Calling it a smile does not do it justice.
All human beings smile – at a joke, to be polite, upon seeing a friend.
You don’t just turn up the corners of your mouth.
Dimples appear in your chubby cheeks, like the imprints of angels’ kisses.
Your tongue peeks playfully from your wide, toothless mouth.
Your nose crinkles almost imperceptibly, making space for the happiness that takes over your face.
You cannot speak, or even laugh, but when you look at me with joy the rest of the world falls silent.
Our noisy home, our busy lives, our troubled world, all stands still when your face lights up with what is too brilliant to be called simply a smile.
Thank you for shining your light on me.
It is the best of times, it is the most exhausting of times. Those first few days and weeks home with a new baby are never quite the fairytale we anticipate, or that we see on diaper commercials. Even those of us who have been through it once – or twice – before suffer from “mother’s amnesia” when it comes to the tough stuff. As we unpack the boxes of baby clothes in the weeks leading up to our due date, we coo over the tiny socks and imagine the snuggly cuddles of the little being who will soon fill those footsie pajamas. However, we do not seem to remember how quickly that sock will lose its mate or how many times those pajamas will need to go through the wash after a pee/ poop/ spit up incident. Some things come back quickly, like how to use the bathroom with a small person in your arms, but others take time, like how to avoid being peed on during diaper changes.
For my family, the biggest surprise when our baby boy came home was how much he cried and how loud it was. For the first few days, my four-year-old kept saying over and over, “I just don’t understand how such a small person can make such a big noise.” My two-year-old puts her hands on her head and complains that her baby brother is hurting her ears. Trust me, I can relate. He is usually over my shoulder, screaming directly into my ear. I would swear my first two children didn’t cry this much, maybe because I was able to give them more attention so was more responsive to their needs, but it is equally possible that I’ve simply forgotten. I definitely forgot how anxiety-inducing a newborn’s pain cry can be. His little face scrunched up, his body contorted, makes him the image of innocent suffering. Even when his discomfort is only caused by congestion or gas, my inability to soothe him is sometimes more than I can bear. Occasionally, we both end up crying.
In addition to the usual challenges of having a new baby, there are also difficulties
that could not have been anticipated. The day after my son and I came home from the hospital, my two older children woke up with fevers above 103 degrees. In the days that followed, my big kids wanted nothing more than to hug and touch their baby brother, so my husband and I had a full-time job trying to keep their germs away from our vulnerable new baby. I tell myself that we are all stronger, physically and emotionally, for having gotten through those tough first days as a family of five. Deep down, however, I suspect such challenges may be the rule, rather than the exception, in the coming year.
Despite the tears and tiredness, my month at home with my three children has been wonderful. I enjoy each of them so much and I’m very grateful for this quality time together. I am also incredibly thankful for the village of friends who have supported us as we adjust to life as a family of five. With my maternity leave half over already and “real life” looming on the horizon, I know I will need to continue practicing asking for help and leaning on those who offer a shoulder in the year to come. To muster the courage to do so, I look back on an affirmation I grew up with and which I still recite every year at Thanksgiving:
Let us be grateful when we are able to give, for many do not have that privilege.
Let us be grateful for those who share their gifts with us, for we are enriched by their giving.
And let us be grateful even for our needs, so that we may learn from the generosity of others.
I am so thankful for this new little man in my life and in our family, and I am working on feeling gratitude for the opportunities for growth he presents.
We have all heard of “pregnancy brain” and I’m pretty sure it’s been around since before there was science to confirm it. I can imagine ancient cave woman explaining to their partners that they forgot to tend to the fire because they were out hunting for herbs and it completely slipped their minds. Through my three pregnancies, I certainly found that my ability to multi-task was greatly reduced. There were also unexplained and temporary gaps in my memory, such as how to find my way to a friend’s house that I had visited many times before.
A Mother’s Day article in Wired Magazine presented new scientific evidence that pregnancy and childbirth change a woman’s brain and body, not just during pregnancy and its immediate aftermath, but for the rest of her life. These are dramatic and perhaps irreversible changes that may affect who she is and how she functions in the world. A woman’s brain shrinks during pregnancy, and new research shows that this reduction in gray matter persists more than two years after she has given birth, suggesting that change may be permanent. The affected area is in the front of the brain, believed to help people understand the minds of others. Scientists suspect the brain changes help mothers bond with their children. They could also benefit mothers in the long-term; one scientist found that rodent moms are better at mazes that their pup-less peers.
Additionally, a fetus’ cells enter its mother’s body through her bloodstream, and may remain there for the rest of her life. These cells become a part of the mother, integrating into her bones, organs, and even her brain. In studies of rodents, mothers of male pups had neurons with Y chromosomes in their brains. It is unclear if these fetal cells benefit the mother or cause harm, but there is increasing scientific consensus that bearing children forever alters a woman’s mind and body at the cellular level (and of course, on the macro level, too – I will never wear a bikini again!).
