Thursday, December 30, 2010

That Day in May


It almost feels like a sacred day, looking back, like my one, unfettered day of blissful motherhood. It came as a surprise, which it shouldn’t have. It was the eleventh of May, and our baby had been due six days earlier. I had been to see the midwife that Friday, the 9th, and I had heard the little heart pounding over the doppler. My non-stress test was scheduled for the following Wednesday. The truth of the matter, which was absolutely beyond my comprehension, was that sometime in the next week I would be having a baby, one way or another. The journey was about to begin.

When I woke up that Sunday morning, it did feel like a Sunday like any other. I knew it was a special day for some people, but I hadn’t thought to consider myself among them-- not yet. And so it was to my great surprise when I came downstairs and found my husband in our living room with a small, wrapped gift.
Happy Mother’s Day, he said, and handed it to me.

I blushed, smiled. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might honor me on this day. I’d mused about the adorable possibility of our baby being born on this day, but I hadn’t ever actually considered the blatant fact of my own motherhood.

Still smiling, head down, I carefully opened the wrapping paper and found that it was from the jeweler downtown. Lifting the lid on the little box, I discovered a pair of ever-so-thin, delicate gold hoop earrings, about 3/4 of an inch in diameter. Right away, I knew they were just the accessory for the busy new mother-- the earrings that could be worn every single day, without ever being removed or changed, comfortable to sleep in, safe to shower in, appropriate for every occasion.

But more than appreciating the beauty and practicality of this well-chosen gift, I was mostly humbled and delighted at the prospect that I had not only been given a gift for Mother’s Day, which most certainly made me feel like a mother, but had been given a thoughtfully chosen, expensive gift from a jewelry store, which made me feel like a very special mother indeed. Rising to my feet, I wrapped my arms around Greg’s neck as best I could over the swollen globe that was our daughter, and I thanked him from the bottom of my heart for honoring me on this special day. Suddenly the reality of my new identity seemed sealed, and I slipped the new earrings into my ears at once, where they would stay for over two years.

You may remember the details of what happened next, about the wonderful walk we took along the Mill River, the conversation I had with Gina about how difficult it would be if this baby were to die after I’d known her for so long, and our trip to the diner for grilled cheese sandwiches and milkshakes.

As the jukebox played our request, and Charlotte kicked along to the beat of the music, our waitress offered me a rose, in honor of Mother’s Day. For the second time that day, I beamed, realizing that this, the best part of my life, had already begun.


The rose was still alive, beautiful and full, on the kitchen table when I came home from the hospital, empty handed, empty bellied, and so full hearted I did not know where to begin. I was a mother, wasn’t I? They’d said I was only days earlier, when it had all seemed so real, and tangible. But now, but now....


I wore the earrings for years, knowing I had birthed her in them, knowing they stood for what I held most dear: my motherhood. I don’t remember when I changed them for the first time, only that after some years had passed I started to occasionally take them out for special occasions, again trying on a pair of antique pearls or a funky pair of African beaded earrings I’d loved in college. It was maybe five or six years later when somehow, somewhere, one of the hoops came loose, and I found myself gazing into a mirror at home one night with only one earring there. I felt destitute, lost. I wanted it back. I had no idea where it had fallen out.

I stashed the remaining hoop in my jewelry box, hoping beyond all reason that somewhere I would find its mate someday. I never did.

Then, several weeks ago, I came across the hoop as I was reorganizing my jewelry, and I felt sad to imagine that I would never wear it again. The flush of pride and love I’d felt upon receiving the gift of those earrings came to me once again, and I wanted it with me. Could I put it on a necklace? I mused to myself, and then it came to me.

Carefully removing the emerald ring that I always wear that marries me to my firstborn, I slipped the hoop on the ring finger of my right hand, like a wedding band, and it fit perfectly. The delicate clasp fit around the back of my finger, nestling in the little space that indents when I bend my hand. I slid the emerald ring back on, and there they were: like a pair that had always meant to be worn together. The circle of motherhood, broken, but symbolic of the beauty of that day, and the emerald ring that will tie me to my firstborn every minute of my life. I worried for a moment about whether the clasp might come undone, and the earring might be lost. Then I thought of the moments when I would look down and see this ring of gold, and remember that warm May morning when everything had been perfect. Better to live with the beauty of that memory for the time the ring stays on, I reasoned, than to keep it locked in my jewelry box to be forgotten once again.

And so I wear the ring, as if it has always belonged on my finger. I look down and am tied to that moment of purity, when motherhood and joy were fused without a wrinkle. It is with gratitude that I remember those brief moment, and that day.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


