Wednesday, April 12, 2017

About the Moment of Death

Death is not scary.  The actual moment of death really is no different from falling asleep, even though that's not what we're supposed to tell kids about death, as it may confuse them about the permanency of death.  And yet... for believers, death really isn't permanent at all, is it?  It's a birth into eternal life. 
Three weeks ago, we had to euthenize our dog.  That day marked the end of a 9 year era for us as "pet parents".  Our dog, Bigosia, got very sick very quickly, and we didn't have much time to process what was happening or what we ought to do.  The day we had her xrays done to confirm a large growth that had been interfering with her eating and breathing, we knew that one way or another, we had to make a decision quickly, within the week.  We couldn't make her suffer any longer.

All four of us were there with her as she passed onto the other side.  I remember petting her on the bridge of her nose, softly encouraging her to lay down, saying "get comfortable, baby".  She was calm.  Just that, she was calm.  No deep penetrating looks trying to tell me something.  No trying to remove herself from the situation.  She was calm.  Peaceful.  Weather she knew her pain was about to be gone for good, I don't know.  But she certainly didn't fear dying.  And she seemed no different to me after the vet confirmed that her heart had stopped beating and she was "gone".  I was so used to seeing her just lying around, keeping to herself.  I'd approach her and pet her at my leisure, and she often wouldn't stir, so this was no different.  

Five years ago, I approach another loved one's deceased body - my best friend Rachel, at her viewing.  It was four days after she died, so I suppose her body had been embalmed.  I noticed several things as I stood over her open casket to say my last goodbye.  One - they really caked on her makeup! Two - she had her hair straight and cut, a newer style to the one I preferred, the one I always image her with - long and curly.  Three - she was not in that casket.  Standing over Rachel's body, I remember realizing that my best friend was being housed in that body, transported in it, but she was not bound to it.  On some gut level, I knew that what made her Rachel was that je ne sais quoi that could only be described as "that which animated her body" - her spirit, her soul.  That realization gave me closure, even though her death was unexpected.

I wasn't present at the exact moment of my great-grandmother's death, but I was there just minutes before, and minutes after.  I had just stepped into the bathroom to wash my hair when she died.  I was drying my hair when I heard my grandmother talking to her mom and, upon not getting a response, starting to wail.  I knew even before she reached the bathroom door to tell me that Babcia Bronia had passed on.  I remember being very calm about it.  Sad, but calm.  Earlier in the day, I watched my great-grandmother as she lay on her bed in the large kitchen, where she had been living to ease getting to and from the one bathroom in the house.  She was on her back, and she was stretching out her arms above her, with a gentle grin on her face.  She was clearly reaching towards something - or someone - that only she could see.  As soon as I knew she had died, I knew that she had known she was dying.  Not in the prolonged illness, my time is approaching kind of way, but in the "that's my name, gotta go!" kind of way.  She was a devoted Catholic, and she died on the 8th of September, Mary's birthday.  So we suspect that she was reaching out to the birthday girl, ehem, Queen of Heaven, thrilled to have been called home on such a day.

In the hour or so following her death, before the funeral home people came to take her body, I helped my grandmother and grandfather dress her in the funeral clothes Babcia Bronia had picked out for herself ahead of time.  Before she died, her daughter/my grandmother had shown me the neatly folded outfit in her dresser.  Babcia Bronia had packed for a trip, essentially!  She packed light - she only wanted to wear a black dress with white ruffles.  She knew she didn't need anything else.  Anyway, the three of us liften her into a seating position to take off her nightgown and put on her funeral dress.  I will never forget the shock I felt when she sat up.  A gaspy noise came out of her mouth.  For a split second, I thought she was back!  Later I'd learn that it's normal for the last remnants of air to escape from the body after death, thereby making sounds.  In fact, when we were preparing for our beloved dog Bigosia's "big moment", the vet also mentioned the possibility of some unexpected - well, she actually mentioned liquids coming out, but luckily no such thing happened.

And so I'm back to my original observation.  Death itself is nothing to fear.  Instead, it's all the trauma that often leads up to death that can be scary, painful, and confusing.  And of course, the loss and grief that is felt by the loved ones left behind is the other unpleasant aspect of death.  But the actual moment of death?  Nah, that's just a transition.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Happy homecoming anniversary, Fernando!

(photos forthcoming)

A year ago, we had our fourth and last embryo transfer.  First transfer of two blastocysts on the 11th anniversary of daddy and I meeting, resulted in a week-long pregnancy followed by a chemical loss.  Second transfer of two blastocysts, about four months later, resulted in a "BFN" - big fat negative (pregnancy test). Third transfer of two blastocysts from a second batch resulted in our miracle 3 year old daughter, your genetic sister Maya. And our last transfer was also planned for two blastocysts, but only one survived the thaw.  That last little embryo was you Fernandito!

Just like with your sister three years earlier, daddy had to wait across the hall while I went in for transfer.  My bladder was bursting and I was certain that I would pee on the doctor, for which I wouldn't have felt bad since he made me drink twice the recommended amount of water and then had me wait on the transfer bed.  I walked on the wild side this time, and secretly took a photo of myself just before transfer.  (What'd you think I was going to say?  I videotaped the transfer?  I wish! Our first two transfers were videotaped, but alas that's irrelevant to you, I guess.)  Luckily this time I wasn't made to lay there for 30 minutes, so I was up and with daddy and Maya in no time.

