The Joy of Fewer Choices

 

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In a week and a half my son’s beloved preschool will reopen -with extreme precautions including temperature readings before they can enter their classrooms. I’m a teacher. I could keep him home with me. He’s been home with me since mid-March -longer even than my maternity leave when he was born. But I want him to go back. I want this for all of us. I think. Sending him back to school feels terrifying; not because of the virus necessarily, but because it’s a choice I’ll make. Despite what we may see on the news about people rioting to get their choices and freedoms back, I really haven’t minded having most of mine taken away.

Run to Target on a school night to buy some new socks for my kid? Dash to the grocery store because we’re out of someone’s favorite cereal? Take five extra minutes to get a coffee somewhere? The answers have all been so clear for the last two and a half months: no, no, and nope.

I started out in mid-March somewhat terrified of what my life would be like trying to balance my job, teaching middle school, with taking care of my 10 and 5 year old children. There have been some moments of extreme frustration for sure. There has been way more screen time than usual. But there’s also been baking and science experiments, art projects and family movies. Every day we went out and found a new trail, a  frog pond or a tide pool. There have been countless forts and fairy houses. 

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During this quarantine time I’ve been reading The Giver by Lois Lowry with my 7th grade students. This incredibly prescient book describes a society where choices, freedoms, and even strong emotions have all been eliminated in favor of safety, security, and sameness. The book’s main character, a twelve year old boy, learns that things in the past were different and rebels against The Community to forge his own path. In my 16 years of teaching, I’ve probably taught this book 10 times. And every time I’ve struggled to understand how members of the community could be satisfied with their limited lives, devoid of excitement, freedom and choice. This time I’ve read the book differently. 

As much as I miss my extended family; hugs from my mom and dad, snuggles with my niece and nephews. As much as 6 feet apart walks with friends aren’t the same as long dinners and ice cream cone walks on the beach…..I’m going to whisper this part….I really haven’t missed that many things all that much. I definitely don’t miss the pace of my pre-quarantine life. I used to rejoice if I had 20 minutes of downtime. My to-do list spanned two pages. My weekends were full of things I had to do. Also, I got squirrely with anxiety if I had too few things to do on a weekend. This time in quarantine time has helped me become comfortable with less doing and more being. I am hugely grateful for that. 

 I am also aware of the enormous privilege I have to enjoy quarantine in the ways that I have. I’m still being paid. I have plenty of food. I have access to technology, and I live in a beautiful place where a hike in the woods or a walk on the beach is only minutes away. 

Sending my son back to school feels like the beginning of the end of this time. There are positives for him, for me, and for my daughter whatever we decide; whatever we choose. I’ll be able to devote more time to wrapping up the year with my 7th graders. I might be able to get through an online teaching session without my son insisting on a snack or needing me to find the scissors. My daughter won’t have to share her zoom time with her little brother. 

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In spite of these things I can’t help feeling loss and a little lost.  Having my son around, with his needs for snacks and scissors, uno games and one-on-one basketball, keeps me out of my head, protects me from my anxieties. My daughter is old enough to give me plenty of space, but I’m not sure I want it. With space comes choices; things to do, to accomplish, to check off my burgeoning to-do list. We adapted to this quarantine world, I made schedules, we had a calendar, we made a giant chocolate chip cookie and bird feeders. Some days I counted the minutes until movie-time at 5:00, but 5:00 always came. I don’t know how to end this piece, any more than I know how to close this strange chapter of our lives. There’s no cure, no vaccine as of yet, but we are all starting to emerge, starting to make choices again. I am hopeful and I am scared and I guess I’ll just have to live that way, for now. 

 

Yer Mother

Women in my family have a long history of not giving a care about mother’s day. There is one phrase that always irks me and it seems to come out in full force around Mother’s Day; that’s when people thank their kids for “making them a mother”.

It’s just not something I relate to and it seems to simplify and diminish a process of change and transition that lasts months and even years. Also, and I know this is my own hang up, but no one made me a mother except me. Simply reproducing does not make you a mother or a father. Growing and carrying another person inside your uterus for 9 months is pretty miraculous but it also does not make you a mother. Getting that baby out of your body in whatever way works is pretty badass but it also does not make you a mother.

Shortly after Eliana was born I felt like I had survived that scene in Aliens when the creature punches a hole through the human and emerges yowling at its new found freedom. I did not feel like her mother. I felt like the most under-qualified babysitter ever and I kept waiting for someone to show up and take her for a few weeks so I could read all those important baby books I’d been given.

When I think about experiences that made me a mother, I think about the first time I changed a blow out diaper in the back of my car. Or when I learned that I could nurse my baby in most settings and without the four hundred pillows I used at home to get us both comfortable. Until Eliana started calling me mama that word felt awkward to me. I hated when people used in a weird third person greeting when I was still pregnant. “How’s mama feeling?” Who are you talking about? I’m sure my face said it all. I’ve never been very good at hiding my thoughts.

