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Archive for April, 2008

I spent half of the day today fretting uselessly about money and trying to shake that uncomfortable, nagging feeling of being hopelessly skint — a feeling exacerbated by over-tiredness, thanks to the baby getting me up four times last night. Again and again, I asked myself why we made this move, if we were only going to end up as broke as we had been in the UK, but this time with no friends, everything so foreign and unfamiliar, and only one car at our disposal instead of two?

I don’t know what caused the baby’s problems last night, but she hardly slept more than a hour at a time. It was possibly a reaction to her first taste of chicken yesterday (we will tread carefully with that in the future) or to her first taste of beer via my milk — it was my first drink since I fell pregnant, but my mother insisted that she was babysitting last night so that M and I could walk up to the neighbourhood bar and have a drink together, like a proper couple, for the first time over a year and, boy, did that feel good!

Whichever it was, the end result was that I was up all night and never made it to church in the morning, and so I had to go to the last-chance Mass this evening. I got the time wrong and found myself standing in an empty church 30 minutes early, which gave me ample opportunity to fret some more. I should have been praying, but I find that the more stressed I am, less I pray — I can’t seem to focus, can’t stop my mind from racing away from me. I knelt in the pew and tried in vain to rein my thoughts in, but they galloped all over the place wildly. I found myself going back the money situation again and again. Why did we come over if we are going to be so broke? What was the point of all this effort?!?!?

And then it came to me in a moment of perfect clarity. This is why we are here: because although there is absolutely no spare money whatsoever, we are getting by on M’s salary alone. We are not living this tightly and yet still spiralling into the red each month as we were in the UK, short each month by hundreds and hundreds and having to drain our savings to make up the difference. More than that, we have even been out house-hunting with a realtor all last week, because is actually feasible for us to buy a house (and one that’s big enough for us to live in!) on the money M is making. And, perhaps most importantly, we are doing all this with me being able to stay home with the girls. So although life feels as difficult as it was in the UK, the realities of the two situations are actually miles apart — half a world apart, in fact.

And just like that, everything slowed down, my mind stopped racing, and I felt a bit of peace come over me at last. In those few, rare minutes away from everything, I was able to find some much-needed perspective, and it made all the difference in the world.

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We have had the loan of my sister’s car since we arrived — she started the lease when she was living out in the country, but now that she lives in a city, she can get by quite well without it and resents having to pay to park it, so she was happy enough to let us have the use of it for awhile. She very graciously gave us the first two months as a gift, and said that if we wanted to keep it longer than that, we need only give her the money to cover her payment and insurance — a very fair deal indeed. She joked that we could keep the car as long as we let her keep our cat, and I had half a mind to point out that there are cheaper ways to get yourself a cat (…why, some people even give them away), but I realised there was no point in messing up such a good deal, so I kept my gob shut!

But, good deal or no, the car goes back next weekend. As M points out, it is time (though she hasn’t said so to us, we know she found it was harder to get around without the car than she anticipated) and, the real nub of it is, we can’t afford to keep it. Several weeks of living on base-pay has driven that point right home to us. By the time we take out the rent and utilities, his child-maintenance (just slightly less), our frugal food-budget, the cable/phone/broadband package (my one real luxury), and the monthly payment for my newly acquired medical bills, the amount that is left gives us only a double-digit figure each to cover the month’s miscellaneous spending, including petrol, prescriptions, and those dreaded copays. There is simply no room for a car payment — it has got to go.

We were hoping that M would have gotten a work-van by now — they had initially said he would — but that has not happened and looks unlikely for awhile. So, he will have to take our car to work, where it will sit in a lot all day while he goes out in one of the other guy’s vans, and I will be car-less at home. More to the point, I will be dependent on my mother again. Though the obvious answer is for me to drive him to work, it becomes a practical impossibility when you factor in two sleeping toddlers, a wife who has been up three times in the night, and a 5.30am departure. M will, I know, do everything in his power to get lift into work whenever possible, but we’re both realistic enough to realise that that will be an occasional treat at best. The real answer is get M some sort of cheap run-around just to get him to work and back. Nothing fancy, but it will cost several thousand nonetheless — more expense — and take a little while to get sorted.

So, this coming weekend, my mother and the girls and I will pack up in two cars and drive half-a-day to my sister’s flat. It will be nice to see her, her new place, her city, and have a brief and joyful reunion with the cat. I am looking forward to it very much. And then, it will be back into my mother’s car, on the passenger side, to be driven home — out of control and dependent on her, an uncomfortable position I will have to get used to all over again.

