The Stealth Kid

Child in mask
When you least expected it
Boy flying high on a swing
Photo by Vika Strawberrika

Our fourth child and only son had a way of quietly disappearing just when you least expected it. So, maybe his unexpected death at age thirty shouldn’t have taken us so much by surprise. But it did and in my dreams, I keep looking for him, certain I’ll find him just as we did those many other times.

The secret to Johnny’s ability to disappear so quickly was he never gave himself away. He was simply there one minute and poof! Gone the next.

a more typical runaway
Little boy in raincoat and backpack
Photo by Daiga Ellaby

His same age cousin Danny was just the opposite. When presented with a new baby brother, Danny had told his parents he didn’t want a brother. They would have to take this squalling infant back to the hospital where they had got him.  When his parents insisted that Jamie was there to stay, his six-year-old brother proclaimed, “Okay, I’m running away from home.”

His distracted, tired mom Amy replied, “Go ahead.” Danny then packed his Spiderman backpack full of food and slammed out the back door. Fifteen minutes later their phone rang.  A neighboring mom, who lived three houses away, told Amy, “Danny is at our house, and he says that you told him it was okay to run away.  He wants to know if he can live with us.”

wandering to, not from

Johnny never announced his intention to leave.  He wasn’t running away. He was wandering to … albeit he didn’t know where. The first time I couldn’t find him he was barely six months old. I had run to kitchen to check on a stew on the stove and left him with his big sister playing on the floor in the den while she watched TV. Less than three minutes later, I returned to find him gone. A very agile baby, Johnny had been crawling since he turned five months old and lately had begun to pull himself up on pieces of furniture. But I was sure that wouldn’t take him very far.

StaircaseI ransacked the first floor, checking under tables and behind sofas and chairs seeking my baby. No luck. Suddenly, I heard thud, thud, thud, and a shrill cry from the direction of the stairs to the second floor. Betsy who had been helping me hunt raced up the steps and found her brother wailing on the second-floor landing.  He had climbed to the top of the stairs, but hadn’t known how to negotiate the downward trip. It was time to get some baby gates up – something his sisters hadn’t need until they were at least one year old.

where to now?

I learned from then on to keep a close eye on my adventurous preschooler, but there were still times he could slip out of sight if I were distracted by a phone call or engaged in making dinner.  One such evening, realizing I hadn’t caught sight of the four-year Johnny in a while, I left whatever I was preparing simmer while I did a house-wide search.

By now we had moved into a Victorian era, three-story row house on Belden 832 BeldenAvenue in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. The home had five staircases and twelve rooms, not including the basement playroom. I made a whirlwind quest through all four floors of the house. No Johnny. Beginning to panic – just a little – after all, this wasn’t the first time he had done this. I pulled his sisters from whatever they were doing and sent them out into the immediate neighborhood to look for him, all the while telling myself I would surely have noticed if he had gone out the door.

an ingenuous perch
Upright piano with music
Photo by Sven Brandsma

Setting about a more thorough search of the house from top to bottom, I checked closets and corners of bedrooms between beds and window walls. No sign of Johnny in any nook or cranny. Just as I came down the front staircase to the first floor, Carrie and Betsy rushed in the door, saying they hadn’t been able to locate him in anyone’s yard and none of the neighbors had spotted him.

When I got halfway down the stairs, a slight movement fluttered at the corner of my eye. I turned sideways and looked down into the large, square foyer. There on the top of our enormous, upright piano sprawled my little boy, sound asleep. Laughter gurgled up from my belly and a grin tugged at the corners of my mouth.  I looked back at the girls and pointed to their brother.

“Johnny,” Betsy exclaimed.  But he didn’t stir an inch. Still, I had to wake him. It had been a miracle he hadn’t tumbled off in his sleep. Did he climb up there with a purpose in mind? We would never know. Maybe it simply looked like a nice quiet place to lay his tired head.

a challenger with challenges

Johnny plays dress-upJohnny had to overcome serious barriers in his struggle to lead a normal life. To help him cope in the best way possible, we enrolled him at age twelve at Misericordia, a residential school for children with development challenges

We felt grateful that Johnny remained ambulatory and coordinated.  His independence of spirit, however, continued to work at cross purposes to his poor grasp of reality. He had a way of going very quietly about doing his own thing whenever the adults responsible for his care let down their guard. His Misericordia caretakers gave him the nickname, “the stealth kid.” One May morning, he gave everyone involved in his care a genuine scare.

really gone this time?

Jay and I both took the “L” train to the Loop, Jay to his office and me to the DePaul downtown campus. When Jay arrived at his office, his secretary greeted him saying Johnny’s school needed him to call right away. He phoned the administrator of Johnny’s apartment at Misericordia.  She was extremely anxious. That morning at Misericordia, Johnny had gotten on his school bus as usual, but his teacher called his apartment to ask why they hadn’t reported that he would be absent. Johnny’s house mother told them, “Because he got on the bus this morning.”

“That’s very strange,” the teacher replied. “He didn’t arrive here.”

Johnny’s bus would have ordinarily dropped him at school at nine o’clock. By now it was nine-thirty and no one knew where Johnny might be.  When I later heard the story, I thanked my lucky stars that for once it wasn’t my heart being twisted in knots. By the time Jay was able to reach me later in the day, Johnny had been found and was on the school bus on his way back to Misericordia.

found again
Parked school buses
Photo by Robert Bunabandi

He had been discovered asleep on the back seat of the bus in the parking lot in which the bus driver stationed it in during the day. Thankfully the day was mild neither hot nor cold. It seemed that as the bus aide had lowered the lift from the bus’s side door to allow the children in wheelchairs to exit, the ambulatory kids usually went out the front door. That day, however, Johnny slipped to the back of the bus earlier. When the driver and the aide looked over the bus, it appeared empty. The aide went into school and the driver parked the bus and went home.

Once again Johnny was fine, but the people that cared most about him felt like they’d been put through a wringer. Sadly, the bus driver, a woman I really loved for her kindness to the special kids she worked with every day was suspended from her job. While in some way, I knew that she and the aide weren’t as responsible as they should have been, I could personally testify that the “stealth kid” could act in ways that were very hard to anticipate. Because he stayed so quiet, it could be hard to catch him when he chose to go his own way.

with gratitude to angels
Angles against a dark sky
Photo by James Handley

Through the years I could only accept that angels walked with Johnny. He so easily could have wandered into certain danger and never did. Even though a sudden expected brain bleed took him from us shortly before his thirtieth birthday, he slipped away quickly. He was in no pain. He wasn’t afraid.  Nothing would ever fill the empty place he left in my heart. I was grateful, though, for the deep assurance that he was as safe now as he’d always been, guided home by angels.

“But where do you live mostly now?”
With the lost boys.”
Who are they?”
They are the children who fall out of their perambulators when the nurse is looking the other way. If they are not claimed in seven days they are sent far away to the Neverland to defray expanses. I’m captain.”
What fun it must be!”
Yes,” said cunning Peter, “but we are rather lonely. You see we have no female companionship.”
Are none of the others girls?”
Oh no; girls, you know, are much too clever to fall out of their prams.”
J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/lost-boys

 

Messy or Neat: Is It a Matter of Genetics?

Tulips - alike but different
sharing dna, but little else
Three sisters
Photo by Samet Gezer

In my last blog post, I pondered the question, how my children people sharing so much DNA and raised by the same parents in the same household could be so different from one another? I particularly tackled the question of why my oldest daughter, Kristy, should be so innately friendly, truly a child who never met a stranger while her younger by 18 months sister, Carrie, clung tenaciously to me whenever an even slightly unfamiliar person approached her.

messy or neat: is one better?

