Can I Get a Witness?

Can I Get a Witness?

By Brett Paesel

Can I get a Witness ArtI have a three-year-old son, and I’ve come to the conclusion that raising a young child involves long stretches of boredom interrupted by flashes of terror and bursts of supernatural joy–which sounds awfully close to the definition of psychosis. And, also, I am told, combat. One would think that, knowing this, I would send my child off to boarding school and surgically ensure that I never have another child. But no. For a reason I cannot name, I am obsessed with having a second one.

For a year, I pee on all kinds of sticks. Sticks that tell me when I’m ovulating. Sticks that tell me if I’m pregnant. I get crazy about sticks. I buy them in bulk and pee on them even when I’m not ovulating or remotely close to being pregnant. I begin to live by the sticks.

I circle the best days in my date book for getting it on. I wake Pat in the middle of the night for sex. Because the stick says now. Then I lie on my back with my legs propped against the wall until they lose all feeling and fall onto the bed. I wake Pat again, pounding my paralytic legs with my fists.

I read adoption books and daydream about flying to India to pick up a little girl. I even talk to someone who has a baby connection in Nigeria. But I back out when I realize that we communicate only through his beeper and pay phones.

A year of this and no success. I am desperate–driven by a force beyond myself, like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. So I decide to have my doctor run some tests that will tell me a little more about my chances of getting pregnant.

The day I go in for the results of the tests, I wait alone in the lobby. Pat and my son park the car while I sit on a brown leather sectional and start to finger the neatly placed magazines on the glass table in front of me. I consider reading the article on “Ten Things Men Would Like Us to Know.” But I’m not sure I want to know. I look up to see bamboo shoots in a glossy green pot on the corner of the table. Behind them is a painting of the Buddha done by my doctor, Dr. Sammy. He is a Buddhist, which is and is not a good thing in an OB. At his best, he is cool, detached, and amused. At his worst, he is cool, detached, and amused.

When I was looking for a gynecologist, I asked a couple of friends for their recommendations. The first said that she had a great doctor: thorough, no nonsense. “It’s just . . . “

“What?” I said.

“Well, it’s silly, really. It’s just that he has no sense of humor.”

“I don’t know that that would matter,” I said.

“Well, then, he’s your man,” she said. “It’s just that one time he was doing a Pap. I mean he was right in the middle of it. My feet are in the stirrups. And the lights go out all over the hospital. And he just . . . “

“What?”

“Well, he waited until they came on again. He didn’t say anything. Nothing to break the tension. I lay there in the dark, my legs spread, and listened to him breathing, while the greasy speculum slipped out of me.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“The lights came on. And he finished the job. He just went on like nothing had happened.”

Not sure about that, I thought.

My next friend said that she had a great guy she had known for years. He was practically a friend.

“It’s just . . . “

“What?” I said.

“Well, his sense of humor is a little strange. It’s okay with me. But you might not like it.”

“Like what does he say?”

“Well, the last time I was making an appointment with him he said, ‘Great, I can’t wait to see that luscious bod. I’ll be waiting, with my tongue hanging out.'”

“Ewww.”

“He was just joking.”

Not my guy, I thought.

My next friend said that she had met her gynecologist in acting class. He was a Renaissance man–doctor, painter, actor–and Buddhist.

“It’s just . . . “

“What?” I said, weary.

“It’s just. Well, he’s handsome.”

“So what?”

“Well. Some people don’t like that in a gynecologist,” she said.

“How handsome is he?”

“Very handsome,” she said. “He played the Devil in a scene for acting class. And he was so sexy that the women couldn’t take their eyes off him.”

“Your gynecologist played the Devil?”

“He was good,” she said.

Pat and Spence join me in Dr. Sammy’s office. I look out the window and see sky clean as a blue sheet, sunlight bouncing off white squares of concrete in the street below, glinting cars maneuvering in a parking lot. I try to imagine Dr. Sammy as the Devil, and my mind skids to a short list of things I’d be willing to trade my soul for.

“So let me see here,” he says.

I hear him open a file, but I keep my attention on the sheet sky. Spence climbs into my lap.

“He’s three now?” Dr. Sammy asks.

I think, Get to it, get to it. What does the file say?

“Almost three,” says Pat.

“I’ve got some stickers,” says Dr. Sammy. He pops out of his reclining chair and sprints out of the room.

Spence squirms off my lap and on to Pat’s.

Is he stalling? I wonder. Are the stickers a delaying tactic while he gets up the nerve to say that while getting information about my fertility status, he found out that I’m riddled with cancer? It’s a brain tumor, I’m sure. I’m always sure it’s a brain tumor. Wait a minute–he didn’t go anywhere near my brain. It would have to be ovarian cancer. I see myself six months from now wearing a turban, looking thin and impossibly beautiful, being wheeled into Spence’s preschool graduation ceremony.

Dr. Sammy bounces back in with stickers and hands them to Spence.

“Stickers!” Spence says, sliding off Pat’s lap onto the carpet.

Dr. Sammy plops down in his chair, grabs the file, and leans back again.

I see Pat in my hospital room, moving the tubes aside, and carefully lying down next to my waif-like body. Hanging onto my last few breaths, I whisper, “I loved only you.”

“Your progesterone is good,” says Dr. Sammy.

Pat looks at me, smiles, and grabs my hand like we won something. It’s not cancer.

“Pat’s sperm is good.”

Pat nods like he knew that all along.

I look down to see Spence sitting in the middle of all the frog stickers he’s stuck to the carpet. He looks up at me and smiles. King Frog with his subjects.

“So what is it?” I ask.

“Well, Brett, it’s nothing really,” says Dr. Sammy. “It’s just that you’re forty-two and your eggs are old.”

“But I don’t look like I’m forty-two,” I say. “Forty is the new thirty.”

A patient smile spreads across his face. “Not biologically,” he says.

I realize at this moment that I hate him.

“Old eggs?” asks Pat.

“Mmm,” says Dr. Sammy, leaning forward, his beaky nose hanging over his weak mouth. “A woman has only a set number of eggs at birth. She loses these eggs as she gets older, and by forty, the eggs that remain are old. They’re tired.”

How old are they? I hear in my head. So old they need a walker just to get over to the uterine wall.

He goes on, “There’s a higher risk of chromosomal problems. And it’s harder to get pregnant.” I watch as he rests his talons on top of the file.

“Christie Brinkley had a baby at forty-four,” I say.

“I’m not saying you can’t get pregnant,” he says. “In fact, if I were to bet on a forty-two-year-old getting pregnant, I would bet on you.”

“You would?” I ask. My voice sounds girly and flirtatious, not my own.

“You’ve got everything going for you,” Dr. Sammy says. “You’ve got the blood pressure of a teenager.”

“I do?” I ask, giggling.

“And your uterus is in great shape. Pink and healthy.”

“Pink. Great,” I say.

Dr. Sammy is such a handsome, kind man, I think. We should have him over for dinner sometime.

Spence grabs onto my knee and pulls himself up from the frogs. Pat raises an eyebrow at me and turns to Dr. Sammy. “Well, we wanted to know what we’re dealing with because if it looks unlikely that we’ll get pregnant, we’re going to start looking into adoption,” he says.

Spence pulls on the neck of my shirt. “I want more stickers.”

“Just a minute,” I say, prying his fingers away. “Dr. Sammy’s talking to Mommy.”

Dr. Sammy laughs.

“Well, that’s a sure-fire way to get pregnant–start adoption proceedings.”

“Really?” I ask. I look at Dr. Sammy’s lovely, long fingers.

“Stickers,” says Spence, his voice insistent.

Pat reaches over and touches Spence’s hair.

“Just a minute,” I hiss. “So why would starting to adopt make me pregnant?’

“Well, it’s nothing scientific, right?” he says, winking at Pat. “It’s just the way the world works. You get what you want when you’re looking the other way.”

“STICKERS,” screams Spence.

“Spence,” I say. “This is my turn. I get to talk to the doctor now. You are not the only person in the world.”

Spence’s face drops and he sinks back to the carpet of frogs.

My heart lunges toward him. I want to take it back.

I want to say, “You are the only person in the world. That’s the problem. That’s why we’re here. I’m terrified that you will be alone some day. I can’t sleep, thinking of you alone in the world.” The truth of this hits me like a hokey God moment in a made-for-TV movie.

I hear Dr. Sammy intone more about my pink cervix and attractive follicles. I hear percentages and terms like “artificial insemination” and “donor egg.”

But most of this sounds like it’s bits and pieces from outside a door. Inside, I hold my answer. Turn it over and tuck it into my chest. My answer. The reason for this near-psychotic pining for a second child.

The reason offers itself up and I know that it’s been there since the day my brother was born. It is this: I want for my child what I have. A witness. Someone who will say, “Yes, it’s true. Yes, I was there. We were so very loved.”

Author’s Note: Dr. Sammy was right. The month we started to apply at adoption agencies, we got pregnant naturally. Having had two miscarriages, I was reticent to celebrate and I anxiously waited for blood to appear. When we hit the fifth month with no blood, I finally realized that we were actually going to have this child. We told Spence that he would soon have a brother or a sister (so longed for by me, so that he wouldn’t be alone), and he said that he’d rather have a dinosaur named Spencer.

Brain, Child (Winter 2004)

About the Author: Brett Paesel is a contributing editor to Parents and blogs at lastofthebohemians.blogspot.com. She is the author of “Mommies Who Drink.”

Illustration by Sarah Solie

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

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What Does Pregnancy Feel Like?

What Does Pregnancy Feel Like?

ART Doors of Italy

By Cloe Axelson

The waiting room at Careggi University hospital in Florence has all the charm of a Boston bus terminal: dingy, cream-colored concrete walls and steel benches with armrests so sharp they could puncture your skin. A few posters hang neatly. One offers assistance to Italian prostitutes, the others feature diagrams of pregnant bellies with a fetus tucked inside, but I can’t read them because I don’t speak the language. My husband Sam and I are in Italy for an eight-day vacation, our final getaway before we become parents. The hospital wasn’t our list of sites to visit, of course, but I’m thirteen weeks pregnant and noticed blood when I went to the bathroom, so here we are.

When we arrived there was only one other patient waiting on this Saturday afternoon in late July, a very pregnant Italian woman who was accompanied by her husband and four-year-old daughter. She looks unhealthy: sallow skin, swollen ankles, thick toenails painted a horrible metallic gold. She’s also missing teeth and every thirty or forty minutes she excuses herself for a cigarette, which she smokes, slowly, just outside the sliding glass doors. I can’t imagine a similar scene at my obstetrician’s office at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

***

As a kid, I didn’t daydream about having children. I was a tomboy, mostly concerned with how fast I could throw a baseball. In elementary school, I got my hair cut as short as my mom would allow, played on an all-boys little league team and wore a navy blue blazer with brass buttons, like my favorite boy cousins, to family parties. My parents later confessed they suspected I might be a lesbian, but no. I’d just decided that hanging out with the boys was much more interesting than watching them from afar or giggling when they walked by, as many pre-pubescent girls often do. Sam and I began dating our senior year in college. When I got married at twenty-eight, I skipped the wedding boutique circuit and bought a dress on eBay for $89.50.

In my early thirties, I thought childbearing was triggering an epidemic among my friends: suddenly they were giving up big jobs and adventure travel in countries with questionable water supplies for motherhood. My Facebook feed was littered with photographs of my friends’ distended bellies and, eventually, of their infants, red crinkly-looking things that became progressively more adorable and got pricey haircuts. Conversations about politics and career paths were replaced with chatter about nannies, breast-feeding and potty training. Some abandoned city living for the suburbs and bought battleship-sized SUVs. My friends were trading in their old lives for new ones—unrecognizable to me and, perhaps, to them. It was alarming.

And yet having a baby always lingered in the background, as something I would get to eventually, when the time was right. Once Sam finished graduate school. Once I’d run a marathon. Once we’d saved for a down payment. We were also busy: we’d lived in five apartments in three cities and held twelve jobs between us since graduating from college. We’d experienced 9/11 as New Yorkers. I’d traveled solo through Central America for three months. Sam had worked at the White House during the financial crisis. After dating for seven years and being married for five, expanding our twosome meant the end of an era. Having a family was something we’d talked about, but we wanted to be sure we were ready.

When we finally were ready, about three years ago, I discovered that getting pregnant wasn’t something I could do easily. That’s when I started paying much closer attention to my uterus.

I treated my uncooperative reproductive system like I treated any physical challenge, with determination and discipline. I did all the things the books tell you to do: took my temperature every morning to track my menstrual cycle and monitored my girl parts for slippery secretions, which I didn’t even notice I had until I read about them. I also quit eating so much cheese (which supposedly hampers fertility), tried yoga (to relax), drank less wine and, for a while, switched from coffee to green tea. My pillow talk, which was never very good, got worse—I instructed Sam to “plunge me” on more than one occasion.

I was characteristically practical and unsentimental about all the things I was doing, but none of my self-directed treatment seemed to be working. And after a year of trying and failing, it seemed getting pregnant wasn’t going to happen without outside help. I wasn’t ready to think about fertility treatments, so I started to see Lisa, an acupuncturist with an office in my neighborhood. I knew several friends who gotten pregnant after a few treatments and hoped it might work for me, too.

Lisa had a strong Roman nose and bright brown eyes. She’d been an acupuncturist for fifteen years after several years in “quality assurance” at a big pharmaceutical company. The minute I learned she was a national Kung Fu sparring champion, I knew she was the practitioner for me: no nonsense, tough, results-oriented. Once after a treatment she showed me a photo of one of her male sparring partners—his belly was stamped with a yellow-purplish mark exactly the width of her fist.

At every appointment, after I’d positioned myself at the end of her treatment table, she’d ask me a roster of questions about my sleep habits and stress levels and menstrual cycle. I took in the Eastern art hanging on the walls and tried to make sense of the human anatomy drawings with meridian maps overlaid. She told me to watch more television, to relax. When I told her I was training for a half marathon, she implored me to stop running so much and to devote my energy instead to believing my body could be a vessel for new life.  I nodded, but thought she sounded hippy-dippy.

I saw Lisa at least once, sometimes twice a week, for five months. (I even made Sam, an economist and Eastern medicine skeptic, go for six weeks as an act of solidarity.) At eighty-five dollars per visit, it cost us a small fortune. I felt great and could set a clock by my cycle, but it had become a comforting ritual that wasn’t getting me pregnant. With the supposed death knell of a woman’s fertility looming (my thirty-fifth birthday), I had to decide how committed I was to becoming a mom.  Mother Nature was pushing the issue.

***

It’s hour two in the cream-colored holding area and I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever be examined by a doctor. Especially since when we visited the registration desk, a nurse looked at me and said “La Americana? You sit a few minutes, please.”

I’d started bleeding a few hours after I’d gotten off the plane from Boston. I hadn’t had any medical issues in my pregnancy so far, so my sleep-deprived, jet-lagged brain went for my worst fear: miscarriage. Sam forbade me from reading anything on the internet, which has page after page of horror stories, and together we called my doctor in Cambridge, who instructed me to find a doctor in Florence immediately.

I’d rifled through our guidebook for a recommendation and ended up here: the Accettazione Obstretica at Careggi University Hospital, fifteen minutes by taxi outside the city center, away from the tourists and crowds.

The smoking, gold-toed pregnant patient is still here, though her husband and daughter left an hour ago. She doesn’t seem troubled by the long-wait. We’ve also been joined by a couple who appears to be in their mid-thirties, like Sam and me. The woman, an Australian, has bottle-blond hair and looks to be about six months along. Her husband is fluent in Italian, and he tells us there are only two doctors on call and that two women are in the early stages of labor, hence the delay. I’m trying to stay calm. Sam is reading a biography of Lyndon Johnson in between games of Scrabble on our iPad.

***

After acupuncture, my first stop in the baby-making industry was my OBGYN’s office. She had to complete several tests before she could ship me off to the fertility specialists, where the real work would begin. She took pints of blood, scraped samples from my insides and dyed my uterus with an eggplant-colored ink. The tests showed nothing: by all measures, my uterus and ovaries were just as they should be. One nurse even exclaimed mid-exam in her thick Boston accent, “Gorgeous, just gorgeous!” Sam got tested, too, after I suspected that his habit of working for hours with his laptop on his lap was frying any potential offspring. But he also checked out as normal. The basic tests completed, we were referred to a fertility clinic with the diagnosis of “unexplained infertility.”

Millions of words have been written about the strange and scientific voyage to parenthood taken by the infertile couple. The werewolf-like rage brought on by hormone treatment, the endless blood draws, shots and ultrasounds. The anxiety and heartbreak of failed treatments. I suspect most infertile couples go about their business in silence, but some make art out of their struggles: a photographer in California documented her journey using eggs, rose petals, tampons and pig fetuses as her subjects.

I didn’t want anyone to know what was happening because it was painful and awkward to talk about. When friends and family asked, “Are you guys going to have kids?” I wanted to tell them to fuck off, but instead I laughed and said, “Oh yeah, we’re on it.” I worried about seeing someone I knew at our clinic and I refused to discuss it, even with close friends. My parents knew things weren’t going as planned, but I didn’t share details, lest they start offering advice. They did anyway. One cold late winter afternoon, my dad and I were at the dog park. I was about to toss a tennis ball when, mid-throw, my father, a soft-spoken Midwesterner in his mid-sixties, said: “You know, you and Sam ought to try facing north. That’s what your mother and I did when we were trying to get pregnant.” I thanked him, but didn’t start bringing a compass to bed.

Our fertility clinic was located at an office park in Waltham, MA, less than half a mile from Interstate 95. It had the feel of a nice department store: high ceilings, lots of natural light, bright cloth chairs in primary colors, two flat screen televisions and dozens of magazines. The place was always busy; dozens of people, just like us, waiting to be seen. In spite of its creepy, factory-like feel, there was something awesome about the cool efficiency of it all. I imagined entire wings of the building packed with cabinets of frozen embryos, lined up like computer servers.

The fertility doctor we were referred to, Rita, was in her early forties with shoulder length dirty blond hair, a wandering left-eye and an easy laugh. She made it clear we had garden-variety infertility, a sensibility I found simultaneously reassuring and insensitive. Rita recommended we try artificial insemination first, moving on to in vitro fertilization (IVF) only if three rounds of insemination didn’t work. We agreed.

Sam would “produce” the sperm specimen at home, then race up I-95 to get it there within the sixty-minute limit before semen starts to sour. He started giving his sperm a pep talk before we dropped them off, holding the plastic cup a few inches from his face and rooting them on with a fist pump, as if each one was Michael Phelps swimming for gold. The insemination procedure takes about five minutes. A nurse would summon me to a private room where I’d undress from the waist down, cover myself with a sheet and prop my feet in stirrups. One time I was on the phone while she took a syringe of Sam’s semen and inserted it, turkey baster-style, past my cervix for a potential rendezvous with an egg. Sometimes, I’d feel minor cramping, but nothing painful; the real agony was waiting for the result.

I’d hold my breath for two weeks. The Google-search history on my phone during that time included things like “what does week one of pregnancy feel like?” and “can you feel an egg implant?” Month after month, after a blood test to check for pregnancy hormones, I’d receive a phone call from a nurse telling me I wasn’t pregnant.

Irrational self-flagellation followed. Maybe I shouldn’t have run that half marathon. Maybe there really is something seriously wrong with me. Maybe the universe is trying to tell me I’d be a terrible mother. With each unsuccessful attempt, my attitude hardened: I started to anticipate failure because it made me less vulnerable to the sting of negative results. Preparing for the worst made me feel in control of a situation that was far beyond my influence.

After our third failed insemination attempt, I needed time away from the fertility factory line. I’d started to peer jealously at pregnant women and stare wistfully at the little leaguers in the park. I was resenting people in my life, as if newly pregnant friends and family were conspiring against me. I was angry with Sam for not being able to bear children, a fact he certainly couldn’t control. I’d become just as preoccupied with not being able to get pregnant as my friends with kids were with nap schedules and play dates.

Within three months, though, I decided I was committed enough to becoming a mother that I was ready to go forward with IVF. This time, I told close friends and my parents what we were up to. It felt good to have a team of people pulling for us. We also made our fertility project the priority. Sam canceled a business trip to Miami and I skipped out on my employer’s big annual conference, things we never would have done before because it belied how much was at stake.

I’ve heard stories of women going through three, five, seven, eleven rounds of IVF. I don’t know how they find the strength. We were very lucky. I was grumpy, anxious and bloated, but after just one round, I got pregnant.

***

We’re on hour three in the waiting room and the pregnant Italian woman has excused herself for six smoke breaks. Yes, I’m counting. I can smell it on her clothes when she walks by me and it makes me want to retch.

The Australian couple is much more talkative than they were an hour ago. We’re all chatting, they’re asking about our trip and where we’re headed next. It’s already six o’clock: our first full day in Florence, gone. I’m not in pain, but I am jet-lagged and tired, entering hour forty-two without sleep.

Sam and I are contemplating whether he should run out to grab slices of pizza when I hear the front desk call a version of my name: “Ax-sel-son? Clo-way?”

“Yes!” I say, jumping up. We high-five the Australians on our way out of the waiting room.

The doctor’s name is Ippolita D’Amato. She appears to be in her late-thirties with short, brown hair that falls into her eyes and stylish, thick-rimmed glasses. She carries two cell phones, one in each of the pockets of her white doctor’s coat.

Italian is usually a wonderfully lazy language. People take their time, pronouncing every letter, elongating the vowels, every word a song. But Ippolita is on a long, busy shift and her version of the language sounds much less romantic than any Italian I’ve heard before—a rapid bark punctuated by o’s and e’s and heaving sighs. I decide this is probably how real Italians talk. Maybe that’s one bright spot: we’re having an authentic Italian experience.

Ippolita ushers Sam and me into an examination room and instructs me to sit on the edge of a bed that’s hidden behind a blue curtain. A nurse asks me to remove my underwear, hike up my sundress and lie back. I can’t help but think that if I were home, I’d be wearing a gown and have a sheet draped over my naked lower half, the lights would be on, the door closed. Ippolita begins performing a pelvic exam while the nurse revs up an ultrasound machine that, by the size of it, looks to be about twenty years old When one of the phones in Ippolita’s pockets rings, she answers it—”Pronto!” she barks into the receiver—while she’s peering at my cervix. I laugh at the absurdity of it all.

Next comes the ultrasound.  The cool gel on my belly, my bare lower half still splayed out on the table.

“You know you have due, yes?” she says.

“Yes, we’re having twins,” I say.

“One heartbeat and…two heartbeats. Bene, bene,” she says.

There is something miraculous about seeing your child (or in my case, children) inside your body, especially when they’re so tiny you can’t feel them move. But there they are, heartbeats flickering steadily on the pixilated screen. Alive. I feel a tremendous sense of relief. The two peapod-sized, thirteen-week beings are jiggling around in their amniotic sacs, just as they should be. I want to hug her. I briefly consider naming one of the twins after her, then quickly dismiss it. Ippolita is a tough name for a kid.

She says the bleeding I had was normal and that everything looks fine. She thinks it was the result of a long flight, dehydration and exhaustion. I didn’t drink enough water on the plane and I’d worked on my computer almost the entire flight. Our hotel room was being cleaned when I arrived from the airport, so I’d walked around Florence for a couple of hours in 100-degree heat. It’s something I wouldn’t have thought twice about before, but is now apparently beyond my physical limits.

She tells me I must be calm. “No running to the top of the Duomo,” she says. “Don’t get too hot. Drink lots of water.  Clo-way, remember your body is not your own.”

I read once that being pregnant means you are never alone. Sitting there underwear-less, eyeing Ippolita, it occurs to me I have yet to accept my new reality.

***

I’d only told a few people I was pregnant before our trip to Italy. I was still able to fit into my clothes and could hide the growing bulge in my abdomen. For all the pain and hassle I’d endured to get pregnant, actually being pregnant was relatively uneventful: I was constantly nauseous (but not vomiting), cringed at the smell of grilled chicken and craved watermelon, but that was it. After three years of trying and failing, I didn’t quite believe it was happening. And as much as I wanted kids, I didn’t want to broadcast the news because I suddenly didn’t feel ready for it. I was worried how people would react once they found out. It’s only natural that children don’t consider who their mother was before she became their mom. My identity as an independent, ambitious, active person would be beside-the-point to the twins. I wondered if my friends and family would also dismiss the pre-kid me in the same way.

I tried my best to heed Ippolita’s instructions. I let Sam carry my suitcase and sent him up the rickety stairs of every cathedral to take pictures from their domes while I stayed below in the shade, a bottle of water between my knees. He hiked while I sat under an umbrella at the beach. And in the early evenings, before dinner, when Sam went out to explore, I napped or read in our hotel room. I hated not being able to move far or fast.

I was happiest once we escaped the triple-digit heat of Florence for the Cinque Terre, five tiny towns perched on the craggy peaks of Italy’s northwest coast. There, I discovered the one physical activity I could enjoy: floating in the salty Mediterranean. I didn’t mind being still as long as I could be in the water. Our last morning on the coast, I sat on a jetty that cut into the blue-green sea and dipped my feet in the cool water. I can still hear the waves, with their persistent rhythm, breaking against the shore, filling the space between the rocks and making their retreat. I knew it’d be a long time before we’d visit again.

The journey from the Cinque Terre to our next stop, Siena, was about three hours by car. Our rental car was only slightly larger than a golf cart and not nearly as comfortable: the air conditioning blew hot air and my knees hit the dashboard. Making things worse, the waist on my shorts was starting to cut into my stomach, even with the button undone. I was already hot and grumpy when I read this sentence from our guidebook aloud to Sam: “When possible, avoid driving in Siena.”

Unfortunately the guidebook was right: no one should attempt to drive in Siena where the streets, which are pedestrian-only, are little more than fifteen-feet wide. Once we entered the city limits, it took us another three hours to find our hotel. As we drove in circles, I told Sam that the map was fucking useless, that I hated this stupid fucking vacation. I twice ran out of the car on the side of the road, heaving and kicking at the dirt like a toddler throwing a tantrum. I felt myself losing control, but couldn’t stop a frustration that made my whole body vibrate.

By the time we checked into our hotel, I was bleeding again. I hadn’t followed any of Ippolita’s instructions: I hadn’t stayed calm and my babies-to-be knew it.

Sam was exasperated and went out for a walk. I took a bath. Our hotel was a one-hundred year old villa once owned by Sienese aristocrats, and the heavy wooden shutters in our room opened up above the patio that overlooked the picture-perfect Tuscan countryside: a puzzle of vineyards, green hills, winding roads and stone cottages.

I could see patches of the late afternoon blue sky from the bathtub. I cupped the warm water over my growing belly, rubbing it with both hands, back and forth, coaxing calm as I looked at my toes peeking out at the far end of the tub. My iPhone, sitting on the ledge of the antique marble sink, played Bon Iver. “Someway, baby, it’s a part of me, apart from me,” one song began. I was overwhelmed by waves of anxiety, the selfish but real fear of losing myself, of never again being my own person. I wanted to be a mom, but I resented that everything I’d once thought was important might soon feel irrelevant and small, as I shed an identity I knew for one I knew nothing about.

A few tears dripped off my cheeks into the water, as I began to plead with my uterus, the organ that had been defiant for so long, and the tiny beings inside. “I’m sorry,” I said out loud. I promised to keep them safe. To be more gentle with myself. To be vulnerable, finally, to the reality of becoming a mother and all the change that would bring. “O.K., guys. I get it now,” I said, my words echoing off the tile. As the sun dipped lower on the horizon, the bubbles lost their fizzle and the water cooled. I could see how my body was changing as new life took root.

I didn’t know then that the two beings floating inside me were girls. Or that my body would stretch to an unfathomable size to accommodate theirs. Or that the toughness required to run a marathon is nothing compared to the toughness needed in labor, and to survive the ragged first year of new life.

I didn’t yet know the sense of accomplishment I would derive from tandem breastfeeding and coordinating nap schedules. The delight I’d feel in watching my daughters feel grass or see the ocean for the first time. The pride in looking at their tiny features and seeing my own in miniature. In being someone’s mom.

The things I used to worry about do seem frivolous in comparison to the relentlessness of motherhood. But I now know that is the natural order of things, even as I sometimes miss the body and life that were once mine alone.

Cloe Axelson lives with her family just outside of Boston. She is a student in Lesley University’s MFA program in nonfiction writing and works for a national education-focused nonprofit.

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Hatched

Hatched

Newborn yellow chickens in hay nest along whole and broken eggs

By Dierdre Wolownick

“Number One’s rolling!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet…

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Opinion: Tell Your Kids Early

Opinion: Tell Your Kids Early

images-1By Melissa Uchiyama

From the very start of pregnancy, there are a myriad of decisions to make. No pee stick doles out suggestions on who to tell when. There is no chart. Becoming pregnant while already a parent means another giant decision must be made: when to tell your child that he or she may have a sibling. I say, tell ’em. Tell ’em when you’re comfortable and don’t let fear get in the way of important, life-changing news that’s yours to tell.

Telling our kids early-on puts faith in them as thinking and feeling family members. Our family has only positively benefited from including our children in the good news early on, not stifling a sweet thing, pretending I’m only getting rounder from bread rolls, and not an actual baby.

My husband and I told both of our children very early on (less than ten weeks) and decided to do all of the growing and many of the discussions together, as a family. No secrets. As a result, both of my children (and now again, as I await the birth of my third) bonded with their siblings in utero, through a myriad of communication and lots of tummy hugs. I also believe telling children, and close friends, early-on is healthy, even if complications later arise. They will have already picked up on grief and may feel confused if not a part of the process. This, to me, is family. This is growing in community and building bonds that will be strong as thick rope vines as the new baby is born and continues to grow.

Other parents may dismiss their child’s ability to understand there is a growing baby inside. They often wait months, believing that their older children cannot possibility understand abstract time and that which is not instant. I became pregnant within a few weeks of a close friend. She and her husband decided to tell their toddler, who by the way, is very smart, months later, as a Christmas gift, whereas our daughter had already been touching and kissing my growing midsection, discussing her shifting life as a big sister, and learning about the process of growing a baby, for those same months. By the time our new baby was born, the bond was tangible and strong; they were siblings. It took more time, I believe, for our friend’s kids to latch on to their bond.

At seven weeks gestation, I couldn’t contain my excitement. It was a maternal adrenaline — I called my friend outside of a grocery store. She had taken a moment to answer my call while skiing on a mountain and I knew with certainty, as I divulged my news, should my good news turn to heartache, I’d need her same arms reaching through the phone, reaching into helping me cope. For me, I needed to share.

Certainly, our kids are not our besties we gab to over the phone or over a glass of Merlot. They are our children and we have the job of choosing what and how to edit information so that it is developmentally sound, emotionally appropriate. To be honest, my husband shocked me when he told our daughter at seven weeks. I knew the risks of loss. Even so, we told her and we rejoiced. It’s hard to stifle joy and it’s hard to silence the pain of loss. Kids may see lots of tears at different points—the happy and the sad. I say, with as much uncertainty in the world, let’s choose to show them the joy, never mind the risks. Anything can happen at anytime. If an egg has fertilized and rooted to the walls of a uterus, that is joy. Everything is working, especially if this was an answer to prayer, if the family can picture another squirmy body pulling up to the family table.

Again, if the pregnancy does not go as planned, if there is a problem, an abnormality, a heartbeat that later fails, leaving you empty and grieving, your children will be a comfort. They will be part of the overall process of not just a mom’s pain, but a family’s process towards healing. They will need to grieve, perhaps, the loss of a sibling, a brother or sister they could not meet. But those moments with their head on your belly, listening for a heartbeat? Those loving snapshots of big sis rubbing lotion on mom’s belly and those talks about what goes on in the womb? This is the molecular structure of jewels. These will be healing, sweet memories, the times you included them in your joy.

I say tell them. Tell your kids there is room for one more. Tell them they are important and needed. Tell them you are praying and expecting that strong heartbeat to keep beating and beating until they are in your arms and eating bananas with big sis and later, still, running around. Families share their plans.

Melissa Uchiyama is an educator, writer, and mother. She has appeared in Brain, Child, in regards to nudity and bathing, two pretty cool topics in her book, also contributing to Literary Mama, Mamalode, Cargo Literary Magazine, Kveller, and other sites. Connect with Melissa as she blogs about the motherly and literary life on www.melibelleintokyo.com.

With Child, With Alcohol

With Child, With Alcohol

Alcohol addiction : Portrait of a lonely and desperate drunk hispanic woman (image focused on her drink)

By Liv Spikes

At five-and-a-half months pregnant, the golden fluid flooded my body with a warm calm. I loved that feeling; I missed that feeling. My head swelled with the sense that everything was all right, now, in that moment. The drink was my insulin, it righted me, made me level. Giving myself permission to have a drink after all that time was like scratching at a scab, and once I started, an itch kicked in and I became singularly focused on ripping the whole thing off. I guess I’d forgotten that.

It was the night of my annual work Christmas party. I started closing up the fine art gallery I managed, when it occurred to me to pour myself one of the single serving bottles of wine we kept in the fridge for clients, and on occasion, the staff. It’s my company party, I thought. I deserve a glass. I poured one of the 6oz bottles into a clear plastic cup and sipped it as I counted the daily deposit.

Having a drink always felt like taking off stilettos that were half a size too small. Ahhh, my brain said after the first gulp. Now that’s better.

On my way home to change outfits and pick up my husband for the party the thought popped in my head that I should stop by the liquor store to get Jason a six-pack so he could enjoy a pre-party beer while I layered on eye make-up and perfume. And since I was there, I decided I should get myself a single serving bottle of champagne because two drinks were probably no big deal, and it was my party after all, and once I got to the party I wouldn’t be able  have anything to drink with the rest of the staff. In years past, I was the notoriously wasted, the manager who overdrank, and overshared.

Jason drank his beer and watched CNN. I decided on tight denim maternity trousers, a navy sequin tank, and a cropped navy wrap sweater. I sipped champagne while curling my hair and by the time we loaded into the car, my tummy filled only with amber bubbles was warm, I was comfortably buzzed, cozy in my adorable pregnant body.

When we arrived, the mingling staff were holding cocktails; they had eaten nearly all the baby quiches and warm brie laid out for them. Having promised to  announce the sex of the baby to them, I waited all of six minutes before tapping on my boss’ glass and saying, “Well guys, I’ve kept you guessing long enough. Jason and I are having a….BOY!” My coworkers clapped and a few even said “Ahh,” with damp eyes. Jason hugged me sideways and we made our way around the room smiling and accepting everyone’s congratulations.

“Livi!” our office manager Chrissy said, “Come here. I want you to meet Rosie.” Jason and I separated and I made my way to the bar next to Chrissy.

Rosie was a petite blonde woman standing behind the bar pouring wine. “Rosie is pregnant with her second boy,” Chrissy said.

I stood on my tip toes to get a total body look at the expecting bartender. Her belly was no bigger than mine, though her baby was due two months sooner.

“Aren’t you adorable?!” I said, as though Rosie was a little girl in a Halloween costume. She responded with a chuckle and in her charming British accent said, “Well I don’t feel adorable at the moment, but thanks.”

Chrissy and I made our way over to the gift table to scope out the presents up for exchange. Still feeling airy, and a little uninhibited, I said to her, “I wish you wouldn’t have introduced me as a fellow pregnant lady, now there’s no way Rosie’s gonna give me a glass of wine and I wanted to have one.”

She looked befuddled and said, “Course she will. She’s back there drinking

Champagne!” Delighted to have a fellow pregnancy rule-bucker on my side, I said, “Then go get me a glass! But please, find a way to make it discreet.”

My boss joined me near the gift table as Chrissy headed off on her secret mission. I spotted Jason across the room graciously chatting with our notoriously awkward frame shop worker. I watched the gentle tip of my husband’s head and thought, I love that man.

“Your hot tea little mama,” Rosie said in her accent as she handed me a white porcelain mug brimming with white wine. She winked as she passes it off to me.

“You’re a life saver,” I said. “Honestly Rosie, I was born in the wrong era.” I slid into my well-rehearsed routine about how I should have been born in the Mad Men era when women wore polka dot dresses and celebrated positive pregnancy tests with martinis.

“Oh, honey. You weren’t born in the wrong era, just the wrong country,” and with that, she returned to tend her bar.

After that exchange my memory of the night grows fuzzy. I remember standing in line for the buffet food. I watched in slow motion as Jason mistook the thick balsamic dressing for gravy and smothered his potatoes, pork loin, and dry role in it. I thought that was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. The food was horrible, so bad that aside from a few bites of cold beet salad, I left the majority of it on my plate, untouched.

I didn’t mean to, I never meant to. If this were a court case and intent was linked to culpability I’d get off scot-free. Over-drinking wasn’t something I ever set out to do, it’s just what happened whenever I had a drink. The obvious solution was to avoid drinking. I know that now and I knew it on some level then. But I couldn’t; I couldn’t leave the one thing alone that made me feel so much better in the short term and so much worse in the long term.

I awoke at 2:30 and discovered I was alone in our bed, lying on a bath towel, wearing only my bra and underwear. I found this strange. The carpet on the side of the bed was a darker shade of green than the rest. I felt thirsty. I went into the bathroom. My sparkly pregnancy tank and secret fit belly panel jeans lay on the floor in a heap, vomit trailing down the front of everything. The horror I felt was unmatched—incomprehensible.

I looked in the mirror and a puffy-faced, puffy-bellied alcoholic stared back at me. There was no other explanation; no way around the definition I’d been dodging for a decade. I thought for a moment that I may actually understand why cutters tear into their wrists with razor-blades; I could intellectually understand the need to convert internal pain to an alarming external statement.

I started piecing together the familiar scenario: I didn’t drink the one glass of wine I had intended to drink at the company Christmas party. I drank from a bottomless white coffee mug that Rosie ensured was never empty.

My husband got me home. Somewhere along the way, I vomited on myself. He tried to get me to stay in the bathroom, but I insisted on going to bed where I continued vomiting. I have done this to him dozens of times before, I have never done this while carrying his unborn son.

My breath quickened, I felt a throbbing anxiety. I ran down the stairs and found him sleeping on the couch. I sat next to him on the floor and shook him as gently as I could until he awoke. When his eyes were half-open, I started crying.

“I am so sorry. So very, very sorry. I don’t know what happened. Please come back to bed with me. Please. I am so sorry”

“Don’t tell me: tell that to our baby.”

The gravity of this statement didn’t resonate until later–how could it? I was too focused on getting him to comfort me, to lie by me in the hopes that his mere physical proximity would alleviate the horror of being in my skin. I kept begging; I declared I wouldn’t leave his side until he came back to bed. I said the words “please” and “sorry” over and over, knowing on some level that they had lost all meaning for him.

This was our dance. The dance I forced on him. We went out, we drank, I drank more, I blacked out. Sometimes I talked in circles until he wanted to smother me with a pillow, other times, I insisted on having numb sex for hours always proclaiming I was “almost there”, often, I picked fights with him, mean fights with below-the-belt punches. Fueled by vodka, I let him know he wasn’t making enough money and that our life was not the life I had imagined. Puking–on him, or off the side of the bed–was my typical indicator that this scene in our personal rendering of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf was over. The curtain fell for the evening.

Whenever I regained enough consciousness to realize what I’d done, always I started in with the pleading, begging him not to be mad at me. I imagine he heard only, “I’m so window, so very door knob for what happened last night.” You do something enough times to a person and I suspect the word “sorry” sounds as much like an abstract inanimate object as a meaningful phrase.

I lay on the floor next to him for over an hour.  I felt like bugs had taken up residence beneath my skin and were scrambling in different directions. My head throbbed its familiar ache. I found myself adding up the prenatal vitamins, sleep aids, migraine meds, and over-the-counter cough syrup down the hall in the medicine cabinet, wondering if it would be enough.

I thought about the cautionary articles I’d read about drinking during pregnancy, articles describing how quickly alcohol crosses into the placenta: if you are buzzed, your baby is wasted. I wondered what level of drunkenness was beyond wasted, what my son must have felt like floating in his drunken caretaker’s middle. The fear was crushing.

I also wondered, only briefly, if my binge or subsequent vomiting could have killed him, but I could only stand the thought of my dead fetus inside me for a few seconds.  More horrible thoughts swirled around like the blizzard created by shaking a fragile snow globe, and I wanted to throw the globe against the wall and shatter it into a million pieces.

There are tragedies you can try on for size: horrible circumstances you can contemplate like, what if my spouse were killed in an accident? Or, what if our house caught fire when we weren’t home and everything burned to the ground? Our minds allow for this. But the one tragedy I was incapable of thinking about was the one in my head at that moment: What if my behavior, my choices, caused irreparable damage to my baby? What if he’s born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), something completely preventable, that I caused? I thought of moms at the grocery store shopping with their nine- year-old special needs kids holding onto the cart, and how we cant our heads and think, that poor woman.  What if I made my own almond-eyed boy, except rather than a genetic blip, his condition was caused by me, my actions. There is no pity for this woman, no forgiveness, no do-over.

I want to tell you that was the last time I ever drank. I want to “tell the truth but tell it slant,” and have that lie define my bottom, contain the messy and enigmatic disease of alcoholism; I want to make this story the trampoline beneath the high rise: There. Good came of it. I was saved.

Knowing I was an alcoholic wasn’t enough and neither was the degradation I felt that night. I can’t explain that, can’t swirl together pretty enough words to answer the nagging question of why I couldn’t fully surrender even in the midst of that pain.

When my next ultrasound indicated the baby was developing normally, and the shallow distance of a few weeks separated me from the Christmas party, I drank again. I drank two or three glasses of wine on several more occasions during my pregnancy. Is that true, was it only two or three? I didn’t vomit or blackout again, but in terms of quantifying my consumption, I’m hardly a reliable source.

The horror and disgust of that night blurred with passing days like a car accident in my rearview mirror. It wasn’t my fault, it was Rosie’s. I won’t have more than three, no matter what. It’s just that I didn’t eat enough. Yeah, but…. All alcoholic lies strung together in my diseased brain’s effort to defend my right to drink, to rationalize irrational behavior. This is what addicts do. We forget, we minimize, and we honestly believe the shame of a previous fiasco will insulate us from the next one. And then, we do it all over again.

My son was born on his due date and pronounced healthy. He bore no visible markers of a baby with FAS; I know because I’ve now studied it at length. It’s a dose-dependent syndrome and spectrum disorder, and no one knows just how much alcohol is safe.

When he was four-months-old I got confronted by a daycare worker when I came to get him after work. Another mom smelled alcohol on my breath when I passed her in the hallway and she reported it right away. I could tell you I just had a few glasses of champagne with some clients before leaving work, but that doesn’t change the facts.  It was another Lifetime Movie kind of moment. A moment that begged the question, Is this who I am now? Am I the mom who got drunk during pregnancy and who the daycare worker isn’t sure about releasing an infant to? My infant.

My drinking career is littered with these. I line them up in my head like landmarks on a cross-country tour, places I stop to take horrific Polaroid’s in my mind’s eye. The first time I drank I blacked out. I got so drunk on a college graduation trip in Hawaii that some guy delivered me to the doorstep of the room I was sharing with girlfriends, rang the doorbell, and left. When they opened the door, I was covered in sand and two cockroaches crawled out of my hair. I will never know where I’d been or what had happened. I got so drunk the night before my wedding that I peed in a hotel elevator; I got up the next morning, vomited, and had a mimosa. I have dozens and dozens of these snapshots stashed in my gray matter, experiences that would rationally define a bottom for an alcoholic. But none of them are the smoking gun for my sobriety, and I’ve got a few years now.

“Rational” and “alcoholic” have no business commingling in a sentence. I got my fetus drunk.

I have shameful memories of the more generic and even humorous variety like lots of women do, college snafu’s and stories of being cut-off at the bar.  Buried beneath those stories– beneath sheets of denial and layers of rationalization–are the stories I tell only a few women, stories I’d prefer not to share because saying the words out loud makes me feel like I’m standing naked beneath halogen lights in the cold. This story makes me feel ugly and dirty; it makes me want to throw rotten fruit at myself or spit at the reflection in the mirror. I hate this woman. I live with the odium that I jeopardized my baby; ironically, during the only time in his life I could completely control his environment.

When I get the courage to share the ugliness, a dark beauty unfolds. In the five years since this happened, I have shared this story a few times in the safety of a women’s recovery meeting. Not because I’m under an illusion that it might help prevent another woman from doing the same thing; it won’t. And not because I find it “therapeutic” to revisit the worst night of my life; I don’t. I share it sometimes because when I unfold the ugliest in me, it gives other women permission to unveil the ugliest in them. And there, with our worst sins splayed out on the floor, we can experience the intimacy of empathy. When I tell this story, some women cannot stop their faces from puckering, because repulsion is a visceral emotion, and I don’t fault them for that. But always after the telling, I talk with a woman who opens up about her own alcoholism colliding with pregnancy, breastfeeding, or motherhood at large.

In this one-on-one connection, the shared humiliation and humanity of my biggest screw up makes another struggling mom feel less lonely in her own, and that does help. It eases the isolating loneliness and the ache of regret. We share stories and through those I see that really good people make really big mistakes, and the alcoholism is a take-no-prisoners disease that you can’t outrun, outsmart, or outgrow.

These are not the glossy magazine stories of the follies of motherhood, of even the follies of drinking and motherhood (“My daughter calls my wine glass mommy’s sippy cup!” ha ha ha). These are the tales we swear we’ll never utter to a soul. The moments we hope God himself didn’t see. There is no “healing” from this shame. There is only time, and the slow cool comfort of taking right action.

My son tests at the top of his Kindergarten class. He is well adjusted and has no behavioral problems. His eyelashes curl all the way to his brows, they clump together when he cries. His enunciation of words is exaggerated and his delivery of sentences is emphatic, like a mini-Jerry Seinfeld.  He is too big to cradle in my arms; his legs and torso have grown long in the few years since his birth. I watch him sleep sometimes at night and like all parents and I wonder how he got so big, how this person grew from a cluster of cells to a sentient being on my watch, under my care. I remember not wanting that responsibility, feeling burdened by it.  I knew my husband was better qualified to insulate and incubate him and I couldn’t hand him off, couldn’t leave the egg in the nest and have him sit on it for me while I went to the bar.

My husband is a logical man, he isn’t one for lyrical declarations. I told him several years ago that I needed to really apologize once and for all for many of the things I did drinking. He chuckled an exhausted sort of huff and said simply, “I don’t want you to apologize. Just quit doing it.”

“Sorry” is defined as, “feeling sorrow or regret”. It is a feeling, and the problem with that word is that it offers no call to action, no promise of restitution. In his early infancy when I was still drinking I whispered I was sorry to my baby boy as he lay sleeping in his crib. I did it nearly every night. I thought I meant it, because I felt horrible about continuing to drink, I just couldn’t yet will myself to take the necessary action to quit. And unless you happen to be an alcoholic, that probably doesn’t make any sense.

I no longer whisper that I’m sorry to him. These days, I focus on making constant and consistent amends for what I did. To amend is, “to put right.” I try to right that wrong by giving him a sober mom, which is what he deserves and frankly, the only shot I’ve got at living without the crippling shame a drunk mother incurs.

