Tag Archives: parenting in a foreign country

Let Me Introduce This Year’s Children

14 Jul

Yes, I have the same two children as last year; stores here don’t usually take returns or exchanges, after all. But it’s been a year since our last visit to my hometown, and a lot changes in a year, especially when you’re young. I thought it’d be nice to paint you a brief picture, so you don’t have quite so much catching up to do. Plus, I’ve been talking to the kids all about you guys that we’re going to see in Kentucky- about everything we’re going to do, all the fun times and the naps to be had (cross your fingers for me on nap time). It’s only fair to give you guys the same type of introduction before we get there.

And if you’re not in Louisville, Kentucky, then you can still have a little virtual introduction to my ferocious little treasures. Somehow they manage to fill my whole being with joy and gratitude, even though they’re undomesticated terrorists in their spare time.

My sweet Khalil Michael couldn’t even crawl on our last visit, and now at a year and a third (hehe), there’s no stopping him. He is running amok and imitating his sister as much as possible. He can wash his own hands, put the lid on something and take it off, go and try to find his shoes (nearly always MIA). He attempts to jump, although he can’t quite pull it off yet. His most important job in life right now, according to him, is giving the empty garafón (giant water bottle) to the water delivery man. As soon as he hears the truck honk its horn outside, he goes on alert. If you tell him, “Get the garafón,” he starts screaming in urgency, and tears across the floor to get the empty bottle. Then he races from the kitchen, across the living room, to the front door, carrying the bottle that’s almost as big as he is, making his excited yelling noises the whole time. He’s no longer satisfied with just handing over the empty one, either- he wants to help pick up the full bottle and carry it inside. He even makes the loud grunting-with-effort noise as he tries to pick it up. It’s a pretty important job, after all.

 

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washing hands together- Little Brother loves to do what Big Sister does. 

This is serious business, people. Somebody has to get the garafón out the door.

I love how when he asks a question he holds his arms out just like I do, granddaughter of a gesticulating, expressive Italian that I am. I love all of his unique invented sign language, like the way he flexes his fingers when he wants to be picked up, like his version of a “come hither” signal. I love the way he blows kisses to me when he realizes I’m about to go to work. I love his tender, prolonged hugs and even his disgusting, gooey kisses, where he opens his mouth wide and slobbers over yours. He is so affectionate when the mood strikes him. The other day, as we were leaving somewhere, he turned and twisted from my grasp to dashed back down the sidewalk to a little girl he’d played with, and he gave her a big fat hug. I also can appreciate his firm boundaries, like that he yells belligerently if I’m trying to love on him when he’s declared that it’s playtime.

I love that he doesn’t wait for story time. He picks up a book and pushes it at you, grunting and insisting until you read it to him. But he doesn’t want you to read it to him the way it says on the page. He wants to open to random pages, point at the things he’d like you to discuss, and go from there. There’s no reading just front to back- reading is multidirectional and the book is finished when he decides there’s something more interesting to explore elsewhere. And in case you didn’t want to lift him up so he can reach the books, he has now learned to push one of our plastic chairs over to the book shelf and climb up onto it by himself. (This same chair-pushing/climbing tactic also means that NOTHING is safe from his tiny hands in our house anymore, unfortunately.)

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Even though this book has totally fallen apart, he loves this lone page and “reads” it constantly.

Then there’s little miss Lucia, who is now a big ole FOUR year old. And boy did she get the talking gene from her mama. She has all kinds of great four year old reasoning to entertain, cajole, and madden us. For example, she refuses to believe that she and Khalil were in my belly at different points in time, even though she witnessed my pregnancy. She’s always telling me about how she was pushing Khalil and sharing toys with him in my belly. Shrug. Life is mysterious.

Lately she’s really into figuring out the time in all kinds of funny ways. “All day” is one of her favorite expressions, although I’m not sure she can really grasp it in the same space-time continuum that I’m in. Like when I cook something and she’s displeased about it, she says, “I don’t wanna just eat that ALL DAY!” As if that were the only thing available for consumption the entire day, or week even. The other day, after I told her she needed a nap because it would make her feel better, she told me that no, she really needed to watch a video, because that was going to make her “feel better all day.”Also now she says, “What time is it?” Then you tell her and she asks, “What’s that mean?” She’s working on days of the week, too, although the only one that really counts is sábado. It’s all about ‘how many more days until Mommy stays home from work’. Yep, she’s a Mommy’s girl.

She also obviously has not been exposed to much television. Don’t get me wrong, she loves her videos- her current obsession being “Big Dora” (the teenage-ish version of Dora, where she plays guitar in a band). But she takes creative license with whatever she sees around her, and runs with it. Like she asked one of her tias (aunts) to make a princess dress for her birthday, like the “purple princess.” (I have no idea which one that is or where she saw it, but it’s cool.) She told me one day that she doesn’t want to brush her hair because she saw that princesses just wear their hair “like this,” she says, fluffing out her already curly, tangled hair even more. (Good try, kiddo.)

