Thursday, August 25, 2011

Amour et charité

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
1 Corinthians 13:4–8a
(English Standard Version)

Ten years ago yesterday the warm light of a flawless late summer New England afternoon streamed into a little white church in Warren, Vermont. I, like all self-respecting brides on the day before the wedding, was an anxious wreck. I wasn't yet Bridezilla, though I'd come close that afternoon when one of my bridesmaids called insouciantly to let me know she'd be late for the rehearsal. She'd since made it in time, and now the wedding party and a few odd friends and family were gathered, listening to instructions from Father R. We'd gotten to the readings, and A's aunt began reading 1 Corinthians 13 in French. "L'amour est patient," she recited solemnly from a piece of paper she'd brought with her from France.

Father R jumped in and stopped her. It wouldn't do. It wouldn't do at all. Although our wedding ceremony would be in English -- co-officiated by the local pastor in Warren and Father R, priest from my church back in Seattle and a dear family friend -- we had planned to do one of the readings in French. Now Father R was objecting, politely but firmly, to the word "amour." To him apparently amour was primarily about physical love; it was also, I supposed, about cabarets and Edith Piaf and a mountain of American stereotypes about the French. To him, the proper translation of 1 Corinthians 13 used the more chaste "charité."

A flurry of simultaneous translation followed, between Father R, who only spoke English, A's aunt, who only spoke French, and my husband, who barely understood at first what the problem could possibly be. Once the objection was duly translated and explained, A's aunt looked confused and a bit embarrassed. The very idea that this kind, serious, respectable woman in her seventies could be introducing anything improper to our wedding ceremony was absurd. And I was a bit taken aback that Father R, from our laid-back, accepting, diverse church in Seattle, held such a prudish view on a linguistic detail.

By now the issue was making its way around the room, and the previously bored French bystanders were whispering amongst themselves and laughing discreetly. Meanwhile I was growing more and more upset. I disliked the word "charité." It sounded rational, just, kind, measured, but devoid of passion. To my still less-than-fluent ear it sounded nothing like what I felt for A. We'd looked specifically for a translation that didn't use it. I had no idea how I'd stand up to Father R's well-meaning pastoral authority, however, or how if necessary I'd find another translation in time for the ceremony the next day.

A close friend from high school stepped up and started calmly explaining the French etymology, as he understood it, and the subtleties of the multiple Greek translations of the word "love". He'd studied French, he was raised in the Greek Orthodox church, and his parents were librarians; this was the kind of argument he could have had at the dinner table. Meanwhile, one of A's groomsmen smirked indulgently at the textbook case of American puritanism. I can't remember exactly how, but we eventually reassured Father R that the reading even with amour did address all the facets of love.

Father R poked fun at the incident in the homily the next day. With his customary warm eloquence, he wished us plenty of both amour and charité, as I recall.

I haven't thought much about 1 Corinthians since, and I'll admit that except for the misunderstanding during the rehearsal, I hadn't thought much about it back then. It was simply the reading everyone chose for a wedding. Yes to patience and kindness. No to arrogance and envy. It sounded a bit obvious taken out of context, as if it could be a biblical version of 'Marriage for Dummies.' But sweet, still, and the lesson clear enough, with a neat little "Love never ends" to tie it all up reassuringly. A and I squeezed each other's hand as we sat and listened attentively next to the altar.

We've been married now for ten years, and in the last week I have been less than patient and certainly less than kind on more than one occasion. I have also, I'm afraid, insisted heavily on having my way more than once. I am sometimes (ahem) a bit irritable and resentful when I wake up for Mademoiselle's third night feeding, or when my husband heads out the door for a run as I sweep the breakfast crumbs from under the table. But here's the strange thing. We now have two kids. Days are short, nights are even shorter (!), our apartment is smaller, and the logistics of life are more challenging than I ever would have guessed at age 24, back when we got married. Lord knows I gripe -- c.f. my previous post -- and my husband, of course, has his own grievances I'm sure, but that is not what defines our love. The irritation, the arrogance, the frustration, just as much as the sleepless nights with crying infants, the long discussions about job and hearth, shopping lists, tantrums, meal planning, scattered Legos, the picking up mummified avocado off the living room floor... are like waves. That's it, I guess. Waves against stone, smoothing the rough, fragile bits and wearing the strong part smooth.

