On the chance someone visits – I will be updating my website over the next few weeks. I have no idea how it will look as I shift things around. I hope it doesn’t send an email every time I do something. There must be a setting for that. I will find it.
“Did you bring your birth plan?” The midwife asks, pen poised over clipboard, dark eyes gentle beneath a raised eyebrow.
I’m surprised she’s brought it up again. “No, I didn’t.”
“Bring one next time,” she encourages. “Even just a bullet point list.”
I bite my lip.
“Like, if you want us to say “pressure waves” instead of contractions,” she adds, referring to the Hypnobabies birthing techniques I had mentioned using with my first. I sigh, feeling, unfortunately, like a child offered candy from a dark van the second time around.
“Um,” I say. “Well. I don’t know. Last time, my doctor didn’t even read it. I actually heard there’s a running joke that hospitals laugh at birth plans.”
Nerves seize up as I flash back to my son’s birth around three years prior. In spite of the joy that filled me when I met my little prince, thinking of the hours upon hours leading up to that moment still feels like a punch in the gut. Bright lights and blinding pain. And then I’m telling the midwife about it, how we had stopped by the hospital on the way to dinner to make sure I wasn’t leaking amniotic fluid. You aren’t leaking amniotic fluid, they said, but you’re dilated to four. If you leave, insurance won’t pay for this visit. But I’m not even having contractions, and I could be dilated to four for days, right? I’m low risk. Can we get dinner and come back later when I’m feeling contractions? If you leave, insurance will not pay. Insurance will not pay. Can I eat something? No. But I’m low risk! Pitocin? No. Pitocin? No. Pitocin? No!
“Well, we don’t do it that way,” the midwife says now. “You will be allowed to eat lightly through labor. In fact, we encourage it.”
The labor and birth: weak with hunger. Pitocin and epidural? No, no. Hypnobabies meditation techniques. The birth plan I’d typed up and spent days perfecting detailed my plan: labor at home as long as possible, skip over to the hospital when the “pressure waves” were close enough, let my water break on its own, have the baby in a position that was not flat on my back with my legs in the air, etc. Breathe deeply, push lightly, let gravity do the work, ease the baby out, says Hypnobabies. Your body knows what its doing. But in the hospital, no. My regular doctor is there but hasn’t read the birth plan. Let’s break your water. Lie on your back. Help the nurses hold your legs up. Hold your breath and push as hard as you can. Hold your breath! Push harder! Harder! Harder! The hideous sensation of my vagina roughly splitting like a leather glove, forced to shove my baby into the world. We later found out the nurses didn’t know I wasn’t on pain meds, were astounded to find out.
When I finish talking, the midwife opens her mouth, but nothing comes out. “Wow,” she says finally, continuing with something like: “What a…a horrible way to give birth. That’s not at all how we do things. We do look at birth plans. We’re familiar with Hypnobabies. We have access to interventions, but only if they’re necessary. You can choose how you birth.”
I smile, because these principles are exactly why I chose a midwifery practice this time around. “That’s why I’m here.”
My heart danced when I pulled the winter 2013 issue of Brain, Child from my mailbox. As quickly as possible, I ditched the rest of the mail on the stairs leading up to our front door and, attempting to keep half an eye on my toddler racing around the driveway, tore the magazine from its white envelope. The beautiful cover art – two owls perched on a branch (a colorful mixed-media piece incorporating collage elements, by Wyanne Thompson) gave me momentary pause, but then I remembered my purpose and flipped pages, until I saw it: my name, followed by the personal essay I’d submitted months earlier, “Beltane Flowers.” Right there. Right. There.
My heartbeat sped up, anxiety and excitement elbowing each other for equal attention. I’ve been publishing mostly articles on and off for a few years now, and it’s always amazing when something finds its way to print, but this was different. First of all, Brain, Child is one of my favorite magazines. In addition, although articles can be fun, the focus is generally not on the writer, offering a lovely sense of detachment. Personal essays, on the other hand, can be like a blinding spotlight in your face. My face, in this case. “Beltane Flowers” isn’t just an essay about me, it’s about a part of myself that I kept fairly hidden from lots of people in my life for a long time. It’s about my spiritually esoteric interests and wanderings – specifically, attending a pagan celebration of Beltane, and revealing my maternal guilt for being drawn to explore such things.
