Thursday, December 25, 2008

Back (in black)

It's been a rough few months.

My absence from this blog was about 40% deliberate. Like many of you, sometimes I need a vacation from dead baby land. I haven't been writing, I haven't been reading. So much grief, both for me and for others. Compassion fatigue. I can only give so much. It's important, but caring takes energy, effort, and lately I've been very tired.

The other 60% have been the reasons I've been so tired.

Part of it has been my new job. I love what I do, and it's such a revelation for me to wake up and not even think of it as "going to work." I don't love every part of it, and I don't love it every day, but I love what I do. But it takes a lot of time and energy. I was responsible for almost 170 kids across three classes, and this was the first time I've had this large a teaching load. Not a lot of time left in the day after that. I spent about a week out of school sick with a cold that turned into serious ear and sinus infections. I spent the rest of the semester playing catch-up. Not much left of my brain by the end of the day.

The rest? Well, if you follow my wife's blog, you'll know that she's been having a very hard time over the last few months. And honestly? I've never seen her so depressed in all of the years we've been together, including the time following the death of her mother from cancer. Helpless, mired in grief. Paralyzed by anxiety and self-doubt. In tears, constantly. Wracked with sobs and pain. I'll be honest. There were days that I wondered if I would come home and find her body.

Nothing I could really say to anyone else about it, and even with her in therapy, I had to get her out of bed, get her to shower occasionally, remind her that it wouldn't always feel this way, that there was a strong, smart, compassionate, kind woman under the grief and pain. It was tiring, so tiring. I was exhausted. So much on my shoulders, no time or strength to talk about it outside of my own therapy. It was all so big, and so important. I had to carry it. I had to be strong. Not much time left for myself at the end of it all. Nothing left to give to anyone else.

Fortunately, things are getting better. S. got her meds adjusted, is in therapy twice a week and consulting with a psychiatrist, and our beautiful, beautiful new dog is a source of joy and love and happiness. She gets us out of bed, gets us outside, reminds us of the presence of things that are good and pure and sweet. S. is doing better. Not cured, not even close, but no longer at the bottom of a deep, dark hole. I'm on vacation now, in many senses of the word.

We got up late yesterday. I was mostly exhausted after spending the last week grading final exams and papers. We ran to the market to get food, and I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening making chili. In our house, food is love. When S. and I first started dating, I would make her dinner on the weekends. It was my way of courting her. For me, cooking is comforting. It's a soothing ritual - the preparation of ingredients, the timing of different things. I put on the radio or some music, have a beer or two, chop vegetables, cook meat, add seasonings, stir. It's a wonderful feeling - just me and the ingredients and knives and heat. A world of my own. A way to meditate, almost. And at the end of it, something delicious, something tangible.

And so today, a day which proved so horrible and terrifying last year, we sit in our living room, something familiar on television, surrounded by sweet animals, and the sweet, spicy smell of the chili I made yesterday reheating in the kitchen. It's one of those dishes that's always better the next day.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Arrghhh. Kids today.

So I get this email late last week. Well wait. Just to provide some context:

* If a class is full, or a student hasn't fulfilled all of the prerequisites for a class, or if the registration dates for the class have passed, then the only way a student may enroll in a class is to fill out what's called a force-add slip, which authorizes the registrar to add students above the maximum enrollment, past the regular registration range, or who wouldn't otherwise qualify.

* These force-adds are authorized entirely at the discretion of the instructor. I don't have to let anyone into my classes who puts me over my cap, who is coming into the class late, or who hasn't met the prerequisites. Doing this is a favor. You ask a professor if they would be nice enough to do this.

* I got this email late last week. On the 19th, to be precise.

* Classes started on August 25th.

That said, I now present the email in its entirety. Names have been changed for the obvious reasons.

Subject: Signature
Fri, 19 Sep 2008 00:00:10 -0400

This is SUZY SNOWFLAKE. I need to change my Introduction to Psychology time and need you to sign a Change of Schedule form to enter your class. I was wondering if there was any possibility to see you about ten or fifteen minutes prior to your Child Development class tomorrow so you can sign the form.




We're a month into the semester and you just now want to add my class? You "need" to change your time? Well, I "need" a wet bar in my office and both fog and lasers to herald my entrance into the classroom. Looks like we're both being grossly unrealistic and are both shit out of luck.

I think what gets me the most is the "I need you to do this for me", as if I'm a salesperson at Abercrombie or something. No, see, it works like this: If you're nice, polite, and recognize that you're asking me to go above and beyond, you have a shot. Just a shot. If you approach me like the help and tell me "chop-chop, I have places to be", you get nothing.

I have heard stories from my colleagues about the ridiculous sense of entitlement that seems to distinguish the current generation of college students, but this is one of the few times I've run into it directly. I had a student challenge a grade I gave her once, on the grounds that she didn't think the material on which I was testing her was important. A colleague of mine had a student approach her after class on the first day and tell her that he was going to need for her to "sell him on why he should take this class". She, of course, looked at him like a new and particularly odious species of insect. Just last week, another student requested that one of my colleagues give her a make-up exam next month because, like, she just booked a flight home the day of the exam.


Some times we run into this wall, where we find out that we can't have everything we want when we want it, no matter how much we think we deserve it.

I told the student no, that we were a month into classes, the first exam was in three days, and there was no way for her to catch up.

I've become very familiar with "no."

Wait for it...not just yet...

I've finally reached that point in the child development class that I'm teaching where I've gotten to talk about fun things like infertility, birth complications, stillbirth, etc. Normally when I prepare the lectures for this class, I follow the book pretty closely, mostly because this is a class outside of my area of specialization. I did notice, however, that when I wrote the section on infertility and fertility treatments for one lecture, I barely consulted the book at all. I'm still not sure if half of what I talked about is actually in there in any great detail.

I've been going back and forth on whether or not I want to mention my own experience in this class, and having gone into as much detail as I have about things like hyperemesis, IUI, what viability exactly means at 24 weeks, all of that, I almost feel like I have to. I've just been afraid it'll be gratuitous or self-involved (some people refer to "the wonder of me" syndrome in academia), but at the end of the day, I feel like personal examples can have the most impact. It's one thing to tell people something can happen, it's another to walk them through exactly what that means. Plus, most of the time I feel like I have enough distance on it that I can talk about it pretty matter-of-factly. I'm not one for messy public breakdowns.

But I'd prepared myself to do exactly that today, share my story as a way to cap off the bit on chemical pregnancy, miscarriage, and stillbirth. But I ran out of time, even ran a little over. A scream deferred, if I want to be cutesy about it. And now I wonder - do I bring it up next class, or let it sit there, waiting inside my head?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Like shouting from the bottom of a well

I want to strangle my computer today.

I just need to write a quiz. A 20-minute quiz to give to about 125 students. A class which is less a class and more a huge organism over which I exert control, rather than teach. I just want to write a quiz for them, and the software I use to write tests finally has to be uninstalled and reinstalled after a complete shutdown of my office computer. I am dreading installing Service Pack 3.

Ah, the joys of the new faculty member.

Weird flashback moment: I go to the doctor this morning for a follow-up appointment to see how I'm doing on the happy pills he prescribed to me almost a year ago. Last time he saw me was October. I don't think he knows we lost the boys, unless S. told him, because she goes to him too. Actually, when we lost the boys, I'd forgotten to refill my prescription, so I went through everything without being on my meds. I'm not sure what it says that I didn't really notice at the time. So I'm sitting in his office waiting for him, and all of a sudden, all of the trappings of the medical office get to me - the sharps containers, the swabs, the gauze pads, the exam table - all of a sudden I'm right back on hospital time, right back at the place where we delivered the boys. Just for a minute or so, and then it's gone. Doctor comes in, and we're talking about how long I've been on my happy pills, and he suggests that we hold off talking about weaning off until after the winter months, what with how the season affects us emotionally and all. I think about the 1-year anniversary coming up in December, and fuck no, I want to be all kinds of medicated when that shit comes down.

We went to a reception at my chair's house the other night for staff and faculty, and I was surprised at the number of babies there, playing. Talk of children and buying houses. Any money we could save toward a house is going to hospitals for letting us lose our sons there. We have to leave early. We don't even say goodbyes, we just duck out. It's the beginning of graduate school all over again - I don't have much in common with these people, either.

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Monday, August 25, 2008

School is back in...with a vengeance.

The great thing about the summer was that for the most part I didn't have to deal with stuff with which I didn't want to deal. What this ended up being was less a vacation or quiet period and more being lulled into a false sense of security.

Our department had a reception for all of the graduates (which, woo-hoo! I is a professor now!) on Friday night, and although I knew children would be there in abstract (because family was invited), it didn't really hit me until I got there, with lots of kids running around everywhere. One student has something like 4 or 5 kids, which makes me wonder when he ever had time to actually write his dissertation. But, well, you know. Babies everywhere. None of them mine. No children to introduce when asked to introduce my guests. Someone called their children their "greatest accomplishment", and it rankled. Someone else referred to their grandson, Jacob. That was a knife twisting in my gut. No Jacob for me. No Joshua for me. No boys for me, and the joy of this day dulled by the tragedy preceding it.

And then our friend had her daughter. She's, like, 10 pounds. She's a monster. We want to go over there and celebrate, but seeing them as new parents again seems like it's going to hurt. It's weird, being suspended in this place between joy and grief - I am happy for them, I want to celebrate, but can't. The same way that I knew the three bourbons I had at the bar the Saturday after commencement would hurt the next day unless I took precautions. We have to take precautions around people.

