First Snow

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It snowed tonight. We were taking a quick run to the store after dinner and Claire wanted to wait on the front steps, as always, while we got our coats on. She loves this — being alone outside without us for a few minutes (even though I’m watching through the screen door). And tonight there was snow and she wasn’t sure she wanted to be alone in it. “No snow, hate snow!” she announced.

I needed it, though, that steady falling white silence after a day of noise, both inward and out. Claire screaming screaming for a different snack; Claire saying over and over “build the house, build the house”; Claire racing through the house and slamming into my legs again and again and laughing and laughing.  And my voice in my head saying “you are not cut out for this you will go crazy if you ever try this again you need to get back to the world of adults.” My voice out loud, angry and impatient.

How beautiful, though, that snow. How beautiful, though, her realization that she could actually be alone in it. How beautiful her face looking up at it, falling, and the dark sky. How beautiful knowing I will try it all again tomorrow, and be better.

 

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I Write Because

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“The raw truth of an incident never ends,” writes Michael Ondaatje in Divisidero.

I joined a WordPress daily prompt class just after starting to re-read Divisidero. These words were still running through my head when this prompt came and I thought of them and how writing is sometimes the only way to find the meaning in the endless raw truth of the incidents of our lives.

I write to inhabit the raw truth of relationships long ago lost, of faith given up and found, of people forgotten only until I move beneath the surface of memories. I write to inhabit the raw truth of thing still new and huge, like Claire’s birth and daily changing self, and my identity as mother and partner.

I write to move through the raw truth of literature, of books like Divisidero that haunt and illuminate, that remind us of our own hauntings.

“For we live with those retrievals from childhood that coalesce and echo throughout our lives, the way shattered pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope reappear in new forms and are songlike in their refrains and rhymes, making up a single monologue. We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell,” Ondaatje writes.

We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell.

I write to shape the recurrence of all the stories, my own and those of others, in which I live.

Things You Learn When Your Toddler is a Late Talker.

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One of our favorite photos is of me propping a newborn Claire on my lap as my mother reads her a book. Even at that young age, she is clearly focusing on the book. She’s always been interested in books and, as academic parents, we assumed she would be word-focused like us — whether it be the written or spoken word. She walked fairly early at barely 11 months, and we were sure she would talk early, too.

But at 21 months, although she signs a lot, she has few spoken words. And I am anxious about it, even though everyone tells me not to be. Here are some things I’ve learned:

  1. It is very hard not to compare your child with other children. When Claire was just about a year, we were at a mom’s group gathering and one mom mentioned that her baby would stand in her crib and shout, “Mama!” I felt my first shot of angst. Claire had not yet said “mama.” Even now, she says “mama” often when I’m out and she wants me, but rarely says it directly to me. Children develop at different paces, I know this. But it’s harder to accept when you feel like your child is “behind.”
  2. Start early. Our pediatrician suggested that if Claire was still not talking much by 15 months we should start the process for seeing a Speech and Language Pathologist (SPL). At 16 months we had a phone evaluation and were sent to a class called Encouraging First Words. In the class, the SPL told us they would call us in about 2 months because many babies have a language explosion around 18 months. When they called around that time and she had not had The Explosion, we were referred to audiology for a hearing test. We just went to that appointment yesterday. The next step (after audiology sends their report) is to be booked for an actual assessment with an SPL. I suspect Claire will be close to two by the time that happens. Many people have stories of a family member who spoke late and had no other development issues. Waiting and crossing our fingers and hoping all is well, however, seems like too big a gamble to me. And the SPL said as much at the class, noting that many people wait until kindergarten to really address a speech delay, by which time bad habits may have set in. If by two or three Claire is talking like crazy, then no harm done in having gone through these steps — but if she is not talking, then I will be very happy to have jumped through all these hoops now and have specialists in place.
  3. Keep signing. I really have no idea what we would have done without signing. Even just knowing if Claire is hungry or thirsty is priceless, but there are many other useful things she can sign to help us understand her needs and wants. A common misconception is that signing delays speech, but the SPL assured us that this is not the case at all.  Several parents in the class noted that their children were biting and she suggested that this was from frustration at not being able to communicate. Signing alleviates this frustration, and, when combined with spoken words, actually helps to develop spoken language. There are lots of great videos on YouTube to help you teach your child to sign.
  4. It is super annoying when people say, “Oh just wait: once she starts talking, you’ll wish she never had.” Uh, no. I cannot wait to be able to truly communicate with my child. I will never tire of hearing her voice (unless maybe she’s 16 and screaming ‘you’re ruining my life!’ when I refuse to let her drive to Burning Man with her boyfriend).

