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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

on bladders

I have been busy these last weeks prepping classes and teaching and prepping and teaching. I’m teaching two classes and a couple of Saturday 1-hour writing labs at local libraries this fall, so I’m officially back in the swing of things. I’m busy, but interestingly I feel much less scattered than I did a month ago, when I was still working part-time at my communications job. Everything I’m doing now is about writing, and that feels right, like the proper fit for me. But still, I’m busy, and it’s been difficult for me to carve out time to sit down and blog. I know, the ignored sister, my poor blog.

My hope is to schedule some serious blog time (whatever that means) into each week, but I haven’t decided where that will fit yet. I can’t take up my morning writing time to blog or I’ll never finish the essay I’m muddling around in. I can’t blog while Zoë naps because that’s when I prepare to teach. I can’t blog after the girls are in bed because by that point it’s difficult for me to string sentences together, and besides, that’s when I hang with D and drink my wine and watch something on television (or read or prepare more for teaching if I must).

For now, I’ll leave you with this conversation I had with Stella a few days ago. We were in the bathroom, and she was getting ready for bed. I sat on the edge of the bathtub and she stood on her stool ready to wash her hands. (Chubby, sitting-up-by-herself Zoë was downstairs with D.)

Stella turned to me and said, “What if we didn’t have bladders?”

I smiled. “I guess the pee would just run out of us, wouldn’t it?”

“Like dogs?”

“Well,” I said, “dogs actually have bladders. It seems like they don’t, doesn’t it? Because they’re always peeing outside?”

“Yeah,” she said, then looked at me and raised her eyebrows (an expression that means she has a fact for me.) “Mice don’t have bladders,” she said seriously.

“Really?” I didn’t actually know.

“My Gram told me,” Stella said.

“Oh?” I said. My mom, a former second-grade teacher, would hardly make that up, would she?

“Yeah,” Stella said, lathering the soap between her palms until it was frothy, “Snakes don’t have bladders either.”


“Yeah, but I figured that out by myself. I looked in a dictionary.” She turned to me again, hands dripping with soap. “And,” she said, eyes wide, “in the picture, there was a silver thing coming out near its belly, and it was poop and it was silver because snakes eat metal sometimes.” She shrugged then, in that off-hand way she does, like it’s no big deal, all of these things she knows.

“Wow,” I said, loving her in all of her invention and curiosity. I was pretty sure snakes didn’t eat metal, but I really had no idea whether snakes and mice had bladders. Is this something most people know?

I love it when Stella comes to me with a fact. She loves to begin sentences with, “Mama, did you know…” Often I am ignorant, didn’t know whatever fact (made-up or true) she is sharing with me, so I simply exclaim and nod and encourage her.

And often my daughter is right. This is what I’ve confirmed about snakes:

“Because snakes do not have a urinary bladder, the urine is not stored, and the ureters empty directly in the cloaca.” (And maybe when waste exits the cloaca, it looks silver or at least it did to Stella?)

And mice:

“Mice do not have bladders; they will relieve themselves at will anywhere.”

I learn something new everyday, things I didn’t even know I wanted to learn. And now there is something else for which I can be grateful: we have bladders and we do not relieve ourselves at will anywhere. Think of the mess.

Friday, September 19, 2008

barbie: a windfall

I spent last weekend cleaning and re-cleaning and shopping and re-shopping for parties in honor of Stella, who turned five on Saturday.

Five—it’s hard to believe.

Every year on her birthday, part of me relives those scary days leading up to (and following) her birth. This year, those memories were particularly close to the surface because for the first time since she was born, she was celebrating her birthday on a Saturday. I woke up Friday morning and thought, yes, it was a Friday, five years ago, when I woke up huge and bloated and knew something wasn’t right. It was a Friday when my dad and sister took me to the hospital. (D was in Seattle for a soccer playoff game.) It was a Friday when my blood pressure became dangerously high.