We had made the whole trip into a family vacation.  We visited my brother and his family, Alex's grandpa and some cousins, aunts and uncles, and we managed a quick day trip to the beach the day before transfer.  I squeezed in an acupuncture session on the morning of the transfer, just in case it would help.  It certainly helped me relax and put me in the right frame of mind, if nothing else.

As we were leaving the hospital after transfer, we had someone take a lovely photo of us - first photo of us as a family of four!  I knew that no matter what, this was the last time I was undergoing any sort of fertility treatment, and all that was left was to find out what the good Lord had in mind for the future of our family.

I'm not sure what to think of the embryo that didn't get transferred.  All of the other embryos we "adopted" were in my body for however brief a moment in time.  I sort of thought of them as little angel companions for each other, especially for my Maya.  But Fernando, you were in there all alone.  So silly how the mind can weave crazy stories out of nothing.

Your batch of four embryos, I called the Franciscans, after the newly elected Pope Francis.  Maya's companion embryo I named Raquelita after my late best friend, Rachel.  We called Maya "Dee or Dino", alternating months during the pregnancy, since we weren't finding out her sex until after birth.  Your would-be companion embryo I named Francis.  We found out you were a boy in mid-pregnancy, at which point we started to think of names.  We had decided not to name you the boy names we had prepared three years earlier when expecting Maya. You were not some fantasy but a real boy, our son, and everything had to be reset.  Until then, you were a "Franciscan" ;)

I'm going to go ahead and put it out there, though I went back and forth about it.... I started to suspect right after your transfer that you may receive a calling to the priesthood.  (Since we're Catholic, this also meant that I suspected you were a boy!)  You see, after your sister was born and we moved to a new state, I became distant in my faith for a long time.  I had all but given up being able to recapture that sense of spirituality going into your embryo transfer.  Literally within days, I felt something spiritual.  I cannot explain what it was, because it wasn't anything concrete.  I just felt God's presence, I guess.  For the first time in years, I felt hope that I may one day truly "be Catholic" again.

I had a terrible first trimester as far as nausea and prenatal depression.  It was so bad that I had to request prescription medication, because the ginger root tea that finally helped when I was pregnant with Maya only made things worse this time!  I was thinking all sorts of nonesense about my lack of worth and I dreaded the idea of being responsible for two small children. I tried to sleep most of the time to avoid facing these thoughts.  But two Sundays in a row, before and after we moved into the house where you were born, the nausea and depression let up, to the point that I felt well enough to pack and move some of our stuff the first time it happened, and to unpack and put some things away the second time it happened.

Because these were Sundays, I again thought this was a sign of a possible religious vocation for you.  Whether or not the Lord calls you to the priesthood or not, He clearly called you to help bring me back to the faith!  I went on a spiritual retreat while pregnant with you, which helped tremendously in edging me in the right direction (namely, towards God).  As I write this, I am in my third week of spiritual direction, and I have started to call Jesus my friend.

In one of your sonograms, you resemble your sister Maya.  It is most uncanny, the lip and chin area in particular.  With Maya, I didn't think she looked anything like her sonos, but with you, wow!  I hope that you and Maya will be very close friends and are able to find comfort in each other's shared journey as donor conceived adoptees.  I have been working on locating your genetic family, in case you or Maya ever want more information about your genetic roots.  The Lord even put in my life a lady at our church who loves doing geneology and who has been working on your genetic family tree for many months.  I was also able to get a little more information from the clinic where your and Maya's embryos were stored, which has been a great joy to me, and I'm hoping it can help us locate your and Maya's three older genetic siblings, if not your donors as well.

So Fernando, thank you for showing me that just when I thought my heart couldn't possibly grow to accomodate loving another child as much as I love Maya, you proved me wrong!  My heart has been cloned, and each of you have their own mommy-heart in my chest.  I don't know how else to describe it.  I love you, and I'm so very happy that you're here and we're all together as a family now!

Friday, January 6, 2017

Affirmative Ten Commandments

I don't know about you, but I always find it easier to apply affirmative directives instead of negative ones.  For one thing, when we hear "don't do X", we still hear the forbidden "X", and subconsciously we nonetheless focus on that which we are supposed to be avoiding.  Also, abstaining from doing something is not the same as doing the opposite.

When it comes to the 10 Commandments, I've always thought that perhaps linguistics is where Moses went wrong.  (I know, it'd be way too easy if all it took for world peace is to change the focus of how the 10 Commandments are written.)  At any rate, I've decided to give it a try myself, so that when I'm going over them in preparation for the sacrament of reconciliation, for instance, I'm better challenged to grow in character instead of just checking off all the ways I'm not failing God!

So without further ado, here are the 10 Commandments, as I understand them, that go beyond just what not to do, and instead note what we are to do instead.

1. Remember Who made you; therefore worship God alone, prioritizing Him above all else.  (Two ways to do this follow.)
2. When you speak about God, do so with respect.
3. Every week, set aside time to honor God.
4. Honor our parents as God's co-creators; know your place and hence be humble.
5. Safeguard life; be a steward of it.
6. Be chaste.
7. Share what you have with others.
8. Be honest and trustworthy.
9. Be modest.
10. Be content with what you've got.

