Maybe I caused it. Maybe I didn’t. Here’s why that doesn’t matter.

October means it’s Spina Bifida awareness month, so that means everyone and their mom is up in arms about prevention. If you follow any Spina Bifida-affiliated organization, then you’re totally gonna get an earful this month about folic acid and how SB is totes preventable if you JUST TAKE FOLIC ACID FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST. (Sara from Ernie Bufflo does an excellent job of explaining why that isn’t always the case, and how SB prevention often gets in the way of serving the people who are already here.)

I don’t talk much about prevention on this blog, because it’s totally irrelevant to us and a majority of the people who read this. Like Sara said, we’ve got SB, and it’s not going anywhere. It’s part of who Henry is, and no amount of folic acid is going to change that. It’s not really something I talk about, because it’s not really something that affects us now. But I’ll talk about it today.

One thing that saddens me greatly during October (and, to be honest, every other month. But particularly October because the push for “awareness” and “prevention” is so high) is the scores of mothers on our SB support groups who admit to feeling haunted: “Could I have prevented this?” They ask. “Was it my fault because I waited to take prenatals once I found out I was pregnant, instead of before?” My friend Mary Evelyn echoes this, and she wrote a post this morning about folic acid and guilt that ought to be mandatory reading for every newly-diagnosed parent.

 

 

My heart goes out to these women completely, because I’m among their ranks — Did I cause this? Did I not take enough folic acid? Truthfully, I don’t think about it often, but I do think about it some. And I’ll admit that while most of the time it’s not something I concern myself with, during my worst moments (and we all have those, right? Those wow-I-suck-I’m-a-terrible-mother-and-human-being-moments?) I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m the one who caused his defect:

We waited only a year between pregnancies, and I was breastfeeding June when we conceived. (Who knows — maybe she sucked all the nutrition out of me?)

I’m chronically anemic (I have been my entire life), which goes hand in hand with folate deficiency (which I didn’t know at the time).

I ate pretty much nothing but baked potatoes and Panera soup during my first trimester (but I’m gonna go ahead and blame the baby on this one. If he wanted me to eat tons of folate-rich spinach, he shouldn’t have made me throw up every time I ate anything.)

– Here’s something that really haunts me — something I’ve come to accept and make my peace with, though it still lashes out at me in my worst moments. The minute I found out I was pregnant with Henry, I remembered how agonized I was after June’s delivery. During the pushing stage, I think I pulled just about every muscle in my body trying to get her out, and I was so woefully out of shape it took me weeks to recover from childbirth. So right after my positive pregnancy test, I went out every morning with June and took her for a walk in the stroller. In mid-July. In ninety degree weather. It was hot as balls, but I thought I was getting healthy for him. I knew vaguely that high body temperatures (hyperthermia) increases your risk of neural tube defects like spina bifida, but I took that to mean no hot showers or electric blankets, which I stayed away from religiously. I didn’t think that meant I couldn’t exercise. I thought I was doing a good thing.

Does that cover it? The millions of ways I could have given my son spina bifida? I took prenatals, by the way. I even took a folic acid supplement — more than the standard recommended dose. And another thing I loved to eat when I was pregnant was Total cereal — which is fortified with folate and has 100 percent of the recommended dose. So who knows — maybe it wasn’t folate deficiency. Maybe I didn’t wait long enough between pregnancies — a known reason that Latina women are in a high risk category for neural tube defects (Latina women tend to have more babies and space them closer than any other population). Maybe it was the fact that my dumb ass went out every single morning during my first trimester and sweated my balls off, determined to get in shape for his delivery, raising my body temperature to potentially unsafe levels.

Maybe I caused it. Maybe it was my fault. Maybe. I’ll never know.

Now let me tell you why none of that matters.

Being a mother has always been of utmost importance to me. We waited about five seconds after we were married to start trying to get pregnant, and four months later we were pregnant with June. When June was just a year old, we both got a strong urge to try again for another. We were in a good place financially — paying off our debts, saving a good amount. Lou had a steady job. June was an incredibly easy baby, who we thought could benefit from having a sibling. There was nothing stopping us. So we tried again, for Henry.

The funny thing about trying for Henry was that I knew I would be having Henry. Henry was the only baby name we could agree on, boy or girl, and I strongly suspected that when we got pregnant, we’d be having a boy (boys run in the family, on both sides). Right after June’s birthday (at the end of June), I heard a small voice in my ear. You’re fertile now, it said. If you want to get pregnant this month, you’re running out of time to try. So we tried.

(Only one other time have I ever heard this small nagging voice in my ear. In college, Lou and I were spending a lot of time together, getting to know each other, but not yet dating. I remember sitting in a Political Science class one day and hearing, out of the blue, someone telling me that if you date this person, he’ll be the last person you ever date. Writing that seems creepy, though, like he was going to murder me or something.)

I tell you, the minute he was conceived, I knew we were pregnant. I knew it “took,” on the very first try. And for weeks afterward, I took pregnancy test after pregnancy test, knowing we had conceived him, but not getting a positive result. Finally, on July 17th, we got one. Pregnant. On the first try. With Henry. Bam. Henry, whose namesake we now know, is the patron saint of disabled people.

