Monthly Archives: February 2015

On Being a Mother (2015 Version)

It’s February 26th. And, as I do every year around this time, I am struggling with the definition of motherhood and being a mother.

This year, I’m thinking deeply about what I gave up to be where I am, in graduate school, earning a master’s degree. One discussion on the subject has always stuck with me. I was sitting in my psychology professor’s office, discussing the requirements for getting a graduate degree in psychology. Her background and extended time at the university made her an expert in my eyes. As we sat, she rattled of a lot of statistics—a doctorate in psychology would take me up to eight years. I could get a master’s, but there weren’t many jobs available without the doctorate. She also told me that many people struggle to have or start a family in graduate school because of the demands on their time and person; she knew that I had lost my child, and that the idea of having another was always lurking in some part of my mind. She only brought it up because she cared, because she wanted me to make the best choice for me and my future. But it still hurt to hear it: “If you want to get an advanced degree, and I believe you could, then you need to make peace with the fact that it’s possible you will never have another child.”

I remember sitting on the rolling chair in my professor’s office that day, pushing the chair back and forth with my feet, and wondering what was really the most important to me—did I want to further my education? Or did I want to be a mother? Did I really have to choose? Yes. Yes I did. The world says the women can have everything, but, in reality, it’s really, really hard to have it all. There can’t be one victory without the giving up of another.

People keep asking me what I want to do with my life after graduate school. Here’s the answer: I want to write, and I want to teach. (Though the teaching dream may be in limbo at the moment, but that’s for another post). I’m doing everything that I’m supposed to now; I’m working on getting as many publications as I can under my belt and trying to gain teaching experience so that I can be hired as a professor. The more I publish, (provided I can get experience), the more hirable I become. I can establish myself as a possessor of knowledge, but it’s gonna take time. Time that I don’t have in the grand scheme of child bearing. I watch the people I know, the woman, and when they have children versus when they have solid jobs (aka, I have observed and researched the tenure process). Many women wait to have kids until they have tenure; there’s a whole stigma that women with families are somehow “less than” men. I’m not aiming for a tenure position; if I write enough, I won’t need one. (Apparently I COULD get one if I was published highly enough. Again, that’s another blog). But I still worry about the stereotype, should I try to have kids. I worry that I see that situation only growing worse and worse as time goes on. I worry that I am growing into a world where the whole idea of having a family is lost; I worry that I have already made that choice.

I turn 31 this year. I’ll finish my master’s when I’m 32. (Provided it doesn’t kill me first). Then I’m out in the world, maybe teaching, maybe not. Maybe solid, maybe not. Probably not. It’ll take time to find a stable living out there in the world, and I’m not going to have a baby unless I can provide for it. So my career is a strike against my future child. And here’s the other thing about babies—you can’t make ‘em solo. And I’m just not interested in a relationship with a male. Strike two.

Okay, so, I know that there are other ways to have babies besides the whole sex thing. But those ways take time too. By my estimation, I’ll be in my late 30’s before I even have the opportunity to have children. A good friend pointed out to me this week that she’s in that age bracket and having kids. But for me, in my head, it all goes back to that being established thing. I’m scrambling now to pull it off as much as I can before I graduate, but thesis time is fast approaching, and then there will be no time for anything else.

THERE IS NEVER ENOUGH TIME.

And with that argument, which is, albeit, flawed in many ways, I face the fact that I might never have another child. I might not be a mother. Which brings me back to “What is the definition of a mother?” I looked it up. Here are some highlights:

1. a woman in relation to a child or children to whom she has given birth

2. a woman in authority, or, the superior of a religious community of women

3. bring up (a child) with care and affection

4. give birth to

5. a female parent

6. something that is an extreme or ultimate example of its kind especially in terms of scale

The next question is, where do I fit into that?

1. a woman in relation to a child or children to whom she has given birth

That’s me. Or rather, that was me. It’s a weird gray area that’s not current, but that’s current at the same time.

2. a woman in authority, or, the superior of a religious community of women

This is definitely not me.

