Archive for the ‘fearless’ Category

Lost

April 3, 2009

I have moments when I lose the thread of the story that I tell myself about why this is so important to me. I tell myself that this – this story about searching for my long-lost brother – is a story about helping my mother. I tell myself that this is for her, and for him. I tell myself these things, and I stumble over my lack of conviction. It is these things, of course. But it’s more than these things. I want to find him for me. I’m not sure why.

I never knew that I had a brother. His absence from my life, such as it was, was unknown to me. I never felt the loss, because I did not know it. It’s wrong, perhaps, to even describe it as loss. His absence from my mother’s life made it possible for me to exist. Had she stayed with his father, as was her plan, I would never have been born. We were never fated to share a life, he and I, so how can his absence from my life be understood, be felt, as a loss? (Also, oh god, loss. My heart aches for not being able to parse its experience of loss in a manner that makes such loss comprehensible. My heart, it aches, and is confused.) My brother was not lost to me. He was never mine in the first place.

And yet: I’m haunted by the moment, in the telling of her story, when my mother said “your father would have adopted him.” They were friends, she and my father; the circumstances surrounding her giving up this boy brought them closer. My father offered to stay with her, and with him, and make a family. But it didn’t happen that way – my mother didn’t know that she could change her mind about giving up her son, and so the wheel of the fates turned and the boy went to another family and was lost forever to mine. Is it this that haunts me? The idea that he could have been my older brother, that my life might have been the same in every respect save for the presence of a brother? No, because – if there is one thing that Lost has taught me – history does not unfold that way. Keeping my brother would have set my mother on a different path in a different life, regardless of whether or not my father was with her on that path. It would have set her on a different path in a different life. A life without me. So am I haunted by the idea that, but for the grace of the fates, this boy, this lost boy, might have had my life? Is this why I want to know him?

I don’t know. I’m still sorting this out. All I know is, I keep turning this Dharma wheel, hoping that it will project me into a time and place where I know my brother. For better or for worse.

UPDATE: I’m shutting down comments on this post. Apparently, not everyone in the world supports public adoption searches – which, fine, but some of those not-everyones are unable to express their opinion about that in a manner that is civil. My heart’s too vulnerable around this. I’m putting the comments away, to keep private, for myself, and closing further commentary. Anyone who needs/wants to get in touch with me about this, please use e-mail.

Abortion Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry

March 25, 2009

“She only saw him once.

Once, from behind the window of the nursery. He was wrapped in a blue blanket, and he was oh so small. They asked her if she wanted to hold him, and she said no. Just as she had in the delivery room, right after he was born, when she had squeezed her eyes shut so that she wouldn’t see him, her heart, the heart that she was giving away. She said no.

No.

It would have killed me, she said. It would have killed me. I couldn’t have gone on. I loved him.

So she said no. She refused to hold her son.”

I was holding my own son – then just two and a half months old – on my lap when my mother told me this story. I would be stating the obvious if I said that I clutched him a little tighter as I listened to her words and watched the tears brim in her eyes, but I’ll state it anyways: I held him, tightly, and my heart ached to think of not holding him. My heart ached to bursting at the thought of not holding him, of giving away any opportunity to hold him. And then my heart ached some more, because I had, once upon time, done something that, in some respects, amounts to the same thing.

When an anonymous poster made a plea, last week, for everyone to pause and consider the emotional fallout from adoption – this within the context of debates concerning the emotional consequences of abortion – I immediately thought of my mother and the gut-wrenching turmoil she experienced as a result of giving up a child for adoption. And then I thought of myself, and of the secret inner dialogue that I conducted with myself while she and I sat discussing that boy, that child that she had given up for adoption years before I was born. The secret inner dialogue that went something like this:

Me: Oh, my god, my god, how terrible, how heartbreaking, how did her heart survive it?

Myself: How did YOUR heart survive it?

Me: Survive what?

Myself: Abortion.

Me: That’s so different.

Myself: It’s not.

Me: The heartbreak of giving up a child…

Myself: Isn’t abortion a kind of ‘giving up’? Except, you know, MORE FINAL?

Me: Yeah, but…

Myself: But what?

Me: She’s mourning a child that she lost, a child who is still out there somewhere.

Myself: Exactly.

I clutched Jasper to my chest and squeezed and thought about the child who is not out there somewhere. A little part of my heart collapsed in on itself.

My mother’s heartbreak was almost unbearable to absorb. Her guilt, her worry, her desire to both know and not know whether he’d been given a happy life, whether she’d done right by him to give him up. She insisted that there was no regret – she’d done what she had to do, she had no choice, it was the best thing to do, the only thing to do, at the time – but regret is complicated. She didn’t regret making the choice that seemed best for him, but she still hurt over that choice. She hurt over that choice because it represented a loss, for her. Because it represented the loss of an unknown and unknowable future. Because it was a choice that changed someone else’s life, someone else’s future. Because some part of her felt that she needed to explain that choice, perhaps apologize for that choice. Make it clear that the choice was made out of love.

The choice that caused her so much pain was not the same kind of choice that I made. There is no one to whom to explain my choice. There is no one to whom to apologize. No claim can be made that my choice was made out of love. There is no one to whom I might make that claim. Because that’s how abortion differs from adoption: it means that the only person you need ever – can ever – explain your choice to is yourself. It doesn’t matter whether you’re sorry or not. Abortion means never having to say you’re sorry. It means never even having to consider the question.

Which is not to say, of course, that we don’t consider the question. I’ve been considering the question – of whether or not I’m sorry, of whether or not I should be sorry, of whether or not sorry matters – since I first set foot in that abortion clinic. I have agonized over this. As I’ve explained in these virtual pages before, I can’t say that I regret having had an abortion, but I also can’t say that I don’t. It’s complicated. Its complicatedness sometimes hurts my heart. Which is precisely why people talk about the emotional consquences of abortion. Because many women find, like I did, that their hearts hurt. Because many women struggle to figure out how to reconcile the complicated tension between regret and not-regret and find that they’re unable, and because many women do so while bearing their children, their wanted children, in arms.

