Tag Archives: raising children in Mexico

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 )

____________________________________________________________________________________________

“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!

 

 

Two Little Arrows out in the Wide World: Musings on Children

1 May

I send our little boy out into the world with a pink and blue tutu, heedless of the consequences. I’m not concerned, although I suspect the babysitter is. Our son has very firm ideas about what he wants already, plus he loves to copy his big sister, and many of his life’s joys are the same as hers. This includes a passion for shoes and tutus, as well as an extraordinary ability to prolong bedtime by bringing more and more books to the bed with a pleading look in his eyes.

Mostly when he wears his tutu or his dress (things he has borrowed from Lucia and made all his own) strangers just assume that he’s a girl. Obviously, folks who know him know that he’s a boy, and reactions have been mixed. First folks are kind of taken aback. Some folks have a strong reaction of “WTF,” while others have a milder sort of head-shaking tsk-tsk version of it. LIke, “Why would they put a skirt on this poor boy? These strange people!” When people ask about it and I tell them he’s matching with his big sister, they seem to be a bit more understanding about it. I kind of resent having to give an explanation for my two year old’s style, but at least that keeps most people from freaking out that boys can’t wear that- at least in the presence of my children. I don’t want too many people contradicting our family values that all people can wear whatever they want.

18217685_1424487244274985_1164920090_n

Protesting nap time, with Lucia’s shoes on, on the wrong feet, of course. 

People thought it was weird when we dressed Lucia in hand-me-down “boy clothes” when she was little, too. People were not ever shocked and appalled, however, in the same way that some people are about Khalil wearing a tutu. I could talk my feminist theory talk about why I think Khalil is more distressing for them, but that’s not my purpose today.

Partly, I’ve just been thinking about how easy it is for me to let my children be themselves- sometimes, and in some respects. And how hard it is to let my children be themselves in other ways.

Take, for instance, Lucia’s invented new hairstyle. I’m not the slightest bit worried about the other parents out there judging me or her because her hair is like a 4 year old version of some punk-rock hair cut (it kind of looks like someone was drunk while braiding her hair). I couldn’t care less about anyone reporting her to the fashion police for her favorite outfit, which involves pants, a tutu, and a shirt/skirt one-piece all at once. (YES! Wear all your favorite things at once! Yes!)

18217821_1424486937608349_1594947683_n

Here you can kind of see one version of Lucia’s favorite outfit, as well as her badass hairstyle. 

It’s easy enough right now for us to plant and water these seeds in our kids’ heads- that they can wear whatever they want, that boys and girls can do anything, that girls can have boyfriends or girlfriends, and boys can have girlfriends or boyfriends. Since Lucia already has a “boyfriend” at her preschool, the who-can-be-your-partner conversation has already happened. I had to give her examples of friends of ours that are “novios con novios” or “novias con novias” so that she would believe that I wasn’t making it all up. I felt totally rewarded in the parenting department one day when one of her friends was over and I overheard her talking about how so-and-so at school could go with so-and-so, because you CAN have girlfriend with girlfriend, because her Mommy said so. Of course I worry a tiny bit about what will happen when her peers’ opinions hold more weight than mine, but I realize that all I get to do is plant and water seeds and see how they grow.

That part is easy for me. Based on my background, and my values, I have possibly too much confidence about being able to sow healthy and open ideas in my kids’ heads about many things. But I realized that there are certain other things about my kids that I just keep fighting against, and that it’s time to evaluate that.

Like the sleep thing. Lucia has had major sleep problems since she was pretty itty-bitty. She has a hard time falling asleep (my genes) and a hard time staying asleep (Conan’s genes). One night when I was putting her to bed late but happily, she told me, ever so wistfully, “I can’t wait for it to be morning.” And I thought, “Why do I begrudge her this so much?” This bright little heart never wants to go to sleep, so deeply and intrinsically, that even when she is to-the-bone-exhausted she still has an inherent resistance to sleep; she  just won’t give up on the waking world. There is too much excitement, too much to be lived. None of us should be sleeping! And that’s precisely how I used to feel- and how I still feel, sometimes. Having children taught me a new level of exhausted, one that gifted me the capacity to fall asleep nearly instantly as my head finally hits the pillow each night. And yet. Slithering my way out of depression, I find that more and more I resist sleep again. It’s like being 15 again, where I just want to stay up and smoke cigarettes and write poetry, or sneak out and drink coffee and have philosophical discussions at the all-night shitty diner at 2 in the morning. I want to discover myself, and discover the whole world, too! I want to love everything, to be enchanted and jaded at the same time, to hand out flowers to lonely-looking strangers on Valentines Day and get involved with a youth-run activist zine all over again! Except I don’t smoke anymore and no one is calling to sneak me out of the house. (I sit at the computer and smuggle myself a beer after the kids are in bed instead.) But I digress. Feeling her sleep resistance as a kindred spirit instead of as an inconvenience or a failure or something I’m supposed to fix, it finally clicked for me that my kids are going to be however they are.

