Time for one’s self

Mama enjoying a morning off

Trying to be an on-top-of-it person, I had the nerve to respond to an email yesterday. In the two minutes I gave it, baby A snatched a pen and scribbled all over a white chair for the second time this week. The first time it happened, I was wiping up food she’d thrown on the floor as a diversion.

This combines well with the fact that I recently diagnosed my 12-year-old dog with depression. I can’t say I don’t understand it: Two years ago I went from his best friend to the person who hurls food at him twice daily and otherwise yells at him to Go outside! Come inside! Stop eating the baby’s food! Get over here and eat the baby’s food! Yeah, I pretty much yelled at him for the past two years while I cared for my late-larval-stage human.

The dog is now on a strict regimen of no being-yelled-at, having his head patted each time I walk by, kibble set lovingly before him, and one full-body hug daily. It seems to be working.

In helping my dog I realized that the only way to avoid such scenarios is to be infinitely available to my family forever. I made it until 5 p.m., but as soon as my husband came home I ran screaming out of the house.

The scribbled chair, the doggie depression, all of my failings come down to one issue: I need some time for myself. People do. That need doesn’t disappear when one becomes a mother.

It’s like I tell my husband – If you are doing something autonomous that makes sense, then I am not.

“Doing anything for our selves feels like selfishness,” says my friend T, “but it is actually more like self-preservation.”

My main scarcities are two-fold: 1) professional opportunity and 2) “wellness,” which includes sleep, nutritious food, yoga, and outdoor adventure. A person needs to go for a walk once in a while without also extolling the virtues of mittens. Maybe if I just get up at 5:30 in the morning…

Writing is my proxy for professional effort. It is something I do during every nap time whether it lasts 15 minutes or three hours. It is something I can do while solo parenting or following my husband around as he commutes between towns. It is something I can do even though A does not yet tolerate child care. Without this time, my day is reduced to wiping things.

I squish writing into the interstitial spaces of the day, which is why I have pulled over to work on this post at the side of the road at the edge of cell phone service. Baby A sits in her carseat in the back. ‘Wheels on the bus’ plays on the car stereo on repeat. I will stay here until she bellows.

Here is the one benefit of parenting as it applies to any art form: When the spare time you have asymptotically approaches zero, everything superfluous is stripped away and what you have left is exactly enough time for the one thing you most need.

I need time away from parenting – to work, be creative, and exercise – for my sense of self worth, but also because it makes me a better parent. When I get it I am kinder and more patient with my child, and I have more fun with her throughout the day. And yes, the husband and dog benefit as well.

Well, another writing day achieves lift off. Now all I have to do is find someone to jump my car 🙄.

Letter to Ali Wong

Some days I just need a good laugh. If you are a parent (or a woman…or a human…) who has not yet seen Ali Wong’s Netflix specials, Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife, you probably should. These “momedies” tell what it’s really like to have a baby in your life. They are a little bit over-the-top raunchy, but then again so is motherhood.

Here is the letter I wrote Ali Wong in my head after I saw her shows. It comes off a little bit like a letter to Dear Abby:

Dear Ali – My husband is well-intentioned, but since I had a baby he always says the wrong thing about my body.

I once made the mistake of cupping my breast up to its old height and letting it fall in front of him. “Once these were round,” I said. Now, they’re U-shaped.”

“Are those ever going to go back?” He asked.

“No, darling,” I said. “Those are never going back.”

My husband recently googled something like, Why does a woman lose her sex drive post-partum? He told me that there are four reasons:

1. She is exhausted.

2. She doesn’t feel sexy or she is self-conscious about her body.

3. A baby has been climbing on her all day; she does not want you to climb on her.

4. She has no time for herself, so she has many other things she wants to do besides you with her precious sleeping-baby minutes.

My empathetic husband relayed these results to me in all seriousness. It’s ok honey. This is just something women go through.

Yeah, I told him. No shit.

I am 100% certain that all of these “results” have been relayed to my husband in the past year via my words. In his defense, my comments sounded more like:

1. “I’m just really tired.”

2. “I just want to keep my clothes on.”

3. “I just nursed the baby for an hour.”

4. “I just want to read my book.”

I try to say how I feel, but clearly there is room for improvement because he has no recollection of the aforementioned conversations. Maybe I stuttered. Maybe I spoke when I should have replied in print.

Or maybe my husband is just male.

Thank you, Google, for speaking his language.

My husband’s heart is in the right place. He not only wants to have more sex, he also wants me to enjoy sex again. I can tell he’s taking the post-partum libido issue seriously because I see him trying to help. He’s been giving me more breaks from parenting, and he’s started to help with the bedtime routine. And just the other day he turned to me, that old thoughtful look in his eye, and said –

“You know; if you ever wanted a tummy tuck, I’d pay for it.”