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M was hired on an hourly salary plus commission, and anything above 40 hours per week was at time-and-a-half. We knew the commission wouldn’t come into play until he’d been working for awhile, so we didn’t budget for it. But we also knew that the kind of work he does rarely gets finished in a 40-hour week on either side of the world so, while we calculated that we would scrape by on the base salary, we felt fairly confident that we would likely have a bit of a cushion from overtime as well.

His first few weeks didn’t really go that way, but I didn’t worry too much, because it always takes a little while for any new job to settle out into a normal routine. I decided to ignore my worry-instincts, and force myself to relax about it and just enjoy the fact that he was getting home around 3.30 in the afternoon. But the worry was there at the back of my mind, and it didn’t help that, when I mentioned his hours to my mother, she — ever the (self-confessed) Pollyanna — gurgled, “Oooooh, isn’t that wonderful!” and I had to explain out loud what was always gnawing away in pit of my stomach — that while finishing that early might be wonderful for a salaried employee, it’s nothing but bad news to someone who is paid hourly.

After a few weeks, his schedule did begin to stabalise and the overtime came, just as we’d thought it would. His paycheques suddenly looked quite comfortable, and I began to relax. This was going to be fine. We were going to be able to afford… well, not a lavish lifestyle, but at least the kind of stable, sustainable life that we’d moved half-a-world away in order to achieve.

And then, just as quickly, he was moved to a different department — one where, as a rule, they work regular hours and don’t do overtime. When the whistle blows at the end of the day, they down tools and go home. He was starting at 6 or 7am and walking back through the door at 3pm, but he was on base pay again. I looked at the paystubs in dismay — life on this kind of money would be tight indeed… worryingly tight. M didn’t like the work anyway — the same routine thing every day, not challenging at all — and asked to be transferred back to what he was doing before. It took a lot of asking (“We’ve got to put you where the work is, you see…”), but at the end of last week, he was put back into his previous department. He anticipated more interesting work, and I anticipate more comfortable paycheques.

He’s got the interesting work, but the hours just aren’t there. Thursday, Friday, and yesterday, he got home around 2.30pm. Today, he walked through the door at 1.30. He is “concerned” — this should be their busy season, and he is coming home before the girls have finished lunch. If he — someone who never much worries himself about money or the future — is concerned, then I am quite worried indeed. After all that’s been going on — allergies, pain, medical bills, taxes, mortgage-brickwalls, the house up for sale, the hurdles of building credit — is it possible that his work could start to dry up too?

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There are so many odd words that you don’t give a moment’s thought to when you’ve grown up with them. Brits don’t register any reaction at all to such things as Spotted Dick or Faggots. These words have been a part of their verbal landscape for so long that they’ve lost their obvious oddness. After awhile, they just are what they are.

I was cutting coupons tonight when M picked one of the ads up for a closer look. He frowned in confusion as he studied it. There, amongst the other ads for nappies and cough medicines and children’s vitamins, was this one which showed a tube of some sort of gel in the foreground and, beyond that, a male hand gently massaging a well-muscled shoulder. My coupon-clipping had cut off the bottom of the page, so the slogan now read, “It’s What’s Hot…”

M looked up at me, puzzled, then looked back down at the page again, and asked in utter confusion, “Who is… um… What is… Ben Gay?”

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I just want to interrupt normal programming to say a quick thank you to someone with whom I have no other way of communicating…

K, thank you so much for my birthday gift!  I am chuffed and have not been able to put it down since it arrived.  I was confused for a moment, and then I read your son’s name and it clicked instantly.  It’s so nice to hear from you after all this time — I hope you are well and enjoying motherhood as much as I am.  Thanks again for the gift — it was such a lovely surprise.

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I am trying to figure out how (or whether) to teach my toddler about race. It’s never been a issue before — she wasn’t old enough to verbalise any differences in people she might have noticed and, to be honest, there simply weren’t many differences to notice. So much of rural England is startlingly homogeneous, and the area we lived in was 99.9% white, according to the latest census data. To someone who has never lived anywhere so lily-white, that might seem odd or even suspicious — it did to me at first — but it’s not. These are simply rural farming communities populated mostly by the natives, just like rural farming communities around the world. It just so happens that the native population is white.

