Blue Monday, 2014

Tags

The saddest day of the year for me is the day I take down the Christmas tree. It’s not so much because I’m a Christmas freak (guilty) as because the tangible objects of Christmases past get put away, wrapped in old, yellowed tissue paper, not to be seen for another year. It’s the missing them that gets me–my own perceived loss that has no rationale other than nostalgia and sentimentality. There are cheap plastic fake gingerbread ornaments from my childhood in the 1970s that find a place on my trees now because they evoke the years of relatives who are long dead, homemade pierogies for Christmas Eve dinner, and a Pong game from Santa. The years of innocence, before death and grief entered my world. One of the hardest ornaments to slide back into its box is the one that contains the last photograph taken of our spaniel mutt Buttons, who died at age 16, when I was 26. Every year I kiss my fingertips, touch the picture with them, and tell her I’ll see her next year. She died 19 years ago. It still hurts to put that ornament away, but knowing I’ll bring it out again gives me genuine joy and sustenance.

I could probably count on my fingers the number of ornaments that don’t remind me of my mother. The ones she bought for me, the ones we bought together. One of our few shared activities over the years was going shopping for Christmas tree ornaments. We’d pick a department store, have lunch, and buy ornaments. We never shared similar tastes in clothes or much anything else. But Christmas trees were our point of agreement—the one subject that didn’t cause tension or stress, although there were many years when I’d hang the ornaments from her begrudgingly and out of spite. She probably bought them begrudgingly and out of spite too. There were many years when we barely spoke at the holidays.  

Earlier this year my mother was diagnosed with Lewy Body dementia, after almost three years of increasingly bizarre and troubling behavior. Because this form of dementia—the second most common form after Alzheimer’s, but the one nobody talks about—causes Parkinson’s-like symptoms of muscle rigidity and tremors, falls are a regular occurrence, and it becomes almost impossible for a patient to remain safely at home. The inability to walk coupled with the delusion that they can still walk makes Lewy Body victims even more likely to injure themselves. We had to put my mother in the dementia ward of an assisted-living facility, or risk having her take down my 80-year-old dad with her.

So when I undressed the tree last night it felt even more like an end to things, almost a funeral, than usual. My husband kept asking if he could help, especially with reaching the high ones. But I knew that if anything broke, it would have to be on me. Otherwise I’d be resentful and unforgiving. So I did it myself. Crying and storing. “Life is . . . Life is terrible,” my dad said to me on the phone yesterday. “You get moments. That’s all you get—just moments.” An engineer by trade and temperament, he wants to fix her. “Maybe if I do this . . . ,” he’ll say. I try to be gentle when I remind him of the MRI images the neurologist showed us, which indicated that a large portion of her brain is simply gone, shrunken around the periphery and clouded with what’s called “white space” from vascular disease in addition to the damage done by Lewy Body. “Dad,” I say, “There’s nothing you can do. She doesn’t even know what you’re talking about.” It sounds cruel, and it feels cruel to say out loud. But this is a cruel disease. When she had breast cancer 26 years ago, I knew she might die, and I was afraid. Now my biggest fear is that she won’t die, that we’ll all live in this limbo indefinitely, that her eyes will always be filled with the terror of nonunderstanding, I’ll never be able to soothe her, and the nightmare of violent outbursts, dazed stupors, phantom conversations, and trips to the hospital will keep slicing into my gut like a sword, every goddamned day.

But still, there are moments. A smile of recognition. A squeeze of the hand. Justifiable pride when she remembers the name of a grandchild. Goethe wrote, “To tremble before anticipated evils is to / bemoan what thou hast never lost.” We’ve lost so much. More losses are to come. Life really is terrible. But the moments . . . I want to wring what I still can out of the moments. Because, despite the years of anger and acrimony and all the things that can’t be unsaid, I miss my mom. There are moments now when she and I are easier and more comfortable with each other than we’ve ever been. Dementia has, in one of those perverse twists that life periodically takes, been a gift. I wish it wasn’t; I wish I could have held my mother’s hand before she lost her mind. But there is no going back, no living in denial, and I can’t just slide my mother into a box and hope to bring her out again next year. Next year is a million moments away.

Love Letter to Sandy Hook

Tags

We missed the first bell this morning, so I dropped off the kids in front of school to enter through the main doors. I sat in the car watching them run toward the building on earnest little legs, breathing steam into the frigid air like baby dragons—heads bobbing and arms straining from the weight of backpacks half the size of their small bodies. As the door closed behind them, the thought that’s flooded the minds of nearly every American parent since the morning of December 14 rushed into my head: Will I ever see them alive again?

In an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26315908/vp/50464296#50464296 http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26315908/vp/50464296#50464379), David and Francine Wheeler–the parents of six-year-old Ben Wheeler, who was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School—spoke with breathtaking poise about their son and their involvement in the new advocacy group Sandy Hook Promise. “Don’t stop thinking about this. . . . Keep having the conversation,” they urged.