A bit of commentary on the above.  The first three commandments I think are self-explanatory, as they already appear in the affirmative on the original templates.  The only observation I've made here is that commandments 2 & 3 are examples of 1.

The fourth commandment is also in the affirmative, but I've always found it confusing how to apply it to my life as an adult child of my parents.  I think when looking at my parents in the grand scheme of things, I'm reminded of my place in the pecking order, which should lead to an attitude of humility in life in general.

The fifth commandment I found a bit passe.  I mean, don't murder, really?  I would think in this day and age, this sort of goes without saying.  People of course ignore it, but not because they're confused about whether they should or shouldn't take life.  I am always tempted to skim right over this one as I do my examination of conscience, bc of course I haven't killed anyone.  But when looked at through a life-affirming lense, ah, now I'm a lot more challenged.  Do I build people up or shut them down? And what about other creatures of God?  I do not give life, not to animals or plants, and not to people (even my own children); I merely assist at best.  So it should go without saying that I can't take that life.  But do I look the other way when others take life into their own hands?  Or do I stand on the side of God, trying to safeguard it?

The sixth and ninth commandments always confused me because I didn't understand why there needed to be two commandments that essentially say the same thing.  Do not commit adultery, and do not covet your neighbor's wife (or husband, though if you want to be a literalist, us women appear to be getting a free pass on this one ;) ).  I get that one is physical action and the other is thought, but is that really sufficient enough difference?  But when looked at as what we ought to be doing instead - being chaste and modest, all of a sudden I understand the difference.  Chastity has to do with our actions when it comes to our sexuality.  We are to keep sexual intimacy inside the marriage covenant.  That is the definition of chastity.  So if we're not married, no sex.  If we are married, sex only with our spouse.  Easy enough.  But then modesty is a lot more nuanced.  It's in our dress, our demeanor, in our sense of humor, our entertainment, our words.  Do we tempt others towards unchastity by our immodesty?  Or do we do our part to safeguard marital sexuality?

The seventh and tenth commandments also gave me trouble over the years.  Again, I thought they were saying the same thing.  Don't steal, and don't covet.  Instead, go beyond merely not taking what doesn't belong to you (because sometimes this is actually up for debate), and share whatever you do have.   That way, there's no question that you're not stealing because your focus is on how you can share what you have instead of how others ought to share with you.  And then there's the coveting. That leads to envy, jealousy, and all around a nasty selfish attitude, as you think about all the things you don't have instead of counting your blessings.  Instead, be content, ie. count your blessings!

Finally, the eight commandment has to do with honesty, and here too I think we can grow so much more if we live our lives focusing on integrity and authenticity instead of just not telling any lies.  We lie with much more than our words.  Omissions can be lies.  Disingeniousness can be lies.  The way we present ourselves in life can be a lie - putting on a facade to try to impress others.  There's no truth in that.  But we can still glaze over this commandment and say we don't technically tell any lies, so we're all good.  No, we're not.  That's just not good enough.  Be honest and trustworthy.  There's the goal of this commandment.

So I plan on looking to this version of the 10 commandments from now on as I try to improve as a human being.  Maybe it can help someone else as well.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Theme for New Year 2017: Self-Improvement

I used to make a laundry list of New Year's resolutions.  After keeping and reviewing my sheets of paper, I realized that all I was doing was listing what I wish I were accomplishing, and just rolling it over from year to year whenever it didn't happen the previous year.  I didn't actually have any specific plan in place to bring my "resolutions" to fruitition.  So I stopped making resolutions.

Recently I read about an alternative that piqued my interest.  In lieu of specific things to check off a list, some people think of a term or phrase to help them guide their overall approach to the year.  A theme, so to speak.  Almost immediatly I knew 1) that I wanted to try this, and 2) that my theme for 2017 would be "self-improvement".  This idea probably appeals to me in large part because of its minimalistic approach.  The goal is not what follows; the goal is "self-improvement".  It's a very subjective goal, but then, I'm only accountable to myself, so why not?

I have several areas of my life where I have specific action plans in mind to reach the overall goal of self-improvement.

In February, I hope to start meeting with a spiritual director.  I'm waiting for February because a couple of women from my church are being certified in January, and I hope to start meeting with one of them.

Since August, I've been going to monthly Confession.  Similar to broken resolutions, I've noticed that I tend to confess the same sins over and over again, which has helped me isolate some underlying problems that need to be addressed.

Daily prayer and Scripture reading. I was doing pretty well until my son was born.  As could be expected, having a newborn and a preschooler has thrown me off my game.  First thing in the morning was working well for me, but I'm squeezing in as much sleep as I can right now to help ward off postpartum depression and anxiety, which debilitated me for months after my daughter's birth.  And when I get some alone time in the evenings, I'll be honest, I feel like I should use at least some of that time to pray, but I don't.  So this is definitely an area in need of improvement for 2017.

We do pray together every bedtime as a family, and I've tried to pray the Guardian Angel prayer in the mornings with my daughter, and the Angelus at noon.  So we'll want to solidify these practices.

On a positive note, though, when the PTSD-style thoughts creep into my mind, I immediately call on the name of Jesus to push the enemy away.  And you know what?  It works!  So I suppose these count as spontaneous prayers, scattered throughout the day.