But that struggle – that is, my personal experience of that struggle – is one that can, most of the time, be compartmentalized, tucked away on some back shelf of the psyche and forgotten until some event – pregnancy, say, or miscarriage, or one’s own mother’s admission of having given one’s brother up for adoption – prompts one to go rummaging around on the shelves of Buried Hurts and Ambivalent Regrets and Things That I’d Rather Not Think About Unless My Sanity And/Or Moral Stability Depends Upon It. My mother’s struggle with her longstanding conflicting emotions around having given up a child for adoption is not – has never been – something that she can just tuck away on a shelf and forget about. She has never passed a day, she told me, without thinking about her lost boy – without looking at the faces of strangers who seem about his age and wondering is it him, without reading in the newspaper or hearing on the news something about any male person of his vintage and wondering is it him, without casting back to that baby in the blue blankie and wondering what became of him what became of him what became of him?

And that is so hard for her. I have seen the heartbreak on her face. Some 45 years or so after the fact, and the heartbreak is still there. I see the heartbreak on her face and I tell myself, there but for grace went I. And, thank gods for that grace, that I did not go.

But it is not so simple. It is not nearly so simple. For I know that the primary reason I am able to compartmentalize my own, quiet struggle is because it is entirely my own, and it is entirely my own because of the nature of the choice that I made. My child does not wander this earth, living another life. My child – and it is such a mental and emotional wank to even use these terms – was never born. My child never became my child. He/she/it was embryo, barely fetus, not a child. I did not have a child; I had a pregnancy. And then I didn’t.

(And yet. Even as I say that – “I did not have a child; I had a pregnancy” – I want to take it back. I’m a mother. I’ve had a very early term miscarriage. I very nearly lost Emilia to miscarriage. I know the terror of losing or fearing to lose that embryo, that not-quite-fetus, that not-child who is loved none the less for his or her unformedness. I would never have said – could never have said – of the embryo-that-became-Emilia, this is just a pregnancy, there is no child here. For even though she was not yet child, she was the cellular embodiment of my wish that she become a child, that she become my child. In the absence of that wish… is it just cells that remain? I don’t know. I do not know. I have not yet sorted this out. It is painful, trying to sort this out, this which might be, simply, unsortable. All I know is that these experiences are different, despite their similarities, and that I remain firmly committed to the rightness of having the ability – the choice – to distinguish between them. Ah, me.)

What remains: my inconstant, ambivalent hurt, and my mother’s endless heartache. Neither of these would I wish on anyone, but neither would I hold them up as justifications for tampering with our rights to choose those hurts, those aches, over others. We both chose our heartaches, out of desire to avoid greater heartache for ourselves or for others. In my mother’s case – in any birth mother’s case, I think – a more difficult choice was made, because it was a choice that opened up another future for another life, a future that she would never be able to see but would always, always feel. I, on the other hand… I chose the road that denied other lived futures, and that has made all the difference.

The right difference, the wrong difference, I don’t know. It is, ever and always and only and nevertheless, the one that I chose.

I live with that.

*Because you’re asking: yes, we are – I am – still looking for that boy, the lost boy, my brother. There has been some very limited progress recently, and I’m hoping that it yields something, but I don’t want to jinx things by speculating. Thank you all for caring so much.

They Shoot Wet Nurses, Don’t They?

March 10, 2009

Her name was Laura, and I nursed her baby.

We had met, initially, at breakfast and immediately hit it off. We sat down with our coffees and immediately got swept up in a conversation that ran the gamut from the advantages of Twitter over Facebook to the challenges of leaving one’s baby for a night. Which is precisely what I had done: I had left my baby to attend a symposium on parenting. And it was, as I told Laura over coffee, in some ways profoundly liberating, and in others completely terrifying. Also, my boobs hurt. Badly. I had forgotten my breast pump and an hour of hand-expressing in the shower that morning hadn’t helped much. I didn’t mention that part, though. I just said, I miss my baby.

She said, I know. Her own baby – a dark-haired sprite, just one year old – bounced happily on her knee. I would find it hard to leave her.

Yeah.

I liked her. I offered to help her sort out her Twitter/Facebook conundrum, and introduce her to some New York area bloggers. She invited me to a parenting event in Albany later in the month. We chatted throughout the day. The chirps and coos of her baby reminded me of my own chirping, cooing baby, who had accompanied me in the previous month to two conferences, who I was unaccustomed to being without, especially in this environment. My heart hurt, and my breasts ached. They ached. I kept my arms pressed against my chest for most of the morning.

At lunch I fled to my room and tried, unsuccessfully, to hand-express. I returned to the symposium, and sat down near Laura, and another woman that I had met that day. We were supposed to have a conversation about our parenting successes, or something like that. I said, you’ll have to count me out. I’m in a lot of pain and don’t know what to do. I huddled on the chair, squeezing the rock-hard contours of my chest as tightly as I could without screaming. I explained about the missing breast-pump, the terrible ache of my engorged breasts, the hours remaining before I would see my son. The other woman asked, is there a store nearby? I shook my head – the concierge had told me that there were no pharmacies in the immediate area. Laura cocked her head thoughtfully, and looked at her daughter, who was beginning to fuss. Would you consider, maybe… I know it sounds sorta weird, but… I have no problem with it, and she’s hungry… She looked at me, and waited.

Really?

Really.

I paused. My head spun, a little. Would I do this, really? Would it be weird? And then I thought, no. There’s nothing weird here. Boobs are boobs. Breastmilk is breastmilk, in all of its liquid gold glory. I bond with my son when we nurse, but it is not because he is latched to my breast. It is because I have him in my arms, and because I love him. Our intimacy derives from that love, and that love would be just as forceful if I fed him with a bottle. So would it be weird if someone else fed him from a bottle? No, of course not. These are only acts of nurture, whether they involve the bottle or the breast. And this is what the breast is made for.

