Sunday, October 4, 2009

How Far We Have Come

I was going through some papers and found this poem (below) that I had written when I was pregnant, just after my friends Jamie and Kate had their babies, just after my friend Delphine found out she was pregnant again after two miscarriages... When I read my words I remembered that time and how it felt... the moment before everything changed. I felt so vulnerable.


This is the year we all began to reproduce

Individual decisions turning into a movement

As if a mandate had been issued

I am no longer in the habit of praying

And I have ceased to believe in a god

sitting smugly behind a customer service desk

doling out wishes and denying pleas

Still, in times like these I want to send out requests:

Let the two little boys just born in New York thrive

Where the staples are on their mother’s bellies, let skin grow together

When they pass the wand over my friend’s stomach today,

let there be a heart beat this time

And let the baby in my own body be born

And let it grow up and beyond me and in spite of me

Moving blind in the direction of motherhood

We give our bodies over to the next generation

We have no idea how to do this

Or what we have chosen

But it is far too late to undo this

We are already believers; our love already unleashed

We are in over our heads

We are fumbling with fragile things.

And so, though they have no target

I am inclined to send out requests

In recognition that we are caught up

In events beyond our understanding

And out of our control





Now all of the babies are here, and we are all mothers. Sometimes I think we forget to give ourselves credit for all we have learned, for what we have become. We went from being handed these fragile beings, knowing nothing, to who we are today. We still feel like we know nothing, but we have these healthy, happy children as proof of what we have learned, and of our success. Its so hard to remember our successes on the hard days.

Ellis, Jack and Iris

Ellis and Emmett

My aunt recently sent me a card that said simply, "You are doing a great job." Such simple words, but so needed. I have tried to pass those words on to the other mothers I know: In spite of all the doubts and trials and errors, you are doing a great job.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Feel Like Yourself Again

This time of year brings me back to two years ago when I was in Amsterdam with my mother during her final weeks. I remember each day what I was doing that particular day in 2007... My mind narrates the unraveling (Its the 16th: This is the day we were told her liver was failing...Its the 18th: This was the day we left the hospital because there was nothing else they could do....) The images come back. The emotions surge up.

What I did not know two years ago, which I know now, is that there are two parts to losing a person to death.

One is the loss of that person, the shear absence of her in your day to day life, the absence of her eyes on your life, her voice over the phone. She is simply gone, and you simply want her back.

The second part of losing a person is the losing part.... the mark that the experience of sitting by your mother's deathbed leaves on you... the long, slow, or too fast journey to the actual death that haunts you. Pictures replay in your head. You wonder if you did the right thing, said the right thing. You wonder if you would have acted differently if you had known that it was the last time you would hug her, see her, hold her hand... .

When I was little, I remember my mother always being sad and distracted mid August. She would always make the connection after the sadness had begun... She would suddenly remember that her father had died mid August. It surprised her almost every time.

These dates, these seasons get mapped unto our brains, become linked consciously and subconsciously with the absence, and with the losing of a person.

Its been almost two years, and I sense another phase of this process of mourning is beginning. Ellis' first year is over. Things have settled down. There is a little more time and a little more space. And so it rears up again, the parts of her death that I still need to make peace with...the parts of her absence that I will never stop mourning...

I have an antique roll top writing desk that was my mother's...that she wanted me to have. Last week, the rolling top got stuck down. I couldn't get it open or access any of the papers inside it. I began pulling and pushing it. A small piece of paper fluttered out of its cracks. It was a line from a magazine that my mother had cut out. She was always cutting words and phrases out of magazines to put in collages or paintings. This piece of paper said, "Feel like yourself again."

A message from my mother, no doubt. A challenge issued. The child is here. He is doing well. He is healthy and happy. And now its time to get back to myself.

The problem is, I don't know what self I am anymore. Everything has changed. The landscape has been transformed. I lost my mother. I became a mother. I will never be the same again.

That is something my mother said those last weeks over and over, "I will never be the same again." The process of dying was transforming her, pushing her towards reinvention and reassessment even in her last days.

A never ending project: this building of the self.

Still, I would like to feel like myself again.

