Wednesday, September 29, 2010

When the mean reds come calling

Funny, I had to break down sobbing three times in the past week, one of them in broad daylight on a busy bridge across the river Saone in Lyon, to realize I might be a bit, um.... depressed.

How His Dark Lord manages to find me in the most unlikely of places at the most inopportune of times, I will never know.

I do know that simply knowing this is what is happening and knowing it's not forever is encouraging.

Otherwise I might worry I am destined to see life in constant, cold, flickering shades of gray rather than in the warm, rich, sometimes vibrant, sometimes muted, but always somehow lovely and promising colors it was meant to be dressed in.

And then there is this little angry, hyper-critical person inside me. The one who judges everybody and everything, including myself, including my kids, including my husband, and including the poor frazzled mother who was berating her tiny weeping daughter outside of ballet class this morning.

"Jeez!" I thought. "Harsh much? Perhaps, rather than force your kid into that tutu and into that ballet class, you might consider giving her a hug and a cuddle going home to bake something together, and start over."

Then the hypocrite police are on my case.  I have not only been in that mother's shoes, I feel like I have been inside her head. When no matter how much you know that some days your child's agenda will not yield to your own, and your child will simply not want to leave your side no matter how much you crave to feel her bravely let go of your hand so you can watch her dance with the other pink girls through the window, she will not let go. And instead of relenting, this stubborn, ego-fueled donkey inside of you insists you have to force boldness and independence rather than let it evolve. If only to save face in front of the other mothers.

Because you worry that her inability to let you go is your fault somehow. That it is proof that something is wrong with you as a mother. Why can't my child be like those other happy, dancing children in that room who couldn't care less where their mothers are? What am I doing wrong?

To hell with all that.
And to hell with the autumn blues. 

I'm going to have a cup of tea and a couple, or a dozen, chocolate cookies now. That is, of course, in lieu of a martini and a roll -your -own cigarette.

More enlightened self discovery can be found over at Momformation. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

People who say pregnancy is a beautiful thing need to be slapped

Photo by Ian Mackenzie

 (Just like my labor and deliveries, this is a long one.)

Pregnant with my second child and determined to take control of something, I popped into Jiffy Lube for an oil change. My serviceman was a woman named Ali. She looked fabulous in a blue jump suit with a smudge of grease on her cheek.

“How far along are you?” she asked, motioning towards my protruding belly.

“Just about 20 weeks,” I replied.

“Half way there,” I added cheerily, trying a bit too hard to sound optimistic.

“I have an 18-month -old at home,” Ali shared.

“I can remember feeling like I would be pregnant forever.”

Before I could say as much as an “Amen,” she continued:

“People who say pregnancy is a beautiful thing need to be slapped.”

And, just like that, Ali became my favorite person in the whole world.

The thing is, and I feel the need to whisper here, I hated being pregnant. Why am I whispering? Well, pregnancy is a miracle, a gift, a blessing,  a “beautiful thing.” Which leaves room for nothing short of gratitude. Right?

There are women out there who would do anything to have the experience of being pregnant. Couples go to great lengths-- shopping for eggs and sperm, staging fantastic medical interventions-- just to experience the magic of reproduction. How can I, someone who’s apparently as fertile as a guinea pig, someone who gave birth to two beautiful, healthy daughters, complain?

Yet keeping silent feels false. It feels as if I am advancing the myth that pregnancy is second nature for every woman, a blessed joyride, the ultimate signifier of true womanhood, the realization of every dream.

I didn't expect pregnancy to be easy, but I never expected it to be hell.

I got pregnant willingly. Twice. Like many seemingly- sensible, thirty-something women before me, I was blindsided by the desire to cast off my self-absorbed, carefree existence and plunge into the brave new, selfless world that is motherhood. When my breasts started to swell and my period didn’t come, my husband, Ian, and I danced naively, if somewhat clumsily, around the magic white wand with the plus sign in its window.

Then the music stopped. Around six weeks into my pregnancy I woke up with what felt to me like a the residual effects of too much alcohol and tobacco in my veins. Nausea oozed from my every pore yet I knew I needed to eat. It was as if there was a monster deep within me that fed on emptiness.

I took on the posture of Quasimodo. Dragging myself to work and back each day was a major accomplishment, duly rewarded with a twelve-hour nap. If Ian wanted to eat, he needed first to go to the store for groceries (supermarkets repelled me), then prepare himself something that didn’t require cooking and had no scent. If he did cook, even a single slice of onion or roasted pork chop, I would rise from my bed like the Bride of Frankenstein and moan, “You’re killing me.”

I became a bloodhound. Just opening the refrigerator door without getting sick required breathing out my ears. If the pickle jar hadn’t been closed properly, I noticed. I could smell a single mold spore growing on a piece of bread. I took offense to the smell of soap and shampoo. Even water had a scent.

It didn’t take me long to learn that hating being pregnant was not something you admit to or talk about:

“How do you feel?” a female co-worker consistently asked me each morning during my first pregnancy as I shuffled into the office with a forced smile on my face.

“Like an old, colicky horse that needs to be put down,” I finally answered one day.