I nodded, and reassured Laura that as a nursing mom I did not take any substances or medications that might compromise my milk.

And so. I took Laura’s daughter in my arms and she smiled at me and I lifted my shirt and she happily bent her head and drank her fill.

(Was it weird? No. It was different. Describing the thoughts and emotions that accompany nursing another woman’s child requires more space than I have here. It was intimate, but not inappropriately so – no more inappropriately intimate than someone holding your baby and cooing in his ear, whispering sweet baby nothings. If anything, it brought me to a deeper, more visceral understanding of my body as a miracle of biology, as a work of nature that is built to do certain things, one of those thing being – in my case; this is not necessarily true for every woman, and no woman is lesser for not being able to do it – nursing babies. My breasts are not sacred or magical objects, they are not quivers full of milk-arrows that can and must only be directed to blood-offspring. They provide milk. They nourish. They are both utterly mundane and terrifically awe-inspiring for that fact.)

I was grateful – so, so grateful – for Laura and her child; their generosity and open-mindedness and open-heartedness saved me a great deal of pain. At the end of the day, a mother was released from some considerable discomfort, and a child was nourished. Wonderful, no?

Well, as it happens: no. Not for everybody. Someone was watching, and someone did not like what they saw. Someone was watching and decided that what I had done was deviant. Irresponsible. Disgusting. Eww. So she wrote a post describing, in entirely misleading terms (we were total strangers! we had no discussion about it! a lady just blithely and irresponsibly passed her baby to a total stranger without a word! and that stranger – me, if you’re keeping track – might have been diseased!) (she has since admitted to me that her representation of what happened was misleading), what she saw and explaining why she thought it was wrong. And it was wrong, from her point of view. Unsanitary. Dangerous. Wrong. Her commenters went even further: why, I might have AIDS! Be homeless! A drug user! Sexually loose! In fact, was what I’d done really any different from wandering into a bar and asking some strange man to grope my titties? Really? Also: AIDS! Or some other horrible virus. That, and my boobs – this helpfully noted by the author – were probably unsanitary, to boot. Also, I’d probably been drinking.

I can’t even begin to describe how hurtful it was to read these things. This was me they were talking about. And Laura, who was as lovely a woman as I had ever met. Laura and I had just met, sure, but I think that we both hoped that we were becoming friends. And we share a belief – a healthy, woman-affirming, baby-adoring belief – that we mothers are all in this together, that we’re all served and enriched when we trust each other and help each other. She had a hungry baby; I had excruciatingly painful breasts that needed to be released of their milk. We came together with our needs. You’re welcome to say that you couldn’t see yourself doing this; you are welcome, even, to cringe and shudder a bit in distaste. Whatever. We all have our issues. Just don’t flaunt your disgust. And certainly don’t use it to publicly shame mothers who make choices that you might not make. What I do with my boobs – what any mother does to ensure that her baby gets fed – is none of your business. And your public expression of disgust and alarm hurts. It hurts me, it hurts all of us. It reinforces the idea that breasts and breastfeeding hover on the very razor’s edge of shamefulness, that these things on our chests are somehow, in some way, dirty and icky and bad, unless we operate them under the very strictest rules of propriety (only if they’re covered up! only if it’s your own baby! only if it doesn’t make us uncomfortable! only if WE SAY IT’S OKAY!)

Memo to everybody: these? Are not your boobies. They are mine. And my babies? Also mine. I will nurture and nourish them as I see fit, and I will champion any other mother to do the same. Your disgust, your judgment threatens to undermine us, weaken us, take away some of our power as mothers who demand to make their own way and their own rules. Which, fuck that.

This is MY motherhood. These are MY boobs.

Hands off.

Memo to everybody: in case you missed what I said above – “You’re welcome to say that you couldn’t see yourself doing this; you are welcome, even, to cringe and shudder a bit in distaste” – I’ll say it again (it seems that I need to): you are welcome to disagree with I did, and/or with what Laura did. You are welcome to say that you would not do this. You are welcome to voice a contrary opinion. I encourage it. I’m fascinated by so many elements of this discussion (not least, something that one commenter brought up – trust and community. Under what circumstances do we choose to trust or not trust each other, to take each others’ words, or not do? Laura trusted me when I said that I was healthy and not taking anything that might compromise my milk. Perhaps this had everything to do with my appearance, or with the fact that I was obviously a nursing mother, or perhaps just with the fact that she had decided that I was simply worth trusting. I was moved by this. We need more of this kind of generosity of spirit in daily life) and I enjoy hearing different opinions. What I don’t like: inappropriately expressed judgment or shaming. That’s the whole point of the latter part if this post: shaming hurts everybody. If you’re here to express an opinion, respectfully – great. I’ll support and defend that. But if you’re here to call names or point fingers or say anything that you wouldn’t say to someone you loved, then maybe just turn back now.

Let’s be kind.

Which means, too – and forgive me if it seems hoity for me to take this on – that everybody is very welcome to NOT direct opprobrium at the blogger mentioned here. This has no doubt been hard on her, and although I remain hurt and (yes, am juvenile) angry, I do not want her to be put through any more of a ringer than she already has. Please. Both she and I deserve some peace around this.

Comments on this post are now closed. I’m happy to read other posts on the subject – yes, even they disagree with milksharing – so if you write about it, please do let me know.

Truthiness In Muffin-Top Portraiture

March 4, 2009

You’re going to have to see my previous post for context – or to comment, if you have anything to say, anything at all, about the Glory Of The Previously Only Seen In Soft-Focus Muffin Top – because I’m only going to say this, and I want it to stand alone as my affirmation – my own affirmation, to myself – of my acceptance of my soft, fleshy, beautiful self: this is my belly. It gave life to my children. It turns on my husband. It digests cupcakes. It could be firmer, it could be trimmer, it could fit more neatly into a pair of skinny jeans, but who cares? It is my belly.

