Sunday, March 22, 2015

What Babies Do

This isn't really a coherent essay/blog post. I haven't attempted to make it so. I'm just thinking.


A friend of mine was volunteering at a hospice. She told me about one of her clients, a woman with dementia who did nothing all day but care for a baby doll, which she would wrap in blankets, press tightly to her chest, and rock, humming into its plastic ear. She could no longer speak. She didn't seem to register the people around her or recognize her friends and family members. She treated health care workers and volunteers with irritation. But she loved that doll and woke every morning to find it in the toy bassinet by her bed, expertly swaddled, exactly where she had put it the night before.

All that is left of her, my friend said, is the part of her that was most essential, the part of her that was a mother.

I was pregnant when she told me this, just showing. I wondered what would be left of me when everything else was gone.


Not being much of a "baby person" before I actually had a baby, I would generally greet claims about the ways that children deepened or changed one's emotional landscape with an eyeroll: here we go again. Another person saying that children are the only way to a real, adult emotional life.

You'll never feel love like this! People would say. It's the best thing in the world!

As a person on the other side of the baby/no baby divide, I still mostly roll my eyes, though I understand the evangelical spirit some parents have, and I do agree that a child provides a type of emotional connection and a joy that cannot be experienced in any other way (I have never been a person who much understood pure, uncomplicated joy, but I now get that daily--that's pretty big for me). I just dislike the implication that people without children are somehow less emotionally full than people with. I had a great love and empathy before I had a baby. My life was amazing. My life now is amazing, What I didn't have, though, was thisnterrifying sense of potential loss and fear.


I'm an anxious person, so I spend a great deal of time visualizing every possible disaster. When my husband goes away for weekend Aikido retreats or overseas trips, or even drives to work, I can see all of the ways he could die: car accidents, of course, but also freak falls, random acts of violence, sudden illnesses. This doesn't even take into account the things I think about that are not sudden and tragic but simply part of human life: cancer, diseases that take years to set in, that take away cognition and movement and autonomy. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by all of the losses that I will, without a doubt, experience. We will all lose everything, at some point. It is difficult for me to not be aware of this even when I know it would be better for me to let this knowledge go. There's nothing I can do about it, after all. I've known people who seem to think that if they run long enough or eat enough kale that they will never die or experience the uglier parts of having a human body. I don't want to be that kind of person. I want to make peace with loss.

But I find some losses too unbearable to ever make peace with. My previous experience of fear of losing was nothing compared to what I experience now. When my son Roscoe was born, as he struggled on my chest, his head heavy, his hands fisted, the doctors detected something wrong with his breathing: he was struggling, his little chest making a shallow depression with every breath, his nostrils flaring. They whisked him away to the neonatal care unit.

I had just met him, and now I had to think about the possibility of loss.

He was fine, eventually. But that was only a small taste of what would come later. The fear of SIDS in his early months, a fear that is particularly panic-inducing because of the mystery around it. Now that he's mobile, the fear that he might drop something on his head. When we are in the car, the fear of an accident.

And, of course, he'll soon be going places on his own: to daycare, to school, to friends' houses, to camp, etc. And then, when he's an adult, he will drive away. There is little I can do to keep him safe when I am not there. Little I can do when I am there, too, if I am honest.

Still yet, I am determined not to suffocate him with my own anxiety: I don't equate worry with love. So the trick now is to know the possibility of loss, the inevitability of some kinds of loss, but to move through the world and not be overwhelmed by it.


I think about 25% of my previous position that I would never have children came form anticipating  loss. The other 75% was all of the usual things: no overwhelming desire, a fantastic life already, a desire for privacy and quiet and freedom, fear of losing time to write, etc. But that fear of loss, that was a big one for me. Imagining my pets dying is enough to keep me up at night: how could I deal with the loss of somebody so close to me, somebody who will be the most intimate relationship I will probably have in my life?

Of course, most children are fine. It isn't really death that I'm worried about. It's change and the things I can't control. In the past, I have organized my life so that I have to deal with as little change as possible. I have limited my intimate relationships because having those relationships means the potential of loss, of change. Now, I have a baby: I cannot limit the level of intimacy and care and worry anymore. And I'm glad I can't.


I'm thinking again of the elderly woman with dementia.

At first, this anecdote depressed me. Now, I think about it differently. I identify so strongly with my mind, with my thoughts. But what survived, for her, was her emotional connection to a child, something that is not located in the cerebral cortex, but in the limbic system, deeper in the mammalian brain. She could still remember those days of holding a baby close, soothing their nervous system with touch and murmuring, feeding them, setting them down to sleep. I spent most of last summer like this, utterly out of my thinking mind, all of my self focused on keeping Roscoe alive and fed. There was a freedom in giving over completely to that slow, soothing, instinctual rhythm of rocking and sleeping and waking and feeding.

For a while, this rhythm of life kept the anxiety somewhat at bay. I would rock the baby, wrap him, feed him, and lay him in his crib. `Although I could not control everything, I could do this. I could keep everyday life rolling. I could put the baby to sleep in his crib next to my bed and then wake to him moaning and squirming in his swaddle, exactly where I had left him the night before. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Day Walk

Stop sign reflection

I don't know what this is, but I like it. 

