Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: children

The Thing We Hope Never Happens (a call to help a hurting mother)

My absolute worst fear is suffering the death of one of my children.

I can imagine coming to grips with the death of anyone in my life.

Except my children.

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***

Last Friday, I was reading my Facebook feed and read a horrific post from a member of my church.

Her daughter-in-law, Britney, was driving on a two-lane road with her five-year-old daughter, Jocelyn, and two-month-old son, Jonah, in the backseat.

You already know how this story ends.

An oncoming car illegally crossed the center to pass a car.

It hit them head on.

crash

It killed the little girl.

The mother and baby boy survived.

In the picture, Jocelyn was balancing on one foot, as if in the midst of dancing. She was posed proudly with her baby brother. Smiling. Blond and smiling. Happy. Just like my daughter.

Jocelyn 2Jocelyn and JonahJocelyn

There at my desk, I cried.

Britney was me. Her kids were my kids.

And my heart was broken for her.

All of this happened just days before Mother’s Day.

***

It was too cruel and unfair for one person to bear.

How could Britney face life and the world, now knowing, now feeling every day, that horrific things like that can happen?

Just like that.

How?

How could she keep going?

But of course I know how.

We all know how.

She’s a mother.

Britney

This is stuff that mothers are made of.

Loving through pain.

Living while part of you is dying.

Believing through despair and doubt.

Resiliency beyond measure.

Pure grit and strength.

***

Britney has already undergone several surgeries to repair her broken bones, including her pelvis. She has been moved out of the ICU and into the trauma unit. (And let’s not forget the fact that she’s just three months postpartum.)

Her newborn son also suffered extensive injuries. Two broken femurs and a broken arm.

Noah

He is currently being cared for around the clock by his grandmother, Lanae, who works as a surgical nurse. He couldn’t be in better hands while his mother is recovering.

***

I made myself imagine what I would do if I were living Britney’s reality.

What would I do?

I would sob and ache and grovel and resent and rage.

For a Long Time.

I would lash out and blame and despair.

I would be out for blood. I would crave Revenge. I would want to hurt and crush and obliterate. I would want to empty the life of the person who didn’t think first, who would rather take a risk, who thought the laws didn’t apply to him.

(Because I think first. Because I don’t want to take the risk. Because I don’t think the laws don’t apply to me.)

And while I would be going through this, I would still have to Get Back Up.

Although I would want to take time off from Life to mourn and process and make meaning, I would have to immediately Get Back Up.

For my son.

Because he would still need to eat and sleep and grow.

He would still need my arms to tell him that he is safe, even though I had just seen how unsafe the world can be.

I would need to decide every hour to keep on practicing the appearance of Love even though I’d be simultaneously steeling my heart from the possibility of Future Pain.

Because Love would have just killed off a part of me.

Love had created a trove of beautiful moments of my little girl — but now there would be no more. And the more time that would pass, the more those memories would lose their clarity. And if I forgot any part of those memories, it would be like losing her all over again.

All I really would want to do is climb into the ground with her so she wouldn’t be alone in the dark.

I would be like this for a Long Time.

***

But I also know that One Day, through the crisis and search to find meaning, I would finally choose Love again.

Because Love is the only path to Peace.

I would keep walking.

Still vulnerable.

Still hurting.

But alive.

And courageous.

***

I used to pray that Life Would Be Okay and Get Better. But I’ve stopped doing that.

Because that’s not what Life is for. The life worth living isn’t a life without pain because the pain is what shows us life’s worth.

When I say prayers now, it is in moments for others who are in pain.

And the prayer is that they keep moving

And keep walking through the pain

And that if they fall, that God will reach a Hand down to help them get back up.

***

Britney,

Our hearts ache with yours in your time of hurting and grieving. My prayer for you is that you keep walking through the pain. Keep moving. And keep believing that there is good in the world even though it is also so very bad at times. In fact, perhaps the world is good because it is bad.

Years from now, I hope that you can look back at these dark hours of your life and see all the light that people are shining on it. It’s always the people who have suffered and cried and walked the Path of Pain that will be the first to reach out their hands to you. Take those hands. Let them help you get back up. And don’t feel guilty about it. You are not a burden.

Because Some Day, it will be you who is the one reaching out and saving someone else.

You are not alone.

And you are Loved.

***

If you would like to help this family financially as they cope with medical and funeral expenses, you can contribute through their GoFundMe fundraiser here.

