The Fem Spot

Letter to a sick friend

Posted in Personal Essays by femspotter on September 29, 2011

September 29, 2011

Dear A*****,

I’m checking in. My brother tells me you have not been swimming lately. Tsk.  

Well, to be honest…I haven’t been swimming much either. I’ve discovered yoga. Apart from the feeling of strength I derive from my practice, I also find a calm, courageous mindset that renders me patient. And living in New Jersey, patience is a virtue. Nobody here seems to know what a “YEILD” sign means. And people are always cutting in line. So I just breathe and listen, pressing my tongue against the roof of my mouth.

No doubt, you’ve been kept abreast of my comings and goings. B** is always quick to mention you too, and I know that he, like me before him, enjoys talking with you. What a treat – when in a menial, low-pay, low-respect job – to have a learned, articulate person, such as yourself, speak to you as an equal! I always looked forward to our chats. The rest of the day was filled with chlorine testing and chasing after lifeguards and smiling through clenched teeth at my boss…but mornings with A***** by the pool made for intellectual stimulation. Remember that I told you your celebrity lookalike, in appearance AND demeanor, is Sidney Poitier? Keep that in mind!

Well, of course, the biggest change in my life is not New Jersey, or even yoga…she’s Ellie. I had a daughter about 14 months ago. This entire experience has changed me from my core out. First, there was the awakening to boldly wanting the pain of childbirth to mark my transition to motherhood. And I had to fight with my doctors for the right to give birth naturally, on my terms. Then, there was a tiny person in my arms, needing me for everything…until, gradually, she’s needed me less and less. And now, there’s the opportunity to get to know this wonderful, magical creature a little more each day. What a thrill to meet someone who is every bit as intense as I am, but not nearly as insecure! I am learning, and learning is a lifelong endeavor.

Perhaps Ellie’s wisdom will be useful to you. I’ve boiled it down to her tenets of everyday happiness:

  1. Assume everyone thinks you’re cute (because, even if they don’t, they probably won’t tell you anyway)
  2. Always enter a room with a smile (because everyone thinks you’re cute, remember?)
  3. Make the best of a tough situation (even if you’ve pooped in your pants)
  4. Dogs have soft, warm tongues (that feel good on fingers and cheeks)
  5. Leafy green vegetables taste best when mashed in sweet potatoes (because you’ll hardly notice they’re there)
  6. Love is elastic and can stretch a little more every day

I’m sure there are many other pearls to harvest, but those are the happy thoughts I carry with me even when I’m not carrying her. I love her, A*****. I’ve really chiseled a wonderful life out of a granite point-of-view.

So, here’s hoping you get back in the pool soon! I’ll try to get there too. Let it replenish our hearts, minds and souls. In the meantime, let us go there in meditation and hold a piece of that breath in everything we do.

With great affection…

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Postpartum sexy

Posted in Humor, Marriage, Personal Essays, Sexuality by femspotter on October 17, 2010

October 17, 2010

(This post is about sex.)

A girlfriend of mine and I were moseying through town the other day, with our beautiful new babies in tow, when she confessed to me that she doesn’t want to become part of one of those married couples who never has sex. She and I both agreed that we love having sex with our respective husbands.

Incidentally, the idea that women don’t care about, or even like, sex was invented by the patriarchy to aid and abet a rape culture wherein men think they don’t have to perform well or worry about a woman’s feelings during sex because they’re convinced that women don’t like sex anyway, and men believe they can just take what they want from women because they deny that women care if they do. Stereotypical frat boys think this way…not all frat boys…indeed, not all boys. Heterosexual intercourse – or PIV, as the radical feminist Dworkinites refer to it, which makes it sound like a disease – is a very popular subject amongst the hetero females I know.

Gentlemen, many of us like sex and most of us could talk about it all day long (hence the high turnout at Friday’s mothering group meeting for which the theme was “relationships” – yeah, the main topic of that conversation was sex too).

My girlfriend and I discussed the fact that we both had attempted to have sex with our wonderful husbands since the birth of our children, 10 and seven weeks ago; but that our attempts had been painful and unsuccessful. (The sensation – if I may – is like tearing off a Band-Aid®…slowly…on the inside of your vagina. Why? Breastfeeding can lead to vaginal dryness. In short: without the proper lubricant, sex can hurt like hell!)