The deal was, if this piece were to get published it was time to be more open with family members, and as my name continued to appear on the page before me, another name flashed through my mind. Mom. My dad already knew, because he is certifiably impossible to faze or disturb, but mom didn’t, and she is the connection to everyone else. Staring at the words I’d written, I could only worry about what she would think, remembering the time she told me a story about a pious man who sat outside a party at which a woman was giving tarot card readings, and when he started to pray for the demons to leave the house, she was unable to perform another reading. I pictured Mom sitting despondent on her bed with the dogs, too embarrassed and distressed to call a sister or best friend, asking herself what she did wrong raising me, worrying that I was doomed to hell for veering away from my Christian upbringing.
I didn’t have to wait long for her reaction; she visited two days after I got the magazine.
Shortly after walking in the door, she said, “I want to read your article!”
I managed to say, “You might have some questions for me after.”
Then she went outside with my son, magazine in hand, and I went back to my computer, where I could do nothing but peruse my Facebook news feed to keep from thinking about how my essay was outside destroying my mother’s life, remembering the time in high school when we argued about religion on the way to my (short-lived) guitar lessons – me doubting, her insisting on faith. This was a bad idea.
When she walked in, I braced myself.
She said, “I loved it! I don’t have any questions.”
“I like how you explained everything.”
She shrugged. “Everyone has to find their own path. You know, Uncle Tim was Buddhist. He spent time in Korea at one of those places where the monks never see the light of day.”
Digesting this unexpected turn of events, I blinked my way through a conversation about people finding their own ways to connect spiritually, the overall bummer that is religious hypocrisy, how there’s always an extremist in any group that can give a bad impression. A conversation I never thought I’d have with my mom. Her immediate acceptance was such a surprise, I almost felt let down after years of preparing defensive responses in my head. You mean I can’t use any of these great arguments?
The experience taught me three things. One: I take myself too seriously. These things for which I worry I’ll be buried in judgement? Well, for the most part, nobody cares.
Two, I’m not the only one evolving and drawing new conclusions about life and such.
And last? Never underestimate my mother.
The number has an intriguing ring to it. Thirty.
Tongue between the teeth, the T-h sound like a rocket hissing to life, then irty blasts out into the world.
Since my twenties are officially over, I feel an obligation to sit down and take stock of where I’ve been and where I’ve landed. Part of me wants to feel nostalgic for the past because it seems almost required in order to properly celebrate the moment – to long for the days of my late teens and early twenties when I had all the freedom in the world to do what I wanted, when I wanted.
But the truth is, I don’t feel nostalgic for times that far past. I can’t look back at high school and declare with a little sigh of longing, Those were the days. In high school I moved from Minnesota to Georgia, leaving friends I’d grown up with for strangers with unacceptable, drawling accents. I then failed to adjust, and set off on an awkward journey of self-loathing and insecurity.
But here’s the real kicker…I was miserable in college, as well. I know – what? Based on all the movies that have come out in the last few years, ramping up college to be The Ultimate Sex and Party and Party Sex Experience, After Which It’s All Downhill, it feels nearly anti-American to admit this. But it’s undeniably true. While I do recall many fond memories of my early twenties, most of them take place after college when I moved abroad.
And even then, I wouldn’t necessarily go back.
It’s not any particular aspect of my past’s various settings I object to, or exterior circumstances in general (with the exception of high school), but rather the person I was back then that I don’t miss. While I certainly was in positions to enjoy freedom and to exploit “good times” in high school and college, I mostly didn’t, my only obstacles being my own self-loathing and painful shyness. In high school, I wandered around hating the South and my school and my life, too socially anxious to forge much beyond acquaintances and some limited friendships.
In college, I built my life around an on-again, off-again boyfriend with whom I had little in common. Again, I limited friendships. Often alone, I’d listen to beautiful, tortured chick music (Tori Amos, check, Ani Difranco, check) and aim to write poetry I hoped would justify my terrible loneliness (it didn’t).
It wasn’t until that boyfriend cheated on me with a 17-year-old high school dropout at the end of my third year in college that I began taking steps to pull myself out of the whirlpool of misery in which I revolved. It was in Spain, on a college study abroad trip in this intriguing land of flamenco and long lunches with wine, where I first glimpsed an image of the self I could become when unencumbered by my own fears. However, after tasting that freedom, my stifling insecurity slid right back into place when the trip ended. Moving back after college was not only appealing, but seemed necessary if I ever wanted to find that girl again.
Standing on a green, rocky cliff in Ireland drinking in the cool, lush breeze; drinking boxed vino tinto with friends from all over the world in a shared flat in Madrid; wandering a cool, windy Santander beach over sand the color of warm butter…I let these memories rise in my mind, and while I relish the lingering sense of freedom and giddy excitement, I can’t deny a prickly anxiety resurfacing as well, as though the ghost of that achingly vulnerable girl reaches forward through time to wrap cold fingers around my throat and whisper, You evolved from me; I will always live in your core. Because it’s easy to think that I’ve always been the person I am today – and nearly surprises me to remember that I once possessed, and was possessed by, such a murky inferiority complex and social anxiety that I could barely order a meal in a restaurant without my heart leaping up my throat.
