Muslim in America: Ramadan

This is part two of my conversation with Siddique, a Muslim American man living in Long Island. The idea to talk with Siddique came about when he posted on Facebook (we’re old college radio buddies) about the beginning of Ramadan last month. I gave it some thought and realized I knew two things about Ramadan: it’s considered a holy time for Muslims and it involves fasting. That was about it. And I figured I couldn’t be alone in my lack of knowledge.

It’s kind of crazy to me that our Muslim friends and neighbors are going through a month of fasting and prayers and celebration while the rest of us go on with life as usual. I mean, the world basically stops for Christmas, but Ramadan barely gets a mention on the local news. So, thanks again Siddique for taking the time to chat with me.

Caitlin: So, what is Ramadan?

Siddique: Ramadan is a month on the Islamic calendar in which Muslims have their fasting and really take an opportunity to be closer to God, to focus in on all the tenets surrounding Ramadan and what it preaches.

It’s a period of spiritual purification, that’s the simplest way to put it. But, it’s also a period of time which ties into fasting for us to recognise that there are those around the world who have it way worse than we do.

People might be wondering why the emphasis on this month. This month is when we believe the Quran was sent down, that our prophet received the message that eventually became the Quran. Those are the last 10 nights of this month which are considered the most powerful nights of the month. It is during those 10 nights that we believe the angel Gabriel revealed the verses of the Quran to our prophet. We believe there’s one night in particular in the last 10 nights, it’s called Laylatul-Qadr – the night of destiny, that’s the night we believe those verses were sent down, and on this night we believe prayers, or anything you do is multiplied beyond what they would ordinarily be.

If you’re wondering why this random month, the holiday that ran into the month, our calendar is based on the lunar calendar, so it does shift throughout the course of the year. Right now we’re doing an 18 hour fast but there was a period of time in which there were barely 11-12 hour fasts.

Caitlin: So tell me more about the fasting.

Siddique: Fasting is actually one of the five pillars of Islam, by pillar I mean one of the five tenets of Islam: fasting, prayer, charity, pilgrimage to Mecca. With that, there is a huge component of charity. Charity goes hand in hand with understanding that around the world there are people who are suffering, going through hunger, going through poverty, and that it’s a time for us to better understand what they’re going through. That’s the most simplistic way I can put it.

Fasting is the abstinence of food and drink from sunrise to sunset during the fast period. But beyond that there are other things we’re asked to abstain from: gossiping, committing the kind of sins we may ordinarily be accustomed to, from backbiting, saying curse words.

So it’s not just ‘let me starve myself for 17 to 18 hours’ and call it a day, it’s a spiritual purification – there are physical aspects and science has proven that increment fasting is of benefit to your body and health. The spiritual aspect is abstaining from those things that you would ordinarily commit during the year to your betterment. But, then also to supplement what it is that you wish to discourage – Muslims will engage in extra prayers, they’ll read the Quran, our holy book.

Caitlin: A typical day – sunrise to sunset, you are fasting but you’re going about your day, you’re going to work, you’re going to school or whatever it is you do, so then at sunset, is there something you do every day?

Siddique: So before sunrise we do a small feast. Some people will keep it simple, they’ll just keep it to breakfast foods, others will lean on certain cultural dishes or traditions passed down from generation to generation. Some will say these are high carb meals, some will say these are high protein meals; every culture has their different blessings. The meal is called ‘istar’, which is literally the breaking of the fast.

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Every culture has their own conventions as far as different meals, different delicacies that they’ll have, but the one commonality amongst Muslims, regardless of culture, is it’s advised to break the fast with a date. They are very common amongst middle-Eastern cultures and it is highly advised by Prophet Muhammad to break fast with a date. If you don’t have a date, if you’re at work, the second way that it’s advised to break your fast is just with water. Those are the two recommended ways. It is generally advised that you have a light meal, you don’t stuff your stomach, and it’s the first time you’ve eaten in 17-18 hours, so you don’t want to overload your system.

The cultural dishes tend to be fried and high calorie dishes. So as much as we talk about the health benefits, many have actually gained weight during this month. If you’re fasting for 18 hours, your body is ready to cling on to any substance that you put into your stomach, so when you’re putting in fried, sugary food that’s what your stomach’s clinging onto. Many end up gaining 5-6 pound in the month.

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Caitlin: Do you tend to spend more time with your family during this month?

Siddique: Absolutely. That’s a great question. One of the core elements of Ramadan is the time you spend with your family. Granted on weekdays it’s tough, people have school, people have work, it’s considered a blessing, but on weekends that’s where you will have big family get-togethers. It’s essentially a big dinner party. Because when you have big family get-togethers during the month, food is invariably going to be involved. Whenever you’re talking about a lot of immigrants and groups that come to this country, there are two big elements: family and food.

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Caitlin: You mentioned earlier that you’re waiting until fairly late to be able to start eating and then you need to be up fairly early to get that meal in before the day begins?

Siddique: I don’t blame anyone for thinking that’s a really long time, it is, but here I am talking to you from my air-conditioned office. I’m not working construction and I’m not outdoors in the Middle East. I’m in a lap of luxury right now so really the fast in and of itself is not difficult.

It’s more difficult in the beginning because for me and other people, I’m used to having 2-3 cups of coffee a day, that’s an adjustment that takes a couple of days that that overdose of coffee is not coming in the morning, and it’s not coming in the afternoon either.

I get more thirsty than hungry during the course of the day.

Just to give you an example, during the course of annoucing a game on TV or in public, I normally have a full bottle of water by my side to keep sipping on. I don’t have that luxury during Ramadan, so if it starts at 7 o’clock, I’m not breaking my fast until three quarters of the way through the game. So that’s one thing I tend to fail at a little bit more as far as fasting and how it may impact my day.

But other that personally, the day is long, but I’m in no duress or discomfort during the day. But for others, working in a factory or doing manual labour, something where you require water, I imagine it to be more difficult.

Caitlin: At what age do people start fasting for Ramadan?

Siddique: That’s a great question. Personally, I started aged 12, but it really varies. I’ve seen kids who started aged 9 and kids who don’t start until high school or towards the end of high school. If I had to give a solid age-range I would say most kids start between the ages of 10 and 12.

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Caitlin: Is it a family decision, not like a hard-fast guideline?

Siddique: Yes, usually the family dictate that kind of thing. They can ask the kid if they’re ready or they feel up to it, but generally they will have their own timeline; there is no hard-fast timeline, not to my knowledge at least.

Caitlin: Is there ever an exception for people who are ill or pregnant or that sort of thing?

Siddique: Absolutely. There are exceptions, if you’re not physically capable, if a woman is pregnant, if somebody is beyond a certain age, if you’re travelling, there is a soft area. When I say travelling, this rule was made generally when people travelled on camel or walking for miles and miles on end, so it is a bit different now like if I’m travelling to New Jersey, that’s not exactly a reason not to fast. We believe that God is not going to ask something of you that you’re not physically capable of.

Caitlin: For you what’s the best part of Ramadan and is it something you look forward to?

Siddique: Other than the family dinners and get-togethers and stuff like that, I enjoy the nightly prayers. It’s something many Muslims feel is a way for them to continue to spiritually enhance the experience to bring them closer to God. In Islam there are 5 daily prayers – there’s one very early morning, 2 during the course of the day and 2 at night – 1 at sundown and one later during the night.

As far as what I enjoy most about the optional nightly prayers, I do enjoy the fact that there is a spiritual aspect. I feel I’m making the most of the Ramadan experience and there is a belief that these are activities that bring you closer to God and help you further spiritually purify yourself.

Another aspect of this month is that it is one where your prayers are enhanced. Things you want and pray for are enhanced because you are closer to god during this month. The common ones are to pray for forgiveness, the health and well-being of others, world peace, things that you want – difficulties in your family, in your own life that you’re trying to overcome. I enjoy that and the aspect of feeling closer to God.

But then there’s another aspect that I enjoy, every night of the month my friends are there, people I’ve known for years are there. It’s cool that we’ve done our prayers and are all hanging out, there’s a big courtyard in our mosque and they’ll have people serving food and tea, and the idea that on a nightly basis you’ve undergone spiritual purification, and now you’re getting to hang about, have a few laughs with your friends, the people you know, your community, that’s what I look forward to most during the month.

