Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Thank you, Brave

"Feminist" things that are secretly misogynistic--they're out there. Gotta keep a sharp eye, or they'll get 'cha. For instance--one of my only true critiques of Avatar: The Last Airbender is when Katara finally gets to train with a waterbending master. Up to that point in the series, Katara had been a really great female lead, full of fire and compassion. She was decidedly feminine, but definitely not girly or weak. She has to learn waterbending with the Northern Water Tribe, where she's told that women waterbenders learn healing arts and male waterbenders learn combat. Of course, the episode portrays Katara dejectedly learning how to heal with other girls and then getting mad, demanding that she be taught combat, and excelling.

Now, do I think Katara should fight for her right to fight? Sure. But it really bothered me that there was no vindication of what the women waterbenders traditionally do. There was no dialogue about how important or valuable healing is, no gratitude on Katara's part that she got to learn how to help people, not just hurt them. Katara is a powerful fighter, and I love seeing her skills grow throughout the series. But she also becomes a talented healer, and her abilities are invaluable more than once. Why, then, are women's traditions portrayed as something constricting and lame? It's an oversight not in keeping with the rest of the series.

When I first saw trailers for Brave, I felt the same disappointment. Here was Pixar's first movie with a female lead, and it seemed like it would just be another flick about a girl warrior shedding her feminine shackles and finding true happiness and value in doing what men do. Because obviously, only the things that men do are worthwhile. I didn't make a priority of seeing it, because I was sure Merida would just be fighting in some stupid battle to save her people, proving that every woman's tradition is worthless and every man's tradition is wonderful.

Thank heavens I was wrong, ohhhh so wrong. We finally made a family outing to see it a couple weeks ago, and I fell in love.


Unlike so many other empowered girl stories, Brave was not a rejection of femininity. Instead, it was a powerful mother-daughter story. A mother, Queen Elinor, who puts intense pressure on her daughter. A daughter, Merida, who is terrified of how her mother expects her to be perfect. Merida never feels like she gets any support or approval from her mother. Elinor never feels like she connects with Merida. Neither of them communicates the deep love they have for the other. The problem for Merida is her troubled relationship with her mom--not sewing lessons. Throughout the film, both of them come to embrace the womanhood of the other.

Merida and Elinor

That's really what Merida's battle is--claiming womanhood for her own. Not escaping it. One fantastic symbol of womanhood in the movie is hair. Both Merida and Elinor have luscious, epic hair. Of course, since it's a Pixar film, the animation is beeeaauuutiful. There really are women with hair like Merida's (I knew a girl named Alex with it), and it was so vivid and real, especially in the many misty, wooded scenes. And there really are women with hair like Elinor's (I knew a girl named Janae with it), and you can almost feel the real weight of it as it sways behind her back. In the beginning of the film, mother and daughter wear their hair in completely different ways. Elinor keeps her hair orderly and bound up, while Merida's is outrageous and boundless. When Elinor tries to enforce her own brand of womanhood, she tucks every wild red strand of Merida's away under a tightly fitting head cover. When Merida tries to enforce her idea of womanhood, you could say that she gives her mom the ultimate wild hair--an entire body covered with thick, black fur. By the end, one indicator of their increased understanding is Elinor's new hair style; her hair is still neat and tied back on top, but flows free on the bottom.

There are of course many other stirring, symbolic moments in the film. Two of my favorites? First, when Merida has to address all the snarling, squabbling men by herself, since her mom is a bear. At first, she's at a loss as to how she can even safely enter the room with all of the testosterone and projectiles. She doesn't utilize her one "manly" interest--archery. Instead, she emulates her mother. Cloaking herself in calm, Merida steadily walks into the room, emanating a matriarchal force. Without even saying anything, Merida wills the men to be gentlemen--just as her mother had earlier in the film.

Second, Merida mistakenly thinks if she simply mends the heirloom tapestry depicting her with her parents, then the spell on her mother will be reversed. This must be done before the second sunrise, which is fast approaching. So, there's a fabulous scene of Merida keeping balance on a galloping horse while she sews the tapestry back together. Again, a strong visual of Merida claiming womanhood for her own, of her taking womanly arts that she has learned from her mother and weaving them into her own life, interests, and personality.

And of course, it doesn't hurt that Merida never fights in a stupid battle, that archery is not her most important skill, and that Elinor defeats the villain. So so great.

My mother has a favorite little saying--"Mirror, mirror on the wall, I am my mother after all." I've heard her say it with a lot of different meanings. Sometimes she means it humorously, like if she notices some little quirk she shares with her mom. Sometimes she means it...somewhat bitterly, like if she notices a less desirable trait that she's carried on. I think Brave captures the plural tones of that little saying--the passionate, mixed-up feelings that we, as women, can sometimes have toward our own mothers. I love and admire my mother dearly--I am so grateful for her--but we are not the same person. We have had our own mother-daughter struggles. There are countless ways that I want to be like my mom, and there are some ways I want to be different. But regardless, as I have grown up, gotten married, and become a mother myself, I have turned to her again and again. I have needed her. As I nursed my own little daughter in the dark of the movie theater, I just prayed that someday, she'll need me in the same way.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Please, numerical health markers

As I stepped on the scale at my postpartum appointment this week, I had a twitchy little mental debate about whether or not to look at the screen. I decided to look but not to care. Hmm. About 18lb over my normal weight.

