How ‘Bout Them Apples?

appleI have lots of treasured memories about my paternal grandmother, but one that sticks with me the most is of her frequently saying, “how ’bout them apples?” I remember it having different meanings, dependent on whether the phrase was prefaced by “well” or “so.”

“Well, how ’bout them apples” was an expression of surprise — like, “Well, how ’bout them apples? Krista cleaned her room!” Alternately, “So, how ’bout them apples” was tacked on when she said something challenging, or something she knew my brother or I wouldn’t want to hear — like, “No you can’t have more crumb cake. So how ’bout them apples?”

She said it often enough that my little brother picked it up at a very young age and added it to his arsenal of phrases that he would pull out at the most inopportune moments. One time when we were at the mall, he saw an undressed mannequin, pointed to her breasts, and shouted, “How ’bout dem apples, grandma!” He was triumphant; I was humiliated.

“Dem apples” have been in the media a lot recently. They always are in the media, everywhere, relevant or not. But this week, they have been in the media for their actual purpose — feeding our children. Today is the last day of World Breastfeeding Week.

I wholly support the idea of advocating for better policies (for breastfeeding and just about everything else related to motherhood in America) and greater public acceptance of an act that is as natural as it is necessary.

But in addition to encouraging our (ironically) breastfeeding-phobic society to be a little more open-minded about mothers using their bodies to feed their babies, I would also like to see, in our community of mothers, a greater appreciation for the fact that, as mothers, it is our prerogative to decide how best to nourish our children. And, more importantly, to accept that other mothers, who might choose differently from ourselves, are doing the best they can for their babies — and for themselves.

Breastfeeding is hard. It’s hard when it doesn’t work the way you wanted it to, and it’s hard when it does work. I say this with the authority of someone who has experienced the extreme ends of the breastfeeding spectrum.

My older daughter absolutely refused to nurse. After a somewhat tumultuous pregnancy, she was induced at 37 weeks when it became clear that she was “failing to thrive” in utero. She weighed 5 lbs, 1.2 oz at birth and quickly dropped to 4 lbs 12 oz. Although she was healthy, getting calories into her little body was our primary concern. But she wanted nothing to do with me as a food source.

In the hospital, I tried everything. We used a syringe to squirt formula into her mouth while trying to get her to nurse in an attempt to pique her interest. Nothing. The lactation consultant hooked me up to a device that fed formula through a tiny tube taped to my chest, thinking that maybe if my daughter didn’t have to work so hard while nursing, she would take to it. She didn’t. They brought out other nursing aids and devices, all with the same result: complete refusal.

For six weeks, I tried to get my daughter to nurse. My husband and I came up with a tedious schedule, during which I would try to nurse her, with little success, then feed her pumped breast milk, then pump for the next bottle, again, and again, and again. It quickly became too much, both for me and for her.

I spent the next three months trying to convince my daughter to take my milk from a bottle. It was easier, but she was never an enthusiastic eater. She was, however, a devious eater. By the time she was four months old, she had developed the habit of drinking heartily from the bottle while letting a stream of milk pour out of one side of her mouth. That was the feather on this camel’s back — I had worked hard to make that miracle juice, and she was just spitting it all out. I just. Couldn’t. With that. Anymore.

Early on in this sojourn, I gave up reading books and articles from breastfeeding support groups, because the advice they gave always seemed to imply that women who struggled to breastfeed just weren’t trying hard enough. This implication was shattering. I already felt like a failure — as a mother and as a woman. Hell, I felt like a failure as a damn mammal — even mama pigs can nurse their young. I was exhausted, frustrated, overwhelmed, and valued myself as being on par with a crustacean. The idea that I should somehow have been doing more was the outside of enough.

These feelings of failure continued for about three years, until my second daughter was born. Unlike her big sister, that girl took to nursing like a cat to cream. She nursed enthusiastically, all day and all night. By the time she was eight months old, she was nursing every two hours during the day and every hour at night. That’s right – she woke up hourly. I slept in 20-minute increments. I was exhausted, frustrated, and overwhelmed – but at least this time I had elevated myself from bottom-dwelling sea creature to dairy cow.

My younger daughter is now two, and she has never taken a bottle. She also has not stopped nursing. And again, my choices in feeding my child make me susceptible to whispers of disapproval. Every time my walking, talking toddler latches on, in the back of my mind I replay every criticism I have ever heard – or made myself – of women who engage in extended breastfeeding. “It’s excessive.” “It’s unnecessary.” “It’s weird.” But whatever it is, it’s my choice, and I have made it thoughtfully.

