Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A day in the life of a mom and a wife

Look. If I have to read one more debate about stay-at-home mothers (SAHMs) and Working Mothers and who works harder and sacrifices more, I'm going to puke. 

SAHMs work hard. Working Moms work hard. Everyone works hard in different ways. Why is THIS the conversation I keep seeing over and over again in the blogosphere. Can we move on now? 

Even less do I like the self-congratulatory treacle I keep seeing on the Huffington Post and my Facebook news feed -- letters from SAHMs to working moms, and vice versa, about how amazing the other one is, and how hard they work. You're the best! No, YOU'RE the best! YOU work harder -- no, YOU do! 

Ugh. Like, who farted, right?
Can we quit blowing each other for a minute? How about we agree that moms are moms, and different methods of mothering have different advantages and disadvantages. Both have their unique challenges. Why do we need to quantify these challenges, and debate them, and dissect them endlessly? I don't know about you, but I have a hard enough time getting them dressed and halfway presentable in time for preschool. I'm not going to concern myself with which mom is working harder, and who deserves more praise, and why. 

Whether you work outside the home or not, you deserve one of these. 

I stay at home with my two children, Henry (12 months), and June (2.5). I fully acknowledge that I'm very privileged to be able to do so. I will also fully acknowledge that it's hard, and grueling, and sometimes I'm so desperate for grown-up conversation, I want to gnaw my own arm off so I can chat with the paramedics. It's hard. It's boring. Is it harder than going to the office and picking your kid up from daycare every day? I don't know. I suspect not. And what does it matter? 

I mean, that would be sweet, though. Don't get me wrong.
So. I'm not going to sit here and try to make the case for being a SAHM or a Working Mom. All I can present to you are the facts. I'm a SAHM, and here is how I spend my day. You can judge for yourself. Or not. Here we go: 

Who run the world? These people. 

7:30 AM: Wake up, immediately catheterize Henry and change his diaper. Dose him with his medicine. Clean  half of it off the floor when he spits it out in disgust.

7:40 AM: Change June's diaper and put her in underwear. Change her underwear approximately four times because she can't decide between Dora and Hello Kitty.

7:50 AM: Run around getting breakfast for both children. Usually a colorful array of berries, bananas, and dry cereal, which is then smeared into a collage on their clothes, floor, seat, and walls.

8:20 AM: Inhale some food and check e-mail until one of the children start throwing food on the floor, signifying that they are finished eating. Clean the children and strip them down so I can wash all the berries and crusty cereal out of their clothes and hair.

8:30 AM: End up completely bathing them in the kitchen sink. Throw all the berry-smeared clothes, the high chair covers, and the towels in the washing machine.

9:00 AM: "Oops, Mommy, I think I have to go --" Clean up puddle of piss on the floor. Clean up piss footprints leading into the bathroom. Clean up piss-soaked Dora The Explorer underwear that June threw in the sink, for some god damn reason. Bleach the sink. Wipe down the toddler's piss-streaked legs and feet. Grab a random pair of underwear out of the diaper basket and ignore the shrieks of protest. NO MOMMY NO MOMMY I WANTED HELLO KITTY!!! HELLO KITTY MOMMY! DORA IS A BAD IDEA!!! Yeah, well, so was your conception, I want to fire back. Throw the piss undies in the washing machine.

I usually start praying fervently right about now.
9:25 AM: Henry crawls around on the floor and upends the recycling bin while I set up a "craft" for June. Our crafts include a) mixing snow and Ovaltine into a cup to make a milkshake, b) painting on paper with a mixture of water and food coloring, and c) gluing googly eyes on fuzzy pom-pom balls to make a "creature." Those are the only three things she wants to do, on any given day, ever. Any one of these will entertain her for a full ten minutes, until she moves on to the next craft. Henry upends the recycling bin, open and shuts the kitchen cabinets, and scavenges for snacks on the floor. I forget what I'm doing at this point, between crafts. Probably sitting on the ground, staring off into space.

10:45 AM: Time to catheterize Henry again. Henry, in case you aren't a regular reader, has some special needs, due to being born with Spina Bifida Myelomeningocele. The only special need of his that really affects us on a day-to-day basis is that he needs to be catheterized four times daily. Catheterization is really no big deal. Basically, we stick a pee-tube in his wiener and empty his urine into his diaper so he won't have to overwork his bladder or something. I would link a YouTube video showing how it's done, but I don't want to get put on some list. Think of it as threading a needle: We stick a tube in, pee drains out, and then we take out the tube. Simple.

Exactly like threading a needle. Except with pee squirting everywhere. 

What's not simple, however? Trying to navigate the pee-tube up his pee-hole while he's twisting and turning to get away from me. So a procedure that should take about thirty seconds somehow turns into a five-minute wrestling match, Henry writhing on the floor and trying to crawl off into the other room somewhere, while I'm pinning his arms down with my legs and swearing quietly so June won't hear. I give him my phone to play with so he holds still, and make a mental note to wipe the pee off of it later.

11 AM: Time for naps. Children won't nap. This isn't how it happens with my Sim family. Try to comfort them in vain.

Tell June for the hundreth time she can have cereal after she takes a good nap -- because God forbid she'd have to wait more than an hour between eating. Comfort her when she cries I NEED CEREAL I'M SO HOOONNNGRY like she lives in a Sudanese refugee camp. Take her out of the room and change her diaper so Henry won't have to hear her yelling about being hungry. Hold June down with your arms and legs and forcibly strap a diaper on her, ignoring her cries of I DONT YIKE DIAPERS, I NEED DORA UNDIES.  Drag June back into the nursery and dump her on the bed. Pat Henry on the head absentmindedly while he tries to writhe his way out of his swaddling blanket. Praise Jesus and all the angels and saints when they both stop crying and drift off to sleep. Eventually.

