Friday, April 29, 2016

Parenting, Like Art, is a Revolt

I recently read Kim Brooks’ piece A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom in New York Magazine. And I have some thoughts about it. I tried to be legit and I sent a "letter to the editor" to NYMag, but while I wait for them to discover the genius of my thoughts, I'll share them here. 

Several of my mom-artist friends had re-shared the piece on Facebook. The responses were positive; most friends agreed with Brooks. Brutally honest, someone commented. I clicked on the link, my heart fluttering faster at this chance for emotional camaraderie. But the truth is, while I did mutter a couple of internal "amens," I was largely nose-scrunching, and eye-squinting, and squirming at the core. My disagreement crept in like a slow burn; the reason for it was not obvious to me. I needed to read the piece at least five times, printed out on paper, with a highlighter, to get to the center of why I was feeling so crummy. The heart of her argument is that the qualities that make for good artists make for bad parents, and vice versa. I couldn’t disagree more. 

Brooks writes that having children changed her view on the value of suffering, “Pain is constructive. And misery can be useful. I believed that like I believe the sun rises in the east. Then I had children, and I slowly began to disbelieve and disavow it.” In her view, she must become a boring, conventional, cautious person so that her children will suffer and struggle less. I share Brooks' beliefs on suffering, but I unlike Brooks, having children did not change my position. Regardless of our efforts as parents to keep them safe, our children will suffer, they will struggle, and they will also overcome adversity. There is nothing we can do as parents to prevent it.  Hopefully as they grow, they will come to find that their pain and misery can be constructive and useful. What if, instead of resisting our children’s suffering, we artists held fast to it, and with deep curiosity sought to understand its roots? Psychology and art both lead me to believe that our lifelong fears and pain are rooted in the first moments of life, at a time when we don't yet have words to describe our feelings, while we are figuring out whether our needs in life will be met. As parents we are closer than ever to the source of suffering. Parenting a child gives us a way to understand suffering at large, which helps us make better art. 

What's the point?
When it comes to the point of art (and there are so many opinions out there), I agree with Brooks. Quoting her friend, she writes, “the point of art is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe." But, she adds, "that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.” Shouldn't it be? I have a problem with her take on the point of parenting, especially her assertion that people make families for the opposite reason they make art.

What if all artists approached parenthood the way they do their art? Brooks quotes one of her first writing teachers, "Art, itself is inherently subversive. It’s destabilizing. It undermines, rather than reinforces, what you already know and what you already think." Are our inherited methods of parenting so stable and so reliable that we don't need to undermine them, or destabilize them, as an artist would? Brooks points out, Hippocrates says, “Art is a revolt.” I say, parenting is a revolt too, or it should be. For the first time in history, we get to choose whether we will, when we will, and how we will make families. And maybe our reasons for making a family should be changing too. My husband and I married outside our family and cultural backgrounds. In some ways, our relationship is a revolt. Why should starting our family be different? What if, like artists, we see our task as critically examining the way we were raised, saving what served us well, and aggressively tossing away the rest? I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but maybe I do mean to be subversive. 

Brooks thinks that our parenting suffers when our artist brains are at work. I think all parents would benefit from thinking more like artists. We don't have to just rely on the status quo of parenting. In my opinion, there are major problems with the current parenting culture. So many of us engage in it with whole hearts and minds and guts, and yet, there is this sort of unspoken agreement we won't really talk in depth about what we think or feel or discover within parenting. Out of respect, we do things exactly the way they've always been done, because "we turned out fine," as the previous generation tells us. Or out of respect, we do things differently, but quietly. Outspoken parents who share their convictions are shamed, or blamed for starting a "mommy-war."

We don't have to settle for the way our families did it. Why should we? Do we think that humanity has reached its peak potential? Is the world as wonderful and thriving as it could be? If not, then we should be doing everything we can to raise children who will grow into adults who will make it better.  

I’m art-making and family-making for the same reasons right now. I do both in my corner to heal my piece of the world. I’m challenging what’s already here. I do think it is lovely and fine and great that my experiences as a parent feed my art, as Brooks shares of her friend’s experience at the end of her piece. But I think the more powerful realization is that the artist in me feeds my parenting. 


