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Disability, Different-ability, Difference, and Determination, Oh My!

14 Aug

Despite everyone’s reassurances to the contrary, I’d had my suspicions that something was “wrong” with my kid for a few months by the time I was able to get him properly evaluated. Nobody likes to think that their kid is different in a way that’s going to make their child’s life more difficult or hurt them, in the present and/or the future, so your self-denial can work against you. Sometimes other folks even spend lots of energy to convince you that your kid is “normal,” either because they don’t want you to feel bad, or they don’t believe someone could have a problem that they can’t see themselves, or because people just love comparisons as much as they love giving advice. “Well, look at Tomas’s son! He can barely talk and he’s four.” Which is less than ideal, thanks. “My grandmother gave him parrot crumbs, and after that he started talking.” Ummm, I guess I could try that? Not holding my breath for results, though.

My two year old had been able to understand everything for quite a while, and had started talking, but he wasn’t really making progress. He was adding a new word maybe every couple of weeks or every month instead of every day. He wasn’t even putting two words together. All of that is potentially fine. And in Mexico, especially, nobody worries about kids who are slow to talk; it’s practically the norm. “Boys are slower,” people said, or, “Bilingual kids take longer to talk.” Even I sometimes thought, “It’s because he doesn’t need to talk yet; he makes his needs understood just fine with his few words, gesticulations and sounds.” I would try to motivate him to talk, but he absolutely wouldn’t even try to say anything that wasn’t something he could already say. He would suddenly pop up with a new word or new animal noise, and then that would be all his verbal progress for an extended amount of time. The whole, “He’ll talk when he’s ready” theory had started to not make sense to me, because I could see that he wanted to talk. He would try to tell big, complex stories about something that happened, using only sounds and motions. He was starting to get really frustrated with not being able to express himself enough, despite the great lengths he’d go to in order to get his point across. So I worried a bit and then set my worry aside, because there was nothing I could do about in in my small town in Oaxaca.  (I wrote this in January of this year about him, still trying not to worry about his speech: Bilingual Baby Speak, Take Two)

Less than a week after arriving to the US, though, I consulted the blessed (easy to access) internet and found a place for him to get his hearing checked for free. The screening was every Thursday and I found the info on a Wednesday; it couldn’t have been more convenient. The internet also informed me that the same place did speech screenings for free a different Thursday of the month. Truly, the universe has smiled upon us in this whole process. Let me tell you.

His hearing, as I suspected, was fine. That was just something to rule that out as being the cause of any potential speech problem. I asked about the speech screenings and the receptionist informed me that I needed to schedule an appointment for that. And then she actually scheduled me an appointment for twenty minutes later! I was elated. I was going to know something about Khalil’s speech in that very same day.

Needless to say, once I had access to these kinds of services, I was hoping that the speech therapist here in Savannah, Georgia, would tell me to just be patient; that maybe he just prefers animal sounds to words and he’ll grow out of it eventually. Or that I should go ahead and give him parrot crumbs and relax. That is not what the speech therapist told me, however.

“He has Apraxia of Speech,” she told me matter-of-factly, gently but to the point. I took out my pen and notebook and started scribbling, but she quickly handed me her notepad instead, and assured me she’d also give me a bunch of printed information in a moment. She explained that it’s a neurological problem where people can’t connect the word in their brain with the movements in their mouth in order to say the word. The brain has problems planning and coordinating that movement, but it’s not because of a weakness in the muscles. Some people have apraxia due to a severe accident, but in most cases the cause is not known. Most importantly, it is not something that kids just grow out of on their own. It requires frequent, one-on-one speech therapy specifically designed for apraxia.

“But it’s treatable?” I wanted to confirm. “Yes. It’s very treatable. But don’t Google it. I’ve even seen college professors say, ‘There’s nothing we can do for these kids,’ and that’s absolutely not true. I know because I’ve worked with these cases for years, and they do progress. It’s amazing, but they do.This is actually my passion. I am always careful not to over diagnose apraxia, because it is my specialty.”

So of course after the formal evaluation the next day, in which he was diagnosed with severe apraxia of speech, I questioned how sure she was about her diagnosis. “Well,” she started, “I’m very sure, since we can pretty much rule out everything else.” He’s not autistic. There are no other cognitive problems. There’s no muscle weakness, since he’s eating fine. It’s not a lack of wanting to speak. She listed off some other things that most certainly don’t fit the bill for my kid. OK. Convinced. And regardless, I figured, having a special type of speech therapy is surely not going to hurt him. If it doesn’t help then we can reevaluate.

She also recommended that we start signing with him, and she gave me a giant laminated foldout with a bunch of basic American Sign Language (ASL) signs for kids. I’d already learned a few signs before this and thought about learning more before the diagnosis, so her recommendation seemed like another positive.

The best part, though, was that she told me that it could be treated right there, by her, a specialist and passionate teacher. She was taken aback when I told her we’d only be in town a month, but said that at least we could try to do twice a week for that month. Not only was she accommodating and positive, but also the administrative staff was FABULOUS to us. They figured out a way to get around needing an official referral from a US doctor, and then they made sure that we received a major scholarship for his treatment and formal evaluation. Everyone in that building has been so welcoming and helpful to us from the moment that we walked in the door. I feel like the universe put us in exactly the right place at the right time to do what needs to be done for my family.

We headed up to my hometown for a two week visit after that, even though that meant delaying the start of my son’s speech therapy. It was a trip that had been long planned, and something I really needed to recharge my spirit’s batteries. So I got started learning ASL with the kids, and we all started having a good time with that. ASL is a fascinating and very intuitive language. The coolest part was realizing that two of my son’s self-invented signs were actually the official ASL signs for that word. (His sign for little and his sign for eat, in case you’re wondering).

Not only did he like being able to express more things with ASL, he also started trying to produce more words verbally. It was a really cool and unexpected (to me) effect. When he signs “help,” for example, he says something that sounds like “houp”; not very clear to others, but at least he’s trying to produce words beyond his small verbal vocabulary. Signing also helped me worry less and treat him more like I do my other kid; armed with ASL, he, too, has to “say” please and thank you. He has to show me his “yes” rather than say “ha.” He can tell me what color cup he wants without me having to show him every single one in the cupboard. And as much as he feels he can, he tries to say the word, too- like his second favorite color, “boo.”

How do I know it’s his second favorite color if he can barely talk and barely sign, you may wonder? For one, apraxia doesn’t necessarily mean you have any other cognitive problems, although that happens in some cases. It also doesn’t mean you have fewer words than other kids; his receptive language is impressive, and he has the word in his head, he just can’t make his mouth do what it needs to do to pronounce it. On top of that all, my kid just loves to communicate. With the color situation, I knew he recognized all the colors since a while back, even though he couldn’t say them. He knew everyone in the family’s favorite color. When he saw that color, he would say the person’s name. His favorite color is green (“mah” he says when he sees green, palm on chest). But lately he started saying “mah” and pointing to blue, too. So I asked, “Ok, which one is your favorite color?” And he said, “Two! Two!” showing me two fingers in case I was still confused. (Two is one of his newer words- before this he always said “doh” for “dos”.) He can answer any questions as long as I can make I a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, or he can show his answer or use one of his words or signs to answer. There is lots and lots of communication going on, despite his apraxia.

One of the coolest moments in the short time since this diagnosis was at the library. The librarians had found us several cool books about trucks (one of his current obsessions), and once it was time to go, I told him, “Let’s go ask how many we can check out at a time.” He said “mah, mah” and “mama no” and walked confidently up to the librarian. I held my breath, wondering how in the world he was going to ask. (We have not yet learned a sign for “how many,” and even if we had, what are the chances that the librarian would know ASL?) He walked up and stood there for a minute, I’m sure thinking the words in his head, and finally made a noise that sounded like that way your voice goes up at the end of the question. Luckily, the librarian had heard me tell him what we were going to ask, so she answered him, which made him proud and confident, as you can imagine.

