mothering bodies ~ adoption ~ alt.gender ~ parenting ~ work/life balance

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Ladies' Club

"Do you want to choke me first or should I choke you first?" I ask my partner Christi. I want her to choke me first so that I can escape her hold, bend her over by hyper-extending her wrist, and then flip kick her in the face. I like this combination because it quickly transforms me from a would-be victim to the empowered master of the situation. I believe that I could employ it effectively in a street situation if necessary, and I want to practice it now so that our instructor can evaluate my technique.

Choke-able Me
Photo: Brian Mayes
Christi and I are at Ladies Club, but we are not acting like ladies.

Instead, we are in a karate class of about a dozen female martial artists taught by Ms. Youngblood, a certified instructor and second-degree black belt in American Freestyle Karate. Ms. Youngblood donates her time to teach Ladies Club once a month in addition to our regular curriculum in a space generously provided by our studio. "Women's self care generally comes last," Ms. Youngblood explained to tonight's newcomers at the start of class. "They take care of their children, partners, jobs, and houses before themselves. That's why I started Ladies Club and why it's important to me not to charge you for it." If we need to, we can bring our children to play in the playroom while we train. Ms. Youngblood's goal is to remove any barriers to our self development.

In a culture that continues to largely devalue women, this class's name is ironic; its goal is subversive.

I won't lie: I enjoy the community of other working moms in Ladies Club like Anne and Mary who, like me, want (make that need) to exercise and get out of the house once in awhile. But these gatherings also give me something much more compelling. It's something to which I don't think many women in our society--at least in and before my generation--have historically had access. It's something that every eight-year-old boy in the country claims without conscious thought as his birthright, yet that Title IX legislation offers to girls. That something is a complex brand of empowerment built on physical strength, agility, skill, confidence, and the unmitigated gall to value our own needs.

It's very heady stuff.

Once, we spent an entire two-hour class learning how to fall safely. Imagine a group of grown women standing on a foam floor with their backs to a six-by-six pile of athletic mats eight inches thick. "Now!" Ms. Youngblood would yell, and we'd buckle our knees and wilt to the mats like tethered balloons losing their air. "Again!" At around the 90-minute mark, I had the epiphany that Ms. Youngblood was not trying to kill me and that, if I trusted the technique she had shown us, I could land without injury. Sure enough, to quote Woody from Toy Story, I was soon "falling with style." Now, when the middle schoolers in my class throw me, I know how to lessen my chance of injury when I hit the ground. I don't like falling and I'm certainly no expert at it, but I revel in the quiet power of having knowledge and ability to fall and then jump back up again, unfazed.

To an outsider, we may not have looked like a group of serious athletes in training.

But looks can be deceiving.

Tonight we are reviewing our beginner, intermediate, and advanced curricula in preparation for our belt promotion tests next week. Mary Beth is a grandmother with a lined face framed by soft brown bangs, librarian glasses, and wispy strands that have escaped from her short ponytail. Four or five months away from earning her black belt, Mary Beth is also a marathoner planning to run a 5K next Saturday morning and a 10-miler that evening. A nurse, she often explains the medical implications of the self defense techniques we practice. She spends a half hour beside me. We slowly step through Basic Kata I together, like synchronized mimes, until I learn not only the entire elegant form but also the shape we make on the ground--an "I"--as we block with fists down and then up, slink forward in C-steps, punch imaginary foes, and spin three-quarter turns with arms wrapped tightly around our ribs.

Several months ago, a new student, Naomi, attended a Ladies Club class. She was quiet, wary. Spiderweb tattoos inched out of her gi sleeves and neckline, across her neck and hands. We practiced blocks and punches to stop an attacker. "Any questions?" asked Ms. Youngblood.

Eyes on the ground, Naomi quietly asked, “What do you do when two guys jump you and they both have guns?”

Ms. Youngblood did not hesitate: "Give them whatever they want."

Naomi continued, “Because, you see, I was jumped by two guys and that’s why I moved here. Went out from the club to my car for cigarettes. It was parked in the ally.”

Ms. Youngblood replied that she had also been held up with a gun in another city. “I left and came here for a safer place to raise my family,” she explained.

“Can you protect them now that you’re a black belt?” Kelly asked.

Ms. Youngblood considered her answer: “Women are afraid to hurt somebody, but you’ve got to ask yourself every day whether you’re willing to do whatever you need to do to protect yourself and your family. For me, I will resist being removed from my family. Period.”