Why did we perceive that there are couples who “never” have sex? …because cynics like Bill Maher and others claim that marriage and children ruin sexuality in a relationship. …because it’s a punchline and a cliché that married people are unhappy under the sheets. …and because, when you’ve just had a baby and tried to resume your sex life – which was really good during pregnancy!!! – but your attempt fell flat, you worry that you’re in for a long dry spell. It’s the human condition to assume the worst, right?

Let me tell you how it all went down for us. My husband and I celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary on October 8th with dinner and a hotel room. He, being a romantic, went all out on the hotel room; this wasn’t a cheap motel, even though that’s what we were using it as. Years from now, I will tell this story as if we intended a romantic evening, but right now is the time for absolute truth…so – fuck it! – I confess that we both were looking to get our rocks off, sexually speaking. We hadn’t had sex since our daughter arrived nine weeks before. We felt emotionally ready to reconnect physically. I had been helping myself for a couple of weeks, thus I knew I possessed the urge. We knew that all we needed was the right time and place to get it on successfully. Or so we thought…

Our daughter was thriving so we asked my mother to watch her overnight. I booked our dogs into a boarding facility near the hotel. I wore real shoes instead of flip-flops – ahhhh…the sacrifices we make for l’amour. Everything was in place. I kissed Ellie “good-bye,” dropped off the dogs, and strolled breezily into the restaurant, tossing my hair as I went. My entrance was like a Pantene commercial. (Not really.)

Despite what awaited us following dinner, I savored a beet salad and halibut filet in a roasted tomato reduction, along with a great glass of Chianti. I checked in with my mother before dessert: a festive pumpkin cheesecake. (Truth be told, the highlight of the meal was the beet salad.) Our daughter had not, according my worst irrational fear, evaporated. She was merrily cooing, drooling and had taken a conference with the blue elephant who dangles from her bouncy seat. (On second thought, the dessert probably rocked…but I really missed Ellie by then, and so my memory has decided it was a bland cheesecake. Is it possible to love your child too much?)

We made our way up to the hotel suite so that I could change into flip-flops for a walk by the neighboring riverside (Hey, I wore pointy shoes with heels for almost two hours!) My husband decided he couldn’t wait for sex and so we began foreplay. I excused myself to put on some sexy lingerie, which I’d brought for fun. I looked pretty good, I thought. I’d managed to tuck the hanging folds of skin on my belly into some lacy knickers – pause for applause. (My appearance has not strayed too far from pre-pregnancy, I’ll have you know. While I’m still about 30 lbs. – or two clothing sizes – over what I’d like to be, I am only about 10 lbs. over my pre-pregnancy weight. And I haven’t yet cut my hair short indiscriminately or donned the so-called “Mom jeans,” despite my empty-baby-bag-of-a-gut.) The lingerie nicely displayed my full, round breasts. I felt really good about myself: not just my appearance, but my efforts to keep the sex alive and well in my marriage. (Fuck you, Bill Maher!)

My husband seemed pleased by my efforts too and told me so (he’s good about compliments). I pushed him back on the bed and straddled him. “Just don’t touch my breasts,” I warned. (The thing about breastfeeding, wonderful though I find it, is that it sort of hijacks your breasts. When they fill with milk and become engorged, they look like you’ve had implants and are large yet perky; but they hurt a lot. They’re hard and sore.) The fact that my husband couldn’t touch my breasts was tough for both of us: they’ve always been a great preoccupation for him during foreplay. And I enjoy that too…which is probably why, when I began to get aroused, I noticed that the right breast was particularly large yet perky.

“Shit! I’m engorged!” I shrieked. I got off the bed, grabbed my breast pump and ran into the bathroom for the second time since we’d entered the suite. Sexy, huh?! (Just nod and smile.)

“I’ll just be one moment,” I assured my hubby through the door. I opened the pump case, got out the motor, the rubber hose, the bottle and the nipple cover. I assembled said parts.

“Shit!”

There came a hesitant request for clarification from somewhere beyond the door.

“I forgot the rubber parts that connect to the hard plastic parts.” (At this point, there were hard parts all over the place, if you know what I mean. But the hard right breast had to be soothed as soon as possible.) I tried to hand express some milk from the nipple, but the milk just dripped slowly into the sink. That was not going to work. I exited the bathroom cupping my leaky boob.

“I’m sorry, Babe, but I really need those parts.” (Wait for it…) “Can you go home and get them?”

