Open to Life

For the last six months or so, my kids have been asking for a baby brother, and it just melts my heart.  How sweet that is to ask for another person to love and play with!  They specifically want a boy “to make things fair” since the girls currently outnumber the boys in our family.  When they ask, I tell them that God sends babies, and it’s up to Him if He wants us to have a baby boy.  They don’t realize that their parents are a bit older than most of their friends’ parents and that another baby is unlikely for us.  If I were a bit younger, I’d be hoping for that baby right along with them.  Rose is two and a half now, and sometimes I find myself longing for a little baby to snuggle on my chest.  But I’m also tired.

When I was expecting Rose, my doctor never seemed to let an opportunity pass to bring up my age.  I wanted to tell him that I come from a long, direct maternal line of healthy women having healthy babies later in life.  My great-great-grandmother had 13 children (all girls!), giving birth to her youngest at the age of 51.  My great-grandmother gave birth to the first recorded triplets in Syracuse, although one of the little girls died after just a few minutes, and then had my great-aunt Betty nine years later when she was well into her thirties.  My grandma (one of the triplets) had five children, all but one of them born after her 35th birthday.  In fact, she had my uncle Ed when she was 47.  She always said that when God sends a baby, you accept a baby as a gift.  Then there’s my mom.  She had her fourth child, my sister Emily, just a couple of weeks before her 40th birthday.  All this means that I know it can be done, and I trust that I would have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby.

One night when Rose was an infant, I was rocking her to sleep and, at first, thinking about how tired I was from taking care of an infant, a three-year-old, and a five-year-old all day.  Then I started to think about two of my cousins, who had each recently buried a young daughter.  All of a sudden, it hit me hard how blessed I was, and I realized that there were much, much worse things that could happen in my life than having another baby in my forties.

My children will probably continue to ask for a baby brother, and I will continue to smile and tell them that the decision is in God’s hands and mean it.  I may not be asking Him for another baby at this point in my life but if He wants to surprise me, I will accept His gift as my grandma did.

Photo by Aditya Romansa on Unsplash

Selective Mutism

I wrote one of my earliest blog posts about my struggle with social anxiety disorder.  Anyone who has faced a similar struggle knows how painful that is, but it is probably even more painful to watch your young child suffer from anxiety, especially when no one seems to know exactly what’s wrong or how to help.  My daughter’s anxiety disorder is the biggest challenge I’ve faced so far as a parent.  My little family struggled for almost two and a half years before we even had a name for the problem.  As I relate this story, I’m going to refer to people outside my family by their last initials to protect their privacy.

Right around her second birthday, my oldest child, Kathleen, stopped talking to her grandpa (my dad).  Soon she was acting anxious around other members of our extended family.  She needed lots of time to warm up to her grandmothers and her aunts.  In fact, she would not even respond to cartoon characters who addressed her directly from the TV screen, and she got very upset if I suggested she should repeat a Spanish word after Dora or tell Daniel Tiger what she likes to eat for breakfast.  It was right around this time that I had baby Daniel and stopped working.  She wasn’t going to my parents’ house any more for daycare, and we were spending most of our time at home.  At her two-year well child visit, our family doctor, Dr. K., said that stranger anxiety was normal at this age, and she wasn’t concerned that Kathleen wouldn’t speak to her or cooperate with her examination.  This would have been in early August.

Kathleen on her second birthday

By the spring I was growing more and more concerned.  I spoke to the doctor about the behavior we were observing, and she recommended play therapy.  In fact, there was a therapist who shared office space with her medical practice, so she set us up with him.  Over the next few months, Kathleen slowly warmed up to playing with the toys in his office, but she didn’t make much progress with her anxiety.  She would not say “I love you” to anyone except her baby brother; she was attached to me at library story hour, and she HATED being complimented or applauded for a new accomplishment.

Speaking of new accomplishments, she resisted trying anything new:  sitting on a swing, drinking from an open cup, spitting out toothpaste instead of swallowing it, and most of all using the potty.  Oh my goodness, the battles we had over the potty!  There was only one new thing she grew to like the year she was three:  ballet class.  At first, she did not want to stay in the classroom without me, but after a few weeks, I was waiting in the hall with the other moms.  On the day of the recital I had a hard time convincing her to put on her costume but once we made it to the auditorium, she went out on stage and danced a little bit.  It was amazing.  She even let one of the volunteer moms take her to the potty before she went on stage!  (She was still wearing pull-ups all the time at this point.)

