Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Money on My Mind

Last week, my car broke down. I'd venture to guess that I have more experience than a lot of people in a car breaking down. As I have catalogued previously, I have driven more than my fair share of clunkers. For a lot of my life as a driver, a broken car meant an abandoned car. It was simply not feasible to pour more than the cost of an oil change or so into cars that were so clearly on their last leg. I have vivid memories of being so upset when one car died right after I had filled up the tank with gas. It seems silly to think about now, but it was a $200 car with $20 in the tank, that was a full 10% toward my next car that was now wasted unless I wanted the treat of siphoning it back out and saving it for my next heap of junk.

But I'm no longer 17, and I no longer scrape together minimum wage at a string of jobs between classes. I have a stable income. I am married to someone who also has a stable income. I can drive a car that has the credentials to back up the reasonable expectation that it will arrive at its destination.

But all those years driving cheap cars plucked from someone else's junkyard for what I'm sure they considered pocket change (but what represented months of savings for me) has messed up my head when it comes to money and cars.

In this particular case, I knew that I couldn't justify spending a whole lot to fix my ten-year-old car. I had to do mental gymnastics to prepare myself for the possibility that I would need to be visiting a dealership (my least favorite rhetorical playing field) and buying a new (to me) car. Luckily, the repairs fell under the threshold and my old car lives to fight another day, but I know its days are numbered, and I will once again be forced to overcome the mental hurdle to spending actual money on a car. (And don't tell my car that I know its days are numbered. My history with cars has also left me very superstitious about their vindictive and jealous nature.)

This isn't my only odd money-related mental hang up.

As I've written about in the past, I grew up poor. We were on food stamps. I was used to watching my mom struggle through low paying jobs to keep our household running. I attribute my witnessing these struggles to the development of a rather healthy work ethic and the drive that made me the first person in my family to attend college and later to attain a PhD. I have no shame about growing up poor, but I am proud to be able to give my own children opportunities and experiences that I didn't have.

My mom has her own cyclical saga with money that she's living out. She grew up with seven siblings in a poor rural family. She often talks about living in houses without indoor plumbing . . . in the 1960s. She lived a life of hand-me-downs and scraping by, and I know that her experiences shaped her choices as much as the experiences she made possible through her hard work shaped mine. It's why she now can't throw anything away and can never pass up a "good bargain" even when the item she's purchasing has no use for her.

Case in point, I once came to visit and saw an oddly shaped collection of plastic tubes that looked like a baby tent without the cover. "What's that, mom?" I asked. She hemmed and hawed and tried to come up with a good answer for an object with which she clearly had no familiarity. "She doesn't know," my brother cut in. "She bought it because it was cheap at a yard sale." "But it was only a dollar!" my mom came to her own defense.

My mom's response to an impoverished upbringing is to surround herself with "good deals" and never let go of them, and that makes logical sense, I suppose. My response has been a little more complex.

It's not that I don't like to spend money. In fact, I will spend quite a bit of money on things that were absolutely out-of-reach luxuries to my childhood self. I have a cleaning service that comes in twice a month. We eat out at mid-tier restaurants with some regularity. I have no problem dropping some cash on a decent hotel room. Gyms, streaming video and music services, and memberships to children's attractions are all budget items that I don't feel a bit of guilt or remorse about purchasing.

Me, at the children's museum.
But something about spending money on physical items, especially physical items for me, gets to me.

After the car incident, I was reflecting on this phenomenon, and I realized that I do this with clothes, too. I buy cheap clothes that I don't particularly like and then wonder why I never feel good in what I'm wearing. I am particularly bad about refusing to buy expensive shoes. Instead, I buy a pair of cheap shoes that are uncomfortable, so I don't wear them. That means I still need shoes. So I buy another pair of cheap shoes that are uncomfortable, so I don't wear those either. So I still need shoes. So I buy another pair . . . you get the idea. I could have easily bought one pair of nice shoes with the money I spent on four pairs of awful ones that have been worn three times and are now collecting dust in the closet.

Somehow, my internal expense gauge for clothing myself is still set to the days when 90% of what I wore came from Goodwill. (The other 10% was from Hot Topic, but we'll leave that in the past, thank youverymuch.)

I can intellectually see these problems, but when it comes time to make the actual purchases, I freeze up. I feel a swelling in my throat, a sense of dread. This is disproportionately true. Even if I'm only buying a $30 shirt, I feel like I am wasting money on an extravagance I don't need. There are $5 shirts in the store down the street! What kind of monster am I?!

I read an article on Cracked by John Cheese about how growing up poor makes you develop stupid habits, and I recognize several of these tendencies in myself. Some of them I have consciously managed to break and don't have to think about too much anymore, but some of them are still a regular struggle. And some of them, like recognizing that I might need to spend a little more money on the physical items that I have to interact with on a daily basis in order to avoid being surrounded by clothes that literally unravel or cars that are going to leave me stranded on the side of the road, have yet to click for me.

I know that this is a good problem to have and I know (very, very well) that I am privileged and fortunate to have the kind of financial stability that lets me worry about such a thing. (Though those student loans are making sure I don't get too cocky about it. Gulp.)

I think the thing I worry about the most is that this cycle is continuing, and I'm not sure what I'm passing on. My own children are learning by watching me. They are learning how to think about money and how to value quality by seeing the choices that I make. I know that my own habits developed out of my environment, and I know that my mom's choices developed out of hers.

We consciously teach our children (well, one of them is only a month old, so he's a little behind on his studies) about saving, giving, and earning. I think that our parenting choices have made for a positive environment when it comes to understanding how money works. My husband and I both work hard at jobs we love and have planned carefully to have. I think in many ways we are setting good examples and teaching valuable lessons.

Still, there are these things I do that make no sense, and I fear I'm passing that on, too.

Images: Jay Kleeman401(K) 2012

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Flaunting, Feeding, and Feminism: The Politics of Breastfeeding in Public

I breastfed my daughter until she was fifteen months old, an act that I am proud to have accomplished because it was hard work--especially since I went back to work when she was seven weeks old and had to pump to give her a supply of milk for daycare. I spent a lot of time and energy (physical and emotional) into making sure that she was nourished.

But I didn't spend much time breastfeeding her in public. Since I was already pumping for work, I tended to use expressed milk when we had planned public outings. When either her hunger or our being out caught me off-guard, I would reluctantly nurse her as quickly as possible, always under a cover and often in my car, occasionally in a bathroom.

I was relatively young (25), a first-time mother, living in the Midwest, who had very little exposure to breastfeeding women because virtually everyone I had seen raising infants while I was growing up had used formula, including my own mother. It was very rare for me to see someone breastfeeding in public, and the headlines about public breastfeeding were always about someone getting kicked out of a restaurant or even threatened with arrest for indecent exposure.

I armed myself with my legal right to breastfeed and felt solidarity and support for the "lactivists" who were fighting for changes in public perception and legal protection, but I did little to participate in the act for myself because I was uncomfortable.

Fast forward to today. My son is one week old, and nursing is going well. I've been hunkered down in my bedroom like Rapunzel in the tower, somewhat trapped by the realities of a newborn, which include everything from my physical recovery from delivery to his erratic sleeping schedule to, yes, the fact that he sometimes nurses every hour. Thinking to the very near future, though, the steps I took to avoid public breastfeeding with my daughter are not going to be practical this time around. It's not just me and an infant I have to worry about; I have an incredibly social five-year-old who is going to be home with me all summer long, and I can't expect her to be locked in my tower with me. She needs to get out of the house. We need to be at parks, zoos, and museums. And it's going to be a lot harder to corral everyone in the car so that I can nurse when we're on these outings. I'm also not pumping yet because I'm not going back to work until the end of August, and I'm in no rush to add that task to my daily schedule if I don't have to.

If I have remaining hangups about public breastfeeding, I'm going to have to get over them.

That left me thinking about whether or not I do have hangups about public breastfeeding. In theory, I don't. I am 100% in support of the practice in pretty much any form. Want to cover up? Great. Don't want to cover up? Also great. Want to retreat to a quiet and private corner? I completely understand. Want to stay exactly where you and nurse without otherwise disrupting your day? I completely understand that, too.

