Ten years ago today my mama left this earth. I wish I could say she left in a space ship or an airplane to take a ride and come back later but, no, she left permanently.

I know she is pretty mad about not being here. She loved life.

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I learned a lot from my mom. I learned how to be a mom from my mom. I learned it was all right to make mistakes as long as you learned from them. I learned how to dress and put on make-up and to make sure my hair never looked a mess. Mama was very stylish. She had a keen eye for bargains and she also knew how to sew. One of my favorite memories is going to the fabric store. While Mama poured over the Butterick, Vogue and Simplicity pattern books I would walk the aisles with rows and rows of fabric. The colors and patterns caught my eyes and I loved stroking the silks, the textured corduroy, the soft felt. Much of it was tacky but Mama could find the right pattern and the right fabric and accessories and put together a sharp looking outfit for herself or a sweet dress for Traci and me. We were six years apart so often she would use the same fabric but make a different dress.

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I loved watching the ladies behind the counter open the bolts and the fabric would spill over the side and then came the click of the scissors scraping off a yard or a yard and a half. Then we would make our way to the accessories area and pick out buttons, zippers, snaps – I love the snap machine! It was like a hole-puncher but you punched a snap onto the fabric. One year for Easter Mama made her and me a plaid pastel pantsuit. I loved matching Mama. It was in shades of yellow and gray with a trace of pink and the jackets closed with mother-of-pearl snaps. We layered lemon tank tops under the jackets.

Mama was always terrible at good-byes. The conversations always lingered. It would drive Rob crazy every time we drove the twelve or more hours to North Carolina and the morning we were packing to leave Mama would run into the house after a week long visit and come running out with a box or shopping bag full of stuff saying “I meant to go through this with you.” It might be a bunch of photographs or letters or some trinkets from my childhood. Something sure to engage me, distract me from leaving, from the goodbye.

When I found out Mama had lung cancer my heart cracked. I knew lung cancer was bad. That summer I made a few weekend trips alone and one week long trip with Phoebe and Chloe. Through it all Mama always stayed positive. She was determined to fight that cancer. She got mad if anyone spoke negatively about her survival.

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That last visit I remember looking across the living room at her and I knew she didn’t look good. It scared me. She was in Daddy’s leather recliner, asleep, with her head cocked back, the oxygen tubes forming a nearly visible mustache, which blended with her gray skin. She looked old. I fooled myself into thinking she looked this way from the chemo – which she barely had as she could not tolerate it.

That weekend Traci and I took Mama to Cato so that she could by her sister Rita something for her birthday. She chose Cato because it was close by – the mall would never have worked. We had to push Mama in a wheelchair with her oxygen tank on her lap. Traci and I were mostly quiet, listening to Mama’s frustrated directions. She chose a colorful blouse and a pretty grass green jacket. Across the crowded discount store Mama spotted a display of hats. Dragging clothes off the racks we pushed her chair to the hats. Mama considered a fuschia fedora for herself for when the chemo kicked in and she would go bald.

Earlier that summer Phoebe, Chloe and I had shopped in a vintage clothing store and bought Mama four colorful silk scarves for when her hair fell out. I remember the owner of the store being annoyed with the girls as they helped pick out the scarves. Chloe’s little hands touching the silk – that girl loved the feel of silk more than anything. At the age of one she took a silky pajama shirt of mine and cuddled it and always held onto “shirt-shirt” while she nursed. This collection of silk scarves was nearly nirvana to her and she contained herself like a true lady yet this hag gave her the eye of death. I have never given her my business again.

That last visit Mama had me pack up a sweater she had bought from the J. Jill catalog. It was her style exactly. She said she didn’t really need it, that she didn’t really like it that much. I sent it back. That same day we organized all of her insurance papers. Mama also gave me a floppy disc with a few of her short plays that I still have not had it in me to open up.

The day before I was heading back to New York, October 1, I asked Mama about Thanksgiving and Christmas. She said “you have Thanksgiving in New York, I won’t be feeling well from the chemo and then Dad and I will come to New York for Christmas.” I was so happy to have a plan for those holidays especially because I did not know what to expect. Mama died October 19, a Tuesday.

The Sunday before Mama died, Dad called to say Mama was not doing well and the doctor gave her about 10 days to two weeks. I talked to my brother, Mike. We agreed to fly to North Carolina on the same day – he from Boston, me from New York and we would drive together from the airport.

