Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Words I Keep In My Nightstand Drawer

Some people collect comic books, or vinyl records, or refrigerator magnets. I collect words. 

In the fall of 1998, my first semester in college, my best friend urged me to start a quote book. We shared an infatuation with the first two Counting Crows albums, dripping tortured lyrics that, in the throes of early adult angst, spoke to our souls. Adam Duritz sings words you can't help but pay homage to by writing them down for yourself. Suddenly I saw the world was full of words I needed to keep.

So I dug out an old hardcover journal I had been gifted in high school. With the inspirational Footprints poem on the cover, it wasn't really my style, but it had 168 lined pages ready to absorb meaningful, beautiful words, and I obliged. I wanted a list of expressive and evocative quotations that said I wasn't alone, and snapshots of the memories I might someday forget.

The very first quote I wrote down was, "Your past is where you came from, not who you are." It told me, in stark black honesty, that I could be a person who mattered despite my tumultuous childhood -- I could start over, a future as wide open as these pages, and craft my story how I wanted it. That quote proved to be the launching point of one of the most meaningful projects I've ever undertaken.

"Our thoughts are bigger on the inside."

Monday, December 7, 2020

Back Away from the Elf

I didn't think it would happen to us. Not to *my* friends. We were smart. We were practical. We knew the risks. We had read articles from doctors advising against it, heard about the struggles of other parents, and agreed that we would never turn into Those People. 

But when December came, one by one they fell victim to the contagion. They bought Elves on the Shelf.

Enemy of the people

I didn't understand what was happening. These are otherwise level-headed, rational parents who for some reason looked at their lives -- working from home, schooling from home, navigating a pandemic, plus taking on the load of Christmastime -- and thought, "You know what would be great? If we added even more daily responsibilities in the name of enchantment!"

I wanted to talk them off the ledge, shake them into sensibility, take their temperatures and suggest bedrest. But it was too late -- the elves had already been named. It had begun.

Oh, my dear friends, what have you done?

Even my husband, one of the smartest men I know, caught the sickness and tried to talk me into getting an Elf on the Shelf for our home. Our son's classroom has one named Snowelle Snow, and our second-grader is obsessed with its witchcraft. She had even convinced Santa to add a second snow day for the children to enjoy being off school and tormenting their parents who just wanted to sit down after shoveling the driveway for the third time! 

Desperately seeking an explanation, I asked him why? Why would you bring an elf into our home? Why would you sentence us to years of brainstorming and executing elf-sized pranks in varying places around the house when there is already SO. MUCH. to do during the holidays? 

This is not helping.

Monday, November 16, 2020

A Note to the Boy Who Won't Slow Down

To my dear, sweet little boy --

Some days you are a stellar nebula, roiling and swirling, birthing gravity, constantly creating itself. I am interstellar space that once contained the ingredients for making your stars. Not empty but feeling that way, made of dust and protons, I watch. 

Some days you are a swollen stream bursting at your banks, rushing forward to no clear destination. Churning and frothing with barely contained hydroelectricity, you move anything in your path that you can carry. I am a rock in your waters, fixed and surrounded, trying to steal a breath.

Some days you are the hot wind barreling through the flat plains, battering anything that dares to stand in your way. I am a windmill trying to withstand your gusts without losing my blades. I whirl with frustration, struggling to draw enough water to quench my thirst during these long days. 

Some day your energy will scale the sheer faces of awesome cliffs, it will run city marathons, it will fight tirelessly to help others. Your energy will heal in an emergency room or teach enthusiastic kindergartners. Some day your energy will build grand houses, beat back voracious fires, fill plate after plate in a restaurant kitchen on Mother's Day.

We just have to make it until then.

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Fate of Fertility Treatments is in Jeopardy, and I Have Questions

Once upon a time, I was the proud parent of 17 fertilized eggs.

Notice I did not say children. I have two beautiful, healthy, very-much-wanted children who once numbered among those embryos, but already-born people are not the same as fertilized eggs, zygotes, or embryos. I know from experience.

