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Friday, April 27, 2007

running out of fear - mothertalk blog bonanza: fearless friday

Sometimes, it feels as if I am hardwired for fear. When I start awake in the middle of the night, every slammed car door or clanking muffler or raised voice on the street is full of portent. I jump from bed, heart pounding, and pull aside the curtains, just a little. I scan the street, check for danger.

I hate that I do this, and I don’t know where it comes from, this fear. During the day, I laugh about it, make fun of myself to my friends. I talk myself out of it—the imagined threats, the real threats, the midnight specters. But then night falls again, and I am up, checking the window, checking on Stella, listening, vigilant.

What is this about? Am I really this scared? (I haven’t always been this way, or at least not to this degree.) Is this just the way anxiety about other aspects of my life has decided to present itself? Some kind of fear transference?

It could be, and if it is, I have an inkling about the true source of my fear. It’s been festering for a while now.

I’m scared of having another baby. I’m scared of another pregnancy, of what can go wrong.

When I stare at Stella long enough, I see two versions of her. One version is whimsical, different each day. This version stands on the porch, jumps up and down and shouts “Sweeper truck! Sweeper truck!” as a blue truck rolls down our street, its huge brushes churning and scattering leaves and dirt. This version becomes a whirling dervish when I put on salsa music. She says, “Mom, let’s dance.” This version loves “Joy to the World” and sings it daily, though it’s painfully out of season.

The other version of Stella is fixed. This version weighs less than three pounds and lies on a warming table under bright lights. Her legs are thin as sticks. Tubes and wires snake across her distended belly and into the stub of her umbilical cord. A ventilator tube covers her mouth, reaches its slender arm down her throat.

I cannot reconcile these two versions of my daughter, cannot wrap my mind around the fact that one became the other. I can’t shake how lucky we were, how lucky she was.

And this is my fear, that we will end up in the NICU a second time and that we won’t be as lucky.

The things that scare me most are those that I can control least: war, environmental toxins, whether or not I will get preeclampsia again. So, what to do with myself, with all this anxiety?

I have found that the only way to sleep, the only way to not make myself crazy with worry is to run. Four times a week, I sit on our front steps and slip on my running shoes. I fasten my watch and adjust the Velcro on my visor. Then I run. I don’t run very far or very fast, but still, there is something about pumping my arms and legs, about pounding the ground underfoot that helps me let go of my need to control everything. And I have found, in the last weeks, that admitting how little control I have over The Big Fears, has actually made me feel less scared. I’m calmer. I wake up less frequently.

Will I ever be completely cured of my desire to micro-manage the world? Will I be able to make it through a second pregnancy free of worry? Probably not, but when I really start to spiral, I now know that the best thing I can do for myself is to get outside and run, as far and as fast as I can.

Fearless Friday was inspired by Arianna Huffington - On Becoming Fearless. To read all the fearless blogger posts, visit MotherTalk.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

have you hugged your hygienist today?

Yesterday afternoon Stella and I went to the dentist.

Earlier in the morning, as Stella was getting dressed she said, "Mom, I don't need to sit on your lap today."

"Oh?" I said, not really knowing what she meant.

"At the dentist," she said, exasperated. (How a 3 1/2 year-old can be so exasperated with me, I don't know.)

Then I remembered that at her first visit to the dentist, six months ago, I had to sit in the dentist's chair and she sat on my lap because she was nervous and didn't want to sit in the big, reclining chair all alone. We hadn't talked about it since then, but it had obviously been on her mind.

But now, since she's 3 1/2, she has decided that she's too big for that sort of thing.
And she did great, sitting in the chair all by herself. So grown up. So much attitude.

I got my teeth cleaned, as well. I love this. I love getting my teeth scraped and polished. And I love when the hygienist and the dentist confer and decide that my teeth look fabulous. (I'm obsessive about flossing and this seems to be the one situation in which my hard work actually does pay off. Twice a year, I get a glowing dental report.) This is a very sad thing: that my depleted self-esteem can be buoyed, at least momentarily, by my dental hygienist.

I'm back in my funk now, though, clean teeth and all. So, I'll turn back to O'Brien's The Light of Evening, which I'm reading ever so slowly.

A passage I love:

"It was snowing in the vast cemetery in Brooklyn, big bulky overcoats of snow on the tall tombs, draping the headstones and the flat tables with their long loving recitations. Not a soul about. The paths cleared for visitors to walk on: the Ravine Path, the Cedar Path, the Waterside Path, the Sunset Path. We walked and walked. On the heads of the marble angels and archangels caps and skullcaps of snow, so jaunty, so jocular, and the silence so immense and Gabriel and me. We came upon a little house, a little vault with steps down to it and an entrance door with a woman's face carved on the outside, a woman with a mourning expression and strands of long marble hair that fell down onto her shoulders."

There is something so desolate here that I love.