I’ve come a long way since then. Moving to Spain allowed me to start with an open slate. I threw out fake confidence like lures on a hook, angling to snare the strong woman I wanted to be. I made friends, and studied them, particularly the ones with social charms. Since my mind tended to go blank around other people, I had to try on various personality models at first – perky and blonde (which my anxiety and mild natural flightiness lent itself to best – I just had to smile a lot and master an easy lexicon); broody and artistic (more difficult, as I had trouble thinking and talking at once, so rarely managed articulacy); and fun-loving party girl (let’s not lie, alcohol makes everything easy).
At some point, it dawned on me that the most important component of social competency is not clinging to a pre-existing mold and automatically fitting in, but rather simply knowing and accepting who you are and being that person at all times. Thus began the most difficult part of the journey – figuring out who I was, and being able to hold on to that in public settings.
It’s been a long and intense process, but something happened along the way: I became fascinated by my own self and my own interests, and as that happened it got easier and easier to live in my own skin. There was no climax, no single event that turned the tide, instead it was a process of practicing who and how I wanted to be until it didn’t feel like practice anymore. Then it started feeling like maybe I’ve been this person all along, and that unhappy girl who sometimes taps at me is nothing more than a lingering image from a book or movie.
Now, at the end of my twenties, I still have a strong tendency to self-doubt. But I also have little tricks for how to manage, and I no longer fear social interaction – rather, I enjoy it (most of the time). I also feel a sense of worth and contentment (again, most of the time) that would have been unfathomable to my younger self.
So if this is what it’s like to get older, then, I say bring it on. It’s all uphill from here.
We’ve reached a milestone that has nothing to do with growth or new tricks – Gavin will be starting preschool this week. Three days per week, for three hours in the morning. I think we’re both ready. Getting ready, however, might prove more difficult than preparing emotionally to leave my little tyke under someone else’s care for a few hours on a regular basis.
This place is a cooperative green-minded preschool, meaning that not only will Jon and I be partly involved in helping out with and running the program, but they uphold many green practices (which they teach the kids) along with other ideals. One ideal in particular concerns brand names, or the discouraging thereof. In the interest of not promoting consumerism, cartoon and Disney characters are strongly discouraged from appearing on tee-shirts and lunchboxes. In theory, Jon and I like the idea, finding children’s advertising to be horribly annoying, but Gavin may be harder to convince.
Last weekend, Jon took Gavin to Target to pick up a lunchbox for school. When they returned, Jon set one lunchbox the counter. It was a nice non-descript blue velcro cooler pouch. Clutched in Gavin’s grip was a second lunchbox, this one hosting not one, two or even three, but six cartoon superheroes. Spiderman, The Hulk, Wolverine, I forget the rest.
“He was really attached to that one,” Jon reported, sighing with resignation.
“Look Mommy!” Gavin said. “Guys!”
“That’s great, honey,” I couldn’t help but smile, while my mind raced around trying to conjure up a good direction to guide the situation. “So you got a lunchbox…and a baby suitcase? Is that a baby suitcase?”
Gavin perked up. He appreciates anything small that can be described as “baby.”
“Yeah!” He cried. “Baby suitcase!”
Since then, he has memorized the superheroes on the suitcase, and loves to point them out. “That ‘piderman,” he’ll say with reverence. “That Hulk.” We’ve had to carry it with us to the park, the Farmer’s Market, wherever we go. He loves to put small toys or rocks in it.
Comparatively, he has zero interest in the nice blue lunchbox. “That one no guys on it,” he told me once, turning away in disgust.
Thing is, he hasn’t even seen the shows featuring these superheroes he so admires, so we can’t even blame that children’s advertising we’re trying to avoid. It’s like he’s following some inner male radar. One thing’s for sure – this inner male radar may be hard to reason with come school time, whether this thing is called a “baby suitcase” or not.
My grandma and I have different thoughts on breastfeeding.
The other night, I got the chance to talk to her on the phone. She had just gotten out of the hospital so I asked how she was feeling. However, she was not interested in that kind of talk.
“How is that weaning going?” she wanted to know. I had expected that it would come up – every time I talk to her it seems as though she’s on a mission to save Gavin from the boob – I just didn’t expect it immediately.
“Oh – it’s fine,” I said. “We’re pretty okay with where we are now, he’s only nursing a few times per day.”
