Thursday, December 13, 2012

Navigating the “Mommy Blog” World: A Primer for the Newly Initiated

Note: This post has taken forever for me to finish, mostly due to the fact that the more blogs I come across the more I want to read and reference, and the more I realize how unqualified I am to summarize the genre! So just know, dear readers, that this post is a work-in-progress, and that I may fall prey to passing quick judgments here and there in my haste to find the blogs that I personally resonate with the most.

Recently I stumbled upon a list via the parenting site Babble, which names their “Top 100” mom blogs for 2012. Eager to wrap my head around the scope of this genre, I've spent a fair amount of time scanning through this list (as well as the list from the year before). Who’s popular, what’s been done and said, and when did the propensity of mom blogs reach such a critical masse that the term itself was created? I’m not sure, but they seem to have taken off in the last decade.

I’ve only just joined the “mom blog world” myself over the last two or three years (if you count pregnancy). I wasn’t a mom when I started my blog in 2008, but gradually as my identity as a mother took over, it naturally followed that most of my posts began to be centered around motherhood. And thus, a “mommy blogger” by default was born.

A 2010 New York Times article says that, “According to a 2009 study by BlogHer, iVillage and Compass Partners, 23 million women read, write or comment on blogs weekly.” And just how many mom blogs are out there? It’s hard to know exactly. Digital Mom Blog claims that in 2010 there were 3.9 million mom bloggers, with a projected 4.3 million blogging by 2013. But an article in the Washington Post points out, the term “mommy blogger” has “spread to encompass blogs that were never intended to be explorations of one’s inability to find time to shower. The term now covers pretty much any female writer who has ever mentioned her own child and who, even occasionally, writes about an issue that relates to parenting.” 

In any case, it’s safe to say there are a lot of moms writing and reading blogs on the Internet. Up until recently, however, I hardly knew of any except for a few written by people I know. Mostly, I’d just stumble across links to a post here or there through my Facebook feed, and promptly forget about the blog because I rarely fall in love with one post enough to immediately sign up for regular updates. (Call me a luddite, but I’ve never figured out the whole RSS feed thing.) Anyway, I give enough of my time to Facebook as it is, so I’m not exactly starving for more Internet reading, but I am curious to know what I may be missing. Babble’s list has helped introduce me to the lay of the land. It also divides the rankings into categories like “Best Writing”, “Funniest”, “Most Controversial”, etc., which helped me become more aware of all the styles.

Personally, I am drawn to blogs with good writing and intelligent, contemplative, compassionate voices—in other words, blogs with a bit of meat and depth. I also follow a few thought-provoking, research-based blogs that are focused on child development and parenting that respects a child's rights and humanity (like Janet Lansbury’s ‘ElevatingChildcare”, whose posts on raising infants and toddlers are always illuminating; as well Core Parenting out of Portland; and Abundant Life Children, mostly focused on preschool age development). Those aforementioned post links daily via their Facebook page to other great sources and articles. I also follow Lu Hanessian's Parent2ParentU on Facebook, where she links to her insightful articles about how we learn and grow as we parent.

Sure, I like a good laugh now and then and I admire a woman with a sharp wit, but from my initial scanning it seems like there’s a propensity of those kind of voices in the mommy blog world—recounting their daily foibles as parents, calling on moms to lighten up, embrace their imperfections, admit to their vices (like drinking on the job), or otherwise confess to their less than ideal parenting moments. (You can often spot this type of blog by its graphic of a 50’s era housewife holding a cocktail.) It is my suspicion that this is the kind of voice that spearheaded the popularity of the genre, giving isolated mothers an outlet to vent through and laugh with. Virtual communities often form by their readers, offering them a place to chime in and “confess” their own mommy issues or vices.

These voices are refreshing when you compare them to the holier-than-thou, striving for perfection, competitive parenting culture that pervades our culture, but once you’ve read a few of these blogs, a lot of them start to sound awful similar. A few of the super popular ones that have been around a while, no doubt for good reason, are: the Bloggess, ScaryMommy, and Dooce (who gained notoriety after being fired from her job in 2002 after blogging about her co-workers, and was later dubbed “Queen of the Mommy Bloggers” by the New York Times due to her massive following, not to mention income garnered from blogging). All of these aforementioned women, by the way, have gone on to score book deals.

Then there’s a sub-genre of mom blogs I’ll lump together dedicated to crafts, cooking, or fashion and design (i.e. the perky, “useful” blogs, for the productive mother in all of us). I mostly skip these. I enjoy cooking (when it doesn’t interfere with my other goals for the day) and I feel happy when I remember to pull out the paints and engage my toddler in art for more than five minutes, but I doubt I’ll ever be one those moms who goes out of her way to buy special materials for some seasonal craft project, following step-by-step instructions from someone’s blog. That’s too much effort for me, why I love Cedar’s art-oriented preschool teacher preschool. As far as my interest in fashion or home decor go these days, if I can make a solo trip to Value Village every few months, give away the things that don’t fit once a year, get a haircut twice a year, and fix or replace necessary items within a few weeks of them breaking, then I’m doing just fine. But if you lean towards the crafty/styly/culinary side, I won’t hold it against you.

There are also blogs that I will call the earnest “chicken soup for the mom-soul blogs,” a.k.a. the nourish your spirit, motivational messaging version of the “form a supportive community with other followers” mom blogs. To be honest, some of these make me yawn. Take time for yourself, let go of imperfection, dwell in the moment, practice gratitude, set clear intentions… Don’t get me wrong, these are great messages and I do follow one of these via my Facebook feed (Awesomely Awake), but they aren’t the kind of blogs that get me excited to share and repost. I guess I’m just more interested in blogs that are more nuanced, personal, and literary. (This post from Momastery does a good job of striking that balance between conversational, personal, and meaningful.) I enjoy getting my dose of inspiration as a parent, not so much from a list of axioms or ideas, but rather from reading richly told stories or essays that reveal their underlying ruminations or messages in slightly more subtle ways. I enjoy well written blogs where the basic humanity, angst, joy, and depth inherent in being alive can transcend the seemingly “narrow” topic of motherhood to reach many.

