A letter

Dear Congressional Representative,

I am so tired today, aren’t you? I’m fighting a cold and my 18 month old is sick and my husband is having a hard time with his chemo treatments. I started a new job last week and I’m managing the stress of getting the kiddo off to his grandparents or his nanny share every morning and all the different logistics and checklists for myself, my baby, and my husband are kind of overwhelming.

My son got really sick on Monday. We ended up having to go to urgent care for his first ear infection, which, because us Willhelms do everything to the extreme, turned out to be in both ears, plus an acute viral infection in his throat. No wonder he wasn’t drinking any fluids. I had to leave him at home on Tuesday, which was so hard because I both wanted to be with him and desperately wanted to work at my new job so I could have some respite from the constant onslaught of logistics and management all day long.

See my husband, he’s 47, was diagnosed with Stage IV Colon Cancer in November. It was really sudden. He had no symptoms and it’s a type of cancer that can’t be detected through the annual colonoscopies or CT scans he was getting to monitor his Crohn’s Disease. Hell, we had been saying that it was best he had felt in the 10 years we had known each other. What a kick in the ass to find out it was Stage IV cancer.

But anyway, he was home with the baby on Tuesday and I had to keep saying silent prayers and checking in to see if he was doing ok because he’s immunocompromised. And a cold, which was already tricky because of his Crohn’s, could be devastating with the chemo.

But we had no other options, right? He couldn’t go to his nanny share. We didn’t want to get her kid sick, too. Grandparents, while they are amazing, we try to use them judiciously and a sick baby for a whole day is a lot to deal with. So he stayed home, fatigued from the chemo with a fragile immune system that I hope holds up to this bacterial and viral onslaught.

So in addition to the sickness of the baby, we’ve been managing the cancer: the treatment, the grief, the upset to work. Thank God he has an employer who actually cares about him and is making our lives less hellish by actually making it easy for him to work. He’s the Master Electrician at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, a big regional non-profit theatre that he’s worked at for 20 years. He LOVES his job. Like in a way that tells you someone has been paired up with their true calling.

But I write today not about his healthcare (thank God for his union’s good coverage) or the lack of affordable daycare, or the difficulty I had finding work with two Bachelor degrees and a Master’s degree and the crushing amount of student loan debt I got following the advice to “get more education” so I could get a good job. Today I want to write to you about guns.

You totally knew that, though. The little form online made me tell you that. So, spoiler alert, I’m feeling mad about the recent shooting in Parkland, FL.

I grew up in South Florida and moved to Seattle in 2008 after college. My sister in law is a teacher, my brother’s best friend and his wife are teachers. I don’t fear for their safety every day, because statistics means that it’s unlikely that the shooting will happen at their schools. But, what about when statistics catches up with me? What happens when my son, who isn’t in school yet but will be eventually, because we believe in the public school system, what happens when his school is the site of something like this? How on earth could I live with myself if I didn’t do my due diligence to make my fear and anger known to those who actually have the power to do something?

But then I pause and think, “What the hell is the point? The Dems did their one sit in and nothing happened.”

And now you have so much you are fighting for: healthcare, taxes, Dreamers, general nonsense from fellow lawmakers who seem to have forgotten they are governing people and not faceless voting blocks or donors. How can I, in good conscience, add to your list of struggles?

But really, how can I not? My son’s life is on the line.

My son’s life is on the line.

Do you have kids? I think you do. So, you must know this fear. The fear of motherhood where you let a piece of your heart walk around outside and the strings of worry and love and strength stretch from you to them in a way you didn’t know about until you had your child. I didn’t know the vulnerability I would feel until I held my son in my hands (he was 5 weeks early so he was little) and realized just how vulnerable I would be for the rest of my life. I could be made to do anything for him.

My husband’s mortality is something we are dealing with every day. We don’t know if he will kick the cancer and survive or die a young death, but his mortality that is literally in question right now does not feel as fragile as that of my son’s and his future classmates.

Please, for the love of God, do something.

I listen to NPR and watch CNN and read the New York Times and listen to Pod Save America like a good liberal does. I work very hard to break down internal bias and fight for equity and help my husband and those I can affect learn more about sexism and racism and ableism and fatphobia, but you have got to help me here. I need to take something off my list of things to worry about and fight for and my son’s safety in his school really needs to be one of them. Please.

So, what do you need from me? I’m joining a local mom’s group to be an activist for change in firearm legislation. I support local government and vote in every election. I donate to campaigns when I can and to charities and the odd GoFundMe for people who can’t afford medical care or need to send their kiddo to a once-in-a-lifetime ballet camp. What else can I do to make our country safer and better and less hard to live in?

Thank you for your guidance. I promise I will take the information you give me and be a constituent you will be proud of. Just don’t send me something like “donate to the blah blah blah.” I can’t do that anymore.

Thank you,

Verhanika Willhelm

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Where does intersectional feminism fit in with a cancer family?

Before Andy got a touch of the cancer, we were a family that was actively working to dismantle the patriarchy and systems of oppression. I wrote on my blog for my consulting business about identifying internal racial biases. We talked regularly about feminism, intersectionality, and how to be more aware of privilege.

We were a good liberal family. Living a joyful life and pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones with regularity.

Andy was largely on the receiving end of education. He embraced the concept of centering marginalized voices and even when it was uncomfortable or required unlearning, he would work hard to be an active participant in this crusade so Ronan would have a slightly less oppressive worldview.

Then…well, you know.

A week or so after Andy had come home, I found myself wiped from all the work of caregiving. My head was constantly buzzing with lists, people, tasks, baby, ideas, tracking, baby, work, chores, Andy, cancer, grief, cancer, Andy, cancer, cancer, cancer, and I had a tiny meltdown. One of many I have and will have. I’ve already lost track of them.

After I had a good cry, I went on to Facebook to check in with the world and was presented with another really good article about mental load. One of the comments struck me: “What makes people think we are genetically predisposed to make dentist appointments is beyond me.”

And I got a little uppity.

