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Guest post: On Passing as a Single Mom

A few months ago, a friend sent me this practical account of how a woman got rid of a placenta she never wanted in the first place. It casually flew in the face of the false dichotomy between crunchy, placenta-eating home birthers and epidural princesses. On a whim, I sent an admiring email to the author. Any woman willing to reveal her own complexity in an embarrassing tale of human waste disposal is a friend of mine. I invited her to write a guest post here, and hot damn, she wrote one.
Enjoy.

My boyfriend, Scott, was in Arizona with his dying father and I was at a diner with our two sons. My older son was rolling creamers across the table for the younger one to fling on the ground. I overheard our waitress say to an older couple who had just walked in, “Someone is in your booth.”

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Photo by Ben Husmann

She nodded in our direction. Unknowingly we had occupied “their” booth. Aware of how territorial old people can be about booths, I stiffened. The couple sat down near us, and then the husband began to silently watch us.

“Whatever,” I said to myself and then became distracted with the blue crayon my youngest was chewing.

The old folks ate swiftly and left. My children were covered in syrup, so I asked for the check.

“It’s been taken care of,” the waitress said and nodded to the booth where the couple had been sitting. I had spent the better part of my twenties—a time before back flab and pregnancy-induced skin tags—in Mission District bars and no stranger had ever picked up my tab. I asked the waitress to mind my sons while I ran into the rain to thank the Samaritans, but they were gone.

“What was that all about?” I asked her when I returned. She smiled in a certain way. Like the way you smile when you assume you’re in the company of your own kind.

It was really early; I was alone with my kids; I don’t have a wedding ring. Of course the couple—and the waitress—thought I was a single mom, which I’m not.

At this point, I became aware that silence was a form of deception and what I should say was, “What a goddamn nice gesture. It’s been a rough week because my boyfriend (super strong emphasis) is away with his sick father.”

Why did I lie by omission? Because there was something shamefully thrilling about passing as a single mom, who as everyone knows is society’s toughest of the tough.

I asked about her life. Her shift had started at 6 a.m., so she had to wake both her kids at 5:30. Then they went back to sleep on the babysitter’s couch. “Not so bad,” she said.

She had parted ways with her kids at the crack of dawn, and the suspenders on her diner uniform were pushing her boobs out to either side. But she wasn’t complaining.

I complain. For what? Not only do I have a partner, but he’s of the best stock, scooping baby poop out of the bath drain, telling me he wants me, working his ass off. I have my mom who not only watches our baby once a week but also lugs the recycling to the curb. I have the hardest working nanny in the North Bay. The list goes on.

After our first son was born, neither for the love of Christ nor money could Scott and I stop playing the who-has-it-harder game. Thankfully we’ve let that go.

But in my mind, I’m still a contestant with other moms. Why? Because Scott works nights? Because I have two boys? Because my kids are less than two years apart in age? Because all my friends live at least an hour away?

It’s not sympathy I’m after. Just acknowledgement: What you’re doing is hard. But does anything I’m doing even qualify as hard? Some people handle hard better than others. I’m ashamed that I’m not one of them.

I left the restaurant with the waitress still under the impression that we were in the good fight together.

Several months later, I returned to the diner with my family. Scott and the boys were there, as was my dad and his wife. I was telling them the story and getting close to the climax – “they picked up our bill” – when the same waitress came to take our order.

She acknowledged me. And then she scanned the full table, took in my reality, pursed her lips, and poured the coffee.

***

Jennifer Liss enjoys writing about life in the great parched state of California. She lives in Napa with her boyfriend and two young sons. She makes her living as an education and curriculum writer.

Two big announcements

You may have already connected the dots: the exhaustion, the infrequent posts, the hamburger eating and overwhelm.

I’m pregnant.

This was a deliberate impregnation of the lightning fast variety.

I got the news after 10 days of systematic pregnancy tests. Every day I got a negative, I would mentally scream “Liar!” at the benign looking single-striped stick and drop it in the trash. I had been exhausted in that basement-floor-dropping-out-from-below-you kind of way, and I had also intuited that if we opened the door to this second baby, that he or she would come rushing in.

