Monday, May 18, 2015

She's Back

Sassy Little Randi

When I was four years old, I was often described as "sassy." I was outgoing, funny, interested in talking to everyone around me (absolutely zero stranger danger). At my oldest brother's high school basketball games, it was expected that I would run out into the court during time outs, clad in a cheerleading costume my crafty grandmother made for me, and dance to the band's rendition of "Sweet Georgia Brown." I expected everyone in that gym to love me, and they did.

Now, at age 39, I finally feel like that little girl again. Some things happened that pushed that little girl down. Things my dad did to me in particular, horrible things, combined with the general trauma of growing up in a house ruled by a violent narcissist who relied on the unpredictable (and illegal) world of being a small-town bookie as means of supporting his family.

But those bad times are not what this post is about. This post is about the joy of finally being myself 100% of the time after 35 long years.

I was silent on this blog for a long time. I've compared my recent lifestyle shift/mid-life crisis in birth terms before. And I've just survived a really dark period - hours of pushing, if you will - followed by an incredibly wonderful period - my sweet, naked baby on my chest.

It seemed, for a while, that I would not be able to follow through with my plans. Money, lack of benefits - these were and are very valid concerns. I cried a lot, feeling in my heart that this seemingly insane mixture of storytelling, teaching, and birth support was exactly what I was supposed to do with my life, but would never be an acceptable path for a mother of two.

But one day, I just let it go. I stopped worrying, and I started putting as much energy - physical, emotional, mental - into my goals as possible. And the result was instantaneous and powerful.

Throughout April and May, I was completely engrained in my new lifestyle. I got a work-from-home job as as consultant with an online company that manages pregnancy and parenting apps. It's fairly flexible, challenging, and fun, and is a great backbone for my other projects. One of my doula clients gave birth, and I was reminded, again, of how gratifying it is to support a woman and her birth partner as she crosses the bridge into parenthood (all of my clients, so far, have been first time moms). I also had the absolute honor of working with a local high school to coach student storytellers and help produce my area's first high school story slam. The bravery those kids displayed as they got on a stage (for the first time, for many of them) and bared their souls in front of strangers was awe-inspiring.

Every day was different. I felt busy, alive, vibrant, busy, excited, optimistic, busy, and strangely peaceful. I was running all over town to fulfill obligations, fighting Derby traffic, my phone buzzing frequently, and in my heart, I felt absolute peace. That's when I knew I was on the right path.

The two months of joy culminated with a trip to New York City to perform part of my Grand Slam winning story in the Moth Ball, the Moth organization's annual (and fabulous) fundraiser. To say I was honored to be asked to go is a blatant and vile understatement. I couldn't believe it was happening - from the moment I got the email invitation to the minute I landed back in Louisville International Airport. I'm still scouring through photographic evidence to make sure it wasn't all a dream.

The trip to NYC was the real proof that I'm finally the brave, confident, people-loving person I once was. I had no fear on this trip. For a person who's lived with anxiety for most of my life, that's an unbelievable thing to admit. No detail - from my kids' well-being back at home to making friends at the show to getting around town with my luggage - made me sweat.

And NYC welcomed me back with open arms. My flights into the area were easy. I stepped out of Newark Airport right as my shuttle bus pulled up. My shuttle bus deposited me at Port Authority, where I easily remembered the trail to the subway. As soon as I swiped my newly-purchased Metro Card (on the first try, like a real New Yorker), the train pulled up. I transferred from the A train to the F train and, again, it pulled up the moment I arrived. If you've never spent any significant amount of time in New York, you may not realize what a miracle it is for so many modes of transportation to cooperate so nicely.

The Moth put us up in the adorable Ludlow Hotel. I highly recommend it to anyone traveling to NYC. It's stylish and in a great, not-quite-as-touristy neighborhood. Plus it comes with a decent breakfast special - actually good food and not some sad buffet.

I had a few hours to kill before I could officially check in, so I took a stroll around the Lower East Side and East Village. There could have been no more fitting place for my revisit to NYC to begin. From the moment I moved to New York in 1998, this was the area where I spent the most time. I began working with WOW Cafe Theater - a feminist, anarchist theater collective - on E. 4th Street right away. I wrote, directed, and produced two plays there, in addition to acting and doing tech work for countless other shows. I was also a frequent visitor to the LES treasure, Bluestockings Bookstore, a feminist enclave that served as the library for my political awakening, as well as a meeting ground for fellow activists.

I got a slice of pizza (required) and walked past my old window on E. 6th Street where Dave proposed to me in 2004.

Me and the ring, which once belonged to my mother-in-law. 

As the young folks say, I was having all the feelings. I felt like no time at all had passed, then I'd remember that actually over a decade had passed, and I now have kids, and I don't live here anymore, and it was, in an inadequate word, weird.

