Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: Family

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.

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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.

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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

 

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.

Week 37: Endings

Last year, I began the year on an ending.

I woke up empty. Finally.

On New Year’s Eve, I had a D & C to put an end to the miscarriage that my body wouldn’t let go. We picked up my painkillers on the way home, along with a piece of apple pie from Whole Foods. (Sometimes, food really does make you feel better.)

That night, we watched Interstellar through Amazon Prime.

I thought about the moments in my life when I would want to reach back through time and space and tell myself to do something differently.

The truth is, I don’t have many regrets in my life.

But the regrets that I do have are moments when I couldn’t accept that a part of my life was ending and another was beginning. Even when the change was good change. Staying in a relationship that I knew was ending. Staying in jobs that not only sapped my joy but also my dignity.

Given the choice between embracing the unknown and holding on to the familiar, my heart wants to cling to the familiar.

But there is goodness in letting go and allowing the emptiness to move in.

It’s the emptiness that allows us to imagine a different future.

Beginnings cannot begin until the endings end.

So after closing the door on last year’s miscarriage, I gave myself some time to feel empty again. To regenerate and heal.

I got pregnant again.

Now, I’ll be giving birth this January.

The symmetry almost makes me laugh. Perfect bookends on a very strange year. It’s one of those odd parallels that seems too coincidental to be true, but there it is nevertheless.

***

As this pregnancy enters its final weeks, I’m thinking more and more about the art of letting go and letting it be.

To be clear, I don’t define “letting go” as forgetting the past. That is impossible. Even dangerous to our emotional well-being. When we divorce our present selves from the past, we lose part of our identities. Finding peace in yourself, I believe, requires that you make peace with every version of yourself, past and present.

If you’ve watched any of HBO’s new show, Westworld, you’ve seen how the writers of this show explore the relationship between memory and consciousness. To be human is to construct a present self that is informed by the experiences and decisions of our past selves. It’s this constant creating and recreating of our present identities that makes us human. In the absence of the ability to access memory, we lose our humanity. We become beings that move on pre-programmed “loops” of motivations and behaviors.

In that sense, a healthy respect for accepting endings in our lives helps us become the best versions of ourselves.

In a few weeks, I’ll be closing the door on this version of myself. Mother of one daughter in a family of three. The days of being concerned about only one child’s health and development will be over.

I’ll have to accept that I cannot just fit this new child into the current patterns, behaviors, and structure of this family of three.

Everything will shift.

Everything must shift.

Accepting that shift is how I can keep all the heartaches in perspective.

Heartache? some of you may be asking.

Yes. Because I’ll need to accept that this is the last time I’ll give birth. The last time I’ll look down on that perfectly, unwrinkled face, just minutes old. The last time I’ll rub my hands over that soft, velvety newborn skin.

It takes courage and grace to accept that these moments are so fleeting. If I think about it too much, I feel paralyzed by the grief of watching all these moments pass and pass and pass, knowing that my child is changing, changing, changing.

It is all so brief. So very brief.

But everything shifts.

Everything must shift.

***

Before this pregnancy, January never felt like a month for giving birth.

The trees are bare. The grass is frosty. The birds don’t sing. The wind stings and bites your face. It’s the peak of the cold and flu season.

Nothing makes me think of the promise of new life.

But the word January comes from the Roman god, Janus, a two-faced god who could look back on the past while looking forward. His presence symbolized beginnings and endings and transitions. He was the god of gates and doors. People worshipped him in times of harvest, in marriages…

And in births.

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The Roman god, Janus

In these final weeks of pregnancy, that is what I will try to do.

To look on the past even as I move forward.

Into this new identity.

Mother of two.

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

Week 30: Sitting in the Discomfort

I wish I were talking about the physical discomfort of pregnancy. The concrete discomfort that grows heavier and heavier as these third trimester days pass one after another.

But I’m not.

***

I was struggling with the idea of going to church on this first Sunday after the election. I knew that I would be worshipping God alongside people who had voted for this man. I knew the anger and frustration that I would feel. I knew someone would say something that would send my blood pressure soaring.

But I went.

Because I needed healing. I needed to hear, Help,  save, comfort, and defend us, Gracious Lord.

I sat in an adult Sunday School classroom in which, at nearly 35 years old, I was the youngest person in the room.

