Friday, October 9, 2015

There's a Monster in My House, and It Doesn't Live Under the Bed

Currently, my son is 8 months old, and my daughter is almost 3 years old ("on November 13th" she'll tell you). Before having kids, I expected that taking care of a baby would be difficult, but in my experience, having a toddler in my house is much much harder. 

If you have, have had, or have ever taken care of a toddler, then maybe you know how I feel. You're probably familiar with this scenario. I know that what we're experiencing is not out of the ordinary, that it is in fact, to be expected.

L is my daughter, M is me.
M: Sweetheart, how about you try sitting on the potty before we head out?
L: No!
M: I'd really like you to just give it a try, really quick.
L: Um, I'm sorry, I don't want to.
M: Why not?
L: Um, because I don't want to!
M: Okay, well, you need to try before we head out, so I'll ask you again in three minutes.
(some times goes by)
M: Alright sweetheart, I'd like for you to try sitting on the potty now.
L: Okay 
(starts walking to the bathroom, gets to the door, turns around, suddenly furious)
L: But I told you I don't want to go!
M: I need you to try, otherwise we can't go to the playground.
L: I don't want to go to the playground.
M: You don't?
L: I want to go to the playground!
M: Hon, if we're going to the playground, I need you to try sitting on the potty before we go.
L: No!
M: Okay, then I'm sorry, but we have to stay in.
L: (more furiousness, some crying, some screaming, some stomping, some throwing of objects, some hitting the air, some attempted swings at her brother, before going back into the playroom and reading a book) 
M: (starting to get ruffled, I don't even care about going to the playground, this was her idea to begin with, so whatever, let's just stay home, meanwhile Baby J is whining, he's been strapped to me this whole time, maybe getting a little warm)
L: (playing, standing near the bookshelf, pees, everywhere, all over her clothes, all over the rug on the floor, and stomps in it, flinging wet clothes on our new sofa, it's on the toys, it's on some books)

And this is when the monster comes out. It's quick, a flash, a hot feeling that creeps up behind my eyes, a gurgling in my throat, a hard and sharp pit in my stomach. I feel the monster spread to my hands, they shake, it's in my neck and head, they shake. And in this moment I understand how it is that some parents physically hurt their children. I understand how bruises develop on little bodies and how tiny bones are broken. I am so angry. As angry as I have ever been at anybody. 

Wow, that escalated quickly, Lynnette, you might think. Or, come on, Lynnette, aren't you exaggerating? But here's a bit of dark truth. If anything, I'm underplaying it. I've chosen a scenario that I think might draw some sympathy from you. In reality, there are many scenarios that are far more innocuous, more universally understandable, and that same monster shows up, just as quickly, just as angry, just as dangerous.

It's a monster I keep hidden well from the world. Even my closest friends, people who know me very well, over many years, have not met my monster. Maybe my husband has seen it; maybe a few times in our lives. Maybe. I reserve this terrible creature for my tiny, innocent daughter, who I love more than life itself. She's heard it in my voice; seen it in my eyes. 

Here's what I actually believe about my toddler. I believe she's developmentally in a stage where her job is to test her boundaries. I believe that her saying "no," and "I don't want to," are signs of strong and normal development. It means she is a bright kid, who is asserting her independence.
I don't believe a child this age is capable of being a jerk - she may be acting like one, yes, but she doesn't have malicious intent. I believe she's at a stage where she wants to try things on her own, but also needs badly to feel safe and protected. I don't believe she's a bad kid. I don't think she can be bad. I believe these moments of "rebellion" and "defiance" are her way of asking me, "am I safe here?" "will you have my back no matter what?" and "do you love me?" She needs me to endure the meltdowns, to make my expectations clear, but to find at the end that I am still here, not withholding love from her, and not punishing her for having completely age-appropriate feelings and impulses. Despite all these beliefs, and how much I want to say, "Yes! Yes, my darling, you are my treasure, and I love you, no matter what," I encounter this monster, over and over again.

I've seen this monster before. It's the same one that I glimpsed behind my dad's eyes when we were kids. It's the same monster that spanked me for reasons I can't remember. It whipped out my dad's belt and slammed it against the kitchen table. It banged a chair against the floor, a head against a wall. It lived in the raised red hand print shaped mark on my thigh; it lingered while I watched and waited for the mark to flatten and fade. It's the same monster that I heard in my grandpa's voice, yelling at my grandma, it seemed nightly, shaking the walls and floor beneath my sister's and my bedrooms, waking us up after we'd already gone to bed. And while this monster has not driven me to repeat history, I certainly recognize its growl, and the feeling of uncontrollable anger.

This is an incredibly "un-saving face" kind of blog post to write. Not the kind of thing a good Chinese daughter writes about her family, shining a light on unsavory family details, calling out a grandpa on his abuse, years after he's already left the earth. Why bring that up? Just take responsibility for your own monster, Lynnette, stop trying to blame it on your father, and your father's father.  
I think it's a common thing, to follow in your family's footsteps. It's why we have idioms about apples falling from trees. And so often we do the thing our family has done, in the name of respect, and honor. We default, as parents, to parenting the way our parents did. Sometimes we consciously choose to do what they did, saying, We turned out fine, didn't we?

