La Panza Blandita

For whatever reason, being responsible for feeding my family has always been a source of massive anxiety for me. It’s not the cooking–I love making food–it’s the weight of making all the right choices about what to eat.

One of the few meltdowns I had before marrying Nate was when I spiraled out of control thinking about what a picky eater he was and how I was never going to be able to cook food he would like for THE REST OF MY LIFE. He calmed me down by promising that he would always eat anything I cooked without complaining. He has kept that promise. As further proof that I always worry about the wrong things, cooking for him has literally never once been a problem.

That still didn’t keep me from worrying about it all over again when I had a baby.

Can I be honest? My decision to breastfeed was obviously based partially on what would be healthy for my child, but it was mostly based on the fact that it was simple. No nutritional expertise required. No preparation required (not after the first few weeks at least). Everything was just there, ready to go, so to speak.

We can talk about the difficulties of nursing a baby some other time, but once I had it figured out, it bought me several months of worry-free baby feeding. Then, as she started to approach four months and then five months old, my anxiety returned. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I was going to be responsible to make sure this child ate three healthy meals a day FOR EIGHTEEN YEARS. What did I know about proper developmental nutrition? How was I going to find stamina for this never-ending job?

I wrote to my sister-in-law, who had babies a little before me, begging for her help. She sent a chart she had used, laying out how to introduce foods one at a time and which ones should be introduced at which age. It even listed amounts per day. This chart brought relief to my anxiety about my ignorance. But it made me feel even more overwhelmed at the magnitude of what lay before me.

I taped it to the inside of a kitchen cabinet and told myself I’d delay worrying about it until she turned five months old. Maybe six?

Then, the week she turned five months old, we took her in for her regular visit to the pediatrician. Remember that we lived in Argentina at the time. Through a friend, we had found a wonderful old doctor who ran a private practice out of a tiny house not far from us. We had already seen him once or twice, and we smiled through every visit.

He was a short man with delicate white hair and a gentle, soothing voice. When he examined the baby, he would talk through what he was doing in a sing-song pattern, saying the same things at every visit. “Tiene la nariz limpia….tiene la panza blandita.…”

The nose is clean…the belly is soft… (Sometimes at home when we were loopy from lack of sleep and the baby was crying, we would imitate that hypnotic voice: “tiene la panza blandita…”.)

On this visit, after the exam, the doctor mentioned that it was about time to start the baby on solid foods. He said he would give me a list of foods he recommended we begin with, and then he sat down and began writing on his little prescription pad. When he finished, he handed it me, a short list in swooping cursive that matched his voice and personality perfectly.

Translated into English, here is what it said:

  • Baby Cereal
  • Jello
  • Soft fruits
  • Sprite (left out to go flat)
  • Yogurt
  • Soft cooked eggs

I stared at the piece of paper. He asked if I had any questions. I looked at the top where his name and medical degree were printed. I had many questions, but I said I didn’t. I folded up the paper and put it in my purse.

In the car, Nate and I looked at the list together. It was like an artifact from a far-off time.

“Why would you give a baby flat Sprite?” Nate asked.

“Why would you give a baby jello?” I responded.

“Jello is good,” he said.

I laughed, and the weight of anxiety lifted a little. He had a point. Jello is good.

At home, I put the list of foods recommended by a medical professional next to my sister-in-law’s detailed chart.

When the time came to feed my baby, I went with the chart. What can I say? I’m North American, and scientific charts make more sense to me.

But I kept that hand-written list nearby, not because I wanted an excuse to give my baby jello but because I wanted to remember that there are lots of ways to feed a child. That doctor had been giving nutritional advice to Argentine mothers for decades, and their children had grown up healthy. They had turned into functional adults. Many of them brought their own children back to the same sweet pediatrician.

The chart may have answered my questions, but the list spoke to my anxiety. It made the whole feeding endeavor seem simpler. It told me I could do it imperfectly, and things would still be okay.

It also made me laugh every time I saw it. Which definitely didn’t hurt.

Always remember: there’s nothing like some jello and flat Sprite to help keep your belly soft.

