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How I Became a Mother

Mira, 3 months

At the moment when my daughter entered the world, when her cries brought to a halt my groans, in the seconds between when  my husband cut her cord and then handed her to me, there was one other sound in the room. Me saying, in a panicked and shaky voice, “Oh my God Oh my God Oh my God” on a loop.

Mira’s warm body now lay on the opposite side of the belly which had been hers for nine months. The idea of motherhood had, in one long push, turned into the reality. And oh my God, I had no idea what I was supposed to do, feel, be, act like. I was not ready and yet, that didn’t really matter, did it?

When the nurses returned Mira to me in my hospital room, sweet-smelling and swaddled, still in that sleepy newborn daze, I was able to stare at her for the first time. As Sid slept in a chair beside me I gently unwrapped the blanket. Ten fingers and toes — wasn’t that the gauge of baby perfection, and wasn’t it my job to at least do that level of quality control? I slid her clenched fist out from the blanket and felt my breath catch in my throat. Her fingers were exact, miniature replicas of my husband’s. This was real. We, together, made a baby. And now she was here, with her long perfect fingernails and rosy red cheeks, beauty and potential bundled in a hospital-issue receiving blanket.

I shuddered. Who ever thought it was a good idea to give ME a baby? She cried that first night and I had no idea what to do. She cried for the next three months and I still had no idea what to do. After my umpteenth sleepless night, after it was yet again obvious that I wasn’t making enough breast milk, after she had thrown up yet again from the formula we tried to give her, I asked myself and asked God, “Who ever thought it was a good idea to give ME a baby?”

I spent my 20s convinced I was too selfish to be a parent, and I’m sure I was right. But then 30 hits, and you see how wonderful your husband is with little babies, and you know that deep down, it is an experience you want to have. But the truth is that you are scared to death: The brand-new adult life you just a few years stepped into is still precariously delicate. You’re still trying to figure out your way in the world — professionally, maritally, financially. And in the midst of all that unsurety, six pregnancy tests confirm what you really only needed one to tell you.

I was the mom whose baby wailed during the afternoon walks in the stroller that, pre-baby, I had fantasized would be our special time together enjoying nature. We were the ones driving in circles around the neighborhood praying for that moment that the wailing turned into a whimper and turned into silence. I was an over-achiever. A perfectionist. If I got a 95 on a test, I berated myself over the last five points. At motherhood, I was failing miserably and failure was not my thing.

One night, when she was about 6 weeks old, I remember staring down at that full head of brown hair, stroking her forehead as Sid taught me to do as a way to calm her down, and thinking, “Okay kid. I’ve had it. It’s time for me to be the mommy. And to do that,  I’m going to have to figure you out.”

And one night at at time, I did. We found a formula she could tolerate. I figured out that if I got her a bottle before she went into full-on tantrum, she’d drink and fall into a deep sleep. I learned how to swaddle. We created nighttime routines that signaled to all three of us that the day was coming to an end, a sanity-saver for adults and baby alike. And slowly I came to accept: Maybe I wasn’t an utter failure at motherhood. Maybe it was a good idea to give me a baby.

As that baby who perplexed me and humbled me grew, so did the amount of space she took up in my heart. A smile made me melt. When her eyes fixed on my face as I talked to her, I realized I’d never felt that special to anyone, ever. Her arms started to reach for me. Once I figured out how to get her to sleep, nap time became my favorite time of the day — the rocking, the reading, watching her eyes grow heavy, a dribble of milk moving down those wonderfully round cheeks. Oh my God, oh my God — I was in love.

It shocks me now to think that, when she was first laid on my belly, I was not overwhelmed with love for my daughter. Instead, over time I fell madly, deeply and obsessively in love with her. And somehow, for me, that is better. My love of her was a choice and then an undeniable urge, instead of the other way around. She quickly became my sidekick and my favorite companion, moving Cheerios into her mouth as she focused intently on watching me make dinner; her arms wrapping around my legs when I picked her up from day care and then pre-school and then kindergarten. Her smile still makes my heart melt, as if all the goodness in the world is being filtered through her to me — how did I get that lucky?