I think one reason I'm having a hard time with O'Brien is that the mother-daughter relationships in the story (Dilly's relationship with her mother, Bridget, and Dilly's relationship with her daughter, Eleanora) are so passive-aggressive, so filled with love and loathing. They suffocate each other.

And this scares me, of course. Will this happen to Stella and me? Do I do this, suffocate her with my love? Is that why she shrugs me off, prefers her dad?

Last night, I sat in the bathroom as Stella pulled a long strand of dental floss through her teeth. She was doing very little in terms of removing plaque, but she was so proud of herself and her new skill. I smiled and told her I loved her.

"I know Mom," she said.

Friday, April 20, 2007

escaping into O'Brien

I’m late posting this week because my blog day was sacrificed for Pro-Choice Lobby Day at the Capitol. Stella was my proud lobbying assistant, wearing her “I ♥ Pro-Choice Girls” button. Let’s go, girl!

My Mother Words class at the Loft wrapped up on Tuesday, which makes me a little sad. But how wonderful to have been able to spend every Tuesday morning for three months with such an inspiring and talented group of mother writers!

I am now going to try to advantage of this little break in teaching to catch up on some fiction. (I will never really catch up, of course, because my list grows faster than I read.)

I just started Edna O’Brien’s The Light of Evening, a story of mothers and daughters and the ways they are tied to one another. I’ve never read anything by O’Brien before and I wonder how this can be. She’s written 18 works of fiction! (How could I have missed her?)

The book begins by telling the story of Dilly, an older and ailing mother, as she prepares to check herself into the hospital. O’Brien’s prose is thick and lovely, and the way she describes the disorientation of being in the hospital is perfect. But this is my problem, of late, with reading. A scene I read reminds me of scene or sentence I’ve forgotten to put in my own book. (Which always leads to this thought: shit, another draft.)

But though I’m often reminded of my own shortcomings as a writer, I’m also inspired as I read. Another person’s written words often spark a glint of something in my dull brain, so I always have paper and pen ready to jot down ideas. But this is tiring, and consequently, reading rarely feels like an escape to me anymore. (Which is why, most evenings after Stella is in bed, I turn to television. I can just sit there and let that alternate world seep into me. I don’t have to think.)

But then occasionally, a book does offer escape. There is something in the voice, in the language, in the plot, that makes me stop thinking about craft. I lose myself. This is what has happened with The Light of Evening. It didn’t happen right away, on page one, and I think this is because the book begins in the third person, and there is something about that and the thickness of O’Brien’s prose and the stream-of-consciousness style, that made it difficult for me to fully engage with the novel. (This also may have something to do with the fact that I don’t have large blocks of time to dedicate to reading.) But then, the narration switches to first person, and now I’m hooked.

Maybe the stream-of-consciousness makes more sense to me in first person. Or maybe I finally set aside the time to just read, and that’s what I needed. I’m not sure, but I’m determined to dedicate the time this weekend so I can escape, again, into O’Brien’s rich story. And I’ll report back next week on the story’s complicated mother-daughter relationships.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

a thought from anne and a dream

Last night I went to see Anne Lamott discuss her new book, Grace (Eventually). She was reading at Barnes and Noble in a fancy schmancy suburban mall, and the place was packed. Seriously—hundreds of people lined the aisles, trying to get a glimpse of Anne and her crazy dreadlocks. (The fifty or so people who actually got seats had been there, waiting, for two hours!)

My questions: Did B&N not expect so many people? Did they not care? I don’t know. But all those bodies in such a small space made it excruciatingly hot, and of course, since it’s been an annoyingly cold April, I was dressed for winter: a heavy sweater and jeans. Sweat was, literally, dripping down my back for the better part of two hours. (I know—TMI.)

Still, it was worth it. I had never seen her read or speak, and she was exactly what I expected: funny, self-deprecating, irreverent, political. She read a chapter about forgiveness, made us laugh, and answered questions and just talked. The thing she said that struck me most was this: “It is an act of resistance to demand the right to be heard.”

I’m sure she said lots of other wonderful things last night, but that is the one thing that stuck with me because I’ve been thinking about this, how hard it often is (and how hard it has been) for women to find a public voice, to find the courage to speak about private things in a public sphere, or to speak at all.

Last Saturday night, I got into an argument with a friend. (Argument is maybe an understatement, but I’ll get to that in a minute.) D. and I were at our friends’ house because they were having a small get-together. Well into the evening, the husband starting talking about how hard it is for women these days if, after a graduate degree or two, they decide to stay home with their kids. Everyone judges them. (This happened to his wife.) Wasn’t it easier, he said, when there weren’t so many expectations on women? (Meaning to me: when we were expected to stay home and take care of the kids and not have careers at all.)

Of course, there is only a small portion of our society that can afford to make this decision, and I know they are often judged for it. I also know that women who go to work when they could stay home are judged just as harshly. (I’ve seen as much Parenting surveys.)

