Dear MaryAlice, You Were a Surprise.

The Feminist Breeder, who just gave birth to her own daughter this morning (congratulations, Gina!), recently launched a “Letter to My Daughter” guest post series. It ran on her blog from March through April.

I intended to respond to TFB’s call for submissions with my own piece a couple months ago, but couldn’t synthesize my thoughts quickly enough to keep up with the horde. So, assuming there isn’t anything proprietary about the concept, I’m offering up my “letter” here, instead.

– Amanda

 


 

There were congratulations. But, mostly, I remember stunned silences, cautious questions testing the water: “How do you feel about … this?”

All their unchecked enthusiasm had been spent on your brother, who was born a little more than a year before we learned that you – or some incipient, translucent-skinned version of you – existed.

Stuart’s arrival narrative seemed to have been plucked from the Middle-American Domesticity Playbook. The main players, then, were your father and me:  a two-years-married couple living in a cozy, shabby, one-bedroom apartment, wishing for a baby. And when we had one, people were happy for us. We were happy for us.

We could still live, cozily and shabbily, in the one-bedroom apartment with your brother; it was still a “romantic” kind of hand-to-mouth existence. But when we bought an abandoned house on the cheap and spent our evenings and weekends renovating, baby chewing his fist on a yoga mat while we made the neglected lath-and-plaster walls persimmon and cocoa and robin’s egg blue – well, people were even happier for us. We were “growing the nest,” “building sweat equity.”  Everything was delicately balanced. But we were doing it the Right Way, the careful, considered way that didn’t raise eyebrows or make waves.  A small, young family, teeming with optimism and determination, snug and insular like the Three Bears from a fairytale. 

That would make you Goldilocks, I guess. You ate the porridge. You upended the chairs. You rumpled the covers on the family bed.

Except, you weren’t, and you didn’t.


I took a positive pregnancy test on Valentine’s Day, 2008, after, in the depths of winter, I started feeling familiarly nauseous.

“Do you think you could be …?” your father laughed, nervously.

It was a funny thought. Gallows humor, I remarked, wryly, in retrospect. I hadn’t had a period in nearly two years, and, remembering how we had tried and tried for months to conceive your brother, charting temperatures, trying to divine the subtlest signs and symptoms — pregnancy struck me as the least likely explanation for my sudden food aversions, my sensitivity to certain smells, and my bone-deep exhaustion.

Yet there, on the test, were two Valentine-pink lines.

As we started sharing the news, some weeks later, we responded to those stunned silences and cautious questions with, “It was a ‘surprise’!”

That was our diplomatic slant, side-stepping the awkward details. “Surprise,” we thought, conjured up birthday parties and Easter eggs and errant five-dollar bills found in the lint trap. Good things.

Still, we heard a lot of replies cautioning, “Don’t ever tell the baby that.”

They meant we shouldn’t tell you that you were unplanned, and, by extension, “an accident.” Or, even worse, “a mistake.”

The thought makes me heart-hurt.

You see, even though I’m not a fatalist — far from it — I believe that you were meant for our family, that, in the end, we needed you. I, especially, needed you.


Stuart was first, was my only point of reference for having a child. So comparisons are hard to avoid. Please don’t mistake that for meaning he is the gold standard, though. You are each other’s complements and foils, and were since the day you came home (your brother, unable to pronounce your name, simply calling you “Bébé” with an inscrutable French lilt).  

And do you want to know a secret? I enjoyed your babyhood more. Because I was more comfortable the second go-‘round, sure. But also because, while Stuart wrested himself away from kisses and howled inconsolably for hours and ineffectually pummeled the air with his angry little fists, you were a serene-faced observer: my little piece of luggage. I guiltily sent Stuart to daycare most weekdays while I was on maternity leave from work, and you and I would make a nest of pillows on the couch. You nursed and burrowed into my body, and I tucked you under my chin and we both slept the sweetest sleep.

That is one way you helped me. You gave me some absolution for the times I had cried along with Stuart; for burning out the motor on a blow dryer when its steady, white noise roar was all that would calm him; even for blearily letting him tumble off of the nursing pillow after dragging myself from bed for the twentieth feeding of that interminable stretch of brightening and darkening hours that everyone else flippantly called “a day.” (We were both shocked into alertness. And, again, we cried, together). You showed me that I wasn’t the source of this, that I wasn’t to blame for being anxious or unproven.

A doctor on his rounds when I was discharging from the hospital after Stuart was born told me, in a failed attempt to reassure, “Not everyone is a natural mother.” At the time, I thought that my ineptness was so transparent; I was so unmistakably a lost cause.

You showed me that what the doctor should have said is, “No one is a natural mother.” Maybe some play the part more convincingly: more fluidly, with fewer false starts. “Nature” – inherency – neglects the two-sidedness, the give and take of burgeoning relationships, though. The parent has the advantage in terms of years logged on Earth; the baby is putty-like, primal.  But, nonetheless, both have to stumble into the dance, negotiating the rhythms of each other’s personality. Stuart and I flailed and staggered for weeks, months before we reached that accord. The moment you and I locked eyes, it seemed were gracefully in step.


Now? You are two-and-a-half and a firecracker. You take off running, head down, hurtling forward and not stopping for anything. You pretend our cats are babies that you are defending from werewolves on the prowl. (You extend your arm and mime “shooting” them. “Do you have a wand?” I ask. “No,” you reply, “A gun.”). Combing is not on your agenda, so we keep your hair short and disheveled. You love unsentimental Children in Trouble movies; Spirited Away and Coraline are your favorites. The parents are ineffectual and the girls are impudent and brave. I probe your preference for deeper meaning – because that’s what I do.

