Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Birth Story (but seriously, if you don't enjoy people's birth stories, skip this post)

People kept sending me birth stories before our little girl was born. Frankly, either they made me nauseous or they made me bored. I just don't enjoy reading birth stories. Or at least I didn't before I experienced birth myself. Maybe I would enjoy reading about birth now. I haven't had time to test this since Irene was born.

I still can't believe, in some ways, that our family of two is now a family of three. I can't believe that this little person I gave birth to is her own separate entity. She has her own birth certificate and her own health insurance card. Tomorrow it will be exactly one month from when Irene Samantha was born. I cannot believe that much time has passed. It's been a blur of bottles of milk becoming breastfeeding, stomachs full of milk becoming laps full of milk, clean crisp diapers becoming soggy stinky diapers, and storms of tears becoming cautious smiles as I gradually begin to think, 'Hey, I could maybe do this parenting thing.'

Anyway, the birth story. By mid-August I was sincerely ready for the baby to be born. No matter that we were still packing up to move and wouldn't be moving until August 30, I wanted this baby out. People kept telling me that it would be easier to move with the baby still inside me, but secretly I thought, It's one baby. I corralled 25 6-year-olds for 7 hours a day all of last year. How much more work could one eensy-weensy baby be? So I went on praying for the baby to come early.

On the night of Thursday, August 28, I was awakened periodically by what I thought were just strong Braxton-Hicks contractions. Only I wasn't sure they were Braxton-Hicks because 1) they were waking me up and my other Braxton-Hicks hadn't done that and 2) they kind of hurt a little all throughout my pelvic area.

I woke up Friday morning thinking, Today's the day! We are having this baby today! I texted my friend Esther who was going to come along to assist with the labor and delivery. She said that was great, but it could really still be a few days yet. I deleted her text and pretended we'd never had that text-conversation.

But she was right. I didn't go into labor on Friday. Mark and I went for a long walk by a nearby lake to try to bounce the baby out. No luck. Friday night, however, I had more strong Braxton-Hicks, which I began to tentatively call contractions. They woke me up every 15 minutes to an hour. By Saturday morning, having not slept soundly between contractions I was a little bit crabby and I felt more uncomfortable all over, like I just wanted to step out of my body and take a break from it for a while. I texted Esther again with an update and again she cautioned me that labor could still be days away. I cried.

Mark did his best to distract me. Though we had been packing for weeks already, (Okay, Mark had been packing for weeks. I had been napping on the couch for weeks.) Mark stepped up his packing speed. I don't remember what I did on Saturday. Probably moped around the apartment wishing the baby would decide to be born already. We went out for lunch to celebrate our 5-year anniversary with Mark's parents and sister and brother-in-law. I was still crabby and continued to get contractions throughout our meal and time with them. I think someone (who shall remain nameless) made a light-hearted comment about contractions and I kind of wanted to smack them.

Mark and I watched a movie in the evening and then headed to bed. Almost the minute I lay down the contractions picked up in speed. We had turned out the light and within 10 minutes I felt the sharp tug throughout my abdomen. I wasn't going to bother Mark yet, but when I got contractions like clockwork for the next 30 minutes I poked him and told him we needed to start timing. We timed contractions and I texted Esther for the next two hours. By midnight the contractions were about 5 minutes apart. We called the hospital and were told to wait until the contractions were 3 minutes apart consistently for at least an hour. Mark and I played cribbage. We called my sister Abby (who wanted to come observe the labor and delivery) to tell her to be on standby. By 12:30 the contractions were 3 minutes apart. At 1:30, we packed up and headed to the hospital. I remember watching the city stream by us, breathing deeply and thinking that if this is all labor was it was a piece of cake. These contractions were a little painful but totally manageable.

Upon arriving at the hospital I was admitted and then brought to a triage room. This practice kind of makes me feel like the hospital is saying, "You think you're in labor? Prove it." Monitors were strapped around my belly and my contractions were monitored for the next 30 minutes. My doctor, who happened to be at the hospital that night anyway, came in, looked at my contractions on paper, and said, "Nice looking contractions. This is what labor feels like, Hillary! I think we'll keep you." And thus, I passed the triage room test. When I got up from the bed to move to my labor/delivery room, we all realized my water had probably just broken too. Enough said.

