The Best Time I Didn’t Deliver A Baby

Dear Millicent,

I now know what kind of person I am in an emergency.  Yesterday morning, I went to meet a couple who I would be doulaing for, ready with my bag of tricks.  I had my lavender oil, my breath mints, my mantras and my own sense of calm. When I got to the door, the baby was crowning, and would be born two minutes later on the bathroom floor.

This happens, and homebirth is not by definition an emergency.  Planned homebirth is awesome.  Doulas are trained for what to do in an emergency delivery, but it is the kind of training that my brain did not hold tightly. I absorbed it like learning how to punch a window out if your car falls off a bridge and is submerged into water: it is big time useful, but also something that only happens in movies.  Except that it all actually happens sometimes.

This was an emergency in the sense that there was no control. Whatever this would be, it would be, and it was happening RIGHT NOW. The dad asked me if I knew what to do. I said what my gut said. “No.”

And then I got thwarted by the fact I don’t know how to use an I-phone.  Me and 911 kept saying “hello” to each other. I was waiting for all those important instructions to pour out–look for this, look for that. But I couldn’t get the damn speaker phone off, and asking for directions about a phone is stupid compared to the fact that a baby is coming out, right now. And it did.  The baby came out. And started crying. It all worked the way it’s supposed to work, and firemen came, and everything got taken care of.

The Iphone never made sense.

For the entire 2 minutes, I had no idea how to help.  I felt like the clumsiest person in the world.  It was all very slow, and very fast. It was all high panic, and incredibly calm.  A part of me surrendered, knowing that I had no idea what to do. And a part of me insisted that there were practical things to do. Look for towels! Pay attention. Watch. Look around for clues. Look for bad things.

But there were no bad things. We weren’t called on for that kind of adrenaline. It worked. It was a household event. Not a crisis. The firemen seemed happy to have such an easy emergency to attend.  All was well. Babies are born every day.

I can’t believe that is how I spent my morning.

When I got home and looked up emergency home birth on the internet, all of the instruction guides (which I imagine freaked out people reading with the laptop set up next to the birthing woman, pissed that the screensaver came on because now they will have to click, then wash their hands again, and that baby is coming!), were amazingly soothing.  They promised that this was rare, and that it usually happened with very healthy moms and babies.  That birth, often enough to hope for the best, took care of itself.  “When in doubt,” one content farm version of instructions said, “do nothing.”*

In the best of emergency circumstances, delivering a baby means lightly holding the head, making sure no cord is around the throat, and catching it. Then, putting newborn on mama’s chest. There are other facts. Babies are blue when they’re born. If the baby isn’t crying, to press its nostrils downwards. To keep the umbilical cord attached.  There is a lot of information, but the basic instructions for a routine birth are simple enough to fit into a small bullet list.  The internet could get you through it.

For myself, I’m not sure in that moment I would have remembered how the internet worked.  But, I now have even more trust in what the body can do.  This was the first non-hospital birth I have been at. It wasn’t an ideal birth. It was scary, and fast, and the amount of adrenaline drenching the house was insane.   I don’t know if the mama is going to remember it as traumatic or wild.  The experience brought home how birth is really about the woman and her body, and that the hospital is an accessory, a location. A minor distinction, one that I had not realized before this, emphasizing how disempowering many hospital spaces are for laboring women.  Also, the immense blessing of people who actually know how to deliver babies, be they nurses, firemen (firepeople?),  midwives, or OBs.

So, lessons learned:

  • Time gets slow in crisis, but crisis keeps moving.
  • Figure out how an I-phone works.
  • Trust women.
  • Babies don’t give a shit about your plans.
  • Sometimes, things work out seriously fine.
Yours,
CF
**As for the “do nothing” style, there is a whole kind of  planned solo birth where the mother attends herself.  Often, a midwife will be present as backup for complications or support, but the birthing mother will actually deliver her own kiddo.
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F Word Found, Pt. 6 and the rest

Part 6: Re-education and good robot heart love

With my next birth, my robot heart got me in trouble.  I was tag teaming with another doula who was all southern comfort–totally natural hugger.  I got doula dumped at the last minute, when the couple realized they only felt comfortable with her.  I was steamed (mostly because I had put my schedule on hold, and had even trekked down to the hospital for them on a false alarm), but I knew they were right–every time we were together it was awkward and a forced moment.  This showed me an important part of the doula effect and process: there is a doula for everybody, and sometimes I am not the everybody, and, doulaing is a lot of work and not to be offered lightly.

