Twelve Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About the Fourth Trimester…or Things People Told Me, But I Didn’t Understand Until Having a Baby, so Now I’m Telling You

“Pheoby, yuh got tuh go there tuh know there. Yo’ papa and yo’ mama and nobody else can’t tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God and they got tuh find out about livin fuh theyselves.” – Janie in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Lucia, 1 day

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Lucia, 3 months

 

Today Lucia is three months old. I could wax poetic about how quickly times is passing (and wow. sigh. is it.) and how magical Lucia is (and wow. is she), but instead I’m going to celebrate that we’ve made it through the “fourth trimester,” that frantic/beautiful/stressful/wondrous/horrible/unpredictable/life-making/earth-shattering/transitional period of time in which a newborn adjusts to life outside of the womb (and parents become parents!). The past twelve weeks, as Lucia has navigated life outside the womb and Jared and I have negotiated our new roles as parents, have been the most joyful in my life but also some of the most challenging. Before I had Lucia, I read at least twenty parenting books, I listened to well-intentioned advice, and I did my best to prepare for her arrival. But just as Janie tells her friend: “You have to go there to know there.”  So without further ado, here are twelve wise things other people told me about those early weeks of parenthood but I had to find out for myself and now I’m passing them on to you:

1.You will feel all the emotions. Buoyant with anticipation, I was basically flying high my entire pregnancy. Jared said he’d never known me to be so happy. Since Lucia’s arrival, I would say my underlying emotion is: joy, true and utter. But coupled with that joy is often despair.  My heart is made every single day. However, at the same time my heart is made, my heart breaks. Time passes too quickly for me. I find myself, at times, in the grips of anxiety. I wonder, “Am I doing this right? Is Lucia okay?” Dr. Google is at once my best friend and mortal enemy. When you have a baby, you are a soggy mess of emotions, all the time, and there’s research that says this is NORMAL!* The good news is that while your partner, as wonderful as he/she is, sometimes just won’t understand, other moms do…which leads me to point two.

* Postpartum depression is another story. It’s real and terrible, and it affects many women. Here are some resources on ppd.

2. It’s really important to have other mom friends for support. So, reach out! There’s no one quite so desperate (grateful) for a friend as a new mom. Everyone needs someone to say, “I get it. I truly get it. And you’re doing a good job.” You’ll feel especially raw and vulnerable those first weeks of motherhood. But guess what? Vulnerability is also the birthplace of love. Brene Brown tells us, “ We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.” I can’t tell you how appreciative I am for the mom friends I’ve begun to make. And believe it or not, making a mom friend is relatively painless.

Here’s how you make a mom friend: “Hey, your baby is absolutely beautiful. What is your name? Let’s be friends.”

That’s it.

When you’re a new mom, you can be direct and honest about your desire to be friends. In between breastfeeding, changing diapers, managing your child’s needs, and riding the wave of your own emotions, there’s just no time for the delicate social dance adult friendships usually require. So, get out there and make some friends. Attend the new parents group at your hospital or birthing center, go to storytime at the library, get outside for walks, sit on a bench at the park, and introduce yourself to other moms. Exchange numbers, and then make a date for a walk or a simple chat at your house while you rock your babies. Take every opportunity you can to build connections, and talk, talk, talk.

 3. Sleep when the baby sleeps. There’s a reason sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture. It disrupts basic biological functioning and makes you crazy and paranoid. It contributes to and worsens postpartum depression.  Sleep is essential to sanity, so when your baby sleeps, SLEEP. Don’t do laundry. Don’t make yourself a cup of coffee. To quote a wise book, ”Go the eff to sleep.”

I was riding the euphoric high of Lucia’s arrival, so in her early weeks, I did not do a great job of heeding this advice. And then one day, I hit.the.wall. A mean, hot mess, I could barely string a sentence together. When Jared told me I needed a nap, I broke down in tears, yelled at him for “criticizing me,” told him I wasn’t tired and that he was crazy, and then slept for six hours straight while he held the baby. I woke up feeling like a human again. My “human-ness” is directly correlated with the number of hours Lucia sleeps. Sleep when your baby sleeps. Period. End of story.