11:30 AM - 1:30 PM: Go downstairs. Half-heartedly fold a basket of laundry and leave the clean clothes sitting in the basket for the next six days. Shove some granola in your mouth as a snack. Join the children in their room and sleep like the dead.

2:00 PM: Henry wakes up. Time to cath him again. Tell Henry to stop being such a douchebag and hold still; make a mental note to go to confession.

2:05 PM: June wakes up. Change her back into Dora underwear.

2:06 PM: Prepare lunch.

2:08 PM: "Mommy, I smell poop! It's coming from my butt!" Clean up poop smears on the floor. Empty out June's poop-filled underwear. Gather the poop-streaked toilet paper ("I wiped myself, mommy!") and dump it into the toilet. Bleach everything. Wash hands. Multiple times.

2:30 - 4:00 PM: Feel incredibly, insanely guilty that you've spent all day running around laying out crafts for June and changing her underwear while Henry has been digging through the recycling and eating cereal off the floor. Play on the floor with Henry. Revel in how beautiful and intelligent he is. Read stories to him. Lovingly pry his hands from your head when he wants to pull your hair. Alternate between paying Henry attention and paying June attention, as they are both competing fiercely for it.

4:00 PM: Put on Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood and let both kids watch like six episodes. Lay on the floor and pretend to do yoga but really take a mom-nap.

4:30 PM: Remember you forgot to defrost something for dinner. Crap.

4:31 PM: What can I make for dinner? Text Lou: can we order pizza for the third time this week? No? Allrighty then.


4:33 PM: Throw a few baked potatoes in the oven and set it to 400 degrees. Bam. Dinner served.

4:35 PM: Run around cleaning up clutter, sweeping, wiping down counters, shoving more berry-smeared clothes in the washing machine, and throwing sippy cups in the dishwasher so the house is some semblance of clean before Lou walks in the door.

5:30 PM: Take the kids on a walk around the neighborhood. Yell exercise time, exercise time! Yay! Mmm -- smell that fresh air?! Ignore how the kids are clamoring to get back inside the house. Walk two blocks and then come back.

5:45 PM: Shove the children into Daddy's arms the minute he comes through the door. Collapse on the couch and tell all of them you're going to check some VERY IMPORTANT E-MAILS and demand that they not disturb you, as you are VERY BUSY and IMPORTANT. Proceed to check Facebook while ignoring their cries for dinner.

6:00 PM: Realize you've burned the baked potatoes. Order pizza.

7:00 PM: Serve pizza to starving children. Strip off their sauce-laden clothes and throw them in the washer on top of their berry-and-cereal-smeared clothes. Catheterize Henry. Rinse June off in the sink. Diaper them both. Clothe them both. Carry them up into our bed, where they both insist on sleeping, and dump them there. Tuck them in lovingly and then run the hell out of there before they can protest.

7:30 PM: Collapse on the couch. Watch maybe one episode of The Wire before starting to fall asleep. Go back up to your room and watch your children sleep quietly. Stroke their hair and kiss their eyelids. Thank God for these precious gifts. Resolve to do better tomorrow. Resolve to be the mom they deserve.

7:35 PM: Polish up your resume. You know, just in case.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Underlying Depression

This is the fifth part in a series about PTSD, anxiety, trauma, and depression. This is the part about depression. Obvs. Read this post to catch up. 

I didn't even realize I had depression until I was in the thick of it.

It was my senior year of college. I was going to school full-time, working part-time, and going to therapy once a week where I was in the midst of processing some really traumatic shiz. It was January, and I had started taking an SSRI for the first time in November, to combat my extreme anxiety and PTSD. It did nothing at first. And then -- it kicked in. And it felt like my prayers had been answered.

The antidepressants worked. They worked so well. Instead of a constant hypervigilence, I felt normal, calm, that relaxed feeling you get after a hot shower or a deep-tissue massage. After a year of constant anxiety, I practically buzzed with happiness. I felt like I could breathe again. Why didn't I start these earlier? I asked. I could talk about India without being massively triggered. I could walk to campus, hear car horns honking, and not suffer major panic attacks and have to turn around and hide out in my room. It was like I had a new lease on life.

Gonna eat some dinner without worrying I'll get botulism and die. Take that, anxiety! 

And then, I think, the antidepressants worked too well.

The paralyzing depression snuck up on me. I noticed that I was taking more naps. I was slowly more sluggish. It was harder to get out of bed in the mornings. But I attributed that to working, school, and "writing my trauma narrative," as the counselor called it. I was physically and emotionally spent.

Slowly, throughout the month of January and February, I would come home from class and just zonk out for hours. I had a 3 hour writing workshop -- my favorite class -- and I would come home in the afternoon and sleep well into the evening. My counseling session was every Friday, and I would come home at noon and routinely sleep until four or five in the afternoon. Even if I just felt like I could take a quick cat-nap, I would wake up and five hours would have passed. Even if I didn't even feel all that tired. It's like I would just lapse into a small coma every day, and wake up feeling like I could keep sleeping. Maybe if I had known more about depression, I would have suspected it. But to me, depression was just "feeling sad." It was that little cartoon bubble with a frowny face and a cloud following him around. But I didn't feel like a sad cartoon bubble. I didn't feel "hopeless" or "unmotivated." I didn't even particularly feel tired. I just kept sleeping. And sleeping. And sleeping.

