10 Months (and a few days) of Motherhood

I passed my books to the clerk at the library, who then handed them back to me, saying, “Your due date is August 22nd.” I wanted to tell him, “No, my due date is and always will be September 29.” The phrase due date is forever imprinted in my mind in relation to the birth of my child, the most monumental shift in my identity and existence. 

One of the books I chose today is called The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby. I’d noticed it before in bookstores and passed on it, my own "fifth trimester" come and gone, but seeing it now, at the library, I reached for it to take it home for free. While I’m usually leery of books that make such lofty promises, I figured there was nothing to lose by checking it out. With a cover checkered with check boxes of to-do list items, it seems relevant, painfully so. 

It pains me, too, that this is a women’s problem--managing life after baby, that is. There are fatherhood books, but most are hyperbolically comic, the joke being that dads are helpless when it comes to babies. (Of course, this is patently false.) But I feel helpless when it comes to babies! I’ve figured a lot of things out by necessity: how to pack a diaper bag, how many extra sets of clothes to pack in a diaper bag, how to make funny faces and sounds to entertain the baby during a pungent diaper change, how long to bake zucchini until it becomes soft enough to be consumed with only the stubs of two teeth, how to read the fine print on nursing pads, how to weigh the merits of various baby gear sites in order to purchase the least frustrating option in a given genre of baby paraphernalia, how to cut a band aid in half length-wise and adhere it to the baby mid-squirm. 

The mental load, the all-consuming nature of motherhood, the endless to-do list: no matter how it is configured, whether as sociological phenomenon, physiological or emotion reaction, or task-oriented approach, motherhood overwhelms all else, most of the time. And when it doesn’t, when I neglect to order guacamole in addition to our burritos simply because the baby likes it, I feel guilty. 

I do not forget her tears. An hour or so after she falls asleep at night, I turn to my phone to re-watch a video of her from earlier in the day. I agonize over whether to keep a band-aid on her finger while she sleeps. I worry that she is too cool, too hot, too sandy, too sticky. Do I read her too many feminist empowerment books, so many that she’ll wonder why I keep insisting that she can be whatever she wants to be and do whatever she wants to do? 

Last year, when I was pregnant, I promised myself that my writing would not become all about motherhood or babies, as though there were something inherently wrong with that. My impulse is to write about what I know, and how I see the world, and with a child now, all of that has changed. From uncovered outlets and sharp coffee table edges, to healthcare policy and the gender pay gap, I am concerned for her, and I see all of these obstacles with her in mind. 

So when I happened upon Sarah Menkedick’s new book, Homing Instincts, I felt relief and validation: writing about motherhood is, indeed, real writing. The tedious parts of motherhood don’t render the experience simple. There is complexity and nuance in the experience of raising and caring for a human being. And just as I hope we all respect mothers out in the world (those who are feeding their babies, or toting them on planes or buses, or merely trying to buy groceries) because we were all babies once, and we all needed our mothers, I would hope that we can all see the richness in delving into the complexity of becoming and being a mother. 

Menkedick's op-ed in the LA Times just prior to the book's release captures this tension: 

I am standing before a small audience in Columbus, Ohio, apologizing for what I’m going to read. “It’s about motherhood,” I say, then quickly qualify, “but you know, more than that! It’s about stories, and self, and the meaning of home.” I have been doing this for months, explaining the book I’ve written as something along the lines of “about motherhood but not really,” until finally, in front of this audience, the absurdity of my intellectual scrambling strikes me. What male writer feels the need to atone for essays about, say, war? I imagine him hurrying to clarify: “But really they’re about the human struggle, triumph over adversity, and the meaning of self.”

As I carry on as a mother to my precious little person, and as I read and write about this experience, I feel the tiniest bit more reassured, thanks to her, in the daily struggle and worry and delight that encompass what motherhood is to me. 

Learning To Write

What do you remember about learning to write? 

Here's what I remember: 

  • extensive checklists 
  • "playing" with margins 
  • bibliography rules and regulations 
  • art prompts 
  • "take a side" prompts (for example, Is the death penalty acceptable?) 
  • college-ruled paper 
  • diagramming sentences 
  • The Little, Brown Handbook 
  • Times New Roman 
  • multicolor uniball gel pens 
  • losing 20 points for a comma splice 

Apparently, these are the things I thought about when I was in school. If there were graphic organizers in existence, I never saw one. There was no such thing as dictation. I don't know any teachers who care about the size or lines on a student's paper. The "Add Comment" option had just recently been made available in Microsoft Word. I wrote on an actual keyboard, not a laptop keyboard and definitely not an iPad keyboard, if it's even fair to call it that. 

A slew of graphic organizers, courtsey of Google Image search. 

A slew of graphic organizers, courtsey of Google Image search. 

I am assuming that because I was an avid reader and did what I was told in school, I eventually figured out how to write grammatically correct sentences. I have no recollection of doing any informal or personal writing after 8th grade. I don't remember revising anything, ever. If, as Daniel Wilingham says, "Memory is the residue of thought," then, well, that is rather unfortunate for me. Does that indicate that uniball gel pens consumed my mental energy? That I was so preoccupied with what I was going to write with, that I completely forgot what I was supposed to write about?  