Loss in The Winter Vault

**Trigger Warning for anyone struggling with loss or traumatic birth experiences**
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Luck would have it that the very first book I read after Claire’s birth was The Winter Vault — a book about motherhood, or, more accurately, lost motherhood. Motherhood was not something I was certain I would ever experience. We lost two pregnancies before Claire and hers was a high risk pregnancy full of uncertainties and fear. Part of the purpose of this blog is to clarify her in my mind, to begin to grasp the essence of this little being we were never entirely sure we would know. The Winter Vault deals in essences — the essence of motherhood, the essence of a child, the essence of the past. I couldn’t have read a more perfect book at that time, but Claire is now 8 months old and it’s taken me this long to manage to write something about this book, and even longer to write about the experience of miscarriage.
 ***
Like another brilliant Michaels’ novel, Fugitive Pieces, The Winter Vault is filled with Michaels’ fascination with things submerged, layered, buried, excavated. The story follows Avery, an engineer, and his wife, Jean, as they witness the submersion of towns and villages in both the  the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Aswan Dam project in Egypt in the 1960s. These lost worlds are fitting settings for the tragedy of the late term miscarriage they suffer while in Egypt. “A child is like a fate; one’s future and one’s past,” Michaels writes. Like the drowned towns, a miscarriage is the loss of fate and an imagined future. Unlike the towns, there is no possibility of ever excavating the lost life of the child, the lost dreams of what the child might have been, or what you might have been as that child’s parent.
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Margaret Atwood once told in an interview of a woman who wrote to her convinced that Atwood was obese because she captured so well the experience of being obese in Lady Oracle (this was clearly pre-Google images). And despite my academic training to the contrary, like Atwood’s fan I couldn’t help feeling that Michaels must have lost a pregnancy, so visceral is this story. When Jean suffers a late term miscarriage, she carries the still child until her body naturally starts labour. The labour is so difficult she believes the child is in fact alive and fighting to be born. When the baby is delivered lifeless, by caesarean, Jean refuses to let her out of her arms. She holds her baby until she falls into an exhausted asleep and Avery passes the baby to a nurse. I cried through these parts of the novel as I never have at any other book; I cried for the pregnancies we had lost, and with the memory of Claire’s body moving in me so recently, I cried at the terrible thought of what it would have been come to know a being so intimately, yet incompletely.
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As Jean recovers, an old man advises her, “All your self-knowledge won’t bring you any peace. Seek something else.” Is it really self-knowledge that Jean or any woman who loses child seeks? No. It is body knowledge – the knowledge of the body of that child. Jean holds her baby all night to keep forever in her muscle memory the feel of that tiny body, to try to understand this thing that was once a dream, then a ponderous wonder in her body, now a dream again.
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This is what I seek when I hold Claire, to understand the solidity of this creature once only a whisper, a grainy image on an ultrasound, now a permanence. It is why I love the wrap I carry her in – it’s the closest I can get again to the weight of her as part of me. My first two pregnancies ended too early for me to feel this weight. As Claire grew, I knew what it meant to feel her move, to feel that weight, to not know where her body ended and mine began. Her personality revealed itself in the pattern of the kicks, the stubborness with which she pushed back against the press of her dad’s fingers and hands. If I had lost her then, I can’t imagine.
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“For months after birth, a child remains in the mother’s body; moon and tide. Before the child cries, the mother flashes wet with milk. Before the child wakes and cries out in the night, the mother wakes. Deep in the child’s cranial vault, the mother’s gaze knits up the dangling synapses.
And when the child is spirit, it is exactly the same.”
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Moon and tide. Knitted synapses. So close, Michaels understands, is the instinctual, physiological, emotional connection between mother and child. Sorting through the realization of a lost pregnancy is much like an excavation, a peeling back of layers of loss, emotion and dreams. For Jean, the process is first about adding layers, as she leaves Avery for a time and allows her pain to be buried under the stories of loss she learns from her new lover, Lucjian, a Polish Holocaust refugee in Toronto. He too knows what buried pain is, literally, as he lived through the destruction of Warsaw and helped rebuild its replica over top of the dead. Jean allows her loss to become just another fine sedimentary layer settling upon depthless layers of loss revealed in her lover’s stories. But she also unearths her own deeper buried pain, the loss of her mother. Michaels manages to show how the recovery from loss can be twofold: an inward excavation of layered losses, and a communion with the external and powerful forces of communal grief.
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The only problematic aspect of this communal grief that Jean enters into is that the death of her baby is somewhat subsumed and overshadowed by the many deaths witnessed by her lover; it is almost as if she doesn’t believe she has as much right to her grief as those around her. Can loss be ranked? Could Michaels have written the same book if Jean had lost her baby in the first or second trimester? If her child had simply bled from her body would she have deserved to mourn any less? Any woman — any parent — who has suffered the loss of pregnancy at any point would of course not begrudge another parent his or her grief. It is our own tendency to suppress, absorb, hide our sense of loss that we must resist. I wonder how different Jean’s story would have been had she found a community of other women with stories like her own.
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Jean’s greatest moment of healing seems to be when she finally allows herself to fully grieve her daughter’s loss by visiting her grave and planting flowers on it, and allowing her husband to join her again in their shared grief. The cultivating of memorials, the sharing of memory — these are things we avoid sometimes when a baby is lost too soon. When I was early in my pregnancy with Claire, I was visiting Saskatchewan and went with my brother and his wife to her family farm. It was a hot day out and everyone was swimming and rummaging in the garden and I was inside lying on the couch chatting with her mother. To my surprise, I told her about our previous losses. To my equal surprise, we embraced as she welled up with tears for our loss, and hope for this new pregnancy. When Claire was born, she sent a beautiful gift, even though we had only met that one time. It was a reminder to me that the excavation of healing is not something to be done alone, and that there is great beauty to be found in allowing others to share in the journey of our loss.

