Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Waving the White Flag - Flu Season Wins

I'm at a loss. We've been battling various viruses for the last 6+ weeks here. No one person has gotten too terribly sick, but I'm starting to feel demoralized. The one week that none of the kids were sick, I was miserable. When I started to feel better and breathed a sigh of relief (because I could breathe again!) the next day one of my kids started running a fever, and the cycle started again.At any given point since the second week of January, at least one person has been sick. As soon as they are well, another person is sick (or two or three...) In between bouts of colds or tummy troubles, they're cheerful and energetic. Most of the bouts of illness are mild. But this is ridiculous. My baby (who has been better off than most of us due to breastfeeding) is fevered and clearly not feeling badly; my 3 year old is crashed out on the couch, after spending the day being tired and complaining about his stomach. I am so tired of the sickness. 

I don't feel like we are particularly unhealthy, but for the past six months I've been increasingly suspicious that our immune systems may not be what they could be. And the last month has done nothing to allay my suspicion. Either we're rehashing the same couple of viruses, instead of kicking them entirely, or a couple of viruses are mutating and reinfecting us, or we're catching a dozen different viruses. None of those screams "excellent health!" to me. 

Elderberry hasn't proved to be very effective, and the kids are getting more vitamins C and D, and more zinc, than they were this past summer and fall. I can't seem to get my kids to drink an infusion of nettles -- since it tastes like wet hay, I don't blame them. It's kind of a distinct taste. They will take licorice and/or mint infusions, but while that's been helpful for symptom relief it's not addressing the real issue.

I'm feeling like I need to do some serious investigating into our nutrition. Even though I don't think there's a magic bullet that prevents all illnesses forever and ever amen, I do think that the situation we're having here is an indication that something isn't working. I accept that when a virus makes it's way through our home, because there are simply more people here, it's going to take a little longer for everyone to be well again than it might in a smaller household. But each child has had three or four bouts of illness (except the baby) in such a short space of time. They should be able to fight off illness a little better than that, right? None of them have any underlying conditions that would make them more vulnerable to illness; something is out of balance. And that something has to be nutrition. 

It's just a matter of figuring out what is going on there. I feel like it means I'm going to have to adopt a new (or an old) food philosophy, which feels annoying to me. 

I've been trying to figure out why it bothers me when people are so adamant that certain foods make children sick, cause misbehavior, should be meted out in small portions or simply not allowed. I wonder if I'm supposed to feel sheepish because my children have been known to enjoy, without censure or limitation, those terrible foods.

I do believe that our bodies are fabulous creations that require a certain balance of nutrients to function optimally.  I believe that many people today do not give their bodies all they need to even reach a baseline of health, for myriad reasons, and that children are vulnerable to deficits as they develop.

I believe our bodies are amazing in their adaptability and the ability to function really well under many circumstances.

(Bell peppers really make me happy)
And I believe that achieving wonderful nutrition is about embracing and enjoying a wide variety of foods... experiencing the tastes and textures and the culture around food. If a child is allowed to experiment and freely explore all that nature has to offer, cookies made with refined flour and white sugar will not derail their development.

But just because I believe it, doesn't make it so, and if I can't be flexible, respond to feedback from the universe (like having illness after illness for the last month and a half!) and learn and grow, then what am I teaching my kids? 

Also, just because I believe such lofty things about food, doesn't mean I've been living it out from meal to meal. You can know an awful lot about nutrition and still lose awareness and intention when it comes to meals. Even if you want to be the kind of person who doesn't.

So, even though part of me feels like balking, and clinging to my current philosophy around food (and ultimately making whatever information I come across have to fit that or be discarded) I'm going to do what I did with religion. I wiped the slate clean; I scrapped everything I believed about God, and I began rebuilding my spiritual beliefs. I trusted that any of those beliefs and understandings that came back to me were valuable, and any that didn't were meant to be released from my life.

So: I no longer have any beliefs about food, nutrition, diet. I'm starting from scratch. Anything I think I know, I don't - which is the most vulnerable feeling possible. It's humbling to have people explain something to you like you've never heard it before, especially when you feel like you're the one who's supposed to have all the answers. It is very, very tough for me to step back from that. But nothing is more freeing, I just have to trust that.

I'm  also going to consciously focus my attention on what, when, and how we eat. I expect that will be pretty significant. Even thinking about this, I'm realizing how little attention I pay to this these days. I've gotten lazy and haphazard, choosing convenience and ease over really mindfully investing in meals. 

Monday, February 28, 2011

TV and Internet and Video Games, Oh My!

We used to be (almost) TV-free. My girls had a handful of videos that they could watch, and they could occasionally get on the computer to play a few games or watch educational online videos, but we had no cable and screen-time was very limited. It was a nice time. 

Now we're the opposite - free-with-TV - and it's still a nice time.

I don't regulate my children's use of media - the computer, cable television, and video games are all there for them to access. There are some built-in limitations, mostly those that come with having five children and two adults in the home, all sharing those resources. I do advise my children if something is going to be something that might be too intense for one or more of them; I also don't give my X-Box loving 4 yo free access to the rated M games. I talk to my kids about the shows and movies they watch and about the games they play. Sometimes I sit with them and watch their shows and play their games.  

I've read the points of view on why media is damaging and shouldn't be a part of kids' lives. I've read why it's harmful if it's not carefully regulated, and why it should be limited and controlled for our kids to be healthy and well-adjusted. TV viewing and video games have been linked to physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and social problems, and it is no wonder to me when parents decide to take their children's media exposure very seriously.

Obviously, I care if my children are physically, mentally, and psychologically well. I want them to grow in their full potential, with nothing hindering that. Choosing to not control their media use isn't because I'm too lazy to enforce the rules, or because I'm too afraid they won't "like me" anymore. And it's definitely not because I don't really care how they turn out.

(A little after-bath couch time)

It's like anything else: I watch my kids. If something isn't working, we work to change it. If it is working, then it doesn't really matter what anyone else thinks, or if that doesn't work in their family. I can't parent my children in the shadow of fear of what might happen when they're teenagers, and ultimately most of the strictures against media call on that fear. I can't assume the worst of my kids' teen years, and make parenting decisions now based on that. The idea is that if, for instance, I don't control my son's video gaming now when he's so little and impressionable, in 10 years he might be an antisocial, and possibly violent, recluse who is so addicted to video games that he suffers in all areas of his life, and is not on the path to becoming a functioning, engaged member of society. He won't have any other interests or abilities. His health will suffer. He will not have a relationship with me or anyone else, because the games will dominate his world; his brain will have been hardwired the wrong way. If I don't regulate my daughters' media, they will grow to be shallow, materialistic, gullible, desperate consumers, obsessed with external appearances and peer-focused; unable to make moral judgments, and unable to separate themselves from the peer group.

Which is, of course, not what I want for my sons and daughters. I want them to be able to both function well in society and question its trappings and mores. I want them to be able to have healthy relationships, and a solid core identity. If I thought that media exposure truly did take that from them, I would limit or remove it as needed. 

