Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: children

Week 8: Is There Room for Motherhood in Feminism?

A few weeks ago, a friend emailed me a link to a blog post by Samantha Johnson, called “When I Became a Mother, Feminism Let Me Down.” She argues that while feminism prepared her to break barriers and pursue any dream she desired, it did not prepare her for motherhood.

Motherhood was not considered to be one of those many dreams of feminists. Feminism has railed so hard against the culture of homemaker/breadwinner that now, there doesn’t seem to be much of a space to stand inside of feminism while you are a SAHM (stay-at-home-mom, for those unfamiliar with the lingo).

Johnson writes,

We are teaching our young people that there is no value in motherhood and that homemaking is an outdated, misogynistic concept. We do this through the promotion of professional progression as a marker of success, while completely devaluing the contribution of parents in the home.

Ouch.

But I have to agree.

Before having a child, I saw myself as a successful product of feminism. I had a Bachelors and a Masters degree. I had a full-time job at a university. I had presented at state and national conferences in my field. I had married a man who was also a feminist. He was the cook in our marriage, for God’s sake.

Check, check, check. And kicked-ass-while-doing-it, check.

By societal standards of success, I was doing very well.

Our culture is very good at instilling the idea that for anything important, you should engage in some kind of education or training. But the subtext underneath all of this required preparation for a career (and the pride from all of my accomplishments while engaging in that career) is that no preparation is really needed for motherhood.

Either because it’s so easy that anyone can do it? Or perhaps there’s nothing much that you can learn before actually becoming a mother?

Both of which any mother can tell you is far, far from the truth.

In my twenties, I had privately viewed the work of mothering as not as difficult as the job for which I had worked so hard to be prepared. On an arrogant day, I might have even been so bold as to believe that mothering also wasn’t as important or valued.

My logic went like this: Millions of women are mothers, but how many women can say they teach English as a second language? And if I was doing something “less” than my what I could with all of my capabilities, wasn’t that a step backward in life? How much time would I have to take off from work before I could jump back in? Would I still be able to travel and present at conferences?

Would I be as proud of myself for being a mother as I was being a teacher? Would “mother” be a title that I would use to introduce myself to others at parties? And if not, why not?

And then I turned 30.

Tick. Tock.

***

Having a child changed our lives for sure, but our changes haven’t mirrored some of the national trends.

Unlike many American women, I didn’t have to quit my job to stay at home with the baby. We live in Ohio, where the cost of living is still very reasonable and the commutes are not bad. We make enough money jointly to be able to afford daycare (even though it’s still extremely expensive).

But I can’t deny that I’m not reaching for the stars anymore. I’m doing my job but I have to admit, I bristle at the thought of working evenings and weekends. And gone are the days when I would fuss and fret over a task until it was “just so.”

Unh-uh. Ain’t nobody got time for that anymore.

Sometimes, I think about the trajectory of my career now that I’m in the middle of “small-child-dom.” It would be nice to do something a little different than what I’ve been doing for the last twelve years… but good health insurance.

Ah, to rise so “high”, only to be stymied by family responsibilities and health insurance.

“High” is in quotation marks, of course.

That’s exactly the problem. The modern vision of what it means to “succeed” never, ever depends on having children–although plenty of “successful” people have kids. Children are definitely part of the vision that we have for a modern American family (and if you don’t have kids, people definitely notice and make comments, regardless of the reason).

But when was the last time that you watched a movie where a character was being portrayed as “successful” and that character’s success depended on their role as a parent? (See the bachelor version of Nicholas Cage in The Family Man.)

Usually, the plot of the movie is that the character needs to discover that, hey, being a parent is actually a hell of a lot more important than the job that makes you money (See Adam Sandler in Click!).

***

All of this reminds me of a recent episode of the podcast, On Point with Tim Ashbrook. In the episode called “A Scathing Critique of Contemporary Feminism,” author and writer, Jessa Crispin explains that feminism has gotten away from one of its main goals–to change systems of oppression. Instead, it has become a movement that seeks to elevate women further and further into the upper echelons of systems that have benefited mostly men. Instead of changing the system, feminism has inspired some women to not only join the system, but rise higher and higher inside of it. While it works out fantastically for those women (what company doesn’t love to brag about how many women it has in upper management?), it leaves the rest of us in the dust.

Or perhaps more fittingly, either unemployed or underemployed.

Her commentary gave me a lot to think about.

In the feminist view, what is “success?”

How do we talk to our children about what it means to be “successful?” And what changes do we need to make in our own minds about what success is so that we may instill a different understanding of success for the next generation?

rosie

Week 7: And Now My Watch Is Ended

In Game of Thrones, the Night’s Watch is a group of monk-like men who devote themselves to defending the icy wall that separates the Realm from demonic Whitewalkers. In their oaths, they make this pledge:

Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.

Being a mother of a newborn is a bit like being a Brother of the Night’s Watch.

Not completely. But a bit.

It’s sold to you as important, noble, and life-changing work. And it feels like this for a time, while it’s still fresh and new.

But after a time, you feel like you actually have a lot in common with the Brothers of the Night’s Watch, sent to the end of the world, isolated, doing the work that must be done, the work that safeguards and ensures that humanity goes on, but that no one else will do.

At one time, you looked forward to the night hours that other mothers had once told you were so dear and precious. They talked about those hours as if they had been part adventure, part battle, and part romance.

But then, you find yourself standing in the midst of this long-awaited dream, bleary-eyed, weary, frustrated, resentful, and just downright sad.

And in that moment, it feels like you have been duped. It feels like you have fallen for a grand prank, as if you’ve been traveling toward some oasis, only to find that once you got there, there was nothing but sand to drink and no one to share your frustration with but the stars.

I imagine that it’s a lot like how Jon Snow felt when he realized that the other men who were travelling to the Wall with him were criminals who were being sent there as punishment.

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So fueled by your euphoric and powerful love for your child, this feeling that you’ve been doing incredibly important, albeit invisible work, transforms into something quite different.

Loneliness. Singularity. A feeling of forgottenness.

While everyone else has moved on with their lives, there you are. Ever rocking. Ever feeding. Ever diapering and holding. Traveling in a repetitive loop of time. Frozen.

It weighs so heavy on you.

It feels like it will never end.

