Archive | June, 2016

My Kentucky Heart, Sautéed, Not Fried

26 Jun

Kentucky Fried Chicken has ruined my state’s good name. I don’t actively despise KFC when I’m in my hometown; it’s just one of so many fast food joints, a place for mass-produced, cheap, low-quality, low-nutrition eats prepared and served to you by under-paid workers. It is not a place I typically eat (okay, pretty much never), but I understand it’s purpose and I don’t hold it against anyone who eats there. I would not, however, say it is any part of what I want people to know about my great state.

Unfortunately, outside of my state, and especially outside of my country, it’s the only damn thing anybody knows about where I’m from. In Italy, in Chile, and lots of other places in between, people bring up fried chicken like I’m supposed to be pleased and feel recognized. “Ah, como el pollo,” (Oh, like the chicken,) my students say when I tell them I’m from Kentucky. Luckily, the actual restaurant doesn’t even exist down here in Oaxaca, so people just know it as a style of cooking chicken- breaded and fried. That makes it less appalling for me, but it still wounds my Kentucky pride. We have all this amazing culture and incredible nature and wonderful people, but nobody knows about any of that. Instead they’re applauding a stupid fast food chain.

I do my part to educate the public about Kentucky. Down here I take advantage of my job as a teacher to consistently plug facts about Kentucky wherever I can fit them in the curriculum. Like when we read an article about mammoths, I told the students about Mammoth Cave (the world’s largest known cave system, for those of you who don’t know). In the unit about pirates, when we’d discuss movies about pirates, I used to always mention that Johnny Depp is from my state (although he’s officially been cut out of my Kentucky pride spiels, now that I know he’s abusive). I am determined to leave the Oaxacan people with a better impression of my culture than some breaded fried foul.

This semester I taught a particularly sweet group of computer science kids in level one who were always asking questions about me and my life. For the most part students are a bit curious because they don’t get to have conversations with foreigners on a regular basis, so all of us on the English-teaching staff are a bit exotic and exciting. (You guys should see all the girls drooling on my Scottish, red-haired, blue-eyed coworker. Talk about exotic!) This group said they really wanted to hear more about Kentucky, so of course I had to oblige them. I sat down and wrote a list of my favorite things and turned it into a power point, which you can see here. Kentucky Home presentation

Granted, I had to put some things on the list which I don’t really care about or downright dislike, just for the sake of honesty. Despite my personal opinion, my state really is famous for the Kentucky Derby, also known as “the greatest two minutes in sports.” Although I think that horse racing is exploitative to the horses and the underpaid folks who train them, it is a big part of our economy and claim to fame. I also had to mention the 30 minute fireworks show, Thunder Over Louisville, even though I think fireworks are mostly absurd noise and air pollution, not to mention terrifying for some people and animals. I’d much rather have included festivities like KenDucky Derby or that race where servers see how fast they can open a bottle of wine and run with a tray full of wine glasses. But I had to put a limit on the amount of information to inundate the students with, so, you know, some of the more mainstream events won out over my preferences.

For the most part, though, I got to talk about things that I love. That my city, Louisville, is such a close-knit, friendly place. I tried to explain about the miles and miles of beautiful park space- not just a little playground and a bench, but so much green, right inside of a big(gish) city. I got to highlight the good food, the hundreds of restaurants which do not serve fried chicken. I explained about the injera at my favorite Ethiopian restaurant (injera bread is a not so foreign concept here in the land of corn tortillas with everything). I tried not to drool when I mentioned the avocado milkshakes at Vietnam Kitchen. I didn’t even mention the Japanese/Mexican fusion food at Dragon King’s Daughter, or about 15 other of my absolute favorites.

I got to talk about the best part of my city- that it’s full of beautiful immigrants and refugees, constantly adding to our culture. When I looked up the statistics, it said that the foreign-born population accounted for less than 5% of the total, although I am pretty sure that is an underestimate. Even if it’s not, the foreign-born population of Louisville, Kentucky, take up something like 70% of my Kentucky heart, so screw the official stats on this one. In Louisville, teaching English to the grown-up immigrant and refugee community, I learned that being a teacher means constant learning- on my part. I had the grand privilege of teaching professional folks from Mexico and Taiwan; brilliant, wise, multilingual yet illiterate women from Sudan; a father of 10 from the Democratic Republic of Congo; loving and tough mamas from Guatemala; a funny, adorable couple from Cuba, and so many others from so many cultures. And that was just my professional, English-teaching life! Aside from that I worked in restaurants with cooks from Senegal and various Mexican states. In my free time I hung out with generous, smart, nice, world-changing folks from Peru, Guatemala, and so many other places. Even though there is a foreign population in Puerto, being let in to the foreign-born community in Louisville is one of the things that I miss most.

