WOODEN EGGS, IMAGINARY OMELETTES, AND THE WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST

By Angel Underhill

It's time to make dinner and I am sitting on the floor in the kitchen pretending to crack wooden eggs into a colander with my almost two year old child. She likes to play in the pantry while I’m cooking. The good days are when she is content to whip up an imaginary omelette by herself. The hard days are like today when “Mama sit! Mama sit” is really code for “I need you to stop what you’re doing right now and play with me, or I promise, I will go crazy ass Gollum from "The Lord of the Rings" on you.”  But… I can’t.  My brain is spiraling into a vortex of reasons why I can’t stop:  the cats are about to jump on the counter to eat the salmon that I am getting ready to put in the oven.  I am tired.  I feel like kicking the cat that is circling my leg.  I want another glass of wine.   I don’t want to make a fake omelette.  Your papa will be home in 45 minutes and the house is trashed.  Annnd now you’re starting to lose it.  Just give me one second.  No don’t cry.  It’s okay….It’s okay...It’s okay.  I’m okay.  Breathe.  I hate this cat.  Dammit! I just spilled sauce on the floor. How do I do this?  Why can’t I be more organized?  I hate cooking.  I can’t do this.  Faaaabulous...now you’re doing that crazy Gollum sounding scream because you can’t get the empty spice bottle I gave you to play with open on your own….I am muttering to myself: “I--am--going--to--lose--my--fucking--mind.”  Shit.  Don’t say “fucking” out loud.  She will hear you.  Bad mom. Bad mom!

I shove the salmon in the oven and forget about the rest.  And that is how I end up on the floor cracking wooden eggs into a colander.   Some days its a kitchen dance party to Dora the Explorer or Elmo Slide that keeps both of us from the abyss of toddler meltdowns.  Some days, that’s my only cardio.  

Today is one of those days. We narrowly avoid falling from the precipice into a full on tantrum.  I have cracked enough eggs to amuse.  Her interest in playing on her own has been renewed; she just needed me to check in. I may now resume my household duties.  I straighten up some of the nearby messes so she can still hear me bustling around her and know that I haven’t gone too far.  The clingy stage we are in sometimes feels like a powerful wave pulling me out to a deep part of the ocean where I can’t touch bottom and I am, every moment, in danger of going under.

But the wave is not generated by her need alone. Mixed up in that is my internal chatter.  Like all humans, I have my own version of self talk, that inside dialogue that can either build you up or tear you down.  In the midst of this momentary calm, the somewhat hostile, hyper critical voice sometimes present inside me begins its litany of comparison with other moms.  “Should have let her ‘cry it out.’ Wouldn’t still be so tired; things would have been easier. You’ve made it harder than it needed to be with all your ‘attachment parenting’ choices,” the voice says when I recall wide eyed looks of barely concealed judgment from some who sleep trained their kids. I reflect back on the horror expressed by others over the idea of a family bed, and the voice says,” You’re a sucker, you’ve created a bad habit. You’ll never get her out of your bed now…” Then I start to visualize the disapproving looks from others upon learning that my  21 month old still nurses during the day. I hear that damn voice say, “Shoulda stopped a looooonnnng time ago.” And still another comparison crowds its way in as I recall the moms who say they don’t, and never have felt rage or resentment when their kids cry incessantly--either as babies or toddlers--and they didn’t/don’t know what to do, are exhausted and stressed, discouraged and overwhelmed. The voice chimes in here too, clanging loudly with shame ,  "Yeah, you suck.  Bad mom!  Good thing your ass is in therapy!”  And so on so forth, down the rabbit hole I go.

Jesus.  This “voice” is a stone cold bitch.  I think to myself:  But...is she right? Is it just harder for me than everyone else because I made the wrong choices? Or are these moms who seem to have it all together--or at least, so much easier--fudging on the truth of what its really like for them? Maybe they just have “easier kids”? Or more help? Why do I care anyway??

That question ushers in another voice, a kinder one. It floats on in and smashes the bitchy judgmental one like Dorothy’s house landing on the Wicked Witch of the West.  And suddenly, I have an idea: maybe it doesn’t matter.  Maybe none of the comparisons matter.  This is my experience.  Period.  I have enough tell-it-like-it-is moms in my life to know that parental experiences and types of kids reflect as much variety as a box of crayolas and beyond.  And just like that, the "crazy" passes--at least for the moment-- and I am back to rolling with my little toddler homey.

Pretty soon I am asking myself more important questions like: “What does it mean when the vaudeville style humor of Raffi’s song “Banana Phone” makes me belly laugh?”  “It’s a phone with appeal!” he says, a la Groucho Marx in between the upbeat swing of melody. I am heartily guffawing while my child looks on, eyebrows furrowed.  “You can have your phone and eat it too!” I’m kinda crying now. It’s one of those laugh/cries that washes a sense of relief and perspective over me until I am breathing easy once more.  “This song drives me... bananas!” he persists. “Ring, ring, ring...banana phone…”  I friggin love it.  I am grateful for how this little tune takes me away from the adult mess in my head and gives me back to Hazel.  