Ms. Youngblood's determination recalls the stark cultural gender disparity against which women continue to labor. In a nation in which one in four girls are sexually assaulted before the age of 22, most girls are taught to avoid assault rather than to fight attackers with skill or force. Instead, boys are taught to fight. As long as our culture equates athleticism, power, and aggression with masculinity, it simultaneously equates weakness with femininity. This paradigm situates the male as a predator of the female prey.

In Ladies Club, whether we consciously intend it or not, we subvert numerous cultural stereotypes and disparities of which gender is merely one. If, for example, you believe that all women cower under attack or that all black-belt martial artists are muscled men in their twenties, think again. Carla is a black belt and single mother of three grown children. Her wavy black hair, laugh lines, and long, narrow body belie the extent of her power. Despite the fact that she can't weigh more than 92 pounds soaking wet, Carla's words, tone, and stance radiate quiet strength. I have clacked escrima sticks with her and my sore knuckles can attest to the fact that she trains at full capacity. She is a real, live badass without a trace of pretense. She told Naomi that long-ago night, “I’ve got no problem taking down an attacker. If he’s trying to rape or kill me, then I’m justified in doing whatever I need to do to him to get away.” There's no doubt that Carla is confident, but it's an earned confidence. I would go for a midnight stroll on a minute's notice through the worst neighborhood with Carla and feel safe.

Kelly, a beginner, asked when we would get that kind of confidence. "It'll come," Ms. Youngblood assured her. "Everybody gets it in her own time."

Tonight, Christi taps the side of my thigh with her hand. She has attacked me again, but this time by punching at me. Naturally, I blocked her punch and grabbed her in a sleeper choke headlock from behind. I have successfully cut off her air supply, so she's asking me to release her.

The bodies of the martial artists with whom I train are as varied as the members of our national body. Among us, we have children, grandchildren, creaky knees, rent and mortgage payments, and belly paunches. Despite these differences, however, we share an awe for the powerful beauty of the art we practice. As much as we revel in the fluidly graceful dance of kata, we know that its movements can deflect an aggressor's force if needed. 

What does the determination not to fear look like? It's all around you: in your daughter, your coworker, your friend, neighbor, and grandmother. Do not take her for granted because she will resist being taken anywhere.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

An Open Letter to My Son Cole: For Your 9th Birthday

Dear Cole,
Nearly nine and fully dressed for karate.
Photo: Tess Gillis

As I write, it is Labor Day and we are at the pool. It is your birthday week: you turned nine last Saturday and your Big Party at Pump It Up is next Saturday. I am sitting in our blue and green striped beach chair on the concrete pool deck, mesmerized, watching you and Connor play in the water. Your six-year-old brother climbs up your back like a monkey. His legs wrap around your waist and his arms lock around your neck. You stand in the deep end, water up to your chin, with your blue-edged clear scuba mask over your eyes and nose. Your faces tilt up toward the electric-blue sky. You are both laughing as, suddenly, you duck both of your heads under and then shoot back up, both slippery-shiny in the late afternoon summer sun. Everything reflects light: your slick hair, the mask lens, Connor's latte-colored skin, the waves peaking all around you in the crowded pool, your smiles.

When I climbed out of the pool to visit the restroom not five minutes ago, you clung to me with all the strength of your sixty-three point five pounds. "Don't go!" you whined, almost desperately. "I want you to stay!" I staggered in the deep water against your strength just to keep my balance.

"But, Cole, I have to go pee pee," I explained urgently, frustrated that this most basic urge continues to require negotiation even after nine years of motherhood.

"Alright, but just go pee pee and then come right back." I think you knew, in that moment, that this day marked the end of something important: you are no longer a small child. Outside the deep end of the pool, you are too heavy for me to carry for very long.

When you didn't want me to leave, squeezing me to the point of a restraining hold, I was, for a split second, whisked back into your first preschool classroom. You were two and you didn't want me to leave you then, either. It felt cruel to extricate myself from your iron grip seven years ago, to leave you so that I could work. It felt cruel again, today, to leave you so that I could simply urinate.

The pool is crowded today: it's hot, it's a holiday, and it's the last open-pool day of the season. It is rare that a clear space appears in the water big enough for even a child to jump into. I would swear under oath that every family that belongs to this pool is here today--and that all of their children are in the water, screaming "Marco!" "Polo!" and splashing with abandon.