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4. Treat your body well, believe in its resilience, and know that one day vegetables will look appealing again. The Chinese tradition of “zuo yuezi,” a month-long period following labor in which the mother is expected to do basically nothing (no stairs, no laundry, no cleaning, nothing) except rest in bed and feed her baby, makes so much sense. Indeed, even though I had an active pregnancy and a relatively easy labor, I was depleted in the early weeks postpartum. I was absolutely starving all the time but had no time to actual fix myself a good meal. I was sore and tired, and if I stood or walked around too much, I would ache at night. But, I tried to listen to my body closely and trust that it knew what it needed (rest and lots of Annie’s Bunny Grahams, apparently). And Jared was a peach and did all the scurrying around to ensure that I wouldn’t. That rest was vital. Sure enough, around the six week mark, I started to feel markedly better; my energy was more consistent, and I actually craved the salads and vegetables that earlier I had to force myself to eat between nibbles of lactation cookies, teddy grahams, and chocolate. Now, I feel stronger, more energetic, and more balanced every day. When you’re sitting in gargantuan granny panties on an ice pack with a mewling baby in your arms, you have moments where you believe you will NEVER feel like a normal person again. Allow time to work its magic and rest.

5. Get outside for a walk. There’s nothing a brief walk can’t cure. I remember the doula who ran my childbirth class telling us to “walk as much as possible,” and now I understand why: mama and baby benefit. Lucia loves being outside, and the fresh air – however bracing – is energizing. I try to get outside for a walk everyday, even on – rather, especially on – those days where it seems darn near impossible to leave the house. Thankfully, we’ve had a relatively mild winter so far, and on the cold days, I simply put Lucia in her snowsuit, pop her in the Boba, and zip my fleece over the both of us. Getting out for a walk can seem like a herculean task in the early days, but it is always worth it. Fresh air is so good for the soul.

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6. Accept help when it’s offered, and ask for help when you need it. Jared and I are both fiercely independent people, but when we were absolutely drowning in the new responsibilities of a baby, we took friends and family up on their gracious offers to cook us a meal or to fold laundry. We felt so fortunate to be able to give most of our attention to our new baby, instead of to meal planning and cooking. However, far and away the single best thing I did post-delivery was to plan three home visits from a lactation consultant and postpartum doula (and Milwaukeeans, if you’re looking for a recommendation, Dawn Davis is bomdiggity!). Yes, I had a couple of good meetings with the lactation consultant at the hospital, but when I got home from the hospital, I was feeling near paralyzed by the weight of responsibility: the entirety of my daughter’s well being rested on my shoulders. The home visits were essential to my understanding the nuts and bolts of breastfeeding, latching, and pumping, but more importantly, these visits gave me the confidence to trust my nurturing instinct.

 7. Make peace with not being in control, and know that it gets easier. The first weeks of parenting are a completely chaotic, magical whirlwind. Everything is new, and there is so much to be figured out. And just when you think you have something dialed, everything changes, and you’re back at square one. When you’re in the thick of it – up to the elbows in explosive, yellow, seedy poop and you’re bleary eyed from lack of sleep and your little Houdini keeps escaping her swaddle and won’t go back down – it’s hard to recognize the ways in which everyday you’re getting to know each other better and that each and every day things are a little easier because of it. People will tell you over and over again, “It gets easier,” and, you know what? They’re right.

 Jared and I have been humbled over and over again these past twelve weeks, and, at the same time, every day has been better than the last. At week four, Jared and I were bone tired. The initial euphoria was wearing off, help had dropped off, Lucia wouldn’t sleep for more than 1.5 hours at a time, she was going through her first developmental leap, which made for one fussy chica, and the manic pace of the holidays was in full swing. I’d call my best friend in a sleep-deprived panic, and she’d tell me, “It gets easier,” the refrain I’d hear also from my parents, my parents-in-law, and basically every other human who has been a parent. Guess what? It does. It gets easier. By week five, Lucia had returned to her usual happy little self, we worked out a system for sleeping, and all three of us were better versions of ourselves. And largely, every single day has been better than the last; the more awake to the world she gets, the more fun we have together. The bottom line? As soon as you get used to one phase, something changes again. So, soak in all the sweet moments with your sleepy, cuddly newborn. Look at your baby for hours on end. Forget about the chores and all the things you “should” be doing, just for a little bit, for those sweet moments are just as fleeting as the sleepless nights and the fussy afternoons. Parenting is one big lesson about impermanence. And when it’s tough, know that it’ll get better.

8. Do you. There is no right way. Before I had Lucia, I read copious parenting books, and then once she came, I found myself resorting to Dr. Google at all hours of the day as well as soliciting advice – about breastfeeding, about sleep, about acid reflux, you name it – from anyone who would offer it. My head was swimming with conflicting recommendations, and in those early weeks, I sometimes cast aside my own instincts to try out something someone had told me. A very wise friend told me after an angst-ridden conversation about breastfeeding, “Sarah, STOP READING. Just trust yourself!” Indeed, there is a balance to be achieved between relying on time-trusted wisdom and following your own instincts. And there is no perfect way to raise a child.  Sometimes, you’ve just got to do you.