YES. I HAVE SO MUCH ON MY PLATE RIGHT NOW! I AM THE ONE MAKING ALL THE APPOINTMENTS IN ALL OF THIS! AND WRITING GROCERY LISTS! AND MANAGING CHILDCARE! AND I HAVEN’T GOTTEN A DECENT NIGHT’S SLEEP IN WEEKS! WHY CAN’T ANDY DO SOMETH…oh, wait. Right. 

See, normally, I would have gone to him and said, Hey, it’s all too much right now. I need some help. And he would have totally picked up slack somewhere, taken on dishes, vacuuming, childcare, something.

But this time, I couldn’t offload this to him.

I had help during the day. Ronan went to my in-laws or to friends, or we had someone come over and entertain him while I did chores or paid bills. But, it was amazing how the workload more than doubled because not only was I picking up the tasks that Andy couldn’t do, but I was also managing grief around this whole situation, which is a motherfucker.

Soon after I had a talk with Andy.

“I’m overwhelmed and I don’t know where talking about mental load and feminism fits into our lives anymore.”

In my head I pictured Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and how “Dismantling the Patriarchy” is probably higher up on the pyramid. We were solidly still in the bottom, trying to recuperate physiologically.

Now the immediate crisis is at a low point, though we know it’s going to keep coming back as we continue on this path. But, I still wrestle with how to talk to my husband, who is fighting Stage IV cancer, about intersectional feminism. It’s obviously a huge value to us, but where do you fit it in when most days we can both barely get out of bed? (I’m writing this from my bed.)

We settled on a compromise of sorts: Bring it up and be aware of impact. We are a partnership and me internalizing all the bullshit in hopes of relieving some of the load from him undercuts the whole “marriage” thing. Marriage is not 50/50. Sometimes it’s 80/20 or 20/80. The least he can do is listen to me complain even if he can’t actually do anything. And truthfully the complaining helps.

And me taking on all the work of managing appointments and childcare and household management and not talking about the impact on me to my partner, well that just perpetuates the idea that women are somehow better at this than men and therefore men don’t have to try to do any of that stuff because biology.

I had a funny Facebook interaction a few week ago where someone (a dude) tried to tell me that men were better at compartmentalizing than women. This is one of the most thoroughly debunked myths of “biology” that turned out to be cultural training. But, if we needed personal anecdotes, my ability to compartmentalize right now has never been better. My crazy gets put into a box and is locked up and then the key goes in my butt and the box is buried deep.

(There is always time for a Pitch Perfect clip.)

Back to the matter at hand: Biology or culture isn’t so much what we talk about these days, mostly we have a very active, ongoing conversation about how to relieve the load form each other within the limitations we currently have. We both prioritize Ronan first and then each other (though I think we’re getting better at actually prioritizing ourselves). By knowing that we have clear priorities (happy, healthy, adaptable kid first), we can address the rest because the way how we are living our lives in this current paradigm is inherently about non-oppression. Because at the root is compassion, empathy, and love.

We don’t have the energy for broader impact. We don’t have the ability to be a more active ally than being a friend and taking care of ourselves so we can return to the fight. But, we can continue to do the work inside our own home and in our own hearts of having an equitable marriage in hopes that some day (soon?) we can be soldiers on the front lines again.

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Less dark, still a little twisty

If you’re not keeping up on our CaringBridge account, we recently had an appointment with a surgical oncologist that was very positive. Given the uptick in the mood in the Willhelm household, I wanted to check in with a slightly less dire/macabre/ennui filled post.

It’s still very hard right now.

As I write this, Ronan is playing with our friend, Sarah, while Andy chills on the couch. I find that this space from the day-to-day caregiving of Ronan is such a relief AND I feel incredibly guilty about that.

Up to this point I hadn’t experienced a ton of mommy guilt. I was with him almost every waking minute of his day. He was surrounded by a lot of good, loving caregivers, and we still got time together in the evening for just the two of us. I was clearly fitting all the societal standards as a “good mom” balancing time with my son and time away from my son, a precarious balance that seems to be undefinable except when we see a mom not managing it. And then the internet has a lot to say.

But now, he’s cared for by a veritable battalion of people. Everyone adores him. No one signs up if they’re not into kids. He is proving to be happy, adaptable…interesting, even to some.

But I worry as this is the big initial push for Andy and his care, am I doing harm somehow to him?

Of course, my higher self who can get on the balcony says, “Absolutely not.” Even now his laughter comes easily with everyone who he is with, the ultimate sign to me that he is fine.

But now that the pressure of Andy’s immediate care is letting up, I have mental space again to start to stress about stuff. And first up gets to be my son.

I know I’m not a bad mom. By all other measures, I’m a fucking great mom. But if you know anyone who is a mom, or are a mom yourself, you know the weird standards that are put on us by, largely, white older Christian Republicans for whom family is defined by how it appeared in the 1950s, aka the height of oppression in the post-war age. We’re fighting back against this, but since the internet is full of trolls and people who don’t have to hide their judgment or civility, we still hear regularly about how we’re not doing motherhood right.

For the most part, I can remain immune to this pressure, but my defenses are down and instead of brushing off the bullshit, I find my inner voice that is concerned about single parenthood internalizes this judgment. If I can’t have Andy, can I still handle raising a boy in this time? I don’t know, says the voice, you certainly abdicate your motherhood to a lot of people.

Smarter, more compassionate parts of me look at it as expanding the motherhood circle, really embracing the whole “it takes a village” especially when mom is occupied with, like, keeping Papa alive. And my village is full of wildly capable, extremely loving people. So Ronan’s in good hands. Probably more qualified than me in some cases.

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I’m also wildly overwhelmed with projects. I have several full time jobs I want to apply to, I have a lot of writing I need to do for one of the consulting firms I’m in the dugout for, and I’m still trying to manage a household and a business. It’s just a lot and it feels like a lot of things on my to-do list truly can’t be put off. But when I sit down to work I just want to write about Andy, or about my experience, or just read Facebook.

