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.