Mother at Sixteen

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Sitting with the slight, sixteen-year-old girl on tattered bamboo mats in her family’s modest home, we compared our babies: their age and weight, their entrance into the world, how well they sleep at night, yes we’re both breastfeeding, how easy and hard they are to take care of, how much support there is, how your worldview changes from carefree to constant worry.

We are at a similar stage in life and had a lot to share.

And yet I was struck by the difference. Her baby slept in a bamboo crib on a dirt floor with only shade and a breeze to protect them against the tropical heat; mine shares our king-sized bed in our fully air-conditioned house. Hers will find a place in the same Thai educational system she went through herself; mine has access to Gymboree and Montessori classes and will learn from a mother who completed a PhD from an American research university. I’m turning 35 next month. She is a mother at 16. We are almost 20 years apart and I have almost 20 years’ worth more of education and life experience, maturity and stability. At 16, she still has all her struggles in front of her. I know who I am, what I want, and what I’m capable of. She has yet to discover who she will be.

I approached my time with her trying to answer the question: why did she make these choices? She had to have known the risk she was taking with unprotected sex. What was her underlying motivation? She said no one ever taught her about protection (I remember her deciding not to stay for the sex health workshop I taught). She talked about the desire to experience new things—a typical teenager response. But I suspected the roots are deeper than that; that it may have even something to do with deeper psychological and emotional needs regarding her bond with her own mother, even if she doesn’t consciously read it that way yet. From what I know of her background, I suspected she never got enough consistent display of love from her own mother, and made these choices out of feelings of neglect, subconsciously trying to find a way to stay close to home rather than to leave.

But do I have the right to judge her choices? I may be disappointed. I may want to continue to present her with the chance to turn things around because her story (and now her child’s story) has still only just begun. I may want to learn from her example to see how we can prevent others from going the same way. I can expect her to take responsibility for her choices and urge her to continue to make better ones. I do not absolve her of that because it is true that others in same—or worse—circumstances make different choices. But I cannot be judgmental about it. I had parents who never gave me cause to doubt their love and commitment. With an absentee father and a mother who is a former prostitute now mostly gone away at work, she has no experience of a strong nuclear family and has no idea what that would look like. I came from a life of opportunity; she came from a life of poverty and risk. For me, being a mother at sixteen would have represented catastrophic failure and disappointment. For her, young, single motherhood is the norm. From two different worlds, we both forged two very different paths.

Perhaps the question of why isn’t really the root of the matter. Maybe the question we must grapple with honestly is: how much of our life is a forgone conclusion? How much can we change by choice?

Momma Chat: Just a Little Rosy

photo-5Things got a little crazy last week. I was laying in bed with Cy when I noticed he seemed to be running a fever. I texted Toby about it and he responded with something like, “He always sleeps hot.” But I was quite sure it was a fever. It happened to be just a couple of hours after I had started a course of meds for myself that weren’t really supposed to be taken while breastfeeding but my doctor had recommended because I’m allergic to penicillin. I was worried that Cy might be allergic to this new medicine, and Google told me I should get Cy to the doctor at signs of fever. So the next day we went to see his pediatrician, who wasn’t available until the afternoon, and I stopped taking my meds in the meantime just in case. The doctor said it was not the meds, but it might be dengue.

– Let me just interject here because this is the part where my stomach bottoms out and my face turns white because dengue is known as “break bone fever” because it makes you feel like your bones are breaking. And it can be comparatively mild in children, but if you get it again later, any subsequent infections can lead to a hemorrhagic fever. It’s passed by mosquitos. There are lots and lots of mosquitos in Thailand. –

The doctor gave us meds to treat the fever and said it was a little too early to tell. Come back in two days and we’ll test for dengue.

Those were among the more anxiety-ridden two days I have experienced in recent memory. Was it dengue? Was it wrong and still related to something I was doing (my meds, which I had resumed taking)? And what would I do if it were dengue? (Moving to another country had indeed crossed my mind.) Cy needs to run outside and play, live his life in fresh air. How can I protect Cy from every mosquito to cross his path?

We went back to do blood tests. We had to swaddle the poor boy and he watched and cried–not thrashing, or angry-complaining…just totally submitting himself to this new torture–as they inserted the needle, drew blood, switched it out for an IV, and then bandaged it on. The whole thing probably took 5 minutes, but all I could do was sit there and talk to him, stroke his hair, and wish to God there was any other way. I hate needles. I once,as a full adult in college, had a nurse give me a Daffy Duck bandaid after getting blood drawn because I hate needles so much. I hate them even more when they’re any where near my boy.

After two hours of waiting, the results for dengue came back negative. Talk about relief! But we still didn’t know what the problem was. The doctor still insisted it wasn’t my meds, and predicted we would soon see a rash.

The rash came, and thus we learned it was roseola. A common childhood disease, relatively mild, and the rash only lasted a couple of days and then it was all done.

photo-4And I still called pest control to come rid our yard of mosquitos. Because dengue.

All in all, it was probably a relatively minor episode and it’s just my mama-bear brain that blew fears out of proportion, but part of what made this experience so hard was feeling so trapped. I have already been feeling tired and run-down, and a little homesick (mostly just because I’m tired of it being so hot here all the time and tired of worrying about mosquitos when Cy wants to play outside all the time). I wanted to move home. I wanted to go back to Santa Barbara where the weather is always perfect, there’s tons of fabulous play groups Cy could join, there’s mountains he could roam, and gorgeous parks and beaches to explore.