Anymore I'm okay, most of the time. Not always. But I got picked on a lot as a kid. Beaten up. Teased. Bullied. I learned pretty early on how to shove things to the back of my mind, keep going forward, never let them see you cry. My avoidance of all things child and baby-related has become routine. But every now and then, something surfaces. These days it's pretty much an impatience with the children of strangers in public places and the creation of a pretty terrifying soccer-mom strawman in my head. How much of this is knowing that I'll be teaching their children someday, I dunno.

It all feels like a product of being trapped between two places - I'm doing really well professionally, but I can't have kids. I want to be happy and enjoy this, but S is still pretty down, and although I want her to come along with me on trying to enjoy what we have instead of mourning what we don't sometimes, I know it won't be that easy for her. I want to celebrate and enjoy the children of people I know, but I can feel the agony waiting in the wings. It was bad enough being trapped between in all of that time we spent in hospital limbo. I want it to be over already so I can have the rest of my life back.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Not so slight return.

Goddamnit, I just can't get clear of this whole fucking grieving thing.

The six-month anniversary of the boys' death hit me about as hard as it hit S., but I didn't really pay attention to it because it hit me in a different way. I never really experienced outpourings of grief or bolt-from-the-blue surges of emotion. Everything just got turned down to a dull roar, both the good and the bad. I couldn't get up from the couch. I wanted to write, to communicate with people, to reconnect, but all I could do was sit and stare. And sit. And stare. The six-month anniversary snuck up behind me and clocked me over the head when I wasn't looking. And the babies, oh, the proliferation of babies everywhere I fucking looked.

We attended S.'s brother's wedding. Oh, Christ. Nightmare from go. I attribute my ability to get through the whole thing to a combination of perversity (the more chaotic my in-laws get, the calmer I get), allergy medicine that knocked me off my ass, and liberal applications of vodka. And all the talk of babies, all the "be fruitful and multiply" start-a-family shit, all the "time to start giving us grandkids/cousins" shit. BABIES EVERYWHERE. Fuck it, maybe that should just be the title of this blog. A couple of people extended their regrets, but one of them went on to talk about how the "right" people were rarely fertile, and another followed his regrets with pictures of the grandkids, for fuck's sake.

And then I come back and plant myself on the couch. Things to do, but I can't make myself do them.

And if that's not enough - here comes my 20th high school reunion. Now, there' s no chance in hell that I'm going to go. Flat-out. Don't have the time or the inclination. But there's a website, and I'm curious to see what's happened to who. One thing in common? BABIES. Lots and lots of babies. Between two and four (or, for fuck's sake, FIVE) for each person. What do I have to offer? Tragedy. I guess it'll have to be enough that I married, because reproduction seems like it's right off the menu. Considering what I was like in high school, the marriage bit will probably be enough of a surprise. Even more of a surprise that I married a woman.

It spikes up every now and then, in a way that it didn't before. Maybe I was just in shock, but I find myself thinking "I should have at least one little boy asleep on my chest right now", or "that should be me carrying the little boy or pushing the stroller." But I'm not. It's not me, and given how hard we worked to get this far, I honestly wonder if it'll ever be. It may not be in the cards, no fooling myself, no more optimism. It's like the smoke is clearing, and I'm seeing just how fucking big the crater really is.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

How damaged is damaged enough?

A few nights ago, I was watching a new episode of Intervention, or as S calls it, "our weekly dose of schadenfreude." She's hasn't watched it as much since we lost the boys, probably because her threshold for tragedy in general has gotten a lot lower. For obvious reasons. I still like watching it, or at least I like it when it ends well. If you haven't seen it, it's as raw and unflinching a portrait of substance abuse as you could hope for on television. Absolutely nothing glamorous about drugs here.

So this episode concerned a fellow named Dan, who was an alcoholic to the tune of a case of beer per day. Dan ( like most of the people featured on this show) had a rough childhood with a physically abusive father. His older brother ran away from home and ended up on death row because of rape and murder charges. Mom and Dad devote all their attention to his case, so for Dan it's abuse or neglect, take your pick. This is enough to plant the seeds for substance abuse, I think, but there's more...

Dan eventually meets a nice woman, and they have a child together, a boy whom they name Miles. Unfortunately, Miles is born at about 24 weeks and dies of a blood infection after a couple of weeks in the NICU. As Dan points out, the only time he got to hold his son was as he died.

Dan's got all kinds of problems, no doubt about that, but his discussion of Miles was especially striking. He couldn't talk about his son without breaking down, and he appeared to talk to a box of ashes they kept on a shelf when he was drunk. Obviously, the death of his son had scarred him deeply, even though he and his wife had a healthy daughter later on. And I didn't think much of it at the time (except for "shit, babies everywhere"), but S pointed out to me later that here's a man who lost his son and has become an alcoholic, another example of how losing breaks you as a person. Crazy, damaged, drunk. Broken. Damaged goods.

And seriously? Fuck that. I know it isn't true. I know you can eventually get better, return to something resembling life. So where are those people? Their tragedy isn't apparent, it's not something one talks about without making other people really uncomfortable. And I thought about my experience with grief, and how sometimes I feel like I should feel worse than I do, but then wonder why I should be obligated to prolong deep suffering for the sake of appearances? I mean, so what if I'm not rending my garments six months after the day? Wasn't what I went through bad enough? If I can enjoy myself, if I can laugh and have a good time, well, I fucking deserve it. And I certainly don't take it for granted anymore.

Although S. has been having a hard time lately, things have gotten somewhat better. I remember the first time she came downstairs and said "I want to take a drive, just get out of the house for awhile", and such a little thing brought me such joy, because it was reclaiming one more normal part of our life together. One more piece of the puzzle back in place. There was a sense of relief, a sense of things righting themselves. Not to say we're over it - we'll never be over it, I don't think - but accomodating it as part of our life together and letting the other parts move back to where they used to be, moving around this new thing. All without us going completely insane or losing ourselves to alcohol. Not exactly the model grieving couple, I guess.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Teachable moments 2: The Teachening

I'm still thinking about all of this stuff surrounding teaching a class on child development. It's one of my favorite parts of teaching Introduction to Psychology, and I'm usually pretty good about leaving my personal life stuff out of the classroom - as in, what's bothering me right now - but it does bring up something else.

I often use anecdotes from my life when I teach, to illustrate examples. I am blessed both with the ability to observe ways in which psychological principles play out in life and with a set of family and friends who are interesting/fucked up enough to provide me with plenty of material. It's just part of teaching, I never really thought about it that much.

But now, I'm faced with a dilemma: Do I talk about losing the boys when we get to the bit on miscarriage and stillbirth? I've alluded to it before, when I talk about critical points in development, but not from personal experience. I honestly don't know if that would be laying it all out there, or if laying it all out there is even bad. I wouldn't shoehorn it in, but I'm teaching a class where it's highly relevant. We'll see how it goes, I guess. I'm more worried that this going to be the year that I finally get a yowling Jesus freak in one of my classes.

As for the person who sent out the scolding email regarding the baby pool, I'm not mad at her as much as embarrassed for her. I honestly don't know whether her kids were born at 36 weeks - it could have been as early as 32 by my sketchy math. And time in the NICU is time in the NICU, and I'm sure she's worried. I think it speaks more to one of her more enduring qualities: The ability to jump to wrong, and often ridiculous, conclusions based on misinterpretation of information. It's something she does on an unfortunately regular basis, given my observations of her in scholarly settings. And the response to the email has been telling: Bafflement, and pained silence.

Boys will be boys

Some comments on my previous teachable moments post got me to thinking, and wanting to respond, and wanting to make corrections, and think some more and yammer some more...

I don't take it personally or get angry that men's grief is represented the way it is in textbooks, for a couple of reasons. First, textbooks are, in my experience, rarely the best way to obtain the newest information on a subject, and there's been something in every textbook I've used with which I've disagreed or at least differed with the authors on importance. That's just how it is. I was a little surprised at first to see what I did laid out in print like that, but in retrospect, I wasn't surprised at all. Textbooks, like scholarly articles, represent only one perspective on a topic. And it's a class on development, not gender. I try to keep the soapbox moments directly relevant to the material.

Second, what other conclusions are the authors supposed to draw? The male gender role in Western culture emphasizes stoicism and agency. We're not supposed to show much emotion, and we're supposed to do work. Whether or not this helps us, this is what people are going to see. And I suspect that it's not entirely wrong, either. Not saying that it's the sum total of my experience - and whether or not I Speak For Men is a whole other ball of bees - but no, open sobbing, while it did happen, wasn't what best represented my feelings. Going back to work did help, supporting S did help. However, I strongly suspect that that doesn't represent the range of emotions that men feel, and I strongly suspect that it's wrong to assume that we're all going to get better by getting back up on the horse and being all strong and shit.

Our experiences are many and varied, and it is the very nature of what we're rewarded for doing that keeps this wide variety of experiences from recognized. I'm pretty sure that most of us are just as unhappy as our partners, even if we didn't have babies growing inside of us, but on the other hand, how is anyone ever going to know this? We aren't expected to share, we're not taught how to share, and in some instances we attract negative attention when we share. The lack of sharing means no other perspectives are articulated, silence implies strength, but it also implies consent.