In general, what I miss most is the intimacy of my community there. I sat in my office and cried watching all the outpourings of love in my city when Muhammed Ali died. I miss my family there- the ones I was born with and the ones I’ve chosen since then. I’m coming up on 4 years of living outside of Louisville, and luckily, I find myself feeling nostalgic and homesick less and less often. Especially now that my dad’s gone, the aunt I’m named for is always off on her boating adventures, and some of my other favorite people have moved away. My mind is less and less set on Louisville, because I know that it could never be the same place it was for me before. You can never go back to the past, so even if I went back tomorrow, it would be a readjustment and adaptation process all over again, even though it’s where I was born and raised. But big pieces of my heart still reside there, so creating and sharing my little Kentucky presentation was a good moment of catharsis for my eternally-divided little heart.

And most of all, I did the world some good in showing students that bourbon, annual zombie walks, and a moonbow at Cumberland Falls are all way, way cooler than fried chicken. Take that, impersonal capitalism! My state will rise above Kentucky Friend Chicken! Click on the presentation for lots of pictures!

Fearless Mother/Fathering, in the Bedtime Battle and Beyond

20 Jun

My dad just about drove my mother crazy with his saying that he was “both mother and father” to his children. It kind of made it sound like he was a widower, a single father, taking care of his poor motherless children, which was not at all the case. But I think what he was trying to say was that he did- and was willing to do- whatever was necessary to give his girls the best life possible, the best that he could give, without concern about whether it was a Daddy role or a Mommy role. For example, he cooked dinner- often and well. He coached our girls’ sports teams. He took us shopping for our before-school shoes. He taught us photography (and was pretty successful with my sister, though not as much with me). He grew up without a father, and was therefore extra determined to do right by both of his children, totally off-script, making it up as we went along. Maybe it was a bonus that he didn’t have a role model to copy; maybe it left him freer to invent his own role, to just be the kind of dad that he might have dreamed of.

Conan is a triply fearless soul. First off, he agreed to be the stay-home parent when Lucia was two. We all know that this is a rewarding but also frustrating, usually thankless, and sometimes mind-numbing job. He gets double points because he devoted himself to this in a time and place where it’s completely unacceptable, socially, for a man to be a stay-at-home parent. I could beat around the bush and say it’s just not common or something, but that would be excessively polite, even for a Kentucky girl like me. It’s shocking and threatening to the entire patriarchy of Southern Oaxaca, and yet somehow he not only rocks it but also still has a bunch of male friends. (“He seems so laid-back,” people think, totally unsuspecting of his big ole feminist streak.) Finally, his triple crown is due to his supreme perseverance in stay-at-home parenting even when the new baby came along. He is being  both mother and father to his kids, as my dad would say- something many moms already do, too, something that gay parents and other nontraditional families are already negotiating, but that’s not quite as common among straight fathers, even in more liberal areas of the world. He’s survived and grown (and kept our kids surviving and growing) for two years now as a stay-at-home dad.

We’ve been experimenting with our roles from the get-go, and today, I want to applaud him a little more specifically. I’m ready to state, out loud, that my husband is a much better parent than I am- at some things. (For sure, absolutely, he is a fabulous papi, all comparisons aside, and I’m a damn good mama, if I do say so myself. No need to put anyone down.) Even though I’m a gloriously subversive feminist, he is good at some things that I thought would be my role, and I’ve been surprised by how much of a challenge it is for me to let go of some of my expectations for myself and encourage those traits and actions in my partner.

Bedtime is one of the things that he is a natural at, although neither of us realized it until recently. The Bedtime Battle in our household has been almost as epic as the striking teachers’ drama here in Oaxaca. Since my 4-year-old was 5 months old, I’ve been fighting the good fight to attempt to calm her excited, joyous, curious mind enough to nap and sleep every day. I’ve spent ungodly amounts of time online, searching for solutions. I’ve read books and consulted experts.  I’ve cried my little heart out, tears of desperation and frustration and anguish. I’ve thrown my own tantrums. I’ve blamed genes (Conan’s insomniac genes and my overactive-mind genes). I’ve blamed our (my) parenting and tried to instill and reinforce routine, routine, routine. I’ve done everything I could possibly do for these two bright-eyed, bushy-tailed children, and half the time I still fail at my mission of helping them sleep enough or go to sleep at a reasonable hour.

