nose. I glance at the display on his oxygen saturation monitor, the numbers holding steady at 100 where they should be, the bar of green LEDs rising and falling and rising again with his every heart beat. Nearby, my husband stirs in his sleep. The baby is still in our room so we can respond when his alarm goes off, signaling a drop in his oxygen levels. It’s easier than stumbling down the long hall. I should be sleeping, too. Yet I sit and watch Thomas sleep. Because I can. I know when he wakes in themorning, he’ll pull off the oxygen tube (he needs it only when he’s sleeping) and greet me with a loud good-morning babble. His big brother will come in, asking to go downstairs and watch cartoons. “Bring Tommy down, too,” he’ll say, because to my amazement, after all we have been through, they are as close as brothers can be.

If you had told me two years ago that this child would come into my life, I would have wished I could be the mother you thought I was, but I’d have known deep down, and most ashamedly, I was not.

And if you had told me about the woman and her eight-year-old daughter who rushed up to us in the grocery store and said, “Is this your baby? He’s so cute,” I would have looked at you sideways.

And if you had told me that I would sit here today by Thomas’s crib and say that on most days I don’t think much about his having Down syndrome, I would have said you had a fantastic imagination.

But the truth is, whoever or whatever force is in charge of baby placement didn’t see anything in me that is not in every one of us—the capacity to love our children beyond measure and reason, beyond diagnosis and fear, beyond uncertainty and self. I wasn’t picked to be Thomas’s mom because I am special; I was made special because I am his mom. When I took him in my arms for the first time and gazed into his eyes, I saw only my beautiful, perfect son.

So I settle back in my chair here on this side of the café table. It may be hard and unyielding some days, it may wobble a bit when I lean, but it is my seat at the table. I don’t want to trade places. Because what you can’t see from your seat on the other side is the breathtaking view I have gazing out over your shoulder.

Author’s Note: Since Thomas’s birth, I have struggled with the moral and ethical issues surrounding the increasingly early prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. I do not want to impose on the personal choices of others, and yet I do not want fear—the fear of differences and the fear of our own inadequacy—to make life and death decisions for us. We are capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for. That’s something Thomas, with his determination and persistence, shows me every day.

Kate Trump O’Connor is a writer, photographer, and artist who lives outside of Boston with her husband, two sons, and twin daughters. Her website is ktoconnor.com.

Brain, Child (Winter 2008)

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Who Knew Having Young Children Would Hurt So Much?

Who Knew Having Young Children Would Hurt So Much?

elbow sketch w grayDear children with your sharp elbows and poor depth perception,

I’ll forgive you birth, because that was supposed to hurt. “A necessary evil,” I think they call it. I’ll even forgive you your freakishly large heads, disproportionate as they were to my slender, girl-like hips. I never expected a baby the size of, well, a baby (with a head the size of, well, a cantaloupe) to emerge from one of the orifices of my body and leave it unscathed. But those were the war wounds I was prepared for, at least in theory: the contractions that sent me into a fit of curses through the epidural; the stitches and swelling and stinging in what used to be a happy place; the three-inch incision across my abdomen, still numb to the touch.

No, what truly took me by surprise was all the pain that came next.

Like the time I first put you to my breast. I looked into your wide, grey eyes and smiled serenely as I shoved your face into my inflated balloon of a boob. And then almost shrieked out loud as you clamped on with gusto. Ah the beauty of Mother Nature! I couldn’t feed you in those early weeks without curling my toes and digging them, fiercely, into the fibers of the carpet, so as to concentrate on anything other than the throbbing, sandpaper-against-silk sensation emanating from my red-raw nipples. Before you, would I ever have guessed that the words “blood” and “nipple” could sit together in the same sentence, without a hint of irony or metaphor?

Breastfeeding was when the shoulder and neck pain started. The hunching, the 45 minutes cramped in an awkward position, because I’d rather endure the discomfort than run the risk of breaking a decent latch. All the while that pesky hormone, “Relaxin” (I mean: who’s relaxin’ here?), is coursing through my veins, the one that makes a lactating woman’s joints loosen up and essentially turns her body into a ticking time bomb of injury. Injury sustained from, oh I don’t know, carrying the weight of a sack of potatoes around for 14 hours a day. I won’t name names here, but I’m talking about you, baby number two, who spent at least three months of your life taking “naps” whilst strapped to my chest in a contraption that made me feel like a kangaroo, except without the benefit of such an ergonomic design.

And then you got bigger and heavier and there was the lifting, all the lifting. Into the crib, out of the crib. Into the high chair, out of the high chair. Into the car seat, out of the car seat, which requires that lethal twist of the spine at the end. My lower back has never been the same. (Shout out here to my twins, because doing everything twice took an extra special toll on my lumbar region). I would try to bend my knees for support, the way the massage therapist coached me, but how exactly do you bend at the knee as you yank from his playpen a prostrate, spaghetti-limbed toddler the heft of a small elephant? Oh I longed for the day when I wouldn’t have to lift you so much and then it came and I offered a silent prayer to the attachment parenting gods.

Happy times, you could climb into your own car seat now! But you could also climb all over me. I became, at once, a human jungle gym. Little elbows dug themselves expertly into my boobs, an ideal spot, apparently, from which to gain enough leverage to smack your forehead against mine. Fat feet planted themselves on my lap, bouncing up and down, up and down, and, whoops, that’s my pubic bone you just landed on with your heel. No, no, my shins are not for tightrope walking. How, oh how, was it always that the sharpest, boniest bits of your body would magically find the most vulnerable bits of mine?

As you got older, the games became more sophisticated. “Let’s play hairdresser,” you squealed, raking sticky fingers through my hair and pulling it out at the root along the way. “Let’s play doctor now,” you cried, as you thrust the thermometer into my ear and it occurred to me that maybe I would actually end up in the Emergency Room after all. “Let’s look at a book,” you suggested and I exhaled a sigh of relief. But how quickly I learned the cardinal rule of parenting young children: never let your guard down. For in your hands, even reading could become a contact sport. Like that time you caught me in the corner of the eye with Goodnight Moon. The “Goodnight mush” page still has a smear of my blood on it.

Over time, darling children, I’ve come to see that your affection for me knows no bounds. And I mean that quite literally. Sometimes your eager kisses are accompanied by teeth. Sometimes your sweet caresses leave scratch marks down the side of my face. And sometimes your hugs, your wonderfully enthusiastic hugs, Knock. Me. Over. The old clichés are true. Love is an assault on the senses, they say. Love hurts, they say. You know what I say? Some people’s love hurts more than others.

(Gentle) hugs and kisses,

Mom

 

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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Planting Seeds

Planting Seeds

By Kate Abbott

iStock_000010984123SmallI had the Zoloft. I needed to take it. But I was still standing in my kitchen the day after seeing my nurse practitioner, holding a pill so small I could barely feel it on my palm. How could this pill be strong enough to pull me out of this hole I couldn’t get out of on my own? This tiny pill, I thought, was stronger than I was.

I wanted to take it. But I also hated to take it and admit this was a problem that I could not fix on my own. Taking the pills could save me. I wanted them to save me. But at the same time, it would mean admitting, finally, completely, that I needed them to be myself. To be who I used to be. If I could even be that person anymore.

Almost every part of me knew I needed to try this. Following my nurse Lynn’s carefully written instructions, I positioned one small pill on a paper towel, then found my tiniest, sharpest knife and quartered the pill, sending some dust specks falling onto the paper towel. I held one quarter in my palm, barely able to feel it. It was about the size of a single Nerd candy. I was desperate for this tiny piece of pill to help me, but I was certain it couldn’t do much of anything at this size. I put it in on my tongue, sipped juice, and couldn’t tell if I’d swallowed it. I stood in my kitchen, listening to my son Henry drink his own juice in the high chair, watching me and kicking his feet. I didn’t want to move just yet. Stupidly, I waited for something to happen. I knew it would take a couple of weeks to feel any effects. I knew this dosage probably wouldn’t do anything. But the part of me that wanted to resist the pills was also hopeful they might work. Happy pills, right? Did they make me instantly happy? I feared that and wanted it desperately, too.

Henry knocked over his juice and started crying. I got a dishtowel and went over to sop it up. He flipped his spoon out of his mashed sweet potatoes, sending them flying onto the floor, the walls, and me. I laughed at myself, at the whole situation, and wanted to cry. They weren’t working yet; they weren’t going to cure me today.

I took my carefully quartered pills for 8 days with no bad effects. Every morning I thought, Maybe today will be the day it will all change. The day I will change. But I didn’t feel all better. Then I noticed I was able to take a shower a couple of days in a row and even get dressed. Was it working? Was that my newfound hope at work, or was there something chemical going on already? While I wanted to be skeptical and not get suckered into some placebo effect, I was feeling better; and when I could be outside with Henry and not feel utterly exhausted and angry and sad, when I could see it was another couple of hours until Brad would be home and I wouldn’t collapse in total despair, I did not care if this was a placebo effect or not. I just cared that I was starting to feel better.

I progressed through the weeks to taking one whole pill a day. And then one morning, I woke up and thought it looked like a nice day outside and maybe Henry and I would go in our little backyard and look around at our plants. We hadn’t been out there in so long. I wandered over to the window at the back door, and it was like I was looking at someone else’s yard. The patio we’d built had weeds taller than Henry growing up through every space between the paver stones. The plants I’d collected over the years looked dry and dead, even though it was spring.

How had this happened so fast? I thought. And then it hit me—it hadn’t happened fast at all. The weeds had been slowly growing since the summer. The plants had been slowly dying since the summer. For eight months. I hadn’t even looked at them really.

I scooped up Henry, both of us in our pajamas. Henry giggled on my lap and I actually giggled back at him, grinning at his smile, at his gums and his two perfect little white teeth. I looked at him in astonishment. I felt like I hadn’t seen him in a long time.

“Where have you been?” I said. He blinked at me.

“Mom-om-om,” he said. “Mom” had been his first word, a couple of months ago. I had felt unworthy then.

“Yes, I’m your mom-mom-mom.” I bounced him. I saw him. He was a baby, but almost not. He had a full head of blonde hair now and it was getting long. He was chewing with his sharp little teeth and his hard gums. He was looking at me and I was seeing it.

That is when I knew I was getting better. I could see him and the plants and the weeds and the sunny day outside. I saw my toenails with some purple polish I’d been motivated to put on last week. I saw my pajamas, not matching, but also not what I would be wearing all day anymore, either. I realized that each day that week, I’d been having longer “good” times. Today, maybe the good times would even be longer than the bad times.

We went out to water plants. I cared about my poor neglected plants and my poor unseen baby and my sad attempts at motherhood. I wanted to dig up dead things and pull old weeds and plant new seeds and I wanted to start everything over again. And even if it was just pulling weeds, I hadn’t wanted to do much of anything in a long time. Starting with the weeds was just fine with me. We both couldn’t wait to get our hands dirty.

Kate Abbott recently completed the postpartum depression memoir Walking After Midnight, where a version of this essay appears. Her YA novel Disneylanders was published in 2013. She lives in Northern California with her husband, son, and tiny parrots.

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Motherhood is Gross

Motherhood is Gross

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?

By Rachel Pieh Jones

stinky diaper 1Motherhood is gross and it starts in the bathroom when you pee all over your fingers even though you are aiming at a little white stick. Next comes the projectile vomit, your own, that some call morning sickness but is actually preparation for having a baby, who will vomit on you. Before pregnancy we barfed in private, now we are barfing in Laundromat garbage cans, potted plants lining suburban streets, and the parking lot outside Babies R Us. Breasts bloat and leak mysterious cloudy discharge and the baby has not even arrived yet.

We mothers used to be fairly modest, meaning we didn’t drop our pants for just anyone. Now, in the doctor’s office, we will pee into cups and spread our legs for whoever asks, hoping they will give us good news. If you are pregnant in France, you will also take off your shirt and bra so the doctor can check your pinched vaginal nerve. This only happened to me once and yes, motherhood means we now say things like ‘pinched vaginal nerve.’

Giving birth is excessively gross. My daughter asked if she came out my belly button. When I told her she came out my vagina, she said, “I came out your bagina? Eeeewww!”

Eeew is right. We sweat and swear and turn blisteringly red and lose things called mucus plugs but not from our noses and poop on our babies’ faces (tell that to your teenager). We cry from pain, exhaustion, overwhelming love and adoration (the poop has long since been washed off and the baby really is adorable now). There is blood and discharge and excess IV fluid. There is now yellow discharge from our breasts that seeps, then we wake one morning and find the seeping has miraculously turned to a shower of purplish white milk. And there is a human attached to our nipple, sucking on it.

The grossness of motherhood strips all pretense of fashion and style. We wear breast milk stained shirts and jeans with booger streaks at toddler nose level, right around the knee. We lug suitcase-sized totes with garish safari animals or cartoon characters. We pretend spit-up blends in with the pattern on our shirt. Drool coats every surface from our car keys to our hairbrush.

Mothers pick noses. With our bare fingers. And we feel accomplished when we successfully remove that offensive green slime. We swoop up small people and smell their butts. Depending on the result of these smell tests, we will wipe poop from those butts. We wipe poop from backs, even from shoulders when things have gotten out of hand. We wipe poop from car seats and strollers and highchairs. We scoop turds from bathtubs, the ones that won’t fit down the drain. In Somalia we wipe diarrhea with our hands. (That also only happened to me once.) We catch vomit with our bare hands to spare the child or the upholstery.

We pick up dropped pacifiers and lick them off. We use our teeth to clip baby fingernails. We admire goopy boogers and accept them onto our own fingertips so they don’t end up crusted to the car door. We tell our kids the dead frog they found on the street is cool and later we pull it out of their jeans pocket while doing laundry. We unroll crunchy socks. We comb for lice.

Motherhood is also gross when it reveals deep-rooted selfishness like when the kids think they are fighting over the last can of root beer this side of the Atlantic Ocean but you already hid it in the back of the cupboard for later, when they are sleeping or choking down vegetables. Or when you slide the hands of the clock forward ever so slightly each night so that bedtime is still 7:30 but it is really 7:10. Motherhood reveals the gross habit of grudge-keeping when we say, ‘I told you seventeen times to keep the Legos off the stairs.’ It reveals pride and envy when we compare our children and our habits to other mothers and their children.

Motherhood is gross because it sends us blubbering into Kleenexes when we stop to truly feel the soft, pudgy cheeks pressed against our own and we hear peals of laughter and snorty giggles that drift in through screen windows on balmy summer evenings. Eyeliner turns to black streaks and our noses start to drip during melodramatic television commercials.

Motherhood is gross, and courageous women dive into this murky world of fluid and smell and creatures and mysteries with antibacterial wipes in our back pockets and the unspoken hope that today will finally be the day no one asks us to admire the size of the log they left in the toilet.

The grossness of motherhood reminds us every day that our kids are not always kind, peaceful, or wise. And neither are we. In this disgusting world of motherhood, our weaknesses sneak up like poop on shoulders and our colossal capacity for love capsizes all façade of propriety. Bring on the gross.

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.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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First Born

First Born

By Patty Speakman Hamsher

Gabriella's first dayI met my first blood relative in the middle of the night. The summer heat of the Caribbean dripped down my face as all seven pounds of her came tumbling out of me, blue and wet, her eyes wide and scared. The doctor and her dad pestered her for a few cries, and then I had her in my arms. Flesh of my flesh, dark hair and dozing eyes aching to stay awake and make sense of the confusion and sounds, but at peace to nuzzle into my breast and sleep off the adventure of coming to life.

My story begins a lifetime before that. I had been somebody’s new baby, wrapped in a pink blanket and howling in the arms of my mother who was standing next to my brother and father, all of them beaming in our first family photo. I was adopted and therefore had not only a birthday to celebrate every year but also a “special day” that honored the date I officially became part of my family, my first day of life in our family’s recorded history.

It wasn’t until my teen years that I found myself feeling around for missing pieces. I needed information about where I came from, my origin. I felt conflicted why I couldn’t appreciate my post-adoption life, the easy childhood of beach vacations, Brownie meetings, a room mother, family road trips, and skinned knees from playing with the neighborhood kids. But I was fumbling with the desire to lay eyes on someone who had my nose or my uniquely blue and hazel eyes, someone whose identity was concealed in the politics that dominated closed adoptions of the late 1970s. I was sure I would bump into my birth parents someday. I even let myself believe my parents were waiting for the right time to tell me they had known my birth parents all along. In this fantasy, everyone was waiting for me to arrive at the surprise party that would be our reunion.

Five months ago and several years after the self-absorption of my youth had faded into adult reality, I became serious about the search. The intimacy of pregnancy, and the birth of my own two daughters had given me the chance to experience the tenderness of growing life; I couldn’t imagine not knowing the little limbs that nudged me from within. An intense admiration for the woman who gave me up grew as strong as my own babies’ kicks. I imagined the tales I would tell my kids one day, of the two college students who fell in love, went on adventures, and spent a few years traveling the Caribbean, events that put into motion their conception and presence years after the thrill of late-night partying and a two-person tent had faded.

I made an official query to the agency that had handled my case 34 years ago. It was a request for contact with the fairytale characters with my wavy hair and slight build that I had imagined and searched for in random store aisles and crowded bus stops everywhere. My parents, anxiously supportive, offered protective warnings not unlike those they gave on my first drive down the driveway with a shiny new license in my pocket:

“Be careful, Patty, we don’t want you to get hurt.”

Like my brother, they were nervous first, excited second, and somewhere in each of them I sensed admiration and saw the dawning of a private curiosity they hadn’t let themselves realize before. My closest friends encouraged me by way of emails and lengthy voice mails, familiar with my desire to uncover what I felt for so long had been missing. Their encouragement soothed my conflicting loyalties to my family who loved me unconditionally and to my convictions that I would only ever feel fulfilled by taking this leap.

Sooner than I expected, my birth parents were real people on the social worker’s computer screen. These imagined people with the goodness and strength to give their baby a steady life suddenly had breath, and in their realness they shared their apprehensions with the social worker about direct contact with me. And I was again the howling baby, confused about my origin, angry about my helplessness, and frustrated by my limitations. Their faces were no longer everywhere, they were somewhere I couldn’t get to. Their identities were protected and carefully concealed to guard the hurt they had felt and the larger biological family that didn’t know about me. I began to mourn that I would never meet them, and angrily chipped away at the pedestal I had placed them on, the one I had created during late-night feedings with my own babies, when I rocked and realized the fortitude it would have taken me to give my babies to someone else.

It was only when I allowed myself the space to grieve that I gained the clarity to see the big picture of my life coming together. I have no control over or legal rights to my conception or my genes. The people that did only promised to write a letter, hoping that would be enough for me. They asked our mediary, the talkative social worker with years of experience, for permission to address it to me personally, and without hesitation I gave up my first name to them. I thought about how angry and raw I felt about their still-secret identity, and I wondered if they flinched at the sound of my realness.

I found my consolation prize a few weeks later, in between home security offers and credit card bills. Intuition had told me to expect the letter to arrive soon, and reason told me to prepare for a sterile run-down of my medical history and family data. What I found instead was five poignant pages long, typed in a font that was perhaps chosen for its dramatic slant. I read it alone in the back yard of a summer evening, letting the emotions have their way with me while my husband peeked out the window every so often. In those twenty minutes I watched myself reading a letter that was my taproot. I laughed, I cried, I cringed, and I smiled at the way things work out, even though walking through them can feel so heartbreaking and discouraging. I read the letter twice, both times finding myself slightly hung up on the lack of symmetry between the intimate details they disclosed and the sterile conclusion: they never signed their names. A week later, I would get angrier about this inequity and the legality of disclosure, but that night I was too drunk on the facts, more detailed than I could have dreamed about, to notice.

I tottered around in the awkward newness before I was able to reveal myself to my family, the ones who had cautiously given me their support to push the rewind button on the events that existed before the Kodak flash of my first special day. I got used to knowing my medical history and the circumstances surrounding my conception. It was a story as old as time, she wrote, where two careless teens found summer love and later faced the disappointment and embarrassment of families. Only in my story, the teens didn’t rush into marriage and play house with a real baby like their families wanted; they signed papers in the room at the end of the hall where the nurses spoke in whispers because the birth mother couldn’t bear to hold the baby she had signed over to an adoption agency.  I devoured the personal words describing their physical traits that mirror my own and allowed myself the validation that came with the pain she felt for months after my birth.

Years later, my birth parents married and eventually had a son who knows nothing about this full-blood sister who looks for pieces of herself in men about his age without realizing it.

But the letter is enough for now. I have memorized the tender lines that make me physically ache—how she never saw me or held me for fear she wouldn’t have the strength to follow through on what they knew was the best decision, how she would cry for me months later, wondering how any woman could give her child away.  I catch myself mentally crafting pieces of a reply letter to them before the final waves of sleep wash over me at night. But I often awaken without putting anything on paper, leaving my reply hanging in a place of peace where it can’t be rejected.