 I want to keep you this way: so fully yourself, and unafraid. You might grow your hair long, and wash the slick of raspberry jam from your chin, and start thinking that spelt cereal and black coffee is a more judicious breakfast choice than “chocolate waffles and marshmallows.” Those things don’t matter. It’s that real kernel of you-ness I want to preserve: the one so easily stifled in girls.

And, yes, your being a girl is the fulcrum, here.  For years, I have read about the fragility of girls’ identities – or, to reframe, the unrelenting assault our society wages on them. Studies and anecdota, all commenting, grimly, on the waxing and forced waning of girls’ sense of autonomy.  Not to mention that I was a little girl once, too. It only seems real and menacing now that I have a coltish, feisty girlchild of my own, though: threatened, yet blissfully unaware.

It is, I think, is your greatest gift to me. Just your existence has made me un-lazy about redressing all of this mess – doing it, of course, by making sure you know how extraordinary you are … but also by striving to model self-acceptance. That isn’t something that comes easily for me at all. Nonetheless, being your mother is making me realize that if I value the individual beauty of other women and girls, if I want their intellect and ideas to be treated with deference, if I believe their passions are worthy of being pursued, if I know that their emotions are legitimate, I need to believe the same standard applies to me, too. Whether I like it or not, I am your Adult Woman Archetype. Every off-handed swipe at my own competence and worth has the potential to register as a hairline crack in your sense of self. So, simply, I am learning to be kinder to myself: for you and because of you.


That is why I am going to flout those warnings and say it, plainly. MaryAlice, you were a surprise.

You were a surprise better than a birthday party or Easter egg or five-dollar bill.  You upset complacent balances that needed upsetting; but you also threaded your confidence around the weaker stalks of my own and made us both more resilient.

Keep the surprises coming.

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C is for Cookie. That’s Good Enough for Me.

It has been a morning.

I should start by explaining that I have had about 2 hours of sleep– which is not anyone’s fault.  Sometimes my mind just conspires against me that way.

So, after a strong dose of coffee, when the fog finally began to lift, I reminded Naya that it was swim lesson morning.  We got excited, talking about kicking, reaching, and playing with friends.  She loves swim.

Then, after a bit more of the caffeinated good stuff, I proceeded to make preparations for this adventure– packing the bag with suit, swim diapers, wet bags, extra diapers, baby wash, baby lotion, snack, sippy cup, the necessities of my own.  I bathed, shaved, and suited up.  Swimming morning definitely takes the most prep work of any of our scheduled programming, but it ’s typically rewarded with the true glee of my water baby.

Thus, this morning when it was time to get Naya ready for the adventure, and she sat, diaperless atop her bed screaming “NO DIAPER! NO SWIMMING!”  I was more than a little exasperated.  I am, however, in the midst of reading Love and Logic, which, though extremely heavy-handed and hyperbolic (think, “Give your toddler limits or he will grow up to be a psychopath!”) has some decent ideas, so I tried not to make a big deal while I explained the situation, expressed disappointment with her choice, and left her to deal with her decision.  Because, in reality, I would rather deal with a child who doesn’t want to swim at home than in the locker room at the Y (By the way, offers to help from sympathetic strangers do not, in fact, make mothers of toddlers who are melting down in the Y locker room feel any better about the situation– or make said toddler any more likely to stop melting down.  Really).

Of course, then she peed on the bed– through comforter, blankets, and sheets.  And, of course, by the time I had stripped the bed, microwaved the dregs from the coffee maker, tuned up some Louis Armstrong on Pandora, and started in on the task of the dishes, her freshly diapered (I have my limits with this whole choices thing when it comes to three extra loads of laundry), very sad self came into the kitchen whimpering, like a skipping record, “Go swimming now?”  And, of course, by this time it was too late to make it to the 35 minute toddler class.  And of course, after the 692nd repetition of her request to do exactly what I wanted to do in the first place and subsequent meltdown when I was unable to comply, I was. . . beyond words.

I mean, seriously.  These are not sanity fostering working conditions.

But, as parents of toddlers know, this is how many a day seem to go.  In their struggle for their new-found independence toddlers melt down– often and with little consistency or predictability.  (And if yours doesn’t, I really, really, really don’t want to hear about it.  Sorry.  Misery doesn’t love a know-it-all.) And still, we need to get through our days.

When I was childless and knew everything, I would see exasperated parents of small children in the middle of a meltdown and think terrible things about how they probably were doing something wrong– not being consistent enough, not providing their child with the attention or rest they needed, whatever.  And, obviously, there are plenty of those cases– if your child is being unruly in the toy store, for example, it’s probably not the time to buy her the toy she’s been coveting, right?– but in general, we’re all just trying to get through our days with our marbles intact.

Case in point:  The store that best suits our grocery shopping needs is a bit of a drive for us.  It typically takes us about 25 minutes to get there.  So, by the time I’ve checked the weekly sales, made my list, collected the grocery bags, packed the diaper bag, wrangled the little darling into the car seat, and pulled into the parking lot, I’m usually about an hour into the adventure, right?  So, then if 10 minutes into the experience my little dear starts screaming, “WANT COOKIE NOW!” am I going to (as my know-everything self of 4 years ago would have suggested) abandon ship, take my ball, and go home?

HECKY NO! We’re going to haul grocery cart over to the bakery department.  Get that girl a cookie!  NOW!

