Tiropita

“The Protector” by Jade Bryant. Click on the art to go to her web site to find out more about her work with Art Saves Lives International.

She handed me the Tupperware container from her fridge. We had navigated the path from her entryway to the kitchen, various art projects, mail, magazines, and Christmas decorations strewn everywhere. I stood in her kitchen, my heart pounding, wanting to be anywhere but here. I had come inside to retrieve this container full of my favorite Greek pastry for my birthday. But, it didn’t feel like my birthday. Instead, it felt as if I were a soldier, behind enemy lines, waiting for the ambush of her mental illness to strike. She handed the round, plastic, Tupperware to me, seemingly shoving it at me, as if she regretted making it and wanted me out of her house as quickly as possible. I turned and walked toward the front door, her footsteps following me through the cleared path. When I reached the door, I did the only thing I could do; I hugged her. She leaned in and reciprocated, but it felt wooden and contrived, as if she knew how to hug but didn’t know what it was for.

“I love you,” I said, not knowing if I really meant it.

“Love you, too,” she mumbled back.

And I walked out, the tiropita weighing down my arm, my mother’s borderline personality disorder weighing on my heart.

…—…

Getting pregnant with the twins was nearly impossible. Six months after giving birth to them, I decided to never again take birth control, because it gave me migraines. Instead, I would just not worry about it. It took hundreds of thousands of dollars, injections, scheduling, and medical intervention just to get pregnant. I figured my body was so defective there wasn’t any point in taking a nightly pill that served no purpose save to split my head in two every 28 days. Four days after the twins’ first birthday, a week after my period should have started, I was pregnant. All on my own. On the fifth day, I trekked to that same doctor, who made the twins’ lives possible, for a blood test. When Tyler told his mother that we had an appointment, she deduced what was going on, thanks to her nursing background. She assumed we had told everyone and when she mentioned the good news to my mom, instead of being excited, my mother was incensed. Angry and hurt at being left out of a nonexistent loop, she acted terse and short with Tyler and his mother. When she finally came to my house several hours later, I knew I was in for it when I saw her drawn expression and heard her brief answer to a simple, “How are you?”

“Fine.” Her lips were drawn and her eyes were angry.

“Well, I have news,” I said.

“Oh?” she replied, sour expression on her face.

“I’m pregnant.”

“I heard.” she responded, ice crystalizing her words.

“We weren’t going to tell anyone until the blood work came back from Dr. Nezhat.” I explained, trying to right the situation of happy news that had suddenly become a battle. “Betty figured it out and in her excitement, assumed you already knew. We wanted to tell everyone together.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.” she huffed.

“Well, I’m telling you now.” I clarified. “We wanted to tell you, Betty, Charley, the family all at the same time. I can tell that you’re angry and honestly, I’m just terrified. I’m going to have three kids under the age of two and I really need your support.”

“Well, then. You shouldn’t have gotten pregnant,” she nastily stated.

I asked her to leave my house. I wouldn’t speak to her for another month. It was when she called to tell me that she had gone to a counselor and wanted me to come to her second appointment that I finally heard from her. I was extremely sick, sad, and anxiety-ridden over her treatment of me. I was popping prescription anti-nausea medication and sitting in front of a stranger, telling this degreed woman the exact same timeline of events I had already told my mother one month before. It was when the counselor told Mom, “It seems that this was all just a big misunderstanding.” that Mom finally believed me.

She never again went to that counselor.

…—…

As I ate my birthday cupcake, she blew up at us. Tyler and I had tried to reason, cajole, and assist, but everything was stonewalled and met with accusatory glares and angry responses. I begged her to see a counselor, to try and deal with her anxiety and depression, not even mentioning the borderline personality disorder diagnosis our joint counselor had handed out five years prior. She turned to me, a wild look in her eyes, voice filled with disdain and anger, “And just how am I supposed to pay for that, Heather? With what money? I’m tired of being poor.” Her face was void of everything save hate.

She hated me, my father, her parents, Tyler, Tyler’s ability to pay for her bills, her life, her age, her situation, herself, and the world. And all of that hate was focused on me in one look.

I’ve heard of disassociation. I had never experienced it until that moment. All I remember is staring at Amelia’s self-portrait on the fireplace, trying hard to imagine the quiet, calm underwater world of the reefs of Bonaire.

I disassociated from my mother.

…—…

The day after my birthday, I drove her to her doctor appointment. It was a wet, damp day, the clouds heavy and the rain constant. Normally, I loved these days, but it was the day after my mother had, yet again, treated me as an enemy.