For example, I’ve been blown away Emily Rapp’s stunningly honestly, brutal and moving account of watching her child, Ronan, die of Tay Sach’s disease on her blog Little Seal (Emily also has a book forthcoming about this experience in March). I also adore my friend Christin Taylor’s humble and insightful blog, where she reflects on themes like parenting, spirituality and faith (from an open-minded Christian perspective), friendship, starting over in a new town, and the elusive work-family balance. And from the Boggle list, I admire Alice Bradley's blog Finslippy and Her Bad Mother, both of which have been around for years, and can strike that rare balance of being intelligent, humorous, and political. (Incidentally, both Little Seal and Her Bad Mother earned a place in Time Magazines Top 25 blogs of the year—that’s ALL blogs, mind you, not “just” mom blogs.)

Realize, dear readers, that the blogs I mention here are a mere drop in the bucket, and I’m quite certain there are all kinds of gems out there that I’d follow if I knew about them. For instance, I loved this post I ran across by Fine and Fair- Twenty-Five Things This Mother Will Probably Never Tell Her Son, a kind of feminist rebuttal to another blogger’s post. I also like posts that examine the role of motherhood, like this one by Ask Moxie, in which she distinguishes how parenting is more of a relationship than a job. And I’ve also dipped into Dispatch from Utopia's "Writer with Kids" series in which mother-writers reflect on how they juggle both roles in their lives. But still, it's a rare blog that I fall in love with enough to want to read every single post. I suppose it's more of a gradual relationship you build, until overtime you realize you are a "follower".

Naturally, we all have our own tastes, and many of us are most drawn to voices which somehow reflects our own lives or sentiments. For instance, I’m drawn to the blogs where the moms are parenting a toddler; the writer is liberal and spiritual engaged (although that can mean so many things to different people); and where the bloggers are also writers outside of their role as "mommy bloggers."

Frankly, as a writer who is aware of the fact that the term “mom blog” (and especially “mommy blog”) somehow carries a slight derivative tone, I don’t like to think of myself as a “mommy blogger.” (Canadian blogger of Her Bad Mother has written a good post about this phenomena here:  "I Am Mommy Blogger, Hear Me Roar". ) To my mind, I don’t “just” write about motherhood, and even when I do, the underlying themes are more universal—(i.e. the ‘writing, paradox and love’ part of my byline.)  But I seriously doubt that many people who aren’t mothers or at least women regularly read my blog. Call it a hunch. And why would they? Who has time these days for extra reading that doesn’t feel directly relevant to their lives, especially when there’s so much to choose from? 

As I scan through all these mom blogs, I often go to their “About” page, because I am curious “who they are” or were before they achieved blogging notoriety. (Note to self: revise my About page to be more personable and spunky.) Did they start their blogs in obscurity, writing for a few friends and family, but then somehow (how?) expand and manage to reach thousands? How many of them perhaps had some kind of web background or marketing savvy that helped to launch their blogs above the amateurs from day one? I’m also curious how many of them have stayed true to writing about whatever they want to write about, versus who might have gotten caught up in their new popularity and thus felt pressure to somehow become more informational, prolific, or inspirational once their readership grew and their own myopic lens felt too, well, myopic? And then, conversely, how many of them have just gone on writing about their daily ins and outs with their kids and spouses and their readers like them for precisely this reason, following their lives like a reality show of sorts? Some mom bloggers no doubt saw their readership grow once they inadvertently stumbled into a new, more specific, profound territory in the midst of motherhood (i.e. a divorce, infertility, depression, a special needs child, or the death of a child) and ended up becoming a leading voice in this sub-genre of mom-blogs, thus “branding” or distinguishing their blogs from the masses, because that's where life led them.

No doubt plenty of other bloggers are also not fond of the term “mommy blog”, especially those of us who (snobbishly perhaps) consider ourselves to be “serious writers” or those who find themselves lumped into this category simply because they are a woman, with kids, who blogs. Liz Gumbinner of Mom 101 has a great post "Mommy Blogs are Women Blogs" in which she sees and embraces the term in a more positive light, and if you go on to read the comments, you'll see that many of her readers are not moms, as well.

Certainly it is easy to understand how the early years of motherhood especially lend themselves to the previously uninitiated writers taking up blogging. Think about it. You are home all day with your child(ren), often feeling isolated and in need of more adult conversation. Perhaps you have chosen to leave your career for a few years or an indefinite amount of time to be with the kids, either because it makes sense financially to do so or because you want to, or perhaps you never found your calling in any “career” before you discovered motherhood. Regardless, you don’t have the time or ability (e.g. money) to pursue side jobs or hobbies outside of the home, but you do have little pockets of time during the kid’s naptime, pockets of childcare, or time after they go to bed—and you do have access all-day to the world wide web. You have plenty that you read or muse about each day “on your own” with the little ones, all of which is the perfect formula for creating a blog. Motivation to take your thoughts outside of your journal or mind, motivation to start a new endeavor, without any pressure to “succeed.”

As for the blogs that do go on to attract thousands of readers, and then get sponsorship, advertising, or post regular “give aways”, these commercial ventures turn me off, but then who am I to judge a mom who realizes she can make money and support herself off her writing? More power to them, I suppose, even though I can’t see myself going that direction-- and I don’t really need to worry about it seeing that my readership is mostly made up of friends and acquaintances.

Yes, I admit, there is a part of me that envies those with a larger following. It’s the same part of me that wants to publish more of my work, to be read, to be motivated to produce more, and ultimately to be a part of a larger dialogue and community. But mostly, I’m just doing this because I enjoy it. Writing a blog keeps me writing. It’s a personal outlet, a way for me to motivate to write more, and to be more articulate or explore a subject in greater depth than I would in my journal or in a Facebook post. If I can connect with or inspire others along the way, then that’s a huge bonus that makes my day.

Sure, I check my blog stats occasionally and experience a surge of delight when the numbers go up, but if I really cared about readership, I would probably make an effort to stop making all my posts so damn long. (Most people, not even my dearest friends, don’t have the attention span for a long post.) I would also post more often, and perhaps try to write an occasional post in the form of a list that are easy to read, pass on, and potentially go viral. And while I’m at it, I should probably include more photos, more eye candy, and update my whole “look.” In short, I should play to the medium which is about getting a quick fix during lunch or naptime.