We listened to an episode of a DVD series by Max Lucado called You Will Get Through This. Before the election, those words had comforted me through the difficult moments of pregnancy. Now, those words address a completely new range of emotions.

I told myself, No. You will not bring up the pain of the election. You will not be the one to instigate a conversation. You are not here to argue. You are here for healing.

But it didn’t matter. It was on everyone’s mind.

I mean, look at this last election, an older man said. And now people are protesting like this? What has happened in the last twenty years? How did we get here?

I think it’s an erosion of values. Look at the young people of today. They have 1,000 “friends” on Facebook, and they think that’s connection. When I was a kid, we talked to each other. Young people today aren’t really connected to each other.

Yes, I’ve noticed that too. When I was a kid, there was more expectation of looking out for your neighbor. We’ve lost that neighborliness. And we need to bring that back.

It’s Christian values specifically that are being eroded. I mean, I can’t speak to what Muslims are teaching, I don’t have an understanding of it, but we’re starting to see a real decline in Christian values among our young people.

Right! Young people aren’t going to church the way they used to. And why? Where did they go? Why aren’t they coming?

Well, there’s a lot of reasons for that, ones that I don’t know that we can get into now, but it’s having an effect for sure. We see those values falling away more and more.

It was at this point that I thought about leaving. My heart was racing. I was fuming.

Geez, I have no idea why Millenials are leaving the church, I sarcastically mused. Could it be because they don’t think there’s a place for their opinions? Could it be because they are being labeled and dismissed as whiny and disconnected? Erosion of values? What about the values that more Millenials have than Baby Boomers? Values like respect for sexual orientation and differing religious views?

I am a regular contributor to this class. I don’t just sit there and say nothing. I open up. I offer personal stories from my life. I allow myself to be vulnerable in this classroom because, usually, I feel surrounded by supportive fellow Christians. But the next words out of my mouth were going to be full of hurtful, angry words.

So I shut up that morning. Because my words would have only fueled the fire already ablaze in that room. Because there was only enough time to really get pissed off at each other. Not enough time to actually talk through an issue.

Not that morning. That morning, I needed to calm down and think.

I needed to sit in the discomfort of being generalized and labeled and dismissed. I needed to feel the way that millions of working class Americans have been feeling for years. I needed to shut up and listen.

I haven’t been doing enough of that lately.

I let this room full of Baby Boomers talk and I listened to their concerns. I listened with the intention of understanding how they were drawing conclusions.

***

My epiphany didn’t happen in that moment. It didn’t even come to me on that day.

The next day, as I listened to NPR’s Morning Edition, I heard a segment on interviews with working class voters in New Hampshire. Then, a light bulb.

The way that I felt in that Sunday School classroom was the same way that many of the rural, working class of America has felt for years. They have felt that their ideas and concerns have been too often generalized, labeled, and dismissed. They have felt forgotten and unimportant. And in Donald Trump, they saw a person who has pledged to not forget them.

The racism, the sexism, the xenophobia, the lying, the bad business practices… All of that just comes along with Trump’s package. But for many of these voters, all of those vices are not horrible enough to deny Trump their vote. And as disturbing as I find that dismissive attitude, I have to acknowledge that their decision is coming from a need for self-preservation.

He’s going to make America great again.

He’s going to bring back our jobs.

He’s going to bring life back into our dying towns.

Even if he doesn’t accomplish all that he says, at least we’ll get something.

And what about racism and xenophobia? When everyone in your immediate social circles is white and native-born Americans, these vices tend to not rank high on the list of disqualifying characteristics in a candidate.

After all, it doesn’t affect you.

It doesn’t affect your family.

Sure, it will probably affect someone. But that someone is probably a “bad person.” They probably deserve it. And it won’t affect your life.

Perhaps it’s quite telling that the people who have been downright mourning this election for the past week are people who have family, friends, and coworkers who belong to the targeted groups that Trump has scapegoated for the past year and a half.

For them, this election has hurt those they love. They have real fear and anxiety over the future and those fears aren’t completely groundless. Overt racism and hate crimes have jumped since this election. At my own university, faculty and students of color have reported racial bullying on our campus.

***

It used to be that tensions were higher between different cultural groups. Now, tensions are high even between generations of the same cultural group. Our realities are wildly different.