Despite the contractions. I was excited. We called Esther and Abby to let them know we had passed the triage room test and that they could come whenever. By 3:30 both of them had arrived. We got comfy in Room 7 and then went for a walk around the maternity ward. By 4:30 I felt loopy with exhaustion. We all settled down for a nap.  I woke up at 5:30 and realized my contractions had all but stopped. I almost didn't want to tell anyone. I think I was subconsciously afraid I'd get a response like, "You lied to us?" or maybe "You thought you were really in labor? You wimp! That wasn't labor! Obviously, since your 'contractions,' as you called them, have disappeared."

Needless to say, that was not the reaction I received, but my doctor did say that he was surprised since my water had broken and my contractions were so strong and close. He also told me that if my contractions hadn't returned by 9:30 that morning I would have to start a pitocin drip to help them along. He said that since my water had broken they couldn't send me home and we had to get that baby out within about 24 hours.

I was upset. I hate IVs. I had hoped to be able to move about freely throughout labor and delivery and did not, under any circumstances, want to be attached to a trolley of IV bags. Between 5:30 and 9:30 we tried everything we could think of to stimulate contractions: walking, stepping up and down off of a footstool, lying down, eating, and even thumb sucking. All to no avail however, because by 9:30 a pair of nurses came into my room with the dreaded trolley to get me hooked up. It hurt (more than the contractions, in my opinion) and I was frustrated. I cried harder than I can remember crying in recent history. However, it was done, I was attached, and I did my best to stop thinking about it and get on to the business of labor.

Thanks to my doctor's sensitivity to patient desires, he started me on a very, very small amount of pitocin so that my body wouldn't be slammed with strong contractions and I wouldn't be tempted to give in to taking pain medications. There's not much to say about that Sunday other than that we gradually increased the pitocin drip throughout the day until it was ten times its starting amount. It was a long, very boring day, not at all what I expected my labor to be like.

Because my contractions had disappeared after a nap, I was afraid to go back to sleep that day. I was beginning to be afraid that the baby would never come out, but when I voiced this fear to my doctor, he said, "Oh, don't worry. Your contractions will come back, I promise."

He was right, though. By 9:30 that evening the contractions were back, coming about 6 minutes apart. They were stronger than my contractions of the night before. The contractions of the night before were like playful rib pokes and these were like a clothes wringer. In any case, I spent a lot of time leaning over an exercise ball (dubbed a 'birth ball' when it comes into a maternity ward). I couldn't sit down. I could lean over the ball, I could rest on my knees, or if I wanted to torture myself I could lay down on my side, but I couldn't imagine sitting.

I can't remember when the contractions intensified, but by about 11:30, I guess, I had entered the transition phase of labor, where contractions are mere minutes apart and so intense that it feels like your body is being ripped in half from the inside out at each tightening. My memories of the next two and a half hours are hazy. I remember being drenched with sweat, shaking, and losing consciousness briefly between each contraction at points. (Honestly, I think I was just tired from not getting a decent night of sleep for the past two nights.) Because I was so exhausted, Esther kept offering me honey and I kept trying to refuse. Abby tried to shove spoonfuls of ice in my mouth, which I accepted. According to Abby afterwards, the things I would say during this time were right out of the book for the transition phase: "I can't do this anymore." "Just give me a C-section." I think I petitioned everyone in the room with me at one point or another to let me have a C-section. Needless to say, no one took my request seriously.

I spent most of the transition phase on my knees, leaning over the back of the elevated hospital bed. I felt like I couldn't move in between contractions. Really, any position hurt, but the idea of moving was overwhelming. Toward the end, a bath was drawn for me and I spent about 15 minutes in the tub. The contractions were a tiny bit less intense in the tub. In an effort to help me relax, someone came in with battery-powered tea lights and set them around the tub. It was a nice gesture, but I think if I had had the energy, I would have flicked them off the edge of the tub one by one. Compared to contraction pain they felt kind of pointless.

