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a first birth story, part iii

Part III: The Action… and the Baby

It was almost 7 p.m. I’d been at the hospital since 9 the previous night, on Pitocin since 8 in the morning. Some point during that time, I stopped fussing with the monitors and talking about musicals and started… well… laboring.

I tried some different labor positions throughout the afternoon and into the evening, but nothing beat just plain standing up. I probably spent 75% of my active labor on my feet, with my arms draped over my dear husband’s shoulders. I was so tired – I wanted so badly to sit down and rest – but I couldn’t, because I wouldn’t have enough time to heft myself back up to standing before the next contraction hit.

Aside from standing, my main method of pain management was a little psychological trick I read about on some random website: supposedly, contractions “peak” at about 30 seconds and then slowly subside. I tried counting to 30 on my own but it felt horrific – the distance between the numbers stretching further and further apart as I counted. But I asked my husband to count without telling me, and just inform me when 30 seconds had passed. It was surprisingly effective – his words were a cue that the pain would soon be over, so I could calm down.

At the evening shift change, two midwives popped in. My labor was probably still boring according to my medical professionals, but to me, it was starting to get miserable. Contractions were less than a minute apart. I was so, so tired. I was crying. Not that long ago, a tiny, slithering voice had whispered in my ear. You could always ask for an epidural, it said as I stood, swaying exhaustedly. It’s a thing you could do. Now the midwives were there, standing with me, and I asked if I could be taken off the Pitocin. It had clearly done its job. I was definitely successfully induced.

They looked at me sympathetically. “Your labor is progressing,” the daytime midwife said. “Contractions more intense and closer together. This is what is supposed to happen.”

I’m sure I responded by having a contraction, maybe moaning unintelligibly, maybe weeping. Time may have passed. I have no memory. I do, however, remember the new nighttime midwife asking me a kind, kind question: “If you could have one thing to make this easier on you, what would you want?”

The answer: “I want to be off these monitors so I can get in the motherf@#$ing shower!”

Although I was situated in one of the most hospital-dense cities in the world, it hadn’t occurred to this First Time Mom-to-be to do any  “hospital shopping.” When I got a positive test, I called my primary care physician, who transferred my call to the OB/GYN department. I asked if they had midwives. They did – most of their patients alternated seeing an OB and a midwife at appointments and could choose which group to deliver with. Their home base was Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center – a large teaching hospital in Fenway, right down the street from my alma mater – so, sure, I would deliver there. Why not. My Internet research revealed that this was definitely a hospital environment, but what seemed like a nice one. No swanky birth center vibe, but private rooms throughout. No tubs, but showers! I could handle a shower. Plus, I’d planned on doing a majority of my laboring at home and arriving 9 cm dilated, so who really cares about amenities?

The bad news: my stupid water broke and I was GBS positive and now I was on Pitocin so I had to have stupid pink and blue monitors strapped to my belly and attached to a rolling cart of electricity so no, I couldn’t get into any showers.

And by the way, your room doesn’t have a shower, it’s a shared shower that is actually down the hall.

I mean, nobody is in it because everyone is lying in bed with their epidurals except for you idiot. But you still can’t get in.

Or so daytime midwife had insisted. Nighttime midwife, it seemed, was a little more game.

“Maybe we can make that happen,” she said. “Let’s check you and see just how far along you are.”

My second cervical check. It was probably 7-8 p.m – a full 12 hours since my morning check had gotten me hooked up to Pitocin in the first place. This was it: the cervical check delivered at the peak of desperation that would be so disappointing, so demoralizing, that I’d lose what little grasp I had on my pain and succumb to that little voice. I knew the narrative. This is how birth stories went. I’d be anesthetized within the hour, a C-sectioned before midnight.

I, however, didn’t care about any last thing except a remote chance I could get into the shower. Or, really, get anywhere that wasn’t in this exact room, standing in my terrible, pain-wracked body, where I had been for 100 years and seemed doomed to remain forever.

“You’re at 8 cm!” nighttime midwife said. “That’s great news. I think we can let you off the IV and monitors for and let you in the shower for a while. We’ll monitor you intermittently and I’ll check back in an hour to see if things keep rolling. If they slow down, you’ll have to come out, but we’ll see.”

Rejoicing! Tears of relief! Excitement! Somebody unhooked me from my various medical paraphernalia. I wanted to barrel out the door immediately, in the tiny window before I had another effing contraction.

“Oh, but you need something to wear on your feet,” nighttime midwife said. “Fungus prevention, you know.”

A contraction hit. I couldn’t believe what these people were talking about. Fungus!? I don’t care about fungus! Give me a fungus, PLEASE, if that’s the price I have to pay I will gladly pay it!

“Maybe we can hunt down some paper slippers?”

Seriously. I will take a fungus over wearing PAPER SLIPPERS IN THE SHOWER that sounds DISGUSTING what is wrong with you people?

The contraction passed. “I have flip-flops?” I said.

Those were the magic words. Finally, finally, I was allowed to strip down and enter the shower, and it was as glorious as any experience I’ve had since. So hot. So wonderful. And did I mention hot? Hospital hot-water heaters are magical.

My husband joined me, wearing swim trunks and flip-flops of his own; while he was mainly on Spray-Wife-Down-With-Movable-Shower-Head duty, I also recall that he opted to hang halfway out of the shower curtain every so often to continue monitoring my contractions on the timer app… on my brand new iPhone. Questionable decision; good intentions.

I quickly realized that it wasn’t just the magic of the hot shower that brought me such relief – it was the sudden absence of Pitocin. While I hadn’t had any pre-Pitocin contractions to provide a frame of reference at that point, laboring without the drug was just so… mellow. I’d have a contraction. It would end. Then, there would be… a break? A pause? The electronic data did show that my contractions were somewhat further apart; on Pitocin, they could be as close as 30-45 seconds, off was more like a minute or a minute an and a half. Maybe that extra 30 seconds between was more valuable than it seems? Or maybe the contractions were just less intense, so I didn’t spend my between-contraction time recovering or dreading the next onslaught. Either way, I was suddenly nearly having a good time. I’d spent all day in a hospital room experiencing more and more pain. Now I was in a private, steamy room with my husband, hanging out. I distinctly remember making a joke and feeling like it was the first time I laughed all day.

My nurse came in a few times to check the baby’s heartbeat with a Doppler, and everything was fine. I must have been in there a good long time because I think I also remember the midwife arriving and doing another cervical check. (Can you even envision the contortions required to check a hugely pregnant woman’s cervix while she’s fully naked in the shower? It was weird…) I was 9 cm! Huzzah! Things were still moving forward. I could stay in the blessed shower. (TMI for seasoned birth junkies only: besides timing contractions, my grand overachieving plan for keeping my labor progressing? Nipple stimulation. This paragraph is full of appealing visuals. You are welcome.)

The magical shower of unparalleled glory featured a metal bench. At some point, I finally sat my exhausted ass right down. When a contraction hit, I slid off the bench and into a squat; when it was over, my husband – still diligently spraying me and risking the life of my beautiful new phone – hoisted me back up again. It was totally manageable. Wonderful. Great. Maybe I even started to feel like I wanted to push when I was down in that squatting position? Just maybe. I wanted to keep the urge to myself, to just push silently. Stealthily deliver my baby into the magical shower room, alone. But it got too freaky, the feeling of your body taking over without your consent, so I uttered the magic words.

“I think I’m pushing?”

The midwife was back. She checked my cervix again. I was fully dilated. Go time! And since shower deliveries are not approved hospital practice, I was headed back across the hall to my room.

“You need a hospital gown,” the midwife said.

A contraction subsided. “No, I don’t,” I said. What I needed, clearly, was to get any sort of ambulation done before I had another contraction. “It’s fine. It’s right across the hall!” And I’m wearing flip-flops, for goodness sake. Who knew medical professionals would be so concerned with my wardrobe…

I did make it, eventually. I was hooked up to the monitors, again and cleared to push during contractions, if I felt like it. I wanted to try the whole sit on the edge of the bed + slide off the bed maneuver, but after one or two contractions it was clear my belly bands just wouldn’t stay put that way, so it was vetoed.

“Maybe side-lying,” I said, hoisting myself back on to the bed.

“Yeah!” my husband said. “Just like they suggested at birth class!”

I lay on my side. I had a few contractions and “pushed.” And then I fell asleep. Life without Pitocin, man. It was wonderful.

In my mind, I was resting between contractions, just like everyone recommends! My midwife-to-be sister says I was “laboring down.” According to my husband – who was standing there with the nurse and midwife – I was just plain asleep for like, a half hour.

“Maybe we should try a more active pushing position,” the midwife said, kindly. I acquiesced, and my legs were then hoisted up to my ears and it was time to do this thing, lithotomy-style. I cared about nothing except getting this baby out of me. Actually, that’s a lie. I was so exhausted, I didn’t even care about that. I was a tired, wet noodle of a human being. Throw my legs where you want, I don’t care.

