Spinning the Story

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The first time I wrote about the NICU (other than in emails to family and friends), it was for the NICU Testimonial binder in the Alta Bates Family Lounge. I knew I was writing for other preemie parents and so I squeezed every silver lining out of our three-month NICU stay. The way I spun the story, you’d think we had spent that time in a hotel, not a hospital.

I emphasized the friendships we’d made with the nurses, doctors, social workers, security guards and parking attendants. When I talked about the birth of my micro-preemie twins, I gave just the facts: born at 25 weeks and four days, weighing just over a pound and a half apiece. I didn’t talk about how I tried to find strength through stoicism and its polar opposite, bad jokes.

The NICU staff had offered a lifeline of support to my husband and me, much more support than I’d received thee years earlier when my full-term daughter had been born, I insisted.

The more I wrote, the more I shared my words with others. I submitted my essays to online magazines and writing conferences. At my first writing workshop, I proudly presented an essay outlining how I coped with micro-preemie twins who needed around-the-clock care for their first months of life.

“We want to see you be emotionally vulnerable,” chorused the writers in my group. To them, my words were an essay that needed to be shaped and sculpted to fit and hit certain storytelling marks.

But for me, it was my life. I couldn’t admit that I was emotionally vulnerable. That would mean acknowledging how small and fragile my babies had been. It would mean facing the long list of ailments and disabilities that my babies could have had—or might still have. At a year-and-a-half old, my twins still had developmental delays. Just thinking about it felt like a pitch-black fist grabbing at my gut.

Listening to the comments of my colleagues brought me back to the NICU, the way I’d been 18 months earlier, standing over my twins’ isolettes, watching the numbers flicker on the monitors. Wondering if the boys would stabilize by themselves or if they’d trigger the alarm. Never sure what the long-term impact of their prematurity would be. Before I knew it, I was sobbing in front of twelve people, who, just a week earlier, had been total strangers.

“I’m sorry,” I sobbed, chewing on my lip. “I just realized that the NICU was really scary.”

“Of course it was,” said the workshop leader, a novelist who herself had had a baby in the NICU.

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around in a daze. From time to time I would remember a certain detail—the cinnamon smell of the soap in the family lounge, the teddy bear magnets with all the babies’ names on them, the hum of the breast pump—and it would take me right back to the NICU.

And then a curious thing happened. I began to notice sounds around me. Birds chirping, crisp footsteps, the whistle of wind. It was as if to block out the gravity of the NICU, my brain had stopped listening to the world around me.

From then on, when I wrote about the NICU, I added what I saw to how I felt. Now, in addition to describing the nurses who had carefully arranged tubes and wires so I could hold my babies skin-to-skin, I also recalled my nervousness and my doubts. When I found just the right words to describe my memories, the fist in my gut would loosen. Being honest with my feeling and being authentic in my writing was actually a comfort, like those pastel blue scent dolls I used to put in the boys’ isolettes.

Seven years later I still bite my lip when I think about those early days. My stomach still flips to think about the texture of their skin, so thin and papery or their squawky cries when I had to put them back in their beds. But I also think about the moments before the cries—the warmth of their tummies, the smell of baby boy in the whorls of their hair, their tiny fingers clasping mine—and the images dance together to complete a picture of hope, fear, uncertainty, and love.

Forgotten Anniversaries

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These last two weeks I’ve had the nagging feeling that I’ve forgotten someone’s birthday, someone close to me. In other words, a date that should be committed to memory forever and always.

But when I go through the list: husband, children, parents, in-laws, nieces, nephews, siblings, and good friends, I come up with nothing. Nothing but the tug that I have missed celebrating a milestone.

Yesterday it dawned on me. Seven years ago, on March 30, 2010, after three months in the NICU, Wagner came home. Two days later, on April 1st, Michael followed.

Chiara was only three years old at the time, and we made a banner to hang in the dining room: “WELCOME HOME MICHAEL AND WAGNER!” We made thank-you cards for the doctors and nurses and everyone else who’d stood by our side during those three long months.

We took pictures to commemorate the day. Pictures of Michael’s nurse with her finger on the “off” button of Michael’s monitor. Pictures of Chiara’s artwork that we’d hung over the boys’ isolettes. Pictures of our locker in the family room. We brought home souvenirs: bottles, preemie diapers, thermometers, and even oxygen-saturation cuffs.

