Unexpected Emotional Strength

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Dear Little One,

When I was pregnant with you, a lot of intense changes happened to my mind and body.  Some were expected (like constant nausea), but others… not so much.  Some of the most drastic changes were to my hormones and general mindset.  I achieved a sense of calm that I’d never known before.

People can shove quotes at you like “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent” or they can talk about how you should “ignore the haters” and “just focus on loving yourself” or whatever all they want, but it rarely changes how you feel and react.  That’s far too deep down to be affected by banal platitudes.

During my first trimester, before anyone except your father and the doctors knew, I suddenly gained a peace and clarity I’d never realized I’d been missing.  I knew that nothing could really affect me because there was something so much more important.

And yes, feel free to quote this song, because it was totally me, even if I didn’t vocalize any (or maybe much) of the smugness.

Specifically, I had (still have) this coworker who was always a pain.  I was technically his superior (“team lead”) but had exactly 0 power or authority.  Every damn day, he’d come over to my desk and argue about some tiny little detail – usually, something that he’d gotten wrong, often claiming that the rules had suddenly changed (spoiler: they didn’t).  But once I became pregnant, he just… couldn’t get to me.  Nothing he said could elicit a rise from me.  He would argue until he was red in the face and I would just remain this immobile wall.  Eventually, he stopped (or drastically reduced) arguing with me because he knew I wouldn’t budge.

All I could think whenever he got argumentative was:

“You can’t make me mad because you don’t matter.  You’re not important enough for me to care.”

Throughout my life, I’ve generally been very easily affected by people’s words and actions.  Teachers and other authority figures would say things like “Oh, just ignore it, they’re just doing it to bug you.”  I would try (and usually fail) to hide that it bothered me.  Regardless, it didn’t change how it felt inside. I hated it.  I hated how it made me feel and I hated how easily I could be baited into reacting.  But now?

calm, ocean, sky, blue, sand, water, sea, clouds

Meh.

IDGAF.

None of it mattered.  They didn’t matter.

I suddenly had this solid base of emotional strength to stand on; a never-ending well of calm to pull from.  With it, I was able to stand tall. I could fight anything and anyone.  To some extent, that’s never left me.

I am a stronger, fiercer, and more self-assured person than ever before.  I know who I am and who I need to be because of you.

I don’t know if you’ll ever truly understand how you’ve changed me.  I hope your father and I can instill some of that same strength and fierceness back into you, but I don’t think we’ll have to.  I think you already have that in you.  I think all we have to do is stand back and watch you turn into the amazing person we know you to be.

You are strong.

You are fierce.

You are you.

Most importantly, you matter.

Fat-Shaming at Seven

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Dear Little One,

Given that we’re near the beginning of the “stuff-your-face” holiday season, I thought it would be a good time to share this story.

A few months ago, we were over at your dad’s parents’ house for dinner.  After dinner, everyone was in the backyard by the fire pit.  They were enjoying s’mores, ice cream, and some sort of sugary traybake (idk, it was cookie bars or something).  We were about to head home, as it was rapidly nearing your bedtime, but your dad was stuck for a moment trying to finish up a conversation (and his glass of wine).

Suddenly, your cousin E starts telling her mom about a friend of hers who’d said her favorite food was “butter.”  Which is a little unusual, but kids are weird and everyone is evolutionarily primed to like fats, so whatever.  What threw me was that E started on this tirade about how her friend is “going to get fat!” like “fat” was literally the worst thing one could be.

butter, flour, wood, counter

Everything in moderation. A concept children have a very hard time with…

(She also said this while absolutely stuffing her face with a mountain of ice cream and cookie bars.)

Since she was talking to and surrounded by adults, I assumed her mom at least would step in and explain that, while health is important, it wasn’t okay to judge people like that.  Obviously, I was expecting too much.

Your aunt simply responded with “Yup.”

… Um, what?

“Yup”?  That’s your answer to that sudden, weird outburst?  At that point, I couldn’t resist.

I turned to E and explained that, in terms of overall health and organ health, sugar (especially added sugar) is far more dangerous.

gummy, bear, bears

Mmmm… tastes like metabolic disease…

She paused mid-face-stuff and looked down at her own personal sugar/fat mountain.

I continued to talk about how health is important, but being a good and kind person was worth more.  Then I closed it with “Besides, you can’t be fat, you can only have fat. Just like you can’t be fingernails, you just have fingernails.

The thing is, she’s SEVEN.  To be that judgmental at seven, to fat-shame at seven…  That’s just terrible to me.  The number of children with eating disorders is on the rise and soon she’ll be a teenager.  Then she’ll be dealing with other teenagers, all of whom are battling with self-image issues, hormones, pressures, and all sorts of other problems.