I agonized over having kids. I was newly pregnant shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, just a couple years after 9/11, when we all felt like kamikaze airplanes could rain from the skies at any moment. I had lunch with a friend at that time and told her that we had no idea what the hell we were doing, having a baby right then. She answered in her quiet, considered manner, “I don’t think the world would be a better place if you and Dan didn’t have kids, but it might be better if you do.” Well, it was too late, anyway. And then we had another.

As much as I try not to view every single thing I do and think and say through the filter of motherhood, it’s always there. My personal identity, like everyone’s, has as many facets as a finely cut diamond, but Mother stands out among them as one of the clearest and most brilliant. Women who are wildly accomplished in their personal and professional lives but who happen not to have kids tell me that they are interrogated and judged regularly for their decision. No amount of accomplishment matters, it seems, if you don’t have a kid on your lap. You’re so selfish! You’re not a real woman!

Here’s a thought: People who don’t have kids have nothing to justify or explain to anyone. People who do have kids have everything to justify. We have brought into this dirty, overcrowded world even more people, some of whom are going to be sick or damaged in some way, due to genetics, accidents, or upbringing. Nancy Lanza made the decision to have a baby, just like I made the decision. She was a mother, just like I am a mother. Yet at some point something went horribly wrong. And it didn’t start on the day of the shooting. Nobody with a normally functioning brain wakes up one day and decides to commit mass murder.

“He was a loner.” We are a country of loners. And if anyone tries to stop us from being loners, we start hollering about socialism and Big Brother. Well, yes, I suppose on some level living in a civilized group with laws and consequences for breaking them is “socialism.” Living as a social being is socialism. This is the meaning of “community.” If I’m watching my kids like a hawk for the most minute sign of trouble, why wouldn’t I watch your kids like a hawk too? And, I’m sorry to be intrusive and all, but if I see or hear or sense that something’s off, I’m going to be on it like white on rice. I’m going to talk to you about it. I’m going to talk to other people. I’m going to offer to help in any way I can. I’m going to keep having the conversation. And I expect everyone else to do the same.

So this is my pledge to the world as a mother: I will watch and listen to and at all times be aware of those around me. I will pay attention to the words, actions, and gazes of my children—and of your children. If my gut tells me something is amiss, I will talk and talk and not stop talking about it until I am satisfied that a solution is in reach. I will keep talking to teachers and pediatricians and my kids’ friends’ parents. I will take the raw materials of agony and make of them a monument, because I owe the world. I made my choices that led me down the path of motherhood. I bred like a good girl should. Now it’s my responsibility to make sure my choices didn’t result in people who are cruel, sick, lacking compassion, or who are silently screaming for help but whose mother balks and equivocates.

Will any of this vigilance make a difference? I have no idea. Will I alienate my kids by being a perpetual nag? Perhaps, but only if we operate under wildly divergent ideas about the definition of the word “mother” and the duties inscribed therein. I am no diviner of future events, and no one has to be told how unpredictable life obviously is. But if my kids end up having half the courage, dignity, and grace of the children, staff, and parents of Sandy Hook Elementary School, I’ll feel like I’ve done my job–as a mother and as a human being.

Don’t stop thinking about this. Don’t stop having the conversation.

Chew on This Fat, BMI

Tags

, , , , , ,

My mother tells the story of how, when she and her sister were kids during the Depression years in Detroit, the neighborhood ladies would say, in Polish, something to the tune of, “That one will live”—pointing at my chubby, golden-ringleted mother—“but the skinny one’s not going to make it.” The “skinny one” was my mother’s older sister Dorothy, cursed from the start, as family lore goes, with a high metabolism and a picky appetite. As my mother tells it, poor Dorothy, refusing to eat much of anything, was given a nutritional supplement called “Lydia Pinkham’s” by my grandmother. Now Lydia Pinkham is remembered for her 40-proof herbal/alcohol concoctions that relieved symptoms of menstruation and menopause, so what exactly Grandma was giving to Aunt Dorothy and for what purpose is anybody’s guess.

More to the point, though, are the observations of those old Polish ladies. At a time when a fairly large number of American children suffered the debilitating effects of malnutrition, and penicillin would not be introduced as an antibiotic treatment for at least another decade, a pale, skinny young girl with “monthly” problems would have been seen as being at high risk of premature death. You would also have to take into account the innumerable child deaths those ladies had experienced and attended to throughout their lives—deaths of siblings, friends, neighbors, and their own children and grandchildren, their bodies carefully washed, dressed, and laid out in candlelit receiving rooms in family homes by the women who loved them. Indeed, through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, child mortality was so common in the United States that, in 1909, the country created the American Association for the Study and Prevention of Infant Mortality, which for the first time kicked off a nationwide effort to address the problem.