These are not easy times.  In fact as one cool, vulnerable, validating mom friend recently said to me “these under age 3 years can be ‘dark days’…” Indeed they can be.  Not in a sinister way of course.  But the level of isolation, too often a hallmark of modern parenting, the anxiety and stress involved in keeping alive a small human who seems to seek out danger with increasing frequency, the exhausting nature of second guessing and general feelings of cluelessness, the harrying, frazzled intensity of toddler emotional development--all of these hard things and more that often accompany this leg of the journey--can weigh heavily on a mama. 

But she also encouraged me and said there is “light at the end of the tunnel.”  She told me I would never regret the extra time taken, nor the challenges and difficulties associated with some of the attachment parenting choices my husband and I have made.  I believe her.  I am already looking back over nearly two years of life with Hazel.  I feel strangely nostalgic for those early “fourth trimester” days, so marked by the fear and sleep deprivation of a parenting neophyte.  Somehow, inexplicably, even the memory of those crazy cluster feeding sessions where all I could do was binge watch "Orange is the New Black" and "Gossip Girl" make me smile with longing. I cry each time I remove clothing from her dresser drawers that no longer fit her ever growing, long lean frame. And each time she sleepily says “hi mama” as I take her into our family bed at night, my stomach and throat are filled with that mysterious kind of heart ache that comes from loving something or someone so much.  

I lay next to her, my body curled gently around her, her little hand in mine. The whir of the white noise machine is like a long steady whisper in my ear. The night envelopes my little family with its darkness and I do not fear it or feel weighed down by it. It warms and comforts me, grants me refuge. I cling to it. I don’t ever want to let go.

MAKING PEACE WITH THE WHITE WOMEN'S VOTE FOR TRUMP

She looked at me without apprehension, without any fear of offending. Her words were easily spoken. “If I was Black, I’d want to have your skin tone,” she said. “Darker Black skin reminds me of an ape’s skin.” A feverish warmth crept over me. An awkward laugh escaped my lips, releasing some of the nervous tension generated by my shame. She was a woman I’d known for years, sung with in the vocal ministry of the large mega church I once belonged to. How can I be okay with this kind of thinking? How could she do it? Say something like that to me? What do I do now? “I can’t believe you just said that…” was all I could manage in the moment, one which transported me back to childhood, a time of low self esteem and a socio/cultural survival instinct that advised silence when it should have been telling me to howl in the face of racist ignorance, even if it was coming from those I loved and admired.

The inauguration of Donald J. Trump is now a thing of the past. But the reality that 52% of White women helped him achieve his goal, has me wrestling with the same questions I did that night with my church friend. How can I be okay with this kind of thinking? How could they do it? What do I do now? Indeed, I have asked those types of questions repeatedly throughout my life.

In Green Bay, WI, a place not especially known for its racial diversity, I was a biracial girl, living with my White mother and White adoptive father with little to no connection to my Black heritage. I was not brave. I just wanted to fit in. And that wasn’t easy because most of the time, I was the only brown person wherever I went. There was no one like me to compare notes with, or commiserate when racism reared it’s ugly head. Thankfully, it is not like this any longer. My world has expanded. I reconnected with my birth father, finally met my brother and sister and their families, and formed meaningful relationships with them. I love them all. But throughout my life, the majority of my close relationships were with White people, mostly women and girls. They represent half of who I am. They have been my friends, family, mentors, and teachers. It is largely their approval and love I most craved throughout my formative years. I have loved them deeply and many of them have truly loved me back. But many of them have been like my church friend, unaware or unfazed by the cognitive dissonance they possess when it comes to matters of race.

My one time ministry friend is not the first White friend to make a racist remark to my face, and believe they were paying me a compliment, nor is she the first White friend to behave in a racially insensitive manner towards me but show no visible signs of moral dilemma in doing so. Once at a family gathering, my own grandmother--who I loved tremendously and who loved the bejesus out of me--made an almost identical statement about dark skinned Black people. In high school, some of my White girlfriends would routinely confess that “I didn’t seem Black to them,” usually in a context which suggested I was considered superior or more acceptable to them because of that fact. The older sister of my best friend in 2nd grade used to make fun of my kinky hair at sleep overs in her house. She’d insist on picking out my curls--despite my shy protests-- until they resembled an afro: “Now you look like the Jackson Five!” she’d exclaim with delight.

In order to remain in relationship with some of these people, I’ve had to forgive and accept that a part of them is blind and their blindness causes me pain. Several weeks after learning the demographic break down of who Trump’s supporters are/were, I find myself, once again, engaged in this same reconciling process. It is a dance I am used to performing. As I struggle to understand the logic behind their votes, I read articles that attempt to explain. A collection of adjectival buzz words and phrases crowd the corners of my mind: disaffected, racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic. Which of these most accurately describes the people who gave their support to such a man? Jon Stewart-- who I’ve always admired-- said recently in an interview with Charlie Rose that not all those who voted for Trump are a monolith. They are not all racists. They are not all misogynists. I think he’s right. But they are overwhelmingly White. Some of them are college educated, some are not. Some are middle class; many are poor and working class. Something like 81% of them are White Evangelical Christians and 52% of them are White women.