And that's the weird thing about being a man writing about infertility and child loss. There ain't a lot of us. I'm not the only one by any means, but the mere fact that the male perspective garners its own category on other sites tells me that there's something about it that makes it special. Part of why I started doing this was because I feel like men often suffer in silence, and hearing about other men who'd gone through what I had and were miserable because they couldn't talk about bothered me. I like to write, I'm a wordy, long-winded motherfucker, so I was gonna talk about it. I wish more men did. I think it'd be helpful, for both sexes. Maybe if we spoke up more, there'd be more understanding.

Of course, that also assumes being taken seriously. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that people who advocate for the "man's perspective" often fall somewhere between straight-up misogyny and deeply confused. It's no wonder that it's hard to take men's advocates seriously, not only because we tend to get the good jobs and the promotions and all of that, which I think some see as sore-loserhood, but often because these guys are skirt-wearing wackos ("Why can't I wear it! Women wear it!") trotted out for freak appeal, or unreconstructed types who want the good old barefoot/pregnant/where's-my-dinner-bitch days back.

So me, I'm just talking. I'd like to see more men talking too. Xbox4NappyRash is holding it down on the infertility tip, but who else is out there? Where my boys at?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Red alert.

If you didn't already know, Antigone is going through some extremely serious shit right now. Make a point to go over there and give her some support, because she certainly needs it.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Teachable moments.

You've probably heard the term "teachable moment" before. I usually hear it used in relation to real-life events, and how they serve as excellent opportunities to illustrate theoretical concepts. They are pedagogical tools. (Some would argue that I'm a pedagogical tool, but my officemate has gone home for the day.) Make the connection between life and a larger point.

I've been thinking about teachable moments, because just as I was beginning to become accustomed to the idea that my relationship with my grief was changing, I was somewhat rudely pulled back in and reminded of a few things by a number of unconnected events.

First, there was something that came up while I was working on my class prep for next fall. One of the classes I'm teaching is on child development, and I was so excited about my new job that the ironies didn't even occur to me. So here I am, father to two dead children, and I'm going to be walking about thirty upperclassmen through the minutiae of conception, gestation, childbirth, and all the development that comes after. In the words of Eddie Izzard, "Well, that's fun." Frankly, I was more concerned with it being a class outside of my area of expertise. I study things like ideology, gender, and group relations. But I teach what they tell me to teach.

So then I'm looking through the textbook I'm going to use, and lo and behold, there's a little sidebar about "dealing with stillbirth and miscarriage" in one of the chapters. And what do you know? It's a thoughtful, concise examination mothers feel. Men? According to the sidebar (emphasis mine)..."The man may have been less focused on the pregnancy, and his body does not give him physical reminders of the loss." Also? "In one small study, eleven men whose child had died in utero reported being overcome with frustration and helplessness during and after the delivery, but several found relief in supporting their partners." I don't even know where to start. I don't know that I have another gender-role rant in me right now, nor am I sure that I haven't already gone over my limit for the year. All I could do was sigh and say to myself "Really? Less focused? Relief in support? Really?" Teachable moment? I'm not done with all of this. It will always be there. Both the idea of children, and what being a man means for having (or not having) children.

Second, there was Father's Day, detailed more here. I didn't think I was going to be that bothered by it initially, but the more the ads kept cropping up on TV and the more I kept thinking about what I was missing out on by not being able to do what fathers do, where I would have been right now if the boys had been born alive and healthy, the more I felt it. I'm okay, but I'm glad I spent yesterday playing games and watching movies. Anything to not see another "we love you, Dad" commercial. Teachable moment? I'm not over it. It still hurts.

Third was the weirdest fucking thing. First, some background: My adviser is about to give birth, and one of the faculty in my department started a pool on the particulars - date, time, weight, length, stuff like that. Everyone puts in a few bucks, and the one who is closest gets the dough. I didn't find it problematic or anything - hell, I put my guesses in along with everyone else. It's part of this whole idea that my grief doesn't mean the good fortune of others should go uncelebrated. The world doesn't need to don sackcloth and ashes for me. So I was okay with it.

So I come in this morning and there's an email from someone else in the area - someone I knew was pregnant, but not by how much. She'd sent an email to the entire area saying how awful and tasteless it was that we were betting on a childbirth, with all of this game-theory stuff about how to bet to maximize outcomes included, like we were seriously hoping my advisor's kid would be early or late or something to better our chances of winning, which, uh, no. Apparently, the concept of the "friendly bet" never occurred to this person. Then she launches into how her own children (she apparently had twins) were a month premature and so this was incredibly offensive blah blah blargh fuck.

First, this was how we found out she'd had her kids. No other notice, for good or ill. So there's no way we could have known there were problems. Second, she's someone with whom it is hard to sympathize for reasons having nothing to do with her pregnancy. Third, and this is probably the grief talking, I don't have a lot of sympathy for someone delivering at 36 weeks, even if I should. I know her kids are probably in the NICU and she's concerned. I don't discount that at all. But when 36 weeks was just a fucking pipe dream for me and S, when we were juggling the probabilities of 20 versus 24 versus 28 weeks? Yeah, hard for me to get too broken up. I've burned off what didn't work, and what's left is harder. S and I didn't flip out in public, even with birth announcements and baby showers and parents in the neighborhood with strollers and babies everywhere, we didn't flip out. My first thought was "lady, my kids are dead and this doesn't strike me as a big deal." Teachable moment? We're stronger than we think.

Going through an awkward phase.

I am in a very weird place right now. Not physically - I'm in my office at school, surrounded on two sides by towering stacks of paper, the result of not engaging in my regular between-semester office cleaning. I'm in a weird place emotionally.

Part of it is my recent spate of good fortune. In a very short span of time, I found out I'd been hired in a visiting faculty position for next year (which was the best outcome I could have had), my dissertation came along nicely and the defense went well, I got an email from a friend with whom I'd lost touch, I found out that I'd be teaching an advanced class in my area, and against all hope, there was news that a sequel to one of my favorite games was in development. I've been vacillating between "well, it's about fucking time" and "I am totally going to get hit by a bus any minute now" since I found out. There are definitely worse problems to have, though.

So all of this threw me a little for a loop. Not at first - at first there was tremendous relief at getting some positive outcomes not only after a profoundly shitty start to the year, but for five years of what has often been emotionally punishing work. Grad school has not always been the most fun, and I in fact came home near tears several times in my first year here. So there is a not-small part of me that's sitting here thinking "shit yeah, I do deserve something nice." But all of this good, along with sunshine and fluffy clouds and birds singing and all of the other good parts of summer, has somewhat displaced me in relation to the death of my sons.

I think there's this weird attachment to grief, somehow. I've hated being depressed, being afraid of the television, of being in public, of people asking me if I had kids. I wanted to feel somewhat normal again. But now that I do, I'm not entirely sure what to do with my grief. I've felt like I should feel worse than I do, even though "getting better" traditionally has "not feeling as awful" as a component. And the idea that I should continue to feel bad out of obligation is patently absurd to me.

So part of my blogging silence - what wasn't due to feverishly working on the single most important paper of my graduate career - has been due to this...dislocation...from the motive force behind the blog. I don't want to write as if I'm still where I was when I started, because that would be a lie. Like so many other aspects of our loss, it's a horrible parody of life and birth - I'm entering grief's adolescence. My voice is changing, and I'm unsettled with myself and the world. And like adolescence, all I can do is hang on, see where it goes, and hope I don't start sprouting hair in weird places.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Mirror, mirror

If I didn't know any better, I'd think that my wonderful wife just tagged me on a meme. Seeing as how my ability to write for this blog seems to have been disrupted by a bizarre streak of good fortune, this is probably a good way to get back in the game...

1. What were you doing 10 years ago?
I was 28 years old, and probably working two jobs (this was vacation for me - during the rest of the year, I worked two jobs and went to college full-time). So mostly working and sleeping. When not doing that, spending a fair amount of time on Usenet or in front of my PlayStation. Writing poetry, being angry at the world, at myself. I was still several months away from meeting S at this point, so I was probably a not-quite hermit. Going to see Einstürzende Neubauten at the Paradise in Boston. Getting my second tattoo. It was a simpler time.

2. What 5 things are on your to-do list today?
Finish dissertation revisions
Work on class syllabi for next semester
Clear out more of email backlog
Go to grocery store
Write guest post for Glow In The Woods

And I got all of it done. Woo-hoo!

3. List snacks you enjoy.
Wasabi peas.
Assorted flavors of Pocky.
Chips (potato or corn) and dip (queso, salsa, horrible mutant creamy southwestern ranch stuff)
Crackers and Brie.

4. What would you do with a billion dollars?
First? Settle all debts, public and private.
Second? Buy me some shit. Sensible, practical stuff like a house, and frivolous stuff like a home theater setup and screening room addition to that house in which to put it. More tattoo work. Clothes. S says I'm a clotheshorse. If I am, it's her fault. I wore stuff from the Garment District and Army surplus before she met me.
Third? Invest. Put it way for a rainy day.
Fourth? Donations and charitable work. Big awards to people like the ACLU, MoveOn, Habitat for Humanity, area animal shelters. Work for infertility education and outreach. Work for literacy. Scholarships for deserving students who can't afford college. Big-ass endowment to my alma mater's psychology department,

5. List places you have lived.
Norman, OK
Midwest City, OK
Oklahoma City, OK
Columbia, MO
Cockeysville, MD
Boston, MA
Brighton, MA
Somerville, MA
Arlington, MA
Tiny College Town, OH

6. List jobs you have had.
McDonald's grill worker
Stock clerk, men's clothing store
Retail bookseller (for two whole weeks)
Picture framer
Customer service, copy shop
Shift supervisor, copy shop
Research assistant, developmental psychology lab (at same time as the above copy shop jobs)
Inside sales, copy shop
Research assistant, clinical psychology lab
QC Documentation, pharmaceutical company
Graduate teaching assistant, psychology
Visiting assistant professor, psychology (woo-hoo!)

