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."

Saturday, March 28, 2009


As a little girl with a kitten

With my brother Anton. She bought him the pink shirt, XXL.

On her wedding day in a cape and white boots

Last day with her first grandchild

Camping in Big Sur, she couldn't believe the stars

She had a pony when she was little. The pony had a cart.

Sailing in the Netherlands, I was 16.

She ran away to go to college. It was worth it.

In Paris in berets. Cracking ourselves up.

Dancing in the kitchen at my wedding, 3 months before

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

working motherhood

Ellis' first swing ride. He is so fun these days. So curious and happy to see new things.

I asked a fellow working mother if it gets easier to be away from your baby all day.
No, she said, it gets harder.

I didn't believe her. I thought that as he got older and as he enjoyed his social time with the kids at daycare, or the afternoons with his would be easier to leave him.

I was wrong.
Its breaking my heart.

He starts to whine when he sees me packing my laptop away, getting my coat. He army crawls over to me. He wants to be held.

I know that after I leave he is fine. I know that his father takes good care of him, that the eight hours a week he spends at daycare with other kids are good for him.

I know that I have to work.

I know that we are lucky that he doesn't have to go to daycare every day of the week, that we have friends to trade childcare with, that he is healthy and happy and social, that we like the caretakers at our daycare, that our daycare is at Dave's college, just down the hall from his classroom.

Still, as I see how fast he is growing--a new skill mastered everyday--I understand how precious these days are. And eight hours away from him seems so long.

My relatives in the Netherlands have many options. They have subsidized childcare on site at their workplace. They have year long maternity leaves. They can job share with other mothers so that they have time off during the week. They have options.

I have a very flexible workplace. I shouldn't complain.

Still. There should be a value placed on mothering. A value that is reflected in labor laws, in company policies, in government subsidies, in our collective common sense.

Everyday in the news, another story about someone getting overpaid for a job they did badly, while public school teachers, social workers and parents get underpaid for the difficult jobs they have committed their lives to, jobs they are doing well.

All the price tags have been switched around.

I don't know how to write policy, but this is what I know to be true: No one can take better care of a child than its own mother/father/caretaker. Invest in ways to allow mothers and fathers to stay home with their children and you invest in your future citizens.
This is obvious to me.

I like going to work...

But I would like to have options.

I would like to be living in a country that gave me those options, that supported me in my efforts to raise my child. Tax credits are all good and fine. But they don't give me back those eight hours I miss everyday of watching him grow, of getting to know him, his preferences, his budding personality.

I miss him, everyday. I miss him.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Ellis Island

Today, Ellis in the highchair, eating his cheerios. Dave and I drinking coffee. Dave is sketching out his family tree. He is looking back, trying to find the source of the sadness he sees in many of his family members. He writes notes next to each person; little haiku's that sum up the lives of each family member. "Divorced. Sad. Drinks."

He puts a smiley face next to Ellis' name.

Ellis babbles and eats unaware of his loaded lineage. Between Dave and I's family there are a lot of powerful narratives that each new generation hears and retells. These stories define how we think of ourselves. They define us in ways we don't realize.

Dave is looking back and looking forward. As parents, we can chose new ways forward. We don't have to repeat the patterns. But it requires consciousness of those patterns. It requires that we sketch out our family trees on Saturday mornings, and look for the codes, the repetition, the continuation of behaviors from generation to generation. And then it requires that we change course. Deliberately. This is harder than it sounds.

My great grandmother came through Ellis island in 1913. She was pregnant on the boat, miscarried soon after arriving. After that she gave birth to two stillborn children in the space of three years. The light went out of her. She was a hard woman to live with, my grandmother told me, she lost her ability to love. This affected my grandmother, and in turn affected my mother.

My grandmother's first child died in her arms at five months, because my grandfather refused to take the baby to the doctor. The impact this had on my grandmother and grandfather's marriage, affected my mother, and in turn affected me.

My mother's father died when I was six weeks old. The shock of this dried up my mother's breast milk and I screamed for days, my wailing the soundtrack to those first days she lived without her father on the planet. And then my pregnancy in the wake of my mother's death. One heart stops beating and one starts. What do I do with all of this death at the moment of birth, birth at the moment of death?