In talking with my own mom, I saw it.

Why are people just now acting racist like this? She wondered aloud. What makes them think they can act like this?

Mom, the racism was always there. It was just under the surface. Now, it’s coming out.

I just can’t believe that.

Of course she has trouble believing that.

Because she grew up in white Christian America. She doesn’t have a non-white friend who was flipped off by white men in a pick-up truck sporting proud Confederate flags. She doesn’t have students who were denied entrance onto a public bus, “unless they took their burqas off” (they were wearing hijabs, but I’m sure the driver didn’t know the difference).

For my mother, it is incredibly difficult to see this racism–because she doesn’t have much interaction with people who aren’t white and aren’t Christian.

But I have to admit that I am also blind.

Because I have benefited from globalization, I don’t have to live in a world where I can’t find a job. A world in which I have been outskilled by a younger, more educated workforce. I don’t have to face that everyday.

Believe it or not, I have empathy for this situation. Because it happened to my father.

He was a working class man with a high school education who was left further and further behind by the increasing technological demands of his job. The burden became so great, he had to retire early. For a man who relied on his work to define his identity, the blow of leaving his job was so crushing that he never truly recovered from it.

***

We have to start recognizing our blind spots.

We have to start trying to understand why many of us view this election as another example of how racism and sexism continue to go unchecked, overlooked, or downright condoned.

At the same time, we have to start trying to understand why many of us view the ability to consider racism and sexism in this election as an absolute privilege.

I can just hear the working class voices right now: Wow, must be nice to be able to be upset about racism and sexism. I’m furious that I can’t pay my rent every month. That I can afford even Obamacare. But, you know, sucks to be you.

When we say “let’s come together,” God, I hope we mean, let’s compromise.

God, I hope “let’s come together,” doesn’t mean, “Just accept that you’re wrong already and come over to the good side. The ‘American’ side.”

But we can only hope to recognize the importance of compromise if we find those spaces in our lives where we connect with people who are different from us. Different in education, race, religion, social class, and on and on. We need to hear different voices. Many different voices. And if we can’t hear them in our immediate communities, we need to seek them out.

***

The other day, I went to seek out how some of my more conservative family members–aunts, uncles, and cousins–were responding to the election. I looked up a few on Facebook and read through their recent posts.

When I got to my uncle, I did a double-take.

Do you know this person? Facebook asked me. Then it showed me a green button to Add Friend.

My uncle had unfriended me on Facebook.

I thought it was a mistake.

But no. He had definitely unfriended me.

Did I say anything to him to offend him? Did I like or react to something that he didn’t like? What did I do?

I still don’t know. Other than being a left-leaning family member.

My heart ached.

To be fair, I didn’t grow up with regular contact with this uncle. We lived in different states. We might have met a few times at family reunions. But just two years ago, he drew close to me and my siblings when my father, his brother, passed away.

He started sending me and my siblings weekly remembrances of my father, who had just then died. Every week or so, he would email some thoughts and memories that he had of my dad. He opened a window into who my father was as a young man. In time, he fell out of the practice of sending us those stories. I didn’t begrudge him of that. We’re all busy. Grief remains, but time marches on.

Our connection to each other became his occasional pictures in my Facebook feed. Fishing and flowers, lakes and his shadow on the ground. Picture of his wife, my aunt.

Now: Gone.

No more window into my father’s life.

What this election is doing to families is sad. Just plain sad. Politics shouldn’t override family relationships. Family should be sacred. We might disagree with each other, but families shouldn’t decide to cut each other off because of political disagreements. Just because what we say to each other makes us uncomfortable.

So I will sit in this discomfort.

I won’t walk away from the table.

I’ll keep going to church.

Even though we are a divided country, I will continue to show up. I will continue to represent the groups to which I belong.

Millenial. Mother. Liberal. Academic. Lutheran.

I’ll keep showing up. I’ll listen to you.

I hope you’ll keep showing up. And that you’ll listen to me.

 

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.

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

how-to-break-up-with-someone-0-1024x512

Photo credit: http://www.ottmag.com

Especially when you’re breaking up with a long-standing, beautiful relationship with…

A two-hour nap.

Oh… The peace. The quiet.

The freedom.

Two hours is a whole movie.

