Life list: Redesign my blog. Check.

Us at Camp Mighty 2011!
I met Lisa Congdon at Camp Mighty last year. She gave a great talk on life and paths and passion and I really liked what she had to say, not to mention the artwork she created. On the plane ride home I wondered aloud to Chris if she might design a blog header for me. I was feeling gutsy, filled with mighty confidence inspired by the weekend - and yet still insecure about it underneath. In the past year alone she'd done work for the Obama campaign, created her own wallpaper, launched her first art shows and done a billion other cool things. Who was to commission Lisa Congdon for my blog header?

Email her, Chris said. Give it a shot.

And so I did. I emailed and then she emailed and then we talked on the phone and then Lisa made this beautiful blog header for me earlier this year. I love it so much; it's a combination of all the things I write about in this space. It's taken me so long to put up here because sometimes that's how wonderful things go. Sometimes you're too intimidated by the prospect of extravagant growth, so you sit on it for a while until you're really ready for it. (Also sometimes you have a baby and you do not have your shit together for many months...)

Well, I'm ready. I'm ready to write under my married name and to display this totally fitting piece of artwork at the head of that writing. Isn't it the best thing ever?! Look at the little stroller! And the two cats! And the Brooklyn bridge! Lisa, you are awesomesauce. 

Also thanks to my lovely husband for making all the technical redirect wizardry happen for the site. Onwards, friends! Here we go.


Noah's birth story.

They say that birth is the gift you give to your child, the gift of life. That may be true but one of the pillars of the experience I had giving birth to Noah was the gift he gave me - a tangible, priceless memory that I already find myself using to motivate myself through tough days.

"I gave birth to a baby without drugs in less than 6 hours," I think. "I can do anything."


Noah was due on October 11th, but he didn't come that day. I woke up the morning of the 12th determined to get the most annoying items left on my to-do list done. I slowly waddled to the post office to mail some gifts, I picked up some books at the library, I went to the bank and closed an account. I bought an acorn squash and texted Chris in the afternoon to see if he wanted to see an 8pm showing of Argo. At this point I assumed the baby was going to hang in a few more days, though I did text my sister to tell her it felt like he was falling out of me. 

"This baby is basically crowning," I wrote to her. "Feel like he's about to fall the hell out!"

"That's good news!!!!" she wrote back. Little did we know.

Chris got home and we ate our acorn squash with maple syrup. I told him we had to leave for the movies really early, anticipating a slow 10 block walk. It was opening night and though I was dying for a seat on the aisle, there were none to be had. We squeezed in past a couple towards the front of the theater and settled in.


In the retelling of that night, I don't remember the pain. I have the memory of being in pain and being uncomfortable, but it's just that - a data point - nothing that can harm me now. Nothing I can relive. Halfway through the movie I started feeling really uncomfortable. I couldn't call them contractions, but it was more like a low stomach ache.

"Do you want to leave?" Chris whispered, as I started deep breathing. 

"I want to see how this movie ends," I said. "I'll tell you if things get bad enough." 

They got bad enough towards the end, but we waited to see if the hostages were saved and then ducked out about 5 minutes before the end. We stepped out onto the street and it was pretty chilly; our walk home was even slower than the one there. We wondered if this was it. We decided to get home and have a glass of wine and go to bed; this is what our midwives had advised us to do if we thought we were headed into labor. 

We took the elevator up to our apartment and Chris opened a bottle of rose. I stood at the kitchen table and took two sips. And then my water broke.

You have no idea if it's actually your water that broke when it breaks. Or at least I didn't. There's a lot going on down there anyway and since Noah's head was already so low, it acted like a stopper. I thought it was possible I'd peed myself. (Sexy.) "Oh!" I said and made a face and Chris jumped. "Did your water just break?!" he asked.

A trip to the bathroom confirmed that I wasn't peeing, that a baby was coming. And despite the preparation, despite the classes we took and the books I read and the furnished nursery 30 feet away, it hit me like a bag of bricks. It was 11:06pm. It was GO time. 

It was time to put my money where my mouth was and have this baby.


