Thursday, April 16, 2009

Motherhood, novel writing contests, and timing

Timing is everything. On the same week I came back to work from a three month maternity leave, my novel, The Truth About Dating, advanced to the quarterfinalists of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. Out of 10,000 submissions, I made it to the top five percent. Winning the first round of that contest really took my mind off leaving my children behind to go to work. Over the next month, with the first three chapters of my novel posted on Amazon, 61 people wrote reviews. Some were by friends and family, but many were from strangers. I loved checking for new reviews and reading them. I started to believe that a day might come when I wouldn’t have to leave my children behind to go to work. I could envision a life where my work was upstairs, in my study, writing. I held on to that vision when my husband called me at work to tell me that our three month old son had rolled over (accidentally, of course), and when my 21 month old daughter wouldn’t let me kiss her hello when I came home in the evening.

Yesterday, Amazon announced the top 100 semifinalists and my name wasn’t on the list. A month ago, I celebrated my 41st birthday on a Sunday, went back to work on a Monday, found out I’d made the quarterfinalists on a Wednesday. And yesterday my roll in the contest was over. I was just a 41 year old mom who was back at work, leaving her kids behind for 42 ½ hours a week. I found out the news, and twenty minutes later I was at work, fitting hearing aids on a patient. I’m lucky to have the kind of job where I can lose myself in what I’m doing. I was so busy, fitting the aids and teaching my patient how to use them that I completely forgot about the contest until an hour later, when my patient walked out the door. I stayed busy all day, and didn’t allow myself any self pity until I started my walk home.

“I’ll just be sad for the ten minute walk,” I decided. I listened to Tori Amos through my MP3 player and indulged in a little self-pity. A few blocks from my house, I spotted my husband, walking toward me with my son and daughter. My daughter was toddling along, holding his hand. When she spotted me, she screamed with glee. Then she started running toward me. I thought of all the blessings I’ve had this year. I birthed a healthy baby. I and my family are healthy. Bush and Cheney are out of the White House. Pallin is not in the White House. In the middle of an enormous economic crisis, my and my husband’s jobs are secure. I wouldn’t trade any of these things for winning the Amazon contest. Which doesn’t mean I wasn’t terribly disappointed, but sometimes it helps to put things into either/or compartments in my head. I turned off my depressing music and picked up speed as I headed toward my family. When I reached my daughter, I bent down to pick her up. She pulled her head away from my kiss and started to cry, reaching out her hands toward my husband, saying, “Daddy. Daddy up.”

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Labor Playlist

Like many parents-to-be, I was well-prepared for the birth of my first child. I don’t mean that the nursery was painted (or even set-up). I don’t mean that I felt confident in my ability to handle a newborn or raise a child. I mean that I’d read at least five books on childbirth, my husband knew labor massage techniques, and I had pain management strategies (I was going to try for natural childbirth). Also, I had a labor playlist on my MP3 player.

My first child is now 19 months old and I have a newborn. On a recent spring-like day, I went out for a walk and listened to that labor playlist for the first time. In the rush to the hospital with my first, I left the player behind. With my second labor, I started the playlist as soon as serious labor pains began. Halfway through the third song, my labor became so hard that the music abruptly turned ugly and I couldn’t bear to listen.

But out on my walk, I loved every song. I recalled that when I made the list, almost two years ago, I had tried to gather songs for all the stages of labor. For the early stage, when labor pains are the easiest, I’d gathered what I’d loosely describe as “one with the universe” songs. Alanis Morrisette’s Utopia and You Owe Me Nothing In Return. I thought I might also listen to these songs in Transition, the hardest part of labor, if I reached “labor land.” Labor land is a state described in books as an endorphine high in which you move past the pain and feel an overwhelming love for your baby and everyone in the room/world. Suffice to say, I never made it to labor land. For both deliveries, I was simultaneously puking and pooping during Transition and the pushing that came after was so painful that I wanted to weep.

The second theme in my playlist was “triumphant.” Among others, I had To Live Is To Fly by the Cowboy Junkees; the overture from Jesus Christ Superstar; Tori Amos’ Talula; and I’ve Got Life from Hair. I think I was going to cycle through these songs when the labor pains reached that intermediate stage between easy and Transition, but my labor pains went from “Hmm, is that a contraction?” to white knuckled agony so quickly that there was no time to focus on lines like “I was born blue and weathered and then I burst just like a supernova.” (Bruce Springsteen).

The last category of songs was “fighting against adversity.” Songs included were Sinead O’Conner’s Troy, Dave Matthew’s Cry Freedom, and Who Am I from Les Miserables. At difficult times in my life, these songs have inspired in me the fortitude to soldier on, but labor is not like coping with loneliness or handling failure.