7. List those who you would like to answer the above questions.
I think just about everyone who I read has done this.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Gaze into the abyss, etc.

Sorry for the protracted absence - the last three weeks or so have been a little insane, with me trying to finish my dissertation in enough time to defend it and get revisions done before my adviser's due to give birth (babies everywhere). I got it turned in to my committee on the 29th, and found out the day before that I'd been recommended for an appointment as a visiting assistant professor at my school, so I'll have a faculty job while S. finishes up. These are two huge things off my plate. For the last couple of weeks especially, I haven't had room to think. I need to add blogs to my roll, respond to wonderful comments...thank you for hanging in there with me.

So lately I've been watching a lot of horror movies.

I have no idea why this is.

I've always enjoyed horror movies in moderation, but for some reason, as of late, I've been scarfing down as many as I could get via various means. Maybe I want something horrible to distract me from my own horrible things. Maybe I'm a little numb, and I need something to wake me up. I don't know why it is, just that some things I enjoy very much I have a hard time watching (I'm a solid fan of the new "Battlestar Galactica", and I've watched maybe a third of the episodes I have DVR'd. I love it, but it takes a lot out of me to watch it), and other things which should be hard to watch are actually easy. Maybe I'm still in a sad enough or angry enough place that it doesn't actually hurt to go back there through fiction - I'm already there, might as well entertain myself while I'm at it.

One image that's kept coming to mind through all of this horrible shit is that of burning away what doesn't work and leaving the rest stronger for it. It happened when S's mother died, for her and for me. We were both, in our own ways, still kids in some respects. We were adults, but we still had growing up to do. S. took care of her mother, and found her strength and resolve in doing so. I had an anxious aversion to dealing too closely with death and crisis, but for S's sake I ended up in the middle of it. We both came out of it different from when we went in. Stronger, harder. More serious. Well, not necessarily serious...less flighty. It happened again with the deaths of Jacob and Joshua. We burned away what didn't work, and who is left is stronger and yes, harder for it.

I was watching a French film called "Frontière(s)" one afternoon. Fans of "Hostel" will enjoy it. It's not an easy film to watch - graphically, brutally violent. Grimy, bleak, heartless, nihilistic. And out of all of the horrific imagery - people getting their Achilles tendons severed, cut in half on table saws, hit in the head with hatchets - the image that provoked the deepest anxiety in me was the one that opened the film.

A close-up of a fetal ultrasound.

What is horror, after all?

The new new normal.

Pardon me if this seems a little loopy. I haven't yet picked up my delightful other half's pill-blogging, but I've been taking Claritin-D for my allergies and although it does clear my sinuses and cut down on my snoring, it also tends to knock me the hell out. I can feel it lingering in my system, like a fuzzy coating on my brain.

(One quick digression - I never realized how expensive Claritin was. I'm not even taking the brand-name stuff and it's something like 9 bucks for six pills. And it's sold behind the counter in daily limited quantities because of the pseudoephedrine. Between the exorbitant price and the difficulty of obtaining it at convenience, it's practically a controlled substance already.)

In many ways, I think we're starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Which isn't to say that everything is good, just that things are slowly beginning to return to something like normal. S. has more energy, is getting out of the house more, she seems more present more of the time, and this is good. I'm still a little on the sit-on-the-couch-and-stare side of things, but that's also because I haven't had much of an opportunity to relax. I see that in my near future, though. That's for a different post, though.

All along, I've found myself monitoring how we were doing - observing my own grief as I experienced it. Unlike S., I've been pretty lucky as far as death goes - my parents are both still alive and (reasonably) healthy, my grandparents and other relatives pretty much all died at ripe old ages. I've never lost anyone in an untimely fashion until now. So even as I deal with how I'm feeling, I'm thinking about the qualities of experiencing those feelings. So I'm constantly "checking in" on myself and S. to see how we're doing.

According to our shrinks, we're doing really well. Which makes me wonder what it's like to not do well, because this has been so hard. Our grief counselor described one woman to us, saying that going on a year later, she's still sitting in her basement, surrounded by baby clothes. That's become our new benchmark. It used to be "well, at least nobody's dying", and well, somebody else died. Two very important somebodies. Now, it's "well, at least we're not in the basement surrounded by baby clothes."

Mostly, I think about how we lived before and what's changed. It still hurts to see babies, to see parents pushing strollers down the street. I can't help but think that my arms should not be empty right now. I'm torn, because they have every right to be happy and to love and enjoy their children. In fact, I think it's incumbent upon them to do so. But, I also have every right to try and live my life without unnecessary pain. I find myself becoming petulant and selfish. Maybe all of the time and energy I've spent taking care of S. and pushing myself back into my work at a critical time is catching up with me. I resent strangers in public places for having their kids there, and at the same time I know that there's no way the world is going to accommodate me. All of this, of course, could be avoided by not going out in public.

But that's the point toward which I've been slowly meandering: We are going out in public more. S. gets up and wants to leave the house, to take a drive, to "go do something." It's been damn near a year since that happened, since the hyperemesis pretty much sucked the joy out of anything that required being more than 10 feet from a bathroom. I've always been sort of a couch potato, so my apathy in that area isn't necessarily unusual. But she's taking initiative, she's taking steps back into the world again, and that's improvement.

It feels like a large ice floe is breaking up, like we're starting to thaw. The ice is still there, but we aren't sealed in it anymore. We're stepping from piece to piece, navigating, negotiating. All of this just to get back to where we were emotionally a year ago, at best. Grieving our children is the new normal. Normal is the new good. Let's see where it takes us.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Vows belated^2

Yes, that's an exponent in the subject line, because that's how I roll. Nerdy.

So awhile back, my beloved S posted her belated marriage vows to me on our wedding anniversary. Pretty much what she said was true (about the circumstances - her appraisal of me? I dunno. I try), and it made me choke up a little to read them. I mean, I know she loves me, and I know she knows I love her. And she knows that I know that she knows I love her, and she knows that I know she loves me, y'know? But on our wedding day, she wasn't her usual articulate self, and more than ever, I need to know what I'm doing right or what I'm good at, because dead babies provide plenty of evidence to the contrary. I especially thought it was generous of her to omit the fact that the rabbi read my vows from a piece of hotel stationery, hastily scribbled on the way to the ceremony, using the dashboard as a desk.

(Our officiant really was great - how often do you hear Hebrew prayers sung in a gospel style? That shit was amazing.)

She also failed to mention how amazing she is, and that should also be rectified.

I have yet to meet anyone warmer or with a more generous spirit than S. She is, under normal circumstances, one of the most caring, compassionate, sensitive people I have ever met. Her ability to find joy and pleasure in the simplest things - a drive on a beautiful day, ice cream, a bed full of dogs and cats, a lazy Sunday morning with tea, the New York Times crossword and some music - makes it easy to enjoy spending time with her.

She's incredibly smart - sometimes I think smarter than she gives herself credit for - and that, combined with her dry and clever sense of humor, makes for the perfect package for me. We're like Nick and Nora Charles, except less with the drinking and the crime-solving and the money. So maybe not so much like them.

What's more, these values are infectious. When we met, I wasn't exactly what you'd call a ray of sunshine. I was coming up on the end of three years of working two jobs (one full-time) and going to school full-time. I'd get up at 6:30, go to school, go to work straight from school, get home at 12:30, stay up for an hour, go to bed, and do it all again the next day. I'd come out of a relationship that had ended badly, and although I was a better, more mature, stronger person for the experience, I was also angry, bitter, cynical, and very guarded.

S. saw through that to the person I was - the person I am - underneath. She understood where the anger came from, and made it safe for me to not have to be so guarded anymore. She provided a healthy correction to my generally pessimistic outlook. Just by having her in my life, I am a better, more compassionate, more thoughtful person. She lifts me up.

Plus, she's cute as hell. That doesn't hurt.

I remember the first time I said "I love you" to her. We were at one of our favorite restaurants in Boston (the S&S Deli, for those of you playing along in the Boston area), and she ordered a hamburger. When the food came, she promptly took the hamburger apart, removed the fresh tomato, and replaced it with ketchup...

Me: "You just took the tomato off."
S: "Yeah..?"
Me: "And replaced it with ketchup."
S: "Yes."
Me: "You do know that ketchup is made with tomatoes, right?"
S: "Yeah, but it's a different experience. It's all about the texture."
Me: (laughing) "I love you."

That was it. No violins or candles, no huge buildup, no "tonight's the night he's going to say it" or any of that other romantic-comedy bullshit. Nope, just her and me, sitting in a booth, laughing and me spontaneously expressing what I was feeling at that moment, which was tremendous respect and affection, and joy at being in her company. You know, love.

And that's how we go through life: Next to each other, facing what's ahead, laughing and taking joy in the simple pleasures when we can, holding on to each other when we can't.