So naturally my chunky mother and skinny aunt–in the creased, fading photos I have of them from the later 1930s, they both look drawn and haunted– came to mind when I read about the results of a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health that suggest that a little extra padding on a body might actually lower one’s mortality risk, in contrast to every single thing we’ve been told about how being fat is going to kill us all.

Now, of course what we extrapolate from the naked data is limited to the information provided by the study, which did not control for access to health care or economic status or genetic predisposition. The only fact the study results appear to show for certain is that people who fall above the standard “normal weight” measurement of the popularly used Body Mass Index (BMI) but below the standard for being grossly obese appear to have the fewest common risk factors for death. Alarmist news stories reporting the study’s results made sure to tell their presumably idiotic readers not to run out and “gorge” on “triple cheeseburgers” in an effort to stave off certain death by thinness. (Because, yes, that’s exactly what I was going to do.) Paul Campos observed in an editorial in the New York Times that the root of the American problem with weight may very well lie in our American problem with money and class: “Over the past century, Americans have become increasingly obsessed with the supposed desirability of thinness, as thinness has become both a marker for upper-class status and a reflection of beauty ideals that bring a kind of privilege.”

I have a friend who might be the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in real life, which is the response pretty much everyone has to her. She’s as thin as the typical supermodel. She also lost her colon to disease at a young age. Another friend has told me about how, when she lost a dangerous amount of weight due to a difficult-to-diagnose illness, everyone kept congratulating her on her successful weight loss. My grandmother, knowingly or not, caused permanent ill feelings between my mother and my aunt by labeling my mother “the pretty one” and my aunt “the thin one.”

I was a fat kid, a skinny young woman, and am now, having borne two children and reached solid middle age, slightly above the “normal” range of the BMI. What I’ve found at every age and weight is that there is always somebody who is unhappy with your appearance. If you’re a fat kid you get called names and put on various diets and exercise programs and told by relatives that you’re sure to be a “big woman” when you grow up. It’s not exactly encouraging. If the weight comes off by itself as you grow up and you end up being thin, people will ask you if you want to be that skinny and when you’re finally going to get married. If you gain 40 pounds during pregnancy, they’ll pat your hand comfortingly and say something like, “Don’t worry—that weight will come right off once you’re chasing after the baby.” Chasing after the baby? What am I, a greyhound running after a dummy rabbit?

Nine years later, the last of that baby weight might or might not come off, depending on whether or not I decide to put the effort into it instead of putting the effort into doing fun stuff like roller skating with my kids or walking in the snow with my dogs. If a woman who could stand to lose ten pounds spends enough time going roller skating instead of fussing about her place on the Body Mass Index, will her risk of mortality rise or fall? All I know is that I feel about a thousand pounds lighter now that I’ve finally dropped all that bullshit baggage I carted around for so many years.

Gunman Kills 20 Schoolchildren; Americans Blame Devil

I didn’t sleep very well last night. I don’t imagine many American parents did. Awake, I keep stopping to kiss my kids softly on the tops of their blond heads. They must wonder what’s wrong with me because normally I’m kind of a beast in the morning, before I have two giant cups of tea. So far, they haven’t asked why I’m being so quiet, why my eyes are swollen, from where this sudden font of patience has sprung. Since I picked them up from school yesterday afternoon, all I have said to address their periodic spats of bickering is a mantra-like, “It costs you nothing to be kind to each other.” Over and over and over I say it, maybe more to myself than to them, hoping it will be the cool water that douses this inferno of grief and madness that threatens to overtake me.

I keep looking for God in this wreck. An awful lot of people on social media are echoing Mike Huckabee’s insistence that violence is happening in our nation’s schools because kids don’t pray in school, a claim that, when parsed, places the blame wholly on the parents who send their kids to public schools and the children who don’t start their days at 7 a.m. Mass. Yes! Blame the victims! Surely if they had prayed more, those 5-year-olds would be alive today! How long before the ever-sensitive Westboro Baptist Church announces plans to protest at the funerals because God Hates Gays?

For many years I thought something was seriously wrong with me because I did not feel the presence of a supreme being in my life. I tried so hard to find it. I went to church. I prayed. I would watch my mother sit silently with her rosary, and later claim that her “novenas” were the reason my nephew got a job or some relative made it through surgery. It isn’t that I haven’t experienced moments of genuine awe and wonder, or even terrifying sublimity; it’s that I cannot recall ever feeling that any of the miracles around me came from someone Out There. And gradually, over my forty-four years of being alive, I’ve become less ashamed, less afraid, to say that I just don’t buy it. I do not believe that miracles come from anyplace but within. When I lie next to my babies in their beds at night, singing them love songs to usher them into rest, and feel the curve of their small bodies melting into mine—the complete trust and faith they have in me to take care of them even in sleep—I know that the miracle comes from my heart and theirs, entwined over the years to grow as a single entity of mutual love. When my dogs smell my emotions and respond accordingly, I know that thousands of years of genetic evolution have led us to the point where these animals have developed such a strong bond with me personally that my odor and their noses exist in perfect communion.