Breastfeeding as an Individual Choice

But I can also feel the anxiety rumbling in the pit of my stomach about having to put this theoretical support for public breastfeeding into individual practice. My own comfort level and modesty means I'll be using a cover and trying to limit the amount of public exposure I have, and that can be awkward and clumsy (especially for someone like me, who is already kind of awkward and clumsy). I know that I'll be hyper conscious of side eyes and glares, and I'll be internally steeling myself against rude comments.

This individual musing on public breastfeeding has me reflecting on it in a larger way. I remembered a post from blue milk way back in 2012 that brilliantly summed up why the feminist tendency to turn to the individual aspects of breastfeeding decisions tends to gloss over the societal impact (and you should really read it in its entirety). Here is a key passage:
The main reason why the breastfeeding/formula feeding conversation is not moving forward is because it is bogged down with this individualism. I think there are several factors behind that. Firstly, public health messages, like those promoting breastfeeding, are notoriously heavy-handed and don’t deal well with nuance. This is a shame because people’s health is actually quite nuanced. Secondly, the breastfeeding message is, in part, a marketing message attempting to compete with the marketing messages of formula companies. When you do this you invariably make women consumers. Thirdly, we live in an era when motherhood is hyper-competitive and driven by perfectionism. Everyone is trying to Get It Super Right Or Terrible Consequences Will Happen For Their Children, and everything seems to come down to mothers and their choices. This leads to conversations that over-emphasise the role of choice in outcomes and also, that invariably run into the limitations of professionalising motherhood when it is still monetarily worthless.
There are so many individual choices within this conversation, and it is important that we avoid shaming mothers for those choices. However, the desire to avoid shaming people for individual choices often leads to an avoidance of the issue altogether, and that has the side effect of maintaining oppressive systems that go unchecked for fear of stepping on someone's toes. Blue milk continues:
I can’t help but be suspicious that we prioritise solutions to this work-life conflict that suit a model of workplace built around men’s lives and that consistently challenge women to find new ways of adapting without ever questioning whether our economy could be moulded just a little more fairly around care work and dependency. Because, dependence is not deviant behaviour – being young, being old, being unwell, being hurt and healing, being disabled – it’s normal life. And this is not hippy stuff; this is just finding a better way of working with capitalism. For that matter, breastfeeding is not hippy, it just is. It’s not some special gift, it’s not a sacrifice, it is just the way mammals generally feed their young.
But not everyone sees breastfeeding with such simplicity. In an oft-quoted piece from 2009, Hanna Rosin made the argument that the public promotion of breastfeeding was oppressive to women:
In Betty Friedan’s day, feminists felt shackled to domesticity by the unreasonably high bar for housework, the endless dusting and shopping and pushing the Hoover around—a vacuum cleaner being the obligatory prop for the “happy housewife heroine,” as Friedan sardonically called her. When I looked at the picture on the cover of Sears’s Breastfeeding Book—a lady lying down, gently smiling at her baby and still in her robe, although the sun is well up—the scales fell from my eyes: it was not the vacuum that was keeping me and my 21st-century sisters down, but another sucking sound.

Rosin recounts her own frustrations with breastfeeding and the pressure she felt to continue doing it because of the popular literature insisting that "Breast is Best." Eventually, she pored over medical literature that suggested this wasn't such a clear cut case and that the outcomes of breastfeeding were only slightly better than those of formula feeding. She discusses this revelation as if she were a detective looking for the final clue, the clue that would allow her to stop breastfeeding without overwhelming guilt.

Again, Rosin's choices are presented through a primarily individual lens, but when she suggests that the "Breast is Best" campaign is oppressive in the way that housekeeping standards of the 1950's were (and, I'd argue in many ways still are), she moves outside of the realm of the individual and into the socially constructed norms we must navigate as a collective, and that turn makes it clear that we were never really making these decisions as individually as we thought we were. Like all decisions, those surrounding breastfeeding are a combination of personal and communal, and we've all been influenced by the rhetorical constructs surrounding breastfeeding in both popular culture and the medical community.

Breastfeeding as a Collective Experience

Rosin looks at the historical significance of the founders of La Leche League reclaiming their bodies and babies from medicalization in a way that was radical and increasingly feminist. The publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves coincided with this push for radical acceptance of the female body outside of the patriarchal structures that sexualized and scrutinized it. The fact that there was simultaneously research showing poor health outcomes for formula fed babies in South America and Africa (which were later linked to contaminated water supplies and the high costs of the formula) made for an interesting full circle. Breastfeeding had been seen as a radical departure from medicalization and the attempt for women to reclaim their bodies, but as medical literature began to circle back around to the benefits of breastfeeding, the movements found themselves realigned, and thus the "Breast is Best" campaign has a complicated history of motivations and alliances.

There are many who find the rhetoric surrounding breastfeeding oppressive, guilt-inducing, and overwhelming. Stephanie Fairyington examines some of the practical implications of a "Breast is Best" mentality by saying that it stifles workplace productivity and harms the careers of women who attempt to juggle their duties in both the professional and nurturing spheres. She suggests that the solution is to put more effort into improving formula until it is equal with breastmilk as a source of nutrition, but she quickly admits that many in the "Breast is Best" camp would never accept it because of their dedication to breastfeeding, leading her to write:
It’s arguments like these that pretty much convince me that underneath all the pro-lactation rhetoric is a nostalgia and conservative orthodoxy that wants to affix every woman’s destiny to her biology. But as the highest-thinking creatures on Earth, isn’t the goal to move beyond the limits of our bodies?
This is a fascinating argument for me, primarily because I have often felt my goals as a feminist (and, I suppose, "highest-thinking creature on Earth") have often revolved around cultivating more respect for my body and physicality in the face of a society that constantly tries to denigrate and regulate it. For me, issues like body image, fat shaming, birth control, pregnancy, and breastfeeding are feminist concerns squarely rooted in efforts to challenge the societal status quo to align with my biological and physical realities rather than force me to constantly renegotiate those spaces based on patriarchal standards. The goal has been to make space for those bodies, not to escape them.

Plus, as blue milk points out so eloquently, breastfeeding and a full embrace of the biological "destiny" of its physical demands is actually very freeing for many mothers:
Because here is the other thing about breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is lazy. Ultimately, I came to love breastfeeding as a mother because I am quite lazy. Breastfeeding is fast food. Breastfeeding is multi-tasking. Breastfeeding is portable. Breastfeeding is unstructured and unscheduled. All of these elements are very pleasing to lazy people, like me. So, it annoys me no end as a feminist that we, as a Western culture, stigmatise breastfeeding when in the long-run it can often make mothers’ and children’s lives easier.
So, yes, for some women the pressure to breastfeed may seem oppressive and stigmatizing (and I don't want to discount that pressure), but there are also pressures at work from the opposite direction. For many of us, breastfeeding is a way to make the demands of motherhood and multitasking easier, not harder, and attempts to demonize breastfeeding as a tool of the patriarchy designed to keep us trapped ignores those realities and experiences.

Breastfeeding and Capitalism

Underpinning all of these discussions has been a strong, winding thread of capitalism. The "Best is Breast" campaign is just that (a campaign) because it is competing against formula companies. It is oversimplified, direct, and sometimes blunt because it is trying to be effective in the face of predatory advertising practices from formula manufacturers whose primary concern is profit.

The World Health Organization has clear guidelines for why formula advertising is problematic, and there have been a lot of changes to the industry even just in the five years between the births of my children. I certainly was not greeted with bags of free formula in the hospital this time around, and I haven't seen a formula advertisement that didn't equally portray breastfeeding in a long time. For a closer look at this, check out this article from Rebecca Schuman that examines the history of formula advertisement and looks at the most recent Similac ads as a way to promote acceptance of each mother's personal feeding choice rather than push formula feeding over breastfeeding.

In a world where formula advertisements have (voluntarily or through regulation) tamed themselves down to be much more breastfeeding-friendly, it can be hard to see the "Breast is Best" campaign as anything but overbearing, but in its inception, it was fighting much more directly against marketing forces attempting to prey on new mothers' insecurities and frustrations.

Breastfeeding Today: The Selfie and "Flaunting It" 

In this complex web of market forces, personal choice, public shame, and work-life balance, breastfeeding today exists on a precarious edge between them all. Perhaps this is most evident in the frequent social media and blog posts about breastfeeding as a public display of empowerment.