After a little while Esther came in and said, "Hillary, Erin [the nurse] thinks that the reason you haven't moved from transition to pushing yet is because the baby's head isn't engaged properly. She thinks we need to get you to have contractions in different positions. When the contractions get more intense or painful then we'll know that we're on the right track." My brain had stopped on 'more painful' and couldn't move forward. "I can't do it, Esther," I said. "I just want a C-section."

But somehow I found myself out of the tub a little later having contractions laying on my side, first my left and then my right, with a peanut between my legs.

This kid would NOT be smiling if he had had contractions around this peanut.
I only had one or two contractions on each side. By the contractions on the right side, I suddenly felt a strong need to push. Esther says I said to her, "This is it!" I don't remember that, but I do remember saying, "I have to push! Let me push!"

Pretty soon I found myself on my knees on the bed again, pushing. Compared to transition, the pushing was easy-peasy. It was mildly uncomfortable and a lot of work, but any pain I felt didn't seem like pointless pain, like during transition. I pushed for about 55 minutes, periodically asking, "Can you see her yet?!" Like during transition, I was so exhausted. I was drenched in sweat and shaking, but it was nice to have a crowd of nurse, doctor, Mark, Esther and Abby cheering me on to push. And after all that pushing, pretty soon, I felt the strangest shlooping sensation, and the baby was out, along with a whole lot of fluids.

Someone helped me turn around and sit down and the baby was put right on my chest. She cried a few little cries and then just fussed. Holding her felt so surreal. She didn't look human: all gray-colored from birth and covered in the white clay-like vernix. The doctor asked, "What's her name?" I looked at Mark (because we had two choices for names) and said, "The first choice?" He agreed, and I said, "Her name is Irene Samantha!"

Pretty soon she turned pink. After a few minutes Mark was given some scissors had got to cut her umbilical cord. The doctor stitched up where I had torn during labor, but I hardly noticed. We basically spent the next hour staring at Irene. I nursed her for the first time. I couldn't believe that after all the craziness of birth she could think about eating.

We are so thankful for our little Irene Samantha. Irene means 'peace' and our prayer is that she will come to know the peace of Christ. Samantha means 'the Lord hears,' and we are thankful that God heard our prayers for a baby and answered them with a 'yes.' We are excited to get to know our little Irene Samantha. Even though the last month has had its share of parenting challenges, we are still loving our little girl and I'm still marveling at the miracle (and hard work) that birth is.

Irene, a few hours old.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

No Crib for a Bed... But Amply Blessed All the Same

I have been done with school now for approximately two and a half weeks. When I was in school, I pictured myself laying in bed as long as I wanted to, getting up with a leisurely cup of coffee, and reading or crocheting or writing or going for walks all day every day.

I have been laying in bed as long as I want to every day. That has been wonderful. With the pregnancy sleeping discomforts creeping up, it's nice to be able to sleep in if baby kicking or muscle spasms kept me awake the night before. And, honestly, after Baby #1, I'll never get to do this again, so I'm savoring. I haven't been drinking coffee, though, and I haven't been spending my days in leisurely activities like reading, crocheting, writing, and going for walks. I haven't been drinking coffee because I've still got some lingering morning sickness -- not nearly as bad as during the first trimester, but enough that I have to force breakfast down and then force lunch down before my appetite starts to pick up. And I haven't been spending all my time in leisure activities because my mind has been consumed with the great question of What Next?

After much deliberation, we decided I should take the year off of teaching. Teach For America makes it possible for us to be in the schools teaching without a teaching license, but the Department of Education in Minnesota requires that we be working toward our license in order to be teaching. Therefore, I would have no choice but to continue teaching and taking evening graduate classes next year. That nearly put me over the edge this year. With a baby? No way.

However, that puts us in a difficult financial situation. We are so thankful that Mark has found a job he enjoys (and that his employer was willing to hire him on full-time when Mark asked -- otherwise, since we were on my health insurance, I don't know what we would have done when my contract with the school ran out). But the job just doesn't pay enough to make ends meet. So I've been spending a lot of time either working on my homework for my graduate classes or searching for part-time jobs that would work well with Mark's schedule.

