I was prompted to write about this--"the fourth trimester," the three months following the birth of a full-term infant--for several reasons. First, I've been devoting a lot of time over the last two years to learning about attachment, the process by which we come to be connected to our caregivers early in our lives, and through which we come to underatand what it means to be a person, and especially, a person in relationship. And that learning begins in the fourth trimester. By twelve months, a baby has arrived at a deep understanding of how to be in relationship, of what it means to care and be cared for.
As this is happening for us as babies, for us as mothers? We are navigating our own changes, ranging from postpartum physical recovery to neurological and psychological changes that typically allow us to be more attuned to the needs of their babies--and often less attuned to our own needs. Partners too, when they are present, are busy coming to terms with changing relationships in the household, with the enormity of their new roles, and what it means to them.
I'm moved by the efforts of babies to reach out and engage the people who care for them, just as I'm moved by the efforts of those same caregivers--mothers, fathers, grandparents, and many many others--to rise to the challenge of care as best they can, all the while confronting the physical challenges of care and the profound feelings about being in relationship that typically surface at this moment.
And then I saw an article in the New York Times that touches on this moment. It's flawed in a variety of ways--most obviously to my eyes, in its assumption of economic privilege--but it's still an important recognition of the vulnerability of this moment in the lives of families. It mentions some great new books, like The Fourth Trimester, and urges women to attend to their own well-being in a variety of ways--getting help day-by-day, getting sleep, supporting physical recuperation, supporting breastfeeding.
Please know that if you're seeking support at this moment, there are many local resources available to you, everything from pelvic floor therapists like those mentioned in this article, to lactation specialists and nursng mother's groups, to free support groups for women experiencing postpartum depression and anxiety, and much much more. And there are therapists like me who are ready to help you make sense of what's happening for you.
This is the time of the year when the light begins to ebb, to shorten, to fade, when we are reminded of mortality. But it is of course always with us. Children discover it in myriad ways: the broken cookie; the dead bird on the sidewalk; the death of a friend. This essay, by Monica Dux, is a meditation on the ways in which her daughter makes community and makes meaning in the wake of the death of her stick insect, Johnny:
My grief-stricken daughter put him in a glass bowl on the kitchen table, where he lay in state, while she decided what to do with his body.
She knocked on the neighbour's door, to let them know that Johnny was no more. She spread the word at school too, and it was there that one of her wise teachers comforted her with the words "It's not how long you live, but how well that counts". This was true, my daughter told me. Johnny had lived well. She repeated this solemnly when she rang her grandparents, to break the bad news.
If you're wondering how to help a young child you know begin to make sense of death, if you want to offer some ways of beginning to speak about it--as the teachers Dux describes do--you might explore some the following books.
And if you're with an adult, you might simply hold space for them.
It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a sick society.
The goal of therapy should never be to help people adjust to oppression.
Therapists are challenged in these times to walk a path between, on the one hand, helping people adjust to thir circumstances in ways that diminish their suffering (by reframing perceptions, or finding coping tools, for example), and on the other hand, helping people recognize when they are encountering circumstances that are unjust, that create pain, that demand action in the world. This has in fact always been our work, to notice together what is in our control, what is not in our control, and how best to make sense of those realities, and of the actions that feel meaningful and appropriate in the face of those realities. Here is an essay in the New York Times that addresses just this problem--the necessity of talking about people's external lives as well as their internal lives.
The Heat of AutumnThe heat of autumnis different from the heat of summer.One ripens apples, the other turns them to cider.One is a dock you walk out on,the other the spine of a thin swimming horseand the river each day a full measure colder.A man with cancer leaves his wife for his lover.Before he goes she straightens his belts in the closet,rearranges the socks and sweaters inside the dresserby color. That’s autumn heat:her hand placing silver buckles with silver,gold buckles with gold, setting eachon the hook it belongs on in a closet soon to be empty,and calling it pleasure.
I meant to keep posting these imaginary words for emotions, emotions that are themselves all too real. Most are from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a wonderful website that may one day take form as a book...
In any case: here's a word from it, one that seems to me so important for each of us.
sonder. n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
It feels like school is starting so early this year! I'm not sure anyone feels ready for it--children and parents alike. And yet, part of our task as parents is to help prepare our children for that first day, to register its significance without adding to our children's own feelings about school, whatever they may be, from excitement to dread and everything in between. So much of what we're encouraged to do revolves around shopping (new shoes, new shirts, new dresses, new school supplies) and around food (special breakfasts, special lunches, or after-school treats)--and if these feel like a good fit for your family, that's great.
There are ways to step into the school year that cost less and that keep us connected at this moment when it can feel either like we're being pulled apart or like we really can't take one more day together. Practicing the way to school if you walk or bike or drive, or walking together to the bus stop, or playing at the playground in the week before school can help settle nerves by answering a child's unspoken question: what will it be like? (And if your school allows you to meet your teacher in advance, so much the better.) For walkers, making friends with neighborhood cats to greet along the way; for bikers and drivers, special songs to sing, or trees to observe throughout the seasons can be comforting touchstones each day.