Confirmation of my pregnancy came right on the heels of a night out I had with the doula who supported us through J’s birth. I asked her at the bar over our beers, “If I’m 37 days after the first day of my period and I’m still getting negative pregnancy tests, I’m probably not pregnant, right?” She said that no, I probably wasn’t and so we proceeded, among other things, to go outside and share a cigarette. Two days later, I was chatting with A about this and was saying something to the effect of, “Now that we know I’m probably not pregnant, let’s talk about this whole idea again. After this first month, and thinking that I was pregnant, it kinda freaked me out to have it happen so soon, and I’m wondering if we should delay things a bit. How do you feel about the whole baby #2 thing?” As I was saying these words, I was somewhat absent-mindedly taking a pregnancy test, since doing so had become as routine as brushing my teeth.

While A was answering me with his typical response in times like these (and at most times, really) the “I feel pretty much the same way I have for quite a while” response, I saw that second purple line fill in.

I felt vindicated. I laughed. I was terrified. I swore a lot. And after A left for work, quite dazed and twitter-painted, I sat and stared into space with something between an elated and crazed look on my face. And I kept swearing. A lot.

That was week 4. I’m now 11 weeks. The swearing has lessened. The complex array of feelings has not. It’s been really hard for me to share the feelings I’ve been having around this pregnancy both because they’re socially unpopular and because I’m uncomfortable with some of them. But a couple of weeks ago, I felt some clarity during a post-toddler-bedtime online chat with a friend from childhood, JS.

JS: does J know he’s getting a baby yet?

Me: J does know.
he thinks its a girl and he doesn’t want a baby in the house.
somewhat representative of my thoughts too.

JS: ha!

Me: its been hard.
i’ve just felt sort of passionless about it.
which makes me feel sad.
and we all know how much it sucks to feel bad about your own feelings.

JS: but that’s legit too.

Me: and then sometimes i get scared.

JS: lots to feel all at once!

Me: it can feel like this big lid clamping down on my life.

JS: oh shit that’s heavy

Me: to be quite real about it, i’ve felt more negative emotions than positive thus far.
and that’s just the truth.

JS: amen

Me: and here i am. still pregnant. moving forward.
thanks for being a gal who digs the truth.
i haven’t really said that to anyone.

JS: hang in there, friend. at least you’re not trying to pretend it’s otherwise right now.

Me: RIGHT NOW i’m not.

JS: honored!

Me: but its hard when i tell people the news and its all CONGRATULATIONS blah blah

JS: yeah, feels out of sync, right?

Me: totally. just on some other plane.

JS: I hear you, lady. and it’s all the right way to feel. all of itMe: nice.
thanks yo.
that is the hardest part.
oh lord…J is in his room saying “hush little baby don’t you cry”

JS: awwww
look out!

Me: hardest part: judging my feelings for being wrong.
i think i just didn’t expect to feel this way.
and it worries me that the feelings mean that i shouldn’t have done/do it.

JS: hmmm…I could see that. you guys didn’t have much time to get used to the idea of trying again before it happened…could still be catching up with all that processing, yeah?

Me: yeah. i think so.
and just saying it out loud, i know that the feelings don’t mean that i shouldn’t do it.
they’re kinda separate.
i want to do it. i’m inspired by it AND i’m also scared and overwhelmed and tired.

So, there you have it, big announcement number one, in all of its awkward glory. As for big announcement number two? I actually think I’m too tuckered out to go into that now. But after a night of out-like-she’s-dead, crazy-dream sleep and some uninspired snacks eaten over a foundation of nausea, I’ll shore up enough energy to let *that* cat out of the bag. It’s a good one, so stay tuned.

The revolution begins: your not-so-perfect moment photos!

I had to share a few of the great photos that you, dear readers, have been sharing on my Facebook page this week in response to my photographic challenge. The challenge, in short, was to take a picture of one of the not-so-perfect moments in your life–feeling bored in traffic, scrubbing dirty diapers late at night, celebrating the end of a big day in the midst of a messy living room. The only real constraint: you can’t clean it up all perfect and squeaky clean. No tidying beforehand or fixing hair or making things look any different than they just are.

