Voting Like I Parent

I abruptly stopped sleeping last night at three a.m. and stayed awake for over two hours, until Max’s phone alarm signaled what I already knew—5:30, time to get up. Only then was I able to doze lightly, which I did for an hour, the comforting sounds of my boys starting their day drifted in with the smell of the coffee Hugo had brewed.

Until I was in my late 20s, I slept deeply through the night, every night. My days in college and graduate school at Ohio State University were long–each day I walked miles to and around campus and worked most nights. I had a boyfriend who marveled, was jealous even, at how easily I dropped into solid sleep for eight to ten hours.

This ended, irrevocably it seems, when at 28 I gave birth to my first child. Not only did I wake to nurse him, I roused if he coughed, cried or just wiggled. Before he moved into his own room, I had another baby and then another. All four of my boys moved into their own rooms long ago and baby Lyra has slept through the night since birth (she’s a jackpot of a baby). Yet I often find myself awake at night, most commonly at three o’clock or, as I call it, my Fretting Hour. I fret about issues both personal and global, mostly stuff I have little or no control over and that seem all the more important because in the middle of the night my rational mind can be hard to locate.

However, since mid-August when Lyra was born, I have had little trouble sleeping through the night. I’ve been physically whooped due to the birth, the many visits to doctors’ offices and Akron Children’s Hospital. And then there are the other four children who still need attention, food, driven to school. It’s all good.

What kept me up last night started on Saturday when we were trick or treating in our neighborhood. “I didn’t know they were Republicans,” said my son Jules, dressed as a mad scientist, as we walked past the house of friends. When I assured him that they weren’t, he pointed to the Romney-Ryan sign by no means hiding in our friends’ front yard. I must have had visual denial to have missed it. These friends, like me, voted for Obama in 2008 and abhorred the Bush presidency and what it seemingly stood for—a prioritization of political party interests over those of the nation, like they’re playing some crazy football game in Washington D.C. These friends also believe in the full array of civil rights for our GLBT citizens and that women should receive equal pay for their work and have full access to health care. And I thought that they believed in a safety net for those citizens who need it.

Though Obama and his administration have worked towards long term goals for our nation and not politically expedient goals for his re-election–goals like averting economic disaster and rebuilding the economy, ending the war in Iraq, ensuring the rights of all citizens, rebuilding our relationships with our allies and, yes, bringing affordable healthcare to all Americans–these friends of mine want to fire Obama. I have been walking around gobsmacked because I now see that the race must really be as tight as the media says it is and perhaps Obama will lose.

I have long been a Democrat, but I didn’t start out that way and who knows? If the Republicans at all resembled the party that they were in the mid-twentieth century, when states rights, personal and fiscal responsibility were the hallmarks of their platform, I may yet have continued to vote for their candidates. Like Barry Goldwater, who had little to no tolerance for religious extremists, Christian fundamentalists who twist and turn history to convince themselves that our founding fathers would have us become a theocracy and expect the Republican party to swear allegiance to their agenda. Or Bob Dole, who became a staunch supporter of Food Stamp Act in 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. The key difference between the pre- and post-Gingrich era Republicans seems to be an understanding of poverty. Older, if you will, Rockefeller Republicans who lived through the Great Depression and World War II did not view poverty as a character flaw but something that can happen to anyone. Now working class Americans are, according to Romney, a group who consider themselves victims and have become dependent upon the government and whom Romney does not take into consideration. He’s written them, including my children and me, off.

How did the Republicans win the hearts and minds of people who directly suffer from the consequences of their trickle down policies? How is it that my friends can reasonably blame the Bush Administration for getting the economy in such an abysmal state and then turn around and want to fire Obama for not fixing it fast enough and, furthermore, want to hand the reins of government back to the Republicans who will return us to the policies that got us in this mess to begin with?

I don’t have the answer to that question because I cannot imagine voting for a party that has become so ideologically extreme and capricious with power when they have it. I don’t reward my children for behaving irresponsibly, so why would I do so with my vote?

Consider my second son, Hugo, to whom everything comes easily and who has required by far more of my parenting time, energy and creative approaches than all of my other children put together. From the time he was toddler until quite recently, he has resisted being held accountable for his actions. Even if he had done something on accident, say bumped into another child causing him or her to fall, Hugo could not stand to apologize and would get in more trouble for his reaction to being busted than for the initial infraction. But I’ve continued to hang in there with him, show him that his behavior has consequences while trying to cultivate in him empathy for others. Sometimes I’m less graceful at this than others. Just ask Hugo and he’ll happily tell you how I once chased him through the house and up into his top bunk bed only to tell him if he ever went to jail I wouldn’t bail him out. He’s now fifteen and last spring I found myself constantly having to ride him to do his homework, household chores and manage his money. He wanted me simply to give him money when he needed it, clean up after him, drive him where he wanted to go and, ironically, monitor his schoolwork.

