Thursday, February 2, 2012

Blood, Sweat and Tears: The Art and Work of Vomit Bread

Late this morning my younger daughter wanted to make banana bread with me. Well, I brought up the idea after she had been emptying the cupboards of their plastic and metal contents and pretending to cook at the stove by placing boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese in sauce pans (yeah, I know, look at the mad cooking skills I'm teaching my kids - "place box of uncooked macaroni and powdered cheese in pan, and voila!"). Elanah doesn't know how her mommies jumped up and down when MummyJ made a roux for the first time (which was two weeks ago, probably). She doesn't yet know about the time, when Mummy and Momma Si first met, when Mummy tried to make Momma Si a dinner based on a Martha Stewart recipe for pasta and a red sauce (one that involved sun dried tomatoes or sun dried red peppers, I can't recall). Someday I will tell her all about how I poured the cornstarch directly into the sauce instead of mixing it with water first. Someday I will tell her about how Momma Si ate all the little lumps in the sauce just to let MummyJ know how much she appreciated the...effort. Yes, Elanah's lucky that she will grow up with the ideal parent. No, not me. Sandy. Duh. Sandy knows how to do everything. Except dance. (But I bet she knows more than she lets on.)

Sandy is going to empower and teach her daughters to do all the things I, unfortunately, don't know how to do. If you know me, you know that's an exceptionally long list. If you know Sandy, you know she can cover every single item on the list in half the time it would take me to complete one. That's how competent she is. You would never have guessed it earlier in her life, but the woman (my wife-partner) was meant (and I mean MEANT) to be a parent. To two daughters. Sandy, even though she doesn't talk about feminism, is living my feminist ideals.  She's a living work of feminism. I think she's probably lived a number of past lives in which she was a trades-person, a farmer, and a crafts-person. In this life, she has learned a lot by doing (working in a spinach plant/factory, picking corn in a field from dawn 'til dusk, teaching industrial arts to middle school age kids at a time when corporal punishment was still used, and working in a cabinet shop as a carpenter - to name a few). What work have I done? Uh. Hmmm. Uhhh. Ummm. I cut bagels in half at Manhattan Bagel for three days when I was 15. I worked at a sub shop for a coupla months before I left for college. In 2002. I worked part-time in the Toddler Room at Hampshire College during my one semester there. I weighed, packaged and shipped nuts and bolts for my parents' automotive supplies company on-and-off for a few years. (Hey, I cared about that stuff. I even made a List of Duties and Responsibilities for my parents to hang on the wall as a reminder for whomever else was going to replace me in the Chasewood Basement Warehouse when I left for Western Illinois.) I think that about sums up the career domain of my life thus far. Oh, wait....there's more. I made three hundred dollars when I was ten years old for my role as Tina Denmark in Summerfare Theatre's production of "Ruthless." AND I made a few hundred bucks posing nude (for the Art Department at WIU) before I graduated in December 2006 (uh, holy shit, it's been five years since I graduated from college).

Hmmm. Let me wrack my brain. Are there any other ways that I have made money by doing work (and yes, for your information, being nude in public is WORK, my clothed friends)? The only thing I can come up with is that I did odd jobs for Grandma Mel (my mother's mother) for at least fifteen years of my life. For money. I wiped dead flies and living spiders out of the tracks of her sliding doors. I ironed, vacuumed, dusted, and polished for her. I chopped vegetables on the brown linoleum counter and picked the heads off of marigolds in the summer. I dove to the bottom of the pool to collect leaves and scrubbed toilets. I sang for her friends at Bridge luncheons. I was raking in the big bucks (seriously, fifty bucks for a couple of songs!). I should have lived with her. Oh wait, no I should not have. What am I nuts? Though I am terribly incompetent at the practical things involved with owning a house, believe it or not I am actually a hard working person who tries hard, possesses a great deal of dependability and determination and a great desire to learn. But when it comes to holding a job in the public sector, let's just face it: I never have. From before I was five years old until I was twenty two, I was a student without having to do work (other than school-related work). Being in plays, being a student and writing poetry - do they involve work? They sure do. But do they constitute a career? Well, I guess if I made money or received recognition.

