Wednesday, June 29, 2011

she's got the look

At this point in my life, given its recent chapters and the new ones that are unfolding, I have some clear ideas about who I want to be from here on out.  I want to integrate who I am with who I'm becoming, rework and reset my goals.  A huge part of this transformation, this reclamation of self, has to involve the way I walk through the world and who I see in the mirror.  I have to ask myself, What does this new, authentic and actualized Jenn look like?  Short answer, not the way I look now.  What's my first step?  A good, old-fashioned DIY makeover! 

For a long time now, my fashion choices have stemmed from a desire to blend in.  In the workplace, at the park, I haven't wanted to stand out or make waves, I've wanted to make an impact with my personality, my words, my actions.  I've wanted to slip into the mainstream unnoticed and decide where and when to challenge people's assumptions.  It's not the worst strategy in the world, but it's backfired on me one too many times. When your look is generic and non-descript, you run the risk of escaping notice altogether, or at least having to fight for attention.  So I decided, I want make an immediate impression.  At least if someone judges me, prejudges or misjudges me, they will have noticed me.  So again, I asked myself, What does that look like?

Unsure of where to begin, I decided to start with a haircut.  My last haircut had been at eight months pregnant, and my stylist spent the entire time she was cutting my hair asking me endless quesitons about my daughter's birth at home and my forthcoming hospital birth plan, as she'd apparently spent her break watching The Business of Being Born on her iphone.  I couldn't go back to her, even if I'd liked the cut, because I knew the first question out of her would be something like, So how'd it go?

I typed "curly hair, Berkeley" into Google and found a salon on Fourth Street that got rave reviews.  First I thought, hey, I'll just call and get the first appointment with whomever, but then I stopped, visited their website, and skimmed the stylists bios.  F. said she liked when her clients were open and willing to try something new.  Bingo, I thought.  It helped that she was pierced, tattooed and had a slick, bleached out crop.  Clearly this was a woman who didn't have a problem standing out.

I pretty much gave her carte blanche to do whatever it would take to get me out of the lampshade-shaped wedge my ringlets had grown into.  Take it as short as you want to, I said.  And she said she thought I should grow it out.  Really? I said, skeptical.  But something about her inspired confidence, so I was determined to trust her vision.  During the forty-five minute appointment, in addition to an in-depth hair consultation and cut, I got a review of the local undergound/alternative scene from indie rock to burlesque to queer cinema.  Once upon a time, I was reasonably well versed in these areas, but my soon-to-be-coifed head was spinning as I struggled to keep up, often having to pretend to know bands and groups and personalities to keep the conversation flowing.  She did the entire cut with a straight razor and the result exceeded all expectations.  I was grateful, not just for the new 'do, but the overall experience, grateful that she leapt to the (wrong) conclusion, namely that I would get her and her references, grateful that she didn't know anything about kids or babies or childbirth, and didn't want to know anything about them.  Don't get me wrong, I love to talk about my children, but I want people to take for granted that I can talk about other things, too.

It was a promising start, but the most challenging phase was yet to come.  When you get a haircut, someone else is making the key decisions, and you have to live with the results, at least for a little while.  Not so with buying new clothes, at least not for someone in my tax bracket (i.e. no stylist, no personal shopper). Now, I don't follow fashion trends, unless you count following six seasons of Project Runway, but I know what I (used to) look good in, and I know what I like.  I thought if I could see my favored elements of style all together in a list, that it might suggest a complete "look."  So I started brainstorming.  My completed list included oxford shirts, watch/wallet chains, leather boots, long skirts, suit jackets, vintage prints, and well, you get the idea.  Turns out that the sum of "what I like" becomes what I imagine one would wear to a steampunk convention or as an extra on the set of Moulin Rouge -- a rock and roll Anne of Green Gables, as it were.  Not at all sure how that could translate to my day to day life, I went back to the drawing board.