You and Connor don't notice yet that I'm back. I know that I should come back into the water with you. I want to, and I plan to. But first, I want to just watch the two of you. Cole, you are growing up so smart, compassionate, and funny. You are laughing with and protecting your little brother. Everything I hope to teach you--well, you're already all of it. Everything I love about you is apparent in this one scene. I am as proud of you in this moment as I have ever been. I wish I had a camera to capture the brief tableau of gorgeous sibling love, but the shot would be gloriously overexposed by your light. The sun's got nothing on my sons.

Happy Birthday, Cole, I love you. I'll always come right back.

Love Always,

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Crossroads

I hit the Crossroads twice in one day recently. It may not be a new record, but I had not been to the Crossroads in a while, so twice in one day seemed like a lot.

I used to hit the Crossroads nearly every time I left the house when my two sons were babies. Do I live near a major intersection? Not exactly. Perhaps you should settle in with a nice glass of Chardonnay and let me break it down for you. First, let's rewind a bit.

"Must Look Like Me."
Photo: Bryan Brown

Typically, when a woman appears in public with a baby or small toddler racially similar to herself, most onlookers assume that the child is her biological offspring. Many onlookers are curious about certain of the mother's intimate bodily details to which, because she presents publicly with a child, they presume welcomed access. Perhaps many hold this presumption because, statistically speaking, a woman in the United States that has given birth to a child has exposed her genitals, breasts, uterus, baby, and placenta to an impressive number of medical professionals. The general public also has a basic working knowledge of pregnancy and hospital birth, so it assumes access to certain facts about a mother's pregnancy and birthing experiences based on that knowledge. Thus, when a complete stranger asked me in Wal-Mart if I breastfed my then-two-month-old infant, she did not intend to breach my privacy. Instead, she assumed a cultural understanding of my biological relationship with my son, possibly predicated on her own biological relationship(s) with her own child(ren). In other words, she assumed that I had been pregnant with and subsequently delivered my child.

I was asked a much, much longer list of presumptively intimate questions about my babies; however, nobody has ever asked my husband whether he has taught his sons how to pee while standing, if they are all circumcised, or anything even remotely intimately connected to his body or his bodily connections to our sons. 

How does he avoid the third degree? Because he is the father. Babies come out of mothers' bodies, so the public is interested in their bodily experiences. Nobody else's bodies have anything to do with children. Right?

Not exactly.

Remember way back at the beginning of this post when I mentioned that these kinds of questions land me squarely in the middle of the Crossroads?

That's because, as an adoptive mother, my babies did not spring forth from my own loins. In that sense, I am living the prediction of a dear friend who enthused when I told her we planned to adopt: "You'll be like the father!"

It is true: my sons and I are not biologically related. This is not to say, however, that my relationship with them is not bodily. I breastfed Cole and have bathed with them both. I have suckled them, napped with them, worn them in slings, been doused in every bodily substance they produce, and kissed nearly every single boo boo better. I have both nursed and caught their colds and viruses, fed them, and changed their clothes and diapers. I know by touch whether they have a fever and how serious it is. And, yet, every single time someone I barely or do not know asks a question about some biological aspect of our relationship, I feel myself being pulled into the Crossroads of Choice: should I reveal my status as an adoptive mother or lie? The answer is not so easy.

Which Story, Which Path?
Photo: Cole Brown
If I tell the truth to strangers, then I am trafficking in my children's personal information without their consent.

But, if I lie, I feel amoral.

I almost always tell the truth, but even that choice does not always feel correct to me--even if it feels better than lying.

When a woman on the beach asked me how I had lost my baby weight soon after Cole was born, I answered that I had not been pregnant and so had not lost any weight. I considered replying that I had done lots of abdominal work, but that answer felt disingenuous and mean. This woman had asked me that question because I was a thin woman holding a baby who looked like me. She had assumed that I had been pregnant with that baby and had then lost all of the weight gained during pregnancy. She did not consider the possibility that I had adopted my baby and, thus, had retained my pre-baby physique. Struggling to lose her own baby weight, she hoped that I had a magic weight-loss secret and would be willing to share. How could I lie to her about how to reclaim her very self image? 

I did try lying. Once.

When Cole was still a baby, I treated myself to a good haircut with a new stylist, Claire. By way of explaining why my hair looked like a baby had cut it, I mentioned that I had a young son. "Oh!" she exclaimed and peered more closely at my scalp. "Do you breastfeed?"

