Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Why I Don't Read the Financial Post

From today’s issue of FP Working:

Exhibit A: "Say you left your job when your children were born so you could spend time with them during their early years. You didn’t plan to stay out of the workforce forever, and now that the children are in school, it’s time to dust off your suits and polish your high heels. That may not be as easy as it sounds. ‘You can’t go home and sit in your sweats for 10 years and think you can go back to being a lawyer or doctor or computer engineer,’ said Monica Samuels, co-author of Comeback Moms: How to Leave Work, Raise Children, and Restart Your Career Even if You Haven’t Had a Job in Years."

Okay, where shall I start? Polish your high heels? Sit in your sweats for 10 years? Preachy attitude towards naïve and casually dressed moms who dare to believe that they are still welcome in the workplace? (And, oh, in case you’re interested, the secret to becoming a "comeback mom," according to Samuels, oh-she-of-the-extremely-wordy-subtitles, is to do lots of volunteer work while your children are young, since clearly the reason women leave work in the first place is so that they can work for free and pay for day-care out of their bon-bon budget.)

If that’s not sufficiently depressing, consider –

Exhibit B: "Labour economists find evidence starting at the bottom is a recipe for being underpaid for a long time to come." A recent study shows that business school students who graduated during a recession were still lagging behind their peers twenty years later. That is to say, even when the economy recovers, employers would still prefer to hire freshly-minted graduates rather than equally educated applicants with several years of grunt-work in the trenches.

Though not obviously linked, these two articles certainly combine to paint a depressing picture for those of us on the mommy-track. One of the reasons those sad-sack recession-era graduates continue to languish in the bargain basement of the labour pool is that by the time the job market fattens up they are nearing their thirties and are thus at higher risk for becoming parents. When my husband returned for his third year of law school last fall, the trend couldn’t have been more obvious: all the 22-year-olds had articling positions lined up, while the former professors and audiologists who had children at home were still shopping themselves around, begging for the privilege of working for free.

Exhibit B ends with a helpful exhortation to graduating students to carefully consider their job choices. That should put an end, I hope, to the epidemic of university grads opting to wait tables instead of accepting six-figure job offers. There’s no advice to job-hunters who are hauling their asses around to interview after interview with resumes tainted by years of answering phones at the call centre. But in case you think the solution is to go back to school, check this out:

Exhibit C: "Overqualified shut out" – the story of Dr. Gian Sangha, who, despite his Ph.D. in environmental science, was not hired for a job with the Land and Water Board because he was considered overqualified.

I give up.

*****

Under the category of "Less depressing but equally disturbing": Tad's Number Farm, the new cartridge I bought for Bub's My First Leap Pad. I started to think something was a little bit off about this game when I heard the white chicken declare, "It takes me a-a-a-ll day to lay an egg!" And then Bub found a way to activate a voice with a palpably fake British accent which announces, "Flahhg numb-ah fo-ah!" But the icing on the cake is his latest discovery: when he touches the number seven with his pen it prompts a breathy Marilyn-Monroe voice to whisper longingly, "I lo-o-o-ve the number seven!" I guess we’re meant to be grateful that she doesn’t murmur her love for the number 69.

*****

Hubby’s suggestion for an alternate title for this post: "Why I Blog at the Supper Table … And Why that Makes me a Bad Person." Time to feed the baby.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Sleep Deprivation is Not as Fun as it Seems

So many of us moms are depressed. This is one of several sad discoveries I’ve made since entering the post-Pill era – so much infertility, far too many miscarriages, and such a shocking number of depressed mothers. Brooke Shields. ("Facing her Post-Partum Fears!" a People headline trumpeted recently.) My next door neighbour. The woman at church yesterday with whom I had such a delightful meeting of the minds on the evils of Baby Wise (not evils for the baby – evils for the mother whose head gets filled with critical, condemning words). So many of the "shoulds" mothers are bombarded with contribute, directly or indirectly, to our guilt and depression:

  • You should breastfeed for as long as possible.
  • You should stay home with your children.
  • You should respond immediately to every cry.
  • You should treat your post-partum depression with vitamins and exercise. (Thank you, Dad2TomKitten!)

With the exception of that final item, none of those words of advice is intended to mire women in depression, but certainly there are many women for whom breastfeeding triggers a cocktail of hormones spiked with despair, women for whom the house feels like a prison, women for whom sleep deprivation translates into a constant, teeth-on-edge, simmering rage.

An article in today’s newspaper began by announcing, "Parenting author Ann Douglas is sounding the wake-up alarm about sleep deprivation." Yes, the mother of all mommy-bloggers is going on the record to say that there is a point beyond which sleep deprivation is no longer okay. She proposes a variety of solutions, including – gasp! – letting dad get up with the baby at night (though she acknowledges that this tactic may involve the mom shaking him awake, a process that may be more time-consuming and disruptive to sleep than just feeding the baby and having done with it). But she warns that prolonged sleep-deprivation can be dangerous, and urges mothers to get the help they need before they reach the breaking point.