“You can just stop, you know, say that’s enough,” she offered, as though this were a new angle I hadn’t considered. “He might be upset for a day, but he’ll be fine.”
After an exchange that repeated the above pattern, me saying various versions of “we’re ok with the nursing for the time being,” and her responding with sweetened versions of, “just stop already for the love of Christ,” we managed to shift to other topics.
I did not mention that several weeks ago I did try to wean Gavin cold turkey. Because, yeah, it didn’t take.
We decided to go ahead and wean in a fit of exhaustion while on vacation. The breaking point was brought on after a horrible night’s sleep in an un-airconditioned upstairs room that had baked all day in 90+ degree heat. (See previous post for that story.) So, when we got home, we came up with a strategy. (In retrospect, it’s not like he would have slept much better that night if he’d been weaned.)
Anyway, one afternoon I went to the fridge for a bottle of hot sauce; we liked the idea of Gavin feeling like the weaning was his idea. I wasn’t even sure it was going to deter him, though, because when he was about ten months old I tried various strongly flavored food items to help night weaning efforts – vinegar, lemon juice, mustard. Gavin had displayed no reaction to any of those, so part of me doubted the hot sauce’s abilities.
I needn’t have worried.
When Gavin woke from his nap, I dabbed the tiniest dab of hot sauce on my nipples and went to get him, a knob of dread already forming under my eagerness to wean. I almost ran and washed off the hot sauce. Then I didn’t.
“Mommy milk!” he cried out as I picked him up.
“Ok, honey,” I said, guilt rising in my throat. “Let’s go have some milk on the couch.”
We sat on the couch, and he went to nestle in and latch.
He sat back up, wrinkling his nose. “Spicy milk,” he said.
“Spicy?” I crooned dumbly. “Uh oh! Should we get a snack instead? How about a banana?”
I got him a banana and we sat on the couch while he ate it. Could it be that easy?
That night I dabbed some hot sauce on my nipples again, and again Gavin wrinkled his nose and accused the milk of being spicy. So we had some milk in a cup and read stories. Putting him to sleep was so…strange, though. He couldn’t get comfortable. He would curl up with me and automatically turn his head down, then remember the milk was spicy. I could sense his confusion. Usually, he would cuddle up, nurse, massage my collarbone, pick my moles, fall asleep. He tried to settle for picking my moles but he didn’t have the right angle when he wasn’t in a breastfeeding position. He twisted and turned beside me.
Without nursing, he didn’t know what to do with me, and his confusion made me sad. Breastfeeding had played such an integral role in our relationship for all of his two years, we were both disoriented to find ourselves so suddenly without it, regarding one another like strangers.
I stuck it out that night, but woke up to find that that small knob of dread I’d felt initially had ballooned in my chest. Weaning him this way just didn’t feel right. But I’d already started, so I figured I had to stick with it, wouldn’t I just confuse him more otherwise? Plus, I knew Jon was looking forward to weaning, hoping it would help Gavin whine for me less when I’m gone.
When Gavin asked for mommy milk that morning, I told him he could try some but it might be spicy. When his lip trembled, I distracted him and we got some breakfast.
As the morning wore on my breasts began to feel like balloons of cement. I laid cabbage leaves in my bra (it’s supposed to help!) and tried to get through each hour.
To keep us both busy, I went to lunch with a friend while my mother in law watched Gavin. Thanks to sushi and my friend Jess’s vibrant personality and entertaining personal life, I was able to take my mind off the weaning situation briefly. This will be good, I figured. After lunch I will be able to think straight. I will know that weaning is the right decision for us.
However, once I was back in my car and the happy chatter of lunch faded from my mind, all I felt was a sense of loss. When I pulled up outside the house, I called Jon at work, not sure what I was going to say.
When he answered, I started to greet him but burst into tears instead, an uncharacteristic move for me. “I don’t think I can do this,” I sobbed, and my feelings bubbled out of me – weaning cold turkey just didn’t feel right, Gavin had seemed so confused the night before, he’d looked so sad that morning when I reminded him the milk might be spicy, I didn’t want the breastfeeding relationship to end like this.
Although Jon was good about it, saying he would support my decision even though he’d been looking forward to the weaning, I still didn’t know what to do when I got off the phone.
When I went in the house, I relayed the situation to my mother in law and she offered words that hit home. “You have to trust your instincts as a mother.”
Don’t read me wrong, I don’t think every mother’s instincts are to breastfeed into the toddler years. The tricky part about parenting is that different techniques work differently for different families. While breastfeeding didn’t work for my grandma, it did work for me. Cold turkey weaning works for lots of other mothers – just not for me, even though I think Grandma is right in that Gavin would have been fine after a few days. I would have been fine, too, except for perhaps a bit of regret. But we would have found a new routine, life would have moved on.