Nature baby

On Monday I climbed Mt Juneau with an old dog and a baby on my back. It was important that I do this, here’s why: For 11.5 years I have lived in Alaskan places where there was little to no hiking. Also, there were no stoplights in these towns, so invite me on your road trips please, but don’t expect me to drive.

Trails are a strangely urban phenomenon; a town has to have a lot of people around to generate demand and afford them. So, tiny Alaska = no trails = very little time in the high alpine. I’m not in great shape.

Even in Juneau (tons of trails), it’s hard to raise a nature baby. Looking at microfeatures, through the eyes of a 3 foot human, there is very little flat ground unless it’s covered in gravel, aka choking hazards. A steep hike might take you up a 30 degree slope, but even a flattish trail is usually narrow with that type of edge. Babies must be carried, almost all of the time.

This brings me to Mt Juneau, basically the steepest place in town. The push was motivated by this image: At the top, a wide, rolling, expanse of tundra would greet my tired body. I would lie in the shade behind a rock outcrop admiring the heathers, while baby A toddled safely around on the tundra. Talus dog would swim in a nearby snowmelt pond just far enough away not to attract the baby.

At the top, I thought, I could finally put her down and let her walk. It would feel so good, and it would be so much fun, that I wouldn’t want to leave. We would do the whole ridgeline – once my favorite hike in Juneau – casually spending the day in the high alpine, skipping down the ridge hand-in-hand-in-paw.

The hike up was hard, but I loved it. It smelled like dirt and ferns, and there were lots of hot switchbacks. Did I mention it was 75 degrees F this day? It took three hours up, twice as long as I’d anticipated, but no matter – the day was ours. That my climb was a quest for flat, baby-proof ground was not entirely conscious.

I saw two mountain goats and a tiny least weasel, who I found because I stopped for one of my many breaks near its hidy hole. “Too close!” It chirped. “Too close!”

We had a great day. The summit, however, was no place for a toddler. The ululating ground was covered in shale broken into jagged, spear top-like points. The ridge looked like a knife edge, and some of it was still snow covered. Thanks for nothing 20-something-super-fit-bad-memory-brain.

I took off baby A’s sweat-drenched clothes (my sweat) and fed and changed her while Talus lay in a lingering patch of snow. Then I ate everything I’d brought for the long ridge day: two sandwiches, cashews, protein bar, fig bars. If I let go of A for an instant she would roll down slope (micro-slope) or find some broken glass. Neat. Then I realized I had no energy for the trek down, and started down.

I couldn’t help but think about how many things in life do not turn out how I thought they would be.

Take parenting: Before I had A, I imagined her immobile babyhood lasting until she could cut hearts out of construction paper. I pictured her eating homemade veggie-based baby foods and sleeping soundly, in a crib, possibly in her own room down the hall.

Instead, I have a one-year-old, sprouting teeth rapid fire and growing as tall as the cowparsnip under a midnight sun, who sleeps in my bed. Last night she kicked me in the face twice. My child’s main food groups are cottage cheese and avocado, and she otherwise takes veggies only in those ready-made squeeze pouches. The more time I spend preparing baby foods the more she hates them.

Back at Mt Juneau, Talus struggled from the top. He was tired, hot, sore, and before long dramatically bleeding from two places. It made me want to cry that I brought him up there. I’m retiring him from climbing mountains. The first climb for A turned out to be the last for Talus.

Then I developed a cold sweat with vertigo and nausea and other fun symptoms of heat exhaustion. I thought about asking for help, there were lots of people passing by, but I couldn’t think of what to say – “I’m struggling.” “I don’t feel well.” I had to walk down, one way or another, so what was the point in making a fuss? They were all so supportive like, “Yeah! Great job mama!” And, “You’re so awesome!” That’s what I would have said to me too.

The only saving grace was that baby A was awesome. I told her all the way down how she was helping her mom, and when we got home I let her taste my chocolate ice cream.

So, there’s the dreaming and then there’s the doing. They’re different. The dreaming keeps us going, moving on toward new ambitions and adventures, making sure that we don’t get too comfortable or stagnate. The doing puts money where our mouth is, makes sure we walk our talk, prevents us from drowning in a life of unrealized dreams.

But the dreaming is quite often more fun than the doing.

This idea got me through doing life in the sub-Arctic and countless days where hammocks and palm trees turned into hot bus rides down nauseating mountainsides.