My point is this: I was always meant to have this child. He was always Henry, and he was always mine, which takes the sting out a little bit when I think of maybe how I could have caused his defect. Whether I “caused” it or whether it was just a totally random happenstance, it doesn’t really matter to me any more. Because he was always Henry. He’s always had a special purpose. He was always mine, from before he was conceived, and I think the significance of his namesake points to the fact that he was always going to be disabled, and that he would use that disability for the glory of God. To help other people, somehow, in some way, that were disabled like him.

Maybe it was my fault. I don’t care anymore. He’s here. He was always supposed to be here. He gives my life purpose and joy, and that overrides the guilt I have any day of the week. If I gave him spina bifida because I took long walks in the heat for my first trimester, then that lands me among the ranks of parents who totally screwed up their kids by trying to do good by them. And I can live with that.

Like Mary Evelyn said so poetically, I’m moving on. I’m letting go. I’m thanking God for the gift that is my child.

photo 4(14)

And as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from his birth. His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who has sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” John 9: 1-3

Things that make me cry now that my antidepressants have changed: A seriously random list

Oh, antidepressants. Where would I be without you? No, seriously. I’m asking. I’m a bona fide mess on antidepressants, still wading through some untreated PTSD and agoraphobia issues, watching shit like Monsters Inside Me and Googling all the different kinds of parasites in my drinking water. Waking my husband up in the middle of the night and going, LOU. I’ve been Googling, and I think I have MRSA. IN MY NOSE.

(I was right about that one, by the way. Henry and I have both had MRSA infections this month, and they’ve sucked. So sometimes my anxiety is actually founded. Suck on that!)

My anxiety came to a head a couple months ago when the combination of a hormone plunge and Henry’s constant, hawk-like screeching conspired to give me a sobbing panic attack. For the past few months, Henry’s been making this awful noise. I can’t even really convey how horrible and ear-piercing this noise is because the depth of human language doesn’t even skim the surface of how absolutely nightmarish it is. The closest approximation I can give you is this video of a screeching falcon — when I played it for Lou, he said, “God, yes, that sounds exactly like Henry. Now, TURN IT OFF before I throw myself out the window.” So if you want to know how my days have been going, turn your volume up to eleven, play that youtube video, and loop it for TWO MONTHS STRAIGHT, ALL THE FUCKING DAY LONG. That’s how it feels to live with Henry right now, who doesn’t have the words to express what he wants and just shrieks until we bend to his will. Last month, finally, I snapped: I left him downstairs with his dad, went upstairs to bed, and just flat-out refused to deal with him for the rest of the day. When he woke up the next morning — screeching — I woke up my husband and cried. “I can’t,” I said. “I can’t anymore. My skin hurts from listening to that screech. Every time I hear it my heart starts pounding. I can’t be around him anymore. I won’t.”

So I took a xanax and went back to bed — for the entire day. Lou took off work and dealt with the screaming. Later, when I dragged myself out of bed, I called the doctor and made an appointment to discuss my anxiety meds. It looked like I was going to need something a little more hardcore, if I was going to function like a normal human being — because who knows how long Henry’s going to be doing this screeching thing? (As of this writing, he’s still doing it. We have an appointment booked with the speech therapist soon — for my sanity. I mean, for his language skills. Yeah. That.)

All day long, mom. Because fuck you, is why.

I’m not saying this to get sympathy, believe me. But you know what’s funny? When I get on the right medication and my anxiety is under control, I get cocky. I think I’ve conquered my PTSD or outgrown my agoraphobia and I start tapering off my medicine, thinking that I’ve got this thing beat. And three days later, inevitably, I’m having some small body-related freakout thinking about all the ways I could have possibly died had I been born in the seventeenth century (this is something I legitimately think about, and obsess over. People just died of NOTHING back then. Typhoid. Or infected cuts. Or rat-bites. Or boils, for God’s sake. BOILS).

My point is that situations change. Anxiety levels change. Anxiety tolerance changes. It’s not something you can just cure (apparently). It’s an ongoing, ever-lasting, ever-changing battle.

So here’s what I’m battling with right now.

1. Any gospel song. Have you ever noticed, in tons of predominantly African-American movies, that a popular trope is to have a huge come-to-Jesus at the end of the film, at a Church, set to a moving gospel song? I can think of six just off the top of my head. This one. This one. This one. Sort of this one. Oh, and this too, which makes me cry whether I’m in a hormonal upswing or not. When Lou and I are watching a Tyler Perry movie and there’s a church scene, I lean over to him and go “Someone’s gonna come to Jesus by the end of this song,” with an astonishing rate of accuracy.

Oh, and definitely this. Yup, instant tears:

Shug Avery singing “God is Trying to Tell You Something” in the Color Purple. Will NEVER NOT make me cry, I don’t care how much medicine I’m taking.

2. This stupid dance from Dance Moms. Stupid, stupid, stupid dance with stupid lyrics that remind me of my stupid daughter whom I love more than anything in the entire world. I caught some of it on TV the other night and cried so hard I couldn’t eat my huge bowl of ice cream (that’s a lie).