Just last week, a photo of a mom breastfeeding at a wedding went viral and garnered international headlines. This has also been the case for viral "brelfies" like these of a woman tandem feeding. Some of these photos are candid shots of moms doing day-to-day things while also breastfeeding, and some are staged (even professional) photos designed to capture and share breastfeeding as the focal point.

Still other viral posts have been more activist in nature. Take, for example, this post from Ashley Kaidel, a Florida mom who posted a picture of herself nursing in a restaurant while staring down a glaring onlooker.

Indeed, social media has been a common battleground for the rhetorical war to garner social support for breastfeeding with organized campaigns of breastfeeding photos that truly are beginning to make a difference in the way the public perceives the act. Online and in-person ("nurse-in") protests have also helped spread the word about the legal rights of mothers to feed their babies and have hopefully made store managers and meddlesome employees think twice before shaming a breastfeeding mother or kicking her out of a public space.

Social media has not only served as a space to project breastfeeding outward to the world at large. It has also served as a space to cultivate inward-focused networks of nursing mothers who help each other out with struggles and provide a sense of support and community. In fact, participation in such online communities of breastfeeders has been linked to more success with breastfeeding.

I have been struck again and again by comments on these pictures. Go to any of the links above and scroll to the comment section, and you will quickly see several commenters who insist that they have nothing against breastfeeding but don't understand why someone needs to "flaunt it" in everyone's face by posting it on Facebook or making a big deal about it. Repeatedly, I have seen comments like these:
"These Women are exhibitionists , it has nothing to do with breastfeeding. they like showing off their breasts for the attention." (Ethan, from the article on the tandem photos)
"I was in a Bass Pro Shop store recently and saw a woman with 2 kids pushing a baby stroller up one the aisles. She was nursing one of the kids (maybe 2 years old) with her milk factory in the open for everyone to see. She was tongues lashing a guy because he had stopped and stared for effect. He told her that if she had enough nerve to bare herself to the world in a public place then he had the right to watch. She put things away and they both went on their way. I applaud the guy for ALSO standing up for HIS rights since she thought she was the only one who had any rights!" (Hookm49, from the article on tandem photos)
"She hired a photographer to photograph her breast feeding, but didn't want to make a big fuss about breast feeding? Well, which is it?" (ThrottleJockey, from the article on tandem photos)
"When you are a guest at something as important as a wedding, you should have the good manners to make sure it is OK with the bride and groom for you to: a) breastfeed at the table; b) take a picture of yourself with a ridiculous expression on your face; and c) gleefully posting it online without the knowledge or acceptance of said bride and groom. I am an advocate of breastfeeding, including in public, but good manners are good manners. Period." (Judy Furlong, from the article on the wedding photo)
I could go on and on and on and on with comments like these, and I intentionally chose comments that were attempting to take a middle ground, people who suggested they weren't wholly against public breastfeeding. There are also plenty of downright abusive and cruel comments that call the women horrendous names and shame them outright for daring to leave their houses with breasts and hungry babies, but that's not what I want to focus on right now.

I believe that we've turned a corner and that most people understand that (whether they like it or not) public breastfeeding is going to happen because women have a right to feed their babies. I'll go so far as to say that I think most people even agree with that right. However, I do not think we've reached a point where most people accept the reality of it, and that's why these viral "brelfies" matter. Women aren't posting pictures of themselves breastfeeding to "flaunt it." In a world where breastfeeding is truly accepted, a picture of a woman breastfeeding her infant would raise no more eyebrows than a picture of a woman eating a salad. It's the same act (nourishment) and could be posted for the same reason (to share a brief moment of our daily lives).

However, most of these pictures are posted with an agenda, and the agenda is to promote a public narrative surrounding breastfeeding as acceptable. I'm down with that agenda, and I applaud the women who feel emboldened or carefree enough to engage in it.

The comments on those photos remind me of comments on photos of women who confidently and purposely display plus-size bodies. Every time I see one of these body positive posts, I also see people saying some version of this: "It's fine to love yourself, but I don't want to see you loving yourself." If you feel the need to make that comment, you have to accept that you are actually not fine with it. Maybe you know you should be fine with it. Maybe you even want to be fine with it. But the fact that people are drawn to police the boundaries of public displays of these bodies means that the bodies are still stigmatized and shamed.

The Impact of Shame

While nominally accepted and legally protected, breastfeeding is still not a cultural norm. If breastfeeding is oppressive to women (as was argued above), then the oppression comes not from the newborn who needs to eat but from a culture that makes a mother feel like she's trapped by that constraint.

When everything from maternity leave to workplace policies on pumping to the way that women are treated when they nurse in public aligns with principles of equality, acceptance, and support, breastfeeding will cease to have these oppressive qualities. Until then, the pressure to hide away while nursing will continue to have oppressive impacts, and the sense of solidarity and community in seeing other women nursing (whether in person or on social media posts) will help to combat that stigma and oppression.

I asked my Facebook friends what their experiences were surrounding public breastfeeding, and I got some interesting responses.

Helen wrote about her experience nursing her son: "I remember him fussing like crazy on a train once when I was by myself and the women in the carriage saying 'it's okay. You can feed him.' And feeling immense relief that I wasn't being judged. With my daughter I felt empowered by sharing photos online feeding her with other mums and this helped increase my confidence."

Marcy wrote, "My second was a CONSTANT nurser, he fed like all the time. I would have had to just stay home all the time if I had wanted to avoid nursing in public. I think that really helped me get over things." She also noted that she has "often seen other women breastfeeding in public and want[ed] to give them a high-five or as solidarity."

Amber wrote that she spent the first few months pumping to avoid public feedings, but when she forgot her cooler, she had to quickly get over the discomfort: "Living in San Diego, I didn't feel like I faced any issues or judgement - once I let go of my own issues. I nursed with a cover, but plenty of women don't use one. I had some negative experiences while traveling in the Midwest, though. Even with the cover, nasty comments and side-eye. Most of my interactions were very, very positive - from other moms asking where I got the cute cover to waitresses asking if I'd like another chair brought over to prop up my feet."

Candis likewise tried to pump and use bottles in public: "I worried about being judged, but I'm also just really reserved so I didn't particularly want to breastfeed in public. I tried a few times with a cover, but my daughter is easily distracted and hated the cover on her face; I think I gave up trying more from the fact that I felt we couldn't do the whole thing gracefully more than I did from worrying about people judging my body. We were a flailing mess!"

Mary makes her decisions about how to feed in public based on practicality: "Sometimes I pump and bring a bottle based on convenience based on what I am wearing but as I've found more breastfeeding friendly clothes that has been easier (yay subscription boxes!). Mama's Milk Box is what I use."

I see a couple of themes emerging from these comments. First and foremost, seeing other breastfeeding mothers seems to be a positive, affirming, and community-building experience. This is important to remember when we want to question why someone who would share a picture of themselves nursing or decide to nurse in the middle of a wedding. Their actions are not just individual, and these public displays are shaping the discourse surrounding breastfeeding in a way that is making more women feel comfortable and confident in their choices.

Secondly, I think it's important to note that support for public breastfeeding should not become a demand for public breastfeeding. Discomfort over being exposed in public and choices to cover up or to pump are tied up in this complex web of public pressures and personal preferences, and it's just as much a feminist issue to make sure that those choices (as well as the choice not to breastfeed at all) are still supported and validated. Check out this video on why covering up is a feminist issue:

Finally, I was drawn to Mary's comment about clothing, and she mentioned that she uses Mama's Milk Box,  a subscription service that delivers breastfeeding-friendly clothing options to your door. 

That got me thinking about how this whole thing has come full circle. In this post, I started with the article by blue milk that discussed how navigating the demands of working and parenting is a negotiation within capitalism. Capitalism and the formula industry's marketing strategies were also the impetus for the "Breast is Best" campaign rhetoric that made so many women feel oppressed by pressure to breastfeed. 

Capitalism weaves its way into every facet of our society, and I think the fact that subscription box services catering to breastfeeding women exist is a sign that things truly are changing in public perception, and that's because breastfeeding women have fought for the right to be seen, heard, and accepted. While I don't like that money is often the most obvious marker of power in our society, I think that things like subtle changes to the way formula companies portray breastfeeding more positively, the existence of companies like Mama's Milk Box, and the display of breastfeeding supplies in mainstream stores demonstrates that the tide of public perception around breastfeeding is changing rapidly. I hope and believe that market power is a precursor to policy power, and that is how we can begin to address things like maternity leave and other issues surrounding not just breastfeeding, but the successful navigation of parenting and caregiving in general. 