Breastfeeding is hard. Not breastfeeding is hard. Being a mother is really, really hard. Your children are constantly challenging you, and society is constantly judging you.

But being a supportive friend to other mothers – those we know and those we don’t know – really isn’t that hard. Not when you think about how vitally important that support is, both to mothers and to the children they are raising.

So as we mothers remind our society that breasts actually are for babies and not just car commercials, let’s also remind ourselves that, when it comes to breastfeeding, an act that is so ageless and natural can also be stressful and heartbreaking. Let’s honor ourselves for the choices we have made, whatever they are, and let’s honor other mothers for the choices they have made, even if those choices are different from our own.

Our greatest strength is in each other. Let’s not forget that.

De Colores

When my older daughter was about two, I spent lots of time teaching her things. Like colors — I came up with engaging, educational games that were fun for both of us. And they worked — my brilliant little miracle learned her colors. I was pretty amazed by both of us, and I stuck that achievement on the front page of my mental brag book.

Shake a butt

Who needs pants?

Then came my second daughter. As with most younger children, she got a much more faded, jaded, tired version of me. And now that she is two, most of our one-on-one time involves me chasing her around the house with a diaper and a pair of pants while she screams “no mommy! No dipey! No pants! I be naked!” She is lucky if she gets a couple of half-hearted minutes with a depleted set of her big sister’s flash cards.

So you can imagine my delight when, while she was sitting in the ball pit at our mommy and me gymnastics class, she picked up an orange ball and said, “yook, mommy! Orange!”

It was a miracle! Somehow, I had managed to teach her colors without even trying. I was better at this parenting thing than I had thought.

Then she picked up a blue ball and proudly exclaimed, “blueberry!” She not only knew her colors, but she was also associating them with fruit! The kid is a genius. I picked up a red ball and said, “Look! An apple! A red apple!”

“No, mommy,” she said. “No red. No apple. Strawberry.” Then she picked up a yellow ball and said, “And lemon. Dis one lemon.

And then it dawned on me. Orange. Blueberry. Strawberry. Lemon. She wasn’t talking about fruit, and she had only indirectly learned her colors. She was talking about characters from the television show Strawberry Shortcake. The new one, with characters that are much less child-like, and much more Barbie-like than the quaint version we moms grew up with. The one that she watches excessively, with the obsessiveness that only a two-year-old can attain.

I have achieved no miracle of parenting. My child officially watches too much TV. She still doesn’t acknowledge the words “red” or “yellow.” But do you know what she does do? Whenever she sees something purple, she says it is “plum.” She asks for her baby doll’s blueberry dress, and calls all shades of bright pink raspberry. This is what we call vocabulary building.

So next year when she is in preschool and her teachers are holding up that yellow card my child, the poetess of the class, will raise her little hand and declare that it is “lemon.”

And I will be proud.

Hey, it works.

Hey, it works.

Y por eso los grandes amores
De muchos colores me gustan a mí.
     Y por eso los grandes amores
De muchos colores me gustan a mí.

~ De Colores

Discovering You, Discovering Me

When I was younger I loved to color in coloring books. It was one of the few things I actually did carefully. I selected the colors I would use before I started. I traced the black outlines thickly, to ensure that I would stay within the lines. I shaded my pictures evenly, almost expertly, at least for a child working in Crayola. I was so particular that I would finish off each masterpiece by rubbing the crayon wax with a tissue until the colors were smooth and shiny. It was ART, and I took it seriously.

So when my older daughter was about 2 years old and she excitedly encountered her first coloring book in the dollar aisle of our local big box store, I was thrilled. I bought it with a new box of beautiful, unbroken crayons – one of my favorite things ever — and hurried home.

But things didn’t go the way I expected them to. My daughter’s initial excitement had been stoked by the full color pictures of Elmo featured on the front. The black and white interior was a letdown. Her interest was revived by the stickers she found inside, but it only took her about 30 seconds to plaster them on her arms and face before she was ready to move on.

At the time, I chalked it up to her age. Two is pretty young for artistic endeavors, after all. But three years have gone by and her interest in coloring books has remained pretty much the same, something that, for a long time, I found confusing.

