Month: February 2015

Learning to Celebrate

This week  Brain, Child magazine ran an essay I wrote about the life I didn’t choose (a life with only one child) vs. the life that I have.

Often I imagine the life I didn’t choose. In this life I am the parent to one six-year-old boy. I sleep through the night. I spend long Saturday mornings with a book on the couch while he sits on the floor playing Legos. Some days he goes over a friend’s house and our own home is completely quiet. This imaginary life, the one I left behind, has its perks.

But I haven’t so much lost these small pleasures as I have traded them for others.

This post generated 1K+ likes on Facebook–small beans by some standards, but a nice little landmark for me.

Also this week I got to contribute to a post on one of my favorite WordPress blogs, Stories from the Belly. Even better was the topic I was invited to write about: breasts! I had fun writing the following sentence which opens my micro-essay:

Once, at a crowded farmers market, an acquaintance of mine broke from our conversation to pull one of her breasts out of the top of her sundress and nurse her infant daughter.

And I loved seeing my work on the same page as bloggers Diahann Reyes and KS.

Someone in my life who knows me well challenged me to celebrate my good week. Celebrate, as in mark a significant achievement by engaging in something joyful, pleasurable.

My immediate response was to rattle off a list of things I still haven’t done, things that would truly be worthy of celebration, you know, like 20K likes on Facebook, or a book deal, or publication in the New York Times.

This friend assured me that it was still okay to celebrate.

My next response was to feel utterly flummoxed about what kind of shape that celebration should take. Kellie, as we speak, is performing maintenance on deep cycle batteries on the Mojave Desert, so there’s no one at home to open a good bottle of wine with me.

But the more I thought the more I realized that I like food as much as wine, and I like my children’s company as much as I like anyone’s, and so I decided on sushi and cake.

Our evening wasn’t perfect. Mostly, in between bites, I tried to keep Stump from throwing sushi on the floor, and Smoke, who normally picks at his food, is very capable of devouring twenty dollars worth of sushi and then complaining that he wants more.

But the cake eating was leisurely, and I might have learned something about celebration: the preparation was 60% of the fun. Both Smoke and I spent our whole day looking forward to sushi, and in the grocery store we methodically examined every single option for dessert.  Also: I still have leftover cake which I will eat tonight, alone, after my kids have gone to bed. In other words, the celebration isn’t confined to a single moment. It spills into time, the before and after, and asks us to continue to value the thing that was marked.

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Spring is right here.

flowerdeathLast week it rained and rained and rained. In the pauses between the rains, the robins sang. That was the first sign that spring had come.

This week the weather alternated between cold and warm, sunny and gray. Each morning before seven I looked out my window to see a brightening streak of blue cutting through the dark sky.

I remember now what it means to leave for a walk at five in the evening and not have to brace myself for darkness or outfit myself with reflective gear and flashing lights. I remember what it means to watch the sky change as I walk instead of tightening my hood in defense of pelting rain.

I remember now that nourishment isn’t just about eating stuff that tastes good, but also eating foods that offer nutrients, things that are green, orange, and red—things that crunch.

I remember now that what it means to move through my day with a small fire inside of me, to experience the day as a landscape to explore rather than a checklist to complete.

This morning the sky cleared and I brought my sons on a hike to the water’s edge. Along the trail, Smoke entertained me with theories about how trees had fallen (thieves with chainsaws), and Stump stopped at every puddle and called it the beach. For nearly an hour, no one whined. The forest cleared, and we arrived at the beach in time to witness a surprise: dozens of sailboats gliding across the bay.

boatsI was surprised to realize that, for the moment, I was doing the exact thing I wanted to be doing, meaning I didn’t wish I was in Hawaii instead, or writing instead, or watching TV, or sitting in a hot tub. I just wanted to be there, on the beach, watching the sailboats while Smoke collected rocks and Stump hit water with a stick.

Beach2Of course in the moment of noticing that I was content where I was, I realized how often the opposite is true, how easy it is to long for elsewhere.

I think of my family members in New England and imagine the snow piled up past their windowsills. I imagine them trapped inside winter, tiny little shoots of green sleeping under snow banks.

