After one time is a next

Undoubtedly,  motherhood has changed me.  In four short months, Sarai has made me eat my words as I have found myself doing (even embracing) certain things that I thought I would never do.   The list is long and growing every day but here are the top five switcheroos.

  1. Wearing a “duster”

The duster.  A formless, shapeless tent of pastel-coloured or floral cotton with a frill at the collar.  The ugly step-sister of the negligée. I went into the hospital with two in The Bag.  Now, I own five – in all the colours available – and…wait for it…these have slits on either side so I can quickly whip out my boobs.  One, two, three…Draw!  Booyaka, Booyaka!

Before becoming a mother, I associated dusters with my old aunties and my grandmother.  Even in the countdown to my due date, when packing of The Bag became the magnum opus of my life, I never contemplated purchasing a duster.  It was my mother who forced the point.  And God bless her.  They are so comfortable and the cotton so lightweight, it keeps me cool all night even with the additional body heat of my daughter.

There is no item of clothing more un-sexy and yet more practical.  A woman who has just had a baby does not want to wear anything that clings to the new, ample, post-partum form that she has not come to terms with as yet.  A duster is an equal opportunity liar, no matter your body-type it covers all imperfections, stretchmarks and fat rolls in a tee-pee. O triangle of cotton, O triangle most tolerant, how I love thee.  Now, I finally grasp the wisdom of my Tanty who used to put on a broad belt and a good shoe and wear her duster to go down High Street to shop.  Give me time – I’ll get there.

  1. Showing my boobs in public…for free

In the mall.  At the beach.  At a wedding.  Upstairs. Downstairs. In the presence of visitors.  Surrounded by workmen. Over the past four months, my boobs have seen more daylight than a solar panel in Hawaii.  Ordinarily, that would not be such a bad thing…ladies you know what I’m sayin’…but I don’t even have any Mardi Gras beads or cash to show for it.  I been big pimpin’ pumpin’ these totots for free all over the island.

The first time, at the mall, was a little difficult – for both me and my hubby.  He stood guard over me with a dark scowl, flexing his pectoral muscles like The Rock, daring passers-by to even look upon his Madonna and Child.  After that, I tried using the breastfeeding cover-up but Sarai hates it. It makes her sweat.  She prefers to eat in fresh air and, given the popularity of bistros, which of us adults could fault her.  So, I have come to realise, embracing motherhood means accepting the de-sexualization and the democratization of my breasts.  They are containers of milk.  That is all.

It’s not just about the boobs though – this changing perception.  It’s about everything.  Modesty lost can never be regained.  You can’t become a virgin again (not even with “vaginal rejuvenation” surgery).  You can’t undo giving birth.  Modesty is a state of mind.  After a doctor has separated your thighs as far as the East is from the West, put on a coal-miner-looking helmet with a head-lamp, peered into you like he’s looking for workers buried after a mining accident and invited an operating room full of medical staff to come have a look – well, you ain’t never gonna blush again.  I do not feel sexy or attractive anymore.  I do not feel like I have private parts anymore. I do not feel like anything but a machine – an amalgam of parts – that has proven itself fit for purpose.  One day, this too shall pass, I know – even as white clouds chase grey ones over the mountain into D Valley where I live and write.  It will pass.

  1. Foisting photos on people

A long time ago, when I was childless and intending to remain so, I devised a foolproof evasion strategy for PWC.  Oh, you thought I was talking about the accounting firm?  No, sorry.  I meant Persons With Children.  It is impolite not to ask such a person about his/her kid.  However, the key is to make that the last question you ask before leaving the room – preferably, as you’re backing out of the room. Or better yet, do a drive-by.  Never linger or the PWC will misinterpret this delay as a request to see photos of the kid.

All of that went out the window the day I had Sarai.  I became a PWC.  I didn’t realise it, at first, until I returned to the gym.  I was welcomed back with cheers and hurrahs but I could see each person – particularly the men –  trying a PWC strategy as they asked about the baby.  Some abandoned eye-contact, suddenly finding the buttons on the exercise equipment important and engrossing.  Some pedaled faster and faster in an effort to become winded and curtail further conversation.  But I didn’t care.  In those interactions, I realised that PWCs are driven by a pathological need to show off their kids.  It’s not about the audience, it’s about me.  Me.  I need the world to see how cute and amazing my daughter is.  I need to convince myself that this miracle came out of my body and bears my genes.  Did I (grossly imperfect Me) actually produce that nugget of perfection?  So I stop people and show them pictures and, every time someone smiles, it’s a corroboration that this incredible incidence of parenthood is real.

Furthermore, let still-photos be damned! I have moved on to videos.  My poor, poor extended family. Not one of them has had the guts to say what they’re all thinking: “Celeste, we have jobs, we have lives.  Minute-long videos of Sarai cooing or chewing her Big Bird toy are not interesting to anyone but YOU.” My family copes by not responding to the videos.  They think that by starving me of positive reinforcement I’ll stop filming and posting.  Never!  There’s always YouTube.

  1. Using the word “mastitis” in casual conversation

Geography was compulsory in my high-school for CXC exams. We spent quite a long time learning about cattle-rearing on Guyana’s Rupununi Savannah.  That’s the context in which I first encountered the word “mastitis”, meaning inflammation of the cow’s udder.  I went my whole life since then – from 15 to 38 – never, ever having to employ that knowledge (just like “square root”; when does life ever thrust you into a situation where you have to find the square root of anything?) But then I gave birth to Sarai, started breastfeeding and found myself having numerous conversations about my udders.

Yes, I know breast health is critical during the breastfeeding stage.  We need to talk about it, yes, I know. But, Good Grief! Mastitis?  Really?  You scientists can clone sheep but you can’t come up with a new word to refer to the condition in HUMANS?  Thankfully, I have never had mastitis.  But it makes me cringe to even write that; to use the word in a sentence where a person (as opposed to an animal) is the subject. Wrong.  So wrong.  On so many levels.

