Wednesday, June 30, 2004

A Tale of Two Mommys' Groups

Another time, I'll tell the story of how I came to be a Stay At Home Mom, and someday I'll even write an account of how I spend my time during the day. Right now, I'm writing about mother's support groups, altruistically called "play groups" for children.

Because of my daughter's congenital heart defect, she and I stayed home for her first four months. After she was recovered from her surgery and it was finally springtime, I felt ready to venture out into the world a bit more. And so we began going to play groups. We regularly go to two.

On Thursday afternoons, we go to Kangaroo Kids for the nursing moms' group. The first time I walked into this support group, I felt warm and safe. A panic I didn't realize I'd been feeling began to quiet. I sat in a corner and just absorbed the atmosphere. My daughter, Ellie, was overwhelmed too. She was all huge eyes and silence. She couldn't concentrate on nursing (for the first time ever) because there was so much else going on. There were moms talking loudly: sharing experiences, stories, and parenting tips. There were babies crying, babies nursing, babies crawling, babies playing with toys and exploring. It was incredible. One mom told a story about a very new, very young mom who was having a hard time. The other moms made a plan for reaching out to this young woman, picking her up at home, and bringing her and her baby to the group. It's a warm, commune kind of feel. These women talk about slinging, naturopathic remedies for ailments, attachment parenting, whole foods, discipline, family planning, exercise, and whatever else they need to talk about. The group is "led" very loosely by Tanya, a lactation consultant and attachment parenting-style mother of 4. The other moms are a mix of single and married women, young and older, stay at home and working full-time, and everything in between. They are rich and poor. And we meet, of course, in a resale shop with a very casual attitude.

On Friday afternoons I go to Gymboree Play & Music for another play group. This was the first mother's group I'd ever been to, and I found it through a friend at work who had a college friend who had a baby a few days after I did. She'd met another couple of women who had babies around the same time, and a "play group" was formed. Initially we all met for lunch at a very upscale mall. Often, I wouldn't eat. We'd sit at a cafe and chat. The other moms all had fancy SUV strollers from Peg Perego. The babies spent most of the "play group" sitting in their strollers, drinking from bottles or napping or fussing or looking at toys. Looking around at the other mid-day mall patrons - almost exclusively women - I thought, "This is how the other half lives! I always wondered who these people are, shopping in the middle of the day." I wondered how other people saw me, sitting in a cafe in a ritzy mall at lunchtime, with my beautiful blond baby in a sling. I didn't have a stroller to bring along, but I preferred to have Ellie close to my body where I could snuggle her and kiss her head from time to time. One of the other moms is on a leave of absence from work, but probably won't go back. Another is a freelance photographer. A third is an attorney and works part time. All are at least college educated and have husbands who are attorneys with large downtown firms. Now that the kids are older, we meet at Gymboree Play & Music so that the kids can move about and play. But other than chasing increasingly mobile babies around, the moms' part is largely the same.

So what do I get out of this group and why do I keep going back? Truthfully, I fall somewhere between the two groups and feel like I can be myself in both situations. It's wonderful to go to a group (the Gymboree group) where all the babies are the same age and we're all first time moms. We're learning as we go, and it's so fascinating to see the kids hit milestones at the same time. One week they'd all discovered ceiling fans. Another week they were suddenly all sitting unassisted. Sharing these experiences has been invaluable, and has lessened the sense of isolation I hadn't even realized that I was feeling. I wish that there were similar groups for new fathers, and can almost understand the appeal of something like the Promise Keepers: a place where dads feel supported and surrounded by others sharing the experience of new parenthood.

In lots of ways, these women are different from me, but in lots of ways they're the same, too. I have learned so much from these other moms and babies. In my world, where there's no extended family close by and we all live separately in our individual houses surrounded by moats of grass, it's easy to feel alone. It's been so helpful to me to talk with other new moms who are dealing with lots of the same issues, who don't have it all together, who have questions too.

And that's all besides the feeling of accomplishment that comes from something as simple as getting it all together enough to get out of the house for a couple of hours in the afternoon.

Haircut Confessional

I've never been in a confessional, so my experience in that area is limited to portrayals on TV and in movies and this is very superficial. Me : haircuts :: Catholics : confession

When I'm actually sitting in the stylist's chair: "Forgive me. It's been 6 months since my last appointment." My assigned penance is usually some ridiculously expensive shampoo and conditioner.