In case you have somehow made it 5,000 words deep into this adventure and not yet found it too revealing, here’s a big fat T. M. I. for you. Turn back now or be forever scarred by the horrors of vaginal childbirth!

I was also terrible at pushing, surprise, surprise. “Push like you are taking a big poop!” the midwife said. I tried, but has anyone on this planet ever taken a big poop while lying on their back in front of their husband and two medical professionals with their legs up in the air? On purpose, anyway… This seemed like a musculo-skeletally-unreasonable recommendation. But I was an impressionable noodle-human. I tried, but it didn’t work. Nothing I tried worked for an interminable amount of time.

The weirdest thing about pushing was how much pain I wasn’t in. I could barely tell when I was having a contraction, which was annoying because I was only supposed to be pushing when I had contractions. In between, there was just… silence. At first, I started drifting off again. “That’s great,” my midwife said. “Really relax between contractions. It’s fine to fall asleep.” But I totally did not want to fall asleep again – I did that for like, an hour and nothing happened! I would never wake up! This would never be over! I needed to keep my head in the motherfuc%#$ng game! So I started making awkward small talk with the nurse and the midwife in between contractions to keep myself alert, and  because yes, it was really awkward to be standing around in silence in the middle of the night while everyone was waiting for you to suddenly get good at a task you were clearly sucking at. I also solicited my husband to play DJ, but like many laboring woman, I was incredibly exacting. Carole King, but not the Carole King musical, what are you thinking?? Tom Waits, but not the creepy Tom Waits. The nice, singer-songwriter Tom Waits.

While Tom Waits hoped his pony knew the way back home, we tried the squat bar. When a contraction hit, my team of hoisters hoisted me up to grab onto the bar. I hated it. It was the scariest thing I had ever felt in my life. My midwife cheered as I was lowered back down to a supine position – “You made more progress with that one push than you’ve made in an hour!” she said. Looking back as a labor post-strategist, it seems obvious that everyone should have hoisted my ass back up to that bar despite my protestations. I didn’t like it because I was exhausted and didn’t like being hoisted, and also because it was working. I was too afraid to push for real. Nobody called me out on it… so I ended up pushing for more than three hours.

Regardless, my baby was, in fact, coming out, albeit at a snail’s pace. The head was visible. Did I want a mirror? Mirrors can be motivating. I had thought probably not – who needs to see the carnage up close? – but Wet Noodle Jessica would say yes to anything if there was the tiniest sliver of a chance it would get this baby out of her uterus so she could go to bed. There it was: the tiniest, TINIEST sliver of a head, covered in hair. I didn’t find it disturbing OR motivating. I did feel somewhat tickled to see the reason for my truly excessive amount of heartburn, though.

Speaking of heartburn, despite becoming reliant on OTC heartburn meds late in my pregnancy, I had somehow forgotten to bring with me anything stronger than a Tum. I became convinced, mid-pushing, that if only I had a Zantac, I would be a better at this. I have a bit of a vomit phobia and when you have a gross acid reflux-y feeling at the back of your throat and then you start using every muscle in your body to facilitate the ejection reflex of a foreign object? That feels kind of like throwing up. So maybe I wasn’t giving it my all, because of that. Because I was scared. Because I was scared, because I was scared, because I was scared. A Zantac seemed like a reasonable request to me, but the nurse and midwife looked at me like I’d requested a Ketamine shot. “Did you bring any with you?” they asked. I remembered the Saga of the Cough Drop from so many hours ago. I gave up hope.

Here is the point of the story where a baby’s head entered my vagina. It stayed there for what felt like an entire hour. I asked my husband later – it was actually almost an entire hour. This was incredibly unnerving, uncomfortable, unbelievable, unpleasant, uncomfortable, undesirable, uncomfortable and all sorts of other un-words. It was there when I was pushing. It was there when I wasn’t pushing. This did not feel like a ring of fire. This felt like a baby’s head inside of my vagina. I wanted it out. There were probably tears. I remember saying “ow ow ow ow ow ow ow” a lot. The sliver of hairy head in the mirror was getting larger, but not large enough. I asked if there was anything that could be done to just… you know… pull the baby out of me. No. No there was not. I thought it would never end – this day, this labor, this head in my vagina. This was my life now. I tried to push when I had a contraction. I tried to push when I didn’t have a contraction. I tried screaming, I tried being quiet, I tried tucking my chin, I tried everything.

And then, all of a sudden, what ever I tried worked, and there was a baby.

It felt like his whole head and body came out in just one push. An entire human, with arms and legs and skin. Skin! A baby that had been there all along with me, for hours and hours and hours of labor, for months and months of pregnancy. Skin inside of my skin! A real person!

Sure, I’d had a long day, but how had I forgotten that there was a person inside of me? Maybe I hadn’t ever really known. Maybe I couldn’t know, but now it was undeniable.

He was undeniable.

It was a boy!

It was Leo.

 

a first birth story, part ii

 

Part II: The Mostly Boring Labor

In my limited, single-birth experience, I can see some benefits to labor beginning with your water breaking.

1) It makes for a good story! “And then my water broke!” Sploosh!

2) It’s a pretty hard to argue with. There’s none of that “hmmm, was that a contraction? Am I in labor? Should I call the doctor?” stuff. You are leaking mysterious fluids, therefore it’s time to have a baby

3) Supposedly your contractions are more intense once your water breaks. I wasn’t allowed that particular frame of reference, so I was spared one mental setback during what would become a long and fairly arduous process.

Regardless of all that, I – in my nightgown, leaking pink liquid at 38 weeks pregnant when e.v.e.r.y.b.o.d.y. told me I would go until 41 – was extremely pissed.

Because I wanted a low-intervention, epidural and C-section free birth… and I was GBS positive.

I had just received the test results a few days before. My OB was so chill about it. GBS is very common! So not a big deal. You’ll need a round of IV antibiotics at least four hours before you deliver. Don’t worry!

The only thing else you need to know, she said, is that if your water breaks when you are at home, you’ll have to come into the hospital right away. Since you and the baby will be at a higher risk of infection.

“But that really rarely happens.” she says.

I started stomping around the house. I also put regular clothes back on, did my best to pack a hospital bag (which, up until that point, was empty except for a box of Cheez-its and some granola bars), and considered not calling anyone at all for even just a few hours. But my Upholder nature got the best of me. I called the nurse line (“Oh, you’re GBS positive? Then yes, come in right away. Well, you don’t have to drop everything and run to the hospital, but yes, come now”) I called my annoying husband a half dozen times before he picked up. My supervisor had her first baby the year before and she was 10 days early and I was horrified. Now I was even earlier?? How was this even possible??!

My husband barged into the apartment maybe 20 minutes later, sweaty and panting.

“Did you just run all the way here?”

“Yeah!” he said.

“Please calm down and go take a shower,” I said. I very distinctly remember using my nicest, most polite tone of voice.

I gathered up more stuff – how convenient that surly Jessica brought over ALL of the baby clothes from our other apartment! – washed the dishes in the sink, and left our cat a small mountain of food. I helped my husband pack his bag. I grabbed a half-full pint of Ben & Jerry’s from the freezer and my giant, tall-person sized birth ball and we got in the car.

I sat on a bath towel and ate ice cream while we drove through completely reasonable Boston traffic. It was a Thursday night after 9 p.m. We remembered where to park our car in the garage and which elevator to take up to labor and delivery. We had a short wait in reception, where I proceeded to leak amniotic fluid under my dress and down my leg. The receptionist asked if I was wearing a pad. Yes. Yes I was. No, it clearly isn’t doing the job. She reached into her desk drawer and pulled out one of those notorious industrial strength, mini-diaper sized pads and pointed me toward the bathroom.

In triage, a midwife interrogated and swabbed me to confirm that yes, my water had indeed broken. How was I feeling? “I don’t want to be here,” I said. I wanted to be at home, laboring for hours in my own space. I wanted to be sitting in triage moaning and dilated, not kicking my heels and chatting casually about what birth classes I had taken.

At one point, the midwife asked me what my plans for pain medication were. “I was hoping not to use any,” I said. There’s really not a casual, polite way to say, “Coming through! Watch out! Crunchy, Ina-May-reading ‘natural birth’ lady here at your Large Urban House of Cascading Interventions!”

The midwife’s response? “Okay. Sure. You certainly can try laboring for a while and see how it goes.”

While I silently seethed over my medical professional’s subtle but blatant dismissal of my deeply held birthing desires (“you can tryyyy laboring,” she said, like she’d met so many women who thought they might just give it a whirl but, oh, ow, it hurts! Where’s my epidural? She’d clearly never met me!)  baby passed the mandatory intake monitoring (Thanks Ben! Thanks Jerry!), and – with some concerning delay – the “are you still head down in there?” ultrasound. At one point, the ultrasound-wand-wielder uttered the sentence “I can’t find the head;” something no mother ever wants to hear said about her child, born or unborn. They did find the head, eventually; it was much lower than was conveniently ultrasounded. I took that as a good sign.