It’s two episodes of Game of Thrones.

And with just one child at home, it’s occasionally a nice time to… Yeah. You know.

One some glorious days, the two-hour nap would turn into a three-hour nap.

So luxurious.

But as I mentioned in a previous post, our three-year-old daughter is dropping her midday nap. Her body is shifting to require only ten hours of sleep per day instead of her usual twelve hours.

Unfortunately, daycare isn’t on board. According to State of Ohio regulations, she still needs to spend 1 hour and 45 minutes on a cot during an 8-hour stay at daycare. Now, she doesn’t have to sleep. She could stay awake and look at books.

But she doesn’t. She falls asleep every time.

Her daycare teacher exclaims, “She’s a great sleeper!”

Well, for you, she is.

For us, that lovely midday nap now means that she’s still rockin’ at 9:45 p.m. 10:00. 10:20. I, on the other, am officially done with the day at 9:15. I’m physically, mentally, and emotionally depleted by this time and it’s even harder now because I’m pregnant.

Which is why I’m more than thrilled that my husband is willing to keep vigil after I’ve gone to bed. Just to make sure that she doesn’t escape her room while she is trying to go to sleep.

***

As I saw Labor Day Weekend approaching, my first thought wasn’t, Ahhh… A relaxing weekend.

My first thought was, Oh my God, that’s three full days without daycare or naps. What are we going to do to get out of the house so I don’t go nuts?

I did research. I amassed a list of things we could do. The county fair. The Renaissance Festival. The Cincinnati Museum Center. Boonshoft Museum of Discovery. Yes. We have options. I can get through this, I thought.

I ran the plans by my husband. His response was:

“I need to get work done outside.”

“What work?” I asked.

“That retaining wall needs to be redone. It’s not level, so it’s causing the A/C unit to shake. That needs to get done this weekend.”

My first thought was, Can’t you do that another weekend? Any other weekend? Please-for-the-love-of-God?

We are not so advanced in potty training and managing temper tantrums that I’m willing to go it alone to any of these places. I need a partner.

I imagine the worst. A poop accident that requires four hands to clean up.

Or an all-out tempter tantrum that requires me to carry her like a bundle of firewood back to the car. And I cannot manage that now that she’s 40 pounds and I’m 5 months pregnant.

But, the retaining wall.

We settle on doing something together on Labor Day, giving him two solid weekend days to re-set the retaining wall.

***

By 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, I walked out of the house, straight to the backyard and announced:

“I need to get away from her. I’m going to the store for an hour.”

I cried all the way to the grocery store, chiding myself the whole time about making such a big deal out of nothing.

So what happened?

She’s three. That’s what happened.

Sometimes, she’s sweet as pie. Other times, she’s sass-a-frass. And when you’re the only person bearing the brunt, it just. Wears. You. Down.

She’s not that bad. She’s a normal three-year-old. Yeah, she acts defiant. Frequently. But that’s normal. 

There’s nothing to cry about. Why are you crying? If you can’t handle this, you really shouldn’t be having another kid. 

What are you doing with your life? 

What is wrong with you?

***

I did a slow grocery shop. I took my time. I reminded myself that, hey, I’m 5 months pregnant and my emotions are hard to manage when I’m tired and I have no break.

I forgave myself.

Then, I came home, dropped a medium Wendy’s French fry in my husband’s lap as a thank you for helping out, sat down on the freshly re-set retaining wall, and had a good cry.

He put his arm around me and let me talk.

Then, he sent me inside and said, “Take some time for yourself and come back when you feel better.”

So I did.

I took another hour to take a long bath and shave my legs (finally). When I came downstairs, I was ready to help with dinner.

We ate together and laughed a little.

At 7:00, I was ready to take over again. I sent him back outside to finish the wall. I gave our daughter a bath, read to her, tucked her in, cleaned the dishes, finished the laundry, and vacuumed.

And fell asleep around 9:30.

I heard my husband walk into the bedroom later on. I checked the clock.

10:20.

But the wall was finished.

***

Parents of older kids sometimes tell us that, “Things get easier.”

But then they’re quick to add, “Well, some things get easier. Other things get harder.”

They are right.

In exchange for letting go of naps and diapers, we’re entering a new world of possibilities of ways that we can spend our time with our kids. Beyond the kitchen, the dining room, and the playroom.