What makes a career? What is work? Is it only work if you hold an official title in some sort of company or public sector? Of course not. Being a stay-at-home parent  is work. It's super duper hard work. Some people say that being a stay-at-home parent gives them the greatest joy they've ever experienced. I love my children, but I am not one of those people. I have found the last couple of years staying at home to involve a lot of drudgery. I don't think that experience and my feelings about staying-at-home have anything at all to do with my kids. It's about me. The way I'm wired, I suppose. I may be too selfish. I may be too distracted. Whatever. I am what I am. I require time to zone out, time to write, time to sing, etc. The first year I was home with Darah, I was perfectly satisfied and calm. That was my most successful year as a stay-at-home parent. I was not writing (very much). I was not making You Tube videos. I was not on Facebook all the time. I was breastfeeding and reading "Harry Potter" and wiping up projectile (acid) reflux. That is what I did. I breastfed Darah every couple of hours for a year, and while I breastfed her I rocked in a chair and read the first two "Harry Potter" books and Gloria Naylor's "Bailey's Cafe." I edited some poetry, but without any sense of urgency. I was not prolific or productive. I was just a reader/feeder/breeder. For one year. Until I became pregnant with Elanah. After I became pregnant, I could no longer read. I no longer breastfed.

For three months I was sick twenty-four hours a day with nausea. I spent my days lying on the couch with Darah. She watched television in the morning. Then I laid on the floor of her playroom and read her books before lunch. Sandy or Adam or Elisa would come home/over to give her lunch, if they were available. On days when it wast the two of us (plus babe in belly), Sandy had our lunches prepared so I could spend minimal time with the food and in the kitchen. I could hardly stand being in the kitchen or around food for more than a few minutes. I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for two weeks straight, and watched "Roseanne" reruns while Darah ate her tortellinis and peas (or whatever, I've blocked it out...). Thank God for "Roseanne" reruns and baby-themed shows on TLC, they made my days less mundane. Most of all, though, thank God Darah was such an easy kiddo. She was content to sit and talk with me and watch television with me and read books with me and play with stuffed animals on the floor or the couch with me all day long for three months. At nap time, we would sleep together. I remember what a relief it was to head into the bedroom with her. She went right to sleep. We were snuggled into each other, unless her breath smelled like Ranch dressing (in which case she faced away from me). I loved when she would eat strawberries for lunch because it was one of the few smells I could stand. Strawberries - a very effective breath freshener. Good for intimacy (as long as you get the seeds out of your teeth before you start making out...I guess I should have more clearly said "good for sexual intimacy" to separate the memory of snuggling with my daughter from the making out recommendation).

With Darah, my job was to be a soft place and to feed her breastmilk. That's what I did. No one saw it or said, "Hey, you're doing a great job. Your breasts are superb." No one offered me a raise or gave me a service award or anything like tha-at. It was just me and easy-going, content Darah in the rocking chair, rocking and being together. I fulfilled my duties be milked, and thus I was milked. I don't know what happened after Elanah was born. Something took hold of me. The hormones were different. I got pregnant only one month after I stopped breastfeeding Darah. Sometimes I think I should have taken a bigger break between, but I wanted to get the show on the road! I wanted to have three kids, so I prayed that I was pregnant with twins. But out came Elanah, precious and alive and as needy as she was. I don't want to talk about the year after Elanah was born in a way that makes it seem like I blame Elanah for any of my difficulty. I do not blame her at all. I know SHE, my perfect and precious child, is separate from what happened. What happened, in a nutshell, was that I was thrown into a very stressful situation that caused me a great deal of depression and anxiety. Elanah and I struggled terribly with breastfeeding. From the moment I brought her home she wanted to suck on my nipple with the smallest and most voracious yet dissatisfied little mouth. I had been to a years worth of La Leche League meetings. I had seen videos about and seen my friends receive assistance with breastfeeding. I was excited to breastfeed Elanah, since Darah and I had such a pleasant breastfeeding experience. But Elanah is her own person, a very verrrrry strong-willed person, and she wanted to have it/do it her own way. Unfortunately her way and my way were in conflict.