Again, smarter, more compassionate parts of me are able to see that I’m battling depression, fatigue, overwhelm, and the desire to do self-care first and work second is normal. But I also have a part born out of the trauma of a country that judges a person’s worth on their work contribution and thinks that I’m just not bootstrapping enough. Why can’t I do more?

Because you can’t and that’s fine.

Ugh.

Fine.

I’m back to working out fairly regularly. Listening to my body and doing what it wants as a way to release some of the pent up anxiety. So I’m getting stronger again and it’s helping me sleep better AND I’m not punishing my body in the process in order to meet fitness goals. I’m just moving for the joy of moving…and the better sleep that comes from it.

That’s me. Less dark than before, still a little twisty. Feeling cautious about the future and trying to stay positive, but not Pollyanna about all of this.

Meh

So after my last post I got a lot of messages and texts checking in. My post was very representative of the place I was (am) in and I remain committed to trying to keep this process more transparent for the sake of global education.

Also, I like to whine to a lot of people at once.

As the weekend has passed and I’ve watched Andy just get stronger and stronger each day, the acute sense of anxiety has passed. I’m still so, so deep in planning. There are so many plates I’m spinning and I’m just tired all the time. When people are taking care of Ronan for me, I find I have little energy for more than just scrolling Facebook. I’m not ashamed to say I rely heavily on long drives with the kiddo in the car seat so I can get a break from the pressure of the house, which has so many things that need to be addressed and is in a new state of upheaval.

Our bathroom is really hard for me to walk into.

We had to remove a bunch of things from shelves because toddler. But now we have new shelves that house stoma supplies and are at a good height for emptying a stoma bag. The wedge pillow for Andy lives on the couch and the leftover dishes from delivered dinners linger.

I’m reminded everywhere of the state of deep transition we are in.

I’m trying to do a lot right now.

I’m still trying to secure clients, apply to jobs, write regularly for our family, communicate with everyone, update calendars, track all the pieces, and still do some self-care. I get angry and sad when I think about how much more of this we have ahead of ourselves and how I desperately need a self-care routine to solidify and actually work.

I added exercise back into the mix. We went to the YMCA yesterday and I did a really straightforward 30 minutes on the elliptical. Nothing fancy, just pushed myself cardiovascularly so I can start to get my endurance back. I think we’ll go tomorrow morning so I can lift some weights. My arms are still like steel cords thanks to baby bench presses, but I can feel my back and core and pelvic floor slackening as even long walks have become difficult to work in.

I’m inundated with the sheer number of people who are constantly asking me questions. Some of them are good like, “Can I include olives in the meal I’m delivering next week?” Good question. (The answer is yes.)

But  have like 3 too many people asking for personalized updates that I just don’t have the bandwidth for right now. As I told Andy, a surprising number of people feel entitled to these sorts of updates. I appreciate the notes of encouragement, the cards in the mail, the texts that say “I’m thinking of you,” but I just can’t tell this story one more time to one more person when I have several outlets to collect this information.

Let’s face it, I’m tired.

I’m anxious about my ability to keep up with everything if I should eventually be a single parent. I’m doing research and asking questions about how to set us up for that (“us” includes Andy who is rightfully worried about it). Some people have told me not to think like that. SOME PEOPLE.

It relieves me to know that if I need house projects done that I have friends who have already committed to it. It relieves me to know that Andy is writing a house calendar for me of all the things he does around the house to keep it functional so I can follow it if he’s not around to direct that work. It relives me to know who exactly has my back right now, even if it all changes.

It abates my anxiety to do this ultimate Willhelm Planning. This whole supporting a family through the hard times is a contact sport. This is why we asked those present at our wedding to take a vow themselves to support us in times like this. Though I had always envisioned our marriage being tested because of boredom or something, not through an illness this serious.

His mortality scares me. Andy was always invincible to me. I knew that someday I would live without him, but I didn’t expect to have to reckon with that for another 20 years at least. We know so little at this point about what we can expect with regard to that, but the idea of being a widow in my 30s, losing My Person when we are just getting going…it’s unfair that we have to do this.

And yet, I think about moms who have to do this when they are sick themselves with kids and no family. Or people who go through this with literally no one. We are so lucky to be as supported and resourced as we are.

And yet, I don’t care. I want the guarantee that I (and Ronan) have more time with him.

Will someone clean up this word vomit please?

You know most Thanksgivings I can come up with a substantial list of things I am grateful for. Everyday I can come up with at least 10. I live a pretty beautiful life.

But yesterday I was incapable of looking for things I am grateful for. Yesterday I was mad and scared and sad. Everyday I go through many cycles of grief. I come around to acceptance several times until I am faced with yet a new reality of this whole situation that requires a new cycle of grief.

Some examples:

Listening to Moana in the morning and thinking back on our trip to Maui in 2015 and how we likely won’t be able to explore all the Hawaiian islands together.

Watching Ronan dance to Moana and wondering if there will be a point where I won’t be able to listen to the music, not because my toddler has worn it out, but because of the other thing.

Watching Andy hold his niece at dinner, seeing how her beautiful red plaid taffeta dress spreads over his lap and thinking how, despite feeling like we achieved perfection the first time around and won’t have another kid, he will likely never be a father to a daughter. Or father in law to a daughter in law (or son in law).

How many more Thanksgivings do we have? I have a part of me that thinks someone has this answer, but isn’t giving it to me.

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The grief is triggering. I spend most of the day managing my anxiety about abandonment, unsteady attachment figures, a need to be more competent, more intelligent, more charming to get what I want, which is my husband whole, healthy, happy.

But, my full planner and overworked to do lists are not good coping mechanisms. In this time, I think I need coping mechanisms that balance the need to be ordered and the need to feel. I feel like I’m spinning 12 plates at once, but what I really need is a good workout or an orgasm.

Also, I need people to stop suggesting more things for me to do. I’m not going to seek out more doctors right now. I’m not going to suggest Andy try on essential oils or new diet. I do not want your suggestions unless you are someone who deals with cancer patients or have been part of the inner circle of someone battling cancer. Stop projecting your shit onto me.

I also need coffee shops to stop playing moody music. And I need a little break from movies where people who love each other lose each other.

