Peace Be With You (a Birth Story)

This time last year, I began to have contractions. So this morning seems like a good time to revisit that morning and what followed. If you’re into birth stories, feel free to follow along. This is a good one, and I’ll try to do it justice.

E had a list of Things to Get Done before the baby came. One of the big items on her list was to get her homeschool portfolio review completed early so as to be able to focus on being a big sister. We had scheduled it for 11 a.m. on May 24th with our usual assessor, who lives on our street and is our friend. I called her around 10 a.m. and said, “I think I’m in labor!”

She asked what I wanted to do and we decided together that she would come anyway at 11 and we would see how far we got. By the time she arrived, though, a couple of friends were sitting with me on the couch. E finished her portfolio review by herself while I focused on early labor and began to make arrangements. JJ convinced me to call J and a couple of other friends who had agreed to help in a doula capacity.

Because my first two labors were precipitous and we had already experienced paying someone over $500 to miss the birth of our first child, we were hesitant to contract with a doula. But I have several friends who are more than qualified to help, so everyone who was comfortable with the arrangement was put on a “call all the people!” list, with the understanding that if people ended up making it in time and working we could figure out something fair after the fact.

We headed over to the hospital/birthing center for an already scheduled midwife appointment, and K met us there. Her primary function throughout most of the labor was to keep people from just “doing stuff” to me. Mostly this meant that she rephrased everything anyone said to me as a question.

“Oh, you think you’re in labor?” Patronizing smile. “Let’s put you on the monitor and see.”

“Katie! Would you like to be monitored right now?” (She has known me long enough that she gets to call me Katie and having someone advocating for me who knew me that well was kind of the best.)

After I saw the attending midwife, we decided together that if I went home I would likely not make it back over here if things went..well, the way things tend to go for me. So we stayed on that side of town, my friend B joined us, and I struggled to relax into labor.

In case you’re wondering, the children’s section of Barnes and Noble is not the place to do this.

After a quick dinner we decided together that J would take the big kids somewhere else for a bit, and I went walking with K and B. In lieu of the dark warm cave I am biologically designed to seek out in such moments, they found me a wine bar with a booth next to the fireplace. We chatted about life and school and boys and fears and I relaxed a little more. They ordered a dram of scotch and commanded that I drink the whole thing. I remember this clearly because it was one of the few things that was not presented to me as optional, and it was the thing that really allowed me to relax into labor. My water broke soon after that, although I didn’t realize it until after we got up to leave. (I still haven’t shown my face in that wine bar again, haha…).

We headed back to the midwife’s office. She checked and recommended that we find a dark quiet place for a little bit longer, so we did that. B, a doula and former homeschooler and all-around excellent person in our life, began explaining every single part of what was happening to our children. How’s that for a science lesson!?

Finally, around 9:30 p.m. we made our way to the maternity floor.

“OK! Here’s a hospital gown. Change into this.”

“Katie! Would you like to wear a hospital gown right now?”

“Oh…no, thank you.”

*Surprised nurse face* “Oh. Well, ok, come lie on the bed and we’ll get the monitor on you.”

“Katie! Would you like to be monitored right now?”

“Oh…no, thank you.”

*annoyed nurse face*

*firm friend face* “C will be the only person monitoring her please.”

“Ahem. I’m going to the bathroom. I have had a bad experience with a labor before and it is very important to me to not feel as though people are just doing stuff to my body. So I’ll be declining certain things. I’m not trying to make your job more difficult this is just hard for me. Thank you for being here, and for helping me.”

*kind nurse face*

And active labor went pretty much that way. My friends and my husband held everything else back so I was able to focus on letting my body achieve some of the hardest work it will do in my lifetime. I still had a lot of fear, having gone through a miscarriage the year before (maybe that’s why this was my slowest labor yet–fear keeps us from opening in such a variety of ways) but eventually the balance tipped and I was able to follow Carrie Fisher’s advice to “stay afraid, but do it anyway.”