From the start, she would not open her mouth. I tried all of the tricks of the trade. On multiple occasions. I was hormonal and frustrated, and I'm sure my frustration with the situation didn't help. Elanah wanted to be attached to me at ALL times. And remember, I had Darah so it just wasn't possible. Elanah would breastfeed for short periods of time ALL day long. She would suck for five minutes and then release to look around or kick me or bat me or scratch me. Then she would want to suck again for another five minutes. She would have been content to do this constantly. For Elanah and me, breastfeeding was a source of frustration. When I would put her down or on her tummy or in the swing or in the bouncer or in the play yard she would scream BLOODY murder. Every time I put her down, when she wasn't dead asleep, she would howl and scream NON-STOP. Darah and I spent hours listening to the screams. I felt so sorry for Darah to have to hear that SO often EVERY day but I didn't know what to do. I couldn't hold Elanah all the time. I had to hold Darah sometimes. I had to do dishes sometimes. I had to take a rest from carrying sometimes. I spent the majority of my days, at that time, holding and carrying Elanah while Darah joined us wherever we were. Darah would bring me things when I needed them. She was extremely cooperative. I did my best to give her one on one time, but a lot of that one on one time was accompanied by shrieking. It is a delicate topic, I know. Even just thinking about it right now, I feel like crying...crying because of how overwhelmed and isolated I felt, crying because of how awful I felt for Darah, crying because of how awful I felt for Elanah (because I felt like I was failing her by being so unhappy all the time). Okay, wow, I really am crying right now thinking about it. I do think of that period as a dark time in my life. I'm sure there was some postpartum depression going on. But I also think the circumstances exacerbated it so much. I felt terrible. I felt like a failure. With all the screaming and the kicking and the five minute breastfeeding, I wanted to scream and punch a wall and cry. Instead, I tried to hold it in until it just came out in little burst of anger. Like yelling, "Ugh, why can't you just stay still for ONE minute" into the air while changing Elanah's diaper. I don't think a lot of people understand what it is like to be with a child who has high needs and is struggling with something (colic, gastrointestinal distress, anxiety, hyperactivity - I still have no clue what was going on, we were never able to "figure it out." In the end, after I read a book by Dr. William Sears, we just thought of it as a "high needs" situation).

I was with Elanah (and Darah) in a highly stressful environment/situation for twenty four hours a day, seven days a week for over a year. Elanah would not BE with anyone but me. Any time Sandy and I tried (though it wasn't all that often) to get Elanah to separate from me for a period of time, Elanah would scream hellish screams THE WHOLE TIME. It was unpleasant for Sandy (of course) and I just felt too guilty to do it. I immediately came back and picked up Elanah. But it wasn't good for Sandy and me, either. I felt, at times, resentment toward her (okay, I'm crying again) because I blamed her for not being more persistent. I don't know what I was really blaming her for, I guess I was just blaming her because I was so depressed and frustrated. I wished Sandy knew what to do and could solve the problem. I wished I lived near my family (not just 'cause I love them, but for RELIEF). I wished someone or something, anything, would magically appear and relieve me. I just wanted to be alone...sleep, alone, away from EVERYONE. And in a lot of ways, I was alone. Those were the things the angry voice in my head was saying at the time ("I wish this" and "I wish that.") I talked to others about the struggle, but I never expressed how awful and on-edge I was feeling. Sandy and I commiserated whenever I wasn't blaming her for not doing what I could not and would not ask her to do. BOTH of us were struggling. Both of us were stressed. Highly stressed. She would come home from work at five, feeling tired, and start to cook dinner. I was, by five o'clock, tired and disengaged and easily (very, very easily) annoyed. We didn't connect very much. Sandy felt as disconnected from me as I did from her. She felt lonely, too. But more than that, she felt like she was being blamed unfairly.