I love you, S.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Damaged goods

Awhile back, Tash pointed out that along with the inescapable portrayals of mothers and babies in the media comes a tendency to portray those who have lost children as crazy or otherwise permanently damaged. Apparently, Glenn Close's character on Damages lost a child (and it's not like Close has ever played someone driven mad by loss or rejection before), and although I've never watched the show, her character doesn't strike me as being all that balanced from the commercials I've seen.

I am also reminded of The Accidental Tourist and Ordinary People, both of which feature relationships irreparably damaged by the death of a child. And then a couple of nights ago, I'm watching an episode of the Masters of Horror series entitled "Sounds Like." I looked forward to this episode because it was directed by Brad Anderson, who is, in my opinion, masterful. The premise of the episode is that the protagonist - a man with exceptional hearing - has recently suffered the death of his young son from an undiscovered heart ailment. He and his wife are trying to conceive again, but his sense of guilt and loss, combined with an inability to let go of his son (indicated by an insistence that his sons' bedroom be left exactly as it was and that nobody enter it) is causing him to become imbalanced, His exceptional hearing becomes painfully acute, and his inability to escape a world of magnified sound drives him to do Bad Things.

It was a well-done episode, but again, the death of a child drives the father homicidally insane (I guess I should be happy someone's paying attention to Dad, I guess), and the mother isn't treated much better - something about her seems off throughout the episode, her desire to conceive couched in unrealistic fantasies and almost infantile, fairy-tale wish fulfillment. If childbirth and motherhood are portrayed as perfecting the woman and legitimizing the marriage, then the death of children apparently ruin the woman and destroy the marriage.

I have no doubt that relationships are destroyed by the death of a child - we hear it from our grief counselor, we read about it in blogs, we see it every day and S and I are constantly grateful for what we have. I have no doubt that women (and men for that matter) who have lost children feel ruined or broken or like they have failed. I don't need to read or hear anything to know that. I know that all too well. But to me it seems like more support for this idea that the culture mandates babies and motherhood - not only is it the state to which we are expected to aspire, but the alternative is presented as inescapably destructive. What kind of message does this send to those of us who have lost children? What hope of recovery do we have?

Tangential but related: Evolutionary theory posits attractiveness as a function of reproductive viability - facial symmetry indicates absence of disease, waist-to-hip ratio indicates feasibility of childbearing for women, physical size indicates health and strength for men. Maybe, then, the social difficulties many of us seem to have - the inappropriate comments, the distance, the awkwardness, the sympathy that seems to dry up around the 6-month mark - may be sort of a hindbrain response. Evidence bears out that we cannot consistently reproduce successfully, and this knowledge thus makes us less attractive as people. Less attractive people get the short end of the stick all the time. What is beautiful is good. What is fit is beautiful. And so the world keeps telling us, like the toll of a bell: Damaged goods, damaged goods, damaged goods.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

6 x 6 (Or: My First Meme)

This comes courtesy of Glow In The Woods - go check it out.

1) In a word, how would you characterize yourself before your loss, and then after?

Before: Full of joy and anticipation.

After: Empty and hard.

2) How do you feel around pregnant women?

Generally okay. It's just when people start talking about their pregnancies and/or children and all of the wonderful (and not-wonderful) stuff that comes with being pregnant and/or having kids that I start to lose it a little. The reminders of what I don't have, of things on which I'm missing out.

3) How do you answer the 'how many children' question?

Haven't had to yet, but if/when I do, I'll just say none. Not exactly true, but it's parsimonious - if they're insensitive enough to follow up with something like "well why not?" then I'll tell them without being especially genteel about it. Otherwise, the people with whom I'd want to talk about it already know.

4) How did you explain what happened to your lost babies to your living children? Or, if this was your first pregnancy, will you tell future children about your first?

We don't have any other children, and at this point, thinking about what we'd tell any children we're able to have what happened to their brothers seems like the height of arrogance. Right now, I'd just be grateful to have a child to tell.

5) What would another pregnancy mean to you, and how would you get through it—or are you done with babymaking?

It took us two years of IUIs, procedures, tests and medication to get as far as we did. The two boys we lost were the first pregnancy to get beyond the chemical pregnancy stage. We're starting to think about trying again, but it seems like so much for little to no guarantee. I have no idea how I'd get through it. I can't imagine that we're done, but I can't imagine how we'd do it either. Like everything else about this whole thing, there are no good options. Everything is bad.

6) Imagine being able to step back in time and whisper into the ear of your past self the day after your babies died. What would you say?

I don't know. I think part of me is still back there. Maybe just tell myself that when I feel like I can survive it, that I'm strong enough, that we'll both get through this somehow, that I'm right.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Some weekend levity

One of the unexpected side effects of the grief S and I feel is a renewed appreciation for all the crappy, horrible, guilty-pleasure snacks we'd normally enjoy in moderation. We have become connoisseurs of junk food. Our tortilla-chip-and-queso capacity will be the stuff of Viking legend. Bards will sing sagas for our ability to put Ruffles and ranch dip away.

To that end, over our last few trips to the grocery store, I've been picking up bags of exotically flavored potato chips. Once I'd gathered 6 different flavors, I decided that we'd have a potato-chip tasting. Absurd? Sure. But we damn well know our chips. Time to expose these fancy-schmancy gourmet flavors to the white heat of our critical palates. So, without further adieu, I present the first annual Once In A Lifetime/So Dear, Yet So Far joint gourmet potato chip tasting.

Some ground rules:

1) Chips were selected for novelty of flavoring. The same company also made "mesquite" and "yogurt and green onion" flavors which, while exotic-sounding, seemed more like pretentious variations of the standard barbecue and sour-cream-and-onion flavors. Which? Boring. If you're going to come to this show, you'd better come with the new, son.

2) Tastings consisted of 3 chips each, which allowed for an initial taste and taste over time.

3) Between tastings, a preferred beverage was used as a palate-cleanser. (Diet Coke for S, iced tea for me).

4) Ratings and criteria are completely subjective, and our judgment is questionable.

So let's get started...

#1: Honey Dijon

Honestly, I would have never thought to make a mustard-flavored potato chip, let alone one that uses a sweet dijon mustard. So I went into this one having little to no preconceptions, and maybe just a little fear. Turns out that that fear was wildly unfounded.

C: "I was expecting a much stronger, more mustardy taste."

S: "I can taste the honey dijon, but that's only for chicken."

C: "As it is, it tastes like somebody waved mustard near the chip, or like I was eating regular chips from a paper plate with mustard stains on it from a recently eaten hot dog."

S: "It's like I'm eating a chicken. Although, there is something to the sweet and salty combination."

C: 2 chips out of 5 ("Sort of bland, inoffensive. Not bad, but not a go-to flavor.")
S: 3 chips out of 5 ("I can see myself eating it when there's nothing else to eat.")

#2: New York Cheddar with Herbs

You don't see cheddar-flavored potato chips too often, so I wasn't sure how this was going to work either. Is it a mild cheddar, a sharp cheddar? An extra-sharp cheddar? What herbs? Oregano? Or something wacky like coriander? Well, turns out we had another whimper, instead of a bang.

S: "I didn't know New York made cheddar."

C: "I am reminded of cheese-flavored Pringles, without the regrettable aftertaste."

S: "Enh. I'm not really a cheese-and-potato-chip person."

C: "Again, not as bold a taste as I would have expected."

C: 2.5 chips out of 5 ("Sort of underwhelming.")
S: 2 chips out of 5 ("Not really doing it for me.")

#3: Island Jerk

It's been years and years since I had jerk chicken, but I remember really liking it, and thinking that this particular approach to seasoning could be quite the upsetter to more conventional barbecue chips or the Doritos X-treme Habanero Ranch Bleu Cheese Spice Explosion flavors. At this point, I was a little worried, though. None of the other flavors had lived up to the wild rollercoaster of flavor I'd been anticipating. Until this one...

C: "Mmmm. I like this."

S: "This is kind of interesting."

C: "Here, the flavor is assertive without burning my mouth. Very good, and probably hard to scarf an entire bag without injuring yourself."

S: "There's kind of a brown-sugary thing, sort of sweet and spicy."

C: 3.5 chips out of 5 ("This is the first one I've really liked")
S: 3.5/4 chips out of 5 ("Yeah.")

#4: Tuscan Three Cheese

The New York Cheddar was weak sauce, the Honey Dijon didn't really do anything either. Was this going to be the chip to stand up for the non-spicy contingent? Would I really be taken on a trip to Tuscany, afloat on a raft of potato-chip goodness? I wouldn't. S, on the other hand, would.

S: "Initially better than I thought it was going to be."

C: "Not getting anything especially Mediterranean from this."

S: "Less cheesy and Do you know what I mean?"

C: "It's a pleasant, slightly cheesy chip, but I'm not sure Tuscany figures into it at all. And are there really three cheeses here? I'm getting sort of a general cheese thing, but not three cheeses."

S: 4 chips out of 5 ("I like these - can you get me some that aren't burnt?")
C: 2.5/3 chips out of 5 ("Meh. Not bad, but nothing special.")

#5: Buffalo Bleu

This is a bold move against the conventional barbecue flavor. I think there's a buffalo-flavored Doritos product as well, but they've probably added Citrus Burst or something to it. This should be one loud, clear note of buffalo spice with a cool, almost-sweet bleu undertone. And it almost was.