It feels easier to be in love now than at age 24. I've slowly shed much of what was then so defensive in my nature. I no longer need it. My husband and I know each other well enough now to sometimes finish each other's sentences, while at the same time we're both better at stopping and actually listening to what the other one is saying. Nothing motivates me more to finish something, like the dishes, than knowing that A would do it for me unasked. We still wind up taking collateral damage when we stumble unexpectedly into the minefield of each other's childhood crap. Everyone's got baggage and in every marriage you occasionally drop it on the other's toes. But when that happens, we both see it, admit it (after screaming and stomping a bit, perhaps), problem solve as polite adults, and manage to poke fun at ourselves.

I suspect that's the charité that Father R was getting at. But it's also, I maintain firmly, most of what you need to know about amour.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A weekend of her own

Anyone else have weekend angst? C'mon, give me a show of hands. Do you leave work on Friday, heart light, head full of plans for two full days of freedom, only to see it all crumbling to dust by noon on Saturday? Or is it just me? At the moment I'm not working, but you'd better believe I'm waiting impatiently for my husband to walk through the door on Friday evening and share full-time parenting duty for two whole days. Then, by Saturday afternoon I'm griping at him, frustrated that the house isn't really cleaned as I'd like it, the floor is vacuumed but not mopped, or half the laundry is unfolded. Or maybe I haven't gone for a run, and it's almost five o'clock and I'm still in my pajamas. Mademoiselle doesn't want to nap, and the floor under the dining table is still covered with giant, scary crumbs from lunch.

Yeah. If only I could take a deep breath and smile at that point instead of moping and yelling.

Remember how Friday night felt in college? Even the nerdiest among us took the night off. My school was hardly a magnet for parties, which suited me since I was a teetotaler and just a wee bit "lame" back then. I'm not sure what I did, exactly, except try to escape to wherever my loser boyfriend at the time happened to live, or failing that, hang out with friends and maybe scrape together enough money among us to go out to dinner or coffee. I studiously avoided schoolwork without any of the guilt that needled me when I avoided schoolwork on Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning. I could stay up as late as I wanted. I could sleep in the next day. I hadn't a care in the world.

Now, well, I've got kids, and the song is a little different. Friday night starts at nine or, now that it's summer and the schedule has gone a bit sideways, nine-thirty, when the kids are finally asleep. I don't manage to get any of my projects out (sorting through vacation photos, writing a new blog entry), and instead I waste time on the computer and procrastinate on doing the dishes. By the time 11 o'clock rolls around, I've done nothing, and Mademoiselle has likely woken up for the first of three or four times that night.

Now I'm lucky, because my husband will as often as not do all or half of the dishes if I procrastinate long enough -- we really do split things 50/50 -- and I know that if Mademoiselle wakes up at 7 the next morning, my husband will look after her and let me sleep in until 8 or 9. Still, my Friday nights are more exhausted apathy than giddy anticipation.

So, by Sunday night I'm worn out, fed up, mad as hell at no one in particular and everyone in general that the weekend didn't live up to my ill-defined expectations. I wanted to DO SOMETHING, I whine. I wanted some FREAKIN' TIME TO MYSELF, ALREADY.

"If you wanted to do something, all you had to do was ask," my husband protests. This makes me angrier still because it's at the same time incredibly kind, completely true, and irritating. If he agrees that the weekend was less than stellar, I accuse him of blaming me. If he points out the silver lining of all the things we managed to accomplish, I whine that it wasn't enough, it wasn't what I wanted, so who the hell cares? And so on. He's long-suffering, yes -- some of this bellyaching of mine was worse, believe it or not, before we had kids -- but he also stands up for himself (and rightly so).

So, I've come to conclude that although the difficulties of organizing a weekend with small children are large and structural, they aren't insurmountable. I can have fun if I put my mind to it. Heck, I wasn't so cool back in college, so there's no reason I can't have as much fun now as I did back then... at least, as soon as I manage to get my French driver's license. So this is my weekend manifesto:

1. Routine. We clearly need one, so I will define one. It will involve kicking the kids and my husband out of the house for two hours on Saturday morning so I can get the house clean once and for all, so the housework isn't hanging over my head like a Damocles sword all weekend. (My husband already does the shopping, which I hate, so don't think he gets off the hook.) It will also involve getting the kids in bed by nine, for the love of God.

2. Goals. I will make doable goals for each weekend, including something just for me.

3. No more Friday Night lethargy. If I started the weekend by spending a little time on a pet project, perhaps I'd feel more optimistic come Saturday.

