Stories as blueprints

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One of my favorite episodes of American Public Media‘s Speaking of Faith (now known as On Being) has been an episode entitled “Listening Generously.” The guest was Rachel Naomi Remen: a doctor, a pioneer of holistic western medicine, an author, and a sufferer of chronic illness.

I encourage you to listen to the episode, either the unedited interview or the produced radio hour, but I want to share something with you that I find deeply beautiful, and continuously meaningful. Krista Tippet, the radio host, asks Rachel Naomi Remen to tell a story from one of her books, which Rachel says was her third birthday present, the story of the Birthday of the world. (This is a transcript that I made, as accurately as possible to how Ms. Remen told the story in the podcast.)

The Story of the Birthday of the World

In the beginning there was only the holy darkness, the source of life.  And then In the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, this world emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident. And the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the wholeness of the world, the light of the world, was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light and they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

According to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. This is very important story for our times. And this task is called tikkaum olam, the restoration of the world.

And this is of course a collective task, it involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born, we are all healers of the world. That story opens a sense of possibility, it is not about healing the world by making a huge difference, it’s about healing the world that touches you, that surrounds you. That’s where our power is. It’s a different way of looking at our power.

I suspect it has a key for us in our present situation, a very important key. […] I think that we all feel that we’re not enough to make a difference. That we need to be more, somehow. Either wealthier, or more educated, or somehow or other different from who we are. According to this story, we are exactly what’s needed. What if we were exactly what’s needed? How would you live if you were exactly what was needed to heal the world?

This is a story that I use to encourage myself when I can’t seem to go on. When everything seems too overwhelming, too impossible, that I am too small. This story, in many ways, is the basis of my blog. I think I have a gift for writing, a gift for telling stories — telling my story is exactly what is needed to heal the world, because someone out there needs to hear that they’re not alone. I just hope they find my blog so they can read my story.


Dealing with Disappointment (Birth Edition)

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My 34 week check up with my midwife practice turned up protein in my urine, and a 10 pound weight gain, both signs of pre-eclampsia. My blood pressure was normal for me, which is even a little low for the general population. They sent me home with a 24 hour urine collection, which I brought back the next day.

The day after the urine collection, I called about the results. About an hour and a half later, I was admitted into the hospital. Two days later, I delivered my baby girl by medically necessary C-section after 8 hours of active labor, six weeks early.

I had wanted to give birth naturally, without pain meds. I had wanted to be supported by midwives, be monitored intermittently, be allowed to labor in peace. This is not what happened.

I know that the important thing was and is that we are both alive and healthy and healing. Is it completely unreasonable to be disappointed that I didn’t have the birth I wanted?  Reasonable or not, I’m hurting.

I know better. I know better than to tell myself stories of how things should be, to set up expectations, to set up disappointment by trying to predict the future. I did a lot of work to prepare myself for a unmedicalized birth — and it didn’t happen by a long shot. I can’t go back in time and unplan; learning and planning was prudent at the time. Still, it makes sense that I’m disappointed.

I am anxious hearing about other births, other pregnancies — I want to believe that I was strong and that I was brave, Like Tim told me and tells me, but my experience was not what I had defined as strong and brave.

Just like how I am not sure that I will ever nurse my daughter, even as I feed her with expressed breast milk, because of the cascade of circumstances that has led us here. And while it seems to be working, it wasn’t what I had defined as ‘best.’

I have a friend who is thankful for my sake that medical interventions exist, and were able to save me from seizure and organ damage, and to keep my baby healthy despite being born early. I wish I could look at it that way now; what I see is that the cascade of medical interventions I have read about happened to me: first, cytotec, then pitocin, then unreassuring fetal heart tones, then a c-section.

It’s a story I need to reframe. I read recently a list of 10 lessons that hospital births can learn from home birth — the first was thinking of doctors as back up. I was sick; something had gone wrong. The only way to help me (and this is the hard part to accept, the believing that I was in danger) was to deliver. And because Sylvia was not ready to join us in the outside world, it required induction and augmentation. That everything that happened was necessary back up, even if the help they were offering caused complications in and of itself.

