Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Searching for Mama's Eyes

I look down at my infant child.  His pink lips are wrapped around my nipple, sucking. His tiny hands grab at my shirt. He’s all instinct and unformed nervous system.  He’s something precious, but somehow not altogether human yet.  He sleeps mostly and lacks any ability to explore the world that is so new to him.  He’s three weeks old and entirely dependent on us.  He can barely see.
But then he opens his eyes.

They transform and illuminate his face and make him more part of this world. And he instantly becomes something different to me.  He’s looking now. He has intention.  He’s searching.  And he finds my eyes.  I feel myself smile and hear myself say, “Hi there baby.  I’m your mama.”  And I wonder if he somehow understands.  A bitter tear escapes my eye.
But the tear is not what you think.  It’s not for a welling up of love for this new being.  It’s for another baby I’ve never met.

A week earlier, I came home to find my husband just getting off the phone.  He had a grave look, a look that made me instantly ask what was wrong. 
“Mary’s sister just died.”

“Complications from childbirth. Just three weeks after her baby was born.”

We stood there looking at each silently both thinking the same thing.  Both of us fighting back tears.  For the unfairness of it all, for the father taken from the greatest joy to the greatest sorrow in the blink of an eye, for the relatives who frantically and awkwardly will try and fill the void, for that child who will be searching for a nipple that is no longer there, who will grow up wondering what she was like, what life would have been like were she there.
And it’s damned unfair. 

We are privileged.  All of us reading and writing blogs.  Specifically, I’m thinking of us so called mommy-bloggers.  Of course we know this, but we rarely pause to consider it.  It’s easier that way.  
We live in a world in which we are allowed to have ideological debates and philosophies about the birthing “experience.” A world in which we are permitted righteous indignation at the medical establishment that pushes us into interventions we’d prefer not to have.  A world that allows us to choose to have our babies at home, in bathtubs, or hooked into pain numbing devises.  A world in which we obsess about shaping that moment but never fear that it could kill us.  Or our children.

Mary’s sister is not the first I’ve known to have perished in childbirth here in Kenya.
On my way out of the office last year, I paused to make small talk with one of the young guards of our office who was always playful and warm with my son. 

“Do you have any children?” I asked.
He kept a polite smile on his face as he said the unthinkable, “I had one, but he died in childbirth at the district hospital.”

Later that year, I stopped a neighbor on her way to a funeral.  “Pole (sorry), who died?” 
In a voice we would probably consider too matter of fact, she replied: “Another neighbor.  Both the mom and the baby during childbirth.” 

I can barely fathom the scene at that funeral. 
This is not the 18th century.  This still happens all around the world, and with alarming frequency.

There are statistics.  1,000 women die each day in childbirth.  Of course it’s almost all preventable. It’s a symptom of poverty, of lack of access to quality health care, of women not in control of reproductive decisions.
And I know the statistics.  And I know the issue, the policy points, and the suggested remedies.  But somehow it’s all still an abstraction.  It’s an abstraction until I consider my infant son learning to see and finding my eyes.  And my heart splits apart when I think of another infant opening his eyes, searching for that other pair of eyes that are no longer there, never hearing those words, “Hi there baby, I’m your mama.” 

I don’t quite know how to end this post. 
I’ve written before about maternal mortality and suggested places to donate if you were moved to do so, so I’ll include those links below again, and please suggest others.

At the very least hug your children, mothers, sisters extra tight and give thanks that they happened to be born into a part of the world where giving birth predictably results in celebration and almost never in mourning.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Old Lady McGrumpypants

Please forgive this diatribe.  Bitching about technology is kind of my bailiwick.  And it’s cathartic to download (ahem…) my displeasure.  Don’t tell me. I’m aware of the irony of doing this on a blog. 

Here we go:
I’m guessing many of you know this scene well:  We are at a nice restaurant, the kind with rotating works of art on the wall and whimsical eclectic fusion cuisine, like blue cheese and beet root spring rolls.  As we don’t normally live in a place with restaurants like this, we sigh into our chairs ready to savor everything about the experience.  Just when we are feeling gloriously relaxed, it happens. 
Our toddler, totally underappreciating the culinary luxury of his surroundings, starts whining.  About something. Some injustice that only makes sense in the bizarre vortex of toddler logic.  Like his sleeves are all the sudden "bothering" him. Or, the only piece of bread he wants is the one you just swallowed.  The whining is incessant and crescendo-ing to a dreaded full-on tantrum.  And no threats or promises of rewards are abating it.
People are starting to look.   Some are giving us those irritated “control your child or leave him at home” stares.  We’re feeling frustrated and embarrassed.
But a catastrophe is averted with this: 
“Caleb, do you want to play Monkey Lunchbox?” 