Yes, I know that by doing this I am perpetuating the cycle by reinforcing her cookie seeking behavior– but those dang bakery workers who started her off on the habit by handing her free cookies were the gateway, I tell you!  Pastry pushers!

The fact is, we need groceries.  My time to get them is limited, and unless I decide to do the grocery shopping at 10 p.m. (which I have, indeed, done on occasion for just this reason), it’s going to include my cookie monster kid.  So if we have to check out with 11 (ok, 10. . . or 9) cookies instead of the original 12, and my kid has oatmeal cookie mush all over her face (and hair, and probably ears) by the time we leave the store, I’m going to be ok as long as I don’t have to go back for another week. . . or two.

The fact is, in parenting we plan for perfection and deal with reality. Every day.

The fact is, I might just have to put her in her suit and fill up the bathtub.

-Jen

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Pass the Coffee, Please.

We’re tired here.  We’ve actually been tired for a couple weeks now.

For some reason, we have yet to understand, Naya has been regularly waking up several times in the middle of the night.  And we, unsure of what’s going on, have been answering her calls.

We are not amused.

For the first week or so, we were pretty worried because we were woken up to her crying— and not that “pay attention to me” cry she’s perfected as of late, but the real, “Oh my GOD!  What is wrong with my poor baby?!” kind of cry.

But this week, we’ve graduated to 2 a.m. wake up calls of, “You O.K., Lion?  You O.K., Mama?  You O.K., Elmo?”  And, despite being reminded to go back to sleep, this conversation can maintain itself for a couple hours a night.

So, while this is a definite improvement, I promise you this reads as much more amusing than it actually is. Especially in my thinner-than-paper-walled house.

I should back up a little here.

When I was growing this baby, I had every intention to be the perfect model of attachment parenting.

Then, you know, I had my particular baby and realized that my particular situation didn’t completely allow for all that perfection.

So, when Naya was about 8 months old (I think that’s when– it’s all kind of hazy, really), still waking up every hour  to nurse, and dealing with a mama (and a daddy) who was beyond exhausted, beyond impatient, and always just a little bit sick, we decided enough was enough.

We did it.  We sleep trained our daughter.  I admit it.  We did it and we don’t regret it for a minute.

Does that mean it’s right for your family?  Only you can decide that.  Of course, it’s a beautiful thing to be responsive to your child’s individual needs 24/7.  Of course it is.  For us, however, it was also important that 1. Naya actually get the rest she needed, 2. I stop being an impatient, emotionalbasketcasezombiemother, and 3. my husband and I actually get to spend some time together that wasn’t the two hours every night we spent trying to rock Naya to sleep and keep her that way.

And for us, sleep training accomplished all of those things.

First, being a person who absolutely CANNOT HANDLE hearing my child cry (though, with the onset of this whole 2-year-old attitude, I have to admit I’m becoming far more comfortable with it than I imagined possible), I knew the traditional cry-it-out method was NOT for us.   I bought this book that guaranteed  a no-cry sleep solution.

I spent hours charting our sleeping patterns, coping mechanisms, food intake, etc.

Yea. THAT was a complete waste of time I could have spent sleeping.  (For me. You might find it’s the best thing ever.)

Then, a childhood friend and mother of three suggested The Sleep Lady’s method, promising me more sleep by the end of a week.

Oh you know I was looking into that.

My husband and I spent a good part of a week of vacation poring over the book, discussing it, deciding we would give it our best effort, and planning a start date.

Then, a week or so after our trip, when we had reestablished our normal routine, we did it.

It wasn’t easy.  My husband took the first, worst night of sitting next to Naya’s crib, holding my frustrated daughter’s hand until she fell asleep on her own.  I’ll admit I couldn’t have done that night.

But, by the second night, when it was my turn, things were better.  And, by the fourth night, we were almost rested (if not exactly well-rested).

Around this time, we started noticing Naya reaching developmental benchmarks more rapidly than ever (which, of course, could have been purely coincidental).  She also became (even) more agreeable during the day.

Naps, as The Sleep Lady is the first to point out, were the toughest part in our sleep training program (though, of course, we have yet to approach the “better” situation).  They were, however, conquered, and since then, Naya typically does down for hers after a quick snuggle and song.

Now, our bedtime routine (snack, teeth brushing, pajamas, books, bed) takes about 30 enjoyable (for all of us) minutes.   And, until this month, Naya has slept through the night pretty regularly.

Of course, there have been the occasional setbacks of travel, illness, and the like– and we (if not exactly happily) readily break our sleep routine to accommodate for our baby girl’s comfort.

But this latest one is baffling us.

Better get out the book.

– Jen

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Full-time, Part-time: Cloth Mother, Wire Mother

These orphaned hedgehogs adopted a scrub brush as their surrogate "mother." In some people's opinion, the scrub brush is still a superior mother to YOU.

The Feminist Breeder had a great post a few days ago about the problematic recent trend of women, previously stamped with the “stay-at-home mom” label, claiming the designation of “full-time mom” instead.

The phrase isn’t fractious in and of itself; people can call themselves waffle irons for all I care. Hackles get raised, though, when the implied corollary is “part-time mom.”

TFB is quick to point out, both in the body of the post and in response to reader comments, that construing parenthood within an economic model is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, anyway. We can take equal issue with the term “working mom,” as it insinuates that caring for children and maintaining a household is not “work.” (To this end, however, I have seen greater movement toward the WOHM [work-outside-the-home mom] designation, which seems fair enough). The main thrust of TFB’s argument is that, whether one works outside the home for compensation, or within the domestic sphere without compensation, one is always a full-time mom. The characteristics that make a person a mother can’t be quantified in terms of number of diapers changed, number of meals prepared, or even hours of “face time.” Being a mom is, in fact, such a nebulous, highly individuated quality that applying a universal definition is kind of pointless.