Duh, right? It’s sounds so simple. Of course I’m going to keep influencing them, and doing the best parenting job I can. But that’s all I get to do. So what’s the point in fighting with them about other things? I don’t mean not setting boundaries or letting them run amok in all ways, but I do mean recognizing when they’re just not capable of meeting certain expectations, because they get to be unique human beings, too. I’ve been thinking about this extra because I’ve been reading this book about working with your kids to resolve problems, which also talks a lot about working with your child’s personality and strengths. So when Lucia told me how she couldn’t wait for the next day to happen, oh-so-longingly, pining for more moments of life, and I recognized little-girl-me in her, it finally hit me that no amount of bedtime routing is going to “cure” this child of her sleep issues. And there are going to be lots more things that I view as problems that maybe could be viewed from a different lens, for everyone’s benefit.

Like I’ve finally accepted that I don’t need to stress abut my kids’ eating habits. Yes, I still need to bust my butt to make sure there’s healthy food available for them to eat everyday. But I don’t need to stress if Lucia wants to eat just pasta for lunch, vehemently rejecting any vegetables involved. She’ll eat her vegetables for dinner. My kids are great eaters. This is not a real problem. Just because they don’t eat exactly like I do does not mean they are not healthy eaters. Khalil is not yet capable of resisting the urge to drink the bathwater when he’s pretending to have a tea party. Lucia is not capable of getting a good night’s sleep in a bed by herself. Some things I’d like for them, they’ll be capable of in the future. Some things they might never be able to do because that’s just how they are. And that’s okay, too.

It doesn’t mean I have infinite patience, either. It still makes me lose my mind when I’m running late and Khalil insists on buckling his own seat belt, which he can’t effectively do yet. It still ups my anxiety when Lucia has major panic attacks over non-emergencies. But I can deal with it all a lot better when I am compassionate about all of us being separate human beings, and doing the best that we can, being who we are. When I am kind and generous with them, and with myself, too.

I can be at my parenting best when I can keep the wise words of Kahlil Gibran in my heart. (And yes, my son is named for him! And yes, I am having a beer with myself and my writing as we speak, and delighting in every minute of it.) I’ll leave you with his words, since it’s way better than anything I could say.

“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.”

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.

 

washinghandskids

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.)

khalil1

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.)

lucia6

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.

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.

To Serve or to Self-Serve, That is the Question

20 Mar

This is not an urban legends, guys, but a true story. In Kentucky, back when we lived there, there was this one lovely lady’s husband who insisted on an extreme version of being served by his wife. We’re talking about being served everything ingestible; if his wife’s hand hadn’t passed it to him it was not yet worthy of his mouth. He’d be sitting next to the pitcher of water and he’d call his wife in from the other room to come pour it into his cup. Unable to get his own silverware from the drawer. He didn’t have any sorts of abilities lacking to cause such behavior- just a big ole case of over entitlement.

That couple was from somewhere in Mexico, but I’d never have called that behavior a cultural phenomenon. My male friends from Mexico weren’t like that. My partner from Mexico was nothing like that. I chalked it up to a case of extremist patriarchy, which is tragically common worldwide (and yet none of these anti-terrorist organizations are doing anything to stop it).