My doctor said so.

From the Outside

When you do overseas mission work, there a million jobs you have to learn how to do. Handyman, teacher, taxi driver, party planner, tour guide, nutritionist, counselor, translator, accountant. I’ll let you guess which of those I enjoyed and which I bungled constantly. By far, though, my favorite job was public speaker. It wasn’t a regular thing, but from time to time, Nate and I would be asked to teach at a youth camp or preach at a nearby church, and even when it was in Spanish, I loved it. Maybe it’s the teacher in my soul or maybe I just loved attention, but I never felt more energized than when I could stand in front of people and communicate something that was important to me.

Then I had a baby. I continued on with most aspects of my job, but from time to time I would have to bow out of things that just weren’t feasible when you were nursing an infant. Like the week when a friend asked Nate to be the visiting speaker at his church one Sunday evening. None of our local churches had nurseries where you could leave a baby (it would have been culturally weird). We didn’t have grandparents nearby, and all our usual babysitters were…well, they were at church. So even though we normally worked together on speaking engagements, and even though we had written the content of his message together, we agreed that Nate would have to take this one solo.

Theoretically, this should have been fine. Nate is an amazing speaker. He does not need my help. And I had an infant who still didn’t sleep through the night. I was exhausted and didn’t need one more thing on my plate.

But that theory doesn’t take into account my personal hang ups.

I could have just stayed home that night. It was getting close to winter and the sun set early. The service would be late enough that I had every excuse to keep the baby inside and put her to bed at her normal time. It’s probably what a sane person would have done, or, say, a person without the world’s most advanced FOMO. All I could think was that I was already missing out on speaking up front. I shouldn’t have to also miss out on seeing all the people.

So I went. And it was a little late for the baby. And hanging out with a bunch of people I didn’t really know very well proved to be more awkward than fun. And the minute the music ended and Nate stood up to preach, the baby started to cry.

She didn’t want to nurse and she was never going to sleep in a room full of interesting new things. She also didn’t want me to sit still or be inconspicuous in any way. I know I said that I like attention, but it turns out I am somewhat picky about what kinds of attention I appreciate.

Desperate not to make any more of a scene that I already was, I quietly slipped out the back door into the courtyard outside. It was a bit chilly, brisk enough that I was glad of my coat, but not cold enough to keep me from sweating inside that coat as I walked back and forth and bounced my baby up and down. I paced and I sweated and I grumbled in my mind about the unfairness of my being out here soothing this baby while my husband was inside doing something I loved.

I didn’t blame Nate for where I was–he wasn’t in any way responsible–but I have found that it’s just as easy to be mad at life as it is to be mad at a person. So I indulged my self-pitying anger for all it was worth. I went ahead and let the moment grow in my mind, so that my situation represented the plight of women everywhere, overlooked and oppressed, all because we are biologically equipped to carry and nurse children.

After a while, I discovered that as long as I kept up a sort of swaying bounce, my daughter would settle down and stay quiet, so I had a new opportunity to exacerbate my resentment and build on the narrative of martyrdom I was spinning. Of course, I seized the chance. I crept up close to the door to try to listen to Nate as he spoke. The window was open a crack, allowing me to hear, and slowly I eased closer and closer until my nose was nearly up against the glass.

I know. The symbolism of the moment was a little heavy-handed. I was literally outside, looking in at where I wanted to be, prevented from being there by the baby in my arms. If you saw this moment in a movie, you’d be like, “Geesh, no need to hit me over the head with it.”

At that moment, though, I wasn’t seeing the humor in the situation. Discontent had squeezed all perspective from my soul, and I wanted the metaphor to be so obvious that even the strangers in the room would have to see it.

They did not, of course. That’s the thing about discontent. No one else ever takes it as seriously as I do.

I’d like to tell you that I had a revelation that night. That I looked down at my sweet daughter’s face and realized that she was infinitely more wonderful than anything I loved doing, that I would have more impact on the world by raising her than by any amount of public teaching. I mean, those things are true, and on some level I knew them. They are the reason I chose to have kids in the first place. But I did not reach a new state of enlightenment that particular night. That night, I stood there and tortured myself with what I couldn’t have and then went home in a dark, unfriendly mood.