"Yes!" I almost shouted with relief. I had this one.

"Huh," Claire said, "your hair looks really healthy for a breastfeeding woman. Usually, the baby leaches nutrients from the follicles."

I did not know that. "Really," I hedged, "I drink lots of milk."

I did breastfeed, but not the way Claire--or most other women--mean when they discuss it. Because I had not been pregnant, I had induced lactation through pumping and taking herbal supplements for several months, but I did not produce enough milk to feed Cole fully. He took in mostly formula through a tiny tube that I taped to my breast to supplement my milk. This whole topic is fascinating but it's really a different post, so stay tuned.

I had been blindsided into the Crossroads! Dammit, I did not want to explain adoptive breastfeeding to Claire. I was supposed to be treating myself to some overdue self-care and had hoped that a good haircut would boost a self image deflated by red-eyed sleep deprivation and wearing pajama pants to Target.

Claire was growing more perplexed. She lifted a hank of my hair higher, closer to the light. "And pregnancy usually makes you lose some hair, but yours is thick. Did you have any hair loss?"

I was now three questions into a lie which I had not instigated. I had been dropped, blind, into the Crossroads and streaked left before realizing that I could open my eyes.

I could have stopped it. I should have stopped it. But, for once, I wanted to just answer the questions about the presumed pregnancy I'd had never had. For once, I didn't want to have to derail the conversational trajectory because my situation was different. For once, I just wanted to be normal.

But I have never done normal . . . well, normally.

Perversely, I answered every one of Claire's questions about my fictional pregnancy. For the record: I had terrible morning sickness but declined the epidural. I like my fictional births natural. Sassy haircut notwithstanding, I never returned to that salon.

The other day, while chatting with my neighbor after returning her children from a play date at my house, she asked me whether I have stretch marks. After three hours with four children, the most stretched thing on me was patience. "No," I replied. She arched an eyebrow. Did she not believe me? I wondered. I felt that familiar rip-tide pull toward the Crossroads.

Being fairly new to the neighborhood, our family is slowly making new friends. (And, by "slowly," I refer to Bryan and me. The kids had new lifelong BFFs within minutes of the moving van's departure.) As we share our histories with this new set of people, however, questions naturally arise about family structures and dynamics. I don't resent such questions, but I sometimes forget about adoption in general and, when I do, I don't anticipate obvious conversational tangents that lead back to it.

My neighbor and I stood behind her couch, our four children wrestling on the floor in front of the television not five feet away. I considered evading the question for a split second but, as usual, simply told her the truth: "I was never pregnant." Her eyebrow rose nearly to her hairline. "Cole and Connor are adopted," I explained in a low voice.

"Really? I never would have known!" She was surprised. "But they look so much like you. How is that possible?" So I explained how we came to be a family. When I had a similar conversation later that evening with a mother on my street, she revealed that adoption is part of her life as well and thanked me for sharing my story.

I learned something about the Crossroads, having spent so much time there that day: it's not a bad place, but it is a difficult place. The Crossroads is, for me, that site at which I am continually forced to confront my vulnerability as a mother and as a human being. The choices with which I wrestle there are rooted in my twin desires to both protect and be a role model for my children. Being an adoptive mother is not about lying or truth telling, but it does entail being a responsible steward of my children's identities.

When my children were younger and sleep deprivation had addled my logical mind, I resented questions from people who did not already know my family's adoption stories. Those questions forced me to acknowledge the ways in which my family does not perfectly match the American cultural image of "family," that is: two heterosexual, married parents of two to three children begat biologically, all of whom are racially similar. But, then, statistically speaking, the vast majority of American families don't fit that definition either. I wanted to shed the onus of responsibility to help build a more tolerant world, so I wanted strangers and new acquaintances to consider the possibility of adoption rather than assume biology when addressing me. I wanted to avoid the Crossroads altogether, to simply sail down conversational roads without ever stopping short to wonder which normal to present, mine or someone else's. But that will never happen because Cole and Connor look just like Bryan and me. (No, we did not check the "Must Look Like Me" box on the adoption application.) Based on our appearance alone, those who do not already know otherwise will naturally assume that our adoptive family is biological. I am not ashamed of adoption; in fact, I consider myself an advocate. Nor do I wish that my children had come to me in any other way. But if you are not an adoptive parent, know this: dropping the A-bomb always elicits more questions. I sometimes did not have the stamina to answer them. Usually, though, I enjoy sharing our family's adoption stories with people I trust. It's one way I believe I advocate for the beauty and joy of adoption as a way to grow families.