Thing is, he’ll be fine this way, too. Breastfeeding, while difficult at times, is such an enormous comfort for him. And for me too, it turns out.
He’ll get to the stage where he needs me less soon enough.
So when Gavin woke from his nap that day, I lay beside him. When he asked, uncertainly, “Milk?” I said, “Sure, let’s try some.”
He did. I asked him if it was spicy, and he shook his head. We both relaxed into the familiar, soothing routine.
We did end up using the spicy milk idea to knock out his last overnight feeding. The milk gets spicy at night. Sometime soon, we’ll cut out another feeding, when the time feels right.
I’ll be sure to keep my grandma posted.
Somewhere in the neighborhood of three months ago, the day I started working on this website, I gave up caffeine – a careful (although terribly timed) decision I launched after delving into a bit of research on this particular stimulant. My interest started with innocent curiosity: How does it work? What does it do inside our bodies that keeps us awake?
These are questions I sort of recommend leaving well enough alone if you are prone to neurotic thinking, or a busy parent, or both. So if you don’t want to know, skip the next two paragraphs.
What I learned about caffeine is how when you are tired, little chemicals attach to receptors in your brain to signal drowsiness, and how caffeine zips in all crazy like, screaming WAKE UP EVERYBODY! LET’S DO THIS!, bumping out those sleepy little chemicals and thus preventing your body from knowing it needs to rest. Over time, this process leads to sleep deprivation (the whole thing kinda reminds me of parenthood).
Well, I’m one of those neurotic, busy parents. After reading about caffeine, I couldn’t enjoy my morning tea or coffee the same way. Are the caffeine molecules attaching to my brain receptors RIGHT THIS SECOND? Is this cup of Irish Breakfast tea killing me?
I didn’t drink a lot of caffeine anyway, just one cup most days, two cups once in awhile. So, when I cut it out entirely, I assumed I would be tired for a few days, nap with my son Gavin, get in touch with my body’s need to rest, and then start feeling better than ever.
This might have happened, if I hadn’t started trying to work on this website, and if my daily and nightly life allowed me to obey my body’s rest signals. Maybe. As it was, caffeine had been a happy little bubble protecting me from a growing sleep debt. So when I kicked the habit, I became a helpless beetle under the foot of exhaustion, struggling to free myself from its crushing weight. And failing.
For the next three months, I napped with Gavin whenever possible and went to bed when he did at night. Where under the influence of caffeine I had taken a few minutes to fall asleep at night, and sometimes had trouble falling back asleep if woken, I now fell asleep before my head hit the pillow and never completely woke up, bobbing through the day on the misty edge between consciousness and dreamland. Oh, I had a some good days here and there in which I awoke feeling rested, but they were few in comparison, especially when Gavin started teething again. The caffeine-free days following one of his restless nights were nothing short of nightmares for all involved (somebody give my husband, Jon, a hug).
It became clear I could not keep up with my body’s rest signals.
While on vacation to Minnesota to visit family, the final straw fell. Some homes up there don’t have air conditioning, utilizing fans and open windows during the summer months. My grandparents are part of this group, and it was their house we were staying in.
The temperature was in the upper eighties, low nineties, while we were there, and while outside it cooled to comfortable levels at night, my grandparents’ upstairs bedroom was a stifling inferno of treacherous heat. We dressed in t-shirts and underwear, opened the one small window, and directed the fan to blow on us. The air moving through the fan could have been dragon breath for all the coolness it offered.
Gavin and I both twisted around, waking frequently, all night long. When dawn broke I felt as though I’d been attacked with a crowbar in my sleep, tied up in a plastic bag, and left out in the sun for a few days. The first thing I wanted to do was throttle everyone around me. The next thing I wanted to do was crawl into the refrigerator. The last thing I wanted to do was get ready for a full day dedicated to pleasant conversation with family and friends.
So Jon got me some coffee. I was too tired to care about the poor little sleep chemicals with their endless messages of fatigue. I had started to hate them. “Help,” I implored my cup of coffee.
The next day I was still intensely tired, and we had another busy day ahead. So I got more coffee, and again it helped.
Now we’re back home from vacation, and I’m officially off the caffeine wagon and back to my one cup per day routine. I had some issues to resolve before accepting my failure to become a shining image of caffeine-free health, though, so I turned to Jon for help. He has a way of approaching most topics that makes sense to me.
“Well…it’s not like I enjoy being addicted to something,” he said. “But for me caffeine is just a necessary evil.”
I concur. In fact, I credit a cup of tea for the completion of this blog post.