And then there was the million dollar question: are you having any contractions? Well, maybe. One or two? I’d felt a little something as I waddled from home to hospital, leaking all the way. Maybe a little bitty baby contraction? I don’t know. I was hopeful, but nobody seemed terribly impressed.

At that point, the midwife gave me my options: start an induction or wait and see. Here it was. The Cascade of Interventions. I was supposed to sink my heels into the stand, hold firm to my priorities, and insist that we wait for as long as possible. “I want to wait at least a few hours,” I said, nervously. “See what happens.” That was totally fine, she said; she was comfortable waiting up to 12 hours as long as I got my regular antibiotic drips and sat on the monitors intermittently. “At least a few hours,” I said.

So we waited… but there wasn’t exactly a *place* for us to wait, necessarily. It was a busy evening in L&D. We hung out in triage for a while, eavesdropping on another patient who arrived in an ambulance but also without any sort of imminent labor. We were eventually relocated to a “recovery room:” one of a few curtained-off beds where, we deduced, C-section mamas could recover from surgery while bonding with their babes. We eavesdropped on a different patient who was similarly displaced – she wasn’t full term yet, and hopefully she wasn’t in labor until BAM, her water broke and then she was out of there.

We waited. And waited. And waited. It was the middle of the night and I didn’t know if I should be trying to sleep or walking like a mad person. I did some of each, but mostly walked. Dressed in two hospital gowns and a pair of socks, I lumbered up and down the extraordinarily short L&D hallway. The delivery rooms (all full, no room for me); the nurse’s station; the recovery rooms; triage. Triage; the recovery rooms; the nurses’s station; the delivery rooms. I clutched my iPhone and I listened to birth stories on my headphones – The Birth Hour podcast and Anna Solomon and Eleanor Henderson’s Labor Day on audio.

Waiting “a few hours” stretched into the entire night. I think the midwife checked in on me once, and I reported back to my bed periodically for monitoring and more antibiotics. I wanted not to be intervened with, wanted to be left alone: L&D was so busy and I was so low maintenance, that I seemed to be getting my wish. At some point, I downloaded an app and started timing my “contractions;” I had a few that stopped me in my wandering tracks, left me doing some moderate writhing while I was lying in bed on the monitor, but nothing more than 7 minutes apart.

In the meantime, my deadbeat annoying husband became my poor, dead-tired husband. He stayed in my curtained off room, curled into a ball, uncomfortably wedged in between two standard-issue, non-comfy chairs. I tried to convince him to take my unoccupied hospital bed, but he declined.

We were finally granted a delivery room in the early hours of the morning. Quiet and privacy allowed us both a short sleep before two midwives entered the room.

“It’s been 12 hours,” said the first midwife. “I get to go home, so I am handing your care off to this new midwife. Also, it’s time to talk induction. We can try Cytotec or go right to Pitocin. Your choice.”

I hemmed. I hawed. I texted my midwife-in-training sister. I knew the basic pros and cons. Cytotec: it’s a pill, so if it works to induce labor I could just… be in labor. No more interventions. There is, however, a risk of uterine hyperstimulation – mega contractions. This could be massively painful, hard on the baby, and lead to further interventions; and it’s a pill, so you can’t “dial it back.” Pitocin, on the other hand, is an IV drip that can be adjusted. But… it’s an IV drip: I’d be tethered to an IV pole for the duration… and also the fetal monitor. I wanted to avoid monitoring and I wanted to be mobile. I decided the risk of adverse Cytotec side effects would be worth avoiding further interventions.

My new midwife returned, alone. I told her I was leaning toward the Cytotec, but was a Foley Bulb an option? She said it was! (Why, then, was it not provided to me as… an option? Who the heck knows…) Let’s see how your cervix is doing, though.

From what I’d gathered in my years of anticipatory birth research/obsession, the data gathered from cervical checks were questionable at best. If you weren’t progressing, then disappointment could compound with pain and lead to the dreaded epidural. Also: ouch. Being GBS positive with ruptured membranes, my cervical checks were to be kept to a minimum, which was completely fine by me. So this was my first ever cervical check, 12+ hours into my “labor.”

“Good news!” the new midwife said after she emerged from my… vagina. “You’re two centimeters dilated.”

“Yay!” My husband and I cheered.

“That means we can’t do Cytotec OR a Foley Bulb! It’s time to move right to Pitocin!”

Awesome?

Thus began the second, more medicated portion of my Mostly Boring Labor. Or “labor,” as my now- midwife sister would say, because you aren’t actually in labor until you are at like 4 centimeters or something highly specific. I don’t know. I was in a delivery room wearing a hospital gown walking around attached to an IV pole, so it felt like I was in labor.

But it was boring. I asked for a “slow” induction, so it was still another 3-4 hours before I started feeling significant contractions. Highlights from this boring pre-labor labor:

  • We spent a lot of time deciding what music to listen to, since we hadn’t gotten around to making any sort of “labor playlist.” Once shit started to get less boring, we somehow opted for a lot of musicals, since they were really long and didn’t require constant DJing. We started with Hamilton (this was 2016…) and I think moved on to Jesus Christ Superstar. I vetoed Les Miserables. Just too bleak.

 

  • My husband was really excited to order breakfast. I told him I didn’t want anything, since I was “in labor” and therefore could throw up at any time. He ordered anyway, and I ended up eating half of his hash browns and egg sandwich.

 

  • Also, he fetched me a really large, fully-caffeinated iced coffee from a nearby Starbucks! I remember this feeling very exciting. Second-time-around Pregnant Jessica is wondering why this was so novel, since Starbucks makes iced coffees all year round, from first trimester to third…

 

  • I was getting over a minor cold and had a really annoying tickly throat/cough thing going on. Combine that with my third trimester acid reflux and dry hospital air and I was being driven entirely crazy. Sometime in the middle of the night I asked my husband to scout out a vending machine/nearby pharmacy for a cough drop, or at least a Jolly Rancher or something. No dice. As contractions ramped up, it got more and more irritating. My husband resumed his mission, and the result – hours and hours later – was a prescribed cough drop. A. Single. Cough Drop. I didn’t even take it – I figured I’d wait until it got REALLY bad – and then I lost it.

 

  • I spent a lot of time trying to get my fetal monitors to stay hoisted into the proper position. You really do pay a lot of attention to that little heartbeat computer if it’s right there by your side.

 

  • I saw a lot of nurses that day. I remember the daytime nurse who seemed a little perplexed by my birth choices. In between asking me how I would rate my pain from 1 to 10 (why is this a thing during childbirth, by the way?) she furrowed her brow at me a lot and looked concerned – when there was nothing wrong with me, as far as I could tell! I also remember the nurse who showed up when I was in real pain who seemed really excited to hang out with a medication-free laboring mom – she was offering tips and making impromptu ice packs! How fun! Alas, she was only covering a shift change. In general, though, I was left alone. Which is exactly what I wanted.

 

  • At some point, I unhooked myself from the monitors, wheeled my IV pole by my side and lumbered into the bathroom to pee. When I emerged from the ordeal, there was a smiling anesthesiologist standing in the room with a giant syringe (Is that true? Am I making that detail up? I really think it happened, but it seems so ridiculous…) He said something like, “I’m here with your pain medication!” and I said something like “Um, I don’t have any pain medication,” (See!? It’s awkward. Don’t you people recognize a crunchy birth lady attached to an IV pole when you see one!?) And he said, “I know, that’s why I’m here!” And then me, my husband, and happy syringe man just stood in silence, until syringe man excused himself. I’m assuming he found the right room number at some point after that.

 

All told, it was a pretty boring day. Midwife #2 popped in at one point to check on me – “It’s been so busy!” she said. “I wish I could just stay in here with you guys!” I wasn’t sure if I should feel proud or insulted. At some point, however, I stopped feeling like I was killing time. Instead, I felt like I was in a great deal of pain. It seemed the dreaded Pitocin was working. I’d also been at the hospital for nearly 24 hours – mostly awake for the last 36 – so I was also feeling a great deal of exhaustion.

Pain. Exhaustion. The stuff of most Birth Stories. More to come, including: a baby!

a first birth story: part i

I’ve tried to write this story so many times since June 10th, 2016. I’m afraid that I’ll write it wrong, that I won’t have the skill to turn my memories into A Real Birth Story – not just a retelling of facts and events, but a real story, with tension, rising and falling action, and a really moving message.

And that’s probably where it stops. Did my birth have a message? Does it have to? Maybe the message that birth is raw and messy and painful and never exactly what you expect, just like life? Or… Wow, look what the human female body can do with the help of – or in spite of – a supporting cast of loved ones and medical professionals? That there’s never been a birth like mine, so let me tell you about every tedious, exhausting centimeter of it?