Can you believe it?! Can you believe I asked my horny husband to put his clothes on, descend to the parking garage, drive home to his mother-in-law, collect rubber breast pump parts, drive back to the expensive hotel suite and wait outside its bathroom door while his severely engorged wife – who was trying to be sexy, by the way – pumped milk from her no-longer-very-sexy breasts?

Well, I did. It had to be done.

And he went. I wrote down the pieces I needed. “They’re in the microwave sterilizer steamer (which is a big plastic dome resembling a cake carrier) by the sink in the kitchen.”

He nodded and told me, sweetheart that he is, that it wasn’t a big deal at all. I settled into the round window seat and looked out over the river. I studied the New York City skyline and almost forgot about my failure to achieve postpartum sexy and my sore and leaky right breast. I thought about how lucky I am to have such a wonderful best friend and husband. I thought about how blessed I am to have such a happy, healthy daughter. I thought about homelessness and hunger and rape and hatred…and how none of those things affect me right now. I thought about how much love I had accumulated; not just the love that I get from others, but the love that I give. I thought about beets and halibut and cheesecake and red wine and how delicious they all are. I thought about sex…and how I’d one day like to have it again…and…where the hell is he?!

About an hour after he’d departed, the suite door swung open and my husband sauntered through it bearing a cake carrier. “Howdy, Ma’am,” he said, tipping his hat. It was just like a scene from an old spaghetti western. (Not really.)

Just when I was about to ask him where he’d gotten a cake at close to midnight, I realized that my husband hadn’t just brought the three rubber pieces that I’d written about in detail on the back of an old receipt that had been hanging out at the bottom the abyss that is my handbag; he’d brought the entire steamer…and there was still water in it! Oh, J***…you carried that steamer all the way through the lobby of this fancy hotel, didn’t you? I thought with a laugh. You silly man. The thought of him being so desperate for sex that he didn’t fuck around with the parts of the breast pump freaked me out a little, though. I had failed him. I grabbed the steamer and went into the bathroom for the third and final time before sex.

I proceeded to pump something like 7 ounces from my right breast (the usual is 2 or 3 – I guess the alcohol helped things along)! I was so excited about the volume of milk that my body had made that I forgot I was trying to get postpartum sexy back. I ran out of the bathroom with the bottle in my hand and showed it to my husband. I mean, I wanted him to know that this was a serious situation he had helped me avoid. My right boob could have exploded or something! “See,” I said, dangling the bottle before his eyes. His face displayed quite possibly the most frustrated/defeated/exhausted/horrified/compassionate look I’d ever seen on a human being before. He waved me off. (That display probably wasn’t sexy of me either, was it?)

Well, as I mentioned earlier, the first time feels something like a slow Band-Aid rip. It was not good for me; but it did provide my husband with some relief. Needless to say, I was disappointed and scared. But after speaking with some other mothers about postpartum sex, I learned that it hurts like that for most women the first couple of times.

The thing about postpartum sexy is that it’s different from the kind of sexy we knew before. When you’re newly married without children and your husband brings you flowers or strokes your hair or rubs your feet after a long day…that’s sexy. I used to want to make love to my husband because of his goodness. But after pregnancy and childbirth, I have found that I love him the most when I observe his tender yet strong paternalism, and that can be harder to spot. At first, he didn’t seem to relate to Ellie the way I did. No surprise there as I had known her for almost a year before she emerged. He’s had significantly less time to bond with her than I. And speaking of bonding: some days, it feels as though all Ellie and I do is bond because I hold her for hours. By the time my husband gets home from work, I have reached my fill of human contact. What I really want is not sex but space…and chocolate.

I have tried to get to postpartum sexy for both of us. I’ve been looking for his new sexiness: his loving attention paid to our daughter. I have figured out ways to get the physical autonomy that I need so that I can spend time physically bonding with him too. I swim laps. I practice yoga. I shower. (New moms everywhere probably know how special showertime is!) I’ve even been known to put on scented lotion, and make-up…and high-heeled shoes.

But sexy really is a two-way street, isn’t it? My husband didn’t wear lingerie on hotel night. And he has taken to farting loudly and blaming the nearest small creature lately: “Oh, that was the dog/cat/baby,” he jokes. The first time he did this, it was funny, because they do fart often and without apology. But it has since gotten really tedious and gross. Before the baby, he used to quietly leave the room before passing gas. Why can’t he try to be postpartum sexy too?