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Caitlin: Thank you so much for chatting with me about Ramadan, and yesterday’s more general post about being Muslim in America. I really appreciate it.

Siddique: I encourage non-Muslims to ask these kind of questions, to get to know their neighbours better, because there are Muslim populations in all major cities. These are opportunities for us to break down walls, to better know another segment of the American populace, and conversely an opportunity for Muslims to get to better know their neighbours, and people who might not have an understanding of who their neighbours are.

I feel this is the kind of month that allows people to get to know each other, for some of the misunderstanding to be worked out, for there to be more dialogue, more conversation. The mere fact someone like you is asking me these questions, that media outlets around the country are asking mosques about Ramadan opens up an opportunity for dialogue, for better understanding, I feel this is the kind of thing this country needs and gives people a better understanding of what it means to be Muslim, and gives Muslims the opportunity to find out what some people’s concerns are.

People have questions and if they’re not asking the right people those questions, those questions lead to many misunderstandings and that’s not how to go about it. The way to go about it is to have a dialogue, so that you have better mutual understanding, and that’s how you forward society.

I know it’s a very small initiative, but I think it’s one of those things during this month – what is Ramadan, why do people do it and what can come of it, that that’s one small goal we can accomplish and we’ll all be better for it.

 

Images c/o Siddique Farooqi

Expecting a baby after years of struggle

Since 2009, Jen has gone through four miscarriages, an ectopic pregnancy, multiple rounds of fertility treatments, the loss of a fallopian tube, and her husband underwent urological surgery. Now, after seven years, Jen is happy to be 8 months pregnant with a baby girl, Emersyn. We spoke a few weeks ago about what it’s like to be on the other side of infertility after years of struggles.

Photo credit: http://ashleykemper.smugmug.com

Caitlin: So last fall you find out that you are pregnant, for the 6th time. At that point, are you cautiously happy?

Jen: Every time.

Caitlin: You feel happy and excited every time?

Jen: Yes, like you’ve said, I’m cautiously happy. I think, maybe this is the time. Maybe this is going to be it. But of course in the back of your mind, there’s always that constant paranoia. I worry I’m going to go to the bathroom and I’ll be bleeding. That’s the mindset. It took me a long time to feel relaxed with this pregnancy. When we found out it was a girl, I was like okay. Maybe I can relax.

Caitlin: Those milestones make you feel like, okay, maybe this really is going to happen?

Jen: Every ultrasound is huge. We had one at four weeks, we had one at six weeks. Then another at eight and then another nine, fifteen, and eighteen weeks. It’s wonderful to see her on that screen. She’s healthy and she is okay but at the back of my mind, I’m wonder, when is the other shoe going to drop or something bad going to happen?

Caitlin: Do you feel scared, even now?

Jen: Yes.

Caitlin: I think that every pregnant women does, to be honest. I didn’t have any trouble getting pregnant, but it was the same sort of thing for me. Every ultrasound it felt a little more real. I was like okay, this is happening. You’ve gone through so much, so I imagine why that anxiety would be just multiplied for you.

Jen: What a lot of people don’t realize is, 65% of first pregnancies end up in miscarriage. (With our first pregnancy) I said okay, maybe we were a part of that 65% and everything after will be fine. Maybe it was just a fluke, and then it kept happening. At some point you realize, something is not right. It was hard to want to try again. It was hard when we found out that we were pregnant this time.

I kind of had a feeling, we had ran half of a marathon over the weekend. Something just felt off. And my husband said, maybe you are pregnant. I took the tests and it was instantenous. It was one of those, okay how is this one going to go?

Caitlin: You’ve always been open about your struggles to have a baby. You share your story on Facebook and on your blog, kyleandjensmith.blogspot.com. Why did you make that decision and how did that work for you?

Jen: Well, we didn’t talk about it the first time that it had happened. That was really hard. Only our family knew. So, since then, I’ve tried to tell people what we were going through. I couldn’t imagine going through everything that we’ve been gone through and not talking about it. I think it makes it worse.

My husband said if you’re comfortable with sharing, I’m on board. I think when you haven’t been in the position that we’ve been in, it’s kind of hard to understand why we are so open. It’s a comfort thing. It’s something that happened. I don’t have to walk around with a smile on my face because people know what’s going on and and they understand. It just made it easier knowing that people did know.

I also think, it’s an educational thing. I don’t think people understand how common this is. They don’t realize, one in eight couples deal with infertility and pregnancy loss on a very recurrent basis.

We’re trying to help others that are going through the same thing and dealing with it. Not knowing where to go, what to do. What programs are available to help them? That’s helped me. If I  can help someone else by sharing our story, then I’m perfectly okay with that.

Caitlin:  For people maybe who have friends or family who are dealing with infertility. What do you think is important for them to know? For them to be the best support for their family member ?

Jen: Just be good at listening. If someone in your life is dealing with infertility, just listen. Let them cry, let them get their feelings out. For me, that was huge. I called my sister and she let me go off on a rant if I was having a bad day about it. The little things can make all the difference for someone who is going through it.

I think some of the hardest things for me was one of the family members or friends getting pregnant, and they were afraid to tell me. Don’t be afraid just tell me. It made things so much harder, if you apologize a million times.

Caitlin: I feel like that puts you into a really awkward position. You shouldn’t have to be reassuring the pregnant person.

Jen: My sister got pregnant when I just had had a miscarriage. She texted me, tell me to call her. I called her and said, “You’re pregnant aren’t you?” She got real quiet and she said yes. She began to apologize.

Being pregnant is not something you should apologize for. Just because someone else has problems doesn’t mean that we don’t have the ability to be happy for somebody else. People need to understand that. We don’t lose feelings for everyone who is able to have kids.

Caitlin: Now you are on the other side. You are one of the lucky ones to be able to pregnant. What has it been like for you switching roles here?

Jen: It’s very surreal. I wake up every day, I’m like okay, this is happening. I will say, though, it doesn’t take away all the pain I’ve been through. We have five babies that are not here. That kills me every single day. To wonder what could have been. I still think about those other ones. We are very lucky, but she doesn’t replace the ones we lost.

I want to be an advocate for those who are struggling. Yes, I am on the other side but at the same time, it doesn’t negate everything that has got us to this point. We’ll never forget that.

Caitlin: That’s a part of who you are know, I imagine.

Jen: It is, very much.

Caitlin: What are you most looking forward to now?

Jen: Everything. The next milestone. I have my glucose test coming up and people joke about how hard that is.

Caitlin: Oh, that’s nothing after what you’ve been through!

Jen: Yeah, I’ll sit there, I’ll be fine.

I’m excited about all the little things. Having her, teaching her, and supporting her. It’s the little things that we’ve wanted since we got married almost eight years ago. We are so excited and our families are so excited.

A lot of people didn’t think it was going to happen and I can’t blame them. I didn’t think either. I thought it was just going to be disappointment after disappointment.

Caitlin: What do you think you’ve learned about yourself on this journey?

Jen: I’m a lot stronger than I give myself credit for. With my first miscarriage, I was like, I cannot do this again. I can’t keep going, I can’t go through that again. I realized just how determined I was to make this happen.

I’m tough, I’m strong, and I can push through for myself and Kyle. It made us grateful. I wouldn’t change anything.

Image courtesy Jen Smith

Photo credit: http://ashleykemper.smugmug.com

A foster mom at 22

This summer I came across a blog post that immediately caught my eye. It was about a 22 year old woman named Allison and her fiance who had just become foster parents to a little girl. I think it takes extraordinary generosity and bravery for two people as young as Allison and her fiance to open their home to a child in need. As it turns out, Allison (pictured below) and I have some friends in common and she agreed to chat with me about her experience so far.

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Caitlin: So, you’re 22 and you’re a foster mother. That’s pretty unusual! What inspired you and your fiance to even be interested in being foster parents?

Allison: We had heard an advertisement for it on the radio when the House of the Good Shepherd was recruiting foster parents about a year ago. They had an orientation coming up, so we talked about it, and since we both love children it seemed like a great fit.

