Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How to Talk to a New Mother

Funny -- I looked happy here, didn't I?

Ah...this is actually happy Randi -- crappy hair, PJ's and all!

Many of my friends have either recently had babies are expecting their sprouts within the half year. Every time an old friend reveals that she is pregnant or planning to adopt, I am elated. Having a child is such an incredible experience, after all, but I'm also selfishly happy to have another old chum in the Mommy Club. You know, a friend to whom you can discuss explosive poop but who can also laugh until dawn with you remembering old, ridiculous, possibly scandalous, pre-baby times?

However, this elation is usually followed by a moment of trepidation and worry. What if this mom-to-be whom I love so much goes through what I went through? What if she stubbornly acts like everything is OK, refusing help from anyone (including me) while suffering alone? What if I miss her depression the way others missed mine? What if she spends the first year of her beloved baby's life flustered, frustrated, possibly even suicidal while I chase after Stella, blissfully unaware?

While there's not a whole lot those of us lacking psychology degrees can do, I do think that choosing our words carefully when speaking to a new mom can be incredibly important. Part of the reason it took me so long to recognize my problem and seek help was that I was constantly being asked about how much I loved motherhood, not IF I loved it, so I felt completely alone and abnormal. I was afraid of what others, including a therapist, would think of me. I felt ashamed.

So, I'm going to start with a list of things I think you should NEVER say to a new mom. I'm no expert, so you might disagree, but these were the statements that exacerbated my feelings of isolation.

1. "Aren't you just loving it?" This question assumes that you are in a state of bliss, and if you answer to the negative, it will seem strange. How many times was I asked this question and I wanted to reply, "No, in fact. I realize that I wanted a baby, worked hard to conceive, and now I should be grateful. However, since I've slept a total of ten hours in the past two months, have raw nipples that leak milk almost constantly, and spend my days carrying around a writhing kid who seems to scream a good 4/5 of her waking hours (and almost all of them are waking hours), I pretty much want to bang my head against a brick wall most of the time."

2. "Have you tried ________ to help her sleep?" If you know someone whose kid is really sleep troubled -- and no, I'm not talking about a 2 month old who wakes three times at night or a 7 month old who takes short naps -- I'm talking about a person who is on death's door because her child almost never sleeps -- please don't offer advice. I know that seems counter-intuitive, so let me explain. If that person is suffering to that degree, they've almost certainly tried every conceivable trick you can think of. Also, if the baby is truly that sleep-challenged, he/she most likely will not respond to the nifty trick that caused your baby to go from 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep to 12. This will make that mom feel even worse about herself and her mothering skills, because why on earth would someone else's baby be that easy to pacify if hers isn't? The best thing to do is offer sympathy -- TELL THEM ABOUT ME AND STELLA FOR GOODNESS'S SAKE -- and offer to help. This brings me to Number 3.

3. "Let me know if I can do anything." New moms are completely overwhelmed. Trying to take care of oneself and keep a helpless human being alive is hard work. When someone makes a statement like that, it puts it in the mom's hands to come up with a way for you to help. I remember being so exhausted and unhappy when a dear friend, Jess, wrote me an email saying, "I'm coming over on Tuesday. What time is good?" I started sobbing upon reading that email. Had she asked if she could help, I would have said no. Have I mentioned that I'm stubborn? Well, I am. But she insisted she was coming, and come she did. She took Stella and pushed me out the door -- forcing me to go on a solo walk. This is what you need to do for new moms. Insist that you help -- bring food, take the baby so she can nap, whatever. Take the ball out of her hands.

4. "Wow. You look really tired." Those first few months of a baby's life, most moms look like crap. Especially moms suffering from baby blues or PPD. We know we look like crap, but there's not much we can do about it in our state. Please don't remind us of that, and especially don't remind us of how little sleep we got last night. Because we can't forget about that. Stretch to find a compliment. Maybe you like our ratty flip flops, or maybe that greasy, stringy ponytail looks incredibly punk. Whatever -- just tell us we look good. And if you can't do that, pay for a spa day and some childcare so you can make a sincere compliment! (This goes along with #3.)

OK, now for a list of positive commandments. Here are the statements that I think you should say to a new mom, statements that either helped me tremendously or would have.