Nothing feels like a contraction except a contraction. For me, it was easy to know that they had arrived; they rolled through me like waves. At first it was exciting. I tracked their start and finish with an app on my iPhone in bed while Chris got in a last-minute shave. Soon enough it was clear that I couldn't press the buttons anymore, so he took over. 

"Start," I'd whisper and then a short time later, "Ok. Done." I listened to my hypnobirthing tapes, which kept me calm and gave me a familiar rhythm. We didn't like the class but those tapes were worth their weight in gold that night. 

Our midwife told us to call when our contractions were 3-4 minutes apart and lasting an hour. Within half an hour we were ranging 2-6 minutes apart, which felt strangely close based on what our classes had said. Nonetheless, we were in New Parent Mindset, which tells you that your first baby will take approximately 400 days to come out once you go into labor. I was focused on conserving my strength because we were only an hour in. 

Then the chills came on, fast and furious. My teeth clacked like one of those cartoon skeletons; Chris put me in my Muhlenberg sweatshirt, gave me socks and piled blankets on top of me. I was FREEZING. I had never been so cold in my life. 

And see, if you described that to me in a birth class, I'd say "that person is going through transition." But when you're an hour into contractions and you're foggy from the contractions yourself, there is no way you think you're already at transition. I got in a hot shower and warmed up, but felt nauseous. Again! Transition symptom! Again, denial.

Chris called the midwife again. We were 3-4 minutes apart, going on an hour. She suggested waiting another 30 minutes. When Chris came back from making the call, I couldn't speak to him anymore. I was stuck in the bathroom, dealing with contraction after contraction. I couldn't imagine how I would put clothes on or dry my hair or get to the hospital. 

"I'll just live in our shower now," I thought. "I'll work remotely from here, I'll eat dinner in here, this is where I will stay forever."

No dice. Chris pulled the plug on staying home and called the midwife to tell her we were heading in to the hospital. GOOD THING, cause if he hadn't the kid would have been born in a cab.

He ran around grabbing bags and pillows and my sandals and I slowly, slowly, painfully, put clothes on and walked carefully towards the door. I would like to say I had some kind of poignant adieu with the cats but that didn't happen. Instead I had contractions all the way down in the elevator and all the way out to the curb where a car that Chris had called awaited. Our doorman walked slowly alongside me the whole way and I had enough awareness to thank him. 

Then we were taking our last cab ride as non-parents. It was 2:30am. 


I do not remember much of the cab ride. I kept my eyes closed the whole time, focusing on breathing and visually graphing the pain of each contraction in spikes. (This is hard to explain and it's not a technique anyone taught me, it was just the way my brain tracked what was happening to me.) We took the tunnel and Chris remembers that the guy at the toll booth was asleep when our cab pulled up. Chris texted our families and someone called (I would later find out it was my sister). I remember Chris telling me someone wanted me to know they believed I could do it, but I wasn't able to take the call myself. I was in some kind of timeless pocket in the universe where I wasn't aware of any knowledge but what was happening with the spiking pain. 

The cab pulled up outside the hospital and I felt relief, if only because we had completed one of the steps I had been anxious about. A 25 minute cab ride while in labor! And yet, it had passed like nothing. I stepped out of the cab while Chris paid and looked up at the main entrance. A giant sign announced: "This entrance is closed between 10pm and 5am... please use the ER entrance around the corner between 9th and 10th avenue." 

I kind of flipped out. WHO WAS GOING TO MAKE ME WALK AN AVENUE BLOCK RIGHT NOW?? And yet when an orderly rushed out with a wheelchair, I wanted none of it. I couldn't imagine sitting right then so we plodded along towards 9th avenue, stopping every few feet to have a contraction. I was vaguely aware of the other people in the ER who watched us walk towards the elevators, but was still in my own brain.

The Birth Center where we planned to deliver was closed because of a nurse shortage. I could not have cared less! We took the elevators to the Labor and Delivery floor, where Chris filled out paperwork and I took deep breaths. Our midwife found us and brought us into our room. 

"I'm going to check you now," she said. I had heard that these checks were painful but it wasn't anything worse than what was happening in my body at the time. I remember thinking, "if I am at 4cm, then I will be ordering all the drugs in the world." I also remember thinking that this would be our one and only child because I couldn't imagine doing this again. 