These stories seep into our skin, permeate our view of the world. We wonder why we feel sad for no particular reason, and then remember, we are carrying the sadness of the people who came before us.

The choices of my grandmothers have affected my trajectory, and now Ellis'. My grandmother herding three children through Ellis Island, ultimately resulted in Ellis. He is a combination and culmination of all of our choices, and all of the things out of our control.

When we were children, we were passive recipients of our reality. Now as parents, we are the deciders. We get to decide bedtimes, activities, which religion to endorse, what to make for dinner, the politics we preach.

I always told my mother that she did the work of many generations in moving us forward. She drastically changed our course. She ran away from home to go to college. She shook off the conservative religion she was given. She rejected her family's belief that women were inherently inferior. She moved away. She moved abroad. She broke all the rules.

The miles she traveled outside of her comfort zone, and the battles she fought against limiting ideas are the gifts she gave Ellis on the day of his birth.

Today the weather is finally warmer. Its been a long winter. We need Spring badly. I can't wait to take a walk around the frozen lake today. There are many things I want to teach Ellis, many things I want to tell him, the good stories and the bad stories, the folly of his ancestors, the wisdom of my mother.

Today's lesson: When the sun is shining, go outside.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Somehow I've Got to Find Some Kind of Peace of Mind

In our old office, whenever I needed to pump, I would have to clear everyone—staff, artists, interns— out of our one room office. Having to request this mass exodus, and calling attention to my milk laden breasts every three hours was far from ideal. When we moved into our new office building, I asked the facilities manager if there was somewhere private that I could pump during the day. She gave me the keys to the “Health Realization Training Room.” She explained that this was the office of the Health Realization outreach worker, who was never there, since she was always doing health and wellness outreach in the community.

A small luxury in the middle of the day. Privacy. Alone in a room. A moment to take a breath.

Then a few weeks ago I bumped into the Health Realization outreach worker. I told her that I used her office to pump. Wise, calm, centered. These are the words that came to my mind when I met her. “Doesn’t that room have great energy?” she said.

I had never thought about it before, but yes, it had a good energy.

Last week I was a wreck. Everything seemed to be conspiring to undermine me. My mind wouldn’t stop racing. I wasn’t sleeping. Spinning thinking – this is what my mother used to call it. Round and round we go:

What if I don’t get another job? What if they cut the state budget and Dave loses his job? Is Ellis healthy? My body aches, I need to go to yoga, I don’t have time for yoga., I miss my mom, How is my brother really doing?, We haven’t properly mopped the floors in weeks, Is Ellis eating enough? What if I don't get another job?

My anxiety levels were soaring.

Then, on Thursday, when I went to the Health Realization room to pump, I found this chart that diagrammed a busy mind and a calm mind. There are always photocopied handouts lying around the office, but this chart was dead in the middle of the table, in front of the chair that I sit in to pump. As if it were waiting for me.

Health realization, it explained on the back, is the theory that our thinking creates our reality. If we change our thinking, we change our reality. If we learn how to calm down our thinking, we have access to the health that is within us all (“innate health”).

I have never heard of “health realization” but I am familiar with these concepts. This theory was very important to my mother and her practice of psychology—she used it with her clients and in her own life. I never knew the technical term for this body of thought.

My mother took every chance she could to remind me that I could change my thinking, and therefore change my world. Still, I needed it charted out and placed in front of me in the Health Realization room. My mother finds me in all sorts of places.

Remember the things your mother told you: Still your mind. Real-ize your power. Make your own real.

I took the busy vs. calm mind chart to my therapist, like you take a picture of a haircut from a magazine to your hair dresser.

Here, this one, I want this mind, I said. The calm one. The one that gives me access to my creativity. That helps me see innocence and opportunity, rather than dysfunction and obstacles. This one.

Ok, she said.
Start by breathing.
Deep breath in. Deep breath out.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


I have had the stomach flu. I think this has affected my milk supply. Ellis has seemed hungry when we put him down at night, so Dave's been giving him a bottle of formula.