Rob arranged for his mom to come help with the girls. She came in on Tuesday. I felt raw. Tuesday, early in the day, Dad called to say Mama wasn’t doing well. I told him to tell her I love her and I didn’t want her to be in pain and if she needed to go that was fine with fine with me. That night Dad called, I answered and his words were, “ Leigh Anne, Mama’s gone.” I screamed and threw the phone. Mary picked up the phone as I lay on the floor wailing.

I traveled alone Wednesday morning. I was grumpy, agitated. The lines at the airport were long. I had checked in and asked the ticket agent about an open-ended ticket. I had to say out loud “My mom died yesterday.” It was busy and another agent was trying to board a wedding party. She went to my agent and tried to speed her up or cut the line. My lovely agent quietly pointed at the screen – the other agent looked at me and moved on, less frantic.

As I waited to remove my boots and go through security a big, blond southern Christian lady with a loud sweater, looked at me and nearly sang, “It looks like there is goin’ to be a weddin’.” There was a group of young women all carrying white dress bags. “Yes,” I replied. “Are you in a hurry? Are you from New York?” she drawled.

I looked directly at her mascaraed blue eyes and I said “My mama died last night,” as I fell into her big colorful bossom. She hugged me just right. We got through security. She was sitting in one of the chain restaurants. “Do you want some breakfast?” she sang. I thanked her and told her I was going to sit by my gate with a cup of tea.

Many things happened on that trip: planning a funeral, buying a blouse for Mama to wear in the casket, choosing a casket, choosing flowers, buying appropriate clothes for my girls to wear, writing an obituary.

Dad, Mike, Traci and I had to choose flowers for her casket. We went with red as it is elegant and because she was a Red Hat. There were these beautiful tiny red orchids – I knew Mama would have loved them. The florist sucked in her breathe – I imagine she is used to sad people – she said she did not think she would be able to get them. We were in no position to put up a fight. We accepted her statement and chose an alternative.

Traci was with Mama when she died. Traci insisted that she do Mama’s hair and make-up – none of that over the top mortician makeup. She wanted me to help her. When I woke up the next day, knowing that I had to go help Traci decorate our dead mother I cried to Daddy, “ I can write a eulogy, I can give a eulogy but I cannot dress my dead mother.”

We got through the wake. The morning of the funeral came. I wore black slacks and a black kimono style blouse splashed with bright flowers. At the funeral home Daddy takes me by the arm and says “Come on, Leigh Anne, it’s time to say goodbye to Mama.” I couldn’t believe how strong he was through all of this and he knew exactly what to do and when to do it.

I nearly collapsed in his arms as he brought me for my final goodbye. Mama taught me how to do almost everything but she did not teach me how to say goodbye to your mama. Her mama, my grandmother is still alive.

I kneeled down at the casket and I touched her hand. I did not like the cold, lifeless feel of her hand so I pulled my hand back and looked at my beautiful mom with all of her hair. She never had much chemo in the end. She was wearing an emerald silk blouse under her black pants suit. Her nails were painted red to cover the ashen color they had become.

I told her she had done such a wonderful job with us kids that we would be ok, we would miss her terribly, but we would be ok. And I told her how jealous all of my friends were because she was my mom and not theirs and that she was the best mom in the world. I had to teach myself how to say good-bye.

Her casket had the lovely red, baby orchids.

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Change and Magic

June 26, 2014

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Yesterday was my birthday. Today was the last day of school for NYC Public School children. This weekend all three of my children will begin their summer at camp in the Berkshires and Rob and I will be alone for four weeks.

My oldest child has one year of college under her belt. My second child will be researching high schools in the fall. My youngest will begin fourth grade.

This summer many friends are leaving New York. They are going to Portugal, Massachusetts, Portland (both East and West) Israel, and Phoenix. The list goes on.

Change is hard. I have trouble with change. I have a hard time packing. I am challenged to move things around like furniture and art on my walls. I am a creature of habit.

But I also have change envy. I am envious of all those friends starting out on new adventures. I feel a little left behind.

Working with breastfeeding moms and babies I get to relive those early challenges of motherhood, the dramatic changes in the body and the heart. As someone who advises about weaning I get to relive the emotions of that milestone.

I was talking to Finn on the way to school this morning and he told me he wishes he could perform magic. The first thing I imagined I would do if I was magic would be to bring back my mother. This year in October it will be ten years since she died.

If I was magic . . .

Oh, the possibilities.

For now, I will remain in New York. I will continue to mother my children through all of the changes they experience. I will nurture my relationship with Rob. And I shall seek change that is positive. I will embrace each day, each challenge, each wrinkle and gray hair.