 

“You don’t know what a song you sing, you don’t know how much joy you bring…” Screw you forever, Dance Moms.

3. Stupid kids books with an emotional appeal. Especially this book by Neil Gaiman, which is basically a little sing-songy prayer that he wrote for a lady-friend who was about to give birth to a daughter (literally tearing up as I type this). And. It’s. JUST. SO. BEAUTIFUL.

 

 

GOD FUCKING DAMMIT.

4. This Beyonce video, which I legit cried over because it’s just. so. inspiring.

“Women are so awesome, and powerful, and I’m just so darn proud to be one….sniff…LOOK AWAY!!!”

So basically, until I get adjusted to this dose, I’m going to be a living, breathing mess of epic proportions.

And did I mention that the month of October (starting tomorrow) contains my birthday, my favorite saint‘s feast day, most of my family’s birthdays, Spina Bifida Awareness month, AND my favorite holiday of all time (Halloween)?! Hopefully these meds kick in real soon, because I will be so happy, busy and just plain emotional I might just die.

Reader beware.

Bonding with the babies, in spite of myself

Four in the afternoon is what I like to call white-knuckling time. Right around four is when both children get really tired (that’ll happen when you wake up at 5:00 AM and refuse to take a nap — go figure) and one of two things happen. One, they either get inexplicably hyper and run/crawl back and forth from the kitchen to the living room, demanding graham crackers, or they get crying-angry. Crangry. Everything upsets them — they want peanut butter toast instead of the delicious organic dinner and probiotic-laced chocolate milk I prepared for them. Henry wants to take the knives out of the dishwasher and crawl around with them. June wants to watch Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood but NOT THAT EPISODE YOU DUMB BITCH, and cue the screeching, art-supply-throwing meltdown in the middle of the living room floor. From about 4:00 onward Lou and I start white-knuckling it and counting down the minutes until we can throw them in bed and enjoy some motherfucking SILENCE, REAL TALK.

I have this horrible habit of staying up long after I should have gone to bed (like ten thirty, you guys) because I love the feeling of not being hounded by two demanding little tyrants. I’m really tired every morning but oh, the freedom of eating peanut butter toast and watching Netflix for hours and hours is the only thing that keeps me going some days. So immediately after we put them down for bed, I head straight to loft with my laptop and a bag full of those honey-mustard pretzels and nobody is allowed to talk to me or ask me to do anything for the rest of the night. My husband joins me in the loft eventually and sits in his reclining chair and draws awesome comics while he watches old episodes of 30 Rock. And that is romance, y’all. That is why we’re happily married and have been best friends for seven years now. Deep conversations? Candle-lit dinners? Take that noise somewhere else. After a full day of toddler tantrums, I just want to be left alone to eat pretzels and scroll mindlessly through a bunch of hilarious gifs.

Inevitably, every single night, I end up on facebook scrolling mindlessly through pictures of my own children, because I am addicted to them like crack. I cannot get away from them. The first hour or two after they fall asleep I’m like, yes, I am going to stay right here with my netflix and pretzels and I’m not getting out of bed unless there’s a fire, and even then probably not. After a couple hours, though, I pull the earbuds out of my ears and start telling Lou about the hilarious things June said during the day. “Oh! I forgot to tell you what Henry did!” is how most of my sentences start after 8:00. By 8:30 I’m wandering in their room “just to check” on them, hovering over them like a crazy ex-girlfriend, because they are just so breathtakingly beautiful with such pillowy cheeks. You can’t not kiss them. And then maybe you kiss the baby and he wakes up and starts whimpering because he wants to nurse but that’s okay because you missed him anyway.

Ewwww! Creeper, no creeping! But yeah I’ve totally done this to my children.

Maybe it’s because I have a panic disorder but I have this weird anxiety that I’m not “bonded enough” with either of them. I don’t know how much more love it’s possible to feel for these people, but I always have this nagging fear that if I’m not constantly enjoying them, it means I haven’t bonded with them enough and they’re going to develop Reactive Attachment Disorder and turn out to be stabbers.

God knows I didn’t get to hold either one of them right after they were born. Not that I’m bitter — it was a decision borne out of choice and necessity, and with both of them I remember feeling very zen about it at the time, and even now. I have years and years of getting-to-know them ahead of me, I thought, as the nurses wrapped up June and brought her over to my husband. But then a few weeks later, in the hormonal, sweaty hell that was post-partum anxiety, I cried as I wiped off my back-sweat with a towel: What if I hadn’t bonded with her enough?! What if I didn’t really love her?!

June’s birth was relatively easy, as births go. Not even a day of labor, just a few hours of really hard labor (mitigated by the epidural, thank you Jesus), less than an hour of pushing, and she was here. Afterward, however, was when it all fell apart — already anemic, I retained my placenta and hemorrhaged everywhere. Two hours later I woke up — weak from blood loss, loopy from the drugs, exhausted from the delivery. I was still half-awake when my husband handed me the baby — swaddled and sleeping, not the screaming newborn I had pictured squirming naked on my chest post-birth. I didn’t feel a rush of love — relief, maybe, that we had survived. Contentedness, knowing that the hard part was over and I was free to enjoy my baby. But mostly I just felt like going back to sleep. I had been awake for 36 hours at that point and was on the verge of needing a blood transfusion; sue me.