Anyway, although I may grumble about how being a mother is just a part of what I write about, I will say that motherhood has given me an endless supply of new writing fodder (and also an endless desire to have more time to do so). Before giving birth, I often struggled to find a new blog topic that didn’t seem just way too terribly self-obsessed, steeped in privileged, or dull. At core, motherhood is anything from dull. And although blogs in themselves are a self-absorbed medium, the act of becoming a mother does a number to your ego and reframes your relationship to your life and outlook in a way that nothing else does. To me, and to many other parents out there, parenting is so many things: difficult, grueling, joyful, rich, rewarding, comical, and often profound—the mix of which, to my mind, makes for fascinating reading.  

So, you see, I’m frustrated by the cultural assumption that writing about motherhood— that is, writing about being a woman, about nurturing others, about gender roles, about education, patience, stamina, creativity, ritual, and leading the way in raising the next generation-- is somehow not considered “serious” in the way that writing about, oh, politics, destruction, or war might be. And I’m annoyed by the way we lump together all of the more literary, political, or thoughtful blogs about motherhood (and then some) into the same category as the blogs that are indeed just someone’s attempt to keep the inlaws up to speed. That being said, even if you are “just” a stereotypical mommy blogger who writes about her daily foibles with her kids or trying to find time to shower—who’s to say that these aren’t interesting topics? It’s probably safe to say that those who mock this genre are usually men.

I’m here to tell you that there’s a ton of fantastic writing out there about motherhood and blogs are just a part of it. A wealth of voices are out there-- from the raunchy to sublime-- and there still is room for so much more.  After all, as others have mused before, it’s only recently that mothers have had the time to actually write about their lives as they are unfolding—not to mention the access to an immediate audience of sympathetic readers. True, a lot has already been said and done out there in the “mommy blog world”, but it’s still not nearly enough.

Feel free to share with me some of your favorite motherhood blogs, regardless of the "sub-genre" and my "tastes". ;) I admire all women who have delved into this profession/obsession/hobby/passion, and I’d love to keep discovering more!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Still On The Fence: More Thoughts on Life Balance and Having Number Two

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything here again. I have excuses, yes, I’ve been busy. Working on my manuscript, teaching workshops, pitching classes, doing housework, engulfed in family life, and so on. I’ve started posts for this blog, but not finished them as more pressing deadlines take over. And my perfectionist tendencies always keep me from just rattling off a few random paragraphs. That’s not really my forte, anyway. I’m an essayist at heart, not a blogger.
But in any case, I still regularly feel the need to purge the crusty layers that build up, to vent, to muse, and to locate my center of gravity beyond all the thoughts and tangents: to locate what, at core, has been going on. So, here goes.

First off, I finished another round of Writing Motherhood in October, and am now wrapping up a round of Writing Your Birth Story. Both have been good; and both have taught me how I might refine the experience, for the participants and for myself. Namely, I still want to make the workshops longer. One month always goes by too fast, but then I worry that less people will sign up if it’s longer—because of the time commitment, the money, and thus the greater element of risk involved. But I crave the opportunity to go deeper into the writing process and the community that we form each session, and that can only come from more time together. So next March, I will offer a six-week, in-person Motherhood workshop series that taps into craft, in addition to the usual free-writing and focus on process. And sometime in the late spring, another (mostly) online Birth Story workshop. Stay tuned.

Another thing I’ve been weighing still is whether I want to have another child. Some days, it feels obvious, if only because I can’t yet let go of the underlying longing to know what it would be like to go through the experience of motherhood “all over again”, yet on a new level. To imagine getting to know another child of mine, to go through a similar process of discovery and bonding, but also, to know that this child will be a completely different person than Cedar. How would this feel to go through motherhood again, yet this time a bit more seasoned, and with a different child? A part of me can’t stand to not find out.

There is something deeply fascinating to me about the whole unfolding process of motherhood, despite all the sleep deprivation and angst at not having enough time to myself. Motherhood has offered the ultimate paradox for my creative life, in that while I’ve been constantly struggling to get more time to write and teach, I also have never felt this over-brimming with projects and ideas of things to write about. Almost three years in now, and motherhood, more than ever, still feels like such a rich, unmined territory to tap. Whole stages of mother-child-father-universe relationships have gone by, that I simply haven’t had the time to capture by pen. And so if I do go through motherhood again, maybe I’ll get a second chance to approach these topics all over again. Granted, from a new layer of insight.

But then, my devil’s advocate pipes in, I will also be even more busy, and catapulted back into the early days with hardly any time to myself. Instead, now, my “breaks” will consist of time that I am “only” with the baby, while Cedar is in school or with others. It might be years before I regain the equilibrium I have finally gained now, the space where it actually feels possible to mother, to write, to publish, and to teach—to do a bit of everything I want to do to feel satisfied inside. Instead, I will have to go back to a period of “just mothering” (as if that isn’t intense enough by itself), with a little scribbling and reading on the side. Teaching will be put on hold for a while, because as much as I love it, some basic minimum amount of writing needs to come first for me. And publishing? This blog will have to continue to suffice.

Any big publishing goals I have will need to happen before another baby comes. This much feels clear. That’s why the last time I was expecting, I made a final push to send out my manuscript to small presses. That’s why I haven’t done much of anything with my book for two years, until finally late this summer I took the plunge and paid someone to read the whole thing and give me feedback, to will myself into seeing it and loving it and being motivated to work on it from a fresh perspective.

I wrote a new introduction and epilogue, drawing out certain themes, reframing the ‘arc’ of the book anew. I actually feel like it is good again, worthy of the work it will take to get it out there, worthy of the money I plan to spend to make it look professional (assuming I self-publish, the current plan). Worthy of the energy it will take to launch my own book tour, to market, to update my blog or make a new website, and to get myself excited about a project that is so old, all over again. I am motivated. I want to do this. I want to birth this labor of love of mine, this coming of age memoir, this project through which I’ve learned so much (and would like to have some closure around, please).

But the deadline keeps getting pushed forward. Because I have so little concentrated time to focus. I did have two and a half full days alone to work a few weeks ago (when my husband brought Cedar to his Grandma’s for the weekend) and I accomplished more in a couple days than I would for many months in the usual piece-meal way that I must work. I need more of those intensive working chunks. I am not planning any classes for December-February, with the hope that I will finish the book and start in on the publishing process then. But then I have been saying this—that I’m “almost done”—for a long time. And if I didn’t know myself better, I’d start to doubt in my own resolve. Only I know each time I say it, it’s that much more closer to true. And I know how much work I’ve already put in, and I know how close it is. And so I know, I must do this. I must put it out there into the world. And this must happen soon, certainly before any pregnancy or new baby could enter my life. This much is clear.