I told Toby that if we lived in Santa Barbara, I’d take Cy to the beach all the time.

“No you wouldn’t,” he said. “You’d be at work and Cy would be in daycare and we’d spend the weekends scrambling around trying to get stuff done.”

He’s right. In Thailand, we can afford for me to take a career hiatus and focus on raising Cy with both of us at home. In the U.S., I would have to work. And while I’m battling heat and mosquitos, I can also get fantastic healthcare for Cy at $15 a visit (without insurance), have a maid come once a week, and be there for all the important and unimportant things in Cy’s life. I feel trapped. And it’s easy to view a different situation with rose-colored glasses, but the truth is, there’s lots of ways to feel trapped.

photo-8And I realize now too, that while I love being able to be home for Cy, it’s a challenge because I’ve never been a routine kind of person and children live in routine. I’ve never lived in any place longer than 4 years since I was 13 (And we’re bumping up on the 4-year mark now–we HAD said we’d come for a year, maybe two, and then we’d see. Well we’re still here.) Except for when I worked at a magazine publishing company, I’d never lived the same daily routine longer than a 10-week quarter since I graduated high school. I live by whims and caprice. I’m disciplined about getting stuff done, but on my own clock, not the one ticking on the wall.

So. This is my opportunity to grow. To realize this about myself and see how I can approach it mindfully. I can’t escape the trappings of this life, but I take advantage of its advantages and I think maybe a change of scenery will help. So we’re going to Bangkok for a week. There will be a big aquarium, and parks, a children’s playground, good food, shopping, and maybe even a boat ride or two on the Chao Praya.

Who can complain? Not I, said the spider to the fly.

Thing I Love About Cy: He loves tipping himself over backwards. When he’s on the bed, or on grass, he’ll slowly lean back with this look of great anticipation on his face, until gravity wins and he falls over and giggles like a fiend.

Little by Little



A Coffee Chat

photo(23)I feel like there were a bunch of things I was going to talk about today…but then last night, I did not sleep well–like, at all–and now everything has gone plumb out of my head.

I did have a productive day yesterday, though. Between catching up on some work for SOLD, doing three loads of laundry, washing dishes that had piled up over the previous day with T being sick, and various other little chores, I managed to get in quite a bit of walking…which, turns out, if done in little spurts and increments, seems to help keep the swelling down in my feet. Then again, it might also be why my back and hips were sore all night.

My goals for today are a bit more cerebral. If I can get enough brain cells to function, I’d like to:

– Practice Thai, since staying at home so much does not give me much chance to hone my language skills (It does, however, keep me at lower risk of catching dengue, so that’s good–seriously, so many people we know got it this year. This season is rough! I never read Dante’s Inferno, but I’m sure there must be a special circle of hell reserved for mosquitoes. And if there isn’t, well, there should be.)

– Read up on what the heck is going on in Syria. I’ve been out of the news loop more than I care to admit these days. Good for my sanity; not so good for my engagement with the rest of the world. A friend of mine linked to this Washington Post article on FB, which I found enormously helpful. Now I just want to read up on various viewpoints of what people anticipate the consequences of and reactions to air strikes are likely to be.

On a more personal note, a few years ago, Toby and I had talked about making a trip to Syria. Some friends had been there and said it was one of the most welcoming countries they’d ever been to (and their trip was during the GW Bush years, mind you)–that far from shunning Americans, the Syrians were excited to meet them and welcome them into their homes for tea and conversation. Now I’m really bummed we didn’t make that trip since it looks like tensions there are unlikely to abate any time soon.

– Then if I feel up to it, I might do some gentle yoga. Probably not a full session, but just a few poses & stretches to strengthen the muscles around my hip joints. They’re ridiculously open and flexible these days, but I can feel that the added flexibility needs to be supported by more muscle strength.

In other news, I came across this recipe for Caramel Stuffed Apple Cider cookies and want to bake them, like, RIGHT NOW…but the recipe calls for Alpine Spice Cider Mix, which, I don’t even know what that is. I’m guessing it’s a powdered mix to make hot apple cider, but whatever it is, I’m pretty certain there is no such thing here in Thailand. I wish I knew what the ingredients were because if it’s just a bunch of spices I could probably approximate it myself. But there’s probably some apple flavoring in there somewhere, which means I’d have to figure out what to do with liquid apple cider in a recipe that calls for it dry. Also, I found the exact same recipe on a different website, and one says it makes 16-18 large cookies, and the other (with the exact same measurements for ingredients) says it makes 51 cookies. (!) I really had to laugh. I like the way the first person counts her cookies–you can eat three and call it just one!

For anyone who likes to see this sort of thing, I made another quick clip of Baby Keller on the move. You can definitely see his movements more clearly these days, since, at 38 weeks, he’s significantly bigger. And this clip has the added benefit of not having a soundtrack of the Sopranos cussing in the background!