Retreat.  I'm not sure I'll be able to swing an overnight weekend retreat this year, as Fernando will only be 9 months old for the women's retreat through my church, and a year old for the silent retreat through my alma mater, and I'm not sure what our nursing status will be by then.  Though I am certainly hoping to not be nursing at night by then, but we'll see.

I've been slowly revamping my wardrobe.  With minimalism as my guiding light, and keeping femininity and modesty at the forefront. The idea is to have only items that I love, that fit me, and that go with more than one other thing.  My color scheme is neutral, so black, white, gray, brown, beige.  I am on a mission to find some solid colored tunics, or mini-dresses that I'd wear as tops, as well as a couple more maxi skirts.

My skin routine seems to have to change as I no longer have oily skin but rather combination.  So I'm in need of a new cleanser.  I think for moisturizer I will stick with the shea butter I got for my daughter last year.

I do want to have a bit of makeup on hand for going out, as eye liner in particular makes me feel more confident and, well, pretty :)  So I'll need to find something with natural ingredients.

I'm due for a new pair of glasses, and I think I'm done trying to get frames that are as inconspicuous as possible.  I think I want to go bold for a change! All around red frames, maybe?  This may end up less expensive as well, since I've been paying for the glass to be treated so as not to be as visible on the bottom, where I don't have a frame.

Exercise.  I suppose this should be in a category of health, but I'm being real here.  I want to lose the rest of my pregnancy weight and get my pre-pregnancy abs back, not because it'll mean I'm healthy, but because it'll make me feel confident and, well, pretty again ;)

Emotional Health.
Basically, I want to deal with my mommy issues with the help of a therapist so I can be a better mom to my kids.

But also, as mentioned above, I'm actively warding off postpartum depression and anxiety.  I refuse to succumb to it again.

I think that covers what I think of when I'm thinking of self-improvement.  So there it is, out there in the virtual world, hopefully to keep me accountable, so that this time next year, I can post about my successes :)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Holiness, Not Perfection

I have been spending my time on my parenting blog lately because I felt I had said all there was to say for now about my spiritual journey, because I was much more vested in my parenting, and because I had considered merging the two blogs together.  This last point remains unresolved.

As for the other two points, I have come to realize that my spiritual drama, as recorded in the posts on this blog, was in no small way affected by my serious postpartum anxiety and depression.  As it turns out, I had several risk factors for PPD, but due to the early breastfeeding... challenges, shall we say, it went undiagnosed during my postpartum midwife visits.

For starters, I had an awful time getting breastfeeding started with my daughter.  Painful latch due to her being small (5#10oz) and having a low palate (read: I'd have to get the nipple down her throat to avoid it being munched on), resulting nipple damage (as in, piece of skin hanging off and blood trickling down), resulting in mastisis and yeast and breast abscesses needing drainage (twice), leading to the need to supplement with formula, which my idealistic personality did not take lightly ("I'm such a failure for not being able to fully nourish my child!")

Once breastfeeding finally started to get better, we sold our house and moved out of state.  Not only was the move itself stressful (just because that comes with the territory, not because of anything in particular), but also because it meant a new place and environment (I hate change and am very slow to adapt and adjust), and social isolation (because I didn't know anyone, but also because I was exhausted from pouring myself into my new role as mother, unable to tolerate my daughter's cries.)

As I look back, this went on for months - six or seven, to be exact - before life started to gain a new normal and I finally began to have tiny pockets of time for myself that allowed me to think.  And when this happened, I realized that I hadn't been nourshing my relationship with God, and I just lost any sort of connection to the strong faith I thought I had when my daughter was born.

I have met a friend who has experienced something similar.  She used to be religious, or at least spiritual, but after the birth of her son, she has been completely blase about the whole thing.  There's so much talk about people turning TO God after having a child, but to this day I can't find much information about the opposite phenomenon.

Long story short, I now see that my loss of faith was one of the casualties of my postpartum depression and anxiety.  My daughter is now 3 years old, and it's only been about 4 months that I've felt at home again calling myself a practicing Catholic.  The final push in the right direction happened at a spiritual retreat.  I have received the Sacrament of Reconciliation every month since the retreat.  I prayed daily until about 6 weeks ago, when my son was born, at which time prayer became much more sporadic, but is slowly finding its way back into my routine.  I started enjoying the emailed readings of the day associated with daily mass (I had been signed up for years, but had been ignoring them).  Mass stopped being a routine and became a joy again.

The thing I feared most during my "spiritually independent/Deist/Quaker-Reform Jew-wannabe" time is challenging my faith in a good way, it seems.  I'm having to start explaining the basics of our Catholic faith to my daughter, and it's forcing me to truly consider what I believe - as a Catholic - and why, and how to best articulate it to her.

Am I back to where I was three years ago, spiritually?  No.  But interestingly, we went to our old Franciscan parish for Christmas Eve Mass last night, and both Alex and I agreed that we missed our current church!  I was adamant when we moved that we'd never find another church community like Saint Francis, where our daughter was baptized.  I have very fond memories of our time there.  But now I see we have both grown in interesting ways and no longer thrive in a church that focuses on community fellowship.  Instead, at our current church (OLPH), there's the community, but there's something much more meaningful at the center of it - a holy priest who sets the stage for a reverent Mass.  It's a New Order Mass, and yet Fr. Erik manages to keep the occasion solemn yet joyful.  His entire demeanor  points to Our Lord in the Eucharist.  He comments on the Mass, going off script.  He pauses  and kneels in front of the Tabernacle after Communion as the choir sings a "Communion Medidation".  He speaks directly to us, the people, about what the Lord is revealing to him in his private prayer time.  You can tell that this man spends time with the Lord, that he takes his calling seriously, and that he has a genuine love for the people God has entrusted him with.  I love Fr. Erik, and I credit "his Masses" to keeping my interest piqued while I attended merely out of obligation or tradition.