He’ll get there. He loves Ellie more and more every day. And we know we have to talk to each other about what we want and need to move things forward. I asked him what I do that he finds sexy. He thought about it. “I think it’s really cute how you get embarrassed when you toot,” he confessed and grinned.

Well, at least somebody does.

If I had it to do over…

Posted in Marriage, Personal Essays by femspotter on August 1, 2010

August 1, 2010

That’s a pretty ominous ellipsis, especially given the photo of the lovely lady and her baby bump to the left. No no: this is not one of those essays about a woman who regrets getting married and having a child. Certainly not! The happiest moments in my life have been in marriage and pregnancy. I can’t wait to meet my baby. Today is her estimated due date. She lovingly reassures me that she’s alive and well in my belly with some good, strong kicks. She’s just not quite ready to emerge.

I used to fall in love a lot and get hurt a lot; but not anymore. I wouldn’t do that over because I think I’m better equipped to appreciate the love in my life now having been heartbroken more than once.

But on the eve of welcoming a new baby into the world, I find myself taking stock of the life I’ve led. And while I love where I’ve landed, there are choices I look back and wonder about. For instance, I went to film school and then pursued a master’s degree in English literature. I love writing and making movies, and acting; but they have become hobbies, secondary to the writing that I do here and in my career as a special needs writer. My fantasy is to go back to age 18 and make a different choice in education: to become a nurse and then join the Peace Corps and travel the world helping women in developing nations.

Now, it’s true, that science has never been my strong suit. I would have had to work very hard at nursing to make a success of it. And without the abilities and experiences I’ve accrued to this point in television, journalism and public relations work, I don’t know how good I would have been at marketing myself as a missionary. This work would have required me to swallow much of the pride I have choked on over the past 10 years in learning to get along with others in this world. (Let’s just say that I don’t walk softly.) I have also learned how to work hard at things. When I was 18, I didn’t work hard at anything. I might have given up the Peace Corps when it got too hard. Now I know that it’s the hard that makes something worth doing.

I would have had to become a politician, a grant writer, a beggar rather than a chooser… All of these things, like science, don’t come easily to me.

But there it is: as I travel boldly forth into motherhood, I wish that before I’d done this precious deed, I’d done another. I wish that I’d given something sustaining to women on a larger scale than I do now, making donations to food pantries and spreading information online and buying jewelry from indigent African women’s charities, etc. I wish I’d really been able to help.

This is probably a normal thought process to experience. It doesn’t mean I have any real regrets: as I said, I love where I’ve landed. And it’s good to have a fantasy; I think it makes me more prone to doing all of the little good deeds I can. I should never forget how fortunate I am, and I want to make sure that my daughter too knows how fortunate she will be. She is already loved beyond human comprehension. She is already blessed with much first world privilege.

There is one other thought that creeps into my mind at night between awake and asleep. I wish that before I had deliberately become pregnant – in addition to checking myself thoroughly for and finding the motherhood desire – I had learned what pregnancy and childbirth mean in this modern world of ours. The first course I had taken in pursuit of my master’s degree was about reproductive themes in literature. I read the words of midwife Ina May Gaskin and “Conceiving the New World Order” and “The Continuum Concept” and more. I was given some idea that childbirth had become a pathology and I envisioned going into labor screaming as orderlies wheeled me through the emergency room doors of a sterile hospital on a squeaky gurney. And I knew I didn’t want that experience. I knew that what I wanted to happen between me, my child and my husband would be altogether much more spiritual: a rite of passage.

But as soon as I missed a period, I bought a pregnancy test and jumped for joy when it sprouted a plus sign. And I ran into my OBGYN’s office expecting a feminist greeting. (It is, after all, a practice of three women.) How naive was I? Very. I should have turned around and run away the minute a nurse handed me a document about HIV – my HIV status – and didn’t tell me what it meant. I ran frantically into the hallway trying to find somebody to explain why I had to give an AIDS document to the labor and delivery nurses at the hospital. “And do I have AIDS?” I asked. The woman frustratedly read the paper and told me “no.” As it turns out, by law, I’m required to submit proof of this upon admission to the hospital for childbirth.

How could they have assumed I would know this? How come they looked angry with me when I didn’t? How come what followed was not a patient explanation of things to come, but instead a flood of instructions about cord blood banking and choosing pediatricians their office preferred? Were there kickbacks to be had? Why didn’t they want for me what I wanted?”