Last week I answered a phone call while sitting at a red light, and just as casually as the light turned green, the social worker informed me my search case would now be closed. I could tell from her voice and the words she chose when offering her mildly apologetic indifference that this had not been a successful case to her. She had hoped there would be further contact from them after the letter, perhaps they would have been moved to have direct contact after the shock wore off, she said, but it didn’t look like they would follow up after all. And while my kids clamored from the back seat for snacks and my interest in the latest handwriting assignment, I felt the familiar zing of helplessness once again. I was reminded that there is so much that is out of my hands even if it was my own fingers that made the first call.

Like the social worker whose expectations were that of a reunion, supportive friends often ask when I will write a response letter to my birth parents, a question I ask myself every so often and can’t yet answer. For now, I am learning how to find my way to what feels like enough. For now, there is a comfortable feeling of peace about it all that needs no follow-up.

I will always be a chosen baby. But I am armed with the truth that I began in the womb of a young girl who still loves the same young boy she made a mistake with, the woman who has found a place to tuck me into her heart and visit with me from time to time while we both charge on to make lives the other would be proud of, knowing that our paths may never physically intersect. From one family I was given breath, but from the other I was given life.

Patty Speakman Hamsher is a freelance writer and a dreamer living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with her husband, two daughters, and six chickens. When she’s not fantasizing about traveling or overanalyzing parenthood, she is an editor at Eastern Shore Savvy and blogs at Salinity Press

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Labor of Love

Labor of Love

By Crystal Stranger

BIrthI don’t want a Cesarean. The young surgeon tells me from behind his cold blue eyes that my body just isn’t going to fully dilate on it’s own. It’s for the baby’s health and I have no other choices remaining.

After an effortless pregnancy, this extended birthing struggle has taken me thoroughly by surprise. I never had a day of morning sickness, and barely looked pregnant until the two weeks before labor started. Contrast that with eleven days of continuous labor, four times being admitted to the hospital, then a full day and night of trying to induce stronger labor with medications. Yes, it is time for this baby to come out. A wave of pain washes over me, and the room turns black.

I scream out for the midwife to take the catheter out, it hurts too much. “The catheter could not cause such pain,” she says, and checks my dilation. Her probing fingers still inside me, she looks up with a shocked expression. After being barely five centimeters dilated for the longest night imaginable, the baby’s head is now crowning, although there is still a lip. She runs across the room to grab the surgeon, who coincidentally had just come in to check on surgical preparations. By the time he walks across the room and checks me I am fully dilated. My little angel is pushing her way out.

A loud beep comes from the monitor next to me. Everyone in the room freezes for a moment and stares at the computer screen. Panic sets in. The surgeon starts yelling at all the nurses in the room. He is a surgeon, not a delivery room doctor, but he takes charge as if he has carried out hundreds of deliveries.

An oxygen mask is pressed forcibly over my face, ostensibly to quell my screaming. The midwife tells me the baby’s heart rate has dropped to nothing and they have to do an emergency delivery. They hastily convert the hospital bed to a delivery apparatus. Poorly so. One leg’s stirrup is loose and my foot is flailing around threatening to hit the nurses running hither and thither.

The surgeon coaches me to push. My mom starts singing spiritual songs in her off-tune way and tells me to be calm. Wrong thing to say. How am I supposed to be calm right now? Seems condescending to me somehow. I know I’m probably being utterly irrational but I detest her more than anything in the world at this moment. She is my mother, I feel really awful to hate her. But still I tell her to shut up and just let me do this.

The first push does nothing. The second push and the baby’s head comes halfway through. It is stuck in the birth canal. I’m stretched so far open and everything seems so still. Someone pressed the pause button and all the crazy motion in the birthing room is frozen while waiting an eternity for the next contraction. The third push and her head comes out entirely, all the pain is gone. What a relief! The fourth push combined with a gentle pull by the doctor, and her body is fully out.

What is that purplish thing with dark curly hair? I guess that is my daughter. It’s not reasonable to think I’ve given birth to a giant raisin. The umbilical cord is draped around her neck and her little hand is gripping it, pulling it away from her throat. Was it choking her? She is gasping for air. She hasn’t cried. Is she ok?

They whisk her away and I continue to worry about her as the midwife sews me up. Seven stitches are all it takes to repair being ripped open like a seam of a too-tight evening dress. My best friend shows me the bruises from where I was squeezing her hand mercilessly. I hear an iPhone making noise from somewhere, buried in the disaster zone of a bed. My boyfriend, an officer on a ship in the North Sea, has been talking with me the whole day and night. He has been just as supportive during the pregnancy as if the baby is his.

I wish there was some way I could believe he was the father. But he isn’t. The father wanted nothing to do with me or the child once he found out I was pregnant. He’s a surgeon. Leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth about doctors. Ironic now that our baby was delivered by a surgeon. I’m so grateful I didn’t have the C-section surgery. The phone keeps making noise. I want to talk to him, but I can’t handle talking to him right now.

They bring my baby back in the room. Synne I will name her. It means ‘gift of the sun’ in Norwegian. The nurse pushes her up to my breast to drink. She looks up at me with her big blue eyes as she eagerly takes the nipple and pulls on my breast with her little hands.

Crystal Stranger is a freelance writer and tax specialist who lives in Hawaii when not travelling the world with her infant daughter. 

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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.

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Nine Years After the NICU

Nine Years After the NICU

By Rebecca Hughes Parker

NICUI consider my daughters’ birthday to be in January. But I am the only one.

Their birth certificates read November 17, 2004 and that is the day they were hastily scooped out my womb, neonatologists standing by with oxygen. But, in my head, they did not fully join this world until January 2005, when the tubes and leads were removed from their tiny bodies and they were finally declared ready to breathe and digest on their own. The day they came home—a bitter cold day like the ones we have been having this winter—they were five-and-a-half-pound newborns. They looked and acted like two-day olds, but really it had already been two months.

We are lucky, so lucky. I know that. I know they are fine now. Better than fine. But I’m the one who was toting them around, slowly, inside of me at 29 weeks 5 days of pregnancy when my water broke in the middle of the night. And it didn’t feel so lucky then.

It didn’t feel so lucky when they were put in the more “intensive” part of the intensive care unit, with one nurse just for the two of them. I did not get to hold them when they were born. I was wheeled down hours later to their incubators so I could look at them. Look, but not touch.

It didn’t feel so lucky when I was told how much oxygen they were being given. When I was told that they each had a brain bleed. That one had a hole in her heart she would be given drugs to help close. That they needed caffeine-based drugs every day to stimulate them. That though they were relatively big for their gestational age, they were still far from ready to be born. We will “approximate the placenta” as best we can, they said, but the conditions in the NICU are not as good as the ones in the womb.

It didn’t feel so lucky when I peered at them through my tears and the thick plastic of the incubators. Lost in a web of tape, gauze and wires, their faces were hard to see. Their legs were bent in a frog-like position, common with preemies, I was told. What we could see, throbbing through paper-thin sheaths of downy skin, were their tiny, purple and stubbornly beating hearts. The lights overhead were harsh, the sounds loud. This was not the womb.

It didn’t feel so lucky when I had to pump breast milk eight times a day for babies who could not suck and had to be fed through a tube.  Or when one developed an intestinal infection and couldn’t have breast milk at all for weeks. Just “total protein nutrition” and lipids—predigested food through IV lines, IV lines that eventually caused her veins to collapse. They brought in the “IV specialist” nurse. She failed, her attempts punctuated by faint screams from the baby, now at least strong enough for her voice to be heard. The nurse shaved a bit of her hair and put the IV in her head. “It’s a good vein,” the nurse said sadly, “but we know parents don’t like to see an IV in their baby’s head.”

It didn’t feel so lucky when a phone call came late at night, four weeks in. Baby A is on a ventilator, the doctor said. She has two infections at once and her body has shut down. We were at the hospital as early as they would let us come. The head of the infectious diseases department and his interns stood around her incubator, taking notes. The tubes coming out of her nose and mouth were even bigger than they were at the beginning.

The sicker twin recovered slowly the next few weeks, the flood of antibiotics performing its task. The other twin still struggled to breathe on her own. She would go a day or two without an “episode”—when she started to turn blue and needed assistance, the numbers on her vital stats screen would cause the shrill beeping that rang in my head at night. She had to go five days with no episodes before she could be released. Those five days passed breath by breath.

We celebrate their birthday in November, of course. That is the only date that matters to the twins and to our friends and family. It is the date the NYC Department of Education used to determine that they should enter kindergarten at the (unadjusted) tender age of just 4 years 9 months old. The cutoff is December 31. To me, they were not even “here” on December 31. Now, they’re in school with kids who were a year old on that first cold day they left the hospital.

“They are tough,” my husband says whenever I voice concerns. He thinks that the NICU, while an awful experience for us all, had no long-lasting consequences for them. I know I’m being irrational and emotional, given my twins’ perfectly normal development after 18 months old, and the doctors’ shedding of the “adjusted” and “unadjusted” nomenclature at that point, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be fully convinced.

When the twins first came home, they had small dot-like marks all over their heels from the frequent blood tests. Every time I saw those marks I was reminded of the needles that pricked their heels all those days, days they should have been floating serenely in my womb.

As they grew, the marks faded. Recently, one of the twins was reading a book on the couch, her bare feet propped up on the arm. I saw a mark on her foot as I walked by and looked closer. It was a speck of dust. I blew it off. Her nine-year old feet, long and narrow like mine, were flawless once again. It appears that I may be the only one still scarred by the months in the NICU. There are no scars on their feet. Just in my head.

Rebecca Hughes Parker lives in Manhattan with her husband, a stay-at-home dad, and three daughters (including twins).  She is the Editor-in-Chief of an online legal publication about anti-corruption issues.  Previously, she was a litigator at a large law firm and a broadcast journalist.  She writes at rebeccahughesparker.com. Follow her on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook.

Sarah’s Box

Sarah’s Box

By Lisa C. Friedman

WO Sarah's Box ArtShe lives in a box. Actually, she is the contents of a box. The box is wrapped in a blanket that was a gift from my sister. It was supposed to keep a newborn warm, but now it’s muted pinks, greens and blues warm the box. I look inside once a year, on the anniversary of her birth/death. I have, like a fanatic, kept every scrap of her. Her first ultrasound. Locks of her hair. A card with her foot and hand prints. The doll’s dress that she briefly wore. (She weighed 3.5 lbs, too small even for the preemie wardrobe.) Condolence letters. The autopsy report, detailing her tiny dimensions and the final, inconclusive results.

The contents are about the potential for life. They also mark the end of hopes and dreams. They are the reality of my child, born dead at 32 weeks. No separate birth and death dates mark her headstone; just one date, March 11, 2006.

When you’re pregnant, the countdown to birth starts almost immediately. It is a long but steadily quickening race to the finish.

The first trimester, from the approximate date of inception through week 12. Nervous excitement, and thankfully no nausea, just a strong craving for grapefruit soda. A first ultrasound brings the baby to life. We see and hear her heart beat inside me. My waistline slowly expands, forcing the inevitable shift into maternity clothes. A pregnancy still fresh and special, it is a secret between me and my husband.

The second trimester, weeks 13 to 26. At age 39, the dreaded amniocentesis. The needle draws its fluid and does no harm. Good results, so check that one off. Tell our 3-year-old that she is going to be a big sister. Also tell our family and friends the happy news. Let my employer know that I plan to keep working after the baby comes.

The last trimester, weeks 27 to birth, typically anywhere from 38 to 42 weeks. The end is near. Sleep is getting more difficult. My back aches. But the excitement is growing because soon we will meet our new child.

It is Friday afternoon and it seems as though I haven’t felt the baby move all day. To relieve my anxiety before the weekend, I make an appointment for a quick visit to my obstetrician. I call a friend on the drive over. I say, “I’m sure it will be fine. She’s probably just been sleeping a lot.” And then I add, “But if there’s no heartbeat, come visit me at the asylum.”

My husband, not one to miss a chance to hear and see the baby, meets me at the doctor’s office.

I know very quickly that something is wrong. The doctor is taking a long time to find a heartbeat. My own is quickening and I can sense my husband getting uncomfortable. I ask, “Is something wrong? You can’t find a heartbeat?”

“I’m sorry,” he says in his slight English lilt. “No, there isn’t one.”

The tears want to come but I force them back. He puts down the doppler and looks at us. I am aware that he is really trying his best to be caring, to sound caring.

“This is a tragedy,” he says. “I am so sorry.”

I ask, “But this—has this happened before?”

He says that it is very rare.

Then why me? Why me? Why us?

“We can go to the hospital this afternoon. I think it would be best to take care of this as soon as possible. I would also recommend an autopsy so that we can understand what happened,” he says.

“But I don’t have to go through labor, right? You can do a C-section, right?”

“No,” he says. “A vaginal birth. A C-section is an unnecessary risk to you. The baby is small so it won’t take long. Just call my office and let me know what you decide to do. Take as long as you want in here.”

He leaves. The meltdown can come now. Still in my gown, lying on the examination table, I start sobbing. My big belly bounces with me. The dead baby bounces along inside. My husband leans his head into mine and cries.

But we need to pull ourselves together. I don’t want to go to the hospital now. I want to see my 3-year-old.

On the way home, I ask my husband to stop at the city recreation department—today is the first day to turn in summer camp registration forms. Looking back, I can now see my need for control—to make something turn out right. My 3-year-old daughter would get into the zoo camp.

I’m sure I’ve done something wrong. Was it my ambivalence about having a second child that cursed me? Having suffered severe postpartum depression after my first, I wasn’t sure about having another child. We waited more than two years before even trying.

I must have done something wrong. Was it something concrete? Not taking my prenatal vitamins every day? Drinking too much bubbly water? Sleeping on my back?

We tell our daughter. I hold it together while my husband falls apart on the floor of our closet. She climbs on top of him and puts her face close to his ear and giggles.  

But she will come to ask many questions over time, wanting answers we don’t have or ones we are unwilling to give someone so young.

“But I want to see her. What is she doing now?”

“Why can’t you just open her eyes?”

“If she’s buried, do her eyes have dirt in them?”

“If heaven is above the clouds, why can’t you turn the clouds upside down to see her?”

“It’s better to have boy babies. They don’t die.”

As promised, the labor is fast. The Pitocin kicks in, and I only have to push once and she slides out. Our last faint hopes disappear with her silent arrival. There is no flush of first life; her skin is gray, body limp. Eyes are closed. I count ten fingers and ten toes. A head of dark hair. But she is broken.

Once finished with the task of labor, the doctor sits down to do paperwork. Why doesn’t he leave? I am holding my dead baby you idiot! I want to shout. We wait while he completes the hospital forms. Then he says he is sorry again and will get back to us with the autopsy results.  

I want to feel that she is beautiful. I want to feel like holding her forever. Maybe I’m numb. Or maybe death is ugly.

We cry more. But then we don’t know what to do. No rush to breastfeed, change diapers and make happy phone calls. No flowers, no gifts, no breath, no life.

We name her Sarah. I want a name that has endured.

The nurse is wonderful and caring. At some point, she takes the baby and puts her in a dress, makes an imprint of her feet and hands, and cuts a few locks of hair.

We leave the hospital with our box.

Irrational thoughts come and go. I can diet quickly and lose the baby weight. I can sleep through the night. I don’t need to breastfeed.

But my milk comes in and fills my breasts, my skin is so stretched I want to cry out. I moan into my pillow instead. I’m advised not to pump off the milk because then more will come in. I take lots of Advil. My husband wraps an ace bandage tightly around my breasts to keep them from moving.

It is early morning and everyone is asleep. My mother has flown out from the East Coast to help. I wake her up to tell her about the birth and the baby. I want her to know that it was a real baby—I held her. She was complete. My mother cries with me. In her day, the baby would have been whisked away. A friend’s mother who experienced a similar loss never even saw her baby.

My father does not come. He is a doctor, a researcher published many times over, renowned in his field.

But he doesn’t come. When we talk on the phone, he goes into science mode. He even calls my doctor to try to get some answers. Thankfully, my OB shows discretion and says he can’t talk without my permission.

I tell my father, “I don’t need you to be a doctor. I need you to be my dad.” He doesn’t know what to say. I am angry and sad. He simply can’t do it.

My sister and I had due dates a week apart. Ever the older sister, I try to be strong and supportive. Pregnant with her first child, she can’t let my loss in. I am resentful and pissed.

She gives birth to a healthy baby girl six weeks later. It will take me several years, including the birth of a healthy second baby girl of my own, to really acknowledge my niece—to embrace her and not see the shadow of what we lost.

The cemetery. The rabbi meets us there and fittingly, it is a cold, rainy day. He is wearing a worn yellow slicker. His voice is warm and gentle. The heavy-set man from the funeral home carries the tiny casket. We put a teddy bear inside and a note. We say goodbye.

Word gets around quickly. I am too raw and sensitive to face people. I despise the ones who don’t say anything, too afraid and uncomfortable to acknowledge what happened. Others say things so thoughtless and stupid like, “Don’t you wish the hospital would have just taken care of it?” I don’t even ask what that means.

Then there are the friends who give the pitch-perfect response like the one who wraps me in a hug and says, “What the fuck?” Every reaction either passes the test or feels like an assault.

I have always felt in some way that my worry would protect me from really bad things ever happening. But then it didn’t. There was no heartbeat.

I have a second daughter now. She was born on March 6, 2007, just shy of one year after Sarah. Born with a rare spinal abnormality, she had to have surgery at seven months. Told repeatedly that it was a simple procedure for a skilled neurosurgeon, I was not convinced. I felt sure she would react negatively to the anesthesia and not wake up or that an infection would come and she would be gone. The surgery went fine and she is a perfectly healthy 6-year-old.

But once tragedy hits, it never really leaves. The scars run deep.

I watch my younger daughter as she sleeps, with her favorite stuffed animals—horse and bear-bear—standing guard on either side of her. Then I imagine another trip to the cemetery. The panic subsides and she is once again a peaceful, happy, sleeping child and I am her mother again and not some crazed lunatic.

My older daughter’s anxiety can make us laugh at times. If someone feels unwell, she jumps on it, “Is she going to barf?”

Too often, her worry can escalate to, “Is she going to die?”

I’m not so prickly now. I no longer feel the need to announce my loss. Seeing a very pregnant woman sometimes, not always, makes me sad.

And guilt, a friend of grief, has often come to visit. Maybe I’ve made too much of my story. My neighbor had a stillborn baby at 40 weeks, much worse. A friend lost her daughter at 17 months, unimaginable. Stories of dead children are everywhere.

But as a friend tells me, “This is not a tragedy horse race.”

Sarah’s box sits at the top of my closet and I open it once a year.

Lisa C. Friedman lives with her family in Northern California. 

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Getting Bigger

Getting Bigger

 By Aubrey Hirsch

iStock_000011940368SmallWhen I was pregnant with my son, a long-distance friend asked me to text her a picture of my growing belly. I was just starting to “show” and was elated to have some physical evidence of the pregnancy other than the non-stop, morning-to-night, toe-curling, sob-inducing sickness that plagued me for so much of it. A few minutes after I sent her the picture, she texted back, “Wow. You are getting so big!” And I replied with a hearty “Thank you!”

Another minute went by and then she replied, “It’s weird that you say ‘thank you’ to that.”

I carried her words around with me for the rest of the day. Was it weird? What was weird about it? What was strange about wanting to celebrate a body that was getting bigger to accommodate another body? Did my friend honestly think I’d be deluded enough to imagine I’d grow an entire other person inside my torso and not expand at all?

But it wasn’t just her. All around me, people were talking about my completely healthy (and completely inevitable) weight gain as if it were terminal cancer. When it came up in conversation, the topic was met with head tilts and sympathetic tongue clucks. I heard dozens of responses like “You’re so small; you’ll still look cute,” and “Don’t worry. You’ll be able to lose it all.” Even my endocrinologist chimed in, totally unprompted, with “I really don’t think this extra weight is going to hang around on you very long.”

I suppose maybe my excitement about getting bigger was weird. I’d always been a scrawny kid: all elbows and ribs and sharp collarbones. I was a short-haired late bloomer, often mistaken for a boy well into my early teens. In fact, if there was a part of pregnancy I was looking forward to the most, it was gaining some shape on my historically shapeless form. I’d even been hoping some of my new curves might hang around after the pregnancy and recovery were over.

I generally kept this last bit to myself. I was already overwhelmed with conversations about my weight, and, to be honest, the negative tone of these exchanges was killing my buzz. I wanted to brag about my new shape! Not apologize for it. I wanted people to be excited with me, not dismiss my excitement by assuring me I’d be small again in no time.

