Our Bodies are Connected

I arrived at the conference groggy and spent, the glands in my throat two swollen tender lumps. Both Smoke and Stump had been sick the week before with pink eye and a nasty cough, and now my own body hosted their germs. Stump had kept me up for half the night before, squirming and crying, and then I’d risen at five to catch my flight to Utah.

I traveled with five other colleagues, people I knew only from committee meetings and all-campus emails, and as we approached the hotel it began to snow. This was only last Tuesday. This was June. At first it was a joke—a few flakes mixed with pouring rain—but minutes later it was falling in earnest. It accumulated on the grass at the edge of the highway.

In my disoriented state, I was relieved to make it to my room alone. Here before me were the things I had dreamed of for months. Two beds with clean sheets, all to myself. A television. A heated outdoor pool down the hall. But it wasn’t the moment it should have been. I had no idea what to do with myself.

Snow, Utah, June. This is the view from my window.
Snow, Utah, June. This is the view from my window.

We were here for a conference and I’d given myself permission to miss the opening address. I was nursing a cold, after all. But already I felt torn between duty and self-care—the very feeling I was hoping to escape from.

I talked myself into taking a long shower, and once that task was through, I remembered that I needed to pump. I sat on the bed farthest from the window, and held the small plastic contraption to my left breast. The last time I had fed my son was this morning on the opposite side. He was in a strangely quiet mood, and he nursed with his eyes wide open, silent and content.

When my milk let down, a sigh went through me. I wasn’t crying, not really, but my eyes felt the pressure of tears and my body felt the pressure of longing and it was such a strange thing to be emptying my left breast into a plastic contraption so that I could continue to be away from my child for another three days.

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 For some reason, I began to think about women who lactated for babies they’d lost.

A week after my fist son was born, an acquaintance came to visit and she told me that she had a stillborn child many years before. “No one warned me that my milk would come in,” she said. Only two feet away, Smoke lay sleeping on my bed. “It was such a strange and terrible thing to have lost a baby and then to be making all this milk.”

My morbid thoughts were absurd. My baby was and is alive. He walks and talks and eats and demands every ounce of milk and energy I have. But I was sharing with a machine an event that I normally share with my child, and for that moment I felt somber and haunted.

And then the moment passed. I put on my pajamas and turned on the TV. I piled up the pillows made a spot for myself on the impeccably clean bed.

Over the next three days, a part of my brain held a constant awareness of the 900 miles between my body and my sons’ bodies. Since I wasn’t there to keep them safe, I prayed that they would be intact on my return. I tried to tuck this awareness deep into my brain, so I could Do Work Things, and when I wasn’t doing work things I flitted like a hummingbird from blossom to blossom, sampling all of the sweet uninterrupted pastimes I long for when I’m home caring for my boys.

When I returned, the baby walked to me, alone, arms open, saying “Mah. Mah. Mah. Mah.”

I have a belt.

I moved forward in the TSA line with caution, confused because the rules had changed since the last time I traveled. At the back of the line, a friendly officer had given us the lowdown: You can keep your shoes on unless you think they will set off the metal detector. If you have a belt, you might want to remove it.

This is my belt.
This is my belt.

I paused just before I reached the conveyor belt. I had a laptop to unpack from my carry-on, but there were none of the usual plastic bins. The officer manning the x-ray stood there waiting for me. “Just leave your laptop in there,” he said. He was gruff.

He hung onto a mid-sized plastic bowl for jewelry. I looked at it. “I have a belt,” I told him. “Good for you,” he answered. My throat made a tiny noise of hesitation. “Let me see it,” he said, throwing me a bone. Flustered, I raised my shirt.

Just above my belt sits my pouch of a belly, totally white and totally stretched out, like a deflated balloon. I could see it. He could see it. I had raised my shirt too high. I took off my belt and placed it in the bowl, avoiding eye contact.

On the other side of the metal detector, I looked at no one as I gathered my suitcase and my carry-on. The belt came through last. As I strung it through the loops, I tracked all the other bodies in my vicinity, careful this time not to lift my shirt too high.

