On Healing, God, Creativity, and Parenting a Child with Disabilities: An interview with Bonnie Peters

We published Bonnie Peters’s short story, “A Hole in the Roof,” several weeks ago. Here, she speaks with us about writing and raising a daughter with disabilities.

Bonnie PetersWhat was your inspiration for your short story “A Hole in the Roof”?

Years ago, I taught a Sunday school class my daughter Sara attended.  Mark 2:1-12 was to be the story for the week and as I read and reread the scripture to prepare, the words bothered me.  I knew the story held an important truth, but I was afraid the students and most importantly Sara would only see the literal message – that Sara or her family had sinned and the punishment resulted in Sara’s physical disabilities.

 I solved my problem the coward’s way by skimming over Jesus’ words to the paralytic and emphasizing the message of how far we might go to help our friends.   The story tells about faithful friends lifting up a full grown man to the roof of a house, and then tearing a hole through this roof to lower him to a place of healing next to Jesus.  The tale inspired me.  The words sin and forgiveness frightened me.

Not long after the Sunday school incident, Sara and I were shopping.  As I pushed my daughter’s wheelchair between racks of clothes in a department store, an employee walked up to us.  Without even a greeting first, the man offered what he must have felt was life changing advice.  “If you had more faith, she could walk.”  He no doubt meant well, but my anger at the man’s insensitivity kept me awake for many nights.

I held these two events inside until I worked them out in a story.  As always, the characters took off in their own direction.  I never resolved any major spiritual questions, but the scripture is no longer scratching at my heart.

 

I love the way you link a mother’s desperation for her daughter to be well, whole, healed with the biblical story of the friends who lowered a crippled man through the roof so that Jesus could heal them. The ending of your story has so much pathos, with your main character Anna realizing that she, too, would do whatever it took—anything—if she just knew where to look to find healing for her daughter. Can you talk a little bit about your artistic impulse in leaving this aspect of the story open to so many different possible interpretations?

 When we first adopted Sara, I had the arrogance to question how any mother could give up their child.  Because I couldn’t understand it, I wrote about it, trying to experience life from the eyes of a mother in a different place than the one I have enjoyed.  I wanted to know her emotions, her questions.  That is why I read stories.  That is why I write stories—not to tell my story, but to feel their story.  I didn’t want to tell the reader what decision Anna made; I wanted the reader to feel the pain of having to make such a choice and ask herself what decision she might have made under similar circumstances. 

 I grew up in a Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Cosby Show type family.  It is easy for me to love God as my Father because I have a fabulous human father that I honor.  It was easy for me to adopt and care for a child with severe disabilities because I grew up with a mother that nurtured and loved me.  As an adult, I also had support all around me, the support necessary to cope with the not so normal aspects of parenting a child with disabilities.  My husband and I had everything we needed to walk, climb, and lift another person to some level of healing and comfort, and that is what Jesus expects us to do.

 

As a teacher of teenagers with disabilities, and as a mother to a child with similar disabilities as Marah’s, can you talk about the unique challenges  a single mother of a child with cerebral palsy and possible mental retardation faces? Are there resources out there to help her?

As a teacher of children with mental and physical disabilities, I knew how difficult parenting a child with many needs would be.   And I was quite certain that I would never be up to such a task. 

My husband and I gave birth to an adorable little boy and when he was five, decided to adopt a little girl from Korea.  God had other plans and led us to Sara.  In spite of my reservations, it was love at first sight.

Sara became our daughter when she was three years old and lived with us until she was twenty-four. She has spastic cerebral palsy that involves all four limbs and is also mildly mentally challenged.   At first, Sara only had a vocabulary of ten words.  But competition with her new brother caused rapid growth in her expressive language abilities.  She learned to speak so she could tell her brother what to do or not to do and then tell on him when he wouldn’t comply with her wishes.  As with all children, you laugh, you cry, you are amazed, you are sometimes even horrified by the things they do and say.  I think these moments are intensified with children who have disabling conditions.  Sara has inspired me, energized me, frustrated me, and exhausted me. 

With her big hazel eyes, thick brown hair, and a beautiful smile, Sara could and still can charm the most hardened personality.  When tickled by something, she laughs from her belly.  When Sara is angry, she can scream with a pitch just shy of breaking glass.  She is a master manipulator, very observant of details, and has bionic hearing when it comes to things you don’t want her to hear.  She loves to know what is going on in everyone’s lives and then tell everyone else.  I learned to not skinny dip in my backyard pool ever again if I don’t want Sara’s entire elementary school to hear about it.

 I didn’t find the challenges of parenting a special needs child too daunting early on.  For one thing, I knew our daughter had cerebral palsy before she was our child, so there weren’t any expectations shattered.  I also didn’t carry the guilt many mothers mistakenly feel after giving birth to a child with disabilities.  Because Sara was a special needs adoption, financial support had been set up for us even before the adoption took place.  If Sara had been born to me, I would have had to seek out and maybe even fight for the financial help.

I don’t want to sound like it was an easy twenty- one years while Sara lived with us.  It wasn’t.  The stress of constant care-giving built over time.  Sara was tiny for her age, yet the necessary tasks of diapering, dressing, bathing, and lifting her from one position to another quickly became exhausting even with the help of her father.  At ages three, four, five, even six – it wasn’t much of an issue.  By the time Sara was a teenager, I was building up some muscles and tired of wiping her butt.

When I worked, I had a part-time helper assist me in the afternoons.  Still, I had to take time off to drive Sara to appointments at orthopedic clinics, neurology clinics, and wheelchair clinics. Sara had physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy.  So far she has needed six major surgeries with week -long hospital stays and two or three outpatient surgeries.  The home care after the surgeries was often brutal.  I found myself sobbing uncontrollably after spending too many nights of getting up every two hours to change her position and/or to clean diarrhea out of the half-body cast the doctors had bound her in. 

 Sara became the major focus of our lives.  She had to be.  We made time for our son, but probably not as much time as we would have had his sister been more physically able to do things.  Family vacations had to be limited to ones that didn’t include hiking, biking, kayaking, or going anyplace lacking in wheelchair accessibility.  Otherwise, one of us needed to be left behind, making the vacation a little less family oriented. 

Wherever we went, Sara was given plenty of positive attention.  A cute little girl in a pink wheelchair is not a threat or scary to even young children.  People were very accepting, accommodating, and helpful the majority of places we went.  They often went out of their way to speak to her, tell her how cute she looked.  

I still remember the time we attended a county fair.  Alden wanted to win one of the huge stuffed animals and tried many times at various booths—penny toss, shooting range, balloon busting, etc.—but only managed to win a tiny plastic toy.  My husband and I gave him the “you can’t win them all”, “the fun is in the playing, not the winning” talk and he was buying it until one of the carnies took pity on Sara.  She had also been playing the games with a lot of help from her dad, but still hadn’t come close to winning even the smallest of prizes.  The man at the penny tossing booth gave Sara one of the coveted bears, a brown teddy as big as she was.   Alden smiled, but I could see how invisible he felt. 

Life is much easier now.  Sara moved to a group home four years ago at the age of 24.  Her home is next to the school where I teach and we see each other a couple of times a week.  She manages to text or call me a couple of times a day, and attends all family and holiday gatherings.  

We—myself, Sara’s father, step father, brother, step siblings, and the extended family- are all so thankful to have Sara woven tightly within our lives. The difficulties have only made the fabric of our existence richer, rarer, and more luxurious.  But I am well aware of how much easier our journey with Sara has been because of the support system we have been graced with. 

 Do I understand how Sara’s mom could make the decision to give her up?  Yes, I believe I do.   My heart breaks for all the Annas out there living in circumstances that require them to even consider giving up their child.  I applaud their bravery and their sacrifice for making a selfless choice, either direction they take.

Did you worry about how Alden might have responded to your choice to adopt a child with disabilities, given how that rearranged the focus of your family?

I worried about Alden feeling slighted until he showed me a paper he had written his senior year in high school.  Alden was asked to write about the most important year of his life.  He wrote about the year we adopted Sara, 1987.

In his paper, Alden told about some of the frustrating times.  “If I felt like jumping right into something and Sara was with me, I couldn’t because of her needs.”   He mentioned the disappointing times.  “They (friends and their siblings) could play on the swings or go swimming in the pool and play basketball outside, but I wasn’t able to enjoy those things with my sister.”  But he concluded on a positive note.   “Even though there have been tough times, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  Sara has made me a better person, and I thank her for the things she has taught me. ”

Do you have any regrets about how your family responded to the challenges of raising a child with disabilities and a child with no disabilities?