 For example, when Lucia was dealing with reflux (poor thing) and couldn’t sleep for more than an hour and a half at a time on her back, we tried e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g to help her – the swing, the rock and play, the boppy, an inclined bassinet – and nothing worked. Jared and I read anything we could find about reflux, and one morning, we drove to Buy Buy Baby and spent a ridiculous sum on an inclined chair specifically designed for infants with reflux. We were confident that all our research had led us to the magical, expensive fix. Welp, I tried for three nights to get her to sleep in that inclined chair, and by golly, my efforts were for naught. I called my dad to ask for his advice. “She only sleeps in her car seat or on my chest,” I wailed into the telephone. He paused and then said matter-of-factly, “So let her sleep in the car seat or on your chest.” “Really?” I gasped in relief. “I won’t be a bad mom for letting her sleep in her car seat?”

Long story short: my daughter sleeps in her car seat, in the Bob Stroller, next to our bed. She freaking loves her car seat and sleeps beautifully in it. She adores her car seat so much I’m afraid she’ll drag it with her to kindergarten, instead of the sweet, tattered lovies her friends stuff in their backpacks. The bassinet has transformed to a very expensive, raised laundry basket. Did I imagine this parenting choice? No, but we’re doing us. You do you.

 9. Celebrate your partner (because in those early weeks, sometimes you will hate each other). Jared is a natural father, and he is a generous and loving spouse; I don’t think my heart has been fuller. We share an abundance of joy. But.

 Sometimes, in the early weeks of parenthood, you can forget how wonderful your partner is. Like when he asks you one morning, “Honey, did you wet the bed?” and you have to explain to him how engorgement works and how lucky is it that he doesn’t have boobs and also how lucky he is that he manages to sleep through any noise your child makes. So, yeah. There will be times where you will curse your partner for not having breasts and he will curse you for being the only one who does, especially when he’s holding your screaming infant while you take a much-needed shower. But.

A kind word goes such a long way; all anyone wants in this world is to be loved and appreciated. There’s nothing that will make your partner feel like a million bucks more than a long hug and kiss, some kind words, and a thank you.

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10. If you’re going to invest in two things, buy a wrap and Wonder Weeks.  We’ve got the Boba – and I can’t say enough good things! – but there are a million good wraps out there. There are so many benefits of babywearing, but the bottom line, real life reason to babywear is this: your baby will be happy, and you will have use of your hands. It’s the little things in life, folks. So, take a wrap class, ask around, and get a wrap. Done.

Secondly, get Wonder Weeks. Unlike other mammals, human babies are born with their brains largely undeveloped (otherwise, their heads would be too big to deliver vaginally!); babies are incredibly vulnerable. I could barely believe we were allowed to take our tiny Lu home with us from the hospital! The fourth trimester ushers in huge transitions and developmental changes for babies. In the cozy, safe darkness of the womb, their every need is taken care of, but once born, babies must suddenly contend with shocking light of the world; they experience hunger, thirst, wetness, and fear for the first time. Further, babies go through several developmental “leaps,” as they learn to move beyond simple reflexes like sucking, breathing, and swallowing, and wake up to the world of light, color, needs, and the joys (and terrors) of social interaction. This book sheds startling light on periods of rapid development (in the fourth trimester, these occur roughly 5, 8, and 12 weeks) and the accompanying strategies parents can use to help facilitate and ease the transitions.

So while Lucia generally needed lots of attention and cuddles during her fourth trimester, there were times when she was unusually clingy, fussy, and more attached than usual. Just when Jared and I would wonder, “Where has our dear Lucia gone?” we’d turn to the book for wisdom; invariably Lu would be smack in the middle of a leap. Get this book.

11. You’re the adult, sure, but your baby is your greatest teacher. In a fast-paced, hyper-connected, multitasking world, Lucia has given me daily lessons in slowness, in presence, in absorption. I feel called to a greater simplicity with her in my life. The wonder in her eyes at something so simple as her own fingers or a colorful pattern makes me appreciate the present, the beauty of the world we live in. The smiles she offers instruct in the abundance of joy. When your baby arrives, your world will be both grander and more myopic than ever before. Slow down, smile, and enjoy.