  1. Putting more effort into someone else’s wardrobe than mine

Who’s the best-dressed girl in the room?  For once, it’s not me.  And it probably will never be again.  I forfeit the title.  Henceforth and hereafter in perpetuity, to infinity and beyond, that girl shall be Sarai Ayesha Montero.

Similar to North West, Sarai (I call her “South West”, an homage to her mother’s geographic background.  By “her mother” I mean me, nah) has a team of stylists assembled around her with the sole purpose of making her look spectacular for every outing.  Her Grandmother and Aunty Lee are professional hair-stylists – only problem is Sarai doesn’t have much hair yet.  The Grandmother has a “page-boy” hairstyle planned for her; the Aunty says it not too early to turn her single curl into a “faux-hawk”.

Then there’s the wardrobe: her Godmother, Aunty Stacey, is an accomplished shopaholic with many credit cards to her name; and my other friends (like Aunty Rena) have done their fair share of shopping as well.  Sarai has more clothes than I do. Onsies of every description and persuasion.  I am so grateful to everyone who has come bearing gifts that I am determined she MUST wear everything at least once – and even if she has to wear it at home.

So don’t worry.  Look out for us at the mall.  Me in my duster, broad belt and high-heel shoes; Sarai in this season’s Carters – polka dots are back in a big way.Sarai polka dot.

Raised by Android

So finally a lull. We’ve done the first shots, the ear piercings, the first trip to the beach. She’s sleeping through the night and the christening is over. Sarai is growing up and, I have to admit, she’s being raised by Android.

I have never been a techie. Suffice it to say I have only ever had a passing interest in technology. Proof of that is the fact that I spent four years in a relationship with an abusive, psychotic Blackberry Bold. Before that, all my phones were chosen based solely on their Cuteness Quotient: Is it tiny? Tiny-masculine or tiny-feminine? Does it come with adorable ringtones?

Last June, I finally decided to ditch the Blackberry. I spent a lot of time impatiently scrolling through the techie gibberish of online reviews…yada, yada, yada…but eventually settled on an HTC One M8. At first, my husband looked kind of impressed: he thought I was finally making a mature phone selection. However, his expression quickly turned to disgust when I explained that I had chosen that phone: (a) “for philosophical reasons” (I was taking a stand against the Babylonian System by refusing to be a mindless drone in the Apple vs Samsung battle for world domination) and, (b) because all the reviewers said it was a “beautiful” phone.

Within days of getting my HTC, I found out I was pregnant. For the next six months – from July to January – my pattern of phone usage remained unchanged in many ways: make a call, answer a call, take an occasional photo, WhatsApp, SMS, Facebook. But, in one respect, it did change dramatically: internet searches. During the pregnancy, I developed a close rapport with Google. Like, a he-walks-with-me-and-he-talks-with-me-type thing. Between WebMD, Babycenter.com, Whattoexpect.com and the United Kingdom’s National Health Service website, there was no pregnancy symptom left un-googled. I managed, on several occasions, to scare myself shitless with all the warnings about things I should not be doing while pregnant. (I ate sardines twice last week! Ermagerd!!!!)

However, the history of my world is divided into B.C. (Before Child) and A.D. (After Delivery), and writing, as I am, circa 4 months A.D., I can clearly discern an increasing dependence on my phone, commencing the day Sarai was born. Whereas, in the period B.C. a smartphone was a “nice-to-have”, now it’s a “must-have”; now I NEED it. Or do I?

SMARTPHONE = CONNECTIVITY
a. Information gathering
With a newborn I don’t have much time to sit behind a laptop or desktop. The phone continues to be the main information-gathering tool via internet searches. Plus, many baby-related websites either have a mobile app or will send you daily or weekly emails with information about baby’s development, parenting etc. Of course, I was so enthusiastic/paranoid/insecure about becoming a mother that I signed up for every email newsletter I could find on the internet and now I am swamped with information. My husband says, “You don’t even read them; just unsubscribe.” But I say, “Unsubscribe? What kind of mother does a thing like that? That’s ok: at least I have the info for future reference.”

b. Keeping track of…well…everything
Mommy-brain. The struggle is real. Ask anyone who has given birth. I really believe that some of a woman’s brain cells get flushed out of her body with the placenta. I am so forgetful now! I never used the Calendar or Tasks app on any phone until after the baby. Now, they are the only way I can keep track of all Sarai’s appointments and my appointments and my husband’s schedule and what to buy in the grocery and what to buy in the pharmacy and things I need to tell this person and bills I need to pay and when I need to pay them.

And, oh…BTW…thanks to mommy-brain I can no longer spell long words, or even short, tricky ones. But Oxford Dictionary of English has an Android app for that. Holler!

The baby-expert websites say it is super-important for a good mum to keep close track of baby’s feeding, pooping, sleeping and medicine habits. In fact, I live in fear that the next knock on my door might be a Social Worker coming to take my child unless I correctly answer: How long did she sleep? When was the last feeding? Was it bottle or breast? Left or right breast? How long did she stay on? Did she pee today? How many times? When last did she poop?

To prepare for this test (It’ll happen one day…I just know it) I use an app called Feed Baby which has a built-in timer to record both feed and sleep times, tracks dirty diapers, medicine doses, ounces consumed etc. I have mastered the art of holding Sarai in one arm as she feeds and navigating the app with the thumb of my other arm to start timer, select breast, stop timer etc. All the while I sing, “…every move you make, every breath you take, I’ll be watching you.”

c. Shopping
Sarai always needs something. Some bit of baby paraphernalia that is not available in Trinidad – and even if it is, I wouldn’t know where to go or have the time to go there. The Nosefrida thing to suck snat out her nose, the Colic Calm medicine, the wedge pillow to relieve her baby-acid-reflux. Three words: Amazon mobile app. Amazon is always open – day or night – and the only baby need they can’t supply is an actual nanny. I don’t even have to stop breastfeeding to make a purchase. Can you spell “thumb-tap”? Amazon’s shared Baby Registry feature was also a useful tool for Sarai – a baby whose three god-parents live overseas.

d. Multimedia
I intend to heed the experts’ warnings that babies should not have access to small screen devices in their early developmental years. (e.g. New York Times article: The Child, the Tablet and the Developing Mind. http://nyti.ms/1atmVd2).