It’s a refreshing message to hear – but then the columnist, Kathy Rumleski, ends the article by profiling a second book, Sleepless in America by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, and pulls out the following quotation: "You want to sleep, but you can’t." Since this statement is taken out of context, it's not entirely clear whether Kurcinka means "You want to sleep, but you can't ... unless you try my foolproof no-cry sleep solutions" OR "You want to sleep, but you can't, you selfish bitch." Anyway. She goes on: " When [a child] is unable to calm himself and you are inclined to let him cry, consider how you would feel if your partner ignored your distress."

There you go – a nice shot of guilt to go with your tonic of sleep-deprivation if you’re hard-hearted enough to let your baby cry. What bothers me most about the CIO debate is not the arguments used against it, but the arguments one is forced to use for it: My baby has been so much happier since he learned to sleep on his own. I’m a much better mother now that I’m rested and alert. If the sleep-deprivation went on much longer, I might have harmed the baby.

It’s not enough to say: The lack of sleep is making me miserable. I’m on the verge of tears all day long. I blow up at little things that shouldn’t even bother me. Every time I look at my partner I want to hit him because he’s asleep/he’s smiling/he’s getting ready to leave the house. Even I don’t think those arguments are convincing, not by themselves – the mother’s welfare enters the equation only insofar as we can link it to the baby’s. We can forgive ourselves for doing what we need to do only insofar as we can say that even if a stay-at-home, co-sleeping, breastfeeding mom would be best for the baby, the best thing for my baby is a mom who’s okay, who’s keeping her head above water, whatever that requires.

*****

While we’re on the topic of guilt, let me just say that I’ve been nursing a bit of low-level self-reproach while writing this post because I’m not paying enough attention to the Bub, who’s busy steering Thomas the Tank Engine around the track. So I took a break a moment ago when I heard him muttering something about a mouse. A remembered snatch of Green Eggs and Ham? I turned around, saying, "I would not eat them in a house, I would not eat them with a mouse!" Bub looked at me sternly. "No," he said. Then he turned my swiveling desk chair back around so I was facing the computer, and returned to his trains.

Should that make me feel better or worse?

Sunday, May 28, 2006

99 and 44/100% Theory-Free

My blogging goal for the day is to tell a story. That’s it – just a story, with absolutely no Expounding of Theories. (I’ll keep the theories to a minimum, anyway. Baby steps.) Twice now, I’ve set out to tell a story – the story of Bub’s birth and the story of how I met hubby – but all that’s survived in the final version is a few snippets amid the general theorizing about the appeal of birth stories and the secret of marital happiness. Since Mrs. Chicky has categorically declined to share the story of her first kiss, I thought I’d steal the suggestion for myself. I’m not sure that this story gives a really reliable impression of who I am – it may certainly give a distorted impression of who I used to be – but here goes.

The setting is Grand Bend. I don’t suppose you have to live around here to know, just from the name, that Grand Bend is a beach town that exerts an irresistible magnetic force upon teenagers with fake I.D.s or, in my case, a 19-year-old who is only just legal. (The corollary of this, of course, is the much longer and sadder story of all those years of Not Being Kissed, unless you count a chaste peck from Robbie-next-door when I was ten, or the time my friends paid off the waiter on my sixteenth birthday to come and kiss me on the cheek while my parents looked on from a neighbouring table.)

Anyway. I was in Grand Bend for the May 2-4 weekend (Canadian long weekend officially inaugurating the summer season of beer-drinking and lying around on the beach), and I was relishing the contrast to a previous May 2-4 a couple of years earlier when I had been stuck at home while all my so-called friends were at the beach with the Boy I Liked (but sadly, never kissed). My gateway to this world of partying, drinking, and kissing was my fun friend Carey. Carey had an unfortunate habit of ditching me whenever someone more exciting came along, but she was warm, funny, adventurous, and so much fun to be around that I was willing to be stood up from time to time for the sake of her company. I was definitely the fixed arm in this friendship, more than delighted to be pulled along in her wake to all kinds of exciting places I would never venture into on my own. Like bars, for instance, and parties.

On this particular Saturday night, there was a cottage party, and there was vodka and lemonade, and there was a 24-year-old boy whose name (I am almost certain) was Andrew. After a decent interval of conversation, he invited me to look at his car, and after a few kisses (no tongue), he devoted his attention to my neck while I analyzed the experience with a fair degree of clinical detachment. I was satisfied, above all, to bring an official end to the increasingly embarrassing state of having Never Been Kissed, in the years before Drew Barrymore made it look sweet and appealing. I had become increasingly concerned that my inexperience would be immediately apparent to any boy who actually did kiss me, and that my need to avoid such humiliation would mean that the nunnery was the only real life-option still available. While I couldn’t exactly say that I was enjoying Andrew’s devouring of my neck, I was pleased, on the whole, with what I had accomplished.

And then my best friend knocked on the window to say we were going out for french fries, and I quite happily climbed out from under Andrew to join her, walking down the street feeling rather stifled by the weight of his arm on my shoulders. It had been fun, and satisfying, though I was a little concerned that there had been no igniting of passion, no smouldering cauldron of desire. I had a few more months to wait for those.

Since then, I have kissed two more boys. And I married both of them.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

This Saturday Only - Two Posts for the Price of One!

I have two posts knocking about in my head this morning – one serious, bitter, and theological, the other containing my reflections on baby fashion trends. (The serious one comes first … feel free to scroll down as necessary.)

