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30 October 2012

Agency... Found in a Lock

While on radioactive lock-down a couple weeks ago (part deux of my cancer treatment, and the scarier part) I had a lot of time to myself. I admit, I watched a lot of The Mentalist and read a lot of Game of Thrones, book IV. But one night, I also fell into the 2011 film, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. If you haven't seen it, an approximately ten-year old boy, Oskar, loses his father on September 11th in the WTC. He tells us that he was tested for Asberger's, but "diagnostics were inconclusive." He is noticeably distant from his mother, but close to his grandmother, who takes a 'boarder'. Oskar discovers a key in the top of his father's closet one year after his death, and decides this key was meant for him to find, and for which he is determined to locate the key it unlocks, discovering a secret his father means for him to find.

There are many things Oskar finds, including the truth about 'the boarder' and the person who needs the key most. Oskar, being a man of select and distinct intellect and strategy, plots his way through the five boroughs looking for the person who holds the lock. He meets over a hundred people over several months, walking from location to location asking anyone by the last name of "Black" if they knew his father, Thomas Schell, and if they have the lock. Obvious significance of the names aside, Oskar is determined, methodic and secretive. Until he meets his grandmother's boarder, an elderly man who doesn't speak; he has not lost his voice, just his will to use it. Oskar wants to know his story, and pours out his own to the man at 3 a.m. The boarder asks Oskar if he would like a companion on his search.

Oskar has rules, many of them, and a strict schedule. He's afraid of the MTA, so walks; he is goal-oriented so figures to hit so many houses in so much time, insisting on at least 20 people per Saturday. The boarder agrees to everything, but Oskar makes some allowances: the boarder cannot walk that much or that fast; they take the train. The boarder needs to sit down and eat, and might need more than 6 minutes to consume his hotdog. So be it.

Oskar has a few tantrums, and the grandfather waits quietly, allowing the boy to feel his frustration. The boy insists on some rules, and the grandfather complies. But Oskar sees his limitations and adjusts for them.

The moment of truth comes on dry-run when Oskar insists on visiting a river home in the Rockaways alone, and looks back to see that the boarder has left him. Oskar finds him in a bar. The boarder is his grandfather, and Oskar admits that he would like the man to come with him from now on.

This 9/11 film reminded me of something we're allowed to forget in this society because we so rarely see it: that children and elders have an understanding. Perhaps they're bonded because they're free from the responsibilities of supporting themselves or their families (hopefully) and that allows both children and elders to see the world differently, traverse it differently. Perhaps it's that neither is prepared- physically, emotionally, or spiritually- to move at the rate most adults are expected to perform in the 21st century. Perhaps there's also a layer of being closer to the spiritual world than we "adults" are. Children have just emerged from it; elders are on their way back. But perhaps there's also an unfortunate commonality, too: that because they don't "work" they're not treated as having as much to "contribute" to society, and therefore not seen to be legitimate individuals - the way adults are.

From moment to moment, watching the exchange between this old man who is living out his last days, and his every regret, in secrecy while giving Oskar the agency he deserves, as Oskar discovers all the secrets and exposes them one-by-one, myself unable to care for my child, and in fact, being cared-for a great deal by my husband's parents, I realized how crucial it is to respect our children as real-live people. Yes, I ask my son if he wants cereal for breakfast, and if he says "no" I offer oatmeal, but a choice like that is an illusion of agency. Real agency is respecting him when he says "no" to a hug, and when he wants to walk instead of ride in the stroller, and backing off so he can engage in play his own way.

My son will be two years old just after Thanksgiving, so we've been dealing with the "terrible twos" for almost a year now, and I think it's high time we stopped allowing it to be called the "terrible twos". Don't we all want to accomplish the one thing we're on earth to do - to become what we are meant to be? Our children have so little say in so very much, while we make all the decisions. Now, I'm not pulling back on the routines, naptime, and insisting that my child eat three heads of broccoli before he can have a damn cookie, but I am saying that waking up each morning with an eye to what our child intends, his goals, his desires, his obsessions and his instants of insistence might help us see just a bit better into his soul, allowing us to let it show itself, and every day become more what our child is meant to be.

This is where I invite you to comment below. What do you do to respect your child's agency? What have your experiences been with raising toddlers? What do you think society could do to respect children as individuals more, and validate their needs and desires while giving them structure and security? Have you seen this in another society? What did it look like?

21 October 2012


Shameless plug for my friend Kamara's latest release.
New album drop is imminent!
This is "You Wreck Me" from Earth Hero

13 October 2012

the Mamas annnnnd the Papas

Four weeks ago I optimistically told you we would talk about the papas "next week." What happened? why is it so hard to talk about what Daddies do?

On Tuesday I worked from home, and when my son and I arrived at the playground just before 9 am, there were two other toddlers there. With their papas. By 9:30 there were seven kids on the rainy blacktop: all of them except mine with their daddies. The thing is I was home that day because my husband had a meeting he couldn't reschedule. Every other Tuesday he's the one with our toddler at the playground, with all those other daddies.