Today that precious gift I was given, that good idea that wasn’t my own, is growing up and growing away. Mira is 10 years old. This weekend I told her we’d bake cookies together, as baking is one of her favorite pursuits. Instead, she baked and I watched, my sole role being removing the hot cookie sheets from the oven. She confidently asks store clerks and restaurant waiters “Do you have this?” and “Can I have that?” She wakes up on her own at 5:30 am to shower and is often downstairs for breakfast before I am. She is applying to middle schools and has her sights set on the best one in New York City.

My baby, that rosy-cheeked bundle that rooted me and taught me more about myself than anyone ever has, is becoming her own person. Now what I’m left to wonder is — Do I remember how to be me?

Next year Mira will start middle school, a wild west of adolescence and hormones and cliques and first crushes. I try not to think about all the emotional education she has yet to receive — all the slights and heartbreaks in her future, all the joy and excitement she’ll have that I won’t be party to and likely will know nothing about. I try not to think about how much I miss those chubby little arms wrapped around my neck, or the way she would sing “Jingle Bells” every morning when she woke up in her crib, no matter what the season. But then I do think about it, as I am now, and I fight back tears but also marvel at how lucky I am to have had those moments.

It’s easy to dwell on the past, to wonder how time could have passed by so quickly and to regret the haste. But I try to focus on what a friend, years ago, told me when I asked her, “What is your favorite stage with your children?” She had three teen-agers at the time. She thought for a moment and said, “You know, every stage was fun in its own way. I really loved them all.”

And so as my daughter grows from little girl to almost teen, as the way she needs me changes, I try to focus on that. Children change, but every stage is a new adventure. Middle school, while it scares me, excites me also because I know there is so much yet for her to discover in this world, and so much of it is so good.

I can say the same for myself, both as a woman and as a mother: there is so much yet to discover in this world. Only I get an added benefit: I get to experience it myself, and to see it through my children’s eyes. And Oh my God Oh my God Oh my God, how wonderful that really does sound.

 

 

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White Girl Brown World: Call Me Bhougie

This weekend wrapped up the second of two huge family weddings. This time, it was my husband’s cousin Ananta getting married. He now lives in Florida, as does his now-wife Diana. So to accommodate both sides of the family, the maticore, wedding ceremony and kangan were held in Orlando. Fast forward a weekend later, and the wedding reception was held here in New York City. So yes, not only was this wedding four days long (five, if you count the second kangan, basically a big curried meat fest, scheduled for today) but spanned two weekends. When it comes to weddings, Guyanese people can never be accused of “keeping it small.”

Last night was Ananta and Diana’s reception, and it had all the trappings of a traditional American wedding reception. Bride in a white dress, bridal party including two flower girls, first dance, speeches, multi-tiered wedding cake.

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I was one of the few white girls in the room but after so very many years, I think we’ve gotten to the point where no one — especially me — notices. As my husband’s cousin Vick told me while sharing a drink at the bar, “You know what I like about you? What you see is what you get. You’re a very honest person. You’re not just married into the family;  you’re one of us.”

Awww Vick. That choked me up. Then, later on in the evening, one of my husband’s many cousins referred to me as “Bhougie.” (Say it with me. BOW-gee.) I looked at Sid and laughed. What?! Bhougie is a nickname for “sister-in-law.” The only Bhougies I know of in Sid’s family are — sorry — old ladies.  What was he saying? I’m now past my prime? We all laughed. But as Sid told me later, “Bhougie is a term of respect. You should be very honored.”

Well then. Bhougie it is. Only I’m the younger, paler, hotter version.

But before the reception even happened, Ananta and Diana had a beautiful, fun-fulled, Florida-in-August-hot wedding. Let me share with you their wedding journey. (Click on the photos to enlarge and view the slideshow.)

 

 

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Lessons Learned from a Decade of Motherhood

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My happy girl.

Last week my daughter, Mira, turned 10 years old. “I’m double digits now, Mom,” she told me numerous times, a beaming smile of pride spreading across her face. She is no longer my baby. But equally as transformative, I am no longer the clueless, scared and overwhelmed young mother that first counted her fingers and toes a decade ago.

When Mira was born and the doctor placed her on my lap, I didn’t cry. I wasn’t overcome with joy. I just remember repeating, “Oh my God oh my God oh my God.” The enormity of the moment, the vastness of the change that had just happened in my life, left me flummoxed. This was my child. I was now a mother. I shook from the newness of it all.