Hilarious, right?

Sometimes, I’m really not funny. Sometimes I’m too self-absorbed to laugh.

That’s why I revisit those moments from time to time. To look back at that frumpy new mother glaring through the window at people who didn’t see her situation as a problem and give her the laughter she couldn’t give herself.

It’s not a mocking laugh. That new mom was in the middle of a huge identity shift, and the middle is a place for compassion not derision. This laugh is an empathetic laugh. An oh-crap-I-still-do-that-to-myself-sometimes laugh and a man-I’m-thankful-I-didn’t-live-in-that-resentment-forever laugh. It’s the laugh of someone who sees how easily she could have chosen to linger in self-made misery and is relieved that the story took a different turn.

It’s the laugh of someone who knows that the those moments really are a big deal. And also that they really aren’t.

It’s the laugh of someone who appreciates that kind of paradox. In retrospect, at least.

Irony

My littlest baby came into the world in 2009 in La Plata, Argentina.

Whenever I tell people that my two younger kids were born in South America, I get the look. The one that says that they are picturing me laboring in a grass hut with only a local midwife on call. Let me set the record straight. I gave birth by planned C-section in two different hospitals in two different Argentine cities. Both were clean and comfortable and used the most advanced medical methods and technologies.

Which isn’t to say that they were completely modern.

After experiencing a few cultural surprises when the boy was born, we felt like we had a better handle on what we would experience with our last birth. We had a doctor we loved and had visited the maternity floor during previous checkups. Our C-section was the first thing on the surgical schedule for the day, which was meant to ensure that we’d be there early enough to get a private room. Everything was set to go.

We showed up at 7:00 on a Monday morning, received the promised room, and a nurse came with the gown I was to put on before he escorted me down to the surgical floor. Nate asked if there were scrubs for him. The man blinked a few times before understanding.

“Oh no,” he said, “you can’t go into the operating room. You’ll wait in the surgical waiting room.”

We exchanged a glance that asked each other if we’d both heard the same thing. Some times Spanish is a tricky language, so you never know, right?

“I was in the operating room for both of my other children’s deliveries,” Nate explained.

“No,” the nurse said. “It’s hospital policy. Fathers aren’t allowed in the OR. The waiting room is right outside. I’ll show you.”

My heart sank, but I was already in the delivery zone. I had come here to get this baby out of me, and I would do whatever it took to make that happen. There are moments for fighting the man, and then there are moments for letting the man make whatever stupid policies he wants as long as he gives you your baby safely and makes it so that you aren’t pregnant any more.

I shrugged at Nate. He shrugged at me. “Lead the way.”

A few minutes later, I said good-bye to my husband and was led into a sterile room where I was told to sit on the metal table and wait for the anesthesiologist. I breathed deeply, preparing myself for the worst part of a C-section: the epidural.

There must be something problematic about my vertebrae because no one seems able to get that epidural in on the first try. With my previous babies, I had squeezed Nate’s hand while a stranger repeatedly stuck a needle in my back, but this time, Nate was biding his time in a 1950’s-style father’s waiting room so this time I squeezed the edge of the cold table. It was not as reassuring. The pain made little spots dance in front of my eyes. When the anesthesiologist told me it was over and that I should lie down on my back, I felt nothing but relief.

For about two minutes.

Two minutes is the maximum time you can lie on your back when you are nine months pregnant before the pain in your hips and the pressure on your internal organs becomes all you can think about.

Ten minutes dragged by. Then fifteen.

A new, more chipper nurse entered the room. She had come to apologize profusely. My doctor was running late, as her mother had fallen that morning and hit her head. It would be a half hour or so before the surgery could start. She was really sorry, but they would keep monitoring me, and I could just rest there, and they’d start as soon as they possibly could. Would I like her to turn on the radio to keep me company? Without waiting for an answer, she flipped the music on and bustled back out of the room.