The scheduling drama due to my job certainly wasn’t helping matters. With my 8-1 then 4-7 shift, I’d spend my lunch break trying to cook, get chores done or run errands and spend some scant amount of quality time with the kids. I’d attempt to put them both down for a nap around 3 or 3.15- Lucia in the hammock, Khalil in my arms. Then I’d go back to work.

I’d get home by 7.20. I’d throw together or reheat something for dinner (cooking is not something that Conan thrives at, unfortunately.). We’d sit down and eat (often at 8pm by the time I got the table cleared, got the drinks, got hands washed, etc.) Then it would be the mad dash to try to bathe both the kids and myself at the same time, get everyone in pajamas with brushed teeth, prep my coffee to survive the next morning, and usually attempt and fail at some other needed chore like getting diapers out of the washer, hanging up clothes, etc. I spent my entire evening after work running around like a chicken with my head cut off, neither taking good care of the children nor myself, trying to do everything and thus accomplishing nothing. I was hurrying at everything to get the kids to bed at a reasonable hour when I already knew it wasn’t really possible.

Meanwhile, Lucia’s fight against her nap was becoming more and more intolerable, partly because her nap was happening too late in the day, after she was way too exhausted, because of course I wanted to see her for as long as possible before I went back to work. I couldn’t put the kids to bed until I was also ready for bed because Lucia was often able to stay up for ages, thanks to her late afternoon nap. Khalil was falling down with sleepiness by the time I could get him into bed. My showers, dearly anticipated in this heat and humidity, were not half as enjoyable as they should have been, because I was scrambling to bathe the three of us all at the same time, as quickly as possible.

I was torn, because I wanted to see my kids as much as possible, but it was getting more and more painful for everybody to work with my schedule. I was getting resentful, comparing my life against that of dads living with stay-at-home moms. Why didn’t the stay at home parent in my life cook dinner? Why didn’t the stay at home parent in our household get the kids ready for bed? Why didn’t he institute clean-up time? Why didn’t he do x, y, and z like moms on TV? If I were the stay-at-home parent, then I would (fill in the blank with whatever I was resentful about in that moment).

Some of the problem was poor communication on our parts, but in part, too, I didn’t want him to do all of that. I wanted to be the one to read the kids their bedtime story and sing them their lullaby. I wanted to do all the things that my mama had done, things that I still cherish tenderly in my memories of childhood. I wanted to be responsible for the jobs and roles that I had so anticipated in the time between when I decided that, yes, someday I wanted to be a mom, and when I actually became a mom. I had imagined that I would be a stay-at-home parent for a while when they were really little, and then work part time for a while, and then someday get a full-time job. I had it all planned out in my dreams.

Of course, though, plans are often shattered by reality, especially with children involved. I work full-time, and Conan takes care of the kids full-time. It’s not exactly what either of us had in mind, but our kids are not only surviving but thriving. Us grown-ups are constantly learning and adapting to our lack of gender roles. When you don’t have a typical gendered family structure, negotiations are required on a regular basis, so everyone knows what the hell they’re supposed to be doing and what the other person is going to take care of.

The thing is, Mommies and Papis are not exactly the same. There are a couple of differences we can attribute to physical sex, such as the ability to produce breast milk or to carry a baby around in your uterus (yep, you need a uterus for that one, although you can identify as male and have a uterus, of course). The rest of our differences, however, are all about character- how you were raised and who you are that’s not determined by your sex. The rest of our differences- between Mommies and Papis- are on a similar plane as the difference between two different dads. They’re different people; they were raised differently; they have different values; they have different ideas about their roles.

That said, it seems like there are more differences between Moms and Dads than between different moms because to some extent or another, two people raised as the same gender are likely to have been raised with very similar expectations for how to behave.

I’m a much better cook than Conan is, but it’s not because I have a uterus; it’s because I’m actually willing to cook (first and foremost) and I have a passion for healthful, sensuous indulgence. I’m pretty sure we can’t attribute that to my fallopian tubes, although people do so every day. I don’t parent our kids in exactly the same way that Conan does. We don’t give our kids exactly the same things. For example, I’m much more permissive about letting them try something for themselves even when I know they can’t do it yet. I’m much stricter about how much junk food they ingest. Mommies and Papis aren’t exactly the same, just like no two dads are the same and no two mamas are the same. It’s not about our maleness and femaleness, and it’s not just about our gender roles, either.