My sister gave the kids an amazing dramatic play kit for Christmas. She's a doctor, and she put together the white coat, the kids gown, and all the bandaids, ankle braces, ace bandages, thermometers, gauze pads and strips, masks, hairnets, and booties you could dream of. We cleared out a corner of the room and filled a little bookcase with all the new loot, and put an old crib mattress on the floor next to it for the patient to lie on.
Then, they asked me if they could take the wooden bedrail off my bed to make the bed more like a kids' hospital bed.
The bedrail, of course, is there to keep Fiona safe when she's in bed with me.
But the truth is, Fiona doesn't like to sleep in my bed. So I let them take it, my heart giving in to the truth of it all: when my baby ditched me in September for her crib, she really did ditch me for good. Since that time she actually hasn't slept in our bed at all. She's come in, but she never sleeps.
I never had this with my other kids. Until they were probably 2 or 3, they would always crawl into bed with me at 4, or maybe 5, and nurse and snooze and snuggle until the sun came up. But Fiona, despite the fact (or is it because?) that she was the only one who exclusively slept with me without ever going into the sidecar for an hour or two during the night, wants nothing to do with sleeping together anymore. For eight months we slept in harmony together, for a month and a half we slept in half-asleep annoyed tossing and turning together, and now when it's time to get in to bed at night, she nurses on my lap for a few minutes, then sits up, and says, Bed. She lies on her tummy, snuggling in as I tuck the wooly knitted blankets over her. And then I leave her there, and she falls asleep, and never makes a peep.
She still wakes up in the night, of course, and there's a mattress on the floor of her room, so we snuggle into bed together to nurse during these times. I always wonder whether she'll just fall asleep with me, and we'll end up logging a few hours together, but we never do. She nurses on one side, then asks for the other, and then wakes up and turns away and starts to sit up. This is my cue, and if I put her back to bed, again she snuggles in and goes right back to sleep. If I try to get her to lie with me, she gets irritated and cries. (how insulting!!) So I always put her back now, and I respect that this is just who Fiona is.
I have to admit that as I anticipate the arrival of a new little one in five months I am almost glad that she's like this on her own, that I won't have to harbour the guilt of a new baby taking over her spot in my bed. I won't have to worry about what to do at 4 in the morning when she wakes up and wants to nurse in bed with me. If she does wake up and want to nurse, I know it will be a 3 minute affair in her room, and then she'll happily curl up again in her own bed. I suppose, then, that her independence is a blessing.
And I laugh, knowing that this is what most people strive for, and to me it seems almost sad! I miss her little warm body in bed with me at night, still, after three months apart. I feel awkward and funny leaving her alone in her room to fall asleep. But Fiona is Fiona, and this is what Fiona wants.
And I do get these little snatches, every night, of the snuggliest love ever as I pull her down onto the cozy, down filled bed on her floor. She curls into me, fat and round in her quilted sleep sack, and her warm cheeks are so delicious and lovely. I bend my head down around her and kiss the top of her little soft head while she nurses, and I always fall asleep for a while, just like this, and appreciate the moment so intensely.

I remember, so vividly, being alone.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Coming clean, just in case

A fellow babylost mother, who reads this blog but also with whom I share a personal connection, wrote to me last week. You seem so organized, she commented, like the house is always tidy, the laundry is always put away. Your kids go to bed early, and you don't yell, it seems. I laughed out loud, and then the laughter faded to a near guilt sensation, because I feel wretched if this is, indeed, the image I portray. I always make periodic efforts to come clean, with a confession of a really dreadful yelling match, or a moment of truth when I acted really childishly. I think the truth is, the areas in which I often get overwhelmed are just really, really boring: they are the piles of laundry, the mess, the never ending meals and dishes, the meetings to keep track of, and the usual ins and outs of being part of a household. These things are so mundane, and to go into the details of not getting them done is simply whining. I am not, by nature, a complainer, but I do derive incredible satisfaction (don't we all?) when these things actually, miraculously, get accomplished.

And so, when this happens, I post photos like this one, which showcase the areas of my home that have my heart singing with the amazing accomplishment of organization, beauty, and creativity. Here we see the children's art table, where they devote hours to artistic endeavors of all sorts. Here, again, we also see the art table. This is probably what the art table looks like about 70% of the time, due to the fact that the children are always playing at it. Organizing markers by size and type and sorting papers for keeping and recycling sometimes evade them, and in fact the greatest contributor to the perpetual mess is my own lack of organization. I never remember to tell them to stop working five minutes before dinner or we have to leave for school, and so there is no time to clean up. The mess builds, and builds, until we see this:
Ahh, yes. This is home, sweet home. I want to be very clear about this. There is a blogger (not babylost) whom I really admire, and I enjoy reading her writing, but I find that she neglects this side of herself: the one where, because she's so busy sewing beautiful handmade clothes and baking bread, the laundry piles for days and days (or even weeks). She doesn't mention about the times when the laundry baskets are all full, so she has to dump out the laundry on the bedroom floor so she can empty the dryer and switch the loads. It's possible, that despite the beautiful, rosy image, her bedroom also might look like mine does today:
Just like it's possible that the tidy, beautiful craft area that you envision me felting in, and sewing the skirts, and making these amazing appliqued shirts, actually looks like this, and I usually end up doing most of the work on the floor because the table is too messy.
Motherhood is messy work, there's no doubt about it. And I never, ever want to give off the mistaken impression that I do it all: the love, the devotion, the hot breakfast, the tidy house, the folded laundry, and the crafts seamlessly and without compromise. Every day I have to decide what gets done and what doesn't. My children always get fed. I should say no more often to the requests, but a little blond head asking for eggs or french toast on an 11 degree morning almost always gets me pulling out the frying pan. Sometimes I try to do too much, and I end up rushed and crying and wishing I was the mom who put the Cheerios out every day, because that's sensible and there would be no discussions or arguments about what's for breakfast if it were the same thing every day. But it is what it is, and I'm far from perfect, and most importantly I'm still learning how to do this. I'm learning now, and I will be learning 50 years from today (God willing) about how to mother these amazing people in the way that will allow them, and myself, the growth, opportunity, nurture, and unbounding love that they deserve.

So this is it, just making sure, that the singing of the accomplishments, of the beautiful, handmade Christmas, the shining two trees, the joy of parenting these four amazing souls (or should I start to say five?) doesn't have anyone thinking that yesterday I didn't sit in the sunroom and cry for a while because I just felt like everything was too hard. These moments still wash over me, sometimes often, and it's the truth at the base of it all: it is hard, it's always hard, and this is the place where I feel I can stand tall and make the announcements about the good parts.

So hurrah, for the life of this country girl. I do have so much to be grateful for and wondrous about, and I think I love the idea of embracing exactly what this blog presents: that we don't fixate on the piles of laundry or the times we lose our patience with our children. Instead, we should quietly try to accept these parts of ourselves, as humans, and have the focus be on the good parts, on the days when we do feel fluid and joyful. Highly ambitious, but a worthy goal just the same.