When it was time to push, Irene began to let me know that she wanted to be born. The sensation I remember most strongly was not contractions or dilation. It was that each time I pushed, she pushed with me. She put her feet on my rib cage and pushed with all her tiny might. I began to dare to hope that this baby might really be born and that I might really get to keep her.

When she arrived I couldn’t believe it! I just kept saying, “Oh my God, you’re here! You’re really here!”

And here you still are, my dear. A walking, talking reminder that peace looks all different ways and can find us in the strangest of circumstances. Happy Birthday, Irene. ❤

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Peace as Seasonal and Feelings as Nouns

In ancient Greek mythology, Irene is the goddess of peace. Significantly, she is one of the Hours, who govern the seasons. This felt especially meaningful to me because I am learning that in whatever season we find ourselves this moment, peace returns eventually. Sometimes that thought is very comforting. Sometimes it feels terribly unfair, like going to a funeral on a cheerfully sunny day. But I’m learning that peace looks different with each iteration, so I experience it differently each time around.

I talked with E yesterday about some overwhelming feelings she was having and we were talking about the idea that feelings are nouns you can turn into verbs. The really great thing is when we can choose intentionally which feelings we want to turn into verbs, though some of us need years of therapy or medication to begin to figure that out. One hard thing I’ve found about feelings-as-nouns is when there are too many nouns for me to deal with. At six weeks postpartum, the nouns have definitely piled up (it is so smart that the postpartum visit with the midwife is generally scheduled at this point). It begins to feel as though I’m walking through a minefield and if I’m not perfect something will blow up. What if I can never form coherent sentences again and have to stop writing? What if I can’t make a “plant perfect” (no, really, people call it that) meal tonight and my kids get heart disease? What if J helps me too much and is too tired to take care of himself? What if my friends need something and I’m too tired to help? What if S doesn’t just have seasonal allergies? What if?

Because I have other friends with busy brains, small children, and the sense to turn off their phones when they sleep, I felt comfortable calling my friend M at 2 a.m. (don’t worry if I have your phone number as well…in these moments I only call people who have promised it won’t wake them if they are sleeping because I’m anxious, not a barbarian). She asked me if I could walk out of the minefield. As I breastfed Irene, it occurred to me that in my arms I held a tangible reminder that peace exists in the world whether we can see it or not in a given moment, and that we can work to bring it about. The idea that there is safe footing outside the minefield helped me to figure out where to put my feet.

So if you’re reading this, and bombarded with nouns (my high school English teacher would probably ask with exactly what else one could be bombarded besides a noun of some sort), I wish you 2 a.m. phone call kind of friends. I wish you safe passage. But most of all, I wish you peace.

“Life is a cookie.”

 

 

Anxiety: The Worst Best Friend

If you are someone who need things to be shiny all the time this likely won’t sound very optimistic to you at first glance. But if you love someone who struggles with anxiety I would encourage you to consider reading to the end. I’ll describe the hard part honestly, which allows me to describe the hopeful part honestly too. Nobody is just one thing.

~~~~~

Having an anxiety disorder can be like having an emotionally abusive best friend. It follows you around from place to place and whispers to you confidentially (like it really cares about you), “What do you think you’re doing?”

When you try to make new friends, “Why would they want to talk to you?”

When you try to start a new project, “Who do you think you are? You can’t take this on.”

When you do something outside of your comfort zone, “You shouldn’t be doing that. Someone else could do it better.”

When you are brave in relationship, “You’ve said too much. They won’t want to be your friend now.”

When you are afraid for someone you love, “That thing you’re afraid of is going to happen, and it’s going to be even worse than you think.”

When you are celebrating something, “But what about all the people who didn’t get this thing? Have some compassion!”

When you are celebrating something else, “You don’t deserve this thing. This is a fluke and something bad is about to happen.”

When you think you know something, “You’re probably wrong about that. Someone disagreed with you and they’re probably right.”

~~~~

This cycle is going on in my brain most of the time. When I’m doing well (which is also most of the time) it’s just one of many and I am better at disrupting or ignoring it. As I type this we are in the middle of a great weekend. Other times, the cycle is louder and it’s harder. So you’ll have to excuse me (or not; it’s your call really) if I don’t come across as Very Optimistic all the time.