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I Know I Should Boast About Battle Scars

I Know I Should Boast About Battle Scars

Image 204By Rachel Pieh Jones

I know I’m supposed to boast about my scars, stretch marks, and shape.

I’m supposed to be empowered by naked selfies.

I don’t boast and I’m not empowered or posting those naked selfies (I’m not even taking them).

I have a stomach that looks like a saggy raisin. I never really had the chance to feel good about my body. I got pregnant at 21-years old, before I had grown into the idea of loving my size and shape. I was still in the high school and college years of hating it all, of never being thin enough or strong enough or having the right size ass or big enough boobs.

And then pregnancy changed my stomach permanently (the big enough boobs didn’t last long and leaked milk so they weren’t exactly what I’d hope for). The pregnancy was twins, it went full-term, I looked like a walrus. My skin stretched until it couldn’t stretch anymore and so it started coming apart, cracking open new seams that would never go back together, pushing the elasticity of young skin up to and then beyond the point of no return.

Then there was a vaginal delivery followed by an emergency c-section and because of all that stretching, the scar simply made a little tuck point where the flappy skin can hang over and form a bulge. I can hide two fingers beneath that bulge if I want to. I haven’t experimented with other items but I bet I could hide snacks or keys in there, too.

No amount of Pilates or Cross Fit or Whole30 or marathoning will ever give me my stomach back, that stomach I failed to appreciate until it was gone.

And guess what? I’m not proud of the scars and stretch marks. I wish I didn’t have them. I’m not complaining here. Honesty is not the same as complaint.

This isn’t to say that I would trade the scars and wrinkles. Like, if a fairy came and said, “Give me back your children and I will give you back your stomach,” I would of course, refuse. And possibly slug the fairy.

If I had to make a choice, I would choose my kids every time without a moment’s hesitation, but that is a ridiculous thing to say. It isn’t a matter of choice. This isn’t a trade that is open to mothers. So much of social media, though, wants us to buy into that lie. Children or stretch marks? If you love the kids, you must love the scars!

They are a badge of honor, a sign of sacrifice, to be worn with pride, to be boasted of in selfies on every platform with the potential of going viral for ‘courage’ and, ostensibly, for being a superior mother. The kind of mother who is above such trivialities as caring what her stomach looks like, the kind whose love for her children is so all-consuming that it cancels out every inclination she has to see herself as a woman separate from her role as mother.

I’m not convinced. Maybe it is just me, but I don’t think there are only two options for how to feel about our bodies and I’m convinced that other women also waver through various stages of contentment.

I am glad I have my kids and I wish I didn’t have my scars. It would have been nice to be one of those moms who don’t get them.

I’m glad that women feel confident enough to show their pregnancy and life-scarred bodies, in particular, Lauren Fleishman, an elite American runner. As a runner, I find it a relief to know that she too, has bumps and bulges where fashion models have them photo shopped out. I know that none of us really live in those edited worlds. And I absolutely believe that our scars make us each beautifully unique, that none of us escape this life unscathed, and that we have no reason to hide.

I’m not ashamed of my stretch skin and scars, I still wear a bikini. Saying I don’t want them is not complaining, neither is it an admission of shame. I want my girls to know that it doesn’t matter what your body looks like, we can still be confident, beautiful, content. We are so much more than our bodies or our physical appearance. But I also won’t be posting any photos on Instagram or Facebook and writing about empowerment.

This is the body I have and I’m thankful for it. It runs marathons, gave life to three human beings, continues to function in mostly healthy ways. I’m content, this is the body I am comfortable with, this is me.

I don’t feel like it is overly complicated to say that I embrace my body and am content while at the same time admitting that I’m simply not thrilled about stretch marks and awkward flaps.

Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

 

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The Decision

The Decision

row of stones at water - 3d illustration

By Mandy Hitchcock

First, we took down the baby gate, leaving the wall scarred and torn. I walked up and down the stairs unencumbered, startled at the ease with which I crossed their threshold—no fumbling with a latch rickety from years of use, no extra seconds spent ensuring the gate was locked behind me. I felt liberated, as if the gate’s purpose had been to hold me back rather than my two small children. But on the outer edges of my consciousness, in that place that I notice only when it’s silent, I felt unsettled.

Next, I gave away all the baby clothes, then the baby gear. A few things remain—personalized gifts and handmade blankets that we’ll keep, and the stray teething ring or rattle that we sometimes find buried at the bottom of one of the many diaper boxes scattered around the house to hold toys.

Then we moved two-year-old Ada from her small nursery upstairs beside our bedroom into a room downstairs and across the hall from her four-year-old brother Jackson. We disassembled and reassembled the crib for the umpteenth but final time. As I passed the used-to-be nursery on my way to bed that night, I was startled by the open door and the dark, empty room where just that morning I’d plucked Ada from her crib and diapered and dressed her. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought I felt a slight chill waft out of the gaping doorway.

And finally, my husband had a vasectomy. When I got his email about the appointment, I cried. I grieved, not only because we will have no more children, but because the two children living in my house are the only two children who will ever live in my house, even though I am a mother of three.

My oldest child Hudson died of a sudden and aggressive bacterial infection before her younger siblings were born. She was seventeen months old. Today she would be seven years old.

My husband and I always planned on having three children. It seemed like the right number to us—two not quite enough, four a touch too many. My own three siblings were so much older than I was that I was practically an only child. I’d always imagined a large-ish family—loud, fun-loving, squabble-prone, and fiercely devoted to one another. I pictured the five of us huddled together on the couch with a large bowl of popcorn, fighting over which movie to watch. I imagined us crowded into a packed car as we made our way across the country to fill our national park passports with stamps, pulling out of every campground shouting, “We’re off . . . like a herd of turtles!” I saw myself presiding over big gatherings years down the road when my kids and grandkids would come home for Christmas, little groups of cousins tearing through my shabby but well-loved house.

Little did I know how hard it might be to bring to life the filmstrip that had run through my head for so long. I got pregnant so easily the first time that I almost felt guilty—some of our friends had tried for so long to have a child. But now, eight years later—after one lightning-fast and ultimately fatal infection for our first child, a cancer diagnosis for me bookended by three more pregnancies, the final one ending in miscarriage—we still have only two living children.

Our decision to get pregnant that fourth time was tortured. Though we’d always wanted three living children, we were older than we ever thought we’d be while still having children, we were exhausted from nearly seven years of parenting very small kids, and we were ready to move on to a new phase of our lives. But we hadn’t let go of the idea of three kids under our roof. The notion of three became more urgent for me after our daughter died. I could not shake the fear that we might suffer the terrible fate of losing yet another child. I dreaded leaving one of my children alone with grieving—and later, aging—parents. We left the decision to fate, and when, unsurprisingly, I turned up pregnant, I thought I’d resolved any doubts I had. But the pregnancy never felt quite right. Perhaps it was my body’s way of telling me that the pregnancy wasn’t viable, but when the baby died at nine weeks, I had the brutal realization that as much as I wanted three living children, there was no point in trying to have another baby. I was trying to fix a problem that couldn’t be fixed. No matter how many children I had, I would never have the family of three I actually wanted, because I would never get my oldest daughter back.

Acceptance of this truth has come in long and painful stages. With each piece of baby gear I give away, each little shirt I picture on one of my own babies for the last time before packing it up, each time I buckle only two kids into the backseat of my car, I loosen my grip on the fantasy that my family will ever feel complete.

And some days, I am grateful. Some days I feel so overwhelmed with these two in the house that I can’t imagine how anyone manages with more. On those days, I don’t know what we were ever thinking hoping for three, and I feel relieved we decided not to have another. But those days are also the worst days, because if the world were different and if we’d have stopped at two in the first place, that means that my youngest daughter is alive only because my oldest daughter is dead.

I cannot win this battle no matter how I look at it.

But most days, I mourn the family I’ll never have. When a neighbor dropped by to pick up some baby items I was selling, I smiled when I peeked into the open back window of her SUV and saw two car seats—one facing forward, holding a chubby-cheeked, red-headed girl, and one facing backward, holding a sleeping infant. But then she opened the rear liftgate, revealing a booster seat in the third row, overflowing with a gangly, red-headed boy. I asked her how old they were, already certain of the answer. Five, three, and five months, she replied.

Almost exactly the ages my kids would have been a year before had they all been living and filling up the back of my minivan.

That oldest sibling, that long-limbed kid in that tall booster seat in that third row. The epitome of everything I was giving away when I accepted his mother’s two twenty dollars bills.

As time flings me into the next stage of my life, a life with no more children, a mother of three with only two, I feel much like I did when I took down the baby gate: conscious of the scars, but resigned to co-existing with them; freed, but not at all certain that I want to be.

Mandy Hitchcock is a writer, bereaved mother, cancer survivor, and recovering lawyer. Her essays also appear in Brain Child, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Modern Loss, and elsewhere, as well as in the forthcoming HerStories anthology So Glad They Told Me. She lives with her family in Carrboro, North Carolina. You can find her at mandyhitchcock.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

 

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One and Two

One and Two

rt Double Stroller

By Sara Petersen

I am thirty-seven weeks pregnant with One. I rock gently back and forth in my wicker rocking chair, enjoying the lazy summer heat, and sipping my thoughtfully mixed smoothie. I squint at the remaining crossword puzzle clues. One nudges me in the lower left corner of my uterus, and I rub my hand along his bones, savoring our connection. I can’t wait to meet him.

I am thirty-seven weeks pregnant with Two. I gulp down 50 milligrams of Zoloft, preparing myself for the onslaught of hormonal leaps and plummets soon to take hold of my ravaged body. I swear softly as One dumps out the Lego bin for no real reason other than to delight in destruction. Two taps a foot or an elbow against me, safely cocooned in the warm darkness of my womb, and I absentmindedly smooth her knobbiness away. Only a few more weeks until all hell breaks loose.

My husband and I walk towards the hospital doors gripped in silent tension, like two people about to jump from an airplane too scared to discuss their fears with each other. It’s late. And dark. Brett rings the ER buzzer, as we’ve been instructed to do.

“Can I help you?” The gruff voice on the other end of the buzzer is anything other than solicitous.

“We’re here for the birth center.” Brett’s voice sounds cartoonish and alien.

“Who are you visiting?”

“No, I mean, we’re here to check in.”

“Who is that you say you’re visiting?”

I grip Brett’s forearm with insistent panic.

“There’s a baby – I mean – we’re having a baby.”

Bzzzzzz.

As we walk, the midday sun smiles beneficently down on us. Brett slows down his pace to keep up with my snail-like creep towards the main entrance. I stop every so often to lean over a car and breathe through a contraction coursing through my lower back.

“So if it’s a boy, we’re going with Arthur? We really need to figure out a top-three list at least.”

“Well, definitely Rose for a girl.”

“I don’t know about definitely.”

“Did you pack the Goldfish? I’m kinda hungry.”

I watch as Brett awkwardly clicks the massive carseat into place, sweating in the July heat. I wedge myself as close to the carseat as possible, and as soon as One makes the slightest mew, I shove my crooked pinky into his mouth.

“Hurry, Brett – I don’t want him crying!”

Brett slams the front door shut, and I stare at the huge, brick front of the hospital. We’re going home. But should we be? Shouldn’t we take some sort of parenting entrance exam first to ensure we’re really equipped with the knowledge and ability to keep a 6.7 pound infant alive?

Every blood vessel and breath and spark in my body is trained toward the jaundiced little being in the carseat, but I steal occasional glances through the windows, and wonder at the oddity of the outside world. People are just walking around like nothing’s happened, like everything is totally normal. Little blue houses blurring past, commerce, people walking with purpose. Where are they going? Dogs. Children. Oh god. Children. I have one.

I watch as Brett expertly clicks the carseat into place, and I join him up front, quickly clicking on NPR.

“I really wanna hear Fresh Air – she’s interviewing Cate Blanchett about that movie – Carol, I think it’s called?”

Two is still fast asleep when we pull into the driveway. I’m happy to be home.

One will only sleep if I’m holding him. My left wrist aches from being bent in the same harshly geometric shape, supporting the lower half of his swaddled body, for the past day, night, day before that, night before that, day before that. One will only sleep if I’m holding him. I want my arms back. I want my bed back. I want my mind back. I want to eat some chicken salad.

I put One down so I can shovel some chicken salad into my mouth. After 27 blissful seconds of physical autonomy, One whimpers. My heartrate accelerates, my stomach plunges, my cheeks burn. I slam the Tupperware container onto the chicken salad. I just want a few minutes, a little nourishment – can’t you just lay in your 500 dollar thing-a-ma-jig for two seconds?

Sometimes One cries in the car. But sometimes he doesn’t. I grab One, and nearly run towards the car. He’ll nap in the car! He’ll totally, totally nap! And once he gets a good nap, his mood will improve, and he’ll sleep better tonight, and sleep begets sleep, and I’ll sleep, and before I know it, I’ll have my life back.

I bump over the back roads, desperate for the smoothness of the highway. One grunts, whines, and each noise tightens the already taught muscles in my neck, turns my knuckles a whiter shade of white. I slam onto the gas as a light turns yellow. No way can I stop.

Two will only sleep if I’m holding her. So I hold her. Her flower breath flutters against my chest as I flip through Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Holiday. “We’ve got to laugh or break our hearts in this damnable world.” I fold down the corner of the page to gaze at the bright pink of the cosmos dancing with the brilliant blue of forget-me-knots.

I hear a little peep from below, and peer down at the soft brown cap of newborn hair. I pat-pat-pat Two’s small bum, and take another sip of my IPA. Brett’s out with One, and Two and I have spent the day rocking on the deck, napping, reading, and lounging. I kiss Two’s forehead.

I scream my Subaru down the road, anxious to reach our destination before One gets angry or sad or hungry or gassy or fussy or tired or over-stimulated. My cousin grins at me, attempting to inject some sense of proportion into my universe.

“Look at you – driving with your baby and your dog. About to take a casual stroll through the woods. You got this!”

I force a reply smile onto my pale, pinched face. I don’t have anything. And I certainly don’t have “this,” if “this” means leaving the house with one’s baby in tow without having an existential breakdown.

A half hour later, we return to the car. We’ve taken a stroll through the countryside, exercised the dog, and successfully extracted me from the walls of my house. No one has died.

I drive my Subaru down the road, listening to One’s explanation that the big T-Rex is the mama T-Rex and the small T-Rex is the baby T-Rex. I repeat it back, to assure him I’ve heard and understood him.

When I remove Two from her carseat and bundle her into the Ergo, she wails tiny impotent wails at being so man-handled. I shhhh and pat and bounce and comfort and offer pacifiers. We walk through the tall grasses and waving queen anne’s lace. Two is quiet. One’s toddler voice blends with the chatter of tree swallows.

Two begins to squirm, bobbing her face against my chest like a soft, ineffectual woodpecker.

“Hey buddy – let’s pull over here.” I hand One a granola bar and settle him under a tree.

Leaning against the sandpapery stickiness of pine bark, I nurse Two in the woods, relaxed with the knowledge that boobs can fix nearly all newborn problems. One munches his granola bar, tracing a stick in the velvety dirt among the roots.

We crest the final hill of our walk, and trudge towards the Subaru, which is resting in the afternoon glow. I clip both kids into their carseats, settle the dog next to me, and drive home. We’re fine.

Sara Petersen is a freelance writer based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She has written for BustHuffington PostScary Mommy, and Bustle. She blogs about children, pretty wallpaper, IPA, and friendship here. You can also check her out on Instagram and Twitter.

 

 

 

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False Positive

False Positive

Vector image of an bird's nest on white background

By Genevieve Thurtle

It’s late July, on the cusp of August. The morning sky is golden with an unusual light, strangely honeyed by the ash and smoke of a days-long fire, which is still blazing a hundred miles northeast of us. We can smell the smoke in our bedroom. Rob and I stand on either side of our bed, folding sheets, Ian’s small T-shirts. It’s early, and Ian is not yet out of bed. When the phone rings, I pad into the kitchen and pick up the receiver. From the display, I can see it’s Dr. Yu, my gynecologist, whom I will see later this week for the surgery or the procedure or whatever it is we’re naming it. I wasn’t expecting him to call, so I imagine the surgery schedule has gone awry, that they might have to postpone until later in the summer. I brace myself for a date change.

Dr. Yu greets me, wishes me a good morning in his tentative, halting way. “So, all of your blood work looks good, but I got the pregnancy test results back, and it did detect a low level, very low, of HCG,” he says. He pauses. “But it’s still positive.”

I wedge the phone between my shoulder and ear, and sit on the bed. It takes me a moment to understand him. “That’s impossible. How can that be?” I glance at Rob who continues to fold, his eyebrows raised. Dr. Yu goes on to give a few possible explanations, all of which involve me being pregnant or recently pregnant, despite my age–forty-three–Rob’s vasectomy and my own struggle with infertility years ago.

“Listen, just go back today for a second test,” Dr. Yu says. “We’ll stay the course with the procedure if it comes back negative. It could be a false positive. They’re rare, but they do happen.”

To my friends, I’ve been referring to the procedure, the uterine ablation, as “The Boiling.” It involves circulating hot saline within the uterine cavity to destroy the endometrial lining, which often lessens hemorrhagic periods, or makes them disappear altogether, but there are no guarantees, and considering my history of fibroids, the procedure is less likely to be successful. And my uterus has always played the wild card, which is why I’ve come to resent it, as much as one can resent an organ. It’s an unruly entity, wreaking havoc over the years with its pain and hemorrhaging, its fibroids and irritability. But at its worst, it endangered my pregnancies.

When I was thirty-five weeks pregnant with Ian, my OB noted that he was measuring small and that my amniotic fluid was low. “I think it’s best we deliver as soon as possible. Like today,” she had told me. “He’ll probably grow faster outside of the womb.” And he had. I still carry the guilt of his deprivation, my stingy uterus, only wanting to give him so much space, so much nourishment, my wild new mother’s love not enough to make him grow. Three years later, pregnant with a daughter, my uterus started to contract in the middle of the night, squeezing and squeezing until my water broke. My daughter Olivia, then twenty-three weeks, did not survive the birth.

***

The ablation would make me sterile, Dr. Yu had told me. The uterus, with its destroyed lining, couldn’t support an embryo, which is why he only recommended it for women like me, ones who were older, who were done having their children. Yes, done, I thought. Whatever that means. I use the word “done” a lot when people asked me if we want to have more children. Nope, one and done, I say, my voice vaulting up an octave to suggest lightheartedness. I know it is an overused epigram, but the terseness of it cuts off the follow-up questions, shields me from further probing that might lead to the real story, to our lost daughter at the heart of it all. The child-bearing phase of our marriage ended several years ago when Rob had a vasectomy, but my body was still physically capable of getting pregnant; it was still within my reach, however unlikely at my age and with my history. “I understand,” I say to Dr. Yu, and I do. Something like grief, but more muted, less barbed, hangs in my chest.

As it turned out, part of the pre-op involved getting a pregnancy test, just to make sure we didn’t unwittingly cause a miscarriage. I had complained about the test when the nurse told me to get it done a few days before the procedure. “It’s absurd,” I had told her. “I’m old, and my husband had a vasectomy five years ago.” “I know,” she said. “It’s just precautionary. Something for us to check off.”

The Friday before the procedure, I walked myself into the Kaiser lab and extended my left arm, resting it on a vinyl platform. I let the lab tech, a young Filipina woman tie off my arm with a blue latex band, and made a ball with my fist so when she tapped the thin skin of my inner arm a vein raised to the surface. “Just a quick pinch,” she said, and I nodded as she slipped the needle in.

“You OK?” she asked, waiting for the vial to fill.

“Oh, yeah. I’ve done this lots of times,” I said, and suddenly my eyes began to sting.

“All done,” she said. She pressed a wad of cotton into the punctured skin, and with her other hand, wrapped purple adhesive gauze around my entire arm to secure it.

***

“So you’re pregnant,” Rob says. I sit on the bed with the phone receiver still in my hand.

“Can you believe this?”

“That can’t be right. I mean, it has to be a mistake.”

“He said vasectomies aren’t foolproof. That maybe I was pregnant and miscarried, and the test’s still picking up the hormone, or maybe I’m pregnant now. Except that I’m bleeding. I just don’t know.” We’re silent for a moment. I can tell Rob is measuring the possibilities, the likelihood.

After we lost Olivia, Rob and I had tried to get pregnant again. About a year into trying, the doctor said it was time to go to specialists, to do IVF. Instead, we had opted for Rob’s vasectomy. We knew a pregnancy would be high risk anyway, considering what we had been through the last time, and would need the closest of monitoring from the very beginning, and then months of bedrest, and I was done with monitoring and with control and the fear of more grief. It had taken so much time and talking to get better, and this state of better was fragile, like an eggshell, which made me angry. Looking back now, I see the decision to do the vasectomy came, in good part, from anger. I wanted the universe to fuck off. It wasn’t going to keep us in limbo anymore. We would make the decision for ourselves, even if it meant scorching the land for the loss of a tree.

“This is absolutely insane,” I say. “After everything. I mean, Ian’s eleven.” Then something catches in my throat and I can’t talk, only laugh. An exhalation of disbelief is more like it, because nothing I say can get at that tangle that is Ian, his solitariness, and the sister he was supposed to have. When he was in second grade, he was assigned a Day of the Dead diorama, commemorating someone he’d known who’d passed away. One afternoon, we spent time at the kitchen table, discussing his choices. “I did have a sister who died,” he said, but he decided, instead, to dedicate his diorama to our recently deceased pet rat, Chip, which was a relief.

“So what happens now?” Rob asks. He stands above me, clutching one of Ian’s T-shirts. And in that beat of time between his question and my response, the visions start. Sitting there on that bed, I see them. I can’t stop it from happening. Ian, years older, tall, moppy-haired, as sweet as he is now, with a deeper voice. And her. This new baby. A little girl. I can’t help myself. She’s eight or nine. In elementary school. She’s grubby and wild, still living in leaves and air, a little feral still. I carry her from time to time, tell her she’s too old to be carried, but truth be told, I want to, so I lift her up and her legs wrap around my waist. I throw my hip out to bear her weight, even though she’s light, with her baby bones.

I shake off the dream. “I’m going to Kaiser now,” I say to Rob. “To take another test.” I pull on the clothes I wore the day before and forget to brush my teeth. I wrap my hair in a band and push around the mail on our kitchen counter to unbury my keys. I can’t get there fast enough. I’ll avoid the 101, with its morning traffic, the surge of people heading down the Silicon Valley corridor. I’ll take side streets and get there five minutes sooner.

Outside, the sycamore trees that line our street fan their leaves over me, and the sunlight filters through a blanket of haze. The air smells like a distant campfire, but I know better, and think briefly about the wildfire blazing a hundred miles north of us. In the car, I round the corner onto Ninth, and then, with the next left onto Delaware, the visions come back. There she is again, learning to walk. Ian, now thirteen, is gangly. He spots her from behind, just in case she pitches backwards. He still likes us, wants to spend time with us. His sister is a novelty, a person unfurling before him, and he can’t look away. She’s a fascination. We all watch her, amazed by the cleverness of her growth, her accomplishments. In the car, I smile in spite of myself.

Then he’s a high schooler, and I see him brush past her. He has his driver’s license now, and the world we inhabit with her is becoming a mirage to him, attenuating before his eyes as the world beyond us grows more real. He’ll be gone in a few years. Maybe he’ll never look back. We will be the house he visits during the holidays, and if we’re lucky, during those summers he isn’t working elsewhere. She’ll learn to read, and ride a bike, and make jokes, and swear, and he will be out in the world. As an adult, she’ll talk about her brother. “He was a lot older than me,” she’ll tell her friends or her lover. “It was like we were in two different families.” But our friends will say, “You’re so lucky. Ours are all gone, and you still have her.” We will raise two only children.

***

After the second test, as I’m driving home, I turn on the radio. It’s mid-program, and at first I have no idea what the show’s guests are talking about, but it soon becomes clear. They’re SETI researchers, and they speak with absolute certainty, voicing the belief I’ve heard many times before that the universe is too vast a place not to support life. They talk about coded messages sent into the crushingly dark terrain of space, of two rational species, alien to each other, coming into contact for the first time. The host asks about Hawking’s prediction, how the search for life beyond Earth is our most dangerous human undertaking, with its potential for catastrophe. As they talk, I conjure images of green antennaed creatures I remember from childhood cartoons. The mind tries to fill in what’s not there.

Soon Dr. Yu will call with the results, will tell me I’m not pregnant, that the first test was wrong. I will thank him, put the phone in its cradle, and then start the harangue. Of course, of course, of course, I’ll think. I’ll wonder how I got suckered into the visions, wonder how I could be so stupid. All of my softness will have been spent thinking of the little girl. But until then, the disembodied voices on the radio fill the car with their musings about life beyond our world, and I see her and imagine knowing her, loving her. I grip the steering wheel, making the many turns that will bring me home, and think of all that vastness hovering about us, of all the things real, yet undiscovered, and the unreal, beckoning for us to believe.

Author’s Note: “False Positive” is a companion piece to a recently-published essay about the loss of my daughter when I was twenty-three weeks pregnant. Nine years have passed since then, but I find myself still writing about her, and in the process, exploring how a parent’s imagination works mightily to re-create a lost child, a child she never got to know.

Genevieve Thurtle is a writer and teacher who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and son. Her most recent work has been published in The Sun, Crazyhorse, and Appalachian Heritage. She is currently working on a memoir, Light These Bones.

 

 

 

Marching Along The Path of Joy

Marching Along The Path of Joy

ART Marching Path of Joy

By Rebecca Vidra

Getting pregnant at 40 was not in my plans. Not even in my wildest dreams. I already had two daughters, who I managed to keep alive and mostly happy for 10 and 8 years, respectively. My career was finally recovering from my ill-advised “I can work full-time without daycare” years and I felt like I was finally reclaiming my own identity.

And my marriage? It was about to end. Or so I thought.

It was on a sailing trip in Spain that I found out that I was “embarazada.” My husband and I had taken the trip, our first significant vacation away from the kids, under the auspices of work (as professors, we were checking out potential study abroad programs). I viewed it as our last chance to renew our commitment by choice, not just because of the economic or logistical constraints of marriage.

My husband says he knew that I was pregnant before I did. I was in complete denial that I could be carrying a stowaway.

I remained that way – in shock – for the first several weeks of my pregnancy, asking myself if I really wanted to go through with it. I searched the web for stories by women like me – middle-aged and facing an unplanned and, honestly, unwanted pregnancy. Finally, my husband suggested that we take the “path of joy” and have this baby.

For him, the decision was about the baby. For me, the decision was about us.

As the weeks went by, I started to experience little flickers of excitement, often followed by huge pulses of worry and regret. I started a list of things I was not looking forward to – preschool birthday parties, pumping at work – and started a much smaller list of potential baby names.

Throughout my pregnancy, as I oscillated between excitement and fear, I could not fully admit my dread, that I would not be able to mother this child with unconditional love and attention. How could I do it all over again, this time while coping with 2 soon-to-be-teenage girls? How would we be able to do the work necessary to strengthen our marriage, while having a needy baby to care for?

And there was this, the question that kept me up at night: could I really find it within myself to be in love with my husband all over again, when it seemed so much easier to leave? For months, I felt as if I were bracing for a big wave that I knew was going to knock me over hard.

Véla was born in my bedroom, on a warm spring day. The midwife did not arrive in time, leaving me to birth my baby with the help of my husband and doula. I reached down to deliver her and pulled her to my chest, as if by primal instinct. I felt that intense panic of protectiveness that all new parents experience as I wondered if she could breathe on her own.

Then, her tiny eyelashes – little sticky curled wisps – blinked open. And it was at that moment, watching her arrive into this world, that I knew I could do this all over again.

In the photos taken right after the birth, the baby and I are in focus. You can see streaks of milky vernix and blood on her head and my hands. In the blurred background, my clearly relieved husband is crying as he reaches for us. For me.

Today, my sleep-deprivation is highlighted by crow’s feet around my bleary eyes. I don’t have the same energy for decorating a nursery, or chronicling her every move on a blog, or endlessly searching for the best preschool. I am not worrying about every little thing, though I do worry that I am not worrying enough.

There must be some gray area between obligation and love, a space for the choices we make out of both. Having a baby is hardly a prescription for saving a marriage. I get that. It certainly was not a magic wand or even a soothing balm for ours. I’m realistic about this, yet it also re-oriented me to what love looks like on most days: doing the dishes, shuttling the kids to dance practice, not asking why I didn’t manage to take the garbage out (again).

This “path of joy” is not a forced march or a romantic wandering journey. It doesn’t always feel joyful. It is crowded by our busy schedules and minor arguments. We navigate over bumps of annoyance and around curves of “what-ifs.” I think, though, that I am able to celebrate the small moments of joy more fully now that I am not looking for the exit ramp.

And when I feel the now familiar twinge of regret, I look at Véla’s tiny eyelashes and remind myself to focus on the small steps on this shared and unpredictable path of joy.

Rebecca Vidra lives with her husband and three daughters in the oak-sourwood forest of North Carolina, where Véla (named after the Spanish word for “sail”) just celebrated her first birthday..

Photo Credit: Kallyn Boerner

 

Finding Hope in Parenting After Loss

Finding Hope in Parenting After Loss

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Art: Linda Williis

By Tara Shafer

My second child was stillborn ten years ago.

A decade out from loss and this is what I know.

When a sonogram showed no heartbeat, I understood I had to deliver my baby.

If I try hard enough I can put myself back there, but I can’t stay. The horror of the moment makes me resist. It propels me like a magnetic force or a backdraft – away.

That day I was admitted to the hospital. I lay in Labor & Delivery stoned on Valium. I was in labor with a dead baby. I remember falling in love, observing great beauty, and getting my heart broken.

I looked out the window at the orange glow of urban pollution against platter-sized flakes of snow that made up a muffled peaceful hush drifting upwards like specters.

Time was vaporous. I had been induced to deliver with Pitocin. My body had come undone. I waited for contractions to start.

I cried for my dead son. I cried also for my two-year old son, Reid. He had never been away from me and now we were forced apart without warning. That morning he and I had walked through the Central Park Zoo. We passed the carriage horses on the way to a medical appointment and Reid watched them eat oats out of big buckets.

I closed my eyes. These children. I did not know how to occupy both the lands of the living and the dead. I could not be in two places at once. I looked at my heavily pregnant stomach. Then, I remembered the little red sweater Reid wore when he waved and left the room, glancing backwards.

I can no longer remember the sequence of what happened or when. What I remember most vividly about my son’s (still)birth is playing with the edges of things – discovering all sorts of peripheral realities where death meets birth.

As I labored I imagined stranger hands on him. He was mine but I could not keep him. I tried to imagine this infant, alive, asleep at home.

On television that night John Lennon was being over-remembered on the anniversary of his shooting. Lennon singing Imagine was on news clips over and over again. I was drawn to the tinny end-of-the-world music box quality of the song.

After many hours my baby was born. We named him Dylan. I did not even anticipate the sound of crying. Still, the silence was shocking. In the room there is no one talking. My devastated husband Gavin was there. The nurse readied the receiving cart but without a sense of urgency. She was somber and deliberate in her movements. She swaddled him in standard issue hospital blanket and put a hat on his head. She looked more like an undertaker than a nurse.

In holding my son, I was aware that there would be no second chances. I did what I could to stay present even as I left behind the life I had been leading until that point.

After a while someone (I don’t remember who) asked, “Are you ready?”

I suddenly understood what it would have felt like to give up a child for adoption when adoption was secret and mothers too young. You hand your baby over.

As I did. But I knew he would never grow up. He would never find me.

“Are you ready?”

It is a terrible way to phrase this question.

We cremated our baby. We returned to our life with Reid. We tried to figure out how to explain the death of a baby whose existence had had never known to a young child. A play therapist assured us that young children do not see death as either permanent or negative. Several days later we explained that the baby would not be coming to live with us. That night as I lay in bed, soapy softness wafting off of him, I asked Reid whether he would crawl back in to my stomach and be a baby once more. Not my finest moment as a mother. He answered, “yes Mommy, so I could die and die and die.”

When we tried again, sex was multi-faceted. It was recreational, procreational, and post-traumatic.

When we did get pregnant again I had difficulties processing this reality. I took Reid to a nearby orchard and sat we sat there. I tried to understand that the coming months would be living moment to moment. I thought about the fear I would face as I waited for fetal movement. I thought about how this was the gift of another chance. I considered this all under the kaleidoscope sky with the apple trees, and the earth smell of fall everywhere. There were creeping early shots of colors in the trees as they prepared to burst into color and then retreat – a half death – until the spring. I looked at the weeping willows tacked up perfectly against the blue fall sky settling down from the scorch of summer; the world around began to recoil temporarily.

Reid grounded me and I had to let him.

I hid the fact of pregnancy for an absurd amount of time. Depending on the moment in the day, I loved or tolerated or survived this pregnancy. I learned to exist in crisis mode. Phone calls made me jump. It began to feel like alarmist Zen. I did weekly non-stress tests at the hospital. I gazed upon my baby on an ultrasound screen in sanity-saving weekly ultrasound appointments. He was so near and so far. I could grow him but I could not save him if it came to it. I was more voyeur than mother.

These were hard months, but so too, were they full of grace.

As the days before birth approach, I found I could not stay present. There was a biblical storm and the rain came down in sheets. Non-essential travel in New York State was officially discouraged.

We drove slowly from upstate New York to the city hospital on the flooded roads that were looking delta-like. There were houses sticking up through water. I half-expected to see destitute children sitting atop roofs without shoes. I glanced at Reid in the rear view mirror and I thought about his sustaining love and how he could never know the impact of his presence. I was shocked at the finality of and the force of regret I suddenly felt at what will be lost between he and I.

As panic at the thought of the alternative rose like bile within me, I tried to steady myself. I told Reid how very much I loved him.

He looked into the rear view mirror and placed his fingers on his eyebrows and moved them around.

“Mommy?” he said. “Did you know that my eyebrows look like corn cobs when I do that?”

At the hospital my husband and I stood outside in the early spring wind blows dampness around imagining the promise in existence everywhere. People walked by, hospital staff stood smoking in scrubs, the lights of a diner flickered. I remember thinking that I had never seen anything more beautiful than this. The rain was stopping but rainbow colored oil slicks ran down in rivers towards gutters on the city streets.

The next day, my son David was born and they put him on my chest.

He was so small. I had forgotten what newborns felt like and how much like a petal their skin is.

I lay there, an infant at my breast and I again recognized that humans are frail. There is honor in trying to become strong.

A few years later another baby would be placed on my chest. This one would be a girl. Isabelle, like her brother, would be born in a snowstorm. However, she lay next to me fully in my possession.

My family is growing up. I can’t even believe how old my children are now as they set their courses. I try, as all parents do, to provide perspective. At the Haydn Planetarium there is a plaque that describes the potential for interstellar life and how little we know yet about galaxies. Part of it reads: “The stars in the sky seem permanent and unchanging because it takes millions and billions of years for their lives to unfold.”

I have a memory from childhood. There is nothing significant within it except that I understood something abstract without being told. I was walking with my father once in mid-winter at dusk. The snow was blue against the winter sky and the embers of the orange light were fading and strewn across the sky. The blueness of the snow looked like the sea but perfectly still, beautifully captured imprisoned and resolute. It had stored the light from the sun and it was still there within, beneath despite the general appearance of death, of nothing stirring. My father told me, “This is the harsh beauty of winter.”

I understood that the scene was both beautiful and harsh and that these two things could easily be fused. What is absent can be just as glorious as what is present. On that rising hill beneath the sky there was lots of life but it was suspended, waiting. The winter was the victor there and it contained much in the way of dormant things all trapped within it. For all that winter freezes, it coats and protects.

Without all that is absent – what is taken from us  –  we do not know the truth about what is present. These losses, these tragedies, provide a context. They give the gift of hard-won self-knowledge too important to bury or obscure.

Tara Shafer is the co-founder of Reconceiving Loss (www.reconceivingloss.com) an online resource center to support families coping with baby loss. Her work has appeared on the New York Times and Mashable. She is a contributing blogger for BabyCenter, Huffington Post and Psychology Today.

In The Age of Induction

In The Age of Induction

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By Danielle Veith

Seven days late

At 41 weeks pregnant, my auto-generated, pregnancy week-by-week email seemed certain this could only mean that I had neglected to click the link declaring my son’s arrival. Had I stayed with the OB practice I started my pregnancy with, there’s a decent chance my baby would have been two days old, having arrived by way of induction sometime conveniently before 5:00 pm last Friday.

But I was a midwife patient. Waiting it out old-school style. With no end in sight.

There’s something embarrassing about going past your due date. Something beyond the unwieldy way you move and the way all clothing looks ridiculous by the end.

My body was supposed to be doing something and it wasn’t and everyone was watching and there was nothing I could do about it. I was humiliated. I wanted to hide.

Friends and family gently inquired, sending notes saying “Just thinking of you,” “Come out, come out wherever you are,” and the insipid, “Any news?” And, of course, “Any talk of induction?”

Eight Days Late

It was 6:00 am and I had been up since 4:40 when I noted the time of the one lonely contraction I had last night. After waiting an hour for anything else to happen, I cried to my husband, “I can’t be pregnant anymore.” He told me we’d talk in the morning and rolled over to sleep. I got up to eat breakfast and tried not to Google “natural labor induction.” Again.

I got pregnant because I wanted a second baby, not because I like being pregnant. Pregnancy is hard and, as a friend once said, “It’s just not as cute the second time around.”

In short; I. Was. Done. I had never been so bored. For those lucky enough to avoid this particular kind of waiting, here’s a partial list of things that are not appealing or effective distractions while waiting for a baby: movies, reading, tv, walking, sex, food, conversations of any sort, nesting, cleaning…

Of course, it’s a fitting parental lesson that actual children—as opposed to the theoretical ones we imagine before they’re born—have a way of derailing our most carefully constructed ideas about the world.

I was envious of all of my friends who had been induced or had scheduled c-sections. Decisions that I knew weren’t right for me, even as I wondered if the OB practice I fled in early pregnancy might have an opening on Monday at 9:00 am.

No one does this anymore. Or that’s how it felt. I thought of all the babies born early, the inductions, the c-sections, but what I really envied were all the women who have managed to do this labor and birth thing on schedule the natural way. I began to think of them as the popular girls of junior high, somehow out of my league.

A friend joked that I should drink heavily so the baby would think that my womb was no longer a hospitable environment. That evening, I managed a quarter of a glass of the cold white wine I’ve been craving for months before heading off to bed, unable to even muster hope for a sleepless, eventful night.

Why had I thought I was going to be early? Has every pregnant woman in the history of the world gotten through that awful last month of pregnancy by thinking the baby will come early? Where I came up with the idea that second babies are born earlier, I can no longer remember.

Nine days late

Nine days and I couldn’t sleep after my fourth or fifth night of contractions—who’s counting? No reason to count any of it yet—it went nowhere. Somehow the further I got from my due-date, the less it felt like labor would ever begin.

My anxiety was building—wouldn’t a healthy baby have started labor already? Truth be told, I’m anxious. That is, I suffer from anxiety, of the medicated-for-it sort. How much of what I was feeling was because I am a woman with anxiety? And how much was because I was a woman in an anxious sort of situation? There were no answers. The questions themselves were as if to say, “A better woman, a better mother would handle this better than me.”

I wasn’t built for this—the waiting. For some women, waiting must feel like a small thing. I was weak to it. Every time I thought I had calmed my mind, my thoughts spiraled out again to worst-case scenarios: When was the last time the baby moved? Are his movements smaller because he’s run out of room, because he’s readying himself, or because of some other imagined thing?

No one has ever stayed pregnant forever. I chose a midwife practice because I did “Trust Birth,” as the bumper sticker says. I knew the baby would be born when he was ready. Not knowing when exactly that was turned out to be harder than I could have ever imagined.

Choosing to not intervene came to feel like an act of bravery. It took bravery and faith to believe that the baby was going to be okay and that I was going to make it to the end of the pregnancy with sound body and mind, with a healthy, happy baby. Bravery, or at least a little bravado.

Ten days late

Another check-up with the midwives… On the drive to their office, I fought with my husband over nothing. Anxiety was overwhelming. By the time we entered the ultrasound room, I was teetering on the edge.

After a very quick check, the technician turned the ultrasound machine off and said, “You’re headed over to the hospital. This baby is coming out today.” It took a moment to realize that she saying that something was wrong. A nurse put my husband and I in a room to wait for the midwife on duty.

I was sobbing. I had no idea how bad it was—is the baby OK? Is it urgent? Is it too late? Is he dead? It felt like forever before someone came to explain calmly that my fluid was low. They needed to check further, but there was no indication that anything was wrong. And nothing was going to happen to the baby in the time it took us to walk across the street for further monitoring.

The midwife on call in the hospital that day, however, was hard-core. “She has a greater tolerance for risk than most,” was the way it was put to us. I was advised to drink as much water as I could manage before more ultrasounds and fetal monitoring.

When my fluid was checked again, it was fine, but I was not. I was inches away from total panic. I couldn’t just go home. What if I left and the fluid level went down again and the baby wasn’t moving and I didn’t notice and he died and it was my fault? My thoughts would not derail from that single track.

The hard-core midwife was furious that the technician told me what was going to happen to my baby. It was not hers to make that decision and everyone felt terrible that her words set off such panic.

Since I was a midwife patient, what came next was a lot of talking. The baby was not in any danger. I was asked to repeat, “The baby is not in any danger.” I did not need to have this baby today. “I do not need to have this baby today.”

The baby was fine, the midwife counseled, but he was feeling pretty happy in there, not ready for birth quite yet. As easy and simple as that.

I was not fine. I knew it was a product of modern medicine that we knew exactly how many days I had been pregnant, but it’s hard to resist the belief that the baby should be out when the calendar says so But none of that meant that I could calm down, sitting there in a hospital bed hooked up to monitors.

Fear makes labor take longer, studies have shown, and instinctively, we understand why. A woman’s mind is a part of her labor. If she can’t let her thoughts slip away in late labor, to go to a place where her mind is lost inside her body, and her body is focused on getting the baby out, it can be harder to give birth.

Don’t get me wrong—babies are born whether their mothers are ready or not. But labor can be harder or more complicated. The more frightened a woman feels, the more tension she holds in her body, the more painful contractions will feel.

The midwife, trained to treat the whole woman, would not send me home feeling like this. My extreme anxiety, she said, may even interfere with the natural process of labor starting on its own, inhibiting the oxytocin release needed for labor.

So there it was: plans for an induction began.

Day Eleven/Day One

My induction was “mid-wife style,” so there was no rush. They did a few things to ready my body— stripped the membranes and inserted a medication to ripen the cervix—and then we waited it out overnight in the hospital. I was given a sleeping pill to get some rest to be ready for the hard work ahead.

The next morning, the new midwife on duty came into my hospital room, “Ready to meet this baby?” with a big smile. She jokingly congratulated me for getting the hard-core midwife to agree to an induction. Apparently, this does not happen. I laughed and felt safe.

The midwife instructed the nurses to administer the pitocin at lower doses than what they are used to doing, and to step it up on a slower schedule. Once they believed my body had taken over, it was shut off and I was on my own.

My labor was beautiful. I felt powerful and strong. Five hours and three pushes later, it was all over. The baby was out, healthy, beautiful. He was fine. I was fine.

Birth is like that—so many things at once, so that the stories you tell later, what you say and what you leave out, are always inadequate. I can’t imagine what a birth that goes according to plan would be like. And I have no regrets about any decision that I made—to wait, to be induced. I was lucky to have the right combination of what happened and what I needed—the gentleness of the midwives and the resources of the hospital.

And in the end, it was just me, and my baby boy, and we went home to begin to get to know each other.

Day 7 at home

My son didn’t really open his eyes for the next week. I couldn’t help but think that maybe, in some intangible way, he hadn’t been ready for the world yet.

He was big and healthy, and there were no physical signs that his body wasn’t ready to be born. Still, he seemed like an inside baby, as if he had not yet decided to leave the darkness of my body. My daughter had been so different, immediately trying to see everything, to figure us out. Maybe just an early sign of how unique each child is and how differently they need to be mothered, right from the start.

On the day that would have ended week 42, when even the midwives would have advised induction, he finally opened his eyes. They were beautiful, deep, deep brown.

Author’s Note: My son is four and a half now and still sometimes seems like he wants to be on the inside. He is the cuddliest little thing and gives the strongest hugs. Even in the middle of the night, he has this sleep-walking way of finding his way into our bedroom. I swear he’s still asleep as he curls himself up perfectly against my body, somehow fitting into the three inches between me and the edge of the bed, and miraculously not falling. I think he would merge back into my body if he could. Which I promise not to mention at his wedding someday.

Danielle Veith is a writer and mother of two living in the Washington DC metro area. She blogs at Crazy Like A Mom and can also be found on Facebook, and when she’s really crazy, on Twitter. Her writing has appeared on Pregnant Chicken, Child Mind and The Mid on Scary Mommy.

 

 

 

On Infertility and Magical Thinking

On Infertility and Magical Thinking

By Jennifer Berney

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Infertility is a solitary pain. The body, alone, remains alone.

 

When I first began trying to conceive, I believed that I’d be pregnant within a month. For one thing I was only twenty-eight years old. Because I’m a lesbian, I had already worked out all of the logistics: I knew when I ovulated, and I knew that the donor sperm we had purchased was viable—our doctor had watched them swim beneath a microscope. Of the millions of sperm that would be delivered directly to my uterus, only one of them had to find my egg. What could go wrong?

Besides these clinical facts, I had stories I told myself around conception. I had already spent years of my adult life pining for a child. Surely this desire would inform my body’s ability to conceive. Though I understood that conception took an average of three to six months, I knew plenty of women who had conceived on their first try. I held their stories close to me like talismans. The first time I lay on the exam table for an insemination—my feet in stirrups, my partner holding my hand—I summoned a feeling of openness and joy. Of course this would work. Of course it would.

It didn’t. Months later, when I still wasn’t pregnant, my stories about conception changed. I no longer daydreamed about the women I knew who had conceived immediately. Instead, I imagined I was waiting for the right child to choose me. I pictured little baby-spirits, hovering, taking stock of all the candidates. Sympathetic friends tried to console me with their own magical thinking. “It will happen when it’s meant to happen,” some of them told me. “It will happen when you finally stop worrying about it,” others said.

The stories I told myself and the ones my friends told me had this in common: they imposed order on a process beyond our control.

Story 1: If a child-spirit chose me, then I would be a parent.

Story 2: A force called destiny would choose when I got pregnant.

Story 3: My thoughts controlled my womb.

I didn’t know what to think of any of these stories, these tropes of magical thinking, including my own. I didn’t quite believe them, and yet they haunted me. The third story was the least comforting of all. Surely my attitude was within my realm of control and yet, the more I tried not to worry, the more I worried, and the more I worried the more I blamed myself for worrying.

One day, after nearly a year of trying and failing, after having spent thousands of dollars on frozen sperm and monthly inseminations, I ran into an acquaintance at the grocery store. She had dated a close friend of mine not long ago, and so she was privy to my situation. “What’s going on with the baby thing?” she asked me. We stood between shelves of toothpaste and shampoo. I looked at my shoes and then back at her. “It’s just not happening,” I confessed.

