Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Leavetaking

This morning, something went wrong when I dropped the baby off at his daycare, which is in an apartment in the high-rise around the corner. Usually, there is no fuss at all. I unbuckle the stroller, and he jumps down and runs off to consult with his little friends (or rather underlings - he's the oldest one there, and he runs the show) or eat some Cheerios or sprawl comfortably on the floor to watch The Backyardigans on Noggin. He often does not even look at me when I tell him goodbye. This morning, however, something went tragically wrong. We (his babysitters and I) cannot quite reconstruct what happened, but we think his finger got a bad pinch in some stroller part. In any case, he was holding onto his stroller, and as I lifted him for a hug, I felt some resistance as though something might be caught, and then he suddenly began crying violently as though in pain - the red-faced variety of scream-sob with long, open-mouthed silences in between each effusion. He turned away angrily from all gentle ministrations on the babysitters' part, clutching at me and burying his head in my shoulders. After a long time, he accepted a cracker and his bottle, and it seemed as though things were wrapping up, but when I tried to put him down, he clung to me like a monkey, spouted a new torrent of tears, and began pulling at my shirt, which is his not-particularly-sophisticated signal for breastmilk. I did not, however, want to nurse him. At that point, I had already been at the daycare for ten minutes or so, and nursing would mean at the very least ten to fifteen minutes more. Plus, I had just nursed him before leaving the house, so I knew he was not in desperate physical need. Plus, and I am ashamed to say that this might have been the most important reason in my mind at the moment, I was not wearing a nursing-friendly shirt, so I would have had to more or less strip from the waist up in order to nurse. In any case, it did not seem like the right time to get on that particular train, so I kissed him and hugged him a few more times and gently handed him over to the babysitter. He threw his head back and screamed; I heard him sobbing all the way down the hall as I made my way to the elevator.

When I tell people about moments like this, they often say things along the lines of, "Well, you had to do it," or "It's good for him" (meaning the baby), or "It's good for both of you" (meaning me and the baby). For example, I have an acquaintance who has been a daycare worker for many years, and when I told her about the play and the toppings, thinking only that it was a funny story about the changeablility of childhood desires, she said, "You shouldn't have gone back to him. You have to just go sometimes. Just let him cry, and it's better in the long run for both of you."

Now, basically, I agree. I agree that, regardless of the tears it may cause, one has to leave one's baby from time to time, whether to go to work or go grocery shopping or do yoga or take a walk or see a movie or do nothing at all. I also agree that it is a good idea to get a baby used to being cared for by a few people who are not Mama. I also agree that dithering in the doorway while your child cries for you to come back can be pointless, painful, and annoying, and that coming back after leaving can make it even worse. But, as Clara Littledale put it and Jill Lepore reiterated, there's danger in overplaying the role. A die-hard you-have-to-do-it-and-it's-good-for-him stance turns a blind eye to the complexity of the situation at hand, and, more specifically, the fundamental cruelty of the moment of leavetaking.

This morning, my baby's finger hurt and he wanted to cuddle and nurse more than anything else, and I left him for reasons that were unimportant - I didn't feel like staying at the daycare for any longer, and I didn't feel like lifting up my shirt. Whether or not this was "okay" is beside the point - okay or not in the big picture, it was, fundamentally, a mean action taken against someone with no defenses. To ignore this essential truth about such moments is to ignore your child's basic humanity, as well as the fact that your relationship with your child is like any other human relationship, not one-way and black-and-white, but reciprocal and full of vagaries and subtleties that do not always respond well to hard-and-fast principles. In the case of the play and the toppings, for instance, my gut instinct was that something had gone horribly wrong, and that I had to go back and fix it, regardless of what I generally think about extended leavetakings. This instinct turned out to be more or less correct: there was a far better way to handle the situation - a way that would not result in short-lived but complete heartbreak on everyone's part - and my going back allowed us to find it.