3. bring up (a child) with care and affection

This isn’t me either.

4. give birth to

This, yes. This was me. 22 hours of labor earns me the right to claim this one.

5. a female parent

Again, this one’s a weird gray area.

6. something that is an extreme or ultimate example of its kind especially in terms of scale

I like to think I’m extreme, I guess. But I’m not. I’m not “the mother of all—“ anything.

Really, the only thing here that solidly applies to me is giving birth. But lots of women do that, and they aren’t all great. Or, they are, but they don’t keep their baby for whatever reason. I feel like, on that basis, I have to disagree that to give birth makes a mother.

4. give birth to

This means that I fit nowhere in the definition of being a mother. My situation is just so … gray.

And so ends my yearly reflection on being a mother. I don’t fit into the mother box; I sit outside of it, balancing on its flap and looking inside to the place where I may never go. I wanted to write; I probably left the dream of being a mother, of having another baby, behind when I chose the dream of writing. I let the door to motherhood shut on me when I turned 30, and I don’t know how to reopen it. I don’t know if it CAN be reopened. I had a chance, and I lost it. I wanted to write, and I went after it. And sometimes, I can’t help the idea that I have forever left myself in the gray. That my son is gone, and that I won’t have another. 

Happy February.

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On Going to the Bar

I’m not a good socializer. At least not in crowded social situations like bars. I can be an EXCELLENT socializer in smaller situations. One on one. A few on one. I’m best with people I know, but I can hold my own with people I don’t. If nothing else, I’m a fantastic listener. (I should also add, the best part of the couple people I have slightly gotten to know is that they understand my dislike of crowded places.)

Tonight, I feel like a faker.

I want to be better. I want to get to know people. I want to drop the stupid guard I’ve built. I took a risk tonight and went to the bar with my classmates. Never mind that most of them are quite a bit younger than me. Never mind that they talk about a lot of things I don’t understand and/or have never experienced. I went. And I didn’t like it.

I don’t solidly know why, but I didn’t like it. I was wildly uncomfortable. Honestly? I don’t know much about sex or drugs, and those were two conversations I muddled my way through tonight. I was fine with talk of our classes, our workshops. The seminar tonight where we watched the most beautiful but horribly depressing movie. I was fine talking about writing. How hard it is. How grad school makes us struggle, but how we are better for it. But when it came to other topics, I was left listening. I felt weird and out of place.

Earlier in the evening, I had the pleasure of going out to dinner with people from the fiction program. (Even though I had already eaten). That was lovely. Three people. Lots of productive conversation about a myriad of topics. But throw me in a bar? I get lost. I had a few bar experiences in my undergrad years. They weren’t bad. The most memorable of them involve mozzarella sticks and darts. These times were with people I knew. Maybe that was the magic of it. Or maybe I was just younger then. Maybe this really IS something I’m too old for.

All that the evening’s risk taking served to prove was that no amount of twisting, pushing, or shoving is going to make me fit in at a bar. It’s not my mold. It’s loud and crowded and makes my brain all sparkly. People are always surprised when I don’t go to the bar. “How will you meet people??” The only get togethers we have at my school are at the bar. So then, one would assume I will struggle to meet anyone beyond my experience tonight. I’m not sure that’s okay. But I spent so many years trying to be someone I’m not that I really don’t want to play that game anymore. I didn’t come here for that. I didn’t fight tooth and nail to get here as someone else.

Everyone likes the bar, and I don’t. Is it that I won’t LET myself like it here? Because tonight was the closest I’ve come to actually feeling like I belonged in this group. Or is it simply that I’m a square peg trying to fit a round hole? The answer is anything but simple, but I’d love to find it.

On Rape

“I’ve always thought that under rape in the dictionary it should tell the truth. It is not just forcible intercourse; rape means to inhabit and destroy everything.”