I wanted to enjoy this time of quick and monumental change. Think about it. How often does one get the chance to try on a completely different body? Walk around in it, dress it up, show it off? This was my chance to audition a new form and, even if no one else was happy about it, I did wish other people didn’t seem so sad.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if they were right or not. What matters is that all of our bodies are different after we have our babies, even if they don’t look that way from the outside. And the most important difference between my old and new form is easy for me to see: This body built my son, cell by cell, in cacophonous darkness.

He’s the only reminder I need that this body, regardless of its size and shape, deserves to be celebrated.

Aubrey Hirsch is the author of Why We Never Talk About Sugar. She has also written essays on pregnancy and motherhood for TheRumpus.net. You can learn more about her at www.aubreyhirsch.com

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A Good Birth: New Mothers’ Birth Experiences

A Good Birth: New Mothers’ Birth Experiences

By Rachel Rose

A GoodBirthThe statement, “If patient-centeredness defines midwifery, then no doubt any of us who attends birth—whatever our degree or relationship to technology—should be a midwife” is a provocative one, especially coming from an obstetrician who had all of her children via cesarean section. But this is exactly what makes Dr. Anne Lyerly’s book A Good Birth a standout. I wish that I’d had a copy of A Good Birth in the early stages of my first pregnancy, as I struggled with decision-making about where, how, and with whom in attendance to give birth. It was hard not to feel wistful as I delved into Dr. Lyerly’s research on what makes a good birth, drawn from interviews with the only people who can possibly know: women who have recently given birth. The experiences of mothers are central to Dr. Lyerly’s research, and inform both her practice and her thesis, which is that women can thrive under all kinds of birthing conditions, and feel that they’ve had a good birth even in adverse situations, provided they have agency.

Interviews with new mothers about what made their birth experiences good (or bad) is fascinating reading material for anyone who has ever created and birthed a baby.  Somehow, medical professionals have divided into camps, with midwives pushing natural birth and obstetricians pushing medicalized hospital birth, and left it up to women to choose what they are most comfortable with (or least uncomfortable with). If I were pregnant now, I would only go to a maternity care provider who had read A Good Birth, or who had already incorporated the lessons from Dr. Lyerly’s book. Her epilogue “Common Ground: Notes to Maternity Care Providers” is worth the price of the book alone. She speaks passionately about the collateral damage in the birth wars: mothers.

“I can tell you that the birth wars have had an effect, though perhaps not the one advocates

may have hoped for. They have set the stage for guilt and self-doubt among childbearing

women who face stark and false choices among caricatured versions of birth rather than

the authentic and messy and uncertain options that birthing, wherever you do it, entails….”

Ideology—whether from the natural birth movement or the medicalized obstetrical movement—divides women, setting them up to judge other women and themselves as successes and failures for where and how they give birth. We as a society can do better, ensuring that all birthing women are able to feel connected with their care providers, are able to give birth in a way that fits their values and their circumstances, and are honored for the new life they are bringing forth.

Reading this book, I revisited that difficult hour when I was in recovery after my urgent C-section, alone, in pain, without a nurse (shift change) and not knowing how my baby was coping in the NICU. Yes, I had an obstetrically good outcome, in that my high-risk pregnancy ended well, but I did not have a good birth for my first child’s arrival, the point where I became a mother.

So many women can recount traumas and heartaches, and we are told to focus on our blessings, our living treasures, and never mind what we lost: an opportunity for sacred transformation. But even though my last birth was over ten years ago, I found Dr. Lyerly’s book provided a healing opportunity to review my birth experiences, to find meaning and beauty and pride in them, and also to mourn the areas where I felt abandoned. In this regard, Dr. Lyerly’s book is essential reading for those who give birth, as well as for those who attend births. In listening respectfully to pregnant and birthing women, both before and after their births, and in studying their collective wisdom like an anthropologist would, Dr. Lyerly’s reframing of what makes a successful birth experience is a gift to both mothers and birth attendants. This book serves as a wake-up call to care providers, whatever their ideological camp, to reconsider how they practice, and the impact their approach has on the women they serve. A Good Birth is a book I’ll be buying for my friends as they go through this transformative experience. For women who have yet to give birth, A Good Birth is critical reading, as it inspires them to consider the choices they make around birth, and also to ensure that their care providers are held accountable.

Women remember the day we bring new life into the world for the rest of our lives, for better or worse. There is nothing routine about it. It is a sacred day, and Dr. Lyery’s insistence on this truth is central to her message in A Good Birth.

Rachel Rose (http://www.rachelrose.ca) has won awards for her poetry, her fiction, and her non-fiction, including a recent Pushcart Prize. Her most recent book, Song and Spectacle won the 2013 Audre Lorde Poetry Prize in the U.S. and the Pat Lowther Award in Canada.

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The Odds of Growing Up

The Odds of Growing Up

By Rebecca Givens Rolland

Odds of Growing Up ArtTonight, when my almost two-year-old daughter falls, I try not to notice. I try to let the fall just come to her, as she races too fast down the ramp a few blocks from our house, arms tipped like wings, breath puffing out the corners of her cheeks.

“Gorilla!” she shouts, gesturing upwards in an exuberant arc, staring out at a thin clump of oaks. Since we got back from the zoo last week, she’s been talking about gorillas nonstop, searching for them in every patch of forest, every collection of city trees.

She doesn’t want to be caught, I think, as she rushes off, doesn’t want to be told that gorillas aren’t exactly Boston natives. I hold my tongue.

It’s something I’ve had to get used to, staying quiet. For years before my daughter’s birth, I relied on logic to guide me through troubles in life. When stressed, I buried myself in books, the harder the better—serious novels, philosophy books—and, by high school, found a strange love for statistics in spite of a general dislike for math.

The probabilities of picking an orange ball from a series, predicting how likely disaster was to occur, in airplanes versus cars—I dove into both word problems and equations. They gave me the feeling that there was nothing too bad on the horizon, that there really was logic behind it all.

Years later, as a doctoral student in education, I should have known better. In the midst of an uncomplicated pregnancy—I was still working, finding time to go for regular swims—

I should have realized there was no way around it. That illusion would have to break down.

Yet when the loss of logic came, I wasn’t prepared. That night, only weeks off from my due date, I woke up with a serious itching on my palms and the soles of my feet. It felt like a series of ants had built a hive and started racing deep inside.

“Probably the shoes,” I told my husband, turning over in bed, my huge maternity pillows on one side. “Should have worn socks today.”

Turning on the light, he picked up each of my hands in turn. No rash, no scar.

“Just Google it in the morning,” he said, flipping over and heading back under the covers. The general household answer to everything.

The next morning, in a rush, I’d almost made it out the door before I remembered to look up the itching: pregnant women are generally itchy, the first two websites read. Relieved, I started to shut the computer off.

“Of course. Another one of those weird pregnant things,” I said.

But then it popped up: itching on the hands and feet can be the sign of a rare liver disorder, most common in women from Sweden and Chile.

“Hold on a sec,” I said, and read it out loud.

My husband shrugged. “It’s rare, they said. And you’re not Swedish.”
“Sure, but you think I have it?” I asked him, struggling over my belly to put on my shoes.

“Doubt it,” he said, calm as usual. I relaxed. If anything, he was more into logic than I was.

He had a more relaxed attitude about pregnancy anyway, which I attributed to his being from France, where they didn’t care if you ate the smelly cheese.

After a few hours at work, though, the itching got worse. Scratching my palms till they reddened, I decided to call. The nurse said to get to the hospital fast. I headed over, trying not to worry about what that meant.

“I don’t see anything,” the nurse said, looking my hands over like a fortune-teller scouting out lifelines. “But that doesn’t mean that everything’s all right.”

Sure enough, the doctor called that night. Liver levels sky-high, and the diagnosis: cholestasis, severe itching that signifies dysfunction and can be dangerous to the baby the longer you wait. She’d need to be born soon, my doctor told me, her voice strained.

“How long do I have?”

“A few days,” she said. “Just check to make sure she’s moving every few hours.”

Panicked, I spent the next day rushing around. I’d assumed I’d still have a few weeks—now I needed newborn clothes, a blanket for the stroller, a pacifier, who knew what else.

But the next morning, when I woke, I felt even worse. I couldn’t feel the baby moving. Sitting back on the couch, I gulped ice water, jiggled my stomach. Nothing.

“We have to go to the hospital,” I told my husband, grabbing my work bag. He nodded. My stomach dropped—yet another emergency.

We’d only talked with the doctor for a few minutes when she looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Come back in two hours. You’re giving birth today.”

I had a meeting, I told her, looking over at my husband—couldn’t we reschedule? He shook his head. She laughed.

“Give up,” she said, pointing me to the door. This was the birth of the world that resisted logic, that wouldn’t shift, no matter how much I tried.

Back home, I picked a suitcase out of the ones we had stored in the closet, a bright plastic red one. It shone brightly, like it was ready to go. Packed a thick copy of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, thinking I might have to wait around a while. My husband, always more practical, threw in a copy of Vogue. Later on, sick and sneaking gummy bears, I’d thank him. It was all I could do to flip through the magazine.

I was lucky, I realize now—the birth was uncomplicated, and early the next morning, my daughter gave a clear, sharp cry. A few hours later, my doctor visited, patted her on the top of the head.

“It’s all good,” she said.

I sighed, relieved to see her, to have my daughter and me both safe on the other end.

Things could have turned out so differently—the probabilities weren’t as clear-cut as all that. Scanning the web, I’d tried to ignore the statistics on my condition, tried to ignore stillbirth printed as a possible outcome. She was fine, I reminded myself, even when I woke exhausted in the middle of the night. She was alive and breathing.

There was something about statistics, I came to see, that didn’t fit her, that limited us. Even if they suggested what might happen, they revealed nothing about the impossible, the imaginary, in which we still had to believe. That new belief was what my daughter taught me: there might be something beyond random, something unexpected but worthwhile in our dreams: children’s stories, monsters that visited us nightly, purple and black spotted, with star-shaped eyes.

And, more importantly, I learned to trust my daughter’s development—through watching her, I came to see it as an arc I could help along but not ensure. I could teach her words, could try to keep her from hurting herself, but I wouldn’t know what would come out of her mouth. I could never predict what she’d believe, the risks she would take, the dangers she might get herself into, even as she’d try to explore.

That could be scary, but I had to not let the danger overwhelm me. The process, if I saw it as joyful, would sustain us both. Playing together, we’d get to know each other, would create, between us, a new universe of our own, a whole new bond.

Tonight’s a night like any other, but a little cooler. My daughter’s birthday is coming up—it’s gone fast, those two years since the doctor called with the news of the disease.

We walk over to see a group of pink plastic flamingos stuck oddly in the ground at the end of our street. My daughter races toward them with an open-mouthed laugh, then starts scaling the steps of nearby brownstones. Those birds must know they’re in the wrong place, I say.

“Jump,” she says, holding her arms out behind her like an unwieldy airplane, stepping almost off the edge of the last stair. Sometimes it’s just a few inches, sometimes half a foot or more. I hold my breath.

I tell myself she’s fine, but I don’t know for sure, not when she races down the steps and off the cobblestones of our narrow street, not when we visit the animal shelter on the next block, and she sticks her fingers into the gray bunnies’ cages, their teeth near the wires, and puts her face up to the whiskers of the long-haired cats. I try to keep her hands away, even as I want her to explore.

It’s become a ritual for us, probably annoying to the shelter’s volunteers, since we’re not interested in adoption for now. At least my husband and I aren’t—my daughter would be happy to take one home if she could. Standing over the bird cages, she imitates their cheeps, runs her hands along the cages.

“Pat, pat, pat.”

We shouldn’t keep coming, I know, but she’s full of so much love I can’t stand not to indulge her. A surprising love, one I never could have predicted, not in all my statistics classes, not even in the baby books. It’s that kind of love that makes her cling to objects, to Toddler Activities, the book whose cover photo reminds her of her cousin in France.

Before bed, she circles the living room, dragging the book with her, propping it up so the girl in the cover photo can “see” her play and eat. I watch her face shift from dark to light. It’s her cousin from France, she keeps saying—I can’t decide if she’s pretending, or if it’s something she really believes.

She turns the book to me, blows a kiss. That cover girl has her captured: river-straight hair, bright blue wide-open eyes.

“Call, call,” she says. I want to tell her it’s a six-hour difference, there’s no way we can talk now—and yet I know I have to give that up too. Let her reinvent her world, resolve its logic in the way she needs.

Nodding at her, I say, “Time to go to bed now. Take your cousin.”

My daughter follows, taking the book with her, curling up in her crib, dropping off—gracefully, illogically—to sleep.

Rebecca Givens Rolland won the 2011 Dana Award for Short Fiction and the inaugural May Sarton New Hampshire First Book Prize for poetry. She currently lives in Boston.

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Between Depression and a Hard Place

Between Depression and a Hard Place

By Anna Blackmon Moore

winter2009_mooreAs soon as I learned I was pregnant again, I shut myself into the bedroom of my two-year-old son, gazed at his train car blanket, his shoes on the floor that no longer fit, his stuffed penguin. I thought about my brain. Then I called my psychiatrist.

“This is a surprise,” she said coldly.

“I discussed the possibility with you at our last appointment, remember?” I said. I had actually discussed having another child with her at our last two meetings. Our appointments occurred only every three to six months and took half an hour; I used them for refills of anti-depressants. Five months before, I had started taking Lexapro, a switch from Prozac, which I had been on intermittently for nearly twenty years.

“I just wanted to ask about my medication,” I continued. “Should I go down to five milligrams? How safe is it?”

“Most women try to get off anti-depressants before they get pregnant, Anna,” she said. She had not mentioned this—not once, not in doctorese, not directly or indirectly or vaguely—in any of the appointments we’d had in the last four years, which is how long she’d been my doctor. During my first pregnancy, I decided on my own initiative to stop taking Prozac but then resumed it in the second trimester. I had not planned to do so, but anxiety, one of the many characteristics of my depression, became too debilitating.

“I’m only four weeks pregnant.”

“Well, I guess it’s too late now.”

Was she in a bad mood? Why was she talking to me this way? Why was I so incapable of asserting myself with doctors? Apparently, she wanted me to believe that I had already damaged my baby’s developing organs somehow, that there was no turning back. Too late now, she had said, since your baby is already ridden with birth defects.

“But they calculate conception by the first date of your last period,” I argued. “So the baby was really only conceived about two weeks ago.” She didn’t know this?

Women like me are hardly alone in their frustrations. Those of us who take anti-depressants and become pregnant are forced to make wrenching decisions about medication. Every piece of literature I have read on this issue, from studies in medical journals to user-friendly websites to sections of baby books, whether the drug in question is an SSRI like Prozac or a psychotropic like Lithium, summarizes the nature of our decision like this: Along with our doctors, we need to decide if benefits from our medications are greater than any potential risks they could bring to our baby’s health. If our benefits win, then we should take anti-depressants. If potential health risks to our baby win, we should not take our anti-depressants.

What a shit sandwich.

By the time I called my psychiatrist, I had already been served that sandwich. I was familiar with it; I had ingested the thing. I was preparing to ingest it again. But if my doctor was going to treat me with such impatience and disdain while I was going through a pregnancy, when women at any level of mental and physical health need as much support as possible, then, I thought, Fuck her. The following week I cancelled our appointment, recalling a poster that my best friend, sixteen years earlier, had taped on our kitchen cabinet when we were roommates in a tiny apartment after graduating from college. The heading was 20 Ways To Be a Strong Woman; below it were twenty bulleted commands. The only one I could remember was the last: “Walk out of any doctor’s office you want.” Instead of walking out, I just didn’t return.

*   *   *

When I learned I was pregnant with my first child, Ian, I was on Prozac. The average daily dose, the one I was prescribed, is twenty milligrams, but sometimes I’d skip a day (or two), sometimes I’d go down to ten, sometimes I’d wean from it altogether. Changing doses of medication without a doctor’s guidance is part of having a mental illness. For some people with severe depression or other severe mental illnesses, changing or stopping doses is a symptom of the illness itself.

I adjusted my dosage because I do not like being depressed. I would prefer not to have this condition. So self-adjusting is how I prove to no one at all (since I do not discuss my adjustments with anyone) that I do not need this drug. I still think I might not. Maybe I just need a good kick in the pants, a transformation of attitude, or time alone in a dark room where I can analyze my worthlessness and all its manifestations over and over again until I figure it out or until it goes away.

Pregnancy, however, made me think about my depression in ways that were less self-absorbed. My thoughts about how or whether I actually had this condition were no longer relevant or even important, I realized, because what if after I gave birth, I dropped into a serious depression? My mother had. She describes it like this: She had me, broke down, and then got into bed. She got out again “when it was spring.” Since I was born in the spring, this means that my mother was incapacitated and largely absent for the first year of my life.

For the rest of hers, she sought and received various forms of treatment at various times with varying levels of efficacy. She has always struggled with depression. As a result, my brother and I have struggled with it, too. (My alcoholic father shares plenty of responsibility here as well but requires too many additional words.) As a young adult, my brother’s mental illness institutionalized him for years; as a teenager, I was hospitalized for a suicidal gesture—I slit my wrist with a dull paring knife—and I was an in-patient in treatment programs for alcoholism and bulimia. I’ve been in and out of therapy since I was ten to “work through” the same “issues” that have influenced my feelings and thoughts for as long as I can remember. I’ve been on and off Elavil, Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Imipramine, Welbutrin, and Effexor. Despite my functional professional and social life—I’m a college instructor, a writer, a friend, a wife, a mother—I am always in some kind of emotional pain, or caught in a self-reflective ache, and in general I feel pretty bad about myself, who I am, how I behave, and how I think.

This state of being poses challenges for me and other depressed women when we become pregnant. Just a cursory glance through the various genres of pregnancy literature confirms that during pregnancy, a fetus needs a contented, functional mother. The mental health of the mother is even more important right after birth, because a depressed mother who neither smiles at nor interacts with her infants can easily be worse for them than most of the side effects they might experience as a result of anti-depressants.

And these side effects are a matter of mights. If pregnant women take Prozac or other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, to regulate and adjust the activity of the neurotransmitter serotonin in their brains, their newborns might experience, according to the Mayo Clinic, “tremors, gastrointestinal problems, sleep disturbances and high-pitched cries.” These are withdrawal symptoms and go away within a few weeks of the baby’s birth. Knowledge of this dissipation, though, is hardly comforting to the almost eight percent of pregnant women who are prescribed these drugs during their pregnancies. No pregnant woman, depressed or not, could disregard visions of her newborn shaking uncontrollably or crying like a siren, especially if this suffering were caused by drugs she had passed into her baby’s system.

The possibilities of health risks grow mightier when we consider possible long-term effects on a child whose mother took SSRIs during pregnancy. According to my former psychiatrist, we do not know whether SSRI babies demonstrate a greater incidence of depression, attention disorders, mood disorders, or cognitive problems as children, teenagers, or adults. But I think we have to question the reliability of such implications, anyway: Since mental illnesses are often hereditary, children or teens could get them straight from the genes of their mother, whether she were medicated while pregnant or not. And if teenagers or even toddlers suffer from mood disorders, it would be impossible to prove definitively that fetal exposure to SSRIs was the cause.

What I do know is that my brother and I suffered from mood disorders—big ones—along with all kinds of other psychological and emotional problems; at the same time, while we were growing up, my mother’s depression was never consistently or properly treated. If it had been, I know my mother would not have been perfect, but it is fair to say that she would have been more engaged with her children, more attentive and supportive during our infancy, at least. Our family might have been stronger.

So we’re back to the shit sandwich. Treat it or don’t—which is worse, and which is better? Who knows?

Many doctors advise a weaning from anti-depressants before women become pregnant or early in the first trimester, when the baby’s organs are being formed. Both my GP and former psychiatrist advised me to stop taking them unless I was suicidal. I should “hold out” until the second trimester, they said, when the drugs would likely be safer for my baby. Their opinion is grounded not only in common sense, but also in the memory of the thalidomide catastrophe. From 1958 to 1961, pregnant women in the United Kingdom and Canada took thalidomide to ease first-trimester nausea, filling their prescriptions because the drug’s manufacturer and, subsequently, doctors espoused its safety. The manufacturers, in fact, had not tested the drug, and eight thousand babies were born with profound birth defects, from missing and deformed limbs to unsegmented intestines. According to Sandra Steingraber, in her excellent book Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood, what made thalidomide especially teratogenic—a cause of birth defects—was the fact that the drug interferes with the formation of blood vessels and protein production. Just as important was the timing of its ingestion: Pregnant women took it when their embryos were sixteen to twenty-one days old, during peak organ-formation.

As a result, the medical community now has clear directives on medications and pregnancy: Steer clear of as many as you can. The logic of this instruction is obvious. But as a person with a mental illness, I see perspectives and biases emerging on this issue that have little to do with thalidomide and untested drugs and lots to do with how we tend to blame mental illness on those who suffer from it. In a post to “Taking Anti-depressants During Pregnancy” on the Berkeley Parents Network website, an anonymous writer articulates perfectly what I was feeling: “There is a lot of discrimination against treating mental illness in pregnancy. Do you think a doctor would suggest someone with high blood pressure or diabetes just STOP [her] medicine while pregnant? Absolutely not.”