It starts with other women when we're talking about hair. "No, actually, I don't have a hairdresser. I just go to Great Clips or somewhere a couple of times a year. I should probably find someone and keep going back to the same person, though." But I don't. I don't want to spend the money, I don't want to make the conversation. The whole experience is very awkward for me, and it's supposed to be "natural" for women, right? God forbid I ever have to ask for something more exotic, like a waxing or something else.

Monday, June 21, 2004


People keep telling me that it's "interesting" to hear my perspective on choice, given my situation. I am glad to share. Before I came to be here, how could I possibly have known how I would feel?

While I was pregnant, I learned that my daughter would have Trisomy 21 (Down syndrome) and an atrial-ventricular septal (heart) defect. This was pretty heavy. Although I initially didn't want to have the prenatal screenings (because it wouldn't change anything; we wouldn't choose to terminate regardless – plus, why would anything be wrong?!) I ended up having quite a few.

I declined the quad screen maternal blood test that looks for elevated or decreased levels of this and that. My reasons made perfect sense during the day. But at night I couldn't sleep. Or I awoke in a panic. At night the rational daytime feelings didn't matter at all. So I decided to have the blood test to help myself sleep better. Shockingly (or not) my levels of this and that were slightly out of whack. Because I was 28 years old I had a 1 in 816 chance of having a child with Trisomy 21. The quad screen results increased the risk to 1 in 221. 1 in 250 is considered "borderline" for more testing, so there was still little cause for concern. I agreed to have a Level 2 diagnostic ultrasound but declined amniocentesis – too risky. The ultrasound turned up the heart defect, which is more common in kids with D.S. than in chromosomally typical kids. And a couple other points of concern too: slightly thickened nuchal fold, maybe, and a single umbilical artery. Now the doc put the chance at 1 in 2. 50/50. That weekend sucked. I'll write about it some other time; it's still too raw to explore.

I agreed to have amniocentesis. The preliminary results and the eventual full results came back the same: Trisomy 21.

When we first learned about the heart defect and the increased chance of Down syndrome, my O.B. was very supportive. She made it clear that she would not judge me, whatever I decided. She told me that the day I learned about the heart defect (before we knew for sure about the Trisomy 21) was the last day I could legally have an abortion in Missouri, but that if that's what I decided to do, to come to her. She'd help me find a resource in another state to have the procedure done safely.

I'm saying I – I – I throughout. My husband, Paul, and I were very much in this together. Going through this brought us much closer together as we learned to lean on each other in a way we'd never had to before. We learned every piece of news, attended every doctor's appointment, and made every decision together.

In the end, as we expected, we decided not to terminate. I spent the rest of my pregnancy mourning the loss of the healthy, smart first child I had dreamed of. I spent the months reading about other families in my situation. I spent it crying and coping and learning and feeling a really strange mix of emotions. How could I have felt differently? All I knew was what was wrong with my daughter, not how wonderful she was to be. I love my daughter. She is a gift and a blessing. I expect this blog to be regularly filled with obnoxiously glowing maternal love and pride.

Interesting facts: Over 90% percent of women who learn that they're carrying a fetus with Trisomy 21 choose to terminate, regardless of their political affiliation or previous opinions about abortion. The only women I know who have decided to continue their pregnancies have all been "pro-choice" women, as I was. Most babies with Down syndrome are born to women in their 20's, who often have gone through less prenatal testing.

So, looking at my beautiful daughter and loving her so much, how do I feel now? I am a stronger supporter of abortion rights and a woman's right to choose than I was before.

1) Until you've been in this position, you have no idea how you will feel, how you will cope, what will be right for you and your family.
2) If I had not had the opportunity to choose to have Ellie, I believe that I would have felt trapped by my pregnancy, trapped by this baby that I was scared of. I believe that I would have come to resent her and that would have gotten in the way of loving her and bonding with her as I have.

Almost every weekend there are protestors at the new Planned Parenthood up the street from my house. Only one time have I ever seen a woman picketing. Most of the time, the protestors are men, sometimes with children in tow. This fills me with rage. You don't know. You haven't been there. It's none of your damn business. I would never wish the suffering I went through last summer on anyone. But if one of these men is ever in the situation that my husband found himself in last summer, I think he will begin to see the world very differently. And I hope that he will be surrounded by compassionate people who know that the world is not simplistic. It is not black and white. And that believing that it is so – judging one's neighbors so quickly and so harshly - is a far greater sin then that which they protest so loudly.