What helped me the most was the presence of my husband. As soon as the music in my playlist turned from an inspiration to an irritant, I ripped out my ear buds and called to my husband. There was no time for massage. All he could do was hold my hand during the rest of labor and the birth, quietly saying things like “You’re doing great.” But his presence helped stop any panic I might have felt from the pain. While he was next to me, I was connected to my life, my family, and myself.

On my walk, the labor mix was a trip through songs that were touchstones for bitter and sweet memories of the past 20 years. None of them brought back memories of my labor. I can’t even remember what three songs I listened to at the hospital. Some of the songs on the playlist reminded me of what I expected childbirth to be: hard, but predictable. Instead, my labor was harried and excruciating. No song on my list was powerful enough to help me push past the pain. I’d forgotten the pain from my first labor, which was why I thought the playlist would work the second time. I remember thinking that the first labor really hurt, but the pain itself was absent from my recollection, almost like it had been erased. The day after my second child was born, my midwife visited me in my hospital room on her rounds. “I can’t believe how much that hurt,” I told her.

“See if you still remember by your six week visit,” she said.

Six weeks are past and I still remember. My baby’s head was 14 ¾ inches around. Toward the end of the delivery, the midwife had said, “You can keep pushing, or I can pull the lip of your cervix back over the baby’s head. It will hurt, but then the head will be out and your baby will be born. Which do you want to do?”

Forget songs about the universe, strength, or triumph. Find me a song called “Get this %#@! Baby Out Of Me Right Now” and I might have been able to play it, or even sing it, during delivery.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Hugs and kisses and broken bones

Five weeks into maternity leave and ten days into a broken arm, I was realizing how very much I rely on my left hand, even though I’m right-handed. With the left arm in a sling, I couldn’t carry anything down or upstairs because I needed to grasp the railing with my right hand, and my left hand couldn’t hold any weight. My husband had to cut my meat and butter my bread. And open the child proof lids of my ibuprofen and vitamins. I couldn’t multitask (ie: talk on the phone while feeding my daughter her oatmeal). I couldn’t reach for things on my nightstand because it was on the left side of the bed. I couldn’t take a casserole out of the oven or carry a basket of laundry. I could sit around and feel sorry for myself and my husband, who had changed well over 60 diapers in seven days.
But on day ten, I went back to the doctor’s office and he told me I could take of the sling and move my arm at will. Although his office was just a mile from my house, the idea of my husband winterizing our one and 18 month olds and packing them up in the car for a two minute drive, after another night of 3AM feedings, was too exhausting to contemplate so a co-worker gave me a ride. I walked home, stepping over wet spots like a nervous, frail-boned old lady, but it was a beautiful, sunny winter day and most of the ice had melted long before my appointment had ended.
Shortly after arriving home, I called my mom with the great news. “The sling is stuffed in my winter coat pocket and I can move my arm how I like!”
There was a long pause. My mother, living so far away and feeling the distance painfully because she couldn’t be around to help out, had already made plans to come visit us, three days hence. “He said you could move it? Does that mean it wasn’t broken?” she asked, trying to comprehend this unexpected but good news.
“It was broken, but it’s healed enough to start moving in however I like. In fact, when I asked him what limits I should put on my movements, he said ‘none’ and to demonstrate, he raised my arm up completely over my head.”
My mom gasped. “Did it hurt?”
It had hurt. Quite a lot. Especially on the way down. I’d gasped myself, but the doctor had just said, “So, you’re good. I’ll see you back again in two weeks.”
Another long pause. “Does this doctor know what’s he’s doing?”
“He’s the head of orthopedics,” I said, even though, in my experience, doctors who become administrators aren’t necessarily the best physicians in the practice.
“Well then, I guess you won’t need me. It’s a good thing I waited to talk to you before I bought that airline ticket.” She’d been here when I broke my arm, and had flown home to New York two days later. After so much worry about her daughter home with a newborn and a broken arm, and after so much discussion about how best to help us, and after finally deciding to come stay with us, it was a shock to suddenly have everything be okay. Or soon to be okay. “I have to say I’m a little disappointed,” she said. “I was really looking forward to seeing the kids again. And you guys, too,” she added, as an afterthought.
Shock could have been my primary reaction, too. But instead, after ten gloomy, cold days of grief, pain, and frustration, after warnings from my husband not to get my hopes up about getting the sling off earlier than six weeks, I was sitting in my sundrenched living room, and nothing was holding my arm and shoulder stable. The pain was there, of course, but what is pain except for a challenge to work through?
I wasn’t about to lift my arm up over my head, but I immediately started exercises to increase my range of motion. By day two, I could actually wrap the broken arm around my baby boy while he sat in my lap. I had no strength in that arm, and my right hand had to position it, but an arm wrap, a hug, feels so much better than just holding your child in your lap. For 11 days, I’d held my son, nursed him, sung to him. But the embrace lit me up with love and made me feel like his mother again.
I’d have to wait a little longer to arm wrap my daughter, who was too active to sit in my lap without jostling my arm. But I did let her examine my “owie” arm, which was black and blue all over. I guess because I kiss her owies, after she’d gently touched my arm, she took my face in her hands, leaned in, and gave me a kiss. Moments later, she threw a book that hit my shoulder and set off a teeth-grinding throbbing in my arm. But who cares? I was on the mend. And the pain was nothing that a few kisses and hugs couldn’t fix.

