Thursday, March 31, 2016

low residency

I’m writing this from the floor of the L.A. Convention Center, looking out on a grid of trade-show booths draped in teal nylon. The hall is full of people in interesting eyewear, wearing lanyards advertising the University of Tampa Low Residency Program. I wonder how many jokes have already been made about how minimal residency is the only kind you’d want to have in Tampa.

This is AWP, a conference where introverts come to get drunk and hook up. Or so the party interns at Red Hen Press always claimed. I’ve been to two other incarnations of the conference, and I never ended up anywhere more exciting than the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, the year it was in Denver.

I’m feeling overwhelmed, and excited, and a little bummed seeing all the presses I’ve never heard of, let alone sent a manuscript to, and sad about how much my so-called writing career has shrunk in the past couple of years.

There is a panel here called something like “Everyone Else Belongs Here But Me: AWP and Imposter Syndrome.” So I’m not even original in my moody alienation.

Virgie Tovar, Juliana Delgado Lopera, Cassie J. Sneider, and Michelle Tea.
Monday night my friend Jennifer invited me out to see Sister Spit (there are off-site parties and events all week, but maybe this one was totally unrelated to AWP, which would be the punker choice), the queer spoken-word road show that Michelle Tea started in the nineties and revived a couple of years ago. The women who read were so ridiculously creative, funny and fierce. Not a weak link in the bunch. My faves, I think, were Michelle (naturually), Cassie J. Sneider (who read an unflashy but tight and touching piece about her grandfather’s ashes) and Juliana Lepora, a girl with mermaid-colored lipstick and a sexy Colombian accent who read a joyfully absurd piece about Tea Party sweetheart Michele Bachmann coming to her gay wedding. I told Jennifer afterward that they made me want to sit down and write and/or go back in time and have a more adventurous youth. Some days, those things feel equally impossible.

Very clever, God! We should all take writing tips from You.
Writing has been a constant in my life, even as it’s ebbed and flowed, and writers always feel like my people, when hipsters and moms and homies and social justice crusaders and childhood friends and others don’t quite seem to fit. I don’t like to rhapsodize about writing too much, because it cheapens it; I don’t want to be one of those writers who has a special pen and writes sensual poems about her love of words. I just want to fucking write. Here, now, on my crusty 2010 MacBook. I want writing to be a way of life, not anything precious or confined to a particular time and place. In that way, it is my religion, and I don’t ever want to be a Christmas and Easter writer.

Real poets know that it's never about keeping calm.
True cliché: It’s easy to lose a bit of yourself as a mom. I was listening to an older episode of the awesome podcast Mom and Dad are Fighting, in which a stay-at-home mom lamented that, in a conversation about hobbies, her kids named several of their father’s hobbies and then declared that their mom’s hobby was “laundry.” If you’d told me that story fourteen months ago, I would have believed it in theory while thinking MUST BE NICE TO BE A STAY-AT-HOME-MOM WITH THREE AMAZING KIDS, HUMBLEBRAGGING ABOUT LAUNDRY.

And I’ve been very careful, after my four-year temper tantrum re: my lack of baby, not to be ungrateful. It hasn’t been hard, because I am truly grateful to wake up to Dash every single day, to be the recipient of his dimpled, slightly mischievous grin and catapulted blobs of pureed carrots. But just because you willingly, happily shift your priorities doesn’t mean you don’t mourn what you’ve set aside.

AK and I have resisted sleep training Dash, because we lean toward attachment parenting (while resisting any form of orthodoxy), and because, well, it sounds stressful. In defiance of my cerebral upbringing, I’m trying to let intuition and attunement guide my parenting, and all of a sudden it seemed like the right time to do my own sort of modified sleep training. Instead of letting Dash cry it out—which according to some schools of thought could send a message that he’s up shit creek all alone—I’ve decided to gently move away from rocking him to sleep and toward encouraging him to self-sooth.

The kind of sleep-training I've actually been doing. To myself.
What bedtime looks like so far: I read him books, give him a bottle and climb into his crib with him, where we goof around for a few minutes until he seems to get a little more tired. Then I hand him his pacifier, give him a hug and kiss and climb out of the crib. I lay down next to the crib and look at my phone while he figures out how to get to sleep. I give him a hand or a hug or a thrown-out-of-the-crib paci as needed, but I don’t pick him up.