S: "I'm scared - these look spicy."

C: "Ahh, now this is what I was expecting."

S: "Oof - that's a little too spicy. A little too much going on with this one."

C: "Something with some bite, and it actually tastes like buffalo wing sauce. Not really getting the bleu cheese taste, but I'm liking these."

S: 1/2 chips out of 5 ("I would rather not eat those")
C: 3/4 chips out of 5 ("nom nom nom nom nom")

#6: Spicy Thai

S and I both love Thai food. But for the purposes of this chip, we were pretty sure this wasn't going to mean "peanut sauce." I was afraid that it was going to be some red-pepper monstrosity. Which, mercifully, it wasn't. Now I sort of wonder what a lemongrass chip would be like...

C: "Mmm. Reminds me of the Island Jerk - starts off sweet, then burns a little. "

S: "Again, a little sweet, a little spicy. But I don't like this as much as the other one."

C:"I definitely taste the ginger here. I could eat these, especially when I feel a little masochistic."

S:"It's a little spicier - this would be good with a bleu cheese or ranch dip."

S: 3.5 chips out of 5 ("I think it needs something to cool it off")
C: 3.5 chips out of 5 ("Maybe I can eat the rest of these while she's asleep...I didn't say that out loud, did I?")

So, to recap:

S's top three: Tuscan Three Cheese, Island Jerk, , Spicy Thai ("These would all be better if they weren't BURNT!")

C's top three: Island Jerk, Buffalo Bleu, Spicy Thai ("I don' t know what your problem is. I like burnt chips.")

I'm sure we'll be able to divide the remainder of the chips up equitably for snacking purposes. Those Tuscan chips are all S, I'm going to be the only one going near the Buffalo Bleu chips. I suspect, however, that negotiations for the Island Jerk and Spicy Thai will be strained. There may be open warfare. And, as is always the case, it is the innocent, harmless Honey Dijon and New York Cheddar caught in the middle. But these are the wages of snack food.

Friday, May 2, 2008

What's mine is mine, unless it's also yours.

I'm beginning to develop kind of a weird relationship with my grief. It's a part of me - settled in and camped out for the duration - but it's also the product of outside events, of the death of my sons. So it's both part of me and something that happened to me. This isn't the weird part, this is just bullshit intellectualizing of something really painful and exhausting. The weird part is that I feel like I'm becoming almost protective of my grief sometimes. Other times, I want to share it with the world, much like a new strain of plague.

My situation has been pretty typical, apparently, for a grieving man - which is to say that nobody says shit about it to me. I can understand people's discomfort, and I can understand them not wanting all the gory details and everything. I'd probably be more concerned if they wanted to revel in my misery along with me. But in the face of good news and excitement and celebration and stuff like that, it sort of feels like my grief may be forgotten or lost. I mean, sure, why dwell on things that bum you out if you don't have to? But I have to. I have no choice, my grief is always there. So sometimes I want to be up in everyone's face, scream that my sons are dead and I wake up every morning with this, go to bed every night with this, the knowledge of what I do not and will not have.

At other times, though, I feel like my grief is something so profound and so personal, so rooted in myself, that I become selective about those with whom I will share it. I don't want to give that part of myself away to just anybody. It hurts, it sucks the light and life out of me, it makes navigating the world a minefield. And the same contrarian, confrontational side of me that wants to rub everyone's nose in my pain also wants to shut people out, deny them access to the part of me that hurts so much. Not because they could hurt me more, but because they haven't earned the right. They don't get to know me that well yet.

Which all just seems to indicate that grief or no grief, I'm pretty much completely fucked up in the head.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Babies still everywhere.

It's not just my immediate surroundings that hammer me with reminders of what S and I don't have, it's also the culture. It's television, movies, magazines. The singular of "media" is "medium," meaning "one of the means or channels of general communication, information, or entertainment in society, as newspapers, radio, or television" or "an intervening agency, means, or instrument by which something is conveyed or accomplished" (thank you,, but also "surrounding objects, conditions, or influences; environment."

One of my chief coping mechanisms has for some time been the media. Music has consistently been a motive force in my life, providing a great deal of solace and reassurance to me as a rebellious teenager, film got me through an extremely difficult breakup (before I met S, of course), and film, television, and video games soothe me now. I spend a lot of time in front of one blinking screen or another. The problem is that I am discovering just how pervasive the idea of children and parenthood is. Like many, I took it for granted before. Now I can't, and everywhere I turn I see mommies and daddies and babies.

There's the movie "Baby Mama", starring the otherwise funny Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in a story about a well-to-do woman who can't have children (which is apparently hilarious) and how she recruits a trashy, lower-class woman as a surrogate (which is apparently also a laugh riot.) I'm baffled, because the principal parties should have more sense than this. It's offensive in terms of gender (women want babies at whatever cost) and class (the rich are right to exploit the poor, the poor cannot be trusted to make good decisions). And it's about the drive to have babies. Babies uber alles.

Then there's "Juno", which a friend of ours described as a "right-wing piece of shit disguised as indie cinema", wherein a quirky, spunky teenage girl gets quirkily, spunkily pregnant, and then gives the baby up for adoption without batting an eye or feeling anything resembling loss , and then she goes back to being quirky and spunky while some aggressively indie-rock soundtrack whispers in the background. Pregnancy is taken for granted, of course she gets pregnant by accident, because it's almost impossible not to get pregnant - hell, walk down the street, you might trip, fall, and land on a penis. So giving up the baby is, like, no big deal. Just have another one later, right? How hard could it be?

There are the myriad magazines in the checkout aisle at the supermarket - "baby bump" watches for celebrities, who's expecting, who's expected to be expecting soon. Who had their "miracle" twins at the ripe old age of 40-whatever? (without any help, of course - coughcoughJuliaRobertscoughcough) Who's importing an adopted child from the Third World country du jour now? Babies! Babies! BABIES! Shit, S can't even go into the grocery store anymore because it's on the newsstands, it's in the aisles. Babies everywhere.

And then there's television. Before we lost the boys, we used to watch "Jon & Kate Plus 8", mostly for the inevitable day when Jon finally snaps and leaves Kate to go to Vegas and shack up with a stripper named Stormee. Now it's unbearable. The Gosselins, the Duggars, and the rest of the parade of families with multiples. We were so excited to have twins - I have twin sisters, we wouldn't have to try and go through the reproductive gauntlet again. Each of our boys would have a brother. But multiples are tough, not that you'd know from the genial freakshows on Discovery Health. More stories of families with huge numbers of children, whether naturally (poor Mrs. Duggar) or not (Kate and her cavalier use of Clomid, man, did our RE get pissed when we started talking about that). This is the condition to which we should aspire, to have babies everywhere. Define women in terms of motherhood, define families in terms of offspring, define ourselves in terms of our basest function. Channels of baby-only programming. Life-and-death hospital shows about the valiant OBs who pull all but the most recalcitrant pregnancies through.

Never mind the blood and pain and screaming, the aching loss, the hideous parody of childbirth, me clutching S's hand, telling her to push like we'd always planned, except now it's all in the service of the dead, of an end, not a beginning. The exhaustion of parents meets the exhaustion of mourning. The swaddling clothes are all we have to remember them, and the pictures are too painful to look at, let alone show off. The nightmare version of pregnancy and childbirth, the outcome we thought too horrible to contemplate just months before. Yeah, they don't make movies about that shit. They don't feature those people on TV. They don't get cover stories in Us Weekly. Babies are cute. Grief is ugly. And ugly is never the hero, ugly never sells. In social psychology, there's a maxim - "what is beautiful is good." Ain't that the fucking truth.

So it's harder and harder to find refuge.

One night, I'm playing a video game, and at one point, my character is called upon to mediate a dispute between two people: A woman, pregnant with her late husband's child, argues with her brother-in-law about genetic therapy for the disorder that killed her husband. If she gets it for her unborn child, there might be long-term problems. If she doesn't get it, her child could get the disorder that killed her husband. She doesn't want to make a decision that might mean she killed her child.

And I'm sitting here, thinking "Really? Here too? Really? Can't I just blow something up?"

Babies everywhere.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Bright sunshine and dark humor.

I am supposed to be productive today, but it's springtime.

There's sun shining outside, singing birds, it's warm, it's Friday. End of the week. Relief in sight. Two days of not needing to be nice or patient or strong or any of that crap. So I'm having trouble being productive. I don't have any meetings today (rare for a Friday) and the only thing keeping me here is the thought of picking up some exams that I'm having scored.

Plus I've got allergies, and right now I'm periodically sneezing my head off and/or clawing my eyes from their sockets. This doesn't help productivity either.

Things have been very up and down lately. S changed her antidepressant, and I think the new stuff allows her to have actual peaks and valleys, instead of sort of constantly being not quite up but not quite down either. The peaks are nice, the valleys not so much. There are a lot of tears, but there's also laughter. I hang on to the laughter. The laughter is as good as sunshine and singing birds. If I can laugh, if S can laugh, that means there's hope. And I have to believe there's hope.

Which is not to say we don't laugh at some pretty inappropriate things.

