Monday, October 31, 2011

The wonderful world of maternal anxiety: Sept. 29, 2002

I have always been scared of babies, and having them did not cure me. It did, however, quickly teach me that I will spend the rest of my life held captive by a stunning level of simultaneous anxiety, love and protectiveness. This was the first time I had the dispiriting experience of adding helplessness to that mix. 

It was unfun.

Parenting is a series of peaks and valleys
    No one tells you when you become a parent that all your points of emotional reference are about to lose their meaning.

    What you thought was fear was just a shadow. What you thought was joy was a hiccup. And there is no easy way to set aside the context of your old emotions and begin a far more harrowing existence.

    In June, when I first found the lump on my son’s back, I thought it was probably an injury or maybe a bug bite. In July, when I felt that lump again, I laid my palm across my son’s warm, narrow back and gave myself a mental lecture about all the good reasons I shouldn’t panic.

    Every day for weeks, I pressed my fingers to the lump, waiting for it to disappear, willing it to go away. When the lump was still there in August, we visited the pediatrician.

    I had a fantasy about how this would go: I would point out the lump, and the doctor would feel it, shrug and say: "Just a cyst. No big deal." Then, Jack and I would go get ice cream.

    Instead, the doctor felt the lump and frowned a little. "Hmh," he said. He referred us to a surgeon and told me to try not to worry.     

    "OK," I said.

    And I worried.

    My son is 2 years and 4 months old. He calls me "Mominy" instead of "Mommy." At 23 pounds, Jack is tiny for his age. He has a mass of curly hair the color of caramel, dark blue eyes and a fondness for fire trucks.

    We often walk to the fire station in our neighborhood, and he trots around ecstatically, shouting adjectives. "The fire truck is HUGE," he yells, flinging his arms wide.

    We visited the pediatric surgeon. The doctor felt the lump and said it was probably benign but needed to come out. The word "benign" brought a rush of relief that made me realize I hadn’t taken a truly deep breath in weeks. That relief was immediately followed by the alarming realization that my baby was going to have surgery.

    Jack’s surgery was very simple, very routine, nothing to worry about, the doctor assured me. The procedure was set for Sept. 17.

    In the week before Jack’s surgery, I saw the return of the acne I haven’t battled in nearly 10 years and the start of a chronic, dull stomachache.

    On the morning of the surgery, Jack awoke and announced he was thirsty. I explained that he couldn’t have anything to drink until we got to the hospital. The nice people there would give him some special juice, I said.

    "OK," he said, logically. "Jack to go to the hospital."

    We did. The nice people there weighed him and put hospital issue pajamas on him and gave him a cherry-flavored drink that made him loopy. He giggled and waved his hands in front of his nearly closed eyes as we waited for the surgeon.     

    "Funny," he said, grinning sloppily. "Funny hands."

    When the nurses came to take him to surgery, Jack laughed at their hats. But as they wheeled him away from my husband and me, our son began to cry. I heard one of the nurses comment as she reached the end of the long hallway with my stoned, terrified child, "This one is sweating bullets."

    I fought a powerful urge to chase Jack down, to steal him back. My husband and I trudged to a room where we watched a slow-moving clock. I didn’t cry, though I’d brought plenty of Kleenex. And when the doctor came in 45 minutes later I calmly received the news that Jack had done fine and was in recovery. The lump was just a benign mass of tissue, he said.

    I followed the doctor to recovery and held my disoriented son while he tried weakly to pull out his IV and drank apple juice from a sippy cup. I carried him back to the room where my husband waited and cradled Jack in my lap while he slept off the effects of the anesthesia. After about half an hour of watching our son sleep, my husband tiptoed out of the room to get us some Cokes.

    That’s when I cried. That’s when I finally let myself realize how scared I had been, finally acknowledged that I had been afraid Jack would die, that they would put him under, and he would never wake up and his last memory would be of his mother receding in a long blue hallway.