Giving birth to my son and adopting Sara are two of my greatest blessings.   I didn’t and don’t always appreciate those blessings.   When Alden became a teen, I had regrets about giving birth to such a mean, disrespectful, ungrateful human being.   I questioned the sanity of anyone who even thought about having a child.  Why give birth to someone who hates you?  Sara to this day can become so frustrated and angry that she takes it out on anyone close enough to scratch or be deafened by her piercing screams.  Those are times I daydream about life without a disabled child.   But my moments of regret are fleeting.  I thank God for both of them, 99% of the time. 

What stories are you working on now?

Two months ago, my husband (Sara’s step father) and I were given the opportunity to share our home with a young man who didn’t have one.  It has already been an emotional ride, full of ups and downs and swift turns.  John and I are old enough for AARP cards and having a teenager living with us brings back feelings and fears we had long forgotten.

Our new charge has seen plenty of difficulties in his seventeen years, and his life story has motivated me to write.  I don’t know where his character will lead me.  I’m not sure if we will stick close to the truth or if a new story will appear in the writing.

I am also revising and updating a couple of young adult books I wrote years ago. 

Molly Sutton Kiefer: Poet, Mother, Resource Maven for Mother Writers and Artists

Poet Molly and her daughterYour poem “Records,” charting fertility, ends on the sweet and surprising metaphor of a cowgirl—how did you arrive at that metaphor?

I had the image of a flailing sort of surrender, a frustrated reaction to all the different sorts of white-papered journals and charts—what I was eating, what my morning temperature was, how many days since a particular pill was taken. The flap of a flag in the wind reminded me so much of that bucking bronco, which is how that image eked its way into the poem. Later, when I was pregnant, I wrote the poem “Garter”; it turns out I wasn’t completely done with cowgirl imagery.

In “Sleeping Pill” you marry fairytale to the mundane, with such lovely imagery as the beanstalk, the fire flies, nightlight. Can you talk to us about writing this poem?

Oh, whenever I count out my pills, and at my height it was over a dozen, my husband teases me about needing one of those pill-a-day organizers—I’d hold them in the creases of my hand, and I’d think to how those seeds would look in my palm each spring—the largeness, the plumpness of the beans always surprised me. I think this was the trigger. Often, when I write a poem, I just let my brain crack open and see where it goes—I love the chase of it. I also love best the poetry that connects the mundane, the domestic, with the fantastic—with rich verbs and surprising metaphor, personification.

Can you tell us about the project you run, Balancing the Tide: Motherhood and the Arts? How did you become involved and how did the project develop?

A lot of interesting things happened in the winter of 2010/2011. In December, my chapbook was published. In January, my daughter was born, after a tough conception, a tricky pregnancy, and a complicated labor (and an infection and a few months later, gallbladder surgery). I was pretty well walloped, and I was supposed to defend my thesis in May of 2011, but it just wasn’t to be. That spring, I could have easily seen myself abandoning poetry in lieu of becoming some kind of Super-Mom—keeping up with the house, teaching my daughter sign language, making sure the dogs were walked twice a day as they had become accustomed, keeping the household accounts in order, knitting and sewing her clothing, all at once, in a kind of frenzy. What was left of me? In January, I only read one book. For me, that’s unheard of. The year before, I had read easily over two hundred.

I realized I couldn’t lose that part of me, the poetry part. And I was hungry for other narratives about how people did it, but also for how people failed too. We don’t admit these things often enough—that it’s hard and we mess up, but it’s the collection of imperfections and foibles that make up our journey, right along with the best bits. It’s also an incredible excuse for me to contact artists I admire. About twice a month, I put up an interview with an artist-mama, each with the same questions, and get to learn about how she does (or did) it. It’s meant to be a space of comfort—of commiseration and inspiration.

Any desire to talk about your role as Poetry Editor at Midway Journal?

That’s been an interesting development! I edited poetry for dislocate when I was in the MFA program, and I’ve judged for the Minnesota Book Awards. I originally came onto the journal as a reader in October to help my friend out, who is also a poet and book artist. But my role morphed pretty quickly, and now I’m editing poetry for each issue. I’m excited about some of the poets we have in our line-up—and some of the poems have just given me chills. Some people are exhausted by the slush pile and I admit, when it builds up, it can feel a bit like a marathon, but what I love the most is finding that gem by someone whose work I’ve never heard of before—people whose work I want to champion and show off and read over and over again. Poems that echo in my brain long after reading them, that ought to be carried around and recited to strangers in the street. I also delight in getting poems from solicitations by poets I deeply admire. It feeds me, this work.

How do you balance motherhood, writing, and your duties as a poetry editor and interviewer?

I’m a stay-at-home-mother, much as I hate that term, and even worse—when people use homemaker, mainly to fill in that requisite box. My home is a lived-in mess. Yes, we eat together at the table, but I’m lucky enough to have a husband who is more likely to whip something up than I am. We’ll take time together to clean the house in a guests-are-coming frenzy, but my days are really spent reading to Maya and putting puzzles together and pulling weeds (and sometimes, oops, not-weeds) in the garden, etc. I think if I were teaching, which is what I did before Maya was born—recently at a university and before that, high school English—I might not have anything left for writing. Teaching and mothering are both such amazingly wonderful and exhausting occupations, and so is tending to what I consider my professional life, the life of poems. Of course, there were times when I’d get into a rhythm and would write a poem at the start of each prep period or when office hours were slow—I think that’s a big factor, rhythm.

I recently attended a reading of Tracy K. Smith at Minneapolis’ Loft Literary Center, and she was asked a very similar question (she has a two-and-a-half-year-old). She said being a mother has removed her ability to procrastinate, and I think that’s exactly right for me too.

My husband will go to sleep with our daughter (we co-sleep) and I’ll sneak back downstairs and stay up late to submit poems or read—I get into that in-and-out rhythm and can get a lot done in small spurts. I also have a very dear writing group of women, and we will have poetry dates and we’re working on a collaborative book-length sequence of poems inspired by the aubade, and having that kind of accountability helps keep me moving. I also tend to write about my subjects in-the-moment, so Pine was written as I went through doctor’s appointments and little pains and great yearning and whatnot. It’s trickier with a toddler who takes busy up several notches (she is, delightfully, a Kiefer, after all), but I’m learning to write while balancing a writing notebook on her stilled noggin or just running lines in my head over and over until I can get them down. I dream of retreat, but I also cringe at the idea of leaving her. Sometimes I’m jealous of my poet-friends as they are childless by choice or not quite ready yet, so they have a bit more geographic and time-freedom than I do, but then again, when I had that freedom, I was a procrastinator. I’m more prolific now, I think, and it’s out of necessity. If I didn’t let this part of me live, I might not be free to be the person my daughter needs me to be. It feels good, these selves.

Any mentors or favorite poems on the subject of motherhood you’d like to suggest for our readers?

Oh, I’ve read so much in preparation for sending Pine into the world—I wanted to make sure I felt I had something new to add to the discussion and was aware of others who had gone before me and are going at the same time as me. I’ve started a collection of resources I turned to on my blog . I can say I really loved The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood, edited by Brenda Hillman and Patricia Dienstfrey, Beth Ann Fennelly’s Great With Child: Letters to a Young Mother, and the work of Sharon Olds. I read “Bathing the Newborn” and “High School Senior” when I was seventeen, and Olds’ rich, savory language made her my first and to this day, absolute most favorite poet. I also really enjoyed Kimiko Hahn’s Narrow Road to the Interior and Leslie Adrienne Miller’s Resurrection Trade, which aren’t strictly about motherhood but do integrate motherhood and the body into some gorgeous poems. And Rachel Zucker with her honesty. I could keep going—there are so many good writers out there. Right now, I’m slowly working my way through Not for Mothers Only, an anthology out from Fence, and it too, is good stuff.

Can you tell us a bit about the subject matter of your chapbook, The Recent History of Middle Sand Lake?

The Recent History of Middle Sand Lake is a kind of love story to my grandparents—my paternal grandfather, who was a professor, as was my grandmother, developed a rapid and severe case of Alzheimer’s, which was startling and disorienting for me. It was the first I observed someone I really cared about disintegrate in body and mind, and there were so many understated but raw feelings there—the old love of my grandparents, the life of a man whose world was language becoming surreal, this geography that was a part of my childhood and rapidly changing. I think the body will always be a huge curiosity for me—I love anatomy textbooks. Marianne Boruch, whose work I admire, was able to take classes as a professor at her college, and she took life drawing through the art department and a cadaver lab through the medical school and came up with a sequence called “Cadaver, Speak ” that was published in The Georgia Review. I remember thinking: I’d love to do that!

Can you tell us about your current writing projects? Anything in the wings?

