Posts Tagged ‘Parenting’
I wanted to piggyback on David Brooks’ Op-Ed in The New York Times earlier this week. In “Amy Chua Is a Wimp” he appraises Chua’s critique in her book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” of the way Americans raise their children to be entitled. However, Brooks takes her to task for not respecting the cognitive learning children and adults bring to bear in their emotional and social lives.
Brooks outs a rarely validated reality: Living our emotional lives as they’re played out in the social arena is the most difficult, lifelong learning curve humans face.
The most important woman in my life is a woman I only met for a couple of minutes.
My sweet daughter Olivia is 14 now, and I’m still so madly in love with her that several times each day I wish I could inhale her. I often think about the young woman known in my household as Angel Cate, whose egg made this child possible, and I send up little agnostic prayers of gratitude to whatever force in the universe brought her life to sit forever next to ours.
I went off birth control when I was 24 and gave birth when I was 33. They never did diagnose why my body didn’t work, but I spent that decade of my life building to a crescendo of desperation in trying to figure it out and fix it and have it be over, so I could meet my baby. I wasn’t then, nor am I now, a woman who’s naturally drawn to children. But I always knew I wanted a shot at living out the clean love I fantasized a mother might feel toward her child.
When we began sliding into infertility treatment, the science was new and labor intensive. Every stage of it, as it unfolded in my body and my marriage, demanded a physical diligence and a consuming emotional preoccupation that I thought at times would take me down. It strung together mercilessly, making us not believe we were in our third year of trying, then our fourth … well surely it’ll happen this cycle … yet there we were in our eighth year, then approaching our tenth. I stopped counting surgeries and procedures after the seventh in vitro. And still, 104 times, my period came. Each month, more hope rinsing out of my body.
As my chances of conceiving continued to fade, I spent a couple of those years reluctantly contemplating the idea of donor eggs, and weighing my ambivalence about carrying another woman’s baby against never having the chance to carry one at all. I’d grown up in a family in which there were always stop orders being placed on what was thought of as love, so I’d learned early on that genetic connections guarantee nothing, but that understanding wasn’t enough to disconnect me from wondering if I could love a baby that wasn’t my own.
When my last in vitro failed, we decided we would try one more time with a donor, if we could find one we agreed on. Through a friend I found a psychologist who advertised for, and screened potential donors. She mailed us a chart of available women, each of them accompanied by the standard descriptive terms: height, ethnicity, eye color, IQ and so on. We selected three from that list and requested the full packet on each of those women, which would include a lengthy questionnaire, completed in the donor’s own handwriting, and Xeroxed photographs.
The afternoon the three packets arrived in the mail, I was home alone. I was scared to open the white 8 1/2 x 11 envelope they came in, because I felt like it contained the prognosis for my future, so I laid it on the table and sat next to it for a little while. When I was as ready as I was capable of being, I opened the first one. Before I could even engage in reading the woman’s questionnaire I was overcome by the fact that it was peppered with bubble exclamation points and “i”s dotted with smiley faces, and I became immediately uncomfortable. People from that stratosphere of perkiness make me edgy. I feel badly about this, but it’s true. The second packet stirred almost no reaction in me, and then I started to feel flat and numb — a sign my emotional rheostat was dimming off to protect me from the pain of what it would mean if I didn’t connect with the last donor profile laying on the table.
But when I opened Angel Cate’s packet and saw the warmth in her eyes, all my ambivalence fell away. I read her thoughtful responses to the questions about being an egg donor, and said to myself: I can do this with this woman.
My husband felt exactly the same.
I didn’t want to meet Angel Cate when the three of us were trying to conceive my daughter. We were in the same hospital at the same time, but after so many years of what felt to me like the loss of baby after baby, I was irrationally afraid that if we met her, and I did get pregnant, she would somehow be more inclined to take the infant back. I also felt protective of the positive reaction I’d had to seeing her on paper, and didn’t want anything to mess that up.
Instead, we passed along to her a gift, with a note containing feelings drawn all the way up from my toes. I knew if I were to get pregnant, I wasn’t opposed to having our child meet Angel Cate, if that’s what the child wanted, but I was certain I didn’t want to start out on that foot. When we learned the pregnancy had taken hold, we asked the psychologist to please share this miraculous news and our profound appreciation with Angel Cate, who then sent her congratulations back to us.
The pregnancy was a joy. A joy. But by noon on the day Olivia was due to be born, not having had any symptoms of labor yet, a part of me couldn’t help but go back to that dark psychological place we’d been living in for so long, and I asked my husband, “What if she’s not coming? What if all of this has been a dream, and we wake up and never meet her?”
Olivia was born a week later, and it didn’t at all feel like I was meeting her. It felt like I had known her my whole life.
When Olivia was 16 months old, we contacted the psychologist to see if Angel Cate, who had said she’d be open to a second donation, was willing to try again. She was. Once again we took drugs to coordinate our menstrual cycles, and once again we were in the same hospital in separate rooms.
