My IUD day

This winter has been a real festival of minor bodily indignities and ailments for me and my children. As I write this I am suffering from a second bout with viral pinkeye, hot on the heels of the flu I caught from Raffi, who had it last week. I’m still not mentally recovered from the stomach virus that Ilya brought home in November, which resulted in a permanent orangey stain on the rug in our bedroom when Raffi threw up raw carrots (he swore he’d never eat them again, a vow he completely forgot about almost immediately. I’m still not ready.) The goals I had for myself at the beginning of the school year, like ‘figure out what my next book is about’ and ‘apply for full-time teaching jobs’ and ‘get assigned a substantial reported article,’ have taken a backseat to just surviving and doing the baseline amount of work that I thought would be happening “on the side” of those larger ongoing projects. I have felt stymied and foggy and full of self-recrimination, like the fact that I’ve caught every kid-ailment that has traipsed into our apartment must be indicative of some larger failure on my or body’s part. Why can’t my immune system get it together? Why can’t my brain triumph over the weak vessel of my body???

Clearly this attitude is not helping matters, but it’s hard to shake the impression that one is a total waste of space if one is not currently working on some publishable piece of writing that will change the world or at least one’s own place in it. I also live with Keith, who in addition to being insanely hardworking is also sort of taking over the mommyblogging beat. For a solid 2 weeks in December I could not go anywhere without hearing about Keith’s Raffi-rage essay. A friend who lives in Oakland told me his therapist recommended it to him! It was nice to be able to bask in reflected glory, but I could never quite get over the “reflected” part. It was weird to feel like I’d lost control of the narrative of our family’s life, even though I (mostly) cosign Keith’s account. I guess I’d become used to being the one who tells the story.

The other thrumming little psychodrama running underneath everything has been a crushing and strange set of feelings about my childbearing career being over. Ilya had his final desultory sips of breastmilk sometime in late November or early January. The last time I whipped out a boob and proffered it, he laughed in my face and bit me; the message could not have been clearer. When weaning Raffi, I had secretly consoled myself the whole fraught time with the idea that it was not really the end; I would nurse another baby someday, I told myself. In fact, weaning Raffi was clearing the space necessary for that to eventually become a reality. But with Ilya there was no such consolation. Keith and I have always said dumb things to each other like “if we unexpectedly get really rich,” or “if we could guarantee a clone of Ilya,” but neither of those things are real possibilities. As insecure about my work as I sometimes feel, the reality is that Keith and I are doing as about as well as can be expected in our respective careers — it always feels like we’re barely scraping by, but that’s about choices we’ve made, not some cosmic injustice that will soon be made right by a giant windfall. We chose to live in New York City, we chose to be writers, and neither of us had made money a priority or planned or saved for the future at all until I got pregnant with Raffi. Also, the reality of the book biz — and please read this closely if you are someone who thinks, as I once did, that “getting a book deal” is a be-all, end-all life goal — is that you work on a novel for four to seven years and then if you are very, very lucky (as Keith and I both have been, though not every time), you get paid an amount that would be commensurate to one year’s very good annual salary, minus 20% commission and taxed heavily. We are not going to “unexpectedly get really rich” unless one or both of us goes back to school, gets a law degree, and becomes a corporate lawyer.

So we are not going to have a third child. Obviously! It’s kind of preposterous that we had a second child! It’s crazy that we’re even having this conversation! But of course there is part of me that feels really sad about this, against all reason. The two children I have are so wonderful, and also so all-consuming and energy-depleting and immunity-destroying. I don’t want to have a third child but I also don’t want to not have one. It’s kind of like how even though I have had about 10 cigarettes in the past 4 years I would still not say that I have “quit smoking,” because that implies that I will never have another cigarette again. It’s hard to say “never” about anything. I always want to keep the door open a crack.

If I became pregnant accidentally I would probably, after a lot of agonizing, be able to summon the iron will necessary to get an abortion, but the whole thing would be horrible and I would second guess myself painfully the entire time. Or, alternatively, I would have a third child and that would ruin my marriage, career, life and children’s lives. Not to be melodramatic! There are definitely people who make it work in NYC with three or more and a lot less in the way of money and resources than what we’re working with. But the tradeoffs we would have to make would, for me, be too much to bear. And I’m typically terrible about sensing where my own limits lie, so if that one feels clear to me, it must be real.

So I decided to get an IUD, which, barring any crisis, will protect me from pregnancy til I’m 45, unless I decide to get it out sooner because I’ve won the lottery or lost my entire mind.