Caleb halts mid-whine turning his contorted demon face, on a dime, into an angelic “yes please, I’ll be a good boy” expression.  Do you know that game where you do a fake frown and then run your hand up your face to reveal a smile?  That’s what he did.  It was that quick.
For those of you who don’t know, Monkey Lunchbox is one of those apps for kids you can download on your iphone.  I think it’s been engineered precisely with this restaurant tantrum experience in mind.  It’s educational enough (puzzles, shape matching and counting games etc…) and can be manipulated by a 2 year old.
And it’s a tantrum-averting godsend.  I love it.
And I hate it.  
I hate it so much. 
I hate that it can so easily become our default child calmer.  That it can make us lazy parents and that it can make our normally active and creative child a bit too comfortable staring at a screen.  And I hate that it gives him one more thing to whine about: “Please, can I play Monkey Lunchbox. PLLEEEAASSE!!!!”
The same goes for movies.  Or as we whisper them in our house “M-O-V-I-E-S.”  Because to say the word would unleash a torrent of whine-begging that generally ends in a fist-pounding, back-arching, arm-flailing tantrum. (Did someone say movie?  I want to watch a movie.  PLLEEAASE can I watch a movie?  Why can’t I watch a movie?  I WANNA WATCH A MOVIE!!!) 
Of course, like most parents, we let our youngster indulge in these media devises when we need to.  To save the rare dinner out.  As a once in a while treat.  To give us a break when things get too hard.  Or when we want to have morning sex. 
But I’m ambivalent about it nearly every time.  And I can hear you now: An occasional movie or video game is not going to kill him.  In fact, a lot of it is educational and he might even learn something.  Anyway, this is the way of the world now. Being able to manipulate an ipod and start a movie on your laptop are important skills for the world he’s going to grow in to.
So, what’s my problem? 
Here's my problem: If I were a social critic (and, let’s face it anyone with a blogger or twitter account is a bona fide social critic.  That’s how it works, in case you weren’t paying attention), what I would rant about the most would be the excessive screen interfacing we do in modern society. 
[Sure, the fact that we celebrate the Kardashian sisters and elect people who brag that they don’t believe in science would be good subjects for social critiques, but my number one rant would still have to be our collective dependence on screen interfacing.]  
I can’t tell you how often at family or social gatherings I’ve looked around the room and everyone is having a seemingly enjoyable interaction with a piece of electronics. Dad is checking the news on his Blackberry, Junior is playing a game on someone’s ipod, Sister is checking facebook on her laptop, Brother is perusing cat videos on youtube, Mom is looking up a recipe for dinner.  I’m writing for this blog.  (Yes. I’m part of the problem.  I’ve asked you not to point out the hypocrisy.)
All of this is fine in theory.  I partake of a lot of it, and I get that it helps connect us to faraway loved ones. But what stokes my ire is that pulling out an iphone or logging on to our gmail accounts have become our default positions.  We’re no longer comfortable just “visiting.”  No longer comfortable being together in silence.  No longer comfortable (given google and wikipedia) with not knowing something.
Maybe I’m overreacting, but it seems that something very fundamentally human has changed with this. 
It struck me most when we moved to Kenya.  I would walk around town and stumble into groups of people just being with one another.  Women sitting around doing each other's hair, holding their babies and gossiping.  Groups of bicycle drivers relaxing in the shade.  A duka customer sitting outside the shop chatting with the owner, neither feeling any hurry to move on. Sometimes there would be silence, but it was never uncomfortable.
I believe that these scenes, repeated in different climates, in different languages and in our own not so distant past, are what make us human.  And I wonder if they are disappearing. 
So, when I look around the room and see we are together physically but completely apart in focus, I can’t help but feel I’m living in some strange dystopian future, in which our backs are permanently curved from bending over our computer screens and we’re not quite so good at being together anymore. 
And when I see my son comatose in front of a screen or throwing a temper tantrum so that he can achieve that state, I wonder how or if I can save him from that.
I’m fully aware that this post brands me “Old Lady McGrumpy Crumudeonpants” and that I’m by far a minority opinion here.  I’m also guessing this could unleash a torrent of defense for social media and technology. 
So, give me your best counterpoint!   If you can convince me, I’ll feel a whole lot better about all the time it took staring at this screen to write this post.