    I cried because Jack was all right, and because all I have ever wanted, from the first moment I saw him in a grainy black-and-white ultrasound image, was for him to always be all right.

    Before my husband returned, I had regained my composure. Everything logical in me knew I had overreacted, that this was all very routine, very simple, nothing to worry about.

    But logic has no place in the way I feel about my son.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Still uncool: Sept. 1, 2002

The process of becoming uncool begins with the theory that one was, at any point, cool to begin with. In retrospect, this column is deeply flawed in that I was never cool. At 30, I was even less cool than all the uncool I had always been. And now, at almost 40? Sheesh. It's hopeless.

This column also taught me that many, many people don't get sarcasm in print. The end of this column was intended to be funny. But then I got a few emails from readers who congratulated me on being such a strict teacher. Again, sheesh.

It’s cruel but true: At 30 I’m no longer cool

    I’ve gone back to school.

    High school, in fact — which I remember well enough to want to forget.

    It all came cruelly back to me the other day as I stood in front of a classroom full of teenagers and watched two young women laughing behind their hands.

    I had been talking, as teachers do, about the subject I am teaching, which is journalism. When these two young women began to giggle, I stopped and asked, "What? What’s funny?"

    "You are," one of them said. "You talk funny."

    Well, pardon the 1980s out of me.

    It’s high school all over again. The seniors are laughing at me, and I have no witty comeback.

    "Listen," I told them. "You are all going to freeze right about the year 2002 in the slang you use. In 15 years, when some kid is laughing at what you think is perfectly acceptable slang, I want you to remember this moment."

    There was more laughing.

    The hilarious thing I had said, it turned out, was that something had "wigged me out." I say this. It has been part of my vocabulary since, oh, about 1987, when I was a sophomore in high school.

    Things wig me out all the time.

    The power bill was $140 last month, and that wigged me out. My son won’t stop chewing on his little 2-year-old mouth, and it is really wigging me out. The car we spent too much money on keeps breaking down, and that has wigged me out totally.

    But apparently, in 2002, people don’t get wigged out. Do they get freaked out? Flipped out? There must be a new term. I must make a note to ask my students.

    Here’s the sad thing: Right up until that moment — when it was revealed to me that 17-year-olds think I talk funny — I still thought I was cool.

    I mean, I own a pair of low-rise jeans. (I don’t wear them, but I bought them.) And I didn’t go to that Bonnaroo concert thing, but I really, really wanted to.

    And, yes, I drive a Volvo station wagon, but it has kayaking and biking stickers on the back that I thought made up for its inherent, and literal, squareness.

    Turns out I’ve been kidding myself. There is nothing like a room full of teenagers to remind you that, low-rise jeans or no low-rise jeans, you are 30. And 30 is just not cool.

    It’s OK, though. I’m not going to let this realization of my uncoolness wig me out. I think I’ll just embrace the un-hip me and become what’s expected.

    My dear students, I had planned to be quite the groovy teacher.

    We were going to have long discussions about current events and the media, during which I was going to let you say all sorts of subversive things. I was even going to say a few subversive things myself in the spirit of journalism and education.

    I was going to encourage you to rewrite papers until you were happy with your grade and I was convinced you had, in fact, learned something.

    We were going to put out a very cool (not that I know what’s cool) school newspaper, and you were all going to be in charge of its content.

    I was even thinking about wearing my low-rise jeans to class.

    But since it turns out I’m not the groovy type, I think I’ll just lecture most of the time, give lots of quizzes and we’ll have a test every week — an essay test. Grades will be based on those tests. And, yes, spelling counts.

    We will have assigned seats, and you can talk only if you raise your hand.

    If anyone misses a class I’ll need to see a note from every adult who has ever had any say in your upbringing.

    I hope none of this wigs you out.