Dinnertime was the worst (which was hard - because that was our time together as a family, after Sandy came home from work and before we all went to bed). I would hold Elanah while I tried to eat dinner. I was angry and annoyed at having to do so. Every night we would try to put her in the bouncer while we ate dinner, but she would scream so loudly and endlessly that I almost always picked her up (out of sheer torture) so that we could have a little silence. While I was suffering from extreme fatigue and depression and hours listening to shrieking, I also felt so sorry for Elanah who was obvious not a very happy camper. I felt like she was always unhappy and bothered. And, worse, like there was NOTHING I could do to help her. She was, at every doctor appointment, deemed fit and normal. When I would feed her around 8PM (while we read Darah her bedtime books...and often I would be the reader because that was something I've always enjoyed doing), Elanah seemed so tortured. She would flail and grunt and kick me and slap me over and over and over (she would kick me OVER and over - and HARD). I would make sort of serious statements to Sandy like, "Something is not right. Something is not right. It's like she has a demon in her body. It's like she's in pain." Sandy would suggest, sometimes, that it seemed like something neurological was going on within her that caused her to flail and spasm. I was in misery, just getting through by telling myself that it would not last forever. We never figured out what it was. I did a lot of research on what it might be, but to no avail. My conclusion, internally, was that she might have some sort of hyperactivity issue. She would suck and stop and cry and suck and stop and cry. I would grind my teeth together and say, "Elanah STOP. STOP. STOP. I'm not feeding you if you don't stop. Just STOP. Just stop." I know that doesn't sound good. It wasn't good. I was at my wits end by that time of night. I would think to myself, "No one knows what this is like. No one knows. No one knows how hard this is."

I did feel, on some level, like I SHOULD be going crazy. I would wish that I had a video camera to record it because I felt like no one truly knew what it was like to be with a baby who cried and screamed and fought ALL day long, EVERY day. I would lie down in bed at night and turn my back to Sandy and feel frustration and anger all over my body. I would sometimes cry myself to sleep. And then I would wake up (an hour later, when Elanah was crying to breastfeed) and feel a little better and more loving. Usually by the morning I worked out all of my anger and came to a place of semi-neutrality, even though I was up every hour of the night feeding Elanah. I was terribly sleep deprived and sleep-interrupted. I didn't foresee any improvement. I was in a perpetual bad mood. I would say, "I don't like breastfeeding." I would complain about breastfeeding. I thought stopping was the best solution. And, given the situation, I actually do think it WAS the best solution. I stopped breastfeeding Elanah somewhere around 14 months. I did it cold turkey, just the way I did for Darah. It worked pretty well. She wanted it for a day and then it sort of slipped out of her mind. Don't get me wrong. It was really hard. She cried. I cried. It was its own form of torture. But at least it was a short lived form of torture instead of a long-endless-night/year of torture. After I stopped breastfeeding Elanah, our relationship improved vastly. I can't say why, but I think it had something to do with the fact that she was moving around more and we were not frustrated with each other as much.

The best thing that stopping breastfeeding did for me was that it allowed me to hold and comfort Elanah just for the sake of doing so. It increased my positive regard for Elanah. My attitude shifted, and that benefited everyone in the family. With Darah, breastfeeding was the context in which we snuggled and felt closeness. With Elanah, breastfeeding was the context in which we struggled and got angry at each other. When Elan and I stopped, it was like the anger was finally able to rest. I cried, out of happiness, because it felt good to just hold her and experience the exchange of our mutual positive feelings (even though that was hard at times, because she was such a mover and doer). I felt like Elanah started to grow and her personality really started to come out after we stopped breastfeeding; but maybe it was just that I was able to see her in a new way because I wasn't consumed by the anger and depression to such a dramatic extent. A funny thing, though, was that I wrote my thirty page "Tale of One or Two Lesbians" while breastfeeding Elanah. Maybe as a way of coping with my depression. Who knows. That was one really tremendous and productive thing that happened during or as a result of that tumultuous period - I started writing again. Once I started writing, I felt renewed in it. I felt restored in it. I loved it. I clung to it. And here I am, still clinging to it (or at least DOING it) today. Is it work? Maybe it is. Is doing whatever it is that I have been doing for the past four years work? Yes. Yes it is. After writing what I just wrote, I see it more now than ever. It was work. It was work. Wow.

Because I have had a glimpse into my own darkness, I can see how a person who struggles with depression might see simply surviving (getting up in the morning and making it through each day) as work. Living IS work. Doing your best each day is work. So back to the question from long ago that I asked myself - what work have I done? Work. Enough work. I've done my best, I've done enough. Can I change the filter on the air conditioner? Probably. Can I install a fan? Probably not. I do what I can. And I try to do what I have never done to increase what I can do. Sandy, with her can-do talents (she says she learned it, but I suspect there's some other factor that makes it come so naturally to her and so unnaturally to me), is helping me. I'm still a long way from where I'd like to be. I've never lived alone. The one and only time I lived on my own was for one semester at Hampshire College. Other than that, I've been a co-dependent cohabitant. When I started having a relationship with Sandy, my parents were not supportive. They threatened to pull away their financial and otherwise support of me if I continued with Sandy. While my mother became more and more volatile and out of control about it, I naturally turned toward Sandy for help. She became my help, my guide, my support. She became my complete financial support. She paid off all of my college loans, she paid for everything. Every thing. The tuna steaks and the tartar control toothpaste. The fingerless gloves and the art-festival bowls. Yes, everything.

