History of a Rollercoaster

mother’s little helper.

a headache at the age of 12 had me invading my mother’s bathroom in search of aspirin. opening her little white antique cabinet to find boxes of diet pills. little plastic capsules filled with bright yellow, orange and red beads. their silver packages torn at the back, half empty. and the boxes, varying formulas, one after the other, dexatrim natural dexatrim max. extra strength formula. clinically proven. lose weight fast. curb binges. take control of your appetite.

my grandmother on my father’s side died at the age of 60. i remember her as glamorous and perfectly put together in white cashmere sweaters and slacks. gold and pearls. sunbathing in string bikinis to get a tan into her 50’s. she died of lung cancer. she would prepare the family dinner and then sit and smoke a cigarette instead of eating. have a lucky strike instead of a sweet. oldest trick in the book. inhale and let the hunger burn. breathe it out in plumes of smoke.

a mall kiosk selling a new supplement promising a natural solution to all of your diet problems. photos of women in bathing suits. photos of women who “took their lives back.” get results. get control. a nervous boyfriend offering to buy the pills for me. making the exchange with the saleswoman while i pretended to look at basketball sneakers and scented candles. hope in a jar. heart murmurs and insomnia. sweaty palms. snake oil. the bottomless pit of my hunger.

she eats like a horse.

my older brother was an extremely picky eater and my father waged a nightly war at the dinner table. we were all forced to sit there until my brother cleaned his plate. waste not, want not. money doesn’t grow on trees. they are starving in ethiopia. this is the story my brother was told. eat every last bite. as an attempt to shield my brother from scrutiny i took to finishing his food while my father wasn’t looking. once caught i was punished, but it was clear to me that the punishment was not for the deception but for over-eating.

every meal spent measuring how much room was left on my plate, comparing the amount of food on my plate to the others at the table, always keeping a little behind their pace, eating slow and small to avoid comments such as “that was a big bite.” and “geeze, you were hungry!” an open napkin covering my plate and a sigh of relief when my plate was taken away at the end of the meal.

a diet of worms.

a phone call from my father at the age of 9, telling me that my mother had reported that i had gained a lot of weight, and would i promise to do better? the imperial council.

in the third grade a teacher observed me eating a donut in a crowded lunch room and said, “donuts! is that how we get fat, jessica?” a rhetorical vacuum. sucking the color from my round cheeks. i swallowed my tears. sucked in with my stomach.

weekends with my father concluding in a daily survey of what i had consumed from the refrigerator. eating me out of house and home.

a conversation overheard between my mother and my 8 year old niece over a request for a second helping of ice cream. “you don’t want to get fat, do you?”

when my grandmother on my mother’s side found out that i was pregnant she called me and told me that if i gained more than 20 pounds in my pregnancy i was careless and lazy. as a child she would take out her tape measure and check my waist, chest, and hips under the guise of sewing something for me, but the measurements always included a critique of my figure. she once gave me a pack of gum, and encouraged me to try chewing it instead of snacking. just a little tip. between us girls.

on disappearing.

in the seventh grade i convinced my mother to buy me slim fast shakes in cans. i brought them to school with me for lunch. adults complimented my will power. “you’re finally losing some of that baby weight.” my father said. these were the first compliments i had ever received regarding my body. i became an expert dieter.

the grapefruit diet. the zone. atkins. plant based. ketogenic. south beach. macrobiotic. raw foods. the master cleanse. 1 day a week fasting. the hollywood diet. low glycemic. alkaline. paleo. blood type diet. baby food diet. soup diet. juice cleanse. i have tried them all. i have spent my life losing the same 30 pounds over and over. contracting and expanding.

my mother has a room in her house filled with stuff. old photo albums. books. forgotten craft projects. and most notably exercise equipment. the thigh master. the ab blaster. nordic track. pilates machines. a trampoline. ankle weights. exercise vhs tapes. the solution to your body’s size. beaten into submission. no pain, no gain. each one a promise and subsequent failure.