    See you Monday.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Have it all, do it all, dammit all: Aug. 4, 2002

One of my most humbling realizations as I navigated my 30s was the understanding that the "have it all, do it all" bullshit I had always believed was just that. I love my work. I love being a mother. But I was frankly lousy at having it all and doing it all. I'm truly glad this dilemma is now a decade behind me.

Motherhood and the art of compromise

    I hit a milestone of sorts this spring: One year of not being a newspaper reporter.

    I used to think I would always be a reporter. It was my job for nine years, if you count my stints at college papers. It was the only job I ever really wanted, and I loved it.

    Newspaper reporters get to see everything, from interstate pileups and murder trials to City Council meetings and ballgames. They take readers to places they would never go, show them what they might otherwise never see. They get to tell great stories, and they don’t even have to go to the trouble of making them up.

    Granted, the hours can be unpredictable and the pay generally ranges from pretty bad to decent. Deadlines can make your stomach hurt. Editors can make your head hurt. And sometimes, especially during the years I covered the crime beat, I saw and wrote about things that left me crying in an office bathroom stall.

    But I felt lucky most every day I was a newspaper reporter. I felt I was doing the job I was made for.

    Before my son was born, I had a plan. I would take a few months off, then return to work once he was old enough for day care. It sounded good at the time. I mean, I certainly wasn’t going to quit my job. Not me. No way.

    I worked through my pregnancy, right up to the Friday when I waddled over to my boss to say goodbye for the weekend.

    "See you Monday," I said, peering at her from behind my enormous belly.

    She laughed. "I don’t think so," she said.

    Jack was born on Sunday. I took a few months off. We got to know each other.

    I found out he liked his bouncy seat, but preferred to sleep on my chest. I learned that his laugh started with this little "nya" sound. I discovered our creaky porch swing was more soothing than any lullaby.

    I also realized what everyone had tried for months to tell me: Babies are the hardest work there is. You are on call every minute of every day, with no pay, at a stunning level of a sleep deprivation. Showers become a luxury. Days are a blur of feedings, diapers and naps.

    After a few months of hard labor with a baby, I missed my job. I missed my co-workers, the energy of the newsroom, the sounds of adults talking. I missed feeling competent. And my family certainly missed my paycheck.     
    I did not, however, feel ready to put Jack in day care.

    I returned to work when he was 4 months old, having cobbled together a compromise plan to work a three-day, 30-hour week. Family members rearranged their schedules to be with the baby on the days I was gone.

    We juggled Jack. On work days I came home at lunch to visit. In the evenings I tried not to feel sad when I heard reports of all the funny things he had done that day. When there was more work than there was time, I returned to the office at night and wrote while my family slept. I worked from home on my days off, doing phone interviews with a baby in my lap, taking notes as Jack yanked the phone cord, grabbed for my pen.

    After a few months, I was exhausted. I felt I was neglecting everything: my son, my job, my marriage. And seven months after I returned to the newsroom, I found myself sitting in front of my boss, trying to explain why I was quitting a job I loved.

    It turned out not much explanation was required. Everyone understood. I think the only one who was surprised was me.

    That was 16 months ago. Now I work part-time, nights, editing stories and filling in for vacationing co-workers. It’s flexible, it lets me spend some time in the newsroom. As long as my husband and I are excruciatingly careful with our money, it makes ends meet. Best of all, I get to spend my days with Jack.

    I still miss being a newspaper reporter, though. I miss it every single day.

    But my son is 2 now — old enough to bat away my hand when I offer it, independent enough to chant "no no no" when I try to steal a kiss. I’m glad I was there when all he wanted was to hold tight to me.

    Maybe my career will never be what it could have been if I had stuck it out, kept working, plowed my way through the hardest parts. I know I’ve done some compromising. And now I know better than to try and predict what my career will look like in two years, or in 10.

    But childhood is so short, and it happens only once. Careers, if you’re willing to revise your expectations, can be a bit more forgiving.

    Besides, my life usually feels a lot more like a gift than a compromise. Missing my job is difficult. But it is easier, it turns out, than missing my son.