I’ve been saying all these things, to anyone who will listen and also to myself, but I guess I only believed them about 80%. Or maybe I believed them fully as long as they applied to everyone else, because the reality is that I did not / do not want to give up my role of Most Intimate Parent- which is typically a Mommy role in every realm of the universe. Surely I would get to witness all their firsts, first steps, first words, give them their first food, etc. I wanted to be the one to kiss most of their ouchies. I imagined I’d be coordinating their outings. I insisted on going to all their doctors appointments. And I really, really wanted to be the one to tuck them in to bed at night, to read the bedtime story, to pat the backs, to sing the songs passed down from my mama.

The harsh reality, however, is that I can’t be out of the house, during the daytime, more than 40 hours a week and still do and be all of that (and all of you who somehow do so are to be worshipped). Slowly but surely I started to let go and rely on the Papi. Even though the nurses interrogate him about the child’s shamefully absent mother, Conan takes them for their vaccines. Conan learned really fast how to warm up the milk for a crying baby and feed him. Conan has proved himself perfectly capable of taking the kids for doctor’s visits. Conan can put the baby down for naps just fine. Slowly but surely, I am giving up the hidden, patriarchal complex that I carry in me, that ideology that teaches all of us that men cannot adequately take care of their own children.

It’s that same sexist message that teaches us to say things like, “Dad is babysitting tonight,” although babysitting is taking care of children that are not your own. It’s demeaning to men to assume that they can’t be loving, responsible caregivers. No, most of them have not had nearly as much training in it as most women have, but that doesn’t by any stretch mean that they can’t or don’t want to learn. But we’re all profoundly influenced by our culture and these intense messages in our world. Even if you question everything and your heart rejects obligatory gender roles and stereotypes, those messages still seep through the cracks.

So finally, one day, there was one desperate, tearful nap time struggle that broke the camel’s back. There had been too many nightmare-ish bedtimes. Finally, I broached the subject with Conan. What if we cut out Lucias nap time and Khalils second nap? We could put them to bed earlier, I suggested, waiting for his cynicism because I’m always talking about getting them to bed early and it never worked. I wanted him to think about the possibility of getting the kids ready for bed. But I would still put them to bed! Me, me, me- dont worry, I told him. You just give them their dinner and bathe them. Ill come home and immediately read their story and whisk them off to bed. He agreed with a minimum of cynicism (extra point for Conan). So it began.

I am brilliant at bedtime, in my way. I’m an excellent story-reader, adding hand-gestures, putting emphasis on the most interesting parts, making different voices, letting Lucia ask 10 thousand questions and make 500 comments about every page. I’m not bad at teeth-brushing. I’m a terrible singer, but I know a lot of good sleepy songs. I rock at bedtime in certain ways.

But I’m not patient. I don’t feel relaxed when I’m trying to make my kids relax and go to sleep. The longer my kids take, the more tense and angry-feeling I become. Then they sense my irritation and agitation, and it surely doesn’t help them relax. Lucia always asks for a drink of water right as she’s about to fall asleep, just to fight the sandman off a little longer. Or she’ll have really, really pressing questions, like, “Why does fire burn, Mommy?” One night I successfully reminded her that it was sleepy time, and therefore we weren’t going to talk. She let it go- until bedtime the next night. “But why, Mommy?” she repeated. “Please tell me!” She urged, like it was a pressing need to be resolved in that moment. Bless her little heart. I can’t shrug off her familiar mix of anxiety and curiosity; I feel the need to answer her. She reminds me so damn much of me, which I both adore and abhor.

The reality is that I’m not the best parent to put my children to bed. Conan is, hands-down, a better choice for the job. Even with him getting them ready for bed and me coming home and attempting to get them to sleep right off the bat, they were still going to sleep at least an hour later than I wanted. It wasn’t working, but instead of him saying, “I told you so,” he took it upon himself to get them to sleep himself before I got home from work.