Monday, March 2, 2015


Excerpt from an as-of-yet named essay about asthma & trauma: 

Me at 9

Last weekend, I saw a doctor for allergies for the first time in my life. For two hours, he quizzed me about my symptoms, gave me supremely uncomfortable allergen tests which resulted in an eruption of red, itchy bumps along my arm, and interrogated me about my asthma. How often do you use the emergency inhaler? He asked me. He tsked when I told him the answer: every day. Your asthma isn't under control, he said. We need to be more aggressive. He gave me a steroid inhaler, a prescription for anti-inflammatory medication, and told me sternly to follow his directions. 

For years, I've resisted asthma treatments that could have helped me without fulling registering what I was doing or why. I would start a prescription and take it intermittently before stopping altogether. Sometimes I said it was because of the cost. Sometimes I said it didn't work, so I stopped taking it. But really, I never tried. I see now that I resisted these things because deep down, I believed that I should be able to breathe normally, that my asthma was something that I should be able to control myself, and that it wasn't real in the way that other illnesses were. No, scratch that: it wasn't real in the way that other people's illnesses were. 

I can't remember when I first noticed tightness in my chest or when I got my first Primatene Mist inhaler. My asthma is a constant in my memory. I can viscerally remember the feel of the beige Primatene Mist bottle nestled in my palm, that pliable plastic coating covering a class bottle that might shatter if I dropped it on the pavement.  I had dropped mine a couple of times, which was always a small tragedy: it wasn't likely I'd be getting another one any time soon. That inhaler was precious: just seeing released the tightness a notch. 

Not only could my parents not often afford the inhaler, but my mother did not believe that my asthma was real. She had the idea that I was pretending to get attention and to "get high," something I tried to explain was not the case (if anything, the inhaler made me feel awful: my heart beat quickly and I shook, often violently). She was not convinced. She made me drink tea when I struggled to breathe (she was, and is, convinced that all "alternative" treatments are superior to Western medical treatments) and blamed me for not giving it enough time when it didn't work. Sometimes it takes days for these things to work, she told me. You are impatient. 

My breathing only got worse. I remember gym classes, in particular, as a constant struggle. Not only did I struggle to breathe, but I felt awkward performing physically in front of my peers. As I struggled to get my next breath after initial warm-ups, I waited in line to, inevitably, be called last for teams, occasionally with the unlucky team captain showing visible disappointment that they were saddled with me. I couldn't serve a volleyball. I couldn't keep track of the ball in soccer. I never hit a single ball in baseball. Dodgeball was a terrifying exercise in controlled bullying--where else were you allowed to hit whoever you wanted to over and over again? I don't know if my asthma was the reason for my hesitance and timidity in sports or if that developed after, but before long, I started to passively resist gym class. I refused to participate and read novels in the bleachers. 

I have asthma, I told the gym teacher. She asked for a doctor's note. I didn't have one. I'd never seen a doctor before. I just knew I couldn't breathe. 

When I was fifteen, I got pneumonia over the summer. How I got pneumonia in the summer, I will never know, but after two weeks of no medical care, I struggled constantly. The muscles in my stomach and chest ached from the work it took to breathe. I could barely walk. I stayed in bed in my pajamas, unable to get dressed. I had nothing for treatment: my inhaler had run out and my mother was taking one of her sporadic stands against my Primatene Mist use. 

Take Benadryl instead, she told me. It's just your allergies. Just calm down. It's all in your head. I took the Benadryl, which made me sleepy and did nothing for my breathing. 

I can't sleep, I told her. I'm afraid I'll stop breathing. 

You'll feel better when you wake up, she told me. 

I got the feeling that my illness annoyed her. When I was eleven, I'd had a long bout of bronchitis that kept me out of school for two weeks and culminated with me camped out in a sleeping bag on the floor next to the iron woodstove, coughing blood into unmatched socks (we had run out of toilet paper) and shivering violently. 

Get off the floor, she told me. You aren't that sick. 

I couldn't get up, though. I have another memory from this time, though, one of the sweetest memories I have of my mother. I remember her coming in from a drive into town. I opened my eyes at the sound of her voice saying my name. Beyond her shoulder, the television was on, showing footage of the Branch Davidian standoff, before the flames began. Shhh, she told me, her voice soft. She was holding a glass of orange juice. 

She believes me, I thought. She believes I'm sick. I felt a physical wave of relief: her belief was like a drug, it soothed me. After a while, even I had started to doubt myself (and how could I not? The person who had once arranged my entire experience did not believe me.). 

I still felt a shadow of doubt at fifteen, even as I curled up on a couch and struggled to stay awake because I was afraid of dying. 

But my pneumonia did not clear up. My breathing became so labored that I could not stand without assistance. 

I have to go to the emergency room, I told her. She helped me put on my clothes and brought me to the car, where we drove thirty minutes to Wilburton, the closest hospital, and I was admitted for two days. They put me in a children's room. The walls were painted with clowns, balloons, and zoo scenes. What I remember most about that hospital was a great feeling of relief: they believed me enough to put oxygen through my nose and antibiotics in my veins. I had feared that I would get there and they would say, like my mother, that I was exaggerating. I spent my days in bed, mostly alone, reading magazine after magazine. I loved it. 

I don't write about this simply to make an account of parental bad behavior. I'm realizing more and more how aspects of my experience that I've considered "normal" are unnecessarily saddled with shame and self-doubt. When I get sick, I feel not only physically awful, but also ashamed. There's a relief in realizing this and knowing I don't have to feel that way anymore. But still, there's that voice, always. It says doubt. I am trying not to listen to it.