Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Being Right Beside Them For The Rites of Passage

It hadn't dawned on me that my ten-year-old son is at the age to go to a haunted house until he was invited by a friend.  It just wasn't on my radar.  With a 10, 6 and young 4 year old in the house, I'm still adjusting to the fact that our household doesn't quiet down every afternoon for naps and that we no longer travel with diapers.

My habit is to parent to the youngest common denominator.  While the youngest of their ages is an age that was once foreign to me, it is now where my experience lies, three times over. It is my comfort zone.   Realizing this, I try to make a conscious effort to get myself unstuck from preschool mentality every now and then and process the needs and interests of my oldest child, a tween.

Remembering my own days at this age, long ago and before it was named "tween", I recalled going to haunted houses with friends.  This experience of being terrified together is sort of a rite of passage, isn't it?

So when my son was invited to a haunted house last week, I asked him if he'd like to attend and he eagerly answered yes!  We adjusted our Columbus Day weekend plans so he could go with the group of friends and a parent chaperone.  "Of course," I thought, "this is fun stuff for these boys!"  Worried that our family dynamics inadvertently hold him back, I was so glad that another family thought of a haunted house!  Geez, I would have had him cuddled up, watching It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown with his younger sisters and missing out on all of this older kid Halloween fun.

He seems to sail through the spooky stuff pretty easily so it didn't cross my mind to prepare him in any way for the adventure.  He's always putting on scary masks and terrorizing his younger sisters.  He begs me to decorate our house for Halloween with tombstones and skulls, stuff that is more scary than the fuzzy spiders and pumpkins in our yard.  He navigated his way through his first sleep-away camp this summer just fine.  He loved the campfire stories and his only complaint was that we didn't sign him up for two weeks instead of one.

In the days leading up to the haunted house trip he asked me a bit about what to expect.  Busy and hurried, I gave a casual answer that things jump out at you.  A few days later he asked if I ever went to a haunted house as a kid and again I breezily said, "oh yeah!  That's what you do at this age".  I thought about how pleased I was that he was going and proud of myself for engaging in this older kid Halloween tradition.

On the day of the big outing he put on a skeleton sweatshirt and ran around the house acting possessed and surprising his sisters.  When his friend's mom picked him up he excitedly ran out of the house before I could even say good bye and hopped into the mini-van.  Watching the car pull away into the dark, damp October night, I thought about how cute it was that he was headed out for a fun weekend night with friends while at the same time his little sisters were taking their baths and getting their bedtime stories.  Good for him, he was off on a rite of passage! And then I reflected for a brief moment that our young family was growing up in our own sort of parenting rite of passage...good for us!

An hour later the phone rang.  It was the chaperoning mom telling me how brave these boys were before she went on to say that my son got nervous during the haunted house.  Apparently, he said very clearly that he wanted to get out of there right away!  His friends were great and agreed that the mom and one of the boys would step out of the haunted house with him, while the other two continued.  They found a masked character, asked to exit and were shown a fast way out.  She put him on the phone and it was obvious that he was not just a little nervous, but had come completely undone!

Now that my mind was properly positioned in the tween stage, my first reaction was to laugh.  But I caught myself, swallowed my giggle, downshifted my mind and gingerly reassured him that it was all just pretend and that I'd see him soon.

I saw him very soon.  They didn't even stay for the haunted hayride and instead came right home.  When he got home, he ran directly to his room without making eye contact or saying hello.  I resisted the urge to run after him and instead gave him some space.  I could hear him crying upstairs while the mom and I stood on the porch comparing notes.  She unnecessarily apologized profusely and I did too.  I told her what I truly felt, that I regretted not better preparing him and I was sorry that we caused a logistical challenge for her.  I laughed that he kind of deserved to have the tables turned and the bejeebers scared out of him because he is always frightening his younger sisters.  Lastly I added that I couldn't think of a better parent or group for him to be with.  This was a socially safe bunch of friends for him to experience this with.  We all need to figure out our own boundaries and he is lucky that he figured out his boundaries with three supportive and kind friends.  He might not have made it through the haunted house, but more importantly my son learned that he has friends that he can be himself around.  Having that comfort and knowledge is more powerful than any other badge of courage!