To me the word mother represents nurture. It represents putting someone’s needs in front of your own, again and again and again. It represents a unique marinade of love and frustration, pride and fear. It is not something given to you, it’s something you show up for every day; a role you grow with and into sometimes gracefully, but more often covered in some sort of bodily fluid.

One Story to Rule Them All

A couple of months ago I read this story about about a woman who tells her two young children a sanitized version of the plot of Game of Thrones as a way to get through meals in restaurants and long car trips. When she tells them about the fate of the characters and the various plot twists, they forget to argue over the last breadstick or kick each other under the table. This is genius.

When my daughter was a little younger bath time was fraught with drama; mostly around washing and drying and combing the knots from her hair. To get through the fun times I found myself resorting to long Baby Squirrel stories or Anna Marie Bananacake stories. The Baby Squirrels are your archetypal mischief makers and Anna Marie Bananacake is a girl who never wants to wash her hair until birds and other wildlife begin nesting in it. You get the idea. The point of the stories was to hold her interest long enough to accomplish the task. Therefore they often dragged on interminably over the details. Eliana never minded. She loves a story. But pretty soon I minded. I would have rather poked my eyes out with a fork than tell another Baby Squirrel story. Luckily she developed more of a tolerance for bath time and does most of the hair washing herself. Also, we turned to audio books. I’m perfectly happy to listen to the same stories over and over as long as I don’t have to be the one inventing them on the spot.

But this recent article got me thinking about the power of stories, about their ability to soothe and transport us. Stories allow us to focus on the struggles and challenges facing others in the face of our own difficulties; whether that’s a huge sticky knot of hair or something worse. I also wondered what stories I know well enough to recount the way this woman clearly knew Game of Thrones. I could probably do parts of Harry Potter, and all of the Grapes of Wrath -though I’m not sure that would interest my five year old. I wish I knew Tolkien better; I think the adventures of Sam and Frodo would be ideal. Any ideas? What stories would you tell if it meant you could eat your dinner in relative peace?

Once Around the Sun

SunToday my little boy is one year and one day old. He’s one. I’m aware of this milestone in a very different way than with Eliana who is now 5. The perspective I have with Avi is that I know after one it all starts to go so quickly. That first year is full of firsts. His first winter, spring and summer. His first boat ride, his first holidays, his first parade, etc. All this summer I thought about how last summer I was doing everything while pregnant, waddling to the beach, waddling to the fairs, eating a lot of ice cream. Full disclosure; I do that every summer.

The days are getting shorter and darker now. The sun at three in the afternoon feels like it’s just clinging to the sky, sinking below the trees.  Last year at this time I was afraid that the darkness I experienced after my first pregnancy would return with this one. And it hasn’t, it just hasn’t.

This year has brought tests of my parenting and myself as an adult in ways I could have never imagined. I’ve found strength in myself that I didn’t know was there. I’ve felt more love and also more loneliness than I’ve ever known before. All in just one trip around the sun.

Like an Unnatural Woman

I’ve been a food shopping human for long enough to know that the word “natural” means just about nothing on a food label. Everything is “natural” these days from Greek yogurt to gummy bears.  And I honestly don’t care that much about the perversion of the word to sell everything from cheese puffs to chicken nuggets. But there’s another place where the word does bother me and that’s when it’s used to describe childbirth.

I had my second child just about 4 months ago and following his birth I went to what I call “baby class” just as I did with his now almost 5 year old sister. This class is run by an incredible organization that facilitates new mom’s groups, breast-feeding groups, and childbirth classes.

As I sat in the first class and listened to each mom share a bit about her birth experience I realized for the first time what I would realize many times in subsequent classes; that my perspective as a second-time parent would change pretty much everything, including way I related to my classmates. I listened again and again as nearly every woman there (who didn’t require a c-section) stressed how great she felt about having a “natural” childbirth. And if she did have a c-section there was a lot of regret about having missed out on natural childbirth -I’ll drop the quotes at this point because I hope you get my point -the word means everything and nothing.

I had a natural childbirth when my first child was born. My daughter came into the world after 31 long hours of labor. I told myself all along that I was open to using whatever pain meds I felt were necessary. I’ve never been a martyr when it comes to pain. But through out the experience I just kept feeling like, well it’s not so bad now. I suppose I can take it a bit longer. And then I couldn’t. Then I was in the final hour sitting on the medieval torture device known as a birthing stool and explaining to my midwife (by screaming and growling) that there had to be another way to get this baby out. I think I actually told her she was going to have to “reach up there” and pull it out herself. I know I’m not the first, or last woman, to feel this way. That was my natural child birth experience.