On the contrary, I felt really good. Kind of sluggish. Kind of groggy. But hell, after the year of heart palpitations, of extreme anxiety, of hypervigilence, feeling "kind of sluggish" and "unusually relaxed" was a welcome reprieve. I'm probably napping so much because of the zoloft, I thought, but hell, between crippling panic attacks and a few naps here and there, I'll take the naps. And then again, it could have been the hectic work/school/therapy schedule. Who knew? I brushed it off. And kept brushing it off.

For the life of me, I didn't realize it was depression. Or maybe I just slept a lot, because of the medicine, and that triggered the depression. But either way, I wasn't sad. I felt amazing, and relaxed, better than I had in the past year. But more and more, I started to love my bed. Not in a I-dont-have-the-will-to-live kind of way; Not even in an I-feel-so-tired way. I just craved being in my bed. I craved it like a big, fluffy, delicious sandwich. It was warm and soft and my pillow was just the right firmness, and I had just purchased an electric blanket that made nap time downright heavenly. So for whatever reason, I just became really attached to nap time. I'd look forward to it all day. I'd wake up in the morning, go to class, and count down the hours until nap time. And then when I'd come home and fall into my bed-haven, thinking, I'll just nap for twenty minutes, I would open my eyes and four hours would have passed. I hadn't even been tired!

We were BFFs, bed and I. 

Soon enough, I started sleeping through class. I would set an alarm and wake up seeing that it had been blaring for hours. That's weird, I thought, and set the alarm for different frequencies, different volumes. I would sleep through most of them. I started sleeping later and later in the mornings, and taking naps earlier and earlier. And for longer. I missed more and more class. I got farther behind, try to catch up, and get really quickly overwhelmed and want to take a nap. And the more class I missed, the more overwhelmed I got. And the more overwhelmed I got, the more I kept on napping. And the more I napped, the more I felt like I couldn't leave my bed. I felt stuck there. It was comfortable, and warm, and sleeping felt so good. I felt high off sleep.

I don't remember when the weird crying spells started. I would go to class and just come back home and randomly cry. I wasn't even crying about anything in particular -- nothing that I recognized, anyway. I wasn't particularly sad, and I didn't cry because I was triggered by anything specific I would have a good day in class and then just come home and burst into tears and sleep. Well,  that's weird, I would think, but I attributed it to PMS. Or stress. Or maybe it was the zoloft? But between debilitating anxiety and a few crying jags here and there, I'd take the crying jags. I made a mental note to call the doctor -- after I took a quick nap.

Crying, but also thinking about what to eat for dinner at the same time.

Crying takes a lot out of you. I'd come home, cry for no reason, get super exhausted from crying, and take another four-hour nap. I spent a few months like that, and suddenly I realized I wasn't getting out of bed much at all. And showering? That required you to stand. For a long time. Homie don't play that. I was tired. From crying. Who had the energy to stand? Sure, my hair looked greasy as hell, but who did I have to impress? Who cared? Washing my hair would require lifting my arms, and my arms were tired. I'd take a shower later -- right after a quick cat nap.

Slowly, it progressed. More naps, more crying, less socializing, less leaving the apartment. But I wasn't having anxiety attacks anymore, so it was all good!

Depression is so full of shame. I don't remember when, or why, but I very slowly became morbidly fascinated with death. It was confusing -- I wasn't suicidal. I didn't want to die. I loved life. I was happy -- aside from the random crying jags. I was excited to get married in a few short months -- if I had the energy to make it down the aisle, that is. But for whatever reason, I wanted to know what death felt like. What it would look like. What I would look like, if I died. How would I do it, if I could choose? It wasn't an obsession at first. Just a casual curiosity. I found myself mulling over it more and more. What would happen to me? I mean, physically? If I hanged myself, how would my face look? Bruised? Bloated? These thoughts disgusted and shamed me -- even now, they disgust and shame me. I didn't (and still don't) want anyone to think I was weird, that I was deviant. I didn't want anyone to think I was unhappy or planning to die. I wasn't. But I just kept thinking about it. What would people think if they knew I was imagining myself hanging in my bathroom? If I told someone, would they have me committed? Would I get put on some list? Would they "flag" my medical file? (Is that a thing?) I didn't want to find out. I tried to push the thoughts out of my head. It didn't matter anyway, I told myself. I wasn't suicidal. I didn't want to die. I just ... wanted to imagine that I was dead.

Soon, it was all I could think about. I would have Googling sessions that lasted for hours, when I was supposed to be writing papers or studying, where I would just google graphic images of plane crashes. I didn't like these images -- I just wanted to see them. It was like a little game -- what was the most graphic image I could view, without wanting to shut down my computer? I didn't get very far, admittedly. I was terrified of gore. But the non-gory stuff I was all over. For hours, I listened to cockpit recordings of planes that had gone down. I wanted to hear the pilot's last words. I wanted to imagine how it felt. How did it feel to die? How did the pilots feel in those last minutes, knowing that death was inevitable? I had heard, in my own family, of people beckoning toward the sky in their last moments before dying. Had the people on these planes experienced that too? The cockpit recordings disgusted me, calmed me, and thrilled me, all at once.

I googled 9/11 a lot. I listened to 911 dispatches. I was horrified. But I kept seeking it out. I kept imagining myself on those planes. I omitted this when I saw my therapist -- I knew it wasn't really considered a suicidal ideation unless I had a plan to kill myself. And I didn't. Not exactly. Did I? I mean, I had thought about it a lot. And I had decided that hanging -- no, pills -- would be the way to go. But I didn't want to die. Did I? I mean, I didn't want to die, but I also spent a lot of time thinking about death. And I didn't feel sad ... but I also spent a lot of time crying inconsolably. It was all just very overwhelming. And you know what helped that overwhelming feeling? Naps.