With each photo I knew I was committing our NICU stay to memory, finally allowing myself to exhale. We’d made it this far. Taking our three-month old babies (who were really newborns for all practical purposes) home.

It was a day I vowed I would never forget.

But then I did. This year March 30th and April 1st came and went without acknowledgement. When I did remember, the boys were swimming in Grandma’s Florida pool, splashing and shrieking, playing some kind of intricate game of tag with the pool noodles. You can still see the scar from their PDA surgery that traces the edge of their shoulder blade, but if you know what to look for. Other than that, you’d never guess.

You’d never guess that they were born three and a half months early. Or that they weighed about a pound and a half apiece. You’d never guess we had to do special exercises for their joints or that Michael didn’t breathe on his own until the week before he was discharged.

If you looked at them now, you’d see very little evidence that they had any challenges at all. No traces of what impacted their first two years of life. None of it has any bearing on their lives today.

But I don’t think that’s why I forgot our homecoming anniversary. I think I forgot because I’m not the same person I was seven years ago. I’m not the person who was so terrified to be vulnerable.

The irony is when I vowed forever and always to remember our NICU stay, I began writing about it. And writing. And writing. I was writing to remember but I was also writing to convince myself that I wasn’t affected by our experience, not negatively anyway.

The more I wrote, the deeper I had to dig. (I should point out that this was not by choice—the deep diggers were my writing partners, critique groups at writing conferences, and later, my developmental editors.) As I revised and dug and polished and repeated the cycle, truths emerged. Such as, yeah, that NICU stay was pretty awful. And, yeah, I’m not cut out to be a family advocate for parents of preemies.

As a ballet dancer, I spent a lifetime evading truth. You have to. If you acknowledged what you look like in a white leotard and tights, you might never have the nerve to get on stage. Embracing the truth as a writer meant that I had to get on stage anyway. Little by little, I changed. Until the one thing I vowed to remember became an event that I didn’t need to commemorate.

Book Salad

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boxofbooksSo I published a book last week. It’s called Brain Changer: A Mother’s Guide to Cognitive ScienceI formatted the text and created a cover out of a free-use photograph and an open source knock-off of Photoshop. I collected blurbs and wrote about myself in the third person: “Janine Kovac is the recipient of the Glushko Prize for distinguished research in cognitive science and an Elizabeth George Foundation Fellowship from Hedgebrook.” I updated my Amazon author profile and my Goodreads profile. I put a picture of the cover on Facebook.

I always imagined publishing a book like birthing a kid. You know—there’s the anticipation, the list of names, the birth announcements. And to fit with the analogy, perhaps self-publishing was like a home birth where I called all the shots.

But this was more like rummaging through the fridge looking for salad items to throw together for a potluck. Since my goal was to build a backlist with a little ebook, I wasn’t looking to write a magnum opus; I was looking for 10,000 words that more or less fit together.

I came across a collection of blog posts I’d written for a website called Raising Happiness. The posts paired a tip for raising kids with its practical application as Matt and I navigated a risky twin pregnancy that resulted in micro preemie twins born three months before they were due—but viewed through the lens of cognitive science.

Originally, the NICU/cognitive science motif had been the premise of a memoir, but as I learned how to build scenes, transitions, and tension, the narrative arc of the micro preemie story leaned away from cognitive science and toward—of all things—the unexpected end of my ballet career. That book is still looking to make its way into the world.

But here were ten posts, already written, that could be thrown together and sold for $4.99 as an ebook. Perfect ingredients for my self-publishing “salad.” Unfortunately, the pieces were obviously written for online. There were references to other websites and as a serial, each post had one or two lines to catch the audience up to speed. The essays had to be cleaned up if I wanted to put them together as a book.

I didn’t worry about the narrative arc or the hero’s journey and I didn’t follow the self-help template. I just focused on how to make the pieces sound like a coherent whole.

It wasn’t until after I submitted my files for printing and ordered 25 copies of my book that I realized what I’d done. I’d written the book I’d intended to write seven years ago—a memoir of our time in the NICU and how cognitive science helped us through a very challenging time.

