Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Thank You, Janice D'Arcy

I have been struggling to think of a way to express a trend I've noticed in mom talks (in person and online). Lo and behold, in the midst of this struggle, Janice D'Arcy wrote about an aspect of this very trend and coined an excellent phrase: parental entrenchment.

I think it could also be called parenting relativism, an offshoot of moral relativism. The trend is this: When moms are talking about feeling judged by other moms, or about different choices parents make, they often will end up expressing, "People need to make their own choices for their child, and everyone else just needs to shut up about it. It's none of their business, and people don't need to judge each other."

I agree that nobody should shove unsolicited advice down someone's throat and that moms should hopefully be able to socialize with each other and have a relationship regardless of whether their parenting choices are identical (because no two moms make identical choices). But I feel like when people express sentiments like the one above, they're essentially saying that there's no right or wrong when it comes to parenting. Parenting is all just relative based on the child. And I don't think that's true. I do think there are right and wrong parenting choices, and at the very least, there are better/best choices and mediocre/harmful choices.

For example--there's been quite a bit of research about crying it out and the harm that it does. But parental entrenchment or parenting relativism sparks long Facebook arguments in which people defend crying it out, saying things like:

"My mom let me cry it out and I don't have mommy issues"
"I let my kids cry it out and they're not aggressive"
"My sister lets her kids cry it out and they are all happy, loving children"
"Me and all of my friends let our kids cry it out and we are all best friends and our kids are all best friends and they are the nicest kids on the block"

When people defend mediocre/harmful parenting choices, they rely heavily on anecdotes and acidly defensive statements. They treat the entire discussion as if it were a personal attack, and so they fight back. Whereas when people advocate better/best choices, they rely heavily on research about what helps children grow up to be as happy, secure, and intelligent as possible. When I read defensive statements about mediocre/harmful parenting, I always just think...Well, good for you! It's nice that from your extremely objective perspective your kids managed to escape the ill effects of your choices, but you are one person. Research takes in data about hundreds or thousands of  parents and children.

I don't base my parenting choices on whether the children of my friends/relatives managed to survive a given treatment. I don't want my kids to just turn out okay, to just get by on whatever scraps of good parenting I can scrounge up from my loved ones. We certainly all have things we're entrenched about, practices we've inherited from our parents. Some of them may be great, like reading stories with a certain voice, or singing a certain lullaby to a crying child. Others may be not so great, like teaching a child to obey you through feelings of fear, panic, and abandonment (which is what enforcing a bed time through crying it out really is).

A mama who recently chose to do crying it out wrote a blog entry about it, and essentially said, "I know there are a lot of opinions about this, but we feel this is the best choice for our family." I'm sorry, mama, but at some point things stop being a matter of opinion, and start being a matter of entrenchment or relativism.

I'm sure when infant car seats first came out, a lot of moms were entrenched about it and didn't see anything wrong with using no car seat. Likewise, despite research to the contrary, many parents continue to do something their mom or grandma did that has since been proven to be a mediocre/harmful choice. Maybe someday we'll all feel the same way about crying it out that we now do about having no protection for our child in a huge, metal, moving vehicle.

Thank You, Chuck Murphy

Maybe you all were hoping the title of this would be Thank You, Chuck Norris, but no such luck. There's no way I could ever sufficiently thank that man for everything he's done. And no, he is not responsible for the devastation in the photo below. My own little martial arts master, Luke, did this:

Chuck Murphy is the author of numerous elegant pop-up books. I didn't even realize that I owned two of his books until doing an Amazon search to include in this entry. Living a poor student life, I have to be pretty selective with the books I buy for Luke, and twice Chuck Murphy has made the cut.

Animal Babies A to Z drew my attention with its big, bold, black and white letters.

The letters are really showcased in this format. Many alphabet books have busy pages, and the forms of the letters are lost in a jumble of animals, fruits, instruments, or what have you. When Luke was very little, I would read this just as an alphabet book and he was of course entranced by the high-contrast.

Now that Luke is older, he can appreciate the pop-up animals behind every letter. And I can appreciate the biodiversity Murphy integrates. There are traditional animals like pandas and zebras included, but he's also got things like:

(apologies for the orientation...)