Three days later, we were home and I still felt like I had been run over by a truck — shaky, aching, and overwhelmed with that new-mom exhaustion you can feel all the way down to the marrow of your bones. At one point, my mom scooped the baby out of my arms and shooed me into my room to take a nap. Wide-awake but nauseous with exhaustion, I burrowed under the covers, closed my eyes — and nothing. I waited — ten minutes, fifteen, twenty — on the verge of sleep but unable to fall all the way under. My heart started to race. Dear God, I thought, if I don’t sleep now, June will wake up and need to eat, and I won’t have another chance to nap for who knows how long. Until night-time, at least. Oh wait, she doesn’t sleep then, either. Go to sleep, dummy! Sleep NOW! Amazingly, this didn’t help me sleep. I pulled a sleep mask over my eyes. Put headphones in my ears. Waited, waited. Nothing. My heart started beating faster. I started whimpering, then full-out sobbing. I was never going to sleep again. I started dreading the baby, fearing the baby. I never wanted to see the baby again. I just wanted to sleep and sleep and sleep. Oh God, I begged, please don’t let her walk in here with the baby.

Right on cue, Mom walked in with the baby. I was crying so hard I could barely see them through my tears. And then I did see them — my baby — and my heart soared. “Hiiiiii!” I screeched, probably too loud, suddenly feeling the weirdest mixture of miserable and elated. My baby! She was here! I was still tired, terrified, and every muscle in my body ached, but now, as a consolation prize, I got to hold my precious, pink little baby girl and smell her fuzzy head as she nursed. I was the poster child for post-partum anxiety — sweating, unable to sleep, overwhelmed — and sick with love for my little baby. Yay! I thought, holding out my arms and making gimme-gimme-gimme hands at her feverishly. The baby’s here, the baby’s here!

At some point in the first few days, completely unbeknownst to me, June had gone from a mewling stranger that I tolerated nervously to a snuggly, precious little creature whom I loved — genuinely loved, conventional “bonding” be damned. We didn’t do skin-to-skin with either of them right after birth — the hemorrhage got in the way of that for June, obviously, and Henry had to be whisked off for his myelomeningocele surgery — so that fabled rush of post-birth oxytocin is something we all missed out on. But we bonded. I started loving her. I don’t know when it happened, but it did. It felt like crazy, hungry, desperate fear for her safety until I got my antidepressants straightened out, but it was love, it was attachment, whatever you want to call it, and it was there.

I still feel it at four in the morning, when Henry wakes and shrieks like a falcon until I stumble over to his crib and thrust a sippy-cup under his nose. God I’m so tired please go back to sleep oh hiiiiii sweet baby boy, look at those precious little lips! When I crawl back in bed there’s a lump taking up most of the space on my pillow, and I remember that June crawled into bed with me last night at midnight. I yuv you my snuggly girl she tells me, so I let her climb up into my bed, but just this once (yeah right.) And I think, They’re here, they’re here, my babies, they’re here.

How To Train Your Anxiety

I was diagnosed with a bona fide panic disorder when I was 22, but I didn’t realize until I went to therapy that anxiety had been following me around my entire childhood.

I was highly anxious as a kid and a teenager, but I honestly thought I just read too many horror stories. My favorite author was Stephen King, and I positively devoured his books from age eleven onward. I wanted to write horror stories, so not only did I read every book of his I could get my hands on, but I wrote my own horror stories too. It was the most fun, and it’s a riot to look back at the stuff I wrote as a kid — but I paid a price for it. Almost every single night, after reading or writing scary stories, I would lie awake with all the lights on (like, all the lights on. In the entire houseand replay all these ghastly scenarios inside of my head: Killer clowns. Murder. Creepy-ass ghosts. Abduction. Plagues. King was the best storyteller, but also probably the reason I hardly slept from age eleven onward.

One of the most illuminating quotes about anxiety actually came from Stephen King himself. I can’t quote it verbatim, but he talks about having a vivid imagination, and how his wife and kids think it’s like having a nice little movie in your head to entertain yourself when you get bored (which it is). But, he says, it can also turn on you. It has fangs. And it bites.

Unlike my anxiety in adulthood, my kid anxiety never really interfered with my life. Sure, I stayed up sometimes the entire night because I thought if I closed my eyes a monster would crawl out from inside my closet and drag me out of the bed, but other than that, I functioned day-to-day. But I also slept with the lights on every night. I had nightmares. I would often crawl into bed with my parents or, when I was younger than eleven, one of my brothers. Believe it or not, this still affects me, even in adulthood. I binge-watched the entire first season of True Detective in like six hours (so, so good) and then went, okay, I’m off to bed, goodnight! Except sleep never came. Every time I closed my eyes I would replay one of many (many) creepy scenes and my eyes would pop back open.

Nothing like some creepy, old-timey photos to keep you awake the ENTIRE NIGHT. Thanks, True Detective.