 *   *   *

After the incident with my psychiatrist (who I saw primarily for medication), my therapist helped me by discussing the Lexapro issue with two doctors she has worked with in the past. As I sat in my usual spot on her couch, she informed me of my options: Go off Lexapro completely or stay on ten milligrams; five is non-therapeutic and, therefore, would not help me. Since I had already adjusted on my own to five milligrams a week before, I wasn’t sure where to go from there. I was stuck: If I kept taking such a low dose, I’d be exposing my fetus to the drug, and I wouldn’t be getting any benefit from it. It was ten milligrams or nothing.

“I guess,” I said, “it’s time for me to decide what to do.”

She nodded.

That night, I looked through various articles and websites on Lexapro and pregnancy. I found mostly information I already knew, since Lexapro is an SSRI and the research on these drugs lumps SSRIs together. Eventually, however, I found a public health alert put out by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2006, which summarized the results of two studies published that year. The first, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, tracked a group of women who stopped taking anti-depressants while they were pregnant and a group of women who did not. The women who went off their meds were five times more likely to have a relapse of their depression.

The second study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that fetuses exposed to SSRIs after twenty weeks had a six-times greater likelihood of developing persistent pulmonary hypertension. The disease is very serious and sometimes fatal, but “[the] risk has not so far been investigated by other researchers.” So it would seem that going off Lexapro in the first trimester actually carries less serious of a risk to the baby than my resuming the medicine later on. All right, but what about me? Whose risks finish first?

It was time to decide. But with whom? I live in a large town. We have other psychiatrists, but not many. Even if I lived in an urban area, getting in to see a psychiatrist can take months, especially as a new patient. There were other options—GPs and obstetricians are doctors, of course, but the ones I had seen discouraged medication in general and offered little support. So I made what I thought was the most informed decision I could about my health and the health of my family: I decided to discontinue the Lexapro, at least for the first trimester. For the next week, I took my five milligrams only every other day, and then I stopped it altogether. Maybe I could do it this time.

*   *   *

Now, in my ninth week of pregnancy, I sleep poorly, cry often, and feel deeply angry all the time. This anger has been characteristic of my depression all my life. I have to watch what I say and how I carry myself and how I react for fear of alienating my students, friends, and colleagues. I yell at the dog, snap at my husband, shout at my windshield. With my son, I am less patient. It’s cute when he explores the potential of his toothbrush and brushes the drain, but must he do it every single night? Must he always choose to read The Biggest Book Ever? If I do lose control, I feel disturbed, unhinged, and terribly guilty. The most difficult parts of my day are transitions, which require what feels like tremendous effort of body and mind: bed to bathroom, car to office, desk chair to kitchen, couch to bed. I feel more than ever like I am a failure.

Come on, woman, I hear in a deep authoritative voice of some distant patriarchal figure, pull yourself together. But I’ve been pulling since I was a teenager, and my depression has not seemed to budge for extended periods of time without the help of drugs. I have pulled myself into pieces. I work against a cavernous sense of negativity, and this in particular has never felt transitory. I cannot therapize it away, or overcome it, or counter it through cognitive exercises. As I get older, my depression feels more and more biological, more deeply folded into the fluid of my brain. Stopping medication when my hormones are in flux, when I’m sick, when I’m teaching a full load, when the stress of another baby grows by the day … this seems more and more like a bad idea, my husband says. And I agree.

So yesterday, I went to my unaccommodating GP and asked for Prozac. Prozac has been around a long time, so doctors and researchers have published hundreds of studies on it. Prozac and Zoloft are the safest of all SSRIs.

During my first pregnancy, I took twenty milligrams of Prozac per day in the second and third trimester. I also breastfed my son while I was on the same, consistent dose. When I was in the hospital, recovering from childbirth and learning to breastfeed, several nurses expressed concern. What were the possible effects of Prozac on the baby? Did I know? Had I consulted with my doctor? (Why they didn’t learn the answers themselves and then share the results with me, since I was consumed by worries of feeding my baby properly while fuzzy with painkillers and lack of sleep, I do not know. Perhaps they expected more from me.) I explained that I felt very safe in what I was doing because of what I was told by a lactation consultant in the hospital following his birth. The consultant explained that any side effects Ian might have—the same he might have from exposure to Prozac in the womb—would go away within a month. (Ian was a product of the good odds: He experienced no side effects and seems fine in every way, developmentally and temperamentally.)

According to the specialist I spoke with at the nonprofit Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS), to which I was referred by the FDA’s Office of Women’s Health, SSRIs are indeed the most studied of all the anti-depressants on the market.

The specialist started answering my questions by first explaining that the baseline of birth defects for every pregnant woman is three to four percent. This percentage goes up with factors like age, health problems, and the genetic history of the mother. Then she summarized what the studies say about mothers who take SSRIs during pregnancy. During the first trimester, women who took high doses (between sixty to eighty milligrams) of Prozac increased their risk of having a baby with a low birth weight by one percent. (These results were not found in newborns whose mothers took other SSRIs at similar doses.) The babies of mothers who take SSRIs in the third trimester have a ten to thirty percent rate of toxicity withdrawal—and the withdrawal is limited to the newborn period.

Okay, I thought. Okay. I felt suddenly relieved—not because I thought SSRIs might be totally safe, but because I understood the studies more clearly. I realized later that what I felt was not a rush of relief; what I felt was a rush of informed.

*   *   *

The studies I have read on anti-depressants and pregnancy are structured, more or less, like this: Over a period of years, scientists and doctors gather records on a group of infants with birth defects and a group of infants without birth defects. The doctors then conduct interviews with the mothers or review medical documents to learn about what drugs the mother took before and during their pregnancies. They then compare the interview results or the medical documents to the birth defects and look for correlations.

They have indeed found them. One study of 13,714 infants (9,622 with birth defects and 4,092 without) was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in July 2007. The correlations the authors found between the infants with birth defects and SSRI exposure were very low—low enough to conclude “maternal use of SSRIs during early pregnancy [is] not associated with significantly increased risks of congenital heart defects or of most other categories of birth defects. [We observed] associations between SSRI use and three types of birth defects, but the absolute risks were small, and these observations require confirmation by other studies.”

This study and others like it did not keep my GP, when I saw her on my Prozac mission, from suggesting that she would “prefer” I didn’t take the drug until week twelve or thirteen.

“But if you can’t make it,” she said, typing notes into her computer, “I’m okay with prescribing it now.” She then stopped typing and looked right at me. “As long as you know the risks.”

My doctor has my baby’s health in mind, I realize. But—way to be supportive.

“Perhaps I’ll just hold the bottle lovingly for the next few weeks,” I said. “Like a teddy bear.”

She laughed.

I understand, I went on, that as a general rule women should stay off everything in the first trimester. But isn’t there any evidence that a depressed mother can also be harmful to her fetus? Not really, she said, because that’s harder to quantify. What I understood her to mean was this: We see toddlers with emotional problems; we determine that all of their mothers were depressed or anxious during their pregnancies. But since so much happens between birth and toddlerhood to influence a child’s emotional state, it’s much more difficult for anyone to verify a concrete link between maternal depression and childhood mental health.

So I gaze longingly at my Prozac. In only a few weeks, it will be building in my system, doing whatever it does to make me feel better. And I can do it. I can make it. I am like a runner with burning pain in her legs, a few inches from the finish line, or a dieter warding off desires for a piece of chocolate cake.

These metaphors are absurd, unhelpful, and demeaning. I am trying, in acting like a strong woman, in making my decision while consuming a shit sandwich, to reject this language and this way of thinking. My difficult doctors were right: There’s a big difference between suicidal and too sad, too sleepy, too pissed. Yet the mother and her body and her mind—especially her mind—are the center of the family; they are its source, its foundation. Mothers need to be energetic, positive, patient, loving, and as present as possible. If I need drugs to embody these adjectives, then I need to take them. My children need me to take them. The medical community should direct and inform my taking of them as much as it is able to, but for now I have to keep my expectations of their knowledge and especially their support fairly low.

Women often have to endure. To tolerate. They also have to negotiate, evaluate, assert, reassert, assess, deliberate, and wonder. And cry. Because as I make the decision to take drugs, to go on Prozac as soon as the last day of week twelve has passed, I cry.

Bullet #21 on 20 Ways To Be a Strong Woman: “Make your decisions. Then weep.”

 *   *   *

Author’s Note: My daughter, Adele, is now four months old. She’s a champion cooer, nurser, and puker, and she’s been doing beautifully since her birth. The rest of my pregnancy with her was very hard—I was chronically ill with colds and bronchitis, which affected my mood significantly. When I was about six months pregnant, I decided to go up on the Prozac—from twenty milligrams to thirty, and it helped get me through and be more present for my now three-year-old son. 

In retrospect, I notice how doctors, when they discussed anti-depressants and my pregnancy with me, emphasized the safety of the baby in my body but forgot entirely about the needs of the one already here. Mothers need to be functional all the time, pregnant or not; along with their gestating babies, they and their families also need to thrive.

Anna Blackmon Moore is a writer and writing instructor in California. Her blog is dearadele.wordpress.com/.

Brain, Child (Winter 2009)

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Some Baby

Some Baby

By Kate Cohen

somebaby

Family legend has it that when my grandfather, an obstetrician, delivered an especially unattractive newborn, he would grin up at its parents and declare, “That’s some baby.”

I love the way that story captures Granddaddy’s peculiar blend of great warmth and sly humor. Love of life, lack of sentimentality. But when my nephew Spencer was born, I realized the story shows something else altogether: how hard it is to think of things to say about a new baby.

Not that Spencer was ugly or that we, his new family, were speechless as we crowded around him in the hospital. We gazed at him—tiny, swaddled, serene, and sporting the longest eyelashes I’d ever seen. We said, “He’s beautiful.” We said, “Isn’t he cute?” We said, “What a good-looking baby.” We said, “Adorable.”

But what would we have said if he weren’t? And why, on his first day alive, could we think of nothing to exclaim over but his physical attractiveness, as if that were the most important thing about him?

I was particularly concerned with this question because I was going to have a baby, too, in another few months. From girlhood on, I had been an unhealthy combination of insecure and conceited about my looks; I mostly blamed American culture for my messed-up body image, but I also blamed my parents for not protecting me from it. When I am a parent, I told myself, I will protect my child: I will never comment on her appearance. I will call my baby squirmy, cuddly, lively, smiley, delicious, scrumptious, and yummy; I will say she makes me happy, fascinates me, opens my heart. I knew that if she turned out to be beautiful, it would be hard not to praise her beauty—especially when she was too young for me to praise her brushwork or her chess game. But I was determined: I would love her immeasurably and tell her so often, but I wouldn’t take note of her looks.

At first, it was no problem. “She” turned out to be a boy, a squinty newborn with hair that stood up and no discernible eyelashes or neck. I was not overcome with the urge to praise his beauty. Two months later, he had acne, four chins, and the expression of a suspicious middle-aged man. None of which I was moved to say to him. Instead I said, “You’re my sweet little bunny”; I said, “I just want to kiss you all over”; I said, “What a tasty nose you have.”

Then it got complicated. At three months, a slate blue shirt brought out the color of his eyes, and I said, “My, my, blue is your color, isn’t it?” At four months, his smiles gave him cheekbones and charm, and I said, “What a happy boy!” On both occasions, I had really wanted to say, “Aren’t you cute?” But I managed not to. It takes a little work, I thought, but it’s not so hard to love and praise your kids while avoiding the question of beautiful or not, handsome or not.

It’s not so hard if you live on a desert island. What I had failed to take into account was other people. As Noah’s smile quickened and his neck lengthened, strangers in grocery stores began to say, “He’s so cute.” Then they’d lean over to meet Noah at bright-blue eye level, smile and cock their heads to the side to match his smile and the cock of his head. They touched his chubby cheek or tickled the soles of his feet, which pointed out bare and bitsy from the plastic seat of the grocery cart.

One day when Noah was about seven months old, some friends brought their baby girl over to meet us. At three months old, she was quiet and looked around with interest; she was warm and sweet-smelling and unafraid. And she was ugly. She had an oversized, bald head mashed flat and to a point by the back-to-sleep rule, narrow slits for eyes, ponderous jowls. I knew this shouldn’t matter, that I should be excited about her as a person; I knew that her disposition crossed with her upbringing would make her into a sweet, considerate woman one day. But still I had to remind myself to pick her up, to coo over her, to make contact with those squinty eyes.

When they left, I felt horrible. However hard I had tried to make myself engage this baby, I knew I didn’t smile and coo and play with her as much as I would have if I were genuinely attracted to her. And I knew that I wasn’t attracted to this baby—not because of her personality but because of her looks.

I am not alone in my shameful behavior. Research shows that everyone treats attractive babies differently from unattractive babies. When I told my husband this, he said, “Well, it’s a good thing everyone thinks their own baby is the most beautiful baby in the world.” But he’s wrong. Even mothers treat their babies differently based on looks. A study from the mid-nineties made headlines because it showed clearly that moms of attractive first-born infants were more attentive and affectionate than moms of less attractive first-borns. Of course this distinction was totally unconscious. As the lead researcher wrote, “All the mothers denied that attractiveness should matter in parental treatment of children but their behavior belied their beliefs.” Apparently, for everyone, not just for me, knowing that looks shouldn’t matter isn’t enough. It keeps us from grimacing and saying, “Yikes, is that a girl or a gargoyle?” but it can’t make us treat an ugly baby the same as a beautiful one.

Back in the grocery store, carting around my little charmer, I wondered what effect this could have on a baby as he grows. A cute baby is smiled at, so he smiles back, so he gets a laugh or a blown kiss or even a caress. A cute baby becomes more social; a social baby, a baby who knows how to flirt and mug, becomes cuter; and so on. Victorious cycle for the cute baby; vicious cycle for the ugly one. Who knows how much these early interactions affect a child’s idea of himself, a child’s life?

After I met that ugly baby, after I watched my own baby flirt his way through the produce aisle, I decided to stop trying to pretend that looks don’t exist. It’s like trying to pretend race doesn’t exist, or gender. Your kid might have an easy way with strangers and a happy, playful demeanor not because of excellent parenting, but because he happened to have sprouted a full head of honey-colored hair at an age when most babies are still working on peach fuzz. It’s not fair, and the rewards that come from it should no more be a source of pride than the rewards that come from being born white or male.

And there are rewards, however great or small they might finally be. The best we can do, I guess, is to be aware of it, to try hard to treat every baby as if that baby were a beauty, and to treat beauty as the lucky accident it is.

One of the things the researchers noted in that study—one of the signs of affection lavished on more attractive babies—was how many times a mother would say something like, “Oh, you’re my cute little baby.” Maybe part of the problem is that, unable to praise their babies’ looks, mothers of unattractive babies just don’t have words to express their pleasure in their babies, their joy in holding them, their love. Raised in a culture that values physical beauty so highly, they just don’t know what to say.

To them, and to all parents who’d like to keep the question of beauty at bay just a little while longer, I recommend the loving declaration, “You’re some baby.”

Author’s Note: I’m trying to write a book on pregnancy and childbirth, but my children keep getting in the way. Literally (toddler toys and baby gear trip me up on the way to the computer) but also intellectually, because they and their interactions with the world present such immediate and fascinating brain fodder. So this was an idea I simply had to work through before getting back to work. One thing I have noticed since writing it is how much less Noah’s appearance matters to me now that he can speak, now that his engagement with people is no longer strictly physical. But the question of praise—when and what kind and how much—persists.

Kate Cohen is the author of A Walk Down the Aisle: Notes on a Modern Wedding (Norton, 2001), a book of personal essays on getting married and The Neppi Modona Diaries: Reading Jewish Survival Through My Italian Family. 

Brain, Child (Summer 2003)

Photo by Gina Kelly

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Have a Nice Trip

Have a Nice Trip

By Jill Cornfield

hollandartwebIf you have a baby with obvious problems, sooner or later someone will hand you an essay called “Welcome to Holland.” It compares having a baby to taking a trip—a valid enough metaphor. But this is a trip for the parents of “special” children. Instead of going to Italy, as they’ve planned, the parents wind up in Holland, where, Emily Perl Kingsley writes, the pace is slower. They are disappointed at first—they’ve dreamed about, planned and looked forward to Italy—but they come to appreciate the special beauty of Holland. Instead of Michelangelo, espresso, and churches, they come to love Rembrandt, tulips, and chocolate. For what it’s worth, some parents find solace in the metaphor. I’m just not one of them.

Our older son spent his first thirteen months in the hospital. He was a tiny baby, our first-born. My obstetricians—a quartet of women—were used to a more orderly sort of pregnancy. They were equipped to handle morning sickness, slightly high blood pressure and routine C-sections. When our baby was found to be way below the average weight on a sonogram, they stopped making quips about junk food and put me on bed rest. They grew increasingly distant as our son stubbornly refused to somehow make up the weight gain and catch up with the rest of his second-trimester cohort. Gradually my doctors handed me off to the high-risk doctors at the hospital, where I was ordered to leave bed rest and come in for daily sonograms, my main form of entertainment. “I promise you won’t be bored when the baby comes,” one said.

From the beginning, it seemed like a bad idea to have a baby delivered more than twelve weeks before term, but this is what the doctors planned. “We’ll take him out and they’ll make him grow,” said one perinatologist, referring to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) where he’d be placed. This sounded far-fetched to me, and I didn’t say anything, but I must have looked doubtful because she declared, “A lot of parents are really glad to have the baby out and in the nursery where they can take care of him.”

This was the day I went in for a sonogram and the perinatologist came in, went behind the curtain, and looked at the technician’s numbers. She sighed loudly before greeting me. “I’ll pray for you,” she promised. Meanwhile, the baby (I didn’t know he was a boy yet) zoomed around inside me, back and forth, over and over, in the vastness of my uterus, his tiny size making him hard to find on the sonogram but giving him lots of room to dive and roll. How bad could things be when the baby was so lively?

We spoke to the head of the neonatal unit, a dapper man with a silvery goatee who spoke in calm, measured tones. He didn’t think it was out of the ordinary to have a baby delivered between twenty-six and twenty-eight weeks’ gestation. “Most of our babies go home around the time of their due date,” he informed us. “At twenty-three, twenty-four weeks, things are rough. But you’re looking at something like a ninety percent survival rate.” My husband asked him what had led to his interest in prematurity. “All three of my children were premature,” he said, and we believed him, though we later found out they were premature for having arrived two to three weeks—not two to three months—early.

We were afraid to ask the real questions. Would our son walk? Talk? Would he walk with us to the local kindergarten, or would he ride the short school bus? We reasoned that the doctor would tell us anything we really needed to know.
Nothing prepared me for the sight of Alexander: one pound, five ounces. I’d used more butter than that to make flourless chocolate cakes. I spent about a week in a crying marathon, which made the intensive care nurses very uncomfortable, although one nurse sang to me and then said, on our second day there, that it was all right to cry and that the baby was still connected to me. I found this somehow comforting, even though we hadn’t done a very good job, Alex and I, of making him grow.

“Did he have a brain bleed? Does he have necrotizing enteral colitis? No? Then he’s fine,” snapped my cousin, who is a doctor. But I was not happy, not hopeful. Everything—including breathing, eating and medical adjectives my spell-checker didn’t recognize—was a struggle.

People tell you with the best of intentions that you’ll find yourself on a roller coaster in the NICU: There are ups and downs, good times and bad. We found it to be more like a game of pinball, with our little son playing the part of the metal ball that gets smacked around. Our highlights included intubations, painful eye exams, and spinal taps without anesthesia (“We don’t like to anesthetize these little ones—it’s too dangerous,” said the ophthalmologist), an almost total lack of weight gain (“It’s hard to gain weight on the vent,” said one doctor ruefully, although they had always been so enthusiastic about the benefits of artificial respiration), a respiratory virus that landed our son back on a ventilator, chemically paralyzed so he wouldn’t fight the vent down his throat (still no anesthesia). “Well,” said the neonatal attending physician, “I’ve seen children get this and get over it. And I’ve seen children get this and not get over it,” prompting my brother-in-law to say, “Sounds like the doctor’s taking it pretty well.”

All our “happy” news was happy only by dint of not being tragic. An X-ray: the baby’s lungs are less cloudy! An eye exam: the baby isn’t going blind! A head sonogram: the baby’s brain isn’t bleeding!

Our two months’ stay turned into three, then four months. I watched summer shimmer on my way to the hospital each day. Then leaves were falling. Then I had to dig out winter clothes.

Our insurance company paid and paid without comment the bills for $19,000, $38,000, $16,000. I think when we were all done, thirteen months later, the total topped out at close to a million, a figure that had been negotiated downward by insurance.

*    *    *

“It’s slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy,” writes Kingsley in “Welcome to Holland.”