Writing will always be like another child to me, another child I need to take care of and take into account any time I’m considering adding something new to my life: how will this child be affected? Will I still be able to care for this child in a way that feels satisfying? Will this child be somehow left behind? These are not trivial questions to me.

So, here I am. It is almost December. Christmas is coming, gift giving, photo-organizing, tree buying, family gatherings. This all takes energy, time. Somehow I must be diligent in making sure that my few afternoons a week to myself don’t get completely sucked into this frenzy, alongside the usual housework, bills, chores, and correspondence. Somehow I need to dive back into the manuscript revisions, set clear small goals, personal deadlines.

Somehow I must also find a way to exercise more, to prioritize health, for this has fallen by the wayside over the last year, and I know how important it is to my overall well-being. (Although as I think about how my future ‘breaks’ would probably consist now of times when I just have the baby to care for, I console myself by remembering that at least during that baby stage you can pop them in a stroller and go on lots of walks. At least I got more exercise back then. And drank less wine, too.)

When I try to imagine what else about that stage would feel “easier” now that I can compare it to the toddler stage, I feel fairly steadied for the challenges. After all, we’ve already had our share of dietary, sleep, and behavior challenges—what are the chances that the next baby would be even more challenging? Certainly possible (and this thought fills me with both fear and humility), but not that likely (at least I hope, or pray).

Ah, so apparently I’m back at the topic of: to procreate again or not to procreate. Well, I’ve already decided that it would be hugely stressful, financially risky, and too time-consuming to try to build an addition before another baby came, so I’ve already (sort of) made peace with how we could add another child into our one bedroom, 850 square foot arrangement, by putting the baby’s crib (and yes, our baby is getting a crib this time) into the living room next to our bed.

It would be crowded. Our evenings would be subdued (assuming the baby eventually wakes from noise, as most babies do). And our marital life may, yet again, suffer. But, oh, the ultimate joy! (Right?) Oh, the joy of having a larger family to grow old with. Oh, these early years will go fast, right? Yeah, I don’t know. I’m still on the fence as I’ve said. Just trying to feel out if it is indeed do-able and, most of all, right. Do-able? Yes. Where there’s a will there’s a way. But, is it right for us? That is the bigger question.

So, no home remodel yet (although at the rate our appliances are dying, we’ll at least get an all-around updated kitchen by then). I’m also looking into other preschool options for Cedar so that he could be in school more than the three mornings a week that co-op preschool (which we love) will entail next year. We can afford that, I think, though I have yet to do any math. So that leaves the publishing goals, the teaching, the writing… the weaning and toilet-training goals too (both of which keep getting put off for now, for lack of interest, or resolve). A lot still needs to happen before I want to remove my IUD.

My husband and I would also need to have a good budgeting talk, a sound financial plan laid out, as well as a plan as to how we plan to prioritize marital peace, connection, communication, and overall sanity. And that means: regular date nights (or afternoons); even once a month will do (obviously we haven’t set a high precedent here). And a new agreement forged between us as to what degree of personal time it is realistic to expect—for me, to write (and do everything else I do to maintain our household). And for him, namely, to fish. Because that is his passion, his religion, his connection to nature, his exercise, his primary release, and I get that.

Sure, I’ve spent plenty of time over the last couple years begrudging his desire to go fishing (Again? Haven’t you gone enough already?), with a lot of back and forth negotiation (You can go every other weekend for the day, if I get to go write for a few hours every weekend. Fair enough?) But then there were the long weekend trips out to the Olympic peninsula which began to take their toll (Most parents of young children are lucky if they get to go on one long weekend, bachelor style trip with their buddies a year, much less four!). Until we finally reached the place where nursing had decreased enough that I could leave Cedar for longer stretches, and reached a wonderful, almost equitable agreement called tit-for-tat: you get a weekend, I get a weekend.

I say ‘almost’ equitable because his “weekends away” have typically consisted of about three full days, whereas mine are more like one point five. But it’s hard to complain about this when for almost two years, the longest time to myself I ever got was something like four hours to go to the spa. And so, in my ongoing quest for shared parenting equity (tit-for-tat, if you will), I’ve now proposed that we count “days” versus weekends, because I still mostly feel like I end up with the short end of the stick. I believe my husband begrudgingly agreed (translation: grunted). And so now, I’m fine with him going away fishing for a weekend, as long as I get my time to write in exchange. I need it, and now more than ever. I have serious goals. Limited time. The decision to have or not have a child may hinge on this factor!

Anyway, the irony of course is that even if we manage to finally come to a place of “total equity” regarding parenting duties, if another child were to come into the picture, this equation would no doubt get thrown back out again for another year at least. (And I don’t expect to get “back pay”, so to speak, because somehow that would just be way too demanding of me and the expected maternal sacrifices.) Maybe the next baby won’t nurse or co-sleep for as long, and won’t be as dependent on the boob to go to sleep. Maybe we’ll consciously decide to make it easier on ourselves, and especially on me, not following quite such an attachment parenting model (not that I ever set out to be an “attachment parent”, mind you; we just made the choices that felt right at the time).

Don’t get me wrong, I stand behind the parenting choices we’ve thus far made, for the most part, and for this particular baby, with this particular temperament. But there are things I will probably do differently. I tell myself. Of course, the true test will be what actually happens when we are in the thick of it. And there is a sense of adventure and an exciting challenge inherent in this imagining… mixed in with impending fear and dread. In moments though, there is an overwhelming optimism, that says, in the end, how could we ever regret it!? But in some ways, this sentiment is naïve, for I’m sure some parents actually do regret having another, on some level, but this is not a socially acceptable sentiment so you don’t hear about it.

But still. It is exciting, you must admit, the whole baby-imagining, baby-making, birthing process. It’s high drama. It’s life and death from its most peaked and illuminating vistas. And it’s also a bit like… falling… into an abyss. First and foremost. Before you slowly climb your way out again, and before you are so worn down and seasoned that you are finally able to enjoy the view from each stage and even in the midst of each new challenge; where you are so humbled by the whole life-altering experience of parenthood, that you’ve stopped waiting around for those promises of the future plateaus, and you truly are just along for the ride. Or something like that. Doesn’t it get easier as they say, even as it gets harder, with two? Don’t you experience even more of a degree of ego destruction, humility, and self-surrender? And isn’t that ultimately a good thing?

