Thursday, October 9, 2014

Postcard to the Past - A Letter to My 16-Year-Old Self

Your parents' divorce is one of the best things that could possibly happen to you.

Of course, it doesn't seem that way right now.  You're hurting and you feel betrayed by your dad.  Your mom is struggling to raise you and your sister alone.  The three of you never seem to get along.  It's awful.

But your new step-mother is not a wicked one.  You will both grow together - she as a more confident mother and you as a more mature daughter.  She will never try to replace your mom, and that is exactly how she will succeed at being one.

The little girl who "stole" your Daddy from you will grow into your best friend and confidante.  She will amaze you with wisdom that should be coming from a person much more experienced than she.  

You will be deeply hurt when your biological mother and sister cannot attend your wedding, but these women will stand in their places - not as substitutes, but as shining examples of love that binds where blood does not.

And yes - that means you will find the love of your life.  You will marry the man who loves you for who you are, who loves you because you are strong and you are a Christian and you are curvy and you like pickles and you can quote "Star Wars".  He is out there, and he is fumbling along, the same as you, asking God where you are and making tons of mistakes in the meantime.

Just like you.

Do you remember completing that survey in kindergarten?  The one that asked the question: What do you want to be when you grow up?  You answered: a mommy.  You changed your mind when your parents were divorced because you never wanted to put a child through the hell that you went through.  You will your mind again in college when you begin working with the little ones at church - which will be more fulfilling that you can imagine.

But the road to motherhood will be very difficult for you.  Your first pregnancy will be a surprise and, even though you will be happily married at the time, you will fight feelings of shock and guilt, because you didn't feel you were ready. When you lose the baby three months later, you will fight those same feelings, magnified a hundred times.  The good news is, you will have much support from your family and friends, particularly the women at church, because many of them have endured the same heartache.

You will find strength in your own words.  God will keep you fighting, and your words will be your weapon.  More than it ever has been, your writing will be your lifeline.  Expressing yourself will be the key to unlocking your own feelings and it will help you sort through your troubles.  It will also bless others who are traveling on the same road as you.

You will go on to lose two more children.  The second loss will be the hardest, because this child will be the only one whose heartbeat you actually get to see, a mere week before another ultrasound fails to find life in your womb.

You will be pressed hard, but you will not be crushed.  You will come close to giving up, but you will hold on to hope as your friends surround you, pray for you, encourage you and believe in you.

Your relationship with God will fluctuate, just as it does with your earthly companions.  Some days, you will feel distant from him, wondering why he is allowing you to walk this path.  Others, you will feel wrapped in his love and want to share it with boldness.  

Your relationship with your mother will be similar.  You will learn, much later in life, that you share many of the traits that you found irritating in her, but you will also learn that, in some ways, you are stronger than she is.


She will die unexpectedly, painfully, and you will find in yourself a silent strength that will carry you through the first few weeks, but you will begin to fall apart in the months that follow.  You will need to reach out to others because you will feel even more alone that you did during your miscarriages.  You will realize that your mother will not be alive when you finally do have your first child.  She will not bake you another birthday cake, or send you another silly letter with colored pencil doodles in it, or share another story about her many adopted pets.  

You will be there when she dies.  You will be the last family member she makes eye contact with, and that fact alone will sustain you in many dark hours.  She saw you.  She knew you came to her.  And she was deeply sorry.

About everything.

Not long after, you will have that little baby you prayed for.  The pregnancy will be fraught with challenges, which will be no surprise to you, but you will eventually hold a precious son in your arms and you will call him your joy and your promise.

Your church family will continue to grow in importance.  You will develop deeper relationships with some of the women than you ever had with your biological sister - who will, sadly, grow far apart from the family - and you will treasure them.  

You will have days which will scare you.  Days which will make you think you inherited your mother's anxiety.  Days which will make you think you are not cut out to be a mother, or a wife, or a friend.  You will have days that make you feel like a champion.  Days that make you believe you can do anything.

You will run a 5K, despite your lifelong challenges with asthma.