The day of the insertion I felt anxious and excited, the way I used to feel before getting a tattoo. I had the same kind of self-talk beforehand, where I have to pretend that it’s actually nooo big deal in order to keep myself from freaking out. I also thought happily of all the nice treats I would buy myself as a reward for taking on this unpleasant but necessary duty — I could go out for lunch, or maybe even go see Little Women alone, feeling crampy and virtuously responsible.

The insertion took place in my regular GP’s office. I love my primary care doctor, who’s also my kids’ pediatrician, so much, but it seems like a sad symptom of how unseriously the whole system takes women’s reproductive health that this procedure is basically treated about as seriously as a pap smear. What happens is, you like there in stirrups while the doctor gives your cervix a little shot of lidocaine to numb it, then dilates it enough that the IUD, which has collapsible little “arms” like an umbrella, can make it through the narrow cervical os. Once it’s in your uterus, it opens up like a tiny cocktail umbrella. That part, which happens a few minutes after insertion, is when people usually feel woozy, my doctor said. She left the room to let me recover in privacy and I took out my phone to report to my mom thread WhatsApp friends that it had been worse than I’d expected, that my legs had been shaking like when I was in labor. Then I put the phone down because a wave of horrible not-rightness was washing over me and I felt like I was going to pass out, but I was already lying down, so unfortunately that meant that I had to puke up the advil-coffee sludge that was the only thing in my stomach. It was a reflex-puke that felt unrelated to nausea. It reminded me of giving birth to Raffi, when I’d puked with every contraction.

I managed to get most of it on the paper skirt thing that was still draped over my lap, so I balled that up and put it in the trash, then gingerly took off my sweatshirt, which was at the end of its natural lifespan anyway, and put that in the trash too. Still naked from the waist down, I lay back on the examination table and waited for someone to come in and check on me. I felt much, much less inclined to go to see a movie.

As usual when something kind of awful happens to my body, I spent the rest of the day feeling mentally great, relieved and revivified by having survived some minor pain. As I held Ilya that night at bedtime I felt his soul-deep placidity as he let exhaustion overtake his little body, and I tried to remember how Raffi had felt in my arms at 18 months. I don’t think he was ever so peaceful, so solid. My two boys, one dark and one light, like two interlocking halves of a design. They are too much, and just enough.

Having your cake

In the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election I was working on a short, “fun” essay for a food website about what it’s like to watch The Great British Baking Show when you have celiac disease. We did one round of edits and then Trump was elected and it seemed impossible that anyone would ever care about any short “fun” essays ever again, least of all me. I told the editor I didn’t want to keep working on the essay, forgot about it, and basically continued to feel that way about professional first person writing that wasn’t explicitly connected to the crises at the forefront of my consciousness for the next three years.

Then last night I was watching The Great British Baking Show and I started thinking about that essay, so today I reread it. It’s not a huge loss that it won’t ever be published but it was kind of good, and sad! It made me realize how much my celiac diagnosis affected my career trajectory. In the years leading up to it, I had begun to write seriously about food. I hosted a YouTube cooking show in my apartment, inviting authors I’d never met to come and cook with me while we talked about their novels and memoirs. I reviewed cookbooks and had a food blog and volunteered in a soup kitchen. I made cinnamon rolls that tasted just like Cinnabon’s and pork buns that tasted just like Momofuku’s. Everything was going well except that I felt sick pretty much all the time.

I kept doing some of those things after eliminating gluten from my diet, but I still feel bad about foisting some of the things I (gratefully) eat on guests who don’t have any reason to avoid wheat (and rye and barley and spelt etc). Gluten-free baked goods are almost universally inferior to gluten-full ones, sorry to this flan. In some respects, of course, my cooking has improved out of necessity, and I’ve explored recipes from countries where wheat isn’t as much of a staple as it is in Euro-American cooking. But I’m also forced to cook for myself the majority of the time, since only relatively expensive restaurants can be counted on to avoid cross-contamination and keep track of allergens well enough that I won’t get sick from their food. Cooking all the time, especially with kids, has made me much less enthusiastic about cooking, as subscribers to these complaints already know. I also just don’t really look forward to things the way I used to. Like, for example, food-focused holidays, or traveling. I think of the logistical headaches involved in being not hungry rather than looking forward to meals. More than anything I miss the sense of freedom and possibility that I felt back when I could still respond to a dinner invitation by saying “wherever, I eat everything!”