It was about two months after the recital that her therapist decided she didn’t need him anymore.  I was surprised.  Yes, she would now sit on her mat at story hour while I sat a few feet away, and she would even take a snack or a craft supply out of the story lady’s hand.  Yes, she would now sit on a swing and let me push her.  But she didn’t talk to anyone except a few close family members.  And he knew that.  He had been pressuring her to talk for months, insisting that speaking for herself was a life skill she needed.  He wouldn’t give her a sticker or a lollipop at the end of her appointment if she didn’t say yes out loud when he asked her if she wanted one.  She never said yes out loud.  We were approaching her fourth birthday, and she still wasn’t potty trained.  Well, she knew how to use the potty, but she chose not to do it.  She was supposed to start preschool in the fall.  And he decided she was done with therapy?

Dr. K. could also see that she was not “cured”, but she suggested that we see how preschool went and if that “brought her out of her shell.”  Luckily, she decided to start using the potty just after her 4th birthday, and she was able to start school.

School was another thing I had agonized over.  Should I send her to universal pre-kindergarten in our school district for free?  Maybe the routine of going five days a week would help her adjust?  But I just couldn’t see myself putting this little girl who didn’t talk on a school bus and sending her off for half a day.  I decided instead to send her to a little private preschool in a nearby town three mornings a week.  About two weeks before the school year started, our district announced that they had received a state grant and that UPK would now be full-day instead of half-day.  I knew I had made the right choice for my anxious child.

The preschool was wonderful.  The teacher and her assistant were caring and supportive.  They wanted to help Kathleen, but sticker charts and a promised reward of lunch at Wendy’s if she used her voice just weren’t working.  One day Mrs. S. pulled me aside and asked if Kathleen’s doctor had ever labeled Kathleen’s problem “selective mutism”.  No, I had never heard that term.  Mrs. S. had found it by researching how she could help my child.  That night I googled it and knew from what I read that this was Kathleen’s problem.

I found this website and started to learn about what was going on inside my child’s head and how I could help.  Dr. Elisa Shipon-Blum introduces selective mutism as follows:

Selective Mutism is a complex childhood anxiety disorder characterized by a child’s inability to speak and communicate effectively in select social settings, such as school. These children are able to speak and communicate in settings where they are comfortable, secure, and relaxed.

More than 90% of children with Selective Mutism also have social phobia or social anxiety. This disorder is quite debilitating and painful to the child. Children and adolescents with Selective Mutism have an actual FEAR of speaking and of social interactions where there is an expectation to speak and communicate. Many children with Selective Mutism have great difficulty responding or initiating communication in a nonverbal manner; therefore social engagement may be compromised in many children when confronted by others or in an overwhelming setting where they sense a feeling of expectation.

The first and most important lesson I learned was that pressuring Kathleen to speak would only increase her anxiety.  (You can imagine how angry I was at her therapist for using exactly the wrong strategy with her, but I’m trying to let that go now.  I’m working on forgiveness!)

The little girl in pink glasses who doesn’t talk

I gave myself permission to go back to speaking for her as I had done when she was a toddler.  If a friendly stranger complimented her dress or asked her how old she was, I modeled for her how to respond instead of waiting in silence for an answer that was never going to come from her.  So many people used to comment about her glasses that for about two years I felt as if my daughter’s identity in the eyes of everyone outside our family was “the little girl in pink glasses who doesn’t talk.” It bothered me so much that no one else could see a little person who loved to dance and sing and color and explore the outdoors.