It feels like this will forever be the rhythm of your life.

***

When we came home with the baby just six weeks ago, I called those hours between midnight and 6:00 a.m. “The Night Watch.” They were the hours when it was only me and him. My husband and daughter were sound asleep. So was my mother, who had come to help us in those first few weeks.

And then there was me and Henry.

And six hours.

And three feedings.

For about a week, the Night Watch had three feedings, around 1:00, 3:00, and 5:00 a.m. And then it shortened to two feedings, around midnight and 3:00 a.m.

Last week, as Henry turned six weeks old, it shortened even more. We noticed that he would sleep for five and a half hours in one stretch, usually between 11:30 p.m. and 5:00 a.m.

This was exciting. Because it opened the possibility of me being able to seriously regain some sleep. My husband and I agreed to share the responsibility for the two feedings. Since I’m much better in the morning and he’s better at night, I took the early morning feeding and he took the late night feeding.

A few days passed like this.

It was sooo great.

In bed at 9:00 p.m. Up at 5:00 a.m.

Refreshed.

And I got so much stuff done.

Between 5:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m., depending on when Henry would wake up to eat, I could (usually) accomplish the following, always in a different order.

  • Exercise (low-impact kickboxing or walking)
  • Packing Felicity’s lunch
  • Feeding/changing Henry, putting him back to sleep
  • Getting Felicity dressed/ fed/ dropped off at daycare
  • Shower
  • Breakfast/Coffee
  • Wake up Doug

And then it occurred to me.

And now my watch is ended.

There will still be those awful nights of teething and illness when he can’t sleep more than a few minutes at a time. And sometimes, his sleep will be messed up and he’ll want to eat at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.

But for the most part, it’s over.

There is no more Night Watch for me.

Just like that.

And now, I can hardly remember how long those hours were. My memory tells me that I felt so tired and heavy. I remember pulling myself out of sleep and moving through the night, bare feet on the cold tiles of the kitchen floor, digging my hands into the pockets of my robe. Pouring the formula into a bottle, microwaving it (which you should never do… right?), and then trudging back up the stairs (had I actually walked down them? I can’t even remember…).

But the sensations are gone. I cannot recreate them.

And so, those tired moments have become uncoupled from the exact cause of what made them so difficult: the actual feelings of utter exhaustion.

What was once so horrible in the moment has already become a fond memory.

One, I’m sure, I’ll recall next year with longing and misty eyes.

Week 6: A Great Time to Return to Work

Not.

It’s no secret that parental leave in the United States blows big time. Until now, the most our government has been able to approve is the Family Medical Leave Act (1993), which guarantees that employees won’t lose their jobs while they take up to 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave related to family responsibilities, which can include giving birth.

Go us.

Hard-line Republicans would say that government has no business in providing paid leave to its citizens, regardless of the reason. That’s simply not the role of government. We don’t want to become a “nanny-state,” do we?

And why should workers be paid when they’re not working? Says the hard-nosed capitalist who views human beings solely as workers, completely divorced of any human attachment that might decrease their productivity.

In her book, “O

(Sorry, just needed to spend 40 minutes feeding and soothing a baby. Ahem.)

In her book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Brigid Schulte describes capitalism’s “ideal worker” as

“…freed from all home duties, [he] devotes himself completely to the workplace. He is a face-time warrior, the first one in in the morning and the last to leave at night. He is rarely sick. Never takes a vacation, or brings work along if he does. The ideal worker can jump on a plane whenever the boss asks because someone else is responsible for getting the kids off to school or attending the preschool play… So tied to the job is the ideal worker that he works endless hours, even if it costs him his health and his family” (p. 77).

Obviously, there is no room in this ideal worker for care-taking. Also, this ideal worker is decidedly male.

Maybe we should neither be surprised or dismayed by this. After all, we have a capitalist economy. But pure capitalism won’t survive, my friend. Pure capitalism is calculating, cold, and ultimately cruel. If we all adhere purely to capitalism, there would be no more room for care-taking of any kind.

As long as we don’t see our country longitudinally, we’re fine. As long as only the present matters, we’re fine.

After all, pure capitalism can make a generation great.

But the generation that came before and the generation that comes after will suffer for it.

As long as our country doesn’t need to a future, capitalism is splendid.

But back to parental

(Sorry, had to rock a screaming baby to sleep once again. Also, I had a bowl of Grapenuts with one hand while holding the pacifier in the baby’s mouth with the other hand. Also, Terminator Genisys is playing in the background. I’m missing a lot of the plot points, but it doesn’t seem to matter. And for as much as I like Emilia Clarke as Daenerys, I’m not crazy about her in this movie.)

Let me summarize my rambling, because this was supposed to be a post about the lack of parental leave in this country.

What I’m saying is that our country’s capitalistic view of screw-your-need-for-parental-leave-there’s-nothing-in-it-for-the-company is dangerously short-sighted.

But, in fact, there is something in it for the company.

A future, healthy, educated workforce to do their future, highly-skilled jobs.

People like this don’t just grow out of the ground.

They start as babies. Cared for by tired, invisible, and underappreciated hands. Mostly by mothers who have either dropped out of the workplace or are pausing their careers as they take time off to give birth and provide care.

They start as children. Educated by underpaid, overworked teachers.

They end as old people. Cared for, once again, by tired, invisible, and underappreciated hands. Sometimes by their children. Sometimes, by nursing homes, where the care-takers make a few dollars more than minimum wage.

This care-taking is work, even if it is done with love.

It’s work that is done behind the scenes.

It’s work that creates the pedestal on which the Ideal Worker stands.

Now, excuse me, the baby is crying again.

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Sometimes, this is how you have to nap. (Moving your hand is *not* optional.)

Week 4: Gentle Sleep Training

Now that I’ve used the words “sleep training,” let me disappoint you.

I’m not in favor of trying to “train” your newborn to sleep.

I don’t think newborns are “trainable.”

Newborns are gonna do what newborns are gonna do.

However, the words “sleep training” are the words that everyone uses when trying to figure out how to get their babies to sleep longer.

So what exactly am I in favor of?

Training yourself to recognize and follow your newborn’s sleep patterns.

***

When our first child was about one month old, I found an amazing book that forever shaped our decisions about how we structured our days with a baby.

baby-sleep

I don’t rave about many baby products.