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In her “Purple Princess” dress with her new rocket ship (the only thing she wanted for her birthday, besides a party)

Her conversational skills paint a pretty fascinating picture of the little kid mind at work (fascinating according to me, although I might be biased). Here’s an example conversation with Lucia from a couple months ago:

“Mommy, can I go see Dr. Seuss?” She’s impressed because I’ve just told her that Dr. Seuss wrote the words AND drew and colored all the pictures for the book. She’s noticed that most books have the person who wrote the book and a different person who drew the pictures.

“No, because he’s in heaven, like Paw Paw.” (Yeah, I know- I didn’t really plan to teach her about heaven, it’s just worked out that way.)

“Mommy, where’s heaven?” (Previously she’d asked me, “Mommy, where’s Kevin?” which brought on a ridiculous who’s-on-first kind of accidental routine)

“It’s way, way, way up in the sky, past where the airplanes can go.”

“Is Dr. Seuss dancing in heaven?”

“Maybe so, baby. I’m not sure. If he likes to dance, he’s probably dancing.”

“Can I go to heaven someday?”

“Yes. But not for a long, long, long time. When you’re older than Mommy.” (silent prayer)

“And then I can be with Dr. Seuss?”

“Yes, and Paw Paw, and all the other great people in heaven.”

Finally satisfied, we manage to read approximately 2 pages of Green Eggs and Ham before there are more questions about other important matters. Like, “Why doesn’t he bring the plate of food on the first page of the book?” We’re at that age when the word ‘why’ is constant, and when the commentaries and questions about the book are wordier than the words on the page, even in a big girl book like this. I try to remember, despite my sleepiness, that this part is more important than the words on the page, anyway.

One of my favorite things about both my kids is that they are voracious and unconventional eaters (considering the standard idea that kids don’t like anything interesting or healthy). I love the game Conan invented with Lucia for when she proclaims that she doesn’t want something on her plate. He says something like, “But you don’t want this bite? This one’s chocolate flavor.” Then she starts asking, “What about this bite? What’s this flavor?” And before you know it she’s eaten all of what she supposedly didn’t like today, and might be asking for more. The best part (for me) is that  sometimes I make up flavors that aren’t even “exciting” and we still get excited about it. I’m like, “Oh, this is hummus and carrot flavor!” and she’s like, “Mmm, hummus with carrot!” (Bwahahaha, the Mean Mommy wins again.) She told me one day that sometimes she doesn’t eat all her lunch at school because her teacher doesn’t tell her what kind of flavor her food is! I adore four year old logic, when it’s not making me tear my hair out in frustration.

Lucia, below, pretending to eat raw nopal… She is such a silly, outrageous, kind, creative, expressive little monster.

 

 

Part of the bonus of raising kids in my adopted country is getting to take these trips back to visit. I can think things like, “Oh my goodness, a year ago, Khalil hadn’t even tried food! And now he won’t eat if he can’t hold the spoon himself.”  It’s such a good chance to remember, compare, and reflect. And this has been a good excuse to write a little about these two bright, bright lights in my life.

I’ll leave the re-introduction at that for now. See you soon, Louisville folks!

 

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

Dreaming Up an Education in Oaxaca

10 May

 

Do you think your school looks like a prison? What is your school like? Are you bored and tired of the same old things? Have you thought about having classes under the trees instead?

These were some of the brilliant, attention-grabbing ways that my first year students introduced the topic of their ideal school. Okay, maybe I fixed their grammar and tweaked them a bit so as not to plagiarize my students, but still- brilliant, right? Makes you want to keep reading, doesn’t it?

It was an apt week for me to discuss education with my students, since we also pulled our 3 year old out of preschool this week. Here in Mexico, school is mandatory from three years and up, but there’s no big authority that will come looking for us if we don’t send her to school (which is nice for us, but maybe has different implications for students who might want to go to school and can’t afford it.)

Y’all already know I was angry with the daily homework situation at my kid’s school (homework for babies?!), but then it got worse. They informed me that she was supposed to be writing her name on all her homework. She doesn’t even know her letters yet, so it seemed particularly stupid to me, and I pretty much “forgot” about doing it with her. Her teacher kept reminding her, though. Then el colmo, the straw that broke the camel’s back, was her worrying that her teacher would be mad about her coloring part of her homework that wasn’t part of the assignment. She asked me if she could color it, and I said yes, of course. But then she said, “But my teacher’s gonna say, ‘No, Lucia, that’s not the homework; don’t color that.'” And I thought, hell, no! My daughter is too young to be afraid to color on her page. There shouldn’t be any age where it’s cool for kids to be scared to express their creativity, but not-quite-four is not gonna be the age for my kid.

Meanwhile, this week’s unit in our first year English book was about education. Because my students’ teacher (yours truly) is a fanatic of alternative education, I made them try to imagine the school of their dreams. We talked about the different aspects of education- location, methods, evaluations, teachers, schedule, subjects, materials, social activities- and they got started.