When I woke up at 5:30 with Zoë on Saturday morning, I thought, yes, five years ago I was also awake at 5:30, queasy from magnesium sulfate, waiting to be induced and waiting for D to arrive home on a red-eye flight.

Stella’s birthday was a day of contrasts. I stared at my beautiful, five-year-old daughter as she scurried around our packed house, giggling with her friends, and I wondered: is this the same child as that skinny three-pound baby I delivered? Is this the same child, the one I hovered over for all those weeks in the NICU? I kept trying to hug her, to squeeze her tightly, and she kept wiggling away, saying, her voice full of exasperation, “Mommmmm…..please stop!” I couldn’t help it. I just wanted her to know how much I love her. I wanted to reassure myself—yet again—that she’s okay.

She’s totally okay.

And she’s totally into Barbie. Who knew that five was the age of the Barbie?

For several months now, she has been very “into” the Barbie princess movies, and I have to admit (reluctantly) that I like them, as well. They feature strong young women who save kings and queens from being poisoned, restore fairy kingdoms, and rescue each other from trouble. There are problems with them, of course: Barbie is always very white and very blonde; princes are often stepping in at the last minute for a miraculous save. But the movies stress friendship and believing in yourself and standing up for what you think is right. (Does it sound as though I’m justifying these? I am.)

Stella was at a birthday party a few weeks ago, and her friends (who are twins) each received a Diamond Castle Barbie. This is the newest of the movies. The doll sings, and when she sings, her heart-shaped necklace lights up. When Stella saw these matching Barbies at the birthday party, her eyes sparkled. (I kid you not.) The Diamond Castle Barbie moved to the top of her birthday list.

I shrugged. Oh, alright. I passed the word: she’d like the newest singing Barbie and stuff to go with the newest singing Barbie.

Well, she got that Barbie (and two others). She got Barbie clothes and a Barbie scooter. She got two Barbie movies. She got a Barbie tea set. (I’m probably leaving something Barbie out of this list. Who can keep track?)

A few years ago I hated Barbie. I cringed when Stella got her first one. I didn’t approve. I realize I was being hypocritical. After all, I had played with Barbies. My sisters and I spent endless hours—days, really—enacting complicated stories with our Barbies. We were inventive and imaginative.

Why then was I so against Barbie? Well, mostly it was her physically impossible measurements, the unrealistic body image. I didn’t want to set my daughters up with that as an ideal. But the Barbies of today are a little more realistic. Her oh-so-tall-and-slender physique is still unlikely, true, but they toned it down enough to be anatomically possible.

I still don’t want Barbie’s body to be the ideal for Stella or Zoë, but that’s where conversation comes in, doesn’t it? We’ll talk about what it means to be fit and healthy. We’ll talk about real versus fantasy. We’ll work that part out. (I still do hate their clothes, however. Why would they make such skanky clothes for a Barbie doll? Luckily, I still have some of the clothes my grandma knit and sewed for our Barbies years ago, and I’ve thrown them into the mix to balance the trashy sequined halter tops. But really.)

I’ve caved, I know. Maybe I should be more hard-lined about this. But when I was upstairs yesterday changing Zoë’s diaper and I heard Stella signing along with Alexa, her new Diamond Castle Barbie, I couldn’t help smiling. She loves the dolls. She’ll invent stories and lives for them. She’ll spend hours playing with them. And we’ll just deal with the rest of it.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


I want to thank all of you who commented on my last post. I was really scared to write about such a divisive issue on this blog because, quite frankly, I like to be liked. I don't like to rock the boat.

In this case, I'm glad I rocked it. I think some good discussion arose from it. I agreed with so many of your comments, and even when I didn't agree, I could understand you. That feels like a first step to me. And this is my hope: that we will not shy away from controversy and that we will begin to really discuss these huge, important issues. I hope that we will talk about reproductive justice in the context of our lives, in the context of faith, and from a historical perspective. I hope we will work to reduce the number of abortions in this country without making abortion criminal. I hope that we will begin to support women and families with real, common-sense public policies. I hope we will educate young people so that they are able to make informed decisions about their sexual lives.