It was also required that I become a curmudgeon about how much my old neighborhood had changed. I was appalled by some of the precious and over-priced new restaurants and stores. I was heartbroken about the loss of some of my old haunts (like B&H Dairy, the first kosher restaurant I ever entered, where I asked the guy behind the counter if their split-pea soup had ham in it - d'oh!). I couldn't believe how little trash there was curling round my legs in the breeze. 

After checking in, I luxuriated in a shower, during which nobody banged on my door or yelled "Mom" repeatedly. I hung out for an hour, just going over my story and reveling in my alone-ness. I was so happy about it that I even took a picture.

Ah, this is the life!
And then it was time. I got gussied up in a cute dress, and even wore makeup! I looked pretty damned cute. But, because I'm an idiot and I assumed everyone in the world would snap my photo and share it with me, I didn't take any pictures of myself. Well, that's not entirely true, I took one dark selfie at the end of the night, around 2 in the morning. 

Wow. That's 3 selfies in a row. I think it's time to change my last name to Kardashian.
The fellow Grandslampions (as our Moth guru, Jen, called us) were fantastic people. I bonded with them immediately and strongly, as if we'd gone to summer camp together. When storytellers get together, there is no small talk. I can't tell you a single thing about how any of their flights were or what the weather's like where they live; but I know intimate details of their lives and their guiding philosophies on the world. 

The venue was beautiful, and Ophira Eisenberg, the host of the event and NPR celebrity, had the audacity to be down to earth and totally approachable. We did our sound check, learned the quirks of the microphone, then settled in to attempt to calm our nerves before the show.

The food was great, the bar was open (but off limits to me and my fellow performers until after our performances), and the room began to fill with people you think you recognize but can't stare at long enough to figure it out. I was grateful the former New Yorker in me insisted I wear flats, because I was on my feet a lot. 

And before we knew it, it was time to perform.

Unlike the regular Moth, where the house lights are so low you can't make out a single face, I could see everyone in that audience, but especially Louis C.K. - the honoree of the night. I had to keep putting it out of my mind that he would be there, because I'm such a huge fan of his work. But smack in the middle of my performance, I made eye contact with him, and he was looking at me in that way that showed me he really heard me and he cared about what I had to say, and for a second I almost forgot what to say next. But then that confidence resurfaced, and I finished my piece and allowed myself to feel thrilled and joyful that I got to perform on such prestigious a stage.
Super Blurry Shot of Louis C.K.

I ran offstage and lined up for my Manhattan (the perfect drink for a Kentucky girl in the city). Just then, my phone buzzed. It was my dear friend from college, Lisa, telling me she was there.

Tickets to this event were insanely steep. It is a fundraiser, after all. So I didn't expect to see any of my friends in the audience, least of all my friend who lives in the San Francisco area. But Lisa had flown in for a visit, and she joined our other college friends Sara and Jessica, who are New Yorkers, to watch the show.

The tears I'd been holding back started to flow. I couldn't believe they would come. I felt so loved, so happy, I almost felt like there was no way my emotions could stay contained in my body.

There was dancing, so much dancing. Great conversations. Amazing costumes at which I openly stared. An after party at the home of a celebrated New York storyteller whose work I've used with my students for years. People telling me how much they liked my story and wanting to hear more. New York City alive and hopping at 1am on a Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. It was thrilling.

The next day, I met up with some of the storytellers for more soul-baring and breakfast. I had a hard time thinking about how I might never see them again. It sounds extreme, I know, but it's true. It was like the most beautiful, emotional, group one-night-stand in history.

Later, I walked along the High Line which was still being constructed as we were fleeing NYC. I had a beer on the open air deck with my college friends and sampled only-in-NYC-food, like my Japanese/Mexican fusion spicy tuna taco. We had dinner at a cute restaurant, then headed to a West Village gay bar to watch my incredible friend, Lillian Bustle, perform in a burlesque show.

Middle of the Day Drinking with College Buddies - Just Like Old Times

Lillian Bustle is not her real name, I know you're shocked to find out, but I'll just call her Lillian anyway. Lillian was my best friend in NYC. I met her when I cast her as myself in a play (narcissism, much?). We used to sit around and talk about the parts of our body we hated the most. Like it was a game. "Oh, God, my upper arms are disgusting. I wish they made more light-weight long sleeve shirts for the summer." "Oh, but have you seen my thighs? I can't wear shorts without them riding up in the middle and making some sort of v pointing at my lady parts." 

Now Lillian performs her fantastic burlesque and even gave a Tedx Talk to show that sexiness, happiness, and healthiness come in all sizes. I'm so proud of her I could burst.

The show was everything I missed about my edgy NYC life. Two beautiful drag queens opened the show, one of whom became my soul mate after I accosted her and praised her for covering a song from The Last Five Years. The burlesque performers were creative and funny and edgy and, of course, sexy. But my favorite was Lillian. She surpassed my expectations of her, and that's saying a lot.