But still, I have worried and worried and worried that my kids will suffer socially from my nonbelief. There are family and cultural considerations. Will everyone think my kids are morally deficient because “God” is just a well-crafted literary abstraction to me? The sins of the mother are visited upon the children . . .

There is no such thing as “sin.” I knew it intuitively when I refused to baptize my babies, and I feel it even more strongly today—today, when forty parents are waking up, if they slept at all, to empty beds in their children’s rooms, when forty parents will soon be called upon to identify the bodies of their children, baptized or unbaptized. When all is said and done, does it matter? Do you really think those who weren’t baptized into the Christian faith—or any faith—will burn in Hell now that they’ve been shot to death, execution-style, in their classrooms?

Look around. This is what we have, right here, right now. If genesis stories help you cope, go for it. Every human civilization has had them, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with them. Jesus Christ produced one of the world’s greatest, most revolutionary, moral philosophies, the careful study of which we could all richly benefit from. But if you are not living in communion with your fellow living beings, there is something deeply and desperately the matter with you. If your answer to gun violence is more gun violence, you need help—spiritually, psychologically, philosophically. If you place prayer over policy, you are foolish and not to be taken seriously in a dangerously serious world.

Right this minute, a woman in the Congo is being raped with the bayonet of a child soldier. In China, a newborn girl is being drowned in a bucket of water because she isn’t a son. In the United States, about 266 people will be shot with a firearm today; about a third of them will die. Why do these things happen? They happen not because a mythical being in the sky is mad at us, nor because of the presence of some amorphous “evil.” They happen because we let them. Because, in truth, it’s easier to go to a candlelight vigil in honor of victims than it is to grow up and take control of ourselves, our government, our world. It feels better to blame the victims than to blame ourselves. And, quite frankly, God and Satan and an evil masked gunman make for a much more cinematic experience.

So, carry on. Go to church, say a prayer, light a candle. It can’t hurt. Just don’t mistake those things for anything real. Dead children are real, and they are everywhere.

All the (Dis)Comforts of Home

My parents’ house is designed to make a person as tense and edgy as possible. In every room clocks tick like time-bombs, and in the living room a grandfather clock clangs out the passage of every fifteen minutes, as if to remind you of your imminent demise. There are nightlights in every room, so darkness never falls to ease you into rest. The furniture is small and cramped. They bought their first full-length sofa when I was in my twenties; otherwise, they’ve been sitting on the same tiny loveseats their entire married life—he on one, she on the other. The house smells of potpourri, mothballs, and the knock-off brand Pine-Sol that my dad buys at the dollar store. You set down an empty glass and it disappears almost magically, like they have an invisible butler. And the doors are always locked. Always. Even on a perfect spring day, you won’t find downstairs windows open. Somebody might break in.

I was reminded of all this when I spent the night with my mother while my dad was in the hospital. I don’t remember my parents ever sleeping in the same bed. They’ve got two twin-sized beds, like Lucy and Ricky, that are high up off the ground so that you feel like you might roll off into the mothball-scented abyss at any moment, and the mattresses are as hard as slabs of marble from the city morgue. “Good, firm mattresses,” my mother insists. She’s been more or less disabled for a year and a half due to back surgery necessitated by severe arthritis and a broken hip from a fall taken doing something she shouldn’t have been doing post-operatively. The smartass in me would like to point out a possible connection between the good, firm mattresses and all the bone breaking, but I am already on the lifetime shit-list for innumerable crimes against decency and normality, so I dummy up.

For the twenty-some years I lived with them, on and off through college, I never slept. Maybe two or three hours a night. During daylight hours I walked around like a jittery, bug-eyed cartoon character. I stayed in my room a lot and read books. The consensus was that I was “different,” maybe a little retarded. I thought about this as I was lying in my mother’s bed (she’s moved into the one “big” bed in the house—a double in the guest room that is, hard as it may be to believe, even more “good and firm” than their regular beds), and it occurred to me for the first time ever that maybe the reason I was such a mess growing up had something to do with the small, hard furniture and generally astringent lifestyle. Even though I had turned out all the lights and drawn the shades, I was still aware of all the pictures of Jesus that my mother keeps lined up in the frame of her dresser mirror—Jesus looking at me, watching me, daring me to close both eyes at the same time. And that fucking ticking clock. Then the grandfather clock would bang out another quarter-hour. I could feel my hip bones and ribcage digging through my flesh against the hard mattress and knew that even if I did sleep for a few hours I’d wake up aching.

