"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Friday, December 26, 2008

St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, and God-with-us

I mentioned in an earlier post that this was Maia's first Advent where she really seemed to understand some of what was going on. Well, the same is true for Christmas... if we haven't managed to confuse her. See, Jeff and I had a few conversations about how we were going to handle Christmas, particularly the Santa Claus stuff. I mentioned before that since Jeff is a convert, he doesn't really have any Christmas traditions, so we can just do my family's traditions. But in our discussions, we had decided to modify some of those; for example, we didn't light up our Christmas tree (which we had been calling an "Advent" tree) until Christmas Eve.

Anyway, despite those conversations that Jeff and I had, there was a little confusion surrounding Christmas. If I had to pick a date that it started, I'd probably say it started on the Feast of St. Nicholas, that is, December 6th. St. Nicholas is one of my favorite bishops (right up there with St. Patrick), and his feast is important in German-speaking countries, among others. Well, in an attempt to re-claim my German heritage (mind you, my family never celebrated the Feast of St. Nicholas), I thought it would be fun to have Maia leave her shoes out. We gave Maia a St. Nicholas Day gift of play dough. Initially she was excited, but then she said, "Awww, I wanted a swimming baby doll." And I said, "Well, maybe you'll get one for Christmas." And she responded, "You mean this isn't Christmas?" "No," I answered, "This is the Feast of St. Nicholas." "But I thought St. Nicholas comes on Christmas." "Umm," I stammered, "well, on Christmas we exchange gifts out of joy for the great gift of baby Jesus." "But doesn't St. Nicholas bring the gifts, like in all the books and songs?"

I definitely felt like I was in a sticky spot, as I tried frantically to remember how Jeff and I had decided to explain all this to Maia. I knew that, whatever we had decided, I was doing a very bad job of explaining it! I knew we had decided against promoting the commercialized Santa Claus that you believe in for a few years and then find out isn't real. But I also knew that we wanted Maia to understand that St. Nicholas was a real person who is now a saint that can intercede for us. The problem surfaced again just a few days ago when Maia and I were eating breakfast on the morning of Christmas Eve. What happened was another awkward conversation, and this time I called to Jeff to come in the kitchen and straighten out the situation. I think he did a pretty good job.

Jeff explained that St. Nicholas is like St. Mary or St. Anthony (of Padua) who are always with us and can pray for us and help us out. St. Nicholas is associated with Christmas gifts because he is known for his generosity. But some things are fantasy, he explained, like the idea of flying reindeer and coming down a chimney. "It's like in the Hobbit," he told her (yes, he's reading the Hobbit to our two-year old), "there aren't really dwarves and elves and hobbits, but they are fun to imagine about. It's fun to imagine that St. Nicholas has reindeer and a sleigh, but the real St. Nicholas is even better. We give each other gifts on Christmas because we want to be generous like St. Nicholas, and, more importantly, we want to be generous like God, who loves us so much that he sends his only Son, born of Mary in Bethlehem.

So on Christmas morning, when Maia was opening gifts, we didn't pretend that they were from Santa. We told her the name of her gift-givers. Jeff's point was that it's dangerous to teach your kids to believe in something that you plan on disillusioning them from later. If Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are imagination and we teach our kids to believe in them, what will they think of St. Nicholas, St. Mary, and even Jesus? Are they just imagination too? Jeff thinks somehow this is all tied to the Enlightenment and radical skepticism. The attitude is that sure, kids can believe in imaginary things, but when you grow up you become rational and realize that all of this is make-believe. It's easy for "religion" to slide into this category of imagination. But we'd like our children to grow into adults that maintain their sense of the real supernatural; we'd like them to know that prayer is something active, something that actually does something, not just something to make us feel better. We'd like them to be aware of the communion of saints, the presence of angels, and the person of Jesus, among other things.