Once I put myself back together–my bag strapped across my shoulder, my suitcase rolling behind me–I had a small revelation: that wasn’t my fault. I noted that my automatic reaction was to assume that somehow “I have a belt,” was an incredibly stupid thing to say, that my choice of words had plunged me into an unavoidable sequence of shaming events, and I was being punished by someone far smarter than me.

But he was just a snarky TSA guy trying to make his job more interesting.  He would have found a way to tease me no matter what I said. And if my flash of belly embarrassed him, then good.

Note to self: not everything is personal.

Hello, Bike

I bought this bike about six months before my partner and I decided to have a second child.

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It’s the only bike I’ve ever bought new and I quickly fell in love. It’s is a comfort hybrid, which sounds a little un-sexy, I know, like mom jeans. “Comfort hybrid” means that my bike is not designed for speed, which means that the moment I start to feel like a hotshot, pedaling for broke on a busy street downtown, someone on a road bike comes flying past me; it also means that that my bike won’t hold up to a rugged mountain trail. But it’s brown and sturdy and shiny, and it doesn’t tweak my back out. Comfortable, you know, like mom jeans.

I paid about $500 for this bike, and it was supposed to pay for itself in about two years since I rode it to work four days a week. Then I got pregnant. By the time my morning sickness had passed, I had grown a significant baby bump and riding felt like a risk. I reassured myself that I’d get back on the bike within a month after the baby was born.

That didn’t happen.

In fact, I didn’t ride my new bike for nearly two years.

Part of the problem was that, while I was pregnant, the tires lost most of their air and the frame gathered dust, and while I knew it would only take me about twenty minutes to clean, the chore was daunting. I could handle a little cleaning and I could handle a little exercise, but I couldn’t handle cleaning in preparation for exercise.

Probably every dry day after Stump was born I thought “Maybe I’ll take my bike out today.” And then I didn’t.

Instead, I just observed how time passed, and how often I had the thought about riding my bike, and how I still hadn’t done anything about it.

But then, about a month ago, I bought Smoke his first bike and he fell in love.

This is Smoke on his first day of bike ownership.
This is Smoke on his first day of bike ownership.

He rode back and forth on the flat road behind our house and cried out “This is amaaaaaaaaazzzziiiiiiiiiing!” And so finally, one sunny day while Stump napped, I pulled out my bike. I pumped the tires and wiped off the dust and the pollen.  It really did take twenty minutes. And I pulled out the bike trailer and cleaned that too so that Stump could ride along behind me. When Stump woke up, we caravanned to the park, cruising up and down gentle slopes, newly free and mobile.

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Last week, I bumped it up a notch by running errands on my bike and in doing so, I’ve been reminded of a few of the reasons why I love to ride.

1. The wind in my helmet. I live at the top of a big hill, so riding often begins with the rush of gravity and balance. At the bottom of the hill, I greet Puget Sound and ride alongside it for a stretch. When I’m on my bike, I feel like I’m part of the weather.

2. It’s work. When I ride home, I choose a gentler route, but it’s still a climb. I get to tune in to the rhythms of my breath, to tinker with the balance of gear and thigh muscle. I get to feel powerful, moving from point a to point b, my own body the only source of fuel.

3. The car stays at home. One of my parental pet peeves is the endless hauling in and out of car seats, the endless buckling, the parking, the closing of doors. Of course, our bikes come with their own set of accoutrements and rituals. Smoke now insists on wearing bicycling gloves, which often means he has to find them first. Still, the preparation for a ride feel less oppressive. I’d rather say “Put on your helmet” than “Get in your car seat.”

Oh, and just in case you need a pick-me-up…

Hidden in Plain Sight

Want to hear something funny?

I wrote an essay on Symbiosis, Time, and Family that ran in Mutha Magazine today. Last week, the editor asked me to send some pictures to illustrate the essay, and so I began scrolling through all my photographs from the last year or so.