Because this kid loves to draw. She loves to draw so much that a bucket of markers and a stack of computer paper have a permanent home on our kitchen table. Inspiration for a new picture can strike her at any time; one must be prepared. She draws at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She often deserts her toys mid-game, struck with the idea for another picture.  She draws pictures of the stories she makes up throughout the day, and everything she draws, from people to raindrops, has a purpose or an explanation.

The fact that she is so artistic but yet is so little engaged by an artistic activity I always enjoyed mystified me. Until a few weeks ago, when she made the obvious answer clear to me.

She was sitting at the table, drawing as usual, when she stopped and said —

“Mommy, I’m drawing my world. Everyone has a world. This is mine.”

It hit me like a shove in the chest. Of course the kid doesn’t want to color someone else’s pictures in someone else’s book. She wants to make her own pictures, for her own book – for her own world.


The I Love You House

The I Love You House

It’s funny how much we parents want to see ourselves in our children. We yearn for that because when we see ourselves in them it signifies that we are as much a part of them as they are a part of us. And they are a part of us. They enter our hearts and our hearts can never part with them again.

But they don’t belong to us. And they aren’t us. When we think we see our quirks reflected in our child – we’re wrong. What we see is wholly, uniquely our child, a person who has never existed before and will never exist in another context ever again.

Looking for ourselves in our children is a mistake parents will probably always make. When you create something as miraculous as a human, and when your love for that creation is as deep as a parent’s love is for her child, it’s inescapable. It will cause conflict between ourselves and our children, just like it did between us and our own parents.

But it will be OK, just like it always has been, as long as we are listening when our children tell us that they are coloring their own pictures, for their own world.


And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, “Speak to us of Children.”
And he said: Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. ~ Khalil Gibran, On Children

Of Cabbages and Kings

Nearly six years ago my cousin and I became pregnant at virtually the same time with our first children. We had been best friends — sisters, almost — since I was adopted into our family when I was six weeks old and she was seven months old. By the time we were married, we had been together through life’s most important moments, from slumber parties in my basement, to those first awkward preteen dances, to the deaths of my mom and her dad of cancer. She was the maid of honor at my wedding, just like I was at hers. So embarking on motherhood together seemed only natural.

When we found out we were pregnant, we starting talking daily, by email and by phone, sharing every detail of that miraculous new experience just like we had shared everything else from the time we were babies.

Mostly we talked about digestion and bladder control. We talked a lot about our bellies, gleefully marking their progress as they inflated into cute little bumps, then observing with mutual dismay and trepidation as those bumps began to spread in all directions, taking over our bodies and, in many ways, our identities. When we weren’t focused on the gross underpinnings of pregnancy we touched on the deeper stuff, like the terrible, overwhelming responsibility we were taking on and our dreams for the beautiful, brilliant, powerful girls we hoped to raise.

Our daughters were born 15 hours apart. Mine came in the evening, and hers came the following morning. Our conversations continued, but we stopped talking about our bodies and started talking about our babies. The topic we discussed the most was still digestion, but not our own. We called each other on the phone every single morning between 9:00 and 9:15, and it was because of those phone calls that we made it through our first year of motherhood.

The things we talked about were things that women have talked about for as long as we could communicate with one another. We had no earth-shattering insights. Our pregnancy-era emails may have provided a few NSA agents with a little amusement — and probably some measure of disgust — but beyond that our conversations contributed little to the enlightenment of humanity. In a word, they were mundane.

Except that they weren’t. For us, those conversations were life-changing. They deepened old bonds, which had been created before we were even aware of ourselves as individuals, and formed new ones. Our conversations filled in spaces that we didn’t even know we had. They may not have elevated humanity, but they elevated us.

And as I became aware of those newly-filled spaces, a thought that had been lingering in the back of my mind for many years came to the forefront: when women come together, without fear or self doubt or competition getting in the way, we connect. We empower one another, not just to do amazing things, but to be more complete versions of ourselves. When we are listening to each other, we have the ability to cross vast divides to meet each other in fellow feeling. We are strengthened and improved through each other. And more importantly, we accomplish these things with no special effort, through our ordinary, every day conversations.

So every conversation we have with one another, whether it be about our greatest hopes and deepest fears or about the contents of our children’s diapers, we are supporting, affirming, changing each other.

Not so mundane after all, I suppose.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”*

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There
*For my literary-minded readers — yes, I am taking liberties with this quote.