Sunday, May 15, 2016

I Was Dreaming When I Wrote This: Life on Painkillers

When I woke up this morning, my bedroom was filled with starlight. Phosphenes, like slow-motion fireworks, slid across my field of vision. The ice pack I’d slipped inside my pillowcase the night before had warmed to a useless room temperature. I rubbed my jaw, my temples, the bridge of my nose. I hefted my body from the mattress, closed my eyes, and felt my way to the medicine cabinet.


With a gentle shake of the bottle, I can tell muscle relaxers from triptans. Valium rustles. Lorzone thunks. Imitrex rattles. Vicodin — 90 pills to a bottle, pills shaped like small, yellow canoes — sounds like heavy rain. I open the Vicodin. I scramble into the boat just as pain sluices down my skull.


The migraines began when I was 7 years old but became chronic when I was in my mid-twenties. A little more than a year ago, any therapies that had been somewhat successful at dampening the daily pain stopped working. Acupuncture, a rigid sleep schedule, and trigger avoidance suddenly came to naught. Similarly, CAT scans, MRIs, and hormone tests yielded nothing. “You have a vitamin D deficiency. We know that much,” my doctor offered, after yet another blood draw. So I take vitamin D. And vitamin B-12 and probiotics and NSAIDs and muscle relaxers and triptans and steroids and barbiturates and opioids.


Pain carves you out. At one time, my life was a series of typical ups and downs, the rolling hills of family drama or social pursuits. Then pain came in torrents, forming a valley, then a canyon between my child, my marriage, my career, and me. I can cling to the austere cliffside of pain with nothing but the cold caress of self-purity to comfort me. But most days, I take the drugs. I get in the damned boat and let it float downriver, where I meet my life on the distant shore.


They say Prince was in constant pain: in need of knee surgery and a double hip replacement from years of gymnastic stage routines. There is speculation that he eschewed some surgical interventions because, as a Jehovah's Witness, he couldn’t accept a blood transfusion. So he leaned on a scepter, and we were none the wiser. If anyone is entitled to lean on a jewel-encrusted staff, it would be a man baptized “Prince,” the same man who walked through the world in nothing but high-slung panties or as a lewd Mr. Darcy or, toward the end, as a black power bodhisattva, in third-eye sunglasses and a perfectly coiffed halo of hair.


As a run-of-the-mill suburban mom, I don’t have the liberty of a scepter. Wearing a low-cut blouse or blue nail polish feels like a small act of transgression. I carry a sampling of pills in a tiny breath mint tin. During work or time out with friends, I can slip a pill onto my tongue and gulp it down without drawing anyone’s attention. Often, physical and mental illness are conflated with moral malignancy. “What have you done to get yourself in this situation? Did you eat poorly? Did you think negative thoughts? Have you really tried to get better?” Pain makes you ashamed.


This is America, land of “dust yourself off,” “pick yourself up,” and “lean in.” But what, exactly, are we allowed to lean into? Painkillers, particularly narcotic painkillers, are seen as a cop out. The most effective treatment for curbing my pain is branded by grave-faced news anchors and anonymous Internet commenters as just another weakness. I am, apparently, part of an epidemic. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” they say, just not by those bootstraps.




My youngest sister broke the news by text message: “Just saw that Prince died. So sad.” My son was next to me on the couch, watching a cartoon, while I lay curled in the fetal position, an ice pack draped across my forehead. Through the distant thud of blood in my temples and a light fog of Vicodin, I sat up, staring at my phone. Five-minutes worth of Google searches later, I burst into tears. The only thing I could type in reply to my sister’s message was, “No!” As though she had asked me a question. As though my response could undo what was already done.


When I was about 8 years old, Prince officially became my unicorn, both my Disney princess and my Prince Charming. He was fantasy incarnate. While I dutifully donned my Catholic school uniform or, later, a business casual button down and practical flats, he crooned to me through my Walkman, he riffed on my iPod, preaching the salvation of audacity.


But I’ve never had what it takes to be 10 feet of human in a 5-foot-2-inch frame. In lieu of strutting around in an assless, yellow jumpsuit, I hummed “Controversy” in my car or while folding laundry. “Was I what you wanted me to be?” Prince asks in the song, though it is less a question than a dig, an affront to expectations. Enjoying his music, cheering his one-man battle against convention, was the only thing I had in common with my long-time idol, or so I thought. He, music royalty. Me, the adoring hoi polloi.


But pain is the great equalizer. It wrecks your concentration, suppresses your appetites, leaves you exhausted anxious, and terrified. He sold out stadiums. I hunched over a keyboard in a cubicle. Yet it turns out that both of us were putting on the same show: Business as Usual. Apparently, he found it less daunting to write and perform a song called “Head” than to publicly cop to his physical limitations. Apparently, even Prince had a taboo.


Just as he continued to tour and perform until a week before his death, leaning on both his scepter, and as we would later find out, a lethal dose of opioids, I continue to parent, to work, to run a neighborhood play group, to show up, sometimes glassy-eyed, for social events. My family depends on my ability to function. Prince employed a small army to manage his tours and various business concerns; they, too, depended on his ability to function. We both chose to function. We both quietly chose the drugs.


I am not a addict. I have never taken a single pill that wasn’t in service to alleviating pain. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve taken more than the prescribed dose of a medication, each of those times in an attempt to avoid an expensive, humiliating trip to the E.R., where medical staff never fail to squint their eyes and ask, “So I’m guessing you want morphine?” But I understand why prescription painkillers have become the addiction du jour in America, the reason why, according to the CDC, 6 in 10 overdose deaths are the result of opioid use: The pills make us feel better. For one shining hour after I take a Vicodin, I don’t feel just relief, but actual well-being. And when you are in pain every day, but expected to tough it out, to behave as an able-bodied person would, you look forward to, jones for, that fleeting experience of normalcy. I climb in that little yellow canoe, and I am buoyed.