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12. Motherhood changes your life, and that’s the best part about it. As I’ve written about before, when you’re pregnant, you’re a magnet for all the horror stories about lack of sleep, about velcro babies, about everything you have to give up when you’re a parent. Some of these warnings are legitimate (sleep deprivation stinks — see #3), but what these well-intentioned tidbits leave out is the incredible heart-breaking, heart-making magical joy that is also motherhood. The moment Lucia came in to this world my entire life changed. My heart has grown ten sizes, and I have encountered joy in ways I never knew about before. I love Jared in a different and more profound way than before too. Not all mothers feel this way right away – and that’s okay. And sometimes the challenges of parenthood are overwhelming. But is it worth it? Yes, yes, yes, a million times yes.

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Bottoms Up: DIY Wipes

Long before I got pregnant, my good friend and style/homemaking/creativity maven, Gilbo, told me that making your own wipes was super easy and had saved her children from diaper rash. “Think about all the chemicals in wipes,” she said. I filed that one away and have been making baby wipes since Lu was born. They’re SUPER simple to make, and while they might warrant an initial investment for the ingredients, they will save you the trips to Target where you, inevitably, walk in for “just a couple of things” and walk out $100 bucks poorer, with a tummy ache from the Moose Munch you simply had to open while browsing the makeup aisle. 

We use Water Wipes if we’re in a pinch, but I swear, these are magical. Lu almost always cries when I use store-bought wipes but veritably wiggles her tushka in glee with these. They smell great, they’re cheap, and they’re au naturale for le bebe.

Ingredients:

1 roll of paper towel, cut in half. Invest in the good stuff. We use Viva.

1 tablespoon of olive oil (or almond oil)

1 tablespoon of castile soap. We use Dr. Bronner’s lavender.

1 tablespoon of witch hazel.

15-20 drops of an essential oil of your choice. We like lavender.

2.5 cups of boiling water or so.

You will also need a wipes container or a tupperware container. We have use this OXO container.

Directions:

Bring 2.5 cups of water to boil and pour in a bowl. Add the olive oil, witch hazel, castile soap, and essential oils, and whisk thoroughly. Let the mixture cool.

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Meanwhile, using a bread knife, cut the paper towel roll in half. Fold one half of the paper towel roll (or double the recipe and fold both) Jacob’s ladder style. This is the most tedious part of the process and best left for type A husbands to do as they watch football games. Transfer the paper towel to your wipes container. Depending on how well you’ve folded the paper towels, your wipes may be a little bulky for a typical wipes container. Don’t worry: the wipes solution will help with that!

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When the wipes mixture has cooled, give it another good whisk, and pour over the folded wipes.

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Bottoms up!

Mama’s Milkshake: the Lactation Smoothie, an Alternative to the Ubiquitous Lactation Cookie

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Like many new moms, I spend a(n) (un)reasonable amount of time thinking about my breasts. I: marvel at how miraculous it is that I feed my baby from them; wonder how it’s possible for them to be at one moment porn star-worthy and, at another moment, to take on the quality of that lonely, semi-deflated balloon you find behind your sofa weeks after any balloon-inclusive celebration; guess at whether I can make it through a yoga class without breast pads; curse the amount of laundry I do now thanks to those leaking breasts; lament how different they look post-pregnancy and then fish for effusive compliments from my husband and then, when he gives them to me, act like he’s a pervert for conflating what is clearly, now,  a source of sustenance for our infant with a sex object.

Mostly, I feel enormous gratitude for being able to sustain my daughter and nurture our bond through breastfeeding. Indeed, these days I devote the attention I once paid…say…my eyebrows or bikini line to maintaining my supply. I’ve consumed copious lactation cookies in the past nine weeks, but after the holidays, I’ve been craving lighter, simpler foods. Enter the lactation smoothie. Deliciously sweet and nutty and packed with lactation-promoting ingredients, it’s a breeze to make and keeps me energized all morning long.

Ingredients:

1 serving of chocolate protein powder (I use Tera’s Whey Organic Grassfed Chocolate Protein Powder – it’s not chalky and has ingredients you can feel good about) 

about 1 cup of coconut milk

a handful of ice

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon chia seeds

2 tablespoons Brewer’s yeast ( You can read about the benefits of Brewer’s Yeast and supply here)

1 tablespoon flaxseed

1 banana

**On days when I’m particularly ravenous, I like to up the healthy fats with a scoop of nut butter or a tablespoon of coconut oil.

Enjoy!