Several years ago, in the thick of my own infertility procedures, a specialist who was trying to console me said, "human reproduction is a wasteful and inexact process." It's true whether reproduction occurs naturally or with assistance. (This was no consolation, by the way.)

This may look fun, but it isn't.

Multiple grueling rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF) proved over and over that he was devastatingly correct. I know without a doubt that fertilization does not always equal life. And it concerns me that the next nominee for Supreme Court doesn't agree. 

Supreme Court candidate Amy Coney Barrett is a devoutly religious woman who believes life begins at fertilization. Her religion, and at least one anti-abortion advertisement she signed her name to in 2006, holds that the start of a human life should be marked when egg joins with sperm and should be respected unconditionally until natural death. The Catholicism to which she adheres forbids advanced fertility treatments, condemning IVF as immoral because children should be "begotten, not made." 

Much of the uproar surrounding this court appointment is about abortion, as the president vowed only to nominate Supreme Court justices who would strike down Roe vs. Wade. Less talked about but equally important are the rights and privileges of would-be parents trying to create a family through fertility treatments. 

I fear for what will happen to hopeful parents if the Supreme Court tips conservative, and laws affecting abortion are changed. I'm not the only with concerns about unintended consequences of dismantling Roe. Senator Tammy Duckworth recently voiced her upset, too. 

Any changes that confer personhood to an embryo would have consequences for assisted reproduction. Almost certainly, statutes affecting fertilized eggs inside a womb will also affect fertilized eggs outside of a womb. An embryo is an embryo, right? Otherwise, hypocrisy reigns supreme, and we learn that the pro-life contingent was never really concerned about the rights of the embryo at all. I'll speak to that later.

In the near future, the fate of fertility treatments may be in jeopardy. Here is my story, and the questions we should *all* consider. Infertility plagues about 1 in 8 American couples. Chances are, you know someone this will impact.

Egg + sperm =/= life
After two years of trying to get pregnant naturally and with medical help, one testicular cancer diagnosis, one discovery of low egg count, and innumerable breakdowns, my husband and I embarked on IVF treatment. In spring 2012, doctors carefully extracted a total of 21 microscopic eggs during outpatient surgery. 

These 21 eggs didn’t casually walk up to sperm in a bar and say, “Come ‘round here often?” and see what happens. An embryologist manually injected each ovum with a carefully chosen, healthy-looking sperm via a very tiny needle. They were forced to join together. In the theory of those who believe in personhood, this means a person was created. 

In actuality, four of the 21 eggs failed to fertilize. Nineteen percent – almost one-fifth – did not create a human being despite closely held beliefs that fertilization equals conception. Life did not begin for these egg-sperm combinations. In fact, nothing happened at all. And this was with medical intervention that removed all barriers, such as a sperm not being able to penetrate the egg, or multiple sperm reaching the outer egg proteins at the same time. 

Friday, September 18, 2020

School Year Resolutions

You know how it goes at the end of December. You get together with friends or strangers, watch the glittering ball drop, kiss and toast, wish everyone a happy New Year. Or maybe you eschew the party and go to bed at 10 p.m., which is invariably more enjoyable if you ask me. Either way, you wake up the next day and vow to stick to your resolutions...or actually make some this year.

About half of Americans make New Year's Resolutions. We pledge to start exercising or stop gossiping or finally write that book (you know who you are). We start the year with good intentions to be more positive and drink more water. And this time, this time we're really going to stick to those life changes. We swear.

But about three-quarters of us fail to keep our resolutions. They're too ambitious, too vague, no fun, or we flat-out forget. By late March or mid-February or January 15, those resolutions have become merely wild-eyed dreams we had when we were younger and less naive. 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

School With A Side of Pandemic

I feel like such a hypocrite.

Since March, I've been talking, telling, and pleading that the coronavirus is real, with serious consequences. I told my friends, family, and strangers on the internet that we must take steps to slow or stop the spread. Stay in when you can. Keep your social distance. Wear your mask. Our most important task right now is to reducing the number of people who face death or long-term health complications from this pernicious virus.