1. "How are you doing? No, honey, not the baby. I can see he's gorgeous. How are YOU?" The minute the baby comes into your life, it seems that's all anyone wants to know about. Hell, that's all you seem to care about. But when someone asks about you with genuine concern, it can cause you to confront those negative feelings and open up a portal for communication. If a mom looks unhappy, don't be afraid to keep asking her this question in the hopes that she'll open up to you.

2. "Did I ever tell you about the time my kid _____________ when she was a baby?" If you have hellish infant stories -- PLEASE SHARE THEM! Especially if you were depressed or if your baby had sleep problems. So much of PPD is feeling isolated and misunderstood, so just knowing that someone else's experience was less than peachy-keen can be incredibly helpful.

3. "Just because you love someone doesn't mean they can't drive you crazy." So many times I'd be in my mommy groups, listening to women share frustrations about their spouses/partners. The people whom we've chosen to be with, the loves of our lives, can drive us to the brink of insanity. But I often find that it's a big taboo to complain about your baby. Especially if you waited until a, um, certain age to have a baby and if that baby took some work to come by. In that case, your baby should be next to holy, or so it seems, and if you complain about her, something's wrong with you. Remind the new mom that, just because she's in love with her new addition doesn't mean the baby won't drive her crazy. It will. Possibly often. Remind her that that's normal and that accepting herself and giving herself a break will actually help her to handle those feelings in a healthy way.

4. And, just as a reminder from above, the following: "I'm coming over on ____________ to help out" and "You look gorgeous." It can't hurt to reiterate.

I hope this helps. If any new moms think of any other helpful/NOT helpful remarks, please add them to the comments. And if you think you might have made one of the "offending" remarks, please don't sweat it. I'm a Sagittarius, after all, so I'm sure I've offended you sometime in our past.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Expressing Motherhood

I forgot to ask Dave to get a picture of me last night and now I'm supremely bummed. Why? Because this week I did the following:
Got a haircut
Got an eyebrow waxing
Purchased and applied makeup
Purchased and wore a new dress
Squeezed myself into my Spanx like a fancy, homemade sausage

Why all the trouble? For my awesome show, Expressing Motherhood, of course!

Now, having lived in NYC for a 11 years, I've taken part in and witnessed a fair share of sub-par shows. Comedy shows, one-woman/man shows, straight plays, musicals, reading series -- you name it. With a city this prolific, it's pretty easy to witness live theater. It's not always easy to witness GOOD live theater.

But I have to say, this show is AMAZING. I am humbled to be among such talented, honest, brave women. And the creators of the show did an incredible job finding such a varied group of ladies who have so many entertaining, profound and unexpected things to say about motherhood.

Yes, I'm in the show. Yes, this falls under the umbrella of shameless self-promotion. But I really do highly recommend this show for anyone who's a parent, is expecting a child, or is thinking about having a kid one day. I also recommend the show for dearest friends of mine who'd like to come LAUGH HARDILY at my piece about Park Slope.

Tonight and tomorrow -- that's it, baby! I hope to see you there!

And I'll try to remember to get Dave to snap a photo of me -- all cleaned up with no snot, poop or smushed banana to be found!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Foot in Mouth Disease

Rereading my last entry, I wonder if perhaps this was another example of me personifying the Sagittarian tendency to put one's foot in one's mouth.

I just want to clarify my meaning, as I was writing after a long, intense day of parenting (no naps and a scary fall on the playground) and an exciting, unusual night of Manhattan and theater rehearsals.

I honor and respect the decision to NOT have children. Our world is over-populated, and the last thing we need are people who procreate or adopt for the wrong reasons. If someone does not want to be a parent, it is a great thing for them to refrain from doing so. (Although therapists may disagree, since this might cut down on their future patient pool.)

And when I spoke of friendships not being able to survive, I realize it's not just a debate between does that person have kids or doesn't she. It's more about how they view kids in general and specifically, do they see my kid as an individual or do they lump her into a category?

For example, many of my friends do not have kids for various reasons, but they love kids and are amazing with Stella. These friendships will survive and thrive, despite my shift, because those friends understand the new me and know that loving my kid is the way to my heart.

But there is a new breed of childless folk, especially here in New York. Folks who not only choose not to have kids, but also seem, for lack of a better word, offended by their general presence. I used to find such people vaguely amusing. But now, since my kid is viewed as one of the "rugrats," I can't see eye to eye with them any more.

Does this clarify? Perhaps this is even more confusing, as I'm writing this in my PJ's on a day before scrambling to get to work.

Perhaps I should always take my mother's advice and stop digging my hole the minute I realize I've dug one.