On the other hand, though: I now very rarely experience the shaky, poisoned-gut pain that plagued me for years of my twenties. And I still love thinking about everything that food means and everything that cooking can do. I also still love Bakeoff, even as I understand this love to be slightly rooted in masochism. Then again, imaginary cakes — the ones on tv, the ones in cookbooks and memoirs and novels — are the kind I have always liked best.

Halloween grinch

Probably my most memorable and best Halloween costume was Courtney Love, because it was part of a couples costume — Kurt and Courtney. My then-boyfriend repurposed the wig he’d worn two years earlier, when he’d dressed up, horribly, as Elliot Smith (horribly because that was the October that Elliot Smith died.) The Halloween party I wore this costume to was also my birthday party; I often used to celebrate my October birthday and Halloween simultaneously. The party was in a friend’s giant crumbly shared Williamsburg loft. At the time I didn’t realize I was Halloween-peaking. In fact, I remember feeling like I had done myself a disservice by choosing a costume that made me less attractive than usual. I had really committed to kinderwhore-era Courtney, not Oscars-dress/Celebrity Skin Courtney. So I had smeared makeup and fake bruises and a bad platinum wig with black roots. I spent the whole night feeling jealous of my most beautiful and glamorous friend, who had just come back from a year in Spain with some Spanish boy-toys in tow, and they were so thoroughly in her thrall that they had dressed as the Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow and Tin Man to her obviously very sexy Dorothy. In retrospect of course we were all so young and beautiful then. I just remembered that Lucy was dressed as Sexy Harriet Miers (allowing me to date this party definitively; it was 2005).

This year, like last year, I am not dressing up at all. The two years prior to that I think I did some token cat-ear thing; those were the Halloweens when Raffi was three months old and 15 months old. When he was three months old, I went to a party full of kids and babies and was stressed out the whole time because my baby was crying. He was probably hot in his costume, he might have preferred to be sleeping or eating and not at a party. We probably shouldn’t have bothered to go but we didn’t know that yet, we didn’t know anything. At this same party there was a woman with a baby the same age as Raffi who had dressed both herself and her baby in black swan/white swan costumes. Her baby was smiley and placid. That I can still remember this detail, of all the things from that period I can’t remember at all, is a testament to my amazing, preternatural ability to feel jealous of people whose parenting-row I perceive as easier to hoe than mine is.

Halloween is tomorrow, but I am already Halloweened out. Last Friday we weathered a carnival of “Spooky Fun” at Raffi’s school, which had the same chaotic, nerve-jangling vibe as the Pumpkin Festival I described in my last newsletter-complaint. Kids everywhere, sensory overload, long lines, tensions running high. Raffi, of course, loves Halloween. He wants to dress up and offer everyone candy. He has grandiose costume ambitions and no concrete plans for how they might be achieved. He is just like me, or more accurately, just like how I used to be. It’s always striking how much the aspects of me that were excised when he was born are more or less reborn in him. I hope Halloween lives up to his expectations, but he’s like me, so nothing ever will.

Burned thumb

On Saturday night I burned all the skin of the pad of my left thumb. It was the kind of banal kitchen mishap that happens all the time, especially when you’re cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen. I ran it under cold water as long as I could but then I had to keep cooking dinner, which I did with my thumb always near an ice pack. The top layer of skin turned white immediately and it hurt all night, the kind of pain that registers as slightly more than annoying, slightly less than stop-everything-and-panic. I ate the dinner I’d been making when I burned my thumb, I helped put the kids to bed, and then I passed out, exhausted from being in pain and exhausted from acting, out of necessity, like I wasn’t. In the morning it still hurt but much less, and the top layer of white skin had toughened and died, though the skin under it was raw and hurt when pressed or used (I discovered how often I use my left hand to turn on lamp switches).

On Monday the blister formed then popped (disgusting! and satisfying, of course) and then the dead skin that had been the blister started peeling off. The skin underneath was tender and livid red that day. The next day that same red skin was hard and cracked. The perimeter of the wound got progressively smaller. Today, the site of the burn is hard and shiny but a much lighter color, almost the same color as the rest of my thumb.

It’s so tiny but reassuring that without my having to consciously do anything my body can heal itself like this. All progress is incremental and not always linear is something I tell myself all the time, multiple times a day. But at least in the case of my burned thumb it is linear! Eventually my thumb will be as good as new, or maybe there will be a slightly shiny scar for a while to remind me of the time when, on the eve of my 38th birthday, I picked up a hot pan without a potholder.