“I’m sorry to be such a burden.” she said, turning to me as her hand reached for the door latch, rain hitting the roof of the minivan. “After tomorrow, I’ll never be a burden to you ever again. I know you never wanted me here in Georgia.”

Finding that one dagger that could do the most damage and shoving it straight into my heart had become a particular talent of hers. She wielded that sharp weapon so often against others that whenever she used it against me, I was always surprised. Even after 20 years of personal experience with that particular blade, it still caught me unawares as it would enter my psyche and twist.

I stared at the license plate of the car parked next to us. It was a Wisconsin plate, out of place in the south. As my mind turned over her words, I tried to remember everything I knew about Wisconsin.

Cheese, Green Bay, dairy farms, Madison, badgers who were really miners and not badgers at all.

“I’ll never bother you again. You don’t want me here.”

Milwaukee is in Wisconsin. But, we moved you here.¬†Bought you a house. Given you affirmations of love. Cared for you when you’re sick. Done everything you needed, wanted, and asked for. Even when you were ugly to us, we still gave you everything, including love. Toni went to Wisconsin and brought me a cheese hat. I wish I was in Wisconsin right now.

She got out and walked inside. I knew, right then, as my anxiety hit me square in the chest, pushing the knife in even further, that we were done. Our relationship was dead.

…—…

The tiropita sat in my refrigerator for a day before I decided to eat one for a snack. I pulled one out, peeling it off the wax paper. Putting it in my mouth, I felt the gummy texture. Too late, I realized it hadn’t been baked. All of the tiropita were raw. I laughed without humor and shook my head, realizing that this food was suddenly a metaphor for my current situation. I didn’t even have a Greek cookbook to tell me how to cook it because Mom had borrowed it in order to make the cheesy pies for me. I didn’t have the energy to even want to bake any others. I threw away the half-eaten raw tiropita and put the rest back in the fridge.

They say that you can taste love in food. All I tasted was sadness.

…—…

“I need you to come over, Mom.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because, the doctor thinks I may have lupus or Sjogren’s syndrome. My inflammation levels are off the charts.” I replied.

“So?” she said, dismissively.

“Well,” I said in a rush, “If I do have either of those, the only treatment is steroids to suppress my immune system and I live with three little kids who are constantly bringing home viruses. How am I going to be their Mom if I’m constantly sick all the time? How will I protect myself?”

My joints ached so badly that I could barely walk or hold a fork. I was a mess. I had been crying all day, having multiple anxiety attacks over the sudden negative change in my life. My neighbor had already been over to calm me down, but I couldn’t continue to bother her. She had work. I needed my mother.

“Could you come over and keep me company?”

“Fine.”

When she got here, I was in my bedroom, watching shitty late-morning talk shows, resorting to Jerry Springer to take my mind off the impending doom of my health. Mom quietly sat on the bed and after a few minutes, asked, “Do you have anything to eat?”

“Um,” I looked at her, disbelieving. I was barely able to make my way to the bathroom. Now I was supposed to feed her? “Feel free to raid the fridge.”

She went downstairs, rummaged around, and returned a short while later. “You don’t have anything here. I’m going out to get lunch.”

No offer to bring me anything. No calming words. No hugs. No nothing. She just left.

Turns out I had a common childhood virus that eventually went away, leaving my hands weak and my joints more susceptible to arthritis.

“Why didn’t you stay that day I asked you to come by?”

“Well,” she said, “you were just sitting there watching TV.”

The childhood virus eventually went away, but the memory of my mother incapable of being there for me didn’t.

…—…

“Mom,” I wrote, “For my mental health and well-being, I can no longer spend time with you. You need help. Please, feel free to call or text the kids whenever you feel like it or drop by to visit them. I’ll email you when they have performances or special events. I hope you get the help you need. Love, Heather.”

I slipped the note in her mailbox, always better at the written word than the spoken. It was the day after I was told that I had clearly never wanted her in Georgia. After decades of wishing her here, giving her love, time, and whatever energy I had left after being a mother myself, her only response was derision, anger, and hurt. Yet again, her borderline personality disorder was talking out of turn. Even though I knew it was her BPD talking, I could no longer take it. I felt like a puppy, always loyal, always trying to earn my master’s trust and love, instead being struck and cursed at. I was tired. I could no longer walk on this path of eggshells. Too often, the road had forked off into the distance, away from the gravelly, unstable path of her mental illness. And yet, I always chose this rocky drive, twisting my ankles, expecting love and receiving emptiness in return, giving her more than I should when my children needed me more. I took that path because it was my mother’s path. To choose the other meant walking away from her. I had stood at this fork once before and nearly chose to walk away then, but I continued onward. This time, though, I was done. I was done tiptoeing, carefully avoiding the pitfalls and potholes, only to have one open up in front of me without warning, causing hurt and distress. With that note in her mailbox, I took the road of my family, my life, and my mental health.

