Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Left-handed

I am still brooding over the existential crisis I had a few weeks ago. I feel like it needs a more definitive response than the anecdotes I've shared here and here

As I talked about my feelings with my friends and family, as well exploring the tension inside me that was sapping my joy, truth began to emerge: I was denying my desire to give my energy in a focused way to being a stay-at-home mom.

Apparently, just like when I play Dungeons and Dragons, I have no desire to play a multiple-class character. Just like I'm not interested in being a roguish monk or a warrior priest, I do not want to have to wrap my brain around the two sets of rules that govern the life of a working mom.

That desire for simplicity is what I have been denying. I think it would be too easy to say that twisted ideals of being a super-mom led me into my emotional tangle. That identity has never been one I would crave. It's too much like the over-achieving AP student in high school or the management consultant in her twenties. When given those options, I chose to be an average student and to work in education and non-profits. Enjoying life and feeling balanced has always won out over working my fingers to the bone in order to achieve.

Rather, I think that my delusion that I wanted to continue to self-identify as a professional comes from habit more than anything else.

Sometimes, I run into people that I haven't seen since high school. Acquaintances, parents of friends, members of my home church or teachers, their questions rarely deviate from a theme. All of them want to know if I have continued to pursue music.

It surprises me every time. I left behind my identity as a musician in college when i was too shy to figure out how to audition for the choir at the beginning of my freshman year. I took some private lessons and have held two recitals since then, but at most, I am a vocalist with a pretty voice who can still sight-read passably. I haven't been a musician in over a decade.

But as a child, I sang a lot and I sang a lot in front of a crowd. I had solos in church and most choir concerts. I was in small ensemble groups that got out of class to sing at events. I had lead roles in the musicals. I had a group of friends who sang harmonies for fun while infesting someone's house as part of a larger group of loitering teenagers. I was in at least three choirs and even sang in my Dramatic Duet Acting competitions.

Music was such a part of my public life that I remember realizing one Sunday after church that I needed to figure out how to accept a compliment about my singing that was theologically appropriate while also being social gracious to the complimented. Nothing is more annoying that being corrected by someone that "it's God who should get the credit," as if they were kind of a dolt for suggesting otherwise simply because they were inspired by the performance or wanting to communicate appreciation or to foster confidence in a young kid.

But I have become such a different person since then. It is totally understandable that people would assume that music would determine the trajectory of my life. At yet, it did not. Something altered my flight path.

I think something similar has happened since Esther has been born.

I have spent the last 15 years actively pursuing social justice as a career. Like the people who knew me for the 15 years previous to that, people that know me now (including myself) don't imagine that my life would not continue along the path it has been traveling. A life that did not include professional work on behalf of oppressed people would not be recognizable as mine.

So, everyone asks when I will go back to work. Some of that is that most moms do go back to work these days. A lot of what motivates the question, though, has to be that I have been so passionate about my work before Esther was born.

I have been listening to old Rob Bell sermons lately and in one he discusses the passage where Jesus says, "When you do good works, do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing." One of his points was that we often try to control how other people perceive us and that this commandment of Christ's was also a commandment to stop worrying about who the right hand thinks the left hand is.

I have been desperately trying to live up to the expectations of others (and myself) that I will continue to work outside the home as a social entrepreneur. Their expectations are not unfounded. Nor are they malicious. Their expectations are a natural conclusion based on what my life has been up to this point.

But yearning for who I might be again in the future is keeping me from fully immersing myself in who I am right now. Right now I am a mom. Just a mom. Breaking the habit of thinking of myself as a professional was holding me back from the joy that was waiting for me on this different path. I’m glad I figured that out.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Bright spots

I think that it's possible that I have never felt more joy in my life than when my four month old daughter pauses in her nursing to look up at me, smile and put her hand on my chin. I don't think that I knew she would be so much fun.



Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Better

I am on the mend.  It turns out that I have had a sinus infection for who knows how long but,of course , the ER doctor in Danville, IL didn't diagnose it two weeks ago when I went in with a severe bout of vertigo and a splitting headache on one side.  (I should tell you someday about sitting in that waiting room with my grandma on a Sunday when she didn't believe I was really all that sick because I had eaten a good breakfast.)  So, looking back on the last two and a half weeks, I realize I have felt deeply despondent about my life because my energy was being sapped by what my doctor called a "horrendous" infection in my left sinus.

Since I started the antibiotic two days ago, I feel much less conflicted about being a homemaker. 

In fact, today and yesterday, I have been making bibs.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

First world problems

 Warning: You might not want to read this one, Dad, because it might come across as a little bit whiny.  I say this because, well, I think it's a little bit whiny.  However, in the interest of full disclosure to achieve the goals of this blog, I figured I'd post it anyway.

Yesterday, I was walking to my car from Whole Foods and wondering why I should keep making the effort to drive all this way if I no longer really cared about fair trade and organic purchasing, or at least, the causes behind them. On my way to return the cart, a giant SUV entered from the Exit and the driver stopped impatiently to let me pass. When I returned to my subcompact economy car, I found the SUV parked next to it, almost blocking me in, it was parked so crookedly.

I had my answer, of course.

I don't want to become that asshole.

But the fleeting thought made me realize I had to go deeper.  What did I mean, I don't really care anymore about fair trade and organic purchasing or the causes behind them?

Lately, when I examine the things that I care about, the list does not much resemble the list that existed before Esther was born.  This is a hard thing to say.

I have been kind of drifting, a little despondent, without motivation or enthusiasm for the tasks at hand.  I have been aware of this for awhile and have chalked it up to the transition from seeing myself as a professional to seeing myself as a homemaker.

But Esther is four months old now and at some point here, I have to get back on that horse named Life and go somewhere.  This means that I have to stop thinking of myself in transition and start figuring out who I have become.  Because once I know who I am, then even the laundry and calling the plumber can have a vibrancy to them that they don't have right now.

Identity can often be determined by learning what motivates a person to act.  What do they want?  So, I have been thinking about what I want.  I'm defining the word, "want," here as a visceral desire.  What does my gut move towards?  There are things I still affirm intellectually, like opportunity for all people, an end to the degredation of our environment, religious access to God in community for folks who are fed up with religion and a broad social network, but what I am willing to put creative energy into each morning is much less lofty.

I want to play with my daughter and watch her smile.
I want to be held by my husband and to watch him care for Esther.
I want to read books.
I want to eat good food.
I want to bake.
I want to spend time with my own parents and with my siblings and nieces.

I no longer want to go swimming.
I no longer want to change unjust systems by working on spreadsheets and intra-office systems.
I no longer want to meet my good friends for coffee.
I no longer want to work on refining and strengthening my marriage.
I no longer want to go to church or be a part of the church leadership.
I no longer want to host parties and make people feel welcome in my home.
I no longer want to quilt.
I no longer want to build community.

Again, I still believe that all of the things on that second list are good things.  I think I would be sad if I had to live with the consequences of not doing them.  But before, I felt passionate about digging in and getting to work.  About challenging the status quo to make things better: for myself, for others and for society.

Jacob and I were talking about this and he helped me see that now I'm tired of dancing to the beat of my own drummer, of swimming upstream, of going against the flow, of coming up with anything other than cliches for constantly rejecting the easy way in order to do the right thing.

I don't know how to rest from this.  I don't know how to let my life take a nap.  I know that people will tell me that I must if I am to go on trying to "be a blessing."  That sustainability is crucial.  But I don't actually know which actions to take so that I end up refreshed.  I don't want it to be like when you get home from a vacation and you feel like you need another one before you can actually be productive again.  So, I worry that simply not doing the things I don't want to do is the wrong tactic.

Of course, I could just suck it up, rub a little mud in it and do the stuff anyway.  Most people have to live that way; what makes me so special that I can naval-gaze like this?

This seems to be one of the central questions of my life and I don't think I'll ever be comfortable with any of the possible answers.  However, recently it occurred to me that although privilege is probably 94% of the reason why I feel entitled to wait until I "want" to do something before I do it, I can take maybe 5% of the credit for consistently making choices in my life that allow me to actually take breaks.  It can't be a coincidence that I took a break from teaching and got the opportunity to go on tour with a theatrical production plus I took a break after my failed marriage and got the opportunity to live on an island in the Pacific Northwest plus I took a break after finishing my degree . . . wait.  Scratch that last one.  Although I did not have a job immediately after graduating, it never felt like a break.  I planned a wedding and did a shit-ton of relationship work to launch a marriage.  Jacob and I both mourn our disaster of a honeymoon since I couldn't wind down enough to enjoy it.  Then, back to the grind and finding a job and the rest of life from then until now.