“Well,” she said, her voice strangely chipper, “maybe you just weren’t meant to be a parent. Did you ever think about that?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve thought about that.”

*   *   *

Now that I’m the parent of two young boys, there’s a mind game I like to play with myself sometimes. When my children are hugging each other on the couch or running ahead of me on a dirt road, I take a snapshot in my mind and offer it to my earlier self, the me of nine years ago. She is preparing to turn thirty and wondering what she will do if she’s not pregnant soon. Will she spend another small fortune on IVF? Will she apply for an open adoption and hope that someone will choose her? It is true that she has options; it is also true that none of them guarantee a child.

The me of nine years ago tries not to cry to her partner too often. Infertility is a solitary pain. The body, alone, remains alone. For two weeks of the month the mind hopes and imagines. With blood those hopes are dashed. Her partner, on the other side of things, continues in a body unchanged by the ritual of hope and disappointment. Her partner learns about the blood arriving, but is not the one checking her underwear every hour.

And so when I cried, my partner tried to comfort me by saying, “I’m not worried about it. I know that we’ll have a child. When it’s meant to happen it will happen.”

Destiny again. Magical thinking. These words didn’t help me nine years ago. The only thing that could have helped would have been a picture of my future life. With this evidence I might have waited calmly. But the snapshot of my children, handed through time, is a dream. In the real world no one can offer evidence. They can only offer hope disguised as certainty.

The longer I tried and failed to conceive, the more I saw that there were plenty of people around me who wanted children and would never have them. Some of them had never found the partner they were looking for, or they found that partner too late. Some of them conceived and lost a child and then couldn’t conceive again. Some of them pursued adoption but were never matched with a child.

This isn’t destiny, at least not in the benevolent sense of the word. It wasn’t the kind hand of the universe intervening for some unknown reason. Instead this was reality. Sometimes you want a thing very badly and still you don’t get it. When life presents challenges, when it drops bombs of longing and grief, we inevitably grow and gain depth. But this doesn’t mean that those challenges were pre-ordained.

I do believe that the stories we make of our lives are important. But they are just that: stories. We reach into the chaos of the universe and try to pull out some meaning and order. Because my story has a happy ending, I can pretend that it was destined after all, that I was meant to be a parent. But the true story is this: I got lucky.

The me of nine years ago reaches forward in time. She takes the snapshot from my hand and reminds me of how badly I wanted the life I have now. She reminds me to listen in the dark as my children breathe. She reminds me of how tenuous all of this is, our lives together on this earth. We are the products of a series of infinite chances, bound to each other by the near-impossibility of it all.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays can be found in The New York Times MotherlodeThe Washington PostThe Manifest-Station and in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

A Namesake for Nonny

A Namesake for Nonny

By Mimi Sager Yoskowitz

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At 32 weeks pregnant, I board a Chicago-bound plane from New York, teary eyed and wary about leaving my husband and traveling this late in my pregnancy. I’m heading back to my hometown to celebrate turning 30 with my high school girlfriends. We planned this getaway before I told anyone I was pregnant, so I never raised my concerns about the timing. But the timing turns out to be a blessing of sorts. My 94-year-old grandma has been in and out of the hospital, and this trip provides me with an opportunity to spend time with her.

Nonny’s apartment in the assisted living facility has a view of Lake Michigan. We stare out at the waters together, and she places her wrinkled hand on my burgeoning belly. Just as she settles in to check for some movement, her future great-grandchild kicks out a giant thwack!

“That’s a boy,” she says chuckling.

“You think so, Nonny? How can you tell?” I can’t help but smile.

“It’s so active.” Her tone is matter-of-fact as she rubs my pregnant middle, seeking out more signs of baby.

“All right Nonny, we’ll find out soon enough.”

I wonder if her old-fashioned stereotype will prove to be true. My husband and I are going the traditional route and not finding out the gender of our baby. And so it will be another few weeks before we know if my grandmother’s prophecy is correct.

After I return to Manhattan, Nonny and I start calling each other more frequently. It’s a mutual check-in; we are each concerned with how the other is faring. It seems that while my baby grows each day, getting ready to enter this world, my grandmother becomes weaker, getting ready to leave it.

“Hello?” Nonny answers the phone.

Cars honk and buses screech in the background as I walk home from work, but her voice still comes through stronger than the last time we spoke. Hopefully that means she is doing OK.

“Hi Nonny. How are you?” I ask.

“Oh, you know, Mimi. I’m waiting. I’m waiting until June 1.”

June 1 is my due date, and soon these words become her standard reply every time I ask how she is feeling. It’s just like Nonny to come up with a clever way of expressing her desire without being too emotional. Her love and determination remain strong, even as her heart weakens.

The special bond I share with my grandma dates back to my infancy when I served as a source of comfort as she grieved my grandfather’s sudden death. There are photos of us snuggling on the couch while she reads to me. Those cozy moments on her lap morphed into shopping excursions, sleepovers, and later, after I graduated from college, evening visits when I’d stop by her apartment after work.

As grandmother and granddaughter, we can do no wrong in each other’s eyes. For both of us, she has to meet her great-grandchild who is growing inside of me.  

On Mother’s Day, my husband and I head to Buy Buy Baby to complete our registry and take one more gander through the mega store that seems to hold all the paraphernalia needed to calm our first-time parent jitters. After combing the aisles filled with every possible stroller, breast pump, burp cloth and car seat known to parent-kind, we hail a taxi and head back home.

“Let’s finalize our boy and girl names and be done with it.” I have my husband cornered in the back of the cab. He’s been avoiding a decision, wanting to wait until we are  closer to the due date. Now I waddle instead of walk, and my belly tightens with Braxton Hicks contractions. It’s time to decide.  

During the course of my pregnancy, our conversations about our baby’s name ranged from calm and funny to heated and frustrating. We’ve combed through multiple baby name books, searched the Internet, and drawn up lists. Our preferences vary from the traditional, like Jacob, to the more modern, such as Talia. We discuss naming the baby for the grandparents we have lost, though I’m too superstitious to even consider naming for Nonny. At this point, it’s been weeks since we last broached the subject in any way. But something about that taxi ride seems to do the trick. By the time we arrive at our apartment building, our soon-to-be born baby has a name.

Once upstairs and giddy about our choices, I call Nonny to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day. She can’t get to the phone, her caretaker tells me she is sleeping, but I should try again later. For some reason or another, I never do.

My father’s phone call wakes me the next morning.

“She didn’t make it.”

My friend who lives one floor below tells me she heard my wails through the walls.

I beg my doctor to let me go to Chicago for Nonny’s funeral.

“You can’t travel at this late stage of your pregnancy,” she tells me.

We’re too close to that June 1 due date Nonny was trying so hard to reach.

Jewish custom calls for mourners to bury the deceased using a reversed shovel until a mound of dirt forms on the casket. Since I can’t be there in person to say good-bye, my pen acts as the reversed shovel, and my words are the dirt I use to help lay my grandma to rest. My brother reads the eulogy on my behalf, and I listen in from my Manhattan apartment, my cell phone on speaker. It isn’t the same as being there, not nearly, but I hope I’ve given all those gathered a sense of how much Nonny meant to me.

Nonny’s name was Cecelia, though she went by Cel for short. After her funeral, my husband and I toss out the names we finalized on Mother’s Day and come up with a different list of names that begin with “C.” Nonny didn’t make it to see the baby, but my first-born child will be her namesake.

Up until delivery, I debate whether I can name a girl directly for Nonny or if the pain of her loss is too raw for me to call someone else Cecelia, even my own child. But we do choose a boy name, Caleb, which means bold and devoted, two traits my grandmother embodied. She was brave attending law school in the early 1930’s, one of only two women in her class. She was brave when she wed my grandfather in secret at the age of 23. As a medical resident, he was not allowed to be married, but their love transcended the rules. Nonny remained devoted to him up until her last breath, and she always put family first.

It turns out Nonny also was good at predictions. Four days after my original due date, I give birth to a baby boy. Though they won’t ever meet, Nonny and her great-grandson will always be connected by their names that start with the letter “C.”

Mimi Sager Yoskowitz, a former CNN producer, is now a mother to four children ages 10 to 4.  Her writing can be found on Kveller.com, the 2016 “28 Days of Play” series, in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me, and on her blog, http://mimisager.com.

Until It Bleeds Like We Do

Until It Bleeds Like We Do

By Caroline Horwitz

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My scream joined the chorus of every woman who has unwillingly lost the life inside her. 

 

The nurse in purple scrubs walks me to an examination room and asks a third time if I’ve provided them with a urine sample. I affirm that I have. “Sorry,” she says in response to her forgetfulness. “There are five of you in here today all with the same complaint, and you start to run together after a while.”

My complaint is that I’m experiencing heavy vaginal bleeding. This is significant because I am—I was—pregnant. I take the nurse’s flippant words to mean the other four women are too. Five female bodies in this silent, sterile place, simultaneously and involuntarily expelling their embryos and fetuses. But that’s not what we call them: Babies. I lost the baby.

An hour before, a young man in fatigues checked me into the Air Force base hospital where my family received all of our healthcare—even after six years of marriage to a service member, I still registered the peculiarity of seeing camouflage and combat boots in lieu of white coats.         

“What’s going on?” he asked, a hand on his computer mouse.     

I cleared my throat. I had no illusions about what was coming out of me. I was, until early this morning, six weeks and five days along. “I just had a miscarriage.” My voice dropped and quavered on the M-word.        

“Sorry, a what?” He leaned forward.    

I jostled my sunglasses onto my face to hide the tears threatening to form. “A miscarriage.”

“Oh,” he said, and seemed on the verge of sympathy or an apology but began typing. “And this has been confirmed?”       

“Not yet,” I said. “But what I saw was pretty definitive.”   

It was. I didn’t need to frantically pull down my striped pajama shorts that morning to know what I would find in them after feeling a forceful surge of fluid. But I did anyway, and when I saw the vast amount of clumpy blood, I was neither surprised nor consolable.

The visceral roar emanating from my lungs was not mine alone. My scream joined the chorus of every woman who has unwillingly lost the life inside her. The millions rage and sob, trying to stab the air with our cries until it bleeds like we do. Then we stand up, take a shower, and go to the hospital.  

Hours later, all that’s left to accomplish at the ER—after a blood draw, abdominal ultrasound, transvaginal ultrasound, and pelvic exam—is the out-processing paperwork, so I reassure my husband that he can leave to pick up our son from daycare on time and return for me afterward. I am relieved to be departing this place of invasive procedures that concluded what I already knew.

My tears are gone for now. I stoically buy a coffee (Hey, I can have caffeine, I think) and wait for the car at a picnic table beneath a swaying line of trees. Air Force jets blast the sky above, setting off rogue car alarms here and there. The noise does not annoy me. It’s pleasing. They’re screaming for me.

Soul singer Merry Clayton recorded vocals with The Rolling Stones for their 1969 track “Gimme Shelter.” Rape, murder. It’s just a shot away. It’s just a shot away, she belts. The fervor of her voice reaches such climactic proportions that it cracks twice. She was pregnant. On her way home from the recording, she miscarried. She wondered later if the overexertion of her singing could have caused it.

That’s what you do, even if you know that most early miscarriages occur because of a chromosomal abnormality or incompatibility with life or one missed step of the many required in the fertilization process. You wonder if it was the flight you took across the country, the frequent lifting of your twenty-five-pound toddler, the pre-knowledge beer you didn’t even finish while stargazing in Bryce Canyon. You do it because blaming yourself is what mothers do, no matter how short-lived the motherhood.

“Gimme Shelter” is the first track on its album, Let It Bleed. Decades later, rock journalist Gavin Edwards raved about the album’s sound, asserting that “…the Stones made sure you went home covered in blood.” Merry Clayton did.

The day after the loss, I wandered out the back of my house to the patio and discovered on the table the remains of what had been a relaxing morning: a half-drunk mug of decaf and an opened first edition of Joyce Carol Oates stories I’d purchased the month before from a used bookshop in Ojai, California. The city where, if my menstrual-cycle math was correct, I had gotten pregnant. I was clutching, and promptly abandoned, both of these artifacts when I felt the blood, but they awaited me like stains.

It wouldn’t take long for my fertility to return, I was told. There was no way to tell when or if I’d get pregnant again, of course, but I would most likely ovulate within two to four weeks. I wanted to hear this, yes. We had planned this pregnancy. We wanted a second child. Rules were less stringent nowadays for complete, uncomplicated miscarriages like mine, so we didn’t require a waiting period. Yet it seemed cruel of my body. Two weeks? A new egg might arrive as soon as that, when someone who was attempting to grow into a child was just there? My body would not grieve, I realized. It was a landlord eager to move a new renter into an empty apartment, even though the last tenant recently died there. I, on the other hand, despite being aware of the pregnancy for only two weeks, will be cognizant of its loss for the rest of my life, no matter how swiftly I accept it.

If I get pregnant again, I won’t expect another miscarriage. The odds of having a subsequent one are low in women with no previous reproductive problems. It happened last time, therefore, it won’t happen again, I will reason.

If I get pregnant again, I will expect another miscarriage. Someone has to be on the losing end of the odds. My last pregnancy ended in a red gush, so why wouldn’t the next one? It happened last time, therefore, it will happen again, I will reason.
Caroline Horwitz lives in Las Vegas with her husband and son. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Chatham University. Her work has appeared in Animal, bioStories, Lowestoft Chronicle, Mothers Always Write, and The Summerset Review, and is forthcoming in the anthology My Mom Body: Reflections on Body Image and Motherhood from Monkey Star Press.

Photo: Kien Do | Unsplash

Bringing Her Home

Bringing Her Home

sleeping_jn_car_seatBy Carissa Kapcar

We broke it out into five steps. It was easier to process this way.

  1. Ovulate,
  2. Conceive,
  3. Don’t miscarry,
  4. Deliver a living baby,
  5. Bring the baby home.

Five seemingly simple steps and one overriding mantra to keep ourselves focused on the now, “today we are pregnant and it’s going well.”

Now in the hospital, tiny fingers tighten around my index finger, and the tethers around my heart finally loosen. No longer connected via umbilical cord, this little grip continues the physical link from me to my baby, but also provides the power for my baby to fuel me in the form of healing the angst and stress that I’ve carried over the past 46 months.

I was pregnant four times in 46 months and never left the hospital with a baby.

We pull away from the hospital. Silence fills the vehicle interrupted only by the subtle clicking sound of the turn signal, visually announcing our presence to the many shoppers accessorized by their parcels hurriedly crossing the intersections of Streeterville as the waves of Lake Michigan and the blustery trademark of the Windy City announce the first week of November with fury. The passerby’s bury their chins into their collars. They have no way of knowing the warmth that is filling the interior of the minivan next to them. This is the minivan that with the space to seat seven has cruelly mocked me, the mother with just one child, shuttling duel-side-sliding doors and fourteen cupholders around the suburbs.

Three years ago, just a few days after my first pregnancy a masked surgeon had firmly taken my upper arms into her hands and locked eyes onto mine insisting, “you need to know that this is life-threatening. We have to operate immediately.” We had just learned that our newborn son had an intestinal malrotation and wanted to have him baptized prior to surgery. She was trying to help me understand that there wasn’t time.

We turn onto East Chicago Avenue. The sleek lines and square roof of the Museum of Contemporary Art force a contrast to the gothic spirals and gilded towers of Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.   Yet, the horizontal and the vertical work together to stand guard over the children on the playground. Old and new, tall and wide, there is room for both just as my own grief of the past and joy of today can co-exist.

After his surgery our son had spent a few weeks in the NICU where I would visit daily and pump in a room, separated from other nursing mothers by only a thin curtain and the sound of machines that adorned our nipples instead of suckling newborns. Although I couldn’t hold my baby, I’d still hopefully and eagerly wash my hands for a three-minute minimum before each visit. A few steady weeks of progress and he was discharged. There was no fanfare, no balloons. We obeyed the unspoken code of the NICU and quietly slipped out while saying a silent prayer for the other parents and their babies who remained.

The turn signal chimes again as we wait to make a soft right through the cement jersey wall which always makes me question the permissibility of this turn onto Lake Shore Drive. The road bends as the Ferris wheel from Navy Pier claims the last piece of skyline before the vastness of the lake hypnotizes the mind. Our son, now almost four, describes the Ferris wheel as a clock.

A successful surgery left only in its wake a scar that now stretches across my son’s stomach and life-threatening food allergies that have permeated our lives. Yet the threat was haunting enough to plague my second pregnancy with concern. Having just moved across the country, we plowed through nine months in a new place with new doctors, new jobs and new friends. We talked with pediatricians, OBGYNs and specialists all of who assured us that this new child was just fine. And my second baby was just fine until when at thirty-eight weeks into my second pregnancy I didn’t feel the baby move.

We cross the Chicago River and pass marinas to the left and Buckingham Fountain to the right. During summer, the marinas are bustling with boats and sails while the fountain’s water powerfully propels upwards of 25 feet. But with winter knocking, the marinas are empty and the fountain is still.

Our second child had been born still. When a doctor confirmed that there was no heartbeat we spent the next several hours preparing to do the most difficult thing of our lives and deliver a baby that we knew would come in silence. Silence and then a hushed whisper informing us “it’s a girl” was followed immediately not with a baby’s wail, but rather her mother’s wail. A day later, we had another lonely discharge from the hospital without the baby that we loved dearly.

We dart in and out of traffic and progress south. With my free hand I pat the soft fleece rising and falling with each breath and tuck it under the straps of the car seat. I physically need to be close and hold, to comfort and to be comforted.

After the delivery of our daughter, my body had gone through the physical recovery of having just had a baby yet my arms were empty. Lactating breasts and a contracting uterus were not nearly as painful as the phantom sensations of holding a baby. Slowly digging, fiercely forging, we scraped, clawed and fought our way up by shedding fifty pounds of pregnancy weight, talking with a grief counselor and regularly attending a support group. We searched, reached, researched….and screamed! We needed answers, but there were none to give. So after six months, we bravely tried to get pregnant again. A recurrent pregnancy loss specialist explained to us that my third pregnancy would not last. At just five weeks the growth wasn’t tracking.

In front of us the handsome columns of the Field Museum loom at the bend in the drive so that you can almost believe you’ll drive right into its halls of discovery. Our son calls this the Dinosaur Museum versus the Train Museum, which is further south.

It had been there, standing in the lobby of the Museum of Science and Industry, or as our son calls it, the Train Museum, that I answered a phone call and learned that I had started my fourth pregnancy. We fought hard for that pregnancy. There were months of waiting to recover from the miscarriage followed by unsuccessful conception attempts. White sticks at the bottom of a drawer with their sad single line, procedures, appointments, and even acupuncture all contributed to that significant phone call, which launched us on our terrifying journey.

I rest my head and see Soldier Field to the West appearing like a floating spaceship grounded by Roman columns. In the throws of fall football season this is the home to thousands of tailgaters. I smell meat on a grill. We’ve missed tailgating, holidays, weddings, laughter and dancing. There has been no fun, no light…only pragmatic and heavy. I bend down and take in the airy and milky newborn breath wafting above the car seat, both savoring the sweetness of it — and needing proof of it.

We had needed a lot of reassurance during the fourth pregnancy and made multiple unexpected trips to the hospital seeking it from doctors who compassionately gave it to us. I employed every last ounce of positive thinking and only put myself in happy situations. This impacted my choice of media, friendships and activities. We made ourselves purchase nursery decorations (I cried the entire way home feeling guilty and excited at the same time.) I’d socially isolate myself before ultrasounds as I steadied and repeated our mantra. Our doctors had a goal to deliver the baby before the prior point of loss. So, beginning at 30 weeks I had regular monitoring and at 37 weeks an amniocentesis to confirm lung maturity before the scheduled delivery. That night we were too nervous to be far away from the hospital so we splurged and stayed across the street at the W Hotel. We ordered Giordano’s pizza and superstitiously watched the same movie we had watched the night before our son was born, “Lost in Translation.” Over Bill Murray and deep dish we told ourselves it would be OK. The next morning we woke early and went to a Cathedral before walking to the hospital where our prayers from that day, and the many days before, were answered.

A green sign indicates that I-55 is approaching. After living here for two years, we finally understand that the marker is really referencing “The Stevenson.” We merge as the road widens, rises up and stretches out before us. My shoulders relax, I sit back in my seat and finally now the tears fall from my eyes.

Step 5. Today, we are taking our baby home.

Author’s Note: Occasionally, I make the drive from the hospital campus area in downtown Chicago to our home in the suburbs at various times throughout the year for appointments and meetings.  Whenever I do so, it continues to feel special and reminds me of that sacred drive home with our newborn daughter.  While I am not a native Chicagoan, my children were born here and are being raised here.  It is for this reason that the area described in the piece will always be beloved space for me and has indeed become my sweet home, Chicago.

 

 

Carissa Kapcar is a happy, grateful, sometimes funny and often times tired mother of four (three living) shuttling a minivan around the Chicago area suburbs and clinging to just enough irreverence to stay sane. She writes regularly atwww.carissakapcar.com.

 

Pieces of Him

Pieces of Him

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By Sara Tickanen

The apartment felt empty.

It wasn’t that it was empty, per say. It was that any items that spoke of babies had been removed. There was no Winnie the Pooh wallpaper. No toys. No onesies. No crib. Gone.

It was my condition for coming home.

There were, however, brownies: three pans of them. Their pans lined the breakfast bar side by silver side, as if their mere presence could replace what had been lost. Apparently, it was now a custom in America to bring brownies when somebody died. Who knew? What people didn’t understand was that no amount of gooey chocolate was ever going to bring my baby back. It would be better if they stopped trying.

But trying to stop the memories was like trying to stop a torrent of rain—impossible.

 ***

Four in the morning, two days earlier.

There was something wrapped around my arm that felt heavy and completely out of the ordinary. I opened my eyes, but the Ambien they had pumped into me turned everything into a strange purple haze.

“Sorry,” said the nurse, removing a blood pressure cuff I didn’t remember her putting on. “I was trying to be careful.”

I closed my eyes. Sleeping was easier.

“We need to talk about something anyway.”

Curse her; real world be damned. I opened my eyes again.

She asked if we wanted to do an autopsy. I heard the words, and I understood the words at their basic level, but I couldn’t wrap myself around them. An autopsy. Crap. It was too much. I opened my mouth to answer, but no sound would come out.

An autopsy was what you did when somebody died.

I looked across the room. Max—the husband—wasn’t awake. This was on me; we’d put it off as long as we could. I shook my head vehemently.

You can’t cut him up. Not my son.

No.

***

“No.”

Max looked at the stick in my hand and then back at me.

I shook my head and leaned against the doorframe, slapping the test against my hand. I was three months along. Max was right; it was way sooner than we thought we could get pregnant.

“Yes,” I said back. I didn’t think it would happen this quickly either.

“Our marriage isn’t great to begin with. I don’t really know that this will fix that. I don’t know.”

“You don’t want this.” It wasn’t a question.

“Do you? Want this?”

I couldn’t show him how much I did, indeed, want thisThis was a baby. Not a thing. I felt a deep bond already, like the baby belonged to only me. I nodded; silence was the only way I could hold back my emotions.

“Are we ready for this?”

“Who’s ever ready to have a baby?”

Max got up, his eyes locked on mine. His hand slammed into the wall next to my head, and I shrank back. He had just missed, but that was intentional; he was in control and he wanted me to know. “Might be better if it hadn’t happened. If you’d never gotten pregnant at all.”

It. It was a person. I bit the inside of my cheek, trying not to cry. I put my hand over my belly to shield our baby from the harsh words. “The baby can hear you. What if something happens?”

“Whatever.”

He turned back to his computer, signaling the end of the conversation. I left his office, went to the bathroom, and turned the shower on full blast. And then I cried.

****

“Do you want to take a shower?”

The question came from yet another nurse.

Did I want to take a shower? What a ridiculous question. I wanted to curl up in a ball and die. Who needs a shower when they’re about to die? I was going in the ground, in the dirt. I didn’t need to be clean for that. I didn’t need anything at all.

I waited while she buzzed around the room with annoying quickness, gathering up all of the needed supplies. There was a chair in the shower if I wanted to sit down. And there was the chain I should pull if I had an emergency while in the shower. There was the hamper where my dirty clothes would go. And there were my new clothes, including new underwear and a giant pad that looked like an adult diaper.

Diapers.

Fuck.

***

The week before, I was sitting in my car under the church awning after my baby shower, eating a gooey double chocolate brownie and letting my sister and everyone else load up the diapers and other baby goodies into the backseat. The bounty was piled so high that I couldn’t see, and I prayed that I wouldn’t hit anything as I backed the car up into a close parking spot to park while I said goodbye. My friends struggled out the door with fistfuls of balloons, determined to shove them into my backseat with all the other gifts. The balloons were the most adorable things I had ever seen, red and gold with intricate depictions of Winnie the Pooh to match our nursery theme.

I waved my hand to dismiss the balloons; there was no room for them at home. My sister pulled nail scissors out of her purse and clipped the strings, and we watched the balloons sail into the sky. I wondered offhandedly where they might be going. Did balloons fly up to heaven and get stuck there? When we die, are there balloons? Do we see them up in heaven? Too many questions.

***

It was earlier; time was out of order.

My head was out of order.

There were too many questions: did I have allergies, did I have this, did I have that, did I want hospital clergy, did I want family? I tuned it all out; I couldn’t focus. The day was not what I had expected it to be.

I called the husband that day from the OB appointment, and he hadn’t been happy to be disturbed while in his sound engineering studio. But I hadn’t had a choice. One minute I was going in for an ultrasound, and everything was fine.

The next, I learned that my baby’s heart was no longer beating.
There had been no easy way to tell Max. When he showed up at the hospital, he wasn’t speaking to me. I didn’t know why. Granted, I wasn’t speaking either, to anyone. I hadn’t uttered a single word since the phone call. What was the point?

The nurse was giving me a lecture on pain medication, but I wasn’t paying attention. I wasn’t in labor. Almost. But not quite. She kept insisting that the medication would make me sick without food. Pointing at the menu, she offered to get me something to eat. I looked at the menu, and I wanted to spit on it. People in hospitals weren’t happy, and they certainly weren’t looking for up and coming cuisine. I pointed to a salad and almost threw the menu back at her.

Our son was dead.

Our son was dead, but I still had to go through labor.

Salad came. The lettuce was wilted and sad. I felt sick. I pushed the tray so that it spun out away from the bed, grabbing my phone to play with so that I wouldn’t have to look at the disgusting normalcy that was food.

The nurse was still talking, but I hadn’t heard a word. “The pill that they put inside of you is basically telling your body that it’s time to go into labor. Your water should probably break soon, but if it doesn’t they will break it manually. Things will progress like normal labor.”

Pill? What pill? And normal labor? Nothing here was normal. I should have paid better attention. I was so stupid.

***

Our son was dead, but I still had to go through labor.

 

When Max said to wait on the labor and delivery class, I listened. Now look where I was. I didn’t know what to do. Labor. Having a baby. Jesus. I didn’t even take the class. It was my fault; I was unprepared. The husband wasn’t going to help me. He never did.

Maybe they were wrong. Maybe the baby was still okay in there, and they just couldn’t find him. Maybe it was really important for me to know what to do; everyone else was certain he would be born dead, but I was certain he had to be alive. I was the only one who knew.

It seemed really important to know what to do. Otherwise, what good was I?

***

It was worthless, all of it. So worthless. The contractions were getting closer together— labor was full on, but nothing good was going to come of any of it. I bit down so hard on my lip that the sharp, metallic taste of blood flooded my mouth. Minutes turned into hours. People came in and out. Everything inside me was numb, physically and emotionally, and not from the epidural. There was a television show playing, something about naughty dogs and a woman who was training them towards becoming good doggy citizens.

Max was pecking away at the keys on his laptop, typing quickly. Like little chickens attacking their food. I could almost picture the little chicken heads on his fingers, a side effect of the medication coursing through my system. They pecked away, and the unwanted food delivered by the nurse taunted me from where it had been abandoned on the bedside table. I grabbed the plate and threw the entire thing against the wall; it shattered into an infinite number of pieces and the salad scattered everywhere.

The husband didn’t respond.

***

“Holy cow. Your baby is coming right now.” The nurse was nameless, faceless. The world was whitewashed.

The head was out. His head.

The husband didn’t respond. He never responded.

“I’m so sorry you had to see that.” Nameless told the husband as she helped him sit in a cheap plastic chair. She was hitting buttons on the wall, making everything light up. The room filled with people; they were magic people summoning light-up buttons. I couldn’t think clearly enough to understand what she was doing. Things were happening too fast.

Twenty two hours of labor ended in minutes. There was a flurry of activity at the foot of the bed, and the doctor was holding something in his hands. “Cut it,” he told Nameless.

The cord. Cut the cord. Wasn’t the husband supposed to do that? Where was he? There were too many questions. Did I want to hold the baby? I did. But I wasn’t sure that the words had actually come out of my mouth until the baby was in my arms. He was wrapped up in a blue-for-boy blanket. As Nameless placed him in my arms, I was worried that I wouldn’t know what to do, but when he was settled against my chest it all seemed to come naturally. There was no movement, no breathing no crying. His eyes were closed, and he was really gone. Unnatural.

The room emptied. I lowered my head down until my face was almost buried in the baby, filling myself with his scent. He was still warm; it was almost like he was there, almost like he was alive. I stayed that way until Nameless came back. She had a camera, even though I hadn’t really wanted pictures.

His hands; I had to see his hands. I asked her to help me with the blanket, to help me see his hands, but I again wasn’t sure the words had actually come out until she peeled the blanket back. His fingers were tiny and closed, and one of mine filled his entire fist. His were long though—good cello fingers, or piano—just like mine.

The husband brought the in-laws, and they passed the baby around like some sort of disturbing prize. The numbness was so encompassing that I didn’t realize I was crying until I couldn’t breathe. They were passing him back and forth, and it was totally irrational, but I was afraid that he was going to be scared or cold without me. I just wanted him back in my arms.

***

His fingers were tiny and closed, and one of mine filled his entire fist. His were long though—good cello fingers, or piano—like mine.

 

He was mine. His fingers, and every part of him. Mine.

When I finally had him back, I held him for several minutes, my face pressed against his tiny body. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. He wasn’t breathing; I wasn’t breathing. He was mine; he was me; I was his. He was dead. I was dead.

I wanted time to stop so that I could stay always in that moment, my face hidden in his blanket. But I knew that couldn’t happen. I knew they had to take him then, or I would never let him go.

I would never see him again.

My son was dead.

***

It wasn’t how I thought I’d be bringing our son home. Dead. Who thinks that that’s going to happen to them? I don’t think any parent does. Doctors and nurses said goodbye to us as we prepared to leave the hospital. Friends sent us well wishes.

The day was full of “I’m sorry.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“It’ll be okay.”

I wanted to smack someone in the face. And not just one someone. I wanted to smack them all, every last one of them, just to punish them for their happiness.

The valets drove cars in and out of the circular hospital driveway, running back and forth between cars and the hospital entrance. I clutched the box in my hands. It was his life, all that he had of it. Pictures. His outfit. A lock of hair. His entire life fit into one tiny shoebox, and it didn’t seem right. It wasn’t fair.

There was no way I could go home. Not without him

I can’t. Just. Can’t.

***

Apparently, it was now a custom in America to bring brownies when somebody died. Who knew?

 

The box sat on the kitchen counter, right where I had placed it when we got home the day before. There really wasn’t an appropriate place to keep the remains of a life other than next to the brownies. Those damn brownies. The pans were multiplying, and we would never eat them all. They should be donated, given away. When someone dies, you donate their things.

I was dying. I needed to donate my brownies.

Until the brownies left my sight, they were nothing more than memories of his death. Chocolate reminders. I stacked them one on top of the other in the fridge.

***

From what the nurses told me, when a baby dies, it doesn’t go to the morgue. They store it in a fridge before it is taken to the crematorium. A small empty, food-less fridge, like the ordinary kind you would find in a kitchen. With wire racks and white walls.

I don’t know why they told me that; it isn’t fair. Now, whenever I open a fridge, I wonder.

I wonder if he was cold there.

***

Author’s Note: During a pivotal Creative Nonfiction course at University of Wisconsin, Parkside, my undergraduate writing professor, Nick, gave us an assignment: we were to go to the student art galleries, find something that inspired us, and write about it. I chose a work called “Bits and Pieces.” It was constructed using bits of found wood, all rearranged and spliced together to form something that resembled a house when you studied closely. It’s really easy to just look at something and take it for face value, but if you take into account each individual piece, you gain a completely different picture. The art was a perfect parallel to the disconnection that occurs when someone we love dies, and my notes eventually evolved into this essay—a way to honor my son.

Sara Tickanen is a graduate student at The New School, earning her MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in various publications, including The Rectangle and Gravel. She currently resides in New York with her cat, Polly, who helps craft every essay by draping herself across the computer keyboard.

Artwork by Mary F. Reilly-Riddlebarger.

Return to the September 2015 Issue

Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now

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

—Kurtz to Willard, Apocalypse Now, 1979

I recently asked my kids about their first memories.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

“The Horror! The Horror!”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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220px-CRL_Crown_rump_lengh_12_weeks_ecografia_Dr._Wolfgang_Moroder

By Sarah Layden

My brain is a box of wires.
Some connect to appropriate
portals, some fray at both ends.
I sort the tenth tragic email update from a friend
to the folder marked Baby. I begin to reply but draw
a blank, I type a few words then backspace the screen
clean. My own souvenir ultrasound picture is taped
to the monitor, little ghost in the machine. Some
machines work better than others. Mine was
broken, then fixed. Now this me-chine provides
sugar and fuel and god knows what else, fuel I
needed but expelled last night, a great
heaving, & I had the presence of mind
to clip back my hair. They say puking
while pregnant is a good sign. It feels
like being poisoned but it’s a good sign.
Best not to think of the emails left
unanswered, the failings of friendship
stretched thin by grief.
This is a moment of being
unwired, unhinged,
unconnected
to anything but flesh,
to a baby technically
connected to me.
I am the host,
the server, and
the plug
only works
one way.

Back to November 2015 Issue

The Intertidal Zone

The Intertidal Zone

Intertidal ART

By Jessica Johnson

My aquarium-going habit started when I was twenty-four during a family visit to Boston for my brother’s college graduation. His degree was in music, and I had swerved from studying science toward a graduate degree in creative writing. Questions about our obscure paths to middle-class adulthood hovered, omnipresent yet mostly unsaid.

I stood on the pier outside the New England Aquarium with my parents, my brother, and his new girlfriend, whose existence was a surprise, whose ways were surprising. My brother had not prepared us well, nor her, and so we didn’t know what to do with each other. Every new utterance seemed to require a response I didn’t know how to make. I wanted the weekend to be over.

We stepped through the aquarium’s glass doors and passed through the frenzy of admissions. An ever-echoing din filled the building.

In the Jellies exhibit, tanks arced along the wall with headlines like, In 2020, Will You Be Eating Jellyfish Sandwiches? The curved water boxes held illuminated parachutes, parachutes large and small, ghostly white or lit by colored spotlights so that they glowed pink or green. I watched the jellies ascending through the tank in breath-like motions, trailing their ribbony cords. I drifted from my family and felt myself—my self with all the craggy edges catching on the world—fading as I peered into one tank, then the next.

Maybe you have experienced it, too, the fascination of silent invertebrates behind glass. I looked and looked and still wanted to look longer, unsure of what I might be looking for. I could see their motion, their form, the traces of their inner workings. I wanted to hold them in my mind, to hold onto their form or function, to somehow have them.

It was then that I became a sucker for glass, for its promise of revelation.

****

I first desired the creatures of the intertidal when my brother and I were kids. Sprung from the station wagon after a long trip to my grandmother’s house on one of British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, we would run down, past the house, to a wide stretch of beach. As we stepped onto the cobblestone of rounded rocks, the ground began to sizzle: crabs no wider than a Canadian dollar coin in the cracks between the rocks. Because we could, we kneeled and pried rock after rock from its resting place; the crabs scattered trying to wedge themselves into a further crevice or go still on the edge of a shadow. Their hard backs seemed painted with deep purple, or avocado green, or, in greater numbers, speckled with the color of dried blood.

Because we could, we’d pull one from its shelter. We wanted to feel its articulated legs picking across our palms. As the crab carried its discoid body to the edge of a hand, we’d put another hand in its path, making it walk a treadmill of kid-flesh. If one of us set a crab down, the other would prevent its escape.

At six or seven, wanting to know them, wanting to keep them, we chose the most obvious way—

carrying them back to the house in a bucket. If she remembered to, our mother made us release them before bedtime; if she didn’t, we’d find them limp in the next day’s heat.

They were never as interesting in the bucket, attempting to climb out, scrambling for cover in the white plastic cylinder, as they were on the beach. But what to do with them? We couldn’t, of our own volition, let them go.

As we got older, we kept trying to hold the beach’s fauna, if not physically, then essentially. We kept trying to keep something of them. On long vacations, we made friends with local kids who spurred us to become classifiers. The crabs’ undersides were flat and white, but their armor had a pattern: a white spire in the middle, longer and narrower, supposedly indicated maleness. For days, we prowled the shore, flipping them over to determine their sex. Boy, boy, girl, boy, girl, girl, girl…

Bored with classification, we started looking for fancier and more elusive invertebrates: the moon snail, the sea cucumber, the big and scary spider crab. We became connoisseurs. When we found our specimens, we now knew better than to collect them, and the memory of their precise existence faded soon after we returned to the house, washed our feet in the outdoor spigot, and blended ourselves into the rhythm of dinner and bed.

How old was I? Eight? Nine? At some point, I started staring at my reflection in a wide bedroom window of the house near the foot-wash station, practicing detached comparative judgment on my own body, learning to think of it as something to be manipulated, disregarded. I silently cataloged the differences between myself and the more acceptable others, the graceful and bendable girls who could run on the wide, sandy beach confident in the knowledge that they were definitely not fat. Separating me from them was a slight layer that waxed and waned. Some years I could see the faint outline of my ribs, other years I could not. In some lights my legs looked hopefully slim and long, in others heavy in the thigh. It’s just babyfat. I had it too. You’ll shoot up. I did—I was gangly. Just wait a few years. Whatever my female relatives said, my self-observation was like a time-lapse photo montage of a natural disaster, small pictures speeding toward an unwanted outcome. I separated my body from my self, rendering it available for study, taking a kind of comfort in the observer’s role.

Eventually, like our European forbears in the West, we children became extractors, using the beach as a source of material to serve our utilitarian purposes. We collected driftwood for forts and shells for glue-gun craft projects that, once made, never lived up to what we’d imagined.

Finally, in our early twenties (after a period of teenage hedonism during which the beach was something that you shook out of your hair after a night of partying) we became consumers. Growing up we’d watched our parents and grandparents pick oysters from the rocks, occasionally shucking and swallowing one right there on the beach. We too dug clams, soaked them in buckets, and, with our laptops open, concocted “saffron-infused” broths in which to steam their ribbed, mottled shells, their soft bodies.

Clams, but not oysters: while we’d turned from little naturalists to extractors to consumers, the beach changed without our noticing. Maybe because of overharvest by tourists who didn’t know to throw the shells back, or maybe for a more global reason, the oyster stocks declined, and if we had oysters, they were from a farm at Fanny Bay. Despite the fact that I could buy its species and swallow them nearly alive, the desire for some congress with the intertidal, the desire to keep and know it, the desire that later drew me to the glassy tank of jellyfish, was never fully satisfied.

***

Enter the aquarium: a larger, socially sanctioned, and (crucially) climate-controlled creature-bucket. The Boston visit turned out to be the first of many trips to sites of curated nature, which I continued to frequent as I got older, had jobs, and spent more time indoors. During vacations, during the drifting alienation of business travel, I sought refuge in aquariums, conservatories, exhibitions. Whenever it seemed like there was nothing else to do, I indulged the impulse to look at life in vitro, to collect facts and then walk out into the blue sky.

In his 2003 history of the aquarium, The Ocean at Home, Bernd Brunner relates an anecdote from mid-nineteenth century Europe, the time and place when aquariums came into vogue, both as a form of public entertainment and as home décor. A German aquarist, Gustav Jäger, described how “even educated” visitors would sometimes, in an agitated aside to the ticket taker, ask “What in heaven’s name am I supposed to see in there?”

What am I supposed to see? Aquariums are built to reveal, giving human visitors the impression that they are meant to “see” something beyond what’s physically there—they are meant to see as in have an insight. Through a glass barrier, they allow the visitor to see into realms she can’t ordinarily penetrate; I can see in, but by allowing me to do that, by existing only for the purpose of allowing me to do that, aquariums suggest that there’s something to be gained by doing so—a perspective, an understanding.

Aquariums seem to be products of the cultural assumption that we can know things best by removing ourselves from the situation and looking in a detached fashion. We treat knowledge something fixed and apart from us, locate-able: something we come to.

But something I come to is also something I walk away from, something I can’t take with me. And so, with the glassed-in creatures of the intertidal, the more I looked, the more I wanted to look. The more aquariums I visited, the more I wanted to visit. The creatures there seemed knowable, but as their images faded in my mind, not particularly known. Like the man in Jäger’s story, I saw in but had no insight.

***

Nevertheless, it was insight I was seeking when, four months pregnant, I (once again) made the quick trip from Portland to the Bonneville hatchery and sturgeon interpretive center to watch the sleepy, giant fish floating behind the glass. They drifted from the murk-like zeppelins toward my window and hovered there. I stared at their ancient, folded eyes, at the shape of their bodies, their ridged backs and shark-like tails, unsure of what they could tell me, but relieved to be looking, separated from the bodies on display.

Pregnancy plunged me into my own biology and made me long to escape by gazing, to locate the relevant biology outside a detached self. Some women crave the experience of growing a baby, but I was not one of them. My fantasies of motherhood involved helping with homework, reading books aloud, and watching soccer games. I wanted to be the parent of a first-grader, but a pregnant lady? Not so much. Although it was medically normal in every way, my pregnancy rocked me. Aside from the inconveniences and subtle indignities (the constant nausea, the inconveniently frequent need to urinate, the rapidly shrinking wardrobe) what quietly terrified me was the end of agency, the loss of my perceived control over my body and my time. I was used to beginning my day before dawn and checking through items on my ambitious list, but pregnant, it felt like I lacked the energy to carry out basic obligations, like my job. I couldn’t get myself from point A to point B: on the way home from work, desperate for the couch, I’d pull over to vomit or nap in a parking lot, unable to drive for even five more minutes. Pregnancy was happening to me, unfolding consequences that I could not walk away from. My uncomfortably full torso and I couldn’t be removed from whatever was going to happen next.

During the long months until my daughter was born, my general fear was punctuated only by ultrasound appointments, during which I could see a schematic black and white picture of the creature, of her skull, bones, brain, and spine, moments when I could see all of this outside of myself, high on the screen above my head, when the technician was measuring parts and telling me what they meant. The part of pregnancy I liked, the part in which I feel the most myself, were the rare moments when my pregnancy turned into an aquarium and I returned to the cold, gentle comfort of observation.

***

Eight months after visiting the sturgeon at Bonneville, my husband and I and our baby, on an extended family camping trip to the Oregon Coast, took a break from the campground to spend an afternoon at the Mark O. Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. Just inside the doors, school-age kids leaned over a long, man-made tidepool, poking chubby fingers into a cluster of fat, green anemones, exclaiming when the anemones’ free gelatinous wands reflexively pulled closed. In the middle of the room, a small crowd had started to gather around the tank where a keeper’s arm reached down from the surface, deus ex machina, to feed an octopus. Tentacles clutched the arm with ferocious speed as the crowd gasped at the cephalopod’s power and intention.

Outside, a bright wind was taking the sky away from itself, sweeping the smoke of last night’s campfires out over the Pacific. Inside, it smelled like a cooped up sea, the floor’s cemented pebbles slick with splashed water.

I shuffled toward inner rooms where columnar, vertical tanks revealed the native species we may never have seen in the long sand flats, the intertidal marshes, things we may have found, half-rotted, on the hard sandy beach: the razor clams and sea cucumbers, the lampreys, the salmonids, the rock fish, the skate.

Maybe you have felt this way too: the sensation of inhabiting an unfamiliar role. I was the one with the gently swaying gait, the stable shoes, the old jeans, the ten dollar sunglasses nestled in my hair, new to being a caregiver. The one with an infant harnessed to my chest. Her legs dangled from the Baby Bjorn, slightly bent in total rest. Beneath the receiving blanket that shielded her nap from the overhead lighting, her grapefruit-sized head slumped against my hoodie. Her sleepy breathing was like the gentle rasp of a tiny, subtle violin.

***

In the early days of parenthood, we were trying out activities to see what would fit our new reality the way I tried on old clothes to see what would fit my changed body. The aquarium seemed like a way to get back in touch with my pre-maternal, non-maternal self, the person who’d been dormant for eight weeks of round-the-clock newborn care.

The Center’s walls held conceptual exhibits on coastal phenomena, things like upwelling, the effect of invasive species on the intertidal zone. There was none of what my professors called charismatic macrofauna: no seals, no penguins, no dolphins, no tragic whales. This was not the aquarium of Disney-like exotica, but the visual demonstration of a college marine ecology class, the university (Oregon State) turned inside out, the models of our collective knowledge on display (even if the deductive processes that construct that knowledge remain hidden). Each important piece was precisely illuminated. A person could learn something here. Less an aquarium than a science center, it was an aquarium as I always wanted aquariums to be. I should have been riveted.

I could sense my husband’s how much longer? glance as he wandered toward the gift store. (Pity the spouse of the nerd, the obsessive, the over-focused.) The baby kept sleeping.

But instead of lingering at each module, I found myself glancing over the text and moving on with my sleeping cargo, touching nothing, trying no levers, pushing no buttons, forming no hypotheses, making no connections. Whatever the tanks offered, I didn’t really need. The itch to find something in them had vanished. In an un-self-like fashion, the old self—the removed, gazing self—was no longer there.

***

And so the aquarium’s allure ended: with my daughter shifting against my chest like a cloud on a still day.

Caregiving is treated as a low-status occupation in our culture, distinct from the academic enterprises in which we construct our knowledge of the world outside ourselves, most of which define themselves in terms that assume a mind-body dichotomy—terms that have us approaching other bodies with minds rather than with bodies. Caring for babies and children, the ill, the disabled, and the elderly is a poorly paid type of labor, and the money gets worse depending on the amount of actual time the worker spends with the patient or charge. Little training or education is required to do it; the perception is that anyone can. When a family member cares for another, as I was caring for my daughter, it’s associated with instinct rather than knowledge, and I’d been conditioned not to take pride in this flood of instinct by a culture that elevates experiences of insight over experiences of intimacy.

But taking care of an infant—that common, instinctive activity—launched me into the caretaker’s way of knowing, an experience and an expertise that rendered the aquarium powerless.