My daughter is sleeping on my chest in her sling. I am so proud of her — she was too strong for the NICU to hold her more than 36 hours. She is growing like gangbusters. She shows personality in her dark eyes, and smiles contentedly both awake and asleep. I love her, but it doesn’t stop me from wishing we could have met differently.

Healing from this birth will be both physical and emotional. My c-section incision is shaping up, but the emotional scars are going to take a while.

Good Marriage Day

Yesterday was a bad marriage day. While I sat on the couch, worrying about all the stuff that Tim and I were committed to – our unborn child, a trip to DC, getting ready to move, a project for a family wedding. And as I thought, I got more and more grumpy. And I started a fight, because I was feeling overwhelmed and tired, and wanted Tim to take some of the burden.

And so, rather than articulate the problem, I accused Tim of “never” doing “anything” that I asked him to do in a “timely manner.” He got defensive, and the fight escalated. I turned into a giant bag of snot, tired and overwhelmed.

Compare that to today, where Tim and I discussed our options to solve a problem in a mature and organized way.

I called a perinatal psychologist recommended by my midwife, and found that he does not take insurance, but makes it easy to bill your insurance yourself. Okay, cool. I tell Tim, and he takes the ball to call our insurance to make sure we wouldn’t be out of pocket. To make a long story short — the insurance company says they won’t cover him, the doctor’s office has patients who do, in fact, get reimbursed.

So, now we have to make a decision. I don’t know why it occurred to me, but I put it in terms of this: we wanted to go to this doctor because he is considered an expert in mood disorders in pregnant women, and therefore he should be able to minimize the risk to baby of anti-depressants, while still taking care of me. What do we risk by not going to him? What are we risking by going to this psychiatrist?

Tim put it this way: “By not going, we are risking your mental health, and baby’s health.  By going we’re risking spending a lot of money each time we visit.”

So there are the variable in this situation: my mental health, baby’s health, and money.

Knowing the variables, we can talk about our options. Baby’s health can be protected by not taking anti-depressants at all. But that could be disastrous for my health. My mental health can be improved my changing my doseage, which means getting a new script from my doctor. However, how these drugs effect fetuses is a big question mark. Both of these options minimize our potential financial risk.

So, what risks are we willing to take? Now, we haven’t quite figured it out. But I am thrilled that this discussion has played out the way it has — with rational discussion, and weighing our options and the risks.

That is a good marriage day. While this could’ve gotten really heated and emotional, we talked like a team. I’m proud of us.

Self-Depricating Pregnancy Announcements

I’ve been thinking about pregnancy announcements for a long time, long before I ever got pregnant.  As some of my peers have “moved to Bolivia,” pregnancy announcements appeared on Facebook — and congratulations followed… as well as many baby-related updates and pictures.

It’s very similar with blogs written by women — blogs that are about work/life balance, or growing up emotionally, or searching for your place in the world… once these women become pregnant, become mothers, all of them seem to become mommy blogs. There’s nothing wrong with mommy blogs. Some of them are quite funny, poignant, and awesome.

But it seems to me that this kind of baby-centric naval-gazing that mothers often indulge in is part of the New Momism — the idea that the only way for women to be “real” women is for them to have children, and for them to put those children first, first, first.

My goal with my imagined pregnancy announcements has always been to convey the important news (that I’m expecting a baby!), but reassure that I realized that while my responsibilities and identities may be shifting, I still wanted to be part of a larger society, that my life hasn’t changed all that much since that first positive pregnancy test, that I’m still struggling to find my place in this world and relate to people, and generally build a remarkable life.

Four pregnancy announcements that I think would potentially convey this message:


Dear friends:

I hereby pledge to try to reign in any smugness that may occur due to my current gestation. There will be a certain amount a naval-gazing (literal and figurative) as this time progresses, but I’m still very interested in you as people. I hope you will remain interested in my non-pregancy related pursuits, which include being more than a incubator.