And I like it.

(I dare you to post yours. You can do so anonymously at The Belly Project, but if you dare to do it at your own blog, or on Flickr – I even set up a Flickr group, if you’re interested – or somewhere a little less anonymous – somewhere where you say hell YEAH this is me, I’d love to know. Send me an e-mail or leave a comment on the previous, less-brave post where, yes, I am taking compliments on my skills with soft-focus photography.)

Who’s The Dummy, Mummy?

February 10, 2009

Rachel Cooke thinks that I’m a dummy. Okay, maybe not me specifically, but women like me. Women who talk or write incessantly about their children and their experience as mothers. Women who, when asked how they’re doing, launch into a extended narrative about sleeplessness and breastfeeding and hormones and Xanax. Women who are – how did she put it? – “boring, selfish, smug and obsessed with motherhood.”

Like I said: women like me.

“Once upon a time,” says Cooke, “educated women fought to separate their identities from the ideal of mother, knowing that until the two came to be seen as wholly distinct they would never be taken seriously; and, in any case, who wants to be defined by only one aspect of their life? In the past decade, however, a growing number of women have reverted, 50s-style, to identifying themselves primarily, vociferously, and sometimes exclusively, as mothers. They fetishise childbirth, and obsess about all that follows it, in a way that is almost, if not quite, beyond satire, and which makes me feel a bit sick.”

Which, whatever. So she’s not interested in mothers; I can live with that. I wasn’t all that interested in motherhood before I became a mother, either. But there’s a very great difference between lacking an interest in a subject and asserting that any discussion or celebration of that subject is somehow subversive of broader social goods. That someone, anyone, lacks an interest in the motherhood does not mean that the celebration of motherhood or extensive discourse on the subject of motherhood represent broader social problems for which mothers should be held responsible. I mean, seriously. I’m not interested in hip-hop, but would it make sense for me to say, on that basis, that pop-cultural attention to hip-hop is fetishistic and sick-making? I’ve certainly had the experience – pre-motherhood – of being trapped in conversations with women who went on at length about the details of childrearing and wondering how I was a) going to escape, and b) scrub my brain of the mental image of mustard poo, but I’ve also had that very same experience with people who only want to talk about politics (an occupational hazard as a former academic specializing in political philosophy) or cats or global warming. The fact that those subjects, in excess, cause my eyes to roll back in my head does not mean that anyone who is passionate about those things is an out-of-control fetishist. It only means that I am not interested.

Like any reflective bigot, Ms. Cooke asserts that she is not attacking all mothers – some her best friends are mothers! but they’re, like, the smart kind who you don’t mind hanging out with! – just the smug, stupid mothers who talk too much about being mothers. Because, you know, it’s not that mothers as a community are sickening in their fetishistic attachment to the terms and trappings of motherhood. It’s that so many of them are, and Ms. Cooke is starting to find it overwhelming. Can’t we all just shut up already about childbirth and our children and everything having to do with our children? Don’t we realize that the more we talk about this stuff, the more stupid and smug and selfish and Stepford we sound? Can’t we see that we are setting women back? And, also, nauseating everybody in the process?

This is what is, to me, most hateful about Cooke’s diatribe: the assertion that there is not only something unseemly and uninteresting about the discourse of motherhood, but also something fundamentally unfeminist about it. This is Linda Hirschmann Lite: devotion to motherhood is somehow not deserving of respect, because it limits – limits – women to a life experience that has been dictated, in some part, by the terms of their biology. This is biology-as-destiny, this is femininity-as-enclosure: this is what prevents us from being free, like, men, to do whatever we want. This is an old feminist argument (one, if you’re interested, that has roots in Marx), that women need to be liberated from their biological destinies – from the almost-inevitable biological condition of motherhood – so that they might work and contribute to society like men, because only then do they meaningfully contribute to society, only then are they members in full, only then are they interesting.

This is bullshit. Women do not become free by rejecting motherhood, by ignoring motherhood, by keeping the stories of motherhood hidden behind the veil, the wall, the enclosures of the private sphere. Women become free, in some significant part, by celebrating motherhood – by celebrating parenthood (men love their children too, you know, and some might even choose to make parenting their primary occupation, if it were more generally accepted and recognized as important work) – by demanding that it be as valued a part of civil society as politics and business and the arts and, you know, whatever else people like Rachel Cooke and Linda Hirschmann deem to be important and interesting. Celebrating motherhood doesn’t mean that every woman must choose motherhood as part of her life experience – we celebrate all variety of callings, without insisting that any of them are necessary for every individual’s self-fulfillment – it only means that we all of us recognize that mothering – parenting – and all that it involves is important work. Which means, in turn, we recognize discourse on those subjects as important discourse.

This is not to say, of course, that every anecdote about poo explosions in public places or every detailed explanation of the effects of sleep deprivation on the post-partum mother is in itself a critically important contribution to public discourse. It is to say, rather, that the sum of these stories is important: that in telling these stories, and in recognizing these stories as legitimate and important, we are sharing – we are making public, we are lifting the veil on – the experience of motherhood and demanding that it be taken seriously as something that contributes to – that is, arguably, the backbone of – civil society. Not every one of these stories will be interesting to everyone; many will be interesting only to a very few. But they are our stories, the stories of our parenthood. And we are, in telling these stories, telling each other – telling other mothers, telling fathers, telling future mothers and fathers – that there is no need to be (and every harm in being) isolated in one’s experience of parenthood. We are telling each other that there is community in parenthood, and that such community should be sought out and embraced.