And he has been since I went back to work, at which point my two best friends in New York also had infants. And at that time, all three moms returned to work while the dads did some or all of the 9-5x5.

So the economy sucks and we're getting creative, but maybe that is changing the daddies. Before we get into the post-partum stuff let me relay a few things I've learned from science:
  • during pregnancy, if the papa got any of mama's symptoms (for mine it was the bloating, and my bloating was from hell!), he probably had high prolactin, which made him more nurturing;
  • once your baby was born daddy's prolactin rose (even more) when he was near the baby making him more nurturing, and fell when he was out of the house, so he could go back to bread-winning;
  • and if the two of you felt closer during pregnancy, it might also have been due somewhat to hormones: mama's pheromones told papa to be closer to her, but they had no effect on any other man around her.
They say the mother's role in childrearing is to be nurturing, caring, respond to the child's needs, and teach trust, reliance, relationship and communication skills, and encourage the child in all things. The mama looks inward - creating a family life, a nest, and looking to the child's innermost needs. A father's role is to push baby out of the nest, to show her the world, to encourage her to go out and see it, and do it, and be it. He teaches her confidence, pride, work ethic and perseverance. Papa is focused on the outside world, and helps the child to leave the home and discover the universe.

But I've definitely noticed that the daddies we meet, like my son's father, are nurturing and emotionally in tune with their children. In some ways they do respond totally differently to situations than I do. For example, when my son wiped his arm over the picnic table scattering the acorns a three-year-old carefully gathered, I went over and said, "Mihijo, we don't do this, he's playing with these nuts - let's put them back." When my son's best friend did the same thing minutes later, her daddy called out, "oh, man, there they goooo!" a big laugh resounding over the chaos. Honestly, I thought it was awesome.
I was teaching my child to pay attention to others' needs and wants, and to be empathetic to others. My friend was teaching the kids that shit happens, and that can be laughable (the nut-gatherer was, by the way, no where in sight for either incident). Both are good lessons.

This moment crystalized for me one difference between mommas and daddies - yes, we're teaching different stuff, but I've seen that daddy hug and love and comfort his daughter in all the same ways I hug and comfort and love my son.

What occurs to me is this - I do believe that daddies are spending a lot more time in the 21st century with their young children than they did in the 20th century - at least among western civilizations. And the papas I know are much more emotionally in tune with their children than the fathers of my generation.

I see a unique opportunity here for our men to learn a new emotional intelligence (E.I.). Just as I've said my child made me a mother, I believe our children teach their fathers to be fathers. And I see the dads around us learning to be the kinds of fathers we would have wanted. I don't think past generations put a lot of stock in men having emotional intelligence - that is paying attention to their and others' emotions, being sensitive to them, and offering care for those emotional needs and the people who have them. I don't think society in general has placed much value on emotional intelligence. There's a reason why it is women who dominated the lines of work that require care and E.I.: teaching, nursing, child-rearing, and management positions. Because we have learned E.I. over millennia of taking care of small children, older children, the elders, and managing households chock full of emotions coming from every direction. Note that it was those lines of work that pay the lowest wages (see previous posts for data links).

As the work world learns that we have to find a way to reconfigure work to allow both [working] parents to care for their children, more men are carrying a part of the load, and learning a new kind of sensitivity. There is a great opportunity here - one where men can take what they are now learning as the fathers of small children (who have perhaps the highest emotional needs), back into the larger world - and give new authority to valuing emotional intelligence as one we all need, one that is essential for working together and working together better, not to mention heightening our awareness of the value in all things - from the human soul, to four-leggeds, winged-beings, and swimming things, and the very earth we stand upon.

Maybe feminism's cosmic role wasn't just to let women out of their Leave-it-to-Beaver shackles but also to release men from the just-as-restrictive life of Mary Poppins' nemesis, Mr. Banks. Just as we see how our bodies work together not only to create a child but to create the relationship that will sustain a child after birth, we can see that it's both men and women who nurture our children.

Papas, you have an opportunity here - to go back into the world and add the authority of your voices to those of women everywhere who know the value of understanding emotions, empathizing with others, and responding to emotional needs. Human beings are emotional creatures, and that is part of what gives us the ability to bond, to serve one another, to provide for each other what, individually, we can never do for ourselves. Some would say it's what allows us to touch the sublime. Women can't change society alone. As we created life together, we can elevate it, only together.

Dear Readers,
I'm honored that you take the time to read what I write for you. Thank you for this and for caring about the issues I discuss in my posts. I also invite you to comment on what you read - share your stories, comments, thoughts, statistics or meditations. I would love for this blog to be come a forum where we can all get together to share and change the world.
Sincerely yours, Mariah

14 September 2012

The Tiospe

This week my son and I are visiting Meme and Gramps in Wakpala, South Dakota on the Hunkpapa Lakota Standing Rock reservation. It is September and the harmonic balance of sunny sweet heat and cool dry breeze that you watch come up on you as it washes through the grass like the tide leaves me in awe of my place in this world.