Glamour Personified
I got to reconnect with some wonderful people. I made the best friends of my life in college and the NYC years right after - and seeing so many of them in one trip was soothing to my soul. I love Louisville and our lives here, but, like many people, I find it hard to form those strong connections I used to have. But I'm working on it - I'm working on it.


My Friends are Pretty

The next day, I spent a long time just walking around my old West Village neighborhood and down into Tribeca. I needed to see One World Trade Center from where I witnessed the towers falling. Yeah, I know it's a downer, but that day is burned in my memory, and I hoped that seeing the new building from that same perspective would be healing, somehow. And it was.
I love it.
I walked the path from my Houston Street apartment to 1WTC, the path I was supposed to walk to the unemployment office for my appointment that morning of 9/11, but slept through like the aimless twenty-something I was. I wandered to the reflecting pools of the memorial, closing my eyes to remember the towers that were there, and the fountain that stood between the two where I sometimes ate my lunch. I grew appalled at the tourists smiling and even making duck faces for selfies in front of it. I wanted to shake them and tell them what it was like that day - the acrid smell and the people coated in dust and the knowledge that people were dying and there was nothing we could do. But I just walked away and met some friends for breakfast.

By the time I needed to board my shuttle bus, my shins were splintered and my feet blistered. My heart was sore from all the joy and memories. I was craving the smell of my babies' heads like an addict. I was ready to go, but absolutely in disbelief that, when I woke up the next day, NYC would be so far away.

And now, here I am, back in my living room in Louisville. Outside, I see lush greenery and hear frantic Spring birds chirping. I'll pick up my daughter from school today to take her to her dress rehearsal for her dance recital. I'll breastfeed my son before bed. I'll make dinner and fold laundry and try to figure out a way to tweak our budget to accommodate all the spending I did while away.

But like my new friend and fellow storyteller Neshama Franklin said in her out-of-this-world piece, and I'm paraphrasing, we are all like Russian nesting dolls. Underneath the mom that you see today, I have layers and layers of lives I've lived, experiences that might surprise you. And all those layers are now working as one as I move forward to forge my new life.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Why We Outlawed the Disney Channel

Adios, Dog with a Blog!


Stella's teacher has a daily system to let parents know how their child performed. Green is great. Yellow-orange-red means that boundaries were tested to various extremes.

As a reward for a green day, we let Stella watch some TV. We might as well pay her $1,000 per day, as much as that kid loves TV.

Soon, we're going to switch to an Internet-based system of watching TV (and hang out with all you guys who've already made it to the 21st Century), but at the moment we have the most basic of cable packages. The two kid channels are PBS and Disney. By the time Stella comes home, has dinner, and does her homework, PBS has switched to either quirky British sitcoms or shows about rural Kentucky farmers. So, Disney Channel was the obvious choice.

Soon, we developed our family favorites. Dog with a Blog topped this list, to the point that I'd find myself watching it long after Dave had taken Stella up to bed. I obviously have no shame, since I'm admitting this publicly. Other favorites were Austin and Ally, Jessie, Girl Meets World, and Liv and Maddie.

Dave was the first to raise concerns. He wasn't a fan of how the adults on the shows seemed buffoonish, and how the kids were always sarcastic with them. I thought Dave was overreacting, although I myself hated the incessant jokes about teachers on Girl Meets World, and how this middle school teacher seemed to have no papers to grade. Nor any lesson plans to create. Nor any staff meetings to attend. Nor any data on student growth to compile and present as evidence that he deserved to stay at his position. Nor any administrators screaming at him when he just stood by and let adolescents flirt instead of learning. Nor any trouble-making students calling him obscenities. But I just chalked it up (get it?) to the usual hatred of seeing your profession misrepresented in the media.

Then I started getting concerned about anti-feminist messages embedded in the shows. Prom was made out to be the single most important night of a young person's life, and the boy's proposal (always the boy - not a single girl ever asked someone to prom) was always this huge, elaborate, bigger-deal-than-most-marriage-proposals-type affairs. Dave and I told Stella that prom is just a dance, and the odds are good that the person she goes with (should she go with a date - or go at all), is almost certainly not going to be the person she ends up marrying. Should she decide to marry. Which we are not pressuring her to do. Because it's her life and she may want to live it alone.

The girls are almost all universally very, very thin. And very, very made up. And hyper, hyper-feminine. Of course, there are "plain" girls who get makeovers and are suddenly OK to date. That's always a heart-warming moment. (Grr.) Some girls, like Maddie's (of Liv and Maddie) best friend Willow, are considered shudder-worthy and disgusting. Why? Because she's not a size 2 and she doesn't wear four pounds of makeup and she loves sports. Trish of Austin and Ally is a bigger girl who actually (GASP) has a boyfriend, but he lives on the other side of the country, so the audience doesn't have to be exposed to the horror of a plus-size girl kissing someone. At one point, Stella looked at me - a bigger woman who only wears makeup for special occasions and isn't too interested in jewelry and almost never curls her hair - and said I needed to do something about my appearance.