At this point he’s only had 4 short sessions of speech therapy, but already he is stringing together 2 and 3 words at a time. “Moh apple juice,” he says. He wants to use his “new boo bowl,” making the sign for blue at the same time. The most interesting thing about apraxia to me is the way that sounds don’t automatically transfer when put in different combinations. Even though he can make the sound “oo” and the “t” or the “d” sound, he couldn’t put them together until now. So he could say “moo” and he could say “gato,” but he couldn’t say “two” and he can’t seem to say any other word that starts with that “g” sound. When he was a baby, he babbled the “goo” sound, but he can’t/doesn’t say it now. Funny, right? So apraxia requires lots and lots of practice with different sound combinations, in a structured way, often with visual and physical cues. I won’t try to go into any more detail on methods because I am still essentially clueless, although of course I’m investigating and observing as best as I can. If you’re interested, I recommend you check out this site in English or este sitio en español for more information.

He is adding new sound combinations on the daily now. It brings smiles of rapture to him and to me when he comes out with a new word now. Among the most important that he’s learned: dump, although he still can’t say truck. It is sure to be a whole new level of joy once he gets the word truck. And he wants to add other words to it, so now every dump truck we see on the street is a new dump. We’re practicing a specific set of nursery rhymes to focus on certain sounds, and suddenly he can say shoe. He can say home, which is huge. Tonight at bedtime he went through his list of who was at home and who wasn’t. “Papa no. Mama home. La (meaning Lucia, with the L sounding closish to a W) home. Nonna home. Hmm (makes sign for Dee) home.” He is getting closer to pronouncing this and that, although other folks probably wouldn’t understand him yet. He recognizes stop signs now in the street and if I give him the cue for the s sound or model it in an exaggerated way then he can say stop. If I don’t cue him or model it he just says top, but it’s still amazing progress. We both started jumping around in ecstasy and pride when a couple mornings ago he busted out with “shut da door.” Ok, so the r at the end isn’t very pronounced. But he went and said it to other people and they could understand what he was saying. So much learning! So much excitement, every single day!

He saw a riding lawnmower the other day and was so fascinated we had to follow it around the apartment complex for half an hour. He can say mow, so he says hmm-mow to mean lawnmower. He asks about it several times a day, pointing out the window, inquiring when it will arrive. (I just learned the sign for when, so we’re working on that.)

“If anybody was ever trying, he is,” our brilliant and wondrous speech therapist said. We call her his maestra. My son goes to his class that’s just for him, and he’s very proud about it. “Mama no,” he says, shaking his head emphatically, when I tell him we’re off to his class. “Nonna no,” “Hmm (signs for Uncle Greg) no,” “Hmm (signs for Dee) no,” “La no,” etc. “Mah,” he asserts. His class. He’s got this. I’m just following his lead- his and his teacher’s. She assures me that his brain is primed for this right now. That if we can keep this momentum going- his excitement and motivation, his brain’s elasticity- well, who knows where we’ll end up, if we just had some more time.

Hence our radical change in plans. We were supposed to be heading home to Papi and to our sweet little coast of Oaxaca at the end of this month, to our kids’ radical school, and instead we’re going back in January. Because my child will have no access to adequate services down there. I inquired and investigated and the only thing I found was a speech therapist who can only do group therapy, who’s an hour and a half away, who comes to my town every two weeks for group work, dealing with kids with a wide range of speech difficulties. There might be someone in Oaxaca City, which is seven hours away. I didn’t even inquire, because how could we pull that off?

All the research indicates that apraxia needs frequent, one-on-one, apraxia-specific therapy in order to produce the most chance of success. And the earlier these little ones start treatment, the better the long-term outcome. So here we are. Living with my very generous and helpful family, but living without my kids’ father for much longer than we planned. A father who wants to be and has been involved every day, but who can’t come here yet, because of our immigration process. How do you decide between your kids having access to their dad or one of your kids possibly being able to talk well someday? If it turns out he needs years of speech therapy (which seems likely but not definite) then what are we supposed to do after January? Leave him in Puerto for a couple years without speech therapy until our immigration case goes through? There are many more difficult decisions for our family in the coming weeks, but for now my husband and I have just made this one decision: keeping our little one in speech for as long as we can in one pass, despite all the hardship and inconvenience on all other levels. No one can know where his progress will be in January, I just know that this way we’re giving him a bit more time without completely destroying our family and the life we’ve already built in our town. Their wonderful school is holding their spots for January, and the principal (a dear friend to boot) already promised me they’d learn some signs for him, too. We have to go back for so many reasons, most of all for Papi, but we also have to make our son’s needs a priority, because he so desperately wants to talk. Staying here longer, unexpectedly, is hurting all of us in some ways, but this is what life looks like- full of difficult and complex decisions. I try to chose to feel pleased to be alive and making decisions every day. Some days it’s harder than others.

(For more about our family immigration situation, you can read The Compass at our Crossroads and Ending our Exile )

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“Comparisons are odious,” my mom used to say, quoting Shakespeare, I believe. My son’s mind doesn’t work the same as my daughter’s: they are radically different in some ways. My daughter was speaking in full and complex sentences early on. She is shy and introverted and loves to live in her story-world. My son, though, is outgoing through and through. He can Skype for ages with my family, while my daughter barely wants to say hi. He has to work so hard to express himself, but because of that he forces himself, and he has different skills. He is an expert in his semi-verbal version of circumlocution. He makes connections that other people might not. Like when we were talking about somebody’s name, Johnson, and my semi-verbal kiddo said, “Papa, hahaha,” which is a line from a dumb song they listen to on Bob the Train videos. I was like, “What is he talking about?” I started my guessing game. “Something funny with Papi?” No. “Something about Papi?” No. He keeps repeating “Papa, hahaha” until finally it clicks for me: Ah, Johnson and Johnny! “Like Johnny and Johnson? They’re similar?” I ask him. “Ha,” he says in place of yes. He’s probably thinking, “My slow Mommy finally got it! When will these people learn?” Discovering the complexities of his different mind is a major parenting joy that I am grateful to have everyday.

It can be really hard to think that your kid is different in some kind of scary, lifelong, will-never-have-a-good-life kind of way, whatever that may mean for you. To me, the idea of not being able to speak your mind sounded pretty awful to me- enough to keep me up crying a couple times since the diagnosis. Knowledge is power, though, and knowing what is going on with your kid, acknowledging differences and working with that is the name of the game, for me at least. While I’ve felt some panic and some despair, more than anything I’ve felt relief at knowing what the problem is, and hope that my baby will get what he needs. I have every hope that he will indeed be one of the cases who can speak effectively and understandably most of the time, at some point. But I also am coming to terms with the idea that he might be “different” forever, and that doesn’t actually scare me at all. I have friends who are deaf, and they’re awesome. I have friends and family who need wheelchairs, and they’re awesome. Life is not ruined just by having different abilities. It can be more difficult, or difficult in ways that aren’t the same as other people’s difficulties. I am going to do my damnedest to help my kid talk, and to try to do it in circumstances that don’t destroy our family. But I also know that if he never gets completely “cured” then that’s far from the end of the world. My kid could already talk complexly with just six words; I’m pretty sure he’s unstoppable. I know that in many ways this “disability” is just that: a difference, which is its own type of gift.

 

My determined child with a brilliant sense of humor. What else could I ask for?

Thanks, Universe!

P.S. We are still raising money for our immigration process, which is now more necessary than before. If you’re able to and so inclined, you can donate at this site.  Thanks for reading! Hugs!

