babies

That’s So Gay

From birth to age seven, I was an only child. I didn’t want to be. Our family home had two floors and more rooms than we needed. My parents had a room, and I had a room, and still there were two more bedrooms, each one filled with furniture, piles of books, and jigsaw puzzles—things we only saved because we had the room to store them.

My own bedroom was pale blue with a small crack that ran through the wall beside my bed. Sometimes, if I couldn’t sleep, I traced it with my finger. I often played alone with dolls and stuffed animals, memorizing my favorite books. Every day, I daydreamed about how the house might change if I had a younger sibling crawling from room to room, filling the house with living sounds.

Up the street, my best friend Mandy Filcher lived with two older brothers. Her house was in many ways the opposite of mine, exploding with toys, bean bag chairs, Atari, and sibling rivalry. Mandy was a year older than me with brown pigtails and buck teeth. When we weren’t eating ramen noodles in the kitchen or watching The Price is Right in the den, we were mostly playing Barbies in her bedroom, which was so small it could barely hold all of her stuffed animals. The Barbies and the Kens belonged to Mandy, which meant that she was the boss of them. Always she assigned me Pink ‘n’ Pretty, who was the designated outcast. She was a genuine Barbie, but something must have gone wrong in the factory on the day she was made. Her skin tone had some extra orange so she looked like she was wearing a fake tan. None of the other Barbies liked Pink ‘n’ Pretty, and the Ken dolls didn’t want to date her.

Still, we had fun undressing them and having them skinny dip in the sweetheart pool or lie in the same bed. Because Barbies outnumbered Kens, they often danced with each other. One day, as two of our Barbies were slow dancing at the prom, Mandy interrupted to ask me if I knew what “gay” meant. Gay was the word we’d been tossing around when something was stupid or uncool, like admitting that you liked Mr. Rogers, or wearing sports socks with your Mary Janes: That’s so gay. Gay was the opposite of Awesome, the other word that Mandy had recently taught me.

“Gay is like when a boy marries a boy, or a girl marries a girl,” she explained.

I instantly felt relieved. I did not decide that I was gay in that moment, but I was happy, like she’d answered a question I’d long held somewhere inside of me. It mattered that we were using the word as an insult, but it mattered much more that such things were possible, that men could love men and women love women. I was happy for that option.

Baby_doll-Calineczka-2006Back at my own house, I lobbied for a baby. By the time I was six it had become a routine topic of discussion. At night, when I visited my mom in her bed, I told her I wouldn’t care if it were a sister or brother. I’d love it no matter what. At the dinner table, I hounded both of my parents for an answer, saying, “So is it yes or is it no or is it maybe?”

I didn’t realize that behind closed doors, my mother had been lobbying for the same thing. For years, she and my father had considered a second child. My father might have been happy to put it off forever, but as my mother approached forty her idea of a new baby, once distant, had evolved into a pressing desire.

One day in early autumn, my mother sought me out in our backyard. I was lying on the grass in the afternoon sun, when a shadow passed over me and I opened my eyes to find her standing there. “I have something to tell you,” she said.

I didn’t shout or clap my hands or jump up in the air. I just stayed there in the grass and felt a tingle in my belly—the joy of expectation—it settled there and grew. We were going to have a baby.

I was seven when my brother was born. On the night when my mother went into labor, I slept on the loveseat in Mandy Filcher’s living room. Her mother slept on the sofa across from me so I wouldn’t have to be alone. By morning, he still hadn’t arrived, and so I went to school as usual, wondering throughout the day if he had safely entered the world.

My father picked me up that afternoon at Mandy’s. I had expected the drive to the hospital to take a few minutes, but it was two towns away, and we kept driving through neighborhoods of trees and houses, comfortably silent. The hospital room was white, the sheets were white, my mother wore a pale blue gown, and there was my brother, wrapped in white with a tiny pink face and closed eyes. If I sat in the chair I could hold him. For such a tiny thing he had heft; he felt more like a sack of flour than a doll. He breathed and made tiny little half-cries as he slept.