I particularly have a connection to children because I taught dance for years. Also, there’s ten years between my younger brother and I so I’ve really been exposed to children a lot and I love working with them. This seemed like a great way to help a child who was in a less fortunate situation.

So about a year ago we went through the training. This involved a 12 week course that included home studies, inspections, and background checks. Our initial goal was just to provide respite care, as needed. Respite care is temporary care for children who are in the foster care system when their foster family needs a short break, for whatever reason.

Since we became certified, we have cared for four children in respite care between the ages of 9 and 13. About four months ago, we had Sweet Pea* for respite care over a weekend and really enjoyed her company! She’s a young, outgoing girl, so you can imagine the fun and entertainment she provides. When we were told that she needed a new foster placement the following week, we decided to take her in full time.

Caitlin: So, how much time is there between finding out she needs a home, and her moving in with you?

Allison: We had a little less than a week. In this particular situation, we had great contact with her family which made things a lot easier. Typically, the agency is the middleman between the foster family and biological family. But, in our circumstance, we were fortunate to begin to build a relationship with her family to make sure that we were well enough prepared for the transition. I mean, as prepared as you can be.

Caitlin: What do you hear from people when they hear you’re 22 and a foster parent?

Allison: You know what I found, actually? When I’m out by myself with Sweet Pea, I understand what a young, single mom feels like. It was really hard to get over the way I felt people were judging me. I think people see me with Sweet Pea and make assumptions. When they find out I’m a foster parent, they’re attitude changes and they are very supportive of it. That’s great, but I think it should make people think twice before they judge someone.

Caitlin: This is probably such a broad question, but how did your life change?

Allison: It’s really difficult to prepare yourself for that transition. As much as I was around children growing up, there’s nothing that gives that preparation for taking on a child full time and, of course, there’s no manual that come along with parenting. So, you take a lot of trial and error.

But, I would say the biggest adjustment was time management. I work full time as Manager of Business Development for Washington Street Properties, I own a dance wear store, I own a photo booth business, I had just stopped teaching dance for the summer. I also won the title of Miss Thousand Islands a few weeks after she came into my care. And, of course, I’m engaged so I had that relationship along with family life and friends that I had to juggle with her and her schedule – day care, swimming, dance, gymnastics, etc.

I knew it would be difficult for her to be taken from everything she’s known so I thought distractions like dance and gymnastics would be a good way to help her adjust. To learn that change can be a good thing.

We got her on a Sunday so I took Monday off because I didn’t think it was fair to her to be sent right to daycare. I also was fortunate to have my Mom watch her the rest of the week to help with the adjustment. My parents are really supportive and are just as attached to Sweet Pea as I am. She’s just a doll. So, that week was just us getting to know her and getting used to a new schedule.

And, of course, with any child, you have to handle behavioral issues – especially with a child who’s been through several different homes. It’s mostly testing to see what the boundaries are. Sweet Pea didn’t have many boundaries in any of the homes she’s been in, so it was difficult for her to adjust to a schedule, stability, and consequences for actions. So that was difficult for her and for us to figure out.

Caitlin: So, you guys have done some really fun stuff. You took Sweet Pea to Disney World. What a dream!

Allison: Yes, before I took Sweet Pea in I was already planning to go on this trip so when she came along, it was perfect timing. I was so excited to be able to give her the opportunity to experience something so magical. She didn’t know where we were going until we got there. She said she had heard of Disney and had seen commercials for it on TV, but she didn’t know what to expect at all. She saw the castle and all the rides and was just amazed by it. My little brother also joined us for the trip. The best part about it for me was just seeing her reaction and watching her take in the whole experience.

Caitlin: Oh my gosh, that’s so cool. What’s been the most rewarding part of the experience for you so far?

Allison: Just having her in my life is an amazing experience that I feel very blessed to have had, but I am particularly happy to be involved with all of the progress I’ve seen her make. When she came into our care she wasn’t used to having any structure or stability so that’s something we’ve been working on. She’s come a long way and it’s so rewarding to assist in creating a better life for her.

Caitlin: Do you know what the future holds? Can there be a day that comes and she’s gone? Or could she be adopted at some point?

Allison: It’s difficult to say. Generally, across the board for foster care, it’s something that’s scary to think about. Things can change at any minute and you really don’t have any control over that. You can make suggestions, but you really have no way to sway things one way or another.

With Sweet Pea, it’s difficult to see what the future holds. I can say that if the opportunity for adoption was made available to me, I wouldn’t hesitate to move forward with it. But if it doesn’t, she will always remain an integral part of my life in some capacity. It’s very important for me to build a relationship with her family so that I will have the ability to stay involved.

Caitlin: How do you guard your heart in all of this? I mean, do you?

Allison: It’s something that’s been discussed a lot between my fiance and I. For me, it is natural to treat her as if she were my own, whereas he feels that she should be treated differently. I can’t replace her mom and I would never try to, but at the same time, she’s very young and needs the nurturing and care that a mom would provide. Because of that, I’ve tried to build a strong relationship with her to be sure she’s developing in a way that’s appropriate.

As a foster parent, you work hand in hand with a therapist and case workers who provide advice that is crucial in a situation like this. They’ve encouraged me to build that relationship so she has someone who is safe for her. Someone who is going to provide the safety and structure that she needs.

So as we’ve bonded and built up our relationship, I’ve realized that it’s impossible to guard your heart against the things that could happen. It’s important to take things one day at a time and trust that everything happens for a reason. It’s just my hope that by keeping a great relationship with her family, if she goes back to them, they’ll allow me to still be in her life.

Caitlin: I think being a foster parent is such a noble cause. When I think about whether or not I could be a foster parent, those are the things I think about. I mean, your heart might be broken at some point in the process. What advice would you give someone who was thinking about being a foster parent?

Allison: There are a lot of ways to be involved besides being a full time foster parent. For example, there are Court Appointment Special Advocates (CASA workers). In this position, you volunteer to be assigned to a child and become the eyes and ears of the case. You go to home visits and court cases and  try to access the situations in each case as best you can and then report to the judge. They attempt to be an unbiased source who is working on behalf of the child.

Also, when we first started, we just did respite care. This helps to ease concerns about attachment because you only have the child for a few days. However, if you really enjoy working with a certain child, you might be given the opportunity to have the same child for respite care multiple times.

There are also volunteers for transportation for children in foster care. Volunteer Transport Services in Watertown is very helpful when transportation becomes difficult.

But, if someone decides they want to be a full time foster parent, I think they need to realize your job is to do what’s best for the child, although that might not always feel like what’s best for you. You tend to see one side of the case, but there’s two sides to every story.

You still might end up with a broken heart at the end of the day if things don’t go the way you hoped, but you have to understand that there’s a reason for the choices that are made and everyone has the child’s best interest at heart.

Caitlin: How does having a young child in your home impact your relationship as you plan to get married? I guess you really get to see what kind of parent your partner will be.

Allison: Yeah, we have had different opinions on what a “mom” is versus a “foster mom” and a “dad” versus a “foster dad.” My fiance has been much more guarded with his relationship with Sweet Pea to try to protect his heart. So if the day comes that she has to move on, he wants to make sure he’s not attached to the point where it’s too difficult to let go.

Caitlin: He must be worried about your heart, too.

Allison: Yeah. I’m her primary caregiver so I spend a lot more time with her. I think that’s definitely a concern of both of ours. I’ve built up such a strong relationship with her that will not easily be broken.

You certainly do learn things about how someone interacts with children. Our approach is unconventional but is an eye opener before marriage.

Thank you so much Allison for taking the time to chat, and most of all, for your generous heart. You’re an inspiration to all of us to consider what more we can do in our own lives to help others. Best wishes to your family!

Image courtesy Allison

*named changed for privacy

 

10 years and 2 kids later

Think back to when you were 19 years old. What were you doing? What was important to you?

I was a sophomore in college. I had just chosen my new major and was just about to get together with my now husband, Rob. Thinking back on it now, a lot of the important puzzle pieces of my life came together that year. But, really, I was just a kid.

That’s where we find Jessica in today’s post. 19 years old, a sophomore in college. And pregnant.