gird your loins.

at a certain point attention for weight loss became sexual. the question of whether the attention for being thin was more risky than the attention for being fat.

youthful promises of love eternal. the notion of unconditional love, a fallacy. a point to prove. you said you would love me no matter what. “you’d have really nice legs if you lost a little weight.”

the anatomy of a binge.

a late night bathroom trip during a stay with my father in my early 30’s lead to a discovery of him sneaking food. i secretly watched as he went to the freezer, the panty, the refrigerator to get more food. he rushed around and opened packages and brought them to the sofa and the warm glow of the television. this after the nightly dinner of salad (and salad alone), which always left me hungry and apparently, him as well. our eternal question: was it my diet or his that he had failed to control?

a woman at a conference for compulsive eaters tells a story of nightly eating once her children and husband had gone to bed. she talks of being overworked, over extended, under appreciated. the food a reward as much as an act of defiance. a middle finger to her criticizing husband and ungrateful children. a line in the sand. this is mine. something swallowed. pride. anger. what women do because it is their duty. taking something after giving, giving, giving.

evidence destroyed. secret jars of peanut butter in my room. little plastic bags of chocolate covered almonds, candies, dried fruit, soft foods consumed quietly when the lights went down. empty containers snuck into trash cans. a little secret for oneself. filling a hole. a disconnection from satiation. once you pop, you can’t stop. and the diet starts tomorrow.

Island Escape

Tahiti was my mother’s island. The name refers to the main island, as well as the collection of smaller islands that compose French Polynesia. You may be surprised to now learn that my mother is not from there, nor has any ancestral linkage. In fact, she has never set foot on the island at all. It is the home of coconut palms, Kingfishers, and barracudas, and it was the home of my mother in her imagination, in her fantasy world composed of her, her island, and no children. I did not know much about Tahiti growing up, other than that it must be extraordinary. It had to be, because my mother always spoke of leaving us for it. She was going to run away and join an island tribe; she would shed her skin by firelight and the life that was accustomed to it. Her new skin would darken beneath the equatorial sun, look ethereal as she danced and picked sweet, ripe fruits, and she would not have a thought in the world about the children she left behind.

I never liked when she talked about her island. It was not that she wanted to go without me, that she thought she could use a vacation without children. I understood that. I did not like that she was going for the sole purpose, or so it seemed, of escaping us, her children. I do not know where my brother and sister and I are in that scenario, where we play into her fantasy. Where does she leave us? At home sleeping or with my grandparents, perhaps? Is she gone for a month or is she gone for eternity? I have not learned the details because she never went. She never left us. I think that is the theme of my mother’s life; she was there. She was miserable and exhausted and at the point of losing her mind just about always, but she stuck through it. For that, she could be proud. It was never easy to be a mother, much less a single one. She raised three children on her own with little money and little sleep. I adored her, perhaps more for her many flaws.

All her life, my mother dreamed of being a mother. I know that she wanted four children, as I do now. Gender did not matter to her in this regard, and she purposely avoided finding that information out before each of our births. You only get so many truly good surprises in your life, she would explain. You should take the opportunities where they lay. I tried to be a good kid. I was the middle child and the oldest girl of my mother’s three children. She had four births and three surviving children. I thought of my older sister all the time. We used to traipse around the old cemetery to find her small plot, nestled in tight with her great grandparents.

My mother wanted motherhood with all her heart, and it is not lost on me that her very first experience with it was heartbreak. Because I know my mother, and I sure do, it is difficult to imagine those days for her and how they were survived. Perhaps, I wonder, if the subsequent heartaches since then have tamed her exploding heart at all. Is such a thing even possible? I recall her screaming, once, into the shadowy air of a house tucked in for bed, simply needing to release the violent aching buzz inside of her. The reason for this was a natural stage that comes with age, with the normal pace of life moving on as it should. People grow older and things change. I think I accepted this about the world at a young age and am still waiting anxiously for her to grasp at this logic.