Some children beg for a sibling and when he arrives, they beg to send him back. I didn’t. I bottle-fed him, spoon-fed him, cradled him, read to him, and sang him lullabies. On Saturday mornings, when he woke before my parents, I tiptoed into his room and brought him downstairs. He sat on my lap while I watched cartoons. Together, we ate dry Cheerios from a plastic bowl.

Note: This is the fourth installment of my #memoirmondays series, where I post a scene from my memoir-in-progress. You can click on the Memoir Mondays tag below to read earlier installments.

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In which I learn that my lactation superpowers have limits

I never wanted to be that parent on an airplane, the one with the baby who screams and won’t stop, and up until yesterday I hadn’t been. I thought I had it figured out, that my choice to practice extended breastfeeding meant that I always had the proper tool to quiet my little ones. But if there’s a cardinal rule of parenting it’s this: the moment you get cocky about anything is the moment you dig your own grave.

Yesterday we flew from Seattle to Boston—a five-hour flight—and Stump, who is currently eighteen months, screamed for an hour straight. I’m worried that an hour sounds unimpressive, so allow me to add a little detail.

It began only a few minutes after we boarded, probably around the time that Stump figured out the airplane was going to be his temporary prison, that he would be loosely confined to my lap for an indefinite period. It was nap time, and he’d already been confined to the car seat and later the stroller since he’d awoken at six. And so, he began screaming and thrashing with all of his bobcat strength.

IMG_1276

“Ten minutes,” I told myself, trying to restrain him so that he wouldn’t kick or head butt the large elderly man who shared our row—did I mention I was traveling sans partner? I figured once the plane started moving, Stump would settle. I’d nurse him (awkwardly, hiding from the old-man-neighbor), and he’d easily fall asleep. Whatever passengers he was annoying would calm down, wipe their foreheads and think: that baby’s not so bad.

The plane started moving. I tried to nurse him. He complied for a moment, then bolted away, arching back and screaming. I rushed to cover up my nipple. We repeated this at least four times until I gave up on the power of lactation to calm him. In my world, this is the sign of a serious problem. I held him and rocked him and begged him and shushed him and tried not to break down and cry. “You have to go to sleep,” I hiss-whispered.

“He’ll give it up eventually,” the old man reassured me. I wondered: what if he didn’t? What if he cried for the entire five hours and eight minutes? I told myself that even if this happened, the flight would end eventually, but I knew that every hour would feel like a decade. Those five hours would add up to longer than I’ve even lived.

The old man got up to use the restroom, and on his way back I overheard a woman offer to trade seats with him so that he could relax. He told her “Oh no; it’s fine.”

Stump was still screaming when I felt him fart through his diaper. It was an especially stinky fart for a baby, and it wafted right up into my face. It was then that I began to suspect that I understood the problem. Minutes later, I checked his diaper, and saw a tiny brown turd. He leaned into me crying. His crying was different than his screaming—it contained a hint of relief. He leaned into me, pooing, just letting it all go.

You see, Stump is a guy who poops on the move, not in his car seat, not in his stroller, and definitely not while his mom is force-nursing him. I wanted to get on the PA system and announce: “Fellow Passengers. He Just Had to Poop. Everything is Going to be Fine.”

Instead I dug through my bag for a diaper and wipes. Red-faced and sweaty, I carried my stinky baby to the bathroom and changed him on top of the toilet while he continued to scream. He screamed as I washed my hands and he screamed all the way back to his seat. But when I offered my breast he took it and instantly melted into a puddle of sleeping baby. My fellow passengers wiped their brows and collectively thought, That baby has issues.

Signs that you are the primary caretaker in your household

  1. You are the only person in the world who can accurately sort your children’s socks.
  2. You have difficulty scheduling a shower.
  3. On any given day, you can report how many times each kid has pooped.
  4. You know how to fold the stroller so that it fits in the trunk.
  5. When your partner approaches the baby, he screams “No!” *
  6. When you leave your partner in charge of the kids, you feel a need to explain what’s available for them to eat.
  7. You use the phrase “leaving my partner in charge of the kids”; for your partner, the term is just “leaving.” **

*True story: When Kellie watches Stump, she usually takes him on a long walk in the stroller. The other day, Stump was looking out the kitchen window and he spotted Kellie taking the stroller out of the garage. He shook his head emphatically and cried “No! No! No!”