Well, I say "inappropriate", but these days, I find I don't give much of a shit about someone else's definition of propriety. I think it's part of the whole "my grief, my needs, screw you" attitude that I started developing pretty early into the process, like right around the time I realized neither of our children were going to survive. Don't get me wrong, I know enough not to make these jokes with everyone (and bless our friend who is a mother and pregnant with her second, and is just as dark as we are), but they get made. And like any other traumatic experience, you had to be there to get it. S and I talk about writing a book to help cope with the loss of a child (yes, I know there are books like that out there, but they don't have the right amount of bitterness and snark) titled What To Expect When You're No Longer Expecting.

A line of clothing might be a good idea - t-shirts, maybe. T-shirts with slogans like "Baby Overboard" or "Ask Me About My Dead Children" or "My Child Would Be An Honor Student, But He Didn't Survive Delivery." If other people can be in my face with their babies, I can be in their face with my lack of babies. S and I joke about birth control - "oh, maybe we should get some protection, we wouldn't want to accidentally get pregnant...", followed by a pause, and then laughter.

Crass? Yes. Insensitive? Sure. But I have to laugh at something. If I don't laugh at something, I might start screaming sometimes.

But it's sunny outside, it's Friday, and it's almost 4pm and I haven't heard back about the tests yet. So maybe I'll just go home and start the weekend a little early. My grief, my needs. Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Babies everywhere...

Inspired by this commercial...

Well, not really. Sort of.

I am surrounded by pregnancy and children at school. One of our good friends - someone who has been right there as we struggled with infertility, with culture shock, with finding community - is pregnant. She's been very sensitive, but it's still there. My adviser is pregnant, and she and I have a strained-at-best relationship to begin with, which is its own post and probably 40% of every appointment I have with my therapist. Another faculty member just had a baby, two graduate students in my year just became fathers, another faculty member is pregnant. Lots of talk about showers and how exciting it all is and names and clothes and yadda yadda yadda argh fuck kill hate.

The refrain from the commercial rings in my ears: "Babies everywhere!"

I've never really felt all that home in my department. The circumstances that contribute to this are arcane and tedious, but suffice it so say that my inability to join in the babyfest is something I feel acutely. Before the break, I told everyone I could find that we were pregnant and they were genuinely happy. It felt like I could somehow be part of a community now. We were able to hang out with our friends' other adult friends in town (we are somewhat older than the average graduate students) because they have kids and we were going to have kids and so voilá! Finally a place for us. Then comes Christmas, and with it, the death of our sons.

Now, I find myself even more isolated than before - less common ground than before, tragedy makes people uncomfortable anyway, and the baby chatter is almost like white noise around me. But what am I going to say? That I'm in pain over here? Why would people bother to care now, when they haven't noticed any of the other horrible shit I've been through over the last five years?

I'm reluctant to say anything. I don't want to play the victim. Somehow it feels like it would be rude and inconsiderate to bring up my suffering when there's so much to celebrate going on around me. Somehow it makes me see myself as weak, petulant. Maybe it's because this isn't how men grieve. We do it quietly, stoically. Maybe it's because I suspect nobody would bat an eye. For five years, every day I've gone into school feeling completely alone, more or less. Why should now be any different?

Babies everywhere.

For what it's worth, I think the commercial is hilarious.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The weeping angels.

I am a huge nerd.

Well, not huge, though I've definitely put on weight.

But I'm a huge nerd.

Walking home the other day, I was reminded of a recent episode of Doctor Who, entitled "Blink." The antagonists of the episode are creatures called the Weeping Angels, ancient predators who only exist when they are not being observed. Otherwise, they appear to be ordinary stone statues.

It's a great episode - inventive, elegant, and scary as shit - but what strikes me now is the Angels' method of killing. Their touch displaces their prey in time, flinging them back years (even decades) into the past to live out the remainder of their lives. In turn, the Angels feed on their potential - all of the years ahead that they'll never have now, all of the things they'll never do, people they'll never meet, all of that raw potential feeds the Angels.

In the weeks before we lost Jacob and Joshua, I would walk home from school, thinking over how I'd want things like the birds-and-the-bees talk to go, what I'd teach them about being a man, how I'd talk to them if one of them came out to me. All of the stuff that you'd like to prepare, even if you end up speechless when the moment comes.

I am also reminded of a line from one of my favorite movies (speaking of all things masculine), one that kept running through my head during the awful time in the hospital. It's a line delivered by the assassin William Munny, in the movie Unforgiven. After doing the job he was paid to do, Munny (played by Clint Eastwood) says "It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away everything he's got, and everything he's ever going to have." Lost potential.

I think that's what gets to me the most on a day-to-day basis - all of the lost potential of my sons. All of the things I'll never get to tell them, the talks we'll never have, the laughter, tears, first loves, first drinks...all gone. All food for the angels.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

D**d b****s, redux

I totally understand the reluctance to say "dead baby" out loud - I mean, it's one of the most horrible things you can think of, whether you've suffered this loss or not. I can't say it to anyone but S. The thought of saying it to anyone but her is incomprehensible to me. And in a way, I feel like saying it and hearing it is something that only belongs to us - it isn't for anyone else, because they don't know everything behind it. All of the history, the weight of our heartbreak after two years of trying.

I am reminded of a somewhat offensive joke:

Q: How many Vietnam veterans does it take to change a light bulb?
A: You wouldn't know, man! You weren't there!

That's sort of what our ability to say "dead babies" out loud is for me. It's shorthand for two years of trying, of heartbreak at failed cycles, procedures, operations, pills, shots, time spent in the stirrups and peeing on sticks again and again, only to come up short every time, until that one time that went further, long enough for us to let ourselves be happy, only to have them die in the one way we'd always been afraid to contemplate too closely, because it was just too horrifying. And no, if someone wasn't there, they won't get it. S and I get it.

But I absolutely sympathize with people who can't say it, or who cringe. It's hard. One of the hardest things in the world, and we all approach grief in different ways.

What's hardest for me right now is using their names. I suspect it's another way to keep some distance on the whole experience, like if I name them it will become more real for me than I am capable of handling right now. It's starting to change a little - when S and I talk about what happened I use their names more, but it takes time and effort. I want to get their names tattooed on me as a way to memorialize them, their naming is important. But it's like the words don't want to come out of my mouth easily.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

On being a DH.

In the before-time, in the long, long-ago, when we first started trying to conceive, S made a point of visiting a number of different fertility-related message boards, essentially trying to build some community to help deal with our difficulties getting pregnant. Inevitably, I found myself looking at some of these boards over her shoulder, and it was here that I became familiar with the term "DH." And although I know it stands for "Darling Husband" or "Dear Husband," the part of my Y chromosome that passes along a rudimentary knowledge of sports insists on interpreting it as "Designated Husband." Which, given the tenor of most of the discussion, seemed about right. And it got me to thinking.

It got me thinking back to when S and I were planning our wedding. It wasn't unusual as weddings go, I don't think. But I found myself a little appalled at how little attention the husband got in all of the things we read (and I think at one point we could have built a new bed out of all of the bridal magazines we had laying around). The general consensus seemed to be "as long as he shows up on time and sober, tee-hee", and well, I was pretty goddamned excited about getting married. And lucky S, she was marrying a man who actually had opinions on things like dishes and silverware. (Of course, be careful what you wish for.) Bottom line, I felt like the role of the groom was marginalized, that ultimately, any jackass in a tux would do. Hence, "Designated Husband."

And once we got pregnant, it really struck me just how much the industry surrounding motherhood resembles the industry surrounding marriage. Each takes a milestone experience, one with tremendous individual history and variation, one which will require a lifetime commitment, hard work, and isn't always going to be sunshine and rainbow unicorns, and pares it down to its most idealized, marketable form. Of course, this sells stuff, which is the whole point, and it capitalizes on fear and insecurity over doing the wrong thing. (I remember one mother-to-be magazine we brought back from an ultrasound had articles downplaying breastfeeding and touting it as the only reasonable the same issue!) Each compresses what will be a life's work into the "bride" or the "mom," as if that's all there is to it, and then sells you what you ostensibly need to be that person. And in each case, there's the life partner, the husband, standing on the outside, reduced to someone fit only to show up, say two words, handle the ice chips. The DH. Abbreviation in another's narrative.

I've tried hard not to be a DH. I try to express opinions and feelings and be involved. I'm not always successful, but I can't believe that I'm the only one out there who wanted to take part, who wanted to be involved, and got told by our culture that all that was expected of us was to show up. To be an abbreviation.

D*** b****s.

S and I have developed a shorthand for how we're feeling, or why we do (or don't do) certain mundane things. It took us a little while, but at some point in the last three months, we were able to actually say out loud that our children were dead. That Jacob and Joshua were dead. The act of saying "dead children" or "dead babies" was, at first almost violent, like using a really offensive or unacceptable word. I wonder how much of that has to do with how able we were at that point to accept what happened.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, take your pick), it's become much easier to say, and has become our watchphrase for how our grief is affecting us in the moment.

"I know I need to get these dishes done, but...dead babies."

"I shouldn't be eating potato chips straight from the bag, but...dead babies."

"I know the laundry is out of control, but...dead babies."

Some people might interpret this as a trivialization of our loss, but I suspect anyone who has suffered a similar loss knows how hard it is to imagine trivializing it. There's also the dark humor we use to comfort ourselves, but that's its own post. One of the things I love about my relationship with S, from when we first started dating up through marriage, is our ability to continually build a private language. Pieced together from shared experiences, movies and TV shows we both enjoy, songs, it may not make much sense to people outside of our relationship, but to me it represents the accrual of time together, of forging a shared history. Part of that is tragedy, and if for some time we need to use a phrase as ugly and final as "dead babies" to convey something, that's okay. Because it means we're still communicating.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Me and my shadow.

