Don’t call us, we’ll call you

May 24, 2013

A new story of my life, part IV

Final installment for the foreseeable future. If you want to catch up, here’s part Ipart II, and part III.

I started this in October 2012 and tried periodically to finish it, but I guess it just needed like seven months to “bake.” That, and it’s freaking long.* It takes a long time to make this many words semi-coherent (which I hope I’ve managed to do). So here’s your “tl;dr” in case you only want the adoption update and not the ten-hour journey through my psyche:

In a few months, we plan to move a few hours away to a different county in California. Once there, we’ll restart the process of understanding the local public and private adoption resources, particularly focusing on foster-to-adopt programs. When Addison is between five and six years old, we hope to foster-to-adopt a sibling set of two kids. Maybe a five-year-old and a two-year-old. Or a six-year-old and a three-year-old. Or possibly a five-year-old and twin babies. Or . . . you get the idea. There’s an endless number of specific combinations, but we’d like the older child to be around Addison’s age.

For those not familiar with the foster care system, age 5 is kind of a magic number (well, not “magic” in a good way). When a child reaches five, they are considered an “older child” and are less likely to be adopted. Enter us.

So that’s it. Seriously? That’s what took me seven months to articulate? Here’s the trip down the rabbit hole if you want the whole experience:

Last weekend [last October] Addison met her new cousin, baby Brayden. For the last couple of months before Brayden arrived, Addison totally noticed that something was going on in Aunt Rish’s tummy and she was getting a little impatient.  “Baby come out!” “See him!” She was pleased to finally be able to see and hold him. So I was only mildly surprised when on Monday she said to me,

“Hope you get a baby in your tummy.”

You do?

“Yeah, a baby ‘pider.”

I think we dodged a bullet this time, folks. I thought she was already going to start demanding her own squishy little sibling. Thankfully, she’s really into arachnids and insects. But if my growing up years are any indication, the demands for a brother or sister will start eventually and be persistent. I remember my brother and I being insistent about our need for another sibling, no doubt because we each wanted an ally in our battles against one another.

So I figure I better finish this “new life story” so I have something to tell Addison when the questions come, even though I’m not completely sure how to tie all these disparate threads together. I hadn’t quite meant to leave this story in such a mournful place, amidst all the doubts and fears. Those doubts covered a variety of issues — a lot of them about the specific difficulties of adopting — but at that point my neck issues, which in August made doing almost anything, much less childcare, impossible, were looming large. It was really hard to think about adding another little person or two to our lives when the realization that at almost any moment my mobility could be drastically reduced was so fresh. Still, I couldn’t deny that I had been having feelings much stronger than those doubts for many months.

I. Synergy

Synergy. It’s the only word I could come up with. Various elements coming together in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In parts I and II, which seemed decidedly unconnected, I was just starting to map out a new vision of how past life experiences I had mostly separated mentally were actually inextricably linked. There was my work at CORE with youth in foster care. Stop. Then there was my prisoner work. Full stop. Then later there was my work as a parent. Even though I have made avoiding fragmentation one of the central themes of my life, and have always wanted that oneness to be reflected in an overlap between my work/home/inner life, in practice, mothering has been quite distinct from studying incarceration — unless you draw a parallel to our desperate attempts to keep her locked up during “quiet time” so that she doesn’t trash the place. (Come to think of it, there is probably some useful philosophical exploration of the concepts of retributive vs. restorative justice in childhood disciplinary tactics. No, stay on topic.) But when the idea of adoption, and especially adopting through foster care, started to seep into my psyche, it was like watching many little puzzle pieces fly together magnetically. They were still all jumbled and in need of sorting, but they were clinging tight.

I thought about how often foster care came up in my thesis interviews, enough that my co-investigators and I were kicking ourselves for not having included any related questions in our quantitative survey. Many of the men had spent time in foster/kinship care; sadly, some of them could barely distinguish their time in juvenile detention from their foster care experiences. And now some of their children were similarly experiencing foster and kinship care while their parents were incarcerated.