The judge and jury of the World Wide Web labeled him a “druggie” and a “junkie,” another coddled, Godless celeb. Kinder souls reacted to Prince’s overdose by calling it “a senseless death.” And, in fact, it was senseless, because what catches one in the riptide of addiction is the desperate need to sense less, to not feel. Opioids carry us away from pain. More than that, painkillers allow our friends and family (or fans) to sense less, too. It’s uncomfortable to watch a loved one slog through unrelenting pain. It makes others feel angry and frightened, mortal. Opioids not only relieve my pain, they relieve my family’s pain. “Look at me,” I can say, “a bit wide-eyed, a bit sweaty, but doing the dishes, paying the bills. Situation normal. Just a contributing member of society, living the American dream.”

My tomorrow morning will likely be the same as this morning: the rattle of pill bottles, the trip to the far shore. And by the afternoon, I’ll be trotting after my son as he erratically peddles his tricycle down our street. Pain tells you “no.” I’m just thankful I have access to medication that tells me, “If you must, then, yes.” And I must.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Guest Post: Hire a Damn Doula

In the world of parenthood blogging (and it is, in fact, a world — a comforting, sloppy, emotionally chaotic world) most posts are skewed toward mamas. Moms have been, after all, the primary caretakers for eons. But the parenting landscape is rapidly changing. I know just as many stay-at-home dads and baby-wearing dads and attachment-parenting dads as I do the more traditional 9-to-5 dads or baseball-coaching dads. In many cases, those baby wearers are one in the same with the office workers. 

Thus, I am very excited to feature a guest post from a wonderful writer and brand-spankin'-new dad. Isaac James Baker is the proud new father of a beautiful baby girl. He’s the author of Broken Bones, a novel, and he blogs about “Reading, Writing & Wine.” His essay about doulas and the beauty and chaos of the birthing process (told from his new papa perspective) is funny, tender, and spot on.


Hire a Damn Doula
by Isaac James Baker


So, your partner is expecting a baby. That’s amazing. You’re surely getting unsolicited advice from all angles. Well, here’s another piece for the pile: Hire a damn doula.

When my pregnant wife first proposed hiring a doula, I issued my standard response when asked about paying someone to perform a service: Nope, I can do that shit on my own. Oh, how ignorant I was.

The more I researched what doulas do, and the more my attorney wife presented me with rock-solid arguments in their favor, the more I came around. Looking back now, I have no idea how I would’ve made it without our doula.

The dominant American cultural approach to pregnancy, labor, and post-partum care is off-kilter in plenty of ways. We’re the only industrialized nation without mandated maternity leave; and paternity leave is seen as a joke, something for lazy-ass sissies. Also, we don’t take doulas as seriously as we should. If you, as a birth partner, have heard of doulas at all, you may think they’re granola-crunching life-coaches. I’ve noticed some OBs seem to have a chip on their shoulder when it comes to doulas, as if not being able to perform a C-section means you have an unimportant place in the birthing process.

But doulas are awesome. They are highly trained, they are highly experienced, and, perhaps most importantly, they have your back.

Do you know the quickest way to remove a hospital gown from a woman in the middle of an intense contraction? Can you coach her through the hardcore transition phase and hours of exhausting pushing? Do you have any clue what occiput posterior position is and how problematic it can be for the mother? When blood comes — and there will be blood — will you have any idea how much is normal scary and how much is legit terrifying?

No. Because you’re not a fucking doula.

So much about the birthing process was out of our control, but hiring a doula was the best thing we did in preparation for the birth. I read a half-dozen books about pregnancy, labor, and delivery while my wife was cooking our Little Biscuit, and this information was a huge help. (“The Birth Partner” by Penny Simkin is a must read for all partners of pregnant women.) But even though my head was full of information, I had no practical experience. When push came to push, I had no clue what to do.

As I pondered the approach of a doula, I developed a metaphor that has stuck with me. I’m a die-hard surfer, and I chase waves in all sorts of places. I love to put myself in intense and sketchy situations where the risk can be quite high, but the payoff can be ethereal.

As a birth partner, I thought of the birth process as a heavy wave breaking at a remote and unforgiving spot. I was the stoked, wide-eyed traveler, full of enthusiasm but ignorant of the complexities and pitfalls inherent in this particular experience. When you find yourself paddling out into a sketchy situation, the best thing you can do is have an experienced local by your side. Your ignorant ass doesn’t know where the submerged rocks are hiding, where the reef is the sharpest and shallowest, where the biggest sets break and catch you unaware, which nooks are frequented by those large predatory fish.

Having a veteran local around may seem like a luxury, and, sure, plenty of people can do just fine on their own, both in surfing and birth. But when the unexpected happens, that experienced person by your side becomes crucial.

My wife was a week overdue when we arrived at the hospital early on a Thursday morning. We spent five hours attempting to get labor going on our own, until the nurse kicked on the Pitocin drip, which took about 5 hours to get things started.

I was spread out on a recliner chair beside my wife, watching a Brazilian surf competition, when, all of the sudden, shit got real. I got up to give my wife a kiss and make sure she was alright, then I called the doula. She picked up right away, and I told her it was time. “Just what I’ve been waiting to hear,” she said. “I’ve got my bag ready to go.”