My  mother complains constantly about how my dad is a “nervous wreck.” My dad says my mother “worries about everything. She never stops worrying.” Mentally flipping through the pages of my life in their house, I see images of myself, nervous and worried. Every time I have to call them, I feel nervous and worried. Is it the house, or is it the people in the house that set the tone for a life? I started sleeping deeply and beautifully in my mid-twenties, in my little apartment with a cat curled up in the crook of my legs. I sleep easily on our big, soft sectional when my husband and I are watching TV. I fall asleep in my kids’ beds, cradling their sweaty heads. Our bed is king-sized and soft—“like sleeping on a pile of butter,” my daughter says. There’s plenty of room for us and both dogs and even sometimes a kid or cats. We open the windows wide and breathe. We accidentally leave the doors unlocked. Nothing bad has happened so far. And we have no ticking clocks.

After lying awake on my mother’s marble slab for hours, I tried the one regular-sized sofa. But that was no good either because my hips kept sliding into the crack between the cushions. Then I noticed dawn was breaking outside. The grandfather clock banged out five. I got up, tiptoed around to collect my things, and drove home. I was greeted by one of our silly dogs, who treated me like a homecoming soldier who’d been gone for a year. Then I went upstairs and slipped into the soft, cloudy bed, like a pile of butter, and slept.

The Hilarious Pint of Pus

I keep a good neurotic’s calendar, and it’s three years, to the day, since Seymour killed himself. Did I ever tell you what happened when I went down to Florida to bring back the body? I wept like a slob on the plane for five solid hours. Carefully adjusting my veil from time to time so that no one across the aisle could see me—I had a seat to myself, thank God. About five minutes before the plane landed, I became aware of people talking in the seat behind me. A woman was saying, with all of Back Bay Boston and most of Harvard Square in her voice, “. . . and the next morning, mind you, they took a pint of pus out of that lovely young body of hers.” That’s all I remember hearing, but when I got off the plane a few minutes later and the Bereaved Widow came toward me all in Bergdorf Goodman black, I had the Wrong Expression on my face. I was grinning. Which is exactly the way I feel today, for no really good reason. Against my better judgment, I feel certain that somewhere very near here—the first house down the road, maybe—there’s a good poet dying, but also somewhere very near here somebody’s having a hilarious pint of pus taken from her lovely young body, and I can’t be running back and forth forever between grief and high delight.

–J. D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey

 

If you ever want to know what you’re really made of, have a kid. I’m not talking about the having; that part is comparatively easy. It’s everything after the having that will fuck you up in ways you cannot possibly imagine when you’re squatting or lying or floating in a birthing tub. Your first night at home alone with this tiny thing that will not stop screaming, when you have sutures holding your vagina together. Your first trip to the emergency room. The first day of school, when you watch in slow-motion as your hand releases from hers and you deliver her to a world without you. And those are just the firsts.

I’ve never served in military combat, but I can tell you that spending time in a children’s hospital with your sick kid throws you into what I imagine must be a similar mode of surreality, sensory overload, and hopped-up reflexes. One day you’re a normal person living a more or less normal life and the next day you’re having a discussion with a pediatric team about the relative antibiotic resistance of various strains of MRSA, which may be causing the abscess in your daughter’s leg. Decisions must be made quickly, and they have to be right. Hysteria isn’t an option. You deal with things or you go home and sleep it off. If you can’t stand watching your child writhe in agony, have multiple tubes, wires, and needles inserted, or zone out on morphine, you had better leave, but leave with the understanding that walking away at this moment means you’re abandoning her at the worst point of her life so far, and she may remember it and hold it between you until you die.

Hospitals throw you into a time paradox: When you spend days in one as a patient’s caretaker, time in the outside world goes on without you, while inside things speed by and then jerk to a sudden stop. Here I am signing a consent form, and there she goes into surgery—whoosh! And then she’s in surgery for what seems like a year. I don’t really care what’s going on in geopolitics at this point, but as I stop to read the headlines at the newspaper machines in the cafeteria, I find that I can’t grasp their meaning. I feel like I’m reading headlines from another country.

On the other hand, there are plenty of empty hours in which to plan for the home-going. So when we’re finally discharged and riding home and I say that our terrier, who is a one-dog circus act, will have to be leashed inside the house to keep her from tearing out the drainage tube and collection bag that have been surgically inserted into our daughter’s leg, and my husband begins to dissect the plan and look for alternatives, I am in no mood for democracy. I’m still in battlefield mode. I’m tense and impatient and ready to strike because I’ve got a plan—a goddamned good plan that I’ve been working over in my head for days in the quiet hours when the painkillers do their job and I’m in our room with nothing else to do. I turn my head and look out the window, watching the gray Detroit freeway speed by. “This is going to be the worst part, you know—being home,” I say. “Too many variables.” “But at least we’re all together,” Dan says. He hates when we’re not all together. “Exactly,” I reply. “Variables.”

