Thursday, July 30, 2009


I can't leave them alone for a minute. This includes the supposed adult.

SO, Saturday before last Gary took the boys backpacking. I might have gone on that trip, but I'd agreed to close the dojo at nights while the owners were away. I welcomedmade the best of the alone time.

It came at a price.

Connor burst in early Sunday afternoon. The (damn) dog got the first (effusive) greeting, and he'd barely said hello to chopped-liver me before he's asking if he can have "a thingy". "What's a 'thingy?'" "Dad?" Silence and sheepish grins. "Well?"

He wants a Pl.ayboy magazine.

He wants us to buy it for him. "Dad said to ask you."

I glare at Gary. "You let it go this far? You didn't just say no and stop this thing from the outset?"

In reply, Gary goes into the office and digs out the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. When it came in the spring I'd looked through it and decided it wasn't appropriate for a (then) 11 year old. It's not the coy nudity (in this issue some of the swimsuits are painted on), it's the blatant intent to be provocative. I'd bypassed Connor and gave it to Gary asking him what he thought of it. It languished in his office until last Sunday. Various pictures are now torn out and taped to Connor's bedroom walls.

The question isn't whether or not he can have Playb.oy magazine. It's the discussion of why not. He's already anticipating my saying no. And he already has his own idea of the nature of my objection. I want him to really hear me, rather than have my thoughts pressed into the mold of some stereotype and dismissed. Of course I have no control over what he does with my words. But it's a good exercise in coming to my own sense of internal clarity about it.

Part of that is to have a better sense of what this means to him. Although he's 12 and I suppose it should be obvious that it's about seeking the visual sexual experience I still wonder if that's too simple. When I question I get the 'well, duh' look from him. I'm trying to probe the origins of this conversation between him and Gary for clues. (And where was Scott while this talk was taking place?)

Connor is awaiting my "answer".

One thing I'm considering is substituting some sort of book of photographic art; something with less focus on self-gratification. My friend Doug is an artist with a reverential approach to the human body. His portfolio of figure studies is very beautiful. That could be a good place to start.

My cousin guest-blogged on my other cousin (her big sister)'s site a week or so ago about boys this age and their rising hormones. It was a very funny post and involved "sticky socks". I worry wonder if I might have some in my near future.

And in the meantime a curveball has been thrown from the Scott end of things:

For reasons that will become obvious I'm only going to address the kids involved by letters.

Today after swim class I was going to take Scott to pick up a friend. The boy's dad and I had prearranged a hand-off so J could come home with us to spend the night. Scott was thrilled. As we climbed in the car to head to the rendezvous he asked a question I was only half-listening to (I have got to quit doing that). Something about putting 'junk' in a mailbox being against the law. I assured him that it was indeed against the law and he kept talking as I zoned out until my attention was arrested by him saying something about 'kicking me out'. I wondered if he'd done something to get in trouble and it was only now surfacing, so I said, "You got kicked out of what?" "The Teenaged Bad-Boy's Club! Because Z said I had to put junk in a mailbox to be in the club and I said, 'NO!'--and you know what? I'm GLAD they kicked me out of their club! I don't want to be in that club! I don't want to put junk in a mailbox! It's not right to put trash in a mailbox!"

Well. Here was another reminder of how Scott processes events and information. While I am clueless, things slip in to his consciousness where he works and works them. I have no idea until something like this emerges, fully assembled. This had to have happened some time ago, and only now it's revealed. And I was so pleased. This seemed like such a leap in Self formation. I told him very strong people know what they want to do and can stay true to it under threat. I remarked that this would serve him well, the ability to withstand being bullied into something he doesn't want to do. I told him I couldn't wait to tell his father, and Scott said, "and I can't wait to tell J." Z is a mutual friend of Scott and J's, and like many threesomes, the alliances shift.

