Category Archives: Motherhood

Death Comes to the Coop

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When the first chicken disappeared, it wasn’t a big deal.

She’d been one of eleven chickens – ten hens and a rooster – of indeterminate age, passed on to us by friends. We’d always considered this our “starter flock,” and planned to add fresh chicks in the spring.

We live in a predator-rich area, so every night we lock our chickens into a sturdy coop behind an electrified wire fence. But because we held these chickens loosely, and because it seemed to go against their nature and purpose to keep them confined to a 400-square-foot yard, we let them free range during the daylight hours.

This system worked beautifully for about two months, until the night I counted the chickens that’d come home to roost and came up one short.

She was a black bantam hen, one of three black bantys who scuttled nervously around Elvis the rooster all day long, like a jittery teenage fan club. After she’d been gone for two days, we declared her “missing, presumed dead.” My daughters were a little wistful, but not for long. Nobody had been particularly attached to this hen, whose personality was all humble subservience to her mate. We’d never even given her a name; in order to have something to write on her rock-tombstone in our animal cemetery (which joined the memorials of three deceased tadpoles), my daughters named her “Dianne” posthumously.

Because we’d never found a body – not even a feather – Dianne’s disappearance was shrouded in mystery. Lack of a body indicated that a hawk or a fox was the likely predator. We kept our eyes open, kept the chickens confined to their run for a couple of days, and then assumed that the threat had passed. Some days, we even joked that Dianne had gotten sick of following Elvis around and faked her own death; she was probably living a life of adventure in the treetops, or lounging on Palm Beach.

Then, a week later, Henrietta disappeared.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

Through My Children’s Eyes

At the beginning of the summer, our entire family attended my 20th college reunion.

I’m not a reunion person; I spent my first 15 years of adulthood moving frequently enough to rid me of whatever nostalgia I might be tempted to nurture – which I suspect wasn’t much to begin with. But this was my 20th reunion, it was only about two hours away, friends exerted pressure, and my daughters had begun expressing interest in my alma mater. So, late one spring evening, I found myself registering online for my reunion, paying an exorbitant amount to house six people on three dorm-room beds.

My alma mater is Williams College, a small liberal arts school nestled among the Berkshire Mountains in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts, just over the Vermont border from Bennington. It bears a striking similarity in both size and location to Middlebury College, which explains one particular moment from the reunion weekend.

One of the highlights of the reunion was not only the chance to reconnect with old friends, but observing our children become friends as well – as if to confirm that we’d chosen our cronies well two decades prior. On the final evening of reunion weekend, as our children romped together on the green grass of a quad surrounded by pillared academic buildings and, beyond them, the rolling slopes of the Berkshires, my friends waxed nostalgic about the setting.

Isn’t it wonderful, they said, to come to a place where our children can just run free and we don’t have to worry about them? And: Look at that view! Isn’t it just beautiful here?

 Click here to continue reading my latest “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

Surviving Summer, Parts 1 & 2

Summer seems to be zipping along at such a pace that I realized I’d forgotten to post two recent articles that I wrote for the Minibury website. Both are part of a three-part series on “Surviving Summer,” a seasonal take on my regular “Our Favorite Things” column.

Part 1, which you can read by clicking here, focuses on summer reading, including six of our favorite books/series, which have the distinction of appealing to readers within our family’s 4- to 9-year-old age range.

Click here to read Part 2, in which I recommend some of our favorite games to help pass long summer afternoons indoors — important if you’re having a very rainy summer, as we are here in Vermont.

Happy reading! Happy playing! Happy summer!

The Eggs and Us

When our next-door neighbor phoned the other morning to ask if we could spare an egg for the pancakes she was making for breakfast, I laughed out loud. Of COURSE we could spare AN egg! How about a dozen?

Our family’s life over the past month has been dominated by eggs. Eggs – those round or oval reproductive bodies produced by the female of certain animals – are everywhere: in our yard, in our refrigerator, on our kitchen windowsill, on our plates.

The most obvious reason for this is our acquisition of ten hens (and a rooster) from friends who were thinning out their flock. The chickens are all at least two years of age, which is around peak laying age. The good thing about this: We got eggs right away! On the other hand: It’s all downhill from here.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

Floored by Vacuuming

When I was growing up in Northern Virginia, I had a number of friends whose families were of Asian origin. Whenever I visited these friends at home, the rule was to remove one’s shoes immediately after walking in the door, leaving them in the front hallway, vestibule, foyer, or whatever the entryway. Back then, this seemed like an exotic practice, one that I associated with bamboo floor mats, Hello Kitty!, and rice served in delicate blue-and-white porcelain. In my own house, we wore our shoes all the time.