Fr. Satish gave an excellent homily, available as a podcast and in written form, on Christmas morning. He started by strapping on his guitar and singing Bette Midler's "From a Distance." (Maia responded in surprise, "But, Mom, Fathers don't play guitar!!!" Meanwhile, I whispered to Jeff, "Either he's going to debunk the song or this is going to be a rotten homily!" Of course it was the first.) Fr. Satish proceded to talk about how Christmas reminds us that God is not at a distance, but close-up. Jesus is God-with-us, God who makes his dwelling place among us. He comes to close the distance between God and humankind, as well as to close the distance among all of humankind, such that magi and shepherds worship the same babe.

This homily seemed poignantly related to the issue of St. Nicholas and Santa Claus. Santa Claus seems to create a kind of distance when he's this commercialized figure who is something made-up, something that only kids believe, something that you eventually realize you were mistaken about. But when Santa Claus as understood as St. Nicholas, who, like the entire communion of saints is always with us, who can pray for us, who is a model but not simply a model, we realize that people can be present with us even if we can't necessarily sense them. God's presence, the saints' presence, the angels' presence, then, are all a part of reality. And that means it's something we can't lose, even if we stop believing. My mom used to tell my older brother (in an attempt to prevent his ruining our Christmas), "If you don't believe in him, Santa doesn't come." This is certainly not true when it comes to God-with-us. The truth is much richer than fantasy. Jesus came, and we celebrate his coming each Christmas.

To quote Strega Nona (in Tomie de Paolo's "Merry Christmas, Strega Nona"), "Christmas has a magic of its own!" The fantasy can be fun, but the reality is its own kind of magic, or as C.S. Lewis said, we have with the Incarnation the grand miracle from which all other miracles stem. And, unlike the commercialized, fictionalized Santa Claus, the mystery of the Incarnation doesn't go away when you get older. This is the real excitement of Christmas!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

10 Days Later...

Well, little Eva's umbilical cord fell off yesterday, and I've had ten days now to reflect on this last birthing experience. It hasn't been any sort of a conscious meditation, but the kind of thing that pops up as (what I refer to as) a "screensaver for the brain" - you know, what you think about when you're not consciously thinking of anything in particular.

As I've mentioned before, my sister is a midwife (a CNM), and I think it's fair to say that when it comes to pregnancy, labor, and delivery, I know a tad bit more than the average woman on account of this extreme advantage of having a sister in midwifery. As with my first birth, I had certain expectations and hopes for this delivery. And, as with the Maia's delivery, I've learned once more that - even for those who know a tad bit more than the average woman - one simply cannot have complete control over the things that happen in labor and delivery. Of course, this shouldn't come as a big surprise... it's just one instance of the workings of everyday life. We like to think we're in charge of everything, but (as Hauerwas says) when we look back at our life we find that a lot of things just happened TO us, rather than by our own agency.

When it comes to labor and delivery, the United States seems to lead the world in medicalization of birthing and the professionalization of delivery. Along with this, women generally have (or at least feel they have) very few options/choices when it comes to labor and delivery. This is especially true for the average hospital delivery. For more on this, I'd recommend the Ricki Lake/Abby Epstein documentary The Business of Being Born. Jeff and I watched it about a month before Eva was born, and it was good birthing prep.

With my first pregnancy, I specifically sought out a practice of midwives (CNMs). At the time, there was only one option covered by our insurance. So we ended up having to drive about 25 minutes to their office for each visit, and we had a 30 minute drive to the hospital when I was in labor. All in all, I would say we were pretty well satisfied with the midwives in this practice. They had a homey office and alotted 30 minutes per visit. There was never a wait once we arrived, and overall they had a laid-back and empowering approach to pregnancy, labor, and delivery.

