Wednesday, August 27, 2014

baby FAQ, month four

Q. What have you read lately?

A: The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England's Most Notorious Queen, by Susan Bordo. Fun, intelligent popular history / pop culture exploration of what we actually know about Anne Boleyn (a very small amount, given the lack of source material and the propaganda around her in all directions) and what we as a culture think we know about her. The first half of the book is about the historical record and the contemporary depictions of Anne; the second half is about depictions of her in literature and film since and how those change to reflect the times. Bordo does come off as scolding other writers quite a bit, and at the very end gets a little weird about feminism (pro? con? trying to claim we're all too postmodern for the label? I couldn't tell), but it's a smart and enjoyable book. 

Re-read In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote. Still pretty impressive, though the true-crime tendency (which I believe Capote started) towards printing long letters or manifestos written by angry, often racist, almost always misogynist, uneducated criminals, is something with which I have no patience. Didn't want to be in Gary Gilmore's head; don't want to be in Perry Smith's either. Skipped right over those parts without even skimming.

Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin. Was this (enormous) book amazing and beautiful and an awesome display of Helprin's imaginative powers? You bet it was! Did I skim the hell out of the last 300 pages? You know I did! At a certain point I simply could not spend another twenty minutes of my life reading a description of an aggressively whimsical building or a bizarre philosophical conversation between two hobos (I've seen "Waiting for Godot" something like six times, so I'm good, thanks), and once animal cruelty and infant death came into the picture, I was just like, "LA LA LA," and whisked through to the end.

Q: How is Perdita?

A: So awesome. I am absolutely obsessed with her babbling and cooing, not to mention her laughter.

Q: Any screaming?

A: If I try to listen to anything but NPR in the car, yes. She is not into music while driving these days, but will sit wide-eyed and thoughtful-looking while terrible things are reported in soothing voices and Mama says choice words in a less soothing voice.

Q: As you travel more and for longer periods of time with her, how is bottle-feeding in public going?

A: I never would have thought that not whipping a boob out in public could, on occasion, make me so self-conscious. But fortunately no one has yet given me overt shit about it (one dude did tell me I had her "facing the wrong way", but I couldn't tell whether he was concerned for my child's nutritional needs or just wished my shirt was open).

Q: A mother feeding her baby in public is fair game either way, no? Either she has to have a boob out in public, and risk skeeviness or hostility, or someone's going to comment on the bottle.   

A: Far better someone comment on the bottle than that a public space not be nursing-friendly, though. After all, barring someone actually knocking the bottle out of my hand, which even the most ardent member of the Breastapo is unlikely to do, Perdita's not going to go hungry because a space is pro-breast-feeding. And being a mother in public generally means someone's going to give you unsolicited advice no matter what you do. 

Q: Is it still hard to feel supported and validated in your bottle-feeding? 

A: Alas, yes. I'm so, so happy with our lives as they are. Perdita's growing like a weed (she's in six-month onesies because she's so tall) and sleeping through the night; since we weaned I've lost all but seven pounds of the pregnancy weight (I know, they all tell you it only works the other way around, but I didn't lose an ounce while breast-feeding, because it made me hungrier than I'd been while pregnant and chained me to the couch and the pumping chair); and I'm able to get the cancer screenings I need. I am so much happier since I put that pump away, and I know that I made the right choice for my health and my family. But. 

The exclusion I feel from the maternal inner circle, from this perfect ideal of What Motherhood Should Be, is pretty severe. I know that that ideal exists mostly in my own head, and that all parents have their struggles and doubts, no matter how healthy and organic-cotton-scented their lives appear from the outside. But breast-feeding has such potency as a symbolic act, and for me it took on the weight of Motherhood Visibly Done Right. I've never thought of myself as the warm maternal sort, or as a natural mother. I felt like I did pregnancy completely wrong by hating almost every minute of the nine-month experience (perhaps someday I'll post about my wicked antepartum depression, which I didn't even know was a thing but which made my last trimester one of the hardest periods of my life), and that I would be doing a major part of motherhood wrong by going back to work full-time and early, and so I already felt excluded from the inner circle of good happy natural mothers well before the baby came along. Nursing was pretty much my only chance at redeeming myself, and when it turned out to be such a disaster - and when it became apparent that the choice to stop completely was going to be something I would have to fight for - I felt so, so alone. I've not quite gotten over that feeling yet. 