Monday, January 19, 2009


Six days ago, I fell stepping over a baby gate. I was holding a large red bowl, so I couldn’t break my fall as I stepped into the pantry to put the bowl away. The bowl was a cherished wedding present from one of my best friends, a beautifully glazed ceramic piece from a pottery studio in Santa Fe that I used to visit when I lived in Albuquerque. The bowl didn’t break, but my arm did.
In the first seconds after the fall, I looked up at the unbroken bowl and thought, “I’m okay, and the bowl is okay.” Then the pain hit. I’d never had a broken bone before: it was excruciating. My husband was home, but outside shoveling snow. It was a cold, ugly day. The high was five degrees. The radio was playing NPR’s On the Media. I’d just had a baby boy who was asleep in his bassinet. If my daughter was a little older, I could have said, “Go get daddy!” and she could have knocked on the window. Instead, my daughter brought me blocks and I waited, listening to the radio and the sound of the shovel scraping our sidewalk.
By the time my husband came in, ten or fifteen minutes later, I had started to wonder if I wasn’t acting like a drama queen. My arm didn’t hurt when I didn’t move it, and yet, I couldn’t bring myself to stand up. I had family in town, visiting. My sister and her husband arrived just as my husband was finishing up outside. When they came in and didn’t immediately find me, I felt ridiculous calling, “I’m back here. I had a fall.”
But standing turned out to be so painful that I almost fainted. At first, we thought that maybe the bone had just popped out of the joint, but the x-ray told a different story. I’d broken the humerus bone clean through at the ball. The break was too high to cast, so the orthopedics’ physician’s assistant gave me a sling that strapped my bad arm to my side, to keep it immobile and told me to come back in two weeks for follow-up.
I was in my third week of maternity leave, still flying high from the birth of a healthy baby and the joy of being home full-time with my family. My mom and step-father, also in town, babysat while we went for the CT scan and doctor appointments. They were leaving the following day, so I put on a positive face, both for them and because I really believed it wasn’t too big of a deal. It took days for the reality of the break to sink in.
Day One: “It could have been a lot worse.”
Day Two: “How could I be sad when I look around and see my beautiful, healthy family?”
Day Three: “It’s hard, but we’ll get through it.”
Day Four dawned gloomy and frigid. It was minus 13 degrees when my husband and I rose, exhausted from night feedings. We were stir crazy from not being able to leave the house. My arm was sore and I needed a shower but was afraid to attempt one. Here’s what I can’t do, with a broken arm:
1. Hold my daughter.
2. Hold my son.
3. Nurse my son without my husband placing him in my lap and helping him latch on.
4. Burp my son.
5. Wash my hair.
6. Soap my underarms.
7. Tie my shoes.
8. Drive.
9. Change diapers.
My son poops about seven times a day. My daughter, a little less. My husband changes every diaper. He comforts our children when they cry. He helps me dress and undress. He lathers up my hair when I’m in the shower. He had to take off from work, unpaid. This is the kind of crisis that Suze Orman warns of when she tells you to have three months of salary, or more, socked away in savings. It will take six weeks for my humerus to heal. Nearly all of my maternity leave. The plans to scrape and re-paint the kitchen, organize the nursery, start weight training, save extra money from my husband working extra shifts, take the kids to the zoo, start painting oil portraits of my two children, all these plans are scraped. On day four, I decided I was entitled to a good cry. The cry was more of a sustained weep that lasted all morning. But then life went on.
If nothing else good comes out of this, I’ll at least always remember the generosity of others. My co-workers immediately organized to bring us bi-weekly meals. The first person came over two days after the fall and brought newborn diapers, too, in case we were running low. She called later in the week to offer to stop by to help out after she got off work. Friends babysat while my husband and I went grocery shopping and out to dinner. A sister brought us a bag of DVDs to watch (we don’t have cable). A sister-in-law babysat for an hour while we did another grocery run. My siblings from out of town all called to check in on me. My mom offered to fly back and stay with us. Also, the sun came out today and it’s 37 degrees. A few more days of warm weather and the ice may melt enough for us to take a walk and get some exercise, fresh air, and sunshine.
The unbroken bowl from Santa Fe is sitting on display in my pantry, catching the light. I am, too. I took a nap today and lay with my eyes closed in the sun. I pretended I was on a beach in Mexico. My sense of humor broke, probably on day four, but it’s mending, just in time. When your husband is soaping your underarms for you in the shower, you have to have a sense of humor or you’ll die of mortification. Humor today and humerus tomorrow, or five weeks from now.