It is not my contention that any one of these moments is a "big deal" on its own, or that any single decision of this sort will have a lasting impact on your relationship with your child. Indeed, while I am happy that I went back that one time, I know that things would have been just fine if I hadn't. But the aggregate of such decisions doesn't just affect the relationship - it is the relationship. To routinely refuse to acknowledge - even if only in your thoughts - the validity of your feelings and your child's at these moments, and to continuously harden your heart to the very notion that such moments might be legitimately painful, is to work purposefully towards emptying your relationship of emotional responsiveness. I am perfectly aware that this statement has a rather hysterical ring to it, but I think that, in the end, it is nothing more than plain logic.

All of this thinking, though, all of this rhapsodizing about emotional responsiveness et ceterblah, does not find me in a different place from most other days. I dropped off my kid this morning - left him howling at daycare - and came home by myself to do what I want to do. Or rather, what I don't want to do. My DONA training and certification binder is hulking on the counter next to me; today, after twelve births and as many months of procrastination, I intend to finally get to work on certification.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Toppings

Last night, one of my coworkers was in a play, so I had to go see it. Generally speaking, I'm not a big playgoer, which is sort of funny given that I wanted to be an actress when I was in high school. Looking back, I'm not entirely sure what is was that so attracted me to the stage - the charm of public expression, perhaps, or the potential for public admiration? Whatever it was, it is surely gone now: I generally stay as far away from the stage as possible, either as a participant or an observer. It's just that, unless it is very, very professional indeed, theater can't help but REEK of amateurism; as my husband puts it, "It's just a bunch of people yelling." On top of that incontrovertible fact is the problem that the vast majority of plays truly suck. Even the very best plays, the ones that belong to the lucky tiny fraction that actually gets produced by anyone anywhere, are often just so bad. Characters are in situations that cause them to emote, and there's some sort of gesture towards commentary on modern life, and then there's a heartwarming ending where characters change and discover things, sometimes about themselves and sometimes about modern life and sometimes about both. Really. Go to that theater-person bookstore in Hell's Kitchen and pick any play aside from the obvious, English major fodder, and you will see what I mean. So I was not especially excited to be going to this play, but I went, and it was fine. It was totally not horrible, and I was happy to see my coworker do her thing and be good at it.

None of that, though, is what I meant to talk about here. What I wanted to tell you about was what happened before the play. The theater was in the East Village, so I arranged to meet my husband on St. Mark's Place to hand off the kid. The kid was not enthusiastic about being handed off, but I was in a hurry, so I wrestled him out of the ringsling, and my husband wrestled him into the stroller, and I was off. There are times when a moment like this - getting to walk away from the baby - feels wonderful, as though I have suddenly shed a layer of old, crusty skin. There are other times, though, when it feels awful, and this was one of those times. Walking east on St. Mark's, I could hear my baby sobbing. His cries had gone beyond the normal tantrum range and slid into true desperation. A quarter of a block away, I looked back, and he was still looking at me through the crowd, holding his arms out in supplication. Looking at his little face, creased and red, I imagined what he was seeing - his mother, with whom he had been cuddling happily only a moment ago, suddenly disappearing into a throng of strangers - and it felt like an unbearable heartbreak. My stomach lurched, and without stopping to think, I ran back up the block and snatched the baby into my arms.

It took a moment for us both to regain our equilibrium, but when we did, I realized that I was standing in the middle of a busy sidewalk with toddler, husband, and stroller, and only five minutes to get to the theater. "Well," sighed my husband, who at this point barely even bothers to get annoyed by my child-related histrionics, "I guess let's go to Pinkberry." Inside Pinkberry, the baby continued to clutch at my arms, snuffling tragically into my shoulder. Until, that is, he caught a glimpse of the candies and berries piled on the toppings counter where my husband was standing. Suddenly, he leaned away from me and reached his arms out: "Papa! PaPAA!" My husband took him from me, and the two of them were immediately engrossed in discussing what they would have on their frozen yogurt. The baby didn't even notice when I slipped away; I ran all the way to the theater and made it just in time for curtain.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Note from the Editor