Later, when the nurse brought her to me in my hospital room, her presence felt ghost-like. What just an hour before did not exist in this world now lay beside me in a bassinet, her cheeks and lips red with life, her dark hair like a waft of downy feathers on her head. She started to wheeze. Because she had been born so quickly, she still had mucus in her lungs. It was my job to help her get it up. “Hold her on your lap and pat her back,” the broad-shouldered, patience-worn nurse told me. “Then suction out the mucus.” She turned on her heel and left. My husband Sid was in the room with me but I’d never felt so alone, as if the entire world outside the window didn’t even exist. It was just me and this child and I had to figure out how, in the most basic terms, to keep her alive.

I patted; I suctioned. She kept wheezing. I panicked. Sid called for the nurse. She returned, a look of disappointment on her face. I was patting Mira’s back as if it were a tambourine. “No, no,” the nurse said. “This is how you do it.” She scooped Mira up and with one hand on her chest and the other on her back started whacking her. Firm, rhythmic thumps. Mira coughed and spattered. My pulse quickened; all the blood surely left my face. Was she hurting my baby? Should I stop her? I was helpless in my cluelessness.

“Let me take her to the nursery,” the nurse said, saving me from bearing witness. “I’ll be right back.”

I was simultaneously scared and relieved. What was she doing to my baby? and Thank God she was doing it and not me. When they returned, Mira’s breathing was clear. The coughing and wheezing were gone. The nurse taught me the football hold and Mira started nursing. All seemed to be going well. But when Mira cried in the middle of the night, Sid slept through it. No nurses came. No one was going to swoop in this time. It was all me.

In all my years of schooling, I don’t think I ever learned as much as I did in those first three months with Mira. She was extremely colicky. Breastfeeding was more intense than any triathlon, the challenge of getting her to latch and stay awake to nurse combined with my lackluster “I pumped for 40 minutes and only got 1 ounce?!” output.  She was allergic to nearly every formula we tried. She’d only sleep when Sid rocked her so vigorously that sweat ran down his temples. And then as soon as we dared to give in to our exhaustion and put her down in her crib, she’d startle awake.

There were many moments in those first few months when I thought, “I am failing at this.” My baby wasn’t eating. She wasn’t gaining weight. The crying started at about 4 p.m. and continued until we could finally settle her down around 10. So many times I fell into a deep sleep only to hear her cries, look at the clock, and see only 10 minutes had passed.

How was I ever going to survive this? And couldn’t I just go back to work because that was a heck of a lot easier than this.

But slowly, something started to happen. The baby who shocked me with her newness started to respond to my voice. I sang to her and she smiled. I read aloud the books I was reading and she settled down. We found a formula she could tolerate and she started sleeping better at night.

I learned that the stack of parenting books I pored over looking for answers were a guide, not a Bible. I learned that parenting is trial and error. And when my second child was born, I learned that what works for one child isn’t guaranteed to work for the other. “You have to figure out for yourself what works and what doesn’t,” my mother told me time and again. And while I wanted more concrete direction, I now realize her answer was the most accurate one.

As Mira started trying new foods, exploring her world, learning to talk and learning to push limits and press my buttons, I learned that motherhood is a state of constant “on” mode. You can’t ease back on the discipline, the routines, the expectations, because while they are exhausting they are what maintains my sanity and keep my children in check.

This past week marked my 10-year anniversary as a mother. As many warned me, the next decade will make the first one seem like a summer picnic. I panic at that thought — hormones and dating and temptations — but then I look at what we’ve already been able to accomplish in these first 10 years.

Today, the top of Mira’s head reaches nearly to my shoulder. She wakes up on her own at 5:30 to shower before school and completes all her homework without any guidance or input from me. Gone are the days when she always had to be in the same room as I am, or at least check in on me every few minutes. Instead, she can often be found behind her closed bedroom door, talking with a friend on the phone, painting her nails or reading a book. She is funny and a great story teller. She has deep well of patience and a giving heart; she understands empathy and how to use it to bring joy to others. She loves to bake and read cookbooks and Sid and I wonder where these passions will take her.

I look at what we’ve help shape over 10 years and realize we didn’t do a perfect job. We’ve definitely overindulged her and maybe our high expectations put too much pressure on her. Or maybe not. Maybe she is exactly who she is supposed to be, and we’re just guardians for the journey. I like that idea and so that’s what I’m going with. And while the next 10 years might be filled with drama, the first 10 have taught me that no matter what the challenge, I can figure out what works and what doesn’t. And hopefully, as with the first 10 years, that will be enough.