We go out. We show her new things. She is delighted and her delight is palpable. We can actually enjoy experiences together.

But right now, I feel caught in the middle. She has moved beyond naps, but she hasn’t risen to the level of self-sufficiency that makes me feel comfortable enough to wrangle her by myself. Maybe it’s my personality. Maybe it’s the pregnancy. Maybe both.

Yes, I know. It’s all a phase. One big, giant phase.

But this next phase… It’s turning out to be a lot harder to adjust to than I thought.

Week 19: The End of Child # 1’s Naptime

stages of pregnancy

Now entering the “I got this/ Cheeseburgers” phase of pregnancy.

I’m great in the second trimester. I have decent energy. My emotions are (mostly) under control. And I’m not so hugely pregnant that I hate even the idea of moving.

I’m still exercising about five days a week, a combination of cardio/kickboxing, weights, and yoga. My target heart rate for cardio workouts is about 135-145 and that seems to be working well. The weights and yoga help keep my legs, hips, and back from killing me.

While I feel like I’ve got a handle on this pregnancy so far, I’m starting to realize that I’m entering a completely new phase of parenting with my three-year-old.

The phase that is completely void of naps.

The naps are… gone.

Or they need to go. At least if we want her to go to bed at 7:30 or 8:00 like she used to.

In the last week, we’ve put her to bed at 7:30 just as we’ve done for the past six months or so. Usually, she’s alseep by 8:00 or 8:15.

But lately, she’ll sit in her room, reading books, until 9:3o or 10:00. Sometimes 10:30.

Then, she’s  up at 6:30 again.

It hits me.

We’ve been so spoiled with 11-12 hours of her sleeping at night and 1-2 hours of her napping. People often didn’t believe us that this was her typical sleep routine. They asked us if we drugged her or ran her ragged to make her sleep that long.

But that’s just how she was.

Now, that phase is ending.

Now, we’re becoming the kind of parents that are strategizing ways of getting out of the house and using up her energy. We go to birthday parties. All of them. We go to the library. We take her grocery shopping and deal with the headache of letting her learn to navigate the tiny kid’s cart around the unsuspecting legs of strangers.

We’ve even dropped money on special outings, like a trip to the Cincinnati Zoo and tickets to ride Thomas the Tank Engine at Lebanon-Mason Railroad Station. In a torrential downpour, I balanced my purse, a diaper bag, and my three-year-old under an umbrella, while everything below my thighs got royally soaked. My husband had dropped us off with our only umbrella and went to park the car, so he fared much worse. He boarded the train, completely drenched.

But when your child smiles like this…

Thomas_and_Felicity

Can you really be upset?

So we’ll do what we’ve always done: adjust. We’ll move into this next phase of parenting even as we prepare to re-enter phases that we’ve passed through years ago.

The will-we-ever-leave-this-house-again phase.

The oh-my-God-sleeping-four-hours-feels-amazing phase.

The maybe-she’ll-sleep-longer-if-we-give-her-one-more-bottle-before-bedtime phase.

The crap-she’s-figured-out-how-to-open-the-cabinets phase.

The holy-crap-my-child-wandered-into-the-next-room-without-me-noticing phase.

We’ll do it all again.

Maybe a little more relaxed this time.

Hopefully, a little wiser.

But always with the knowledge that there is always rest after the hard times.

Even if it is small.

To Be Three

The three-year-old birthday is the one that kids really start to understand what’s going on.

“It’s my birthday party!” my daughter reminded me all day long. “I’m having a birthday party today!”

She began her day at 5:00 a.m., two hours earlier than usual. But she was wide awake and ready to go. “I’m ready, Mommy! Let’s go downstairs.”

“Kermit, it’s too early to get up,” I moaned.

When she wouldn’t relent, I tossed her a package of Keebler crackers and peanut butter that I have stashed on my night stand for when wake up hungry at 2:00 a.m. (because another human being is eating my reserves from the inside.)

She made a picnic in her room and ate her crackers contentedly while talking to her stuffed animals. And the Keebler elf. He needed to be updated on what was going on, apparently.

IMG_3676

Awake at 5:00 a.m. + no nap = Asleep at 4:00 p.m. when her party started

***

What I really enjoyed about this birthday was her newly found ability to engage in the actual party. At two years old, the whole day was kind of like, “What are all of these people doing here and why are they staring at me?”