I'm a little afraid to ask for a break, though.  Jacob doesn't get one.  How could that possibly be fair?  But I would keep Esther with me however I rested.  But I have just thought of something while writing this post. What might happen if, instead of bemoaning the fact that circumstances have taken over agency in my life, I rejoice in it?  If I figure out how to take a break, won't an adventure present itself to me in time?  If the history of my life repeats itself, won't that adventure teach me new lessons and re-set my life course toward a more Godly one?

I have set a pattern for my days.  I have established habits.  That should be enough for maintenance of my basic values until I can get back to directly monitoring them.  I don't think I'll actually become that asshole in the SUV.  Right?  If that's taken care of, I probably should figure out how to make some space to take God up on her offer of a radical change.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

I'm OK; Nipple shields are OK

Last week, I posted about the major changes in Esther's eating life. I posted something similar on my Facebook page and got these responses:

MM: Yeah, just when you think you got the little pishers figured out, they throw you a knuckler. Hang in there!
October 3 at 9:00pm · Like

MS: Expect the surprises to keep coming along...for years! Enjoy every adventure!
October 3 at 9:40pm · Like

MMS: We drove ourselves crazy trying to figure this stuff out!
October 3 at 9:50pm · Like

MW: They tend not to get as much milk with the shield-she may start to gain more weight (and your supply will increase) now that she is off of it.
October 3 at 10:17pm · Like

Rebecca: Actually, there's no research to support that statement about shields.
October 3 at 11:55pm · Like

Rebecca: Let me rephrase, when I was bewildered as to why everyone but my doctor and lactation consultant acted like using the shield created a "less than" nursing experience, I could not find any citations to any research supporting those claims, even though I really wanted to so I could give in to peer pressure and wean her off before she was ready because of the inconvenience and because I was feeling vulnerable to the sheer weight of public opinion. All I could find was one study of less than 20 moms done with rubber shields rather than the now standard silicone ones. Luckily, this snapped me to my senses so I could stand up for my (and my doctor and lc's) decision to well-meaning but insensitive folks from that point on.
October 4 at 12:10am · Like

SR: We used a shield for a little while with Ian. Trust yourself and your little one -- listen to advice from people who know and understand *your* specific situation -- and whom you trust. Know that no matter what you will all be ok. We've got your back.
October 4 at 12:18am · Like

MW: I guess I also heard the inaccurate info about shields, Rebecca. Sounds like you are working with a good lactation consultant who can help you with any problems you might have!
October 4 at 8:41am · Like

KG: What is a nipple shield for? I had to supplement with Jack from the begginning, it took me a long time to come to terms with it. It made me feel like a failure as a woman/mother that I couldn't provide all of his nutrition like I was supposed to be able to do. What kind of formula are you using? Maybe that is why she is spitting up more.
October 4 at 10:17am · Like

I'm sure you noticed MW's response and my response to her. Normally, I'm not that confrontational, especially on Facebook. However, I thought long and hard about it before I posted that rephrase because 1) she offers lots and lots of unsolicited advice so I figured she would be able to handle a little push back and 2) I feel very passionate about the misinformation out there regarding nipple shields.

Luckily, my friend was really gracious. Based on the curiosity of other folks, I also figured I would elaborate a little bit more here.

A nipple shield is a piece of molded silicon that fits on top of a woman's nipple so that the muscles of a baby's mouth don't have to work quite so hard to mold the nipple to the shape of their own mouths. Preemies often need them and Esther needed one, too, for whatever reason. The lactation consultant in the hospital worked with us in a couple of good sessions before we went home and Esther just wasn't getting the hang of it so we started using the shield. Without it, I wouldn't have been able to feed my daughter.

However, lots of people had a reflexive response that the nipple shield was a bad thing. I often got asked, "When will you wean her off of it?"

The first few weeks of a new mom's life are incredibly vulnerable.  She's having a severe case of withdrawal since her dealer placenta is no longer pumping her full of hormones.  She's physically wounded and has usually depleted her energy reserves that are usually used for healing.  She's not sleeping very much.  The patterns of her day are totally altered and she must think about what the baby needs every time she considers doing something for herself, like going to the bathroom or showering.  The autonomic responses are all that are left to her, life breathing and having her heart pump.  All of her stress-coping mechanisms and her defense mechanisms are disabled so attacks that could normally be deflected hit hard.

One of the easiest targets is feeding this new child because it is one of only 4 needs that must be fulfilled by a mom: eating, sleeping, being cleaned and being touched.  So, any comment that feels at all like a criticism takes up an inordinate amount of space in a mom's spirit.

Being asked repeatedly when I would wean Esther from her shield felt like people were asking when I was going to really start breastfeeding her because didn't I know, breast is best?

So, when I realized that the money I spent on a second lactation consultant was wasted because she was fixated on the shield rather than on the problem I went to her with, I began searching the internet.

(As an aside, I ultimately made a rule that I could not research any parenting questions between the hours of 9:00 pm and 8:00 am on the iPad while nursing.  To much hostility out there and no filter to figure out whose solution is right for my family.)

What I ultimately found out is that there is no reason (other than inconvenience) not to nurse your baby with a shield for the entire time that you breastfeed.  However, lots of breastfeeding advocates like La Leche League disagree with that statement, both vehemently and inferentially, even though the only proof that nipple shields are bad is anecdotal at best.

Even Kellymom, which claims to be research based, cites nipple shields when discussing decreases in milk supply.

The reality is that there is no research that supports this advice.  All of it is about the old, rubber version or has a tiny sample size.  When I was talking about this with my friend who is studying to be a lactation consultant, she sent me this great article, which debunks the myths. 

The problem is that La Leche League and folks like Kellymom are the only folks out there advocating for breastfeeding and they are fundamentalists.  Fundamentalists, by definition, believe that there is one true way to do something and that all other versions are inferior to that one true way.  In the case of La Leche League, they believe that the one true way for all infants to be fed is that every meal be taken skin to skin at the mother's physical breast.  There is a hierarchy of deviations from this ideal; some are better than others but all deviations are seen as a slippery slope toward all babies being fed formula with bottles from their viewpoint.  Take a look at this document that they publish for local leaders on how to convert bottle-feeding mothers to feeding directly from the breast. It reads to me very similarly to literature advising conservative Christians to befriend folks in order to get them to say the Sinner's Prayer with paragraphs like this:
Working empathically [sic] with a woman, respecting her and her authority as the mother of the baby, we build rapport. Whether over the phone, by email, or after a meeting, when we work one-on-one with a mother so that she feels heard and respected, she may become receptive to hearing other ideas about how to handle her situation. Perhaps she isn't aware that there are means of feeding her baby other than a bottle, such as a cup or spoon, a periodontal syringe, or a supplemental nursing system at the breast. Perhaps a mother who called for help with the bottle will be moved to come to a meeting and gain a new perspective there.
This section does not encourage leaders to be empathetic to a new mother in a vulnerable state simply because it's the right thing to do.  There is an agenda to the act.  Also similar to evangelizing Christians, there is an assumption that the object of their help is ignorant of the one true way.  If they were knowledgeable, then why wouldn't they see things like we do?  Basically, formula-feeding women are the pagan babies of the Breast is Best crowd.  This condescending paternalism continues in a section a little further down:
Although teaching a baby to take a bottle isn't why we became Leaders, helping parents become sensitive to their babies' cues is a part of what we do. By helping parents with the bottle we may not only preserve breastfeeding, but also promote cooperative rather than coercive parenting. Perhaps the approaches and attitudes used here will carry forward to introducing solids, weaning and toilet training.
Clearly, if a family is feeding their baby with a bottle (even if feeding pumped breastmilk), then they won't raise their children right in other areas like toilet training.  Because feeding with interventions or formula is mutually exclusive to being sensitive to a baby's cues. (Catch the sarcasm here.)

I understand and even appreciate why La Leche folks are like this.  Societal change is generally only accomplished by extremists, the "small group" that Margaret Mead lionizes, although I disagree that they need to be thoughtful.  (Tea party, anyone?) There are plenty of studies out there showing that people who are politically active above and beyond voting are closer to the ends of the ideological spectrum than the majority of the population, which is fairly centrist.  Counteracting status quo requires force and an absolute ideal gets more folks behind it than a a diffused vision of more choices for more people.  The pendulum of public policy swings back and forth and society generally benefits from the majority of time it spends close to the middle.