I pride myself on not owning a scale and not caring about the specific number of my weight. I know what I look like, how I feel, and what clothes I can wear when I'm eating well and exercising regularly, and that's good enough for me. I just really think scales are dangerous. I know of perfectly healthy, beautiful women who simply cannot feel satisfied with themselves because they're not on the bullseye of some magical target weight. It's insidious. Even though I actively decided that it didn't matter, I still found my mind floating back to that little number. 18. 18. 18. I hate thinking about it. I hate that I even had to be weighed--and maybe in the future I just won't do it. I already know that I have some extra on me--duh, I just had a 9lb, 3oz baby six weeks ago. I would hope that I'd still have some baby weight! In time, with breastfeeding, exercise, and healthy eating, it will go away. I just don't like having a little number hovering around my mind like a wasp, trying to sting me. Because despite my determination, it is so hard to not place any value on certain numerical health markers.

For instance--cervical dilation during labor. I read so many birth stories where a woman intending a natural birth has been laboring along, doing whatever to cope, feeling okay--and then she has her hopes shattered by getting "checked" and finding out that she's "only" at a 3, or a 5, or a 7, when she was certain that she was two or three centimeters farther along. Convinced that she simply can't handle it any more if she's "only" at that point, she ends up getting an epidural. Think about it. A number has the power to dishearten a woman so thoroughly that she throws her birth plan into the flames.

I choose to get checked for dilation out of curiosity, but not as some test of how good I am or how functional my body is. I knew that I was 4cm for a couple of weeks before I went into labor with Renée, so I was surprised when I was at 5cm when I arrived at the hospital. I'd been laboring for a while already, and I assumed that I would be dilated a little more. But all I felt was surprise--nothing more. Not disappointment, not panic, not irritation. I knew my contractions had to be doing something, and dilation is far from the only thing that needs to happen in labor--it's just the only thing that can be measured, so people tend to put a lot of stock in it. Knowing that number didn't change how awesome my labor was, or how good I felt, or how well Nick and I were working together. I knew my body was doing exactly what it needed to, numbers be damned.

And then there's the pregnancy due date. What a horrible number. Nothing psychs out a pregnant gal more than being past that day. Even though I know the utter meaninglessness of the due date, I still had to spray extinguisher all over tiny flames of impatience when I went *gasp* two whole days past my due date. Or four whole days past. See, I got a couple different due dates, so I didn't really know which one to believe. It was not until I read this lovely article and physically relaxed about the when of delivery that I went into labor. Yes, it just so happens I went into labor just a couple hours after I stopped caring about when I went into labor.

Now, if you think worrying about the numerical aspects of your own health is bad, just wait until you get into percentiles for your children. Little did you know that the goodness, cuteness, and general worth of a baby is determined by their percentile for weight and height. I've been struggling with this because Renée is chubbing up radically faster than Luke did. Well, see, Luke never did become a chubby baby. Don't get me wrong--I'm happy that Renée is chubby. I'm happy that breastfeeding is going so incredibly well and that she's gaining at a good rate. But my hysterical sobbing meltdown in the first week of her life--in which I kept telling Nick, "I just can't handle having another slim baby"--indicated that I was still deeply paranoid about baby weight. The weight percentile of your baby can feel like an exam grade, especially when you're breastfeeding. And certainly, mothers with bigger babies happily exclaim, "Well, he's in the 95th percentile!" as if they aced calculus. You're just not going to hear a mom say, "She had her 8 week appointment yesterday and she's in the 5th percentile! Isn't that great?!"

It's just that...Renée being fatter doesn't make her a better baby. It doesn't make me love her more or think she's cuter than Luke was at her same age. Her weight gain is definitely not the only thing that makes me say breastfeeding is going well. I've had a polar opposite experience nursing this baby girl. And part of the fun of having a chubby baby is just that it's different. Renée is her own person, with her own story and her own characteristics.

Obviously, there are some health numbers that do have meaning--like blood pressure or cholesterol. But I think a qualitative rather than quantitative approach to health can be really beneficial. For instance, worrying about how well you're eating and how often you're exercising rather than how many pounds you are. Worrying about how you're coping during labor rather than how many hours it's been or how many centimeters you're at. I'm so happy to currently have a pediatrician that has never, not once, mentioned the weight percentile of either of my children to me. But for Renée, he's asked about her nursing habits, her alertness, her motor development, her sleep, her diapers. He even asks about my wellbeing and Nick's wellbeing, understanding how that has a direct impact on the health of a baby.

If my pediatrician ever brought up a concern or made a suggestion, it would be with a fairly complete view of Renée's health. Unlike the nurse practitioner who literally knew nothing about Luke other than his weight and immediately said, "Well, some women just don't make enough milk."