During the surgery to have her eggs harvested, there was a glitch. The HCG injection that causes the release of the eggs had apparently shot blanks; the eggs weren’t retrievable, and the procedure was stopped. Afterward, the doctor gave her the choice to consider this the end, or to take a second injection of HCG and return in 36 hours to undergo another surgery. The chances of the eggs being viable had dropped significantly due to the inability to retrieve them at their ripest point, but she chose to do it again anyway, and this second time, I could not leave the hospital without meeting her.
While Angel Cate was in recovery, lying on a gurney and coming out from under the anesthesia, she’d given her permission for me to come in. I had no idea how to begin to tell her what she meant to us, and as I was hoping to say something to her to do her justice, she looked up at me with a calm smile and asked, “How’s your baby?”
My eyes had been full of tears before I’d even walked into the room, and the generosity she held out to me in her choice of those three words, and all that they revealed about this young woman, made them crest and fall. I told her she had given us an amazing little person and I handed her the silver box I’d gotten her with a lock of Olivia’s hair inside its velvet lining.
She thanked me and said she’d been happy to do it, and told me how sorry she was that the HCG hadn’t worked. I told her we had worked as hard to have a life as we would have to save a life, and that she had given us life. Then I kissed her on the cheek and said what you say to someone who has given you a gift you can never possibly repay: Thank you.
The three of us did conceive again, but I lost the baby. Shortly after the miscarriage, I wrote Olivia a fairy tale about Angel Cate, and my husband illustrated it. I wanted her to know that in this world such dimensions of humanity exist. They are out there; and they are in her. We read it to her at bedtime as often as we read Goodnight Moon.
Once upon a time,
in a kingdom deep, deep in the center of two hearts,
there lived a King and a Queen.
The kingdom was safe and warm,
with soft cool breezes,
and the King and Queen were quite happy there.
The only problem was that this kingdom was dimly lighted,
and the King and Queen longed for a brightness
to illuminate the land.
and each night
they dreamt of brightness,
but it did not come.
Now it just so happened
that there was a distant star
way above the kingdom.
And this star
was governed by a third heart,
the heart of Angel Cate.
One magical night,
after nine years of dreaming,
the synchronized pulsing
of the King and Queen’s hearts
propelled the dream
up into the sky.
As the beating of their hearts
Angel Cate’s heart
began to beat in exactly the same rhythm,
and it pulled their dream
all the way up to her star.
The sound of the hearts beating together
was so powerful
that the star began to sparkle.
Angel Cate reached into the
and sprinkled it onto the dream,
and floated it gently back down
to the King and Queen.
As soon as the stardust was
absorbed by the King and Queen,
the kingdom began to glow.
And from the love
in each of the three hearts,
of the King, the Queen, and Angel Cate,
a fourth heart
brighter than the King and Queen
began to beat.
This was the heart of
The Baby of Light.
And from that day forward,
the tempo of Olivia’s heart
set the sun
to wash golden over the day,
and the moon
to wash white over the night.
What began as my ambivalence about having another woman’s baby has alchemized into a purity of love for both Olivia and Angel Cate, and I realize the longer I love Olivia, the more indebted to Angel Cate I become.
My daughter has a capacity for empathy that blows me away. She is smart and true to herself, and she has a wicked sense of humor. The privilege of loving her has been my resurrection.
To this day, she will occasionally take her fairy tale off the book shelf and we’ll snuggle together and read it, just as we will occasionally go to the desk drawer and carefully take out Angel Cate’s packet and read her words, and touch the picture of her face.
This is our love story.
We as mothers are putting our own fears ahead of our daughters’ well being, and we have to confront this crisis of confidence in order to offer our girls more grounding in sexual vitality than we were given by our own mothers.
In not giving them the sexual information they need, and offering them that life long emotional connection to us, we do them a broader disservice than we imagine.
Yesterday on Oprah sex therapist Dr. Laura Berman did an excellent and long overdue episode on helping mothers talk to their daughters about sexuality. Therapists, sex educators and researchers including myself find that, shockingly, our level of anxiety as mothers still keeps us from really educating our daughters about their bodies, desire and relationships. Although we tend to disguise it with rationalizations like “she’s too young” or “it will overwhelm her” the main deterrent to our being there for our girls in this way is often that we’re simply too uncomfortable to do it.
My research has shown me how far we haven’t come. It’s the beginning of the 21st Century and many mothers aren’t even teaching their daughters about menstruation, let alone sexuality. Just like our mothers did, we’re passing off their education to Judy Blume or the school nurse. And now, the internet.
But we, as modern mothers, have the opportunity to truly break through to the dimension of mothering we thought we’d broken through to decades ago — one not permeated with unnecessary shame-driven ignorance.
The easiest way to do this is to appreciate that our daughters’ sexuality exists on the very same continuum as our own. Remember when you were curious about how babies were made, and when you didn’t know where a tampon went? Remember when you felt like an idiot with your friends because everyone else seemed to know what oral sex was and you were afraid to ask? Remember the first time you felt yearning, and the first time you felt so swept away sexually you thought if you were to die right then and there, your life would be complete? Now remember the negative stuff. Did you feel naughty or dirty when you first began your own sexual exploration? Did you feel alone and separate from your mother? Did you worry she’d judge you? Do you even today feel guilty around masturbation? In your life now, do you feel disconnected or unfulfilled when you’re having sex?