I suspect that almost every parent has something which makes them feel excluded from the inner circle of perfect parenthood, whether it be an economic situation, a child's special needs, a non-traditional family structure, or the fact that the kid hates the Moby Wrap*. I know I'm not alone in feeling alone, and that if I were exclusively breast-feeding I'd just find something else about which to feel inadequate and isolated. I don't regret my decision, but some days I still feel like the clubhouse sign says ONLY BOOBS ALLOWED.

Okay, I really will try to stop being defensive about it. Getting to be a little bit of a broken record around here.

Q: Speaking of music, what is your husband's idea of making a Johnny Cash song baby-appropriate?

A: "Early one morning while making the rounds / I took a shot of cocaine and I rented a clown."

Q: And you wonder why she sometimes shrieks in her sleep.

*While I was still technically on leave, Perdita and I went into work for two trainings; for one I snuggled her into the Moby Wrap like a good nurturing mama, and for the other I left her strapped into her heartless, head-flattening car seat. Guess which training she slumbered through angel-fashion and which training I missed nine-tenths of because I was out in the hall with an inconsolable screamer. Since then the Moby has lain in the car's back seat absorbing spills. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

poop stories, dog books, and stressed moms

The latest in working-mother-adjustment:

I have now been back at my job a month and so far (knock on wood) everyone has survived. But I've had to do a lot of personal work around my loss of control and the intense anxiety that causes me (anyone who's ever been unfortunate enough to have me as a passenger in their car knows my issues around not having control).

The loss of control, of course, started as soon as the pregnancy did. First I couldn't control the physical changes in my body; then I couldn't control my dog's illness; then I couldn't control going into labor and had to be induced; then I couldn't control labor sufficiently to get through it unmedicated; then I couldn't control my milk production... heavens! After the first six weeks or so, Perdita and I got into a rhythm and I felt okay about things again, but then I returned to work, and went straight from our days being our own to having no direct control over her days at all and very little control over mine. Suddenly, with no gradual transition, for forty-plus hours a week my child is with someone else and my time is at someone else's disposal. No wonder I refused to move Perdita to her big crib in the other room, even though she'd completely outgrown the little co-sleeper crib in our room. No wonder I cried a whole, whole lot.

Things are better now: she's sleeping through the night in the other room and I only cry when there's a dog. Like, anywhere. I decided that reading about Rin Tin Tin was a good idea despite this, which resulted in me sobbing to Berowne, "They buried him with his squeaky toy!" (The jaded reply of a man who has seen a dozen squeakers ripped from plush bosoms: "They must have made squeaky toys tougher back then.")

Not unrelatedly, I have decided (based on a control group consisting of me and a couple funny British writers) that the "stress during pregnancy causes lower IQ / mental illness / general ruined-baby-syndrome" stuff being pushed on us these days is almost entirely bullshit. I spent my entire pregnancy with my anxiety turned up to eleven (see: loss of control, above), and hearing at every turn that my cortisol levels were so bad for the baby that I might as well be mainlining heroin didn't, oddly enough, make me less stressed. For nine months I was basically one trigger away from being hauled off in a strait-waistcoat.   

The result of that pregnancy is the most easy-going, cheerful baby anyone has ever seen, and she has met every developmental milestone early. Of course she may turn out to be intensely stupid, in which case I'll just have to live with knowing that my terrible negligence in allowing my dog to get cancer is to blame, but so far I'm not impressed with the no-stress rule. Frankly, I think that it's yet another ploy to guilt women into leaving the workforce when they have children. Regardless of what your job is or how much you love it, it's going to have an element of stress, and as the "wisdom" becomes more and more that you must be happy and relaxed every second of your pregnancy unless you want your fetus to be irreparably damaged, any stress in your life starts to seem too dangerous to be worth it. And so women get guilted and pressured out of the workforce even before the baby comes along.