The late, great Fred Bull called this Type II fun. It isn’t actually fun while you’re in it, but when it’s all over you’re glad you were there, and glad it didn’t happen any other way. Because if we don’t press right up against that edge where struggle brings pain, then what’s the point of being alive? Try harder, feel deeper, and do more, even if it’s not always exactly fun, and life will be full of riches. Just don’t sunburn the baby.

Body after baby

Somewhere around Thanksgiving (the day after?) I looked down at my body and was done. My baby was almost 7 months old, and I was ready for an athletic shape again.

My pregnancy expansion was impressive. People from my hometown used, “Wow! You’re enormous!” as a conversation starter. One person said to me, “At five months you looked like you were about to pop out twins!”

I gained 45 lbs in pregnancy. The next year I lost 60 lbs, including this lump of sugar:

Now I’m basically back where I was pre-baby. Phew.

This is the first time I’ve ever tried to lose weight and succeeded. I was surprised it took as long as it did, but now that it’s over I don’t mind the wait. Here are twelve things I learned in the process:

1. Calories count. Get an app that counts calories – enter your weight and weight loss goal and it will calculate your available calories per day. I used Lose It, the free version, and I liked it. The least I can do is give them a plug. One criticism: the fewer the calories you eat in a day, the more Lose It celebrates you. I got the flu and kept nothing down for two days. Great job! Said this app. If you starve yourself, you’ll lose 20 lbs this week! No thanks. But a calorie counter was crucial.

2. Days, not pounds. They say it takes 60 days to form a habit. I stuck with these weight loss ideas for 60 days, which felt doable and protected my mindset against inevitable plateaus. It did’t hurt that I booked a trip to Hawaii at the end of that window. I took my two-week vacation off and did the calorie counting for another 60 days when I got home. Surprise: I continue to eat well, sans calorie counter, and I might still be losing a little weight without trying. Nice habit.

3. Exercise. A great way to buy a few more calories. I increased my daily walk from 1 hour (160 calories burned) to 1.5 hours (240 calories burned). I also got a 300-calorie credit for breastfeeding.

4. Binge on protein & vegetables. Many nutrition guidelines suggest 1/3 of your daily calories come from protein, but this is actually sort of hard to do. For me, that meant eating over 100 g of protein each day. A change in emphasis from food restriction (don’t eat that!) to intentional protein consumption (add some walnuts!) was a huge help to me in this project. Meat and eggs. Protein shake. Cottage cheese, goat cheese, and greek yogurt every day. Yum.

5. Cut the carbs & the crap. Focus on the nutritional value of food! Carbohydrates do a poor job of filling the belly and don’t last long enough to be worth the calories. I ate/enjoyed them only if they were important in getting food to my mouth (ie. tortilla) or if a food came from the “makes life worth living” treat category (ie. homemade bread Mmmmm.) 

A big problem for me is being under prepared, so when I’m starving all of a sudden at 1 pm (nope, didn’t see that coming), I eat whatever’s fast and easy, ie. simple carbs. The more of these empty carbs I eat the more I crave them. A big part of my revolution has been in spending time cooking everyday so that I have healthy food at the ready.

Here is the “no” list: No carb-based snacks. No chips, no crackers, no cereal, no toast unless it’s the weekend and you’re choosing to break this rule. Sorry. Also take vitamins! Drink water! 3L/day! OK!

6. Go halvsies on flavor foods. Little things make a big difference. As far as I can tell, my weight gain or loss depends on a small margin of error – maybe 300 calories a day. I didn’t skimp on nutritious food, but I cut these taste-based items in half: milk/cream, butter, peanut butter, salad dressing, bananas, & carb vehicles.

7. No refined sugar, no alcohol, no caffeine*. My “no” list is probably unpopular here, but keep reading to #8-10! This point was intended to address my adrenal fatigue symptoms: swollen thyroid, red eyes at night, insomnia… It also helped the weight loss project though and I felt better for it. (*Full disclosure, I drank caffeine almost every day but took my latte to half-caf. I also ate dark chocolate.)

8. Upgrade from a snack to a meal. When I’m hungry I’m not granola-bar hungry. I basically ate five meals a day (no, not “smaller meals”), which left me without a budget for snacks. On days when I went over the calorie budget, it was the snacks that did it. With exercise I could basically have 400 calories 5x daily, or 500 calories 4x daily. Meals are the best deal for the calories.

9. Go big breakfast. The more calories I ate at breakfast, the fewer calories I consumed throughout the day. My standard: turkey, spinach, goat cheese omelet with three eggs. No toast.

10. Dairy fat, the silver lining. I’m still muddling through the cost/benefits of saturated fat, but I ate dairy fat and loved it. Fat feeds the brain and cues satiation. And it feels good, like a vice.