I definitely would not be able to watch the opening scene of Up right now.

This time reminds me of when I was a new mom and I lacked the words to adequately describe just how fucking hard it was. Except now instead of balancing the feelings and work of welcoming a very wanted family member into the fold, we are trying to figure out how to keep one who is already in the family happy and healthy.

Health is so fickle, right? I hear a lot of language about how if people are just trying to be healthy then they can be whatever size they want and that’s the price of admission to being part of our society. But Andy went from presenting the healthiest he’s felt in the last 15 years to fucking Stage IV cancer. If that doesn’t highlight the reason why heath-ism is bullshit, I don’t know what will.

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Also, I’ve lost God.

I mean, we were never really tight to begin with. I sort of believed in the Universe or a collective unconscious. Last year I started playing with the idea of reclaiming some version of a Christian God.

Now, I can’t reconcile a lot of the language Christian religions use to describe God and God’s role in everything with what is happening.

Did God give Andy cancer? Does God really think we need to be tested this way? Are we less blessed because of this? Were we blessed to begin with? What is achieved by shortening Andy’s already shortened lifespan? How does this help me or Ronan or any of the other people who are clearly deeply affected by this?

God works in mysterious ways.

He sounds vindictive to me if this is how he chooses to be mysterious. Like the coworker who keeps using your half and half you’ve clearly labelled in the fridge as yours.

What if he’s the variety of God who stopped meddling? What if this is just a product of what he put into motion early on and we have to live with the outcomes? Then praying seems useless.

I’ve stopped praying. To a God anyway. I will sometimes have parts of me who will need to say out loud, “Please just let this all be ok.” I recognize these are parts of me who are young children afraid of losing the most protective, loving person they have had in their lives.

I don’t feel reliable. To myself, to my husband, to my son. If this all blows up, can I keep it together? I’m barely keeping it together. People keep commenting on how we seem to be handling this well. For sure I can present a version of myself that needs to be informative and accurate. I’m aware that there are over two hundred other people in the world watching all of this go down. (I didn’t even realize I knew that many people.)

I am aware of how many people want a silver lining in this.

Is it wrong if I can’t find a silver lining? I can’t find hope right now. I think in the whole large arc of the grief, I’m in Depression right now. (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance–not necessarily in that order or with finality in any of the stages. Grief is not linear. Acceptance is not permanent.)

Ok, enough of this for now.

 

Just some thoughts I’ve been having

To say a lot has happened since my last post would be a serious understatement. Right now we’re 2 days out from a very sudden surgery for my husband, which is part of the treatment he is now receiving for colorectal cancer. The news, meeting doctors, coming up with a plan, arranging the surgery, all came on very fast. You can read about it on our CaringBridge site, but basically from first blush to surgery scheduled was all of 3 weeks.

Now I am sitting in my office, overwhelmed with things to do. But actually there is nothing to do. I have done everything I need to do in reality. My son’s care is accounted for for the next week, I have a lengthy list of caretakers if something happens to one of them, meals are planned and ready to go, all the final bills and mail and chores that have to get done are done. Now we are just waiting.

I am reminded that when I was in high school I had a habit of writing in all my homework very diligently in my planner. I was in an intensive international baccalaureate program and there was a lot of homework always. The closest TV experience to the one I had was Rory in Gilmore Girls. Except instead of writing for a paper, it was singing in my school chorus and every elite chorus I could audition for.

At the same time, my dad was at rock bottom in his journey with alcoholism so I spent a lot of time alone in my room, trying to deal with all the feelings of school pressure and my family being a source of constant, overwhelming tension.

To cope, I would write and rewrite to do lists and spend time looking in my planner at all the things I had to do without actually doing any of it. It’s like the act of making lists would soothe the part of me that couldn’t handle all the disorganization.

I’m feeling that very intensely these days. I write the same to do list in 4 places, often adding and removing things that have nothing to do with what is happening. Or creating lists upon lists that don’t really need to be figured out yet.

I feel the need to write in my journal when there’s really nothing else to say. I stare at blank pages thinking something has to come out because I feel such pressure right now, but I’m just tapped out.

But also, I’m not sleeping well. I’m exhausted every day, but I wake up early and find that I have to lay down partway through the day while my son naps just so I won’t get a migraine. I’m constantly on the verge of a migraine, which is kind of unacceptable right now.

People are worried about me in a way that feels equivalent to the way they are worried about Andy and that is a problem. I get worried that somehow I am coming across as weak, in need of help, unable to cope. Do these people who are worried about me think I need more help because I am not handling this well?

They likely see that care taking a sick person is a difficulty in and of itself, but I feel remarkably selfish being the center of this kind of attention when it is my husband who is ultimately dealing with the mutilation of his body and the lost time with his son. He’s on a lifting restriction for 6 weeks after the surgery and I just can’t imagine my life where I can’t hold my son. I’m trying to brainstorm ways to make this easier for Andy, but I’m stuck.

And then I get mad. I’m mad at the fucking cancer. I’m mad at a healthcare system that doesn’t just support people in these times. (Btw, in the middle of all this we got the notice for the premium increase for mine and Ronan’s health insurance. It went up 50% for 2018. What the hell are we even doing anymore?) I’m mad that we had a moment of gratitude that this was happening at the end of the year and his out of pocket max had already been reached, so we’re effectively getting free surgery. I’m mad that instead of spending time with him and Ronan, I’m freaking out about money. Andy will be missing a huge tech so the normal pay bump we get during the time won’t be happening. We have a GoFundMe to cover some of those expenses, but I’m pissed that I live in the richest country in the world and have to worry about paying our mortgage.

I’m mad that out of all the things I can do, all the skills I can offer, all the experiences I have, I can’t seem to make this less uncomfortable. Andy will still have to have major abdominal surgery. Ronan still won’t be able to be picked up by his Papa for over a month, and I still have to hold all the strings together when I don’t feel remotely qualified or prepared for this. (False, says a voice in me, you are the most qualified and prepared for this.)