Am I successfully sending the message I hope to? You need to learn some skills, but I’m here to help you and walk beside you through the hard parts. Or am I saying Mommy is a cold bitch who will ignore you while you struggle? I don’t know yet, but I’ve been comforted by the fact that he’s fallen asleep with minimal crying, and he hasn’t seemed to hate me when he wakes up (although, I remind myself, it’s not his responsibility to like me, and it’s not my job as a mom to be likable…but I admit it! I want him to like me! Because he’s so great and I like him so much!).

I’m telling myself that this new, less labor-intensive sleeping will be the start of more rest for me, which will lead to less binge-eating (yesterday I ate almost an entire loaf of Homeboy coffee-toffee bread…I have a problem) and more writing. It might be what I need to tell myself to get through what is actually a longer period of minimal creativity and bare-bones self-care. But hope springs.

I’ve seen so many writers I know walk by. I haven’t said hi to anyone yet, but I just finished my coffee, so that should help. I’m off to a reading by Future Tense Books authors, and then to sit at the National University booth for a while, representing the college I haven’t taught at in two years.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

we swam across a sea of snot, puke, tears and sticky medicine to arrive here

Yesterday was one of those days that left me wondering How did people ever cross the continent in covered wagons when giving my kid 5 mL of amoxicillin is taking every last ounce of mental and physical energy I have?

How did they do it? They smelled bad and a lot of them died, that's how.
Then I checked myself: Why do you think crossing dangerous territory with very few provisions is an old-timey thing, Cheryl? Hi, Syrian refugees.

And the answer is what it always is: People do what they have to. At this moment, my “have to” isn’t the world’s biggest, or even close to the biggest in my own life, but it’s enough.

Dash was sent home from daycare Tuesday afternoon with a low-grade fever. Even though he’s gotten approximately 400 colds since starting there almost a year ago, this was the first one he got sent home for. (I guess he usually gets sick on weekends and vacations, which is total parenting karma, since I was that kid who had perfect attendance during the school year, only to end up pulling our RV into various Kaisers around the Western U.S. on family trips.)

AK and I kept him home for a couple of days, taking turns going to work. Of course this was the week that I was assigned to work on two government grants with rapidly approaching deadlines, plus we had a solid day and a half of meetings with a fundraising consultant who was super nice but talked about God just a tad much for my taste. (I’m fond of God, but I’m not fond of the assumption that Homeboy is a Catholic or Christian organization where you get extra points for name-checking Jesus. In my interpretation, Love is the center of the universe and religion is a [frequently problematic] byproduct, not the other way around.)

Anyway. Dash seemed to get better until Thursday night, when he woke up crying roughly every hour. Because my self-care tanks when I’m tired and spread too thin, I found myself munching on Trader Joe’s chocolate-covered cacao nibs every time I passed through the kitchen on the way back to bed. They are literally chocolate-covered chocolate.

This is probably the happiest you'll ever see me in a waiting room, which is somewhere between "meh" and "pass me the Klonopin."
By yesterday morning, his fever was 103.7, and when your kid’s temperature starts to sound like a hip-hop station vs. NPR or oldies, it’s time for a trip to urgent care.

I felt the switch inside me flip to crisis mode. Forget the March fitness challenge I’d been shakily trying to do (see cacao nibs). Forget food and water altogether. Forget my plans to clean the house. Forget coffee—I could feel the adrenaline flooding my system, so there was no need for caffeine.

Think about pneumonia. Think about how my mom technically died of pneumonia. Think about that kid in the news who died of pneumonia after her parents tried to cure her at home with vitamins.

Marvel at the body and brain’s ability to triage, even while stepping outside itself and logging some PTSD shit (the way I found myself muttering I’m sorry, I’m sorry, for example). Cry in the shower and then turn it the fuck off because AK doesn’t need this and neither does Dash. Note that I must not really be freaking out too much because I am taking a shower.

Throw an expired bottle of Klonopin in the diaper bag. Not for the kid.

It was fine, he just had an ear infection.

Dash: "Just an ear infection, my ass."
But still. There was the moment between when the nurse clocked his pulse oxygen at 95, murmuring, “That seems really low, and I can hear how hard he’s breathing” and when the doctor came in to tell us his lungs sounded great and the pulse oxygen machine is notoriously unreliable. Which I already kind of knew from the mad Googling I did in that between-time moment.

By the time we got home that afternoon, the crisis had subsided and the slog had set in. There was a twenty-minute period when the following happened:
  • We forced three syringes worth of medicine into Dash’s screaming mouth, which always feels way too rapey for my tastes, and I have to remind myself that in progressive parenting you pick your battles, and this is one where physical health trumps bodily autonomy.
  • We gave Dash milk to soothe him after the medicine, despite half-knowing better, and he puked it all up, all over all of us.
  • We put Dash in the tub, but it was too hot, so he howled and we felt terrible.
  • While we all sat in the tub in our clothes, trying to wash our traumatized baby, the cats howled in the living room. OC had caught his claw in the chair, and Ferdinand had decided to use the occasion as an opportunity to clobber him. I chased them down in my wet jeans.
In a week, this will all be hilarious, I hope.