It was slightly depressing seeing how basic some of the things they want are- how simple and yet so far out of their grasp. They want things like colorful classrooms, lockers, and organized sports. A couple of students dream of a large library and laboratory. They want a gym and a pool. They’d like on-campus housing, instead of everyone having to struggle to find an affordable room close by. Many expressed their dream of air conditioning in every classroom as a must-have in their dream schools, since there is crazy, constant humidity here. They want a dance class, and a handsome man. (“Just one handsome man?” I asked my student, who quickly changed her spelling.) It was frustrating that these were some of the most outlandish, alternative things that they could dream about for their education- things that are mostly a given in universities in other places.

They’re dying for more chances to have social and recreation time, in a university where there’s no kind of student activities center. In fact, here they pretty much discourage kids from having fun or getting together. If more than a couple kids are sitting out on the library steps, it’s only a matter of time before some administrator comes along and tells them to move along. There’s a little bit of grass on campus, but no one is allowed to sit or walk on it. There’s a slab of concrete and a couple rows of concrete bleachers where they can play sports (and where I play volleyball on a regular basis), but there’s nothing organized. So it wasn’t shocking to see that their ideal schools come with green areas to rest, space to relax, sports fields for their organized teams, and study areas that are social, too.

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This may look prison-like, but at least these kids can sit on the grass.

The other sad thing in their paragraphs was about scheduling. Y’all might have heard me mention before that I love pretty much everything about my job, except the horrendous schedule. I work from 8AM to 1PM, then back again from 4 to 7PM. This is based on the Spanish (aka from Spain) idea of the siesta, which even the Spaniards now want to do away with because nobody actually gets to take a nap. The siesta only serves to lengthen our day, not to mention making us waste more time going home and back and/or fighting for transportation. It stinks for everybody, but it’s especially bad for the students. They don’t get to pick when their classes are, and they all have classes 7 hours a day on this schedule. On top of their class time they have homework, of course. Not only is there no time for them to have jobs (which is frowned upon anyway), there’s not even enough time for them to get a decent night’s sleep half the time. That must be why so many of them dreamed up a space to nap at their ideal school.

So of course most of them wanted a different schedule, but it only occurred to ONE of them to invent something other than the 5 days a week / 8 hours a day schedule. Many of them just dream of something like 7AM – 3PM or 8-4 because it would be so much better than our split schedule. One student wants two days without class every month. The wildest scheduling dream of all was 3 days a week of classes. That, along with the student who wanted a school in the forest or others that wanted classes not in classrooms (gasp!), were by far the most creative, outside-the-box requests for a dream school. Sigh.

Technology was another common topic amongst students. However, it didn’t occur to them to ask for a school with wifi across campus, although that’d be one of the first things I’d dream up for them. It would be uncensored too, since currently they can’t even get on Facebook or Youtube. I’m always griping in my office because our campus-wide internet censors (the hook-up kind, not wifi) won’t let me open any site that contains the word “game” (again with the anti-fun campaign around here). Let’s see you invent new review or grammar games without using the word game in your search (grumble, grumble, complain).

While most of our classrooms have a hook-up for a projector, that’s about as technologically advanced as it gets. There are a couple of computer rooms but often they are occupied for classes, and so it’s not always available to students. Thus I saw several students wanting “actualized” (up-to-date) technology, Smart boards, and tablets to replace notebooks- for conserving the environment, of course. So, okay, they might be pushing it in asking for an escalator, since there is only a maximum of two stories (and only in two of the buildings). But the rest isn’t so outrageous.

 

Before I started teaching here, I thought maybe students wouldn’t like English much because it is a required course that’s not about their major. But then I discovered that all of their classes are things mandated to them; they don’t get to pick any electives! Every semester they have a set schedule of classes, and that’s that. No wonder many of the students enjoy English class, even if language isn’t their favorite thing. It meets their desired criteria of having games, competitions and music, if nothing else. They can learn by playing and talking, although I can’t fulfill their dreams of not having quizzes.

Some might have exaggerated their love of English, however, by claiming they dream of “more English class” or a “special classroom for English.” (Suspected suck-ups, although I tell myself that they really do love English!). One perfectionist wrote a 5 paragraph essay (with help from a translator and someone else, which was not the purpose, but I’m a recovering perfectionist myself, so I forgive him.) Speaking of over-acheivers, one group of them wanted a special study room where only students with the highest grades would have access.

The most requested desire, though, despite all these other shortcomings, was about teachers. My sampling of students really would like some funny teachers, very intelligent teachers, more communicative teachers, no angry teachers, not bad teachers. They want teachers with more instructive materials, and “more prepared teachers,” meaning qualified (preparado in Spanish).

I was taken aback when I saw this in more than one student’s description, so I asked one of my classes if they felt like their current teachers weren’t very qualified. They said yes, they definitely felt like that about some of their teachers. Whether it’s true or not, just the fact that they feel like they’re not receiving a quality education is really disheartening. I suppose that living in the poorest state in the country, it’s hard not to be accustomed to poorly-qualified teachers. The university level doesn’t have the mafia-style union that public primary and secondary schools do, but I can see how it would be difficult to attract and keep a whole staff of amazing teachers to our small, hot and humid little town. It made me even more determined to do my best for them. I can sleep at night knowing that at least I fall into the category they asked for of friendly / not angry teachers. (I’m pretty sure I’m funny, too, but who knows if they all agree.)

