Thursday, March 29, 2007

Home on the Range

I haven't been writing a lot here lately, or doing much of anything it seems. This past weekend I figured out why. And it wasn't a good time.

I changed the tagline on my blog last night, adding the phrase at the end, "and sometimes more specifically, motherhood." This is because the meaning of life seems to have stealthily boiled itself down to this in recent months.

I did not expect this. Having a baby at 36 for me meant that I had a full and established life and many fulfilling self-identities. Writer, feminist, domestic violence advocate, wife, loyal friend to many...These things were all me, or at least who I tried to be. Dare I say I actually felt pretty well-adjusted after many years of being what I considered very out of balance. Welcoming Noah into my life felt truly like a holy blessing, as I think I had felt somewhere deep inside me that this would never be possible for me. As my pregnancy progressed (and the hormone-induced sickness receded), I became more and more excited and confident. And it has been a wonderful eight-and-a-half months since Noah was born.

So why, then, in the past few weeks, did I turn sour on myself? I began having more complaints about work, and at home became more grumbly with my husband and more listless about my own writing projects. I still felt joy at being with Noah, but everything else seemed to be blanching out. I was starting to feel and act negatively toward myself because of all these hard feelings that were surfacing about seeming minutiae (compared to the monumentally fabulous Noah) that have piled up over months and months. It continued it that vein, until this past Sunday, when I had just had it, and shut down. I didn't want to talk with anyone, including my husband, and felt miserable. I didn't feel I could even call a friend.

Finally late on Sunday night - late being 8:15 p.m. in the new land of Mommy time - I called my best friend. I told him I hadn't called before because I didn't have any energy to give or to listen to him and that didn't seem fair. I heard myself talking in a very small little girl-sounding voice, slow and almost a whisper, which made me recognize I just don't get vulnerable all that often anymore. That made me very sad and I cried and said how lonely and isolated I felt. I said I did't feel I had the right to complain about anything when I had this wonderful baby, a patient and loving husband, live in a great home, have a flexible job, relative financial stability...It must be me that was the problem here. Oh those old demons. And Kevin, my dearest friend, slowly said the following: "Katie, you are entitled to the full range of emotions every day, no matter what is going on, just like everyone else." I felt the anchor go down and stick in the mud. Yes, of course. I knew once that was true, but had forgotten it. In all of the loving and feeding and diapering and playing and reading and kissing and cuddling and peek-a-boo-ing, I had utterly forgotten it.

Then we talked about how being a mother for me is easy and hard. What I find easy is seeing and understanding Noah's needs. It feels very natural to tune into his sounds, facial expressions, gestures, cries. And given that he is big and smiling, I think what my husband and I are doing with him is working very well overall. What is hard, is that it is every second of every minute of every hour of every day. Unless Noah is with Matthew, my highest thoughts are of his safety, comfort, and happiness. All the time. And it has to be that way - Noah is so vulnerable and new and deserves my best efforts to give him a good start in life. Anything else feels selfish.

I started to feel a little bit better, saying these things, until Noah cried upstairs 15 minutes into the call, and I had to hang up, stuff my feelings back down, and go take care of him. The next morning I still felt lousy and emotionally hung over and it went like this. Matthew leaving for work: Don't I get a kiss? Me: No, I don't want to do that anymore.


Throughout the course of that day, I took many steps. I called a friend who works in the field at another organization in Maine and talked through my recent work concerns and this mothering mess. Then an acquaintance called and gently pushed through my resistance to kindness and we planned an afternoon visit that day for our babies to meet each other and us to talk. Then that night the woman who married my husband and I called, and I let go and talked openly.

That was so big, to let go. When I went into labor one of the most challenging moments was when I was having hard contractions but had not been checked to see if I was progressing, and so all I knew was that I was not dilated much at all - maybe 1 centimeter. I couldn't believe that these contractions didn't count, because they were so painful and strong. The previous 18 hours I had more mild contractions at home that I was most comfortable dealing with in a side-lying position. So that's what I was trying again and it was not working at all. Matthew asked what I needed and I said I had no idea. I felt panic. For a moment I clung to the idea that I should be lying down because that should start working any second. I quickly broke that train of thought because it was simply too painful to stay that way, and got up to try something else.

So I get it. It's too painful in the long run to recognize Noah's needs and not my own as well. It's not an either-or. A friend of mine who was a judge at the time mailed me a card to welcome Noah a while back and it read, "Parenting is not a sprint but a marathon." I loved the idea at the time - now I'm starting to get it. While I've read as often as anyone else the articles in every parenting magazine published about "taking time for yourself," I didn't understand how that would become real for me. I knew how to do that. Self-care in the past meant treating myself to lunch with a girlfriend or splurging on a pedicure. Now I need time just to feel my feelings, to create my opinions, to make small plans for myself, to maintain some sense of all that I am now. I want Noah to know all that I am, and I want him to know that he gets to be all that he is too.