In some ways, it’s even worse after you have children. Because I don’t really give a crap about killer clowns and swamp monsters anymore, but start talking about child abductions and home invasions? Remind me that any number of horrors could happen to my precious babies? I’m sleeping with all the lights on again. In my kids’ room. With a baseball bat.

Amazingly, finding the right medication does wonders for this kind of thing. But like all medications, you get the best results if you combine it with certain tools. I’m pretty sure, from my brief stint as a social work student, that this is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. If I was writing this on Cracked.com, I would call it a “life hack.” But in my brain, it’s How to Train Your Anxiety. My brain might be a fanged monster that bites, but here’s how I put a leash and a muzzle on it:

1. Aaaand … CUT! – I learned this in Girl Scouts, of all places, and it’s been surprisingly very effective. When I disclosed to my Brownie troop that I had crazy anxiety brain and couldn’t sleep because of it, one of the girls suggested that I replay the scary scene in my head, but keep the scene going after the scary part had ended. That was revelatory.

So picture Pennywise stalking toward you with his yellow cat eyes (ughh…). Then picture a bell ringing, a director yelling “CUT!”, the boom mike drooping down, an assistant hurrying over with a tray of scones, makeup artists touching up the white clown makeup on his face, lighting technicians adjusting the lighting. More importantly, picture Pennywise talking, and preferably being a huge whiner, complaining about his working conditions, because that’s hilarious.

Um, Mildred? I asked for a scone? And this tea is EARL GREY, NOT ENGLISH BREAKFAST, GOD DAMN YOU. I’LL BE IN MY TRAILER.

This humanizes the monster (which I’ll talk about in a minute), but it also interrupts the spookiness and surrealism of the surrounding scene. Kind of like picturing somebody in his underwear to make him less intimidating. And, I guess, picturing everything else in their underwear too.

2. Deconstruct and disassemble – For some reason I watched a lot of Are You Afraid of the Dark? when I was younger, and holy crap was that a bad idea. One of their favorite tropes was scary ghost children that just stare menacingly, and it terrified me; not only did I sleep with all the lights on, but I would jump at every strange noise or shadow, even in the middle of the day. (That was actually one of the least scary things on that show, come to think of it: there were also these aliens without faces that scared the life out of me — and side note, what the actual fuck, Nickelodeon?!)

One way to make this a little less scary is to look at the scene critically and deconstruct it. Okay, so there’s a ghost kid standing on your front lawn just staring through your windows (shudder). But why is he just standing there? I mean, he’s a ghost, so presumably he can be anywhere, can’t he? And why, if you’re a ghost and you have a really important message from the other side to deliver, would you be just standing and staring? Wouldn’t you be, like, knocking down doors and rattling chains or whatever? No? You’d just be wasting all your ghost-time standing and staring? THAT MAKES NO SENSE, GHOST.

Okay, but really? You’re gonna write “help me” all over the walls for some damn reason (backwards??) but you’re not gonna tell me how to help? No? Anything? Just gonna stare blankly? Alrighty then. Also, you look like Parker Posey. Seriously, is that Parker Posey?

Once you get past how scary the ghost is, you realize pretty much nothing they do makes logical sense. And then it’s kind of funny.

3. Humanize the horror. I read a fascinating memoir once about an ex-coroner who lived in New Orleans. (Okay, it’s becoming more obvious as I write this that maybe I need to stop reading so much scary stuff…maybe my anxiety will take care of itself, if I do…) Someone had asked him how he dealt with the smell of decomposing bodies — bodies that had died weeks or months before they got to his office. The author said he did his best to power through it, but it was much easier if he imagined them as still-human, with feelings and opinions. They probably didn’t want to smell so bad, he reasoned. In fact, they’d probably be incredibly embarrassed by how bad they smelled. How humiliating! So in the back of his mind, whenever he came across a particularly smelly body, he’d keep in the back of his mind that person’s probable embarrassment. I guess that helped him ignore the smell. Or at least forgive it.

In the same way, if your kid is scared of ghosts (or yourself, even? Not that I know any full-grown adults who get scared of ghosts and have to sleep with the lights on still, no sir), have him strike up a conversation with whatever scares him. What’s the ghost’s name? What kind of TV shows does he like to watch? Does he like being a ghost? What kind of fun things can he do? Float through walls and shit? Because that would be fun. Make up a dialogue between you and the ghost and see if he has any interests other than just being creepy as shit.

Girl, Imma let you finish, but your makeup is jacked and we need to talk about it. Have a seat.

All of these have been tried successfully by yours truly, because I definitely wasn’t going to give up reading Dean Koontz or Stephen King. So if your kid (or yourself, who knows, whatever, I’m not judging) is still sleeping with the lights on after watching an episode of Cold Case Files, maybe try one of these techniques on for size. They just might help.

You’ll thank me after a good night’s sleep.

Childbirth sucks balls but it cured my PTSD

My precious baby girl turned three years old on Monday. We celebrated over the weekend (with a small family party, some chocolate cake, and a late-night bonfire), so her actual day of birth was pretty low-key. We woke up, watched Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, cleaned downstairs, folded some clothes, drove up to Park Ridge to cast Henry’s feet, and took a nap (June did, not me. Alas).