On the other hand, the OB director at the hopsital was a first-rate jerk. From research done after the fact on this doc, I'd even probably class him as evil. I won't go into that, however, so as not to turn this into a purely personal attack. I'm a swimmer, and as someone who spends a lot of time in the water, I had planned on a waterbirth. I signed the release form early on in the pregnancy, and I was pretty excited that the midwives had done water births before. So one month before the delivery, the OB director decided (without any convincing medical research) that waterbirths are dangerous. So he locked up all the tubs (which were portable) in a room and took the key. After Maia was born (on land, as it were), he failed to pay the midwives' malpractice insurance and effectively shut down their practice despite the assurances that their office would not close for six months. These issues didn't make the news, of course... the closing of this practice was formally all chalked up to finances.

For this pregnancy, it turned out that there were midwives on our insurance much closer to where we live. I made the appointment for my annual with them before I was pregnant and, by the time of the appointment, I was three weeks pregnant (that's five weeks pregnant in medical terms). In general, this practice had much to recommend itself, not the least of which was convenience in terms of distance. On the other hand, the practice also had one major disadvantage, namely, it is a practice of both midwives and doctors (originally two and two respectively, now three and two). While I have nothing against the OBs as such (both are very nice and provide excellent care), I found it a little discouraging that I sought out (female) midwives only to find myself under the care of (male) doctors. Moreover, unlike my first midwifery experience, their office schedule was routinely running late, so much so that one time the husband, toddler, and I waited an entire hour to get in for an appointment. And, mind you, this was not a 30 minute appointment but a 10 minute (if that) in-and-out wherein we barely had time to ask questions.

Anyway, the most exciting aspect of Eva's delivery was that it was to take place in a birthing center. The hospital where I'd be delivering has both a normal L&D and the birthing center. Jeff and I attended the orientation and toured the center, which has great rooms that include a huge bathroom with a good-sized waterbirth tub. The birthing center has a non-interventional approach that was also appealing to us.

Well, little Eva's due date came and went, much to my delight. I was hoping for a late baby because my sister had off on the 13th, 14th, and 15th and could come down for the delivery. All of the people in the practice that I'd seen (the three midwives and one of the doctors) had said it would be fine if she caught the baby. While Ann was in route to Dayton, my water broke, and this was the beginning of the limiting of my birthing options.

For some reason, shortly after my water broke, my contractions stopped. By about 2:00 a.m., they were pretty insignificant. But by 4:00 a.m. we decided we'd better head to the hospital anyway, since I was GBS positive. GBS positive shouldn't have to be a big deal, but I have to admit, the need for antibiotics put a lot of pressure on me. I never imagined I'd be going to the hospital with such minor contractions, but, already, I didn't feel like I had a choice. We checked into the birthing center and then spent most of the day trying to get my labor going using natural induction methods (including walking, dancing, and a breast pump). It turned out that the person on call from the practice was the one doctor I'd never met. He was willing to be patient for most of the day, but when it got to the point that my water had been broken for 18 hours with no real progress, he very strongly suggested that we do pitocin.

I've spent the last few years nurturing a very strong dislike of pitocin, largely because of my friends' birthing experiences that involved it, but also because it just generally seems to be overused. It's a sort of commonplace intervention that U.S. hospitals assume is necessary and normative. In this case, however, the decision to go on pitocin was made much worse by the fact that it necessitated transferring out of the birthing center and into a normal L&D. So, once more, I was foiled in my expectation of and hope for a waterbirth. And of course, with pitocin also comes monitors - a continuous fetal heart rate monitor and a contraction monitor. So there I was, tied up to an I.V. and two monitors in a normal L&D room without a waterbirth tub. Needless to say, I cried.

I hadn't seen Maia all day (the longest I'd ever been away from her), so once they started the pitocin, my in-laws stopped by with her, and she really cheered me up. Not only that, but their visit was a great distraction from contractions that were definitely growing stronger and more painful. At one point during the visit the nurse came in and looked at the contraction monitor. Then she glanced over at me sitting calmly and talking to Maia. "You have a very high pain tolerance," she said. I attributed this to my being an athlete. She asked what sport, and, before I could respond, Jeff told her boxing and football (the sports of my past!). Anyway, my boxing experience seemed to her a pretty good explanation.