I want to do more, though, for these (grown) kids, for my little kid, for all the other kids who are scared to color outside the lines. Maybe we should’ve been talking to the teacher and principal at my daughter’s school more this year instead of just thinking that our values at home would prevail. Maybe I should take my students’ paragraphs and send them to administration. It occurs to me, now that I’m writing this, that talking isn’t enough. Sending my kid to a different school isn’t enough. Trying to make fun and interesting classes for my students isn’t enough.

We’re failing our students- stifling them, turning off their joy of learning, starting at such an early age. Not just here in Southrern Oaxaca, but in so many places. Accepting this as the norm fuels inaction, and will just continue the cycle of failing our students.

I don’t know yet what I’m going to do about it all. I’m accepting ideas! But we all could surely be doing something more for our education systems- for the kids, and for the adults that they’ll become and the world that they’ll create.

 

P.S.- Just to clarify, this is a problem with the educational system, not with the schools or the teachers particularly. The school Lucia was going to is actually a really good school, but still I just don’t agree with the things that are supposed to be taught to her age group or the methodology in how schools here are teaching these tiny learners. At the university, too, I know that there are good teachers (because my students tell me about them!), and I know that there are some other really good aspects to the school. It just makes me sad seeing how little independence they have over their education, how little creativity and freedom of expression they’re allowed,  both physically and intellectually- and this university is more “liberal,” you could call it, than some others. It is definitely a systemic problem.

 

 

 

Hop On the Cyclone of Compassion

2 May

A friend and I were talking about our small kids this week when she brought up her concerns about the teen years ahead. There’s a lot to worry about there, especially if my kids turn into rebel teens like I was. (I know, you’re shocked, right?) A couple years ago I would’ve jumped right on that gravy train of anxiety, realizing that, geez, I hadn’t worried about any of that stuff yet, and how am I going to make sure that my kid doesn’t hook up with online predators or use heroin or forget the condoms or become obsessed with crappy pop music a la Justin Beiber! AAHHHH!

Luckily for me, as I told my friend, I’m much too worried these days about whether or not I’ll find time to hang my clean clothes on the clothesline before they mold to worry about the distant future. And okay, I might just be dealing with my anxiety a little better these days. Or I could say that being a parent has obligated me to drop my control-freakness down about 27 notches. After all, starting in pregnancy, these little monsters start teaching you that YOU HAVE NO CONTROL OVER THEM. Nananana-boo-boo, stick your head in doo-doo.

So you better work on getting some control over your reactions, because that’s all you’ve got. You can hope all you want that they don’t get hurt or killed, but the only thing you get to control is resisting your own urge to hurt and kill them when they are driving you insane. Okay, you can take measures to protect them, yes, sure, please do. But you don’t have control. It’s not enough. Even the most sheltered, protected kids can die, or become junkies, or major in philosophy in college. You just can’t make them the way you want them to be.

You can read 80 thousand books on baby sleep issues and still not be able to make your kid sleep where and when you want them to. You can try to ban them from playing dress up, like one father did to his 3 year son when I worked at a daycare for one nightmare month, but you can’t take that desire out of them if that’s what they want. You can teach them to fight peer pressure, but nothing guarantees that they’ll be able to invoke that in the mere moment when someone they think is really cool offers them a beer. Even if they can fight peer pressure, what happens when they just want to do something you don’t approve of? Even babies, even toddlers who are dying to please you because you are still like god to them- they’re not ours. They’re not something we can control, they’re not even someone whose death we can always prevent. They’re their own little being with their own fate, which we have the privilege to help watch and nurture and cultivate, but the way they grow is all theirs. It’s not mine, anyway.

I’m learning this slowly but surely, and I hope that when my kids are teens, I’ll try to keep it in mind. Yes, I’ll do everything I can to help them lay strong roots, and be my own tree for them to lean into. But when bad things happen (and they will), when they make bad decisions (and they will), when they get hurt (physically and emotionally, I’m sure), I’ll be there. And that’s all I can do.

Once I finished laughing at myself for overcoming anxiety thanks to exhaustion, this conversation got me to thinking about what IS really important to me. What do I really, really hope for my children? Knowing I don’t get to control anything for real, but knowing that we all model the best we can and cross our fingers from there, what do I dream for my kiddos? If I could wish just one thing for them, how do I hope they turn out?

Hands down, if I could pick something to gift them, it would be compassion. More than anything, I want my kids to be people that care about other people. Starting now, and including caring about everyone. I want my children to be the kind of people who don’t feel ashamed that the news is making them cry. Who wipe their tears and brush off their knees, getting up to ask how we’re going to fix this. To be people who say, “Of course your pain affects me,” to people across an ocean and those in their neighborhood, to people who look like them and people who don’t, to anyone who is hurting. I dream that my children will be people who ask, “What can I do to help?”