Love, Kate

2.  My husband works at a company that produces software for the manufacturing industry. I wanted him to send the following announcement to his coworkers:

We're in production!

Subtitle/Customized Alt-text: We’re in production!

I particularly like this one, because it emphasizes the “normal” nature of having a kid, and identifies what’s going on in a clever way.

3. Another XKCD comic, this one perhaps better for a second pregnancy, but if you clip it to just the first frame, it’d be perfect for a first pregnancy:

Text: Please excuse the panic while we attempt to become parents. ❤

So, really

In all reality, I’ll give you details. I’m just shy of 3 months pregnant. I’m due the second half of April/beginning of May (I believe in giving mothers a wide range of time to get on that birth bandwagon).  I know it’s a huge, life-altering event, but I don’t want to make a big deal out of it — it’s part of normal life.  I’m still working, I’m still planning to work. I’m still writing a novel this November, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing after AmeriCorps. I’m still trying to find a community and be a better partner to my husband.

It just so happens that every once in a while, I hate to admit, I rediscover that pure stomach bile is yellow. (As one of my pregnant friends put it: I have never been in so many funny-in-retrospect situations involving body fluids.)

Love you all. Welcome to the in-the-know fold. ❤

The purpose of parenthood

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We’ve lost the art of democratic debate, says Michael Sandel. He gives a wonderful talk during TED about moral philosophy and justice — and how to reintroduce them into our politics. He paraphrases Aristole’s theory of justice: “Justice means giving people what they deserve.” He says the real questions begin when we consider who deserves what and why, that we have to reason about the purpose of the thing or the activity, to fully provide justice to all.

So, this of course has me thinking. I have thought about the Mommy Myth, which demystified the current state of motherhood, deconstructing the societal forces which prompt women to give everything they have to motherhood, and devote their entire being to supporting their children.

I’ve been thinking about Misconceptions, by Naomi Wolf, which describes a very hetero-normative, upper class view of childbirth and the immediate postpartum experience — but it also talks about that which is concealed from women, in (from her view) a very strange vow of social silence. (And, I might argue, if choices are limited for the rich people — it’s got to be much worse for those in poverty.)

I’ve been thinking about a book I read in college, which I no longer own but was thinking about retrieving via the library system called “The Failed Century of the Child” — a book about the policies that were put into place during the 20th century which attempted, and failed, to remove children from poverty, and to make education a democratic thing.

I’m reading Raising America, by Ann Hulbert, who explores this question in her book: “As children — and just as important, their mothers — prepare to meet the pressures and the allures of an increasingly materialistic and meritocratic mass society, is it more discipline or more bonding that they need at home? the answers to the question have in turn reflected the long-running debate over whether nature or nurture counts most in shaping children’s destinies, which parenting experts across the spectrum and the decades have presumed are decisively cast in early childhood (7).”

So, to go back to the beginning of this post: What is the essential role of motherhood? What is the role of the mother to a child as an infant, a baby, a toddler, a preschooler, etc.? What is the role of the mother to herself during those same time periods? To her partner? To her family, and friends? The “common sense” wisdom seems to be that of primary care giver, and more than that, to be romantically (like “Leaves of Grass” romantic) obsessed with your child, watching their every coo and gurgle.

And, the flip question. What is the role of a father? I think that one is much more cut and dry to the “common sense” — the role of the father seems to be that of helper and bread-winner, and possibly the laughably un-knowledgeable one, as offered to us by sitcoms and commercials.

But is this really the purpose of mothers and fathers? What do you all think?

Do Fun Stuff

I love blogs that are honest about their family’s lives. One of my favorites is Marshall’s at Pacing the Panic Room.

Marshall has a stepson he calls Littlest Buddy or LB. LB has a genetic condition called Smith Magenis Syndrome, and he’s had a dream to raise a bunch of money to study SMS, to get more information out there — so that what happened to Cole, his wife, where she was given the news coldly on the phone, doesn’t happen to any other families.

Check out and preview the awesome children’s album that is pleasing to adults, too. Buy it from itunes. All profits go to funding grad students who choose to study SMS as their degree.