I finally got back to work as an Artist (Writer) in Residence at the children’s hospital last week. My warm-up was an art project at a tree lighting ceremony for chronically ill kids. It went beautifully, but when I got home and discovered I just missed tucking my baby into bed, I was a wreck. All I could think was, how do moms do this? How did my mom do this? Late that night I was as actually happy to wake up at 1 and 4 and 6 a.m. to feed and snuggle my little one. I didn’t know how I was going to leave her for eight hours that day and worried over whether or not I’d left enough milk for her. This must be the Italian mama in me. You know the ones who cook the ten course meal and wonder if that’s enough. In any case, getting back into the swing of things went more smoothly than I expected. It helped that the other artist and dancer I worked with are amazing and that one of the first patients I met said she loved, loved, loved Shakespeare. What I didn’t expect was how much it would affect me to see unwell babies and their parents.
A few weeks ago, I created the word, mom-athy. Now I feel that its definition needs to be expanded. Evidently this sort of deep empathy extends not only to your own ailing child, but also to those of total strangers. You don’t usually take an infant to the hospital unless something is very wrong, so you can imagine the condition of the babies I saw when I first walked through the automatic doors.
When I heard that he was flying out from L.A. to give a talk here, I squealed. A star like Brad Pitt or a rocker like Steven Tyler, both of whom I considered swoon-worthy at some point, wouldn’t have gotten such a reaction. I have to go, I have to go. Joe, skip rehearsals. We have to go. It was like the Dalai Lama was coming. Actually, the Dalai Lama did give a talk at the University at Buffalo, but it was a couple of years before we moved here. And I don’t think even he would have garnered such a reaction from me.
There he was, a bespectacled pediatrician in a fencing sweater from his college days in the 80’s just getting over laryngitis but still ready with parenting humor. And I was his most attentive disciple. After the talk, I was maneuvering Francesca’s stroller out of an aisle backwards to avoid the crowd, and I felt a hand on my shoulder. I had just backed into Dr. Harvey Karp. Swoon. “Thank you so much.” He smiled and nodded. “For the talk,” I added, in case he thought that I was thanking him for preventing us from plowing him over and running into the wall. I think he got it.
How many mamas have looked at the doctor, longingly, with circles under their eyes, eternally grateful for the spell he casts to calm their crying infant? Even Larry David (co-creator of Seinfeld and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm) describes him in this way: “There’s nothing quite like watching Dr. Harvey work wonders on a screaming baby. He’s not a pediatrician, he’s a magician. Every time I bring my kids in to see him, I walk out wishing he was their father.”
I met an elderly woman on a metro-north train in Connecticut. Without any prompt from me, she began explaining why she gets off at Harlem 125th instead of Grand Central Station. Though Grand Central is closer to her home, it is a daunting space for her to navigate.
“I have a fear of open spaces,” she shared. Before I could dredge up the word Agoraphobia (that anxiety disorder that Woody Allen, and even mermaid Daryl Hannah are labeled with), she launched into a lament about how her children and husband never understand and that she can only cross a street in NYC when someone walks with her. Otherwise, she spirals into a debilitating anxiety attack.
“What about fields outside? Does it happen there too?” I asked, because a life without the distinct pleasure of feeling tiny in the natural world seemed to me like no life at all.
“Well, I’ve lived in the city my whole life, but anytime I have been in a field, it’s the same,” and she rambled on and on, as if I were the first person to listen.
Some people with Agoraphobia can never leave the house or “safe space”; most photos detailing it show people staring out windows with painful/longing/confused looks on their faces. As an open-space junkie (which isn’t to say that I don’t also love a nook), I had a hard time hearing this woman’s story and imagining all the lack of arms-thrown-open delight in her life.
Are we each born with a unique spatial orientation? Why would the shapes I see coming at me look the same as the shapes coming at you? Like everything, it reminds me of the nature v. nurture debate. And then I tracked my own fear. Though I can lie in a sparse field for most of the day, at some point, the cells in my body register that animal-feeling of wanting to take shelter, to dash towards a cozy spot under a tree, or at least to know that there is somewhere to hide.