At two years old, opening gifts was traumatic because we tried to get her to put aside the first gift that she opened and open a second gift.

Lesson learned.

This time, we opened a few gifts in the morning and saved the rest for the next day.

IMG_3709

Wooden Cash Register by Hape Toys. Super cute!

For her third birthday party, we asked people to not bring gifts, which translates into people bringing small, inexpensive gifts. And I’m totally for that. I love the $5-$10 gifts that she got. A book. A shirt. A little bead-making set. Yes! That’s plenty. She doesn’t need more toys. She needs more experiences.

We tried to show The Peanuts Movie to ten kids, ranging from ages two to seven. Ha. Ha. Within ten minutes, running after each other while holding balloons was far more fun.

It also didn’t help that they were distracted by the sight of my husband creating a huge slip and slide in the backyard. With the help of our neighbor, he bought a 20 X 100 piece of thick plastic, a bunch of Palmolive, and hooked up a sprinkle. When the kids saw it, you would have thought that they had seen a giant Mickey Mouse in the backyard, personally inviting them to a world of fun.

Of course, we still needed to eat dinner.

When we tried to lure them back inside to eat dinner, there were tantrums everywhere, no matter how many time we told them we were coming back outside.

But eat, they did. And quickly.

And then the fun began.

 

IMG_3700This was a bit of a watershed day for me. Until recently, being a mother to my daughter was a lot of work, work, work, and a little bit of fun mixed in.

But really, it mostly work.

Now she’s walking, talking, using the bathroom (almost on her own!), and playing on her own. It’s a welcome relief to see her enjoying time with her friends without me by her side.

Yes, there’s a little sadness in watching her drift away, but I have to admit, it’s mostly relief. I don’t know if that relief comes from my introverted side or my independent side or from some other aspect of my personality, but the relief is real.

In many ways, we have a long way to go and I’m certainly not wishing the years away.

Because now I’m seeing how much fun being a parent can really be.

IMG_3201

Without a Name: When a Parent has Bipolar Depression

I knew something was seriously wrong when my mother told me that she had woken up late one night to find my father sitting in the living room, talking to some pennies that he had been collecting.

To be fair, there were a lot of other signs before this that made us think, What the hell is going on?

Like when he ominously thanked my mother for all she had done before slowly sinking to the bottom of my brother’s pool. (He eventually came back up.)

Like when he spent that one family reunion handing out tiny envelopes, each carefully labeled with a person’s name and their birth year. Each holding a penny stamped with that year.

Like when he suddenly became completely comatose for a week, refusing to eat or talk, but the doctor said that it wasn’t a stroke, and he should be fully aware of his surroundings.

Like when he insisted that my mother not talk in the house–because it was bugged and the FBI was listening to their every word.

We called it paranoia. We called it depression.

It all started with a sudden change in his career that catapulted him into a future where he could not see his identity.

Although he was still a husband. Although he was still a father. Although he was still, still, still. Once he lost his professional identity, the great unraveling began.

***

I remember walking into the room in our house where Dad had set up his laptop on a cheap table and called it his “office.” Our border collie, Gator, dutifully lay beside his feet. He said, “Sharon, I don’t know what I’m going to do. If I can’t do the bakery business… I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

It was 2006. For twenty-five years, he had been a bakery specialist for SuperValu grocery stores. But faced with increased competition, SuperValu pivoted its marketing strategy towards a higher-end retail model and launched a new produce company, W. Newell & Co.

His boss told him that he could also pivot in his career. He could abandon his twenty-five years of experience in bakery marketing for SuperValu and embrace a new career in produce marketing for W. Newell & Co…. Or…

“Well, you don’t want to know the other option… That’s what my boss told me. Those exact words, Sharon,” he pointed an accusative finger at me, the only person there who was listening.

I don’t remember what I said. Probably something like, “It will be okay. Maybe it’s a good opportunity to learn something new.”

But he just kept saying,

“I’m not a produce man. I’m a bakery man. Always been one. I don’t know what to do.”

Dad_2005

***

Looking back now, I can track my dad’s slow descent into madness. I can see how he withdrew and surrendered, year after year after year. I can see a constellation of strange interactions and responses.