Nick found Flip-Up Shapes in this lil cheap bookstore in Colorado, and Luke literally loved this book to pieces. It was his favorite for the majority of his life. Each page had a big, sturdy flip-up tab with the name of a shape, and an illustration where the shape is repeated over and over:

So I can show Luke a circle standing out clearly by itself, but also demonstrate how shapes appear naturally in the world at large. But one of the most satisfying parts of the book is the ending:

I love when authors manage to have closure with a themed content book. Murphy could have just had arrow as the final shape and called it good. But he cleverly places arrows on signs of different shapes, shapes that the child has just learned about. So even though the book isn't a story, there is still a narrative vein, and there is still a definite ending. I cannot stand it when books just...stop. 

And a side-note: even though I showed pictures of the tattered remnants of Flip-Up Shapes, it really did have a sturdy design. It lasted for months and months under daily admiration from a determined lil dude. 

Thank you, Chuck Murphy, for your intelligent pop-up books. I'll continue to buy them whenever I encounter them!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Please, unthinking believers in patriarchal western maternity care

A Greek lady by the name of Yorgis Ali Toufexis helped my bleeding stream of thoughts on male obstetricians coagulate. On the Brio Birth facebook page, people posted answers to the question "If you had to name the TOP issue surrounding birth, what would it be?" Yorgis posted, "the existence of male obstetricians."

Bingo, Yorgis!

I felt really irritated when I listened to this piece on my NPR app a few weeks ago. On the one hand, it was cool that people are trying to provide better health resources for women in rural Pakistan. But I hate how the tone of the piece is, "Oh my, if only these poor repressed Pakistanis were more cosmopolitan and comfortable with gynecological procedures, if only this woman could have a vaginal exam by a male doctor then surely her baby would be born healthy, if only there wasn't this silly, outdated taboo on women seeing male doctors!"

I fail to see how performing a vaginal exam on this pregnant woman who's only on her 3rd check-up would really tell the doctor anything. What good would that do? Julie McCarthy, the reporter, makes it sound like if the community could only be more accepting of what is clearly a western--maybe even US--model of maternity care, then women would be a lot better off. I don't wish the maternity care in this country on anyone, much less on women in rural Pakistan.

McCarthy subtly implies that Marcia, the pregnant woman, shouldn't be embarrassed about being touched and examined by a male doctor. She implies that the social pressures on Marcia are wrong. Am I crazy for wishing there was still a taboo like that in our culture? Men getting involved in pregnancy care has not really done much for women.  The idea of going to a male obstetrician is just as embarrassing and revolting to me as it is to Marcia. Maybe I would feel differently if I didn't believe sex is special and sacred, and if I wouldn't have led a completely abstinent life before marriage. When there are so many good midwives available, why on earth would I entrust my care to a man? Why would I regularly expose myself to someone who is not my lover?

For women in Pakistan, it's not the taboo against male doctors that needs to change, because if you ask me, that's just creating another avenue for women to be repressed and abused. Obstetricians=oppression in my mind. I do agree that the health of women needs to be more of a priority for men in the community, but why can't women's health care be more developed along the midwife model of care? In that model, there is no breach of modesty, and women are empowered. They are given the opportunity to do meaningful work, to create community, to bond with one another as women. Women are better suited to give care to women. They actually might have given birth before, or breastfed, or experienced myriad other aspects of womanhood that a man can never experience and will never understand.

Yorgis, thanks for being the spark that finally lit up all this kindling.

(And don't think I didn't notice the infuriating and illogical little bits about breastfeeding in the Pakistan piece. Another entry, another time.)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Thank you, Mormon mysticism

So I know Wikipedia is not the most official source on the planet, but whoever wrote the entry for mysticism did it well.