Amy arrived quickly with a birth ball, massage equipment, a big bag of gummy bears, and a ton of determination and compassion. As my wife progressed in labor, Amy comforted her, helped her power through contractions, advised her in different positions, walked her into the shower when the pain was too much to bear. As a birth partner, Amy helped me by breaking down what was happening and answering my many questions. During the chaos, Amy stayed by my wife’s side the entire time, allowing me a few minutes to pound a Red Bull, inhale a protein bar, and hit the bathroom.

The labor and delivery wing had been quiet all morning and, from what I could tell, all evening. But by the time my wife was in active labor, lazy Sunday traffic had turned into Monday morning mayhem. Babies were being born all over the place. “Code D!” (which meant a baby was coming) lasted from the intercom, so our midwife had to bail several times. While my wife was pushing, and I was trying to look like I had my shit together, the midwife left for 40 minutes to deliver a baby next door. The on-duty nurses (amazing, all of them) were stretched thin as well, and they were jumping around from room to room, doing anything and everything to help the various women in labor.

I don’t want to take anything away from the midwifery practice with which my wife and I worked; we had an excellent experience and I could write an equally effusive piece about midwifery practices. But when I initially told my wife I didn’t need a doula to help me, I had no idea I would be sans nurse and sans midwife while my wife was pushing out a baby. At one point, as Amy and I were each holding one of my wife’s legs during a contraction, I told her, “I never thought it would be just the two of us.” Amy just smiled as if to say, “Shit happens. Just labor on.”

Amy worked from about 8 pm to 6 am, but she seemed to love every minute of it. She was attentive, caring and all-around on top of shit the entire time. Amy isn’t an anomaly — the other doulas I have met are, without exception, caring, strong and deeply trustworthy.

Listen to him, people. Hire a damn doula!

After the birth, Amy helped coach my wife through the process of nursing our newborn baby girl, showing her how to coax the baby into a solid latch and keep her there while she nursed. As I was holding my angelic new daughter, sipping a coffee Amy had brought me, I turned to her and fumbled with words in an attempt to thank her for help, her presence, for the richness she added to the experience. The exhausted “Thank you” sounded almost crass after all we’d been through. But she just smiled and said, “It was an honor.” 

I could’ve said the same thing about having her with me.



Friday, May 15, 2015

Charm City

My childhood home in Baltimore didn't have a chimney. And come Christmastime, that was a problem.

“How,” I asked my dad, “is Santa going to get inside if we don’t have a chimney?”

With a straight face, my dad responded, “Through the dryer vent.”

A clothes dryer vent seemed an undignified way to welcome the most important man on Earth into our home. Chimneys, though, like brand-name jeans and cable TV, were for rich people. My Gardenville neighborhood was solidly blue collar. Fancy folks had above-ground pools or aluminum siding maybe, but not chimneys. Yet, every December 25th, the toys got where they needed to go. The lint trap never produced a wayward beard hair or tuft of white fur, but I believed.

That there were kids who didn't have dryers, never occurred to me. Just a 15-minute walk from my block of modest single-family homes, the neighborhoods got shabbier. Liquor stores sprouted up. An x-rated movie theater hunkered between a tattoo parlor and a ballet studio. Alleys served as backyards. It never occurred to me that, to some kid a half-mile away, we were the rich people, or that Baltimore Gas and Electric didn't care whether you wanted a new bike or one pair of decent shoes, that you’d been good all year.

Folks call my hometown “Charm City,” which seems an equally fitting nickname for childhood. As a kid, I assumed that life was, more often than not, great, and above all else, fair. Magic wasn't just possible, it was expected.

Of course Santa was real. Of course I could grow up to be Donna Summer, Queen of Disco. Really, nothing came on TV after 8. And, yes, calm down, Mom would be okay.

It never occurred to me that my dad might not be telling the whole truth.

I was 8 when my mom died. I was playing with a friend across the street when I heard my dad urgently calling my name. As I loped toward home, I saw people crowding our sidewalk and front porch. Neighbors gathered on their stoops, crying. Before I even stepped foot in my own yard, I knew: She was gone. And with her went Santa Clause and my prim little bubble of fairness.

****

Thirty years later, I’m a mother. My son is 2, and I sometimes find myself torn between recreating that bubble for him and laying everything bare. For now, Santa lives again. In fact, Santa is a thoroughly modern man: I explained to my son that Mr. Claus uses the webcam to watch over him at night, when the nursery is dark and lonely. This fib sooths my son and imbues his world with a little extra wonder. Admittedly, the ever-present eye of Santa also helps to keep my toddler in line. Fairy tales have always functioned that way: vague threats disguised as enchantment.

My husband, son, and I live in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, having moved for work and more green space and a loft bedroom. Notably, we have a fireplace. Almost everyone in our neighborhood has a fireplace. Chimneys left and right. There are no above-ground pools or security bars on windows. Signs of poverty are a violation of HOA rules. Our schools are “high-performing.” We are engineers and lawyers and stay-at-home moms and military families. We garden and host play dates. It’s a very different kind of Charm City. The bubble practically builds itself.

****

When I was fresh out of grad school and nearly broke, I lived for a time in Baltimore’s Govans neighborhood. My roommates and I rented a row home near a chicken wing joint that advertised “50 Pieces for Your Wedding or Funeral!” A police camera mounted below a swirling blue light kept a silent, electronic watch over our corner. Someone left needles on the hood of my car. While I was trudging up York Road one day, a man in a neatly detailed Volvo leaned out of his window: “I wouldn’t be walking alone through this neighborhood if I were you.” A handful of Black kids played tag on the corner behind me, laughing, shrieking. “It’s not safe,” the guy called after me as I glanced back at the kids and then went on my way.