Writing-wise, the full-length book Pine has begun to make its way to contests and between submissions, I scrub it up a bit, add a new poem, take out a poem, add an image that came to me. And I’ve started a third collection, which is a bit wider in scope than Recent History or Pine. I’m writing poems that I consider profile poems—not persona poems, but ones that bring to life experiences of women. Verse Wisconsin just accepted one that was written in observing Hillary Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyii met the first time called “Two Women in Turquoise.” I’m interested in writing poems about women whose lives I’d want to point out to my daughter, down the line—women who were brave, in some way or another, who lived in a full, open-arms kind of way. And I’m still writing poems about mothering, but more so as a feminist—there is a poem in Stymie about the roller derby, another in Harpur Palate about a sexual harassment experience I had in seventh grade and the desire to be proud of one’s body, etc.

I’ve also got that aubade—we have a document that shuffles between the four of us, and once a month, we contribute something to the conversation, with a few rules to keep its shape. I think what they say about MFA programs—that the best thing that comes from them is the friendships and connections you make—is absolutely true. I know by reading these women’s work and by really listening to what they have to say about the work that they love, I’ve broadened my own horizons. Sometimes we’ll read a volume together, sometimes we’ll simply get together and read poems out loud to one another. Sometimes we’ll go on hikes and come back with nothing by mosquito bites, laughter, and thunderheads.

One writing-subject related development is that my daughter, who is turning eighteen months old on July 3rd, will become a big sister in February! This is very fresh news to us, and a bit of a surprise as it happened naturally, coinciding with my starting a regimen of infertility treatment, which I didn’t need to finish, it turns out. Sometimes my breath catches with how blessed I’ve been, how blessed I continue to be.

Molly Sutton Kiefer’s chapbook The Recent History of Middle Sand Lake won the 2010 Astounding Beauty Ruffian Press Poetry Award.  Her work has appeared in Harpur Palate, Berkeley Poetry Review, Gulf Stream, Cold Mountain Review, Wicked Alice, and Permafrost, among others.  She serves as poetry editor to Midway Journal and curates Balancing the Tide:  Motherhood and the Arts | An Interview Project.  She currently lives in Red Wing with her husband and daughter, where she is at work on a manuscript on (in)fertility and finishing her MFA at the University of Minnesota.  More can be found at mollysuttonkiefer.com.

Hole in the Roof

fiction by Bonnie Peters

On her first birthday, Marah couldn’t sit up, or roll over, or say “mama.” Her head wobbled like one of those dash-board dolls.

“We could suction cup her butt and stick her right over your glove box.  Kinda like that Hawaiian Hula girl Dave used to have in his old Chevy.”  Karol, Anna’s mom, laughed as she kissed Marah’s toes.

Anna had to hold her daughter’s chin while she spoon fed her a piece of the birthday cake, mashed up with the white and pink icing and a little milk.  Marah’s left eye looked at her nose whenever she tried to focus on a face.  Drool and pieces of cake pooled in the left corner of her mouth and returned there within seconds after Anna wiped it away.

 At her twelve month check-up, the pediatrician gently pushed and stretched Marah’s legs into strange frog like positions.

“Marah needs surgery to correct the scissoring.”  Dr. Allen looked at Anna and must have seen her confusion. “The tightness and crossing of Marah’s legs makes it hard to position and clean her properly. After surgery, you’ll be able to take care of her easier.” 

When Anna didn’t say anything, the doctor continued.  “We’ll wait on the surgery, but I’m writing a prescription for physical and occupational therapy that she should start right away.  Lacey, at the front desk, will give you some paperwork to fill out so you can get help with all the services Marah is going to need.”

When Anna still didn’t respond, Dr. Allen put his hand on her shoulder.  “Anna, do you realize that Marah is never going to grow up normal?  Her cerebral palsy and probable mental retardation are going to require a lot of extra support.”

Anna smiled, nodded her head, and after paying the bill and sliding the therapy prescriptions behind the last twenty in her wallet, she put Marah in her car seat and drove back home.  Words kept repeating and echoing in her head—cerebral palsy, mental retardation, surgery, therapy, not normal.

A couple of months ago, Anna had been given a pamphlet explaining the medical term cerebral palsy, but it was confusing.  So, Anna had looked up each word, first cerebral and then palsy in the library dictionary—intellectual tremors, cerebrum shakes?  Marah didn’t shake; she jabbed.  She could push out her arms and legs so hard they could pierce through you if they were swords.  Continue reading ‘Hole in the Roof’

Three Poems by Molly Sutton Kiefer

Commotion

A commotion, my twin ovaries,
disagreement of movement.
In ultrasound, one feigns shy—
longer search, slide of arm-furze
against arm, tucked away, hidden bit.
They are competing now: it’s one awful pang
after another, that Mittleschmertz, unkind gentleman.
Doubled fists insisting, that one, then another,
small fingers along curvature.

I paint the Daruma in: one black eye,
yolked in ink. They say the shucking,
the every day becomes a chore, but I disagree.

Each afternoon or evening,
whenever the sun feels brightest within,
it’s a giggling secret,
our slip and summons, and that half hour after,
following the recipe—
we’re defying gravity together.

Sleeping Pill

There’s the new one whose evening glow
speaks of dim light tucked into curled frescoes,
humped ceilings painted gold and blue, robed figures,
a barrette of sound echoing against the night. Sleep is now
castle-bound, lingering with the princess in the tower,
knight’s heart locked away against draft.
Those lozenges click in my hand, beans to count at lamplight,
perched on a spindly stool: a treasure, a promise,
a beanstalk away from here to where the air
pressure reminds you down to earth. There one goes,
little sleep-bean, firefly lighting the tunnels, breaking apart
to only the glow left, captured in a bottle,
a nightlight to keep you safe.

Records

Little record books scatter in the house,
black pen making indelible,
what was chosen the day before. Whomp
of early morning temperatures,
alarm at seven, cold tip of thermometer,
seconds tick, but I’ve fallen back to sleep anyway,
the beep will wake me again and I’ll chart,
little record book, and wonder:
should it have been another day,
did I not linger enough, should I have accepted
more work, become a cowgirl, waved
my hat in the air, little white flag?

Molly Sutton Kiefer’s chapbook The Recent History of Middle Sand Lake won the 2010 Astounding Beauty Ruffian Press Poetry Award. Her work has appeared in Harpur Palate, Berkeley Poetry Review, Gulf Stream, Cold Mountain Review, Wicked Alice, and Permafrost, among others. She serves as poetry editor to Midway Journal and curates Balancing the Tide: Motherhood and the Arts | An Interview Project. She currently lives in Red Wing with her husband and daughter, where she is at work on a manuscript on (in)fertility and finishing her MFA at the University of Minnesota. More can be found at mollysuttonkiefer.com.

Read Tania Pryputniewicz’s interview with Molly Sutton Kiefer: Poet, Mother, Resource Maven for Mother Writers and Artists.

 

Balancing Eco-Feminism, Motherhood, Anxiety and Writerdom: An Interview with Kenna Lee

Kenna Lee HeadshotWhere/when did you find support for your writing and the dilemmas you outline in “A million tiny things: a mother’s urgent search for hope in a changing climate”–read excerpt on The Fertile Source here— (the tension between one’s ideal eco-choices and practicality: ie., jumping in the roomy mini-van with AC vs. the tiny hybrid where flying elbows make better contact and a far more stressed out mother at the wheel)?

Here I have to give full credit to my ex (my wife, The Pragmatist, in the book; we got divorced just after the narrative ends). She is a dancer and we had always made her pursuit of her art a high priority in our life choices; when I began writing after our daughter was born, she was very encouraging of my need to pursue my own creativity. So she allowed me the time, when we could find it (that eternal caveat), to get a lot of the initial writing done.

The end result of your observations often drew a laugh from me as I read, for the candor, for the all-too-familiar equations and resultant equivocations you managed to nail. How did you come by the humor?

Honestly, I think I was in a state of extremely heightened anxiety, as the crumbling state of my marriage added to all the (very real) eco-concerns I talk about in the book. I was sublimating that other life anxiety into the environmental stuff, so it was really pretty extreme. And that kind of crazy anxiety is… well, funny, when you cop to it (and even funnier when you exaggerate it). I find humor in glimpsing the dark edges of life, when they aren’t sucking me all the way over the edge. So the book tries to ride that line.

Once my ex really took off and the anxiety slid into real depression, I was scared that taking antidepressants would take away too much anxiety and make me unable to write. I get all earnest and that’s just so… earnest (i.e. boring). Of course, once I realized that crying constantly wasn’t really helping me find the humor in life either, I caved. Thank god. My next book will be about getting off those pills, and the humor is in that story too, but it sure is harder to draw out.