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My Heroes are Pint-Sized

Mira didn't get a lot of chance to dirty her uniform, but she sure was proud to wear it.

Mira didn’t get many chances to dirty her uniform, but she sure was proud to wear it.

When my son Miles was 5 he failed the vision test at his annual check-up. A trip to the pediatric ophthalmologist confirmed he had a lazy eye and 20/70 vision. This means what most people could see from 70 feet away, he needed to be 20 feet away from to be able to decipher. When we got home from the doctor that day, I explained he’d have to wear a patch over his right eye so that his left eye would get stronger.

“That’s because my left eye is my bad eye,” he said. “My right eye can see real good.”

My heart sank and swelled. My poor boy knew all along. Mom was playing catch-up.

He started wearing the eye patch shortly before the first day of kindergarten. For five hours a day he submitted to some level of torture. He couldn’t see the TV. He couldn’t play a video game or build with his beloved Legos without being overwhelmed with frustration. Every day when I picked him up from school, as soon as he got in his carseat I pulled out a new patch.  He would start to cry. “No, I don’t want to. Please. Don’t make me.” And then we’d talk, he’d take a deep breath, and with courage that moved and inspired me he’d let me gently place the patch on his eye. His head often hung low. His lip sometimes quivered. But he acquiesced. After a while, I’d come with the patch and he’d groan but ask, “Can I put it on myself?” He did this every night through the madness that was rebuilding our lives after Hurricane Sandy. Considering how worn I was emotionally, he could have fought me on it and won. But I somehow found the strength to keep insisting, and he found the strength to keep doing.

This spring, my 9-year-old daughter Mira decided she wanted to start playing softball. I panicked. I knew that most girls around here start playing t-ball when they are barely out of diapers. She would be years behind her teammates. But she was only 9, and she should be able to try new things. And she shouldn’t have her mother’s anxiety, borne from my years of being the last person picked in gym class, of never playing a team sport myself, stop her. So I took her to practice and watched as she struggled with anxiety, shame and the frustration that she just couldn’t figure out how to hit that damn ball. I held her as she cried because the other girls were so much better than she was and they all knew each other so well. “I just feel so different,” she’d say. I always expected her to add, “I don’t want to play anymore.” She never did. Instead, she became more determined than ever to learn to field, to catch, to throw and, hopefully soon, to send that ball soaring into the outfield.

Today, nearly two years after first hearing of my son’s poor vision, his ophthalmologist delivered great news: His vision is now 20/25. And since it’s been a year since he’s had to wear a patch, that means his risk of regression is practically zero.

“Did you hear that?” I told Miles, translating for him what the doctor had just said. “It means all your hard work to make your eye stronger worked. All those days you wore that eye patch, every time you put it on when you didn’t want to, it helped your eyes get better.”

He smiled that bashful smirk that holds the pride that a 7-year-old boy now feels he needs to keep under wraps. I hugged him anyway and he hugged me back, tightly, his strong clutch the emotional substitute for the unbridled joy I know he felt.

Tonight my daughter’s team heads to the division softball playoffs. Her coach gently let me know that Mira will not be on the roster. As the weakest member of the team, she’ll be sitting on the bench during this important game. I asked Mira how she felt about that. She was sad about the prospect of being the only girl not on the field. But then I showed her this part of her coach’s message:

She has come so far from day one so I don’t want her to think I’m not proud of her determination! Love that kid!

Mira read that and started bouncing on her toes. Her eyes became misty and she hugged me. You’d think she’d just scored a winning run. But no — what she discovered might have been better. She learned that her hard work has been noticed. That sticking with something is worthwhile. She’s heading to the game tonight knowing she has one very important job: To cheer her team on.

“I have to yell and cheer as loud as I can Mom,” she said. And I couldn’t help but want to burst with joy and pride.

You read books about courageous people who have done amazing things, role models and icons who give you much to aspire to. But I’ve discovered, time and time again, that my real inspiration comes from the courage my kids summon in their journey toward adulthood. Every milestone comes with its own level of risk, from taking those first steps to stepping up to the mound and hoping, please, that this will be the time she hits that ball. Every achievement comes from putting in the effort, from learning to read to training a lazy eye to see clearly.