But HELLO! Nobody said mummies can’t have access: The Mummy, The Smartphone and The Wandering Mind. Yes, I know “mindfulness” is all the craze but, honestly, on marathon breastfeeding nights, a person can only stare lovingly at her firstborn for so long before getting cockeyed. Yes, cell-phones are hopelessly evil and we should all stop staring into them but I am sorry: I was lonely and needed something to do while the nectar of life was being drained from my body. So, yes, yes…I found love in a hopeless place full of entertaining apps called the Google Play Store. The Kindle and Kobo apps allowed me to read books; Fruit Ninja kept my thumb reflexes sharp; Pinterest helped me find recipes for wonderful dishes I will never make; FOAP furthered my photography hobby by allowing me to share interesting pictures I had taken on the very same phone. And YouTube – blessed, blessed YouTube. From lullaby playlists for Sarai, to music, to cat videos. Last night YouTube saved my life.

SMARTPHONE = CONNECTION
e. Support
What a new, first-time mother needs more than anything is support. Breast-feeding is hard; the after-bleeding is hard; the lack of sleep is hard; the hormone roller-coaster is hard; the sudden confinement with a needy, screaming, fragile human is very hard. Giving birth will challenge every perception and presumption a woman has ever had about herself. I don’t think God meant for women to have and raise babies in isolation. I don’t think “It takes a village to raise a child” is just a catchy phrase; I think it’s a statement of our anthropological and genetic hard-wiring. Women no longer gather around fires exchanging stories and advice but, luckily, there are apps and online resources that provide all the support with none of the fire hazards. Dairy Queens and Caribbean Breastfeeding Support are both support groups available via Facebook.

f. Memories and Moments
Since Sarai was born I have taken 500+ photos – like a good smartphone, the HTC is keeping track. Why? Because I don’t want to miss a thing or forget a moment of her day. How she looked in this outfit or that, the expression on her face when she discovered water – I need to keep all of it somewhere secure and my memory is not a safe place. So I store them in the cloud via Dropbox and Google+. Neither cell-phone theft, computer failure nor flash drive corruption can take them from me now.

The first stop after taking a photo of Sarai on my phone is the photo-editing app: to crop unnecessary stuff out of the shot (and everything but her is unnecessary) and, sometimes, on particularly sweet photos, to add a slight glow (to more accurately capture the angelic halo that her father and I see so clearly above her head). My next move is to press the “Share” button. Boom! Whether via Facebook, WhatsApp or Gmail – just like that Sarai meets World. A precious moment is shared with her godparents, our friends and family members who are flung so far from us.

My Aunty Nora will, God-willing, turn 70 in July. She lives in San Fernando and doesn’t drive anymore. On her iPad, she has every picture of Sarai that I have ever posted. She swipes through them every day and, my cousin tells me, sometimes she kisses the screen.

Did I win (Part 2)

Did I Win (Part 2)

Sarai is now three months old.  Why is that date any more significant than any other since she was born? Ask some people and they will say it’s because babies “settle” and begin to achieve all kinds of developmental milestones after three months.  Others may say it’s because three months is officially one-quarter of a year.  For me, though, there is another layer of resonance: it has been three months since I almost died while giving birth to Sarai.  I’ve counted each of those days and contemplated so much in that time.  It is the reason I started this blog, hoping that one day I would be brave enough to tell the story.  The logic is: a scary story is scarier in the dark; the monsters that populate its landscape grow more monstrous in the absence of light.  Writing this is light.  Posting this on Facebook (a.k.a farse-book) is a friggin’ strobe-light.   Today, after three months, I am hoping for a kind of personal Divali – the triumph of light over darkness in my own heart and, maybe when you read it, in yours.

The Story

I had what I have seen referred to as a “precipitous labour”: basically I had a normal vaginal delivery but  it all happened super-fast – within three hours of first contractions.  My waters broke at 1:30, contractions began at around 3:30, Sarai was born at 6:01.  The doctor had intended, because of my sky-rocketing blood pressure, to perform the delivery under epidural.  In the end, there was no time for it to be administered.  Sarai rushed through me as if she was as eager to meet the world as I was to meet her.  Nobody was going to keep her back: not the anaesthetist, not the doula, not the doctor.

I remember the orderlies swinging me onto a gurney and racing down the corridor to the delivery room.  The doula, who had only just arrived, ran alongside trying every breathing technique she knew to slow down Sarai’s pace.  It bought us some extra minutes but, when they put me on the delivery table, I couldn’t help but cry out the words nobody wanted to hear, “Nurse! I cannot hold her any longer!”  Then, in a scene straight out of a cartoon – I swear I heard a screech and saw his legs make several Scooby-Doo rotations – the doctor ran into the room and slid between my legs.  He said, “Celeste, take a deep breath and give me three big pushes.” At the first push, my va-jay-jay felt like the neckline of Size XS t-shirt being broached by a Size XL person.  The Lycra/Spandex had reached its capacity. I was sure I would never pee normally again.  But then, the doctor plopped something on my stomach and announced, “There’s your daughter.”

I cradled a tiny wriggling person who looked exactly like my husband.  I counted fingers and toes – all there.  Looked for a penis – none there.  Then she and her daddy left to do whatever is done to babies at birth.  I felt no residual pain – not even when the doctor began sewing – only a two-tone feeling of being both high and calm at the same time.  I lay back and remembered how I had prayed for a quick and relatively pain-free delivery.  I was surprised that my prayer had been so obviously answered.  “If this is labour, what’s the big deal? I could do this again,” I said to myself.