Cooke summarizes her argument with this statement: “all this droning on about baby and toddler world is not, in the long run, doing any of us any good. For me, and many other women, it’s boring and selfish, and it implicitly casts judgment on the way we choose to live our lives.” I’m sorry that she feels that way. I, for one, am quite capable of listening to my husband’s colleagues drone on about the TV industry without feeling like I’m being judged for not being in that industry. I am also, for that matter, quite capable of listening to childless friends talk about their careers and their active social lives and their travel adventures without feeling as though they pity me for always having a baby strapped to my chest. If she feels judged, that’s her issue, not a larger social problem that needs to be nipped in the bud. Indeed, as I’ve said above, this compulsion to silence mothers, to insist to them that their stories are not worthy of sharing in public spaces, to demand that they just shut up already about their silly children and their silly fascination with organic baby food and sleep training and post-partum depression – this is the larger social problem. It’s a terrible social problem. It does more to keep women silenced and isolated than pretty much anything else I can think of.

So if anyone should just shut up already and stop complaining and judging and holding women back with her need to control what women talk about… well, you know who you are.

/rant.

(Thanks to Karen for the tip on the story. Funny how she knew just exactly what would make my head explode.)

The First Cut

January 27, 2009

Here’s something that I had planned to never blog about: my son’s penis. Not about the novelty of having a baby with a penis (because, really: contrary to all expectation, the novelty wears off. A baby penis is just a little version of the appendage that you’ve seen before, and once you get accustomed to the risk of being sprayed during diaper changes, there’s really nothing particularly complicated about its care and maintenance), not about the differences between be-penised babies and be-vulvaed babies (there’ll be plenty of opportunity to reflect upon gender differences as these pertain to my son and daughter without considering their genitalia) and certainly not about our decision whether or not to make that all-too-significant snip. Circumcision, above all else, was not something that I was going to blog about. Too personal. Too controversial. Nothing to say about it.

I changed my mind. I still regard the topic as dangerously personal and controversial, but I do, as it turns out, have something to say about it.

My husband and I agonized over whether or not to circumcise Jasper. Actually, that’s not true: I agonized over whether or not to circumcise Jasper. My husband was pretty certain that he wanted to not circumcise – it’s not my place to explain his reasons, but I will say that he (my husband) is circumcised, and that he does not practice a religion that encourages circumcision – and although my inclination was to give my husband decision-making authority on this issue – he, after all, knows penises better than I do – I was, for some time, torn. I had never seen an uncircumsised penis. I had no idea – beyond the most rudimentary, high-school sex-ed posterboard kind of understanding – what might be the implications of circumcising or not circumcising. I was all, what’s a foreskin? And: why cut it off? But also: but doesn’t everyone cut it off? And: if everyone else cuts it off, there must be a reason. But then again: cutting. I was very confused, and more than a little uncomfortable about the whole subject.

The only thing that I knew for certain was this: circumcision meant that someone would bring a very sharp object very close to a very delicate part of my very little baby, and I didn’t like that idea one bit.

I read every article, medical and otherwise, that I could get my virtual hands on. I read anti-circumcision articles and pro-circumcision articles. I read about how circumcision might reduce rates of certain kinds of infections, and about how such reductions were most likely statistically irrelevant in North America. I read many personal essays by parents who are pro-circumcision, and many by parents who are anti-circumcision. I saw many comparisons to female genital mutilation, which I dismissed intellectually, but which haunted me nonetheless. I resisted being haunted. I worried about resisting being haunted. I worried about the ethics of making such a decision for my child: what would my boy want, if he were able to ask himself the question? I asked my husband; he knew his own answer. I wasn’t sure that that was enough.

I worried about how much I was worrying over the issue.

I read more articles.

I read that the pediatric associations of both the United States and of Canada recommended against circumcision. They were circumspect about it, to be sure: they fall all over themselves assuring concerned parents that it’s a personal decision, a decision that only the family can make. But they still get their message across: there’s no medical reason for a child to be circumcised.

That, however, was not the reason that I decided that I did not want Jasper to be circumcised. I decided that I did not want Jasper to be circumcised, simply, because I could not bear to allow anything to happen to him that would cause him unnecessary hurt. I could not bear the idea of the flash of a blade near his little body, the slice that would cause him to cry out in pain.

This was – this is – an intensely personal decision. In a way, it was a selfish decision: I made (and my husband supported) a decision based upon my feelings, my fears. It is Jasper, however, who will live with this decision. If I chose, I could weave a story, a philosophy, about how decisions such as these demand that we consider most seriously the passive option – that we do nothing that takes away from the individual that our child will become, that we do nothing that constrains that individual, that robs that individual of anything, literally or figuratively – but that would be bullshit. As parents, we make decisions every day – every hour – that shape our childrens’ futures with little conscious regard for whether or not our children, looking back, would want us to consider those decisions differently. We take away little pieces of potential futures for our children with every step that we take – and with every step that we take, every decision that we make, we also add pieces, we also build possibilities into those futures. Obviously, in an ideal world, we would make all the right decisions, and our children would one day congratulate us for caring for them and protecting their interests perfectly. But ours is not an ideal world, and we make decisions under imperfect conditions, and we can be assured only that we will, as parents, achieve imperfect results.

So I didn’t choose to not circumcise my son because I was perfectly convinced that it was right thing to do, because I believed that it was the thing that he, someday, would thank me for doing. I didn’t make the choice that I did because I think that all parents should make that choice. I didn’t choose to not circumcise because I came to the conclusion that it was the only choice that a good mother could make. I did it only because I didn’t want to cut him.

It was the only thing that I could do, the only choice that I could make, for me. I can only hope that I did right, that I chose right, by him.

(I’ve not yet drawn a name for the Motozine from last week’s giveaway; I’ll do so at first opportunity and post the winner by Thursday. In the meantime, thank you all so very, very much for sharing your generosity of spirit in the comments, and, as always for your love and support.)

The Invisible Boy

January 21, 2009

He wants to be invisible, she tells me. When we’re out he clings to me and turns his face into my side and it’s like he wants the the whole world to look in the other direction, away from him and his weakness and his wheelchair.

She sighs. Your sister told me, when they got back from DisneyWorld, that he was unhappy in the crowds, that he was embarrassed when they couldn’t get him onto the rides, that he just wanted to hang behind everyone else and hide.