I don’t envy my New England friends, but I want to be there on the day that winter begins to melt, that first day you step outside and can actually hear the water dripping, can sense that the snow has begun its return back to the source.

Come Monday morning, in my dark cave of an office, I’ll be feeling like those sleeping greens, craving elsewhere, wishing for light.

She’s Not My Mother

bigstock-sperm-going-for-the-egg-38755240The fertility clinic waiting room was not what I expected. I had imagined leather couches, warm lighting, and potted plants—the kind of décor that might suggest to clients that the thousands of dollars they were spending was being directed, at least in part, to their own care and comfort.

Instead, I opened the door to find two rows of uncomfortable chairs, outdated wall paper, and fake plants that frayed at the edges. The reception desk was empty, but Kellie and I weren’t alone. A woman in a long dress and bonnet stood watching her two boys play in the corner while her husband, dressed like his sons in a collared shirt, pants, and suspenders, sat reading a magazine with one leg crossed over the other. I recognized them as Mennonites; I’d seen other Mennonite families before, not at the downtown library or at the local drug store, but always, remarkably enough, at Costco, walking through the aisles with a passel of children, filling their cart with rotisserie chickens and boxes of cereal. I tried not to stare in Costco just as I tried not to stare now. It was hard for me to understand that someone with two sons already would pursue medical intervention for infertility. Two kids seemed like plenty to me. If you found that a third child didn’t come easily, wouldn’t you just call your family complete?

Neither the husband, nor the wife, nor either of the sons made eye contact with us, but surely we had crossed their periphery and they had questions about us as well.

Kellie sat anxiously, her face hidden behind long hair and a brimmed stocking cap.  Normally, she moved through the world with ease. Just a week earlier she’d amazed me when she met me for happy hour at a bar that I normally frequented without her. It was the kind of place where the waitresses are notoriously grumpy—it’s part of the décor, and you tip them extra to apologize for being a customer. That day the waitress and I had a typical curt exchange, but when Kellie arrived she greeted the waitress by name. “Hey there Anne,” she said, sliding into the booth.

“How you doing?” the waitress responded. It was the first time I’d seen her face bear any expression other than a scowl. They bantered for a moment before Kellie ordered a beer.

“You know her?” I asked Kellie, awestruck.

“Not really,” she said. “We’ve just both been around for a while.”

It would never occur to Kellie to fear a grumpy waitress. It was a rare situation, like being in this clinic, that made Kellie feel she had to hide.

Eventually, a nurse called my name and led us down a corridor to deposit us in a room with a giant desk. “Dr. Lu will see you in a moment,” she explained. “And then you’ll consult with Dr. Norman.”

We sat in silence for several more minutes. Kellie marked time by tapping her foot. I examined my nails, and pushed at my cuticles.

Dr. Lu entered through a door at the back of the room and we rose to shake his hand. He was a middle-aged Korean man, broad-shouldered and lean.

“Who’s this?” he asked, nodding at Kellie. “Your mother?”

My heart dropped. “My partner,” I corrected, and watched his face to see if his error registered, but his expression did not change.

“Ok, fine,” he said, and looked at me. “You carry?”

“Yes.”

He took out his clipboard. “How old are you?” he asked.

“Twenty-eight.”

“How many times have you been pregnant?”

“Zero. None.”

“Are you sure?”

Kellie and I exchanged panicked glances. In my mind, the worst case scenario hadn’t been this dramatic. I’d imagined an office that felt like the real-world incarnation of all of those brochures and websites I’d looked at. I imagined doctors who were welcoming, who smiled at us and treated us like regular patients, but quietly signaled they were less than comfortable. I imagined they might avoid making eye contact with Kellie, but I never imagined they’d ask if she was my mother, or question my very definitive answers about my body’s own history.

“I’m certain,” I told Dr. Lu.

He kept rattling off questions, his eyes fixed on his clipboard, and I kept answering them; my entire body was tense as if I were waiting for the right moment to flee. I could feel the same tension in Kellie’s body. It was like we were one animal.