I splashed some of it on the couch this morning and spilled some on the floor. Worse than that, there are a few dozen ounces of it in the freezer that must be thrown away because of possible contamination. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you may not have been around the breastfeeding community recently. Nurses, lactation consultants, childbirth educators, friends have said on more than one occasion in the last couple of months, “It’s liquid gold.” This is often followed by “Remember, breast is best.” And, “Don’t keep formula in the house or you’ll use it.”
I may have left out the part in my childbirth story when I thought to myself, hmm, I don’t know that I ever need to go through this again. I think that was somewhere between the car door and the hospital. Or maybe it was when the troll woman forced me to sit in a broken wheelchair and hold my leg up in the air as she bumped me into door frames. The point is that I expected childbirth to be painful or at least the greatest challenge of my life. I focused all my will power on getting through it as mindfully and calmly as possible. Breastfeeding, on the other hand, I expected to be easier or at least natural. Friends told me about the challenges that they or their partners faced in nursing, so we did take a class. Still, I felt incredibly unprepared for the journey that is feeding someone from your own body.
No tears. No screams. And all I had was half a glass of Prosecco eight hours before my daughter, Francesca, showed off her pipes and I had her little naked body in my arms. My doctor told our doula (childbirth coach), “This is rare, isn’t it? You don’t see births like this.” Cindy, who calls her practice Gentle Birth Doula Services, attempted to convince the doctor that she had seen births like this. The RN added, “Still, I bet you wish you had filmed it.” Cindy, just shook her head, smiling. “If I had,” she said. “No one would believe me that she wasn’t on drugs!”
Evidently I smiled before each push.
The RN suggested that I not tell other women about my experience. “They’ll hate you,” she told me, only half joking. So here I am, two weeks later, telling every woman who happens to read Crucial Minutiae that by the time I got to the hospital, after laboring at the mall, my friend’s party, our bathtub and bedroom, I was fully dilated and all I had to do was to push.
Some things you just know. I (and thank goodness I have back-up on this one) knew I was having a baby girl. At 19 weeks, the sonographer scratched her head and said, “Huh. I thought it was a girl too,” but printed out a picture that said “It’s a boy!” And off we went to announce to everyone that mama’s intuition is a myth and that we better buy some Vikings baby gear. I was confused by the news that disproved both my gut feelings and a beautiful dream that Joe had of his long-haired daughter chatting him up, but I didn’t want to act like i didn’t want a boy. I would love a boy. So I started trying to love my “boy.” But every now and then we’d ask each other, “What if the ultrasound technician was wrong? What if all these blue clothes are for a little girl?”
“As long as the baby’s healthy” is one of the cliches mocked in the song “Pregnant Women are Smug.” Of course, I found myself saying it today, since this was the sonogram that I mentioned in my last post, to determine if the baby was too small. And no, not too small. Not too big. Just not a boy. One of my best friends flew in to visit within an hour of the appointment and was able to join us in the doctor’s office. To her credit, she said to our new ultrasound technician, “I still think it’s a girl” moments before we learned that she was. We all saw clear as day that the baby due to arrive in one week is a GIRL. I’d post a sonogram picture for you, but when I say clear as day, I mean it. And I don’t think that’s how she should make her first appearance on the Web.
I’m going to take a page out of Girl with Pen‘s and Dooce‘s sites and “pregnancy blog.” Less than two weeks to the day when I get to meet this person who has been using my ribs as a jungle gym and my cervix as a moon bounce for the greater part of this year. Outside of a couple of scares and the headaches of switching OB offices three times to finally find a doctor I liked (who then quit her practice after two appointments with me, but I’m guessing not because of me), gratefully, this has been a smooth pregnancy. And yet, I’m up from roughly 3:00-6:00 a.m. the last three nights, thanks to my newest doctor’s newest concern. “You’re measuring small.”
How many times in a woman’s life is this an insult? A threat even! “Your husband’s over 6’3″? If he was 5’8″, I might let this go. No, we’ll have to do another sonogram to make sure the baby’s not growth restricted and that there’s enough fluid, or we’ll induce.” Since I’m guessing that not all of you have read the latest books and documentaries on how interventions in pregnancy lead to more interventions in delivery, I’ll just cut to the chase by voicing my personal preference for tea and sex as induction methods over an IV drip of manmade hormones, reported to dramatically increase the intensity of contractions. Did you see the New York Times article on how redheads feel more pain?
“Maybe we’re having a Sardinian baby,” Joe says cheerfully.