Additionally, I was hoping to have this written and posted before I had another birth story to tell. I almost met my goal, but not quite; as I am finishing, my first-birthed child is doing arts and crafts at daycare while my second-birthed, two-month-old child is napping in her crib (like a g.d. angel). I’m feeling compelled to look back at what I’ve written here – all 7,000 words, if that can be believed – but should I edit? I don’t know. My instinct is to let my words and feeling be. This is what my memories were like a few months ago, when I only had one birth under my belt: loquacious, dramatic, and – in my own, loquaciously dramatic way – reverent. Now that I’ve done this twice, I have a new perspective about what was happening the first time around, with me and my firstborn. I can see the struggle – invisible to me, even just months ago – between badly wanting to be a mother and fearing for my health, my marriage, and my identity. The pregnancy (and preceding Planning to Be Pregnant) the long overture; the birth the loud and sudden shift into the opening number; the strum of apprehension and anxiety the theme churning below it all.

The message?

That there is probably nothing as physically, mentally, and spiritually frightening as bringing another life into the world.

That sometimes everything can go wrong while simultaneously going exactly right.

That the lead-up might be pointless, the story mostly boring, and the aftermath of anecdotes only the “you had to be there” kind of funny, but it’s all part of the drama of being human – of perpetuating the human race – and there’s really only one way I can figure out how to tell it, so here it goes.

 

Part I: The Pointless Backstory

I felt fine all day. Unremarkable. As normal as could be, given my pretty-dang-huge state. According to photos taken on my phone, the concerns of the day – June 9th – were exceptionally mundane. We got a parking ticket. I found the mailbox closest to our new apartment. I sent a screenshot of my terrible sleep stats to my sister. I went to CVS, where I received a ream of coupons.

This was my newly late-third-trimester utilitarian life. After months of planning to bring our baby home to our 450-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment, we’d finally been granted an opportunity to relocate into something more suitable for a growing family. So we moved. My miles long “To-Do Before Baby” list vanished in face of the daily labors and concerns of moving house. Every day there was something to pack, to unpack, to clean, to shuttle, to buy, to locate. Work was more of the same – wrapping up projects, sending emails, and leaving instructions for coworkers – with breaks to lumber over to my weekly doctors’ visits.

That day, I lumbered home from work at five. My husband called me on his way home from an end of the school year Teachers Drinking type event. He sounded somewhere between cheerful and tipsy. His band was playing that night at a restaurant in our neighborhood – did I want to get dinner with him before they played?

Sure. Why not. The food’s not great, but it’s food, and we were about to have a baby! We were supposed to be getting out of the house for quality couple time while we still could! While I waited for my ride, I triaged the new apartment and set upon the second bedroom. It was slowly filling with “homeless” items, like my husband’s musty sheet music collection, but it was also where potential houseguests with air mattresses might land. I cleared off the surface of my desk – the only piece of furniture in the room – and plugged in a lamp. I investigated the sheet music. Lance called, and I hopped into the car. Slid into the car? Plopped into the car? I was 38 weeks pregnant. I probably plopped.

I went from feeling normal to irritated pretty quickly. There was a coworker in the car, hitching a ride home. My arrival did not pause their loud, too jovial banter. They were, in my estimation, tipsy, and my husband was not driving like a cautious tipsy person ought. When his friend got out of the car, I asked for the keys and grumpily drove us both to the restaurant where we sat down for a mediocre meal.

Shameless, starving pregnant lady that I was, I ordered both an appetizer – grocery-store quality guacamole and chips – and a burger. Quality couple time, here we come? But by the time my entrée was served, my husband’s band started to arrive. And by arrive, I mean barrel into the small restaurant, pull a chair up to our table, and talk shit with my still jovial and tipsy husband. Romantic.

I finished my burger as quickly as I could and left with the car: tipsy husband can stumble home later. We had so much to get done – if I had to do it by myself, I would. I drove to our old apartment and started loading up the car with very important items that I needed right this second. Like a bulletin board, so I could finish setting up my entryway table. And the hanging bins containing 100% of our unborn child’s clothing and blankets.

When I parked my car outside of our new apartment, I remembered I was hugely pregnant and left basically everything in the car. Make my deadbeat, annoying, tipsy husband deal with it later.

I went upstairs. I set up my entryway table. I unpacked some stuff. I got dressed for bed and thought I’d sit and read in my pajamas.

Then my water broke. Two weeks before my due date.

unnecessary spending: one month in

In January, I spent more than 850 dollars in at least 40 different unnecessary ways.

This “mostly frugal” girl is a bit shocked.

I’m not going to list everything I bought. Instead, here are some general patterns I observed in this first month of spending, in order of least complex to most.

 

Automatic payments for online services

Once upon I time, I signed up to give my money away to various causes and companies in regular, small increments. I’m old enough that this still feels like a novel way to spend money – kind of fun, but also kind of dumb? Over the past few years, I’ve felt like I’m in a cycle of wanting to cancel all of these automatic “deductions,” but then I end up signing up for something new to replace it.

Right now I spend 28 dollars a month of my personal money on such subscriptions. This month my Audible subscription reactivated – I paused my account a few months ago and forgot to “un-pause” it, so add 14.95 to that. I also purchased three months of access to an online exercise program. And of course, there’s Netflix – 10.99 paid out of our joint account.

I don’t necessarily feel bad about spending this money. Usually this spending brings me small, daily pleasures – like my NYTimes cooking and crossword subscription – or supports artists whose work I admire and enjoy. But they do add up quickly and definitely aren’t necessary.

 

Food products and activities that make life feel more fun – especially when hosting guests

This month I was lucky to have some of my immediate family members come and visit. We spent about 125 dollars this month while guests were in town… pretty much all on food products. Is it necessary to eat at restaurants or buy junky snacks when guests are in town? No. But it does feel celebratory – these folks might be sleeping on my living room floor and staying indoors most of the time with me and my crazy children, but it’s still their “vacation!” The reduced time spent on the household labor of preparing meals is also a plus. But to be honest, I mostly I feel called to provide a taste of the East Coast to my deprived Midwestern family members; aka, when in Boston, eat some good pizza, bagels,seafood, and – if you live in my neighborhood – Italian pastries. Food is our familial love language.

Celebratory dining doesn’t feel too problematic for longterm budgeting, as long as you don’t have guests too often. Celebratory Trips to Starbucks, however, feel more insidious. No, now that I’m on maternity leave I cannot go to Starbucks every day. However, I can – and do – go to Starbucks pretty much every day that I leave the house. Because a cold drink makes running errands feel less like drudgery. Because when my husband is with me going through the drive-through with peaceful children in the back seat feels a little like a date. Because I usually spend my own personal money, so I let myself be more frivolous. Because of habit, poor morning caffeination planning, or because I’m having a shitty exhausting day and maybe it will make me feel better. At any rate, I spent more than 50 bucks at Starbucks last month, which isn’t exactly a festive, once-in-a-while kind of expense.

 

Shopping or coffee to alleviate less-than-ideal scheduling

It’s Friday morning. I get up at 6:15, get dressed, get my baby fed and dressed, help get my toddler out the door, and head out the door as a family. Toddler daycare drop off at 7:30, husband work drop off at 8:00. Baby has a doctor’s appointment at 9:15. What do you do to kill the resulting hour? Drive all the way home so you can go upstairs and unpack a baby only to pack it back up again? Or do you sit in Starbucks for an hour with a book and a coffee? It’s not necessary, but three dollars seems a pleasant way to fill a scheduling gap – especially since you get a cup of coffee out of it.

 

But then the appointment is over and it’s 10:00 a.m. You need to pick something up at a store that doesn’t open until 11. You’ve already had too much coffee and the store is right next to a Trader Joe’s. You are running low on milk and eggs, and it’s always nice to stock up on TJ’s favorites, but you don’t exactly NEED to be in a grocery store… Needless to say, such a hapless individual would be impossibly fortunate to spend just three dollars to fill this particular scheduling gap. At the very least, this hapless individual should probably make a list before entering.

 

“Good Deals” (on items I may or may not buy either way)

The on-sale item is a stupidly common spending trap, and one that my cheap-ass self falls for too often. On one hand, nobody would fault a person for researching a necessary purchase, to find the product that meets your quality standards for the lowest price. On the other hand, “research” often results in more generic “shopping” – once I’ve decided to pull out my credit card, spending tends to beget spending.  Is it really a good deal to buy a 40 oz vat of hummus at Costco when you could have made it at home for pennies on the dollar… or when you then need to buy a giant bag of carbs for hummus dipping? Or when you walk out of Target having spent 75.00, no matter how many items were on your list.

In December, against my better values, I signed up for Amazon Prime. My justification: I have a new baby who will probably need some random baby items and also prevent me from doing much out-of-the-house Christmas shopping. I canceled it in mid-January, so naturally I wanted to place One Last Order (as though Amazon would be going out of business after they lost my 12.00/month?). 160 dollars later, I now have an adequate amount of my favorite pens in the house, many, many ounces of protein powder, a year’s supply of water filters for my coffee maker, and more items of dubious necessity.