Unless you’re down with the Cult of True Womanhood.

And, hey! It turns out some people still are! Check out this comment in response to the TFB post:

I have used the FT/PT distinction in the past, but in a real way I think. For me, the PT mom isn’t the mom who goes to work. It’s the one that doesn’t nurse cause she wants her breasts perfect, doesn’t even try for the natural, vaginal birth because she wants to stay tight, who dumps the kid in daycare so she can have the day to herself even when she’s not at work, and who doesn’t go get her kid out of daycare/school when they’re sick, but leaves them there to get everyone else’s kids sick. It’s those mom’s who don’t seem in it or to care really that get me. In my world those few mom’s that do earn the PT title are the working mom’s also, but certainly not all of them.

First: Plural nouns do not require the use of apostrophes.

(Now that I have that punctuation smackdown out of the way …)

Second: I’m really excited that she included the clarification  “in my world,” because this is fabulous anecdotal evidence supporting the possibility of interdimensional  and/or interplanetary travel. You heard it here first, arbiters of scientific fact!

In my world, I’m pretty sure the Part-time Moms, as defined above, don’t exist.


This is, in some respects, part and parcel to the fresh versus frozen blueberry debacle that Jen wrote about a couple of months back. What’s the old adage?   “You can’t boost yourself up by bringing others down”?

Let’s be honest, though: it can make you feel good about yourself temporarily — especially if you’re really needing to internally justify some choice that is teetering on the razor’s edge of your personal parental standards. “Yes, I let my child eat three packages of fruit snacks for breakfast … but at least they were Annie’s Organic Bunny Fruit Snacks. Have you read the label on  [Brand X] fruit snacks? The parents who let their kids eat those might as well just pour high fructose corn syrup down their gullets!”

You feel all superior for a moment. And the moment passes. And you (by “you,” I mean “me”) allow some other ridiculous, kid-related ephemera to gnaw at your conscience.


With her thumbnail sketch of a Part-time Mom, the commenter is really going for the jugular. Birth choices. Breastfeeding. Daycare “dumping.” I think it’s safe to say that HFCS-laden fruit snacks aren’t weighted with the same cultural baggage.

“But, wait!” you shout, “I know someone who works with someone whose sister-in-law is that exact tight-vagina-ed, perky-breasted, blithely baby-chucking succubus that she described!” Or maybe it’s one of those Real Housewives of Perdition. Whoever this Part-time Mom  happens to be, chances are it’s probably not someone to whom you are very close, or who you find very sympathetic in general; and vilifying their mothering choices figures into the Supreme  Matrix of Identifying More Reasons Why They Are Horrible. Am I right? Yes?

Because, if the person making these choices was a friend, a loved one, a person whose every move and affectation we don’t critically examine with a jaundiced eye, we are likely to process — to even speculate about — their decisions with a lot more gentleness. Gentleness that might look a little something like this:

  • Elected to have a medically unnecessary cesarean birth to avoid sexual dysfunction.  Maybe she knows someone who experienced urinary incontinence or vaginal prolapse, and associated that with their vaginal birth. Maybe her OB-GYN has told her that she was risking urinary incontinence or vaginal prolapse if she attempted a vaginal birth. Maybe “big babies run in the family,” and no one bothered to dispel the myth that this automatically translates to more pain, tearing and potential for longterm damage. Maybe she wasn’t aware of the physiological aspects of vaginal delivery and postpartum recovery of the structures involved.  Maybe she was a survivor of sexual violence and did not want to risk the birth of her child triggering traumatic memories. Maybe her partner made insensitive remarks about not being able to think about her romantically after seeing a baby come out of there. Maybe cesaerean births have  been so normalized by the medical establishment in the United States that she didn’t consider all the ramifications of an elective surgical birth; it wasn’t a hard sell; “keeping tight” seemed just as good a reason as any.
  •   Didn’t even try to breastfeed because she wants perfect breasts.  Maybe her medical providers were not supportive of breastfeeding, and did not inform her that new research suggests breastfeeding does not contribute to breast ptosis (although, sadly, pregnancy itself does!). Maybe, even if she was aware of this study, the entrenched lore says otherwise — and dominant beauty standards prop up (no pun intended!) “perkiness” as an ideal. Maybe her partner convinced her that she would not be desirable if breasts were associated with baby-feeding.
  • Dumps her kids in daycare, even when they’re sick (or questionably sick), even when she HAS THE DAY OFF!  Maybe …

Oh, hell. Let’s make this personal. That particular facet of the Part-time Mom mythos is me. My kids are in daycare because I work (outside the home, for compensation. Yes). I work, among other, more esoteric reasons, because I have two post-secondary degrees, greater earning potential than my (brilliant, capable, undervalued-by-whoever-determines-salary-standards) spouse, and carry the family’s benefits. I place enormous value on the quality of care providers we have engaged, but I am faced with certain financial and location-related limitations. I miss my children and worry about them when I am at work, but not to the point that I cannot fulfill my basic, job-related obligations and call into question my ability to work.