I think the trouble is, beyond a good pair of jeans, I don't know how to get excited about casual clothes.  I used to love any excuse to dress up, but as I've gotten older, my opportunities to do so have become few and far between.  Admittedly, my true tastes are a bit formal for the Bay Area in 2011, at least given my student/SAHM status.  I adore dress shopping more than is probably healthy.  I've been known to get a bit crazy in vintage stores around Halloween putting together a proper period ensemble.  Give me a gala to dress for, and I don't need any guidance, but I break into hives deciding what to wear to a playdate or a backyard barbecue, and that's pretty much what my social life amounts to these days.  Bottom line, I don't know how to marry style and my lifestyle into a look that is authentic (there's that word again) and effortless.  And I'm not sure what's worse, trying too hard or my current strategy, not trying at all.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the issue of my body at eight weeks postpartum.   My body now is not my body as I know it or want it to be.  Granted, I've made tremendous progress since giving birth, but this doesn't serve to make the dressing room mirror any kinder.

I thought it prudent, under the circumstances, to start with that casual staple, a good pair of jeans, forgetting for the moment that, next to bathing suit shopping, jeans shopping has the potential to be the most traumatic.  I started online, as it seemed relatively painless.  Painless maybe, but so very confusing.  My needs are simple.  Dark wash, boot cut, low rise.  Some stretch wouldn't hurt.  Money's an issue, so I stay away from designer brands I know cater to toothpick tweens anyway.  So I headed virtually to the GAP.  I know I don't want anything with the descriptors skinny or straight, but how does one distinguish between Curvy, Sexy Boot, Modern Boot, Boyfriend, and all the other permutations without trying them on?  I went to Levi's website, hoping that it would be more straightforward, given the longevity of the brand and its reputation for utilitarian simplicity.  Oh, no.  At the Levi's website you need to determine something called your Curve ID.  To do this, you need to take a quiz about how pants fit you.  That's right, a quiz.  I rated something called "Supreme Curve," the highest of the curvy scores.  Well, I always was an overachiever.  But sorry, people with supreme curves don't also get to have a low rise pair of jeans, and frankly, you get too high in the rise and you know where you are: mom jean territory.  There were surprisingly few dark wash options, and online, exactly none in the size I think I am now.  So I'd have to go shopping, and not in the city, because San Francisco, though not that far away, is still too far from my nursing baby.  So it was on to the brick and mortar shopping center in Emeryville ten minutes away.

I started again at that ubiquitous chain, the GAP.  GAP started with jeans, so it stands to reason that they'd know what they're doing in that department, and since they try to cater to everyone, you'd think they'd fit most bodies/tastes.  Even so, I found ONE pair in the entire store that fit the bill.  I put them on hold and went to hit the other stores before committing, but ended up skipping most of them for one reason or another.  I couldn't go into Guess or Express or Abercrombie and Fitch, as I know I don't want to look like an ultra femme overly accessorized teenager.  I couldn't go into Ann Taylor Loft or Banana Republic or J Crew, either.  While they cater more to my age group, their clothes seem to communicate a sort of conservative pastel respectability I'd also like to stay away from.  So my last shots before the shops and my time ran out were Old Navy and H & M.  Though their clothes tend not to hold up so well, these stores tend to at least carry a variety of styles, basic pieces like jeans and t shirts, and you can get a lot for not so much money.

I stepped into Old Navy, only narrowly missing the greeter, who was encouraging people to scream for extra savings.  I guess at that point I should have run screaming from the store, but no, I was determined to give it a shot.  I made two separate trips to the dressing room, hauling huge piles of clothing each time, and with each piece I pulled on (or tried to) was progressively more horrified.  I was also becoming increasingly hungry, and the lower my blood sugar got, the more I was convinced that maternity yoga pants were and would forever be my only fashion option.