I'll work on this for a few weeks and see where it gets me, hopefully halfway to a much-needed new attitude.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

...and we're back

Yesterday I came back from what was my longest stint away from home since college. Almost a month! We started doing laundry immediately upon unpacking the car, and the last load is still in the dryer as I type. The house is almost put back together, or at least what passes for put together these days. As I mentioned to my husband today, our life is like a giant game of Tetris, with new stuff constantly dropping in as I frantically look for a place to fit it all. Every once in awhile, some of it magically disappears -- usually to the basement storage unit, where I've learned to not poke around too much for fear of provoking a cardboard box landslide and taking out my husband's wine collection (which is probably the one thing in the entire basement we'd miss).

Mademoiselle left in mid-July with two teeth and a fierce determination to finally crawl, and she came back with four teeth and the ability not just to shuffle efficiently around the living room, but also to pull herself up to standing position. We took a nap together today, I in my bed next to a heap of unfolded clean laundry, she in her crib which is still between my side of the bed and the wall. I woke up to her standing and peering over the edge at me with a huge smile. Her primitive crawling style is adorable, and I must film it before she perfects it any: she first moves one arm, then the other arm, then slides one knee forward and finally pushes the other leg forward with her foot, keeping the second knee folded off to the side. It's quite asymmetrical and charming.

Le Petit has grown, too. Gone is the "reserved," reluctantly verbal child described to me in my end-of-year meeting with his teacher. Everywhere we went he chirped 'Bonjour' to people in the street and repeated it until he got a response, and when someone engaged him in conversation, he explained that he was four years old (and with great concentration, showed the requisite number of fingers) and that his baby sister was eight months old. He readily found other kids to play with at the beach, and even had his first summer crush, a little girl named Anna who coaxed him into the water at the beach in Collioure and held his hand when he was a little scared.

It was also le Petit's first gastronomic Tour de France. He visited the Roquefort caves and came back with a kilo of his favorite cheese. In Collioure he threw a tantrum when we wouldn't let him finish in one sitting an entire package of anchovies. In La Rochelle he made friends with the vendors at the central market, using his charm to beg slices of salami. In Brittany, he took his crab stuffed animal to visit the crabs in the tank at the fishmonger, and was unfazed when we took one of the crab 'friends' home to cook.

Most impressively, le Petit can accurately describe what he's seen, what we've done and where we've been in a way that shows he now participates in our travels more than he ever has in the past. Perhaps this will be the first family vacation that he remembers when he grows up.

There were moments when I felt guiltily like the vacation wasn't much of a break for me, since I was on-duty mothering 24/7. Mademoiselle still woke up two or three times a night, and Le Petit had a memorable tantrum at the end of a visit to the La Rochelle Aquarium. Getting everyone fed, dressed, bathed, packed, and out the door in the morning was an undertaking. A trip to the beach involved logistics that rivaled a Napoleonic campaign. Le Petit started "singing" loudly to Mademoiselle in the car during her naps, cheerfully explaining that he was trying to wake her up (and when that didn't work, he sometimes surreptitiously took a swipe at her car seat with his foot). I lost my patience more than I'd like, and I even threatened once to take everyone back to Paris on the next train. But on the whole, the Great Vacation of 2011 will go down as a success.

I had no time to write. I dragged the laptop across France and didn't so much as fire up Word. I brought back plenty to write *about*, though, and I hope I'll have time to do it shortly.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

When Mademoiselle abruptly took the stage

The streets were quiet and what passes for deserted in our suburb of Paris. My husband, panicked, parked the car haphazardly next to the hospital entrance, then sprung out leaving the door open and ran around to help me. My father-in-law jumped as quickly out of the back seat. I had my back arched and was otherwise unable to move; we'd driven the five minutes from home with me in that position. My husband, in a brief moment of calm between the screams I belted out during contractions, had noted with tense humor that for once I wasn't worried about buckling my seat belt. I was almost in enough pain to not feel guilty, and the truth was, I couldn't have bent myself into a true sitting position if I'd wanted to. I'd gratefully noticed that my husband had somehow preserved enough presence of mind to drive carefully if quickly to the hospital, stopping at traffic lights, keeping his eyes as much on the road as on me writhing in the passenger seat. He'd even spent a minute studying the map before we left in order to memorize the route through the maze of one-way streets to the hospital, which we'd mostly been to before on foot.

We could have rehearsed this before, I guess, just as we could have had the waiting suitcases fully packed, as opposed to 80% packed. But when le Petit was born, I'd spent over 12 hours in labor at the hospital, epiduralized and on Pitocin and feeling kind of like I was waiting for a train during an SNCF strike. I expected Mademoiselle's arrival to be quicker, but nothing like this. I figured I'd have time to throw together the last items before leaving. I figured... I figured it no longer mattered what I had planned. Childbirth does that.