Image courtesy of Debi Parker Keating Photography.


****

As an early spring chill suddenly gave way to sticky heat, storms rolled through Virginia. My son watched from his bedroom window as lightning crackled in the near distance. Thunder rumbled. My husband held a hand to our toddler’s back and whispered in his ear, “Don’t worry. The storm stays outside.” Before his bedtime, I held my son in my lap and read to him. He dug his head into the flesh below my shoulder. As the rain began to pelt the windows, he mumbled to himself, over and again, “Don’t worry. The storm stays outside.” I rocked him and read to him and I held my tongue. “What’s the harm?” I wondered to myself, “This isn't Katrina.”

When do you tell a child that terrible things happen, sometimes for no reason? Or worse, that they happen for reasons we choose to ignore? At what point does a sense of security become a fatal flaw?

Last week, I watched Charm City erupt. For days, my son had awoken each morning convinced that a thunderstorm still raged outside. He could not be persuaded otherwise until I threw back the curtains on a sunny day. “The storm stays outside,” he would announce. And from our 50-mile distance from Baltimore, I did feel very much “outside.” I clicked from news channel to news channel. I trolled Facebook for status updates from friends in the city, from folks on the inside.

So many people asked, “Why would they burn their own neighborhoods?” And all I can say is that it’s hard to break a spell.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

I Love My Dog Less

Mine was one of those baby showers where the womenfolk gather around the mother-to-be in a tight, perfumed semicircle, cooing and ahh-ing as each bib or tube of nipple cream is unwrapped. Cards were dutifully read aloud and passed around the room.

Fortunately, my family and friends have a wicked sense of humor. An old college pal bought me breast pump parts and a six pack of milk stout. As I unwrapped a training potty, someone yelled, "Welcome to your future!"

Then I read off a card from another girlfriend, the wife of a grad school classmate. This woman has a dry, brilliant wit. She is also the type of mom who exudes an alarming competency. Her card read: "Prepare to love your dog a lot less."

The roomful of women let out a collective, albeit polite, gasp. I laughed, but shook my head. "Noooo," I whined. "Our dog is the best."

My girlfriend smiled at me, but it was a stiff smile, a smile meant to convey compassion for the hopelessly dumb.

My husband adopted our lanky, shaggy mutt from the pound long before he met me. Shelby said that, once he discovered her — her flapping, flag-like tail and keen eyes — he stood outside of her cage, starring down anyone who gave her an admiring glance. At noon, when adoptions officially opened, he made a beeline for the front desk and made Sarah his girl.

Her name is Sarah. Has been since her pound days. My youngest sister is also named Sarah. The running joke is that, if we ever get another dog, we'll name it Kim, after my middle sister. Except, it's not really a joke, because I'm willing to follow through on that threat. Then again, I can't imagine getting another dog, at least not anytime soon.

I fell for Sarah as quickly as I fell for Shelby. She is gentle, smart, and impossibly well behaved. If we pass a swimming pool in the summertime, Sarah whines and yips, straining at her leash to "save" the splashing kids. If we leave a few crusts of pizza on the table, if we leave the lid off of the garbage can, Sarah won't disturb a crumb. When guests stay overnight, she dutifully creeps from room to room, accounting for every sleeping soul.

We call this trick, "Hide your ugly face." For real.

When I got pregnant, the dog napped with her head atop my ever-growing belly. I imagined Sarah keeping steadfast watch over our infant. I imagined her trotting after an unsteady toddler or playing ball with our little boy. Forget the fact that Sarah has never, in her entire refined life, deigned to fetch a ball. My dog and my son: future stars of Instagram!

Then, when Pork Chop was born, he cried. He didn't stop crying. Then I cried, and I didn't stop crying. For 3 months.

Sarah paced the apartment, her tail tucked between her legs. While I nursed by son, Sarah would slip her head into my lap and sigh and whimper. If the baby lay on the floor or bed, cooing and drooling, the dog might sneak a sniff of his tender baby scalp and then dart away to hide behind my legs.

Two years later, dog-child relations have not improved. Toddlers are unpredictable. They slap, grab fur, pet eyeballs, and steal rawhide treats. My dog is, unequivocally, better behaved than my son. She's calmer, more loyal. She often smells better.

But my friend was right: I love my dog less. Not less than before. Just less than my son.

In the winter, as sleet slashes at the air, my concern for Pork Chop's fingers and toes trumps my dog's love of meandering strolls. In summer, Sarah would happily molest every chipmunk and squirrel in our suburban woods from dawn to dusk, but I just can't chance my son getting heat stroke or poison ivy or lyme disease. Then there's nap time, during which barking is a capital offense. And at the end of the day, after 13 hours of being pawed by sticky fingers, of being covered in spit and tears, I need space, just when Sarah wants to curl her 37 pounds of black fur and unspeakable dog breath into my lap.

"Please, please, pleeeeeeease! Just 4, maybe 5 more hours in the snow."


I love my dog less. Even today, when my son is in timeout. The kid wanted fish sticks for lunch, not a turkey sandwich. In protest, he launched his metal sippy cup at the floor, first catching the boney top of my foot. The dog is hidden beneath the kitchen table as Pork Chop wails at the injustice of being asked to apologize. I hold his hand in one of my hands. I rub my bruised foot with my other hand. I want to whimper. I want to hide under the table. But I love this irrational, howling beastie. Even as he swats at me, screaming, "No, Mama!" into my drained face.

From her hiding spot between the banquette and the table legs, Sarah raises her head, shifts her weight like she's about to stand, to come toward me, but then settles her greying muzzle back onto her paws. She knows I'm a lost cause.