But let me RAVE about this book.

This book removed the mystery about how babies decide when to fall asleep and how their sleep patterns change as they grow throughout the first year.

It’s not a book based on a parenting style or a fancy technique.

It’s based on science. It’s based on human biology.

The Overall Takeaway: If you soothe your newborn to sleep after he/she has been awake for 90 minutes, he’ll fall asleep and stay asleep for a nap.

Dr. Polly Moore, a sleep researcher and scientist, based her advice in this book on the “basic rest and activity cycle,” which states that human bodies function on 90-minute periods of rest or activity. For example, our attention, alertness, and sleep cycles follow these patterns.

At roughly three weeks old, newborn babies start to establish 90-minute periods of wakefullness. As long as the baby is getting enough to eat and isn’t suffering from other physical ailments, you should be able to see these patterns emerge as early as three weeks.

You can’t train your newborn to stay awake for 90-minutes or to nap for long periods of time. However, you can pay attention and learn how your newborn wants to structure his sleeping patterns. By learning your child’s tired signals and making sure he gets all the naps that he needs during the daytime, you are helping him to reach the Holy Grail of baby-dom: sleeping through the night.

You can do this by taking a few days to log your child’s sleep. Like this:

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Many of these periods of wakefullness last for 90 minutes. However, some don’t. The night feedings usually only last 30 minutes to one hour. Long enough to eat, burp, have a diaper change, and fall back asleep.

What’s important to see in this list of times is that this three-week-old’s naps are already beginning to follow the body’s rhythms. (Note: Forty-five minute naps = Half of a 90-minute increment and three-hour naps = Two 90-minute increments)

Of course, sometimes naps are cut short because the baby didn’t get enough to eat and wakes up to be fed. Or sometimes, he has a huge poop and wants to be changed. But the older the baby gets and the more established his sleeping habits become, the less likely the baby will cut his naps short in order to eat or be changed.

***

Last Saturday, we realized that our baby was starting to establish these 90-minute periods of wakefullness.

I remember reading years ago when we were caring for our first child that the first few weeks of a baby’s sleeping habits are unpredictable. I learned that babies sleep a lot in the first few weeks and that they can pretty much fall asleep anywhere. And stay asleep no matter what is happening around them.

Until last Saturday, I didn’t realize that we had drifted into the zone of 90-minute periods of wakefullness.

I didn’t realize that our baby had started to become unable to block out the noise and stimulation around him.

While our friends came over for breakfast, he remained awake. And awake. And awake. Until about 11:30.

Then, he lost his shit.

Screaming. Inconsolable.

We took him out in the stroller and he gave us the thousand-mile stare. At a fork in the road, my husband turned back to go home while I continued on for a longer walk.

Big mistake.

Henry started downright wailing. He screamed so hard his face turned crimson and went completely silent as he tried to scream without taking in oxygen. He coughed and choked to bring more air into his lungs.

They were the saddest screams I’ve ever heard.

I rushed home, but it was the longest quarter mile ever.

Because we deprived him of sleep that morning, he was completely out of whack for the rest of the day. He couldn’t stay asleep. He screamed and nothing helped. By 10:00 p.m., even my husband had written him off and pronounced that there’s nothing we could do to help him.

I took our son and sat in the glider. Then, I placed him on the ottoman in front of me. I let his hands clutch my fingers while he screamed and screamed.

Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes.

I tried all the usual soothing techniques as he sputtered and gasped for more air to continue his wailing.

Then I returned him to the ottoman and rocked him again. This time, his screaming slowed and his eyes rolled back in his head, the way that newborns do.

He had passed out.

***

That night, I reread Polly Moore’s book and realized that we had crossed into new sleeping territory now that Henry is a month old. Now, he’s having trouble blocking out sound and light and stimulation. Now, he needs quiet. He needs a lack of sensation to stay asleep.

We followed the 90-minute wakefullness cycles the next day.

Wow. What a difference it makes when your baby has those needed naps.

***

What I learned from this book is how to determine the best windows to put my baby to sleep. I learned how to recognize emerging sleeping patterns. I learned how to best accommodate my baby’s needs for sleep, including the importance of napping rituals throughout the day that will help a baby establish solid sleeping patterns later.

For us, this means that we don’t take our baby out during his nap times.

Which basically means, he stays at home 90% of the time until his awake periods extend to three hours (around 6-8 months). If we go out, we’ll keep him in the car seat and put on a white noise maker so his naps don’t suffer too much.

It’s a restrictive life, for sure. But he’s not going to be this young forever. I’m willing to make changes in my life for a few months.

For us, establishing good sleeping patterns early on–as we did with our daughter–rewarded us exponentially later on. Our daughter slept through the night regularly (with the exception of teething and sick days) at three and a half months. When she started daycare at five months, it only took her a week to adjust to the new environment and resume her champion napping abilities amidst other crying infants.

***

Every rule has an exception. Here are two cases when the 90-minute wakefullness rule doesn’t pan out as predictably into regular napping patterns.

Babies who are suffering from medical conditions: like acid reflux, food allergies/intolerances, etc.

Babies who are in the midst of a growth spurt: All babies go through growth spurts and they are notorious for throwing all routines into chaos. Naps suffer. Babies wake up from naps early and have trouble falling asleep. They eat too much or too little. They cry. Nay, they wail. They turn into monsters for several days. In fact, we’re going through one right now. From 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. last night, he was awake, asleep, awake, asleep, hungry, pissed off, asleep, awake, screaming. You get the point.

But when this growth spurt is over, he’ll be pleasant again. And he’ll show us his newly learned moves.

***

There’s a lot more that I can say about how babies change in their sleep needs from birth to the end of the first year, but I’ll let Polly Moore do that for you.

As I said before, there are not many baby products that I am willing to rave about to the point of spending my valuable time actually writing about them…

But this is one of the rare few.

If you’ve got a baby at home, check it out. Seriously.

Week 2: Crying

Before I had our first child, this was one of my greatest fears: that my baby’s cries would make me hate my child.

No joke, that was a real fear. I never, ever found the sound of babies crying to be worthy of an Awww, poor thing. I mostly thought, God, someone shut that kid up!

So imagine my surprise when we took our daughter home from the hospital and I wasn’t pissed off at her every time she cried.