Before you go, I’d like to share this quote I saw pinned on Pinterest:

Image from: http://aliedwards.com/2013/02/ae-heart-soul-hands-free-mama-kind-over-matter.html

Image from: http://aliedwards.com/2013/02/ae-heart-soul-hands-free-mama-kind-over-matter.html

The quote seems widely attributed to Carl Jung, but for the life of me I can’t find the original source so I can’t verify it. Anyway, it really stuck with me, not for being a new sentiment, but for so succinctly capturing one of my heart-felt beliefs and general orientation towards life. It also came at a time when several conversations I’ve had or things I’ve read have, without plan or intention, all kind of coalesced around a similar idea–does that ever happen to you? I haven’t really worked my way through it enough to articulate what I’m thinking about, but it’s something to do with valuing experiences and people over things, choosing to be open to life and expand into it over shying away from difference, that giving our kids the gift of courage and resilience is more important than providing them with the trappings of safety, and how lucky I feel to have found a life partner who feels the way I do about these things. The way I’ve written it here maybe sounds like these are either/or dichotomies, but I believe they’re more like ranges or spectrums of values. But it would be incredibly challenging, I think, to share a life with someone with whom one was fundamentally incompatible on these issues.

It’s funny, too, how people can surprise you. Some people you’d think would be up for freewheeling outside the comfort zone end up not, and those who can appear shy or even fragile end up being some of the strongest or bravest people you know. Not that any of it is a front, per se…I think people are just brave in different ways.

Okay, now I’m rambling, it’s officially time to stop. What’s going on with you? Anything on your mind lately?

Playing the Waiting Game–in Life, Marriage, and Motherhood

Strung out on a line

Strung out on a line

When I was in college, the largely unspoken, but prevailing belief seemed to be that smart, strong women could have plenty of fun dating around, but would want to get their degree and all their career ducks in a row before settling down. For some, random hookups were the mode de jour; for others, dating was one long stream of bad men. Only a few had really long relationships. And motherhood? That was for way later, if at all. Pregnancy would practically mean the end of your life. Taking birth control was the only smart choice.

The trouble is none of us had any idea how difficult it could be to find a good partner after college. When you join the work force, you enter a pool of widely varied, but highly limited options. There’s usually a huge age range—which makes finding unmarried age-mates more difficult, and when you spend the vast majority of your life in one office, meeting people outside that milieu gets incredibly hard. If there aren’t any suitable mates among your coworkers (and let’s not even get into in all the potential trials of an office relationship), you can be hard-pressed to find the time or place to even meet anyone else new.

I remember when I was a teenager, I used to dream that I’d go to college, get a fancy career started, find an awesome apartment in a big city, and then find my future husband, whom I’d marry, preferably around the age of 28. After a couple years of marriage, we’d have our first child, probably when I was around the age of 30. Thirty sounded like a good child-bearing age. That still would give me a couple of years to have my second child at 32 or so, and be done well before that fertility drop-off at 35.

I assumed getting pregnant was easy because all you hear, when you’re young, is about the girls who got pregnant even though they only had unprotected sex “that one time.”

I don’t know if it’s by luck or by choice, but I never had a string of bad men or bad relationships. Sure, I dated a jerk or two and a few guys who, though nice, weren’t going to captivate me long-term. But those were always obvious from the start and I never was one to stick around with a losing bet (I distinctly remember one relationship that had a shelf-life of “Four Tuesdays”—my best friend from college will get this reference; there were lots of fun, crazy memories from that episode in our lives). My relationships either lasted a few weeks or a few years—the long ones, even the ones that didn’t work out, were great while they lasted, and important learning experiences in preparation for marriage.

It turns out, I met my husband in college—though neither of us was anywhere near ready for marriage at the time. But we fell in love, probably to both our surprises, and we stuck around each other, even though “not ready” was a big light flashing above both our heads. Toby took a year to travel the world after he graduated college, and in the interim, we had both grown a lot. By the time he came back, I knew I was ready to think about marriage, even if we weren’t anywhere near ready to marry each other. We loved each other; we knew that much. I probably broke a slew of dating rules by doing this, but I told him, in no uncertain terms, that if we were going to be together, it would be with an eye towards marriage. Though we both knew there were no guarantees in this trial run, I wasn’t going to waste time with someone who was only in it “just for now.”

Luckily for me, he was on the same page, more or less, and the years following were a steady learning experience in which we tried out what marriage might look like, what commitment meant, and what it would mean to devote ourselves to another. By the time he proposed to me, I was 26 and we were ready. We had grown into marriage together. We had become ready together. When we did exchange vows, I had just turned 28.

But marriage isn’t the only odyssey one embarks on—there’s also parenthood. Having just gotten married, I wasn’t in any rush to have a child. There was my doctorate to finish and a career to start. Toby was only just getting his career off the ground, and a job in the tech industry at that time seemed volatile and uncertain. We lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment and had other dreams too, namely involving travel. Maybe living abroad for a while. There was still adventure to be had and a baby seemed more like a huge complication and intense responsibility than the next inevitable step in our life progression. The biological clock had started ticking, but I ignored the bell toll.

Though I had heard that fertility decreases with age, I still assumed it would be easy enough to get pregnant. I did have one friend who was trying to get pregnant and had started fertility treatments. She warned me getting pregnant could take time. I heard, but didn’t hear.

When I turned 30, I finished my doctorate and we made plans to move to Thailand. Work with The SOLD Project was already lined up; all I had to do was get to northern Thailand. We were leaving everything we knew behind. That wasn’t the time to start thinking about babies.

