Saturday, July 26, 2014
The below piece was written for Huffington Post Parents in honor of World Breastfeeding Week, August 1-7.
I don't know you, yet day after day we shared an intimate experience. Divided by only a thin beige hospital curtain on a rod, as new mothers we were united by a desire to protect, nurture, and care for our children.
There we were, just days into our role, and amazingly our hearts already understood how to feel the depths of emotion that accompany this title. Prior to having a child, that range of concern and pride was unchartered territory for me. Now my heart was swelling with a redefined love guided not by a class or book, rather by the same instinct that could cause my breasts to produce milk. The emotions providing fuel for the soul and the milk nourishment for a baby that was inside of me just days ago, but now lay hooked up to monitors and tubes in a temperature controlled isolette down the hallway.
Newly inducted into the club of motherhood, we were quite certainly paying our dues, you and I. We spent our afternoons together in a lactation room attached to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in a hospital in Northern Virginia. Inside this room industrial grade pumps were neatly organized into stations. Each station contained a chair, small side table and curtains hung on a rod that could be pulled to create privacy. The room was sparse with an air of efficiency.
Outside of this space, the cold January air swirled around the nation's capital and the Washington DC area was alive with excitement. A presidential election year had just kicked off and results were being reported from an important land far away called Iowa.
I don't know what your opinions were on the politics or events that were unfolding that month. In that moment and that stage, nothing on the outside world mattered. At this critical juncture it was just me, my baby...and you and the machines that were hooked up to us both that set the rhythm of my days.
Frankly, at that time I resented you and your presence. You represented a place I did not want to be and an experience I did not want to be having. I did not want to be sharing this sacred time with you or these machines. Just a few weeks after having a baby, my expectation was to be snuggling with a newborn in the warmth of my home.
That vision seemed like only a far away wish at this point. Instead my reality was that my child had been rushed into emergency surgery to repair his twisted intestines when he was just 3 days old. In the short time prior to his surgery, I held him, snuggled him and watched him take to breastfeeding in a way that was immediate and natural to us both. Skin to skin, mother to child, I felt my uterus contract and my thoughts relax as this precious child and I met eyes and I gently stroked his head.
During pregnancy I took a nursing class but maintained that while I hoped to breastfeed, I would take the route that presented itself. I had been warned that with pregnancy, delivery, and nursing it was best to keep yourself flexible. And I had rationally abided by that advice and kept my emotions in check when several hours into a non-progressing labor it was recommended that that baby come out via C-section. Dutifully I accepted the change in plans and laughed that this was what parenthood was all about. But even with all of the effort to go with the flow, I could have never been prepared to be in the place where we were right now.
Now as I sat hooked up to the suckling machine I was angry! Breastfeeding my baby felt like a distant memory, or rather a gift that had been ripped away as soon as I began to open it and discover its beauty.
Memories of breastfeeding my son illuminated a physical bond and continued the connection I had shared with him over the last nine months in pregnancy. While it was a new sensation that had only been mine for a few days, it was now something I yearned for and craved in a way that was only pronounced by the fact that I could not yet safely hold my child post-operation. In fact, I didn't know then if he would ever be able to drink the milk I was collecting. At this time, his stomach was still being pumped and he was being fed via tube through a central line. I was told that when I was granted access to my child, I would have to wash my hands at a minimum of 3 minutes before I could hold him. This seemed like such a harsh reality when just days earlier he had been inside of me, connected to me and kicking when I drank orange juice or ate a big breakfast.
I felt so sad being physically detached from the very child that had spent the past forty weeks growing inside of me and for whom I had already made countless sacrifices. What I didn't recognize at the time is that the act of pumping milk for my child was one of my first acts of parenthood. Not only was it important, it felt like one small thing I could do to control what was otherwise a chaotic situation. I irrationally believed that with each pumping session I was somehow helping my child to heal. So I stayed dedicated to my schedule and logged many hours in this room, so did you.
Spending my afternoons with you and the hum of our pumping machines was definitely not the plan. I'm guessing this isn't exactly what you had in mind either. Now that I've spent many months nursing three children and have no remaining sense of modesty, I wish I would have pulled the beige curtain aside, offered you a smile and learned more about what exactly your plan was. We could have been like the women in the book "The Red Tent" and sat together and nursed, sharing stories of our children's birth and concerns over their conditions. We could have laughed together and cried together. But instead my rookie status combined with a modesty of both immaturity and profession led me to follow the tone set by the starkness and cold feeling of the room. I stayed within my station, hooked to my machine.