I’m not talking about how art makes for creative moms, who can throw Pinterest parties, craft up a storm, and improvise twenty verses of Twinkle, Twinkle (though I do love those things). I’m talking about how, as artists, we have the potential to be uniquely excellent parents. Parenting well is not about raising the most well-behaved, socially acceptable, highest-salaried, or even happiest child; but neither is it about creating a protected utopia for our children, free of pain, suffering, or struggle. As artists, we have a deep and obsessive desire to understand relationships, to hold our children’s tears, to dwell with them in the pure pain of childhood, and to feel life's suffering more fully. We challenge what's here, we struggle with the status quo. Maybe we do this, selfishly, to be better artists. But I think it's our selfishness and our deep empathy for the people we love, that will grow our children into people who will also question, undermine, and force this world towards a place we’d rather inhabit.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Chris Rock Made an Asian Joke: A Confession, and My Thoughts

On Monday morning my husband and I were very romantically hovering over the bathroom sink, sonicare-ing our teeth, and simultaneously scrolling through Facebook on our phones. He paused the vibration of his toothbrush to say, "looks like people are pretty upset over Chris Rock's Asian joke?" He was asking me, because while he was busy prepping for a week of classes on Sunday evening, I will confess that I was watching the #OscarsSoWhite with a dear friend. I admit this sheepishly, as despite my quiet outrage at the fact that no actors of color had been nominated, I looked forward to passive night of viewing awards for movies I haven't seen with a glass of wine and the treat of female friendship post-children-in-bed time.

I'll admit something else. I wasn't paying enough attention at that point during the show to recall what the bad Asian joke was. So, I had no answer for my husband as his toothbrush resumed buzzing.

But I wanted to have an answer. I wanted to have an Asian American answer. I immediately started to ask myself if I had been a bad Asian. Where was my outrage? How did I miss that moment? Am I offended? Should I be? I am an Asian artist. I am a writer. I should have an opinion. This is precisely the moment I need to chime in.

I went back and watched the clip of the joke. If you know me well, it won't surprise you to hear that I have been Asian my entire life. I have encountered racism in various forms over the course of 36 years. Sometimes the form was a joke. Some made me laugh, some did not. Sometimes it was a comment, a situation, a declaration. Sometimes I felt angry, blood-boiling, fire-in-my-face mad in the moment. Sometimes it took years for me to realize the sting. Sometimes it came from a dear and close friend. Sometimes from a stranger on a bus. Sometimes the form was flirtation. Sometimes it came from the parent or grandparent of a friend, of a boyfriend. Sometimes it came from a superior, a teacher, a director.

I watched Chris Rock's joke again. And in the midst of trying to formulate my perfect Asian answer to what I ultimately consider a poor choice that hurt rather than furthered the cause for actors of color, it hit me what I was feeling. And what I was feeling wasn't anger at a racist joke. What I was feeling can more accurately be classified as protective mama-bear horror as I witnessed the faces of three young children, who I have a strong sense did not understand why they were on stage.

Do you think they know why the grown ups are laughing?
I imagined my daughter in their shoes, dressing up, being quiet, hitting her mark (or missing it in the case of the little boy in the middle), and standing still in a Dolby-Theatre-sized room as the laughter of grown-ups creeps up from the audience. My heart is saddened, and there's anger behind my eyes. In addition to seeing and hearing our children, I believe it's our job to protect them, not only from physical harm, but from the psychological and emotional harm that being the butt of a joke they don’t understand can harness. 

I’m saddened and angry because we live in a society where the lure of 15 seconds of fame is stronger than parents' protective instinct against exploiting our kids. And laughing at kids' expense, when they have no agency in the matter, while their brains think concretely and they don't yet perceive the difference between the nuance of a joke and real life, that's exploitation. While we're asking how such a joke got past so many people, based on its racist content, I'd also like to ask how it got past so many parents, how it got past these kids' own parents, based on its exploitation of children.

Those are my thoughts. Today I'm furthering the cause of artists of color by giving myself not just the (per)mission, but "the mission" to use my voice. I am an artist. That I am also "of color" is an added descriptor due to where and when I happen to exist in history (a predominantly white country in the 21st century). Today I contribute to the conversation, which I'll argue is the only way to combat any “fill-in-the-blank so white" situation. I join the conversation even though today I was moved more by my mother identity than by my Asian identity. Alternatively, I don’t need to wait until something happens that involves Asian Americans, to lend my voice. I can lend it anytime, whenever I have something to say. Maybe the more I, and other people like me, join the conversation, and wake up our quiet outrage, the less likely our society will be to allow, or even imagine a joke that relies on the cooperation of silent, obedient, Asian kids. Let's make it so that silent Asians aren't even "a thing."

Monday, February 22, 2016

I Thought I Was Better Than You

I'll chalk it up to a healthy dose of self confidence, of positive thinking, maybe some arrogance. I really thought that I was going to be a fantastic stay-at-home-mother, and I thought I was going to make it look effortless. When you were posting Facebook updates of the crazy things your kids were doing, and how exhausted, and drained, and at your wit's end you were, I felt bad. I sympathized. But I secretly thought that I would never be you. I am Asian American after all. Overachieving is part of my culture.  