And even though I nourished that same morsel of pride about the drugs/interventions I’d refused, childbirth, that time, was something I felt I only barely survived. I did not feel especially positive about the experience, nor empowered by it. It did not help matters that a week later I fell into the chemically imbalanced world of post partum depression –which I spent the next few months trying to claw my way out of. My brain and hormones went there completely naturally. And it would take the so-called unnatural world of anti-anxiety medication and anti-depressants to help pull me out.

Before post partum depression I never would have described myself as someone who lived with anxiety. Now I can’t imagine how I didn’t see it. My whole life I’ve managed my anxiety and I’ve managed pretty well. Most people who meet me or know me would not describe me as an anxious person (that’s how good I am at managing and that’s how little people really understand about anxiety). I know I spent a lot of time managing and strategizing around anxiety. That was living my life naturally.

I feel very lucky to live my life differently now. I guess I think that this line we draw between ourselves and the natural world is pretty fuzzy. We are of nature and a lot of our so called man-made products make life a lot better and easier for ourselves and even occasionally our fellow creatures. Don’t get me wrong we do a lot to foul up the planet for ourselves and our co-inhabitants but I’m pretty sure a sweet and powerful epidural isn’t high on that list.

So back to baby number two. After the hell I went through post partum I still ended up wanting another one. And the one thing I knew about this experience is that I wanted it to be different than the first. I did a lot of things differently. I front-loaded some of the meds that helped me after my daughter was born. I arranged to have my placenta encapsulated to I could eat it after my son was born (talk about natural!!!) And I arranged for my parents to help out for an entire month after the birth.

But ultimately, the thing that really helped me have a completely different birth experience was that epidural.  The first five hours of my son’s birth were strikingly similar to my daughter’s -the contractions this time even faster and more intense. Once I had the epidural everything changed. I was able to laugh and joke and be myself. I was able to be present with what was going on in my body even though I wasn’t able to feel every ripple of every contraction. I asked my mom to join me in the room as he came into the world because I wasn’t worried about her worrying about me. And as I pushed -yes you still have to push and it’s trickier when you can’t feel as much of your body -him into the world, I sang. Yes, I sang a Johnny Cash tune. Because why the hell not? I felt good and powerful and present with my body. And those words are so much more important and meaningful to me -whether or not they are natural.

I want to go in field

This morning I was reading a book to my two year old. (Incidentally, it’s one that she loves and I find mind-numbing) And she pointed to a picture of a sunny flower filled meadow and said, “I want to go in field.” I know what she means and I’m amazed that this kind of connection with books starts so early. Yes, I wanted to tell her. I want to be a student at Hogwarts too. Or years ago I wanted to gather trash and treasure with the Boxcar Children, play on the prairie with Laura and Mary, or fight the forces of evil with Alanna of Trebond.

I’m thrilled that books are exciting to her in this way; that they make her want to be a part of something new or go somewhere unusual. It is a limitless and life-long journey.

What’s the book you can remember wanting to be a part of?

Potty training and writing

There may be a lot more overlap between parenting and writing than I’ve stopped to consider.  I’m sure there are people way more qualified (more books, more kids) than me to draw the comparison.  But recent experience with potty training made me realize something of huge import to both processes; sitting in the chair.

Butt in chair, is a piece of writing advice I’ve heard often enough that I have no idea whom to credit with coining the phrase or making it famous.  It is the ultimate truth about writing, the most obvious but unavoidable truth.  It is the answer to all those people who ask you, “How do you find the time?”  Butt in chair is what separates people who write books from people who talk about writing a book.  Perhaps more than talent or other circumstances.  Butt in chair is a great equalizer.

My daughter is experimenting with using the potty.  She loves the praise she gets even for trying but what she really lacks at this point is the focus and desire to sit down and get the job done consistently.  Too often she’s distracted by flushing the big potty, reading a book, a wayward toy left by the tub, or just a glimmer of sunlight in the window.  She hops up, declares she’s all done and is on to the next task.  I’m not worried.  I know that when she’s ready, she’ll commit.

When she’s ready, I’ll explain to her the importance of Butt In Chair for accomplishing those things that are truly important to you.

It’s here! I’m in print!

Hot off the presses; the spring issue of Brain, Child magazine can be found where ever better independent magazines on mothering are sold!!!

Turn to the last page, to the section called Motherwit to find my piece titled; The Interrogation.  Hooray!

An excited, but slightly sleep deprived, me with the Spring issue!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the page:

 

 

 

 

And, of course, my tiny muse.  Without whom none of this would be possible.

Busy with projects of her own!

How many is too many?

Ok, how many books is too many to bring on an overnight trip?  Driving, not flying, so weight is not really an issue.

Keep in mind, it’s my first over night trip away from my daughter since she was born.  Not sure why that affects the number of books I’m bringing, but since books are sometimes like security blankets to me, I think it does.

Also, heading to a bed and breakfast in wintery Maine so not much else to do besides scrabble and napping.   (Uh, going with a friend, not husband, just in case you think the fire’s burned out on my marriage already…)