Another striking dissimilarity that popped up as my children grew were the

Neat bedroom
Photo by Kim Schouten

antithetic attitudes that Carrie and our youngest daughter Betsy took toward orderliness. Carrie’s sense of order was inborn, almost God-given. By the time she was six weeks old, she had developed a completely set pattern of eating and sleeping. By her second birthday, she had already established a place in her small room for all her clothes, toys, and books. Everything went back in place after she used it.

Messy room
Photo by Johnathan Borba

Betsy, however, was an infant who though sleep was for wimps. She seemed to be afraid that if she slept for more than twenty minutes at a time, she’d miss out on the something good. From an early age, she took the same attitude toward tidying up. As far as she could tell, it was a waste of time better spent having fun. No pleading, no rewards could entice her to put a toy back on a shelf or a dirty shirt in a hamper. She didn’t say she wouldn’t do it – she “just forgot.” At one point, in desperation, I placed a sign on her bedroom door that read, “If you have a heart condition, enter at your own risk.”

age old question: nature versus nurture

When I researched the topic of sibling differences for last week’s blog, I discovered that scientist have found that we are born with tendencies toward being an extravert or an introvert.  Could the same be true about our sense of order? Are some people just born with personalities that prefer order while others thrive on chaos?

It has been established that people react differently to order versus clutter, “For some people, a tidy room can be soothing. An orderly retreat in an often-disorderly world. For others, such rooms can be sterile, bland, and uninspiring. Some people feel anxious in a cluttered room while others feel their most creative amid the squalor.

Exuberant play
Photo by Artem Kniaz
one answer: personality types

Some psychologists consider that the tendency to be orderly or messy follow personality types. They tend to see Type A personalities as more orderly and Type B people as messy creatives.  But while Betsy slips fairly easily into Type B categories such as enthusiastic, persuasive, friendly fun-lover, Carrie more closely resembles the Type C personality, creative, detailed, organized, thoughtful and concerned about quality control.

Somber room
Photo by Erica Hugnh

And we are left asking are personality types themselves inherited or created by a child’s environment? The straightforward answer to that question, according to most research, is the personality traits of humans and animals are determined in large part by their genetic makeup. But genetics does not determine everything.

what can parents do?

Such conclusions leave me pondering.  Could I have possibly been able to influence Betsy to keep her room more orderly and be more helpful about household chores in general? I’m not at all certain about that.

Little girl twins
Photo by Tim Bish

And the researchers back me up. Studies in the field of behavioral genetics focus on three main factors: heritability, shared environment and nonshared environment. While all three sources of influence act simultaneously, psychological research collects data from studies of identical twins raised together, non-identical twins raised together, and identical twins raised separately.  The findings from these studies help them determine how much influence each factor has on the personality traits of individuals.

Twins in a field
Photo by Keisha Montfleury

One intriguing discovery that came out of these studies is that while environment, for the most part, plays a greater part than genetics in determining adult behavior, the effects of parents and other caretakers plays a very small role in determining our ultimate adult personality.

 

it’s complicated

There are simply too many other factors in every child’s life that also influence his/her development.  And these other influencers grow in number and importance at every developmental step.  One of the first influencers is other siblings.  And I’m not courageous enough to attempt to unravel what affect Carrie’s love of order may have had on Betsy’s carefree attitude toward clutter.

By the time Betsy was ready for nursery school at age three and a half, I had pretty much learned to let her live in the chaos she found fit her creative spirit. In filling out her application for the Lincoln Park Cooperative Nursery School, I indicated that the teachers would have some problems with Betsy when it came to picking up after herself and following other rigid rules of order.  Shortly after the school received the application, the head teacher and the teacher for Betsy’s potential class called me in to speak with them.  Kristy and Carrie had both attended the school.  So, the staff was familiar with our family.

mom did know best

They were concerned they told me about my negative attitude toward my third child.  The applications for my first two daughters had included no warnings, just glowing descriptions, but here was this gloomy assessment of Betsy.  They wondered what they problem was.  I had to reassured them that I loved my outgoing, sunny, exuberant baby girl every bit as much as I loved her sisters.  Honesty had compelled to include what might prove a challenge for them.  They seemed only half convinced of my sincerity.

Six weeks into the school year, however, they called me back into school to apologize. Betsy was, they conceded, delightful in all the ways I said she would be, but every school day when the “clean-up” song began, she disappeared.  She had discovered a wonderful, cozy hideaway on some soft beanbag chairs in a closet. These became her instinctive retreat the minute the song’s first note rang out.

we’ll know more later

No surprise there. As individuals, as a couple, and as parents, Jay and I tended to take things as they came to us.  Close friends of ours and fellow travelers in the parenthood adventure, the Vander Voorts had a family motto, “We’ll know more later.”  We like their motto so much, we adopted, but with a caveat, “We’ll know more later – maybe.” We wanted Betsy and all our children to develop into unique individuals. Letting character flaws as well as strengths emerge as they grew allowed them the best chance to be exactly who they were meant to be. Over the course of their lives, each of them amazed us beyond our wildest expectations.

(Sibling differences is theme I also explore in the children’s story, “Becky Birch,” which I will be posting this week on the Stories That Chose Me segment of this website. Be sure to check it out.)

Ocean at sunset
Photo by Joshua Earle

 

Siblings: Our Most Familiar Mystery

DNA chain
dna: 50% the same; 100% different!

How is it, I wondered over and over, as my children grew from tiny infants to full-fledged adults, that two people sharing so much DNA and raised by the same parents in the same household could be so different from one another? How much were the differences innate? Had I contributed to making each child unique?  Had other factors played a part?

sisters, yes. the same, no.
Pink booties on a bench
Photo by Janko Ferrlic

The issue came up very soon after we became a family of four. Our oldest child, Kristy, never met a stranger. She happily greeted all human persons, willingly went to any open arms, and settled comfortably onto any warm lap. Kristy’s friendliness served as a strong contrast to the stranger anxiety exhibited by her sister Carrie, born when Kristy was eighteen months old.

stranger anxiety

Newborn babies normally are happy to be held, fed and kept warm by just about anyone. But a normal developmental pattern, stranger anxiety, can cause a formerly easy-going baby to become fearful at being passed to

Crying toddler
Photo by Zachary Kadolph

unfamiliar arms. Instead, he or she turn into a sobbing, clingy mess. As stressful as this is for parents, it’s all perfectly normal. It demonstrates that the baby is beginning to order her world. One of his tasks is to distinguish the familiar from the unfamiliar. Ordinarily, adverse reactions to those perceived as “strange” begin when the baby is about six months old. By the time he is fifteen months old, they may hit their peak and then gradually wane away.

an extreme example
Shy baby
Photo by Michal Bar Hain

Well, Carrie hadn’t read any developmental charts before she came into our life. She was barely six weeks old before she greeted anyone but me with loud wails of protest. Well past her third birthday, she clung to me when Jay and I headed out for an evening, begging me not to go. Her separation anxiety was so extreme I felt that something in our environment must have reinforced it. Could her fears connect in some way to her older sister’s seizure disorder, a factor that had disrupted her life from early infancy?