I like the idea of viewing these explanation moments as educational rather than taxing, but it's also important to realize the symbiosis in them: new friends and curious, cootchy-cootchy-coo strangers at Wal-Mart often initiate these exchanges as a way of welcoming me (and Bryan) into The Parent Club. Members held the Kroger door open for me when I struggled to maneuver a heavy shopping cart over a bump while wearing Connor in a sling. They smiled sympathetically at me when both boys screamed in protest at my candy denial in the Target checkout aisle. The acquisition of children, round-the-clock childcare, and sleep deprivation are a few of the hazing experiences we parents share--and upon which these exchanges are often based. Whether my acquisition of children was "like the father" or not, the fact that I parent two of them grants me entry into one of the largest, empathic clubs in humankind.

Realizing commonalities like this dilutes some of the anxiety I feel about my trips to the Crossroads. In fact, it helps me to understand that each parent has his or her own Crossroads. I take comfort in knowing that I am not alone.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Mother Bellies

Invisible Mamas, Poolside
Photo: MLB
My friend Sara and I took my sons to the swimming pool the other day. It is early in the season and Sara joked that her abdomen is still too lily-white for public exposure. I laughed that my rock-solid abs are inconveniently hidden under a belly pooch. But we shed our cover-ups anyway and enjoyed the warm sun on our respectively white and spongy abdomens.

Women and girls have conversations like this one all the time, usually while disrobing in proximity to each other in dressing rooms, at the beach, or by the pool. Although my exchange with Sara was punctuated by laughter, it showcases the ways in which women and girls in our culture are pitted against media images of perfection impossible to achieve--but also against each other. Sara joked about her color because I am more tanned than she is (and I use the term "tanned" loosely here). I joked about my shape because Sara is thinner than I am. Our comparison of our bodies' shortcomings against societal criteria of thinness and color was also--whether consciously or unconsciously--a matchup of our shortcomings against the beauty we see in each other. And while regarding others as beautiful is a generous trait, it becomes toxic when it translates into an uncharitable self image. Fortunately, more women and girls are fighting this toxicity by refusing unfair comparisons and promoting love of all female body shapes and colors.

Fashion: Bathrobe
Photo: Bryan Brown
I do not see such attention paid, however, to loving mothers' bodies. Our bodies bear the marks (or sometimes not) of childbirth, surgery, neglect, disease, and aging. And, yet, when human interest stories feature celebrities or models as laudable examples of imperfect women loving their imperfections, it is their--and, thus, our--cellulite and curves we are told they love. Not stretch marks or surgery scars, not dark circles under the eyes or the sweat sheen of a menopausal hot flush. The media loves a pregnant woman's body, but not a mother's. Her body is considered a problem to be fixed with camouflaging fashion and makeup tips.

Or we just ignore it.

While we sunbathed poolside, I noticed another difference between Sara's belly and my own. Stretch marks trace a silver web across her pale skin from navel to bikini bottom. Sara is the mother of two in their twenties. My own belly is also marked by reproductive processes, but mine are a constellation of laparoscopy scars marking the corners of a diamond stretching from hip to hip to navel, and disappearing below. Although I am the proud mother of two boys under the age of ten, my body is not marked by childbirth but by hysterectomy. Instead of fetuses, I carried rampant endometriosis scar tissue. I was never pregnant, but my belly bears the marks of my reproductive status nevertheless.

As mothers, Sara and I sat near the side of the pool, instinctively scanning the bright water every fifteen minutes to count bobbing heads. Periodically, I cringe-walked into the shallow end to scoop whooping boys into the air and splash them down again. "Dunk Mommy!" they screamed, and under I went. The water was bracing and I briefly fantasized slicing laps across the shimmer of an unpopulated pool. I popped up and they clung to my sides like barnacles. I carried them into the deep end and we bounced and glided, pretending that sharks pursued us and hugging fiercely.

Back at our seats, I shivered in my cold, wet towel. My six-year-old Connor, blue-lipped and shiny wet, climbed onto Sara's lap with his fish towel and fell asleep in the hollow of her belly. She looked at me and smiled.