Without further ado:

Here is a nice photo of my daughter mid-fit
I took this trying to stop a crying fit with the power of the iPhone.
My photo revolution. It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I am still in my pajamas. D would rather be doing something else.
Here’s “I don’t know what’s on the counter or if I’d even like it, but I’m gonna stand here and scream till you give it to me” (aka “why didn’t you put me to bed 15 minutes ago?”)
Here is a neither good nor bad moment that occurs many times a day every day.

I have been overjoyed from the tips of my dirty toes to the top of my frizzy head by all of your photos. Thank you. Thank you.

p.s. I’ll keep collecting and posting these, so keep sharing away over on the old Facebook.

A photographic challenge: capture and share a less-than-perfect moment

I’ve been thinking about this photo for a long time.

photo by Jessica Todd Harper

And this one too:

Another beauty from Jessica Todd Harper.

Both were part of this NYT article that a friend recommended after reading my first video blog post. I loved the article for the counterpoint it offered to the “Don’t you just love every minute?” comments that people kept flinging at me when I was out and about with my infant son.

I was so inspired by the photographs that I took one of my own.

It was such a relief to capture a moment simply as it was. It wasn’t begging to be captured, it didn’t show my son in all of his perfect, chubby glory. It didn’t make me look particularly competent or satisfied. I tried to show the moment how it was. From what I remember, I was tired. A little bit bored. And trying to pass the time.

Then last week my friend M sent me this blog post written by a mom of 2 who talks about all of the things you don’t see in the photos of her family life that she posts on Instagram. She tends not to post images of marital spats, colicky infants at 3 a.m. and the like. Of course she doesn’t post that stuff. Most of us don’t. After all, who would want to see that?

I would, for one. And I don’t think I’m alone.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t relish the idea of wading through a ton of photos of screaming children or exhausted parents in dimly lit bedrooms strewn with diapers. But something in me does tire, after a while, of seeing everyone’s perfect pictures of their lives with their children, and, for that matter, my own. The part of me that gets tired of all that perfection is the same part that wonders if everyone else’s life is just a little bit (or a lot) happier, tidier and more successful than mine. It’s the same part that breathes a huge sigh of relief when someone I know tells me about her depression or his failed marriage or her crippling jealousy. That part of me needs to connect with the realness in other people, the darker, messier reality that doesn’t make the cut for Facebook.

This ties into the reason I started blogging in the first place: I feel a responsibility to be honest about my actual, lived experience of parenthood, so that other parents and future parents might feel a little less alone and weird when they’re having a less-than-savory time. And this applies to any aspect of life, really, but I’ve found that our culture’s reverence for family life and unrealistic, filtered portrayals of it to be particularly isolating. The stories we hear and images we see of young families help us form our expectations of parenthood (that later come crashing down…or soar up, perhaps, but that wasn’t my experience) and drive the way we connect with other parents one we join the fold. They help to define what we talk with other people about and what we don’t. What we ask others about and what we think we shouldn’t.

And images, I think, are particularly powerful because they can sink in so quickly. Every one of us, if asked, can instantly bring a long string photos to mind when we think of the word parenthood. A mother lying in the grass, holding her smiling baby up into a perfectly blue sky. A father asleep, newborn baby curled up in his beefy arms. The latest, greatest photo-journalistic rendering of a family of four, wearing jeans, on a walk in a leaf-strewn park, laughing with each other. I like pictures like these. I have some. I want that photo-journalism one.

But I want the colicky infant too. And the sink full of dirty dishes. And the site of 2 frayed moms sitting on their couch, celebrating their son’s decent into a nap by watching crappy tv.

So, I’d like to invite you to take a picture in the next week when you normally wouldn’t take one. To capture a moment that isn’t perfect. See what it feels like to show it how it really is. Without checking your hair or wiping down the kitchen counter. Then, if you’re inspired, I’d be tickled pink if you would share your photo on my Facebook page. Maybe we can start a little photo revolution.

***

If you liked this post and are feeling bold and decisive, please subscribe. I’ve got more where this came from.

Why I take my brain out for dinner. And what we talk about. And what we eat.

Over the past few years, I’ve developed an increasingly intimate relationship with my brain.

