Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Perfect Birth

We've seen it a million times, played out in movies and on sitcoms until it seems perfectly normal. A pregnant woman (slim and lovely everywhere but her tummy) awakens in the night to labor pains. She shakes awake her spouse, who fumbles around in a panic, putting his pants on backwards, losing his car keys and finding them again, before they get into the car and speed to the hospital or birthing center. They are met at the entrance by a kindly, efficient nurse who ushers the laboring mother into a wheelchair and whisks her into a delivery room. There she writhes around in the bed, screams at her husband, and, when her wisecracking obstetrician arrives, is told to push. After a few intense minutes, the baby emerges, wet and screaming, and is placed on the mother's chest. She is enraptured, transformed, a member of the eternal Sisterhood, connected to all women throughout all time. Proud papa cuts the cord, the goo is swabbed off, and baby is brought to the breast for the first time. Mommy looks into baby's eyes, the angels sing, and they are instantly and profoundly bonded. Variations of this scenario have become engraved in our consciousness and we've come to expect, even demand, that this is how our own births should go.

For the vast majority of women in the world, this simply doesn't happen. For most, birth is a drawn-out, arduous, dangerous process. Things can and do go wrong, and the outcome of a birth can not be predicted in advance. Complications, both maternal and fetal, arise frequently. Breech presentation. Preeclampsia. Gestational diabetes. For some women, myself included, the baby just won't fit through the pelvis. Luckily for me, I live in a wealthy and prosperous nation. My pregnancy was carefully monitored and, when the disparity in size between his head and my pelvis became apparent, a C-section was scheduled. Many women in the world are not so lucky; they labor for days until the baby dies, at which point it is removed, piece by piece. These women are often left with fistulas, causing them to be incontinent, and shunned by their families and villages. They lose everything, their babies, their husbands, their societal status, due to nothing more than being unlucky enough to be born into a third-world society, devoid of modern obstetrics.

Devastating loss is not confined to the third world. Even with our amazing technological advances, women in more advanced countries still lose babies. I used to attend a support group for pregnancy and infant loss, and I've seen firsthand the sorrow and guilt a mother faces when she loses a child. I've seen pictures of a stillborn baby, so beautiful and perfectly formed, so tragically still and lifeless. I remember, and will never forget, the names of the dead. Brisa, Meredith, Bridget Bell. These are all children that never were. Their parents hold onto those names, as they hold onto anything that connected them to their lost children. In their short time on earth, these babies were beloved.

In light of these tragedies, questions of pain management, birth plans, laboring positions, and the birth "experience" seem trivial. To a woman who has experienced loss, any birth that ends in a live baby is a success. If that baby is healthy and the delivery is not nightmarish, well, that's icing on the cake. And to any idealist who insists that there's only one right way to give birth and that mothers are entitled to have it that way, I have only two words: fuck you.

In my case, the knowledge of this suffering stripped away not only my delusions, but my very ability to delude myself. I could no longer kid myself that certain things were "meant to be" or to believe that old cliche that states "everything happens for a reason". It was a rough road to skepticism and, while I'm not happy to have gone through such heartache, I am glad to have my blinders stripped off and the world laid bare. Because, although nature can be cruel, it can also be full of majesty and wonder, and when you open yourself up to sad truths, you also open yourself up to profound joy and awe.

When I heard my baby cry for the first time, as he was yanked through an incision in my abdomen, I felt that sense of awe, along with a wash of relief. After nine months of constant worry, he was finally out, and he was wonderfully, gloriously, alive. I didn't mind that he was promptly whisked away to be poked, prodded, tested and weighed. I knew he was in competent, professional hands, watched over by his proud father. The nurse put a cool hand on my brow and told me I could take a nap if I wanted, while they stitched me up. I closed my eyes and reveled in the knowledge that we had both made it, that my beautiful son and I had the rest of my lifetime to get to know each other.