Early on, I read this passage in You Can Adopt: “Parents sometimes hesitate to tell children difficult details of their personal histories (conception from rape or incest, a parent in prison). But most secrets eventually come to light. And when they do, the fact that they remained secrets tells the child that he or she should feel ashamed. Adopted children need to know their entire life stories, not just the good parts.” I thought about how I have spent the better part of the last decade learning how to discuss these difficult topics with sensitivity and fairness. And I considered that with a little practice and guidance I could learn how to translate what I know about these topics to a child’s language, so that they could look on their pasts with compassion and forgiveness rather than anger.

In short, I realized that all this work I’ve been doing over the last decade was both an end in itself, and the beginning of something else. Something that I’m pretty certain will be the most taxing and trying experience of my life.

II. For whom?

“Those who choose to adopt a child do so with a great deal of hope, but their expectations are usually internally driven, and may not be based on the realities of the situation.” — Adopting the Hurt Child, p. 16

In my study (admittedly, still limited) of foster/adoptive parents, I have concluded that these “internally driven expectations” are critical. It seems that often unhappiness arises because of internal expectations that have not been made explicit. Adopting the Hurt Child certainly makes the case that a large number of the foster/adoptive parents they encounter have had unrealistic expectations. Later in the book they make the point that “parents who adopt a child who is missing a leg, for example, don’t expect love, stability, and permanency to recreate a limb. They simply expect to help the child secure the best prosthesis and cope well.” Unfortunately, most youth in foster care are dealing with more complex emotional issues — things that love, stability, and permanency may ameliorate over time, but most likely will never “cure.” As I start to build my little toolbox of strategies for dealing with the tough times ahead, Don’t expect a new limb” has become my simple reminder to examine the reasonableness of my expectations.

Deconstructing my expectations has inevitably led me to one crucial question: For whom are we doing this?

  1. Is adopting for me, to fill a hole that having no more biological children left in my heart?
  2. Is it for Addison because she should have a sibling to grow and play with?
  3. Is it for  “our family“? (A sort of amorphous concept but one I have heard myself voice before.)
  4. Is it for the children, to give them a better opportunity than they would have otherwise?

And finally, which of these motives are more predictive of a positive experience navigating the foster/adoption system? (Note to self: Do literature search.) (Note to readers: Feel free to answer/speculate in the comments — I’m curious if you have any thoughts/experiences!) What I know at this point is that I have felt the need to actively let go of reasons 1, 2, and 3; if 1, 2, or 3 occur as a byproduct of helping some children in need, we’ll be thankful for that little slice of mercy. But the first three all inherently place expectations on the child (that they will fill a gap, a hole, be a sibling, meet our needs somehow), when #4 is really all we can guarantee — that we will provide them with opportunities for love and stability that they might not get elsewhere. “We have to fill our own gaps,” I remind myself (though, luckily, we’re not completely alone in that).

At first glance, letting go of motive #1 seemed impossible. My desire for another child runs so deep; surely, I would always feel some secret, idealized hope. But one day I realized, No, I have a precedent for this. This prisoner work I undertook so long ago, I did only to provide greater opportunity to another group in need. It wasn’t to meet a need in me, although I have experienced many wonderful byproducts. It wasn’t for external validation since I was met with more criticism than support initially. It wasn’t for any monetary gain (that probably goes without saying, ha!). I did it because I saw a need and I wanted to help. I know I can do that again. I have to remember, “I have a precedent for this.”

Letting go of the idea that another child would somehow meet my needs has ultimately changed the whole landscape. When we first talked about adoption, we both thought we wanted a baby. Who doesn’t, right? But as my baby hunger subsided, I realized that if I could reframe this whole process around the needs of the children, it was likely that the babies in foster care were least likely to need us, based on the simple fact that others would want them. When I looked into all the different foster programs, I was excited by the possibilities: older kids and sibling sets; 30-day shelter care for newborns; intensive teen programs; aftercare-type programs for 18-21-year-olds to help in the transition to adulthood. This not only changed the landscape of what type of children we might take in, but it also opened up the timetable. We could take in a child Addison’s age or a little younger. Or we could provide shelter care for infants when she’s a tween. Or we could have teens or young adults when she leaves for college. For the first time, it began to occur to me that perhaps my life’s work will fall as much (or more) in the foster care system as the criminal justice system. And that this first step will be just the beginning.