Everyone has a different way of talking about their grief. Which makes sense, since everyone's experience of grief is unique, the source of the grief is unique, and others' response to our grief is unique. But at the end of the day, it all sucks. No doubt about that.

My grief is something that's always there, squatting someplace in the middle of my chest. I used to think in terms of trying to escape grief, or suppress it. I don't think that way anymore. The grief is there like gravity is there: I can deny it or disbelieve it all I want, but I'm still stuck to the earth. It doesn't matter whether I want to feel it or not, it's just there. When I can, I do things that I enjoy, not because the grief will go away, but because I need every little bright thing I can get to make up for the grief that's always there. Laughing helps, but it doesn't negate it.

It doesn't hurt so much as it saps, it drains. I feel empty inside, and my heart feels like it has been dipped in lead. Everything is more of an effort, it's harder to get really excited about anything. The most frequent positive emotion I feel anymore is relief: Relief at having gotten through another day. Relief at having not fucked something up. Relief at not being totally dysfunctional.

And all the time, the grief is sitting there, not going anywhere, here for the duration. I'm having trouble remembering life before all of this now.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Wired differently (warning: long and tedious).

I keep telling myself I'm not going to do this, I'm not gonna, nope, nope, nope...I am not gonna go into some long, pedantic holding-forth on theories of gender. I study this shit, I do research on this shit, I can bore a motherfucker at forty paces with this shit. Just ask S. Go over to her blog right now, I bet she's nodding her head.

And yet.

So I think men do sort of get the short end of the stick in a lot of ways. It's hard for us to get custody of our own children, there's an asymmetry in how much flexibility we have within our gender role, we're often portrayed in advertising and popular media as incompetent, the La-Z-Boy dictators with all the power, our women the power behind the reclining throne. We rule the world, but can't change a diaper. Ha-ha.

One of my sisters has a mother-in-law like this. Her husband was a sexist pig, and more or less raised a son the same way. One day she confides to my sister along the lines of "well, we know who's really in charge, right?" in that "oh aren't they cute little boys" tone of voice. Which would be kinda funny in an "Everybody Loves Raymond" kind of way except men do have a lot of social power, institutional power. Those overgrown man-children pass laws and send people to war, make more money, get better promotions, and keep women "in their place". So it's kind of fucked.

But see, here's the deal: All of that social power doesn't invalidate the problems men have. It just makes it harder for us to talk about it. It smacks of entitlement, of playing the victim. We are, to some extent, prisoners of our own stereotype. It's times like this, when we deal with grief and loss, when we are depressed, when we have to struggle to go on that it's especially evident, I think. Not because we try to share and get beaten down for it, but because socialization means that it never occurs to us to share to begin with.

Boring digression: There are basically two camps in gender research, at least in experimental psychology. I can't speak for other disciplines. One is the evolutionary camp, which says that gender differences are a product of evolutionary pressures: Men are dominant and aggressive because dominant, aggressive men were more successful at mating. Women are caring and nurturing because the ones who weren't didn't take care of their children and those traits weren't propagated. There's also parental investment: Children require more time and resources from women (9 months plus post-partum feeding and care) than men (five minutes, ten if you're lucky, twenty if he's had a few beers). So women are more caring than men, because they have to be. Gender differences are thus the product of evolution. Hard-wired into the brain.

The other is the social constructionist camp, which says that gender differences are a product of social expectations about men and women. Yes, there are real physical differences, but by and large what we expect from men and women are the result of different expectations. I won't get into a whole long explanation of how this works, but basically the longer you conflate the jobs men and women tend to do (because of those physical differences) with the traits required to do them, the more you assume that men and women naturally possess the traits required to do the job, because they're the ones doing it. Women are expected to be caring and nurturing, men are expected to be dominant and aggressive, and we reward those who behave according to these expectations and punish those who don't. Gender differences are thus social - primarily (though not exclusively) the product of consensual beliefs about what men and women are and how they should act.

My perspective on gender is a social constructionist perspective. I'm highly aware of roles and what it means to not fulfill them. I'm a big believer in conditioning, that we teach people how to be male and female within a particular culture from a very young age. And I think sometimes we mistake the result of conditioning for natural, hard-wired differences. Women tend to be better than men at decoding nonverbal communication, and men tend to use more concrete language than women. We get good at what we're taught to do from birth. Men are not taught how to share their feelings. At worst, we're taught to hide them (I don't give a fuck what Rosey Grier had to say in "Free To Be You And Me", it is not alright to cry).

All of this yadda yadda is a long and complicated way of saying that I think part of the problem for men is that we aren't really taught to express emotions in the same way as women. This goes for the men undergoing loss and the men in our social support network. And honestly? We might not even be capable of identifying our own emotions to some degree. It took me a little while to be able to articulate exactly how the loss felt to me. I'm a wordy bastard, and it took some serious sitting there and focusing on the feeling for me to find a way to articulate it. And that was mostly because I knew S would want to know how I felt. We're not wholly incapable of it, it's just not necessarily part of our regular skill set. Men in Western culture are by and large taught to do things, to act, to take care of stuff, rather than process and describe.

Which I think also gets to why it's expected that we just get back into the swing of things afterward, or why during the horrible parts we act instead of feel - it's what we're taught, and the more we've been reinforced for this behavior over the course of our life, the better it feels to engage in it. I handled communications for both of us in the hospital. When we got home, I ended up ordering people around and playing host, even when all I wanted to do was collapse. Why? I suspect on some level I wasn't really sure how to do anything else, and everyone else was supporting what I was doing.

I have to admit, the feeling of control that doing something gave me was comforting. And I've been more successful at transitioning back into work than S, partially because it's easier for me to find some comfort in having something to do. It also helps that the class I'm teaching this semester is one I've taught before, so it takes less work to teach it than a new class would. And there are times where I feel sad, and I tell S. Before all of this happened, she'd have to ask me how I felt about something before I'd tell her. I usually could once asked, but it just never occurred to me to just tell her how I was feeling. Now it does. Not all the time, but definitely around the loss of our sons. Even so, even with the focus on doing and working and all that, it took a lot for me to get back into it. Especially when you work with theory, it's hard to get all fired up after your children have died. Everything else seems so much less important.

I don't know that people have expected me to pick right back up - I get the sense that I'm being ridden a little less hard than I could be, and I appreciate that. I also noticed a little hesitation when I saw people for the first time afterward, as if they were waiting to see if I would just burst into tears or freak out. When I didn't, it made it a little easier to talk to me. And it's not like I was trying to hide my grief - it's just not something that's routinely on display. I think people might think more about it if it were more evident all the time. But it's not. My relationship with my grief is a subject for another post.

In the end, it's my opinion that our thoughts and behaviors are guided by how people expect us to act and how they act towards us in return. They take their cues from what we do, and we take our cues from them and from what feels right and has felt right in the past. Are men and women wired differently? Maybe. But wiring can be changed.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

It could be worse. It could always be worse.

I've gotten so much great support from the post on how others respond to me versus my wife that I want to elaborate a little if I can.

I don't think my immediate situation is entirely due to my gender. Part of it has to do with the difference between my doctoral program and S's. S is in an education-related program, and they tend to be a little more touchy-feely over there anyway. My program is a quantitative experimental program, and as a group we tend to be a little introverted. The joke is that "research is me-search" - we tend to study the things we don't understand. Since I work in a field that deals with how people think and behave as members of social groups, well, maybe you can see where this is going. On top of that, I'm not the easiest guy to get to know in daily life. A friend of mine once commented, "you know how some people have an aura? You have a force field." Even before all of this started, being social and developing and maintaining friendships was tough for me.

Part of it is also the "I don't know what to say" factor. And believe me, if people don't know what to say, I'd rather they not say anything than bust out something like "God has a plan for you" or "everything happens for a reason" or "you could always have another" or "you have two little angels in heaven right now" or "have you considered getting a dog?" The occasional "how are you doing?" might be nice, but if people are unsure, I appreciate not wanting to say the wrong thing, especially since "I don't know what to say" doesn't seem all that comforting. They don't know that that's okay, because they haven't been through it. On the whole, we have been extremely lucky to get a minimum of inappropriate comments. I see other people's accounts and I'm appalled at some of the insensitivity there. I don't take our good fortune on that front for granted.

In some ways, I think dealing with our chemical pregnancies was harder. They didn't impact me to the same degree as they did S, but I knew she was in pain and grieving. Still, we have absolutely no norms in our culture for near-misses. As horrible as the death of our sons was, at least people have some idea of how to respond to the death of children, compared to unsuccessful pregnancies. Those we really did get through on our own.

I also think about the comedy of horrors that is all of the huge life changes occurring in our immediate support network. Out of S's three closest friends, one lost her father the same day we found out Joshua was dead (detailed here), and another was both helping to care for her father, who suffers from dementia, while working, caring for two children, and dealing with her husbands' serious heart problem (detailed here). The third? She's actually having a pretty good year, and deserves it, because last year sucked for her. One of S's best friends in town is pregnant with her second, S's sister is also pregnant, and these two women have been tremendous support for her through our struggle with infertility. The festival of wacky circumstances continues, but it could always be worse. We have our physical health. We have two beautiful cats. The sun is shining. I at least take some comfort in these things.