Hmm… I’m not completely convincing myself, although I am trying. I truly do see both sides. The amazing and awesome, and the terrifying and terrible. Parenting is at heart a paradoxical experience. It’s rough. There’s no escaping this, no matter how “easy” or “hard” of a baby you had. Parenting is hard on marriage, on your body, on your personal goals or dreams, on maintaining your former idea of yourself. And yet, it is also so hands-down incredible and amazing. To watch a child grow. To be so intricately tied to their experience of this earth. To laugh with them, dance with them, nurture them. To see the world anew through their eyes.

Sometimes I wonder though how much of this desire to have another baby is tied up in societal norms. If the majority of mothers around me weren’t having number two, or planning on it, if I were in the minority for considering another one, would it be easier then to let go of the lingering desire and embrace the sanity of just one; i.e. the quicker return of my equilibrium, creative life, and quality time with my husband? It’s worth pondering. There is something of the fear of “missing out” at play here. Not wanting to miss out. The clock is ticking, it’s now or never, so just go for it!

And then, a friend recently mused that after she had her third child (who incidentally was a “surprise”), she definitely no longer had that feeling of baby lust around infants she’d still had before number three came along. None whatsoever. And so that makes me consider: would the lingering baby lust still be there, even if it weren’t meant to be? Will I somehow just “know” at some point that I want to do it, or will I have to make the harder choice (in some ways), of deciding “no,” and in turn letting go of whatever lingering visions I might have had of a larger family or round two of motherhood anew?

Why does it feel like deciding not to have another child would leave me with more questions and potential regret, than deciding to have one? I think it’s because the decision to have one is proactive, decisive, and once I decide something big like that, I stand behind my instincts that led me there. Whereas the decision not to do something can feel more passive (even if it isn’t a passive decision, but deliberately thought out); still, it can feel like something you just “let happen” by letting “time slip or opportunities slip away from you”.

Perhaps this is also tied up in how our culture values “doing” more than “not doing”. More is better. And “not doing” is often seen as laziness or fear, whereas more “doing” is usually applauded and admired, at least from a distance (wow—look at how much that person is accomplishing!), even if it drives one to emotional, physical, or spiritual fatigue.

Hmm… this is an interesting discussion, Anne. But now I must go and pick up my child. I am sure these thoughts will be continued in a future post, (sadly, yet realistically) months down the road. Until then, dear readers, thank you for indulging me. And feel free to share with me more thoughts on your experiences with having number two. I’m definitely still on the fence. Sticking with just one at times can feel pretty sweet. 

Especially this little one.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Defrosting the Placenta

Placenta Prints

The other week, we finally planted Cedar’s placenta. What? Yes. It’s been in our freezer wrapped in a bread bag for almost two and a half years. I had planned to plant it right after his birth, under a young tree or plant, to mark the occasion, to join a part of our bodies with the earth, then watch the plant grow bigger each year. But, as you might imagine, other things took priority right after he was born—like nursing and sleeping and recovering from surgery-- and so it has sat, frozen in waiting.

Our friend, Amy, who was at the birth, gave us a small lilac plant in the weeks that followed. We’d wanted something that puts out fragrant blossoms in the spring around late March, when Cedar was born. Lilacs bloom a bit later, more like the end of April, but whatever, that’s close enough. Matthew and I both love their scent.

The lilac was tiny and we weren’t sure it would make it, so we kept it in a pot on our deck and watered it for the last two years, while the placenta receded further into the back of our freezer. (Is that a flank steak? A block of raspberries?) Then last week, since we were sticking around all day doing house projects, and it was a beautiful, sunny, early fall day, it struck me as the perfect opportunity to plant it. By now, I didn’t need the planting to be done on some particularly auspicious day—like Cedar’s first, second, or third birthday. At this point I just wanted it out of our freezer and the lilac in the ground before it died without ever even having the chance to flower.

A giant cedar tree had come down about a year ago, opening up a big exposed hole between our yard and the neighbors’, so we had a perfect spot for the lilac which may eventually grow quite large. First I let the placenta defrost--just a bit-- in the sink. Somehow it struck me that it should not be rock hard frozen, that I wanted to see its juices touch the soft dirt. Then I began to dig the hole. Matthew helped me make it deeper, then cut out some roots and filled it with homemade compost. Cedar then dropped in a couple small trowel’s full of fertilizer (his usual job when helping me plant flowers), and I cut open the bread bag, gently shaking loose the placenta while trying not to touch it.

Despite the fact that you may already think I’m weird for keeping it in the first place, I was not exactly eager to touch or smell the placenta. Still partially frozen, I didn’t readily detect any odor—and nor did I sniff it to try to locate one. Yet the blood had begun to seep onto the plastic and the hard, dark red mass was indeed revealing itself for what it was: a bodily organ. This is why the hospital was required to label it ‘hazardous waste’ when they gave it to me, sealed in a white plastic bucket. And this is why the whole process struck me as both slightly disgusting yet profoundly cool.

After I dropped the placenta into the hole, Matthew shook the root-bound lilac out of its pot and shoveled more dirt around its edges. How strange, I thought, that I could still see and touch the actual blood of my body, blood of our birth. I go through each day now so tightly bound to my son, 24-7, in touch with his rhythms, listening for his calls, responding to his needs. We are as connected as ever, morning till night, eating the same foods, running the same errands, going on walks, playing in parks, befriending sets of mothers and sons. But the memory of Cedar’s actual birth has grown faint, usurped by the constant forward momentum of our lives, our growth, our balancing acts, lessons, and needs.
So now, two and a half years later, to spontaneously decide to unfreeze, unwrap, touch and plant the very organ that once physically connected us, that gave him life while he was in my womb, felt beautiful in a quiet and unassuming kind of way. It wasn’t an overwrought ritual. We were just planting another plant, something we’ve done all summer long. But in other ways, of course, this was a very special plant indeed.