Parenthood is one of life’s transformative experiences, altering who we are, inside and out. Two weeks late but better late than never – Happy Mother’s Day!
Moreover, I enjoyed the way I moved in the world when I was pregnant. Strangers would congratulate me, offering unsolicited blessings (and advice). Doors were opened, seats on the train vacated, inquiries about why I wasn’t at church / the gym / happy hour abated, and my normal activities – be it walking to work or having friends over for dinner – suddenly seemed herculean. I felt like a kind of superhero; even as I held a full-time job, cared for my family, stayed in shape, etc., I was also growing a new person. This constant multi-tasking appealed to my need to be productive, while also giving me permission to indulge in some rare downtime.
That was then. From the beginning, this third pregnancy was different. My husband and I did not tell anyone for months, and did not “go public” until I was already in my third trimester. Our reluctance to share our good news (indeed, this was a desired and intended pregnancy, so we thrilled from the start) was not for fear of a miscarriage, but due to a sense – more on my part than my husband’s – that by now, no one really cared anymore. Especially at work, where I will have had three kids in four years, I am afraid of being seen as “the pregnant / pumping one,” just a baby-making machine. Instead of glowing with pride when telling people I’m pregnant, this time I feel a bit self-conscious and hastily add, “This is the last one.” No one has accused me (yet) of over-populating the Earth (though I’d point out that someone has to have 3 kids to maintain a replacement rate of 2.1), but I do feel a bit irresponsible. After all, I’m the sole breadwinner for my family of four and we are barely making ends meet as it is. But my children are my greatest joy and I cannot think of any better use of my limited resources than to introduce one more to make the world (especially my world) a better place. Read more…
When I first arrived in South Africa in 2004, I refused to heed the safety warnings of friends and strangers. Of course, I had been told repeatedly not to walk around by myself, but walking the five blocks from the University to my guest house through a residential neighborhood in broad daylight seemed perfectly safe to me. A few days in to my time in Pretoria, however, a man in a pick-up truck pulled up beside be and insisted that I get in and let him drive me home. There was no way I was getting into a truck with a strange man – I wasn’t that naïve! The stranger was persistent, however, and followed me even as I picked up my walking pace. Finally, I agreed to ride in the bed of his truck to my guest house.
Not long after, I moved in with my boyfriend’s family so that they could keep an eye on me because my nonchalant behavior made my boyfriend (now husband) fear for my safety. I was jogging in their gated and guarded community one Sunday morning when a family stopped me on their way to church and begged that I please let them take me home. It seemed ludicrous to me, but I relented, and in the car they explained they were concerned I might be killed for my discman (remember those?!?).
A few weeks later, my boyfriend and I went to a BBQ (“braii” in South Africa) at his friend’s house in an affluent suburb. That evening, his friends were neither surprised nor terribly upset to discover that the car we had driven there in (belonging to someone’s mom) had been stolen out of the driveway. When I demanded that we report the theft, the police were similarly blasé and simply told my friend they’d keep an eye out for her mom’s car, but not to hold her breath.
Suffice it to say, while I fell in love with the people, culture, foods, and nature of
South Africa, I never did get comfortable with the general sense of constant insecurity that hangs over the country (and particularly affluent whites). Despite my half-dozen visits over the thirteen years since, and the improving security situation in the country, I continue to find the preoccupation with safety off-putting.
During a prolonged visit in January, my husband’s friends, now all young professionals with mortgages, nice cars, and retirement accounts, spoke of little else. One dreamed of moving to a community where the homes, shopping center, school, and other amenities were all contained within multiple layers of guarded gates. Another mulled whether a much longer commute would be a reasonable price to pay for a home on the outskirts of town rather than potentially expose her family to theft and violence in one of Pretoria’s most affluent neighborhoods. While my friends brag about their solar panels, in-law suites, and smart appliances, my husband’s South African friends were proud of their multi-layer alarms, video surveillance systems, and comprehensive insurance policies. The South Africans gave my husband and me a lot of grief about the current political situation in America, but I came home with a renewed appreciation for the many things we do not need to worry about on a daily basis – like our cars being stolen or our children being kidnapped.
The weather and wildlife were spectacular, but yet again, another adventure abroad has reaffirmed what I discovered long ago: The more I travel, the more patriotic I become.
