Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Confessions of a Former Correspondent

When my friend Kate and I both had our second babies, I was often tempted to form this book out of our email correspondence: Dear Exile: The Story of Two Young Mothers, Separated by 16 Miles and a Bedroom Community (for Most of Their Children’s Infancy). The title was inspired by this particular book in my reading travels. Our book would have been comprised of the letters, emails to be precise, that we fashioned for one another on a regular basis. These emails were a lifeline for me, a small fishing wire that connected me to some other brilliant woman and thinker and artist, even though we were both changing diapers, filling juice cups, nursing nonstop and dealing with our own domestic and family crises as they would, inevitably, arise. There was someone, always, on the other end of that wire, who had my back. And I had hers. And while I didn’t ever dream of inserting any of Kate’s sacred personal story into a book, I did start my own archival folder in an email client, (aptly named “Kate”), thinking that someday the narrative of our friendship might be sweetly woven together with tales of parenting woes.

While Kate always had an astounding artistic gift with all things paper/fabric/metal/wood/plant kingdom and found space to create masterpieces during naptime, my artistic gifts came out only in words some years, in emails I hoped would make her LOL or ROFL or at least elicit an amen or a you-tell-it-sister. And sometimes, like the day after my second daughter was born and I wrote her a fully detailed account of my labor and Middle’s at-home birth, I wanted Kate to experience the victory of it vicariously, through all the essential ingredients of storytelling—rising action, climax, denouement.

The content of our emails contained woes of ear infections and sleep deprivation, yes, but it was also full of critical thinking and social commentary--like when the big mega church yonder down Interstate 80 wouldn’t let Kate and her team of children’s pastors bring breastfeeding infants to the conference.

“Well, really they can't ‘accomodate nursing infants’,” I quipped dogmatically. “Of course [the church] should not be expected to provide breasts and chests for all those babies. But they must be forgetting that the mothers bring their own! That's it! Just remind them. If they don't let you, they'll have lactating women with wet circles on their chests walking around and causing a major ruckus, waaay bigger of ruckus than some nursing infants would cause. Yes, that's what you should do--a Drip-In. Lactating mothers unite.”
Our emails were multi-faceted, multi-paragraphed. We were stand up comics, comediennes, Jon Stewart's news team. We were therapists, mothers, sisters, herbalists, seamstresses, writers, chefs, teachers, cheerleaders, fan club, book club. And so I was in the emails I exchanged with other dear friends in those days. I had time to whittle away with words via email and so did they. Through email, for instance, I walked hand in hand with Laura, who moved out of state and was searching for a church community in the Bible Belt. I went on church visits with her (so it seemed), had visceral reactions to the self-proclaimed prophets and preachers who got too much in her face, talked too loud, and emitted too much judgment.

This was correspondence that elicted a worried prayer, a sigh of relief, a joyous laugh or tears. There was so much time for details, where connections ran deep, all because of words passionately and desperately fashioned on a screen, from the discrete, intentioned muscle movement of fingers, originating from brains and hearts that needed to hang on to that fishing wire.

Today, my inbox is stacked with emails from women wanting to connect. I have starred them, making a mental note to myself that these are the emails I need more time for, but where has all the time gone? I’m lucky now to write anything so personal as a frustration, a disappointment, a happy ending. There isn’t much time for details. I have infinintely more responsibility now, and so do many of my friends—in their thirties, with their families almost-maxed- or maxed-out in size.

Maybe when these beloved children of mine are older, the space will emerge again to write letters to friends in the way I did in my twenties, and maybe then we will reclaim the stories that happened in the interim; mine and Kate's new book will be called The Story of Two Friends, Once Separated by Sixteen Miles, a Bedroom Community, Jobs They Love, Children They Love, Husbands They Love and Infinitely More Responsibility Than They Ever Could Have Thought Possible.

Instead of writing this post, I could have been replying to those emails in my inbox. If one of them is yours, you know who you are and I know too. But I really wanted to take a minute to get down the details of this life I'm living and have lived.  It's good writerly advice, getting down details. And you know it's where they say God is, too.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Confessions of a Sick Child's Mother

It was funny when, in a fit of sleep-deprived delirium, I tried to stick an infant pacifier into Middle’s mouth.

But it was a different story when I held Middle’s shot-glass sized portion of children’s Tylenol up to Tiny’s lips (twice) and let her sip away at it (once).

Lucky for Tiny, I stopped myself in the nick of time, before she consumed the maximum a Tiny liver can tolerate.

I was mortified. Still am. I was five seconds away from having to get Tiny’s stomach filled with charcoal and pumped like an accordian. Please, don’t ever mention this to my husband.

Sickness with the older girls is much easier than it used to be. Middle, with hearing loss and double ear infections, scooted the yellow leather recliner two feet from the 48” flat screen and turned on PBS with volume cranked up so high I felt like I was in a sports bar on game night. There she stayed, red-cheeked and glassy-eyed, from morning til dinner time except for potty breaks and a brief but urgent desire to sit outside in the sunshine.

I used to be the kind of mother who sat with her children on the couch for the whole day, reading to them, talking with them, snuggling. Now I’m the mother who almost wouldn’t know they are home but for “Viewers Like You” service announcements blaring in the background and the occasional refill on a cup of juice. Oldest and Middle used to be the kind of children who asked for stories and snuggles on sick days. But they’re not so much those kids anymore. They’ve passed those needs down to Tiny like an outgrown pair of jeans.

Of course, Tiny can't ask yet like they used to. Currently battling two ear infections, she whimpers, smiles, whimpers, tugs at her ears, blows raspberries, whimpers and then buries her face in the skin that stretches beneath my clavicle. Last night she woke after an hour of sleep and cried—but not hysterically—for two and a half hours straight. Then we took her to the ER, and—I was right—she had ear infections.