Thanks to my friend D, who introduces me to at least half of the things I love the most in the world, I started going to meditation and dharma talks led by this guy. The practice of just sitting with my often frenetic brain for 40 minutes every Thursday was sometimes a refuge and sometimes completely infuriating, but it served the function of sitting down over a nice, lingering dinner with my brain on a weekly basis.

A dinner my brain and I enjoyed recently: Cuban Chicken Salad w/ Garbanzos. Brains really like protein.
More about that later.

We’ve gotten to know each other pretty well. And I now understand that my brain does what all brains do. It thinks. A lot. Unceasingly at times. Just like hearts are completely obsessive compulsive about pumping blood, brains are like hyper OCD versions of that one friend you have who needs to discuss everything, all the time.

My weekly meditation pretty much went the way of the dodo as soon as J was born. Much like my relationship with my partner A, my brain and I had a nice solid foundation to draw on in those first soaring and, well, shocking post-partum months. And, much like my relationship with A, the groovy connection I’d developed with my brain started to flail and falter pretty quickly after J was born. And ever since, we’ve been scrambling towards recovery.

The Zoloft certainly helped, as did J growing into a person who sleeps more and has more predictable, human-like behaviors. And, as I’ve discussed, I’ve been trying in the last year to reach a nice, steady, and dare I say optimistic place with my post-partum brain.

Enter: Brain books.

They’ve taught me that I didn’t know my brain as well as I thought I did.

One of them was tucked in the bed side table of the house where we stayed while on vacation in my Colorado hometown. (We managed to sort out a house swap during our time there, which was awesome.)

I’d been meaning to read the book ever since I heard Taylor’s TED talk (which is, coincidentally, the second most-viewed TED talk of all time) and BOOM, there it was, begging to be read. Taylor describes her experience of a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain, and her stroke of insight, as it were, is that once her left brain shuts down, her right brain floats into a sort of timeless, peaceful bliss.

So I’ve developed this image of my left brain, all numbers and science and words–a stern accountant sitting at a perfectly organized desk, making sure every ‘i’ is dotted and ‘t’ is crossed. And right hemisphere, a buddha-like child, giddy with the sensory input of the present moment and happy to sit dangling her toes in the stream and feeling the warmth of the sun. Maybe it’s not necessarily a matter of seeking peace, but rather tapping into that right brain that’s already there (and perhaps tying up and gagging my left brain).

Since we got home from Colorado, I’ve been reading this:

It’s been a game changer for sure. The biggest revelation so far: there are a lot of other mood issues other than depression that are associated with having low amounts of serotonin in your brain.

  • low self esteem
  • obsessive behaviors
  • controlling behaviors
  • false fear in the form of shyness, anxiety or panic
  • perfectionism

Reading that list, while an unnerving indictment of my life for the last 6 months, has been deeply liberating. So maybe it’s not just that I’m one of those perfectionist types, but this could actually have something to do with my brain chemistry. And more than just feeling liberated by an idea, I’ve been actually feeling better. My mood is improved.

As the book recommends, I’ve been paying more attention to my diet, and focusing more on good mood foods–fish, poultry, eggs, lamb, beef, pork, Pippa milk, veggies, fruits, legumes, whole grains, butter, coconut milk, olive oil. And having less of a love affair with bad mood food: sugar, white flour, wheat, and soy. I’ve also been paying more attention to my daily mood cycles. Ross says that it’s very common to have a serotonin dip in the afternoon, which is why we often crave sweet snacks and caffeine and alcohol in the afternoon–to prop up our mood.  So I started taking my Zoloft around noon–instead of before bed as I had been doing.

And shazzam. My mood is improved. My brain seems to like this new turn of events. And it’s better company during those long, get-to-know-you dinners.

Before this starts to sound like some hopped up infomercial, let me please just say that my main motivation in writing this is:

  1. To celebrate.
  2. To share–in the hopes that you’ll find it helpful for you or some anxious, OCD perfectionist you love.

I just honestly never knew so much about my brain before. And I feel a lot more fondness, interest, and compassion. And less like wanting to exchange mine for a new one.

Asking for help is the best: why my friends should be motivational speakers

Well, I’ve been having a serious inertia problem over here, folks. I even looked up inertia to make sure that’s what I meant, and it is—the resistance of any physical object to a change in its state of motion or rest.