I was confused when someone gave me Kingsley’s essay during Alex’s second month or so. We certainly didn’t know at that point that he would be disabled in any way; we certainly didn’t know we were in for many more months of invasive medical presence in our lives. Did the person who gave me “Holland” think Alex would be mentally retarded? Did she think I needed a different lens to view our experience as one that was beautiful if you looked at it the right way?

It turns out that lots of people with babies in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) are given the Holland essay, a piece I think is completely off the mark for anyone with an extremely premature baby, because Kingsley specifically says, “It’s just a different place.”

But most NICUs aren’t just “different.” Most NICUs are alarmingly alien. You have to adjust to flashing monitor lights and tiny sirens, the nurses and doctors and residents and fellows and social workers and sub-specialists—pulmonologists and gastroenterologists and geneticists and neurologists and radiologists and administrators—that come and go. You learn a hierarchy and a discipline you never dreamed you’d have to learn just to have a baby.

Our NICU experience has forever separated me from mothers of typically developing children, even though since the birth of my second son I’m the mother of a typically developing child myself. Watching women—other mothers—leave the hospital with their babies, balloons, and still-swollen bellies filled me with jealousy, rage, and misery. Rage that I’d been put in this situation. Jealousy over what they had and what I’d lost. Misery that the sight of someone else’s happiness filled me with hatred.

Soon after I read “Holland,” a therapist breezed into the isolation room we shared with another family and introduced herself. “Hi! I’m back from maternity leave!” she said. Unable to smile and greet her pleasantly, I settled for a mumbled hello, looking down at some knitting that I’d intended to be stress relieving.

Kingsley writes that it’s important to note that you’re not in a “horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease.” But the experience of having a baby in the hospital is akin to being tortured in a Third World prison, leading many NICU survivors to write their own parodies and responses to Kingsley’s piece. A mother I know wrote “Welcome to Afghanistan.” Another friend agrees that having a baby in the hospital is like taking a trip to Holland—under German occupation.

Two pieces floating around the Internet—”Welcome to Beirut,” by Susan F. Rzucidlo and “Holland, Schmolland” by Laura Kreuger Crawford—give the perspective of life in another country from mothers of autistic children.

“Are they kidding? We are not in some peaceful countryside dotted with windmills,” writes Crawford. “We are in a country under siege, dodging bombs, trying to board overloaded helicopters, bribing officials—all the while thinking, ‘What happened to our beautiful life?'”

“Bruised and dazed, you don’t know where you are . . . You don’t know the language and you don’t know what is going on,” writes Rzucidlo. “Bombs are dropping . . . Bullets whiz by.”

We now live in “our own country, with its own unique traditions and customs,” says Crawford. “It’s not a war zone, but it’s still not Holland. Let’s call it Schmolland.” She goes on to describe Schmutch customs, which mirror the traits of autism. “The hard part about living in our country is dealing with people from other countries. We try to assimilate ourselves and mimic their customs, but we aren’t always successful.”

“Holland” has apparently struck a deep nerve.

Parents of autistic children find “Holland” particularly irritating, I think, because the stresses of living with a child who is semi- or non-communicative are tremendous. There are no smiles from sympathetic native speakers. You don’t speak the language, and there’s a real chance you never will.

“Holland” makes it seem as though disability is a one-size-fits-all package tour, when disabilities and their effects on families are as finely shaded as the differences among pensiones, hostels, and four-star hotels. Most families learn to cope with mild dyslexia, but most parents of severely brain-damaged children generally grapple with serious depression throughout their lives. It feels like “Holland” is telling us not only not to feel sad, but to feel happy in a specific way. Like the hospital personnel who seemed amazed or put out whenever I expressed sadness or anger, Kingsley seems to believe that emotional responses can be generated consciously, and that a little positive thinking is all that’s needed to smooth some ruffled travel plans. Hey, it’s not a canceled boat ride or a closed museum. It’s an adventure!

How should I feel? “Holland” told me, back in those NICU days, that I should feel good. But I didn’t. There is a crumb tossed at the end, where Kingsley acknowledges that the disability of a child is indeed cause for sorrow, calling it “a very, very significant loss.” You’ll feel sad, she says, but if you focus exclusively on the sadness you’ll miss out on the beauty of the life of your child. The mother of another premature baby wrote that her problem with “Holland” is that it was always sent to her by someone without a disabled child, and it made her hesitate to express any negative feelings—”kind of like they were saying, ‘This is how you should feel. Now no more talk about pain, grief, depression, and exhaustion from you!’ “

To the social workers and perinatologists who claimed that parents are thrilled to have a live baby—even one in a hospital—I can say only that not everybody responds identically to similar situations. One mother used to post on an online board for the parents of premature babies. Her child was in the NICU for eighteen days, and I used to wonder why she would post messages at all when so many of us had children who spent months in the hospital. Now I realize that those eighteen days were hell for her—a nightmare that she still relived—and that her worries for her child were every bit as real and valid as mine for my son.

*    *    *

At the same time parents are struggling with their baby’s NICU course, they are reassured by NICU staff that all will likely turn out well. The prevailing NICU attitude was (and still is) that most premature babies do just fine. That more than sixty percent of babies with a birth weight over three pounds grow up without significant disability.

But my gut always said otherwise, and seven years after the NICU, our son is, in fact, developmentally disabled. Not delayed: that implies he will catch up with other children. When Alex was three, the school board reviewed his evaluations and classified him as a child with significant and severe delays, about fifty percent in most areas, qualifying him for a funded special-ed preschool with built-in therapists. We were glad, because it was what he needed. We were sad, because it was such a clear-cut case.

By now, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the sort of expectations Kingsley writes about in “Holland.” I never wanted brilliant children. I never dreamed of my children going to Princeton, Yale, Harvard, taking the academic world by storm in physics or comparative literature. All I really wanted was a baby to play with and some more company at the dinner table. I imagined taking walks in late winter, looking for trees in bud and the first crocuses, discussing how little birds sometimes take their baths in water, other times in dust. I looked forward to all the school stuff–the mimeographed homework assignments and gluey projects and teachers mean or nice and leaving the house on a dark October evening for open school night after a hurried spaghetti dinner.

In the NICU days I used to pray that Alex not be retarded, that he not have cerebral palsy, which I always thought meant not being able to talk. What I didn’t foresee was a child who would hug affectionately and even kiss, sort of, but be so lukewarm about reciprocating anything, from a word to a ball to a willingness to engage in play.

Today Alex is six and a half. He is a child with PDD-NOS, pervasive developmental delay, not otherwise specified: a notch on the autism spectrum. In theory, that puts us quite squarely in Kingsley country. Where once we had a small baby and some hopes of a typical life, we realize now we live in a strange land we didn’t plan to visit.

For years we didn’t go anywhere, and it seemed that having a child with a communicative disorder was more akin to staying home while other parents traveled: we watched them take off for the Hamptons or the Netherlands while we were stuck in the same hot neighborhood. Instead of rejuvenating changes of vista, we summered on steamy streets. While other people spent some time in air-conditioned airport lounges before arriving at beach houses or charming old-world cafés, we were left with nothing more cooling than the sprinklers in city parks and an occasional Mr. Softee truck.

In fact, life with Alex brings to mind not travel, but a different metaphor. Alex is a cat of a boy: smaller than average, he’s sleek and slim. He has my dark eyes and his father’s dark hair and sometimes, it seems, the mannerisms of a cat we used to have—a quiet, self-contained creature who didn’t often seek attention or affection, though he did welcome it. If Alex has a toy or a puzzle or a video he likes, he doesn’t need you.

When your child can’t tell you what’s bothering him, whether it’s a fever or nausea or a bad day at school, it’s not so very different from a sick pet. I never knew how simple a child’s illness could be until my younger son got into bed with me late one night, hot and crying. “My ear hurts!” he moaned. He had Motrin; we went back to sleep; we went straight to the doctor in the morning and said, “He says his ear hurts.”

Alex’s teacher for kindergarten and first grade writes daily to let us know if he seemed tired or enjoyed circle time. If not for her detailed letters, we’d never know that he was doing yoga, that he is fond of carrying around a plush hippo, that he seems to like spending time with his classmate Robert, never know what the red Special Olympics ribbon was for: courage, sharing, joy. What did he share? What gave him joy?

We live in a Hispanic neighborhood where the neighbors know Alex and seem fond of him, perhaps because they have a relative or another neighbor with an autistic child. “Alex is drinking from the puddle at the sprinklers!” they’ll holler at me on the playground. When he rummages through their strollers or bags, they laugh and let him. Often they share with him the chips that attracted him. Occasionally they gently lead him away.

In the playgrounds of more moneyed neighborhoods, we get the looks. Yes, I know he’s in someone else’s stroller. I know he’s taking a plush Elmo doll from a toddler who is walking with her Jamaican nanny. I know he’s spinning with his eyes shut, or leaning too far back on the swing, his expression different from other children’s. Why am I not getting up every fifteen seconds to stop him? If he’s in someone’s bag, I will intervene. But the toddlers are always well attended. The spinning or lapping from a puddle isn’t hurting anyone. And I need to sit in the sun, on this bench and, for a moment, not chase, not intervene.

Perhaps my biggest problem with Kingsley’s metaphor is that it simply doesn’t hold water. A traveler can always catch the next flight out, but no matter which parental country you find yourself in—whether typically developing or autistic or wheelchair-bound—you can’t fly out again.

Author’s Note:  Ironically, in the United States outcomes for children born prematurely are poorer than those of their counterparts in the Netherlands, where neonates below specific birth weights and gestational ages are generally not resuscitated.

Brain, Child (Summer 2005)

Jill Cornfield lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.

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At The Pump

At The Pump

By Alexandria Peary

winter2009_pearyI’m lying on my side on hospital sheets low on thread count and high on antiseptics. The nurse presents me with my baby, a big-nosed reddish sleeper, while the progressive-seeming lactation consultant with dangling goddess earrings looks on. I am supposed to model different positions, and we are to see how well the baby latches on.

I fumble around, one breast angled out of the hospital gown, trying to arrange the baby around my still-engorged belly. All the while, I’m thinking, When else is it expected that one go topless in front of total strangers? This pink asterisk of my nipple seldom sees so much air.  It’s just assumed that a woman can seamlessly make the transition from a society of keeping covered to a place where she’ll be told to pull out her breast so that others can assess how good she is at using it.

“I guess I need a refresher course,” I tell her after a half minute of moving my breast like a joystick. I explain that it’s been two years between babies.

As the lactation consultant reviews the “football hold” and side-style feeding, I pretend to go along with it and make the motions. I feel like someone attempting reform, promising to eat healthfully but just waiting for the expensive diet coach or hawk-eyed spouse to leave the room to heave myself into the Godiva chocolates.

My breast actually aches—but not for my baby. No, it aches for its first postpartum bonding with the pump.

I’m just waiting for the lactation consultant to leave the room so my husband can dig out my breast pump, hiding beneath a pile of clean underwear in one of my bags. I feel like I’ve snuck a lap dog into the hospital. Although this baby’s waters broke three weeks early and I was unprepared, my hospital bags unpacked, I still managed to instruct my harried husband to find the breast pump. After my insurance card and meditation CDs, my Purely Yours was next on the list of crucial items.

Why don’t I tell her the truth? I wonder. That I don’t plan on breastfeeding at all? That I’m a full-time pumper? By the time this baby is six months old, I’ll have pumped (a conservative estimate) for fifteen days straight, and when I say “days,” I mean fifteen twenty-four-hour-day days.

For my first child, I pumped for seven months, and I’ll probably pump for nine months for this baby, which means I’ll have spent about 576 hours at the breast pump between November 2007 and August 2008. Like T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, who could measure out his life in teaspoons, I can measure my time by the books on tape I’ve listened to while at the pump.

For my first daughter, I splattered many a tome with breast milk, including War and Peace. For this daughter, I’ll have listened to the thirty-six tapes of Gone with the Wind in less than a week and a half. And I’ll also have listened to so many John Grisham and suspense books that the plotlines will become as obvious to me as the pattern on a plaid shirt. For Christmas this year, my husband and I will treat ourselves to a deep freezer, the type people use for spare apple pies and sale-flyer pot roasts, which I will completely fill with tubes and storage bags of milk by the beginning of February.

My milk will spilleth over, filling this huge upright freezer, plus a waist-high freezer, plus the one in the fridge. The milk will come in a variety of shades of yellow, like paint samples chosen by someone who wants to redo her living room but can’t decide which shade she likes best. The sunflower yellow-orange of early days nearest to colostrum, the flat yellow after carb-laden meals, and the pale skim milk when I had salad for lunch.

*     *     *

I became a mother who loves pumping more than breastfeeding when Sophia was born two and a half months premature and had to be tube fed during her lengthy hospitalization.

The medical community expects that a mother will stop breast pumping once her preemie leaves the neonatal intensive care unit. After all, it’s the baby accustomed to the bottle who is supposedly prone to “nipple confusion,” not the mother. You’re not supposed to fall in love with your breast pump, to mourn the end of your relationship with the machine, as I did when I had to return my hospital rental. You’re not supposed to feel that the last time you turn the knobs is as sweetly sad as the last time another mother nurses her baby.

The first time around, breast pumping meant I was able to do something constructive for my severely premature baby. Pumping was something that I alone could do, not the extensive staff of expert doctors, nurses, or therapists. It was a continuation of my pregnancy—it had that same privacy, that same power to help someone grow. Every time during that confusing summer that I pumped at two in the morning and again at four, I was reminded that I could do something right to counter the irrational guilt I felt about my pregnancy’s early end. I could fill the freezer in the NICU ward as well as the one in her second hospital; I could inundate them with my milk until they told me to hold off. Pumping was a symbol of hope—of the future when Sophia would be freed from the hospital.

With this second child, Simone, born healthy, it’s different. Pumping will become a way to increase the thickness of the rolls of fat on her stubby legs, to build on her natural good health. Like my mother covering the dining room table with an excess of food, pumping will allow me to see the abundance of yellow gold that my body produces, the food that will be Simone’s sole source of nourishment. I filled the NICU freezers, and now I can fill the freezers at my own home. Pumping will also allow me to continue pursuing my doctorate, to be away from home for extended periods of time, and to share with greater equity parenting a newborn with my husband. If it weren’t for the circumstances of Sophia’s premature birth, I would not have known the benefits of full-time breast pumping.

Given all these rock-solid reasons for pumping, why don’t I tell the truth in my hospital room? Well, even with the amount of supportive cheer pumped into the air by the maternity floor staff, I can sense that my preference for pumping will be challenged. I’m the anti-poster child for the La Leche League—or at least that’s how I feel around other mothers. (My three-year-old daughter will have watched so many pumping sessions that she will point to my chest and ask where mommy’s “breast pump parts are,” referring to my breasts.)

A belief in full-time breast pumping is not popular among the mothering circles I travel in—the liberal, critical thinkers, rather than the commercialized versions of parenting seen in most magazines. While it’s true that no one has ever said to me outright that I’m wrong to feed my breast milk to my baby from a bottle rather than directly from my body, the message is in the air. It’s present when another woman tells me how disgusting frozen breast milk looks or tastes. This strikes me in the gut, as though someone had unplugged the huge freezer holding the evidence of all the hours I’ve pumped.

No one ever says how beautiful—how maternal—the image of the woman at the breast pump is.  On the box of the pump I own, a woman in a business suit sits at her desk looking robotic, as though she could just as easily be hooked up to her adding machine or laptop as to her breast pump. She’s certainly no goddess-like woman cradling humanity.

And no poster celebrating breast pumping will be seen above the OB/GYN examination table. And yet I fantasize about such a poster, a Madonna-like figure in blue robes sitting with a breast pump (you pick the brand) attached lovingly to her chest, beaming and beatific. For I am just as dedicated to pumping as another mother would be to nursing. I, too, become irritated when someone impedes me (with a class held longer, with a lingering conversation, with bad city traffic) from feeding my baby—that is, from pumping every three hours.

No one will come into the hospital room after I give birth and ask me about my pumping plans. I won’t readily find an extensive support group or service for the breast pumping, so if the pump suddenly fails because of a microscopic slit in valve, I may think it’s a problem in my milk supply and give up.

After giving birth, a woman is frequently asked whether she intends to nurse. The seemingly benign question hangs in the air. Once the desired response is supplied—Yes, of course!—it’s as though a curtain is parted from around the patient’s bed. The beaded chains rattle, and the patient is allowed entrance into the land of golden good mothering. Until the moment the question is answered, however, there’s the distinct possibility that the woman will end up on the other side, that of not-so-good-mothers, a landscape of pollution, television, and cheese-flavored snacks.

Breast pumping gets only half of that good-mother equation right. You’re making the milk, but you’re denying your child of the psychological benefit of your closeness, a benefit provided, the true believers insist, only through nursing.

My baby daughter seems not to have received that message. She’s oblivious to any concerns about her way of dining and happily “tops” bottle after bottle of my breast milk with a little smile on her face. And although our way of feeding the baby means my husband is frequently the one who is up at two in the morning, he feels he’s had more opportunity to bond with his daughters than most dads whose partners breastfeed exclusively.

And when he asks why I worry so much what the lactation consultant, my relatives, or the nurses think of my pumping, I have an unexpected answer. It’s not that I particularly care what people think of me. It’s that I’m protecting my pumping from them. I don’t want my breast milk to be contaminated by their conservative attitude—an unacknowledged contributor to centuries of others telling women exactly how to be women.

If I can just get out of the hospital with some pumping initiated, I will be free to do as much pumping at home, at the office, and in the car as I like, with no one to judge me except the occasional female acquaintance or relative. I won’t have to answer the phone when the nice lactation consultant makes her several follow-up calls in the week after I return home. I can sit at the kitchen table with two-year-old in high chair, a two-day-old in her bassinet, and a breast pump churning at my chest as the consultant’s voice fills the answering machine. I can surround myself with the maternal trinity of child, baby, and breast pump.

Author’s Note: While writing this piece, I discovered at iVillage.com a whole online community of mothers who exclusively breast pump. Like me, these women have experienced personal and professional blessings from exclusively pumping. I’m still pumping, several months after I had expected to be done (in fact, I’m pumping while I type this sentence), but I’m at the tail end of it. I’m trying to deal with the sweet sadness that comes from the prospect of ending.

Brain, Child (Winter 2009)

Alexandria Peary is an Associate Professor and the First-Year Writing Coordinator in the English Department at Salem State University. She is the author of two books of poetry, Fall Foliage Called Bathers & Dancers (2008) and Lid to the Shadow (2010). The latter was selected for the 2010 Slope Editions Book Prize. Her work has appeared in The Denver Quarterly, New American Writing, The Gettysburg Review, jubilat, Massachusetts Review, Fence, Crazyhorse, Spoon River Review, Verse, Literary Imagination, and Pleiades. 

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My Mother’s Brave Story: The Tale Of Ilana

My Mother’s Brave Story: The Tale Of Ilana

By Andrea B. Siegel

0-4In the summer of 1991, life was as good as it had ever been. I had previously weathered a miscarriage, two bouts with breast cancer and resulting mastectomies, a difficult stretch through graduate school and a major geographical move. Now I was happily married, healthy, with school behind me. With my second husband, Win, and our young daughter, Hannah, I felt Arizona was a new start. Win found a good job and we’d bought our first home.

At first, we were both ambivalent about another child, but Hannah longed for a sister and, as time passed, the thought of a baby became irresistible. Though I was over thirty-five and had had health problems in the past, we decided why not? The time felt right and there had been no sign of cancer for years. I’d had no trouble conceiving or giving birth to Hannah. After summer check-ups with the doctors, and with their cautious approval, we went ahead. In early September, the test stick in the home pregnancy kit turned bright, positive pink. Hannah’s sibling was on its way. I was nervous, but delighted.

Because of my age and medical history, I was considered high-risk and went to a group practice that specialized in such patients. I had more morning sickness than before, but that was okay—a small price to pay for a baby. As a routine precaution, the office used an ultrasound on all new patients. There was our baby, the size of an olive, perfectly formed, miniature hands waving. From that moment on, there was no question in my mind. This was my child—and I wanted this baby more than ever.

There was also, the doctor said, an insignificant cyst on my left ovary, probably where the egg follicle had burst. Very common, nothing to worry about—we’d keep an eye on it at subsequent appointments. We took our ultrasound snapshots home and showed them to Hannah who was delirious with joy. “Her” baby was finally a reality.

At my next visit in November, the cyst was still there and appeared to have grown. Again, the doctors reassured me it was undoubtedly harmless, but advised me to have it removed. Surgery would be quick, they said, maybe thirty minutes, fairly painless. I’d be back on my feet in no time. Win and I discussed it and decided to go ahead with the surgery as soon as possible. We opted for epidural anesthesia, instead of general, to minimize potential harm to the baby— besides, it was just a simple procedure.