I am a mother who intended to breastfeed no matter what assuming that this talk around town about it being difficult was hogwash, and that the market of breastfeeding classes, books and lactation consultants was ridiculous and unnecessary. Mammals the world over nurse their children from whales to marmots; was I so different? (I've always lived by the tenet that we should pay more attention to animals not because they're so much like us, but because we're so much like them.)

When my son was born, he was placed on my chest and heard my heart, picking up the scent of the only world he'd known up to that moment. He raised up his head and looked at me and his father. He stayed there with me for a long time and nursed within an hour of coming into this world. When morning came, he latched, but not as deeply as he needed to. In the half hour it took my lactation consultant to show me how to get my son where he needed to be, I realised that the world needs classes, books and midwives like mine because most of us don't live in little tiospes ("tee-osh-pi-e": Lakota for a sort of small tribe or extended family - a small group of a few families who live near one another- knit as a community.) These tiospes relied on one another for safety, food, community, company; they shared hot days and cold nights, feast and famine, danger and celebration. Reliant on one another, families were more than units, people more than individuals because they shared this life together. In my tiospe would be many other women - whether they were my mother and grandmother, aunties, or just other mothers with small children - to show me how to nurse my son.

Yes, mother's milk passes on mama's immunities and prevents ear infections. But it also provides probiotics (now believed to give our children healthier metabolic systems), and exactly the balance of nutrients your baby needs. It even changes with the baby's age and needs to give your child exactly what she needs today (the areola absorbs your baby's saliva telling your body exactly what she needs now). If your child is sick, the milk made will have more of this or that to help your child get well. If your child has an eye infection, or anyone you know for that matter, dab a little fresh milk right in the open eye- it stops the infection and heals the eye. Breast milk even contains fats your child cannot get anywhere else. The more of them your child receives and the longer your child nurses, the more her brain receives of what it needs most, making your child smarter. Milk your body makes when you're happy or laughing actually makes your baby drowsy, so that she sleeps better. And milk made at night is full of lullabies that put her back to sleep.*

The bond that grows when we nurse our children is so powerful it's almost incomprehensible to me. Skin on skin, both scent and touch relax mother and child. In this silent touch something is said. Something is known and heard. Like the heart beating, like breath slowly rising and falling, mother and child hear one another's voices. Voices that seem to rise in a song that can only be sung when both voices rise. In this moment we hear the sounds of creation. This moment is a beat in the rhythm that comes not from humanity's pulse, but from the pulse of this earth - the tides coming in and going out, the seasons as they move from deep cold to heat we can smell, and back into snow and darkness. The breaking from its shell of a tree shoot, and the settling into the soil of a rotted out oak. The heartbeat your child hears doesn't come from your chest, it emanates from the center of this earth out into every heart. The bond that grows is that of knowing we are essential members of the tiospe.

In this moment when the mother gives all that she has night and day month after month to her child, who is completely dependent on her for everything that he is and can be, we know that we are all that child - dependent on this world for everything that we are. And we are all that mother - responsible to care for the creation we come from.

This relationship of dependence and sacrifice is tenuous for Americans. Taught to be independent, self-sufficient and ask nothing of anyone, we don't want to be dependent and we've been taught that sacrifice makes us weak and vulnerable. The kicker is this: it's not our choice. We are dependent, and we have to sacrifice. Or what we lose is the tiospe. Without the tiospe nothing we do has meaning, because it is meaningful to no one but ourselves. When the seasons, terrain and living things move in harmony, the balance that supports life is maintained. Harmony is found in both dependence and sacrifice.

Mitakuye oyasin

P.S. Don't worry, Papas, I'm gettin' to you next week.

P.P.S. This blog is one big soap box, but before I hat the guts for it, the one issue I shouted long and loud about was the American bison. Here's why: bison hooves are cloven. When they walk the earth, their hooves break it up allowing the rain that falls to be absorbed by that earth. As bison have been replaced by cows (flat hooves) in the Midwest and West, the earth has been packed flat. Rain runs off, taking topsoil with it. As the earth gets drier, it turnes to dust, and more topsoil blows off. This degrades soil quality and makes the earth hotter and drier. The desertization of the American midwest and west (which is spreading in both directions) causes increased drought and hotter temperatures in our country, increasing climate change.
Eat bison - it's delicious, has more better fats, fewer bad fats, fewer calories per ounce than even ostrich, and contributes to a market we need to grow in order to bring back the bison. Fun fact: Bison don't get cancer. That's an animal I'm honored to depend on and sustain.

* Much of what I've learned about the benefits of nursing (and lots of other awesome stuff) comes from Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies by Jena Pincott. (Give me a ring if you need a lactation consultant and live in Brooklyn - mine was awesome.)

29 August 2012

Legitimate What!??

Sometimes something so horrific is said or done that we have to take time out to recognize it for what it is and does, but also for what it conceals and protects. Often that thing concealed and protected very much needs to be revealed and dismantled.