Thank you for reading and thank you for your comments. Once again, I find I'm grateful that I started this blog, and I'm grateful to all of you for reading it.

I'm over at Creative Construction this week. You can check out a much lighter post there.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

a long and controversial post

I’ve been thinking about this post for some time. I was going to write it last January, on the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, but then I was busy being pregnant and tired and sick with a series of debilitating colds. I was going to do it in February, when I wrote a review of Kathryn Trueblood’s The Baby Lottery for mamazine, but I was still pregnant and sick. And then sweet Zoë was born and I was just too busy. It was easy to put off because I didn’t actually want to write the post. I knew it would cause controversy, and I was worried about alienating readers.

I can’t put it off any longer. I wouldn’t feel right. I can’t put it off any longer because it’s not only a personal issue, it’s a political one, and it’s an election year. And I can’t put it off any longer because McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Palin, like McCain, is anti-choice. This doesn’t surprise me—he wouldn’t have chosen her otherwise. Why does it bother me so much, then, that she is what she is? Is it because she doesn’t think abortion should be legal even in the case of rape? Is it because she went so far to say that she would not allow her own daughter to get an abortion if she had been raped? Is it that she says abortion is wrong in every case (except when a woman’s life is in danger), but opposes comprehensive sex education for young people, upholding that abstinence-only is the only sex education that kids should get? (Perhaps her own daughter would not be pregnant if she had received fact-based sex ed. Just a thought.) Is it because she failed to pass legislation that would support single parents by cutting funding for teen mothers in her state?

All of the above. All of these things bother me. And it bothers me that she claims some sort of moral high ground on abortion and everything else because she calls herself a Christian.

I hate to break it to her, but most religious Americans believe in treating woman as responsible moral decision makers. They believe in supporting women and families. They believe that abortion is a decision between a woman and her God. Indeed, the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, Unitarian Universalist Association, and Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaism all have official statements in support of reproductive choice.

Clergy even fought for a woman’s right to choose abortion before abortion was legal. Prior to Roe v. Wade, a group of clergy in New York established what was called the Clergy Counseling Service on Abortion, helping women find safe abortions. The counseling service expanded to include over 2,000 clergy nationwide, and after Roe v. Wade, became what is known today as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. If you have never seen From Danger to Dignity, a documentary film about the Clergy Consultation Service and the struggle to legalize abortion in this country, watch it. Watch it. Watch it—especially if you born after 1973.

Abortion, you see, is not a black and white issue. We like to say it is because in America things have to be bad or good, right or wrong. But that’s not really how we live. We live complicated, muddy, very gray lives. And the decisions we make about reproduction are also complicated, muddy, and very gray.

There are two books I’ve been thinking about in relation to this issue: Kathryn Trueblood’s The Baby Lottery and Penny Wolfson’s Moonrise. Trueblood’s novel is about five women, college friends in their late thirties, who find their relationships strained when one of them, Charlotte, decides to have a second-trimester abortion after delaying the decision in the hope that her husband will change his mind.

I like what Kathryn Trueblood said last winter, when I spoke to her on the phone about the book:

“Most people have some ambivalence about abortion, and are at least a little conflicted about it, but we never talk about those feelings, and it was important to me to present some of those feelings here. I think we, as a country, have not progressed in our discussion of abortion.”

The novel records the voices of Charlotte’s four friends as they struggle to bridge the gap between what they should feel and what they do feel about Charlotte’s decision. Charlotte is an alcoholic and wouldn’t make a very good mother. She’s in a sad, lonely marriage. But she could have terminated earlier, no? I went back and forth, disliking her and feeling sorry for her. It’s complicated. It’s muddy. There is no black and white in this story, just gray, and that’s why I respect it. It felt real to me.

