Photo Poems: Day 5

2014-06-22 09.29.24

Finally, in early June, I was able to enjoy you,

after three months of having to writhe within

my own body, unable to escape myself,

pinning and wrestling myself down just to sleep

for fifteen minutes at a time.

But early June, that’s really our birthday–

this is when I could start to feel your breath

on my cheek , lay you on my chest, and know

you belong there, delighting in the weight of you.

You were just beginning to see the world,

push with your legs, lift your head and look around,

smile and laugh. We were both emerging.

Sarah’s Story: The Plan versus Reality

Sarah is extremely self-aware, so self-aware that a constant low hum of anxiety is always present in her life. She was used to this anxiety, though. This was herself and her life.

However, anxiety during her pregnancy amped up when after attending hypnobirthing classes and planning a natural birth, her son was breech.

Sarah is smart and capable. She did all the research—there wasn’t a doctor in North Carolina that would deliver a first-time mother with a breech baby. Sarah did all the yoga moves and techniques she could to get her son to turn. It didn’t work. And during all this work and worry, Sarah’s anxiety increased.

She doesn’t like going to the doctor for even routine visits. She doesn’t like watching bloody or violent TV shows. She really didn’t like the thought of being cut open. But a C-section was inevitable if her son stayed breech.

Sarah became “very anxious and mad” as she continued to attend her hypnobirthing during this time, in hopes that her son might turn and she could still have a natural birth. Having a family-centered C-section wasn’t covered in the class. The only reading about C-sections was an article about all the risks, an article to instill fear in its readers and motivate them to birth naturally, but that wasn’t going to be a choice for Sarah. “I was in this weird place of trying to reconcile where I was” and what her birth was going to be. She felt “betrayed and invalidated” by her birthing class experience.

And while Isaac, her son, didn’t arrive on his scheduled date, Sarah’s C-section didn’t go badly, per se, not in medical terms. But she felt out of control and not connected to her body. Her doctor was “calm and experienced” but this didn’t matter. Sarah’s first glimpse of her son was through a photo her husband took on the other side of the curtain. In the picture, Isaac’s “arms and legs are splayed out and eyes wide open and he looks like ‘this is too much for me.’” It wasn’t until the recovery room that Sarah held Isaac. He was swaddled and put on top of Sarah, but she couldn’t feel his skin. There is a photo of her husband John holding Isaac by her head. Her first actual memory, not a photo, is of Isaac trying to breastfeed for the first time. He wouldn’t latch well, and it felt very unnatural to Sarah.

In the back of Sarah’s mind was a photo her mother had, a photo of Sarah’s birth: “she has that beautiful picture of mother and child. She has that moment. What I really wanted was the picture with my child. The bonding. Time to take him in. What I really got was being hooked up to an IV and feeling out of my body.”

isaac

But for the first few months postpartum and during Sarah’s maternity leave, she stayed in denial about her mental health. She was just trying to survive those days and weeks. Breastfeeding was extremely stressful for her. She felt “low and extremely isolated,” so she made every effort to get out of the house. She thought returning to work would help her mood.

However, “when I went back to work and it wasn’t the fix that I thought it would be, that’s when I recognized my PPD. I was so irritable. John and I were fighting. I was still very stressed out about breastfeeding and thinking about my birth a whole lot.”

Sarah works as a social worker, and she’d also sought help from a therapist before. If anyone knows how to find resources, it’s Sarah: “I’m a woman with insurance and resources, but I still almost gave up.” She found it very difficult to find a therapist who specialized in PPD and could see her in the immediate future. And when you are feeling depressed, “you don’t feel like anyone or anything can help you,” but Sarah kept pushing and finally found a good therapist.

She also found Moms Supporting Moms, a Raleigh-area support group for new moms experiencing overwhelm. Sarah said MSM helped combat what she called “the social media effect.” The way in which new moms and just women in general are inundated with photos and updates from friends about how wonderful and beautiful motherhood is. Photos of perfectly dressed babies. This isn’t the truth or reality. The support group helped Sarah hear from real women about real experiences with a variety of postpartum mood disorders.

With the help of a therapist, support group, and medication, Sarah still felt like she was “in it” and not yet recovered. Her medications were still being adjusted. And like many new mothers with a postpartum mood disorder, Sarah grapples with what is depression and anxiety and what is the normal overwhelm of new motherhood.

I struggle with identifying if it’s new motherhood or PPD. There are times with it is clearly PPD. Like the fact that I am so triggered by my husband simply walking around and asking me questions when I just want to be alone. That’s not a typical feeling for me. I’ve never had such a strong feeling of wanting to be alone. I adore my husband. We can have a great time together. So it’s very strange for me to just want to be alone.