Monday, December 20, 2010

On giving, and receiving, and gratitude.


This is the time. I have to say, unlike many of you who are reading these words, this time brings less bitter heartache and more joy to my life than I'd imagined it ever could seven, or six, or even five years ago. As my living children have grown I have come into the immense joy I get from making them and acquiring for them things that I know will make their cheeks split with smiles I can't wipe away. As a mother who never, ever gives material gifts to my children outside of Christmas and birthdays, I save up all year with ideas and thoughts of how to make them giggle with delight. It is a culmination of ideas and


love and hope all bundled up. I want to show them how much I love them; show them, and everyone else. I actually love this time now, now that some of the emptiness feels less echoey (this is some seriously creative use of words here, but this is how it feels to me).
As a woman who personally derives great joy out of making things myself, always in the fall I begin concocting lists in my head of what I'm planning on making for whom. I'm going to make Christmas banners for the mothers and sisters and in laws, I'm going to make matching twirly skirts lined with pink tulle for the girls, I have plans to applique designs on t-shirts for Liam. There are things I could

knit, endless creations to be made from the piles of wool felt on my sewing table, and the half-knit blanket for Fiona in my knitting basket under the table in the living room. When I start to plan, it's usually early October, and things feel managable-- it's not a huge list, and I've got time.
This is when, without fail, nine weeks fly swiftly by and I suddenly find myself a week into December. The raw materials still lie ready and waiting, but the clock is ticking.

So I have been a whirling dervish of late; whipping up felt food faster than I can see it coming, appliqueing octopuses and sharks, and making banners until I think I will go cross eyed. I love, love, love all of this-- but I do harbor the hope that some day, I will enact these wonderful ideas before the calendar hits the month of December. It would bring me more pleasure to take my time with these things than to sit with them late at night as my eyes sting with the exhaustion.

Tonight, I said, tonight I am going to begin the wrapping for the kids, and then I'll work on the projects for my mother and sister and law. But when I came downstairs, I realized that what I needed to do was to take some time for myself. So here I am, content on the living room sofa, by the light of the holly-jolly Christmas tree, feeling glad that I am almost finished with my projects and that right now, I'm doing what I want to do.

So there is the giving part, and now there is the receiving part.

Today a beautiful thing happened. I took part in Jenni's ornament exchange, and mine arrived. I had been looking forward to this, but I hadn't anticipated how deeply it would move me. At lunchtime my mother-in-law had come to be with the girls while I went and spoke to a roomful of IVF nurses who wanted to know more about my program. Feeling professional and satisfied, I pulled up into my driveway to find a small white box on the back step, addressed to me, followed by the words, For Charlotte Amelia.

My heart did that melty thing that it does when just for a brief, almost second, it's as if your child is real. Real and there, I mean, like an ordinary child who might be at school or inside the house playing with playmobil while her grandmother makes her lunch. I had that flicker of imagining what it would be like to really just be, not just sometimes and to some people, but all the time, Charlotte's mother. It was a beautiful thing, and I held the box for a long moment before I stepped into the house.
The girls were all riled up to see me and Fiona had to be tucked in for her nap before I could open the box. I thought about inviting Aoife to help me, but it felt deeply personal. I worried about the box, about the label, about the contents in that way that one can only worry about the sacred things that connect us to the reality of our little lost souls. I carefully cut the tape around the label, being sure not to rip it in the process, and set the white rectangle that bore her name on the windowsill above the kitchen sink, where I could see it easily.
There she was, real.
Carol McMurrich
for Charlotte Amelia
A daughter, just like the other daughters and son who get mailed things care of me.
And how almost sweet it is that this first part, just the receiving of the box and the opening of it, were so delightful to me that this in itself could have been the gift.

But inside was the most beautiful ornament made by Sara, who I hadn't known of before. She included a note that explained that the angel was made with a victorian technique called quilling. I felt so honored, and humbled, and connected to imagine her working on this amazing creation at her home in Montana while I stumbled around in my little mundane-to-me life here in Massachusetts.
Sara included the link to her blog and so I learned a few brief details about her life in the three or maybe six minutes I was able to steal. Sara has seven sons, five with her, and I marvel at this: that one woman could create seven sons. Seven sons! I think of the hilarity, and comraderie, and absolute meltingly soft love that must ricochet around a home as filled with sons as this one is. It felt so filling and wonderful to even snatch these few details about this woman whose hand had penned those words, whose hands had created this ornament that I then shared with Aoife and let her hang on the Charlotte tree. Sara, of the seven sons.

As I daydreamed about what this would be like, to have seven of one kind, I remembered that last night I had a dream about meeting a woman who introduced me to her daughter, about six, and explained that she had five younger sisters. I had awoken pondering the concept of people who somehow produce child after child of the same sex, and remembered suddenly thinking of a family I had known who had had eight daughters and one son (born last). How odd, I thought, that I should meet in my dream this woman, with her string of daughters, and then the same day, a real woman named Sara with an even greater number of sons.

It made for a wonderful new light in this day, which had almost revolved around giving, and honestly I can't really imagine that there will be a moment again in this Christmas season that will make me feel more deep-seated gratitude than I felt upon receiving that little white box. So thank you, Sara, because you've given me this moment to be Charlotte's mother, and to remind me that even while I stitch and sew and freezer-paper stencil away, with a smile on my face, I need these moments so desperately I'm probably afraid to realize it. As the years have passed and my really amazing ideas of what to do for Charlotte at Christmastime have faded into pretty good ideas that will appeal to the other children, I really can't put words to the importance of having this one, small white box appear with her own name on it.