Friday, January 16, 2009

How I Met My Husband, or Annoying Dating Advice for Single Women

“You’ll meet a man as soon as you stop looking.” Were more frustrating words ever uttered to single women? The advice implies that single men abound, if you only look for them out of the corner of your eye. Dating may have been easy in our twenties, when we were fresh out of school with our weekends dedicated to barhopping with friends. But as girlfriends settle down and men extend their dating age ranges lower but not higher, what’s a single woman in her 30s, 40s, or 50s to do?
You could ask your now married girlfriends to set you up, thus exposing yourself to unsolicited dating advice. “Do what you love and you’ll meet the man for you.” Well, I still haven’t met a man at my quilting group/book club/jewelry making class. Do you think that means I’m a lesbian? If friends do set you up and their matchmaking fails, expect to hear, “You’re too picky – you can’t have it all.” Why not? Did you settle for less when you married your husband?  You did?  I'm so sorry to hear that!  You didn't?  Then why should I?
You can refuse your friends’ help (although this doesn’t mean they’ll stop offering advice) and go it alone, trying to engage men you meet in gyms or, say, grocery stores (some have a reputation for being where the single men shop – ask around). I almost met a man in an art supply store once. I was looking at a display of decorative envelopes when a tall, dark-haired guy strolled in from the street. We had a moment of eye contact, my cheeks flushed red, and he headed my way. I looked down at my envelopes, wishing I were shopping for something more intellectual, like, say, linseed oil. When he was a foot away, he crouched down to examine the drawing pads that sat on a lower shelf.
Recognizing the golden opportunity at my feet, I tried to remember if I’d shaved my legs recently. My brain scrolled through a list of one-liners. I thought of and dismissed, “Hot enough for you?” and “I like your shoes,” finally seizing on dropping my keys, so that he could hand them back to me. I got a firm grip on my keys, took a deep breath, and…suddenly I felt something wet and cold on my calf muscle. A tongue. The man was on the floor, licking my leg. I dropped my keys and screamed. The man on the floor beside me leapt backward. Too late, I saw that the storeowner’s miniature collie was also on the floor behind me. The owner and other customers stared at me in alarm. “Sorry,” I stammered. “The dog licked me.” How could I explain that I thought the man had licked me? I turned to go. The man on the floor handed me my keys.
“Not a dog person?” he asked as he stroked the collie.
I love dogs. I thought you were licking my leg. I left the store without answering him.
Clearly, man-on-the-street dating is not for everyone. Another option is to go online. In fact, Internet dating may be the best way to meet men, depending on your city. I live in a small, midwestern city. I had a nice photo, a funny profile and I got 70 emails from men in my first two weeks, with an average of 2-5 a week after that. My girlfriend lives in Brooklyn. She had a nice photo and a funny profile and got two emails, total. One was from a guy in her office who’d been asking her out for months.
If you are considering Internet dating, and I think you should, put some work into your profile. Better yet, have a friend who loves you write it for you, because she’ll be able to convey how wonderful you are without any fear of immodesty. Post your best picture. It doesn’t matter if you don’t always look that good as long as the potential is there (the potential to blow-dry your hair and put on lipstick, not the potential to lose 50 lbs).
Prepare for this reality: even guys who are articulate and funny online can be duds in person. I didn’t find a lot of men exaggerating their looks but I did find that profiles, emails, and phone calls didn’t measure chemistry. Face-to-face was the only way I knew whether I liked someone.
I met my husband the hard way, through a blind date. I was writing a novel about my online dating experiences and I lent an early draft to an acquaintance to read. She didn’t know me that well then, but my personality shone through the book. Reading it made her think of a single man she knew and the rest is history. By the way, I was still looking when I met my husband. And he did have it all. Call that picky if you like. (His friends and family had accused him of pickiness, too). And although I didn’t find my husband online, in a long story kind of way, Internet dating is still how I met my husband.