Let me share a story that demonstrates that reality. One day in February, 1971, brands itself on my memory, but it was not so different than other like occasions.

sweet awakening
Kitten
Photo by Kote Puerto

At five that morning, I awoke to the sounds of Carrie stirring restlessly in her bassinet, next to my side of our bed. Within a few seconds, there followed little mewing sounds, not unlike those made by kittens. I pushed up against my pillows and reached over to scoop up the baby, swaddled in a flannel blanket. Her soft lips rooted for my nipple and she soon suckled quietly. Jay slept. I switched Carrie to my other breast. A few minutes later, satiated, she let go and her head slipped against the crook of my arm, her dark curls damp and tight. In slow deliberate motion, I slid toward the bassinet and slipped her against the Winnie the Pooh wedged in the corner. I could pretty much count on her sleeping until nine o’clock.  I could manage an hour’s rest before Kristy woke.

duplicate trauma

A piercing cry shattered the quiet. Kristy. I reached over and shook Jay’s shoulder and whispered so as not to wake the baby, “Kristy’s having a seizure.

I darted out the bedroom doorway, across the hall and saw that her tiny form was arching so wildly in convulsions that her crib banged against her bedroom wall. Unclasping the side of her crib, I reached in and cautiously turned her on her side. Her small body felt on fire. “Get a cool cloth,” I commanded. I took it from Jay’s hands and wiped her forehead. I tried to slip her out of her nightgown, but her arms were thrashing too strongly for me to slip the sleeves down. The convulsions should have stopped by now.  The fever must be making them worse than usual.”

Within a minute Jay was back, without socks, but otherwise dressed. His feet will freeze I thought, but ran to our room, my heart pumping so hard I could hardly breathe.  You have to calm down I told myself. For just a few second, I stopped and gazed at the peacefully slumbering Carrie. I pulled some sweat clothes from a dresser drawer. I so wanted to leave the baby right there. Let her sleep. But I couldn’t.  I hurried back across the hall. Kristy’s seizure had stopped, but she was still burning and limp as a wet dish rag, completely knocked out rather than asleep.

Houses at dawn
Photo by Eilis Garvey

Jay had picked her up and was cradling her against his chest. “Can you wrap her up?” I asked. “I’m going to take the baby over to Lucy’s house.” He nodded. With a heart as heavy as lead, I lifted Carrie. She woke and began to whimper as I took her downstairs and struggled her into her tiny snowsuit, whispering, “You’ll be okay” again and again. Was I soothing her or me?

A few minutes later, my neighbor Lucy opened her door.

Before she could say anything, I blurted out, “I need you to take Carrie. Kristy is really sick.  We’re taking her to the hospital.”

Without another word, Lucy reached for the baby, but I held tight for a few more seconds. “I’m sorry,” I whispered to her.

better – sort of

It was late afternoon before we returned from the hospital. Kristy’s fever had resulted from a bronchial infection. Acetaminophen had reduced her fever. The doctor prescribed an antibiotic for the infection. She’d recovered he assured us, but also expressed concerns about the length and intensity of her seizure.

Winnie the Pooh book
Photo by Annie Spratt

At home, I carried the exhausted, but now smiling Kristy up to bed while Jay walked down the block to retrieve Carrie. I collapsed into the rocker in the corner of Kristy’s tiny bedroom.  Keeping her on my lap, I took a large illustrated Winnie the Pooh from the shelf built into the wall, and began to read her favorite rhyme, “Hush, little baby.” While I read, I listened for the sound of the front door. Was Carrie, okay? She had never been away from me before.  The bottle of formula I’d handed Lucy that morning would be Carrie’s first bottle feeding. Had she accepted it or gone hungry?  My breasts ached where Kristy’s delicate body slumped into mine.

know more next time

As the front door opened, I heard the wind knock it against the foyer wall with a resounding thud.  Louder yet was the baby’s wail. Oh, Carrie, my heart called. Kristy’s eyes were drooping.  Trying to be careful, I slid her into the crib.  “Mama,” she pleaded and reached a little hand toward me. The baby’s cries became louder. Jay was probably at the bottom of the steps. “It’s okay, sweetie. Time to sleep.” I turned.  Was I forever going to be telling my children “It’s okay” when it wasn’t?

Sure enough, Jay stood at the foot of our front staircase. His hair swiped back from his forehead, stood on edge. In one hand, he held out the full bottle of milk and his head was shaking slowly. My gut churned. I went down so fast I had to grab the rail to keep from careening into him. I scooped Carrie out of his arms, shook her little snow suit off of her, and carried her to the living room. Within seconds she was under my sweater, nursing her little heart out. “I’m so sorry.” I whispered, resolving never to disappear on her again.

It was a promise I couldn’t keep, but she did accompany me to the hospital as often as possible after that. But even that wasn’t an optimal environment for a baby inclined to be shy and fearful.  Recent behavioral scientific theory that my instinctive concerns might have been on target.

A case of emergenesis
Multi color fish in aquarium
Photo by Maksym Sirman

Genetically siblings share 50 percent of their genes, but “just one gene in a sequence of genes can change the outcome entirely.

This phenomenon, emergenesis, occurs “when a trait is determined by a particular configuration of many genes. That specific combination of genes then leads a person to display a particular characteristic.”  Intriguingly, that characteristic may not be exhibited by anyone else in the person’s family.  Further research has indicated that extraversion and introversion are commonly emergenic traits.  Thus, it’s not at all unusual that Kristy would have been such a total extravert while her little sister clung to the other end of the social arc.

we’re so lucky!

For Jay and me, letting Carrie go at her own pace turned out to be the best parenting answer. Despite her initial shyness and fear of the unfamiliar, Carrie grew into a strong, intelligent, beautiful, competent woman who climbs mountains, rafts rapids, makes loyal friends for life, and is a wonderful wife and mother.

Carrie, Evelyn and David

“I think as women, we have to stop being scared to be the women we want to be and we have to raise our daughters to be the women they want to be — not the women we think they should be.”
Jada Pinkett Smith

 

 

 

Learning to Live with the Unknown

Jule and Kristy early Spring 1970
off kilter
Blue Globe
Photo by Elena Mozhvilo

If your whole world suddenly shifts off its axis, you remember that moment in time for the rest of your life.

By the time my first child, Kristin Margaret was nine months old, she filled my days with delight and my heart with pride. Her wispy baby hair deepened into a shimmering gold blonde and curved naturally around her cheeks. When she smiled her wide blue eyes lit up like stars and deep dimples creased her cheeks.  And she smiled most of the time. Kristy loved the whole, wide world. Unlike most babies, she had never heard of “stranger anxiety.” Fearless and friendly, she allowed just about anyone to take her from my arms and give her a big hug.

a shattering scream

Just before Kristy's first seizureOne placid February Tuesday I slid a sleeping Kristy out of my arms and into her porta-crib for her afternoon nap.  Secure of some quiet time, I picked up the phone to call a Mom friend. Ten minutes into our conversation a high-pitched, piercing cry vibrated through the whole house. What? I stopped talking. There it was again. The baby! “Something’s wrong with Kristy,” I cried and dropped the phone into its cradle.

Taking the stairs two at a time, I burst into the nursery and froze in place. Kristy writhed in the middle of her crib, her back arched, her head thrown back, her arms and legs jerking. Foam dribbled from her lips. Oh, dear Jesus, I thought, she’s having a seizure. a vision of my younger sister Nanette in the midst of fever convulsions flashed through my memory.

men in helmets

I scooped Kristy into my arms. The jerking vibrations of her little body sent shudders through me. I should know what to do, I’d watched my parents dozens of times, but I couldn’t think. Kristin continued to convulse.  I needed help. Holding Kristy tightly for fear she’d thrash right out of my arms, I ran downstairs. I yanked the telephone receiver off the hook and pushed the “O” button.  As the ringing began, tears began streaming down my cheeks.  When I heard “Operator,” I babbled something incoherent into the phone, but she understood and assured me the fire department was on its way. Fire department? But…She was gone.