The way I knew her redefined for me what it means to know a living thing. Unlike the knowledge created and disseminated through our universities and textbooks, knowledge created by caretaking is not durable, not static, not share-able, could not be put behind glass, is not exhibit-able.

As I veered away from the tanks, I knew she would sleep for at least another half hour. I knew how the slight back and forth sway to my walk kept her asleep. I knew she would be hungry a few minutes after her eyes opened, leaving me just enough time to get to a place where I could change her diaper before she began her red-faced grimace, her squeaky see-saw cry. When we stepped outside the science center into the ripping wind, I knew that she would need to be shielded from light as well as air, and I would grab a blanket to wrap around her, and she would be covered and safe before I consciously realized that I had made her so. I knew the meaning of each squirm and vocalization. My body was so finely attuned to my daughter’s body that I could sense her need before there was any signal I could name, before I could even say how I knew what I knew.

In the weeks since her body left my body, we were awash in the cycle of wordless attention, the feeding, sleeping, waking, holding, and cleaning, the repeat and adjust and repeat that comprised her continued thriving. And so we floated through the aquarium, gelatinous, unprotected, and interdependent, with the mildest interest, from sea urchin to rock fish, herring to barnacle, inseparable from our ourselves: creatures caught in our own tide.

Author’s Note: Now, with two children (aged one and four), I find myself more immersed in caregiving than ever, and I continue to think through all the ways the caregiver’s role frames my perspective. On our summer trips to the coast, my daughter has begun to explore tide pools. So far we’ve managed to leave the crabs alive and well.

Read our Q&A with Jessican Johnson

Jessica Johnson’s poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in Tin House, the Paris Review , Kenyon Review Online, and Harvard Review, among others. Her book of poems, In Absolutes We Seek Each Other, won the DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press chapbook contest in 2014. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, son, and daughter and teaches at Portland Community College. Find her online at www.chromeislands.com.

Cities of My Body

Cities of My Body

Silouette of Woman's BodyBy Liz Rognes

With her long, perfectly manicured fingers, the checkout girl methodically lifts each item out of my shopping basket. She scans a box of almond milk, a package of pasta, then the container of prenatal vitamins.

I shift my weight from one leg to another. I’m barely showing, but if you look closely, you can already tell. I’m sixteen weeks pregnant with my first baby. This was not something I thought would come easily. My body, now generally a place of health and reliability, has in the past been the site of rampant destruction. My doctor had said subclinical infertility. My slow thyroid and elevated hormone levels worried her. She had said it could take many months, maybe years, to get pregnant. She had said she could refer me to a specialist.

But it happened faster than we had expected. Jason and I were shocked and elated when one home pregnancy test after another appeared with a plus sign, only weeks after the appointment with my doctor. I had worked so hard to prepare myself for disappointment, for the reality of subclinical infertility, that I did not believe the results. I took three, four, five, and then six pregnancy tests over the course of a few days, and all came back with the same unbelievable message.

There will be a baby.

I will be a mother.

I am short with a short torso, and there’s nowhere for this expanding uterus to go but out. I’m proud of this, and I wear my growing belly like a marker of glowing wellness and peace and love and all of that motherhood mythos, but standing there on the other side of the checkout counter, I am swept with insecurity. I do not feel like a mother. I am not glowing.

***

I know little about the woman who scans my groceries, but I know more about her than I know of the other cashiers. Only months ago, before I became pregnant, before I quit coming to the grocery store because of morning sickness, I stood behind the checkout girl, partial stranger, partial familiar face, in the garage of a house I’d never before seen, after bar close, with a slew of skinny, tattooed men circling the cold room and line after line of cocaine appearing on a workbench.

 

When she finishes unloading and scanning my basket, she asks, “Paper, plastic, or reusable?” She does not make eye contact. I realize that we’re pretending not to know each other.

***

Six months earlier, Jason and I walked into a party after bar close, on the heels of a magnetic, fast-talking British musician who now lived in Spokane.

We had recognized him from his moment of fame; his band had a hit song in the eighties. He was not the kind of person we usually hung around, but something about him was alluring; Jason and I were both inexplicably swept up with him and his exaggerated manner. We joked that his arrogance was endearing. He didn’t give a fuck about what people thought, and we were nothing like him.

 

When she finishes unloading and scanning my basket, she asks, “Paper, plastic, or reusable?” She does not make eye contact. I realize that we’re pretending not to know each other.

 

We were bookish, responsible, rule-followers; Jason was a librarian, and I was an English teacher. When I did get pregnant, my own mother joked that our baby would inevitably be a nerd. “Nerd plus nerd equals nerd,” she said, smiling. She meant this lovingly; we were creative, but we went to bed early. The musician, on the other hand, was tall in stature and presence, and he commanded the attention of everyone in the room. We were seduced by his fame. And ever since we had begun talking about trying for a baby, even before my visit to the doctor, I had started to feel a little impulsive, like there was a limit to this moment in my life as I knew it. I felt myself yearning for spontaneity. So when the musician invited us to the bar for a drink that night, we went. When he invited us to the after party, we went. We were somewhat star-struck, and, despite a slew of signs indicating the opposite, were convinced that there could be something positive, or at least productive, about this friendship.

At the bar, his girlfriend leaned into me and she whispered in my ear, “It’s a hard party, if you know what I mean.”

I looked her in the eye.

I knew exactly what she meant.

***

Ten years ago, I signed in to the last of many rehab centers I had been to. I’d hallucinated my way through hospital detox a handful of times, blood pressure exploding in my ears and the sick expulsion of poisons pouring out of my mouth and pores. Then, I was a young twenty-two years old, with the face of a girl of about eighteen. I was small, with big eyes and a quiet demeanor that convinced people I wasn’t trouble. I got away with almost everything—drugs, constant drunkenness, promiscuity, hanging around with a rough crowd, finding myself in rooms with guns and coked out drug dealers—and the outside world likely pinned me for a brooding teenager, not a girl mixed up with the kind of stuff I was doing.

Even when I started accruing consequences, I managed to maintain a certain naïveté. I’d been drinking and drugging like that for only a year or two, and I was simultaneously heavily medicated on antidepressant drugs and a pharmacy of other pills that were supposed to help with my anxiety and bulimia. The cocktail of drugs, combined with the heavy drinking, took a quick, serious toll on my liver. I was confused when I started experiencing withdrawals from alcohol, telling myself that was crazy—I was only twenty-two, after all. That was the kind of thing that happened to old men who’d been drinking for decades, not to promising Midwestern farmer’s daughters who went to fancy women’s colleges like me. I kept the extent of the chemical dependency a secret.

Most of the time, I didn’t care that I was a mess. I didn’t want to take care of myself, and a future of motherhood—the possibility of one day being responsible for someone else—was not even a consideration. My body was a burden that I wanted to escape.

***

At the party, the checkout girl was drunk and high already, and she walked right over to me, announcing to the people around her that I was her grocery store customer. This was not how I wanted to be identified. Normally, in this mostly sober adult life I have crafted in the past decade or so, I think of myself as a woman who no longer takes unnecessary risks, a woman who eats kale and root vegetables, who wears a seatbelt and a sunhat, who cares about whether or not there are laureth sulfates in her shampoo or fluoride in her toothpaste. After years of therapy and hard work crafting a more or less healthy lifestyle, I am no longer the woman who shows up at after parties to do lines of cocaine with strange men on workbenches in cold garages. I have learned how to take care of this body and how to quiet my anxiety. I have learned how to reach out, how to ask for help, how to be accountable and to maintain relationships. I wanted to bring a baby into this place of steadiness, to enter motherhood with the firm footing of ten years away from the chaos of my past. But on that night, I didn’t want to be the careful, healthy woman I had worked so hard to become, I didn’t want to think about motherhood, and I did not want any reminders about who I was, now.

The truth is, I was feeling itchy, and I had been for a while. The musician’s arrogance and gestures, his constant phone calls and quick disappearances were familiar to me, and while I didn’t tell Jason about the old cravings swirling around in the back in of my mind, I intuited that hanging around this fast-talking man with a palpable residue of aging fame could eventually lead to something like this. The musician’s cues represented something I had put away, and the nearness of it was intoxicating. When I walked into the party and saw the woman who nearly always scanned my groceries, I was jolted. She made me think of the natural foods store, of my chosen lifestyle of health and sobriety and intention.

That night, I didn’t want any reminders of what my life was outside of that party.

***

“Sixty-three forty-nine,” the checkout girl says.

I pull out my credit card and run it through the swiper, even though I know it won’t work. The strip has been busted for weeks. I try again. It doesn’t work. After the third try, I have to hand my credit card to her so she can manually enter the numbers. I watch her hold my card, and I can’t help but think about her long, skinny fingers holding onto a different credit card on a different night while organizing the white powder into neat, short lines, before turning to me and saying, one hand by her nostril, head tipped back, leaving the last line for me: “All yours, sweetie.”

***

I’ve been buying groceries at this overpriced natural foods store since I moved to Spokane four years ago. Even while I was a broke grad student and then a broke adjunct instructor at a community college, I would count my quarters, trudge through the snow from a few blocks away, and buy onions and garlic and potatoes to make hearty soup that would last me for a week. The boiling potatoes curled steam across the windows of my tiny, cold second floor apartment.

Buying groceries has nearly always been a knotted task for me. As a kid, I hardly entered a grocery store because my mom would drop my siblings and me off at my grandma’s house across the street in our little farm town while she went in to shop. I had no idea where our food came from, immediately or long-term, even though we lived smack on a farm in the middle of Iowa, with hundreds of acres of corn and soybeans surrounding us. I was sensitive to the cultural messages about femininity and thinness that permeated the strange mix of culture of rural farming and mainstream media of the late eighties and nineties. And as the eldest child in a homogenous culture, I was a perfectionist. I developed an eating disorder in my pre-teen years, and my relationship to food was severely stunted. Grocery stores became terrifying and overwhelming places where the thing that I most feared and most coveted lived. I loved food, and I hated it. As a teenager and then as an early twenty-something, I cycled through bouts of severe restriction and uncontrolled devouring of food. Adding drugs and alcohol to the mix, I was completely unable to find a middle ground or to even recognize that a middle ground could be possible.

***

After the party, we didn’t get home until the sun was beginning to slowly lighten the sky behind our house. In our domestic life together, we had never stayed out until sunrise.

I had been offered the last line of cocaine at the party. I would have done more, but that’s all there was. I kept thinking of it as “only one line,” but after ten years of complete abstinence from hard drugs, one line and the guilt that sank into me nearly immediately afterward was enough to keep me awake. The late spring sun uncovered the valley below our bedroom window pine by pine, and I felt the old shame of addiction begin to crawl through the synapses of my brain.

We invited our dog onto our bed as an apology for leaving him alone all night. My head spun. Jason knew that I had done a line, but he did not see it, nor had he done any cocaine. In fact, he had never done cocaine. He had hardly smoked pot in his life, and I loved this about him. Once, I had been knitting a foot for a stuffed animal, and without the body attached, it kind of had the shape of a pipe. Jason asked why I was knitting a bong, and I burst out laughing, completely in love with him. I found his lack of expertise about drug paraphernalia extremely endearing. This man was the person I wanted to spend my life with. He was funny, smart, and sweet, and he cared deeply for people. A library member had threatened him once; the man had slammed the desk and screamed at Jason until he called the police to remove him. The library had to exclude the man for a year. Instead of being angry that he had been threatened, Jason said, “I just hope he has another safe place to go.” I could see in my partner a man who was sincerely motivated by his heart, who was patient and thoughtful and empathetic; he would be a wonderful father.

I began to cry softly, afraid that my choice to do a line of blow had jeopardized this life I had with him—this beautiful distance from the darkness of drug use, this life of books and mornings and dog walks, this life of music and love and happiness. My past and my present were polar opposites, two cities that could not be any more different or further apart, but that night they had appeared in the same room. Two versions of me had inhabited my body.

I curled into Jason’s arms and listened to him comfort me. He said it would be okay, that one line of coke didn’t mean the end of the world, that we could sleep for a few hours and wake up and go about our day. We could still start trying to get pregnant, like we had planned. Even after the party, he believed I could one day be a good mother. He was soothing and loving, and I was not sure that I believed him.

 

After the party, we didn’t get home until the sun was beginning to slowly lighten the sky behind our house. In our domestic life together, we had never stayed out until sunrise.

 

We managed to sleep for a few hours, and when Jason’s alarm went off, the sun was beating through our bedroom window and I could hear the sounds of cars climbing the hill, people going places, doing normal things, like this were any other day. Birds chattered loudly. Jason hit snooze and closed his eyes again. The dog, a happy, rowdy Rhodesian Ridgeback mix, yawned and stretched, rolling onto his back, his giant red paws extended into the air, exuding the musky sweet smell of sleeping dog. I felt my love for these two creatures surround me, thick and tangible.

The truth is that for weeks afterward, I would feel the itchiness. I would try to talk Jason in to calling the musician. I would say things like, “I only got to do one line at that party—I should have a real last hoorah.” If we were going to try to get pregnant; this could be my last chance. I would say these things with a smile on my face, as though it were no big deal. I half-joked about buying an eight ball, just for fun, but then I had to define “eight ball” to Jason, and my two worlds knocked heads. My past and the possibility of relapse loomed over us, a storm waiting to break. But it wasn’t what I really wanted; I wanted the stability that we had created, I wanted this partner who loved me, I wanted to become a mother.

***

His alarm went off again—the opening riff to one of his favorite songs, on repeat. He opened his eyes and looked over to see me watching him. He smiled a sleepy greeting. “Good morning, baby,” he said. “How are you feeling?”

I felt awful. My head was pounding, but I knew that I couldn’t just stay in bed. “I’m coming with you,” I said.

***

Jason’s job is pretty straightforward: he manages a library, helping people access information. He goes to the same place every morning, works more or less the same hours every day, and he has reliable income and responsibility. But once in a while he gets assigned something like driving the district library van in a small-town parade on a Saturday. So the morning after I sniffed my first line of blow in ten years off a dirty workbench, I climbed into the passenger seat of a loud, bumpy van with the library logo painted on the sides and rode along to a tiny town on the edge of the Washington Palouse, surrounded by wheat fields and rolling sky to hand out library pencils to the kids who lined the single street.

It was the kind of day that is not supposed to exist when you’re trying to wallow in the shame of your past. Even though it was still spring, it was stunningly summer-like, the sun filling the street and warming the backs of the horses and local equestrians who proudly showcased their riding gear in the parade. People were giddy with the weather and the atmosphere of celebration. There were craft vendors, tractors, a high school marching band, and a man with a microphone from a shoddy P.A. system in the center of the five-block parade route, his voice crackling with static and pride as he announced each float and organization as it went by. “And here’s the library. Everyone loves the library!” he said cheerfully, as we slowly drove past. I waved out the window at rows of grinning children and adults, and library staff in screen-printed T-shirts walked to the curb to hand pencils to excited kids. Everyone cheered.

I smiled, but I was holding back tears of gratitude. This is my life now, I thought. This: libraries and sunshine and happy children, not last night.

***

Once, while I was living in a halfway house, the house manager told us about a dream she had in which she had relapsed. She had been sober for many years, and the dream had disturbed her. But she said that she was grateful for the dream because it reminded her about how horrible her addiction had been. It reminded her the life she had now was her chosen life, the life she truly wanted. I have relapsed before, moments that initiated dramatic falls, landing me deeply in old habits. I worried that this time would not be any different. That one line of cocaine could be a sentence: that I would have no choice but to succumb to the old patterns.

***

My card finally goes through, and the checkout girl prints the receipt. She has bagged my groceries, and she smiles at me. “Have a nice day,” she says.

I lift the bags, one in each hand. We make eye contact. I thank her, and I take the groceries. I leave the store with my food and prenatal vitamins. I walk across the parking lot to my car parked in the crisp late fall air that smells like ponderosa pine and wood smoke and I tell myself that it’s going to be okay. This is my life now, and I am lucky. This body has surprised me; it has been through destruction and healing more times than seems reasonable or possible or fair. I am lucky to live in this chosen city, in this place where my days are filled with meaningful work and love and songs and mornings when I wake tucked into Jason’s arm.

But my body is more than a chosen city—it is many cities, all of them imperfect and strange and beautiful. Its geography is informed by the proximity and relationships between dots on the map, and I need all of these cities to appreciate the span and breadth of terrain. Doing one line of cocaine was a stupid, momentary decision, but it didn’t mean that I had to relinquish the life that I have chosen. Even the ugliest, darkest parts of a city see sunlight, and to live without acknowledging that those dark corners exist isn’t realistic or even fair. That line was not a sentence, but it did offer me a chance to reaffirm my commitment to the life I have now. The health and stability I have worked so hard for is not perfect, and it is not indestructible, but it is a place that, given the choice, I want to live.

I open the trunk to my car and set the bags inside, and then I pause, stunned.

A new landscape is forming in this imperfect, strange, beautiful city: I feel the unmistakable tiny flutter of a baby moving in my belly.

Author’s Note: The months leading up to the birth of my son were some of the most exciting and reflective months of my life. Pregnancy was this surreal occasion, where I was literally carrying pieces of my past and my future within the boundaries of my body. This essay was a way for me to grapple with that bridge between the “two cities” of my past and present/future, and especially to consider the lingering shame that I still carried. But that past, with all of its darkness and healing, is a part of who I am today. I am the mother I am partly because of that past, which has taught me about recovery and empathy. My son is now a healthy, happy, toddling, singing, and chattering 14-month old.

Liz Rognes is a writer, musician, and teacher who lives in Spokane, Washington with her rock ‘n’roll librarian and their son.

 

The Never Ending Story

The Never Ending Story

Mother and newborn babyLorri McDole 

With the epidural finally taking effect, Carson drowses, her head cradled by the dark nest of thick hair I tried to tame when she was young. “You’re doing great!” Nurse Sophie says as she places a pillow shaped like an hour glass between her knees. “Just push when I say push. And breathe!” Then she breaks into pop singer Anna Nalick’s song—”Just Breathe”—before giggling and pushing up her glasses with her index finger.

Sophie seems impossibly young, only a few years older than my 19-year-old Carson, and maybe that’s why I trust her. When I had Carson, you were supposed to hold your breath when you pushed. Back then, we didn’t have specially-designed pillows to help turn breach babies. It’s a new, unimagined world—who would have thought my daughter would fling herself so willingly into motherhood at such a young age?—and that I need a new, young guide.

“You too, Mom.” Sophie turns to me. “Don’t you stop breathing. You and I have leg duty.”

“And you,” she points to Carson’s boyfriend, Sam, “are at the head!” She giggles again. “Carson’s, not the baby’s!”

Sam is in position already, squeezing Carson’s hand and whispering encouragement. His tall, ultra-thin body seems even more bent than usual. Practicing to protect? To bow out? That story is just beginning, but I’ve been up for twenty-two hours already and what I’d like is to bow out for a nap.

What I’d really like is to go back in time, before Carson met Sam and fucked with her future. Before she grew too self-conscious to tell me about her crushes or first kiss or to let me see her naked.

Until today, that is.

When Sophie whisks the pillow away and says, “Now!” I forget leg duty, stop breathing, and find myself pushing. When she reaches down to check for the baby’s head, I feel queasy.

Carson grunts and howls through a storm of contractions and then suddenly yells through the supercharged air: “My hair! Get it out of my face!” Sam, who has been trying hard to do everything right, jumps back in surrender, while Nurse Sophie, naturally, looks at me. Come on Mom, her look says, fix your girl’s hair.

But I never could fix hair, Carson’s or mine. Simple arrangements like low ponytails left us both scowling into the mirror, while the slightly more complicated high ponytails sometimes required scissors to get out of. Strange, the things I thought I could gloss over, both before and during the long season of child rearing; humiliating, the mundane things that still scare me. Is this the never ending story, that you never really get away with anything?

“Your hair is so cute!” people complimented Carson often over the years. “Did your mom do that?”

“Oh no,” my six/ten/twelve-year-old always boasted: “I did it myself!” And then, not understanding that it cut me: “My mom can’t fix hair.”

Her mom, comfortable with any art but the domestic ones, couldn’t—can’t—fix a lot of things.

When I told friends about Carson’s pregnancy, I guess I expected empathy. What I got, almost unanimously, was a grief that felt hijacked. As if it were happening to their daughters, to them: college dreams killed or at least postponed; daughters taking on too soon what some mothers secretly wish they themselves had never taken on at all; the fear grandmothers harbor that they might have to raise yet another child. If I had become a teenaged mother, I would have been mortified that everyone knew I was having sex. Today, the shame seems to lie in letting the consequences dictate lives. “She had so many options!” friends wailed, referring to both the pregnancy and her promising future. But the shame passed over Carson, who never wavered in her choice, and settled on me. How did it happen, that the woman who waited until her thirties to get married and have children failed to pass down her twin true loves, learning and independence, to her only daughter?

In the delivery room, I don’t yet know what the next hours and weeks hold—an emergency C-section, Carson’s gall bladder surgery, Sam’s collapsed lung due to some combination of stress and cigarettes and a skin-and-bones body type. I don’t realize that the only easy thing, contrary to expectations, will be a baby who sleeps through the night and smiles even when he’s sick, a grandson I’ll bond with more recklessly than I ever have with anyone before. All I know now is that I have to do something with the beautiful, unfathomable mass of Carson’s hair.

“Mom, it’s okay.”

Between contractions now, Carson’s voice is soothing—knowing—forgiving. A mother’s voice.

“Any way you do it,” she promises, “it will be fine.”

At 52, still bewildered by the things that are supposed to come naturally to me, it’s hard to believe her. But I am her mother, and so of course I step forward anyway.

Author’s Note: My grandson turned one this month. He and Carson moved back home in May, and while he tears around the house, I bounce from one emotion to the other. There are so many joys—his kisses and giggles, the way he lunges into our arms after a triumphant walk—but there is also grief. I worry about Carson being a young, single mother. But my daughter recently started a great job, and like so many grandmothers before me, I’ve chosen to accept my place in the village it takes and rarely indulge in “If only” thoughts anymore. After all, if Carson had waited as long as I did to have a baby, who knows if I would have gotten to spend much time with him or even been around to meet him at all. We are all so lucky in this way, even if I still have to remind myself, at times, to breathe.

Lorri McDole lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, children, and grandson. Her writing has appeared in publications such as The Offing, Eclectica, New Madrid, Epiphany, and Brain, Child, as well as several anthologies. Her work is forthcoming in the anthology Flash Nonfiction Funny.

 

The Bird Family

The Bird Family

WO Bird Family ArtBy Liz Blocker

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“Maybe they’re both male,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

My wife, I thought. Shit.

***

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

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

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

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

“Nothing yet. I’ll keep watching.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Birds were back, and everyone was pregnant.

***

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

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

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

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

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

This is what I wish had happened:

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Policy Update: June 26, 2015

Policy Update: June 26, 2015

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A quick look back at events this week impacting women and families, from Valerie Young, a public policy analyst with Mom-mentum.

Dozens of members of Congress, 44 to be exact, have sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell asking for specific guidance regarding the obligations of health insurers to cover lactation services and supplies. Recent reports issued by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) reveal numerous occasions of insurance companies not following the relevant law, contained in the Affordable Care Act, or being unaware of the law’s requirements. Kudos to the NWLC for bringing this issue to light, and kudos to the legislators who are trying to address it.

Motherhood can be dangerous to your health. Maternal mortality rates are much higher in the US than in similarly wealthy nations, and amazingly they are increasing. “It turns out that here in America women are dying or nearly dying during pregnancy and childbirth at rates more than double those of 25 years ago. In fact, we rank 64th in the world in maternal mortality, and an estimated 60,000 women suffer life-threatening emergencies (called “near misses”) every year,” according to the Huffington Post. Clearly motherhood is not the health priority that it should be in this country.

New York State has passed a law to allow pregnant women to sign up for health insurance to cover the birth, which is not typically allowed. “Currently, if you become pregnant, want to carry the pregnancy to term but are uninsured, you’re out of luck where coverage is concerned until the baby is born. That’s because becoming pregnant is not a qualifying life event under Obamacare, though “changes in family size,” such as divorce, marriage, or having a baby, are included” reports RH Reality Check. Prenatal care and delivery set some families back financially for years, and can cause bankruptcy, if a family doesn’t have insurance coverage.

Could paid maternity and paternity leave really happen in the US? Yes, but it’s not because legislators have suddenly woken up or voters have become insistent. According to the New York Times, help for the middle class and competing for workers may be moving the needle. “Long a pet Democratic cause that seemed hopelessly far-fetched, paid leave suddenly seems less so. With pay for most workers still growing sluggishly — as it has been for most of the last 15 years — political leaders are searching for policies that can lift middle-class living standards. Companies, for their part, are becoming more aggressive in trying to retain workers as the unemployment rate has fallen below 6 percent.”

Something sure needs to change. This headline says it all: America Has the Worst Family Leave Policies Of Any Developed CountryNot a surprising conclusion, because the US has no nationally guaranteed statutory program, as workers in most every other country do.” America is at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to family leave policies, according to findings from a Pew Research Center report. Of 38 nations, including Mexico, America ranks dead last for weeks of paid leave and protected leave.”  As in, zero.

Follow Valerie on Facebook (Your (Wo)Man in Washington) and Twitter (@WomanInDC) and find her on the blog at Mom-mentum.

Photo: gettyimages

Heads Up

Heads Up

WO Breech ARTBy Farah Halime

My feet were smoking, again.

Scented smoke wafted from two burning embers stuck at either side of my pinky toes. That was the moment I finally saw the funny side, because before that, I had been trapped in a whirlwind of paranoia and fear. Will she come out deformed? Will she be cut out of me? Will I die?

My baby had wedged her head firmly under my rib-cage, and the doctors had told me I had to flip her head-down—the optimal position for labor—or I’d have to have a dreaded C-section. “Do you want a natural labor or not?” my obstetrician asked me. So, I stuck some mugwort-infused incense on my toes and hoped for the best. The ancient Chinese therapy is thought to have magic medicinal powers that can turn babies, treat diarrhea and heal snakebites. But if a snake bites you, you should seek medical treatment because aside from the pot-like aroma filling my living room and lungs, this nightly ritual was doing nothing except make my neighbors think I was a pregnant stoner.

It turns out my daughter was one of 4% of babies in the U.S. who is breech at term. Getting babies to flip head-down is a thorny issue that has spawned books, specialized treatments and a lot of (maternal) anxiety. My daughter, who had traveled in utero with me from Lebanon to England and the U.S., was subjected to so many different scans and pokes and prods that by the time we reached New York she simply would not cooperate any longer. She buried herself upright, as close to my heart as possible, and refused to budge.

Even when I tried standing on my head, a technique that “opens up the uterus” to help gravity do the work for you and is supposedly fool-proof, my daughter would not turn. But at least doing a headstand every day for six weeks was good for strengthening my upper body.

One day, when an acupuncturist pricked needles into my forehead and my arms and fiddled with my incense-scalded toes again, I started to feel quite dizzy. “I feel strange,” I called out. The room began to spin and my body felt like it was drifting, suspended in the air. “Normal,” he said, flicking another needle into my body. Then, I felt a kick, then another kick, and wriggling and swaying in my belly. It’s working! I thought. My baby’s response to the acupuncture gave me hope. But the joy was short-lived. She remained breech.

I even went to a chiropractor and paid close to $500 for the most expensive massage I’ve ever had, but my daughter was having none of it. The chiropractor told me she’d seen women like me before, first time mothers, that is. “The mother usually gets nervous, so the baby stays upright. Try to let go of the nervousness.”

So I meditated, and gorged on chocolate.

Then I forked out another couple of hundred to go to a physical therapist who realigned my pelvis and strengthened my abdominal muscles (despite having just “loosened” them at the chiropractor).

My daughter, however, kicked and tumbled and rolled side to side, sometimes laying her head on my left side, sometimes on my right, but never going the whole 180. She was being so stubborn I finally decided to get her physically turned at the hospital, a procedure called an external cephalic version. “It will be uncomfortable, but it doesn’t hurt,” my doctor reassured me.

I signed several legal documents absolving the hospital from any liability and starved myself for twelve hours prior, just in case the procedure put me into early labor. I smiled at the doctor who was going to contort my belly. He was short and had a friendly, hairy face. He reminded me of a hobbit.

“You’re not going to hurt me, are you?” I asked.

His eyes widened. “No,” he said, gulping a little. “But you let me know if you want me to stop, O.K.?”

It was more like a massage than the kneading I had read about on the internet. My baby stayed put. My OB seemed disappointed. She told me about another guy who had a higher success rate: 80 percent, she said. At this point, I didn’t feel like having another IV and sitting in a hospital for hours to do the same thing again. But he was the king of turning babies, apparently, and I would be stupid to miss out. “Do you want to have a natural birth or not?” she asked again, in her hard, interrogative tone. I nodded, obediently.

I got hooked up to the IV again. The doctor who was doing the version this time was no hobbit. He seemed determined, fierce. He splayed his hands out, curling his fingers around my bump.

The pain was like nothing I’ve ever felt. My stomach was being twisted so hard that it felt like my bones were grinding against themselves. I shook with pain.

“Try to relax,” he said. I used my birthing breathing techniques again. He tried to push her head past my ribs. It felt like somebody using a chainsaw to saw through my ribcage. My daughter did not move and while my heart rate shot up, hers remained completely steady, determined.

In the end, I had a planned C-section. I picked the exact date and time for my daughter’s delivery, like you would schedule a pedicure, and all the fuss over how she would come into this world evaporated into thin air. Then I was rocking her incessantly at 2:00 A.M., wondering why the hell I hadn’t read anything about how to look after a baby.

Author’s note: I wanted the whole rite of passage: giving birth perfectly aware, unmedicated and in the way nature intended. Except my daughter had other ideas. She is my daughter, after all.

Farah Halime is a British-Palestinian transplant to Brooklyn who is still trying to figure out the strange habits of New Yorkers. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal, and she’s the founder of the blog Rebel Economy.

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

Policy Update: April 17, 2015

Policy Update: April 17, 2015

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In this photo taken April 1, 2015, Jen Psaki,, right, and Katie Fallon, pose at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

A quick look back at events this week impacting women and families, from Valerie Young, a public policy analyst with Mom-mentum.

There have been several interesting developments this week from the intersection of motherhood and public policy.

President Obama sat down to talk about equal pay, paid family leave, and what he hopes for his daughters at a live-streamed Town Hall in Charlotte NC.  Never in the history of the Republic has the Chief Executive spent so much time so publicly engaged on issues of family caregiving, women’s rights and economic status.  You can watch a video recording or follow the tweets #ObamaTownHall, #womenslives, and #equalpay.

The US Department of Labor wants you to know exactly what your legal protections are if you are pregnant or nursing and employed.  They’ve updated their interactive map, so you can find out at a glance what federal and state laws apply to you.  The DOL also released a wonderful infographic showing how far into their pregnancies mothers stay on the job, and how quickly they come back after giving birth.

There are two pregnant women working in the White House – another first for motherhood and politics.  One of them, Communications Director Jen Psaki, was pregnant when she was hired.  She had concerns.  “Instead McDonough — and later Obama himself — assured Psaki they would accommodate her needs as a new mom amid the West Wing’s nonstop demands. She started in the post Wednesday and is one of two pregnant women serving as assistant to the president — a first for such a top level adviser in Obama’s presidency and practically unheard of under previous presidents.”

Equal Pay Day arrived this week, marking the gap between men’s and women’s wages even when both work full time and year round.  Controversy ensued – some say the pay gap is a myth.  There can be no debate, though, about the fact that women are the majority of those in poverty, and woefully under-represented in public office, in the C-suite, on boards of directors, and the upper echelons of the professions even though we are more educated than men and comprise half the workforce.  The National Partnership for Women & Families released a great report, which includes data on the pay gap between mothers and others, much larger than that between men and women generally.

 

Follow Valerie on Facebook (Your (Wo)Man in Washington) and Twitter (@WomanInDC) and find her on the blog at Mom-mentum.

 

 

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)

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

The Swing Set I Had Already Chosen

The Swing Set I Had Already Chosen

By Alona Martinez

emptyswing

And in that infinitesimal second I feel the weight of that loss, which happened so many years ago, which I was told about so casually, which so many women go through quietly and on their own.

 

The baby I lost was going to have a playset from Costco. I knew this, just as clearly as I knew I’d practice stirring porridge slowly and lovingly, the way my mother taught me, making sure I’d get it just right. I’d add a dash of salt and a generous pat of butter at the end, watching it pool into a golden lake in the center. I’d do this carefully for the child growing inside me. My mother had passed many years ago, so she wouldn’t be there to remind me if I got it wrong.

The playset I wanted to purchase was an upgrade from the metal one in my childhood backyard in 1972, a rusted contraption coated in chipped silver paint with cherry red trim showcasing a blue swing that screeched much too loudly and a glider that my sisters and I fought over. There were three of us, so one was always excommunicated from tandem play, ostracized to the quirky misfits of the beaten up playset: the agonizing cry of that damaged swing, the cadence always interrupted by hiccups of metal against metal, or the dented steps that led to a buckled narrow slide whose precarious ride culminated in a spattering of leaves and mud as the slide bent upward and spat me out with a dirty and soggy bum.

Our yard was an insignificant rectangular patch of green at the mouth of a residential cul-de-sac misplaced in the guts of a huge, cosmopolitan South American city. There was only room for an undernourished lime tree and that swing set, which my mother often boasted had come with the house and been part of the appeal when my parents first moved there with a toddler and a baby on the way.

I can’t remember the precise memories from swinging or dangling or fighting with my sisters on the swing set, but I’ve seen them recorded in the faded Polaroid shots that have served as much of my family’s narrative, notably swimming unorganized in one of the drawers of my mother’s antique flip desk. In these garden photos, my mother was usually posing nearby in oversized black sunglasses and a flower-printed dress, a child on her hip or in her belly or both. Inevitably, there’d be a blur of golden curls at the edge: one of us girls too distracted to sit still for a picture.

I held this hope for my unborn baby. The one I was told was merely the size of a grain of rice. I spoke to him regularly, for I had decided it was a boy, placing my hands over my abdomen, waiting and willing for him to swell with life. While I washed dishes I’d stare at the garden and imagine his first steps, his wobbly feet teetering towards the play deck or his gleeful laugh as I pushed him on the bright yellow baby swing.

I was quiet about these plans, sharing only clinical facts with others: this week the heart is beating, fingers and toes will form soon. Perhaps he can suck his thumb. But in my mind, my child had already romped through our large back yard, not tiny and cluttered and noisy, like the yard I had grown up in, but ample and fertile with lush tropical trees, overlooking a picturesque South Florida canal, decidedly and proudly suburban.

I had a child already, a beautiful 18-month old girl with almond eyes and Shirley Temple curls. She learned to smile at five weeks and never stopped. She giggled, breathed, and walked just like my husband, and everywhere the three of us went, people exclaimed, “She’s Daddy’s spitting image!” noting the obvious physical similarities.

Maybe this child will be blonde and blue-eyed like me? I wondered.

Together they’d play on the playset I’d already chosen. She’d race ahead and swing open the plastic door to the miniature clubhouse, inviting her little brother to come in.

I was nibbling on an endive salad in a stylish bistro when the pain began. It was late spring and a gorgeous day, the kind that begged for an al fresco lunch in a trendy Miami Beach restaurant. I was with a group of friends when I excused myself and entered the dim, cool interior, rushing past a modern bar and heading to the back, where, under the bright white fluorescents of the restroom stall, I encountered what every pregnant woman most fears.  

A visit to my doctor confirmed I had lost the baby.

I was told, not by the doctor himself, but by a nurse in wrinkled teal scrubs.

“It wasn’t meant to be,” she matter-of-factly announced while closing my medical file. I couldn’t tell if she was trying to comfort me or brush me off.  She said I could resume my normal activities within 24 hours and sent me on my way.

I told myself she was right. It wasn’t meant to be. It’s better this way. Better now than later. And all the rest. I dug into statistics: 1 in every 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage, 75% of miscarriages happen in the first trimester, the vast majority of women experiencing miscarriage can expect to have a normal pregnancy the next time.

But no matter how many times I told myself this, I still pictured that Costco playset, still fought to block the faded Polaroid images of my mother’s smile with a baby on her hip

The statistics were accurate. I did get pregnant shortly thereafter and birthed a strong, healthy boy. He loves pasta and is obsessed with Marvel comics. He enjoys playing in the backyard, although it’s more along the lines of kicking around a soccer ball, shooting hoops, or chasing after our Golden Retriever.

I never purchased the playset.

A damaged part of me screeched like the blue swing, reminding me of the memories left unmade, of the giggle I’ll never hear; the happy, boisterous, child who’d never make it into the family photographs, a persistent gap, a quiet empty space that I carry with me.

Even as life flourishes and thrives and is happy, there’s that tiny gap of a child lost the entire world knows nothing about. It’s a very small space, nothing close to consuming, even to me. As a mother, I am too busy enjoying and nourishing my two children. My husband has certainly moved passed it. Friends likely have forgotten about it, if they even knew. Life continues, as it should, as I’d expect it to. And yet, sometimes, in the most unexpected moments, like stepping out of the shower or folding the clothes, I wonder: what would he have been like? Would he have been more of a meat eater (like my daughter) or a fish eater (like my son)? Would he have had a sophisticated sense of humor? Would he have loved to learn about the world? Teeny, tiny, simple questions that stun me. Stop me. And in that infinitesimal second I feel the weight of that loss, which happened so many years ago, which I was told about so casually, which so many women go through quietly and on their own. And then go on.

Alona Martinez is a writer and mother of two who lives in Plantation, Florida. She writes about food and family on her blog, Culinary Compulsion, and is currently working on her first book. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

The Good Mother

The Good Mother

image3By  Sarah Minor

When I found out I was pregnant, the first person I told was my mother.

At least, that’s what I told her.

I called my mom on my drive back to work after my first doctor’s appointment. The mascara that had survived the stream of happy tears clung to the tips of my lashes.

There, on the screen beside me, I had just seen my baby. A little bean. A pulsing heart.

“Hey, Mom,” I said. I hadn’t planned anything to say and had to speak quickly before she interrupted me.

 

“Ahhh!” she screamed when I told her. “I knew it! I’m so happy!”

I smiled into the phone. A real smile. “Yes! I just went to the doctor today. You’ll never believe…”

“I can’t believe you waited so long to tell me.”

“What?”

“I mean, how far along are you? Most daughters call their mothers the moment they find out. Most women just can’t wait to tell their mothers.”

I clenched my teeth.

“Well, you know, I just wanted to wait until I saw a doctor. I thought I was only eight weeks along. But it turns out I’m twelve!”

“So when are you due?”

“December 23.”

“Oh,” her voice turned grim. “That’s going to be hard, with the holidays and everything. I’m not going to want to miss my grandchild’s birthday, and the way I have to share holidays with Paul’s family, I don’t know how that’s going to work.”

“Oh. Well, I’m at work now,” I lied. “I have to go. We’ll figure it out.”

The first person I actually told, aside from my husband, Paul, was my sister, Jill.

“You can never tell mom that you knew first,” I whispered. “Never.”

“Oh my God, of course not,” Jill said. “She’d kill you.”

But now, with my mom told and the first trimester safely behind us, my pregnancy finally felt official, real. Paul and I set about preparing for the new baby: picking out furniture for the nursery, attending childbirth class, whittling down a list of names.

The news of my pregnancy also set my mom’s wheels in motion. The arrival of the baby would bestow upon her a new title and with it, a new purpose in life. She had been retired from teaching for five years and was in a on-and-off long-term relationship, the second since her divorce from my father. As displeased as she was about the due date, this Christmas baby was for her, in many ways, a savior.

Our conversations immediately turned to when she would come see the baby and how long she would stay. She was a plane ride away, so the details of her visit couldn’t wait until the last minute.

“I think you should come in January,” I told her, positioning myself in the chair in our home office like I was conducting a business call. I tried to keep my tone light. “The baby could be late, and it would be silly for you to be here twiddling your thumbs with us waiting for the baby. And Paul will be home for the first week anyway. It would be good to have someone here when he goes back to work.”

This was not acceptable.

“None of my friends can believe that you would ask your mother to wait to come until two weeks after the baby is born,” she told me, her voice climbing an octave. “Their daughters want them in the delivery room! They just can’t believe you would do that to me.”

“Mom, I just think it would be good for us to have some time alone, just the three of us, before anyone visits.”

I was standing now, pacing the checkerboard rug, waving my free arm for emphasis.

“Oh, that’s right, you and Paul, your perfect little family,” she sneered. I sat back down.

“That’s not what I’m saying, but yes, this is my family! And I think I should be able to decide when we have guests!” I was yelling now, lightheaded with anger and effort.

“Maybe I just won’t come at all. I’m sure you can just figure it out. Everything has to be just how Sarah wants it.”

“Yeah,” I said sharply. “This time, I guess it does.”

“Well, I hope you don’t have a special needs baby because then you’re going to need me and wish I was there.”

“Oh my God!” I screamed. My throat was raw. “It’s almost like you hope that will happen so I’ll need you! That is sick, Mom! This is not about you!”

The screaming brought Paul into the office.

“What’s going on?” He was used to our fights, which he had witnessed during the power struggles over our wedding and which had only intensified since we’d moved halfway across the country. Her visits were always full of tension: her thinly-veiled barbs followed by my snide retorts, and then my mom, shocked that her daughter would talk to her that way, storming out to the car or pouting in the guest bedroom.

Something always got broken. Sometimes it was an accident, a dishwasher-loading slip. But other times were intentional, like the time I wasn’t appreciative enough of wine glasses she bought me and she smashed them into the garbage can.

“This cannot happen when we have a baby,” Paul said. “We are not raising our child like this. It has to stop now.”

He was right. At 30 weeks pregnant, I called a therapist.

Her name was Libby. I found her on the Internet. We arranged a brief “get to know you” conversation before making a formal appointment. I took my cell phone to a private room at work and dialed her number. My hands were shaking.

“So, I’m pregnant, and I’m, um, just really worried I’m going to be like my mother.”

Libby’s voice was soft and soothing, with a hint of a New England accent. She sounded like an NPR news reporter. We talked on the phone for 30 minutes, mostly me rambling about my mom’s reaction when I told her I was pregnant and our subsequent arguments. I made an appointment to visit her office in a week.

“In the meantime,” Libby said, “I want you to get a book.” I jotted down the title: Children of the Self-Absorbed: A Grown Up’s Guide to Getting Over Narcissistic Parents.

Narcissist. No one had ever used that word to describe my mom. I felt terrible even thinking such a thing about her. Yes, she was a little crazy. Needy. Mean sometimes. But she had such low self-esteem. She never seemed sure of herself, was always fishing for compliments. Narcissists were in love with themselves, weren’t they? How could she possibly be one of those?

That weekend I went to the book store. I searched the self help section to no avail. Finally, cheeks burning, I approached the register. I felt like I was at an adult bookstore asking about a kinky video.

“I’m looking for a book called Children of the Self-Absorbed,” I practically whispered.

As soon as I got home, I opened the book, a glossy paperback that looked like something for a college psychology class. Inside, information was organized in a series of bullet points, quizzes and writing exercises. I grabbed a legal pad to jot down my answers. My heart started to beat faster as I read.

Critical and criticizing…never completely satisfied…gets anxious when alone…hypersensitive to perceived criticisms…never forgets an offense.

My mom didn’t have all the traits of what the book called “Destructive Narcissistic Personality,” but certain paragraphs felt like they were written specifically about her.

There were explanations for some of the behaviors I’d struggled with, too, the “lingering effects of parental self-absorption.” Defiant, combative…overly defensive in response to comments she perceives as critical.

I started crying. Crying out of sadness for my mother and for myself. But also out of relief. This behavior wasn’t normal. It had a name. I wasn’t crazy.

And my mom wasn’t either.

Every Tuesday on my lunch break, I spent an hour on the worn red love seat in Libby’s sunny, cluttered office. Traffic honked and whirred outside the window behind me. My belly jutted out in front of me like a torpedo. I cried so much at each session that I eventually moved the box of tissues Libby offered from the coffee table to the empty couch cushion beside me.

Libby and I talked about my childhood. She took notes and occasionally illustrated points to me on a small whiteboard, stick figures and arrows demonstrating how my mom and I had reversed the roles of parent and child. Even as a child, she explained, I had in some ways been responsible for my mom’s well-being instead of the natural opposite.

Then she asked me to talk about my mom’s childhood. While she had always painted it with an idyllic brush, my mom made it clear that she was an “accident,” born a decade after her sister to older parents. Even as an adult, she felt like she lived in the shadow of “perfect Barb.”
I told Libby of the interactions I had witnessed. Divorced twice, my mom took her new boyfriend home to meet her parents.

“Careful with this one,” my grandmother told her. “You don’t want to be a three-time loser.”

Libby helped me realize that my mom wasn’t a bad person, she was a hurt person. A bottomless well of need, desperate for validation. And because of this, she didn’t realize how much she was hurting others. And though I fought with her, screamed, pleaded and prayed, I would never change her. I could have sympathy for my mom. I could mourn the relationship we never had. But I had to accept that this was my mother.

“All you can do is create healthy boundaries for yourself and your family,” said Libby.

My mom booked a ticket for January 5. I was relieved that she had honored my request, but hardly triumphant. Maybe I was too controlling. Maybe I was being crazy. Maybe I would wish she were there sooner. But it was my pregnancy, my family, my baby and my right to find out for myself.

Ten days after my due date, I was induced. The induction turned into an emergency C-section, so I stayed in the hospital for four days. My mom arrived the day after we got home.

Our homecoming was surreal; I was dazed from sleep-deprivation and pain medication. Hormones and powerful feelings of joy, love, fear, inadequacy and the overwhelming responsibility of parenting swept through me like tidal waves, nearly knocking me senseless.

On our first night home, I fed William and laid him down to sleep in the bassinet next to our bed. I turned off the light, climbed under the covers and started sobbing.

“Oh no, what? What is it?” Paul asked.

“I just love him so much!” I wailed, my nose stuffing up. “And I just realized how much it will affect me if anything ever happens to him, and there’s nothing I can do about it. If he died, my life would be destroyed forever. What if he grows up and decides he wants nothing to do with me? It doesn’t matter what happens, good or bad. Nothing will ever be the same.”

My mom arrived the next day, her arms full of gifts for the baby. Books she had bought years ago, just in case. A cross to hang in his room. She needed pictures, lots of pictures, to email to her friends.

“Okay, enough with the flash in his face!” I exclaimed one afternoon as she held the camera inches from William’s bouncy chair.

“Oh, Sarah, please, this isn’t hurting him,” she said.

“Well, I think it’s enough!” I said. “And maybe I’m crazy, but I just had a baby so I have the right to make some crazy requests.”

Paul went back to work the next day.

“I’ll be back soon,” he said, kissing the top of my head. I started to cry. It was the first time since William was born that our little family unit was being separated.

Seeing my tears, my mom started crying.

“I’m here,” she sobbed. “Am I not enough for you?”

But she was good with William, cradling and cooing at him, animatedly reading him books. And she was helpful, too, running out to buy diapers and lanolin cream, vacuuming while I napped, making blueberry coffee cake and tuna casserole.