"Mysticism is the pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct, or insight. Mysticism usually centers on practices intended to nurture those experiences...Mystic traditions form sub-currents within major religions--[Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity]--but are often treated skeptically and sometimes held separately by more orthodox or mainstream groups within the religion due to the emphasis of the mystics on direct experience and living realization over doctrine. Mysticism is sometimes taken by skeptics or mainstream adherents as mere obfuscation, though mystics suggest they are offering clarity of a different order or kind. In fact, a basic premise of nearly every mystical path, regardless of religious affiliation, is that the experiences of divine consciousness, enlightenment, and union with God that are made possible via mystical paths, are available to everyone who is willing to follow the practice of a given mystical system. Within a given mystical school, or path, it is much more likely for the mystical approach to be seen as a divine science, because of the direct, replicable elevation of consciousness the mystical approach can offer to anyone, regardless of previous spiritual or religious training. "

I strongly identify with the above paragraph as a Mormon. If you ask any given Mormon if they are a mystic, they may say no, simply because they don't really understand what that entails. But truly, Mormons are mystics. I love the concrete doctrines of our faith and the practical commandments and principles, but ahh...the mysticism of Mormonism is what makes my soul pulse with certainty that there is a God.

One of the most powerful aspects of our faith is that there is no tension between mysticism and doctrine as the Wikipedia entry describes. Technicality and spirituality are perfectly intertwined, and neither can survive without the other in the LDS faith.

This is on my mind because yesterday, we had a lesson on the postmortal spirit world in Relief Society (the  class where just the women meet together). It was absolutely lovely. Our teacher opened the lesson by talking about her preparations, and saying that she'd had very strong spiritual impressions that there were women who had experiences they could share, and she encouraged the class to share those things. She was detailed and prepared throughout her lesson, and shared several quotes from this talk. We reviewed the doctrines--that after death, people dwell in a spiritual realm (divided depending on how you lived your life on the earth). This spirit world is housed here, on the earth, but as mortal beings we are divided from it. While people are in the spirit world, they can still be taught the gospel and ordinances can be performed for them by those still living, such as baptisms and temple marriages. They choose whether or not to accept these ordinances. People abide in the spirit world until resurrection, judgment, and the life that follows, but we didn't discuss those things. This lesson was on the spirit world only. Reviewing the doctrine opened the door for people to share some very tender experiences.

I will anonymously relate two of the stories shared. I have a knack for remembering people's exact words, so I will use exact quotes whenever possible.

"My father and mother were both LDS, but they were not sealed in the temple. My father didn't take the gospel very seriously. After he died, and before they had him posthumously sealed to my mother, my mother and sister were at the temple one day. They went downstairs to buy some things for my mother, and both were looking down, filling out a sheet of paper when all of a sudden, they smelled Daddy. My father was always very clean, and he always smelled like soap. When he walked around, it was like a pomander of soap flowing through the air. They both looked up, and said to each other, "Do you smell Daddy?" A few moments later, a temple worker approached them and asked, "Have either of you recently lost a loved one?" They said yes. And she said, "Because there is a gentlemen standing here."

In the church, we have an awareness that spirits who have passed on often linger near the temple, where the veil between our world and theirs is the thinnest. Individuals who work in the temple are very sensitive to these spiritual beings.

"My father in law was a very big spirit. Everyone loved him, and he was very focused on missionary work. To the point that when he was in the emergency room, on his deathbed, he begged his wife to go out to the car and get his Book of Mormon because he wanted to give it to his nurse. When he passed on, we all missed him very much. Now, my grandfather was not Mormon. He was raised in a Catholic orphanage and had a very harsh childhood, and the rest of his life he disliked organized religion. When my father in law died, my first thought was, maybe now he will find my grandfather and share the gospel with him. At my father in law's funeral, his bishop stood up and the first thing he said was, "I don't know who this is for, but I have to tell you--the person you wanted him to find, he has already found."

I am very grateful to our teacher, who took this subject seriously and from the get-go created an atmosphere in which people felt safe to share tender, personal, mystical experiences. I am grateful to the women who were willing to share. But most of all, I am grateful for the mystical tenants of Mormonism which through my own experiences and those of others I know to be true.

I think spiritual truths like these are what give a series like Avatar: The Last Airbender, its resounding emotional power. Truths like these are found throughout Asian cultures in the ideas of ancestor worship, or mononoke like you seen in The Tale of Genji. Our world is so concrete now, and it's easy to be cold or skeptical when it comes to mysticism. When you really sit down and ponder, though, it's hard to deny the mystical experiences you've had in quiet moments, or in times of true need and yearning, or when death has claimed someone you know. The spirit world is all around us, and impacts everyone.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Please, Rick Perry

Rick Perry is a rat.