Looking at what I wrote earlier today, I'm feeling a little embarrassed by the grandiose sort of TAH-DAAAAAAH! flourish at the end. I don't mean to imply that me managing to type some crap into the Blogger interface and then clicking Publish Post is any kind of grand Rocky-style* victory-against-the-odds. I guess that is exactly what I do imply, though, both in that post and at least one other that I can think of. Look, I know that there are real troubles in the world, and real triumphs, too, and that whether or not I succeed in keeping this blog going is such a infinitesimally tiny matter as to not rank anywhere at all.

But here's the thing, guys. (Or perhaps "folks," which is a word that a former colleague of mine used ENDLESSLY, and totally drove me bonkers at the time, but that I now use with noticeable frequency myself.) This is really not easy. By which I don't so much mean this stupid blog, but everything in general. It is so not easy. It's not easy to junk a reasonable, and reasonably lucrative, profession in order to pursue a bunch of shit that no one knows anything about and is not certain to be lucrative at all, let alone reasonably so. It's not easy to do all this stuff on the principle that you want to be with your kid and to find that you don't really have so much time to be with your kid. And it's weird, guys/folks, it's really weird to have a toddler - a BIG KID - and not a baby. Because a toddler is a whirlwind - a hurricane - quicksand. As much of your attention as you thought your little tiny baby occupied, a toddler occupies like fifty times that. And you know, even if you could be home with your toddler all day every day, I'm not sure if you would want to be - it doesn't seem quite right for the stage of development, just like you wouldn't spend all day every day home with an 8-year-old. (Unless you were home-schooling him/her, and let's just leave that topic for another day.) And it's hard, because I have to wonder all the time if that Baby Days state of ecstasy, of creativity, of pure happiness with my life is over forever, and if things are just going to degenerate from this point forward until I'm back where I started - overworked and unsatisfied. So it's really hard, and it's really scary, too, because sometimes it just feels like I've failed, or am about to fail, really spectacularly, though I'm not sure at what. And in the midst of this, to suddenly find myself able to sit down with a feeling of strength and happiness and to finally - FINALLY - write something after a full month of silence - it does feel like a Rocky* sort of thing, OK? So TAH-DAAAAAAH, OK? Fucking TAH-DAAAAAAH.

*I have actually never seen any of the Rocky movies, but I think this reference is appropriate, right?

Yoga

Six weeks after the baby was born, I went to a real (not postnatal/mommy-and-me) yoga class, and I had vagina farts. I had never had this particular problem at yoga before, but giving birth had obviously made some serious rearrangements in my pelvic region, because with the very first downward facing dog, air began to squish out of me, accompanied by exceedingly rude sounds. I couldn't stop the air and I couldn't stop the sounds, and I knew that my only choices were to leave or to brazen it out. So brazen it out I did, and the horrendous PPBBBBBTHHHHTBBBBB noises emanating from between my legs began, after forty-five minutes or so, to quiet down, and had disappeared entirely by the last plow pose. To their great credit, not a single person in the room giggled, commented, moved away from me, or did anything at all to indicate their awareness of the REALLY GROSS SHIT going on with that lady in the corner, and I left the class feeling oddly at peace, refreshed and realigned and ready to move forward.