I loved the way you gave “personality profile” names for your children that weren’t their actual names: Bright Eyes, the Percussionist, Mowgli. How did you navigate writing about your children, thinking about them reading the book later, etc.?

I definitely want to preserve my kids’ privacy as much as I can, within the larger template of broadcasting the details of their lives to the whole world. I want them to feel in control of their own life narrative, so renaming them as characters allows both them and other people to perceive a little distance between my actual real-life kids and their book selves. I don’t post photos of their faces and you can’t tag me in photos on Facebook (unless they ONCE AGAIN changed all my default settings when I wasn’t paying attention) because people will tag my name with a photo of my child and I just don’t like having their images attached to any real name. It’s perhaps my Luddite side, or maybe I’m a closet libertarian, but I want them to make their own conscious choices about exposure and privacy. As long as I can write whatever I want to write. So, the names, I feel, both illuminate the kids and obscure them a bit. (They love them, too, especially Mowgli.)

How did you balance motherhood, working, and writing? Any words of advice for writing mothers?

Yikes. I hate that I’m about to say this, but, well, I’m just too lame to come up with something more original and it’s actually true (if unbearably trite): my word of advice is “balance.” I have to continually rearticulate my priorities to myself and others, so I can remember that for me (and I know this isn’t the right order for everyone), the kids come first, my nursing career second, and the writing is third. Which is not to say that I haven’t thrown our lives into complete chaos for the last few months so I could bring this book into the world; it’s just that if getting the next marketing task done would mean I’m not available to help with homework, it’s the marketing task that doesn’t get done.

And I’m way behind on my blogging, but I’m going on a bunch of field trips this spring that are taking me far from my laptop. For me, having clear priorities lets me deal with the day-to-day when I’m feeling like I should be doing lots more to give the book its wings, and instead I’m playing catch. I interviewed one publicist and when I got off the phone with her, I just KNEW that she would make me a famous writer, but I also knew I would have about ten stress-related health conditions when we got there. So I hired a more low-key consultant who helps me but who doesn’t really understand Twitter any better than I do, which is just fine, since she takes pressure off of me instead of adding it on.

That all said, if I had it to do over, I would have taken a leave of absence from work for a couple of months (if I could have afforded it) and filled my deep freeze with easy meals or frozen pizza and hired a housekeeper and an assistant. The book launch is not the time to be pinching pennies—it’s more of a break open that piggybank and give it all you’ve got moment.

When in your process of writing the book did you realize you were writing a book? How long from start to finish and what were you the most surprised to learn as you went through the process?

Let’s see, the youngest was born just as I turned 38, and I started writing a few weeks later. It was on my 40th birthday that I admitted to myself and a few of my closest friends that I wanted to turn it into a book. And the book launched the week of my 44th birthday, as the “baby” turned 6. There were several non-productive post-divorce depression months and almost a year of waiting for my editor to have time to get to my manuscript (my brilliant and wonderful all superlative editor—it was worth the delay). Most surprising to me was simply that I was actually doing it—I barely even finished any of my college papers. So I was pretty thrilled to see myself having matured enough to follow such a big project through to completion.

In your Q and A session in Sebastopol at Copperfield’s last week, you mentioned that this book chronicles a very specific time in your life when the tighter domestic orbit of the household with three children underfoot heightened a sense of helplessness and anxiety about the world the children would inherit. You mentioned a current book project as well as an action-oriented blog. Would you share that blog link with us and talk a bit about how A million tiny things propelled you towards your second book project and your current philosophies?

Um, I also think I said I hate blogging and am not very good at it (reference above where I say I’m behind). But I do it, some. Here are the links: A million tiny things and A School Garden Year

The Million Tiny Things blog follows my meandering thoughts in general about parenting, the environment, activism (check last August’s posts for my arrest photos), and sustainability in all the various senses of the word. The school garden blog was really intended to connect parents to our school garden program and what we do there, but that’s the blog which will inform the next book as it will be about how all those moments of composting and craziness are what pulled me back into the land of the living.

As for the change in my focus, writing A Million Tiny Things helped me articulate and observe that particular batch of anxieties, and then not have to hold them so tightly. I also think it’s a natural evolution for mothers to emerge into a wider sphere as their children do, so I think it’s just a normal progression for me to be more focused on the bigger picture now. Systemic solutions, ho!

But on the way to the larger picture, I need to stop and look at the process of grieving and pain that has led me there. The first book was written as an act of service to other moms who might be feeling crazy like me and could use some company in that craziness. Then, when I was getting divorced, I immersed myself in other people’s divorce narratives as means of finding that kind of company for myself. I hope to offer my story into that library of healing possibilities; how we can connect our hopes for the earth and our children with our hopes for ourselves in a very concrete way. So some other mom who is bereft and suicidal can feel she’s not alone there, and that there’s a way out.

Any mentors you wish to share with us, or suggestions for further reading?

Oooh, yes. I adore Laurie Wagner, who teaches in-person in the Bay Area and also online. When I was just dipping my toe in the water of the writing thing, she had me write a list of what I wanted to write about, and that list could probably serve as a table of contents for the book. That reminds me, I need to get in touch with her as I think her particular style of pushing you into the truth of your story will be essential to getting me past the initial difficulties of writing a book about depression. Her site: 27 powers.

And for writing about motherhood and the environment, Sandra Steingraber’s Raising Elijah is my favorite. She doesn’t fritter away her energy on non-productive anxiety like I do.

Full-time nurse, part-time environmentalist, and all-the-time mother, Kenna Lee lives in Sebastopol, California, with her three semi-feral children and several domesticated animals. Her book, A Million Tiny Things: a mother’s urgent search for hope in a changing climate (Mole’s Hill Press, 2012) is available now through your local independent bookseller; for more information, visit her website.

Circling Loss

Creative Non-Fiction by Amber Jensen

Sunday, March 9

I thought the process of bleeding away my second pregnancy was over.  Dressed in dark jeans, wedge heels, and a fitted black v-neck that exposed the freckled skin of my chest, I bounded down the stairs in my mother’s house, surprised at the easy flight of my feet over carpet.  I can do this, I thought to myself.  I can be happy. 

But then, as I hopped down to the final stair, a clot of blood plummeted from somewhere inside me, stopping just before it escaped my body.  This isn’t over yet.  I felt my body reel back against the momentum of acceptance I had been trying to build.  My belly hung heavy, throbbing, and empty. 

With thick red threatening the fresh denim that hugged my hips, I froze at the bottom of the stairs facing a framed collage of photos from my wedding day.  I pleaded with my husband’s dimples, his squinting, cloudy eyes.  When can I leave this behind?

Then from my left I heard a deep, primitive yowl.  I turned to find the tiger eyes of my mom’s large ginger cat peering at me from his lowered head.  His whiskers extended towards me as he tracked the scent of blood. 

 

Thursday, March 6, morning

Having called the doctor, my sister, and Blake, I replaced a heavy, red maxi-pad with a weightless, white one.  I changed from blood-stained grey cotton into fresh, black lycra pants.  Then I waited.  For my sister.  For the doctor.  For Blake.  For the news.  But I already knew.  Nothing so small could survive this. 

I crawled into the living room and lined the seat of the recliner with a tan towel before climbing in.  Then I covered myself with the quilted patchwork of pink and blue calico my grandmother made for my high school graduation.  When I closed my eyes, I pictured Blake, driving home from work after receiving my call: “Can you come home?  Something’s wrong . . . Erin’s taking me to the doctor.”  His response had been simple—“I’ll be there soon.”  He didn’t ask any questions or make me say, Blake, I’m losing the baby.  He just came.  He couldn’t have known what was wrong, still, I imagined his eyes following the painted white border of the interstate over hills, around curves, and beyond the horizon, squinting toward a place in the future where everything will be all right, seeing that place like he always does, even when I don’t believe it exists.

When I felt my two-year old son squirming up under the thin weight of the quilt, I discouraged him, saying “Mommy feels sick.  George, please . . .” Then I gave in, slid my hands around his chest, feeling the ridges of his rib cage as I guided him up unto my lap.  He squeezed out from beneath the blue floral border, nestled his blonde head against my shoulder, and raised his thick-lashed brown eyes to meet mine.  Forcing a giggle, he said, “See mommy, we are happy.”  As I drank in his expression—his dark eyelashes, raised eyebrows, lips pressed into a smile—I knew he was right.  But I couldn’t admit it yet, so I closed my eyes and watched spots of light dance behind my eyelids.  I envisioned the black, plastic bag slouched beside the dresser in my bedroom.  I remembered what was inside: maternity clothes, still dangling price tags.  I told myself, We have GeorgeIt will happen again.  And even if it doesn’t . . . we have him.  I closed my eyes and rested against his small strength. 