And it happens to make a perfect stocking stuffer. You can get the ebook through iTunes or Amazon and you can get a hard copy of the book here.

Vacation Responder: Maternity Leave

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Going to have a baby? Then you know how much planning needs to be done. You have to figure out the registry, get on the preschool waiting lists, and research 529 plans. The more work you can do before the stork comes, the better. Like this ready-made maternity leave email responder. Its tone has “frazzled new mom” written all over it. For bonus points, in place of the name of the person to contact in your absence, substitute the name of someone from two jobs ago to really give that authentic feel of a woman on the verge of being on the verge.*

Hi [NAME]:

I have just had a baby and will be on maternity leave for the next three months, partly because that’s all the maternity leave I have been given and partly because I have no idea what it means to have an infant that needs to be fed every two to four hours and I’m pretty sure that three months off is all the time anyone needs. In truth, I’m composing this email responder in anticipation of going into labor and having a baby because I hear that they can be pretty time-consuming but I have a hard time believing it. How much trouble can something be that only eats, sleeps, and poops? I don’t know. Really, all I know that a baby eats every few hours but I don’t realize yet that “every two to four hours” really means that if my baby is one of those babies that eats every two hours than I will spend forty-five minutes feeding said baby, twenty-five minutes putting said baby back to sleep, five minutes eating KIND bars, twenty minutes pumping so I can drink some wine tonight, fifteen minutes nodding off on the toilet and the remaining ten minutes on Facebook before it’s time to feed my baby again and if my little bundle of joy is the kind that eats every four hours I don’t realize that that doesn’t really mean four hours on the dot the way a parking meter expires. It’s more like four hours between breakfast and snack and two hours between snack and lunch and every fifty minutes during hours in which I am trying to sleep.

Look! I haven’t even had the baby yet and I am already writing in stream-of-consciousness run-on sentences!

So, if this email requires some attention before 2016, please email [THAT POOR PERSON WHO HAS AGREED TO TAKE ON YOUR WORK NOT REALIZING THAT YOU ARE NOT COMING BACK TO WORK].

Similarly, if you are placing a bet that I will not be coming back to work, please email [PARENT OF THREE WHO IS ROLLING EYES AT YOUR NAIVETE]

* this is not to imply that all new mothers are frazzled incoherent messes. I’m just speaking from my personal experience in which I was so tired that I opted for general anesthesia when my wisdom teeth  were removed just so I could get an extra nap. 

Vacation Responder: Blame it on the kids

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31Days KovacIt’s totally acceptable to disguise a plea for help inside a vacation responder. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. 

 

SUBJECT: Unable to respond to email

I am in trapped in a car with three small children until October 31st. I’d love to respond your email sooner but bad things would happen. Worse that being trapped in a car with three small children.

 

Y is for You

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YThis is what kills me. “You” are “you plural.” And no one knows how that happened. You were a cell. You divided. And now you have two noses and four arms and twenty toes.

One of you wakes at the slightest touch. The other of you can fall off the bed and stay asleep.

One of you likes baseball. The other of you likes to figure out what markings make which word.

One of you was born at a pound and a half.

One of you has lots of pictures from when you plural were in the hospital because you’d always open your eyes.

One of you just got your first bee sting.

One of you wants Italy to win the World Cup.

One of you is speedy quick. Unless we’re talking about baseball reflexes.

One of you is rolly and slow. Unless we’re talking about baseball reflexes.

Both of you can tell time better than your sister. Who is three years older.

One of you could live on plain pasta.

One of you likes radishes, guacamole, and prefers Sevillano olives to Niçoise.

And yet, you share the same DNA.

N is for Necessary

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NSome days I spend all my time typing, crafting language, and composing efficient prose and none of that time writing. Today was a day like that. And now it’s the end of the day and I ask myself, what did I write?

Important stuff, it turns out. Bios, book descriptions, event coordination. It’s the sort of stuff you skim when you read which means that the flow of prose is just as important.

Here’s what I put together today. It’s for another book event. This one will be held at Scribd Headquarters, Thursday May 8th from 6 – 7pm, 539 Bryant street in San Francisco.

(Someone else gets the lucky task of writing the event description. I cut, pasted, and tweaked bios.)

