Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Identity Crisis: Part 2

Part 2: Motherhood

To disclaimer: in this post I say a lot of things that could be construed as negative about motherhood, and being a stay-at-home mother. By no means were my experiences as a stay-at-home mother miserable all the time; there is not enough gigabytes in the world to put down all (or even just some) of the positive and wonderful and breathtaking moments motherhood offers. There is no blog with enough storage capability to contain my thoughts and memories pertaining to my love for my daughter and the many wonderful things she has brought into my life. That being said, I placed a lot of expectations on myself at that time, and combined with my tendency to constantly question myself and my finely honed sense of self-deprecation, generally made life more difficult than it needed to be. That, and motherhood does make you have to search for who are you, and who you are going to become. That's enough; read on.

Welcome to the world, little one. Jacelyn was born. I spent a couple of nights in the hospital thanks to my blood pressure going all wonky, and I was actually rather grateful. There were professionals there; people who got paid to help me. If I had a question I could always ask one of the 8-million consultants that were on hand for every possible malady and problem that could arise. There were lactation consultants, nurses to monitor me, nurses to monitor Jacelyn, counselors subtly monitoring my mental health. I was surrounded by people who knew what they were doing, and I was glad. Then it was time to go home. Alone. Just myself, Brian, and Jacelyn. When the nurses were going through the check-out process I felt a tad nervous. As though someone was going to declare me imminently unqualified for child-rearing and revoke my parental rights. We loaded the car with luggage, gifts, and finally, baby and ourselves, and as we were driving away I heaved a sigh of relief. We had made it out the door; we had fooled them into thinking we were reasonable and capable enough to assume the responsibility of baby-raising.

The next few days are a blur. Jacelyn was a good baby, mostly sleeping and eating and staring up at you with that googly look that new babies have. It's kind of a bleary-eyed, bored look. It's as though you've disrupted everything they have known up to this point, and for what---this? Brian was home with me for the first four days or so, and we had settled into a routine. I would nurse Jacelyn until she went to sleep, at which time I would put her in bed with him, and they would sleep together while I crept around the house cleaning. And checking on them, every five minutes, to make certain Brian hadn't rolled over and crushed her.

When Brian went back to work, I felt slightly lost. Gone was my steady, daily dose of adult companionship, gone was the person that could watch Jacelyn while I got things done. We saw Brian off to work, and I settled into the chair for our morning nursing marathon. Afterwards, I burped and changed the baby and then considered my options. There were breakfast dishes to be done, laundry that needed starting, and the tub needed attention and a grout brushing in the very worst way. I went over to the baby swing and put Jacelyn in it, hoping it would succor her long enough for me to wash some dishes and start a load of towels. She goggled up at me while I belted her in and started the swing at a low speed. She considered everything for a moment, and the promptly screwed up her face and started wailing. I removed her from the swing and decided to give the vibrating bouncy chair a try (why don't they make those for grown-ups? I would totally buy one). I belted her into the bouncy seat, set the vibrations on low, and put up the "entertainment tower": a little bar with dangling rings, brightly colored, crinkly bugs, and a enormous button that played children's songs when pressed. Baby was not amused, nor was she entertained. She expressed disinterest by wailing once more, her little fists curled up and shaking. Not only was she bored, she was downright angered by my attempts at keeping her busy.

I was despairing, at this point. There were syrupy plates congealing in the sink from the pancake breakfast I had made, the towels were smelling a little off, and I couldn't sit my baby down without her crying. I faced a dilemna: did I just let her cry? Was I supposed to just plop her down somewhere and let my poor, defenseless, week-old infant, who could do nothing for herself, cry ceaselessly, all for the sake of some dirty dishes? I decided to wait until naptime to get things accomplished. I was amazed by how alert she seemed, and how completely on to me that she was. In the following hour or so that she was awake, I tried again to sit her down somewhere, but she remained unimpressed by the expensive myriad of baby toys I had to offer. Finally, she nursed herself off to sleep. I stood up and laid her, ever so gently, into the bassinette that I had placed nearby, and tiptoed a few steps away, holding my breath. I had not even turned around yet when she immediately started crying again, full-on crying, crying that would not cease with rocking and cooing. She wanted to nurse, again. Ten minutes later I repeated the experience, with the same results. I returned to the chair, started nursing, and made a tearful phone call to my best friend, who had a daughter a week older than Jacelyn. "I'm never going to get anything done," I wailed, as Jacelyn nursed contentedly. "I'm going to sit in this chair, nursing, for the rest of my life." Nicole assured me that I would, one day, be able to do something other than sit and nurse. "But probably not for a while" she said, with a sigh.