Sarah’s first few months of motherhood were spent minute to minute. There wasn’t any time to develop confidence in mothering. Motherhood was just a “series of tasks” that she must finish and do, and at the same time, she must process and heal from a birth that was traumatic for her. Sarah is now slowly but surely trying to find that bonding time with Isaac, but Sarah, and all mothers, must first get themselves on somewhat solid ground, and that takes a different amount of time for each woman.

**I conducted my interview with Sarah within the first year of motherhood. However, her soon is now getting close to two years old and Sarah has now become a volunteer and helps mom who are experiencing a postpartum mood disorder. **

100 Days of Photos and Poetry

I’m participating in the 100 Days Project. I’m going to write a poem inspired by a photograph every day for 100 days. The fancy word for this is ekphrasis.

I love photography and I love poetry, so why not combine them? Sometimes the photo will be one I’ve taken, but I’ll also just pick any photo that inspires me. Please send some challenges my way! And be careful of showing or posting photos around me. I will steal them!😉

I won’t post every day here, but I will when I can. These poems will be rough drafts, but I think it’s good to show people the process of writing. The whole point of this project is to set aside big expectations and just get some writing on the page. Some days, I might just write a sentence, but that can be a poem.

#100daysofphotopoems

Here is my Day 2 poem:

sydney

Once I watched a boy

try to bully you.

This was at a fancy park

with a man-made creek

running through sand.

This boy, your same size and age,

had deemed himself gatekeeper

of the water and blocked you from it.

You gave him no reaction,

but you took your little brother’s hand

and walked a ways down the “creek”

and began to collect and carry heavy rocks.

You built a dam, cut off his water supply.

I wanted to cheer from my bench, but you

were not boastful or proud.

You splashed your brother

in the pool you’d created

and never looked back

at that boy.

It’s a Man’s World: Legos

Last weekend, we went to a big Lego event in Raleigh. We took Mae (2 years old) along with her aunt, uncle, and three cousins. The main reason we went is because my nephew (9 years old) looooooves Legos. But we thought we’d all enjoy it and were curious, so we signed up. I didn’t think Mae would be too into it. I was wrong, of course. Motherhood likes to prove you wrong all the time. Mae loved it. She went into the Duplo section and forgot I even existed. She enjoyed just watching others build.

Mae and legos

And while I enjoyed myself and my family, I was a bit consumed by the separation of gender at this event and the lack of young girls. My nephew and niece participated in a little competition while there. They gave you something to build, for instance “a robot,” and you had five minutes to build one. I watched this competition for at least four rounds and didn’t see a single girl win. The odds weren’t in their favor as the boy numbers heavily outweighed the girls. My rough estimate would be 1 girl to every 6 boys.

war world

Within this entire Lego World, there was one area designated as the “girl” area. This small area was all pink and purple with hair salons made of legos and pink airplanes from Legos’ Friends collection. Mae didn’t even stop when we passed by this area, and I noticed that this area was not only populated with girls. There were lots of boys playing with the “girly” toys and vice versa. Of course, if you were a girl and didn’t want to play with the “boy” toys, well you wouldn’t have had much to play with since every other area was geared toward the masculine, mainly war themed.

The very first exhibit when you walked into the convention center were different wars. There was an amazing Lego display of Vietnam with such detail, down to a monk on fire. Right beside this display, were portraits made of Legos. All of the battle scenes, all of the portraits, all of them were men. There was one mermaid in the water in a war scene, if that counts as a female presen

marilyn monroe

They did include Marilyn Monroe with her skirt blowing up…

ce.

 

war portraits

So what came first? Legos love of men or men’s love of Legos?

Turns out, Legos stayed pretty gender neutral until the 1970s, when they came out with the Homemaker series. Before this launch, Lego used boy and girls in their advertisements and didn’t use heavy gender coloring on products. In the Homemaker series, we see that girls are encouraged to build the kitchen, a living room, a baby’s room–the domestic arena. I also found in my research that many think Lego made “girl” toys less rigorous when it came to building. Toys marketed to girls were more style than substance. This is NOT okay.

However, even in the 1980s, when Lego became very popular, the mini figures stayed rather gender neutral. Though, I would argue they are more masculine than feminine.

The 1990s were when Lego really started to create different products for boys and girls. Female figurines were made with lipstick on and the girls were more likely to be  relaxing (sunning or surfing) or doing a hobby or fun activity (horseback riding) compared to the men who held jobs (life guard or pilot).

It’s interesting to note that Lego began to separate boys and girls toys in the 1970s, after the Women’s Lib Movement. It’s like a backlash to what was actually happening in the world. Women were about to join the workforce in large numbers in the 1980s, yet Lego was launching the Homemaker series?