It seemed like a normal commute with 2 boys in the car. Excited to see each other for the first time in weeks they spoke loudly, getting louder as sometimes their words would collide and they'd vie to be heard. When they got deafening I tuned in for a moment and realized Scott was telling J about Z. "I was so mad at him I wanted to kill him." J: "But then you would go to jail. Z would go to jail too." (I wonder if they were discussing the trash-in-mailbox story.) Scott: "Z says there's no such thing as jail for children, but there is. It's called, "Juvenile". He says there's no such thing as "Juvenile" but he's wrong." J: "One of my favorite books is called {excavator can't remember } . And there's a children's prison in there and it's really bad." Scott jumped on top of those words to say Z had threatened to kick him out of the Teenage Badboys Club.

Then J said, "Z told me that if I sucked his penis he'd let me be the leader of the Badboy's club. And so I did, then he didn't let me."



Did I just hear that? Or did I just think I heard it?

But then J again said, "He lied to me. I sucked his penis and then he didn't let me be the leader."

Spoken very matter-of-factly. His main concern was that Z had broken the agreement. He could just as well have said, "Z promised me I'd be the leader of the club if I did 10 push-ups and then he broke his promise."

Scott said, "That's really gay."

J: "What's gay?"

S: "When one guy sucks another' know; or sucks his balls."

J: "Welllll, uh"

Clearly he'd had no sense of stigma about his broken transaction with Z, and now I worried that Scott might unwittingly be planting the seed for that: the tree of knowledge, the conclusion of being naked and ashamed. (Believe me, it was bad enough hearing those words come out of Scott's mouth, which I attribute to him having an older brother. It's a three-fold-bad: (1) planting a seed of shame for J, (2) defining 'gay' in such knowing terms, (3) using 'gay' as a pejorative. Oh man, we've got a lot to talk about...). I decided to involve myself in the conversation to point out that children often experiment and it doesn't mean they are 'gay' (then as I said that I realized I was stumbling into the sticky area of seeming to imply something wrong with being gay). The boys didn't notice my attempt; they kept on talking, and so I asked casually, "Hey, J, did you ever tell your mom and dad about that?" "No" he said. That "no" told me he had a sense that this would be different from telling mom and dad that Z had made him do 10 push-ups.

I'm just driving home from a park and a bomb lands in my lap. I have to decide what to do about this, and it's a whole can of worms.

The first worm is the topic of childhood sexuality. Even among 'enlightened' parents it's not a neutral subject. Z, by the way, is a younger child than either Scott or J, but he is definitely an alpha kid. He's extremely competitive and he plays to win. So it doesn't surprise me that he would use dominating tactics, but the possibility that this has bled into the sexual realm is worrisome.

Still, should childhood sexuality be so loaded? It's treated very differently from other realms of child relating. Generally adults give kids freedom to work through other issues on their own, but sexuality seems to be in a category by itself. If J had said that Z had told him he had to do the pushups in order to be the leader of the club, I wouldn't feel any responsibility to say something to the parents. What, really, is different about sexuality?

Those sort of abstract questions I can ponder on my own. I don't think they make a difference in the course of action I see before me:

First, I don't have any sense that J was saying other than the truth. It just came out so innocently, so devoid of overlay that it rings true. And this is why I feel protective of him; if handled poorly it could cause some confusion that could be very difficult to undo--given the fraught relationship our culture has with sex.

Second, a 7 year old boy allegedly used a sexual act as a condition of giving another boy privilege of membership. Maybe Z didn't understand this as a sexual act the way adults do. It's easy to read exploitative intent into it. Still, he had to have gotten the idea from somewhere. I don't know that young children independently come up with an idea of having someone suck their penis, let alone make it a condition for something. It seems more likely he got this from an outside source. His parents need to be aware of this in case the source was exploitive. Another child? An adult, teenager?

J's parents need to know, so they can guide the way he may come to regard this. Though the incident seems devoid of any connotations for him now, a seed has been planted and when our culture teaches him more, he will need a way to help him process it. Scott's response is a case in point. I certainly need to find a way to learn more about the lens through which Scott is looking at the world.

Trying to maintain clarity of intent in discussing this with the boys' parents, now that is going to be a challenge.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Summer so far...

This summer two friends have gifted me private writing space: my dear friend K gave me the gift of membership to the Writer's Dojo, and my dear friend Joyce has allowed me to use her home in Central Oregon. I'm in beautiful Bend, having arrived last night, and I'll be here til Sunday evening. This is the longest stretch of time I've had alone since the birth of my kids--4 nights. Gary's not-working made it possible to leave them. So, thank you, K, Joyce, and Gary.