― Alice Sebold, Lucky

Why did I want to go to grad school? I don’t know. Lots of reasons. It seemed like a natural continuation from undergrad, which was the first place I really fit in and thrived. I was (am) an excellent student, so I did what excellent students do and kept going. I want to be a writer. I want to be a BETTER writer. I maybe want to teach (we shall see about that). But more than that, I have a story. And I think that the real reason that I came to grad school was because I wanted to learn better ways to tell it. I had this idea in my head that I wanted to write a book like “Lucky.” I wanted to give a message and pack a punch, and make sense of a senseless thing that happened to me. 

Here’s the thing. There’s no sense to it. I can write on it until kingdom come, and I won’t find sense. Rape is senseless. And I’m not Alice Sebold. I’m me. And everything is different for me. This time of year, I’m not my best self. I’m not happy all the time. And while it might be frustrating, there’s nothing wrong with it. I’m entitled to my bad moods along with the good, especially because the good moods are now much more plentiful. Right now? I’m struggling with my work. I’m struggling to write this book that I know needs to be written, because there is an underlying current within it that I don’t like and I don’t fully understand. I can see another survivor and say “It’s not your fault.” I mean it, wholeheartedly. I know it to be true. But it’s harder to say to myself. Two million percent harder.

I did some research on rape statistics for another piece of mine, as well as the origins of rape as a word:

“Every two minutes, someone in the United States is raped. Each year, there are about 207,754 victims. Forty-four percent of rape victims are under the age of eighteen. Eighty percent are under the age of thirty. Fifty-four percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police. Ninety-seven percent of rapists don’t even spend ONE day in jail. Two-thirds of assaults are committed by someone the victim has met previously. Thirty-eight percent are committed by a friend, acquaintance, or spouse. It’s this on one hand, this horrible indescribable act; it’s a yellow plant on the other. It’s grapes. It’s soap. It’s sex.”

Rape is an ugly ugly word. Sebold was right. It inhabits and destroys everything. It’s an herb, at the same time as it’s this horrible act of complete violence. An act that way too many people have been through. In short, there are a lot of survivors out there, male and female. A lot of people who need to know that it is not their fault. That, while rape may inhabit and destroy everything, we WILL survive it. We WILL regrow. We WILL be okay.

How can I write these chapters, this book, and do justice to the horrible act that is rape? It is so so important to me to make sure that the reader knows it is NOT shameful to be a survivor, but how can I deliver that message when I can’t always personally say it to myself? When I can’t even say the word rape? When I’m asked to read things out loud and I edit them in my head to avoid the word? When I generally don’t even incorporate it into my writing if I can get away with it? I feel like I should be able to very clearly say “This is not my fault” in order to convey to my reader “This is not your fault.” It’s easy to say. Harder sometimes to believe.

In the back of my mind, as I read that last paragraph, I wonder if every survivor feels this way. If the act of being hurt, being broken, being violated, is just so senseless that we can see how it is most definitely NOT everyone else’s fault—but that we can’t always say those words to ourselves. That we blame ourselves. We shouldn’t. I shouldn’t. And we know that. I know that. And yet, we do it.

In grad school writing workshops, we share our work. This semester, we share a LOT. We go through it sentence by sentence. We rip it apart, and we put it back together. It’s not just our work that’s getting ripped apart either, but also us as people. Our feelings. It’s so weird to hear my words come from other people’s mouths, to talk about how the choices I made both in life and in my writing. It’s weird that I’ve gotten to a point where I can do it, where this time even last year this would not have been the case. It is interesting to me to push my challenge line as a survivor, to see how far I can go. How much I can handle. The answer? I can handle a lot. And I am DAMN proud of that fact. I’m not so proud of the thoughts that linger in the back of my mind sometimes. I want to be this strong person, this one who can always concretely have the right answer. Who can say, “The man who did this is an asshat and it’s totally on him.” He is, and it is. And it pains me to say it, but some days I feel it on me too. Shouldn’t, but do.

As a survivor, as a writer, I suddenly find myself expected to speak. My words will reach other survivors. It’s what I wanted. But it scares me. I don’t always know what to say. I don’t know how to put my story down in a way that makes it say what I want it to say.