At any rate, I am Catholic, but it doesn't mean I necessarily agree with everything that is taught "top-down".  Nonetheless, I respect the reasons behind all the church teachings, and I certainly take them into consideration.  What's more, I wrestle with things I disagree with and try to challenge myself as to why I disagree.  Why do I give more credit to societal views over church teaching?  Am I that much of the world that I value what's "PC" over what's being faithful to the church of God?  Perhaps there are things I don't need to agree with, or undersand.  I try to focus on those areas of Catholicism that bring me joy, that help me grow into a better person, and figure the rest may be there for others.  Because there's something for everyone in the Catholic church.

Turns out that the Catholic church - like me - may be striving for holiness, not perfection.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

How Parenting Has Affected My Faith

I am happy to be returning to this blog with the annoncement that I am, once again, "fully Catholic". That's not to say that there's really such a thing as a "partial Catholic", just that I FEEL Catholic, and that I am actively living a Catholic life, however imperfect, striving for virtue and faith.

It has been a long journey, over two years.  Being given several months of clarity to reflect on what went wrong before being launched into the postpartum period again next month, I've been able to determine what went wrong.  Why did I lose my faith?  What can I do differently this time around?

You see, I pretty much blame postpartum depression/anxiety on my loss of faith.  So as I prepare to give birth to baby #2 next month, I worried that any progress I may have made in the interim may be compromised yet again in the postpartum period.

Prior to the birth of Maya, Alex and I were very involved in our church community, had an active prayer life at home, and had overcome several trials of faith.  Our prayers had been answered with the blessing of our daughter, and it killed me to be feeling anything but eternal gratitude to God.

Here's what I believe contributed to my postpartum depression/anxiety and the resulting loss of faith.

1. Breastfeeding challenges. Within a week of birth, I suffered nipple damage that resulted in a breast infection (mastisis), breast absceses that needed to be drained twice, and a yeast infection, all of which contributed to my limited milk supply and the heart-wrenching decision to supplement with formula.  It took a full two months to resolve our breastfeeding challenges, thanks in huge part to a godsend of a lactation consultant, Angela, and the fact that Maya had a chance to grow a bit, thus resolving the low palate issue that caused the initial nipple damage.

2. Loss of familiar surroundings. Almost as soon as the breastfeeding issues were resolved, we sold our house and moved to be closer to Alex's work.  While this was the best decision for our family without any doubt, it did bring about severe stress.  For one, the house we spent a decade together, the house where I had just given birth to our daughter, was gone.

3. Loss of a support network. We moved out of state, away from what limited support network I would've otherwise had.  I didn't know anyone, friend or relative, and was very isolated home alone with a newborn.  As much as I've wanted and enjoyed being home with our daughter, in retrospect I see that I really needed some sort of social outlet to help normalize the situation.

4.  Neglect of healthy lifestyle.  We resorted to convenience foods, low on the nutritional scale, and certainly didn't think beyond getting sleep whenever possible.  There was no thought of exercise, or hydration, or a social life outside the home, or personal development, or couple-time.  There was only being "on" with full-on care of our baby, or desperately catching some sleep whenever possible.  In my case in particular, sleep is a big necessity.  My body requires 8-10 hours of uninterrupted sleep to feel fully refreshed.  Needless to say I was not getting any meaningful stretch of uninterrupted sleep, much less the amount my body needs.

The above put me into survival mode.  I was just going from day to day, trying to make sure our daughter was safe, fed, clean, repeat.  I had completely ignored all other aspects of myself, my identity, my life. I avoided leaving the house, including to church, for the first month or so, finally venturing out for Christmas Vigil mass, because I didn't want germs around my precious baby.  So even before we moved, I had distanced myself from the church community that meant so much to me.  Somehow, prayer also got lost in the shuffle.  There's no other way to describe it: I was in survival mode.

I had ridiculously high expectations of myself and what it meant to me to finally be given the opportunity to parent, to be a mother.  That's why our breastfeeding challenges were such a deep blow to me.  I couldn't even articulate the disapointment I felt over having to introduce a bottle on day 6 of Mayas life, of having to feed her factory-produced formula that I couldn't vouch for myself.

This muggy mental state that resulted, primarily from sleep deprivation but also from unrecognized stress factors (the move, social isolation, and already feeling like a failure in motherhood) contributed to the onset of my postpartum depression and anxiety.  It either didn't kick in until after 6 weeks post-partum, or I didn't realize it was already underway until then.  Afterall, I did go to my 2 week and 6 week postpartum visits with my midwife, and they do screen for depression, yet it wasn't flagged at those times.  By the time my 6 month postpartum visit came around, I had been to hell and back mentally.