Rep. Todd Akin (Missouri): "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

While the majority of commentary and criticism about this abominable statement centers on its ridiculous and unfounded concept of the female body's capabilities, there is a glaring double meaning to the phrase "legitimate rape" - and that is this: that sometimes it's ok to rape a woman. Sometimes it's a legitimate act.
[A legitimate child is a confirmed member of society, well and good; an illegitimate child is one born of an improper act, an unsanctified union.]

I'm going to borrow from Rachel Maddow's genius criticism of Akin's inane comment and the tradition from whence it came. On August 20th, she reminded us that ideas as stupid as this rise up every so often in the speaker's desire to find loop holes that allow him to feel more justified in putting forth legislation that is unjustifiable. If he can find a way to make the woman the guilty party - manipulative, conniving, lying - then we can claim that it's really ok not to allow abortion exceptions for rape and incest "victims". After all, they're really the perpetrators in these cases, right? That is: we don't have to protect women.

When a man is capable of putting the words 'legitimate' and 'rape' together, my sense is that his underlying beliefs about women are so distorted by his power hunger and arrogance that he actually believes there are times it is ok to force himself on a woman and her body with total disregard for her as a human being with a mind, soul, heart and body of her own that deserve respect and, in fact, deference. And if that speaker is so divorced from the meaning of his words that he could let slip a phrase with such a glaring double meaning without realizing it, he should not be in public office, and perhaps be barred from using the English language.

And now let me quote from an equally powerful speaker, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

So, here's my chance to give something back to us as women. There's another story in our collective unconscious that can be read at least a few ways: the story of Adam and Eve. Western culture tends to focus on one reading of the "creation of man": Eve bit the apple, she did not resist temptation, and, in fact, tempted Adam, who was strong and resisted. She is both weak and manipulative while Adam is strong and forthright. Here's what I've never heard from anyone or read in any text: the apple came from the tree of knowledge. And the forbidden fruit held wisdom. When Eve bit the apple she gained the wisdom it held. (I personally eat an apple a day.) Adam did not.

I'm sure many men would like us to forget that we possess a wisdom to which they don't have access. Maybe it was from the apple, or maybe it was from our "punishment" that we gained that wisdom. Maybe it is in the stress and ardor of carrying a child, the pain and labor of giving birth to the child, and the infinite love and care we give to our children once they come into this world that we gain our wisdom - one men cannot experience. What is that wisdom?

Perhaps it is in part empathy, perhaps it is understanding through the pain we all experience, with our without pregnancy, each month, - a way to understand anyone's pain anywhere. Because we are reminded with each moon what it feels like to be in pain, to suffer, to bleed. For this reason, maybe we empathize better with the Sudanese. Perhaps it is the compassion that comes with empathy - making us more likely to startle when we see someone fall, cry when we read something heartbreaking. Perhaps it comes with the dark emotional places we go with our "mood swings" and crying jags. Perhaps in those dark places we see more of human experience, and are more willing to feel what others feel: drowning polar bears watching the sun fall away. Maybe in that darkness and pain we experience a more complex life - one that lets light come through the darkness, one that sees shades of grey and even a full prism of color, and the beauty each color lends the next. Perhaps it is a woman's intuition that knows why her infant is crying when the child has no other way to communicate but with tears. Maybe part of the wisdom we inherited from Eve is that as creators we understand creation. We understand that if nothing else is sacred, creation is. If nothing else deserves our protection, life does. Trees, streams, Pe' Sla, toads in Brazil, and the people of the Andes.

Maybe there are men out there who are afraid of, in poet Wyatt Prunty's words, "what women know, what men believe." Because there is an insinuation there that men can 'only' believe. We "just know." Trust what you know: it might save the world.


FYI: According to the NIH, 5% of rape victims of child-bearing age get pregnant. "A total 32.4% of these victims did not discover they were pregnant until they had already entered the second trimester; 32.2% opted to keep the infant whereas 50% underwent abortion and 5.9% placed the infant for adoption; an additional 11.8% had spontaneous abortion."

23 August 2012

Apollo, meet Matisyahu

Sometimes music says it better than I can:
This is
"One day" by Matisyahu

20 August 2012

Why Home Matters

Having something cut out of your neck is hard on your body, and anesthesia doesn't make it easier. Not being able to hold my son just compounded the pain. My parents and sisters helped so much, but my son cannot understand at 20 months old why Mama is there but she cannot hold him, feed him, comfort him, and put him to bed. Listening to your son cry for almost two hours at bedtime because you cannot hug him is next to torture - I'll wager that for any mother.

Fatigue kept me from engaging in any of the fun and most of the responsibilities, but from my vantage point on the futon, I got a very new view of my son - the way he plays, what he needs, what he does and doesn't understand and how he learns. Entirely discluded, except for a few hugs from the side of the couch, I had to see with a new eye.

What I saw answered the question for me, what does my child lose when he's at daycare?