I heard a siren screaming down the quiet suburban street. Men in uniforms pounded at the door. They took one look at the baby seizing in my arms and rushed her to the waiting ambulance. I tried to run after her. A strong hand grabbed my upper arm, “Wait, we’ll see you get to the hospital. I need some information first.” I stared at him. My baby might be dying and he wanted to fill out a form!

“I can’t,” I croaked.

He nodded. “Okay. Let’s go.”

forgetting to pray

I climbed into the back of the ambulance, but I couldn’t get near Kristy. Three huge men hulked over my tiny girl.   One had inserted a needle in her thigh, another held an oxygen mask over her face. I couldn’t see what the third one was doing. Abruptly her convulsing body went completely limp.

“Kristy,” I cried.

“It’s okay.  We just gave her a tranquilizer to stop the seizures.”

Hospital lobby
Photo by Mar Ko

Then the siren drowned out his words. At the hospital, Kristy was wheeled away from me and rushed to an examining room. When I tried to follow the cart, a nurse barred the way.

“Mrs. Ward, you’ll have to wait in the waiting room until the doctors finish.”

“No. I can’t. You have to let me go in. She’s going to be scared. She needs me.”

“I’m sorry, but you’d just be in the way. Listen, I’ll get you a glass of water and you can calm down a bit.” She headed to the nurses’ station.

I stationed myself outside the examining room door, slumped against the wall.  When she returned, the nurse urged me once again to take a seat in the waiting room. I shook my head. After that, the doctors, nurses, and techs came and went from the room. Everyone ignored me. After an eternity, I straightened up and crossed to the nurses’ station.

“What’s happening to my baby?” I begged. Tears choked my words.

“We can’t release any information until you see the doctor,” the woman in white at the counter told me.

“But she’s my baby.  I need to know.”

“Please sit down. The doctor will be out soon.”

what can a dad Do?
Kristy and her father
Kristy with Jay at 13 months

Just then I saw my husband Jay push through the double doors at the end of the corridor. I ran down the hall.  “Where’s Kristy? Is she going to be alright?” he asked.

“I don’t know.  They won’t tell me anything.” I laid my head on his shoulder and sobbed. He held me tight as we stood there, letting people detour around us.

Hours dragged on. a doctor approached us, insisted we take a seat, sat down himself, and began, “Your daughter has a very high fever.  That’s what probably brought on the convulsions.  We’re doing everything we can to bring her fever down.”

“What’s causing the fever,” Jay wanted to know.

“We’re uncertain, but she’s been transferred to our pediatric ward for observation.” And he got up and left.

The nurse told us how to find the room where they’d taken Kristy. In the midst of whirring machines and draping tubes, Kristy slept peacefully. A nursing nun sat in a rocking chair beside her enormous steel crib.

only questions. no answers
Rocking chair at
Photo by Anabela De Sousa

“I can take over now, Sister,” I told her, but the floor doctor who had walked in behind us said to Jay, “You have to take your wife home. She’s been hysterical.  She needs to rest.”

I wanted to resist.  Kristy needed me.  She had only just weaned from the breast a couple weeks before.  We’d never been apart. But even Sister urged me to go. Torn and guilty, but too tired to resist, I left my baby in their hands.

But sleep elude me that night. I stared at our bedroom ceiling. Was something seriously wrong with our daughter?  I could be just a worry wort.  Do stars have a dark side?

when you wish upon a star…
Kristy's bright smile
Photo by John Ward

On the average, babies to speak their first words between ten and fourteen months and have a vocabulary of about three words by their first birthday. Kristy, however, was a natural communicator. She smiled by the time she was three weeks old, waved bye-bye at three months and blew kisses at six months. She had pronounced, “Dada,” before turning six months old. Since then she had picked up more than a dozen understandable words, which she had begun to string together into small sentences.  And she didn’t only say the words she knew, she often babbled to us, her friends, and her toys in strings of sounds that had the cadence of real speech.  We were convinced that she knew exactly what she was saying even if no one else did. Right at that moment, however, Kristy’s singular brightness felt blurred by the worry I felt.

our same sweet girl, but . ?

We weren’t supposed to visit until ten in the morning, but by eight o’clock, I had slipped into Kristy room. Sunlight streamed from the tall window and lit the gold in her hair where she sat huddled into a corner of her crib, “reading” a picture book on her lap.   My heart lifted.  She looked healthy and well.  “Kristy,” I whispered.

Kristy and Jule
Photo by John Ward

“Mommy,” she yelled, crawled to the side of the bed, pulled herself up by the slats, and reached her arms for me.  I could only lean over and give a hug.  If I had lifted her, it would have dislodged her intravenous feed.

“Up, up,” she insisted, giving me her biggest smile. I couldn’t say “no;” I couldn’t say “yes.” That trapped feeling would forever shadow my interactions with this beloved child.

A nurse had seen me go in and come to tell me that visiting hours hadn’t started, but assessing the situation, she chose instead to unhook the feed and allow me to take Kristy in my arms.  I sat rocking her in the comfy rocker until the doctor appeared. “Well?” I asked.

He looked at the chart rather than at me, “Kristin’s fever is back to normal.  She has no other symptoms.  All the tests have come back negative.”

What Now? sign
Photo by Tim Mossholder

Confused, I asked, “Then what’s wrong with her? What cause her convulsions”

“Nothing as far as we can tell. She just spiked a fever in response to some low-grade infection.  It was part of her body’s response. She’s over the hump and on the mend.”

It didn’t sound like much of an answer. “Will it happen again?”

He actually shrugged his shoulder – as though it didn’t matter.  “We have no way of knowing. It could be a one-time occurrence.  It could be a pattern.  We have to wait and see. In the meantime, it doesn’t help her at all for you to become overly anxious.”

starting over

We returned home, puzzled and wary, but with no choice but simply resume our life, hoping the whole episode would become a distant memory. Returning to normalcy is easier said than done.  For three weeks I slept on the floor next to Kristy crib.  She was fine – healthy as a young filly, learning new words and skills almost every day, and remaining a sunny, friendly baby about to celebrate her first birthday.

Easter, the first Sunday in April, I woke up to two happy realizations.  It had been two months since our frantic trip to the hospital and Kristy had remained seizure-free the whole time.  Also, I hadn’t had a menstrual period since that fateful day.  My missed periods could be due to stress. My anxiety level over Kristy had remained high despite her apparent good health. But there was also a chance I might be pregnant.  That seemed a wild card. It had taken four years to conceive Kristy and she was not yet one year old.

life: joy all tangled up with anxiety

Kristy and baby CarrieA month passed before I could get to see the gynecologist because two days after Easter, Kristy had another seizure.  It wasn’t long.  It didn’t necessitate a trip to the emergency room, but it did us send back to the pediatrician asking more questions for which there seemed to be no answers.  When in early May I made it into the gynecologist, the news was wonderful, a balm against our worries about Kristin.  Our daughter would be a big sister by Christmas. Infertility ceased to be a concern.  But one every bit as frightening took its place.  What was wrong with Kristy?  And what could we do to make her better? Those became the two central questions of our life for the next 40 years.