You will lose 20 pounds, despite your lifelong struggles with your weight.

You will have beloved pets of your own, despite your diagnosis of allergies.

You will be disappointed, despite your best plans.

You will be surprised, despite your worst fears.

You will keep going when everything in you cries out to lay down and die.

You will doubt yourself and hate yourself and love yourself and respect yourself.

You will live a lifetime and a half in the next sixteen years, and then you will gaze into the past with pity and envy and admiration for your sixteen-year-old self.

The last thing you will say before returning, in your mind, to the present, is:

It gets worse, but then it gets so much better.  It's always too soon to give up.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

In Honor Of...

...the women with arms aching to hold a child.

...the men who haven't yet born the title of "Daddy".

...the children who weren't for this world.

...the victims who received that heart-stopping diagnosis.

I think it is fascinating that Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month is observed in October, at the same time as Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  Both miscarriage and breast cancer can leave a woman feeling deeply violated, less "feminine", and more vulnerable.  They attack the parts of our bodies that identify us as female: our wombs and our breasts.  There is a great deal more to being women than bras and babies, of course, but in the simplest sense, these two tragedies strike at the very heart of femininity.  I know that men can be and are affected by breast cancer and pregnancy loss as well, but on the whole, these are women's struggles with their own bodies.

When I suffered my miscarriages, I felt deeply betrayed by my body.  Biologically speaking, an adult female's body is meant largely to nurture its young.  Three times, my body proved that it was incapable of doing so.  Three times, the test was positive, and three ultrasounds later confirmed that our babies had died within the very cocoon that was meant to sustain them.  

Pregnancy Loss Awareness ribbon
 image from
Although I have never been diagnosed with breast cancer, my friends who have say it's rather a whirlwind experience.  One day, things are fine, and the next, you think there might be a lump.  I can't imagine the excruciating frustration and fear that comes with waiting for test results.  Trying to decide how to tell loved ones.  Preparing for surgery, radiation, more tests.  Losing hair.  Losing weight.  Losing strength.  Losing hope.

Ah, hope.  Emily Dickinson called it "that thing with feathers" that keeps us going through stormy seas, that endlessly supplies is with optimism and faith for our future.  It's the one thing that cannot be taken from us, regardless of health, finances, religion, relationships.  It seems sometimes like a fickle thing that threatens for leave us whenever the doctor brings bad news, or the bills keep piling up on the kitchen table.  But real hope can not be lost, only thrown away.  Faith and hope, in Christ, are interlocked.  You cannot separate them, for they feed each other.  An archaic use of the term "hope" is "to place trust in".  Biblically, the term did not mean "a desire for something to come to pass" but instead was almost synonymous with "belief".

So this I say to the victims out there.  You women whose bodies seem to betray you.  Hold fast to hope.  It cannot leave you, though diagnosis or doubt may seem to shoo it away.  You cannot lose it, for it finds its way in in the dark with the light of God's love.  

Only you can let go of it.  


Saturday, October 4, 2014

Hitting the Bottle

In the past year,  I've found myself doing, saying, and believing things I never imagined. I went to Disney World - a childhood dream I feared would never come true. I adopted yet another cat.  (She is currently my favorite, but don't tell Thor.) I overcame the curse of miscarriage and welcomed my baby boy into the world.

And I became a supporter of formula-feeding.

That's not to say I'm anti-breastfeeding.  Not at all. I think it's a beautiful and wonderful and wise thing to do.  But, after unforeseen factors began to stack up against my little guy and me, formula feeding ended up saving our relationship.  I mentioned it in previous posts, but I really feel that feeding my baby formula has allowed me to keep my sanity.

What interests me is that, although science has pretty consistently proven that breastmilk is best for most babies and in most situations, the long-term differences between breastfed and bottle-fed babies don't seem that significant.  

I don't have any resources to cite right now, but my friend Jaime, who out of medical necessity formula fed all four of her gorgeous girls, made a great point when I was preparing to give birth to my son.