I hope my kids are the kid who invites the smelly, still-nose-picking-in-the-third-grade kid to their lunch table, even if they kinda don’t want to, because they know they’ll feel too sad to watch him eat by himself, and they know it’s the right thing to do. I hope my kiids keep asking, like my 3 year old already does, why don’t some people have houses? And why can’t they just come sleep at our house? I hope they turn into big people who maintain their capacity to imagine what someone else is feeling, and to question everything. I hope that they decide every day that even if they can’t solve world hunger or turn the tide on climate change or prevent domestic violence or keep racist, murdering cops out of the system or a million other things that they wish they could fix, they can still aim to be part of the solution, to not do more damage if they can help it, to be nice to everyone along the way.

I want them to be compassionate with themselves. To forgive themselves when they realize they’ve made a mistake, to try to make amends. To take care of themselves, so that they can better take care of others. To know that they’re good enough just the way they are, and still try to be better every day.

Of course there’s loads to worry about when they hit the teen years. When I think about my teen years, I am overwhelmed and a little embarrassed, remembering my raging hormones and sexual urgency, the intensity of my romantic concerns, the way that just a person’s name could make me break out sweating in anticipation. I sigh, remembering the goth phase, the punk phase, and the 18 different colors that I dyed my hair (plus that time I shaved it). I fondly still dance to the CD from my favorite punk/ska band, but shake my head at myself thinking about the senseless risk of all the times I got rides home from strangers after a show. I smoked cigarettes outside of school, I drank alcohol with friends in public restrooms, I tried several different drugs. I adopted any traveler kid passing through my city, and when I turned 18 I took off to hitchhike around Europe. It was quite a tumultuous adolescence (sorry, parents), but aren’t they all, really, to some extent or another?

When I write down all that, it sounds rather frightening. But even while I was busy getting into all this trouble, I was also doing cool stuff. I was learning to be a good friend, trying to talk friends out of suicide and drunk driving, holding friends’ hands after sexual assault. I hung out a lot with a group of activist kids, who were writing and publishing their own zine and taking action in the world. We’d do stuff like protest a Klu Klux Klan rally, go to the mall and put informational leaflets in the clothes that were made in sweatshops, march in the gay pride parade, no matter what our sexual identity. I became a peer educator at Planned Parenthood. I attended and then became a youth counselor at an alternative diversity camp for teens. I left high school at 15 to reeducate myself. I published my own zine. I wasn’t always nice to everyone, but when I wasn’t, it was due to my wild hormones and trying to defeat my self-loathing, and not because someone was different from me.

I think the coolest part about me is my constantly cultivated sense of compassion, my ability to put myself in someone else’s shoes more often than not, even when it’s really, really painful. What I most love about myself, then and now still, is my ever burning desire for everyone to have justice, for everyone to have their human rights respected. I’m no Mother Teresa, I’m not Mr. Rogers, either. I’m not as amazing as this beautiful writer and activist, or even as wise and caring as my Nonna. But I am always nurturing my ability to give people, including myself, the benefit of the doubt, and to dish out the respect and care that I want for myself and my children.

I want this so desperately for my children, this cultivating compassion, because it’s such a win-win situation. If the world were full of compassionate people, there would still be hurt and suffering, but not on the scale that it is now, and not in the same systemically unjust ways that it is today. And the more I can practice compassion, the better I feel everyday. It’s often something really small, that seems inconsequential. Like the way that I see my nursing students slack and fall behind and have too many absences in my class. Instead of thinking, “Those lazy nursing students! They’re the only group that gives me such a hard time!” I decide to think, “Those poor nursing students. They must have it so much harder than the kids in the other majors. When they do show up to my class, half the time they’re sleep-deprived, or they’re starving because they don’t get a breakfast break until later in the day.” And it makes me feel better. It makes me get along with them better, because I have an open, caring attitude instead of being pissed off at them for missing my class too much. More of them make an effort to have a decent attitude in my class, even when they’re exhausted.

Compassion, caring, respect, all of these things are cycles just like the negative cycles we talk about- the cycle of violence, of abuse. Compassion can be its own powerful cyclone if we can get ourselves into the path of the storm.

So boy do I ever want that for my kids. But since we don’t get to choose how our kids will turn out, mine will probably rebel against me and turn into excessively materialistic, sedative-abusing, constantly-complaining mall rats or something. Of course, our town would have to build a mall first, so at least there’s that on my side. Meanwhile, I’ll stay in my busyness-induced state of zen, and worry about the teen years when they get here.

The Goddess of Admonishment, La Reyna de las Regañonas

24 Apr

We received a visit this week from the mother of all finger-waggers. She is bound for some kind of title in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most scoldings dished out per minute, a record carefully maintained daily throughout an entire lifetime. She could win an award for most creative admonishments, since she can even find a way to put innocent babies to shame. Here in Mexico, we call this kind of person regañona, a scolder. But this is an understatement; she is the Goddess of all Scolders.