 

Little girl follows big cat pawprints
Photo by Hugues de Buyer-Mimeure

 

Room for One More

Father walking in sunset with kids
life keeps changing

In my blog post on the last Monday in January, I recounted how turning the year I turned thirteen my life turned, if not full circle, then at least by 180 degrees. My vision of what my future could hold had expanded at the very time my family had left behind Detroit, Michigan, the city of my birth, to move to a much smaller city in central Indiana.

1050s car in front of frame home
Photo from Boston Public Library

One unexpected change, however, may have happened whether we had moved or not. In the summer of 1956 when we piled our station wagon with items too precious to entrust to the movers, we then squeezed in a family of six. Dad drove and Mom navigated. Between on a booster sat my four-year old brother Terrence. My brother John, twenty months my junior, and I commanded the window seats in the back. Despite her loud laments, we crowded the eight-year-old “princess.” Nanette, into the middle. Two girls. Two boys. A dad and a mom. A nice round number – a family of six.

an anniversary surprise
Baby drinking from a bottle
Photo by Kelly Sikkema

By the time the kids entered school in September, however, the numbers were not quite so even. When we had sat down for a celebratory dinner for my parents’ fifteenth wedding anniversary, Dad had announced with tears in his eyes that by spring a new sister or brother would be joining us. A new baby for the new abode. Everyone of us cheered.  At least, I think Nanette did.  I don’t remember checking.

The gap between the new baby and me would be almost fifteen years. Mom’s pregnancy helped to make me a celebrity at school.  Few of my freshman year high school classmates were expecting a baby into their family. For many of us, our other siblings had been born before we knew “where babies came from.” So, it was exciting to skirt around the issue that someone’s parents had actually “done it at their age.” Although my mom and dad were only in their forties, many of us knew grandparents who were not much older than that.

an anxious father
Man staring off into woods
Photo by Madalyn Cox

The closer the time came for the birth of the new baby, the more anxious and nervous my father became.  He found it hard to go off to work in the morning. He lost his temper quite easily with us for the slightest infraction and spent lots of time in his woodworking shop producing nothing.  Excitement and happiness about the new baby so filled my heart that I couldn’t figure out what was causing him so much grief. Mom was healthy. She was just pregnant. Had I not been so absorbed in fitting in to my new school environment to which I’d basically taken like a duck to water, I might have been able to discern why Dad was so tense all the time.

home birth emergency

His trauma had its root cause in my sister Nanette’s birth. Because my mother’s labor with her had proceeded so quickly, there was no opportunity to head for the hospital. John and I, only three and five at the time, had not been told we’d be having a new sibling. Rather, that Sunday morning in February, 1948, we had been awakened by our mother’s screams and had run to her room.  Dad turned us away, ordering us to go downstairs and keep still.  We sat clinging to one another in the big gold chair by the victrola, still in our pajamas when our grandmother rushed into the front door in her housecoat shortly and ran upstairs without looking our way.

Doctor with his bag -vintage photo
Photo from Shutterstock

Then we heard only muffled sounds for what seemed forever until our dad’s footsteps pounded down the steps and to the door. The doctor, black bag in hand hurried across the room.  Just as he passed us, a baby cried out. (For a very long time I was totally convinced that new babies were delivered by doctors in their black bags.) Then we heard sirens as an ambulance pulled up out front. Our grandmother came downstairs and hustled us into the kitchen. We heard a lot of commotion on the other side of the door and then the sirens again. Still, no one told us anything except when I asked to see my mom, grandma said she was sick and had gone to the hospital.

five people in the family
Tiny baby girl
Photo by Jenean Newcomb

Our father didn’t come home that night, but he was in the dining room the next morning and his smile lit up the space. “You have a new little sister,” he told us. Now we’ve lived on a block in the city where new babies showed up at friends houses all the time.  The big mystery, of course, was where did they come from.  But come they did.  So, John and I were not all that surprised. He asked when would Mom be home and I asked what the baby’s name was. “Mary Antoinette,” Dad said.

“I’ll never be able to spell that,” I told him.

Mom, despite her unexpected home birth was fine and so was the new little one.  They came home the next day. I started calling the baby “Nanette” almost immediately – but never when my mom could hear me.

another birth trauma
Delivery room birth
Photo by Amit Gaur

Life returned to a normal rhythm until four years later when my brother Terrence’s birth shook the family to its core.  In mid-twentieth century America only hospital deliveries were considered safe.  The fact that my sister had been born at home without any problem and that both mother and child had been healthy carried no weight.  When Mom became pregnant for the fourth time, the doctor was determined that the child would be delivered at the hospital.  He decided, therefore, to induce the birth around the time of the baby’s due date.

Because I was only ten at the time, I never knew exactly what went wrong just that it did go bizarrely off track.  For one thing, the doctor misjudged the due date. When my brother was born, it became clear that he was premature. He needed neo-natal intensive care immediately and couldn’t leave the hospital for a month.  For some reason, delivery did not go well for mother either. She also was hospitalized following the birth becoming ill enough that my dad feared for her life. My grandmother led the three children at home in daily rosaries praying for our new baby brother and our Mom.

Baby in isolette incubator
Photo by Sharon Mc Cutcheon

What I recall most about that time was a sense of dread.  Although no adult had ever shared with me the dangers of childbirth, I had experienced death intimately twice that year.  My best friend, Patti, had died four days after being diagnosed with polio.  And my grandfather had died unexpectedly of a heart attack.  I did my best to be a “little mother” to my brother and sister, but I knew how inadequate I was.  I cried myself to sleep while keeping a brave face for my dad during the day. What a relief when Dad announced that Mom and Terrence were coming home.

at home at last
Children on step
Photo by Mallory Di Maio

It was a lovely May day and we waited on the front steps as Dad helped Mom, holding the blanket-clad baby out of the car. John held the front door.  I ran ahead to stand by the h bassinet so I could have a first peek at the baby. But when Mom laid him down, horror gripped me. He was red and wrinkled like a prune.  His little arms and legs were stick-like not the chubby baby limbs I expected. Was he really okay to come home?  Mom saw my look. “He’s fine.  We just have to fattened him up a bit.”

just as it should be

Now with the unexpected home birth and the disastrous induced birth ever in his radar, my dad couldn’t help but be a nervous wreck the closer the fifth baby’s due date got. But when it came, it went just the way it was supposed to go.  Mom awoke with mild contractions. There was plenty of time for Dad to take her to the hospital.  I was old enough to care for home and hearth while he

Blonde newborn
Photo by Yves Scheuber

went.  A robust, healthy baby girl came into the world without any complications. Three days later, we welcomed home a chubby, big-eyed cherub with a wisp of blonde curls – a true Gerber baby.  My happiness at welcoming this new family member knew no bounds.  I called everyone I knew to say that “Mary Elizabeth” had joined the family and they should come and see the most beautiful baby in the world.

What, even in all my happiness at the time, I couldn’t know was this precious child would continue to be a blessing to me throughout my life. I’ll have to tell you about that in another blog post.

Siblings: children of the same parents, each of whom is perfectly normal until they get together.
Sam Levenson

I would love to hear any stories you have about welcoming new brothers or sisters into the family.

 

Sisters – A Bond Like No Other

Sisters on a couch
weird sisters

In the delightful novel, The Weird Sisters, three women in their early thirties land back at their parents’ home for a summer. The twists of fate converge to bring them together when each is facing a life-changing crisis. The author Eleanor Brown transforms these ordinary moments of everyday life into a narrative so engrossing that it’s almost impossible to put down. She does this in no small measure through her vivid portrayal of each sister and of their complex relationship.