Dazed, I listened to the end of a Spanish song I didn’t recognize and then groaned when a news report came on next. The announcers just wanted to let us know that there had been a brutal murder in our city early that morning. A wife had killed her husband and then herself. She’d used a knife. The report was very detailed. (I briefly wondered if the woman had been pregnant and her husband had suggested she lie on her back. If so, maybe the homicide was justified.)

By this point I was beginning to feel a bit hysterical. Was this the birth of one of my precious children or was I trapped in a badly-written sitcom?

When the reporter finally stopped describing the bloody scene and music began to play again, I took deep breaths to calm myself. Until I recognized the song.

It was Madonna singing “Like a Virgin.”

Lying alone on that operating table like the world’s most uncomfortable beached whale, I laughed out loud until tears streamed down my face.

I didn’t know yet if I was about to have a new son or daughter, but I figured whoever this little person was, they must be something special to be ushered into the world in the company of such perfect irony.

I was right.

That baby turned out to be our little Lulu, and it makes perfect sense that on the day she was born, I discovered that half the things I’d learned from having two other children didn’t apply.

It makes perfect sense that at her birth I felt love and frustration, excitement and bafflement in equal measure.

It makes perfect sense that the last thing she heard before entering the world was the sound of my laughter.

Even Here

It was Saturday morning, and my toddler woke me up early, obviously. She was restless, my girl who always wanted to go out, out, out, into the world. I didn’t have much energy for going, but staying would have taken even more. We put on our coats and headed toward the playground in the plaza. Outside the air was chilly. We were the only ones on the street. In our impoverished Argentine neighborhood, the weekends were for late night parties. More people went to bed at seven a.m. than woke up for the day.
At the playground, I let go of her hand and let her run free, watching carefully anytime she bent down to pick something up. Broken glass and cigarette butts were as plentiful as the sad tufts of grass, so some vigilance was required. She climbed the wooden slide and swung on the squeaky swing. I tried to focus on my radiant child and not on the dreary surroundings. But it was Saturday morning, and I was tired and sad. It hadn’t been an easy few months.
Then my girl came running toward me with something small held in her pudgy hand. She held it up, this tiny living thing she had found. It was a scraggly flower, a weed really, but the small white blossom lifted my heart. “Even here,” I thought to myself, “Even here there is beauty.”
Then I lifted up my eyes, looked over my daughter’s head, and saw a man peeing into the bushes.
It took him a long time to finish. It wasn’t easy to make sure my baby kept looking at me and only me. When he was finally done and staggered away, home to sleep off the night’s revels, I took my little girl by the hand, and we left in the other direction.
“Mommy,” she wanted to know. “Why are you laughing?”
And I couldn’t explain, but I also couldn’t stop. There’s nothing funny about your child being exposed to public urination. But that doesn’t mean you won’t giggle the whole way home.
Because sometimes you can find beauty in the middle of ashes. And sometimes you just find absurdity and you have to make do.

It’s Not Funny

I’m the youngest in my family, and though I took myself extremely seriously as a child, the rest of my family didn’t always see the necessity to do the same. To be fair, I was a red-headed waif with oversized ears and constantly-skinned knees. And I didn’t make things easier for myself. I loved the big words and dramatic statements I read in my favorite stories. Those things sounded wonderful in books, but when I said them out loud, my family couldn’t help but laugh. They weren’t mocking me, but it didn’t matter. I hated that laughter with all my heart. I would grit my teeth and tense my body and say as adamantly as I knew how, ‘Its. Not. Funny.”
But it was funny. I just didn’t know it yet. I thought that because what I said was true and heartfelt, that meant it didn’t deserve laughter. I hadn’t yet learned that you can be in complete earnest and still have a sense of humor about yourself. Or maybe I just hadn’t lived long enough to look back on anything from a distance.
So many things in life aren’t funny until you have the perspective of hindsight.
That’s what this blog series is all about. I’m looking back at moments in my life, moments that often seemed deadly serious, and I’m laughing. Not in dismissal. Not in mockery. Just with the recognition that from a little distance even things that aren’t funny can make you laugh. And right now it seems to me that laughter is exactly what we all need.