When we first began to allow more media into our lives, I had doubts and fears. I made a conscious decision to watch my children. To - as much as I was able - remove the judgments that I had and to simply see what it was for them.

So, we watch TV. We watch videos and play games on the computer. We listen to music. We watch movies. We play video games. We read books and magazines, play with dolls and blocks and action figures, we glue construction paper together and decorate it with glitter, we wrestle and chase and run and jump. We cook, we talk, we play, we live.

In any given day, it's almost like the house is made of "stations." The children float between the TV and the computer and different types of play. They engage in activities or games as a group, in pairs, and alone. Sometimes they choose to do activities that are considered to be "educational" and activities that are "play" or "just fun." I watch them, and rather than being headed toward the antisocial teen boy and shallow teen girl, what I see unfolding is quite different. 

I've watched my son work through to self-regulation on the video games. It took a long time, longer than many parents anticipate. But he's not-quite-five, and he is able to shut down the game when he's done, he's able to have fun doing other things, and he's able to negotiate the niceties of sharing the screen with his siblings. He's becoming quite considerate. He plays a considerable amount of video games each day, and I imagine that another parent would say that because of that, he has not learned to self-regulate. My belief is, that just because his self-regulation didn't result in playing 1 hour or less, doesn't mean it's not self-regulation. 

That's where releasing our own expectations and judgments comes into play. That doesn't mean not wanting what's best for our kids, and it doesn't mean abdicating our own moral responsibilities as parents. It does mean becoming aware of our assumptions, and learning to be objective about them. One assumption - one that feels like concrete fact - is that video game playing, unless it is blatantly edutainment, is a less valid way to spend time than reading a book, playing with toys, or doing somersaults. Any of those activities is a more desirable way for a child to spend his time, and any time playing video games is time away from more worthwhile pursuits. It's junk food; those other things are real nutrition. This assumption seems sound; it seems to be based firmly in research and in the experiences and perceptions of parents near and far.

But is it? The premise of unschooling, whatever variations it takes, is that children will learn what they need to learn, when they need to learn it. It isn't that they will learn what we think they need to know, when we think they need to know it. If we enter into unschooling with that expectation, then it is almost inevitable that you will end up saying: "Unschooling just didn't work for us. He didn't learn on his own." Unschooling is predicated on trust in the ability of the child to learn - and in their drive to absorb, assimilate, and organize information. In their inborn inherent need to make sense of the world around them and their place in it. 

In some ways, this means that we need to be very careful about the messages we send our children about themselves, other people, their community, and the world they live in. Because they take in that information, and build the framework for all other learning with it. This is one of the priorities of many parents who choose to limit or eliminate media access for their children; they don't want the messages of commercialism, violence, and other things that are contrary to their values to be what their children internalize.

I choose instead to see my relationship with my children as their foundation, the values I model and share with them as the lens through which they will process the images, through which they will make choices about what they want in their lives and how much.  Rather than being a copout, this puts a great deal of responsibility on me (and my husband) to do the internal work necessary to ensure that the framework I am giving them is built on the messages I want them to take into their being and build the rest of their lives on.

I believe that if a child learns that they are worthy of compassion and able to give compassion, that they are respected as an autonomous individual and valued as an integral and irreplaceable part of the family unit, that interpersonal problems can be solved with communication, that connection is a priority over material concerns, then they can admire Hannah Montana's sparkly wardrobe, laugh at the banter on iCarly, and play Lego Batman on the X-box without compromising their core beliefs about themselves and others. They learn these things from how they are treated by us, and how they see us treat others. They learn them from discussions with us, and seeing how we live our lives. The choices we make teach them how to make choices. 

Once I became less convinced that my children's moral and ethical development wasn't going to be derailed by media, I challenged my belief that even if it wasn't intrinsically harmful, it was a waste of time that could be better spent on other pursuits. As a lifelong avid reader, it was incomprehensible to me that watching some random television show could possibly be as valid as reading anything. Any reading would be a more worthy pursuit than any media, to my thinking. But again, this comes back to those assumptions, that I believed deeply. 

When I took that step back from that thinking, and decided to trust that my children would learn and grow if allowed to follow their interests, wherever they may lie, I found over time that learning takes many forms. My daughter learned to read, partly in the usual "phonics readers" way, but also beginning with learning to type BARBIE into the search engine and making her way to following along with scrolling Hannah Montana lyrics on YouTube. All my children use the cable television menu to choose programs, they figure out unfamiliar words on video games. When I was convinced that TV-free was ideal, I would have looked at that as less-than, as "fake" learning. I'm amused at that now - that I would have thought that using media to learn to read was wrong and, somehow, not as valuable. 

From media, as well as from books and workbooks, as well as from living in a world that is saturated in words and numbers, where reading and calculations are part of regular life, they learn. When they follow their interests, and have access to a rich environment that supports them in that interest, they will learn. Sometimes the learning is academic. Sometimes it's social, sometimes its intrapersonal. Sometimes it's physical. Sometimes it looks like what we expect learning to look like; sometimes we have to take it on faith that learning is happening, even if it doesn't look like it. 

So I watch my children.

If at some point it begins to be a negative force for anyone in our home, we will address that then. In the meantime, they are creative, active, connected, caring, affectionate, inquisitive, funny little people. I would not suggest that having free access to media has made them more delightful than they would have been otherwise, but I will say without hesitation that it certainly has not hindered any aspect of their development. If we didn't have media, I have no doubt that they would still be their wonderful selves. But we do have media, and we do value it, and we have found it to bring a lot of enjoyment and information into our lives. I enjoy what it brings - even the video games - just as I enjoy the books and crafts and toys and games and activities that enrich our lives. It's a tool, among many, that allows us to investigate our interests, interact with each other, connect with the larger world, discover new fascinations, explore other points of view, address tough and complex issues, be inspired by the creativity and ingenuity of others, as well as enjoy entertainment.  

So far, so good.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Arrow

Lately, I’ve been focusing on a well-known Buddhist parable.

“This is what your are like. You are like a man who has been struck by a poisoned arrow. Your friends take you to the healer so that the arrow can be removed and an antidote given for the poison. But you refuse to allow the healer to remove the arrow until he first answers all your questions. Who shot the arrow at you? What was his motive? What kind of arrow is it? What kind of poison did he use? On and on you ask your questions as the arrow remains in your body with the poison seeping into your blood. And so you die before your questions are answered." - The Buddha

The questions of where the arrow came from, who shot it, why they shot it, what it all means... they’re irrelevant to the relief of the one who has been shot. Focusing on those questions may seem meaningful and important, but ultimately they only distract from the relief of suffering. (The word "suffering" is used here in the Buddhist sense, dukkha.) Suffering is relieved when you bring your focus to the here and now, rather than spend your time and energy in useless speculation, looking for answers that won't provide relief. We ask the questions and wait for the answers, believing that only after we have them will we be able to remove the arrow - the suffering.