A friend recently asked me why this last group in particular inspires such sadness in me. After all, I have lots of friends, women who happen to be White, who did not vote for the new president. They share my feelings of hurt and betrayal. I’ve been thinking about her question and I’ve realized it’s more than a sense of perceived disloyalty within the ranks of my gender. For me personally, as a racial minority, it comes back to the question of belonging that plagued me as an adolescent, well into my 20’s, and sometimes on occasion, to this day.

President Barack Obama is biracial, like me. He was raised by his White mother and White grandparents, like me. He learned how to talk to, and commune with both sides--Black and White--like me, and yet in the end there were still lots of White people, including--most famously and adamantly--Donald Trump, who sought to remind him that he wasn’t truly “one of them.” According to them, he wasn’t a citizen, and so therefore didn’t belong. How many times have I experienced that feeling of hitting some impassable threshold with White people, where they suddenly need to remind me of who I am to them and how I’m only “allowed” to go so far? Too many to count: I have been that girl who some Christian mom liked to see as a singer on the worship team at her church, but was too Black to date her son. I have been that someone who’s skin color a girlfriend once admired, but only because it wasn’t too Black. I have been the brown girl who belonged...until someone told her she didn’t.

I can accept and believe that not everyone who voted for our new president is a racist. But I think its pretty clear that at worst, he is, and at best, he has no qualms about using racist rhetoric in order to gain power and attention. Either scenario is despicable. The White women who voted for Mr. Trump heard the same words from him that I did, witnessed the same uncouth behavior. They heard him call Mexicans rapists, refer to Black neighborhoods as generally “burning down,” crime infested ghettos. They heard him demonize an entire movement that is justly and understandably concerned about unfair treatment of Black men by the police, they listened to him call for the banishment of an entire group of people because of their religion, and they watched as he harassed our former president--our first Black president--in public, with accusations that he was not a citizen. And yet, they voted for him anyway. I won’t uniformly label all of them racists. But I won’t hide the fact that as a Black and White biracial woman, who has always felt great love for—and to a certain extent—camaraderie with White women, I am deeply, deeply wounded by the choice so many of them made.

Perhaps the complexity and longevity of racism’s hold on this country’s systemic structure and cultural psyche, makes the cognitive dissonance inevitable. It’s like living with the symptoms of a long ago contracted disease you never figured out you have, and so nothing is done to treat it. There is a disconnect somewhere. And it makes coming together that much harder to do.

I take heart in knowing that in spite of how I feel about the election results, there are still many, many people willing to self-reflect and have honest conversations about race and racism in this country. They are able to wade into the bitter waters of its history--as painful and uncomfortable as that can sometimes be--and acknowledge all the ways it has hurt us as a people, as a community of Americans. Yesterday I marched in Chicago with women and men of all races, and from all walks of life who were standing up for the good stuff. I soaked up all the global coverage of worldwide marches with a thirsty soul and felt satisfied. On days like that, I feel hopeful. I feel like I belong.                                                                                         

 

MARCHING FOR THE FUTURE

It's my husband's turn to put Hazel to sleep, a process that goes much easier when me and my boobs are not around.  Tonight however, she was a champ.  She saw me walk to the coat closet to grab my scarf and coat and cheerfully said "Bye, bye.  Mama, bye bye?"  I told her I loved her and left without any screaming toddler protests following me out the door.

But I didn't go far.  It's another frigid night here in the Midwest and I am not ambitious enough to head to the local Starbuck's or anywhere else.  So here I sit on the floor at the top of the stairs just outside our apartment.  I can hear her talking to her father in that sweet broken toddler English with her own secret gibberish interspersed.  They are "saying goodnight to the house," which is part of their special bed time ritual. "Good night lamp good night, see you in the morning, goodnight room, goodnight cats. see you in the morning time"  I love them.  They are so good.  And my sweet girl, she is so eager, alive, and vulnerable it hurts me to think about it sometimes.  But I do think about it, with a bit more worry now since the recent presidential election.

When I first listened to the tape of our now president elect, bragging about his sexual misconduct with such hubris and flippant disregard for women's bodies, I got chills.  I thought for sure we'd seen the last of him.  I thought that after witnessing his disrespectful behavior towards Megan Kelly during and after the debate she moderated, and after his stalker like intimidation shenanigans towards Hillary Clinton during their last debate (the one where he called her a "nasty woman"), and before that, all those accounts of him barging into the dressing rooms of contestants competing in his pageants.  But none of these incidents deterred 52% of White women from supporting him.

I mention this demographic specifically because it is the one whose actions I am most puzzled by. I thought we women had each other's backs.  At least in the face of such chronic, clearly, demonstrated misogyny.  That was my hope anyway.  But I'll admit that quite early the night of the election, there was a sinking feeling in my stretch marked, left over baby belly.  Call it "women's intuition."  I somehow knew deep in my soul that he was going to win.  The juxtaposition of hope against the cynicism that had me crying before the race was even officially over was enough to make my head spin like a top right off my body.  