Imagine my surprise when my first thought wasWhat’s wrong? What can I do to help you? How about this? How about this?

Now, here we are again. Dealing with a new child’s cries.

***

Not by any stretch of the imagination is Henry a colicky baby. I’ve heard those stories and that is not what we’re dealing with. (And parents of colicky babies, allow me to bow down and kiss your feet, you Parent of Steel.)

No, the cries that we dealt with in the past week have come in defined bursts that (at first) seemed to correspond with post-feeding digestion and then (later) seemed to correspond with how tightly we held him or covered him so that he wasn’t cold.

We’re talking about the kind of crying that is all-out, red-faced, exasperated wailing. The kind that is silent at first because the baby is winding up for a good scream. The kind that reverberates not only in your ears, but in your heart.

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In this crying fit, his whole body tenses, from his face to his toes.

And here’s what that sounds like:

 

But then, it passes. And for a moment, I wonder if our child has just been possessed by a demon for a period of time. Because here’s what he looks like when it’s over.

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And then I think, How can I be mad at that face? I love that face.

Sometimes, nature is a sick, sick bastard.

***

When was he crying? Maybe it’s gas. He looks like he’s in pain. When was the last time we fed him? What was his last poop like? Was it watery or runny? What color was it? Was it a lot or just a little?

Maybe it’s the formula. Maybe we should try one that has the lactose broken down already? 

Doug googles and I do the feedings. We make adjustments and mental notes. I keep track.

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Then, the next day…

Did he look like he was in pain today? How long did he cry? After he ate? Did he poop? If he’s not better by tomorrow, maybe we should try soy formula. I hope he’s not constipated on soy, like Felicity was. Then, we’ll have to go to the super expensive formula.

Feedings and poop: this is what you talk about when you’re learning about your newborn. These are the only windows into why your baby is crying. If you can’t engineer a solution from those clues, it’s time to call the pediatrician.

***

We had a lot of help in the afternoons and evenings over the past week. But the nights and the mornings were entirely in my hands. Once my husband and daughter disappeared behind the door and the car rolled out of the garage, I was on my own.

I was okay until Thursday morning.

It was the second day that Henry was crying in pain.

He wailed. And wailed. And wailed.

I tried to feed him. His forehead wrinkled and he screamed.

I changed him. He calmed for a moment. Then cried more.

I bounced him. Rocked him. Tried to burp him. I laid him on the ground and rubbed his tense body. I bicycled his legs. I rubbed his back. I put him on my shoulder. I turned him over and patted his back. I patted his butt. I shushed him. I put him in the bouncer. I played music. I cradled him. I balanced him on one arm.

Then, I did all of these things again.

Through his screams, I syringe-fed him this stuff, which some people swear by:

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Wailing. Wailing. Screaming. Screaming.

I put him down on the ground, feeling the warm weariness of three hours of sleep blur my vision.

But no, it wasn’t the sleep deprivation. It was tears.

Turns out, burp cloths aren’t just for spit up. They’re also great for tears.

He cried and I cried. Looking at him, writhing in pain, I cried more.

How am I going to get through this morning? This week? This month? I didn’t hug Felicity before she went to daycare. Fail. How can I care for two people? My face is still bloated. I wish I could wear normal pants again. How long did it take to lose my belly last time? How many more hours until Cate is here to help? How many more days until Friday night when Doug does the night feedings?

But the question that overrides everything: What is wrong? What can I do? I will do anything. Just tell me what I need to do.

I wiped my tears on the burp cloth one last time and picked him up. I cradled him in my arms and told him that I was sorry. Sorry for not knowing how to help him. Sorry that he had to share me with another child. Sorry that I wasn’t at my best.

I clutched him to my chest, covered him with a flannel receiving blanket, and then held a pacifier in his mouth. His lips closed on it.

Then, he was silent.

He had fallen asleep.

I dropped my head back in relief.

Oh, thank you God. 

***

Over the past three days, we’ve arrived at some temporary hypotheses for the cause of the crying.

1.) Milk allergy.

Solution: We switched to soy formula. (Courtesy of Doug’s genes.)

Results: So far, so good. No diarrhea. No constipation. Regular diapers. No more crying fits where it seems like he is in pain.

2.) Extreme need for warmth and swaddling. (Courtesy of my genes.)

Solution: Double swaddle. One layer is a muslin blanket. One layer is a flannel receiving blanket. Put on mitts and a hat. Hold tightly against your chest. (Although, he is picky on this point. My chest seems to be the gold standard right now.)

We are trying these things right now. Every day is an experiment. Every time he finally goes down for a nap, we breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Maybe it’s over, we think.

But who are we kidding? We know better. Tomorrow, it might be something else. Next week, something else. And definitely next month, something else.

Sometimes, it’s this:

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Sometimes, it’s this:

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Flexibility.

Flexibility.

Flexibility.

That is life for now.

The World is Good Because it is Bad: A Letter to my Unborn Child

My Child,

When I was five years old, my family’s house burned down. To the ground. What was left was a smoky, black carcass that used to be our home. I still remember returning to the site where our home once was.

I didn’t understand. Not really.

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Me: Easter, 1987

We walked through the safest part of the site, our toes nudging burnt, sooty items. A comb. A jacket. That one stuffed animal that looked like a cat, but was really a mouse.

The smell. Oh. The smell. I will never, ever forget that smell. Smoke and soot and water and grass.

While our house was still on fire, flames still clawing at the windows, the fire trucks and ambulances arrived. I saw my oldest brother, Phillip, throw my youngest sister, DeAnna, from a window on the right side of the house. A firefighter caught her. She was just a toddler. I can still see her sobbing there against the backdrop of flames, wobbling on rubbery legs.

I saw my father climbing out of a second-story window, still in his T-shirt and boxers.

I wasn’t thinking about where my other brother and sister were.

I remember thinking,

“I wonder when the fire will be over so we can go home.”

I remember thinking,

“Mom is so going to be so mad when she comes home to see this.”

That’s the way a five-year-old thinks.

My mother worked as a part-time cake decorator for a grocery store on Saturdays. I never knew who called her that day. Someone had to make that call. I wonder now what was it like to put aside the bag of icing that she had been using to decorate a cake for someone else’s celebration… only to pick up the phone to hear that her world was on fire.