But her preschool teachers saw her personality.  Even though she never spoke to them, she did speak to a few of her classmates.  When her class held a Christmas concert, she sang with the group.  One day her class played Musical Chairs and after she was out, she danced to the music while she watched the rest of the kids.  I spent these next few months checking in with Dr. K. while she worked on trying to find a local therapist who could help us.  She really wanted Kathleen to see a child psychiatrist who would be able to evaluate whether or not she needed anxiety medication.  I hated the idea of medicating a four-year-old, but I figured that a psychiatrist would know how severe Kathleen’s case was.  Ultimately, we weren’t able to find a child psychiatrist in our area who was accepting new patients, but at the end of the school year a social worker who visited the preschool regularly to work with another child put me in touch with a speech pathologist, who then connected me to a family therapist who was familiar with selective mutism and wanted to help us.

Kindergarten was looming.  Dan and I and six-day-old Rose went to parent information night for incoming kindergartners.  We had to sign up for a kindergarten screening appointment, and I thought, “What are we going to do?  Kathleen isn’t going to talk at her screening.”  So, I told the secretary that my child had selective mutism and didn’t talk to strangers.  She kindly walked me over to the the Assistant Superintendent for Instruction and Special Education and introduced me.  I told her that my daughter had not attended UPK in the district and that she had selective mutism.  Mrs. Sh. responded, “Don’t worry. We’ve seen this before, and we know just what to do.”  The tense muscles in my face and shoulders relaxed, and, especially with all those postpartum hormones swirling around inside of me, I almost cried.  She spoke to me for a few minutes and reassured me that Kathleen was going to be just fine in kindergarten.  She asked me to email her so that she could put me in touch with the speech pathologist at the elementary school, which she did promptly.  When I took Kathleen to the school for her screening the next week, I met with Mrs. A., the speech therapist, and Mrs. W., the school psychologist, and we soon had a plan in place for helping my little girl.

Over the summer Dan and I took Kathleen weekly to meet with Mrs. K., the family therapist we had found, who taught us all some breathing and stretching exercises for coping with anxiety.  I also took Kathleen weekly to visit the summer school class at the elementary school so that she could start to feel comfortable in the building.  She never talked to any of the adults or kids there, and she only whispered to me in their presence, but she did join in their games on the playground or in the gym and sometimes participated in their academic activities.

The speech pathologist had hand-picked Kathleen’s kindergarten teacher for us and when we met her in August at orientation, I was even more reassured.  She greeted each child with the warmest smile and seemed genuinely delighted to meet them all.  Mrs. G. was another God-send.  She had heard of selective mutism but had never encountered it before.  She researched and consulted with Mrs. A. and wanted to learn about Kathleen’s history.  One month into the school year a miracle happened:  Kathleen began to whisper to Mrs. G.  Then she had her first speech therapy session and whispered to Mrs. A., who was blown away.  By November the specialists at the school decided she didn’t need their services.  Slowly, whispering became talking quietly, and it spread to other adults in the community.  Finally, one day she spoke out loud to my dad.  That was the moment I’d been waiting for.  It took nearly three and a half years.

The family therapist, Mrs. K., wanted to take full credit for Kathleen’s success.  While I’m sure she played her part, I believe that a number of people contributed to her healing from this crippling anxiety.  Most importantly, she had warm and caring teachers in preschool and kindergarten who accepted her as she was and saw the person behind the symptoms.  God placed these people in our path.

Today Kathleen is almost seven and has just finished first grade.  She is soft-spoken but will answer adults who address her.  She still loves ballet and wants to sign up for soccer this year.  She enjoys reading, swimming, coloring, and playing with her dolls.  I still worry about her, and you can be sure I will email her second grade teacher before the new year starts to fill her in on Kathleen’s history, but I trust that she is going to be okay now.  Gratitude overflows my heart when I reflect on how far she has come.  She is one strong little girl.

Kathleen after her kindergarten graduation

Parenting Books

Since I started this blog last spring, I’ve been wanting to write about the books that have made the deepest impressions on me, but I’ve struggled to come up with a place to start.  After all, I’m an English teacher, and books have always been a huge part of my life.  Then it occurred to me that I could begin not with Jane Eyre or Man’s Search for Meaning but instead with a few of the books that have had the strongest influence on my parenting.  It’s a lot easier to write about practical advice that has guided me in my day-to-day life than it is to put into words everything that my favorite novel has meant in the way I see literature and the world around me.  So, here are my four favorite parenting books and one honorable mention.