It was possible, wasn't it, that I would be the exception? Some people think running a marathon is crazy, that performing on stage is terrifying. Hadn't I done those things? You guys, I like a challenge! I enjoy trying to do it myself, to figure it out myself, to make it from scratch. It feels good to me. This might be an annoying thing about me to some, but I think it might bring a certain charm too?

Anyway, hopefully it's obvious where this is going. Maybe I don't need to tell you that my visions of cooking with my daughter, singing with my son, endless cuddling, painting and sculpting art projects, spontaneous dancing, and dramatic storytelling, got tossed out the window. Maybe I shouldn't even mention that I was going to do all this while looking incredibly fashionable, and having a super connected, passionate, compassionate relationship with my husband. Out the third-story window too.

In the fall, I was rehearsing for my neighborhood's community theatre production in the evenings, and I was teaching music classes during the day for families and children. These felt like reasonable pieces of creative work and life that would make my life better, that would help give me enough of this sense of professional identity I was craving outside of being a mother. We were hiring a sitter when I was working and rehearsing. She was working about 20 hours a week. But it wasn't enough, it wasn't even close.

Here was our reality. On a typical day I would get up, and not shower, not wash my face, and not put on any make up. I would MAYBE brush my teeth, and I would very likely pop my contacts in. I would struggle with 3 monsters before 8 am, and send my daughter off to daycare with my husband without giving either a kiss. I would forget to eat breakfast and hand a wailing baby to the babysitter, rushing out to teach a class where I would muster lots of energy to be an engaging and fun music teacher. I'd roll though a fast food drive thru, and sit in my car parked outside my apartment, enjoying the precious 20 minutes of "me time" while my boobs filled with milk. Upon coming in the door, my son would crawl-cry toward me, and I'd pull my shoes off and my shirt up so I could breastfeed him. My stomach would gurgle because of the very fast not very healthy lunch, and I'd feel guilty that my daughter was in full day daycare that day. On the days she was not in daycare, I'd come home to that same crawl-crying baby, and another laugh-crying daughter. Mama milk mama milk! And I'd pull my shoes off and my shirt up so I could nurse both of them. My stomach would gurgle from lunch, and I would ask myself why I didn't just send my daughter to full days of day care every day.

I wasn't enjoying motherhood. By the time my husband got home, I was angry and resentful. I felt dirty, and unappreciated. I was mad at my son for being so needy. I couldn't give my daughter the attention she received before he was born. I was mad at my daughter, for regressing, for wanting more from me when I didn't have any more me to give.  I couldn't give my son the kind of undivided attention she received when she was born. Nothing felt fair. I made dinner while my son screamed from inside a pack n play, and while my daughter screamed for chocolate. I wasn't smiling very much. I was ornery, all the time. 

I left for rehearsal at night feeling more loads of guilt for leaving two children under 3 with my husband. I think I spent 80% of the day feeling angry, resentful, and/or guilty. Hopefully, for the other 20%, I was sleeping.

If you're a parent of young children, maybe this all seems completely normal. I was having the same small-talk conversation over and over again about how hard this time is, but how I'll miss it so much once they are older. And I knew it was true! All the while, I knew that so many mothers do this, that so many mothers have done this. My mom and my husband's mom each had three children, my friend Kelly has four, I know someone else who has five! Why can't I do it? I should be able to do it! And more guilt and disappointment would set in. My experience was such a far cry from the original expectations I had for myself. 

Trip to L.A. in December
If you're in suspense as to how this chapter concludes, I'll fill you in quickly. We started hosting an au pair, and our lives have completely changed. Au pair. it's a French term which literally means "on par" or "equal to." Practically, it refers to a young person from a country different from ours, who helps with childcare in exchange for a cross-cultural experience, and room and board. She's someone who is an "equal" in our family. Her name is Julia, she is from the southern part of France, and she's our new family member. 

Prior to making this fairly impulsive decision, we had all sorts of knee-jerk oppositional reactions to the idea. I think this could, in part, be a result of our Midwestern upbringing. We feel like we not only can, but should do everything on our own. I believe we link some amount of shame to employing help. Having "help" is upper-crusty, and something only "fancy" people have. But I think that hosting an au pair might be an underutilized solution frequently dismissed without honest thought by families all because we think of ourselves as down-to-earth. I think it's possible that we allow our cultural norms to make decisions for us. And while it is true that not everyone has the means, space, or the interest to make this decision, I think that more families might find enormous benefit from this kind of childcare. After running numbers, and if we’re just talking about money (but I’d argue that this conversation is more than about “money”) I can tell you, this solution is less expensive than a full-time nanny, or full time daycare, for a single child here in Chicago. Maybe I’ll talk about that more in a future blogpost. 