I didn't want to go back to work when my son was born, but I had to, so I was determined to lose as little time as possible with my son. He went to a family day care near my work because I wanted to nurse him at lunch, and it kept his daycare time to a minimum. But as time went on, some positives emerged. The main caretaker is a grandmother who loves children, and works with her husband and daughter. They play games, paint, sing, dance, read stories, and do puzzles. My child was in a home, with loving people, learning new things and building relationships with other children. But the one thing my child needs at this age, no one can give him except his own family: the time, space, love, and security to develop emotionally.

A child from his or her first days to three years old simply is not ready, does not have what he or she needs to be outside the home and away from family all day long. The stress on a child in my son's situation three days a week is not something he is prepared for. It forces him to cope with something he cannot cope with. The hour long subway ride each way, which gets harder as he gets older and is bursting with the joie de vivre stored up in his 11 hour night; being surrounded by children of all ages playing, yelling, arguing, and yes, laughing; the sensory overload of a full house; the discomfort of not being in his own home when he has almost no ability to soothe himself. The fact that he simply is not with the people he most trusts in all the world: Mama and Daddy. No one is Mama and no one is Daddy, or Nana or Grandpop or Meme and Gramps, and no one can replace them or do what they do - and he knows this in every way. From the calm that runs throughout his body when he first smells my skin, to his breakdown on the train letting out all he's kept inside -the frustration, anger, irritation, stress, sadness, and even excitement or challenge or joy, all day long for the babysitter.
When we're not ready to do something, by and large, if we try, it won't go well. My son is not ready to cope with all that challenge.

But a child's first three years are so primal, so prime, because what he does need and is doing right now is finding and feeling his place in the world. And his place is within a loving family of relationships. At the end of the day, my son knows he goes home to one father, one mother, and one family, and where and with whom he spent the day really doesn't matter a hill of beans compared to his own pack. He knows this because he feels it, all his senses reinforce it, and his relationships are meant to support it. If we're unsure just what the best way to approach almost anything is - we have only to look to nature. Fox pups are kept with mama in the den until they can hunt, keep their own den, and raise their own little pups.
This is the time in my son's life when he needs to bond securely, and feel that he can completely trust his family, his world, and his place in this world. This is the time to love your child in every way possible, making that child feel completely secure - being there as he takes these many new steps, experiencing the wide world for the first time. Because everything that follows comes from this time.

With that trust, love and support, your child can flip stones over and poke bugs, jump off the slide for the first time, and have a spat with his playmate: because he knows you're there to stand behind him, pick him up, and make things right again. You show him how he can trust the world, because there is no one he trusts more than you. And it is being with you, living in this world with you, sharing with you that builds his relationship with you: the relationship he is going to emulate for the rest of his life.

In my first job after college, I was so excited to be around adults! To work with people who would work with me, cooperate, collaborate, communicate for a common goal. After about three weeks I realized most people had not matured past wherever they were at about age 14 - just like at college. This was a major letdown. I'm 34 and I think I've only begun to learn how to get by at work -- knowing this for over 12 years.

If there is one thing I see lacking most in the world it's emotional maturity. Maybe it's something our culture has not placed much value on: knowing how to read our own emotions, and what to do with them and with ourselves in the midst of them; to read other people; coming to feel what others feel; knowing how we feel and yet not always acting from an emotional place; and valuing what all this means - even using it to advance relationships, to work together, to accomplish what we're meant to do. Again, folks, I gotta say - if we spent more time with our children at the most important moment in their emotional development - giving them time and our love to develop in their own time in this very precious way - would we be better people, would our society be less combative, and more cooperative?

I was given the time to heal. I'm better every day, and for that I believe I will be stronger sooner, and stronger longer. My skin is almost entirely knit, I'm able to lift my son, put him to bed, and push him on the swing - now. My family was here: taking care of everything I needed, nutritious food, time to sleep and rest, taking care of my son in the best way he can be cared for: by those who will be a part of his life for the rest of his life. I only want the same for him.

** It's imperative that I make a note here for all the working mothers who love their jobs: if you love your job, God bless you. If you need to work to be happy, God Bless YOU - most people don't have that! If being at home all day would deprive you of what you need to be yourself, I fully support your decision to work. As they always say, "when Mama ain't happy, ain't NObody happy!" I support you. It's not good for anyone when the person taking care of the child is unhappy.

07 August 2012

Cut My Throat

Tomorrow I'll wake up at 4:30 in the morning. It will be dark and still. The black silhouette of trees will be all I see against the blue dark sky in Brooklyn in this very early morning. I won't be awakened because my son is teething or had a scary dream. I'm awake because I need to have my throat cut.

I have cancer. Tomorrow morning they're going to take out my thyroid and anything that looks abnormal. I'm probably not going to die of this now; it seems likely I will die of something else later. This is because thyroid cancer, and the one I have, is one of the least awful cancers you can have: it's slow-growing and usually only spreads in the neck, if it's going to at all.