Jessica shares what she felt in the moment and what’s she learned ten years and two kids later.

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Caitlin: So, you became pregnant when you were 19, unplanned and unexpected. Tell me about finding out you were pregnant for the first time and some of those details you’re willing to share.

Jessica: Yes! Well, I was starting my sophomore year of college and dating (my now husband) Kevin for about eight months at the time.  I had recently gone off of birth control because of mood swings, and we had unprotected sex once when I became pregnant. I can very vividly remember, haha. I obviously should have been protecting myself, but my first appointment with a gynecologist as a teenager determined I had a tilted uterus, which is not terribly uncommon, but my uterus was tilted at a different angle from most. The gynecologist told me it would lead to trouble getting pregnant.

Back to the unprotected sex, I had started training for lacrosse season that spring, and so when my period was late I kept thinking that it was because I was running more. One morning I decided to pick up a pregnancy test, my very first one, and immediately started crying when I read the positive result.

Caitlin: So, tears can mean so many things. What emotions were you feeling? All of them?

Jessica: Honestly, probably not any on the joyous spectrum, but instead mostly shock and confusion, with some “what am I going to do” thrown in there.

Caitlin: So, how did you decide what to do?

Jessica: I only told a few of my closest friends in an attempt to gain some perspective. I did not tell my mom though because I knew she would be supportive to the point of excitement, and I wasn’t processing the pregnancy just yet. You know, EVERY decision in that situation is life-changing. You cannot undo anything.  And so in hindsight I knew what my decision would be, but I wanted to get there myself.

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Caitlin: I think it’s a great way to explain it. Do you remember what your biggest fears were at the time?

Jessica: Honestly, very selfish fears, like how I would miss out on experiences and opportunities, how I was not ready to settle down, and how I had no clue what I was doing.

Caitlin: So, you and Kevin decided to get married. How did you make that decision?

Jessica: Again, I am going to be brutally honest, but I never made the decision.  It has been something that I have struggled with for years.  It was just sort of assumed by (I guess) our families and us that if I was going to have a baby, we were going to get married.  Sounds crazy, right?  But it all happened in such quick succession that it’s almost a blur.

Caitlin: I know you’ve struggled some with feeling like you’ve missed out on things that most young people get to experience because you were married with a baby at the age of 20. If you’re willing to talk about it, can you share some of that?

Jessica: Sure!  Actually, one of the first things my mom said to me when I told her that I was pregnant was that anything you can do without a baby can be done with a baby. It still astonishes me that she said this, because in my experience, there are so many things you cannot do once you have a baby. You are always considering someone else who is completely reliant on you. This can be very limiting if you are not ready to take on that responsibility. In hindsight I don’t feel like I missed out on any experiences, but that is perspective that I’ve gained over the years. At the time, the experience of young motherhood was isolating.

Caitlin: So, the important part, tell me about your baby girl and what it was like being a new mom so young?

Jessica: I realize how cliché it might sound, but she is the love of my life. She is a miracle, and if I would have never gotten unexpectedly pregnant, I would be missing out on this precious soul that brings so much quality into my life. Even when she was little I would say that I genuinely enjoy hanging out with her. She has such capacity for kindness and humor (although I have to hide my giggles when she cries during Disney movies).

Like I said, the experience was isolating, because no one around me was going through it. But in a way, I am actually incredibly grateful for that, because I never asked anyone else for advice. I approached everything with her from the perspective that she and I would figure it out together. This allowed me to evaluate my own comfort level with aspects of mothering; for instance, I breastfed Cambrie for eighteen months, and it gave me such confidence.  It also keeps me from giving other mothers unwarranted advice. My usual go-to is, “You’ll figure it out.” Everyone is figuring it out.

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Caitlin: Yeah I think that’s great. We’re at a time in our lives now where SO many people are having babies and I can see how easy it would be to compare yourself to the people around you. I think it’s great that you were able to just do your thing. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention your second baby girl. What was it like being a mother for the second time at a little more typical an age (although still kind of young)?

Jessica: Haha, yes, thank you for reminding me! Harper is the complete opposite of Cambrie. She is rough and tumble, and is still learning the empathy that Cambrie seemed to be born with. My dad actually calls Harper the Heartbreaker because of her personality. She is certainly my wild child, but it is so much fun because she adds such a dynamic to every situation, even the mundane.

One thing about having both Cambrie & Harper on the younger side is that I sort of took for granted getting pregnant and having healthy babes, whereas our friends who are having their firsts now have a completely different appreciation than I did.

Caitlin: Did you ever feel judged by other people for having kids so young? And getting married young?

Jessica: YES.  Absolutely. When I was pregnant with Cambrie I would never leave the house without my engagement and/or wedding band. I felt like it would give people the wrong impression about me, that I was irresponsible and what have you. But even that experience really encouraged me to decide what kind of person I wanted to be. In a way, I was projecting those insecurities because I felt them myself.

But the older I get, the less self-conscious and critical I am. People and circumstances are so complex, and there is so much gray in the world. It doesn’t serve anyone to assume anything. Nowadays I welcome any questions about how old I am, how old my daughters are, what I am doing in my life, because I am happy and content with those things, even if it took me all of my twenties to get there.

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Caitlin: Ah, excellent point to wrap up. What have you learned about yourself in the last ten years that you’ve been a mom and wife, however unexpectedly?

Jessica: I’ve learned that life has a way a giving us what we need when we need it, and whatever path you choose will serve you. There are no right or wrongs, just choices. It’s all about kindness and humor and deep breathing.

Images courtesy Jessica

 

Leaving domestic violence behind: Surviving to thriving

Domestic violence usually lurks in the darkness. We know it affects families of all kinds, but we rarely talk about it. I think if you’ve never been in an abusive relationship, it’s hard to understand why someone stays. It’s hard to comprehend how abuse can go on for years and years.

So, I wanted to talk to someone who could help us all better understand the point of view of someone who has lived with abuse. Thank you to Laurel House for putting me in touch with Wendy, a woman who stayed with her abusive husband for 20 years before leaving for good. And thank you, Wendy, for your strength, your bravery, and your honesty.

Caitlin: So, I understand you were married to your husband who was your abuser for 20 years. Tell me a little bit about that relationship and some of that background.

Wendy: Well, I grew up in a dysfunctional home. I was just rejected a lot when I was younger. My mom was married three times and her third husband turned out to be abusive.

I met my husband when I was only 20 and the abuse started right away. I had three kids by the time I was 25 and my husband was constantly accusing me of having affairs. It could be with anybody… the neighbor, my pastor, my brother-in-law. You know, extreme jealousy. It isolated me from family and friends. So, I just lived with constant accusations of things I didn’t do. He would grill me to the point where I would say the truth, but that wasn’t good enough, and he’d tell me I was lying, and I wound up with memory loss from that trauma.

Caitlin: Did it make you question what was an actual memory and what were you just saying to go along with him?

Wendy: Yeah, exactly.

Caitlin: Wow. Was he ever physically abusive?

Wendy: Yeah, he was physically abusive, but not all the time. He punched me in the face when I was pregnant. He blocked the doorway so I couldn’t leave. He put his hand over my mouth so I couldn’t breathe. He pushed me into things when I was holding the baby. Just a lot of violence, yeah.

Caitlin: Just talking about it, does it bring up those old feelings?

Wendy: Yeah, in fact, I was thinking about it today knowing that we were going to have this talk. It’s been seven years. I have a whole new life now. But, everytime I think about it, it brings back the trauma.

Caitlin: You know, people have been talking a lot about domestic violence as it’s been in the headlines recently and there’s been the question, why do women stay? And you stayed with your husband for 20 years. I think a lot of people have a hard time understanding that. When you look back, why do you think you stayed for all those years?

Wendy: Yeah, I can tell you why I stayed. People ask, why do you stay? Why do you put up with that abuse? But, they don’t understand that when you have to leave, you’re not just leaving your husband. You’re leaving your community, your home. It’s great if there’s a shelter, but there’s rules, there’s curfews. It’s really hard to leave. And then you wonder, how are you going to make it on your own? Especially when you have kids.