My sister and her baby, Avery, a mere two months old, happened to be here to witness our planting and snap a few photos. She asked if we were going to explain to Cedar anything. “He won’t understand,” my husband shook his head. “Maybe, we’ll see,” I said, wanting to leave it up to the moment. In the end, all I said as I shook out the dark red form from the bag was, “This is very special fertilizer.” And then: “This is a lilac plant. It will grow purple flowers in the spring. It is Cedar’s special plant.” 

This felt like enough.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Rant, Three Sighs, and A Plea

Life has been a little hard lately and I need to vent. I’ve been busy, giving a lot, emotionally drained, and with never enough time to do it all—to cook, to clean, to answer emails, to plan classes, to advertise, to write, to edit, to write, to love, to pay attention to my husband, to honor his needs, to be kind to my family, to keep in touch with good friends, to reach out to new friends, to cut down on screentime, to keep the plants watered and the weeds from taking over, to pick up the fallen fruit before it rots, to get a haircut, to EXERCISE and feel good inside, to cut back on wine, to be kind to myself, to drink enough water, to remember to speak Chinese, to keep submitting old works, to think about marketing my book, to worry about marketing my book, to try to stay positive, to remind my husband about his chores, to keep up with my own chores, to not let any one place (the toilet, the kitchen floor) get too disgusting, to apply for a writing residency, to remember the projects on the back burner, to keep up with the blog, to remind myself that I should really update my website, or make a whole new one altogether.


This is, more or less, the stuff that churns through my head all week, changing emphasis depending on the day or state of my domestic neglect, the state of my creative neglect, or both.

And when I get too tired, when I’ve had a terrible night’s sleep-- or going on several since Cedar still wakes a couple times a night, and I am now the lightest sleeper in the house, actually hearing him rustle as he get out of bed (in my half-asleep state) so that by the time he is standing at my bedside, I’ve already looked at the clock and am sitting up, ready to lead him back to his own. Anyway, when I get too tired to tackle anything on my to-do list, or to feel particularly positive about anything, then there’s always wine and Facebook, or wine and Netflix, or wine and walking around the yard. There’s always the act of just giving in fully to fatigue, just zoning out until I’m dead tired and ready to sleep, dear dear sleep. Of course, I never remember to drink enough water, then drink a glass near the end of the night, and spend the whole night getting up to pee. But I wake up in between almost every sleep cycle anyway, because my body has been trained by a little boy named Cedar and a little thing called Motherhood to do this. Because-- although I have not studied this to offer proof—I’m pretty sure that our sleep cycles are still intricately connected even if he now sleeps in his own bed in the adjoining room.


I need to vent, and I need to hike, or power walk, or do zumba, or get really drunk and dance at some club, speakers pounding, heartbeat rising into my own internal flurry of rage and joy, or write and write and write, and have multiple entire days of solitary retreat, not just one every few months if I’m lucky.

I’m sick of having to rush all the time—to rush cooking, rush writing, rush dashing to the café and back home and back to pick up Cedar, rush trying to squeeze in laundry, a phone call to the utility company to request a yard waste bin I’ve requesting since July, rush watering some dying tomatoes and flowers that come September I suddenly don’t care about so much anymore because they are on their last blooms, almost gone.

And so is my fleeting enthusiasm for all things summer, for the promise of new exercise regimes and camping trips and BBQs and overall carefree frolicking fun, which never happens as I envision anyway because even something like camping now is still more like 90% parenting a toddler, 10% enjoying the environment. Perhaps I exaggerate, perhaps I am forgetting a few stellar moments of existential joy I had while in nature this summer, perhaps I am forgetting to remind myself in this moment how good I have it, but dang it, I can still know I have it good and have reason to vent and rage, right?

Rage sounds like a strong word for these things I am feeling, but I swear, a part of this all—a repressed, socially unacceptable, under the radar part—can manifest as rage. The way I fling dishes and dirty clothes about when I am cleaning but would rather be writing or climbing a forested path by a river, sweaty and cleansed by my own breath. The way this “rage” is really just another name for hardened, crusty residue built up from fatigue, too many days without a true break, too many tears that need releasing.  

Yes, a subtle undercurrent of rage manifests when I feel like the thousands of times I pick up a toy or sock or unload a load from the dishwasher goes unseen. Never happens. Is erased the moment my son and husband spill into the room and leave trails of new toys, shoes, cups, crumbs crushed underfoot. Rage manifests when I feel like “my time to write” is actually my time to write, clean, cook, pay bills, plan for my child’s needs, and keep the house from falling apart in general.

I know I shouldn’t complain for I have so much more time than I used to at least, so much more than I did during the first year of motherhood when Cedar was even more tied to me and my breast. These days I get an average of six hours a week from my folks, three to five from trading childcare with friends, plus maybe a few hours on the weekend from my husband—to do “my thing.” Whether that’s a long neglected haircut, a two-hour writing session at a café, a two-hour class to teach, or a sudden desperate need to clean up mold or grime (go figure). Whatever it is, all of these tasks get lumped together into the category called “my time” and the actual writing or editing that I do so often gets squeezed into a mere few hours.

I know I should be grateful that I am able to both stay home with my son AND continue to pursue writing and teaching, but it’s hard to feel like I’m taking writing seriously enough when it gets squeezed into a few measly hours like it does, a token thread of connection to what, at heart, I still consider to be my primary vocation. Never mind motherhood. Yes, THAT is now my primary vocation, hands down, not even complaining (for the most part). What I’m complaining about is the part that’s parceled out to me as “my time.” “My time” that includes not only chores and work for pay, but also any attempt to rest, heal, or otherwise feed my heart.

Why am I so overwhelmed at this particular juncture? Mostly, it’s good stuff, like finally having had a pocket of time (in August) to think about my Searching for the Heart Radical manuscript again, and to motivate to hire someone to give me feedback, which in turn motivated me to write a new introduction and epilogue, to frame the manuscript anew and actually make me excited and proud of this thing again, this labor of love that I cannot shelve, that I still need to somehow send out into the world. Plus I’ve got two upcoming workshops and the necessary preparation and advertising that goes into launching classes on my own. In exchange for this recent flurry of work, I’ve let the state of my home to slide and have neglected to exercise and breathe, never mind interacting much with my husband.