You see, this is about getting older. Yesterday was my 49th birthday and I am thinking deeply about 50. It is such a milestone. When I was a kid I used to imagine a grownup being 35 years old. I am past that quite a bit. I have to consider what this means.

I walk down the street and I look at other women. I try to figure out how old they are. I try to analyze their state of mind. I try to figure out if they are happy and healthy.

I will take in this final year of my forties. I am happy and I am healthy. And I know deep down I do possess some magic!

I often play a game with myself to protect my children from potential angry outbursts from their mother – these outbursts are not unprovoked – no one can push your buttons like your offspring but it is my responsibility, my job, to model appropriate behavior. However, I am only human so I must enable strategies to guide my babies into functioning adults.

The game is that I pretend that I am the subject of a documentary or television show and I am supposed to demonstrate good parenting. Maybe this comes from being a Southerner who gives a damn what others think – though this aspect of my psyche is fading with my youth – but this idea had to spring from somewhere.

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My children are growing (and so is my body) so I am finding less of a need to “act” like a decent mother. Or perhaps I acted like it so much that as a Method actor I became the Decent Mother!

 

 

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I have had a new epiphany. You see, I noticed back at Thanksgiving that I was bursting out of my clothes as I gobbled up turkey and gravy and pecan pie and this wine and that cocktail and this cheese and that Pernil.

 

 

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Something had to give besides my seams. So, I joined Weight Watchers in early December.

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It is now June and I am within five pounds of my starting weight. I could celebrate a pound a month but at this rate I may be retired before I hit goal. In December my membership was truly a preemptive act to avoid more weight gain – let me hold steady through the holidays then come January I will slim down. Ha!

I know how to do this as I am a Lifetime Weight Watchers Member but the last time I lost any weight on the program I was nursing a baby into toddlerhood and let him suck the calories right out of me. I don’t know how large the wet nurse market is and I do not need another baby!

 

 

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So, today I decided that I would use my parenting strategies in my weight loss journey. I will pretend that Weight Watchers has a film crew following me around and I am the epitome of the model Weight Watchers Member. I will make smart choices. I will choose smaller portions, more nutrient dense, high fiber foods. I will eschew my beloved gluten free brownies. When I make my children buttery eggs in a hole I will eat a boiled egg and a half a grapefruit. I will leave morsels behind on my plate. I will choose mangos over cookies.Image

 

I will be the envy of those humans bursting at their seams as I begin to swim in my clothes.

Weight Watchers will make me their new spokes person and I will be voted Mother of the Year!

 

 

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I have seen the documentary Breastmilk twice.

The first time around I was happy to see the diversity of the subjects, the inclusion of gay families and the normalization of milk sharing.

 

I came away knowing that Dana Ben-Ari is a true documentarian in that the viewer is brought into the scenes unobtrusively. We observed real life situations and outcomes.

The second time around I was sitting next to woman who nursed her child a decade earlier. She squirmed in her seat and whispered to me, “If I had seen this before having my son I would’ve been afraid because it seems so hard to nurse.”

 

Certain elements were left out that I believe only a seasoned eye would catch. Missing from the film: physicians trained to support breastfeeding, pre-natal education, support for the mom and baby and extended work leave. Were with these elements missing from the film because they are missing in real life?

 

There were a handful of subjects followed from pregnancy through the first birthday of the baby. In the end only one of those babies was nursing.

 

The moms who experienced premature weaning talked extensively about how was “really okay”, that “the doctors were right”, they “had their baby’s health in their best interest” and “thanked goodness that their baby was healthy.” What I saw behind those words was grief, defeat and lots of justification for their unplanned weaning.

 

The producers, Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein, say the outcomes of the subjects of their film align statistically in the United States with breastfeeding rates.

I believe documentaries are made not only to show real life but to affect a change or to educate or to inform.

 

There were experts talking about the cultural anthropological aspects of breast-feeding in the Western world but there was no real information on how to make breast-feeding easier or even pointing out what got in the way. We did see a bit on how our culture gets in the way: the boyfriend who not wanting to be patient as his baby nursed, the nurse not wanting to be patient as the parents wanted to baby to self attach, the moms who had to go to work and could not keep up making milk. Once again women, these new mothers, are at the mercy of the system, a system that does not support women or children.

 

In my documentary I would show women all of the world breastfeeding. I would show statistics on breastfeeding rates in different countries. I would show how birth practices impact breastfeeding, how working outside of the home impacts breastfeeding, how education and lack of education affect breastfeeding.