 

Too often I find the line between what is necessary and what is just cheap to be rather blurry. I also don’t feel good about purchases born in a vague, consumeristic fear – if I don’t act NOW, then I’ll end up paying more later! But then again, my coffeemaker probably does need water filters, so maybe I just need to chill out?

 

Convenience Foods

I did not find a good way to track my unnecessary food spending this month for the following reasons. A) hanging onto and parsing out unintelligible grocery receipts is difficult for those who aren’t at home with very young children most days and B) diving into what form of calories are “necessary” vs. “unnecessary” is a much bigger challenge than other sorts of spending. If I am supposing this food dichotomy, I am supposing there is some sort of way I *should* be eating. As a recently pregnant, currently nursing person, I’ve been on nutrition autopilot, hoping that whatever I happen to cook or eat is good enough. It’s probably time to think more seriously about my family’s general nutrition again, but for now, I’m relying on habit and instinct – for better or for worse.

One category of calories that draws my attention, however? Convenience foods – especially convenience snacks. In this busy season of my home, this means Delicious (but nutritionally-questionable) Bars of All Sorts. Granola bars. Breakfast bars. Fruit and nut bars. Protein bars. Bars that pretend to be healthy but are really just Rice Krispie Treats dipped in chocolate with a peanut or two on top. Is any such bar a *necessary* part of anyone’s diet? No. But when that  inevitable moment where I am out and about with children and realize I have forgotten to adequately feed myself strikes, a one-handed snack is a really, really nice thing to have in my purse. Ditto to applesauce squeezes for grumpy toddlers. For now, in these Survival Mode months where experimenting with homemade granola bar recipes sounds like a laughably distant luxury, I’m okay with a little convenience, I think. Later this year, I may narrow in on this more complex area of my regular spending.

 

Impulse purchases, usually to solve a nagging problem (or generally make myself feel better about my life)

This is the the big one for me: the purchases that feel most fraught, that leave me feeling so conflicted about my spending judgment.

Usually, these are household purchases that fall in the middle of the unnecessary-necessary spectrum: less necessary than toilet paper, more necessary than a seasonal throw pillow. Usually, these household purchase purport to solve a problem or annoyance in my daily living. Usually, when I decide to pull the trigger and spend the money, I enjoy having solved said problem, but I also feel bad about it. Why, I’m not quite sure. Because I usually purchase such items in a sudden impulse? Because I feel guilty throwing money at minor problems I should either work around or just endure? Because I usually do such spending at Big Box stores, buying plastic contraptions made in factories on the backs of unprivileged populations that will end up, someday, in a landfill?

Obviously, this kind of spending will take some more unpacking. But yes, I did spend 100 dollars on a baby sleep course this month because I was sitting in the dark for an hour tending to a crying babe who refused to sleep and it made me feel like I wasn’t alone. And I did spend 27 dollars on 4 new ice cube trays because I’m thirsty all the time and tired of having mismatched trays fall on me when I open the freezer and also pinching parts of my hands on the ones that are cracked and broken. I am both enjoying and feeling bad about both purchases.

2019 New Year’s Resolutions

New Year, New Resolutions. Despite my failure to keep my seven-hundred sub-resolutions in 2018, I’m looking back at my original list of annual intentions, and I don’t think I really did that poorly. My resolution to Live Seasonally was more of a complex, not-so-achievable resolution than an out-and-out failure. Looking back, it seems that the goal I set wasn’t so simple; I didn’t want to “live seasonally:” I wanted to set and achieve quarterly goals that took into account the season of the year, and of my life.

And yeah, one of them was to get pregnant, grow a child, birth it, and raise it for a little bit, all while working full time, side hustling, and raising my other child. If that’s not a capital-S Season, then what is?

My second resolution was to play a bunch of board games. Luckily, this was a joint resolution with my husband. My husband is a stickler for his NYRs – he’ll read 30 books this year even if it means mainlining hundreds of pages of graphic novels while listening to children’s books on his headphones, dammit. I may have piggybacked on his success a little, but I’ve put in enough time and work into this relationship that I deserve the payout, imho.

In 2018, we played:

My last resolution I forgot about entirely by the end of the year. No, I did not Beautify One Room of my Home Every Month… but I did Beautify quite a few of them! My living room now has throw pillows, a rug, a plant, and spray-painted picture frames. Our joint office now has storage space for my sewing machine and supplies. My bathroom has matching towels and bins for our bed linens. Our back porch had flowers and plants this summer, and my laundry room has a drying rack and a little landing area for soaps and weird stuff found in pants pockets. My kid’s closet is no longer a death-trap of teetering Rubbermaid containers. The only rooms I didn’t quite get to were the hallway and kitchen, but I did make some small improvements to both! Thinking back to 2017, I feel like I have really changed the way my apartment feels and the way I feel in it, so I think that’s a success.

Onward to 2019! Well, the 49 remaining weeks of 2019, anyway. I tried oh-so-very-hard to narrow my focus down to but a few goals for the year. Three was the best I could do.

 

Resolution #1: Track all unnecessary spending for 2019

This resolution took the longest for me to focus in on; my relationship with money and spending is not so straightforward. Objectively, I’m a fairly frugal person married to another fairly frugal person. I’m able to pay my bills, afford some extras, and do some savings. But, objectively, I know I could – and probably should – be saving more… so I’m prone to feeling upset and guilty when I do spend money unnecessarily.

This is the dual-edged problem I want to address this year. I don’t want to spend my money on things that make me feel bad to purchase and own; when I do make purchases, I don’t want to feel bad about them. This resolution will hopefully tap into the “manage what you monitor” technique of habit change – I’m keeping a spreadsheet updated with where I make purchases, what I buy, how much I spend and more. I think the benefits will be threefold. First, the act of documentation will hopefully deter impulse spending. I’m considering some sort of public accountability, too, if I can do it in a beneficial way and not one that lets me give excuses for everything I’ve bought. Second, I’ll have some hard data to examine as the year goes on: is this spending a big problem, dollar-wise, or a small one? Are certain stores or categories showing up over and over again?

And third: in order to accomplish this task, I really do have to think quite carefully about what I consider to be necessary or unnecessary spending. I suspect this might prove to be the most valuable part of the resolution; I’ll be flexing decision-making muscles that will hopefully help me feel more in control of my spending, even if my financial priorities and values change over time.

So far… I am spending a surprising amount of money at Starbucks for someone on maternity leave who doesn’t always have access to a car. Also, I haven’t figured out a great way to keep track of my unnecessary grocery purchases, since they tend to get lost in the mix of legit spending. Additionally, deciding what calories are unnecessary or necessary is a more complex assessment than most anything else I buy.

 

Resolution #2: Give Ye Old Blog a facelift

Hello! It’s 2019! I really hope you are reading this on some sort of Feed Reader, if that’s even still a thing, because, guess what – I haven’t updated a single pixel on herlifewithbooks.com since I moved to WordPress in 2013. At the very least, I’d like to give my blog a cosmetic make over and add some of the fancy, “modern” features that most blogs adopted like, three years ago. Maybe I will be inspired to add some new content as well? Or blog more than once a quarter? The sky is the limit! And by “sky” I mean “Amount of Time That My Children Are Either Asleep or in the Care of Another Adult.”

So far…  I am brainstorming and also trying to make occasional time to write (incredibly timely and not at all delayed) posts. Like this one! Because what is the use of a shiny new blog if you aren’t going to write anything, right? Right.

 

Resolution #3: Enjoy regular exercise by 2020.

I recognize that this is the least interesting resolution a human can make. I also recognize that it is neither specific nor measurable. Am I setting myself up to fail? Maybe, but I just couldn’t come up with a year-long fitness resolution that seemed achievable when I am recovering from pregnancy and childbirth and also have two young children – I chose an overly vague goal over an aspirational one.

It doesn’t feel vague to me, though – I actually went out of my way to articulate my desire very plainly.  I don’t so much care what kind of exercise I do. I don’t care how often I do it as long as it’s a part of regular life and not my once-in-a-while-when-I’m-in-the-mood life. I *do* care that I enjoy it. I want it to be a fun part of my life and not a perpetually nagging task on my daily endless to-do list. I’m probably going to have to set some additional short-term goals to make this happen – you know how I love a good “I Resolve to Make More Resolutions!”-Resolution.

So far… I am trying *shudder* an online workout program. I am not usually a fan of workout-video type exercise… but I’m starting to realize that I’m “not a fan” of pretty much any form of exercise for some reason or another, so maybe I need to get over myself. I signed up for Every Mother, which provides daily workouts specifically designed for postpartum mothers.  I went this route because  A) I’m too lazy/out-of-shape to deal with high-intensity anything B) I can exercise without having to worry about damaging my healing abdominals C) I’m hoping that dropping a little $$ will inspire me to follow through. (Not *thaaat* much $$$, though; it was about $40 for a 3 month membership) I’m a few weeks in and am having trouble finding time to do my 10-30 minutes every single day (surprise surprise) but I’m getting it done most of the time. It’s so great! So much fun! Watch me fake it ’till I make it! I’ll stick with this for 3 months when I’m feeling a little more healed, or until the weather gets nicer and I can do some outdoor stuff. I also left my dear little baby (and my Dear Giant Toddler…) at gym childcare this morning for 30 minutes of mild cardiovascular exercise, so clearly I’m super-committed.