And in the meantime, we decided not to renew our lease because the apartment is too small for us and baby. After much apartment searching, we realized it's not financially possible for us to pay for a two-bedroom apartment right now. It's actually cheaper (or just as cheap) to buy a house in a lower price range. So, we're considering buying a house. Or living with my parents for a few months and then buying a house. But a lot of that depends on whether I find a job, and if so, what kind.

In the meantime, baby's due date approaches and all of her stuff is still in an unflattering pile in our bedroom.

And our living room.

We have been so blessed. I honestly feel like we have everything we need for baby girl. Or at least, everything we need to get started. We just have nowhere to set it up. And I confess, when I see all the adorable nursery pictures of other expectant friends on Facebook, I feel jealous. I want to have a room for the baby. I want to have the room set up and be able to step inside and look around and realized We Are Ready. Unfortunately, that's just not going to be the case.

Being in an insecure financial and living situation for the third time in five years has gotten me down, especially with baby on the way. It makes me feel irresponsible and incompetent. However, I've been thinking, and other people have helped me think more positively about our situation. One of my aunts said to me: "Tough circumstances survived by grace are a precious gift to give to our children, a much better gift than expensive habits...I see so many kids that get so much material stuff early in life that sets them up for disappointment later. They're robbed of the pleasure of "yearning and earning," which is so much more satisfying than instant gratification."

And then yesterday, after I got flushed from a job I was halfway expecting to get, I felt really disappointed. (Or, to be more honest, I threw a temper tantrum alone in my apartment and sobbed on the phone to my mom .) But when I got to thinking about it more, I was reminded of the Bible verses that have been my theme in every other precarious situation since our marriage:

No king is saved by the size of his army;
    no warrior escapes by his great strength.
17 A horse is a vain hope for deliverance;
    despite all its great strength it cannot save.
18 But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him,
    on those whose hope is in his unfailing love,
19 to deliver them from death
    and keep them alive in famine. (Psalm 33:16-19)

And I realized, too, that even though this little girl might not be born into a world where her room is already set up and decorated, she has already been blessed amply compared to so many children in the world. Not only has she been getting excellent medical care since her conception, she has been fed (mostly) healthy foods from the get-go. She has not been subjected to alcohol (except for the glass or two I had before I suspected I was pregnant, and except for the dip of wine during communion) or cigarette smoke. She already has a stable family with parents who love her and extended family who eagerly anticipate her and pray for her. She will grow up in a family where she is taught about Jesus from an early age. Because of the family that anticipates her and the church of her parents, she will never be hungry or living on the streets as a child. Barring unforeseen circumstances, she will get to live until adulthood with her birth parents and will never know the trauma of being separated from the voices she grew to know in the womb.

When I got to that point, I no longer felt sorry for myself or irresponsible. God is good. God planned for the time when this little one would be conceived and already knows the date of her birth. He loves her more than I do, and He is preparing rich spiritual blessings for her, even if she doesn't have a darling nursery. She is already richly and amply blessed.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Fear and Trembling at odds with Perfect Love

This probably won't be a very good post. I write down ideas for blog posts all the time, in a notebook I have just for 'writing,' on post-it notes, in my prayer journal. Most of those post ideas are interesting. Some are about school, some about apartments, some about novel ideas that come to me in the middle of church. But let's be honest: most of my brain is taken up by Baby Thoughts right now, so most of the blog ideas are about baby stuff.

In any case, interesting post ideas aside, something I've been thinking about a lot this weekend is fear. I've had a very healthy pregnancy so far. Every doctor appointment has been uneventful in the extreme because all my doctor can say to me is, "Good growth, good heartbeat, and you're healthy!" He even went so far as to say, the last time I was in for an appointment and everything looked great, "A talent you didn't even know you had!" Of course, the health of my baby isn't really a 'talent.' Sure, I can eat well (or try, in between nibbling on chocolate chips while pretending not to notice), and I can exercise, as long as my 'posterior pelvic pain' isn't acting up, but the health of my baby is largely out of my control. Absolutely alarming to this control freak.