I remember him walking up to an empty cash register at Wal-Mart and suddenly screaming, “I NEED HELP!!! HELP ME DOWN HERE!!!”

I remember my brother telling me that they barely got back into the country after a trip to Jamaica because Dad was “making a fuss” at the airport.

We didn’t know what to call it, so we called it moodinessWe called it angry old man syndrome.

When he started to walk with a strange gait, when he started to lose his facial expressions, when he started to go days without speaking, we began to understand that something else was going on.

The doctors called it Parkinson’s disease.

But we all knew that wasn’t enough.

More doctors added that it was bipolar depression.

It seemed fitting, but we still wondered: What is causing what? Will we find out there’s a third monster, just waiting in the wings? Why now? Why haven’t we seen this until now? Has he always had this and we just didn’t realize it?

Could losing his career really push this precariously balanced snowball down the cliff of his mind?

Or would he always have disintegrated this way, regardless of the stressors in his life?

***

In his last years of life, stranger things started to happen.

He called the sheriff on himself, insisting that he be arrested. He was convinced that the government was going to come and arrest him for not paying taxes on some Parent Plus loans that he had taken out for my sister (He had just received a notice that the loans had been forgiven because of his disability).

The government was coming for him. He just knew it. They would hunt him down–and he deserved it.

But when the sheriff arrived, he said that he couldn’t arrest my dad.

To which my dad screamed, “What does a guy have to DO to get ARRESTED around here?”

“You have to be a danger to yourself or others,” he explained.

“Well, I AM! I’m a dangerous person!”

“Are you going to hurt yourself?” the sheriff asked.

“Yes, I am.”

“If you were going to hurt yourself, what would you use?” he asked.

“A gun.”

My mother interrupted, “You don’t have a gun.”

“Then, a knife! I’d use a knife!”

God bless this sheriff, who mercifully took my mother aside and asked her if she wanted him to take him to a nearby psychiatric hospital. She said yes.

***

My mother. Oh, my mother.

The things this woman has plowed through. The pain that she’s endured over and over again.

Sometimes, there are no words.

***

Last summer, she passed out in a grocery store while shopping because her doctor had her on medication that caused extremely low blood pressure. I sat with her in the emergency room while they checked her out, making sure she was okay.

We told stories to pass the time. It was coming up on the one year anniversary of my father’s death, and she asked me how I was doing. The conversation stalled for a moment and she started laughing.

“What are you laughing about?” I asked.

She told me of a time she needed to drive my dad back to this psychiatric hospital, on one of his particularly manic days. It was mid-February in Minnesota, the high for the day averaging a balmy five degrees below zero.

My father was growing frustrated that they hadn’t already arrived at the hospital, so he started banging the dashboard of the car.

“Quit that!” my mother yelled at him. “You’ll set off the airbags.”

He hit the dashboard harder.

Then, God knows why, he rolled the window down and started making bird calls.

My mother cranked up the radio to drown out the sound of his bird calls. With the windows rolled down, freezing air pouring in, she could see strangers peering curiously into the chaotic scene of their small Ford Focus wagon.

Sitting in that emergency room, two years later, we laughed about this.

“How did you get through all of that?” I joked with her.

She smiled. “What else was there to do? I could cry about it or laugh. So I laughed about it. It was the only way to get through it.”

***

How do you love your father when he makes your mother miserable?

Where do you place the blame when you know it’s not his fault?

There were times when my mother would open up and tell me how bad it had gotten and I would hang up the phone and think, What if she leaves him? What will happen? Who will take care of him? 

Truth be told, part of me wanted her to leave him. Because he was that heavy stone, pulling her down in the dark, suffocating depths of psychosis. And my mother didn’t deserve that. Couldn’t she be released of her marriage vows if the partnership threatened her very well-being? Wasn’t marriage about bringing out the best in each other?

But then… who would take care of him?

Who?

I try to fathom what it was like for my mother to have been caught in this conflict every day.

To be married to someone who had become so completely different than the man she fell in love with.

To be caught in the tension between her love for his past self and her anger toward his present self.

To run through the narrow list of options every day and still come to the same conclusion:

I promised in sickness or in health.