 

But I am not a filmmaker. I am a lactation consultant, a La Leche League Leader, a mom, a friend. I am working in the field daily to support mothers and babies one by one.

 

The longer I work in this field the more obstacles I see. What do you think? How do you see breastfeeding? Do you see it as easy? Do you see it as a privilege? Do you see it as impossible? How does a baby see breastfeeding? What if we asked babies? Would that change our outcomes? Would that change our culture?

 

 

Feeding for the Future

February 9, 2014

Breastfeeding. It is a loaded word. It is powerful. Every piece of evidence says we should be doing it. Makes sense – we are mammals – what are breasts but mammary glands?

So why is it such a challenge? Why is it so loaded? My theory is that it is an integral part of mothering. Mothering is so complex, yet so simple.

In New York, in this newish millennium, life is complex – so many choices, so many options, so many acceptable variations on “the norm.” What is the norm? Who knows anymore?

For many years breastfeeding was considered special, exceptional. Well guess what? It isn’t – simply put, breastfeeding is normal. That’s all – normal. Of course, anyone who has breastfed will tell you that they feel special, exceptional. Well, being a mother is special, exceptional and normal. Procreation has kept the human race going. Well, breastfeeding has also kept the human race going. Mothering and breastfeeding go hand in hand.

So, what happened? Breastfeeding was replaced as was much of our nutrition and where has that gotten us? Going back to whole foods, sustainability.  We are shopping for organic foods, preparing fresh meals. What about those of us who don’t know how to cook, who don’t have time to cook, who choose not to cook? Do we go hungry? No, we go out! The trend in restaurants is to offer fare that is seasonal and locally grown.  It is green, good for the environment. The people have spoken and we want our health back.

Many mothers truly need to work to support their family. Many mothers are very fulfilled by their jobs outside of mothering and make a commitment to the balancing act of mothering, working, taking care of herself. The babies of these mothers want and deserve proper nutrition.

Babies can’t speak so obviously. Those of you with babies know better. They want their milk and they want what is theirs.  What about the moms who don’t have enough milk, don’t want to breastfeed, have to work and don’t have access to quality pumps, or pumping breaks? Shouldn’t these babies still get human milk? These babies deserve access to appropriate nutrition, their mothers deserve informed choice and these babies deserve access to banked human milk.  The people need to speak out on behalf of our future. There is nothing more sustainable or greener than breastfeeding.

How can we make this happen? Create a need – if you are pregnant tell your health care providers that you will be breastfeeding and you want to know how they will support you and your baby.  Talk to nursing moms, attend a La Leche League Meeting, take a breastfeeding class. If you are nursing, share your joys and challenges. Avoid nursing in the closet. If breastfeeding is not going well, surround yourself with support, seek help from an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, tell your health care providers and pediatrician.

Mothers need support. Let us support one another in our mothering.  Sometimes we make different choices from our peers.  Sometimes choices are made for us.  Mothering is about the future – our babies are the future. Let us celebrate the next generation and work toward a healthier future for our children.Image

Love Lines and Body Love

February 9, 2014

My body is the only body I have, the only body I will ever have. It is where I live. My body is where I grew my babies, first inside then outside. I grew them with my breasts, my hugs. I lugged them around on my hips. I am happy to have these soft hips to balance a baby and my soft bosom to catch hugs. If you look closely at my hips and my breasts, if you catch the light just right you will see a light pattern, a texture, almost silvery, once purple but softly faded lines. Some people call them stretch marks I prefer love lines.

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Love created my babies. Rob’s loving hands caress my body. I love the feeling of skin on skin.

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I once held fantasies of having a perfectly toned body, a model size body but I don’t naturally have that body type and life is too much fun to work that hard for an elusive dream.

I had warts as a kid. Mama used to have me take an old silver spoon, rub it on the warts in a circular motion and toss the spoon behind me into the woods. This was supposed to disappear the warts. I was warned to never search for the spoon because if I ever found it the warts would grow back. The spoon trick never worked. Mama said I didn’t believe hard enough.

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When I was fifteen I had thirteen warts on my left knee. The doctor numbed up the middle of my leg and I lay back. I saw a miniature melon-baller in his hand and moments later I felt warm syrup dripping down my ankle. He scooped out those warts and red streaks of blood lined my leg and speckled the tile floor.

To this day I can see the silvery amoeba shape on my knee, particularly in summer when I catch a bit of color.