The parable is about metaphysical questions, but I find it easily applies to my daily life. It brings awareness to the important-seeming questions that ultimately do nothing to relieve my suffering. Questions like, “Who put this here?” “Why would somebody do this?” “Why is there a wet towel on the couch?” “Why do I do this to myself?” “What is wrong with me/him/her/them?”

In the moment, those questions feel really valid. But in reality, all they do is distract from the task at hand. In those moments, I’m reacting to thoughts about how things “should” be, rather than how they are. I’m asking questions about the meaning of my suffering, rather than simply taking steps to relieve that suffering. Asking who put the towel on the couch, why it’s wet, and why that seemed okay to someone does not pick the towel up and put it where I want it. Neither does assigning negative emotion to the reality of the towel on the couch, which is usually what comes right after the question. Because, as Buddha also said: "In a controversy the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves."

“Why are they fighting?” “Who put these Legos here?” “Why would he pee on the floor?” These questions aren’t wrong. The answers might be very useful. If your child is having a tantrum in the supermarket, it is entirely appropriate to get centered, to try to think of what might be going on for him, and respond accordingly. But when you ask these questions with the implication that they should NOT be fighting, the Legos should NOT be there, he should NOT pee on the floor, and he should most certainly NOT be throwing a fit in the produce section, those questions prevent you from being present to the moment. If the question is actually getting in the way of relieving the suffering, then put it aside and pull out the arrow.

I’m finding that as I go about my day, reminding myself to stay in the moment, and focus on the task at hand rather than asking unsatisfying questions has been eye-opening. I simply did not realize how many times I pull myself out of the present in this way; reminding myself to “just remove the arrow” helps me to take away any judgment, any expectations, and to give myself to the moment.  

"Either take positive action, or accept with serenity".

Thursday, February 24, 2011

My Reaction to the Reaction

Recently, my husband posted our son's birth story, and what ensued was an ugly debate around the fact that we had planned an unassisted birth in the first place. One woman was very upset by the fact that we shared our story. It was repeated over and over, the opinion that unassisted birth with no prenatal care is dangerous, risky, irresponsible, and ignorant. She told us that we put our unborn children in danger, and just happened to get lucky five times. We beat the odds that mother or baby, or both, would die because of our choice to forgo conventional prenatal care and an OB-attended labor and delivery. And because we shared our story, we were encouraging other families to take those same risks.

Even though I am far past the point in my life when I feel I owe those who are not willing to have an open dialogue any explanation, I did reach down deep and found a peaceful place to respond to this woman. She claimed that she was not hurting, but clearly, she was coming from a place of some kind of pain. Vitriol does not come from peace and contentment, but seeing past the offensiveness of her insensitivity was trying.

I did not, and do not, need to defend my choices, but in the interest of supporting other mothers in their journeys, I will make no secret of my opinions and my experiences.

It is difficult to live in a plural society, where there are many different ways to approach something as fundamental as the physiological process of birth and the social and biological necessity of caring for our children. The difficulty lies in being confronted with different paradigms, worldviews that are so different than our own that something in us rises up and declares it not only wrong, but damaging and dangerous. Because it is so very individual, women will make different choices. Allowing women choice means sometimes they make choices you would not. They may make choices that even frighten you. Or me. Or the lady down the street. And the more disparate the idea from your own, the stronger the urge to enforce compliance with what we feel is right can feel.

I have my own paradigm, of course, from which I view the world I live in. It is my deeply held belief  that it is never dangerous for women to make educated, informed decisions about what kind of prenatal care to receive, where and how to give birth, and whom to invite into their pregnancy and birth. It is that simple. 

It is my belief that the health and safety of the motherbaby dyad is paramount, and are inherently a concern when discussing childbirth and considering birth options. Also, that the comfort and positive emotional state of the mother during labor and delivery is not just a nice luxury or pie-in-the-sky daydream, but an important factor for her and her baby's physical, psychological, and emotional well-being.

It is not my opinion that every woman should have an unassisted homebirth. It is, however, that UC is a valid, valuable, and viable option for many women. All women should have the right and freedom to investigate and consider all possibilities. Women do not need to be controlled, condescended to, patronized, deceived, or manipulated. Not for anyone's convenience, and not "for their own good." Whatever the intent of such patriarchal attitudes in childbirth, that approach does not ultimately make women or babies safer. 

My paradigm does not include an acceptance of the right of anyone to infringe on the autonomy of another.  I believe that taking away the right, responsibility, ability, and privilege for women to make informed and educated choices for themselves is violence. 

I do not accept the necessity for this violence in birth. Regardless of what kind of birth a woman feels comfortable with, where or how she chooses to bring her child into the world, and whom she chooses to invite into that pinnacle experience, I do not believe that any woman should be subject to denial of her personhood and right to self-determination. And this is true certainly  during a time that is paradoxically the most powerful and the most vulnerable. During childbirth, one of the most important roles for those around a birthing mother are to recognize her right to self-direction as sacrosanct, and to act accordingly in everything that is done. 

As I said, it's very simple. It's not at all revolutionary on paper; most people assume that they can take it for granted. However, one situation in which a woman can not be reasonably assured of her right to govern herself is in childbearing. Many reasons are given, which are a topic for another day; but the premise is always that during pregnancy and birth, women forfeit some of their autonomy and should do what they are told. A compliance with convention, whether based in research or good practice or not, is expected. The problem is, the only thing that is made safer by this are society's ideas of what a "good mother" does... babies are not made safer. Mothers are not made safer. What is protected is the paradigm that says a pregnant and birthing mother can and should be stripped of her power. 

And in my paradigm, this is fundamentally wrong. This is not how we make mothers and babies healthier. This is not how we make childbirth "work." This is not how we grow strong families. This is not how we engender basic human rights. This is not how we create a just, peaceful world. 

I unashamedly do encourage women to question the idea that obedience makes for a safer entry to the world for their baby. I declare that women are fully responsible for themselves and their unborn child, and that they have the right to full access to any and all information they need to make carefully considered choices based on the nuances of their unique, individual, personal circumstances. 

The risks of continuing with the current conventional treatment of women in childbirth far outweigh the risks of allowing women the right to choose for themselves.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bad Days on the Path of Mothering

Every now and then I have a Bad Day, a truly difficult Learning Curve Day. A day where I'm stressed out, burned out, touched out, cooped up, and run down. Calgon capitalized on it with their old ad campaign, showing a busy, harried mother calling for Calgon to take her away. Everyone responds to it differently, but I imagine that the underlying, "I just can't take it anymore" is fairly universal. I doubt that there are many parents who do not know that feeling.

It can be extremely hard to get on top of the negative thoughts when you're overwhelmed and grumpy. I notice when I feel like this, how I respond to my children shifts - sometimes subtly, and sometimes in an alarmingly drastic way. I find myself wanting to control them: to make them tidy up, clean their room, pick up that book, eat their food, hug their sibling after an argument. I want them to do whatever it is that I've asked, with the only motivation being because I said to do it. The urge to control their actions rises up in me like a serpent, whispering in my ear: They should do it because you asked. They owe it to you to do what you want. If they loved you they would do it immediately and without complaint. It's ridiculous that they begrudge you this! If they do what you want, the feeling of powerlessness and irritability will go away... you need them to obey to make THIS FEELING go away...
Being invaded by the belief that controlling the behavior of those around me is the only way to reduce my own discomfort is certainly not pleasant. Not for me, and not for anyone around me. It is the first step toward engaging in power struggles, which are never satisfying, even if I manage to strongarm compliance from others.