My other births all have their own stories.  I still have a robot heart.  I still put my services forward as a kind of cerebral support.  I tell people up front that I’m not a real “toucher.”  This always sounds good–but I think when it comes down to it, touch is very comforting.  My strengths as a doula are that I am constantly alert for moments where the mama needs backup or distraction.  I am calm and stern when they are panicky.  I make sure partners have food.  If mama has an epidural, I constantly remind her when she is having a contraction.  I make jokes.  My weaknesses as a doula are that I make jokes, that I am not as forceful as necessary when a mama is lost in the depth of a contraction–I should guide her and low talk to her, instead, I tend to suggest mooing.  I get stagefright when the nurse is in the room.  I don’t know what a contraction feels like, so I actually have no idea what I am talking about.   I don’t know when to leave after the baby is born, and I have a hard time with silence, so I tend to chatter.  I don’t know how hard to remind a mother of her earlier wishes when she now says something else, and I don’t know how to process my disappointment with a birth (usually things the staff did) because there is a good chance that the mother didn’t notice the offense, and yet it was still offensive.

My work as a doula has convinced me that what goes on in labor rooms is one of the most potent places for activism in this country.  Women of every race and class are often mistreated, enough for me to have witnessed it several times, at a moment when they are extremely vulnerable.  Everybody has experienced a birth, our own, and perhaps those of our children, or with our sisters, or friends.  Birth happens all the time.  How women feel about their birth experience correlates to infant health, and post-natal recovery.  Women who have positive experiences (even if it didn’t go how they wanted, but if they felt respected and in control) have higher rates of bonding, successful breast feeding, and lower rates of post partum depression.  This makes for better family structures, and healthier new people, which I think means less crime, and ultimately a better world.  Usually when I tell people why I think better births can actually make a better world, I let my voice drop so that I sound knowingly ridiculous, but here it is, any reader who is still reading, I mean it.  If your mama has a happy birth, there is a better chance that you will be a happy person, and that you won’t go on to hurt small animals.

And, if all women are at a solid risk to be demeaned during delivery (not treated as a real person with informed choice and power), then I take that to mean that this risk is very real outside of the delivery room.  Until my work as a doula,  I assumed that sexism was actually a bit of a ghost.  I was fucking wrong.  Why does pregnancy matter? Every time I see a doctor talk down to a woman, to complain about his or her weekend schedule and insist on a Cesarean, to threaten a woman through fear to deliver quickly, to tell her that she has no idea about what she is talking about, to take her husband aside and tell him what will be easier, to disregard her history of abuse and aggressively examine her, to rant about missed phone calls and fussy patients next door while she is trying to focus and calm herself, to pull the trump card of a healthy baby as if that is something she didn’t want, to mention insurance during labor, to describe her genitals in a way that frightens her, to use fear as a trick of the trade, I understand that things are not okay, and that there is an immense amount of work to be done.  As a doula, I can start changing these events birth by birth, and I have seen the effect of my presence.  Not laughing at a doctor’s sexual joke and quieting him, asking for more time before a standard cesarean, and watching as labor progressed quickly.  Giving parents confidence that they are doing very good work indeed, and helping direct comfort (even if I am still bad at directly giving it).  Pregnancy matters because it makes more people, but it matters to all of us–not just those who are pregnant.  It is not something to be delegated to its 9 month window in a life.  I may never be pregnant, but pregnancy demands my interest. It preempts and unites the politics of pro-life and pro-choice. It is a litmus test for how the body is treated in one of the boldest forms of the female gender–and in one of its most powerful and exposed circumstances.

Like the feminist standard goes–if you know anybody with a uterus, you should be a feminist.  Pregnancy takes this saying quite literally–the uterus is directly involved, and the way it gets treated is political, personal, and immensely important.

Part 7: Postscript

I haven’t attended a birth in over 2 years–I moved, and my work schedule no longer allowed me to drop everything for a birth. In conversation, I now say “I used to be a doula.”  But that’s not quite true. I am still a doula in the sense that I am advocate.  I now happily identify as a feminist, and I tell everybody who will listen why the politics of pregnancy matter so much right now. I yap a lot with my pregnant friends.  I get so so mad when I get an email from another doula friend who had to witness a woman not being respected during her birth.  The support and respect that a doula can give and safeguard for a client is what all women deserve, and I believe that there is a doula out there for everybody. I’m pretty sure I will attending more births in the future, and at the least I hope to persuade more women to use doulas, more people to become doulas, and to find more and more places in my life where my service so directly supports others.