I think this monster has been speaking to my family for many generations, and that the parents who have come before me have also heard what I'm hearing, a warning, "watch out, you've got to control this kid, make her listen to you, or else." Or else... or else you'll end up with a spoiled kid, or else she'll take advantage of you and others, or else she won't know wrong from right. We listen to this monster and do what it tells us, in an effort to protect, to teach. That's our job as parents isn't it? 

But I'm interested in saving a new face. The beautiful faces of my toddler daughter and my baby son. Lots of things get passed on through the generations of a family: the appearance of our hair and eyes, the tendency toward having bad vision, a talent for music, diabetes, alcoholism, and I also believe, monsters. I don't have much control over whether my kids end up receiving a lot of those things, but if there's anything I can do to stop this monster, I'd like to try. I'd like to save my children's faces from having to feel this monster creep up behind their eyes and ears. I'd like to save their faces from wearing any of this monster's scars.

So I think I'd like to swallow this monster. Better yet, I'd like to demolish it, drown it, burn it, make it small and powerless. I want to do to it, all the things it makes me want to do to my daughter when it appears. I'd like to wipe it off the face of this earth, end its relationship with me and my family, forget it completely. 

But I can't give my children a monster-less world. This world is full of monsters, and these feelings are real. Perhaps there's even a way to honor the old things passed onto me by my family, both the seemingly good, and the seemingly bad.

So I'd like to say thank you, dear monster, for your urgency, your passion, and your rage. I hope that I and my children will spring to action when we're needed, will find things worthy of our passion, and will know which things deserve our rage. I see you, dear monster, and I thank you for your warning, but you may go now, because I am not afraid of you or what you have to say.

I've been reading No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame by Janet Lansbury. It's helping me keep the monster at bay.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

National Breastfeeding Awareness Month is Over.

All last month I read blogposts and articles about breastfeeding and have wanted to get in on the conversation. I have pages of handwritten thoughts on the matter. But the month has come and gone, and I've struggled to edit those thoughts.

I've been wanting to write about my boobs for quite some time. I wouldn't have guessed I would ever feel this way. Before having children, I'd have put my money on me being the kind of mom who would want to nurse privately, discreetly, out of sight, who would go to great lengths to make other people feel comfortable. But here I am, wanting to write about boobs. Breasts.

This is a conversation I have with my daughter. We have a book aimed at preparing older siblings for the arrival of a new baby. The book talks about how the younger baby sibling is going to be drinking milk from mom's breasts. And every time we get to that part, she asks me again, "Breasts?" "Breasts." "Breasts?" Like, "am I saying that right?" She laughs, "Okay, but I call them mama milks!" She'll be 3 years old in November, and she is familiar with breastfeeding because it is something she does everyday.

I've been stressing about what to write about breastfeeding, because I have felt some sort of pressure to "make a case." When I flip through those handwritten pages, I find defenses, apologies, explanations, and proof.

Last December, when I was quite pregnant with my son and my daughter had recently turned two, I found this article circulating in some of my circles about a woman who was nursing her six and a half year old daughter. Despite the article's many examples of positive results from her full-term nursing, her story garnered only a bit of support. It felt to me that the whole of the online public was appalled with her choice, calling her lots of things from "extreme" or "disgusting" to "completely insane" and "sexually abusive."

A few weeks later, an NPR piece came out called What's Right About a Six-year-old Who Breastfeeds. The story included scientific and anthropological evidence for why "extended breastfeeding" is beneficial and quite normal throughout much of the world. An anthropologist interviewed for this piece, who breastfed her own children until they were 3 and 5.5, acknowledges that the information can be hard for people to stomach in the moment, and thus encourages others like herself to “shout it from the rooftops once their children are grown.” After this article came out, I found silent solace in the fact that I could one day, decades from now, shout from the rooftops that I had nursed my child into toddlerhood (and beyond?).

But a couple decades is a long time to wait to talk about something that is such a big part of my current everyday.

I don't share my story in order to convince, or persuade. I am not interested in judging anyone's choices as a parent. I am honored, and incredibly fortunate, to have the opportunity and ability to do what we do. I'll put these thoughts on the page, relieving myself of the pressure to find the most important or compelling things to say. My story is not unique. I am joined by mothers in my local community, and by thousands of mothers in online communities who do what I do. My simple goals are to contribute to the conversation and to come out of the tandem nursing closet.

I've hardly been completely secretive about nursing both my kids simultaneously. But in those moments when I have shared it, I have felt myself apologizing for it. And I hate that tensing in my neck, and the way my voice gets high, like I'm embarrassed or ashamed. I hate hearing myself joke, "Ha-ha, I'm sorry! I guess, I've turned into one of those weirdo hippie moms!" I'd like to stop prefacing my story with "I'm sorry," because I am not sorry.