Tylenol mishap aside, Tiny has a lot going for her in that Oldest and Middle have trained me well to recognize illnesses that merit a doctor visit. I’ve got a 4-0 score this past year, 4 being the number of times I accurately guessed what was wrong with my children and took them to a doctor for the necessary treatment. Strep, ear infections, allergies, flu, warts, slivers, stomach aches, bug bites, coughs and colds and asthma. I know what to do and who, if anyone, to call. I’m a walking Merck Manual.

But I'm not Donna Reed, and I don't have the most devoted bedside manner anymore.  I wonder if I should.

My latest guilt-inducing moment of the sick season was that I was so tired last night that I sent Tiny off with her father to the ER. Without me.

I’ve never. Ever. Ever. Sent my children “off” to the ER. Without me. I'm the one, at all crazy hours of the night, who goes to emergency rooms--because what if something happened and I wasn’t there? And what if they needed their mommy to hold their hands or talk to them or sing a song and I WASN'T THERE?

But last night (here it is) I was too tired. Really. Balled up on the couch exhausted, and I asked the husband what he thought about the ER and taking Tiny and he said he would and I pushed them out the door. To my credit, I immediately made a contingency plan to join them at the hospital if necessary. And then I went to sleep, on my bed, with the phone volume on high. And slept peacefully until he called with news.

My take-away from the week: Motherhood is getting easier?

Thursday, April 07, 2011

How I'm Not so Green After All

It’s true.
Yesterday, my father came over to help me rake, clip trees, and pull gnarly bushes that had cropped up all over the garden.

There's me, surveying a pile of spindly tree parts that would not easily decompose for many months: “I think I’ll throw these in the compost bin.”

Father: “Do you ever use your compost pile?”

(Meaning, I think: Do I ever use the finished compost in my garden?)

Me, nodding to tree parts, “I use it to put things in.”

Father: “Why don’t you just get rid of it?”

Me: “But then where would I put things?”

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Confessions of a Nursing Mother

Wanna know what clears a roomful of male church staffers faster than anything?

Saying, “I think I’m gonna pull out the breast pump now.”

It’s a great repellent power I wield when I want to be repellant. If I want a church classroom all to myself on a Tuesday morning (though I hardly ever do). Still, mentioning the breast pump to these guys is on par with tossing a loaf of bread into a flock of ducks, except instead of scurrying toward, the male staffers scurry away. Entertainment value. Yes.

But other than that—nursing? Entertainment value? Nil. Which is hardly surprising, since consumption of breast milk can hardly even be as stimulating as a viewing of The Wiggles. Except when my babies did what I called "nursing for sport"—a nipple wrangling, on-off-on-off, back-arching affair in their early months, most likely caused by gas and indigestion rather than recreational drive.

I made a contract with Tiny when she was born: I’d nurse her a year, at least. The first few months were awful. I hurt just like I did when I nursed Oldest, when I was a novice with virgin nipples and couldn’t go anywhere without the assistance of a nursing pillow in the shape of a half-eaten donut . But I made it through Tiny’s first many months. I nursed her around the clock. Every two hours. Every hour and a half. She was distracted, would eat five minutes at a time and therefore seemed hungry every fifteen minutes. At times, when it seemed I didn’t have enough milk for Tiny, I took supplements and herbs. They made my armpits smell like licorice. A small price for Tiny.

Eventually I could leave her long enough in someone else’s care, leave bottles of breastmilk for her to consume, which meant I would have to pump an equivalent amount in order to maintain my supply. First law of breastfeeding: demand = supply. Lower the demand, and you lower the supply. I had to keep pace with her hunger, and I found myself ending every social engagement prematurely, with the words, “I have to go pump.”

I pumped in a parked car. I pumped in bathrooms. I pumped in the church nursery. I pumped hungry, thirsty, reading, and typing emails. Once, I pumped while driving. I won’t do that again.

I’ve been satisfied that I could keep it up for Tiny. I’ve patted myself on the back. But guess what? Tomorrow she is ten months old, meaning I’ve fulfilled 5/6 of my contract. And Tiny eats Chex cereal now. And pureed blueberries and apples. And miniature bricks of colby cheese. The last two times I’ve pumped, there’s been less milk. And less milk. Because she’s not demanding as much? Because she’s older?

I’m bothered by this development. I think I would like to keep Tiny tiny for at least six more months. Would like her to nurse like she needs a meal and not like she’s stopping by the drinking fountain on her way out to recess. And while she’s regressing in the eating department, I think I’d like her to shrink three inches in length, and not flip over while lying on her changing table, and not scoot-roll from one end of the house to the other. I’d like to be able to snuggle her one last time and not have her screech for the TV remote that is almost within her grasp.

At the same time, I love that Tiny waves goodbye to me when I tuck her in for a nap. I love that she squeals “hi!” and wiggles her fingers in the air when someone new walks in the room. And after days and days of pat-a-cake, Tiny can now clap her hands. This is no small feat. This I could not rewind. And Tiny, at ten months old, stands at the window, banging with flat palms, at her sisters who giggle outside in the sunshine or wind or mist. Her lower front teeth jut out in smile, in delirious desire for everything beyond the triple-pane glass—the fall’s leftover leaves skittering across the lawn, the plastic soda bottle that escaped from the neighbor’s recycling, the silver maple’s long, horizontal branch that stretches across our yard. None of this I could undo.

So happy tenth-month, Tiny. I'll make my peace with it.

But now I really do have to go pump.