**Note: Should Kellie ever decide to start a blog, she could easily write a similar list about being the primary home maintainer. I have no idea how to change the line in a weed wacker and I haven’t mowed the lawn once since our first son was born.

I’m sure this list could be longer. What did I forget?

peeking

 

How we Made our Family (…with a little help from our friends)

I’ve written on this blog about some of the ways I didn’t get pregnant.

This week in Mutha Magazine, I’ve got an essay about how we did.

Here’s a teaser:

It had been nearly a year and we still weren’t pregnant…There had to be another way.

Kellie reminded me that there was. If we could find the right man, we could move this operation into our home. We wouldn’t pay doctors. I wouldn’t have to lie on the cold exam table every month; there would be no clamp, no stirrups. Somehow, my desperation gave way to optimism. Maybe he was out there.

You can click on the link to learn how Smoke and Stump came to be.

http://muthamagazine.com/2014/08/jennifer-berney-on-how-a-village-made-our-family/

Truth be told, this essay is a highly condensed version of the full-length memoir I’m currently working on. For me it’s the story of how a single act of generosity has shifted my definition of family. Thanks for reading!

This is my Dream: No Parenting After 8pm

Several years before I had children, I attended a panel discussion that featured five successful authors. I remember next to nothing about the main event, but I do remember that when the moderator asked for questions from the audience, someone spoke up. She asked:

For those of you who are parents, how do you find the time to be creative?

Four of the five panelists were parents, and their answers were surprisingly similar. They woke up early. By early, I mean four in the morning, or five. But the most striking response came from poet Frances McCue who also woke up early, but added, simply: “I don’t parent before nine am.” This got a laugh of course, but she meant it. Her daughter was nine years old at the time, old enough to get herself dressed and pour her own cereal. If she wanted something at 8:45, she was reminded of the policy.

I believe there’s a reason I’ve been remembering that for the last ten years.

Dre

Currently, waking up early and enjoying time to myself isn’t an option. These days, Stump sleeps relatively well between 8:30 pm and 5 am, but between 5 and 7, he insists on sharing the bed with me. If I get up, he gets up.

Smoke is demanding on the other end of things. Lately he stays up past nine most nights, in part because it’s summer and light outside until ten, and in part because his bedtimes are still elaborate affairs. We can’t simply read him a book and kiss him on the cheek. He wants to read a little, and talk a lot, and read a little more. Then he wants one of his moms to lie with him until he falls asleep. We grant him this because it is the only hour where he doesn’t have to share our attention with his wild and willful little brother.

HarHar

It’s no wonder then that I stay up late most nights. It’s often 10 pm before I catch a moment to myself, and the moment is too precious to sleep through.

This summer I visited a friend with one child, a baby who goes to sleep before seven each night. I tried to imagine what that would be like, to have a quiet house at an hour where it was conceivable that I still might have some energy. I decided that would feel sane. I decided that was something to strive for.

And I will; I will strive for that. It won’t happen next week or next month, and I don’t think that seven is our hour. But I’m imagining the day when Stump is just a little older, when I can read both of my boys a book or two in bed together, then say goodnight and leave them to keep each other company. I will turn out the light and close the door, claim two glorious hours to myself and still wind up in bed at ten.

Please. I’m telling myself that this can happen. Allow me to dream this, okay?

What a teenage barista at Starbucks can teach us about lactivism

I was thrilled to come across this story the other day. (It’s almost as good as this one about the American student getting stuck inside a vagina sculpture in Germany.) To sum it up, a mother was nursing her 5-month-old baby at a Starbucks in Ottowa, when a fifty-year-old woman walked up to the counter to complain, referring to the action as “disgusting.” The barista, reportedly a teenage male, reassured the complainer that he’d handle it. He then proceeded to offer the nursing mom a free drink along with one of those sweet Starbucks vouchers for another free drink upon her next visit. To top it off, he apologized for the complainer’s poor behavior.

Win, win, win!