Why yes, he is.

As someone with a great deal of ambivalence towards vaccines, I cannot imagine how all of those in Texas with extreme aversions towards vaccines would feel. To suddenly be forced to vaccinate your daughter...GAH! The idea of anyone in a position of power mandating something medical is really frightening to me.

It's also frightening to think that someone is willing to endanger aquifers in a place as dry and heavily populated as Texas for a selfish, short-term political gain.

Why does anyone trust this guy?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Thank you, people I've met in Charlottesville so far

Luke with his birthday cake!

I have met a lot of new people in the past few weeks. Nick's law school section, people at church, neighbors, the Live Poets Society, Virginia Law Families play group, and many others. I have been overwhelmed with how nice and cool literally everyone we've met has been. But one of the best parts is that no one--not a single person--has said anything to me about Luke's size.

Luke is a slim little guy. He is not a big, chunky baby. He is somewhat small for his age--some 12 month clothes fit him great, and some are huge on him. I don't know what he weighs right now because we haven't been to the pediatrician in a while (and we're working on continuing Medicaid here in VA so that we can take him in sometime). Part of his slimness is just genetic, and part of it is that he's a breastfed baby. There are certainly chubby breastfed babies, but there are many who are not. I love Luke. He is my baby, and so of course I think he is the absolute perfect size for cuddling, kissing, and carrying around.

One of my greater frustrations in this first year of parenthood is that so many people have thought it appropriate to comment on or ask about Luke's size as though it is a negative. Strangers, people at church, random acquaintances, loved ones. This has happened to me so often that I find myself relieved whenever people don't say something about it. With some people, it is a repeated line of commentary. The most irritating is when I meet another mom with a baby, and literally the first thing she says is something about how her baby is bigger. Very, very rarely it has an innocent and neutral tone of pure observation, but the vast majority of the time the construction of the comment is "My baby is the same age/2 months younger/half his age and twice his size!" Let me tell you, there is no quicker way to alienate another mom than to imply, right off the bat, that your kid is somehow better. And there is definitely an idea in people's minds that bigger is better when it comes to babies.

Sometimes it's hard to decide what I hate most about how all of these comments affect me. Is it the uncharitable nasty comebacks that I constantly have to hold back?
"My baby weighs so much more than yours!"
"Well, you weigh so much more than me, so I guess that makes sense."

"I can't believe he's so small!"
"Well, I can't believe you constantly shove a pacifier in your baby's mouth, feed him formula, crappy rice cereal, and canned baby food, let him cry himself to sleep while you leave him alone in your apartment so you can go to a party, and almost never hold him! What a coincidence that we both feel the same way!"

"How much weight has he gained since he was born?"
"How much weight have you lost since your baby was born?"

"My baby is twice his size and half his age!"
"Good luck when he's part of the childhood obesity epidemic!"

BLEH. In some ways, writing those things out makes me feel better, because after being the recipient of people's thoughtless comparisons for a year, it feels good to lash out. Mostly, though, it just makes me feel like crap. I want to be friends with other moms. I want to enjoy their company and have good conversation and bond. I try really hard to be accepting of people's different parenting styles--but when you feel like all you receive is judgment, then you start trying to judge people first. And that is an ugly, ugly, way to be.

More than the judgment and snarkiness I've felt creeping up in my soul, I hate the anxiety that all of these comments induce. Even though I am with Luke all day every day, even though I know how happy and healthy and smart he is, these comments scatter little mold spores of doubt. And every so often, I find all this mold growing on my motherly conception of my baby's perfection. "Is there something wrong with him? Well, why is he so small? What if he has some sort of rare digestive disorder? Maybe there is a problem. Maybe they're right..." Occassionally, I show this mold to Nick and he scrapes it off, reassuring me that Luke is doing great. And for those of you who are reading this and wondering, "Well, what if..." and don't trust our parental intuitions and need a patriarchal medical stamp of approval, Luke has always had great check-ups, and his pediatrician has always certified him as 100% awesome.