Naturally, if a woman leaves the workforce while about to add a huge number of new expenses to her life, she'd better have a seriously-well-employed spouse or well-off parents or a trust fund to facilitate this. Which is the worst aspect of the "good mothers stop working" nonsense: the idea that if you don't have one of those three safety nets, you can't be a good mother. This is not only classist but requires the belief that a woman cannot have had an independent life prior to becoming a mother, because if she did, and was participating in the economy for over a decade before even meeting her spouse.... well, basically the question is whether it would have been morally acceptable for me to say to Berowne last summer: "Now that you've knocked me up, my car payment, my dogs' expenses, and the mortgage on the house I bought with my ex-husband are all your responsibility. Good luck!" 

Sorry to be cranky about it. I just got so mad about people instructing me constantly that I needed to not be stressed, while making the utterly insane assumption that the loss (or severe decrease: I got lots of advice to go part-time) of my income would lessen the stress in our household. I'm never going to say flippantly, "Nice work if you can get it!" of stay-at-home parenting, because my suspicions that it's exhausting have been emphatically proven, but I'm tired of our society acting like it's an option - or a priority - for all women. 

ALSO, because I have not posted in a while and I have too much to say, what happens in the workplaces of those countries which give women paid maternity leaves of a year or more? How do you arrange a year's worth of coverage for a valued employee? Does everyone move up a rung but then get demoted when the mother returns? Is there a massive temp worker industry in Scandinavia? How does this not create a hugely disproportionate burden on the childless employees? (And if it does, do they ever move to America in disgust?) I was gone for under three months and spent my last two months training people non-stop to cover me and it was STILL a hot mess. Everyone talks about the amazing maternity leave policies in these countries (oddly, everyone talks constantly about them to the woman who had to come back to work after three months, as if it's not salt in the wound), but no one talks about how the workplace handles a female employee saying, "Okay, see you in a year and a half." I wonder about these things!  

Ah well. Saying that I have to work makes it sound much more grudging than it is. I miss Perdita every moment we're apart, but I can see how much she loves daycare; and, let's face it, I am not the type to join mommy play groups, so if I were a stay-at-home mom she'd never see anyone but me and the dog, and I would never talk to other adults. (A typical conversation since Berowne moved in: "Who were you talking to in the yard?" "So-and-so." "Who's that?" "Um... the guy you've lived next door to for eight years." "He has a name?") In retrospect, if I'd been able to arrange a more gradual return to work that would have been better for my own mental health, but like I said, we're okay.

The latest in monster blowouts:

Location: I-89, on our way to Vermont. Cruising along the highway, I sniffed and said, "Do you think she pooped?" Berowne sniffed as well, and said, "No, I think that was a moose." At the next rest stop, we discovered that the moose had apparently managed to get into the backseat and poop all over the baby without us noticing. Thankfully there was a spare bathroom we could commandeer together, or we would have stood between the two restrooms saying, "You take her," "No, you take her," for about fifteen minutes, and the person who ended up with her would still be mad about it. And we managed to salvage the car seat.

Location: the local tiki restaurant. When the dining room at Fantasy Island echoed with a rumble like a tractor-trailer driving by, I had the sinking feeling that the diaper bag was entirely too light for the situation. And indeed, it turned out that at some point in the past three weeks I had taken a now-too-small spare outfit out of the diaper bag and neglected to replace it. You don't know proud parenting until your baby is wearing a toga made out of a swaddle blanket in public.

Location: a wedding dinner in Vermont (different weekend). She hadn't pooped in about thirty-six hours, so all day at the wedding and the party we were bracing ourselves for a big one. When it was Berowne's turn to change her, and he headed off to the little bathroom, I had my fingers crossed. After a long time passed, I knew that it had been as I hoped. But then more time passed. And more. The speeches were finished, the food was arriving, and still nothing. I started to think that maybe I should gather up extra diapers and clothes and go knock on the door, but because with a baby you have to eat in shifts, I knew I had to eat my food so that I could take the baby when Berowne returned to the table. Also I'm kind of a jerk. When Berowne finally did emerge, he looked like he'd been to Vietnam: the bathroom, apparently, had been a somewhat jungle-like environment even before adding the destructive humidity of an overdue pants-load. Fortunately we had a dozen back-up outfits (I may have gone a little overboard in the buying of wedding clothes) and the only lasting harm was Berowne's insistence that it is my turn for the next month or so.  