There is a lot to learn here, but I’ve got a couple of takeaways:

1. Supporting breastfeeding moms is good PR. I’m serious. You know that international breastfeeding symbol, the one that businesses can put in their window to let women know that it’s a breastfeeding-safe zone ?

When I was a first-time mom toting a newborn around, navigating a brand new world and unsure of  what reactions I’d get to my discreet but public nursing, these stickers reassured me that someone had my back. Of course these stickers might not have prevented anyone from harassing me as I ate breakfast with my right hand and cradled my baby’s head with my left, but they at least reassured me that the employees wouldn’t kick me out or demand that I cover up.* Stump is old enough now that I rarely nurse in public, but for the rest of my life I imagine I’ll see these stickers as a kind of endorsement, a sign that this business respects women and shares some of my fundamental values.

In the end, Starbucks got some decent press around this incident. The original Facebook post that featured this story has already collected 27,508 likes and 1,759 shares. Lactivists are loyal customers. Trust me, you want them with you, not against you.

2. Don’t hate the asshole; love the underdog. Who is this awesome teen barista, and how did he get so wise? If I had stood behind the complainer in line, I would have turned red in the face and called her out. In our North American culture, I see breasts featured everywhere all the time to sell things like beer and shoes and video games, but somehow when they’re used to feed an infant they’re suddenly “disgusting”?

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times

But our barista, in a flash, knew that there was nothing to be gained from engaging with this woman directly. He focused his energy on giving a mom and her baby the compassion they needed. And that, I’m learning, is what nursing advocacy should be all about.

*As a first-time mom, I did buy a hooter hider and used it occasionally for the first month or two, but in the end, there are some reasons why covering up doesn’t work for me and many of the other moms I know.

a. My nipple is bare for less than a second. I’ve never caught anyone looking at it. Apparently, the vast majority of people have the discretion to look away.

b. It’s a nipple. So what?

c. I actually kind of need to see what’s going on down there.

d. It seems kind of weird to hide your baby under a piece of fabric.

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One way to salvage a morning

The clock read 6:00 exactly this morning when Stump lifted his head from the pillow and began swiping at my face. He’s figured out that I can’t ignore him when he’s shoving his finger up my nose.

Any time Stump wakes up before 6:30, I know I’m in for it. He’s tired but won’t cop to it. Instead, he’ll refuse to do anything remotely helpful like sit in his high chair and eat breakfast or lie still with a diaper change, and instead he’ll opt for an activity like picking up a Wiffle ball bat, systematically clobbering everything in sight, and then screaming when I take the bat away. Usually, the only way to cope is to bide my time for two hours and then offer him a morning cat nap.

I know I’ve written already about what a wild child Stump is, but let me just add that in the months since that post, he’s gotten progressively wilder. He’s arrived at a stage where destruction isn’t just a hobby, it’s a career. Occasionally, he proves himself capable of giving a genuine hug, but more often hugs are a ploy to draw you in so that he can bite you, or pull your hair, or see how far he can stretch the skin on your neck.

To make things worse, I’m not on my game right now. I returned from Utah with strep throat, and am turning out to be mildly allergic to the Amoxicillin that doctor prescribed. I’ve got a rash running down my arms and spreading out from my belly button. I woke up with a headache. I might have slept for six hours, but the mirror told a different story. Oh, and Kellie had an early job this morning, so I had no juggling partner.

I was ready to throw my hands in the air, to resign myself to having the kind of morning where both of the kids and I alternate tantrums, but then Stump had a series of good ideas.

First, he selected a shirt from the clean laundry pile that said “Mommy’s Little Monster.” I put it on him and he walked to the front door and pointed.

Are you sure?” I asked him. “It’s raining out.”

He nodded.

rainOutside

Outside, lo and behold, it was one of those magical wet summer mornings. The rain seemed to calm Stump. He grabbed his brother’s baseball bat and wandered around with it thoughtfully, then settled at the edge of the porch. I sat behind him with my green tea and looked out at the yard, for once enjoying a morning moment that didn’t involve scrambling, or manhandling, or picking up thrown food.