After we got settled in Thailand, and Toby’s work situation seemed solid, I was getting integrated at SOLD and halfway through writing a manuscript, I began to listen more carefully to that biological clock. I went off the pill slightly before entirely ready, thinking it would take a few months for the pill’s effects to clear my system, so that, fingers crossed, I might be 100% ready when it did.

Then, I didn’t get pregnant. Our jobs got even better, visitors came and went, we had grown into life in Thailand…I still didn’t get pregnant. My best friend from college was also enduring her own trial of fertility problems, and my best friend from grad school had suffered miscarriages, and another friend was going through a divorce…so by this time, I was really hearing it: Yes, it can be freaking hard to get pregnant. We traveled to Hong Kong and saw more of Asia. I still didn’t get pregnant. We spent a month in Europe, I didn’t get pregnant. We went back to the U.S. for a month…if I didn’t get pregnant soon, we’d have to think about fertility treatments. I didn’t even want to know what that cost would look like. My mother and sister had both had miscarriages before being able to carry a child to term. My cousin is 40 and still unable to get a baby to take, despite almost a decade of treatments. I knew that even if I did get pregnant, it might not work on the first try, and I had to steel myself for that possibility.

It turn out that it was only when we no longer had a stream of life and travel plans that, after more than a year and a half off the pill, I got pregnant. I’m turning 33 next week, and my dreams of having two kids are now looking more like I’ll be blessed to have one. I’m okay with that, and even saying this, I want it to be clear that I’m not complaining. I doubt I’d make different choices even if I had the chance. I love the years Toby and I have had together, and I think the stability we’ve built and the life experiences we’ve had, having had that time, will only serve our child better.

But I feel incredibly lucky. I feel like it’s only partly our choices, and mostly by chance that things have worked out for us (so far—I don’t want to jinx this!). I look at women I know who’ve been trying for years and years to get pregnant, or friends who’ve suffered miscarriages, or others who still can’t find a life partner, and I know how easily it could have gone a different way.

It’s a myth we tell ourselves when we’re young that we can somehow control life and when and how it happens to us. We make plans for what sounds like a good age to marry, and to have children…and these days, that “perfect age” is getting later and later. Instead of right after college, many push it off to their late 20s. Some women, realistic about demands certain careers make, push it off into their 30s, or even later. We don’t factor in the potential for complications. When we make our timelines, we don’t consider the possibility of divorce. We don’t consider the possibility of infertility.

Though I did get married at 28, the truth is I met the man I would marry when I was 20. It took us 8 years to get where we needed to be. If I hadn’t taken my feelings for him seriously way back then, when I still felt I had other life goals to meet first, or vice versa with him for me, who knows where either of us might be? Maybe we would have found other people to love. Maybe there is such a thing as soul mates, and we really are the only ones for each other. Who can really say? Meanwhile, people perpetuate this fear that marriage really hampers one’s freedom and independence. We’ve found this to be entirely untrue for us. Marriage has given us each a strong foundation from which we can both fly—both separately, and together. It’s made us stronger than we would have been alone.

We tell ourselves, when we’re young, that to be real strong, smart women, we have to put education and career before absolutely everything else. The truth is, life goals can exist side by side. You don’t have to put your ducks in a row…sometimes, you just kind of herd them along together. The trend now is to stave off marriage and family until you’ve lived your life first. What makes for “the right time” is an incredibly personal decision and it varies widely from person to person, but I do think we women do ourselves a disservice when we don’t make clear to each other that there are potential tradeoffs when we put off childbearing; that while you’re busy living your life, it can become increasingly harder (and harder than we think it will be) to be able to bear life. We underestimate how fragile life can be, and how uncertain fertility is. We all popped our birth control pills every day for years, each of us never knowing if we’d be the one who’d get pregnant on the first try, the one who would need years of fertility treatments, or the one who couldn’t get pregnant at all.

We can’t control when life happens to us, but we can be honest and informed about the consequences of our choices, and we can listen carefully to our inner guides about who is right for us and when we’re ready. From an employer’s perspective, there’s never a good time for a woman to get pregnant. But your life is your own. External deadlines matter little compared to the timeline we feel ticking along inside.

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This post was inspired by this one, “26 and Already Pregnant,” by Kate from Eat The Damn Cake. If you’re interested in more fun facts about delayed marriage and child-rearing, check out this post, “The Sweet Spot for Tying the Knot,” by Susan Walsh at Hooking Up Smart.

Transition & Bigger Picture Blogs

_TMK2643If you’ve been following along the Bigger Picture Blogs community for the last little while, you might have noticed the core members have been going through some serious challenges behind the scenes. While we have tried to offer our same level of creative inspiration, deep community support, and encouragement, sometimes life really does get in the way. Sometimes, it hits harder than you think.

From a series of miscarriages, to postpartum depression, to other mental and physical health issues all tumbling down on top of our regular commitment to our families and life responsibilities, we’ve been wading through a long period of intense difficulty.

We were brought together by a shared passion for finding the bigger picture in smaller moments, for looking beyond the mundane to find the sacred and profound, for being able to keep sight of what really matters to us and those we love. We love the community and bonds of sisterhood we have formed. We have found profound inspiration in the wide and diverse participants who have joined us on this journey, and we remain forever changed by the life lessons we’ve learned along the way.