It is difficult for me to recognize that those thoughts are not true, when they are what is inside my head - insidious and pervasive. It is human nature to accept that our thoughts are our thoughts, and therefore are valid. It takes a lot of work to come to examine our thoughts and beliefs and emotions, and to begin to understand that we choose what to believe, and we choose how we respond to our own thoughts and emotions. And some days, that work seems impossible. And by impossible, I mean you're so mired in your own egoic assumptions that it doesn't even register with your to try. It's not even a blip on the radar. 

Fortunately my children are understanding and forgiving. On the days when I believe my thoughts that say I must control them in order to feel okay inside, they respond with varying degrees of acquiescence to my rude, sudden demands and my Jekyll/Hyde shift to enforcing rules that don't exist and making a big deal out of things that are not actually priorities for me or anyone else in our home. They all forgive me. Over and over, they forgive me with greater patience and unconditionality than I could ever expect from anyone. It's humbling. It shines a light on my weakness and my selfishness. It makes me all the more motivated to become able to observe those feelings when they arise, to see them for what they are, and to allow them to pass without reaction or judgment. "Oh, hello, anger. There you are. And there you go."

There are some things that I've found helpful in staying on my chosen path with my children (although nothing is fail-proof. There is no easy fix, just doing the work.) 

Make eye contact. Almost all parenting books and articles and experts agree: physically getting down to your child's level and making eye contact gives better results. The tone of this advice is usually "because it allows the child to feel connected to you, like you understand and care for them, and they are more likely to do what you want then." My experience is that it is the other way around. When I lower myself and look in my child's eyes, really LOOK at the emotions that are there, several things happen. I become reminded that connection with my child is my number one priority. It is far more important to me than the toys on the floor, or the rejected sandwich. I'm reminded that connecting with them in a heartfelt way teaches them what I want them to learn about themselves, the universe, and their role in it, rather than what they might learn from being forced to randomly subjugate themselves unquestioningly to my dictatorial authority. My child might be glaring at me, defiant, furious with my treatment of them; the serpent says, "They should not be allowed to look at you like that!" but taking just one small step and looking behind that defiance reveals to me the emotion behind it. Fear. Hurt. Powerlessness. Some children will cower or sulk; others will clench their fists at their sides and meet you squarely with a pugilist's demeanor. The feeling that they have is the same: helplessness. The child who reacts with defiance is simply doing all that they can to regain their equilibrium when it comes to their personal power. This can also be true of a child who wails and sobs, or has a tantrum. It is when I look intentionally into my child's eyes that I see who they are, and what they are going through -- and I see who I am, and what I am going through -- and I know that we are deeply, truly connected. In the face of that, self-centeredness melts away.

Self-nurture. It's said over and over again that self-care is important. If you are tired, hungry, or in some way are not getting your basic, physical needs met, your resilience may suffer. I think that it's something many people neglect, but mothers in particular seem to be most prone to not taking care of their own basic needs. Many even feel that taking care of themselves is something you do after everyone else is all set, if you have time. When you're already depleted, someone telling you to eat well can even feel like a slap in the face, because who wouldn't want to take care of themselves? There are several barriers to moms taking excellent care of their physical needs. While some of these barriers are logistical, which I'm not going to address here and honestly am still figuring out myself, some are barriers of belief. Believing that barriers can't be surmounted - that there is no way to mitigate or reduce the interference that outside forces play on your ability to nourish yourself and rest, when there are almost always some small things that can be done to make this easier on yourself. Believing that it is a mother's job to care for herself only after everyone else is cared for. Believing that somehow, other people manage to be successful in their lives without getting their basic needs met, and that you should be able to do that too. It is enlightening to cultivate an awareness. My days are very different when I am mindful of my own body. When I purposely turn my attention to my body periodically throughout the day, and am proactive in caring for myself, and respond to my body's cues promptly, I find that the mental and emotional aspects benefit. Procrastination is a way that I sabotage myself in this respect; I may recognize that I'm starting to feel hungry, but for whatever reason I decide I'll feed myself "later." I will become increasingly irritable, but still don't take the steps to feed myself. Setting the intention to do what small things I can in a timely fashion to keep myself on an even keel is key... without that, I will allow myself to get caught up in other things and put off doing the things I need to do to fuel my body. Maslov's hierarchy of needs has the fundamental physiological needs for survival as the base; if those needs are not met, the "higher" needs of social connection and spiritual exploration become difficult, if not impossible. This is a survival mechanism, not a personality flaw.

Let go of guilt and shame. When we are irritable or otherwise lacking, when we make poor choices in our relationships, when we mess up and stray from the path we have set for ourselves and fallen short of our ideals, it feels natural to feel guilty and ashamed. We feel that those emotions are our penance for our failure, as well as a way of ensuring that we never, ever make that mistake again. The only trouble is, guilt and shame do not work. They do not bring about a change in behavior or beliefs. They are futile emotions that we hold onto as some sort of talisman against future failure. If anything, these emotions, if the messages they send are believed and embraced, can actually cause you to fall farther short of your ideals, rather than take you closer to them. They disempower. They cultivate self-pity, which is at it's heart self-centered. More effective is learning compassion for yourself. Becoming aware of your thoughts, your deeply held beliefs; seeing yourself through the eyes of objectivity and unconditional love. This also applies to what we expect from our children. So much of "discipline" seems to be about making a child feel guilty when they do not meet our expectations. When I am having that Learning Curve Day, one of the strongest urges is to drive home to my children that they should feel guilty for their behavior, and, in all honesty, for my emotions. But that is not what I truly, deeply want for them. I want them to learn to be compassionate with someone who is believing their untrue thoughts. I want them to be able to look at that and say, "This is not about me; this is about what is going on inside the other person," and I want them to respond with love and understanding. I do not want them crushed by the weight of guilt, or believe that they bear the responsibility for another person's emotions or beliefs. Guilt is not necessary for learning; taking responsibility for someone else's feelings isn't necessary for love; and enabling isn't necessary for support and acceptance. Those things unquestionably hinder authentic connection, and part of my work as a mother is to overcome them in my own life, and to show my children something else. 