I’ve learned that my kids are my true heroes. As they continue their journey, I know the inspiration will only grow. That makes me so excited for the future — theirs as adults and mine as the parent who gets to watch it happen.

Epilogue: Mira did get to play two innings. At her first at-bat, she headed to the mound with bases loaded. My heart moved into my throat. Her stance was perfect. She was waiting for her pitch. It never came. Ball, ball, strike, ball, strike, ball… And she walked. In doing so, she brought a runner in. It was the only run scored by her team. When the game was over and the team was reeling from a devastating loss, I explained to her what she did. Her eyes brightened. “I can’t wait until next year,” she said. “I want to play the infield. I want to learn to pitch. I think I could be good at that.” I have no doubt she could. My lesson here? Grab onto that small thread of success and use it to propel you to the next challenge. Confidence is a muscle; it only grows with practice.

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White Girl Brown World: More Wedding Parties? Yes, More.

SidCynOh, what a party it was. On the third day of Guyanese wedding madness we had the Western-style wedding reception. (Click here for more on day one, the maticore, and day two, the ceremony.) The bride was radiant in a beautiful white dress. There were toasts and a first dance. I laughed, I cried, I danced, and danced, and danced…

And then I lost my camera.

So, sadly, this picture of my husband and me is one of the only shots I have from the wedding reception. Losing the memories pains me more than losing my Canon. Mostly because wow, it was one of the best nights ever.

I got my hair blown out. I put on eyeliner and red lipstick and slipped into a wicked pair of black heels. As we walked into the cocktail hour, a waitress approached us carrying a tray. “Champagne?” she asked, to which I answered, “We have a babysitter tonight. So yes, definitely.”

That pretty much defines the rest of the night. Neither of us had to drive so we do what we never, ever get to do — drink too much, dance too much and just have a raucously good time with people we truly love and care about. I reflect now on the night and that second shot of tequila I never should have taken and think — God I am so blessed to have married into this family. The amount of love in that room just made it impossible for me not to want to celebrate, soak it in and just have FUN.

So there I was, this lone white girl with a permanent smile dancing with anyone I saw. It must have been quite a sight, and for many reasons. But after 15 years of marriage, and knowing this family for more than 20, I realized: I belong here. The color of my skin has never been any more of an issue than I made it be. So as I shook my hips and circled my wrists in the air I had the strange feeling that here, where I stand out the most, is the place where I feel I most belong.

That’s what love will do to you. It breaks down stigmas, barriers and insecurities. It makes you understand who you really are.

The following day was the fourth and final get-together: The kangan. Both the bride and groom’s families host individual kangans at their homes, during which the new spouse is officially welcomed into the family. It’s a pretty laid-back affair but different than the earlier at-home events in two ways: There’s meat and there’s booze. Two different lamb curries, chicken curries, biryani and fried rice. It was yet another feast, cooked up by a team of bleary-eyed, exhausted parents, aunts and uncles.

So while the tone was more subdued (there was a lot of hair-of-the-dog going on), the mood was still the same: Joyful.

Congratulations Kim and Amit, and thank you for giving me an up-close look at these important days in your life. You have many more wonderful memories to come in life and I am so glad I’ll be able to bear witness to them.

 

 

 

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White Girl Brown World: Preparing for a Guyanese Wedding

This weekend my husband’s cousin, Amit, will get married. Not on Saturday. This weekend. Guyanese weddings are a four-day event that starts with the maticore ceremony the night before the wedding. In their respective homes, the bride and groom are cleansed, blessed and celebrated in advance of the wedding ceremony.

On Thursday my family headed to Fresh Meadows where we joined a group of 100 people and a commanding tassa band to parade through the streets in a brilliant scene of joy and excitement.It was one of those many moments that reminded me why we moved back to New York City. Where else would you ever see such a sight? When I got married, my husband had a maticore but I, being, well, white, spent the night more quietly with a barbecue in a backyard that gave me the chance to spend some time with people who traveled  from out of town for the wedding. Two different experiences leading up to the same outcome. That defines so much about my marriage.

If you click on the photos it’ll open up to a slideshow. Enjoy! Tonight is the wedding so I hope to have more pictures to share tomorrow. Good luck Kim and Amit!


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