It is almost automatic to wish friends, family, even strangers “peace and joy” at this time of year. These conditions (for they are more than fleeting emotions) are universally regarded as among the most desirable things in the world. More than just a Hallmark greeting, even the Bible repeatedly refers to these as the ultimate blessings in life (i.e., see Romans 14:17: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing.”). But what do we mean when we casually toss out these well wishes? Read more…
As with most things in my life, this post is late, but I still felt it was worth writing. There are many, many things I love about living in Washington, D.C. (or, since we moved to the ‘burb last year, “the greater D.C. Metro area”). On a fifth-grade field trip, I fell in love with the grand buildings, world-class (mostly free) museums, abundance of open space, ease of movement, wealth of cultural and social offerings, diverse and driven population, interesting work and volunteer opportunities, and general sense that important things are happening here. I don’t even mind the weather – autumn is so beautiful!
Living in Washington, D.C. has one major downside, however – the dearth of family nearby. My parents and sister (and her family) live within a few minutes of each other in Southern California (almost 3,000 miles from me), while my husband’s sister lives outside London (more than 3,700 miles), and his parents are on the tip of the African continent (8,000 miles away). For my daily life, that means there’s no one to watch my kids sleep while my husband and I attend a parents’ meeting at my son’s preschool, or invite us over for dinner to give me a break from cooking, or pick us up from the airport after a long flight. Yes, I know there’s Urban Sitter, Grub Hub, and Uber, but paying someone for a little extra support is just not the same. Read more…
Parenting is a marathon, not a sprint (although it definitely feels like running at full speed most of the time!). Even so, there are moments that stand out as being particularly difficult – like a steep hill around mile 19. These “moments” can last for days, as in a painful new tooth or stomach bug, or even weeks, in the form of a new baby or major relocation. In those trying times, we parents need to dig deep to maintain our perspective (and sanity!) to hold tight to the values we care about and let everything else slide. Sometimes, however, a rough patch is merely a moment in time, a fleeting instant where we are unexpectedly faced with a choice about what kind of a parent we want to be.
Last week, I was on my own with both kids after a long day of work. They had both been truly delightful evening – watching a new roof go on our neighbor’s house, reading books, playing nicely together and independently, and finishing their dinners without a fuss. When my 3-year-old asked if he could practice writing his name, I was proud of his initiative and quickly got him settled with a piece of paper and colored pencil. Of course, when his 1.5-year-old sister saw him drawing, she wanted to do the same. I duly chose a crayon for her and taped a piece of paper to a drawing board on the floor for her. With both kids scribbling furiously, I felt safe leaving the room to call a friend while washing the dinner dishes. Read more…
Forgive me, in advance, for this brief rant about my frustration with our American need to feel guilty about things that bring us pleasure. I’m not talking about activities that could hurt yourself or someone else – adultery, violence, gossip, stalking, etc. Rather, I mean those people who always say, “My Sunday evening bath is my guilty pleasure,” or feel the need to justify their love of Justin Bieber’s music. Even if you find joy in a morning croissant or an after-work martini, which are technically not healthy for your body, if they help you get going or relax, then why feel guilty about it? Life is too short.
To lighten the mood on stressful days, my boss likes to bring up pop culture – a new TV show he’s hooked on, a popular song that’s stuck in his head, or some celebrity scandal. I don’t have cable and watch almost no TV, I listen to podcasts rather than the radio, and for the most part, I am oblivious to celebrity gossip (except those tidbits covered by The Skimm, which I am addicted to). For a long time, my boss was frustrated that he could not connect with me on these “water cooler” topics. “How is it possible that you’ve never seen ‘Homeland’/ heard twenty one pilots / watched Jimmy Kimmel?!?” he’d exclaim with exasperated incredulity. In response, I would calmly explain that I only get 60-90 minutes a day to myself, and that I try to be judicious in how I spend that precious time.Then one day, my boss started telling me how upset his wife had been about a twist on the previous night’s “Bachelor” episode. I frantically plugged my ears and begged him not to spoil it for me, as I hadn’t seen that episode yet. He was flabbergasted to discover that I am a diehard fan of “The Bachelor” franchise (I have watched every single episode since it started in 2002). Since then, my boss loves to try to shock our colleagues and clients by revealing what he calls, my “guilty pleasure.” I protest, however, that I do not feel at all guilty about it and do not see it as incongruous with who I am or how I live my life. Read more…
Last year, during National Breastfeeding Awareness Month, I wrote about the business case for supporting “nursing mothers” at work. Two years before, just six months into my (now 3.5-year-long) journey in breastfeeding, I wrote that “[o]f all the new baby myths, one of the most harmful (in my opinion) is that breastfeeding is an easy choice.” As the mommy blog universe lights up with posts extolling the virtues of breastfeeding and those who do it this month, I feel compelled to again offer an alternate (though not contradictory) perspective on this issue that is – literally – near to my heart. Read more…