 

 

A New Round of Culture-Induced Confusion

2 Aug

The cultural “surprises” this year were all fun and games up until the grilled cheese sandwiches.

Before that it was all questions like, “Why does it have these things on the window?” (They’re a different form of curtains called blinds.)

“What are these boxes? Can I see what’s inside all of them?” (They’re mailboxes and don’t touch them unless you want us to get arrested.) Followed by, “What’s mail?”

“Why do you put the bread in there?” (It heats it on both sides much faster than the comal.)

“Are these for climbing?” (They’re fire hydrants and you can climb them as long as you move if the fire truck comes.)

“How come they have videos at the library?” (Because some libraries have lots of different things, and activities, too!) We were very impressed with the small library by Nonna and Dee’s new house, with it’s table of Legos and tables covered in butcher paper to let kids color on the table. I had totally forgotten how much this country caters to children. On our first dinner out, in which I planned to have long talks with my Aunt Julia and Uncle Terry, I brought my usual backpack full of tricks for the kids so they could keep themselves entertained. But lo and behold, the restaurant provided them with paper menus and crayons! Such a thing would never be provided where we live- both because of a lack of resources in our area and because people just don’t center their lives around children in the same way we do here.

Despite all this indulging the children, of course there had been a couple of complaints even before the grilled cheese.

“Why do we have to wear seat belts every time? Why can’t we switch seats?” (Mandatory seat belt laws and fast driving that require effectual kid seating and restraints, my dears.)

“Why do we have to wear shoes everywhere?” (Ummm, because we’re not on the coast of Oaxaca. People here think it’s important to wear shoes.)

“But it’s taking a long time to get there!” (Well, that’s the price you pay to live in the city.)

“Why is it so cold?” (I fluctuate between a simple, ‘air conditioning’ and a disapproving head shake with, ‘who understands these people, baby’- depending on how much I’m suffering from the air conditioning cold.

So we’re on the kids’ first ever car-based road trip inside the 48 contiguous states, and it all starts out lovely. Approximately every 27 seconds, Khalil (age 2) shouts, “Mamaaaa! Mamaaaa! Mamaaaa!” Mommy looks around to see what Khalil is pointing at. “Yes, Khalil, it’s another semi-truck. Yes, it’s yellow, Lucia’s color. Yes, Khalil, a bulldozer. Yes, you’re a bulldozer. Yes, another semi-truck. Papi’s color? Now his favorite color is blue? Okay, yes, I’ll tell him his new favorite color is blue.” Meanwhile, Lucia is playing this incredibly annoying, repetitive circus music that is a button on her doll, but we’ve started using reverse psychology very effectively. “Oh, it’s our favorite song!” My mom and I exclaim. We invent lyrics to go with it which annoys Lucia. So now she only plays it for a couple of seconds before she sees how much we’re enjoying it and turns it off.

Then we found ourselves inside the old people’s home of the highway, also known as Cracker Barrel. My mom, who knows about these road trip things, reluctantly assured me that it did actually have more options than just about any place on the highway. And it’s true; they have a very extensive menu that includes lots of veggies. All of which are either breaded and deep fried or cooked with ham hocks. Welcome to the USA, folks.

Because in Oaxaca we live in a place where kids just eat food, not special kid food, I normally either share my plate with them or we order them a regular dish to share between the two of them. But, “What the hell,” I thought! When in Rome, order the kids some food from the kids’ menu!

“Mommy, I don’t really like the bread,” said Lucia after a couple bites. “And the cheese isn’t very good, either.” She whined. Lest you believe I have not acculturated my children to the wonders of my country’s childhood comfort food, let me assert that my kids have grown up with grilled cheese sandwiches. We almost always have them with our cream of beet soup. But they are always on wheat bread (well, that cheap ass soft wheat bread, because there aren’t many bread options to begin with in Puerto, and even less on our budget). And they are typically made with Gouda cheese, since that is the only decent melting cheese I can find. (Neither queso fresco nor quesillo, the two types of local cheese, work well for melting in a sandwich.) Long story short, though- I got zero thanks for what I thought was going to be an exciting change of routine.

They also didn’t like the cornbread as much as my version (which kind of thrilled me). And my big pasta-obsessed kiddo wouldn’t touch Mac n cheese. (This so-called American cheese- are you guys sure it’s actually cheese? Or is it “cheese food product”?) I was kind of pleased but also kind of appalled that my kids were so not into this type of convenience food.

 

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So they are more used to statues of strange animals than alive strange animals. And they were unimpressed with the petting zoo full of goats, since there’s a whole yard full of goats down the street from our house in Puerto. Despite the cultural obstacles, they had a great time at the zoo.

This trip back to the US, I had more or less refrained from complaining about my home country until we spent two days driving through it. By day two of our journey, after Waffle House, after pizza, after gas station tuna sandwich, after Cracker Barrel, I couldn’t shut my mouth. “Did you see the size of that large coffee they gave me?” I asked my mom. “It was like 4 coffees! I had no idea!” I was incredulous, even as I continued guzzling, so it wouldn’t go to waste. “And when I asked for sweetener, the waiter brought me like 5 packets! Five! I only use a half of one! Although it did take a whole one for this monster-sized coffee! No wonder we have an obesity problem! They are determined to give gobs and gobs and giant-sized everything, and to make it free or crazy low-cost. It’s disgusting!” Even as I give in to it myself, drinking coffee till my stomach hurts, I rant and rave about it.

In Oaxaca, we are accustomed to road food meaning more or less home cooked fare. Okay, not the quantity of veggies that I might cook at home, but definitely from-scratch kind of fare. Where are the beans, and perhaps a quesadilla on the road here? When I got to my first stop back home, that’s exactly what I made- an Americanized version, albeit- beans from a can that I fried up and a quesadilla made with flour tortilla and processed cheese. Both my kids turned up their noses at the quesadilla (although maybe if I called it by another name they’d be into it), but all three of us relished those deliciously-fried beans. See “Authentic” Mexican Recipes- Southern Oaxaca Style

Seafood here in Georgia (perhaps in the whole country?) is also all deep-fried like the veggies, apparently. Dee was taken aback when I tried oysters breaded and fried for the first time. I’d only ever had them raw before, and I had no idea that it wasn’t the norm. Also in the food news, the kids are in hog heaven over ketchup; Khalil dipped everything in it and I caught Lucia eating it by itself with her finger. (“What is this called?” She keeps asking me while dipping her finger in it.) These kids are still certainly Mexican, though; they both prefer mayonnaise rather than butter on their corn on the cob.

 

Despite my years and my number of trips, there are still things that catch me off guard every year. I’ll never forget the time I was newly arrived from several months in South America (pre-children), hanging out with a friend who was just back from Central America, and we were convinced we had to buy the cans and not bottles of beer in the liquor store because we hadn’t brought any bottles to return. Ooops!

This trip I found myself buttering the kids’ bagels with a fork for I don’t know how many days before I remembered that butter knives exist precisely to spread butter on things. I keep forgetting that I could just put those leftovers in the microwave. But more than anything, I am crazy impressed with these talking phones.

My mom talks to her phone all the time, and her phone talks back. It gets us around town. It sends messages. It tells us what things are. It is some serious business that I sure as hell don’t have where I live. When we were on the highway, I delayed making a phone call because I assumed that there wouldn’t be cell phone signals on the highway. It took me the whole day on the road to really process that I could make phone calls and even surf the internet anywhere on the expressway! Y’all don’t have a clue about the magic and privilege of this world, far beyond the airport’s magic moving sidewalk even. Lucia, for her part, always feels the need to talk over and navigate over Nonna’s fancy phone. She says stuff like, “Turn left on Abapoopies street, Savannah, Georgia,” which makes me ridiculously content, for whatever reason. Everyone deals with culture shock in their own special way.