Penny Wolfson’s book is a memoir about her son, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The book is about watching him grow up and deteriorate at the same time. It’s about genetics and what it means to know oneself on a molecular level. I have posted about her essay of the same title, which is one of my very favorite essays. The memoir is very good, as well, though I didn’t love it the way I love the essay. (I think this has to do with the longer form, and what happens when you turn an essay into a memoir.) I do think it is an important memoir, however. One of my favorite parts is the chapter in which Wolfson is pregnant with her third child. Girls are carriers of the disease, but it only affects boys. If prenatal testing shows the fetus is a boy and has Duchenne—a fifty percent chance if it's a boy—she will terminate.

In this chapter, Wolfson responds to a column by Anna Quindlen in which Quindlen states her opposition to amniocentesis, saying, “The only compelling argument anyone had made to us for amnio, which is not entirely without risk, was made by my doctor, who asked us to consider the possibility that we could not devote sufficient time to the needs of the children we have now if we were looking after those of someone so much needier. We considered that argument, and let it go. Having more than one child always means a willingness either to give less to the others or to stretch yourself more.”

Wolfson responds:

“I don’t completely disagree. But I am still, somehow, furious. If she’d had a child with a genetic disease, I think, she might not have felt the way she did. She might have known more about stretching herself, about how there are limits. How easy to think in black and white ways when the gray things haven’t occurred yet! If the gray stuff hasn’t happened, you can feel free to have that third baby or fourth or as many as you like. The future seems open.”

When she contemplates an abortion, she says, “Whatever pain, physical and otherwise, I can imagine from such a procedure pales beside the vision of another boy with muscular dystrophy, another boy genetically programmed to degenerate.”

(She did not end up terminating. The CVS showed her son would not have Duchenne.)

Wolfson is very brave, and I dare anyone to judge her. How can we judge something we have not lived? Unfortunately, we do it all the time. (I’m guilty of it, as well.) But this is part of the problem: we lack empathy. We lack understanding. We seem unable to move beyond our own narrow experiences in the world and imagine being in someone else’s shoes. This is a dangerous way to be.

Back to Palin: Another thing I dislike about her is how she uses her son (if, indeed, he is her son), who has Down syndrome, as part of her pro-life platform. I know hundreds of pro-choice women who would choose not to terminate a pregnancy because of Down syndrome. Pro-choice women and pro-choice families make this decision every day. It is the decision D and I would have made, and while I was pregnant with Zoë, we decided against the testing because we knew we would not terminate our pregnancy because of Down syndrome. This does not make me any less pro-choice. (Know that I would have terminated, however, if our twenty-week ultrasound had showed fetal anomalies incompatible with life.)

I like what Kate Trump O’Connor says at the end of her Brain, Child essay “Not One of Those Mothers,” which is about being the mother to a son who has Down syndrome:

“Since Thomas’ birth, I have struggled with the moral and ethical issues surrounding the increasingly early prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. I do not want to impose on the personal choices of other, and yet I do not want fear—the fear of difference and the fear of our own inadequacy—to make life and death decisions for us. We are capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for. That’s something Thomas, with his determination and persistence, shows me every day.”

Abortion is never an easy choice. I don’t know anyone who takes it lightly. I don’t know any pro-choice person who is pro-abortion. I think, as a nation, we need to do everything we can to reduce the number of abortions, and there are ways of doing this: by making contraception, family planning services, and emergency contraception available and affordable; by providing people living wage jobs and the resources they need to start a family if they choose; by providing holistic, comprehensive sex education to all of our young people.

It’s a muddy, complicated issue, so let’s address it as such. Let’s not force it into one-line slogans. Let’s not make it about religious people versus secular people. Let’s give the real lived experiences of women and families space. Let’s listen to their stories. Let’s try to understand each other and be empathetic. Let’s support common-sense public policies that will give women and families real choices. And as we do all of the above, let us not forget that making abortion illegal won’t reduce the number of abortions; it will simply kill women.