"OH!" she said, pushing back her chair. "You're at 9cm! I need to go get into scrubs!"

And then I was lifted from my personal fog. I looked at Chris and we laughed. WHAT THE HELL! She came back in the room a few minutes later in scrubs and checked again; I was at 10cm. Our doula was not even there yet.

It was time to push.


Here's the thing about pushing: I had not read anything preparing me for it. With laboring, you can at least measure it. You go from 1cm to 2cm... and eventually you get to 10. There are progress markers along the way. But pushing? The only thing I'd heard was that pushing was a total relief after the stress and pain of labor.

So when our midwife said "Ok Jen, now you're going to start pushing," I got nervous for the first time in this whole thing. Chris says I actually said that I was nervous out loud several times. Our doula had arrived and was giving me sips of water between pushes and wiping my forehead. 

"You're doing it!" everyone told me, but I found that hard to believe. It wasn't until the midwife said she could see his head with hair on it that it felt like I was doing it. And even still, it sucked. Mentally I was in a bad place. I felt more trapped than I ever had in my life and I wished I could be transported to any other time in my life -- a funeral, an all-nighter of homework, whatever. 

So I told myself I had two options: get depressed about pushing OR decide to own the next push. About this time, Chris reminded me to relax and think of the hypnobirthing tapes... and once I rallied around the next push, progress happened much faster.

Noah's head came out, then after a loud push on my part his shoulders were out, and finally the rest of him slithered into the hands of the midwife. She put him on my chest; Chris was in tears and I was in shock.

It was 4:57am.


I blinked my eyes. I went to a movie and blinked my eyes and it was over. The whole challenge, the marathon, the event we'd been preparing for over nine months. A baby came out and we were different people, we had a different priority, we would never sleep 8 hours straight again.

It took me three days to emotionally connect to what had happened; I sat in our glider at home rocking Noah and I cried, full of relief and love and astonishment.

And here I stand in the kitchen, typing this post on my kitchen counter as my 5 week old son naps across the room. These past 5 weeks have been wonderful and awful, but I have never felt closer to Chris and more aligned on what we want out of our lives. We want to raise wonderful human beings. 

Every difficult thing that comes after this will be slightly less difficult because of this. This is the gift Noah brought me when he came out into the world. Because although I have had other accomplishments, there is something about giving birth that you just can't top.

I think it's because birth levels the playing field. You can't pay your way through it. You can't have your dad call someone on the board. Your degrees don't matter, your race doesn't matter, your GPA and SAT score and hourly wage are worth nothing. The birthing mama is literally naked, using whatever and whoever she is to bring her baby out. 

And I am so damn proud of myself. Forever, forever, forever, now I know; I can do anything.


The birth plant.

Silver philodendron.
I don't claim to have a crazy green thumb, but I am a plant person. I especially love plants that have meaning. Towards the end of my pregnancy I started thinking about getting the baby a plant when he was born, something that would grow along with him, something that could start small and take on meaning just by the fact that it was a gift for his birth.

Last night my friend Anne came to visit Noah and we took a walk and left the baby with Chris. We hit up one of my favorite plant stores in the neighborhood, Dig, in search of a birth plant. My requirements were:

  • the plant could support cuttings, which would let me make lots of baby plants from it
  • couldn't be too fussy in terms of light or soil or whatnot
  • something that would grow in length so that you could see its progress
After chatting with the saleswoman, I landed on a silver philodendron. I chose a ceramic pot for the plant to make it feel special and the woman who rang me up wrapped it all up as a gift to Noah. It's on his windowsill now and I'm excited to watch it grow alongside him. I already have plans to make cuttings for some of the new babies that our friends are expecting... this little guy has a bright future ahead of him in terms of generating offspring!



Baby with giraffe.
Gretchen Ruben mentioned something in a recent blog post about how spending one minute cleaning up one area can be so much better than doing nothing. (Read her post here).

