I will be honest, I am not a Halloween person. I am not against it, and I love pumpkins and candy and spooky stuff and fun parties as much as the next person, but I've never been good at pretend. My mom tells me that I was always this way, even as a child.
A year ago yesterday, I was writing on this blog about what it feels like when you know that your life is about to change drastically the very next day. A year ago today, I was at the hospital giving birth to my second son, Wilder.
Changes in the day-to-day operation of our family have turned me into a true stay-at-home mom. The kind where I was the big pregnant mama dragging my toddler around everywhere this summer, and the kind where now the new baby is by my side for every hour of the day. I find the intensity of non-stop kid quite challenging, as I'm sure most caregivers do. I also learn a lot, which may sound odd, but since our family has grown, and the amount of day care that I use has shrunk, I am, more often than I was in the past, struck by the minutiae of the young lives for which I am responsible.
It never occurred to me that you can do other things while holding a baby until my mom came to help me after the birth of our first son. I watched her shushing him while she baked cookies and sewed nursery curtains, and even tried to paint my dining room table with her remaining free hand. I put my foot down about the table, but I admired her spirit and have never forgotten the example she set.
Since I never pictured myself as a mother until I was actually pregnant the first time, I also never took notice prior to that moment of some of the daily tricks of motherhood. Getting dressed is one of those tricks, which might sound a little silly. But think of it this way: you're you, and then you're you feeling like crap every day for several months (at least), and then you're you with an extra forty extra pounds (give or take), but all the while still taking care of things at home and going to work and maybe exercising and probably experiencing change of seasons. During this part, you are probably still at least occasionally (or for some, often) physically uncomfortable. Also your breasts have changed size, maybe more than once, and even your feet have maybe changed size, either permanently, or just temporarily. Every day you're trying to get dressed for all of that, probably without an unlimited budget and probably without a lot of extra free time to figure it out.
Until last weekend, I had never been to the Minnesota State Fair, in spite of being born here and living in the metro area for over half of my life. My energetic sister-in-law convinced us to go, four adults plus three-year-old, and I'm glad she did. And while some of my negative suspicions were unfortunately confirmed, there was certainly also plenty that impressed me.
Parking was as annoying as I expected, and the prices for mediocre food were even higher than the high prices I expected at this kind of event. That said, there was also more inspiration than I expected. Who knew that so many people were so crafty and that so much of it was on display for us right here every summer? Actually, knowing Minnesotans the way that I do, I'm not surprised at the level of craftiness...we love to make things! But I had no idea that so many people also liked to compete for prizes while making their things.
I would have loved to take even more pictures, but on a hot day, with toddler in tow, our time was limited. However, here is a small taste:
I approach parenting the same way that I approach most topics: with thorough, research-y methodology, and much reading of non-fiction. The nerd in me leads the way, always. So when this book appeared, I was happy to see it, and eager to read it. It is meant to be read as a survey of how parents are doing in modern times; it is descriptive, not prescriptive. It was a great read; I finished it in less than a week. It tugged on my heartstrings, while also satisfying my need for data. I was especially tickled that much of it was located in two parts of the country with which I am intimately familiar: Houston and Minneapolis.
I have been creative in only one way during recent months. Finally, after much effort and much waiting, I am pregnant with our second child. We tried hard for this one and we weren't sure that it would work out. I thought that all of that trying would make it less annoying to be pregnant, and I swore that I would make healthier choices this time. I was largely, but not entirely, wrong.
I remain grateful, excited and committed, but being pregnant still sucks, just like it did last time. Let me take a moment to say that while I am reasonably healthy during regular life, pregnancy did not seem to bring out that side of me last time. I am also not one of those Earth-mama types who can casually ingest kale and hemp seeds. I have to work at my healthy choices, and I will never stop loving gluten. Nausea and extreme fatigue, which is most of the first trimester, just brings out my love of Ramen and Saltines. Last time around, it even ignited a long-dormant candy habit.
I am not French, nor is my husband. As a result, our child is also not French. My husband and I do, however, have significant experience with French culture. In spite of that, when I was living there in college, I failed to realize how much calmer, healthier, and more standardized their national approach to food was than ours.