Reincarnation is the belief that, after biological death, the soul is reborn into a new body. Some hold that, if we lead a good life, free of attachments, we come back again as humans, maybe even happy, healthy humans. Lead a less savory life, and you'll be downgraded — to a snake, a bird, maybe a dog.

So, was Sarah a fantastic groundhog in a previous life or was she a miserable failure as a woman? My gentle, bright, protective girl? And if she was a failure, then what's to become of me in the next life? I don't have much use for stuff, for gadgets or jewelry or cars. But I am utterly, hopelessly attached to the crazed child in front of me, the one gone red in the face, snot pooling on his upper lip, yelling at me to "Let go! Let go! Let go!" Chances are, I'll be demoted to a chicken, doomed to watch my offspring be turned, time and again, into quiche.

After another 10 minutes of hysterics, my son suddenly sits up straight and mumbles, "I'm sorry, Mama."

"Sorry for what?" I prompt.

"Sorry for the um, the um, the um."

He doesn't remember.

"The um. The hitting Daddy?"

Daddy's not even home, but I don't care. I'm exhausted.

"Okay, buddy. Gimme a hug."

He swats his tears away, smiles, leans in for a hug, and asks, "Snack?"

I creak into a standing position, sigh, and open the pantry. ("Cluck cluck," Jessica.) Pork Chop is already on the banquette, jumping up and down and shoving puzzle pieces between the cushions. Sarah pads up to me, her nails clicking delicately on the wooden floor. As I scoop Goldfish into a snack cup, the dog sits at my feet, then stands, then sits — one of her many nervous habits. During thunderstorms or particularly loud toddler meltdowns, she hides in the bathtub. Today, though, she sits, she stands, she sits, unsure how best to convey that she is both troubled for me and troubled for herself.

Later tonight, I'll slip her dinner scraps while my husband isn't looking or let her take up nine-tenths of the couch while I try to type on my laptop. I'll scratch her ear and whisper, "Who's the best girl?" But what Sarah really needs is a long, late Saturday morning spent snoring on the bed while we listen to the radio. She needs whole afternoons devoted to dirt and rabbits and underbrush, ticks and burrs be damned. She needs my attention. She needs the old me. But right now, my kid is an inch away from toppling off of the banquet. I nearly trip over Sarah as I run toward my son.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Case for Mothering Yourself

I come from a long line of storytellers. My family is Sicilian, and there is nothing they love more than a tray of cured meats, a tub of good ricotta, and a well-told tale. I’ve heard some of the same stories, year in and year out, for 39 years: The one about my great-grandparents building a giant wine press in their backyard. The one about my dad in barbering school, snipping the top of a man’s ear. The one about my uncle mistaking a Portuguese man o’ war for a kite floating in the ocean.

And yet, with each telling, the plots become more complicated, the twists more diabolical, the dialog more dramatic, the hand gestures more Italian, and thus more dangerous. It was inevitable that I would fall under the same spell. The pleasure I take in sharing a great story is profound.

I once dated a dedicated “boob man.” I was, decidedly, not his type, but we got along well. We talked easily. Knowing that he typically went for busty femme fatales, I came right out and asked: “Why me?” I expected the obvious answer: “Your hiney kind of makes up for the other stuff.” Instead, he told me that the first time he ever saw me was at a noisy, crowded party. “In the middle of all that chaos,” he said, “you were surrounded by a group of people, and they were all listening to you tell a story. Totally, completely listening. And I wondered what it would take for someone who could tell a story like that to find a guy like me interesting.”

I have no memory of that party. I drank a lot of Goldschl├Ąger back in those days because it sounded expensive and European. But what that old beau said to me remains one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. If one good story could make a “boob man” look past my physical “deficits,” then I was going to rule the world.

Eventually, I did what any young woman set on world domination would do: I earned an MFA in creative writing. I traded in Goldschl├Ąger for pretending to enjoy hipster craft beer, but my earnest, drippy devotion to storytelling remained the same. I wrote essays. I composed poetry. I taught classes on literature and story craft. Words. Words everywhere, like a bread crumb trail leading me always back to myself. To home.

And then I decided it was time to write a new chapter in my life. To change the story. I became a mom. And in the space of one night, I gave birth to my greatest creation, my son, and silently buried my first love, writing.

****

As mothers, we tend to think of things in terms of cost. And not just the monetary cost, but the physical cost, the cost to our time, the cost to our mental health. A manicure may only run you 20 bucks, which sounds like a modest splurge, until you account for the hour of your day that it will also cost you. Not to mention the time spent scheduling the manicure around naptime and mealtime and soccer practice and work and “Downton Abbey” and “The Walking Dead” and “Scandal” and maybe, if you’re lucky, a shower with shampoo. And let’s not forget that someone will need to watch the kids, because freshly polished nails and a freshly soiled diaper just don’t mix. But your toddler has separation anxiety and your tween figured out how to override the parental controls on the computer and your spouse has the sniffles. Or you don’t have a spouse.

You add up the cost, and suddenly that $20 manicure blows the budget. And that’s just a manicure. What would a night out with your girlfriends cost your family? Could your family afford for you to train for a half-marathon? Could they afford for you to take a class? To go back to school? To start your own business?

It all seems so beyond our reach. Too much to ask of our families. But that’s because we’ve been doing the math all wrong. We’ve been looking at only half of the equation — the half that asks, “What will it cost my family if I do something for myself?” The other half of that equation? That’s the part that asks, “What will it cost my family if I don’t do something for myself?”