I am so excited by projects like the Full Spectrum Doula Network, the Prison Doula Project, Radical DoulaThe Doula Project, The Squat Birth Journal, and the whole range of doulas and families who are activists in such a real, every day, huge way.

What’s this all about? Start at Part 1.

Sinking, Swimming, Not Hugging, Pt. 5

Part 5: Doula with a robot heart

So I trained as a doula–it was one weekend and seemed a bit tedious.  We learned about pain management, the art of low talking, and how to get a newborn to start breastfeeding.  In one way it all felt strange and like we were playacting–the intensity of a real labor was impossible to mimic, and we were all too shy to fully commit to the kind of practice that the instructor was asking from us.  We had to use baby dolls in partner groups, show how to breast feed.  In my training there was a mother-daughter midwife time that were super Christians, and their car was covered with pro-midwife bumper stickers.  The daughter was pregnant, and they represented a ferocious element of birth rights advocates–very conservative, very pro-life, very fertile women who wanted to be able to have their babies at home with God and prayer in attendance (in Georgia, homebirth is illegal–and there is an underground network of midwives who attend homebirths).  Like homeschooling, homebirth has a fundamentalist side that wants to keep the government out of the party, and a swath of liberals who share the cause of trying to give their version of the DIY best to their kids.

There was one woman I met at the training that calmed my gawk. We both struggled with the strange kind of earth mother compassion that seemed to be necessary for doulaing.  I have never been one to be able to glow at and comfort the sick. At sick beds I make jokes and talk about my life as if normality is appropriate (on my grandmother’s deathbed I kept gleefully introducing my fiancé to all of my devastated aunts and uncles–ridiculous). In short, I do not hug naturally.  Most of the amazing doulas I had met could definitely hug naturally.   E. and I both stutter-stepped at this part of the doula process–how do we do this support which we so earnestly so believe in, and fake the ability to casually touch people and offer relief?

Luckily, E. and I teamed up as co-doulas, and our first birth was a gift of confidence to us.  A woman due in two weeks was interested in our services mostly because we were free.  Her husband came from a culture where men did not attend births or act as participating partners.  He would be there, but he would be by her head, and she wanted to make sure she had some more support.  She was great for us because it was her second pregnancy, so she knew what to expect.  We didn’t have to talk her down, and we could actually help her–and like most of my successes in doulaing, it was in very little ways.  She began to panic after the baby was born, while the doctor was giving her stitches, and we were able to distract her and chat about her older daughter.  Her body relaxed, the panic left.  She was nervous about breast feeding, and we were able to calm her anxiety and get her new little human all latched on and ready to go.  Her husband was wonderfully happy we were there, and in all, it was a great success.  Doulas worked! We had done good things! We hadn’t been royal fuckups with robot hearts!

There’s one last chapter: part 6

Where did this all come from? Start at part 1

Becoming a Doula, Pt 4

Part 4: Doula who?

I like the narrative big deal element of birth.  I love how bibles break down a life into its big events (the sacraments)–and I agree, the real deal -it-doesn’t-get-bigger-than-this moments seem to be birth (baptism), recognition of self and belief (confirmation), recognition of responsibility and faith in improvement (confession), love and commitment (marriage), and death.  Especially for birth, love and death, it can’t be faked–self narrative can’t distract from the true grandiosity of the event–I adore things like this because the rest of the time I’m wobbling between my own illusions mostly based on sitcom season finales, and critiques of other’s reliance on readymade sentiment.

So, I met these women.  They were awesome–and there was something inherently charming in that one could pay to have unbiased and unconditional support in a stressful time.  A doula is an advocate with the only focus of helping mama have a good experience.  I had just finished a brutal wedding that, while successfully hitching me to my own true love, had also devastated deep friendships, revealed major family weaknesses, and completely rearranged my sense of reliable folk and my ability to eat shit for the comfort of others.  A wedding doula would have been magic, and I understood on a fundamental level that in the big moments, the support necessary might be nowhere in sight, and if present, and leaned on, it might break and be even more devastating.  So, instead of a symptom of a robot world where emotion is prostituted, hiring unconditional love out might actually be the must nurturing thing a person could do for themselves (and possibly their kid, and future family).