Right now, I want to talk about what's changed. 

This morning my daughter got up earlier than usual, but my son was half nursing half sleeping in our bed. My husband had an early morning meeting at work.  But this morning, instead of sacrificing the baby's and my sleep, we got an extra half hour. My husband got to get ready for his meeting on time without rushing. And my daughter got to play with Julia, the kind of playing I always want for her, where a variety of hilarious voices in multiple timbres ring down the hallway. And the dolls are having a dance party. And they bake chocolate cheese broccoli cookies out of blocks. 

This morning I can take a shower, and I have time to write a blogpost and a scene of a play. I can read a chapter from a book. I can drink a cup of tea. I can teach a class. And then after lunch I'll pick my daughter up from half-day daycare, so she can spend the rest of her day with me and her brother. I'll get to be with them, the way I always wanted to, because I'm not as tired, I'm not as angry, I'm not resentful. I don't have this feeling that I’ve given up every part of myself for them. 

Tonight, I can make dinner, and my daughter can help me (one of her favorite things ever). Julia can hold my son up so he watch, or sing songs with him in another room. Tomorrow night, Julia can make dinner, we'll all learn a new recipe and my daughter can help cook again. I can play with my son, we can roll around on the floor making funny faces and sounds, we can read books together. We can all laugh a lot. We have time and energy to laugh. We can cry too. I have the energy to be with my kids when they cry.

We still have lots of whining, crying, frustration, and jealousy. The beds still get wet, and I still don't "sleep through the night." I think these are normal parts of being a growing family with young children, and I'm not sure I want to trade those things in anyway. But we have something else now too, we have a little extra time and with that extra time comes extra energy. Energy to be a lot more like the mom I always wanted to be. We also have a new friend. A new friend who tapes collaborative multi-media art projects on our walls, and helps us with the dishes. Life is full, and much better. 

I’m becoming a little less concerned about what “kind” of a mom I am these days. Maybe I don’t fit into the “stay-at-home-mom” box, or the “working mom” box, or the “work-from-home-mom” box, or the “part-time working mom” box. I am learning to care less about those boxes. They mean less and less to me everyday. I am a mom, and I’m a lot of other things too, and maybe that’s okay.

A part of me is terrified that I've lost you, and that your eyes are rolling at my privilege and at this "too easy” solution. I know that we are tremendously privileged, and I am grateful for this. But I'm hoping very much that you've stayed with me and that you can hear what it is I'm trying to say. Maybe it's okay to look for help if we need it. Maybe it's okay for us to think about what it is we need. Maybe our cultural norms don't have to tell us how to be parents. Maybe there's another way. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

There's a Monster in My House, and It Doesn't Live Under the Bed

Currently, my son is 8 months old, and my daughter is almost 3 years old ("on November 13th" she'll tell you). Before having kids, I expected that taking care of a baby would be difficult, but in my experience, having a toddler in my house is much much harder. 

If you have, have had, or have ever taken care of a toddler, then maybe you know how I feel. You're probably familiar with this scenario. I know that what we're experiencing is not out of the ordinary, that it is in fact, to be expected.

L is my daughter, M is me.
M: Sweetheart, how about you try sitting on the potty before we head out?
L: No!
M: I'd really like you to just give it a try, really quick.
L: Um, I'm sorry, I don't want to.
M: Why not?
L: Um, because I don't want to!
M: Okay, well, you need to try before we head out, so I'll ask you again in three minutes.
(some times goes by)
M: Alright sweetheart, I'd like for you to try sitting on the potty now.
L: Okay 
(starts walking to the bathroom, gets to the door, turns around, suddenly furious)
L: But I told you I don't want to go!
M: I need you to try, otherwise we can't go to the playground.
L: I don't want to go to the playground.
M: You don't?
L: I want to go to the playground!
M: Hon, if we're going to the playground, I need you to try sitting on the potty before we go.
L: No!
M: Okay, then I'm sorry, but we have to stay in.
L: (more furiousness, some crying, some screaming, some stomping, some throwing of objects, some hitting the air, some attempted swings at her brother, before going back into the playroom and reading a book) 
M: (starting to get ruffled, I don't even care about going to the playground, this was her idea to begin with, so whatever, let's just stay home, meanwhile Baby J is whining, he's been strapped to me this whole time, maybe getting a little warm)
L: (playing, standing near the bookshelf, pees, everywhere, all over her clothes, all over the rug on the floor, and stomps in it, flinging wet clothes on our new sofa, it's on the toys, it's on some books)

And this is when the monster comes out. It's quick, a flash, a hot feeling that creeps up behind my eyes, a gurgling in my throat, a hard and sharp pit in my stomach. I feel the monster spread to my hands, they shake, it's in my neck and head, they shake. And in this moment I understand how it is that some parents physically hurt their children. I understand how bruises develop on little bodies and how tiny bones are broken. I am so angry. As angry as I have ever been at anybody. 