I spent my first mother's day in the backseat of the car at Captain D's, nursing. I longingly watched Brian and his mother eating happily. I despaired; of ever eating a hot meal again, of ever wearing a bra that didn't snap open. I exposed myself in public places, all for the sake of nourishing my child. When Jacelyn was a couple of weeks old we accompanied Jen and Cam to a local park, for a mommy group outing. I nursed for what felt like hours. My McDonald's lunch got cold and rubbery, and I ate it in record time while Jacelyn sat in her car seat and cried. When we left the park, I forgot to buckle Jacelyn down in her car seat and she almost fell out. Once safely inside my own home, I wept, bitterly. For my own ineptitude, for my inability to control my life. I felt guilty, for not being blissfully happy. There were certainly many moments when I was blissfully happy, but there were also moments where I was full of doubt, and disappointment in myself, and selfish longing for easier days. Things slowly got easier, in some ways. Jacelyn and I worked around her temperament, carefully choosing the moments when she was less needy to get things done around the house.

Parenting seems to be a long, drawn out process of great care and need followed by painful moments of letting go. It's funny; when your child is totally dependent on you, you long for the days when they will need less constant attention. As their need for attention and care wanes, you acutely miss those moments. Jacelyn had some problems nursing at first, and it was recommended that we not introduce a pacifier (bink) just yet to avoid furthuring the problem. About three weeks in, I decided she was ready. Her sucking reflex had always required high maintenance, and I was grateful and excited at the thought that I would now not be the only thing around that could sustain her. Brian held her, popped the bink into her mouth, and....
silence. Blissful silence. I was thrilled, and yet....I was aghast. I actually went into the bathroom and had a brief cry over the same thing I was so excited about earlier: my baby was receiving comfort from something other than me.

We settled into a routine, of nursing and playing. With the bink, I grudgingly had to admit things were considerably easier. Once we had found our stride, I delved, headfirst, into the mommy game. I was going to do this right, by God. I went to mommy outings, and I could talk all day about post-partum depression, nursing, sleeping schedules, and bathroom cleansers. But then I longed for more. I wanted to talk about other things, too. But I wasn't experiencing anything else to talk about. My day revolved around feedings, and diapers, and cleaning and cooking and washing. I didn't have time for TV and was barely aware of the world around me. I once considered myself passionate about politics and the like, and would discuss it with great fervor and passion. Now I was suddenly barely aware of who the president was, much less his party affiliation or his policies.

It was bad, for a while. I was trying to figure out who Val, the mommy was. Was it ok to watch MTV? Or was I suddenly too old and/or parental? Did I need to change my style of clothing? I had gone from dressing up for work every day to barely getting out of my pajamas by the time Brian got home from work. I decided to seek out a hobby, and turned to other mothers for advice: what did they do? I discovered I was uninterested and quite bad at Scrapbooking, something that a lot of mothers I knew did and enjoyed. I could barely tolerate the home parties I was invited to. Tupperware, Longaberger Baskets and candles bored me to tears, and sitting around oohing and aahing over them for two hours was almost too much to bear. I'll peruse a catalog all day long, but those parties....they drive me crazy.

One afternoon I went to a Mary Kay party with some other moms I knew, and was miserable. At one point the Mary Kay saleswoman actually commented on my skin problems. She singled me out as an example: "After giving birth your hormones can radically change your skin tone and even cause acne, like with Veronica here." She informed the party, grabbing my chin and holding my face out for everyone to see. At the end of the party she handed me a brochure about adult acne and patted my hand, saying, "It's hard to get it together after a new baby, but I'm sure you'll do it, Veronica." Thanks. My self esteem plummeted - there's nothing like being singled out and mocked by a woman wearing green eyeshadow and electric blue mascara.