And speaking of: when you (again, read: “I”) have two children under age five, both of whom are being monitored for chronic health concerns of varying degrees of severity and are still susceptible to all the crud that gets passed from grubby hands to mucous membranes and back again, it is more alluring than the One Ring to just stick them in a clean diaper, hurry them out the door and hope that that 3:30 AM bout of diarrhea was their last. Or give them a dose of infant’s Motrin and a popsicle and hope the fever goes down. Or run the humidifier all night, squirt some saline mist in both nostrils and hope the torrent of nose-gunk dries up. Because let’s just say the theoretical boss? While generally very understanding and accommodating and willing to try to frame your experiences in child-rearing in the same terms she uses for wrangling her three dogs … sometimes she seems a little skeptical that a small humanling can really be sick so often.

Finally,  we’ve come to the bit about leaving children in daycare when the mom doesn’t have to be at work.  Like one of those obscure-ish holidays (“Oh — it’s Presidents Day?” [scratches head]) when daycare is still open. I admit that this one has given me some pause in the past. If you love your kids so much and are always lamenting how little time you get to spend with them, why don’t you take advantage of an opportunity to do just that?

First, the quick, brush-off: “Because most childcare providers charge for days when the child doesn’t attend, anyway, so I’d be ‘losing’ money.”

Then, the slightly more considered response: “Because an odd handful of days each year isn’t going to make enough of a difference in my or my children’s perception about the amount of time we spend together.”

And, at last, the truth comes out: “Because I am a big introvert and need to be alone with my thoughts (someplace other than my car) every once in a great while.” (When this time alone with my thoughts does happen to fall on Presidents Day, I promise I’m contemplating the rich history of our nation’s executive office from sun-up to sun-down, though).


So. My radical idea is this: treat every mother — even the Part-time Mom, doing everything “wrong,” who doesn’t “seem in it or to care really” — with the same gentleness, the same regard as we would a friend or a loved one. Imagine that flat caricature into three-dimensionality. Do not falsely conflate child abuse and neglect with straying from (sometimes equivocal, and definitely culturally relative) best parenting practices.

All of the knowledge we have, as parents, and all our strongest convictions, weren’t acquired in a vacuum. I know that proponents of some parenting styles like to promote their approach with claims about biological essentialism. But, uh, I don’t think that implying that a person is fundamentally, like, contravening nature is going to win a lot of converts. Instead, we’ve got to knock off the “smirking from on high” act and spread the wealth a little bit.

How does one do that? Well, like this:

  1. Jen has had a positive experience with cloth diapering.
  2. Jen shares her positive experience with cloth diapering.
  3. “But isn’t it messy/stinky/costly/time-consuming?” ask the people who have never known a world without disposable diapers, or who ruefully recall trying to sun-bleach pre-folds on the clothesline in mid-November, thirty-some years ago (that would be my mother-in-law).
  4. “Why no!” explains Jen, “And here’s why … . Oh, and here are some other advantages to cloth diapering, too …”

The clincher:

*Jen does not demonize them when they turn around and buy an economy-sized box of Pampers, in spite of her persuasive argument.

She knows that they did not invent disposable diapers and saturate the market with them. She knows that they did not pour millions of dollars into touting the convenience of disposables, and downplaying the post-consumer impact. She knows that they did not set the price of disposable diapers, so that an $8 weekly expenditure seems less costly than a $200 start-up investment in cloth.

And she also knows that, by confidently speaking to her beliefs, she has planted a seed. While her advocacy may not tip one person’s opinion in her direction, it might do just that for another. This is how the snowball starts rolling.

Share away, then. Talk frankly about those most taboo, most feared aspects of vaginal delivery and breastfeeding with expectant moms who trust and value your opinion. Problem-solve by suggesting feasible ways in which they can strike a happier (for them) balance between work and family life.

And, simultaneously, start attacking the right monsters. Hint: they aren’t the “Part-time Moms”.

Question the widely accepted employment practices that serve as barriers between parents and children trying to form mutually healthy relationships. Think about whether you would be willing to brace yourself against whatever fall-out arose from adopting Canadian-style maternity leave benefits as a national standard (including protests about funding sources and the perceived legitimacy of mothers “taking a year off”). Expose the artificiality, and misogyny,  of aesthetic “ideals” that commodify and co-opt women’s bodies and that teach us to always and only value form over function.

If we truly care about effectuating longterm change, if our goal is truly improving the quality of life of mamas and children, this is how we slowly inch our way there.

If we only want to “cast stones” at those whose parenting acumen isn’t up-to-snuff, though … we’d better be prepared to hunker down in a hermetically sealed, concrete bunker (certainly not a proverbial glass house!) for the rest of our parenting days. And take lots of Valium.

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I want to see that director’s cut!

You know how we promised we weren’t above a cute kid story every now and then? I must confess that it’s sometimes hard not to post them all the damn time. Luckily (for any scant readership we might have at the mo’), I’ve got other outlets that bear the brunt of my Art-Linklater-cum-Bill-Cosby impulses. I maintain a  Twitter account  entirely devoted to Stuart-isms, for goodness’ sake.

Here’s a story that nicely dovetails with a few of my recent Pax (Ro)mama musings — so I think it’ll pass muster.

Last month, I wrote a piece in which I described how Stuart had mistakenly assumed that the two women who facilitate his preschool class were married (to each other. They aren’t, by the way. They’re actually sisters!). I found this little gaffe really touching, and was relieved to realize that I, as a parent in a hetero marriage, raising my child in a heterocentric/heterosexist world, had managed to not significantly squelch such assumptions. I framed all of this in a heart-string-plucking kind of way, because I can get kind of maudlin like that.