The Homemaker series and other attempts to market to girls didn’t really work. Up until the Friends series (the one I saw at the event) launched in 2012, 90% of Lego consumers were boys. However, Friends has worked to get girls interested in Legos. Lego says their research showed that girls like to finish building something and play with the inside of a structure while boys like the outside. Also, girls like more details in their structures. These changes seemed to work because sales to girls tripled the year Friends was launched. However, the Friends figurines are not capable of much movement as compared to the traditional, more masculine figurines, which says to me that girls don’t need to be as physical as boys. Girls, just look pretty.

lego-surfer-girl-minifigure-24-378531

Surfer Girl…

Of course, I can’t answer what came first here and what is the true difference between boys and girls. Has Lego just tapped into the way in which society constructs gender for girls? Have they become a perfect part of the equation that reinforces girls should be inside the house?

I’ll just say this. The kids at that event didn’t seem to care what was meant for boys or girls. It was a free for all. There weren’t any parents between them and the Legos. Parents are the consumers really, right? We are the ones who make the purchase. So how much of the increase in sales is due to what little girls want or what mom and other members of her family think she will want?

I can’t figure this all out, and I don’t know the answers to these big questions, but it’s my job as a parent to think about them. I do know that I can’t stomach a dumbing down in terms of skill level for the girl Lego sets. That’s not acceptable. A woman can wear lipstick and be an engineer. These two things are not contradictions.

friends

One of the Friends figurines…what’s her profession?

male figurine

He gets glasses and a briefcase. Can a girl be a nerd/smart?

And I swear we had fun too. I was a friendly feminist.

lego mom

thw whole gang

The whole gang.

My Dad’s Brain

While I’m a writer and very right brain oriented, I also love science. Having facts can be so reassuring, can’t it?
My relationship with my father was strained from the time that I could recognize that he was emotionally handicapped, definitely by middle school, until I had my own child. I think my daughter has softened me in every way, physically and emotionally, but I also know that some research has helped me understand and sympathize with my father.

dad with mae

It’s amazing to see how these two can connect.

My father grew up with an alcoholic father. A father who abused him and his sister. As a boy, he would hide behind the couch when it came time for his father to return home and “wish that he might die” on the way home. Now this does not mean my father didn’t love my grandfather. Abuse and love can live in the same place. And he always felt guilty for these death wishes. Tension and stress were his main mental states for his childhood.

And when I learned what was happening to his brain as he crouched in fear behind his couch each night, I was finally able to forgive him. Maybe it shouldn’t have taken this knowledge, but that is what worked for me.

Cortisol. The long-term stress hormone would have carved a deep pathway through my father’s brain. Each time his pupils dilated and heart pounded, cortisol and adrenalin would twist through his brain down a familiar road, one that became easier and easier to take.

And if you are in a constant state of emergency, this means other parts of your brain can’t develop because your brain is preoccupied with survival. Specifically, your frontal lobe, which is where self-control can be found, doesn’t develop the same as in other children.

And so children who grow up in abusive households are twelve times more likely to attempt suicide and 32 times more likely to have behavior problems in school. And they develop a switch, a way to turn off emotions quickly.

And so as I began to learn about the brains of the abused, I was able to love my father again. I wish it had to do with a change in him, but it’s about an acceptance of him, and I was able to do that through hard numbers and data. Data that proved he wasn’t strange or alone, and neither was I. He was a product of abuse.

His mother actually drove up to his college when she heard he was going to see a therapist. She drove up and forbid it. This is the moment when maybe he wouldn’t have had to be defined by the abuse, although his brain was already developed. But maybe something could have shifted emotionally, but his mother stopped it.

I’ve accepted being the adult in our relationship because of this information I’ve found about the brain. My brain is that of a 33 year old, and my dad’s got stuck somewhere. Now he is a genius when it comes to chemistry, but he is five or six when it comes to emotions and stress, and I’ve accepted that. I’ll be the parent. He’s done his best by me, and I’ll try to do the same.

Obedience is Overrated 

Mae doesn’t always follow along at story time. She often wants to sit in my lap and read her own book, and then chime in with the group when it interests her. 

 

ready to dance!

 
Mae’s favorite part of story time at our local library is when they sing this song “Hot Potato” and do hand gestures with it. When the librarian hits play and the music begins, Mae makes a sprint from my lap to the middle of the floor. She’s like a hippy at Merlefest. She does some of the suggested hand gestures but she spends most of the song spinning herself silly.

The other kids are not doing this.

Maybe some parents think I should stop her.

Unless she is in danger of hitting somebody, I’m letting her rip.

I can’t help but admire her spirit. She doesn’t care that she’s dancing differently or that all eyes are on her. She’s just doing what makes her happy. 

I try not to ever reprimand her because I might care for a moment what others think. 