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On Bodies, Motherhood, and Daughters: Rambles at 38 weeks

Growing up, I believed that Santa Claus concerned himself chiefly with children’s oral hygiene and proper undergarments.  Every year, amidst the red and green Hershey Kisses were, invariably, the multi-packs of Crest whitening paste, toothbrushes, floss, altoids, and Trident sugar-free cinnamon gum that formed the bulk of my Christmas stocking treasures.  My brothers’ and my stockings were always a little differentiated: while Hunter and Nelson pulled jumbo packs of tube socks and boxers from the depths of their stocking, I excitedly tore open packages of practical white underwear and pale pink socks with bows on them. While my mother put the finishing touches on gifts downstairs and my father brewed an extra large carafe of coffee, my brothers and I passed those early dawn hours before we were allowed to open presents chomping Hershey kisses, donning our new socks, and then jamming several pieces of gum into our mouths.

Christmas at the Hoffman house was over-the-top, my mom tending with her photographer’s eye to every last detail: the perfectly whimsical curls of the ribbons atop the brightly-colored packages; the tiny twinkling lights she strung up on the dollhouse she built for me when I was six, the home’s family room a mirror of ours, with a tall tree and packages spilling across the floor; the holy sounds of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir balancing out the greedy glee of her children. My mom did Christmas magnificently; even institutionalized, she somehow managed to pull off a Martha Stewart-worthy affair. She’d send moving boxes of gifts weeks in advance of the holiday with special instructions for my dad tucked inside on the Christmases she was too sick to travel, or she’d arrive to Milwaukee with three overstuffed duffles and spend her two-day visit alternately doped up on Valium or maniacally decking the halls.

By the time I was ten, the contents of my Christmas stocking reflected a subtle shift in Santa’s concerns for me. Joining the multipacks of dental floss and underwear were jumbo boxes of Jolene Cream Face Bleach, for example. It’s true, I had a mustache, but this inclusion sparked a deeply-rooted idea that real women didn’t have excess hair. This belief became pathological in the early years of my adulthood when I developed a paranoia that I suffered from an undiagnosed endocrine disorder and, in more obsessive periods, that I was a well-disguised, but certain, hermaphrodite.  When I started seeing an OB-GYN as a teenager, I’d pepper her with questions about hormone regulation and facial hair and insist that she run a full hormone panel. “Are you sure I’m normal?” I’d implore at the end of our appointments, screwing my unibrow into a furrow. Rather than refer me to an endocrinologist, she wrote me a script to see a therapist. I finally cashed in this referral when a reading of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex for an undergraduate course sent me into such a tailspin of research about intersexism that I had to ask for an extension on my paper.

One Christmas in my late middle school years, a paperback copy of The Atkins Diet was shoved into the bottom of my stocking, making this otherwise cozy sack of yarn full of sharp edges. While the boys stuffed themselves with chocolate and candy canes, I learned about the ways I should change my body. Skinnier was better. But of course, it wasn’t from Santa I learned these messages of unworthiness.  Opening packages of Gap Kids skirts that year, I told my mom, “Um, these aren’t going to fit me.” “Really?” she replied, “I’ll take them. They work for me perfectly.”

In addition to schizophrenic, my mother is anorexic, subsumed by a decades-long eating disorder that has left her with a hollowed-out body and a mind that, already plagued by psychosis, is muddied further by nutrition deprivation. I’ve seen my mother destroy her body and mind. As a child, I watched her refuel from a ten-mile run with a light yogurt and eschew the beautiful Thanksgiving meals she prepared in favor of a single serving of frozen squash. As a teenager, during a painful family therapy session at the institution where she lived most of my growing up life, I’d angrily cry,  “Why can’t you just pretend to be trying to get better, at least while we’re here?” I’d scoff when her placid Freudian therapist would ask, “Holly, how does your daughter’s anger make you feel?” I’d glower as the social worker tentatively suggested, “Holly, instead of water, could you put skim milk on your bran flakes tomorrow morning?” My mom wouldn’t respond, instead setting her jaw and then spewing back, “You run too, Sarah. How much do you weigh, Sarah?” In the past year, my mother’s weight has plummeted to a historic low, a weight I haven’t seen on my own body since, perhaps, fifth grade, and my mom hasn’t managed to stay out of a hospital for more than a month or so at a time.  In a recent conversation I told her, “Mom, I’m waiting for the phone call that you’ve died of this eating disorder.”

To be clear, my mom is a generous, thoughtful, artistic, kind, and funny human being. She possesses strength and resilience that astonishes me at times. Further, I have been blessed by many women in my life who model strength, nurturing, authenticity, vulnerability, and self-acceptance, and my father raised me with selflessness, kindness, and unconditional support. I am unequivocally lucky.