3 sisters circa 1890
Photo from Boston Public Library

A dear friend recommended I read the book because I also am one of three sisters. She thought I might find similarity between my family and the one in the book.  On the surface, the family of this novel and my own family of origin have little in common. The heroines of the book grow up in a small mid-western town where life centers around a prestigious liberal arts college. Their father is a literature professor. My sisters and I grew up in large urban centers where manufacturing was the lifeblood of the community. Our father, as intelligent as he was, had no college degree. Popular mechanics were his passion.

first, middle, last – it makes a difference
Three Nepalese sisters
Photo by Terry Boynton

Despite these differences, from the first page the story resonated with me at a deep level. What struck me right away was the influence of birth order not just on the sisters’ place within the family, but also on the choices they had made as they left the family. I could see a parallel structure in my own family.

In the past, some psychologists like Alfred Adler, a 19th- and early 20th-century Austrian psychotherapist and founder of individual psychology, suspect that birth order leads to differences in siblings. Broader twenty-first century studies have questioned this theory,   Other studies based on Myers/Briggs theory have confirmed it.

excellent writer’s tool

Psychology aside, however, this theory works well for writers as they develop their characters. As we read, we believe. When an author weaves a fine tale in which a character’s birth order influences importance aspects of the self, readers not only accept the reality on the page, they begin to look for similarities in their own life.

Like the oldest sister in The Weird Sisters, I always had an overdeveloped sense of responsibility to the family. I didn’t always like that role, but I knew my parents expected me to help my mother with household tasks, caring for my younger siblings, and running errand when needed.

caught in the middle
3 Sisters from Logan, Utah
Photo by Adam Winger

In the book, Bianca, the middle sister shrugs off the responsibilities of home and narrowness of small-town life.  She is the beauty of the family and she uses that beauty as a commodity. My middle sister was also the beauty of our family – a beauty with a prickly rose bush grown around her, keeping her separate from the rest of us – somehow living in another plain.

Her given name was Mary Antoinette. My mother never called her anything else. We siblings had trouble spilling that out all at once. At first, we called her “Marnette.” Later that phased in “Nanette,” the name we still use.  She herself insisted on being called “Mary.”  This was problematic because our youngest sister, the baby of the family, was Mary Elizabeth. Mom shorted that to Mary Beth, but then us older kids shortened it to simply “Beth,” which might have worked except that when she went to high school, she told all her new friends to simply call her “Mary.”

Consequently, if someone phoned our home and asked for “Mary,” we always had to ask, “Which one?” A little flustered, the caller would say “Mary De Jager,” to which we again answered “Which one?” My brothers and I were loud in our protests over the confusion that the two “Mary’s” were causing, but neither sister would give way.  Each hold her claim to “her” name.

the favored child
3 Sisters in Carterville IL
Photo by Blake Cheek

In The Weird Sisters, each of the young women is certain that she is actually her father’s favorite.  No such mistaken notion occurred in my household. Nanette was far and away the “favored child.” Her delicate features, huge blue eyes, and very curly flaxen hair mesmerized adults. More than that, she very early learned to be what she herself termed “a lady.”  And I talking about when she was just a kindergartener. For one thing, she would only wear dresses or skirts never jeans or shorts. My mother complied and dressed her like a favorite doll. Mom also spent a great deal of time fashioning Nanette’s curls into perfect spirals with some of them piled charmingly on top of her head.

My maternal grandmother doted on this beautiful granddaughter.  Our family, as a rule, never ate in restaurants unless we were traveling, but my grandmother and “Grandpa Ed,” her second husband loved eating out. They often took Nanette with them because they enjoyed the admiration and attention that other diners showered on her and because my sister had learned at a very young age that “children should be seen and not heard.”

As we grew Nanette became ever more attractive. When we got to our teens, she spent most of the day at the neighbor pool. She was the only one in the family who could tan. Her skin turned the color of honey in the summer and her hair bleached to an even lighter shade of blonde.

unanticipated metamorphosis
3 sisters in a rural area
Photo by Fabio Centeno

When she turned seventeen, a metamorphosis took us all by surprise. The Barbie Doll caterpillar spun a cocoon and disappeared, becoming uncommunicative and unsocial.  Nanette went to school, watched the television news, and read for hours. When the butterfly emerged, she was a socially conscious advocate, determined to make a difference in a world she deemed was falling apart. After high school graduation, she joined a group of lay missionaries. Their work took them to schools in Appalachia. She returned at the end of the summer and enrolled at the University of Minnesota to study social work.

briefly royal

She had, however, one more turn as the family beauty.  During Nanette’s sophomore year, our mother became very ill. She expressed to her middle child that she had been harboring high hopes for years that Nanette might someday be Miss America. When Nanette tried to laugh it off, Mom begged her to consider trying.  Seeing Mom’s desperation, my sister applied for the Miss St. Paul pageant – and won. My mother was in seventh heaven.  The next step, getting ready for the Miss Minnesota pageant meant taking time off from studies, but Nanette didn’t know how to refuse. In that contest, she became one of ten finalists.

Goth sisterss
Photo by Angello Pro

Then in an interview with the judges, each young woman was asked what she wanted to do with her life. Nanette laid out for them her plan to get a Master’s in Social Work and to then go to areas of the country that were under served to help those struggling with poverty and lack of supportive services.  One of the judges nodded. Then he said, “You have the talent to win this contest, but most of the girls either have no concrete plan for their life or want to go into show business.  Being Miss Minnesota would take a year out of your life.  You have a great vision. We don’t think you should waste a year of your life being a beauty queen. Go follow your dream.”

the rainbow ends here

Nanette not only understood she was relived.  She had done her best. It wasn’t meant to be.  Our mom still had her photos to display with Nanette wearing the Miss St. Paul crown.  Her daughter had done her duty as the “favored child.”

Mary Antoinette followed her own yellow brick road and became a high school counselor, devoted to helping young teens find a way to transform their most authentic dreams into reality.

“And I felt closer to you. Because you knew me so much better than I’d realized – and still loved me.”
Rosamund lupton, Sister

Three Sisters Peaks Oregon

Back Country Cure

Banff, Canada
permission to disconnect
Man riding horse in wilderness
Photo by Hector Perez

I recently discovered an article in the National Geographic that warmed my heart and spun my memory back three-quarters of a century.

Ray Knell, a Green Beret and a ten-year Afghanistan combat veteran undertook a 1,000-mile wilderness ride from Colorado to Montana along North America’s Continental Divide. He completed his trek using wild mustangs because the horse gave him focus and allowed him to disconnect. This he needed to do to heal his own PTSD. He also hoped to set an example that other traumatized veterans could follow.

an ancient syndrome – a new guise
WW I - Men in trenches
Photo from British Library

The term PTSD didn’t enter my vocabulary until the early 1980s. Many of my classmates, men and women, had served in the armed forces in the Vietnam Conflict. They returned home suffering from a disabling array of mental disturbances. Due to the controversial nature of the war, their suffering may have been worse than that experienced in the past. But it was not a new syndrome. Ancient documents describe post-combat symptoms similar to the high levels of stress and anxiety the young combatants of the 1970s experienced.

One evening after my children were in bed, a close friend from college, now decommissioned and on his way home to St. Paul, stopped to spend the night at our home. He arrived at ten at night, hungry and tired.  I fixed him a B. L.T. “Ah,” he said, “this is the kind of food we dreamed about in ‘Nam.” He and I sat up long past midnight. I tried not to cry as I listened to the horror stories he had to tell. I prayed there would be a source of solace for him once he stepped again on Minnesota soil.