Birth is only the beginning of motherhood, as a wedding is only the beginning of the marriage. The rite of passage isn't nearly as important as what follows. Thanks to the incredible stroke of luck that had me born in America, I am now a mother. And no woman on this planet, living or dead, has ever loved her child more than I love mine, regardless of how that child was born.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cohabitation is Eeeevilll

We took our boy to the pediatrician last week for his six month checkup. As usual, we waited way too long (over an hour) to actually see the doctor. And, as usual, we soothed our impatience by reminding ourselves that we love our son's doctor, and so does our son. Dr. H is affable, friendly, a little goofy-looking. He reminds me of a Muppet with his big smile and googly eyes behind his thick glasses. When he bustles into the exam room, full of good cheer, we always feel better about the excessive wait in the claustrophobia-inducing well-baby waiting room, the incompetence of the front desk staff, and the rudeness of his young nurses.

This visit was no different, at first. After Harrison's weigh-in and measurements, we were presented with a packet of photocopied pages outlining milestones, vaccine schedules, feeding requirements, etc. etc. My husband (who is kind enough to accompany us when he can) flipped through the packet while we waited for the nurse to come in with the array of required shots. He was stunned to come across a sheet of paper titled: COHABITATION. According to this document, "research" shows that cohabitation (living together without being married) causes many "problems for the couple, children of the union, and society." It goes on to claim that cohabitating couples are  more likely to engage in domestic violence, more likely to cheat and bring home STD's, and more likely to get a divorce if they do eventually get married. Men, according to this same elusive "research" see cohabitation as a convenience that allows them to be violent towards their partners and (are you ready for this?) to be accepting of date rape.

Holy fucking shit. Who does our doctor think his patients are?

My first problem (and there are many) is with the supposed research these claims are drawn from. There is not a single citation for any of these sources. Obviously it is assumed that we the patients are not smart enough to question extraordinary claims such as these, or to evaluate the sources who make the claims. We are expected to take it as gospel simply because our doctors have proclaimed it to be so. I rather suspect that the source of this information is a religious-based organization, which brings me to my second problem: proselytizing. I wholeheartedly resent anyone trying to influence me to join, support, or conform to their religious beliefs. The doctor's office is no place to push a religious agenda. It is none of our pediatrician's business whether his patients are married or merely shacking up. I shudder to think how a couple of gay parents would be viewed by this same "research".

Bill and I lived together for a long time before we got married. We were as close as any married couple and, while we were not without our disputes, our home was free from STD's, violence, and rape. Since we got married, a few things have changed. I took his last name, we started filing taxes together, and people have finally gotten off our backs about living "in sin". We don't love each other more than we used to, we still fight with about the same frequency and intensity, and we still have consensual, monogamous sex.

This misguided judgment of my family's history is the last straw. We're good parents who love each other and our baby wholeheartedly. It's time to find a pediatrician for whom only our medical history is relevant. God has no place in my marriage and, ideally, will have no place in my son's doctor's office.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Feeding Ain't Easy (But It's Necessary)

Feeding a baby is one of those frustrating tasks where you have to rely on conventional wisdom, teasing out sensible advice from baseless truisms. Everyone's an expert, convinced that they have the nutritional key to raising a healthy, well-fed child. The problem is, there's a lot of different information floating around out there, a lot of it contradictory. Even among actual experts, such as pediatricians and lactation consultants, there's a lot of disagreement. And it's not something that can be easily cleared up through scientific experimentation; who on earth would enroll their child in a study where they could possibly end up malnourished or poisoned? So it's left to us, the parents, to figure out how best to feed our babies.

Take breastfeeding, for example. To new moms today, it is touted as the best, dare I say the only way, to properly feed your newborn. If you feed your poor defenseless child from a bottle of formula, you are condemning him or her to a life of bad health, below-average intelligence, and emotional attachment issues. Any woman can breastfeed, with the proper support and motivation. At least, that's what breastfeeding advocates (or lactivists, as they're sometimes called) swear by. If for some reason your breasts don't produce milk, it's because you weren't trying hard enough. You have failed your second test of motherhood (the first being an unmedicated "natural" birth).