Noah is into cluster feeding at the moment, which means that he feeds nearly continuously from about 5pm to 10pm. This makes it really hard for me to do anything more than watch TV in the evenings. When I wake up to change him in the middle of the night and see that the apartment is a WRECK... well, those are the times I am close to breakdown!

Enter the five minute clean. Once he is finally fed enough for us to put him in his sleep sac and stick him in bed, I take five minutes to walk quickly around the apartment and put things in their place. I treat it like a game, like one of those "clean-up" games Preschool teachers play with their students. How much can I tidy in five minutes? What can I throw in the recycling bin or shove in the dishwasher or throw in the laundry bin? I try to put my coat in the closet and move our bags out of the way so I don't trip in the middle of the night. I also take my vitamins and fill up my water cup and fold the blankets so if I end up sleeping on the couch, I won't need to hunt around for something to cover up with.

I don't have time to clean the whole place, but these five minutes are crucial to my survival lately. I know it means five minutes less time in bed (which is where I'm headed right this minute!), but it does wonders for my mental state.

See also: this blog post. Micro! And yet satisfying. I doubt we will get Shakespeare-worthy writing on this here blog anytime soon, so tiny posts it will be!


Notes from a cafe. With a baby.

Baby + latte = woo!
I am in a cafe down the street from home. It took about 3 hours of prep to leave the apartment with everything I thought I'd need, including a laptop (me), Kindle (me), change of clothes (baby), sweatshirts (both). I don't know what I thought my plan was once we got here (something vague about writing his birth story), but as soon as I got my latte Noah started crying and I had to take him out of the stroller. Immediately I thought "how fast can I pack up this kid, laptop and latte and get him home?!"

Then I took a couple of breaths and he settled down with a pacifier. And though I am now limited to hunting and pecking out this post with my left hand, we are doing it. We got past the scary moment, we looked discomfort in the face and forged on.


Good god, if this entire experience of parenting so far isn't a battle of spirit! How long can you last in the same routine? How much pain can you handle when your milk ducts clog and your baby can't latch and the pump works great but the last thing you want at 2am is to clean the effing tubing out one more time? How many days in a row can your beliefs about child-rearing be tested before you start to feel real shifts in the way you planned your life going?

It's like I signed up for Algebra and the syllabus turned out to be advanced Calc. We're in an entirely new world here. It's not unwelcome, but it is very unlike what I imagined it would be.


This past weekend kicked off the first of three weekends featuring visiting grandparents. Chris and I got to have a few mini-dates and it was so great. I love hanging out with my husband... we've been a real team so far and it was fun to go out to lunch and focus on each other. We agreed that one of the things we miss most about pre-kid life is time for our own projects, so we're going to try to work that in as things settle a bit. 

Yesterday I bought fabric to make Noah a Christmas stocking. I'm not particularly talented at sewing, but I want him to have a homemade stocking and am oddly excited by the project. It's these opportunities to make our parenting experience meaningful that I love most so far. 

Gratuitous baby shots on the way out...

Dreamboat pose

Modeling cloth diapers!

Out on a walk

Mommy's little pumpkin!

Bahahah. Humiliating. 

P.S. While waiting for these photos to upload, the kid got hungry. So now I am bad-assed-ly nursing him under a nursing cover in public. NERVES! And yet, freedom. We are unchained ftom the glider in the nursery and can leave the house for more than 60 minutes. Victory is ours!


Today's deep breath.

I'm sitting at my desk, writing a letter, watching the snow fall outside (hello, apocalypse) while my friend Kelley holds Noah on the couch for an hour. I'm listening to Mumford & Sons on headphones and eating chocolate covered pretzels that Kelley brought over and just this combination of music, writing and chocolate has brought me back to myself for 60 minutes.

Mental note: I need to reach out to friends and family for this kind of help more often.

Last night we re-elected a strong president; we watched the election results come in all evening while I nursed Noah and it was a very different night than the one four years ago when we all got wasted in my Greenpoint apartment. That said, it felt just as hopeful and tear-inducing. More states are embracing gay marriage, the next few Supreme Court nominees will hopefully not try to revoke Roe v. Wade and the people who spoke horrifically about rape were not rewarded with political roles.