Looking back, I should have recognized his questions in the days leading up to the haunted house for what they were:  his need for reassurance and comfort.  I could have admitted that I actually don't like haunted houses at all and I'm not sure that my husband does either.  They scared me as a kid, and they scare me as an adult.  I could have told him how I still can't watch certain movies without getting overcome and that the reason we decorate our yard with pumpkins is because the tombstones and bloody bones spook me a little too much.  I should have coached him a bit about how to handle himself if things got too scary, or given him some tactics of how to remind himself that this is all pretend.  Instead, I was so proud to have my mind firmly planted in a place where I was actually parenting to the oldest common denominator for once that I didn't think to stop and see him for what he is.

He is a ten year old boy.  Stuck somewhere between boyhood and adulthood, this kid is on the edge of being a tween and has a convincing mope and slouch to prove it.  With his lanky uncontrolled limbs, he giggles, pesters and talks a good game when he tells me what shirts look cool.  But hanging out in that between stage, he's still a ten year old boy who will steal a glance at a Disney cartoon when it is on, or who stops and (perhaps) plays a bit under the guise of introducing his sisters to his old Fisher Price GeoTrax trains in an attempt to save the toys as they are on their way out the door to be donated.

He's a ten year old boy who gave me permission to share this post about going to his first haunted house, but requested that I don't use his name.  He's a ten year old boy who I was so busy worrying about holding back, that I pushed forward without giving him any tools for his journey.

It is absolutely so important for us all to go through some necessary rites of passage as we grow up.   But it is just as important for us to know that we don't have to go through them alone.

When his rite of passage didn't go exactly accordingly to plan, this ten year old boy gave his mom some extra hugs and got his emotions back in check.  Then he snuggled up to watch Charlie Brown and his great pumpkin before admitting that what he calls his "haunted house freak out" was actually pretty funny.  The next day, this ten year old boy decided that he'd like to go back and conquer that haunted house...with his dad or I by his side.

And even though we don't like haunted houses ourselves, we will happily go with him.  Because it is both our responsibility and our privilege as parents to let him know that whether it is in person or in emotional support only, we are always right beside him, for all of his rites of passage.

Saturday, September 13, 2014


We broke it out into five steps.  It was easier to process this way. 
#1. Ovulate,
#2. Conceive,
#3.  Don’t miscarry,  
#4.  Deliver a living baby,
#5.  Bring the baby home.
 Five seemingly simple steps and one overriding mantra to keep ourselves focused on the now, “today we are pregnant and its going well.”

Tiny fingers tighten around my index finger, while the tethers around the emotions of my heart finally loosen.  No longer connected via umbilical cord, this grip continues the physical link from mother to child, but also provides the power for child to now fuel mother in the form of healing the angst and stress that I’ve carried over the past 46 months.

I was pregnant four times in 46 months and never left the hospital with a baby.

We pull away from the hospital.  Silence fills the vehicle interrupted only by the subtle clicking sound of the turn signal, visually announcing our presence to the many shoppers accessorized by their parcels, and physicians wardrobed by their white coats.  All hurriedly crossing the intersections of Streeterville as the waves of Lake Michigan and the blustery trademark of the Windy City announce the first week of November with fury.  The passerby’s bury their chins into their collars.  They have no way of knowing the warmth that is filling the interior of the mini-van next to them.  This is the mini-van that with the space to seat seven has cruelly mocked me, the mother with just one child, shuttling duel-side-sliding doors and fourteen cupholders around the suburbs.

Four days after my first pregnancy a masked surgeon firmly took my upper arms into her hands and locked eyes onto mine insisting, “you need to know that this is life-threatening.  We have to operate immediately”.  We had just learned that our newborn son had an intestinal malrotation and wanted to have him baptized prior to surgery.  She was trying to help me understand that there wasn’t time.  

We turn onto East Chicago Avenue. The sleek lines and square roof of the Museum of Contemporary Art force a contrast to the gothic spirals and gilded towers of Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.   Yet, the horizontal and the vertical work together to stand guard over the children on the playground and the runners on the track in Lake Shore Park below.  Old and new, tall and wide, there is room for both just as my own grief of the past and joy of today can co-exist and stand guard over my heart.