And, after the in-laws and Maia left, I have to say, I did sort of feel like I was in some kind of sparring match. (Someone could make a great Jack Handey quotation about how boxing is a lot like birthing...) The pitocin started at 4:00, the visitors left at 5:30, and the baby was born by 8:08 p.m. After all that time in the hospital, my actual "labor" of painful contractions was only really a few hours. But, although my memory of the pain from Maia's birth (which was also a natural delivery) has somewhat faded, I have to say that this seemed much more painful (supposedly pitocin makes for stronger/more painful contractions) than her delivery. Jeff and Ann thought it went by pretty fast, but I did not share their sentiments.

Some things went exactly according to my plan for this birth: my sister was there with me and my in-laws were in town to watch Maia. On the other hand, as you can see, many things did not go according to my plan: transferring out the birth center, using pitocin, being hooked up to monitors, and not having a waterbirth. One other thing was that the on-call doc didn't really want to let my sister catch: "My name's on the chart," he said, "I've got the head and the anterior shoulder; you can do the rest." Ann still counted it as a delivery (Eva is number 151!), and it was great that she was the one who ultimately caught her and handed her to me. Although he was nice, I never would have chosen to have a male doctor overseeing Eva's birth. And perhaps this is why I was a little antagonistic toward him (we even had a little argument right before Eva was born).

After Eva was born, Maia and the in-laws stopped by (they brought us pizza, which I ate in the delivery room!). Then the hospital staff allowed us to return to the birthing center for recovery. That was great because of the queen-sized bed. Jeff, Eva, and I were able to cosleep on our first night together. Not to mention they had great food in the birthing center.

All in all, it wasn't a horrible birthing experience. My recovery has certainly been a lot faster than last time, and I am glad that we got to spend some time in the birthing center, even if I didn't deliver there. But, as if to prove that I'm not ultimately in control of everything, shortly after our 24-hour discharge, the pediatrician called to let us know that Eva's bilirubin level was high. By the next morning, I was back in a hospital for another 24-hour stay, this time with my newborn under blue lights... and with nurses stopping in every hour to ask if my milk had come in...and with residents pressuring me to use formula ("Either give her formula or I'm going to give her an I.V." was one resident's message, passed on by the nurse.)...and, this time 24 hours straight without Maia (the longest time I'd ever been away from her). Moreover, it appears that Eva's jaundice was pathological- ABO incompatibility. I think this means there's a good chance I'll have to go through this with my next kids as well.

So we can't really control what our kids are like; I certainly wouldn't have wanted Eva to be jaundiced. On the other hand, however, Eva is remarkably even-tempered. She sleeps a good amount and hardly ever cries (this is VERY different from Maia's infancy). Maybe this time Jeff and I really did cancel each other out in terms of personality - a calm baby, could it be true?!?!?! It's a nice (and unexpected!) blessing.

In conclusion, ten days later, I can say that next time, I think I'll have a homebirth. It seems to be the only way to have any more agency in the birthing process. In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy celebrating the birth of our savior with my very own newborn.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Maia and Eva's First Meeting

Within two hours of her sister's birth, older sister Maia had big plans for Eva. Here's the transcript:

"And she will grow bigger and bigger and bigger and she will come to talk. She will be bigger and bigger and bigger and she will dress to go to Mass and she will learn how to pray and sing and talk."

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Eva Marcella

Eva Marcella, born 12.13.08 at 8:08 p.m., 7 lbs., 3 oz., 19 in.