I gave up for the day, knowing I didn't have the mental or physical energy to slog through H & M, and headed to a familiar refuge, the bookstore.  The rest of my external makeover would have to wait, but I could soothe myself by starting the internal one.  At the checkout, the cashier looked over my magazine selections (namely Bust, Bitch, and Curve) and gave me a knowing smile.  You have some intelligent reads here, she quipped.  I sighed and said, Yeah, well.  I have some catching up to do.  At least I'll have something to talk about at my next hair appointment.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

the other side

I've been putting off writing this entry, because it was obvious to me what the topic would have to be.  And for a long time I haven't wanted to write about it.  My second childbirth story has a happy ending: a beautiful nine pound baby boy, healthy and perfect.  As if in sympathy for me, he has been a lovely, easy baby for the last seven and a half weeks.  I've made a complete recovery, and have been cleared to exercise, meaning I'm finally on the road to reclaiming my body, and with it, parts of my identity I'd almost lost completely.  I'm actually grateful to be able to fret about the twenty pounds of baby weight I need to shed now.  I'm grateful to cart around my children on errands and to the park all day.  Because it means I'm OK, the people I love are OK, and whatever daily stresses I encounter, I actually have no real problems right now.

My water broke on a Saturday afternoon.  We had time to call a friend to come over to watch Julia, time to make sure we had everything I needed for the hospital.  We drove to the hospital at a leisurely pace, checked in, chatted with the doctors and nurses, and waited for me to go into labor, which I did within a couple hours.  The contractions started.  My partner and doula were with me.  I had a heplock IV in my hand, a blood pressure cuff on my arm, and a wireless monitor around my belly, and the nurses on duty kept tabs on my progress.  These were the more annoying, but expected aspects of a hospital birth I had been dreading, but I took them in stride.  Even when the contractions got painful, I was able to power through them and make jokes between them.  Until about six centimeters, that is, when everything seemed suddenly not funny anymore.  The pain went from just bearable to excruciating, and just as suddenly, all of the monitoring I had been tolerating, the machines, the cold room, the people coming in and out began to make me feel horribly self-conscious, vulnerable, angry.  My brave face fell to the floor, and the only thought that I could reliably form was, Make it stop.  Just make it stop.  So when the doctor recommended Fentanol (just a narcotic through the heplock, just to take the edge off), I said yes.  They administered it, and it did take the edge off.  For about ten minutes.  When the contractions came back I was officially out of my mind, screaming like a wild animal.  So they offered the epidural.  And I said yes.

Trouble was, the contractions were so strong and so painful, they couldn't get the catheter in my spinal column.  So they tried again.  And again.  When it seemed the epidural would be impossible the anesthesiologist offered the next weapon in her arsenal: a good old fashioned saddle block, which I took, and spent the rest of my labor disturbingly numb from the waist down.  When I was fully dilated and it was time to push, I could feel nothing.  Luckily, about an hour into the pushing, the feeling came back, and even though the contractions were as bad as ever, the pushing helped the pain.  The baby descended, but at +2 station, he would go no further.  I spent the last two hours of my twelve hour labor thinking that with one more push, my baby would be born.  But he wouldn't come, and his heart rate was dipping with each contraction.  They gave me more Fentanol, so I would sit still enough to get the epidural, with the plan that they would take me to the OR to continue pushing with the help of a vacuum extractor, and if that didn't work, I would have an emergency c-section.  As soon as they got me into the OR the baby's heart dipped alarmingly low, and I heard the doctor say, "That's it, let's open."  I agreed, of course, resigned to this outcome by this point.  The curtain went up, and I was prepared for the surgery.