"When they publish all those studies in support of breastfeeding," she observed (and I am paraphrasing here), "and the results always state that breastfeeding results in healthier, smarter babies, they don't take other factors into play.  They do not consider the education level of the moms, the family's income, the foods consumed by the mothers, the health of the mothers, the socio-economics involved."  

She makes a great point.  Those breastfed babies who "never get sick" that a result of their food alone...that in conjunction with, say, their parents' finances?  Did mom and dad have better access to medical care?  Live in a less-polluted environment?  Keep baby out of daycare or other settings that might expose them to more germs?  And, those bottle-fed babies who were "prone to be heavier"...was that because of the formula itself, or because mom and dad never modeled healthy eating habits, or allowed junior to play video games instead of riding his bicycle?  I don't believe that these studies can account for this huge range of variables.  So, even though I still think breastmilk is a great option for many moms (dare I say, most?), it isn't fair to put formula in a corner and label it "evil".

I'm sure there are vitriolic "lactivists" out there who would condemn me for "quitting" and "giving up" on my baby.  They might think that I was "condemning him" to a life of "sickness and disease" by ending breastfeeding after seven weeks of painful, distressing efforts.  "Everyone can do it," I've heard from that camp.  "It's really very, very rare that a mother cannot produce milk for her child."  

Even if that is so, my baby was a preemie with a high palate that affected his ability to latch, causing feedings to be difficult and unsatisfying for him, and painful and disheartening for me.  Three weeks in, I was already resenting my own, beloved, prayed-for and sweet-faced son.  

That was causing him more damage than offering him a bottle, people.  And it was certainly damaging to me, as well.  Any motherly feelings of warmth and love would literally be drained out of me when he began to express signs of hunger.  I would quietly sob at night when those faint wails began to drift over the baby monitor.  They would culminate in hysterical cries, from both myself and my helpless infant.  

I hated what I was becoming.  It would have been hard enough to battle the post-natal hormones if nursing had gone well, but with feeding upon feeding resulting in a hungry, angry baby, things were worse.  I was so furious and guilty because the one thing that I didn't want to compromise as a new mom seemed out of my reach.  

I got advice - usually unsolicited, of course - suggesting a lactation consult (I had several, thanks), a certain kind of tea (after nine months of decaf, people, I wanted COFFEE), pumping ideas (always pump right after a feeding - yes, I see - so, while my slow-poke eater takes an hour to gum away at his lunch, I am to spend his naptime pumping, only to wake and feed him again a half an hour after I pump...around the clock?) - and I think some ladies were genuinely convinced I was hurting my baby by feeding him formula.  One friend was even briefly shocked when I mentioned my husband was feeding the baby, before he realized that we hadn't been successful at breastfeeding. 

Even though I am not so very far removed from the situation, I can still look back on my baby's seven-week mark and say that the best choice I personally could have made for him was sticking a bottle of formula is his screaming little mouth.  With the pressure and stress of breastfeeding gone, I was able to begin to actually enjoy my son and see him as a blessing, a tiny human to love and cherish, rather than a voracious, demanding little beast who was physically hurting me 8-12 times daily.  He has slept through the night since we switched to the bottle.  I won't crow proudly over the crowds of moms whose babies are still nursing every two hours, because frankly, I have no idea of formula was the magic bullet that did it for him.  If anything, it was the fact that he finally had a full tummy, and that mommy was calmer and more peaceful when she was with him.  They say infants can sense that, right?  Well, if I were a baby suddenly getting way chill, happy vibes coming from my mama, I'd sleep more soundly, too!

Photo credit: Brent Miller
I am a member of a formula-feeders group on Facebook.  Frequently, a lot of the women there assert that formula-feeders ("FFs") should not feel obligated to share their reasons for not breastfeeding.  Some reasons are medical.  Some are emotional.  Some are practical.  But in virtually all cases, the decision was best for the family in question.  This is important, because it recognizes the needs of the mothers as well as the babies.  If we live in a society that is so passionate about women's rights, women making their own choices about their bodies, then why are we so vicious towards women who do not breastfeed?  If fickle society had its way, women of any age could have abortions whenever and wherever they liked, but, if they did have the babies, they would have to do it naturally, and then breastfeed them on demand, but never in public. Because everyone knooooooows that's what is best, right?