See, I have this friend. I’d like to ditch them. But they’re right juuuuuust enough of the time that I can’t quite shake them. Sometimes I’m terrified a bad thing will happen and then it does. Sometimes people really do die. Sometimes husbands really do have heart disease.

I wish I could pretend Anxiety doesn’t exist. But abusive best friends don’t respond well to that treatment. At least not according to what I have observed. A more direct approach is needed.

So when I can’t handle it internally, I repeat the crazy things Anxiety whispers to me out loud. To a trusted friend, to a therapist, sometimes even in an essay. Because those things wither in the light.

My friends are my friends (and if they aren’t, that’s good information to have; when people show you who they are, eventually it makes sense to believe them).

I can do lots of things. Probably more than I usually think I can, not less.

All criticism should be considered in relation to the source. Relational equity and the amount of wisdom of the person offering the feedback should be examined, as well as making sure that a criticism really is meant for me before interpreting it so. Sit with criticism honestly, not under it coweringly.

We’re at the end of the Christmas season. If you’re into liturgical traditions and things, Epiphany was yesterday and so we’re taking our Christmas decorations down today. My favorite Christmas song is called, “You Are the New Day.” There are several versions of it out there but my favorite one has a couple of stanzas I love and hold on to:

Like a breath I knew would come

I reach for a new day….

 

Hope is my philosophy

Just needs days in which to be

Love of life means hope for me

Born on a new day

 

As I said at the beginning, if you are someone who needs things to be shiny all the time this likely won’t sound very optimistic to you.

But the thing I keep repeating to myself as needed is “Proceed as though this might turn out ok.”

And that’s been an amazingly encouraging thought.

Just Begin

 

Sometimes, there is no low-impact way to begin. We have to just look for the thing that matters the most to us and move toward it.

~~~~~

“I’d like to homeschool, but I’m not sure where to start.”

“Well, probably with having a kid. Oh, you already did that part? Well, you’re most of the way there.”

~~~~~

 

“I really want to have a cleaned out room, but it’s so messy I can’t figure out what to clean first!”

“Maybe go pick up something and put it away? Then pick up something else…”

~~~~~

“I’d like to talk to other white people about how we can reduce racism amongst ourselves, but I just don’t know how to begin!”

“Have you considered beginning awkwardly?”

~~~~~

When I don’t feel at home with myself I sometimes go and sit at the art museum with Vincent Van Gogh. Fair warning: this post is likely to be equal parts middle school report and shameless fan-girling.

This is Vincent Van Gogh’s The Large Plane Trees.

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From the Cleveland Museum of Art’s website:

“In May 1889, Van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to an asylum near the small town of Saint-Rémy in Provence. His doctors soon gave him permission to paint on day excursions to surrounding fields. While walking through Saint-Rémy that November, he was impressed by the sight of men repairing a road beneath immense plane trees. ‘In spite of the cold,’ he wrote to his brother, ‘I have gone on working outside till now, and I think it is doing me good and the work too.’ Rushing to capture the yellowing leaves, he painted this composition on an unusual cloth with a pattern of small red diamonds visible in the picture’s many unpainted areas.”

So, Vincent (I’ll call him Vincent because that is how he signed his paintings and how he wanted to be known) had just moved to a new place, and from all outward accounts his life was not going too well at the moment. He had only sold one painting for money (though people sometimes took them in trade for goods or services), but he saw things and just had to paint them. This piece in particular has become important to me because he couldn’t even wait for the canvases his brother ordered to arrive. He painted it on a table cloth (or possibly a tea towel, but you get the point). He did another work using The Large Plane Trees as a guide. It looks more polished. He took more time. The Road Menders (which you can see here if you like) is beautiful, but I don’t connect to it in the same visceral way.

I took this closeup of The Large Plane Trees during a recent trip to the art museum (don’t worry…I used my camera’s zoom because getting this close to a priceless piece of art is…well, don’t do that).