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Thursday, March 8, 2012

You're Doing Everything Wrong

“You’re doing everything wrong.”
Those words were directed at me from our Nairobi-based pediatrician during our 1 week well baby visit.  You know, just to knock us down a few pegs in case we were feeling a bit too confident about this whole parenting thing. 
And we were!  Our new baby was quieted easily by our expert use of the five Ss (sucking, shushing, sidelying, swaddling and unm...  I forget the fifth... it's not shaking is it?). 
We had a white noise machine.  We had swaddles at the ready.  We had that over-the-shoulder-gas-releasing-pat down pat.  And this: Our first baby never took a pacifier.  Never a bottle. Never found his thumb.  He simply used my boobs (and for 2 years) for nourishment and comfort.  This new one miraculously took a pacifier, and it worked like a charm.  I wanted to cry I was so happy. 
We took as much credit for soothing him as we liked.   Even at a week, we felt exceedingly adept at parenting our newborn, remarking cockily to anyone who would listen that things are “so much easier the second time around.  You know, you’re more experienced. More calm.”  We had things firmly under control.  We were superparents!
But then… “You’re doing everything wrong.” 
I had just put Emmet on the examining table for his first doctor's visit and, of course, he started to cry.  So, I stuck in that new miracle worker the pacifier and proceeded to change his diaper, wiping his little tush with dye-free wipes.  Done and done.  Clean and quiet baby.  But before I could pat myself on the back too proudly, it came…
“You’re doing everything wrong.”
Apparently, wipes are to be avoided (they can have bacteria),  Instead, I’m to use cotton and warm water.
You should never use a pacifier it could give them thrush.

Don’t dress them in an extra layer of clothing.  Let them wear pretty much what you would wear.
You should not eat chocolate or ice cream or chips (things I can been indulging in since.. well… I deserve it don’t I?  And I need to cram in 500 extra calories per day to keep the breast feeding going, right?) Garlic and spicey food are just fine.
"So, doc, what about drinking?  Can I have a glass of wine?"
“Sure, you can have a glass of wine a day. No problem.”
“Or a gin and tonic.  Whatever.”
What??!!  Is this opposite world?
I understand that merely having access to the internet alerts parents to the all the contradictory advice about caring for babies and raising kids.  But when you have 2 babies in 2 different countries even the local medical experts contradict each other.  This can be either frustratingly head-spinning or joyfully liberating, depending on how you want to see it. 
I’m going for liberating. 
No one said anything about not eating chocolate in the US and ice cream is encouraged (all that fat and calcium), so pass me a hot fudge sunday.
Who needs to “pump and dump?” Dr. Patel says I’m allowed “a drink a day, no problem!” Sp, pass me some pinot noir.
OK.  Most probably agree that there are drawbacks to using a pacifier, so we’ll use it sparingly but will reassure ourselves with the US-based research says reduces SIDS.  Now, pass me that paci.
And no more waking the baby every 4 hours to nurse and to neurotically record when and for how many minutes he nursed on each side (I have a notebook full of this data and never knew quite what to do with it anyway).  Here we are told, “Oh, honey, if he’s sleeping, he’s not hungry.”  Pass me a pillow.
At the end of the day we’re all getting different advice and our kids are turning out OK.  My mom got different advice than her mother. I received different advice from her.   Hell, I received different advice each time I had a child, and mothers around the world are receiving contradictory advice.  Despite this, we all manage for the most part to raise healthy, well-adjusted children just the same. 
I’m guided by this: I try to trust my intuition.  I pay attention in equal parts to research, tradition and friends and stick with what works for each child.  But most of all, I try not to obsess over what I’m doing wrong. 
Even if someone tells me it’s just about “everything.”
What guides you? How do you choose which parenting advice to follow?  And anyone have good examples of contradictory parent advice across generations or across cultures?
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Monday, March 5, 2012

The C Word (or A Nice Jewish Boy From Nairobi)