It worked so well that we decided he would do it like that all the time. Still, I kept checking in / questioning him. Did you remember Lucias medicine? Did you brush Khalils teeth? Did you really read them both a book? I didn’t really think about the fact that I was questioning his ability to handle the bedtime routine, and thus questioning his ability to parent them equally. I was needlessly worried about the transition. Maybe he didn’t do everything perfectly, all the time, at first- but I certainly didn’t either when I was the one putting them to bed.

Once Conan took over the responsibility for bedtime and we put their early bedtime into effect, I suddenly had happier children. Lucia doesn’t get bags under her eyes, and is much less cranky than before. Khalil is falling asleep easier. There are fewer meltdowns all around. And my life is 60 billion times better because of it. My evenings are calmer. I can prep the food I’m going to cook the next day at night, and shower in peace, alone. I don’t feel half as exhausted when I wake up in the morning, although I’m sleeping the same amount of time. My kids wake up happy and rested, and therefore I am able to spend pleasant moments with them before I go to work instead of fighting with them. I can get Lucia dressed and read a book while I brush her hair, for example. So I’m not missing out on all her reading time. I can give Khalil his first meal of the day and maybe chase him around the house for a bit, starting my morning off with giggles and delight instead of tantrums.

It’s a miraculous change for all of us. It’s something that I dreamed of, that I didn’t think could happen, because I secretly didn’t want to give up one part of my prescribed gender role. Because I didn’t think Conan would be willing to take on even more of the parenting responsibility, when he’s already the one who’s with them 24/7 most of the time. Even though he volunteered for the job of stay-at-home parent. Even though he’s a perfectly capable and loving father. It’s amazing what can happen when two people are both finally willing to let go of their gendered expectations and be the most practical, best parents they can they be.

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there who are giving it their very best. You’re amazing, and imperfection is part of the deal, so just roll with it. Happy Father’s Day, to my dad in the Great Beyond, who wasn’t afraid to do some Mommy jobs, who was way ahead of his time. Happy Father’s Day to my partner, Conan, who is so quietly but steadily radical in his thoughts, words and deeds. Who is doing his very best and even teaching me. Conan, you are a fabulous, fearless father, for bedtime and beyond, and my dad and yours are surely both so proud.

Bearing the Fruits of My Two Labors: Birthing in Oaxaca Part I

14 Jun

In 2014, a waiter in a restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky, kindly advised my dad that I should not give birth in the town where I live in Oaxaca, Mexico.* The waiter and my dad and stepmom had been chatting, and it turned out the waiter was from Oaxaca. One thing led to another in the conversation and suddenly the waiter knew my entire life story and my unborn child’s due date (yep, this talkative business runs in my family). So the waiter asks, “When is she coming here to have the baby?” My dad says that I’m not, and the waiter is taken aback. He tells my dad to convince me to go home and have the baby. He tells him that Oaxaca is not a good or safe place to give birth. He doesn’t go into details, but he’s very firm on the idea that it’s not going to be good for me and the baby.

Thanks to that helpful waiter, I spent weeks reassuring my protective father that no, really, I was going to be fine. The baby was going to be fine. Yes, the baby really will have dual citizenship, too. No, I don’t know where I’m going to give birth yet, but I will pick a great doctor. No, I’m really not coming home. Everything will be as fine as it can possibly be; I promise. Conan promises, too.

Fast forward to the present. I’ve now given birth twice- once in the U.S. and once in the poorest state in Mexico. They were outrageously different births, but probably not in the ways that that nice waiter imagined.

My Home Birth …. Err, My Hospital Birth in My Hometown

In my first pregnancy, in Kentucky, Conan and I took classes together about healthy pregnancy and drug-free, vaginal childbirth. We wanted to hire a midwife but went the (free, insurance-covered) hospital route instead, mostly because I found a gynecologist that I felt really comfortable with. We hired a doula, a (non-medical) labor assistant, to accompany us in the wild process of bringing new life into the world. We toured the hospital. We decorated the baby room. We agreed on all the big decisions- and if this happens, then x, and if the situations looks like this, then y, and be ready for this other thing. I felt grateful to be having a baby in my home country, where I thought I could best prepare for all the possibilities, where I was sure I would at the very least be safe and respected.

My labor and delivery in Kentucky was amazing, because, to some extent, having a baby is an awe-inspiring, life-altering event one way or the other. But almost everything that I didn’t want to happen did happen, and that wasn’t especially thrilling. Some of it was circumstantial, or due to things that I can blame on the baby (that’s right, kid- might as well start taking some responsibility around here). For example, I was stuck in purgatory (aka early stage labor) for over 24 hours. I was in labor altogether for about 48 hours. Once at the hospital, I was rewarded with an IV full of Pitocin (the drug that makes your contractions horrendously fast and strong because your body’s not giving you a hard enough time). Alas, labor is unpredictable. I knew it wouldn’t be how I’d dreamt it.