And yet,  my mother has passed down to me a deeply-rooted belief that thin is better. I have witnessed the destruction caused by this belief, and still this ideal of thinness is intrinsically wrapped up in my experience of my worthiness as a woman, and, more generally as a human. For much of my life, and like many women, my self-acceptance has been mediated, at least partially, through my body: how fat or thin I feel on any given day. I have read basically every diet book published. I can recite the calorie count of any food, without looking. Up until two years ago, I could count on a single hand the number of rest days I took from running in any given year.  I have devoted an embarrassingly large part of my brain to obsessing about my body. And I have experienced the embarrassment and shame that all this thinking doesn’t manifest outwardly as thinness.

Two years ago, when Jared and I first began talking in earnest about starting a family, Jared pointedly asked me, “Do you really want to pass this baggage on to your child?”

I have wanted to be a mother for as long as I can remember. In pictures from my early childhood, I am almost never without my babydoll Elizabeth in my arms. On trips to the mall, I’d make my mom stop at the central fountain so I could breastfeed Elizabeth, who rode in an extra car seat on our outings. At age six, I authored a two-part baby-rearing book. Part one outlined rules I felt essential to parenting, like, “Give the baby a birthday,” “Make sure the dad does not smoke,” and “When you go outside, put baby galoshes on the baby.” Part two was a list of baby names A-Z, plagiarized directly from The Baby Name Book.  I was fascinated by all things mothers. I’d sneak surreptitious peeks at my mom’s edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves and ogle the black and white close-ups of the vagina during delivery. Conflating my stomach and my vagina, I’d stuff Elizabeth underneath my dress, squirm underneath my bed, mimic Kirstie Alley’s Lamaze techniques in Look Who’s Talking, and practice my vaginal-cum-C-section home birth.  I requested dolls for Christmas at the same time my peers were asking for makeup and tube tops for the middle school dance. I said I wanted to be a mom when I grew up until long after it was socially acceptable. “Err, I mean, I want to be a lawyer,” I corrected myself during an early conversation with my freshman year roommates.

In preparing to have children, Jared asked me to confront my shadowy bits, to abandon the ideals by which I judged myself and replace them with unwavering self-love. Two years ago, I began an active campaign for a whole-hearted embracing of myself. If this sounds self-helpy, it is. I gave up the daily running habit I started at age twelve and immersed myself in yoga. I donated over forty diet books at the used bookstore and bought a copy of Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly, which I’ve read at least four times. I started seeing a body-centered therapist who, with equal parts empathy and exigence, forced me to cast a blazing light onto the system of worth I had set up, whereby my assessment of myself as a woman, my ability to love myself and to receive love from others, was measured by thinness and beauty.

As any pregnant woman can attest, pregnancy is open-season for commentary on the female body. Strangers will offer opinions about how big or small you’re carrying and warn you about the hemorrhoids you’re sure to get on delivery. “All I have to say is Frozen. Witch. Hazel. Pad,” a woman shared with me sotto voce in a grocery check-out line. Well-intentioned family members will tell you, “I knew weeks ago that you were pregnant.” According to their assessment, you developed the mom pooch at conception. Best friends will say, “Enjoy those boobs now.”  After I announced during a family reunion that I was six months pregnant, a distant cousin (male, obviously) replied earnestly, “Oh, thank God.  I thought you had just let yourself go.” So yes, I’ve had moments where insecurities have boiled up inside me.

When I found out at ten weeks that we were having a little girl, I was totally undone, excited beyond measure. I also felt the weight of responsibility, a desire to be the type of woman I’d want my daughter to model. Pregnancy has literalized for me the connection I know exists between the way a mother treats her body and the development of her child. For the past nine months, I’ve inhabited a space – my own body –  in which expansiveness is the ideal, not smallness. I’ve have felt stronger and more beautiful than I ever have before in my life. I’ve watched in appreciative awe as my belly has grown to accommodate this little person inside me.  Generally someone who avoids being seen in a bikini, I have taken (and shared) belly pictures left and right. I thank the strength in my arms as I gracefully maneuver my heavier body through a chaturanga in yoga class; I appreciate the muscle of my legs as they carry me through a miles-long autumn walk. I laughed the day I realized my private parts had become private even to me.

As I write this, I am ten days out from my due date, and I am equal parts excited and scared about becoming a mother. Mostly, I feel gratitude for the way this person, my daughter, has already changed me; she has given me the space to be a bigger, braver, more loving version of myself. I hope I can give her the same gift.