It thoroughly delighted me that one of the most multicultured and integrated places in town was our tiny church, only 15 rows deep and which contained four Americans, two French women, quite a few Irish, two Indian families, a German, a Slovak couple, a group of Poles that seemed to grow every week, four Filipinos, and a man from Mauritius, along with all the English natives. E1 was particularly fond of the Mauritian and, every now and again, I would wonder if her fascination with him was because his skin was a beautiful deep chocolate-brown. But it was just as likely that it was because he always had a twinkle in his eye and a smile for her, and always always picked up her bear when she dropped him.

So, I didn’t really think about whether she might notice a difference when we moved to the US, to this immigrant city with its mixed population of blacks and whites. People look different here. Even the white people look noticeably different, being mostly descended from immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, instead of the pale Northerners we are used to seeing. It gave me a moment of surprise at first — this sea of dark brunette heads the first time we went to our new church — in the same way that rural England’s whiteness initially looked strange to me.

But the other day, I got my answer as to whether E1 has noticed. We were shopping in the supermarket and passed a black man stacking the shelves. “Mummy, look!” she said loudly, “There’s Barack Obama!” The man smiled graciously at her and several other shoppers laughed, but I was mortified. Of course she’s seen Barack Obama’s picture on telly and picked up his name, but it never occurred to me that she would make the blanket connection between the words “Barack Obama” and his skin colour. But then, why wouldn’t she? She carried on repeating joyfully “There’s Barack Obama!” down the rest of that aisle and halfway up the next, as I hissed, “That’s enough. Ok. Yes. Ok. There he is, now that’s enough!” and hoped desperately that we wouldn’t pass any other black men before I could bundle her into the car. We didn’t , mercifully, but I was left with a dilemma: how do I handle this? How do I un-make that connection in her mind?

Stuck in the allergist’s waiting room this week, and bored, we looked out the window and counted cars in the parking lot. How many red ones? How many silver ones? A green car pulled up and a black man got out. “There’s Barack Obama!” No, no, that’s not Barack Obama. The man opened the boot and pulled out a briefcase. “He has a suitcase, Mummy! That… that brown man has a suitcase.” I suddenly looked around the waiting room, unsure of whether “brown” is offensive in the US — the terms and sensibilities are so different in the UK that a person forgets — but we were alone. I struggled to think what to say to her — do I correct her? Admonish her? But the thing is, she was right — his skin was a pale-coffee brown. She knows what black is: black is a Crayola colour, and he was nothing like it.

So, I am unsure what to do. Right now, my daughter sees the world in terms of brown. Some people are dark brown; some people are light brown; sometimes, right after a bath, she is pink. That’s as far as it goes in her mind, and I rather like that. I want her to let her see people this way — all on the same one spectrum from light brown to dark brown — for as long as possible. I need teach her enough to stop her from offending people with her innocent comments, but I do not want to divide the world into “Black” and “White”. Not yet. She’s not even three. I am not yet ready to introduce her to the complicated politics of colour.

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I am thoroughly confused. No sooner had I said that the pain had gone away for a few days than it came back again with renewed intensity. It has been going on for three months now, on a daily-to-near-daily basis, and I am sick of it so, naturally, I am trying every sensible avenue to figure out what it is and to make it go away. And the more I do that, the more frustrated and confused I become.

For anyone who is not familiar with the story — and on the off-chance anyone out there can diagnose me — let’s start with a little synopsis:

  • I had the stabbing pain in the UK, in my right breast right after feeding. But it was annoying-but-livable, so I wrote it off to being one of the myriad aches and pains that are par for the course in early motherhood.
  • In the first week here in the US, the pain escalated to excruciating levels — to the point where I was writhing on the floor, shaking all over, losing control of my bladder — and seemed to have lost its connection to feeding and was instead coming at any point in the day. After 4 or 5 days of this, I could stand it no longer and ended up in ER.
  • The ER doctor — stumped — referred me to a breast surgeon, who — baffled — referred me for mammograms (7) and ultrasounds (2). It was the radiologist — perplexed — who finally asked if I ate much soy and, upon hearing that I drank soy milk instead of dairy, declared that it was well-known that soy caused severe breast pain and told me to cut out the soy and watch my symptoms improve.
  • I did and they did — to a point. After two weeks of no soy milk, the pain had halved from utterly debilitating to merely disabling, and there it seemed to plateau. I began a witch-hunt for soy in other products and discovered, to my dismay, that it was in nearly everything that had a label attached, from rice milk to bread to salad dressing to herbal tea to my calcium tablets. I began to cut everything out that wasn’t confirmed 100% soy-free.
  • That process resulted in a truly radical overhaul of my diet, and took a lot of effort and quite a few failures along the way. I made the mistake of eating the family Easter meal even though I didn’t know all the ingredients, and I paid a painful price for it that same day. I discovered that eating out — anytime and anywhere — was impossible. I spent weeks living on toast and peanutbutter and a bit of fruit, before eventually fleshing out my diet to include plain meats, fresh veg and fruits, and carefully checked breads — nothing extra, nothing more.
  • During this process, it seemed that the pain came in quickly after eating anything with soy — more like a reaction than the result of a build up. My mother brought us a bowl of her jalapeno spicy beef one night and I was in pain within an hour — I rang her and asked her to check her labels (she hadn’t!) and there was soy in the tomato sauce she’d used and in the jar of jalapenos. My body had known and, with reactions as quick and clear as that, I began to wonder… perhaps it was actually an allergy?
  • In the meantime, I registered with an OB/GYN and met with the nurse-practitioner there, and registered with an internist/PCP (equivalent of a GP) and met the nurse-practitioner there. The first was as perplexed as everyone else and eventually prescribed an ultrasound of my gall-bladder, just for process-of-elimination purposes. I don’t think she’s right and haven’t booked the ultrasound yet — that’s another copay I can put off until next month. The second didn’t have any more insight than anyone before, but when I mentioned my thoughts on the possibility of an allergy, she jumped on it and suggested I see an allergist. I’d already got two such appointments lined up for the girls, so it was easy to make another for myself.
  • Through all this, the elimination diet seemed to be bringing about an improvement of sorts. I now had the occasional pain-free day, though when it returned, it was with particular intensity. And it had seemed to return to always occurring post-feed, just as it had been so long ago in England. It was better, to be sure, and yet… still it was there, still nearly every day, and I was sick of being in such pain — stopped in my tracks, hands to my chest, unable to speak — nearly every single day.

I went to see the allergist today. He had been so friendly during the previous two appointments for the girls, but now seemed a bit wary — perhaps he was wondering if this woman who had turned up in his office for three weeks running was actually some kind of allergy-fetishist with problems in her mind rather than her body. Undaunted, I explained everything to him, the story now so long and convoluted that I had actually written down notes so I didn’t mangle it or forget important details.

He didn’t believe it was an allergy. There were no supporting symptoms — no rash, no nose or breathing problems. He asked how old E2 was and how long I planned to continue breastfeeding her. I explained that I wanted to feed her until she wanted to stop and that, besides, I didn’t know what I would wean her onto — she’s allergic to dairy and I am most certainly not putting her onto a soy-based milk after all this! He suggested rice milk, and I explained (to his surprise) that I’d been unable to find one that didn’t contain soy. He mused aloud as to what she actually needed milk in her diet for… protein could be had from meats, calcium from other sources, vitamin D from supplements, and liquid from water or juice. I wanted to explain that it is so much more than milk… it is antibodies… it is comfort… it is bonding… it is so much a part of the kind of mother I want to be. But I felt he was already viewing me with suspicion, so I listened and mmmmm’d in reluctant agreement.

He said he could do a skin-prick test if I wanted, though he felt it was unnecessary and didn’t see any reason to recommend it. I said I’d like to do it anyway — at least it would rule out an allergy definitively, even though it would probably also confirm in his mind that I am a silly attention-seeking freak. He left while his nurse applied the test. It proved negative, which gives me confirmation that this is something I can eliminate from my concerns.

He was gone a long time and, when he returned, he told me he’d actually been on the phone consulting with his daughter, an OB/GYN in California. She had said that soy doesn’t cause pain in breasts — it’s progesterone that does that, not estrogen as is in soy — and, in fact, soy can soothe breast pain and they actually prescribe it to counteract the pain caused by progesterone-rich contraceptives. She had even checked on MediLine (?) to confirm it. He said that the radiologist must have got it wrong. And beyond that, he was at loss — just like everyone else. He explained, with practicality and resignation, that I had two choices: I could deal with the pain and carry on searching for an answer, or I could wean the baby. I could see which choice he felt was the more sensible, as he gazed down at my baby, standing on her own two feet, trying to talk, and rapidly becoming more of a toddler than a baby…