So that’s where I was coming from. And then, I started talking to the people I knew who had babies.  One guy was a waiter at the restaurant my husband worked.  He and his wife are hipster parents right out of central casting, and I imagine them being as prepared as any pre-parent would be for birth (which I assumed meant reading books, balancing cups on their stomachs, and eating right).  They had prepared, but once at the hospital, the picture changed.  They didn’t know what to expect, and they didn’t know what was going on.  The pain was intense, they did whatever they were told, and he described it as getting on a train and seeing where it took you–a really scary train.  Mama was put on Pitocin (a common drug to induce contractions), and eventually had a Cesarean section with very little understanding of what and how and why.  Since it was the birth of his child, it was amazing, but he also said it was traumatic for both of them.  They sounded as if they had been mistreated in a normal way–and it seemed like a doula would have been a huge help.

And then there were the really bad stories.  Doctors comparing a woman’s labia to mashed potatoes as they performed an episiotomy (a surgical cut to widen the birth canal); women berated for whining while in labor, jerk doctors saying jerk things in front of their patients, jokes about sexual position of being in stirrups, the doctor taking the husband aside and telling him to persuade the mother to do something a certain way–manipulation and not treating the delivering woman like she is part of the process, when in fact she is the process.  Anger ensued.

 

How I Became a Doula, pt. 2

Part 2: I say sexism is my mother’s problem

Next preface: I’m a little groggy when it comes to feminism.  Until I was 24, I was of the “I’m not a feminist, but…” variation.  In general, I thought the term was overblown, and no longer necessary.  Gender equality seemed present enough.  I enjoyed challenging ideas of femininity, but it didn’t seem political.  I was pro-choice, but didn’t really think about it.  I was pro-woman, but didn’t really think about it.  I assumed that sexism was part of my mother’s generation, and that the world was a fair place for a lady.  I thought feminists were interesting, but over-involved, and generally a distant clan akin to vegans and the dreadheaded students at my college that skateboarded and wore Birkenstocks–not exactly uncool, but an enclave of their own.  I never took a women’s studies course, and imagined the classes to be a room full of women making complaints.  I had an English professor that mentioned that hysterectomies were over-prescribed, and I was shocked by it, and mostly shocked that she was lecturing about something that had nothing to do with Jane Austen.  She also told us she had her baby at home. I made her a role model because she was so smart, strong, and she had a couch in her office, and played classical music, and was something I had never quite considered before.

The next year, I interviewed her midwife for a writing class project where we had to research a profession.  I looked through the midwife’s  photo books in her waiting room, picture after picture of naked women, tired and happy people, t-shirts, blood, placentas, babies and vaginas. The calmness of that office, it warm wood floors, the smell of lavender, didn’t do much to keep me from flashing back to high school biology class, watching a two minute video of a baby being born.  My reaction was the same to the photo-book: I am not freaked out and; this is all very disturbing.

Life after prefaces: I leave college.  I drink a lot, and hang out with a group of boys where every time I mention the word misogyny they ask me if I just learned the word in Women’s Studies 101.  We get in arguments about Toni Morrison and the expansion of the cannon.  My brain kind of goes numb for a few years, fully interested in the details of a physical life that it was sharpened to ignore while in college.  And, I adapt to the great letdown of adulthood: nobody is watching.

For a review of my failed activism, see Part  1

Onwards, to Part 3!

Becoming a Doula, Finding the F-Word the Long Way

Dear M,

I have been trying to write for a while on my experience as a doula. It was through my doula work that I realized feminism matters, and that activism comes in all shapes and sizes.  I’m going to cut up my thoughts into a few parts for the ease of reading, and hope they remain readable and interesting.  Doula-ing and even writing about doulawork is absolutely navel-gazing, but with real navels.  Think of the next set of posts as a kind of mini-series, with sprawling plots, melodrama, and declarations of love.

Yours,

CF

For starters, here are some prefaces.

Part 1: I have so many prefaces

I am not pregnant, or interested in becoming pregnant.  I don’t get on very well with babies, but do feel lucky when they make intense eye contact with me.  I also love seeing happy parents and happy children, but motherhood often looks like a giant con to me–one where you plunk down all your capital and find out that you paid to get a huge demotion that comes with a lot more grunt work.  The majority of my fears are either about catastrophe (sharks, bent metal) or palimpsests of mediocre living.  But this is not about that.