On Friday night I was getting ready for bed and thinking about who-knows-what when something made me put my hand to my abdomen. I wasn't in pain, I wasn't worried at the moment, but my absent-minded musings turned quickly to sharp focus when I realized that my whole uterus was rock-hard. Mark was in the bathroom or I would have yelled for him to come feel this bizarre soccer ball-sized mass. Within seconds the muscles relaxed and my uterus went back to feeling squishy-firm. I still wasn't worried. I was pretty sure I had just noticed a Braxton Hicks contraction for the first time.

I pulled out my baby book, read up on Braxton Hicks, and felt smug in my ability to diagnose the feeling before even consulting the pregnancy experts in my book. I kept reading, though, because the section on Braxton Hicks was followed by a section on discerning these practice contractions from preterm labor. I read carefully, felt confident that I was not in preterm labor, felt reassured that I could detect preterm labor if I ever needed to, and crawled into bed.

The Braxton Hicks door was opened. Even though I had probably been experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions for weeks without noticing, I now knew exactly what I was looking for. I woke up at 12:30, sure I was feeling a contraction, then at 3:30, then at 4:30. By 6:00 Saturday morning I was a nervous wreck. Even though none of my 'contractions' had been in the least painful, nor had they lasted for more than 10 seconds, I was convinced I was in preterm labor. After getting up and showering, I read again, this time from an online source, about Braxton Hicks and telling these contractions from preterm labor. Again, I was reassured, although slightly less reassured than the night before, and tried to put the thoughts out of my mind.

I went to my niece's birthday party, I worked on grad school homework, and by mid-afternoon I had experienced one, maybe two, more contractions. Again, not strong or painful, but I could notice them now. Mark will tell you I worry too much. He's right. I called my doctor's after-hours number. My doctor, very kindly, confirmed that I did not need to worry and that what I was describing were harmless practice contractions for the real deal in a few months.

But even with my doctor's reassurance, I was not reassured. I became increasingly uptight as the evening progressed. To Mark's credit, he didn't roll his eyes and say, Here we go again. Can't you just relax and trust the doctor?" But I'm sure that's what he was thinking. I passed another restless night, half worried that I was going to deliver my baby prematurely (probably tomorrow and she'd be in the NICU for months and she would have severe developmental problems as a result and our finances would never recover from the enormous hospital bills). As with the previous day, my panic subsided with the sunrise and left me feeling only vaguely worried.

When we were at church this morning, my worry dogged my step. As I was sitting in the theater-style chair in the black-walled auditorium where our church meets, I was suddenly reminded that God loves this little baby more than I do. God loves me more than I do. And God is in control. I can't control when I go into labor, but I can trust God to guide the situation and I can trust God to be good, whether in preterm labor or full term labor. As I was thinking these things and reveling in the idea that God could love this baby more than me (I'm her mom, for crying out loud), a Bible verse that I've meditated on many times came into my mind. 1 John 4:18 says, "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." 

When I am afraid in the middle of the night, I am showing God that I don't love him with a perfect love and I don't trust his perfect love for me. I am afraid of punishment. In short, I am not made perfect in love. I won't be made perfect in love in this life, but that doesn't mean I should ignore opportunities to try to grow in my ability to trust God's love. God loves me. God loves the baby. I can rest in that, even in the midst of the weird new sensations pregnancy brings, even in the midst of a Braxton Hicks.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Entering A New Phase, or God's Surprise

So, on Monday I will be five months pregnant. Pregnant. For those of you who have been with me since the start of this blog in 2011, you will know that I started this blog partly out of a desire to find contentment through infertility.  had wanted to get pregnant for about a year and a half and I wanted to find ways to encourage and distract myself during that time.

You would think that if pregnancy was such a big deal to me, I would have blogged about it before I was 5 months pregnant. It's not that I haven't thought about writing; it's just that our lives are so busy right now. But when I realized that the 5th month of my first pregnancy was approaching, I decided it was time. Bite the bullet, push other commitments aside, and write something. 