The next thing I knew, I heard the cries of my newborn son, but moments after he was pulled from me, the machines started going off and the doctors noticed the blood, my blood, leaving my body rapidly and covering the floor.  I felt my breath leaving me, as a bulky oxygen mask was slammed over my face, which ironically, made breathing harder.  Panicked, I pushed it away only to have the doctor push it back over my nose and mouth over my weak pleas and protests.  At the same time, Karissa was thrown out of the OR.  For 45 minutes after she left, she had no idea what had happened to me.  My baby was crying on the other side of the room, and I hadn't even seen him.  When I asked if he was OK, the docs replied that he was, but their priority was me right now.  As I was stabilized, my breath returned and I felt a calm coursing through me.  Later, I discovered this was the morphine they'd put through my IV, and I understood why people become heroin addicts.  Finally, as they were finishing sewing me up, a nurse brought the wrapped bundle to me, announcing he had the biggest ears she'd ever seen on a baby.  Karissa was finally brought back in, and she got to feed him first.

So what happened?  My baby was so far down the birth canal and wedged at such an angle that as they pulled him back through, major blood vessels in my uterus ruptured causing the blood loss.  I'd lost half my blood volume in about five minutes and required a major blood transfusion before we could be transferred to the recovery floor. To further complicate things, he was so big that the incision they'd made in my uterus wasn't large enough, and it was torn, requiring many more stitches than with a routine c-section.  When they finally got him out, the umbilical cord was wrapped around his entire body, which they thought in retrospect caused the dip in his heart rate.

The strangest thing about this experience for me was that just as I felt completely undone, completely shattered, I had this new life in my arms, loving me, needing me utterly.  I couldn't fall apart, because he held me together.  He took to nursing right away, and in an effort to make up for the first few hours in his life in which we'd been separated, I held him for practically the next 72 hours.  In the hospital, I had nothing else to do but be with him, feed him, look at him and talk to him, and he showed no signs of the trauma we'd suffered together.

I had a lot of emotional baggage to unpack in the next few days and weeks.  When my doctors debriefed the surgery with me and asked if I had any questions, the first was, was this all my fault?  In my desperation to make the pain stop, I'd broken the rules I'd set for myself.  In taking the saddle block, had I caused the conditions that made the c-section necessary?  Of course they said no; what else would they say?  It didn't stall my labor, they said, and I'd pushed long and hard.  The bottom line is, he was stuck, and may have sustained injuries to his head or shoulders had I managed to push him out.  And then the question came to me later, did THEY cause my c-section, or at the very least, make mistakes that led to the hemorrhage?  Not that I can see, not that they'd admit to, but frankly, I don't think it's possible for me to ever know.  I can only trust that the doctors tried to help me and were honest with me about what happened.

The biggest hurdle was coming to grips with what had happened, as it was so far from what I wanted, and what I'd been told might happen.  I hadn't bothered to prepare for the possibility of anything like this coming to pass; he was my second baby, the first labor had been so fast.  The feeling I was most hoping to avoid this time around, that I'd felt so distinctly with my daughter's birth, was this sense of my own mortality, this feeling of peering into the abyss.  I think I was so desperate to avoid it, that when the signal came, i.e. when the real pain came, when I knew I was heading down the same road, the one that ended over a cliff, I relented to the drugs and hoped against hope to insulate myself against it.  I'd wanted to spare myself the intensity of feeling that is perhaps unavoidable under these circumstances, because only hours later, I was on the edge again, terrified for my life.  Whatever way our children come into the world, they remind us of what life is, the journey we're on, and how fragile it is, how unstable, how fleeting.  And I was afraid to be reminded.  

After the first weeks, I'd weaned myself off of the drugs.  The narcotic-induced nightmares stopped and I began to feel like myself again.  And when I felt that shattered feeling, that fear of falling, I made myself look into the mirror and say, "Whatever comes, just be here.  Be present.  For you, for them."  My new son reminds me every day that some things are worth suffering for, and some things are made all the more precious for the suffering.  Childbirth is relatively easy for some women.  I had to face that easy would not be a part of my story.  And yet, there are much worse stories.  My story had the best of all possible endings.  So there's no room for regret and recrimination.  My children, my partner, my family and friends need me.  And here I am.