The next time you see a social media post of someone proudly breastfeeding, I hope that you'll see it not as a selfish display of voyeurism but as a public demand of much-needed visibility and acceptance. 

Photos: Josh Ward, clotho98 

Friday, May 20, 2016

It's a Boy! (A Birth Story)

Disclaimer: When I wrote my daughter's birth story five years ago, I blogged anonymously and to a teeny tiny audience of people who had randomly found my blog through some links on other feminist mothering blogs (most of which are no longer even around the interwebs--moment of silence for the ghosts of bloggers past). These days, though, I share my blog under my real name and on my personal social media accounts, so I realize that there are people who will read this who will also see me in person as friends and colleagues. That reality of course factors into how I decide what to share in this space, but for the most part I've remained pretty open, honest, and accessible as my anonymity drained away. That said, this post is very personal as it has to do with the act of pushing a human being out of my body. If you know me in real life and would rather not have to think about those details, maybe skip this post? I'll go ahead and give you the too graphic, didn't read version: I had a baby boy on Wednesday morning. He's gorgeous, and we love him! Hurray!


For those of you who are still with me, the crux of sharing this story is squarely rooted in my reflections on feminism, bodily autonomy, pregnancy, and the cult of motherhood. When I gave birth to my daughter, I had to fight to maintain bodily autonomy in the face of what felt like ridiculous pressures to induce labor or schedule a c-section. When I asked for medical justification beyond my daughter's suspected "too big"-ness and received nothing that satisfied me, I politely declined those interventions, went into labor on my own, and then had to fight for everything from the right to get out of the bed to persistent nurses who wanted to give me "just a little something" for pain despite the fact that I kept saying I didn't want it. I ended up with the non-medicated birth I had hoped for, but I had a jerk of a doctor (the on-call hospital doc whom I had never met), an absolutely overwhelming postpartum hospital experience, and the lingering sense that it really shouldn't feel so hard to have some control over my own body.

This time around, I felt much more informed and confident. I had only decided that I wanted a non-medicated birth in the final trimester of my first pregnancy, but this time I picked my doctor based on recommendations with that goal in mind. I picked a hospital based on their reputation for excellent maternity care. Every appointment my OB made me feel heard and respected. She totally supported my birth plan. We were a team. I had this one down. It was going to go great!

Then around the 32-week mark, my little one wasn't measuring so little. He (though I didn't know he was a he yet) was suddenly measuring two weeks ahead of schedule. "Don't worry," my doctor assured me. "We'll schedule an ultrasound at 37 weeks and see what we're dealing with size-wise."

I was stressed about that ultrasound. I started asking her what her recommendations would be, and she talked me through possibilities but kept stressing that we should just wait and see what the measurements said. Everything else looked great. The baby was healthy and in the right position. It would be fine.

The ultrasound technician ran her measurements and estimated that my 37-week fetus was already 8.5 pounds. By her projections, he would be close to 11 pounds if I delivered on my due date. Not only that, but his head was measuring big.

I went in to talk to the doctor, and I was trying not to panic. She stated plainly that for a baby that large, she recommended a c-section. I said that I wanted to at least try but understood a c-section could become necessary. She offered to schedule an induction. I told her I really wanted to avoid Pitocin (and the famously painful contractions that come with it, likely making my non-medicated goal a distant memory). She agreed, but she didn't want me to go past 39 weeks. If this baby was to come out on his own, he needed to get moving.

And get moving he did. As was also the case with my daughter, I started having relatively strong, regular contractions for a few hours most nights. By my next appointment, I was already dilated to a three and showing "favorable" conditions (which made it sound like I was trying to plan a weekend BBQ rather than give birth to a human).

I would be 39 weeks on Thursday and had an appointment on Tuesday. At that appointment, I was dilated to an "almost" 5 and had been having contractions off and on for days. She told me to go home and walk, squat, bounce on a ball, and take a warm bath. Then we scheduled an induction for Thursday morning. We planned to start with breaking my water and seeing what happened from there. We'd use Pitocin if it was needed and turn it off and see if I could go without it. She didn't want to wait any longer for fear that a growing baby would mean a c-section for sure.

I went home and followed her directions. I spent most of the afternoon in a squat or on a ball, and I walked up and down my stairs at least fifty times. Pretty soon, I was having contractions every four minutes, but I could still walk and talk through them, which (according to every piece of advice I've read and heard) means they weren't "real" enough yet.

I started wavering between fears. I'm going to have a baby in the car. I'm going to wait too long to go to the hospital, and I'm going to have a baby in the car. What am I doing?! Then that fear would pass. I'm going to end up with a c-section. This isn't real labor. Nothing is happening.

I had called my mom and cousin just in case. My mom graciously agreed to watch my daughter, and my cousin joined my husband to make a pair of fantastic birth coaches. I asked their advice, "Should we go in?" No one had a good answer.

I reasoned to myself. If I wasn't in labor, they couldn't make me stay. I had an induction scheduled in less than forty-eight hours. It wouldn't hurt to go in and get checked. If things were progressing, I could stay. If things weren't, I'd leave.

I got checked in, and they hooked me up to the monitors. My contractions had (as far as I could tell) completely stopped. I expected to be sent home.

"You're contracting every three minutes. You're definitely in labor. We called your doctor, and she wants us to break your water. How do you feel about that?"

This was a very, very hard decision. I wanted as few interventions as possible, and I knew that breaking my water would put me on a clock. If I didn't progress, I'd end up with Pitocin at best and a c-section if that didn't work. I could end up going through the pain of labor to still end up with the recovery of surgery. This could be a bad call. Maybe I should just ask to leave and see if my water would break on its own. Maybe I should ask to just go walk around and see if things progressed in an hour.

On the other hand, my labor with my daughter never picked up in intensity until my water broke. The contractions had been irregular and mostly dull until then. Maybe breaking my water would be exactly what I needed to get things moving. Maybe I could ride this wave of contractions all the way to a non-medicated birth without any other interventions. Maybe I should just say yes.

So I did. And they broke my water, and I immediately felt a sense of dread (along with, you know, a sense of being flooded by breaking water. Gross.) Did I make the wrong choice? Am I going to remember this day by looking back at this very moment and telling myself this is where I went wrong? 

I got up and started walking the halls, but the halls were too short and there were too many people around, so I went back and paced the room. My husband, cousin, and I hung out. We laughed. We talked. Contractions picked up in intensity but stayed fifteen minutes or so apart.

About four hours after they broke my water, things got suddenly intense. I labored for 12 hours after my water broke (on its own) with my daughter. I remembered transition as a time of intense agony and puking that came after eight hours of what was by comparison only painful. I wasn't ready for things to get this painful this quickly.

When the nurse heard my cries of pain, she suggested the shower. It helped at first, but suddenly there was no break between contractions, and my back felt like it was exploding. Within an hour, I was shaking in pain and exhaustion. "I'm so tired," I kept saying, and it was somehow even worse than the pain. At least, I told myself, the worst is over. That was transition. You're almost done. 

I sat on the birthing ball and rested on the bed between contractions that had spaced back out, another sign that transition had indeed ended. I can do this. 

The nurse came in to check me for progress. Getting on my back made me sick with pain. I felt trapped and panicky. She hurried to shorten my discomfort: "You're a six," she announced.

A six?! I started losing the mental battle. A six?! That means I haven't even gone through transition! That means the worst is yet to come! That means that I have been in labor all that time and only made 1 cm of progress! That means the baby is stuck. It has to mean the baby is stuck. I went through all of this and am going to end up with a c-section anyway. I am so tired. I am so tired and it hurts so much. I made the wrong call. I never should have let them break my water. I made a mistake. 

Around that time, my OB came back on call. She called me as soon as she got the message from her colleague that I was admitted. The nurse handed me the phone just as another huge contraction hit, and I couldn't even process what was happening. She called back just as it was ending, and she cheerily said, "It sounds like your progress has stalled. I'm on my way in, but how about I have them give you some Pit and we can get things moving."