Speaking of tanning I have been cursed with a skin cancer gene. If you look closely at my chest and face you will see that they are marked up like old pair of jeans that have been reworked, stitches here and there, threadbare in some spots. I am a dermatologist’s dream. I don’t have bad cancer, just basel and squamous cells, moles, things that need to be removed here and there but are nothing lethal. I am a steady customer.

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I have plenty of moles. There is one on my left side, the part that curves in at the waist, just handy for a nursling’s little hand to migrate to and pull and pinch and finger. I had another one that he loved on my upper chest near my arm that was easy access when nursing. I complained to the dermatologist and he froze it off. The boy knew the one on my waist was bigger and softer anyway so he didn’t complain.

My daughters love my curves. They love to cuddle into me. My husband and son love hand-holding and spooning.

The chorus of love I hear is: “Let’s cuddle.” “Spoon me.” “I need a hug.”

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Legs tangle together on the sofa. We are a network of limbs, touching, embracing, kicking. My family is connected physically and emotionally. I feel like we sprang from my marked and curvy body.

The Myth of the Perfect Mom

December 30, 2013

We moms sure are sold a load of crap! All the images of mothers are glorified and sterilized and glamorized.Image

I am not talking about Giselle. We know she is glamorous and we also know she has a team that makes her look that way.

What about the rest of us, those of us in the trenches of motherhood? Why do we think we have to achieve some unattainable goal as high priestess of motherhood?

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Once in a while I may get what many would call a compliment – and frankly, I let my ego suck it all in for a while and I may hear, “Oh, Leigh Anne, you are an amazing mom!” or “You are a perfect mom!” If this comes from one of my children I will take it and toll around in it for days, even years because I know that it will be followed by some balancing statement like “I hate you, you are the worst mother ever!” And that will be followed by a hug or a request for mommy time. It is all in the job description.

Please, please, please do not throw that horrible label of PERFECT on me. I am imperfect and I embrace that.

But look at advertising for new parents and you see styled and glamorized images.

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What do we really look like after a new baby.

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This is me after my first baby was about two days old – see the look of bewilderment in my eyes? 

Most new moms are in a bit of shock. I hear repeatedly “No one ever told me . . . .”

We hide babies, we hide our breasts, we keep quiet about the dark side of parenting.

I wonder if the dark side would be so dark if people talked about it.

Did you know that breastfeeding in the beginning is very time consuming?

Did you know that newborn babies are not typically chubby?

Did you know that you can bleed from your vagina for days and weeks?

Did you know that sometimes you will pass a clump of blood?

Did you know that you may feel angry that you have a baby – not all of the time but some of the time?

Did you know that you would be riding an emotional rollercoaster?

Did you know that sometimes you will plan to take a shower in the morning and the next thing you know it is 7:30pm and you still have spit up and baby shit on you and you have only eaten stale leftover cake that wasn’t even home baked in a flavor you don’t even like?

Did you know that in all of that mess you will look into the eyes of your baby and feel a deep, confusing kind of love? A new protective kind of love?

Did you know that your baby doesn’t give a damn about your hair?

Did you know that your baby just wants to get to know you? He knows you from growing inside you but now that the courtship is settling in he wants to really get to know you. And he wants you to know him. Did you know that some moms fall in love immediately while others take time.

I think we all want to put on a good face when we go out with our babies. We feel a sense of accomplishment from just having gotten dressed and out of the house. Maybe we feel like we are failing so we have to put on a show and say all the right things. The problem is that other new moms believe what you say. Then other new moms compare themselves to you. Or maybe you are comparing yourself to the woman who says “childbirth was a breeze, my baby latched right on and has grown beautifully, she sleeps through the night and her poop doesn’t smell, also, my husband is a saint, he cooks every night and bought me this gold chain with my baby’s birthstone and a tiny haiku he wrote inscribed. He waits patiently for me to want to get intimate and my belly just seemed to pop right back into place.”

I play a game with myself. When I am feeling the stress of parenting and I really do not want to yell at my kids again or I do not want to scream at them in public, I pretend I am the subject of a documentary on parenting. I want to be prime example of keeping my cool. I stop and think: “what would be a productive action to take here.” I often fail at this game but sometimes I succeed. When I succeed I am setting an example for my children and possibly for other parents. But, I am not perfect, dammit!

One of the best gifts my mother gave me was the gift of imperfection. She let me see her flaws. I was not blinded by a sense of glamour and always being right. This was great because it made her accessible and it took the pressure off of me to not be a perfect mom. Don’t get me wrong – I do have my moments of genius. Mostly I am ordinary but to my children I am MOM.

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