III. Reframing

When I started to feel little inklings that maybe more of my future work would be with foster care, I was not immediately taken with the idea. More than a little reframing was in order; a process that ended up being almost as much a theme for 2012 as “stronger.” In case you haven’t noticed, I have invested an awful lot of my time, energy, and passion in work related to incarceration and I’ve had no shortage of future plans in that regard, next steps for when my children were a little older. Suddenly, all that felt like it was being upended in a call to something slightly familiar, but still very different. To complicate that even further, it was the ultimate fusion of work and family. In a way that I had never fully conceptualized until I started picturing myself in that role, I realized what an impossibly difficult thing we ask of foster parents: Be a mother, but also a semi-dispassionate case worker. Welcome them, love them, integrate them into your family, BUT facilitate them rejoining their original family if at all possible. Provide them with stability, right up until the moment that they are taken away. Talk about emotional and cognitive dissonance . . .

How do I start preparing myself for the reality of that? This was my starting point, I think: I won’t be their mother. Not at first; maybe not at all. All I can do is to mother them. If I define myself as their mother, make it a noun, the system/their other parents/the judge could easily take away that identity. But they can’t take away the mothering acts that I will do for them, regardless of how long or short our time together. This Christmas on a rare foray into fiction, I read the first Harry Potter book. I’m glad I did as it had this little tidbit right at the end, “To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.” It’s a pretty thought, endowed with some mystical power in the book, but I also believe there’s truth there. So I’ll tell myself that, too: “I won’t be their mother, but my love will give them some protection.” And at the very least, I will teach them how to brush their teeth, something my old friend Tina did not learn until she was 11, years into her stay in foster care. (Or perhaps Neal has taken over all dental hygiene forever; either way, teeth WILL be brushed.)

Besides reframing what it will mean to be a “mother,” I had a fair amount of work to do in reframing my own abilities. As I mentioned in part II, after the emotional collapse that was my miscarriage, the story we began to tell each other was that adoption would be too tough for me to take. I wouldn’t be able to handle its difficulties with anything approaching equanimity. But when God sends you a message — you will be an adoptive parent! (subtle, no?) — there’s nothing else to do but strike all those other stories from the record. Apparently, adoption will not be too tough for me to take. Also, I will be able to handle the difficulties with something approaching equanimity. Obviously, “I can do this.”

Of course, getting that message loud and clear and actually internalizing it are two different things. I had to keep digging to get at the root of this idea that I would be unable to handle adoption. I think the root is this: A deep depression is always right at my door; that is, if it’s not already camped out in my room. This always seemed to be a perfectly reasonable assumption. After all, I clearly recall my first depressive episode being when I was 6 years old. And then there were things all along the way until it all got really bad in my late teens. Have you ever tried to get life or health insurance with a history of clinical depression? There’s a litany of questions perfectly calculated to remind you of what a mess your psyche has been. I’ve had to answer a lot of insurance questions over the years; it’s no wonder that I have held on to the belief that a deep depression was always right around the corner.

But here’s a few facts I need to tell myself more often: it’s been almost 14 years since my last really catastrophic depressive episode. In the subsequent years, I have had only two real episodes: after the miscarriage and after Addison’s birth, both things that sometimes make even “normal” people depressed, and neither approaching anything like what I have experienced in the past. I’ve been to almost 4 full years of therapy/group counseling in the subsequent 14 years. Now that it’s been more than a decade, I no longer have to answer insurance questions about it. According to the actuarial tables, then, I am cured. Also this small thing: I experienced a miraculous healing and deliverance from nearly every symptom of mental illness that I experienced from age 6 to 20. It’s too bad I’ve struggled to say that so loud and clear all these years. So I need to accept this:  “I don’t have a major depressive disorder anymore.”