At the time, I thought that I had suffered a torn perineum – something they had warned us about in birthing class.  What other reason could there be for the doctor’s determined sewing?  But I didn’t really care. My child was alive and I was numb ‘down there’ and couldn’t feel a stitch so let him sew forever.  I continued with the torn perineum assumption even after my body started trembling; even after the trembling became uncontrollable.  When I asked why I was shaking, no one answered.  The doctor just continued sewing and calling out orders.  He was getting frustrated, calling for different sizes of instruments, different gauges of thread etc.  Finally, I heard him say “I am not making much progress.  Let’s get her to the O.R.”

My next memory is opening my eyes and realizing the orderlies were practically running with me and I was covered in something like foil. In the O.R., I had the presence of mind to tell the anaesthetist that I tend to vomit a lot after general anaesthesia. He thanked me and promised to put something in there to help.  But nobody was smiling. And the world was becoming all blue, a murky blue.  It seemed like a million people were hovering over me.  I didn’t hear him at the time but the doctor says that as I faded to black the last words he said to me were, “Celeste, you WILL wake up. I will make sure you wake up.”

Six hours later I did wake up.  To strange voices.  And beeping noises.  And lots of orange digital lights which illuminated the face of an Asian man with a strange accent. I asked him where I was.  He replied that I was in the Intensive Care Unit of St. Clair Hospital.

The next day I noticed that hospital staff kept talking to me and smiling like normal but there was some incongruous expression in their eyes.  When he saw me that morning, the doctor grabbed and kissed me like I was his best friend. But he had the same mysterious eyes.  My husband had them as well.  Was it pity?  Was it wonder? It was only later I realized that it was both these things plus some deceit.  They knew something I didn’t. No one wanted to be the one to direct my attention away from my newborn daughter to the elephant in the room.  No one wanted to be the one to make me wise to what I didn’t know.  No one wanted to say, “We can’t believe you’re actually alive and holding your baby.”  I have learnt that, like its cousin, Death, Near-death leaves a stench on you that makes people uncomfortable.

It was a loud-mouthed, overly-familiar, gossipy nurse who told me the truth.  I’ve learnt that the world needs people like that to do the things that make the rest of us shudder.  She told me that I did not have a torn perineum as I had been assuming all along.  She explained that, perhaps due to the speed of my labour, I sustained several, severe internal lacerations – some so high inside me the doctors were unable to reach them.  After delivery, I was losing blood from these tears and everything was made worse when my body went into something called Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation (DIC) — a clotting disorder that leads to excessive bleeding.   Basically, all the doctor’s sewing was in vain: I was bleeding out on the table and he could not stop it.  At least three times during the night of Sarai’s birth, the doctor went to my husband for consent to try different things to save my life.  Eventually, the only thing they could do was to pack me full with gauze and hope to keep the blood in. Two days later, when they tried to unpack me I began to bleed all over again. The doctor re-packed me and left it four more days.

I could not walk, move my lower body or do anything for myself for the first four days in the hospital.  I wore pampers and a catheter and had six IV drips attached to me: antibiotics, blood, morphine and other things I don’t even know.  When I could get out of bed, I could not walk unassisted or sit for very long.  This all meant that my baby spent her first hours on my husband’s chest and when the paediatrician realized I was not coming out of surgery anytime soon, she authorized the nurses to begin feeding my baby from a small cup. She ate that way for days: I was unable to breastfeed her until the last day or so in the hospital.

The doctor said he couldn’t discharge me until my blood-count, blood pressure and liver readings stabilized.  Then he added new conditions: I had to be able to walk, wee-wee and have bowel movements on my own.  I couldn’t believe my own ears when, that night, I heard myself praying to God to grant me the ability to pee and poo.  Exactly a week after Sarai was born we were discharged.

The Lessons

  1. It is very possible to quietly and unsuspectingly leave your house and never make it back.

When I got into the car at 2:30 p.m. on January 15, 2015 the last image in my mind is of my mother-in-law standing at the kitchen window as the gate slowly rolled shut.  She stood behind the curly black wrought-iron and waved, her palm the same colour as the peachy exterior walls of the house.  We all expected that I would return, newborn baby girl in arms, by the next day.  It took seven days.  And on the seventh day as my husband approached the house and the gate began to roll away I remembered that last image and it brought a lump to my throat.

We had bought that wreck of a house a year before and had poured everything we had into renovating it. We had no children at the time, I wasn’t pregnant but, from the outset, we had designated a particular room as “the baby room” – even the contractor and workmen referred to it as such.  When I did become pregnant some months later, it seemed as if our faith was being rewarded.  Everything was falling into place and the baby would be the icing on the cake.  During those months of pregnancy, the house began to look to me (and I’m sure to other people) less and less like a house and more and more like a family home.  It struck me, as we drove up on that seventh day, that I came very close to never seeing it again and that if I had died, the same pretty peach walls would have morphed, before everyone’s eyes, into a tombstone.  A monument to a dead wife and mother.

I have learnt that we build structures of concrete and steel thinking they will keep us safe; we point to them and see an image of ourselves there as we say, “That is mine.”  But we are fragile.

  1. Prayer is not an intellectual exercise; it is an act of the soul.

At all times, I had believed that a bad tear in the perineum is what the doctor was trying to fix.  My intellect was directed to that idea as they wheeled me into surgery.  I was completely unafraid because, by my reasoning, people don’t die from a tear in the perineum and because I had total confidence in my doctor, his experience and credentials.  I was unconscious for the four-five hours of surgery and woke up thinking the same thing.  THINKING the same thing.

But I also woke up aware that something else had been happening inside me besides ‘thinking’.  All through the rush into the O.R., in between my wavering consciousness, after they knocked me out, as I was waking up – through all this I was praying.  Only thing it wasn’t me, not any part of me I recognize, not with my conscious mind. And the prayers weren’t thoughts, they were a constant background hum of information I didn’t know that I knew: passages of Scripture, the Hebrew names of God, cries for mercy.