An hour later, Circus Dog has been leashed and our other dog, a large elderly mutt who barks incessantly when he is happy, is finally quiet. The little patient is reclining comfortably on the couch, Dad is checking all the e-mails he’s missed, Little Brother is temporarily quiet and calm, the cats have been fed, and I’m lying on the floor with both dogs. I should be happy, and in a way I certainly am. Fifteen mLs of pus were drained from my kid’s leg, but she’s going to be okay. We’re home. Yet I feel like I’m going to explode. My body is pulsing with urgent energy. There’s a sob caught in my throat, but I don’t really feel like I’m going to cry. I could do something psychotic, like run around the neighborhood screaming, but that’s not really my MO. I need to do something. I need to take care of these people. I jump up and say, “What does everybody want for dinner?” I take their carry-out order and say to Dan, “I have to be alone in the car for awhile.” He pats me on the shoulder and says, “Take your time.”

So I put on some heavy metal as loud as I can stand it and drive. I’m back in control. I order Thai, buy some dry shampoo and baby wipes, get my daughter’s favorite egg-drop soup and pork dumplings. I can use the lingering trauma of the past few days to get things done—to take care of my family. My mother could never stand seeing me in pain. She made the pain her own and then collapsed under its weight. Her grief always carried her away from difficult situations with her kids, where she would linger in a place of avoidance and denial until it was safe to return. Parenthood has taught me that I can stay in the crisis without going to pieces. I can clean a wound, suction off pus, develop a plan, administer meds, do triage, trust myself. I can bend without breaking. I might even make a good soldier.

There may be no exercise in life more grueling than motherhood. Fifteen mLs of pus. But you can still choose the path to high delight. Truth be told, you really have no choice.

I’m Not Ready for an Institution Yet

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

Let us start from the premise that there is nothing elementally good, stable, or rational about modern love and marriage, no matter what the twin paternal institutions of Church and State tell us. Premodern marriage did hold some society-wide benefits, uniting kingdoms and ensuring inheritance and lines of power, but it too had its drawbacks—namely, that there was no way to know empirically who the father of any child really was, and, with infidelity an expectation rather than an exception, the bond of marriage was the only thing keeping all of Western civilization from being nothing but a big collection of bastards.

Introducing romantic love didn’t help anything. Now we are bastards in love. To prove how much we love each other, we might spend more money than the gross domestic product of Mauritania on a single party, to which we invite people we don’t know, who give us money for proving our love in this way. Usually we make a big show of “going before God” in a church to declare our love and the bride wears a big white dress, which at one time would have signified her virginity, but since nearly 70 percent of us now live together prior to marriage, even though it is said to be explicitly frowned upon by the God before whom we are going to prove our love, I’m not sure what those parts mean and I bet nobody else is either. The trouble is compounded when you consider that somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of first marriages, e.g., those that are most likely to pull out all the stops, end in divorce—and nobody seems to expect them to give back all that money that they received for doing all of this in the first place! This surely is one of the most bizarre and misguided social customs in history, and I am certain that future cultures will ask a collective WTF over it.

And then there is family. We are told that the family is the foundation of society, but this is never explained aside from the simple arithmetical fact that the family is the smallest existing social unit. Even the notion of “family” is ill defined. Plato had some weird ideas about it, suggesting in The Republic that “wives and children” should be held “in common” and that random babies should be removed from their homes and raised in public nurseries. It wasn’t until Christianity tried to reign in sex that marriage became the basis of “family” life, and even then Christian fathers like Sts. Paul, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas thought it was better just to avoid the whole mess and stay celibate. In fact, in Christian theology marriage may be the only legitimate place for sexual relations, but those relations had better be strictly for purposes of procreation because “lust,” even within the sacred bonds of marriage, is forbidden. You can have sex with your spouse but you can’t want to have sex with your spouse. Judaism is a little more forgiving on the issue; married people are allowed to enjoy sex, but the point is still to make babies. Biblical Judaism orders men to have two wives, but he only has to provide for the first one. Laws of infidelity in the Bible did not apply to married men, but married women who strayed were subject to execution. Islam has even more complex marital customs depending on sect and local custom, but in general once people are married, sex is promoted—theoretically, anyway—as a valid way to express affection whether or not a baby is the goal. That, at least, is refreshing.