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Book Review: Not That Kind of Girl

Lena Dunham and I are kindred spirits. Our kindred nature is not obvious perhaps. I mean, I don’t wear crop tops, get naked on screen, or write and star in a ridiculously successful, hilarious HBO series. But, I feel like she gets me. She gets women in general and she gets me, specifically. As I was reading Not That Kind of Girl, I not only laughed so hard I cried, I also shouted, “Yes! Yes!! Yes!!!” in ecstatic bliss that someone could articulate so hilariously and rightly my neuroses, my experiences being a female, and what it’s like to grow up. This book is a must-read. Even if you are not a Lena Dunham fan, you can surely appreciate her insight, her acute observations of the world, and her peerless humor. And her writing rocks. It’s specific,  closely-observed, and poignant and hilarious at once. Her comedic timing is impeccable. Read this NOW! Novel type: memoir My rating: 9/10 Read if you like: Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants, Amy Poehler’s Yes Please!, to experience joy, or to vicariously relive your Gen-Y child and early adulthood – you may grimace in pain, but that pain will transform to the ecstasy of being understood 10 Reasons why Lena Dunham is Hilarious and Brilliant, or, Lena Dunham….

  1. On the early twenty-something period of self-loathing that many of us endure: “I am twenty years old and I hate myself. My hair, my face, the curve of my stomach. The way my voice comes out wavering and my poems come out maudlin. The way my parents talk to me in a slightly higher register than they talk to my sister, as if I’m a government worker that’s snapped, and, if pushed hard enough, might blow up the hostages I’ve got tied up in my basement” (xi).
  2. On bumbling her way through pick-up lines like the rest of us, mentioning bodily functions, parents, and other unsexy things: “I only get BO in one arm pit. Swear. Same with my mother” (21).
  3. On the nebulous world of Instant Messenger flirtation: “For the next three months Igor and I instant message for hours every night. I get home around three thirty and he comes home at four, so I make myself a snack and wait for his name to appear. I want to let him say ‘hey’ first, but usually I can’t wait that long. We talk about animals. About school. About the injustices of the world, most of them directed at innocent animals who can’t defend themselves against the evils of humanity. He’s a man of few words, but the words he uses are perfect” (28).
  4. On not settling: “When someone shows you how little you mean to them and you keep coming back from more, before you know it you start to mean less to yourself. You are not made up of compartments! You are one whole person! What gets said to you gets said to all of you, ditto what gets done. Being treated like sh-t is not an amusing game or a transgressive intellectual experience. It’s something you accept, condone, and learn to believe you deserve” (48).
  5. On unreliable narration: “I’m an unreliable narrator. Because I add invented detail to almost every story I tell about my mother. Because my sister claims every memory we ‘share’ has been fabricated by me to impress a crowd. Because I get ‘sick’ a lot. Because I use the low ‘duhhh’ voice for every guy I’ve ever known, except for the put-off adult voice I use to imitate my dad. But mostly because in another essay in this book I describe a sexual encounter with a mustachioed campus Republican as the unsettling but educational choice of a girl who was new to sex, when, in fact, it didn’t feel like a choice at all” (51).
  6. On stripping down regularly for her HBO show Girls: “Another frequently asked question is how I am ‘brave’ enough to reveal my body on-screen. The subtext there is definitely how brave I am enough to reveal my imperfect body, since I doubt Blake Lively would be subject to the same line of inquiry….My answer is: It’s not brave to do something that doesn’t scare you. I’d be brave to skydive. To visit a leper colony. To argue a case in the United States Supreme Court or to go to a Crossfit gym. Performing in sex scenes that I direct, exposing a flash of my weird puffy nipple, those things don’t fall into my zone of terror” (105).
  7. On motherhood: “For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a mother. In early childhood, it was so extreme that I could often be found breastfeeding stuffed animals” (121). **Incidentally, I forwent sleepovers in favor of practicing vaginal deliveries, and whilst wandering the mall with my mother, I insisted that she stop and sit with me by the fountain in the center of food court so that I could breastfeed one of my dolls.
  8. On girl crushes: “I’ve never wanted to be with women so much as I wanted to be them: there are women whose career arc excited me, who ease of expression is impressive, whose mastery of party banter has me simultaneously hostile and rapt. I’m not jealous in traditional ways – of boyfriends or babies or bank accounts – but I do covet other women’s styles of being” (129).
  9. On fear and paranoia: “An assistant teacher comes to school with bloodshot eyes, and I’m convinced he’s infected with Ebola. I wait for blood to trickle from his ear or for him to just fall down dead. I stop touching my shoelaces (too filthy) or hugging adults outside my family. In school, we are learning about Hiroshima, so I read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes and I know instantly that I have leukemia. A symptom of leukemia is dizziness and I have that, when I sit up too fast or spin around in circles. So I quietly prepare to die in the next year or so, depending on how fast the disease progresses” (205-206).
  10. On adrenal fatigue: “I’m afraid of adrenal fatigue. This is related to chronic fatigue but not the same. Western doctors don’t believe in adrenal fatigue, but if you have a job and are human, then any holistic doctor will tell you that you have adrenal fatigue. It is essentially a dangerous exhaustion that comes from ambition and modern life. I have it so bad. Please read about it on the Internet – you do, too” (237).