 

Moderator: NANCY DAVIS KHO has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, TheRumpus.net, The Morning News, andSkirt! Magazine and is most recently anthologized in Moms Are Nuts (Vansant 2014). An avid music fan, she blogs about the years between being hip and breaking one at MidlifeMixtape.com.

Write On Mamas authors

British-born CLAIRE HENNESSY is writing a humorous memoir about reuniting with her childhood sweetheart “Bug,” after a thirty-year separation. Her work has been published in Nothing But The Truth So Help Me God –Transitions anthology (2014) and blogs at Crazy California Claire. In 2011 she was awarded the Scribd Favorite Funny Story Award. A co-founder and website editor of the Write On Mamas, Claire lives in Novato with Bug and an assortment of kids and animals.

LAUREL HILTON is the president of the Write On Mamas, as well as a founding member. Her work has appeared as part of KQED’s Perspectives series, A Band of Women’s Transitions anthology (2014), and elsewhere. Laurel resides in Mill Valley with her husband, two daughters, a very loyal Australian cattle dog, and a couple of rats.

MARY HILL is writing a memoir about learning to accept her son’s disability and then helping him do the same. Mary has read at Lit Crawl, and her essays have appeared in various disability-related newsletter and blogs, including her own, Finding Joy in Simple Things. Mary is a co-editor of Mamas Write.

MARIANNE LONSDALE writes personal essays and short stories, and is now focused on developing a novel. Her work has been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Literary Mama, Fiction365, The Sun, and Pulse and is an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Marianne is a founding member of Write On Mamas. She lives in Oakland with her husband Michael and son Nicholas.

JANINE KOVAC is a founding member of the Write On Mamas and a talent-wrangler for Litquake, San Francisco’s literary festival. She is a co-editor of the anthology Mamas Write as well as a contributing author. Janine is currently reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler with her daughter and The Adventures of Spiderman with her twin boys when she isn’t working on her own books.

TERI STEVENS lives in Napa, California with her husband, son, and twin daughters. She is a founding member and marketing director of the Write On Mamas. In addition to writing young adult fiction, Teri writes about parenting and how she became the mother of three six-year-olds.

Here’s the description of our book:

In Mamas Write: 29 Tales of Truth, Wit, and Grittwenty-four moms (and one dad) share stories from their lives as writers and parents. Essays range from finding one’s calling as a writer through adopting a toddler; a tribute to a dying wife; an account of a premature birth; raising a transgender child; the joys of sharing a favorite childhood book. In a concluding interview, authors share funny and heartfelt responses to questions such as: “How does a busy parent make time for writing?” “Why do you write, and where?” “What writing books inspire you?” and “What holds you back from writing?” With a foreword by Kate Hopper, author of Ready For Air: A Journey through Premature Motherhood and Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers.

 

M is for Math-head

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MMichael is my little math-head. He counts in his spare time (sitting in his car seat, sitting in the bath, lying in his bed at night) in his four-year-old way.

“Twenny-seven! Twenny-eight! Twenny-NINE! What’s after twenny-nine, Mama?”

All the way up to “Nine-y-one! Nine-y-twoo! Nine-y-tree!”

I’m so happy one of my kids is a math-head. Chiara couldn’t care less about math when I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t crunching numbers. If there had been an Excel Etch-a-sketch. I would have had one.

Now, this doesn’t mean I was very good at math. I just really loved it. Or maybe more precisely, I was really good at math in the ordinary sense. The sense of high-school algebra and SAT geometry. But by the time I got to set theory and discrete math, I was out of my depth with regards both to skill and talent. And the deeper I got into probability theory and statistics, the more I relied on my counting on my fingers. Not a good sign for a programmer. Turns out I’m more of an addition-and-subtraction kind of girl with a soft spot for long division.

But I still like math. Sort of the way I still like baseball although I can’t play to save my life.

Chiara is not a math-head. She couldn’t care less about counting and called all currency “gold coins” until she had to make change for her book and then she became suddenly adept and counting bills. But because initially she showed such little interest, I was afraid that maybe I just didn’t make math-heads. Maybe my offspring just wasn’t wired to like numbers.

So it warmed my heart to see Michael enthusiastically counting on his fingers, declaring that our car could fit three grownups and three kids, calculating how many cookies each child could eat if there were six cookies left. It was validating.