This societal change is definitely necessary because corporate influences have totally sabotaged breast feeding as a valid option in a variety of ways. The Feminist Breeder describes this well in her recent post.  It is unconscionable that our society overwhelmingly thinks of breastfeeding as dirty or inconvenient or any number of other descriptors that aren't true but influence women and their children who would otherwise benefit from breastfeeding to use formula.  I love efforts like the Doula Program at the Ounce of Prevention, which helps women in poverty overcome that influence of the corporations.

Also, folks are often drawn to groups like La Leche League because in their vulnerability, it provided resources to meet their needs.  This kind of rescue can inspire an honest zealousness in well-meaning folks to help others experience the joy they have experienced.  Although leaders of the political movement may exploit this emotion in participants of the movement to ensure self-perpetuation of the organization, the individuals are simply trying to help others in the way they have been helped.  I respect that impulse.

However, I am a feminist because I believe that all women should be supported in the choices that they make and that society should be changed so that all choices are available to all people.  I believe that people are generally capable of weighing variables in a situation and choosing the best option for themselves.  If they aren't, it's because they lack information or they lack the emotional IQ to determine what is best for themselves.  Both of those can be solved without condescension or paternalism.  Maybe that's the University of Chicago-trained economist in me but I just think folks are rational actors in their own lives.

I object to the fundamentalist viewpoint when it comes to breastfeeding because it can be a major impediment to the very goal it seeks to achieve.  By setting a goal that most women cannot achieve, some - or maybe many - women will turn away from a choice that might have been right for them because they don't feel like they really belong in the community.  They are not like "those mothers" so they just won't try.  For instance, La Leche suggests that working mothers find childcare that is close enough to work that the provider can bring the child to the mother for all of his meals.

Right.

There are so many assumptions about who that mother is, I could write a whole essay on that recommendation alone.  She has a flexible job, she can afford a caregiver who only looks after her child, he and the child are physically capable of nursing, etc.  Those types of prerequisites tend to be available only to privileged upper-class folks. 


When I was able to analyse the situation and figure out why everyone was acting so weird about the shield, I could relax and even do a little education when I started to feel insecure because of someone else's mis-education from the Breast is Best advocates.

As it turns out, Esther mouth muscles just needed to get a little stronger.  At around 3 months, she batted the shield out of the way and latched on all by herself.  The latching was new since she often accidentally knocked the shield off before latching.  She stayed on for about 4 minutes but needed the shield to finish the session and then didn't want to latch that way again for another week.  I kept offering her the bare breast at the beginning of sessions and eventually she latched on sporadically for greater and greater periods of time, until the point when she protested when I offered her the shield.  We no longer need the shield at all at mealtimes.

I was fully prepared to use the shield the entire time she nursed, buying 8 shields and stashing them in the glove compartment of the car and in every bag I had, so that we would never be caught without one.  Because, with it, I could feed my daughter.  Let me repeat that.  With a shield, I could feed my daughter.  Everything else is irrelevant once that's been said.  I made the choice that I didn't want our early life together to be a struggle to get her to latch without it.  Trust me, it was ugly every time I tried.  Milk everywhere.  Both of us sticky and crying.  I am certain that the psychological damage this would do to her and to our relationship greatly outweighed any trumped up harm that breastfeeding advocates could cook up as caused by the shield.  Nipple shields are OK; you are OK. End of story.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Fit is go.

It turns out that buying a car from the dealership feels uncomfortably like being married to my ex-husband. Everything they say seems plausible but over time, one gets a sneaking suspicion that something fishy is going on.

Let me say up front that I probably made a mistake by going to the Gold Coast to buy a sub-compact, economy car. I should have known that they simply wouldn't have much stock to choose from. But they were the easiest to get to by bus. I also should have walked out when they told me that there wasn't a single basic-model Fit anywhere in the Midwest and I would have to buy the more expensive Sport model if I wanted one at all. How could that possibly be true? At that point, though, I had been there for three hours so although I emailed another dealership and they said that it wasn't true, I think some of my life force had already been depleted and I decided not to fight that battle. I should have also probably challenged their statements that although they had both a used Fit to sell me AND a Fit they were using as a service vehicle, only the service vehicle was available for the test drive because Clark Kent was "being serviced." I definitely should have challenged them when they preemptively warned me after I said I would take it that it was still being serviced and I might not be able to drive home in it. Preemptive excuses make me nervous (see previous marriage).

I am proud to say, though, that I did not succumb to their obvious ploy when they explicitly and repeatedly stated, "I'm working hard for you because I want your business," as if by hearing it often enough and from enough people, I would simply accept it as true. It was pretty clear that when my sales rep was "checking with her manager," they were back there letting me cool my heels. I was also told a couple of times by the manager that he wanted to make a deal for me, for my sales rep's sake so that she could hit her numbers, playing on my heartstrings. How could I deny her making her quota by going anywhere else?

I did get a screaming deal and I was comfortable that was true, especially because I could use their wireless to check Kelley Blue Book. However, their claim that putting the car through the paces to qualify it as "certified" would pretty much cost the same as the warranty I would purchase is probably bogus, especially since when I looked at the warranty, it doesn't cover all the little parts that break like hoses and stuff. I was also totally unimpressed that they claimed the car had 28,000 miles while we were negotiating but it wasn't until I was filling out the final paperwork that I learned it actually had 34,000 miles. That's a pretty significant number to simply spread your hands and claim that the used car manager isn't really good with technology. I took him up on his compensatory offer of calling him if I was at all surprised by the car when I wasn't told until I was buckling my daughter into the back seat that the car only had one key but any copies needed to be made by a dealership service department and they couldn't do it that day because they didn't have the necessary blank in stock. They did give me a free copy two weeks later when they finally responded to the messages I left asking for one. Really. A car from the dealer only comes with one key? Who would even think to ask about that?

So, I came out ahead financially but I had to negotiate hard for that and walked away feeling pretty slimy about all the ways that they tried to manipulate me. I'm sure there were more that I didn't catch. I like assuming good faith exists with folks I interact with and that may be naive but it pays off a majority of the time, which makes my life so much more peaceful. Since Fletcher Jones Honda does not start the conversation with that same assumption, I wouldn't go there again. Of course, the car I was replacing was a '99 Nissan so it might be awhile before I need to put these lessons learned to use.







Friday, October 14, 2011

I hate being weak



I am at the CCDA conference with Esther this week. I have to tell you that it is a lot of work to be attuned to her needs every minute while also paying attention to speakers and trying to be open to the Holy Spirit and networking with folks who are passionate about the same things that I am passionate about.

For instance, today, Esther is wearing her third outfit of the day after soiling two and I am on my second after she managed to hit both top and bottom of my first outfit with her, well, crap.

But it's worth it. It's worth it to expose her to the cadences of African American pastors, communicating their wisdom. It's worth it to include her in the corporate prayer of these development practitioners. It's worth it to let her experience the rhythms of Richard Twiss's Lakota prayers and sense of humor. I think these early experiences are helping to lay a map in her brain that her growing sense of how the world works will be laid upon.

It is the same reason that I took her to high holiday services this year. I could have begged off and asked to stay home since that is much much easier at this stage, since it's hard for me personally to get spiritual nourishment from so much Hebrew and since I wasn't fasting this year. But it's important that she rest against her father's chest as he sings the prayers and that while she is nursing, she hears the rhythms of the cantor. It's important that all of that Hebrrew begins settling itself in her consciousness. It sets the pattern of the seasons in her nascent cycles.

But I am having some doubts about the amount of money this non-professional is spending on this experience. I am trying to acknowledge the presence of these doubts and worries gently, though, while looking past their urgent flailing for my attention so I do not let those doubts interfere with what I'm trying to do. The monkey mind can be calmed.

And, as usual, God is revealing that I am here to accomplish much more than I thought I was. This week seems to have a recurring theme of forcing me to get comfortable with not being able to claim my professional identity. No one is interested in what I used to do. These folks are engaged in current work. And my current work is raising Esther and creating a nurturing space for Jacob and for our marriage. Wow. That's hard. So much of my self-identity has been dependent upon being a "worker."

Part of this lesson of comfort that I am learning happened this afternoon. My cohort was supposed to meet at the pub around the corner from the hotel. I walked in and the waitress looked at me in distress. "Oh honey, you can bring a baby in here. It's a bar!" She then said something about an Indiana law. Seriously, Hoosiers? That's how you defy your rural personality?