For me, I couldn’t choose to end my connection to my father. He is half of my DNA. He is my nose, my chin, my dark features. He is my stubbornness, my sarcasm, my sentimentality, my impeccable memory, and my gift for storytelling. We are ISFJs, the practical workers who work with their “noses to the grindstone, shoulders to the wheel” (as Dad would put it) and then quietly revel in a job well done.  

But it was different for my mother.

For my mother in those last years, showing love for my father was a painstaking, daily decision. One in which my father rarely even acknowledged and, on a bad day, even resented. She could have chosen to walk away after thirty-four years of marriage, chalking up their connection to nothing more than years and years of shared memories.

But she didn’t.

And that is how my mother has schooled me.

She showed me that love is more than fortifying the ship as it sails along on smooth winds. She showed me that love is also grabbing his hand when the ship crashes and refusing to let go when you see him sinking. Even as something dark and terrifying grabs hold of him and takes him down.

Sometimes, your love for your partner cannot be returned.

And when it can’t, your love needs to be strong enough to hold the both of you.

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***

It took me time to understand how sick my father really was. That’s the way it is with illnesses that alter behaviors, emotions, and moods. I think it would have been easier for our family to understand and adjust if some visible growth had invaded his body rather than this invisible force that laid waste to his mind.

We could have understood earlier that he wasn’t just “being difficult” or “acting funny.” We could have understood that a bad exchange with him wasn’t because we said something wrong or because he was suddenly a terrible person.

But it took years to diagnose him with bipolar depression. And without a name to call it, we just called it “Dad.” And for me, this is what hurt the most.

Because this wasn’t my dad.

***

I didn’t see my father many times in the last years of his life. They lived in Texas for a few years, and then, they moved to Minnesota. I lived in Ohio.

I wish I had known that 2006-2011 would be the last years that I could still have semi-normal conversations with him. Ones in which he would at least say something after I said something, even if it didn’t quite respond to what I said.

I wish there had been some kind of map at the beginning of his descent into mental illness. Some kind of markers along the way that read,

This is your last chance to tell your father you love him–and have him believe it.

Or This is the last time that you’ll see him smile without being prompted.

Or This is the last time that he’ll make a joke with you about politics.

But there were no markers. No maps.

There were just moments upon moments when we decided to draw close to each other or to move away.

To move away.

To move away.

Until he was gone.

***

I don’t tend to be a mystical person. But sometimes, I wonder.

This past March, I was making some cookies for St. Patrick’s Day with my daughter. We were using mint chips instead of chocolate chips and adding green food coloring. As I transferred each piping hot cookie from the sheet to the cooling rack, I could almost hear my dad crooning one of his favorite sayings as he would rub his hands together excitedly.

You’ve got to have the patience of Job, he would say, as if he were advising himself from giving in to his childlike temptations.

Baking was his life and I smiled as I thought, He would love to have seen this.

And then this song came up on Pandora:

Remember when our songs were just like prayers

Like gospel hymns that you called in the air

Come down, come down sweet reverence

Unto my simple house and ring… and ring…

It was Gregory Alan Isakov’s “Stable Song,” the same song that I used for the video that I created for my dad’s funeral.

I looked out into the kitchen, partially expecting to see him standing there. It was just a millisecond, I’m sure, but for that millisecond, I really had the expectation that he would be there when I turned around.

I would see him inching his way toward one of my cookies with his sneaky smile. I would tell him, Hands off!

But he would grab one anyway, shove it in his mouth, and then say, Heh? What was that? Did you say something?

Then I would laugh and poke him in his belly.

Then his hands, already in motion to grab a second cookie, would instinctively curl up to protect his middle, only to arrive too late, leaving me free to poke him mercilessly until he would twirl out of the kitchen, hands clutched around his belly.

For that moment, he was not only alive, but fully restored. There was no anger or paranoia. No delusions or mania. Instead, he was funny, charming, and tender. He was the man I always knew him to be.

And that was how I was caught in one of the paradoxes of grief: the simultaneous desire to laugh and cry.

Then the hurt all over again. Wishing that I had the superhuman ability to push into another dimension, where we are not caught between these two fundamental dichotomies of human biology and physics. Alive or dead. The past or the present.

I pray to God that this is true—that there is another possible reality, one in which life and time are suspended so that there can be no more loss or illness or deviation.

Only wholeness.

 

 

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