Fast forward to us living in small town southern Mexico. I’m planning kid #2’s first birthday party and decide I want it to be different from the norm. I don’t want to serve typical party food (here that means tamales, pozole, barbacoa). I thought it would be fun to have finger food in honor of my birthday boy who eats everything with his hands. So I made sandwiches of varying types and cut them into cute triangles like I do for Lucia’s lunch, so people could mix and match with different kinds. I made cream cheese and cucumber, cheese and avocado, and peanut butter and jelly (on both white and wheat bread). Conan grilled some hot dogs to give carnivores something to eat. I cut some fruit and some veggies, too, to appease my own standards of giving my kiddos healthy things to snack on. To drink we did rely on the standard agua de jamaica (sweetened iced hibiscus tea) because it’s easy and cheap to make a ton of it (and good for you if you don’t add too much sugar).

las-mejores-recetas-de-pozole

Pozole- A soup with chicken and/or pork, hominy, cabbage and other “fixins” on top… Delicious, but not what I wanted for the birthday party.

barbacoa_en_hidalgo

Barbacoa is nothing like barbeque, although it is meat. It’s often goat or beef, and the seasoning is not sweet at all like BBQ sauce. It’s slow cooked and delicious. Also not what I wanted for the party. 

The radical part wasn’t so much what we served but rather how we served it. We laid it all out on the table and let people serve themselves. I was stoked to mix it up a bit from the normal boring party thing. Because that set-up, in my little potluck-loving Kentucky heart, is so dull and restrictive. You end up not talking to anybody; there’s no mingling. It’s all business. You sit down, get served, eat your food, get up and wait for the cake or the piñatas or whatever the next order of business is. Done. Half the time people can’t even be bothered to stay and eat the cake. They take their plate of cake with them as soon as it’s served, because apparently their quota of socializing is all used up for the day.

So I was determined to do something different. Yet I suspect that some people were as appalled by our style of self-service as I was back in Kentucky by the extremist husband. Going to the table and getting their own food was probably like they hadn’t even been invited at all, a sort of anti-hospitality. But it wasn’t on purpose! It didn’t even occur to me that it could be offensive to people. I thought it would be pleasant, so that people could pick and choose what they ate instead of being served things they might not like. I thought it would be more fun than the traditional style. Some of our crowd liked it, for sure. But there were definitely some that were far from impressed. There were women and men alike at the party who felt embarrassed to go up to the table and serve themselves. That’s just not how the roles are supposed to go at a party. That’s not what hospitality looks like here.

k bday

Khalil is like, “Are they going to give me that thing? Or are they just teasing me?” You can see our buffet table there in the background.

k bday2

More of the set-up: laid back! Relaxed! Chairs here and there for socializing! I had a great time, anyway.

k cupcake1

Finally! Cupcake deliciousness- banana cupcakes with nutella on top… I think it was a hit with the birthday boy.

k cupcake2

Here he makes sure to devour it all while being on the lookout for anyone coming to take it away from him.

 

So I got to thinking some more about the whole concept of serving and hospitality. Y’all that know me know that I pride myself on making sure that guests and visitors feel welcome and taken care of. I’m from Kentucky, after all. And I’m also a feminist (aka believer in equality).

Thus I think that serving food can be anybody’s job. Usually, if I cook something and I’m stoked about it, or we’re having people over for a sit-down dinner, I want to serve it, because it’s a matter of pride. But sometimes I just reheated some frozen soup and I’m in the middle of nursing the baby so just go help yourself, please and thank you. I refuse to believe that other adults should not eat when the person who cooked is obviously busy and they’re perfectly capable of adding their own finishing touches. Furthermore, I know that men can cook. Men can serve food. I have confidence in men. My dad was a great cook, for example, and when he cooked, he served the food. Ideally, I believe that everyone should be able to cook at least some things. Everyone should be capable of serving themselves, too. This is a basic and important skill, folks. I learned to pour from a pitcher of water in kindergarten, and you can do it, too.

I also think that being in charge of the food and the serving of food is both a tedious, never-ending chore and also a serious power. Anyone who’s ever been a server in a restaurant knows this. There are always some customers who lash out and treat you poorly, trying to make you feel little or unimportant. They confuse server with servant, but really the customer is at your mercy. They can’t eat their soup if you don’t bring their spoon. They can’t do anything useful for themselves; they rely on you for everything. It’s almost like them being a baby all over again, except most customers have better communication skills than babies (most, but sadly not all of them).

Here, it’s like all meals are restaurant meals, and some woman or the other (mom, grandma, oldest daughter, whoever) is the server. Men become these helpless creatures. There’s the food, right there on the stove- so near and yet so far, because there’s this invisible barrier preventing them from getting their plate and piling it on. Seriously! Okay, not all the time, not everybody, but more here than I’d ever seen on any of my travels or my time in Kentucky. Sometimes it makes me outraged, and sometimes it makes me sad for the helpless men. Because ye who wields the serving spoon wields part of the power of deciding who eats what!