 

The best part about this situation is that while this person is related to me through marriage, she is not my mother-in-law. Every time I see her I spend the entire next day saying Hail Marys to the Patron Saint of In-Laws, to thank her for blessing me with a mother-in-law who is not Tia Meya. Also due to her being an Aunt-in-law, I can actually enjoy her company and love her. Behind all the rebukes is a shining star of auntly adoration. You just have to look hard behind the reprimands and critiques.

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This lady’s toughness has  nothing on Tia Meya. But my aunt-in-law is much more attractive, always formally dressed, plus she’s got a big, big heart.

And perhaps, after all this time with my in-laws, I’m starting to see how scolding is another way to show affection. I should have known that Tia Meya liked me from that first time she laughed at me. I was just visiting Mexico, trying to wash my clothes by hand in the concrete washboard. She came up and all but snatched the clothes out of my hand, telling me something like, “You’re totally clueless about this, huh? Go, go.” She shooed me off as I tried to babble about my lazy style of washing by hand in Paraguay, that yeah, I’d done it before. “Go make yourself useful with something else. You’re gonna have to extend your visit by a few more weeks at the rate you wash clothes.” And she did it all for me. 

 

She’s a character, and a good one at that. So usually I can take her barbs and critiques with a grain of salt, but this time around it had been too long between visits and I forgot to not take it personally for a minute. The baby had a cold and she was telling me to put Vick’s Vapor Rub on his feet. “I’m out of Vick’s,” I told her. “Julia,” she told me sincerely, “you should always have Vick’s Vapor Rub around. Why don’t you have Vick’s? It’s really useful. You should just keep it stocked in the house.”

 

“Yes,” I told her calmly, “I agree. It is very useful. That’s why I normally have it. But since I also use it regularly, it runs out. So I don’t have it now.”

 

“I know but you should keep it in the house all the time. You need to stock it.”

 

“Yes but I’m not a pharmacy. I have to go out and buy it when I run out.” We could’ve gone for several more rounds like that but Conan distracted us with something, since he’s more expert at this situation than I am.

 

She’s very old school in her ways, and one constant point of contention is how we dress or otherwise take care of the kids. This time, like every time, she blamed our underuse of socks for the baby’s cold. “Julia, don’t let his little feet go around on this cold floor! No wonder he’s all snotty! Put some socks on that child, please! It’s hurting me just to watch him!” Never mind that it’s 80 degrees and that Khalil won’t even keep socks on his feet when it is actually cold. If you say something like that, though, she just shakes her head sadly, telling you it’s still you’re fault- if you’d have gotten him used to socks from day one, you wouldn’t have this problem. Sigh.

 

Our pet cat was the other major problem this visit. Tia Meya has decided that the cat is the obvious culprit in Lucia’s asthma. Furthermore, nobody should even have a cat for a pet because it’s just gross and wrong. According to her, cats eat all your food and leave their hair on your kitchen table, among other complaints. “But don’t listen to me! Go ahead and get more cats and see how your kids breathe then. Don’t come to me when the kids are in the hospital from all this cat hair!” And when you try to explain what the doctor said, or give some other kind of reasoning, she cuts you right off, with “Déjalo, vaya,” which is the regional equivalent of her saying, “Nevermind! Do whatever! You wait and see!” Oh, dear, Tia Meya.

 

Often there’s not even time to argue, though, because she zips around like a bee pollinating flowers. Instead of making honey, however, she’s busy questioning you and everything you’ve done or haven’t done (possibly while she’s also doing some random chore that she sees you’ve left undone.) She comes in to your house, gives you a hard time, and runs out the door, off to scold someone else. “Ya me voy,” is her theme song- Im leaving– she announces as soon as she’s inside. If she walks in on you with a sink full of dishes, she’s guaranteed to say something like, “Look at all these dirty dishes! So many dishes! How can you stand it?! How’d you even make all these dishes dirty!” As she’s scolding you, though, she’s washing them for you. And then she’s gone. If she walks in on you doing chores, she’ll tell you how you’re doing it wrong. You’re using the wrong kind of cleaner, or you shouldn’t be washing dishes with cold water like that- it’ll be the death of you. “And I’m not going to stand around and watch you killing yourself like that,” she’ll shake her head at you and off she goes. “The good thing is,” she told us the other day, “I’m sure I won’t be here the day that Khalil brings the whole table down on top of himself with this seat you all put him in!” Even though the seat was designed and safety tested for use with babies, with the sole purpose of attaching the seat to the table, you will never convince her that it’s okay once she’s decided to criticize something.

 

She doesn’t even always mean what she says; she just has some compulsion to give everyone she cares about a hard time. Even babies are not exempt from her wrath/affection.  When Lucia was just a couple of months old, Tia Meya would come in and scold her about nursing. “Ay, ay, qué cosa comes?! Deja esa chichi, vas a acabar a tu pobre mama!” (My goodness, what are you eating?! Leave that breast alone, you’re gonna finish off your poor mother!) Mind you, she’s 100% in favor of breastfeeding. But if she hasn’t told you what you’re doing wrong today then it’s like she hasn’t even seen you, no matter what age you are.