Even when he finished counting: “Nine-y-seven, nine-y-eight, nine-y-NINE, NINE-THIRTY!”

Same love. Same limitations.

Empathy for the Mompetitor!

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In the most ideal of worlds, I would be able to completely rise above the mompetitions and still feel sisterly toward their participants without any hint of derision or condescension. 

But let’s be honest. They still irk me. However, this post does help.

The competitor of all competitors, the “Mompetitor” is that mother who engages you through a series of questions about your child. And then she one-ups you with the stories of her child’s precocious development. If your baby said his first word at eleven months, hers spoke at nine months. If your daughter was potty-trained by twenty months, hers trained herself at fifteen. If your kid performed at Lincoln Center at age twelve, her kid played Carnegie Hall at age ten.

I’ve met Mompetitors at the park and at the grocery store, but I didn’t expect to meet one in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit during the twins’ hospital stay. However, rather than brag about how her baby was bigger, better, and stronger than mine, this Mompetitor made it a point to emphasize how her baby was sicker and weaker. How many days were we in the hospital? (Ninety.) Her baby was in the hospital longer. How many surgeries did my babies have? (One each.) Hers had more. How many infections? How many blood transfusions? And so on. As if her situation were more serious than mine and therefore warranted more attention.

I found the Mompetitor to be irritating and annoying. Worst of all, I couldn’t shake the notion that really my babies were sicker and weaker. All of a sudden I was sucked into the “mompetition” and the only way I knew how to handle the situation was to walk the other way when I saw her. I could label and validate my feelings of irritation and annoyance, but it didn’t make them go away. And labeling and validating the Mompetitor’s feelings of superiority just made me more irritated and annoyed.

So here’s what I did about it.

Gratitude

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I’m a huge fan of gratitude. So much so that I edited an online gratitude journal for the Greater Good Science Center for the better part of two years. (The journal has now morphed into this cool research project.)

Here’s the original NICU gratitude post:

The nurses at the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley knew who I was before I’d even stepped onto the floor. Not because my boys were born at just 25 weeks’ gestation and were the youngest in the NICU. Not because, at 1 pound 12 ounces and 1 pound 9 ounces, my twins were the smallest in the NICU. The nurses in the NICU knew me because of our Aunt Rita.

“Tell your Aunt Rita ‘thank you’ from us,” nurses said to me, over and over as they stopped me in the hall or came by the twins’ hospital room. “What a wonderful person!”

Aunt Rita remembers birthdays and sends thoughtful gifts for no particular reason. She and her husband host a family reunion every summer at their home in the Midwest. know that she’s wonderful and fabulous but I couldn’t figure out how these Berkeley nurses knew that, too.

For the first month of the twins’ lives, they were in such critical condition, that each boy had a nurse standing at his bed side around the clock. The nurses showed me how to take my sons’ temperature (which had to be done every four hours), change their diapers (which were smaller than an iPhone) and touch them without over-stimulating their tiny underdeveloped nervous systems (with one hand resting firmly on the top of the head and the other hand firmly on the soles of their feet—no pats, no strokes, no light brushes).

These were the kind of details I posted in our private blog for family and friends. The day the boys were born I’d recounted brief details of the birth. When Aunt Rita saw the post, she sent a huge edible bouquet to the staff at the NICU. There were stems made of carrot and celery sticks and flower blossoms carved out of pineapples.

“Thank you to the doctors and nurses who are taking care of my nephews,” the card read.

“That bouquet was eaten in about twenty minutes,” one of nurses told me. “Even the kale.”

The metaphors for gratitude belong to a family of “moral accounting” metaphors. We say

we have debt of gratitude or that we pay our thanks. We say, “I owe him a thank-you.” Appreciation is earned. (Incidentally, many of the same metaphors are used for forgiveness: “Iowe him an apology.”) Moral accounting metaphors are often subconsciously used in bribe and reward reasoning, and ideas about sacrifice, guilt, punishment, and judgment of others. Gratitude researcher Robert Emmons would have said that Rita’s thank-you was freely given (one of the kinds of gratitude that makes us feel the happiest, for both the “thanker” and those who are thanked).

Wait, there’s more! It’s all here.