***

That night, we stayed in some stranger’s home.

I don’t remember the people, but they lived in a large, well-kept home in old North Dayton, presumably a family who had signed up to provide temporary housing through the Red Cross.

In the middle of the hardwood floor of their living room was a large, oval, braided rug. While my mother talked to the homeowners, my eyes traced the outer edge of the oval rug, around and around and around. Until it ended in the center.

I wondered what was there in the center, holding it all together.

oval-rug

Someone handed out some canvas bags from the Red Cross. Five bags. One for each of us. The homeless kids.

Inside, there were crayons and a coloring book. A toothbrush and toothpaste. Some soap. A towel. There might have been a T-shirt and sweatpants. I don’t remember for sure.

But I remember the smell of those bags. Sterile.

Like the smell of the hospital where we had just been. Where I had just seen my father hack and cough black mucus into a beige dish just minutes before he was officially discharged.

I remember holding that canvas bag, thinking that it was the only thing in the world that was mine.

Hoping that my parents could afford to buy it for me.

And then the surprise and gratitude when I realized that we didn’t need to pay.

***

We went to church, and the Sunday School teacher looked at me with wet eyes. In her quiet, shaky voice, she told me that everything was going to be just fine.

She pulled out some paper figures from a crinkled envelope. They were dressed in robes and sandals. One of them fell to the ground and I picked it up, feeling the fuzz on the back side. Then, she handed all the figures to me and I helped her arrange them on the felt board as she told the story of the Good Samaritan.

good-samaritan

My child, here is what I want to tell you.

Believe in the goodness of people.

Certainly, not every person will be good to you. Some will bully you. Some will mock you. Some will see you hurting and walk to the other side of the road to avoid you.

Do not expect kindness and empathy from those who have never suffered. Too often, they will find a way to either minimize your pain or blame you for what has happened to you. In their eyes, it will always be your fault. And if they cannot blame you for what you have done, they will blame you for what you have not done.

You really didn’t have it that bad. You should have tried harder. You should have asked. You should have done this. You should have done that.

But always, always, always remember this:

As long as there is injustice and trauma and pain and tragedy in this world, there will be empathy.

Because those who have lost and suffered and cried and bled will be the first to reach out to you when you need help.

Every. Single. Time.

Do not wish away misfortune and pain.

Because a life without either of those is a life without true empathy.

And empathy is what has kept the human race from extinguishing itself.

***

Have faith, my child.

Paradoxes abound in a world where we lean on logic to make sense of the hard times.

This world is good because sometimes it is bad.

Goodness and tragedy can exist at the same time.

God is both light and darkness. Fullness and emptiness. The loud, booming voice and the stillness beside you.

It is all so hard to understand now. Even as you grow and learn and experience, it is still hard to understand. Even I don’t understand it.

But my prayer for you is that you remain open. That you are always looking for more answers. That you never feel that you have arrived at the truth. Because your truth is not someone else’s truth.

But that doesn’t mean Truth doesn’t exist.

***

Some of us are lucky enough to have a life that gets better and better, from beginning to end. As Americans, that is what feels normal and right and just.

But the truth is, most of us don’t.

The truth is, much of the time, we don’t get what we want.

Most of us struggle. We fall. We’re pushed back. We lose. We become sick. We grieve.

And this can make us feel that something has gone tragically wrong. It can make us feel that life is unfair and has no meaning. It can drive us to determine that God isn’t real.

How could God be real when there is so much suffering in this world?

How could God be real when I am suffering so much?

What I want you to understand is that believing that life always improves from beginning to end is an illusion. In fact, some cultures in the world do not plot life’s path as a line, rising at equal intervals, ever into the horizon.

Instead, they see life as a spiral.

A constant moving away and returning.

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Photo credit, Jeff Krause, http://www.flickr.com

Moving away from what matters.

Returning to what matters.

Moving away from truth.

Returning to truth.

Around and around and around.

Until we arrive at the center.

Until we return to God.

What you’ll learn as you walk this path of life is that over and over again, every time you return, you will be caught by the hand of God.

That hand of God is your mother’s voice when you come home with a broken heart.

It’s the friend who sits with you at your father’s funeral.

It’s the doctor who tells you that there is no heartbeat. But it’s not your fault.

It’s the teacher who tells you that everything’s going to be just fine, even when her eyes say otherwise.

It’s the non-profit organization that steps in with a bag of normalcy on a very strange day.

It’s the stranger who opens their home to you when you’ve lost everything.

My child, be that hand of God.

Be the one who gives and comforts and heals.

As Mother Teresa has said…

The good you do today, will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway.

My child, welcome to this wonderfully complex, sometimes painful, but always beautiful world. It is my hope for you that when you face the hard times, that you are still able to see the larger Truth.

With all my love,

Mom

Portrait of a White, Suburban Ohio, College-Educated Woman on Election Day 2016

I wake up at 6:00 a.m.

I roll from my side to my back, feeling the weight of 29 weeks of pregnancy.

I put on some maternity leggings, several layers, and the ever-so-sexy pregnancy belt.

Carrying 27 pounds of extra weight, I walk and jog in the cool darkness, the road lit by the occasional lamp post. I watch my heart rate rise and fall.

I count the political signs.

I run on.

At 6:45, I return home and wake up my husband.

Our three-year-old daughter, still asleep in her bed.

I make her lunch and set out her vitamins.

I eat a bowl of oatmeal, topped with raspberries.

Take a breath.

Climb the stairs to coax the kid out of bed.

She is pissed.

Her voice is hoarse, so I know she’s getting sick.

Through screaming and tears and some negotiation, we get her dressed and vitamin-ed.

Then off to daycare.

In the car, she asks for music. I played her favorite, Grouplove’s Tongue Tied.

Then, she bursts into tears.

Yeah, she’s feeling pretty miserable, I think.

I set out her breakfast once we are in her preschool room. Today, she insists that she does not want milk on her cereal.

She gives me a hug. And a kiss.

Across from daycare, the church is a polling place. There is extra traffic. Turning left without a stop sign or stoplight is a nightmare.

Back at home, I make a second breakfast. Because pregnancy.

Eggs and English muffin. And coffee. Because second pregnancy.

I listen to NPR’s Morning Edition.