I had a bit of a dilemma. I wanted to choose the best photos, but I felt conflicted about my family’s privacy. For one thing, my partner Kellie hates nearly every photo of herself, with a vehemence most of us reserve for only the worst of the worst—photos where our eyes are closed and mouths are open. Tag her in a semi-flattering picture on Facebook and you will be subject to her wrath. I didn’t think she’d appreciate having her face featured on a website. And then there are my kids. I’m not opposed to sharing photos of them, but sometimes I worry about leaving a trail of their faces all over the internet.

And so, I settled on two photos that I thought captured something about our family without featuring our faces. In the end, I liked it that way. My hope was that the photographs would compliment the writing, rather than broadcasting: and this is what we look like.

So I was startled today when I viewed my piece online and there, in the middle of the page, was my naked belly.  I’ll  share it here too because, you know, why be shy now?

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Um, how did I miss that? I even wondered for a moment if I had accidentally attached the wrong photo, or if the editors had somehow magically un-cropped something I had altered long ago, but no. This is the photo I chose. I was so busy looking at wasn’t there, I didn’t notice what was there. If you asked me which am I more self-conscious about, my face of my post-partum belly, well, you can probably guess what my answer would be. In fact, throughout both of my pregnancies I made a point of not sharing any belly-pics. I liked my growing belly just fine, but I wanted to keep it to myself.

Another thing: You can see my son’s umbilical cord pressed between my left arm and my belly. I hadn’t noticed that either. In fact I had nearly forgotten that when I held him for the first time, he was still tethered to me by that thick blue rope. It only lasted a minute, and then he was released.

Grief: Where Does it Come From and Where Does it Go?

When I was around twelve years old, I remember having an evening when I couldn’t stop crying. It was June, and my family had finished dinner. The sky was still just light enough to glow. My mother and I loaded dishes in the washer. I’d been fighting angst all evening—some strange source of pain that I couldn’t name—and suddenly it all burst forth from me in tears.

A gift that my mother gave me—in that moment and many others—was a curiosity about emotions and how they revealed themselves. My outburst didn’t seem to make her nervous. She didn’t leave the room or stand there staring. Instead, she put a hand on my shoulder and offered theories. Maybe I was sad because it was the end of the school year and I would miss my friends in the summer. Maybe I was simply on the cusp of change, and frightened.

Two weeks ago, my son’s preschool closed forever. He started there when he was two and has seen many of the same faces every week for the last three years. It’s the place where, at two-years-old, he would cling to me most mornings, hiding between my legs until he summoned the courage to join his friends; the place where he fed worms to chickens and dug in the dirt; the place where, after he fell from a branch and injured himself, a fire truck arrived, and several kind EMTs gave him a stuffed donkey to hold as they bandaged him; the place where he’s created countless projects out of cardboard and googly eyes. Over the last few months he’s come to love his school especially. On weekends he asks me to count the days until he sees his teacher and his friends.

This is a picture my son drew of his preschool. Note the sunshine and the giant door.
This is a picture my son drew of his preschool. Note the sunshine and the giant door.

The friends, they still exist, and the teacher is having her own baby, but the place we’ve known is empty now, and I’ve wondered how my son’s grief would come out. At the goodbye party for his teacher, we all ate cake and played hard. On the last day of preschool we said our goodbyes a bit louder than normal, but neither of us shared tears. And even at the yard sale, where all the toys they had played with over the last three years were sorted and labeled with price tags, my son was simply intent on purchasing the blue light saber before someone else got it. We got it, and therefore no tears.

I’ve never liked goodbyes. I prefer to mark endings privately, quietly, and perhaps I’ve passed this to my son.

Yesterday morning, my son woke up with his left eye swollen half closed. We couldn’t tell at first if it was an allergy or pink eye, so I gave him Benadryl, and tended to it with a warm washcloth. I gave him extra attention at breakfast, bringing him juice, kissing his forehead, wiping his nose.

After breakfast, when I insisted on a walk in the sun, he curled in a ball on the couch and screamed. He didn’t want to go anywhere! He had a stomach flu! He was serious! He wanted to stay home all day! I was serious too. The day was getting warm and the birds were singing. I had enrollment forms to drop off at the local kindergarten three blocks away, which was across the street from the bakery. I promised him a cookie, but he wouldn’t budge. I insisted. I chose his clothes and dressed him, uncurling him from his ball limb by limb. Outside, my partner carried him, and he screamed some more because the sun hurt his eyes.