 

Scolding is not optional for her; you can’t escape it no matter what you do. If you’re cooking something she’ll say, “You’re just now cooking lunch! My goodness, I’ve had lunch ready for two hours already! You guys like to suffer around here.” If you’re not cooking then she’s wondering aloud what in the world are you doing with yourself? It’s a miracle you’re even still alive, the way you may or may not get around to cooking lunch. If she arrives and you’ve already had lunch then she’ll surely criticize you for eating too early. There’s no pleasing her.

 

It’s not really about criticizing you, although I have no doubt that she truly believes her way / the traditional way is the only correct way to do things. Conan comes from a large family of women who believe that scolding equals love. Not all of his mother’s 7 siblings are women, but the majority are, and boy are they a majority to be reckoned with. They are the type of women who are constantly working, constantly pushing themselves to get it all done. They don’t take time to have fun or relax until all their work is complete. And they believe that everyone else should be like them, too, although they’ll go way out of their way to take care of everyone around them. So Tia Meya washes the dishes while she smilingly chastises you, because really she knows you’re busy and she wants to help. Or she brings you something she’s cooked, under the pretense that it’s so you’ll have something decent to eat, or you’ll be able to eat at a reasonable hour, according to her standards. She could never just do something nice and admit that it’s because she’s a nice person. No, there must be finger-wagging involved or it wouldn’t be Tia Meya taking care of you.

 

So I try to just remember, scolding is love in this family. The more of it they dish out, the more they care about you. So look out for Tia Meya in the world records. Say a prayer of thanks on my behalf, that I lucked into the most diplomatic scolding sister of the family to have as a mother-in-law. And if you’re ever down here in southern Oaxaca and you find yourself being attacked by too many regaños from critical old aunts (or your mother-in-law, God forbid), just tell them “Déjelo, vaya!” Because at least then they’ll laugh at you, probably tell you that you said it wrong, and you’ll know that they like you. What more could you ask for?

 

What Not To Do When You Move to Small Town Southern Mexico

9 Apr

My dad always said that opinions are like assholes; everybody’s got one. So true, and yet we all still think that ours is truly valid, that we can really help someone out with our hard-earned wisdom. So I’m here today, ladies and gentlemen, to share my opinions, my own stellar advice for all of you pondering a moving to the marvelous state of Oaxaca. For those of you already in Oaxaca, this is still superb advice, but you might already know it. You guys can go ahead and laugh with me, please and thank you.

This is advice that I would have appreciated, theoretically. I mean, okay, sometimes I love to jump headfirst into things, blindfolded and grinning. But often I would prefer to research things to make the most informed decision possible. Usually that means I seek as much advice and information as possible and then jump briskly off cliff number one anyway. Sigh.

So here you go- I present you the fruits of my experience, aka some advice that you can read, reject and ignore. (I’m practicing for the kids’ adolescence.)

The first tidbit of guidance I have for you is second-hand, but it is first-rate advice nonetheless.

Don’t change your country of residence immediately after having your first child.

“Don’t plan any major life changes for a while. Transitioning to parenthood is hard enough.” Our lovely doula, the birth assistant we hired for Lucia’s birth, tried to warn us. Truer words were never spoken. But, alas, the U.S. government did not appreciate this wisdom. And you know, there’s gotta be some benefit to starting your kid off really, really early with the globe-trotting.

But it’s not a great plan for adjusting to parenthood sanely. Abandoning your entire support system and general way of life while learning how to parent is a special kind of madness. I mean, leave the country, yes! I am so glad that we live here- now. If we could have waited a year, though, it would have saved us lots and lots of heartache. So while I don’t recommend jet-setting first thing postpartum, if you find yourself doing it, you’re a special kind of badass, and I want to be your friend.

Don’t buy an automatic car that needs work.

Contrary to popular belief down here in the land of stick shifts, automatics are not bad cars. In the U.S. I owned several over the years, and a couple of them were fabulous cars. They go up hills just fine, thank you very much, when they work. The problem here is, unless your automatic is more or less new (or at least in such condition that it never needs to be worked on by a mechanic), you are screwed, because nobody knows how to fix it properly.

This advice is spawned by my current frustration- the impetus for this blog post- which is a recurring soap opera. Every time our car breaks down (which is about bimonthly) it either takes a week (or longer) to fix it, or in the process of fixing it they cause some other problem. This month both things happened.

At first I thought this phenomenon was due to having bought a lemon of a car. Then I thought it was because the mechanic we often took it to (the cheapest option, a friend of a friend) was just a slow and inexperienced mechanic. But at one point we had a problem that required about ten different mechanics. Ten! They didn’t know if it was mechanical or electrical, so we took it to all the types of mechanics. They didn’t have a clue. They took apart our car, broke other things. It was absurd. And it just keeps happening!

It was nice to use an automatic to transition into learning to drive on these bumpy dirt roads with lots of drivers who don’t follow any rules. But now I have my teacher lined up to teach me how to drive a manual car, and I’ll hook you up, too. Just say no to automatics that might need mechanics. Buy yourself a nice little Tsuru, just like the taxis and half of the rest of the population own. That’s what we’ll be doing next, if I manage to follow my own advice. (Don’t hold your breath.)
Don’t build a house to live in when there is not yet electricity in the neighborhood.