Shower. Dress for work. Make-up.

My husband is running behind.

So we decide to vote together.

We have a nice conversation in line for 30 minutes. We talk about last night’s dinner with friends. Our daughter. Our church. His work’s potluck.

Then, we vote.

Because we are Americans.

Because we are parents.

Because we are feminists.

Because time moves forward. Not backward.

We hold hands on the way out. Give each other a quick kiss and hug.

We go to work.

voting

Love: It’s What Makes This Election So Different

I’m tired of this.

Tired of my Facebook newsfeed filling up with “grab them by the pussy” and “doesn’t pay any taxes” and “33,000 deleted emails” and “Lock Her Up.”

Ick. Just. Ick.

***

As an American teacher of international students, I look out at my classroom and I tell them, “Guys, really… We are so much better than this.”

They have questions:

Will we be sent home if Donald Trump becomes president?

Why don’t people like Hillary Clinton?

How did Donald Trump get this far in the race?

Some days, I just don’t feel like I can take it anymore.

Some days, I wonder just what in the hell the other side is thinking.

How can we think so differently about what our country is right now and what our country can be in the future?

***

And then I came across this episode of the podcast, “Hidden Brain” by Shankar Vedantam.

hidden-brain

https://www.npr.org/player/embed/493615864/493761293

In this episode, “When It Comes to Politics, Family Matters,” Vedantam discusses linguist George Lakoff’s exploration of family metaphors in American political discussions.

He identifies two major camps in which Americans fall in regard to how they talk about what they want in a political candidate.

Camp A: The Strict Father

“…the job of the father is not just to support and protect the family but also, with respect to children, to teach them right from wrong so they have the right moral views.”

This struck me, especially after seeing this clip from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, in which correspondents interview Trump supporters about why Trump is so appealing to them.

Pay attention around 4:09.

Trump is going to be daddy. And whether you like it or not, you have to listen to daddy. And if you don’t, you get the belt.

As Lakoff points out in his analysis, families are the first place where we learn about rules and governance. For some people, this strict parenting model is what resonates the most with them because it’s the model that they grew up with. But more important, they believe that it is effective in governance (i.e., raising children). As a result, they’re more likely to seek out models of Strict Parents in presidential candidates.

They’re more likely to take hard stances and showcasing power to other countries as a means of keeping the country safe.

They’re more likely to decry efforts to expand government assistance and entitlements to citizens.

They’re more likely to champion strength, self-reliance, and independence.

They’re more likely to see the world as a big, scary place from which we need the protection of our fathers and their strong guidance so that we can survive in this world.

And then there’s the other side.

Camp B: The Nurturant Parent

“…feel their job is to empathize with their child, to know what their child needs, and to have open two-way discussions with their child.”

Those who find this parenting style more appealing are more likely to seek out presidential candidates who practice humility and find value in dialogue and negotiations with other countries.

They’re more likely to emphasize the importance of government programs that provide financial help to citizens.

They’re more likely to see the world as a place where kindness and goodness can be found everywhere.

They’re more likely to encourage our children to not be scared of difference, but rather seek to understand it.

***

As Vedantam points out, many of us grew up in families where both of these parenting styles were at play. Sometimes, our parents were the strict authoritarians who told us No means no and Get to bed this instant! At other times, our parents asked us What’s wrong? and asked us how they could help us.

What determines our orientation is how we judge the effectiveness of each model.

If we think that The Strict Parent doesn’t usually have a place in our families, we’re more likely to cling to the Democrat side.

If we think that The Nurturant Parent doesn’t usually have a place in our families, we’re more likely to cling to the Republican Side.

But most of us lie somewhere in the middle.

Most of us see the value in both. Especially if we are parents.

We’ve experienced those moments when our children need strict leadership. But we’ve also found ourselves in moments when our children needed compassion and acceptance.

***

I love Vedantam’s observation that,

The nation is in the middle of a parenting dispute.

I will add on to Vedantam’s observation and argue that we are so divided and polarized on so many issues because we’ve lost our respect for the opposing parenting style.

We want to pretend that we only need The Strict Parent. That he’s going to be the one to solve all of our problems because he’s strong, knows a lot, and will protect us from all the “bad guys.”

We want to pretend that we only need The Nurturant Parent. That she’s going to be the one listen to what we need, to make sure that no one lacks needed care, and to help us keep the peace around the world.

In this great American parenting dispute, we have name-called each other and pointed fingers and blamed each other. Then, we feel utterly mystified at why the other side can’t see the world in the way that we do. What we don’t understand is that,

The idea that we have alternative worldviews is not part of our discourse.

Vedantam is right.

The truth is much harder. What fuels our inflexible certainty isn’t stupidity or callousness: It’s love.

That is where I find my comfort in this bizarre, soul-crushing election season.

That even though I so passionately disagree with supporters of the other side, I find comfort in the fact that their intentions and decision-making are driven–just like me–by love.

Love: Because we all want what is best for our country.

We just disagree about “best” means.

And that’s okay.

If we love our country and truly want what’s best for it, then I think we might get through this.

***

But… is that true this year?

Are Trump supporters simply seeking out a candidate who is a Strict Parent?

Or is there another stronger force at work?

I think that’s it.

That’s what is so difficult about this election.

Usually, I disagree passionately with the other side’s policies about what is best for our country. I’ve felt that the political discourse was becoming increasingly divisive and polarized. I’ve felt that we were starting to demonize each other and create assumptions about each other’s intentions.

But not until this year did I feel like the political discourse was full of hatred.

During previous elections, I could see the opposing side’s good intentions because the debates focused on the issues instead of personal attacks. Although plenty of personal attacks were made on the sidelines, the official political debates stayed civil. I could force myself to open up and see that even if we disagreed about how to help our country, both candidates showed their sincere desire to improve the country.

But this year, Trump has told us that…

  • Mexicans are rapists and drug smugglers.
  • Obama isn’t a U.S. citizen.
  • Muslims should be banned from entering the United States.
  • We shouldn’t accept Syrian women and children refugees. Because they could be terrorists.
  • Prisoners of war aren’t good soldiers.
  • Veterans who suffer from PTSD aren’t strong.
  • A good tactic to fight ISIS is to “bomb the shit out of them.”
  • It’s normal for men to talk about grabbing women’s genitals without consent.
  • Political opponents should be jailed after elections. (Can I just say, this is truly, truly shocking and one of the most anti-American statements yet.)
  • The 19th amendment should be repealed so women can’t vote (This one is courtesy of Trump supporters).