But the sight of the bakery case with its many trays of cookies calmed him and he wiped his tears. “Can I have a breadstick too?” he asked. He sat on the bench outside his future kindergarten and ate his cookie first. My partner asked for a bite of his breadstick and he told her “I’m sorry but no.” He walked home on his own feet, half himself again.

I wonder about my own grief and where it will land—in my left eye or my right ear, or will it just stretch out through my body through the week?

Better than Band-aids: some things that made infertility suck a little less

Last week I wrote about my struggle to get pregnant with my first son. During those two years, I heard all kinds of advice and remarks that were generally unhelpful—unhelpful in the way that I’m sure I am when close friends are going through some kind of personal turmoil that I have no experience with. I may listen and nod, but when it comes time for me to say something, I come up short. I say the equivalent of “Just relax and it will happen,” or, “Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.” But this week I want to point a bright ray of sunlight on the few things that helped me during that time.

1. After about six months of trying to conceive, I sat cross-legged on a friend’s couch, explaining how I had assumed I’d be pregnant on the first or second try. She looked me in the eye and said, “Well, you know, you’re still one of the most fertile people I know.” I carried that sentence around with me for the next year and half like a stone in my pocket. Infertility had made me feel broken, but my friend’s statement helped me see the larger picture, to understand that fertility might mean more than making babies, that my person still had value.

2.  A counselor once told me, at the end of our session: “Seek as much pleasure as you can.” In some ways, this statement might not be so different from the ubiquitous advice, “Relax!”, but I found it far more helpful. To me, “Relax!” was an admonition; it implied that I was doing it all wrong. But “Seek pleasure” was instructive. It didn’t promise a baby, but it reminded me that in the meantime I could enjoy myself. It helped me sleep more, eat better, and listen to the whisper inside of me that told me what I craved.

3. In the spirit of seeking pleasure, I stopped spending a fortune on acupuncture (which I did not enjoy) and instead sought out a massage therapist. During our first session, she asked what I wanted to work on, and I told her I’d been trying to conceive for over a year. She looked at me with empathy and revealed, “It took me three years to get pregnant.” And suddenly, just like that, I felt hopeful again.

4. This last one is impossible, but it would have solved everything. One day, when my first son was two, we were on a walk together and I realized: if I could have a photograph of this moment, and if I could time travel back two years, I would have had so much patience. If I could have seen a single photo of my son, there would have been no dread or urgency to my waiting. They say that faith is knowing without proof, and apparently I’m incapable of that, which is what made those years painful. If the future me could have provided the past me with proof, I’m certain those two years would have felt like twenty-four months instead of an impossible eon.

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I Will Probably Stop Breastfeeding Someday

ImageI breastfed my first son until he was nearly three. I had felt ready to quit for about six months before we actually quit, and once he was fully weaned I relished the freedom. I could wear dresses again, and put my son to bed with just a bedtime story and a hug, but most of all I enjoyed being in my body and not having to share it all the time.

When we decided to have a second child, I wasn’t so excited by the prospect of starting all over again—buying the nursing tanks, setting up the pump, drinking all that water, leaking all over my shirts. And, if I’m going to be honest here, what I truly dreaded was the feeling of being sucked on all the time. And so, I made myself a promise: if I wanted to, I could wean the baby at twelve months. I live in a community that supports extended nursing, and I’m a believer in its benefits; but I also believe in paying attention to my own limits, so  I decided that a year was good enough.

However, my son is twelve months now and we still nurse all the time. In spite of the fact that I have my own permission to wean him, we seem to be going strong.  Right now, as he sleeps, I’m taking stock of the various ways I feel about that.

1. Stretchy: Now that my baby is strong and mobile, nursing sometimes has this acrobatic element. In the mornings, he often wakes at five and I nurse him to see if I can get another hour of rest. Sometimes it works and we doze together, but just as often he squirms and pulls. I am both impressed with and horrified by how far he can stretch me.  I’m thirty-seven years old, which means that my self-image depends on maintaining some illusions about my own body. I try not to take stock of myself when I’m in unflattering positions. But when the baby is able to stretch my left breast to the next room, my vanity dies a little bit.

