Monthly Archives: February 2012

Basil in the backseat

When my oldest daughter was a baby I worked for a local non profit organization that built school gardens and taught kids about the (literal) roots of their food.  We had an opportunity to get free flowers and herbs, but the pickup was on a weekend, and since my staff was composed entirely of AmeriCorps VISTAS who were already overworked and underpaid, I decided to just go get the plants myself, with the baby. How hard could it be?

I had hoped it would be sort of a small affair, leave the baby in the car, toss a couple pots in the back, say a gracious thank you and be on my way. It was not a small affair. Potted plants filled a medium-sized parking lot. A swarm of volunteers from organizations all over town waited for the go ahead to begin loading flats and carts. Dorothy showed no interest in staying her seat and drooling on the mirrors in Hello Bee, Hello Me.

The woman coordinating the event arrived in a beautifully restored 1940s era pickup. She and her children were wearing white button down shirts and over-sized sunglasses. I held Dorothy on my hip. We both looked grungy. As the event got underway, I struggled to carry the plants and the baby but managed to fill the back of my car. There were still rows and rows of beautiful basil plants left, basil I could imagine nestled under the tomatoes in the raised beds at my school gardens. I buckled Dorothy in and started piling basil in around her. I was sweaty, hair in my eyes, Dorothy was beginning to fuss, but I didn’t want to leave without saying thank you. The kind, lovely, stylish organizer was as gracious as one would expect, and in fact offers to help. Her white shirt is still spotless, though I know she’s been carrying plants. “Oh, let me just help you get those to your car and I’ll peek at the baby,” and before I can stop her, she’s swinging open the door to my backseat and peering in through the giant sunglasses. Dorothy is screaming, snot and soil crusted across her face, a basil plant in each angry fist and another hanging out of her mouth. There are no words for this moment. I shut the door, said thanks again, drove away. What can I say? My life is not styled. My shirts are not spotless. My house is too small.  But the basil grew beautifully all summer.

This is Not a Lifestyle Blog

I just read a fantastic article from Bitch Magazine’s newest edition, “Better Homes and Bloggers,” and it deeply resonated and spoke to me to the darkest depths of my blogging soul. Freelancing mama Holly Hilgenberg (great name) writes:

Both the appeal and the unease of lifestyle blogs are centered on the fact that, unlike more traditional forms of media like magazines, television, and movies, blogs are supposed to be real… This tension between authenticity and aspiration may be at the heart of why lifestyle blogs don’t just inspire readers, they also tend to bum them out… As one reader, Claudette, recounts: “I see her fucking noodle soup. And I feel like I should do that. And I don’t feel good. I feel like I should be perfect.” Claudette, who follows many style blogs, particularly those that reflect her own modernist sensibility and obsession with fashion and design, isn’t unhappy with her own life. But, she says, “I look around my house and I like the things I own…but it can never be good enough.”

I know Mama Nervosa is merely a week old, but this is not my first trip around the blogging block. This is my fifth or sixth attempt to create a blog with more than 4 readers (Hi, Mom!) despite the fact that for all of those blogs, I followed THE NUMBER ONE RULE OF BLOGGING SUCCESS which is DEFINE YOUR AUDIENCE: that is, find a niche and aggressively pursue it. I tried a budgeting blog (HA!); a mommy blog (fun for me, boring for everyone else); a hilarious TV blog (dang it, you have to actually watch a lot of TV to do that, preferably shows that are currently running and not outdated dregs on Netflix streaming); and even an aquarium enthusiast blog (it died when my fish did).

I sometimes worry that Mama Nervosa won’t be read because it is non-niche. We’ve written about screaming toddlers, grandmothers and peonies, and birth and car purchasing. OK; all of those topics have a thread of motherhood woven through them, but we promise to branch out into topics as diverse as our past lives as hippie fangirls, smokers, baristas, and teachers; crazy road trips with drug dealers and Frisbee throwers; quitting graduate school and near-death experiences; anti-hipster rants and commentaries on teen magazines from the early 90s. (So, far, though, we think the real NUMBER ONE RULE OF BLOGGING SUCCESS is USE FACEBOOK. It seems to be working.)