For four months straight, isolated and sleep deprived, I suffered from horrible visual images of worst-case scenarios popping into my mind throughout the day.  There didn't seem to be any discernible trigger.  If one of our dogs caught my attention, my mind went straight to my baby being attacked by the dog.  If I wanted to go sit out on our balcony with baby on my lap, my mind went straight to accidentally tripping and dropping baby over the banister.  I know parents worry, but this wasn't worry, this was as if I was having flash-backs of horrible things that actually happened.  I imagine post-traumatic stress disorder works in a similar way.  There's no reason for the thoughts, they just creep in and take over any sense of logic.  I stopped watching crime shows with Alex at this time, and the news, thinking that perhaps the violence there is what subconsciously triggers violent thoughts for me.  It's now been over two and a half years since I've been censoring what I view.  (And if you knew me, you'd know how much I enjoyed watching shows like Elementary or NCIS with Alex.)

Presumably because my mind was constantly occupied with violent visuals or subconscious fears of another vision episode catching me off guard, I just went about my daily life on auto-pilot.  Around four months post-partum, I started being able to incorporate housework into my daily life.  I took tons of photos and videos of my precious daugher.  I was very keenly aware of the miracle she was in multiple ways.  My entire life revolved around doing everything I possibly could to give her the best start in life.  I jumped into attachment parenting with both feet first, and only in retrospect have I realized that I completely ignored one of the principles of AP: balance.  I did not seek to balance my daughter's needs with mine at all.

Most of our parenting decisions I continue to stand by, even though outsiders may think they contributed to my sense of overwhelm.  However, I definitely went overboard with a few, and this is where hope enters in.  Having recognized that I did not do Maya any favors by neglecting my own mental health, I intend to be vigilent and proactive about my own mental state with her baby brother.

First of all, I do not have to worry about moving or social isolation this time around, which already gives me a sense of ease.  We are settled into our new house and I've made friends locally.  As for breastfeeding, I cannot predict if we'll also struggle or not, but I know now to immediately seek out a lactation consultant if need be, and we know of one through our church.  We have develped a bit of a sense of community at our new church, and my faith has returned to a good working place. I know that there are a few things I have to keep at the forefront of my mind in order to avoid slipping back into mental chaos.

Daily prayer.
Weekly Mass attendance.
Monthly Confession.
Regular visits with friends (most likely playdates)
Regular alone time while kids enjoy daddy-and-me time (we started this with Maya)
Daily exercise: family walk or yoga while the kids play or dancing with the kids
Weekly one-on-one connection with each child (while Maya is having daddy-and-me time, baby brother is having mommy-and-me time, and vice versa)
Every few months, Alex and I need to find a way to connect just the two of us.  (We don't require frequent date nights, as the past three years have proven.  We are happy to take Maya with us when we go out to eat, and that is always a nice treat with no need to worry about childcare.  Also, car trips usually allow for adult conversations, though lately our little jibber-jabber has been struggling with giving us our own conversation time.)
Annual spiritual retreat.  I don't know if we'll be ready when baby brother is only 8 or 9 months old, as the annual women's retreat through our church is in August.  It will all depend on his sleep and nursing.

Which actually brings me to the Balance aspect of attachment parenting, and how I hope it will contribute to a saner post-partum period and baby/toddler years.  I did not hold anything back when it came to breastfeeding and cosleeping. What's more, I took it upon myself to practice elimination communication, which was great during the daytime, and Alex and I both agree that it was worth the effort (Maya has been diaper-free since 18 months, completely out of pull ups for backup on outings since 2.5, mostly bc we finally got up the courage to trust her.)

I was able to reestablish exclusive breastfeeding for three months before solids entered the picture with Maya, and I wanted to make up for the formula I had to feed her in the first three months of her life.  I still intend to breastfeed on cue, however - especially if we are spared the trauma we went through with Maya - I now know that you can, indeed mix breast with bottle without any dire consequences (something I feared the first time around but was forced to find out was unwarranted), and so perhaps we can have some night feedings done by daddy with pumped milk, and if so, I may very well be able to attend next year's spiritual retreat.

Sleep.  Sweet sleep. I simply cannot provide the same environment to my second baby as I did to my first, as that would involve neglecting my older child.  I cannot be of any use to either of them sleep-deprived, and so I will be more strict in this sense.  I do not adhere to crying it out.  I do not believe in "sleep training" per se.  However, I do now recognize that just because a baby cries doesn't mean I'm doing something wrong.  I simply did not want to hear my daughter cry, and that was a mistake. With my son, I will take a different approach.

For starters, since we saw how successful it was for us to watch our daughter for signs of needing to use the potty, and how that enabled us to keep from teaching her to go in the diaper, then why can't we apply the same approach to sleep?  Basically, we will watch him for signs of sleepiness, and place him in his bassinet to fall asleep there.  I won't make it a habit of letting him fall asleep at the breast every time, even though I know it's only natural that he'll get drowsy nursing.  I won't just drop him off and leave the room, either.  But I want him to learn that sleep is something that he can do on his own, if still in the viscinity of loved ones.  I don't see why I didn't do this with Maya.  I kept a meticulous log of the times she ate, slept, eliminated!  I could've easily looked back to see when I should be encouraging sleep by placing her down instead of letting her get used to falling asleep in our arms, especially at my breast.  I will be keeping a log with baby brother too, so after the first week or two, I will look back to see if a rough "schedule" could be drafted for his sleep times.  (I do shutter at the word "schedule" on one hand, but on the other hand, I know that limits allow freedom, both for me and the kids, so I just need to view it as something we do in moderation, but that we do do.)