I knew how strong that last contraction had been, and I knew that Pitocin wasn't going to do anything that my body wasn't already doing. I panted out between pained breaths that my contractions were already really strong. She must have been able to hear that was the truth because she didn't say another word about Pitocin, and within half an hour she was in the room asking to check me.

I crawled onto my back again, fearing the pain before I even lowered myself onto the bed. She checked me quickly. "You're a nine. I'll be back in twenty minutes. We're about to have a baby."

I didn't have time to process this as good news because I didn't have time to process anything other than a primal and undeniable urge to push. "I need to push," I moaned. My doc was in the process of trying to change into scrubs. She had just walked into the hospital.

"Okay," someone told me. "She'll be back in a minute."

There were no minutes. "I need to push," I moaned again. People started asking me questions about what I was feeling, but I couldn't talk. I couldn't think. I just needed to push.

My OB came back. She didn't even have time to get changed. She climbed onto the bed and checked me again. "You're not quite a 10 yet. I can't let you push through that." But there was no let. I couldn't stop. "Okay," she said. "But I have to stay here until the head gets past this." And that meant I had to stay on my back. That meant that I was in the most unimaginable, searing, unfathomable pain of my life. It was like being submerged into a pit of lava and being told to hold still through it. I couldn't handle it. I screamed. I scrambled upward. I was in flight or fight response and couldn't breathe.

My doctor climbed up next to me and tried to lock eyes with me. My husband and cousin were both so encouraging. But I couldn't see them. I couldn't think. I needed to be off my back. "My side," I managed to mumble. She let me turn slightly, and I found a point of focus within the pain. I felt myself come back to my body, back to control. I breathed through that contraction.

The next thing I knew, I was following instructions for pushing. I begged to get on my hands and knees. It felt like the only thing in the world I wanted was to be on my hands and knees. My doctor hesitated. Then she said, "I'm going to let you, but when I tell you to flip back over, you have to do it fast."

I didn't know this at the time (and bless her for not telling me), but the reason things were so painful, the reason things weren't moving yet, was because my son was facing the wrong way. His head was pushing up against my spine. The feeling of my hips and back exploding were the result of this position, and she knew she needed to be able to flip him quickly as I progressed.

I was instructed to get three pushes out of every contraction, and I curled around each one with all my might. It felt like nothing was happening, but everyone was so encouraging. I tried to focus on their voices rather than the doubt in my mind telling me that if I had just waited for my water to break on its own, things would be happening. I had never quite recovered from that nurse's announcement that I was still a six after all those hours of pain. I had it in my mind that I had made a mistake. As I was trying to push this negativity out of my mind, I continued to follow the instructions. "Breathe into this oxygen mask." "Push." "Breathe." "Push." "Breathe."

Suddenly, the doctor told me to flip over. I knew that I had promised I would, and I did. I was suddenly back on my side, and the instructions became louder and more excited. "Breathe deep." "Push." "Breathe deep." "Curl and push."

I had no idea how close things were. I had pushed for two hours with my daughter. I remembered the feeling of desperation and that nothing was happening. I was prepared for minimal progress, but the next thing I knew, the doctor was telling my cousin to get the camera ready. "Curl and push." And there he was.

My doctor had seen that he was coming out the wrong way, and the cord was up near his shoulders. She needed me to flip so that she could turn him and make sure the shoulders cleared safely. He was perfect and on my chest in a matter of seconds, screaming and turning pink.

Looking back, the nurse had to have been wrong when she said I was still a 6. There's no way I went from a 6 to having the baby (after transition!) in forty-five minutes. Most importantly, though, I was in the hands of a medical professional who truly listened to me and worked with me. She gave me her expert advice, and she told me that she wanted me to deliver as soon as possible to make my goal the most realistic. If I hadn't trusted her, I never would have let them break my water, and I likely would have ended up a week (or more) later with a baby whose head (facing the wrong direction) really was too big to deliver safely or at least too big for her to feel safe letting me try. Instead, I felt like I was truly part of a team instead of a product to be prodded and treated.

My cousin told me later that while I was in the shower dealing with what I can honestly say is the most intense pain I have ever felt (that back labor is no joke), the nurse said, "If she would just get an epidural and calm down, she'd be at a 10 in no time." My cousin kindly told her not to say that to me, and luckily, she didn't. I truly believe that if I had gotten the epidural and had been unable to maneuver into those four different positions in the last twenty minutes, it would have been very unlikely that I would have been able to deliver smoothly . . . or perhaps at all. That mobility was key.

My son was 8lbs 9oz, so the ultrasound estimate had to have been pretty accurate. He was 19.5 inches long, and he came out alert and healthy. Recovery for both of us has been going along perfectly, and we're now at home learning how to be a family of four.

This is the last time I will ever give birth, and the process of this intensity and pain is an amazing time of reflection on what a great support team I have around me. My husband never left my side, and I am pretty sure he even got in a shower with his Nikes still on. My cousin seemed to know every single time I was about to give up hope and had the exact right words. She also took some amazing pictures that I will cherish forever. My mom had my daughter safe and entertained so that I had no worries about her transition into big sisterhood.

I already knew how amazing these people were because they were the same people who were with me the first time around, but there is still nothing more humbling or beautiful than being reminded of that kind of love and support.

And it was absolutely amazing to be able to add my medical staff to that list this time. Instead of feeling like I was fighting against the machine, I felt like I was part of a system of care, and that's the way it should be. That continued on to my postpartum care, where I was consistently treated like an autonomous human being with real thoughts and feelings, and there's nothing else that can make up for that.

Overall, I am ecstatic to announce that I am now a mother of two, and I can't wait to see what the next leg of this journey has in store for all of us.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

I Broke Up With My Therapist Over Feminism (and Doing Dishes)

A few months ago, I decided that I could use some counseling for stress management. I was pregnant, teaching full time, dealing with some frustrating issues with extended family, and in the thick of my daughter’s new ADHD diagnosis and the navigation of what it meant for helping her get the resources she needed available to her in educational settings (an exhausting bureaucratic nightmare that left me feeling powerless). As I found myself spending most nights a jittery mess of nerves playing the worst-case scenario game in my head, I knew that my pregnancy (and, you know, life) would go smoother if I could find a way to get myself re-centered, but I also knew I could use a little help doing it. 

The therapist I found met me in a small office attached to the front of her home. It was cozy and welcoming, and she seemed nice enough if a little distant with a prim and proper presentation that far surpassed my own. I (as you can probably guess from the fact that you’re reading this blog) don’t really have a hard time opening up about myself, so I took her at her word when she said this was a safe space where I should “put it all on the table and worry about sorting it out later.”

Before I even met her, she had instructed me to make a list of all the things that stressed me out. She emphasized that I should include everything and that there were no silly answers. I shouldn’t second guess myself or spend too long on it. It should be a free form snapshot of what I felt was overwhelming about my life at this moment. I put the big things mentioned above on that list, and then I included some little things. Among them was the fact that I feel consistent, daily aggravation and defeat in the face of housekeeping. This will come as no surprise to any regular readers since I have written about my failure to slay the housekeeping dragon on many occasions. I’ve even sought out professional help of a different type for this problem in the form of a professional organizer, but this was the first time I had ever addressed it from a mental health angle.

We spent the first six (of eight insurance pre-approved) sessions tackling my larger issues. During that time, there were a few moments in the exchanges that left me feeling uncomfortable and unheard. For instance, during an early session when talking about the frustrations of parenting, I mentioned that it was hard to not have any family nearby and to feel like there was no easy way to get a break for a date night or even just an afternoon to run errands. Her response was that “plenty of people make do parenting without family around” in a rather harsh, condescending tone.

The session before our last one, she spent a good five to ten minutes berating me for using the word “weird” to describe both myself and my daughter. It’s a term that I use frequently and with no malice or ill-intent. I use it in the “Keep Austin Weird” sense of the word, as a way of pointing to outlier status and quirkiness. I explained my connotation clearly, but she continued to press about it’s “real” meaning until I actually stopped her and said, “look it up in the dictionary.” She got out an old copy of the Oxford American Dictionary, turned to a page near the back, read for a few seconds, and then closed the book and said, “We’re wasting time here.” I assume that means she found out that her definition existed nowhere but her head. It was irritating and felt combative for no reason. 