  1.  The Happiest Baby on the Block by Dr. Harvey Karp:  When you bring your first baby home from the hospital, what do you do next?  Of course, you feed her and change her diaper.  But what do you do if she is fed and dry, not too warm and not too cold, but she won’t stop crying, let alone go to sleep?  You could try Dr. Karp’s 5S’s.  The advice in this book worked so well for all three of my babies!  Dr. Karp theorizes that because human babies have such large heads to accommodate their highly evolved human brains, they are forced to make their arrival in the outside world before they’re ready.  The best way to care for them during the first four months after birth is to recreate the experience of the womb.  We swaddled our babies to help them feel snug and secure, shushed them with white noise, gave them pacifiers to suck on, swung or bounced them to
    Newborn Rose fell asleep swaddled and sucking on her pacifier while I held her on her side. Photo Credit: Emily Laing

    the tempo of “Hard Day’s Night,” and held them on their side or stomach.  (Just to be clear, babies need to be put down to sleep on their backs, but we can hold them in a position that puts a little soothing pressure on their tummies.)  Combining all 5 of these at the same time was guaranteed to calm our fussy babies.

  2.   The Sleepeasy Solution by Jennifer Waldburger, LCSW, and Jill Spivak, LCSW :  Once we got through “the fourth trimester,” we were ready for our babies to have a regular routine and learn to go to sleep without so much assistance from us.  Kathleen was a tough case, our fussiest baby who had the most trouble sleeping well.  I read a few books about babies and sleep, but this one is far and away my favorite.  I love the authors’ approach, which balances the needs of babies and parents.  They know that parents don’t want to listen to their babies crying for long stretches without being able to comfort them (and babies probably don’t like that too much either!).  They also know that after the sleep deprivation that comes with caring for a newborn, each member of the family needs more rest.  They call their system the “least cry” method, and it worked wonders with all three of our children.  Additionally, this book provides lots of useful information about age-appropriate nap schedules, sleep issues like nightmares and fear of the dark that come up with toddlers and preschoolers, and milestones like potty training or the birth of a new sibling that can affect sleep.  I’ll be holding onto my copy at least until Rose is in kindergarten!
  3. Clutterfree with Kids by Joshua Becker: I mentioned this book previously in my post on decluttering.  It introduced me to the concept of minimalism and changed my perspective on the life I want for my children.  Instead of piles of material possessions in cluttered rooms, I would like to give them happy memories of fun family experiences.  That does not necessarily mean trips to Disney World and other expensive vacations.  Instead, it could mean baking cookies together, playing a board game, or planting a garden.  Without all the clutter that consumes our time and adds stress to our lives, we could have the time and energy for more fun.  Unfortunately, I’m still working on selling this to the rest of my family.  My children haven’t noticed yet that their interest in a new toy lasts about three days at the most.  I have become quite concerned by their lack of gratitude for their many blessings, which leads me to . . .
  4. The Gift of Enough by Marianne Miller:  Marianne Miller is the mother of four boys, all teenagers now, a middle school teacher, and a financial counselor with Crown Financial Ministries.  She knows kids; she knows the world of their peers, and she knows how to manage money.  Her advice about teaching kids gratitude and money management never comes across as preachy because she tells plenty of funny stories about her own family and some of the mistakes they’ve made.   Some of the strategies she used with her own boys seem a bit extreme to me (asking the four of them to share two ice cream cones, for example), but I love all the practical wisdom she offers on dealing with school book fairs, grab-claw machines, check-out aisles, gift-giving holidays, and other danger zones where children seem to get the “gimmes.”  Ultimately, Miller wants children and their parents to recognize when they have enough, whether it’s M&Ms, sweatshirts, or stuffed animals, so that they can appreciate their blessings and delight in occasional treats.  (Hey, let’s each get our own ice cream cone today!)