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What surprises and shocks you upon return from travel? Inquiring minds want to know!

 

 

I Was Made For This

18 Jul

After years of resisting, I am finally ready for my first tattoo. Thanks to my current personal revolution, I am prepared to announce the one thing about me that could possibly last forever- to ink it onto my body, actually.

I didn’t avoid tattoos from fear of needles or pain, and I certainly wasn’t too traditional for such a thing. I started getting piercings when I was 14, after all (in secret- sorry, Mom). I can appreciate tattoos on other people- both the folks who take it very seriously and the ones with a couple of dots they gave themselves while drunk or the butterfly they and their bestie got at 16 or whatever. I mean, I had my hair colored almost all the colors of the rainbow in my adolescence; what’s not to love about people’s creative bodily expression?

But a tattoo for me? No, thank you. I’ve resisted tattoos because I detest the idea of permanence. Nothing is supposed to last forever and ever. The world and I are in constant evolution; how could I commit to the same piece of art on my body for all of my eternity? Yikes! It reeks of inflexibility, of unvaried monotony. It suggests to me somehow that my being is a fixed, boring state and not the ever-adapting whirlwind that is really me.

Plus by the time I became a legal adult I was much more interested in throwing all my expendable income at travel rather than on a tattoo. For all these years I’ve been like, “Nah; got more important stuff to pay for,” even more so now that I have children. Really, though, if all your basic needs in life are met, what else is more valuable than art and self-expression?

In the past few months I’ve been in a wildly energizing transition. I’ve been more excited than exhausted at the end of many days, staying up later to read or write or just ponder the universe rather than falling helplessly into my pillow as soon as my incessant to-do list is mostly completed. These days I’m making plans that are partly based on what I want rather than just steadfastly continuing the path of “this is what must be done now.” Suddenly, I feel like I have options in life. Like I have some modicum of control over my major life decisions. For the very first time in the five years since I’ve become a parent and moved to small town Mexico, I feel like ME again. I feel like I’ve reconciled Parent/Living in Mexico Julia with Pre-Parent/Living in the States/Traveling Julia, finally forming a complete, free-flowing human personality. I’m finally a parent but not only a parent. At last I have a sense of continuity in my being, instead of a “before” and “after” me.

It helps that I’m finally neither pregnant nor nursing. Yes, I am responsible for two little people who require inordinate amounts of my time and energy, but my physical body is no longer consumed by them. I wanted to be pregnant and I wanted to nurse them both but it makes a giant difference in my energy to not be absorbed by all that anymore.

Because I’m not quite as physically tied to the kids, I also have slightly more time now for non-parent things. I’m still playing volleyball almost every Friday night, but I’m also going out once a week or so for a beer with one of my girlfriends. I started splurging on a babysitter for some weekend afternoons, so I could do errands on my bicycle (oh the joy of my leg muscles working and the wind in my face), and then adding in a lunch date with a friend or an outing with Conan. Yes, my children need Mommy time and my work schedule doesn’t allow for enough time with them. Despite that, I am still in need of some time for myself. I am an extrovert through and through; I NEED to be around other adults in order to recharge my battery. Going to work is enough interaction to survive, but not to thrive. The happier and more fulfilled and like myself I feel, thanks to these “stolen” moments, the better I am able to parent in all the moments when I am with my children. It is a win-win situation, even when they whine and cry while I’m walking out the door.

My access to music has been crucial in this transition, too. Before, I had very little access to music that I like. We don’t have home internet so that rules out Youtube and the like. Often I didn’t have time to go through my CDs, pick out the one I want, and get it on the computer while getting myself and the kids ready in the morning. But we bought a decent car in January, and it included a CD player! Finally, I could rock out down the road, singing (screaming) along and bopping in my seat. It was something from my before-life that I desperately craved and couldn’t have. Then I paid one of my students to download music onto a USB- hundreds of songs from my Youtube playlists and other songs that I hadn’t had access to in years, all in one place that I can access on the computer, in the car, on my cell phone. It was a music revolution for me, and it’s been a complete replenishment of my spirit.

Many moments of many days now, I feel gloriously wild and free, despite all my responsibilities. I’ve started making all kinds of radical decisions. Not just to stay up late a couple times a week, either. I quit my job. My perfect job. The one that had my name all over it. The one that was the absolute best job I could possibly get in my small town. Yep. Over. Done. Of my own volition. Have I lost my mind? Yes! But I have other plans and ideas for work and money, and I’m confident I’ll make it all work, because I always do. I’m spending almost two months in the US, evaluating my options. Being open. Not feeling stuck. I’m out of the mindset that there’s only one viable possibility for my family. Any decisions from here on out are going to be because that’s the decision I am choosing with the whole family’s interests in mind, including mine. It’ll be a decision that I actively make, and not a decision I feel like was forced upon me from cruel outside forces above and beyond me. I don’t have any illusions that I can control much of what happens in my life, but I have every expectation of being able to handle how I react to what happens. I don’t plan to be a victim of circumstance any more, at least not in my mind and heart.

At 33, after so many transitions, so many external and internal changes, countless paradigm shifts and personal evolutions, I’m more and more sure of who I am.

So I’m ready to commit to my forever body art. I know my body’s not forever anyway. I know what things about me are the rock-solid part of my core. I know that my openness to, love for, and dependence on other humans is a big part of that. I know what I will always be in spirit- perpetually in motion, searching and seeking and shifting and evolving, throwing caution to the wind on a regular basis, and relishing all of life’s sweet nectar. I am always changing, but I can depict that endless flow; I can incorporate that eternal movement into something permanent. So here goes! Because I was made for this.

 

 

No Justice, No Sleep

25 Jun

We interrupt your regularly scheduled program of random writing about Oaxaca/Kentucky cultural exchanges to remind you that BLACK LIVES MATTER. And to ask all of my fellow white friends and family and beloved strangers reading this, what are we going to do about it?

Because, seriously, y’all. How are you sleeping at night? I am feeling the trauma from all the way down here in southern Mexico, and wondering how that can not be the case for everyone else. I mean, aren’t you fed up with case after case after case of men, women, and children being killed for… for being black. What else can you call it, whether you’re a sociologist or just a human being observing our society? Look at the data! Look at all of these people’s beautiful faces, each one with a family missing them, each one who was making an impact in the world in their way before they were so cruelly and pointlessly interrupted.

How many more? How many more people have to die senselessly, just for being black, before all of us white people -at least the ones who say we are not racist- can wake up and stand up? How many more? How many more examples and cases do you need, when killers go free, before you can admit that our whole system is racist? Before we can talk about all the ways in which we implicitly and explicitly devalue black lives, individually and systemically?

How many more people need to get shot IN FRONT OF THEIR BABIES before it hits home? How many more BABIES, how many kids need to be murdered before we cry enough to get mad and do something? How many more pleas for justice do we need from small children who are living with this constant trauma every day before we all get together behind the already strong leadership of black folks in our country fighting this and back them up?

Those of us (white folks) out there saying, “But I’m not racist! I have black friends!”: What would the world look like if instead, we really put ourselves in someone else’s shoes? What if all the people being affected by this mass slaughter (when it’s not mass incarceration or other forms of mass oppression and destruction)- were your brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and mothers and fathers and yes, our sweet, sweet babies? What if you looked at your 17 year old headed out the door in his hoody and felt panic, the same panic that clutches at you every time he walks out the door, because he could be the next Trayvon Martin? Or what if you’re that mom that you didn’t want to be, that’s too strict, that has never let your kid play with even water guns, that barely lets your kid out of the house, because what if he’s the next 12 year old Tamir Rice?