Now if she stands in front of everyone and blocks their view during the story portion, then I’ll tell her to sit down, please. But if she’s really not into what we’re doing, we also should probably just leave.

I hear friends oh and ah over how “well-behaved” children are, and my mind goes to my college students. I have some students who don’t question anything, who want me to give them the “right” answer, and who have no idea why they are in college beyond it is what their parents told them they should do. They want to make A’s. They “have to.” I never hear them express what they “want to” learn or do. 

Having and keeping a spirited-child means sitting through epic meltdowns and long sessions of dress up while also searching for moss in the backyard. It means letting her mix play dough colors (so hard for me). I’m okay with that if it means my daughter will keep her creative, confident spirit. 

Mae painting on herself and wearing her favorite tutu inside out and as a tube top.

My goal isn’t to have an A student. My goal is to have a happy, curious human being. 

The Embodiment of Strength: Speaking Up as a Minority Woman

Natasha is a self-described woman of “strong faith.” She believes in God and prayer. She is also an African-American woman, a leader in her community, and an advocate for women. For all of these reasons, Natasha’s interview was an educational experience for me.

I met Natasha on a sweltering summer day as we both walked several miles for Postpartum Progress, a national non-profit that provides support to women experiencing postpartum mood disorders. Natasha had helped organize our local Postpartum Progress fundraiser, Climb Out of the Darkness. Although I’d been raising money for the event for months, I hadn’t met Natasha until the day of the walk, and I immediately wanted to talk to her. Natasha has an energy, a strength, an exuberance, that pulls others to her.

natasha

Our recent phone interview only lasted an hour, but we could have gone on and on all day.  Natasha, like me, has used her postpartum experience as a catalyst to help other women.

The week before I spoke with her, Natasha had “come out” on Facebook about her postpartum struggle with depression. And she had specifically spoken about PPDA not being solely a white woman’s disease. Natasha was hesitant about taking this step and prayed about making this public declaration because she “didn’t want to offend anyone, but white women are speaking up while African-American women are still too ashamed.”

Natasha has a hypothesis on why this is, why so many minority women are suffering in silence: “Our ideas about mental illness begin long before we encounter PPD. In our community, we are raised to have strong faith. You don’t complain. You suck it up. You pray about it and believe things will be okay.” But after a postpartum experience that Natasha repeatedly described as “darkness,” she knows that PPDA needs more than prayer. What Natasha believes women need is education, and she has begun to do this in her community by sharing her story, but she wasn’t always as open with her struggle. She was so good at “faking it” that her friends didn’t know she was suffering. She would say “I’m having a really hard time” to friends or family members, but what she meant was “I’m dying on the inside. Help.” And the main responses she heard back were: “Trust in God” and “Have faith.” Looking back, Natasha realizes how dangerous it was to simply pray and not get professional help: “The car was almost in the ocean. I just hit the brake.” Thankfully, her husband pushed her to seek professional help and stood by her through the healing process.

 Now Natasha also privately hears from other women of color who say “Me too, but I can’t talk about it publically.” We know that a lack of social support is a risk factor for PPDA. Thus the overwhelming stigma and silence within Natasha’s community could increase the number of women who develop postpartum mood disorders.

Unlike many women, though, Natasha did find help from her pediatrician office and OBGYN. They talked with her via the phone on weekends and would follow up to make sure she was surviving. But she didn’t use medication until around seven months postpartum because she was still of the mindset: “I am a strong black woman. I’m the strength of my family. I can’t be crazy. Not in my family.” Natasha has since gone down a long road of accepting her illness for just that: an illness. However, she is not alone is resisting help. While the statistics show that white women and minority women experience postpartum mood disorders at about the same percentage, 15-20%, up to 9% of white women seek treatment and only 4% of black women get professional treatment. However, minority women are underrepresented in research studies, so we also don’t have as many current studies to refer to on this topic.

Through this process of accepting, she has determined that having a second child is not possible for her. She fears the darkness of what she experienced with her first, and now last, postpartum experience. And this acceptance is difficult when those around her don’t fully understand her experience. But she tries to explain it like this: “What if the doctor said if I conceive again, it would put me at risk for losing my life? Then would your feelings be different about me having another baby.” She speaks her truth, even to her family, and even when it’s uncomfortable.

Here’s what I know from my brief interactions with Natasha: she is a strong woman. She is a role model for those in her community, as I saw the most minority women I ever have speaking up at our Climb Out of the Darkness event. While Natasha’s experience was “hell,” and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, I am so thankful it has led her to this work. She truly believes “The more I talk about my journey, the more I heal, the more time that passes by, the more I realize my journey is less about me and more about the next woman that I can help.” And every time she speaks up, she embodies a courage that I cannot fully understand as a white woman, but I am so thankful for it.