The transition to solids is still going slow. He still refuses anything on a spoon. But he will eat those Gerber puffs that melt in your mouth, and sometimes small pieces of food, like bananas. Anything that he can manage to pick up and eat himself, he will eat. But it is clear he is not a fan of being a passive recipient of food. As my Grandpa would say, that's the fire in him. I like the fire in him.

Most days we strip him down to his diaper, pour pureed baby food or pureed food unto his high chair tray and then sprinkle those Gerber puff things over it, and let him go for it, hoping some of it gets in his belly.

Today, my second day home from work sick, I could tell Ellis wasn't getting enough milk nursing, so I gave him the first bottle I personally have ever given him. This was hard for me.

Breastfeeding was so difficult at first. Ellis' latch was tight and shallow when he was a newborn. I was in a lot of pain for the first month and a half. I tried everything. I stalked lactation consultants. There were times I thought about giving up. The lactation consultant and the La Leche League people kept telling me it was going to get easier. I wanted to tell them where to go.

But, they were right. I made it through to the other side. It did get easier. I began to enjoy it, and understand how important it was to bonding with Ellis.

Now, with the prospect of my supply going down, I realize I am not ready to stop breastfeeding. We started using formula more regularly this last month. I am worried that this, combined with those days that I can't fit in a second pumping session at work, are contributing to my supply diminishing. And now this stomach bug...

There have been so many times that I have been so sick of nursing, bitter about the beers I couldn't drink and frustrated at having to watch the clock to make sure I was home within two hours...I resisted the limitations breastfeeding put on me. I can see now how much I fought against this invasion of my body, personal space and time. I had to beat down my ego, and go through a mourning process of my old self that could come and go as she pleased.

But now, I'm not ready for it to end. Now it's a part of my life and whatever self this is that I have become. I can see now this is going to be a never ending process of self reinvention.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


My job is not safe. The organization I work with is being hard hit by the economy. I go over what I could have done differently, who to blame, how to plan. I have to start to think again what it is that I want to do when I grow up. The idea of failure, and my ego.

A friend's father was diagnosed with cancer, and as I console her, all the memories come flooding back. How it felt to have cancer always there, always threatening, a constant that you lived with, a secret that no one understood. There was a kind of relief, when my mother died, that the cancer was gone too. Now here it is again. I offer my friend what I have, understanding of how it feels to be staring down death, how strange it is to contemplate existing beyond the people that brought you into existence, the question of how to use the time left.

Ellis and I started swimming lessons at the Y last week. A lot of the other kids in the class were scared of the water, shivering, whining to get out. Ellis loved it. He babbled happily as I pulled him through the water. When the instructor told us to put the children on their backs, most of them resisted the vulnerable position. Ellis spread his arms wide open, looked up at the ceiling, his head on my shoulder. "Well, someone sure is comfortable and secure on his back," the instructor said as she passed us. I remember how in the first months of Ellis' life, when he wouldn't stop crying, how responsible I felt for his wailing and fussiness and reflux. I worried that the grief that had coursed through my body during my pregnancy had seeped into him. I took his crying and discontent as a sign that he didn't feel secure enough, that I was doing something wrong, that I wasn't doing enough to help him make the adjustment from womb to life outside of it. The weight of the things I take on myself.

Ellis in the water on his back, his arms open wide, content and happy. This week of hard truths and death revisited, I go back to this image. I remind myself of the things that are good in this moment. Things are unfolding exactly as they should, my prenatal yoga teacher would say at the end of our practice, and I would feel my pregnant body go limp with relaxation. Did she know how much I needed to hear that? Very few things actually matter, my mother used to say, a mantra that at first glance seems pessimistic, at second glance is freeing. Don't waste your precious time or energy. Stop your mind's spinning. Let go. Unclinch your fists. Lay back, arms open wide. Let the weight fall away.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