Moments after the deliveryAt home: Maia and Mom with matching purple slings for their babies

Monday, December 8, 2008

Toddlers in the Mystical Body

Happy Feast of the Immaculate Conception! The Blessed Virgin Mary under this title is the patroness of the United States. This also happens to be the name of our local parish, as well as the name of our university's chapel. And, of course, this solemnity (which celebrates Mary's own conception free of sin) is a holy day of obligation. Given that we are at a Marianist university, it's also a university holiday! So I was excited that Jeff, Maia and I would all be able to go to Mass together. Normally on Mondays I've been going to Mass with the Marianist priest/brother community at Our Mother of Good Counsel Chapel at 6:55 a.m. I would have slept in, but Maia woke me up at 5:00 a.m. by yelling at me in her sleep to give her dinner.

Anyway, Jeff and I had some debate about where and when we ought to go to Mass. Often on such holy days we've gone to the university service since this is our normal spot for daily Masses. But a noon Mass didn't seem like a good idea with Maia-not to mention that she knows how to escape the university chapel. In addition to this, we sometimes don't feel comfortable taking Maia to Mass on campus because, well, she's sometimes loud at Church.

So our parish today had two options: 8:15 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. Of those two, we figured Maia would probably be better behaved at the morning option. If we had expected Maia to blend in at this Mass, however, we were wrong. For some reason it didn't really occur to me that not everybody gets off for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The attendees of this Mass basically fit into two categories: 1. the students of our parish school and 2. retired people who don't work and hence could attend a Mass at this time.

Because the students comprised the majority of the main transcept, we sat in a different spot than usual. All was fine in the beginning. Maia was quietly playing with her doll, pretending the kneeler was a balance beam, eyeing Father Satish, and, at one point singing (almost inaudibly) "Yankee Doodle Went to Town." At one point, however, Maia decided to walk down the balance beam to the end of the pew and try to escape. Even at nine months pregnant, I managed to catch her before she made it to the sanctuary. After this, Jeff and I switched spots. When she next tried to escape, the man (an older gentleman) behind us informed us that there is a cry room in the back of the side transcept.

Now, we are perfectly aware of the location of the cry rooms in our Church building. We've been members of this parish since before we were married, long before Maia was born. But I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about cry rooms. Sometimes, parents seem to use them as excuses to let their children run around as much as they want. Occasionally, they are a relief, and we have used the cry room in several instances. But in general, I wonder why we expect that some members of the Mystical Body of Christ belong behind glass if they can't be perfectly silent. Toddlers are part of the Church, and toddlers will be toddlers. Removing them from the Mass setting as a rule is certainly problematic, and removing them when they are creating very little disturbance just seems unnecessary. In my sleep-deprived spark of anger, I wanted to tell the man he should consider joining a monastery. Of course, that would not have been a very Christian response. So - after fantasizing about having glass rooms where we can contain people who want absolute silence at Mass - I prayed to Mary to keep me from sin during the Eucharist in honor of her.

What happened is that Jeff ended up taking Maia to the cry room; he felt obligated to do so after the man suggested it. Once there, she promptly started crying and screaming. Appropriate, isn't it? She was actually more audible with the increase in volume than she had been in our pew in the side transcept. So I went back there and retrieved my family after Maia's promise that she would behave if we took her back to the pew. Jeff and I were both frazzled, however, and we stayed at the far end of the pew, away from the man behind us. I wouldn't even let Maia retrieve her baby doll, which she had left at the other end.

Anyway, I realize that I live with a toddler and am used to the distractions she brings. I value daily Mass without her, just as a I value Sunday Mass with her. It is nice to have a quiet setting in which to pray. But at the same time, my Mass experiences in Kenya prove that children (including toddlers and babies) don't NEED to be separated from the rest of the Church. I sometimes think it's the declining American birthrate that enables us to be so distracted by the small noises of children during services. But then again, I know some cultures (all European, I believe) have traditionally kept children home from Mass. So I have mixed feelings, and I don't want to be a distraction for others. But I do wish that people wouldn't glare at my husband, my toddler or me. And I wish they would leave our decision to go behind glass to ourselves with a slightly higher tolerance for the musings of toddlers, who are, after all, members of the Mystical Body of Christ.