I knew, during hazy periods of awareness throughout surgery, that something was terribly wrong. It was taking far too long and the mood in the operating room wasn’t right. When I came out of recovery, it was clear something bad had happened. And soon I heard it all—the cyst was a tumor, the cancer had spread. My ovaries, fallopian tubes, even my appendix had been removed because of malignancies. Many other areas had been cauterized for the same reason. It looked grim. One insensitive doctor rattled off my chances of survival: not promising. Other doctors presented the standard treatment: a complete immediate hysterectomy, followed by chemotherapy.

No one discussed the foremost thing on my mind: my baby. How had the baby done? Was the baby okay? How could we do a hysterectomy? My uterus was occupied! I kept thinking about the now plum-sized infant to whom I was already so attached.

Soon after surgery, amniocentesis results came in: we had a little girl, completely healthy. My survival was now more important than ever so I elected to go ahead with chemotherapy, though I asked my husband a hard question: what if I didn’t make it in the long run—did he still want this baby? Absolutely.

Ovarian cancer is insidious, often out-of-control before a patient even knows she has it. I had gotten check-ups from both a gynecologist and oncologist just months before my pregnancy and they had failed to detect it. My baby had given me a chance to survive. I would do no less for her.

With each passing week, I became more optimistic. Though I failed to gain weight, she thrived and grew; she had her own agenda. She was vigorous and kicked constantly. At times, I almost forgot that this was anything but a normal pregnancy. After 30 weeks, we were so confident we bought a crib and baby clothes; we contacted a diaper service.

The plan was to deliver her a little early by C-section, to complete my hysterectomy and do a “second look” at the same time. However, in April, at 35 weeks, I spontaneously went into labor. Tests showed the baby’s lungs weren’t quite mature. Labor and a vaginal birth would help develop her lungs, they said. Thus, the plans for the C-section were shelved.

Much to my wonder and joy, with my husband by my side, Ilana was born in the “usual” way late that night: pink, perfect, and screaming. She did need some help with oxygen, but only for a day; soon she was breathing well on her own, gulping down bottles of formula. Though small at birth, she quickly caught up. It’s almost unbelievable to think she went through months of chemotherapy with me, impossible to tell she was premature.

Pretty, lively, strong-willed, and sociable, Ilana is generous with smiles and recently began to laugh. Her big sister Hannah adores her. We all do.

We never doubted our decision. For reasons I can’t explain, I believed it would work out. And once I saw her, I was certain we’d done the right thing. Win endorsed my decision wholeheartedly from the start—I couldn’t have done it without him. Hannah’s affection and unwavering hope for her baby sister’s safe delivery helped make my belief even stronger. It was truly a family matter, a family decision.

Also, as time went on, many people rallied to our side. Support poured in, dinners were cooked, the house got cleaned, and offers of babysitting came from everywhere. We have been so thankful for the concern and help, the faith and generosity. Ilana has been a miracle in so many eyes. One friend wept the first time she saw Ilana, so overcome with emotion and astonishment that this baby actually made it, that I was still here to proudly hold her in my arms.

My own story continues. I’ve had more grueling surgery, more chemotherapy, many more difficult moments. My hair has fallen out, I’ve needed blood transfusions, and my weight dropped even more. My body has had a much harder time enduring chemotherapy since Ilana’s birth. It’s as if the pregnancy protected me against its worst effects. But at least for the time being, the treatment appears to be keeping the cancer at bay. As for what the books and doctors say, my prospects for old age are a long shot. Still, I’m not big on statistics or bleak prognoses. I had a beautiful baby against all the odds, and after that, I believe anything is possible.

Note: It occurred to me rather suddenly this June that it had been 20 years since my mother passed away from ovarian cancer at the age of 39, after two successful fights with breast cancer.

While it is somewhat difficult to face the strength of her optimism, knowing this piece was written months before she died, my mother’s story is beautiful. We enjoyed more time with her than would otherwise have been possible, thanks to the pregnancy ultrasound and her hope that she would watch us both grow up. I now live in Japan with my family and enjoy writing, much like my mother. My sister, Ilana, is a college student, who lives in Oregon and is returning from a year abroad in Germany.

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Baby Watch the Suicide

Baby Watch the Suicide

 By Jordan Langley

Baby Watch Suicide PhotoI kick the headstone. Then I’m dizzy. The leaves sway with me, the forest outlines the pocked, trim grounds of the cemetery. I’m anemic, my urine a dark brown tested at the obstetrician’s office. The water I drink is never enough. The vitamin D from the sun can only help me, says the doctor when she measures my belly. Dry and bulbous.

These woods are a protected nature reserve. A black bear could charge me. A two-for-one. Deer graze here at night, I’m told. Dinner on top of a grave.

The baby had a grandfather and then lost him. He shot himself in a parking lot and the world was surprised. And then the world forgot. Bus routes continued, salon appointments kept. This doesn’t happen to everyone. Such a thing, this poor baby. To have a past before birth. But me, I’m still in a cycle. Round and round my thoughts travel. Every day and every night. He knew he was due to be a grandfather. I’m on bed rest.

The first day, I experience zero morning sickness, which I had in abundance before. If I cared about my well-being when I learned of my father’s passing, I’d be curious about the effect shock has on my body. The surge lasts only a day.

My father and I had many days together. I was the first-born and I believe he’d wanted a boy from the way we watched football on the sofa and how he coached me to shake off a softball hit to the mouth. I’d be whatever he wanted me to be, so beholden was I to his white-toothed smile.

He was most captivating at dinner, when he told stories about growing up on the streets, darting around train tracks, and living across the street from his Catholic school where even on days off the paddle-wielding nuns barked orders from the chapel door. My father sparked for me, a love of the spoken story and a voracious reading and writing habit.

I strangle the urge to cry. It’ll make the baby sad, they said. And don’t put your hands above your head, you’ll miscarry, they said.

Not medical professionals. People.

Still, my belly heaves up several inches when I sob, breathing in, and then jiggles and lowers when I breathe out. Tears release brain-calming chemicals, says my therapist. I see her for over a year and cry about the same thing every time.

The funeral is Catholic and we ask the priest if they “do” suicides. He says yes. They didn’t use to. They wouldn’t have, in my father’s neighborhood in South Side Chicago. Old school. It’s open casket, oh God, who decided that? The songs and speeches are quick and numbing. When my brother’s friend, whom I haven’t seen in years, pays his respects, I retch.

My father’s family leaves too early after the salted ham sandwiches and macaroni salad. I haven’t seen them in person since. My father, a bridge, and now the track broken. Everyone does tequila shots that night, the best agave, and my mouth waters for it.

My mother is a victim, she says. She never saw it coming. I say you can’t live in the same house as someone and not notice they’re struggling.

My husband holds me because there is nothing else logical to do. He’s defensive someone put his child in jeopardy.

My brother found him. The youngest. Another baby. My father hadn’t counted on family, let alone his child, finding his body.  The best laid plans.

I head back to work and hear questions like, why did he do it? How? Hunger for the grisly details. Everyone’s a crime scene investigator. I say I just want to move forward. That’s what I say.

I visit the grave every weekend and lie sideways on the fledgling grass, or sit on a bench with a different dead person’s name engraved on it. I cuss out my father and cry. I tell him I love him. I scream the stupid question everyone asks me, as if I fucking know. Why? My baby watches me from the inside. A man visits the cemetery the same time as me and he stands above his particular grave. I’m careful when he’s there because I don’t want him to hear me talk to the ground, the bones or a spirit. Once, when he leaves, I walk to where he stands and it’s a woman’s headstone. There’s an empty plot beside her.

My father escaped. The note said I’m tired. I’m tired too. The months pass, but I can’t get past my first true love leaving me. We’ve found out it’s a boy and he leans so low on my cervix that I’m dilated three centimeters for months. He’s a bowling ball ready to drop.

I’m asked if we’ll name our son after my father. No.

Is he a sad baby? My son is pulled from my body seven months after the loss and laid on my chest. The lights bright. He lifts his head up and his blue eyes, which will never change color, look at me. Like a friend, a contemporary. I see our years together, the putrid smells, late-night nursing, finger games in my lap, the deathtrap tricycle he loves, grade school, the soccer games, endless distractions.

In the hospital bed, I see his newborn hand shaking on mine, the white down on his head. The eau de parfum his skin naturally gives off. And he knew me. He knew about everything and he cried.

Jordan Langley is a writer who’s essays have appeared in Richmond Family Magazine and on the website Hello Grief. She lives in North Chesterfield, Virginia with her husband and two sons.

Ohh, Grasshopper

Ohh, Grasshopper

By Judith Norkin

zenmomJust for the record: I didn’t always respect the wisdom of the East. Before having children, I was a great big egomaniac full of ambition. Work was my highest priority and I hungered for worldly things: books, art, music, clothes, travel. I did what I wanted, when I wanted.

Life was interesting. My friends and I ran off at a moment’s notice to convert the natives of Malawi to democracy or to herd ponies in the fields of Denmark. In fact, I decided to get pregnant while driving through Normandy, high on Calvados and fresh foie gras. Having a baby wasn’t going to change things, I said to my travel companion. It might slow me down—but not much.

Had I been better attuned to the sounds of the cosmos, I would have heard: “Ha, ha, ha! Ohh, Grasshopper, that booming sound is laughter ringing through the halls of your nowhere-near-enlightened consciousness.” But I couldn’t have heard and, consequently, my awakening was not merely rude. It was agonizing and horrific.

Pregnancy. Childbirth. I don’t know what my daughter had done in a previous life to have landed a mother like me, but whether I was ready or not, she was born. Who would have believed that one day I’d take a job where I would be on 24/7 standby, would receive no pay, no accolades, no perks and would, for long periods of time, go topless?

Though I felt an inexplicably strong urge to shelter and protect the noisy, red-faced creature that was my daughter, I also felt like she was killing me. I missed my work, my friends, my freedom. From the outside looking in, I was a traditional stay-at-home mom, but being a mother seemed to me the most radical act imaginable. How could everyone take this for granted? Here I’d spent my entire life trying to be somebody, and with one heaving push, I had become nobody. A mother. Ugh.

People said it would get better. Sure, I thought. Like in eighteen years. Some people said I’d still be able to travel . . . well, I could hardly get to the grocery store, so I seriously doubted I’d be jetting around the world. In the evenings, after my husband returned from work, I fled (for as long as my milk-heavy breasts would allow) to the local Wal-Mart, where I walked up and down the aisles in stony silence, as if answers to my identity crisis could be found in the merchandise crowding the shelves. I was miserable. The parts of myself that I liked best were gone, lost. The only thing growing was the diaper pile. I would never be my own person again. Degrees, titles, fancy clothes—none of it mattered here in bleak mother country.

Then I came upon a book that really helped. It was a guide to Buddhist meditation. Reading it, I realized that certain aspects of Buddhism would be quite useful to me. Here was a belief system that seemed perfectly compatible with mothering. Putting my needs aside to care for another person didn’t make me a loser—it made me a hero! Individuality? Who needed it! Independence? It was a curse, a delusion that prevented me from reaching a state of union with the divine. In the Eastern tradition, selflessness and egolessness lead the way to happiness.

Clearly this was a system tailor-made for mothers. The amorphous, amoebic state of mind that so aggravated me was actually something people took years to achieve! And here I’d gone and done it without having to shave my head or sit on the floor for hours. I accumulated a good-sized library on the subject. And the more I read, the sorrier I was that I didn’t spend more of my prenatal time in Eastern studies. It would have been much better preparation for motherhood then all the stupid Lamaze and parenting classes I sat through at the local hospital.

I decided that I just had to look at things a bit differently. It was a matter of spin control. Why, motherhood was not exhausting and thankless—it was actually a low-budget Buddhist boot camp! Endless weeks without sleep were not torture—they were spiritual lessons of the highest order! Sure, I felt like one of the living dead, but how else could I cultivate what the monks called “emptiness of mind,” a necessary prerequisite to enlightenment? I was not irritable and overwhelmed—I was a disciple. And this little girl, with her teensy diaper bunched around her spindly, Gandhi-esque thighs was not an ordinary baby—she was a guru sent to show me the path to enlightenment.

Thinking that way worked for a while. Now, with seven years of Mommy experience on my current resume (and little legitimate work experience for the last couple of those on my “real” one), it sends me into hysterics to hear mothers-to-be make the same declarations that I once did. “How much work can one little baby be?” Or, “My baby will be on a strict schedule.” Or, best of all, “Having a baby isn’t going to change me one bit.” I can’t tell them the truth because they wouldn’t believe me—just as I wouldn’t have believed anyone who tried telling me. No, the only thing to do is nod, smile, and suppress my wicked grin. Wicked grinning is unseemly for a student of the Eastern way, I know. I’m not perfect yet.

Anyway, those Western-minded, about-to-be mommies are probably just looking at me with pity, if not contempt. To their unpracticed eyes I am nothing. No one. I have given up my work, my identity, and my independence to be available to my children—at least for a few more years. But let the about-to-be mommies mock me. What they don’t know is that I’m not just a mother; I’m a certifiable Zen master. The self-obliteration that Mommyhood still requires keeps me on the Path. Just so you know, “certifiable” is the key word here. And if they’re like most mothers, eventually they’ll be certifiable too.

Author’s Note: I started writing about motherhood in 1993, when my daughter was born. My early essays were angry treatises on the devaluation of caretaking, what I perceived as belittling social attitudes towards mothers, and gender inequity. At some point I discovered that people were more receptive to my ideas when I communicated with humor, which is what I have tried to do here.

This piece was written while I was bedridden due to complications from a spinal tap. No cooking, cleaning, or childcare for an entire week—it was the closest I’ll come to a writer’s retreat for a while.

Brain, Child (Fall 2001)

Judith Norkin is a freelance writer living in a suburb of Philadelphia. She regularly contributes to the Philadelphia Citypaper and other publications.

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Something To Think About: Moms Behind Bars

 

Nutshell logoLike the rest of America, I binged on the original Netflix series Orange is the New Black last week. At first I wasn’t interested because I’d read reviews of the memoir it’s based on and was sure it was more of the “nice white lady” schtick that permeates so much liberal discussion. But my friend convinced me to give it a try; after the first episode I was hooked.

I watched the whole series in a matter of days, propping my iPad on the counter to watch it while I made dinner and keeping it in one corner of my desktop monitor while I did mundane paperwork in another window.

I loved the show for the actors and I’m looking forward to the second season in part because the experience of mothers in prison—while touched on—was underrepresented. I’m hoping this is rectified as the series goes on.

I’m not sure how many women in the fictional Litchfield NY federal prison are moms but in the core group whose stories are told in episodes 1 to 13, only three actually claim parenthood—Sophia, Aleida and Dayanara’s roommate, Maria.

Maria gives birth on episode 8 and is wheeled back into her prison cubicle without her baby. That’s all we see of her experience although (spoiler alert) there’s reason to believe that in future episodes we’ll have the opportunity to learn more about pregnancy and motherhood in prison through the eyes of one of the main characters.

I counted 22 credited women on IMDB (internet movie database), which means that about 13% (or 18% if you’re going with that spoiler) of the women whose lives we’re witnessing on our small screen are mothers or about to be mothers. But according to the Women’s Prison Association’s 2007 numbers, nearly two-thirds of all the women in prison are parents. To put it even more starkly 1 in 359 kids in America are missing their mom because she’s behind bars.

With numbers like that, it’s no wonder that Sesame Street recently launched an “incarceration toolkit” for teachers and caregivers.

Like Maria, approximately 5- to 6% of women who enter the prison system are pregnant yet the prison system is ill-equipped to deal with the needs of those women and their babies. According to the activist group Birthing Behind Bars, when a woman goes into labor while incarcerated she is likely to be in handcuffs and ankle shackles. Stories like Diane’s, presented by ACLU Maryland, are not uncommon.

Once the woman has given birth, she must either find a relatives to care for the child, make an adoption plan, or her baby will be released into the foster care system. When families take guardianship, they do so without the subsidies that come with a foster placement. A biological grandmother, aunt or uncle is not able to get the money for food and clothing that comes to unrelated foster parents, which means some children are released to strangers not because their families don’t want them but because their families can’t afford their care.

The PBS documentary Mothers in Prison, Children in Crisis, points out that most women are incarcerated for non-violent offenses related to poverty and/or drug addiction and that unlike the majority of children whose fathers are in prison (who are usually left with their moms), kids whose moms are in prison are losing their primary caregiver.

In an effort to support and educate prisoners who are parents and their families, the organization Prisoners with Children’s Family Unity Project offers a Bill of Rights for Incarcerated Parents, which emphasizes the importance of supporting relationships between mothers in prison and their children. To that end, Get on the Bus, a program of The Center for Restorative Justice Works, helps organize annual field trips for kids to visit moms and dads in prison.

Orange is the New Black has a terrific opportunity to shine a light on the experience of moms in prison and I hope they take it.

 

Art by Michael Lombardo

Present Imperfect

Present Imperfect

By Ona Gritz

0-1My son didn’t seem to like me all that much in the first weeks of his life and I couldn’t say I blamed him. I may have managed not to drop him, or leave him on a grocery shelf as had happened in my dreams, but I nearly sat on him moments after laying him on my bed. And somehow I closed a snap on his little cotton sleeper with his skin pinched in between the halves.

I also cried constantly, but this was one thing we had in common.

“Everyone goes though that,” my friends who were parents assured me. “Everyone finds it hard at first.” But not all my graceless moments as a new mom were universal. I have cerebral palsy, a physical disability that results from an injury, usually at birth, to the part of the brain that controls motor function. My case is actually very mild. I walk with a limp and have tight muscles and limited dexterity on my right side. It’s often gone unnoticed, even, until the birth of my son, by me.

For as long as I could remember I’d wanted to be a mother and felt sure I’d be a natural at it. I worked as a children’s librarian and whenever a group of five and six year olds came in for story time, they raced for the spots on either side of me so they could listen with their knees touching mine.

During my pregnancy I read through piles of parenting books. I discovered there are two distinct camps. The Ferber faction believes that if babies are left to cry for allotted amounts of time they learn to soothe themselves, while the Sears faction believes that if babies are attended to quickly and held much of the time they grow up secure, having experienced the world as a loving, responsive place. Without having to think about it, I knew I would be a Sears mom and practice “attachment parenting.” I’m here for you was the first and most essential lesson I wished to teach my son.

I also pored over books on prenatal nutrition, some of which made me horribly anxious. When I read in a book on herbs that oregano could cause a miscarriage, I flew into a panic.

“We had Italian last night,” I trailed my husband through our apartment to say. “We have it all the time.”

“Plenty of pregnant women have eaten spaghetti without hurting their babies,” he pointed out, adding wistfully, “You know, you used to be so easygoing.”

He was right, I knew, but I couldn’t help the fear that rose inside me like the steam heat that banged through our pipes. I was already so in love with our baby, it felt crucial that I do everything exactly right.

As for my cerebral palsy, I can think of two times it crossed my mind while I was pregnant. Once when my midwife asked if I wanted to test for spina bifida or Down’s syndrome—I declined, insulted by the implication that a life with a disability might not be worth living—and again in my cumbersome eighth month when I joked to a friend that I was already used to moving awkwardly.

What didn’t occur to me until after my son’s birth was that motherhood required real agility. The first time I tried to nurse him he was unable to reach my breast because of the sloppy cradle my uneven arms made for him.

After a harrowing day of trial and error, I was able to breastfeed, first with the help of nurses who propped pillows under my son and later, on my own, by using a tire-shaped nursing pillow. Though that fundamental issue was solved I soon discovered other problems. I wasn’t able to bathe the baby without help, or swaddle him, or eat anything more challenging than a breadstick while nursing. And, as it was the only activity that kept my son from screaming like he was being dismembered, I nursed constantly. Hour after hour I sat in our glider rocker and, for all I was able to do for myself with a baby in my arms, I may as well have been in traction.

During his brief paternity leave, my husband did his best to help me. He brought me glasses of water with bendy straws to make drinking more manageable. He gave me his protein bars since I could eat them with one hand. But after a few days, he sighed loudly at each request. Clearly he felt my “convalescence” should be over. But my disability, of course, was permanent. It always had been, but since I’d rarely faced real physical demands in my childless life, it had never felt so prominent. In those not so long ago days, I thought of cerebral palsy as a cosmetic issue—I had a limp which I hoped wasn’t too noticeable. Now, glued to my seat, I felt humiliated and ashamed of all I couldn’t do and of how ignorant I’d been about my own body.

“Sorry to ask again,” I called out only when my thirst became unbearable. “But if you could just refill this glass…”

Visibly relieved, my husband returned to work after his allocated ten days. Before he left that first morning he dug the camel pack he used for mountain biking out of the closet and filled it with water, then taped it to the back of the glider rocker, positioned so that I could take sips from the tube just by turning my head.