Wow, that escalated quickly, Lynnette, you might think. Or, come on, Lynnette, aren't you exaggerating? But here's a bit of dark truth. If anything, I'm underplaying it. I've chosen a scenario that I think might draw some sympathy from you. In reality, there are many scenarios that are far more innocuous, more universally understandable, and that same monster shows up, just as quickly, just as angry, just as dangerous.

It's a monster I keep hidden well from the world. Even my closest friends, people who know me very well, over many years, have not met my monster. Maybe my husband has seen it; maybe a few times in our lives. Maybe. I reserve this terrible creature for my tiny, innocent daughter, who I love more than life itself. She's heard it in my voice; seen it in my eyes. 

Here's what I actually believe about my toddler. I believe she's developmentally in a stage where her job is to test her boundaries. I believe that her saying "no," and "I don't want to," are signs of strong and normal development. It means she is a bright kid, who is asserting her independence.
I don't believe a child this age is capable of being a jerk - she may be acting like one, yes, but she doesn't have malicious intent. I believe she's at a stage where she wants to try things on her own, but also needs badly to feel safe and protected. I don't believe she's a bad kid. I don't think she can be bad. I believe these moments of "rebellion" and "defiance" are her way of asking me, "am I safe here?" "will you have my back no matter what?" and "do you love me?" She needs me to endure the meltdowns, to make my expectations clear, but to find at the end that I am still here, not withholding love from her, and not punishing her for having completely age-appropriate feelings and impulses. Despite all these beliefs, and how much I want to say, "Yes! Yes, my darling, you are my treasure, and I love you, no matter what," I encounter this monster, over and over again.

I've seen this monster before. It's the same one that I glimpsed behind my dad's eyes when we were kids. It's the same monster that spanked me for reasons I can't remember. It whipped out my dad's belt and slammed it against the kitchen table. It banged a chair against the floor, a head against a wall. It lived in the raised red hand print shaped mark on my thigh; it lingered while I watched and waited for the mark to flatten and fade. It's the same monster that I heard in my grandpa's voice, yelling at my grandma, it seemed nightly, shaking the walls and floor beneath my sister's and my bedrooms, waking us up after we'd already gone to bed. And while this monster has not driven me to repeat history, I certainly recognize its growl, and the feeling of uncontrollable anger.

This is an incredibly "un-saving face" kind of blog post to write. Not the kind of thing a good Chinese daughter writes about her family, shining a light on unsavory family details, calling out a grandpa on his abuse, years after he's already left the earth. Why bring that up? Just take responsibility for your own monster, Lynnette, stop trying to blame it on your father, and your father's father.  
I think it's a common thing, to follow in your family's footsteps. It's why we have idioms about apples falling from trees. And so often we do the thing our family has done, in the name of respect, and honor. We default, as parents, to parenting the way our parents did. Sometimes we consciously choose to do what they did, saying, We turned out fine, didn't we?

I think this monster has been speaking to my family for many generations, and that the parents who have come before me have also heard what I'm hearing, a warning, "watch out, you've got to control this kid, make her listen to you, or else." Or else... or else you'll end up with a spoiled kid, or else she'll take advantage of you and others, or else she won't know wrong from right. We listen to this monster and do what it tells us, in an effort to protect, to teach. That's our job as parents isn't it? 

But I'm interested in saving a new face. The beautiful faces of my toddler daughter and my baby son. Lots of things get passed on through the generations of a family: the appearance of our hair and eyes, the tendency toward having bad vision, a talent for music, diabetes, alcoholism, and I also believe, monsters. I don't have much control over whether my kids end up receiving a lot of those things, but if there's anything I can do to stop this monster, I'd like to try. I'd like to save my children's faces from having to feel this monster creep up behind their eyes and ears. I'd like to save their faces from wearing any of this monster's scars.

So I think I'd like to swallow this monster. Better yet, I'd like to demolish it, drown it, burn it, make it small and powerless. I want to do to it, all the things it makes me want to do to my daughter when it appears. I'd like to wipe it off the face of this earth, end its relationship with me and my family, forget it completely. 

But I can't give my children a monster-less world. This world is full of monsters, and these feelings are real. Perhaps there's even a way to honor the old things passed onto me by my family, both the seemingly good, and the seemingly bad.

So I'd like to say thank you, dear monster, for your urgency, your passion, and your rage. I hope that I and my children will spring to action when we're needed, will find things worthy of our passion, and will know which things deserve our rage. I see you, dear monster, and I thank you for your warning, but you may go now, because I am not afraid of you or what you have to say.