Meanwhile, the secular types haven’t done much better with their ideas about marriage and family. Consider Charles Manson. He made his Family out of a collection of unrelated mentally ill young people who agreed to go on a killing spree for him. Hurray for socially sanctioned kinship ties! Single parents are always held up as a Bad Example of How Not to Do a Family, even though at least 27 percent of children in the United States lived in a single-parent-headed household in 2010. This year, which I am certain will be known in centuries to come as The Year Everybody Went Nuts, a state senator from Wisconsin introduced a bill to classify single parenthood as a form of child abuse. I am not sure what he thought we were going to do with the 27 percent of American children that his bill would have affected. Widows and orphans have been traditionally left out entirely of the definition of “family.” Let’s just shunt them off to a factory somewhere. And the rest of us have at least one family member who makes us think we would rather swallow a flaming piece of charcoal than sit next to them at Thanksgiving dinner. So even though sociologists and permanently unmarried priests might agree on what a family is, the rest of us appear to be at sixes and sevens over its very definition and would really rather just make our own families out of the few people we know that we don’t consider to be total idiots or raging maniacs.

Which, of course, is what gay couples have been doing all along. If you’ve ever wondered why gay couples look so goddamned happy and well rested and why their holiday parties are so much more fun than yours are, I’ll tell you: It’s because so many of them have chosen their own families instead of living inside the ridiculous pressure-cooker of anxiety, obligation, and resentment that we lovingly call marriage and family. And yet they still want what the rest of us have. If you’re straight, doesn’t that make you feel like shit, considering how abysmally we’ve represented? It should. Because even though you, my heterosexual friend, may be caught in a sticky morass of oddball rituals and feelings of confusing ambivalence over what it all means and whether or not it’s okay to lust after your own wife, if you are lawfully wedded in the United States of America in 2012, you enjoy no fewer than 1,138 rights, benefits, and legal protections that your equally committed but not lawfully wedded homosexual brethren are denied.

For crying out loud, can’t we end this farce already, straight people? Or, as Elaine Benes once observed about giving up her single life on Seinfeld: “Jerry, it’s 3:30 in the morning. I’m at a cockfight. What am I clinging to?”

Must Share This!

So after spending I don’t know how long trying to explain to somebody yesterday what it is about Feeding-Tube Bride that bothers me so much, and feeling that I had ultimately failed to get my point across, this delicious quote came along, as if it were a feather floating down from an angel’s wing:

“A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.” –Naomi Wolf, 1990

[Please note that I tried to verify the entire quote but could only find the source of the first part. If I have misquoted Ms. Wolf in any way, I apologize.]

It’s a Nice Day for a Gavage Wedding

Tags

, , , ,

Do you know what’s going on in this picture?

[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmeline_Pankhurst]

What about this one (copied from http://gma.yahoo.com/k-e-diet-brides-using-feeding-tubes-rapidly-080053646–abc-news-health.html)?

In case you don’t, I’m going to tell you. The first photograph shows an early-twentieth-century convicted English suffragette being force-fed with a tube because she went on a hunger strike to protest inhumane treatment in prison. The practice of such tube-feeding was common during the fight to gain women’s suffrage in England and has since been used on other incarcerated persons such as those held at Guantanamo Bay. It is said to be an unpleasant, if not outright torturous, procedure.

The lower photograph shows a woman named Jessica Schnaider, who is getting married this summer, with a feeding tube going up her nose, down her throat, and into her stomach. She’s not exactly on a hunger strike; she’s just trying to lose ten pounds so that she can look better in her wedding dress. According to an article on the website for the ABC network morning program Good Morning America (“The K-E Diet: Brides-to-Be Using Feeding Tubes to Rapidly Shed Pounds,” April 16, 2012), she paid $1,500 to a Florida doctor named Oliver Di Pietro to have her feeding tube inserted.

Schnaider is quoted as saying, “I don’t have all of the time on the planet just to focus an hour and a half a day to exercise so I came to the doctor, I saw the diet, and I said, ‘You know what? Why not? Let me try it. So I decided to go ahead and give it a shot.”

Does anyone else see the irony here?

Meanwhile, here is a person with a real weight problem (copied from http://www.ffl.org/emergency-relief/world-hunger/):

Dear Ms. Schnaider. Poor, misguided Ms. Schnaider. I am sorry to be so judgy about your big day. Believe me, I do understand how we can internalize dangerous and ridiculous images of women to the point where we think they are real and attainable. I understand how the pressure to be thin can make us do stupid, self-destructive things. And I understand that a nervous young bride often will feel that she must be perfect on the day she marries her best friend and true love.

But the article says you are 41 years old. I understand what that’s like too, because I am 43. We are old enough to have had enough experiences in life to discover our integrity and self-worth. To want to be known and remembered for something other than how we looked in a dress that, truth be told, we really have no business wearing in the first place. You and I know that we are not going to look like freshly plucked peaches no matter what we do. We are old enough to know better and then some.

And so, my spiritual sister, since you seem to have no shame, allow me to be embarrassed on your behalf.