I feel it now as I anticipate marching with the women of Chicago on January 21st.  We will do it in solidarity with those traveling from all over the country to participate in the march on Washington.  A dispairing, pessimistic part of me says it will probably accomplish nothing.  But there is another part there too.  A little voice competing for attention.  It says "you have to try...something.  You have to make some kind of beginning...some demonstration of your resolve to stay involved in this process."

 I want Hazel to learn that no one can diminish you or strip you of your value as a human being--not even a president elect with a fragile ego and a penchant for hateful, otherizing rhetoric. I tell myself I am doing this for her--for her future self--when she will be old enough to understand you must not allow a bully to intimidate you into silence. But it's more than wanting to set an example for my daughter.  I feel the need to push back against an existential threat.  It seems melodramatic to write those words and yet, somehow I believe them.

It was just 8 years ago that a girlfriend of mine and I went to the campaign headquarters here in Chicago for then candidate Obama and volunteered to make phone calls to potential supporters.  We were filled with excitement.  The belief that we were participating in a historical moment energized us.  And on the night of his election, we joined hundreds of other proud Chicagoans in Grant Park and wept for joy.

But now, a different kind of historical moment is having its day.  I don't pretend to fully understand all the forces that brought us here.  But to the extent that this zeitgeist the president elect seems to have captured is about racism, misogyny, and xenophobic thinking, I am filled with dread. I wonder how prescient Meryl Streep's cautionary comments during her  speech at the Golden Globes may be.  What kind of long term impact will his manner have on our sociocultural environment?  How will it affect the next generation?

My husband keeps impressing upon me the need to get involved at the grass roots level.  Do something! Instead of lamenting over every new twitter tirade, or cabinet pick, or inflammatory news headline, take part in some local effort to effect change.  Or to fight some of the change that may be coming.  He's right. I'm not sure what that will look like for me with a toddler in tow most of my days and nights.  I will start with this coming Saturday's march.  I will continue to hope.  And I will think about my girl.  I will let my love for her and my desire to see her grow up in a country that values who she is, lead me to the next thing.

 

A NOTE TO MY DAUGHTER: TIME TRAVEL IS POSSIBLE

You never really “woke me up” those first few months.  I don’t think I ever actually fell asleep.  I was terrified of SIDS and anyway my body ached all over from pushing you out of my vagina. Your papa and I fought like two people under an evil spell cast every night around 6:00 p.m.  He’d say “you’re shutting me out. You’re putting too much pressure on yourself with the breastfeeding.” I’d say “No I’m not!  You don’t understand!” And we’d transform into squabbling, sleep deprived ogres. Then, suddenly, the spell would lift, I would cry, your papa would hold me in his arms, bewildered and worn out, both of us staring at each other with matching “how the hell did we get here?!” expressions on our faces.

I remember the day I whipped my nipple shield across the room in a fit of rage, only to go frantically looking for it 10 minutes later when you wouldn’t latch without it.  I hated that thing.  Every day I’d watch through the clear silicone as colostrum or formula pooled around my nippIe. I obsessively looked at the mL markings on the SNS bottle clipped to my bra, inwardly lamenting over how slowly the amount seemed to be diminishing. And it never stayed behind the damn shield. Some portion always leaked out, running down the vastness of my size E boobies. That period of time: me waiting for my milk to be fully in, building up my supply, using the shield and the supplemental nursing system, only lasted for a couple weeks after bringing you home, but it felt like fucking forever.  Somewhere in the deep dark hormonally saturated corners of my mind, I knew even then, that I would laugh about it all one day.

You were so little then. Now you are weeks away from being a 1 year old. I’ve stopped reading all the breastfeeding books.  And the books on how to get you to sleep through the night.  We don’t need them anymore.  No more silicone torture devices.  No more pondering over questions that people ask about your sleep patterns like: “Is she a good baby?” or “Does she sleep in her crib now instead of in your bed?” We have made our choices. And for now at least, we are content with them.

I believe they are choices that have promoted and helped establish the bond we now share. We do everything together.  Every morning we get up and go for a walk, or a run.  We pass by the “Little Free Library” on our street and look at the selection.  In the house directly across from it there is a man who sits in his chair, in the front window, reading a newspaper. Each morning he’s there.  He looks up as we walk by; maybe one day we’ll wave.  For now I feel too reserved.  

But we do talk to the crosswalk lady who has a little patch of land in Ireland where she grew up.  She will spend part of her summer there once school has ended for the year.  I feel that familiar sting of longing for my old freedom as she tells us about it, when your papa and I could just travel to any place we wanted.  But you will go with us now.  And during the recent road trip to see your grandma and grandpa, I caught a glimpse of how fun it will be to have you as a travel companion.  You notice people. You charm them from across the room, in random hipster coffee houses and “Any Town, USA” restaurant chains like Applebee’s, until they can’t help smiling back at you, until they are compelled to cross rooms to talk to you, greet you as if you were an old friend.