Still, I chalked these things up to a difference in our communication styles and pressed on with the sessions. About fifteen minutes into what was to be our last session, she decided we needed to turn back to my initial list that I’d made to see what else we could tackle. She looked at the list and said, “So it says here that you find housekeeping overwhelming. Can you tell me about that?”

“Sure. It’s pretty straightforward. I find housekeeping overwhelming. The task of keeping the house clean and the repetitive nature of it wears me down and makes me feel stressed out.”

“Well, it’s not really hard to keep a house clean. Tell me what you mean.”

I started to give some examples of the moments I felt overwhelmed, leading with the fact that the water pressure situation in our old house means we have to carefully time when we do dishes, baths, showers, and laundry, since no two can happen simultaneously. I also pointed to the fact that by the time I get my daughter home from school, I only have a few hours to fit in most of the required daily tasks and that it makes me feel like I run non-stop from the time I wake up until the time I go to bed, especially since she sometimes has homework that she can’t accomplish unless I’m sitting next to her. It’s true, I made no groundbreaking claims that would explain why keeping my house clean is somehow more difficult than keeping any house clean, but I never intended to make those claims.

She repeated in a tone I can only describe as incredulous, “There’s nothing hard about keeping your house clean.”

I was getting angry. I could feel my face flushing and my breath deepening. “Well,” I said simply, “it is hard for me.”

“Why is it hard?” with the same incredulous, condescending tone.

“I just listed at least seven specific tasks that I find it hard to accomplish. I don’t really know what else you want me to say.”

“Soap and warm water,” she snapped. “That’s how you keep things clean! You can run the dishwasher before you go to bed if you can’t do it during bath time. Or do the dishes by hand. It’s not difficult.”

I don’t quite remember the exact order of the next part, but I do know that all of these things were said.

I told her that the management of those tasks and the mental work it took to get them all in order and the fact that the routine seems to change because of new life situations just as soon as I’ve gotten them hammered down makes it feel never ending and exhausting to me. I also said that I was insulted by the idea that this work wasn’t hard and was therefore “easy” because to me it smacked of a system that puts down work traditionally considered “women’s work” without valuing it. “If a CEO could manage that many different tasks and schedules successfully, he or she would be praised and paid for it, and the quality would be considered rare and valuable,” I added.

She cut me off: “You’re onto a different subject now. It sounds like you’re talking about feminism rather than your own issues.”

“I don’t see any separation between the two,” I responded.

At this point, she went on an extended rant (I really can’t think of a better word for it) that consisted of her telling me that she was a single mom who had to manage her whole household without the help of her husband (“not that he ever helped before we divorced”) and that I was lucky to have a husband who participates in housecleaning as if she could not believe a woman as “lucky” as me to have a partner who actually recognizes he has an equal responsibility in living in his own damned house could possible be overwhelmed by the tasks in front of her. Then she switched gears: “You know what I think hard work is?! Going into a coal mine every day and doing physical labor! That’s hard work! Keeping a house clean is not hard work!”

I was starting to turn from angry to amused, but I couldn’t quite get all the way there, so I was stuck somewhere between the two reactions. What in the world was this woman’s problem? “That’s a classic logical fallacy,” I said. “Just because there is something harder out there in the world doesn’t mean the thing we’re talking about is not hard.” I didn’t do it, but I thought about how I could have countered that coal mining was easy compared to being held captive as a child slave. It was a stupid, mean argument that left me feeling like there was no way forward in this conversation—or probably any other. 

“I’m feeling really attacked and like I’m not being heard here,” I thought she’d be proud of me for using my “I statement.” She was not.

“What I’m hearing from you,” she said, “is that you want to end this counseling relationship.”

I looked at her a second as she sat in her chair, posture straight and proper as ever, asking myself what could possibly have made her so upset in this conversation. This is a woman twice my age (in her 60s) who was ostensibly trained to handle people with major life issues, and I had clearly hit on some sort of sore point for her. There’s no way this reaction was warranted or logical. There’s no way she is trained to tell clients that their problems aren’t problems as a way of helping them be less stressed. I imagined myself responding similarly to a student who came in asking for my help. (“You think making an outline is hard?! Do you know how many outlines I’ve written in my life?! I had to write outlines before Microsoft Word did auto numbering! Don’t talk to me about hard!”)

“I guess so,” was all I said.

I reached for my purse and looked at her again, she was obviously angry and flustered. “Thank you for your help,” I said, meaning to sound sincere though I’m not sure how successful I was.

“You’re welcome,” she said, regaining some composure. “I do wish you the best.” It was a clipped sentence that she bit off quickly.

“I hope you get to get out and enjoy some of this nice weather,” I said, referring to our chitchat about the warm sunshine from the beginning of our session. I really did mean it. I was still angry, but I also felt bad for her. Obviously, something I’d said had ruffled her, and it hadn’t been my intention.

“I won’t,” she said. “I have to spend the evening doing a training.” It seemed like a weird detail to tell me.

Undaunted by her sour mood and always one to get in a joke where I can, I responded, “Well, you’ve got twenty extra minutes since I’m leaving early!”

“No. I have nothing but paperwork to do and notes to prepare.” I was out the door now. She was standing in the doorway.

“That sounds like hard work.” I probably shouldn’t have said it, but I couldn’t help myself. Maybe I need some counseling. “I hope no one tells you it’s easy and tries to devalue it.”

As I walked away, I heard her responding to my back, “Just because something is easy doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. . .” But I was done.

On one hand, I feel like I wasted all that effort. I’m less stressed than I was two months ago, but I think it has everything to do with some positive changes to the actual things stressing me out and very little to do with those counseling sessions. I didn’t learn any new strategies to deal with the times when life does feel overwhelming, and I certainly didn’t gain an ongoing partnership with a professional to tackle them.

Worse still, her comments tapped into one of my deepest insecurities. There’s a large part of me that agrees with her. I have a loud internal voice that says those exact things to me all the time. Cleaning your own house shouldn’t be hard for you. These are simple tasks. Get it together. What’s wrong with you?

It’s a guilt and challenge that I already face, and it felt extra shitty to have it reinforced as valid by a professional.

Maybe she’s right and the enormity of the task as it exists in my head is a sign that I am somehow inadequate, lazy, or otherwise flawed. But that doesn’t make the thing I said at the beginning any less true: housekeeping is hard for me. It is a struggle that brings me persistent, regular doses of stress.

I know I’m not the only one who feels that way, and I also know that I’ve never made a hard task easier by pretending it wasn’t hard in the first place. It’s a good thing I wasn’t paying for those counseling sessions out of pocket because, if I had been, I would have been a whole lot better off just paying the professional organizer for some more of her time.

Maybe it was a matter of second-wave feminism coming up against third-wave feminism. Maybe it was anti-feminism coming up against feminism. Maybe I tapped into some personal hang up this woman had in her own life. I don’t know, but it feels like I stepped into a major rift without any warning, like hitting the drop off point when you’re wading in the ocean. 

I’ve spent the past few days going over the conversation again and again in my mind, but I have no clearer insight and no better strategies. 

And I still have to do the dishes tonight.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Advertising, Postmodernity, Greed, the Fourth Wall: Breaking Up with The Walking Dead

I am done with The Walking Dead. Like Scandal before it, it has come time for me to write a public break-up letter to a television series that has been able to count me among its many faithful viewers for years.

My husband has no problem breaking up with shows. He does it flippantly, like he's tossing out a crumpled paper cup.

The metaphoric aftermath of a night of my husband's Netflix surfing. 
For me, it hurts more. I feel invested. If I've been watching regularly, I've given you my time and attention, and that was a conscious choice. I believed in you, and I likely weathered through some rough patches (which I already wrote about with TWD), giving you the benefit of the doubt that the chemistry was momentarily off but that you would get it together eventually.

But I'm done with you, The Walking Dead.

The Season 6 finale with its maddening cliffhanger was the breaking point, and I will take with me the memories of a tightly-written, character-driven plot that drew me in but could not sustain itself. Or (as I will explore here in a moment) perhaps could have sustained itself but chose the route of greed and flash instead of art and respect for the viewer.

Spoilers for the Season 6 finale from here on out.