I will never be the same again, but I think I can aspire to feeling like myself again. Finding the parts of myself that had to be put on hold to mourn, and to birth, and to care take. Finding the space and time to look again at my mother's death, to begin the next phase of mourning, the next phase of making peace with the loss and the losing that are now so much a part of who I am.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


We had some dark days in our household this weekend. With my foot broken, Dave now has to get up to tend to Ellis in the middle of the night. 13 months and counting….He still doesn’t consistently sleep through the night. I am used to the sleep deprivation, and in general can operate with less sleep. Dave, who is doing most of the household work since he is the only bipedal person around, is now also getting up between 2 and 5 times a night with Ellis. He is exhausted. I am disengaged and glum. Ellis is sleepless and teething. A fine team we make.

On Saturday we bought a cheap wheely office chair. This has greatly increased my mobility and heightened my spirit. I can now wheel around our wooden floored apartment, bring things to and fro, and even carry Ellis from room to room. I don’t have to ask Dave to bring me every small thing I need.

Ellis has a walking push toy that he uses to get from room to room. My sister made a small pouch for it out of duct tape, so that he can transport small toys. He loves it. Inspired by this, I attached a small tote bag to my office chair to keep my cell phone and other essential items in.

We moved some of the furniture around so that Ellis and I have a clear path to wheel around and so we can get into every room.

Dave put hook and eyes on the kitchen and bathroom door so Ellis can roam freely in the other baby proofed rooms, which allows me to be able to take care of him without having to chase him down.

Sometimes I find myself with Ellis alone in a room, both of us with our wheeled vehicles, putting essential items in our pouches, or struggling to navigate around the dining room table, or trying over and over again to complete a task. I feel a special kind of closeness with him in those moments.

I try to take inspiration from watching him. He tries things over and over and over until he learns to master a new skill. In one year he has progressed from a six pound newborn to this little person with abilities and preferences. He works hard everyday and everyday edges towards independence. I ask the universe to give me his patience and his studied focus.

On Sunday, we packed up and went to the lake. We had to drive, even though its just down the street. I hate driving, and I love to walk, but this summer, if nothing else, is a lesson in improvisation.

We can’t make it down to the beach we usually go to…(stairs, no place to park close by) so instead we go to the south part of the lake where the canoeists and wind surfers launch. There is a close parking lot, for loading and unloading boats and wind surfing boards. There is a nice clean strip of beautiful white sand. And other than the wind surfers, it is mostly empty.

We set up shop here. Ellis loves the sand and the water. He yells in delight. He buries his feet. He watches as an instructor teaches a woman how to wind surf, and as she tries over and over to get up on the board, pull the sail up and point it in the right direction. I feel my body relax. The sun feels great. I take off my boot cast and walk like a sand crab to the edge of the water and sit in four inches of water as the waves roll in.

After a few hours, Ellis gets cold. He lips start to turn blue. Dave starts to pack up and bring our bags to the car. I wrap Ellis in a towel and hold him close, and we sit looking out at the water, and watch as finally the student wind surfer gets her balance and finds the wind and sails away from us across the lake.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Learning not to walk