Whatever. It's my blog and I'll shove my foot in my mouth if I want to.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Shift

The Brand New (And Improved?) Randi

Tonight, I started rehearsals for my show, Expressing Motherhood. I ran out of the apartment the minute Dave entered, descending into the subway at the moment most people were exiting, coming home from their days at work. I settled into my seat, read for a bit, and engaged in some prime people-watching.

When people looked at me, I found myself wondering, as I often do, "can they tell I'm a mom?" Stella is such an enormous part of my life now that I often assume people can see her imprint on me, even when we're apart. I almost feel offended if people assume I don't have a kid, like they're assuming I can't read or something.

I remember reading an article in New York Magazine a few years ago about how being in different economic brackets can destroy a friendship. For example if you become friends with someone while you're both broke college grads, your bond may not survive it if that friend goes on to make a robust six figures at his job if you're still barely making five. You eat at different restaurants, use different forms of transportation, perhaps even have different priorities and values. How much in common can you really have if your lives are that startlingly different?

Now that I'm a mom I'm finding that the same can be true if one member of a friendship is a parent while the other isn't. Of course there are exceptions: my two best friends in the world are both currently childless. However one definitely wants kids one day and the other one adores them and is great with them, even if she's not sure if she plans on sprouting one of her own. This makes it easier to stay close with them, despite this major difference in our lives.

But what of the other friendships?

Before I had kids, I swore that parenthood wouldn't change me. I'd still be funky, I'd still love going out all the time, I wouldn't view my kid as the Messiah to whom others had to bow down. I knew I'd love my offspring, but I didn't want to alter the entire order of my life. I kind of assumed everything would stay in its place and I'd just squeeze this new addition into my structured life, like a new book that you add onto your crowded bookshelf.

But parenthood never goes as you plan. Stella completely shook the foundation of my life, reordering everything, eliminating some priorities altogether, inflating others to monstrous proportions. My life barely resembles the life I had before her. It is, in many ways, much more strenuous and exhausting than before.

It is also better that it ever was. And it honestly gets better every day.

The love I have for Stella is so intense I can feel it in my muscles. It's almost an ache, almost painful, but also ragingly sweet. She surprises and delights me daily. I think about her almost every moment I'm not with her. I crave her.

Which is not to say I don't value my time alone. No, I'm still a separate person with a brain, and I still like being Randi. Randi who's a good, dedicated teacher. Randi who is a raging, outspoken Democrat. Randi who is an irreverent goofball. Randi who is a writer and performer. Not just that woman at the playground, what's her name?, you know -- Stella's mom.

But I have almost nothing in common with people who don't have kids, don't want them, and don't necessarily like them. I know there used to be a Randi in this world who could have had a beer with those people, laughed and joked with them, made a plan to have a meal at the new Italian restaurant in the neighborhood. But this Randi just can't do that. Because this Randi can't get over the fact that this person doesn't see the miracle that is my daughter. Because this person lumps the child I adore beyond measure with a group of nameless, faceless, snotty masses of whining and tears.

So, yeah, maybe friendships can't survive this huge a lifestyle gap. And although I'd planned on staying the same old Randi, just with a mini-me, that's simply not what happened. I'm a completely different Randi.

And that's just fine by me.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Day of One's Own

Crouching Stella, Hidden Daycare

Blissfully playing with toys at daycare

Sometimes I feel so guilty for (sorry to use the technical term) going bananas this past year. I wonder why I couldn't just take things in stride, why I felt like I was constantly trying to climb a mountain with roller skates on .

But now I think I understand it a bit more.

Stella started daycare this week. I'm not back at work yet, but to secure our spot in the daycare we really liked, we had to go ahead and enroll the child. Part of me was so excited about the idea of having an entire day to myself. Of course, being a good, well-educated, perfectionist American mom, I also felt wretchedly guilty and nervous about the whole shabang, too.

Monday came and I neurotically packed the box of requested supplies, each and every item meticulously labelled with Stella's name, just in case some toddler with sticky fingers decided to try to take her diaper balm. I even included a bag of 20 oatmeal raisin cookies, a suggestion from a friend, as a way of letting the staff know what a sweet, kind, bribing mom they had on their hands, JUST IN CASE they were tempted to ignore my child for a moment or two.