1. My office moved last week to a Community Center closer to my house. Our old office was in a gloomy old building that used to be a funeral home. The other offices in the building always had their doors shut and no one talked to us when we passed them in the hall. Our new office is the exact opposite. The Community Center houses a youth program, a free clinic, a sliding scale daycare, a theater company, HIV AIDS outreach, Parenting classes in Spanish, Somali, and Hmong, a computer resource room, a bike shop run by homeless youth. Like minded, content people are always roaming the hallway, stopping by our office, chatting, asking us about our work. The free clinic, which is a hybrid Eastern Western health clinic that has acupuncturists and Western medical doctors providing consultations together, is right across the hallway. On Wednesday and Saturdays, they offer free acupuncture and massages to anyone who shows up. When the clinic's calming music drifts across the hallway, I am reminded of sanity, holistic solutions and the kindness of strangers.

2. Ellis isn't crawling yet, but has begun to pull himself to stand by tables and chairs. I wonder if he will skip crawling and go straight to walking.

3. Last weekend the city smoothed down a path for cross country skiers and snow shoers that goes all around the frozen lakes down the street from us. On Saturday night they lit the path with luminaries, and set up hot cocoa tents and warming stations with fire pits. We went to watch crowds of skiers circle the lit up paths.

4. I went to one of the art programs my organization runs in Special Education classrooms last week. The students wrote a poem called Mad, Sad and Life, about how to get through a bad day. The last line was, "I don't worry about it. I keep going. I get on with my life."

4. Ellis is still refusing solids. We put him the highchair and try different foods everyday. When he sees the spoon coming he clamps his mouth shut. We have begun to let him stick his hands in the bowl of food, and to hold the spoon himself. I food milled one strawberry the other night that ended up spread all over the dining room, Ellis' toys, my clothes and his clothes.

5. It warmed up at the end of the week, to double digits, 10 degrees, then 20 and today a high of 38. On double digit days, Dave goes down the street to the park to play pick up hockey, and we can take Ellis out for short walks. He blinks at the sun as if he's never seen it before.

6. My mother would always laugh at my tendency to think of things as half empty, rather than half full. She would call me out on it, remind me that no matter what was happening in my life, I was in charge of the way I saw the world, that I could be deliberate in how I saw and experienced it. A few days before she died, they released her from the hospital. After a harrowing car ride through Amsterdam, the last time she would see it, she and I arrived at her beloved art studio. She was so happy to be there. She could still walk then and she shuffled around her easels and tables, looking at her half done paintings, shifting through her found junk and sacred relics. She found a piece of paper that she had typed a quotation on, and she handed it to me."There, this is for you, this is what you need to remember." she said. The paper had these words on it:

"The single most important decision any of us will make," said Albert Einstein, "is whether or not to believe the universe is friendly."

I read it, and my mother said, "Chose friendly, Bree. Chose friendly." She then put on one of her favorite songs, turned it up loud, closed her eyes and danced.

17 minutes

Ellis has never been a good sleeper. It has always taken a song and a dance, literally, to get him to sleep. The last few months have worn us down. Our days spent rocking and nursing for hours only to have him sleep for twenty minutes. Our evenings spent rocking, nursing, perfecting the art of laying him down in the crib and creeping out of the room without waking him. Usually it took about an hour and a half to get him to sleep at night. Some evenings it took three hours. And then our nights --a series of wake-ups, sometimes every hour, with a three hour stretch being the longest amount of sleep we got. Our sleep deprived minds banging away at the riddle of it. Is he cold, hot, should we have a humidifier, or a fan on? Dave and I bickering, storming around angry at what? Not each other, but we can’t be angry at the baby. So instead we fume in the general direction of one another.

Everyone gives you advice. From cry it out, to co sleeping, to weaning, to feeding him solids. I hope, when my friends who have yet to have children tell me that their babies are not sleeping through the night, I have the good sense to keep my mouth shut unless directly solicited for advice.

We have been doing child swap on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Tuesday mornings I take care of Ellis and a two year old. On Thursday mornings, Matt, the two year old’s father takes them.

Two Thursdays ago, when Ellis began rubbing his eyes, Matt put him down in the crib to sleep on his tummy and let him cry. Ellis fell asleep.