So, I waved to my new friends and turned away regretfully but with dignity, I hoped.

As I walked away, though, I was freaking out a little. I mean, the relationships that I'm building as a part of this cohort is the number one reason why I'm spending all of this money this week. To miss our main meeting was definitely disturbing my calm. So, I raced back to the conference hotel to see if childcare was still open. It wasn't. So, my mind whirled.

Earlier in the morning, as I was swabbing Esther down with what would turn out to be a total of seven wipes, a good acquaintance swooped down from heaven and asked if I needed help. Did I? I took her up on her offer to hold Esther once she was in a fresh set of pajamas while I went up to my room to change my own clothes. We sat together after that and caught up at lunch. She assured me then that if I needed any more help, she was happy to do it.

I thanked her but didn't actually think anything would come of it because, hey, if I can't be a professional, I can be independently competent at being a mom, right?

Yeah, I know. I never learn. Seriously. No wisdom teaches that kind of goal. Villages, Rebecca, villages.

And yet.

So, as my mind whirled to find a way to go back to the bar, I realized that I could call my acquaintance.

But could I?

If I did, I would owe her.

I know, I know. Favors should not be transactional in the Christian community. We should give generously, knowing God will take care of our own needs. And I don't mind giving. I mind receiving.

Because accepting her generosity might change my relationship with her. I might need to consider her kindness the next time she invites me to coffee during a week when I just want to hide in my cave. I might need to attend one of her neighborhood meetings for her educational organization. I might lay awake in the middle of the night and realize that I really should set up a play date with her son and Esther. All of these opportunities already exist in our relationship, but I have previously felt comfortable engaging or not engaging based on what my needs are. Now, would I need to consider her needs since she would be so other-focused today?

Trust me, as I was thinking it, I was looking at myself incredulously. But I persisted in my whiny protest. I am nothing if not tenacious in my sin.

I hate relationships that change toward more intimacy. Anything could happen.

But. I'm at a conference that emphasizes that we must live in community to be close to God. It's why I love this organization. Community demands the giving and receiving of favors, especially when we are vulnerable, even when we don't want to admit that in addition to not making money anymore, I can't take care of my daughter without help.

So, I called her. And she was happy to do it. And I had a beer.

Now, that wasn't so bad, was it?


Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Cha cha cha cha changes

In the last week, Esther has:
1. Totally abandoned the previously established rhythm of her days
2. Cut her nursing time down to a third of its usual duration
3. Weaned herself off of the nipple shield that she has needed since birth
4. Begun getting supplemental nutrition to counteract her persistent lack of ability to gain weight
5. Started spitting up significantly more
6. Occasionally refused the breast but accepted a bottle.
Plus, 7. I have stopped leaking breastmilk, which was a constant annoyance up to this point.

Some good developmnts; some bad. Some solutions would be counterproductive to other solutions if implemented. Causality vs correlation has yet to be determined. It hasn't helped that we have been out of town for the holiday.

Yesterday, I was a mess: sleep deprived, worried that I would lose my milk supply, and grieving the fact that my child has been at least a little bit hungry for her entire life (as the doctor said, "She got used to the fact that that was all she got"). Since her rhythm had changed, she cried a lot more because I had to figure out each time what she needed rather than knowing that it was time for her to be hungry, wet or tired and solving the problem quickly. Increased crying creates a wholly unique emotional response in a parent that should have it's own name but doesn't and so must settle for "frazzled" or "harried." These words do not communicate the worry, anger, despair, self-recrimination, violence, depression, and frustration that are wrapped up in the primal sense of emergency that extended and abnormal crying provoke in parents.

Also, not being able to explain for certain why any of this was happening caused massive anxiety to roil furiously just underneath my exhausted exterior. There are theories for individual behaviors but no way of knowing if the fact that they are happening all at once is coincidence or consequence of choices I have made. For instance, many babies become more efficient at eating around Esther's age and drain all the available milk much more quickly than when their mouth muscles were still weak and training. This could also explain why she no longer needs the shield. However, what if her desire to eat without the shield means that she gets tired more quickly and that's why her nursing sessions are so short? If that's true, then she's getting even less nutrition than before and my supply might decrease even further because my body thinks there is less demand.

Or not.

It's despairing for a person like me who's self-identity is wrapped up in being able to figure stuff out. Living in the mystery is a spiritual ideal that I strive for in theory. Putting it in practice is difficult.

What I can do, though, is put aside my personal plans for the day and pay attention to my daughter. Instead of trying to shoehorn her needs into a day that was designed around her old patterns, I can wipe the slate clean and look for the new patterns that emerge when she's given the chance. So right now, she's asleep in my arms, having nodded off when I offered her a pacifier when I realized that her conflicted behavior of wanting to suck but not wanting the breast might be solved that way. Would I rather she were in her crib so I could work on my to-do list? Absolutely. But now that I have slowed down, I have confidence that we'll get there eventually once we're through this transition. If she is well-rested, the transition will go even quicker.

I feel so grateful that I have the luxury of time to parent this way. I am savoring every moment because life will not always be like this. That transience of situation is both to be looked forward to and to be dreaded. That's actually mystery that I can live within.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A family event -pictures from Esther's naming

We asked my friend Jen to record Esther's naming in photographs so that she would be able to see who had been part of the community that welcomed her into life and Judaism.

I live my life on the iPad right now since Esther tend to nurse for about an hour each time, which makes it hard to upload photos. Luckily, Jen posted of the best on her website. Follow the link below to get there.
Simchat Bat
Jen does such an amazing job and has insight into people and their relationships. She also fits right in with our family and friends as a guest who just happens to be taking pictures. Her joy in her work really comes through. As she said, "I got to take two hours of candies. So great!"

So great indeed.



Sunday, September 18, 2011

Pretty in pink

It will surprise no one that, ideologically, I favor gender-neutral clothes for kids. It will probably also surprise no on that I can -and have- made passionate arguments against pink for girls and football appliques for boys. Once, while pregnant on a crowded bus and discussing this with Jacob, a very effeminate man cut in and camped, "Honey, they could have painted a football stadium mural in my room and it wouldn't have made a difference."

He's not wrong and not alone in this belief that some things are hard-wired into us at birth that no amount of "nurture" can override. I also agree with most folks that, on average, there are differences between the genders that are probably a result of "nature." I laughed very hard at this comic.

Louis CK also seems to hit the nail on the head.

I'm sure that we have many very strong biological urges that assist in species survival. However, there are four problems with a fatalistic belief that nothing we do matters when trying to teach gender equality through neutral environments.

1. It's clearly bullshit.

Do we really believe that parents have no ability to influence their children? We all know people raised poorly by their parents and people raised well by their parents. The line tracing their major malfunctions to their parents' screw-ups might as well be drawn with a giant Sharpie. If it's true for self-esteem or chauvinism or racist jokes, why can't it be true for how comfortable one is in one's own skin when one wants to both play football AND wear pink?

Of course, there are exceptions. Lots of people with alcoholic parents turn out to be warm, loving and present. Lots of people with great parents turn out to be total slackers with mean streaks. These exceptions lead us to number two.

2. A culture that rigidly defines what a kid should and shouldn't like is oppressive to those kids who deviate from the norm, which limits their options for life decisions. All of the social change I try to participate in is about giving people choices so they can fulfill the potential that God gave them. I don't want to be complicit in a system where it never occurs to girls who are good at math to want to be a "business woman" when they grow up or where boys don't get the chance to interact deeply with each other and with girls because "men don't talk about emotions." There is also the heteronormative aspect of gender typing that creates so much trauma for gay and queer people. Pink vs. Footballs is the visible organ of that oppressive system. It teaches kids early that there are only two choices and teaches which of those two indentities is theirs. There is no room for any grey. Girls don't like football and boy don't wear pink. Girls don't like dinosaurs and boys don't like flowers. Girls don't marry other girls and boys don't nurture children. Ugh.

3. Parents should give their kids tools for resisting the larger culture's usual state of apathy. The tools are the same for any issue: poverty, lack of equal access to clean water, sizism, etc. It's worth modeling this with the low-hanging fruit of expected gender preferences since they are exposed to it from the first cry of "It's a girl/boy!" at their birth.