An hour and a half before our arrival at the hospital I sat -- or the closest I could comfortably come to sitting, which was more like lying down, actually -- on the couch, tired, pregnant, and for the first time very tired of being pregnant. My mother likens being pregnant to being stuck on a runaway train. While I had relatively easy pregnancies and I never felt quite that negative about it, I did feel like I was at times gripped by runaway, irrational anxiety. The train wasn't out of control but it was headed to parts unknown, both times. And while I'll never know just what (undoubtedly tiny) influence the psychological had on the physical, both times I was pregnant I held on mentally as long as I could, wishing and willing my pregnancies to last into the final weeks.

Ever heard "It's so much easier when they're on the inside"? I subscribed to this wholeheartedly.

But on the couch that night, I had finally gotten to the point where I was ready for the baby to arrive. More precisely, I was ready to not be pregnant any more. I was two days from the 41-week mark: the due date, as calculated in France, and also the date at which most French hospitals schedule an induction. I was also four centimeters dilated, as the midwife had cheerfully announced on my last visit, two days previously.

She was the third person at the hospital to suggest a scheduled induction in as many weeks, but I kept declining. I had hopes and half-formed plans of natural birth, and my typically rational brain was awash in uninformed astrological theories. I blame the hormones. I also wanted labor to be as short and, well, sweet as possible, and I figured that ruled out induction. "But at four centimeters, half the work is done already!" the midwife added with insouciant optimism. Yeah. Except from my previous experience, I was pretty sure that the part about pushing out the head was weighted a bit more than the dilation part. I'd been walking around for weeks with painless contractions, and that was just fine with me. So I shook my head and she shrugged, and gave me a piece of paper instructing me to show up again on the morning of my due date.

On the couch that night, I started to whine, about what I can't remember. I was just trying to get my husband's attention, I think, and I felt too discouraged and top-heavy to search a less childish way to do it. He sat down next to me, asked what was wrong, and I vehemently aired some inconsequential grievances, finishing with, "And I feel giant, and pregnant, and I'm tired of being pregnant!" Then I cried. And then I shared some fears that were lurking in the corners of my rattled brain. Then my husband held me and reassured me, and I felt miraculously better. And then, in the space of a pause to catch my breath, the first painful contraction arrived.

"I think this is it."

I was now calm, my husband was suddenly nervous.


"That one was different. That one..." I paused to catch my breath and plan my rehearsed Zen pain-management response, "...hurt."

And I waited, and there was another painful contraction, and as I tried to remember the breathing and self-hypnosis and all that, I went off to take the prescribed shower. During the shower, I fumbled with the bottle of soap and noticed that the contractions were getting much more painful, and quickly. I lathered some, bent over in pain, tried to breathe, tried to use my visualizations, lather, rinse, repeat, and then decided (and said out loud to myself), "Oh, hell, I think I'll get the epidural."

Getting out of the shower was a challenge. Getting dried off and dressed was worse. My husband, meanwhile, was trying to get a hold of his parents on their cell phones. They live five minutes away from our apartment by foot, so they were the obvious first-line babysitters. Naively, we didn't have backup sitters. They were, however, at a wine tasting, in a basement shop where we later discovered cell phone signals don't pass so well. We assumed correctly that my brother-in-law was with them, and luckily his cell phone managed to ring.

Although my in-laws left immediately, and at any rate couldn't go any faster than the Métro would take them, they didn't at first feel like they were in any great hurry. It was twelve hours last time, after all; they figured this time I would be in labor for at least five or six.

"Are they on their way?" I asked from the hallway more or less at the top of my lungs. My husband called back to urge them to hurry, which they couldn't possibly do any more than they were already, but it made us both feel better. My husband then informed me that I'd have to get dressed.

"I can't," I whimpered.

"But you have to." He stated the obvious delicately. Then he went to find clothes, and somehow got me dressed with very little useful intervention on my part, and then my water broke and he had to start all over again. I sobbed and yelled throughout, and le Petit miraculously slept somehow in his room just next door.

My in-laws called to say they had arrived at the Métro station and were running to get to our place. My husband and I decided that he would take me down to the entrance hallway of our building where I'd wait for his parents while he went down to the parking garage to bring the car around to the front. He helped me to the mirrored marble alcove that serves as a bench, then ran back to the elevator. I sat, waited a minute; a contraction arrived and I confusedly decided I'd be better off kneeling on the floor, leaning on the bench with my forearms. I kneeling, moaning to myself when a neighbor walked in and took one started and terrified look at me.

"Ca va, madame?"