In keeping with what we have learned, however, we know that in order to love others, we must first love ourselves. In order to support others and encourage them with grace and graciousness, we must first extend ourselves a little grace. With this in mind, it has become clear that, as much as we love Bigger Picture Blogs and all it has brought with it and as sad this decision makes us, we need to focus on helping our core members heal from the incredible grief, sadness, anxiety, and pain they are currently experiencing. To do so, we must, regrettably, bring our activities at Bigger Picture Blogs to a close. It has not been an easy decision, but it is a necessary one, and we know our community would not benefit from us simply “going through the motions.” We hope our community understands this and knows how much gratitude for everything they have shared with us.

As one of Bigger Picture Blogs’s core members, this decision will bring about some changes on my own blog as well. I am still passionate as ever about living life with intention, so that spirit will remain in my words, especially in my more serious posts. But I’ll be switching up my posting schedule a little bit, so I would be grateful if you don’t mind hanging around while I try some things out and see what works. I’m still one of the core members of Communal Global, so that won’t change, but most likely I’ll be separating out photos for that series and my Coffee Chats, which will fall on a different day starting next week.

I don’t expect that you’ll see much change in content, just some shifts in what happens when. If you’d like to share with me any opinions about which kinds of posts are your favorites and what you’d like to see more or less of, please do let me know!

Thank you for your understanding, and…please pardon our dust as we work our way through this season of change.

And thank you to all who have participated in Bigger Picture Blogs, and who have made it the vibrant, flourishing, supportive and engaged community it has been. We are ever grateful for you!

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New Territory

Via Joie De Vivre (I think - not actually sure about the original source because tumblr's horrible for tracking that.)

Via Joie De Vivre (I think. Not actually sure about the original source because tumblr’s horrible for tracking that. I’m not even convinced this is a precise quote from HH Dalai Lama.)

I came across this image pinned on Pinterest and felt instantly both happy and guilty. I felt happy because, ever since I was about 20 years old or so, I’ve made it my life’s goal to travel someplace new every year. For me, travel is an essential part of a life lived with intention: it exposes me to new sights, sounds, people, cultures…ways of thinking, ways of interacting, and ways of being, so I can be more intentional about my habits of thought and action, choosing which ones are worth keeping and which are worth sloughing away. I’m the kind of person who gravitates towards friends I admire because I love to learn from them. It’s my friends who help me be more generous, more kind, more complimentary, more willing to stand up for myself, more funny, more open, more creative, and more courageous than I would have been, if left to my own devices.

Travel does that for me too. While others might worship power, money, status, or prestige, I bow to the altars of Freedom and Experience. I choose an unfettered life in which I can continually explore and learn and grow. I chose a lifestyle that affords me opportunities to do so, even if it means being far from people we love and that I roam outside the box, fall off the corporate ladder, and don’t fit in anyone’s pigeonhole.

I couldn’t always afford travel, of course. The greatest irony, I discovered when I graduated from college and started working at a publishing company, is that the college life afforded plenty of time to travel, but no money. I started working and had plenty of money, but no time. Nevertheless, I made my resolution stick. By hook or by crook, I would see some place new every year. It didn’t have to be exotic and it didn’t have to be fancy, or even comfortable. Sure, flying off to Greece would be lovely, but there were plenty of things to explore in my vicinity.

So, sometimes that new place involved a flight overseas (my 25th birthday present to myself was a trip, all by myself, to Germany). Some years it was as exotic as South Carolina. Or it was a festival in the desert, like Burning Man. Or just a new city in my home state. And I’ve bunked on couches, camped in tents, shared rooms in hostels, and even spent nights sleeping in a car to make it possible.

When I came across that pin, I felt so happy because this one life goal has brought me so many experiences and a life that I already feel has been so enriched.

But I felt guilty too. Because this whole living life with intention thing is an ongoing process. I’ve flown halfway around the world and landed in the tropics on the other side, but that grand gesture doesn’t let me off the hook. Just because I did it once, doesn’t mean I get to be complacent. If I want to still learn and see and experience and grow, I can’t forget my life goal.

And this year, I almost had–might have entirely, if I hadn’t seen that quote. Since getting pregnant, I’ve lain low. We had talked about going to Bangkok for a shopping & eating expedition at our favorite shops and restaurants, but I mentally shoved it aside, feeling uncomfortable with too much exertion when I felt I should focus on the baby. This year we’re celebrating our 5th wedding anniversary not by jetting off like we did last year, but by staying at an uber-fancy resort right here in town. (Turns out, when you don’t have to pay for transcontinental flights, you can put that money towards some swank accommodations!) And maybe that’s okay. The Parent ‘Hood is definitely new territory for us–a whole new wealth of experience and learning that I can only begin to imagine.

Now that I’m thinking about it again, we’ll probably work in a day or weekend getaway to one of the little towns near us that we haven’t yet seen. I hear Chiang Dao is beautiful, and it’s only a few hours’ drive away. I do wonder though, whether a new place in life constitutes a new place for being and seeing. Maybe, as Proust has said, it’s about seeing things with new eyes more than it’s about just seeing new things period.

Either way, every now and again, it helps to get that reminder to stay open.

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The Kind of Article I’m Starting to Hate

There is a certain kind of article/blog post that I’ve been coming across more and more these days, and each time I read one, I know I should just click away, but I’m drawn to it like a moth to a flame. And just as assuredly as the flame can burn the moth, this kind of article draws my ire.

It’s the “What Not To Say” kind of article.