Sometimes, though, even I can’t bring myself to extrapolate some weighty Message from Stuart’s totally earnest — yet hilariously … well, wrong — conjectures. And, as a former English major, I’m a consummate bullshitter. But this? Just … this.

Over the weekend, we took the kids to the library where they borrowed some books and movies, among them the 2008 reboot of The Incredible Hulk, starring Edward Norton. Stuart has a newfound love of super heroes, and I’m not dissuading him from this interest. (We’ll save the Women in Refrigerators conversation until he’s a little older). While I didn’t read comics when I was growing up, I am familiar with a lot of superhero lore thanks to film adaptations and the characters’ kind of zeitgeist-y omnipresence. Still, Stuart’s questions get waaaay too involved for me to comment with authority sometimes.

On the drive home from the library, he was studying the Hulk DVD case and grilling me on the content of the movie (which I had not yet seen).

“Is the Hulk a good guy or a bad guy?”

I believe the Hulk’s appeal lies in his moral ambiguity, Stuart. Or, perhaps, I would go so far as to say “moral ambivalence.” Uh, when he’s a regular guy, he wants to do the right thing. But when he gets angry and turns into the Hulk, he can’t always control himself.”

“Does the Hulk brush his teeth? Because if he doesn’t brush his teeth, he will get cavities.”

“I think he brushes his teeth when he’s Bruce Banner. That way he doesn’t have to find a really big toothbrush.”

“Oh, okay. So who are these people?” Stuart pointed at a photo of the lead castmembers on the back of the DVD case:

 

“Uh, I don’t really know, Stuart. That guy in the middle is Bruce Banner; he turns into the Hulk. And I think the woman [Liv Tyler] is his girlfriend or something.”

“What about those other guys?” he asked, indicating Tim Roth and William Hurt. “Are they the Hulk’s boyfriends?”


So … am I the only one who is now dying to see The Incredible Hulk reimagined as a polyamorous, bisexual, multi-generational love story? Let’s get this one greenlit, people!

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Breastfeeding, Bootstrapping, and the Boundaries of Personal Experience

“Breastfeeding is a Must …” declares the headline for an article on City Limits magazine’s website, “… for Moms Who Can Afford It.”

It’s a knowingly incendiary statement: the sort of thing considered, by some journalists, de rigueur for maximizing eye-catchability. (And to them I say, “Hey, at least you didn’t use a forced pun”). A little backlash is written off as acceptable in that it means the title is doing its job, serving as an entrée to the meat of the story — which people hopefully bother to read.

I was referred to this City Limits article by the Facebook page of an online compendium of breastfeeding resources. It should go without saying that people who follow said Facebook page — myself included — tend to be pretty vociferous breastfeeding advocates.  However, reading others’ comments in response to this article reinforced the fact that some of my cohorts-in-name-only and I part ways significantly when it comes to bolstering our allegedly shared cause.

(Two quick caveats before I continue:

  1. I should probably impose a “No reading ‘users fora’ comments for any print or, especially, electronic publication” policy. I don’t need to court high blood pressure.
  2. Like my Pax (Ro)mama counterpart, Jen, one of the many hats I wear is that of professional educator. In my case, I’m an adjunct humanities lecturer at a career college that does not — emphatically not — traffic in liberal arts degrees. So convincing students of the utility of my classes is sometimes a hard sell.  All things considered, though, I think I do a pretty good job. And yet, I am so the type to read course evaluations and home in on the one or two negative comments bobbing ineffectually in a sea of positivity. That same, basic principle applies to other facets of my life, too.

Okay, so, back to the action!)

The gist of the article, written by a New York City social worker, is that, while Michelle Obama recently spoke out in favor of federal support for breastfeeding initiatives (especially in underserved African American communities), other federal programs, utilized by many poor women of color, actually impede the establishment of positive breastfeeding relationships between mothers and babies.

There were three camps of pro-breastfeeding readers who reacted negatively to this article’s premise:

  1. “WTF? Breastfeeding is free!” These people either failed to read past the article’s title, or are so mired in this kind of “strict constructionist” rhetoric that anything seeming to stray from a rotely-regurgitated adage just will not penetrate the ol’ gray matter.
  2. “Even though I am a huge proponent of breastfeeding, I also [coughmindbogglinglycough] agree with Michele Bachmann’s [coughmindbogglingcough] comments about Ms. Obama’s campaign being literally indicative of the United States’ slide into [coughbogglebogglebogglecough] ‘nanny state’-dom. Ergo, people on TANF can suck it. ” The opinions of this group aren’t so much focused on the thesis of the article as the notion that a conflict between what they see as two cogs in the same, decrepit machine lends credence to their position. And that is, “The entire ‘factory’ [to  belabor my metaphor] needs to be shut down.” Frankly, for their purposes, it doesn’t even matter that the article is about breastfeeding. It’s just another way to insinuate a general political stance into a thread of discourse. Their prerogative, I guess.
  3. “I breastfed sextuplets after having a breast reduction and I needed to relactate seventeen times and I had mastitis every day and my partner left me and I had to hand express into a Ziploc bag while working 16 hour shifts in an abattoir and my babies all reverse-cycled for 12 months so I got by on two, non-consecutive minutes of sleep every night and the babies and I had to live in a hole in the ground, under a plastic tarp. If you can’t boast my willingness to blithely self-sacrifice, you aren’t entitled to claim hardship.”

It’s this last cluster of naysayers that frustrates me the most. Their objections aren’t rooted in an obstinate lack of reading comprehension, or a political ideology. Instead, they’ve become devotees of bootstrappery, and unable — or unwilling — to see that their stories, like everyone’s, have wholly unique parameters.