~

That’s it! Just three. Well, I mean I also want to read 100 books, but that’s my resolution every year. And have you heard of 19 for 2019. I may or may not have made one of those lists as well. Those aren’t necessarily *resolutions*, though, just stuff I want to do. During this particular year. Entirely different.

best reads of 2018

Tomorrow is 2019! Happy New Year’s Eve! While I have the opposite of a wild night planned, I think back to how I rang in 2018 a year ago… and I remembered that I went to bed at 9pm in my parents’ house with my 18-month-old who wouldn’t stop climbing out of his crib. At some point I ended up on the floor. I think we also had to wake up for a stupidly early flight. So this year really can’t be worse than that… especially since I am finishing! And! Posting! The Best Books I Read in 2018! Even though I have no time or energy to read anything of enough literary quality to end up on a Best of the Year post, it’s still a wonderful time of year.

Longtime readers (do  I even have another kind of reader at this point? Hi Mom! Hi Dad!) know the drill: these are my favorite reads of the year, regardless of audience, publication date, or literary merit. They are listed in order. I really did love them all – while most of the 132 books I read this year were somewhat forgettable, I really do have a tough time narrowing down the top 25 or so. Please add them to your 2019 To-Read lists. Please forgive me for incomplete and unoriginal sentences below. I have a 5 week old baby and a 2.5 year old in my house and we have all been here together for 10 consecutive days and I guess we all have to live together forever now. Good thing everyone likes to read.

 

10. My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul

Pamela Paul is the editor of the New York Times Book Review. Before that, she was a fairly normal young woman with one of those useless English degrees and a lifelong love of reading. As a fellow reader who considers charting and tracking her own reading life to be a worthwhile hobby, I was entranced by Paul’s essay about her Book of Books – a notebook where she documented her reading life starting when she was a teen. This memoir follows her fairly normal young adult and adulthood, with attention paid to the books and reading experiences that shaped her. Nothing too flashy here, but I found her life story to be so quietly engaging that I couldn’t put it down.

 

9. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Did you already read this book, when e.v.e.r.y.b.o.d.y. was reading it, in 2017? Well, if you didn’t, I can tell you it was still a very good read in 2018, and will probably be a good read in 2019, too. And there’s good news! I bet your library’s holds list have finally died down! Set in an orderly Ohio suburb, this story is split between three very different families – the Richardsons, who have deep roots in the community but also four teenagers who are up to all sorts of behaviors their proper mother doesn’t want to know about; the Warrens, a single mother and teen daughter who rent a condo from the Richardson; a single, immigrant mother who must work full time to support herself and her infant daughter, and in the process has her daughter taken into state custody; and Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist with a murky past – and her teenaged daughter, who unintentionally weave between the stable suburban families. I like domestic literary fiction, and I like adult books starring teenagers, so I agree with the masses – a must read of whatever year it happens to be when you read this!

 

 

8. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

I heard about this book for years – so many rave reviews, plenty from people whose reading tastes I admire – but I never thought I’d want to read it. A book about people behaving badly on the Internet? I actually spend a decent amount of my time and energy trying to *avoid* people behaving badly on the Internet, so no thanks. Then I read Leila Sales’s If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say for a pro book review; it’s a realistic YA book about a girl who behaves badly on the Internet and the backlash that ensues, very clearly influenced by Ronson’s book , so I thought I might be a pro-pro reviewer and take a chance on So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (read: Jessica wanted to procrastinate, so she found a somewhat acceptable avenue to avoid doing her work!) I was not any more interested in the subject than I ever have been, but DAMN Jon Ronson! I was not only sucked in, but entirely fascinated, and I give all the credit to Ronson’s writing: he’s a talented storyteller who also takes some unexpected narrative risks. So add my rave review to the mix, and I’ll add Ronson to my Definitely Check Out Their Next Book, No Matter What It’s About list.

 

7. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

In August, when I decided to play a little 2018 YA/MG catch up, The Poet X was my first choice. Why? Because it was short! And written in verse, so it reads even shorter! It also won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for fiction, so I would get (imaginary, meaningless) Literary Merit points. But external factors aside, I was so pleased with this book. Acevedo portrayed her main character, Xiomara, as a complex, sympathetic teen with a unique set of social challenges – she’s trying hard to balance her family’s staunch religiosity with her earnest desires for independence: to date, maybe have sex, write and perform slam poetry, to challenge some aspects of Catholicism. This felt like the best of old-school YA realism – a personal coming of age story driven by character and not melodrama – but with a modern perspective on race, class, and gender.

 

6. The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis

Another of my earnest Catch Up On The Best of 2018 YA/MG reads makes the list! Isn’t it great when you agree with the critics? I knew nothing about the plot or setting when I started reading, so it did take me a little time to get settled into the story, but the narrator’s voice drew me in right away. Little Charlie – the oversized twelve-year-old son of poor sharecroppers – starts the book extremely down on his luck: he witnesses his father dying of a freak accident, then finds out his father owes money to a nearby plantation owner; he and his mother are grieving and wondering how they will keep up with their work and make money when a goon arrives to collect on his father’s debt. The goon (“Cap’n”) convinces Charlie to join him on a journey to collect on someone else’s debt as a payment for his own, and a cross-country, international, consciousness-raising adventure ensues. I thought this was a perfectly middle-grade sized read – just meaty enough for a 4th-6th grader but without anything extra – and oh gosh, Little Charlie is just one of those endearingly naive but earnest narrators that you (aka, adult readers, probably; pregnant/hormonal readers, definitely) just want to hug.

 

5. Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

A third 2018 YA/MG book – another (mostly) verse novel, interestingly enough. Also, another historical: this time, way more historical, going back to the 1600s in Italy, and based on actual people and actual events! The protagonist, Artemesia Gentileschi, is a seventeen-year-old living in Rome with her widower artist father. Out of financial necessity, her father trained her to paint, and at some point she became so talented he was better off handing his commissions to her – while signing his own name to them, of course. Artemesia is pissed off about this. She desperately wants to make her own name as an artist, and is passionate about painting women with the sensitivity and realism that the male artists of her time just can’t handle. Then, she comes across a successful artist who wants to tutor her – she’s elated… until her tutor’s untoward behavior threatens to destroy her and her family. Is this a work of relatively heavy-handed proto-feminist comeuppance? Yeah, probably. But Artemesia’s struggle to be honored for her own talents – and believed against the words of a more powerful man – reads like a story that could be making today’s headlines. This is a fairly devastating but extremely powerful read.

 

4. The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life if Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in the Store by Cait Flanders

Finding this book felt like a bit of divine intervention: I chanced upon a personal finance blog that, upon investigation, didn’t really seem like a personal finance blog. Then I forgot the URL, remembering only that it was the author’s name dot com. I remembered it (caitflanders.com, RIP) and was like “wow, this is better than a personal finance blog…” and then a few weeks later I heard about this book and put all of these connections together. I’m a bit of a personal finance hobbyist, but I do find many blogs and books on the subject to be repetitive, polemic, and fixated on one-size-fits all advice. How we deal with money is… well.. personal; Flanders’s memoir is the first personal finance book I’ve read that fully embraces that intersection. The premise is a little stunt-memoir-y – Flanders writes about her “year of no spending,” – but since she’s writing about her efforts to not do something, what she ends up writing about is the life she lives instead – and what perspective that experience brings to the life she lived before. This was a quietly endearing – and inspiring – read for me this year.

 

3. Circe by Madeline Miller

Unsurprising confession: everything I know about mythology I learned from video games and the episodes of Wishbone that retold The Odyssey and the story of Hercules. But even though I could only barely keep track of which god was related to which demigod, I was somehow totally into Madeline Miller’s latest work of… mythological fiction? I missed growing up in the Percy Jackson crazy by a few years (*cough* more like ten years *cough*), so I’m a little out of the loop; also, I don’t know exactly what aspects of this story Miller gathered from mythology and what is her own making. But previous mythological knowledge proved unnecessary, for me: I was taken in by the strange, petty culture of gods and goddesses Miller crafted, and by Circe’s rich characterization. She’s a lesser goddess, an unfavored child of the sun god, Helios – who spends most of her adult living alone, banished somewhat unfairly to a remote island; she’s also a singular female who, without much support from family or friends, finds her own power and self-worth.