I was feeling desperate. I wanted something, anything to do. I couldn't crochet. Crafts were beyond me, and the mess they made was usually more trouble than the reward of the final product. I attempted gardening, but my allergies flared up immediately, and since I was breastfeeding I couldn't take any allergy medicine. I read a lot, but reading is a solitary hobby and I craved company and conversation. I tried to become perfect; anticipating and fulfilling every whim, need and desire that my husband and daughter could possibly have. I was exhausted, and constantly felt like a failure. If Jacelyn developed a diaper rash I felt personally responsible. If Brian's favorite red shirt wasn't clean when he wanted to wear it, I knew I wasn't properly doing my job. If the grout in the bathroom wasn't spotlessly white, I was slacking. I wanted to and tried to do it all, and in retrospect, there was no way I could have.

And there was nothing like bumping into someone you used to know pre-baby. They would always be (at least to me) impeccably dressed, and they were buying fun things, like wine, or a board game, or anything that wasn't the baby suppositories and breast pads that I always seemed to be buying when I bumped into someone. I always seemed to be wearing sweats, usually stained with spit-up or marred by leaking breast milk. My hair was always a mess, and the baby was usually behaving horribly and had a facial rash, or something, so that when the friend would peer down at my mewling, rashy baby, they would always have to force themselves to smile and say, "Uh, what a cutie". And they would wave and walk away, their buggy laden with purchases that they would not later have to shove up someone's butt (unless they were into that sort of thing).

I felt stupid. I felt like I couldn't maintain an interesting conversation with anyone about anything that didn't relate to drain cleaner or breastfeeding latch-on. I would say things like, "I really like that new grout brush I bought the other day" or "I finally got that blocked breast duct going again, that freaking hurt" and then I would hate myself. The irony is that I was the one judging myself so harshly, but it didn't feel that way at the time.

A big moment in the day of a stay-at-home mother (and this is true of many of the moms I know) is the arrival of daddy. You've spent your day in the throes of all things domestic; you're covered in baby food, you have to pee and would appreciate the chance to go to the bathroom by yourself and maybe, just maybe, take a shower. Daddy comes into the house, and you feel awash with relief. Here is your loving spouse, the man who helped you make the baby sitting in the high chair rubbing peas into her hair, the person you rely on for companionship, and assistance. He walks in, maybe there's a hug or a peck on the cheek, and you ask: "Can you watch her for a minute so I can pee?" Daddy sighs. "Can I at least sit down for a minute first?"

You're disillisioned, you're disappointed, and you still have to pee. I read an article once that suggested you allow the working spouse in a single-income home thirty minutes before asking them to take on any baby-related duties. I could see the sense in this, but cut the amount of time down to ten. Ten minutes to sit, empty pockets, put down keys, and take a moment. This probably sounds unforgiving, but 1.) It's his baby, too, and 2.) No one gave me ten minutes to sit down before my baby obligations began. Was my attitude juvenile? Probably. But I didn't care. Daddy's day ended at 5pm. He clocked out, came home, and sat down. He ate whenever he wanted to, he napped at whim. His work day was, effectively, over. My workday was nowhere near over. I ate and slept around Jacelyn's schedule. How does that little proverb or whatever go? "Man works from sun to sun but woman's work is never done". True. Very true.
Not in every case, there are always exceptions, but in my case, this was true. I woke up early, to make breakfast for Brian. I cooked and cleaned and mothered all day, and when Brian got home and plopped into a chair, his day done and over with, I was entering phase two of my day: husband care. Dinner, dishes, laundry, picking up, nursing, baby bath time. When Brian and Jacelyn went to bed it still wasn't over. There would be more picking up, and laundry, and preparing for the next day. I would make my baby food at night, staying up until 2 or 3 AM steaming vegetables and pureeing fruit to put in the freezer. I was tired, and burnt out, and felt guilty for being both.
One of the smaller activities I missed was driving around, by myself. All the windows rolled down, radio or CD blaring, smoking, driving fast, just rocking out. Post-baby life brought me a Winnie the Pooh sunshade, windows tightly rolled up, obviously no smoking, and "Mozart for Babies" playing softly. I enjoy classical music, but in the first few months of Jacelyn's life I tired of it enormously. I would drive along, playing "Opera for Babies", and gritting my teeth, thinking to myself "It will make her smarter. It will make her smarter. It damn well better make her smarter". That all ended when she was six months old or so; tiring of the soft, soothing melodies of the great composers, I put in some alternativeish-metal-type of CD and guiltily moved all the sound to the front speakers. Then gradually I stopped messing with the speakers and just left things alone. Now, I am proud to say, my daughter rocks. Hard. And she's none the worse for it, I don't think.
The point of all this? I struggled a great deal. I was striving for perfection, to be this ideal mother and wife that I know now doesn't and can't exist. Motherhood, for whatever reason, actually made me a more conservative person in many respects, extending even to my political beliefs. Prior to having Jacelyn I was a passionate liberal, and one night actually got a little teary when I found myself agreeing with a comment made by Bill O'Reilly (in my defense, it was about SUV's and what a waste of gas they are). I was also trying to reconcile the rather old-fashioned ideal I was holding myself up to with my views on feminism and the roles of women. New friends, new ideals, new life all around. And it all happened rather quickly, making me feel like a spectator rather than an active participant. I've gone through phases and stages of mothering normal to a first time mom, ranging from over-protective to almost nonchalant. I've muddled through a complete upheaval in my life, and come out on the other side only a little worse for wear, but wiser, and happier, and with a beautiful little daughter who makes every day beautiful. Despite anything else, despite the activities or proclivities that I may occasionally miss, that makes it all worth it.
So where am I now? That's for part 3. I'll try to make that one shorter.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