For Charlotte Amelia, my daughter, the one who started this whole thing. It really would be impossible for me to offer even a thought on where I'd be now without having had her in my life. For just those eight months and eleven days that I knew she was living in me, she began this journey for me and really there isn't a thing in my life now that can't somehow be traced back to her.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Charlotte's Tree

I'm so delighted because this year, in addition to our usual, gorgeous, joyfully decorated Christmas tree in the living room, Charlotte has her very own tree. Last year, we realized that almost the entire top half of our tree was devoted to her, and the tree was getting crowded. So this year I put my foot down and said it was high time we had a special angel tree for her special ornaments. It's in our dining room, and it makes me so happy to have it glow around us while we eat and relax in the big soft armchair in the corner.



This year, when we decorated the tree without her for the eighth time, we did not cry. I felt joyful to be dedicating this corner of my house to her, so conspicuous and obvious and out there. It would be seen, and admired, by everyone who entered.

I felt wistful and sad, as we hung the ornaments on a cold Tuesday afternoon, but there were no tears.

I wondered if this is okay.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Snow

The first snow fluttered down last night, gently coating the yard with a dusting of white. I could see it in the darkness, the rooftop below my window glowing, as I pattered down the hall to Fiona sometime in the 4's. This, in addition to the incredible, bitter cold that has set itself upon us, brings real winter, the bitterness, the closing in. Darkness settles.
I remember waking up sometime in December of 2003, and coming down the stairs to the sight of my husband's back facing the kitchen windows. Our house was tiny then, and the stairs fed right into the kitchen. I was on my way to the bathroom, having just woken up, when I saw the flakes drifting downwards, and noticed the all-too familiar quake of his shoulders.
It's her first snow, he managed, and then his face was in his hands, his head on the counter.

This morning I awoke to the sounds of Liam and Aoife gleefully hurling small handfuls of snow at each other, pulling a small plastic sled around the yard through the three-quarters of an inch of snow. They were fully dressed in snow gear, their cheeks apple-red, noses dripping in the bitter cold. Their shrieks and giggles were loud and glorious. I lay in my bed and gazed up, twelve images of my forever-lost daughter looking down at me. I looked into my own face, and that of my husband, our eyes filled with the most intense and haunting longing I could ever conjure up, and I looked into the face of that beautiful baby, and wondered who she would have become. The shouts of joy from outside continued. This is where we are, now.

A few minutes later, Greg brought Fiona in to me. She was rosy and warm, double-pajamaed against the chilly morning, her cheeks shiny and red from the eruption of molars. As she has many mornings of late, she also turned to the photos over the bed, pointing.
Daddy, she said. Dolly.
Remember, my sweets? I say to her, She's not a dolly, she's a baby. Daddy is holding Charlotte. She's your sister.
S-har-uh. Ba-by. she offers, long pauses between syllables as she struggles to make the sounds. Ba-by.

I struggle a little, now, with how tiny Charlotte is in the photos, and how long ago in the dust her older siblings have left her. I look at her tiny countenance, her slight limbs and long, elegant hands, and I think about how long it's been since Liam or Aoife, even approached that tininess. Even Fiona Clementine seems bulky and robust at 17 pounds 4 ounces, her immense and ever-growing vocabulary pulling her farther and farther away from her infancy. More often now I find myself pondering not how big Charlotte would be now, as a seven and a half year old, but how tiny she was then, how intimate and new a baby is, and how very much we've lost. Unlike when she would have been two, or four months old, now I find I can hardly fathom who she would be, or what she would look like. I almost can't try to picture her, because I have no idea where to begin.

I have a goal, for the next little while, and it's to be true to the now.
Often, when I write here, I am myself looking backward: I am a mother who didn't have the support of other babylost moms when I was one, or two, or four years out. I am reliving those moments in some retroactive attempt at support and companionship. I want others to hear my voice and say, yes, me, too. But I realize that I am not there, and that no matter how vividly I speak of what it was like then, I will always be further down the road. While I reach desperately for some kind of peer support, those I am viewing as peers see me as someone in a different place. Someone not a peer, but somewhere else. Despite this difference, which until now I hadn't pondered very deeply, quite often I can hesitate to speak of the now, of the joy that exists, of the happiness that could still come, because I fear causing pain for some, or creating a rift between myself and the readers I wish to have. When I was pregnant with Fiona I almost stopped writing because I couldn't write about the anguish of Charlotte's passing in the advent of another birth. It never occurred to me that I could just write this, just write about other things, that I could write deeply about the terror of the pregnancy and the secret hopes that I harbored. I felt this wasn't the place.
But if not here, then where? This is a blog, an anonymous, ill-advertised, kept-secret from the real friends in my life blog. I think it's time to be me, to just accept and love who I am, where I am, to invite into the now myself, and you, and anyone who cares to peer into what it's like here.

So, today it snowed. My older children frolicked, joy spelled clearly across their chilly, sun-lit faces. Fiona crawled around on the rug in the sunroom, pulling books off the shelves and making animal sounds, while I ate blueberry pancakes by the Charlotte tree. I worried in the shower that I'm not really showing yet, and wondered if I should ask for an early ultrasound to measure growth so I can get an early read on whether this baby is developing properly. I went back to the photo on this blog, from May of 2009, of me 16 weeks pregnant with Fiona and gasped, and suddenly felt awfully self-conscious and silly for not being in maternity pants yet and still telling people that I am pregnant. I'm getting ready for a holiday party at our house tonight, making hot hors d'oeuvres with things like bacon and mayonnaise and other untouchable items.

Liam is reading choose-your-own adventure books, now. And I think to myself, I didn't choose this adventure, but I don't get the chance to know what would have happened if I'd gotten to pick page 23 instead of 98. I was assigned this adventure, and I'm riding the wave. I also don't get to choose anyone else's adventure; but if they choose to read about mine, I'm the better for it.