The questions ended. If there was one thing I could credit Dr. Lu for, it was that he didn’t waste any time with small talk. “Dr. Norman will come soon,” he informed us while rising with his clipboard. This left Kellie and me alone in the office once again.

“I want to walk out of here,” she said.

“Do you think we should?” I asked. I wanted to support Kellie in her reaction to our treatment so far. I told her that if she wanted to leave right now, I would follow. But I felt trapped. This was the one fertility clinic in our town. The fact that there were two larger cities within sixty miles of us, that they might easily welcome us, didn’t occur to me. This place had a file for me. They were already storing our sperm. I didn’t want to wait another month. And besides that, I couldn’t imagine walking out mid-appointment. What would we tell the receptionist? What would the Mennonites think? I straightened my back in the chair, and told myself it didn’t really matter where or how we conceived our baby. Sure, this clinic sucked. But did this process really have to be magical? In my mind, I willed Kellie to cool down.

“Maybe this next doctor will be better,” I said.

“Maybe,” she said, with no trace of hope in her voice.

Dr. Norman entered the room in his white lab coat and shiny brown loafers. He introduced himself with a soft voice; his hand, when I shook it, was dry and cold. He resembled Mr. Rogers, only taller, stooped, and aloof. He did seem like an improvement on Dr. Lu, if only because he wasn’t barking questions at me, and because he seemed to understand our situation.

“So,” he said, looking over the clipboard that Dr. Lu must have handed to him backstage, “we want to have a baby, and we’ve agreed that the younger one of you will carry.”

Kellie and I nodded. He looked up. “I’m going to write in your chart ‘Male Factor Infertility.’” Kellie and I laughed together, assuming he was making a joke to break the discomfort, but Dr. Norman returned his gaze to the desk and proceeded to write down exactly that.

Months later, I would remember this moment and understand it from a new angle. Dr. Norman wasn’t being funny; he simply had no protocol for lesbians. He was preparing to administer a medical treatment and, even though we were paying out of pocket, we needed a diagnosis. Apparently, it wasn’t standard practice to simply scrawl out: Lesbians.

We left that day with instructions to call their office at the first sign of ovulation. During the car ride home, Kellie and I barely spoke. Instead we looked straight ahead at the road, the crosswalks, the traffic lights; we replayed the uncomfortable moments on a loop in our minds, privately, as if by not speaking them aloud we could erase them.

The above scene marks the launch of a new feature on this blog: Memoir Mondays. Once a month I’ll be sharing a scene from my memoir-in-progress.

Some types of sex that parents of young kids might actually be having

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d follow on a post from two weeks ago where I responded to a viral post on Scary Mommy about parents and sex. My complaint about this post was that it was so incredibly depressing; central to many of the “types of sex” was the implication that the wife wasn’t an especially happy participant, that after becoming parents men continue to want sex and women occasionally comply.

And so, just for fun, I’ve tried to construct something that resembles what I was hoping for when I clicked on that link in the first place.

  1. TV Sex:

Don’t think too hard about the fact that this is probably what your own parents were doing while you were watching Saturday morning cartoons on NBC every single week. In the era of Netflix, you’ve got a range of choices, but you’ve got to get it right. Barney, for instance, will no longer work since your older child has decided it’s condescending. Dinosaur Train would be a safer bet, except that when Dr. Scott the Paleontologist appears between segments the toddler often starts wandering the house and calling for you. Right now Blue’s Clues is the safest bet because it holds your toddler’s attention and inspires a fond nostalgia in your older child. You have exactly twenty-three minutes. Go.

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  1. Empty House Sex:

This is often prearranged, though it might happen twice in a year that you spontaneously discover that both of your children are gone and you are home. Just the novelty of that is enough to turn you on. You have a window of that that allows for some preparation. Brush your teeth beforehand or maybe even take a shower because, you know, you want this to be really special. Lie in bed for at least ten minutes afterwards and pretend together that you never had children. Feel slightly guilty about that as you get dressed and prepare to welcome them home.