4. Sometimes, it turns out that we were wrong in our assumption that a characteristic is genetically motivated. Did you see the new study showing that men with children produce less testosterone, which allows them to be more sensitive to their family's needs? So all that noise about the degree to which women are better suited to be caregivers genetically has to be reexamined. When it turns out we were wrong about the things you can't change about gender preferences, we can't go back and undo that social "nurturing" that shaped a kid into a limited role. Better to make all options socially acceptable for all kids and make sorting out what's genetic and what's training important only on a theoretical level.

So, I would have written all of that before I gave birth to a daughter. What I didn't expect about my current response was that I would feel so angry about it.

I started this essay with the assumption that folks who know me would either know or quickly deduce that I would not be a fan of dressing my kid in pink.

However, based on the presents we received (98% of which were pink), I have to assume that most folks who know me never stopped to consider an alternative to a pink gift. I have to think that if they had considered it a choice to be made (pink vs. one of the six other colors), it would have been a no-brainer.

I am so grateful that we have so many people in our lives who care enough about us to put forth the energy to select and send a gift to celebrate esther's birth. When I examine the anger, I relieved that it's not aimed at them personally.

I'm angry that this pink gender-typing for girls is so pervasive that most folks don't even recognize it as a choice. We all have a crap-ton of choices to make every day and so any limiting of the field that the market can do for us is appreciated. I get that. But I seem to be angry that the market has chosen to narrow this particular field. It feels so personal.

I'm not a conspiracy theory person but it feels like someone out is making it so that my daughter stays in "her" place from a very young age. "You only get one color and that color is so powerless that only a handful of Fortune 500 companies use it for their logo. That's OK though because girls are biologically designed to play with dolls and stay home to raise families."

All right, so maybe some of my anger comes from feeling conflicted about my own choice to be a stay-at-home mom. But my larger points are still valid.

So is my anger.

So, when I was at Gymboree, raging at the passive messages on the pink girl onesies ("Pick me!" versus "Wiggle, squiggle, squirm"), all I could do was cross over to the boy's side a spend my merchandise credit (from returning something pink) to buy a t-shirt with a math joke and the aforementioned active orange lizard onesie.

It's both a small political act and a large spiritual one. I won't affect market forces all by myself, but every time someone says in surprise, "Oh! She's a girl?" once the conversation moves beyond their initial question of how old "he" is, (this happen 5 out of every 6 times the question is posed to me) I hope I've planted a seed in people's minds that girl babies can wear white or green or even blue, even if they don't have matching hair bows. Just re-establishing it as an option is enough for me as a start.

I believe that mindfulness of the moment and being deliberate in one's choices is the height of spiritual practice. I believe that God wants us to direct our attention to establishing shalom -a state where every person becomes who God intended them to be- as a way of helping us get close to her so we can feel how loved we are. I struggle with this a fair amount now that I'm not doing this work professionally. But this is the moment I'm in and pink is the injustice I can do something about right now, with my own daughter.

I am pleased that this anger has not extended itself into judgment of other families who make a different choice for their daughters. I love seeing kids in their little ruffly outfits. Genuinely. In fact, I'm happy to regift things to those families. That's a major step forward for me.

Before Esther was born, I figured that I would be deliberate about my own purchases but that her life would have a mix since I value including other people's aesthetic in her experience. And she does have some accessories (boppy, etc.) that are pink because they came to us previously owned by friends and family and I value re-use. But now i remember that my father used to make my brother return birthday presents that were guns to their givers and my mother made me put Barbie dolls into storage until I was older. so, when I look into Esther's eyes, I find that I am intolerant of pink clothes. They go straight into the hand-me-down bucket. If the world were going to pay her dollar for dollar that a man working the same job would make, it would be no big deal. But for now, going along with the pink status quo is not a limitation that I'm willing to subject my daughter to.








Friday, September 02, 2011

Deliberations

So, here is how God worked in my life this week. Of course, God works in my life all the time and I just don't notice it but here is how God hit me over the head with her love this week.


The exhaust system fell out of my '99 Nissan Sentra on Sunday. As Anne Lamott says, it's like my car just prolapsed. The tow truck driver laughed at how entirely it has fallen down. Since it is a 12-year-old car and we have a brand-new baby whose safety we need to consider, this is the moment to let Ole Blue go.

That was my thought, anyway.

However, I'm mature enough to know that my husband might not feel the same way. So, after getting a quote of $417 from the mechanic that my parents and I have relied upon for over a decade, I went back to Jacob to see what he thought.

Together, we made the decision to donate the car to Willow Creek's ministry that fixes up cars with volunteer labor and gives them to single moms who need them, just like we did with our last car.

I called the mechanic early the next morning to let him know that we wouldn't be having the work done and to ask if we could leave the car in his lot for a few days until the ministry came to pick it up. He sputtered a little and was definitely surprised. He said, "That's not what I would do."

Chip is notoriously full of integrity and he rarely offers unsolicited advice so I asked him what he WOULD do. He said that if we did the work, we could probably sell it for $1000.

I thanked him but said we wanted the ministry to have.

Then, I hung up the phone and began to second-guess myself. Donating the car was all well and good when I didn't know the opportunity cost but $600 is not a small amount of money around here anymore since I quit my job. Plus, that's more than 100% ROI. We do a lot more creative moving around of our investments to make a lot less than that, both in total cash And ROI. Even considering the convenience factor of not having to find a buyer in addition to the tax deduction, was this the best choice for us?

I called my dad because I respect the spiritual advice he would give me. He said a lot of things and assured me that whatever choice I made would be a good one because Jacob and I believe that what we have belongs to God so act on that belief in several different ways. Dad said he was sure that our values of tithing and of leaving a small consumer footprint in all of the areas of our life would balance out whatever choice we made about the car.

This reminded me that the end goal of donating the car was to put it in the hands of someone whose life was very difficult without a reliable car. Since a person that would buy a car for $1000 is either a teenager, or more likely, a person who can't afford anything better. $1000 cars are always pieces of shit that require a lot of money in maintenance, but the market value stays high because the buyers are usually desperate and can't come up with the extra money for a more reliable investment. Earning that profit would mean I was benefitting from someone else's dire straits. Giving it away meant that a similar owner would get the car in better condition since the ministry would fix everything, not just the fallen exhaust system. Also, less resources would be lost to a middle man/men.

So, I chased my doubts and stood firm in our decision to donate the car.

Then, Chip called me back.

My resolve wavered.

He asked if I would sell it for $300.

Whew! Not nearly as tempting as $600. Easy to refuse.

Except, it was for guy Chip knew who had been out of work for two years and Chip was going to front him the money for the car.

Actually, this was even better. All of my spiritual goals would be met plus we would get $300. Win. Win.

Giving a gift is fun. Making it so that someone else can give the gift is even better.

Thanks, God.






Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Simchat Bat

I was not at my best Sunday for Esther's naming that took place at my parents' house.

When I talked about this with Jacob yesterday, he reminded me that the outcome of the day was a success and I guess that counts for something but when you lose, they always say that if you did your best, that's all that matters. Shouldn't the reverse also be true?

Luckily, I wasn't my worst, either. I was just unfocused and unhelpful, even though it was a party for my daughter. I left my purse at home and some crucial props for the ceremony. I wasn't really spiritually present so, even though I had given some thought awhile ago to my parts of the ceremony, I couldn't communicate clearly with our gathered community and was surprised by my own blubbering. (Usually, I'm prepared and stay functional while experiencing intense emotions in settings like this.) I participated in gossip and shouted at both my mom and my husband. I was one of those moms I swore I'd never be by taking Esther out of Jacob's arms when she wouldn't stop crying during the ceremony. I would have preferred to publicly demonstrated the fact that I know he is good at parenting her.

However, I had foreseen forgetting the nipple shield that I use to help feed my daughter and had a back-up in the car and I was able to connect well with many of my friends despite my overall inability to attend to the event. Also, I didn't freak out when the entire exhaust system fell out of my car three blocks before we arrived. Those can be seen as successes of a sort. I certainly believe that working within our inevitable human failures to find joy is a success, even if most folks (and a nagging voice in my gut) would say that I shouldn't have made the mistakes in the first place.

And I suppose those successes are the take-away for the day. Those and the fact that now my daughter has been blessed, welcomed and named by her community in a lovely event with amazing food. My own experience is secondary to the gift of the experience that my daughter received.

I suppose that last sentence is a microcosm for parenthood, eh?



Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Bananas

When Esther was four weeks old, she and I got on a plane for four hours to San Francisco, then in a car for a five hour trip over the mountain to an old hippie commune turned retreat center with 20+ strangers so that we could get to know one another at the beginning of a two year cohort experience. All of us care passionately about community development to the point of being young (25-40) leaders in the field.