The next preface: I am a shoddy activist.  My history in making a difference can be broken down into half-assed moments heavily informed by television:

  • Watching the episode of The Wonder Years where Fred Savage rips paper out of his notebook in rebellion, inciting his entire class to do the same.  It made me want to start a revolution.
  • Putting a pin that said “Homophobia is a social disease” on my bag in seventh grade, admiring the compression of the statement.  I didn’t realize that this meant I had inadvertently outed myself until about 15 years later.  This might explain why I didn’t have a boyfriend until I was in my twenties. That pin got thrown out the bus window by a dickwad 7th grader.  It was one of the first times that somebody had done something directly mean to me or my property.  Even my friends laughed.  Fucking middle school.
  • Bob Saget hosted a TV special about saving the rainforests, and recycling.  There were a lot of kids involved, and it seemed representative, as if we were having a teleconference.
  • But, then there was the episode of Family Ties where Tina Yothers freaks out because she can’t do enough to save the environment–I think she starts crying about a shampoo bottle.  This always seemed like a cautionary tale against activism, because it will just make you unhappy.
  • My freshman year in college I was part of a program that had lots of hotshot students coming up with sexy projects.  My friend and I found out that our professor was good friends with Dave Matthews.  We decided that our way of saving the world (and more so, making a name for ourselves) would be to get ten kids from all different backgrounds and fund them for college as long as they gathered once every year.  We didn’t know about the 7 Up series, but it was along those lines with the incentive of free college.  We thought we would break down some serious shit.  We wanted Dave Matthews to fund it.  I remember my face flushing violently as we proposed our idea to our professor.  He told us he almost mentioned it on the phone to Dave, but didn’t.  I also wrote about the project in my hated composition class, and got a B on the paper because the idea seemed “under-developed.” Our other ideas included getting everybody on campus to give us one dollar each so that we could go to Paris.

Next up: ignoring feminism, adulthood, and professors with nice offices…Part 2

Eating The Temporary Organ

Dearest Millicent,

It’s Independence Day, happy fireworks! It seems fitting that I can smell the smoke from the many barbecues occurring in my neighborhood, because I want to talk about eating placentas.  Because of my doula work, I know people from a lot of places on the birth spectrum.   This goes from your classic OB/GYN to advocates of Lotus birth (a practice where the umbilical is not cut, and the baby is attached to the placenta until the cord naturally detaches).  This week, one of the more Lotus leaning posted a link to the Time Magazine article about Placentophagy (the practice of eating placenta).  The article is from the father’s point of view, and tells the story of how he carried his wife’s placenta home ASAP, and then watched as a placenta professional came to his house, cooked the placenta and dehydrated it into smart little capsules that his wife would take to help stave off postpartum depression and to produce more breast milk.  The idea is that the placenta is full of beneficial hormones that will help with the sharp changes in body chemistry that take place after birth.  The woman who did the cooking also said that some of the pills could be frozen and taken years down the road to help with hormonal changes in menopause.  The article was a bit repugnant because while it tried to have the everyman narrator honestly engage with the gross out factor of such an idea, there was no report on the outcome, or acknowledgment of his own foibles (and there is a terrifying graphic of a baby with it umbilical cord wrapped around a fork like spaghetti).  The entire thesis of the article boils down to two points: “ick,” and “my wife and her crazy ideas.” Neither of these are as fascinating, or chewy, as placentophagy itself.

A common argument for eating one’s placenta is that most mammals do so after birth.  On Wikipedia, there is a photo of a goat grazing as an example.  Some argue that this is because fear of predators and the need to quickly hide the event. But, this is disproven because mammals tend not to eat amniotic fluid, which is just as interesting to predators.  Then there is the argument that mammals eat the placenta for instant nutrition, something especially important after the exertions of birth and nursing.  Most placentas do offer a mammal help contracting the uterus and producing milk quickly, yet in modern human environments, we have lots of other things that can provide instant nutrition (like grocery stores of food, cafeterias, chicken soup for the soul).

As a  side note, apparently there is a small group of vegetarians that consider the placenta the only kind of morally correct meat to eat because there is no slaughter in its production.  I know.

So, while I have nothing much to say about eating other people’s placentas, I wonder about eating one’s own.  There is something attractive about consuming drugs that your own body has produced.  Instead of taking hormone supplements, using your own, kind of like blood banking.  But, then I tend to think that if the body expels something, it is probably supposed to stay out.  I’ve learned from  Bear Grylls that drinking your own pee can save your life, but it should only be done if there is really no other option around.  So with the placenta, this arguments seems a bit weak. By the by, apparently placenta eating does not count as cannibalism.  Cannibalism insists on muscle, and whatever the placenta is, it’s not muscle.  Same for the brain.

