Friday, February 27, 2009

Small Successes

I think life is measured in small successes. That’s never how we imagine it though. When we have dreams, goals, aspirations, they manifest themselves as these huge, flashy, glamorous accomplishments. We can see them in our mind’s eye—just out of our reach.
When I first set out to be a writer, almost four years ago, I felt sure that when I finished my memoir about my unplanned pregnancy and open adoption, it would simply be a matter of sending out a few letters (maybe even ten or twenty!) I knew it would be hard, everyone warned me it was hard to break into writing. I guess I just didn’t know it would feel, at times, completely aggravatingly impossible. Most days I feel like a stay-at-home mom…who likes to write.
I guess in truth that is what I am. Most days I play with my daughter, sneak in a shower while she’s napping, wash dishes, make snacks, read books filled with monosyllabic words, stack things up, watch Twila knock them over, fold insurmountable piles of laundry. You know, just motherhood stuff. I manage to write for a few minutes here and there. I wrote my entire memoir with my daughter nursing in my arms, typing one-handed.

On early mornings like this, as I sit in the dark and quiet slowly rehydrating from a night of constantly nursing my two-week-old (nursing on my lap right now) I begin to think about the future. It’s hard to imagine being anything but a mother right now—it is an all-encompassing job to be sure. Yet I dare to sneak a look down the improbable path of writing. Does anyone make writing a career—I mean actually?
I get shivers of anticipation when I picture myself in some secluded forest cabin (which I bought after my memoir became a best-seller) with all the windows open wide—the sounds of morning creeping in, sipping a mug of hot coffee and just writing. I imagine myself writing beautiful and important truths that will be widely embraced by the world and recognized as the influential pieces they are.
I imagine being widely read, well-paid…famous; yet still humble, reclusive, unchanged by my fame. I’ll build wells in remote villages in Africa and buy books for poor schools in Minneapolis.
Perhaps it is this distant dream that propels me from the bed so early to write, if even just for a minute or two.

I am entrenched in motherhood. I will not be writing the next great American Novel any time soon—at least not this month. I guess it is the small stuff that matters right now: the day that finishes with a totally peaceful sense because I didn’t at any point lose-it with my inquisitive, ever-climbing, two-year-old; or the fact that my daughter can now have simple yet complete and utterly charming conversations with her biological half-sister on the phone.
Or like the small, but critical success that happened a month ago when a Threshold Guardian at Tapestry Books who I met by chance turned Mentor and began guiding me through the process of marketing my writing. This wise mentor helped me to get an article about my open-adoption published on his website yesterday and it has, at least initially, been popular.
I guess what I’m realizing is that life is not about becoming instantly and hugely famous for what you love to do. It’s about the gradual steps that you worked unbelievably hard to take, that eventually pan out into small—incredibly valuable—successes.

Click here and download my recently published article!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Friday Edition: Have Your Health and Crave it Too

So, you want to be a healthy birthmom (or mom or dad, sister, brother, lady, friend)?
It’s not hard to be healthy with recipes like these. Enjoy a healthy indulgence that includes protein from a "pregnancy safe" fish, whole grains, all natural seasoning, and vital potassium and other nutrients from sweet potatoes, in the following recipe. I just made this on Monday for a couple of good friends and it was a huge hit!
Catfish Fingers with Sweet Potato Fries

1 lb Catfish
1 egg
½ cup milk
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup Ian’s Panko Bread Crumbs
1 Tbsp Old Bay Seasoning
2 Tsp dried yellow mustard
2 Tsp oregano
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup olive oil
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced, julienne

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees
2. Mix the milk and eggs until combined in a shallow bowl
3. Mix all dry ingredients gently with your fingers in another shallow bowl
4. Slice the catfish into one inch thick pieces, salt generously
5. Drizzle sweet potatoes with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.
6. Roast the potatoes for twenty minutes in preheated oven
7. Meanwhile heat the oil in a heavy skillet until hot but not smoking
8. While the oil heats, soak the catfish slices in the milk wash until coated
9. Dredge the fish in the seasoned flour mixture
10. Put all fish into the hot oil, cover with a mesh screen if possible and cook, stirring occasionally until cooked through about ten minutes (fish should easily flake with a fork).
11. Remove the fries from the oven; serve both catfish and fries with organic ketchup, or Melissa’s special spicy aioli (recipe next week).
Serve this meal with a green salad or steamed broccoli.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Follow This Blog!