You are always watching me now.  I have to be careful. My temper is quick. I am easily frustrated when I feel inadequate and overtired--not a winning combo but one I live with daily.  I think about that chapter in Little Women where Jo is struggling with her passionate nature which often manifests as a quick temper. She is surprised to learn that this was also once true of her beloved Marmee who has over time learned to control it. So much so that her daughter was not aware it had ever been difficult. That is what I wish for you and I. Not that you will see me perfect--I’d rather be real to you--but that you will see me modeling my ability to master my temper not be ruled by it..

You made me a mother. You are a very small person with no agenda other than to be loved and yet you’ve changed my identity. I have been altered by your small 18 pound presence in this world. And as you and I move together from one developmental milestone to the next I ramble on about all of it.  Documenting you, in my journal, in pictures and videos, on this blog. Like the first time you smiled at me, or held your head up on your own, or rolled over, or crawled, or most recently, walked. You took five steps in a row one afternoon at our Wednesday Waldorf class.  I wanted to memorize the event, hold it, like a yoga pose, and just breathe.  In spite of the desperate moments: the postpartum depression woes, the torturous, sleepless nights, some little piece of these experiences must remain close to me, available in my memory for re-visiting, re-feeling.  I don’t want to forget you as you are now.  I don’t want to forget me as I am now.  How we are together, at the beginning of things.  Memory is a time machine, so I must build a good one.  

 

CONFESSIONS OF A MAMA BEAR

By Angel Underhill

Last week I celebrated my first Mother's Day as a mom.  I am a mom. I...am a mom.  Yep. Still has a WTF?! ring to it when I hear myself say it out loud. We went on two walks with the bambino around our new, more family-friendly neighborhood.  Everywhere we looked there were multiple versions of ourselves: mama, papa, baby, stroller.  Some days, I can't help feeling like an imposter--a perpetually dishevled, chronically disorganized, "how-the-hell-did-I-get-here?" expression wearing person--who is impersonating a grown up, pretending to be a parent. 

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That is how surreal this gig can feel at times.  And yet, I can see that the "mama bear" in me, the one that hibernated through 42 years of childlessness, has sprung awake. And she's for real, yo.  I recently felt myself manifest this more intensely at the weekly playgroup Hazel and I attend. It was time to put away all the toys, but with  a bunch of kids under 2 that's not always a smooth transition.  Some cooperated of course.  But there were a lot of little bodies going limp with rebellion in the arms of their moms or caregivers.  Others were making off with some toy they refused to give up, waddling away as fast as their little diapered butts could carry them. Hazel was one of those.  Not quite on board with the message of "clean up time," she was crawling towards something she wanted--can't remember now what.  I turned for a second to put a toy in a basket. All the dramatic stuff happens in a second.  This time it involved some kid's nanny walking backwards over Hazel. One of her legs knocked my girl over and still the woman kept moving, not looking down or altering her course in any way, as if Hazel was some inanimate object she could not harm.  I could see her other leg coming down; she was going to step on my child again, so I placed both of my hands squarely on her shoulder and pushed as hard as I could in the opposite direction. As I grabbed Hazel up from the floor I heard a bland, banal voice saying, "Oh, I'm sorry.  I'm sorry," then my voice saying "It's okay, it's okay." But it wasn't. I was only being "nice," cloaking how upset I was with that generic we're-all-still-friends-here response often used when in a public place and you don't want to get into it with a stranger or when you are trying to convince yourself of something. It was a little chant to soothe my jangled nerves, to assuage my tired mama worry with the assurance that I had rescued my baby and all would be well. It was a little chant to help silence the inner bear no longer snoozing through a long winter but aroused, vigilant, and ready to knock the shit out of anyone who might hurt her cub.

The side of Hazel's face was red where she'd hit the floor; she was frightened and crying. I could barely look at the nanny.  I think when I pushed her, she was holding on to the little girl she looked after but I'm not certain.  Honestly, In the moment I didn't care.  All I could think about was that this rather large person was going to crush my baby unless I stopped her.  

We moved into the singing portion of the class and as soon as Old McDonald's cow became the focus, Hazel was smiling again.  My adrenaline rush subsided and I felt slightly more empathetic towards the nanny. She seemed to be avoiding eye contact with me. It occurred to me that perhaps I should apologize for pushing her. But as I sat there listening to "This Little Light of Mine," I knew I wouldn't do it.  I wasn't sorry. Then I thought maybe I should at least explain why. Shouldn't I address what just passed between us? Shouldn't I make sure she knows that my actions were in no way inspired by nastiness or aggression only terror over the possibility that my baby was about to be trampled? But I didn't do that either.  I've grown weary of explaining myself to people.  It requires more emotional energy than I possess most days.  Call it laziness, call it a short cut, call it whatever you want. To someone like me who tends to explain more often than needed, remain loyal longer than many deserve, initiate communication more times than what is reciprocated, it felt liberating to let my actions speak louder than my words this time.