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If you look closely, you can see the red and white fabric underneath the paint. It shows through in places; he really just had to paint what he saw before the moment evaporated. One of the wonderful (and, I imagine, stressful for him at times) things about Vincent is that he could not help but engage in his environment. His time here didn’t always go well, to put it mildly. But it went, and then it was gone. And by passionately engaging the world, he was able to leave us with some of the most inspiring works of art ever created.

As much as I aspire to remain present, there are times when I really do feel unable to find any point at which to pierce through to the world around me. It feels as though there is this impenetrable barrier between me and any useful thing. But I have found, more often than not, that the barrier that seems so strong bursts like a bubble the moment I touch it by doing the next right thing. I don’t mean that everything becomes fine. Please hear me. That is NOT what I mean. But there’s a reason that Lao Tzu proverb about thousand mile journeys and single steps is still being used to make cheesy (and not so cheesy) motivational posters today. Taking a single action may not fix everything, but what if it fixes something?

~~~~~

I took my kids to the park yesterday. They needed to run far and climb high and I needed to let them. In the throes of busy-brain, my plan was to find a secluded bench, read articles on my phone, and avoid talking to anyone if I could. When we got there, a lady was sitting on one of the three closest benches. E walked over and put our stuff down within easy conversing distance. Foiled! What do I do? If someone doesn’t want to talk I know how to leave them alone. But what if they want to talk to me? Do I stare at my phone and not talk to them at all, even if they are friendly? Only answer with normal person depth? What even is that?  Make small talk? I don’t think I can do any of those things! “Resting Bitch Face” is completely outside of my skill set!

After a bit of an internal sigh, I decided to poke the bubble and just talk to her, since she was kind and interesting and clearly wanted to talk to me. We ended up talking for an hour and a half. We talked about marriages and divorces and deaths of old relatives and young children. There are lots of things I can’t do. But sitting with people and really caring about what they say to me? That’s one of the things I sometimes do really well.

~~~~~

It doesn’t matter if you know exactly how it will turn out. It doesn’t matter if some of your source materials show through. It doesn’t even matter if your brushstrokes look nonsensical to the Muggles around you. Just begin.

Operation Chin Down: Losing Your Mind to Find It

It’s come to my attention that my preferred mode of processing is Quickly and All at Once. I think about things thoroughly, and have a hard time letting something rest until I’ve really processed it. So with something life-changing like heart surgery in the family, what I really want to do is to completely shut down for at least a week. Except I still homeschool my kids. I still have to drive places, make the meals, do the laundry, take the dog to the vet, call the doctors, fight with the insurance company, etc. etc. etc. (etc.). Life doesn’t stop because I’m a mess. Still, I’ve realized that in order to move forward, I need to prioritize being a mess for a while.

When E was a baby and I had postpartum depression, a really smart friend told me, “you have about a hundred hours of crying to do about this. If you work really hard at it, you could be done by the fall.” That was such good advice. The point isn’t to keep track of how long or how many tears. The point is to frame this time as long and intense, but not permanent. It’s a tunnel, not a dead end. There may be cave-ins and things that have to be dug through, but if you keep going there’s light eventually.

I’ve kept my chin up. My chin, literally and metaphorically, hurts. It’s time to stop trying to hold it up all the time.

So I present, mostly for my own benefit (if you’re reading along please note that these are my rules and aren’t meant to apply in a broadly prescriptive sense):