So I never even saw your face, but I saw the way your toes curled up to brace yourself as the machine kicked into action. And although your feet were beautifully dark with natural nails and mine were dry, cracked and light with nails painted pink, our toes curled in the same way for the same reason; an initial pinch worthy of a cringe followed by a releasing sensation and what I now know to call 'let down'.
As the pump took my child's milk, I saw the hem of your long gown with its ornate patterns sweep under the plain beige curtain. And between my own quiet tears of worry and disappointment, I heard the music you played in your station. It seemed to be set to a tune that would initiate relaxation, but was in a language I didn't understand.
And in the most intimate of statements, I will offer that while I never even heard your voice, I know the scent of your milk.
Yet within the NICU I never recognized you. But then again, that was the unspoken rule of our unit wasn't it? Do not observe the parents or babies around you or offer anything other than a slight compassionate smile to one another.
While I never spoke to you or even met your eyes, I think of you often. Your presence is now a concrete part of a significant and sacred memory. It is one of those unique times that I have a hard time knowing how to preserve or shape in my mind, let alone describe with words. It was a scary time and a special time, a warm time and an intense time for me, as it most certainly was for you.
Now and then you were in my thoughts. During those days I would think of you at home after we had left our babies in the safe hands of nurses overnight. In my bed, hooked up to the suckling pump again, between the rhythmic patterns of sound, I'd wonder if you had a partner like mine who stayed up to disinfect the bottles and tubes every two hours. I hoped that you did.
Although I had never heard you speak, I thought of you as I phoned my son's nurses and received updates. Often the various medical explanations and tools would make me feel as if I was learning a new language and I wondered if you felt reassured by their words. I hoped that you did.
And mostly I thought about your son or daughter. I didn't know if you had birthed one child or more. I was unaware of the circumstances that brought you to those pumps in the NICU lactation room but I presumed that your little one could use some prayers of strength and healing, just as you could just some prayers for peace. And so I hoped these things for you and your child.
And ten years later I think of you and your child still. I hope your child is just as much of a pest as mine and that he or she loves school and running bare foot in the grass. Mine just lost his last baby tooth and I'm taking him to an orthodontist soon...can you believe it? I wonder how many hours you've logged on sports sidelines in the last decade and if you're just as nervous about tween hood as I am!
These are all simple and wonderful concerns to fill the space in the worry chamber of my heart which is now well seasoned a decade into motherhood. I hope these same relatively minor worries are what fills your heart because I know that at one time the weight you felt was more intense.
Most importantly, I hope that you child or children were discharged from the NICU after a relatively short stay as mine was. And I hope that the machine connected to your breast was replaced with a child in your arms. Because whether by bottle or by breast, from a mother's milk or from a carefully prepared formula, to nourish our babies is one of the first acts of love that a parent gives to a child.
To the woman in the NICU lactation room, my fellow mother; I'll never meet you, but I know you because I know that you too understand just what a privilege the gift of parenthood is. And I hope that you're enjoying it as much as I am.
Sunday, June 15, 2014
Earlier this spring I learned about these wonderful boxes called "Little Free Library" popping up around the country. These boxes can be found in neighborhoods and communities and are filled with books for people to take and share. Encouraging people to "take a book and give a book", this movement was started by a Wisconsin man as a tribute to his mother, a teacher with a love of books.
I loved the idea of community and sharing a love of reading and immediately thought that our summer cottage neighborhood would be the perfect place for a Little Free Library so friends could swap beach books. I emailed the website to my father along with blue prints that I found online and asked if he'd make one. In his retirement, my dad fancies himself a woodworker. He responded that he'd get right on it!
Over the last few months he's been working away on the library, figuring out how to make it water proof and mountable. It has become a bit of a family affair as my mom helped find the right hinges, and my brother helped figure out the roof angle. My husband worked with the neighborhood association to get approval. Our kids picked out some starter books, and I registered the library with the organization. My dad recruited a friend, his college buddy, to help install it.