So, in the end I neither offered an apology or an explanation. I decided to trust that the "why" was understood.  I was just "mama bear," doing what she sometimes gotta do.  I embraced that wonderful surge of wild, primal protective love that propelled me forward into the "nanny body slam" that rescued my tiny human.  Any self-doubt or guilty feelings quickly melted away.  Because in the words of Sweet Brown, one time You Tube sensation:  "Ain't nobody got time for that!"

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ENJOY THE CUDDLES

 As I rock and nurse Hazel for her first nap of the day, I feel a surge of elation about our breastfeeding journey so far. We had lots of trouble at the beginning: lip and tongue ties, inverted nipples, a man handling nurse with bad advice about my supposedly non-existent colostrum. So on days when it all seems to be going right I enjoy and acknowledge those feelings of triumph. But the whole truth, is that breastfeeding my daughter has been both a joy and a pain. Just as certainly in one moment I may feel like a Disney princess with little blue birds tweeting sweetly around my head as I sit in some meadow, nursing away, Hazel bites my nipple--HARD--in the next, and I remember that this shit is not for the faint of heart.

 My goal is to nurse her for a year. We are only 3 months away from that goal.  I know it will be one of those things I look back on and cry because I miss it.  I will miss those moments when I can hear her breathing against my breast.  When a sweaty heat forms in the crook of my arm where her head rests because we've been rocking for awhile, but I don't mind.  I will miss her little hand stroking the skin on my stomach. This is something I've dreamed about doing since I was 12 years old watching my aunt nurse my baby cousin.

And yet there are times when I don't want to be touched. Where I want to be gone for several hours without having to hook my boobs up to a machine that squeezes milk out of them, in order to keep the fountain of "liquid gold" flowing. When night time finally comes my husband sits next to me on the bed and I know we only have another 30 minutes or less together before she wakes.  Thirty minutes before I have to go into the dark cave of her room and nurse her into her next sleep cycle.  Breast milk is the glue that binds each cycle to the next.  She hasn't learned yet to connect them on her own. 

I tell him about our afternoon, spent with a friend of mine who has a 13 month old boy.  We visited Garfield Conservatory for the first time.  Hazel loved crawling all over the floor--made of recycled something (tires, shoe soles?)-- in the children's garden. When they got hungry, we nursed them right there in the crawling infants only section.  I love the accessibility of breastfeeding. I have no real fear anymore of nursing in public, uncovered.  It genuinely surprises me that people get so annoyed or offended by it. But in the early days, I was self conscious and would often try to nurse with a cover. Hazel hated it.  She would fuss to the point of hysteria--in her and in me!  Several heart palpitations later I'd end up in the bathroom of wherever we were.  I once nursed Hazel on the floor in a bathroom stall at Gino's East amidst the stale smell of mildew, poop, and urine.  It was the last time.  

After our 3 hour stint with her in the crib--when we're close to tucking in for the night--we bring her into our bed.  She nurses a few times throughout the night, but mostly she just wants to be near me.  It's not always easy--so much interrupted sleep.  I try to forget about all the people I know who have followed the cry-it-out method for sleep training.  We have chosen not to do it and that choice suits us.  But like I said before:  this shit is not for the faint of heart.  And sometimes my heart feels like it might be.  I try to follow the advice of women in the online breastfeeding and sleep support groups I am part of: "This time doesn't last forever," they say. "Enjoy the cuddles."  

Her monkey night light is staring at me from the floor in our room. From where I'm sitting, on the couch in the living room, I can just make out her tiny shape on our mattress.  I am writing and falling asleep as I watch my words appear on the screen.  I catch myself doing that throughout the day: eyes drooping closed and then darting open again.  But I won't always be this tired.  She won't always be a tiny shape on a mattress, looking for me when she awakens and realizes my warm body is no longer next to hers.  

 

HOW TO FIND PURPOSE AS A NEW MOM IF YOU'RE AN EX-JESUS FREAK

I devoted nearly a decade of my life to ministry.I regularly sang at a large Evangelical Christian mega church in the suburbs of Chicago, and for a time believed I'd been called to be a worship leader.For those of you not familiar with the term, it's a person who leads a church congregation during the singing portion of a service.I always secretly thought it was like the Christian equivalent of a rock star--especially if you were a famous worship leader, a guy with a guitar, and the Christian anthems you wrote sounded slightly like U2 rip offs.But as it turns out, I did not become a famous worship leader or even an infamous one.Instead I left the church and ministry altogether.A friend cautioned me once that a little bit of questioning and doubt was okay, but if I went too far down that road I might end up far from Jesus.Well,I went miles and MILES down that road, to a place where many of the people in my life now don't even know I used to be a "Jesus freak." Now don't get me wrong; I use that expression with a mixture of humor and lingering affection. In the end it wasn't really the person of Jesus who made me want to be free of Christianity but the often unhealthy and sometimes abusive subcultures built up around the religion that bares his name. 

I don't see myself returning to that environment or belief system, but then again, life has a way of recycling itself: sometimes what's old can be made new again. I started from doubt, disillusionment, and skepticism and that is where I have returned.Who knows? Maybe there will be another go round. For now though, I don't miss church or the Christian subculture, and I don't miss worship leading. What I do miss, is the sense of meaning and purpose I got from being part of a ministry that believed it was changing the world. How do you replace something like that?