I had my own share of difficulties while breastfeeding. The most difficulties? Of anyone, ever? Clearly not. But enough to say to those feeling indignant about the momentusness of their efforts going unacknowledged, “I can relate.”

Neither my mother nor my grandmother breastfed any of their children, so I didn’t have the foundation of tradition buoying me along. After having my first baby, I had to return to work outside the home, starting at six weeks postpartum. (Of my partner and I, I had the greatest earning potential and carried our family’s benefits. My husband still worked near-fulltime hours in the evenings and on weekends). Stuart (the baby) rejected  just about every bottle my husband tried and, consequently, turned into a reverse-cycler. This meant he refused expressed breast milk during the day, preferring to wait until I got home from work and he could sup “from the tap,” every hour or two. All. Night. Long.  And he ended up having some pretty significant food allergies, which meant that I had to go on an allergen-elimination diet (and execute the second Great Freezer Stash Purge of 2007. The first GFSP happened after I discovered an excess lipase issue)  — while I was newly pregnant with my second baby, no less! Poor weight gain. Anemia. No La Leche League meetings within a forty-five minute drive from my home. It was not a walk in the park.

I did have a lot going for me besides a steely resolve, though.

Stuart did not require a surgical birth and, as such, I was able to breastfeed him almost immediately after he was born. Stuart was a full-term baby and did not have any physiological or developmental issues that prevented him from latching properly and swallowing and digesting my milk. I did not have any physiological or psychological issues that prevented me from producing milk or nursing without pain or emotional distress. I had six weeks to begin to establish a nursing relationship in the comfort of our apartment. I had healthcare providers who were knowledgable about breastfeeding, and encouraging of my goals. I had a computer and internet access at home and the ability to search for, and discern, credible information on breastfeeding. I was able to acquire an electric double-pump at no cost to myself. My employer offered a comfortable, private location to use my pump, and allowed me to do so according to my own schedule . 

In my case, when the factors from column “A” and the factors from column “B” duked it out, the circumstances contributing to my ultimate breastfeeding success prevailed: “success” meaning that I achieved the milestones I hoped I would (nursing until Stuart was at least one year old, and allowing him to wean at his own pace). I can easily see how, if things had been only slightly different, I wouldn’t have made it.


Sure, the strength of my commitment played some part in all of this. But I know better than to arrogantly say, “That’s all it takes.” The implication of such a statement is that those who do not breastfeed, for whatever reason, are “weak.” In fact, the reason I take such pains to point out that the very definition of breastfeeding “success” is highly subjective is that I believe objective success/failure polarities are counterproductive.

For some, success may mean never using artificial milk or artificial nipples to feed their baby. For others, it may mean exclusively expressing breast milk for, and bottle-feeding,  their baby until they are able to begin transitioning to solid foods. The bottom line is, until breastfeeding is truly enculturated, across the board (for working and stay-at-home moms; mothers of every ethnic and cultural background; moms of all ages and socioeconomic statuses), and steps are taken to provide practical accommodation for all manner of barriers, we breastfeeding advocates need to be a little better about reserving judgment.

Does that mean we should all rest on our laurels until the fabled day arrives (or until Michelle Obama delivers it unto us? Wow, that woman is endowed with an awful lot of responsibility for a single person!)? Well, obviously, I wouldn’t suggest that. However! If you’ve been following along, you can probably surmise that I appreciate how daunting a task it seems to take a run at The System while trying to juggle the stuff of everyday life. I know it is easier to just feel disgruntled and cast aspersions at faceless folks on the Internet. So here are some things you can do to constructively forward the cause that require virtually no time commitment whatsoever:

  • Acknowledge people’s victories, including your own. I think one of the major contributors to breastfeeding mamas’ bitterness is that they expend a ton of effort to do right by their child in a not-always-breastfeeding-friendly climate only to have their breastfeeding milestones pass without so much as a pat on the back (or, even worse, with comments like, “Oh, you’re still doing that?”).

Do you know someone who is breastfeeding or pumping milk for their child? Throw a casual, “Good job!” in their direction every once in a while. And if you don’t get the same in return from people in your life, celebrate yourself! Just say, “I am proud of myself for breastfeeding,” out loud, to another human being (or, heck, in a Facebook status update). It’s all part of moving toward a curious-but-necessary re-normalization of this biological function. Plus, who doesn’t appreciate a little praise?

  • Acknowledge people’s setbacks, including your own. I feel like no one should have to justify their personal reasons for breastfeeding only at a certain level (i.e. supplementing with infant formula), or only for a certain period of time … or not at all. We’re trying to take down the paradigm, not the individual, right? Nonetheless, I’ve found  that many people really want to share their challenges: particularly people who have had to revise their original breastfeeding goals. The tricky part to navigate: knowing when they are looking for suggestions to redress the difficulties they have encountered, and knowing when they are simply looking for commiseration and recognition. Responding with, “That sounds really hard. Here’s an anecdote about something that was hard for me when I was breastfeeding my child …” and leaving the door open for further discussion is a good one-size-fits-all salvo.

Relatedly …

  • Be able to identify threats and challenges to individuals’ breastfeeding success as well as broader, societal acceptance of breastfeeding. Be open to reading articles, like the one from City Limits, and listening to people’s stories that might, initially, trigger a defensive or antagonistic response. Be aware of laws pertaining to breastfeeding in your state and imagine the different ways in which they may help and harm breastfeeding mothers. Try to avoid interpolating your own history and cultural background into the experiences of others; trust that they are accurate chroniclers of their circumstances, and that it might take action internal to their particular demographic to effect change.