And as for elimination communication, we will definitely do it again, but I will definitely not deprive myself of further sleep in order to be putting him on the potty in the middle of the night when he's still peeing multiple times at night!  (I did this with Maya, and had to take a break at 10 months to save my sanity.  Lo and behold, when I returned to it a few months later, I noticed she was able to hold her urine all night, and she actually started staying dry at night before daytime dryness.)  So we will defintiely take him to the potty during the day when at home, but we will definitely not stress about him wearing diapers on outings, and I won't be getting up at night to put him on the potty for the first year. If I'm up anyway, to nurse him or change a diaper, then of course might as well sit him on the potty.  But I need to stop waking up at every little sound and movement my cosleeping baby makes!  If he pees in his diaper at night, so be it.  The trade off is a happier, better rested mama.  I'm sorry, but my Eco-Idol needs to go.  I do now think that sanity is worth a diaper in the landfill (since I'd want disposables at night to minimize discomfort and thus wake-ups; cloth during the day for sure!  I'm not planning on worrying about accidents left and right either by letting him go diaper-free before his skills have been tested.)

So with those three parenting adjustments, the different set of circumstances in our living situation, and my conscious decision to maintain a balance in my own well-being, I hope to keep post-partum depression/anxiety at bay, and by extension, keep my faith growing and going in the right direction.

This post started out being about the state of my faith, but I think the practical analysis will prove to be more helpful in its application.  Bottom line, I do not want to lose my faith again.  I am choosing to remain Catholic.  I am choosing to believe in the fundementals of Catholicism.  I am choosing to focus on those areas of Catholic faith and spirituality that nurture my desire for holiness and virtue.  I am choosing to ignore those areas of faith that create in me any sense of doubt, skepticism, or temptation to "use my intellect or reason".

God exists.  God created me.  God loves me.  Death is a mere transition to a more complete state of being with God.  These things I know and believe with every fiber of my being, and these are the things I want to nurture from a uniquely Catholic perspective, because why not?  Catholicism is my heritage, it's a beautiful religion, and it makes no difference that others may find exactly the same thing in another tradition.  To each their own.  Catholicism is for me.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Are We Related?

I have been doing a little geneology with the help of DNA tests with the ultimate goal of finding Maya's genetic siblings and donors.  In the process, I tested myself, my dad, and Alex, just to get my feet wet before we figured out how to collect Maya's saliva, and to get a little used to all the jargon and navigation of the various websites.

Two things I've learned that have sort of put on its head everything we think we know about family relations.  I've long held to the belief that blood is NOT thicker than water.  That circumstantial relationships are in now way inherently more valuable than those we forge out of our own free will (ie. family vs friends).

Likewise, I've never doubted that if we adopted a child, it would be our child through and through, no questions asked.  Adoption was actually our plan A. When we were pursuing open adoption, I likened incorporating the birth family the same way one incorporates one's in-laws - you inherit them with the spouse or child that you gain.  You may not like them or get along, but they are important to your spouse (or child), so they're important to you.  End of discussion.

But nonetheless, I still believed that these were philosophical interpretations of family relations, and that in the end, if push came to shove, genetics were still important and still defined the basic, natural (as in based in nature, not to be confused with "normal"), idealized definition of what it means to be a family, to be related to someone, to know one's roots.

Ah, one's roots.  And this is where things start to get interesting.  As it turns out, our DNA, our genetics, is not the be-all-end-all of our heritage the way we might think.  For instance, one might accept that if someone is related to one of my parents, then automatically, that person is related to me.  Right?  Not necessarily, if your definition is based on pure genetics.  You see, we don't inherit all of the genes of both of our parents, as this would mean a doubling of genes with every generation since the dawn of time.  So we lose many of those genetic markers that would tell us that we are related to someone because we share the same genes.

One can have two siblings with the same two parents come up related to different people based on DNA test results.  There's not even a generational gap to blame here!  It's just that which genes we inherit are completely random.  Granted, this generally happens as you start to move a bit away from the nuclear family and get into cousin territory, but the point is that when looking at a physical drawing of a family tree, there likely wouldn't be hard core genetic evidence to prove each person on that tree is related to each other person in that same line!

So what makes us related to the relatives we don't share genes with?  Social convention!  Not even the fact of growing up together, as would be the case with an adoptive family.  Not even knowing each other intimately, as in the case of spouses.  There are people in your family tree whom you've never met, never even heard of, with whom you may or may not share a single gene, and yet they're "family".

Or are they?

And this is where I think defining family becomes of utmost importance.  I grew up in my own biological family.  My immediate family is small by most standards.  I know my grandparents (4), aunts (3), and first cousins (5), which add up to 13 people (I also knew my maternal great-grandmother).  I have never seen all of them together in one spot.  We were never very close.  So to have a DNA test suggest that people with last names I've never heard of, from areas of the world I've never been to, are my "family" is completely ludicrous.  I don't know anything about my parent's cousins, much less their kids, or the siblings of my grandparents (with the exception of my maternal grandmother, who was an only child).  We share relatively close family members, and yet if you put us in a room together, we would be complete strangers to each other.