I happen to think this young lady, Jessica Marie Garcia (Willow) is gorgeous.

But most concerning to me were the blurred lines and lack of emphasis on consent when it comes to relationships. On more than a few shows, a stalker-ish boy (and occasional girl, to be fair) was considered funny or even complimentary, rather than the red flag he is in real life. Artie on Liv and Maddie just refuses to leave Maddie alone, and talks about how she will one day be his. Since he's nerdy, it's made out to be harmless and cute. But I told Stella that if a boy continued to pester her after she told him she wasn't interested, that that's called harassment and that he'd have to stop or else get in a lot of trouble.
But still, we let her watch. We figured we could have some teachable moments. We figured we could show her how to stay strong and have integrity, even when bombarded by the media's crazy messages. But mostly, we were really freaking lazy and wanted that half an hour to zone out after a day at work.

But then Stella changed. She started having snappy comebacks for just about every request we made of her. "Stella, it's time for dinner." "God, you people think you own me!" "Stella, it's time to go to bed!" "That's so stupid!" "Stella, tell your brother goodbye!" "I refuse to talk to that little rugrat." "Stella, you need to do your math homework." "Ugh, math is SO HARD."

We were astounded. Sure, Stella has always had a touch of sass in her - just enough to make her smart and interesting and challenging. But suddenly everything was a fight and she was completely devoid of respect for me and Dave. And math is hard? No it's not! She's the top of her class in math!

Stella is more sensitive than most. She picks up on others' emotions and ways of talking. So maybe there are kids who could watch the Disney Channel at night and not transform into Snarky Kid. But that's just not possible for Stella.

I'm conflicted. On the one hand, I remain a devoted Disney-phile. I loved our Disney Cruise, I love Disney World, and we still love the Disney Junior shows (that Doc McStuffins is a fine feminist role model). But I can not, in good conscience, let my kid watch the Disney Channel at night until she's too old to want to do so.

Hey Disney - we need more shows like Doc McStuffins, mmmkay?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Your Success Is Not My Failure (And Vice Versa)

When I shared this picture of Sam nursing, it's because his eye looked so dramatic and beautiful, not because I felt superior or wanted to pat myself on the back.


When I got married at age 29, I was a size 4. All my life, I wanted to know what it was like to be thin, and there I was. Thin.

In order to be as small as I was, I worked out for hours daily. I ate the tiniest meals imaginable, and chose at least one per day to vomit back up. I drank water constantly. I was irritable and depressed. I was horrible to be around.

Since then, being thin has not been as much of a priority.

But still, sometimes, when a friend of mine posts a picture of herself on Facebook looking effortlessly thin, I feel a sting. I feel jealous. I feel like a victim.

After all, it's not entirely my fault that I struggle with weight. I was sexually abused at a young age, and weight gain is a common occurrence after such a trauma. I grew up in a family that used food as a balm for all the turmoil we experienced. I grew up in the South with deliciously wonderful, fatty foods. I trained my cells to be fat early on, and it's really difficult to train them out of that later.

Why should I be made to feel like a failure just because my friend wants to show off her gorgeous figure?

Most moms compare ourselves to each other constantly. And many of us, at one time or another, feel like we're doing something wrong. That all the other moms around us have something we don't have.

Honestly, I do get annoyed when a mom posts about what a great sleeper her baby is. I want to scream when a mom talks about how her preschooler would rather eat raw broccoli than McDonald's. I sit, partly in awe, partly baffled, partly pissed off, when a mom Instagrams the Metropolitan Museum worthy artistic binto box lunch she prepared for just a regular old school day. I want to throw my phone across the room when a mom posts a picture of her tropical vacation while I'm stuck here in my drafty house, clipping coupons.

But then I stop. I look at my thoughts and evaluate them. I realize I'm not annoyed at that mother for her success, I'm just insecure. I feel like I must have done something wrong to have babies who don't want to sleep and are picky eaters. I feel like a failure because I struggle just to get lunches packed at all, much less make them pretty. I feel selfish that my career change caused my family a huge chunk of income. It's really about me.

So instead of giving in to negativity, I "like" that picture. I smile, because that mom has something to feel good about. I remind myself of all the good things in my life - some of which have come without too much effort.

A mother on a local message board said that breastfeeding stories and queries make her sad, because they remind her that she struggled while trying to breastfeed her own children, and ultimately had to stop. I felt for that mother. Her pain was real. I struggled with breastfeeding, too, albeit briefly. My daughter had a bad latch, so I endured months of pain (and stubbornly refused to call a lactation consultant for some reason) before it resolved itself. In the time between her birth and my son's, I did a lot of research and was much better prepared for his entry into the world. He and I have had an easy, pain-free, mostly drama-free nursing relationship.