Monday night over dinner my husband and I talked some of this over. He made the astute observation that I could also be grieving for my old life and identity(ies), even while I embrace this new one - a whole topic for another day. This shift to being a mother is so profound I think I'm just starting to take it in emotionally. But in those two days, I know I made some headway toward being a mother and bringing forward some of the other important parts of me at the same time. At the end of it I felt peaceful, like I'd come home.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Wake Up Call: Spring-a-Ding-Ding

Today is the first day of spring. Which isn't saying much, considering the deep freeze that we are experiencing in Maine. The sun is bright in that very cold way, the light almost white instead of a warming yellow.

Spring, spring, what changes will it bring? As if on cue, my day yesterday brought a torrent of realization. My current work situation is suddenly a claustrophobic fit, though like an uncomfortable piece of clothing I can't figure out if the neck is too high, or the sleeves too long, or if it's just all wrong. In typical fashion, I notice changes and then work backwards to my feelings and ideas about them. Most of the time these days, I am so busy trying to be calm and rational that I don't hear my insides screaming. But really, what's a mother to do? I used to spend my days questioning what my own needs were, and now I am completely focused on keeping someone else alive and happy, and so I don't ask myself on any kind of regular basis, "What do you need to do for yourself right now?" This is a question my best friend and I have asked each other many times over the years, as we stood in for each other's self-caring self when he or she abandoned us to our self-loathing ways.

As I have spoken to various people about my discomfort at work, which has something to do with not feeling like I'm getting enough done (my stuff), and something to do with the other people and structure of the organization (external stuff), I get encouragement to focus on what I need and want to do. In the past this would reassure me, yet now it confuses me, like I don't know what that means any more. I've been working as a domestic violence educator and trainer for almost eight years. In more ways than one, I have grown up at this job. I feel blessed to be able to bind passion and profession. I have made many friends. I love the work, as hard as it is.

I have also been extremely lucky that I am able to bring Noah to work with me the two days I am in the office. I do some additional work from home, altogether totalling around 20 hours per week. I have been saying to people lately that I want to continue to ride this wave as long as I can, because I still feel I have a contribution to make to the domestic violence movement. That said, my son is growing, and changing, and getting more wiggly, so the flexibility to bring him with me is lessening on his side, and the policy at work says too that he can come to work only until he is mobile. So since he is my priority, does the arrow automatically point to Answer B: leave my job?

I know there is another way to get what I want, but unlike before Noah was here when I could quietly plan and strategize, I only have Noah's napping moments to gather my thoughts while trying to fold laundry or clean the house. But this much is clear: a new season is here. Noah is eight months old and needs different things. And my needs are less visible, but still pulsing like the old heart under the floorboards. It's been a long winter of hunkering down and trying to work the current system. Now it's spring, my time to grow too.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Hair Cares

Yesterday I called to make an appointment at my favorite salon in southern Maine. It was TIME, if you know what I mean. Why is it that there is such a sudden tipping point with hair - one day it is a reasonably minimal part of my personhood and the next an unmanageable barrier to me living a normal life?

Like so many other aspects of my body and self, my hair has experienced a sharp swing of the pendulum in the past twelve months. Toward the end of my pregnancy, by which time I'd downed several large bottles of Solgar prenatal vitamins, my hair was thicker than it had ever been. It was long, curly, and healthy. A co-worker of mine actually tossed the word "lustrous" at me one day as if I was in a Pantene commercial. It was surprising to me that any part of my body could be thriving, since I spent over half of my pregnancy dry heaving and lying on the bathroom floor while my cat watched me from the doorway, shaking his head at his mother's loss of dignity.

I learned after Noah was born, that about four to six months after labor my hair might start falling out. This seemed impossible since it was in such a glorious state, and also because I was continuing to take the less glorious horse tranquilizer-sized vitamins. Whether due to hormone shifts, or the fact that breastmilk contains the glue that keeps my hair stuck to my head and I basically was sucked dry, my hair did indeed start to come out in great fistfuls in the shower or whenever I touched a comb to my scalp. I told my husband we could make another cat to be a companion to Sidney, our eighteen pound mackerel tabby. Less funny was trying to vacuum the upstairs carpeting in our house, because my hair would fill the bag and jam the vacuum head, no matter how often we cleaned.

While I can't say that my hair is my biggest vanity by a long shot, this was disturbing to me. It revealed how little control I have over the working parts of this body-machine when nature comes into play. No amount of hair-strengthening shampoo could have prevented this from happening. Of course this kind of thing is happening all the time anyway - my hair is graying, and my laugh lines aren't looking so funny at times - but it's mostly so gradual that I don't notice it. Or at least, I don't mind it. This was different, it was hair today, gone tomorrow.

It's just hair of course, so I went about my business, trying not to pay attention to it or at least not to get all fussy about it. And sure enough, as the books said would happen, this past week it stopped falling out and is already noticeably growing back. It's been an amazing experience, becoming a mother, because one day I feel as if it's up to me to steer the ship, and the next day I'm just along for the ride. It's changes like this hair thing that remind me not to get too precious about other things as well. Most things in life could in fact quite suddenly fall out at the roots, and might just do that if that is what it takes to get me to the next best place in life. And isn't this the best, I have a boy with the fullest head of hair I've ever seen on a baby. I wouldn't give up these times for anything.