When the surgeon gave us a worst case scenario of the cancer having already spread and said that the cancer might be “incurable” and it “would be more about prolonging your life,” I almost died right in that moment. The blood all rushed to my head and I felt the room spin.

How can I have found this man who loves me so much, a man who I could spend almost every waking moment with and not get tired of him, a man who makes me feel special and loved and appreciated and beautiful in all the ways that matter, and have him ultimately taken from me in this way?

We have a long way to go before we know if this is even a thing, but I’m already mourning his loss. I watch him at night when he turns away from me to turn off the light before bed and think, how will I survive without him? I don’t want to be a single mom. I don’t want to have this giant bed all to myself. I don’t want another person, I want him.

And then I bargain. Right? Because there is always bargaining. What do I have to do? If I keep all the details perfect, will it go away? If I promise to stay on top of the housework and find a job and stop running my own business, will this be the magical equation the universe needs to keep him alive?

And we aren’t even sure if this is the thing yet. But I’m already going through the 5 stages of grief with this.

And now I’m back to thinking how selfish I am that I even have grief over this. I’m not the one with the cancer. How can I think of myself at a time like this? How? How? How?

…just some thoughts I’ve been having.

And then suddenly, it was easier…

Something clicked around the time Ronan became 14 months old. Things got…easier.

The first year was super intense. Figuring out sleeping and eating and new skills being learned and teeth and managing a baby and my own needs and my husband’s needs and trying to run a business and really intense stuff with my family and my in-laws and on and on and on.

And then one day I realized it had suddenly gotten easier.

He was walking, I knew enough about him to learn his cues and how to anticipate his needs. I had figured out the short cuts for when Andy was at work. I stopped pumping.

Part of this ease can be attributed to the new pattern for care taking. Ronan and I go to co-working 2 mornings a week and then straight home for a nap. He spends almost a full day with my mother in law and another almost full day with my father in law.

The timing between naps is longer so we can take our time getting places and doing things. We don’t have to rush back home or to the car for a nap or so I can pump.

I had a therapist make a really condescending remark about how I needed to just lighten up my standards for motherhood. I remember thinking, “Well, they’re not really that high.” She used the example of using paper plates for dinner instead of real plates. Um… you do know that when Andy’s running a show only one of us actually uses a plate?

My standards were and are pretty middling. I want to experience some joy and happiness while parenting and don’t want to make myself sick with my choices. I have a partner who is a true partner, so I never can commiserate with moms who have significant others who don’t really help.

But despite my choosing a partner who was a help, despite my sort of middling standards, things were hard. Like as a blanket statement, it was hard.

And now it’s…less hard.

A mom in one of my Facebook groups was candidly talking about how overwhelmed she was with her 4 month old and was looking for perspective about how one day it would get better. Other moms were telling her to “enjoy it, they’re only small once,” which is the worst advice you can give to a mom who is just in the weeds.

I told her about how it gets easier. They figure stuff out. You figure them out, they figure you out. You get a rhythm and a routine. And then one day you find yourself with a spare couple of hours to read and scroll Facebook and maybe do some laundry if you really feel like it, but everything feels less compressed.

Don’t know how long this will last, but for now I’m really enjoying hitting a phase of parent/childhood that seems to work with my temperament a little better. Having more help from many angles definitely helps since I can work more and remember parts of me that had to get put on hold this last year.

There are acute moments of discomfort, but for now it all feels a little bit more manageable than it did before.

NO I’M NOT ON MY PERIOD

Y’all don’t need me to tell you this, but imma say it anyway for those who need it repeated: misogyny is just everywhere.

The most prominent way I’ve seen it lately is blaming women’s intuition about themselves on “hormones.”

I’ve been going down a bit of a black hole on hormones lately. Postpartum hormones are no fucking joke and now that I’m almost 13 months postpartum, I figured it was time to do something about the hormonal symptoms I was experiencing.

Some examples of legitimate hormonal symptoms (courtesy of the book Woman Code): insomnia, waking up during sleep, headaches, low libido, facial/body hair, hyperthyroidism, metabolic syndrome, oily skin, bloating and water retention, acne, eczema, constipation, diarrhea, body odor, night sweats, mood swings, PMS, irregular cycle, ovarian cysts, breast tenderness, PCOS, unexplained infertility, cramps, heavy periods, painful periods, missing periods, migraines, and depression.

Things that are not a product of hormones: Clinical depression or anxiety, divorce, seizures, stress, a desire to be treated well, aversions to sexual harassment, mental load.

And yet, in the last year I’ve heard all of these things be blamed on “hormones.”

When I went in for my 6 week postpartum appointment, the one where they give you the clearance to start exercising again (ha…hahahaha), I mentioned feeling “off.” Andy pointed out to my doctor that I felt angry sometimes, and while this was true, this was not what I was referring to. I felt overwhelmed, out of control, or on the verge of tears all the time. My sanity felt like a very precariously balanced thing and I did my best to describe this. But, I was told it was likely postpartum hormones and to give myself some time to recover.

I went to my therapist and said the same thing and she echoed the sentiment that motherhood was hard and not getting enough sleep was hard. Yeah…but it was something else.

My second visit to my therapist was where shit got real and I used the D word: depression. I ultimately was diagnosed with mild PPD, but the amount of convincing it took that Something Was Up was kind of insane.

I have a dear friend who regaled my mommy support group with the tale of how she was having eclamptic seizures a few days postpartum. When she called 911, the paramedics arrived and took her pulse and blood pressure, both of which were really high, and instead of treating her for, you know, a medical condition, told her “Being a new mom is hard.” This woman is a nurse and she was like “yah, no shit, now get me to a hospital.” They got her there and after more patronizing and gas lighting from male doctors, she was eventually seen by an OB who knew immediately what was going on and got her treated immediately.

Yesterday a mom in one of my mom FB groups posted about how she has felt distant from her husband for over a year and really wants to ask for a divorce. But, every time she tries to get some support in the process of leaving him from a friend or family member, she gets told that it’s just her hormones that are making her feel off about him and that eventually she’ll like him again.  When I said it’s not hormones this is what it feels like to have legitimate and scary feelings, she explained, “But I’m breastfeeding.” Sure. Pregnancy hormones and postpartum hormones are fucking insane. But they make you want to get a burrito (and a muffin and a smoothie and an ice cream sundae and a block of cheese…you eat a lot while breastfeeding), not a divorce.