I am not the only fan who is disappointed. Here are some reactions from Twitter last night:

Many critics were likewise unimpressed. Writing for Vareity, Brian Lowry had this to say:
Still, to borrow one more baseball metaphor, with such a murderers’ row of aces in its bullpen, “The Walking Dead” shouldn’t have to resort to throwing the creative equivalent of junk pitches. And that’s why despite its highlights, the finale simply drove home the sense that while this season wasn’t a complete swing and a miss, those in charge continue to make aggravating unforced errors.
 Matt Fowler writes on IGN:
But to have the audience on the edge of their seats for so long and then NOT give them an answer? Well, that sucked. And, unfortunately, it's almost become textbook Walking Dead at this point.
Matt Brennan, in a review for The Week titled simply "The Walking Dead Season 6 Finale Was Really, Really Bad," said this:
After all that hype, Negan turns out to be a leather-clad lesson in overplaying your hand, delivering a risible monologue sprinkled with phrases like "pee-pee pants city." It's at once disappointing and unsurprising; it's rare for an episode this atrocious to pull off the necessary Hail Mary. Still, for Negan to fail so spectacularly to live up to the hype is like rubbing salt in the wound.
 Tim Surette writes for TV Guide that:
This was a mind game to The Walking Dead instead of a real story. Imagine how livid we'd be if Glenn was killed. We'd be lining up to see Season 7 to watch how Rick and the group got out of this situation, or how they'd retaliate. But nope, we're only lining up to find out who died, which is a completely different and entirely empty motivation for watching. 
But Surette ends by saying, "Sigh. It worked, though, and we'll be watching Season 7."  Other critics were harsher. David Sims at The Atlantic promises that this is:
certainly the end of my relationship with this show, a decision that was solidified by me catching the first few minutes of Talking Dead (the after-show debriefing that airs every week on AMC) and seeing the comic-book creator Roger Kirkman promise that Negan would drive The Walking Dead’s story for 'several seasons' to come.
I'm with Sims. I'm done.

I don't care who died. I don't care who lives or how they get revenge. I don't care about any of it anymore because the show runners have failed to hold up any respect for their viewers and have instead made it clear they see us as nothing more than mindless pawns that they can manipulate into clicking across their multiple platforms to feed them advertising dollars. I no longer have any faith that they care about the plot or the characters or the art at all, and it's an ugly thing.

In the same Atlantic discussion, Lenika Cruz writes that "Unfortunately, this last season of The Walking Dead points to the sad fact that the show views the question 'Who will die?' as its only narrative currency—" My focus is definitely on the word "currency." She mentions that other shows (like Game of Thrones, which is also in the midst of a gigantic fan-frenzy-filled cliffhanger) use that question to their advantage, but they respect the viewers enough to give us more than just that. The Walking Dead no longer shows that respect.

I'm also with Melissa Leon who calls the show "trolltastic." That's exactly how it feels. And it's not just the ending on a ridiculously overblown cliffhanger that has me feeling like I've been trolled. It's the entire atmosphere that has surrounded the show. If you watch The Walking Dead as it airs (the only way to avoid a social media swarm of spoilers), then you can't miss the commercials, and the commercials are desperate.

Between promotions for Fear the Walking Dead (a spinoff that isn't spinning off very well), interjections from Talking Dead, clips of Fear the Walking Dead's airplane sequence that's only available in one-minute bursts and has to be pieced together like a really boring jigsaw puzzle, promotions for the show's official online game app, and replays of the scene you just watched before the outcome of it has been resolved with a voice over telling you to tune in online to see how it was filmed, I don't know how they even manage to save space to sell to actual advertisers. It's clear that fan interaction with side products is a real (perhaps the real) motivating force for the show. (It's almost like someone running for president so he can hock his lines of steaks, but I digress.)

But when they do manage to make room for traditional commercials, the commercials are often trying to cash in on the loyalty and interests of TWD fan base. Several commercials have specifically had zombie tie-ins and references to the show and zombie culture. Everything from fitness bands to cars have been shoehorned into the theme.

I understand that a show needs to make money, but this obvious cash grab has to be balanced with the viewers' artistic needs.

Scott Gimple, the show's executive producer, is attempting to explain the cliffhanger and asking viewers to have faith in the show runners:
I think if you approach it from a place of skepticism or with the idea that there’s some sort of negative motivation or cynical motivation behind it — if you come at it that way it’s difficult to convince you otherwise. I do think we’ve done enough on the show, we’ve delivered a story that people have enjoyed.  
I ask people to give us the benefit of the doubt that it’s all part of a plan, all part of a story. I truly hope that people see [the season 7 premiere] and they feel it justifies the way we’ve decided to tell the story. That is the way it is in our minds. I know what [the season 7 premiere] is and I feel that it delivers on what [the season 6 finale] sets up.
Fans don't owe that kind of dedication, especially when the fans' artistic needs have been neglected, and I suspect that they might have finally tipped the balance too far with this one. For one, the show hasn't been enjoyable for me for the entire season. Watching it with all the interruptions has made the suspension of disbelief necessary to get lost in the fantasy world absolutely impossible. How am I supposed to be concerned about the characters' fate when I'm being interrupted by a "see how this scene got made" promo merely moments after it happens? You're not even giving me the illusion of a narrative escape. And for what? The off-chance that I will go click on the website? Don't you think I can find that on my own if I really want it?

I'm reminded so often that I'm watching a show while watching The Walking Dead that it has become an exercise in postmodern meta-ness. All of the commercials for the side gigs create an ever-growing web of interconnected marketing ploys that I can see as nothing other than marketing ploys. I'm not asking interesting questions about the characters and their motivations or futures. I'm just swatting annoying distractions away until the show comes back on. It's like watching TV in a room full of giant gnats. It's not fun, and it's not heart-wrenching. It's just annoying.

When the fourth wall is broken for the sake of narrative complexity and formal experimentation, I'm all about it.

But when the fourth wall is broken so that you can sell a couple more downloads of your gaming app, I'm out.

I sincerely hope that The Walking Dead's commercial success is not a harbinger of the TV to come. I love television as a narrative tool, and I think that some of our best writing and art is coming through the medium, but if we don't find a way to balance the interests of greed and artistic development, that wave may have hit its high water mark, and I fear that the aftermath will be nothing but gross remnants of decay left on the shore.

So, I didn't mean to make this post sound so melodramatic, but I guess that's where we are: Save TV. Break up with The Walking Dead. 

Images: Rene Schwietzke, weisserstier

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Rolling Apples: Far From the Tree Makes Me Break My Parenting Silences

I am writing this at 1:30 in the morning on top of an opened copy of the book Far From the Tree. I’ve only made it 26 pages in (or virtually none of this 900-page tome), but what I’ve read so far has left me with that itchy feeling in my fingers and brain that I’ve come to recognize as a clear message: go ahead and write or you’re not sleeping.

Far From the Tree is a critically-acclaimed book that examines the stories of parents and children who differ in significant ways. If “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” these are the stories that prove exceptions. Author Andrew Solomon profiles parents of children with disabilities, children who have committed atrocious crimes, children who are prodigies, children who are transgendered, and more. In this first chapter, he has also woven his own story into the fabric of the book, explaining that his identity as gay was one that his own parents never quite accepted even though they loved him and wanted him to be happy.

He talks of vertical and horizontal identities. Vertical identities are the ones that are passed down through generations and genetics, racial identity is typically vertical. He also cites religious and cultural practices. Horizontal identities are the ones that we have to find outside of our biological family because they are the places in which we differ from our kin. Instead, we find ourselves seeking these “families” in peer groups. He places his own identity as gay as vertical (since he was born to heterosexual parents) and cites deaf children born to parents who can hear and child prodigies who are much more intellectually advanced than their parents among those who have to seek their identity peer group horizontally.

It’s so far a fascinating read, and I am a little worried how hard I am going to have to work to not sit here and read all 900 pages while shirking my other duties (including the biological ones like sleeping), but right now, I need to write.

The thing that has me furiously typing is a quote from the book that I have now returned to six times:

"We often use illness to disparage a way of being, and identity to validate that same way of being. This is a false dichotomy. In physics, the Copenhagen interpretation defines energy/matter as behaving sometimes like a wave and sometimes like a particle, which suggests that it is both, and posits that it is our human limitation to be unable to see both at the same time. The Noble Prize-winning physicist Paul Dirac identified how light appears to be a particle if we ask particle-like questions, and a wave if we ask wavelike questions. A similar duality obtains in this matter of self. Many conditions are both illness and identity, but we can see one only when we obscure the other. Identity politics refutes the idea of illness, while medicine shortchanged identity. Both are diminished by this narrowness."