----------
I've been reading No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame by Janet Lansbury. It's helping me keep the monster at bay.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

National Breastfeeding Awareness Month is Over.

All last month I read blogposts and articles about breastfeeding and have wanted to get in on the conversation. I have pages of handwritten thoughts on the matter. But the month has come and gone, and I've struggled to edit those thoughts.

I've been wanting to write about my boobs for quite some time. I wouldn't have guessed I would ever feel this way. Before having children, I'd have put my money on me being the kind of mom who would want to nurse privately, discreetly, out of sight, who would go to great lengths to make other people feel comfortable. But here I am, wanting to write about boobs. Breasts.
Breasts?
Breasts.
Breasts?
Breasts.

This is a conversation I have with my daughter. We have a book aimed at preparing older siblings for the arrival of a new baby. The book talks about how the younger baby sibling is going to be drinking milk from mom's breasts. And every time we get to that part, she asks me again, "Breasts?" "Breasts." "Breasts?" Like, "am I saying that right?" She laughs, "Okay, but I call them mama milks!" She'll be 3 years old in November, and she is familiar with breastfeeding because it is something she does everyday.

I've been stressing about what to write about breastfeeding, because I have felt some sort of pressure to "make a case." When I flip through those handwritten pages, I find defenses, apologies, explanations, and proof.

Last December, when I was quite pregnant with my son and my daughter had recently turned two, I found this article circulating in some of my circles about a woman who was nursing her six and a half year old daughter. Despite the article's many examples of positive results from her full-term nursing, her story garnered only a bit of support. It felt to me that the whole of the online public was appalled with her choice, calling her lots of things from "extreme" or "disgusting" to "completely insane" and "sexually abusive."

A few weeks later, an NPR piece came out called What's Right About a Six-year-old Who Breastfeeds. The story included scientific and anthropological evidence for why "extended breastfeeding" is beneficial and quite normal throughout much of the world. An anthropologist interviewed for this piece, who breastfed her own children until they were 3 and 5.5, acknowledges that the information can be hard for people to stomach in the moment, and thus encourages others like herself to “shout it from the rooftops once their children are grown.” After this article came out, I found silent solace in the fact that I could one day, decades from now, shout from the rooftops that I had nursed my child into toddlerhood (and beyond?).

But a couple decades is a long time to wait to talk about something that is such a big part of my current everyday.

I don't share my story in order to convince, or persuade. I am not interested in judging anyone's choices as a parent. I am honored, and incredibly fortunate, to have the opportunity and ability to do what we do. I'll put these thoughts on the page, relieving myself of the pressure to find the most important or compelling things to say. My story is not unique. I am joined by mothers in my local community, and by thousands of mothers in online communities who do what I do. My simple goals are to contribute to the conversation and to come out of the tandem nursing closet.

I've hardly been completely secretive about nursing both my kids simultaneously. But in those moments when I have shared it, I have felt myself apologizing for it. And I hate that tensing in my neck, and the way my voice gets high, like I'm embarrassed or ashamed. I hate hearing myself joke, "Ha-ha, I'm sorry! I guess, I've turned into one of those weirdo hippie moms!" I'd like to stop prefacing my story with "I'm sorry," because I am not sorry.

I used to joke with a dear friend about how the time to stop nursing was when your child could start asking for it in his own voice with his own words.  It seemed reasonable at the time, from where I stood, childless and very unaware of my breasts.

My daughter started to ask for "mama milk" a little past her first birthday. A few months later she started to say "other side milk." She was just learning to walk, and it felt like a bad time to stop. I think both she and I were excited that we could so clearly understand one another. Around that time, we found that we were expecting her younger sibling.

It's the case that many mothers lose their milk supply when they are pregnant, and that many babies self-wean because they lose interest due to the decrease in milk, or the changing taste. I thought it was likely that would happen to my daughter.

That was over a year and a half ago.  My son was born a couple months after she turned two. I'm sure there were changes in my milk, but they didn't affect my daughter's interest in nursing.
                                                                                                                                                                These days, there are certainly many times (i.e. in the middle of the night, when we're out in public) that feel inopportune to nurse. I ask her, more than a little exasperatedly, "Why do you need mama milk, right now?"

And I can see her gearing up to answer; thinking carefully about her words. She doesn't want to mess it up for herself. Her voice is steady and slow, but quickens a little, the way mine does when I'm nervous I won't get something I really really want.

"But mama!" her voice and face are bright. Then, "mama," low and calm. "Because I really really love mamamilk sooooooo much!"

"Why do you love it so much?"