Hence, the Mommy Wars continue.  

That is why I choose to share my struggles and reasons for breastfeeding.  Someday, when my son is old enough - and maybe when he sees a mom breastfeeding in public and asks what is going on - I can tell him that nursing is a beautiful thing, but I chose to formula-feed him because I love him.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Worst. Day. Ever.

About three weeks ago, my infant son wound up in the ER.

It was easily among the worst days of my life.

I'd been walking down the stairs, carrying the baby, intent on feeding him on the couch and watching some TV.  I tripped, fell backwards, and he flew out of my arms, knocking his head against the wooden banister before tumbling down seven steps.

The sounds that came out of my when I saw my precious baby lying facedown on the carpet - unreal.  Every cell in my body screamed at the same time, and I couldn't believe the neighbors weren't at my door in seconds, demanding to know what had happened.

Ronen was dazed for only a second, then began to scream mightily.  I later learned that his immediate tantrum was a good sign - he was in pain, not unconscious.  Of course, at the time, my heart was bleeding and breaking and I made the mistake of picking him up, rather than letting him lie where he fell.

Naturally, motherly instinct trumped medical savvy.  What self-respecting mom was going to let her shrieking, injured, terrified baby just lay on the floor?  (Thankfully, I didn't cause him any further damage.)

I called 9-1-1 within seconds and was so hysterical that it took the dispatcher nearly a full minute to get my address correct.  The pained cries of the baby I was holding surely made it harder for him, so whoever you are, thank you for your patience, sir.  In under two minutes, two ambulances, four EMTs, a social worker and a police officer were in my living room.  

It helps to live three streets away from a fire station.

En route to Children's Hospital, the female EMT chatted with me about her son (who, interestingly, shared my husband's birthday), and helped keep me calm.  It didn't take long for the baby to cry himself into an exhausted sleep while firmly grabbing our thumbs in his tiny hands.  After several hours, a battery of tests, and the exchange of many weary glances between my husband and me, we learned that the baby had a fractured skull.

The look on my face said it all as the attending pediatrician immediately moved towards me, sat down, and said that, in spite of the horrifying nature of head injuries, our son's accident was having the "best possible outcome".  The fracture was long, but simple and clean.  No bone had splintered in his soft, growing skull.  There was no bleeding, no apparent brain damage.  In fact, he had no other bruises, bleeding, or cuts whatsoever, despite the fall.

My poor hungry baby was denied food for an additional eight hours as he was poked, prodded, tested, and generally made to feel miserable.  Of course the procedures were necessary, but I felt awful every time they had to take him out of my arms to draw blood or take his temperature.  He was so worn out that the only energy he had, he used to keep his pacifier locked firmly in his mouth.  He slept most of the day and quite little that night, waking up several times to feed, once he was allowed.  I felt terrible for the little boy whose semi-private room we were sharing, as he must have been woken up every time the baby whimpered.

Still, never had Ronen's creepy goat noises made me so happy!  He'd been nearly silent for almost 12 hours, but once he was wrapped up and put to bed, he soon began to make his customary "bleating" sounds, signifying contentment.  What a comforting sign!

After nearly 24 more hours of observation and visits from social workers, trauma team members, a neurosurgeon, and patient advocates, we were released with little more than a prescription for Tylenol.  He only needed a few doses, in the end, and was back to his normal self in about two or three days.

It didn't matter, though.  The damage had been done to me already.  I, who at the time of this writing, have never broken a bone, sent my beloved and long-awaited baby boy to the hospital with a busted head.  I felt guilty, but probably not as guilty as people thought I would.  I knew the accident wasn't my fault.  But I do, now, narrate my actions to the baby and they include, "Let's be extra careful on the steps, Ronen!  Let's see if anything is sitting on them that shouldn't be!" 

