Six Practical Lessons

delivery_room.jpg.CROP.promovar-medium2How well I remember Six Practical Lessons for an Easier Childbirth, a book mentioned today in the front-page New York Times obituary of its author, Elisabeth Bing. Not that I remember what the six practical lessons were, exactly; just that it was one of my favorite books among all the childbirth advice tomes I found myself devouring back in early 1980, when I was pregnant with Meta. Bing’s book gave me comfort, made me think it might actually be possible to push out that baby without hurting her, without hurting myself, and without begging for drugs. All of which is the way it happened.

I was surprised to read in the obit, by Times reporter Karen Barrow, that Bing’s own childbirth didn’t go as easily as she led me to believe mine would go.

As Randi Hutter Epstein reported in her book “Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth From the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank” (2010), she continually asked her doctor, “Is the baby all right? Is the baby all right,” until the doctor said he could not concentrate with her chatter and gave her laughing gas and an epidural.

“I got everything I raged against,” Ms. Bing told Ms. Epstein. “I had the works.”

But thanks to Bing, who was 100 years old when she died last week, women don’t get “the works” anymore if they don’t want to (and certainly not simply because they’re asking too many annoying questions). Thanks to Bing, Nutmeg is having a baby in a setting in which she’s asked, in advance, what her atittude is toward medication, toward walking around during labor, toward being monitored, toward being cut — all the decisions that, in my day, we women in labor had to just hope would be left to us, not to our doctors. I’m curious to see how the advance planning actually plays out in the delivery room, but I have to believe that asking them will make a difference — and that the existence of Six Practical Lessons, still in print 48 years after it was first published, helped create a culture in which those questions are asked of expectant mothers in the first place.

granny train

large_subwayThe little girl drew my attention first, drawing and scribbling and labeling her picture with words like “ballerina” with a precision that seemed quite sophisticated for a child her size. Then I noticed the woman sitting on her other side, correcting her spelling. The girl kept drawing, fixing the one letter she had wrong, flipping to the next page, scribbling furiously all over again.

“You have to take care of yourself today,” the woman said to the little girl. “Use those wipes. You don’t want to get sick before your performance. Promise me you’ll use those wipes.” If the girl promised, I didn’t hear it.

And so it went as the packed 1 train barreled south along Broadway — 86th Street, 79th Street, 72nd, 66th. The woman, who was clearly the grandmother, issued nonstop commentary on the little girl’s drawings, talked seriously about what they would be doing next, and next after that. The girl, probably aged 6 or 7, kept up with her frantic drawing, moving her crayons so vigorously and intensely that the whole pad occasionally just flew right off her lap. It was awkward for her to bend over to pick it up amidst the crowd of standees; her huge Hello Kitty backpack seemed to be weighing her down. The grandmother criticized her for dropping the pad so often, noting that it might be too flimsy to use this way on the subway. “What does flimsy mean?” the little girl asked, the only time she did anything but ignore the older woman.

But then came 59th Street, and Grandma decided it was time to pack up. Their stop was next. Really? What kind of school could she be heading for at 50th Street, right smack in the middle of Midtown Manhattan? The only thing I could think of was the Alvin Ailey ballet school — the girl was African-American, and Alvin Ailey is famous for training minority dancers. And the grandmother, who was white, was lugging a huge rolling bag of something — costumes, maybe? She did mention a performance that afternoon, and the girl was indeed drawing ballerinas and proscenium arches all over the damn place.

When it was time to stop drawing, though, the girl pulled a tantrum. She didn’t want to put her things away. They struggled. Grandma grabbed at the pad and crayons. The girl tried to hold on to them, saying No. Grandma raised her voice. The girl said something I couldn’t hear, but I could hear Grandma’s response: “Don’t you dare talk to me that way.” The morning — or at least my sense of what their morning was supposed to be — was ruined.

Maybe the grandmother is an annoying person — she was, after all, issuing that running commentary on every fucking thing the child was doing. Or maybe it’s the child who is annoying, or the combination of this child and this grandmother. Maybe the the stress of getting a kid to ballet school is a bit much for a 65- or 70-year-old woman to handle. It’s that last possibility that worries me. I really want to help out with Nutmeg’s baby in any way I can, and if bringing her to Midtown for dancing lessons on a Tuesday morning in the middle of rush hour is part of the deal, I want to be able to do it. But I know myself enough to know that when I’m feeling stressed out about traveling somewhere, I can get a little crazy. Usually my traveling companions forgive me (and here I’m thinking of Nutmeg and Meta, whom I took to Florence 7 years ago, when they were both in their 20s, and spent way too much time making wrong decisions). But if my traveling companion is a 6-year-old granddaughter, if I do or say something wrong out of my ordinary traveling neuroticism, that might not be quite so easy to forgive.

what ifs

538087_com_leemiddletoncopyNutmeg’s best friend had her baby yesterday, and the delivery didn’t go well, from what I hear. Sounds like it was two days of labor, a C-section, and later an infection in the mother that’s still being treated, relegating the baby to the neonatal ICU. “She is (thankfully, and I’m sure deliberately) sparing me the details,” Nutmeg reported, apparently unfazed.