Caitlin: And I know a symptom of abuse is believing that you can’t make it on your own, that you need your abuser to survive. Did you feel that way?

Wendy: Oh definitely, because he brainwashed me. “Nobody will ever love you like I do, Wendy. You’re not going to be able to find a job, you’re not smart enough.” I had three small kids, and I believed him at the time. I had low self-esteem and I needed him. I did. I felt trapped. I couldn’t leave him and I couldn’t stay. It was a horrible place to be.

Caitlin: Was he ever abusive to your children?

Wendy: Yes. I have three older children and he was physically and mentally abusive to them. Seven years later, they’re still having a lot of problems.

Caitlin: Did the people in your life know about the abuse?

Wendy: They did. I would go to my friends crying, and they’d say, “Wendy you need to leave him, you should call the police.” But, he’d isolate me from my family and friends. If I would leave him (and stay with friends) and then come back he would accuse those friends of taking our kids away from him. And then they would get mad at me and then I wouldn’t be able to go back to them.

Caitlin: Did you leave several times before you left for good?

Wendy: Too many times to count. They say it takes 7-8 times to leave. I left probably twice a year for 20 years. People say, “Why did you go back?” Well, I loved him.

Caitlin: So, how did you finally leave? Tell me that story.

Wendy: It was May 27, 2007 on my daughter’s 19th birthday. I was trying to make her day special and he accused me once again of having an affair with a neighbor, and he screamed, as always. And I said, “I can’t take it anymore.” It was the last straw. I had been thinking for a couple of months of how I could leave and get a job. I had my fourth baby a couple years earlier and I didn’t want him to have to go through what my older kids went through. That was it, I had enough. It was time to leave.

Caitlin: How did you do it?

Wendy: I stayed at a couple different women’s shelters, including Laurel House. I was a mess. Just so upset. I knew I was making the right decision, but still, it’s really hard to leave. And, as crazy as it sounds, I still loved him. So, I had a lot of emotions. But, the counselors were very helpful and got me into a job training program and I got my life together.

Caitlin: What’s good about your life that you couldn’t have imagined seven years ago?

Wendy: Everything. I have a wonderful life. I have a life of freedom. I can come and go as I please. I don’t have anyone checking on me, 24/7. No one asks what men I talked to, or where did you go, what did you do, all in the name of “love.” I have the freedom to go where I want, and do what I want. I have much more self-confidence.

Caitlin: Has your strength surprised you?

Wendy: Definitely. I learned how strong I am. And how going through this brought my faith in God stronger. And I want to help people. I want to help women who are going through this, and give them hope for their future.

Caitlin: So you volunteer at Laurel House and work with women who are leaving abusive situations. What has that been like for you?

Wendy: It’s wonderful. It means I didn’t go through it all for nothing. I get there and I say, “Look, I was standing in your shoes. I know exactly what you’re going through and I’m here to give you hope.” I made it and I’m working. I’m taking care of my kids. You don’t have to put up with abuse. There is a better life out there.

 

If you’re in an abusive relationship, don’t keep it to yourself. You can reach out to The National Domestic Violence Hotline. Do you have a friend or family member in an abusive relationship? Here are some tips to help.

Image: Kathleen Christiansen

 

Transitioning to happiness

That is a “before and progress” picture of Kieran, who is currently in the process of transitioning from female to male. Kieran told me he is “an open book” and that I could ask him whatever questions I wanted. Thank you to Kieran for answering my questions so honestly and for sharing so much information!

Caitlin: When do you first remember struggling with your gender? Can you share a bit of your back story?

Kieran: When I was in first grade, I have a distinct memory of saying things like “If I were a boy, I would like…” I absolutely was a “tomboy” and played primarily with boys toys. Around that time, my very young uncle used to tell me stories that started with “When I was a little girl…” He told me that little girls turned into boys around 11 years old and vice versa. I was beyond excited and looked forward to this like you could not imagine. At some point, I obviously realized that was not going to happened and was pretty sad.

I continued to feel like I was basically just an awkward tomboy for a number of years. Around 13 or 14, I realized that I was exclusively attracted to women. I still tried to have boyfriends, because I was not really able to come to terms with that. I still had this thing in the back of my head that I didn’t really understand. Through my teens, I would date guys that I wanted to be like, not that I actually wanted to be with, but I hadn’t yet been exposed to the transgendered community and so I sort of just chalked that up to being a lesbian. I dated a few women in my teens as well. I had a fair number of other issues when I was a teen, so it was hard to understand everything I was dealing with.

At around 18 or 19, I was exposed to what it meant to be trans. I was in college and was meeting more people and also took a LGBT history class. A giant lightbulb went off in my head and everything suddenly made sense. I talked to all of my friends at the time and began to live life as a male for a short period of time. I had been out as a lesbian and only dating women for a while. I finally felt good in my own skin when presenting as male and was happy.

I told people back home and it did not go nearly as well. I freaked out and thought that perhaps all of this was related to some other issues I was having. I reverted WAY back in the closet and started dating a guy pretty seriously when I was 19. That obviously was a disaster and didn’t last.

At 20, I started dating a woman. A year or so into dating her, I let her know about being trans. I attended trans support groups and was pretty ready to make a transition. The problem at the time was that many people that were transitioning when I was 20 were in the 35-45 year old range. People waited longer. And, it was expensive and not as available as it is now. So, I had made a decision that I would wait a few years.

Before I got to the point that I was going to transition, I got a job at Friendship Hospital for Animals. I decided that when I left Friendship, I would transition after I left that job but before starting whatever job I took next. At the time, there were not protections for being trans in the workplace and it was rare that people would transition while staying in a job.

So, I waited. And waited. And waited. And nearly 15 years went by and I was still at Friendship.

I started dating my wife, Caitie, in 2006, and she was aware before we started dating. I continued to hide it from some people at work (some knew) until February of this year. At that point, I felt like I just needed to transition whether that meant staying or leaving the job I love. I made sure all of the managers that reported directly to me knew and then I told my boss. It went well. (More on that below)

Caitlin: I understand that you are married with children. Can you talk a little bit about how your family affected your decision and this process?

Kieran: I am. (My wife Caitie and I) have 3 kids– a 4.5 old son and 2.5 year twins (a boy and a girl). The kids have called me “Baba.” Caitie picked it, it worked for me. We figured, since I had not transitioned, if they called me “Dad” out in public, it might confuse people and be difficult for my kids to understand if people made comments. And, there was no chance we were going to have them call me Mom or anything like that. So, Baba it is.

My family is the main reason that I finally pulled the trigger. I have struggled with depression and anxiety for about 20 years, much of it related to severe body dysmorphia (I refused to look in mirrors, for a while drank kind of heavily to self medicate, etc), and just a complete uneasiness with who I “was” to the outside world. However, I just resigned myself to being miserable. But, as our oldest started school, it became clear that something needed to be done. He has always referred to me as a boy. He never even asked, he just knew that there were 3 boys in our family and 2 girls.Well, kids and teachers at school didn’t necessarily see the same thing and that was confusing. I felt like I needed to fix that.

I also felt like if I wanted nothing more in life than for my kids to be happy, then I had a responsibility to be an example and be who I was supposed to be. So, I mustered up the courage and took the plunge.  

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Caitlin: Tell me a little bit about what the process is like. Where are you in the process? How are you feeling?

Kieran: Sure. The process is slightly different for everyone who goes through it. Continue reading

The first day of kindergarten

First of all, I can’t believe some kids went back to school before Labor Day. I always remember Labor Day as the final day of summer and being equal parts bummed and excited that school was starting the next day (okay, mostly excited.) But, last week a lot of kids went back to school. So, I wanted to talk to a mom about her experience sending her little one off to school for the first time.

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Caitlin: Did you do anything special to help your son, B, prepare for kindergarten?

Jessica: We talked about kindergarten A LOT! B didn’t attend preschool so this is his first experience leaving me every day to go somewhere else.  We drove past his school a lot, and  we also would walk there in the summer and play on the playground.  We wanted him to be familiar with the school and I think it helped that he experienced some of those things with me and my husband, Hans. So, it was in his safe zone and he felt comfortable which I think helped him prepare to go up there for his first day.