In her very honest account of eating her placenta in a drastic effort to avoid the same severe postpartum depression she suffered with a previous pregnancy, Mary Field says that it worked.  One of the most scary observations was how after her first birth her entire body felt dried up, and  she felt instantly old (this relates to my particular fear of pregnancy: becoming a husk to somebody else, the bigger nesting doll, but that is another conversation, no?), and that this didn’t happen when she ate her placenta.  As she tricked her mouth to swallowing (her strategy was to put it in the back of her mouth and not think about it), her hair and skin kept their luster, and she felt strong.  I wonder how much of this was a placebo effect of making such a bold effort and breaking taboo for one’s own sake.  She put her own hope for health over social cues, which I can see giving a quick boost and power to anybody.  The mental monologue possibly being, “You think I’m gonna be depressed? You think I can’t handle this? I dare you to look in my refrigerator. I am creator and destroyer, I eat my own organs, motherfuckers!”

Apparently the word placenta comes from the Latin word for cake, and is the root for pancakes.  In all kinds of languages, the word translates to “mothercake.”  This probably has to do with the shape, though I have to say that from the placentas I have seen, cake was never an image that instantly came to mind.  Perhaps it is called mothercake because it is the thing that offers sustenance to the child from the mother, and is its own of kind of biological sweet, transforming food to blood and crossing strange borders. And still, I can’t quite find the link that this name suggests a recrossing of borders, with the placenta as ultimate nourishment for mother post-birth.

In the Time article, the author was terrified by the sight of the placenta, but I wonder if he would not be equally terrified by any organ when it sees the light of day. Function is beauty, sure, but most of the things that get out of the body are pretty gross because of their biological intimacy.  Which makes me wonder if eating the placenta does make some kind of sense…like finding a hair in your food, and not caring as long as it is your own?

One mother I know captioned a picture of her placenta as proof that her child had thoroughly trashed her first apartment.  I like this because of its snark, and connection to the idea of home.  In many cultures, the placenta belongs to the child, and is sometimes kept to be buried with them in death. Alternately,  often the placenta is buried under a tree at birth.  The tree grows as the child grows, and so the child always knows where they belong, and will always have a home to return to.   This raises the question of if the placenta belongs to mother or child, or perhaps leapfrogs it in a lovely way, highlighting the shared home of that creation.

The placenta gets the very cool label of “temporary organ.”  I tried to think of other temporary organs, but they are all abstract: grief, homesickness, generosity, infatuation, wit, attention to detail, things we want to write down before bed but don’t, moments where the self is only a forgotten sweater that fits well enough.

I very much like that the human body can grow an entire organ for the job at hand, and that get rid of it when no longer needed.  The question is just when is its job done?  Is it a nice little machine that needs to be burnt after reading, or a more eco friendly device like an edible plate (do they make dessert flavored edible plates? That seems like it would be a great idea).

I dunno.  I find placenta prints (often hung in nurseries, a kind of block print on plain paper made by pressing the placenta, often creating a tree like design), both beautiful and a bit too much.  Too much memento, too much ode.  But, would I like to have a little map of my first apartment, knowing that my parents oddly celebrated my birth?  Yep.

As for the snacks, I worry anytime people mimic what other animals do.  That argument is a slippery slope.

Fireworks are starting.  I can hear them, but not seem them. Must be the finale somewhere.

Night-o, dear one.  Am off to eat something and wonder what the mouthfeel of eating one’s self is.

Yours,

CF

Fables and Nests

Dear M.,

Your thoughts about names and the responsibility of labeling things correctly were quite lovely.  I wonder if pen names can be considered honest at all, when they offer such a supreme cloak of distance.  Somebody said, but I didn’t say.  I could have said, but instead, Somebody said.  And yet, anonymity also allows for increased honesty, increased exposure of the most vulnerable and wobbly parts of things (our opinions on what is cool, our hopes in love, the things that we do not want our parents to know we think).  And what do we do here, my wonderful pen pal, if not fully wear the caftan of “us but not us” as we write under two of the best pen names a Millicent and a Carla Fran could have?

But your post also connects to some thoughts I had while watching Away We Go. I don’t think you have seen the film yet, and I encourage you to not read the rest of the post here until you have, because I am going to talk about it as if you have seen it: I am going to chat about plot points with little regard for spoil or alert.  But, before that, let me go ahead and with all caps say SPOILER ALERT, which I just realized I would want on a t-shirt, especially if I was a psychic or prophet.