Slow growing it may be but it's had a real fast effect on me. It was the day before my birthday that I decided to start writing for you, and the day after I was diagnosed that I wrote my first post. I remember thinking, well, I can let this distract me from the important things in my life, or I can just do the things that are important to me.

It's been said to me that cancer will change my life, and in some good ways. Right now, I think it already has. When it comes to my husband, time always came at a high premium, and I feel like we've fought for every minute together. Likewise with my son - I have craved every second I could get with him, connived and finagled a million little schemes to get more. But with myself, I seem to have let time go, time and time again. Not done what I most wanted to do - out of fear, anxiety, self-doubt. Now, I look at my life and see that for myself - I've had all the time in the world. To do what? Cancer has forced me to see how I've treated myself for the last 34 years.

Now, time is precious and pregnant. In this moment, it is all very clear to me what is important. Being with my son is important; having a stronger relationship with my husband is important; and doing what I am made for is important. In cancer stands the possibility of not being here, of not living the life given to me, of not having the chance to become what it's in me to be. Of missing my chance to care for the world the way it has cared for me.

It will be dark and quiet tomorrow morning. I will leave home with a throat that is blocked. But I will come home with a body that has a new space and new vulnerability. I will come home a little less the woman I used to be, with a new opening in my throat. A second place to breathe, a second place to speak. I will receive the chance to have a new voice.

01 August 2012

What's School Got to Do with It?

Why is how well our children will perform in school the end all and be all of every discussion about early development? (Or, for that matter, any period of development?)

I especially ask this question amidst a culture of underachievers, because we're one of the only developed nations in the world whose young people now earn fewer college degrees than its now older generations did in their time. In fact, we hear from American business leaders that "too many" young people are in college "for their own good." What!? I digress.

Let's, for the sake of argument, focus on this school performance issue: even if we're only interested in how our children perform in school (assuming that this performance translates to success in the 'workplace'), do we not recognize that pretty much every emotion humanity experiences effects a child's ability to learn? Shame, anger, frustration, pride, confidence - yes, love.Children (especially from zero to three years of age) learn best from the people they love, and children love people who love them. That's why, PC or not, it's best for babies and toddlers to be home with parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles- as much as possible. I've always put it this way: small children should be cared for by people who will be a part of their lives for the rest of their lives. Because love is a huge part of learning.

Yes, love is patience, love is kind, love is selfless, and asks nothing in return. But love is focus, love is determination, love is staying power, love is investment, love is commitment. A mother or father, a teacher or principal who makes a mark, who actually helps a child learn is committed, is emotionally involved, is observing and meditating on a child's growth, is creative and determined to help that child master a topic or a skill or improve his or her writing. This teacher is determined to see progress, and his or her investment brings focus to the child. A child who knows her teachers are invested feels her importance to this community, and wants to live up to not only what's expected, but the effort everyone else has put into her. She becomes committed, she is focused because she cares, she is determined because of this love.

In fact, its been repeatedly shown that the most important factor in school design affecting positive student performance is not curriculum, mission, or location, not even class size. It's school size. Because when a school is small each child experiences growing involvement in the community. From one year to the next children are not just moved from one teacher to the next, forgetting Ms. Rodriguez from first grade, and Mr. Henson from second grade, and unknown to each new teacher they meet, year to year. No, each child sees Ms. Rodriguez every day, just like he did in first grade, and second grade, and will again next year in fourth grade. And Ms. Rodriguez and Mr. Henson are friends, and they talk to the third grade teacher every day, too. This child is known, and he knows everyone else. And through that knowing and sharing comes love. When we are known and loved, we know we are important, we want to live up to others' expectations, we want to make them proud, we want to live up to the potential others see in us. This is the social contract that defines human beings pack animals. We care what other people think about us. And thank goodness, because we're better together. We're more than just ourselves, together. We're more than what we would be alone, when we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

We care what others think about us because we're social animals, because we want meaningful relationships. Relationships make our lives meaningful. And where all of that begins is at home with our families. This is the first pack, this is the first experience of being a part of something bonded by love, being in relationship with people we need, and who need us. This is where we learn about our place in the world, in a meaningful world we want to be a part of. This is where we learn that we are important.

We care about how our children will do in school, and how they will do out in the world because we love them and want them to live good lives. What we give them by loving them no one else can give with the same importance. At the end of the day, your children know they are part of you, and that they will carry you the rest of their lives. The gift we can give our children by keeping them close is themselves.

22 July 2012

Geeking Out on Mothering

Grad students in social work, law, public health, public policy: do I have the thesis topic for YOU!?

Comparison shopping - who gets more value for their tax dollar in each of a few nations, specifically, in the US, Pakistan, South Africa, Mexico, Spain, France, Venezuela, and - just for variety - Norway?