This is, of course, total horseshit. What should matter, above all else, is that your child has enough to eat. If you can produce enough high-quality milk from your breasts, well, good for you. I'm serious. You're very lucky. Some women have problems, and this is where sound reasoning has to trump feelings of inadequacy.

My baby, for example, was born big and hungry. His blood sugar was dangerously low minutes after his birth. There was no question of whether or not a bottle of formula was appropriate. It was medically necessary to prevent long-term damage to his brain and organs. My husband informed me of this about a half-hour later, as I lay in the recovery room after my C-section. My first question upon hearing this, and the only one that really mattered to me, was, "Is he all right?" And yes, he was just fine.

While I still wanted to breastfeed (hey, it's free, readily available baby food), I didn't consider it a massive failure to have a false nipple inserted into my son's mouth before my real one could get there. I brought him to my breast as soon as I could. But it quickly became apparent that my colostrum just wasn't doing it for him. Rather than watch him scream with hunger, I supplemented with the formula provided by the hospital.

You're probably expecting me to say that he's now a formula fed baby, and doing fine, but actually, he's a titty baby all the way. You see, instead of feeling like I had failed hat breastfeeding and giving up, I stuck with it. It hurt at first, and sucked hard (no pun intended), but I was determined. Eventually, my milk came in, abundantly, and as soon as it did, bottles were history. If I had bought into the false either/or dichotomy of breast versus bottle, we'd be struggling now to pay for his formula, adding extra stress to our lives and further straining our budget.

He's five months old now, and we've added solid food to his diet. There are as many different opinions on this subject as there are kinds of parents. Some experts advocate starting early, around four months, and introducing baby to a variety of flavors and textures right off the bat. Others caution to exclusively breastfeed until six months, at which point single grains can be introduced, one at a time with at least a week between them. Some people say to introduce veggies before fruit. Others say it doesn't matter a whit what order foods are introduced in (I tend to agree). Some people are convinced that babies can easily develop food allergies if the wrong food is added at the wrong time. So how do we parents know who to listen to? Which of these experts has the right answer?

Hell, don't ask me. I'm trying to figure this stuff out, too. Ultimately I've had to rely on that old standby, observation and common sense. Basically, I'm feeding him stuff and seeing what happens.

I take precautions, of course. No big chunks that he could choke on, no citrus (too acidic), nothing too hot or spicy (though I do love to add a sprinkle of cinnamon to his fresh applesauce, and will continue to do so until someone gives me a good reason not to). Instead of having a rigidly timed feeding schedule, I feed him when he's hungry and stop when he's full.

How do I know I'm feeding him the "right" way? Because he's doing fucking great, that's how. He's robust, good-natured, and energetic. He sleeps well, poops fairly often, and has yet to come down with sniffles or a fever.

I worked in child care for many years and have seen scores of pale, listless, underfed kids. And all too often, they were the result of parents who chose one expert's advice to follow, at the exclusion of all others. They believed they were feeding their children the right way and nothing could change their minds.

The point is, I don't have all the answers. No one person does. It doesn't hurt to listen to the experts, but we all have to figure it out for ourselves, based on what seems to be working for us and our babies.

Monday, November 2, 2009

J.B. Handley: Christ, What an Asshole

One of my talents has always been to see things from another person's point of view. It's what makes me a good writer and a generally nice person. I notice and size up other people while I go about my daily activities, driving or grocery shopping. I try to be courteous and thoughtful, so as not to piss anybody off and bring about unwanted confrontation. For the most part, I avoid problems, and everything goes smoothly.

But I have little tolerance for assholes. I honestly can't figure out where they're coming from. Why would anybody want to act like that? Why would somebody driving an SUV and yakking on a cell phone swerve into my lane, and then flip me off when I honked? Nothing makes me more angry than pure, unbridled assholishness, especially when I'm out and about with my son and some jerk puts him in danger.