So, the good news is that the movie was in no way as irritating or quirky as reviews had led me to believe.   In general, I found it to be round and authentic and apt.  It took on a bit of the Apatow set design of real living, but with much less jizz humor, and it would be interesting to do a side by side comparison with Knocked Up. Both movies face the issue of how to prepare to be a parent, how to find your adult place in the world, and look at models of the possible miseries ahead.  But Away We Go has a lot of love for both of its protagonists; neither of them are a plot device for the other’s growth.  The couple is solid in a way that most films would rather not look at: there is no climactic fight and revelation, no betrayal, and no stutter step toward the commitment and the future.   They are young and attractive, they aren’t ridiculously wealthy (for some reason, I adore that there wasn’t a quick assumption that they could afford all kinds of travel and self-finding), and they treat each other nicely without the standard treacle.

But, the movie doesn’t love all its characters equally.  While Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character is a funny little dagger, it is ultimately a cruel one that is about as flat and over-the-top as they come.  This great review from the New York Times suggested that Burt and Verona exist in a world where only they are sainted enough to be three dimensional and fair minded.  In the world of the movie, yes, besides Verona’s sister and Burt’s brother, they are adrift in a sea of caricature.  I almost don’t mind this because I think it connects to that important theme of carving out an adulthood.  Perhaps the extreme amount of caricature is just trying to do clean work by emphasizing how much of the world doesn’t match one’s perspective, and how alienating other people can be.  Who feels that they fully fit, that their parents’ worldviews are parallel to theirs, that the growned uppest friends are inspirations instead of terrors and cautionary tales?

Of course, in its press for clean lines, the movie skips an important part of this particular puzzle, and thus becomes more of a fable than a real take.  For being two such charming people, Burt and Verona have no friends.  Zero.  The cast they visit throughout the movie is either family or distant acquaintance.  There is not an email, phone call, or reference to a single person that they love outside of their little world.  By including like minded friends, the premise of picking up and leaving would have been fuzzier, and Burt and Verona couldn’t stand in such full contrast to the world they are navigating.  Plus, it is harder to land full and final judgment on friends, but it’s a quick guiltless leap for family and distant relations.  This could also be a metaphor for family life, as it does seem that once people family up, they implode upon each other with less and less time for expanding friendships.  The couple does feel sealed off from the world, but isn’t that what nesting is?

The end of the movie struck me for both its easy grace, which I almost mean as a compliment here, and for its ghost dance with the parent child continuum.  The home they have been looking for ends up to be Verona’s empty childhood house.  It has chandeliers, a breeze and a view, and a staircase just meant for children to run down.  So that we understand the house isn’t ostentatious, it has chipping paint and a rusted tin shed out front.  The movie starts in deep winter in New England, and ends with the more pregnant couple sweating in a deep southern breeze on the waterfront.  Lovely.  My question is, is perhaps the best home to raise a child the childhood that you have made peace with?  In fact, by returning to her childhood home, to a childhood landscape that Verona mentions early on as ideal and unruly, isn’t she professing a supreme self love (child rearing is a bit of a narcissistic endeavor)? Child, grow up as I did, and in a way, be me again.  This is possible in the movie because Verona’s beloved parents are both dead.  By choosing this house, she can give her parents the supreme compliment of wishing for a repeat performance, of returning to them.  By having children, we do become our parents, but I feel like the movie’s end takes the hard parts out of this, and makes it tender and scenic, again a fable.

They temper this by showing Verona’s emotional work of return, and the pain of her parent’s death, which I appreciate even if it was still a quick lob.  The movie moves fast, makes some easy jumps and events pile up very helpfully for the narrative. But, I never once groaned out loud.

I also very much like the final presentation of parenthood and adulthood: an empty house, a familiar one, and a landscape that is settled, exotic, even lush, and waiting to grow around them.  If it was a full on fable, vines would curl around their doorway and bloom as they sat, indeed sealing them off, but in the way that life does when there are are graces waiting for you, and perhaps elves and gnomes at the corner of the page.

A movie that did similar work, but with a more delicate and complex reach was the wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  It seems a true hurdle of adulthood (one I haven’t climbed–inflexible hamstrings) is making a world of your own without fear of what you have seen so far,  and with the extra nut of not assuming that fearlessness equals protection.

I wonder if this movie will be dated in 5 years, or as Mr. Carla Fran guessed, 5 months.    I wonder if 17-year-olds will see this and sigh, or if it is our generation’s turn at stories of early middle age.

Either way, I recommend the movie, though think it would make for an awkward second or third date.