****

After my son was born, I was consumed with nursing and rocking and cleaning and commuting and working and nursing and rocking and cleaning and commuting and working and sometimes nursing while cleaning and sometimes rocking while working and sometimes sleeping while sitting on the toilet. Sneaking off to lunch with friends seemed about as reasonable as sneaking off to join the circus. I tallied up the cost and determined that my family simply could not afford 2 hours without mom. True, I was miserable and often questioned my choice to become a parent or to get married or to have hopes and dreams, but, hey, the dishes were washed!

The same woman who once carefully applied makeup every morning had traded in her lipstick and mascara for a weekly shower. The same woman who could command an audience at a rowdy college kegger rarely left the confines of the quiet, pastel-colored nursery. I stopped telling stories. But then, I had stopped talking to friends. I rarely talked to my own family. I had an audience of one, and he was a baby and almost never picked up on my brilliant pop culture references.

My temper grew short. My sobbing grew long. My husband came home from work one evening to find me, yet again, exhausted, anxious, and mad. He took me by the shoulders and said, “Whatever it is you need to do, do it. I’d rather come home to a filthy house than a miserable wife. Help yourself for once. The kid and I will be okay.”

But here’s the thing: Before you can help yourself, you first have to believe that you need the help. That you deserve the help. It’s the 12-step approach to motherhood. And the best way I’ve found to convince a busy mom to take a little time for herself is to ask her to consider that important question: “What will it cost my family if I don’t do something for myself?”

Yes, doing something for yourself, whether it be a trip to the salon or a trip to Paris, will mean time spent away from your family. But if you don’t go to the salon, if you have to stare at your gnarly toenails or your split ends for another month, will you feel unattractive? Will you feel a little less confident? A little less sexy? And thus, a little less inclined to let the dishes soak, to slip outta those yoga pants with the hole near the crotch, and to spend some “adult time” with your significant other? What if you don’t go to Paris, or your bucket list destination? Will there be a hole in your heart that only a wheel of good Brie can fill? Will you be chronically disappointed? Will you resent your family and will you, thus, have a short fuse and hold long, mysterious grudges?

What I’m getting at, of course, is that when we deny ourselves those things that are meaningful to us, those things that bring us joy, we feel that our life lacks meaning, we feel joyless. We feel bitterness toward our family. We snap more often. Our feelings are more easily hurt. Sure, you can put off that mani/pedi, but can you put off intimacy with your partner, or wearing flip-flops now that it’s springtime? In short, you may spend less time with your family, but the time you do spend will likely be less fraught, maybe even a bit more joyful.

And let’s not forget that our actions set an example for our kids. I don’t know a single parent who doesn’t want his or her child to fulfill her dreams. Yet, as moms, we rarely place our own wants and needs within the budget. As a result, we create an image of motherhood that is one of complete sacrifice. What little girl would want to grow up and have kids if having those kids also meant that she could never travel again or laugh with her girlfriends again or play softball again or become a doctor or tell another story? And the boys. Oh, the boys. God help the future mothers of their children if the boys are led to think that, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, moms can contentedly exist on a diet of lukewarm coffee and sandwich bread crusts and half-hearted pecks on the cheek. And, yet, that is the precedent we are setting when we treat our own dreams like frivolous expenditures.

What will it cost your family if you don’t do something for yourself? Maybe it will cost you the respect of your kids. Maybe it will cost your kids a healthy perspective on marriage and parenting and self-worth.

****

After my husband took me by the shoulders, after he urged me to get help, I felt . . . panic. The look on his face told me that my own unhappiness was, like a virus, infecting our marriage. I’d spent hours figuring out how to get the armpit stains out of his white t-shirts, and yet he was still bereft. Then, I looked at my son, scooting around in his walker, babbling happily, and I wondered, “When he’s older, what kind of stories will he have to tell about me?” I hadn’t cut off anyone’s ear or stomped grapes to make the family wine. I hadn’t so much as gone to the convenience store alone in almost a year.

So I did it. I helped myself. I put my story back into the budget.

I reached out to old friends. I made new friends by joining a chapter of MOMS Club International. At the nursing moms’ lounge in my office, I commiserated with fellow mamas over the sound of whirring breast pumps, trying to turn our boobs into sausage links. Having a parenting tribe, I found, was crucial to helping myself.

In short, I reconnected with the world. I made plans to go out. With a friend. Alone. I remember donning my red blazer, which I wear when I need to feel confident and to hide sweat stains. I put on lipstick and mascara. I felt fear. I felt excitement. Would my family survive without me for the night?

Yes. They did. My friend and I went to a show. We had drinks. And, as friends do when they’ve had drinks and need to catch each other up on a year’s worth of life, we began swapping stories. I forgot to frantically text my husband every hour, as I had promised, and as he had assured me was unnecessary. When I launched into another anecdote about my son, my pal mentioned the upcoming auditions for the 2014 Listen to Your Mother show. She suggested I give it a try.

For someone who thrives on teaching, I am loathe to admit that I have horrible stage fright. But the prospect of auditioning for LTYM was the prompt I needed to get writing again. So, yeah, I gave it a try. I asked for an hour to myself each night so that I could write my audition essay. Then I asked for 2 hours on a Saturday afternoon so that I could write. I forgot to iron all of the dress shirts. But I also forgot to be miserable.

I auditioned. And I was cast. And I was surrounded by so many women telling stories, passing around their brave, bold words like a jug of the family wine.

Hour by hour, I had unearthed the thing that I’d buried when my son was born. My writing, my own stories. A month after I was cast in the show, I started my blog, which might as well be called the floodgate. The stories rush at me, and often, they buoy me along.