I have been avoiding cry it out for eight months, and then someone else started it for me. I had it drilled in my head to never put Ellis on his stomach, and now realized that he probably sleeps better that way.

I didn’t know how to feel. Matt is a gentle soul, has been a father a long time and is so good with Ellis—if it was anyone else I would have been angry. I spent a long time on the internet reading about whether tummy sleeping was safe for a seven month old, scaring myself with SIDS facts and attachment parenting dogma against cry it out.

Last Thursday, Matt put Ellis down again and let him cry, and Ellis took a long nap. Dave became inspired. He called me at work and said “I am going to do it, I am going to let him cry it out at the next nap.” I told him not to let Ellis cry for more than twenty minutes. A little while later I got an email with the title “17 minutes”. Ellis had fallen asleep, again on his tummy, after 17 minutes of crying.

The combination of being on his tummy and letting him fall asleep himself, seems to work. We stand by his crib and pat and rub his back. He drifts off. We leave the room. He cries for a minute, sometimes five, and then he is asleep. He has never screams, and he never cries for that long. And he sleeps better and longer, wakes up more refreshed.

He is still waking up to nurse every three, sometimes less, hours in the night. We are not out of the woods. But suddenly putting him down for naps is easier, and Dave and I have our evenings back. It takes twenty minutes to put him to bed, rather than three hours and we actually have time to talk to one another, spend time with one another before we go to bed. And for now, that is enough

And one night last week, he slept for five hours straight.

When I first moved to New York, I couldn’t find a job to save my life. I was living in Washington Heights, temping at a Public Relations firm, with no money, wondering why I had gone to graduate school only to temp, wondering if I was going to have to give up and move somewhere cheaper and easier.

One night I took an extravagant taxi ride back up to Washington Heights, even though I had no money, even though it was irresponsible. I told the cab driver I was new to the city and that it was kicking my ass. He was from Yemen. He was one of those soothsayer taxi drivers that seem to have gained deep insight from driving in circles, from being on some perpetual journey around the island of Manhattan. He said, “This city is like a concrete wall. You bang bang bang your head against it. And then one day, a door swings open in the place you least expected it. And you walk through. And the city works for you, the city stops being your enemy. This is what will happen to you. It will happen in a way you could never plan for, in a way you would have never thought of. I promise,” he said, “And when it happens, you’ll remember me and this cab ride and know that I was right.”

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Grind

The baby wakes at around 7:15. One of us makes coffee. I eat a bowl of cereal while playing blocks with Ellis. Dave makes up and labels the bottles. Masking tape that says "Ellis breast milk" stuck to the bottom of my shoe. I pack up my computer. Dave changes the baby. I dress the baby. I wash the parts of my breast pump. I get dressed. Dave gets dressed. Dave goes downstairs to warm up the car. I nurse Ellis. Dave comes back upstairs. We pack Ellis into his grey fleece suit that covers his hands and feet, that is getting too small. The temperatures have been well below zero for weeks now. I pour the coffee in the travel mugs. I hold Ellis while Dave puts on his coat. He holds Ellis while I put on mine. Dave takes down the breast pump, my laptop, then comes back up to get his bag, the baby bag. I sit Ellis on the floor while I put on my boots. We walk down the stairs. One of us scrapes the frost or snow off the windshield. One of us straps Ellis in the car seat. We get in the car. This is how we start our days.

On Thursdays, Dave drops me at my co-worker's house and we carpool to work. "Some days its the grind that gets to you," she said to me the other day, "...the idea that you have to get up and do the whole thing over again." We are driving, away from the work of her two year old and my seven month old, and towards the work of keeping an arts non-profit alive in this financial climate. On the radio, the NPR Arts correspondent is reporting on the cuts to arts funding. "In the state budget cuts, the arts were like a dandelion in front of a steam roller," he says, "everything is being stripped away."

I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. There is so much at stake.

What is the sum, the meaning, the result of all of this work, this feeding, packing, cleaning, data entry, grant writing, art making? What does it amount to, at the end of the day?