Deep breath. Despite the intense weather lately, the future feels bright.

Speaking of intense weather, a friend is organizing donations to the elementary school she attended along the Jersey shore. There are plenty of ways to make meaningful contributions to the victims of hurricane Sandy, but if you're looking for a tangible one, check out Monmouth Beach school's Amazon Wishlist here. Purchases are sent directly to the school so they can get back up and running. 


Les livres de 2012: round 5

How I was able to take a shower today...
Book reviews are going to go a little differently for a while, I think. Instead of posting a bazillion at a time, I'll go slow for now. Truthfully, I wouldn't have predicted that I'd have another one this early in Noah's life, but what they don't tell you about breastfeeding is that you have a LOT of time on your hands. I loved reading this book on my Kindle, since I pretty much only needed one hand to manage the reading (and usually just one finger to flip the page at that!). Here's #43...

43. Wild by Cheryl Strayed

I'd read a few of Cheryl Strayed's "Dear Sugar" columns before, but didn't know much about her until I went to hear an interview with her at the NYPL a few weeks before Noah was born. She struck me as a gutsy woman, someone who has been a bit hardened by events in her life, but someone who brings truth to her writing. I liked that about her. 

I put this book on hold at the library and got it last week on my Kindle; it's the story of how Cheryl hiked the Pacific Coast Trail (think Appalachian Trail, but on the west coast) in her 20s. Her mother had passed away unexpectedly from cancer and she was compelled to take on an enormous challenge. Enter the PCT.

Side note: I like to think that I'm a brave person. Let me say this for the record. There is NO WAY IN HELL that I'm ever doing one of these long hikes. My brother hiked Mt. Kilimanjaro a few years back and my sister loves camping... somehow all of those genes passed me right by. Purifying water with iodine tablets? Watching out for rattlesnakes? Coming across BEARS? Um, no thanks. 

That said, sometimes we read books when we really need them and this was definitely the case for me and this book. Cheryl showed up on the PCT without any real hiking experience. The pages of this book make it clear what a struggle it was for her every day, both mentally and physically. As she gained experience pitching her tent, preparing her meals and hitchhiking into towns to pick up boxes she'd pre-mailed to herself, I gained experience breastfeeding. 

Another side note: last night around 5am I had had enough. Noah was going on an hour and a half eating with no signs of stopping. I was raw, exhausted and pissed off. Bawling, I opened the door to our bedroom and asked Chris for help. I was so mad, could not understand how the baby was not full yet, and so, so tired of not having my body to myself. Because he is a hero in a half shell, Chris swooped in, served up a bottle of pre-pumped milk and burped Noah while he listened to me cry. This was a low point for me and I'm so grateful that I have a husband who is so supportive. I literally do not understand how single moms of newborns do it. In the middle of this crisis, I had the thought "breastfeeding is harder than labor," and it surprised me because it felt so true. 

So what I'm getting at here is that, while I read about Cheryl Strayed walking the Pacific Coast Trail, I was on my own insane journey. Like her, I collapse every night with exhaustion and I spend my days putting one foot in front of another. From time to time, the views are magnificent and from time to time, it feels like a thousand ants are biting me. The book is a solid read on its own, but I would definitely recommend it to anyone going through their own challenge because the metaphors stick and help.

Here's where I want to end. Cheryl writes so often about needing to do the PCT alone. She encounters hiking mates along the way, but continually comes back to spending time alone on the trail. The point, for her, isn't to go have a fantastic social hike, but rather to work through some stuff, to dig deep, to find ways to connect with how strong she really is. 

This morning, Chris went into the office for the first time since Noah was born, leaving me alone with him. Given the night we'd just had, I was a bit nervous. He finished nursing a little after 12 and I thought "now's my chance to shower." I propped him up on a pillow, covered him with a blanket, took off all my clothes and spent 30 minutes pacing back and forth between him and the bathroom. Every tiny sound he made threatened the entire operation. And finally, I thought "screw it. If he cries for 3 minutes, he cries for 3 minutes" and I jumped in.