"Because!" Brightly again and a little incredulous. "It makes me so so happy! It makes me feel very happy!"

Nursing my toddler daughter is taxing at times. When I'm full, nursing her feels like a wonderful and great relief: the world's gentlest and most effective breast pump. When I'm tired, or depleted, nursing her feels like an icky skin crawling chore. But then I ask myself how many times I have been able to identify so precisely and verbalize so clearly, that something I love brings me happiness. It doesn't feel right to me to respond to her pure and straightforward desire and request, with termination. It doesn't make sense to me to stop now either.

Nursing my seven-month-old son is sometimes like offering a warm and soft coconut to a tiny, hungry, very soft, and squishy chipmunk. It's like curling up in the softest, coziest hammock, and letting the barely-there breeze swing you to sleep. And other times I am being sucked up by a baby beast, who yanks at my hair or tries to remove my lips from my face with his very strong tiny fists as he drinks. I remember hearing about how breastfeeding is a special way to "bond" with your baby. Yes, I think that is true. But never did a word feel so inadequate to describe the experience. Nursing, feels to me, like the closest I can get to my kids while still remaining a separate person.

When I was pregnant with my son, we talked about how "Baby Junior" (his in utero nickname) would come out someday and would want to have mama milk too. My daughter would cup my opposite breast while she was nursing, then take a break to tell me, "this one is for Baby Junior." My husband and I wondered how much she was understanding about my pregnancy. The idea that she'd be joined by a new tiny person, who would one day take her toys, and share her milk, seemed to us a very abstract idea for a two-year-old to grasp.

I'll never know how much she truly understood, but on the day she met her baby brother, she demonstrated that there was some part of what we'd been saying for the past nine months that stuck with her. When she heard him cry for the first time, she jumped up next to me and patted one of my breasts. "Maybe he wants mama milk," she said. She stood by my side as we urged a 36-hour-old Baby Junior to latch. She actually took hold of my boob and pressed it toward his mouth, offering it to him while he cried. When he had latched, she sat down on one half of my lap and joined us, nursing on the other side, like it was something she'd done a million times.

I don't nurse them at the same time everyday, it's something that happens from time to time. Often times my daughter wants to join, when she sees me nursing her brother. And lately, my son wants to join when he sees me nursing his sister, especially in the afternoons on the days she's at daycare. It's a way we get to all say to one another, "Hello, it's nice to see you again. I missed you today"

Nursing them at the same time is like being in on a sibling secret. They lock eyes, and from the very moment my son was home with us, the two of them have had this opportunity to communicate intimately. When he was days old, she would reach out and touch his head, or stroke his back. As he got older, he would eventually start to reach out and touch her face, or tug on her hair. She laughs at this, which makes him laugh, which in turn makes me laugh. There is no possible way to not laugh when you have two giggling children latched onto your breasts. They hold hands. It is not something I taught them to do. They reach for each other and laugh, and their little hands are saying "I'm here."

Breastfeeding awareness. I am so aware, so so aware of my breasts these days. They are so presently a part of my life, They have a big job to do.

I've been asked, "but aren't you looking forward to having your body back?"

And this is what I think. Nobody took my body from me. I never did lose it. I love this awesome body, that birthed two babies like a champ, with breasts that fill with milk and make my children feel so so happy, that have the power to make two screaming children cuddle, coo, and sometimes fall asleep within seconds. I love my breasts that never let me forget that my kids are here, even when I'm not with them. They tell me when my kids need me, or when I need them. Right now, this body can squelch loneliness, soothe "owies", calm tantrums, ease upset stomachs, silence monsters, and ward off sickness.   This magic body is mine, all mine.

National Breastfeeding Awareness Month may be over, but I don't see why we can't keep the Breastfeeding Awareness spirit alive, all year long.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why December Makes Me Sad

Musing on why December makes me sad...

I wrote a blog post for Kveller.com this week, and I'd like to link to it here.  Perhaps, despite the melancholy tone of the piece, you'll feel hopeful like I do?

Hello, December. It’s that time of year here in America. A time for good tidings of comfort and joy. A time for happy family memories and meaningful traditions. But for me and my interfaith marriage, December now comes packaged with a new tradition–an annual holiday cry (or if I’m really being honest…cries. Plural.)
Now I know a lot of people cry during the holidays. The pressure of stressful travel plans and forced family gatherings is enough to make many people crack. But for the interfaith family, December is a particularly lonely time.
I go online to order holiday cards. (I am a little behind this year.) I skip over the red and green ones, the ones with Christmas trees or holly or Santa Claus, the ones that say “Merry Christmas,” the ones that say “Happy Hanukkah,” and I’m left to choose from lots of cards with “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” written generically on the front. After much much agonizing, I pick, “Peace, Joy, and Love.” Those are things that people from all faiths want, right?  Continue reading -->

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

One (or Five Hundred Twenty Five Thousand Six Hundred Minutes)

Musing on one year…  and a letter to my baby girl.