I’m sure you’ve seen them. What Not To Say to a Disabled Person. What Not To Say to a Working Mom. What Not To Say to a Stay at Home Mom. What Not to Say to Someone Who Has Miscarried. What Not to Say to a Mom With Lots of Kids. What Not To Say to Thin People. What Not to Say to Fat People. What Not to Say to Parents of Kids with Special Needs. What Not to Say to Girls…To Teens…To Pregnant Women…To Recovering Alcoholics…To Survivors of {fill in the blank}…actually, you can fill in whatever you can think of, I’m sure there’s an article somewhere on it.

They always sound so helpful at first, because yes, of course, we want to say the right thing when someone is facing a particularly difficult challenge. We want to empathize. We want to be helpful. We, by and large, want to avoid being assholes.

Of course.

But notice this kind of article I’m referring to is not a “What TO say” article. It’s not advice that tells you what will be helpful. By all means, tell me what I can do to best serve you in your need. Yet, far too many of these articles only focus on lashing out against the words of the uninformed and possibly judgmental.

The effect is, instead of telling you how to help, it basically tells you to shut the hell up. Because when you’re actually faced with a grieving person, can you really remember the full list of 10 Things You Must Not Say you read that one time last October? No. So you are left, mute, with nothing but the awareness that it’s all too easy to say the wrong thing.

Meanwhile, I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the spirit in which these types of articles are written. We all face our own challenges in life. Our struggles are as unique as each of us, and we respond in different ways. What helps one heal or step up may not be useful to another.

The thing is…I don’t feel that other people owe it to us to understand us perfectly. Yes, people often say the wrong things, but how often do they really have bad intentions? If they haven’t been in our place, on what founding do we have the right to expect them to know how we feel? More often than not, it’s pretty easy to tell when someone is just trying to make you feel better. It may be a clumsy attempt. It may even be the opposite of helpful. But isn’t it worth anything that they’re trying?

Of course, there are some people who really are just being hateful, but I don’t think they’ll be won over by a “What Not to Say” article either. They’re not the intended audience – the real audience is the well-meaning commiserators. Just like it would be ungracious to throw a Christmas gift back at someone simply because it wasn’t what you wanted, I find it ungracious to judge others for a failed attempt to be kind. Even words that sometimes sound like judgment are really just awkward, clumsy attempts to try to protect you – a motivation based in love, not hatred or contempt.

Yes, there are better and worse ways to comfort people, to converse with them, to let them know you’re there. Many times, there are no words that can help a person heal or deal. Maybe even most times a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on are worth more than any thousands of words.

But the world does not owe us perfectly eloquent grace or perfectly clear understanding. Each person who loves us is a gift. Each loving intention is its own kind of grace. Embracing them all with loving kindness can do far more to help us heal than focusing on how they fell short of our mark.

 

How Pregnancy Changes The Skin I’m In

4 months preggo

Before I became pregnant, I don’t think I had much of an idea of what happens to your body in pregnancy. You get bigger, you get crazy cravings and eat more, and might have to throw up in the mornings. I think that’s all I thought happened.

{Insert a long stream of slightly manic laughter here.}

While I seem to have lucked out on the whole morning sickness thing, my body is changing faster and in more myriad ways than Aladdin’s Genie let out of the lamp Robin Williams style.

First, I got the dry skin. I seemed to be trying to compete with the Lubriderm gator. So I started putting lotion all over. Until I noticed that every time I did, I’d suddenly break out with an unsightly body pimple somewhere. So I stopped with that.

Then I got the dry eyes and had to start putting in eye drops.

Then there’s the stretch marks. Not on my belly. On my boobs.

Then my nails started growing three times as fast as normal. I’d scratch an itch (see dry skin above) with my suddenly uber-long witch nails, and break out in a mini rash.

Thankfully I work (*smirk* there’s an overstatement, when in the first trimester I could barely stay upright) mostly at home so I can hide the fact that I now find underwear supremely irritating.

Sleeping on my left side is good for my growing belly, but now I wake up with numb hips and pins & needles.

Speaking of that growing belly, it was growing at a nice, steady, slow pace right in line with what the doctor recommended during the first trimester. Second trimester hit and suddenly I’m clocking in a new number every time I get on the scale (which, admittedly, is less frequently these days because, heck, I gotta’ hold on to some scrap of sanity).

Apparently, there’s supposed to be some sort of pregnancy glow? All I know is I’ve had to switch to a super mild face cleanser and then follow it up with a super strength moisturizer strategically placed on certain spots on my face, since spreading it across my whole face makes me break out.

Add to all this, chronically sore feet, a complaining bottom & back, constant trips to the bathroom (all pee and no poo), cravings for sweets that I now find too sweet so that I end up having to bake them myself with a third of the sugar (Toby doesn’t mind this part because I’ll eat maybe three of the cookies, and he gets the rest) and cravings for steak (which is really expensive here, and normally I don’t eat much red meat), crying at the slightest provocation, and throw in a little bit of hot season so I sweat all the time and need more A/C than my husband wants to have, and it’s like: Who AM I? Where did my body go?

To cope, I now have a full skin regimen every time I get out of the shower. I apply a tiny bit of Bio-Oil to my boobs (I don’t know if this will help with the stretch marks, but it does smell nice and make my skin soft, so for $10 I consider that a win). Then comes tummy butter for my tummy, hips, and butt. Aquaphor strategically placed on the very dry or itchy patches of skin, rather than all over. Baby powder on my inner thighs to reduce the sweat. H20 moisturizer spot-placed on my face. Aveeno lotion spot-placed on semi-dry patches of skin. And occasionally at night, Burt’s Bees coconut oil foot creme on my toes & heels.