Maybe it makes me more relatable, more authentic, to admit that I’m not perfect. That I hate what happened to me, and sometimes I am ashamed. Maybe it makes me a hypocrite. I’m not sure. But it’s the god’s honest truth. Some days are not okay, and that’s okay. If that’s you as well, if you feel that way, well…It’s okay for you too. It’s okay to not be okay, just as much as it is okay to be okay. It is okay to feel however you want to feel.

It is not your fault.

It is never your fault.

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Vaccines and Responsibility

When I was pregnant, I didn’t have a lot of friends, especially friends that were my age. As a result, I didn’t know many people to talk to about being pregnant. I resorted to the internet to answer a great many questions, and the people I knew at church to answer others. When I went to my 20 week OB appointment, my doctor asked if I had gotten my flu shot. More so, he wanted to know about the H1N1 immunization.

“There are a lot of different strains of the flu,” he told me. “But H1N1, or swine flu, as you’ve probably heard it called on tv, is different. Where the flu vaccine may not necessarily target the strain of flu that’s infecting you, the swine flu vaccine knows what it’s looking for and takes care of business. If you don’t have it yet, you should. And if you get, it will save your baby from having to get it when he is born. He will be immunized through you.”

I looked at the husband, and then back at the doctor. “I’d like to think about it. Research a bit first.”

“I understand. But come in as soon as possible if you do decide to get it. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

On the drive home, I asked the husband what he thought. His answer was noncommittal, as always. So when I got to church choir rehearsal later that night, I asked around. In particular, I asked the only person I remotely knew on a personal level had had babies. Her response? “Better safe than sorry.” The next day, I called and scheduled an appointment to come in and get vaccinated. I didn’t want my son to die from something as simple to prevent as the swine flu.

I remember lying in my hospital bed at some point while I was in labor. It was late at night. My OB came in in what looked like his pajamas and pulled a chair up to the foot of my bed, twisting it around so he could straddle it backwards.

“Sometimes we don’t know why these things happen,” he began.

“Why what things happen?” I asked.

“Why babies die.”

“He’s not dead. He’s going to come out just fine.”

My response seemed to baffle him. He stammered out his next words. “I…We…We can run some tests, to determine what happened. To get as close to a reason as we can so that when you have your next baby, we are better prepared.”

“There won’t be another baby,” I informed him. “There will be this baby. Because I did everything I could to make sure he would be safe.”

My baby wasn’t safe. He was dead. After twenty plus hours of labor over a very long, sleepless night. And at four o clock in the morning, a nurse appeared. “We need you to make a decision now. About the autopsy.”

The husband was sleeping, so I spoke for both of us. “No. You can’t cut up my child. No.”

So I, at least, never knew for sure what happened to my son.

I went back to church the following weekend. There was a special concert with some special gospel singer whose name I can no longer remember. I stood up in the balcony, watching the other choir members rehearse and debating whether I should join them. My elbows dug into the row of pews in front of me. I wondered whether or not I could fake the songs they were singing, if I knew them well enough. I heard the whispers; I had heard them everywhere.

“Did you see that Sara’s back?”

“Have you talked to her?”

“I don’t even know what to say.”

“I feel so bad for her.”

And then:

“I heard her asking around the choir room about the H1N1 vaccine. I wonder if that’s what did it.”

“I bet it is. You know those vaccines cause autism. And stillbirth. I bet if she wouldn’t have got it, that baby would be alive right now.”

I turned around and walked up the three rows of balcony and out the door to where the two women were standing. I vaguely remembered seeing them in choir, but I couldn’t remember their names. They didn’t even have the decency to look ashamed when they saw me.

“What?” the woman who was farther away said. “It’s true. Vaccines kill children.”

My face flamed red hot with tears I didn’t know how to shed. They didn’t even know me, and I didn’t know them. And yet, the insinuation burned me, deep inside. I didn’t know how my son had died, but he had been in my body. So it made sense that, in some way, I had killed him.

I killed him.

The next morning, the OB’s office called to confirm my post-delivery appointment for both me and my son. “I think I killed him,” I informed the poor woman on the other end of the phone. She was really confused, and I found myself stammering to explain. “I…I mean…He’s dead. He’s…dead.”