Caitlin: Any trouble sleeping the night before?

Jessica: Haha, well B didn’t seem to have any trouble sleeping.  I kept waking up in a panic and looking at the clock to make sure we didn’t oversleep since we weren’t used to being on any type of schedule! Usually the mornings that we have something to do, my kids sleep in and we are late so I didn’t want that to happen the first time I was sending my boy to school!

Caitlin: So, tell me about that morning, getting ready and then finally, saying goodbye?

Jessica: Well, Monday was his orientation. The rest of the district began school on Monday, but kindergarten only came in with their parents and met their teacher. For some reason I was more emotional facing this day than I was on Tuesday when he went without us. We made a big deal about Monday. My parents came over in the morning and stayed with my daughters, Lila and Kensley. We took pictures out front and both Hans and I went with him to his orientation.

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On Tuesday, he was ready. We put the girls in the stroller and headed up to the school. Once we are there, we give kisses and B goes into the school yard and we stay on the fence and watch him walk in with his class!

Caitlin: Who was more nervous, you or him?

Jessica: Ha, well it’s funny. When B was little he would scream if we left him. We couldn’t leave him in church nursery without a huge fit when we walked out. Over the years, as he has gotten older, he has gotten better, but we usually only leave him in familiar situations (church, family, close friends), so I was really nervous watching him cause I didn’t know what to expect. B is typically pretty shy when he doesn’t know someone so watching him in a whole new world where he knew no one made me nervous for him because I thought he would be nervous. But, he totally played it cool and I was the one sweating it out!

Caitlin: What was the first day like for you, at home without him?

Jessica: My three year old daughter, Kensley, is loving the one on one time with me. There aren’t many days that I get to spend time with just her so now that B is in School and Lila (9 months) is taking her morning nap, Kenz and I get some quality time together. I am excited for this the most.  I really feel like it will be very valuable to her and also to me.

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Caitlin: What was the first day like for Brayden? Did he come home with any good stories?

Jessica: He loved it! He didn’t necessarily come home with any good stories, but he did come home with his shirt on backwards! After taking off a smock he must have gotten mixed up and put his shirt on the wrong way. Hans and I just laughed. He also was excited to let me know that one boy in his class had a Paw Patrol school bag (that’s his favorite show). It’s cute to see the things that he picks up on when I am not around!

Caitlin: That’s so funny he came home with his shirt on backwards. How cute! How was sending your first child off the kindergarten different than you expected?

Jessica: Becoming a parent has taught me more about myself than I ever would have thought it would. It’s hard letting go and putting your child in the hands of another person (or people) to teach them and help them grow. Naturally, I worry about how he’s doing without me. I wonder how he’ll interact with his peers since he isn’t under my wings. I’m learning a lot about myself. I’m learning what it means to give my cares over to God and trust that He has us where he does for a reason.

When B was little and scared to leave us we would always quote Joshua 1:9 to him. We actually have it hanging on his bedroom wall as a reminder. And whats funny is that I’m now reminding myself of that same verse that I’ve memorized with him for the last few years! “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Caitlin: I love that! It’s amazing how much we can learn through guiding others, and I imagine that’s especially the case with children. Now that you’ve been through it, what advice would you give other moms who are getting ready to hit this milestone or are going through it now?

Jessica: Embrace it! It is a really fun and exciting time. It may be a little overwhelming, but it’s worth it and soon it will be the new normal. Watching my boy come out of school excited and filled with confidence makes my heart happy. Watching him grow and overcome fears is so rewarding. It makes the hard times worth it! It all happens so fast so my advice for parents – especially myself- is to pause and take it all in. Enjoy the crazy because one day we will all miss this stage!

Do you have any advice for moms and dads sending their kids to school for the first time? Any funny memories? Share in the comments sections, let’s talk!

 

On expecting baby number two

To hear my friends tell it, expecting your first child is one thing, and expecting your second is a whole other animal. So, I was interested to talk to Colleen just a few days before she welcomed her second baby into the world (Colleen is already mother to 18 month old Nicky) about what’s different, what’s the same, and what’s the most exciting.

Caitlin: So, to begin, tell me about your first pregnancy and your first baby.

Colleen: So, I definitely always wanted to have kids. That was really my number one thing that I ever wanted in life. I was super excited my last pregnancy. I knew I was having a boy and we were just really excited. We didn’t know what to expect and I did have a pretty easy pregnancy. I don’t think anyone can ever have an easy ninth month, but all things considered, it was easy. So, 18 months ago today, I was nine months pregnant and feeling it.

Nicky was an easy baby when he was born. I had a c-section, that wasn’t easy, but nothing went wrong.

Caitlin: How was this pregnancy been?

Colleen: This time I was a lot more sick at the beginning. Last time I didn’t have any of that. Last time I did a lot of prenatal yoga and even regular yoga which I think really helped me feel better. I haven’t had any time this pregnancy for that. Not even once. Now, I’m dealing with a back issue that’s making it a lot harder to get around. And, not to mention, I have an 18 month old son that I spend all day chasing around. You know, so that’s a little tougher. But, this pregnancy hasn’t been terrible.

Caitlin: Does expecting a girl feel different from when you were expecting a boy?

Colleen: Well, yes. I am thrilled that we’re having a girl! I feel lucky to get to experience being a mother of a son, and a daughter as well. I’m the only girl in my family and just seeing the relationship I have with my mom, and even with my dad, I’m glad that our family will have that, too. And another thing that I liked about having a girl is that my husband, Josh, didn’t grow up with any sisters and he always seemed like he didn’t know what was going on with girls. It’s like I’m the only girl he knows.  So, I think it will be good for him, and also good for my son to have a girl around. I think it kind of softens a guy a little bit, and I’d like that for both of them.

Caitlin: That’s so funny and I think it’s very true. I heard someone say once that she was even more excited with her second baby because since having his first, he understood how wonderful it is to have a child. Have you felt that way at all?

Colleen: Yes, we both feel that way. We say all the time we can’t believe we get to have two. Especially right now our son is so funny, he’s talking, he’s doing all these crazy things every day and it is really, really exciting because before I couldn’t picture how much I would enjoy being a parent. And now I know and it’s almost like it’s going to be double the fun. I mean, not that we’re so naive to think it won’t be more difficult and more busy, but I don’t really focus on that part of being a parent. I know it’s busy. We can deal with it. In general, it’s just fun.

Caitlin: Have people been warning you about how hard life is with two?

Colleen: Yeah, I feel like people warn you about a lot of things. But, for me, when you have kids, you change, and you just do what needs to be done. And you don’t think, oh this sucks, and I’m missing out on all this other stuff. It’s just your life.

About having two, a lot of people warn us about finances.

Caitlin: That’s silly. What can you do about that?

Colleen: I don’t know. There’s nothing you can do with any of the warnings people give you. Oh, they’ll say having one is like… I forget the saying, it’s stupid. It’s something like, “Having one is like one and having two is like twenty.”

Caitlin: That person probably never had twenty kids.

Colleen: (laughs) Yeah, good point. So, yeah, we get a lot of warnings. Just like last time. It annoys me, but it drives my husband CRAZY. When I was pregnant with Nicky people would always ask him if he was nervous. And he would always say, “No, I’m not nervous! I’m 35 years old, I have a car, I have a job, why would I be nervous?” And it’s kind of the same thing this time.

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Caitlin: So, your son is really young. Does he have a clue he has a baby sister on the way?

Colleen: I don’t know. He points at the baby’s room and says her name and he does touch my belly and say baby and sometimes he’ll even give my belly a kiss, which I did NOT teach him. But, I can’t imagine he really understands what’s about to happen. And I would actually say that that is what is most different about being pregnant this time. Even though I know giving him a sibling is the best thing that I can do for him, I feel guilty all the time that he won’t know how much he totally changed our lives and rocked our world and I could cry right now thinking about it. But, people say that that happens all the time and then when they come home from the hospital they never think about it again.

Caitlin: Is there anything else that makes the pregnancy different from the last?

Colleen: One thing is I do worry about the health of the baby a lot more. When you never had a child, you can’t imagine how much you’re going to love it. And it would be a lot harder and more heartbreaking now that I understand that if the baby has health problems. That’s one worry I didn’t really have last time that I do this time.