So, here's the story of why we're entering a new phase. Or, almost more appropriately, here's the story of God's surprise for us.

Back when I was accepted into Teach For America last January, Mark and I decided I should accept Teach For America's offer, fully knowing the decision would push our family-starting endeavors back a few years. The two years of Teach For America (TFA) is not the time to be thinking about starting a family. It's hardly the time to think about growing friendships or growing a marriage. And TFA in Minnesota is even more intense because TFA corps members are required to be working toward their teaching license through graduate classes at a nearby university. And, of course, you have heard me expound on some of the anxiety and stress these factors produced in me during the fall.

When we moved to Minnesota last April, I went to see a new doctor about my infertility and PCOS. The doctor works at a small Christian clinic in a nearby suburb. Two friends of mine living up in the Cities who didn't know each other at all had suggested this clinic and one of the doctors in particular at that clinic. Both friends had dealt with some complications in getting pregnant, met with other doctors who didn't seem able to help them, and then switched to this clinic and this doctor. Both friends found this doctor easy to talk to, attentive to their concerns, and a firm believer in natural family planning (charting basal body temperatures and whatnot). Both friends ended up pregnant. Since that seemed like too much of a coincidence and because I had been less than impressed with the way doctors I had visited with before had poo-pooed my basal body temperature charts, I was excited to go to a doctor who I thought would be supportive of me and understanding of my situation.

My first appointment with this doctor (and almost only appointment, until I went in to confirm my pregnancy) was great. He took time to look through the information sent up from Iowa, and when I pulled out my temperature charts, he exclaimed, "Oh, this is great! Look! I can see you ovulating regularly every cycle! I think that with just a little progesterone in the luteal phase of your cycle, you will have no trouble getting pregnant." He prayed with me, thanking God for my healthy cycles and asking God to bless Mark and me with a baby in due time. I started the progesterone right away. Because I'd had fairly regular cycles for the previous few months, I didn't notice any major changes with the progesterone.

Needless to say, after 2.5 years of infertility, I was fairly skeptical that my doctor's optimism was quite warranted. I was still fairly convinced that I could not get pregnant and never would get pregnant. So, even though my cycles continued to look normal on paper and my doctor was happy with the results on my follow-up appointment in September, I left his office in the fall fully expecting not to see him again until May, the month Mark and I had picked out as a good time to start 'trying,' since if a baby was conceived in the summer of 2014, it would be born towards the end of my two-year commitment to TFA. And because I still considered my body 'broken,' Mark and I didn't take any birth control precautions.

So, over Christmas break from school, I found myself in my luteal phase, watching my temperatures and waiting for the inevitable period that would come somewhere around day 16 of the luteal phase. When day 16 came and only brought a higher than usual temperature, I first began to wonder. Then, by day 19 and a repetition of higher than usual temperatures, I decided a pregnancy test was in order.

It was my last day of break before school resumed and I had just finished up with a nasty bout of stomach flu. My period still hadn't turned up, and I thought to myself, Oh, I'll just check. In my mind, it was more to stop myself from getting my hopes up needlessly. Mark left for work, and I was wandering around the house early in the morning. I took out the pregnancy test, kind of pretending I wasn't really paying attention to what I was doing, and went through the motions of using it to help bring my silly hopes back under control.

When the test showed up positive two minutes later, I gasped. Then I wandered out of the bathroom whispering, "Oh my goodness, oh my goodness!" to myself. Then I went back in the bathroom and took a picture of the test. I was pretty sure I would never believe myself an hour later if I didn't have proof.

But there it was -- proof. I called my doctor, set up an appointment with him to confirm pregnancy, and lo and behold. Pregnant.

Here I am, a week after I made the discovery and had the pregnancy confirmed by the doctor.

Obviously, no evidence of Baby yet when this picture was taken. My emotions have been on a roller coaster since that day of discovery: wondering if the baby is healthy, wondering how my PCOS will affect the baby and my pregnancy, trying to sort through feelings of being someone who 'deals with infertility' when technically that's not true anymore. But those are thoughts for another post.