Reading books about school together--classics like The Kissing Hand, or less well-known books like Edward Unready for School for the youngest--books that acknowledge children's feelings about school can be supportive in the days and weeks leading up to school. Even after school has begun, reading about school can be a window into experience. A book like The Year of Miss Agnes or The Wheel on the School goes a long way to illuminating feelings about school, its purpose and its meaning for older elementary children. For those already more comfortable in school, the Louis Sachar Wayside School books can be entertaining. Or the adventure of school?: Harry Potter! Or, for high school students, the constraint of school and the necessity of finding oneself in the midst of it?: Among Others, or The Catcher in the Rye.
A quiet dinner the night before school where you remember something special, just one special thing, about the summer can feel like a good goodbye...
For many children, receiving a talisman can be helpful: a photo of you, or a felt heart you've covered in kisses, a worry doll to share troubles with throughout the day, or a note you tuck into a pocket to be read throughout the day--all of them reminders that you did and will think of them, that they are not forgotten but are held in your heart...
And on the first day itself, a morning photo (candid in pajamas at the breakfast table or posed dressed by the door) is quick, and a wonderful way of marking growth. And if your child can trace their hand to pair with that photo, you get another tangible reminder of how small they once were--and how much they've grown by year's end.
Good luck this year!
Oregon Humanities sponsors a program called The Conversation Project, an opportunity for people across the state to gather together and talk about a particular topic. In a few days, people in Portland will have a chance to talk about ritual in secular lives. If you'd like more information, follow this link.
From the event organizers:
How do we make meaning out of the big milestones in our personal and community lives? For the many people who do not have strong ties to religious or other cultural traditions, major life events such as birth, aging, relationship changes, illness, death, and community crises are often marked by no ritual at all. Holly Pruett, a life-cycle celebrant who works with individuals, families, and communities to commemorate such occasions, leads a conversation about the role of ritual and ceremony in participants’ family and cultural histories, the impact of life events that have passed unobserved, and the new ceremonies that people are creating to mark these milestones.
Oregon Humanities is sponsoring a program to support connection among us, an opportunity to share our experience with someone we don't yet know--a dear stranger. This is how they describe the program:
Oregon is a big place, home to a great diversity of geography and experience. It’s hard to say anything about the state that holds as true in Nyssa as it does in Neskowin. How can we hope to understand the experiences of people living in such different places? How can we work together for the good of all?
Dear Stranger, a letter-exchange project that connects Oregonians from different parts of the state through the mail, strives to create a little understanding across the vastness of this place. For this year's edition of Dear Stranger, we're asking people from all over the state to consider some of the questions at the heart of Bridging Oregon, our ongoing cross-community conversation series.
Here’s how it works:
- Write a letter. Address it “Dear Stranger.” Write about the place where you live or a community where you feel at home. What makes it unique or unusual? Is there anything about your place or your community that you feel is misunderstood by people outside of it? What might help people understand it better? Fill a page or two, or more if you feel inspired. If you’d like, feel free to include a photo or a drawing or a recipe—anything that will fit in an envelope.
- Print and sign the Dear Stranger release form. We cannot exchange letters without a signed release.
- Mail your letter and signed release form to Dear Stranger c/o Oregon Humanities, 921 SW Washington St., #150, Portland, Oregon 97205
When you write to Dear Stranger, your letter will be swapped with that of another writer from elsewhere in the state. They will get your letter; you will get theirs. The exchange is anonymous, and you can share as little or as much information about yourself as you like. Please keep in mind that photos, even ones without people in them, may contain information that could be used to identify you.
Dear Stranger is open to everyone, though writers under the age of 18 must have parental consent to participate. (Click here to download the consent form.) Letters are paired at random, though we do our best to match participants with someone outside of their ZIP code. Oregon Humanities staff read all letters before they are exchanged.
Letters will be mailed to participants on a rolling basis beginning in August 2018. We will continue exchanging letters received through October 26, 2018. Instructions for replying to your stranger will be included in your letter. If you have questions about Dear Stranger, contact Ben Waterhouse at email@example.com or (503) 241-0543, ext. 122.
I think I'll be participating this year. I encourage you to notice whether or not this feels like a meaningful opportunity to you as well.
As parental roles shift, more men are sharing their experiences as fathers. Podcasts devoted to fathering are part of this exploration. The Modern Dads Podcast and Brand New Father Podcast both offer interviews with experts as a means of figuring out what's happening for fathers. At the same time, there's something about the expert focus of these podcasts that tends to diminish the rawness of the experience, and leaves me wanting something more.
So I mentioned Elisha Cooper recently. He's a children's book author, and wrote a second memoir--better than the first, I think--called Falling: A Daughter, A Father, and A Journey Back (New York: Anchor, 2016)--about the time when, holding his daughter on his lap at a baseball game, he felt a lump under her ribs, and everything changed. His meditation on his own emotional development through the family crisis that ensued is deeply moving. And it's a rare look at the powerlessness that fathers can feel.
Either way, it's not all Oedipus and Laius or Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader or any of a number of similarly charged pairings anymore, thank goodness.