Also, there is the issue of sleep—the return of poor or mediocre sleep should be enough to justify maternal angst alone. It’s getting better again, thank god, but by now I just laugh at the whole subject on some level. We’ve tasted far worse, so I’m done with complaining about sleep.

On top of all this, perhaps a big part of it in fact is that I’ve had some stuff going on that I can’t go into here online, but suffice it to say that it has drained me profusely. Right now, I’m still recovering from the drama that has passed and is barely on my mind, yet I know that the residue of the heart’s emotions that the whole debacle brought out of me is still coursing through my veins, still here, still needing to be exhaled, exercised out, danced out, laughed out, cried out—I’ll take any outlet I can get-- just let me sweat and curse and love it all out.

Pain, my pain, other people’s pain, the world’s pain. And sorrow, so closely tied, often just beneath the surface. Tenderness. Ache. I hadn’t felt my heart literally ache like this for so long, and I was reminded recently of what this feels like-- how everything we take in goes straight to the core of this taut beating muscle. How this is the filter through which we process our well-being, this is the clearest measure of our happiness and state of mind-- whether we realize it or not, whether we feel our heart’s ache directly or are numbed to its’ sensations—how everything we take in is still channeled through this muscle. Everything we ever have done or will ever do can be reduced to how it impacts our heart. And how, when we feel our hearts come alive again—and I’m not talking symbolism, I’m talking real physical sensation right there-- we can remember again the true stakes. How we are all so fragile, how life can be taken in an instant, and how we forget this, all the time, or never really knew it in the first place. Until we do.

If I had one wish right now, it would be that we all have more time to just dwell in our hearts. Our heart’s longing, our heart’s fatigue; our heart’s bruising, and layers of amnesia and neglect. To pause, and sink into that inky, bloody fertile space. To savor the feeling of that pulsing radical impulse in your chest-- to break out, break free, break down, or hold tight, and beyond everything else: to love.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Having Number Two: A Clear Yes or No

Up until recently, I’d pretty much convinced myself that I was going to be okay with just one kid. I cringed when I imagined how hard it’d be to take care of a newborn and a toddler at the same time. I cringed when I imagined how I’d go back to having hardly any time to myself, even less so than the first time around, and how I’d have to put all my teaching and writing projects back on hold. My husband was pretty much in the same boat.

With one, we could gain back our freedom to travel sooner—whether on weekend trips with just the two of us, or family trips that involved more distant locales (even China, I fantacized, for several months… we could rent out our house, take up in some quaint town (or tolerable city), immerse the whole family in Chinese).

Then there was also the question of money and space. With just one child, we would not be pressed to add on to our one bedroom cabin as quickly; we would not be forced to take out a loan before we felt like it was a smart financial decision. Hell, if other factors outweighed a desire for more space, we could even put off remodeling indefinitely. It’s been working out just fine the last couple months with our bed in the living room. Plenty of families all over the world wouldn’t blink an eye at raising a family in 850 square feet.

It wasn’t that I’d made up my mind or anything; I knew that there was a distinct possibility that I could feel totally differently in a year. But when I’d see moms with a baby and toddler and feel a wash of relief that I wasn’t them as opposed to envy, I thought that was a pretty good indicator that I was happy with what we have. Cedar is an awesome kid. But he wasn’t an easy baby with all his food sensitivities and sleeping challenges. He’s bright, active, and will keep delighting and challenging us for years to come. He’ll have plenty of playmates; I don’t think he’ll be lonely. And meanwhile, Matthew and I continue to reclaim vestiges of our former adult life back.

One of the major elements that we’ve recently started to reclaim is sleep. Cedar is finally sleeping through the night, pretty much every night, in his own bed. That doesn’t mean he always gets enough sleep, seeing that he wakes up around 5 a.m. But we no longer have to spend half our night listening for his waking whines, then rushing in to put him back down before he fully wakes. He no longer depends on nursing to fall asleep, and he knows he won’t get any milk from me now until 5 a.m. (which I’d like to try and change to even later; that’s the next goal).

In addition to all this, he just recently started going to sleep without anyone staying in the room with him until he drifts off. This feels huge! We do our usual stories, I leave, then him and Matthew say night-night to various animals, objects, and people, and then they turn on the noise machine, say a final night-night, and Matthew walks out and closes the door. Brilliant. This whole shift happened quite effortlessly one night after Matthew had enough of Cedar squirming about, climbing on top of him, and keeping himself up by distraction. Matthew decided to say goodnight and leave that night—and Cedar let him without a cry of protest. So that was it. Matthew then did the same thing the next few nights, staying in the room for an even shorter amount of time, and Cedar hasn’t protested at all. The most he’s done is get up and crack the door open, listening, then shut it and go back to lie down. I wish I could see what he looks like as he lies there going to sleep on his own and know how long it takes him, mostly to bask in the pleasure of my little guy getting to be so independent and taking so many changes in stride. But I don’t need to see him to know how good it feels to have an entire evening now where me and my husband can both relax, off duty for hours, by ourselves.

So needless to say we’re pretty happy about all this, and it’s probably no coincidence that now that we’ve FINALLY gotten over this poor sleeping hump, I’m lo and behold a bit more open to the idea of having another. It’s totally ironic, yes, that the minute I start sleeping better I’d begin considering being thrown back into total sleep deprivation and chaos. And on top of this, I’m thinking about weaning soon—almost looking forward to it as much as I’m dreading it—and I don’t exactly want to go straight from weaning to nursing again. I’m banking on having at least a good few months, if not more like a year, to remember what it feels like to not be producing milk as a primary occupation.

Here’s the thing. If I wasn’t 37 and a half years old, I wouldn’t be in a hurry. I’d say, let’s wait until Cedar is at least four or five, out of the toddler stage, before we even go there. Let’s give ourselves a few years off from this early intensive stage of parenting. Let’s get our finances together and remodel first, and let’s not kid ourselves about how long that process might take in itself. Let me also get my teaching life that much more established, not to mention self-publish that dusty manuscript of memoirs that I’ve been saying I’m going to publish for so long. Let me achieve some major goals that make me feel good and satisfied as a writer, before I dive back into the intense beauty and torture that is mothering a newborn. In other words: let’s take our time and think about it.