Just typing that last sentence fills me with horror: We wore our shoes all the time. Now, I can’t imagine ever wanting to wear shoes inside the house. Now, it goes without saying, the rule in my own home is to remove our shoes immediately after walking in the door and leave them in the mudroom. This has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I’m married to a man whose family is of Chinese origin; it has everything to do with the fact that I know where our shoes have been.

Click here to continue reading about our house of horrors in my latest “Faith in Vermont” column for The Addison Independent.

Dead Mom Walking

This is my birth story: The story of how I became a mother for the first time. I wrote it five years ago, in honor of International Women’s Day, and it appeared in the On the Willows blog. 

I am posting it again because the other day this article appeared on my NPR news feed, featuring a mother who had the exact same conditions that I did, but whose birth story didn’t end as happily. When I first wrote this story, I was focusing on child and maternal healthcare elsewhere in the world, in less developed countries, but this NPR story happened RIGHT HERE, in my own country. 

Today is Mother’s Day, and for the past couple of days I’ve been walking around thinking about mothers who won’t have the chance to be celebrated today, because their birth stories ended badly. I dedicate this to them, with the prayer that we will advocate for quality maternal and child healthcare throughout the world AND right where we live. Every mother should have the chance to celebrate Mother’s Day. 

Me, about two weeks before Fiona’s birth.

It’s a miracle that I’m sitting here, typing this right now, because I should be dead.

That’s not an exaggeration; I’m not trying on a dramatic opening line for effect. I should be dead, and in any other time or place, I would be.

I’ve never written about the circumstances of our first daughter’s birth before, because my husband Erick was the one writing all the updates during and after, so here goes:

I had a fairly easy, uneventful first pregnancy. No morning sickness, no notable symptoms of any kind aside from an insatiable craving for movie theater popcorn. When they took the 20-week ultrasound, the doctors noticed that our baby was a little on the small side, but nobody worried much about it. “You’re a small person,” they said, by way of explanation.

Then my doctor went to Korea for six weeks. The two substitute doctors I saw in the interim noted that the baby was still measuring small, “But you’re a small person,” they kept saying. Other than smallness, both the baby and I seemed healthy.

When my regular doctor came back and the baby was still lagging behind in size, he was nervous. This doctor, who saw me through three pregnancies, is long on brains and short on bedside manner — which was fine by me. Imagine a very, very pessimistic, Korean Mr. Miyagi, and you’ve captured him. (His introduction to genetic testing was: “Sometimes, baby is born with no brain.”). He sent me to a specialist in high-risk pregnancies for another ultrasound, and he prescribed a weekly non-stress test (where you sit for an hour while a nurse monitors the baby’s heart rate — then it was boring, now I’d call it a vacation). The baby continued to measure small, but everything else was a-okay. I tried to eat more and move less.

Skip ahead to Saturday, November 17, 2007 — two weeks before my due date. I noticed my heart racing a little bit that morning, and my ankles and feet were suddenly very swollen, but I didn’t think much of it; both seemed within the realm of normal third trimester symptoms.

The next morning, which was to be the day of my baby shower, I woke up with what I thought was heartburn. Again, a normal pregnancy discomfort. Skipped church, did some work on the couch, sent Erick out for Tums and 7-Up. A few hours later, when the heartburn seemed to be getting worse, Erick suggested I call the advice nurse. I did so, reluctantly: I have this fear of annoying nurses with silly concerns, which comes from decades of people-pleasing. But I figured that maybe she could hook me up with some prescription-strength Tums. “You’re pregnant with chest pain,” the nurse told me bluntly. “You need to go to the ER.”

We obediently went to the ER (me looking at my watch in annoyance to see how much time was left until my baby shower). When the intake nurse took my blood pressure, it was much higher than usual — much higher than it had been at my checkup three days earlier. I noted this, but he told me that increased blood pressure was normal in late pregnancy. The EKG was normal. I was sent to the outpatient clinic.

It was at this point that my “heartburn” became excruciating. The people in the waiting room thought I was in labor, and, having been through three subsequent labors, I can tell you that the pain was right up there. I remember very little from this point on, just that they took my blood pressure again and it was even higher than before. Suddenly, a nurse was running with me in a wheelchair over to Labor & Delivery, cursing the people at the ER who hadn’t thought to send me directly there in the first place.

The Labor & Delivery nurses hooked me up and started running tests. These nurses were amazing; I remember asking them two things: “Can you please make the pain go away?” and “Do you think I can make my baby shower? It starts in 30 minutes.” They made the pain go away, but one of the kind nurses said, “Honey, I think you’re going to miss your baby shower.”