Fighting society’s pressures on what people “should be” needs to start early, regardless of whether it’s body image, gender roles, mental health issues, or whatever.  Fight that shit every chance you get.  I’m going to continue to undermine that crap whenever I see an opportunity, even if others around me aren’t up to the task and I hope you do, too.

Cats! (Part One)

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Dear Little One,

So the last post was… a bit of a downer, to say the least.  So, I’ve decided to go in a very different direction this time. Specifically – kittens!  We have two cats at the moment – Tweek and Bastet – and they’re pretty much as different as possible.

Tweek

cat, kitty, paper bag

Hiding in a bag, at the moment.

I got Tweek in the spring of 9th grade, which was way back in 2002.  She was a tiny little kitten and she was still a bit dazed from going to the vet, what with all the shots and such.  All the other kittens were fairly average looking tabbies, but she was clearly a tabby/Siamese mix who’d gotten a lot more of the Siamese looks than the others.  We brought her home and she stayed sleepy for the rest of the day, but soon we realized that she was nothing but energy.

It took a while to settle on a name, but eventually I went with Tweek, after the character on South Park (what can I say, I had just turned 15).  We had other cats at the time, but she was always mine.  She’s always been by my side, even through years of moodiness and depression in high school, then college and post-college poverty, on into today.

She’s always been extremely emotionally intelligent.  She knows when people need her, whether they’re sad or sick or injured or whatever, she’ll come cuddle and purr to offer as much comfort as she can.

She’s no longer full of energy, though.  We often refer to her as a grumpy old lady (and who can blame her, given that she’s effectively in her late 70s now).  She loves to sleep and be wherever it’s warmest.

cat, asleep, sun, sunbeam

Sleeping in the sun…cat, vent, warm…or hanging out on a warm vent

When you were born, she was fairly okay with it, though she was not a fan of the noise.  But you slept a lot, and she liked that idea well enough.  Not a huge fan of the grabby, excitedly shrieky toddler thing, though…

baby, sleeping, asleep, cat, kitty

You were just under 2 months old here
(and yes, before I get hate mail, I know sleeping on their back is better, but she passed out during tummy-time, so I just watched to make sure she was okay)

You, on the other hand, looooved her.  Your first real word was “ ‘itty” (I mean, you’d been saying “Dada” for a while before, but it was kind of in reference to everything you wanted/everything good. All things were “Dada”).  You became obsessed with cats on everything – shirts, pants, etc.  She has learned to cautiously tolerate this love, though she generally still avoids you, as she’s too old to really flee or fight back if you get too grabby.  We never let either of you get hurt or anything (“Kitty doesn’t want to play right now.  You need to leave the kitty alone.” is/was a frequently stated thing), but kids tend to not be quite as gentle as is needed.  Luckily, you have the dogs at daycare to practice with, and they have years upon years of experience dealing with toddlers & preschoolers.

Barring some sort of miracle, Tweek will almost certainly be gone by the time you read this, but I wanted you to know about her.  To know that she is/was a very good cat.  She’s loving, caring, and has stayed with me through a lot of shit.  I haven’t had nearly as much patience with her these last couple of years, as now I’ll do just about anything to get sleep/keep you asleep (and anyone who’s dealt with a Siamese should know why that’s been an issue), but I will be extremely sad when she passes.

Pets are, by and large, better friends & family than we really deserve.  They give us life and make the world a little less dark, which is pretty damn important.  I hope that you maintain your love of animals and I hope that you’ll someday have your own kitten (or puppy, or whatever) that can be there for you like she’s been there for me.

(Sheesh, are all these gonna end on a downer or with a lecture?  Sorry about that…)

Why I Take so Many Pictures

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Dear Little One,

You may have noticed that I take an inordinate number of pictures and videos of you.  I recently had to buy more memory for my phone just so I could keep everything on there, in addition to having it all saved in Google Photos.  If I could, I’d have it backed up in a third or fourth place as well.  I wanted to explain the reasons for that.

First off, as a warning, this post is a bit less lighthearted than my past posts.  Trigger warning for serious injury/near-death, etc. as well as hospitals (both regular and psych).

When I was about 7 months old, my mother was driving around town doing some errands.  At one point, she needed to take a left at a place where there wasn’t a light.  There was, on the other hand, a blind hill where you couldn’t see if anyone was coming until they were basically on top of you.

You can probably already see where this is going.