The latest in reading:

The Wrong Mother, by Sophie Hannah. A nasty little thriller, which is what Hannah does. So freakin' creepy! And effective about the grim side of motherhood.

I finished Ten Years in the Tub, by Nick Hornby. No sooner, of course, had I written in the last post that I enjoyed Hornby despite our differing views, than he devoted an entire column to how Cheryl Strayed's Wild was one of his favorite books of the last ten years. Well, I suppose if you never were a self-obsessed, self-pitying, twenty-something woman, the travails of one might be more interesting to you than they were to me. But really? In ten years a voracious reader reads roughly a thousand books, if not more; and you think this was better than, say, nine hundred of the other books you sought out deliberately during that decade? A decade is a LOT of reading. I don't think Hornby realized the height of the podium he's erecting for Strayed there, is all I'm saying. But I did enjoy this collection despite that.

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, by Susan Orlean. I avoided this book for a while because I knew it would make me cry, which it did (as previously noted). I may not have been quite ready for it as it was, but I'm glad I read it. Orlean's writing style is the kind of reportage I really like - direct and friendly, imparting lots of information without ever seeming cluttered - and of course how could I not love the story of a dog rescued from a WWI battlefield who became fiercely bonded to his owner and beloved by millions? Replace "WWI battlefield" with "bad owners in Baltimore", and you have the life and legend of Darcy-Bear, who totally could have become a film star if a) there been an open casting call for "Game of Thrones" in our area and b) he had responded to most commands with anything other than a skeptical look and the occasional fart of disrespect. (He could have been the equivalent of Rin Tin Tin IV, a very sweet but rather dense dog who never actually acted in the 1950s television show bearing his name, but did the publicity bits.) Anyway, this book was fascinating and melancholy and I cried and cried at this bit:

Rin Tin Tin did not need to be remembered in order to be happy; for him, it was always enough to have that instant when the sun was soft, when the ball was tossed and caught, when the beloved rubber doll was squeaked. Such a moment was complete in itself, pure and sufficient.

I miss his pricked shepherd ears and his giant fluffy tail so, so much. But I know that he was a very happy dog in the little cottage by the sea, and I will try to let that be pure and sufficient. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

too much waiting room time, not enough yetis


False Mermaid, by Erin Hart. I've seen raves about another book by her, so I checked out one which the library had available, and was really unimpressed. I'll probably still read the raved-about book when it becomes free, but this one was boring.

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri. Tells the story of an Indian family, in India and America, in the aftermath of tragedy. It took me a little while to get into it, but its understated beauty became hypnotic, even when I didn't necessarily think that the characters were behaving in believable ways. Eventually I didn't want it to end. 

Little Failure: A Memoir, by Gary Shteyngart. I've never read any of Shteyngart's novels, but this memoir got such good reviews that I checked it out. It was quite excellent: one of those books that makes you (almost) wish away your (mostly) calm happy upbringing so that you could also write something hilarious about your bizarre family. And Shteyngart's descriptions of attending a liberal arts college in the 90s were so, so perfect that I had to put my head down and weep with joy while reading them. Oh, Russian-speaking friends: does the phrase really translate as "go to the dick"? I hope so, because Berowne and I have already started using it. 

I left unfinished The Abominable, by Dan Simmons. The premise was "horror on Mt. Everest", so naturally I had very high hopes. But dear heavens, this was dull and disappointing. It's 300 pages of possibly the most boring and clunky exposition I have ever read before they even get to Mt. Everest. Entire chapters, endless in their tedium, about the history and design of oxygen cylinders. Passages listing mountaineers' names and dates that are like the catalog of ships. And then it's another 150 pages before yetis even kill anyone, which happens off-stage; and then it turns out that they were actually Nazis disguised as yetis (yes, that hoary literary trope). Given the promises this book made, I should not have had to skim 450 pages of a mountain-climbing manual before even a faint and ultimately false waft of yeti drifted out of the text. I struggled onward to almost the last eighty or so pages, but once it became apparent that real yetis were not going to arrive and eat the Nazis, I gave up.