 

Thursday, March 6, afternoon

By the time I heard the words—“we can’t detect a heartbeat”—I had already begun to move from mourning to acceptance.  Maybe this is best, I told myself.  Maybe something was wrong with the baby. 

I lay back against a stiff mattress, abdomen exposed, eyes closed.  I imagined George sleeping over Blake’s shoulder in the waiting room outside, his body ironing wrinkles into his dad’s button-up plaid.  I summoned the soft static of Blake’s fingertips circling the surface of my skin to replace the hospital sheets scratching my lower back, the hot weight of George’s sleeping body to protect me from the cold air that poured from a vent overhead.  I tried to imagine away the steel and ceramic, machines and measurement, but the slather of thick gel, the shocking cold of plastic, and the smell of sterilization grounded me there.  Eventually, the even voice of an ultrasound technician, barely audible above the hum and click of technology, commanded my attention.  “The fetus stopped growing at about five weeks.” 

Five weeks.  I inhaled the reality, felt it echo in a hollow space at the base of my throat. 

I heard the crackling static of the black and white monitor to my right and couldn’t help but look.  Its glow reminded me of my first ultrasound and the pixilated image of George’s fingers flexing across the screen, but this time I saw no hope, no miracle there.  Only fuzzy, grey flecks spitting shadows. 

When I closed my eyes to the eerie darkness of the room, my mind traveled backwards.  Five weeks.  Was the baby was still alive those nights in February, when I fell asleep under the weight of my Shakespeare anthology, when I worried that I couldn’t keep up with work, school, and pregnancy?  When I finally started dreaming about a baby girl with my dark eyes and Blake’s wide grin, was I picking out names for a lifeless child? Then as my memory moved forward, I remembered the muscle-wrenching that I shrugged off as morning sickness, the relief I had felt that my breasts weren’t swelling so much this time.  Maybe my body had been preparing me all along. 

Still, I doubted myself, wondering, Was it my fault somehow?  Should I have known something was wrong?  Then a whispered thought: Would it have mattered if I did? 

Ever since I had seen the cotton fibers of a pregnancy test swell, watched a pair of pink lines sweep across a plastic window, I had been telling myself that it was the second baby, that I was under a lot of stress with graduate school, and that it just didn’t feel the same.  Now I began to wonder, had it ever seemed real?  My stomach fluttered.

 

Saturday, March 8

For two days after the miscarriage, I perched in a nest of blankets and pillows, pressing a heating pad into my stomach as my body anchored me in loss.  As long as I had to sit still, muscles twisting around a void inside my abdomen, it was impossible to move on.  While my head moved back and forth to maintain the steady rocking of the recliner, my thoughts rolled between acceptance and guilt.  I fixed my eyes on the tan walls, striped curtains, and shadowed blinds of my living room.  I fixed my mind on facts and statistics.  Seventy percent of women who miscarry go on to have normal, healthy pregnancies.  Now, with early home pregnancy tests, we detect pregnancy so soon—before, women probably didn’t know when they lost early pregnancies.  I returned to the idea that something must have been wrong.  Maybe this was never a viable pregnancy.  Still I asked myself, shouldn’t I feel sadder?  What kind of a woman, what kind of mother, am I?

When Blake talked to his boss, his end of the conversation comforted me:  “No, actually, she’s doing all right, really good, I think . . . but you know, this happens sometimes, and really, we’ll be fine.”  It made me believe he understood, that he wouldn’t blame me for being ready to move on.  But when my own phone rang, I ignored it, trusting that my sister would tell anyone that needed to know, not wanting to convince anyone that I was fine, doing well even, not wanting them to know that my only wish was for the cramping and bleeding to end. 

You should feel sadder.  Mourn longer, I told myself.  It had only been a few days and I already felt myself wanting to move out of my chair and leave this loss behind.  I remembered my friend, Angie[1].  It was the first week of our Intro to Graduate Studies class, when we knew each other only from in-class introductions and a few minutes of casual conversation, when she scooted her chair around the corner of the table that stretched the entire length of the classroom and asked, “So, how old is George?”

“He’s almost two.”

“That’s great,” she smiled.  “Tom and I want to have children, but we lost our first baby.” 

Her voice quivered and she lowered her eyes, but she went on to explain that after the miscarriage and after beginning graduate school, she wasn’t sure when she would be ready to try again.  I felt uneasy about the personal conversation I had just shared with a near stranger, guilty about having shared stories about my son—his love of books, baseball, and trains—with a woman who wanted but had been unable to experience motherhood.

But now our roles had reversed: Angie was five months pregnant, and I couldn’t help but wonder if now, when I returned to work and met Angie in the hall, she would feel ashamed of her pregnancy, the way it might remind me of what I had lost.  I wanted her to know that the promise of her bulging belly wouldn’t bother me, but I knew I couldn’t explain.  I was afraid to discuss it because I feared my eyes and voice would betray my secret—that I didn’t feel like crying, that I really thought it was better this way. 

 

Tuesday, March 11

            It’s Tuesday, and I’m back at work.  On my desk, I discover a bulky manila envelope—sealed, no name written on it.  I pry open the metal fingers, tear back a layer of yellow, paper skin, and tip the envelope over my desk.  Out falls a lavender book.  On the cover, above the fringe of a plaid baby blanket, the title reads:  When Your Baby Dies: Through Miscarriage or Stillbirth.  A green sticky note matching the book’s soft colors carries a message from Angie. “Here is a little book that may or may not be of some use to you.  May God comfort you in your time of grief.” 

I don’t cry.  I don’t smile.  I don’t open the book.  I tuck it back into its envelope, seal it up again, and slide it under a pile of scratch paper and junk mail in my desk.  Closing the cold metal drawer, I pause to think about Angie.  Even now, five months into her second pregnancy, she mourns the loss of her first one.  Only five days have passed since my miscarriage, and I no longer think of the pregnancy I have lost as my second pregnancy.  I have erased it.  This one doesn’t seem to count.  I’ve only had one. 

It must have been different for her, I think.  She didn’t have another child to give her hope, to make her believe it could happen again, to console her in case it didn’t.  I try to imagine the desperation I would have felt if this had been my first pregnancy, but I can’t.  Maybe she needed a book to give her hope, needed to talk about it, needed to remember the baby she never knew, but I don’t.  I have George.  George, whose heartbeat echoed through a Doppler monitor, making my skin tingle months before I ever heard him cry or saw his lips opening in an awkward smile.  I can’t equate the loss of a pregnancy to his life, this emptiness to his presence.  I don’t need a book to tell me the difference.  Without opening the pages of the book or acknowledging Angie’s carefully chosen words, I wrap a fleece scarf around my neck, button out the cold, and race to class feeling convinced that no one understands, that everyone expects me to be broken, that no one believes I can be happy with what I have.

            Not until almost a year has passed, not until I have begun to write about the experience of losing a baby will I open my drawer, notice the corner of the manila envelope hidden beneath a pile of junk, and pull it out.  When I slide the book out and begin to turn its thick, waxy pages, I will find a series of prayers and stories meant to encourage and comfort me.  And I will be glad I waited to open it.

            The book outlines the “painful clichés” people fall back on when trying to comfort women after a miscarriage; these clichés—it’s for the better, there was probably something wrong, you can always have another—are the things that continue to comfort me.  The things I continue to believe. 

The book also suggests that mothers who miscarry “view the remains” whenever possible.  View the remains.  Ask a medical professional to help search for these remains.  If no remains can be found, look at pictures of a fetus at that stage of development.  This will encourage acceptance and aid in the grieving process, the book says.  When I read this, the first thoughts that enter my mind are, I didn’t need to view the remains.  I felt each clot of blood as it escaped my body and imagined in it a small mass of tissue, an undeveloped face, limbs that would never grow.  But eventually, I will become curious and search the Internet—first for information, then for images.  I will find some form of comfort in learning that the baby that passed from my body was the size of a raisin; that its heart may never have begun to beat; that like most early miscarriages, this one probably resulted from chromosomal abnormalities.  And I will allow myself to continue believing in what others may see as painful clichés.  I will not insist that others believe them, but I will hold onto them myself. 

Only then will I reread Angie’s words—“a book that may or may not be of use to you”— and realize: we doubt ourselves enough; we have no need to start doubting each other. 

 

Saturday, July 12

I am leaving the screaming, splashing chaos of the public pool with my red-cheeked son hanging limp in my arms when I see Sasha, a high school friend, emerging from the bathroom.  The olive undertones of her deeply tanned skin and the waves of blonde hair that she flips onto her back remind me of cheerleading and math class.  I begin to smile.  But then her cute paisley sundress stretching over her round belly catches my eye, reminds me that I was pregnant, that I would have been that big by now, too.  I feel a throbbing sensation in my ears. 