…—…

I turned the oven on to 350-degrees Fahrenheit, a good starting temperature when blindly baking anything. I set the timer to 10 minutes, placing the unbaked tiropita on a baking stone. After 10 minutes, the cheese pies were still flat, so I added five minutes, then another five after that. Finally, they were slightly browned and puffed up, like tiropita should be.

I popped one in my mouth, the heat burning my tongue. It still didn’t taste right. I ate another, and then a third. I sat for a moment, trying hard to enjoy what was probably the last birthday gift my mother would ever give me. Instead, they sat like rocks on my stomach, unyielding, full of sadness and grief.

I threw the rest away, washed the Tupperware container, and wondered how I would return the receptacle to her. It’s been three weeks since her harsh, yet expected, words. Except for a brief text to her youngest grandson, congratulating him on his newest black belt, she has had no contact with the kids. Except for a terse letter to her son-in-law telling him to pay her latest electric and gas bills because she could not, she has had no contact with us. I have been at turns relieved, sad, happy, mournful, angry, and content. I have self-reflected, second-guessed, wishfully imagined, and silently screamed.

I have vowed to never scatter eggshells on my children’s paths. I will love them unconditionally. I will stay true to myself and my choice to walk a path separate from my mother’s mental illness. I will love myself, take care of myself, and not feel guilty for protecting myself. For 46 years, I have carefully measured every word, assessing the possible emotional damage that could come from saying the wrong thing. As the decades have passed, I have closed myself off from the world, taking refuge in leaving my home as little as possible, because having minimal human contact meant I could save myself for those moments when I had to navigate my mother’s rough terrain.

It will probably take another 46 years to unlearn my hermit-like behavior, but I’ll give it my best.

I miss the mother who came to my band performances. I miss the mother who laughed with me over inappropriate humor. I miss the mother who cared for me when I was sick. I miss the mother who cooked my favorite meal when I was pregnant and on bed rest. I miss the mother who hugged me and told me that she loved me. I miss the mother who only ever saw the good in me. I miss the mother who supported me no matter what. I miss the mother who didn’t weigh my words against her world view.

I miss my mother.

I don’t miss her BPD.

 

Back Off My Breast Friends

There's a dairy food theme here, isn't there?

There’s a dairy food theme here, isn’t there?

I remember the day well. It was March 18, 2006. For six months, I had made a vow to myself, and that vow was, If I can breastfeed these kids, day in and day out, for six months, I will declare victory in the Milk Wars and wean these little hoodlums. Six months, I decided, was my hard limit. I was done being the Dairy Queen. In real time, I had done this gig for six months. In twin years, that’s one whole year. (Note: This is called “Twin Math.” In “Twin Math,” you double everything. Two kids on two breasts for six months is equivalent to one kid on one breast for one whole year. And even if it isn’t logical, shut up. You did not push two babies out of your body on the same day. The only thing that trumps “Twin Math” is “Triplet Math.” Those women are goddesses and can say and do whatever they damn well please.) I was done. I started weaning the twins the month before, cutting off a feeding here, two feedings there, and replacing said feedings with bottles of formula until, on March 16th, on their six-month birthday, they were on straight formula. Two days later, a Saturday, I left the house around 7AM, waved to Tyler and my mother as they held the twins, and spent the entire day shopping with my sorority sister.

I. Was. Ecstatic.

More dairy references, you say?

More dairy references, you say?

For me, breastfeeding wasn’t a bonding experience. It was a chore. I was absolutely determined to breastfeed because I was convinced that if I didn’t pass on my immunities to my preemie twins, they would become gravely ill. And if I fed the first two that way, then the third needed it as well. It was a chore I did, without complaint, for one whole actual year. (I lasted six months with Jarrod. That’s an actual six months. No freaky singleton math going on there. But, technically, with Twin Math in place, I like to think I lactated for a whole 18 months. Don’t judge me. It was hard, ya’ll!) I don’t want to go into too many details, but let’s just say that my mammary glands aren’t the most… functional in the lactation department, and without help (read: nipple shields) I was in a lot of pain. A lot.

But, here’s the thing. I did it. It is possible to breastfeed even if you don’t want to or aren’t really built properly for the job. And even though I did it, I didn’t have to. I mean, I was raised on formula and I turned out just fine. I have a pretty bitchin’ IQ, no behavioral problems, and my weight is OK. Tyler was raised on formula and has, to my knowledge, never gone off the bend. My mother breastfed me for six weeks before the same dysfunctional mammary gland design that plagued me stopped her cold in her tracks. Shit happens, people. And it happens a lot when you’re trying to feed those feisty little ones.