IV. Ambiguous loss

“If [the parents’] decision to adopt stems from personal loss — loss of a birth child or infertility — they must assess where they are in their own grief cycle to maximize their ability to help their new child. After all, adoption is about loss, and facing that loss is one of the first steps in the child’s healing process. It is, therefore, critical for parents to take stock of how bereavement is handled in the family so the child’s loss can be addressed appropriately.” — Adopting the Hurt Children, p. 80

I have been a fan of ambiguous loss theory since I first stumbled on it while researching a paper on young couples dealing with chronic illness, but it took on even more personal meaning during my miscarriage. (I wrote this during that time, although I never mentioned that a miscarriage was what prompted those thoughts.) Ambiguous loss was first applied to various relationships in which a person may be physically present but psychologically unavailable (like dementia or traumatic brain injury) or physically absent but psychologically present (like soldiers missing in action or incarceration). It has since been more broadly applied to situations in which we may encounter loss that is invisible (in some way), difficult to articulate, or unresolvable.  Pauline Boss, the theory’s creator and patron saint, believes it is the most difficult type of loss because “there is no closure; the challenge is to learn how to live with the ambiguity.”

It would be hard to overstate how huge this concept is when it comes to adoption and especially adoption through foster care, where many children may have faced the loss of multiple families, homes, schools, cultures, even cities or states. Eventually I will have to turn my attention to how I can help any future foster or adoptive children deal with their own ambiguous losses, but over the last year I’ve been focused on what it will mean for me as a foster parent. I remind myself, “There is no closure. Period.” Although I have always felt like I have a high tolerance for ambiguity, looking back I see plenty of time wasted by looking for “closure.” What is closure, anyway? And why have I so often told myself it was necessary or desirable? I’m not going to make the same mistake this time. When a child comes into our lives, only to leave again, I want to hold them in my heart while still moving forward. There is no closure, not really. And even if there were, why would I want it? Wouldn’t it be closing off a beloved child?

When I first wrote about ambiguous loss back in 2008, I was grappling with how to memorialize my lost child, a child that was invisible to virtually everyone but ever so present to me. Eventually Neal came up with the perfect memorial: he suggested we each write our “final” thoughts in a beautiful notebook. After using the notebook (a going away present from my dear friend Marshay when I left D.C.) as our wedding guestbook, we had continued to write notes and messages in it for each other. It seemed like a fitting place for a final memorial to our first child. The only problem was that I couldn’t bring my usually verbose self to do it. Neal went first, writing three beautiful pages of love, light, and hope. He crafted it over several days in January 2009, ending with this thought, “We look forward to families that transcend the limitations of this world.” As moved by his words as I was, all I could manage a few months later was an entry that started like this:

We agreed that we would both write in this book as a way to memorialize and grieve the loss of our first child. I find that I cannot do it. I thought that it would offer a final resting place for so much sorrow, but it feels wrong to bury that sorrow. Every time I think I’m moving on, this pang comes as if that moving forward negates the importance, even the existence of the child that I already loved. . . . I don’t really know how to bring either this entry or this chapter to a close gracefully. I just know that I’m getting out of bed in the morning, I’m teaching a class, taking a class, teaching Relief Society, having neck surgery, smiling, crying — all vestiges of my pre-baby life.

To be honest, after we wrote these entries, I seldom wanted to read them. The notebook now represented pain. While I had been the primary writer before, Neal began to write more often and I virtually stopped altogether. In fact, I remember once actually putting it under another book so that it would be obscured from my view. But as I’ve asked myself this very concrete question, How am I going to deal with the ambiguous loss that we will intentionally introduce into our lives?, I have come back to that notebook often. Even though a place that had previously been a source of comfort now carried sadness in it, with time I could appreciate a new type of comfort it offered. It became a concrete place to go with my sorrow, and then to emerge from it. It offered peace of mind, knowing that I didn’t have to cling so hard to my grief for fear that I would forget altogether. There would always be a place to remember. (Months later, this blog became another memorial.)