Here I am. It snowed last night.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

News, and such

There's a long story and a short story to everything, and so I could choose between the two in offering some thoughts on the dearth of writing lately. I'll select the short version, and state it like this, uncontained within one sentence as to state it as another might would make it all seem too real: 16. weeks. pregnant.

Did anyone really think I could ever stop this baby growing process with the culmination of my last beautiful effort, Fiona Clementine, she who has been like a blossoming new flower, scented beautifully vanilla, smiling and offering greetings and waves everywhere we go? Who curls into me and rests her fat cheeks on my shoulder and whose wet lips smoosh into my cheek and leave me breathless every day?

I have always known I would have to exceed all measures of practicality before I would be able to call it a day with conception and birth and, hopefully, the parenting of a newborn infant. So here I find myself, with a 6 year old, and a 4 year old, and a just-turned-1 year old, and as her half-birthday rolls into view and passes another one might come into our life, rosy and whole as her/his siblings, and the end may have come for this stage.

At this point we will have exactly one hand per child, not enough bedrooms, hardly room in our car, definitely (practically speaking) not enough money, and so this makes it just perfect for us, because to be practical in these circumstances, when there are amazing people to be made, is simply a waste of an opportunity.

So an opportunity we decided we would seize, should it present itself. Those of you who have known me for quite some time will remember the drama of conceiving the wee Clementine, and so will understand that whilst an 18 month spread does seem quite, absolutely, daunting to me at this point, there was no possibility for me to at once want another baby some day and at the same time use birth control for a while to try to space things out. I knew what I know now: if I'm ever lucky enough to conceive again, I will conceive again, and I will be grateful and lucky and beholden to everyone and everything. And days, or maybe a few weeks, after that decision was made, something took hold, and somehow it is still there.

And so it shall be.

And so I hardly dare to breathe the words, since things feel so precarious at all times, this is the truth of now.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Warm Water

I'm in a gratitude phase right now. I'm marveling every day at the roof over our heads, at the numerous rooms, at the collections of books and wide variety of foods to choose from, even when I might claim at 4 PM that the cupboard is bare. But it's a really simple thing that I always feel so amazed by, something that I wonder if some people ever stop to ponder.
Every night, after they eat their warm supper, my children trundle upstairs to our yellow bathroom, and they get into a lovely hot bath. It's so simple-- I turn on a tap and gallons upon gallons of beautiful, clean, pristine well water, at precisely the right temperature for their little bodies, pours into the tub. They get in, and while some nights we grab the bottle of soap and scrub them down, most nights they just play in the warm water, rinsing their little bodies off, and relaxing from their busy day. I find this so amazing that every single day we have this luxury. The children aren't even dirty. We don't even wash them all the time. It's just something warm, and soothing, and lovely that they do together every night. A symbol of true luxury that could pass right by my eyes if I didn't stop to think about it. If I didn't stop to ponder how many children in the world don't have access to clean water, or running water, or warm water. Or how many children in this country do have access to these things but whose parents just park them in front of the television and don't bother to let them play happily in the tub before their appropriately early bedtime. (did you know that the symptoms of extreme exhaustion and fatigue mimic ADHD symptoms?) My children are blessed, and I am blessed to be aware of our good fortune.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Home




House became home over the course of several weeks or months, because we couldn't go out and we needed a place that could envelop us in comfort and safety. The soft pink exterior was almost flesh colored, with multiple gables like slouching shoulders. A weathervane perched on top, a flying pig, that seemed to keep watch of the world around. Tall, tall pines towered around the perimeter of the open backyard, while drooping hemlocks lined the drive that curved down the hill toward the road and the river. At night, the sky seemed black and in winter Orion was framed by the pines, the stars twinkling as gently as a lullaby. A small cabin sat at the back of the yard, it housed a perfect, tidy bedroom with a woodstove and a writing desk.
A path led from the cabin out through the woods behind the house. You had to know the way to get there; a right turn at pointy rock, under pine bridge, a left at woodpecker tree, over France rock and around Porcupine rock to the second river behind the house. The water rushed fiercely here, travelling swiftly over large, moss covered rocks and shaded by the steep hemlock slope behind. One could cross the river here, over the old dam, and walk for miles on deeply grooved horse trails through the woods.
But going back, back to the house along the little path, it would suddenly seem shady as the brightness of the grassy yard approached. Coming around the corner of the cabin, the little house stares with wide windowed eyes, and the bright perennial beds leap forth a greeting in summer. It is here that one leaves the rush of the backyard river behind, climbing the knoll that the house perches on, and the sound of the front yard river meets the ears. There is never silence, and when the wind blows hard it rushes down the little river valley with a howling fury that sounds like a thousand wolves at once.

And now, seven and a half years after the house gulped and surrounded us in our isolating anguish, its walls echo with laughter, its floors are marked with footprints and the corners house old cheerios and dust bunnies. The bedrooms call out with cheery colors, soft bean bags, and shelves of games and toys. Song bursts from within every day.

I am thankful for home.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Change is Good-- Or, I love MotherWoman

Oh, I love this organization. Check it out here. MotherWoman, an advocacy group for mothers, held a community breakfast today, with over 300 people, and it was truly inspirational. I am so full of ideas, thoughts, and missions for my future.

MotherWoman is actually creating change before our very eyes, with fierce love and enthusiasm and gentle, tender care. They are refusing to accept the plight of American mothers-- among the most unsupported mothers on this planet-- and are running, faster than the mouse on the proverbial wheel, to try to make this different.

MotherWoman supports and empowers mothers to create positive personal and social change for ourselves, our families, our communities and the world.