An Identity Crisis in Three Parts: Part 1

Part 1: Pregnancy

Pregnancy is a joyous experience, particularly a first pregnancy. There is the excitement, the anticipation, that whole miracle-of-life thing. My pregnancy was unplanned, but not unwelcomed. The adjustments throughout were difficult: no smoking, or drinking. Prenatal vitamins, while chock full of folic acid and iron and other things vital to baby growing, can also place a strain on mommy's system via such fun conditions as constipation and the like. Your body suddenly goes haywire, and is really not your own anymore. The little being inside is at the controls, and never hesitates to screw with you mercilessly. Heartburn, naseau, vomiting. Things swell and contract, muscles and skin stretch, however reluctantly. Not only was I trying to adjust to the idea of being pregnant, I was also trying to cope with the physical realities of pregnancy.

There was an initial adjustment period that I went throught, trying to come to terms with new life, growing inside me, new life that would eventually have to emerge. Then, you have to tell family and friends. Family, in my case, were cautiously optimistic, then blissfully happy once they found out that I was going to get married. Friends....well, they differed. My guy friends were outwardly happy, but seemed to be more confused. I guess maybe that's what happens when you're 'one of the guys'; anything girl-like, especially something so particularly uber-girl-like as pregnancy, just baffles them. In the first few months they would say, "You seem the same", almost marveling at my lack of what they thought was appropriate pregnancy behaviour, possibly learned from prime time sitcoms. There were a lot of questions: your water isn't going to break on my couch, is it? Not at three months, no. Aren't you supposed to throw up a lot, or something? Yes, I do, but not at the moment, and certainly not on command. When I started showing, there was a lot of belly poking. "So there's a baby in there, huh" they would comment, prodding at my protuding stomach. "You're sure you're not just getting fat?" Good-natured teasing aside, I am sad to say that most of my guy buddies drifted away as my pregnancy progressed, possibly overwhelmed by the hormones.

My girlfriends were more supportive. The childless ones sort of drifted out of the picture eventually, torn between the fact that I was suddenly a really good candidate for designated driver but that I couldn't drink myself. Somehow they deduced that I would not enjoy going out, nor would I be the fun, rambunctious gal that I had been pre-pregnancy. It was a gradual drift; they would still make and return phone calls, but it happened nonetheless. Friends who have kids are always thrilled when you turn up pregnant, and end up being your greatest source of support. I turned to other outlets, as well, like the internet. I joined an online mommy e-group, for pregnant mothers with babies due in April of '02. I found wisdom and wit there. I got advice from the moms who were on their second or third (or in one case, fifth) child and sympathy from the other first timers. There was the occassional flare of temper, as is bound to happen in a group of woman whose bodies were now in the hands of their hormones, but we always managed to make it right.