Dave dropped her off, because he'll be the one to do so when I go to work, and I sat in our apartment all by myself. The realization dawned on me that this was the first time I'd been all by myself in our apartment. Ever. It felt unreal. All of the booming and banging from our upstairs neighbor seemed amplified and ominous (even more ominous than usual). The mewing of the feral cats in our courtyard seemed more frequent, the techno that someone boomed from their window seemed more annoying, the cigarette smoke from our neighbor's apartment seemed more vile. Well...you get the idea.

I did all the dishes -- no toddler underfoot, no baby monitor blasting in my ear. I took what felt like an incredibly long, steamy shower -- shaving my legs and everything -- and emerged to find that it was only seven minutes long. I put on makeup. Let me repeat that. I put on makeup. And earrings. And took more than a second to pick out my outfit.

I left the apartment, no stroller to navigate, and stopped by the library to pick up a ridiculously fluffy mystery novel. I ran up the subway stairs, not carrying a stroller with a 25 pound child in it, found a seat on the train, and read my book for 45 minutes. Again, I repeat, I read a book for 45 minutes.

I checked my messages when I emerged from the bowels of the Earth and was relieved to find none. I wandered around the East Village, where I used to live and do theater, and was confused and dismayed to find a lot of my favorite haunts replaced by flashier, kitschier, more expensive hipster outlets and restaurants. I ate a falafel for lunch, walked around some more, saw a gloriously empty midday showing of Julie & Julia (which made me crave French food with a vengeance), and went to Lush to spend a gift certificate that my amazing friend and ex-college-roommate Katie sent me in the midst of my insanity. Then I met up with Dave, who works near all this, and hopped back on the subway to go pick up my darling.

This may not sound like much to you, but to me, it felt restorative, calming, deliciously decadent. I realized that my favorite part of the day was not the movie, or buying yummy toiletteries, or walking around my old nabe. My favorite part was the time spent reading and vegging on the subway. A combined total of one and one half hours of sitting on my rump, reading a silly book, looking at other folks, and not even having the ability to answer my cell phone should someone try to call it.

For us stay-at-home-parents who live a distance from our families, this time to ourselves often does not happen. Our spouses get this time one their way to and from work or on lunch breaks. But if we don't have someone to relieve us, a mere hour and a half of time to ourselves per day is just not a reality.

I, of course, made the situation worse by refusing to let others help. People would offer to babysit, Dave would offer to take Stella for a walk without me, but part of my disease was an overwhelming and crippling fear that noone could care for my daughter with even remotely the amount of competence I had. I'd let people take charge of my darling for a moment here or there, but I'd always be in an adjacent room, ready to jump in at the slightest sound of unhappiness. This, in case you couldn't guess it, is not relaxing.

I did go out a few nights, leaving Stella in Dave's loving care. Those nights I clutched onto my cell phone, scared to death that she'd somehow tumble out of her crib or find a mysterious object to choke on out of the blue. I'd call Dave from time to time, and he'd always assure me that Stella was fine and I should enjoy myself. Alas, that was hard to do.

So, you get the idea. For a year and a half, I didn't relax. Ever. I barely slept for the first ten months, because Stella didn't sleep, and even when she did finally learn to sleep, I'd stay up, afraid something was wrong. I took no time for myself, didn't do the things I like to do, didn't let others help me. And that put me in a bad place.

I have to take a moment for a small PSA: If you've had a baby and are feeling similarly -- like you can't trust someone to watch your little one or you don't have any time to yourself -- go get help. This is not normal. And you cannot keep going at that rate. Nobody can. Hire a babysitter and trust him/her. Let a friend help. Let your significant other help. Help yourself.

OK. Enough good-deedery.

How did my day end, you ask? I walked into the daycare to pick up my girl and felt a rush of excitement and love upon seeing her gorgeous face. I missed her, and that felt so healthy and good. She beamed at me and came running into my arms. Her hair smelled like rainbows and unicorns. Am I overdoing it? Sorry.

The workers told me she had a great day and even took a rare two-hour nap. They also told me my cookies were delicious. (Cackle cackle cackle.) And then when I turned around to leave, Stella cried and reached back for the daycare. It seemed my social butterfly wasn't ready to leave her friends.

Which makes me elated. I have an independent kid who'll go far in life. She's back at daycare today, and although I plan to pack for our blessed move on Sunday and go into school to meet with my principal about my work this Fall, it still feels so indulgent to be on my own. It feels healthy.

So...I guess that means I should stop blogging and go back to work. Geez -- we stay-at-home moms lead such a cushy life.