Weighing the Options

As I waddled out of the locker room, I thought, How can I look less fat and more pregnant? Maybe if I lean back when I walk. Yeah, that’s it. At the gym, impressions can go either way. People can wonder how far along I am or just think I’m there to work off this enormous belly and butt. I want everyone to see that I’m pregnant, not just fat, but this time around the belly looks pretty proportionate. I never lost weight after having Rose. My plan was to use Rose as my personal liposucker, but breast feeding didn’t work out and then neither did I, for two years. I started working out again right before I got knocked up, and then, thanks to exercise and morning sickness, I lost 10 pounds. But now it’s back. And since pregnancy is the only socially acceptable state of obesity, and this is my last chance for body acceptance, I want people to know I’m pregnant, not just fat.

But why is it so important to me? How is it that 63 percent of the country is overweight or obese, but society still scorns fat people? If most of us are overweight, why do we strive to be the thin minority? How do we let the diet industry rake in $40 billion a year? Why does despising extra pounds account for such degradation of our personal happiness?

“But extra pounds are unhealthy,” you’re saying. “Obesity is bad for your health.” Sure it is. But how many of us really diet for our health? Face it. We diet for a number of reasons, but if we’re honest with ourselves, the sight of our butt in jeans ranks much higher than any words the doctor uttered. These days, girls are starting to worry about body image in preschool (that’s right, preschool). If your four-year-old says, “Do I look fat?” do you applaud her for being so health conscious?

Our obsession with body image is crazy and it has to stop. We talk about accepting and celebrating diversity, but that only covers ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Insulting fat people is still socially acceptable. And that’s because we learn from the very beginning that fat people are worthy of blame, and jokes about weight are funny.

I have never been the same size as everyone else. In grade school I was chubby – not very chubby – just enough to attract peer torture. Fortunately, I found some chubby friends, and some “normal” kids who didn’t care about my weight accepted me as well. But that was school. At home my mom would offer me a big piece of cake after school, then call me fat by dinnertime. During one big fight at age nine, I said I was leaving to play with the neighbor girl. She said, “Good, go play with the other pahia [fattie]!”

Although my mother was one of those people who could never gain an ounce (bless her heart), her bias had much deeper roots. Appearances took priority over everything in her world. She told me that every time she and her sisters left the apartment, her father insisted on inspecting his girls’ dresses, hair and makeup. They couldn’t go out until they met his approval. Later on, my mother spent most of her money and time buying clothes, for herself and for me. On high school mornings, I’d come down the stairs with a new outfit and if she liked it, my mother would say, “Jim! Jim! Get the camera!” My mother was so impressed with my appearance that we had to make it a lasting memory.

Appearances were rooted so deeply in my mother’s psyche that, once during a manic episode when I tried to check myself into the hospital, my mother came to talk me out of it. My Uncle Gus’ family’s imminent arrival (see “Some Things You Can’t Forgive”), the event that triggered the episode in the first place, took priority. “What am I gonna SAY to them about where you are? What am I gonna SAY?” she kept asking. The pull was so strong that I did check myself out that day, and stayed at the neighbor’s house for the duration of the visit.

And then there’s my father. Last pregnancy, I paid him one last visit before moving cross country. I was six months along, and I’d gained only 16 pounds. (Just for reference, that’s pretty freakin’ impressive.) I was a size 16 at the time. A week later, my father called me at my office to ask if I had a doctor. Unfazed by the odd question, I said, yes, I saw my doctor once a month. He said, “Well next time you see her, ask her about your back. I read that obese people can have back problems when they’re pregnant.”

“You think I’m obese?” I said.

“Just ask her about it,” he said.

Our conversation tumbled downhill from there. That was one of the worst arguments we ever had, and it ended when I hung up on him. The next time he called, I told him I’d decided not to talk to him until the baby was born, because he upset me every time we spoke.

And it all started with weight. I’ve since told my father that my body is neither his problem nor his business, but that doesn’t stop him. Last time we spoke he asked how the pregnancy was going and I made the mistake of mentioning some back pain. “Well, you’re carrying all that extra weight around!” he said. I pretended he was talking about the baby weight and let it go, but I know that’s not what he meant.