“It’s just an overgrown lot right now, there’s no electricity or water,” my in-laws warned me when we came to visit the plot of land in Puerto that Conan owned. “Right, but we can get that stuff installed, right?” I asked, thinking it was just a matter of getting things hooked up, signing a contract, paying the bill. Little did I know….

We got water hooked up just fine during the building process, thanks to some help from a family member. But with electricity, there was no “hooking up” because there was nothing to hook up to on our block. The electric company won’t set it up someplace new unless they’re paid to by the folks living in the neighborhood and/or government (and we’re talking thousands of dollars). So it was a lot of waiting and fighting and hoping and hopelessness. Perhaps someone tried to tell me beforehand, but I was too blinded by my desperation to get out of Juquila to really let it sink in. And really, if I had it to do over again? I suppose I would think about us renting a place while we waited for electricity. But would I stay in Juquila till the lights came on here? Hell, no. Hell, no. (Seriously. Double or triple hell, no.)

We got lucky that we only spent a year and a half (two years for Conan) living without electricity. I know people who spent years and years living “off the grid” by accident. So you just don’t know when you’ll get it. Don’t plan to live there unless you’re one of those amish-style hippy types who wants to go charge your iphone at someone else’s house and live without fans because your body odor just isn’t at its best in the A/C. And if that’s the case, bless your little heart, you’re made of sterner stuff than I.

Don’t start a business that you know nothing about.

When we lived in Juquila, we couldn’t find decent jobs. Everyone and their mother wanted me to teach their kid English, but nobody actually wanted to commit to regular classes, or pay more than 20 pesos an hour (less than 2 US dollars). Conan’s construction skills were not in demand, either, since everything they construct here is very different. He got a job at one point, but he was working about 12 hours a day, 6 days a week for next to nothing.

So we decided to sell cell phones, accessories, and recargas (prepaid minutes) out of his mom’s storefront in the front of the house. That’s right- we sold cell phones. Imagine me selling cell phones. Me- who refused to have a cell phone until I lived in Chile in 2007. Me- who then held on to the same flip phone for like 6 years. Me- who still had cassettes until I moved down here, just to give you an idea of how resistant I am to new technology. It was totally my dream job to sell cell phones- Not! (Haha, look how backwards I am! Still using kid quotes from the early 90s- that’s me.)

In fairness, Conan knew much more about cell phones and accessories than I did (and do; I’m still clueless). But neither of us had any idea what the people of Juquila would buy, really. It was a pretty uninformed business venture, which seems to be kind of the M.O. in Juquila. There are no corporations; it’s all small business. You don’t take any classes or write up a business plan. You either have experience because your family owns something or you just scrape together some money for a small investment and get started with your tiny business that you hope will do well so you can expand. It’s a respectable way to do things in the circumstances, but it did not make us a living. Now if we had invested in statues of saints instead….

It wasn’t a total waste of money. We sold most of it over time. We used some of the phones and accessories ourselves. We earned some money, slowly. It was certainly an interesting experience. And I certainly admire the tenacity of the neighborly small business owners who just open up the front room of their house and stock some snacks and sodas along with the most common of vegetables. I mean, why not? Who says you have to have a stupid business plan? Granted, bigger small businesses down here do still have a plan, I’m sure. And maybe a small business could still work for us someday. But not in Juquila. And not cell phones. This lesson was learned, for now.

Don’t let your small child sleep in the same bed with you “just for the transition.”

Don’t do this unless you want to sleep with them forever. There is no “just for the transition.” Once they worm their way in, you will never get him or her out of your bed again. The transition just keeps on keeping on. Just say no to bed-sharing, for the health of your grown-up relationship and the sake of your ribs, which will remain bruised throughout the duration from all that kicking and thrashing these mini-monsters do. ‘Nuff said.

mac32_cosleeping04

this is our near future…

The Moral of this story is…..

Well, nothing, really. As you can see, I don’t have any real advice. I don’t have a clue what you should do, but I have a wealth of savvy on what not to do. Not that you should listen to me. Counsel such as this probably would have saved me lots of heartache, but that doesn’t mean I would have taken it. My dad was always futilely trying to save me from making the same mistakes that he made, but heartache is ours to find, one way or another.

Furthermore, if I had known then what I know now, would I have done things differently? In general, probably not. For one, I love rollercoasters, and I am constantly learning to appreciate this roller coaster that is my life, no matter what. Also, I’m working on not judging myself harshly, and both Conan and I have done the best we could with what we were working with, and that just has to be good enough. Not to mention that I always figure these brilliant “mistakes” are good for my character. And I’m pretty damn cool on a good day. So if you find yourself by happenstance moving to small town Oaxaca, look me up and I’ll impart more thrilling opinions. Worthwhile? Well, that and a few cents will get you a stick of gum, as my dad would say. So on second thought, come on down and I’ll give you a cup of coffee instead.