Yours,

CF

* PS: As a final nitpick, the movie did a major disservice to doulas.  Burt says something along the lines “only dads who don’t want to be involved or don’t know what they are doing need doulas,” after the terrifying mother superior (Maggie Gyllenhaal) asks who their doula is.  I am constantly working against the stereotype that only mamas who use slings and have midwives use doulas.  Doulas help dads help mama.  They don’t get in the way.  And unterrible people use doulas.  Really.

*PPS: There looks like there is a slew of quirky down to earth romantic comedies coming out, including one charmer called Paper Heart.  Maybe the bromance has led us to this, the real person anti-formula (always starring Michael Cera).

*PPPS: This post bumps my ode to my cat off our list of recent posts.  This makes me sad, so I’m throwing a link to it here.

The Art of The Comment

Dear Millicent,

I have been thinking of your profile of Jezebel and its evolutions, and agree with the tensions you noted between taking things to task and supporting everybody. It is a problem when every viewpoint is humanized (though, isn’t that an accomplishment of empathy, or just a distracting use of pathos?), and echoed in pop critiques of women’s studies (whininess, black holes of offense and correction, righteousness that insists on the merits of heart and humanity but which cannot offer the same to  the uninitiated).

I hear those critiques most often from people who have never gotten near women’s studies (full disclosure: I have never gotten near women’s studies).  But the field, like feminism, is more vital than its critics give credit for: it’s not the grumpy wall flower as much as the exuberant and just misfit (for imagery here, I am thinking either of Ricki and Delia in My So Called Life at the World Happiness dance, or of Babs in The Way We Were, soused and dancing all night even though she was supposed to be working the refreshment table).

I also like your description of the commenting culture on Jez, and Gawker.  I have to admit that I rarely read the comments, and often wonder why commenting is such an inherent part of blogging.  The idea is sound–a large extended conversation, full of challenges and calls and answers–and I am giddy to read any comments we have here on this site.  However, in general (and again, please do comment here, I am just a grump), comments seem to be a barage of self applause: commenters either offering inane agreeance, witty snarks, or complaints about their workplace.  It seems that Facebook and Twitter have capitolized on this need for constant narration, and I want all comments to really just set up shop over there.  There are times when I have read comments that have taken the conversation in other directions, or that have called shenanigans when appropriate, but I rarely consider commenters part of site.  When reading Jezebel, I read their content alone, and consider the commenters in their own club, with queen bees who can type up a quick response and be instantly applauded.  But then again, maybe I am just jealous because I am not one of them, and we all like applause.

Feministing has a community site as part of their blog, where commenters can post full blog entries.  I like this model more than general comments, and often the editors post one of the community posts to the mainpage.  One of the last comment sections I read diverged into a long scolding of a commenter for using the word “lame” to describe something they didn’t like.  In the following 20 comments, there was an agressive defense and shuddering of the use of the word.  It seemed both irritatingly petty (the old trials of PC language), and wildy effective.  Though it annoyed me that one couldn’t relax about anything, even a slang adjective, while reading a blog, it was also the right fight.  At its base, the word is inappropriate, and disrespectful.  This reminded me of your discussion of the small choices where it is tempting to inclusively let all answers stand as correct (taking a husband’s last name, etc.), and the assertion that the choice (the answer, not just the right to choose) actually matters very much.

And, in a sweep back to the other side, my training as a doula totally disagrees, which makes things interesting.  Doulas are supposed to support a woman’s choices in labor, and bring in no personal opinion besides offering information.  The idea is that doulas are not there to make their version of an ideal birth, but to assist the mother in experiencing her ideal birth.  I consider my work as a doula the most directly feminist thing I do.  I help women have more power, voice and control at a vulnerable moment, and I get to see direct outcomes.  This would suggest the original version– –that we are all snowflakes, and power comes from not denying anybody their snowflakehood.  But, when it comes down to brass tacks, I only like this model when all the snowflakes are snowing for their own good as defined by, well, let’s be honest here, me.

So maybe the great work is not in defending the right to all viewpoints, but digging to the harder, more uncomfortable area of conversation that addresses responsibility?  A hard task for Jezebel, because responsibility is never an effervescent topic.  It makes me think of those horrid serious talks that parents only have with their kids while driving. And maybe that is where commenters come in.  How much more palatable would a lecture on unloading the dishwasher have been if there was a chorus of wits making fun of the DJ on the radio, the claustrophobia of the seatbelt,while making sure that I did indeed absorb that the dishwasher needed to be unloaded by me, or else no ride to the mall.

Yours,

CF