So it’s no wonder I’m self-conscious, even in the sixth month of pregnancy. And I haven’t even touched upon the effects of emaciated supermodels or the media’s weight obsession on my self-image. Let’s just take those as a given. I enjoyed the legitimacy of my size during my last pregnancy. It was about the only thing I enjoyed at the time, so I tried to focus on it. I know that I’ll never be thin. I’ve achieved thinness twice in my life and both times, the weight came barreling back. I hadn’t stopped watching my weight, it just got easier and easier to see.

We all have a natural, comfortable weight and mine doesn’t approach skinny. I don’t think that my current weight is my body’s ideal, either, but once I have the baby, I’ll be able to find a happy medium, and if that medium turns out to be an extra large or a plus size, that will be ok with me. I don’t anticipate becoming a fashion model or a jockey, so my weight will rank low on the priority scale.

What will matter is how I see myself. And more important, how my self-perception affects the people around me. If Rose can accept her body as she grows, no matter its shape, I’ll consider Operation Body Image a success. If my son can appreciate that people come in every shape and size, another success. And if I can accept my body, enjoy food without shame and ignore society’s unrealistic ideals for women, my happiness will far outweigh any dissatisfaction with my butt’s appearance in jeans.

Only So Much

“What can I do for energy?” I asked my obstetrician at my last visit. She belted out a good, long belly laugh.

“There’s really nothing you can do when you’re pregnant,” she said, and went on to explain that women usually have less energy during a second pregnancy because by that time, they’re already running after a little kid.

Normally I wouldn’t ask such a ridiculous question, but after losing so much time to morning sickness, I held out hope that I’d be able to catch up with everything I wanted to do in my first trimester, but couldn’t. Right now, there aren’t enough hours in the day for me. There are plenty for everyone else, but I need to nap in the afternoon most days, it takes 2 hours to get 20 minutes sleep and I have go to bed by 9:30 at night. And I don’t get just a little tired – I suddenly lose the ability to function and I’m lucky if I can muster the energy to brush my teeth.

But I have so much stuff I need to do. Every afternoon, my Outlook sends me a reminder of what I’m supposed to be doing during nap time. “Freelance: Monday 1:30-3:30,” comes up as I sign off of work. Or “Tuesday: Book 1:30-3:30.” Or “Blog: Friday 1:30-3:30.” I read the reminders, dismiss all, sigh, and go to bed.

Sometimes I awaken from my nap while Rose is still asleep. On those days I fire up the computer and try to crank out a few tiny tasks before the inevitable “Mommy! I’m all done sleeping!” And I feel good about those days, but I still have this overwhelming sense that I’m behind, all the time.

And that’s just stuff I want to do. I don’t have energy for anything else, either. The other day, I finished work; dropped the car off for brake work; took Rose to the dentist in a cab; stopped for a few groceries; walked us home on the bike trail; got the call that the car was ready; played the pregnancy card so they’d pick us up; got the car; watched a chick flick to de-stress for an hour; considered cooking onion soup and dessert; decided against it; went to drop off food for a new mom; picked up my husband at class; stopped for food and bathroom and to switch drivers because I was an exhausted menace on the road; and finally made it home and straight to bed at 8:40 p.m. I was just grateful I got through that whole day.

The next day we had a friend visiting for the weekend. I had to work and then pick her up at the airport. As I made breakfast, I surveyed the kitchen. One counter was covered with dishes. I knew the dishwasher was full and clean and considered unloading and reloading, but I typically don’t, because dishes are Matt’s job or Eric’s, not mine. Eric was out of town so the dishes fell to Matt, who’d rushed out and left them that morning. While I didn’t want my guest to see the kitchen like that, I still had to pick up Rose’s mess in the living room, straighten the office, finish work, get Rose at the babysitter’s, then go to the airport. I gave up. It was a messy kitchen, not the end of the world. And five minutes of Rose would destroy the living room. We don’t spend any time in the office, either. You know what? I thought. There’s only so much I can do. I finished my work and headed out. By that time I was late, but I felt better.

That’s when “There’s only so much I can do” became my mantra. I just have to accept it. There’s so much more I want to do, but right now I just don’t have the energy for everything. And it’s ok, because things change. When I have the baby, I’ll have less time to fit everything in, but I can manage time. I can’t manage exhaustion.

