The children we need OR Breastfeeding is a drag...

I’m starting up a business teaching parent/child classes for very young babies and their mums. The target age for my first class is brand new babies. And I haven’t had a brand new baby in nearly 13 years. And although I did teach some young babies in America, the bulk of my students were toddlers. And the parents of toddlers. The parents of toddlers are a fun bunch. Because by the time you make it two years without any privacy (not even in the bathroom) and very little sleep, you’ve likely learned to not take yourself so seriously and the value of humor! And so sarcasm and commiserating with light hearted mocking of your life is sometimes appreciated and not taking things too personally is a survival mechanism… But the mum of a newborn can be quite different. It’s a more fragile time where your heart is exposed and therefore vulnerable and less protected. I don’t want to inadvertently come across as callous by using toddler mom humor with the mum of a newborn, so I tried to bring up memories of my early days as a mom. To try to remember what kind of support is helpful. To put myself in the mindset again, so that I can better serve. This led of course to tears…

What immediately came flooding back was my breastfeeding experience. But let me back up a little…

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.

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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The Resurrection of Audrey 2

A few weeks back my teenager bought a plant and named it Audrey 2…

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And began documenting it’s life on snapchat to a group of friends…

And then things turned dark. Or rather the leaves turned dark. And my teenage gardner was too sad for words. And so on Snapchat there was just a circle marking what we believed to be the end of Audrey 2.

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Days went by. Tears were shed. I suggested we just buy another plant. But my gardener teen wasn’t ready to let go and continued tending to the plant. This last week we left for a short trip. I expected to find Audrey 2 still worse off when we returned. But we came back to a miraculous sight. Which my teenager again documented on Snapchat:

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Rejoice! New life sprouting and Jesus similes on Snapchat. The Easter season is truly upon us!

Last year on Easter Sunday, I visited my in-laws in Cambridge and went to their church. It was the first service of a newly merged congregation. And the minister that day spoke about what he said was one of the lessons of the Easter Story- that before there can be new life, there must be death. It seems such a simple, obvious lesson. But I tell you that day as I listened to the minister describing how the parishioners might feel grief at the loss of their individual communities even as they knew they were building something new and stronger together, I sobbed, and I honestly heard the Easter story in a whole new way. I felt the sadness of the death.

Growing up in a Methodist Church, I was very familiar with the Easter story. But when you already know the happy ending, sometimes you don’t really stop to think about the sad bits. But last year on that Easter Sunday morning, I needed to hear that lesson. That sometimes, even when you know the ending will be happy, even when you walk up the hill willingly, the death that must come before new life is still hard, still isolating. And there will be grief. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

And I cried. I cried for the loss of community I felt. I cried for everything I had given up in America in order to start my new life here in England. And more importantly, I gave myself permission to do so. Prior to that morning, I felt like it would be too ungrateful, too selfish to feel bad in any way for the things I left behind. After all, I chose to come here. I disrupted my children’s lives and the lives of those closest to us. And really what did I have to feel sad about? We are building a wonderful new life here. And yet, I did feel sad. I felt loss. And that’s okay. More than okay, it’s normal.

Recently at a work training (I am a Franchise Consultant helping Franchisees with their businesses), we looked at this Transition Curve:

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The trainer was explaining that all new business owners go through this transition curve. And again, the new business owner chose the path. They know what the happy ending looks like. And yet the transition will be hard. Because before new life, there must be death. Loss of old habits. Loss of old lifestyles. Loss of identity. And a crisis of meaning will come. And sometimes things don’t work out. Because even when everything points to success being just around the corner, sometimes at the crisis of meaning point, people start to doubt their path. Sometimes it just seems too hard. And sadly, sometimes not understanding that the grief is temporary can cause a crisis in faith that leads to a crash and burn.

I hit a crisis of meaning point last year on Easter Sunday. And luckily for me, I heard the minister say that before there can be new life, there must be death. And I heard Jesus say it will be hard. “Why have you forsaken me?” And so I allowed myself to start to mourn. And luckily I’ve spent the last year on the upward curve of informed optimism.

And so dear reader, if you are in a state of transition, even if it is one you willing threw yourself into, I know how you feel. You are not alone. And my Easter prayer for you is that you allow yourself to feel the loss and the grief. Accept that before new life, there must be death. And when the leaves start to darken, don’t give up. Keep tending the plant. And like Audrey 2 watch your new life grow stronger and taller than ever.

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