For today, I'm just amazed. Amazed that God could surprise me after all that I've learned about my body, amazed that His timing includes us having a baby smack-dab at the start of my second year of teaching, amazed that my body apparently is at least somewhat healed from its brokenness. I'm just amazed. Amazed and thankful.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Finding Balance

Right now I'm sitting on my couch watching 'You've Got Mail' for about the 50th time since I first discovered it when I was 12 or 13. Today we had an unexpected day off due to a snow storm that ended up dusting our area with only about 2 or 3 inches of snow.

We have currently had about 95 days of school (minus a few snow days in January and early February) and have 74 days of school remaining. Over Christmas break I wrote about dealing with anxiety and learning to find balance between my work life and my home life. In January I've been making an attempt to find that balance. I wasn't taking graduate classes so I got to experience what being 'just' a teacher and not also a student would be like. It was lovely.

Two weeks ago my spring semester graduate class (only one this time, thankfully) started up, and I've been doing my best to continue to find balance and not get sucked into the frenzied school vortex that smushed my soul into a quivering mass last semester.

I've made a point to finish my school work by 5:00 every evening so I have the rest of the evening to myself. Mark and I are also trying to take time to get together with friends and family almost every week. In fact, this past weekend, Mark and I went down south to visit Mark's parents and then had an authentic (or close to authentic) tea party with Mark's sister and brother-in-law and their kids. We had a wonderful time sipping tea while snow fell thickly outside. I felt like a human, part of a family, and not just a teacher.

I'm pretty exhausted still, but the school year and my attitude toward it have definitely picked up since December. I had one anxious breakdown in October, November, and December (ugh) but did not have one in January and have yet to have one in February. Altogether, doing better!

Unfortunately, right now my brain is just too tired and I don't have any stories to share. Hopefully soon!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Stomach Flu and Answered Prayers

Last night I went down with a nasty bout of stomach flu. Oh, how I hate to throw up.

Anyway, after a night of flu beating up on my body (and mostly winning) I felt pretty exhausted this morning. And, given the temperatures in the -20s, schools had all been closed for today due to the extreme cold, so he really only needed to get one out of the two cars started. Unfortunately, even that proved too much for our little old vehicles. Mark was unable to get either of our cars started to go to work this morning. . By 9:30, he had still not gotten either car started, and as I lay down to try to take a nap, I was feeling pretty low. I was worrying about 3 things in particular:

1) Would I have sufficiently recovered from my flu to return to school tomorrow, especially with it being the first day back after a long break?
2) Would we be able to get either car started tomorrow when we needed them both to be working?
3) How would we be able to purchase a new car if we needed one soon (given that we are still trying to recover financially from 4 months of unemployment for me and 3 months of unemployment for Mark)?

By this afternoon, God had neatly answered each of these prayers:

1) Schools are closed again tomorrow because of cold. I will be able to recover at home.
2) My dad drove down to our house with a portable battery that worked to start one of our cars (and which we will hopefully use to start the other car once the battery has recharged).
3) Mark was able to do some crazy maneuvering with our finances and squeak just over $2,000 out of our working budget for next month to throw into savings in case of a car emergency.

So, neat as that, God provided for each of my concerns. Case closed.

Falling in Love with First Graders: A Case of Love and Hair Loss (Part 2)

So, a few days ago I posted about how I love my students and I shared some stories about students I love. I also talked briefly about how I feel like I fail my students on a daily basis. This post is about the darker side of the last three months.

Mark and I moved into our new apartment about 2 weeks before I was needed for training at my school. It was just over this break that I realized that I think I'm still adjusting to life in St. Paul, Minnesota, compared to life in small-town, Iowa. I no longer walk to work; I brave the icy, steep streets between our apartment and the school. Every day I am confronted with at least 2 homeless men holding signs on exit ramps between home and school and the conflicted emotions seeing those men and doing nothing produce. Mark has created a white noise soundtrack that we play on repeat in our bedroom every night. I'm a light sleeper (even lighter when stressed) and early in the fall we had some trouble with neighbors playing music with a booming bass line late into the evening.