It turns out I had sudden, severe preeclampsia. Preeclampsia is pregnancy-induced high blood pressure. In my case, preeclampsia was combined with a condition called HELLP Syndrome, which is an acronym for Hemolysis (the breakdown of red blood cells), Elevated Liver enzymes, and Low Platelets. Possible outcomes of this combo include hemorrhage, liver and kidney failure (my “heartburn” was, in fact, my liver swelling), pulmonary edema, stoke…and death. The only cure is to deliver the baby immediately. Fiona was delivered via emergency c-section. At 37.5 weeks, she was full term, but she weighed in at 3 lbs. 11 oz.  She spent one night in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for observation, and was released the next day, completely healthy.

The first picture ever taken of Fiona.

Because I was recovering from a rather traumatic birth, and because I suddenly had a 3 lb. 11 oz. baby to care for, I didn’t initially spend a lot of time reflecting upon what had just happened. And I still don’t, since that baby was followed very quickly by three others. But here’s what I know now:

The causes of preeclampsia and HELLP Syndrome are unknown. Researchers currently suspect insufficient blood flow to the uterus, immune system problems, or poor diet as possible causes. My case was a little strange, both because of its sudden and severe onset, and also because I had only one of the usual risk factors for preeclampsia: that this was my first pregnancy. Nobody has ever been able to explain Fiona’s tiny size, other than that it must have had something to do with the preeclampsia. (And our other three daughters weren’t exactly linebackers when they were born).

According to the Preeclampsia Foundation, preeclampsia affects at least 5-8% of all pregnancies, and HELLP Syndrome accompanies 15-20% of cases of severe preeclampsia. While preeclampsia rarely causes maternal death in the developed world these days, it is a leading cause of worldwide maternal and infant deaths. Conservative estimates are that preeclampsia is responsible for 76,000 maternal and 500,000 infant deaths worldwide per year.

It’s not just the numbers that get me. Since Fiona’s birth, I’ve read several accounts of preeclamptic women in third world countries who died (along with their unborn children) while waiting for medical care outside of health centers. I’ve even read of a woman who died from preeclampsia in this country during the last century. So, every once in a while, I will stop and think, “If I’d been born in just about any other time or place, I would be dead right now. And so would Fiona.”

Erick and me with Fiona, the day after her birth. You’ll notice I don’t look so great, because I wasn’t.

I’m writing this on March 8, International Women’s Day. (It’s a shame I didn’t write it in time to actually post on International Women’s Day, but that’s how life is these days). Thinking about International Women’s Day got me reflecting on Fiona’s birth, because even though this is a personal story, the conclusions I draw from it are quite global:

1. I am so stinking grateful for health care. Sure, the hospital made a few snafus in my case (they should’ve sent me to Labor & Delivery right away, for instance), but Fiona and I were able to get quick and appropriate medical attention to save our lives. The nurses and doctors who cared for us were competent and compassionate, and during most of the experience I had confidence that everything would turn out okay. It did; I came out on the other side, and followed up with three completely normal and healthy pregnancies, labors, and deliveries. So I think of myself as a “Dead Mom Walking.” Then I look around and realize that I know a whole lot of Dead Moms Walking: women who, like me, would be dead had they not received appropriate medical care during their pregnancies and deliveries. I bet you know a bunch of Dead Moms Walking — you may even be a Dead Mom Walking. Childbirth is, and always has been, a very risky proposition; it’s a luxury that, in this time and place, most of us go into it covered by the assurance that everything will likely be well.

2. I think it’s absolutely unacceptable that so many women in the world don’t have access to the health care that I do. Why are so many women and babies still dying from a condition that my baby and I lived through? A condition that can be cured by a timely c-section? Why are some of these women dying on the sidewalk outside of health care centers? I can imagine why; if I’d had to walk to the hospital, or if we’d had to take time to figure out how to pay for my care, or if the hospital didn’t have the capacity to do c-sections, it would have been too late. I believe this reality fits squarely into the definition of “injustice.”

There are a few excellent initiatives and organizations involved in preeclampsia research, and working to address the imbalances in maternal health care, like the aforementioned Preeclampsia Foundation, The United Nations Foundation, and the Million Moms Challenge. I wish there were more. I would love to see those 5- and 6-digit death figures diminish to near zero: more Dead Moms Walking, less dead moms. If I were First Lady, or Miss America, or Angelina Jolie, this would be “my issue.” And I guess, even though I’m just me, it still is my issue.

Fiona today.

Two for One!

Despite what feels like far too long a stretch of grey skies and rain, spring is truly springing in the Green Mountains, with all sorts of green and flowery friends reemerging every day. So I guess it’s appropriate that this has been a productive week for writing: I have not one, but TWO new posts up over the past two days.

Here’s my latest installment of “Our Favorite Things” on the Minibury website, which focuses on tips for gardening with children.

And here’s today’s “Faith in Vermont” column for The Addison Independent, in which I describe three recent experiences in community.