I noticed the lack of snacking, the late dinners, the lack of eating on the run, and the noticeable difference in eating habits between French students and North Americans. I saw college kids cook meals together in the dorm kitchen and sit down together at a card table in the hallway. I felt crusty looks from severe baristas at cafes, if I asked to have my coffee in a go cup. Not only did they not have paper cups to offer, but they were disgusted by the idea of it. In France, delicious food and beverages are meant to be savored, shared and enjoyed. While seated. To the French, eating while traveling, walking or alone is unpleasant, messy and sad.
That was seven-ish years ago. The surprise we have felt at not hating life in Houston, and even rather enjoying it, has been noted on many occasions in this blog; and has been accompanied by multiple other surprises since moving here.
Either way, I thought that the decision to leave, when it came, would be a clear and simple one; that it would be easy and obvious. I was wrong. We have found a way around the location-versus-job roadblock, but it is not without emotional and logistical risk. I am able to make a clear list of reasons why it is time to go home to Minnesota. My instincts say that it is finally the right time and for the right reasons, and possibly even under sustainable circumstances, but I do not feel the sense of elation that I expected. I feel good and positive about it, but I also feel a little sad and a smidge nervous to move away from the one version so far of life with oil that has felt largely pleasant and seamless.
Creating a family has always seemed a slightly curious endeavor to me. My husband and I both have parents who raised kids that grew up and promptly moved far away in early adulthood, so a little part of me thinks, 'Really? That's it? Raise kids who then take off and that's it?'. It could definitely happen to us. So if you're not sure whether or not you love kids before you take the plunge, and you know there is a good chance that you will spend outrageous amounts of time and resources for many years raising children who you will then rarely see, then why do it?
The answer to that question came from my gut. I can report that the reasons to do it are complex and intangible, but real. Ultimately, our baby, besides just being a tiny human that I love, has also given us the drive and the clear picture of why and how to go home. The baby and I spend too much time alone while my husband is at work in Angola. My husband likes his job, and I have come to appreciate the quality time we have with him when he comes home, but the long weeks and weekends alone while he is gone are too hard. We have great friends in Houston, but they are busy, too, and anyway it is not fair to them or to the baby that they are the only safety net we have here for weeks at a time. We could hire help to resolve this, but we could also go home.
In short, in caring for our family, I want the village. I want the baby to know his grandparents. I want him to know my other family members. I want to raise him alongside my other friends at home who are having babies and not moving every couple of years. I want him to play outside in air that I know from experience is fresh, and learn to ride his bicycle on streets that are (mostly) unbroken. I want him to swim in the lake that I know to be clean, the one that I swam in growing up. I want to launch his education in a quality system in which I already feel safe and confident. I want to be able to drop him off with my parents for the weekend so that my husband and I can have time to ourselves once and a while, as grown-ups are meant to have. We have put the pieces in place and if we don't do it now, I believe that we will always wonder if we should have gone for it. We could get a nanny, but we can also have the village, so at least for now, we choose that.
There is a chance, and indeed strong likelihood, that we will not want to, or will not be able to, stay in Minnesota for the long term. If it doesn't work out, we will face another move. If that happens, it's a hassle, but on the other hand, what's one extra move at this point? A small price to pay in order to test out a long-held dream, and to improve the quality of both our baby's young childhood and my nascent motherhood.
I'm ready to stop thinking about this old nagging problem so that I can save my energy for the fresh new ones.
My husband and I just returned from taking our baby on a trip to Missouri to see family. We spent four days in a house with six other people, bringing the household total to nine people, ranging in age from six months to forty-six years. We arrived in time for an ice storm and were essentially snowed in until our departure. It was our first trip with the baby, and while it went well, it was intense. I still can't believe that I was one of those people at the airport that I always pitied in the past (a person with a baby and a stroller and car seat and unbelievable amounts of shit in my luggage and carry-ons).
