Motherhood

To the new parent feeling inadequate, you are enough.

Dear new parent,

I see you pushing through your exhaustion to show up for your child. I can hear the crying you fear might not ever end. I feel your insecurities as you wonder if you are making the “right” choices. And I want you to know, you are not alone. Though our stories may be different, we share so much. I see you because I’ve been there myself, as have so many others. So I’d like to dedicate this story of birth defects, breastfeeding and drag to the new parent trying their very best…

I was born with something called Poland Syndrome. I have a muscle missing in my chest cavity which required breast reconstruction surgery when I was 19. As you may be able to imagine, growing up a girl with one fully developed breast while the other side of my chest was caved in led to some insecurities and body image issues. To say the least. And when I got pregnant at 29 years old, I still had never really been able to even discuss my condition without crying. With anyone. Not even health professionals. And even though my reconstruction surgery had been 10 years earlier, I still never wore low cut neck lines or showed any cleavage. So to say I had a complicated relationship with my breasts would be an understatement. Although to be fair, I mostly coped by not thinking about them in any way. I just lived my life and they lived theirs. And the right one even felt somewhat detached from me. In part because I have no nerve sensation in the reconstructed breast.

And so what happened next might surprise you. I decided I had to breastfeed. I’m still not so sure why I felt so strongly about it. I’d like to say it was totally out of a conviction that breast milk would be best for my baby. But I am sure there was also some part of me that felt insecure about my womanhood and thought breastfeeding would affirm that my breasts were good enough. Or something. I researched whether it was possible, confirmed one breast would be able to more than supply my baby, and set in stone my plan to breastfeed.

Now if you have any insecurity as a person, being a parent will magnify it ten times. I had a baby with the sweetest disposition. One who had no colic, never really cried much to speak of…except every time I tried to breastfeed. Then my little newborn angel screamed like we were in a scene from the exorcist. I’m not even exaggerating. (Okay maybe slightly) But my new baby did not like my breast. Cruel irony or a supernatural joke, I’m still not sure. But every feeding session in the first few weeks was heartbreaking. I followed all the guidance. I would try to breastfeed for at least 20 minutes or so before offering a bottle with milk I had pumped. My baby outlasted me every time. And it did cut me to my heart a little each time my breast was rejected. Except the miraculous thing about being a parent is, I didn’t take it personally. Even through my jokes about cruel ironies, I knew somehow, the baby wasn’t trying to hurt me. And so I kept trying…

And thankfully, I had a lot of support. From family and professionals. The lactation consultants at Huntsville Hospital were so supportive. Prior to giving birth, I had never been able to discuss my Poland Syndrome or my breasts without crying, and that was on a good day. Now I had to go in and explain to a stranger why milk was only being produced out of one breast, and ask for them to help me make my baby accept it. I don’t remember the consultant’s name, but I remember she did me the greatest kindness- she did not act surprised or even interested in the reason I had only one milk producing breast. She acted like it was no big deal, and a common issue. I will be forever grateful for that gift. Because I was already scared and fragile. And I felt like she responded to me, not to my issue.

And I really don’t believe she knew about Poland Syndrome until that day. No other health professional I have ever come across before or since has. Usually they ask me to spell it and ask other questions. When I was a child, doctors would parade medical students in to look at me. And I felt like a medical oddity. A freak. But not on that day in the Women’s Clinic. On that day, I felt like a whole person needing a little help. And she tried to help. Gave me a supplemental nurser and taught me different holds and techniques. And none of them worked.

In the end, I pumped milk and for 5 months fed my baby exclusively breast milk but from a bottle. So even when the baby started to sleep through the night, I had to wake myself up every few hours to keep on top of the pumping. It is exhausting just remembering that time. I’ve been trying to remember why, or how, I kept it up for that long despite well meaning people advising me to just switch to formula.