I suspect I will find myself in good company when I admit that I’m still mulling over my reaction to Amalah’s honest and thought-provoking post about her recovery from a toxically fundamentalist upbringing. If the 150 comments I skimmed through are any indication, she’s not alone: I would say there was a 3:1 ratio between the "Been there, done that" comments and the "Please believe we’re not all like that" variety. It’s a sad commentary on the state of the faith in the twenty-first century that it still has to be said (over and over again): Christianity is not a licence for meanness.

But what’s getting lost in the shuffle here is the fact that so many of these traumatic experiences with evangelicalism arise not merely from a few judgmental jerks, but from the Bad Theology that is passing for orthodox Christianity these days – the theology of "God has a wonderful plan for your life," and "There’s no such thing as coincidence" and "Everything happens for a reason." According to this world view, the primary task of every Christian is to engage in a large-scale equivalent of reading tea leaves – sifting through the various circumstances of life and deciphering therein God’s plan for which college to attend, which boyfriend to marry, which city (and even house) to live in, which job to take. If you guess all the answers correctly, you win a trouble-free life! And if terrible things happen (as they sometimes do), there are two possible responses: (1) God did this to you for a reason, or (2) Your mother died/Your baby was stillborn/You developed terminal cancer because you didn’t pray hard enough/didn’t have enough faith/put yourself outside God’s will through your own wrong choices. (The proponents of this bad theology have a dizzying inability to see the obvious flaws in their logic, where God dictates everything and yet is responsible for nothing, and where I have free will and can louse things up, but nobody else’s decisions, good or bad, can possibly affect God’s perfect plan.)

Logical flaws aside, this feel-good prosperity gospel bears no relationship to the Christian faith as it exists outside North America and across the centuries. To wit:

When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul.

(written by Horatio G. Spafford after the loss of his property in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the drowning deaths of his four daughters in a shipwreck shortly thereafter)

Or how about this:
Not from sorrow, pain or care
Freedom dare I claim.
This alone shall be my prayer:
Glorify Thy name.

(Lawrence Tuttiett, 1864)

Or (pulling out the big guns), how about Martin Luther?
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill;
God’s word abideth still;
His kingdom is forever.

(1529)

My husband says that his first recollection of spiritual awareness is the thrill of awe he felt upon hearing these words of Martin Luther when he was maybe ten years old. Those staunch Reformers had their own baggage of bad theology (of the Calvinistic variety, which was equally soul-crushing, though backed by much more thorough reasoning), but they had enough contact with the vagaries of life to be aware that the only guarantees Jesus ever offered his followers were persecution and a cross. Their theology was stern and vigorous and allowed, perhaps, too little room for a healthy expression of grief, but at least it squelched that ever-present and shameful impulse to blame the victim, to take our own fears of disease and bereavement and death and channel them into scorn towards those whose misfortunes remind us of our own vulnerability.

(exhale!)

And now for something completely different…

The other day I visited a wonderfully generous friend of mine and picked up a diaper box full of hand-me-downs from her daughter, who’s a year older than the Pie. I now have drawers full of capris and halter tops and a closet full of sundresses. The best part of all is that the Pie (due to my over-abundant milk supply and her voracious appetite) has now finally graduated to the 12-18 month clothing size. This means, according to the gods of baby fashion, that she is now allowed to wear orange! taupe! navy blue! burgundy! She has a fabulous pair of dark blue denim daisy-dukes, a silver-threaded blue-and-cream halter top, an orange-and-fuchsia-striped t-shirt and various other amazing garments in colours that are not pastel pink, yellow or lavender.

Has anyone properly analyzed the gendered implications of baby clothing? Baby boys wear pastel blue for the first three months of life (unless, like my baby boy, they outgrow the 0-3-month size before they’re a month old). From that point until their second birthday, they wear jaunty little-man outfits: brown overalls with felt hammers hanging from the belt-loop, little fireman shirts and zookeeper rompers. They wear sheepskin-lined denim jackets and lumberjack shirts, corduroy trousers and mini-construction boots. According to my history-of-children’s-literature notes, this predilection for dressing children in smaller versions of adult clothing dates back to the Renaissance, where it reflected the fact that "childhood" had not yet been invented: children were considered to be less-smart adults, with the same basic needs and responsibilities (that is, the need for discipline of the unruly sinful nature and the responsibility to work). When the Victorians invented childhood, they invented childhood fashions to go along with it: long, ruffled dresses for boys and girls alike that could be worn until they reached the age of three. So what does it mean that we still dress baby girls in pastel cotton flannel until they can walk, even though we have returned, with the help of Baby Gap, to an age of dressing infant boys as if they were full-grown men? Let me know your theories!

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Little Pie

... is ten months old today. So with that as my excuse, here's her life so far.



Love ... exciting and new.

You know how they say that the colostrum is "liquid gold," that it completely satisfies the baby's nutritional needs, and the baby will not be hungry in the days before the milk comes in? (Insert maniacal laughter.) My babies do not subscribe to this concept. They demand milk, and lots of it.



Four weeks and four pounds later.