I'm deep into, and enjoying very much, Nick Hornby's Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade of Soaking in Great Books, which is a collection of columns he wrote for the magazine The Believer in which he, well, did this blog first and much better. Where we have read the same books, Hornby and I agree perhaps one time out of ten. He adores books that I barely made it through, and vice versa. And yet his delight in reading is so infectious, so genuine, that after every essay I had another book to add to my to-read list. That's some sort of magic: that after three pages of disagreeing with his opinions, I would still react to a paragraph about a book he loved with the sense that I must find that book immediately. Magic or perpetual hope. Hard to say. Although I don't at all know what to do with Hornby's conflicting statements that Dickens is his favorite author and that he barely got through Our Mutual Friend even when he had been hired to write an introduction for a new edition. What? (He also claims that his kids aren't interested in reading because they're boys, which statement is proved a lie by almost every man I know and is shorthand for the loathsome "boys will be boys" lazy parenting [i.e., "my kid can punch other kids without fear of punishment"]. No, Nick, your kids aren't interested in reading. Full stop. It has nothing to do with gender.)

So, there's been a mighty saga around arranging my first post-baby cancer screening. Back in May my oncologist recommended an MRI, which you can have while breastfeeding (I was still pumping then), and sent off the request to my insurance company. The company replied with what was clearly a form letter saying I have no risk factors for breast cancer because I don't have the BRCA2 mutation, and I should get a mammogram like everyone else.

Yeah. Note to insurance companies: if you're not even going to pretend to review a patient's medical history before denying her services, you should make sure she a) didn't spend her adolescence arguing with a lawyer and b) hasn't been dealing with medical insurance companies as part of her job for ten years. My response letter was a masterpiece of controlled rage, after which the MRI was swiftly approved (though they're dragging their feet on sending the authorization number). But, in the interim, I decided that I needed to at least be able to get a mammogram, and that the tiny trickle of breast milk I was able to produce over four or five miserable pumping sessions wasn't worth going un-screened. And so I put the pump away, and weaned fully, and we were able to schedule a mammogram. (Worst Mother Ever! Putting my own health needs above those of my child! I'm pretty sure that, y'know, a mastectomy and chemo would also necessitate weaning.)

I had the mammo last week, and it was not exactly arranged to ease my massive worry. The tech called me in, took four pictures, and told me to go back to the waiting room.

What I should have said, because this is not my first rodeo: "Um, are you sure? You didn't get all of the breast tissue in those, and usually they want to see more angles, and... I really don't think we're done."

What I said: "Um, okay." And went back to the waiting room, which was populated by a family with two small screeching children, about which I tried to be understanding because it was obviously a situation where Grandma, who was getting the mammogram, didn't speak English, and her daughter came along to translate and didn't have child care available; but once the kids started screaming about how they didn't WANNA go to the LIBRARY after the appointment, my patience fled down the same path as my ability to be logical about being called back in for more pictures four times.

Logically, I knew that the radiologist wasn't seeing alarming things which warranted further investigation. He just wasn't seeing the whole breast, and kept telling the tech to get pictures which included the whole breast. But the logical voice in one's head can be drowned out by a fly's footfall under the circumstances of "my cancer might be back and I have a three-month-old", and so I sat there just trying not to cry. And I know it is possible to take, like, sixteen pictures the first time you have me in the room! Why she was only willing to take one or two at a time, before sending me back to the waiting room while saying, "I'll come get you for the next round in a bit," and then shuffling off at a glacial pace to show the radiologist the pictures she did take, I'll never know. The process dragged on for over an hour, and I was terrified the whole time. When my next one comes due, no matter how much sooner a slot is available at this location, I will request one at the location where I usually have it done.

Finally, however, the radiologist called me in and told me that all is well, and recommended a year's wait before another screening. We shall see what my oncologist says; both she and I prefer the MRI for its extra detail, however little I enjoy the actual event (though it says a lot about being a new parent that my absolute first thought about a procedure which has previously induced panic attacks was, "Oh man, half-hour nap, awesome"), so we will keep pushing for one of those soon. But for now I have been given an all-clear, and that's huge.