As usual, I feared being an outsider. In fact, I had billed myself as one in my application to look attractive for the diversity I'd bring. (haha, funny joke in an organization that is proactive about racial reconciliation) Most folks in the organization that sponsored the cohort are evangelical and do direct service work with under-resourced people. However, I am mainline Protestant -emergent, no less - and try to work at a systemic level to effect change. These differences had the potential to drastically deforest our common ground both culturally and personally.

For instance, a week before the retreat, the organizer sent out an email to group, telling us we were responsible for our own praise and worship time. He pointed out that previous cohorts had contained members who were active in their music programs at church so if those folks in this group would bring their instruments, we would be able to put something together ad hoc.

Although I have some worship team experience, it was mostly when I was a much younger Christian and my repertoire consists mostly of late 90s Christian camp songs and "contemporary" hymns.


Mot of my spiritual communities since then have been more traditionally liturgical or contemplative in nature and haven't kept up with the latest praise music.

As a result, when the annual conference for this organization is always dominated evangelical worship teams, I often feel left out because I don't know the songs and, generally, the songs I do know don't particularly inspire worship in me.  So, I had a sinking feeling that the same thing would happen on this retreat.

As it turned out, no one in our cohort had the requisite "spiritual gifts" to lead that type of experience.  What we did have were a couple of people who work in a camp ministry and regularly lead young children and teenagers in easy to learn music.

I loved it.

I'm generally quite reserved when it comes to music and worship.  I don't dance when our crazy rabbi leads our minyan and I'm somewhat inhibited when it comes to clapping and such in other services. I just don't tend to feel the spirit that way and so have no reason to overcome my default staidness.

However, with this group of strangers I decided to just have fun, you know?

I don't often have fun.  I enjoy myself and I experience satisfaction, contentment and happiness.  However, grinning and giggling in fun are less frequent.

Still, with a brand-new babe sleeping in her Moby wrap and the sense of freedom brought on by successfully navigating our travel, I figured whatthehell.


So, each session, I danced as I peeled bananas with hand motions and laughed as I shouted, "Go Bananas! Go, go bananas!"

And I grinned as I looked around at all these other adults - working so hard to extend the jurisdiction of the Kingdom of God, with all of the seriousness that requires - spinning with their arms flailing like peels.  I could be like them if I gave myself over to it.  If I let God in enough to remind me that I have never been an outsider to her.

And then we sang, "As a deer panteth for the water, so my soul longeth after thee," and I could hear my junior high youth director sing in my head, "Bom, bom" in a rising third like he always did in those days when fun and the awakenings of spirituality were so inextricably bound together.


There comes a time in most new groups when I get some sort of feedback from the other people that I am now known and, often, liked.  This time came on this trip when I was expressing my enthusiasm for the worship by saying, "This is so much better than two sensitive guys with guitars."

One of the men leaned over so he could see me, laughed and replied, "You just said that, didn't you," as disbelieving affirmation.

Yes.  Yes, I did.

Now let me see your funky chicken.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

During Esther's check-up a couple of weeks ago, the doctor asked about developmental milestones and wrote the answers in her chart.

Doctor: Is she starting to smile yet?
Me: Yes.
Doctor: Is she starting to coo at you and make other pre-verbal noises?
Me: Yes.
Doctor: How is she sleeping at night?
Me: Well.  She usually sleeps anywhere from 4 to 6 hours every night.

She looked up from the desk and said, "It's a pretty good life, isn't it?"

I smiled and agreed.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Raisins and Almonds

The unexpected result of giving birth to Esther is that I have newly intense insight into how Jewish folks engage with the world.



You see, although Esther may one day choose to be a Christian, she is already Jewish. Some denominations recognize patrilineal descent in addition to the fact that she will practice the religion with her father and I, while also being surrounded by other Jewish folks who will treat her as Jewish. Birth, practice and culture are the three legs of the Jewish identity stool.

This was brought home to me when Jacob and I went to see The Last Act of Lilka Kadison at the Lookingglass Theater last weekend. The play was lovely and powerful, illustrating the universal human need to give life meaning through telling our stories by following a dying woman and her care giver as she struggles to re-member the love affair of her youth in Poland that was ended by the beginning of WWII. As an aside,  I appreciate that our society has reached a point where the art that grows out the Holocaust no longer needs to include graphic retellings of the horrors of the camps (like Night) or to focus on the most tragic stories (like Sophie's Choice). Even simple stories of teenage romance disrupted before it could fully develop are important when never forgetting.

I had to keep myself from sobbing through much of the second half and although the play was well-written and elegantly staged, I wondered if something else was happening than just catharsis.

It turns out that I gave birth to a Jewish daughter and this affected my engagement with Jewish art.

These stories are my daughter's stories.

She belongs to the continuous line of people who have lived these experiences.

I am not like the guy on Seinfeld that converted in order to tell better jokes; I am not claiming the stories and experiences as my own. But a mother's love for her daughter is an entangling thing.

I am now entangled with the Jewish experience in a much more intense way that I was simply by marrying a Jewish man and practicing religiously with him.

A few days ago, I had a conversation with someone I love dearly about his insistence on using racial and ethnic slurs ironically and casually in conversation. His argument has always been that words themselves have no power to hurt and since his motivation is not hateful, people should back off.


He loves this clip from Louis CK (as do I) and I'll be honest, I am moved by a similar argument made by David Foster Wallace in his essay, "Authority and American Usage":
I should note here that a couple of the students I’ve said this stuff to were offended – one lodged an Official Complaint – and that I have had more than one colleague profess to find my spiel [regarding Standard Black and White English] “racially insensitive.” Perhaps you do, too. This reviewer’s own humble opinion is that some of the cultural and political realities of American life are themselves racially insensitive and elitist and offensive and unfair, and that pussyfooting around these realities with euphemistic doublespeak is not only hypocritical but toxic to the project of ever really changing them.
Since I do agree in theory with these folks, I'll tell you right out that my friend used the word, "kike," jokingly, trusting that I knew he's not actually bigoted in his choice.  And while normally I would just give him a disapproving look and move on, instead I got really upset.  When we came back to the conversation later, he made the points made above and I had two responses.

First, although I know he's not bigoted, he made the joke amongst a group of people for whom that could not be said quite so securely.  They don't actually know many (any?) Jewish folks besides Jacob and a few of them have said distressing things in the past.  Since my friend is a charismatic and influential guy, part of my upset reaction was that he was giving tacit permission to the rest of the group to also use that word.

Second, he made the joke in front of Esther.  She's tiny now but she'll get bigger and no one really knows when verbal perception begins.  Plus, it will be a long time before she really understands sarcasm and every other time she hears that word, it will be from people who don't like Jews simply because they are Jews or in the context of discussing those people.

I never want her to wonder - not even for an instant - whether this man that she loves dislikes her because she is Jewish.

On the other side of the coin, I know that we tend to believe our loved one's opinions about our identities and I don't want her to believe - not even with a tiny sliver of her mind - that being Jewish is a bad thing.

To his credit, my friend acknowledged my arguments and agreed not to use historically degrading words around my daughter.  I know this gives the words continued power in the larger culture but I want to limit the amount that I sacrifice my children's well-being for the sake of the larger culture war.  This is a battle I choose to back down from.


Monday, August 01, 2011

Seriously?

It's like Industrial Light and Magic designed her to be adorable enough to market action figures of her.




Friday, July 29, 2011

Burns

Today, I decided that I was ready to begin making challah bread for our shabbat again.  (This readiness may be correlated with the fact that all the challah I made and froze before Esther was born is gone.)

While making it, I was rejoicing in her increasing ability to sit by herself in her little rocking chair.  Up until the last couple of days, she has refused to be put down.  At. All.  (When other parents at a class I recently went to said very sweet things about "one thing they had learned" in the icebreaker session, I didn't stop before I answered honestly that I had learned how to ignore her crying.)  But yesterday, she let me shower a full shower without hollering and today she was content while I got through all of the steps of baking up until adding the water and the yeast.

When I got there, I accidentally splashed her with just a few drops of boiling water.

I quickasaflash picked her up before the hollering started and she calmed down quickly enough without even a red mark to show for her mother's negligence.  She spent the rest of the time with me in the Moby wrap (aka "the bag," as in "All right, back in the bag you go!").