I always love to see women nursing in public. They drape themselves discreetly with a receiving blanket, and the baby latches on hungrily and then settles in for a nice snack while mommy nibbles a muffin and chats with a friend. So moving and peaceful, madonna and child. With the Pie, it was Not Like That. After a month of spraying, choking, green poo, and exponential weight gain, we found the solution (thank you Dr. Jack Newman): you nurse on only one side until that side is completely finished, even if that means returning to that side for two or three consecutive feedings. Hubby and I took the children to the park in the midst of this remedy - hubby had the Pie in the Snugli carrier while my job was to chase down the Bub whenever he sprang from the splash pad and made a beeline for the parking lot and/or the river. One problem: there is no such thing as "run" or "chase" when you have a four-week-old baby and you've put your right breast on hiatus for twelve hours. But we made it back to the car in safety, and when I pulled my seatbelt across my chest, the resulting let-down soaked my t-shirt all the way down to the waist. Nevertheless, the treatment worked, and the Incredible Expanding Baby returned to a reasonable shape and size.



Tummy time: how the Pie regained her girlish figure.




Mummy discovers Picasa...




The Pie makes a brand new friend

In addition to marrying best friends, my BFF and I have managed to synchronize our child-bearing as well: our boys are six weeks apart, and our daughters are seven months apart. But, oh, it's a shock to hold a tiny newborn baby (who actually weighed less at three weeks of age than either of my babies weighed at birth) when you're under the impression that you still have a baby of your own, as opposed to, say, a giant eighteen-pound child who clearly considers herself all grown up and ready to play with the big boys.



On the move - now with enhanced toy-theft capability!




My little Pie loves new people who smile and wave at her - so long as they remain at least one metre away. She is easy-going; she takes things as they come. ("You want to take this choking/strangling/suffocation hazard away from me? That's too bad - but it was so nice of you to stop by! Don't worry - I've got my eye on a nice little peanut over there under the table.") She loves to cuddle the cats, barreling her head into their soft, furry tummies. She wakes up happy, struggling to smile even as she blinks the sleep out of her eyes. And she charges at new experiences, everything open - eyes, mouth, hands, heart. My fun little, wonderful little Pie.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

In Praise of Younger Women

I am grading my way through a stack of forty essays right now, rather more slowly than I should, due to my habit of taking a break after each essay, wherein I reward myself with a quick browse through the blogs. I used to be able to sustain my concentration for more than one paper at a time, but this round of marking is killing me.

TOPIC: Compare a fairy tale to its film adaptation. How do the changes from text to film affect the meaning of the story?

POPULAR RESPONSE: The Disney film of Fairy Tale X is much more entertaining than the original tale because it allows the audience to visualize the story. (Supporting arguments: plot summary of the film from beginning to end, with occasional speculation about the responses of hypothetical child viewers.)

Please, somebody kill me now.

So I was taking a "break" from my grading yesterday, working my way through the archives at Girl’s Gone Child, when I was somewhat startled to discover that she is more than ten years younger than I am. Most of us mommy bloggers are in our thirties, reflecting general demographic changes in the average age of first-time moms, but reflecting also, I think, the fact that the need to blog often arises from a kind of identity crisis that takes place when one becomes a mother after having spent more than a decade as an adult, footloose and fancy-free. Not that I was ever free, exactly, in my twenties, if by free we mean fearless and uninhibited, ready to ditch my job at a moment’s notice to move to Paris and make my living doing water-colours on the Champs-Elysées. No, I didn’t even buy my giant backpack and sew a flag on the back (kudos if you spot the Barenaked Ladies ref) and bus through Europe on a Contiki tour, though I did spend two weeks in London reading nineteenth-century anti-Catholic tracts at the British Library. To be honest, I spent most of my twenties much the way I’m spending my thirties: in a constant sense of amazement that I’m able to keep a roof over my head, convinced that I’m a few unlucky breaks away from pushing my grocery cart down Dundas St. in a parka. What amazes me in retrospect about my twenties is not the freedom and adventure but rather the time – the mind-boggling, enormous amount of time I had to devote to things like writing my dissertation, going to the beach, falling in love, consuming enormous quantities of cheesecake and coffee without gaining a pound.

Time is in short supply these days, to the point that I often consider initiating sex, only to wonder whether that will cut into that all-too-brief window of web-surfing and TV-viewing between the time Bub and Pie hit the hay at eight and my own collapse into bed for the night at ten. The sudden dearth of free time is only one of the shocks of motherhood, though. The other is vaguer, deeper – a sense of bewilderment to find myself suddenly someone else, at sea in a strange world of sleep schedules and sippy cups, not entirely able to remember how I got here or whether I ever get to leave.

I often recognize the look in the eyes of a new mom, when the baby is six weeks old and crying for two hours out of every day – that slightly haunted look in the eyes, the sense of shock: "How come nobody ever told me it was this hard?" And then the baby grows up a little bit, starts sleeping a bit more, crying a bit less, and normalcy returns, but the haunted look doesn’t go away – not entirely. It changes into a dazed realization that this motherhood thing is by far the hardest job we’ve ever done, that the task of getting a toddler and a baby supper-ed and pyjama-ed and into bed is more than one person can reasonably be expected to achieve – even if that person used to be a hard-working, competent professional.