This systemic gas lighting of women and their experiences is ridiculous. When someone says covertly or overtly that what they’re experiencing is a product of woman-ness, aka hormones, instability because of hormones, or a lack of mental clarity bc hormones, it’s misogyny.

Let’s try on something new and just believe women when they say something that involves a fair bit of intuition and soul-searching. It is likely because of our ability to be deeply intuitive thanks to our hormones that has helped us to draw this conclusion. Ok so yeah it’s because of hormones, but it’s not because HORMONES. Our biology is something to be celebrated, not in the least because we produce literal life, but also because it is precisely our ability to find deep meaning and connection in tough moments and tough decisions that helps the world keep from being a burning pile of garbage.

I’m sure I’ll have more of these stories and more rage about the way women are treated. I promise my rage is not because I’m PMSing. I’m just mad.

Claiming Stay-at-Home-Momhood

I went to my therapist a few weeks ago for a check in. I had scheduled the appointment after my emergency session following my termination thinking I would need additional tuning up a few weeks later. Turns out I had managed to emerge from the hole relatively well and was in less acute crisis.

One thing came out of our conversation that I think is worth sharing.

I called myself a Stay at Home Mom for the first time.

In our country, being a Stay at Home Mom is a wildly polarizing thing. Women write whole treatises defending their Stay at Home Momness. They describe how tough of a job it is, how thankless it is, how people assume they sit all day at home watching TV and have no fucking clue what happens in the day-to-day life of raising children. And all of that is true.

Unless you are a mother, you do not understand the profound loneliness of motherhood. You have a little person with you all day, but you never have a real conversation, never get to be fully who you are, and are constantly keeping tabs on this other being to the point that even when you are asleep and they are asleep you sort of have one eye open waiting for a cry to tell you to spring into action.

I quit being a stage manager largely because of this constant vigilance. You have to be on always and even in the moments of down time, you are not truly down. You’re always at a low hum. Mothers are exhausted because of how they are always having to monitor, run a program in the background, taking up CPU and RAM. I call it the iMommy app refreshing in the background.

One thing I can say with confidence is that when I go to work, I don’t have this program running in the background. When my baby is with my in-laws or my husband, iMommy turns off and I feel palpable relief at not having to track Ronan.

Work for me is about 9 hours a week over Wednesday-Friday while he’s at Grandparent Daycare.

As a Stay at Home Mom, I am always tracking him, always monitoring his mood, his reactions, his feelings, his hunger, his diaper, his everything. Everything. I am the subject matter expert on my son and he is a constant equation of input (food, stimulation, sleep) and output (poop, temperament, health). I know all if it always and adjust the equation every day to fine tune how to keep his output as pleasant and palatable to the rest of the world as possible.

Some people have a predisposition to doing this well and with relatively low impact on their CPU and RAM. I do not have this predisposition. Or maybe I did at some point, but it was used up when I had to track the mood/temperament/input/output of my parents and their own pathology. So not only do I not particularly like this constant tracking, but it’s also a little psychologically triggering for certain parts of me.

I resisted the title of Stay at Home Mom until this point because, in our country, these women are patronized in the worst way. On a thread about equal pay for equal work, a man went off on a tangent to explain how being a mom is The Most Important Job in the World. It’s a common refrain I hear from women defending their Stay at Home Momness or from men or women trying make Stay at Home Moms feel better about staying at home.

Parenting is viewed as inherently feminine work. It’s something that is undervalued as evidenced by the fact that we don’t have standard paid parental leave and women take financial and career hits when we have families.

Of course, I also keep hearing we “choose” this, as if for everyone it is an option. For our family, we can’t afford traditional daycare or a nanny with my business still in the early phases of growing. So I stay with our son instead of paying for daycare. You can be damn sure if I could afford daycare he would be there. I don’t believe in the nonsense about how daycare is outsourcing parenting or any other ridiculous reason people cite for why children should not be in daycare. Fuck that. As if working parents need another reason to be shamed for their choices.

And again, as if it’s a choice! Parents who work mostly do it because they HAVE to. But also, so what if they want to? I love to work. If I could have Andy and I work part or three-quarter time we would do it in an instant. But that’s not how the world, and particularly the theatre world, works.

So saying I’m a Stay at Home Mom felt big because I was taking on all the crap that people throw at women who are staying home with their children. The stereotypes include that I’m lazy and poor and have no skills I can work with and, thus, will have to join the legions of women who rigorously defend themselves about staying home.

And.

This one feels the biggest.

Am I living up to my full potential?

My mother was a flipping rocket scientist at NASA and worked in the male dominated field of software engineering. With a legacy like that, how can I stay home and not take advantage of the work she did to pave that pathway for me?

I know my mom would never agree with this assessment. She would say that being a parent was the best part of her life and that working was a means to the end of providing for her children.

But as the end of that, it feels like I am too smart, too resourceful, too sensitive, too educated to let my Master’s degree collect dust while I plan naps and make baby food and take walks and clean up poopy diapers and do a lot of laundry.

Which is why I was resistant to claiming the role I’m already living.

I recognize that I am part of a newer type of woman. The one who is a work from home/stay at home mom. Some of us are part of those Multi-level Marketing companies that sell you essential oils and shakes and supplements. Some of us are professionals like lawyers, accountants, and consultants.

I think that being a stay at home/work from home mom is no more or less crazy-making than any other type of mothering. Of course, I will never live another lifetime like this and therefore have no way to compare it to something else. All moms are struggling in whatever their circumstances are. I am grateful that my circumstances mean I get to wear yoga pants more often than not, but I wish it didn’t come with societal stigma that tells me I should be grateful. But, as I have learned, all moms are told they should be grateful, regardless of their level of satisfaction with their circumstances. Which is a topic for another day.