Caitlin: Does it feel like the stakes are higher?

Colleen: Yes, that’s exactly what it is. The other thing is I hope I get as much one on one time with both of my kids as I have with Nicky.

Caitlin: What are you most excited about?

Colleen: I’m most excited to see what she looks like and to see how Nicky reacts to her and how my husband reacts to her. I don’t think he realizes what it’s going to be like to have a daughter.

I’m happy to share that Colleen gave birth to her baby girl, Anna, just three days after this conversation. Both Mama and baby are doing great, and big brother Nicky is adjusting well. Congratulations Colleen & family!

 

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What’s your best advice for expecting baby number 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on? Did you find you felt differently each time? Let’s talk!

Let love take over: Lessons from hospice

I recently came across a post on Facebook from an old family friend that brought tears to my eyes. Christopher (pictured below) is a hospice volunteer. He agreed to talk a bit about work I find both fascinating and inspiring. He also shares that wonderful story I mentioned, below.

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Caitlin: What drew you to volunteering with hospice?

Christopher: I have always had an interest and curiosity about the experience of death and what comes after death. I had several experiences as a teenager with death, one in particular in which I was the only person on the scene of a late night car accident and stayed with a passenger as he died. Those experiences had a deep impact that I never forgot about. In college I took a course on Death & Dying. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ ground breaking theories on the five stages of grief were relatively new at the time, as well as the academic study of death. Looking back, I am honored to have obtained that knowledge thirty years ago.

It wasn’t until three years ago that I began to think about doing some volunteer work. My children are grown now and after spending years involved in various sports and school related programs, that phase of life had ended.

I was working for Abington Hospital at the time and knew they had a Hospice facility. I felt drawn to it. I walked in one day and discovered that they had an immediate need for someone at the exact time of day that I was available to volunteer.

Caitlin: Wow, it sounds like it was meant to be. What’s a typical day like for you volunteering at hospice?

Christopher: I cook breakfast two morning each week. We have a 20 bed inpatient facility with a lovely small kitchen where volunteers make meals to order for the patients who are eating. We have patients who may only spend their last couple of days with us, but we also have some who spend several months. Many of them are quite self sufficient when they come in and still have hearty appetites. So I might be cooking something as simple as Cream of Wheat or Toast & Tea, or a more elaborate breakfast like an Omelette or fresh Blueberry Pancakes.

I can honestly say there is almost no such thing as a “typical” day.  I could show up one day and no one is eating, but the next time I might feel like an over-stressed cook at a busy diner. Either way, there is always an opportunity to connect with a patient or family member. Family members can spend the night in the rooms with patients, and quite often they will ask for breakfast as well. Preparing a meal, serving food, and perhaps feeding someone is one of the most elemental forms of caregiving. A very intimate experience.

Caitlin: What is the hardest part of volunteering at a hospice?

Christopher: The hardest thing to accept is the younger patients.  When a patient is in their 80’s or 90’s death can be accepted or expected for the most part. That person has lived a full life. We seem to have so many women in their 30’s and 40’s dying of breast or ovarian cancer. Women who have young children and husbands coming in to say goodbye. It is heartbreaking.  We also have a Pediatric wing. It is not common for children to enter inpatient hospice. Most remain in the hospital or spend their final days at home. But we do have children and teenagers from time to time. It is very difficult and tough on even the most seasoned nurses.  At the same time it can be a beautiful experience. We once had a 10 day old baby. Very unusual circumstances meant that the parents could only visit for a couple hours each week. The baby had a congenital heart defect and was slowly but painlessly dying. The nurses and volunteers made a pact that this child would never be out of the arms of someone. There was a continuous stream of loving people who took turns holding the baby and rocking her. She was with us for two weeks and no one will ever forget her.

Caitlin: That’s so beautiful. I’m curious for you, what is the most rewarding part of volunteering with the dying? What keeps you coming back?

Christopher: There is ALWAYS something to learn or receive from my time at hospice if I stay open and receptive. It may come from a patient, or family member, or often from watching experienced nurses. Even the most difficult patients or family members can be learning lessons.  There is a saying “We die as we lived.” This is so true. There are people who are so grateful and giving even while experiencing great suffering or pain. You just know that they lived like this their entire lives. There are people who are the exact opposite. Nothing can make them happy. I’ve learned to accept both types of people as teachers.

Caitlin: How do you keep yourself emotionally intact doing what could be very draining volunteer work?

Christopher: Honestly, the challenge is staying emotionally present. Resisting the temptation to close off.  It can be easy to view death as routine when you are around it so often.  Every patient and family member is facing a unique situation in their lives, and that is easy to forget when there is a constant cycle of families coming and going.

Before I experienced a hospice setting I guess I imagined it to be an incredibly and overwhelmingly sad environment. That isn’t true at all and it didn’t take long to figure out why. There is continuous grief, but at the same time there is continuous Love (Earthly and Heavenly).  I have often described this as the “Beautiful Sadness.”

I have also worked with ways to help staff and volunteers stay mindful and present.  Last year I took a course that was based on  “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche. (You can check out a video about the course here.)

Based on the course, I set up a meditation and mindfulness program and have presented it to fellow volunteers. I’ll be continuing the program this fall and we hope to expand it. The goal is to provide a pathway to enhance end of life caregiving skills by reducing fear, increasing compassion, and embracing the emotional roller coaster.

Caitlin: You shared a story on Facebook recently about comforting a family while their loved one was passing away. Can you share that story?

Christopher: Sure. An 80 year old man, dying of liver failure, was surrounded by his family. His wife of 58 years at his side, two daughters and three grand daughters stood around the bed as well. Tears were streaming down all faces. He shook my hand with the strongest grip I have ever felt from a hospice patient. The only words that came to my mind to say to him were, “You are surrounded by love. Nothing else matters right now.”

That family will stay in my heart and that is the greatest gift of hospice care, and why there is absolute truth in the old saying “You get way more than you give” as a hospice volunteer.

The more I think about this, and the words “Surrounded by love”… is the realization that he is not just surrounded by the three generations in the room. He is surrounded by an unending generational chain. All of his ancestors who have passed before him, and all of his descendants yet to be born. It is all part of the same LOVE, unbroken and inseparable. It is with us always.

Caitlin: I think that is so powerful. I am personally really uneasy about death, but those words really made sense to me and I think they’re so true. It certainly brings peace to me and I hope it will for my readers, as well. If I may bring up, I know you recently lost your mother. How has this volunteer work impacted that loss and perhaps helped you deal with it or understand it?

Christopher: I don’t think it lessened the pain or loss at all, but it certainly helped to understand the process of a prolonged terminal illness like she had. I was better equipped and capable of talking to her about death than I would have been without the experience of hospice work. Even more so, was the ability to help family members work through the pain.

Caitlin: What advice would you give other people as they care for family members who are in their final stage of life?

Christopher: Stay focused on the moment, enjoy the smallest and seemingly most insignificant moments. Be sure to take care of yourself as well as the person who is dying.  There is a tremendous amount of internal stress going on that people are often not even consciously aware of. Eat, sleep (or at least get rest), and take time for yourself on a regular basis. Without this you can not give your best to your loved one over the long run. Above all, put aside petty differences or difficulties with family members.  There is no time for this at all. Let love take over.

Caitlin: Let love take over. That’s really great advice for all situations, actually. Obviously, this kind of volunteer works seems like it could be very emotionally difficult. Is it hard for hospice to find volunteers?Why should someone consider volunteering with a hospice?

Christopher: It can be; both difficult to do and to find volunteers.  I think that the people who volunteer for hospice as well as the people who make a career of working with the dying will mostly tell you that it is a calling.  Maybe some people try it and then discover that it is too much to handle. There can be a lot of emotional burnout as well.  This can happen in any field though.  There are many ways to volunteer for hospice without having to be in direct contact with patients. We have a fantastic group of people who make quilts and crochet blankets for every patient.  (I have my mother’s quilt that was on her bed during hospice care)

We have people who are trained to do follow up grief counseling with family members. And we have people who volunteer time doing clerical work or fundraising. These are all vital components of the whole hospice network. I would say that if someone feels called to do this type of work, they should listen to the calling and contact a local hospice. They will always be welcome to come in and discuss the possibilities.