In spite of snow days and trips, I finally made something practical for the baby, with extra bits I already had, instead of buying new stuff:
I borrowed the pattern from some other bibs given to us as gifts, and used my serger to keep it fast and simple. The material came from a hand-me-down baby blanket that we did not need. They are not beautiful, but they are something that I made with resources I already had, which felt good. As the baby starts to eat real food, I am coming to realize that I will need many, many, many bibs. And a sense of humor.
Also, we’re moving. Stay tuned.
Regardless of all of that, one major topic in Bringing Up Bébé is how French parents successfully create balance in their lives. In a French household, if a baby has taken over the whole routine, particularly after the third month of the baby's life, things are not in balance, or not en équilibre. When things are in balance, parents are back to work, the baby is sleeping through the nights, the baby is entering day care (the crèche), the family is enjoying home-cooked meals together, and parents are even enjoying some private time as a couple. Of course, in France, day care is affordable and high-quality, right down to the four-course, cooked-from-scratch meals shared by toddlers and the credentialed staff. Parents don't spend dinner parties chasing around their kids; their kids are either not present, or eating calmly at the table. Most women apparently choose to work full-time, as a result of the aforementioned glorious affordable (or free and universal, when it comes time for pre-school) and prevalent early childhood structures. Also, it sounds like most French women don't breastfeed, which I am sure contributes to their ability to find balance. Anyway, it all sounds wonderful and of course I want to move our little family to France, immediately.
I can't. We live in Houston, and that's how it is. We have to find équilibre right here. Sometimes I have to find it while my husband is here with me (the easier, yet still elusive version) and sometimes I will have to find it while he is in another country for four weeks at a time. That sounds impossible ("em-POSS-eeeb!").
How will I do it? I'm flailing around for some structure right now, some method for this madness. I'm not yet sure how it will happen, but I know that I am pas en équilbre, and that will have to change.
I am not technically a fan of the Rolling Stones. Their music is fine to me, not bad, but just not necessarily what I seek. However, there is a song that has been rattling around in my brain for the better part of this strange year.
"I saw her today at the reception..."
My husband left a few days ago for his first four weeks in Angola. I have a range of emotional and mental responses to this, but admittedly at the moment they are mostly negative. I was not ready for him to go this time. I probably wouldn't have been ready a month from now, either. When we first discussed his possibly working on an overseas rotation, it was never coupled in my mind with being home alone with our newborn baby. I find this circumstance both logistically tricky and deeply emotional.
"A glass of wine in her hand..."
The people who read this blog and know us know that my husband is not a mean man. He is, in fact, quite caring. He tells me that many families like rotation life because the end result is that fifty percent of his time will be spent at home, as a full-time dad, not working. And also that the freedom of that schedule will allow us to spend more quality time with family and friends in Minnesota, the way we've often hoped to.
"I knew she was going to meet her connection..."
I believe him. I'm not immune to the positive aspects of his unusual work circumstances, but at the moment the intensity of the year has left me feeling overwhelmed and truly wiped out.
"At her feet was a footloose man..."
The day that he left felt like one of those really terrible days in life that you don't forget. He was busy preparing to go all day, and I was busy trying to care for the baby all day. I sobbed when he got in the taxi. Tears dropped from my eyes without warning throughout the days and nights surrounding his departure. Certainly pregnancy followed by newborn-induced sleeplessness exacerbated my intense feelings.
"You can't always get what you want..."
I, and we, had big plans for 2013. Big sewing plans, big professional plans, big travel plans, big financial goals, big plans for our new house. The curve balls were relentless though, and ultimately here I am, nursing our son in this dark nursery half-way around the world from my husband. It is very different from what I imagined having a family might be like.
"You can't always get what you want..."
It's not that I'm not thrilled about our beautiful baby, or blind to the positives of my husband's work. But it is true that I believe families should try to be together, and that the way this year unfolded is what has caused me to believe that more firmly. Tricky.
"You can't always get what you want..."