Adrienne Rich Makes Me Feel Like a Natural Woman

Tags

, , ,

The poet, feminist, and extraordinary American thinker Adrienne Rich died a few weeks ago. Because I still don’t know how to use Goodreads even though I’m registered and keep getting other people’s updates on it, I’m just going to tell you here that last week I read her book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, and you should too. Here is why: “The one unifying, incontrovertible experience shared by all women and men is that months-long period we spent unfolding inside a woman’s body. . . . We carry the imprint of this experience for life, even into our dying. Yet there has been a strange lack of material to help us understand it. We know more about the air we breathe, the seas we travel, than about the nature and meaning of motherhood” (Rich 11).

Every single honest woman I know who has become a mother admits to feeling at one time or another utter befuddlement over her decision to have children when she is faced with the tiny, daily brutalities of the condition of maternity. While we all have mothers, none of us really thinks about motherhood until we ourselves are ready to take the running leap into it. And then one day when all the visitors have left and Daddy has used up the only two weeks of vacation time he’ll get for the rest of the year and gone back to work, we find ourselves alone with a sqawling newborn, having had not a single night of sleep in weeks (sometimes months, if we suffered from insomnia during pregnancy), isolated from all adult contact, losing clots of blood the size of golf balls, weeping from fatigue and the sensation of drowning if not from actual postpartum depression, and wondering why this ever seemed like a good idea. And it does not necessarily get easier.

I love my children. My god, do I love them. Fiercely and achingly, with the ferocity of a wild animal and the single-minded tenacity of a serial killer, and I am not exaggerating when I say that I will cut out your heart and eat it in front of your dying eyes if you even think about hurting them. When my daughter was an infant, I would put her to bed and then go into the next room and cry because I missed her so desperately that my arms felt empty and useless without her, like bags of meat hanging from a ceiling to cure until she awoke in the morning. And I still feel the rush of young love every time my son laces his little fingers into mine and presses our palms together to cross the street. No grown man has ever made me feel the way he does.

Still, when I read Rich’s words from a journal she kept as a young mother, it was as if someone gave me permission to exhale for the first time in almost eight years:

My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience. It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness. Sometimes I seem to myself, in my feelings toward these tiny guiltless beings, a monster of selfishness and intolerance. Their voices wear away at my nerves, their constant needs, above all their need for simplicity and patience, fill me with despair at my own failures, despair too at my fate, which is to serve a function for which I was not fitted. (21)

“A function for which I was not fitted.” I was everyone’s best babysitter and favorite aunt. I was groomed for motherhood from the start of my life, surrounded by baby dolls and told repeatedly by my own mother, “You’re not a real woman until you have a baby.” But when the time came, I balked. It turned out I didn’t particularly enjoy being up all night and having someone need me for basic survival. I didn’t like feeling incompetent, and I hated not knowing what made them tick. I still do.

Is that selfishness, or is it common sense? In consenting to give up every little bit of my self, even my right to bathe regularly and uninterruptedly and sit down to eat meals, was I improving life for any of us–or was I just taking them all down with me? And what is a “real woman,” anyway? She’s not like me, I assume.

Rich writes: “[T]here always has been, and there remains, intense fear of the suggestion that women shall have the final say as to how our bodies are to be used. It is as if the suffering of the mother, the primary identification of woman as mother, were so necessary to the emotional grounding of human society that the mitigation, or removal, of that suffering, that identification, must be fought at every level, including the level of refusing to question it at all” (30).

Of Woman Born was first published in 1976. Some of its details are dated (such as the discussion of sterilization). But its core points remain as salient–and, sadly, as revolutionary–as ever. We have reached a place of societal derangement about women the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Middle Ages, when Thomas Aquinas called women’s nature “defective and misbegotten.” We are still getting the shaft on equal pay; we are still threatened with sub-par health care; we are still forced to justify birth control; and, for the love of everything holy, we are still being pitted against each other in every conceivable way, the only reasonable explanation for which is that we must remain distracted enough so that we never notice how short our leash is. Rich: “The absence of respect for women’s lives is written into the heart of male theological doctrine, into the structure of the patriarchal family, and into the very language of patriarchal ethics” (270). Indeed.

But choosing to become a parent is the ultimate act of optimism–quite possibly the ultimate act of subversion in a culture that wants you to lose faith. Once you have or adopt a child, giving up simply is not an option. Another life is tied to yours until one of you dies. You can think of it as an albatross or you can think of it as a buoy. Or you can find a whole new way to think of it, and then share that with your children and your grandchildren, passing down parts of your mind and body and soul and becoming a matriarch in the best sense of the word.

What is astonishing, what can give us enormous hope and belief in a future in which the lives of women and children shall be mended and rewoven by women’s hands, is all that we have managed to salvage, of ourselves, for our children, even within the destructiveness of the institution: the tenderness, the passion, the trust in our instincts, the evocation of a courage we did not know we owned, the detailed apprehension of another human existence, the full realization of the cost and precariousness of life. (Rich, 280)