 

2. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

I haven’t written much this year, but when I did, I wrote about this book . It falls under the category of nonfiction that isn’t necessarily more artful, profound, or revolutionary than anything else I read all year; instead, Deep Work simply explained a concept that I needed to understand at this point in my life, and it did so with simple engaging urgency. This is the book I thought about the most all year. While I took Newport’s message – do everything you can to do the kind of work that takes all of your concentration – to heart, putting it to practice has been a little more challenging. It’s no surprise that this is yet another self-help-y/productivity book that doesn’t mention caring for toddlers, pregnancy nausea, or breastfeeding… or chronic pain, mental illness, the economic/personal necessity of working multiple jobs, or any other everyday life situations that myself and people I know might find to be significant barriers to ever achieving Deep Work. But for me, I’ve found his ideas to serve as a gentle beacon that reminds me of what’s important: reading, writing, and caring for myself and my family, aka doing the things that only I can do. Doing that work with intention and as much brain power as I can muster is never going to be a bad idea, and the more time I spend on it the better. I definitely want to re-read this in 2019, and am looking forward to his next book, which looks like a good, old fashioned anti-technology manifesto.

 

1. And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready by Meaghan O’Connell

I have read a great many books about pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood over the years. In my experience, they tend to run in two directions: the slightly crunchy, softly-lit, “isn’t motherhood just GRAND” kind of book, or the Hey, Parenting sure SUCKS so you should feel totally empowered to complain about it – and sure, have another glass of wine. I don’t necessarily have a *problem* with either of these narratives… but neither of them have really spoken to me, either before I had kids or after. While my own experience of motherhood hasn’t been quite the same as O’Connell’s (she is a little more on the PARENTING SUCKS side of the spectrum than I am) there was just so, so much that she got right about the broader experience of the culture of motherhood RIGHT NOW. Millennial Motherhood, maybe? If that wasn’t so annoying? Of being a young, creative, hustling woman who also might want to procreate, even though it’s probably not a good idea and you have no good role models and nobody even TALKS about it. Of the bizarre, sourceless pressure put upon mothers to do everything right, before, during, and after birth that just permeates even your most private moments. Combine that with a fantastically wry voice and I’m-actually-laughing-out-loud-and-not-just-using-it-as-a-textual-interjection humor, and I’m ready to pick this one up again. For the third time. There’s a lot more I’m forgetting to say here, but it’s 8:15 p.m. and my 2.5 year old is at least somewhat silent in his hopefully dark bedroom and my five week old is waking herself up and it’s New Year’s Eve so I should probably at least see if my husband wants to share a glass of wine before I put on my flannel pajamas, so I’m just going to go ahead and push publish, and I’ll see you in 2019!

postpartum

A few weeks ago, I had a baby.

I’m still a little sore, still a little wiped out, still bleeding. But I can feel my body healing. Knitting itself back together. It’s recovering from the Olympic-level event that is childbirth, and also returning to a state of equilibrium I forgot I could exist in. I have a body that can bend over and can put on socks and shoes without getting winded. A body that can wear jeans without thick, stretchy waistbands. A body that can properly digest food! The transformation from not-pregnant to pregnant to not-pregnant, this second time around, was familiar yet still entirely startling. Everything changes so slowly while you are gestating – symptoms shifting week by week, belly expanding steadily but gradually  – until bam! It’s all over! Baby ejected. Time to lactate, to heal, and to rebuild.

My mind and my emotions seem to be on a less linear path. With my first, the only thing I could predict was the newness of it all, so – somewhat paradoxically – the tasks at hand seemed more clear.  Pregnancy, childbirth, caring for a newborn, raising offspring in general: it was all new, scary, exciting, and mysterious. Everything I knew was likely to be altered in some unpredictable way. My job was to hang on and attempt to enjoy the ride if at all possible, and that’s what I did.

This time, I spent my pregnancy with this lingering – almost haunting – image of what my life and body were like before we decided to have a second child. My firstborn was twenty months – smart and entertaining, pretty well-behaved and sleeping through the night. With a toddler, two full time jobs, and a side hustle or two between us, my husband and I never felt like we had enough time for everything we wanted to do. But we had a little time for some things. I felt moderately in control of my life. It was a good place.

For the 39.5 weeks, while I was nauseous and tired and excited and nervous, I also knew I would get back there, to that good place. My body would be returned to me, and so would my life. My first pregnancy felt like getting ready to jump into an abyss; my second, like taking a break from regularly scheduled life. My life, like my body, would be returned to me, eventually.

Eventually, but not yet. Yes, I’m an optimistic second timer who is used to living in Mom Mode and hoping to enjoy the benefits of my parenting experience this time around; more joy, less obsessive Googling, maybe? But I’m also a wizened second timer who does remember what happened in between my first delivery and that more comfortable time: sleeplessness, worrying illnesses, days and evenings lost to your child’s varying moods or ability to nap when he needs to. Just because I remember my okay-enough parenting life more clearly doesn’t mean I’ll get back there sooner.

And I’m also learning, trial-by-fire style, that there is an Abyss-Jumping element to any major family change. I expected night wakings, but I did not expect a newborn who refused to sleep in her designated safe horizontal sleeping space (this has improved greatly in the last three weeks, but heck if I’m going to get over-confident about anything now…) I expected regressions and behavioral issues with my smart, entertaining firstborn… but I did not expect a complete dissolution of his sleep schedule. I also didn’t anticipate how my own delicate hormonal and somewhat sleep-deprived state might influence my ability to parent a sleepless toddler. I’ve forgotten a lot about the early newborn days in the past two and a half years: one thing that’s coming back to me now with persistence is how you are forced to take each day as it comes. No matter how much you want to schedule, plan, and predict, you can’t know what a day (or night) will bring you until you get there.

But three weeks ago – back when I was still scheduling, planning, and predicting – I set some intentions for this postpartum time. I hoped that I could take adequate, deliberate rest during this first month, even with an active toddler at home. Despite a few busy days and rocky nights, I think I’ve been able to succeed here. I hoped that I might be able to deliberately enjoy getting to know my new baby. Again, sometimes this has been harder than I thought it would be (“just be happy! what is so hard about that?” said the world keeps saying to me, for 33 years and counting…) but I am definitely feeling more chill about a lot of things that stressed me out the first time around. I hoped that I could do what I need to nurture my oldest through this change – this has been the hardest part of this transition, so far, and no, I don’t no if I’m succeeding.

Looking forward, I had hoped to “bounce back” to feeling like myself more quickly. I don’t know if the baby brain fog is dissipating faster this time around because I’m already in Mom Mode, or maybe I’m just giving myself the grace to not do a whole lot right now. I also hoped to prioritize health and fitness as I recover and settle into our new family routines. I’m still feeling a few weeks away from feeling physically ready to exercise – and logistically ready? Who knows… – but I don’t want to squander the powerful clean slate that has been offered to me. I’m working these hopes into my 2019 NYRs, so stay tuned.

And that’s really it. I’m three weeks deep into this new way of life, but still… in between. Transitional. Liminal. I’ll be here for forty days? Six weeks? Three months? I’m not sure yet, but I know I’ll be here for awhile, mostly on the couch, trying to be nice to myself and taking it one day at a time.

how to read more: hold literary auditions

Last month I went on a bit of a reading spree. I knew I had a few weeks ahead of me to read what I wanted. I didn’t want to fritter it away feeling indecisive about what to read – I just wanted to get it done!

I pulled it off. In September, I read 15 books, 12 of them in print. I read a mix of adult, children’s and teen books, but I decided to focus on the critically acclaimed/generally buzzed-about 2018 KidLit titles I’d missed; otherwise, experience tells me, it will be 2019 and I will forget about them altogether. (Sorry 2017… and 2016… and 2015……)

My method for selecting what books to read ended up being a pretty fun part of my month – and effective, too.

First step, place way too many books on hold at once. My primary sources this time around were my Goodreads To-Read List, Heavy Medal’s discussion titles, and the multi-starred books from Jen J.’s hallowed spreadsheets.

Second step, choose 3-4 books as my “contenders.”

Third step, hold an audition for which book will get the honor of Being Read! Otherwise known as: read a little of each book.

Since I work in a Library Full of Books, I usually do this on my lunch break – it is really similar to my former Reading Lunch habit. Lunching in/near a library is probably not in everyone’s daily routine, but I do think there’s a benefit to putting a time limit on your task. If you have a luxurious child-free lifestyle and find yourself with an hour alone in a library or book story, you could hold an audition on the spot. If not, you could sit down at home with a few members of your latest library haul or your Unread Library and maybe set a timer: during naptime, over breakfast, before bed.

Fourth step, Read!

Why did this work for me? I can posit a few guesses. I tend to respond well to a finite set of tasks, even if they are arbitrary. My two-year-old and I have that in common. “First we find the letter E. Then we push our pants down. Then we pee on the potty. Then we eat some yogurt!” See what I did there? This is really the same concept. “First I pick some books, then I read a bit of each, then I choose my favorite, then I read it, then I pick some more books!” The reading becomes part of the process – a step on the path, not the end goal.

Additionally, I find the sense of competition to be a motivator, however manufactured; maybe the next book I read isn’t THE BEST BOOK EVER, but I can safely say it is the Best Book of a Small Sample Set!