So she goes to take a left just as a bus comes flying over the hill and slams right into her.  This was back in 1987/1988, so airbags were not nearly as good as they are today.  Luckily, I was tucked away in a car seat in the back, so I was (basically) fine.  She was not.  She was hit so hard that, even though she was wearing a seatbelt, she was thrown into the rear passenger seat.

kittens, tabby, grass

Yeah, no. How about some kittens instead?

She ended up in a coma for about two weeks.  The reason it was for two weeks was because the hospital’s one brain surgeon was on vacation in the Caribbean/Bahamas area and they didn’t feel the need to either, A. get a different surgeon to come in, B. send her to a hospital with more than one person who did that sort of thing, or C. Idk… do literally anything?

(I realize I’m probably going to get some heat from doctors/nurses, etc. because I obviously don’t know anything about how hospitals work, but to be fair, I was a baby and also I explain why this was such a problem below.  My mom was always pissed that they didn’t call the guy back from vacation early, but I know that’s also pretty unrealistic/difficult.  I’m not faulting him for taking a vacation, I know doctor burnout and suicide is crazy high, it was just shitty timing.)

While she was in a coma, her brain continued to swell and bleed and more and more damage was being done.

hospital, surgery, operating table

Yay, brain surgery…

When she woke up, she discovered two things.  One, apparently the only place they had to stick recovering patients was in the middle of the psych wing, so she literally woke with screaming mentally ill people all around her – after having had mysterious brain surgery and no idea how she got there or what was happening.  It was bordering a little too close to the opening of a horror movie.  Two, she found that large chunks of her memories were just… gone.  They wanted her to stay to do more intensive physical therapy, but she knew that she needed to get home to her daughters.

She managed to do just that and found that my dad had foisted us kids off on his sister and her husband (more on that later) rather than try to take care of us himself.  I’m still not sure which would have been worse, but the idea of us being cared for by any of those fuckers was not okay with her.  (Someday, I’ll probably write all about my dad’s family, but today is not that day.)

My mom did remember us, but she found that she couldn’t remember past events very well, if at all.  She had taken pictures of birthdays and trips to the zoo, but that was all she had.  On top of all that, her dad eventually developed Alzheimer’s, which is an entirely different, yet terrifyingly similar memory-stealing shitstorm.  She had always taken lots of pictures of us, but she suddenly realized just how important they were.  She took pictures all the time, even of things we didn’t think were important.  But they were moments that she wanted to remember… and what if she couldn’t?

So what if?

What if something happened to me and I couldn’t remember? I already find myself constantly going through old pictures and videos to remember exactly how small you were or what you sounded like.  I can’t imagine all my memories being wiped out like that.  I know you’re too young to be forming concrete memories yet, but I would be absolutely devastated.

I know how tired I’ve been over the past (almost) two years.  I know how many close calls I’ve had while driving, exhausted, just desperately trying to hold onto consciousness long enough to get you to daycare and get me to work.  What if I wasn’t so lucky? What if my eyes closed at just the wrong time? What if?

I have to take pictures and videos of you as often as I can.  I just have to.  Because they might be all I get.

But… Fish Were Made on a Different Day

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Dear Little One,

Since the last story featured my mom, I figured the next should have your dad’s mom.  Dealing with your dad’s mom has always been an interesting challenge for me.

On the one hand, we’re quite similar.  We’re both strong-willed yet caring and kind (mostly), we’re both very opinionated and passionate, and we both absolutely adore our child(ren).  On the other hand, we can be exceedingly different.  She is a devout Catholic, whereas I loosely define myself as “…Idk, agnostic? I guess?”  She is highly conservative (especially fiscally), whereas I’m more “I <3 science and learning! Everyone deserves healthcare/food/shelter/education! (etc.)”

For the most part, we’ve been able to maintain a fairly good relationship throughout the last 11.5 years, but every once in a while we run into a point where we are so bafflingly different that we need to take a step back and recalibrate.  Usually, this involves your dad stepping in and trying to bridge the gap and/or explain something.

One of these came up while we were planning our wedding.

wedding, rings, hands

Here’s me & your dad exchanging rings

Planning our wedding was annoying, fun, terrible, and exciting all at the same time.  We were dirt poor and going to college, but we were determined to at least try to pay for the wedding ourselves (spoiler: we failed, but still did better than most).  There were a lot of things we struggled to pay for, one of which was the food.

We couldn’t afford any of our venue’s 3 approved caterers, and they didn’t really fit our style anyway.  So we decided to have a two-part reception.  Cake and champagne directly following the mid-day ceremony at the venue, with a full meal to follow at your grandparents’ house.  They had a family friend who did catering and offered to charge us only for the food and called her & her daughter’s labor our wedding gift.  It was awesome.