And suddenly it all became more difficult...
I was walking down the basement stairs at a friend's house with Ellis in my arms. A mop at the bottom of the stairs fell in front of me. I missed a step and stepped into mid air. Instead of putting my hands down to catch myself, I threw them forward to cradle Ellis' head as we both hit the concrete floor. And so my foot took the blow. And so Ellis was safe.
The ER on a Saturday night, xrays, catscans. 2 bones broken. No cast (good news). 6 weeks on crutches, no weight on it (bad news)
I engaged in blubbering crying the whole way home e.g.Not fair, Not fair, Not fair, Its the first day of summer...I can't go swimming anymore... I can't PICK UP ELLIS!!! I CAN'T TAKE CARE OF MY CHILD ALONE!
Dave in all his wisdom just said "I know... I know..." over and over...
Its psychological pain more than physical. Checking off the things I cannot do... Trying to come up with solutions for doing the things I have to do...
It is now week one, day five that I have been in this boot cast, and that I have been engaged in rigorous self pity. I thought the universe owed me one...and I feel a little bitch slapped by her. I thought I deserved a summer of canoeing and camping...
The pain is in things turning out differently than you planned...
I can hear my mother, who broke her hip once the cancer reached her bones, standing in front of her walker in her yard, muttering to herself... "What is the purpose of this? What do I need to learn from this?"
She believed that we learn something we need to know from everything that happens, good or bad.
Not that she didn't engage in self pity... I took care of her twice when she was learning how to walk again... She raged, she sulked, she shouted, she moaned, she shook her fist at the sky. But then she always got down to business. She learned how to go up and down the 67 steps to her Amsterdam matter how long it took her. She worked with the physical therapist. She shuffled along with a cane through the city.
Twice. She learned to walk again twice. Once right after her hip was replaced, and once after she hurt it again. And in the last years of her life she was fit, rode her bike everyday all around Amsterdam, enjoyed her physical self.
So, mom, here I am again. Learning about you and your experience after you are gone.
It is so hard to feel helpless. It is so hard to be helped. It is so hard to realize how fragile we are, how these physical selves that carry us through this life, are so vulnerable.
Motherhood is, at least in these first years, such a physical act. Much of my parenting Ellis is about carrying him, being able to put him into his bed...into the high chair, dressing him, changing him, taking him for a walk.
This is the hardest thing... Feeling like a half-mother. Like I am not Dave moves double time to get us both fed and out the door in the mornings...He has to bring Ellis to me to nurse in the middle of the night. Ellis doesn't understand why I am not picking him up, why I am not engaged.


Silver lining inventory: Dave is a professor, off for the summer, and currently Ellis' primary caregiver. He does the cooking in the family. And is capable of taking care of both Ellis and I...
Ellis is safe.
My foot will heal.
There will be other summers.
I can still get into a canoe.
Eventually I will find the lesson in this.
I will learn and examine the parts of mothering that have nothing to do with my physical self, that have to do with my mind and my connection to my child.
When we lived in San Francisco I worked for a disability organization and there was a woman who would come into the office who used a wheelchair. She had a child, then two years old, that rode in a special seat attached to the front of her wheelchair. Parenting happens in all sorts of ways...
There is not one way to do this.
I have lots to learn. I have to learn how to sit and how to ask for help and how to get into the lake on crutches, and how to help Dave in the ways I can. I have to learn how my mother felt those days and weeks and months she couldn't walk, the helplessness of it, the humbling realization that we are not our physical selves, but have to rely on our physical selves to propel us through this life. I have to learn to be patient. I have to learn the time and place for self pity and the time for getting down to business.
Ellis pushes his walking toy around the apartment now, and regularly stands on his own. He is days away from his first steps. And as he learns to walk, I have to learn how to not walk. How to find the lesson in this and enjoy this summer on one foot.

"Once again my adventure, brave and new...."-Robert Browning

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


As Ellis approaches his first birthday this weekend, I contemplate the first year of being a mother. I have learned so much. Maybe because of this one year anniversary of becoming a mother--or maybe because it was her birthday a few weeks ago-- I have been experiencing a new wave of sadness about the loss of my mother. After the first big tidal wave of pain, that is how it happens: in waves, when you least expect it. You think the wound has scabbed over, and then there it is again. Ellis is in a transition phase...somewhere between sleeping and not sleeping, a routine and chaos, nursing and solids, teeth and no teeth, walking and not walking. I am tired. I am too tired to sit down and try to work on a strategy to address any of these issues. I can't think big picture. I can't read books that outline dogmas about weaning or not weaning, cry it out or let them be. I just move forward. I just get through the day. At these moments, I miss being mothered. I miss someone standing ahead of me and telling me that I will ride this wave, that this phase will pass, that this is how it all works, that I am doing a good job.

There was no time for my mother to tell me how to mother.

But one day, when she was in the hospital, during her last weeks, she suddenly offered up a mothering lesson. I listened intently, but at that moment thought, there will be enough time for this later. She will live to see my children. I had told her a few weeks before that we were going to start trying to have children, and so her rallying cry those weeks in the hospital was "I want to see those babies..." And I really thought she would get her wish. I suppose it is almost impossible, even with all evidence to the contrary, even with all the doctors and their bad news, to imagine the world without your mother, until she is suddenly gone.