Honorable Mention:  Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman:  When this book was published in 2012, it was marketed as a parenting manual that would show Americans how the French are better than we are at one more thing.  I would actually call it a memoir.  An American woman, married to a British man, is raising her children in Paris.  She discovers that the French parent quite differently than Anglophones, and often she recognizes the wisdom in this different approach, but she also sees clearly that different is not always better.  For instance, she is not comfortable with sending a first grader away on a week-long class camping trip.  (I wouldn’t be either!)  On the other hand, she does find that the French are really good at developing sophisticated palates in small children (no surprise there) and believe in setting firm limits and then giving the children lots of freedom within those limits.  For example, bedtime might be set strictly at 8 o’clock every night, but the child is allowed to play quietly in his room until he is sleepy as long as he stays there.  The parent will not read one more story or get another drink of water after 8 o’clock.  I found this book entertaining, and it helped me realize that there isn’t one right way to parent.

The next parenting book I’m hoping to read is The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel, Ph.D.  It comes highly recommended by my sister and has 4 1/2 stars on Amazon.  Dr. Mogel applies Jewish teachings to everyday parenting problems such as chores, dinner battles, and over-scheduling.  I’ve been meaning to read this one for several years now.

In the comments let me know about books that have provided you with valuable advice or guidance – about parenting or anything else!

Breastfeeding

When I decided to start a blog, I knew I didn’t want to write a “mommy blog.”  Don’t get me wrong, I love to read mommy blogs, but I needed to remind myself that there are other aspects of who I am.  Today, however, I am going to tackle a topic common among mommy bloggers:  breastfeeding.

When I was expecting Kathleen, I took a breastfeeding class and read up on the topic.  Yet, when the nurse helped me latch her on the first time, I was completely unprepared for how hard it was going to be.  For the next two days in the hospital I needed assistance every time my baby needed to eat.  I was bruised and blistered from the struggle, and the kicker was that although it was difficult to get Kathleen to sleep at any other time, as soon as I latched her on, she would be out cold, and I couldn’t wake her up.

At home I kept plugging away.  Every couple of hours I would spend about 45 minutes pumping her arms and legs and blowing on her as the nurses had taught me to do to keep her awake and suckling.  At that point I would assume she had had plenty to eat, and I would release her.  Then the screaming began.  It must be gas pains, I thought.  I would pat her back 065and cycle her legs to help her work out the gas.

When she was a week old, her doctor had me start supplementing the breast milk with an ounce of formula after each feeding.  Still she would cry after eating, and still I thought it was gas pains.

I went back to the hospital for an appointment with a lactation consultant.  She gave me so many suggestions that I was overwhelmed and decided to follow the much simpler directions from our family doctor.  Gradually, supplementing with formula turned into giving her bottles and then letting her nurse if she seemed hungry or fussy.  By the time she was two months old, I was nursing only as a strategy to get my fussy girl to sleep.  I gave that up at three months, afraid that I was creating a bad habit.

Interestingly, it was only after I had my own struggles that my friends started to open up to me about how difficult breastfeeding had been for them too.  Some of them had ultimately overcome their difficulties and gone on to nurse for months or even a full year or more.  Others had switched to formula within the first couple of months.  Why hadn’t they shared any of this with me when I was pregnant?  I suspect that they were feeling embarrassed or guilty or even ashamed that something that’s supposed to be so natural was so difficult.  What if I turned out to be one of the lucky women who had no trouble?  They needed to see what would happen to me before they admitted their “secret.”

When I was expecting Daniel, I was determined to fix all the mistakes I had made with Kathleen.  I was going to ace breastfeeding this time.  First, I set up a rocking chair in a private corner so I wouldn’t have to ask visitors to wait on the porch while I fed my baby.  I bought a nursing cover up, something I hadn’t even known about until I saw Pam use one on The Office.

In the hospital after he was born, I found nursing to be incredibly painful again.  A nurse told me that it does tend to be more painful for women with fair skin and that I would just have to “power through it” until it got better.  She did, however, also tell me that I “could be the poster girl for the perfect latch.”  We had that down, but our first doctor visit revealed that Daniel’s weight was dropping enough to be of concern, and we had to stop in every couple of days to have him weighed.