He knows, now. My mother chokes on her words. He sees himself. He sees what he thinks everyone else sees. And he hates it.

I have no response. We whisper our I love yous and hang up the phone. I have no response. I just cry.

When Tanner was diagnosed with the condition that will kill him, he was four years old. He was a boisterous preschooler with a big smile and a habit of barreling at you at top speed and knocking you down, the better to wrap his little arms around your neck and wet your cheeks with slobbery kisses. His gait was a little funny – he walked on his toes, like a wannabe ballet dancer, and lost his balance, a little, sometimes, going up stairs. But nothing that made him seem anything other than the adorable cyclone of a four-year old that he was.

But then it became clear that he wasn’t walking as well as other kids his age. A caregiver commented on the unusual shape of his calves. He continued walking on his toes. A physiotherapist was consulted. Then a doctor. Then the geneticists. And then, one evening, I got a phone call from my mother, telling me that they’d finally gotten the results of the tests and that Tanner had something called Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy. What’s that? I asked. And then my mom burst into tears, and said something incoherent about muscles and dying and I felt a chill roll down my back, I felt it run like a stream of cold water from the base of my skull and down along my spine and, with the phone tucked between my ear and my shoulder and my mother’s cries echoing across the wire, I brought my fingers to my keyboard and Googled Muscular Dystrophy, Duchennes and the chill turned to ice. He would die. His muscles would disintegrate and he would die.

No cure. No hope.

For the first year, it was easy to wrap ourselves in platitudes like live for the moment and seize the day and rejoice in the time that you have because Tanner didn’t change much, not at first. His walking got a little more awkward, but he was still a rough and tumble force of a little boy who loved nothing more than fierce hugs and cuddle-wrestling. To anyone who didn’t know him, he was just another ordinary child. No clock ticking over his head, no enemy within. Just a boy. But then he started undergoing steroid treatments, which affected his behaviour, and his physical condition deteriorated and continued deteroriating and word started getting out among neighbours and school-peers that he was sick. Disabled, obviously, but not only that: disabled, and marked for death. Some children started teasing him, and he began to understand.

That was over two years ago. That was over two years ago, and Tanner has since learned – we have all learned – to cope with the reality of his illness. That is, we think that we have, until we see Tanner recoil in embarassment from his wheelchair, or refuse to make eye contact with other children. Or tuck his head against his mother’s thigh at DisneyWorld and insist that, no, he doesn’t want to see if they can accommodate him on that ride, or this one.

This, this is a terrible heartbreak. We imagine, we believe, that all sick or disabled (no, he is not differently-abled. He is 8 years old and he can neither run nor play sport with other children. He experiences his condition as a disability, something that prevents him from doing that which he most wants to do) children bear their conditions nobly, and with good spirits. We watch the TV shows and the movies and our hearts are lifted by these brave little souls who carry their fates with dignity. We forget, however, that these are mostly fictions, that however noble are our beloved broken children, they are still children and they hurt like children and they fear like children and they cry like children and is there anything worse, really, for a child, than to be constrained in a chair – embarassed, ashamed – at the happiest place on earth while all the other children race and play with abandon?

Tanner wanted to hide. He wanted to not be seen. He wanted his weakness, his powerlessness, his sickness, his bound-in-a-chairness to be wrapped in a cloak of invisibility. He wanted – in the middle of all of the joy and all of the celebration and all of the hope (and yes, Disney does these things so well, with its spontaneous choruses of dreams really do come true, with its sudden eruptions of dance and sparkles, with its ever-present proclamations of joy, you can almost taste the hope, the magic) – to disappear.

And I don’t even have words to describe the hundred million ways that my heart breaks – that it shatters – to know this. I don’t have the words to describe the force of my wish that this just weren’t true, that this would all just go away, that I could make the disease that is killing him not only invisible, but non-existent. That I could take away everything that makes Tanner want to hide and to bring him out into the sun and say, with conviction, see? there is no darkness here. There is nothing to be afraid of, there is no reason to hide.

There’s a small part of me that wishes, sometimes, darkly, that we could have four-year old Tanner back; that we could go back to those days before the diagnosis when he was a wee bundle of four-year old fury, squeezing us with his round little arms, pummelling us with his joy, living a life of unrestrained happiness, reaching toward a limitless sky. But to have that Tanner back would be turn our backs on the Tanner who lives and loves and pummels us – with the sheer force of his heart – now. And that Tanner – this Tanner – is extraordinary, amazing, beautiful, brave. So, so brave, so, so beautiful. So deserving of being seen. Seen, and included, and loved.

It is not, however, my place to thrust him into the spotlight, to force him to bravely face the crowds and share himself. I can only tell his story, and hope that it gives you – the known and unknown yous who follow his story – some sense of the miracle that he is, this brave little boy who carries this terrible, terrible burden and who nevertheless goes forward, shyly, into the world, hoping to share in its joy. And if it reminds you to make an effort to really see somebody, anybody, who is hiding in a literal or figurative corner, to go over and take their hand and make the effort to let them know that you see them and that you think they are wonderful… well, then, that will have been no small thing.

Do it for Tanner.

Motorola – who sent me on my trip to Disneyworld (which unfortunately couldn’t take place at the same time as Tanner’s trip; one of his biggest wishes has been to someday have a holiday with his cousins, but this is tremendously difficult to arrange, and we were disappointed to miss the opportunity) – has offered me a Motorola Motozine Zn5 camera phone (read about it here; it is awesome) to give away. Which I’m going to do, through a random draw, BUT: in order to be eligible to win, you need to state, in your comment, what you will do to pay your good fortune forward. It can be anything – shovelling the walk of the old lady who lives across the street, or sitting down and having a talk with your kids about being inclusive of kids – like Tanner – who seem different, or making a donation to a charity of your choice (it’ll be honor-system principle whether you follow up or not, but I really hope that you do.) You have until Sunday, midnight.