The poor unfortunate soul scrambled to erase that appointment and the pediatrician appointment from her computer before I got another phone call.

“Can I ask you a question?”

I could hear her frantically typing in the background. “Yes, of course.”

“Could a vaccine kill a baby?”

“You should ask your doctor that question when you come in. You need to schedule a follow up, yes?”

And so, I asked my doctor. “No, no,” he assured me. “Of course not.”

It occurred to me, as I left his office, that he had given me the vaccine and therefore might be slightly biased. So I turned to the internet. There were studies for vaccines causing everything. Autism. Blindness. You could find a study that showed children who had been vaccinated with any number of diseases. I pored over so many things that it seemed like I could almost say vaccines caused alien abductions; that was how ridiculous the information all was. There was correlation, sure. You can find correlation in anything if you looked hard enough and jam enough pieces together. But no one could prove causation for anything except vaccines helping to prevent disease. Things happened. But vaccines didn’t necessarily cause them.

It bothers me now, to think about that moment. And the ones that followed. An overheard whisper. An article somebody sent to me with the attached message, “This might help you find answers.” The title of the article? ‘When Vaccinations Kill.’

Was everybody talking about me?

The vaccine debate is a hot one as of late. With the measles fast infringing on the Chicagoland, parents are scared. And they should be. Many people choose not to vaccinate their children, for whatever reason. The point is, everyone is entitled to have their opinion. But not at the expense of other people’s safety. And not at the expense of their emotional well being. So share your opinion. But share it only when it’s appropriate to do so. And share it nicely, respectfully. Peacefully. Being mean spirited gets no one heard, and gets the debate nowhere. Nasty comments on any side of an argument just shut everything down. Do your research.

Personally, I think y’all should protect your children, and protect the children (and others) around you who cannot protect themselves. Vaccines are a simple, easy solution to horrible, painful diseases that not all children are equipped to handle on their own. Getting your child vaccinated prevents them from getting the disease, and can possibly prevent any immunocompromised people they may come into contact with from getting it as well. You never know the struggles of the people around you. You’re free to make that choice if you feel it protects your child, just as other parents are free to vaccinate to protect their child. However, if you do choose not to vaccinate and your child has symptoms, keep them home. Be responsible. Keep everyone safe. Let us all look to Disneyland as the case and point on that one. 

If you choose not to vaccinate, if you support the other side of the debate, then share your opinion nicely–and remember that you too have a responsibility. And don’t you dare tell me that my choice to receive a vaccination killed my son. Because I have done my research, and that is a line I will never, ever, buy.

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The Social Checklist

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time with adults. I went to the Christian Science church every Sunday with my grandmother, and there were no other kids there. There were no kids in my apartment building. My next door neighbor, Jenny, was a brat and I hated her and her house. I never really invited people over, because nobody ever really invited me over. I went to school, and I came home. I didn’t learn how to be around people my own age, not really.

I’m watching ‘The United States of Tara,’ right now, a show where the main character has dissociative identity disorder. One of her personalities is this animal like creature, for lack of a better word, that is all scared and low to the ground and full of feeling. Squeals when touched. Runs away. That is me in social situations. I don’t know how to integrate myself; I always wait for others to do it for me. I’ve spent my whole life being told what to do. And now I’m very much an adult and supposed to tell myself. Is that what moving to New York was all about? Was I trying to tell myself? I honestly came here because I thought that, because there are SO MANY people, I would have a better chance at making a friend. But there are SO MANY people, and I haven’t found my person yet. Graduate school is lonely. I am thirty years old. I should have a solid job and a family of my own and a friend base. But I don’t. I’m a writer. Dear god, I hope writing isn’t a pipe dream. 

I never imagined that this was where I would be at age thirty. Never. I honestly never though I would leave Wisconsin. By the time I was thirty, I was going to be (still) married, with a handful of kids and a steady job, in a life that was stable. I went straight from being a tiny child to being an adult, from reading picture books to reading The Iliad. I skipped over the traditional party time high school age, blew past college years, and went right to the workforce. Who needed college?