It all starts with a starter house, does it not? That was our home and that was the plan and then my father left and suddenly there was no plan. To move forth, in a world as cruel and outrageous as this, what an idiotic idea! I think time must have stopped and entered a chapter called ‘post,’ in which we never truly ventured out of. Post my father leaving, twenty-four years ago now, we are still waiting for my mother’s life to resume as it should. The world is not supposed to be this unfair; how could God let this happen? The fact that the world is still turning, that people are ageing and life is continuing for other people is still outlandish. I think she wonders what she has to show for the years. I know she harbors guilt like a full marina at sundown. She tries to place her trophies on the mantel and remembers that our house never came with a mantel at all. The starter house, again; it was only meant to be our launching pad.

My grandmother died in September, my mother’s mother. If anyone knew my mother better than me, it was her mother. Now it is me. I find myself in both my grandmother and my mother. They are beautiful women to come from. Resilience runs rampant in my blood, the same way that emotions try to swallow me whole. There is a poem by Rupi Kaur in her book Milk and Honey which is both my mother and me on a page. I work hard on learning to control my emotions. I struggle to encourage my mother to do the same.

She walked in on me sitting on the floor with a book open in my lap once. “Things Fall Apart,” I answered her inquiry. She paused, taken aback by my answer. “Oh,” she said. Then, quietly, “Yes, they do.” She left the room then and I cried. It was a tender moment in which I caught her by surprise with that title. How unquestionable, how unyielding. She knew it to be true better than anyone. I could always argue for her, and I did, that things could be worse. I did not like to make that a selling point in life, but rather longed for her to look at the positives surrounding her. Protons filled the air to the ceiling in each room she entered.  To think of how they must dissipate on an island, with no walls she belonged to to contain it all. She needed to be in these rooms, in this starter house. She needed to be with us.

Motherhood was an island, too. It was not Tahiti, but there were still waves crashing around my mother from all directions. Lonely, distraught, exasperated waves. She persisted. Everyone gets one’s own version of hard in life and learns to manage and work with it. This shapes us further into who we are. It is all supposed to happen. I believe this, and my hope is that one day my mom will be able to see the life she has been given and that she has done her best with it. She continues to. I have never raised three kids alone. I cannot blame Tahiti for its charms and ideals and its lack of three children waiting for my mother’s care. Despite the guilt she holds, my mother was there for us. No matter how Tahiti beckoned, she held her ground. What an impossible task, raising children alone. But because of her, I know, I could do it, too.

A History of Blood

Men don’t know what it’s like to bleed but not be wounded– at least, not every time. They don’t know what it’s like to analyze the color of their blood for meaning. And blood does not mark the seasons of a man’s life, like it does a woman’s.

 

When I was fourteen-years-old, I went on a class camping trip. Five of us were bundled into one tent, which seemed too small to contain us: budding, precocious and braver in the dark. There was a great interest in who had accomplished what on the gnarled, rope ladder into womanhood: Who had been kissed? Who had been kissed–with tongue? Who had touched it? Who had done it all ? No one had, at least, no one in our tent. Who had the biggest boobs, the most pubic hair? And, who’s gotten their period, everyone, right? Jenny A. rapid fired the questions at us, having taken on the roll of the interviewer/inquisitor, like some sort of bossy and perverted Barbara Walters.  Everyone nodded, except me. I was cross-examined and in the end, only mildly believed. I had passed so many milestones early– boobs (for the record, I did have the biggest in the tent,) boyfriends, and in just a few hours, while playing truth-or-dare I would make out with a girl for the first time–with tongue. But, there I was, still on the other side of the threshold–the last of my friends to get my period. And while I wasn’t exactly a Judy Blume character, yearning for it, I was certainly ready.

