"I often wonder how you can find time for what you do, in addition to the care of the house; and how good Mrs. West could have written such books and collected so many hard works, with all her family cares, is still more a matter of astonishment. Composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb."~Jane Austen in a letter to her sister Cassandra, 1816

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Cotton Candy

“What a nice day!” Girlie seems thankful to be out of the house and alone with me in the car. Even though we’re only going to Target to stock up on baby supplies, our errand is an exciting adventure. I turn off the radio.

“You’re right! It’s beautiful out. I don’t see any dark clouds in the sky.”

“I’d like to eat a cloud!” Girlie chuckles.

“Actually, clouds are made of frozen water droplets. They’re where we get our rain from.” I am a good science teacher, but I have broken her playful mood.

“Rain makes everything grow.” Girlie keeps up her end of the conversation, repeating a line from a favorite book of ours, Katie and the Sunflowers.

I’m trying quickly to think of some fun way to describe a cloud. “Actually, clouds kinda look like cotton candy!”

“What’s cotton candy?”

“It’s like eating a cotton ball. It tastes very sweet.”

“Is it your favorite?”

“Nooo… it’s a little too sweet for me. We’ll have to get some for you so you can try it. They have it at the State fair. We’ll go there in August, after the baby is born and after your birthday.”

“Okay. What color is it?’

“I think it comes in pink and blue.”

“Do they have purple?”

“I don’t think so. I’ve never seen it in purple. I know it comes in pink and blue. It comes on a paper stick. Remember the swords we made at preschool out of rolled up newspaper? That’s how the stick looks.”

“I would like the purple,” Girlie says with determination. She sucks on her thumb audibly like she is tasting something for the first time and isn’t sure whether or not she likes it.

“How do you eat it?”

“You take a bite and it melts in your mouth. It dissolves. It feels kind of … papery in your mouth.”

“Oh. Like eating paper?”

“Nooo… it melts in your mouth … kinda like ice cream.”

“Oh.” She sucks her thumb contentedly … now satisfied.

About a week later we see a picture of cotton candy in a book we are careening through before naptime.

“Look! That’s cotton candy!” I point.

Girlie sucks her thumb, tired from the day at preschool. She has apparently forgotten all about cotton candy.

Oh well. I am glad that it appears likely that she actually will nap this afternoon.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Outside In

We’ve got cherries! Lots of them. They’re the sour variety but juicy and tasty nonetheless. Thanks to a cool and rainy spring, the boughs on our big cherry tree are dripping with fruit. Although the prior homeowners planted too many trees too close together along our fence line, including several each of magnolias, ornamental pear, and oleander, the two cherry trees – one skinny and one big and full - have been such a treat.

Last year we laboriously climbed ladders to tie strips of foil around the cherry branches to try to fend the birds away. It didn’t work and we only harvested one bowl of fruit. But this year, the children have been ON TOP of the cherry crop. Girlie notified me the first day the cherries started turning pale pink. She quickly instructed Toddler on how to pull them down off the trees. For a couple days, I tried telling them, “They’re not ripe. We have to wait until they turn bright red.” In vain. The children are gleeful. They run to the big cherry tree as soon as I admonish them to go in the backyard and play already because they are driving me crazy.

I worry that poor Toddler has a store of cherry stones piling up in his stomach, but I am not so worried that I make further efforts to stop them. I am too thankful for some peaceful minutes in which to assess the pantry and freezer for ingredients for dinner. Tonight Toddler runs in from outside proudly bearing a cup of sand above his head, “Dirt!”

“Oh wow! But the sand stays outside, remember, Daddy said?” Toddler trots the cup back through the living room and out the open sliding door only to return a few minutes later with a different cup of sand. Later, Girlie brings me an exotically named soup of grass and rocks. “Mmmm … lovely, but please bring that back outside. We don’t want to get ants.”

I have spied ants traipsing across the living room carpet, but am not overly alarmed because they don’t seem to be marching very purposefully - yet. I know the carpet is overdue for a professional cleaning. We’re trying to keep up the vacuuming, now that Girlie finally is no longer scared of the vacuum and Toddler actually likes it. But there very well could be a half-eaten hot dog under the couch or something. I can’t bend down these days to look under there.