It is scary to think about the coming solo weeks after my Mom leaves. On the other hand, a lot of people have gone above and beyond to make sure that I don't feel alone or overwhelmed right now. One friend in particular has babysat more than once, brought ice cream and Chipotle, kidnapped me for a baby-free afternoon outside the house, helped me navigate my insurance coverage while I was stuck in my hospital bed, and even helped me improve my odds at continuing to breastfeed in the face of tricky circumstances when she saw, well before I did, how close we had come to not being able to do it. Other friends have dropped off food or helped watch the baby, and still others have sent things in the mail. My mom has not only baby-sat, given up sleep, and just sat still loving our baby for hours; but she has also helped me finish setting up and decorating the unfinished nursery by framing items and sewing bits that I had planned to do but had not completed prior to delivery. All things considered, we feel loved and lucky, and I know that there are people I can call if I am truly struggling after my mom leaves.
"But if you try sometimes, you just might find..."
We are lucky for other reasons. My husband could easily have not been able to make it back from Indonesia for the birth of our son, but he did make it back. Also, we were able to be together from much of the pregnancy, and even more importantly, his strange job allowed him to be at home with us, full-time, for the first five weeks of our baby's life. Even though I am not quite yet able to feel happy and cheerful about the way this week and this month feel, my brain recognizes that it will all work, because it keeps doing that anyway, no matter what happens.
"You get what you need..."
I can't deny that we have what we need: love, health, each other, and some extras. Just like the song says.
What I thought would happen is that I would breastfeed and it would be healthy both for my baby and for my body as I recovered from pregnancy and childbirth, and that it might be mildly tricky, but not necessarily that much trickier than any other method of nourishment for a baby. While those things appear to be mostly true, there are a few additional twists. One is that in spite of having read that book, I somehow failed to absorb the details about the frequency with which breastfed babies need to eat. Breastfed infants need to eat a minimum of eight to ten times a day, with no more than three hours passing from the beginning of one feeding to the next. The details of this became extremely important to us during our son's first week of life, as he was a pretty small baby, and was dropping weight too quickly (we learned that it is normal for an infant to lose eight to ten percent of their body weight in their first few days of life, but our son had lost twelve percent).
Managing this quick feeding cycle has been made difficult by the style with which our son approaches mealtimes; he takes after me, eating slowly and deliberately. An hour often passes from the time that I start feeding him until the time that he is finished and burped. Since I need to follow feeding with pumping to insure an adequate milk supply, I am often left with only an hour and a half or less before it is time to begin again.
I'm told that eventually I will find breastfeeding more convenient than formula feeding because I won't have to prepare formula, and I will always have what he needs. In the meantime, I can't lie, there have been days when I have wondered if it is worth it, especially on those mornings when I really want a strong coffee but am afraid that drinking one will leave the baby sleepless and me more desperate than before.
This baby business is every bit as tricky as I always suspected it was. Good thing he's so cute.
For my husband and I, the unexpected early termination of a work contract which we understood to be much longer-term was a time like that earlier this year. What I sometimes thought about in the weeks after it happened were the hours and days before he came home with that news. One minute I was having a normal day, and the next minute we were discussing a new contract which would likely take him overseas for four weeks at a time. Certainly a new work contract was not a tragedy, and in fact an overseas rotation lifestyle was something about which we had already been curious, but coming hot on the heels of the slightly surprising pregnancy and the purchase of a new house, it was a monumental moment. And still, my mind goes back to those moments before he came home...those moments when the biggest challenge I was facing that week was a little bit of morning sickness.
Also recently I was thinking of Calgary; a place where we lived for a year and a half and a place where those who know me well know that I was not happy. However, I am aware that my unhappiness was (mostly) not the fault of Calgary, and regardless of how I felt when I was there, I would never wish on a place what they must be going through now in light of the recent floods. Our old neighborhood, along with the entire downtown, was evacuated. We even saw the home that we rented on one of the photos of the local newspaper website. The street was underwater up to our front step, which means our parking garage was most certainly underwater and it is likely that all of the items in our storage unit would have been ruined, not to mention possibly our car.