Breastfeeding, Loud and Proud

I love the move towards more open and free breastfeeding! Here is one friend’s great account of her journey:

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Before becoming a mother, I thought I would be a bold breastfeeder, nursing my babe on street corners and thumbing my finger at anybody who dared object. Yet when my first child was born a few years back, I found that I was nowhere near as confident breastfeeding in public as I had foreseen. Although I did feed my baby in public, I always aimed to be as discreet as possible, finding the quietest, darkest corner available, and staying modest with a nursing cover.

All the while, I was ashamed to feel this way, as it was so at odds with my beliefs as a woman (feminist) and a parent (attachment, for the most part). Why this contradiction? My desire for privacy arose from a wish to protect my child. I didn’t want him at the centre of any kind of controversy, even if I thought it was ridiculous that such a…

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Mom Shorts

So a while ago I went to a department store in search of shorts and asked one of the staff where women’s shorts were. English was not her first language and she didn’t seem to know what I meant so I motioned to the shorts I was wearing and said, “shorts, like these.” “Ah,” she said, and led me to a rack of hot shorts in the teen department. Oh boy.

When I indicated that this certainly was not what I had in mind, she took me to a collection of modest looking shorts in the actual women’s department. She looked at them, then pointed to the shorts I was wearing and said, “but these are not like those.”

Thanks, lady, I got it. Time for some longer shorts. First of all, let me say that the shorts I was wearing were cotton shorts from the Gap — not hot shorts. But on my post-baby self, they were a touch tight, and a little short. Hence my search for new shorts. So I proceeded to buy a nice loose, longish, linen pair. Mom shorts.

Fast forward to today. We were wandering around The Enjoy Centre and I turned to find myself standing beside the most exquisite woman. She had long glossy blond hair and perfect make-up, and she was wearing a (tiny) jade pencil skirt with a lace and silk blouse. And she was nursing. Pushing a stroller with one arm and holding a nursing baby with the other, the tiniest bit of skin showing above the tiniest baby’s head. I had never seen breastfeeding look so elegant, discreet, and effortless. “How old is he?” I asked in awe. “One week,” she beamed in an elegant French accent. “And,” she added, “the other two are downstairs in yoga.” This was a mother of three? One week after giving birth??

It was just too much. I thought of myself at one week postpartum: struggling to get Claire to latch, sore and stiff from the c-section, wearing zero make-up, wearing zero pencil skirts. I looked down and realized I was wearing the mom shorts and was depressed.

And then as I was writing this and trying to remember all the lectures my mother and my therapist have given me on not comparing myself to others, I remembered Annie Dillard’s advice for slow writers in The Writing Life:

“Out of a human population on earth of four and a half billion, perhaps twenty people can write a serious book in a year. Some people lift cars, too. Some people enter week-long sled-dog races, go over Niagara Falls in barrels, fly airplanes through the Arc de Triomphe. Some people feel no pain in childbirth. Some people eat cars. There is no call to take human extremes as norms.”

I’ve always found these words comforting, especially coming from a woman who won a Pulitzer Prize at 29.There is no call to take human extremes as norms. I had come across a human extreme in a jade pencil skirt. She wasn’t the first, and she certainly won’t be the last. And this is the thing: human extremes can inspire us or depress us. I can feel inadequate in comparison to this woman, or I can feel inspired to breastfeed more freely. And there’s nothing stopping me from digging out the fabulous Preloved pencil skirt languishing in my closet.

I read a beautiful blog post yesterday on Coffee + Crumbs about the adjustment to motherhood and the feeling of not measuring up.

“I beg you,” N’tima Preusser writes, ” embrace that things will always feel unfinished. Let unfinished be okay. Let unfinished be enough. It is enough. It is enough. It is enough.” And this is what I need to tell myself when faced with those human extremes: it is enough, you are enough. Mom shorts and all.