Be in the moment. Taking just a few moments to tune into the sensations of the moment can do a lot to ground you in the present, and pull you into your body and out of your head. Turning your attention to your breath, to the sounds around you, to the feel of your shirt on your body, to the sight of dust motes rollicking in a beam of sunshine: these can get you away from your frazzled, frantic thoughts and back into the reality of right now. Breathing deeply, and focusing on your breath, is very helpful as well. It can help "reset" your brain. In parenting, there is something called "changing the frame" which means if your child is melting down, simply taking them into another space - the other room, outside, whatever - can help to break the negative spiral of thoughts and emotions and allow them to regain their composure. I think that the reason that this can be so effective is because the change of scenery causes the child to pause to inventory the sensations that come with it. It brings them into the present. As adults, we can choose to "change the frame" internally, by breathing and intentionally turning our attention to the sensory information our body is receiving. I've also found it very helpful, with a child who was melting down, to sit with them lovingly, and say, "We'll talk about it in a minute; first lets just see what our senses are telling us. What are you seeing? Are you feeling the roughness of the couch? What are you tasting?" In taking a moment to observe what is happening around them, they come back to their thoughts more able to observe them as well. As a mother - as a person - I benefit greatly when I remember to do this for myself.

It is hard sometimes. Really, really hard. It is difficult to allow-but-not-embrace the ugly and detrimental whispers of the snake that strangles out the joy; it is difficult to allow-but-not-embrace the guilt that follows when I realize the series of messages I sent my children all day long, messages I did not want them to absorb. It is difficult to ask, "Is that true?" of my thoughts when I'm sinking in a quicksand of powerlessness and self-pity. It is sometimes difficult to accept and allow joyfulness as a choice we make each second of every day. Joy doesn't require perfection or ease; it requires the decision to allow joy unconditionally. That takes practice, to be sure. I hope that in between my Learning Curve Days, my children absorb the message that joy is theirs, always theirs. 

In the meantime, I will look to them for examples of how to be joyful. How to be patient, accepting, forgiving, compassionate, resilient, persistent, present. I will never have better teachers than these amazing people I get to call my children. 
"There is no enlightenment outside of daily life.” -- Thich Nhat Hanh

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Birth of Kai Helio

I'm sitting here nursing my sweet, fat baby boy, who was born, but not birthed, nine months ago. I've told his birth story in bits and pieces, but I've never sat down to write it out in its entirety. 

For our fifth birth, we had planned another unassisted waterbirth. I expected it would be very similar to my third and fourth births, which were very peaceful and lovely. They were fantastic births. This was to be our last birth, and I wanted it to be special and magical.

The morning of Sunday, May 16th, my contractions intensified to the level that signaled "Okay, this is it!", and went from 15 minutes apart to 8 minutes apart. My husband was getting ready to leave to teach a class, and I asked him to please stay home. This was our fifth baby, and while it could take a while, it could also be fairly quick. My previous two labors had both been about 6 hours from that point to baby-in-arms, and the baby before that had arrived after 3 hours of very intense labor - doing some quick calculations in my head told me that if my husband went to teach his class, he could potentially miss most of the labor, and even the birth. Even if the birth went longer than that, I wanted him there to take care of the children so I could just rest and let things happen. He was very reluctant to skip out on his class: "I just don't think you're really in labor," he said.

I was irritated, and explained that I was at exactly the same point when I called him to come home with the two births before that. Even though I was insistent, he remained unconvinced, but he did get someone to cover his class.

We were not entirely prepared for the baby to arrive just yet; his due date was not for another two weeks. I readied the birth supplies we had, and we called on a friend to try to locate a pump to blow up our birth tub. He was able to find one, and dropped it off that afternoon. Adam blew it up and made sure it was ready for when I might need it. I was still having contractions about every 7-8 minutes apart, and was eating and resting. During my first birth I had learned a valuable lesson about birthing hungry and exhausted, and I was determined to avoid that. 

At around 8 PM that evening, twelve hours after I decided I was in labor, my contractions spaced out a bit (to about 15 minutes apart, and as much as 20 minutes) and they became more irregular and slightly less intense. I joked to my husband, "I guess you could have gone to your class, after all!" I took the time to read online the birth stories of grand-multiparas, and was reassured by the reminder that fifth and subsequent births can sometimes have healthy labors that took a while to establish well, and that an erratic prelabor can carry on over days. I would continue to rest and take care of myself, and baby would arrive in good time. I just needed to be patient with a labor that was not going to be as straightforward as expected. I could still feel the feet in front, so I knew that the baby was head down, but still posterior.

At midnight, they picked up again, and were 8 minutes apart and very regular. An hour later, they were 5 minutes apart, and an hour after that they were every 3 to 4 minutes and quite intense. I waited another hour before waking my husband to help me with the tub. He filled it with water, and I got in. I felt some relief in the water, but it wasn't as comforting and relaxing as I remembered it being with my last two births, which had both been waterbirths. I was also concerned that being in the water too long might cause a stall in labor, since it had been a bit erratic getting to that point. I switched positions in the water often, trying to find a comfortable position to zone out in. Adam topped off the tub with warm water when it started to get too chilly. Around 6 AM, I got out and sat on the couch for a while, watching TV, although I can't remember what I watched. Some old sitcom, and Adam laughed when he saw what it was.

(Laboring in the tub in the early morning hours)

I got back in the tub and out again a few times, and either Adam or I filled it with hot water to keep the temperature cozy. It was nice, but unlike my two prior waterbirths, I didn't feel the sense of complete belonging in the water. Sometime in midmorning, I went upstairs and for the next few hours I spent a great deal of time in the bed, trying to sleep between contractions, and in the bathroom. Being on the toilet felt very comfortable, so I spent a lot of time sitting there, one arm resting on the sink ledge, and the other hanging on the doorknob of the open door. In the bedroom, I tried lying on my side, kneeling with my chest on pillows, standing and leaning forward on the bed. I did lots of hands-and-knees rocking to relieve the back labor and to maybe encourage baby to roll over to an anterior position. I also tried lunges, swaying, and every other movement I could conceive of. I also gave up a few times and just laid down to sleep. Nothing felt right, and I was increasingly uncomfortable. At one point in the afternoon, I felt some small kicks (still in the front) and I realized that up until that moment, I had wondered if the baby had died. I started weeping in relief, so grateful for the signal from my baby that all was well. I was having to stay on top of negative thoughts, which began surfacing. I told myself that it really wasn't taking too long, I had just started watching the clock too soon. I had to keep telling myself that everything was fine, that sometimes it just takes longer than expected. I tried to force myself to eat some pizza, since I knew I was depleted and that was no state to birth in. It felt like sawdust in my mouth, and I could barely choke down more than a couple bites, even washing it down with a drink. The thoughts that it was taking too long, that the baby was stuck, that something was wrong, were there on a regular basis, and staying on top of them became more challenging.