Truth be told: the ants don’t bother me. They can’t hurt us. They have construed the open sliding door and crumbs on the floor as a dinner invitation. I am not knocking myself out housecleaning these days (not that I ever have). We are too busy picking cherries and appreciating what we can of the little nature left in our lives.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mommy on the Brain

I’ve gone to Babyland and returned four years later, like I was off at college, but it was the reverse of college; it was a beautiful forgetting, an existence outside my mind where I have become the mommy animal, allowed my instincts to dictate the survival of my kids, my family, here in suburbia. It is sometimes lovely to forget my adult, pre-kids, self while playing in the sand box, but I have realized lately that I need my former life of mind too. Without it I become more and more selfish with my time and with my body.

I first heard the term “mommy brain” soon after having my first child when a friend remarked that she was surprised I remembered her child’s birthday. Forgetfulness is an oft-cited pregnancy symptom. But according to babycenter.com, the research on mothers’ memory during pregnancy is mixed. Some studies have found evidence of memory deficits among expectant mothers, while pregnant women in other studies performed just as well as non-pregnant women.

Other research suggests that our mommy brains are mischaracterized as forgetful. Actually mothers acquire new brain circuitry during pregnancy to facilitate the increased demands of mothering. In an April 24, 2005 interview with Time, Katherine Ellison author of The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter, described research by Craig Kinsley and Kelly Lambert, two Virginia neuroscientists, who found that the brains of pregnant rats showed a proliferation of dendritic spines - the parts of neurons that reach out and form synapses, necessary for new learning.

For writer Leanna James, these extra dendritic spines form an alternate brain. In her essay entitled “Mother-Brain” published in Brain, Child’s “Greatest Hits” from its spring 2000 to spring 2003 issues, James says that from the moment she found out she was pregnant, a

“new brain started to grow, the one I have now. I don’t mean I got a replacement brain – that sounds like a Frankenstein experiment. No, it’s a separate brain I’m talking about, a parallel mind that lives alongside the original… This mind is linked with my breasts, my ears, my mouth, and my belly. I grew as my daughter grew, and began speaking to me the day of her birth. ‘Do this,’ it told me, when the strange, impossibly tiny being howled in the middle of the night, or wouldn’t nurse, or couldn’t breathe.”

Although it is empowering knowing that, as women, we have this vitally necessary nurturing capability, sometimes I want to turn off my mommy synapses and just be me again. I woke up last Sunday in tears, “the Sunday freak out,” as hubby and I call it. Usually he feels it the worst on Sunday evening, anticipating the impending separation from me and the children the next morning and facing some looming deadline at work. But this time I was the one freaking out. The day stretched ahead with no time for me in it. There would be breakfast then church then an activity for the kids then lunch then their nap time (when my pregnant body has to rest too) then snack time then making dinner then getting them ready for bed then my mandated rest time again. We found a solution. We moved church to the afternoon so we could have a leisurely breakfast with both of us chipping in to prepare it. Then we both took the kids to the park and then each of us took one child and ran one errand. Neither of us got me time – I didn’t get to work on my writing and hubby didn’t get to go for his run – but at least we got some chores done.

I am thankful that I have been able to stay home with my young children. I have relished the experience of giving myself completely over to motherhood. But other times, I want to forget that I am a mother. I need space for myself. I look at how my mom stayed at home with three children and was happy doing it. Too, even though she had a long-held expectation for herself of being a stay-at-home mom that propelled her forward for many years, she finally needed her own time. At nearly 50, she went back to finish her college degree when I went off to college. She became a teacher.

My generation of women I think are uniquely torn. We see the value in mothering but we see the value in working too. Growing up I expected that I would be a mother one day but expected that I would work too. I didn’t begin to think through how I would accomplish both goals. I had no clue that weaving the two together would be enormously difficult.

After these four years at home with my children, I’m realizing that I need myself back now, now with my third child about to be born. It’s “the Sunday freak out” of my pregnancy and I am anticipating all the nights of choppy sleep, worry of the infant days, just hoping the new member of the family will somehow survive despite the fact that I refuse to buy a motion-detecting baby monitor that will alert me when he stops breathing. I will put the baby in his crib and hope for the best. I hope my mommy brain kicks in. But I will need my other brain too. Perhaps I will go to the computer to write after nursing the baby at 2 am. Perhaps that will be where I find my me time.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Why Blog?