I don't know if I had a "bottom" -- some low point that made me realize I needed to get help. But I remember one day I googled the phrase I can't stop thinking about suicide and a suicide survival forum popped up. I made a username and posted on it. Please help me, I posted. I'm not suicidal, I don't think, but I keep thinking about suicide. I can't stop. I can't think about anything else. I can't get out of bed. Does this mean I'm suicidal? I don't want to die, but I just can't stop thinking about it. What do I do?

The response was overwhelming: You're depressed, dummy. Get to the doctor. NOW. 

And I did.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

So what the hell is new lately?

1. Henry is almost one. I cannot comprehend how the little person who I just had inside me is now scooting across the floor, upending my laundry baskets, and yelling at the top of his lungs.

I continue to be amazed at his progress. No, he can't walk yet. He probably won't for a while -- we need to get his feet straightened out which can't happen for a variety of reasons until he's eighteen-ish months. But damned if he doesn't get where he needs to go -- scooting, rolling, and almost crawling. He sits up unassisted, he can get up on his hands and knees and rock back and forth, he scoots, and he can get from laying down to sitting without any help from anyone. No cognitive delays and barely any physical delays, which is downright astounding considering he was supposed to be paralyzed.

I know. I know. I feel like I am always harping on that. I feel like every other word out of my mouth is HE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE PARALYZED!!!! THE DOCTORS SAID HE'D NEVER MOVE AND NOW HE DOES OMG OMG!!! So I apologize for being a broken record. But when the doctor sits you down and tells you that your kid is paralyzed -- your life changes. Your entire worldview changes. And so every time Henry gets up on his hands and knees, or scoots from one place to another, it feels like this huge victory because multiple people had told us he wouldn't be able to do that exact same thing.

Every SINGLE time he meets a milestone, I judo-chop the air with glee. He did it. He's doing it. He's doing exactly what you said he wouldn't do.

And that is pretty darn inspiring.

2. I'm going to the Edel Gathering!!! When I first heard about the Edel Gathering -- a two-day getaway (I like to call it a "conference" so it sounds like I'm extremely busy and important) for Catholic ladies featuring a dream team of Catholic bloggers and authors -- I immediately got a nerd boner. Cocktails with a bunch of fellow Catholic ladies? Two days away from my kids? Talks and toasts from my favorite bloggers?! KARAOKE AND A CRAZY SHOE CONTEST??!?!?!?!?!?!?! I almost started salivating with desire.

I will be VERY upset if I can't find an exact replica of these for the crazy shoe contest.
Unfortunately, the prospect of going was so far off my radar that I literally wouldn't allow myself to think about it, lest I get too sad. The gathering is in Austin, Texas (We live in Chicago), and, oh yeah, I'm poor as shit. But then.


Lou filled out our tax return a few weeks ago and thanks to our meager salary and our two babies, we are getting a ton of money back. Most is going to our student loans. But a modest amount is for us to splurge with. We hardly ever splurge, and we've had a ridiculously stressful year, so we decided to go for it. Lou is buying some original art. And I staked out the Edel website all morning and bought tickets as soon as they went live. Our splurge money should just barely cover the cost of a conference ticket, one round trip flight, and a delicious gin and tonic that I will nurse the entire night. I am unbelievably excited to go. And if you read this and plan on going, hit me up on Facebook so I can force you to hang out with me at the conference.

Literally. So. Excited. Somebody hold me. 

3. June. Having a two-year-old is my favorite thing in the world. Sure, it's trying. I haven't gotten proper sleep in months since my particular two-year-old won't sleep unless she's on my pillow with her nose pressed up against mine. Two year olds are relentless, and mine specifically has no understanding of why she can't have cookies and goldfish crackers for every single meal of the day, and she physically takes my face in her hands and turns it toward her when she thinks I've been looking at Henry a few seconds too long. I mean, it's darling, but it's frigging exhausting too.

But aside from the constant attention she demands, my two year old is a delight. I swear I spend a third of the day wanting to rip out my hair and the rest getting snuggles, hugs, and laughing at the ridiculous things that come out of her mouth. Such as:

June: Mommy, what this book say?
Me: The title is, "The Naked and the Dead."
[opens it stealthily, closes it immediately]
June: I saw a bum.

Me: Do you think you'll be a doctor when you grow up, June?
June: Nah. I just be a pretty lady.

Me: June, can you hold my hand in the parking lot, please?
June: Nah. I good.

June: Mommy, Jake say 'shut up' and 'stupid.'
Me: Oh, that's inappropriate. We don't say those words.
June: Mommy, Barney say 'shut up' and 'stupid.'
Me: He did, huh? Well those are rude words. Tell Barney not to say those words.
June: Mommy, daddy say 'shut up' and 'stupid'.
Me: Really? Well that wasn't very nice. Thank you for telling me.
June: Mommy...Shut Up and Stupid said 'shut up' and 'stupid.'
Me: I think you're just trying to get away with saying 'shut up' and 'stupid.'
June: .... shut up.

June [to a dog that got close to her face]: Excuse me. I need some space.

Precious baby. 

Her favorite thing right now is to change into her Monsters, Inc. pajamas and watch "Monsters, Inc" in the basement with her daddy after he gets off work. At least once a day she asks to do a "craft," which consists of either cutting up pieces of paper (just sitting and cutting random shapes) or mixing snow and chocolate milk mix in a big bowl and eating it with a spoon. She loves puzzles. Blocks. She adores watching TV, which I let her do a fair amount of since she does it so darn interactively. She can quote whole snippets of dialogue from her favorite cartoons and knows pretty much every nursery rhyme, thanks to Barney. Basically, if she's drawing, doing a "craft," watching Adventure Time, or "helping" me clean, she's a happy girl.