I’m pretty sure I smell like a pharmacy. Or at least the beauty section of CVS. And I have to trim my nails every five days or so.

Oh, and in addition to dryness, my eyes started getting more sensitive to direct sunlight, so now sunglasses are a must when I go out. I think I’ve officially become Thai now too, because I’ve started carrying an umbrella for sunny days. (What? It keeps the sun off.)

There are a bazillion articles on how to “get your body back” after pregnancy – most of which seem concerned with erasing any sign of pregnancy as quickly as humanly possible to become fitter than you were, with firmer boobs and younger more nubile skin than you had before getting knocked up, like there is some ideal version of you, and as Kate from Eat the Damn Cake observes, whatever ideal that is, it’s probably not the body you have right now.

But the thing is, as much as I jest and kvetch about my changing body, I’m also kind of proud of it. Though sometimes I feel like a little alien has taken over (which, let’s face it, is kind of true – I mean, for crying out loud, if you don’t get enough of a certain nutrient, the baby takes it first, so if you don’t get enough calcium, the baby will suck it up, leaving you with rotted, decaying teeth and osteoporosis), I’m thrilled to be the party host. While I don’t always recognize my body anymore, and new changes spring upon me almost daily, it doesn’t mean I want the old me back. Because the old me didn’t have this little one who dances around doing somersaults and waves at us in ultrasounds. I don’t want to be who I was before, because, before, I didn’t have another tiny heart beating inside. I don’t care if I bounce back tight as a virgin three months after the baby comes, because these rounder breasts and hips are proof I bore life separate from mine. Stretch marks aren’t unsightly. They’re reminders that I became something more than just me. I put on the cream less from vanity and more just to keep my skin supple and smooth, to match the calmness I feel inside. I don’t want to erase that.

I don’t want to erase the fact that I am becoming a mother.

Creating a Family Narrative

My sister, my mom, my brother, and wee little me, back in the days when we lived in a tiny apartment in Mississippi.

An article in the NY Times recently argued that the best way to instill resilience and self-confidence in children is to provide them with a strong family narrative. It’s a fascinating read. Much like other social groups, there is greater cohesion when the group shares its history – the highs as well as the lows – and forms a strong core identity in which children are helped to feel that they are part of something larger than themselves.

As I read the article, I saw how it reflected my own family. I knew where my parents grew up, I knew some of the darker skeletons in the closet, I knew the story of how my parents met and how I came to be, and my mom told me more times than I can count that blood is thicker than water; that friends may come and go, but that family – whether you want them to or not, and even if they sometimes go about it in really kooky ways – will always be there for you.

It wasn’t just words either. I saw our family banking system in action: when one member needs a boost to qualify for a home, the various relatives scramble to put it together, knowing full well one day it’ll eventually come back to them, though they’d do it regardless; when another gets married or has a baby, the older relatives pull together and set up a nest egg; when the younger members get older, they send money home to the grandfolks or even offer them a place in their own homes, and they continue the cycle of sending money down to help out the younger generations. The insurance is better than anything the FDIC can offer and it’s interest-free.

I saw unconditional love in action: no matter what was said, no matter what hurt was dealt, you could always come home. It might not be easy – justice would always be meted out – but you would never be turned away at the door.

Why does a strong narrative instill resilience? How does the family story bring strength? The article suggests it has to do with “sense-making,” identity creation, and group cohesion. Based on my own experience, I think it’s about more than that. Whenever my mom sat me down and gave me her blood is thicker than water spiel, I always took a deep amount of solace in that knowledge. I took comfort in knowing that I always had a home base, that I would never be shunned no matter what I did (I might surely have to pay the piper, but ostracism would never be the price), and that I always had a gaggle of supporters cheering me on from the sidelines.

Besides, when the family unit is strong, there’s no one better than an older, indulgent sibling, who once kissed all your boo-boos and got you that thing no one else knew you really wanted, to tell you when you’re being a schmuck. Because if you’ve gotten to the point where even they have to say something, then you know you better get your butt in gear. Crying about it is not going to make you shine any brighter in their book, so man up.

The flip side of that coin was a deep sense of duty. I’m not sure it was ever put into so many words, but because I had that comfort and the experience of seeing the family in operation, I knew I had a role to play too: that when others needed my help (whether it was asked for or not) the best way to show love was to jump in and do what was needed, that one needs to learn to be open-minded enough to see love in the kookiest of gestures and appreciate even the quirkiest of personalities, and (this was never expressly said, but if it’s true that I would never be ostracized, then the transverse must also be true) that the worst thing I could ever do would be to turn my back on family because they would never turn their back on me.

It’s part of what gave Toby & me the courage to take a leap and fly across the globe. We knew, no matter what happened or how miserably our experiment might fail, we could always have a soft spot to land at home. It’s what kept me going in the darkest, hardest parts of my most painful experiences…when I wanted to give up, when I would have simply let go if it were simply up to myself, I hung on for my family. When I couldn’t do it for me, I did it to honor the ones who never dreamed they could do it for themselves.