I did not get the facts or have actual knowledge of what happened to me until days later.  When I did it opened up a wellspring of understanding of two particular aspects of God’s word:

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. Romans 8:26 (NIV)

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Psalm 23 (KJV)

  1. The kindness of strangers proves that the world is a better place than you think

Over the course of the surgery and my week long stay in the hospital I received close to 14 units of blood, plasma and related products. At the doctor’s request, my husband and my family sent out an urgent call for blood donors.

Now mind you, the process of giving blood is not an easy, convenient one.  The public hospitals seem bent on making it as difficult as possible with their arbitrary working hours, long delays and unpredictable rejection of donors.  Despite this, more people responded than we could ever imagine – we ended up with more blood than we could use.  And the most amazing part is that most of the donors were people who didn’t know me or, if they knew of me, had never met me.  Friends and co-workers of my family and friends, people I had not seen or talked to in ages, security guards, janitors, students, office-workers – they all took time-off and came forward in droves to save my life.  Why?  Why would anyone bother except my family? It boggles my mind that there are people in this world who would be so selfless.

And if that wasn’t humbling enough, I learned that it doesn’t matter what you do for a living, what you look like, where you’re from, what your race is – at the end of the day, we all bleed red and all blood is welcome to a dying man.

After three months, the post-transfusion fogginess and general anxiety in my mind has cleared enough that I can more fully engage with my daughter.  The physical complications have also receded to the point that, this week, I was able to carry her and get down on the floor and play with her without pain.  My mother sat nearby. As Sarai giggled and cooed in response to my tickles and baby-talk, I felt my mother’s eyes trained on us.  Without a word passing, I knew what my mother was thinking.

Stuck in the middle with you

My father and brother are policemen. I am a lawyer. For years we all accepted that my mother was the judge. We lived in her house and abided by her Rules of Court. Throughout my adulthood, despite my moving out, getting married etc she has continued to be The Greatest Judge of All (sing to Whitney’s tune). But, now that I have a baby, my mother has decided to switch to the medical profession. “What qualifies her?”, you may ask – I know I do on a daily basis. Well, she claims she “used to always top the class in Health Science”. Plus, she raised two children.

Emboldened by my mother’s exercise of the constitutional right to free speech, my mother-in-law has, like a good protégé, also begun to regularly remind me that when it comes to raising children the score is 6-Love, Advantage: Mother-in-law.

Naturally, this mindset has pitted my mother against the real doctor, my baby’s paediatrician, in a sort of medical grudge match – but all the grudges are being held on one side. Me? I am just the chile-mudder and, like a skinny referee in the ring with heavyweights, I am trying my best to keep the opponents apart but often end up getting a good cut-arse in the process. The struggle is real and here are just a few of the areas of contention.

1. “Since when children must have they own doctor? Where this pee-dee-a-trish-un thing come from?”
Yes, I had to spell it phonetically because that’s how my mother says it, to make sure I don’t miss her disdain. According to mummy and her trusty side-kick, my mother-in-law (hereinafter collectively called “the Mothers Grim”), from since God made the Earth, people have been raising babies without running by the doctor every two seconds. And, even when a doctor was needed, people would carry the child by a normal doctor – after all, a child is just a smaller version of a normal person. The practice of paediatrics “is just a money-making thing” designed to fleece “inexperienced parents” like me and my husband of our hard-earned money by charging a higher fee for the same service as a normal doctor.

Their attitude toward the lactation consultant is no different. When the lady arrived at my home for a consultation, the Mothers Grim promptly left the room in a huff. Later, they declared, “ Ha-ya-yai! Modern parenting! So you need this white-woman to tell you how to get the baby to suck your breast?”

2. “The child need to drink water every day.”
I relayed to the Mothers Grim the paediatrician’s statement that it is not advisable to give a newborn extra water to drink because she is getting enough from breast milk and/or formula. The response was, “That doctor is a ass! Who she feel she is? She don’t know that babies born with a heat inside them that have to come out with water?”

Being well aware that they usually believe everything they read on the internet, I whipped out my phone and googled a medical article which not only endorsed the doctor’s position but also explained that extra water could be dangerous to the baby’s health. The Mothers Grim practically returned the phone by frisbee-throw, scoffing that from since Creation people have been raising children without the internet and all this modern technology.

3. “The child crying! She hungry.”
Since babies can’t talk they must convey every request for assistance or attention via crying. A myriad of issues could be affecting a baby at any given cry – think of all the things that bug your fully mature body and nervous system at any moment of the day. However, according to the Mothers Grim, apart from a soiled diaper there are only two possible reasons for crying: the child hungry or the child have gripe. And both of these are, somehow, always my fault. The latter for eating the wrong foods; the former for not being as good a cow as I should be.

Modern technology has given us Pampers with the yellow stripe that turns blue when the diaper is soiled. At the slightest whimper, the Ladies look for blue. If there’s none, they look for me. Their go-to position is, “The child crying. She hungry. Give her some breast.” If the crying persists during or after my offer of the boob they are quick to pronounce, “You see: your milk not satisfying this poor child. Give the baby a proper bottle.” For them, all roads lead to a bottle of formula and the baby is not thriving unless she is guzzling greater and greater volumes of it every week. Contrast this approach with that of the paediatrician who, alarmed by my daughter’s vertical jump on the weight chart, has surmised that she is overfeeding, that my milk has come in well and that I can afford to do away with the bottle and exclusively breastfeed.

When I told the Mothers Grim that the baby was overweight they almost marched down to the doctor’s office to lynch her. They were incensed and insulted by this talk of charts and growth curves. They declared those measurements were for “American children” and therefore inapplicable to my baby. A healthy baby is an obese baby. Talk done.

4. “You go ahead: that ‘comforter’ will cause the child to get buck-teeth.”
The doctor deduced that part of the reason for the overfeeding is that my baby is lingering on the breast and using me as a human pacifier. She suggested that, between feedings, we use an approved medical pacifier for newborns. My mother’s immediate response was, “Humph! Well I wish she hate the comforter. I don’t want my grandchild to get buck-teeth.”