After his surgery our son spent a few weeks in the NICU where I would visit daily and pump in a room, separated from other nursing mothers by only a thin curtain and the sound of machines that adorned our nipples instead of suckling newborns.  Although I couldn’t hold my baby, I’d still hopefully and eagerly wash my hands for a three-minute minimum before each visit.  A few steady weeks of progress and he was discharged.  There was no fanfare, no balloons.  We obeyed the unspoken code of the NICU and quietly slipped out while saying a silent prayer for the other parents and their babies who remained. 

The turn signal chimes again as we wait to make a soft right through the cement jersey wall which always makes you question the permissibility of this turn onto Lake Shore Drive.  The road bends as the Ferris wheel from Navy Pier claims the last piece of skyline before the vastness of the lake hypnotizes the mind.  Our son, now almost four, describes the Ferris wheel as a clock.

A successful surgery left only in its wake a scar that stretched across his stomach and life-threatening food allergies that permeated our lives.  Yet the threat was haunting enough to plague my second pregnancy with concern.  Having just moved across the country, we plowed through nine months in a new place with new doctors, new jobs and new friends.  We talked with pediatricians, OBGYNs and specialists all of who assured us that this new child was just fine.    And the baby was just fine until when at thirty-eight weeks into my second pregnancy I didn’t feel the baby move.

We cross the Chicago River and pass marinas to the left and Buckingham Fountain to the right.  During summer, the marinas are bustling with boats and sails while the fountain’s water powerfully propels upwards of 25 feet.  But with winter knocking, the marinas are empty and the fountain is still.

Our second child was born still.  When a doctor confirmed that there was no heartbeat we spent the next several hours preparing to do the most difficult thing of our lives and deliver a baby that we knew would come in silence.  Silence and then a hushed whisper informing us “it’s a girl” was followed immediately not with a baby’s wail, but rather her mother’s wail.  A day later, we had another lonely discharge from the hospital without the baby that we loved dearly.

We dart in and out of traffic and progress south.  With my free hand I pat the soft fleece rising and falling with each breath and tuck it under the straps of the car seat.  I physically need to be close and hold, to comfort and to be comforted.

After the delivery of our daughter, my body went through the physical recovery of having just had a baby yet my arms were empty.  Lactating breasts and a contracting uterus were not nearly as painful as the phantom sensations of holding a baby.  Slowly digging, fiercely forging, we scraped, clawed and fought our way up by shedding fifty pounds of pregnancy weight, talking with a grief counselor and regularly attending a support group.  We searched, reached, researched….and screamed!  We needed answers, but there were none to give.  So after six months, we bravely tried to get pregnant again.  A recurrent pregnancy loss specialist explained to us that my third pregnancy would not last.  At just five weeks the growth wasn’t tracking.

In front of us the handsome columns of the Field Museum loom at the bend in the drive so that you can almost believe you’ll drive right into its halls of discovery.  Our son calls this the Dinosaur Museum versus the Train Museum, which is further south. 

Standing in the lobby of the Museum of Science and Industry, or as our son calls it, the Train Museum, I answered a phone call and learned that I had started my fourth pregnancy.  We fought hard for that pregnancy. There were months of waiting to recover from the miscarriage followed by unsuccessful conception attempts.  White sticks at the bottom of a drawer with their sad single line, procedures, appointments, and even acupuncture all contributed to the significant phone call, which launched us on our terrifying journey. 

I rest my head and see Soldier Field to the West appearing like a floating spaceship grounded by Roman columns.  In the throws of fall football season this is the home to thousands of tailgaters.  I smell meat on a grill.  We’ve missed tailgating, holidays, weddings, laughter and dancing.  There has been no fun, no light…only pragmatic and heavy.  I bend down and take in the airy and milky newborn breath wafting above the car seat, both savoring the sweetness of it needing proof of it.

We needed a lot of reassurance during the fourth pregnancy and made multiple unexpected trips to the hospital seeking it from doctors who compassionately gave it to us.  I employed every last ounce of positive thinking and only put myself in happy situations.  This impacted my choice of media, friendships and activities.  We made ourselves purchase nursery decorations (I cried the entire way home feeling guilty and excited at the same time.)  I’d socially isolate myself before ultrasounds as I steadied and repeated our mantra.  Our doctors had a goal to deliver the baby before the prior point of loss.  So, beginning at 30 weeks I had regular monitoring and at 37 weeks an amniocentesis to confirm lung maturity before the scheduled delivery.  That night we were too nervous to be far away from the hospital so we splurged and stayed across the street at the W Hotel.  We ordered Giordano’s pizza and superstitiously watched the same movie we had watched the night before our son was born, “Lost in Translation”.  Over Bill Murray and deep dish we told ourselves it would be ok.  The next morning we woke early and went to a Cathedral before walking to the hospital where our prayers from that day, and the many days before, were answered.