Yes, recommitting to my writing has sometimes meant asking my husband to take care of the evening bath. It has meant letting the laundry pile up while I meet a deadline. And it still means leaning on my mom tribe, women who have cared for my son when I've been sick, who have delivered coffee to my home during a snowstorm, who have read my stories, and who have and still do cheer me on.

When I was a little girl, all I ever wanted to be was a writer. As a mom, I want my son to realize his own dreams, but I’m finally beginning to understand that I can’t realize those dreams for him. But that little girl version of me? The one who kept a daily diary and who signed herself up for the summer reading program at the library and who listened at her father’ knee as he added a new coat of polish to an often-told tale? Every time I make room in the budget to write or to audition for a show or to speak to group of righteous fellow mamas, I get closer to making my 8-year-old self’s dream come true. And, surprise surprise, I also get closer to my family.

Throw your hands up in the air, and write (or knit or dance or cook or kick box)
like ya just don't care (except you do care, obviously).
Image courtesy of the wonderful Debi Parker Photography

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Real Women's Bodies: A Simple Definition

German Chancelor, Angela Merkel, recently brokered a tenuous ceasefire between the Ukraine and Russia, moving on shortly thereafter to begin negotiations with Greece about the terms of that nation's financial bailout. Last month, U.S. District Judge Callie Granade struck down Alabama's ban on same-sex marriage. And Malala Yousefzay's radical belief that girls are entitled to an education earned her the distinction of becoming the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and a near-fatal bullet wound.

But, OMG, y'all, the 2015 Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit Edition is out, and this year it features "plus-size" models! And did you see the un-retouched Marie Claire photos of Cindy Crawford? Sweet paunchy baby Jesus, she has tummy flab!

Cue the mighty social media yawp of enraged/delighted women everywhere!

Aforementioned yawps fall into one of two categories: (1) Finally! Real women's bodies! (2) Puh-lese. Those aren't real women's bodies.

Unlike the crisis in Europe, I think I can play a meaningful part in resolving the Real Body Internet Commenter Crisis of 2015, the root of which is a lack of an agreed-upon definition of a "real woman's body." @worldsbestmeemaw thinks real women have stretch marks and "birthing hips." @jagerbomb1996 thinks real women totally have, like, juicy butts. And @whatsyourexcusemom is certain that six-pack abs are the realest.

But we are no more our hips than we are our daily regimen of crunches. A "real woman's body" can't be found in any one part; it can only be understood by appreciating the body as a whole. So, without further ado:

real woman's body: (noun) the physical structure and material substance of a female


In other words, if you are a woman, you have a real woman's body. 

Ergo, unless Giselle is performing astral projection, she has a real woman's body. Unless Kim K. is some kind of booty snatcher, she has a real woman's body. Melissa McCarthy and Jenny McCarthy both have real women's bodies.

Fact: You don't even have to be a model or actress to have a real woman's body!

Your grandma has a real woman's body. Your mom has a real woman's body. Your daughter has a real woman's body. If you're a lady, then you have a real woman's body.

Another fact: Some women pay to change their real women's bodies. And now their real women's bodies look (wait for it) different!

Ladies with tummy tucks have real women's bodies. Ladies with nose jobs have real women's bodies. Ladies wearing makeup and Spanx have real women's bodies. Ladies with colostomy bags have real women's bodies. Ladies with dentures have real women's bodies.

True, cosmetic surgery is not the same as Spanx is not the same as a medically necessary device. But there are no degrees of "real." "Real" either exists or it does not.

Does a 20-year-old former A-cup who gets breast implants have a fake body? What about a middle-aged mom who gets implants after birthing and nursing four kids? What about a woman who gets implants after a mastectomy?

Are our bodies only real if every part (if the "material substance") is original?

You can inject your lips and your tits and your ass until you look like sexy balloon animal, but you still have a real woman's body. Why you would want to look like a sexy balloon animal is an important conversation for another time, but another time nonetheless.

Our bodies are varied. Our bodies break and mend and grow life and disappoint us and haul groceries and age and climb stairs and run marathons and comfort and ache and surprise us with strange hair. Our bodies are real.

When was the last time you heard a debate about real men's bodies? There are plenty of men out there who wish they were taller or thinner or more muscular. Yet the sight of David Beckham on a magazine cover rarely elicits an Internet war among dudes. Ask your husband, your brother, your friend if David Beckham has a "real man's body," and you will likely get a look that says, "Have you been sniffing the Sharpies again?" Because of course Beckham has a real man's body, even if his body looks different than most of the other bodies out there.

And isn't that really what we're saying when we accuse a woman of not having a "real woman's body"? That she looks different than we do?

So can we please stop debating whose body is real-er? Of course we want to see a greater variety of body types represented in the media, just as we want to see a better representation of people of color, older people, and differently abled people. Seeing people "like us" on TV, in advertisements, and in movies makes us feel included and valued.

Spending time debating which woman's body truly represents "real women's bodies," however, does nothing but divide us and distract us. Because while we're busy arguing about whether a size 8 is a "real woman's body" or a size 18 is a "real woman's body," real hard-working women are still earning 22% less than men in the United States. And while we're busy calling out models for being too thin or actresses for being too fat, colleges and universities are systematically under-reporting campus sexual assaults. And while women are shouting each other down about who has the real-est bra size, Senator Thomas Corbin of South Carolina declared that all women are a "lesser cut of meat."

Let me assure you that the more time we spend literally dissecting ourselves in the media, obsessing about each wrinkle or bulge, the more we sound like rump roast. The more time we spend critiquing the women in SI's latest Swimsuit Edition, the more free press we give to a magazine (supposedly dedicated to athletics) that features a female athlete on less than 5% of its covers. The more time we spend ogling Cindy Crawford's newly discovered cellulite, the less time we spend railing against Photoshop and a beauty industry set on making women look like uniform, factory-produced goods (self-tanner! diet pills! push-up bras!).