One of the lactation consultants from the hospital developed a plan for me when she called to check in.  Every two to three hours around the clock I would hear Daniel start to wake up.  While my husband changed his diaper, I applied diapers soaked in warm water as compresses to my breasts to get my milk flowing.  Then I latched him onto each side for a minute or two to keep practicing that skill.  My husband took him at that point and gave him a bottle of either breast milk, if we had enough, or of formula, if we didn’t.  Then I pumped.  I had a single electric pump, and I was supposed to pump for 15-20 minutes on each side.  I would get about half an ounce of milk from each of these 30-40 minute pumping sessions.  By now, Daniel had been awake for almost an hour and was just about ready to go to sleep again.  Dan was the one bonding with Daniel and the one taking care of two-year-old Kathleen.  After nine days of that, I broke down in tears and quit.  I realized it was the best decision for my family to give Daniel formula and my attention, to help share child care with Dan, and to reassure Kathleen that her Mommy was still there.

It was only after my experience with baby Daniel that I understood what had actually gone wrong with Kathleen.  Why did she fall asleep on the breast?  Because she was comforted and snuggly, but there was nothing much worth staying awake for.  Why did she cry after a “feeding”?  Because she was hungry!  I felt so guilty after I put it all together.  My poor baby girl was getting just enough to provide nutrition thanks to the “supplemental” formula, but her tummy was never really full.

Two years after Daniel, Rose was on the way.  I didn’t have much hope, but I thought I would at least give breastfeeding a shot in the hospital.  At least she’d get a little colostrum from me, and maybe, just maybe, God would send me a special blessing, and I would miraculously have milk.

It didn’t happen that way.  I saw no evidence that she was getting anything from me.  When I pumped, I didn’t get a single drop.  After 24 hours, even the lactation consultant was ready to bring me formula.  We called it supplementing in the hospital, but on the drive home Dan and I agreed to give up the attempt.  Kathleen and Daniel had done fine on formula, and we knew Rose would too.  I was sad, but my first few weeks with Rose became my most peaceful experience bonding with my new child.

When Rose was about six weeks old, I came across this article.  The author, Nancy Mohrbacher, presents research that demonstrates that instead of urging women to try harder to breastfeed, we can actually make it easier for them.  In fact, nature intended the baby to participate actively in breastfeeding.  We’ve all seen puppies, kittens, and piglets snuggling up with their moms and suckling.  Guess what!  Human babies are meant to feed on their tummies just like piglets.  You can read the article for the scientific information on how lying tummy to tummy with their mommies triggers pressure points and activates reflexes that help baby latch on while mom relaxes.

Apparently, the reason “92% of nursing mothers reported significant breastfeeding challenges” during the first week is that we as a culture have forgotten how to do it.  Even many lactation consultants seem to be unfamiliar with “laid back breastfeeding.”  A century ago girls grew up watching their moms, aunts, and neighbors breastfeed.  When they became mothers themselves, they knew that women who had just given birth could rest in bed while baby suckled.  Today’s moms, for the most part, didn’t see anyone breastfeeding – at least not without a cover.  The image in our heads is a mother sitting upright in a rocking chair, holding her baby in her arms.  This position is sore for a woman who has just given birth and strains her arms, neck, and back.  She has to fight gravity to hold her baby that way.  “Natural Breastfeeding” puts gravity to work for her.

According to Mohrbacher, this approach can prevent latching difficulties and sore nipples.  I’m not sure if it would help with milk supply, but at the very least a woman who knows her baby is latching well and doesn’t experience pain is likely to stick with breastfeeding longer, giving her body a chance to increase milk production.

When I first read this article, I wanted to share it with the world in the hope that I could help other women avoid struggles similar to mine, but I didn’t share it with anyone.  Why not?  I was too afraid to admit publicly that I had failed at breastfeeding three times.  I was afraid of the judgment I would receive, of people telling me I should have tried harder, stayed with it longer.  If you read the comments following Mohrbacher’s article, you will understand my fear.  Some of the commenters refer to formula as “poison.”  Finally, I shared it privately with two of my Facebook friends who were expecting their first babies.  One of them let me know that this approach helped her.

Now I’ve decided that writing about my experiences with breastfeeding will be a way to set myself free from the shame I have felt.  It’s out in the open now, and maybe I can help a new mother who reads this.  Please be kind in your comments and refrain from telling me what I “should have done.”  The past cannot be changed.  We all do the best we can.045