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Tamir Rice

How can you think about these babies, how can you hear that sweet four year old begging her mommy not to scream so she doesn’t get “shooted” too, and not be heartbroken, devastated, and questioning humanity? How can you not be motivated to action, thinking about these and all the other children who deserve so much more than this?

How many more black folks have to get killed- and their killers without penalty or remorse, without a shred of justice- before we (white people) react collectively? How many more Terrence Crutchers, shot for not lying down on the ground? How many more Walter Scotts, shot while running away from an officer? How many more Eric Garners, killed by excessive force for suspicion of selling loose cigarettes? How many more Philando Castiles, who did everything right and still got killed in front of his four year old? (And the four year old’s Mommy was then ARRESTED and taken away. Can you imagine? What would it take to picture your white four year old daughter/niece/friend’s kid in her place? This case especially destroyed part of my soul, looking into the eyes of my sweet four year old at the time.) How many more deaths like Charleena Lyles, pregnant, shot in front of her children, despite police being aware that she was dealing with mental health issues? HOW MANY MORE before we can quit making excuses for each and every case, before we can quit looking for reasons to blame the victim, before we look at the whole picture and realize that our whole system is built on racism?

Realizing that racism is everywhere doesn’t make you a bad person, dearly beloveds. On the contrary, we have to realize it, admit it, in order to refuse to accept it. Even realizing that something that you personally do/say/believe is racist potentially makes you a better person, because then you can change it (but only if you change it- growth and learning is everything). We cannot be “color blind” and all one “human race,” because that is not the society that we live in. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true. How can you be colorblind after you listen to this little girl’s words?  

If you can watch that little girl speak, if you can look at all of these cases, stare into the faces of their family members, imagine the loss, let yourself feel even a portion of the trauma, of what it means for you, your family, your children to be seen as more expendable than the rest of society, if you can do all that and still somehow convince yourself that we’re not currently living in the next major civil rights movement, and that it is all of our human duty to speak out and work against this, toward a better world… then I don’t know who you are or if you are capable of empathy at all.

Sigh.

None of what I’m writing is new or prolific or eloquent or anything else impressive.  So many other folks have said all this so much better than I. But I feel helpless and desperate and I want all of us white folks to be talking about it. I feel so sick about it, and then I think, “Shit! I’m a white woman! How much worse would I feel if I were black and dealing with all this?” And to many of you reading this, I’m already preaching to the choir. Hopefully my Black/African-American friends aren’t even reading this, because you don’t need this information. You already know all this and so much more. And I haven’t even mentioned all the other racism that goes along with this. The constant threat of being killed is the worst of it, but on top of that there are a million other ways that Black folks experience discrimination, in big and small ways, constantly, every single day.

I feel the need to write this in my blog because we all- all of us white folks who are not part of Steve Bannon’s and Jeff Session’s agendas- need to be speaking up all the time. We have to get over our own egos and quit trying to prove that “I’m not racist.” Just because you don’t have a swastika on your forehead, just because you don’t have a confederate flag flying does not make you anti-racist. Not actively lynching someone doesn’t make us less complicit in the crime if we’re not doing anything to stop it. I don’t have all the answers to stop it, either. But there are answers, and folks in the Black Lives Matter Movement are coming up with lots of proactive answers, but they’re not being heard. We white people need to be supporting them, backing them up, doing our part, putting ourselves on the line (without trying to take over). But that’s not enough, either. We white folks also have to keep talking to our fellow white folks, especially friends and family, and bringing them over to our side- the side of collectively crying for these sweet babies until we are ready to do something, bringing us all to action, instead of just having black friends or not being blatantly discriminatory. In many places there are even organizations specifically for white folks to participate in anti-racist actions, such as SURJ- Showing Up for Racial Justice. There’s so much to do! So much to read, so many folks to get to know and collaborate with to make our world a more just place. Let’s stand together and show we mean it when we say that Black Lives Matter.

(And please, please, my fellow white folks- don’t be shy! Feel free to ask me why I say Black lives matter instead of “All of matter”! I’m happy to discuss. xoxoxo)

 

Win/Win Kid Birthday Tricks, from a Still-Novice Non-Expert

19 Jun

Conan and I have officially been parents for half of a decade now! In other words, it was Lucia’s 5th birthday this week. Granted, we still don’t have much (any?) parenting wisdom, per se. And yet, we not only survived this birthday, it seems that we totally rocked it, despite the extra chaos on top of our normal mayhem this month. Here are our parenting hacks for birthday time, this time around. They might not work for you, and they might not even work for us again next time, but you’ve got to celebrate your victories.

Trick #1: Be Proactive. Talk them into the party of your dreams, not theirs.

Sure, it sounds mean, but if you ask them what they want to do for their birthday it’s destined to end in disappointment, unless you can actually produce unicorns and rocket-ship trips to space. If you have the means for that sort of thing, you’re reading the wrong list of tips right now. I, however, needed to get proactive.

Remembering a time my dad took me and a friend to Mammoth Cave for my birthday, I tried to talk Lucia into having some kind of adventure with a friend or two instead of a party. That was an instant negative, though, since a cake and a piñata are her number one birthday obsessions. For once, though, I outsmarted my little one and talked her out of a big Mexican-style party where you have to invite everyone you’ve ever met and give out five courses of party favors in addition to the meal, the cake and the multiple piñatas. We just couldn’t do it this year, not economically and not time-wise. So I cleverly talked her into having TWO parties instead this year- two very small parties. But that means TWO PARTIES, people, what’s not to love for a five year old?

I sent a cake to her school on her actual birthday, and then we had a teeny tiny, closest-family-only “party” at home on the weekend- complete with pasta (her favorite food), another cake, and just one piñata. Her papa even splurged on a giant bag of the decent candy for the piñata instead of like 5 pieces of good candy mixed in with the cheap-ass suckers we normally fill it with. It was a win-win situation for everybody.

 

Trick #2: Take advantage of all of your unique available resources.

If you have a cousin who works at Chuck E. Cheese and wants to give you a discount, go for it. If your best friend is a chef and will make an epic birthday cake for your kid, make that your billing point for their birthday gig.

For us it helped immensely that the birthday celebration at her school is awesome. It is a serious ceremony involving crowns and capes and classmate “angels” and a red carpet and everything. The teacher gives a hand-made gift (a really cool, small hand bag, in this case), and the other kids give the birthday kid a drawing each, which they then sew into a little book of sorts. It was so cute and so cool; she was thrilled. And all it required on our part was buying the cake and getting it there.

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Headed to school in a princess dress made by her aunt who’s an awesome seamstress. 

 

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Who wouldn’t be thrilled with this kind of celebration? 

Trick #3: Don’t let Mother Nature ruin your plans. Pray profusely to the universe, and clearly explain to the heavens that your kid will be emotionally destroyed for hours on end if the weather doesn’t cooperate.

In other words, you gotta think on your feet! Our little hiccup that could’ve been a two day tear-fest came when tropical storm number two of this year cancelled classes the day before her birthday. Conan was off work that day and was in charge of getting the cake to school, since it would be impossible for the babysitter to carry the cake along with the two kids on the walk to the bus stop, on the bus, transferring it then to the carpool where there are 6 children flopping around the car. Luckily the weather calmed and we worked things out just fine. Meanwhile, I had a minor panic attack and invented three ridiculously far-fetched schemes and plans to call in favors to make the cake at school happen, tropical storm or not.

Trick #4: Perspective is everything. Use all relevant comparisons from books and videos to sell your options.