As Sasha beams towards me, I shift George from one hip to the other, preparing my escape.  “Look at him!  He’s getting so big,” she begins.  “Yeah, he’s wiped out—the sun and all the swimming,” I explain.  “I better get him home, down for a nap.”  We say goodbye, promise to get together sometime soon, and then I set out across the park toward home, running away from something I thought I had forgotten.  Maybe too easily, hisses a voice inside my head. 

I recognize the pursuit. 

Suddenly, I find myself back at the bottom of the stairs, sense narrowed eyes upon me, see the cat with its weight balanced on thick pads of paws, whiskers tracing the scent of my loss.  For five months I have hated that cat, but this time, as I replay the scene in my mind, I watch his muscles flex as he stands from his predator’s crouch and skulks away.  This time I realize that it is not the cat, but the woman at the bottom of the stairs that terrifies me: the way she hesitates, holds herself back.  It is the woman who pursues me, seething with self doubt. 

Not today, I tell myself, and I slow my steps until I can feel the tickle of grass reaching up over my flip flops.  I concentrate on the sleepy weight of George’s head on my shoulder, his dangling limbs bouncing with each of my strides. 

As I pass the steel structures of a play area, our duplex comes into view across the street.  I notice Blake’s car in the driveway and feel myself eager to get home.  When the gleaming yellow plastic of George’s toy loader and flat bed on the front step catches my eye, I quicken my pace.  I leave the dizzying swirl of voices, the screech of swing set chains behind.  I allow myself space.  A warm breeze rustles the leaves of the cottonwood trees, George’s soft hair flutters on my cheek, and I relax.  I am happy. 

Amber Jensen is a wife, mother, teacher and writer.  She will graduate in May with a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans’ low-residency program.  Her essays, poetry, and reviews have been published in  North Dakota Quarterly, Ellipsis, Assissi, and Terrain.org.

 


[1] The names of people outside my immediate family have been changed to protect their privacy.

April, An Excerpt from A Million Tiny Things by Kenna Lee

a million tiny things by Kenna LeeEditor’s Note: I met Kenna Lee when our children attended the same school for a stint, and “met” her again online, impressed not only with the quality of her writing, but impressed that she was working, midwiving, and mothering three children, all while “blogging to booking.” Having chosen “April” to run (pulled in by this birth chapter’s beautiful blend of the forthright and the lyrical), I realized this excerpt happens to be missing the eco-query that dominates the majority of Lee’s book.

By eco-query I mean the kind of contortions one goes through in one’s mind with children in utero, on hip, underfoot and the future (theirs) suddenly matters, as do the choices we make as consumers: wooden toys? recycled plastic? cars that run on veggie oil? worth the choir of fighting that goes on in a smaller hybrid vs. the notorious mini-van with AC?! Lee tracks these interior monologues and more, by turns relentless and hilarious, in A Million Tiny Things. I still, however, stand behind this lovely chapter as well. Enjoy.–Tania Pryputniewicz

 

Year One, April                                                                     By Kenna Lee

Bright Eye’s roses are blooming, bringing the first year of her life full circle. No, they’re not on the rose bush we planted over her homebirthed placenta, California hippie-style, because said placenta is tucked half-forgotten at the back of the freezer still, languishing in typical third-child neglect. We’ll plant it someday, when we remember, when we muster up some of those elusive items that such tasks require, namely time and energy.

No, Bright Eye’s roses have come to be called that because they were blooming when I was in labor a year ago. These baseball-sized white popcorn roses are improbably right outside my bedroom window; improbable because our house is built onto a hillside, and so my bedroom looks out into the treetops on the downslope. This particular rosebush, in order to survive, has reached up through the canopy of trees to claim its ration of sunlight. In most locations, a sky-high rosebush would be wasted, its blossoms inaccessible to human enjoyment, and from the ground below one would never suspect the exultant profusion of blooms lurking above the tree limbs. But here is my window, from which I can almost reach out to pick them, and from here, one year ago, I pondered them for many hours as my contractions became less and less manageable.

I was reluctant to leave the bedroom when I was in labor, as it’s the room farthest from the neighbor’s house, the same neighbors that called the cops, suspecting some domestic disturbance, during my last, nightmarish labor, during which my repetitive, Psycho-worthy screams let everyone know that I was definitively not a strong, silent, capable baby-haver. This time, knowing that I lacked the self-discipline to endure the agonies of childbirth quietly, I hid out in the bedroom, encouraging The Pragmatist to distract the boys elsewhere. I paced the short feet of floorspace left between the king-sized family bed, now protected by a plastic sheet tucked beneath our least-cherished bedding, and the padded turquoise birthing tub set up hastily that morning after I woke with surreal surety, announcing, “We’re having a baby today, boys.” Within this cramped space, I paced, and stopped, and moaned, and stared at the roses.

As skeptical as I’ve always been of the idea that having a focal point would make the intense pain of contractions more manageable, it worked. Probably because I didn’t plan it and wasn’t trying to focus on something, I was just, well, staring at the roses. And of course, it only worked until I reached that “I can’t do this anymore” stage which was the secret code by which The Pragmatist knew to call the midwife, even though I had expressly forbidden midwife-calling until I was really quite farther along, having gotten very tired of having a midwife around during that first, 49-hour, self-esteem destroying labor.

But by the time the midwife showed up, I had mostly forgotten about those instructions, and about the roses as well, and was just trying to imagine how anyone anywhere is able to endure torture without immediately divulging any and all pertinent information. I knew then that I would never, ever be able to become a spy, because I would have told anything to anyone if it would have made the pain stop. I became unbearably self-pitying and bossy, to which The Pragmatist responded by announcing that if I ever had another baby, she would divorce me unless I got an epidural.

I bellowed and shrieked, and the boys, playing with our friend Rachel in the kitchen, dug out the industrial workman’s ear protectors I had bought them to prevent them from incurring early-onset hearing loss from The Percussionist’s drum set, and came dancing through the bedroom to show them off. “We’re going to Rachel’s house to sleep, mom,” they giggled in my panting breaks between the contractions, “because we are tired and you… you are TOO LOUD.”

“And it would just be too uncomfortable to wear these earphone things to bed,” The Percussionist explained.

Before they even completed the five-minute drive to Rachel’s house, we’d called them to turn around if they wanted to see the baby come out, as the baby was on the way any second. They got back just in time for Mowgli to state his preference to sleep and immediately do so, and for The Percussionist to see everyone gathered around the birthtub, watching me squatting in such a way as to prevent anyone from seeing or knowing that the head was coming out, except by the fact that I was clutching between my legs and ordering the midwife to “HELP ME BREATHE NOW.”

Once the velvet head slid out under my palm, and it was a sliding motion, though that particular verb fails to convey even a slight sense of how incredibly torturous the moment was, I sat back on my haunches and announced, “The head’s out,” somehow expecting someone to do something about it, you know, like deliver the rest of the baby. But I believe I had cowed them all into such submission that they all froze, waiting for their next order, so I shrugged with intense frustration, and thinking, “for god’s sake, MUST I do everything myself?” I pulled my daughter out of me and up into my arms.

So tiny (at 8 lb, 6 oz the smallest of the three), she nestled there, wet-warm and cheesy, head out of the water, while I suddenly shed the shattering terror of laboring and embraced the more tender terror of motherhood again. The pain behind me, I could stop fighting, lay down my arms, and surrender to the awe of her first breath of air. Not the most articulate person during times of great stress, I kept breathlessly repeating, “I’m so happy. I’m so happy,” over and over, as if I needed convincing of it.

The Pragmatist and our midwife supported me as I stood to move onto the bed for the delivery of the placenta, and I paused, towel-wrapped babe in arms, noticing with intense gratitude the treetop cascade of roses hovering just beyond the window. Even now they remind me that behind pain can lurk unfathomable beauty, just as behind the burning and fear of birthing my daughter, a great healing lay within the experience of bringing her into the world with my own hands. Something that had broken in me during my first too-long, too-scary birth was put back together by that sensation of feeling her muzzle-soft crown swell into my palm, the impossibly smooth skin bloom into her face. For days, weeks after she was born, I repeated the motion, sliding my palm over her soft hair, down her temple, and in doing so I was telling myself without even realizing it at the time: that which is broken can be healed.