Operation Chin Down: The Ground Rules

  1. By all means, make a few terrible decisions. Allow them to remind you (usually by the lingering bad feeling afterward) why you make good decisions most of the time.
  2. Own your selfish, unhelpful thoughts. Recognize them. Just don’t always act on them. Tell your partner you don’t want him to go play cards on a Sunday afternoon, when he watched the kids all morning so you could get out by yourself. Then tell him he should absolutely go anyway because he deserves a break too and because you’re overwhelmed, but you’re still a grownup.
  3. Repeat after me. “No, Dear Daughter, I don’t want to play Monopoly right now.” In point of fact, I never want to play Monopoly. Ever. It sucks away a little of my life force every time I even see the box. Someday I may again have the patience to play anyway, but today is not that day. Don’t say this part out loud.
  4. Create and listen to a playlist of empowering songs that encourage you to feel whatever you feel and not apologize for it. Do NOT listen to this playlist when the kids are around. They don’t need to be repeating that shit at Thanksgiving.
  5. Say curse words when you need to. It really is kind of like the steam valve on the pressure cooker. Better to curse a little than to let your head explode completely.
  6. Try to have a care where you direct your intensity. Not everyone can handle it, and not everyone should have to. People have their own stuff going on and it makes sense to establish that it’s a safe space before you just start erupting like a volcano of neuroses.
  7. You will likely make mistakes in regards to number 6. Forgive yourself. You’re doing the best you can.
  8. Be honest about whatever you think and feel about God. God is big enough to be able to handle it, and won’t hold it against you. Having faith, for you, has never been about being ‘fine’ all the time. Having faith is about being able to move through things, and about being able to recognize that what you see and comprehend can not possibly account for everything that is. You’re allowed to feel bewildered and unable to form prayers. That’s what liturgy is for. “Amen” doesn’t always mean “this is how it is”. Sometimes it means, “I sure hope so.” Amen. Lord have mercy.
  9. You’re allowed to mourn the clarity that you had before all of this happened. You’ll find a way forward eventually; that doesn’t mean that you weren’t doing a good job before (thanks to my friend Sarah Wilson Belzile for that language).
  10. Go to therapy. There’s no shame in this. Find the right psychologist…you can tell it’s the right person because you can tell they get you and because you believe they are smart enough to tell you things about yourself (lots of therapists are smart enough…but not everyone will make you feel that way…that’s where the “getting you” part becomes especially important).
  11. Go to yoga.
  12. Eat all the carbs.
  13. You’re an extrovert. You have a lot of people. Ask a couple of them to come sit with you, even if you’re in a bad head space. You’ll be able to tell who can really be present in a helpful way, because they won’t need you to be smiling before they leave (it’s ok if you do smile, obviously, but the pressure to appear completely fine according to someone else’s definition is really unhelpful to the healing process).
  14. Have people around you who will tell you if they become worried you’ve gone too far off the rails. Believe them when they tell you that you haven’t.
  15. Recognize that the rules may need to change as you go. This is not failure. This is progress.

One Couch at a Time: On Crisis and Cognitive Distortions

 

There’s this episode of Friends that most older millennials or younger generation x-ers will be familiar with. If you’re not, here’s a clip (the part I’m talking about starts around a minute in). Ross has bought a new couch but refuses to pay the exorbitant delivery fee. Then this:

Ross picks up one end of the couch, then stands there watching Rachel expectantly.

Rachel: Hehehe…are ya kiddin’?

Ross: Come on! It’s only three blocks. It’s not very heavy. Try it! Come on, come on!

Rachael: *lifts the couch* Oh! Oh, I can do it.

~~~~~

Living through a crisis and then trying to reintegrate back into the world is like having this moment 600 hundred times a day. It’s disorienting.

Somebody’s hungry? Oh! Oh I can do it…

Somebody needs to have their pills organized? Oh! Oh I can do it…

Somebody wants to come over and hang out? Oh! Oh I can do it…

~~~~~

A crucial skill I’ve needed during this time (as I type this we are 6 weeks out from a hospital stay and angioplasty for my 35 year old husband) has been to figure out which couch I actually need to lift in a given moment. I’m writing about it because I think maybe it applies to other times too…during times when we are prone to the cognitive distortions that come with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses, it becomes very hard to sort out what we actually need to spend our emotional energy on, and what can wait or even be disregarded completely.