Three years ago I was sitting upright on my hospital bed, eyes closed, paralyzed with absolute terror. I was in the middle of labor. Strangely enough, I wasn’t even feeling my contractions. My water had broken (partially — apparently your water can “leak” and not fully break. Who knew?) so I was admitted and contracting and leaking (gross) — but not dilating. I was stuck at 4 centimeters. And I was so, so terrified. The contractions were nothing — mild cramps and stomach tightening — but my heart was racing so fast that the nurses kept coming in to check on me and asking if I had a heart defect of some type. My heart was defect-free — but I did have a major case of PTSD to contend with.

If you’ve followed my blog at all in the past year, you know that I studied abroad in India, and it was an absolute disaster. Not only did I develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, my PTSD was triggered by about a zillion different things, including having to pee, any kind of loud or sudden noise, doctors, hospitals, any mention of India, and being in a moving vehicle. Any of the aforementioned things would cause an immediate and irreversible anxiety attack, eventually culminating in a full-blown nervous breakdown. It was … not the best couple years of my life.

So you can guess, perhaps, that being in a hospital, surrounded by doctors, with a c-section looming (I thought), was not the most calming place for me to be. I had envisioned my labor to be done mostly out of bed, walking around to ease the contractions, bouncing on my yoga ball — but as soon as I stepped into the hospital, that desire completely vanished. All I wanted to do was hide like an animal in a cave and hiss at whoever approached. I turned off all the lights. I lay curled up on my hospital bed, unable to sleep. My heart rate skyrocketed whenever a nurse came in the room. One of the triage nurses brushed up against my leg and I burst out crying. (“Umm … I haven’t even checked your cervix yet,” she said, totally perplexed. I know, dear. I know. I’m crazy. Just ignore me.)

It wasn’t even the thought of a section that scared me. It was simply being in a hospital, where my previous trauma had taken place. It was simply being around doctors. It was simply laying on my back, in pain. That’s all it took. It was like my body remembered what had happened in India and it was screaming Danger! Danger, Will Robinson! Run away! With every passing second, I had to will myself not to run screaming from the room in terror. Not an exaggeration.

I’ll be totally fine as long as nobody comes near me or talks to me or touches me in any way, and I don’t have any contractions or feel any pain.

So for twelve hours I was wide awake, with my eyes closed, listening to my Hypnobabies CD on repeat. Contracting, leaking, and not dilating. At one point I thought to myself, hey, this Hypnobabies stuff really works! I’m not feeling any pain at all! I’m doing it! I’M HYPNOBIRTHING! 

And then the nurse came in. “Um, you haven’t had any contractions for twenty minutes now.” Well, shit.

Finally, the OB came in and asked to break my water completely to move things along. I agreed readily (meaning, I nodded vigorously, in silence). I was terrified of having this baby, but I wanted to push this sucker out and just be done already. So she broke my water. And I felt nothing for a minute. And then:

“Fuuuuuuuuck this!”

It was the kidney stone pain all over again, except that the intensity fell and peaked instead of just relentlessly stabbing me in the back like the stone had done. It was bone-crunching, soul-twisting agony, and the fact that it was very very similar to kidney stone pain racheted up my anxiety ten-fold. Oh my dear sweet baby Jesus, I thought, this cannot be happening. No, no, no. I need the epidural. NOW.

“Epidural!” I screamed. My eyes were still squeezed shut. This was the first word I spoken to my OB since being admitted.

“Are you sure?” She said. “I wouldn’t want to impose –”

“SWEET JESUS,” I gasped. “Need! Drugs! Go! Run!”

My OB scurried out of the room, bless her. And thus began the longest hour of my life — the hour between requesting an epidural and actually getting it. This part is hazy. I remember twisting from side to side, wrenching my earbuds out of my ears (those hypnobabies flutes weren’t doing shit at that point), and screaming at my husband to apply counter-pressure to my back. “HARDER!” I kept screaming. “AH, JESUS! GOD, IT HURTS! PUSH HARDER! FUCK!”

And then the anesthesiologist came. He was pushing sixty, probably three hundred pounds, and looked exactly like the dude in those diabeetus commercials. But he was the most gorgeous vision I had ever beheld.

“OH THANK GOD,” I yelled. “YOU’RE HERE. YOU BEAUTIFUL MAN. PUT YOUR MAGIC JUICE INSIDE OF ME!!!!”

He obliged.

This right here is why I sing endless praises to the heavens about the miracle that is the epidural. I know the epidural gets a lot of flack sometimes, but it was an absolute Godsend for me during my PTSD-related anxiety freakout. Knowing that there was an end in sight to the excruciating pain kept my anxiety from spinning wildly out of control. It showed me that I wasn’t at the mercy of whatever my body was doing — unlike the kidney stone pain, the labor pain could be corralled and controlled. That wimp-juice saved my life. Or at least my sanity.

After the epidural I dozed blissfully for three hours. I was still completely terrified, and I refused to open my eyes or talk with any of the nurses or staff, but my anxiety had gone from an 11 to about a 6 — a considerable improvement. I took deep breaths and dozed, my heart still pounding.