And, last but not least …

  • Remember that the vast majority of parents love their babies and want to do what is best for them. The shame of being told , “If you really loved your child, you would [do X,Y,Z differently],” is pretty peerless and, I would venture to guess, not a great motivator. Understand that we humans all have different stress tolerance thresholds, different priority hierarchies, different coping mechanisms.

If one mother, for example, is part of a religious congregation that frowns upon breastfeeding during services, it may be feasible for her to attend services elsewhere, or forego attending until her baby is able to make it through the service without nursing. For another, the very idea would be unthinkable and could lead to alienation from her family or faith community. Whether or not their choices line up with the choices we would make, it is not our place to question their love for their babies, or their fitness to parent.              


 

This post isn’t about the benefits of breastfeeding for babies. It isn’t really about the benefits of breastfeeding for mothers, either. Trust me, though: those considerations are never far from my mind. What it is about it this:

 I would like to propose that increased acceptance of breastfeeding is too important a battle for us to employ tactics like reductive credos (“Breastfeeding is only natural!” “Where there’s a will, there’s a way!”), ad hominem attacks, and scorched earth exclusivity. I wish that it was as simple as “boobs + baby + positive attitude = universally utopic breastfeeding experience.” But I think that, in the end, admitting the flaws in that equation will lead to a more comprehensively useful, fundamentally stronger campaign.

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I’m a Baby Gear Junkie.

Seriously.

For me, one of the best parts about having a friend who is expecting (besides, you know, the human being soon to come) is having an opportunity to talk baby gear and to see what’s new since I invested.  (A LOT changes even over the course of two short years!)

My absolute favorite gear to talk about?  Cloth diapers.

“What?!”

No, but seriously.  Cloth diapers absolutely rock my world.

I know if you’re not familiar with the modern world of cloth diapering, the first thing you think of are diaper pins and rubber pants– or worse, big, sloppy pails of soaking poopie diapers.

Think again, my friends!   Cloth diapering has never been easier.  And actually, it takes me less time to cloth diaper than it does to use dishes instead of paper plates.  A LOT less.   Like, probably an average of less than 5 minutes per day.  Total.

The Down and (really not so) Dirty:

We use the pre-fold/ cover system most of the time.   It’s cheaper, and usually works most reliably (Those new-born blowouts are practically non-existent).   It does, however, lack some of the convenience of the all-in-one (AIO) systems for being out-and-about, and their similarity to disposables that so many child-care providers crave.  Still, it’s pretty easy– fold the pre-fold into thirds, set it in the cover, velcro or snap it into place– 1,2,3.

So, Naya goes about her day, I change her soiled diapers, and if it’s a #1 situation, it goes right into my diaper pail, which is lined with a “wet bag” (basically a bag  made of laminated cloth that holds the diapers until you’re ready to wash).  If it’s #2 I dump it in the toilet (Naya shouts, “Bye bye, Poopie!”), then throw it in the wet bag.

And now you’re thinking, “What about the messy ones? Do you really have to rinse them in the toilet?”

Well, yes– but that happens about once every two weeks in our house– and, if you’re really squeemish, they make things called diaper sprayers that hook up (quite easily, I’m told) to the water supply of your toilet.  But, even the rinsing takes, say, 20 seconds.  And, when they’re really small, if you’re breast feeding, you don’t have to rinse the poop at all.  For some reason, it just magically disappears in the wash.  Breast milk is magic, but that’s a story for another post.

Since we’re going to be washing anyway, we even use cloth wipes–basically tiny washcloths we spray with water, use, and toss right into the bag.  And before you get all, “You only clean her off with WATER?!” on me, remember that you probably don’t even use that when you do your business.  So there.  But, if you’re going to be like that, some people add a drop of baby wash to their water bottle, or buy special spray for it, or even prepare their own formula that involves some kind of cooking (I know, right?).  I don’t personally think it needs to be that complicated.  Water works fine.

So anyway, you get a bunch of dirty diapers– for us, this happens about once every 3-4 days now (when she was younger, it used to happen about every-other day).  You take the bag out of the diaper pail, turn it inside out into the washer (so you don’t even have to touch the diapers), throw the bag in with it, and VOILA! You’re washing your diapers!

Cold rinse.  Double wash with the teeniest bit of detergent.  Cold rinse.

Line dry the covers.  Machine or line dry the pre-folds.

I think it’s probably at least as pleasant as emptying one of those magic-hide-the-diaper contraptions.

And, yes, it helps that I’m a stay-at-home-mom, but anyone who knows me knows I’m no Donna Reed when it comes to matters of the home.

And, yes, it helps that my laundry room is right next to the kitchen, but in our old house, when I had to truck downstairs to use our traditional washer/dryer combo (now we have the HE models I coveted for so long– consolation prize for moving away from my friends and family), I often set Naya on top of the basket of fluffy, clean diapers and towed us all back upstairs.  I think she liked it.

And no, we aren’t fanatical about it (which is probably why I love it so much).  Sometimes,  if we’re out and about, or we have a sitter who’s not comfortable with them, or we’re on vacation, we use disposable.

All in all, it’s probably saved us about a thousand dollars– more, if you count the fact that one of my Besties borrowed Naya’s first set of diapers for her son.  (We have two sets– one for the first 6 months, and one that will take her to potty training.)

Easy peasy.

And it’s one of the parenting decisions that both my husband and I feel really, really good about.

What are some of the parenting decisions that you’re really proud of?

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