We had gotten into a cycle that was, for me at least, chronically frustrating. I would tell him repeatedly to do his homework and housework, he’d repeatedly agree to do it, but then wouldn’t. Instead he’d make excuses as to why he didn’t do what he said he would and continue to ask for money and rides. When this cycle of him telling me what I wanted to hear but never delivering on it became clear to me, I pulled the plug. I stopped monitoring his homework and I made him pay in cash to have his room vacuumed and dusted. I also stopped giving him money and rides. If he wanted to be treated like a roommate, so be it.

Hugo relaxing between school and marching band practice.

But as his mother, it’s my job to push him and I did so by putting his passion on the chopping block. Hugo plays in multiple bands and sing in multiple choirs at his high school, but it’s not what he does, a musician is who he is. I never have to tell him to practice music but rather often need him to put down the guitar in order to do other things (like homework and chores). Beginning this fall, I warned him that if his grades slip below a 3.7 I will pull him from one of his bands. I don’t check online to see if his homework has been turned in, I don’t ask about his grades. It’s his responsibility to organize himself, he’s old enough. The result? Hugo is exercising more self-discipline and I’m not haranguing him. He has all As on his first grade card of the year. And he’s frankly more pleasant to be around. This only works because Hugo knows, from experience, that I am not bluffing. I don’t play poker with my children when I tell them what consequences they can expect for their behavior, both good and bad. I always follow through (and truly it can at times be harder on me than on them to do so when I have to follow through on consequences for the bad).

The Republicans love power, they love being in power. To be fair, so do the Democrats, but so far the Dems still seem to generally remember that the best interests of the country, not just the party, are why they are in government. As Andrew Sullivan pointed out in the September 22nd issue of Newsweek, a second term for Barack Obama may just shake the GOP enough to move them away from the extreme right cliff they’ve found themselves on and back towards the center where good government and the majority of Americans can be found.

By this time next week, we will know if more of the electorate agree with me or if, like my friends, they believe the unsubstantiated promises of the GOP. In hopes of a better night’s sleep tonight, I went first thing this morning to my county’s Board of Elections and voted for a second term for Barack Obama and will follow up by volunteering for the campaign in the days ahead. I hope you will all join me.

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I See You and You See Me

“Your daughter sees like a newborn,” said her eye surgeon, “even though she’s two months old.”

Two months old? Isn’t that the same as newborn or at least, newly born? Well, yes, in terms of adjusting to another child in the household. But in terms of brain development, two months old is, well, getting up there.

Lyra was born on August 14 with many markers of Down syndrome (DS) and cataracts in both eyes. Because I am 46, I underwent many prenatal tests, except an amniocentesis, while expecting Lyra. The extensive blood work and high-level ultrasounds did not reveal any abnormalities and when I had a fetal echocardiogram, the cardiologist said everything looked beautiful and, “beautiful is better than good.” Having decided we would not terminate a pregnancy if the baby had DS, Max and I passed on an amnio.

Superstitiously or intuitively, I was certain I would lose the baby if I had an amnio. My Grandma Dorothy, who was a mother to me, had four boys and I have four boys. Her only daughter, her second child, died at birth because of the Rh blood factor. Grandma had negative blood and her baby girl’s was positive. I too have negative blood and my daughter’s is positive, but since the 1970s there has been a remedy. After each of my babies’ births, I was given a RhoGam shot, which prevented my body from building antibodies to positive blood.

Grandma kept trying for a daughter, even when my grandfather did not agree, but she only had boys. I, too, kept trying for daughter (albeit with full support from my partner), and when I learned my fifth child was female, I felt an amnio would cause me to lose my baby just as the Rh factor took Grandma’s daughter. It isn’t logical, I understand, but I felt emotionally very strong about this connection. I still do.

Lyra was born on a Tuesday. On Wednesday, we were squeezed into an appointment at a pediatricians’ office affiliated with Akron Children’s Hospital (ACH). They referred us to ACH’s pediatric geneticist whom we saw on Thursday and before we left, a vial of Lyra’s blood was drawn for genetic testing. On Friday, the blood results confirmed Lyra’s Down syndrome. The following Monday we saw our first pediatric ophthalmologist, who sent us to a second surgeon, who immediately scheduled Lyra for surgeries at the tender ages of six weeks and seven weeks.