AOut2

Then we came inside and ate scrambled eggs and honey toast. He watched an episode of Elmo’s World, terrorized Smoke for a while, threw a few fits, and by eight-thirty he was ready for his catnap. I had survived another early morning.

Leaving Colorado Part 4: “All Your Friends are Here”

Image Courtesy of Berkly Illustration https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration

Image Courtesy of Berkley Illustration
https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration

On the way to Colorado, we had been a caravan, a family of travelers. My partner Kellie drove a Budget truck stuffed with barn wood and boxes. The truck pulled our little along Honda behind it on a rickety car trailer. The kids and I followed behind in Kellie’s diesel pickup. Because I’m too timid to drive either of these rigs, we’d drafted two friends, Dee and Heidi, to help us with the driving.

By ten in the morning, as we crossed the line from Oregon to Idaho, the day had already warmed to 104 degrees, and the road was even hotter. The air conditioning in the truck was broken. Dee drove the pickup with the windows down, the hot air whipping our hair in all directions. It was too loud to talk, so we kept our eyes on the road ahead, trying to make it till evening, praying the kids would keep their cool. But eight miles into Idaho, Dee and I watched as one of the car trailer’s tires exploded and fell to pieces on the highway.

Our caravan pulled to the breakdown lane. As we stood on sand and asphalt, vehicles whizzing by at momentous speeds, we instantly began to melt. The baby screamed. I hunkered down with the cell phone, navigating the maze of numbers to connect with roadside assistance. Forty minutes, they told us. No guarantees.

Dee decided to wait with Kellie in the heat while Heidi took over the pickup, ready to drive me and the kids somewhere cooler. “I know where the Whole Foods in Boise is,” she offered.

Boise Whole Foods would become the only thing I’d see of Idaho both coming and going. It was where I was headed now, day two of my journey with two boys and two dogs in a tiny, stinky Honda.

This time, there was no emergency. Or, to put it another way, we’d become accustomed to a constant state of emergency, the car too hot, the endless road, the baby always on the verge of meltdown.

But Boise Whole Foods was everything I needed. It was vast and air-conditioned. They had vegetables there. By God, I wanted a fancy salad and I was willing to pay thirteen dollars for it.

But more importantly, Boise Whole Foods featured something so practical it was nearly miraculous: a nursing lounge for mothers. It had a door that locked, a sink, a changing table, an outlet where I could plug in my phone. It featured a comfortable chair where I could nurse the baby, along with toys and books to distract my older son while I sat and nursed. To top it all off, its walls featured a series of prints by Berkley Illustration titled “All Your Friends Are Here.”

Image Courtesy of Berkly Illustration https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration

Image Courtesy of Berkley Illustration
https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration

Strangely, the appeal of the mothers’ lounge was that it was populated by these illustrations, and No One Else. I locked the door. I nursed. I charged my phone. I splashed water on my face. No one knocked. No one sized me up and shouted “Got your hands full there”—the line that was inevitably uttered at every rest stop.

I nursed the baby with my feet up, as my older son and I discussed which of the prints we each loved the most, and which one I should order at Christmas for Mommy Kellie, who was by now 700 miles away. We might have spent twenty minutes in the mothers’ lounge, but it was restorative in the same way that catnaps are restorative. We returned to the car, disoriented, groggy, but refreshed.

Image Courtesy of Berkley Illustration https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration

Image Courtesy of Berkley Illustration
https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration

*Thanks to Berkley Illustration for permission to use these images.

Our Bodies are Connected

I arrived at the conference groggy and spent, the glands in my throat two swollen tender lumps. Both Smoke and Stump had been sick the week before with pink eye and a nasty cough, and now my own body hosted their germs. Stump had kept me up for half the night before, squirming and crying, and then I’d risen at five to catch my flight to Utah.

I traveled with five other colleagues, people I knew only from committee meetings and all-campus emails, and as we approached the hotel it began to snow. This was only last Tuesday. This was June. At first it was a joke—a few flakes mixed with pouring rain—but minutes later it was falling in earnest. It accumulated on the grass at the edge of the highway.

In my disoriented state, I was relieved to make it to my room alone. Here before me were the things I had dreamed of for months. Two beds with clean sheets, all to myself. A television. A heated outdoor pool down the hall. But it wasn’t the moment it should have been. I had no idea what to do with myself.