A green sign indicates that I-55 is approaching.  After living here for two years, we finally understand that the marker is really referencing “The Stevenson”.  We merge as the road widens, rises up and stretches out before us.  My shoulders relax, I sit back in my seat and finally now the tears fall from my eyes.  #5.  Today, we are taking our baby home.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

T'was the Night Before The First Day of School

T'was the night before the first day of school and all through the house,
every man, woman and child was scurrying and hurrying about.

The backpacks were packed and hung by the door with great care,
filled with pencils, papers, gym shoes and art smocks to wear.

A new 1st grader and 5th grader were not just yet nestled snug in their beds,
instead excited chatter of teachers and thoughts of classmates filled their heads.

We brushed their hair and gave baths,
picked out smart clothes and a healthy school-approved snack.

My husband charged the camera battery while I hummed with delight, 
for the last two weeks I've been counting down to this very night!

Yes, this was the summer that those rascals pushed me to the brink,
as they argued and bickered about everything but the kitchen sink.

So you can imagine my surprise, when while packing lunches a strange sight did appear, 
trickling down my cheek was a very tiny and small, iddy biddy tear.

Have a great school year, my darling little maniacs.  I love you so much, and already miss you (...a little)!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Gift of a Different Lens

As the gentle October breeze blew over the great lake it provided both, warmth on the face that evoked memories of summer days not long ago and briskness on the arms that hinted at winter days not far from now.

My family was returning to our summer cottage for the first time in four or five weeks.  We spend most of summer at the tiny lake escape, but in the time since we left on Labor Day, school days had started, soccer seasons were underway and leaves were beginning to change color.

With a Columbus Day school holiday, we had just used the long weekend to board up the beloved cottage for winter and were taking a walk on the beach. This would be our final walk of the year as we grabbed fleeces and sweatshirts instead of the sun hats and swimsuits that accompanied us just two months earlier. 

Often bustling and busy in the height of summer weekends, the beach was now ours to play and walk.  The kids raced ahead and doubled back chasing waves or gulls while my husband and I talked and looked for rocks and beach glass.  

I looked to the lake and then up to the shore.  We were alone except for one image up on the park benches at the top of the beach, about a hundred yards away.  I saw the image jump up and wave her arms furiously.  Confused I kept walking, but looked back to realize she was waving even more excitedly now and coming towards us.  Over the sound of the waves, I couldn’t hear what she was saying but I could see that her hands were cupped to her mouth.  Clearly she seemed to want our attention, but I didn’t immediately recognize this person.

She started to run out towards us and we walked up to greet this woman.  We picked up our pace to a trot because at the same time my husband and I processed that it was Jessica!  Jessica is actually Judy but we’ve jokingly called her Jessica for years.  Judy/Jessica is the mom of a very good friend of ours who we once spent a great deal of time with in our twenties in Washington DC.  The friend now lives hundreds of miles away in Denver, but we stay in touch the way that friends do who have forever etched their mark in your heart.

We hugged Judy and all remarked at how funny it was to run into her here and now.  She explained that she was visiting the lake with a group of friends but was taking a moment for herself to sit, read and enjoy the view.  We told her that we were just closing up for winter.  We laughed at the funny coincidence of seeing each other. 

She told us all about her new grandson, our friend’s little boy.  And we told her that the dinner recipe that she shared with us years ago was now our son’s favorite meal and the one he requested every birthday.  We introduced him to her as if she were a celebrity and said that this was the famous Jessica of “Chicken Jessica”. 

She laughed and told me that she read all of my blog posts, loved them and took the time to emphasize to me how they touched her.  I said an embarrassed thank you and we shared a sentimental moment of me telling her how we’ve always thought so highly of her.  I suggested that we take a photo for her daughter, our friend, and send it to her because she’d never believe we ran into each other.  We smiled and laughed and gave each other huge hugs offering that we might run into each other again over the next summer.