When I'm excited about hitting a breastfeeding milestone with Sam or want to post a sweet picture of him nursing, that is by no means a way of rubbing it in someone's face. I breastfeed because I was able to and it is right for my family. I honestly don't care what anyone else feeds their kid as long as their kid is healthy. But my success at breastfeeding is no more about someone else's failure than someone's thin body is about my failure. We have different successes.

We're going to parent differently, because we're different people with different kids. But, as women, if we can find ways to celebrate each others' success and evaluate our own insecurities, I think we'd be amazed at what a supportive society we could create. Hooray for your success, even if it's one I'll never be able to attain. I hope you can feel the same way for me.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Stop Telling Parents to "Enjoy Every Moment"

Some days, this goes on for hours and hours.


Sam is 16 months old now. That's the same age Stella was that day I told Dave he had to take me to the ER because I was afraid of what I would do to myself if he left me alone.

I was drowning in post-partum depression and anxiety. Part of it was chemical or genetic or what have you. Depression and anxiety run in my family, and were definitely no strangers to me at that point in my life. Part of it was due to how freaking hard our New York City existence had become, living in a crappy apartment underneath the worst neighbor in history (who made ungodly amounts of noise in the middle of the night), schlepping my daughter a full mile to go to the nearest playground, feeling the crushing weight of loneliness because I knew exactly nobody in our mainly Russian immigrant neighborhood.

But, if I'm going to be honest with you, part of it was parenting a child at this really difficult age.

Sam, who's been basically the polar opposite of Stella since conception, is now very, very similar to Stella when she was this age. He is constantly running away from me. Today, for example, I took him to a local indoor play space at a mall. It was walled in, except for one little entrance, and perfectly age appropriate and fun. But Sam? That little bugger was obsessed with escaping through that entrance and running shoeless into the manicure/pedicure place across the way. (I guess it's possible he was really trying to get a nice pedicure.)

I laughed with my fellow parents, but I was pretty annoyed. There were other parents chilling out for one blessed second while their kids played, but I had to keep chasing my little stinker of a son. This happens everywhere we go. And if we don't follow close behind, he either bolts totally (and terrifyingly) out of sight or breaks something. He knocked over three of my mom's framed pictures a few days ago when I looked away for a second to answer a question. It. Is. Constant. And, while it's age appropriate, it's also extreme. I work at Sam's school and so I observe Sam's classmates and I can assure you that there are some 16 month old kids in the world who are capable of staying in one room and not hurting themselves for 10 minutes at a time.

And Stella was exactly the same way. We'd go to a local sing along and, instead of dancing and singing with the other kids, Stella would bolt for the door. She actually escaped out onto the Brooklyn street a few horrifying times. And now, with Sam, just like with Stella, I find myself reluctant to go anywhere. It sucks to stay home all the time, but at least we have two baby-proofed rooms where I don't have to worry about the state of Sam's safety for a little while.

16 months is a long time to go without decent sleep. Sam is a better sleeper than Stella, thank God. He goes down for reliable naps that are of a respectable length. Stella almost never napped, and was cranky because of it. He goes down pretty well at night, too, but he doesn't yet sleep through the night. And I'm 39 years old. And a fierce lover of sleep.

And Sam, like Stella, is tempestuous. Granted, the boy has basically had an ear infection since birth (he's getting tubes soon). And he spends grand chunks of every day being quite sweet and charming. But when he's in a rough mood, it is miserable. He just cries and cries and cries. He doesn't want to be held, he doesn't want me to put him down, he doesn't want to nurse, he doesn't want to eat, he doesn't know what he wants. The sound of his screaming grates on my brain. And, unlike Stella, his physical development is right on track and he is freakishly strong. He grabbed a chunk of my hair while angry the other day and wouldn't let it go for a very long time. I was in tears by the time we pried him away. Let me tell you, it HURT. Really.

Sam is also vehemently against diaper changes. The kid protests violently every time I try to change his diaper, flipping and kicking and screaming and trying to get his hands in the mess as much as possible. Stella was exactly the same way, but she didn't have the strength of 10 men. Tonight, poor Sam had to just sit in his filth for half an hour until his dad got home because I could not muster up the WWF strength to defeat him.

But it's different this time. I know this time is finite. I know this phase will end and Sam will, eventually, just like his sister, chill out a bit.

But mostly, I'm much better at validating my own negative feelings this time. On the tough days, I remind myself that this is really hard and that it would drive anyone a little crazy. I take breaks as often as I can, usually running away to catch my breath the moment Dave walks in the door. I remind myself that everyone we love - no matter who they are - gets on our nerves. It's OK to include our own kids on that list. And becoming a mother didn't mean that all my negative feelings were magically erased.