Many years ago, before I had a child, before this current life, I wrote a Masters Thesis. I used personal narratives of 13 "ordinary" women--including that of my grandmother-- as data. I was fascinated by these women that raised children, that made the same beds over and over their whole lives, that cooked and cleaned and ran households and in the process acted as the glue that held their immigrant communities together. I argued that they were the makers, the builders of history, culture and community just as much if not more than the "important" people that get all the credit in our history books.

Getting up and doing it all over again-- this is what propels us all forward, this is what keeps a household, community, city, a world afloat. In my 120 page thesis, I proved this with high brow theory and nuanced arguments.

I miss the self that wrote that thesis. I miss my brain. I miss the satisfaction of theorizing, analyzing, sitting in the library for hours and hours, trying to pin it all down to words on a page.

But now it's my turn to work. My body aches. I am sleep deprived. On some days, I am a dandelion in front of a steamroller. Its the grind that gets to you. But this is important work, I have to remind myself. I have the data to prove it.

"The people I love the best jump into work head first...
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like a water buffalo with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again...

The work of the world is common as mud
Botched it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real." -Marge Piercy

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The only and last time my mother came to visit me in Minnesota, she made me curtains. She painted an end table. She put longer strings on my ceiling fan so I could turn it on easier. She refinished an old bench that I had found in the alley behind my house. And she helped me hang sixteen blank postcards on my kitchen wall. For years, we had been sending homemade or store bought postcards back and forth to one another with our cryptic communications, bits of poetry, drawings, inside jokes. A small mail art project. My mother was a painter and an artist. To commemorate our postcard project, she painted sixteen paintings of postcards on black tar paper. I wanted to hang them in my kitchen, but was afraid they would be ruined by grease or water. So, during that last visit, she coated them with medium to protect them, and on the night before she left, we hung them on my kitchen wall. I stood on a chair and she handed me up the postcards and nails. We were laughing about something and I kept dropping the small nails. At some point in the middle of the process, she said, "These blank postcards are all the things I didn't get a chance to tell you." Six weeks later she passed away. Six weeks and two days later I found out I was pregnant.

When I told my therapist (who works, appropriately, at the Center of Loss and Transition) about the blank postcards, she said, "Its sounds like your mother had every intention of continuing to parent you after her death." She said this not to suggest that my mother was communicating with me from the grave. My mother didn't believe in heaven or hell. She didn't believe it was that simple or that complicated. I don't either. I don't know where my mother exists in time and space or if she does, and I'm not sure it matters either way. What my therapist meant was that my mother had known her time was limited, and had been deliberate about the things she had left behind: Some are concrete things I can touch like her paintings, the curtains, the sculpture she built me out of old piano pieces. Most are words she said to me or ideas she planted in my head, or the particular philosophy she had crafted out of Buddhism, art theory, psychology and various other schools of thought.

My mother is not here to see me mother my own child. But I have internalized all she taught me and all she gave me, and as a result she is guiding me through this process in the ways she still can. Everyday I fill in the words of the blank postcards with what she would say, with the advice she would give me at this moment, in this exhausting, amazing, trench warfare first year of my child's life. (You have everything you need and more, she once said to me, you just can't see it yet) That is the goal of this endeavor: that your children can exist beyond you and past you, and without you. And that when you are gone, they have the tools you have given them to parent their children. This is how it works. A friend of my mother's said it best when she found me standing alone, six months pregnant, eating more than my share of the cheese plate at my mother's memorial: "Well girl," she said "looks like you got yourself caught in the cycle of life."

Ellis was born nine months to the day after my mother died. He has her fierce determination to live. He never stops moving. He never sleeps. I learn new things about my mother everyday. I understand better the shape of all those days she spent with us. When my husband is cooking dinner, or doing laundry or putting the baby to sleep, I understand - finally really understand - what my mother meant when she said, "Your father was never home with us. He was always working." Oh, I want to say to her everyday, so this is how it is, this is how it is to be a mother, to be the center of someone's world, to feel trapped, to breastfeed, to feel your chest tighten when he cries, to never sleep, to give over your body, to be greeted by applause and coos when you enter a room. So this is how it is.