Most recently another curve ball had me reflecting on the day before everything changed. Thirteen days ago, our son was born. Four weeks early, and with no warning. One day I was having lunch with my girlfriend, very uncomfortable physically, but not understanding that I was sick, and the next day I was going straight from a routine doctor appointment to the hospital to have labor induced and deliver our baby. My blood pressure had skyrocketed, a condition known as pregnancy-induced hypertension, or preeclampsia. My body was treating the baby as a foreign invader to be attacked and the only way to treat that condition is to deliver the baby. We were lucky in more than one way: my husband was home from Indonesia; he had arrived two days prior after a six-week absence. Also lucky was the hearty condition of our little preemie; while only thirty-five and half weeks, at six and a half pounds, he was large and developed enough to pass all of the tests and avoid the need for any medical support for his new life outside the womb. As it turned out, I was the one in need of support. The first week of his life, the three of us lived in the hospital, learning from doctors and nurses how to care for our baby and becoming intimately familiar with what happens if your blood pressure is not behaving as it should.
The day before he came, I knew that I did not feel well, but I had no idea what it was going to feel like to be a mom. I'm still learning about that feeling, but the funny thing about the way you feel the day before is that it becomes foggy and hard to remember. The new reality of your next day: scary, wonderful, dangerous, exhilarating; will remain a part of your story forever. You won't go back to before and you will only understand your life in its new and more vivid context. I can't imagine not yet knowing our son even though we were not supposed to have met him for another two weeks. I can barely remember the fears and concerns that I used to have about parenting; we have already been so lucky so many times that it seems the only thing to do is to notice each day as it unfolds and to be grateful for the simple day-before moments.
So when I was living alone as a younger adult, I soon realized that I didn't know how to cook real food. Recipes had mysterious ingredients in them, like "stock", and unclear commands, like "cut the butter into the flour". Obviously I avoided those recipes until I had made all of the other ones with easier instructions. I even tried once to make soup not only without stock, but also without onions. I have never liked raw onion, and I hadn't yet realized not only that cooked onion completely different than raw onion, but also that cooking an onion is the beginning of almost everything.
I made a lot of gourmet grilled cheese with tomato soup from a box and relied upon Amy's Organics frozen meals for my lunches at work. I ate out a lot. I was not unusual among my peers in this, but I know my parents were confused. They knew that I should have been on a budget, so my habit of eating out frequently seemed strange to them. But, that's what we did; as entertainment, as a vehicle for socializing, as a way to feel grown-up, and probably because suddenly delicious food was quite hip.
Over the years, my cooking skills have expanded, in fits and starts. I have made peace with the mighty onion, although I do experience what I consider to be uncommon discomfort in my eyes when I chop one. My respect for its capacity to flavor gets me through it.
Today as I was working on my new recipe for the week, a pot pie recipe from a cookbook by the chef and founder of my favorite restaurant in Minneapolis, I was reminded of past Sundays spent in the kitchen. When I was teaching, and and trying to learn how to make some homemade things, I was not successful at making time or finding energy to cook well during the week. Saturday was always spent running around, working on my master's degree, catching up on sleep, seeing friends, exercising, all manner of normal Saturday things. Sunday, the day that I should have been catching up on work, more often than I not, was the day that I cooked things. Or at least it's fair to say that if I was to cook something healthy requiring multiple steps and multiple ingredients, it most likely occurred on a Sunday.
Since I should have been working, cooking beckoned, by virtue of it being more appealing than working and yet still providing a sense of accomplishment. Plus, when I started the week after having worked all day on a Sunday, I felt ornery and worn-out by Tuesday. If I spent Sunday cooking a big pot of chili or a chicken casserole, I was not only nourished for several days, also more refreshed for the coming week. Maybe learning how to cook taught me what can be good about Sundays, which is a day of the week I had never much appreciated before.
I'm grateful that I don't currently have to spend Sundays working, or feeling guilty for work I'm not doing. Still, I have noticed that the Sunday cooking habit has stuck with me. Lately I have even noticed that I enjoy it. It is a nice way to be both methodical and creative, with a low level of investment. Today I cooked in the spirit of Michael Pollan, making indulgent foods from scratch, instead of buying the junk-food versions at the store. The pot pies provided the tasty comfort-food effect I was seeking and the homemade peppermint patties satisfied my raging pregnancy-amplified sweet tooth. I didn't want to get my hopes up, but both treats went very well, so it was a Sunday well-spent.