Yes, I am one of those people who is not above fooling herself into any number of dubious beliefs or behaviors. I can, indeed, hide cookies from myself in my own kitchen. On a less self-deluded level, when presented with a few relatively similar options, I found myself better able to assess what kind of book I was going to feel most motivated to finish. I liked these two books of the four, but this one was shorter so it’s the winner. I just read two historical fiction books in a row, so this time I’ll choose a fantasy. All four of these books seem pretty good, but *this* one is due back to the library at the end of the week, so I’ll give it extra points.

Conveniently enough, I was often inspired to read the “runners-up,” as well. I chose to take a few notes during my auditions so I would remember what each book was about; when I was about to finish a book but didn’t have the time/inclination to hold another audition, I returned to my notes to choose my next read. A nice side effect: even if I never got around to reading all the books I auditioned, I at least learned a little about them during my brief reading and note-taking. There’s no way to read every great book that will ever be written – one of life’s greatest tragedies, in my perpetually self-motivated opinion – but staying well-informed about what’s being published for children and teens is part of my job and avocation. I’m always wondering how to engage with books I won’t have time to read in a way that feels productive and authentic rather than a consumer-y waste of time. This wasn’t too bad an option.

And last but not least, I found myself feeling more decisive about squeezing other “off-auditioned” books in between my more prescribed reads. Even though I was choosing to read all of these books, having a little process to follow made my auditioned books feel slightly more required. After every one or two “required” reads, I found myself feeling especially inspired to throw in an older YA title, an adult book, or something else to mix it up.

All of this added up to a fun month of reading that also felt productive, which beats starting and not finishing 10 random books around my house, having to return them unread, and generally rolling around in book ennui. I’m not sure how sustainable reading at this rate is, but it was at least a fun experiment with a beneficial side effect: I just happened to read 3 of the 10 titles longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Way more impressive than my usual zero.

I will leave you with this, my list of books in September after they “passed” an audition. They were all pretty good, and I’m pretty sure I would have read none if I hadn’t intentionally given them a chance to lure me in.

The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis

The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam by Elizabeth Partridge

 

winter, spring, summer, and fall

 Winter

Now that three-quarters of 2018 has passed, I have learned something about seasonal planning: while it seems more intuitive than, say, Random Ass Planning, it is not magical. There is probably no magical system that will eliminate all of my stress while multiplying my productivity. No list of goals can conquer all of my innate tendencies in one fell swoop; no amount of concentrated, applied ambition can easily and immediately override certain ingrained patterns in my life, my body, my family’s lifestyle, and – in general – the condition of being human on this planet.

This Winter I started a quilt. I spruced up the office. I bought a lighter so I could light some candles and then my husband hid it from me.

In March – the earliest days of my Spring – I started sketching out a new plan.

Then I got pregnant.

Spring

Two weeks later I got exhausted and nauseous and stayed that way until some time in June.

I suppose I can look at it this way: I took one of those lofty Winter goals – to think about Kid #2 – and really gave it my all! Totally knocked it out of the park. I gave lying in bed and trying not to feel like garbage my complete and absolute focus. It was my One Goal, actually. Leo Babauta would be so proud.

Once the first trimester fog lifted, it was definitely Summer. Time for a fresh start. Time to relax. To get outside. Eat a lot of tomatoes. Start planning all that priceless warm-weather fun.

Summer

Or, perhaps, host a steady stream of out-of-own guests while your husband is on Planet Grad School!

In our spare moments, we squeezed in all of our annual travel desires and obligations (Michigan! North Carolina! Niagara Falls!), I attended my many mandatory doctor’s appointments, wrote book reviews, and parented my shiny new two-year-old. And by “shiny,” I mean high-energy, verbally demanding, and LOUD. Also, it was 90+ degrees with 90% humidity for the entire season, I swear.

For extra credit, I weaned my two-year-old from breastfeeding and, over Labor Day weekend, we started potty training.

Fall

So now I’m staring down Fall. September, October, November. Back to School season. My third trimester. What can I realistically hope to accomplish? What needs to change, even for this short while, to maintain household sanity? What is just going to happen: the inevitable that I need to prepare for? Or even just recline into?

There are plenty of women who can’t or don’t allow pregnancy to slow them down in any way: women who can continue their fabulous or ambitious lives while also gestating children. I’m pretty sure they all have Instagram accounts.But for me? Right now? It’s a real challenge. For many days, just showing up at work and at home with family feels like more than enough to expend all the energy I have. Plenty of hunker down and SURVIVE days. Is everyone alive and fed? Has Mom had more than 6 hours of sleep? Everything else is ignorable – water under the bridge of everyday life. Good job, Working Mom. Good night.

The good news? This month, I’m riding a modest wave of fresh energy. I’ve taken that good Back to School September mojo combined with Third Trimester Nesting/Manic Preparedness Urges and taken that to the power of a new planner. I’m getting up early again. I’m making – and tackling – to-do lists again.

I’m feeling like I have the slightest grip on my life, again. Even with a pants-peeing toddler under my watch. And the third trimester aches and pains and HEARTBURN oh, dear God, the heartburn.

The other good news: I’m still reading. Kind of a lot. I’m pushing myself to Just Read some of the 2018 kid’s and teen titles that will surely fall to the bottom of my TBR come 2019; I’m about to finish my 6th since August 27th. I also muscled through the end of All the Light We Cannot See (yessss) and snuck in Jenny Han’s 2015 P.S. I Still Love You, just for fun. Lara Jean ended up being my 100th read of the year.

Winter, again

I know it won’t last long – both the energy boost and this Fall in Boston. Fittingly enough, I’m due December 1st: I’ll say goodbye to the season and hello to a new life. In the meantime the aches and pains will soon get worse. The heartburn, too. Soon I’ll have to figure out what to do with my loud, crazy, awesome, barely-potty trained toddler while I check into the hospital and give birth to his new brother or sister… then, I’ll have to figure out how to live under the same roof with two children.

I’m so much less anxious than I was with my last pregnancy; I’m honestly excited to meet this little person and see how he or she fits into our family. But I’m still petrified of how painful the process will be; how long it will be before we can even start to feel normal again. Because these waves of energy will surely give way to fatigue, confusion, and frustration. That blurry, scrabbling feeling like my life is close to capsizing will return.

Then it will go away… before it comes back.

No magic plan or planner is going to save me from all that – the ebb and the flow, the hormones, this inconvenient human condition made all the more complicated when you create and live among your own offspring. I can’t transform these messy, less-than-planned seasons of my life, but I can always try to make incremental progress, to find ways to feel steady for just a few moments, and to fill my days, months, and seasons with good memories, big ideas, and great books whenever possible.

Sincerely yours,

Acid-Reflux-y-but-Optimistic Jessica, (who.is.possibly.in.deep.denial.about.what.is.coming.for.her.around.the.gestational.bend….)

summer reading 2018

So it’s July and 90 degrees out, but I’m still not sure it feels like Summer.

I mean, the signs are all there. The AC is cranking. The fridge is stocked with iced coffee. My dress+sandals wardrobe is in rotation. My 2-year-old is all “why are you trying to put me to bed when it’s still light out, you fools??” at 7:45 every night. School is finally out for Teacher Husband. Everyone on the Internet posted their Summer Reading lists weeks and weeks ago.

I’m not entirely convinced. We had a long, chilly, dreary Spring in Boston this year, which I haven’t quite forgotten about. We also started the Crazy Busy Summer Season a bit early, this year. Our daycare provider is on a long, deserved vacation. The good news? We’ve had a cavalcade of family in and out of our house to babysit – this is great for us, since time off of work is precious, and for the kid, who got to spend time with two faraway aunties and two faraway grandmas this month. The bad news? I feel like everyone has been on vacation, except I keep having to show up at work everyday… and also work harder at keeping my house somewhat inhabitable. Also I’m going to Michigan in two days to visit my sister’s baby, and some extremely beloved out of town (country?) friends are swinging through later in July. Phew.

See also: book reviews. I started off my Guide season so on top of my reading! Like, freakishly on top of both reading AND reviewing. Oh, past Jessica. So much can change in but a few short months. The season’s deadlines have all officially passed, now, and I still have a stack of questionable YA books waiting to be read and reviewed. My Summer Reading cannot truly begin until I conquer this task, which puts me in a strange position: I must read more books I don’t want to read so I can then read more books I do want to read.

This reading life thing takes some serious stamina, people.

Anyway, once summer finally starts, maybe I will be lucky enough to read some of these great books that have caught my eye! Here’s what I hope to be reading sometime before the leaves start falling off the trees.

Young Adult Books

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevado

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

Save the Date by Morgan Matson

Middle Grade Books

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol

 

Adult Fiction

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

The Queen of Hearts by Kimmery Martin

Still Life by Louise Penny

 

Adult Nonfiction

The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need From Grown Ups by Erika Christakis

Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy by Getting More Done by Laura Vanderkam

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature As an Adult by Bruce Handy

 

Summer Reading Lists Past

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