But the reality is, I don’t have a ton of time. After you hit 35, it becomes significantly harder to get pregnant each year that passes—the curve sharpens dramatically. I know people over 40 who are trying to get pregnant now, and who are mourning their belated realization of just how much difference a year makes at this stage. I know that if I were to decide that I did indeed want another one, I should just bite the bullet and do it NOW, or in the next year at least, because wouldn’t that suck to finally decide you wanted one and then to not be able to get pregnant?

Other people my age seem to know this too, because there’s been an explosion of births in my world this spring. I know of seven or eight women in my son’s preschool co-op class alone who just gave birth to their second or are due in the coming months. Then there are my friends on Facebook; the three babies born recently on my block; two of my oldest, dearest friends; and, finally, my sister who gave birth just last Friday.

Seeing people get pregnant and hold their new amazing babies doesn’t have anything to do with my new (old, revitalized) line of thought, does it? Nah…. Of course having lots of pregnant women and babies around me is tugging at my tender heart strings that holds this process up as one of the most amazing gifts in life of all; of course it is. But I also want to make sure that I’m not just caving to some kind of socially accepted norm and unspoken peer pressure—the kind that carves into our psyche from the time we are young that families are supposed to consist of two parents and two or three kids; and that it’s the most natural wonderful thing in the world to want more than one.

I told my husband the other day, the same day we went to meet my sister’s new baby, that I wanted to talk to him about the possibility of having another. He immediately got defensive and antagonistic, forcing me to play devil’s advocate and act as if I indeed knew I wanted another one, when what I really wanted to do was just explore and hash out the idea verbally, see how it sounded saying it aloud, return to the part of me that had always imagined I’d like to have two, a pair of playmates, a pair to grow old with, share holidays with, share affections with, preferably a daughter and a son, the so-called “perfect” family.

I also told my husband the story of some friends of ours, a couple who was trying to decide if they wanted to have another. After much soul-searching they finally decided that no, they did not, they were fine, they were done. And then the minute they decided this and made it real, they realized that they did indeed still want another. It’s that element of regret at play. Wanting what you could have had, but didn’t choose.

The thing is, how many parents ever regret having a child, whether that child is number one or number five? It seems like once you have a child, once they are real and breathing and in your life, there are few who would ever, on a deep soul level, regret having that child. The thought would be unspeakable, for that baby was here and thus meant to be. It might have made your life insufferably hard for many years, but in the end, it was worth it right? You wouldn’t have had it any other way? Or is it simply such an unspeakable taboo that we never hear from the parents who do?

That’s how it seems to work. Once they are here, you can’t imagine them never having been here. But what if you wanted a child, but never had one? Or never had the second one? It seems like the possibility to regret is much greater. I am almost 40, but I still have many years ahead of me to nurture students and to write and publish books. I am almost 40, but I don’t have many years ahead to have more children. This, my dear husband, is why I’m now starting to talk to you about this. This, because it does feel like now or never time. This, because even though we are both still on the fence, we love each other deeply, and if we do want this, we can make it happen. This because it will always be scary to contemplate something so huge as to choose to bring another life into the world and your life. But it will not always be possible to do so.

This is what I don’t want: I don’t want to passively choose to not have another one (by letting time slip away) because of money or space issues. Those are the things that we can figure out, make work. And nor do I want to passively choose to have one (how could you, really?) because of a fear that I would regret it if not. If we have another one, I want it to be because we are so fucking excited by the possibility of being able to experience the miraculous process of coming to know a new being so intimately related to the both of us, and yet so ultimately unknown and mystical, and to know all the joy and riches that such a darling spirit could bring into our lives. That leap of faith.

Yes, there’s always the chance that she/he could have a birth defect, or be a terribly difficult bad seed. (I have yet to see, Dear Kevin, but it’s on our queue). But chances are, they wouldn’t. And even if so, then they’d be meant to be ours to love and grow with anyway. I know of no other “path” than parenthood that rocks your world so tremendously, and that if you choose to accept and let it, will transform you in brilliant ways in the making. Despite all the sleep deprivation, time alone deprivation, and undeniable challenge and hardship.

What I want is to take a poll of all the new moms of two out there and to ask you: tell me the truth, how hard is it? How much sleep do you get, how much time do you get to yourself and with your husband? How much harder is it to balance the whole work-family continuum with two than one? Do you ever get pangs of regret?  I want to hear from the new parents, not the seasoned ones who have made it past the hardest years and are now coasting in the land of “kids are in school during the day” and “couldn’t imagine it any other way”. I want to hear from the newbies because if we do choose to go this route, I want to know what I’m in for. I don’t want to fool myself into thinking I might be that much wiser at hiring help or carving out more time for myself this time around that I’d avoid all the depressing, suffocating pitfalls of new-immersion-motherhood.

I’ve already heard sentiments from moms of two young ones about how it now feels like a “break” when you “just” have the baby to watch, and not both kids. My selective memory is remembering the days of long stroller walks where you could have long continuous conversations with other new moms and get exercise at the same time while watching the baby, and thinking, that wasn’t so bad… But then simultaneously wondering if this kind of activity would be the closest thing to a regular “break” that I’d get in a long time. And, of course, my problem is that I don’t just want your typical mom “breaks” to go work out, go to the spa, or to read on the couch—I want those too, yes, on occasion, but mostly I want time to write and do my work (writing and teaching)-- work that doesn’t pay much if any money.

So my conundrum has always been how to afford a babysitter to do my work that doesn’t pay for a sitter, and still have time left over for yoga or walks or necessary mental health breaks. In short, if I decide to have another, am I deluding myself if I think that I’ll somehow manage to have time for all of these? I can handle a sacrificial period without for maybe six months or so. But after that, I want back to it. I want to write, I want to teach, I want to work. This calling is like another child of mine, one I must take seriously. I don’t want to return to that deep motherhood cocoon quite so wholeheartedly as I did the first time. I want that elusive work-life balance.

My husband (and my selective memory) would do well to keep reminding me about how miserable I’ve been at times during the last couple years, and how it is only just in the last six months or so that I’ve had the energy, resolve, and time to teach again, in addition to everything else. Nobody needs to remind me of the joy of motherhood though. That reminder is breathing and singing and screaming with me every day.

Anyway. I know that after hashing it all out, by myself and with my husband, I know that in the end it won’t be a rational decision. It will either be a clear (but slightly fearful) yes or a clear (but slightly wistful) no resonating from within my heart.  


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