And as long as she's asleep by 730, I'm a happy mama.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

One Year Later: A Letter to Myself

Ugh, I know. ANOTHER post about my youngest kid. Even I'm getting sick of how much I talk about Henry. But today is a special day. So, indulge me. 

I can never resist showing off a picture of my dude. Those CHEEKS. That double chin! That button nose! Those plump little lips! I am ALL ABOUT those delicious lips! MUAHMUAHMUAH! But I digress. 

One year ago, on November 7th, I thought my life was over. 

I remember that day in bits and pieces -- but the pieces I do remember are sharp. We had gone in for an anatomy scan, to learn the baby's sex. We waited in the waiting room with the other mothers, giddy, debating the different reasons why we thought it would be a boy or a girl. We made bets. We shook on them. I can't remember any of them now. 

The nurse called us in and Lou carried June back into the ultrasound room. It was dark and cool. The nurse squirted some goo on my belly and our son popped up on the TV screen. In high-definition, no less. We all stared, in awe, while the tech took measurements. Every so often I'd blurt out, Do you see that? That's his face! Do you see his little face? Is that a penis? That's a penis right there, right? Pretty sure that's a penis. Definitely a penis, I said, trying to get the ultrasound tech to check the sex. 

And then the doctor walked in. Shook our hands. Stared at the screen intently and sighed. And then. And then. The most agonizing moment of my life. Had the doctor burst through the door and roundhouse kicked me in the neck, I could not have been more stunned. And hurt. 

Our son, he told us, had a defect called Spina Bifida. Something was wrong. Something had not formed properly. Fluid on the brain. Malformation. No cerebellum. Increase of stillbirth by a factor of five. Prematurity. C-section. Clubbed feet. We don't know. We don't know. There's no way of knowing. Over and over, the bad news just kept coming. It crashed over us. By the end of his spiel, I almost couldn't breathe. 

I didn't want to terminate, per se -- but I definitely wanted to be un-pregnant. Somehow. I bit my tongue, almost asking can I try again? Can I get a do-over? Can we fix this? Simultaneously, I seethed at the staff, smoldering with a protective fury. Just dare mention termination to me, I thought, just try. I felt like jumping off the table, ready to fight anyone who would suggest I abort -- but at the same time feeling weak and wanting immediately to be done being pregnant. To have this go away. I remember feeling weighted down, weak and hot, sweaty and starting to shake, hopelessly trapped because I couldn't run from the "problem" -- the "problem" was inside of me. It was inescapable. Inevitable. I felt doomed. 

I felt my life was over. 

That grin. THAT GRIN. What was I saying?
Here's what I would say to myself if I could go back: Your life is over. It's over in the best possible way. The life you had is done, and the person you were is dead. And it's an immeasurable blessing

You're stronger now. Words like shunt and hydrocephalus used to cause you physical pain. Now you throw them around like you're talking about what to cook for dinner. Just the thought of leaving your baby in someone else's care -- a doctor's, a babysitters -- used to set you on edge. Now you have a month in the NICU under your belt, and you have a new confidence and respect for nurses and doctors, because you've seen the miracles they can work. You can delegate. Do what you gotta do, you say to them, instead of peppering them with questions and wringing your hands in terror. Instead of crying and thinking I'm supposed to CATHETERIZE a baby? How the hell is that going to happen?, you just do it, like a boss, on the changing table in the bathroom of a Barnes and Noble, and move on with your day. You don't think to yourself anymore how will I ever possible handle all of this? Because you've handled it. You've walked through hell already. You've survived. You know that there are going to be other "worst days of my life" in the years ahead. But you also know that you have a resovoir of inner strength that is deep and wide, and you're a fighter. 

But you're also weaker. When you hear of a mom whose kid was in the NICU, your heart drops in your stomach. You ache right along with her. The smell of antimicrobial hand soap brings tears to your eyes -- it reminds you of the NICU. You wince when you see videos of yourself in the days leading up to the ultrasound, because you were so happy in those pictures and had no idea how badly you were going to be hurt. You see kids running around on a playground and you cringe -- your stomach knots in on itself. Who will Henry play with, you wonder, when all the other kids want to run around? Will he be stuck in his wheelchair, by himself? When you see pictures of children in other countries who have Spina Bifida -- children who don't have the same access to medical care, kids who -- unthinkably -- have no mommy to speak for them, the pain you have for those children is so real, so visceral, and so sharp, it takes your breath away. You feel pain differently. You hurt more. You're wounded.  
So yeah, in a way, your life is over. Because you're not the same person. Your soul, your mind -- everything has changed. Even your body boasts a new and impressive scar, still red and angry-looking, a vertical grin across your pelvis. But would you go back, if you had the chance, and give any of it up? Would you ask the doctor for a "do over"? Would you try to fix it? 

Hell to the no. 

You're stronger than you ever thought possible. You're more resilient than you had ever imagined. You're older, wiser, and much less likely to take things -- especially health -- for granted. You're a better person, because of this child, because of this so-called defect, than you ever would have been without him. 

And the best part, is that you get to be a mother to this new, round, squishy little person. You get to fall in love with a new little person all over again. You get to delight in his tiny voice, his babbling, his cooing, the geewwwww he makes when he doesn't want to eat his baby cereal, the little frowny face he makes before he starts to cry, the soft tufts of his hair, his fat, impossibly smooth cheeks. You get to be gifted with a million of these little pleasures, these little moments, day after day, for as long as God allows him to be in your life. 

What a joy, what a gift. Thank you, God. Not only for this precious person, but for this new mother I've become. 