Around 4 PM, I decided I was going to just squat in the bathroom and push the baby out. I had no idea how dilated I was, and had absolutely no urge to push, but I was determined to just power the baby out through sheer effort and will. I pushed and pushed, and during a break I told my husband to get the birth supplies. I had never before during a birth felt any need to have the cord clamps nearby, since we wait for the cord to stop pulsing and the placenta to be birthed before we cut the cord, and that allows several minutes to go get them after baby is born. I kept thinking, "He might need to cut the cord right away, as soon as the head is out, if the cord is wrapped around the baby's neck." I was adamant that he get the clamps and scissors, and be ready. I could swear when I pushed that I felt something moving into the canal, which only encouraged me to continue pushing out a baby with no signs of readiness. Adam said gently, "Stop pushing... you're going to hurt yourself. Just let the baby come." "But the baby is NOT coming!" I said. I felt reassured by his calm confidence, but he didn't seem to understand that the baby was simply not moving down, and that I was no closer to giving birth than I had been 12 hours before that. I insisted on purple pushing for a while; I was pushing HARD. Naturally after a few minutes of that effort, I had to accept the fact that it wasn't working, and probably had never been a good idea to begin with. I normally have some swelling during labor, but after the forced pushing I was more swollen than I had ever been; walking after that I felt like I had a rolled up towel between my legs. I went back to resting in the bed, changing positions trying to find comfort, and sitting on the toilet. I was afraid to sleep because I felt that things were slowing down, and I was afraid that sleep would stall my labor completely. I was so done, I couldn't stand the thought of that.

At about 8 PM, I realized the contractions had tapered out a bit and they were irregular again. I went downstairs and said, "I think I need to go to the hospital." Something inside me had shifted; I just could not do it any more. My husband was worried and relieved at the same time. Without letting on at all, he had been fielding calls from relatives, whose supportiveness had given way to concern as the hours ticked by and there was no progress to report.

I called my friend Kristi, and as soon as she heard my voice she said, "Do you need me to come get the kids?" I was shaky and panicky, and I told her I was going to transfer, and yes, could she please come get the kids. She said, "Before you transfer, would you like to talk to my midwife?" I said yes, and she gave me the number. I called Brenda right away, and explained the situation to her. She was very warm and calm; she said that everything I was describing sounded completely in line with a normal fifth birth and posterior presentation. She urged me to eat a sandwich, and try to get some sleep, and if I could sleep I would probably wake up refreshed and labor would pick up. She assured me that the baby would be fine, even if  labor dragged on over the next couple of days.

I hung up with her, feeling very relieved, and relayed to Adam what she had said. He looked comforted and said, "Alright then." That even a long labor wouldn't harm the baby was all he needed to hear to have renewed aplomb.

I said, "I feel so much better. Let's go ahead and get ready to go in to the hospital." He did a doubletake and said, "What?" I replied that even though she made sense and I felt reassured, I absolutely couldn't do it any more. Every single contraction came with a wave of panic; my resilience was shot. The midwife called back; she had spoken with the birth center at the hospital we would be going to if we we did decide to transfer, to try to feel out what kind of reception we might expect. She said it didn't seem that we would be treated poorly, even without having had prenatal care. Adam asked again if I was sure I wanted to go in to the hospital, and while I felt sad and conflicted about giving up on our homebirth, I said yes. "It may very well be true that if I just rest and let things progress, everything will be fine. I know I'm crapping out, wimping out, but I just can't do it any more. I can't have One. More. Contraction." I was very set on the epidural at that point, and possibly a Cesarean section.

I called Kristi again, and said we were going in to the hospital. At some point I wasn't aware of, she talked to Adam and warned him that the labor and delivery staff may not be respectful of me or my wishes, and that he might have to fight for me. Having encountered the resistance of medical staff in the past, Adam knew that was true.

We explained to the children what was happening, in positive terms, and that they would be spending the night at Kristi's house. While we waited for her, I looked for pants. I remember that my skin hurt, and that pants were so horribly constricting. They were torture.Kristi arrived shortly after, and began herding my children toward the door. "Okay, let's get your shoes on," she said to them. I was leaning on the couch having a contraction, and I exclaimed, "They don't need shoes!" I was feeling very urgent. She got the carseats she needed from our van, and piled my kids in hers without their shoes, or any change of clothes.

Adam and I got into the van, and drove to the hospital. I only had my much-worn slippers on, myself. We entered through the ER, and they sent us straight up to the birth center. The nurses were all very welcoming. When I explained that we had been planning an unassisted homebirth, and that I had not had any outside prenatal care for the entire pregnancy, they didn't bat an eyelash. "Well, this is your fifth, you certainly know what you're doing!" they said.

We arrived around 9 PM. The first thing they did after they got me settled in was check my dilation; they were pretty astonished by the amount of swelling I had. I was at a very stretchy 8 cm with a bulging bag of waters; the baby was still high. They searched for the baby's heartbeat with the Doppler, and it was at about 136 or so between contractions. During contractions, the heart rate would drop very, very low. It rebounded well after the contraction passed, so they weren't particularly worried. For a while, they suggested I change positions or rest as I needed. I mostly wanted to lie on my side, and I wondered when they would offer the epidural.

They decided to use continuous external fetal monitoring after a while, and I agreed. During contractions, the baby's heart slowed to an itermittent beep... beep... .... ... beep ... ... .... beep ... ... ... ... ... beep... .... ... ..... that was disconcerting to hear. The CNM said she would like to break my waters, and I agreed. I hoped that when the waters were broken, the contractions would pick up and the baby would come soon after. She broke the waters then, and I felt a huge sense of relief. My dilation went back to about 7 cm then, since the bag of waters was no longer putting pressure against my cervix. The baby was very high still, and besides being posterior was asynclitic, so the head was not against the cervix properly. The CNM asked if I felt like pushing at all, and said to give a few pushes to see if the baby would come down against the cervix when I did. When I pushed, the head did come down, and the cervix would open a bit under the pressure, but when I stopped pushing the baby went back up and the dilation went back to 7. Over and over, everyone affirmed my knowledge, my experience, and my intuition. They were very respectful, and I was very pleased by the level of informed consent/refusal that they offered. Sometimes it sounded like they had learned some "useful catchphrases" like It's your body and your birth that they repeated with a little more frequency than sounded really genuine to my skeptical ears, but it was so much better than what I had anticipated, I couldn't complain. I also felt that they a vaginal birth was their priority, and even through the contractions I appreciated that.

The CNM and nurses who were my caregivers were very reassuring about the heart rate, but they called in the OB to evaluate it. She examined me and suggested an internal monitor so we could have an accurate measure of the baby's heart rate. My husband started to stand up to tell her that I would not want that, since he knew how opposed I am to needless interventions. I held my hand out to him and said that it was something I wanted, that I wanted the information it could give and it was worth the risks. They inserted the internal monitor, and also a catheter to measure the intensity of my contractions.

The internal monitor showed that the baby's heart rate was dropping to about 20 beats per minute during every contraction, and the catheter revealed that my contractions were not strong, even though they were painful. Two hours after AROM, the baby was still high (station was +2) and there had been no increase in dilation. The OB said that we might want to consider augmentation with Pitocin, to get the contractions stronger and closer together. I felt very panicky at the thought of Pitocin, and I said that it didn't seem to me that it would be a good idea to increase the contractions if the baby's heart rate was dipping so low during them. She said that the hope would be that after starting Pit, even a small dose, things would pick up and the baby would be born quickly, before it had a chance to get distressed. While I wanted it to be over fast, the idea of Pit made me want to run away; I couldn't stand the thought. It seemed like a horrible, horrible idea.