And yet not everyone seems to feel this way – I see mothers at playgroups who seem, simply, happy. They can give their full attention to their babies without getting restless, they can roll with the punches of motherhood without stockpiling paper towel tubes for smashing things when they get enraged (not that I do that … no, um, I know a friend who does that). It’s not that these moms have it easy, or don’t have their bad days, but rather that they seem able to take motherhood into themselves, to welcome it, to make it feel at home. They are funny, articulate, joyful. And a lot of them are young. Conventional wisdom would suggest that it is wiser to postpone motherhood to that mythical future time when one is "ready" - with the financial security and maturity that come with years. But the mothers I see in their twenties don't exactly bear that out. They have flat little tummies, where I have a monstrous roll of wrinkled, stretch-marked flesh, and they have a resiliency that I envy. Perhaps a woman who chooses to have her children at a young age is someone for whom mothering comes easily, whose temperament is naturally suited to the round-the-clock-ness of children. Or perhaps one’s identity is more malleable at that age, and motherhood is simply one of many changes that come all at once in those years when you stop thinking of yourself as "girl" and start thinking of yourself at "woman." In any case, I’ve been lucky enough to meet some of these young moms, both in the flesh and on the interweb, and their sense of fun is contagious, their joy is inspiring. It’s an honour to know them.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Anniversaries

I celebrated two anniversaries yesterday – celebrated, that is, in the sense of "did not exactly notice until today." On a happy note, yesterday was the one-week anniversary of this blog (marked by an extremely exciting burst of comments by new visitors to the land of Bub and Pie – a "burst" in the sense of "two new comments," or "double my previous record of comments"). On a somewhat less happy note, yesterday marked what would have been the thirteenth anniversary of my marriage to the Wrong Man (for me) (a parenthesis I can add now after the passage of years has left me willing to acknowledge that there may be someone for whom a commitment-phobic, chronically unfaithful man is actually quite suitable). It has been almost eight years since that marriage blew apart – I almost wrote "fell apart," but that implies something gradual, accidental, regrettable, as opposed to a sudden conflagration after five years of steady, workaday unhappiness.

So my marriage blew apart and exactly ten days later, I met the Right Man, Bub and Pie’s father, so unjustly maligned as an emotionless robot in a recent post for which my only excuse can be that my mother raised me to believe that people who exaggerate are more interesting. It was a Thanksgiving weekend, and my best friend had rushed home from Ottawa to ply me with chocolate and Janis Joplin and to get me out of the house. I was still subsisting at that point on a diet of milkshakes and mashed potatoes, but we went out to a bar and grill where I choked down a few french fries, and my best friend’s boyfriend, ever the multi-tasker, decided to bring his best friend along. (Yes, in the manner of Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, we managed to marry best friends, though not, unfortunately, to live in stately Darbyshire manor houses.) The only thing I really remember through my grief-induced haze that night is a conversation about the Myers-Briggs personality types. Hubby is an INTJ, a personality type that I have concluded, after much study, is the best match for my INFJ personality (and a vast improvement over my previous INFJ/ESTP mismatch). The MBTI aside, what hubby conveyed over the following months as he faithfully showed up wherever I might reasonably be expected to be, with insightful comments on any book I happened to mention reading, were the traits I still love: calm, analytical intelligence and dry humour. I have always thought of him as a Mr. Darcy without the money – a mix between Colin Firth’s arrogant intensity and the shy, almost bumbling Darcy of the recent Keira Knightley film.

To borrow John Donne’s metaphor, I think that romantic relationships invariably resemble compasses, with one fixed and one moving arm. The key to relationship bliss is to know which arm you want to be: Hubby is the fixed emotional point, calm, steady, utterly trustworthy, a rock in the storm of my occasionally turbulent emotions. In my previous marriage, I had to be the stable one, the impulse-restrainer (some might say stifler) – not a role I perform with grace. The moving arm can be many things – emotional, flamboyant, extraverted, funny, adventurous – while the fixed arm enjoys the opportunity to look on from a position of security and sometimes superiority. I was always a bit bemused when my fixed-arm friends indicated that what they wanted in a man was "someone who makes me laugh." I’m often uncomfortable around really funny men; what I wanted is someone who would laugh at my jokes. What I got was even better – someone with whom I have accumulated a thousand absurd inside jokes (the lamest of which involves the term "Dutch oven"), someone with whom I can find laughter even in the midst of disagreement, who can laugh at me and laugh at himself. Indeed I am truly blessed.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Bless Me, Mother, for I Have Sinned

Since Linda Hirshman has elevated the moral tone of feminism by making working a moral imperative for educated women – and since it’s Sunday – I thought it due time to confess my sins.

  • For I have accepted thousands of dollars of publicly-funded scholarship money in the course of seven years of graduate school, only to subordinate my career to the needs of my family.
  • For I have abandoned my search for full-time work after only four years (during which time I applied – unsuccessfully – to all nine jobs in my field that were available across Canada) in order to have babies.
  • For I have taken two maternity leaves lasting nine months each, both of which have eroded what slender job security I ever had as a part-time instructor, according to the convoluted and possibly illegal logic of my collective agreement.
  • For I have spent my maternity leaves reading mystery novels, and Anne Lamott, and Waiting for Birdy, and the mommy blogs, rather than publishing scholarly articles on the construction of domestic masculinity in Victorian fiction.
  • For I have agreed to follow hubby’s career to a picturesque small town, thirty minutes outside of the city, where my employment options will include pizza delivery, home day-care, or low-status online teaching.