And I finally understood the full meaning of a journey I had taken when I was not quite four years old.

detour on the way home

1946 ChevroletEarly in the morning of the Memorial Day weekend, 1946, my dad John De Jager, slid behind the enormous wheel of his family’s retooled 1942, four-door, Chevy sedan. His right arm across the wide front seat, he checked to make sure all was set in back. His brother, my Uncle Jimmy, sat in the passenger seat, resting a brawny arm along the open car window. In the back I commanded one window seat and my grandmother, the other. My brother John, who was almost two years old, sat on a booster chair between us. The trunk of the car had been piled high with suitcases, and we still had some containers under our feet. As my Dad turned the key and started the big engine, I knelt up and leaned my arms on the back ledge to wave a wild good-bye to family we left standing in the drive-way.

WW II Sailor kissing girl
Photo by Jorge Gardner

World War II had officially ended the September before when U.S. General Douglas MacArthur accepted Japan’s formal surrender aboard the U.S. battleship Missouri, anchored in Tokyo Bay.  Sometime during the winter my uncle had been discharged from the Navy. Throughout the war, he had served on ships in the Pacific as a radar specialist and seldom saw the light of day. On the evening he had returned to us, he swooped in and grabbed me and swung me around the room. Then he plopped his navy cap on my head.  “Here, Judy,” he said. “It’s all yours. I’m done fighting.”

to be whole again
Ranch in Canada
Photo by Jon Phillips

It seemed that we had my dad’s happy-go-lucky brother back. But we didn’t. What I wouldn’t know until later was that Jimmy wasn’t able to concentrate at the job that was waiting for him. He joined his family on Sunday at church, but no longer joined in the hymns. Worst of all nightmares caused him to wake the family in the middle of the night with his screams. The family doctor advised a “rest cure.”

Because his mother had grown-up on a ranch in Alberta, Canada, the family decided what Jimmy needed was time away from Detroit, its crowds and its demand. He needed the wide-open spaces and the down-to-earth labor of the ranch to help him regain his equilibrium.

Jimmy wasn’t the only one suffering from the aftermath of the conflict that had taken the lives of millions, leaving the survivors reeling in shock.  My mother’s only brother, John, had died in combat in Belgium, shortly after her father had succumbed to a heart attack. Deep in mourning herself, she struggled to stay strong for her mother.

Grieving older woman
Photo by Christian Newman

My grandmother sat in darkened rooms staring at old photos and shunning society. She had been a woman who loved dancing, singing, cooking and entertaining. She had given the reception for my mother’s wedding in her backyard, doing all the decorations and food preparation on her own. But now, nothing interested her. My mother fear for her mental health. Her concerns for her mother distracted her from caring for my brother and me. She did not, of course, neglect us, but could get no real joy from being a mother.

What I understand today is that my entire family lived under the pall of post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet, they had no name to give it. They only knew the world was at peace, but that peace eluded them.

follow the sun
Yellowstone National Park
Photo by Paula Hayes

The little girl happily waving goodbye from the backseat of the Chevy only knew she was off on an adventure. For my Dad who would be returning to Detroit and my mother, this was his vacation. Everything about it looms in my memory like scenes from a fantasy or a fairy tale. The geysers at Yellowstone National Park both frightened and delighted me. The mountains in Glacier National Park suggested hidden homes of giants and elves. I was certain that the hotel on Lake Louise as we neared our destination was actually a palace.

Our last stop before the ranch was my Great-Grandmother Koopman’s home in Banff. I’ve never forgotten that since wasn’t at home when we arrived. So, my father hoisted me on his shoulders to crawl in through the open kitchen window.  I landed in the sink and scrambled down to the linoleum. It was getting dark and I didn’t know which way to go in the strange house, but my father was shouting, “Find the front door.”

I tentatively peered through a door. No ghosts.  Just a gigantic dining room table and chairs.  I crept around it, holding onto the backs of the chairs as though I needed to be anchored to the floor.  Through an archway, I saw a living room full of plastic-covered heavy furniture, and, thankfully, a big white paneled door. I let go of a chair and ran to the door, twisted the lock and let my family in.  My Great-Gran was quite surprised to find us all sitting in her living room when she arrived home. It was late at night when we turned off the gravel highway onto the rutted, dirt driveway into the ranch, but my Great-Aunt Elsa waited with a lantern on the back porch as we drove up. She engulfed me in a giant bear hug that felt just right.

living with heroes
Cowboy on ranch
Photo by Flo P

From that moment on the whole summer was one magical adventure for me. I trailed my great-aunt wherever she went. Together we fed chickens, milked cows, baked bread, and tended her kitchen garden.  I suppose my little brother was there somewhere, but in my memory, it’s just my great-aunt and me.  I do remember we had a second birthday party for my brother and all the cowhands attended.  The cowhands lent a great deal of mystique to that summer. Their worn, wide-brimmed leather hats and the leather chaps that protected their Levi’s transformed them into mythical creatures for me. I loved getting up at the crack of dawn so I could share their breakfast hour.

daring deeds
Soaring hawk
Phot by Ezequiel Garridao

My other favorite ranch characters were my teenage cousins, who worked the ranch, but took particular pride in protecting the chickens from the hawks. This entailed getting behind the wheel of an enormous pre-War auto and careening around the ranch.  One cousin would drive while the others clung to the running boards, rifles in hand.  They let me ride on the back window ledge for these excursions.  As we hurtled along back and forth, the boys would take aim and more often than not bring down a hawk. Why my great-aunt let me go on such outings I have no idea, but child raising practices were different back then.

some happy endings
Child hugging older woman
Photo by Ekaterina Shakharova

At the end of the summer Dad brought my mother with him to pick us up.  After a summer on the ranch, my uncle felt better able to resume civilian life. had been just what he needed. My parents stayed a few days to rest for the return trip to Detroit. But when it was time to go, I clung to my great-aunt and begged to stay.  I told her, “I want you to be my mommy.” The look of betrayal on my mother’s face is one I’ll never forget.  Yet, I persisted. Instinct warned me perhaps that life with my traumatized mother would never be easy.  But four-year old don’t get to decide their fate. I had to give my great-aunt one last hug and climb in the car.  It was the last time I visited Alberta. Maybe my mother didn’t dare take me back.

“We were not allowed to speak of the unseen wounds of war. We were not allowed to prepare for them.” Thank You For Your Service Brig. General Loree Sutton,

What are your earliest memories of human warfare?

Careful What You Wish For

Slightly pregnant belly
Great expectations
Man in darkly lit office
Photo by Armeer Basheer

“That shakes things up a bit, doesn’t it?” Antoine Vilar, editor of Building Design & Construction magazine and my boss, smoothed his striped silk tie with nervous fingers. I had just told him I was expecting a baby in six months in May, 1969.

Earlier that month, when I shared the news of my pregnancy with family and friends, it had been received with unalloyed delight. After four years of trying to conceive without success, Jay and I had pretty much given up hope of becoming parents. So, of course, the people who loved us best were joyful to hear we crashed through that barrier.

Loving my job

Ironically just six months before, I drove the fear of infertility into a dark corner of my psyche, and channeled my energies and dreams into work. For the first time, I had a job I loved. True, only an associate editor, I wrote mostly small, short one-page articles, mostly about new products. Nonetheless, I envisaged writing longer, more important stories once I showed what I could do. In the meantime, I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of the overall process of producing the journal, the gathering hundreds of different bits and pieces together and creating a beautiful, coherent whole.