Amen.

It's curious, because personally, while much of the MotherWoman crusade thus far feels incredibly important to me, imperative, even, I don't have a personal connection to it. As a mother who has embraced and adored the ability to stay home with my children (and has not felt for one second like I am a prisoner in my home; rather I feel slightly guilty and giddy that I get to avoid a career and focus every second of my day on raising these amazing people), I have not personally suffered because of a lack of fair wages and/or maternity leave. And, as someone who has gratefully and mercifully avoided post-partum depression of any kind, I have not required MotherWoman's fabulous services here, either. I haven't needed to be held in many of the areas that they focus on: but still, I am a mother, and I am a rational, educated individual who believes in honesty and justice, and so these things mean a great deal to me.

I am so grateful for where I am, for the simplicity, the ease, the meaning to my life with my children. I wish more women had the means, the ability, the head space to find such peace. I wish more women had the community I have to share motherhood. I wish more women were lucky enough to have never felt that being a woman has ever stood in the way of anything she wanted. I wish more women had access to the things I have access to; half the journey is knowing the support is there if you need it, whether or not you actually do. MotherWoman, through so many avenues, is seeking to help women all over the globe to feel (and actually BE) supported by their nations/states, communities, families, and most of all, themselves. I applaud their work.

But there is an ulterior motive to my love for MotherWoman as well, and it is that what they represent also holds my personal mission so neatly. The resources, research, and political activism that they have so strongly advocated for could almost 100% be applied to the experience of perinatal loss. Should we advocate for bereavement leave for mothers and fathers whose babies have died that is longer than the normal three days (if anything)? And then, given that there is nothing of this sort, should there be a policy allowing mothers who utilize some portion of a maternity leave to grieve for a baby who has died to take another maternity leave sooner than would normally be allowed since the first baby died? I argue yes. I know a woman whose baby died. Her body was healthy, fine, in perfect shape to conceive another baby within a few months of her daughter's death. She was desperate to have another baby. But she carried the benefits for her family, and because she had taken five weeks leave when her baby died, she had to wait a year to conceive again so that she would be able to keep her job and support her family once her next baby was born. The pain I felt for her, knowing that her inflexible company's policy was preventing her from taking the one step towards future hope and happiness that felt most important to her, was immense.

But for the most part there is, at the most basic level, the isolating, traumatizing, anguishing experience of having a baby die at any point. This is not a syndrome, it is not a mental illness, it is a reaction. The grief that follows the loss of a baby is crippling for many people, yet it is among the most silenced of all sorrows.
I listened to a woman, a brave, powerful, humbling woman, share intimate details of her own postpartum emotional crisis this morning. MotherWoman had its annual fundraising breakfast, and this beautiful, open soul stood on the podium and threw words out there that I knew only too well: Anger, helplessness, guilt, sadness, hopelessness. As she described herself, right before her husband did the last thing he could think of and brought her into the ER to be admitted, I saw myself, and so many others I know whose precious babies have died. I was curled on the floor. Hours of crying had swollen my face, soaked the carpet, and wet my hair, which hung in damp strands. With no real confusion around this topic, I did not want to be alive. If somehow I could have slipped away from this earth, disappeared, without inflicting this same pain upon the people who loved me, I would have done it in an instant. I remember realizing then the true meaning behind the human act of crying, at any age, at any stage. True crying, the wailing, uncontrollable cry of a baby, or a toddler, or a grieving parent, or a person in complete crisis, says one thing: Help me. I cannot help myself.
Fortunately for me, I was grieving, and was not simultaneously unable to recognize my own importance to others. While the thought of not being here was so very appealing, the idea of acting on those thoughts was absolutely terrifying. Who could possibly hold my husband, also bereaved? How could I deprive my parents of their daughter, as I had been deprived of mine? As I staggered through the early weeks and months, people looked at me, with my swollen face, and tearful voice, and empty arms, and swollen breasts, and they said, poor Carol.
And that was all they could do.
There was nobody they could send me to.
I had no peer support.
There was no recipe for healing, or getting better, or making this okay.

Some would-be supporters returned to the age-old standby of implying that you simply had to get yourself knocked up again and trying for a fresh start. It's true that this is a mentality around pregnancy and infant loss that is still mighty present: people who experience this type of loss are obviously in their childbearing years, and from the outside perspective there are still an enormous number of people who suppose that the obvious solution to this "loss" is to simply conceive another child, effectively replacing and starting again with an new child. Just as the obvious solution to postpartum depression is to get off your horse and enjoy what you've got. Yeah right.

Anyone whose spouse has died will tell you that you can't just go out and get a new husband. So why am I expected to go out and make a new baby?

So what do we do?

We reel, us the bereaved, keening in the darkness of the night, alone in our sadness. We know that the world has no words for what has happened and that nobody knows exactly how to hold our hand through this. We grieve for ourselves and the life we imagined, and we grieve for a little person who we loved who never got a chance. We grieve for our family and friends who we've let down, as there will now be no new baby. We agonize over the new, angry self we see: she who wants to throw dishes, curse pregnant women, eliminate other people's babies from our sight. We suffer alone with the extreme guilt that our bodies have failed, that if only we had eaten better or not taken advil or been more vigilant, our babies might have lived. We grieve for the happiness we once knew, we grieve for our innocence lost. We fear for our own lives, for the lives of our remaining children, we face death and know it as real, as part of life. We are vulnerable, alone, and helpless. We can't imagine that this will ever get better, because we know we will never, ever get our baby back. And it seems brutally apparent that nobody, no one, can help us.
Unless.
Unless there is something. Unless there is something known, something out there, that people know about, that is real, thriving, throbbing with lives and stories of people who have also lain in that ball on the floor, willing themselves to eat, to breathe, to live. Unless you know you are not alone, that what you are going through is normal, and you see living, breathing examples who tell you that it is possible to some day heal around this wound. Unless somehow it isn't hard, or complicated to find all those other people out there who have had similar experiences.
When there is community, when you know that each person's grief follows its own path, when you realize that we all create our own stories for ourselves, we can be empowered to grieve. We can see this as a painful, arduous, excruciating process that accomplishes something as it happens. Even when we are captives in a dark, whirlwind of a gloomy place, we have people with us, who describe being in that same place, who recognize where we are, and tell us we can find the way out over time. And, over time, we begin to believe them. And over the years, we see the light at the edge of the dark, once bottomless pit. And we tell our story, again and again, until it becomes a part of us that is soft around the edges. We carry our child who has died, with us always, and after the knife-like pain has eased, and after the suffocating loneliness has become less so, we begin to live again. This is how it can be, and how it should be.