Subsequently, I should have left this practice when they told me that the only way they deliver babies is with the mother on her back and her feet in stirrups. Stirrups make me uncomfortable and I don’t think lying on my back works with gravity, I told them. But they didn’t care.

At this time, I had already begun to work with a doula: a person who assists women before, during and after labor. Her primary function: pain management. But she has also been a wonderful resource for reassuring words and information. She told me, for instance, that the closer I get to my daughter’s delivery, the softer my stool would get. And it has. So, following a threat from my OB several weeks ago that I would have to be induced before the due date because it was estimated that my daughter was a “big baby,” I made a point of explaining that I had been experiencing diarrhea. Well, it turns out that real “diarrhea” has to happen four to five times a day to count as…diarrhea. I received a lecture. What I had was “soft stool,” and I should never confuse the two again. I had only mentioned it hoping that she would make the connection that my baby was well on her way. No need to induce. No need to pump me full of chemicals before my cervix is ready to dilate so that I end up in a C-section giving birth to the behemoth waiting a full hour or more before I could bring her to my bosom. Needless to say, the doctor did not get it.

Then she abruptly performed a pelvic exam, which was surprisingly painful. I groaned and she whipped her hand out of my vagina. “Good!” What? What was good about what I had just experienced? “You’re dilated,” she told me. How much? One to 2 centimeters. So I really was moving right along.

The induction discussion continued: “We only induce mothers on Mondays and Tuesdays. If you don’t want to be induced on the 26th (of July) then you’ll have to be induced on the 2nd or 3rd of August. We’re not doing any inductions on the 9th or 10th and you can’t wait until the 16th.”

She left me alone with my husband to decide. Meanwhile a mousy nurse came in to answer any questions we might have. She explained that they do the inductions on Mondays or Tuesdays so that the babies are born on Wednesdays. Then she caught herself and smiled awkwardly: “Of course, they will deliver your baby any day of the week if you come naturally,” she said shyly.

I was in a machine. I was a cog, a moving part. I wasn’t a mother-to-be. I wasn’t a human being. I felt like a child, or something less independent than a child: a pet. Nowhere in any of the literature I’d read, nor anything that my doula had told me, did “big baby” signal a medical need to be induced. My blood pressure was a constant 110 over 70. Good. My baby’s heart rate was brilliant and strong. Good. I had gained a mere 30 lbs. or so, right in the middle of what was considered “normal.” Good. But the more I pushed natural childbirth on these doctors, the more they resisted. They wanted to plug me into a formula for their success in private medical practice, not encourage me to experience the one and only time that this baby will ever be born with joy and awareness and peace of mind.

Later that day, I bled and was crampy. The OB hadn’t told me that was a possible side effect of the painful pelvic exam. Thank goodness for my doula.

A week and a half ago, I found myself in the office of three merry midwives. Approximately 12% of women in America use midwives for labor and delivery, as well as other gynecological health care. And now, I am one of them. Gone was the briskness of nurses and doctors who didn’t care to know my name. Gone were the threats that failing to induce my delivery would result in a stuck shoulder, a ruptured placenta or a dead baby. Gone were the callous efforts to pound me into a schedule for convenience’s sake. All of this was replaced with what feels like love and happiness. If there is a problem, there is a doctor to care for me. But if all goes well, as it has for the past 40 weeks, a midwife will deliver Ellie from whatever position feels good to me; as my doula smiles and cheers me on; as my husband lovingly strokes my hair and perhaps sheds a tear as we see our beautiful baby, however big, for the first time.

So, “if I had it to do over…” I would have realized a long time ago that the fear-mongering and the routine, indifferent treatment of a pathological birth experience were not for me and I would have visited the merry midwives and shared my smiles and tears with them throughout this precious time. I was ignorant. But I know so much more now; so much that I can be a cultural resource for my friends and family members who approach the prospect of motherhood the same way I did: believing I have no rights and fearing that my body is not capable of doing the things that billions of women have done naturally before me. Movies and television teach us that childbirth is painful. They don’t teach us that women are strong enough to endure that pain.

As I’ve said twice before, I love where I’ve landed.

We have a secret in our culture…and it’s not that birth is painful. It’s that women are strong. -Laura Stavoe Harm

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