But the big premise behind all of this, the one thing we agreed upon when we hastily formed a blogging alliance via email after a transformative writing workshop, was that MN had to be about “messy life.” Not organized life. Not sexy mom life. Not it’s-the-little-things-and-insanely-good-taste-that-make-life-perfect life. True, real, un-light-diffused, unstaged life (past, present, and future). We think there’s room for that in the blogosphere. I’m not anti-lifestyle blog and believe me, I’ve felt deep pangs of envy when I look at Young House Love’s art wall. I’ve seriously thought that a household binder would change my life forever. It’s just that the best thing, to me, about blogging, has always been real people. The real people behind blogs interest me. My favorite blogs, the blogs that got me hooked a dozen years ago, the blogs I stayed up all night at the library computer lab to read? They weren’t lifestyle blogs. They were people’s life stories, told well, and told (mostly) truthfully.

So this is my real life, right now. It is not styled.

Ce n'est pas une lifestyle blog

These are my dishes, always. I have no solution to the enduring problem of dirty dishes. I wash dishes every day, and the damn things keep reappearing. My kitchen looks like this right now, and every day.

This is me, right now.

Pants: stretch Levi's. Shirt: An ill-fitting hand-me-down from my Mom that I wore because it was the only clean thing I had. Bra: saggy nursing bra with underwires that are poking out of the seams and stabbing my armpits; has not been washed in over a week (not shown). My underwear has two holes (not shown).

Optical illusion brought to you by unfortunate laptop placement. Note the living room chaos behind me, including a partially dismembered wagon and nicotine gum wrappers strewn about. I didn’t even crop this, y’all.

I got my glasses at the eye doctor.

Me again, close up. My face is breaking out, and I don’t wear jewelry, and is that a gray hair? It may be. I’m due. I am sure you are as excited as I am that I washed my hair last night – a triumph! Let me tell you a secret: my husband thinks I look great and really likes everything about my post partum body, my lack of makeup, and my everything. (I’m just as surprised as you are.) Apparently, sexy transcends appearance, at least in our love story.  

So what’s your real life story, not style? What life problem do you have no solution for? What life problems aren’t really a problem at all? What are your snapshots of chaos and beautiful nowness? We’ll post ‘em. lauren(dot)clodi(dot)whitehead(at)gmail(dot)com

Pregnant in Winter

Today, my first turns four.

It’s been a mild winter in Iowa, with temps near or above freezing, and not much snow. Folks aren’t enjoying this: seems like everyone’s afraid that this will mean a scorching summer or a corn apocalpyse. But I’ve been loving it; every day I don’t have to wrestle my kids into their coats or worry about my husband driving home at the end of the day is a good one in my book. And, every day I look outside and see clear sidewalks, I say a thank you on behalf of all the enormously pregnant women making their way through the world in winter. Every day they don’t have to strain to pull on their winter boots, shuffle through a slick parking lot, or obsess about how they’d survive and where they’d pee if they became snowbound in the car is a gift.

My daughters were born in January and February, so I’ve lived this life. In fact, my pregnancy with Robin coincided with one of Iowa’s worst winters. February 2008 saw 15 inches of snow, the 3rd snowiest February in over a hundred years; and temps were among the top 25 most frigid winters in the state’s history. I am a petite woman, so 30 lbs of fluid, belly, and baby had nowhere to go but out. The result was alarming lopsidedness: my tummy had its own gravitational pull and I’m probably responsible for some kind of lunar shift that led to all that damn snow. I fell three times late in my pregnancy, and it wasn’t so much the falling that was painful as the muscle strains I got as I used every muscle in my body to try and NOT fall.

Blizzard in Eastern Iowa, 1/29/2008

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Blizzard. Jan. 29, 2008.

Learning to stake a claim


Snapshots from my day:

“We don’t pretend to breastfeed our sisters.”

“It’s okay, honey, everybody pukes sometimes.”

“Yes, I’m definitely looking forward to facilitating a discussion about that documentary about cosmetic surgery for vaginas.”