I meant to make her a cake or cupcakes for our home party, since I like to bake for their birthdays when I can. But when we talked about what she’d like me to make, she never really decided on what she wanted, and recipe-searching time escaped me this year. (This month is kicking my butt, in case you can’t tell.) So instead we let her have the excitement of going to a bakery and picking out her own cake, just like Daniel Tiger. And then she got to go to another bakery and pick out another cake, just like Daniel Tiger again! It’s a wonderful life for 5 year old Lucia, folks, let me tell you. And for us, even buying 2 cakes, one and a half roasted chickens, two kilos of tortillas, and paper plates for us and our five guests was about eighty thousand times cheaper and easier than last year, when we completely lost our little parent minds and had big birthday parties for both of our children. (Yes, you read that right- we only had five guests to our house for this year’s “party.”) Cheaper, easier, and Lucia was just as pleased about it all.

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Cake #2: Just as thrilling as cake #1

She did have a brief moment of doubt at one point in the planning stages, however, when she had the sudden epiphany that fewer guests would mean fewer presents. “But Mommy, they don’t bring you presents at school. Only the teacher gives you a present.” She informed me with a suspicious tone, her eyes wide and worried. It’s almost a legit concern, too, because we tend to not give a lot of presents, and we rarely buy her stuff she doesn’t need except for birthdays and Christmas. (Don’t worry, though, this child is far from deprived; her numerous grandparents make sure both of these kids have ample toys and clothing.) I assured her, though, that she would end up with several presents anyway, including gifts from multiple grandparents. That appeased her sufficiently.

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Pleased with herself and her new bag

Trick #5: Give them “presents” that you were going to give them anyway. Everything’s amazing when it’s wrapped in pretty paper! 

Yes, I am totally that super mean mom who gives kids socks and underwear as presents. Only this year I talked her Abuela into giving that as a gift! I would put a bow on her morning Cheerios without thinking twice about it. Attitude is everything, after all.

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In this picture we are using the Cheerios box as storage for another present, but I’m not above giving them Cheerios as a present. 

She got plenty of other non-necessary presents, too, so don’t worry. She received a couple of new stuffed animals from aunts, a really cool jewelry-painting set that I bought with money her Nonna sent for her, and the coolest books ever from National Geographic- one about space, one about dinosaurs, and one about animals. Her Gamma sent those, after I asked her to look for a cool dinosaur book, since we hadn’t been able to find anything interesting and age-appropriate at the library here. Books here are not accessible and they’re insanely expensive. These books would have cost thousands of pesos here (according to Conan’s family), if you could even find them somewhere in the first place. I feel so incredibly privileged to have so much access to quality books for me and my children. But I digress, as usual.

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Everyone was impressed by the books.

I also pulled off a double win because I managed to clean out my office and give Lucia perfect presents for free. I had a couple of things sitting around my office for the past almost-three years, resources that an ex-coworker had given me that Lucia was way too young for. One is a phonics game- Zoo ABC Bingo!- and the other a book of poems for kids. So, like the crafty, thrifty mommy that I am, I wrapped it all up and gave it as a birthday gift. (Grown-up Lucia, if you’re reading this someday, just remember that money spent has no correlation to love and thought put into giving.)

Also in the realm of “attitude is everything,” you can talk up all the advantages of your plan vs anything they’ve had in the past or seen at their friend’s house. Like better quality candy, as I already mentioned.

 

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Serious Birthday Business

We broke the piñata with two of her little cousins and the neighbor kids across the street, so the amount of candy that both of my kids got ahold of wasn’t of epic, diabetes-producing proportions after all. I let them overdose on candy the day of the party and then the next day they took a decent portion of it to Lucia’s neighborhood bestie who’s been sick all week and couldn’t help break the piñata. Another parenting win: sharing and getting more candy out of our house.

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A piñata wouldn’t be a piñata without some help from your friends. 

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So obviously we’ve learned a lot in these five years. Apparently the half-decade mark is a moment in which you finally have more than just the basic survival skills as a parent. It seems that we may have a couple of parenting tricks up our sleeves now, at long last. Now if I could just get the recipe to make my kids go to sleep when I want, or to leave me alone in the bathroom, then I would declare myself a super parent. Maybe by our next half-decade? Or perhaps never. Sigh. You gotta take your victories when and where you can, folks, which might be the most important thing I’ve learned in these five years of parenting.

Blue-Gown Daydreams

4 Jun

There’s nothing like being naked under a half-open blue robe, laid out in a hallway with a bunch of helpless sick and injured folks, to make you feel like the exact opposite of WonderWoman. I kept pondering to myself, “Julia, you’re not sick or injured. Why would you choose to come here?”

Then I forcefully pushed those pesky rational thoughts out of my little head and daydreamed about glorious sex without the risk of making more babies. Oh yeah, that’s why I’m here. Goals and dreams. Keep your eyes on the prize.

Plus I was there on principle. I mean, the insurance company takes money out of every paycheck, so I have every right to this. Just as compellingly, it would have cost more than a month’s pay to get the surgery done privately. When I asked a private doctor whom I trust if I was crazy for going to IMSS, my insurance company, for this surgery, he assured me that I wasn’t. IMSS is the Mexican Institute of Social Security, and it provides health insurance to a large portion of folks who have formal jobs. In many ways, it is much better than in the US because many more people are covered, and aside from whatever monthly cut they take out, there are no other, extra costs. It gave me 12 weeks paid maternity leave, which is 12 weeks more than what I got in the states. The main downside is that it is a giant institution that sees you and treats you as just another number in the system. It is slower than molasses in January, stressful, dehumanizing, often inadequate or just plain wrong.

But still, a free surgery is a free surgery. “The same doctors who work in IMSS also work in the private sector,” my doctor reminded me. “It’s perfectly safe. The only thing that might be bad is how big of a scar they leave you. It’s kind of the luck of the draw, depending on the doctor. He might leave you a tiny scar or he might leave you looking like you had a C-Section.”

“Good thing I wasn’t dreaming of a career in pornography,” I told my husband, because sure enough, the doctor left me a giant scar. It’s longer than my friend’s C-Section scar, as a matter of fact. It kind of looks like a kindergartener who cut their own bangs, except on my pubic region instead of my forehead. Luckily, I’m not concerned about the aesthetic of it. I think scars are just visual reminders of a life lived, a show of how bad ass and interesting someone is. On another level, though, the excessive size of my scar makes me feel expendable and dehumanized. The surgeon couldn’t be bothered to take care with me (or anyone else, I’m sure). My body is so unimportant and inconsequential to him that he cut what must be the maximum possible, for what? Just because he can? To make the surgery part as easy as possible for him?

The gynecologist didn’t even acknowledge me when he came into the room, or at any point before I passed out. I didn’t even realize that I was going to be knocked out for the surgery, since I signed up for local anesthetic. I had to fight to have anything explained to me, and I neglected to realize that I needed that part explained. I just can’t imagine treating people like that, and it makes me sick to my stomach thinking about all the people these doctors and nurses are in charge of who aren’t getting quality and humanized care.

It’s not just this doctor, either; it’s the whole system. I mean, this is the insurance company that thousands (millions, I think) of people are paying into, and the best they can do is beds in the hallway? There are some overcrowded rooms as well, and I suppose I can be grateful that I was the only one in the surgical room while my surgery was happening (as far as I know). But geez.