But this avoidance of self-serving is not just a patriarchal thing. (Do I think that overly defined and restrictive gender roles are at the heart of it? Yes, mostly. But that’s not the only factor.) At its best, it’s a case of meal time being a special time for family and sharing. It’s the antithesis of microwave dinners in front of the TV. And I love that aspect of it. It’s nice to be served sometimes, just like it’s lovely to serve, when it’s a show of welcome and love. It’s a case of a non-individualistic culture, where it doesn’t always matter that you want less vegetables and more rice, you get what gets put on your plate because that’s what everyone’s eating. It’s about community, and feeling taken care of, too. There’s a lot of good things to be said for this style of eating together.

Self-service is just not a phenomenon here, and I can respect that in a culture. I can appreciate it lots more, though, if the roles of serving changed equally- if everyone took a turn and not always only women. If it weren’t the case that at giant neighborhood parties, for example,  it’s filled with women in aprons doing all the work, and men with their beer and mezcal enjoying the party. So while we work on that (in every culture), there’s an extra present for my son on his first birthday: I promise to teach him equally the basic life skills to take care of himself and others. Everyone can pour the pitcher of water! Cheers to that!

No Medicine is the Best Medicine Sometimes

26 Feb

“Oh, she’s the doctor who doesn’t give medication,” our family friend said when she realized who our pediatrician is. It amused me to hear her reputation described as such, but the good news is that it’s true- in all the right ways, anyway! We have a radical, thoughtful, socially-minded doctor for our kids now. This has been revolutionary for our life.

A while back I mentioned in a blog post that my parenting anxiety was more extreme because of not having a doctor that we had trust and confidence in. (You can read about that here: https://exiletomexico.wordpress.com/2015/01/25/just-keep-breathing/  ) But then- ta-dah!- we found our ideal pediatrician, Dr. Anja. And as we recover from another bout of Lucia’s asthma, and bask in a reassuring check-up for Khalil, I thank my lucky stars yet again for her existence in Puerto and for us finding her.

You guys just don’t know how novel it is to have a doctor who has a file on our kids, a doctor who wants to see them for check-ups. I can quit referring to old Facebook posts to check on their previous weight. I can ditch some of my excessive notes from every illness ever- because now their doctor has that info. I can ask questions and get advice on what to expect, what to watch out for, how to keep my kids safe and healthy- information specifically for my child, not generated by parental desperation, academic websites and parenting books! Her information comes from medical school in Germany, residency in New York, experience in a public hospital here in Puerto, plus her own practice here. It is a much, much wider range of experience and education than most doctors around here. (Not to mention her credentials are much, much better than mine; I don’t even have aspirations for being a doctor, guys! I just want to be healthy and informed.)

And that reputation for not giving (useless) medication? Perhaps it’s frustrating for people who believe you always need medicine, but that’s not us. For us, it’s a miracle to find a doctor here in Puerto Escondido that doesn’t want to inject a patient with antibiotics every time they cough. “It’s an infection,” they tell you, as if infection were a synonym for bacterial-problem-requiring-antibiotics. Or else it’s something like, “When they have a fever they do need antibiotics.” Really? So, the flu now requires antibiotics? Mosquito-borne illnesses, too? Give me a break, doctors. Even when they don’t give antibiotics around here, they always give you some kind of medicine to buy. Of course, if you go to one of those doctors that works in a pharmacy (which costs about a tenth of what a non-pharmacy doctor charges), they pretty much have to sell you some kind of medicine. But even when we took Lucia to a different pediatrician, he still prescribed us some symptom-relieving medicine for her virus (which I didn’t give her because he didn’t resolve my questions about it, and because I’m a mean, mean Mommy). But our pediatrician has the same philosophy that I do about medicine: You don’t need medicine that’s not going to help. Revolutionary, right?

Before finding Dr. Anja, we also had the medical establishment* here telling us that my healthy, in-the-normal-weight-range daughter is underweight and malnourished. I think they told us that because Lucia’s tall and thin now, and thus out of the very limited “healthy” range for Body Mass Index here in Mexico. I mean, they were working with limited information, bless their little hearts. They certainly couldn’t check her growth over time, since they didn’t keep files on her. By using those same limited standards, she would have been considered overweight as a baby, and they probably would have advised me to breastfeed her less or some other such insanity. I suppose the plus side of not having well visits for her as a baby here was the lack of opportunity for them to tell me she was too fat.