And as we sat marveling at William’s dark hair, his tiny fist pressed against his cheek, I could not deny that in our love for this baby we’d found something on which we could truly agree.

At the end of the two weeks, I took her to the airport. I had mixed feelings: she had been helpful, and I was nervous about going back to an empty house with William. I felt guilty for my nit-picky comments and overall impatience with her. I knew it hadn’t been the idyllic bonding experience she hoped it would be.

But mostly, I felt relieved. Relieved that I’d be free from the daily task of meeting my mother’s emotional needs, a job that was as exhausting as it was impossible.

“Thank you,” I said, returning her hug and inhaling the familiar scent of her perfume. “You were a lot of help. You’re a good grandmother.”

She pulled back from our hug and looked me in the eye, the muscles around her mouth tensing.

“Well, am I a good mother?”

I couldn’t change her into the kind of mother who would never ask that. I couldn’t fill the void in her heart. But now that I understood how fragile a heart becomes once a child has claimed it, I could tread carefully around it.

“Yes,” I said. “You’re a good mother.”

Author’s note: Six years later, I continue to struggle with setting healthy boundaries with my mom. While I no longer worry that I’ll become my mom, having children has further complicated our relationship. My kids adore their grandmother, and I don’t question her love for them. But I’ve also seen her try to undermine my relationship with them and use them in her attempts to manipulate me. That said, I truly feel sorry for her and want nothing more than for her to find peace.

Sarah Minor is a writer and mom of two boys living in North Carolina.

 

The Eddy

The Eddy

By Sarah Kilch Gaffney

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Sitting in a waiting room full of so many pregnant women, my body is panic personified. A wave of cold washes over me, followed by a surge of heat and sweat. I adjust my shirt and wish desperately that, despite the coolness of the season, I had chosen to wear short sleeves. My heart is pounding and I glance around to see if anyone has noticed.

This happened the last time I was here, too, but I thought it was because I was so emotional: the last time I was in my OB’s office, my husband had just died.

I debate whether to pull out the book from my bag, unsure of the wait time and my ability to focus. Instead, I watch the other people waiting and try to calm myself. A teenage mother complains to her friend about her weight gain. A couple about my age sit across from me, looking down at their phones. Three enormously pregnant women come and go. Another rubs her belly absentmindedly while watching her toddler play.

I sit and sweat, my face flushed. People walk by, and I stare at a stack of magazines, all touting healthy pregnancies and the latest baby gadgets, and I will myself to hold it together.

When my name is called, I rise and smile, follow the friendly medical assistant down the brightly lit hallway. When she takes my blood pressure and notes its somewhat elevated state, I try to explain through my clenched throat and blurred gaze. It feels like I am trying to talk while also swallowing a dry, spiky rock.

“We really wanted another baby,” I whisper, “but my husband died this spring.” She looks at me, tells me she has goose bumps, and then wipes her eyes. We both needlessly apologize.

She leaves to let the doctor know I am ready; I change into the gown and arrange myself on the examination table. My skin is so damp that my legs stick to the paper sheet beneath me. A few minutes later, the doctor comes in; I promise her that, truly, most of the time I’m okay. I have good days and bad days, I say, but I’m doing okay. I swear, I say.

More than anything, I wanted my husband to beat the odds, to survive the brain tumor that would eventually take his life. I also wanted another child with him. We talked about it, waffled with many what-ifs, and talked about it some more. And just as we decided, yes, his body started its last, long downward spiral.

I wanted my husband to live to watch our daughter grow up, for us to have another baby together. For our life together to be just that—together.

I did not want to watch my husband slowly die, to be widowed at twenty-nine. I did not want to be genuinely happy for the pregnant women in my life, only to be hit by a nearly debilitating wave of grief every single time.

At my current age, and in this era of social media and acute semi-connectedness, friends, relatives, and peers frequently post announcements of pregnancy and birth. One by one, the other mothers at daycare reveal their second due dates and with every heartfelt congratulations, I feel more left behind, more empty. With each friend’s pregnancy, my loss that much more acute.

Babies are such happy, vibrant things. They are beautifully vulnerable and exquisitely life-affirming. And yet, every newly announced pregnancy, shared baby photo, and chatter about potential future children leaves me reeling: tear streaked cheeks, disfigured by grief.

In the first few months after my husband’s death, I relived his final moments and last, gasping breaths almost every night. My exhaustion was so pervasive that I often fell asleep quickly (except that first night, alone in the house next to an empty hospital bed). At night as I prepared for sleep, staring at the ceiling and feeling the vacant space next to me, his last hours and minutes would pass before my eyes like a reel of film. After several months, the frequency lessened, then all but ceased.

Every time I lifted the cardboard box containing his ashes, I set it back down on the linen chest at the end of our bed, astonished at the sheer weight in my hands. With the scattering of his ashes on the mountain where we met and eventually married came some relief, like progress, like release. After the mountain, I was knocked sideways a little less often: I was going to have to move on through this life without him by my side.

But, the baby thing. It still gets me every damn time.

This past summer, my husband’s brother and his wife announced they were expecting their second child. After my initial burst of happiness, I was once again overtaken by grief. The baby-to-be was conceived within weeks of my husband’s death and was due a week before our daughter’s birthday. I felt so grateful for something positive to focus on, and so completely eviscerated at the same time.

Grief is not a pretty thing. It is sobbing and face-crumpling and screaming at the sky. It is turning away from the others left behind, returning to them only when you are ready. It is bursting into tears in the grocery store, forgetting your keys, your shoes, yourself. It is uncertainty about whether you are going to make it out of bed or through the day, and then concern that something is terribly wrong when a day passes with something akin to ease. It is questioning everything, and sometimes just not caring anymore how the story ends. And sometimes, often times, it just doesn’t go away, no matter how much you hope and beg and pray.

My daughter and I talk about her father every day. We look at his pictures and tell Daddy stories and she keeps a Daddy “snuggle” (one of his old fleeces) at preschool and in her bed at home for the times when she misses him most.

At school, her friends acquire new siblings, and she sometimes asks if she can have a brother or sister, too. The first time she asked was only weeks after her father had died, and I sank to the living room floor and cried. Now, when she begs me to grow a baby in my belly and is so perplexed by its lack of possibility, I have the strength to deflect. Nearing four, she also sometimes asks when Daddy is going to get better, and when he is coming home. Other times, and with a startling clarity in her eyes, she asks, “But why did our Daddy have to die?”

I have no answers for her, beyond the oft-repeated recommendations of using concrete language to explain that his body stopped working; to repeat “really” or “very” many, many times before the word “sick” so that she doesn’t associate the severity of cancer with illnesses such as a sore throat or the common cold; to assure her that I, her only remaining parent, am healthy and am here.

It still hurts so intensely because we loved so deeply, but sometimes I feel I am caught in an eddy, spinning and bobbing and waiting while I try to keep my head above the water. I see the rock and the river, but I am not really part of that world anymore.

Hard as it is to remember sometimes, I try to believe that this vortex is a journey towards peace. I know the time will come, and I know I probably won’t be ready for it. Part of me believes if I felt the current shift, I might just dive under and grab hold of that rock and never let go.

Eventually, though, I will need to float downstream. Eventually, I will need to let go, to make my own way through this grief. And maybe, someday, on some different stretch of this same river, will come that place of peace.

Read Sarah’s original post here.

Sarah Kilch Gaffney lives in rural Maine with her daughter. Read more from Sarah at: www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.

Dadima’s Basement

Dadima’s Basement

By Mary Anne Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love the sound of our laughter together.

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art by Elizabeth Rosen

 

Worth the Risk

Worth the Risk

By Jennifer Palmer

Worth the risk

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” – CS Lewis

We tried to adopt once, my husband and I brought a baby girl home from the hospital a few days after she was born in the hopes that we might be given the privilege of raising her. Those early days of new parenthood were so very sweet, even fraught as they were with the constant fear that they might take her from us. From the first moment we held her, we loved her, and we could not imagine our lives without her.

Our worst fears were realized, however, and that which we could not imagine was forced upon us. Though we had done all we knew to do, though we had followed the advice of our lawyer who was experienced in such matters, though the odds of such things happening were vanishingly small, our daughter’s biological father contested the adoption and won. Five months—five months!—after we brought her home from the hospital, we kissed her for the last time and walked away, leaving our shattered hearts on the floor of the ugly courthouse room where we said goodbye.

One month later, two pink lines made a surprise appearance on a stick in my bathroom, and for weeks, I alternated between anger and excitement, between fear and hope. My second daughter, who will almost certainly never know her older sister, was born in the spring of this year. She is a joy and a delight, a happy and affectionate baby, and, while she could never take the place of the girl we lost, she has brought some measure of healing to our lives.

We hope to give this little girl siblings some day, brothers or sisters as companions and playmates and friends. And despite the pain we suffered, despite our ability to conceive without medical intervention, we hope that one or more of those siblings might come through adoption.

Many people don’t understand how this can be the case; they hear our story and cringe, weep tears on our behalf. “How good that you are able to have children of your own,” they say, as if this child I carried inside of me is any more “my own” than the one who first made me a mother. As is the case for so many of the decisions that change our lives, we have myriad reasons for adoption, many of them inexplicable even to ourselves, but the one underlying them all is the same reason most parents choose to bring children into their lives: love.

This isn’t to say that growing a family through adoption and growing a family through pregnancy are identical experiences; even the best adoptions begin with profound loss, and everyone involved requires support and resources and knowledge to handle that loss in healthy ways. But there is room in our home and in our hearts for another, and there are children out there in desperate need of parents to love them. This seems a match made in heaven.

There are risks involved, to be sure, and there will almost certainly be pain along the way. But then, this is true no matter how we come to be parents, is true whenever we choose to love someone or something other than ourselves. Loving another, be it a child or a spouse or a friend, is a risky business. It invites suffering and hurt and sorrow. But it also invites growth and meaning and joy—joy beyond measure. The deeper the risk, I believe, the greater the potential reward, and the hope and love and healing adoption can bring to all involved is worth chancing the heartache.

Had you asked me before all this happened if I could withstand losing a child, if I could make it through such heartbreak, I would have said no. Had I known what was coming, I don’t know that I would have had the courage to walk the path I did. And yet, while I would never wish such sorrow on anyone, while I wish with everything in me that things had turned out differently, that I was living the crazy, hectic life of a mom with two under the age of two, I did survive. More than that, I grew and I learned and I tapped depths of my faith and of my friendships and of my marriage that I did not know were there. Somehow, through grace and love and the support of those who matter most to me, I was given the strength to weather the storm.

And so, if you’re considering adoption, considering making yourself vulnerable in that way, I pray that my story does not scare you away. I pray that you would heed that voice compelling you forward. I pray that you would be willing to risk the pain and the sorrow, trusting you will find the strength for what comes, and in so doing, that you would be rewarded with a joy that knows no bounds. I pray these things for you as well as for myself; though the need for foster and adoptive parents is great, though the faces of children who have no stability in their lives tug at my heartstrings, the pain is still fresh and I, too, am afraid to open myself up again in such a way.

To you on the other side of this journey, wondering if you should take that first halting step forward, to the face I see in the mirror each morning, I pray you hear me when I say adoption is worth the risk. Parenthood is worth the risk.

Love is worth the risk.

Jennifer Palmer worked as an electrical engineer until her daughter was born, but has always been a writer at heart. She now scribbles in her journal between diaper changes, composes prose in her head as she rocks a baby to sleep, and blogs about finding the beauty in everyday life at choosingthismoment.com. She lives with her husband and daughter in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California.

The Secret Life

The Secret Life

By Kate Haas
Screen Shot 2014-12-21 at 6.45.00 PMA few days before his paternity leave ended, my husband returned from an errand with news that would change my life. “There’s another stay-at-home mother on our street,” he announced. “I met her at the store. She says you should come over sometime.”

A month before, when I was still pregnant, I would have dismissed this invitation from a stranger as a mere social nicety. Back then, I was preoccupied with finishing the renovations to our shabby old house before my due date. It didn’t occur to me, as I scraped and spackled, that I would need a new friend after the baby was born. My own mother stayed home in the 1970’s, like most of the women in our suburban neighborhood. But she rarely socialized with the other moms, preferring to bake bread and peruse the New Yorker. I’d always been an introvert myself, and after years of teaching high school, I was itching for solitude.

But after four weeks of motherhood, I was beginning to panic. Our fretful, scrawny newborn rarely slept longer than 20 minutes at a stretch, day or night. When I wasn’t nursing him or attempting to soothe his despairing wails, I was hooked to a breast pump, trying to increase my meager milk supply. Only the presence of another adult made this frantic enterprise bearable, and soon I would be alone all day. My closest friends lived far away. We were new in town, still strangers in the neighborhood. And the rain and cold of a Pacific Northwest January had emptied the local park of parents I might befriend. The news of a potential companion felt like a lifeline.

The day after my husband’s announcement, I wrapped my son in his warmest fleece blanket and walked to the house at the end of the block. A blond woman answered my knock, a baby in her arms. Her eyes, behind wire-rimmed glasses, were dark and tired.

“Um, I’m from down the street. You met my husband?”

“Oh, right! I’m Allison,” she said. “I’m so glad you came over.” She looked down at her baby. “He’s four months old, but I’m still kind of – ” she broke off.

I nodded. “I know, me too. I’m so tired. I can barely – “

We stared dumbly at each other across the threshold, like survivors of separate shipwrecks meeting on the same desolate island.

“Well, come in,” Allison said.

I followed her into a spacious kitchen with a couch at the far end, under a bank of windows. Newspapers lay drifted on the floor, alongside a stack of magazines. A worn copy of The Baby Book sat face down on a milk-stained rocking chair. These were essentially the same components of my own home, but I was aware of a novel sense of pleasure and anticipation as I looked around, like a traveler entering a new country. I hadn’t left my house in days. Until I walked into Allison’s, it had not occurred to me that this might be a problem.

Allison urged me toward the rocking chair. She set her fuzzy-headed baby down on a cheerful Southwestern rug, and I watched him bat intelligently at soft toys hanging from a wooden contraption. My bald four-week-old could only flail his arms aimlessly, and his eyes still registered the alarmed expression of the newborn.

“Gosh,” I said. “Your baby’s really with it. And he has so much hair!”

“Well,” she said modestly. “You know, four months is pretty advanced.” Suddenly we were laughing.

I stayed at Allison’s house for five hours that first day, and she and her son spent the next day camped in my living room. I had never made a friend so quickly, but the shock of motherhood removed my reserve; the sleep deprivation made me feel buzzed and woozy, uninhibited about confiding in a near stranger. Founded solely on proximity and shared parenthood, my new friendship with Allison was like an arranged marriage, companionship our dowries.

It was my first encounter with the heady, instant camaraderie that can spring up between new mothers. I didn’t realize that. I only knew that it felt natural to tell Allison about my nursing problems, my estranged father, strained finances, and the terrible night I cursed out the baby. Only to Allison could I confess the most unsettling aspect of my new life: I couldn’t bear to be separated from my son, not even by one room, but felt no overwhelming love for him. True, I’d never fallen in love with anyone at first sight, but it hadn’t occurred to me that taking awhile to warm up to my own baby might be natural. Allison’s son, meanwhile, was inconsolable in any arms but hers and napped only while strapped to her chest in an upright position. The fabled “feel-good” hormones of breastfeeding didn’t seem to be kicking in for her, either. Confiding these things to another mother was, for each of us, an astonishing relief.

A morning phone call from Allison put a shimmer on the day ahead. I was still facing nine hours with an infant on only three hours of sleep; but now I would be facing it at her house. Allison’s home was bigger than mine, and grander, with intricate built-ins, pocket doors, and stained glass. There was a large loom in the living room, strung with moss-green thread, and a fancy German sewing machine. Bolts of bright fabric were stacked on a shelf, and whimsical arrangements of dried flowers and leaves sat in mason jars on the mantel.

The familiar disarray of new parenthood was everywhere; but there was something infinitely restful about Allison’s house. The unwashed cereal dishes on her table didn’t oppress me, the way my own messy kitchen did. Her stacks of books and magazines looked homey, not cluttered. At home, our thermostat was set to a thrifty 64 degrees; Allison’s house was warmer, and cozy, especially the kitchen, with its comfortable couch where we nursed the babies and swapped stories about our stints overseas, old boyfriends and favorite books, and where we set the babies down to play while we experimented with baking projects.

I had not expected to spend my son’s infancy testing flourless chocolate cake recipes or deconstructing the flawed premises of popular novels about motherhood. (There was no way, we agreed, that the illicit lovers in Little Children could have synchronized their toddlers’ naptimes. Much less had all that uninterrupted sex.) With Allison down the street, like a college friend on the same hall, life with a baby was transformed from the solitary experience I had anticipated – then come to dread – into an intimate, cooperative enterprise.

My husband was relieved that I had someone to keep me company; but I was conscious of a strange reluctance to tell him exactly how much I enjoyed my days with Allison, and what the two of us referred to as “the secret life of the stay-at-home mother.”

*   *   *

“How about a pick-me-up?” Allison would suggest, mid-afternoon. With a conspiratorial smile, she’d reach into a cupboard and bring out five or six varieties of expensive dark chocolate. Breaking a few pieces from each bar, she set the assortment between us in a pretty pottery dish. “This is the way to weather life with a kid,” Allison confided, the first time she broke out the Scharffen Berger.

I nodded, savoring the rich, complex flavors – and the relief of being with her, instead of home alone with my baby and the breast pump. I admired the way Allison, at only five months in, seemed to handle motherhood so deftly. I knew she was just as unhinged with sleep deprivation, yet she nursed her son with offhand confidence, while I still fretted about proper latch technique each time I unhooked my bra. But Allison did so many things with ease; she could scrutinize a piece of clothing, then draw a pattern and sew an identical copy. She could make paper from mush tossed into a blender and operate a serger, a machine I’d never heard of. “It’s easy,” she promised, demonstrating how she had sewn the striped fleece pants her son was wearing. “I’ll show you how.”

Until I actually had the baby, I’d imagined stay-at-home life as a Ma Ingalls- flavored adventure, all bread-baking and vegetable gardening. Faced with the reality, I was still trying to figure out this retro role I’d taken on and how I felt about it. But Allison wore her domesticity the way she wore her favorite red apron – with an unselfconscious flair I aspired to.

After a day together, evenings always caught us by surprise; reluctantly I would collect my baby and his gear and hurry home to make supper. As I entered my darkened house, I couldn’t help feeling that I was returning to a drabber version of reality, unlike Allison’s warm kitchen, where it seemed my real life took place; there, during those long days structured only by the demands of our children and our capacity for enjoying each other’s company. She was the one I wanted to tell things to.

Our babies learned to crawl around each other like blind puppies as the months passed, and later, to walk and play together, as close as brothers. Allison gave me homemade chocolate truffles that first Christmas, and I wrote her a parody of “The Raven,” with Poe’s ominous bird recast as a wakeful baby, vowing to sleep “nevermore.” By the following year, when our sons turned two, we were both pregnant again. Allison gave birth to a second boy, and six months later, so did I. Allison’s older son tried to stab his newborn brother with a fork. Mine suggested we take the baby outside and break him. But I could laugh about this sort of thing now, and besides, I had Allison.

Then, after a while, I didn’t.

*   *   *

There was no argument, no unforgivable parenting lapse ending in a frantic rush to the emergency room with someone else’s bleeding child. As the younger babies grew, Allison gradually withdrew her friendship. We no longer spontaneously spent hours in each other’s homes, and she grew reluctant to make plans. Scheduling get-togethers in advance made her feel hemmed in, she said. She couldn’t be in the house all day anymore. I understood, didn’t I?

When we managed to arrange an afternoon together, Allison arrived hours late, or never. Our days together dwindled. After awhile, I stopped trying to plan them. When we spoke on the phone, it was about getting the older boys together, and the conversations were brisk, logistical. When my four-year-old went to play with hers, Allison and I stood outside our houses, watching him make the trek from one end of the block to the other. I could see her down there, small in the distance, the scarlet of her apron vivid against the gray sky. When my boy arrived at her steps she’d give me a cheerful wave. Then we turned and went into our separate homes.

By the end of a year, I had been neatly removed from Allison’s life. When we met, at the grocery store or the annual block party, she talked cheerfully about her new pursuits, as if nothing had changed. I searched my memory for ways I might have offended. What happened? I wanted to ask; my hurt and my pride kept me silent.

“Let it go,” my husband urged. “These things happen.”

Not to me, though; not like this.

I’d broken up with lovers and drifted away from friends before. Those rifts saddened me, but I understood them. Losing Allison was different, bewildering. What fault line in our friendship had I missed? Or did I simply mistake the bond we shared as new mothers for a more profound connection?

*   *   *

I had other friends by then, women whose kitchens and living rooms were extensions of my own, whose children zoomed around the house with mine while we mothers talked about everything. They were the ones I told things to. But I couldn’t forget the day my son took his first steps on the fir floor of Allison’s kitchen, lurching triumphantly between our two pairs of outstretched arms, our two smiling faces. I remembered the hours of talk there, about things we never told our husbands. What had happened to that secret life, to the intimacy of shared new motherhood?

It took me a long time to recognize that my secret life with Allison probably wasn’t the life she wanted. Maybe it took her a long time, too. Truths like that are easy to miss in the tumult of life witha toddler and a newborn. Maybe, when you’ve taken the time to fashion a cozy, homespun world to make those long days bearable, it’s hard to acknowledge that in the end it was all an elaborate domestic construct, a short-term survival mechanism to pass the time. Until the day you do acknowledge it. That’s one story I tell myself.

Or perhaps there’s a simpler, more natural explanation. Allison and I met in a perfect storm of postpartum hormones and sleep deprivation. We were two new mothers, desperate to connect with someone who understood. Maybe that need obscured other factors, crucial ones, like whether we would have become friends in other circumstances. I tell myself that story, too.

Our oldest boys are in 7th grade now, still close as brothers. I see Allison almost every day, around the neighborhood and in the halls at school. We make awkward small talk or smile briefly and pass without speaking. And despite the stories I tell myself, I still wonder why; and I wonder when, exactly, she realized that the baking and recipe swapping, the hours of kitchen conversation, had served their purpose. That she didn’t need me anymore.

I weigh those questions against what I know for certain: Allison and I saw each other through the most difficult period of our lives. No one needs a friend quite like an overwhelmed, exhausted new mother. I didn’t realize that before I gave birth. I wasn’t the type to reach out quickly. But when I reached out to Allison, she caught me. We held each other up. She was the lifeline I needed, and for a while, I was hers. Ours was a temporary liaison in the end, not the lasting, arranged marriage I imagined. But we rescued each other, all the same.

Kate Haas’s essays have appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, Brain, Child, and other publications. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.

Brain, Child (Spring 2013)

Illustration by Allison Krumwiede

Home Birth

Home Birth

homebirth_BLOG

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.

The House a Dream Built

The House a Dream Built

By Kirsten Piccini

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What good was a fourth bedroom or a playroom with no one to play in it?

 

I could picture the house in my head—the white siding, black shutters and the red door I’d finally talked my husband into. I’d mentally positioned furniture and held my own internal debates about a shower door versus a curtain. For months it had taken up precious space in my thoughts, replacing the constant thrum of failure that pulsed just beneath the surface of my skin.

It was a fertile dream, this house, unlike so many others, one that was poised to come true.

So as I sat on the unmade bed, wrapping the crisp edge of the sheet around my finger only to unwrap it and then repeat the process, I felt the dream drifting away, fading like an old photo.

“Honey?” I said to my husband who was just coming out of sleep and regarding my tick with concern.

The night before at a Super Bowl party the hosts had procured entertainment for the women in the form of a tarot card reader who straightened the multi colored scarf on her head, shuffled her cards and read into the subtle clues I had worked hard not to give her.

“I see you spending a great deal of money very soon.”

I pictured four spacious bedrooms, the sunken living room and the stone we’d settled on for the façade and fireplace. The frame had been erected for a few weeks now and we had pictures on our camera capturing the big wooden skeleton rising out of the dirt and earth, ascending from a barren nothingness.

I mentioned the colonial and our recent down payments.

“But you’ll be moving things.” She interjected as her ringed fingers tapped the cards.

I kept my eyes down and listened to her honeyed voice drop, “The best way to explain it is to say, if you thought a cupboard would go on one wall,” she pointed out things in our imaginary kitchen, “you’ll find yourself putting it over here instead.”

I nodded, letting the words and metaphor sink in.

My hasty goodbye was born of a visceral fear she could hear my heart beating in my chest. Her words rang in my ears and nagged at me beyond the party, well into the night when we bedded down in a hotel room close by and even as I attempted sleep. I woke tangled, sweat-soaked and resolute.

“I’ve been thinking…” I whispered to my husband who was regarding me with a mix of confusion and fear.

Maybe that’s why he reached for me, perhaps he sensed something in my voice that I was too afraid to express or he simply wanted to comfort me, but I flinched involuntarily, backing away from his hand. I did not need soothing or sex, did not want either one and I know, now, that he didn’t either.

Sex had become a chore, an elaborate production that produced nothing.

Even here in the anonymity of a foreign bedroom, without the pressure of an ovulation calendar hanging over us I couldn’t recall a time when our intimate life had been satisfying; instead it was scheduled and predictable in the worst possible way. Our kisses had begun to taste of iron and desperation.

He pushed himself up on an elbow and waited. I thought about moving cupboards. Bile rose in my throat as I pushed the words out, “I think we should ask the builders to return our down payment. There’s still time to break the contract isn’t there?”

He nodded, resigned to simply listening.

My heart clenched when I pictured the back bedroom, the one I’d mentally painted the color of a spring meadow and dubbed “the playroom.” But the space was empty. The only echoes I could hear on those polished hardwood floors were our solitary footsteps. What good was a fourth bedroom or a playroom with no one to play in it?

“I want to do In-Vitro.” I said, with as much courage and hope I could muster.

In-Vitro Fertilization would be expensive, from a financial and emotional standpoint and we both knew it. There would be no money back guarantee if it didn’t work. But I wanted to try it; I needed to know, once and for all, if there were still reasons to dream.

He sighed.

Maybe that’s what surrender sounds like, or perhaps it’s really the vociferous noise of determination. As I watched his own part of our dream gasp a last shuttering breath, I heard, behind it, the smallest click—like an egg opening or a window cracking.

We walked out of the hotel hand-in-hand and slowly began to tear down one dream and sketch another with shaking hands, in pencil, with an eraser ever at the ready.

Three months later, on the night before Mother’s Day, my husband slid a thin needle into the fleshy part of my stomach. Medication rushed my system, the sting in my side matching the one at the corners of my eyes, on its journey to my ovaries.

Five months later, two small ovals appeared on a black, grainy screen, their small shapes morphing, twisting, and growing from a barren nothingness. Their small hearts flashing like beacons.

We hardly knew what it meant then, but yes, oh yes, our dream had found purchase. We had built something of our own.

Kirsten is a wife after decades of dating, a mom after years of infertility and a writer after filling a lifetime of notebooks. She writes about love, life, and mothering her 6-year-old twins conceived after infertility on her blog The Kir Corner and weaves romantic stories on her fiction blog: Kirsten A Piccini. Find her on Facebook or on twitter @KirstenPiccini

When Breastfeeding Was Gross

When Breastfeeding Was Gross

By Rachel Pieh Jones

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Whatever the reason, I thought breastfeeding was disgusting.

 

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

They terrified me.

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

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

I thought this was gross.

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

Whatever the reason, I thought breastfeeding was disgusting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning to See All Families

Learning to See All Families

By Jennifer Berney

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It surprised me that in this century, in a metropolitan area, a person who worked in the field of Prenatal Diagnosis would have no idea how two women could conceive a child.

 

I was four months pregnant when a colleague sat next to a close friend of mine at a dinner party. Apparently, the colleague knew about my sexual orientation, but hadn’t heard my news, and so when my friend informed her that I was expecting my first child, she looked startled. “How in the world do two women make a baby?” she asked, making no effort to disguise her dismay.

Around the same time in my pregnancy, I sat in an office with a genetic counselor. She was in her mid-twenties with long red hair and an eager attitude. The purpose of the visit was to sleuth out any diseases my unborn child might be at risk for, and so she asked me dozens of questions about my family’s medical history. I answered them without incident, until she turned a page on her clipboard and looked up.

Early in the appointment she had made reference to my husband. “My partner,” I corrected, and assumed she caught the hint. “So your partner,” she began now, “does he have any health issues?”

“Well my partner is female,” I told her. “We used sperm from a donor.”

“Oh my god. I’m so sorry,” she said. Her face turned red and she returned her gaze to the clipboard. She fumbled with her papers, looking through them as if she had lost something between the pages. “Do we have to start all over now? I mean, was it even your egg?”

It surprised me that in this century, in a metropolitan area, a person who worked in the field of Prenatal Diagnosis would have no idea how two women could conceive a child.

These were just two of many times during my pregnancy when I seemed to be a walking contradiction: a pregnant lesbian. As my belly grew, I felt acquaintances assess me with a look of concern. It seemed they were worried that something had happened. Had I left my partner? Had I taken a lover? Or maybe I was just gaining weight?  I’m sure that all of these people had heard of sperm banks, and yet they seemed unable to comprehend my pregnancy.

My own uncle’s reaction helped me understand this phenomenon. Towards the end of my first trimester, he and his wife were passing through town and so I took them out to lunch. My uncle, a soft-spoken smart aleck, relies on a cochlear implant to hear, and my voice, which is quiet, often misses his limited range. Once we’d settled into our seats and exchanged pleasantries, I shared my news. “I’m pregnant,” I told them. “Kellie and I are expecting a baby in October.”

My uncle cupped his hand around his ear and said, “I didn’t catch that.” My aunt leaned toward him and enunciated in his ear: “She’s expecting a baby.”

“Oh,” he replied casually. “No wonder I didn’t hear.”

I didn’t ask him to clarify. I knew exactly what he meant. The possibility that I, his thirty-year-old niece in a committed relationship, might be pregnant was nowhere on his radar. Though I said I was pregnant, he couldn’t hear it. This was similar to the acquaintances who could see that I was pregnant, but couldn’t believe it. A pregnant woman was a straight woman; lesbians were either infertile or uninterested in children.

The assumptions that we make about pregnancy—that there are two parents actively involved, that one is a man and the other a woman—reveal our unconscious ordering of the world. When people defy our expectations, we have choice: to slip into denial, or adjust the barriers that confine our thinking. We can refuse or we can choose to see.

Of course, I continue to greet these assumptions in my daily life as a mother. Often, when filling out paperwork, I must cross out the box that says “Father” and hand-write the word “Mother.”  My son has learned to correct people when they ask him about his “Daddy.” “I have two Mommies,” he replies. I don’t yet detect a trace of shame in the statement, though I’m worried that someday I will.

When he was one, and before he could make such corrections I brought him to a children’s salon for his first haircut. “Is Dad going to freak out?” the stylist asked as she clipped the first lock of hair.

“Nah,” I answered. The question had caught me off guard. I know, of course, that she meant nothing by it, but I felt the same sense of bewilderment that I did when the genetic counselor asked, “Are they even your eggs?” Here was a woman who dealt with families every day. If she didn’t meet many queer families, didn’t she meet plenty of single mothers, or single fathers, or kids being raised by grandparents, or stepparents, or foster parents?

Learning to see queer families, to know that they exist beyond the world of television and tabloids, is just one part of learning to see the whole range of families that exist in our communities. Not assuming that any given child has one father and one mother may seem like a small courtesy we can offer each other, but I think it goes beyond that. Taking for granted that families can take infinite forms helps us to remember that love itself is boundless, an answer that can’t be confined by a single equation.

Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Hip Mama, Mutha, The Raven Chronicles, and the anthology Hunger and Thirst. She is currently working on a memoir, Somehow, which details the years she spent trying to build a family out of donor sperm, mason jars, and needleless syringes.  She lives in Olympia, Washington and blogs at http://goodnightalready.com/.

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Things We Cannot Know

Things We Cannot Know

By Vikki Reich

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When I watch her play the piano and the guitar, when I hear her singing in her room, I know some of that comes from me yet we know the donor was in a choir and I find myself wondering about the sound of his voice.

 

One Sunday night, I was reading in bed when my daughter skipped into the room and asked to cuddle. I put my book aside, scooted down to lie on my back, stretched out my arm and waited for her to curl into my side and put her head on my shoulder as she usually did. But she didn’t move and I turned my head to see her lying on her side facing me with her hands together and tucked under her cheek, “I want to see your pretty face,” she said, and I laughed and I turned to face her.

We stared at each other and said nothing, one of those rare moments of reverence when you take the time to really see another person. I noticed the way the light hit her dark brown hair and gave it highlights that looked like fine copper threads, the smoothness of her olive skin so different than my own, her brown eyes that seem so much warmer than my pale blue ones, and her full lips just like mine.

“Now, I’m going to tell you everything I did this weekend,” she said and began to give me the rundown, the details of which are lost to me. Then, she inched just a tiny bit closer and said, “So we can never know our donor, Mama?”

She’d spent part of the day with our friends’ daughters, who have known donors, so I knew immediately why she was thinking about this. There was no way to soften the edges of my answer so I spoke after only a beat, “No, baby. We can’t.”

She looked back at me with those dark eyes, “Well that’s a little bit sad.”

I knew I had a choice in that moment. I could ask about the sadness and try to untangle it or I could sit with the truth of her statement and, in the end, I chose simplicity.

“Yes. It is.”

But that truth is not hers alone.

When I watch her play the piano and the guitar, when I hear her singing in her room, I know some of that comes from me yet we know the donor was in a choir and I find myself wondering about the sound of his voice.

When I watch my son draw with his left hand, I wonder if the donor liked to draw too and if his hand smudged the paper just like my son’s.

When I brush my daughter’s thick hair or run my hand through my son’s, I think (and often say), “You’re so lucky you got the donor’s hair,” because it’s so clearly nothing like mine. And then I wonder what he looked like, wishing we had a picture so that I could marvel at the unexpected ways our genes combined to make these beautiful children.

But these are things we cannot know.

And then she asked another question, “Why did you pick an unknown donor?”

I wanted to say that it was complicated which is my response when I think something is too complex for the kids to understand or, less nobly, when I don’t want to take the time to explain it. But I resisted because the truth isn’t very complex at all.

We chose an unknown donor from a sperm bank in Minnesota because there were laws in place to assure that the donor could not have any contact with our children, even after they were adults. We chose the most restrictive type of donor arrangement possible and we had our reasons.

I explained that we made the decision when gay people didn’t have any protections under the law, when children could be taken away from someone simply because he or she was gay, when we weren’t sure that both of us would be legally recognized as their parents.

We did it to protect ourselves.

We made that decision 14 years ago during a very uncertain time. We didn’t know then that judges would change and second-parent adoptions would become easier. We didn’t know that we would someday be able to legally marry.

And because there were things we could not have known then, there are these things we cannot know now. We will never know more about the donor than what is contained in the few pages of that profile we received all those years ago.

I reached out and took her hand in mine and told her that I could show her what we did know about him and she said, “Okay. I don’t really need to see it. Not now.”

I have no doubt that she will someday have more questions and we will tell her everything we know but that information is finite and there will always be questions we can’t answer.

Before I got pregnant, my mother asked, “What will you tell your child about the father?” She meant to unnerve me, to put me on the defensive. But our decision to have children using an unknown donor is not something I will ever feel the need to defend. We made a choice and I have no regrets though I do have this feeling that I can’t explain—not quite sadness but more complex than curiosity. I would love to meet the donor, to watch him in the world knowing that he is partly responsible for these children that have brought such beauty and chaos into our lives.

But he is only a myth, a story we create. He is the person about whom my partner and I both say when watching our children with amusement, “He must have been a piece of work.” And yet, we will never know for sure.

Vikki Reich writes about the intersection of contemporary lesbian life and parenthood at her personal blog Up Popped A Fox and publishes VillageQ, a site that gives voice to the experience of LGBTQ parents. She lives in Minneapolis with her partner and two kids who provide the soundtrack of her life, which involves more beatboxing and improvised pop songs than she ever could have imagined.

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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 Accidental Exclusive Breastfeeder

The Accidental Exclusive Breastfeeder

accidentalbreastfeeder

“Accidentally” becoming an exclusive breastfeeder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus Baby

Bonus Baby

By Elizabeth Roca

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 4.37.48 PMLast night I did what I ordinarily do around eleven o’clock. I shut down my laptop computer and put it away, then closed the book I was reading and set it on the lamp stand next to the sofa. I brought my water glass and my wine glass into the kitchen and put them in the dishwasher. While my husband went outside to smoke his last cigarette for the evening, I climbed the stairs and readied myself for bed.

I donned my pajamas and crawled in next to my nineteen-month-old daughter, Camille. She was sleeping beautifully, pajamaed bottom in the air and bobbed sand-colored hair spilling over the sheet. Normally when I get into bed she just rolls against me and sighs, but tonight my movements disturbed her. She stirred, thrashed, then moaned and held up both hands, her eyes shut. “Up high! Up high!” she cried. It is the phrase she uses when she can’t reach an object or when she wants to place something beyond her older siblings’ grasp. She is growing so quickly. I used to think she was dreaming when, in infancy, she stayed latched onto my breast throughout the evening, eyes closed, throat pulsing in rhythm with her fluttering tongue. But this was the first time I had heard the proof: her own words, outlining an image in her brain I could not see.

She’s easy, this little girl, my third and last baby: a tiny, verbally precocious, sharp-witted mama’s girl. She has been a joy to me every day of her life. I am a joy to her, too; I know this as I have known few things. She tromps along behind me all day long, hollering, “Mam-my! Mam-my!” in her surprisingly deep voice. “Lap,” she says, reaching up, and when ensconced on my thighs, yanks my shirt and demands, “This!” I bare my breast and she laughs and latches on, falling back into the crook of my elbow. After a short time she grows sleepy and meditative, playing with a lock of my hair. While she nurses I read or play with my older children or talk on the phone. I kiss the silky, smelly sole of her bare foot and she grins around my nipple and raises the other foot to be kissed, too. Holding her in my arms, making her happy, is often the happiest part of my day.

Her brother and sister, twins, are thick in the drama of being three years old. They compete for my attention much of the time, hanging onto me and demanding treats, shoving each other, snatching toys, pulling hair, whining until I want to scream—and sometimes do. Often Camille moves beyond it all, serenely bedding down a doll in a wooden cradle or swiping ineffectively at a miniature football with a plastic golf club. For minutes at a time, in the throes of grappling with her siblings, I nearly forget Camille. I glance up and feel surprised to see her there, small and solemn under her straight bangs. She sees me looking and gives a goofy grin, all half-grown baby teeth and adult-looking undereye bags. Adoration coupled with sadness flares in me, and I think, It is the strangest thing: she was not meant to exist.

I’m not ignorant, at least not in matters of conception. I know how babies are made. But this one caught me by surprise. I went to my ob/gyn’s office for my yearly checkup and told her something strange was going on with my period. I’d gotten it as usual on my twins’ first birthday. The next month had brought cramps and a single morning of spotting. I might have wondered about that longer if it hadn’t occurred on Christmas Eve, while my attention was caught up in our family celebration. The following month had come and gone without any blood at all. I’d been wondering, I told my doctor, if my body were undergoing some kind of post-breastfeeding hormone fluctuations.

The doctor snickered. A few minutes later, with one hand inside me and the other pressed flat against my stomach, she said, “I think you’re pregnant, and I think you’re twelve weeks pregnant.”

A few minutes after that she performed an impromptu sonogram and confirmed her diagnosis: sometime in early September, probably, I would give birth to my third baby and thereby become the mother of three children under the age of two.

I liked this doctor. When I laughed, she laughed with me.

*   *   *

My husband and I had been told that we were unlikely to have babies on our own, and after eighteen months of the agony that is de rigueur for infertile couples, we had conceived our twins through in vitro fertilization. When you are used to injections, artificial hormones, and egg retrievals, unassisted conception seems nothing short of miraculous. This pregnancy, therefore, was a gift and a blessing. It was also a surprise, and this was the aspect of it that was hard to reconcile. When a gift and blessing arrives unexpectedly, unasked for, in the midst of your busy life, you must decide what your reaction will be: acceptance or rejection.

My husband had also laughed in disbelief and pleasure when I returned home from the doctor’s office and shoved the sonogram photos into his hand, unable to think of words to accompany their blurry but irrefutable images. I was thrilled, grateful, fierce in the expectation that someone might try to tell me that this pregnancy was not a good idea. By any practical measurement it was not. My husband and I had too little money, too small a house, even too small a car to keep three children. Worse, my first pregnancy had been disastrous, a mess of preterm labor that kept me on bedrest for four months, the majority of that time in the hospital. Soon after my second pregnancy was diagnosed I returned to the hospital’s antenatal unit to show off my twins and announced to the nurses that I was expecting another baby. The nurses, who had struggled with me to keep the number of my preterm contractions down to six an hour, looked at me with naked horror.

I was afraid, too. As the second pregnancy went predictably downhill, as I went into preterm labor and was put on bedrest again, as my husband and I struggled to keep our household together and I cried daily because I was no longer able to care for my darling twins, I clung to that initial happiness. By day I lay and catalogued my burden of worries. I was afraid of how adding another baby to the family would affect my older children, who still needed me so much. I was afraid of how it would affect my relationship with my husband, with whom I already spent little time alone. I was afraid of being dragged down, again and so soon, into the walking coma that is the first year after an infant’s birth, when you are so tired you cannot remember the newspaper’s headlines five minutes after reading them.

Most of all I was afraid of losing the pregnancy. This baby, whom I had not expected to have, had become vital to me. Where once I had thought I would be lucky to have one baby, I had come to feel I needed a third. As I lay in bed I felt the fetus’s hiccups, ran my hands over my smooth, stretched abdomen, and dreamed greedily of this new child’s unknown face.

In my ninth month I was allowed off bedrest and my husband went back to work. My energy, unleashed, was considerable. I bought newborn-sized diapers and washcloths and bibs. I dug out infant clothes in blue, pink, and yellow and prevailed upon my mother to bleach a bagful of tiny, stained undershirts. My mother babysat Lily and Jonah so that my husband and I could go out to dinner, and we sat in an Indonesian restaurant and ate soup so spicy it made our eyes water. While we ate we talked, for the first time, about names for this baby.

I went into labor one night while sitting on the living room couch playing solitaire on my laptop. I was thirty-eight weeks pregnant, all danger of prematurity past. The occasion was undramatic: my usual contractions intensified, then intensified some more, and then it was time to go to the hospital. Camille was born an hour and a half later, soon after my obstetrician arrived in the delivery room. I pushed half a dozen times and she was out. Boom, a thunderclap. A snap of the fingers. A magician’s veil waved and she appeared, our little daughter.

*   *   *

From the night of her birth she surprised me. Once settled in the postpartum recovery room I tried to place her in her plastic bassinette so I could lie down in my own bed. She fussed. At first I thought she might need feeding or changing, but after some experimentation I found that she cried if I put her down, ceased if I held her close. Her preference matched mine, and I slept with her at my side, my arm looped around her to prevent her from falling off the bed.

Camille’s demand that I hold her was a new experience for me. My twins had been preemies who needed breathing assistance; the neonatologists had shown them briefly to me and my husband, then whisked them off to the neonatal intensive care unit. I had not been able to hold Lily until she was twenty-four-hours old, and Jonah until he was two days old. Even then I had been allowed half an hour to cuddle my blanket-wrapped infants, then made to put them back into their isolettes; they were too weak to complain. The weeks they spent in the NICU were a constant struggle between my instinct, which wanted to scoop up the babies and run, and my intellect, which knew I could not. Lame after my long bedrest, I limped back and forth between the two isolettes, my hands clenched behind my back, my heart pierced by my powerlessness.

Even as Camille slipped out of me my obstetrician was chanting, “Give her to Mom, give her to Mom; she didn’t get to do this with her last babies.” Camille was laid naked on my chest. The nurse leaned over her and rubbed her with a clean towel, and my husband bent over us on the other side, staring into her small, swollen face. Besides the obstetrician we were the only people in the room. A second nurse who had assisted at the birth had vanished immediately after its finish. The stillness was different from the roil of the two neonatology teams, armed with shiny, life-saving equipment, that had filled the operating theatre where I’d given birth the first time. It felt plain, and unglamorous, and ordinary. A gift and a blessing.

When Camille was one day old we brought her home; it was the first time in their twenty-one months I had been apart from them overnight. They cried at the giant frog balloons their father had bought for them, which they kept trying to pull down to the ground, not understanding what made them leap into the air again. Camille cried once, a thin, scratchy newborn’s wail, and Lily burst into tears yet again.

My emotions surfaced as easily. My husband returned to work when Camille was five days old, and I cried when he left the house, cried at the Barney theme song when it came on television, and cried when Jonah smacked Camille in the forehead with his plastic sippy cup, impatient at my slowness to pour him more milk as I fumbled to help her latch on to my breast. I was suffused by a panic I had not felt since Lily and Jonah’s infancy. It was the certainty that the children would come to harm while under my care, through my lack of attention or competence. I had visions of them being hit by a car, slipping through my fingers on the jungle gym, drowning in the bathtub. Having another baby suddenly felt like an act of arrogance. Surely someone should have tested me beforehand for my suitability; surely I would have been found wanting.

Later that morning I managed to put Lily and Jonah down for a nap while Camille slept. I ate lunch and showered, finishing in time to lift Camille from the bassinette as she woke. It was late August and the bedroom was so hot I could feel sweat droplets forming on my freshly washed skin. Camille wore nothing but a diaper, and I didn’t bother to put on my shirt before feeding her. She nursed briefly and fell asleep again. I held her to my shoulder and stroked her red, wrinkled, velvety back. Her small body made a point of heat against my bare skin. Once more I cried and cried, my sobs the only noise in the calm house. These were tears of joy and gratitude. For a few moments life was quiet enough that I could feel the absolute privilege of holding a human being whose body had so recently arrived from my body. I knew this was the last time this particular miracle would happen for me.

*   *   *

As weeks passed Camille became a cheerful, easygoing baby. All she asked was that I never put her down. I rose in the mornings and strapped the front carrier over my pajamas, holding her as I buttered Lily and Jonah’s toast, changed their diapers, and chased them down to put on their shoes. On errands she rode in the carrier while I used my hands to rein in the twins and gather groceries. She hung off me, a living, breathing accessory, and underneath my more immediate concerns (snacks, parking lot safety, the location of my wallet), I hoped she was amused by her siblings, soothed by my body’s warmth, and not destined for a life of emotional penury because my mind was so often everywhere but on her. But distracted as I was as I grabbed at boxes of tissues or crackers, I bowed my head often to brush my lips against her soft, prickly hair.

Camille gave my mind a rest. She was jolly and adaptable, asking for nothing more than what I knew how to give: my arms, my breasts, my steady though abstracted attention. “Mommy’s baby monkey,” I called her as I carried her everywhere. She clung to me, gazing around with an expression of amused concentration. Even after she learned to walk she stayed near me, clutching a bit of my jeans leg. If she cried, I only had to pick her up to quiet her. At her most tired, sick, or desperate, she wanted no more than my breast in her mouth. Her siblings were in a stage of toddlerhood that rendered them simultaneously active and stubborn, and often I felt I was barely treading water in keeping them safe. With Camille I was tracing familiar territory. I could look at her and think, I’m a good mother. I pretended that she was never going to not be a baby, and that I was never going to find myself bewildered by her toddler moods and ambitions. I was deceiving myself, and the deception was comforting.