To be fair, though, Hirshman has managed to pull the rug out from under the family-values conservatives who have hitherto held a monopoly on moral coercion when it comes to the mommy wars. No longer can feminism be painted as the political voice for selfish mothers who place their own happiness over that of their children; working moms are embodying the feminine virtue of self-sacrifice in the global marketplace, fulfilling their duty to contribute to the GDP at whatever cost to themselves. Hirshman has also managed to garner media attention rivaled only by Caitlin Flanagan – hardly what she could have expected had she stuck to the boring old "feminism is about choices" party line. The down side, of course, is that her logic effectively lets employers and politicians off the hook: there’s no need to encourage a family-friendly culture in the workplace, or to provide meaningful part-time options for employees, or to create parental leave policies that would support mothers and fathers trying to balance work with child-rearing. No, as it turns out, those causes are simply a rallying cry for sentimental women who are self-indulgent enough to want more than one child. (That being Hirshman's ingenious solution to the work-family balance problem for professional women - have a child, but only one.)

In response to that argument, I’d like to close on a slightly different note than I began, with the list of Reasons I’m Glad I Had Another Baby:

  • At last, a chance to use all the lessons I gained the first time around. Like, do not allow an ill-advised perusal of Baby Wise and/or The Baby Whisperer to throw you into a panic if your baby falls asleep while nursing and slumbers peacefully through the "Activity" portion of the E.A.S.Y. routine. (This item also supports my theory about the plague of unwanted advice visited upon new moms: the knowledge we gain as mothers is so hard-won and of so limited a shelf-life that we feel irresistibly compelled to share it with others. It would be different if we were still having ten or twenty babies over the course of a lifetime; failing that, we have to borrow our nieces and nephews and neighbours and make them the unwilling recipients of our personal expertise.)
  • What is the point of breaking in that virgin cervix the first time, if not to propel a second baby out of it in less than seven hours?
  • Older siblings are the best entertainers. When Bub was a baby, I often felt that what he really needed was not an exersaucer or a swing or even a Baby Einstein video, but an older brother. Having failed to provide that essential bit of baby equipment the first time around, I am overjoyed to report that I was right: there is something profoundly unnatural about the isolated existence of a mother and her first baby, trapped in their deserted suburb all day – the whole house is warmer, more joyful and full of life, when there’s a toddler available on demand to entertain the baby.
  • And that’s what it’s all about: a two-year-old and a baby, naked and fresh from the bath, chasing one another down the hallway on all fours as the Bub shouts "Run away!" and the Pie struggles, between volleys of laughter, to gain an extra burst of speed by swaying her head back and forth like Stevie Wonder – bum up, head down, whole body alight with joy and happiness.

If Linda Hirshman can find me a workplace that offers something better than that, I’ll return the Pie to sender and get back to work where I belong.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

There's More to Canadian Tire ... than Tires

Speech therapists take note: I’ve discovered a new form of retail therapy, suitable for speech-delayed male toddlers.

Equipment: 1 Mama, 1 Daddy, 1 Canadian Tire flyer, and a two-year-old boy who doesn’t ask questions.

Directions: In the presence of toddler, engage in the following dialogue:
M: Daddy, what’s that?
D: A lawn mower! Mama, what’s that?
M: A propane tank!

Repeat as needed.

The Bub has never asked me a question. On one or two occasions, he may or may not have asked, "Where’s Daddy?" (those were the words he said, but it seems likely that what he meant was, "Look, I see Daddy coming into the room!"), but he has manifestly failed to join the young cult of constant questioners. I’m aware that most parents of two-year-olds are not trying to encourage them to ask "What’s that?" more often. But in Bub’s case, I am still waiting eagerly for the penny to drop when he realizes that these word-thingies can be used to Get Useful Information.

After only a couple of repetitions of the Canadian-Tire-flyer word game, he has already started to join in – he engages in a little monologue with himself: "What’s that? Blue! What’s that? Red!" He hasn’t quite absorbed the concept yet, but if I pull up a chair beside him, he’ll switch gears: "Mama, what’s that?" and I answer, "A bicycle! A sprinkler! A waterslide! A waterslide! Yes, a waterslide!" The key, evidently, is to tap into his innate love of power tools and lawn-care equipment – the Linens ‘n’ Things flyer does not produce anything like the same results. The Bub now hauls around his flyer, fingering the pictures lovingly and murmuring things like "washer fluid" or "drill bits" under his breath. I am far from convinced that boys are hard-wired to love sports, or tools, or even tabletop miniature war games - in fact, my hackles rise at any use of the word "hard-wired" in connection to gender (especially if it's accompanied by the words "women" and "nurturers" or by a description of prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies), but if pictures of chainsaws and riding lawn mowers get my son asking questions, I'll be happy to endorse any stereotype you like.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Why I Love Birth Stories

There are many issues that divide mothers – breastfeeding vs. formula, stay-at-home vs. working, cry-it-out vs. attachment parenting – but there is one divisive issue that has been strangely overlooked by a warmongering media: birth stories. There are those who believe that birth stories are little more than a form of psychological abuse, where gleeful moms terrorize pregnant women in a particularly nasty display of schadenfreude. Now I will admit that I fail to understand why people feel compelled to relay third-hand tales of stillbirth to pregnant women (or, for that matter, why people invariably respond to my admission of severe bee-phobia with their best "remember the time when five bees flew into my pop-can and stung the roof of my mouth" stories). But birth stories are a different matter. I want all the details.