With that bag in place like a catheter, I sat in the empty apartment and nursed until I was dizzy with hunger. That’s when I realized just how hard it would be to do something about it. I could carry a newborn into the kitchen if I did so with great care. I could probably even prop him on one shoulder long enough to open the refrigerator. But then what? With my one reliable hand cupping his head, I couldn’t pour cereal or milk into a bowl. Nor could I use a spoon.

We had a bouncy seat for him and I made a few attempts to place him in it, but he howled with rage before I’d even strapped him in. So, though feeding myself was impossible with a baby in my arms, in my arms he stayed, partly because of my almost religious belief in the tenets of attachment parenting, but mostly because I hated to upset my boy.

Now that we were on our own during the day, I quickly discovered other feats that were beyond me. Stairs had never been my forte, but as long as I had a banister I did all right. But in fact my balance was precarious enough that, even if I held the baby in a carrier to free my hands, I couldn’t be sure I wouldn’t trip and fall. This meant we weren’t able to climb aboard a bus, or visit our inaccessible town library, or leave our fourth floor apartment the many times the elevator broke down.

Though these new limitations made my life considerably smaller, motherhood deepened it. Every day, I gazed into my son’s wide blue eyes and fell more in love with him. Yet the look he gave back was stern and, it seemed to me, judgmental. I imagined he saw me the way I’d begun to see myself, as klutzy and inept.

I rocked him and nursed, talked and sang to him. Really? his cool stare seemed to say. This is the best you have to offer?

Meanwhile, my husband worked long hours and often went out with his coworkers afterwards to decompress. I had an open invitation to join them for drinks or late dinners, but of course I was otherwise occupied. Caring for my son took all my time and courting his affections took all my attention. He continued to respond to my devotion with an austere expression which just made me all the more desperate to please him.

On Thanksgiving, when our boy was seven weeks old, we went on our first family outing to my husband’s aunt’s house in the suburbs. As soon as we arrived relatives whisked the baby from my arms and vied for turns to hold him. Though I was free to move about, to gorge on the amazing array of appetizers that crowded all the surfaces in the room, I stayed on the couch like someone with Stockholm syndrome, eyes on my captor in case he needed me.

It wasn’t until the end of the evening that my son let out his usual glass-breaking wail. My husband’s aunt, who was holding him at the time, tried cooing and swaying and rubbing his back. He just cried harder.

“I give up,” she finally said and passed him to me.

I assumed he wanted to nurse, but the moment he felt me take him he grew quiet.

“He knows who he wants,” my aunt-in-law said, and I realized it was true. He missed familiar me.

As I felt my son settle contentedly in my arms that brisk autumn evening, I also felt a calm begin to spread inside me. I realized that, though I seemed more disabled now than before I became a mother, that didn’t mean I actually was more disabled. Rather, I’d stretched myself, and in doing so, grazed the edges of my capabilities.

“You’re teaching me who I am,” I whispered into my son’s tiny ear while around us our family all spoke at once, saying their goodbyes.

Not long after, my son smiled at me, and when he learned to reach out his arms it was to reach for me. As things grew easier between us, I went easier on myself and worked to meet my own needs while taking care of his. I was still clumsy with him, but he didn’t seem to mind. I came to see that my touch, no matter how inelegant, was home to him, just as my imperfect body had always been home to me.

Ona Gritz is a poet, children’s author, and columnist for literarymama.com. Her essays have appeared in More Magazine, The Utne Reader, New York Family Magazine and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a memoir.

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Our Two Babies

Our Two Babies

By Dana Huebler

SU 13 Two Babies Quilt Art 1My parents announced the news one night after supper, a few weeks after I’d started first grade.

“We have a surprise for you,” my father began in his deep, professorial voice, a smile tugging at his lips.

“Something new is coming to our house,” my mother added coyly.

“What?” I demanded.

“You have to guess,” my father answered, smiling fully now.

“We’re getting a new car?” my brother, Dorne, guessed. At 11, a replacement for our old Rambler was about the only surprise that could generate any excitement in him.

My parents shook their heads.

“A pony?” my nine-year-old sister, Darcy, offered, giving voice to the dying hope that one day she’d wake up to find a pony grazing in our backyard.

“No,” my father said, with a dry chuckle.

“A monkey!” I shouted. If my sister could reach for the impossible, so could I. But the fantasy evaporated with the laughter that erupted around me. “A monkey?” Darcy sneered.

I looked at our reflections in the kitchen window, where the black night pressed against the glass. I could almost taste the bracing chill of autumn. That year, caught up in the excitement of starting first grade, I was falling in love with fall: the abrupt shift in weather, the vibrant colors of the leaves, the crisp, deep blue of the October sky. On a clear autumn day, I could pretend I was living in a picture-perfect New England village instead of a drab, dying mill town on the Merrimack River.

As I gazed at our images on the glass, the answer came to me with a flash of certainty so clear I hardly raised my voice. “A baby,” I said, looking to my parents for confirmation. They smiled, then nodded, and a sweet light flooded through me. Even though the baby wouldn’t be born until spring, I shivered with the sense of change electrifying my world. I felt as though I’d been given a precious gift, one that I’d have to wait months to receive.

*   *   *

Forty years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, I start a similar guessing game with my children.

“Something new is coming into our lives,” I tell them, in the same playful voice. “Can you guess what it is?”

“Let’s see,” Lila murmurs, gazing thoughtfully at nothing.

“A Nintendo!” she guesses, her eyes lighting up. She insists she’s the only kid in her 2nd-grade class who doesn’t have one. Marko, her 5-year-old brother, likes the idea of a Nintendo so much he guesses it again, even after we’ve assured them this is not the surprise.

The guessing continues along electronic lines before moving on to cars and pets. A baby seems to be the last thing on their minds, and when they finally do guess, with some strong hints from me and my husband, it has none of the Aha! Eureka! feeling I had as a child.

But I’m not surprised. We’ve never talked about having a third child, and the fact that both children were born in America, not Germany, where we live now, seems to have solidified us as a completed family. Besides, I’m in my mid-forties—I was certain my baby days were behind me.

So certain, that when my period didn’t come, I waited weeks to take a pregnancy test. And though my first reaction was shock—horror, really—I quickly became swept up in the excitement and wonder of this unexpected, late-in-life pregnancy.

*   *   *

At my first prenatal appointment, I see the baby for the first time. Just a vague form on the sonogram, a white blob of light in a sea of murky gray, it is still an embryo in the fishlike stage, with no hands or limbs, just a visibly beating heart.

The doctor uses a pregnancy wheel to calculate the due date: April 22nd. But later, when the embryo is big enough to measure, the date changes to April 12th. Already something of a miracle, this baby I conceived at 46 will be a spring baby, born almost exactly between my two older children’s birthdays.

But April 12th—that’s the day my mother gave birth to my little brother, the baby I couldn’t wait to meet and help take care of. The coincidence seems amazing to me, and I find myself thinking often of that baby, my brother, and that time so long ago.

I notice other coincidences, too, in those early weeks; shining synchronicities that make me pause, and wonder. For starters, both Marko and my mother- in-law seem to sense the pregnancy on some level before we’ve told anyone the news. A few days after my first prenatal appointment, Marko asks me: “Mommy, can someone get three babies?”

“Of course,” I say, trying to hide my surprise.

“Could you get a third baby?” he persists. He’s never brought up the idea of a sibling before, but now, when I ask him if he’d like to have a little brother or sister, he answers yes without hesitation.

A day or two later, over coffee and cake, my mother-in-law mentions how wonderful it would be to have another grandchild—another Enkelkind for her to cuddle and love. My husband, Kai, and I laugh at the idea—the news is still too fresh for us to share—but I’m stunned she would consider this in light of my age. Even the miniature baby boom in Kai’s work group seems like a good omen to me: among 15 coworkers, three babies had been born that summer.

But it’s the dream I had just before conception that transports simple coincidence into the realm of magic, divination. In the dream, I am stepping off a train on a warm spring day. My friend Joy is waiting for me, with a little girl of about six years old. Together, we go to Joy’s house and I sit under a cover of lush, green trees, with patches of blue sky and brilliant sunlight sparkling through the leaves. Joy gives me an exuberant hug. “You’re still young,” she says. “You can still bring another basket of joy into the world.”

These coincidences, especially the dream and the matching due dates, help bolster my confidence about this unexpected pregnancy, considered high-risk because of my age. I hold onto them as an assurance that everything will be okay.

*   *   *

I wonder how my mother felt when she discovered she was pregnant with my brother. She certainly had the glow that pregnant women have, and both she and my father seemed happy about the pregnancy, even though this baby, like my baby, had been a surprise, and her pregnancy, like mine, was high- risk. Her risk came not from age—she was only 34—but from the Rh factor, a blood incompatibility between mother and fetus that can harm a developing baby. If, as a child, I was aware of this risk, I did my best to ignore it. I felt as though a giant light was shining on me and my world, and I woke up each morning filled with excitement about the baby coming into our lives. I couldn’t wait to be a big sister, and I was hoping for a boy.

The last vivid memory I have before my brother’s birth was in March, when my mother was in her seventh month. My father and his colleagues staged a “Happening” at the college where he taught art, an all-day event of performance art with stations set up around the school. The memory plays like a movie reel in my mind—a home movie on grainy film, with the whites blurred and overly bright, the grass a dull brown, and the sky a washed-out blue. But even in the fading color, the promise of spring is apparent. The snow is gone, the sky is bright with rolling clouds, and my mother looks radiant: smiling, happy, and very pregnant under her winter coat. I stood with her and a crowd of students watching a helicopter swoop onto the campus parking lot, looping loudly and wildly, drowning out all sound. After it touched down, my father, wearing a gorilla suit and mask, appeared in the doorway. An explosion of laughter erupted from the crowd as the students watched one of their favorite teachers lumber down the stairs, his arms flailing clumsily.

After the splashdown in the parking lot, everyone walked over to the college swimming pool, a dark, dank enclosure with milky, gridded windows, smelling of decades of splashed chlorine. The spectators packed themselves around the pool’s narrow circumference, press- ing against the sweating concrete walls as my father, the gorilla, sat in a row- boat giving rides. I was crowded so close to my mother’s large belly that I could feel the coarse, knobby material of her tweed coat scratching against my face. Sometimes, I could even feel the baby kicking near my ear.

I watched my father rowing the boat, his expression, a rubber mask, unchanging. No matter how many times I told myself that was my father in there, I didn’t quite believe it. I was struck by the strangeness of it all, the wildness even, of the rowboat in the swimming pool, captained by a gorilla, with most of the onlookers wearing high heels and long coats. I felt sure I was witnessing something important, something meaningful, though I had no idea why.

*   *   *

A certain wildness swirls through me in the early days of my pregnancy. Fear and anxiety threaten to overwhelm my feelings of hope and confidence. Am I crazy to be going through with this? When I tell my mother I’m pregnant, she reminds me that I am her third child, and “look how that turned out.” Like me, she considers the matching due date a positive omen.

I cling to this optimism. In those first weeks, with the onslaught of pregnancy hormones mixing with the shock of the pregnancy, I am a mess of conflicting emotions: questions about the health and viability of the fetus dampen the euphoria I feel about having been able to produce a life at an age when statistics say it is close to impossible.

My greatest fear is what I perceive to be my greatest risk—a chromosomal defect—even though statistically the risk for a miscarriage is considerably higher. My odds for carrying a baby with any kind of chromosomal problem are roughly 1 in 10, and for miscarriage, a frightening 1 in 2. Intuitively, I feel sure that everything will be okay, but I can’t help but be worried by such grim statistics.

In my 15th week, I go in for an amniocentesis, doing my best to lie still through the unbearably icky feeling of having a needle stuck into the most sacred of places, my womb. The doctor, normally friendly and relaxed, is now extremely serious, speaking in quiet, gentle tones as he performs the procedure, reminding us that even though the baby, a girl, looks perfect on the monitor, the results of the amnio could prove otherwise. Still, that voice inside me insists she is healthy.

Later that night, Kai and I wait together in a heavy, dreadful silence.

Our children sleep upstairs, oblivious to our anxiety. When the phone finally rings, I cannot answer it; the call is too important to risk a misunderstanding due to language. I watch my husband’s face closely as he listens to the doctor, and relief floods through me even before the smile has finished spreading across his face. The blood work, the doctor reports, has shown no chromosomal defects. Our baby is genetically perfect.

*   *   *

There were no tests to reassure us during my mother’s pregnancy— all we could do was hope and wait. And as her due date loomed closer, I worried more and more that it was all too good to be true. That this beautiful dream of having a baby brother to nurture and love would turn out to be only that. A dream.

Maybe I was tuning into the undercurrent of worry and fear running between my parents, who were certainly aware of the risks of this pregnancy: If, like me, the baby had the same blood type as my mother, he would most likely be born healthy; but if, like my brother and sister, he had a positive blood type, his health would be compromised. My sister needed a blood transfusion at birth and spent her first weeks in an incubator; for a third child with the incompatibility, the problems could be far more severe.

I don’t remember my parents making any physical preparations for the baby. Did my father bring up an old cradle or bassinet from the basement? Was a room prepared for the baby to sleep in? All I remember was the blanket that a friend of my mother’s wove for the baby. Weaving was her passion, and the blanket was a work of art. She used soft lamb’s wool to weave a pattern of large squares in vibrant colors: bright orange, deep red, vivid purple. I would sit in the rocking chair in my parents’ room, arranging the blanket over my lap or covering my dolls with it, all the while fantasizing about holding a tiny newborn in my arms, singing to it, feeding it, and loving it.

I held onto my wish for a baby brother as strongly as I could through the final weeks of my mother’s pregnancy, assuring myself that everything would be fine and the baby would be born healthy.

But then it all happened too fast. Suddenly my mother was in the hospital and the baby was born, more than a month early.

“There are problems,” my father said. That’s all he told us.

A hush fell over our house. My father spent most of his time at the hospital, and when he came home to eat or sleep, his reports were vague, hardly reassuring. The baby’s weak, but he’s fighting, he would tell us. The doctors and nurses are doing everything they can.

Two days after the baby was born, I was getting ready for school, pretending it was a day like any other, when my sister rushed into the room, breathless with excitement.

“The baby’s dead,” Darcy whispered.

“No. He’s not.” I refused to believe her.

“It’s true. I heard Dad talking to a nurse at the hospital. I listened in on the upstairs phone.”

“I don’t believe you,” I insisted, even though the truth was already taking hold. “They said he was dead?”

“Well, no, they didn’t actually use those words, but I could tell by the way they were talking. Dad said, ‘Well, you did the best you could…'” She shrugged. “What else could that mean?”

Darcy seemed proud of her discovery, thinking more in that moment of her clever detective work than the reality of the news she’d delivered. The baby was dead.

I knew it was true, but I refused to believe it until I heard my father say it. When we went downstairs to breakfast, I waited for him to speak. But the only sound at the breakfast table came from the crunch of our cereal and the clatter of spoons and bowls. My father was the quietest of all, reading the Boston Globe as he did every day. I watched him closely, or rather, I watched the paper he was hiding behind, waiting for him to put it down and say something.

But all he did was send us off to school with a kiss good-bye. By the time I stepped into my classroom, I’d almost

convinced myself that my sister was wrong. She must have been mistaken, misunderstood the phone call some- how. My father would certainly have said something if the baby had died.

Sometime that morning, my teacher called me up to her desk to pick up a quiz. Like most of the kids in my class, I was afraid of her. Snide and condescending to everyone but her favorites, she looked like a witch, with a beehive of black hair and stone-black eyes magnified by cat’s-eye glasses.

But now, as she handed me my quiz, she told me how sorry she was about the baby. Hearing kindness in her voice for the first time that year, I nodded stupidly and mumbled something in response, but inside I was reeling. How could she know anything about the baby, my brother? How could she be talking about him as though he was already dead?

I reminded myself she hadn’t actually used the word died or dead, she had just said she was sorry. I kept telling myself the baby must still be alive—I would feel it inside of me if he had died. I would know it in my heart. My father never would have sent us to school if something so serious had happened.

Walking home, I allowed myself to fantasize once more about holding the baby in my arms, giving him a bottle and taking care of him. I stopped under a tree and leaned against the trunk, cradling the lunchbox my father had painted for me at the beginning of the school year: a wild brown Mustang running in a cloud of dust. As I remembered how proud I’d felt on the first day of school, all the excitement of autumn and the news of my mother’s pregnancy came back to me. I spotted some lily of the valleys growing under the tree—my mother’s favorite flower—and scooped up a bunch. I breathed in the sweet fragrance and, feeling a small infusion of hope, started walking again.

By the time I got home, I’d nearly convinced myself that things might actually be normal. But when I opened the front door to a silent house, I knew they were not normal at all. I let the flowers fall from my hand as I stepped inside.

“Dana? Is that you?” my father called, his voice even deeper than usual. “Can you come in here, please?”

I set down my lunchbox and hung up my coat. My legs felt heavy, filled with a thick liquid, as I walked to the living room and joined my brother and sister on the couch. My father didn’t say anything for a minute or two, he just looked from one to the other of us with his piercing brown eyes.

“The baby didn’t make it,” he finally said, his voice grave and emotionless. “He died early this morning.” He presented the news as if it had been inevitable, something we simply needed to accept.

“He just wasn’t strong enough. They did everything they could to save him, but…” He let the words trail away and lifted his chin, as though he was trying to put a distance between his head and his heart. We waited for him to say more, but he was silent. And so were we. None of us cried. We did not ask questions. The baby was dead. That was that, and now we needed to move on as a family.

My mother stayed in the hospital for a week. One day soon after she came home, I followed her into the bathroom and asked to see the scar from the Cesarean. Maybe I thought it would make the baby seem more real to me, that I would somehow feel closer to him, or maybe I needed evidence that there had actually been a baby in there, that this hadn’t all been a dream. Whatever my reason, I didn’t expect my mother to comply.

But she did. She stood up from the toilet and lifted her nightgown, showing me her naked pelvis. Her pubic hair had been shaved off, and stubble was already growing in. A black-scabbed scar ran horizontally above the stubble, a row of stitches sewn crosswise through the wound. It was an ugly sight, and I was horrified.

*   *   *

Near the end of my pregnancy, my doctor tells me if the baby isn’t born by April 12th, he wants to induce labor on the following Monday, April 14th. In spite of having a normal, healthy pregnancy, I’m still high-risk, and he doesn’t want to wait too long.

When I relay this news to my mother, she reminds me that April 14th was the day the baby died. Until then I had not even considered this date— his death date. At first, I worry that it might be inviting bad luck to schedule an inducement on that date, but in these final days, I feel pregnant with hope and optimism, with the expectation and excitement one feels when a new child is about to arrive into a family.

Also, by now, the coincidence of dates seems not to matter anymore; everything pales next to the weight of my growing belly and the emotional pull of the impending birth. April 12th passes without incident, and I decide I’m not ready to induce on the 14th, not because my brother died on that day, but because I want to allow my baby to be born in her own time.

But after another week passes with no signs of labor, the doctor refuses to wait any longer. And by now, I’m ready. I go into the hospital to start the induction process, taking a pill every few hours to bring on contractions. Sometime after midnight, labor begins, and early the next morning, I’m wheeled into the delivery room.

Later, when I look back on these final moments, I see myself on all fours, crawling around the room and howling like an animal. In fact, I am lying on a bed, on my side, with one leg bent and lifted high in the air—a strange, anti-gravity position that the midwife has settled on because she seems afraid to ask me to move. But the howling and screaming are entirely real. The pain is worse than it was for my first two children, and when the midwife announces that I am only six centimeters dilated, I feel I might lose my will. But then my husband reminds me of my son’s birth, how fast things went after exactly this point, and it gives me the strength I need to keep going.

I also find power in my voice. As waves of pain rip through me, I let myself scream with abandon, loudly and deeply—a different sound coming out with each contraction. I yelp rhythmically, blow out through my lips, letting them vibrate loudly, and open my entire throat to push out low, long bellows. Each time, I focus on the sound, traveling with it to its endpoint as though it exists somewhere on the ceiling, on the other side of the room, somewhere far away from the source of the pain—my throbbing, contracting uterus—until the wave recedes and the pain subsides.

Finally, the midwife tells me I can start pushing, even though I am in this awkward sideways position. Through three or four contractions, I push with all my might, until the baby’s head is almost out. Almost, but not quite.

“Ich sehe dunkel haar,” the midwife exclaims. In the midst of my agony, this gives me a thrill of hope. With two fair-haired children, I’ve been hoping for a baby with my dark hair.

“Einz weiter!” the midwife commands. One more push. And finally, the release. A spiraling rush of energy shooting through me and out of my body. I open my eyes and watch the midwife pulling my baby out. Her body is wet and bluish, her eyes are closed, and the umbilical cord is still reaching into me.