Now it's nearly September, and I'm voluntarily sending my children back to school in person.  

Sure, whatever. This seems smart.

We were left floundering when schools first shut down in the spring, just like most other families. Distance learning did not go well for us. Twice a week, I sat my son down in front of a Zoom meeting and spent the next 45 minutes telling him sit still, stop making faces, no one wants to see the inside of your nose, quite playing with your pencil, unmute yourself, don't work ahead of your teacher, FOR GOD'S SAKE PAY ATTENTION. I had to park him at the kitchen table where I could supervise, but that meant the 4-year-old couldn't play with her toys or watch TV because it was a distraction. So I put her in my home office with a snack and some YouTube. 

The whole thing was an exercise in bad parenting -- ignoring one kid so I could snarl through my teeth at the other. It was a relief to everyone to turn off the computer at the end of those meetings (probably the teacher too). He still cried after the last Zoom of the school year. 

Spoiler: they're both poisoned.

Both of kids are fortunate to attend a small private school that we love and they love, and they really want to go back. They long to play with friends and absorb new information -- two things that kids are built to do. 

Sunday, July 26, 2020

My Mom Was A Rock, I Am An Island, But What About My Son?

I don't have many friends.

This isn't a call for help or pity. It's just a fact. A fact that has been true my entire life: I have always struggled to make friends.

As a kid I was by myself most of the time at home, living in a series of run-down rural places or small scruffy neighborhoods without other kids my age. In elementary and junior high I had a best friend or two, but that dwindled in high school. I was not a popular teen, even in the smaller universe of band nerds. In fact, it was a little bit of the opposite -- often enduring both the covert and open ridicule that is the hallmark of growing up.

I made two or three good friends early in my college career, but we went our separate ways after dorm life. As an upperclassman, I didn't form strong friendships at the student newspaper. On the contrary; one editor printed my name on the back of a T-shirt with "Major Issues" listed as my nickname.

In my mid-20's I struggled to find women to fill my wedding party. In my 30's I joined a mom's group, but half a decade later we are only in touch via Facebook.

Like Simon and Garfunkel sang, "I am a rock, I am an island."

I am intelligent, funny, engaging, and fiercely loyal. I am also glass-half-empty, anxious, critical, and -- according to one of my favorite people -- "can be prickly." Many times throughout the years I've attempted to coax parts of my personality to be more positive or complain less. I've set New Year's resolutions and bought self-help books, kept gratitude journals and been in counseling.

But recently I've come to believe the world needs melancholy, empathetic, deep-feeling people too. How much less would the world be without artist Vincent Van Gogh, musician Kurt Cobain, comedian Lewis Black?

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Our Coronavacation

First, they closed the schools. Then the libraries. Then restaurants and indoor play spaces. For the last 10 days or so my family has been stuck at home, trying to prevent catching or spreading COVID-19, the dangerous coronavirus that has swept across the world.

It's tough to be thrust into this kind of disruption of our normally scheduled craziness. Anxiety is high, the weather is cold and rainy, and we're all getting on each other's nerves. Here is what we've been doing to stay busy.

  • Distance learning 
    Somebody help this octopus
  • Bickering
  • Distance learning while bickering
  • Picking apart the mixed Play-Doh colors
  • Using books as skates to slip and slide across the living room floor
  • Looking for toilet paper
  • Crying in the home office
  • Kid yoga that devolved into rolling on the floor and kicking one another 
    Moments before it all went south
  • Not checking our retirement accounts
  • More distance learning
  • Looking for hand soap
  • Yelling "stop yelling!"
  • Eating chocolate in the pantry alone
  • "You better be careful! I'm not taking anyone to the hospital right now!"
  • Somersaults across the living room floor
  • More crying
  • More distance learning, including a gym assignment (?)
  • More yelling
  • Interrupting mom trying to work from home 
    Not following social distancing recommendations
  • "Are kittens real?"
  • Fact checking social media
  • Exploring the woods behind our house 
    Wild vinca and almost-ready daffodils
  • Giving the reluctant dog a massage
  • "Stop hitting each other!"
  • Arguing over what to watch next on YouTube and Netflix
  • Lying about bedtime
  • "I don't know if dogs believe in ghosts."
  • Begging for silence
  • Stress-eating ice cream

We've got at least two more weeks, probably more. Godspeed, fellow parents. We may be going crazy but at least we're going together. 