Today was installation day and as I helped "supervise" these two not only was I amused with their banter, but I was reminded of five values that my dad has taught me to foster, nurture, and grow:
1. FamilyMy dad took the time to build this library because I, his daughter, asked. And because he knows that his grand kids will enjoy it and learn from it. My dad takes the time to give of himself to his family, his kids, his parents, siblings and extended family.
2. FriendsMy dad has been friends with the man who helped him today for almost fifty years. They were college fraternity brothers and while they live hundreds of miles apart, they remain close friends. As a kid I remember family roadtrips to visit these friends. Growing up in Ohio, their Virginia house seemed exotic and they had a cat! I desperately wanted a cat. As they put in the library today, I reminded them about how badly I wanted a cat as a kid and they told stories of helping each other build patios in their first houses, or swingsets for their kids. They worked together to guide the drill or level posts and tease each other with the familiarity of decades of frirndship.My dad is great at being a friend to others and has many. There's a group of guys who take golfing trips together, couples who my mom and he go out to dinner with, friends who mow the church lawn with him and college buddies who 50 years later help install a beachside Little Free Library.
3. CommunityThe Little Free Library is right down my dad's alley because it promotes community. My dad taught me to embrace neighbors helping neighbors and to lend a hand. He's involved in many volunteer organization and he is the friendliest person I know, hands down. He'll strike up a conversation with anyone, anytime.
4. HealthDuring the installation today my dad and his pal swapped numbers from their pedometers comparing how many steps each had walked so far today. Not only is my dad's physical health good, so is his mental health. He's always had many hobbies and interests, including a woodworking hobby which sure came in handy to build the library. In thirty years when I'm flirting with my 70th year, I hope to be as active and interested as he is.
5. CuriosityThe quality that I am most appreciative to have been taught by my dad is a sense of curiosity. Curiosity is at the core motivator for every decision every day and what I most hope to grow in my own children.
Curiosity is what drove me to learn more about the Little Free Library organization. And it's why my dad enjoyed the challenge of building the library. Curiosity is why we enjoy books, travels and stories from people we meet.
Curiosity is an interest in things around you, people around you and places around you. It's learning something new everyday and actively engaging in the life that you've been given.
Curiosity is a gift to yourself and others, and it's one if the many things that I'm thankful that my dad gives to me.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Seattle's Kerry Park is half way down the south slope of Queen Anne. Overlooking a playground and nestled between charming hillside homes, the space has just a few park benches and a statue called "Changing Form". It is a small park, yet boasts a majestic view.
Several years ago, my husband and I happened to be driving by and with the sun setting, made a quick decision to pull over and take a look. We could see the city, the mountains and surrounding waters. In a town that has more overcast days than not, we were granted a rare evening with a view that was both stunning, and crystal clear.
Although at that time, our future was far from crystal clear and we were in the midst of our own metamorphosis and changing form. Half way down the slope, or half way up the hill? We were existing in some sort of half way space ourselves. Breathing enough to be alive, but yet not fully engaged in life. We were were playing the part of happy tourists, but beyond the role, we were so very far from happy. Our souls had been crushed and our hearts broken.
Just four months earlier, without expectation or explanation, our daughter had been born still thirty-eight and a half weeks into what had been a perfectly normal pregnancy. On this June evening, I was still in the throws of a physical and emotional transformation.
Physically, my body had the markings of a woman who had just gone through a pregnancy and delivery. These postpartum symptoms were both a cruel joke and treasured testament. My skin was newly adorned with stretch marks, my stomach squishy, my thighs full and my hair falling out. But without our baby in my arms, my body boar the only physical proof of our daughter's existence. I believed that my body had done what nature intended it to do, and labored, pushed and delivered a tragically unnatural result: a silent and still baby.
The death of a child is a significant loss, but it is especially brutal when it is done at the same time you are preparing to meet your child. So emotionally we were barely staying afloat and washed up in a wave of grief. The simple act of taking a shower in the morning required a great deal of energy and could deplete us for the day. We had lost our footing and now couldn’t find the appropriate lens from which to view a world that was forever changed.
In an attempt to escape the pain and darkness that surrounded us in our hometown of Chicago, my husband and I decided to take trip. Just the planning of this getaway might give us something to look forward to and provide us with an alternative point of focus. We needed a total change of scenery, to run as far away as we could from the flat surroundings of the Midwest and remove ourselves from every single person other than each other. As the parents of our baby, we were the only ones who shared the depths of love for our child and could come close to understanding the grief of the other.