It is a message she does well to bring with her, accompanied as she is by my load of eco-anxieties. Her roses are blooming again, and for her first birthday, I’ve managed to pull a few down from up high to cut for our kitchen table. On her actual birthday, as if aware that I won’t be able to remember the milestone without this coincidence, Bright Eyes takes her first reeling steps toward me, my only-yesterday newborn girl, walking. I greet this new child, this toddler, with the same words I used when I first looked into her face one year ago: “Hello, Bright Eyes. I’m so happy.” Happy, and scared shitless, but still walking forward, step by careful, brave step.

Full-time nurse, part-time environmentalist, and all-the-time mother, Kenna Lee lives in Sebastopol, California, with her three semi-feral children and several domesticated animals. Her book, A Million Tiny Things: a mother’s urgent search for hope in a changing climate (Mole’s Hill Press, 2012) is available now through your local independent bookseller; for more information, visit her website.

Read our interview with Kenna Lee: Balancing Eco-Feminism, Motherhood, Anxiety and Writerdom.

 

Be Back Soon

Due to personal and professional obligations, we’re a little behind with this month’s usual Monday postings but hope to be back up and running in the next week or two. Thanks for your patience.

Spring Classes: Sexy Mommy Stories and The Poetry of Fatherhood

I’m proud to say we are nearing the final week of Mother, Writer, Mentor’s first ever on-line writing workshop, To the Cradle and Beyond, Excavating the Poetry of Motherhood. We will be offering this course again throughout the year (please check the website for our latest classes). Our next two on-line writing workshops include:

Sexy Mommy Stories: Writing Romance Back Into Motherhood

Instructor: Jessica Powers

Dates: April 9-April 30

Who says romance is over just because of baby spit up, dirty diapers, sleepless nights, and breastfeeding? This workshop is for writers who want to write romance and love stories about and for mothers. We will cover the basics of fiction-plot, characters, and theme-for beginning writers and probe deeper for writers with more experience. We will consider the necessary elements for a good romance story and reclaim motherhood as an arena for romance, sex, and, yes!, eroticism. Sign up here.

Excavating and Writing The Poetry of Fatherhood

Instructor: Tania Pryputniewicz

Dates: April 30- May 25

You’ve watched the wife’s body transform before your eyes, witnessed first-hand her incremental emotional, psychological and spiritual migration to places you may or may not be able, though willing, to follow. Your own metamorphosis, while less physically apparent, is in actuality no less arduous or multi-layered. Or you and your partner have gone through longer gestations: reams of applications, false leads, interviews and further scrutiny while attempting to adopt. Or you’ve chosen not to father, but find the words of your own father coursing through your mind. Join this on-line poetry class for a chance to mine poetry of the past as well as contemporary poems (including those we’ve published at The Fertile Source) for structural and thematic inspiration towards the writing of a new crop of poems reflecting the continuum of experiences that comprise fatherhood. Sign up here.

Baby Fever

fictional excerpt by John Rachel

 

It was the first time in their marriage that they had been apart.  Natalie had gone with her best friend from high school days and beyond, to Ibiza Spain.

When Natalie came back, she looked great.  Really great.  She had a fantastic tan.

But no tan lines.

“Don’t even think about it, Billy.  There were no men there.  We found this really private beach and went for it.”

“Does Pam have tan lines?”

“I can have her come over and you can look for yourself.”

“Let me think about that.”

“Better yet, check this out.”

She went over to her computer, plugged her camera in, and pulled up some photos of a magnificent shore, lapped by foamy whitecaps emerging gracefully from a turquoise sea.  Sure enough, there were no men.  There was one amazing shot of Natalie and Pam laying side by side on a beach blanket wearing only sunglasses and tanning lotion.  His imagination had fallen far short of how beautiful Pam’s body was. 

Natalie caught him staring, mouth agape, eyebrows arched in wonder.

“The sand is so white.”

“Right.  Like you were looking at the sand.  Hey!  I just got an excellent idea.”

She stood him up, got around behind him and playfully pushed him into the bedroom, not that he offered much resistance.

She proved for the next several days to be insatiable. 

“Good grief, Natalie.  What did they feed you there on Ibiza?”

“Dreams, Billy.  Dreams.”

Of course, they both had their work schedules.  But it seemed at least for those first few days after her return, Natalie managed to avoid any professional commitments in the evening and was there for him, ready and able to make love as often as was physically possible.

She had to catch up at work Saturday during the day but they had a phenomenal evening.  Sunday they actually had slept in a bit, the consequence of being up half of the previous night pursuing carnal bliss. 

Natalie woke first and looked at him.  Eventually his eyes opened and she cuddled up to him, placing her lips teasingly against his ear and whispered.

“Happy Valentines Day.”

“Hmm.  That’s right.  I forgot.  You got back on Valentines Day.”

“There’s something else, Billy.”

“What’s that?”

“I want a baby.”

“I think the stores are open today.  We can go after breakfast.”

“I’m not kidding.”

She wasn’t. 

They talked about it over brunch at Anna’s, as they then walked through town afterwards, during the drive through along the Hudson River and Hudson Highlands State Park, and finally that evening at home over dinner.  Billy did the cooking and proudly served a blackened dish he claimed was genuine Livorno-style lasagna, and a circular cardboard-like object which was supposed to be Sicilian pizza.

There was no doubt that they both wanted to have children.  The whole question was timing.  That they didn’t seem to agree on.

“I’m too young to be a father, Natalie.”

“No you’re not.”

“I’m only twenty two.”

“A perfect age.  You’re young, energetic, yet mature, established.”

“Like I’m going to be some burnt out shell of a human being at 25 or 28, a moneyless bum sleeping in a dumpster behind Home Depot.”

“If it’s a boy, you can name him.  If it’s a girl, I want to call her Lilith.”

That had a familiar ring.  Wasn’t Lilith some Amazon queen his mom was telling him about?  Or was she a biblical terrorist that had all of the kings in a tizzy?

“Lilith.  Lovely name.  If it’s a boy, I want to call him Chairman Mao.”

Natalie laughed and jumped on top of him and proceeded to nearly cause heart failure by tickling him so relentlessly.  It was obvious she was not going to stop without a commitment.

“So are we on, papa Billy?  Are we going to make a baby?  Are we?  Are we?”

“Ha ha ha ha . . . if you don’t stop tickling me . . . ha ha ha . . . I’ll be dead . . . ha ha ha . . . and that’ll be . . . ha ha ha ha . . . please . . . ha ha ha . . . I’ll do anything . . . ha ha ha . . . just stop . . . ha ha ha . . .”

“So that’s a yes?”

“Yes . . . ha ha ha . . . yes, Natalie.”

And they went to work.

At making a baby from scratch, that is.

Should have been simple.  But it eventually turned out to be hard work.   Very hard work.

It has confounded some of the best medical minds of the 21st Century, why fertility rates have been gradually declining over the past fifty years.  Those from three generations back claim ___ obviously exaggerating, of course ___ that back in those days, post-World War II, and on into the featureless 50s, getting pregnant was supposedly easier than catching a head cold.  Teens seemed especially at risk.  Schoolgirls were cautioned about sitting too close to boys for fear that sperm would somehow leap forth, magically pass through clothing and skin, and home in on the cowering uterus like some precision-guided weapon, resulting in unwanted pregnancies.

Then came the 60s.  A measurable decrease in fertility rates among both males and females started around the same time that the Beatles and the British invasion of pop musicians took over the radio airwaves, and has continued to this day.  Egg production in women is still off, miscarriages continue to increase, sperm counts are down.

No connection could be established between the music of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits and the other British bands, and the inability of couples to make babies back then or now.

So what precipitated the subtle but steady decline in fertility rates?  Was it the cancelation of the Ed Sullivan Show?  The unrequited romancing of the apparently still virginal Annette Funicello by any number of viable suitors on the Mickey Mouse Club?  Chubby Checker and the twist?  Lingering physiological effects from the hoola-hoop craze of the 50s?  Radiation from the spaceships landing in Nebraska and Indiana abducting illiterate corn farmers and road-weary truck drivers?

The plausible connection turned out to be the enormous numbers of chemicals, artificial substances, plastics, and man-made pollutants which were slowly introduced starting in the 50s but were dramatically increased in both quantity and variety during the 60s, and are being increasingly used today.  These include food additives and preservatives, pesticides and herbicides, fertilizers, cosmetic chemicals, over-the-counter and prescription drugs, household cleaners, detergents and dry cleaning fluids, auto exhaust and industry pollution, industrial solvents such as acetone and trichlorethylene, the new generation of paints and varnishes, carpet and furniture fire and stain retardants, synthetic fabrics and clothing treatments, dioxyn, PVCs, plastic food and beverage containers, even monosodium glutamate, on and on the list goes. 

This man-made inhibition of the natural reproductive process has spawned a fertility industry ___ both specialists within the ranks of the conventional AMA-approved health service providers and those working in naturopathic and other alternative treatment environments ___ raking in far in excess of a billion dollars a year.