When I sit down, I want to sit forever. If I’m in bed, that’s where I’d like to spend the rest of my days. When I’m at dance class, it’s all I want to do.

But let me not give you the wrong impression: most of the time, I experience the inertia issue when I am in a state of rest. And most of the time, I’m not resting luxuriously or particularly well. I’m on the couch, looking at Facebook. Or I’m sleeping while Jonah watches Dora. Or I’m staring off into space while J squishes green playdough through our garlic press and hums Puff the Magic Dragon.

I’ve been avoiding things. Namely:

  • Looking earnestly for the part-time freelance video editing gig of my dreams.
  • Cleaning that last pile of random crap off the dining room table/desk.
  • This blog.

I tell myself that tomorrow it’ll feel better, more do-able, and then the next day, I’m weighed down by the same feeling of meh-ness when faced with these various tasks.

For the last few days, I’ve been admitting to myself that my whole depression thing probably has something to do with it. And admitting that has me scared. Because it’s summer time. Because I’m no longer the exhausted parent of a completely erratic infant. Things are pretty good right now. And if I’m still depressed, then that means I’m a depressed person, rather than a person in a particular situation which has brought on depression.

Luckily, I had a stroke of genius today. After A took J to daycare and I had my 3 hours of sweet, sweet freedom, I decided to make some phone calls. Rather than sinking into the whole resting inertia thing, I actually voluntarily changed my state of motion. I washed dishes and did laundry and called my friends.

FRIENDS. What a revelation.

Arm In Arm by Gail Dedrick

The first one I talked to was S. Calm, earnest, pregnant S whose husband was on a walk with her 2-year-old daughter, which meant that we had nearly 40 minutes of uninterrupted talking time. When I gushed all my worries out to her–in particular, my fear about being depressed even in the midst of very little stress–she burst the situation wide open with this: “Well, actually sounds like you’ve got a lot of stressful stuff going on right now.”

Touché.

We *are* facing a huge rent increase in the next several months. And we *do* have a lot of uncertainty right now in terms of our incomes. So our home and money situations are both totally up in the air. That does sound stressful.

And in terms of the little work tasks I’ve been avoiding, S offered this pearl of wisdom: “Sounds like you just need to do it.”

Sigh.

So I did.

After this whole exchange and hearing about S’s latest travails with her toddler and impending move, I just felt one thing.

Better.

Then, up stepped L, friend #2 in this delightful turnaround of a day. She called, asking if I wanted her to stop by in a few hours. Yes, I did. Even though her timing was going to be smack in the middle of J’s nap when I could get some work done, I thought that hanging with her might actually enable me to feel more whole and productive. I was right.

When I got home from picking J up at daycare, L was already here, waiting. I love it that she just lets herself into our back door if no one is home. She reminded me, just by hanging out on the couch and talking and eating chips, of the lightness and ease that still exists in my life, even amidst all the uncertainty.

This photographic delight from an old college friend: Lindsay Brooke Photography.
(did you know that if grass is wet that bubbles will stick to it like this? it’s a small miracle)

Enter: friend #3. I met up with R for a walk after our kiddos woke up from their naps. I filled her in on the day’s discoveries while we pounded the pavement and pushed our strollers.

By this time, I was starting to feel almost normal.

And then R said, “I love it that you called me and asked for what you needed.” This thrilled me because: a) I actually had the presence of mind to ask a good friend for what I needed, and b) she liked it–nay, loved it–that I asked her.

Isn’t it ludicrous that I have to learn these things over and over and over again? Like that I have a lot of amazing friends and that it’s actually a good idea to call them instead of building an isolated tower of guilt and shame? Or that instead of feeling put upon, my friends actually like it when I call them to talk about my problems?

With results like these, why do I have this deep, dark, moldy fear of reaching out for the people that care about me when I feel crappy? Well, for one, I’m afraid of being rejected. And I’m also ashamed that I have wholly slovenly, unproductive, depressing days. Yet when someone I love (or any person, really) confides in me about their darker, messier parts, my whole self heaves a huge sigh of relief.

We all have parts of our lives that feel shameful. We all get isolated in our own little mental horror stories.

So let us all now take an enormous, collective sigh.