It’s like standing in a store full of couches but not being able to figure out which one I’m supposed to be picking up.

~~~~~

What if my kids get heart disease someday like my husband? High Lp(a) is genetic and they have a 50% chance of having it. Not that couch.

Did this happen because I saved the bacon grease to fry eggs in sometimes? Just do the best you can with the information you have now. Not that couch.

I’m afraid I talked about myself too much to the people who cared enough to keep asking questions and maybe instead I should have…I don’t know…Not that couch.

I can’t really be there for a family I care about who’s going through a hard moment. I’m going through a hard moment too. Not that couch.

No one will like my food ever again. I love sharing food with people. Not that couch.

I spoke to a prominent physician and researcher on the phone and now I feel like he thinks I don’t care about my family’s health and maybe he’s right. He was in a movie, after all. Not that couch.

I spoke to another prominent physician and she thinks the first one is a quack and now I don’t know what to eat for the rest of our lives. Not that couch. Just eat some taquitos right now.

J’s not here. Wherever he is, there’s a 1% chance that something is going wrong with my husband’s stents. There’s a 99% chance something isn’t going wrong. Not that couch.

We are vegan now. Or something. How will we explain that to the people who thought we were vegan before because they don’t know what that word means? Not that couch.

What if he dies, and I have to support my family and homeschooling doesn’t pay very much and NOT THAT COUCH.

S has three cavities. None of us have ever had any cavities before. Why did this happen? Did I give my family heart disease AND poor dental hygiene? Not that couch.

S has three cavities. I should call the dentist to see about getting them filled. Yes. This couch. Do this thing.

~~~~~

If you’re struggling, I really hope you find the resources you need to pick out your couch from the sea of couches in the crowded store. I know it’s so hard. But if I can do it, that gives me some amount of hope that you can too.

Be the Lady in the Minivan You Want to See in the World

I had a rough week a few weeks ago. My Stuff just got so big and I had a hard time dealing.

This is just part of my process. I know what to do, and I know who my people are (I have a lot of people). So it’s going to be ok. I want to tell you a story though.

One of the Things I Can Do is to go to yoga class. Because having someone remind you to breathe for an hour straight is SO HELPFUL when it feels like you’ve forgotten how. So I took myself to a yoga class at Abide Yoga because I called them the morning after a bad night and had approximately this conversation with H, Yoga Studio Owner and Kind Phone Speaker:

K: Do you have any yoga that’s good for….anxiety….? I mean, I’ll be ok but right now I’m just…ugh…
H: Yes. Please come here.
K: Are you sure? I might cry. I’ll try to be quiet though. Because yoga.
H: Just come here. It’ll be ok.

So I did. After an hour of steady reminders (I did cry, and it was ok), I felt like I could breathe well again. I headed home in my van.

There’s a neighborhood I cut through to avoid the lights on the main streets by my house. I arrived at an intersection where there is no light, but it’s close to another light which was red and cars were lined up. I began to edge into the street to turn left.

A lady in a metallic blue jeep laid on the horn and started yelling at me through her open windows. “What the F*%< do you think you’re doing? STOP!” For her sake, I kind of hope she was just having a terrible day. But I digress.

I was…caught off guard. I called out feebly, “But…the light is red…” She was not convinced. She continued to yell while pulling directly in front of me and sitting there, middle finger extended angrily, until several seconds after her light turned green. Then she pulled away.

What the what?! I thought…but then I looked at the lady in the grey minivan behind her, who had watched the whole thing. She shrugged at me, gave me a kind smile, and waved at me to go in front of her.

I drove home, bemused.

I went back to yoga that afternoon because Abide was having a special day of free yoga for their first anniversary, because my husband is awesome and played with our kids all day, and because I still needed to remember to breathe more. After class was over, I told them the story and said, “Thank you for being the lady in the van today.”

Sometimes the world seems full of stress. It feels like one big middle finger. Ladies in metallic blue jeeps will yell at you, figuratively (and sometimes literally!) speaking. But if you look hard, after that, you can often find well-placed acts of loving kindness. A glass of water. A kind word from a friend or stranger. A yoga class. If you are stressed or otherwise unwell I hope for those things for you, and I hope you are given the grace to see them. It really makes all the difference.