So that day I thought, there will be time.
But there was not.

This is what she told me. She said, "Really, all you need to know is this: always believe that the child is good. Always orient from that point. They may do bad things. They may make mistakes. They may drive you crazy. But always believe that they are good to their soul. And the child will see that belief reflected back at them in your eyes. And they will become the good person you believe them to be, that they are in essence. They will know that they are loved. You are going to mess up... but if they know they are loved, they will be able to survive anything..."

And that is how I survived my mother's death. Because I was, am, loved. Because she believed in my essential goodness.

A year has passed, and this is what I have learned: Forget the books. Forget the dogmas. Forget people's strong opinions about what you should feed your child, how long you should nurse, when a child is supposed to do this or that. I am going to publish a pamphlet with my mother's words on it, and distribute it to all the mothers I know. It was all she had time to tell me, and all I really needed to know.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

This one goes out to...

This one goes out to my husband... A partner in parenting. He cooks us a healthy dinner every night. He takes on the bulk of the childcare. He curates art shows. He fishes in a one man kayak on rivers in the middle of nowhere and lakes in the middle of cities. He teaches photo, sculpture, digital art, graphic design and public art. He cans and freezes and has ambitious plans to "live off the land" this summer. He introduces himself to the bands we go see (Hi, I'm Dave. You guys were absolutely amazing tonight.) He makes this life we are living possible in so many ways. I watch him with Ellis, and see what an amazing father he is and is becoming.

He has begun his life long conversation with Ellis, has begun to teach Ellis about the things he cares about. I have the privilege to eavesdrop on this dialogue...

-This winter in an art museum, with Ellis in the baby bjorn, Dave narrating and explaining. "Pablo Picasso, Ellis" "One of the first photographs ever taken, Ellis. Can you say daguerreotype?" "This one's by Chuck Close, Ellis. It looks like a photograph. But its actually a painting.” "Francis Bacon, Ellis, All of his paintings have glass in front of them. He wanted everyone to see themselves as they looked at his paintings.”

-In an used book store, the Ramones start playing and Dave leans over Ellis in the stroller and says, "The Ramones, Ellis, three minute songs. In and Out. They don't mess around."

-By the lake, last week, after catching his first fish of the season, Dave brings the fish over to Ellis. "This is a bass, Ellis. A beautiful bass. But now we are going to let him go."

-Every night Dave and Ellis take a bath together. Last week, Dave put on the Beatles as "bath time music". From the other room, I hear Dave say, "This is a George song, Ellis. George wrote the best songs."

This is what my mother once said about him: "I am so proud of you for choosing him. It is a wise choice that will come back to you again and again, each and every day."

Monday, April 6, 2009


I am trying to reconcile with the fact that time is passing. Everyday Ellis disappears and appears in front of my eyes...Perpetual change. This is why mothers make baby books, photo albums, are the photographers in the family... Trying to make these moments stand still.

Things Ellis just started to do:
-When we are playing "block/toy/bowl on the head" he puts the item on his own head himself.
-He can bend down from a standing position to pick up toys he has dropped.
-He makes and opens and closes a fist over and over in the direction of something that he wants
-He can make it any given outlet in about five seconds
-He throws his weight/ body in the direction he wants to go
-He holds unto my fingers and walks around the apartment, leading me from room to room
-Stand for a second on his own...though he often doesn't notice he's doing it

New things that made Ellis laugh in the last weeks:
-When you blow into a beer bottle it makes a low noise
-My eyebrows going up and down when I am nursing
-Tickling his toes when he is in the highchair
-Throwing a kleenex up and having it float down to the ground

Things he experienced for the first time in the last weeks:
The Mississippi River
a kazoo
going down a slide
"petting" a chicken
a mouthful of dirt

And then this week, the tip of his first tooth appeared....
And so we did the math. And so I met with my boss, and asked if I could work four days a week instead of five. Its a risk with both of our jobs unstable...We should save...We should play it safe...We should buy a house.
Or we can have more time together this summer. Or I can be there for a few more of Ellis' firsts.
And so I take a sharpie and write one of the things my mother used to say in big letters, and put it on our refrigerator:
"We're rich, and someday we may have money too."