I also can look forward to another month of full membership at the Dojo. The owner is going to be away for about 10 days later this month. I've agreed to close it up at night, and for that he's converted my reduced membership to full.

The windows and siding were torn off the west side of our house at the end of May. A big hole was dug in early June. The foundation pour was mid-month, and now they're backfilling with gravel, and I suppose the mountains of dirt we've had since the hole was dug.

This has been a hugely attractive nuisance to boys. Once the dirt piles compacted I breathed a little easier, but for a while I had visions of kids buried in their own graves by slides they set off.

Boys finished school in mid-June with Connor tasting the adulation of a rock star. For their school talent show his band played an instrumental version of "An AC-DC song" (they couldn't announce the title: "Highway to Hell"). Connor was the drummer. Perhaps it was because they were nearly last after an interminable 2 hours (the goofy skits and inaudible knock-knock jokes become tedious after a while--thank God I'd had the sense to buy Scott a challenging Transformer toy to occupy himself), but they were rewarded with a great show of enthusiasm. As Connor, flushed with joy, said later, "Before we went on I was going, 'why are we doing this?' but now I know!"

The sound is poor on this video. If you want you can skip to the end where Connor pounds out an ending flourish and raises his sticks in triumph.

Brief aside about Scott here. Rewinding a few days before the talent show, he said something about having new friends. We were walking out to the car after I'd picked him up from school and I was half-listening. I said, "You have new friends? Who are they?" He said, irritably, "Felix, Levi, Ivon!" I said, "But Scott, they're not NEW friends; you've known them for over a year, and Felix longer." I then realized (strike forehead with hand) that he was talking about new in contrast with old--the Skyline friends he realized he was going to see when he went to Connor's talent show. He said, "My old friends might be mad when I tell them I have new friends. But I'm not going to lie to them." He astounds me. He'd been working this issue for some time by himself, before revealing just the tip of the iceberg. I'd had no idea.

School was out a week and then it was time for the Birthday Party Cycle. The boys' birthdays are exactly 3 weeks apart. Connor's came first and he had a slumber party attended by 6 kids. I'd been delusional when I thought at 12 they may have settled some and this would be a quieter party. Instead, they were as active as 5 year olds, only in bigger bodies; jet propelled by the hysteria of pre-puberty.

Didn't I say the construction site was an attractive nuisance? Note the mud on the feet, most of which found its way into the house. No matter how many times they were admonished to "take off your shoes" there was always someone who forgot.

I got to miss some of it though. I'd signed up for a course in bodywork.
An old friend of mine told me about this work, known as Biovalent Systems. She does it exclusively now, and is quietly passionate about it. Talking with her had awakened an interest in things physical therapy that I'd thought was dead. For the longest time the prospect of returning to my profession filled me with vague dread and carried a whiff of soul death. This had complicated any contemplation of leaving this marriage.

I'd expressed an interest in the course to its teacher, then when Gary lost his job wondered if I should reconsider. After some uncomfortable last-minute vacillation I decided to go ahead with it.

In this case, there was definitely a sensation of approaching a door, and having it open further. What was exciting was the sense that what she was saying about the workings of the body in a physical realm seemed metaphoric to the psychological process I've been chronicling here. It's very cool when concepts seem to apply across systems. Maybe there really is some kind of universal organizing principle. I've been inspired to open some of my old anatomy and physiology texts and brush up on my fundamental understandings. The trouble is that everything I relearn seems attached to another thread that when tugged pulls up way more than I can digest. Asking a question about some basic cellular structure or function only yields information that I need a whole other level of expertise to understand the answer.

The biggest mystery though is figuring out how to reconcile my nature, which is private and introverted, with the natures of my sons who are already chafing under the weight of lots of unstructured time. I'm embarrassed that this is such a conundrum for me--balancing their need to find a way to fill their own time with my responsibility to help them do it. Especially when my natural inclination is to wish they had 'off' switches so I could hang them up in the closet for the summer. I'm not proud of that. This shouldn't be so hard, trying to figure out how to be with them in a satisfying way--satisfactory to them, and to me. And having an audience in Gary merely increases the stage fright.