I can’t remember a time when I’ve been satisfied with what I’ve accomplished. When I moved out of my parents’ house, I’d talk to them once a week. Once we hung up, I’d experience a “parental hangover” – the aftereffects of our conversation. I’d ruminate over something they’d said or I’d feel bad about myself in general and I’d try to fix that feeling by launching myself into projects or cleaning or other chores – anything to regain a sense of self-worth.

Although I got over the “hangovers,” that feeling of inadequacy never left me. I’ve got a wonderful home and family, great friends, a steady paycheck, a freelance writing business, a growing blog readership, and lots of experiences to draw upon, but I consistently berate myself because I should have accomplished more sooner. I expected to publish my first book in my twenties; get married and have children in my thirties; and sit back and collect royalties from my third book, at least, in my forties. Instead I married, divorced and began to pursue a writing career in my twenties, married again in my thirties and had my first child at 38 (came close there but I really meant mid-thirties), and am still writing that first book and gestating the second kid at 41.

Did I fail to live up to my expectations? Yes. Did my expectations fail me? Yes. But I’m beginning to look at the whole process differently. I once read that no one should use lack of time as an excuse because Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison had the same 24 hours in a day that we do. It’s a nice sentiment, but Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison were men back when men didn’t care for their homes or their children. I am a modern-day woman and my responsibilities are a little bit different. I may have a cushy government job like Einstein but in my “off” time, I care for a 2 ½-year-old, write a blog, magazine articles and a book, and run a household. And let’s not forget that I’m gestating a baby boy every day and night. As for Edison, he had two wives. I can only begin to imagine what I could accomplish if I had two wives. So maybe it’s ok to blame a lack of time for my lack of accomplishments. At the very least, I can blame my current lack of energy. And I can allow myself some amnesty, because my ambition always exceeds my time and/or energy.

Things change. Maybe someday I’ll have the time and energy to do everything I want to do. I bet if that happened, though, I’d just set my sights higher and want more. But right now I’ve got to accept that there’s only so much I can do. Maybe I can learn to forgive myself for my “shortcomings.” Maybe I can accept that sometimes good enough is good enough. And now is a good enough time to do that.

Will Post Tuesday!

Sorry, everyone. Monday kicked my butt. I guess it was all that shopping, gardening and water fighting, in addition to building baby muscles and lungs. I really did write something will post today.

Parenting Without Patience

I hate to rush. I’ve hated it since I was a kid. Every time we left the house it was the same thing. My father would say “Come on, Viki, come ON!” waving his hands to push her out of the house. “Let’s go, let’s GO! Come on, we gotta go! Oh, we don’t need that, just get in the car! You gotta go to the bathroom now? It’s not that far, just get in the car!” He’d chase us down the stairs and out the garage and then we’d be in the car and he’d stay in the house for what felt like 10 minutes. He would check all the doors and windows to make sure they were locked. It was a three-bedroom, three-level house. So we’d wait in the car with no key, no A/C and no heat, until he finished. As we waited, I’d try to calm down after the stress of rushing, but once I saw that garage door close and my dad duck under it, headed toward the car, the anxiety enveloped me. He’d be all hyped up from getting us out the door so there was always some reason to scold. As we backed down the driveway, my mom and I sat through a “lessons learned” presentation after each unsatisfactory exit.

I decided that once I was on my own, I would stop rushing — forever. And I stuck to it. I left enough time to get ready and get there on time. I planned what I had to bring so I’d be orderly and organized on my way out. It suited me very well. When I got married, I’d chastise my husband if he tried to push me out the door.

And this was the scene at my house Wednesday morning:

“Let’s go, we’re gonna be late for preschool! Down the stairs. Down, down. WALK! Ok, put your shoes on. Other foot. Other foot! Here’s your jacket. No, Big Bird does not have to come with us. You don’t want the other kids to take him, do you? No, we don’t need that, no! All right, take it, just GO! Walk. Come ON! Ok, Mommy’s going to the car. Bye!”
“No bye!” She cried from the landing.
“Then come ON! We’re going to miss circle time!”
“No circle time?”
“That’s right. No songs, no letter of the day, no snack. We’re LATE, honey, and it’s starting, so we have to go. Now! Come on! Move!”

When we got in the car, I asked myself: How did this happen?

Ashamed and concerned about the long-term effects of rushing Rose, I examined my behavior. I always hated being the rushee. How did I become the rusher?