Thursday, February 27, 2020

How to Survive Lunch

A few weeks ago, my neighbor's infant daughter had an allergic reaction of unknown origin. She landed in the ER with hives and swelling, and my neighbors felt worried and overwhelmed. Understandably so. Raising a child with serious or potentially life-threatening allergies adds an extra layer of unpredictability and fear to parenthood. It's like having unmarked landmines in your back yard, and telling your kid to go outside and play.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it.

It's been almost six years since my son was diagnosed with food allergies to virtually all tree nuts, peanuts (FYI, peanuts don't grow on trees and aren't actually nuts), and sesame seeds. Thankfully we've never endured a second allergic reaction, but we're always ready just in case.

This is how we manage his food allergies:

Always carry emergency epinephrine
When he was 10 months old, I gave my son some peanut butter and he developed a mild case of hives. Our pediatrician sent us to an allergist, where a skin test showed he was also allergic to pistachios and sesame seeds. A couple of years later his allergies increased, much to my dismay.

Part of his treatment plan includes carrying an emergency epinephrine injector with us at all times. I keep one in the tote bag I carry daily, and for short or simple outings (like weekly swimming lessons), we ditch the bag and carry just the injector.

In the beginning we used a traditional Epi Pen, which is long and skinny and about the size of a cigar. For the last couple of years we've had Avi-Q, which has significant benefits. First, it's about the width and length of a credit card, so it's much easier to carry in a pocket. Second, it talks to you. When you remove the cap, the injector gives step-by-step instructions on how to administer the injection. Great for someone who has never had to give this injection before and is panicked because a child is struggling to breathe. So, you know, everybody except a registered nurse.

Talk to your child about what an allergic reaction would feel like
Accidents can happen. If my child were to take a bite of a walnut brownie or sesame seed bun, it's crucial he recognizes the symptoms of an allergic reaction so he can tell an adult. These can include tingling in the lips or throat (sometimes kids mistakenly describe this as a "spicy" feeling), an itchy rash, and/or feeling like he can't breathe for any reason. We tell my first grader that if he has any of these symptoms, he is to notify a grown up right away so they can take the appropriate action.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Things I Never Thought I'd Have to Say

It turns out there's not a lot of logic involved in parenting. There's bravado, confusion, joy, and exhaustion, but very little logic.

Sometimes I hear the words coming out of my mouth and think, "WTF did I just say?" I'm not sure what else I expected. After all, children are snack terrorists who have no filter and feel everything at 11. If it pops into their little brains, they do it. Or somebody does it. Because both of my children disavow all knowledge of the majority of the things that happen around here.

So I began compiling a running list of Things I Never Thought I'd Have to Say. Things that make me shake my head and deepen that wrinkle between my eyebrows. Things that make me wonder if there's something wrong with me, with them, or both.

In the early years, it was mostly about things that shouldn't be in the mouth.

Please don't lick the dog.
Please don't lick the trashcan.
Stop letting the dog lick your tongue.
We don't eat scabs.
Why are you eating yogurt off the dog's leash?
We don't lick doorknobs.
Don't eat bathtub cake.

Then it became more about hygiene and propriety.

Why is your eyebrow stiff?
No, nobody wants to see mama's belly button while she's eating.
We don't run over the dog with the lawnmower.
Did someone spill milk in my shoe?
It's not okay to run around the house with your pants half-down.
Green beans are not a styling product.
Is that a cow in your pants?
Where did the head of this dog go?
Don't roar with your mouth full.
Who lets a chicken and a cat take a bath together anyways?

And then, everything got weird.