“Don’t you dare say that!” she scolded. “What if the baby hears you?”

This woman, a mother herself, was one of those suspicious creatures who claim to feel better than normal during pregnancy and thus could neither empathize nor sympathize. Instead, she chastised.

My misery enjoyed little company.  I started to distrust every woman, including close friends, who didn’t feel sick during pregnancy. In the glaring light of their glowing selves, I felt like a toad.

As much as I resented my coworker’s lectures I couldn’t help wondering if she was right. Did the innocent baby growing inside me sense my misery? Did it make her feel unloved or unwanted? Did my womb feel as much like a hostile environment to her as my entire body did to me? Just in case, I talked to my unborn baby as much as possible:

“Don’t worry, Sweet Baboo,”I’d say, rubbing my palm in large, clockwise circles over my swollen belly. “Life will be better out here. I promise.”

Around 18 weeks in — well beyond the 12- week cutoff point the how-to books offer up as the moment all pregnant women become vibrant, glowing goddesses—the nausea relented.

Ian thought we had turned a corner the night I came home from work and said, “I want steak and potatoes and I want it now.”

I wanted him too. All day and all night, I dreamed of sex. What kind of cruel joke was this, giving a woman the libido of a minx and the body of a bovine?

My aversion to being pregnant went beyond the physical. It wasn’t just the sickly, toxic feeling that had me complaining, but the whole package. Carrying life inside me, fattening up and slowing down, rendered me cumbersome and defenseless. I couldn’t help thinking that, should a large, hairy monster happen to jump out of the shadows and want to eat me; I wouldn’t be able to run to save my life. I would just have to look that monster in the eye and say, “go ahead, I’m all yours.”

As a former athlete, surrendering my body to the merciless goddess of fertility felt like letting go of the one thing I derive the most pleasure and pride from. Normally lean and boyish, with conception the female inside me is undeniable. I become a Rubenesque fertility wench with a thick layer of pliant flesh evenly distributed across my entire body and pendulous breasts protruding, funhouse like, from my usually humble chest. The extra fat, meant to serve as protection for the baby, felt to me like a soft cloak of vulnerability.

The expression “big as a house,” while insensitive, is truly apt. Pregnant women are houses; temporary homes for their unborn children. And I was a Mcmansion. The 25- to- 35-pound “guideline” was my half-way mark. I gained 50 pounds both times, without eating a single donut. My stomach stuck out, high and proud, like the nose cone of a jumbo jet. Suddenly those giant underthings they sell at Motherhood didn’t look so cartoonish to me anymore.

My hatred of pregnancy nagged at me. How could something so natural, something that women have been doing since the beginning of time, feel so wrong? Had I made a bad choice? Would I make a bad mother? Or, worse yet, would I have a “bad” child?

Sure I experienced magic moments of quickening, with Ian's amazing hands on my belly.  And watching my stomach lurch and roll as if my baby were busy stacking wood inside me, each night after dinner, was entertaining. But it wasn't until the actual moment, okay days, of labor and childbirth where I was redeemed.

Now this I could handle. I’m all for enduring physical discomfort as long as there is a visible finish line. Finally, I could take active part in this venture. No longer just lolling about, growing arms and legs and brain tissue, I was actually chaperoning a living, breathing being into the world using the very core of my mental and physical strength.

Pregnancy number two wasn’t at all the same. It was worse. I developed a relatively rare disorder called “hyperemesis gravidarum,” which translates as excessive vomiting. As if allergic to progesterone, I was reduced to a crawling, heaving, moaning animal for weeks on end.

My parents stood at the end of my bed, wishing there was something they could do to help. My husband did the same.

"Just don't touch me," I said. "And a gun might help."

I was physically incapable of smiling at my daughter, husband, or anyone, for 8 straight weeks.

There were times I felt I would rather die than throw up one more time. The knowledge that the only thing that would make me feel better was to not be pregnant anymore weighed heavily on my mind. I took class B drugs just so I could eat and drink and, eventually, go back to work. They made me feel wasted. What were they doing to my baby?

What kept me going through it all, once again, was Esther. Almost four now, Esther reveled in her femininity, residing in her little woman’s body as if she had lived there since the beginning of time. At the age of  three, she was already aware of and fascinated by the thought of “egg sacks”  inside her tummy just waiting to grow into babies. I was her inspiration. And she was mine.

Throughout my pregnancy with her little sister, Esther marveled at my ripeness. In the bath together she would sit behind me, reach her slippery arms as far as she could around my colossal belly and say, “Mummy you’re amazing.” 

Isla’s birth was amazing too. A little shorter the second time around, but no less challenging or intense.  I still remember the relief of feeling her hot little body placed on my chest and looking into her clenched up, red face and thinking,

“I am never, ever, doing that again.”

Now, standing on top of this mountain I so gracelessly clambered up, I’m confronted with a panoramic view of motherhood. At times it is stunning. At other times it’s terrifying. I can look back and see the route I took to get here, and feel amazed that I made it all.

While I still tend to agree with Ali the mechanic-- my pregnancies were far from beautiful-- I do think beauty is overrated.