Afterwards my husband and I talked about how much we’ve always loved her and what a neat lady she is.  We laughed at the image of her waving frantically on the bench and remarked that we were so glad she got our attention.

It is now next summer and less than a year later, we sadly celebrated the life of Judy today.  She died tragically and unexpectedly following what should have been a routine surgery.  While terribly sad, her funeral was wonderfully perfect in that it captured her fun spirit, warm hearted nature and true joy of life.  I got to meet my friend’s little boy and spend time with the beautiful family that Judy created and who now grieve deeply for her.

During the past few days I’ve thought of the last time I saw her unexpectedly at the beach last fall.  The fun image of her bouncing up and down at the top of the beach and the conversation that followed is one that I’ll carry with me always.

She provided me with a treasured and unique gift that day:  a different lens.  On that day she shared with me, and then again through my friend recently, that while she was sitting on a bench observing the quiet beauty of the lake, she saw a family playing on the beach together.  Before she even recognized us, she enjoyed watching us interact with one another as she thought to herself how happy and loving we seemed together.

I don’t remember that day being anything remarkable.  And in fact, I’m sure my husband and I were just talking about the upcoming week or calendar logistics.  We could have been bickering or scolding the kids.  I don’t think of ourselves in the idyllic way she saw us.  Yet in sharing her thoughts with me she gave me the gift of perspective and a lens dulled by softness and without the sharp angles and edge that the day-to-day life issues create.   

Without the schedules to coordinate or logistics to plan, she didn't see the crankiness or grouchiness.  By providing us with this filtered image, she reminded me that all of the little stuff is just that, little stuff.  If you remove it, you see straight through to what’s really important and that is joy and happiness with the people you love.  With that clear vision you are able to realize that life's little, seemingly unremarkable moments are really the most beautiful ones.

I’m very glad that Judy sacrificed her solitude and enjoyment of the lake to find us.   During her quiet time of reflection, we entered her line of vision and instead of letting us pass, she took the opportunity to make a connection.  She took a bit of a risk and flirted with a potentially embarrassing situation by being so enthusiastic with her waving.  It would have been easier for her to just sit back and let us go.  But instead she jumped up and raised her hand in the air.  She actively participated!  She embraced one of life’s surprises.  Judy created the moment.

I’m so thankful for that moment and that memory.  I’m so thankful for the gift of friendship, and connection and the spontaneity of life in both its brutality and beauty. 

In thinking about this story on this special day and in Judy’s honor, I will vow to not miss an opportunity to connect with someone and bring happiness into their day.  I will participate.  I will embrace.  Because that October day she provided my family with an extra dose of laughter and light, just as she did for so many others on so many other days.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

To the Woman in the NICU Lactation Room

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

Lessons from dad: curiosity.