So that was my first answer to that question of how to cope: Create a place to remember each child that comes into our life. A new entry in our book? A painted handprint? I’ve heard of people who have figurines (probably not a good match for our minimalist tiny-house dreams) or wear necklace charms (doubtful since I couldn’t even get in the habit of wearing a wedding ring) or plant trees (maybe, if we have our own yard). Only recently did I learn that creating a “loss box” is a strategy to help adoptees work through their feelings. I’m not sure what form our place of remembrance will take, but I know it will be essential for me.

The second coping mechanism I’ve been pondering is something I wrote about over a year ago: Escape. I’m certainly still a work-in-progress on this whole fun/escapism thing, but I’ve figured some things out in twelve months. For starters, I like to have a TV show, just one, that I keep close tabs on. I have gone through periods where I watched no TV at all and periods where I watched a TON of TV. I think what adds considerable enjoyment to my life is having one that I look forward to each week. Lately, my show of choice has been Project Runway (ironic, no?); I mourn for its glory days on Bravo, but I still enjoy it when paired with Tom and Lorenzo’s commentary. I think I would prefer a dancing show like So You Think You Can Dance?, but there were just too dang many episodes each week so I had to cut it off. Besides that, I enjoy reading a weekly advice column from Slate‘s “Dear Prudence.” With our upcoming move to the mountains (a town of 2,600 people!), other fun things I’ve been doing here (the beach, occasional restaurant visit, etc.) will require some reworking, but I think I’m on a good track. It doesn’t hurt that Addison is getting more fun all the time (always interspersed with frustration, of course). (How clinical does this paragraph make “fun” sound? Sheesh.)

The third coping mechanism is easy to say, but hard to do: Focus on what I can controlInterfacing with the criminal justice system over the last decade has certainly given me a primer on frustrating, exhausting, often heartbreaking bureaucracy, but I know we’re putting ourselves on a collision course with a lot, LOT more of that. So I need to, in every stage and situation, focus on what I can control. Rereading the above passage out of our notebook reminded me of some of those basics: I can get out of bed; teach my classes; fulfill my church assignments; smile; cry (fingers crossed on avoiding the neck surgery). I can focus on mothering acts, instead of all the things I would like to change in the child welfare system. I have a precedent for this, too, after all: despite the occasional blog post advocating changes in the criminal justice system, I intentionally decided that I did not want to focus on the system per se, but rather on the individual people I could reach out to during their sojourn there. 

I have a lot more reading to do on coping with ambiguous loss (this book is up next), both for myself and for facilitating that process with the children, but I feel that more than four years ago, I identified one of the key things to hang on to: There is no ambiguous loss in God’s eyes. This past year I have experienced a remarkable degree of clarity about myself, my past, and my future. I hope in reading this, and other things I will write over the next few months, it will be evident that I have learned to put words to some ambiguous losses from my past; it’s not the end of pain, it’s not quite closure, it’s a clearer way forward. I know God has been my close companion in this process, healing some things, while at other times reminding me that not everything has to be healed to be productive. 

As Neal said four years ago, we look forward to families that transcend the limitations of this world. With all our doubts and questions, we are certain we’re on a beautiful path to that.

* I thought about posting this section-by-section, but for my sake, I wanted to capture it all in one place.

May 20, 2013

“Dang, I look good”: Reflections on body image

I was wearing the tightest clothes I could find in my closet, no small feat when baggy t-shirts are my style. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the “Pure Barre” class based on what Anne had told me: I think it’s like ballet; there’s a barre and “tucking” and please-for-the-love-of-pete-take-these-classes-I-already-paid-for-so-I-won’t-have-to-do-them. Despite my best efforts, when I walked in, I knew immediately I hadn’t achieved the desired level of tightness or bare skin. My relatively form-fitting t-shirt was still a t-shirt, and tank tops and spaghetti straps appeared to be the order of the day. The yoga pants I considered thigh-hugging looked more like loose maternity clothes (which is, in fact, why I had bought them while I was pregnant) than the painted-on spandex everyone else appeared to be wearing. Still, the combination of mirrored walls and the tightest clothes I own gave me a glimpse of my full body, a rare occurrence on account of the boxes stacked in front of the only full-length mirror in the house, which I still haven’t bothered to go through two years after our move. And the first thought that crossed my mind upon seeing my full figure was,

Dang, I look good.