This morning I got up too late to make the snack we’d signed up to bring to Ilya’s class. What a privilege to be out and about in the world in the pre-9am hour, when the rained-on city is fresh and crisp and new and some bodegas and delis are not even open yet! After I dropped him off I had to go three blocks out of my way to find a place that would sell me some plastic clamshells full of cut-up fruit. But it gave me the opportunity to walk past the house on Livingston, surrounded now on all sides by new construction, where a man keeps a pigeon coop on the roof. The birds wheeled across the sky in their perfectly choreographed formations like I’d seen them do so many times from my window, during the 7 years when my window had looked out onto Franklin Avenue. I miss our old place so much. In my dreams we still live there, and I wake up every morning surprised that we don’t.

If I could go back there, though, I wouldn’t. Progress is incremental and not always linear. I hope that some process is happening underneath the conscious layer of my mind that will show me where to go next.

Pork chops with plums, two ways

(bad and good)

The kids had two days off school for Rosh Hashanah. Monday I dropped Raffi off at “break camp” and then took Ilya home and napped during his nap instead of working. It was super relaxing and restorative sleep because I expected to be woken up at any moment. I didn’t open my computer all day except to allow Raffi to watch like three straight hours of kid trash on Netflix after I picked him up. Meanwhile I hung out with his brother and cooked a dinner that was frankly terrible, almost inedible?

I often console myself about un-productive workdays by cooking a nice meal at the end of them, a trait I gave Friendship’s Amy, who once bought expensive pine nuts to make homemade pesto after a long day at her useless blog job. Having kids has really taken the fun out of doing this, though — I can’t take my time when cooking and the results are often critiqued in detail by Raffi, who never sugarcoats his opinion. He will call a dish “discusting” or just stand up and spit his partially chewed mouthful into the garbage. I don’t take the culinary opinion of someone who considers gum to be the ideal food super seriously, but not having a receptive or discerning audience for my work (Keith and the baby will eat anything literally anything except olives) does put a damper on my enthusiasm. I know this is the stage when a lot of people give up and just make box mac and cheese and chicken nuggets and hot dogs all the time, and I do that too, but I don’t want to eat those things (except box mac and cheese, but I see that as an appetizer and would like another full meal afterwards) and I don’t have the energy to make/clean up after two separate meals, even if one of them is just boiling water or defrosting nuggets. So I have continued to make dinner, and I have continued to complain about it. I have complained about it here and if memory serves I even have an essay complaining about it in Charlotte Druckman’s forthcoming Women in Food anthology! Loving and hating home cooking, insisting on doing all of it despite often hating it, etc.

The bad meal was not the recipe’s fault. I had made it before and it had convinced me, again, that Alison Roman is not even close to overhyped; it’s quick, simple, greater than the sum of its parts, and uses a technique you wouldn’t have thought of on your own (quickly marinating the plums and onion in lime juice and fish sauce before adding them, together, to the meat juice and quickly softening them without creating a jammy mush - I wouldn’t have thought of that, at least). The first time I made it I served it with coconut rice, which made total sense with the flavors.

This time, though, my bad vibes leaked into the dish. I overcooked the plum-onion sauce and it was too acidic and too sweet, pink mushy grossness that the meat would have been better off without. I ate my portion joylessly and went to bed with Raffi after reading him his new favorite book, which is one of Dav Pilkey’s lesser works — it took him a while to land on Dog Man after Captain Underpants, and in the meantime we were graced with Diaper Baby and Ook and Gluk, the mildly problematic “kung-fu cavemen.” Real Pilkey-heads know what I’m talking about. It occurs to me that I could write a full review of this book, because it’s certainly the only novel I’ve read multiple times in recent memory. If you’re interested in hearing my detailed thoughts on the entire Pilkey oeuvre, drop me a line!

The next day, I dropped Raffi off at his friends’ house to be, as he calls it, “babysitted,” and actually managed to open my laptop during Ilya’s nap. I received a heartening email from an editor for whom I’d filed something two weeks earlier and had not yet heard back from. Rereading what I’d written cheered me up, not that it was so brilliant but it was recognizably me doing my best to think something through. It made me feel like myself.

For Rosh Hashanah’s last hurrah I made “the Doree chicken,” in the Instant pot with boneless thighs. It came out totally fine, definitely just okay, but I was back in the saddle, at least.

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