*   *   *

My illusions lasted until last month. We—my husband, the children, and I—were outside doing yard work. After a while my husband went into the house. At the same time the children asked to play in his SUV, which was parked at the curb behind my minivan. This was a popular entertainment: pretending to drive Daddy’s car.

I opened the two doors next to the curb. Jonah climbed in behind the wheel and Lily clambered into the back seat. Camille leaned in behind Lily, and I assumed she would climb up also. I bent to gather the various toys and sippy cups that had been scattered over the lawn.

Suddenly my husband called, “Camille is going into the street!” He had come onto the front stoop and was looking beyond me to the narrow gap between our cars.

I turned. Camille had slipped behind me and headed into that gap, running toward the open street. I heard a car approaching from behind my husband’s SUV. I could tell without looking that the car was driven by someone who did not live on our street. Our neighbors drive slowly, on the lookout for the many small children who live in the vicinity. People who use the street as a cut-through drive much faster. This car’s motor was roaring.

I leaped forward, uselessly. Then I screamed, “No! No!” The scream rose from my chest and exited my body in a howl.

Camille turned and ran back to the curb. I will never be sure if she was responding to my scream or if she had heard and understood the roar of the approaching vehicle. At the same moment the car—it was a red minivan, similar to mine—hurtled by. Its window was open and I saw the driver, a middle-aged man, glance over. He was wearing sunglasses that made him look expressionless. He seemed not to have heard my scream, and he had not seen Camille. If she had taken another running step forward, his van would have hit her.

All evening I felt near tears. My husband was upset with me; he felt I hadn’t been watching Camille closely enough, and he was right. But I was unnerved not just by Camille’s near miss, but by the realization that I had thought I was watching her. I was so complacent about her attachment to me that I had assumed she would stay by my side even if I turned away.

I understood, finally, that Camille had run into the street for a reason. The week before, the children had played in my husband’s car, and I had carried her into the street, opened the passenger door, and placed her next to Jonah in the driver’s seat. So Camille had been trying to reach what she must have believed was her assigned spot. Her actions made sense, but I hadn’t foreseen them, and because of that she could have been killed. My delight in her calm nature, and the ease of caring for one baby after having cared for two, had caused me to relax dangerously. My arrogance, I finally saw, had not been in giving birth to her. It had been in assuming that I would always know her mind and heart.

*   *   *

The next break was more subtle. It happened one morning after breakfast, not long after Camille had run into the road. I headed upstairs to shower, leaving the children watching Dragon Tales on television. As I applied shampoo to my wet hair I heard Camille crying and Lily’s raised voice. But Lily was not yelling, and Camille’s crying was mild, so I kept scrubbing my head and hoping she would stop. She did stop; apparently the dispute had been settled. I moved briskly, but I made sure I was dry and dressed before I walked downstairs, because I knew that I would not be allowed back upstairs again. Requests from all three children would begin: Mommy read this book, Mommy get me juice, Mommy I need the potty, Mommy Mommy Mommy.

Camille nursed for a long time and I cuddled her, feeling myself relax as our physical bond worked its magic. But I was struck by the realization that for once I had not stopped what I was doing to run to her aid. As much as I needed to claim more time for myself, doing so felt strange. I had known that Camille would someday relinquish me; I had not expected to relinquish her.

*   *   *

This is the truth: during those months after Lily and Jonah turned one, when my period became so erratic, I suspected I might be pregnant. I didn’t breathe a word, not even to my husband—especially not to my husband, because we had never had luck when it came to reproduction, and I couldn’t believe we might have it now. But I hoped. And when my hope came true and through our hard work she arrived, I was as happy as I have ever been. I was so happy that for months I forgot that nothing lasts. Circumstances change.

For now I still have a bit of her baby self. Her mouth on my breast. Her need to press shyly against me when strangers address her. Her grave little voice saying, “Mommy do it me” when she wants me to tie her shoelaces or retrieve her doll from the floor. Although in years to come she will still need me for many things—laundry and lunches and car rides and games of crazy eights, homework advice and support against disappointment and betrayal—never again will our relationship seem so simple. Never again will it be so physical. I will celebrate her achievements, as I have celebrated the gains she already has made. I will also mourn the passing of her babyhood, which is the passing of a specific, precious time in my life: a time when the touch of my flesh cured all ills.

Author’s Note: Most of my essays are attempts to capture periods in my children’s lives before they fade in my memory. Sometimes I feel so mired in daily life it’s hard to record what’s going on, much less shape it into an essay. My thanks to Kate Haas, whose interest in this subject kept me returning to this piece until I had whittled it down to size.

Elizabeth Roca’s work has appeared frequently in Brain, Child. She lives with her family in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Brain, Child (Fall 2006)

The Boy Who Is Mine

The Boy Who Is Mine

Baseball Equipment Laying on Grass

Unlike the blissful announcement of a baby the first two times, my mother’s smile taking up her entire face; this time, she met the news with a blank expression. “Why?” she said, before hesitating, then hugging me as if to hold me up.

 

Johnny’s bus comes later, after my other four children are off to school. And suddenly I am in “Johnny Time,”—the half hour each school day morning that I have to spend alone with my youngest son, a small-for-his-age first-grader.

“Ready Mommy?” he says. “Ready!” I say, and, unless we’re rained out, we head outside to play baseball before his bus comes. It is late autumn, the leaves have let go of the trees, and I stand in the grass in my pajamas and robe, a cup of cold coffee on the ground next to me. Johnny races to get our mitts from the garage, his small muscled body pulsing with excitement.

I throw him a high fly; the ball crashes through the branches of our oak tree; he zig-zags beneath the limbs judging exactly where it will fall. “Johnny Jingle makes the catch!” I scream and he beams, raising his mitt, calming the crowd. “How did you get to be such a great baseball player?” I ask, TV-interview style, using a small stick for a microphone. He says the answer I made up for him. “I owe it all to my mother!”

He bats next, my pitch lacks accuracy but he slams it. He hits left-handed—the way my father, a professional baseball player and also named Johnny, used to. Johnny does nothing else left-handed, but by some odd coincidence he hits lefty and his swing makes me smile every time. He has an uncanny resemblance to his namesake as well, tufts of blonde hair, blue eyes like light blue fondant.

I throw a thousand balls, or so it seems by the time the bus lumbers to our driveway, letting out its routine wheeze. Johnny gives me my three kisses, left, right, and center, before getting on. And though I am tired, feeling thin as wax paper, I know I did the right thing seven years ago.

Because Johnny was all my idea. The baby I insisted on having, though he was conceived at a time in my life when a baby should have been the last thing on my mind. My marriage was breaking, my daughters were just two and three, and my career had hit high gear. But for reasons I have only begun to figure out, though I know it was more than a desire for a boy who I could name after my father, I wanted a third child as much as I’d wanted the first; every cell of me committed to it, the need innate, primal.

My husband and I were in marriage counseling at the time; we had been for months. The therapist cautioned against having another child just then. “Another child will not fix things,” she said. Of course not, I thought. But that was not the point.

The point was I wanted a third child whether my husband and I stayed together or not. I was clear on the issue in my mind. I told my mother I was pregnant first. Unlike the blissful announcement of a baby the first two times, my mother’s smile taking up her entire face; this time, she met the news with a blank expression. “Why?” she said, before hesitating, then hugging me as if to hold me up.

I knew what she was thinking; she was the one who came to stay with me when I suffered postpartum depression with both of my daughters, who were born in the context of a better marriage than what I had now. She was the one who took Sophia from my lap while I cried, leaving me frozen in the polka-dot cushioned rocking chair, cold cabbage leaves on my breasts to sooth the engorgement.

I waited many weeks before I told other people, including my husband, who smiled when I showed him the stick that flared pink.  He left quickly after to go to his flying lesson. I remember thinking, he would fly 15,000 feet in the air while I stayed grounded.

My husband was home less often. He’d had so many interests and made time to pursue them all—a zest I loved when I married him but hated now that we had children. We were together less and less, a thick silence webbed between us. Over time my daughters sensed the end of something I think; clinging to me, grabbing at my thighs while I cooked macaroni and cheese again, my stomach huge, wedging into the countertop as I filled the large pot with water. At any time I could snap, like a celery stalk, knowing that if I didn’t unravel during the pregnancy, chances were high I would plummet again right after the baby was born.

It was a lonely pregnancy, punctuated by doctor appointments that I went to by myself. At 21 weeks as I lay in the dark on the exam table, my melon-sized belly in full bloom, I asked Dr. Derman if it was a boy or a girl. “I thought you didn’t want to know?” he said, having delivered both of my daughters who I insisted be a surprise. I felt the baby roll inside of me, swimming, as it surfaced on the ultrasound.

“I want to know,” I said.

“Boy” he said.

“For certain?” I said. It was certain.

The divorce came when Johnny was 18 months old; I now have to share my son, along with his sisters. On Wednesdays and every other weekend the children go to my ex-husband’s house and the little bird beats in my throat. In spite of that I try to see the situation through a positive lens, thinking that perhaps the forced separations help me appreciate the extra minutes I have on weekday mornings with my son, before the bus comes—the little boy who I still like to believe was all my doing.

Snowfall, and the Silence of Pregnancy

Snowfall, and the Silence of Pregnancy

By Jenna Hatfield

IMG_4072

I frequently found myself on the defensive while pregnant, afraid of what people might say and how they might judge me. I felt judged enough, being single and pregnant.

 

She lived in the apartment above my basement level one. She walked heavy and possessed an even heavier case of insomnia. Pregnant and on bed rest, unable to sleep at night myself, I’d hear her feet hit the floor at one o’clock in the morning. She’d stomp into the bathroom and run herself a hot bath. For a while, the sounds would cease as she likely attempted to relax herself back to sleep. Later, she’d stomp back to bed, waking me yet again. I’d roll to my other side, hand gently touching my belly as the Munchkin kicked me. My precious daughter was a night owl as well.

Late in my pregnancy, we talked for the first time. I finally looked visibly pregnant, though I never seemed very large due to the health problems I experienced during that tumultuous pregnancy. As I carried some clothes to the laundry room, she stopped to ask me some questions. Munchkin’s parents and I already matched at that point; my kidney disorder left me unable to work, and I felt relief in finding a family to care for my child. I didn’t share anything about the adoption with the woman who lived upstairs. I knew her sleeping habits but not her last name. I didn’t know how she felt about adoption, how she might react. I frequently found myself on the defensive while pregnant, afraid of what people might say and how they might judge me. I felt judged enough, being single and pregnant. Giving away my baby felt like more fuel for the judgmental fire of society. I answered her questions politely but with vague, open-ended answers. I felt like lies kept slipping from my mouth, but I didn’t know this woman from Eve. I walked back downstairs, heart heavier than her late night footsteps on my ceiling.

The time came, and the Munchkin arrived in this world. I left the hospital without my beautiful baby, briefly returning to my parents’ house to gather some things and head back to my apartment. Four days later, my father, grandfather, and my (now) husband arrived to help me load my belongings into a U-Haul. Many reasons backed the decision to move so soon after giving birth, but not wanting to spend another second in the small apartment in which I worked so hard to bring my baby girl to life topped the list. My heart hurt as I looked at every inch of our space, back when we qualified enough as mother and daughter to have any space referred to as “ours.”

The snowflakes waited to fall until later that night as I made the trek to Ohio, but the wind whipped, cold and menacing. As the adult males in my life trudged boxes and bags and furniture to the truck, their effort showed in white puffs of visible air, every exhaled breath hanging above their heads. The woman upstairs came down to see what the fuss was about, making sure someone wasn’t stealing all of my stuff. I’ll be honest when I say that I don’t remember much of what she asked me. I was likely still in some form of shock from the labor and delivery of my firstborn child just six days earlier. Combine that with the shock of grief and loss that comes from leaving the hospital alone and subsequently signing my name to a piece of paper that basically claimed the labor and delivery never took place and, well, I’d venture to guess the details of the conversation were blurry for many a reason.

But I remember her speaking to my father, asking him questions anyone would ask a new and proud grandfather. I remember the look on his face, a deer caught in the headlights for a moment before he released eye contact, mumbled an answer, and went back to the physical action of letting his daughter go just days after he let his first and only granddaughter go. I remember wanting to save him from the moment, to change the subject, to do just about anything to put a smile back on his face. My own deep sadness silenced me; I could not provide the heroic verbal effort that cold afternoon.

The woman made her way back into the building, walking heavily up the stairs. Long after we pulled out of the parking lot with all of my belongings, she probably woke up and stomped her way into the bathroom, her footsteps echoing through my empty, dark apartment. Little did she know that I would wake, two-and-a-half hours west of her, and shuffle into my new bathroom. I’d turn on the hot water and cry until the water ran cold, milk spilling from my rock hard breasts. I’d shuffle back to my new bed and stare at the ceiling until the sun came up. I’d do this for weeks after my arrival in Ohio. I’d think of the woman who lived upstairs. I’d wonder what her story was, why she couldn’t fall asleep. I’d pray it wasn’t because she had placed a baby for adoption, given away her only baby girl… like I did.

Why she crossed my mind recently, I don’t know. I sometimes still shower in the middle of the night, though the tears don’t come as often. The nights are the loneliest, I think, for anyone who has experienced any form of loss, no matter the amount of love still present in our lives. I hope the woman upstairs was able to find sleep eventually.

I hope we all do.

 

Jenna Hatfield lives in Ohio with her husband, two sons, and crazy dog. A writer, editor, marathon runner, and birth mother involved in a fully open adoption, she somehow also manages to blog at http://stopdropandblog.com.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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Somewhere Near the Bottom

Somewhere Near the Bottom

By Elana Sigall

archive_abortionYou can blame a lot of folks, from media bigwigs to bishops, if we lose our reproductive rights, but it’s the women who shrink from acknowledging their own abortions who really irk me … The freedoms that we exercise but do not acknowledge are easily taken away.”

— Barbara Ehrenreich, New York Times, July 22, 2004

 

I am forty years old. I am happily married. I own a brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn; I have a law degree and three young children. Two years ago, I had an abortion. At my post-termination checkup at my obstetrician’s office on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, my doctor said, “You know, you go through life and you think things, and you think you know things. And then you become an OB, and you find out lots of people do this. They just don’t talk about it.”

When I found out I was pregnant, my first child was two and a half, and my younger one was sixteen months. It was the end of January, and my husband had been out of town for most of the month. We had not been trying to conceive.

I had a part-time teaching appointment at Columbia, but I had mostly been home since Talia, my oldest, was born, less out of a desire to be a full-time mother and more out of a kind of inertia about what to do next. My biological clock was ticking—not about having children but about finding myself.

Michael and I wanted another child. He comes from a family of five, and I had two sisters, so a family of two children seemed incomplete to us. But the surprise of the pregnancy sent me into a tailspin. I didn’t feel happy or excited, just anxious and ambivalent. Suddenly, another baby didn’t sound so good. I had never experienced my two children as a burden. But what if this time it were different? What if I resented the baby or just didn’t love it as much? And what if something was wrong with the baby? I had two healthy, thriving children. Why tempt fate?

Almost immediately I learned that the level of my Hcg (the “pregnancy hormone”) was abnormally high, which can indicate Down syndrome. I figured it would at least mean that the pregnancy dilemma would end; I wouldn’t have continued a pregnancy if I knew that there was a birth defect. At the sonogram the doctor cheerfully reassured me that I had a healthy embryo, with a heartbeat. The pregnancy was about five weeks along. He also knew why my hormone levels were so high. “You see this?” he pointed to a dark spot on the screen, “And this?” he pointed to another one. There were two extra sacs. They were empty, and the doctor could almost guarantee that they would not develop into pregnancies. “It’s much better to have one healthy baby than three premature triplets,” he offered consolingly. That night, Michael rubbed my belly and remarked, “How’s our litter? Wow, I could have ended up with five kids after all.” I didn’t laugh. The triplets served in my mind as evidence that my vocation had become child production.

The extra sacs increased my chance of miscarriage, but as the weeks wore on, the precariousness of the pregnancy faded and my anxiety mounted. I began to feel sorry for other people who were pregnant. Having a baby seemed suffocating, even distasteful, despite the fact that I had loved my tiny babies. I was increasingly overwhelmed by a feeling that I had to make a choice between this new baby and me. Three children seemed like a life sentence. If I had the baby, I thought, I would never leave my house again. I would be pushing a vacuum for the rest of my life. I would turn forty, and I would have nothing to show for it except three children in diapers and a one-night-a-week job. One friend asked if I might have regrets if I terminated the pregnancy; I was embarrassed to tell her that regret was unimaginable to me.

I didn’t know anyone who had had an abortion, except a girl in high school. I went online in search of the right answer. I Googled “abortion”; “third child and abortion”; “should I have an abortion?” I found lists of common reasons that women have abortions: avoidance of single motherhood, financial instability. That wasn’t me. I talked to friends. I looked at the newborn pictures of my other children. I visited the maternity ward at the hospital and watched the new babies. I pictured Michael holding the baby, bouncing it. I made lists of pros and cons. I couldn’t come up with anything for the pro side, except that Michael wanted the baby very, very much.

I agonized for seven weeks. How would I be able to teach three children to read? How would I stay up to date with photographs and scrapbooks? I tried to confirm over and over again that Michael would not be resentful, would not be angry, if we ended it. “Let him stay home and take care of it,” my OB said. When I protested that he really does take care of the kids, she said, “Fathers can help. But in the end, somehow, I don’t know why, it’s the mother’s burden.” This might have been reassuring except that it was so wildly untrue in my case that it only added to my guilt.

Michael and I lay in bed at night talking about what to do. He kept saying, “I would love to have another baby, but not like this.” One night, he lay with his back to me, quiet. “What are you doing?” I asked. “I was thinking about names,” he said.

I had a dream about going to terminate the pregnancy at a clinic and finding that they were giving a cat an abortion. I asked them if it wasn’t just better to let her have the kittens and then give them away, but they said that the abortion was really better for her. In the dream, also, I couldn’t find Michael. He wasn’t there.

*   *   *

At twelve-and-a-half weeks—about four days past the deadline my OB set for a safe first-trimester termination—I went to the clinic. Emotionally, I’d been everywhere except here, to the actual moment. I sat in the waiting room with the other women, mostly black, some with men, some with mothers, until my name was called. I sobbed as a young woman drew my blood. She asked me if I was afraid of needles. Michael joined me for the sonogram. The screen faced away from me, but Michael could see it. Unlike the ultrasounds of my past, the tech did not adjust the screen so that I could see it comfortably from my supine position. She dated the pregnancy at twelve-and-a-half to thirteen weeks and gave me a consent form for a second-trimester abortion. I would need a general anesthetic, she said, not a local, as I had requested. When I pressed her for an explanation, she said that I was too far along, it would be too painful.

They put us in a private waiting room, handed me a robe and told me to take everything off but my bra and socks. There was a bed with a flowered maroon bedspread. I searched it for an answer. Michael knew exactly what I was thinking. “You were expecting that we would see the sonogram and have an epiphany and get up and walk out of here?” he asked. But all I had seen was Michael’s face and tears as he looked at the screen.

Nurses and techs kept knocking on the waiting room door, and each time we asked for a few more minutes. Finally, one nurse, Rosie, told us to go home and think it over for another twenty-four hours. “I see this every day,” she said, “And I tell people to take one more day.” I protested that it was getting to be too late, that I was already in the second trimester. “One more day doesn’t matter,” she said.

In the shower the next morning, my daughter told me that my tummy was full. “It’s fat,” she said, patting it. “My belly is fat, too,” she added with a smile. I spent the morning pre-procedure fast in a neighborhood coffeehouse, grading midterms and trying to imagine being excited about being pregnant. I touched my abdomen and imagined Talia and Julian coming to the hospital to see the new baby. I wondered if I would only find the desire for another child after the procedure. I began to look forward to the general anesthetic. I hadn’t slept peacefully in weeks. I hadn’t had a moment when I wasn’t obsessed with my decision. I called Michael. “Let’s take the weekend and try to imagine having the baby and see how it feels,” he suggested. I was so relieved at the thought of not having to go back that I agreed.

But the weekend didn’t go well. We didn’t talk much about it. I was too panicked. We had one conversation about moving Julian into Talia’s room. I tried to imagine where his toy chest would fit. It had his name on it, and a lion, his favorite animal. He also had a small picture of a mama polar bear snuggling her baby that we had gotten him for his first birthday; it had seemed as if he’d spent that whole first year in my arms. If we moved those things onto Talia’s wall, I thought, there would be holes in the wall of the new baby’s room.

Monday morning came, and we hadn’t gotten anywhere. I was looking more pregnant. I couldn’t look in the mirror anymore. I was terrified that people would start noticing.

*   *   *

I walked in and out of that clinic a total of four times. The second time, I made it to the O.R. It was sterile and cold and looked like a delivery room. I sat on the table, and a man smiled at me and said, “I am the anesthetist.” I began to cry hysterically and got off the table. “I have to go see my husband again.” I fell into Michael’s chest, sobbing. “I can’t do it.” Rosie, the nurse from the other day, came in a few minutes later, “Again? So, why don’t you go home and come back?”

I protested. Rosie shook her head. “The doctor won’t do it. You got off the table.”

“Come on,” Michael said. “At least we’ll find out how it feels to walk out of here again.”

Michael went away on business the next morning, and I spent two days feeling almost calm. There was nothing to be done until he returned on Thursday. I worked. I read books to my children and sang them songs and put them to bed. I could never love anyone else as much. Why would I have another baby?

Thursday night, I barely slept. On Friday morning, we took the train back to Manhattan. “So this is on your way to work, right? I mean, if I decide not to go, you can just get off the train and you’ll be at work, right?”

“I can’t try to make the decision in that place again,” he said. We got off the subway in the neighborhood of the clinic and found a coffee shop.

“I always thought that I wanted to have three children,” I offered.

“Let’s make it easier,” he said, resigned. “Let’s go.”

We walked to the clinic and got in the elevator. Michael was crying. “I just keep thinking about the baby,” he said. “But I know that I have to think of you. That’s my priority. You have to be there for me and for Talia and for Julian.”

“The baby has gotten off to such a bad start,” I said.

“Really?” said Michael. “I was thinking just the opposite. That baby’s a fighter. Been here three times already and still around. I love that baby. I can’t wait to hold that baby.”

I looked at him and said nothing. “We are having the baby. Come on. It’s our baby, and we are having it,” he said. We walked out again.

We went to a diner. I couldn’t sip the water. If I did, the fast would be over. Michael looked at me, saw the state I was in. “That’s it.” He walked me back to the clinic. “I don’t think that you can do it with me there.” I agreed. I had to do it alone.

I went into the room, and the tech strapped my legs to a table and told me to lie down. But I wanted to sit up. And I wanted to talk to Rosie again before the doctor came in. He strapped me down anyway; Rosie came in.

“You can still have another baby,” Rosie said.

“But I’m thirty-eight.”

“When will you be thirty-nine?”

“July.”

“So, let’s see. If you get pregnant in July, you’ll have the baby when you’re thirty-nine,” she explained, as if there were nothing at all strange about having an abortion in April for no apparent reason with a plan to get pregnant again in July. Her suggestion comforted me.

I had wanted the happy ending. I had hoped that I would jump off the cliff, arms wide, and embrace Michael with a huge grin: “We’re having a baby!” We would be laughing and crying and relieved, and then I would touch my full, fat belly and everything would be okay. But I couldn’t feel that way.

“I have two children already,” I said. “Two and a half and eighteen months.”

“You have an eighteen-month-old? That baby needs you,” Rosie said.

The anesthetist, a different one, was standing on my side with her hand on my arm, getting ready to stick the needle. “Wait! Wait!” I kept saying.

“Awww, honey, it’s not gonna hurt at all,” she said, tightening her grip on my arm.

The doctor put his hand up to stop her. “We cannot tell you what to do,” he said, getting impatient. “There are other women waiting. They haven’t eaten.”

Rosie told him to go to see another patient. As she followed him out the door, she looked back at me over her shoulder, “We’ll be back in a few minutes. You need to decide.” I watched the clock frantically, wanting more time.

Soon Rosie came back in with the doctor. “So, what do you want to do? If you get off the table again, that’s it.”

“Go ahead.”

The next thing I remember is waking up face down on a gurney in a different room. Another nurse led me to a big recovery chair. I started to sob uncontrollably, in a way I had never cried in fourteen weeks. There were other women there, too, but nobody else was crying. They all seemed calm, maybe relieved. The nurse gave me a prescription for antibiotics to prevent infection and told me to take it for many more days than she’d told the woman next to me. “You were further along,” she said.

I met Michael near his office. We walked to two drugstores to find the medications. I fixated on the bag of disposable diapers behind the counter with the smiling baby on it, and I wept.

*   *   *

The grief found me quickly. I was one hundred percent sure I had done the wrong thing. All of my reasons for feeling hesitant seemed trivial and surmountable, especially compared to these new horrible feelings.

Once the pregnancy was over, I could conjure up again all of the reasons that I loved having children. That was, in an odd way, a relief.

The Alan Guttmacher Institute, the principal collector of data on abortion, does not amass data for any education level above “college graduate” or an income level higher than three hundred percent of the poverty line. But the Guttmacher Institute estimates that by the age of forty-five, one-third of American women will have had an abortion.

During my weeks of agonizing, my obstetrician, who treats professional, educated women mainly over the age of thirty-five, assured me that she’d had many patients end pregnancies for reasons far less elaborate than mine. Sometimes when I spoke, she finished my sentences, having heard it all before.

She told me about a woman who had an abortion when she got pregnant accidentally. She had a son already and hadn’t had a chance to “read the book” on how to have a girl. Another obstetrician I spoke with afterwards, who also practices on the Upper East Side, treating women “who may not be millionaires but who are certainly employed,” describes patients not at all in conflict about what to do. “You have these successful couples with children—women who are very successfully managing a home life and a career,” she said. “They get pregnant by accident and they decide that they want an abortion to ‘keep things where they are.’ Do they feel guilty? Yes. ‘This shouldn’t have happened. I feel terrible.’ But they have the abortion.”

Barbara Ehrenreich, the feminist political activist, reproachfully quotes women who claim that they don’t think of what they’ve done as an abortion when they terminate for medical reasons and who resent being treated in clinics alongside women who “did not want their babies.” But Ehrenreich herself, even as she unfailingly defends the right to choose under any circumstances, suggests that some of the reasons people elect to abort, “like deafness or dwarfism, seem a little sketchy.”

In the hierarchy of abortions, mine must be somewhere near the bottom—under women with no job and no education and no husband and no money and under women with the education and money and desire to find out that a fetus has birth defects. But the right to choose cannot be measured against an objective set of “good reasons”; we cannot embrace any argument that ranks some choices as less “sketchy” than others. Would we rank the reasons for wanting children—what about ego satisfaction, loneliness, wealth transfer, extra help at home, boredom?

Recently, there have been calls from the left for an acknowledgement by the pro-choice movement that abortion is wrong, something to be avoided—a recognition, to use Hillary Clinton’s now oft-quoted phrase, that “abortion is always tragic.” There’s some sense that the pro-choice movement doesn’t stand on any moral ground and that it can’t be sustained in its current form unless it does. But should any baby be born ever that isn’t completely and utterly wanted?

Throughout those difficult weeks, Michael kept saying, “We can have this baby. If we can’t do this, nobody can.” The notion of “choice” takes on a different meaning for those whose lives are already blessed with lots of choices. Of course we could have done it. But I needed a better reason to have a baby, and I couldn’t find it.

Six months ago, a year and a half after my abortion, I did have a baby, my third child, just not my third pregnancy. When Laila stares into my eyes I am overwhelmed by love. She radiates a peacefulness that I don’t remember in my other kids. I already can’t remember a time when she wasn’t here.

The fall before I had my abortion, I was in Ohio, working for John Kerry’s campaign. I was staying with my mother-in-law, in Toledo. Days before the election, we stood outside one night, in a neighbor’s driveway, talking. The neighbor’s expensive cars were plastered with Bush/Cheney bumper stickers, and she was defending her candidate. “What about the right to abortion?” my mother-in-law asked, knowing that this woman had had one herself, once upon a time. “Oh, that’s never going away,” the neighbor said.

My ambivalence about my own decision was agonizing. I was worried about making the wrong choice for myself, and at times I wished that someone else could decide for me.

But not really.

A number of people have asked me how I feel about making public in this article what was such a personal experience. Besides questions about whether I might get a politically hostile reception from some quarters—a risk I was willing to accept—they expressed concern about how I would feel about my children’s reading the article someday. Might they feel hurt? I hoped not, of course, but I thought about it. I realized that, although I decided to have the abortion, the piece is a celebration of the children I have. For me, it is a kind of love letter to them. It is about how much I needed to want each of them, and how much I do.

Elana Sigall is an attorney. She is an adjunct faculty member at both Columbia Law School and Teachers College where she teaches courses on legal issues in education.

Brain, Child (Fall 2008)

Stripped Down and Redressed

Stripped Down and Redressed

By Randon Billings Noble

Pregnant-woman-007Let me start with a confession: I’m no fashionista. In fact, my look is pretty beat – Beat Generation, that is. I’m most comfortable in a t-shirt, jeans and boots. Basic, but not sloppy.  Fitted, but not fancy.  I’ll wear a scarf or a watch — a stainless steel Swiss Army or a chunky plum Zodiac — but rarely jewelry.  I like to look at fashion magazines — but I almost never follow the trends.

Before I got pregnant I was tall and thin. Pretty much any pair of jeans and any t-shirt looked good – or good enough – on me. I didn’t have to worry about rises and cuts and necklines. Low, boot, crew – it all worked for me.

Then I got pregnant. With twins. People started asking me when I was due when I was only four months along. I didn’t know during my first trimester that my waist was destined to double in size. I didn’t know that during my last trimester I’d be pretty much housebound, stripped down to a maternity tank top and two receiving blankets pinned together to make a loincloth because nothing else fit and I was too hot (in February) to wear much else.

I had mixed feelings about this pregnancy. It was planned – but the twin part wasn’t. We had no history of twins in our family and no help conceiving them – no fertility treatments, no medical intervention. It took almost the whole nine months for me to reconcile myself to the idea, and it was sometimes difficult to participate in all the happy baby conversations and preparations going on around me. The only part of pregnancy that I truly enjoyed (other than eating lots of cheeseburgers with milkshakes) was shopping for maternity clothes. Shopping for maternity clothes was all about me – not the imminent twins, who, I feared, were destined to take over (and thus destroy) my independent life.

Usually shopping – clothes shopping – is about trying on selves or lives as much as an outfit. Who will you become while wearing this dress? Where will you go? Who will you meet? What new life will unfurl before you? Perhaps you will wear this red sheath to a museum opening. Perhaps you will throw on this gauzy shift to prevent a sunburn at a European beach. Perhaps this is the little black dress you’ll be wearing at the New Year’s Eve party where you meet your future spouse … But pregnancy is a finite state, and shopping for maternity clothes doesn’t lead to these exploratory avenues. In the first trimester it might be about showcasing your new bump. By the last I was just trying to cover it.

I decided to hit the Gap – a place where I had shopped for non-maternity clothes, a place that wasn’t Mimi Maternity or A Pea in the Pod, a place where I could still sort of pretend I wasn’t entirely pregnant after all, where I could keep a bit of psychic distance between me and the twins I was carrying.

I tried on “sexy” boot cut jeans and long cowl-neck tunics. I tried on full-panel leggings and empire-waist dresses. I chose odd colors I didn’t usually wear – plum pants, a fuchsia-print dress – because I thought, what the hell? I’m only going to be wearing this for six months at best. My belly was high and round and hard, my arms and legs still slender and muscled. I looked great. I bought it all.

For months – less than six, alas – I loved my wardrobe. But I kept growing. I grew the twins and all their accoutrements – placentas, umbilical cords, amniotic fluids. I made more of my own body too: more blood to pump through more vessels, more skin to cover more abdomen, more miscellaneous swellings in my ankles and under my jaw. All too soon I grew out of my maternity clothes and into the tank top and loincloth.

As my body grew I felt my self diminishing. I no longer did the things that made me me. I didn’t make a pot of tea to drink slowly throughout the morning; I didn’t go to Aikido classes in the afternoon. I didn’t make French toast breakfasts or take evening walks around the neighborhood. I didn’t do crossword puzzles, read Russian novels, teach writing classes, write essays.

Instead I spent a lot of time sitting in my living room in an Ikea Poang chair. I read all the Sookie Stackhouse novels I could get on my Kindle until reading felt too difficult. Then I watched whole seasons of shows on streaming video – science fiction like Firefly, addictions like The Wire. I had read that women’s brains can shrink up to 8% during a pregnancy. I became convinced that, with twins, my brain had shrunk 16%. I tried not to think too much about the future, about my brain regaining its capacities, about my body subsiding into something more recognizable. I carried the twins but I let nearly everything else go. And still my body grew.

When the twins were born they weighed nearly eight pounds each. I had carried over 15 pounds of baby all the way to term. That evening I looked at them in their little hospital bassinets and thought, They’re people – two little people, and this felt like an epiphany. Having finally met them, they were no longer the squatters who had hijacked my body and colonized my existence. They would change my life – more than I could possibly imagine that long first night – but somehow I was certain that they wouldn’t destroy it. And I was right.

When my belly finally started to shrink from its Henry VIII proportions, I had to go shopping again. I had hoped that my first trimester clothes would fit my “fourth” trimester body, but instead of a high, firm baby bump I had a low slung cross between a brain coral and a yeast dough.   My early maternity clothes looked terrible, and my pre-pregnancy clothes were too small. I was back at wardrobe square one.

Once again, I hit the Gap, first online because I wasn’t getting out much, and then to a store with a grimly lit three-way mirror. Things didn’t look so good anymore.

I put on a pair of low rise jeans, and looked not like a muffin but an exploding popover. I tried a plain white tank top and felt like a Hooter’s waitress on an off day. I wriggled into a floral dress that was meant to invoke a breezy summer afternoon but conjured Eleanor Roosevelt instead. I felt like an idiot. Had I really imagined that my body would return to its former shape after all it had been through? In as much as I thought of it at all, yes, I had.

Welcome to being an American woman in the 21st century, I thought. An American woman who’s given birth. I felt like this for a while.

And then I started to feel differently about my new body. It started to become normal, to become mine. Not destroyed, but changed. I stopped cringing over my stomach and wincing away from mirrors. I focused more on the twin bodies I was caring for and on my own mind, thinking about things I might read or write, ways of living and plans for the future.

I also started to think about shopping differently. It has become a less casual action, one I take more care with. Now before I try on a pair of pants, I check the waistline. Now I have to work harder to accentuate and camouflage, to find things my body feels easy in, not confined or strained or ashamed: a v-neck instead of a crew, skinny jeans instead of boot-cut, a long linen tunic, a drop-shouldered swing t, an empire-waist dress made of voile instead of jersey.

I am already a new person as I try on that dress – I am a mother now. I am also still me, the me that reads and writes and walks and people-watches, the me I feared lost but was only waiting for the weight of pregnancy and all its foreboding to lift.

But I find that I am still shopping for answers: Where will I go in these new trappings? Who will I meet? What new life is about to unfurl before me? Who will I become from here?

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; Brain, Child; The Massachusetts Review; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; Brevity and elsewhere.  She is a nonfiction reader for r.kv.r.y quarterly and Reviews Editor at PANK.  You can read more of her work at www.randonbillingsnoble.com. This essay is an excerpt from the recently published anthology Spent: Exposing Our Complicated Relationship with Shopping edited by Kerry Cohen.

The Mouth of My Grave is Open

The Mouth of My Grave is Open

By Rachel Pieh Jones

non-muslim cemetary in djibouti1

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love Song to My Belly

Love Song to My Belly

WO Love Song to my Belly Art

By Goldberry Long

“My therapist is helping me make friends with my belly,” a fellow student had said back when we were in graduate school. She was beautiful, a former Las Vegas dancer, long-legged and flat-bellied and given to giggling. Once she gave a reading and giggled at the jokes in her story, her hands clasped behind her like a little girl, her chest out, her belly a good friend, flat and beautiful to behold. She rocked back on her heels, giggling. Rocked herself forward, giggling. She had it easy. Easy to be friends with such a friendly belly.

I was not friends with my belly, never had been. We were uneasy acquaintances, eyeing one another in the mirror, my belly a measure of my appetites, swelling; I turned to the side, balefully eyeing my belly, thought: I look pregnant. I was not. I dug in my fingers, Oh loaf of white bread, Oh unwanted blubber, Oh enormous failure. Under the fat I could feel the hard flat muscles of me.

Or the other, friendlier belly, sloping plain of white smooth skin down between the proud bones of my hips, triumph of beauty, exalted hollow, dearest. My belly was not my friend; my belly was my art project, my sculpture, my stubborn failure. It fought me, enemy mine. Eat, eat, eat, it said, and I fought back but in the end it always won, grew, ruined itself.

Thirteen, I stepped on a scale, and my mother said, “You better watch it!” I watched. I watched my mouth and for a month my mouth took in a only a daily egg, a daily orange, round pure foods, holy as communion, and my belly rewarded me, hipbones, the white plain, like Death Valley, the sand there.

Years passed, and I watched it, my belly, watched it wax and wane, exercising its tidal pull on me.

Lying beside my lover, he traced the curve of my waist, laid his hand on the smooth flat sands of my belly. This is my favorite part, he said, possessive. I preened, pleased. My belly growled. Later he called me a black hole. So true, said my belly. I can hold the universe, said my belly. Multitudes, it said. Stay empty, I told it. Stern.

My pregnant belly held a life, and this confused me. It was a stubborn enemy, a soldier for my child within me. My belly said, Eat, Eat, Eat, and I had to eat or be punished, on my knees in the living room, heaving bile. Every two hours I must eat, even up at night writhing with the pain of a starving woman — I won’t I won’t — but then I must; I am force-fed a banana at 3 am until the pain settles, the baby settles, my belly hums it to sleep, satisfied, pleased with itself. Thirty pounds in the first trimester, weeping in my midwife’s office: I’ll be one of those fat ladies who says, I used to be skinny until I had kids. My belly squeezed my liver, compressed my spleen, massaged my heart, pushed acid up my throat. Oh Belly, powerful, stubborn, furious belly.

I contain my belly and my belly contains my baby but it feels the other way around; I am trapped inside them both. There are no choices left to me. How many more months? I count them. How many more days? I count. How many hours? Countless.

And yet I love the baby. The baby inside the belly is the center of the universe. She is the one hot shining point of light from which all else radiates. There is no joy without the baby in my belly. A paradox. My enemy contains my life.

Thirty pounds, second trimester. Thirty pounds, third trimester. Round belly, hard, taut, and the life inside, writhing, kicking, squirming, beloved life—I can’t wait to get you out and hold you and therefore keep you safe, a delusion of grandeur; I know that in my belly you are safer than you ever will be in my arms, my daughter, my own: will you be friends with your belly?

In line at the coffee shop, I rest my palms on the high hard curve of my belly. There is no other sensible place for my hands. Captain, my captain, my belly. The baby kicks. They call it a kick, but it’s a slow turning, a whale, changing direction in the ocean of my belly.

And then I am a pebble, a grain of sand floating on an ocean of pain; I am only my belly and my belly is me and we are pain, and my belly howls at me: You see? You see?

And then they lay my daughter on my belly, my daughter still tethered to my belly, and I am her mother. She squirms and climbs my belly to my breast, and she eats, and eats, and eats.

I strap my daughter to my chest and for a long time no one can see my belly because my daughter is my belly.

My daughter walks at 10 months. Her belly thrust out proud. She giggles. She climbs high curbs. Her belly balances her. She strips herself naked, fondles her bellybutton, laughs. There is nothing in this world more beautiful than her body and its belly, the balance of her, the high fearless climbing that comes from her center, her very self, her belly.

We play bellybutton. That was where your belly was tied to mine, I tell her. Belly to belly. She nods, knowingly. Fingers her bellybutton. Possessive of it.

I run. I deny my body white things. White sugar, white flour, white potatoes, white rice, white pasta. My belly is once again the smooth sands of Death Valley, sloping from the proud bones of my hips. You’re so good, a friend says. I watch you, and you’re so good.

My belly asks why.

I lose the weight, but my belly wins. My belly, stretched, refuses solidity. It is fluid, with its traceries of silver, spilling over my waistband, sloshing to the side, galloping in its own rhythm as I run. My belly contains its multitudes. It doubles itself when I sit, triples when I bend. I cannot contain it.

There is another baby in my belly but that one dies inside me and for weeks I don’t know it until the doctor turns the screen toward me and lets me say it myself: There’s no heartbeat, I say. I ask my belly why. My belly has no answer. My belly, hollow, weeps blood.

My baby died, I tell my friend. My baby died, my baby died, my baby died. And then I feed my belly. Chocolate cake, red wine, potato chips, cookies, all of it. My belly sends it back. On my knees, on the floor, weeping, I think, Not enough. Bottomless pit.

My belly says, try again. My belly says, I have more for you. I contain multitudes. I contain the universe.

My daughter says, Mommy, why is your belly so wrinkly? Why is your belly so droopy? And mindful of the endless battle I wage, hoping to spare her, I say, My belly is beautiful. My belly says that it made you in there. It wrote you on my skin. Lies told to spare her. But my belly nods and jiggles its agreement. So true, it says.

And then there is my son. My belly, once again the fierce guardian. We make our bargain. Bananas at 3 am. Nine months measured in gains: 30 pounds, 35 pounds, 38 pounds, pain. The final gain, the prize, my boy.

My how he grows. He grows and he grows, and he lies beside me, cuddling, his hand on my belly. He sings it a love song: Juggly, juggly, juggly belly! I love your juggly belly! His hand makes it wobble, dance, sway between my hipbones, a sloshing mass, mud not sand, not smooth, wrinkled scars of the babies it bore, juggly belly. I want to be a bug, he says, so I can bounce on your belly! He inserts his finger in my deep hollow of bellybutton. I would live in here, he says. I would be safe and warm in here, in your belly.

I tell a friend, and she is horrified. Juggly! Oh no! Kids say the most terrible things! But no, I say, defending my son. I say, You have to understand. For my son, it is all joy. For him, what he feels is pure and good. My belly is the source of all comfort, all softness and warmth, all mother love. It is good. Saying this, I rest my hand on my belly, possessive. It fits neatly into my palm, as if they are made for each other, hand and belly. And then I know it is my belly I defend. My friend, my self, my belly.

Goldberry Long is the author of the novel, Juniper Tree Burning. Her second novel, O’Keeffe’s Girl, is under contract at Simon and Schuster. She teaches at University of California, Riverside.

Doctors’ Rounds

Doctors’ Rounds

By Anna Blackmon Moore

StethoscopeAbout five months after giving birth to my son Ian, I noticed muscle pain in the front of my pelvis—tight discs of soreness just above my thighs and just below my hipbones that I could not stretch out or massage away. If I sat for long periods, the pain intensified, and I was sitting a lot, nursing Ian and then letting him nap in my lap. I watched him loosen his lips from my nipple and drift into sleep, or drift into sleep with his mouth wide open and his lips still latched, or sigh into my skin and grow still. Rather than put him down for naps in his crib, I stretched more often and started jogging again, assuming the activity would loosen my joints and strengthen my muscles.

A few weeks later, after a short, easy run through the park, Ian and I had a typical Nurse-n-Nap. He suckled for forty-five minutes and fell asleep for an hour. When he woke up, I kissed his hands until he laughed, scooped him against my side, and rose from the recliner. My hip flexors burned. I could barely straighten. Playing with Ian on the living room rug became impossible—no more Roll the Shaky Ball or Let’s Stand Up.

I went to my doctor, a GP in her fifties. She often wore flowered skirts that resembled vintage aprons; I always pictured her in a kitchen doing domestic, motherly things. During my pregnancy, when she’d treated me several times for hemorrhoids, I asked if she had children. “Oh, yes,” she said, pulling off a Latex glove and stepping away from the exam table where I lay on my side. “Two teenagers. It’s sort of tough right now.”

When I described the pain in my hips, she suggested physical therapy.

“You don’t want to take an X-ray?” I asked.

“The usual protocol is physical therapy first, then an X-ray if it doesn’t help. And until we figure out what’s wrong…”—she pulled a pad of referral slips from the pocket of her white coat—”I’d definitely stop exercising.”

“But I barely go two miles. And I love jogging.” So do my flabby thighs. So does my depression, which I additionally placate with Prozac.

“Jogging is probably making things worse.” She filled out a referral slip. “Stop for now. Go to physical therapy, see what they say.”

The physical therapist thought it might be tendonitis.

“How would I get that?”

“I’m not sure,” she said. “Hip flexors are kind of a weird place for it. Any injuries, any accidents?”

“No.” I was in my underwear, lying face up on the treatment table, my legs and torso covered by a paper sheet.

“Are you still nursing?”

“Yeah.” By then, Ian was about seven months old, eating spinach and beans and squealing for yogurt, but he still nursed. Between the writing classes I taught during the week and throughout the day on weekends, Ian and I Nurse-n-Napped once in the morning and once in the afternoon. When he twitched or cried out in his sleep, I touched his head so he knew I was there.

“Nursing can have all kinds of effects on the body,” she said. “It might get better when you stop.”

I stared into the ceiling. My hips were throbbing. “God knows when that will be.”

She laughed and started circling the ultrasound probe over the sore spots in my hips. I asked if she had children.

“A boy and a girl,” she said. “Nine and twelve.”

She clicked off the console and massaged anti-inflammatory ointment into my hips with her thumbs.

I returned three times a week for ultrasound, massage, and ice packs. I started doing the exercises she recommended. The pain worsened. On my sixth visit, she was on vacation, so I saw one of her colleagues.

“I don’t think it’s tendonitis,” the colleague said. I was on my stomach, knees bent, soles of my feet to the ceiling. She told me to raise my right knee off the table.

“Ow!”

“That bad, huh?” She wore hiking boots and said she had an eight-year-old daughter. “Raise the other knee.”

I blew out a breath, tried to relax. “What is it?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “But you’re really weak, that’s for sure.”

I explained this new diagnosis to my therapist.

“That doesn’t make any sense.” She sat in her cushioned armchair, her legs crossed and her hands folded in her lap. I sat across from her. “You’ve exercised all your life.”

I pushed a throw pillow further down my back. Her couch was aggravating a new pain, deep in my tailbone. Sitting made it ache. Walking helped, but if I went more than half a mile my hips tightened to a burn. “I have an appointment with the acupuncturist tomorrow.”

She thought it might be bursitis. Throughout my pregnancy, the acupuncturist had treated me for hemorrhoids, anxiety, and the cavernous pressure of my son’s butt tucked beneath my right breast like an upside-down bowl. Sometimes I cupped my hand over his cheeks and patted them. Other times I pushed down on them to try and pop a few of my ribs.