When I moved in with Sandy, my mother really freaked. My parents were angry and they tried to use the leverage they could to gain control of me. They blamed me for leaving, as if they had no clue as to why I would feel a need to get the hell away from there. My siblings, taking cues from my parents, were hurt and angry at me. They, too, felt I was abandoning "the family." I guess that's what happens when you are the first-born, you end up -whether you like it or not- being the family trail-blazer. I remember how they would say, "But YOU left us. YOU chose to move out." And I remember thinking, "Of COURSE I moved out. You blame me for choosing an alternative to terrible conditions? You tell me to leave if I am going to be with Sandy and then you blame me for leaving!" I also remember feeling very resentful - thinking, "Well SOMEONE is going to have to LEAVE THE FAMILY unit at some time. It's going to happen some time. When you all move out, it won't be a big deal. For me to do it, it's hurtful and an act of cruelty." But, as you might imagine, I was unyielding in my refusal to be told what to do. Sandy's financial and overall support allowed me to set my own rules. And so I never really got to set my own rules independently. I moved from one form of dependence to another. Luckily, however, I moved to a MUCH healthier, much BETTER place of dependence. Sandy was not out to manipulate me. She was not out to use my complete dependence on her against me for her own selfish purposes. She was very much in opposition to that. She wanted to help me become more independent. She wanted to empower me to become independent. So it's been a long process and I'm still not at a place where I could be independent if I even wanted to do so. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever be independent (and I don't simply mean living on my own - I mean being able to survive in the world alone if I have to or want to do so). I am so grateful to Sandy for supporting me and loving me and giving me so much room to grow. I am so grateful to her for SAVING me from the manipulation and abusive control of my parents when they could not help but behave any differently. She gave me a warm, luxurious and loving place to become myself AWAY from it all...away from all the fighting, away from all the anger and hate. I think, at that time in my life, I was in desperate need of someone to "rescue" me from my home/family environment. She had the means to do so. And she did. But someday I hope to be in a place were I feel like I could rescue myself. If need be. And, surely, someday need will be. I can't ALWAYS depend on someone else to take care of me. Part of the problem was that I was ACCUSTOMED to being taken care parents raised me to be somewhat of a Victorian lady. What can I say. I was helpless. Just a girl singing my her window and looking out at shrubs. My parents took care of me, and did almost everything for me, so much so that when it came time to leave for college I was in trouble. I had to do things for myself and had little to no practice doing so. I was terrified. What do you think I did during my first semester? Stayed in my little room, singing and looking out at the shrubs.

It has taken me years to make decisions and take action on my own behalf in the public sector, and I'm still not that great at it. I'm a lot less afraid (of anything, except for violent men, birds, and accidents that might involve my kids) and that's a good thing. Part of Sandy wanted to save me from it all, but she also wanted me to go into it with a spirit of independence. I had not ever developed one. She got to see me at my most helpless, babyish, and fearful - and sometimes it just annoyed the heck out of her. She wanted me to blossom into a person more confident and independent than her (since while she is very independent, she still doesn't enjoy a lot about social pursuit). I'm still an indecisive, wavering little person (on the whole). Maybe I always will be. But once I know what is expected, I am not usually afraid to give it a try. Sometimes Sandy tells me I'm a little bird that wants to fly. That's when I slap her. (Just kidding - oh how I used to be...okay, still scared of birds.) Maybe someday I will fly. But I'll still be me. I'll still say things like, "I don't care which restaurant we go to. Whichever you want." But when pressed, I'll say, "Okay, if I have to choose, we're going for sushi!" Being a parent has also made me more confident and decisive. I make decisions for and about the girls every day. (Hey, I never said I didn't like being in charge. I just don't like being in charge of MYSELF.) I try to pass on a small sliver of insight to my daughters by saying things like, "You better pay attention when Momma Si teaches you how to tie that knot. When I was little, I never payed attention and never had anyone show me how to tie one. And now look at me. I still make two loops to tie my shoe laces. You better pay attention so you can choose how you want to tie the knot for yourself someday."