Because I’m Jewish, in some way, I get to sidestep the whole circumcision debate.  It’s off the table.  Not a choice.  I don’t think I could live down the heavy weight of finely tuned Jewish guilt if I decided not to circumcise my sons.  I’m not entirely sure if I’d be disowned, but let’s just say it would be something of a family scandal.
Plus, Jewish or not, we might decide to do it anyway.  There are some health benefits, and I know not a few men who were not circumcised as babies only to have to have a circumcision later in life in response to some infection.  Better earlier than later?
So, we find ourselves in the peculiar position of looking, in East Africa, for a mohel (a Jew who is trained and certified to perform a ritual circumcision on the 8th day of life).  We didn’t entirely think it would be possible.  We joked that we’d just guillotine a small carrot symbolically and then do the circumcision several months later back in the US.  Yup.  That could work, right?
But my mother, being the queen of Jewish Geography and at least twice as invested in this whole process, miraculously found a Jewish doctor here in Nairobi who would be able to help us out.  
So, here’s some Bris 101 to put this whole experience in perspective:  According to Jewish dictates a mohel should attend to the actual cutting.  He (or she) gives the babe a little wine to … you know… get them in the mood for some penis snipping and then the cutting happens with swift efficiency.  With Caleb I heard his little cry as they cleaned the area followed by another (I shutter to think what that was in response to) and then it was over.  Took about 30 seconds, and Caleb healed remarkably quickly.
Because this is all part of ritual celebration, there are witness to your living room table surgery (grimaces on the faces of all men, tears in the eyes of the women), followed by bagels and lox.  Maybe some nice rugale. 
Even as a Jew, I find the whole thing strange, a bit primitive and maybe a bit brutal.  But tradition is tradition and I appreciate that this is a 5000 year old custom; and who am I to get in the way of ancient ritual and what is, in the end, the celebration of my children?
For Emmet’s bris in Nairobi…  oy vey, the strangeness of it all.  I almost don’t know where to begin.
Let’s start with this:
Because we don’t have an official mohel, a Jewish doctor will do an initial ceremonial cut accompanied by the appropriate prayers, and then an Egyptian pediatric surgeon will do the actual procedure.  On an operating table. In the hospital.  This should give me some solace. but… As you may have gleaned from my last post, I’m just a wee bit hospital phobic.
This scene instills horror in me:
Emmet blissfully unaware of what is about to transpire

A hospital room just has too many needles and restraints, bright lights and complicated looking machines for my comfort level.

As we enter the room and inform the nurse we’re here for my 8 day old baby’s circumcision, she does a double take followed by that look. You know the one.  That puzzled “are you sure about this?” look. He’s only 8 days old!?!?
Here in Kenya circumcisions are traditionally done, for most ethnic groups, as a rite of passage when boys are 9 or 10.  We might cross our legs in horrified sympathy to hear that (Yikes, that’s old.  The boys will surely remember and feel that kind of pain), just as Kenyans might be astonished to hear that we do this to our babies (Yikes that’s young.  Can a helpless baby really withstand that kind of pain?) 
Normally, I’m quite sensitive to the judgment of others, but all I can think in response to the nurse’s apparent disdain is: “Lady, you don’t even know how weird it’s about to get around here!”  Just wait until we start praying and drinking wine with 10 Jewish strangers in the operating room. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Then this as we are waiting.

This is the signature of our pediatric surgeon on some routine forms.  Notice anything? 
I'd much prefer the man who will be snipping a small but very vital organ on my very tiny baby have the eye site and precision to sign his name anywhere near the dotted line!  I’m about ready to abscond with my son, but then they start arriving. 
The minyan. 
You see, in Orthodox Judaism, you need a minyan of 10 Jewish men for the whole bris thing to be kosher. Never mind that I’m barely Reform much less Orthodox, but Nairobi has one synagogue and it’s Orthodox, so there we are.   
So, these 10 orthodox Jewish strangers (many from the Israeli embassy) start arriving and filling up the operating room. They don their prayer shawls and kippot. Someone produces a bottle of Mogen David and sets out wine glasses. There’s no escaping now.
In theory, I’m touched.  These people don’t know me, but they are taking time out of their work days to come permit me an official orthodox bris and celebrate my son. They are exceedingly kind and gracious.
In practice, I’m a bit overwhelmed. For a private, hospital phobic person who tends to avoid drawing attention to herself, this scene is a bit alienating:
See if you can spot me. Find the woman burrying her head in horror.
Then there’s this:  My mom, having done the bulk of the organizing and wanting desperately to be a part of this occasion, joins us by Skype. The computer is placed at the foot of the operating table, giving my mom, whether she likes it or not, a front row viewing.

So, there we are.  The whole mishigas, crowded into the operating theater, taking pictures, drinking wine and praying.  My mom says a few words over skype then sings Emmet a song, as the crowd politely listens from half a world away. 
What am I doing this whole time? Sitting on a chair, burying my head into my husband’s chest, wetting his shirt with my unendingly uglycrying, only occasionally looking up to ask if it’s over.
It’s not.  It’s not over. It’s taking FOR. EVER.  After the praying, the doc has to scrub in and wash things and do whatever they do to make surgeries happen.  The waiting is agony.  I just want to fast forward the whole scene. 
Then, it’s over.  We are mazel toved and move on to the bagel portion of the day.    
My next child will simply have to be a girl.


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