No gift is too small and you can give anonymously if you prefer.

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If you would like to provide financial assistance to Lanae as she takes care of Jonah full-time, you can donate here.

Lanae

 

I Heart Daycare (and some ramblings about feminism)

Some women tear up as they leave their children at daycare for the first time.

I practically skip inside.

Grin from ear to ear.

I. LOVE. DAYCARE.

Last Monday was Henry’s first day of daycare. Another daycare mom saw me taking him inside and asked if it was his first day. After I nodded, she jumped out of her van and gave me the biggest hug and said, “Isn’t it great!”

“YESSS!!!” I yelled.

“With the first one, you’re bawling about it and then the second, you’re just like ‘have fun!'”

She gets it.

It’s true. The first time we started daycare was much more involved and made me a little nervous. We spent about 20 minutes going through the list of critical bits of information that the infant teacher needed to know to feed, change, and soothe our baby to sleep.

She likes to be rocked to sleep while being held sideways. Like this. And try to put her down 90 minutes after she wakes up. We haven’t started solids yet. How do you heat the bottle for her? She likes it just lukewarm. Not too warm. If she starts crying and she’s not tired, she might be wet. Sometimes. Just check. You’re going to check every hour or so, right? Okay. She’s really pretty easy to take care of. 

But after two days, I’m pretty sure we thought daycare was a Gift from God. (Thank you, Ms. Cathy!)

It was like, Wait… We just drop the baby off at 7:00 a.m. and we don’t have to be back until 6:00 p.m. at the latest????

Game on.

Here’s some money.

Here’s lots of money.

I love you. Here’s some cookies.

Do you like Panera? I got you a gift card. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Thank you so much. You’re wonderful.

daycare

Daycare pretty much taught our daughter about hand-washing, drinking from a cup, and sitting in a chair for meals. They helped us potty train her. They taught her how to sit in a circle for storytime, how to cut with scissors, how to hold a crayon, and how to fingerpaint. They provided an atmosphere full of dress-up clothes, kid’s kitchens, and books, books, books. (We didn’t have to buy any of it! And I’m not responsible for cleaning up the toys!) They taught her how to walk in a line and take turns. They showed her that a room can be stunningly decorated with the artwork of little hands.

And oh so important… They introduced her to the concept of sharing.

They used the classroom to teach rules. They modeled politeness and respect for others. They reinforced the lesson that actions have consequences.

This does not make me sad.

It doesn’t make me feel like I’m not doing my job as a mother.

I don’t regret sending my kids to daycare.

I wholeheartedly embrace it. I even embrace it to the tune of half of my salary.

***

On the surface, it’s easy to see why some moms love daycare as much as I do. It gives women a break from the role of being a mother.

This is huge.

Mothers in particular are constantly carrying around a mental list of things to do that just grows longer and heavier with each child.

Daycare allows them to put some of that down.

And pick something else up.

But my love of daycare goes beyond that.

Daycare, I believe, is an expression of feminism.

For those of you who are completely turned off by the term “feminism”, stay with me for a minute. Because that word gets a bad wrap in some circles. Feminism doesn’t mean “man-hating” or “female victimization.” (I do not blame men individually for the culture and structure of our society. I blame patriarchy.)

Feminism is about sharing power. It’s about making sure that everyone has a voice. It’s about making sure that when important decisions are made about policy (both in government and business), the people who are making those decisions don’t all come from the same background (White. Male. Native-born. Able-bodied. English-speaking.).

Millienials are the first generation to kind of get feminism. Not all of them do, but from my anecdotal observations, it seems like some of the assumptions that we had about gender and power are finally not assumptions anymore.

One of our former teenage babysitters told us that when she was catcalled in the school hallway, she turned around, went up to the guy, and told him in very clear terms,

“You don’t treat me that way!”

Baller.

***

When I was growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, we were taught in school to imagine our futures. What would we like to be when we grew up? Doctors, astronauts, teachers? Athletes? Superheroes? Dinosaurs? Robots? We were encouraged to let our imaginations run wild.

Like many women in their 30s, I truly do not ever remember an adult — teacher, parent, or family friend — telling me that I couldn’t do whatever I wanted to do. No one told me that I was expected to get married and have kids right away. (Although my grandmother did ask me when I turned 18 if I was interested in any good boys…)

I was like many of my female friends. In high school, we all worked hard and earned good grades.

We went to college.

We got good grades there, too.