 

When I did finally get it, a few months later, I experienced an unexpected sadness. It felt like an ending, as if a childhood expulsion letter had arrived from Neverland, signed by my first crush, Peter Pan–the ambassador of youth. And with a few drops of blood I was ejected from the kingdom of childhood.

At sixteen, I was tangled in love.  We folded into each other with the force of an imploding planet. I wanted to unzip his long golden body like a garment bag, and slip inside. The closest I could get to that, was him, inside me. Afterwards, when I saw the deep streaks of blood on the sheets, I flamed into embarrassment. Half-dressed, I tried to strip the sheets off the bed as I profusely offered to wash them. It was the only part of the night that had embarrassed me. I had felt prepared for everything, I mean, as prepared as a sixteen-year-old virgin could be. But I hadn’t expected the tender intimacy of the plum colored stains on the white sheets.

At Twenty-eight, I was trying to get pregnant. I have always had erratic periods, coming and going without the certainty of tides, following some unruly and maverick moon. This has always been a source of stress; it’s nice to have a monthly confirmation that I’m not pregnant, until, of course, I actually want to be. Then this irregularity became even more frustrating. The first time my period was late while I was trying to conceive I put on a Leonard Cohen record and I lit a candle before I took the pregnancy test. I was setting the scene for my joy, for this remarkable moment. But the moment was unremarkable, as so many more would be. And my period, whenever it would deign to come, became a cruel reminder that a new life was not starting that month.

At thirty, I was pregnant for the first time, and at eleven weeks I discovered a minuscule amount of blood on my underwear. I made a strange and strangled noise that drew my husband into the bathroom.  

“It’s only a drop, I said,” as his eyes filled with panic. I would keep repeating that while we drove to the doctor, and while I lay on the table as they readied the ultrasound machine.

“What color was it?” the doctor asked, “pink, brown, red?”

“ Brown,” I said, “not red–not bright red.”

“That’s good.” The doctor said.  

And then, we heard the sound of the small heartbeat and we all breathed again.

Six weeks later, at seventeen-weeks pregnant, I was back on the table for a routine check up. Except, it wasn’t routine, this time there was no heartbeat. The Doppler pressed and prodded but revealed only silence.

“It was only a drop, there has been no other bleeding, it wasn’t even red,” I kept saying.

“Sometimes there are no signs,” the doctor said, “sometimes there is no blood.”

 

I had a friend tell me she was pregnant four days before she took a test or missed her period. She had spotted, and assumed that it was implantation bleeding. She was validated a few days later with a positive pregnancy test. To me, a few spots of rust colored blood indicate death, but to my friend it indicated life.  

 

At thirty-four, in the hospital delivering my second son, and there was a moment while I was pushing when my husband’s face suddenly turned bone white.  He kept glancing back and forth between my thighs and the midwife, like he was watching a gory tennis match. Later when I asked him about it, he said that he was looking at the midwife to see if she was worried, “I didn’t realize that a person could bleed that much and not die,” he said. But the midwife was calm–she just kept mopping the universe of blood I was creating as she told me to push and guided me through. She understood the deep jungle of my body and what it could bear and still be thriving.

Last summer I was camping with my son’s class and one of the parents brought a telescope. It’s behemoth mass was lugged up the dunes in Malibu and set up to view the full moon. I watched my six-year-old, son’s face as he peered into it. “Can you see it?” I asked, but I didn’t need to–his chin went slack and his little body tightened with excitement– he saw it. When it was my turn, I pressed my eye into the cool plastic ring and waited as it adjusted, and then the face of the full moon came intimately into view–luminous, tremulous, and pearlescent. My throat thickened and tears came, as if I was seeing something precious that I had forgotten.

 

In the tent, later that night, I snuggled between my boys as I listened to the sound of the waves crashing across the street. I thought about the deep places in the ocean that have not been explored, that have not been marked or understood by science. My body is like that–there is so much that science can’t explain about conception, birth and the cycle of creation. The moon pulls the tides into a rhythm, and the moon pulls my body into the same. I was overwhelmed with the connectedness of it all. I remembered seeing my ovaries during an ultrasound for the first time, how they looked–luminous, tremulous, and pearlescent, so much like the moon. No wonder they call to each other.