Did I mention the teething baby, the new furnace, the trying to scrounge up some pennies for the preschool change war, the search for Fancy Nancy’s lost underpants, and the mountain of essays about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn waiting to be graded?

So the scintillating, hilarious, thought provoking, sassy yet warm introduction to me and my family will have to wait another day or two. In the meantime, I offer this placeholder, a couple paragraphs from the writing retreat this weekend. And that sassy yet warm introduction is coming, I promise. I just have to fold this laundry first.

When I lived in Iowa I drove hundreds of miles through the countryside, imagining my great grandmother raising 10 children alone on the prairie: Bill, Ben, Abe, Teena, Theta, Jessie, my dad’s mother, grandma Anna, the youngest. Fields of corn and soybeans now would have been tall grasses then. Farm wives put down roots, planted peonies and lilacs whose blooms and sweet scent persisted long after families moved into cities, let the old farmhouse crumble. Peonies bloom in neat rows in the middle of nowhere now, lining the foundations of an old porch where someone’s great grandmother shelled peas and rocked babies.

Dorothy walked late but talked early, still uncertain on her feet but confident in her voice, singing ABCs and the Itsy Bitsy Spider when Lucy came on the scene in the fall. Just 18 months apart, they tumble over one another like puppies, curls tangled together. Their souls unfold together and apart, butterfly wings. The new baby and I watch from the rocker, she nurses, coos, laughs when the big sisters swoop in to play peek a boo or sing you are my sunshine. They are fierce, stubborn, Dorothy shrieking from the time out chair in frustration, “This is it for me! When I grow up I will live in a house with no timers and no mom and dad!” Every day is a whirlwind of superhero capes and tea parties, tutus and dinosaurs. “When I grow up I will be a helicopter pilot and I will lower down panda bears to catch fish and then when I get married I will be a princess and my prince will fly the helicopter but I will still be in charge of the pandas. Dad, should the pandas catch a trout first or a walleye?”

They will never have to cross an ocean and an unfamiliar country to homestead, bring in the laundry off the line, send their daughters out to clean and cook in other people’s houses, pray for the winter to end, watch for the snowdrops to push tender green shoots up through rich earth just beginning to thaw. Still, they practice writing their names in pink crayon, purple marker, tongue sticking out just a little bit as they focus on making the lines and loops just so. Learning to take credit, take blame, stake a claim.

Long time listener, first time caller.

Hoping my voice comes through the wires. Is this thing on?

Teething Two-Year Olds/ Thank you, pink goo.

Teething is considered a baby thing. And it is a baby thing. Most kids get most of their teeth by their second birthday, and most kids get that first little chomper before they can crawl. I know this because I lived it: my oldest daughter got her first tooth at 6 months old, followed by months of whining, drooling, and nipple nibbling. But she was basically ready to dig into the chips and salsa by 18 months and that was that.

My youngest daughter, Holly, just turned 2 years old. And she has (drum roll) eight teeth. Really, check it out:

Toothless Wonder

(She’s wearing my husband’s glasses, by the way. And yes, I had noticed that she is extremely cute.)

Holly cut her first tooth around 13 months old, at about the same time she took her first steps. After mothering her intense, rarin’ to go big sister through infancy, a child who took things slow seemed like a welcome break. I love Holly’s gummy grin and I’ve been in no hurry for those teeth to pop. Until now. ‘Cause here’s the thing: teething toddlers are assholes.

The net is awash with tales of the Evil Two-Year Molars. Normally angelic children turn into raging monsters. Kids who’ve been sleeping through the night alone in their own apartments since 6 months old wake every two, four, six hours to regale their addled parents with slow-mo accounts of the shards of glass being shoved through their tender, swollen gums. And it’s all true: all the horror stories you hear about two year old molars are completely true. Only I get to go through it somewhere between ten and sixteen more times so the rest of her face can catch up with her peers.

Holly is a mellow person. She is a second child. She accepts criticism lightly. If you really want that Dora lego, she will accept Isa in its stead even though we all know Isa sucks. If you tell her no more than once, she shrugs and turns to some other life-threatening activity, like attempting to ride the cat.