Thank you so much for sharing your story, Christopher. I think it takes a truly special person to do the work you’re doing and it makes me happy to know there are people like you caring for those in the last days of their lives.

If you’re interested in volunteering at Abington Hospice at Warminster (in Pennsylvania, where Christopher volunteers) you can call Volunteer Coordinator Nancy Leporace at 215-441-6831.

Image credit: Christopher

 

He Said/She Said: A Military Family, Part 2

Today we’ll get the other side of the story on this week’s He Said/She Said. You can check out Part 1, Robert’s story here.

Meta became a military wife in her 30’s after she was well established in her career, and a home owner. The military took her out of the South and dropped her off in Upstate New York at Fort Drum a few months after her wedding. A few months after that, her husband deployed.

Once Robert came home from deployment, Meta got pregnant and gave birth to a little boy, Bo. A few months later, Robert deployed again.

Meta talks about what it’s like to be the spouse and parent who is left at home during deployments. Although I hope this is obvious to most, I want to point out that each military spouse is different and this is simply Meta’s story. But, as a former Army Wife, I think most military spouses will find something in this story they can relate to. And for those who have never loved someone in uniform, here’s a little glimpse into the highs and lows of being a military family. 🙂

Caitlin: The Army baptises you fast. Your husband deployed just nine months after you got married. I talked to your husband about the difference between deploying as a single soldier and then as a soldier with a wife and kid. What was the difference for you between having your husband deploy before and after you had a baby?

Meta: Completely different deployments. Both were hard in their own way.

His deployment in 2011, we didn’t get to communicate very often. We emailed, never Skyped. We would talk every weekend or every other weekend.  One time we didn’t get to talk for three and a half weeks.  As someone who loves to talk, especially to my husband, work was very important for me. It became an outlet.  I would go to work and talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. Because I would come home to no one. I didn’t have many friends yet, so the communication thing was hard.

It taught us a lot about what we could get through. I was miserable at first. I felt a distance from my husband that made me ache. Once I settled in and made friends, it got easier. But, I learned a lot about myself during that deployment.

Caitlin: You learned your strength.

Meta: I did. I also learned a lot about letting go. While I like to have a general plan, the Army taught me you can plan as much as you want, but it’s bound to change. I plan, but I don’t set my heart on it.

This most recent deployment, having a child, I couldn’t sulk. But, we talked every day, sometimes twice a day on Skype. And my husband could see our son, Bo. I think it helped me to be able to have real discussions with my husband. He would get up at 3:30am his time to talk to us on Skype.

Caitlin: That’s so nice.

Meta: I know. He’s such a good husband and a good daddy.

It was really important for Bo to see and hear his Daddy on Skype. It was hard. There were times I would cry because Bo would try to share with Daddy and try to hand him things through the computer. Those things tug at your heart.

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Also, on this last deployment, five days after he left, I had a miscarriage. It just so happened that he called me when I was sitting in the emergency room when he got to Afghanistan. I said, I’m going to have to call you back, I’m bleeding and I’m in the emergency room. So, I needed him a lot. I needed him to talk to. It didn’t even have to be about the miscarriage, I just needed to talk to him.

Caitlin: Saying goodbye before a deployment, what is that like for you? Specifically with a child.

Meta: At the deployment ceremony, I’m trying not to cry, but I’m still crying. I was trying to take as many pictures as possible with them together because I knew he’d be coming back to a completely different child. And at the time, because I was pregnant, we were trying to figure out the plan for where I would deliver, would I work? And I was scared. I was pregnant and I had a nine month old. And I was like, how am I going to do this without him? It was all scary, but I had to focus on Bo.

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Caitlin: What was the reunion like?

Meta: (laughs) Oh, it was fantastic. It was very different from my first deployment. It was all about me. So it was huge difference. Last deployment it was all about me, and this time it was all about Bo.

I told my husband, when you get home, I want you to step back and I want Bo to come to you.

I wanted him to greet Bo before he greeted me, because it was about Bo. Bo was the one who didn’t understand why he was away and why he couldn’t hold him or touch him.

Last deployment, Robert came home in the evening and this time I think I had to get Bo up around 4:30 in the morning because they want you there 2 hours prior to the ceremony which was at 7:30.  By the time the ceremony started Bo was pretty tired and he definitely didn’t understand all the people, the band, the noise but he was pretty interested in all the soldiers.  At 18 months old though, he had no idea what’s going on or that his Daddy is standing in formation.

Once they released everyone and Robert was trucking it towards us, I leaned down and let Bo stand up and backed away.  Bo started to cry because he was tired, but Robert kneeled down on his level and Bo just went into his arms and wrapped his arms around his Daddy’s shoulders.  As a wife who wanted to touch her husband and have him wrap his arms around her and give her a big kiss, being a mother and feeling this need for them to have their moment first was so important to me and I felt that superseded whatever I might need.

When Robert left, Bo wasn’t walking yet and he’d only ever seen him walk on Skype, so watching my husband have his son walk into his arms for the first time was beautiful.  It was all just beautiful.  There were tears from both of us.  We sat for a long time before we left.  Bo just wanted to hold on to him and of course, Robert didn’t want to let go either.

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Caitlin: So, your husband is getting out of the military soon. What are you most looking forward to?

Meta: No deployments! No deployments. He will be home. I do feel a little jaded when it comes to deployments when I see people post on Facebook, “Oh my husband is gone for the weekend, I miss him so much.” And I’m like, “Really?” (laughs)

I’m looking forward to joining the world where I miss my husband when he goes away for only a weekend.

Caitlin: What will you miss about military life? I know, from my experience, there’s a lot of good that comes with the military.

Meta: Yeah, for sure. I’ll miss the camaraderie most. The spouses I have become friends with have been similar to me. There was a group of women that I became close with during Robert’s 2011 deployment and as is the way of the military most of them had a PCS and weren’t here for the last deployment, but most of us still stay in contact. We miss each other. I have wonderful friends and family, but the women you meet in your military life, they tend to become your family very quickly. The friendships happen faster and some of them become extremely strong, it’s a bond you share.

By the way, I’m not saying these friendships are better and that you lose your friendships with other best friends. These friendships just seem different, almost forged out of necessity. They know what you are going through, they are experiencing it or have experienced it firsthand. They know the lingo, they understand the upheaval, they know the truth about what happens to your soldier while they are gone. They understand the emotional roller coaster and how hard it can be, not only when your husband leaves, but when he comes home too!

I’m not saying your family and non-military friends don’t try to understand, they do, but honestly, it’s very hard to explin, it has to be experienced. It’s just different with these women. You are truly Battle Buddies. You step in for each other. That person can lean on you, shed tears with you, laugh with you and when your spouse can’t be there and you are so far removed from your family and other friends, you need them because they lift you up and help support you just as you do for them. Because of the stress and pain of what you are going through, these bonds form.

Caitlin: What’s your best advice for spouses who are the ones left at home during a deployment?

Meta: I was fortunate to get to be a stay-at-home mom during this last deployment and travel. I would advise spending time with your family. That’s what helped me through the last year, too.  My parents flew me and Bo down to see them several times last year. My mother-in-law also flew us to visit her.  I’m very lucky.

If you can’t go to your family, find other spouses that will be your family and get involved and get out of the house.

Also, getting to talk to my husband daily on Skype was huge. Oh, and take lots of pictures. Lots and lots of pictures.

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My husband and I often talk about how we wish we had met when we were younger because we could have had more children by now. And we wish we had more time together. But, on the flip side, I’m really glad that I have only had to be a military spouse for a quarter of his career. I’m thankful that we’re getting out and my son and any future kids we have won’t have to go through anymore deployments.

 

It takes a lot of work and a lot of strength to get through military life as a family, in tact. Some of the strongest families I know are military families and I have a ton of respect for the way they do what needs to be done and come out better for it on the other end. Do you have experience with the military? What parts of this rang true for you? If you don’t have experience with the military, what surprised you the most? Leave a comment and make my day 🙂