The birth of my child intensified this consideration. She set off an "existential crisis alarm" in me.I was at home, isolated, no family nearby, and the one thing I worked hard at every day--keeping my daughter alive--was the hardest thing, the most exhausting thing, the thing I'd never done before. My husband awoke one night in those early weeks to find me in the rocking chair, trying to nurse a baby who was tanking up like she wouldn't be eating for the next three days, and moaning through my tears, "I feel like I don't know who I am anymore..." And in a way, I didn't.Still don't.You might say I'm an old thing that's been made new and I have to get reacquainted with this recently updated version of myself. How do I manage without that larger sense of purpose religion once gave me?How do I learn to trust and believe that those small, unassuming, un-witnessed moments with Hazel can be placed on par with the status of all that I was before, like worship leader or singer/actress in the secular world?The afternoon I first realized this was part of what I was/am struggling with, one of my girlfriends was visiting.I tried very hard to explain it to her. As I stood in our dining room, one boob still hanging out from an ongoing nursing session, my hair all crazy and spit up on my shirt and pants, I could barely craft a coherent sentence.Words were sliding out of my brain like grain out of a sieve. 

In the last few days it has occurred to me that the reason I had such difficulty expressing myself to my friend--aside from the brain cell devouring sleep deprivation that is parenting--was because I wasn't separating meaning and purpose from a Christian world view.It's not the only way to talk about those ideas, and funnily enough, when I do remove the religious element from my consideration, familiar things remain. Values like kindness, empathy, connecting with people,forgiveness--none of which are unique to Christianity--these things rise to the top.What if being a worship leader or part of some large ministry, or being a professional singer, what if that's just context?And what if, for me, purpose is better understood in a general sense?If the meaning and purpose of my life consists of demonstrating values like those mentioned, to the best of my ability each day, then the context within which that happens: worship leader, singer, writer, mother, etc. can change from season to season, without the meaning and purpose ever changing.I realize this probably isn't a trailblazer moment. This isn't new stuff; like the Bare Naked Ladies said: "It's all been done..." But to someone so deeply, and for such a long time entrenched in only one way of considering these things, it's a refreshing reminder. 

Every morning my husband and I awaken to this tiny little girl bouncing and shouting out all the new sounds she is learning how to make,She turns her head expectantly towards the window where the morning light is just beginning to peak through the closed blinds.She stops bouncing every few seconds, watching its brilliance change from bright to brighter, all the while smiling. Not to sound corny, but I find something rather symbolic in her behavior.When it comes down to it, isn't that what the practice of kindness, empathy, connection, and forgiveness help do? Usher in a little light to illuminate the often difficult, scary, uncertain drudgery that daily life can be--regardless of your role?I suspect many who knew me as a Jesus freak would find my conclusions disappointing and lacking.I'm not sure how I would respond to them except to say that, "I don't care."After sifting my way through all the "expert" opinions on how one should parent, either from the plethora of books on the topic or from unsolicited advice--sometimes shouted at me by random strangers on the street--the one thing that becoming a new mom has absolutely confirmed for me is that I truly want to leave dogma in the past! 

After her dad leaves for work, Hazel and I continue about our morning rituals.One of the first things we do is open the blinds,"We're gonna let the light in, right baby girl?" I say to her.She looks at me and smiles.

HAPPY WORLD POETRY DAY!

So as you can see in the picture above, I tried to enjoy a little poetry today in the midst of baby chaos. The girl almost got a hold of Emily but I managed to rescue the famous recluse before she'd fallen into the banana gooeyed hands of my adorable tyrant.Anywhoo, these are some of my favorites right now.Emily Dickinson is I think, always a good idea and the other three ladies: Patricia Smith, Meghan O'Rourke, and Cecily Parks were introduced to me during grad school.I have revisited these collections many times since then--in particular Meghan O'Rourke's debut work Half Life. For as long as I can remember, words have been precious to me.But no one seems to agonize over the feel, rhythm, sound, and meaning of how words fit together more than a poet. I certainly get that sense every time I read one of Ms O'Rourke's poems. One of my favorites is Meditation on a Moth. I love the way she references color in order to evoke the image of the moth. Lines like "The brute blind glare of snow in sun," or "where bodies sway like white flowers--" help to accomplish this. But there is also something existential about the poem in phrases like "I am trying to rid myself of myself" or "Look again, and up you may rise to something quite surprising in the distance." Both in their own way suggest some kind of transformative or transcendent process is taking place.And on a day like to today, where I barely managed to get dressed and leave the house, only to look down at the end of it all and notice a small hole in the butt cheek of my favorite black leggings, I could use a little transcendence! Check these lovely ladies out when you get a chance.

BROWN BABIES

 Me around  1 year old with my mom and dad.

Me around  1 year old with my mom and dad.