We started to plan the menu.

We agreed that we wanted it to be basically an hors d’oeuvres/small bites buffet.  Lots of little things that people could easily grab rather than specific chicken/fish/whatever plates.  We also wanted to be very accommodating to people who were kosher, vegetarian, etc.  At least partly because ~1/2 of my family and ~1/4 of our friends were vegetarian (including the best man & maid of honor).

Most people we knew with special diets were very kind and usually said things like “Oh no, it’s totally fine, we’ll be completely happy with just this side of pasta.  Don’t worry about us! :)”  But that’s not how I roll.  You’ll get a full meal, dammit.  With choices and everything!

So, as we talked this over with his mom, she starts going on and on about how she could do something with salmon and it would be great! We were confused, as we were talking about vegetarian food, which means no animal flesh.  We said that, while that might work fine for most of the guests, it wouldn’t fulfill our vegetarian requirement.  She paused, then uttered one of the most unique sentences I’d ever heard her say:

“But… fish were made on a different day?!”

Ummm… what?

fish, open mouth, surprised, swimming

Wat?

She was referring to the fact that the bible says god made fish and birds on day five, whereas animals and humans were day six.  For some reason, she knew chicken wasn’t vegetarian, but thought that fish was.  To me, this seemed insane, but it actually explained why I’d seen fish given to vegetarians in some places in France.  Not everyone is on the same page about what is or isn’t an animal, apparently.

I was speechless, but your dad stepped in and tried to explain it from a scientific standpoint, since he and his father are scientists.  He started going into the taxonomic ranks (domain, kingdom, etc.) and talked about how they’re all in the Animalia kingdom, which means they are – scientifically – all animals.  She just kept repeating the same sentence.  While we didn’t necessarily get her to agree with the scientific rankings, she did at least agree to not put fish in everything.

Later, once she’d had some time to digest the information a bit, we talked to her about the different versions of vegetarian diets.  Specifically, we explained that she was thinking of pescatarian, but our friends and family were mostly lacto-ovo vegetarians.

Over the years, she’s gotten much better about this sort of thing.  But you won’t always be able to bridge those gaps with people.  Throughout all this, neither side got angry, neither side got loud/shouty, and everything turned out just fine.  Talking things over won’t always fix problems, but often it can help people come to some sort of understanding.  This was not the last time we would come across this odd gap between our worldviews, but it was one of the most memorable.

The Day I Ruined My Mom’s Car

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Dear Little One,

Many years ago, when I was ~7 or 8, your grandma managed to get a new car.  She had gone through numerous cars in her lifetime, but they had all been used and on their last legs.  But this time, this time she actually got a new car.  From a dealership.  She got to pick out the interior and exterior colors from a catalog (she chose dark gray and blue).  Now, this wasn’t a terribly expensive car – it was a little Ford Escort hatchback – but it was hers and it was new.  She brought it home and was so excited.  And then I ruined it.

Your grandma had always liked history.  She would take us to places like Colonial Williamsburg when we visited her parents in Virginia.  She would sew us costumes from all different eras.  I looooved it.  I loved getting dressed up, I loved listening to the stories of people who were long gone, I loved it.

In the months leading up to the car purchase, we’d discussed colonial history and some of the things that made that time different.  One of the differences that was brought up was how they did basic household chores.  Either my mom or my sister explained that they didn’t have dish soap, so they would use reeds or sand to wash their pots and pans and such.

I’m not sure if you can see where this is going, so I’ll go ahead and put the pieces together.  My thought process went like this:

Mom’s been complaining that her brand new car already needs to be washed > back in colonial days, they’d use reeds or sand to wash metal stuff > cars are made of metal > I don’t have any reeds, but there’s a bunch of sand in the driveway > I will clean mom’s car so she’ll be happy/less stressed!

And that’s what led to me and my friend LG grabbing handfuls of sand from the driveway and scrubbing the hell out of my mom’s new car.

child, hand, sand

Yup, sand.

Yeah.

So then my mom comes out to see her brand new car with giant swooshy scrape marks all over it and two little kids beaming up at her thinking they’re about to be thanked.

We were not thanked.

She was devastated, but she kept it together fairly well.  I was confused and upset, since I thought I was doing this nice thing to make her feel better and then it turns out I’d done a huge amount of damage to something she cared so much about.  I imagine it’s probably similar to what that old woman in Spain felt like after “restoring” that fresco of Jesus.*

At the time, the only thing I really learned was that I was a screw-up who couldn’t even do one nice thing (what can I say, even as a small child I was just bursting with self-esteem).  As the years have gone on, though, I’ve learned a few different things from this.