On my end – because I’m on a one-woman mission to turn every giveaway that hits the internets into a pay-it-forward giveaway – I’m going to make another donation, in the name of the winner, to the organization (Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy) that my sister ran to raise funds for. (If you haven’t already made a donation, please think about doing so. I know that you have other causes to support, and I’ll understand if you can’t, but please, think about it, and maybe pass the request along.) And then I’m going to send a camera to Tanner, so that even if he feels most comfortable on the sidelines, he can share with us what he sees. So that we might, perhaps, see the world from his side, and look there more often.

(Congratulations to Catherine from PinkAsparagus, who won the draw for the Motozine camera phone! Catherine, please e-mail me so that I can arrange to get the phone to you.)

Clockwatching

January 6, 2009

Last night, I curled up in bed with my little girl. She lay her head against my arm and gripped my fingers with her tiny hand and whispered, I want you to stay here, Mommy.

Yes, I said. I want you to stay here, too.

And then I rested my cheek against the crown of her head and closed my eyes and inhaled the sweet, soapy smell of baby shampoo, felt the silk of her hair, heard the whisper of her breath and I thought, I want you to stay here, like this, always, curled against me, warm, safe. And I thought, I want you to stay here, like this, for years and years to come, until the days when you and I no longer fit together in this wee bed, when you are grown and I am old and your arms are the stronger. When we will still find comfort in each other. When you will still be my baby, only grown.

I thought these things, and I looked up at the clock atop her dresser and watched as the minute hand took one deliberate click forward. I looked up at the clock and I wondered, how would it feel if I were counting these minutes? These hours? These days?

It is not possible to hold a child too close, or for too long.

A family lost a child this week. Maybe it was the famous family, the one that we are all reading about it and talking about. Or perhaps it was another family, a family unknown to us, a family in Burma or Kinshasa or the Gaza Strip or Oshawa, Ontario or Saguenay, Quebec. Perhaps it was many families; perhaps it was many children. We lose count; we stop paying attention. We stop paying attention, unless the child is lost to someone that we know, someone that we know of. Then we remember. Every hour of every day, somewhere, someone suffers what we fear most. What I fear most.

My family is losing a child. Our loss is not sudden; it will not be unexpected. It’s a slow loss, but an inevitable loss; the hands of the clock tick forward slowly, deliberately, inexorably. We count on those hands ticking slowly; we measure their movements carefully, reassuring ourselves that the pace holds steady, that there is no leap forward, that this particular clock never advances an unnecessary hour, that our days hold ample daylight. It’s a slow loss, but an inevitable one.

We are better off, of course, for the trickling pace of this loss. We have many days, many hours, with this child. Not near as many as we would like, but still: we have time to spend and cherish, time to postpone our goodbyes and to pretend that their place on the horizon will hold its distance. My sister can wrap her body around Tanner’s and feel the beat of his heart and the warmth of his breath; she can brush her hand across his forehead and whisper in his ear and assert her love for him in the now and know, as surely as his hand tightens around hers, that he hears her, that he knows. But the clock ticks over her head – over his – and she counts these hours, these minutes, these seconds. Every movement of the minute-hand is a movement lost, a moment lost, one minute less in a cherished life that is measured by the clock.

My mother called on Christmas Eve, a thick edge to her voice, the edge of a third glass of wine, the edge of regret seeking reassurance. I miss you so much, she said. I miss Emilia, and Jasper. I’ll bet Emilia’s so excited for Santa. She laughed, uncertainly. I wish we could be together. I wish I could be there, I would move there in a heartbeat, but I can’t be there, because I need to be here, with Tanner. A pause. He’s really gone downhill. He’s declining really quickly. He’s not going to last more than another few years, maybe. Another pause; the clink of a glass. After he’s gone…

– I know.

After he’s gone…

– I know.

After Tanner is gone, time will stop, and then it will start again, without him. I don’t like thinking about this. I was upset with my mother for reminding me of this on a night that I wanted to spend in thrall to the optimism of Christmas – fear not, for behold: I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people – and to the sweet prospect of waking up to tiny pajamaed children filled with glee. I wanted my own now, free of sadness, free of the prospect of death, free of fear of that black hole of timelessness opening up and swallowing us all. I wanted to not walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I resented my mother for pulling me alongside her in her stroll. And that was wrong.

It was wrong because I am so, so fortunate to be able live my life with my own children, free of the clock, free of the incessant clang of the tolling bell, free of the the hourglass, the blind sands – free, at least, in my ignorance of, my deafness to, the tick, the clang, the passage of the sands that mark the time that passes for each of us. It was wrong because I am so fortunate, and I need to remain mindful of, and grateful for, that fortune. I can hold my daughter or my son and not think, here passes one more moment, here we move one step closer to death, here is one less embrace that we will share. I have a life with them, a now with them, that is free of visible shadows. I am blessed. And I am insufficiently appreciative of this blessing.

I pay little mind to the time that passes with my own children, apart from vague reflections upon the pace of their growth and the fleeting beauty of their babyhood. I mark Tanner’s time, I count it on my fingers and toes, I spend hours, awake at night, calculating how many more visits we have, how we shall spend those visits, how best we might use our time, how we might take time and wrest timelessness from it, in the form of memory. But I forget to mark the rest of time; I forget that I do not have infinite stores of time to spend with my children; I forget that the bell tolls as much for us as it does for Tanner, the only difference being that we do not know when its tolling will stop.

I do not pause often enough; I do not often enough stop and hold my children, just for the sake of holding on. I do not take as much time as I should to just hold them and listen to their hearts beat and feel their breath upon my cheek and their hands warm within my own and hear the tick of the clock – feel the tick of the clock – and be grateful for every. single. second. In ignoring time, I am doomed to lose it. I need to take time, take measure of time, give thanks for time, for whatever stocks of time that I am blessed to have. With Tanner, with Jasper, with Emilia, with all whom I love and with whom I wish to have more time, always more time.