The point of this entry, though, is to express my tremendous relief, joy, and gratitude that NO ONE IN CHARLOTTESVILLE--not another mom at the grocery store, not a girl at church, not anyone!--has made a comment like this to me. Every other mom I've met has been so kind, congenial, and conversational. It has been really good for me. I feel like...a piece of toast that should have been tasty and perfect, but got burned, and now all the blackness is being scraped off into the sink and can just be washed away. Meanwhile, I can be the yummy, buttery toast that I want to be. And I can hang out with all the other pieces of toast and have a fabulous, crispy time.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Thank you, Netflix

I've had this blog post in the queue (haha) for a long time. I almost trashed writing it a couple times--after the price raise and the news about Netflix losing their contract with Starz. But after reading this article on the Washington Post, I again find myself grateful for Netflix in my life.

I have not had regular access to television for almost 7 years now. I've always had a TV for watching movies, anime, etc, but pretty much the only time I ever watched real TV during college was sometimes over Christmas breaks. Nick and I don't even know how to hook up our lil Toshiba so that it plays normal TV, and we have absolutely no plans to do so. What we do have is an XBOX 360 and Netflix.

Nick and I definitely enjoy media; it's one of our biggest interests. We love to discuss quality shows and laugh at intelligent and clean comedy. But we like TV and movies the way we like to eat--wholesome, filling, uplifting, healthy, enjoyable. We eat the way I saw Europeans eat--defined meals, no seconds, pretty much no snacking in the traditional sense, and lush desserts in small portions.

If there is anything on our TV, it's because we specifically intended to watch it and made time for it (defined meals). We're usually too busy to watch more than one or two episodes of something (no seconds). We have to choose to play something on Netflix, or to put in a DVD. And when an episode is over, it's really over. If we want more, we have to manually play it (no snacking). When we do sit down for an entire movie, it actually feels relaxing because we're doing something different than normal (lush desserts in small portions). We're excited to raise Luke and his future siblings to have a healthy and happy relationship with food, and we're eager for our children to enjoy smart media in moderation.

Real TV never ends. There is always something else on. And I really think that the vast majority of people watch toxic reality shows for the same reason people slow down to see a car wreck: It's something they happened upon, and they become morbidly fascinated.

I appreciate Hirschfield's article, but I find it a little weird that in the end, he essentially says "Yeah, people want these shows, so just watch them sometimes instead of all the time." I don't think that's the answer. If you want to eat healthy food, you have to buy healthy food and make it readily available. When you have a bunch of junk around the house, then you'll eat it, and it won't be good for you. If you think these shows are scummy and degrading, then...don't watch them! Ever! Choose to fill your house with quality media. That's what you'll consume if that's what's available. And if you are so fatally attracted to bad shows, then maybe you should ditch your regular TV. If there's no ramen in the cupboard, then it's not a dinner option. After a while, maybe you'll find the very idea of The Girls Next Door, or Real Housewives, or Sister Wives, or Toddlers in Tiaras, or The Bachelor, or Kate Plus 8, or any number of other shows found on channels as various as Disney and Spike, as revolting as a diet of only potato chips. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Thank you, Studenty Lack of Money

You know what they say--if at first you don't succeed, try, try 4,000 times again. At least for breastfeeding, that's what I would advise. Nick and I estimated that I have probably nursed Luke around 4,000 times as of his 1st birthday yesterday. And that's the conservative estimate. The crazy thing is, if Nick and I were super established with real jobs when I first had Luke, there is no doubt in my mind that I would have caved and given this child formula.

Because I well and truly hated breastfeeding for about the first 3-4 months of Luke's life. I didn't really know what I was doing, and I felt like nobody knew how to help me. During some of the time, I dealt with thrush, and getting medication for that was really important, but didn't fix everything. Every day was so painful. Labor and birth was empowering and beautiful, but the pain of breastfeeding was sharp, deep, and instead of going on for 8 hours, it stretched on for days, weeks, months. I hated reading The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding because it was so freaking cheerful, and when you looked up "pain" in the index, the only page it took you to just said, "Breastfeeding isn't supposed to be painful." Well thanks! I'd think. I feel a lot better now! I had a bad experience with a lactation consultant and didn't trust them, and going to La Leche League and talking to strangers about this extremely difficult and personal struggle was the last thing I wanted to do.