At one point I cut too many calories and had a headache for two days. I made halibut chowder with bacon (desperate craving!). One bowl took care of the headache and left my belly happy. Ahhh. Also, I conducted a coffee taste test (thanks dad!) with 60 calories of each 1% milk, 2% milk, and half and half to see which produced the tastiest cup – half and half won, hands down! Baby A helped by emptying the pantry while we taste-tested.

A helped the taste test by emptying the pantry

11. Be a control freak. Unspoken social pressures have a big effect on my eating, especially when sugar is concerned. I hate to turn down a cookie, even if I don’t want it, because baking is love. I hate to disappoint a baker by not eating the delicious things. And it makes people eating the cookies feel weird if I don’t partake, as if I’m rubbing my will power in their sticky faces. Noticing this, I kept “no” foods out of the house, and I spent more time alone (just being honest). I’m also working on loving people through healthy cooking.

12. Don’t eat after midnight.


Actually, don’t eat after dinner. I fasted at least 12 hours every night. This was a side-effect of parenting, because all I could do in the evening was scarf some food before A went coo-coo-bananas and needed bedtime. I never got to have seconds. This wasn’t intentional, but it is relevant.

With some effort (ok, a lot of effort) I doubled the couple of pounds I lost each month just from breastfeeding to 5-6 lbs lost each month, and I felt fairly happy and healthy en route. One day I stepped on a scale and the project had ended. It’s not that I “got my body back.” It’s a new body, but I feel good about it.

Ashtanga revival

I’ve had a colorful, lasting, love affair with yoga. It started 20 years ago when I spent several semesters waitlisted for the very popular yoga class at my college. Being denied again and again made me want in all the more (yes, this also happens in my love life). Senior year, finally admitted, I found I was bad at being still. The poses made me toot in front of people (= embarrassing), and the whole thing increased my stress instead of decreasing it. I dropped out and took an withdraw/fail on my transcript.

Yoga finally began for me in 2006 with ashtanga. I was injured at the time, and frankly a little afraid of my usual activities: hiking, kayaking, skiing, biking. My roommate took me to a class, and I loved it. Though I was physically fit, those ashtanga classes were a new kind of challenge: just a 5′ x 2.5′ space, my muscles, and a teacher’s voice. Each breath moves the body into a new posture, so there is no time to think self conscious thoughts. I got my butt kicked and I went back for more.

Ten years later I called my college boyfriend to tell him I’d become a hatha yoga instructor. “You’re kidding,” he said.

I’ve since learned to love and appreciate many yoga styles. But this winter my regular practice is pretty far gone. I did not practice yoga while pregnant or during the first six months of my daughter’s life, except the kind where you roll around on the floor breathing deeply. Sigh.

So, last Thursday I went to an Ashtanga class.

The teacher guided us into hand-on-the-big-toe pose, where you stand on one foot, grab the big toe of the other foot with two fingers, and try to straighten that leg at a 90-degree angle parallel to the floor. Then, let go of the toe. The leg is supposed to stay up; mine slid steadily down like dripping candle wax.

Then, something interesting happened.

Instead of feeling disappointed in myself, I felt overwhelmingly happy. Just to be in that studio with my foot a few inches less than level, doing this crazy thing called LIFE was enough.

Physically, I haven’t been this weak since elementary school when the mile run left me gasping, wheezing, and walking. But I kept going.

I tried a headstand and crow (the simplified versions). I was asked to wrap my leg behind my arm and over my shoulder, and I did something like that. At another moment, I threaded my arms under my legs and sat on them. Every now and then, it’s good to do something that scares you.

After a few months of ashtanga back in 2006 I did some mountain races and made my best times even though I had scarcely trained outside. But women in the mountain running community are known to make their best times after becoming mothers. For a long time, I’ve wondered why – perhaps they’ve learned to “push through” the pain? Last week’s yoga class gave me some new ideas.

Idea 1: Moms with 90 precious minutes to themselves don’t screw around. Training (without a baby on my back) rarely happens, so when it does I train hard. Precious time = focussed mind.

Idea 2: De-facto fitness no longer exists. In pregnancy, all strength is stripped from a woman’s body (one woman I know says this happens so we can’t resist the birth process). If I am ever strong again it will be because I fought tooth & nail for those muscles.

Idea 3: Babies are really inspiring. Ten months ago our daughter was born floppy (can you imagine if other animals were born like that?). But she does squats and sit-ups non-stop and now she’s almost walking. I try to do more of what she does.

Life is full of major setbacks; we get back on the horse if we want to. I’m currently lousy at yoga asanas (poses), but I wont always be. Being okay where I am means that mentally I’ve never been stronger.