Still, they've found a way to amuse themselves with the materials at hand.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

8 years ago, right now; Scott's birth story

It was July 9, 10:50 pm, and I was in hard labor.

Scott was due July 3rd. I was 44 years old, not 4 months away from my 45th birthday.

We were in St. Louis. The weather, which had stayed unseasonably, reasonably cool, had turned hot and muggy on July 4th.

My parents, who'd I'd requested not come to visit to meet the new baby and help out until at least July 17th had ignored me and come on the 3rd. Every few hours they'd ask if I felt "any 'activity' yet?" I'm convinced this delayed my labor.

At my July 3rd OB appointment the dr. said my dilation was 1 cm. This is what it had been the week before when she'd stripped my membranes. The baby was high, nowhere near engaging the cervix. This was the same condition when Connor was at 40 weeks, 1 cm dilation and nowhere near the cervix. In 1997 Connor was delivered via c-section after 15 hours of labor.

On July 9, the OB who'd been supportive of a vbac delivery, in a birthing tub, was beginning to waver. New research had been published that indicated that women attempting a vbac who were induced were much more likely to rupture their uteruses during delivery. Her face was expressionless when she said she wanted me to go to the hospital for a nonstress test. I saw her in the morning, went in for the nonstress test early in the afternoon, and saw the OB again that afternoon. She did an ultrasound in her office and said that I had enough amniotic fluid, barely. She laid her cards on the table. She wanted to schedule a c-section immediately, first thing next morning. She'd "lost enthusiasm" for my having a v-bac. There would be no tub birth. She said conditions weren't "favorable." I wanted another week to wait. She said she was going to be away in a week, and "there are certain things you don't hand off. You don't hand off a 44 year old woman who's had a prior c-section who is 2 weeks late with a baby who hasn't dropped." I compromised by asking for 2 more days.

I went home and cried, then called and scheduled the c-section for 2 days later. I whispered inwardly, "Scott, if you want to come the usual way, you're going to have to give us a sign." I was sick to death of my parents being there and begged them to go visit my brother in Ohio. I made arrangements for Connor's care during the birth. They wanted to take him with them to my brother's, but I really wanted him to be in St. Louis. He couldn't be at the surgery, but I wanted him to be able to bond after Scott's birth as soon as possible. I also wanted a week with Just. Us. Me, Gary, Connor, and Scott. I anticipated that there might be some difficulty introducing a new baby in a home where Connor had been an only child, and I wanted to do this without the complication and scrutiny of other people in the house. This was why I'd asked my parents to wait to come.

I'll admit I'd heard a rumor that Evening Primrose Oil gel-caps, inserted as a vaginal suppository, could bring on labor. I inserted 2.

My parents were going to leave the next morning. Exhausted and discouraged I took Connor to bed to nurse to sleep.

Suddenly I felt a huge, painful shift inside. I called, "Gary! Something's happening!" Connor said, "Did I do it?"

I went downstairs to the bathroom thinking my water may have broken, but there wasn't anything. But by the time I got back upstairs the contractions were so intense I couldn't talk. We called the doula, who offered to come over, but I was able to gasp to Gary that no, she should meet us at the hospital instead.

It was incredibly hot outside, at 11:00. It should never be that hot at night anywhere. It was at least 90 degrees and the humidity was probably that high. I thought I was suffocating as I inched my way down our outside steps clinging to the railing for support. Our neighbors across the street were out on their front porch and called cheerfully, "Oh, is it time?" I couldn't answer, but it was pretty obvious.