And this is the reason why I love MotherWoman: because their mission, when it comes to the individuals, is that together we can help each other to help ourselves. They know that we can only save ourselves. And MotherWoman sees this cause, they see my Empty Arms organization, and they know already that this mission is closely linked to all areas of motherhood. They see us bereaved mothers as a substantial group. They recognize that this is a glaring need, and they want to help me.

MotherWoman will help me, I know. They will help me for whatever I need, whenever I ask. But moreso, they represent to me that when you are part of a group that is marginalized, a group that is isolated and crying out for help, attention, and change, you can do something about it. MotherWoman has already changed the lives of so many women in this Valley, this state. They are reaching their arms wider now, on a national and even international level. People are seeing the work that they do, nodding their heads and saying, yes. This works. This is true need, true response, and real results.

I feel so privileged to be a part of such an amazing, fantastic organization. And it helps me to be patient to see the amazing work that MotherWoman has done with the causes they have chosen to embrace thus far. I realize that one day, when I don't have small children at home to devote myself to 24 hours a day, Empty Arms can become exactly what I envision it to be. That it can wrap itself around this valley, and even farther, bringing in all who need each other. I can do the things I dream of, and I will be patient with myself, knowing I am not alone in wanting to create change in this world.


Change is good

Last year, for six Sundays I attended the MotherWoman Facilitator training here in Northampton, Massachusetts. First, allow me to confess that I signed up for the training almost against my will. It was offered to me by the amazing, powerful, and inspirational leaders of this organization and I thought to myself, I've taken other facilitator trainings. I would really like those Sundays to myself. But I also realized that being affiliated with MotherWoman would be beneficial for Empty Arms, and so I wrote the check and signed up and agreed to attend.

The first five minutes of the first meeting proved me wrong. Personally, those six Sundays would provide me with an invaluable opportunity for reflection, growth, and community.The companionship of the 21 other women in the room, all so different yet so alike, would prove precious to me. Professionally, the ways in which the training would affect and change the groups that I run is almost indescribable. I am so grateful to MotherWoman for inspiring so many people, and I am continually inspired every time I lead a meeting.

MotherWoman groups operate on the principle that it is essential to create a steadfast, ironclad, calm, earnest, SAFE space first and foremost. They reason that if we take the time to speak exactly what we intend to do, and exactly what we intend to accomplish, and exactly how we intend to do it, it can all be done. They celebrate speaking the truth and encouraging others to do just that. They pull for the underdogs and seek honesty and truth-seeking in all endeavors. They believe that each person can be her own best advocate, and that each person has the power to create the change within herself that she needs. They believe that we can accomplish this within the context of community, when we are held in a safe space, when we are allowed to be honest and real and truthful about our experience, our process, and our direction. (these words are all mine, extracted from my experience with this group)

In a MotherWoman circle, I soon learned, the first substantial chunk of time is spent spelling out the parameters of the shared space, to ensure that everyone understands that they are safely held, free to express themselves openly, confident that their words will never leave that space. Their mission is spelled out, the guidelines explicitly explained, so that we can all sit with what the hope for the time together is. Specific time is spent separating that space from the outside world, making it unique, apart, a place of safety and comfort.

This part was easy for me. I wrote up guidelines and principles easily for my group, modeled on the MotherWoman principles, and they were as follows:

Empty Arms Group Principles

We know that losing a baby is an isolating and devastating experience. In our groups we support bereaved parents by naming the incredible challenges they are experiencing, knowing that this group is one of the few places where parents can speak the truth about the depth of their emotions and the details of their experience.

We believe that speaking the truth about the heartbreaking journey of losing a baby is essential. Healing comes through understanding what we have been through and what may lie ahead. By speaking about our experiences they can become integrated into who we are and allow us to move along. We celebrate breaking the silence that bereaved parents have been historically subjected to.

In these meetings we do not compare losses. We respect that each and every person’s experience is uniquely challenging in its own right. Regardless of the gestation or age of our baby when he or she died, we all hoped that we would have a lifetime with the child growing within us. Consequently, we all have the right to grieve our loss, and we support one another in our grief.

We believe that grief takes many forms. Emotions such as deep sadness, anger, confusion, longing, and even a sense of intermittent peace can all be normal parts of grieving. No one person grieves like another. We believe each person has the right to follow the path of grief they are most comfortable with.

We respect that each person has his or her own comfort level for sharing emotions and stories. We believe that the very act of coming to this group demonstrates each person’s commitment to their own growth and healing, whether they share a little or a lot. We believe that this extends into the greater world, where each bereaved parent should be liberated to share the pieces of their story and their child in a way that feels comfortable to them.

We believe that each one of you has the inner wisdom and courage to come out into a brighter place, without ever forgetting the baby that you lost.