An explanation for this past-tense post, can be found over here at Momformation. 

Friday, September 17, 2010

How my life does not resemble Eat, Pray, Love

While watching the movie Eat, Pray, Love, I couldn’t help comparing the main character, Elizabeth Gilbert’s, life with my own.

On the surface, there’s nothing similar there. But, underneath, the whole concept of longing to leave your comfort zone, and the nagging feeling that there is something else you have to do or find before you buy that leather sectional couch with matching recliner, or commit to another three years on the school board, is familiar to me.

The similarities kind of end there:

Elizabeth Gilbert really did leave it all behind: She gave up her home, marriage and the American Dream of 2.1 children-- to get out of Dodge. I rented my perfect house to three, 19-year-old Dead Heads. I left my dog with my mom. The rest, the husband and two kids are right here with me.

Elizabeth Gilbert packs lighter than I do: She brought her clothes and a yoga mat. I brought 7 suitcases on the plane, and shipped four boxes by boat-- including a bag of clothes for Isla to grow into, piles of childrens’ books, two hula hoops, six stuffed animals, a two pound pet rock and, yes, a yoga mat. (I've used the yoga mat about 20 times in the year and a half since we've been in France.)

While I’m always wondering if it’s the right time to kiss the other mothers at the school gate, Elizabeth Gilbert fantasizes about kissing her cute Italian conversation partner.

Elizabeth Gilbert noticed the Italian men weren’t whistling and cat calling her anymore, I am at least a decade beyond catcalls, but still wince a bit when people, especially cute young men, call me “Madame.”

I’m still struggling, daily, with the local language. Elizabeth Gilbert apparently had a much easier time of it. I could attribute this to several things, most of which would be a bit competitive and catty.

I haven’t ever, once, orgasmed while eating a meal in France. I have eaten some very good food, but this ain’t Italy.

I curse the very existence of golden croissants and perfect meringues calling to me from every bakery window, and refuse to buy bigger pants. Elizabeth Gilbert guiltlessly gorged on gelato, then splurged on Italian lingerie.

I don’t jump on trains to explore France, as much as I’d like, because by the time we got to our destination, it would be another school night.

I forgot to get a book advance before I came. But, if I understand correctly, book advances don’t grow on trees.

Elizabeth Gilbert couldn’t get over all the beautiful men in Rome. I cannot get over all the beautiful women in Paris.

We are both inspired by the remarkable amount of kissing that goes on on Main Street. Joni Mitchell was right. People are kissing everywhere. All kinds of people, not just the young and beautiful. And not just perfunctory pecking, but real kissing, mashing, snogging, making- out, sucking face kissing. The kind of kissing that makes you wonder why you don’t still do that, every chance you can, with your mate.

When Elizabeth Gilbert got to Italy, she was surprised to discover that depression knew her Italian address. I had that moment too. "How could one be in France and depressed?" I thought. The answer is, "same person, different address."

Elizabeth Gilbert found God on her journey. I found African Dance.

Elizabeth Gilbert had to let go of her dependence on men to discover herself on her journey.  I had to let go of my independence and give myself permission to need my husband for everything, including, in the first half year, making doctor appointments and signing kids up for activities. You ain't seen nothing until you've filled out a French dossier.

Elizabeth Gilbert knew she was spending only a year abroad. I thought I was spending only a year abroad. Now I know that I know nothing. And I'm okay, for the most part, with that.

New BabyCenter post here.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Gold in the air

My family has always rented a house on the beach in the last weeks of August, and, recently, the first week of September. Which leaves all of us, essentially, counting the days until summer ends.

This most recent Maine session was especially poignant for me since we've been living in France and missed last summer's beach session. On the drive from Vermont to Maine, I found myself getting overly nostalgic several times.

The whole trip, including stopping at a diner for pancakes, was like a surreal cruise down memory lane.  (I could hear Carly Simon's Anticipation playing in the background when we ordered breakfast.)

In two different towns, I saw girls in sweat pants carrying field hockey sticks, walking through the late- August morning light on their way to practice.

I passed through the town where I spent my Freshman year at college, before transferring back to a Vermont state college. I tried hard to remember what compelled me, other than my first love, who was back in Vermont,  to choose young love over access to the Atlantic.

I don't regret the boyfriend. He was everything a first love should be, and more. But, in perfectly-lucid hindsight, I should have made the boy come to me. (Just one of the many ways I habitually put my needs second.) I can only hope my daughters will be wiser in love than I was.

When the big bridge that crosses the bay in Portsmouth came into view and I-- exactly as my father always did when we five, carsick children were all crammed into the car amongst the suitcases and styrofoam coolers-- grandly announced that we were crossing the border into Maine. But I couldn't get through my sentence. I was choking on something.

It was gratitude. A deluge of gratitude. How lucky I was to be sharing this all with my kids. The exact same experience, right down to the ceremonial crossing of the bridge, minus the overstuffed car and the smoking father, that I lived as a child.

How lucky I am. How lucky we are. How lucky.

How lucky.

Click here for more of the story.