That baby is now nearly 16 and a big fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’ve been watching too for the last couple of years. At first out of some parental obligation to monitor and discuss the content, but now I am hooked as well. RuPaul sings, “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” Truthfully, I didn’t really get that until Oprah came on an episode and quoted it, and then I heard the wisdom! I may have been disguising a birth defect, but we all cover up things. We all dress up and perhaps even hide parts of our selves. And in the last Season Finale of Drag Race, Brook Lynn Hytes’s mom said something about how she thought she was meant to raise and shape her kids, but actually each of her four children formed and shaped her. We get the children we need. They teach us as much as we teach them. I got a baby who taught me I was strong enough to overcome my insecurities. And that what I was hiding under my drag was always good enough.

And dear reader, you are enough too. Love, Angel x

There must be 65 ways to thank your mother...

Today is my mom’s 65th birthday. And because I am too old to make a picture for the fridge, and too far away to take her to lunch, I thought I would write her a blog post. At first I thought I could make a list of 65 things I’ve learned from her over the years. And while I am sure there are 65 things, I quickly decided that might go on a bit much… so instead, I am going to just focus on the big things.

My mom taught me that everyone is welcome at the party. My entire childhood was a lesson in radical inclusiveness. And I don’t mean in the sense of race or gender or orientation, although certainly no one would have ever been excluded for those reasons. But it was more than that. It was more specific. Being welcoming isn’t an academic exercise in tolerance. It isn’t supporting the right causes. It is accepting people for who they are and letting them in no matter what. I wrote a blog post in 2017 about our complicated family tree and how in our family, every ex was always welcome. You can read that here.

But beyond just stepfamilies, the lesson my mom modeled was that even after someone made a mistake, even after they might have given you a reason to give up on them, all they had to do was show back up and knock on the door, and it would be opened. My extended family are made up of people. And like all people, they are not perfect. Some struggled with addiction. Some made really poor life choices. And my mom supported them when and how she could and welcomed them back to the potluck when they were ready. Every time. She took in other people’s children and gave them homes when they needed it. She let a family member on parole be released into her care. She gave him a home and a second chance.

My mom taught me that however you are able, you serve. You answer the call. Growing up my mom was assistant troop leader for Girl Scouts, she was a Youth Group Leader, she chaperoned school trips, she volunteered at every opportunity to help our school, and I don’t think there is an event that has taken place at Eastview United Methodist Church in the past 35 years that my mom hasn’t played some part in. And you might think from this description that she was a stay-at-home mom. She wasn’t. She worked full time as a secretary as long as I can remember. And her health was not always the greatest. She was hospitalized many times for chronic asthma and other issues. But I can honestly say I don’t remember a day ever where tiredness, pain or poor health stopped her from volunteering when asked. She never made excuses for why she couldn’t do something. Even when there were good excuses to be made.

We didn’t have a lot of extra money growing up, so my mom gave of what she had- her time and energy. And because she served, we showed up. My sister and I had every opportunity that money could never buy. Through my mom’s service, she gave us community. For which I am forever grateful. You can read more about that community in a post I wrote in 2014 about Whitehall, Ohio here.

I am proud of the wider community I grew up in and thankful for the way my mom modeled how you do family. But in addition to helping our community and family, my mom has great friends. And her friends were there for me countless times growing up. I remember vividly one day when I was in university and having some personal trouble. Funnily enough, I don’t remember what the trouble was. But I remember being at work at the Great American Cookie Company and feeling sorry for myself. And I remember trying to conjure up God’s love that I had been taught about for solace. I remember thinking how if God was always with me, how come I couldn’t feel him inside me. Why did I feel so alone? And then people from my mom’s church, my mom’s friends, started reaching out with offers to help. And that was in the days before the internet, so reaching out took some effort. And I remember in that moment understanding a core truth- that was where God was. I felt God’s love envelop me through the friends and community my mom built for us. And I know to this day, if I called on my mom’s friends, they would help me. My mom loves them. They love us. That is where God lives- in the love.

In personality and temperament, I am more like my Dad. And unlike me who goes on and on about what I believe and think to my children, my mom never really discussed her beliefs with us. But after thinking about this today, I now realize something I’ve never acknowledged to myself before. Through all my travels, despite all my questioning and searching, all the philosophies I’ve read, religious teachings I’ve examined, and soul searching I’ve done, at the end of the day, my core belief, who I am as a person comes from what my mom has always modeled for me. The purpose of life is to grow community, to serve and to love. Thank you mom. Happy Birthday.

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