This is why I bristle when I hear people telling new moms to "enjoy every moment - even the tough ones." I know they mean well. When I look back at pictures of Stella at this age, my heart aches. She was so freaking adorable, and I spent so much of that time shrouded in misery. I wish I could go back for just a minute and snuggle the heck out of that sweet girl. But I don't resent myself for how I felt. I was sick. I was hurting. I needed (and finally got) help. I didn't savor every moment then, but now I'm able to enjoy most of them. And I'll settle for that.

But back then, when people would say those words, it crushed my soul. It made me feel so guilty and weak. Why couldn't I just enjoy this? All the moms around me seemed to. And when I snapped one day, yelling through my tears at the mom closest to me that I needed a damn break, she just blinked, stepped back from me as if I were a monster, and whispered, "Well, um, OK."

I wanted her to grab me and hug me and say, "I know, honey! This is so hard! You DO need a break, for God's sake!" Instead, she made me feel weird, made me feel shitty, made me want to end my life so my daughter wouldn't be raised like someone like me.

It's not her fault that I ended up in the ER on suicide watch, don't get me wrong. But the fact that she and most everyone around me just assumed that I should relish every moment of being a mom when, at that very moment, being a mom was killing me - well, it just really exacerbated an already bad situation.

So, my personal stance is don't give advice to new parents. They have enough of it, and they'll ask if there's something they want to know. But if you do want to give advice, please don't ever tell them to "enjoy every moment." You can remind them that it's finite, you can tell them "this, too, shall pass," you can offer to take over so they can shower or pee or drink a bottle of wine or go for a walk. You can get them professional help if they need it. But don't make them feel like they can't ever feel unhappy. Because your well-meaning words might just be the thing that will send someone over the edge.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Empathy

I'm not going to pretend that I know what it's like to be a person of color in America. I grew up white. I was poor and I was female, but I always had the privilege of being white on my side.

I didn't realize that I had privilege, simply due to the color of my skin, until I moved to Newark, NJ. Suddenly, I was the minority among my neighbors, and yet, still, I carried privilege. When my friend Kristi's car was broken into while visiting me there, the cops told us, very knowingly, that the people around there were "animals." They asked me what the hell I was doing living there. I wonder if they would have said that to me had I been a person of color.

Then I worked as a teacher at a school in the South Bronx. While most of the teachers there were incredible, hard-working folks, there was one embittered woman who continually threw around the term, "THESE kids" and "THESE parents." As in, "THESE kids can't do that kind of reading, because THESE parents have never picked up a book in their lives." And "Don't expect THESE parents to come to a conference; they're too busy doing drugs." When it was time for those parent-teacher conferences, she said, "Bring your grad school homework; none of THESE parents ever comes." I sent all my students' parents a note a week before offering extended hours, and asked them to give me their preferred times. I gave each of them one scheduled time, as opposed to the general conference window, and promised refreshments. Many of the parents had had negative experiences at conferences, and I wanted them to see that my conference would be different. And guess what? All of my parents showed up. My coworker didn't have the same luck.

Then there was the time I called the cops while living in a lower-income neighborhood in Brooklyn for a domestic disturbance I heard upstairs. They came to my apartment and asked me what I heard. I said I heard screaming in Spanish. The police officer actually said, "Well if it ain't English, it don't count." These big, beefy, all-white police officers combed through my stuff (without a warrant), asked what a girl like me was doing living here, then walked out, chuckling.

Oh, and what about that sweet elderly woman who lived above me in my little apartment in the West Village? I helped her carry in her groceries every time I saw her. Until, that is, that one day she cornered me and asked if I'd noticed the new "coloreds" that moved in, and expressed concern that they might steal from her.

I don't know what it's like to be eyed suspiciously as I walk down the road, to constantly have to answer for my actions. I don't know what it's like to be stopped by the police for a routine "stop and frisk" or while driving my car, when I was doing absolutely nothing wrong. I don't know what it's like to worry that I'll be killed if, after being pestered by police my whole life, I find that I have an attitude with them just one time. I don't know what it's like to not be able to hail a cab because of my skin color, or to be denied housing or a job for the same reason. I don't know what it's like to have people follow me around a story when I'm shopping.

I do know what it's like to be harassed on the street for being fat and female. I know what it's like to have people assume that, because I'm a woman, I'm weaker and less intelligent than they are. I know what it's like to be sexually abused. I know what it's like to have people assume I'm the same religion they are, and then ask ignorant and sometimes offensive questions when they find out I'm Jewish. I know what it's like to feel intimidated by those who've never experienced poverty. And I draw on these experiences to have empathy for others.