For now I’m really grateful for antibiotics, indoor plumbing and the jackfruit taco truck around the corner.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

yay, it’s a they! (some thoughts on gender-neutral parenting)

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time in internet groups devoted to progressive parenting. Sometimes I read and post comments when I should be actually parenting. Hi, irony.

I’ve encountered a couple of moms who are raising their babies gender-neutral. I don’t mean that they dress their kids in yellow and let them play with whatever toys they like (spoons, ballpoint pens and live animals, in Dash’s case). I mean these families have avoided telling anyone whether their children are boys or girls, and they use the pronoun “they” instead of “he” or “she.”

This white onesie is a completely non-gendered blank slate on which to smear bananas.
My first response was to quietly roll my eyes. Why? Because it seemed straight out of Portlandia? Because it seemed like a parenting project you would undertake only if you’d run out of regular projects, like feeding “them”? Because it seemed hopelessly contrarian and slightly immature?

It does touch all those nerves for me, although I have to call myself out on the “some people have real problems” argument, which is always a weak one. But I think the real reason I question the wisdom of eschewing pronouns for your baby is this: It seems like it’s not about the baby.

When a kid starts asserting a gender—male, female, David Bowie, whatever—more power to ‘em. If Dash announced tomorrow that he wanted to be Dasha, I would be on board because 1) I like the name Dasha for a girl and 2) I’d be really impressed that a 13-month-old had such a big vocabulary and deep sense of self.

What he actually asserted: "Ppppprrrrpp aaayyyiii."
But before a child is even verbal, what is there to gain? I posed this question to a mom who was raising gender-neutral twins, and she said the point was to avoid all the gender-based projections that society hurls at kids, not to mention the pink ovens and monster trucks and onesies that say things like “I don’t need a prince, I have Daddy” or “Lock up your daughters!”*

I get that. I read a long time ago that baby boys and baby girls smile equally, but by kindergarten girls smile way more, mostly because of how we respond, encouraging girls to by sweet and flirty and boys to be stoic. It kind of broke my heart. I smile at Dash all the time, which is not a hard thing to do. So far he’s pretty smiley in return.

Yet, if you live in this world and take a big gender-neutrality stand every time someone asks whether your baby is a boy or girl (and they were probably just making small talk anyway), there has to be some part of you that enjoys the feeling of a soapbox beneath your feet. Right? Or maybe you were genuinely hurt by the gender expectations placed on you as a small child (although, again, probably not as an infant). Either way, it’s about you.

Guy Smiley.
My parenting choices are, of course, hopelessly about me. But my goal, as I’ve mentioned before, is Dash-centered parenting. Personally, I feel like he will be better off if I devote my energy to trying to read him—his likes, dislikes and ultimately his identity—than if I chart a rigid course for him, even one that rigidly rejects gender rigidity.

I can’t say for sure yet that he will definitively embrace a male identity. I can say that he really embraces Cheerios, grapes, dogs, cats, balls, electric toothbrushes, the buttons on the DVD player, saying “bye,” and the books Sleepy Kitty and The Biggest Kiss. I want to just keep paying attention.

Do frogs like to kiss? Or do frogs engage in sex work as a completely valid career choice?
It’s not remotely fair to presume that the parents raising their kids without pronouns aren’t attuned to their children. They’re obviously devoted parents, and that’s what counts most toward raising kids who aren’t too fucked up. Yet I think about the gender-neutral choice the way I would about parents who were raising kids in a particular religion: I’m wary of meta-narratives, but the harm will probably be minimal at worst.

It also seems relevant, if not exactly scientific, to note that both gender-neutral-parenting moms I encountered were cis women partnered with cis men (I think), and all of the gay, gender-queer and trans parents I know have been like “Yay, it’s a girl!” or “Yay, it’s a boy!” re: their own kids. They might let their sons’ hair grow long and they definitely let their girls be as rough-and-tumble as they want to be, but I suspect that life experience has made them a bit less precious around the idea of gender. Gender isn’t a tightrope to be walked so much as a baton to be twirled and tossed.

Feelin' free to fuck with gender.


*These onesies actually exist. They are the topic of approximately 47 percent of conversations in my progressive parenting groups.