Empty Arms Group Guidelines

  1. Confidentiality. We hold everything that is said in group to be confidential and ask that you share it with no one outside of this group. Furthermore, we also extend this confidentiality to within this room, in that we ask that you request permission from someone to talk with them about what they have shared when the formal discussion is over.
  2. In this group, we hold each other with respect, compassion, and non-judgment. We remind you that there is no right or wrong way to go about grieving.
  3. We do not give advice or interrupt. We welcome responses in the form of “I” statements, which can help another person to see another way of doing things without hearing advice that could be interpreted as criticism or judgment.
  4. When we’re sharing stories, please feel liberated to include any details you wish. The only thing we ask that you not include is the names of professionals that may speak of negatively.
  5. This is not a therapy group, and it should not replace therapy for individuals or couples who need it. Grief brings up a myriad of issues that can not always be adequately addressed in this forum. Therapy can often be very helpful, and we would be happy to share the names of counselors/therapists that we know if you would be interested.
  6. Self care- Be aware of what you need during the group, and take care of yourself. Food and drinks are on the table, feel free to eat, drink, and ask someone to pass things to you. If you need to cry, blow your nose, or laugh, do it. If you need to use the bathroom, it’s right down the hall. Take care of yourself. If at any point you feel you are overwhelmed and you need to go home, of course you may, but one of us will follow you out to make sure you are okay.
The next part did not come so easily for me. In a MotherWoman circle, beginning with the facilitators, an object is passed around the circle, and each person is given space to speak. A topic is posed, which participants can choose to address or not, but each person is given air time to introduce themselves and speak openly and honestly about their experience. During this time, there is no cross talk, and there are few interruptions or commentaries from even the facilitators. Occasionally, when somebody expresses something that the facilitator believes it would be poignant to point out to the group as it is such a shared experience, they will carefully and formulaically offer a reflection and unifying statement about what they've heard. But other than that, during this time, people are handed an object and invited to speak.

I simply can't do that, I thought. I can't force these people to speak. The people who come through my door are wounded sparrows, they are limping, their wings hang broken, they have been silenced. While some are eager to speak and will share their experience from the start, some simply cannot. I had always historically honored this silence and maintained committed to the idea that participants should be able to choose whether or not they would like to contribute. The idea of handing somebody an object and putting them on the spot seemed almost repellant to me.

Furthermore, I was also concerned about the fact that people wouldn't immediately be able to connect and comment on each others' experiences. In a community so silenced, and where most people coming to my group have not one single person in their own lives who has even a point of reference to understand their experience, I knew that connection and the establishment of common community was absolutely essential in my groups. When these people shared their experiences in the outside world, they were often almost speaking to a brick wall. There was no comprehension whatsoever; this was what made so many of us feel like we were going crazy, or doing grief wrong. I was afraid to limit cross talk in a group of people so desperate for commonality.

However, I saw for myself after the first few MotherWoman circles I sat in how immense the power of that object is, and how incredible the safety of a well-established circle can be. As I sat there and heard women weep, and express themselves absolutely honestly and from their hearts, I began to see the strength behind the format. MotherWoman circles work. I would see this week after week.

For the first five months of my MotherWoman training, I was on maternity leave from facilitating Empty Arms Groups because of my huge pregnant belly that I had no wish to parade among a group of bereaved parents. So while these ideas were brewing and stewing, I wasn't in a position to try them out. Finally, in January of 2010, I returned to facilitating and announced to the group that we were going to have a new format for meetings.

Slowly, and deliberately, I welcomed people to the meeting. I told them that I was going to read these new guidelines in hopes that it would effectively mark this space off as separate and different from the busy, fast-paced, world around us. I told them I hoped they would feel safe in sharing their stories and feelings, knowing that we all have the common goal of supporting each other. I read the principles, making eye contact with each and every person as I did so.
Then, I introduced myself, and told the group about Charlotte. I spoke about winter darkness and the depth of my love for her still. I recalled the pain that had once nearly robbed me of my very life, and reflected on how, six and a half years later, that pain felt so different. I spoke for only about two minutes, modeling brevity, and then I took a deep breath, and I passed the little stone heart I had been clutching in my hand.

It was amazing.

People began to speak. There were people around the table who had come to 10, 12, 15 meetings before, who shared things I had never heard before. Tears were shed by people who never cried, and everyone listened with an open, honest heart. Nobody was thinking about their response or comment to what someone was saying, they only listened. Although I had given people the option to pass the stone if they didn't feel ready to share, nobody did. I was floored, my first instincts having been absolutely, positively proven wrong. As people spoke, I thought about commonalities that were being shared around the table, so that when people were finished, I could thank them for their honesty, and start our shared conversation with that common thread. That meeting was the first of many that I hold so dear, so precious, so wholly in my heart. The plan had worked.

What was especially amazing to me was this: while MotherWoman is primarily an organization that serves women, I was seeing the greatest change among the men in my groups. While they previously had been more likely to let their wives/partners take the reigns and share the details of their story and healing journey, suddenly now a warm stone was being passed to them, and the room was silent. Suddenly these men were being asked to share from their hearts, and one by one, they did. The more they spoke, the more they spoke: it was as if the men in the room found the experience of being emotionally liberated so empowering that they could not stop talking. Unlike before, where the women clearly dominated every meeting, we now had meetings that were absolutely split, with fathers and mothers equally talking, crying, and sharing.

I have now been running my meetings using the MotherWoman model for nearly a year. Every month, I worry briefly about the length of the introductions, whether people will feel pressured to speak, or how the topic will be processed by the group. But month after month, it works, and it works well. I am so grateful to have had this opportunity, and I thank the amazing women at MotherWoman for reeling me in and for encouraging me to join them on their crusade for change. Check them out.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

JOY



I love this little birthday girl so much.
She was so worth the wait.