2. Lazy: One of the major reasons I won’t wean this month or next is that nursing is just too convenient. When the baby bonks his head, or just decides to be cranky we can plop down on the couch and check out for a minute or two. Bedtimes are easy. My partner can put the baby to sleep, but it takes actual work for her—twenty minutes of crying and rocking. For me it takes ten minutes of nursing while I sit on bed and scroll through my Facebook feed on my iPhone. And on the rare occasion when it doesn’t work, I have this excuse: since I nurse him, he won’t go to sleep for me any other way. I get to hand him off to my partner for Bedtime Round 2.

3. Tired: It’s true that I might be sleeping better if I night-weaned. Two months ago we moved the baby from our bed into his own crib, and surprisingly he seems to love it there. Still, he wakes up to nurse as soon as I come to bed, and then sometimes wakes me up a second time, reminding me to move him back to his own crib. Often there’s a third time and a fourth time. I’m willing to believe that he would now sleep through the night if he knew there was no milk in store for him. But refer back to #2. I’m too lazy to take this on.

4. Totally Awesome: I have plenty of shortcomings as a parent. There are days when I’m distracted, and days when I let my older son eat gummy bears with breakfast because I don’t feel like putting up a fight. The baby can’t tell me if he’s too hot or too cold, and so I tend to assume he’s just fine when maybe I should worry. But nursing is something I can do, and I like to think that it’s a trade for all of the things I can’t or don’t do. On the days I don’t offer the baby broccoli, at least he got some nutrients from my milk. On the days I don’t make him wear a hat, at least my milk will help him fight the cold we’re about to catch. And on the days I stay at work too late, or get annoyed because he’s whinier than usual, at least I can pull him up against me and together we’ll have one of those long nursing moments where we look at each other, and then off into space, and then at each other again.

enhanced-3642-1391392838-15image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/82329524@N00

Some of the Ways I Didn’t get Pregnant

Image(image from http://www.webmd.com/baby/ss/slideshow-conception)

1. I didn’t get pregnant by intrauterine insemination, the procedure that requires a doctor to insert a catheter into a woman’s cervical os—a tiny and tender hole—and slowly release sperm. The sperm has been washed and frozen, thawed and spun. Meanwhile the recipient lies in a hospital gown, her feet in stirrups. Ten times that recipient was me, lying there trying to will those expensive sperm towards my patient egg. But each time my egg failed me, or the sperm failed me, or my body failed me—it’s hard to say which. I didn’t get pregnant, just a little hurt and broke.

2. I didn’t get pregnant “just by looking at a penis,” even though a number of women informed me that they themselves were so fertile this was all it took. “All I have to do…” they’d say. It became a surprisingly regular conversation. At the time, I thought they were inadvertently rubbing it in my face that they could achieve so easily the very thing that was costing me so much time and expense. But maybe they were trying to be helpful, hinting that maybe there just weren’t enough penises in my life. In fact, it may be true that in the two years it took me to conceive my first son, I did not look at a single penis.

3. I didn’t get pregnant by relaxing, though that was by far the most popular suggestion. With every month that passed, more and more people said it: “Maybe you just need to relax.” I tried, but perhaps my problem was that I thought relaxation was an attitude. I told myself to breathe when I felt nervous or hopeless, or when I worried about my worrying because apparently my fears were like corrosive acid to my reproductive organs. Maybe by “relax” they meant an action, like a month in Hawaii or a weekly massage. Maybe what they meant was: have a drink.

4. I didn’t get pregnant from a turkey baster, although my son did develop a fondness for our turkey baster (used, I swear, for basting turkeys) when he was two. He played with it in the bath, he slept with it for a couple of nights, and then he wanted to bring it to preschool one day. I told him no, offering no good reason, because—you know—the kid with two moms wants to bring a turkey baster to preschool, and I worry what people will think. And so I was relieved that he moved on to other interests before doing something really concerning like naming it “Dad”.