I would not go back and make it "better." I would not trade it for anything. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

My Big Dumb Debt Story and What I've Learned

I've never written about personal finance here before. But why the hell not? I write about my kids, my marriage, my hypochrondriac freakouts. This isn't so much a "mom blog" as it is a "I'm-ignoring-my-toddler's-temper-tantrum-may-as-well-blog" kind of blog. So I'm just gonna write about whatever. Including our student loan debt and our struggles to get out from under it. Cool? Cool.

And post funny pictures of chickens because obviously

My name is Sarah. And I have student loan debt. When I graduated from college, the number was astounding -- almost $62,000. My husband was smarter than I and got more scholarships, so his debt load was smaller, but still substantial -- about $30,000. Thankfully, my husband's debt (if you want to qualify it as "his debt" and "my debt") is already gone. One of the reasons I love my husband so much is that he works hard for what he wants. He's steadfast and dependable and when he sets a goal for himself, he hustles to get it accomplished (sexy, right?) When he graduated college in 2007, he moved back in with his parents and threw nearly all of his monthly income at his debt load. He paid off his debt in just over two years. By the time we left on our honeymoon, he was completely debt free. He was responsible. Sexily responsible.

I, however, was not that responsible. Until I graduated, I gave absolutely no thought to how much debt I was taking on, or how much it would cost me per month to repay. The thought hardly ever occurred to me. All I knew was that I was going to college, and college cost money. The government was offering money, so I took it. And I would figure out how to pay them back later. How I would ever pay back sixty grand with an English degree, I never bothered to think about.

I realize that now. 

I don't think I could have given any less thought to my debt load if I had tried. I went out of my way at every step to avoid talking about debt or how much my college was costing me. When my dad told me flat-out my sophomore year that I should consider transferring, I was like but dad, this school has free breakfast during finals! This school is the BEST!. When other students would live off-campus to save money, I just lived wherever was closer to class. And the entrance counseling for federal aid? LOL. I just clicked and guessed and tried my hardest not to absorb anything it was telling me. I didn't get the terms I was agreeing to, I didn't know how I'd pay it back, and I tried my hardest not to think about it.

My reaction to the loan counseling: TL;DR

Denial. It's a helluva drug.

So I'd have to say the first lesson I learned from my extraordinarily stupid foray into student debt, is that you have to treat debt like it's a communicable disease. Do anything you can to avoid it. Work late, work overtime, live off campus -- live in a box, for God's sake. Just don't take on debt if you could ever possibly help it. And I could have. If I had gone to a cheaper school, or had applied for more scholarships, maybe I could have escaped with less debt, or maybe none at all, since my parents paid for some of my schooling. But I did literally no thinking ahead and just applied to whatever school had the major I wanted. (I ended up switching majors like four times anyway, so that criteria was pretty useless in the end.) Actually, scratch that -- I applied to my college because it had my major, but I enrolled because I liked the campus, the school was in the middle of a big city I wanted to explore, and there was a statue of Mother Theresa in one of their lobbies. Not kidding. I thought it was a sign from God, and maybe it was, since I met my husband during our time at the school newspaper. Still -- don't do what I did. Don't base one of the biggest investments on your life on the fact that you like its lobby.

Seriously cannot believe I just wrote that sentence. 

Anywho. If taking on debt is a necessity, and there's nothing you can do to avoid it, and you've done everything possible to minimize it as much as you can, then for the love of God, do what my husband did and throw as much money as you can at it, as quickly as possible, to crawl out from under it. The minimum payment is not your friend. Before we were married, Lou made probably $2k a month, if that. And every month he wrote a check for at least $1500, and usually more like $1700 or $1800. He paid his phone bill, bought his train ticket to work, and we occasionally went out for Thai food. That was it. His debt was gone in two years, and he saved thousands of bucks in interest as a result.

If I could do it all again, I would do what my little brother did. Our parents were generous enough to pay for a portion of our college; they saved up some money and divided it among my brothers and I equally. To this day, I still don't know how much he gave me, because like a dumb ass, I never bothered to ask. Money was taboo and I didn't want to look a gift horse in the mouth, so when my dad said I could afford a year or two at Loyola, I enrolled with no questions asked. Awesome, I thought. I'll ride on whatever my dad gives me, and then sign up for loans when it's gone. And that's exactly what I did. Don't ask, don't tell.

Jake, on the other hand, learned how much my dad was planning on giving him, exactly, to the cent. After high school, he delayed college for two years while he put himself through community college and worked full-time at Burger King to pay for school. He got all of his core credits completed for cheap, with his Burger King earnings, and all the while built up his photography portfolio in his spare time. When his core was complete, he applied for a scholarship at Columbia with that same portfolio, and won it. Between my parents' generosity, the school's scholarship, and his unbelievable hustle, he was able to go to his dream school and graduate with almost no debt. Jake had a plan, a budget, and ambition.

Meanwhile, I'm like

When I got married, I got the balls to look up my loan amounts on the National Student Aid website, and boy was that a rotten surprise. I think the final total was somewhere around $62k, although I was too buy puking and passing out to really let it sink in. Ouch.

Right in the net worth. 
I felt awful. My husband had worked so hard to pay down his debt and he had done a fantastic job. Now he was $60k in the hole again. I had buried my head in the sand instead of taking on an extra job and throwing extra money at it to bring down the total, and now we were both stuck paying it off for years to come -- maybe even decades. Oh hell no, I thought. I want babies. I want a house. Ain't nobody got time for this. I had my epiphany about four years too late, but at least I had it: Student debt sucks. Any kind of debt sucks. We had stuff to do. A life to live. Babies to raise. And Sallie Mae didn't factor into any of that.

Me and Sallie Mae. She's a harsh mistress.