A couple-a questions

A Facebook friend posted these in honor of Valentine’s Day. I love talking about Andy and our relationship and our family, so any excuse to talk more about it, I’ll take.

Who’s older? Andy, by 15 1/2 years.
How long have you been together? 8 years on March 1st.
Who was interested first? I think it was pretty mutual. We warmed up to each other at the same pace, but once we were official we fell hard.
More sarcastic? Both of us. It’s one of our many compatible qualities.
Who makes the most mess? Both of us…he leaves more laying around, but when I make a mess I make a MESS.
Who has more tattoos? Me. I have one to his zero.
Who’s the better singer? Me. Though he makes it funnier.
Hogs the remote? Neither of us.
Better driver? He drives us around more. I think we’re both good drivers.
Spends the most money? Me. I buy all the necessities, pay the bills, etc, and make sure we get the occasional fancy coffee and clean clothes.
Smarter? Me on humans and their behavior. Him on everything else.
Whose siblings do you see the most? His. Though mine live 3000 miles away. I have a feeling if my brother lived closer we’d see him, his wife, and his daughter a whole bunch more.
Do you have any children together? Yes! Perfect little Nugget.
Did you go to the same school? Nope.
Who is the most sensitive? I am sensitive about a lot of things. When you hit his threshold on the few things he takes personally, it’s pretty intense.
Where do you eat out most as a couple? Burger places: Red Robin, The Ram, Elliot Bay Brewhouse. Also we enjoy a good fancy coffee and pastry.
Where is the furthest you two have traveled together as a couple? Austria.
Who has the worst temper? I slowly simmer about more. He’s explosive about less.
Who does the cooking? Me. Man has no sense of smell, but he makes a mean scrambled egg.
Who is more social? Me. Though he sees his friends every day at work so work is like social time.
Who is the neat freak? Me. We both like a clean house but since I work from home and stay at home with Nugget, I want it more clean.
Who is the most stubborn? Him. We had a whole pre-baby conversation where he admitted to his intense stubbornness. Though if I present a pragmatic, fact-based argument, I can sway him. It’s like being in debate club, but it keeps me checking to make sure, A. it’s a fight I want to have and, B. I actually have good reasons.
Who hogs the bed? Neither. It’s why we got a big bed and separate comforters.
Who wakes up earlier? Me always. Pre-baby, post-baby, I’ve always gotten up earlier.
Where was your first date? Officially? His apartment.
Who has the bigger family? Our immediate families were the same size, but now his family is bigger due to divorce/remarriage/step-siblings/nieces and nephews.
Who does the laundry? Me mostly.
Who’s better with the computer? Him. I mean I can type and deal with HTML, but he knows his way around electronics better than almost anyone I know.
Who drives when you are together? Him. I love it when he drives and so does he.
Who picks where you go to dinner? I usually offer suggestions and he picks. Sometimes my suggestion list only includes one place.
Who wears the pants in the relationship? Both for different things. Though I resent the premise of this question.
Who eats more sweets? Me while I’m breastfeeding. We both have pretty raging sweet tooths and giving each other treats is one of the main ways we show love!

How to create community in 793 easy steps

In the last couple of weeks I’ve realized how much I need to be around people every day. I’m by no means an extrovert, but I didn’t realize how much of a social creature I am.

This depressive episode made it very clear that time I spend alone is not helpful. I started reaching out to new people to try and build some more community so I had lots of options if I needed a sudden infusion of support.

  1. PEPS– I joined my local PEPS group in August after a fellow mom did her due diligence to get one started. There are 9 of us in the group with babies who were born between mid-May and early August. For 12 weeks we met every Tuesday from 1030a-1230p. Our babies started out as lumps and now have teeth, sit up, crawl, babble, and have personalities. This group saved me. After my husband, they were the first ones I told about my PPD diagnosis. I still see a few of them every week on Tuesday mornings. One key piece to helping us gel was a Facebook group I started for us within the first couple of weeks. It started slowly, with people asking for clear advice, making recommendations, or trying to arrange playdates. Now, we post about lots of things. After I was fired, I told my staff about what happened and then I told my PEPS group (my husband was in the room when it happened, so he already knew). I knew kids caused a lot of camaraderie, but I didn’t really get it until this group. We all have different approaches to life and work and family, but we are all bound by a similar need to do what is best for our children and are sometimes at a total loss for what that looks like. I think all of us have cried at this point and we have all shared food, the two things I think bind humans the quickest. Without my PEPS ladies, I would be in much worse shape.
  2. Online Book Clubs– After President Obama had an interview in the NY Times about the books he read while in office, I put a call out on Facebook asking if anyone else wanted to read them with me. Almost 30 people joined and we are reading one book every two months with discussion online about what we have read. I also joined a book club aimed at literature about intersectional feminism. This one is largely going to be in-person or call in for those of us who aren’t local, but whether I get to participate in the actual discussion or not, reading intersectional feminist literature and non-fiction sounds wonderful. I also joined the local moms book club, which mostly focuses on fiction. This group also meets in person and though I can never make the meeting times (they’re always on Friday nights), I still read the books along with the group. I’m also constantly reviewing my reading list from graduate school and taking on books my fellow graduates reading. So at any given time I’m reading up to 4 books, but since they are all for different purposes it’s easy to keep track of their plots or central messages without confusion.
  3. Stroller Strides– This group is still newish to me. I go to a Stroller Strides class 1-3 times a week and am still figuring out how I fit into this larger group. Most of the parents have kids who are toddlers or preschoolers and class always falls right during nap time, so I don’t really stick around much after class is over to socialize. That said, the day of the inauguration we did a Michelle Obama inspired workout and when I started tearing up over the loss of the Obamas I was encouraged to “let it out.” I also told them about my termination and I get asked every class about the state of my employment.
  4. Witchy women in general– I have gotten really close with a lot of what I call “witchy women.” These are the women who are deeply affected by and in tune with the world around them. Most of them are in disparate social circles, but on the day of the Womxn’s March, they were all out protesting or actively tracking in and talking about it on social media. Some I see very regularly in person, and some I only communicate with via Facebook. Either way the energy of the feminine is strong in this group and shows up in many different areas of communication and community.
  5. My consulting collective– After graduate school, one of my teachers started a group where graduates could come together to figure out how to spread our skills more broadly. We meet once a month and talk about everything from very in-depth case studies to new theories to social problems and how to address them. I’ve had some very challenging conversations with this group on a personal level and some very fruitful ones. I get to bring the nugget with me and he is passed around from person to person so I can get a break and he can be held by people who already adore him.