In the US, most of us get just two "benefits" when having a child: 1) the Feds guarantee that we will have a job to go back to if we are out of work for no more than 12 weeks. 2) Short-term "disability pay" will give you a weekly lump sum for 6 to 8 weeks of the time you're home recovering from giving birth or having a Cesarian section birth. Let's look at that again - this is not pay to stay home with your child, caring for an infant. This is time to be home repairing your body before you are well enough to get back to the grindstone.

If you're like me, you were even required to have your saved sick days paid out to you during those first 6 to 8 weeks and if you were like me, for that time, YOU didn't collect the disability pay; your employer did. (P.S. That meant I returned to work with NO sick days for the next 7 months though I had an infant, now at daycare, who proceeded to get sick twice a month, minimum, though he received a diet of nothing but breast milk until 7 months old.) What about saved vacation days? Yep, I elected to use those too (really, what choice did I have?), and who collected my disability pay then? Mmmm hmmm, my employer. After the vacation pay ran out, and only then, did I start to get my measly disability pay (NY state; $170/ week). I started an ING account to save money from the day I knew I was pregnant knowing I wanted well more than 12 weeks at home. I made my way up to 18 weeks. Whooo hooo!

If we lived in Venezuela that 18 weeks would have been guaranteed by my nation, and fully paid.

Not as vacation pay or sick pay - as maternity pay. As the social support for caring for a newborn infant who is completely dependent on myself and my husband for survival - and yes, moreso me: I've got the milk.

I have to ask: Just what value do we place on our children if our society neglects to support mothers and fathers with giving their children the best start in life? I think almost any society can be judged by how it treats its elders and its youth. We routinely corral them into centers at the edges of society paying their caretakers barely a living wage (average is somewhere between $7 and $14 per hour). I truly wonder how many of our problems in America come from a collective unconscious acceptance of devaluing anyone we deem vulnerable or weak: anyone who doesn't contribute to the GDP. And I think this attitude pervades various spheres.

Were we more available to raise our children, more available as whole families, more natural in how we spent our time together (because time didn't come at such a premium) would our children learn a more empathetic respect for life, for other people, for living things? Would they be less likely to torment bus monitors, kids with autism, or the only Mexican kid on the playground? Would we treat each other more as members of a community - a larger family, a village? and less like competitors? Would we create a society less likely to bet against our nation's homeowners? Less likely to disallow some citizens from marrying or adopting children? Less likely to frack our water into poison?

So, which comes first - the embryo or the mother? I don't know. But, I do know that when I smile, it makes me feel happier, when I hold my sister's hand even though I'm mad at her I feel more compassion for her, when I turn on happy music it gets me out of a funk. If we take any first step in moving toward a more empathetic, caring society, won't others follow? And if you're going to start somewhere, name a better place to start than at home with our newborns. If our mind's can't lead us there, let us follow our bodies. They may know more.

If you want to support the American movement to change the treatment of families on issues like maternity leave take a look at A Better Balance.

15 July 2012

The Mother's Nature

So, how is this a "nature-inspired" blog? Let's talk mother's nature.

I'm sure you've all seen the recently published articles stating that the longer your unborn child remains in the womb the smarter your peanut is likely to be upon exiting her shell. I'm so sorry, but, "unh huh, yeah, thanks for confirming what intuition and a few millennia of common sense has known all along." (True confessions, I love it when science reinforces what our guts have been telling us since we were pre-verbal.)

Seriously, this is a perfect example of mother nature's insistence that we follow her system - for the simple reason that it works - and yes, for reasons we cannot fathom. We all know that the theory of evolution purports that good form along with good function allows some species, and some individuals, to survive where others cannot. And it is that system that has allowed some very worth while 'best practices' to emerge. Among them - allowing the symbiotic relationship of mother and child to direct the time and process of a birth. Now, I was pregnant two years ago, so new things may have come to light, but at that time science couldn't even tell us what in either body stimulated birth - was it the woman's placenta releasing hormones? the baby's litmus gland? the baby's brain? the baby's lungs? a silent conversation between mother and child? When we don't even know what mother nature's process is - but we know it has worked well enough for the last few thousand years to make us the most prominent species on the planet - we may do well to generally (when possible) follow that process. Form follows function.

So, what are the consequences of giving birth before your child is ready (quick disclaimer, there are many situations in which it is necessary to give birth or undergo a Cesarian foregoing natural birth and I'm the first person to fully support anyone who has experienced this; we live in the 21st century, and thank God for that because leeching the sick isn't likely to make them well.)
  • Well, baby may lose a few good days or weeks of brain development in the womb.
  • Baby may not have fully functioning lungs or experience the hormonal burst that tells the baby's lungs to begin functioning outside the womb.
  • New theories about the alarming increase in Type II Diabetes rates among children are connected to Cesarians.
  • And some research shows that children born by Cesarian are likely to lack stomach bacteria they can only receive from the mother's birth canal causing them to be more vulnerable to obesity.
The punch line is this: you can chose to act against nature's better advice, but there will be consequences.