And this is just a sampling.

Typically, election years are full of hyperbole, generalization, and oversimplification. We’re used to those.

But this year, Donald Trump surrounds us with racism. Sexism. Xenophobia.

Then he tells us that’s not what we’re hearing.

Lies. Lies. Lies.

Hate. Hate. Hate.

I’m truly struggling to see the good intentions at the heart of the Trump campaign. I’m really struggling to see Trump as fitting into that Strict Parent model.

Because the Strict Parent operates from a place of love.

What love is there in this campaign?

Do you see it?

For the life of me, I cannot.

What I Will Tell My Kids About Race

hands_together

“I think your daughter and Ezra are the only two left in that room,” she said.

I was picking up my then 18-month-old daughter from daycare and I had just been chatting with one of the staff members. As I walked down the hall to my daughter’s room, I looked through the window and saw three kids.

“Which one is Ezra?” I asked, looking back down the hall to where she was standing.

She looked at me blankly.

“There are two other little boys,” I said.

She lowered her voice, put a hand up to her mouth, and whispered…

He’s the little black boy.

That. Right there.

That’s where it starts.

***

Why did she feel compelled to whisper, the little black boy?

My intuition tells me that she thought we shouldn’t acknowledge his race. (Because that would make us racist?)

But whispering words like this also sends an implicit message. One that could be internalized and filed away to young ears: That being black was something to be ashamed of.

It’s a common approach that American educators–many of whom are white women (me included)–use to show that they are being sensitive. It’s called colorblindness. And to some ears, it sounds okay.

I don’t see colors in my classroom. I treat everyone the same.

I teach the kids that we’re all the same. That it doesn’t matter what skin color we have.

That might be okay to teach kids–if it were true.

But it’s not true. Race does matter.

When we create these completely alternate universes in schools where we pretend that we don’t see the shades of our own children’s skins–and acknowledge how that affects their experience in our society–we create a generation of Americans who assume that everyone has the same experiences.

We create situations like this.

In the Storycorps podcast, “Traffic Stop,” a white mother and her adopted black son share the story of the night when he was brutally attacked by police officers during a traffic stop.

What struck me most about this podcast was the mother’s words of colorblindness:

“I thought love would conquer all and that skin color didn’t really matter.”

She speaks with a mother’s love. You love your child unconditionally. No matter what. But in projecting her own unconditional love for her son onto the cultural lens that American society uses to see her son, she blinds herself to the simple fact that…

Not everyone shares her love.

Not everyone believes that race doesn’t matter.

I dare say, she thinks as many white people do–that we have reached a point in our society when racism is not tolerated anymore. We may not believe that racism is completely dead, but it certainly doesn’t reside where we live and work and play. Racism is for the uneducated and the unemployed who need a scapegoat.

And if it dares happens, people say something.

But what about the covert racism that still exists? What about our own implicit biases that shape our split-second reactions?

As Hillary Clinton pointed out in the September 24th debate, implicit bias is not just a police problem. It’s a problem for everyone.

<whisper, whisper>

He’s the little black boy.

<whisper, whisper>

I don’t want to admit that I know he’s black, but he is. It’s the easiest way for you to tell him apart from the crowd of white kids.

I don’t want to admit that I have no idea what he’s wearing or how tall he is or the shape of his eyes or what his hair looks like or what he might be playing with. All I can tell you is that he’s black.

I don’t want to admit that he’s only one of six to eight black kids that we have in this school.

<whisper, whisper>

I don’t feel comfortable saying these thoughts, so I have to whisper them.

Just in case someone overhears us talking about race… let’s use whispers.

Because race doesn’t matter.

And because it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t exist.

Right?

***

When I was in kindergarten and first grade, I went to a predominantly black school.

You read that right.

My family moved to Dayton, Ohio in 1984, well before the Internet and its amazing capability of scoping out a location before moving. We moved into a neighborhood known as Five Oaks. It had a nice ring to it, but the real draw was the fact that the rent was well within our means. For $500 a month, we could live in half of a giant duplex with four bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, a basement, and an attic spread across four floors.

Once upon a time, Five Oaks was a prestigious neighborhood for the wealthy. Which is why there were so many spacious houses available for dirt cheap rent.

Here’s a “tour” around the community, done in 2008 by a community activist.

 Because of our new home’s location, I attended Jefferson Primary School, where 80-90% of the students were black.

My best friend’s name was Princess. Like most of the kids in my class, she was black. I loved her intricately braided hair, like a curtain of beads that softly clinked against each other when she walked. She convinced her friends to include me in their games of Double Dutch jump rope. And when it was clear that 1) I really sucked at it and 2) her friends had no patience for me learning how to do it well, Princess sat with me at recess and clapped her hands against mine, clumsily at first, to “Miss Mary Mack.”

Princess was the only one who came to my sixth birthday party at my house. Even though I invited most of the girls in my thirty-person class.

My other best friend was Colleen. She carried a denim purse with a sticker of a man in a black hat. When I confessed that I didn’t know who he was, she looked at me in shock. You don’t know who Michael Jackson is? Then she showed me her moonwalk, her Rapunzel-like curly hair billowing in the wind. She was unlike anyone else that I had ever seen. Who else in the world had hair like hers?

I didn’t realize until much, much later that she was biracial.

 I knew that my skin was lighter than the skin of most of my classmates. But I had to learn that this difference had value attached to it.

***

It all started with a rock.

Thrown in my face.

My two older brothers and I were playing on the playground at Five Oaks park. A group of four to six black kids approached us and started telling us that we needed to go home.

This was their playground.

They threw rocks at us.

We cowered in front of them.

“That’s right. Get down on your knees and beg!” one of them yelled.

We ran home, rocks still pelting us from behind.

I didn’t understand why.

Why did they hate us? They didn’t even know who we were.

Did we do something wrong?

I could hold on to this memory as proof that racism goes both ways. That black people can be just as racist as white people. That I shouldn’t care about racism–whether it’s overt or covert–against black people because I “got over” the racism that was expressed toward me.