But here’s the other thing. If I had put my foot down and said, “NO! I will NOT be breastfeeding my children!” should I have been made to feel guilty? As this mother was made to feel? Absolutely not.

I hate that we, as women, feel it necessary to judge other women on how they are feeding/clothing/bathing/teaching/disciplining/raising their children. Get off the Judgy Train, headed for Fort Judgerson, with a stop at Judgjunction. You take care of your kids as you see fit and I’ll take care of mine as I see fit and stop thinking that your way is better for everyone. Your way is just better for you and yours. And that’s just fine and dandy as long as you don’t shove your way in my face. Then, we might have a problem.

Now, here’s where I’m going to make… a suggestion. Any time I see a pregnant lady, I just want to hug her and ask, “First time?” and if she says, “Yes!” then this is pretty much the soapbox from which I want to stand and share my incredible wisdom of moderation, ease, and frequent breaks.

Just one more. I can't help myself.

Just one more. I can’t help myself.

There are lots of people out there who talk about “nipple confusion” and “breast is best” and “formula will make your kids fat and stupid” and blah, blah, blah. But, here was my reality. I had premature twins who NEEDED the calories that formula could provide. They spent their first 20 days in the NICU and since I couldn’t be there all the time, I pumped my breast milk and carted it over there every day. Since my babies needed to gain weight, the nurses and doctors at Northside Hospital supplemented my breast milk with preemie formula and bottle fed them. And they had pacifiers. When they came home, I continued with the one-bottle-a-day routine so that I could get extra sleep, they could get extra calories, and Tyler, Nana, Grandmama, et. al. could get extra baby cuddles. It was a win-win. I continued the tradition with Jarrod. Tyler got the late evening, “Let’s bond over Enfamil and Magnum, P.I!” feeding. So, this is my Easy-Peasy-Lemon-Squeezy You Are Gonna Kiss Me When This Is All Over Feeding Guide For New Mothers. Use it or not, it’s up to you. But, it seems to me a common-sense approach to feeding your babies and keeping your sanity.

  1. You have absolutely decided that you don’t want to breastfeed. It turns you off, the thought of it makes you sick to your stomach, and you’re done before the baby is even born. That’s fine! You stick to your guns, give that precious baby some formula, and don’t let those Lactation Nazis make you feel guilty for your choice. And if they harass you, kick them out of your hospital room.
  2. You decide to try breastfeeding and it doesn’t work out. No worries! As long as baby isn’t starving, you’re good. Get out the Enfamil and have a party! And tell those Lactation Nazis to take a long walk off a short pier.
  3. If you are successfully able to breastfeed your baby, give your baby one bottle of formula a day. Wait… hear me out.
  4. One bottle of formula a day gives you a break and allows you extra sleep and allows your significant other/relatives to also bond with the baby.
  5. Having that bottle of formula allows the baby to get used to the taste of formula so that if something happens and you have to unexpectedly wean them, it’s not a battle getting them used to formula. (I can tell you that after watching a friend try to force her baby through an emergency weaning onto formula, it’s not pretty. Your precious wee one will reject that bottle and put you through a couple of days of heck. Trust me on this one.)
  6. Also, having a bottle of formula a day gives you a chance to get out of the house. Guess what? It means you could actually have a date night/night out in those first six/eight/whatever months! You’re not so tied down that you can’t leave your child! Go out and have a great time! And realize that your baby is fine because they’re used to a bottle nipple and acclimated to the taste of formula and you are your own person and can take a break if necessary.
  7. And finally, give your child a pacifier. There is nothing wrong with pacifiers. They soothe your baby and, again, get them used to sucking on something other than you. It gives you a break and a rest. You can start to wean them from the pacifier any time you like, but definitely keep it around for the first year. Trust me, it’s a life saver. If your breast is the only thing soothing them, then you’re probably going to have a lot of sleepless nights.

I guess mainly what I’m trying to impart here is don’t be so hard on yourself. Pictures and media and ads make breastfeeding look very easy. I mean, it should come naturally, right? Not really. It’s a learning process for both you and the baby and if neither of you is enjoying it, you don’t need the stress. Do what’s best for both of you while at the same time giving yourself some elbow-room. Trust me when I say you’re going to need it.

Stepping down off my soapbox. Tune in next time for “Pampers versus Huggies versus Luvs: Is it really all about the diaper or is it more about penis position?” where we discuss leakage and little boys. Or not. Cheerio!