Whether we actually have them or whether we do not, women crave full and happy sex lives because we know we feel more alive when we do. So how can we want this vibrancy for ourselves and not for our daughters? If we want our daughters to feel sexually comfortable as women, we need to help them feel comfortable along the entire journey, and our awkward avoidance and judgment won’t get them there.
Women in my study and practice routinely feel let down and abandoned by their mother’s silence or lack of support. It undermines how they feel in their bodies, and not just with regard to sex – it influences what they feel entitled to do, think, say and wear. If we implicitly encourage our daughters to forsake their sexuality that sense of shame infects every other area of their self esteem. And the opposite is also true. If we raise our daughters to feel a healthy entitlement to their sexuality it will enhance their self esteem in every way because they’ll have the freedom to be whole.
The little 10 year old girl on Oprah, who must surely be the most delightful child to ever appear on television, had the most poignant and concise message in the show. She’d been asking her mother twice a week for the past eight months to please teach her about sex, and her wonderful yet anxious mother was scared to death she’d say the wrong thing. In their session with Dr. Berman the girl said (italics her emphasis):
Little girl: “What is sex?”
Dr. Berman: “Do you have any idea what sex is?”
Little girl: “It’s not like I have the confidence to think about that, but I want my mom to have the confidence to talk to me about it.”
In some homes it’s the season of the Baby Jesus, or the menorah; for still others, the season of new Apple products. But in my heart, it’s the season of female genitalia. I realize it’s not a household trend. I know this because when I cruise the cookie cutter isles of Williams-Sonoma or the Broadway Panhandler, I don’t see those shapes reflected as valued by other holiday consumers.
For the past five years, one of my favorite holiday memories has been one I privately celebrate as a spontaneous expression of love, intimacy and gift giving. The closeness that made that memory possible in the first place has deepened over the years, and allowed a more sophisticated bond to flourish, one that both my daughter and I cherish.
When my daughter was in first grade we were immersed in our special girl time, her evening bath, chatting about whatever was on her mind. She’d been singing the holiday songs they were learning in school, and washing away. At some point in the bathing she asked me a question about a body part south of her equator, and I seized it as an opportunity to resume the ongoing anatomy lesson we’d begun years before with “This Little Piggy Went to Market” and “Where’s Your Nose?”
She already knew one by name, but I asked her if she wanted to learn the names for the rest of those body parts, and she said yes. I taught her that when you refer to them all together, they’re called female genitalia, then we went through and named each of them individually: Vagina, Outer Labia, Inner Labia and Clitoris.
I told her that they were very special.
When we were done, she resumed her singing, transitioning right into “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” She started with the prelude, repeatedly stumbling over the reindeer names, messing up and stopping with “Wait! Wait! Wait!” then starting all over again. I tried to remember the names, but was useless. We were singing over each other in a morass of lyric errors, “You know Dancer and Prancer, and Comet and Cupid…is Cupid right? Hmmm hmm hmm hmm blah blah Donder and Blitzen. Donner? Donder?” This went on for about five minutes, until my daughter grinned and asked, “Mama? Wouldn’t it be funny if all of Santa’s reindeer had the names of female genitalia?!”
A new version of a classic ensued, and a new window of curiosity opened.
I make about 10 mistakes a day as a mother. Small, and occasionally large failings of her, and myself. But there’s a list in my heart of the things I feel it’s my responsibility to give her whether I give them smoothly and graciously, or by only managing to do my best in that moment, even when I wish I could do better.
One of these things is teaching her to value herself in her sexuality. Not in a grandiose way, but in a way in which she feels grounded in who she is. And it will be easier for her to feel grounded in those qualities she knows have my blessing — things she knows I want for her in order for her to have a full and happy life. One of the ways I can do this is to get in there early when these qualities come up, and set a tone of openness around them.
What’s been confirmed for me, again and again, not only by my clients of both genders, but by other women in my world, is this: If girls are raised to feel guilt or shame in their sexuality, whether it’s taught expressly or through silent undertones, it becomes a weight that drowns their vitality throughout their lives.
Here is my unconventional holiday card, not yet available through Hallmark, for mothers and daughters:
Begin teaching your daughter about her body from a very early age without drawing moral distinctions between body parts. Her eyes will be her eyes her entire life, and so will her genitals. They’re both a part of who she is, and she should be supported by you in assimilating both of their qualities into her sense of herself. When her body parts have always been in her consciousness, meaning that as far back as she can remember she’s always known that her vagina is her vagina, just as she’s always known her nose is her nose, she’ll have a foundation on which to build as she becomes ready for more and more complex information to support her growing understanding of who she is as a female. She’ll need this to thrive on her own, and she’ll need it within her relationships, when her experience will take her far beyond anatomy, and into the complications and poetry of erotic expression.
Comfort in, and appreciation of her body. The gift I hope keeps on giving.