I know being a police officer is tough, and I can't imagine what being a police officer is like in an impoverished and dangerous area. And we as a country haven't helped matters much by making military-style weapons widely available to the population. I can't imagine trying to keep citizens safe when people can now go grocery shopping with a semi-automatic weapon slung over their shoulder.

But cops, like the rest of us, need empathy. They need to stop being like that embittered teacher I worked with, stop looking at the people around them as "THOSE people." They need to be a part of their communities when times are good, to befriend the people there, to try, on some level, to understand where they're coming from. They need to see them as the humans they are.

Unfortunately for me, I've had too many bosses who swoop in, nit-pick everything I do, give a ton of negative feedback and make unreasonable requests. And I can tell you when I work for those bosses, I give as little as possible, take shortcuts, and have a bad attitude. It's human nature. But when I have a good boss - like the one I have now - one who compliments what I do right and offers support and as interested in my life - I find ways to go above and beyond.

Maybe police officers can try the same approach. Work with the citizens to make a place better. Treat them with respect. Think back to the times you've been treated as "less than" and use that to try to get it. And maybe the killing of unarmed black men can finally stop.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Transition

In childbirth, transition is often the most difficult part. This stage where the cervix goes from 8 to 10 centimeters dilated is challenging, sometimes causing a laboring mother to doubt herself and become negative. It is the darkness before the dawn.

Don't worry. This isn't going to a birthy post, all you non-birthy people.

I'm in transition in my life, and it is challenging. I'm going from my twelve-year career as a teacher to (hopefully) a full-time freelancing career as a birth and post-partum doula, birth instructor, storyteller, and teaching artist (yep - eclectic mix). Just like that laboring mom perseveres because she knows that on the other side of all that discomfort is the joy of holding her baby, I'm trying to hang in there because this life that I can imagine in my head seems just so perfect for me and my family.

But I'm not there yet. First off, I'm only trained to be a birth doula right now, and I don't have clients banging on my door just yet. Which isn't to say I don't have clients. It's happening - just very slowly. And the exciting part is that attending births confirms to me - more and more each time - how excited I am about this new path and how fulfilled this career makes me. I've felt this sense of intuition with my laboring moms - a sense of how far along they are in their labor, how far they have yet to go, what they might need to make them more comfortable. It brings me such a sense of satisfaction to see a woman and her loved ones on this incredibly important day, and to do what I can to help everyone feel respected, valued, and cared for. (Oh, and hey - if you want to refer some clients to me, or if you yourself are interested in working with me, feel free to check out my doula website.)

I'm also working part time at a local preschool. This is a pretty fabulous job to have for many reasons. First, I really love the people there, and there's so little drama (especially compared to the wonderful world of public school teaching in high-need areas). The kids are adorable and very sweet. My darling Sam attends my school, so I'm able to visit with him twice a day and nurse him on site. (Which means NO MORE PUMPING. Can I get an amen?) It gives me a regular salary and benefits while I pursue my doula business on the side.

Working part-time means I have more time to be there for both my kids - including Stella. I've been to her school to volunteer and eat lunch with her and I pick her up earlier than I was able to last year. It gives me more time to cook good food for us and keep our house relatively clean. And it gives me more time to balance work and family and spouse and me - that elaborate equation that, if done properly - can lead to a really harmonious life.

So, that's the good news. The bad news has almost everything to do with money. I earned my national boards last year, plus I had several years of teacher under my belt, which means my salary was pretty high (for a teacher, mind you). Doing what I do earns me less than half of that. Less than half. And our family of four is really starting to feel the pinch. We're not extravagant people. We don't eat out much. We don't buy a lot of clothes or download a lot of music. I don't get manicures, Dave doesn't buy guitar accessories. We're selling items we have that we no longer need, we're cutting expenses that we don't really use. We're really, really working, but it feels like an uphill battle.

And sometimes, when my faith and confidence and resolve are a bit weak, I feel totally selfish for dumping a relatively successful career to pursue this passion. True, I got to the point where I resented all the hoops I had to jump through, all the people I had to appease, all the soul-stripping standardized testing BS I had to employ, just to try to find some level of creativity to reach maybe one student that year. I was sick and tired of making my over a decade's worth of knowledge and expertise fit into some other mold created by someone who has less experience than I just because someone thought it "looked cooler." I was at wit's end with working countless hours to grade papers and plan lessons and fill out paperwork while much of the world envied me for "getting off work at 3." And I was really sick of squeezing in time to read everything I could get my hands on about birth, like it was some silly comic book I had to hide from my strict parents. I was sick of constantly running running running to get things done and barely seeing my kids. And speaking of my kids, I was tired of snapping at them every five seconds because I'd endured so much attitude and verbal abuse and sometimes even threats of physical abuse from my troubled students all day.

So, yeah. No matter what, I wasn't going to be able to stay at that job, even if it promised a middle class salary that would sure come in handy now.