But such conclusions would disregard the larger truth that white spheres of influence are far, far more numerous and powerful. That these children could have been acting out of frustration with one of the many systems that they were just now learning were rigged against them (education, justice, economics–take your pick). Or perhaps they were giddy with the sheer novelty of exerting power over a group of white kids. I mean, really, how often did that opportunity arise in Five Oaks?

The truth is, I could leave the playground. 

I could “get over” this racist incident because I could move to a place where my race would no longer be a reason to torment me.

We could leave Five Oaks. We could move to many other communities where we would have more social capital. More power. More voice. More influence. More advantages. Maybe we wouldn’t be rich by moving, but we could at least move underneath the protection of an umbrella that would look out for “our best interests.”

In fact, we did.

Within three years, we moved to a white working class neighborhood. My new friends were named Amanda and Kristen and Jennifer. I saw new standards of beauty. No more beautifully braided hair. Instead, beautiful was straight, long hair that lay still as sticks across your shoulders and back. I admired their clothes, their shoes, their embroidered backpacks and lunchboxes.

Racism is, at the least, the inability to leave behind your low social capital.

But racism is also knowing that no matter how far you rise, there will always be someone who skews your worth because of your skin color. It may not be everyone. It probably won’t be those who are closest to you. But there will always be someone who will only see your race.

It’s knowing that your race will be used to explain any moments when you behave badly.

It’s knowing that your race will be cited to explain why you struggle in your life.

And if you dare achieve, your race will be referenced as a facet of your identity that you overcame.

Whether you struggle or achieve, you will always wonder–even if only in your own mind–if the person across from you sees your real worth. Your real self.

Racism is knowing that you will never fit into the label of “normal” since society feels the need to add “black” to identify every black person in the news, but never feels compelled to identify when a person is “white.” (Instead, white people just get to be “man” or “woman” or “boy” or “girl.”)

White people would like to believe that race doesn’t matter anymore. In our spheres of whiteness, it is easy to come to that conclusion.

But if you’ve ever stepped outside of that sphere, you know differently.

You know that Princess can never leave.

As long as we keep our circles separate.

***

When I think about what I will teach my children about race, I think most of it will not be in words.

Certainly, some of it will.

But you learn more about race by working alongside someone who is different from you.

Or playing a game together. Or singing a song. Or reading a story.

You learn more about race by sharing a meal with someone.

You learn more by engaging in a common humanity.

Racism becomes more personal and hurtful to you when you hear a white girl call the same kind of hair that you thought was so beautiful and magical–just a year earlier–“nappy” and “dirty.” You take personal offense when the white girl asks the black girl if she ever even washed her hair.

You start to take racism to heart when they hurt your friends.

And so that is one of my biggest jobs as a parent–to expand the sphere of interaction that my daughter has. Beyond white suburbia. And into spheres where she is the outsider. Where she is different. Where she needs someone to include her in a game that she doesn’t know. Where she can make friends with children who are different than her. Not just different in skin color. But different in religion. In social class. In language.

By becoming the other, we learn a lesson in humility and compassion. We learn how to redefine and question the word normal. We begin to recognize the invisible walls that we’ve built around ourselves. We begin to see who they keep out and how they do it.

We may not be able to tear the walls down with only our own two hands.

But we can help others to see the wall.

And maybe together, we can start taking the bricks apart.

Week 23: Practicing Generosity

candle_light_quote

Last week, I wrote about practicing gratitude.

And if you’re truly practicing gratitude, generosity is sure to follow.

In the whole first year of my book’s publication, I sold about 150 copies.

Last week, I gave away 309 copies.

***

Let me explain.

Last year, I learned the Number # 1 Lesson of baby fairs and expos.

Everyone is coming for FREE stuff.

To try to convince someone to buy something at these events is almost impossible.

People were so confused when they would walk up to my table, their eyes searching for what they were going to walk away with. Hmmm… papers with words on them… Some books on book stands… Their fingers would slowly trace the tablecloth, their brains registering the fact that…

I really had nothing.

What I had were fliers, cards, and pamphlets with information on something that I wanted them to buy.

Ha.

All the other vendors had enormous bowls of candy (regardless of the season) or little goodie bags filled with free magnets, pens, and pamphlets. The smart ones also had a clipboard to collect email addresses for “a chance to win this diaper bag” or basket of baby books, or whatever.

Smart.

So this year, my approach at this past weekend’s baby fair was quite different.

I gave away my book. For free.

Kindle Direct Publishing allows me to run a free book promotion every three months. The dates of the most recent period coincided perfectly with a local hospital’s community baby fair. So I scheduled my promotion to run for three days, from Saturday, September 24th to Monday, September 26th.

I decided that I would give out half-sheets of paper with directions about how to get their free Kindle copy of my book. At the bottom of that half-sheet of paper, I politely asked for their Amazon review if they enjoyed the book. I also invited them to follow my blog by email.

Then, I told them to enjoy the book.

Their eyes lit up, their eyebrows arched.

“Wow. Thanks!”

“Awesome!”

“I’ll get it tonight!”

***

I didn’t advertise the free book promotion at all until Sunday, September 25th. I thought there might be a few people who would come across my book and download it on September 24th, but my main reason for beginning on this day was to have a buffer period for things to go wrong (i.e., Hey, why isn’t my promotion showing up on Amazon???) before the actual date when I need the promotion to be working.

So imagine my surprise when I checked on Sunday morning to see how many free Kindle books had already been downloaded.

97.

97 Kindle books.

I wasn’t sure I was reading the graph right. I read it and reread it. I put my finger on my laptop screen and touched the line.

kdp

Holy shit.

Who were these people? Was there some special link that Kindle readers follow to immediately download new free Kindle books?

Whatever the reason, I felt incredibly grateful.

No, I’m not making any money. In fact, I’m still about $1500 in the hole for my accrued publishing and marketing costs.

But, hey.

By the end of this promotion, I had reached 309 new potential readers. Some of them will actually read the book. Some of them will recommend it to others. And some of them might even buy a copy for a friend.

Generosity makes the world go round.

Maybe giving away all of these books will lead to this book’s next big break.

Maybe it won’t.

But I feel certain that some new mom out there will end up with this book in her hands and feel comforted by its message.

And that makes the whole endeavor worth it.

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