I spend hardly any time in our apartment, even though it's pretty nice (now that the noise issue has been dealt with). Our apartment would allow us to get a dog, but that poor thing. It would be alone in its kennel for at least 10 hours four days per week, if not more. Mark has firmly stated that we do not have the time or the energy for a dog right now. Even though he's right, I still cruise regularly because I know a pet would have a calming effect on me. (A cat would be the most calming, but there is no way Mark will let me get a cat. Poo.)

During these first three months of teaching, I have also been a student myself, taking two graduate classes at one of the local universities. This extra dose of craziness is required by the Minnesota Department of Education. Since we Teach For America teachers don't have our licenses yet, we have to be actively working toward them in order to teach full-time in public schools in Minnesota. This has meant that two evenings a week, besides the 10 hours at school and hour and a half of lesson planning at home, I spent an additional 4 hours in a classroom with other teachers. Though being with other first year teachers was deeply helpful to me, and though I learned a lot of great things in my courses, the additional time commitment and homework was hard on me.

I'm kind of an anxious person as a general rule. Mark can attest that even when we were dating I worried about things while he just shook his head at me, mystified. The stresses of teaching and graduate school has taken my anxiety to new heights (or lows, depending on how you look at it) since September. The anxiety tends to come in waves, and three debilitating waves have swept over me since starting teaching. Each time the waves of anxiety have climaxed with much crying, very little sleep, weight loss, hair loss, and a day off of teaching (usually with more crying and still very little sleep) to recover. Each time I felt like going back into the classroom would be like plunging into an icy black pit of despair and each time I questioned whether I could make myself keep going.

By the middle of December, when anxiety wave #3 hit, receded, and left a very insecure me in its wake, my TFA mentor, Emily, was concerned enough to alert some of the rest of the TFA staff. Mike, the TFA managing director, scheduled a meeting with me. I steeled myself for the meeting, expecting him to caution me against quitting and remind me of how detrimental that would be for my students. What he wanted to talk about, then, came as a complete surprise: anxiety. Based on some of his personal experiences, he had some great insights into dealing with anxiety.

His personal story, as well as his suggestions, gave me some renewed hope that maybe I wasn't a hopeless teacher and that maybe I could find ways to deal with the anxiety and keep teaching. Long story short, I overcame my feeble protests to seeing a doctor, met with a doctor over break, and was prescribed a depression medication that isn't actually used to treat depression but instead is used to treat insomnia. The solid nights of sleep since starting the medication have been so refreshing and have cut down on a lot of the anxiety. I'm also probably going to go see a therapist (although I'm not really sure when I'll have time) to try to come up with some coping mechanisms for anxiety.

In the meantime, though, I'm reading a book that Mike recommended called Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. Seligman. Kind of an ostentatious title, but so far I've learned a lot from this book. Seligman has spent over a decade doing research on pessimism and its link to depression and, later, optimism and its link to fending off depression. Maybe sometime I'll do a complete review of the book, but in the meantime, I'll just say that I've learned that some jobs require a more pessimistic mindset (because pessimists have proven to have more accurate and realistic views of the world) and some jobs require a more optimistic mindset. I have a decidedly pessimistic view of pretty much everything, and my job requires an optimistic mindset. Therefore, I need to develop an optimistic mindset. Seligman's book walks the reader through a few 'tools' for developing an optimistic mindset. I'm still reading, but so far the book has been super helpful, and I'm gradually becoming aware of the pessimistic messages I tell myself.

So, my goals for the next five months of teaching: 1) develop a more optimistic view of life and harness the pessimism for use in specific situations and 2) find more balance and take better care of myself. I basically stopped exercising from July on, even though that's a great stress reliever for me, and I all but stopped getting together with friends. I'm going to try to pick up both activities again, as well as warm baths, burning candles, and chamomile lavender tea. I'm going to have to schedule those things in, but it will be worth it. Maybe I'll even get around to blogging more!

So, I'm still a teacher, still struggling with some anxiety, but more ready to face the next phase of teaching. Here we go!