Of course, Billy and Natalie weren’t aware of any of this when the decided they would try to get her pregnant.  They just did what they normally did, with a little more focused effort the five or six days that were midway between her periods.

Away they went doing what came naturally for three months or so.  Understandably they were both rather surprised when their energetic efforts produced no results in the embryo manufacturing department.

At first, their lack of success was taken with a lightheartedness, both of them assuming it was an anomaly which would soon pass.

“Maybe you’re firing blanks, Billy.”

“I’m definitely firing something.”

“You are definitely hitting the target.”

“Practice makes perfect.”

As the weeks and months passed, however, the whole subject became charged, more and more the trigger for arguments or tears. 

“You don’t want a baby.  That’s it, isn’t it Billy?”

“Natalie.  Of course I do.  I said I did.  But whether I do or not, it’s not like I’m holding back.  You can see for yourself that I’m doing my job.”

“Then how come I’m not pregnant?”

“How should I know?  Maybe you fried your uterus in Ibiza.  Maybe you got sand in the works.  Don’t point the finger at me.”

“Billy.  Please stop bringing up my trip like it was some negative thing.  It wasn’t.  It was a very good thing.  It got me to a good place.  It got me to where I am now.”

“Frustrated.  Angry with me.  Yeh, that’s just great.”

Natalie’s eyes turned red and started to pool, as her lower lip quivered slightly.

“Billy.  I’m sorry.  I’m not mad at you.  I know it’s not your fault.”

Actually, it didn’t appear to be either of their faults.  The doctors couldn’t find anything awry.  None of the five fertility specialists they had consulted, stretching from the Hudson Valley to New York City. 

Billy’s sperm count appeared normal, in fact, better than normal.  The quality of the sperm appeared fine.  No two-headed mutants, none with tails missing, none suffering from lethargy or lack of swimming skills, no union organizers urging a sperm walkout or sitdown strike. 

Likewise, Natalie checked out.  She was ovulating like clockwork, producing the approved and recommended number of eggs, there were no blocked Fallopian tubes, no cross winds, no feminist demonstrations or marches going on in there.

The experts were stumped.

Of course, they had a solution.  A very expensive solution.  With no guarantees.

This was a multi-phased program of hormone doping, fertility drugs, taking his sperm and concentrating it to increase its statistical effectiveness, and further closing the statistical hit-miss gap by either inserting the sperm into her fallopian tubes or removing one of her eggs and performing in vitro insemination then replanting the fertilized egg in her uterus.

It was all so scientific and calculating but unscientifically unpredictable.  They could end up with twins, octuplets, or a swaddling bundle of air.  Who was to say.  The doctors couldn’t.

Billy and Natalie could see the five-figure bill for services coming from miles away.

Monetary issues aside, they couldn’t imagine turning over what should be the natural unfolding of the miracle of life, to a bunch of lab coats surrounded by stainless steel tables, test tubes, oscilliscopes, pipettes, ultrasound scans, Petri dishes, electronic imaging equipment, electrophoresis separators, and whatever else the medicine men would drag out of their expensive bag of tricks.  It was about as romantic as changing the motherboard or putting more RAM in a computer.

 

They decided at least for now, to continue their reproductive Olympiad, which despite the growing anxiety and tension introduced by their absorption and obsession with getting her pregnant, they both still thoroughly enjoyed.  At the same time, they would try to increase the prospects of babymaking in their lovemaking by introducing some less-expensive, hopefully effective alternative assistance.

Their bedroom stand now included a vaginal thermometer, homeopathic medicine, and a small glass dish of opaque pink fertility stones.  Both Billy and Natalie were taking specially formulated vitamin/mineral/herb supplements, respectively designed to fortify the male and female reproductive systems ___ his was called Inseminator Rejuvenator and hers Motherhood In A Bottle.   

One day Billy pulled up on their computer a page from a website which was trumpeting the efficacy of various crystals, and showed it to Natalie.

The Shiva Lingham Stone is from the sacred Narmada River in Onkar Mandhata, one of India’s seven holy sites. Villagers gather this unique Crypto-crystalline quartz from shallow river beds.  In Tantra, the shape embodies masculine energy, dynamic expression and knowledge. The markings named Yoni (sacred sanskrit word for vulva), depicts the feminine energy, wisdom and intuition. Together, the female energy arouses the masculine urge to create. As such, the Tantric Lingham unifies the dualistic (male female) world into harmonious balance.  Place a Shiva Lingham in the Relationships/Marriage area of your home to increase fertility and to bring you closer to your partner.

 

“Well, there’s the solution to our problem if I ever saw it.”

Though they laughed about it, the true extent of their desperation was evident when they immediately ordered one.  When it arrived Air Express, it was given a guest-of-honor place in the center of the headboard shelf of their bed, next to a faux-ancient scroll containing a Sanscrit fertility mantra they obtained from a local store, with a name printed in gold leaf on the front window, which only a few months ago they used to make fun of . . .

Things New Age:  Your One-Stop Enlightenment Shop

They also went out of their way to eat healthy.  More salads.  Less fat.  More fish.  Less meat.  They eliminated wine with their meals and never ordered cocktails when they went out with their friends.  Five times a day, Natalie was drinking an unpleasant-tasting herbal tea consisting of Chasteberry, Red Raspberry Leaf, and Nettle.  Billy had virtually eliminated coffee from his diet since he read that there were studies suggesting that coffee had deleterious effects on sperm production.  He switched to vitamin C-enhanced peppermint tea.

Unfortunately, none of this seemed to work.  The only ones who seemed to benefit were the manufacturers and outlets who pocketed seemingly exorbitant profits for a lot of worthless crap, which they used to generate and hawk new, promising, pricier, but at the end of the day, equally worthless crap.

By August, they were exhausted.  It wasn’t the sex but rather the anticipation, disappointment, the regiment and monotony of the “fertility rites” they had created, the evident futility, and last but not least, the heat.  Whether it was global warming or just a anomalous seasonal shift, the end of the summer was turning out to be a scorcher.

They lay in bed, sweating and sweltering, panting like dogs in the desert, after a pleasurable but nonetheless draining session of lovemaking, during which they often thought more about whether his sperm and her egg were going to end their Cold War standoff and finally get together, than to abandoning themselves to the carnal ecstasy of their union.

When the end of Natalie’s most recent menstrual cycle again declared that she was not pregnant, an announcement signed in blood, Billy tried to make light of it.

“Maybe we should just get a dog.”

“I’m not having sex with a dog.”

“I meant for me.”

“You want to have sex with a dog?  I feel a little threatened.”

“Dogs are man’s best friend.  No one ever said that about babies.”

“Wait!  We’ll get two dogs.  A male and a female.  And watch them.  Maybe we’re doing something wrong.”

“I don’t think my ego could handle it.  What if they got it right the first time?”

“Ohmigod!  You’re right.  I’d have to kill the bitch.”

“I’d have the vet remove his balls.  That’d show him!”

They laughed but their laughter was hollow.  Hollow to the point of melancholy.

And though neither of them said anything, each invisibly was waving the tearful white flag of resignation.  An impregnable sense of hopelessness had slowly but surely sunk in.  This was the first failure of their relationship, the first tangible setback of any importance.

They never officially gave up.  Thus, they never discussed a next step, either adoption or designing their lives together around childlessness.  They never acknowledged they might be entering a next phase.  A phase without a baby of their own making.

They clung to some thin, frail thread of optimism.  After all, there were countless stories of couples trying and trying again over years, even decades, then finally producing the long-desired child.  Billy and Natalie had many years ahead of them.  The waiting and trying and trying again theoretically could define them as a couple, as it had many other couples.

But they both somehow knew this wasn’t going to happen.

Something had changed.  They both sensed it.

The baby thing was over and done.

And what about them?

Was it over?

No.

Practice makes perfect.

In all things.

“Baby Fever”, an excerpt from the full length novel The Man Who Loved Too Much, originally appeared in the American online and print magazine Down In The Dirt in July 2010.
 
John Rachel has a B. A. in Philosophy, has traveled extensively, is a songwriter and music producer, and a left-of-left liberal.  Prompted by the trauma of graduating high school and having to leave his beloved city of Detroit to attend university, the development his social skills and world view were arrested at about age 18.  This affliction figures prominently in all of his creative work.  He is author of four full-length novels, From Thailand With Love, The Man Who Loved Too Much, 11-11-11 and recently 12-12-12.  He considers his home to be Japan but has been traveling in Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan as he completed his latest novel, 12-12-12.  He is now working on a non-fiction book about his travels over the past six years called Leaving On A Jet Plane.

 




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