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