As Gary drove toward the Barnes Jewish Hospital I felt every pothole and bump in the road. But the air conditioning was working better than I ever remembered, and that was a joy. When we pulled in to the hospital driveway he began to steer toward the parking structure and I snapped, "No! There's no way I can make it across the sky bridge. You've got to park right out in front. I see a wheelchair right there." So he parked in the no-parking zone and ran for the wheelchair. He had trouble getting it to me because he'd forgotten to remove the brakes. I sat down and waited while he got the suitcase. After a moment I opened my eyes and saw that he was trying to pull the straps out of their hidden pockets to convert it into a backpack he could wear. "No! We don't have time for that! You've got to take me in there right now!" So he pushed me through the hospital lobby as I moaned with the contractions, into the elevator, and on up to the third floor where maternity triage was. He pushed me to their desk and said, "My wife's having a baby", to which they replied, "Well, she's just going to have to wait because we don't have a room clean!" So there I was, parked directly in front of the station desk as they worked, moaning with each contraction while they tried to go on with their business as if I wasn't there. One of the physicians on duty brought paperwork that signed away our right to sue if anything went wrong, and they finally took me to a room. There was a table that was a mile high and they wanted me to climb up on it. It was like climbing a mountain, but eventually I managed to get up there. They got their stethoscopes and couldn't find the fetal heartbeat. They went for more sensitive instruments. At that moment I was convinced Scott was dead. And since they didn't bother to tell me when they located the heartbeat I remained convinced of this. Then when they did a cursory examination I heard them talking to each other, saying, "she's ruptured." What they didn't clarify was that it was the membranes that had ruptured, not my uterus. But the story my partly deranged mind took from this was that my uterus had ruptured and I'd lost Scott. And a kind of fatalism took over as I wondered when they'd bring the crash cart and put me under the general anesthesia.

Eventually that misunderstanding was cleared up. Clearly the nurses must have had a bad night because they seemed to assume I was being a drama queen and even asked if I'd moan more quietly. I thought to tell them that there were going to be two doulas coming and was asked, "What do you need two of them for?" I explained that one of them had not had vbac experience and so was coming with the other in order to get it. The nurse asked if I wanted an epidural "because you sure sound like you need one." Gary asked, "when are we going to take her to the delivery room" and they said, "we have to check her first. She might not even be dilated." Gary said disgustedly, "She's dilated!" At which point the doulas arrived and instantly I felt calmer. The dr. on call finally checked my cervix and discovered that I'd dilated to 8 cm and they decided they'd better hurry to get me to the delivery room. They ran the bed down the hall, periodically asking me to be more quiet. This was about an hour and a half after I felt the big shift inside at home.

(An amusing parting shot from the most cynical of the nurses was when she checked the records while they were getting ready to take me to delivery. "Hey!" she barked, "She's scheduled for a c-section on Thursday!" I guess the considerate thing to have done would have been to reel it all back in and wait for my surgery on Thursday.)

Scott's birth took 2 hours and 10 minutes, start to finish. There was no time for an epidural if I'd wanted one (though I wished I'd had one for the stitching afterward). There was no time for an episiotomy, or for the birthing tub. They say second babies come faster, but that was amazing. If I was to have had another, it would have had to be a home birth, otherwise it would be born in the car.

I'm grateful that I got to close out my reproductive career with a normal vaginal birth.

Happy 8th birthday, dear Scott.

Some thoughts about being the at-home spouse

Someone I know is out of work, and has been for some time. His wife has a business she started before the economic downturn.

Their roles are reversed now with him home with children /house, and her full-time-plus at the business.

He's discovered that taking care of young children involves much more than what meets the eye, or can be explained in a few words. Trying to describe a day with young children is like trying to identify the hydrogen and oxygen atoms making up the wave that's swamping you. He's also experiencing the kind of helpless outrage where his accomplishments are largely invisible to his spouse. This involves digesting the irony of his wife coming home expecting dinner, and then needing a walk to de-stress from her day at work, leaving him with clean-up. When he worked full time he'd come home to a house where dinner had not been started and there were still breakfast dishes in the sink. Her reply if asked was that taking care of children involved more than meets the eye. And because he brought home an income doesn't exempt him from helping out around the house. So he'd clean up the kitchen and fix dinner.

This introduces a kaleidoscope of perspectives to me. As an at-home spouse I've often been painfully aware of how inadequate words are to describe a day with children in a way that conveys the experience. I'm aware that what a wage-earner sees as a neutral starting place represents hours of effort to an at-home spouse. It's as if the income-producer is starting a race at a starting line without realizing that the at-home partner has been running long before even getting to 'start'. In my case my spouse is a man, the income-producing part of our partnership for 10 of our 17 married years. And I have often felt that the line of division of labor has been de facto drawn through 'inside the house' and 'outside the house'. Thus, whether he's home or not, what's 'inside the house' is my responsibility.