Of course, a pacifier is not a boob. So after it is introduced there is going to be a little period of adjustment until baby learns how to keep it in her mouth and begins to draw comfort from it. Every time my husband and I would offer the baby the “paci” my mother would hover over us saying things like, “Yes, baby. Spit it out.” Or actually applauding every time the baby resisted the paci. Eventually, though, Sarai got the hang of it and, to my mother’s vocal disappointment, the pacifier has become a useful tool in our box of calming tricks.

The thing is, the Mothers Grim are correct: my husband and I are inexperienced at parenting. We are scared out of our wits that we will do something wrong and forever F-up the child. Like any conscientious new parents we want to defer to the professionals. But that’s the vexing question: who are the professionals? Is it the folks who have studied in their respective fields and have qualifications? Or is it the mothers and grandmothers and tanties who have, solely on instinct, observation and tradition, raised children from baby to adulthood without killing a single one? Is it the people writing the “What to Expect” books and the Babycenter.com articles? Or is it the women singing lullabies after a long day in the trenches fielding colicky outbursts, dodging bodily fluids and juggling dirty diapers? Really, are we overthinking parenting? Have we intellectualized something that should be innate?

I don’t know the answer but I do know this: the Mothers Grim (my support system at home) do not agree with the paediatrician; the paediatrician does not agree with the lactation consultant; the obstetrician does not agree with anybody. It has made for a confusing and sometimes demoralizing entry into parenting because I am always doing something “wrong” by somebody’s standards and always having to justify myself to somebody for the choices I make concerning my own child. I have passed many long, breastfeeding nights staring at my baby and contemplating the reams of conflicting instructions, only to end by whispering, “Well Sarai, I guess I’m just stuck in the middle with you…you and your daddy.”

That has been my approach: listen to everyone but, ultimately, seek only to get into agreement with my husband as to what choices we make concerning the baby. Sometimes this means holding hands and standing stalwart as waves and torrents of disapproval crash down on us. But sooner or later, when people see we’ve taken a united position and it makes no sense to continue the argument, the chatter recedes. It also helps to remember that no matter what they say and the tone in which they say it, each of these advisors –even the Mothers Grim – is acting from a kind place: they mean well and just want to help. Finally, if I had to don the advisor hat I would say to any new mum, learn your own child: pay attention to all your child’s patterns and signals, especially value the times when you are alone with your baby. Take all that you notice and ponder it in your heart so when the time comes to make a decision, your response is informed by your experience of your baby, not by other people’s experience of theirs. A little child shall lead them. Day by day, as I pay closer attention, Sarai leads me to what is best for her.

Did I win (Part 1)

Telematch. You remember it? If you were born any time after the mid-80’s you probably don’t. Picture Germans in big, inflated body-suits awkwardly racing to the finish line of an obstacle-course. That was pregnancy – except I’m not German. And now that it’s over, I’m wondering: did I win?

Well, I guess that depends on the judges and, oh, there are so many: family, friends and “People” – the latter, of course, being no one in particular but everyone at once.
As a woman, you are always racing against time. To find a man before you turn 30. To get married before you lose your looks. To get pregnant before you lose your eggs. Don’t kid yourself: things haven’t changed much since Jane Austen. As a woman, you have a finite period in which to decide whether or not you want a family. Which brings me to the first obstacle, the one in my head: the question whether or not I wanted kids. As a woman, you can only say “not yet” for so long before the clock runs down and you hear that loud, ugly HONNNNNKKKK! It’s the same honk at the beginning of Machel’s ‘Big Truck’, but with the opposite meaning.

I wish I could say that I was a super-ambitious, career woman trying “to make it in the corporate world”. But my reasons for not getting pregnant were much less cliché. I just didn’t think I was ready. At 24 years of age, I left Law School a highly-functioning but supremely selfish, immature human being – well, a child really. Children making children is never a good idea. Plus, I was penniless and had no prospects of falling into a wealthy marriage or large inheritance like an Austen or Brontë girl. As Sparrow sang, “Yuh cyar make love on a empty belly.” Truth is, you can – but I didn’t think it was fair to add another empty belly to the equation. I met my husband when I was 24. We got married when I was 30. We bought our first home together when I was 32. At each milestone, I conducted a personal litmus test: Am I ready to be someone’s mother? Am I ready to put someone ahead of myself and do it without feeling resentment or deprivation? Can I, at this juncture, offer a child a better life than I had? The results of the test were never positive until sometime in 2012 when I was 35 years old.

However, in truth, my journey around this mental obstacle began a year earlier, in 2011, although I didn’t realise it at the time. In July of that year, I took the decision to put down and step away from my legal career – in much the same way as one would a loaded weapon. It had become a danger to my well-being, my marriage, my self-respect. At the time, as Corporate Secretary and Head of Legal, I held (arguably) the third most powerful office in the Company, was well like by the Board, respected by my colleagues and was making “good money”. But I was tired. Every morning as I got dressed in my impeccable business suits, I felt increasingly like an aging super-hero: Wonder Woman loathe to pull on her blue bingo-bag panties, tall boots and corset to rush into another burning building. Yes, the costume gave me powers but what did it matter when I didn’t like who the powers made me: a disgruntled, sleep-deprived bitch. Ten years of practicing law had expanded my experience of the world but narrowed my access to myself and my best qualities. So confined was the mental space in which I subsisted that there was barely any room for my husband and definitely no room for a child.

It took a full year of being at home, not working, not on a schedule – just doing the things I love, the things that feel good to me: reading, painting, writing, travelling, getting physically active – before something changed inside me. It was as if I had, in that one year, grown a few inches and could now see over the dashboard well enough to take in the entire vista of my life, its hypocrisies as well as its possibilities, and steer a new course. In that year, 2012, when I was 35 years old, I applied the usual, annual litmus test but got unusual results: for the first time I felt that my life, my heart, my soul could accommodate a dependant. I also realized that for years I had been fooling myself, saying it was “up to God” to decide if and when I should have a baby. But this had been mere lip-service because I had actually been deciding the matter for God by faithfully popping them contraceptive pills. It was time to practice a different kind of faith: to let go and let God.