 

 

Image by  Danimatie

A Place to Lay My Grief


Home birth wasn’t something I considered.
With a doctor for a father, I grew up hearing about medicine and science – its benefits, primarily.
As a girl, he was the one I turned to when my breasts began to develop, when I experienced vaginal discharge for the first time, when I began menstruating.
Is this normal?” I asked with near certainty that I was the only one attempting to hide my boobs under big sweaters despite the year-round heat of Los Angeles.
Through my father’s knowledge but more so his intricate compassion for maturation, I came to respect my body and its capacities.
When I became pregnant, I assumed certain things almost immediately: everything would be okay and I would give birth in a hospital.
Looking back, I envy the definiteness I possessed.
I was afforded the luxury to be resolute.
I trusted in my body’s ability to not only support burgeoning life, but also the process of bringing a being into the world.
Free from anxiety, I watched in wonder as my belly expanded. My imagination followed.
As my son emerged nine months later, my hands excitedly reached down to scoop him up to my breasts where he suckled for nearly two years.
Supported by loved ones and doctors through a calm birth, a family we became.
Nearly four years later, we decided to expand beyond our cozy threesome.
Pregnancy came quickly but my assuredness did not follow.
Sick as a dog, I dragged myself through the first trimester with a sense of dis-ease. Glued to the crisp sheets whenever I had the chance, my buoyant mood escaped me.
But at fourteen weeks, I turned the proverbial corner and with that came a restoration of energy.
Finally, I had enough verve to resume daily tasks, like going to my dermatologist for my annual check up.
After checking in at the front desk for my appointment, I went to the restroom.
Blood.
Faint but still, blood.
Breathe.
I returned to the waiting room, frightened.
The nurse called my name and I floated into the exam room. I had left my body just when it needed me most.
In came my doctor and I shared with her that I was sixteen weeks along and just saw blood. I promptly contacted my obstetrician and somehow drove myself to her office after finishing my routine mole check.
Everything appeared perfect: the heartbeat, the placenta, the fluid.
“Did you have sex last night?” she inquired.
Nope.
“Are you experiencing any cramping?”
Nope.
After that, I don’t remember much.
I went home: ate, slept, showered, dressed, ate, went to work.
Tightening enveloped my belly as I drove home from work the following night. I called my father.
“Is it possible to have Braxton hicks contractions this early?”
The next day, while home alone, my baby emerged.
Home birth wasn’t something I considered.
But here it was, an unassisted home birth to a daughter I will never know. A stunted hello and a goodbye that continues still.
As my baby dangled just centimeters from the toilet bowl water, I shrieked so fiercely I expected every surrounding window to shatter.
They didn’t. I did.
And then I began to hemorrhage, and with it my self-possession oozed from me.
No longer sure of anything, I crumpled in on myself, hysterical.
On the one-year anniversary of my miscarriage, I sobbed uncontrollably on the phone with my father, replaying the details to him as my very pregnant belly jiggled with new life. He wept too as we reflected on my pain and he described what it was like to hear his “baby” go through this traumatic loss. He said he admired my courage to enter pregnancy again and provided me with a resting place to lay my grief.

My father rushed straight to the hospital after my daughter was born on a drizzling night in December. Watching him hold my brand new baby girl, while he retold the story of my birth, felt like something out of a movie. We reflected on the gravity of things and the way life and love and loss change you for good.

Still, I think about my home birth and how my humility inadvertently took hold that day. If there’s anything I’m sure of now it’s that joy is almost always intermingled with grief and vice versa. This, I am quite sure, is the new normal.

Jessica Zucker is a Los Angeles-based psychologist and writer specializing in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health. She is the creator of the #IHadAMiscarriage campaign.