The pain made it so hard to focus on Luke and just be happy with my baby. I felt like I constantly had to fight against resenting him for the pain of nursing. I spent so many days crying. I told Nick I hated breastfeeding and that I felt trapped so many times. I fantasized about formula.

But I didn't give up. I never gave Luke even a sip of formula. I kept nursing him exclusively for six months, and he still nurses very regularly now, at 12 months. The only reason I did not give up on breastfeeding is because we literally would not have had the money for formula. Truly, that is the only reason. When I was in that vortex of anguish and misery, I did not care one iota about how good breastfeeding was for Luke or how bad formula would be. All I cared about was escaping the pain that seemed like it would never end. (So incredibly different from the pain of labor, which is purposeful and progressive).

In those days, I felt so bitter about our lack of money. But by six months, I was already brimming with gratitude for our lean times, because by then I loved nursing. A year and 4,000 nursings later, I can say that it is definitely one of the sweetest things about being a mom.

In the first week of Luke's life, my milk production made me wake a few minutes before him dozens of times. I would think, "Why am I awake? I'm so tired." And then he would start stirring, searching for me. My mommy alarm filled me with wonder. It was so mystical and made me feel so connected to him. When things were hard, I had many conversations with God and with my newborn about patience. I pleaded for it, and I thanked Luke for having it. Whenver a nursing was successful, or less painful, I savored it. It was really gratifying to see Luke pull away with milk dribbling down his cheek.

As I figured things out and the pain went away, I became really grateful for the convenience of nursing. Luke was getting older and we were going out on more adventures with him. I never had to drag bottles or formula. I never had to worry about being out too long and running out of food for my baby. We had to fly 8 times in the first 8 months of his life, and every flight was eeeeasy breezy because I could nurse him. When we were in a loud place, I could soothe him and hold him close. At night, I'd just bring him in bed with me as soon as he woke and most often, he'd just nurse back to sleep (he still does this, of course). No bottles to make in the middle of the night.

I think my favorite time is nursing in the morning. Luke loves to linger in bed and nurse, and when he's had some good milk, he always pulls off and smiles and babbles to me and Nick. He has done this since he was very little. And now Luke will pull away and turn to Nick and say "Dada!" The sweetness never stops!

But maybe my favorite time is nursing him to sleep for a nap. Gulping milk while his little eyelids drooop, and then pop open! And then drooop again until he is finally asleep, snuggled so close.

But maybe my favorite thing about breastfeeding is knowing that he is so healthy because of it. When he does happen to get sick, my milk is a huge source of comfort and healing for him. It is very empowering to know that you make the best medicine.

But maybe my favorite is when we've been playing or reading for a while, and out of the blue Luke twists around and starts asking for milk the way I ask for a Luscious Lemon Blueberry cupcake at The Cocoa Bean--politely, but with a crazy gleam of passionate longing in my eye.

Nursing day in, day out is an awesome part of my life now. Nourishing my baby with my own body is the same thing I did when I was pregnant, but now I can gaze into his little blue eyes while I do it. I can stroke his hair and talk to him and tickle him, which makes him leak milk onto my shirt when he laughs. When I was pregnant, he didn't really know who I was, and he received his nourishment passively. With nursing, he knows me. He'd know me out of a million people. And breastfeeding is a joyful relationship that we are both an active part of.

So, I suppose money can't buy happiness after all. In this case, not having money has bought some of my greatest happiness as a mother, and Luke's greatest happiness as a baby.

Thank you, Luke

Luke. For a year you have been out of the womb, breathing on your own. With your breath you squeal, laugh, cry, babble, demand, say "Dada," and express all your little joys. Every night for the past year, I have felt your little lungs working beside me in bed. I am grateful for every sweet little breath you take. I am so grateful to be your mama, and to share the same air with you. I know before I know it, you will be grown up, off on your own, and breathing the air of some faraway adventure.

I love you, Lukey. Happy Birthday.