But I’m fazed, at least a little. It’s just a reminder that, no matter how healthy and hardy a woman seems, the quality of her labor and delivery is unpredictable. It went swimmingly for me, with both Meta and Nutmeg, and I’m hoping that I’ve passed on those easy-labor genes to my daughter. But I might not have. My picture of myself as the grandma in the labor room, the person charged with making sure that no unnecessary medical interventions are pushed and that attendants are actually in the room when needed, has always included an image of the mother in the labor room — a competent, focused Nutmeg doing what she’s done all her life, getting it done. But her best friend has those qualities of focus and competence, too, and the particulars of her labor nonetheless got the better of her. I know that Nutmeg’s friend and her baby will be just fine — and that the baby and Nutmeg’s baby will be great pals some day — but this story gives me pause. Probably a healthy reminder at this stage of the game, when that little fetus in Nutmeg’s belly is, according to Cute Fruit, now the size of a cantaloupe.

an ode to a grandma

Lots-of-Candles-BirthdayThis beautiful essay on the New York Times “Opinionator” blog shows how powerful a tie can be between a woman and her granddaughter, especially as the granddaughter becomes an adult. And it ends in a way that, frankly, surprised me — just as it surprised some of the earliest commenters, who said that what the story really shows is that life is complex, and that end-of-life decisions have to be made in highly idiosyncratic ways.

The grandma in question was 93 years old and facing surgery for sepsis. Please let me go, the grandma begged her granddaughter, and please convince your mother (the older woman’s daughter-in-law) to sign off on that, too. But the daughter-in-law thought the real problem, besides the sepsis, was that Grandma was depressed. So she insisted on surgery, which the older woman got, and also on treatment for her depression. And the result was that the grandmother lived another 9 years, happy, thriving, painting watercolors and writing poetry and generally having a blast.

Wendy Spero, the author, was lucky to have both of these women in her life: the grandmother, whose mantra was “Do whatever your heart desires,” and the mother, who always said “If you’re an artist, you’re an unhappy waitress.” These different world views didn’t just reflect the juxtaposition of heart versus practicality, as Spero concludes; they reflected, also, a juxtaposition of the roles themselves. The mother’s job is to make sure her child is capable, productive, independent. The grandmother’s job, enviably, is just to make sure her grandchild lives a life of joy in which she feels cherished and heard.

a leg up

house-320x233Unless the real estate market in Brooklyn in 2015 is far crazier than it already seems (considering the insanely inflated prices in the parts of Brooklyn where today’s version of yuppies are choosing to live) — by which I mean unless putting in a bid on a house and getting it accepted by the seller isn’t really the least bit binding — unless something weird happens, in other words, it looks like Nutmeg and Southpaw just bought themselves a house. And it’s a house in a part of Brooklyn that looks like the town in Maryland where Nutmeg grew up — though when I said that to her, she said that this is a part of Brooklyn that’s said to remind everyone of the town where he or she grew up.

That seems like a good sign, doesn’t it? A sign that it will be a good place for Grandbaby to grow up, too?

They’re buying the house with their close friends, another couple with a baby, which makes the crazy-expensive house more affordable. But the only reason they can swing it is that iDaddy and I have given them some money for a down payment, and Southpaw’s parents have given them, or rather lent them, even more. Which is nice for Nutmeg and Southpaw but not so nice for us as a society, already brutally split between the haves and the have-nots. The leg up that we’re happy to give our kids in this way will only accentuate that split, and will give our kids and our grandkids a chance to live more spaciously, go to better schools, run around in backyards, and do all the other things that will make their lives easier right from Day One. It’s sad, that dreadful division that we’re only serving to perpetuate. But here’s the rub: I’m also enormously thankful that we can do it.


bassinetThere’s something of a sense of unreality to Nutmeg’s preganancy, which I guess is part of what it means to be an expectant grandmother rather than an expectant mother. Even when we saw her this weekend for a baby shower; even when we went up to her apartment and saw the little bassinet they’d set up in the living room with its bunch of teeny tiny gifts lined up in an adorable tableau; even when we went to dinner and I sat next to Nutmeg and was able to feel the baby moving, with an intense sense memory of how it felt to be the one carrying the child rather than the one with her hand on the belly; even with all that, I can’t quite picture what it will mean to have a baby in our lives, a baby crying all night long in our house at the beach, a baby AT the beach with us, wearing the delicious little bathing suit I couldn’t resist buying for the present iDaddy and I brought to the shower. (It was a co-ed shower, very low-key.) Maybe this is what it takes to make it super-clear to me that this is not really MY life that’s changing, it’s THEIRS, Nutmeg’s and Southpaw’s — another pivotal “aha” moment in the ongoing adventures of parenting grown-ups.

’twas ever thus

dorothy_parker_kris_hedingWhen you use a Dorothy Parker quote from three generations ago to highlight a phenomenon you’re trying to suggest is something new in this generation, maybe you need to consider whether the phenomenon you’re talking about is actually all that new. That’s the advice I’d give, gratis, to David Brooks, whose New York Times columns are often provocative and interesting but are occasionally a bit smug — especially when he’s talking about his new favorite topic, morality and character-building.

The Dorothy Parker quote in today’s column concerned child-rearing. Americans children aren’t raised, they’re incited,” Parker supposedly said. If it was true then, it’s even truer now, Brooks continued; “a thousand times” more true. Maybe he just had a bad day at the Google quote machine.

His point is one that many others have been making for a long time — and I hope they’re all wrong: that this latest generation of kids is being excessively praised and excessively “honed,” to the point that they feel that the only approval and love they get from their parents is contingent on their performance. Quite apart from the fact that this is an argument that is internally inconsistent — how can you object to parents praising their kids for just being themselves, but also object to them praising their kids only if they show their talent? — I think it’s just plain wrong. I like to read pieces like this in a different way now, with an eye toward imaging what life will be like for my incipient grandchild. I’m afraid that this time, Brooks offered me nothing interesting to think about.


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