When it comes to birth stories, I’m not really a moderate: I am to birth stories what the extended breastfeeding, homeschooling, babywearing mom is to the attachment parenting debate. I once heard of a seminar where ten or twelve women could sign up for the sole purpose of relaying their birth stories to one another over coffee and scones. This sounds like a fun idea! When friends become pregnant, I am, of course, overjoyed on their behalf about the delightful addition to their family and the fulfillment of their dreams, but what I’m really excited about is the prospect of a new birth story, just a few months away.

The scheduled C-section has to be the poor cousin of birth stories. Not a lot of drama there – no hours spent pounding the pavement in steaming hot July weather in hopes of advancing labour, no race to the hospital with the baby crowning. Emergency C-sections, on the other hand, make for great stories – doctors rushing into the room, husbands fainting at the sight of blood … good times. I have nothing against pain-relief, however – a good birth story has plenty of room for the comparative merits of epidurals and laughing gas, for the epidural that takes on only one side and produces a splitting headache, or for the appalling news that it’s too late for an epidural, that the baby will be arriving before the anaesthesiologist.

The timeline is a key element of any birth story. How many hours of labour? How many centimetres dilation? When I was in labour with the Bub, Hubby had brought one of his law textbooks to the hospital, so he pencilled in my stats in the inside cover. Come to my house and open up Property in Things in the Common Law System and you’ll find the following terse, yet gripping, narrative: "6:00 am: water breaks; 4:50 pm: oxytocin goes in; 6:35 pm: contractions begin (3 mins. apart); 9:30 pm: audible groaning; 10:30 pm: epidural; 10:50 pm: 6-7 cm!!!; 11:45 pm: 9.5 cm; 3:15 am: start pushing; 5:30 am: forceps; 6:01 am: the Bub!!! 8lbs, 14 oz." Of course that framework leaves so many things out: the impossibility of listening to anything but U2 in the early hours of labour, the slowly decaying optimism in the six hours between "9.5 cm" and "forceps," the terrifying transfer from the cozy birthing suite into the high-risk delivery room. Nevertheless, numbers are clearly the linchpin of any good birth story: pounds, ounces, centimetres, stitches. I have a friend who gave birth to a 10 lb, 12 oz. baby boy (first baby, vacuum extraction). Those kind of numbers deserve to remembered, passed on. They deserve recognition.


(Yes, that's a 9 in the pounds column)

But at the end of the day, bragging rights, as important as they are, may not really be the point of telling birth stories. Yes, these are our war stories, the only medal we are likely to get for the hours we spend in the trenches, doing our bit for the continuation of the human race. But after the post-traumatic amnesia has set in and I can no longer remember what the contractions actually felt like (aside from a vague and wildly inaccurate recollection that the whole thing rather resembled a hard workout), what remains is a sense of the drama of the whole experience. There is the rising action: the breaking water, the early contractions, the phone calls and car rides and hot showers. And then there is the climax: transition, pushing, forceps, vacuum, C-section – or better yet, no forceps, vacuum, or C-section. And then the denouement: peering through a haze of drugs and adrenaline into those strange, blinky, beautiful new eyes and saying hello to the person you’re going to love for the rest of your life.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

His Father's Son


My son is probably not autistic. This, after much consideration, is my amateur conclusion while I wait for the as-yet-unscheduled appointment with the specialists who actually know what they’re talking about. Bub has always been a fairly self-contained sort of fellow. The first thing he did when he emerged from the womb was to attempt to stand upright, bearing weight on his legs. His attitude was clearly that this whole infancy stage, well, sucks. As soon as he could crawl, he morphed from a demanding infant (shall we say) to a sturdily independent toddler who could spend hours entertaining himself by creating careful, symmetrical arrangements of books and DVDs, edges lined up perfectly. I have always found this endearing – he’s so organized! so neat and tidy! so not unlike his mother, who has always felt that household objects ought to be arranged at angles of neither more nor less than 90 degrees!

Bub began talking at the appropriate time, producing an enthusiastic "ba" at all the appropriate, ball-throwing occasions. By eighteen months, he had a vocabulary of 50 words, including "cherry," "hippo," and "shoe" – not, however "mama" or "dada." This left me at a disadvantage when it came to filling out milestone charts. Can your baby say at least 10 words (in addition to "mama" and "dada")? Um … yes? By the time our appointment with the speech therapist rolled around a few months ago, he was saying "elephant" and "zebra" with beautifully precise consonants, and independently reciting The Cat in the Hat, with or without provocation, but he had fewer than ten words that he actually used to communicate (juice! cookie! tunes!). The speech therapist played a game with bubbles – she would blow bubbles in his face and then hand him the bottle: "Take this to mama!" (pointing) "Take this to mama!" The Bub stared at her, unimpressed, and then peeled open her hand, placing the bottle on her palm, and shouted, "More!" This, apparently, is not a typical response, or a good sign.