I tried not to stare, but it was hard not to. After months of not sparing even a second to look in a mirror, I had forgotten about how my waist always seemed to be just the right size, with the pouch below adding what I like to call “character.” (It goes without saying that love handles also add “character.”) I forgot about the sleek thigh muscle that made an ever-so-slight appearance when I tightened my knees. And don’t even get me started on those knees, which were hidden by the flare of the pants, but I could imagine were probably looking fantastic under there! Even the arm flab that Addison had so exuberantly played with the week before while shouting flappy, flappy, flappy looked just about right. Life with a toddler can certainly underscore every bodily imperfection. What IS that?, Addison likes to ask about my every skin tag and mole (which, my friends, are many and varied). Or there’s my personal favorite, when she grabs a pair of tweezers and comes at me saying, Let me get your beards. Hold still; this might hurt a yittle bit. But when I finally take a moment to study my body, I am struck by the way every curve and muscle looks practically perfect in my eyes. If only my body worked half as good as it looks, I would never need to worry about a workout, I think.

As we started said workout, it soon became clear that (1) this was nothing like the ballet I grew up doing for hours each day and (2) it sucked. But hey, it was free. I’ll even do sucky things for free! So I tried my best to follow along, anxiously looking right and left to see which leg I was supposed to be lifting and if I was supposed to be exhaling with the lift or the tuck. Occasionally, the instructor would say, “Now close your eyes while you do this exercise and picture what you want your thighs to look like.” Instinctively I would look down, puzzled. What the?! It’s a thigh. What’s it supposed to look like?

While we were lifting weights behind our backs (very unnatural, if you ask me), the instructor shouted, “Picture what you want your back to look like. Lift it! Push it!” I looked around the room. What does a back even look like? Should I be striving for the instructor’s sculpted back? What if my back already looks like hers, I just don’t know it because, after all, it’s behind me? Which brings up another good question — how does one even look at their own back? I’ll have to ask Neal when I get home; he’s always ready to spout off an opinion. Internal monologue notwithstanding, I did my best to lift it! and push it! despite having no clear vision of a future back in mind.

Three months and ten classes later, I’m starting to get a handle on all these exercise class conventions (except not the exhaling; I still have no idea when I’m supposed to breathe): you picture what you want your body to look like as motivation to keep going. What a peculiar idea, no? Who has the energy to both examine their current physical appearance AND contemplate a future appearance that would be more pleasing, all while lifting, tucking, pushing, and burning?

Neal’s answer to this question, which he has tried to explain to me many times before: Everyone. EVERYONE has the energy to contemplate — and in many instances, obsess over — their appearance. Especially every single woman you know or have probably ever known. He’s insistent about this, estimating the percentage of women who worry about these things at a minimum of 90%, possibly closer to 95%. It’s not like this is entirely new information to me; I remember once in high school I made a jesting comment about a good friend’s appearance, which I later learned wounded her deeply. At the time I made a mental note: never joke about ____’s appearance because she does not seem to realize that she is both incredibly beautiful physically, and also possessing so many other outstanding qualities as to make her appearance completely irrelevant. I still regret that comment almost 20 years later (and I am grateful she forgave my terrible thoughtlessness), but I also regret that I did not realize sooner that that mental note had more widespread application. I suppose I concluded then that she was just unusually sensitive; perhaps that insecurity was one of her unique crosses to bear in life. Then I went to college and lived in a dorm with 100 wonderful young women and it turned out that a lot of them seemed to be “sensitive” about this. So I added to that mental note: keep in mind, young women are sensitive about their appearances.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I went to a Relief Society meeting in which the average age of attendees was probably 65 and someone made the comment that it was “hard to look at herself in the mirror and like what she saw.” I looked around to see how others were taking the news, stunned to see so many nodding heads. So apparently, older women struggle with this, too. And then in a feminist book group I once attended, the topic of insecurity came up and it turned out that these self-proclaimed feminist warriors are also sensitive about their appearances.