Peonies

The peonies, those graceful, supple things, are getting ready to break my heart today. One of the many pleasures of this summer has been discovering peonies sprouting in every corner of my garden – an unexpected gift of a first summer in my new home. They’re just at their peak right now, and I fear that the summer’s warmth – here to stay, it seems – will usher their end shortly.
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So, in honor of these peonies, I thought I’d share my favorite poem by my favorite poet. Read it a couple of times – I dare you not to cry.

Peonies

This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises,
as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers

and they open —
pools of lace,
white and pink —
and all day the black ants climb over them,

boring their deep and mysterious holes
into the curls,
craving the sweet sap,
taking it away

to their dark, underground cities —
and all day
under the shifty wind,
as in a dance to the great wedding,

the flowers bend their bright bodies,
and tip their fragrance to the air,
and rise,
their red stems holding

all that dampness and recklessness
gladly and lightly,
and there it is again —
beauty the brave, the exemplary,

blazing open.
Do you love this world?
Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
and softly,
and exclaiming of their dearness,
fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
their eagerness
to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
nothing, forever?

– Mary Oliver, from her collection New and Selected Poems

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Book Review: Dark Rooms by Lili Anolik

  source: Amazon.com

Summertime always puts me in the mood for a good scare. I think it’s the hot weather or something. Give me a natural disaster flick or a grisly murder mystery, and I’m happy, cheesy effects and all. Humidity be damned.  When I was growing up and the summer weather was particularly sticky and humid, my dad would load me and my brothers into the mini-van, and we’d drive 40 minutes away from the city to catch a double-feature, mostly thrillers, at the drive-in. Forget the respite of artic-chilled movie theaters. There’s something about popping the trunk of a mini-van, gorging on salted butter popcorn, swapping at mosquitos, and battling a scare-induced need to urinate all while watching a half-cheesy, half-terrifying movie that seems just right.  I’m feeling pretty nostalgic for the days of Twister, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Scream. Those nights at the drive-in I remember feeling part of it all, like I was in equilibrium with the world or something, as middle school as that sounds.

So the other day, one of those characteristic Midwestern melty, wet ones, I stumbled upon Dark Rooms by Lili Anolik in the library’s“Hot Reads” section , and the novel’s dark premise – the murder of a teenage girl – seemed right up my grisly alley.

Overview: Eighteen year old Grace Baker’s quiet, predictable world at Chandler, an elite, preppy school where her dedicated father teaches history and her enigmatic mother heads the photography studio, is shattered when her charismatic and wild younger sister is found dead in a field behind the school. Though the murder is pinned on Manny Flores, a classmate whose suicide note reads as a confession, goody-goody Grace instinctively feels no closure to the case and slides into a self-destructive, obsessive haze, becoming addicted to prescription drugs and then pregnant under circumstances mysterious and forgotten. She drops out of Williams, obtains a job at her alma mater working in the AV room, and moves back into her childhood home, now a broken one. Her father, too, is sliding toward self-destruction, and her mother, as wild and beautiful as her beloved muse Nica,has moved to an artist’s colony, no longer interested in mothering her second-favorite daughter. Thus ensues Grace’s increasingly obsessive investigation into the circumstances around Nica’s death. Guided by suspect list that ranges from the dolty guidance counselor Shep, to Nica’s string of ex-boyfriends, to her own parents, Grace’s investigation simultaneously paves the path to her redemption and to her destruction.

Novel type: mystery thriller

My rating: 4/10

My review: This book was basically a disaster — and not in the natural kind of way. The plot was contrived and dominated by turns that were more lazy escapes from dead ends than creative twists. Further, Grace’s first-person narration was a mismatched patchwork of dreamily poetic – if unrealistic – memory sequences , Twilight-worthy teenage drama, and James Patterson’s formulaic mystery writing. With some good editing, this book might strike a healthy balance between the literary and the prosaic , but as it is, the reading is disjointed and forced.

The bottom line: this book did not deliver the summer chill I was hoping for. Eh, what’s a girl to do? Drag her husband to Jurassic World, of course! I’m off to the movies.

Read if you like: anything Gillian Flynn, but particularly Dark Places and Sharp Objects. And then prepare to be disappointed.

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