I used to joke with a dear friend about how the time to stop nursing was when your child could start asking for it in his own voice with his own words.  It seemed reasonable at the time, from where I stood, childless and very unaware of my breasts.

My daughter started to ask for "mama milk" a little past her first birthday. A few months later she started to say "other side milk." She was just learning to walk, and it felt like a bad time to stop. I think both she and I were excited that we could so clearly understand one another. Around that time, we found that we were expecting her younger sibling.

It's the case that many mothers lose their milk supply when they are pregnant, and that many babies self-wean because they lose interest due to the decrease in milk, or the changing taste. I thought it was likely that would happen to my daughter.

That was over a year and a half ago.  My son was born a couple months after she turned two. I'm sure there were changes in my milk, but they didn't affect my daughter's interest in nursing.
                                                                                                                                                                These days, there are certainly many times (i.e. in the middle of the night, when we're out in public) that feel inopportune to nurse. I ask her, more than a little exasperatedly, "Why do you need mama milk, right now?"

And I can see her gearing up to answer; thinking carefully about her words. She doesn't want to mess it up for herself. Her voice is steady and slow, but quickens a little, the way mine does when I'm nervous I won't get something I really really want.

"But mama!" her voice and face are bright. Then, "mama," low and calm. "Because I really really love mamamilk sooooooo much!"

"Why do you love it so much?"

"Because!" Brightly again and a little incredulous. "It makes me so so happy! It makes me feel very happy!"

Nursing my toddler daughter is taxing at times. When I'm full, nursing her feels like a wonderful and great relief: the world's gentlest and most effective breast pump. When I'm tired, or depleted, nursing her feels like an icky skin crawling chore. But then I ask myself how many times I have been able to identify so precisely and verbalize so clearly, that something I love brings me happiness. It doesn't feel right to me to respond to her pure and straightforward desire and request, with termination. It doesn't make sense to me to stop now either.

Nursing my seven-month-old son is sometimes like offering a warm and soft coconut to a tiny, hungry, very soft, and squishy chipmunk. It's like curling up in the softest, coziest hammock, and letting the barely-there breeze swing you to sleep. And other times I am being sucked up by a baby beast, who yanks at my hair or tries to remove my lips from my face with his very strong tiny fists as he drinks. I remember hearing about how breastfeeding is a special way to "bond" with your baby. Yes, I think that is true. But never did a word feel so inadequate to describe the experience. Nursing, feels to me, like the closest I can get to my kids while still remaining a separate person.

When I was pregnant with my son, we talked about how "Baby Junior" (his in utero nickname) would come out someday and would want to have mama milk too. My daughter would cup my opposite breast while she was nursing, then take a break to tell me, "this one is for Baby Junior." My husband and I wondered how much she was understanding about my pregnancy. The idea that she'd be joined by a new tiny person, who would one day take her toys, and share her milk, seemed to us a very abstract idea for a two-year-old to grasp.

I'll never know how much she truly understood, but on the day she met her baby brother, she demonstrated that there was some part of what we'd been saying for the past nine months that stuck with her. When she heard him cry for the first time, she jumped up next to me and patted one of my breasts. "Maybe he wants mama milk," she said. She stood by my side as we urged a 36-hour-old Baby Junior to latch. She actually took hold of my boob and pressed it toward his mouth, offering it to him while he cried. When he had latched, she sat down on one half of my lap and joined us, nursing on the other side, like it was something she'd done a million times.

I don't nurse them at the same time everyday, it's something that happens from time to time. Often times my daughter wants to join, when she sees me nursing her brother. And lately, my son wants to join when he sees me nursing his sister, especially in the afternoons on the days she's at daycare. It's a way we get to all say to one another, "Hello, it's nice to see you again. I missed you today"

Nursing them at the same time is like being in on a sibling secret. They lock eyes, and from the very moment my son was home with us, the two of them have had this opportunity to communicate intimately. When he was days old, she would reach out and touch his head, or stroke his back. As he got older, he would eventually start to reach out and touch her face, or tug on her hair. She laughs at this, which makes him laugh, which in turn makes me laugh. There is no possible way to not laugh when you have two giggling children latched onto your breasts. They hold hands. It is not something I taught them to do. They reach for each other and laugh, and their little hands are saying "I'm here."

Breastfeeding awareness. I am so aware, so so aware of my breasts these days. They are so presently a part of my life, They have a big job to do.

I've been asked, "but aren't you looking forward to having your body back?"

And this is what I think. Nobody took my body from me. I never did lose it. I love this awesome body, that birthed two babies like a champ, with breasts that fill with milk and make my children feel so so happy, that have the power to make two screaming children cuddle, coo, and sometimes fall asleep within seconds. I love my breasts that never let me forget that my kids are here, even when I'm not with them. They tell me when my kids need me, or when I need them. Right now, this body can squelch loneliness, soothe "owies", calm tantrums, ease upset stomachs, silence monsters, and ward off sickness.   This magic body is mine, all mine.

National Breastfeeding Awareness Month may be over, but I don't see why we can't keep the Breastfeeding Awareness spirit alive, all year long.