I’ve been late to the technological revolution. I finally got a cell phone in 2006 before my first child was born because it seemed like a safety necessity. I don’t have an iPod (I’ve never been a much of a music person) and we still don’t have a flat-screen TV, as much as hubby would like one.

But email was a different story. I took right to it in 1994 when I was a freshman in college and quickly discovered how convenient email was as an alternate to letter writing. I had always enjoyed letter writing and was an avid pen pal growing up, with my best girlfriend from first grade who moved away to Alaska, with my next-door neighbor as her father’s government job took them from country to country, with the girls I met at summer camp who lived in various romantic-sounding Southern cities. Letter writing allowed the chance to compose myself before speaking, the chance to make a mark that, hopefully, would last. Like blogging.

I’m definitely late to blogging. I should confess that I just started reading blogs this year. The similarities of blogging with journaling interested me. I have frequently turned to journaling as a way of sorting my thoughts out when I’ve felt lost or searching, or as an emotional release when I’ve been upset by something. I’ve spent many a late afternoon in a coffee shop with my journal, gulping down a nice warm liquid and writing to a place where I felt whole again.

In her book I Could Tell You Stories, a collection of essays on the process of writing memoir, Patricia Hampl discusses the paradox that is chronicling a personal life: “The journal teeters on the edge of literature. It plays the game of having its cake and eating it too; writing which is not meant to be read.” My writing teacher this spring, Kate Hopper, recommended the book to me. I recently finished Kate’s Mother Words class, where I was introduced to “creative nonfiction” or memoir.

Unlike a journal, a blog is meant to be read. Kate and some of the other women in my class have attested to how blogging has helped them keep up their writing habit. I have had designs on being a writer from the day my high school English teacher said I had writing talent and encouraged me to major in English. After graduating from college, and miraculously getting hired for a paid full-time job, I tried waking up early to make time for writing, thinking somehow a novel would pour out of me. But it didn’t happen. I chalked it up to not having enough life experience. I figured if I was meant to be a writer I would feel that compulsion to write one day.

I started feeling that compulsion to write about a year a half ago after my second child was born. I was driven to write. I needed to find myself again, separate my pre-mommy self from the mommy self. I started several different essays on my experience of motherhood. That’s what drew me to find Kate’s class.

I have struggled with the idea of blogging. Firstly, I just don’t like the word “blog.” It’s too close to “glob,” the last way I would want my writing described. Secondly, I couldn’t come up with a good focus for my blog, some interesting hook. Naming a blog seems a lot like naming a race horse. I wanted something catchy that would honor my writing heritage, descriptive of my point of view as a writer. I came up with “Diaper Dispatch” long before I thought about starting it as a blog. I thought I would create a ‘zine for stay-at-home mommies like me, something I could pass around to the women in my daughter’s playgroup.

Actually “Diaper Dispatch” is a bit of misnomer. I don’t intend for my posts to be mainly about mothering. In this blog I’m mostly trying to hone ideas not having to deal with my role as mother. But I am, essentially, a mother now and my posts may keep coming back to that. We’ll see.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Last Weeks of Babyhood

Since I found out I was pregnant for a third time, I’ve been anxious to appreciate Toddler in the last months of his babyhood, before he gets shuffled into the middle spot among the children. He has bloomed into the role of second child.

He greets me standing in his crib with a big smile every morning requesting his sister and Daddy. Once he realizes they are not yet available for play, Toddler and I have a few precious snuggles on the couch before he is off to retrieve his trains from where Daddy carefully replaced them the night before, in one of the bright colored bins housed in a rack in a corner of our living room. Shortly he will struggle to bring me the hard plastic case of Matchbox cars that were Daddy’s when he was little so I can open it. Flexing his growing muscles, Toddler grips onto each side of the box, as if hoisting a loaded suitcase, and waddles over to wear I am pouring water in a pot to boil for oatmeal, imploring me as he makes his way across the room with “Car, car!” He exaggerates the hard “c” sound: “C-C-C car!”

