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. 

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