The experience made me think of my trip to Africa and my realization that so many children there were seriously burned and scarred.  A side of a face.  A forearm.  A shoulder.  In a society where all meals are cooked on open flames, this is just one more hazard that kids routinely encounter.  I can't imagine that life for my daughter or myself since I would have to watch her be burned so badly.

This type of psychological association is one of the major things that makes motherhood difficult for me.  I have many very run-of-the-mill difficulties: Esther doesn't like to be put down, my body still isn't quite healed yet, Jacob and I are still in different beds since Esther will only sleep for any length of time when she's in the bed with me, frustration with my lack of ability to be productive, middle of the night fears that Esther's not eating enough or that I'm ruining her forever by not practicing tough love and building her character.  (No need to comfort me on those last two: I know they're ridiculous and untrue but 2:30 in the morning is an evil hour for worrying.)

No matter how mundane each of our experiences are, with few exceptions, they produce valid emotions.  Although we can tip over too far into self-pity, for the most part, each of us feels appropriately.  I'm OK with this for the most part, my practice of the spirituality of imperfection generally makes it easier for me to process my emotions without judging myself for having them in the first place (which only compounds any paralysis I'm experiencing).

However, I'm struggling to keep up this practice lately.  I keep comparing myself to moms that have to go back to work and single moms and moms in Africa or Iraq.  My frustrations seem laughable in comparison and my self-perception is gradually shifting to a belief that I am weak because of the paths we are taking or the pace at which we are taking them.  This is not a foreign experience for me but I can't remember how I snapped out of it in the past.

I am going to try to stop doing this.  God gave me this life and it would be ingrateful of me to behave as if I had less blessings than I do.  That is not the truth and I believe Jesus when he says that the truth will set me free.  I think I have already made the first step by making a rule that I am no longer allowed to use the iPad to research parenting tips in the middle of the night.  Instead, I'm reading Game of Thrones while Esther nurses.  I'm feeling better already.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Relevance


Last week, Esther and I went to California for a professional development retreat.  We got through security at the airport, traveled beautifully through both the take-off and landing, and then drove 5 hours north, stopping a few times so Esther could eat.  
Whew!

We stayed at an old hippie commune with 25 other people who are also passionate about community development, getting to know one another, doing a little training and eating good meals together.

As part of the events, we wrote reflection papers on In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen.

Despite my seeming pulled-together-ness last week, I'm still struggling to get much done during the day, so I am sharing it with you so that this space won't become a total desert.


This is the second time in my life that Henri Nouwen has incensed me.  Such powerful emotions.  This happens to me sometimes when people write well and are clearly writing truth out of their authentic experiences with God.  I am a reader.  Bookish, even.  I want to relate to the protagonists of the books I read.  I want to see myself in them and I want to become more like them.  I just named my daughter for two protagonists in books that I want her to be like.

So, when a writer like Nouwen speaks of experiences that seem utterly inaccessible to me, I become incensed.  I have developed tools for feeling this way.  First, I write a lot of angry annotations in the margins of the book.  Second, I try to clearly articulate arguments about why the author’s lessons don’t apply to me and finally, I remember that I’m not in charge (thank goodness) and ask God to show me how the lessons apply to me.

So, the margin-writing is done and it’s time to articulate the differences between Nouwen’s experience and my own. 

First, Nouwen seems to equate Christian leadership with priests and ministers.  Are only those who are called to professional ministry the only people who are Christian leaders?  If this is the definition that Nouwen is working with, at what angle should lay-leaders and worker bees view his lessons?   It’s possible that there are options for non-pastoral Christian leaders outside of what he outlines here.  So, although Nouwen exhorts pastors to move toward irrelevance and reconciliation on a micro scale, maybe others of us are called to work towards impact.

Which leads me to my major disagreement with Nouwen.  I am 33 years old – Jesus’s age – and have spent a lot of time in prayer and in community, learning what my spiritual gifts are.  I try not to become complacent, but value working toward constantly honing and refining those gifts, as well as taking myself out of my own comfort zone to discover whether or not any latent gifts are waiting to emerge.

Caring for others is not one of my gifts.  I am abrasive, I problem-solve better than I listen, I get peopled out very quickly and I need to recharge in true introvert form by spending literally plural hours a day in quiet alone-time. 

I have found my servant niche as an administrator.  Frederick Buechner says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  I am deeply glad when I am puzzling out obstacles to an organization’s success and developing strategic plans to further the Kingdom of God through organizational efficiency.

Since most folks in ministry and non-profits would agree that there is a deep need for this kind of work, I became comfortable years ago that my path was a different one from Shane Claiborne or Bart Campolo.  I have been called by God to macro-level reconciliation.

Because I believe that we are to be more Christ-like, I do push myself to do some incarnational ministry.  My church attracts quite a few social misfits and I practice a spirituality of hospitality to all, including those who annoy me.  I make myself vulnerable to them, remembering my own misfit status and accepting their ministrations for my brokenness as well as being available to their needs.
  
In fact, I agree heartily with Nouwen that part of our spiraling spiritual walk involves rediscovering and exposing our vulnerable selves that bring nothing to God’s table but our brokenness.  I am engaged in a life-long process of truly acknowledging my real relationship with God (i.e. that I am not, in fact, God). 

However, I cannot believe that God intended for my parts that are not totally broken to be overwhelmed by the cracks and be in a constant state of uselessness.  Jesus was effective both because he taught and because he sacrificed himself to be resurrected.  In fact, each role was necessary to give the other divine meaning.  In other words, if Jesus has not taught, his sacrifice would not have meant much (or possibly even have occurred) and if he had not been resurrected, his teachings would not have drawn the attention of people that needed to hear them for the last 2000 years.  Similarly, my weaknesses and my strengths are interdependent to my participation in the Kingdom of God here on Earth.  It is not time yet for me to retire to an intentional community and focus my energy on individuals rather than systemic change.

Frankly, it seems a little unfair for Nouwen to say, “Be irrelevant” now that he has had the privilege of being relevant for the last 20 years.

Of course, whenever I spend this much energy rebutting someone, I need to look inside myself to figure out what I’m insecure about that’s causing me to put my own views forward so vehemently.  I think the most obvious answer is that motherhood is forcing me into a less impactful stage of life.  I use the word “impact” in it’s most technical sense meaning measurable achievement of goals.  In becoming – ugh – a stay-at-home mom, I actually am retiring to an intentional community to focus my energy on individuals rather than systemic change.  I do not have a set plan to go back to work, meaning I am setting aside my training, my degree, and my network.  I have heard women describe this as dying for our children in obedience to Christ’s teaching that we die in order to live in him.  While that resonates as truth when I hear it, I’m still struggling to know if it is the right path for me.  There are lots of different truths out there.

I know that I am called to use the privilege that I was born with to leverage the work of street-level practitioners in order to help change the world so that more people can reach the potential God intends for them rather than being stunted by oppression and lack of resources.  I have not yet figured out how to do that while also creating a healthy environment for my nascent family.

That lack of resolution causes me to rail at Henri Nouwen and motivates me to ask this cohort for help in discerning my path.

By the time we shared these essays at the end of the week, I almost felt like it no longer applied.  Many of my cohorts also feel a calling toward impact: God's justice in addition to God's mercy.  There were several other mothers there who were clearly figuring out a balance.  We're going to meet several times more over the next two years and I'm looking forward to becoming friends and figuring out some of these things.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Esther Alanna

I'm pleased to introduce to you my tiny daughter, Esther Alanna.


She was born last Sunday after a fairly difficult labor and delivery both healthy and surrounded by immense joy.

She was 8 pounds and 7 ounces and 21 inches long. She also has gigantic feet. She has a full head of the softest hair I have ever stroked and I am unembarrassed in fulfilling the cliché of a new parent who can spend huge chunks of time simply looking at he baby when once she itched to be "productive" with handicrafts in every idle moment.

Jacob has taken to fatherhood like a duck to water, to embrace another cliche. This morning he stumbled into the nursery, bleary-eyed and smiling, demanding his turn to hold her. He somehow sensed that she was done eating from the other room. I am healing and get worm out pretty quickly and Jacob has been amazing both in his uncomplaining assumption of all domestic chores and in his total support of me when I get overtired and despair or lose all perspective with which to problem-solve the frustrations that come up.

I thank God multiple times a day that this baby arrived when she did in my life, with this partner. I am also reminded regularly by my body what an amazing machine God constructed to be so powerful and with the ability to be taxed to it's limits and then to heal with resiliency afterwards.