Another interesting layer is the fact that gene loss over generations in families that have mixed between ethnicities (I'd venture to say this means all of our families if you look back far enough), this means that not only that we have relatives of ethnicites different from our own (which in modern times is a very common occurrence), but more surprisingly, that depending on who procreated with whom, our own ethnicity could have been totally different from what we accept it to be.

With mixed race individuals, whose relatives intermingled recently enough to be aware of it, some people claim one race over the other (often the one that they most stereotypically resemble as far as their phenotype goes, but other times the one of the parent who had the biggest influence on their upbringing, regardless of shared phenotype), while others insist on membership in both.  (I say "both" rather than "all" because it is most common to have each parent strongly identify with one race or ethnicity, even if they themselves are mixed, resulting in two main competing racial identities for the offspring.)

But what about several generations into the future to our modern day mixed race individuals?  They are not a new phenomenon.  So what about that mixed race individual in our own family tree, say a hundred years ago?  For instance, I am Polish, of two Polish parents, born in Poland.  Until I took my DNA test, I thought of myself as "100% Polish", at least genetically speaking.  (Socially, I went back and forth between Polish, American, and Polish-American.)  My DNA test revealed mixing among most of the European peoples over the years, with only 75% "Eastern European" (so not even 75% Polish - this could include modern day Ukraine, Lithuania, Slovakia, Belarus, the Czech Republic, and Russia (countries that currently border Poland), as well as more than a dozen other countries considered part of the eastern bloc.  Believe me, we differentiate between each other!  So who knows how much of that 75% is "truly" Polish.

But these are still all white nationalities, albeit with some phenotypical variation among the northern versus southern countries.  What about that interesting 0.2% West African and 0.1% North African ancestry that may be small percentage-wise but nonetheless was enough to come up on my chromosomes.  I also tested my father, and I got these genes from my dad - his mom, to be exact, as they're only on my X chromosome that corresponds to my dad, and only on his X chromosome.  But he also has 0.4% South Asian and 0.2% East Asian that was not passed on to me.  At what point did his ancestors stop being African and Asian?  Had they procreated with other Africans and Asians instead of Europeans, we'd be seeing very different results.

Am I supposed to identify only with my most recent ancestors' race/ethnicity?  What if the percentages had been much higher, and I'd be much closer to my African and Asian ancestors? (Are my dad's Asian ancestors my ancestors too?  Because I didn't inherit any of those traits.)  This is what mixed race individuals with recently mixed relatives (parents, grandparents) are forced to decide, because society sees us as belonging to whatever race or ethnicity we happen to resemble, completely regardless of what our genetics say, or in what culture we were raised.

Perhaps that is the problem - that we allow others to label our racial and ethnic identities, and that we think we can do likewise for others.  This is what is wrong with our modern American racial categorization system.  It's not based on science.  It's not based on people's lived experiences.  It's based on looks.

And yet.... what about the now infamous Rachel Dolezal? That controversy proved that while we may like to label people based on what they look like, we don't like it when people once labeled a certain way take it upon themselves to try to change that.  It's not enough to be labeled by others based on one's looks.  Those looks have to also conform to our preconceived notions of what people with certain recent ancestors are supposed to look like.  Confused?

I'm not saying Rachel Dolezal had a right to claim membership in the Black community.  But let's be honest, if her DNA test happened to reveal a previously unknown 6% African ancestry, even though she had two "white" parents and "looked white" herself, would she then have a right to that part of her ancestry?  Or would it have to be more recent?  25% (one grandparent)?  Where would the acceptable claim to African heritage change over for her?  At 12%? And why that number and not 50%?  So really, the idea that someone can label someone else based on something as fickle as DNA or - even worse - as unreliable as phenotype is highly unscientific and subjective, not to mention seemingly a waste of time.

In summary, we may claim membership in an ethnicity of a more recent ancestor even if we didn't actually inherit any of their genes.  But someone else with a more distant ancestor of a different ethnicity who passed on mere trace amounts of that ethnicity may not have a right to claim membership in that ethnicity.  Kind of blows your mind, doesn't it?  I know for me, it makes me question everything we think we know about what makes a family and what constitutes one's ethnic or racial identity.

When I first shared my DNA results with some friends, mentioning my 0.3% African heritage, the immediate question-in-jest was, "So now you're Black?"  But it's a valid question.  Remember the "one drop rule"?  A person with 50% Black parentage was marked as Black on their birth certificate, and if they went on to procreate with a white person, even though their child would technically be 25% Black, their birth certificate would state Black.  And then that child could grow up to procreate with another white person, but still their technically 12% Black/88% white child would be marked as Black on their birth certificate.  All because of a social convention that allowed outsiders to label people according to the mere presence - however small - of Black ancestry.  According to this reasoning, yes, I would be Black!

But does that actually make sense? No, you say?  How is this any different from any of the racial labeling that we do? There's not really a good solution, is there?  We can't exactly say that people can label themselves whatever race they feel like it, because racial labels would lose all meaning that way.... Or, wait, maybe that's exactly what we need to do to forge into a post-racial society?  Then again, that sounds too much like a color-blind society, which would be pretty dull and also divorced from reality.  We do have differences based on cultural upbringing and physical features, and these should be celebrated.  We shouldn't fight over who is the biggest victim or whose culture or features should determine the standard.  I don't have the answers, just more questions.  But I've definitely become a stronger racial skeptic through considering these questions.