So, Lou and I started throwing money at Sallie Mae like a cheap stripper. Every cent we made went right to her, and we hated it, but we made incredible progress in a very short amount of time. After I finished school and got pregnant with June, my parents invited us to live with them so that we could pay down our debt, and we accepted graciously. Two years later we're still living here, still throwing money at our loans (we actually paid the minimums for a year, so we could save up for a second car) and I'm psyched to say we have "only" $23k left to go. Right now Lou and I are doing everything possible to save more and pay everything off quicker -- I clip coupons, I make my own laundry soap, I cloth diaper, I freelance. And Lou as I write this is working overtime at his office, on a Saturday, so we can get that much closer to living our dream as homeowners. I'm proud of how hard we've worked and how far we've come, but we came by these successes the hard way.

So. Student debt blows. And I have a lot of it because I didn't make the smartest decisions. Don't do what I did. Plan. And save. And work your ass off. Pay more than the minimums. And get rid of it as quickly as possible.

I'll be over here, paying off my own debt, rooting for you.

Friday, November 1, 2013

We Need to Talk about Antidepressants

The fall of my senior year in college, I had a nervous breakdown. Until recently, I didn't even know what happened to me could be considered a nervous breakdown. When I hear that term, I think of a padded cell and a 5150 hold. I think of a complete psychotic break -- like running around the streets naked and smearing feces on cars, or something. That didn't happen with me. Instead, I spent a week huddled under my electric blanket, feeling like my heart was going to beat out of my chest, convinced I was dying of Swine Flu, crying and eating cereal and watching Frasier on an endless loop. This was triggered by the PTSD I developed after studying abroad the previous semester.


A "nervous breakdown," according to MayoClinic, refers to a stressful situation when someone is unable to function in day-to-day life. It's really helpful for me to read that definition out loud to myself. It helps me realize, to this day, that yes, things were that bad. Until recently, I kind of just referred to that time in my head as the week I binged on Lifetime Original movies and drank a lot of wine and missed a lot of class. As it turns out, I wasn't just "having a bad week." I wasn't just "feeling stressed" or "feeling sick." I had completely ceased to function in the world. I had a full-on nervous breakdown. And maybe had I known I was careening toward a breakdown, I wouldn't have been so reluctant to start taking some medicine.

Pretty much verbatim what I told my roommates and coworkers
So after my full-on, hiding-under-the-covers nervous breakdown, I finally admitted that yeah, maybe I wasn't doing so well with just therapy and a bottle of wine. And perhaps -- just perhaps -- I needed to kick it up a notch.

Up until that point, my therapist had been cautiously suggesting that I try an anti-depressant. And for months she had respectfully nodded and hadn't pressed me when I all but laughed in her face. Well, I didn't quite laugh in her face, but I made it clear that the thought of taking medicine was ridiculous. Hello? I thought. Haven't you been paying attention? I freak the fuck out when I have to urinate, and I've been urinating for my entire life. If I start getting weird symptoms because of these pills, I'm going to have a heart attack. I'm going to start obsessing every time I take them. I'm going to start feeling imaginary symptoms. I'll over-think every twinge, every cramp, every unfamiliar ache. It'll make my anxiety worse. So for months we'd do a cat-and-mouse where the subject of meeting a psychiatrist (for medicine) would come up and I'd awkwardly try to side-step. And by side-step I'd be like:

But after that week in October, I felt like it was very literally my last option. Either I could take some medicine and hope that it worked, or I'd cease to function like a normal human. And that kind of panic -- that flu-like feeling of sickness -- is simply unsustainable. I'm not saying I was suicidal. But I really don't know how much more of that I could have taken. So when I went crying to the campus nurse about how I had the Swine Flu and all my "Swine Flu" symptoms turned out to be anxiety induced, that blessed nurse scheduled a therapy session for me immediately. And from there I saw the psychiatrist.

Psychiatrist guy gave me two things -- and I feel like it's important for me to tell you what they were, at the risk of sounding like a druggie, because every week or so I'll get an e-mail or an instant message with someone asking me about anti-anxiety drugs and what they're like. There's a definite undercurrent of shame, and fear, and, well, anxiety about what the side effects are going to be -- which was totally my preoccupation before I started trying them. So. Psychiatrist guy (who looked curiously like Tobias Funke) gave me xanax, which has short-term effects and calms you down in the midst of an anxiety attack, and started me on Zoloft, which is an anti-depressant. Basically, untreated anxiety or PTSD feels like you've got your hand on a hot skillet and you can't take it off. You're expected to function as though everything is fine, but inside you're thinking HOLY SHIT THIS HURTS I CANT FOCUS ON ANYTHING ELSE BUT THE BURNING IT BURNSSSSSSS!!!! Xanax is like splashing some cold water on the skillet -- a temporary relief, but your hand is still on the skillet, and it'll heat right back up again in a few minutes. Zoloft is like someone coming up behind you and turning off the burner -- gradually, the anxiety goes away, and you start acting and feeling more like your normal self.

Seriously. Can you tell I was an English major? 

So I started the zoloft that day. And I'd be lying if I said I had about a million tiny little anxiety freakouts and IBS flareups wondering what the side-effects would be. And I did get side-effects -- nausea, primarily -- for a few weeks until it started to kick in. And boy, did it kick in.

About a month after I started taking it, sometime in the first week of December -- about ten months after the incident that spurred my PTSD -- I woke up one morning and I felt lighter. Physically lighter. My limbs were looser. And the biggest difference was that I could breathe. It was a totally unparalleled feeling and I'm sure I looked like a complete dumbass, because I would just walk around campus and take deep, long breaths, sucking all the cold air into my lungs that I possibly could. It felt wonderful. I hadn't even noticed until the anxiety went away how completely crushing it was. A weight had literally been lifted, and I felt joyously free. Right in time for finals. And then winter break.