At one point, we were alone in the room, and I turned to Adam and said, "They are going to make me ask for the C-section!" Because I was so stressed and exhausted by the contractions, I asked for something for the pain. I had was hoping for an epidural, because I just didn't want to feel any more contractions, but they offered to give me some pain medicine in my IV. I accepted, and hoped for some rest; it took some of the frantic agitation away but I didn't sleep. 

I realized how different this whole experience was from anything I had ever had, and how many different choices I was making than I ever would have imagined. I would never have expected to agree to any interventions, let alone all the ones that I did. I told Adam, "This whole thing is going to make me such a better doula -- I'll be so much better able to understand and support moms in their choices now!"

After a while, since I had not made any "progress" in labor since I got to the hospital, the OB brought up the idea of Pitocin again; again, I felt very strongly against the idea but would have probably acquiesced. They were very committed to me having a vaginal birth, and I got the feeling that the Pit was a last-ditch effort toward that end. A few minutes later, she came back in the room, and sat down at the end of the bed. She looked very serious, and said gently, "I don't think Pitocin is a good option for us. Even though the baby is rebounding well between contractions, I'm afraid it might stress him too much. I'm going to recommend a C-section." The relief that washed over me was amazing. I still felt sadness at not having a sweet, lovely homebirth, but the strongest feeling I had was one of "Finally!"

Once I gave my consent for the Cesarean section, they came in to give me a catheter. Before they inserted it, the CNM said, "Do you want to try pushing a little bit?" I pushed and pushed, and she tried some manual dilation as well; I could get the baby's head against my cervix during the push, but it floated right back up. "If there's a chance to do it this way, we should try," she said. She seemed very disappointed to proceed with prepping me for surgery.

When they were about to do the catheter, I said, "I need to pee, can I go do that before you do the cath?" They said, there's no reason for that, this will empty your bladder. They started inserting the catheter, but all the swelling made it quite difficult. It was horrifically painful; I was writhing and screeching involuntarily, and urine was gushing out of me like a geyser. I grabbed my husband and begged him, "Tell them I'm not usually a big baby! Tell them I'm not normally like this!" He said, "I'm not going to say that!" and the nurse said, "Believe me, no one is thinking that." The pain was very intense, and it continued to burn once they were finished and were taping it to my leg. Even the tape hurt, my skin felt incredibly tender. 

We began on our way to the OR. It felt so surreal, watching the hospital ceiling rolling overhead, the brightness of the lights. It seemed like a lifetime ago that I was in a tub in my dining room, and the finality of the moment, the fact that I was actually headed in for a Cesarean section, something I never thought I would have, gave that trip a dreamlike quality.

They stopped Adam from coming in until after I was anesthetized. He said that he was trying to get to me to give me a kiss before they separated us, and the OB leaped in front of him with her arms out, telling him, "No, no, you have to wait!" He didn't care much for her, to say the least. 

In the OR, the anesthesiologist introduced himself and explained everything he was going to do. He was a warm, funny man, and he said, "I know that a C-section is the farthest thing from what you had planned; I'll try to make it as nice as I can. I know this isn't what you wanted at all." He explained every step of the way what to expect and checked in with me frequently. The epidural was quite uncomfortable going in; and painful when it hit a nerve. Once it started to take effect, my legs felt like they were under a lead blanket. At that moment, I couldn't imagine choosing an epidural over an unmedicated birth. Not being able to feel anything was a relief to me (especially since I couldn't feel that catheter anymore!) but it divorced me from my body and the experience. "Your arms might feel very jerky and shaky; just let them go," the anesthesiologist advised. "If you try to hold them still, that will just make you uncomfortable." Adam was allowed to join me once I was fully anesthetized and could not feel pain from the chest down.  I was not strapped down or shaved.

He stood at my head, and because he was standing he was able to peer over the blue curtain that blocked my view. He watched from the first incision. "Oh, a gusher!" he joked. I believe the OB gave him a bit of a look at that, but I was really in my own world at that point. The anesthesiologist chatted with me amicably and I remember really appreciating his bedside manner. My arms flopped and jerked, and my teeth chattered uncontrollably. There was a lot of intense tugging and pulling beyond the blue screen; the anesthesiologist was right there saying, "You're going to feel some very strong pulling right now, it will probably feel like they've climbed right up on the table with you." At one point I realized if I craned just a little, I probably could watch what was going on in the reflective surface of one of the lights... I decided against it. I drifted in and out of consciousness. I was overwhelmingly sleepy.

I heard a short, newborn cry. I felt insane relief, my husband put his head next to mine and I cried. "I'm so glad we came in to the hospital," I said. He nodded against my hair.

What I was unaware of was that as soon as they had cut the incision in my uterus and pulled out the baby's head (which was quite easy, because it was not lodged in the pelvis at all) a constrictive band that had formed around my uterus clamped down around the baby's neck. (A Bandl's ring.) He saw them wrestling with my uterus to free the baby; he said it was clear that something was wrong. The intense silence and serious expressions they had as they worked to get the baby out indicated clearly that what was happening was not right. The OB looked at him, and he took the warning in her gaze and dropped down beside me. At that moment, he was terrified that our baby was in danger, and all he could do was listen to me weep with relief, blissfully ignorant of the scene that was happening on the other side of the curtain. I found out later that the OB did a T-cut, cutting up through the band, to finally release the baby. What should have taken about 30 seconds took about 6 minutes.The cord had also been wrapped around his neck; later on, when I asked how tight it was (trying to determine if it was something that mattered in the outcome of the birth, or just a regular old cord around the neck) and the OB and her assistant said in perfect unison, "Tight enough!" which of course was no answer at all.

There were no more cries, and I told my husband who seemed worried, "C-section babies often have a slow start breathing, it will be okay." They told us, "It's a boy!" and they took him immediately to the table, well out of my view. We named him Kai Helio, and he was 7 pounds, 2 ounces. They showed him to me, all wrapped up and beautiful, and the pediatrician said that they were going to take him to the warmer. "The warmest place for a newborn is on his mother," I said, but my protests were feeble, and he didn't listen at all. He was the only person who completely disregarded me in the entire experience.

"Go with the baby!" I urged Adam. He didn't seem to want to leave my side while I was being stitched up, but he also wanted to be with the baby. He left then, and the anesthesiologist made skillful small talk with me while I was stitched up. He and his wife had greatly enjoyed the ice wine when they visited Niagra; I'll always remember that. The man could carry on a cheerful, seamless conversation about any topic. I could barely keep my eyes open; I was exhausted.