And so Neal goes on insisting, It’s kind of a universal issue for women. There’s this pervasive societal neurosis that you are inexplicably unaffected by(Sometimes, if I’m in a good mood, he adds, Also, I wouldn’t complain if you “fancied” yourself up every once in a while. Or threw out a few of your 35 XXL t-shirts.) And now that I think about it, I’ve gotta admit that my last several years on Facebook have confirmed Neal’s assertions that these are ubiquitous issues. Lately, not a day goes by without a friend or two posting about body image or fat-shaming or women’s negative self-talk.

I am trying to get all this through my head. Sympathy is a great thing, but I have always wanted empathy: to be able to understand and share the emotional states of others. If I can’t really feel where others are at, how can I hope to help bear their burdens? Having a daughter three years ago also raised the stakes. How will I know how to empower her if I don’t understand what so many women struggle with? I can’t just accept that an emotional state that appears to be so widespread is simply beyond me, so I look for common ground. I remember there was this one time when I looked critically at my appearance. It was about a week after I weaned Addison and as I got out of the shower I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Hmmm; I think I look different than I used to. My breasts look flatter, saggier. Yeah, saggy, that’s the word. I’m not sure I like that . . . For a moment, I could sympathize with the woman I met that month who looked at her post-baby body and imagined a surgery that would give her back the body she once had.

But when I left the mirror, the moment was over. It was as though I had momentarily stepped into a cloud of anxiety, disliked the feeling, and simply stepped out of it again. I never think about it now, except to use as a protest whenever Neal tells me how fundamentally unable to understand the female experience I am.

“But don’t you remember that time I looked in the mirror after I was done breastfeeding and . . . “

“I know, I know. You were critical of your body for about 4 seconds. You totally get it.”

I concede I’m still far from “getting it.” In fact, I am beginning to see what an uphill battle it may be to internalize what other people see when they look in the mirror. When I look in the mirror, I see a friend. Sometimes I notice her “flappy” arms, but they seem like just one more endearing feature, all the more valuable for the few minutes of entertainment they can bring to a child’s life. When I look at my friends, there’s no voice in my head assessing weight fluctuations — which, by the way, is actually inconvenient when your friend has lost 30 pounds, and your husband has to prompt you to compliment her on it — or chin hair. I’m not sure I know how to look at a friend with an eye critical of her appearance. Why should I see myself any differently?

The irony in all of this is that as I’ve read myriad articles, blog posts, and advice columns about how to teach our daughters to love their bodies, I find myself subtly more susceptible to that cultural fog that I was inexplicably unaffected by for thirty years. When I look in the mirror, I still see someone who is beautiful in every way that matters and even in some ways that don’t (like how she looks in form-fitting t-shirts and thigh-hugging yoga pants). But I’m more keenly aware of how “society” might condemn the features that seem so lovable to me. In that way, I am sometimes a little sorry I undertook this exploration in the first place — it feels like unnecessary aggravation to worry about how someone else would deconstruct my appearance. At the same time, I am learning a valuable lesson: if society is going to pressure Addison to see only her body’s flaws, then maybe the best thing I can do is to put words to the atmosphere of simply confidence I’ve been floating through all these years. Without the willingness of other women to share their experiences, I would never have known that we aren’t breathing the same air. So now I know better than to just think these words; now I will say them out loud:

Dang, I look good.

May 15, 2013

Lindsay (and 15,000 other people) loves Neal

it's a beautiful thing

For Mother’s Day, Neal wrote this sweet little tribute to the miracle of life (and aliens — he’s always gotta work in aliens somehow) along with this comic. We were hoping it would go big on Facebook, and break his previous comic record of around 800 shares. 15,000 shares later, Facebook estimates that somewhere around one million people saw this comic. Wowsa!

But as with all things internet, there were some haters in the bunch. Some people saw it as discriminatory against moms who had c-sections, adoptive moms, stepmoms, same-sex couples, and of course, fathers. If you follow Raised by my Daughter’s Facebook page, you know that one dude in particular was freaking ticked! Multiple f-bombs were thrown! As funny as I found his comment, I won’t reproduce it here; after all, I can’t be sure no animals were harmed in the making of his comment.