"Ca va.
Just the beginning of labor," I assured her, trying to sound unworried and cheerful. She hurried off past the front door. My in-laws arrived a second later; my mother-in-law ran upstairs to stay with the (still sleeping) le Petit, and my father-in-law helped me to my feet. My husband arrived with the car, and the two of them picked me up and carried me to the front seat. Once we arrived at the hospital, they picked me up and carried me again.

The hospital where I'd given birth to le Petit and would shortly give birth to Mademoiselle is small, a neighborhood hospital, really, and quite sleepy at 9:30 at night. There was no wheelchair at the door, and the man seated at the reception desk looked unimpressed by a screaming pregnant lady being carried in and at any rate unmoved to get up and help. A bystander -- a father whose poor wife had been in labor for over 24 hours, we later learned -- sprung up from his seat and offered to help, both supporting my weight and directing my husband and father-in-law to the door of the labor ward. Beyond the double doors, two nurses and a midwife attended to me immediately, and in seconds I found myself on a waiting gurney.

"Her water broke," my husband explained, feeling, I'm sure, like he needed to explain something.

"That's no reason to cry, madame!" one of the nurses insisted kindly, though I barely heard her.

"She's pushing!" noticed the midwife, alarmed, "Madame, don't push yet!" Pushing, I realized dazedly, so that's what I'd been doing since before we left the house. She confirmed what I already guiltily realized: that pushing had probably not been such a good idea. But my body was commanding by then, and my brain was just along for the ride. In less than a minute they had me wheeled into a delivery room, transfered to a bed, dressed in a gown and hooked up to an IV. They also determined how far things had progressed.

"...and an epidural?" I asked weakly.

"I think, madame, it's too late," all answered in chorus (and slightly amused, perhaps).

"Now you can push," the midwife instructed. She'd repositioned Mademoiselle, who apparently hadn't been lined up properly, and much of the excruciating pain was alleviated. The on-duty OB arrived immediately, too, and it just happened to be the OB who had been following my pregnancy, the same OB who had delivered le Petit. This was coincidence, perhaps just resulting from the happy fact that both of my children were born on Thursdays, but in the moment it felt like a miracle.

"C'est Dr. M! C'est mon ange guardian!" My guardian angel, I repeated dumbly, "He was here when my son was born!" I was vaguely aware how cheesy this sounded, but communicating my gratitude and relief felt as primordial as screaming, in English, with each contraction. This confused the midwife and the nurse, who tried to talk to me in their approximate English while the OB explained that I understood French perfectly well. He explained that I would have to push effectively in the next seconds, that this would be very important for the baby. And I did the best I could, several times. In the end, the ventouse (yeah, I don't know what it's called in English) was used to help her out more quickly, since, he later explained, the amniotic fluid was tinted and they didn't have enough monitoring information to know how she was doing. My husband calculated that Mademoiselle was born twelve minutes after we'd pushed open the hospital door.

Mademoiselle rested on my tummy quietly, not crying until after they cut the cord. Wanting to welcome her as I did le Petit, I told her how happy I was that she was here. The nurse dimmed the lights, and calm swept in as quickly as the chaos. Mademoiselle was weighed, diapered, and given back to me to nurse. I started to shiver, and a nurse wrapped us both in a big, garish comforter.

Two hours later she was dressed, bundled up in onesie, thick pajamas, a sleeping bag, and a hat, and we were wheeled upstairs together. Later I nibbled on my tray of food, looking with wonder and more than a little anxiety at the tiny bundle in the Plexiglas tub crib next to me. I remembered feeling lost when I was left with tiny le Petit, so alone and so puzzled and exhausted by his needs even as I was overwhelmed with love. This time I knew what to do -- theoretically at least -- so I didn't admit to the knot in my stomach when I bid my husband good night and he left us in the wee hours of the morning.

Mademoiselle slept. I couldn't. I was too joyful. Too scared. Too vigilant. Too much adrenaline still running in my veins. I didn't close the shutters, because the muted light from the street lights reassured me. She eventually woke up and started to cry, and I picked her up and put her to my breast like the old pro I felt I should be. She drifted off in my arms, and instead of worrying how and if I'd lift her back into her own bed without waking her, I held her tightly next to me and just watched her sleep. "I'm so glad you're here," I willed her to know, and at some point I slept, without moving my body or my arms an inch, I'm pretty sure. "Need me as much as you need to, little one," I thought, "I understand this time."

The next day, of course, I thought I'd been a bit silly, and I was terrified that Mademoiselle would fall out of my high hospital bed. I also knew, from le Petit, that as a parent you're always fundamentally making it up as you go along. I wondered, though, if holding Mademoiselle for those hours that first night had reassured her as much as it had me.

"I'm so glad you're here."