“Between your bones and your tendons…”—she held up her hand as if holding a sandwich—”you have sacs of fluid called bursae. They can get inflamed. They can really hurt.”

I nodded.

“Have you had any accidents or injuries?” she asked.

“No.”

“Still nursing?”

I nodded.

“That might explain it,” she said. “Nursing puts a lot of stress on the body.”

“Nursing puts a lot of stress on the body,” my dermatologist told me the next day.

I had made an appointment to treat the dandruff that had started to shower my shirts. He was examining my scalp through a lighted magnifying glass the size of an eye. He had a slim moustache and slicked black hair, a father of five. He’d told me once that he loved having kids. I wondered if his wife did. I wondered which functions she had lost with five pregnancies, five cycles of nursing.

He rubbed a patch above my temple with his index finger. “This is seborrheic dermatitis. You know how infants get cradle cap?”

“Yes.” When Ian was only a few weeks old, I had scraped scales from his scalp while he stared blankly toward his rubber duck.

“Same thing,” he said. “It could be hormonal. Pregnancy and nursing can really change the skin.”

“All the energy in your body is going to feeding your child.” I was back at the acupuncturist’s, lying face up on the massage table with my pants off and a heat lamp warming my feet.

“Other areas of your body are lacking. They aren’t getting as much energy, as much blood, as they normally would.”

I stared at a sparkly, New Age mobile.

“You’re working too, aren’t you?” she asked. She was fifty but looked thirty—tall and strong. She swam a mile three times a week and had no children.

“I teach every day this semester.”

She tapped a needle into my right hip and rotated it until I winced. “You’re putting a lot of demands on your body,” she said.

After a few weeks of acupuncture and no exercise, the hip pain improved. I could walk up to a mile. The tailbone pain, however—a ball of it right on my coccyx—was at times excruciating, and my scalp continued to shed. The shampoo the dermatologist prescribed was $106, and insurance wouldn’t cover the cost. Rather than buy it, I was rubbing vitamin E oil into my scalp three times a week and scraping off the scales with dull nail scissors.

“Your body might never be the same,” said my psychiatrist, during a check-in appointment for a Prozac refill. She, too, was a mother. Her daughter was sixteen. They had just taken a vacation together, hiking and camping in the mountains. “It’s something you have to accept and work with.”

I started putting Ian in his crib for naps, which left him wailing and sobbing before he fell asleep to the music of his mobile. I sobbed, too, for a while—I missed his flesh, his thin, wheaten hair, the curve of his nostrils, the length of his blinks when he woke. But I persisted.

The tailbone pain did not subside, and the pain in my hips kept me from sleeping through the night.

“I would see a chiropractor,” said the acupuncturist. I was on my belly with my underwear hiked up so she could stick needles into the crown of my butt.

“But the problem isn’t in my back.”

“They’ve helped me a lot in the past.” She dimmed the lights and turned on the music—ocean sounds with a harp. “That’s what I would do. Get a ton of acupuncture and see a chiropractor.”

The chiropractor asked how much Ian weighed.

“Twenty pounds,” I said. She pulled on each of my feet to stretch my hips and then walked around the table to my head. Her hands smelled like soap. “He’s about nine months.”

“It can take up to two years before the stress on your skeletal frame gets better,” she said. “First you have him stretching out your ligaments”—she cupped her hands around her belly—”putting stress on your spine, and then you’re picking him up all the time.”

She clipped my X-rays onto the viewbox. I was crooked. My right hip was higher than my left, and my coccyx was curved slightly to the right like a shortened tail. I looked like I hadn’t quite evolved.

“It’s actually not that bad,” she said, standing next to the image. “There’s no sign of arthritis at all.”

“Thank God,” I said. I’d been having visions of incapacitation.

“But your spine is out of alignment, so your hips are out of whack. You need adjustments.”

I lay on my back. She twisted my hips to the left, crossed my arms over my chest, and leaned onto me.

“Take a deep breath.”

She pushed. Nothing. She pushed again. I had been grading papers all day, sitting on my ass. My tailbone was a rock.

“You win the Tight Award,” she said, standing. Her children were grown; her daughter shared her practice.

“I sit a lot,” I said. “But I’ve always been active. I don’t understand why my body is such a mess.”

“It’s not uncommon,” said the psychiatrist. “Women recover at different rates.”

“Nursing releases hormones,” said the dermatologist. “It puts a lot of stress on the body. It can have all kinds of effects on the skin.”

“When I was getting trained,” said the acupuncturist, “my teacher had a baby. After the birth, she stopped working. Her mother moved in and did everything. It was completely understood that her only job was to nurse her baby. That was it. But in this culture, we can’t do that.”

“It will get better,” said the chiropractor. She put her hand on my shoulder. “I promise. Be patient.”

“Have you considered waiting before you have another child?” asked the psychiatrist.

“I’m thirty-six,” I said. “I don’t want to change diapers and breastfeed when I’m forty.”

“You could still wait,” said the therapist. “You have a depressive condition. It can make everything harder.”

“Ian needs a buddy,” I said. “An ally.”

“You still have some time,” said the chiropractor.

“But I want to get it over with.”

“I don’t blame you,” said the acupuncturist.

“How’s the physical therapy going?” asked the doctor.

“We can do whatever you want,” said the husband. He was lying on his back, lifting our son into the air. They were both laughing, balloons full of joy. Chris put Ian down on the living room rug and tossed his blocks into the playpen, high up into the air, one at a time. Ian watched the blocks spin and laughed again—loud roils of delight that made his belly shake while he heaved for air.

When Ian laughs, strangers laugh back. Despair retreats.

“Let’s get it over with,” I said. I was sitting on the sofa watching them, tightening and releasing my buttocks. Trying to straighten my tail.

“Having another kid is worth wrecking your body?” Chris watched as Ian reached for his tambourine, wrapped his fingers around the frame, and put a jingle to his mouth.

“Yes.”

Chris looked at me, his hand resting on Ian’s foot. “Are you serious?”

I held out my left hand, let it droop, and shook it out. Holding Ian against my side all the time had caused some swelling; my wrist and thumb were growing rigid. I curled and straightened my fingers, tightened and released my ass, rubbed my right hip, scratched my head. Ian shook the tambourine and made a new sound.

“Yes,” I said. “Definitely.”

Author’s Note: While I have gotten treatment and relief from the tailbone problem, my hips are about the same, and Ian has been weaned for more than four months. A friend recently decided that I have Iliotibial Band Syndrome, which usually affects people in the knees. I have started lifting weights to strengthen my quads, which might help, at least until I become pregnant again.  

Anna B. Moore has essays and fiction in The American Scholar, Shenandoah, Native Peoples Magazine, and many other journals.  She lives in Northern California and is currently working on a novel.

Brain, Child (Spring 2007)

Sounds Like a Plan

Sounds Like a Plan

By Rebecca O’Connell

Sounds Like a Plan_WI07Dr. O, My OB-GYN, called to say that the plan was illegal in Pennsylvania, where I live, but it was legal elsewhere. Not only that, but it was the very best source of organs for sick babies, since the organs would be new and strong and free of disease. He was expecting a call back from a transplant specialist; the specialist would find out where we could implement the plan.

I thanked him. It was his idea, but I was completely on board. I wasn’t so sure about my husband, but I figured I could convince him.

I was carrying a twelve-week-old fetus with anencephaly: no skull. I’d seen the ultrasound the day before. It was very clear. There were its little legs, its arms, its bright-white spinal cord, and there was its brain: exposed, naked, all the whorls and swirls plainly visible.

Well, I thought, we can make him a helmet. I’ll knit him a nice, wooly hat to cover it up. We’ll replace it as he grows. We’ll manage. He’ll be fine.

But I was telling myself a story. The truth of the matter dawned on me, even as I visualized the cap I would knit my baby: No one can live without a skull.

The doctor performing the ultrasound confirmed it. No, the baby could not live outside the womb. No, the pregnancy was not likely to end spontaneously.

“Well, then, what am I supposed to do? What do people do?” I asked. Screamed, kind of.

The doctor patted my shoulder. The ultrasound tech gave me a Kleenex. “The counselor will be in to speak with you,” she murmured.

I’m sure the counselor was warm and responsive, but I have no idea what she said. I think her main job at that point was to hand me things—a box of tissues, a paperback book called Empty Arms: Coping with Miscarriage, Stillbirth and Infant Death, another box of tissues when I’d used up the first one, a four-by-three-inch glossy print of my ultrasound. This last item she procured for me after repeated requests. “I don’t want to seem morbid,” I explained over and over, “I just want to have something to show my husband.”

My husband was at work that morning. He’d already taken time off to go with me to the ultrasound at five weeks, the one I’d had after some scary early bleeding and a blood test indicating low hCG. He’d been there for the one at six weeks, at which they’d seen a heartbeat after all, and after which we’d gone out to Ritter’s Diner for a huge waffles-and sausage-and-eggs-and-orange-juice breakfast. He’d come to the one at ten weeks, when I was supposed to get the CVS test, but didn’t. A CVS (chorionic villus sampling) test can detect the same fetal abnormalities as an amniocentesis, only earlier; my doctor had postponed it because the fetus was too small.

Small, but still within normal range, so I wasn’t worried. I’d seen the heartbeat. I’d seen the fetus whirling around on the ultrasound screen. I’d had a little bit of morning sickness, and my jeans were tight at the waist. Things were fine. I could go in on my own at twelve weeks for the CVS. I could drive myself home afterwards. My husband had missed enough work. There was no need for him to come with me to this appointment.

The counselor gave me the picture, along with what I perceived to be a look of incomprehension. Was it weird that I wanted a picture of my doomed baby? The Victorians did that all the time. But my memento mori was an ultrasound, printed in a medical complex offering some of the most up-to-the-minute healthcare in the country. My request must have seemed incongruously nineteenth-century in that technologically advanced setting.

I left the office with the picture, the book, a half a box of tissues, and instructions to call Dr. O.

But first, I toted everything over to my husband’s workplace. There was no privacy in his office, and it was too cold to stand outside, so we had a brief, surreal conversation in the car. We agreed: It didn’t make sense to us to carry to term a baby with no chance of survival. We’d have to terminate the pregnancy.

My husband and I are both prochoice. We give money to Planned Parenthood and support NARAL-endorsed candidates, but my husband was raised in an anti-choice culture. In fact, I’d briefly considered breaking up with him in college, when we’d been talking about a pro-choice rally on campus, and he’d said, “I’m not sure how I feel about that issue.” He’d come around, though, had married himself a Feminist, and gotten her knocked up. But I thought he’d still been a little squeamish when I’d insisted on having the CVS.

“I’m pretty unconflicted about this,” I’d told him. “I don’t want to raise a child who has a severe disability. If the test comes back abnormal, I’ll terminate the pregnancy.” He’d agreed, but the conversation had left him looking like he needed to throw up.

Now, our worst-case scenario had come true.

But that was before we’d ever heard of the plan.  I went home and called Dr. O.

“Can you come in? Right away?”

It had taken me months to get an initial appointment for my pre-trying-to-conceive physical exam, so the prospect of getting to see Dr. O immediately, right now, that very afternoon was intoxicating. Even though I thought all he was going to do was give me the name of the doctor who would terminate the pregnancy, I hurried right over.

“Now, I bring this up not to try to influence you in any way, but just to give you another perspective,” said Dr. O when I arrived for my spur-of-the-moment appointment.

If I carried the pregnancy to term, the baby would not live long, but its organs would be healthy and strong. Dr. O counted out the list of strong and healthy organs: A heart.  A liver.  Two kidneys. Two lungs. That’s six organs, six lives that could be saved if I carried this baby to term. My baby could save six lives; my baby could be a hero.

That “could be a hero” phrase might seem a little bit manipulative, but I don’t think that’s how he meant it, and at the time, I barely heard it. All I heard was a plan. There was an out. There was a way I could stay pregnant. I could grow organs for harvest.

Dr. O wasn’t sure that the local transplant program did this sort of operation. He gave them a call, while I watched and listened and blew my nose. He got the answering machine.

We discussed logistics while we waited for a call back. I wondered how they would get the organs out of my anencephalic baby in time to transplant them. They couldn’t take the organs until my baby was dead, but once my baby had died, the organs wouldn’t be good anymore. “Could I have a scheduled C-section? Could they do the C-section in the transplant hospital, so that the minute my baby was done with them, the organs could be put right into the recipients, without wasting any time?”

Yes, Dr. O assured me, that could be done. He could even give me steroids to speed up my baby’s growth, so instead of waiting another twenty-six to twenty-eight weeks to have the C-section, we could possibly have it in as little as twenty-four.

But what about my son, the one who was four years old, almost five? How could I explain it to him? He would be sure to notice my growing belly. He would know something was up. What could I say? Yes, Mommy is going to have a baby, but the baby is going to die. It’s very sad, but there’s a happy part, too. Your little brother or sister’s heart, lungs, kidneys and liver will go on living in other babies’ bodies.

My son didn’t know I was pregnant. Except for my husband and my friend Cathy, no one did. I was thirty-seven years old. This pregnancy had been planned; this baby had been wanted, but I was cautious, too. I knew that, elderly woman that I was, my chances of having a baby with a genetic abnormality were pretty good: one in one hundred, or something like that. We had decided not to mention the pregnancy to anyone until the CVS results were in. The bleeding, the early ultrasound showing an empty gestational sac, and other reminders of my advanced maternal age reinforced our decision to keep mum, and by twelve weeks in, we still hadn’t told anyone else.

But I’d picked out some names, and I’d found a really cute pickles-and-ice-cream pattern I was going to use on the email announcement once we were ready to share our joyous news. I’d been reading my son lots of picture books about new siblings or the miracle of reproduction, starring litters of kittens, puppies and bunnies.

“Well,” said Dr. O, “how much do you remember from when you were five?”

A lot. I remember my kindergarten. I remember my cats. I remember my sister very clearly. I remember that I wasn’t crazy about her, but I don’t have any trouble remembering her existence. I remember my mother going away to the hospital, my grand- mother coming to stay, my newborn sister coming home and sleeping on my lap on the big orange sofa. And when all that happened, I was much younger than five. If my son found out about the baby and the plan, there was no way he wouldn’t remember it.

“And once he’s old enough to understand, think how proud he’ll be of you,” said Dr. O.

“I’ll ask my husband,” I told him. I thought my husband would probably go for it. I knew, deep down, my husband thought abortion was murder. He would be as thrilled as I was to find out we didn’t have to have one.

“Are you religious?” Dr. O asked. My name is O’Connell, but my face is more like Abrams, Levine, Rabinowitz. You don’t need very sensitive Jewdar to pick up on my Hebraic ancestry, and Dr. O’s Jewdar was state-of-the-art. “Because there is such a thing as shalom bais, a peaceful home.” He gave me a mini-lecture about Judaism and the domestic sphere, the essence of which I took to be that while it would be preferable for me not to have an abortion, it was not worth wrecking my marriage over. If my husband was dead-set against the plan, we shouldn’t do it.

He was. My husband and I have been married for fourteen years, about twelve of them in couples’ therapy. Okay, well, maybe not twelve, but a lot. We’ve been on the brink of divorce more than once, sometimes for years at a time, which is not to say it is an unhealthy relationship. Rather, it’s a relationship between people who have had a lot of practice having discussions.

Once Dr. O and I realized the transplant hospital might be a long time calling back, I went home.

I had just finished debriefing my husband when Dr. O called back. I told him my husband was still on the fence.

“No, I’m on the other side of the fence,” my husband said.

I told Dr. O I’d call him back.

I presented my husband with my case. “Either way, our baby is going to die,” I argued. “If I carry the pregnancy to term, at least its organs can help other babies live.”

I imagined another mother, somewhere, holding her newborn, knowing that, without a donor, her baby would die. We could prevent that. All I had to do was carry my baby to term.

“And have a C-section,” my husband pointed out. It was major abdominal surgery, not without risk, not easy to recover from.

“I know what a C-section is like.” I’d had one with my son. It was miserable, but the whole thing was miserable. A little more misery on top would hardly even be noticeable. And if it resulted in something good, some baby getting a heart or a lung or a kidney or a liver, it would be worth it.

“You don’t have to be a martyr.”

This was from my mother. The conversation had gone from our kitchen to my parents’ living room. My son watched TV down the hall while my family tried to talk me out of the plan.

My dad nodded in agreement with my mom. There is nothing my family loathes more than martyrs. My raised-Catholic husband has a different understanding of the term martyr. To him, a martyr is holy, a person who gives of herself, who suffers for a higher purpose. To us, a martyr is someone who suffers for glory. Oh, that’s all right. Don’t worry about me. You go ahead. I didn’t want to go anyway. I’ll just stay here and clean the grout around the bathtub.

“I won’t be a martyr,” I explained. “I’ll be really low key. I’ll wear baggy clothes. If anyone does notice I’m pregnant, I’ll change the subject.”

“But you would still have to travel at nine months pregnant to God-knows-where this scheme is legal; and leave your son for days and days; and have your baby only to watch it die. You’re my little girl. I don’t want tosee you go through that.” I had answers to all their objections. As in my helmet-beneath-the-knitted-cap story, everything in the transplant-plan story would work out fine. Sure, I’d be uncomfortable; sure, it would be hard onmy young son. But it would be worth it.

Anyway, I didn’t have a choice. I was obligated. If you have a chance to save a life, isn’t it your moral responsibility to do so? I had to carry this baby to term so its organs could be transplanted. It was the only reasonable, responsible thing to do.

And besides, I’d never even gotten to feel the baby move yet. Four more weeks, maybe five, and I’d be feeling the baby kicking in there, flipping like a fish. Each little flip would remind me of all those other babies, the potential organ recipients who would take my baby’s organs and keep them alive for years and years.

Why didn’t my family get that? Didn’t they love this baby as much as I did?

I looked at their faces one by one—my husband, my mother, my father. They didn’t look like abortion-promoters. They looked like sad, shocked old people. They looked like sad, shocked, compassionate old people who regretfully acknowledged that terminating this pregnancy was the right thing to do.

My Husband was against the plan. My parents were against the plan. Maybe they knew something I didn’t. And even if they didn’t, even if they were wrong, at least they were resolute.

Dr. O referred me to Dr. T, another OB-GYN. Dr. T explained about anencephaly. Somehow, I’d thought it meant that my baby was normal and healthy in every way, just without the skull. That’s not what it means. Anencephalic babies are missing the top parts of their brains. If I did carry my baby to term, it might be hours or days before brain stem activity and respiration ceased. By that time, the organs would likely have deteriorated; they would no longer be usefulfor transplant.

That’s why the plan was illegal in Pennsylvania—and most other places. For the transplant plan to work, the organs need to be harvested before respiration ceases. This is theoretically possible because anencephalics are born in a vegetative state. But practically speaking, there are many ethical and medical obstacles to transplanting the organs of anencephalics.

Dr. O may have exaggerated the plan’s viability and minimized its liabilities, but if he had planted false hope, I had tended and watered it.

I had the abortion in the same hospital where I’d seen the ultrasound, the same hospital where I’d had my little boy. It didn’t hurt. I was asleep throughout the procedure. When I woke up, the nurses brought me cranberry juice and crackers. They told me my hair looked nice. Nobody called me a baby killer. No one even implied it. One nurse told me she had had the same operation. Another gave me information about a support group, Unexpected Choices, for people who had decided to terminate a pregnancy when they found out it was genetically abnormal.

Anencephaly isn’t caused by a genetic abnormality. It is a form of spina bifida, something supplemental folic acid has been shown to reduce.

“I took my folic acid. I took it even before I was pregnant,” I told my husband. I told Dr. O. I told the nurses, and Dr. T, and the counselor, and my parents, and my friend Cathy. But maybe I had missed a day. I’d taken the folic acid, but not the multivitamin. I’d had coffee. I’d stood near the microwave. I’d had a sinus infection and fever around week five.

“It’s not your fault,” they told me.

And, “I’m here if you need anything.”

And, “It will get better. Just take it day by day.”

My husband doesn’t want to try for another baby. He never wants to go through anything like this ever again. And besides, we already have a beautiful, healthy, smart, funny, wonderful little boy. Our family is complete.

I can’t disagree.

But I’m taking my folic acid every day. Just in case.

Author’s Note: It has been almost a year since the procedure. A few weeks ago, I started feeling nauseated in the morning. I wasn’t pregnant. I think it was my body’s way of making a sorrowful anniversary. In a more constructive way of commemorating the sad events of last year I joined the National Marrow Donor Program, www.marrow.org.

Rebecca O’Connell lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, son and two cats.

Brain, Child (Winter 2007)

Still Pregnant

Still Pregnant

By Susan Vaughan Moshofsky

white lily

“Aunt Susan, are you still pregnant?” my four-and-a-half year-old niece, Elena, asks. Her clear, blue eyes reveal no understanding of the seriousness of her question. I wonder this every day. Am I still pregnant? Is the baby’s heart still beating? Will it beat tomorrow? Will I hold this baby, or only see its form floating on a cold, black ultrasound screen, the ghostly white figure preserved as still as a photo, like the baby we lost a few months before Elena was born?

I’m working as hard as I can to prepare not to have a baby. At least it seems that way. I wear baggy clothes, so people won’t guess. Overweight by more than just a few pounds, I just look fat. With my ample bust line, it will take at least another month before baby outpaces boobs, so I can still hide it. What if I lose this baby, too? I don’t want my grief to be that public, again.

We haven’t told anyone except family and very close friends. What am I waiting for? The magic moment when I can stop worrying? My doctor says the magical point is when I’m in her office for my six-week, post-delivery appointment, holding the baby. Will I hold this child? What if, I think?

Since the plus sign popped up on that seventh pregnancy test strip, I’ve kept a list of the few people we have told. That way, if something goes wrong, I’ll know whom to call. On the rare occasion I break protocol and tell someone, I add that name to my list. We weren’t planning to tell Rachel, our 10 ½ year-old, this soon, but her propensity for walking into the bathroom unannounced, and the heparin injections I have to give myself make it impossible to keep the secret any longer. Seeing your mother shooting her bulging tummy with a needle would be scary. Seeing my bruised belly, a patchwork of dark blue, violet, and light green blotches, would be even worse. I don’t want her to think I’m a junkie or a chemotherapy patient.

One morning, I shoot the heparin in my belly, but the precious, clear liquid, prescribed but not guaranteed to prevent pregnancy loss, seems to leak right back out. Panicked, I call the perinatologist. “The abdominal tissues are saturated. Use your upper thigh. Perfectly normal,” is the reply. I want this baby, so my thighs will be next to turn black and blue. I’d shoot the heparin in my face if it would help.

I’m tired of trying to hide it. I want to be happy, embrace the joy, really expect this child. But eight years of secondary infertility and two pregnancy losses—one late-term—have made me so careful, so guarded. I wonder if I’ll stop worrying in another couple of weeks, when I can hope to feel the baby move. To get some reassurance, I visit my patient-as-Job doctor’s office once a week to hear the heartbeat. I go in for monthly ultrasounds to check for growth retardation, a sign that things are going south, like last time. I shoot myself twice a day with the heparin, hoping it works.

The nurse, Sandy, checks the heartbeat each week before I see the doctor. This week, Sandy is on vacation, so I see someone new, an older woman. “So, how are we feeling?” she croons. “What do you want?”

I stare at her. What kind of question is that? My eyebrows knit together in puzzlement.

“Boy, or girl?” she asks, smiling.

I freeze. Who cares? Hasn’t she looked at my chart? “I just want a live baby,” I answer, gulping air to keep from choking up. I realize with a catch in my throat that this baby may kick and hiccup in utero sooner than I think. That’s when I’ll really believe that he or she might make it. Until then, in between weekly visits, I poke my bruised belly every so often, hoping to elicit some evidence that the baby is still alive, hoping for that kick to reassure me.

I know I need to go on with normal life as much as possible, in between heparin injections, doctor visits, and hours of worry. My doctor says it’s okay to go camping with my husband’s sister and her friends—as long as I take it easy, don’t lift over ten pounds, and keep up with the injections. “You need to stop worrying so much. It’ll be good for you and your family to get away,” she reassures me.

Squatting on the air mattress in our tent, trying to stabilize myself on the unsteady surface, I figure out how to give myself the shots. Kind of like starting an IV in a raft on the ocean. I have to get my husband to hold the flashlight at night, as it’s too much to handle. It works okay, but I finally ease up on my privacy issues the second day and go to the camp bathroom, using a stall just for the stability of the floor. The camping trip is a success, but I don’t stop worrying. I can’t.

At the next doctor appointment, it’s time for a urine sample. Something of a milestone to get this far in the pregnancy. I’m wearing an off-white, cotton knit maternity dress I wore when I was pregnant with Rachel, but not during the other pregnancies. A good-luck charm. I pick up the plastic cup after providing the sample and reach down to smooth the front of my dress. My clumsy gesture jostles the cup, spilling the contents down the middle of my dress. I panic. It’s July. I have no jacket or sweater I can artfully drape across the obvious stain. What will I do? I haven’t seen the doctor yet, so I have no choice but to walk back to the waiting room sporting a bright yellow stain down the front of my white dress! Fabulous. Then I recall my doctor’s comment that pregnant women are often clumsy with their growing girth. I am pregnant. Still pregnant. I’m so happy to be pregnant, still, this moment, that all I can do is laugh at my yellow badge of courage.

What stories I’ll have to tell this child, I hope. Will I? Living with a high-risk pregnancy is like being strapped to a train track at the Y in the track. Who knows which way the train will go?

Susan Vaughan Moshofsky is a mother, teacher, and writer who lives with her family of five in Portland. Her work has appeared in Brain, ChildHuffington PostThe Oregonian, and Seattle’s Child.

Not Pregnant

Not Pregnant

 

NotPregnant-1

When I got married, I was shocked at how quickly people started asking me when I was going to have a baby. And when I did have a baby a few years later, I expected a fairly lengthy reprieve from all the pregnancy speculation. But I soon discovered that the window between giving birth to a baby and when people expect you to start on another is vanishingly short.

Almost worse than the embarrassingly direct, “When are you having another baby?” are the little nods and nudges. “Is that water you’re drinking [WINK WINK]?” If I had a dollar for every time someone has accused me of being pregnant in the year since my son was born, I could buy a lot of negative pregnancy tests—and not just the cheap ones, the really nice digital kind.

The thing is, though, I’ve still got nearly a decade of fertility ahead of me and I’m already sick of telling people when I’m not pregnant. And I’m guessing I’m not alone. So, for you budding fertility detectives out there, here’s a handy list of things that non-pregnant women of child-bearing age also do:

1. Throw up. I blame the media for this one. While it’s true that every time a woman on television or in the movies vomits it’s because she’s pregnant, in real life, this is not quite the reliable pregnancy indicator it’s cracked up to be. Just like men, children and post-menopausal women, non-pregnant women of child-bearing age sometimes get the stomach flu. This is especially true for those of us who already have a kid or two. When I take my son to the library for story time, I have to weigh the amount of fun we’ll have against the possibility that he’ll bring home some infectious disease that I thought had been eradicated in developed nations. In any case, the appropriate response to your friend saying, “I was up all night puking my guts out,” is “That sucks,” not “ZOMG! Are you pregnant????”

2. Drink water. Let’s say you’re out to dinner with a group of girlfriends. The drink menu makes the rounds and your waiter comes to take orders. Instead of a grapefruiterita or a cosmotonic, your pal says she’ll just have water. Before you jump to the conclusion that she’s gestating, consider these possible alternatives. Perhaps she’s driving home later and doesn’t want to risk being mildly tipsy. Maybe she hit the hooch a little too hard the previous weekend and is still in recovery. It’s possible that she wants a fruity drink later, but doesn’t think orange juice will mix well with the beef bourguignon she ordered. Or maybe she just feels like having a glass of water. In any case, this is probably not good evidence that your pal is pregnant. Sorry.

3. Pass on the sushi. Although this may seem like airtight evidence that your friend is knocked up, it’s probably best to keep that speculation to yourself for now. Some people just don’t like the taste, texture, or even the idea of raw fish. I was once the subject of a pregnancy investigation because I passed up a tray of warm tuna tartar that had been sitting around for more than an hour. Spoiler: I wasn’t pregnant, I just didn’t want to end up with Anisakiasis. Trust me, you don’t either.

4. Choose decaf. I know that steam coming off her decaf latte makes it seem like a smoking gun, but non-pregnant women of child-bearing age do sometimes choose decaf for reasons that don’t involve her uterus. She may be worried about getting to sleep later, or already be wired up from the three cups she had before you met. In any case, treating her decaf latte like it’s an ultrasound photo on Facebook is likely to leave you swallowing your words.

5. Gain weight. Science has proven that you don’t have to be pregnant in order to put on a few pounds. In fact, the burrito I had for lunch weighs more than a fetus at 22 weeks. Just because your friend’s jeans are fitting a little tighter than the last time you saw her doesn’t mean there’s a bundle of joy on the way. And here’s a pro tip from one lady to another: most people don’t like to have their little weight fluctuations pointed out to them. If you can stand the suspense, keep your pregnancy conjecture to yourself.

Of course, this doesn’t even touch on the reality that we can’t always know what’s going on in the lives of our friends. Maybe the woman in question actually is pregnant, but worries about spreading the news too soon. She might even have a very valid reason to worry that her pregnancy might not be viable. Or she could be experiencing infertility or have suffered a recent miscarriage. For many women, constant reminders that they aren’t pregnant aren’t just annoying—they can be downright cruel.

These family-building years are fun and exciting and I know that the inferences and guesses most often come from a good place. But that doesn’t mean they are a good idea. The next time your friend passes on the beer and has a soda instead, try to ignore it. Just enjoy your time together and feel confident that if she ever does have news of a pregnancy to share with you, when she’s ready to talk about it, she will!

Aubrey Hirsch is the author of Why We Never Talk About Sugar. Her work has appeared widely in print and online You can learn more about her at www.aubreyhirsch.com or follow her on Twitter: @aubreyhirsch

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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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.

 

 

Secret Baptisms and Other Forgivable Sins

Secret Baptisms and Other Forgivable Sins

By Monica Crumback

secretbaptimsMy daughter recently carried home that common curse of the preschooler—the fever virus. This made for a rough week and one particularly trying night. That evening, after doses of ibuprofen, she remained wet-headed, scarlet-cheeked, and pie-eyed with incomprehension. Her pink princess pajamas were wilted and sticky. My husband and I followed the temperature-taking schedule, and we planned for awful contingencies in worried whispers. When, at long last, we poured our sodden, spent girl into bed, I told her I’d ask Jesus to make her better. On hearing that, David’s eyes grew as wide as our daughter’s.

Although the face of a famous, long-haired bearded guy hangs in a state of perpetual laughter just above our daughter’s bed, our little house rather distinctly lacks a direct line to his ear. In truth, we’d never thought to have one connected. It’s not that we’re not good people, decent people, moral people, Christian … well, I guess we can’t claim that last one. Until we had Sophia, this was barely a point of consciousness for us.

Very early in my pregnancy, my mother-in-law gave me the gift of a hooded baby towel. It was lovely and soft and yellow. We didn’t know yet if Sophia was to be herself or our would-have-been boy, Henry. My mother-in-law is etiquette-savvy and always quite carefully appropriate in matters like color-to-gender agreement. She was also, on this day, careful to tuck a tiny pamphlet (brochure? mini-manifesto?) on raising one’s child in Christ into the fold of the towel. I remember seeing it, discreetly pretending not to have seen it, and covering it again with great haste. Oh my, I thought. Already?

In fairness to my mother-in-law, she had already cut me a good deal of slack in the Christ-Her-Lord category. When I met David at a Lutheran college, I was in the infancy of my feminism. He was studying to be a pastor. As our relationship became serious, we reconsidered our circumstances and remade our choices. We were still very nice young people when we left, just a lot more liberal and a lot less Lutheran.

We were married three years later before a judge. Four years after that, David became a lawyer. The transition was jarring for his mother in some ways but not so bad in others. Sure, a pastor for a son may seat you closer to the altar, but a lawyer impresses the ladies at the potluck. So slack was cut—until we had Sophia.

She was born in the usual way—meaning a horrible, extended, botched, vacuum-assisted hospital delivery. Her reception by grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends was also standard in its statements of joy and its pronouncements of her being a miracle. I accepted all of this and even agreed. Babies, before they become sleep-depriving, nipple-biting, in-hair-puking monsters, seem quite miraculous indeed, even to a skeptic like me. We named her Sophia Bella, and it seemed to stick well enough without the meeting of water with forehead.

Well enough for us, that is. As I have since learned, once a baby emerges from one’s vagina, she enters not just the world but a family, lying in wait. Ah, sweet child, may the wind be always at your back.

We brought our baby home. She grew and thrived. Sure, David and I were both working at least two jobs apiece, but Sophia was warm, clean, and clothed (color-appropriately, I feel moved to add). I was breastfeeding to the absolute exclusion of bottles (she refused to take one). Months passed.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, secret discussions commenced amongst the female contingent of my husband’s family. By all measures, we were doing right by Sophia physically. But what about her soul? They may have even said her immortal soul. I don’t have a transcript to reference. The exact wording doesn’t really matter. What they proposed to do, according to our well-placed in-law source, was baptize our child behind our backs. Yikes and Holy Shit indeed (even though they would really mind my saying that). The heathen mother is always the last to know.

The news that a clandestine sprinkling had been in the works came to me secondhand via my angry husband, and the fury that immediately overtook me was, well … Biblical in scale. I think I was angry mostly because I should have seen it coming. There had been clues. My husband had, after all, been studying to be a pastor in no small part to please his mother with whom he had always had a complicated relationship. Sophia’s yellow towel had, after all, come with a pamphlet directing us steeple ward for guidance. Up until this point, we had been, to our minds, indulgent of their many hints and nudges meant to get us back to God. When his aunt presented us with a beautiful, if entirely inappropriate, handmade christening gown, I believe we even succeeded in passing off our stunned silence as speechless awe. We had been told she was buying us a swing. A secret baptism, though? I mean, Jesus!

It’s not as if my husband and I had never thought of baptism. This was way too sticky a subject to have simply slipped our minds. Growing up as we did in families that practiced Christianity—to varying degrees—we still spun toward it when the going got harrowing. That’s exactly where I’d been spun by exhaustion and a raging case of oh-God-no the night of my daughter’s fever. My pious promise to Sophia surprised my husband. We are often amused at this ability of ours to be born again and then perish (so to speak) in five minutes flat. We find these moments to be seldom and fleeting and fun. They probably also point to the inappropriateness of either or both of us ever having thought of entering a parsonage.

But the thought of that secret baptism was in no way amusing. After all the years of treading lightly through a fraught relationship with David’s family, this was the moment when it all collapsed, when we couldn’t help but think our position as parents was in danger of being usurped. The night we found out, I watched David pacing the floor, saying, “This is it” over and over again with deep conviction and watery eyes. I stayed mostly silent, slouched on the couch, chin in hand. I had little left to say; I’d run out of bravado. That was the worst moment, thinking about their disregard for our wishes for Sophia, the disrespect for our skills as her parents, and the betrayal of our beliefs in how to raise her.

The next day, we were all over the place. Being too weary at breakfast, we didn’t even bring it up. By lunchtime, though, we had revived and were having a good laugh, picturing the family matrons gathered around a mixing bowl in the dark with our daughter, a shameless pastor, and a teaspoon full of water. But then dinner rolled around, and we were back at “This is it.” “It” as in “They will never lay eyes on our girl again!”

And then, right before bedtime, we watched Sophia as she listened to her grandparents’ voices on the phone. She was beaming and squealing and, well, loving them.

Well, damn it.

But could we just let this slide? Could we, really, when there was already so much residual tension over our having jumped off the pastoral track and gotten married in a courtroom instead of a church? Or would there now be open bitterness and derision between us and people we loved and who we knew loved us and our new daughter? People we had always known we had disagreements with? No. It would be a lie to say that we never thought of using this last straw as a fuse, enabling us to finally blow apart a difficult relationship. We did think about it, but we could never quite bring ourselves to light it. As uncertain as I am about where I stand in relation to Christianity or what it represents, I am positive about where I stand in regard to going through life with suspicion and malice.

My dad’s parents died long before I was born, so I always had only the one set of grandparents. I’m sure my mom’s parents did their best, but they couldn’t be four people. Sophia had the full complement, and I wanted her to know them all. She was a lucky girl. Really, I still thought so. And so did my husband, who was carrying a lot of heavy love for every single person in the wretched scenario. Besides, try as we might, we couldn’t imagine an instance in which saying, Just where the hell do you get off? would make us better parents. So we didn’t say it.

As far as I knew, David’s mother had no idea that we were wise to her scheming-for-salvation ways—and still hasn’t. They don’t really make a pamphlet that says, So you were thinking of secretly baptizing my child, huh?—nor is there really an appropriate occasion on which to hand her a towel with said pamphlet tucked inside. With no subtle way to tell her to back off, we simply chose not to.

Even so, I will admit that this isn’t exactly a bygone. My husband and I simply limit our rants, which are more seldom of late, to our own private audience of two. Of course, there is a slight chance that someone in the extended family may find out we know about The Plan. If that is the case, I will say simply, Yes, we know, and when will we see you next for dinner?

Our way of coping was to make our choices and stick by them. While we’re not ashamed of the clay we come from, we of little faith still revel in our freedom to choose different, fresher, more philosophical, and less sanctified material from which to form our daughter. Sophia is four years old now, and, yes, a print of Jesus hangs in her room. It had been a gift from David to his grandmother, a deeply religious woman, to help her through the death of her husband. When she died, it was returned to us, and Sophia asked to have it in her room.

Why not? Our little girl understands Jesus as living in the sky and loving her and everyone else. She understands much the same about the Buddha, Allah, and Vishnu, to name just a few. She has passed long hours in her short life flipping through her father’s old religion texts to admire the big, bright pictures. Nowadays, this activity often brings up questions that combined sound like this: Why is he crying or dying, blue or bleeding, wearing that or naked, glowing or burning? We answer when we know and consult the text when we don’t. This is good enough for now. We are doing our best to give her a childhood filled with choices. Later, she’ll be at liberty to add her own finer details, like churches and sacraments, whatever her development and tastes should indicate. And while we can’t predict later, we will always tell her that she is loved, loved, loved. And that love, even when it stumbles, presumes, and conspires, is itself divine.

Author’s Note: A while ago, during a visit with his parents, David and I inadvertently overheard his aunt telling his mother that she had missed an opportunity to “get Sophia to church.” She had been on speakerphone when she said it, obviously not realizing that we were there, too. David quickly boomed a “Hello!” to his aunt. The subsequent look between him and his mother might have been hilarious had it not been so painful.

To the best of my knowledge, Sophia remains unbaptized to this very day. This is something I am neither proud nor ashamed of—it’s a mere fact. Her dad and I agree that should she one day choose to be baptized, we’ll be there, front pew center. I’ll even leave a space for her grandmother.

Monica Crumback lives in Michigan with her husband, daughter, and three cats.

Brain, Child (Winter 2008)

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What The Living Do

What The Living Do

By Emily Rapp

BC_FA2013_Final_layout“Is this your first baby?” Any woman who is visibly pregnant has likely been asked this question by strangers in the grocery store line, other expecting women at the doctor’s office, random passersby in the street.

Pregnant women are often asked deeply personal questions in public: if this is our first child; how far along in our pregnancies we are; if we’re having a boy or a girl; if we have a name picked out. However indelicate these questions might seem, to some degree they make sense. Pregnant bodies are a visible symbol of life andgrowth. People like to engage with women who are expecting to give birth to another human being, which is itself a way of altering the progress of time, of literally changing the world by bringing into it a new life and new possibilities.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I loved answering these questions. As a woman with an artificial leg, I have had a problematic relationship with my body for most of my life, and was accustomed to fielding questions like “what happened to you?” I was well acquainted with our culture’s prurient interest in bodies that are considered “different” or “strange” or “wrong.” When I was pregnant with my son, I felt that my body was doing something right and good in the world; “what happened to me” was no longer an incident of limb loss that required an in-depth explanation. Instead, I was about to be amother. I finally felt normal.

I am pregnant now with my second child and how to fieldthese questions from strangers has become much more complicated since the birth, and then the death, of my first child. My son Ronan died of Tay-Sachs disease in February of 2013 when he was nearly three years old. Tay-Sachs is an always fatal, rare genetic condition that robbed him of all his physical faculties—hearing, sight, movement, and eventually the ability to swallow and process food. Ronan was diagnosed at nine months old, when he was happy and smiling and seemed “normal,” yet he had failed to meet any of his developmental milestones. Some of my most heartbreaking memories are trips to the doctor’s office where a nurse took his pulse with a tiny finger thermometer as he giggled and baby-flirted with her. Many times I watched that nurse’s eyes fill with tears, because here was a doomed child, a sweet baby with red-gold hair and long, pale eyelashes and chubby wrists and ankles who would not live to be a toddler, and whose life would unravel in a devastating way. It is terrible to look at your child and think he will suffer and then he will die.

“How old is he?” people would ask me when I walked Ronan in his stroller on the walking path near my house in Santa Fe before he began to physically manifest the signs of his decline. When I told them they might say, “Oh, it goes so fast,” or “You’ve got so much to look forward to,” and “he’ll be walking and talking soon,” and I would wheel Ronan home, weeping and furious with a horrible raging sadness about the wrenching and ridiculous unfairness of the situation. Sometimes I told the truth. I’d say that he was dying, that he would never talk or walk, and brace myself for the response, if only because I wasn’t ashamed of my son and didn’t want to act as if I were hiding anything. This didn’t matter to Ronan—his cognitive abilities were stalled at a six-month-level before they deteriorated—but it mattered to me. At home I would pluck him from the stroller and hold him and cry and wonder why this was happening to me, how it could possibly be happening to such a sweet and innocent boy. The whole order of the world was reversed—babies dying while the parents lived on.

Losing a child is every parent’s worst nightmare, but to be entirely helpless as an unstoppable, incurable disease takes a child from you, to be told by a doctor “this child will die,” and then to witness the slow fade of personality and then the body, is a situation that on many days I did not think I would—or wanted to—survive. And yet I did.

My desire to have another child emerged just after Ronan was diagnosed. I wanted to plan for another baby right away. My husband, my supportive parents, many well-meaning friends all questioned this course of action. My therapist, too, cautioned me about having another baby. She warned me about the dangers of having a “replacement child.” I found and still find the idea of a replacement child odious and horrifying although it is a documented term. No child is replaceable. A child is not a couch or a job or a great spot for your next vacation. I was 36 when Ronan was diagnosed. I did not have the resources for the complex fertility treatments that my husband and I would have needed to pursue to make sure that our next child was not affected with Tay-Sachs (both parents must be carriers for Tay-Sachs to manifest, andthere’s a 1 in 4 chance that a child will have the disease when this is the case). When I met with the fertility doctor he cautioned me that the next two years were crucial if I wanted to have another baby. The literature I read online and in magazines assured me that it would soon be too late for me to get pregnant. I was facing the combined loss of my child and my newly formed maternal identity—the future seemed to me a skeletal, miserable existence, a shattered and frightening world.

The only people who encouraged me to have another child in short course were the mothers of other children with Tay-Sachs disease, who understood perfectly. Of course you want to feel life again, one mother told me. I began to argue with my therapist that clinical terms like “radical acceptance” of my difficult situation and “replacement child” were entirely divorced from real-life situations. I wanted another child, in part, to anchor me to the world, to the after life of living without my son, butI never thought a new child wouldreplace him. I would have to live through what happened to him, but did I ever have to fully accept it? What would that look like? Of course these were questions that nobody could or ever will answer.

Although my relationship with Ronan’s father did not continue, we parented and cared for our child until his death. When I look back on those two-and-a-half years of Ronan’s care—the seizures and suction machines and medications and finally, a feeding tube through his nose, it seems thunderous and unimaginable. And yet my imagination conjures up these images with ease and I remember and mourn him all over again. Ronan’s absence in my life is present to me—with varying degrees of force and sadness—every day, and this will be true for the rest of my life. The memory of what was lost becomes its own reality and then lingers. This is true of the leg I lost and it is true of anything precious that is taken from us, any loss that changes our lives on such an epic scale. I don’t believe that people “recover” from loss; we can only hope to absorb it in a way that still allows for daily moments of happiness. Even this is sometimes a struggle, but it is one worth engaging in. We press on. We continue to seek life and love and meaningful experiences. Otherwise, what are we doing?

I met Kent, my current partner, aftermy husband and I had already separated and decided to divorce, putting an end (I assumed) to my hopes of having another baby. At this time, Ronan was still alive but entering his period of greatest and most rapid decline. When it became clear to Kent and me that our relationship was one that we wanted to pursue for the long-term, we immediately talked about having a child together. Both of us were older (I was 38 and he was 58) and we both wanted to be parents, me for the second time and him for the first. I got pregnant four months after Ronan died, in the midst of deep grief but also fully supported and loved by a partner.

*   *   *

I took the first pregnancy test before dawn. When the stick read “pregnant,” I was gripped by euphoria, fear, guilt and surprise, all at once. I ran into the bedroom and woke Kent up to show him the results. All of the competing emotions rushed in: the impossible desire to hold my son again, in real time, with my own hands, to smell his hair and kiss his face and touch his skin; and the great hope that this microscopic, newly formed child in my body would live on, first in the womb, and then in the world. This child would replace nobody, I realized. Ronan existed, and this child would exist. Yet I still wondered: could I find full joy in this new baby when his or her half-brother had died?

A few days later I didn’t think I’d need to worry about it. My first ultrasound at six weeks showed a gestational sac with nothing inside: no heartbeat, no fetal pole, no signs of the beginning of viable life.

“Well, it’s a no-go,” the doctor said, asif I had planned a party that had suddenly been cancelled. “Probably a blighted ovum.” My friend, Elizabeth, who had come with me since Kent was out of town for work, switched off the video she’d been taking to show him the next day.

I blinked at the fuzzy screen, the great space waiting to be filled. Ronan had been driven away from my house in the funeral home van only four months earlier. I would never see him again. This baby had disappeared—but where? The doctor snapped off his gloves and began to make quick marks in my chart. “I see from your chart that your son has Tay-Sachs disease,” he said.

“He did,” I said, still on the table, undressed from the waist down and wearing the flimsy cloth robe. “He died.”

He looked up. “You must be Jewish,” he said.

“I’m not,” I said. The room was cold. My legs were cold. “People think Tay-Sachs is a Jewish disease, but it isn’t.”

“It is,” he said.

“It isn’t.”

“You must be Jewish,” he repeated. Ilooked at him and repeated that I was not.

Elizabeth, sensing my agitation and increasingly annoyed, said, “Well, I’m Jewish, but I don’t think you can catch it from over here.” The doctor flushed red, said no more, and left the room. I never saw him again.

The next week I went to a different doctor, who found a strong heartbeat—a vigorous rapid thumping—and a baby forming just where it should be. Kent was with me, and when we saw the tiny form on the screen, we cried. Out of relief, disbelief, fear, happiness, and the idea of these feelings occurring simultaneously.