This NY Times article shone a light on an aspect of my family that I hadn’t put into quite the same words before. But if it’s true that a strong family narrative creates stronger children, I know what I’ll do when my child joins the fray. I’ll show them each and every day not just how I love him* and not just how my husband loves him, but all the ways all our aunts, uncles, grandmammas, grandpoppas, and cousins love him and what it means to love back. I will tell him again and again where and who we came from, and I will show him that whatever we did and no matter from how far away, we did it together.

* And by “him” I mean “him or her.” No, we don’t know the baby’s sex yet. 

For the month of March, Bigger Picture Blogs is celebrating the turn from winter toward spring with the theme: Rejuvenate! Come join us: Rejuvenate your heart, rejuvenate your soul – pick up your pen, your camera, and your spirit!

Find all the ways you can blow some fresh air into life and link it up with us at Bigger Picture Blogs!

Live. Love. Capture. Encourage.

Raising Men in the Aftermath of Feminism

Photo by Kristi Phillips

It’s no secret now that, while women are still fighting for equal pay and the face of power remains decidedly male, the gender gap in schools didn’t close, it flipped directions. Girls and women at all levels of education, from elementary to collegiate, are outstripping boys – so much so that some colleges are even giving a little extra boost for the guys (yes, you heard that right, affirmative action for white males). Nicholas Kristof provides a nice summary of the problem here and Businessweek has another good one here, but even a cursory poke around Google will bring you a slew of articles from across the Western nations documenting this counter-intuitive trend.

Meanwhile, when we look around at male role models in popular culture, what do we see? Primarily, a glorification of one of two things: underperformance (a la Peter Griffin, Homer Simpson, etc.), or androgyny (types like Michael Cera, “metrosexuality,” dare I even mention Ryan Gosling?). We have to look to Mad Men to find masculinity of the type we used to revere – except they’re all philanderers and misogynists, so that ideal is certainly tarnished.

Toss in rising divorce rates plus a “gotcha!” culture of news media (if I may borrow that phrase) focused on catching politicians and celebrities with their pants down, so to speak (for good or ill), and we have a recipe for stripping society of role models to look towards. I’m being a little blase and overgeneralizing an incredibly complex issue here, but the truth is men these days are often confused about what role they should play and are taught to be ashamed of manliness rather than to uphold its virtues.

We’ve focused so much attention on girl power and what it means to raise a confident, empowered woman, that we’ve forgotten the need to guide our boys too. But we’re doing our girls no favors, when they grow up to be strong, smart, independent women only to find there are no men they can respect to stand strong beside them. Building women up does not require tearing down our boys.

A fellow blogger touched on a growing double-standard in her post, “I never thought he would feel that being a boy was a limitation.” Her children are young, so her concern focuses on erasing gender lines with the toys her kids play with and the cartoons they watch.

But it’s about so much more than that.

It’s about so much more than whether girls can play with monster trucks or whether boys can enjoy watching My Little Pony. As my friend, Brook put it, “we want ALL children to be confident, compassionate and courageous.” Courage is not just for the men, just as compassion is just not for the women.

BUT I don’t think androgyny is the answer either. We do both our children and our society a disservice when we tell them it’s wrong for men to be manly and wrong for women to be feminine. (By the way, we haven’t just hurt our boys either – teaching girls to act like men when it comes to sex has created a host of problems, including, but not limited to: undermining their own sense of value, repressed needs, and increased difficulty in finding and maintaining relationships.) Moreover, we’re simply lying to ourselves when we pretend that there aren’t at least some biological differences between the genders.

That doesn’t mean everyone has to follow a gendered ideal, though – we all suffer when we try to force anyone into a box, no matter what that box is. I’m not harping on anyone who naturally falls towards the middle of the gender spectrum. Gender and sexuality are both complex and we should honor that complexity. What I AM saying, though, is this: We don’t celebrate humanity by wishing (or socializing) away all our differences. We celebrate humanity by encouraging authenticity, harnessing the power of each individual’s strengths, and treating ourselves and each other with respect.

There are two blogs I follow despite the fact that I am neither male nor am I mother to a son. I follow them because I find the articles provide a fascinating discussion of what masculinity means in a post-feminist world: how men can still strive to be the best they can be, present themselves with distinction, be assertive, demonstrate honor and valor – and that masculinity does not have to imply male chauvinism. The first is The Art of Manliness, which grew so quickly and displayed such gratitude from its readers that it showed just how lost men feel in this age, how desperate they are for some guidance on how to be men. The other is 1001 Rules for My Unborn Son. Both hark back to the past for examples of great men, tempered with the greater understanding and self-awareness we have gained in the past decades. It’s a shame how far we have to look back to find great examples.

So whether your boy melts his G.I. Joes in violent combat or plays quietly with a Carebear, teach him to read because great communicators make for great leaders. Whether he prefers World of Warcraft or Sims, teach him to help with chores around the house, because a sense of responsibility breeds great husbands and fathers. Whether his interests lie in the sciences or the arts, teach him to show others respect and appreciation because courage means putting others before ourselves and strength should always be on the side of justice. Whether his hobby is fly-fishing or baking, encourage it because any added skill makes for a more well-rounded human being. Teach him how to change his oil, sew a button, safely discharge a firearm, and iron his shirts…because one day he might need to know all those things.

And roughhouse with him too, because we don’t learn everything there is to learn from “playing nicely” alone.

 

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