I never saw my other children coming out—not with a mirror, not on video—but this time, in this odd position, I see my daughter being pulled from my womb and her still form coming to life. The midwife lays the baby on the bed next to me, and she and I look at each other for the first time. She has blue eyes, is my first thought, and she is looking right at me, her gaze intelligent and intense. As if she has known me forever and as if she, too, has been waiting to see what I look like. Then she does something that takes my breath away: She lifts her hand and reaches out to me, grabbing my index finger with her tiny fingers and holding tight for several seconds.

The doctor makes his notes, the mid-wife starts her cleanup, and I lay back and bring the baby to my breast. Now that the birth has been accomplished, and all risks and questions are behind us, the midwife tells us that today is her own birthday. This, I decide, is just one more coincidence honoring this new life, this miracle.

My daughter Zoe was born on April 22nd—the original due date the doctor gave me at my first prenatal visit. Her middle name, Joy, is in honor of a dear family friend who came into my life the year my mother was pregnant with my brother. Thirty years later, it was Joy who played matchmaker to bring me and my husband together. And it was Joy who came to me in the dream I had just before conceiving. “You’re still young,” she told me. “You can still bring another basket of joy into the world.”

Two weeks after this dream, Zoe was conceived, and five weeks after that, my life transformed with the knowledge of the secret that had been growing inside of me. In April, as flowers and trees burst into bloom and the weather finally settled on spring, she came into the world, reaching out her tiny hand and taking a firm grip on life.

*   *   *

Four months later, at a well-baby checkup, I wait in the pediatrician’s office worrying over questions to ask. A blanket lies across my chair, and it takes me a moment to notice that, with its large squares of orange, purple, and red, it looks like the baby blanket woven for my brother so many years ago.

Another coincidence. What does it mean? What have they all meant?

I stroke the soft fleece and study the blanket’s colors, and I am back again, in that time of hope and sadness. I wish so much that my brother had lived. That all my hope, joy, and anticipation had been enough to make him come into the world healthy and strong. I wish I knew what he’d looked like, that I’d gotten a chance to see him at least once. Who would I be now if I’d had a little brother to nurture and grow up with? Who would he be, my brother?

I look down at my little girl lying in my arms, and she stares up at me, her eyes watchful and intent, a pacifier moving steadily in her mouth. I press my cheek to hers and breathe in her milky scent. My baby, this baby, alive and healthy, solid and warm in my embrace.

Author’s Note: After my daughter’s birth, the memories of my brother quickly receded back to whatever place in the heart or mind such memories reside. I will always be grateful for the opportunity I had to relive and remember that very charged and traumatic time: the joy I felt about my mother’s pregnancy, the happy anticipation I floated on in the months leading up to his birth, and the profound sadness and loss I felt after he died.

Dana Huebler worked for years as a professional writer and editor before devoting her creative energies to writing fiction and memoir and raising a family. A graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, her work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Watershed, and Venice magazines. She was co-author of the book The Colorblind Career. She recently finished a Young Adult novel, The House on Pilgrim’s Way, and is currently working on a collection of personal essays. Dana lives in Bremen, Germany, with her husband and three children.

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An Open Letter To My Placenta

An Open Letter To My Placenta

By Jessica Dur Taylor
0-8Dear Placenta:

You might be wondering why, nearly three months after your birthday, you are still wrapped in that indelicate red plastic, frozen solid. Each time I fetch an ice cube, I feel a pang of guilt. You, the unsung hero of birth, nestled in between the Rocky Road and the Trader Joe’s meatless corn dogs like so many bags of peas! (Then again, you don’t see me using them for bicep curls, do you?)

It’s just that I’ve been way busier than I bargained for, what with all the cloth diapering and sling-wearing and breastfeeding on demand. Has my daughter (who owes her life to you, placenta) stolen your thunder? Well, obviously.

But today is your day.

For nine and a half months you held tight to my uterine wall, kept waste and nutrients flowing in all the right directions, and blocked the stray molecules of carnauba wax and yellow #5 from infiltrating my fetus’s bloodstream. Dang those rainbow sprinkles! You did exactly what you were designed to do, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

So why, given all your awesomeness, didn’t I just eat you outright? You were delivered by a midwife in a low-light room after 22 hours of excruciating “natural” labor. Surely you figured you were headed straight for a red wine marinade and the broiler. Or at the very least dehydration. And believe me, after hearing the horror stories of postpartum depression, of new greasy-haired moms hovering under the sheets with the curtains drawn, I seriously considered having you dried out and made into handy capsules, just in case I felt myself daydreaming about putting my baby in the freezer. Or worse.

But by the time we finally met, I was too exhausted to care what happened to you, placenta. Can you really blame me? I’m a woman of average size, even after forty pounds of pregnancy weight gain. So why did I grow a ten pound baby? (Okay, to be more accurate: why did we grow a nine pound, ten and a half ounce monstrosity?) Was it my daily froyo habit? All that grass-fed beef and Dino kale?

All I know is that after pushing for four hours, until my face was swollen and my hair nearly dread-locked, I could give a rat’s bung about imprinting you on acid-free paper, the way I’d once imagined. Was I expecting to be charmed by my baby’s first bedfellow? Did I think you’d make for some artsy photos, maybe inspire a multi-media collage? Perhaps. What I didn’t expect was something resembling a giant uncooked liver, better fit for a haunted house than a matte frame.

Still, heavyweight drippy squid creature or not, you never pulled any punches. I read the disquieting What to Expect When You’re Expecting (note to self: burn it), so I’m well aware of all that could have gone wrong. Even in my post-labor semi-alert daze I knew I couldn’t let you go the way of the hazardous waste bin. You faithfully delivered the antibodies that made one healthy, alert, dare I say it, exquisite little baby–naturally, I was in awe of you both. So I lugged you home, along with my unworn nightie and uneaten snacks, with benevolent, if cloudy, intentions. The last thing I wanted for you was freezer burn!

Have you heard that in some regions of Africa the query to a stranger is not “Where are you from?” but “Where is your placenta buried?” In fact, a quick Google search reveals that burying the placenta is de rigueur all over the world. Here in California, there are more than a few lemon and olive trees growing out of placental internments, I assure you.

And so. The hole has been dug. The cupcakes are cooling. You’re defrosting in the kitchen sink. Soon you will be released from your plastic prison and returned to your natural, gooey state. Time for one last look, cord and all. I may even snap a photo or two.

Since I’ve been flummoxed about what to do with the remains of my wedding bouquet, all dried out and crumbly, I hope you won’t mind me tossing that in as well. Somehow it seems appropriate—after all, that auspicious event did essentially lead to your creation. I’ve also gathered a few heavy rocks to place on top of the burial mound, just in case the neighborhood dogs come a-sniffin’.

As for what to plant on top of you, I’m thinking something low maintenance and hassle-free, like wildflowers. May you nourish them as you nourished my sweet baby girl, and may you rest in peace, placenta, at last.

Jessica Dur Taylor teaches college composition, writes about food for the Bay Area alt-weekly the Bohemian, and makes the most of her daughter’s nap time. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Stealing Time, Prick of the Spindle, The Mom Egg, Gloom Cupboard, Hip Mama online, and others. She lives in Santa Rosa, California.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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Motherhood: A Life of Mourning

Motherhood: A Life of Mourning

By Sarah Johnson

0“I love my friends! We are friends forever!” My daughter sings this tune, listing the names of her preschool friends while I bring groceries into the house. She’s twirling, her mess of blonde curls swiping her cheeks with every spin.

Lilly is a carefree spirit, having a typical moment for a 4-year-old. But the song has shaken me out of my routine. I stop walking, feeling my eyes water. I’m unable to wipe away the tears because my hands are weighed down by canned tomatoes and boxes of crackers.

I smile anyway, not wanting her to see any despair. “That’s a nice song,” I say.

She keeps on dancing, continuing her display of pure happiness.

Part of me is jealous I don’t remember what it feels like to be so free of worries. But mostly, I’m amazed by her innocence, that she doesn’t yet realize friendships rarely last forever. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean they’ll love you back. And just because I’m her mom doesn’t mean I’ve loved her forever.

“One day you won’t let me kiss you,” I say to her during another typical moment. She’s sitting on my lap in between bites of Special K as we talk about what we’re going to do over the next few days. Tuesday is preschool, Wednesday her grandmother comes over, Thursday is preschool again.

“You’re just kidding!” she says, using her favorite new phrase. “I will always kiss you!”

I shake my head but she insists. Maybe she is years away from spurning my touch, but I have been dreading that time ever since we found out her gender. When the ultrasound technician said, “You are having a girl,” what I heard was, “You are having a teenage girl who will hate you.”

Like most teens, I pushed by mom away during my high school years, creating a fissure that has never fully healed. It began soon after my father moved out and around the time everything outside the house became more enticing than what was inside it, including boys and the concept of adulthood.

My momentary disappointment about having a girl was my first realization that I would be entering a lifetime of letting go. Parents are in constant grieving of what once was, as they fulfill their duty to develop independent beings.

After Lilly was born, two nurses, two doctors, and my husband got to touch her first before she was returned to me. I wish I had held her first, as soon as she entered this world, when she changed from her status as “Lemon,” the faceless inhabitant of my belly we had nicknamed, to a munchkin replica of us.

When my water had broke hours earlier, there were signs of meconium. The nurses had told me a pediatrician would have to look at her immediately to make sure she was breathing properly (in case she had meconium aspiration, or had been breathing her poops). It turns out she was perfectly fine, born as a lady, who would never consume feces, even her own.

By the time she was in my arms, I didn’t know what to do with her. She squirmed and I squirmed, setting off a lifetime of awkward and tension-filled, mother-daughter episodes. In those first few weeks, when relatives and friends came in and out of our house to meet Lilly while I was exhausted and detached, nearly everyone talked about this instant love that I somehow had missed. “It must have been love at first sight!” “Didn’t you just love her as soon as you laid eyes on her?” I nodded, going along with the farce, hoping and trusting that I would somehow come around.

And I did, eventually. Now fully in love with my daughter, I grieve for the 1-year-old, 2-year-old, and 3-year-old version of her, with more versions to come. But I don’t miss the newborn phase at all.

Did I resent her when she was born because I was in defense mode, afraid she’d hate me once she exited the womb? Or was I just a new mother who had very little experience with babies?

“Do you want to hold her?” the nurse asked.

Mothers-to-be eagerly wait for that question, which in most cases doesn’t require an answer. It’s usually YES in neon letters. In the middle of the night, though, exhausted by the late hour and pushing, I gave a quiet answer, aimed at my husband, Phil. “You can hold her first.”

After all, I thought, I had held maybe two other babies in my life. I had no idea what to do with this baby, even though she was mine and I had carried her everywhere I went for nine months.

I didn’t have to tell Phil twice, and I can’t blame him. He was eager to get his hands on his little one. Having watched the birth, he had had more time to let the reality sink in that a new human had entered our lives. For me, five hours of labor went by too fast to feel real.

Letting Phil be the first of us to hold her was a concession during this era of co-parenting, when men have manned up to share diapering duties and are not a rare species during drop-offs and pickups at daycare. In retrospect, though, that was a moment where motherhood should have trumped any symbol of equality. I had earned that “first.”

Instead, my husband wears a hole on his sleeve like a fatherly badge of honor. About the size of a dime at the end of a faded blue shirt, the hole serves as a sloppy reminder of his first (tiny) sacrifice as a dad, when he first held Lilly.

She nestled in his arms, swaddled in a hospital-provided blanket. He stared at her and was – there is no other word – beaming. Feeling hot but terrified of disturbing her, this creature that just a few minutes before had been a wailing, slimy mess popping out of his wife, Phil leaned forward to push his sleeve up with his teeth. In the process, he ripped a hole in his shirt.

I have more permanent (stretch) marks than an old shirt to show I’m a parent and have made sacrifices too. But I wish I had the same memory of his when he first locked eyes with his little girl and, by all appearances, naturally took over his new, lifetime role as a dad.

Those first moments he had with her let me procrastinate my motherhood role for another half hour or so while I was cleaned up. I lay there in a daze while my husband got a head start on bonding. “What should we name her?” he asked. How could he talk so casually at this monumental moment, I wondered. Why did he look so at peace, while I felt ravaged?

As time progresses, I think of my missed moment with Lilly. It comes to mind whenever she acts like Daddy’s girl, even though I realize she may have been Daddy’s girl no matter who held her first. She’s strong-willed, girly, and when things aren’t going her way, I get the brunt of her discomfort.

“One day, Mommy won’t be with us,” she said one night after we all went for what I had thought was a nice walk.

Hurtful words make me remember the fleeting time when I didn’t like her, during her first few weeks of life. I was a dutiful mom even though I didn’t feel like anyone’s mother. I fed her and rocked her, but I felt miles away from her. I didn’t see her as a baby. She was an expensive warm doll that I kept telling myself I would one day love. Maybe that first embrace in the hospital, if it had gone better, would have sped up the bonding process. Then again, adoptive parents find their way to their children without being the first ones to hold their children.

To make up for it, now, I cuddle with her as much as possible. Sometimes, though, the duties of motherhood get in the way.

“Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!” she says.

“Just a minute, Lilly,” I answer, sighing at her impatience and having already said I would get her a cup of milk.

“Mommy!”

Standing in front of the refrigerator, about to grab the milk but thinking about the long to-do list in my head, including what I’ll be cooking for dinner and giving myself a mental note that we’re running out of paper towels, I make myself stop the mental babbling and look at her. “Yes, Lilly?”

“I love you!”

I repeat the words to her and give her a hug, making up for the one I didn’t give her four years ago.

About the Author: Sarah Johnson is a freelance writer and editor. A mother of two, she lives in Massachusetts. Follow her on Twitter @SGJComm.

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When the #%*& Hit the Face

When the #%*& Hit the Face

 

WO Margot ArtMy three pregnancies were so full of win. I read the books and ingested only nutritious things. I tried very hard, but also remained calm and serene so as not to stress the baby. I did everything exactly right almost. It was the last mile that got me.

With my first pregnancy, I learned that birthing a baby carries with it a possibility so awful that they shroud it in jargon and run-on sentences, then tuck it deep inside the very last session of childbirth class. But I was young and still felt it was possible to know things, so I parsed our teacher’s language until its light dawned:

“During the final stages of pushing,” she told us as if it was nothing, “it’s not unusual for a woman to push so hard, using the same muscles she uses for a bowel movement, that, if her rectum is full, she may evacuate. Depending on the mother’s position, some fecal matter may end up on the baby’s face, but this is quickly and easily dealt with by the OB or midwife.”

I looked, shocked, around the classroom. Everyone else seemed to be taking this in stride, nodding and jotting notes. Sooo sophisticated, my classmates. At the next break, I accosted my husband.

“Did she just say I might shit on our baby’s face?”

I knew even Anthony was rattled when all he did was parrot my words back at me.

“Yes. It’s possible you might shit on our baby’s face.”

“I can’t believe this. My first act as a mother, the very first thing I do?”

“Yes.” he said. “Shit. Baby’s face. You.” Then he got all prim. “I would never do that.”

But Eldest was born and her face stayed unsoiled. Three years later, so did my newborn son’s. But by five years after that, my perfectly clean record must have made me complacent. The possibility of messing things up from the get-go didn’t even occur to me this time around.

Then, two days after her birth, my tiny Youngest was still pinkly screaming her resentment at being in the world when Anthony approached me nervously.

“So, um, Linda got it off.”

I was confused. Our midwife got off? While I was in labor? Good for her I guess, but it hardly seemed appropriate.

“No, got IT off. The, um, poop. On the baby. You know.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“It wasn’t that bad. Really.”

But I had tried so hard! I did everything right almost!  (Almost: the gap where the guilt gets in.)

I felt terrible. And mommy guilt makes me defensive and blamey, which makes me ridiculous. Shortly after Anthony confessed my crime, I produced the following gem of rationalization: “It’s just, she came so fast! I’m sure I wouldn’t have pushed that hard if the baby herself hadn’t been so pushy. Don’t you think?”

I wallowed for a little while, but honestly: If there’s a better object lesson for striving for perfection and messing things up anyway, I can’t think of it. (And if you can’t make a little lesson out of pooping on your baby, why bother?)

The wisdom borne of this Incident should be obvious, but I’m a slow learner and require a lot of repetition: No matter how well I set out to be the perfect mommy, the perfect daughter, the perfect partner. No matter how good my intentions or how hard I try, I will shit on my baby’s face, and there’s no way I can undo it. And every minute I spend wallowing about the poop thing is a minute I’m not admiring tiny fingernails.

Some of my mom-crimes are worse than others, but all of them are forgivable. Yep, Youngest, I did that. I also nursed you and read to you. I drove you places and kissed your owies and lost my temper and said the wrong thing and kept forgetting to sign you up for dance lessons even though you really, really wanted them and you would have been really, really good. I’ve made you a few fancy and complicated birthday cakes and many frozen burritos.

As your mama, all I can do is my best, clean up my mistakes as quickly as I can (or allow other people to clean them up for me, thanks), and then move forward, taking care not to do it again. In this case, I can probably guarantee it.

Margot Page lives with her family in Seattle, where she also writes and works full time. She’s just completed a memoir of the year she hauled her family to Costa Rica. Read more of Margot’s work at www.margot-page.com.

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Marked

Marked

By Randon Billings Noble

Marked art

When I can’t sleep at night my hand strays across my belly and fingers the stretch marks on my side.

One is particularly deep.  I poke my fingertip into its crater and wonder what I am actually touching, what layer of skin or tissue. I consider how it was slowly torn from the incremental and unremitting growth of pregnancy.   What relentless power, to rend the body, even its skin.

I remember the day I discovered my stretch marks: Christmas 2010.  I was seven months pregnant – with twins – and thought I had stretched this far without a ripple.  But the bathroom mirror in my parents’ house hangs lower than my own.  I could see below my equator.  It was like looking at the far side of the moon – a place long held secret, now revealed to be pitted and pocked, like a wind-ridged desert, or a tree trunk ravaged by woodworms.

I sighed.  This was not a gift I wanted.

The body that once held two human beings now holds memory.  The memory of the undeniably gorgeous body I had at 16.  Of the Indian summer that same-but-different body had at 36 – lithe and strong and fitter than it had ever been after many hours and two ranks of Aikido.  The memory of the afternoon the twins were conceived, and the morning they were born.  Of the first birds of spring that sang outside my dawn-dark window.  Of my incredulity at the twins’ size, beauty and immediate, discrete personhood.  Of the disbelief that I was finally delivered not only of them but also of the physical burden they placed on me: over 15 pounds of baby and perhaps another 15 of their accouterments. I was also delivered of their constant presence and my inability to ever to leave them – even for a moment – not for a stiff drink, a pot of coffee, a winter evening walk, a full night’s sleep.  The morning they were born my body was freed, my soul ever more bound.

Well, my body was almost free.

It took days to peel away the glue left from the surgical tape covering my incision.  It took weeks for the stitches to dissolve, and one appointment to have the last one pulled out with a tiny flash of unexpected pain.  It took months for the scar to fade from a wet red, and years before it dulled into a thin purple line.  The loose skin and map of stretch marks will not go away unless I choose to cut them away.  I don’t choose that.

I don’t choose that because I believe that this is what happens to bodies – they carry and stretch and age and scar.  I believe that this is an important part of being a human being, and that changing my shape through surgery would somehow alter who I am, and I don’t want to alter who I am because of a dissatisfaction with the way one aspect of my body looks.  This is what I look like because this the way I’ve lived.  I would sooner cut away my fast walk, my peculiar handwriting, my particular singing voice.

Still.  Still.

I mourn the body I have lost.  But it is like mourning my time as a single woman when I married.  Or a childless woman when I became a mother.  This kind of mourning is often misunderstood, but it is necessary.  I loved my life when I was young and free, the many adventures I had and the mistakes I made, the romances and the irresponsibility and the knowledge that my future was wide open: anything was possible.  But then I met my mate and happily traded all those possibilities for this one rich certainty.  And when we decided to try for a child we traded our joint possibilities for a different kind of certainty: we knew that our life would never be the same.  Our past lives are worth mourning, and mourning them in no way diminishes the life we live now.  One person encompasses many lives.

The origin of the word capacity comes from the Latin capere, to “take or hold.” After my body no longer held the twins its excesses subsided.  The fluids I had retained slowly drained away.  My ankles reappeared.  My uterus returned to the size of a pear.  My incision healed.  My belly tightened.  I drank a lot of coffee and a little bourbon, took long walks, slept lying down instead of propped up, did cobra pose in yoga, zipped but couldn’t quite button an old pair of jeans.

Now at night I lie in the dark and feel the marks that stipple my skin.  These spots and blemishes, these symbols and signs, these imprints and impacts.  They remind me that I have been stretched to capacity – beyond capacity – and then managed to stretch further still.

And hold.

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist.  Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; The Massachusetts Review; Passages North; Propeller Quarterly; HER KIND, a blog powered by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and elsewhere.  You can read more of her work at www.randonbillingsnoble.com.

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