The pregnancy progressed smoothly, as my first pregnancy had. When I began to show and people began asking me if I was pregnant with my first child, I was determined to remember Ronan in my response, no matter how uncomfortable it made the asker. “No,” I replied. “I had a son and he died.” The conversation often stopped here, the narrative halted. When the questions first began I scrambled to make the awkward exchange a bit easier for the other person. “Sorry to throw that on you,” I’d say, smiling. But now I don’t. My new policy is: asked and answered. Or, as a relative of mine used to say, if you don’t want the answer, don’t ask the question. I don’t elaborate on how or why my first child died when some people go on to ask those questions (and they occasionally do); at that point I tell them that I prefer not to say any more. I don’t want to offer up the details of Ronan’s illness like the pieces of a tragic tale. But I want it to be known—to strangers, to everyone—that he was in the world, that he was fully loved, and that he was my first baby.

I believe that the real danger of having a child in the wake of child loss is the idea that the child who came first and was unconditionally loved will be entirely forgotten. This was an idea I could not and cannot bear. Ronan was singular even after his death. His half-sister will be singular as well, just as loved, just as irreplaceable. She is filling no space; she is creating her own, just as Ronan did, just as every child does. No person’s place is taken by another’s presence. I don’t believe a desire to have another child is a way of healing wounds, or a way of mitigating the great sadness of losing a child. This great joy and sadness can coexist, and in fact they must. This is the responsibility those of us who have lost children have to our living children: to remember. To make known to those we love and live with that each life has a precious place in the world and a significant purpose, no matter how short that life is or might have been.

These are uncomfortable thoughts for all of us, especially parents, because it is so painful to imagine the death of our children; we’d rather not think about it. In general we attempt to avoid thinking about death in this culture, and we pass this culturally sanctioned phobia on to our children. We think they can’t handle it, don’t know about it, but they do. They sense it. They’re humans. They know. It is our job to find an acceptable way to tell them; to make them understand the existence of death and life together. Years before I had Ronan, I met a woman who had framed her stillborn boy’s footprints and hung them on the wall between her bedroom and her living daughter’s. I thought that was just right; I thought that made sense. Death isn’t morbid or unseemly.It’s the inevitable end of any life.

To not discuss Ronan with my daughter, as I will one day,is to devalue both of them in some crucial and profound way. That said, it is not an easy story to tell someone. “Mom had a baby with another man before you were born, and that baby died.” I can see her, years later as a writer, trying to tell that story in a novel, in a poem, in some other book. To whom do these stories belong, and who is in charge of their safekeeping? This is not mine to decide. I can only tell my own truth.

What the living must do is remember.

Author’s Note: Writing about our children is a strange and necessary task as writers who are also mothers. When my son was sick and actively dying, I felt it was my duty to document his life in a meaningful way. I couldn’t save him, but I could save his story. After his death, I am still in the process of trying to make meaning from a situation that felt absent of all meaningfulness. Writing this piece invited me to consider again the strange ways in which chaos works, turning us toward joy and despair, and many times in unequal amounts. This idea of chance, luck, karma, however you name it, is one with which I have long been fascinated, and writing this reignited in me that intellectual interest.

Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir and The Still Point of the Turning World, which was a New York Times bestseller. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Redbook, O the Oprah Magazine, Salon, Slate, and many other publications. She is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. She lives with her family in New Mexico.

Illustration by Mikela Provost

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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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Bite Your Tongue

Bite Your Tongue

By Kathleen Bustamante

biteyourtongueI sit on the toilet, gripping a white stick that boasts a bright pink plus sign. I am pregnant again! A second time I marvel (with a hint of pride) how easily my husband and I have made a baby. I call myself “Fertile Myrtle” upon sharing the news with my husband later that night.

We tell our parents, siblings, and a few close friends, but agree to wait until the end of the first trimester before we announce our accomplishment to the rest of the world. Just a precaution really.

Ten weeks into my pregnancy, I am in the waiting area of the ultrasound department of our clinic. Despite its antiseptic smell, this is a happy place. After all, this is the same room in which I sat two-and-a-half years prior, awaiting a glimpse of little Fiona on the monitor. Still, as I sit on the teal couch watching my daughter flip through picture books, a sense of foreboding takes root inside my belly. I recall the visit to the midwife the week before. I had been bleeding some, but I was not really concerned since I had also experienced some bleeding early in my pregnancy with Fiona. I shared this information with my midwife while she poked my belly with her fingers, searching for my uterus. She asked if I had been experiencing any nausea this time around. I hadn’t. The midwife and her nurse assistant shared a glance. When the nurse assistant handed me the slip of paper containing the ultrasound department’s contact information, the same twinge of foreboding nagged at my abdomen.

An hour after the ultrasound, my husband and I are ushered into a small office by a blonde nurse with kind eyes and a gentle voice. I know something is wrong when she draws the blinds. I notice a box of tissues on the otherwise bare plywood table that separates us from the woman. I know before the words escape her mouth. My hands, clasped in my lap, begin to quiver and my heart races. I want nothing more than to dart out of the room and out of the clinic, but I will myself to remain in my chair awaiting the ominous message.

“I’m so sorry. The technician didn’t detect a heartbeat. It seems your pregnancy has resulted in miscarriage.” The sadness in her eyes tells me she truly is sorry.

I stare at the woman, mouth agape, for several moments. My husband takes my hand in his. As her words sink in, my hands go numb, my mouth turns dry, and I weep so hard I don’t make a sound for a long time. When I finally do, I wail in a voice I don’t recognize as my own.  A primal sound.

I travel the bumpy path of emotions through grief, despair, and anger. I torture myself with endless questions, but no answers take shape. What did I do wrong? Was it the pomegranate martini I enjoyed while celebrating a much-needed night out with my husband early in my pregnancy? Was it the sinus medicine I swallowed that week I was feeling lousy? Did I exercise too hard, lifting too much weight during my work out? But I had no idea I was pregnant! How could I have known?

My husband and I give ourselves a few months before trying again. When our first attempt fails, I am disappointed but not shocked. The miscarriage has shattered my illusion that procreation is effortless. Still, I take comfort that a handful of my girlfriends who have also suffered miscarriage had little trouble getting pregnant again. And I am mostly confident I will become pregnant again soon.

Nearly one-and-a-half years later we are still trying.

Fiona is three-and-a-half, and the rest of the world, it seems, has determined three years is a big enough gap between children. I am shocked by how many people—friends and strangers alike—ask without any qualms, “So, when’s your little girl going to have a brother or sister?” Of course, they have no idea how many times I have asked God the same thing, nor do they suspect the grief and disappointment I experience at the start of my recurring period. I can’t seem to keep my hope in check each month as what seems like pregnancy symptoms—tender breasts, break outs, and bloating—sets in. Eventually, so do the cramps. On the first day of my period, I find myself snapping at Fiona over senseless things and pulling away from my husband.

Because I keep these woes to myself, people take it upon themselves to inquire. I begin to dread appointments with my hairdresser because of her inevitable probing: “When are you going to have another baby?” Even after I relay the heartache of my miscarriage and subsequent infertility problems, she continues to inquire at each hair appointment “are you pregnant yet?” I am pretty sure she is part of some underground fertility watchdog group keeping tabs on the situation.

I am even confronted during celebrations. One evening, my husband and I attended a retirement party for a former colleague. It had been fun—exactly what I needed. But when someone posed the dreaded question: “So, when’s the next baby planned?” my blood pressure skyrocketed, my face became flushed. I was ready to shout back that either my husband’s sperm or my ovaries haven’t been compliant, and would he care to share his thoughts on the problem? Thankfully, however, my husband stepped in and skillfully handled the situation before I exploded.

The hardest, however, is when well-meaning friends and family deal clumsily with the uncomfortable truth about my inability to conceive.

During a recent girls’ night at a friend’s house, I sat cross-legged on the living room floor sipping coffee and catching up with four other women. One friend had just finished sharing the antics of her toddler who gave himself a haircut during quiet time when another friend announced the pending arrival of her third child—”a complete accident” as she described it. Then she turned her attention to me and assured me in front of the other women in the room, “It’s okay if you hate me. I understand.” I was stunned and mortified. I knew this was not her intent, but her statement minimized my loss in such a way that I felt small and petty for struggling with infertility.

Days later, a close friend, privy to our difficulties and desperation, listed the fleet of pregnant women around us. “There’s just something in the water these days!” Perhaps she was trying to offer encouraging words. However, it only emphasized the stark contrast between me and the many fertile women who have obviously gotten something right.

Each of these incidents is as painful as broken glass against bare flesh. I am amazed at how clueless people can be. Even more, I realize that before experiencing loss and yearning personally, I, too, have callously posed similar questions to others.

One lesson I have learned throughout this journey is how important tact and sensitivity are during conversations about babies and fertility. It is not my place to ask when someone is planning to have another child, unless that person broaches the subject first.

I’m thankful for the many people who have never inquired about the size or future of my family, but rather have provided me the time and space to offer information when I feel ready to share it. The most supportive words I have received came from a thoughtful friend: “I can’t begin to know the pain you’re experiencing right now, and I don’t want to bring up the topic if you’re not ready to talk about it. Just know that when you are ready to talk, I’m here to listen.” When I was finally ready to talk—she was the friend I chose to confide in. And she was there to listen.

Kathleen Bustamante lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two children. She is a stay-at-home mom by day and a writing instructor by night.

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Pregnancy Brain

Pregnancy Brain

By Mel Lefebvre & Lydia Christine Zilahy

pregnancy brainEver had that nightmare where the teacher calls on you to write on the board, and once you’re standing at the front of the class, you realize you don’t have any pants on? Well, this one woman we know did a grownup version of that in real-life.

Standing at her car after buckling in her toddler on her way to work, she was feeling around for something in her pocket when it struck her that her bright red holiday-themed underwear, complete with a ‘ho ho ho!’ and a North Pole postage stamp on her rump was all that was between her bare skin and the world around her. That woman is co-author of this article, and that day she was suffering from a serious case of baby-brain.

Being pregnant is a bit like being in a secret club, only you’re on your own for the initiation. No one tells you that you kind of lose your marbles. “I think it shocks every mom to learn that you may forget to wear your shoes to work,” says Shannon Seip, author of Momnesia! A Humorous Guide to Surviving Your Post-Baby Brain. “I also forgot to put the emergency brake on and my car rolled down into my bushes and I thought, what happened to me? I used to be a smart person!” says Seip, also the mother of two young boys.

Most of us will admit to feeling a bit more scatterbrained while the miracle of life blossoms in our womb. We forget things here and there. No big deal, right? Let us be the ones to welcome you to the baby-brain club. The club where an ease into sleep deprivation and not being on the ball, or even knowing where the ball is, are your new normal right alongside spider veins, stretch marks, and sore boobs. Baby-brain won’t cause long-term cerebral damage, but it will occasionally make you want to commit yourself.

Ignorance may be bliss for one of the more comically disastrous side effects of gestating, but while you still have your wits about you, get thee a notebook.

Maybe a whole stack, actually. And while you are at it, buy a mountain of sticky notes. As a novice to this club, your first assignment is to write out in multiple, in huge letters, ‘you are not crazy’ and begin decorating your house, your car, your office, and even your partner with these and other little reminders to help navigate your day. Why? Well, there are reasons why a pregnant woman might be on the forgetful side, apart from the fact that everything that goes into making a baby can mentally and physically bankrupt you. “There’s just a lot going on, especially with a first-born where the learning curve for a new mom is so sharp. You’re emotional, forgetful, and full of hormones. It’s a rough time,” says Seip. It is baby boot camp. All factors combined might make a pregnant woman feel like she’s losing her grip on reality.

Still think these horror stories only happen to a handful of people and that most pregnant women glow like those on magazine covers? Hate to tell you, it is fact, not fiction.

According to neuropsychiatrist Dr. Louann Brizendine, during pregnancy, “the body grows, and the brain shrinks—about six percent. The female brain is different from the male brain to ensure the survival of those who cannot take care of themselves. We aren’t antelope, we don’t just drop the baby and run.” Far from being antelope, take us, for example. Mel Lefebvre, mom to Corin, and Lydia Zilahy, mom to Bianca. Between the two of us, we’ve had five pregnancies. That’s five immense hormonal, physiological, physical, and emotional upheavals that have resulted in pants-less errands, leaving behind expensive equipment after covering events for work, forgetting how to spell (which, for two writers, is just a little more than embarrassing), not being able to form proper sentences while speaking and confusing our conversation partner, inducing much palm-to- forehead slapping once we realize that we don’t sound like the sophisticated, educated women we set out to be.

Thankfully, we have each other. Just when we thought we had finally crossed that line from being cute, quirky pregnant ladies to having completely lost it, we discovered we weren’t alone with our addled brains and abandoned thoughts. Though, comically and quite fittingly, many women have told us that while they did experience forgetfulness and memory loss, they can’t remember the details. And since baby sweeps us off our feet and takes center stage once the baby arrives, we don’t end up talking about memory loss. Toss into that mix a couple of studies that declared pregnancy brain a myth, and it can muddy-up an already foggy horizon. Whether it’s scientifically proven or disqualified as a real phenomenon, we can confirm that during pregnancy and the time that follows, it’s quite common, to, uh, forget things.

“I started forgetting stuff like crazy when I was pregnant, and I still can’t remember any of it,” says Madeleine Coyler, a Canadian four-time pregnancy-brain survivor and mother of three who lives in Saint Lazarre, a small town just outside the bustling city of Montreal, Quebec.

Like many of us, Coyler has packed up and left the house with her list of chores and a lack of focus so typical of members in club baby brain. “I will admit that I have, on more than one pregnant occasion, left my apartment, walked down to the parking garage, and driven halfway to work before realizing I was still in my fuzzy bedroom slippers,” says Coyler.

“My brain is mush,” says Sylvia Kroll, a Montreal resident and mother of two who has undergone three rounds of pregnancy brain. “Names and numbers have gotten ten times worse for me. I forgot my child’s name once, and I think I forgot my husband’s name at one point. He was ‘that guy there—you know!’ I even called my dad Babe once. When you’re pregnant, you get away with everything,” she says.

While rolling with the waves of memory loss can be entertaining at times, it can also be disconcerting for moms-to-be. “It is funny, and scary how much you lose,” says Kroll. As much as we’d love to kick our feet up for nine months and spend the time relaxing and snacking our temporary amnesia away, our attention is stretched to cover responsibilities at work and home. Inevitably, some things get neglected. “I couldn’t remember to open the mail for almost three weeks. Those things kinda fall by the wayside. I mean, really, it’s not as important as keeping your baby alive,” says Seip.

There’s a lot of pressure for women to feel like they can handle pregnancy with super-human grace and poise with perfectly packaged bumps, flowing hair and a glowing complexion. Donning our Superwoman persona and cape, we juggle pregnancy, careers, possibly other children, spouses, family, social engagements, fitness, and other exhausting ambitions. All the while, we have less energy, are sleeping less, battling pants, socks, and shoes with a growing midsection, and we’re less alert, always hungry, probably nauseous, and just want to curl up on the sofa with a bag of popcorn, some ice cream, and nap in front of a movie until baby arrives.

Lara Onaba, mother of Denzel from Peace River, Alberta, wasn’t sure if she suffered from any kind of mind-altering pregnancy silliness. But she put her finger on a contributing factor that made her realize there was something going on in the ‘ol noggin. According to Onaba, “I forgot less after Denzel was born. I think this was because my sole focus was no longer my body. When I was pregnant, I was hungry 24/7, and one day I was so tired I actually just sat down in an aisle at Wal-Mart. I found that I could use my energy to think more when I wasn’t so hungry!”

What Onaba expressed is something quite normal during pregnancy, and is what Dr. Brizendine, who is also best-selling author of The Female Brain and founder of The Women’s Mood and a Hormone Clinic at the University of California, San Francisco, says is a gentle shut down, catapulting the mom-to-be’s brain and body into a symbiotic state that takes care of the growing fetus. “High levels of progesterone kick in nesting instincts. The growing fetus in pregnancy wants your energy. The body is either turned on or turned off by hormones. Hormones are responsible for a behavior necessary for survival. Now, we don’t want Mommy using her energy to be as active—we want Mommy to eat, sleep, and rest. It is not about Mom becoming ‘stupider.’

The behavior the hormones create is anti-activity.”

The toll a growing human takes on our bodies alone is enough to preoccupy our thoughts and energy, and it’s supposed to. The idea that women feel they have to do it all while constantly needing to eat, pee, and chase sleep while growing a baby and saying goodbye to a life of non-motherhood or taking care of another child out of the womb at the same time is completely ridiculous. The unfortunate reality is that many feel the need to keep up our pre-pregnancy standards of living. Any other effort is substandard and reactions to having an off day (or month) are unforgiving. And women’s harshest critics are most often themselves.

“It’s a weird thing, prego-brain,” says Calgary resident Katharine Barrette, librarian and new mom of Audrey. “In a way, it made me really defensive if I forgot something that, say, people at work noticed. I’d feel I was being accused of being a weak woman in a weakened state, whereas if a male colleague forgot something, even if he was distracted by a personal situation, you would never hear anyone joke about ‘dating brain,’ or ‘divorce brain.’ It was annoying to be thought of as incapable,” says Barrette.

If we’re going to be superheroes while pregnant, arming ourselves with knowledge and facts might help us survive the nine months between conception and delivery. Shifting priorities and modifying standards might help ease the pressure of perfection. So will claiming some emotional and mental space for what is, truly, an incredible physical feat. “Set your expectations really low and focus on the things you did achieve,” says Seip.

In addition to having a whole new human growing inside you, your body produces a new organ, the placenta, de- signed to sustain your baby’s life. We need to make some concessions in needing some breathing room, and compassion for attention that is directed to the space between your ribcage and pelvic bone. With that in mind, the fumbles of pregnancy brain, like showing up to work in pajama pants, forgetting documents and meetings, or even your spouse’s name, are really not that significant.

So, relax a little. It isn’t you. Really. It’s your biology. There is an explanation for the physical changes we go through while growing our wee ones.

Part of that change happens in our brains, as Dr. Brizendine’s impressive six percent brain shrinkage statistic says, and there’s little many women can do to avoid momnesia. If anyone gives us a hard time, slap them with this bit of science and stand proud, perhaps in fuzzy bunny slippers, in the office, all the while having no idea where you put your glasses (they’re around your neck) or that important luncheon you’re missing as you dish out some prego justice.

During pregnancy, the blood flow to your brain changes. “Our blood actually gets shunted away from the forebrain to- wards the hindbrain. Our forebrain is where our short-term memory is and multitasking takes place. And the hind-brain takes care of the survival basics. We actually see on brain scans that the blood moves to the back of our brain,” says Paola DeCicco, a Montreal-based naturopathic doctor and mom to Alice. “Some studies show the brain does shrink, and others show that it doesn’t, but to me, it’s a no-brainer. Excuse the pun. It’s one of those things where your faculties are needed elsewhere. We channel our reserves into focusing on maximizing our energy on this new creature. All of that other information, like remembering phone numbers, remembering to pick up the bread, become secondary,” says DeCicco, whose private practice involves a lot of perinatal care and fertility work. A study by Diane Farrar and associates, published in the journal Endocrine Abstracts, confirms that pregnancy affects a woman’s spatial ability, or in other words, remembering where we put the darned car keys.

What does take our immediate attention are multiple trips to the bathroom at night, feeling our baby move while our center of gravity changes, cooing at ultra-sound pictures, and managing some basic functionality as our bodies adapt to being the mothership for at least one tiny passenger. If that doesn’t rip the super-hero cape right off your shoulders, don’t worry: there are still leg cramps, and needing extra support to haul your belly to turn over in bed as discomfort takes over where comfort left off.

Many pregnant women admit to being wide awake at four in the morning for weeks on end for no apparent reason. One prego-braniac says she took advantage of that time to make lists of the restaurants where she craved a meal and another just gave up and took to snacking on the couch in front of a movie in her last months of pregnancy before getting ready for work. Sleep deprivation is a tactic used by the military to prepare soldiers for battle at any time, yet it is something pregnant women and new parents must endure that is shrugged off as just part of the experience with the expectation that life can go on as normal throughout pre- and post-child living. “There is the theory that the sleep deprivation that happens during pregnancy is prep to get you used to it. By starting to change your cycle, it’s not as much of a shock when the baby actually comes,” says DeCicco.

In their book, Woman’s Guide to Sleep: Guaranteed Solutions for a Good Night’s Rest, authors Dr. Joyce A. Walsleben and Rita Baron-Faust give the astounding statistic that after the first year of birth, women accumulate between 450-700 hours of lost sleep. “That affects memory hugely,” says DeCicco. Chronic sleep deprivation of that magnitude catapults us into survival mode. “Your body’s chemistry has perceived that you’re under a large amount of stress. That kicks off a whole hormonal cascade and puts us into a fight or flight mode,” DeCicco explains. The hormones at work here are our body’s big-league players. Estrogen fiddles with emotions while improving blood flow to the uterus and is responsible for breast tenderness; human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) produces progesterone and estrogen until the placenta takes over; relaxin helps your uterus expand and is also to blame for your chronic heartburn because, as it’s fittingly named, it relaxes your internal passageways, from your esophagus to your bum; progesterone makes sure your egg stays safely implanted in the womb, and finally, oxytocin, the love hormone, is responsible in large part for our nesting behavior. “Take the word progesterone—’progesterone’—it is what keeps the pregnancy intact,” says Dr. Brizendine. Even our brain’s neurotransmitters take a hit. It’s like getting a whole new body for almost one year. “No one’s clearly identified the cause, but the phenomenon clearly exists and it’s obviously a hormonal component,” says DeCicco. With all of that in play, no wonder our brains feel a bit less tightly screwed.

Not everyone is so convinced that baby brain exists. More specifically, that any real and long-lasting changes happen to the brain, and that a pregnant woman’s cognitive abilities are any less than their non-pregnant counterparts. One study, published in 2012 in the British Journal of Psychiatry, ran multiple tests for cognitive speed, working memory, immediate and delayed recall on groups of pregnant and non-pregnant women and found that there were negligible to no differences in mental performance, dismantling what they refer to as the pregnancy brain myth.

Well, Helen Christensen and colleagues who published these findings under the title Cognition in pregnancy and motherhood: prospective cohort study, could be right, but that doesn’t make us feel very good at all. “I have no excuse, then, for what happened to me. It makes you feel worse!” says Seip. “Certainly, the word on the street is that momnesia is real,” she said.

In their concluding remarks, Christensen and colleagues state that memory loss during pregnancy is not inevitable, and may be attributed to all the other stuff that’s going on. “Perceptions of impairment may reflect emotional or unknown factors,” they say. “Women may have memory lapses, and change their focus to children and upcoming birth. This does not mean they have lost their capacities,” Christensen told WebMD soon after publishing her study. In a totally empowering finale, Christensen and colleagues state, “Not so long ago pregnancy was ‘confinement’ and motherhood meant the end of career aspirations. Our results challenge the view that mothers are anything other than the intellectual peers of their contemporaries.” And to that, we say heck, yes. That and, every woman is different. Some women declined being interviewed for our article because they never experienced any goofs or lapses in memory during pregnancy. They kept their pants on, remembered their children’s and spouse’s names, and never missed an important anything, ever.

Back in club pregnancy-brain’s corner, Dr. Brizendine supports the existence of placenta brain and armed us with the perfect defense. “During pregnancy, the brain actually shrinks—no one really knows why. There are many hypotheses. One is that there are all kinds of lipids and fats that live in the brain and that the baby takes what it needs—literally eating your brain. There is a cognition change that happens so that you walk into a room and forget what you went in there for in the first place—what we call the working memory. The change happens to the main function of the hippocampus, the area of the brain most sensitive to estrogen and progesterone. In the first few weeks of pregnancy, estrogen levels rise by about 30-40 times and progesterone up to 100.”

Whether or not your mind gets a little cloudy during your gestational period, some basic common sense can help make this time less stressful on your body. A mom herself, DeCicco knows that a little self-care is a big thing. “I definitely experienced firsthand the lack of focus and sharpness, and plenty of sleep deprivation for a good 18 months. I used Post-it notes to help in this time. My daughter is wonderful, but she was never interested in sleeping, and was exclusively breastfed. It takes a big toll,” says DeCicco. If left exhausted and drained, both Mom and baby are likely to be the worst for wear. The solution is to simply slow down and do less. “The baby, the pregnancy, and you want the calmer, lower-activity Mom. Mother Nature intended for you to really take good care of yourself. This is just the first step to parenthood, so get ready. Consider this Mother Nature’s training wheels,” says Dr. Brizendine. DeCicco strongly encourages pacing yourself with your new, pregnant body. “Like I say to Moms of any age who have that martyr syndrome, if you don’t take care of yourself, it’s your kids and family who suffer. You need to be the priority. You need to be the best that you can be so that everybody else around you who depends on you can benefit and be as good as they can be.”

Common sense can go a long way to helping women pre- and post-baby. Eating healthily and taking naps are two things women can do to manage their exhausted bodies and minds. “There are a lot of nutrients that are incredibly important and can affect brain chemistry and our ability to multitask. Iron and vitamin B12 are part of regular OBGYN screening, but very often, they’re low and patients are not told because it’s not a priority,” says DeCicco. A woman doesn’t need to test positive for anemia for low levels of iron to have serious effects on well being. Low iron levels cause sleepiness, yawning, breathlessness, and other signs of fatigue, which are also a pregnant lady’s constant companions. As a major transporter of oxygen, iron helps with mental focus and helps maintain steady energy levels. So from our willingness to get up off the sofa and go for a walk to basic cellular metabolism, iron, which we get from meats, some dried fruits, nuts, and dark leafy veggies, and B12 supplements, can be a hefty and almost easy fix for a bad case of prego-brain.

Another easy intervention is omega 3 fish oil. “It helps with Mom’s cognitive function, postpartum depression, and with the development of your little one’s brain and nervous system,” says DeCicco. It also helps to have a healthy breakfast with at least 16 grams of protein to start your day. A high-quality protein powder, one containing split peas (which have the highest protein content per serving of almost any protein source) can supplement the bowl of frosted sugar crunch you absolutely must have in the mornings. While pregnant, your metabolic demands are much higher, and we burn through food at a much quicker rate than our non-pregnant counterparts. It’s important to sustain yourself to avoid crashing, feeling irritable and anxious. Getting the blood flowing to the brain will help with baby brain by getting the oxygen moving. Mild exercise can help your mind focus, too. So take a walk, a swim, or find a prenatal yoga class to blow off some steam and bring your mind back to you and the baby.

In addition to taking it easy and napping when you can, one of the problems with baby brain is that pregnancy tends to be so focused on the baby. Any aches, complaints, or stresses Mom feels tend to be met with harsh criticism. Suck it up; this is all part of being pregnant; deal with it; and, what did you expect is some of the helpful advice a few women said they were given, inducing in us a knee-jerk reaction to reach for our super- woman outfit. What could help, actually, is to keep a notebook handy to jot things down so they don’t escape your addled brain. Carry, along with your notebook, an attitude check. If no one perished and the world as we know it did not end, go easy on yourself. For example, if you forget to pick up the bread, so what? A two-person-in-one mom machine’s sanity trumps a grocery list any day. Rather than throwing your arms up in frustration at your misplaced keys, glasses, or wallet, take a deep breath and let yourself be the princess you are, if only until baby arrives. This is your time. Chill out and let yourself be pregnant. In our society, brides seem to be allotted this ‘princess for a day’ mentality. You are pregnant. Guess what? In our club, you just became a princess for nine months.

It’s soothing to repeat Dr. DeCicco’s basic advice. Let yourself be pregnant, and roll with the expected and unexpected effects your body brings you during pregnancy. Work-related performance pressure aside, allow yourself to go with the flow, rather than just sucking it up and hiding our distress beneath super-woman garb. Throw the cape out. The world will keep spinning while you take some mental breaks to ease into fatigue, so don’t take on that extra project, and stay in on the weekend, hiding from social engagements now and then. And ask for help to manage your workload in the office and at home. You might gasp because Wonder Woman would never do such a thing, but guess what? She’s fictional, as is her uterus.

Authors’ Note: If you were reading this article and wondering why the numbers didn’t add up for pregnancies and children, we do count miscarriages and other losses as experiences in pregnancy. Our children, whether they walk with us or rest in peace, are a big part of our lives and we didn’t want to exclude them.

Mel Lefebvre is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Montreal Families Magazine, Montreal Gazette, Your Local Journal, Atlantic Salmon Journal, and the David Suzuki Foundation. She lives in Montreal, Quebec with her husband, son, stepson, bunnies, and cats, and still wonders what she will be when she grows up.

Lydia Christine Zilahy grew up in Montreal, Quebec. Losing a bet brought her to rural, northern Alberta where she got married, adopted an army of pets, and had the wonder of her life, a daughter named Bianca, and two angel babies. 

Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

Alma Mater

Alma Mater

By Kory Stamper

fall2007_stamperMy eldest daughter first made herself known to my husband and me in the usual way—with a 11:00 p.m. run to the store for yet another pregnancy test, because the first three were totally, totally wrong, I was just sure of it.

I had to be sure of it—I was twenty-one and finishing my last year of college when I became pregnant. My last year at a women’s college. At a radically and notoriously feminist women’s college where my husband is still, to this day, uncomfortable walking around because the students glare at him for the offense that his XY chromosomal pair brings them.

My visit to the school infirmary gave me a taste of what I was in for as a pregnant student. The doctor just barely kept his tsk-tsking in check as told me he could “arrange things” here at the school, if I preferred.

“You guys deliver babies here?”

His eyebrows kissed his hairline. “Do you mean you’re going to carry the baby to term?”

“That had been my plan, yes.”

“Oh. Well, then, you’ll need a referral. We don’t handle maternal care. It’s not really something that comes up often.” He gave me a significant look and would have waggled a finger at me if he hadn’t been holding my medical chart. I walked the half-mile back to the campus center feeling like Hester Prynne.

After my first prenatal appointment with an off-campus obstetrician, where we determined that, yes, the six pregnancy tests I had taken were in fact all correct, I began alerting my professors and my adviser. My art professor was nonplussed when I asked if I’d be okay using the materials for class. “Sure,” he breezed. “Just don’t lick any of the paints or snort the charcoal.” He then told me to go to the faculty gallery to see his wife’s nude self-portraits done throughout her pregnancy. I didn’t think my stomach was up for it.

After I made my announcement, my dance professor acted as if I was going to split into four pieces immediately. “Well, be careful,” he admonished. “If you need to rest for any reason during class, then rest.” He eyed me skeptically. “Your doctor said the dancing was okay? Really?”

I assured him it was, because the OB had assured me it was. “Nothing like backflips,” she had grunted, “but sure, a regular dance class is fine.” I think I was about seven weeks along when we began our first flying flip-kicks in class.

I was most nervous about telling my adviser, who had taken great pains to work with me on a possible thesis topic (a near impossibility in my interdisciplinary major) and felt I would be a great candidate for grad school. I sat in his subterranean office, hemming and hawing, and finally said, “Well, I have decided not to do the thesis. Or grad school. Because, um, I’m pregnant.”

His face hung open in surprise for a few seconds. I cringed. “That’s great!” he bellowed. “Congratulations! Kids are great! You’ll see—much better than grad school.” He grew avuncular. “You know, kids are really what’s important, none of this stuff.” I floated up the stairs, lightheaded with relief and morning sickness.

*   *   *

Then I called my insurance company. You’d think I would have known better.

Because I was a married student, I had my college’s health insurance plan for independent students. Thirty minutes on hold and a five-minute conversation with my helpful insurance representative told me that the college’s plan didn’t offer maternity care, but the birth itself could be covered under a surgical benefit. The surgical benefit was $2,000 with a $750 deductible; anything over that amount was my responsibility. There was no prenatal coverage. There was no flexibility. Thank you for choosing Acme Collegiate Health.

This news almost literally floored me; I was dizzy when I headed out for class. The plan was mandatory for all students and certainly not cheap (not, at least, for a college student). Wasn’t this very situation—an unexpected medical event—the reason I had been required to buy health insurance? The more I thought about it, the angrier I became. If I had mixed feelings about being pregnant before, I sure as shootin’ was gung-ho on my eventual motherhood now.

Being a resourceful woman, I took the logical next step: I approached the president and trustees of my college, all liberated women. Sisterhood! Solidarity!

A week after sending my cordial letter, asking what the hell was up with the health care I was being offered, I received a nice note from the president’s office explaining that I should take this up with the dean of students. It wasn’t up to the president’s office to handle student health care.

Fair enough; I redirected my note. It was answered with a slightly snippy letter informing me that the college had no control over the benefits offered by the insurance company they contracted with and that, statistically, maternity care is not necessary among the undergraduate population. If I was having medical difficulties, perhaps I should take a leave of absence.

I read the note while researching a paper between classes. I closed my eyes and began to breathe deeply to calm myself. Then I thought, Wait a minute, why should I be calm? I used my centering breath to scream a string of profanities that got me forcibly ejected from the library.

I suppose that during the early years of women’s education, a woman in my delicate state would simply leave campus for the duration of her confinement, after which she’d either become the single-parent outcast of her town or she’d rematriculate later, when family (or a nanny) could watch the kids. That changed in the 1960s, when the introduction of the birth control pill meant more women were joining the work force and starting their families later in life. Though my college archives say nothing on the subject, comments from some of my older professors led me to believe that I was probably the first visibly pregnant undergraduate on campus in modern memory. Irritatingly enough, I just wasn’t going away.

One of the things my alma mater taught me was that women can buck the system. I had sat through class after class encouraging me to push back, rough ’em up, play tough. Liberated women were strong, rabble-rousers, hell on roller skates.

Well, then. Since I didn’t consider a normal pregnancy to be a medical difficulty, and I had a hard time believing that a women’s college was so lacking in women’s health care, I did a very liberated thing: I filed a grievance with the state claiming that my medical coverage was inadequate according to state law. A copy of the grievance wended its way to the college offices, and suddenly my calls and letters went unanswered. The state gave me Medicare/Medicaid. The school administration gave me the cold shoulder.

*   *   *

While my husband couldn’t be more delighted with our baby, my adviser couldn’t be more encouraging, and my older friends couldn’t be more helpful during those months of term papers and indigestion, trouble with my fellow students started brewing when I began to show in the spring. Suddenly every third woman on campus was handing me a leaflet about my reproductive rights, telling me I had a choice, you know, I had the right to choose, and I needed to be, you know, completely and totally informed about my rights. None of my peers seemed to believe that I had already (rather clearly) made a choice. No one seemed to believe that I would choose this bizarre burgeoning protoplasm over grad school, over a job in New York City, over all the “liberated woman” stuff. In their eyes, my early marriage just made me odd; my pregnancy made me stupid. My classmates sneered at me in public and told me I was crazy for wasting my education. And then they and their girlfriends wanted to touch my belly.

Somewhere between the school’s disbelief that pregnancy was a fairly normal occurrence in women of childbearing age, and the constant encouragement of my peers to make an informed choice, I snapped. It began with the T-shirts. I got as far as purchasing fabric paint and some XXXL shirts and sketching out my designs while waiting for art history slides to cue.

Exercising My Right to Choose.

Actively Supporting the Patriarchy.

Another Misogynist Pig in the Oven.

I’m With Over-Educated (with a big arrow pointing from my huge gut up at my smiling face).

Since so many people were treating my pregnancy like a disease, I acted like an invalid. I snuck into my old dorm and claimed the common room between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. every day for a nap, snoring loudly and obscenely. I took the freight elevator up one flight of stairs. I took up several desks and starting lying on the floor during one of my foreign-language classes.

When my belly button disappeared, I rolled my t-shirt up so everyone could see.

In April, campus tours were taking place and I happened to be leaving an academic building as a group dripping in furs and jewelry headed my way. The student tour leader saw me and, sensing trouble, abruptly steered the group in the opposite direction. I feigned sudden labor, very loudly.

Though most of my classmates were private about their disdain for my situation, others fought my estrogen-fueled fire with fire. About three weeks before finals and one month before I was due, I was the thinly veiled subject of a long letter in the school newspaper about population growth and our duty to protect the planet by adopting children instead of squeezing out our own (assuming that anyone was so deluded as to even want kids). The article finished by noting that the days of women being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen were over.

I went home that night and told my husband that women being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen was just so over. He would have to be the pregnant one tonight, baby.

*   *   *

Graduation arrived at last, ninety-five degrees with 180 percent humidity. Many of my fellow graduates lounged around in bikinis and miniskirts before the ceremony. I was blanketed in a long white earth-mama dress and sensible black flats, all topped with a heavy black graduation gown that trailed in the back and was knee-length in the front. I looked like a fat penguin in a funny hat.

Our commencement speaker was Anna Quindlen. Depending on which of the graduates you ask, she either told us that women shouldn’t abandon family for their careers, or told us that women shouldn’t have families so they could have a career. Personally, I don’t remember. I do remember my hugely swollen feet, and sweating a lot, and thinking, “If I had gone on the 5K graduation run this morning, I could be in an air-conditioned hospital room watching cartoons right now.” My name was called, and I waddled up to the stage where I delivered my parting shot: I received my diploma barefoot and pregnant. I would have taken the kitchen stove with me if it weren’t so big.

The school president handed me my diploma, wide-eyed and looking down at my belly (which was invading her personal space). On the way back to my seat, I was heckled by one of my classmates’ parents. “Forget something?” he sneered—whether he was talking about my shoes or my birth control, I can’t say. I smiled broadly and waved my diploma at him. “No, not at all, sir.”

On the plane ride back to their house, my parents sat next to a lovely gentleman who also attended the graduation. They chatted about the ceremony for a bit, and then he said, “Oh, did you see that pregnant girl? My God.”

My parents paused. “Actually,” my father said, with no small amount of irritation, I am sure, “that was our daughter.”

The gentleman stared for a moment, then nodded sympathetically. “Well, it happens in the best of families.”

Once my diploma was in hand and I was out the door, I shrugged off the institutional kerfuffle; it was irritating and frustrating and not particularly pleasant, but it was all water under the bridge. That is, until I started getting the solicitation mail. My alma mater wrote often and, like an enterprising cousin with no tact, asked me for lots of money. I had written the fundraising office twice asking them to remove me from the solicitation list. For a long time I continued to get the sunny pleas for moolah.

Then came the legacy mailing. It informed me that I could start paying my daughter’s tuition by setting up a legacy fund in her name. The principal would go into a general scholarship fund and I would get hefty dividends which I could save for my dear daughter’s education (at my alma mater, of course). After all, my alma mater was not just an education, it was a family tradition.

It was the only mailing I responded to. I sent in a copy of my graduation picture, with the college president goggling at my beach-ball belly, and scrawled underneath of the picture, “No thanks. You couldn’t take care of her the first time she was there.”

*   *   *

In the heat of the controversy, it had been easy to forget that all my fellow graduates who had thought I was out of my gourd were twenty-two themselves and either taking batteries of standardized tests to get into a good grad program or interviewing with big companies where the senior management did not agree that make-up and pantyhose were socially acceptable forms of female denigration.

And if none of those things came into play—even if it wasn’t fear or envy that propelled the criticism, but truly disdain or disgust—is that necessarily a bad thing? We chose a women’s college because we valued women’s minds and women’s voices, and we wanted to be in a place that took all our opinions seriously. In the end, my pregnancy was another discussion point, and that’s what I agreed to when I signed up to go there, a place where the voice of every woman—no matter how crazy, or pregnant—could be heard.

These days, most of my classmates are married or partnered, most have children under three, and most still shake their head at me—though now it tends to be more in understanding and less in consternation. None of us believes that we’re any less feminist for having admitted the necessity of sperm in the propagation of the species. Some of us have even admitted to enjoying the company of the oppressor. If there was tension because of my pregnancy, it’s gone now. The sisterhood is intact and packing a kick-ass diaper bag.

Kory Stamper is an editor with Merriam-Webster, Inc., and she has written for the Chicago Tribune and the Guardian. She blogs at harm·less drudg·ery.

Brain, Child (Fall 2007)

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If I Don’t Get Pregnant Again

If I Don’t Get Pregnant Again

By Debra Cole

debracoleIt was a word I never wanted to hear, let alone see in print.

Infertility.

That it was preceded by the word “secondary” was small consolation. My obstetrician handed me the referral for a hysterosalpingography, a fancy medical term for a simple procedure that uses x-ray and a water-based contrast to see if the uterus and Fallopian tubes are obstructed.

“I’m not worried at all,” she said, glancing at my nearly two-year-old son, Henry, playing happily with a dirty truck in the otherwise sterile exam room. But it was best to be proactive. I was, after all, almost 39.

The Mayo Clinic defines secondary infertility as “the inability to get pregnant despite having frequent, unprotected sex for at least a year by a couple who previously had a child.” After I gave birth to Henry at age 36, my husband and I planned to wait until he was two before trying for our second child. We both have siblings between four and nine years older or younger, gaps we valued at the time and in retrospect. We wanted to give Henry the opportunity to be a baby for the entire time he was allotted. Besides, why would we choose to have two children in diapers simultaneously?

Given my age, I agreed, instead, with my doctor’s recommendation to go off the pill in a year and “see what happened.” Truthfully, I wasn’t the slightest bit worried. I had conceived Henry without issue. As he approached nine months old, however, first-time mama friends began announcing their second pregnancies. Even the ones who had been ambivalent about wanting another. For a moment, I panicked.

“It’s not a race,” my husband reminded me.

We stuck with our plan. At Henry’s first birthday in December 2012, I went off the pill and weaned him. And in a twist whose irony I would only understand in hindsight, I secretly prayed I would not get pregnant right away. Never the conformist, I did not want two children under two like the rest of Brooklyn.

Months passed, and worry crept from the edges of my consciousness to its center.

I began to avoid friends who were pregnant again. I did not go, bearing gifts, to see their newborn bundles. I was paralyzed, Elphaba-green with envy, disgusted with myself.

I started using a home ovulation prediction kit, dutifully peeing away my dignity atop a plastic stick in the privacy of my own bathroom each day. The reality of the cliché washed over me. For most of the prior 22 years, I had ingested manufactured hormones like a dairy cow or insisted on condoms at all points of my cycle, because you never know. Yet there I was, holding my breath for a little plus sign that would tell me whether I should have sex with my husband that day. Forget being in the mood; this wasn’t the movies.

After a year, I threw in the towel and began testing. The first two tests were relatively non-invasive: a blood test to check for hormone levels—early menopause?—and the hysterosalpingography—tubes obstructed?—both of which returned normal.

So here we are. My son is 25 months old, and I am confronting the possibility that he might be an only child. I stroke his blond hair, inhale his sweet scent and giggle as he places his face inches from mine and sings the ABCs off-key. Was his creation a mere fluke, a happy accident? Have I taken him—and the joy he has brought me—too much for granted?

To cope with the possibility of permanent infertility, I retreat into my mind, groping for elusive control over irrelevant details. I am signed up in November 2015, for example, for the New York City marathon, a ten-year veteran of my personal bucket list.

If I don’t get pregnant by July, I won’t have time to train for the marathon.

The insignificant gap between 39-and-11-months and 40 yawns before me, cavernous.

If I don’t get pregnant by June, I won’t have the baby before I turn 40.

I stress about the “inconvenient” timing that prevents me from re-starting my career. I went back to work part-time when Henry was 15 months old and intended to return to the workforce full-time only after our second child turned a year.

If I don’t get pregnant soon, my career will grind to a halt.

I despise my smug 36-year-old self, so sure of her own fecundity, so casually willing to tempt fate. Because advanced maternal age is one of the main causes of infertility, shouldn’t we have been trying for—or at least not preventing—conception as soon as we were able? How selfish to seek to avoid the inconvenience of the dreaded two-under-two scenario. How sad that in endeavoring to give Henry time to be the only baby, we may have ensured his lifelong singularity.

If I don’t get pregnant again, my son won’t ever be a big brother.

I should be grateful, I tell myself. Content to have one healthy child in the face of the many couples who cannot have any. Instead, I remain suspended in a peculiar, liminal space, neither embarking on parenthood nor finished creating the family I always believed I would have. I feel at once greedy and isolated, hopeful and impossibly sad.

I imagine my ovaries, worn and tired after nearly 30 years of work, squeezing out the last few potential cells of life. I wonder how far we will go down the path of artificial conception. Do I take fertility medication, brow-beating my body into overdrive? Do I undergo IVF with its attendant stress, cost and shots in the derriere? Do I stymy my rapidly declining fertility by freezing eggs now for future use?

Or do I reimagine my life as a family of three?

Debra Cole is a freelance writer and blogger who lives in New York with her husband, son and a neurotic corgi. She blogs regularly about modern parenting (with a side of humor) at Urban Moo Cow.

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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Love On The Rocks

Love On The Rocks

By Beth Kohl

summer2009_kohlI am a person with too many items in storage. There are reminders of late relatives, like my grandmother’s chipped porcelain tea cups that call to mind her living, breathing, sipping mouth upon their rims, the wrinkled half moons of coral lipstick still barely perceptible. There are framed photos from my parents’ lost marriage, my dad in a white tuxedo jacket and my mom with a startlingly chic pixie cut, his arm draped comfortably around her tanned, rounded shoulders, all of these souvenirs from my past that I’ve stowed until I decide what to do with them.

I’ve meticulously packed and labeled things—the Chinese figurines from my deceased grandmother’s condo and the belongings I’d salted away when my mom decided on a near whim to sell the house—as if I knew it’d be some time before I’d look through the neglected intentions idling in storage. I hope someday to amass the guts to go through the boxes, plucking out and remembering an item’s former life, displaying the meaningful or using the practical until the luster of nostalgia rubs off and expediency sets in.

Among my array are seven frozen embryos. They’re at a fertility clinic, stuck inside a capillary straw suspended within a nitrogen tank until my husband and I decide what to do with them. They are leftovers, seven untapped yet potentially fruitful embryos from our various in vitro fertilization (IVF) cycles. Unlike the inert objects up in the attic, the Betamax and LPs, the moth-eaten coats and the collar from a dead pet cat, the embryos have the possibility of an entire life before them, requiring neither resurrection nor retrofit.

*   *   *

The embryos exist precisely because we’ve been successful at IVF. We underwent five attempts, ending up with a beautiful girl on try number three, and twin ones on the fifth. My ovaries had been easy to stimulate, and each cycle produced a bounty of eggs, many of which fertilized. Each cycle, we chose to transfer three embryos from the Petri dish into my uterus, the right amount to up our pregnancy chances while not risking a too seriously complicated one. The day of each transfer, we were asked our intentions for the remaining embryos. My husband and I, discussing it briefly and always at the very last minute when I was already undressed and ready to get the procedure under way and over with, when we only just learned how many embryos had continued to develop overnight and how many cells they contained, agreed on cryopreserving the surplus. It was the only decision among those presented—donation to research or another couple, or destruction—that preserved them as ours until we were ready to make a thoughtful, measured choice.

It has been eight years since we froze five of the embryos and nearly ten since we decided to save the first two (a clinic mishap accounts for those older ones). In that time, our children have grown from babies to toddlers to these fantastic kids who are loveable and proficient at ass