Some things, though, could have been different in a different setting. For example, it would have been nice to not be meeting new doctors while I’m starting to push a baby out. “Oh, hi, nice to meet you,” wasn’t really in my repertoire at the time. The absolute worst part, though, the way I remember it, was those Marquis de Sade-style strappy belt things they use for fetal monitoring. Making laboring women (gasp) sit still is truly cruel punishment. I realize that I was lucky it only happened once an hour (twice when it didn’t work during the first contraction) instead of constantly. Still, though, when swaying and gyrating in time with your gut-wrenching cramps is your salvation, imposed stillness is pretty rough. Thanks to Conan, to our doula, to only intermittent monitoring, and to generally being even more stubborn than my now four-year-old when she wants the triangle shaped sandwich, I did not get the make-the-pain-go-away-drugs- aka epidural. (What is the reward in this, you ask? Getting up by myself to go pee right afterwards? I must be out of my mind. But I’m entitled to be out of my mind on this!)

Not having an epidural and not having a Cesarean were pretty much the only things that coincided with my hopes and plans. When the time FINALLY came to get this creature out of me, as I might have screamed at one point, two male doctors who I’d never seen before attended to me instead of the fabulous lady gynecologist that I’d carefully selected for this purpose. These two random dudes (okay, I guess they were doctors, but how do I know?) used pretty much every intervention possible except for cutting my belly open. They made me lie down when I wanted to squat, perhaps just to make sure I knew this was going to go by their terms and conditions. I won’t go into all the gory details here of the way-too-eventful trip down the vaginal canal, but suffice it to say that neither of us two main characters were unharmed. When the baby was born, they put her under a warmer instead of on my chest. They cut the umbilical cord immediately. They let me hold her for a minute before they whisked her off for testing, even though all of these things were expressly against our wishes except in case of an emergency, and a true emergency it was not.

I’d like to say that at the end of the day, it didn’t matter, because I had a healthy baby and I was healthy, too. Except it did and does matter. I’m not complaining, and I wouldn’t even say I had an awful birthing experience. In fact, I felt like such a such a raging warrior / shaman-back-from-the-mountain that when Conan asked me a couple hours later if I wanted to do it again, I said, honestly and sincerely, “Hell, yes.” But the way that you treat people does matter, always.

My ReBirth…. Errr, Second Time’s the Charm, Abroad

The second child, of course, is not really comparable, because #1 has already paved the way, so to speak.** But my birthing experience here in Oaxaca could hardly have been more different. This time, I made my doctor sign a pact with the blood of his first-born that he would be the one to actually deliver my baby. (Okay, maybe it wasn’t real blood.) My wonderful, simpatico (all-around nice), knowledgeable, son-and-grandson-of-midwives, modern gynecologist committed to be there. So I called his cell phone a little bit after my labor started. “Okay,” he said, calm and cool as usual, “Let me know when you want to come in.”

I went in about 3 hours in to my labor. The clinic is like a mini private hospital, with big airy rooms in a lovely tree-covered yard/corridor just a little ways from the beach. My doctor checked out me and the baby and promptly sent Conan and me off to go walk on the beach while things progressed. He monitored the baby with a regular old Doppler instead of that horrendous belt thing (although that, along with all the other medical equipment in a U.S. hospital, was available). The sheer lack of the sadistic strap-down belt instantly made for a more peaceful, happier bringing-forth, compared to my hospital birth in Kentucky.

In general, he and the staff let me do my thing. I was extremely privileged to be accompanied by Conan and by a terrific doula, which is a nearly non-existent position in my neck of the woods. This birthing experience was essentially everything I’d hoped for with the first. I wouldn’t call it easy, because, you know, your little internal alien is forcing your body open, and even if you get to walk on the beach meanwhile it is not a regular walk on the beach. But I felt like I was taken into account. I felt like an active, respected participant in the birth of my baby the whole time.