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

Food Allergy Awareness Week - 5 Better Questions to Ask Allergy Families

What's he allergic to?
"My son has life-threatening food allergies to dairy, egg and all nuts."
How did you find out?
"We've known since he was 15-weeks-old, had his first sip of formula, broke out into hives and couldn't breathe."
Will he ever outgrow it?
"Based on his blood test numbers, he'll never outgrow it. There's advancing research to support a treatment, but not a cure."
Do you have allergies?
"No, my husband and I don't have food allergies and neither does anyone in our family."
What do you eat?
"Yes, we still order pizza, but after he's in bed... No, soy milk only in the house, we all drink it... You know I really like the taste of sunflower seed butter now... well, applesauce or baking soda and oil can be a substitute for egg while baking."
I am an allergy-mom and these are the questions that people usually ask me when they first learn that my son has food allergies. It's not necessarily in this order, but it's always these five questions. I've been asked these questions so many times that I have the above stock answers at the ready, and respond in an automatic voice.
The questions aren't mean spirited and come from a place of pure curiosity. However, they can be a bit daunting to answer over and over, especially in front of my son who is able to understand what, and who, we are talking about.
So during Food Allergy Awareness Week I want to take this opportunity to share five questions that friends can ask food allergy families instead. These questions are more productive and frankly, come from a place of thoughtfulness and eagerness to help the child with food allergies, rather than reassuring the person who is asking the question.
Like most of the families with food allergies that I know, we never expect special accommodations. In fact, we are quite consciously taking great steps to make sure that our son knows how to manage his own allergies and doesn't perceive himself as a victim. However, when one of the below questions is asked, it always touches my heart and makes me feel a surge of appreciation and affection for the friend who is asking it.
With 1 and in every 13 kids in the United States living with food allergies, it is likely that you know someone who is impacted by food allergies and will have the occasion to ask these questions yourself. Thank you in advance for doing so.
1. How can I educate my child and myself to make sure we're being extra safe around your child?
For children of any age, please reinforce two things; 1) hand washing after eating and, 2) to never share food. These little steps can make a big difference in keeping kids with food allergies safe. Plus it is just a good, healthy habit to get into.
For your grade-school aged child, teach them the seriousness and signs of an allergic reaction (swollen lips, wheezing, hives, stomach cramps) so they can help recognize when a classmate or friend is in danger and tell an adult immediately.
For your toddlers or preschoolers, give some thought to what food you bring to a park or public space, or try to minimize snacks on-the-go. At a park, pool or beach, focus on playing, swinging and sliding, not snacking. If you do have food, go for fruits, dried vegetables or pretzels. I've been in many stressful situations where a toddler is toting around a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or a handful of pistachios at a public park. Of course this is a shared space and you're free to feed your child whatever you want, but I believe this is a small sacrifice to make for an act of kindness.
2. As a host, what can we serve at a birthday party or picnic that will help keep all of the children safe, reinforce how welcome your child is and how glad we are that he or she is there?
Again, this is never expected and we've grown accustomed to bringing food for our son. But when our friends offer this as a host of a party, it is such a kind gesture that really makes us feel safe and allows us to relax and enjoy ourselves more. Our hosts have always been happy to buy a certain brand of pretzel or hot dog bun if it ensures that my son can participate freely in the event or meal.
Additionally, as the parent of a child with food allergies, it is important for me to find a quiet and convenient time (not right before the party as guests are arriving) to train a host on how to use an epi-pen, and/or offer to stay myself if they are uncomfortable doing so.
3. What can I pack in my child's lunch so he or she can join yours at the peanut-free table?
I'm happy to provide ideas of an allergy-safe lunch and appreciate the opportunity to do so, in order for my child to sit with a friend during lunch.
Additionally, support an initiative at your child's school to help raise awareness of food allergies. This year the principal at our school came to me with the idea for a Peanut-Free CafĂ© based on the book by the same name by Gloria Koster. For one day only, all of the students were encouraged to bring an allergy safe lunch so that the kids who usually sit at the peanut-free table could sit anywhere.
Also, on this day, food allergy musician Kyle Dine performed two assemblies (one for grades K-3, and one for grades 4-5) using songs, puppets and games to deliver tactical education lessons related to food allergy safety. Even more important, his message and this day also delivered an overarching lesson of kindness, leadership and acceptance.
Kyle Dine has food allergies himself, yet travels the world finding a kid-friendly and fun way to communicate what could otherwise be a heavy topic. All of the kids in both of the assemblies were engaged, eager and entertained. Plus they really think of Kyle as a rock star. He kind of is, check out his music.

4. What kind of event can we plan for our families to enjoy together?

As a family with food allergies it can be challenging to socialize with other families. We always enjoy events where food is not the focus like bowling, swimming or any other activity. If we're having a back yard BBQ or getting together for a sports game, we're happy to provide ideas for allergy safe snacks, or bring our own.
We love going to baseball games and hockey games and appreciate when a team has a special game or night where they don't serve peanut products. Just a few weeks ago,The Florence Freedom baseball team in Florence Kentucky announced a partnership with Enjoy Life Foods to make their entire stadium peanut-free due to the intimate small setting and family friendly atmosphere.
Lastly, every year we participate in an awareness event, the FARE walk as a family and raise money to support food allergy research. We love when friends and family join us on this fun day!
5. What else can I tell my child about food allergies?
Remind your child often that different is cool! Some kids like pizza, some kids play soccer. Some kids love art and some kids eat seafood. Whether its food allergies, skin color, hobbies or interests, we're all wonderfully unique! Being different is what makes us all interesting and gives us new things to learn from one another!
Carissa has written the below essays about parenting with food allergies on her blog, www.carissak.com, The Huffington Post and on Scary Mommy this week during Food Allergy Awareness Week.