Hug your children today; hug them, and let time stop, and then, when it starts again? Thank the heavens for it.

*******

My sister, Chrissie, will be running, this weekend, in a marathon to raise money for Duchenne’s research. There’s no cure for Duchenne’s, but there’s always hope, and Chrissie is running, as always, for this hope. With my words, I can cheer her on, and I can ask others to cheer, and to help by cheering and to cheer by helping.

You can donate in Tanner’s name HERE. It probably won’t change the ending to this story, but it will help the narrative maintain a recurring theme of hope. And that, right now, is all.

Under The Blanket

September 9, 2008

It was the kind of thing that would have outraged me, had it happened any other day, any other week. It was the kind of thing that would have had me out of my seat, demanding explanation. It was the kind of thing that I would have written letters about, that I would have blogged and twittered and shared, about which I would have said, I would have hollered, to anyone who would listen, look, this just shouldn’t happen, we need to make sure that this doesn’t happen, why the f*ck does this still happen?

But it was the wrong day, the wrong week, and I just wasn’t up for it because my heart was too heavy and my head was too full and the last thing I needed was an argument with a flight attendant about whether or not I really should cover myself up with a blanket while nursing.

When she approached me in my seat near the back of the plane, blanket in hand, I ignored her. Jasper was tucked in at my breast, wrapped in his own blanket, his head pressed against the white half-moon of flesh that was barely visible beneath him. His head was damp from the stream of tears that had been running down my cheeks from the moment of our departure, the tears that I’d held back while saying my goodbyes. I bent my head over his, shielding my face, my breast, my baby, my tears from view with the veil of my hair. I didn’t even look up when she spoke to me.

Excuse me, perhaps you’d like to cover up with a blanket?

I don’t answer.

I brought a blanket for you.

She crouches slightly, bending closer. I gather my voice. I’m afraid that it will crack.

I’m fine, thank you.

She stands up, still holding the blanket in front of me.

Well. Perhaps I’ll leave it with you?

I don’t answer.

She reaches across me, across Jasper, and drops the blanket on the empty seat beside me. If you need help with it, let me know.

Thank you, I say, my jaw clenched, my throat closed. I am trying to not cry anymore than I already am.

Some women are more comfortable nursing with a blanket. I can’t see her, my head bent as it is, but I imagine that she stiffens defensively.

My tears are getting hot. I swallow my anger.

Thank you.

And then she walked away, and I kept my head bent over my baby for as long as he nursed and as long as he slept and until the tension in the back of my neck became too much to bear.

I didn’t say anything. I had always though that if that happened to me, I would say something. That I would I would ask why she was pressing the blanket upon me, that I would ask if it was WestJet policy to ‘suggest’ to nursing mothers that they cover up, that I would say that if I was comfortable with blankets I would have one with me, that I would say that no nursing mother wants a stranger bent over her while she nurses, asking if she wouldn’t rather cover up for privacy, that I would, if I had the nerve, ask are you serious? Are you really serious? Do you not see that I might be offended, be made more uncomfortable, by your hovering, by your suggestion that I cover up? To say, no nursing mother should ever be told to cover up. To say, it is my right, it is my child’s right, to nurse and be nursed here, right here, right now, in the manner that best serves us both. To say, fuck your blanket.

I always thought that I would say something, if it happened to me.

I hadn’t figured that I might, if happened to me, be caught in an anxious, unguarded moment, that I might be feeling vulnerable, that my heart might be sore, that I might not be the cocky self-assured self that I can be when I’m protected by my words, by the screen, by the condition of being virtual. I hadn’t thought that, in the reality of such a moment, I might just fold under the weight of my anxieties and my hurts and my self-consciousness about those anxieties and hurts, about my self-consciousness, full stop, and just want to disappear. Under a blanket, maybe.

Which is precisely the problem, as I’ve said before. A nursing mother is very often a mother at her most vulnerable. A nursing mother traveling – a nursing mother traveling on her own – a nursing mother traveling on her own and weeping – is almost certainly a mother at her most vulnerable. To approach woman under these circumstances to suggest that she do something to modify her behavior is to exploit her vulnerability. It is – and maybe this is too strong a statement, although on the basis of my own experience I think not – to bully.

I wish that I had the emotional strength right now to be more outraged about this. I wish that I had the emotional strength, even, to express a measure of outrage that amounts to more than this heavy sighing, this defeated complaint. I wish that I had the mental and emotional wherewithal to write a letter, to send an e-mail, to make a phone call. But I don’t. I’m spent, completely and totally spent. Everything that I have is going toward supporting my family and keeping my own emotional ballasts stable. There was, there is, nothing left over.

All there was to do, all there is to do, is to take cover under the blanket, and hope that it doesn’t smother.

*******

One of you, anonymously, took the initiative to get the contact information for media relations at WestJet. If you’re so inclined to express your opposition to policies advocating the blanketing of nursing babies on airplanes, here it is: Gillian Bentley, Media Relations, e-mail: gbentley@westjet.com.

Many of you have told me that you’ve already sent e-mails linking to this post. You are all so, so awesome. It’s warming, to be so surrounded by heroes, bare-breasted or otherwise.

In Which I Just Babble Incoherently, Because, You Know, THE TIRED

September 4, 2008

I can come home now, please?

I am so tired, so worn out, so spent, so – it feels – cut off and adrift from everything – almost everything – that keeps me sane and happy in everyday life.

And so I just cling tightly to my baby – my one little beacon of joy and light through these dismal days – and wait for tomorrow.

Tomorrow, I’ll be home.

(**Am unable to do pictures. Imagine a picture of a horizon and a rainbow and maybe a unicorn and some daisies here.**)

Thank you all so, so much for, you know, everything. I haven’t been able to access all the comments and tweets and messages, but I know that they’re there, and I’ll respond as soon as I can. In the meantime: THANK YOU. It has made all the difference.