Toddler’s favorite companion is his talkative, imaginative, chummy older sister who has graciously incorporated him into her play, adopting him as her apprentice. From her he has learned how to feed the dollies and play electric guitar. He also is appreciative of his sister’s instructions on how to jump off the fireplace and bounce on the couch cushions. He will ask for “EEE! E-E-EEE!” in the afternoon, after he has had his snack and played with Girlie in the backyard for a while because he knows that is when I will allow them to watch a TV program, while I try to focus on making dinner. He and Girlie sidle up to each other on the couch, plug their thumbs in, and space out for 25 minutes together. At least they are together.

Once the new baby arrives, in less than seven weeks, I’m sure Toddler will relish having a protégé, his own apprentice, to show how to get the cars to roll across the kitchen tiles, demonstrate all the play instruments, balance on the truck push toy, feed the “Bish!” Toddler is magnanimous and happiest in the rare times when we are all together. He will love having another paisano.

I’m the one who will miss his babyhood, the boy who hasn’t really given me a lick of difficulty. The boy who nursed early and easily, settled down quickly into his sleep routine, and was determined to walk as soon as his shaky legs could manage to hold up his top-heavy body at 11 months. I will miss how he places his cheek next to mine when he wants a kiss, thinks the baby toothpaste is a treat, and circles back to me regularly during his play to show me yet again with incredible wonder one of his Matchbox cars: “door!!”

I regret that, for reasons I can’t explain, I haven’t journalled my motherhood. Sheer exhaustion? Inability to boil down into words these golden days? I wrote a little paragraph describing my daughter when she was nine months old. That’s all I had until I took Kate Hopper’s wonderful Mother Words online class this spring. It has gotten me thinking and writing about my children, who have been my complete occupation these past four years. In writing them I am writing myself, recording for myself my motherhood.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Learning Judy

It’s 3:00 on Sunday afternoon and I should be at her memorial service right now. At seven months pregnant it’s not easy for me to make what would be a day trip to attend the service though. Plus there are the children to watch over. I can’t imagine them able to do much more at a memorial service than provide a little comic relief. That might prove diverting for about five minutes.

Judy started off as my husband’s angel and later became mine too. She and her law partner hired my husband before he even passed the bar. She rushed into the partner’s office after my husband’s interview and blurted out with a characteristically emphatic double shake of her head, “We are going to hire him!” Thus began a grace period in our lives: the six years that we knew Judy.

Judy epitomized all the best connotations of the word “genteel.” One felt safe in conversation with her, held kindly in the large embrace of her intellect, which encompassed art, books, outdoor romps, love for people. She had a rare gift for really listening. Perhaps that is partly why she was such a great lawyer. She was always willing to extend another person the benefit of the doubt, a byproduct maybe of her being raised in the South, in what I imagine as a slower, more polite society.

Judy came into our lives shortly before my husband and I had children. She took a keen personal interest in our well being, our interests, our society. It was so encouraging to have an older, more experienced and clearly successful person inquire into our beliefs and passions with true interest. She and her law partner were great mentors for my husband. He learned them even more than the practice of law. And, surprisingly, although I was merely the spouse of an employee, I too was folded into the warmth of their company.

The wellspring of goodness and civility that flowed out of Judy to me is a proof of God for me. That’s not to say that she was perfect. I will never forget her unshielded disappointment the day my husband left her firm. Restraint was registered on her face like a post mark. Judy and I were both practically in tears throughout the indulgent goodbye lunch she and her partner threw for my husband. We had depended on Judy to understand all our logical reasons for moving on, but it seemed as if she couldn’t forgive us. But a few months later at her annual Easter party, a grand old-fashioned affair with a hunt for the golden egg, egg toss and egg spinning contests, appearances by clients turned friends as the Easter bunny and his overgrown chicken of an assistant, scrumptious coffee cakes, sliced ham, and the same relied-upon side dishes brought by neighbors, party guests and Judy fans for over 30 years, Judy cast her tolerant gaze again on my husband and I, listened to us gush about the joys of parenting, crowed over our new little girl and generally made us to feel like the prodigals we were.

I can’t think that Judy’s death from ovarian cancer, in seven quick months, is an ending. She is all the more present now, in my memory: her way of living deliberately, working diligently, enjoying the company of others, allowing difference to mean uniqueness. I have learned her.