My best friend Susan was present for all four days of labor and all three hours of pushing and delivery. When I helped my other friends give birth, the mother told me that she couldn't have done it without me. I thought she was being sincere but hyperbolic until my own birthing experience. Without Susan to cradle my head and shoulders, lifting them up and curling me forward with every push, talking to me and providing a focus for my energy, they would have had to send me up for a c-section. She has known me intimately for 12 years and is a god leader in all sorts of circumstances. Helping me was the perfect combination of her skills. Her presence allowed Jacob to be present for his own experience of becoming a father, allowing him to witness and assist in Esther's emergence, building a foundation for their relationship. I am so grateful for the balance that Susan's effort allowed Jacob and I to experience.

I hope to write out my birth story for those of you who are interested, as well as to tell you more about her names. I hope to continue feeling better so that I can do this.

Welcome to the world, sweet baby girl. I have been struck over and over again in the last week by just how enlarged my soul feels at the prospect of sharing what I have collected, learned and created with you. The dancing means more now that your father and I have you to dance with.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Due dates are not deadlines

When I was an adolescent, my father would regularly greet me by replacing my name with whatever was emblazoned on my t-shirt. "Hey, A Midsummer Night's Dream!" "Good morning, multi-colored bugs!" "Hello, Winter Retreat '92!" When you read those sentences, be sure to hear them with an overly enthusiastic sportscaster voice and quite possible a slow rise in pitch to the exclamation point at the end.

It was horrifying.

Once, he had to resort to simply, "Hey, red shirt." I think he might have embarrassed even himself when he said, "How ya doin', Glen Ellyn Girls Softball All-Star Team!"

I hated it and he had to know it. I was not necessarily subtle in my eye rolls, my angry huffing and my mumbles (which were far from sotto voce). I'm sure I actually yelled at him for it once or twice. I believe that my main complaint was that he had named me a perfectly nice name, why did he insist on ignoring it? The reality, of course, is that his motivations were mostly to engage me on the topics of things I cared about and to be playful. However, this was combined with a general perverse love of harassment, especially when the recipient is not receptive. I watch him do this to my 15-month-old niece now so it certainly wasn't personal then. The reality about why it pissed me off had more to do with wanting people to value me for me, not what I wore or what I did.

I told this story to my friend, Mark, who now has two children of his own that are old enough to talk. Usually, Mark thinks my stories are great and that I am a generally very charming tragi-comic protagonist in them.

This time, however, Mark just let his forehead drop into his hands and said, "Your poor father."

Traitor.

It's one thing when I recognize that I have a history of being less than gracious. That's humility, a spiritual blessing. It's totally different when someone else sides with your embarrassing dad. That's basically an attack, right?

All joking aside, Mark gets it. I'm learning that loving your child is scary intense and mine isn't even on the outside yet, much less talking. I have had lots of conversations about how mean kids are to each other but we don't talk much about how mean kids are to their parents. How do you defend yourself against that kind of rejection?

Anyway, I've been telling people the first part of that story as an illustration of how I expected it to be difficult as my pregnancy started to show more and more and people began to think that this parasite inside of me was their business. The story proves that for a long time in my life, I have struggled when I feel like people don't see and engage me and I feel instead like they are treating me like a vehicle for something that they actually care about. I have hated when people ask me about how my sick relative is doing before asking how I am doing. I have hated when people asked me about wedding details instead of what I actually cared about: marriage. Whether they actually are prodding only for information to interests them (like I fear) or whether they they are looking for a way to break the ice (which is usually true), most people just want to connect if they're bothering to talk at all. It's not their fault I'm an unforgiving bitch with insanely high standards for intra-personal interaction when I get stressed out.

So, slowly, I have been working on becoming more and more gracious when people express interest in my life cycle events. I remember to be grateful that people care about me at all. I also remember sometimes that everything isn't always about me and that sometimes people are interested about my life cycle events because it reminds them of their own experiences, which is not a bad thing.

Or, sometimes, I remind myself that maybe they are just being kind because I'm looking a little bedraggled and they want to give me the opportunity to vomit a little something up to see if I'll feel better, like holding someone's hair when they've had too much to drink.

I expected to have to practice these skills with determination as my pregnancy become more and more visually undeniable. People warned me that strangers would want to touch me. I knew many of my co-workers would ask the same questions daily as greetings.

This is where the grace of God comes in.

Because I haven't seemed to mind these intrusions on my social space. Actually, very few people want to touch the belly (maybe I haven't completely shed the air of intimidation I carry with me) and the obvious excitement of others fills me with joy and I can feel myself glowing. I embody the cliche. Apparently, I love being pregnant and love being reminded of it.

There are exceptions, of course. One woman at work always takes my polite acceptance of chit-chat as a challenge to say something that will shock me. For example:
Co-worker - Girl, you are getting big!
Rebecca - I know, right?
Co-worker - Naw, you don't know. It's going to get much bigger than that.

And once an old lady touched my belly as I was getting out of the shower at the YMCA.

But yesterday a tiny old woman standing outside the hospital told me in a thick accent, "Be strong."

And I heard a lady in the pool exclaim in delight to her friend, "It's been so long since I've seen a pregnant woman."

Also, several street people have not even bothered to ask me for change in the window they have with me as I walk past, preferring instead to speculate on the gender of this little one.

On the bus yesterday, an 88-year-old woman with nubs for teeth - but who was otherwise generally clean - used my pregnancy as entree to get me to guess her middle name then entertained the entire bus with her loud and ridiculous storytelling. (Her cat is named Pussycat, even though it's a boy because it's not like she's going to call him Peniscat, is she?)

So many people do literal double-takes as they pass me. I assume this is because I am so big and so dramatically carrying it all in front, like I've stuffed a pillow up my shirt. Women smile at the sight of me and I can tell they don't realize they are doing it until I smile back.

This is me three weeks ago.  Imagine what I look like now that I'm a full 40 weeks!

This baby causes so much joy in the world and s/he's not even born yet. It won't be a blank slate when it's born; it will have already had a good 3-4 months of meaning and purpose in the world racked up in the tikkun olam column.

However, I have found recently that I really do not like when people ask me when the baby is due and more recently when friends send texts and write on my facebook wall asking if contractions have started yet. For all that I laugh it off when people inquire if I'm dilated yet (really? the inside of my vagina is your business?), it's hard when people talk about due dates as if they were deadlines and calculate in their heads whether or not I'm late. Or when they project onto me their anxiousness for me to push this baby out already, I experience for the first time in this season that objectification I have felt in the past. I'm actually quite content to wait out my body's endgame and it feels like people who assume that I'm anxious for this pregnancy to end don't actually care about me and my unique experience.

So, I sat down and problem-solved in my head some responses so that I could remain gracious. When folks ask about when the baby is due, often I simply say, "Any day now." If they persist, I have a little friendly lecture about the arbitrary nature of due dates that consists of two points: 1. Most are based upon the first day or your last period and are not related to the date of actual conception and 2. I am not a microwave so my body should not just automatically go into labor at 40 weeks. A little good-natured educatin' goes a long way to communicated to people that I'm not interested in their stock responses of "not long now!" (For some decent data on due dates, check out Space Fem.)

For the friends who have been checking in with me by asking if the baby has arrived yet, I have decided to simply ignore them. Regardless of their good intentions, it makes me feel bad and I've decided to have a little grace for myself and not push myself too hard to be a better person in addition to dealing with swollen feet in this 95 degree weather.

But for the friends (and my mother-in-law) who end voice mails with, "you totally don't have to call me back; I just wanted you to know I was thinking about you" and who write lovely comments about how good I look or what a great mom they think I'll be, I treasure these words up and ponder them in my heart. Then, I try to affirm their responses.

I want to tell you that my dad falls into that second group of sensitive people. He left a message for me today where he successfully affirmed that he and my mom were ready to support me when I go into labor without implying that labor should hurry up and start. This is a sophisticated little piece of communication to pull off. When listening to the message, I felt so good that he has been paying attention to my actual state of mind regarding this stage of pregnancy and that he refrained from harassing me, even though that's a pattern that we're both now mostly comfortable with. I feel good when he's tender with me sometimes both because that feels good and because it means that maybe I've become a little better at letting him love me so he doesn't have to proactively defend himself against my eye-rolling.

Like figuring out how to successfully interact with . . . you know . . . people, parenting is going to be perplexing and hard, dude. But if even my dad can figure it out, all hope is not yet lost.