In chapter 3 of Why Don't Students Like School?, Willingham explains why students remember the joke you made or what you were wearing but often don't recall what they were supposedly learning: 

"To teach well, you should pay careful attention to what an assignment will actually make students think about (not what you hope they will think about), because that is what they will remember." (54) 

And then there's this, which makes perfect sense: 

"Whatever you think about, that's what you remember. Indeed, it's a very sensible way to set up a memory system. [...] When we're talking about school, we usually want students to remember what things mean. Sometimes what things look like is important--for example, the beautiful facade of the Parthenon, or the shape of Benin--but much more often we want students to think about meaning. Ninety-five percent of what students learn in school concerns meaning, not what things look like or sound like. Therefore, a teacher's goal should always be to get a student to think about meaning." (61) 

If only it were that easy! So the question is: How do we get students to think about the actual act of writing when there it involves so many complex cognitive processes? If just one of those processes doesn't function in a typical way, then writing becomes a tremendous ordeal. Writing is hard enough for neurotypical kids, and extraordinarily difficult for those with impaired working memory, handwriting, reading skills, phonological abilities, etc. What is one to do? There is hardly any research on teaching high school students with LD to write. A recent article published in Remedial and Special Education found only 14 studies from 1965 to 2011 that explored the use of interventions to improve writing among students with disabilities. And in those 14 studies, only 51 kids were involved! 

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Dismayed, I continued searching. Or, rather, wilfing. I stumbled upon a book called Best Practices in Writing Instruction. I downloaded the book in epub format for not-so-instant reading and eventual disappointment. (Note: Adobe Digital Editions, which purports to be an e-book reader app, barely deserves the 1.5 stars it has received on the App Store.) I've read parts of 3 chapters so far; little enlightenment has resulted, though it does make some decent points and provide some reasonable reminders about best practices. 

From the chapter on planning, I learned to see planning as beginning in either one of two ways: a top-down approach where students plan prior to writing and a bottom-up "discovery" approach wherein writers discover new and important ideas while they write (169). It's clear that teacher modeling of either planning process is helpful to students, but it's not clear how to best model planning or pre-writing, or how to convince students that it's worthwhile, especially because "many developing writers are simply unable to plan because of the complexity of the demands of the cognitive processing tasks" (171). Futility, indeed. 

The chapter on revising makes it clear that self-regulation and metacognitive skills are required for this part of the writing process. It provides some insight into useful classroom practices. One example involves teaching students how to evaluate the work of their peers, and then pairing them up to evaluate each other's work. Even thought this is something I have done with students before, it's good to see that there is a legitimate reason for doing it. Another point the authors make is that the criteria for revision need to be specific rather than general. In other words, huge tables that provide generalizations about what constitutes a high score, don't actually help students revise because they aren't specific. Here's an example of one of those unhelpful rubrics from the Common Core

Actually, it's not really fair to say they aren't helpful at all, because they can be, if used as a starting point for feedback, or if students make them. They could even be useful for teachers as a starting point or as a reminder of standards, as in the case above. 

The last chapter I read, on sentence construction, is probably the subject that I know least about of the three. It turns out that writing a sentence demands a considerable amount of brainpower (210). All of these cognitive tasks are required: 

  • formulate an idea 
  • retrieve words to match the idea 
  • mentally arrange and rearrange words 
  • turn those ideas into a readable structure 
  • manipulate text to make the ideas precise 

Teaching sentence combining skills is the best way, according to the author, to teach students how to improve their sentence construction. But to learn how to combine sentences, one must first understand the parts of sentences and the ways those parts work together. 

I wish I could teach an entire course on how to write a sentence, or that I had the time to confer with each student prior to having him or her organize ideas in some kind of planning document or graphic organizer. I know that they should be devloping rubrics with my guidance based on what they observe about their own and their peers' writing. I wish I could convince them that revision is an integral part of the writing process, which itself is a term I kind of despise because it has been co-opted by well-meaning teachers to indicate something other than the organic, self-motivated, reflective process it is supposed to be.

I think that graphic organizers, had I been forced to use them, would have stymied my thinking in the same way that they do for some of my current students. However, I know that had I been taught more writing skills more explictly and in a way that invited me to think about what my writing meant--rather than what color and type of pen I wrote it with, what font it was in, or whether I had a comma splice--I would have not only expanded my sentence-construction repertoire and expedited my revision process, but I also would have found my thinking liberated and my mind poised, ready to examine anything from a text to the world in a different, more flexible way. 

Abetted by the Snooze

Another morning, another battle of willpower. The idea, I think, is that this waking up early in the morning thing becomes a routine so that it isn't a battle of willpower every day. The idea is that it simply becomes what I do, and I don't have to agonize over calculating the amount of times I can press the snooze button. But sometimes I don't like routines because they feel stifling. Alas, it would be difficult to argue that waking up doesn't constitute a stifling routine.