Because of all these wonderfully calm and conducive circumstances, because luck was also on my side, and because it was my second kid, everything was over and done about 8 hours after my first contraction this time. In fact, the only real negative was that it went a bit faster than the doctor predicted at the end, and he almost wasn’t there for the birth. But he made it in time and guided us through the last bit beautifully and smoothly. The baby was placed right on my chest and Conan got to cut the umbilical cord several minutes later. My now beloved doctor told me I could go home that evening, but that he’d prefer that we stayed till morning just to be on the safe side. We did, since having a toddler to go take care of right after giving birth doesn’t make going home quite as enticing as it might be otherwise.

Other Differences in My Experience

What you receive, and the level of attentiveness, afterwards was very different between my two births. In Kentucky the hospital provided all my meals and all my drinks after birth, in addition to diapers, onesies, a hat, a blanket, and everything else necessary to care for me and the baby for two days. I even had a choice of items for my meals. Sure, I needed some more flavorful food shipped in, but if I hadn’t had family there I would have survived just fine. I’m sure they charge the insurance company for every last cup of ice they give me, but since I didn’t have to pay for it, it was all incredibly helpful.

For my birth here in Oaxaca, on the other hand, even at my fairly expensive private clinic, they don’t provide me with much of anything. They gave me some fruit and some juice and tea, and something for breakfast the next day, I think, but that was about it. I knew this was the norm going in, and I thought I was all prepared, but in the moment I ended up having to send people out to get things quite a bit. The baby dirtied up half of his first outfit immediately out of the womb, for example, so I needed another hat and blanket for him for after his bath. I even had to buy soap for his first bath. There was hand soap in the clinic for everyone’s hand washing needs, thank goodness- not like the typical lack of soap in public clinics and hospitals. And the room was clean and free of mosquitos, which is, of course, a big deal. That was the extent of the hospitality, but my bill was a whole lot smaller than it would have been in the U.S., too, and luckily I did have people to make sure we had everything we needed.

All in all, my supposedly scary/ dangerous/ substandard birthing experience in Mexico was far, far superior to my birthing experience in the U.S., where we have this idea that everything is the cleanest, safest, most modern standard on earth. This is absolutely not the case. The U.S. is really low on the list in the “developed” world in terms of using best practices- doing the most researched, highest recommended things in medical practice. The U.S., among other “developed” nations, has some of the highest rates of maternal and infant mortality.*** Being a rich nation does not make it a better environment for giving birth. Being a poor nation does not indicate that health care is always substandard (geez, look at Cuba if you need another example).

It’s important to note, also, that while I was able to have my “perfect” birthing experience in Mexico, money, and several other factors, played a big role in my access to that experience. My experience is not typical. For this reason, this is the first post in a series I’ll be doing on giving birth in Oaxaca. I have talked to a lot of people about their birth stories (which will only be shared anonymously and with permission). I’ve read a lot of research. I’ve talked to doctors, I’ve been through the insurance company saga. And I am all fired up to start changing the system! But every time I sit down to hammer it all out, I get overwhelmed. I cry again, and again, tears of outrage and solidarity for everyone who hasn’t had- and those who probably won’t have- a birthing experience like mine- where they felt respected, where they were treated like a valid, participating member in the event. Which is most of what it takes to have a truly “perfect” birth, and which should be a human right for all. And I won’t shut up until it is.

*Seriously! Why does everyone- and their mom- have such excessive amounts of unsolicited advice for pregnant women?? Resist the urge to say everything you think, people. Please.

**If you are the oldest in a family, you know this is true. Your siblings who come after you have it so much easier in every respect because you’ve been busily training parents in how to parent since you were born, on top of all your other difficult jobs, like throwing tantrums in the grocery store.

*** source

Colorful Catholicism for Goddess-Lovers, and for Those in Need of a Lover

5 Jun

Mexican Catholicism is a gloriously pagan affair. If I were Catholic, this would absolutely be my style. It’s Goddess-centered (ahem, I mean Virgin Mary-centered), and way more elaborately ritualistic than a typical Catholic mass in the U.S.

I already liked Catholicism for all its saint-loving, saints being like special lesser deities just to help you out with random parts of your life. But in Mexico the interpretation of saints’ jobs is even better. For example, when I mention a Saint Anthony, who I know as the Patron Saint of Lost Things (this is who I always call on for lost documents, lost keys, etc., although I’m not a practicing Catholic), everyone laughs at me, assuming I’m talking about the saint you call on to find yourself a boyfriend or husband. You have to turn an image of him upside down if you are a single lady looking for a man (I haven’t seen any specifications on whether or not it can help single ladies find a girlfriend, but it’s very specific that he’s a saint for solteras, so I guess he won’t help attached women find an extra lover, nor men looking for a partner.)