How our relationship was swallowed whole by a baby

A and I just celebrated our 7th wedding anniversary this week.

(Yep. Still obsessed with faceless wedding photos.)

We have this little ritual on our anniversary of writing down our best and worst times from the past year and our goals for the coming months. While we were out to dinner (what a JOY it is to dine with no one other than your adult partner at 7pm on a balmy Monday evening) I plopped the little leather-bound journal where we’ve jotted this stuff onto the table, and we had a look at years gone by.

We really like creating abbreviated versions of words that don’t have any. Like “anny.” It’s just so exhausting and common to say anniversary. We are such hipsters.

Here are the pages for anny 5 and anny 6, our first two as parents.

Hello, salient metaphor for how having a child has changed our relationship.

If anything, these first years of parenthood have impressed upon me the finiteness of things. Time. Energy. Sleep. Patience. And I won’t lie—it’s definitely done a number on our relationship. I can confidently say now, 2 years in, that we’re finding more moments to connect in that lingering and nostalgic way we used to before J came on the scene. It feels like dusting off the words of a language we used to speak fluently—we have to work harder now to remember how to say certain things, but it’s sweet and confirming to feel our mouths form the words again.

As we lingered over our bottle of rosé, we couldn’t help but notice the goals we had listed for our 4th anniversary—when I was 6 months pregnant with J.

Such innocent ambition: social time, couple time, alone time, “not swallowed whole by baby.” Oh! and don’t forget exercise.

It really put those two blank years in the book into perspective. I think it’s taken us 2 years to get back to the place where those goals even make sense again.

Our hopes and dreams for this year?

“See 4th anniversary goals.”

Happy Mother's Day from a 2-and-a-half-year-old mom

Living things change. They adapt and grow and die. Trees leaf out, snakes molt, babies grow up into frat boys. It just happens.

Aren’t you glad I picked this picture instead of one of a frat boy?

So why is it I thought the moment I had a baby that I would be a full-grown mother?

It came to me a few months ago when I was talking with an adoptive mother at the park. She brought home her baby boy 4 months ago, and he was now a year and a half old. “It’s been hard to relate to the other moms with kids his age because we’re just hitting the 4 month mark of having a kid,” she said. Without even thinking, I said, “Yeah, I mean, he’s an 18-month-old baby and you’re a 4-month-old mom.”

That means I’m a 2-and-a-half-year-old mom. And back when I was wondering if I would ever feel like a “natural mother,” I was a 3-week-old mom. A newborn. I was 4 months old when I was white-knuckling through my exhaustion, anxiety and depression.

My maternal grandmother, who we called Dee Dee, was most definitely a full grown mother when I knew her. Since she had a son and a daughter who were 61 and 59 when she died, I’d say she grew to the ripe old mom age of 120.

Thinking about my mom age this way makes me feel better. It helps me have more compassion for myself in those first few disorienting months. Things often felt wobbly and strange. Am I doing this right? Is it supposed to feel this way? We don’t expect newborn babes to come out of the womb quoting Shakespeare. So why do we expect the equivalent of ourselves as mothers?

And here’s my dear friend E. Who will become a 2-year-old mom this August and give birth to kiddo #2, growing her mom age by leaps and bounds ahead of mine.

So for my Mother’s Day gift to myself and to all of you, I’d like to let us all be the mom age that we are.

For a mom in her toddler years, I feel like I’m doing okay. I don’t have everything down to a science, like my 7-year-old mom friends, but I’m starting to have fewer tantrums.

How old of a mom are you? Or if you’re not a mom yourself, how old of a mother is the mom that you’re closest to? Does thinking about mothers in terms of their mom age change how you feel or think about motherhood?

What becoming a mother looks like for T at 3 weeks post-partum

Remember the video I posted of my conversation with T when she was 38 weeks (roughly 9 months) pregnant? Well, here she is a month after we had that first talk–3 weeks after giving birth to her baby boy.

I love her willingness to share and how she captures that kind of floaty, coming-back-down-to-earth feeling that I remember from my first few weeks after J was born. Even at more than 2.5 years post-partum, I still feel the challenge that T talks about: to “connect my life before with this new life.”

How are you managing with that epic challenge?