I was finally taken to my room. The nurse came in and explained that the baby had been having some trouble breathing, so they had him on oxygen. I told them that I was breastfeeding and I didn't want him to have anything to eat or any nipples, and they were very adamant that he would not. Adam came back to stay with me; I don't remember much about it. He was leaving to go home; our apartment complex was having their annual inspections that day, and because of my laboring over the last few days, our apartment wasn't at all presentable. We'd arranged to hire a housekeeper to get it ready, but Adam had to go home to clean up and meet with her; he didn't want to but I was too worried about it. (The inspection never occurred. If we'd known that, he would have just stayed with me! I haven't felt the same about our apartment complex since.) He went to say good-bye to the baby, and then came in, beaming from ear to ear and pushing a basinette. The baby was off the oxygen, and they brought him to me to nurse. I got to hold my sweet boy for the first time. He was so amazing and precious, with lots of dark hair. He started nursing well. After he was done, the nurses took him back for more monitoring since they said he was still having some problems breathing. They brought him back about an hour later, and he was in my room with me from then on. I was given the option to allow or refuse the Vitamin K shot, etc.

Overall, the whole experience felt very positive. I was so blessed with the nurses and doctors I encountered (except the pediatrician) and for a hospital labor and Cesarean birth it was very affirming. They were beautifully and effectively supportive of breastfeeding, and did not care if I slept with him in my hospital bed. 

(Adam meets Kai for the first time)

I didn't have any doubts about the necessity of the Cesarean; since then I've asked myself lots of questions and tried to figure out if there was a point that I could have stopped the path to the surgery. Maybe there was, maybe there wasn't. I still haven't figured that out to my satisfaction, and I know that there's a good chance I never will be able to know with any certainty if it was or wasn't preventable. Certainly there are grand-multiparas who successfully birth posterior, asynclitic babies with nuchal cords. Does that mean if I'd just stuck it out, I could have? Or was it more likely that I would rupture due to the Bandl's ring first? I did grieve the birth I had wanted; despite all that labor, I never got that amazing, powerful, indescribable feeling of pushing my last baby into the world. I felt a little robbed of that; I kept thinking, "But it was my LAST birth! It wasn't supposed to be like that." Because of my reasonably positive experience with the transfer and surgical birth, I felt relieved and rescued...  quite a different sensation than the feeling that comes with an unhindered, empowered homebirth. I may always feel wistful for that feeling, a feeling I had planned to savor with the bittersweet awareness that it would be the last time I would ever experience birth.

I do know that this little boy is wonderful, and I wouldn't care if robots had to drill through my abdomen to wrench him out -- he would be worth it.

(Kai Helio, growing up and all smiles)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Boys in Pink

I recently heard snippets of a discussion about little boys wearing pink. Funnily enough,  no one really ever seems to care if little girls wear blue. It's just not okay for boys to demean themselves by dressing girly, it would seem. It says a lot about the underlying, largely unacknowledged viewpoint of our society when "like a girl" is just about the worst thing you can say to a boy. Forget what that tells our sons; what must that tell our daughters who absorb that attitude about what it means to be a girl?

That aside, what astounds me is how very, very arbitrary it is. There is nothing inherently feminine about pink, and nothing inherently masculine about blue. Until the 1920s, pink was quite an acceptable color choice for a boy. It was considered a variant of red, that a vibrant, powerful, masculine color. Blue, associated with peacefulness and the Mother Mary, was the feminine color. The switch for us came about after some clever marketing in NYC around Christmastime a little less than 100 years ago. A department store wanted to have a really standout window display for the holidays, so they switched the colors and made pink for girls, and blue for boys. It caught on and ever since it's been accepted as a fact that pink is a girly color, and it is almost incomprehensible to the average person that it could have ever been any other way.

I know of a few parents who choose to avoid gendered clothing altogether. I do have gendered clothing for my children, and would not intentionally encourage them to dress as the opposite sex; it may be merely a social construct, but this is the society that we live in, and the social group of which we are a part. It's not a priority for me to openly flout all conventions. However, I would like to think I would not discourage my sons from wearing "girls' clothing." I would love to say that I would enjoy it wholeheartedly, but I admit I have concerns.

I remember when my son was 2 or 3. He got one of his older sisters' pink sequined tutus, and put it around his neck. He chased them all around, roaring and posturing, obviously feeling that this article of clothing gave him special powers of strength and invincibility. Perhaps it's easier for us (as a society) to accept when a small boy obviously just doesn't understand; and his reaction to the clothing was completely in line with what our culture believes is boyishness, all signs pointing toward his continued development of a manly adulthood. For most people, those facts make it a cute story, and not anything "weird" or "off." But what if he had pranced and twirled in it? If the power that it gave him was the power to float delicately and gently sing flowers into being? "There's something not right with that boy," would be a very usual response, whether spoken or left unsaid. To be effeminate seems to be the worst sin, the worst defect, for a boy.

There is such an enormous stigma attached to boys that have or embrace feminine trappings or traits. Even people who are open minded and liberal in other ways may find themselves cringing inside at the idea of a girly boy, or a feminine man. Some mothers, who would prefer to be permissive with what their children wear, fear such a visceral reaction from people around them that would introduce unwarranted ugliness into their sons' lives if they were allowed to wear a shirt with a unicorn on it in public.They know that if a boy wears pink or otherwise girly clothing, he may become a target for harassment and insults, and, depending on the situation and his age, possibly even violence.

I know that if one of my sons wanted to wear something that was clearly for girls in our culture, I would be torn. On the one hand is the reality that it doesn't matter what color they wear and the fact that it's my job to support and facilitate their burgeoning sense of self in whatever ways that manifests... and on the other is the understanding that they might be setting themselves up for mockery and hurt by strangers, family, or peers who have been conditioned to find boys who cross the line into "feminine" to be repugnant, subversive, and perhaps even subhuman. 

I want to empower my children to approach the world with a sense of belonging and trust, expecting the best from people, and giving their best as well. I would like to get to a point in my own journey where I truly trust that good flows freely. I don't want my children to ever feel they have to hide who they are, that they need to be afraid of censure and adjust their own lives to fit unjust or illogical expectations. I also want them to equipped to deal with the negativity of others; I want them to be able to weigh all the information and make choices based on individual situations. Perhaps part of that is having those conversations about what our culture expects from males and females, what gender means, why being "like a girl" is something a boy is expected to avoid, and why wearing the pink ruffled shirt is something that he may wish to avoid in certain contexts. Or not.

It's difficult to balance my own ideas of equality, self-expression, and embracing what my children bring to my life and what they want in their own lives, with fears that they may be rejected or misunderstood, dismissed or hurt, because they wore the wrong color. That oversimplifies an enormous and complex issue a great deal, but when I hear heated debates about whether a 2 year old boy should be allowed to wear an article of pink clothing, that is how it seems to me. It's obvious to me that they should be allowed to wear pink if they want to; it's also obvious that they will almost certainly run into many people in their lives who could not disagree more.

My children are awesome; they are fabulous magical little people, regardless of their personal aesthetic. As a mother it would break my heart to have how wonderful they are overshadowed by ignorant assumptions about "boys who wear clothes like that" or "girls who dress that way." I imagine if my son wanted to wear clothing that I feared would cause people to disregard or actively dislike him, it would be difficult for me to accept that. I might want to steer him to more neutral clothing that would protect him from some of that. And in doing so, I might be just another voice saying, "You are only worthy if you fit this mold."