And heavens forbid you are there without a family member. One poor guy was brought in by his coworkers, who called family members immediately, but no one had arrived yet when a nurse came by with a tray of food for him. “You don’t have family here?” She asked him and everyone else around, incredulously, about 8 times. I wanted to scream at her by the 5th time. She couldn’t figure out what to do with his breakfast. She asked him to sit up, but he couldn’t sit up on his own. Then she tried to get the wheelchair attendant to sit him up, but for some reason they aborted that mission as well. Finally, after being assured yet again that he was all by his lonesome, helpless, vulnerable, defenseless self, she carefully balanced the tray on top of his chest and walked away. He was totally unable to eat anything from the tray at that angle. And it couldn’t have been comfortable. But there you have it. The nurse officially did her job of delivering the breakfast tray to the patient. Eventually the wheelchair attendant took pity on the man and removed the stupid tray from his chest. I closed my eyes some more and continued to daydream about a better universe.

Hopefully you’re also not a child in need of emergency services at my insurance company. A small, tough girl with her chin up walked past me into a room at one point. She must have been about 4 or 5- my daughter’s age. Of course she wasn’t stoked about giving a blood sample or whatever needle-related thing they were doing to her in there. But the nurses had zero tact or style about calming or convincing her. Instead they used various threats and near-impossible deals, none of which helped anybody achieve their goals. They even brought in one of the security guards to scare her into submission. Bless her, it did not pacify her in the slightest. She just cried out more for her mama, who I think was nearby, but who I got the impression wasn’t allowed to be with her or touch her or something? I couldn’t see anything, so it was purely aural clues that painted the painful picture for me. At one point they told her if she was quiet and cooperative that her mommy could come and be with her, but how the hell do you expect her to calm down without her calming person in the first place? It reminded me of the clueless (or purposely mean?) nurse when Lucia had to be hospitalized for an asthma attack; the nurse thought they were going to be able to stick a tube in her arm with me out of the room, leaving her all alone. Yeah, being alone with strangers who seem to want to hurt you is always great for small children. They calm right down and obey. Gosh, even using sarcasm to deal with the situation doesn’t make it less distressing. I know that kids are going to scream and cry over pain and new situations, but it seems like the hospital tactics just escalate the fear and pain for kids. It was pretty disheartening, to say the least. (Also, my dear, dear friends, please don’t threaten your kids that a police officer is going to come and get them for not obeying you. UGH! Have some compassion for these lovely, little human beings, please! Imagine how terrifying that must be!)

Also on this grand adventure, I learned that soap and toilet paper are luxuries far beyond what one deserves in this insurance hospital. Not one bathroom of the three that I visited while there was stocked with soap (or toilet paper). I was sharing my outrage and disgust about it with my mother-in-law, Paulina, who matter-of-factly said you have to bring your own soap to a hospital. However, I remain stubbornly indignant about it because a) Nobody tells you that; b) It’s totally impractical to expect you to carry it around the hospital with you. What are you going to do? Tie it to your gown? it’s not like you have your own bathroom to put your soap in; and c) This is BAD public health policy! It’s supposed to be a hospital, a beacon of health and wellbeing, not a hotbed of reckless germ-spreading!

By the time they wheeled me on my hallway hospital bed back towards surgery, I’d had a nap and managed to psyche myself up despite all the circumstances. Eyes on the prize. No more never-ending months of pregnancy (seriously, both times I’ve been pregnant for more like 10 months- and twice is enough for me!). No more diapers as soon as this little one is all the way potty trained. No more painful/tedious/expensive forms of birth control. No potential need for abortion. (Okay 99-point-something sure.) You got this! Let’s do it!

The anesthesiologist seemed like a nice enough person, except she left my butt completely hanging out while she was putting that bizarre stuff into my back. I get it. They’ve seen it all, blah blah blah. But are you not allowed any shred of modesty, any tiny sense of privacy or autonomy over your body? There was no need for my ass to be uncovered. There was a cover for my use that was just being used inadequately. It was unnecessary and inconsiderate, and I felt too vulnerable to say anything about it. (You don’t want to piss off the anesthesiologist, right?)

The last thing I remember before the surgery, after the doctor came in and ignored me, was the anesthesiologist asking me if my legs felt tingly yet. And then I was down for the count. Nobody told me that I was going to be asleep for the surgery, though. I thought that because I was getting an epidural, it would be like getting a C-section. I wouldn’t feel anything below my waist but I could be awake and aware. (Isn’t that how it happens? Something like that?) Nope. Nothing of the sort. The first time I woke up I felt drunk/high and totally giddy. “This is great!” I think I told the nurses. They asked me if I drank wine. “Sometimes,” I said. They must have taken me for a raging wino because they proceeded to ask me how many cups it took to make me feel like this. “A lot?” They asked. If only they knew what a light weight I am! But my mind was too cloudy to explain. I got it together to ask if the surgery was already over. And I demanded to know how in the world anyone could give birth on this epidural business! Nobody would answer me. I went back under.

At some point I woke up again in the hallway right outside of the surgery area to the gynecologist giving me my instructions for care. I mumbled in response, trying to reaffirm and think of relevant questions. “So everything will be like normal in 7 days?” Yes, he assured me. (Umm, that was not true for me, by the way.) He also promised someone would come around with written instructions before I left. He left the very important paper that would be my paycheck for my week off of work in my hands, and I carefully laid it on my belly and passed back out.

When I woke up again, still in the surgery hallway, I could feel the pain in my abdomen and I did not feel giddy. I asked for some water. The nurse told me it would be just a little longer. He’d already let the hallway nurses know I was ready to return to my spot in the hallway, but they were really busy, he explained. I asked several more times for water and received nothing. Finally he said he would send my family member for some food and drink. I was too wiped out to tell him that I didn’t want any food. I just wanted water. I felt like a camel after months in the desert. Finally they brought me some orange juice and yogurt that they’d sent Conan off to buy. Apparently they didn’t ask him to buy water, which was my lone request and hope for life in that moment. I was feeling very nauseous and I asked if I could have anti-vomiting medicine like they’d given me before surgery. He said no; they’d already given that to me before surgery. I drank a little orange juice and almost immediately threw it up.

Then they let Conan come back, because supposedly I was ready to be sent home. Basically, the anesthesia had worn off and my legs were working fine. That makes you ready for home. The nurse realized I wasn’t really okay. I kept throwing up and could barely walk from the nausea. But he didn’t know what to do, because I understood from Conan that they were short on beds. The nurse checked in with the anesthesiologist and assured us that I was sick from the pain meds and not the epidural. They’d given me morphine or something equivalent. I had forgotten to try to negotiate over pain meds, which never, ever sit well with me. “You can stay here and wait for it to wear off,” the nurse explained, “but we’ll have to put the tube back in your arm and change back into the hospital gown.” (I’d already gotten other clothes on to leave, with Conan’s help, in between vomiting.) He told me technically he couldn’t let me leave without eating something. I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat for a long time. I ate a couple bites of yogurt and threw it up. Mission accomplished. He then said I could wait out the effects of the meds there or somewhere else; “It doesn’t really make a difference.” So of course I opted to get the hell out of there.

We were in Huatulco, about two and a half hours from home. There was no way I was gonna stomach that journey, though, in the state I was in. I am so, so grateful that we had the money to go get a hotel room. I can’t imagine having stayed longer in that hellhole. Already Conan had been sitting out in the waiting room from 7am to 5pm and had picked up some stomach problems from some dodgy street food meanwhile. (We’d had to arrive at 7, although my surgery hadn’t happened till about noon.) I am also eternally grateful that my mother-in-law was staying with my kids and didn’t mind staying an extra night. I couldn’t even hold down water until sometime in the middle of the night; I can’t imagine how I would have survived a bus ride like that.

Although I’m complaining about this very specific problem with IMSS in Mexico, I realize that many of these things aren’t unique to my insurance company or to Mexico. You can get rude doctors and nurses anywhere. Overcrowded hospitals happen. Planned surgeries, folks have told me, are a big, routine, impersonal business most everywhere. It’s also easy for people to treat children and helpless adults as less-than-human in any setting. It doesn’t make it okay, though. And when the whole system is designed to dehumanize us all, and we’re the ones paying for it? It’s time for an insurance uprising, in my humble opinion. And after the health revolution? There will be soap in every bathroom, dammit! Soap, humane treatment, and health justice for all. Amen.