Today, I snoozed the 5:15 alarm and the 5:30 alarm, effectively doubling the number of times I had to leap out of bed to squelch the alarm. It works much better when I turn off the first alarm, snooze the second, and continue to snooze the second. However, if I do the opposite--snooze the first and turn off the second--then I might wake Jacob up from excessive snooze button pressing. Or, worse, if I turn off both the first and the second alarms, then I might never wake up, at least not until Jacob's alarm bursts onto the scene a little before 7.

So why not just get up the first time and skip the snooze altogether? Of course. That would be too easy. See, if I know that I can snooze, I feel in control, even empowered. The sheer fact of knowing that I can choose to arise or to succumb to the toasty sheets feels means that I have some modicum of control over a part of my day. The rest of my day--or at least each weekday--is predetermined: Walk the dog, drink the coffee, teach the kids, write the reports, eat the lame lunch, teach the kids, clean the room, walk the dog, make the dinner, and so on. I actually do like my days, even though that list doesn't make it sound like it, yet I still find myself grasping for more autonomy, independence, and choice. And that, that is what the snooze provides.

This is where I should stop writing and walk the dog. But there's more! And I still I have tea to drink, this relaxing, calming of the nervous system tea that looks so much like urine that I can't drink it out of a glass tumbler, which is exactly what I did the first time I drank it, which also happened to be at work. Thankfully no children asked me why I was consuming human waste. I'm not sure yet whether I think it's actually relaxing, though, regardless it is a useful routine (ahh!) and because it's not carbonated, it helps with hydration.

I have never before read a book about a feeling. A whole book on empathy? It can't be that complicated. But it is, really. I loved the first essay, the titular one. After that, I have been less impressed. The one I read last night belonged in a philsophical journal, so devoid was it of spunk and personal reflection. The first one felt so authentic and personal while also serving as a societal critique on doctors and healthcare, but not in a trite way:

Leslie Jamison tells stories of her experience as a fake patient (impersonating a sick person to help doctors improve their diagnostic and interpersonal skills) that parallel her experience undergoing first an abortion and shortly thereafter, heart surgery.

Here, Jamison describes some of the social abilities that serve as prerequisites to empathy. Social self-confidence is the fourth.

I wish I had the language to describe this overwhelming sensory experience as a kid, when people would seemingly bombard me with the question, "Why are you so shy?" All I could think to say, but was too shy to actually say, was, "Why are you so loud?" But that doesn't address the core issue in their question, which I think is that people process the world around them in ways too numerous to count or to understand.

Mornings! Early Ones!

I really would prefer not to speak to anyone at all before 8 AM. OK, maybe Jacob, if he brings me coffee in bed. Just kidding. Maybe. Ever since I can remember mornings, I have hated them. I need multiple alarms that fire off obnoxious sounds from across the room so that I actually have to get out of the bed  to turn them off. And even then, if it weren't for Jacob trying to get back to sleep, I would probably snooze for several hours. My current strategy is to set an alarm for before I actually need to get up with a relatively mild noise and then another at the actual time I need to get up with a noise that's so horrifying that it makes me lurch out of bed to silence it. But the problem is that I then hop right back in bed and fall back into a deep slumber immediately.

So that sets the stage. Then last Tuesday, on our lovely snow day, I listened to the first podcast from a yoga teacher and blogger I adore, Mary Catherine Starr, and her husband, Ben. It was all about doing something useful or helpful or calming with your mornings, and how you should use that precious stretch of uninterrupted time to do something that you wouldn't be able to do the rest of the day. Things like reading the paper, exercising, walking the dog, spending time with a partner, etc. as opposed to checking email, which you can do all day. And then Ben said this thing that gave me a massive guilt trip: your morning routine is a microcosm of your life. Well, shoot. That explains some things.

So I thought, well, I could start that next week ... And then I thought, no, start right now. And then I kept thinking about my mornings, but was not about to arise earlier to exercise in the dark, frigid weather. And then I kept feeling guilty, as though I was wasting so much time and making myself a frazzled mess, but I didn't bother to get up early. Then last night came, and it occured to me that I could get up ten minutes earlier and not be as rushed in the morning. So, with some trepidation, I reset my alarms and chose different tunes for the early alarm and the *new* on-time alarm. The early one scared me 5:15 this morning.

We shall see how this goes. Mary Catherine and Ben said to make sure that your morning routine involves something you enjoy, otherwise you won't do it. Right now, if I shuffled almost any activity (other than wilfing or writing) to the morning, I would immediately come to despise said activity. So I'm writing now, this morning, trying out this whole morning routine thing. I almost preemptively gave up on myself last night as my mind filled with negativity regarding the early hours of the day. Then I remembered the growth mindset and thought of what I would say to one of my students if he or she were to say, "No, I have never been able to do that, and I know I never will, and I am not even willing to try because I know I will fail."

On that note, I'm off to go talk to people.

But first, a huge thanks to Mary Catherine and Ben for their hilarious and useful podcast, Starr Struck Radio!

Coming up soon:

  • a recommendation for The Empathy Exams 
  • a few words on teachers buying school supplies