Why so young? Because a newborn’s brain is bubbling with growth and without any visual input, Lyra’s brain would not have developed all the necessary components to process what it is to have sight. The same can be true of hearing and the other senses. Neurologist and author Oliver Saks has written accounts of adults regaining hearing only to be miserably confused and want to return to the deaf world their brains’ knew and understood. In the Val Kilmer film, At First Sight, a blind man has an operation to regain his vision. In a poignant scene, he cannot make sense of glass and ends up breaking a window.

And that’s how Lyra came to have eye surgery at the tender age of six and seven weeks. Each eye had to be dilated for a week post-surgery to minimize scarring after which she began wearing contact lenses. She’s too young for surgical implants–her eyes are still rapidly growing. Her contact lenses are similar to mine and will be cleaned monthly and replaced every three months. The correction, however, is not at all similar—I don’t see very well without my glasses or contacts as my prescription is about a -4. Lyra’s prescription is a +20.

Lyra after her right eye had the lensectomy. That eye is clear while the left has the visible cataract she was born with.

Oddly, I did not think of Lyra as blind until the first cataract was removed. But she was. When she was a month old and coming out of the newborn sleepiness, we noticed her eyes were starting to wander around, each rambling about in its socket. Her brain was becoming the brain of a blind person.

Only one in 10,000 kids with Down syndrome are born with cataracts, though most kids with cataracts have DS. Of all the possible and serious medical problems attendant to DS (heart problems of varying degrees of severity occur in forty to sixty percent of people with DS), we are grateful cataracts is all Lyra has to deal with. We felt that way immediately and said so to the ophthalomologist the first time we met him. Just as soon as he put her second contact in her left eye, her eyes began tracking in sync, her brain quickly discovering how to process all the visual stimulation she is now receiving.

After receiving both contact lenses, Lyra gobbles up all the visual stimulation she can get.

She has now been wearing both her lenses for one week and it is as if she has been awakened. She searches for our faces when she hears our voices, looks at our eyes and smiles. I loved my blind girl fiercely, but this smile of recognition by my now seeing daughter is incomparable to any other I’ve known. No lover has melted my heart with a single gaze the way this recently born peanut has.  Many years ago, when my big boys were wee, I learned a children’s song in which the verse goes, “I see you and you see me, la-la-la-la-la-la-la.” When I sing it to Lyra, as I often do lately, it is not a sweet, meaningless ditty. It says everything about the first two months of our life with Lyra and hers with us.


Is Anybody Out There?

My family gets a daily newspaper delivered to our home every morning and, as we all stumble down and pour our coffee (everyone down to Jules, who’s 12, have a morning cuppa), we call out who gets the comics first, second and so on. The kids read most of the strips I don’t (or don’t often), such as Garfield. I read ones that they don’t, such as Doonesbury. I get it. When I was in college in the late 80s-early 90s, I had friends who read Doonesbury regularly, but I couldn’t keep track of all the characters and didn’t know their histories and it didn’t seem worth trying. That is until George W. Bush was president and was depicted as a floating and frayed Roman helmet.  I still don’t know the storylines of most of the characters prior to the Bush II administration, but I have continued to read Doonesbury daily.

And as I start this blog, my first that is not a class assignment or private loop to connect with other writers, but a put it out there public blog, many of Gary Trudeau’s latest strips concern a previously successful writer, Rick, who now finds himself blogging for free on Huffpo. His wife is a successful political operative, his ne’er-do-well son has a runaway bestselling (wholly fictitious) memoir, while Rick struggles to even gain access to interviewees. So blogging is like hitting bottom for writers, or traditional writerly types.

Which raises a question: Does anyone else in their 40s feel caught between the new and old? I wrote my high school, and many of my undergraduate, papers on an electric typewriter. We had to look things up on the card catalog in the library (remember how they smelled? Closed up trays of paper, exuding the possibility of anything you wanted to know), haul books home and search for the facts to back up our assertations. But computers and the internet came while we were still young enough to grab on and switch gears. Today my own children have to do something called “dialecticals” whenever they have a reading assignment in high school. Very busy work, in which students must cite usually 30 passages in the book and explain why they are important to the piece, which is designed to minimize oh-so-easy online cribbing. Are paperbound Cliff Notes even still published? I can no longer write with pen and paper for any length of time, but I agonize at the thought of publishing becoming an entirely (or mostly) electronic media. I once crafted an entire (Flintstone-esque) living room suite of furniture using all my boxes of books I had yet unpacked after moving. I had a couch that could seat four, a coffee table and a recliner. I should have taken a picture, which would have been with a camera containing film (sigh).