And so, I am confused. I am utterly and completely confused. Is it caused by soy? Is it soothed by soy? Is it due to feeding? Is weaning the only way of stopping the pain? Was the radiologist right? Is the allergist right? So long as I can find the answer, I don’t care what it is — I have no agenda. I am not against soy as such — if it turns out to not be caused by soy, I will be the overjoyed to jump back into a normal diet again. I will eat at restaurants again! I will buy what I fancy at the supermarket! I am not doing this to seek attention — I don’t need the endless appointments, the being poked and prodded, or emptying our bank account with copays. I just want this pain to stop. That’s it. We have a million difficult and stressful things to deal with at the moment, and I just want to end this pain being one of them. And… I don’t want to wean my daughter — my tiny, underweight, food-intolerant daughter — until she wants to.

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As the doctor was leaving, and the girls were rapidly and very vocally coming to end of their patience, I asked him about E2’s blood test results. Ah yes! He rushed through them: she is significantly allergic to egg, mildly allergic to dairy, borderline allergic (“it is hardly a positive at all, but it isn’t a negative…”) to soy, mildly allergic to bananas, wheat is a negative, and significantly allergic to a plethora of nuts, including peanuts. The results for avocado and oats aren’t in yet — I’m to ring next week for those.

The baby was yelling for her milk by now, and he had to repeat himself at times over the din. I stood up and bounced her on my hip as I asked, what does “significant” mean? He explained it in terms of E1’s reaction to egg — that reaction to a mere trace of egg clinging to piece of pepper she ate, which had caused her face to puff up quite shockingly, her eyes to begin to swell shut, and had her sobbing in distress, coughing and gagging violently, and tearing at her face so as to pull her very skin off and rip her eyes out. From her blood tests, E1’s egg reaction registered a 2.09 on his 0-10 “International Something-or-Another” allergy scale. E2’s nut reactions,by contrast, had all returned a result in the 10 range — these are very, very serious allergies. I asked, hopefully, if she might outgrow it? He said she might, but his expression showed clearly that he didn’t think it likely. The girls were fed up, their patience was gone, and he had to go — I never got a chance to ask about the other reactions.

When I got home, the reality of the whole appointment hit me… No answer about the pain (and I had been so damned hopeful!), my best option being to wean E2 before she’s ready, and these test results! Egg, dairy, and nuts… Try to think of foods that don’t contain any of them — any trace of them. They’re in everything — cakes, cookies, candies, cereals, Chinese food (peanut oil), anything with mayonnaise in it, hamburgers (egg to bind), meatballs, anything that’s been breaded… Egg shells are used to clarify coffee. Even breads and sweets are often brushed with milk or egg to make them glisten. So hard to avoid! And the nuts allergies (and possibly the egg) are to life-threatening levels!

I looked at my little girl, so unsteady on her spindly legs, at that moment bending down to pick something unknown off my kitchen floor, and I realised the implications of this. I would always need to worry about every tiny thing. I will be obsessively reading labels for nuts the way I have been for soy for the rest of her life, but not to avoid pain — to avoid death. I will be worried — life-and-death worried — every time I send her to a birthday party, or on a school trip, or to a slumber-party. If someone gives her the wrong thing… if she eats the wrong thing… will they know how to use the epipen?… will they take her to ER?… will they realise how serious an allergy is? It suddenly felt like a life sentence. It was too much. My tiny, tiny, precious daughter! How could I possibly protect her? How could I keep her safe from this?

I had wanted to sit down and talk it all through with the doctor much more than we’d been able. I wanted to go through her reactions properly, have each one explained so I understood it and knew how to handle it. I wanted to ask him a million questions (…we have to avoid food containing nuts, but do we have to avoid all traces of nuts?… what about food made on equipment that’s previously handled nuts?… do I need to stop eating nuts while I breastfeed?… are her spindly legs thick enough to use the epipen on, or will the needle jab into the bone?…). It seemed a hell of a bombshell to be dropped like that, in a rush, at the end of an appointment. I thought about ringing up and making another appointment to go through it all properly, but I felt sure that would put him over the edge of suspicion with me — four appointments in as many weeks would have me chalked up as an attention-seeking loony for sure.

It was all suddenly too big for me — so much stupid medical stuff, so much pain, and now this worry and all these swirling questions… I was sick of it all. I turned toward the kitchen sink and leaned heavily on the counter-top, my head sinking low, my hands in my hair. The girls were playing happily with some blocks and a doll behind me. I started sobbing and I couldn’t stop.

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