But this teething thing has ruined all that.

Last night it took her nearly an hour to fall asleep. Holly typically nurses for about ten minutes and then flops over and that’s that. Last night was an epic battle between the forces of evil and the forces of please-let-me-go-spend-ten-minutes-alone-with-your-father. She wanted one boob, and then the other one, and then the other one again as if I was an idiot who’d forgotten I only have two. When I finally crowbarred her incisors off my chest, she wanted me to lay beside her, so she could hug me. But this was no gentle, snoozy snuggle, this was an anaconda death grip, which required gravity defying head position and absolute stillness. When I finally extracted my neck from her fat little arms and thought I heard the tell-tale breathing, the quick breaths followed by deep, slow ones that signal sleep, I slid off the bed and tiptoed towards the door. “MAMA? STAYYYY!” I returned, and returned, and returned yet again until I finally convinced her that I absolutely had to check on her big sister and I promised I’d be back in one minute and here was her bear to snuggle.

Things heated up again around 11 pm, when she woke up and realized everything is horrible. A tiny whimper became a foghorn blast within about ten seconds, and she rejected my offers of snuggles, back pats (“MY back!”) and lullabies both classic (“Twinkle Star”) and contemporary (Wilco songs with misremembered lyrics). Nothing inspires patience and compassion like a child screaming “NO!! I DON’T WANT THAT TONG” while smacking you in the face repeatedly. Nor would this tempest go without witness: I turned my back and she climbed over me, I covered my head and she dug her way into the blanket. Her crying took on a life of its own, a raging wail of indignance and confusion. This teething would NOT BE DENIED!

I offered her medicine. She declined. I offered her toys. No. The only thing she expressed interest in was more of my boobs, but I knew that was a dead end street of constant almost-falling-asleep and then waking-up-as-soon-as-I-moved. I’ve been down that road my friends: I went down that road for over eighteen months and I won’t go back, I simply won’t. I wasn’t being reasonable or kind at this point: I tucked my shirt into my pants and yelled, “No, Holly, goddamnit, go back to sleep!” I may have called her a jerk.

When it became clear to both of us that she was no longer in control of this ride, I got up, stormed downstairs, stormed back up with a medicine syringe full of medicine, and pinned her to the ground while I forced her to swallow it. I’ve done this before thinking she’d see reason once she recognized magic pink medicine, but a child’s ability to reject unwanted liquid is surprisingly developed at this age, and can be surprisingly messy. If you don’t want to sleep in a puddle of ibuprofen or smell like dye-free berries, it really is best to do it somewhere other than the bed/crib. Although hands have nothing to do with swallowing, they can block medicine squirters like Jackie Chan blocks ninja stars or some shit. And, it’s good to do small squirts at a time so the whole thing doesn’t get spit out, and so you have some sense of how much has been swallowed (or spilled, or spit) if it doesn’t all get in there.

These are ugly moments for mothers. But we grit our teeth and dig in. We do the same with toothbrushes and the dreaded pink eye drops. We do it because we have to.

I got the medicine in and took Holly back to bed. I layed her on my tummy and tucked her head into my neck, her favorite fall-asleep position since infancy. She hiccuped and sobbed a little more, but this time was more amenable to back rubs and “What’s the World Got In Store?” She was asleep within ten minutes.

I have some friends who sweat out teething; who use pink goo as a last resort for the inconsolable child. And there’s some scientific evidence somewhere that a fuckton of ibuprofen isn’t great for a child; I know this because one of my facebook friends is becoming a doctor and she linked to a study about it, but I did not read that article. I actively ignored and avoided that article. Pink goo is my BFF. Pink goo is my lifeline. I need that goo to get through the next year of nights like last night; and my little girl needs it so she can sleep easy and play with Legos in peace. So when my husband suggested to me that we pre-dose her with ibuprofen tonight before bed, I didn’t hesistate to agree. “I’m 5 ml of pink goo ahead of you.”

The Test Begins Now

I thought there was a virtue in always being cool.