  1. It takes an insane amount of patience and calm to raise a child, and no one succeeds at maintaining those all the time.
  2. Even the best of intentions can turn sour if you don’t know what you’re doing, but that doesn’t mean you should stop trying to help people.
  3. Always try your hardest to value people and relationships over money and things.  This isn’t always easy, especially when you’re struggling to have even the basics of life, but should still be the goal.

P.S. She did somehow manage to convince the dealership to repaint the car (perhaps just leaving out the details of exactly how it’d happened – not lying, just not exactly telling everything).

*Note: For the fresco thing, at least she had permission from the clergymen before she started…

Why I’m “On the Fence”

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Neither a Crunchy Mom nor … Smooth? Traditional? Whatever.

cat, kitty, fence

Grumpy? Hair all over? Stuck on a fence? Yeah, sounds like me…

When I was pregnant, I read everything I could get my hands on.  Blogs, YouTube videos, advice columns – everything.  what I found was that the vast majority seemed to be on the extreme edges with very little between.

One would say, “Whatever, you can eat and drink whatever you want, even alcohol!  No biggie!” while another would say, “Omg, if you even touch a grain of processed sugar your baby will get the diabeetus!!!”

“Cloth diapers are the only answer and if you even use a single disposable, you’re going to kill the planet!” vs. “Cloth is the worst thing you could do to your child!  Disposable is the only sanitary option.  How could you even consider anything else?!”

“You should raise your child ultra-religious and go to church three times a week!” vs. “You shouldn’t go anywhere near a church or you’ll turn them into a mindless drone!”

“Everything can be solved with essential oils!”

“Everything can be solved with strict discipline!”

“Never co-sleep!”

“Always co-sleep!”

And with every post or video, there was this implication that you had to agree or you didn’t really love your child.  “I mean, of course we all love our kids, but I guess you just don’t love yours as much as love mine.”  It was everywhere and it was exhausting.

I just wanted a place where people were kind of in the middle.  Or, at least, not constantly shouty about their extreme.  There are some “extreme” things I believe, but they usually come with piles and piles of peer-reviewed data (but I’ll cover those in future posts).

Throughout time, people have always been people, and with people comes complexity.

I am, at my core, a student of history.  I’ve loved it all my life and it’s what I got my degree in.  If you study enough history, and I mean really study (not just memorize some president names), you find that things are rarely black and white.  Everything is always more complex.  Many of history’s “heroes” were kind of dicks in real life and many of history’s “villains” thought they were doing the right thing.

People like to simplify the world to make it easier and, in doing so, they make mistakes.  Around the time I was dealing with all this, I fell in love with the song “The Fence” by Tim Minchin.

People shove everything into corners so it’s easier to understand.  Because complexity is scary.  It takes effort and time and a lot of people don’t want to spend much of either.

But you know what?

It’s a complex world.  We are complex beings.  Even the person who thinks the opposite of you has their reasons.  I’m not saying they’re good reasons, but they do have them.  Especially when it comes to parenting, most of us are just trying to make it through and are doing the best we can with the information and resources we’ve got.  So can we all maybe try to be a little less bitchy* about it?

*And yes, I know we’re trying to get away from gendered insults as a society, but to be fair, literally every blog/article/whatever used to mom-shame that I’ve seen was written by a woman.

Why I Decided to Start a Blog

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The creation of the On the Fence Mama blog.

parents, maternity, sunset

Husband & me gazing at our soon-to-be-born LO

When I had my little one, I suddenly became aware of just how fragile life is.  It’s horrifically cliché, but still true.  For the first six months, I was prepared to walk into the room to find her just … gone.  Literally every time.

It was a horrible feeling.  But with SIDS rates being what they are, it was frighteningly within the realm of possibility.  I was terrified I’d lose her and mentally prepared for it every time I checked on her.  Every.  Time.

I also became acutely aware of how easy it would be for her to lose me.

I was exhausted and had (still have) a ridiculously long commute most days.  I tried everything, but I knew I wasn’t being as safe as I needed to be.  The likelihood of dying in a car crash seemed astronomically high.

I thought about all the stories I still had to tell her.  All the experiences that might help her or give her some perspective being forever out of reach.  I’ve never been able to keep up a journal, and a memoir wasn’t right because I wouldn’t be able to add to it as things happened.  So I settled on a blog.

Some posts will be structured like rants, some as letters to my baby (or babies, someday), and some will be just stories from my past.

Hopefully this doesn’t suck.