It wasn't the most luxurious shower I've ever had, but when I got out and raced around the corner to find that he was napping quietly, I wanted to give myself the hugest high-five. It was scary, but I did it. I am alone with him today, but I can do it. Though I've loved having help (and will continue to appreciate it), there is something to be said for standing on your own two feet. It's the way I am truly able to own being a parent -- not with the help of my own parents or Chris' parents or friends or the lactation consultant or even my husband. I needed to do it alone to prove that I could. Just like Cheryl. 

P.S. Noah is still sleeping, almost 2 hours later. In that time, I've showered, dressed, pumped a bottle for him, made homemade chai, eaten lunch, written this blog post and cleaned up the kitchen. Maybe he doesn't need to nap on someone's lap all the time. Maybe he, too, has something to prove about doing things all on his own.


Goals and letters.

Being a mom.
It's hard to believe, but my friend Sima and I have been emailing each other 5 goals and a daily intention every weekday morning for the past 3 1/2 years. (Whoah.) When I went on maternity leave a few weeks ago, it was super-bizarre to have days that were not structured around a short list of tasks to get done.

I went from super-bizarre to downright panicked last week as we hit day 10 of "Keeping Our Baby Alive." I've been spending upwards of 16 hours a day breastfeeding, 6-7 hours sleeping... and the spare bits in-between showering and eating yogurt. I get it. That's the priority these days. But I miss the good old days of feeling even a little bit accomplished at the end of the afternoon.

So! I wrote to Sima and told her that I was back in! Instead of 5 goals and an intention, I now email her ONE goal and an intention every morning. One goal is a lot some days, but damn if it doesn't help me feel better about the crazy newborn times we're living in.

Here are some examples of my single goals from the past week:
  • During one of Noah's naps, open my computer and upload pix. If I'm feeling especially energetic, choose one for the baby announcement.
  • Look up what to dress Noah in to go outside in this cold!
  • Either walk a block or open a window for a few min for fresh air.
  • Lay down for at least 30 minutes today.
  • Talk to Andrea on phone about breast feeding positions.
Not brain surgery! And yet so, so helpful. Just for kicks, here are some of my intentions:
  • Make it through the day with light expectations
  • Go with Noah's flow.
  • Remember to work within the feedings-- I can read tonight while he cluster feeds. During the day I should wear him and eat lunch, prepare stuff for laundry, etc! 
  • Have a more normal day.
  • When negative thoughts come in, let them flow through and out instead of getting trapped in me.
I write about this because I think it can be easy to assume that life is all or nothing when you have a baby. You can't have the same exact life you used to... but you also don't need to settle for the opposite. Look for small ways to feel accomplished or proud or motivated or productive or whatever you need. One goal is better than none!


All work and no play make Jack a dull boy... well, the same is true for me. I literally spend the whole day thinking "wash this bottle," "change this onesie," "set my alarm for an hour from now." They're robotic tasks and when you do robotic tasks day after day, you start to miss the deeper thinking you used to do.

Without any conscious prodding on my part, I felt the urge to write a letter to someone last week. Noah was sleeping for an hour and I had a chai latte on-hand, so I sat at my desk and pulled out some stationary. I spent a few minutes thinking about who I'd like to write to and then put pen to paper. An hour later, I sealed the envelope, added a stamp, and sent Chris downstairs to throw it in the mailbox.

There is something so gratifying about the slow, meandering way one must think when hand-writing a letter. For that hour I allowed myself to think about parenting and the crazy life things that have been going on here in a deeper way than the daily tasks they currently represent. I started to explore my feelings on what it meant to be a mom, how I felt about being a home during the day, how Chris has emerged as a father. It felt great.

And so now, most afternoons, I pull out my stationary and flip through my mental catalog of friends and family around the world. I find someone that I'm compelled to write to and I spend a little chunk of time writing... it has been an amazing energy boost most afternoons. Even though the person I'm writing to isn't here, it really does feel like I just spent an hour having a coffee with him or her. Because my mind is with them, I end the hour feeling full and social, albeit in a different way than I ever imagined.

So. Letters and goals! Not just for the non-parents of the world anymore! Just a few small ideas for those of you headed shortly into parenting (or those of you already there!).