But then it didn’t happen. And then I turned 36. And it still didn’t happen. And then we went and did all the medical checks and they were all fine – except I only had a few eggs left in my crate. Tick, tock; tick, tock. And then the nice lady said, “Good news! You’re all set. If you want to, you can start IVF at any time within the next 12 months.” On your mark, get set, go! And then I said I would think about it. And then I decided I didn’t want to do IVF. Wasn’t that yet another way of forcing the point, of deciding for God? Some people are fundamentally unfit to be parents. Maybe I was one of them and God was shielding me from making a terrible mistake. I did shed a few tears but ultimately I conceded the race and my husband and I prepared to fully embrace the gay life of the well-heeled and well-travelled childless.

Fast-forward a few months to June 2014. My boobs were swollen, I was exhausted, thirsty, short of breath and urinating like the Ganges had met the Nile. It was the boobs and the peeing that drove me to the doctor. I said to myself, “Self, either you’re pregnant or you have breast cancer. In either case, you need to seek medical help. Let’s go.”

When conducting a process of elimination you start with the easiest to dispel. So, I headed to my OB-GYN, confident of my infertility. He listened patiently to my symptoms. He asked when was my last period – I couldn’t remember. When a woman is busy renovating her home she loses track of mundane things.
“Did you take a pregnancy test?” he asked.
“Yes. The thing turned to a plus sign.”
“So, you’re pregnant.”
“Well…I didn’t follow the instructions properly. Also, I did the test at night after drinking alot. So I still think it’s cancer. When can I do a breast ultrasound?”
“Just step next door and undress, Celeste.” There was definitely some eye-rolling on his part as I left the room.

We did an ultrasound, alright. But not of my breasts. Nothing has ever surprised me more than when he passed the wand over my still flat stomach and I saw on the monitor another human being. A clearly distinguishable head, two legs, two arms. All moving. This was no tumour. This was a person. Alive. But…inside of me? Me?

“Is that real?” I asked. “You sure that’s not the ultrasound left on the screen from the last lady you checked?”

The Doctor ignored me (more eye-rolling) and asked when I thought the baby had been conceived – I didn’t know that either. I had no answers – an uncomfortable state for someone accustomed to excelling in an exam situation. He did his measurements and pronounced me more than three months pregnant. Then he followed up by asking, “You are an educated woman. You’re not some rice farmer’s wife in the mountains of Nepal. How could you not know you were pregnant?” Exact words – I swear. But those details had all ceased to matter when I thought I couldn’t get pregnant. I had accepted childlessness. I had thought it was God’s will for me. But apparently, I had read Him wrong. I had read everything wrong. The occurrence of pregnancy is much less about science and intellectual intervention and more about chance and magic and faith and feelings – it is alchemy, really. At the risk of sounding corny I will say: it truly is the miracle of life.

So, I had an unplanned pregnancy at 37 years of age. And then the clock was reset and a different race started. More on that another time.

Enter Sandman

So picture it: Petit Valley, Trinidad. 2015. 2.a.m.  A 38 year old woman is singing her baby to sleep.  She has to try harder and harder to remember the lyrics of the classic rhymes and lullabies because she is halfway asleep herself and because she hasn’t had to sing them in decades.  In straining for the words, she has an epiphany that makes her sit bolt upright, wide awake.  Troubled now, she instinctively falls back on her legal training and applies “the plain meaning rule” of interpretation.  It leads her to a single, ugly conclusion:  Only a psychopath would sing this crap to a child.  Let’s take a listen, shall we:

Rock a bye baby, on the tree top, (Amber alert! Child endangerment! Call de Children’s Authority!)
When the wind blows the cradle will rock. (Obvious to anyone but the unfit parent who put de lil chile there)
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall, (Like I said: obvious)
And down will come baby, cradle and all. (Yuh go fall out de tree. Now how is that an appropriate send-off into dreamland?)

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water (OK..a better start here..teaching work ethic)
Jack fell down and broke his crown
(Oh Lorse! A buss head right away)
And Jill came tumbling after.
(Yuh go fall down de hill. Another inappropriate send-off)

Mary had a little lamb its fleece was white as snow;
(Yuh hear lie? Dat is lie! If you ever have the privilege of meeting a lamb, I promise you, he will not be “white as snow” but rather a kinda dutty cream…and tangled…like a blonde rasta goat)
And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go. (The lamb is clearly a stalker)
It followed her to school one day, which was against the rule; (It sure is…stalking is illegal in many States)
It made the children laugh and play, to see a lamb at school. (So Mary is bullied and publicly shamed)
And so the teacher turned it out, but still it lingered near,
And waited patiently about till Mary did appear. (Oh you and I both know what’s going to happen next. Poor Mary.  She was a nice girl.  Look ,somebody call the Criminal Minds team and tell them the Lamb is “the Un-sub”)

Georgie Porgie pudding and pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry
When the boys came out to play,
Georgie Porgie ran away.
(Where Det. Stabler and Det. Benson? I need to talk to somebody from SVU).

Wiser now to the hypocrisy of de Babylonian system that branded these “traditional” and “acceptable” examples of children’s music, our Petit Valley mother switches her tune to some Vybz Kartel:

So me say pull up your pants and put it pon your waist
And tuck in your shirt, and don’t bleach your face
Inna my days that me a meditate
So me study fi di test, me no procrastinate.
Early to school, me no have time to late
Sit down inna exam, am I the great
Me no get nothing less than 98
When school door open me never avoid di gate.

 

Longing and Dread

You see? You can’t please black people.  This I say to myself about myself many times a day because I am a study in contradiction. Or as Bajans would say, “I corn-fused”.  Or as my best friend would say, I’m “a hot mess”.  Today, in particular, all those labels apply simultaneously. Today my little, two-month-old daughter is scheduled to get her first vaccinations. Since her initial doctor’s visit at three weeks old, this date – March 16 – has been a red-letter day: circled in red pen in my daily planner and in my mind.   I have been looking towards it with equal parts longing and dread.