In order to get community going, I’ve found that we obviously need a common call to action, but the follow up after forming the initial group is what’s hard. Online, I have to post comments and questions regularly to get the lurkers to come out and engage. In person, I often throw out initial instances of vulnerability to break the ice. I’m sure if I didn’t, someone else would, but I’m usually game to cast the first line.

What makes it hard and why some of them peter out is that this needs to happen over and over and over again. Groups I have been a part of where I wasn’t actively cultivating them have fallen by the wayside despite everyone’s good intentions. There are some people who propose that a group needs a certain number of people to keep it going. I have seen groups of hundreds stagnate because the moderator and/or creator didn’t give it enough juice from day to day.

I have a new group for mompreneurs and work from home moms I started. There are about 50 of us and this one is having a harder time getting going. I think I need to ask some different questions, but I haven’t quite cracked the code on this one yet. In any case, some more attention and effort and I think it will be awesome. Mompreneurs and work from home moms spend a LOT of time on the computer, so I know other group members will be more engaged soon.

 

Welcome to Stars Hollow

I have spent the last few weeks watching A LOT of Gilmore Girls. It’s a show I’ve watched in the past and with the new nugget at home it’s a great show to have on in the background.

See, a lot of being a new mom has entailed feeling really, really lonely. When my dad was in town he talked about the people he works with who need the TV or radio on in the background. He talked about how he was so happy with himself that he didn’t need the fake company. My dad’s personal psychology aside, the truth is that I need the fake company in the form of TV characters. I spend a lot of my day hoping that my day will come to an end, I can put my son to bed, and get 45 minutes to myself before I must to go bed to be somewhat adequately rested.

Ronan doesn’t yet have enough attention span or energy to fully interact with me for more than a few minutes, and I spend a lot of the day keeping him calm and holding my breath until he wakes up again. My days feel held hostage by my tiny human. I want to get projects done, do some work, write, read, hell even work out, but the capacity and ability to do all of that evaporates because of how unpredictable he is.

These last two weeks were particularly hard. Andy was in tech and he was gone from roughly 8am to midnight every day. I was usually up when he woke up and asleep when he got home. All the hours in between were just me and our son. I didn’t realize just how many decisions I made with Andy until he wasn’t here. It started with the simple choice of whether to leave the swing on or off during Ronan’s nap. Sometimes if I let it continue to swing after he fell asleep, he would wake up. Sometimes if I turned it off, he would wake up. What made the difference only the internal synapses of my son’s brain will know, but I had to play that guessing game every time I put him down for a nap.

And let’s clear  up that phrase “put down for a nap.” This is not actually how this process goes. Usually I would be holding my baby, feeding him, letting him hang out on his Mat of Neglect/Self-Sufficiency, and then he would start crying. I’d realize that he was likely tired so I’d start to rock him, I’d rock him some more, and more, and more. Sometimes for 30 minutes we’d rock. And this rocking didn’t happen in a rocking chair. It happened standing up, baby in arms, swaying back and forth. Do that for 45 minutes and tell me how your body feels afterwards because mine felt exhausted.

If he managed to fall asleep during that time, I’d try to lay him down in his pack ‘n’ play, a portable bassinet/crib, but because the pack ‘n’ play was helpful to Mommy and he had a sixth sense about easing up on Mommy, he would wake up about 10 minutes later and the rocking would start over.

I got desperate at one point and a friend gave me her old swing. Ronan had taken to delightful mid-afternoon screaming fits, likely because he wasn’t actually getting naps that were restorative, and was so distraught that there was very little I could do to help him fall asleep. He would sleep in my arms, making it impossible to do anything. We have all these beautiful romantic notions of motherhood. One of the primary images is a mother with a sleeping baby nestled in her arms with her supremely white couch/sheets/living room behind her. She always looks so peaceful with her sleeping baby next to or on top of her.

For me, I was getting overloaded by the sensation of being touched for so many hours a day that I would hold him and just start to cry to relieve some of the tension and anxiety. I’m sure other moms know the sensation that comes with the phrase “touched out,” but if you haven’t experienced this, it’s the physical equivalent of having to look at strobe lights all day. It’s overwhelming and constant and has very little relief. The only real cure is space from being touched. Which is why the baby who would fall asleep on me or wake up after being put down was so damn problematic.

So the swing saved the day. He would go into it and a within a few minutes be completely relaxed or asleep. These days I have to sometimes add the help of a pacifier, but it is still the magic seat.

But having to make the minor decisions about the swing added to all the other decisions one makes during the course of the day left me overwhelmed and anxious.

We talk about decision fatigue among adults in their working lives. It is well documented that if we don’t automate as much as possible people become overwhelmed and lose more and more capacity to deal with sudden stressors. I was already overwhelmed with decision fatigue before the baby came along, but I was lucky to have my partner to bounce things off of. Then I went from having help half of the time to having help none of the time.

I’ve said many times the last few weeks that nothing could have prepared me for being a parent. There is no amount of research, reading, or talking to other parents that could have helped me have a sense of what this experience would be like. So I can’t adequately explain how overwhelming it is because I don’t have an appropriate frame of reference. I now understand the great divide in our society between parents and non-parents. I don’t have animosity or even feel like I’m better than my friends who are not parents. I truly lack the words to explain the experience of going from managing oneself and all that a singular life brings with it, to managing a whole new being who can’t communicate or make their own choices and is constantly barraged with new experiences. How do you help that new being through all of that whiplash?

As it turns out, I needed Lorelai and Rory in the background to remind me that someday my new being will be grown and may even be able to have coffee and witty conversation with me.