The explanation wasn’t much of a stretch. I’m not a patient person. At all. I fake it pretty well for parenting purposes, but deep down, I’d rather have everything now, now, now! I’m even worse now that I’m pregnant. I can’t deal with the mundane patience-testing experiences that normal people can handle. Traffic is the perfect example. When I was pregnant with Rose, my husband, Matt, and I were on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge heading to Kent Island to see a band. We’d breezed through Annapolis, but now we were at a dead stop at the toll plaza. As soon as we stopped, I began to fidget. Then I said “This sucks. I hate the bridge in the summer. How is it that this is the only freakin’ route to the beaches? There’s millions of people in D.C. and they all go to the beaches in the summer and this is the only bridge. That’s just wrong.”

Matt, ever helpful, said “Well they are talking about a ferry.”

“’Bout fuckin’ time,” I slumped in my seat, pushed every radio button, looked out the window. “You should be able to see our neighborhood from here. I mean, we can see the bridge. God, why didn’t we go look at it before we left? We wouldn’t have left the house. This totally sucks.” I looked behind us. Stopped cars as far as I could see. “We’re never gonna get there. I’m hungry. I’m gonna pass out before we can get our food. Crap!” Fifteen minutes passed. We’d moved three feet. “Oh my God, I can’t handle this. Can we turn around?” I looked for an out. I couldn’t even see where the backup started. The cars behind us didn’t move. My eyes darted around the outside of the car. Guardrails, cars, pavement – all just inches apart. I considered getting out and walking off the bridge. But then Matt would be mad at me. Really mad. Too mad to get over it. And how would I get home? Defeated, I slumped in my seat, grumbling, “This sucks.”

Now that I have been cursed with a pokey toddler, my patience level hasn’t changed. It may have appeared to improve after I had Rose, when I could, for example, take mood stabilizing drugs and, if they didn’t work, get drunk. “But how can you be a parent?” you may ask, as you start to dial Social Services.

Here’s how: when I’m with Rose, I’ve learned to fake it by substituting actual patience for parenting strategy. If she throws something hard at my head, I’ve learned to say, “Honey, we do not throw the remote. We throw a ball, or a pillow or Elmo, but we do not throw the remote. And we do not throw anything at anybody’s head. If you do it again, you will get a time out.” When she clings to my leg like an infatuated Chihuahua, I say, “Honey, you said you wanted milk. I cannot get your milk until you let go of my leg.” And I stand still until she complies.

I’ve also learned to assess each behavior by importance. Years ago, in somebody’s bathroom, I read a bit of “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff,” and I learned for the first time that some stuff is, in fact, small. Some stuff is even inconsequential. And it’s not always obvious which is which. For example, Rose has learned to unlock the sliding glass door and go out on the deck by herself. I don’t have a problem with this. Before you pick up that Social Services hotline, let me describe the deck. It’s essentially a big pack and play. Last year we installed mesh between the rails because they were too far apart. We also installed a gate that closes off the stairs so she can’t get down to the backyard. And the entire deck is visible from the kitchen, so if I’m cooking, I can see her. So I let her go out on the deck by herself. The first time Matt saw her do it, he freaked out.

“ROSE! Never go out there without Mommy or Daddy! DO YOU HEAR ME?” he yelled. Naturally, she was confused and kept going. I had to explain my whole safety rationale to Matt and then we had to teach her to tell one of us if she wants to go outside. Matt would never have tolerated this behavior on his own, but after I explained it to him, he thought my assessment was fairly reasonable. He’s not very up on the small stuff philosophy.

So when Rose wants to bring her Etch-a-Sketch in the car and we don’t need it, my first instinct is to say no, but then I think, Is this important? Seriously, what difference does it make? If it gets us out of the house, who cares? And then I say, “Fine, bring it.” It saves me a lot of grief and exempts me from developing actual patience.

As we sat in the circle at preschool on Wednesday, I, concerned that I’d damaged her, watched her make the Itsy Bitsy Spider go up the water spout. And then she voiced all the animal sounds for “Old MacDonald.” She’d reached a new level of participation, and this was the first time I’d seen it. So I didn’t cripple her by rushing out of the house. Kids bounce back, I guess. And if Mommies don’t start out with patience, they learn to work around it. I guess Mommies can bounce back too.