The Little School-House Built on Loving Learning

22 May

If you had asked my opinion a couple years ago, I would have told you that I suspected that Waldorf schools were just for rich hippies, and therefore had nothing relevant for me or my children. Funny how parenthood changes so many of your ideas about life and parenting, though. Parenting has schooled me hard on humility, made me more open to changing my mind, and forced me to always take circumstances and context into account along with all of my theories and ideals. Now both of my children are in a Waldorf preschool program, and I could not feel luckier or more pleased about it.

My bias, though, first of all, was that I didn’t think that I would send my kids to private school. On principle, I’m against private schools because quality education should be free and available to all, and we should all be fighting to make public schools better. Of course, I also know firsthand that too much of the time the best thing to do is to get the hell out of the system. I did not imagine that I would need that option for my kids’ preschool, however. I didn’t have any expectations for my kids to graduate kindergarten as geniuses. I figured I’d be teaching my kids to read and write myself anyway, and that I just wanted them to go to preschool to get out of the house and play with other kids. Why pay money when your standards are minimal?

Little did I know that those minimal expectations are not the objectives of public or private preschools around here. They all seem to want three year olds to be sitting around copying letters and doing homework and other meaningless and useless activities that I just can’t accept. And I’m too tired and too busy and too foreign to take on the education system just yet. Plus my littler one is still only two, a year too young for compulsory education here in Mexico. So if I’m going to pay for his schooling/care anyway, it might as well be a program that’s good for him, and it might as well be with his big sister.

My other bias was that I always wanted my kids to be in Montessori schools like I was. Maria Montessori is one of my life heroes, and I can 100 percent get behind her educational philosophies. Montessori is all about hands-on learning and giving kids lots of options and control over their learning. It meets kids where they are in the educational process, giving them the tools and guidance they need without over-structuring their lives. (Read a brief introduction to Montessori here.) But there is no Montessori option here. And Waldorf actually has some things in common, as well as some separate ideas, that make it very worthwhile. (more extensive info about Waldorf here)

Furthermore, what really sold me on this particular Waldorf program was the person who made it happen. From there I fell in love with the wonderful teachers, too, as did my children. I got to know other parents in the school, who are amazing people. Certainly the school’s inventor and director made a world of difference in my bias, however. Because she’s an unschooler* at heart, like I am- an anti-authoritarian, anti-system, humanistic, respectful person right down to her core. She is engrossed in and passionate about all things related to autonomous education. She values all children and adults for the fully human and unique people that they are. She respects and facilitates the processes of learning for everyone, without pushing anyone. She is constantly learning, with a big full and open heart, and the joy in her mission spreads like wildfire. That is what I want my children to be around. This is the environment I want for my kids, for all kids, as they build the foundation of their little fabulous selves.

The teachers she found and coached and trained are an amazing pair themselves. They are so open to ideas, and so attentive with the kids. One of them is super outgoing and exudes a sense of fun and adventure, while the other one is very tender and maternal and calm. They are both incredibly patient and caring- traits that sometimes we as parents struggle with.

My kids certainly- and from what I can see, it seems like all the kids- feel safe and secure and valued at school. They don’t treat kids like problems there, even when their behavior is problematic. They have firm boundaries for the kids, but don’t put unrealistic or impossible expectations on them. They pay attention and recognize kids’ different needs, and help teach the kids’ to respect their own and other people’s needs. (For example, when the littler ones snatch toys away, the bigger ones often say, “Oh, it’s because she’s so little.”)

Importantly for me, my kids want to go. They have a good time and they learn like the sponges that they are. When my daughter first started there, she even asked to go to school on Saturdays! I’m also eternally grateful to have somewhere “childproof” to send my irrepressibly active two year old. There’s pretty much nothing at school that sets off the string of “NO!”s that unfortunately happens at my house often. The inside and outside areas are set up for kids to explore freely, even for very adventurous two year olds. Of course both of my kids come home with bruises and scrapes sometimes, but that’s so preferable to trying to make them sit down most of the day.

The school is not officially a school, but rather called a “home extension” program, which is so much better than both regular school and day care. The kids start their day with songs and circle and community. The big kids go for a walk around the neighborhood. One day a week they cook their meal together. One day a week they bake bread together. They always sit down together and eat out of glass bowls and plates together, and the kids wash their own dishes afterwards. My kids always devour all their lunch, because they get to work up an appetite beforehand, and aren’t forced to choose between eating their food or more time on the playground.** They have a very set routine with lots of freedom worked into it. They have lots and lots of bodily autonomy and movement. They don’t have workbooks; instead they have lots of story time with real and interesting books. They sing tons of songs, which Lucia loves. They make things. They create, invent, and use the hell out of their wild and beautiful imaginations. They learn to take care of each other, play together, help each other, share, collaborate, and problem-solve together, which are lifelong skills and values that are just as important as literacy. They get literacy skills aplenty as well, it’s just worked into their day naturally, through play and real life experiences.

I still wish this amazing and wondrous house of learning were free for everyone; it’s the only fault I can find with it. But it’s not actually the fault of the school or its creator; I also know that the government would never, ever, ever fund such a thing here. Something that encourages autonomy for children? A space for parents to critically analyze the system, our parenting, and all the things we may have been taught are the right way? Not gonna happen.

Meanwhile, however, the very existence of this “unschool” is planting seeds to change the future of education in Oaxaca and in the world. Because of this school, I end up talking to a lot of parents about the benefits I see from this style of education. I have conversations about educational and parenting alternatives. (Even when I just mention that the kids help cook something on Tuesdays, other parents’ ears perk up.) I imagine that other parents at the school do the same, spreading words and ideas to other parents. Above and beyond that, though, our very same principal is out all the time spreading her wildfire passion for lifelong education. She’s all over the internet with her radical ideas. She has a regular slot on the radio about parenting and education, and the radio is the most accessible forum around here. She doesn’t just want this lovely little program for this little group of kids. She wants to set the world on fire and build a movement of autonomous education for all. And she’s doing it. Changing the world is slow going, but nobody can say our beloved directora isn’t fully committed, body, heart and soul, for the long haul.

So maybe Waldorf schools in some places are schools just for wealthy hippie types, but that sure is not a fair or accurate description in this case. Luckily for me, you’re never too old to unlearn your own biases. I’m so incredibly grateful that this hotbed of learning exists, and that my kiddos, my partner and I get to be a part of it. I couldn’t dream of a better place for our family to belong.

(In case you are wondering, especially those of you in Puerto, the preschool program is called La Casita, and the mind and heart behind it is Rebecka Koritz.)

 

*from those dear folks at wikipedia: “Unschooling is an educational method and philosophy that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning. Unschooling students learn through their natural life experiences including play, household responsibilities, personal interests and curiosity, internships and work experience, travel, books, elective classes, family, mentors, and social interaction. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities initiated by the children themselves, believing that the more personal learning is, the more meaningful, well-understood and therefore useful it is to the child. While courses may occasionally be taken, unschooling questions the usefulness of standard curricula, conventional grading methods, and other features of traditional schooling in the education of each unique child.”  I was unschooled through most of high school, and I got the best education I could have dreamed of! Because, you know, there was no Montessori or Waldorf high school.

**Granted, my little ones are total chowhounds. They even nicknamed my littler one Cookie Monster. When I ask him what he did at school today, he always tells me, “uhm”- his noise that means eating. My big one is also a chowhound, but she never ate her lunch at her other school.