I am telling this story not so much to utterly humiliate myself with the memory, but more to demonstrate how profoundly (and bizarrely) motherhood changes one's body, and how difficult it is to even know these changes have occurred. It is a commonplace that The Modern Lifestyle leaves us sadly disconnected from our bodies. Between sedentary pastimes and overloaded social/professional schedules, as popular wisdom would have it, we simply do not have the opportunity or motivation or context to properly interact with and nurture our bodily selves. True as this may be, I am here to tell you that The Modern Lifestyle has nothing on motherhood. Beginning with pregnancy, your body's function is entirely hijacked. It is no longer simply a tool for your own pleasure and pain, no longer simply your personal interface with the world at large. Instead, it gives itself over to developing and feeding a being that is not you. And all of this happens WITHOUT YOUR KNOWING IT. That is, your very own body gets busy building loosening your pelvic ligaments and building a placenta and an umbilical cord and a nose and fingers and so on without ANY of your conscious input. I know that this may seem incredibly obvious to you, but I want you to take a moment to really think about it. A pregnant woman's body is entirely devoted to something OTHER THAN itself, and once the ball gets rolling, she has absolutely no concrete, specific knowledge or control of what it is doing. And that, my friends, is disconnection. (And that is how you end up carrying stale air around in your pelvis for six weeks without even knowing it.)

This phenomenon, however, does not end when the baby is born. A mother's body remains a tool for the survival of her child. All of her bodily resources - the water she drinks, the food she eats, her muscles, her bones, and her flesh - are devoted to her child, just as sure as if her child were still inside her. I squat to the floor, I lift my child to my hip, I hold him to my breast to nurse. At night, my sleep is not like it used to be. I curl around my child, and when he wakes and cries, I roll to my side and offer him milk. Of course, my husband, too, squats to the floor and lifts our child and sometimes wakes in the night with his cries. He is an attentive father who works hard to care for his son. But it is not the same thing. Partly, it's not the same because I am a small, light person with a horrifically, maladaptively fast metabolism who can hardly stay fully hydrated and nourished in the best of circumstances. But mostly, it's not the same because I am the mother, and my bodily ties to my baby are all-encompassing. The mother's body builds the baby, the mother's body births the baby, and the mother's body sustains the baby. My body has become a strange, crabbed thing - a locked left hip, a tingling spot between my shoulders, a frequently-aching head, and skinny, skinny, skinny - and, just as when I was pregnant, I barely know what it is doing or what it is for.*

I used to go to one or two yoga classes a week, but in the twenty months since my baby was born, I have gone to maybe six classes all together. The obstacles seem insurmountable - find a good class at a good time, have enough money to pay for it, be sure that husband and/or babysitter are available and willing, don't feel cripplingly guilty for going even though I may be inconveniencing other people, don't get immobilized by sheer inertia and end up sitting on the couch watching CSI: NY. This morning, however, for the first time in months, I managed to jump through all of these hoops and get myself to a class in a sun-warmed studio on 105th St.

The thing about yoga is that it makes you do things with your body that you wouldn't necessarily do in the course of everyday life, and thus helps you think thoughts about your body that you wouldn't necessarily think in everyday life. (Or helps your body think about itself, as in "Wow, there's a lot of old air in here. I better just squeeze it out the nearest hole.") As I moved through the asanas this morning, I felt more and more conscious, more and more inhabited by my own self. I found a small sore spot on the right side of my sacrum; I found that my left hip was not quite as intractable as I had thought; I found that my neck has become too weak to allow me to look up comfortably in a side bend. In headstand, my head felt unusually heavy, my brain pressing downwards on my eyes, and the sensation was too unpleasant to allow me to stay in the pose for more than a few seconds. In plow pose, my back began to warm, as though under a heat lamp, and continued to get warmer and warmer until I rolled out of the pose to finally rest on my back in savasana.

By the end of the class, I felt as though I had come up from under water for the first time in a long time. My eyes felt keener, my gaze stronger, my body more tightly knit. On the way home from class, I ate a raisin-walnut bun from the Silver Moon bakery; when I got home, I sat down and wrote this.

*If you are thinking I should just wean and sleep train my kid, go on ahead and think that, but I don't want to hear A WORD about it, because I AM NOT GOING TO DISCUSS THOSE THINGS WITH YOU. Come to think of it, though, I would like to discuss those things with my mom friend HA. Those things and many other things. HA, call me. No, wait. I'll call you, as that is far more civilized than hailing you via blog.