After a couple hours of this, a horde of nurses flocked into the room. I was fully dilated. Tons of nurses and doctors (and a male student EMT, fun times!) all up in my biznatch was pretty much the last thing I wanted, but I was terrified that if I said anything, or moved even the slightest bit, my heart rate would skyrocket and I would spiral into a panic attack. I kept my mouth shut, except for when I heard the ceiling open and a huge mirror descended.

“Oh, God,” I moaned. “I don’t have to watch this, do I?”

“Uh…” the nurses said, and exchanged looks. “No, of course not.” The mirror went back up.

I pushed for one hour. Every time I flopped back down after a contraction, I thought, I’m going to barf, immediately followed by, you can barf when you’re dead! June was born at 1:55 pm. Sit up and look what you did! My OB exclaimed. I used every last bit of energy to hoist myself up on my elbows. I caught a flash of her pink, squalling face (huge cheeks! I thought to myself. Just like my husband! Just like I wanted!) and then collapsed, my eyes squeezed shut, sobbing. It was over. She was out. We were safe.

Well, June was safe, anyway. As soon as I collapsed back into the bed I started hemorrhaging. The OB removed my placenta manually, reaching inside until she was elbow deep in my uterus. It was … not pleasant. The drugs they gave to numb me knocked me out for two hours, but strangely I was conscious, though I had my eyes closed and was unable to move. I heard every word my mother and mother-in-law said when they came to visit the baby. But I couldn’t open my eyes or respond. That was … also unpleasant.

For some people, this would be the epitome of birth trauma. For me, it was healing. Perspective, I guess. I had done it. I had survived. I had actually pushed a seven-pound baby out of my vajayjay and I lived to tell about it. I did it without succumbing to panic. I did it without hyperventilating and sobbing hysterically (for the most part). WE DID IT. It was done, over, accomplished. We were safe.

Hours later, in the recovery room, my husband and I watched Goldfinger (the only thing on TV besides the don’t-shake-your-baby video that we both refused to watch) and laughed way, way too hard at all the jokes. For what seemed like forever, we yelled “I LOVE GOOLLLLLD” at the TV screen and laughed until tears came out of our eyes. We held the baby and enjoyed her, soaked her in.

It was finished; we were safe.

I haven’t had a panic attack since.

 

Looking for Shangri-La when you’re stuck in Toddler Land

It occurred to me lately that I’m trying to find Nirvana and it just doesn’t exist.

Every morning I wake up and rush around, trying to find it. Here is how my crazy-anxiety-brain works: If the house is perfectly clean and the children are fed and the laundry is put away and the dishwasher is emptied and nobody is crying or fighting, then my anxiety will go away. My heart will stop pounding. My skin will stop crawling. My head will stop buzzing. That’s the idea anyway. I have no idea where this idea came from because this has literally never happened. Shangri-La doesn’t exist. I mean, that’s the point, right? Once you find it, it means your journey is over. And the journey with two toddlers is never, never, never over. There is always more to clean. There is always someone whining, screaming, or peeing on the floor. And yet I keep cleaning.

My anxiety lately has been through the roof. I don’t know why. Maybe my hippie best friend is right and I need to cut out the gluten. Maybe I need to increase my zoloft. Maybe I have OCD? Maybe I have a progesterone problem. But I think searching for Shangri-La is a symptom, not a cause.

Anxiety is such a heavy cross when you’ve got two small children. As much as I love them, they make it exponentially worse. Their tiny, squeaky voices (which I adore) are just relentless. June never stops talking. Everything she says I find impossibly cute and nerve-destroying all at once. Her two thousand constant questions. Her acting out. I’ll be frantically trying to vacuum (because if I just get all the crumbs off the floor, then maybe I won’t feel like running out the door. No crumbs will mean that all order has been restored and my anxiety will magically dissipate. Right?) and June will dump a bucket full of glue and glitter right in front of my vacuum ON PURPOSE and oh my gosh, the restraint it takes for me not to scream and pitch everything out the window (including the toddler) and light myself on fire and run down the street screaming is just heroic. Instead I just scream at her and fight back the urge to cry.

Parenting: I nailed it!

I’ve had anxiety before, but I’ve never had this weird, panicky-anger, which is throwing me for a loop and making life with two small children almost unbearable. Part of me hates writing posts like this because it makes me sound like Complainey McWhiner and I definitely love my life. But I definitely do not love this anxiety that creeps up on me like a rising tide and overpowers me before I even realize that it’s there. I don’t even realize how stressed I am until mornings like this, when my heart is pounding and I’ve literally vacuumed and mopped the entire downstairs before 7 am, and I’m yelling at Henry to just STOP SHRIEKING, for the love of God, because I don’t know why he’s upset and seemingly nothing I’m doing is helping. Maybe hand-washing and rearranging all the dishes in the cupboards will help?

(Spoiler: it doesn’t.)

What’s frustrating is that I know it’s futile. It’s impossible to have a perfectly clean house AND two well-behaved, expertly-groomed toddlers. But I still keep trying. And it just rachets up my anxiety even further. Just as soon as I load all the dishes in the dishwasher, Henry will empty all of the tupperware out of the tupperware drawer, giving me something else to put away. The more I clean, the more mess they’ll make. And the less attention I give them, the more they act out. But for whatever reason, I just can’t get out of this weird OCD cleaning loop. I have to clean, and I get panicked when I don’t.