I made this leap because I knew it was right. And I know this transitional period won't last forever. I'm going to get more and more doula clients as the months go on. I'm going to get trained to be a birth instructor and a post-partum doula, which is both very exciting and a future source of revenue. I'm going to put together a curriculum as a teaching artist who specializes in storytelling and slam poetry, and schools in my area are going to hire me to teach those almighty common core standards with a whole heap of creativity on the side. And maybe, just maybe, if I really wish upon a star, somebody might even want to pay me for my writing and storytelling some day, too.

A year from now, when people ask what I do, I'll get a glow in my eyes, and my lengthy answer will either bore, confuse, or intrigue them. And I - the woman who double majored in French and Drama and really wanted to major in maybe five other things, too - will finally live a life that incorporates all my professional passions and leaves me time to care for the family I adore as well. I just have to make it through this transition first.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Why I Care about C-Sections (Even Though I Never Had One)

First, a story about back problems. Around four years ago, I had terrible sciatica. I could barely walk and I was in excruciating pain. My general practitioner referred me to an orthopedic surgeon, who recommended an epidural shot. I tried this procedure twice with no luck. Then the doctor suggested spinal surgery to correct the bulging disc that was causing me so much pain.

I thought about it, and I was scared. Surgery on the spine is serious, and I wanted to make sure I explored all other options first. So, I went to a highly-revered chiropractor. After about a month of treatment, I was free of pain.

That's my story. But then I have a friend who's also had chronic back pain. She's tried the chiropractic route and the PT route, but she hasn't had the luck I've had. She opted for the surgery - a few of them actually - and she's finally living a relatively pain-free life.

I was terrified of surgery and wanted to do everything I could to avoid it; it was a godsend for her and exactly what she needed.

What's wonderful about this story was that there was never a point where either one of us was pressured to have surgery. We were given options, treated like rational, intelligent adults, and given time to figure out what was the right move. And, because our situations were different, the "right move" was different for each of us.

So, you probably get the analogy. C-sections: for some women, they are literally life saving - for either themselves or their babies. They are the only option that makes sense. For others, and this is the part that people find so controversial, they are unnecessary and can even be harmful.

According to the World Health Organization, mothers and babies fare best in places where the c-section rate is between 5-10%, with anything higher than 15% doing more harm than good. (Althabe and Belizan 2006) According to the CDC, America's c-section rate is currently 32.8%, more three times the recommended rate. That means we have a problem.

5 - 10% of women need a c-section due to any number of circumstances. Assuming those women are treated with dignity and respect, that c-section probably feels like the greatest invention since sliced bread.

As for the other 22.8%, their feelings toward c-sections vary. Enough of them feel upset by their experiences that there are support groups across the country to help them process their emotions. Many feel like they were unfairly coerced into having a c-section for reasons that are not evidence-based, such as having a big baby. Others are not sure whether their c-section was necessary or not, because they were never given clear explanations or any real autonomy over what was happening to them.

But some women, whether they feel good about their c-sections or not, want to attack women who support lower interventions in birth and fight against the c-section rate. They think women like me are nosy, judgmental, bossy. They are, quite frankly, missing the damn point.

I'm an advocate for women. And when 1/3 of women who labor in America have their babies via c-section, that's upsetting. That means that when a healthy woman with a healthy pregnancy seeks traditional hospital care to birth her baby, she's facing steep odds that she could be given a procedure that she might not need and it will definitely make her life more complicated.

Yes, there are insufferable natural birth enthusiasts. I was at a mom's group once where a woman mouthed off against c-sections in a way that made it clear to the whole of us (including a wonderful mama friend who birthed her baby via c-section) that she thought those moms were less than. However, even though I surround myself with very crunchy-type moms and I also travel in a circle of doulas (whom many assume - wrongly - think the only valid birth is one without interventions), this has only happened once. What I hear much more frequently is concern that women are not treated fairly in their prenatal and birth care.

So, honestly, I'm getting frustrated that while I'm standing up for a woman's right to have a birth that is safe, respectful, and evidence-based, I'm viewed as anti-woman. If a woman has a c-section and feels great about it, that makes me happy. If a woman has a c-section and feels terrible about it, that makes me upset. If a woman has a c-section and then wants to make fun of "natural birth freaks," that pisses me off. When women, like the author of this article, suggest that those of us who are unhappy with the current c-section rate are so into being "natural" that we'd rather have a baby die than succumb to a c-section, then I get RIGHTEOUSLY angry.

Look, ladies, c-sections matter to all of us. If, like back-surgery, they are used sparingly and when necessary, then I think we'll all feel positively toward them. But right now they are far more common than they should be, and I'm going to keep fighting against that until America's c-section rate falls below 10%. Because I care about women, whether they return that sentiment or not.


Resource I couldn't link to:
Althabe F, Belizan JF. Caesarean section: The paradox. The Lancet 2006;368:1472-3.