But back to blogging: Unlike the fictitious Rick, I don’t have a successful writing career in my past. I’ve written successful academic papers, grant applications, newlsetters and so on, but I haven’t received paychecks strictly for my writing. I’m starting at the bottom. Many of my big plans have shifted over the nearly 19 years I’ve been a mother. Most recently, Max and I decided to have one more baby so that two-year-old Leif would have a sibling to grow with at home after all his older brothers had gone off. We assumed that before this last baby was born I’d have fulltime employment with benefits–career employment. We assumed incorrectly.

So here I am trying to write with small children at my breasts and knees (at least my breasts aren’t at my knees, not yet). I’m not an overachiever, try as I might to be one, so blogging feels about right. And since I started Whoopsie Piggle, all of a week ago, I find I’m thinking once again like a writer.

My 18-year-old son is coming home from college this weekend and I plan to have him help me with the technical aspects of this new endeavor. Unlike the blogger in Doonesbury, my boy won’t make me feel out of touch. Of course, my boy hasn’t published a runaway bestseller either. Not yet.


Sunday Morning Start (Monday Evening Finish)

Blogs, hmm, who does that?

I have found the few mom blogs I’ve viewed are often intimidating or annoying–who has the time to cook fresh meals from scratch (locally grown, organic ingredients), hand wash cloth diapers and start a charity for children and their families? Hippie Martha Stewarts. Right, except there is that fantasy lurking in the depths of my soul too. Clean, yet quirky home. Artistically talented, yet always polite children. Very accessible mom who also has a successful career. Whoa, so what I don’t like about these blogs is probably what I want but haven’t managed to manifest. I stopped looking almost instantly.

Besides, who wants to be boxed into a mom-blog? Ah, Doris Day in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies is told by her husband, David Niven, that she is so much more than a housewife. “All housewives are,” she tells him. That was in 1960. Does anyone call themself a housewife today? I doubt it, but the bill of goods my generation was sold was have it all–career, children and great style. And make your parenting attachment style. And your career creative and lucrative and your style flippin’ creative as hell. Yeah, well, it seems the sales force was setting us up for failure or at least abiding frustration.

Here’s my reality:

I’m a 46-year-old mom of four boys, ages 18 to two years old, and one daughter who is six weeks old. Truly, had the two-year-old been a girl, I’d have stopped there. But I just knew this one would be a girl (yeah, so what if I’ve been wrong before?) and when our daughter was born last month the first question I asked the midwife was, “Is there a vagina?” She told me to just look myself. Yep, the ultrasound had not lied, girl, girl, girl! Yippee! I held our girl and we looked at her. Bluish, alienesque newborn, as they all are when they first pop out, we quickly noticed some other things. “Her eyes look Downsy,” I told the midwife. She calmly told me she’d do a newborn exam in a few minutes. The skin on the back of her neck was voluminous, when she turned her head she looked like she had a handle of flesh back there. And her pupils were ghostly white.

Our girl was born with Down syndrome and bi-lateral cataracts. She has been the primary focus of life this past month and a half, but not our only focus.

My oldest son, the first three children are from a previous marriage, went off to the University of Michigan ten days after his sister was born. The second boy is in the throes of marching band season and puppy love with a young woman who lives in Montreal (we are in O-HI-O), the third boy is working through hard issues with his father while the two-year-old is just that, replete with tantrums and an explosion of language and ideas.

Claude, Hugo, Jules, Leif and Lyra. Until I was in my late 20s, I swore I’d never have kids. I was my mother’s only child and neither of my parents impressed me with their parenting. Frankly, I was afraid of becoming a mother. But the urge kicked in when I was in my late 20s (hormones perhaps, mixed with a crazy love) and now here I am, the mother of a family considered large by most American standards.

I’ve been looking for fulltime work for five years. I received my MFA in creative writing at the end of 2010 in the worst economy I’ve ever lived through (and unless you are 90+ or from Brazil, it’s the worst economy you’ve lived through too). Last year, I worked at the local Waldorf school, where my kids  attend(ed) but the cost of two babies in daycare is $300 more a month than I was making. So I’m telling myself I’m on Maternity Leave (italics make it more official). I’m figuring out what’s next as things feel like a new segment of life is unfolding. One child launching, one arriving with a genetic disorder. I love having a job, feeling useful, collecting my pay. But if I’m on Maternity Leave I can ease up on the job hunt and start this blog, clean some closets, maybe even read some books. All while learning what Lyra’s needs will be long term.

It was a month before Lyra was born when a friend suggested I write a blog. It was all I could do to not impolitely dismiss her idea out of hand. But the idea geminated and I was given encouragement by my partner, Max (who is Leif and Lyra’s father). Claude started a blog as part of his homework for one of his college classes using WordPress and said it was easy to set up. And other than getting past all the ways I can give WordPress money, it was.

So here goes (yeah, the first post is mom-blog-ish).