And every time I make the descent successfully, I announce, "WE DID IT!" and you would think I'd just won Olympic gold.

Look at his little face, though.  Better than gold.

Insurance Impasse

It was about a joke and a half away from being a Saturday Night Live skit.

The three hours I spent on the phone with government officials, attempting to sort out the knotted ball of bureaucratic red tape that is health care reform.  The fact that the state didn't add my husband's income to my application, despite my reporting it with copies of his paycheck.  The friendly confusion of the three separate employees who agreed that my income should allow me a tax break, but who couldn't seem to understand why the system wasn't permitting it.  The frustration of trying to find an insurance carrier that my OB-GYN and PCP both accept (there isn't one within my price range, BTW).  

Yes, it was what those old-time folks would have called a "laugh riot".

And this all happened after the bugs were "worked out" of the computer system.

This isn't about President Obama.  Everything, both negative and positive, that can possibly be said about health care reform has already been said.  And tweeted, and blogged about, and liked and shared on Facebook.  My tiny voice, screeching about my awful experience, will be lost in the cacophony of compliments and complaints that are already swirling around the Affordable Health Care Act.  But I still feel like I need to speak my mind.

I don't consider myself a particularly political person.  I identify as a conservative individual, generally, but not always and not necessarily a Republican.  Something my pastor always says rings so true in times of bipartisan mudslinging: "Our answer lies in no party, but in Christ alone."  In fact, when "Obamacare" was initially announced, I was cautiously hopeful.  My mother was one of those people who kept "slipping through the cracks" of the healthcare system.  Unemployed due to medical conditions, she could never prove that she was physically disabled to the satisfaction of Medical Assistance (hiatal hernias do not often cause physical impairment, but hers had been so severe it did not respond to traditional OTC treatments and ultimately killed her). She applied for aid with Catholic Charities and other organizations but never "qualified" for any type of help.  Without insurance, she refused to go to a doctor, and never got the treatment she needed.  And then she died.

I'm not blaming the system for her death, not entirely.  Much of the fault, of course, was hers.  She could have gone to the ER and insurance be damned.  What were the bill collectors going to get from her?  She literally had nothing to her name.  No house, no car, no checking or savings accounts.  Nothing.  She had thought her daughters would be saddled with any bills she had when she died, so she refused to incur any. Sadly, she didn't know that legally, in the state of Kentucky, her bills would have died with her.  Her survivors (me, actually, since mine was the signature on all the documents) owed nothing to the hospital in which she passed away, despite their many hours of life-saving attempts and round-the-clock care.

I don't rightly know every effort my mom made to get financial help.  Maybe she just told me she tried, and never really did.  Maybe she didn't want to bother because she thought she would be denied anyway.  Maybe the process intimidated or frustrated her.  I will never know.  But it upsets me to think that she wasn't alone in her quest for coverage.  I wanted to think that an act of the government could have helped people in her position.  But how do you change the direction of a great big, lumbering, bloated and self-important beast that's been plodding along for dozens of years?  Can you reason with it?  Can you destroy it?  How do you even begin? 

One of the things I learned during my time as a mid-level manager with various companies is that, if you're going to point out a problem to your superiors, it helps to have a potential solution in mind to offer them.

This time, I don't.  I have no idea how to fix this.  I know that bi-partisan politics is making our country's health insurance woes much worse, because along with every "helpful" suggestion that is offered comes a heaping helping of stiff-necked pride.  No one's ever proud when compromise is reached and the country benefits.  Just when one side "wins".  

Guess what, y'all?  We're all losing here.  I am generally proud to be an American, but this whole debacle has us looking like a scrappy junkyard dog endlessly chasing its tail.

I feel like we - all of us in this country - are being required to eat at a certain restaurant, but the menu doesn't take into account people with allergies, or diabetes, or religious restrictions.  And the cook is on vacation.  And the waitstaff was just hired and isn't fully trained yet.  And there are rats in the kitchen.  And cockroaches.

I think you get the idea.

I just wish I knew how to make things better.  For all of us.