Which is why people like J.B. Handley really stick in my craw. The guy's posts and articles make me cringe. Not only does he spread dangerous misinformation that puts my child and others at risk, but his posts ooze with hate and condescension towards anyone who makes even the most diplomatic argument against him. He's a bully, the kind of person who probably made fun of nerds like me when he was a kid, the ones who made going to school so miserable.

So I wasn't at all surprised that he said awful things about Amy Wallace, a female journalist bold enough to take on the volatile topic of vaccine rejectionism. And I admit to feeling a sense of sadness and defeat at reading such hateful things about someone I had grown so quickly to admire. The comments on her article seemed to prove that any attempt at reason or sanity on this topic is followed immediately by vitriol, the written equivalent of being flecked with someone's spittle while they shout at you, jabbing a finger in your face.

But J.B. Handley is one asshole who isn't getting away with it, not this time. He didn't anticipate the level of backlash his foolish words would unleash. Not just among feminists, but among anybody with a shred of reason or civility. And guess what, haters? Up till now you've been the loudest, but there's a lot more of us than there are of you.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Vaccines

Every parent wants to do what's right for his or her child.

It's a no-brainer. I don't think there's a mom or dad alive who would say otherwise, even those that are neglectful or abusive. Most of us really try to do right by our children. We think if we buy the right brands, read the right books, and stay informed about the myriad of dangers in the world, our kids will grow to be healthier and smarter than all the others.
So when a mom reads an article on a website like Huffington Post or listens to Jenny McCarthy, that protective instinct gets triggered. My god, they think. What if it's true? What if I'm subjecting my child to autism or a neurological disorder just to avoid a few days of sniffles? What kind of mother does that make me?
If the perceived dangers about vaccines were true, it would be our duty as parents to ask questions, to refuse unnecessary vaccinations and to boost our children's immune systems through more "natural" processes. If it were true that vaccines are dangerous.
The problem is, it's not true. The evidence piling up simply doesn't support that the risks of vaccines outweigh the benefits. (No, I won't add citations to prove my claim -- this isn't a science website. If you want citations, visit Science Based Medicine or Respectful Insolence. I often do.)
There's risk in everything. Every time I strap my baby into his car seat I feel an awesome sense of responsibility. It's a big scary world out there and anything can happen. Should I get him out of the car and take him back into the house? No. Because while the world may be scary, he has to learn to live in it. It's my job as a parent to teach him how, and giving into my fears sets the wrong example. The minor risk of a traffic collision is far less than the benefit of taking him to the grocery store so he can see new places and things, and see his mommy reacting calmly to all the lights, noise, and people.
Similarly, the benefits of vaccines outweigh the risks. Things can and do go wrong with vaccines, sometimes leading to health problems more severe than the ones the vaccines were designed to prevent. Rarely. And sometimes people get hit by meteorites hurtling from the sky. Again, rarely. Sometimes bad luck is unavoidable, but things seem to work out okay most of the time. A far more serious risk, in my mind and according to medical opinion, is of a serious, debilitating disease like mumps or polio. I can imagine all too well standing vigil by my son's hospital bed while he struggles for breath, suffering. The very image makes it hard for me to breathe. I want to turn away from the thought, but I won't. Because that horrifying scenario, which can happen, does happen to innocent children every day, is a real fear, one worth acting on. The imaginary fear of vaccine-induced autism, unsupported by any credible evidence, is not.
What it comes down to is trust. Who are the people making these outrageous claims about dangerous vaccines, causing fear and panic, hijacking our mothering instincts to further their political agendas? Are they doctors and scientists? Rarely. More often they are movie stars and talk show hosts. But for some reason, people trust familiar faces and are willing to accept any garbage that comes out of them.
Vaccine rejectionism is based on belief, not fact. There is no evidence strong enough to convince an anti-vaxer that he or she is wrong. It's my duty to teach my son how to distinguish between belief and fact. It's one of the greatest gifts a parent can pass on, right up there with a long life free of preventable disease. Because, like all parents, I want to do what's right for my child.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The End of My Love Affair with Woo