I talk about friends, because friends are important. They help you to see yourself. They offer praise, and support, and lend an ear to listen to you vent and/or mope, and offer their shoulder for you to cry on. They pick you up, when you fall. They will offer you ice cream and listen to you blather about mucus plugs and afterbirth. They laugh, but not in a mean-spirited way, when you disclose that there is a certain yoga pose that, everytime you perform it, makes you pee on yourself because of the way the baby ends up resting on your bladder. They will oooh and aaah over every kick you make them feel. They will play "guess that body part" with you when you are in your ninth month of pregnancy and baby sticks some appendage out. They will exclaim over even the blurriest, most indiscernable ultrasound photos. They love you and support you and make you feel normal again.

My decision to stay home was a tough one. I had never really held stay-at-home motherhood in the high regard that I now know it deserves. I was used to taking care of myself. I was a working girl, not having to depend on anyone, and I liked it that way. The thought of staying home all day and having to depend on Brian for money was terrifying. Once the cost of day care was considered, and my maternal instinct kicked in (someone else take care of my baby? no way), I decided that I would stay home. I thought I knew what I was getting into, but I had no idea. That's for part two, though.

As my delivery date loomed I became obsessed. All I could talk about or think of was pregnancy, delivery and childbirth. I took classes. I could name all the stages of labor and their accompanying symptoms. In Lamaze classes, if you answered a question correctly, the instructor would literally toss you a free sample of some baby product, like a little pouch of diaper rash cream, or a diaper sample. Woof-woof, good dog, here's your dye-free, frangrance-free laundry detergent sample. I ate it up. I was Superwoman: I worked all day, massively pregnant, then came home and cooked and cleaned. The laundry was done, the husband was fed and happy. My nesting phases were good times for Brian-I would wake up at 3am with the insane and overwhelming urge to clean the ceiling fan and bake a pecan pie. I felt domestic. I knew that I could do this stay-at-home thing. After all, if I could work and get it all done, a baby wouldn't change anything. I would have even more hours at home to get things accomplished. Riiiiiiiiight. How little I knew.

Once I was firmly ensconced in my ninth (and later, 9 1/2) month of pregnancy, I was slowly getting over it all. I enjoyed certain apects of being pregnant, but that list was slowly shrinking considerably. I felt enormous, and pointless. Walking was difficult; driving was getting to be that way. I had to start leaving for work early in order to accomodate for the extra five minutes that it took me to get out of the car. When I stopped working I slept, a lot. For the first couple of days I spent more time asleep than I did awake. Caught up on sleep, I got bored. I wanted to clean and prepare and nest, but didn't have the energy or, at that point, the ability. I spent ten minutes trying to get out of a chair one afternoon before finally giving up, dissolving into tears, and waiting for Brian to get home.

The point of all this: that I was entering a huge new phase of my life, and was losing the few things that I had identified myself with. I felt like I was losing my independance and at the same time had to find a new way to define myself. Does that make sense, or am I crazy? I am who I am (thank you Popeye), but you are also defined, sometimes by yourself and many times by others, by what and/or how you do. Or, my life has always been one big identity crisis. One of the two. Anyway: coming soon, part 2: motherhood. I'm sure the anticipation is killing you.

Monday, November 07, 2005

A Directive for the Day

Sunday evening I was rushing about the house, cleaning and doing laundry. Brian was in town, and left this morning, so I was trying to get all his stuff together--laundry, paperwork, etc. My mother-in-law reminded me that the bathroom needed cleaning, so I added that to the list. Jacelyn was home with me, following me around, asking me questions, moving things around, knocking things down. I guiltily confess to being less than patient with her, over all. At one point I was angrily scrubbing the shower, singing along with music from the shower radio. The music suddenly stopped, and I peered over the doors to see Jacelyn, perched precariously on the toilet tank, turning the shower radio off. I slid the door open, and in an entirely impatient, un-motherly manner said, "What, baby?!?"as I helped her down. She looked at me, sighed, and said, "I just love you, mommy, that's all. I just love you".
In that one moment I was reminded of what is important. That may sound hokey, but here is what I mean: the tub can be cleaned another day. Laundry can wait - it will still be dirty tomorrow. My daughter will only feel the need to risk life and limb to turn down music to inform me that she loves me for probably a little while longer. Ten years from now (when she is 13 - yikes!) I will probably think longingly of that moment. So I stopped what I was doing (much to the chagrin of my mother-in-law) and played. With abandon. So that is my directive for the day: find someone busy, someone unhappy, just someone, and remind them of what's important. Give them an "I just love/respect/appreciate/really like you"moment.
I just love you, that's all.