I’m often amazed at the preternatural listening skills and obedience of toddlers as young as eighteen months old. "Put that on the table!" their mothers instruct, and the children put it on the table. I’m not even talking about the girls, those irritatingly verbose creatures who jump up in their cribs on their second birthday and announce, "Today’s my special day! Grandma and Grandpa are coming to give me presents, and when they get here we will eat cake!" (It’s the subordinate clauses I can’t get over, never mind the awareness of present and future, of human beings not actually in the room.) The Bub does not make remarks about visiting relatives, or listen to what I say, even if it’s "Look at the doggie!" or "Do you want a piece of chocolate?"

That said, he could simply have an introverted, logical personality. He comes by it honestly, after all – his father is said by those who have known him longest to have activated his emotion chip at the age of twenty when, as a matter of scientific interest, he decided it would be beneficial to round out his life experience with some emotional awareness. Today, he is warmly sympathetic to the emotions of others, so long as those emotions are clearly identified and explained to him, and he even experiences emotions himself, in exact proportion to his logical evaluation of his circumstances. As in, "We have decided to stop after two children, and I’m ready to schedule the vasectomy whenever I’m given the signal" as opposed to, "We have decided to stop after two children, but having surgery seems like tempting fate to smite my children, and the thought of retiring my breasts and uterus forever makes me feel sick and woozy." Like his father (and grandfathers!) before him, the Bub is more attentive to numbers than to people, more inclined to recite song lyrics than to express his feelings … but that doesn’t mean he’s autistic. Probably.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Weaning without Warning


I’ve been weaning my baby this week. Or, more accurately, my nine-month-old baby decided to wean herself last Monday, having discovered that biting was far more fun than suckling. And yes, I know that Babies Under a Year Old Do Not Self-Wean, and all nursing problems can be solved with sufficient quantities of fenugreek/blessed thistle/gentian violet and the assistance of Dr. Jack Newman, but there is a certain degree of engorgement past which one no longer desires to place a biting baby near one’s nipple. At any rate, I no longer wish to place a biting baby near my explosive, football shaped, cabbage-laden breasts. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve accepted the end of my breastfeeding days. There are the mood swings, for one thing. I treated myself to a pedicure Friday morning (a long-postponed birthday present) – and found myself in tears at the sight of my no-longer-swollen feet and ankles, reliving the glorious final days of pregnancy: oh, those golden times of enduring a constantly aching back, peeing every five minutes, constantly timing the Braxton-Hicks contractions and trying to convince myself that they really hurt. I found myself wondering if I was really done childbearing with only two babies … maybe one more eensy weensy baby wouldn’t hurt. That was Friday. Saturday I spent lying on the couch, longing for death. Suicidal thoughts are not part of my ordinary psychological make-up; they are an intense, and thankfully short-lived side-effect of any alteration in my milk supply. I had them while the supply was on its way up, when the little Pie was two weeks old, and so I knew to expect them when the supply was on its way down.

The timing of this weaning process, though unexpected, is not necessarily that bad. I weaned my son at nine months, and felt as if I was emerging from a dark tunnel, blinking dazedly in the bright sunlight. And I was returning to work back then, on campus three days a week, marveling that for thirty dollars, someone would actually take care of my baby for me all day. My postpartum experience has been different this time around, less terrifying and overwhelming. I’ve actually been able to enjoy my chubby baby, her fat little smiley cheeks. When she cries, I may feel distressed, but I don’t feel that sinking sense of panic that characterized my first year of mothering. But the downside of that is a sharper sense of loss as my baby becomes a grasping, determined little crawler, lunging with greedy hands at any toy her brother dares to play with, biting lustily at any bottle or breast that comes her way, flinging spoonfuls of cereal joyously across the kitchen. Now would be the time for me to think longingly of those peaceful hours of nursing, with my newborn infant cradled lovingly in my arms. Except that nursing never really was a peaceful thing for us – more like a sprint to the finish line, milk spraying dangerously as the baby gasped for air between mouthfuls. Neither of my babies have been enthusiastic nursers, exactly. The Bub was prone to going on strike, pulling away and screaming as the let-down hit. The Pie was a bit less melodramatic about the whole thing, but she had her own ways of letting me know when she was done.

What I miss, I think, is the feeling of being necessary, in such a bodily way, to my children’s well-being. It raises the bar a little bit – now, my mothering depends on what I do: my limitless patience, my creativity in coming up with exciting craft projects, my ability to organize elaborate birthday parties complete with clown entertainers, goodie-bags, and hand-decorated cakes shaped like Dora the Explorer. These, perhaps, are not areas where I expect to excel. I can envision myself coping well as a parent to teenagers, listening sympathetically to the teenage-Pie’s sagas of unrequited love (I might cope less well with love of the requited variety), but before all of that comes a much more intimidating frontier: Childhood. I’ll let you know how it goes.