Before I went through infertility hell, I was a firm believer of woo. I took herbs, I went to a chiropractor, I attempted (and failed repeatedly) to meditate. I believed that humans could consciously manipulate unseen flowing energy to manifest material desires and perfect health. I paid attention to synchronicity and saw patterns in random events. The universe was a benevolent place, there was a plan for my life, and all my adversities were merely life lessons meant to aid me on my spiritual journey.
Then the roof caved in. Nothing I believed, no remedy I tried, could stop my miscarriages from happening. Whatever lesson I was meant to be learning was lost on me. If there was a God, or a Benevolent Universe, He or It was repeatedly killing my offspring before they could even get started becoming people. Who could be cruel enough to do such a thing?
I cast about for answers. I believed I could heal myself and bring forth new life. I just needed to get my chi aligned or my chakras cleared, or ... something. Vitamins, maybe? How about jumping rope to stimulate my ovaries? Acupuncture? Reiki? Exotic fruit?
My insurance didn't cover any of that stuff. It did, however, cover a reproductive endocrinologist (mentioned in a earlier post). I figured, what the hell? I'm desperate enough to try anything. I began working with Dr.K and in the meantime, I did some research on "alternative" fertility treatments. There was a clinic here in Austin whose website caught my attention. Through a combination of acupuncture, herbs, and various other "non-Western" modalities, they practically guaranteed success. It was tempting, believe me, but it was also expensive, way more than we could afford. I considered starting a savings account or trying to hit up family members. But first I wanted some kind of evidence that the stuff worked. I asked Dr.K for advice and he said, very diplomatically, that if I thought it would give me a sense of control and make me feel better, there was probably no harm. But he was careful not to endorse or recommend it.
So I looked into it, starting (of course) with the google search, and branching outward from there. I started reading Junkfood Science, Respectful Insolence, Science-Based Medicine. I started reading the blogs of people who comment on those blogs. I started learning how to interpret evidence, how to find flaws in logic, and how to separate emotion from reason. What I discovered has led me out of the darkness of ignorance and back into the fold of rational, scientific thought.
My miscarriages weren't the result of a misaligned spine or negative energy. They were complex biological events happening at a level completely beyond my ability to control. I didn't need to explore my soul; I needed to get to know my body, in real, concrete ways. I needed to let my doctor find the problem so he could find the solution. Along the way I got a complete overview of my health -- no genetic abnormalities, no blood disorders, no immunological problems, healthy thyroid, clear fallopian tubes, a healthy uterus and beautiful ripe ovaries -- and learned that I am, in fact, a very healthy person. This was in stark contrast to my former beliefs, where every bad mood or period of tiredness heralded a serious malady of body and soul that could only be cured in an obscure, often expensive way.
I put my faith in medical science and my lifelong dream of motherhood was fulfilled. Not because I learned the right lesson and the universe saw fit to reward me, but because with a combination of hormones and surgery, my knowledgeable and attentive doctor was able to compensate for the biological misfire that was keeping me from staying pregnant.
For all of this, I'm a better parent. Not just because of the losses and the greater appreciation they bring, but because I want to teach my child to think critically, to not fall for the same nonsense and illusion that I once fell for. I'll do him a huge favor by teaching him how to think like a scientist. I'll raise a thoughtful child who will grow to be a decent human being. And that has been my goal all along.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Wow, What a Bummer

I'm back. And this will be brief, because my baby is sleeping.

One year ago, I got pregnant. And this time, despite my certainty that it wasn't possible, I stayed pregnant for nine months. On June 2nd, I gave birth to a healthy 9lb 3oz baby boy. I named him Harrison.

So, naturally the tone of this blog is going to change. I was tempted to delete it and start another one, but after reading over my heart-wrenching first few posts, I've decided to just keep going with this one. After all, that profound sadness was a huge part of my life for a long time, and I can't deny that it has changed me. It's easy to lose sight of that when I see my baby sleeping and feel so overwhelmed with joy.