I flipped out on my friend. Seriously, screaming. The thing that made me so angry was his assumption (or so I gathered) that because the general public and men didn’t hear about the struggles women had (because these were private struggles, because we didn’t have the options we have today, and because we weren’t allowed a public voice), that these struggles didn’t exist.

Should women be judged for deciding to stay home or work—of course not. But I’ll take that—as I flip the f***ers off—rather than not having the choice. I think about how hard my first year as a mother was, and I can guarantee that I wouldn’t have made it through if it were not for my writing, for poetry, and for the promise of returning to graduate school in the fall. If I thought the crying, the reflux, the lack of sleep, and the constant worry was going to be it, I don’t know what I would have done, really.

I would not feel whole if I didn’t write, but I didn’t even realize I wanted to write until I was in my late twenties. And this is what I imagine: in 1950, I married a man. I stayed home with the kids. I was fine, probably, but was there ever an emptiness? Did I ever wonder what if?

I have to return to Adrienne Rich here, even though I recently posted about her. In Of Woman Born she writes: “I have a very clear, keen memory of myself the day after I was married: I was sweeping a floor. Probably the floor did not really need to be swept; probably I simply did not know what else to do with myself. But as I swept that floor I thought: ‘Now I am a woman. This is an age-old action, this is what women have always done.’ I felt I was bending to some ancient form, too ancient to question. This is what women have always done.”

She writes: “I became a mother in the family-centered, consumer-oriented, Freudian-American world of the 1950s. My husband spoke eagerly of the children we would have; my parents-in-law awaited the birth of their grandchild. I had no idea of what I wanted, what I could or could not choose. I only knew that to have a child was to assume adult womanhood to the full, to prove myself, to be ‘like other women.’”

Don’t ever tell me that we’re worse off.

This is my dream: that all women can someday make these choices for themselves and for their families. That all women have the space and resources to discover their hearts. That all women someday demand the right to be heard.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007


Penny Wolfson’s essay “Moonrise” (Best American Essays 2002) is the only motherhood essay that I could find when I searched through two decades of Best American Essays. (Someone, please, correct me if I’m wrong—I’d love to be wrong about this.)

Is this evidence that most memoirs and essays about motherhood are not taken seriously enough to be considered noteworthy? I imagine it does, and I will come back to this another day. Today, I want to focus on what makes “Moonrise” such a triumph of an essay.

It’s about Wolfson’s struggle to come to terms with the fact that her son, Ansel, is deteriorating and will die from Duchenne, a form of muscular dystrophy. The essay begins at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona. Wolfson and her husband are looking at Ansel Adams prints of Moonrise, Hernandez, and she says: “The prints differ greatly in quality from the reproductions one usually sees…but that does not change the essential meaning of the photograph, a meaning one never forgets in the Southwest: Nature dominates. Human life is small, fragile, and finite. And yet, still, beautiful.” This is the crux of the essay for me—the fragility of life, the struggle to focus on the beauty in it rather than on the tragedy.

The rest of the essay is divided into titled, dated sections: Falling, 1998; Chaos, 1999; Moonrise, 2000. Each section is written in the present tense, which creates a sense of time, the moments and events of Ansel’s life, being stacked on top of each other. I think this is a particularly brilliant move—and I don’t use “brilliant” casually. Time creates tension in the piece: Ansel is doing better than most adolescents with Duchenne, yet he is still deteriorating quickly, and he will die young. At one point, when Wolfson and her husband take Ansel to his yearly visit with the neurologist, Wolfson says: “I am very conscious that on our last visit Ansel walked from the waiting room to the office, and I remember the look of surprise on the doctor’s face: how amazing that a fourteen-year-old with Duchenne could still walk! Now Ansel wheels his way down the long corridor, and I am the one surprised that he could have walked so far so recently.”

The essay would have had such a different feel—and not been nearly as successful—if it had been written in past tense. And of course Wolfson knew this, which is why (I imagine) she chose the present. In the essay, after her husband asks her what she is writing, she even says, “it is about Ansel’s growing up and deteriorating all at once, the ‘unnaturalness’ of a child’s beginning to die just when he is beginning to flower.” Bingo. I wonder, too, if using the present helps readers understand how impossible it is for Wolfson (or any parent) to imagine life without her child.

Her prose is flawless, her metaphors carefully measured, and throughout, the sadness and not-knowing are palpable.

She has written a book-length memoir based on this essay. I haven’t read it yet (it’s on my ever-growing list), but I’m sure it’s as beautiful and well-crafted as the essay. It’s called Moonrise: One Family, Genetic Identity, and Muscular Dystrophy. Have any of you read it?

So thank you, Penny Wolfson, for this wonderful essay, and thank you Stephen Jay Gould (editor of the 2002 Best American Essays) for recognizing the essay’s worth.