"When you gonna start having some brown babies, girl?" the old woman asked my friend, a black woman married to a white man. It was the first time I'd heard that expression used in reference to biracial children. The old woman was the wife of black civil rights leader John Perkins. We met her while on a church bus trip that retraced the route taken by the Freedom Riders.  They were encouraging words--to me as a biracial person who'd experienced disdain towards all things interracial from both camps--and to my friend, who once confided that she initially resisted her husband's flirtations, believing it demonstrated a loyalty expected by the black community.

I always thought I'd have a brown baby. I prepared emotionally for Hazel's birth as if she would be.  I considered  the racism she might face one day, fretted over the ignorant, intrusive questions she would be asked, like "What are you?" or "Are you adopted?" I thought, "As a fellow mixed race person, I have endured such inquiries so I will know how to coach her through if it happens to her."  I searched for children's books with biracial protagonists and dolls with brown faces; both had been scarce when I was a kid. I would teach her about Black history. She would know about those who came before her and feel proud. I'd been isolated from a lot of that knowledge growing up, which often left me feeling like an outsider. I wanted Hazel to "see herself" in the world around her.

I of course was projecting many of my own experiences onto the poor kid before she even got here.  When she finally did arrive, it was 3:45 on a Tuesday morning.  My girl, coaxed by expertly maneuvered forceps and one last push from mom, came out honey colored, not brown like me.  She was beautiful and alert and mesmerizing but she looked nothing like me. Everyone who saw her commented on how she favored her father, a rosy complected Englishman.  

And for some reason, I was a tiny bit unsettled by this. In truth, tucked deep down in the small left over little girl part of me I wanted her to be a brown baby. I craved one of my own kind, within my family--someone to walk the middle road with me, a companion in that racial space so many in the world want to rigidly define. I felt insecure and I wanted to parent what I already knew.  But you parent a child, not experiences.

The next several days after leaving the hospital left no room for contemplating the complexities of racial identity. We were just trying to keep the small, honey colored human now living with us alive!  When a month had passed Hazel and I went to the zoo in Lincoln Park. I strolled along with her sleeping in my Boba wrap. Thinking back now, I don't remember driving there, getting her out of the car seat, or even situating her in the wrap. I can only see myself coming down an incline on the nature path that winds along the smaller petting zoo with its array of farm animals. Some man asked me how old she was. "Four weeks old," I said shyly, wondering silently, "Does he think she's too young for me to have her outside already? Well I had to get out. I just had to! " An unnecessary defense against an imaginary attack. I was paranoid, exhausted, and freaked out. I was a mother, having trouble believing she was a mother.  

And those first few steps back towards the world outside 1439 W. 18th Street in Pilsen--into an environment I'd been in so many times before--were surreal and dream like because of the little peanut snoozing on my chest. Who was this person that had suddenly made the zoo feel like the Twilight Zone? I know now that the answer to that question will have to wait; she has only just started becoming. But every day there are hints, small things:  like that she has a  preference for bananas over mangoes, or how she lights up when I sing show tunes, Adele's hit song "Hello," or the Sesame Street song for her, or the way she studies new people intently before sometimes treating them to a smile. These are sweet revelations and I value them.  But what of our shared racial and cultural identity?  I can't help wondering how deeply she will internalize it.  To what extent will it shape her?  The fact that my skin color is so different from Hazel's is a potential source of insecurity for me.  Will it be for her too?

This fear unfortunately has deep roots. Years ago, after meeting my parents for the first time, a black actress I did a show with asked me if I was adopted. Granted, my mom and biological father had split when I was only two and my mom remarried a white man who adopted me. So, the woman was looking at a biracial person with two white parents.  However, I'd always looked a lot like my mom, so I was devastated when she didn't match me up with her. Then there was the time an older white lady, introduced to me at a family function, could not get past my brown skin in a "sea" of family members much lighter than me. "You just don't look like anyone else here," she kept saying.  

Recently, history seemed to be repeating itself. While visiting the Sod Room, an indoor play facility in the city, a woman asked me if Hazel was mine. She thought I might be the nanny. And there it was: our identities appeared to be ambiguous for a moment. I watched Hazel reach for a wooden block and shove it happily in her mouth. Her drool glistened in the sun.  She was friggin adorable.  The woman's question hung over me like some tacky pinata that I wanted to smack the shit out of.  And that familiar feeling of displacement started to naw at my insides.  But in the end, all I saw was my girl--my girl, and so I answered the question, and what do ya know? Life went on. And somehow, the comment didn't sting as did those in the previously mentioned incidents. I'm not sure why it was different this time.  Maybe its one of the benefits of being an older mom:  I am learning to care a little less every day about what people think. Maybe its because I'm so sleep deprived most of the time I have trouble remembering things people say to me from one moment to the next.  Or maybe its because the entire experience of bringing Hazel forth and caring for her has been so visceral, so physically and emotionally consuming, I have been imprinted for life and no insensitive inquiry about identity or race can alter that.  And really, I guess It is the same with me and my family of origin--or at least it ought to be.  The truth is, I am theirs and they are mine. The reality of the connection does not cease to be just because someone else does not see it. It's very simple. But even simple things can sometimes take a whole lifetime to sink in.  Or at least until you have a child. 

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