I can also show them that it's okay to try something new. That it's even okay to make a fool of yourself while trying something new. Opening a jar, for instance, might be a challenge. I might break the counter top trying to get it open (JUST KIDDING, sorta). I might make loud, goofy noises. And then I might ask for help. But, at least I TRIED. I can show them that it's okay to make mistakes. Yes, I can certainly show them that. Over and over. And over. This morning, while Elanah was "rearranging" the kitchen and having a grand ol' time "cooking;" I was typing madly a poem and consciously allowing the kitchen to be trashed in order to be able to get the damn thing done (the damn thing is the poem, and it's only a damn thing because it's a damn good thing). After I finished writing the poem, I closed up "shop" and turned to the kitchen to see...everything. My first reaction was stress. My second reaction was awareness: I knew I had allowed the whole thing to happen that way. So instead of complaining, I complimented Elanah on the way she set the table. Then I asked her if she wanted to help me make banana bread. She said, "Yah. Yah. Yaaaah" a few times and started pulling out mixing bowls and peeling bananas. Amidst the chaos of the kitchen and in the presence of Elanah's hands-on approach (hands-IN approach, actually), we managed to make some bread. It wasn't your average banana bread, though. I did not check beforehand to see if we had enough banana for the recipe. I just assumed two and a half bananas were enough for one little loaf of bread. Eh. Wrong. Not enough. Not at all. Not even half-enough when mashed.

We were in the THROES of the moment, and I wandered around the kitchen looking for something to substitute for the missing 1 1/4 cups of banana. The closest thing I could find (consistency wise) was canned pumpkin. Actually, I thought I was quite clever. I opened it up and lectured Elanah about how Momma Si would never approve of making such a bogus substitution and that baking is really an exact science but that Mummy J never does things exactly and has her own experimental trial-and-error, throw a little in here and a little in there without a bit of measurement approach to life...ah, I mean baking. I added a little extra brown sugar to make up for the lack of sweetness in the pumpkin (as opposed to the banana, and no I did not measure the sugar). I added a little extra flour into the dry ingredient bowl to make up for the extra dense moisture of the pumpkin (and no, I did not measure the flour). As we stirred the wet ingredients together (pumpkin, banana mush, eggs, brown sugar, butter), I felt a little uneasy. Probably because I was looking down at VOMIT. What looked like vomit. It looked more like vomit than vomit looks like vomit. I said to Elanah, "We're not making banana bread anymore. We're making vomit bread." She seemed excited. "I think it's gonna be really good," I said. That was one thing we could agree on. It started looking more like a bread dough/mixture after we stirred it into the dry ingredients. I was so curious, I had to taste it.

And would you believe that vomit bread dough tastes INCREDIBLY good. Better than vomit bread itself. The vomit dough alone (minus the raw eggs) is worth the terrible sight...something you would expect to see in your toilet while the room is still spinning. While I did the dishes and Elanah ate her lunch, I reveled in my vomit bread creation. I thought to myself, "Vomit bread is a great thing to make for Halloween. But we can make it anytime here, because every day is Halloween here!" So if you, like me, live in a world where Halloween is every day, then you might want to conduct your own experiment with pumpkin and mushy bananas. Vomit bread is a special bread. It's not something you can just serve anyone. Heh. I'm sure there is someone in your life for whom you wouldn't mind having to concoct and serve up serve a little Vomit Bread. They would think it was pretty good (although kind of gooey and a little wet on the bottom), and, they would never know unless you told them, what kind of bread they were eating. My belly's full of vomit bread. I feel incredibly well, albeit exhausted. What does it mean, though, that I served myself, Sandy, the girls and a kindly visitor vomit bread? I guess it just means that I have my own unique feeling toward and interpretation of vomit. To me, vomit loses its power when you bake it at 350 degrees and consume it. Vomit, contrary to popular opinion, is quite digestible. Come on over sometime and I'll let you have a taste.

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