Monday, March 12, 2007


Looking at the pictures
of the old house
now lifted on a pedestal
instead of where it was
falling into the earth
it's undeniable.

We ran through those years
on small legs
not wanting to comb the tangles from underneath our hair.
Playing, schooling,
little people who didn't know there was a big picture
to care about.

Meanwhile our parents tore out walls,
painted the green clapboards blue,
built more rooms off the back.
They planted trees
and we all worked the land.
I thought we were the Ingalls family
trying to tame something livable out of the wild.

We left this
too quickly for me to understand
what I was leaving:
and childhood.

Twenty years past
the old life encased by ten more
the house remains,
scraped down to its original size
but overgrown around like the castle and the briars.
I wonder about the three tiny princesses sleeping inside
dreaming the dream of the sunny hill
with the fern, the animals
and the sweet blue patches of berries.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007


A few days ago a word came to mind and brought with it such an immediate and personal association that I have to write about it. I was feeling apologetic about something I'd done earlier in the day but hadn't had a chance yet to talk with my husband about it, and I thought of the word "rueful." I quickly then thought the following: "Nancy Drew was always 'rueful.' Boy I used to wish I was Nancy Drew - strawberry blonde hair, smart, always being kidnapped and then rescued by her bland but loyal boyfriend Ned." Why was she rueful? Her sleuthy ways usually wound up getting her caught in a ravine or in some other kind of mortal danger. She never stopped seeking out mystery and adventure, but she was always rueful about it when she found herself in over her spunky strawberry blonde head. "Rueful" isn't a word I've ever used much outloud, nor do I think I've ever written it before now, but it's obviously high on my internal vocabulary list and has had this lasting memory attached to it since I was five years old and read Carolyn Keene books. It's not even my favorite word, but I still remember it, and it quietly comes up a lot.

My truly favorite words don't actually get used much outloud either. In the privacy of my mind it's a close race between "paradox" and "juxtapose", but the former definitely wins. Apart from its marvelous sound, the meaning of "paradox" is most appealing to me - something that is true and untrue, or two things that shouldn't both be true somehow, or opposites that make perfect sense. It reminds me of "dilemma" where there is no clear right or wrong choice, only two choices that may both be right or wrong to some greater or lesser degree. It's life in the nuance of velvety gray, instead of stark black or white. There is a monologue in the musical The Fantastiks in which the narrator character uses the word "paradox" to describe why people in close relationships need distance, a wall between them, or sometimes even a hurt, so love can continue to flourish. I can still hear my high school sweetheart speaking the line.

Words are powerful. They store a lot. Many years ago, my English teacher Mr. DuBlois shared an anecdote about a college classmate of his named Kenny (I think that was his name - it has been 20 years since I heard this). When they were in a lecture together, Mr. DuBlois would write copious notes to be sure to remember all the pertinent details for exam time. Kenny would sit listening throughout the lecture, and then at the end would write one word in his notebook to summarize the entire class. This small story was mythological-sized for me, one reason being that it pointed out the weight-bearing ability of a well-chosen word.

Words can change us. The old childhood na-nee na-nee boo boo saying that went, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me" is ridiculous. As a domestic violence trainer, I talk all the time about how emotional and verbal abuse can cause harm to an equal or greater extent than a fist. I know all of us can remember a time, maybe even from 20+ years ago, when someone said something that was so cutting and unjust that we can still picture the scene, what we were wearing, what was said, and how. I was in 8th Grade math class when I suggested to my teacher Mr. Pinkham another way of talking through a problem written on the board. He turned toward me, or turned on me, held out the long white piece of chalk he carried and said in a loud and sarcastic tone, "Maybe you'd like to teach the whole class?" I burst out crying and felt deeply ashamed and sorry I'd spoken. I still go ouch somewhere inside me when I think of that time so long ago. And how much worse these kinds of things damage us when they are said to us by a loved one, over and over and over at close range. It still shocks my heart when I remember that I was once engaged to a man who repeatedly called me "the most manipulative bitch he'd ever met." I am not someone who believes those words anymore, but I will always be someone who did once, because it was said to me by someone I mistakenly trusted.

Words also alter and bind me in more positive ways. I will forever remember the first moments of my wedding, in which my husband-to-be Matthew opened the ceremony by saying to our small group of guests, "Today is our wedding day." He suddenly bowed his head for a moment to compose himself because his voice caught as he spoke. That day and the words we spoke to each other began this unique time in my life, these best two years to date, being joyfully married and blessed with a healthy, hilarious baby boy. Matthew and I wrote our wedding vows together ahead of time, and chose our words carefully, trying to match them to our intentions for our relationship.

I love words. I think when they are used for good, they can ease people through even the most tight or uncomfortable spot. An intimate conversation, or a celebratory poem, or a burst of writing, can make the most tough situation for me start to go down like a cool glass of water. Words are such a small part of communication, and are so small compared to deed, but they not only serve to enliven and illuminate my reality, they transform it.