Antoine’s words could have been mine. As pleased and relieved as I was to be pregnant at last, I didn’t want to leave the magazine. But I didn’t see any way out of it. Every single woman I knew had left the workplace following the birth of her first child.

The Feminine Ironique

Betty Friedan had published The Feminine Mystique, five years before,

1970 Suffragette march
Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)

claiming that the societal assumption that women could find fulfillment through housework and child rearing alone had given rise to a pervasive dissatisfaction among women in mainstream American society. https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Feminine-Mystique(Her book sparked the second wave of feminism, but the twenty-something women I knew had one-by-one abandoned outside employment in favor of staying at home with their new babies. Nannies were the prerogative of the very rich. Daycare centers didn’t exist. Our mothers would have been horrified if asked to care for their grandchildren. I didn’t process any of these facts as rational at the time. I simply knew I would be staying at home with my baby and that would mean leaving the magazine. The second wave of feminism washed ashore on distant beaches, but I didn’t feel its surge.

The allure of suburbia
Suburban landscape
Photo by Kruse Collins

Swept up in the allure of another mystique, Jay and I began to search for a place to live in the suburbs. We never considered remaining in the city to raise our family. On a sunny April Sunday, in far flung Palos Heights a forty-five minute drive from Chicago Loop, we found what seemed the perfect place. Thorton Meadows, set in a landscape of woods and rolling hills, offered two-bedroom units at a very reasonable price. Although somewhat dark and featureless, the apartments were twice the size of our place in the city. Best of all, the lawns behind the complex teemed with young parents, toddlers, and babies in bassinets. We signed a lease for May first.

On Monday, I took extra time with my hair and make-up and wore my chicest maternity dress to work.  By noon I’d completed several pieces and took them to the assistant editor to review.  I didn’t need to hand carry them to him, but I did have to talk with him. “Bill, Jay and I are moving to Palos Heights at the end of the month. I’ve decided it would work best if I resigned on the fifteenth.”

The unexpected opportunity

He spun in his chair. “Sit down.” It wasn’t a request. I sat.

“Tony and I have been talking about this.” He spoke slowly as though working things out while he spoke. “It looks bad for the magazine to have added new staff less than a year ago only to drop the name now. Not only that, you’re turning in good solid work. We hate to see you go.”

I tried smiling but ended up sighing. “I don’t want to leave, but having a baby doesn’t give me a choice. There’s really no one else to take care of it.  And even if there was, I can’t imagine not taking care of my own child.”

Mom working at home
Photo by Charles Deluvio

He nodded. “I get it, but what if you could do both?”

Visions of installing a baby bed next to my desk filled my imagination and I giggled. “I don’t think a baby exactly fits in here at the office.”

He got the picture and laughed. “No.  But you could do this work at home.  You have a typewriter, right?”

“Yes, but …I’ll be taking care of the baby. I won’t be able to write.”

“Trust me,” Bill said. “I’ve got two kids. When they are little, they sleep a lot and even when they aren’t asleep, you don’t necessarily have to be doing stuff with them. You’re going to have time on your hands you don’t know what to do with.”

He expressed concepts I’d already considered, but I’d always understood the motherhood role to be an all or nothing proposition. That I could be a mother and something else at the same time didn’t compute for me. But now that my colleague had put the proposition in front of me, mixing childcare and some other work didn’t sound so preposterous. There were sixteen hours in a day.  Surely caring for my baby couldn’t consume that much time.

“How would it work?” I asked.

“Good girl.” He was elated. “Let’s go tell Tony.” The plan they laid out for me was decades ahead of its time, but none of us thought of it that way. It was simply the answer to a thorny problem for them and a way for me to continue doing work I loved. On a regular basis, Bill would mail me all the new product information that the manufacturers sent to the magazine. At home I would hone this myriad of information into short, informative articles, which I would mail back by the monthly deadline. Rather than the set wage I had been receiving, I would be paid by the hour. I’d be my own time keeper.

murphy’s law in the nursery

What could go wrong? We had come up with a dream solution.

By mid-May, Jay and I were settled in our suburb apartment. We had met several couples in the building, many of whom would remain friends long after we moved away from Thorton Meadows. My agreement with Building Design and Construction was not nearly so long term. That was because we failed to take into account the needs and desires of the third party to our agreement, my newborn little daughter, Kristin Margaret.

Breastfeeding mom
Photo by Ksenia Makagonenova

Breastfeeding had all but disappeared from the American infant care, but resurged in the 1960s as a part of the counterculture. Although a fairly mainstream sort of person, I decided to nurse my baby, having no idea what that entailed. No other mothers I knew breastfed their babies. Neither Jay’s mother nor mine had breastfed. I made my choice in knowledge void that took two children to overcome.  Kristy was the experiment.  Her sister Carrie born nineteen months later benefited greatly from what Kristy taught me.

Thus, I tried two innovative endeavors at the same moment in time – all on my own. I chose to breastfeed my baby and work from home.

The standard advice at that time had been developed for bottle-fed babies. It held that infants should be fed every four hours. No one could warn me that breastfed babies on the other hand nursed every two to three hours and fed on the average twelve times a day. https://www.romper.com/p/how-many-hours-per-day-does-a-baby-breastfeed-no-need-to-watch-the-clock-2957091

I learned that all by myself. Learned it as over and over again I left thought half-finished on the page. Learned it with deadlines looming over my head when I couldn’t bear to let my baby “cry it out,” another standard of the time.

murky answers

I found myself rewriting articles over and over because I got so little sleep that coherent thinking evaded my consciousness. Jay came home expecting a peacefully sleeping baby, a smiling wife and a hot meal.  He got chaos. He would take the baby from my arms and walk the floor with her while I fixed dinner, a meal I ate as I fed Kristy. By the time the dinner dishes were cleared up, my brain was too frozen for creative thinking.

By the end of the summer, even though Kristy was feeding less often, she slept less and sought attention in other ways.  She was so charming, a smiley baby with big blue eyes who responded with ward delight to being picked up and sang to, who loved to be outdoors and who was entranced by other children. Putting her in her bed to stare at a wind-up mobile while I sat at a typewriter began to feel like criminal neglect. I dreaded the arrival of the thick envelope from the magazine. I had too often been up past midnight to meet my deadlines.

Jay’s income covered our expenses. We had almost saved the $2500 we would need as a down payment on a house. If I continued to write, I would be doing it for my own fulfillment, but it had become a stress not a joy.  I convinced myself I’d become a lousy writer, that the magazine deserved better. If I kept up in that way, Kristy would miss out on key parental attention she required for healthy development. I was nothing but an imposter – neither real journalist nor true mother. Something had to go and it couldn’t be the baby! I made the dreaded call to Antoine and Bill. I pulled off the career track just in time to avoid a wreck.  The relief was immense.

Office desk
Photo by Aashish A

My choice may have been a terrible mistake. My opportunity to work from home came way ahead of the curve. The workplace mores I knew would shortly be nullified. Had I continued to work part-time from home, I might have been able to parlay that into a full-time job in journalism at some future point.

Instead, I devoted the next fifteen years to being the best mother that I could be. Did I simply cave to the feminine mystique? Perhaps. But maybe I simply chose an alternative freedom.

Girls marching "Future is Female"

 

A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential — as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.                                

Bill Watterson

Despite the fact that it’s been over fifty years since The Feminine Mystique became a sensation, we’re still asking, “Should mothers stay home with their children?”  Why do you think the question won’t go away?

 

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