Hi Friends!

Thank you to all of you who have shown an interest in my blog. The first weeks have been very successful and I truly appreciate all the encouraging emails I have been receiving. I'm glad the content has been useful and interesting.

Please continue to contact me with comments and suggestions. If you haven’t already, please click "Follow This Blog" at the right to receive updates and new posts.

Birthmoms—we'd love to hear your stories too! Please email me with memories, questions and advice to include in future posts, we want to hear from you.

Thanks again for all the support, keep visiting!


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Youth in Asia

I had to euthanize my cat Flicka this weekend. It’s hard to describe why I grieved her loss more severely than I have grieved in years.

I guess it’s because Flicka has been with me for so much of my life. I got her to me for my ninth birthday. She liked to sleep wrapped in my arms all night, we would toss and turn together like an old couple. She never got out of bed before me.

In the loneliness of my unplanned pregnancy, she seemed to know that I needed extra love. She selflessly napped three times as much as normal to keep up with my growing napping needs. Even as my belly grew, she cautiously wrapped her lithe body around the bulge.

The night I came home from the hospital without my baby, she seemed to know with a preternatural awareness that we were grieving. I don’t think she left my lap for a week.

On Saturday morning, I cried uncontrollably as I made my way to my parent’s St. Paul home to pick her up. Racked with guilt for leading my unsuspecting cat to her death, I could barely look into her curious eyes. Her boney body stuck out in odd angles through the blanket I wrapped her in. She hardly moved as the Veterinarian injected the drug. Almost instantly her head dropped limply on my arm.

On my way back to Minneapolis I began sobbing again. Then I thought of David Sedaris’s bit about Youth in Asia and my sobs turned to manic laughter. Then, slowly, I pulled myself together to go home and face my daughter, and give her her first lesson in grief and loss.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Friday Edition: Craving Health Recipe #1

Who says you can’t have health and deliciousness too? Over the last year I’ve been learning about the importance of eating whole grains and whole foods. And their impact on holistic health.

I recently took a class from Nutritionist Jennette Turner. She impressed upon me the importance of eating 100% whole wheat instead of plain old white bread products.

What does this mean? I wondered. No more pastries? No more pancakes? Don’t panic, I have a solution! I have developed this incredibly delicious and health-conscious recipe for whole grain pecan pancakes.

It’s great for pregnancy sweets cravings, but you don’t have to be pregnant to appreciate the healthful deliciousness. Enjoy!

1 cup white whole wheat flour
2/3 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup wheat germ
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
5 ½ tbsp butter
2 ½ cups milk
2 eggs
3 extra tbsp butter (for cooking).
½ cup chopped pecans
½ cup choc chips (60% cacao or greater)

1. Mix dry ingredients with butter using your fingers until the consistency is crumbly.
2. Add milk and beaten eggs, mix to combine.
3. Stir in pecans and chocolate chips.
4. Ladle batter onto griddle to make 4’’ cakes.
5. Turn when the center of the cake is making little bubbles.
6. Let them cook two minutes further.
7. Serve warm with real maple syrup.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Motherhood in the Wake of Adoption

1999 Melissa with
Birthdaughter Nicole

2006 Melissa with
Daughter Twila
As a mother, I have learned that one of the most vital factors to the survival of your sanity, is having friends—not just any friends, mother friends; other women who know how long fifteen minutes of quiet really is; women who know what a bad night sleep actually means.

My husband and I had our baby ahead of most of our friends and all of my friends. Over the last two years I have slowly accumulated mother friends. Some of our mutual friends have started to produce, I have met moms in various community groups. I finally bonded with my next door neighbors (all it took was three years of living side-by-side and a combined four babies to strike up a conversation).

But even with all these wonderful, fun, diversely-minded mothers in my life, I am struck over and over again by this unavoidable fact: I am different. I break the spectrum of variation. The most common topic of conversation among mothers is “The First Trip Without The Kids.” Some are comfortable leaving early-on at six weeks or sooner. Some wait a “long” time, like two years at the far end. Then there’s me. Our first trip away is planned for next month (only two nights mind you). Our daughter will be two-and-a-half and (*psssst* come closer, I’ll whisper in your ear…) I don’t want to go.