Why am I highlighting the Cesarian epidemic? Because it seems to be the "health" system in America that pushes it on mothers. Some OB/Gyns will only deliver breech children by Cesarian, while some will only be there for you M - F, and yes, birth rates are statistically disproportionately higher Monday through Friday during working hours, than during weekends and evening hours. Holding aside emergencies, and medically necessary "pre-births" like a diagnosis of preeclampsia, etc., this is apparently a highly risky course of action, and let's thank Columbia (full transparency: I work there) for adding to the growing research that just confirms Mother Nature's system, one we don't fully understand, but for which we are coming to see some real advantages.

The litany of positives I could list for following the body's signals toward healthy birth would surely cause you to shut me down tout suite, so let me just jump to an observation I had when my son was right around 17 weeks old:
If every kind of doctor and every group of doctors from the pediatricians to the oncologists insist that the best food our babies can receive from birth to six months is mother's milk, and it is roundly agreed that baby should have nothing but mother's milk for six months, and further, that we should continue to breastfeed our children until they are at least 12 months old, why are we so dismally supported in staying home with our children for at least one year?

Our society does almost nothing, except holding our jobs for a measly three months, and handing us a paltry $170/ week for 6 weeks (natural birth, versus 8 weeks pay for Cesarian) of disability pay, to allow mother to remain with child, who, at that age cannot even sit up, or often, hold a bottle for himself.

The message is clear: Mother Nature insists that mother and baby not be separated for at least 12 months. (Let me punctuate this by adding that I [and every mother I know who was forced to return to work before 12 months] experienced an alarming drop in milk supply.) I was a lucky woman who was basically gushing from the day I gave birth until that time - I should really have been selling the stuff on eBay - and yet, I ended up taking brewers yeast and fenugreek three times a day, sipping water til my bladder was essentially doing all the cardio I needed to get into the office wardrobe, pumping twice a day at work for at least 25 minutes, and then twice more at home before crashing into my bed. I was nothing short of a human cow. All my son's father did was hang out while I pumped all night and make me dinner because I had to eat like I would never see food again every time I saw food at all. This experience only made more concrete for me the notion that there are earnest reasons not to separate mother from child for the first year, and mother's milk is likely just the first ingredient in a recipe we don't know, for bringing our children into this world in a way that is best for them and for humanity.

I'm allowing myself to break the cardinal rule in writing for Blog Post II [brevity, in all things brevity!] because I want to make a point: just as we didn't know what we would f*&% up when we started pushing Cesarians and Pitocin on every poor woman who was infinitesimally inconvenient to the "health" system in some aspect of her pregnancy, we barely know the first thing about what we're f*&%ing up right now by providing virtually no support framework for mothers to stay home with their infants for the first 12 months, if they chose. But Mother Nature's laws are like the Ten Commandments: you don't have to follow them, but if you act against their better advice, you're likely to face serious consequences. I'll wager that we are facing those consequences.

More to come...

07 July 2012

Love Was at Its Center

I knew what I wanted from a very early age, and love was at its center.

By the time I was pregnant, though, I wasn't sure whether I was the kind of woman who could be home with a child every day all day, day after day. Then my son was born, and for the first few weeks I didn't know what to do with myself... turn on the TV? Read a book? Do laundry or get on facebook, while this little pumpkin took his three hour naps? And then, suddenly, I just started finding stuff to do. I just wasn't a woman to sit still. I created little goals and went for them. By the halfway point in my maternity leave, I was trying to find any way not to go back to work - but it wasn't the little goals - it was my son.

I thought about taking another baby into my house to make money, working from home like those wacky e-mails say you can [and make a quarter of a million dollars a month!]. But, frankly, I didn't want to give any of the attention I had for my son to another child - or to the worldwide web. When I did start back, I cried every day for a week. The next week was easier. The third week was worse than the first - because I suddenly realized, this is how it would be. This wasn't a trial period, it was for real. Even through that time my husband and I thought I could go down to part-time or maybe he would even make enough for me to quit at some point.

Well, my little pumpkin has broken free of his vines and is a walking-talking 19 month old wildling, and I'm still working. Full time with an hour commute both ways. And in this amount of time, between pumping (4 x a day - we'll get to that), schlepping my son through the NYC MTA six times a week, making his food myself, hand washing every poopy sleep sack, attempting to sleep myself, and lose the baby-weight (you gotta get back into those office pants, right) not to mention maintain a single relationship outside of my mothering one, I've gotten pretty philosophical about this life, about my life, about my son's life, about work, about America. About how America treats mothers, and families, and, for Pete's sake, infants!

It's not just about maternity leave - though that's the motherlode, isn't it - it's also about paternity leave, and it's about teaching children to read when they're 3, and raising them on Gameboys, and working 55 hours a week, yes, some of that at home after you've put your children to bed, and you should probably be putting yourself to bed. There's a system at work, and we're allowing it to systematize everything in our lives. And I don't think the human being is at the center of that system because it's an inhumane system.
I don't think love is at the center of the system running our lives.

This is what I'd like to talk about with you: making a love that cares for living things the center of our lives and using it to change the system.