It’s crept up on me - our daughter’s first birthday.  And alongside the anniversary of the day of her birth comes my official realization of exactly how fast one year of life can pass.  It’s nearly daily, as we watch her play, that my husband tells me with a tinge of dread in his voice, she’s going to college soon.  And as seasoned parents tell me, he’s right.

Seeing the world from a new point of view
This year has been filled with beautiful memories: endless amounts of shameless gushing over everything she does, of the secretly held belief in our biased hearts that even as she embarks on the same milestones as every other single baby in the world throughout time, she’s the best baby that ever lived.  But even as I fill with pride and joy, I am also growing ever more familiar with the haunting feeling that we are going to mess it all up.  Gazing into my baby’s happy, soulful eyes, I know that not everyday ahead will be blissful and full of light. 

There’s something I used to do when I was pregnant.  Those haunting feelings were familiar back then.  I’d often lay awake at night worrying about whether the baby growing inside me was getting everything she needed, and hoping she was healthy, strong, comfortable, and well.  And so whenever I encountered that paralyzing worry, I'd get up and out of bed, and would pull out a notebook and write her a letter.  I made the decision not only to “journal,” but to actually write words directly to my baby.  I wanted to get a head start on what I hope will be a lifetime of open and direct communication - of not sacrificing what’s really going on for the sake of appearing like we’ve got everything together, or saving face.

Today is a perfect day for another letter.

Dear Baby Girl,

You are one year old today!  It’s been one year since you and I worked together, along with Dada and Kate, to bring you from inside my uterus out into the world.  You came into the world with your eyes wide open.  From the very first moments, you were already looking around, alert and awake. 

You are strong.  Just minutes after you were born, we placed you on top of me, belly to belly, and you inched and wiggled, all by yourself, up to my chest.  Once you were up there, you picked up your head, threw it over to one side, and began nursing for the very first time, all on your own.  I was there to make sure you didn’t fall, and to offer a bit of support and guidance.  But you knew what to do already.  Every time you come across a new challenge in life, or a big task, look inside yourself first, you might already have an idea as to how to begin.  But also don’t be afraid to look for help; we are here to support you.

You are small.  Yes, you are smaller than most other babies your age.  You have tiny hands and tiny feet.  But we are all small.  In comparison to this big, big world around us, we are just a very small piece.  Always look around you with wonder and remember that you are part of something bigger than yourself. But also know that our physical size doesn’t have anything to do with our capacity to love, give, and make a big difference.  You can do big, big things, no matter how small you are.

The world is both good and bad.  People will try to tell you that it's all one or all the other, but I don’t believe it.  When I look around, I see and experience that both are true.  In this past year of your life, there has been unspeakable badness and sadness.  A month after you were born, there was a horrible shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, and then a few months later there was a bombing at the Boston Marathon, and just this week a typhoon hit the central Philippines, the country my family is from.  Someday you might ask me why these bad things happen, and I will tell you honestly that I don’t know.  I will tell you that I still ask that same question.  Don’t ever stop asking that question.  Trying to find the answer can lead you toward a deeper understanding of people, give you a greater sense of empathy, and inspire you to fight for what you believe in. 

To find the good in this past year, I don’t have to look too far.  I only have to see you smile, which is something you do freely and frequently.  I only have to feel your Dada squeeze my hand as we watch you play, and discover, and learn.  I only have to watch the way complete strangers light up when they meet you.  You are already, even at your very young age, spreading good cheer everywhere we go.

I love you.  Unconditionally.  There's nothing you need to do or not do to earn my love.  People often warn me that someday you'll do things that will make it difficult for me to love you.  That as a teenager you'll roll your eyes at me and want nothing to do with me.  And I know we may hurt each other, sometimes unintentionally, and other times on purpose.  But I’m holding out hope that even through tough times, we'll keep talking.  I’m hoping that ours will be a home where we talk about how we feel and what we're afraid of, where we say we're sorry and take responsibility for our mistakes.  That ours will be a home where you hear and feel how much we love you, everyday.

Happy Birthday, my darling.  Thank you for this amazing year. 
I am so incredibly honored to be your mama. 

Love always,

Me

-----
One - is the finale from A Chorus Line.  When I listen to this song, I swear they are singing about my baby.  :)
Seasons of Love - sometimes unofficially called "Five Hundred Twenty Five Thousand Six Hundred Minutes."  I've listened to this song from Rent since I was in high school, this year it has completely refreshed meaning to me.