When I went home for winter break, the primary feeling I felt was utter bliss. I'm not kidding. It always really irks me when people refer to anti-depressants as "happy pills," because they make me functional, not happy. But this period was the exception -- I had been living under the crushing weight of PTSD for so long that I had forgotten what it felt like to just feel normal. I could take big, deep breaths. I could  hear the doorbell ring or the blender turn on without hiding under my covers. I could wake up and actually feel excited about the day, instead of dreading all the millions of little noises and random events that would trigger an episode. I spent the whole winter vacation in my parents' house, absolutely blissed out, reading books and lying on the couch and just feeling like I had gotten my life back. I could talk about my anxiety triggers without actually feeling triggered. I could think about India without feeling like I was dizzy or short of breath. I could ride in a car or a train without willing myself not to jump out of it. It was heaven.

Oh, it felt so good
I kind of sound like a druggie, don't I? Obviously, anti-depressants aren't for everyone. And Zoloft, specifically, is not for everyone, I'm sure. I wasn't high or anything, but getting your life back after ten months in hell? Oh, it was wonderful. I couldn't breathe deeply enough.

And then -- I got depressed.

Stay tuned.

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Henry Kind Of Update

Wow, are you tired of reading about my panic disorder yet? Let's switch gears, shall we?

We are coming up on one year of Henry's Spina Bifida diagnosis.

Last year on November 7th, during our gender ultrasound, everything changed. We learned that our precious son had Spina Bifida, and despite being a writer, I cannot convey my devastation. Or my panic. My first reaction went from no no no no not doing it lol sorry to how am I going to deal with this? Paralyzed? Incontinent? Wheelchair? Shunt? Surgeries? The possibilities were infinite and completely overwhelming. Foremost in my mind was the certainty that because my son had a "birth defect," our lives would be miserable and tinged with sadness from here on out.

So, are they? Are our lives sad and burdensome and full of suffering?

Judge for yourself:

As you can see, this poor child is miserable.

One of the things that terrified me before giving birth to Henry was that there was really no "face" of Spina Bifida. If you did a Google images search of Spina Bifida you would see a) aborted or stillborn fetuses, b) gruesome meningocele lesions, and c) pictures of John Cougar Mellencamp because apparently he has a very mild form of SB called occulta. You can see why this was such a confusing time for us. When we'd try to "research" Henry's birth defect on Google, there were few families we could look to as an example, despite Spina Bifida being one of the most common birth defects in the world. I can't find it now, for the life of me, but when I googled "spina bifida stories," the first one I came across was a little girl who had actually died during her myelomeningocele closure as a newborn (something that is very, very rare). Needless to say, I was all:

So nearly a year later, I am happy to say that Spina Bifida has a new "face" for us, and hopefully for everyone we know. It's a seriously cute face that is perpetually smiling, with super chubby cheeks and huge blue eyes. I don't know where I keep getting these blue-eyed children because my family is Italian as hell, but I digress. 

I struggle with telling people what Henry can and can't do at this age, because I fear that they'll think of it as some unbearable hardship. Henry has had two surgeries in his young life -- one to close the opening in his back, and one to put a shunt in his head, in order to control his hydrocephalus. Although he can sit up mostly unassisted and meets pretty much every developmental milestone, for some reason he still has not been able to roll over on his stomach by himself. (His hips are at a weird angle, so it's hard for him to maneuver himself onto his stomach. It's one of our goals for physical therapy.) He'll need surgery and casting to correct his (adorable) clubbed feet. I'm not sure when he'll crawl. His prognosis for walking is good, but it's not a given. We don't know if he'll walk with assisted technology or use a wheelchair. But he can definitely move his legs purposefully and he has feeling in his legs and feet, which is a far cry from what our doctor's initially told us he would be able to do. 

Aside from the doctor's visits and learning how to navigate the healthcare industry, this kid is surprisingly low maintenance. Recently we learned (for a lot of complicated reasons) that we're going to have to start intermittently catheterizing him throughout the day. What I expected to be super inconvenient and devastating and a huge pain in the ass was really more like 

meh. whatever. 

Basically, from here on out, we have to stick a tube in his pee-hole four times a day, and it's surprisingly not a big deal at all. Funny, because when I was pregnant with Henry, the thought of catheterizing a baby scared the shit out of me. I would think about it and get cold and sweaty and immediately overwhelmed. It was firmly in the category of "things I couldn't do." And guess what? I can do it. I'm still practicing, and sometimes I mess up, but it doesn't hurt him. In fact, he actually seems to like it. Sicko. 

I think even now I have what I'd call "able-ist" leanings. When people ask me how Henry is, I immediately say "he's totally like a normal baby!" I try to distance him as much as I can from his perceived defect, because I just can't stand the thought of someone thinking he is lesser-than or deficient in any way. I have to stop saying he's "normal," because he isn't. He's got a shunt and now he has to pee through a pee-tube. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that you wouldn't know that just by looking at him. He has a disability, but he's not miserable. Our family isn't miserable. Managing his disability is sometimes a lot of work, and a lot of doctor's visits, and a lot of phone calls to the doctor's office to get referrals, and that's a headache. But at worst, it's a mild annoyance. 

Believe me when I say we are blessed to have this child. He has made my life better in every conceivable way. And if I had to choose between having this child with Spina Bifida and not having him at all, I would go back and pick Spina Bifida again, and again, and again. 

October is Spina Bifida Awareness month, and this is what I'd like to contribute: If there's anything you need to be "aware" of, it's that Spina Bifida can be hard. It can be grueling and annoying and complex. But it can also be full of joy and blessings.

 It's not easy. But it is so, so worth it.