There’s a reason why pregnant women are said to go into “confinement”. Since giving birth, I have not left this house except for doctor’s visits and the occasional, emergency supermarket run.  Up until two months ago, the world was literally an oyster –  brunch (Oysters Rockefeller) on Saturday or Sunday; this restaurant or that on Friday nights – but all that stopped when I had the baby. Then there’s the mall – I don’t know how certain stores have been meeting their rent without me. Then there’s the gym; and weekend drives to visit family etc. BIG RED STOP SIGN. I couldn’t risk tracking germs back home to a newborn baby or taking her out into the big, dirty, contagious world.  “Not until she gets her shots” my husband and I keep cautioning each other.  And now, that day of redemption is at hand. So, why the dread?

From everything I’ve heard, babies do not enjoy vaccinations and many experience unpleasant after effects ranging from soreness at the injection site, to fever and illness that may linger for days, to  full-blown, life-threatening allergic reactions, to even autism.  Some experts in the USA claim that the modern inoculation schedule is too aggressive: too many vaccinations at one time overload the child’s immune system.  Dude, it’s been hard enough dealing with a normal, healthy baby.  It’s been nerve-wracking enough trying to ensure that I don’t drop her or cause her to stop breathing.  Now you’re telling me I have to get her pumped full of little mini-pellets of various diseases,  then cross my fingers and just watch her suffer until, hopefully, she comes out the other side an immunized member of modern society?  Ahhhm…feels a bit like rolling dice, to me.

Longing and dread. Longing and dread.

I thought it would make me better prepared if I spoke to another parent whose daughter is two weeks older than mine and has recently started her vaccinations.  My friend claimed the experience “wasn’t so bad” and (helpfully?) offered  to send me a video of the doctor’s visit.  My first thought was: Really? You took a video?  There are only two reasons people videotape their kids: to post on social media or to immortalize in home-movies.  Why would any of those reasons apply to your baby’s vaccination?  But I decided to watch the video anyway.  Hear nah: it should have been R-rated or whatever rating they give HORROR movies.  Freddy vs. Jason ain’t want nuttin with this video. That shit had me covered in goosebumps.  The child’s screams were otherworldly and the doctor was a monster…well…at least an asshole.  He kept saying things to the baby like, “It’s not my fault. They brought you in for this” and “Remember it’s daddy who’s holding you down”.  WTF?

So now I have visual and audio to pair with my dread. What’s worse is that the video touched some very basic, logic-defying emotions within me.  Till now, me and my baby have been cocooned together in an idyllic existence of milk and love and kisses.  She doesn’t know anything else.  She’s only been out of my womb for eight weeks. It’s too soon to introduce her to the violence of the world.  Somebody sticking you with a needle while someone else holds you down – that’s violence.  Too soon for tough love – “This will hurt but I’m doing it because I love you and it’s good for you in the long run”.  Tough love can be mistaken for betrayal – will her little mind associate her pain with the face of whichever of us (her daddy or me) is pinning her down?

Good grief! We live in a time where you can pretty much run a small country from a  metal-and-plastic device  in the palm of your hand – or on your wrist. Google is making a car that drives itself.  Amazon is working on delivering packages by drone. How come we still holding down children,  chooking them up like lil voodoo dolls and then making a note of it on cosquelle pink and yellow cards?  Oh Gorrrrm…invent something, nah!  If Louis Pasteur resurrected today he would probably ask, “So… since I gone, what allyuh was doing?”

However, Nevertheless and Notwithstanding…there is no other choice.  This is not America where everybody feels they have a choice about everything.  Is Trinidad.  And if I only make a joke and say I not vaccinating my child my mother and father would beat me (yes, big married woman like me) and nobody would give them wrong.  Yes, vaccines have side effects.  Yes, it is heart-rending to subject my baby to them. But non-vaccination has its own side effects: my child’s serious illness or death from a vaccine-preventable disease.  Now how stupid would that be?

This is not just my common-sense talking; there are real statistics that make the same point.  In the US, a rising number of parents are delaying shots for their kids or skipping certain ones altogether, citing religious or philosophical exemptions from state laws. As a result, there have been recent outbreaks of serious diseases that vaccines had virtually wiped out in the U.S., including measles, mumps and whooping cough.  The first time I saw my immunization card I thought it would be so cool to have that…a whooping cough. Sounded like fun.  But no, it’s not and it can be deadly.  According to one publication, the measles vaccine, for instance, can cause a temporary reduction in platelets (which control bleeding after an injury) in 1 in 30,000 children, but 1 in 2,000 will die if they get measles itself. The DTaP vaccine can cause seizures or a temporary “shocklike” state in 1 in 14,000 people, and acute encephalitis (brain swelling) in 11 in 1 million. But the diseases it prevents — diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough — are fatal in 1 in 20 cases, 1 in 10 cases, and 1 in 1,500 cases, respectively.

Now forget statistics and let’s deal with reality. The American CDC calls measles the “most deadly of all childhood rash/fever illnesses”.  What started as a measles outbreak among seven people who visited Disneyland in December rapidly spread to more than 26, as an unvaccinated California woman apparently transmitted the virus through airports and the theme park.  The California department of public health later retracted the statement that the woman was the source of the outbreak but you get the picture.  Imagine: I save up my last lil money and carry my child Disneyland, only for her to get mash-up in a measles outbreak. Nah!

So there is no choice.  Sarai will be vaccinated today.  And I will cry and pray while she cries.  And by the grace of God she will be fine afterwards.

Somebody say, “Amen!”

Me and my big mouth

So I went and did it. Went and opened up my mouth on “de book” and said if 10 people agreed to read it, I would write a blog. Everyone knows once you say something on de book, you’re on de hook.  So, here I am on WordPress…blog meets world.  The “About” page says a little more about why I am doing this. But hey party-people, this is my first post! Woo-hoo! Let’s celebrate!

And stay tuned.