Don’t worry, though, fellas, because there’s also a local recourse if you are having trouble finding a woman partner. Halfway up the mountain, between Rio Grande and Juquila, lies the small town of San Marcos Zacatepec. Right there off the main road you can make your pilgrimage to the Piedra Mujer (Stone Woman). Go in, say a prayer (some put it in writing as well), light a candle, and you’re golden. Once you have your partner, you go back and give thanks with an offering (money to maintain the sanctuary, and a thank-you note if you want.) All in a day’s work in the world of Mexican Catholicism.


a close-up of the “Stone Woman”- if this ain’t a tribute to the Goddess then I don’t know what it is


The sanctuary of the Piedra Mujer

And it doesn’t end with the saints. I love that nobody’s walking around with those WWJD bracelets, because for the most part, people aren’t all that into Jesus. The majority of the love, prayers, tokens of adoration, and clothing accessories are for Mary. People have images and invocations of the Virgin Mary all over the place, all the time. I’ve seen a whole group with painted t-shirts of grafitti-style Virgin Mary. Cars sometimes have lettering on the windshield reading “Gift from the Virgin.” There are Virgin Mary bracelets, necklaces, rearview mirror ornaments, dashboard ornaments, car hood ornaments, wallet-size cards, statues for the home, dolls, and tattoos. There’s more tourism that goes to visit the Virgin Mary who supposedly appeared in Juquila than there is tourism to the beach here in Puerto. The devotion is impressive.


one common image of the Virgin of Juquila

Juquila isn’t the only spot where the Virgin Mary has been sighted in Mexico. Nor is it just a spot to pray. No, it’s way more pagan-style than that; you perform a whole ritual when you go to ask for something. You make a clay figure that represents what you are asking for from the Virgin (for example, a car if you are hoping to save up to buy a car). You make a promise to the Virgin. You spread some dirt on your face. Some people bathe in the water near the cave where she was spotted. People fill up their plastic bottles with that same holy water. It’s a very serious affair. People don’t ask for stuff without expecting to work for it, but it’s a way to get extra help, an extra blessing when you’re trying to do or acquire something big. There are folks who wouldn’t dream of starting some big undertaking without a visit to the Virgin first. Often it involves a promise to the Virgin; making the pilgrimage by foot or on your knees next year, or cutting off your beautiful braid, or some other kind of sacrifice.

Rituals in general are of great cultural importance. When you die here, people aren’t worrying about who’s going to give the moving speech at the funeral. Instead everyone comes together to cook food for the people who will come every night in a nine-day long ritual of prayer and incense. It culminates in the ninth evening being an all-night prayer vigil, followed by everyone going to the cemetery in the morning to leave the cross and say some more prayers.

There are other religions here, but Catholicism is the big majority rule, and it’s totally ingrained into the culture whether you’re a practitioner or not. Mexico is technically secular, but for all intents and purposes it’s still an officially Catholic country. For example, I just went to the grand opening of a new (completely secular) business, and half of it centered around a blessing by a priest. And the Church has some serious, major power that I sadly don’t see them using for justice around here. They’re typically more concerned with whether you’re married via the Catholic Church and whether men should have earrings or not than all the malnourished people in this rampantly corrupt state. (According to folks I know who go to mass and listen to these exciting sermons and otherwise participate- I don’t have first-hand experience with mass here, sorry. I do know that Conan and I can’t be anyone’s official Godparents here because we’re only legally, civilly married, not religiously.)

Catholic Church aside, though, I adore Mexican Catholicism for the way it honors and continues to revere it’s pre-Colombian roots, without even acknowledging that this could possibly not be Pope-approved, all this assembling clay figures, for example. Here, this is what Catholicism is, period- pagan symbols, goddess figures and all. If I could just get over the whole institution of it, all the priests that act like they‘re God, and even this radical Pope still telling women not to protect themselves with condoms and birth control- if I could just get past that part, I would have found a religious home in this fabulously expressive, colorful Mexican Catholicism. I might still get one of those graffiti-style lettered shirts, anyway, if I could get one of the Piedra Mujer instead of the Virgin Mary. I’m going to look into it.

Peace and respect, folks, to all the religious in whatever religion and the non-religious, too. Until next time.