Snow, Utah, June. This is the view from my window.

Snow, Utah, June. This is the view from my window.

We were here for a conference and I’d given myself permission to miss the opening address. I was nursing a cold, after all. But already I felt torn between duty and self-care—the very feeling I was hoping to escape from.

I talked myself into taking a long shower, and once that task was through, I remembered that I needed to pump. I sat on the bed farthest from the window, and held the small plastic contraption to my left breast. The last time I had fed my son was this morning on the opposite side. He was in a strangely quiet mood, and he nursed with his eyes wide open, silent and content.

When my milk let down, a sigh went through me. I wasn’t crying, not really, but my eyes felt the pressure of tears and my body felt the pressure of longing and it was such a strange thing to be emptying my left breast into a plastic contraption so that I could continue to be away from my child for another three days.

medela

 For some reason, I began to think about women who lactated for babies they’d lost.

A week after my fist son was born, an acquaintance came to visit and she told me that she had a stillborn child many years before. “No one warned me that my milk would come in,” she said. Only two feet away, Smoke lay sleeping on my bed. “It was such a strange and terrible thing to have lost a baby and then to be making all this milk.”

My morbid thoughts were absurd. My baby was and is alive. He walks and talks and eats and demands every ounce of milk and energy I have. But I was sharing with a machine an event that I normally share with my child, and for that moment I felt somber and haunted.

And then the moment passed. I put on my pajamas and turned on the TV. I piled up the pillows made a spot for myself on the impeccably clean bed.

Over the next three days, a part of my brain held a constant awareness of the 900 miles between my body and my sons’ bodies. Since I wasn’t there to keep them safe, I prayed that they would be intact on my return. I tried to tuck this awareness deep into my brain, so I could Do Work Things, and when I wasn’t doing work things I flitted like a hummingbird from blossom to blossom, sampling all of the sweet uninterrupted pastimes I long for when I’m home caring for my boys.

When I returned, the baby walked to me, alone, arms open, saying “Mah. Mah. Mah. Mah.”

I’m Leaving Home

I’m leaving home this Tuesday and I’m not bringing my family with me. It will be the first time I’ve left Stump overnight. I’ll be flying out of Seattle to go to a four-day work-related conference in—-wait for it-—Utah.

I was invited in December and I thought that of course by then Stump and I would be ready for the separation. By then, of course, he would be sleeping though the night, and not crying every time I left the room. Oh, and I figured he’d be toilet trained, able to dress himself, and feed the dogs. And while it’s true that he’s grown and changed in the last six months, he hasn’t achieved any of the goals that I just named. He can now say “Mom-meeeee” while he’s crying. And twice in the last month he’s slept until 4 am without waking up and demanding milk. That’s about as far as we’ve come.

This is how we sleep.

This is how we sleep.

So I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that I’ve been dreading this trip, entertaining the worst-case scenario as the most likely scenario.

In the worst-case scenario, Stump barely sleeps for the three nights I’m away. He wakes up screaming and refuses to be consoled. Kellie loses her mind from the sleep deprivation, and when we talk on the phone, she makes sure that I know how miserable they are. I am miserable in Utah. It’s hot, and the pool is scummy, and everyone at the conference wears suits. I come home with bedbugs. Stump, upon seeing me, bursts into tears of anger and relief. Everyone is exhausted, including me. We never catch up, and Stump never forgives me. He grows up to be a convict, or an author of short stories that always feature neglectful mothers.

This worst-case scenario has been turning over and over in my head. But there have been a few brighter moments where I’ve entertained a best-case scenario.

In the best-case scenario, Stump is easy because I’m gone. He’s a little fussy the first night, but settles with a some comforting. He gets it that nursing is not an option, and the by third night he’s learned to sleep soundly. The hotel in Utah has a beautiful pool, and there’s a convenient place to hike. I eat good food and drink some wine with colleagues. I come home refreshed to a house of pleasant people who have had a good time without me, and a baby who is happy to see me and who now sleeps through the night.

I’ll let you know how it goes.