What do you do with all this weird stress-anger? How can you keep from snapping angrily at your baby when he’s upended an entire sippy cup of milk on your freshly-mopped floor? Why is a clean house even important to me right now?

Aaaand June just shit her pants. For the third time this morning. That’s three times before 8 am.

 

Calgon, get me the hell outta here.

 

Hold On

One of the most trying things about toddler-wrangling is their neediness. Their urgency.

You think you leave it behind when you finally crawl out of the newborn stage, but you don’t. Not really. It just changes shape. They still have immediate, urgent needs, and so much more of them, it seems. As an infant, they would wail for food. Wail for comfort. Wail for a diaper change. That was mostly it. And then they’d sleep the rest of the day. With toddlers, there are so many more things to wail about. So many more. And they never sleep.

I just! I need! I have! A red marker! And I need! A green marker! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! MOMMY HELP

Apparently, when you’re two, everything is an emergency, and everything needs to be treated with the immediacy of a level-red terrorist alert. As a result, the most commonly-used phrase in our house is hold on. I must say it to June twenty-five times before noon:

Yes, I know you need help pulling up your undies; please hold on, I have cookie batter on my hands.

Yes, I know you can’t get the cap off your marker, I heard you the first four times; please hold on while I catheterize your brother.

Please stop climbing on me, I know there’s a spider on the wall, I’ll kill it in like, two seconds, just hold on. HOLD ON.

I KNOW the Netflix stopped working, but I’m giving Henry a bath; just hold on for five minutes. HOLD ON. STOP SHRIEKING. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.

I will pour you some cereal WHEN I’M DONE BREASTFEEDING COULD YOU NOT.

Unlike June, Henry doesn’t have five million requests for stupid shit, but he makes up for it with his god-awful whine. On a good day, he sounds like Beaker. But if I don’t get him what he wants quickly enough, it escalates into just straight-up screaming.

Not even crying. Literally just one shrill note.

Obviously, my anxiety goes through the roof when they’re like this. One of my old PTSD triggers, for whatever reason, is a shrill, unrelenting, loud, or repetitive noise. Thanks to modern medicine and therapy, I’m no longer thrown into an endless panic spiral. But it still grates on my nerves probably more than it should, and after thirty seconds of high-pitched screaming and whining and begging, my heart starts to pound pretty quickly. It’s one of nature’s greatest ironies — children, with their whining and their incessant needs, can trigger your “fight or flight” mechanism unlike any other. Yet raising children is one situation you can’t just flee from on a whim. Not without legal repercussions, anyway.

Oh you need dinner? BRB never coming back

And there’s an existential anxiety there, too, when they need something and they screech super loudly and I have to tell them to just hold on, hold on! When you’ve got two baby birds screeching for food, you start to feel inadequate when you can’t feed them fast enough. Because, you know, feeding them is your job. It’s like, a basic requirement of living. They’re HUNGRY, for God’s sake — listen to them! They’re starving! What kind of a mother lets her children STARVE??

Oh God, they’re gonna starve! I’m the worst!

And let’s not kid ourselves — there’s an anxiety there that no matter how many spiders I kill and markers I un-cap, I can’t give them everything they need, at all times, all at once. It’s anxiety that I’m not enough. That I just can’t do it. That I just can’t meet their needs.

Anxiety that maybe I’m just not very good at this motherhood thang.

What other job can you say you’ve waited your whole life for, and have now done for years, and still you have no idea what you’re doing? Are there any other jobs where you can mess up every single day, irrevocably, and not be fired?

I know they won’t always be like this — I know. And I’m not doing a horrible job, I get it. It’s just an anxiety I have to learn to deal with. Story of my life.

And I know that I’ll miss this some day. I know. I will miss this urgency, this constant screaming excitement. It’s overwhelming, but it’s the same thing that makes her scream with delight when she sees soap bubbles. It’s the same thing urgency that makes her run into my arms and scream mommy mommy mommy! when I get back from the grocery store. It’s not all terrible.

It’s one more two-year-old thing I’ll have to say goodbye to. Yesterday I told June to “JUST HOLD ON” maybe sixty times. Not an exaggeration. Yesterday I was more than ready to say goodbye to this particular stage of being two.

And then we went to preschool. And now I’m not so sure.

When we got there, she dashed up to the front door and judo-kicked the handicap button on the door. The door swung open and she ran inside, pell-mell, past the secretary, jabbering about her pigtails, and ran through another set of doors, down the hall, to her preschool classroom. She needed to get to class. There were crafts to be done. And songs to sing. It was an emergency, as always. Henry and I huffed and puffed behind her, trying to catch up.

Gotta get to pre-school, mom! Let’s go, mom! 

I love watching her pigtails swing back and forth as she’s running away from me down the hall. I love watching her back-pack (“pack-pack”) bounce all over her tiny body. Sometimes I love her toddler excitement. Okay? I do. Sue me.

But I’m still gonna tell her to slow down. Come back. Don’t you want to hold my hand?

Just hold on.