  1. Middle-of-the-night Sex:

Roll over to spoon in the middle of the night and discover that your partner is also awake. Kiss passionately, both of you surprised that this is actually happening. Ruin the moment a little by wondering at what point the baby will wake up because you’re pretty sure he will. Continue on anyway. Try to be silent. Laugh together at how obvious and silly the squeaking bed sounds when you are keeping other noises to a minimum.

  1. Discussion Sex:

In between kisses ask: Did you remember to call in that refill? and, Did my W-2 forms ever come in the mail? Feel a little embarrassed when your partner points out that these questions aren’t enhancing the mood. You actually are enjoying this, it’s just that life’s daily tasks flood in and recede like a tide. Fight the urge to ask about that weird stain that appeared on the carpet last week, or if we need to buy diapers next time we go to Costco. Return the kiss instead.

Self-Care is More than a Bath

flowersA few years ago I took a parenting class for people with children under five, led by Candyce Bollinger who is something of a guru in my community. Each week about twenty of us sat in a circle on the floor and went around with our most pressing questions while our children played in the next room. One week a mother was nearly in tears over her children’s constant rivalry. Candyce gave an answer about the importance of self-care and then she paused. “Let’s be clear,” she said, “when I talk about self-care I’m not telling you to take a long bath. I’m talking about hours of uninterrupted time. You should all, for instance, be spending entire weekends away from your children every once in a while.”

I looked around the room and noted that nearly every jaw had dropped. All of this time, we really had assumed that self-care really did mean a bath, or five minutes of deep breathing, or maybe if we were really greedy it could mean Sunday lunch with a friend. But entire weekends away from our children? How on earth would they survive?

Candyce noted our collective resistance and followed up. “I know our current culture doesn’t really encourage that,” she said. “But if you can find friends or relatives to watch your kids overnight once in a while, I promise you they’ll be fine.”

I was remembering this moment after reading Lauren Apfel’s essay in the Washington Post this week, Stay at home moms need annual leave, too, which points out the many benefits of extended time away from parental duties. It got me thinking also about the two nights I spent on Whidbey Island last month. One of the greatest benefits to me was that I planned the excursion months in advance, and this meant that I spent months looking forward to it.

These days, as we enter the terrible twos, as Stump wakes at five-thirty every morning, climbs on furniture, and throws everything from toy cars to fistfuls of granola, I am constantly dreaming of a future day when he has learned some social norms, when my life is a little quieter. In those months that I was planning my vacation, my reprieve was weeks away, not years away, and this was a boon to my peace of mind.

And I’ve already written about the texture of the quiet I experienced in those days, how it was richer, more nourishing than any silence I’d ever experienced before.

lightAll of this has me thinking about self-care. In the best-case scenario, I might get a night or two away from my kids every few months, so what does that mean for me day-by-day and week-by-week? If it’s more than a bath, then what is it?

I think of treats purchased to cool moments of anxiety—the double espresso to get through a work day after a sleepless night, or the cupcake devoured in the late afternoon to jolt my senses. These might seem like small gifts to myself in the moment, but they are superficial, like Band-Aids, patches to cover deeper needs.

Deeper self-care means not using nap times for housework or grading, but for doing whatever quiet thing my heart wants to do. It means taking two full hours to write whenever I possibly can. It means putting Stump in front of the TV on a Saturday morning and sleeping for as long as he’ll let me. Deep self-care means that I’m willing to invest in myself, to pay for a seminar on writing or a weekend away with my sister the same way I pony up for my Smoke’s swimming lessons and trips to the zoo.

Deep self-care, more than anything, means that I actively seek windows of time to claim as my own.

But my deep self-care can be thwarted at any moment, like fifteen minutes ago, when I was halfway through writing this post, and Stump woke from his nap too early, and I had to comfort him back to sleep. Or like when I have the stomach flu and find that I’m cleaning out Smoke’s puke bowl in between my own trips to the bathroom.

And there are the weeks when it seems that all I can do is acknowledge the need for self-care, but I’m just nodding at it from a distance, looking at my calendar, thinking that maybe in ten days I can do something for myself. These are the weeks that I lean heavily on the patches—I drink coffee and eat cupcakes; I stay up too late so that I can write for twenty minutes; I take a motherfucking bath.