Monday, August 6, 2012

Thank you, Alisha

 During the height of my pregnancy in the heat of the summer, I got in the habit of taking short walks with Luke. I didn't have the energy to chase him around the park, but I could stroll up to the nearest intersection and back. Now that baby girl is here, there are still some of the same limitations. Luke and I both want to get out of the house, but it can't be for long. So, I tuck Renée into my beautiful sage Maya Wrap ring sling, fold Luke's warm chubby hand into my palm, and off we go. The ring sling is new to Renée's babyhood; I didn't have it with Luke. I've been using it every single day; it's extremely comfortable for my back, lightweight for the summertime. Right now, it's the perfect baby carrier. On a recent walk, I got to thinking about how awesome the sling is...and then about how awesome Alisha is.

Alisha. My older sister. The one who sent me the ring sling. And the one who hand-made me a Moby wrap, another type of baby carrier. Oh, and the one who took me to Costco to get an Ergo since I didn't have a membership. And let's not forget, she's also the one who showed me the merits and methodology of a Hotsling, which I have in both adjustable and sized versions. Basically, the one who is responsible for me owning six different types of baby carriers. (The sixth is a Sleepy wrap, which I bought on sale since Alisha had gotten me so addicted to baby wearing). Each one is best for different occasions, different seasons, different sizes of baby. When you're hooked on having your baby hooked to you, you can't have just one carrier.

If this were the only service Alisha had done for me as my sister and fellow mama, it would still merit an entry. Baby wearing is so wonderful. It keeps your hands free, your baby happy, your breastfeeding successful, and your postpartum weight dropping at a healthy rate. But a course on carriers is far from the only thing Alisha has given me.

Because Alisha and I are kids #4 and #5 out of 7 total, we are both accustomed to having at least three other people trail blaze a bit before we set out on any given path. But as all of the siblings in our family started growing up and getting married, things have changed a bit. Turns out that marriage and children come at a different time for every body, and it doesn't always follow age order. And so it was that Alisha was the first sibling to have children. She has the claim on first grandson and first granddaughter for our parents.

That sounds pretty cool, and it is--but it's also intimidating. I am amazed by the courageous depth to which Alisha has plunged as the first mother. She does not just dabble her toes, trying to stay as dry as possible. She never does laps in the narrow lanes of motherhood cordoned off by Western society. She is always in the deep end, always soaking wet, always willing to hold her breath and push herself to the bottom of the pool if that's what her family requires.

I'm not just trying to say I think my sister's a good mom--everyone would say that of their sister. What I'm trying to say is that Alisha is a highly educated and lovingly innovative mom, and that I have personally benefited from her superheroine efforts. Every thing she does as a mother is considered in the light of love and scientific research. How/where her children are born. What she feeds her children--from the womb and onward. Where her children sleep at night. Where her babies spend time during the day. What her children play with. How they play. What books they're read, and how much time is spent reading. How much TV they watch--when they watch, and what they watch. How much time she spends on her career as a photographer. How much time she and Todd spend on their church callings.

When you're making all these decisions on your own, it would be so easy to just tune out your intuition and listen to doctors and retail culture.
Labor too hard?--just let us drug you up. 
Baby not gaining weight fast enough? Buy some formula.  
Baby crying? Buy this plastic thing to stick in their mouth. 
Baby won't sleep? Buy a little machine to help them cry it out. 
Baby has to come out in public with you? Buy a big plastic chair for them to sit in and some dangly toys (oh, and a plastic thing to stick in their mouth) so you don't have to interact with them. 
Kids want attention while you're on Facebook? Buy cable and turn on a show. 

I think a lot of standard Western baby/child raising takes the easy way out. It favors callousness over caring. Disconnectedness over diligence. Gear and gadgets over gut instincts. Surely, if I had been on my own, I would have spent Luke's first year washing bottles by hand in our cramped kitchen while listening to him scream his way to sleep in the other room. My breastfeeding relationship with him would not have survived the skepticism I encountered over his slim size--nor would bfing have survived a pacifier, or forcing him to sleep away from us, as it's likely I would have done. Those are the norm. Those are things the AAP recommends.

But I have something better than the AAP. I have a sister who went before me. I have a sister who already knows what it's like to breastfeed and how to deal with opposition over having a slim baby, whether it's from a jerk lactation consultant or an ignorant stranger. I have a sister who boldly switched care providers at 37 weeks pregnant, following her intuition and certainly dodging a c-section bullet. I have a sister who faithfully attends La Leche League meetings and imparts the wisdom to me. I have a sister who reads countless books and research articles about bearing and raising her children in loving, wholesome, and intelligent ways. Whenever I face a new problem or milestone with Luke, I always call her first to get her thoughts. She is always willing to listen to and advise me, and she is always respectful of my decisions. She always has a book or article to recommend on the subject. She always comforts me.

The best thing is that she's not just there for the problems or milestones. She's there for me every day, whenever I need her. And she's not only a motherhood resource to me. She's there for her close friends. For her acquaintances. For her Facebook-only-haven't-seen-you-in-years friends. For the women in her community. And for women she doesn't even know. Why?

Because she's Alisha.