Although I told Neal to just ignore it, when I went out for a few hours with Addison he crafted this measured response:

Actually, Brian, I’m a stay-at-home-dad and I’m the one who made this comic. I’m proud of what I do, and I’m proud of my wife, too. I don’t feel like someone has to be the loser when someone else gets appreciation. In my world, “all the awards” is a hyperbolic statement that demonstrates a feeling of awe and respect for moms that is so big it’s hard to even articulate. I guess I’d say that I imagine that there are INFINITE “awards” available for people who do good; it doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game where one person takes away something from someone else. So, many people can deserve an infinite portion of that infinite amount, and no one needs to be the loser in the equation. When my heart is full to the brim with love for someone else, why not express how that feels? It feels like ALL THE AWARDS.

He and Brian went on to have a more mellow conversation about giving Dads credit, too. Peace once again reigned . . . until we found another page that had shared the comic, unleashing a totally different firestorm. This was one of my favorite comments from that page:

Yeah, it’s great parenting to tell your kids they’re an alien parasite. Sounds like the typical liberal mindset. When they were getting probed, that didn’t feel like an alien experience at all.

I’m fairly politically savvy, but I’m still trying to figure out exactly how Neal’s comic represents a “typical liberal mindset.” Since Neal didn’t clue me in on his subversive agenda, maybe you can enlighten me!

***

But none of that was why I got on here to proclaim my love for Neal. It was actually all about the essay I wrote a couple of weeks ago,“Dang, I look good”: Reflections on body image. It’s a touchy subject, you know, and I don’t consider myself totally adept at handling this particular touchy subject so I wanted to run it by Neal. I am beginning to see, though, that there’s no such thing as “running something by him” after World War III almost ignited over my forgiveness and restorative justice piece. Either he cares A LOT about good writing, or he’s just trying to pay me back for the past 6 years of merciless editing, but he was just shredding my work. And I was getting ticked. Not because I can’t take constructive criticism but because he seemed to be somewhat confused about my fundamental point in the essay. So is it X or Y?, he would ask. It’s both X AND Y — it’s a paradox. (You know I love me some paradoxes.) We must have cycled through that same conversation in various forms about 20 times, all the while me bemoaning dichotomous thinking and accusing him of trying to put me in a box.

Really there’s a whole essay to be written about the process of writing that essay. Neal not quite getting my fundamental point in the essay ultimately translated into confusion about a fundamental thing about me, and that just seemed maddening after being together for 8+ years. Who knew that something that I think of as foundational about me has not quite been clear to the people I’m closest to even after all these years?! But I guess now is as good a time as any to clear that up, and so I revised that essay. I revised the crap out of that essay. I rewrote whole sections. I wanted to get this right.

Is the reason all this prompted a Lindsay loves Neal post still unclear? It’s this: Even while I was rolling my eyes as he told me my parallel structure could be enhanced (Dude, I invented parallel structure.* I was writing in parallel structure before you were born! Don’t talk to me about parallel structure.) or I needed a little more explication in my stream-of-consciousness portions (Seriously? You want the narrator to retrospectively interject into my stream-of-consciousness thoughts. Do you even know what stream-of-consciousness IS?!), my heart is also bursting. Bursting, I tell you! I can’t believe I get to have a writer’s workshop in my own bedroom, with the hottest guy I’ve ever met. And he actually knows what he’s talking about (even though mostly, I’m right). Here we are discussing the trade-offs of various writer’s conundrums, and I’m annoyed as heck, but my writing is getting better, clearer. How did I get SO lucky? Later, while brushing our teeth, we laughed about how amazing it will be to have our little writer’s workshop every day once the kids grow up and leave home. As long as he never questions the Oxford comma, we’ll make it.

So even though I’m not quite done with that essay (before this week is over!), it reminded me all over again: This is the life I wanted. To be challenged about both the fundamental things about me and parallel structure. To debate the conventions of stream-of-consciousness and laugh about stick-figure comics. This is the life I wanted.

* I didn’t invent parallel structure. I wish I did, though; it’s one of my favorite things. Like in the whole world.

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