So we got on a plane, indulged in some inflight cocktails and landed in San Francisco. From there, we drove up the West Coast to Seattle through Eureka, California and Bandon, Oregon. For days, we weaved and climbed our way up Highway 101. Along cliffs and through forests, beaches and towns, we steadily progressed. At one point the GPS even lost track of us and placed us not on land, but smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Somehow seeing the image of us as a tiny dot, slowing advancing forward, yet in the middle of a giant blue graphic, felt freeing in a strange sort of way.
In the Northwest corner of the United States, Seattle felt like the farthest point that we could run away from a haunting darkness. But sitting on the park bench in Kerry Park, it became clear that this wasn't something we could run away from. While I had done my loud, angry, sobbing cries over the previous months back in Chicago, sitting in Seattle on that night a slow and steady stream of tears quietly made their way down my cheek. The tears were turned on by a sound of summer. In the park on a lovely evening, these sounds were all around us, yet it was one sound in particular which seemed to drown out all others. This was the sound of delighted children laughing and giggling as they played on the playground. This was the sound of happiness.
Until that moment, happiness was foreign to me. It was a long lost emotion that I hadn't felt in months. But as the sounds of the delighted children pierced straight to my heart reminding me of what I had lost, I was able to process something else. It was fleeting, but present. Even if I wasn't yet able to feel it, I was able to recognize it and a shift began to happen. Happiness was present in the sound of the playing children, I wanted happiness.
With this recognition I could now resolve to move forward, and allow myself to take the journey back towards happiness. Hundreds of miles from where we had said goodbye to our baby girl, I could allow myself to say good bye to the dream of our baby girl. I knew I would carry her with me always, but now I could move forward. We had been stuck half way down the slope, but could now start our climb up the hill. In that June evening, overlooking the space needle, the Olympic Peninsula and Elliot Bay, we watched the sun set, and instead of darkness falling, felt it begin to lighten. We decided that we would return to Chicago, and make the most courageous decision of our lives, and attempt to have more children.
Last week, nearly eight years later, my husband and I returned to that park bench. The "Changing Form" statue remained, the view was still majestic. Once again we were playing the part of happy tourists from Chicago. But this time our hearts were truly and sincerely full of happiness because on that park bench sat the three lights of our lives, our three living children. They were bickering and laughing, shoving and hugging as they providing the sounds of summer. As I saw them sitting there, I looked out over the landscape and I knew that my view was indeed, crystal clear.
It was Mother's Day weekend and I needed to be in that space, with those people. They are my family, they are my heart and they are my soul. Because even before they were born, the promise of their existence provided me with the courage to move forward out of the darkness and back toward happiness.
Bravery was necessary during last week's trip because I was attending my first book signing and reading of a piece I wrote about our stillborn daughter and her role in our family called, "Our Family Love Story". The story is included in a book, "Three Minus One", and associated with the film "Return to Zero". Starring Minnie Driver and Paul Adelstein, "Return To Zero" is based on the true story of a successful couple who is getting ready for the arrival their first child when the baby dies just weeks before the due date. The film premiers on Lifetime this Saturday, May 17th, at 8PM/7PM Central.
The book and the film surround a difficult topic. Because the topic of stillbirth is so heartbreaking it can lead to a silent suffering for those going through it. Director Sean Hanish and publisher Brooke Warner are hoping to break the silence of stillbirth, giving a voice to the parents who are grieving the loss of their children so that others can know they are not alone when this happens to them.
Breaking the silence, last week in Seattle, myself and six other authors read our pieces in the book at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. We had not met before, but were instantly connected by a bond of motherhood and united because of a love of our children. In a powerfully moving afternoon we shared our stories remembering our children, Bennett, Dash, Frankie, Max, Isaiah, Annabelle and Trinity. Through our stories we were able to provide healing to one another and to others who attended the event, some who had suffered the death of a baby very recently and some many years ago. Because we were generous with our hearts and brave with our emotions, we know that the lives of our children have meaning and because of them, we have purpose.
I hope you will be brave enough to view the film this weekend, attend a reading if one is in your area and help others who might be going through the silent suffering of stillbirth.