By the way, I did not resort to violence, thank you, and I didn’t even laugh in their face at the word malnourished applied to my healthy, often voracious eater. Both times I nodded politely and left as quickly as possible, before they could suggest I feed her chips or something to fatten her up. Yes, that is plausible; a doctor told me I needed to eat more sweets because my blood sugar was a bit low during pregnancy. If doctors prescribe candy to pregnant women, then why not chips and donuts to “malnourished” children? Sigh. The saddest thing is that these 2 different doctors didn’t recommend anything at all for Lucia. They told us she’s underweight with no suggestion as to how to remedy the supposed problem (not that I would’ve listened, but that’s beside the point).

But all that is in the past! Now we have our doctor. And did I mention that my kids like going to the doctor now? Lucia’s always excited to go there. “Are we going to my doctor? The one with the toys?” she asks. You guessed it, Dr. Anja has a waiting room with toys and books and puzzles! There are colorful things hanging from her walls. There’s a giant stuffed animal in the exam room that Lucia likes to hold during asthma treatments. Her walls are painted and her space is inviting. As an added bonus, there’s always soap for hand washing available (you can’t say that about every health center, unfortunately). We haven’t been to any other medical place with this kind of kid-friendly (or even just friendly) environment.

dr anja waiting room 1

The waiting room- You wish you had this doctor, too, don’t you?

dr anja waiting room 2

There are even more toys than what you can see in this picture.

Even if she had an ugly, boring office, though, her awesome manner with the kids would still make up for it. The first time we took Lucia there was the first time she wasn’t scared of a doctor. Our doctor knows how to get kids to take a breath before they understand what taking a breath means. She is friendly and talks to them in a respectful way, but on kid-level. She tries to be as noninvasive as possible while doing her job, not making them sit still for more time than they have to, distracting them with toys while she does some things. Of course, I’m sure it also just helps that she’s not trying to give every kid shots of antibiotics every visit.

Dr. Anja explains things to us, the parents, as well. She wants us to understand and be part of our child’s health and care, instead of assuming that we’re completely ignorant about all things health-related and that we need to be protected from ourselves.

She is also trying to reach out and make her adopted community a better place. She now has a bus she uses to take her important services to smaller towns, places where they might never see a pediatrician otherwise. (read more about it here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/pediatric-mobile-clinic-in-mexico#/ ) She is also interested in maternal health and promoting more options and information about pregnancy and birth, which is another desperately needed service down here. (What’s that? You guys can sense the future collaboration happening between us? Here’s hoping!)

Being from the U.S., of course it makes me feel at ease knowing that our doctor is familiar with best practices and protocol on an international scale. It’s nice to be able to talk about health issues in my native tongue, too. But it’s not her being foreign and trilingual, or her having experience abroad, that makes her our ideal pediatrician. There are great doctors around here who are from here; for example, my gynecologist is home-grown on the Oaxacan coast, and he’s brilliant and ideal for me, too (someday I’ll write a gushing post about him). Likewise, you can find plenty of doctors in the U.S. who are just as willing as most doctors here to give you antibiotics for your virus. I’m sure Europe also has its share of doctors who think all patients are idiots because they didn’t go to medical school. So it’s definitely not her being foreign. It’s her attitude, her way of doing things, combined with her knowledge, that make her the perfect pediatrician for us.

So amen again for the peace of mind that comes from having a great doctor available. Now we just need to find a good general practitioner for us grown-ups, so the whole family can get sick whenever we want, without the stress of relying on Google and tea to cure us. Meanwhile, y’all who don’t live in Puerto can hope you find your own Dr. Anja. Good luck!

 

*I’m sure there are plenty of good doctors around here. I’m not saying other docs are all awful, but we’ve had some unpleasant consultas, and I am saying that the other doctors that we’ve visited are not a good fit for us. And, okay, I am talking bad about the many, many doctors everywhere who don’t want you to ask questions. They are bad doctors if they don’t want the patient involved in his/her own care, in my humble opinion. For more examples of the madness, you can read about my fight with my insurance company doctor during my pregnancy here: https://exiletomexico.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/me-versus-the-insurance-company-doctors-a-saga/