There are several reasons that this passage has been drawing me back again and again (not the least of which is that this passage is so rife with the agonism that I spent the past few years writing a dissertation about), but the main thing that I want to talk about in this post is how it has me wanting to come out of the shadows about the position I’m in as a parent of a child that is both an apple close to and far from the tree, a rolling apple who I love very much and whose happiness and future path to fulfillment has become the primary driving force of many of my daily decisions.

I don’t talk about this much, and this is hard for me to write.

Writing and spilling it all for the world to see is a cathartic practice for me, and it’s what made me start this blog those six (six!) long years ago in the first place. I don’t hide many skeletons in my closet feeling very strongly that the skeletons are a lot less menacing when they’re out in the sunlight. It’s there that they often turn to dust, and what once seemed terrifying and heavy becomes light and blows away. Since this blog began when I found out I was pregnant with my daughter and since its earliest themes were squarely rooted in my burgeoning identity as a mother (and what that meant for the intersection with my identities as a feminist, wife, scholar, and professional), I wrote about my daughter a lot in those early years. I wrote about uncomfortable interactions surrounding her biracial identity, choices I made as to what she was allowed to watch on television, and struggles I faced when it came to negotiating parenting in an equally shared marriage. I wrote about my daughter, but mainly because I was writing about myself.

In those earliest years, I also posted pictures of my daughter and used a lot of personal details, but the anonymity of the Internet also makes it cruel, and the cruelest comments coincided with my daughter’s burgeoning maturity. It was much harder to write about her as this somewhat-abstract quality in my own life without fully considering the way that writing nibbled at the edges of a story that wasn’t mine to tell: her story. I stopped posting pictures publicly. I pulled back on the personal details in stories. I still talked about parenting, but it was always in a more distanced, buffered way. I found it harder and harder to talk about my specific experiences as a parent without talking about her specific experiences as not only my child, not only a child, but also just an individual person with her own right to negotiate privacy, sharing, and communication.

And because of those decisions, I have left out a lot of my experiences from this public platform. I have made a few one-line references to the fact that my daughter has had some behavioral issues. I have shared some funny anecdotes of her “spirited” personality. I have given cautious glimpses of some of the intense moments of my daily life that make parenting both an amazing well of inspiration and a tremendous drain on my emotional strength. But I have not talked about specifics. I have not waded into the waters of terminology or diagnoses. And I have done so not because I am ashamed but because I cannot at this moment tell where my story ends and hers begins.

Perhaps that’s because there is no such seam. She is five. She is old enough to have the autonomy to get herself strawberries from the refrigerator, pull the step stool from the wall, wash them, and eat them, but not yet old enough to remember to pick up all the discarded stems strewn about the floor like Hantzel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs leading to her book fort. She is mature enough to make insightful commentary about the nature of forgiveness and social pecking orders but still too immature to understand that the other children on the playground might not want to play her game and that doesn’t mean they “hate” her. 

When she has a public meltdown that has everyone in the vicinity staring at me like I have just severed someone’s limb in the middle of aisle 6 and am now holding it gleefully above my head just to disrupt their shopping trip, I feel very much like it is my story, like I am the one in the spotlight. But I know that later (sometimes only moments later), I will be holding a little girl who is spilling her deepest insecurities at my feet and trusting me to hold them safely for her until she can take them back, one by one, and process them. When I am getting phone calls from the school that give me actual anxiety attacks at work about her behavior at school, it feels like my story to tell, but I can’t separate that moment of dread in my belly as I sit in my office from the fact that my daughter (so little with such big emotions) is sitting a mile away with her own dread settling over her.

There has been no clear division separating her from me or me from her in this story, and so I have told almost none of it.

If I were a different kind of person, I think I would continue this way. I don’t think this story needs to be told in the sense that it is all that unique or all that earth shattering. But I am not a different kind of person. I am the kind of person who processes through dialogue, who shares, who finds strength in telling her own story and watching it form for an audience, who drags skeletons out of the closet and into the sunlight as a source of power. The fact that I have kept choking this one back down has been painful, and it’s been a pain I have felt that I was supposed to endure.

But parts of Far From the Tree have me questioning that impulse.

At one point, Solomon writes of his own mother’s aversion to his identity as gay and says this: 
“The problem wasn’t that she wanted to control my life—although she did, like most parents, genuinely believe that her way of being happy was the best way of being happy. The problem was that she wanted to control her life, and it was her life as the mother of a homosexual that she wished to alter. Unfortunately, there was no way for her to fix her problem without involving me.”

Elsewhere, he says of parents who have learned to accept vertical identities: 
“Broadcasting these parents’ learned happiness is vital to sustaining identities that are now vulnerable to eradication. Their stories point a way for all of us to expand our definitions of the human family. It’s important to know how autistic people feel about autism, or dwarfs about dwarfism. Self-acceptance is part of the ideal, but without familial and societal acceptance, it cannot ameliorate the relentless injustices to which many horizontal identity groups are subject and will not bring about adequate reform.”
Later, talking about the disability rights movement, he says that the movements “seeks, at the most basic level, to find accommodations of difference rather than erasure of it.”

And that, essentially, is what my silence has been doing. I have been erasing part of my own child’s identity because it has been labeled an illness. This brings me back to that first quote above and how both identity and illness can be found in the same quality but that trying to define it as one or the other can obscure and narrow the definition.

My daughter, after years of behavioral struggles punctuated with intense bursts of intellectual acceleration, has been diagnosed as having ADHD, giftedness, and some other cognitive struggles. The term most commonly used for this cluster of issues is “twice exceptionality,” which means that she scores above-average in some areas while showing delays or deficiencies in others. It is not, by a long shot, a worst-case scenario. She has amazing strengths that continue to blossom every day, but she also has challenges that are starting to show themselves as hurdles to educational environments and societal norms that present themselves as particularly challenging mazes.

And since at this point in her life I cannot untangle her story from mine, her challenges have also become my challenges. I am faced daily with questions about which aspects of my daughter’s many qualities to try to amplify and which to attempt to “cure,” through medicine, discipline, or otherwise. Which of her quirks and differences are to be carefully nurtured to their greatest potential and which are to be pruned or stunted until they fade to the background? And am I under delusions to think that I have control over these outcomes at all? And if I am not delusional about my level of control, what ethical right do I have to choose for her how to balance them out before she has the chance to weigh them for herself? More practically, how do I ensure she is in a supportive environment at home that allows her to master all of the skills she needs, not just those she naturally excels at honing? And, more difficultly, how do I make sure that environment extends to the educational setting she spends so much of her day inhabiting—environments where I am not present?

It’s this last one that has been such a conundrum. If I want her to get the accommodations that I think she truly needs to thrive in a school environment, she has to have a label. My life has become an alphabet soup of IEPs, ADHD, OT, PT, with a smattering of 504 thrown in to keep it interesting. High academic test scores become an ironic hindrance that somehow “prove” she doesn’t need help even as she sobs uncontrollably after yet another day of being a “bad” girl at school.

Parenting my daughter has challenged every assumption I ever made about parenting in ways good and bad. I have bent where I thought I never would and grown where I didn’t know I could. I have felt joy and pride deeper than I knew imaginable and felt shame and guilt that sliced like a knife. And I am only five years in. And I am starting all over with a whole new apple in two months that will undoubtedly throw me for loops in entirely different directions.

But this is my promise, today, to stop trying to hide this ever-growing bag of complications I’m carrying behind me. I believe it fully possible to respect my daughter’s right to tell her own story, to parcel out her own secrets, while still telling mine. Not only will I be, as Solomon so eloquently describes, a better advocate with her when my truth is laid bare, but I will also be a better knower of that truth because throwing it out here for the world to see makes me see it clearer, too. That is, after all, what most memoir is about, and it is, I suspect, why Andrew Solomon took on the massive project of Far From the Tree in the first place: to find his own truth about his struggles by throwing it out in the public eye.

I do not know which pieces of this I am getting right, but I do know that I am trying and that acceptance and love are at the foundational core of every parenting decision that I make. My daughter may be a rolling apple who visits pastures I cannot understand, but I think this tree has branches wide enough to cover her there.