Maybe we went to graduate school.

And we got good grades there, too.

We followed the rules. We were doing fine.

We got jobs. We didn’t negotiate salary (because that’s not what good girls do, even though they should, we just couldn’t imagine drawing a line in the sand. That’s not who we are.)

And then we had children.

And everyone looked at us and said, “Are you going to stay home or return to work?”

No one asked our partners if they were going to stay home.

And there you have it.

The message is clear. It’s your baby.

It doesn’t provide any economic benefit to this company. It’s even costing us productivity. Make up your mind. Do you want to work here or not? Six weeks is a lot of time for you to be gone. You don’t want to make that kid dependent on you anyway, do you?

What happened?

What about all the things that I could be now that I’m an adult?

Was it all just empty promises, fueled by good intentions and a dream of equality?

Because, I’m here to tell you, access to affordable (!!!) quality daycare is critical for keeping women’s voices at the table. (Side note: The United States was a hair’s breadth away from free universal preschool for all in the 1970s. Here’s what happened to that awesome, bipartisan bill.)

The tide is turning, though.

Almost all of the dads that I know assume as much responsibility for their kids’ lives as their mothers do. When they take care of their kids, they’re not “babysitting.”

I mean… duh.

They’re being dads.

When they take their kids to the grocery store, it’s not some miraculous event that comes around only once every few years.

My husband knows how to swaddle a baby better than I do. He was the one who made the baby food and showed me how to make smooth formula without all the clumps. He can change a diaper in the dark and he’s even yelled at me for making too much noise while he’s trying to put the baby to sleep.

Ah…

Hope springs eternal.

Week 12: Destiny or Chaos?, a.k.a. The Deep Questions

Regardless of how you define “life,” at 3 months old, a baby has officially been a growing organism for a whole year.

From this:

fertilization

To this:

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In 365 days.

A. Ma. Zing.

This child was conceived four months after a miscarriage. We could have tried sooner, but, you know. Closure. Time. Space. All of these things are good and healing.

Because I was charting my basal temperatures every day for months before all of my pregnancies, I had a pretty good idea of when I would ovulate.

I thought.

Day 14 is ovulation day for a “typical” 28-day cycle. Mine was usually Day 16, but sometimes, it was as late as Day 22. This meant that I had short luteal phases, which can make it difficult to get pregnant or to keep a pregnancy. (I often had a nine-day luteal phase, and sometimes as low as six days. Not good.)

When we conceived our first child, it was Day 18. So, based on past experience, we decided to aim for Days 14-18. You know. Cover all our bases.

Right?

But Days 14-18 of that particular cycle landed right smack in the middle of our “vacation” to the D.C. area. 

I put vacation in quotation marks because we were traveling with a 2 1/2 year old.

So, yeah, it wasn’t really a vacation that was very conducive for baby-making. But that was the timeline.

So be it.

Three days before we left for that trip, our daughter went to bed early and this beautiful window of an hour with nothing to do opened up.

It was Day 11. In the 22 months of data that I had collected, I had never ovulated before Day 14. But whatever. Let’s just have a good time, we thought.

As it turned out, that was my ovulation day.

We officially started “trying” on Day 14, but of course, nothing we did at that point would have gotten us pregnant.

The best laid plans sometimes, right?

***

It would be easy to write this story as destiny. That because our baby is so beautiful and perfect, we were just meant to have sex days before we had planned. God just knew that we needed to get together then in order to make this beautiful baby. Or something like that.

Believing in destiny is all well and good when it’s going your way.

But for all the healing that believing in destiny can do, it can just as easily bleed you dry.

When we miscarried, were we just meant to have sex at the wrong time?

Was that destiny?

Or is destiny just a comforting idea that we hold on to when it helps us?

If there is no destiny, is it all just chaos and luck?

Or do we call it chaos so we don’t need to acknowledge the real consequences of our actions?

Although I’ve been thankful for this child that made his way from cell to zygote to blastocyst to embryo to fetus to baby…

I sometimes wonder about the two pregnancies that didn’t get this far. What would they have been like? Were they boys? Girls? One of each? Did they have chromosomal problems? Would they have been perfect if my body could have held onto them? Would they look like my two living children, who both look more like their cousins than they do their parents?

What alternate course of events may have played out if those pregnancies lasted?

Destiny?

Or Chaos?

When it comes to conceiving a child, it feels like a bit of both.
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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.

jonsnow

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.

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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.

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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

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