Me. I needed college. Preferably ten years ago.

Too late now.

I was talking to a classmate last week about how much older we are than so many others in our program. On the plus side, that means I have quite a bit of life experience to write about. On the negative side, it’s hard for me to connect to people in my program because they all just seem so … young. I missed that entire stage of my life where I could hang out with people my own age and party and just … be. My friends talk about their lives, about going out, doing things, having experiences. I got married instead.

I wasted a lot of my life.

I evaluate every possible social situation through my own personal lens. I have a checklist:

Where is it? Do I know how to get there safely?

Who is going? Do I know anybody there?

What will I do if I go and nobody talks to me?

What will I do if I go and everybody talks to me?

What will I do if people talk to me and I say something stupid?

What if I go and I don’t know how to act?

If I don’t have a solid answer, I don’t go. As a result, I never go.

This week I would like to go to the bar with my cohort. I mean, I’ve been here seven months now, and I’ve done nothing with them. But I have my checklist, and my responses:

No, I don’t know where it is. What if it’s too far from the subway to walk that late at night while possibly drunk?

I will never know who all is going. Our program isn’t small. (Though it’s also not huge). And all the genres go. I am bound to know someone. But I won’t know someone.

Chances are good I will go and everyone will know each other, because they’ve already had a semester to bond. And I will be there to awkwardly chime in at random points of the conversation but otherwise not speak because I don’t know what they expect of me in that situation.

Everyone is not going to talk to me.

I will be awkward and stupid because I have never been in that situation before, the situation of being in a bar with a group of people I don’t know. It’s just a fact.

Likewise, it’s a fact that I will not know how to act. I simply won’t.

I forget a lot. I forget that sometimes I can go to things and do well and talk and act normal and people like me. I forget that like that me. I never give myself credit for those moments.

The world has taught me a lot. How to be responsible. Punctual. Bright. Sad. Afraid. Ashamed. Awkward. I am thirty years old, and I’m ridiculously socially awkward when I’m out of my own pond. New York City is really a damn big pond. And it’s scary. It’s scary to realize how old I am, to realize that I don’t have any relationships here, to realize that thinking about being alone is a scary thing.

I want to go to the bar. I don’t want to have a social checklist. But I think it’s too late to erase it. I’ve seen too much.

I think I’m too old.

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On Being Old and Alone

It is interesting to make the switch from crying about what happened to crying about surviving what happened. It is more interesting still to do it alone, and to realize that what happened is the reason why, that you have made yourself alone.

I think that I used to be greatly saddened by my experiences. Not to say I’m not still. Some of them are quite sad. But now it’s more sad to be through them and be alone. I don’t want to be that. Alone.

I think that I will write a lot of books. I don’t know that they will all be published. But some will. These are the kind of books that will tell a story, that will rock a world like this one (Bastard Out of Carolina) has rocked mine. But they will be banned. They will be a story that people will want to silence. Some day, probably many years after they’re written, they will finally be taught. People will read them and learn from them. And then they will want to burn them or stab them with pointy stick. But the stories? They will be.

However, I think I’ll be alone. I do not really know how to love another person. How to really let a person in. Not to say I don’t try. I know how to CARE. I care about the friends I have, but they are all far away. And there’s no time. There’s not enough time to touch base. To talk. To really connect.

People become writers in order to tell stories. But it’s lonely, to be a writer. We make writers groups. (That we don’t go to). In the end, we write alone. I am a writer. And I want to tell my story. But I don’t want to be alone. Yet, I make myself this way. Three classmates invited me to the bar. I didn’t go. I joked that if they went on Friday, I would. (I wouldn’t.) People talk to me, and I say stupid things in response. I am horribly socially awkward and shy, and I let myself become this way. I let my experience be an excuse to be alone.

They say writing is a solitary profession. That’s the truth. But it’s something that we have to work hard to change. We need to make time. We need to go out. We need to make new stories. I don’t want to be old one day and realize that this story is all that I have.

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