So when my friend's wife had the at-home role, I was sympathetic to the expectation that once home the income-producer should also help out.

Now that he's home, though, her perspective seems to have shifted. As someone who's at a business for 10, 12 hours a day she feels entitled to come home to a meal, take a walk afterwards while leaving the dishes, and is critical of stuff left undone in the house. And I realize she felt as fully identified with the perspective of the parent at-home as she does now the parent-at-work.

I've often found myself in an awkward position when talking with my female friends who are the wage earners and their husbands are at home with children. I suppose it's a version of the so-called "Mommy wars" between women who work outside the home and women who parent full time. I feel my own experience become paler when they describe coming home from a full day of work to have children thrust upon them by an exasperated spouse who then disappears. They longingly muse that they would love to be the ones home with their children.

The working spouse works all day, and we'll assume the job is demanding. When they come home and are expected to pitch in they may feel that they've left one job only to have another thrust on them when they get home. "When do I get my break?" they may ask, and I can certainly understand the sentiment.

I think that's when the next logical step seems to be to compare jobs, whose is 'harder'. The working spouse is not exactly on a luxury vacation when out of the house. Isn't it unfair to expect them to do things at home too? Isn't it a luxury to be able to stay home with the children?

As the parent at home who had years of a late-working husband, I can testify to longing for another adult in the house, especially at the famously poisonous 'dinner-time'. I can testify to the anticipation of some relief when he'd arrive, and increasing resentment when he didn't. And when he'd say, "When do I get my break?" I'd not really know what to say. Just as I'd feel uneasy when my female wage-earner friends would say that it's not a picnic to come home to child care responsibilities after putting in their day.

So, thinking of my friend who now has perspectives from both sides, I see how reasonable each is--the at-home parent who needs relief, the earning spouse who needs a break. Yet they seem mutually contradictory.

It occurs to me that there's another way of dividing the pie. For parents the primary job is nurturing and raising children to be good people. That's a 24 hour job. And since we don't live on air an income is needed, which is a means to an end--providing infrastructure for the nurturing and raising of children. If the parents cut an agreement that there will be one wage earner, then the person who goes outside is putting his/her childcare into the currency of income-earning. The spouse at home pulls a double shift in caring for the children and making the home a stable base of operations to launch from. When income earner returns, there is still child-care to be done, whatever remains of the 24 hours. At that time the earner resumes his/her direct childcare role, and the at-homer continues that role, but there are now two adults instead of one.

One would like to hope that further division of labor would be determined by love and good will. At-home spouse doesn't find her/himself struggling in the kitchen to get dinner on while a wailing toddler clings to his/her leg as another one yells from a different part of the house and wage-earner sits obliviously reading the paper. No, Wage-earner sees that there is a struggle going on and because s/he loves his/her spouse, doesn't like to see him/her suffer and offers assistance out of a sense of fairness and love. It is also expedient, because it simplifies the job of getting dinner finished and on the table, to remove at least one ball from the myriad the spouse is juggling.

So to consider raising children as a 24 hour work-day, where one partner puts in part of their time outside of the home, and then resumes it upon return, while the other pulls up the slack when the money-maker is away and continues when he/she returns seems to iron out some of the misconceptions. Wage-earner's responsibilities don't end with the paycheck, and At-home's responsibilities don't end when Wage-earner returns. Thinking of it only in terms of the 8 hour day lends itself to unhelpful constructions like, "she gets to be home with the kids on his dime, and then she expects him to help," and " least you're dealing with adults all day while I'm dealing with kids," "my job is harder than yours, therefore I'm entitled to xyz..." It lends itself to a more realistic division of labor than, "What's outside the house is mine, and what's inside the house is yours--oops! Kid spilled an entire bottle of milk? That's yours, and I'm going to read the paper after my hard day at work."

It's surprising how vulnerable I've felt to the charge that I've been some kind of freeloader these 10 years. I suppose it's a testament to a culture that only sees value in terms of money earned.