Photo courtesy of mourgefile.com

Can we please get back to the shit that matters? The debates that may lead to more money in our pockets or toward our education? The debates that will empower victims of violence even as they help to put an end to that violence? The debates that take the focus off of and the power away from Hollywood's unrealistic fantasy of what all women should look like? The debates that strengthen us?

The debates that prove we are more than just our very real, very powerful, very different bodies?

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Best Story I Never Told

I like to tell stories, but this isn't my story. This is my son's story. And my son is suddenly 2. As in years.

There's no plot, no story arc. There may be a conflict, but really, when isn't there a conflict? There will be time enough to suss out the theme later.

Today, we went to a party. Not his party, just a get together at someone else's house. Twelve toddlers. Nine mothers. While the kids snapped crayons and jammed fistfuls of berries into their mouths, the grownups hunkered protectively over mugs of coffee and chatted about preschool admissions.

Kindergarten begins at age 5. Preschool at 2? That's pre-pre-preschool, which is at least one "pre-" too many for him. Or maybe for me.

My son came barreling at me, his brow furrowed with concern.

"Another muffin, Mama?"

I may dub this time period in my son's life as "The Great Baked Goods Angst of 2015." The crisis of his short life is a lack of endless carbs.

"How do we ask?"

"Please?" he shouted, before adding a preemptive, "Thank you!"

I handed him a mini muffin. He ran back to the herd. I scooped up a handful of candy for myself, slowly unwrapping a chocolate heart as I spied on my kid, who was dancing with a friend.

That's his word: "friend." As in, "I see friends today?" or "I played with my friend." I've heard him use the term "quotation marks," (he is, after all, an editor's son). I've heard him yell, "Oh, God bless it!" out of frustration. But "friend" strikes me as something particularly grown, a concept to be grasped a few years from now.

Does my son already have friends? I thought there might be a little more time for just me.

After the party, we drove home in the muscular cold of early February. The wind was mercifully calm, and, for the first time in weeks, the sun beamed unabashedly. February can be a real tease.

"Let's take the dog for a walk, buddy," I suggested, as I pulled into home.

"I wanna walk!" he responded.

He always wants to go. He always wants to be outside, whether it's sunny or rainy, warm or cold, the crack of dawn or 5 minutes until bedtime.

When the kid was just shy of 3 months old, a wise woman and trusted friend took one look at his fat legs, furiously peddling the air, his wide brown eyes, scanning the room, and said, "This one will need room. He's gonna be rough and tumble. Give him space."

The three floors of our house cannot contain him. Somedays, our neighborhood doesn't feel big enough. He's a runner.

I barely had time to slip a leash on our English Shepherd before the boy was off.

Two years ago, he was alien to me. Sometimes terrifying. As I watched him stomp-sprint ahead of the dog, making a beeline for the muck hemming the woods, I wondered, "When did he become so human?"



I let the dog off of her leash. High on freedom, she ran in wild circles around us. My son laughed until his eyes pinched shut.

"Come here, doggy!" he commanded, suddenly stern.

The dog, though, will no more come when called than will my son.

The dog panted and slowed to a playful trot. I plucked Pork Chop up under the armpits just as he turned with curiosity toward a thorny bush. Plunking him back down in a safer direction, we made our way to the playground — seat of toddler joy.

Here is where I should admit that I hate to be outside. The wind. The cold. The space. I'm always at a loss for what to do. But not my son. Every time we crest the hill that leads to the playground, he reminds me that being outside is a chance to run or to sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" to the sunny sky or to pick up a seed pod and marvel at its existence. He reminds me that amazement is an option.


Low wooden beams sunk into the earth form an octagonal border around the jungle gym. Eventually, he'd scramble up the stairs of the gym and push himself down the slide, but first, always first, he took my hand and hoisted his little spark plug body onto the wooden beams. Like a gymnast, he planted one foot carefully in front of the other, balancing. Nothing makes me happier than when he wants to hold my hand, except for when he looks up at me, then down at his own two brave feet, and lets go.

He was wearing brand-new clothes. A gift from Grandma. I remember thinking that I should have swapped out his stone-washed skinny jeans (which is a real thing for toddlers) for a pair of sweatpants. Unfortunately, I had that thought one second before he lost his balance and toppled into a mud puddle. Cold mud, however, is simply the price he's willing to pay for adventure. I get mud on my boot, and I spend 15 minutes scrubbing and polishing. He gets mud in his mouth, and he spits it out while running toward the next puddle or soggy pile of mulch or piece of garbage swirling in the breeze like an exotic bird.



I had forgotten how exciting it is to be curious.

After almost an hour of scampering and sliding and caking himself in dirt, I told him that we should probably go back inside. His belly was audibly rumbling. As his mother, I take an interest in those kinds of things. As a little boy, he takes an interest in a yellow leaf or discarded soda can. Abstract concepts like hunger or sleepiness or bleeding don't concern him in the least.

I tried my best to steer him toward home. He could have fish sticks and ketchup, I promised. So much ketchup.

"No, Mama! Wanna walk!" Then he paused before adding, "Please? Thank you!"

With that, he was off again, stomp-sprinting back toward the playground to reacquaint himself with wonder.

Just for a second, I stopped to watch him, to take in my son, pumping his legs and fists with determination. "Damn, he's fast," I thought to myself, before sprinting after him.

"How can something so small be getting away from me?"


Happy birthday, my love. Your story is aimless and mysterious and riveting.