Why is it that all my other parent friends relish opportunities to jaunt away with their partners, spouses, chosen life-companions? Why do I dread the coming inevitability of having to leave my child in a way that no one else can understand? All I can think about is how tragic it would be if we both died in a plane crash. There I said it. I am terrified of dying in a plane crash and leaving my daughter to fend for herself.

It took me a long time to put two-and-two together. When finally I began to make the connection that my experience placing a baby ten years ago may have something to do with the talon-like grasp I have always kept on my daughter; that my adoption may be in part why I reject--on a totally cellular level--being seperated from my child, I was very proud of my insight. It was the small smiles and gently sympathetic, wide-eyed expressions on all my friend’s faces that told me I was, in fact, the last person to make this connection.

Is it ever easy to birth a child and then fight the biological urge to hold and nurture and nourish that child? No. But truthfully I felt so confident in the rightness of my decision to place my birthdaughter, and so confident in the parents I had picked, that I just didn’t experience much separation anxiety.

But now, ten years later, all that missing separation anxiety seems to have found me at last. I guess this is just part of the complexity that comes with parenting in the wake of adoption.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Hero's Journey

I’ve been reading a book about the Hero’s Journey. There are repeating patterns in all stories: told and lived. And there are archetypal characters, like Threshold Guardians who block your way, challenging you and testing you to see if you are really up to the challenge you are undertaking, or Mentors who teach you the new set of skills you need to embark on the next leg of your journey. They keep revisiting stories and our actual lives to test us, teach us, support us and block us as we struggle through the many stages of life lessons.

The book is teaching me how to form an exciting story so when I write my novel, it will have all those elements that make a story timeless and relatable; important to the collective unconscious of society (re: it will be a best-seller).

As I was reading about the stages of the Hero’s Journey, I couldn’t help but think that my journey as a birthmother is startlingly congruous with the Hero’s Journey. In fact, as I continue to shape my manuscript for birthmothers, I wonder if I should make the title: A Hero’s Journey: The Birthmother’s Guide to the Other Side. Some people think it’s a bit arrogant. I’m not ready to scrap it yet.

Check it out: The Hero’s Journey happens in twelve identifiable Steps (somewhat like the recovering alcoholic’s journey…but that’s another story all together):

1. The Ordinary World: When we meet our hero, she is wandering around in her normal life, going about her business, working, going to school, hanging out with friends.

2. Call to Adventure: Suddenly, something is not right. She is sick in the morning and having to miss a lot of morning classes.

3. Refusal of the Call: In complete denial, our hero does not take a pregnancy test until her doctor recommends one because she can’t remember when her last period was and her “half-day-nausea” sounds suspiciously like morning sickness.

4. Meeting with the Mentor: Unsure of what’s next, our hero meets with a midwife, a doctor, a pregnancy counselor. She accepts that she is pregnant; she gets advice about what to do next. She accepts support, counsel and advice.

5. Crossing the First Threshold: Our hero takes the first step toward action, deciding to get some information about adoption. She is unsure still but knows that she needs to eventually make a choice. She meets with adoption agents.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies: As our hero breaks the news to friends and family, some support her, some are angry, hurt, offended. Some help her to prepare for the coming ordeal; some abandon her in her time of need.

7. Approach to the Inmost Cave: The birthmother has chosen adoption and meets with prospective couples, eventually choosing one. She works to build a relationship with them; she prepares for childbirth. She prepares her heart for placement.

8. The Ordeal: The night arrives. The birthmother goes into labor. She calls her friends and labor support. She calls her selected adoptive parents. All are present in anticipation of the birth of this baby. They all support her and wish they could do it for her. But they cannot go with her inside the inmost cave. No one can face this ordeal but the hero herself.

9. Reward: The birthmother survives the ordeal and the reward is new life. She has brought a child to a hopeful couple; she is looking to her future as an independent birthmother.

10. The Road Back: Now that the baby is born, our hero has passed the many tests of unplanned pregnancy. She is free to return to her ordinary world. But she will not be returning empty-handed.

11. The Resurrection: As in every hero’s journey, there is ritualistic death and rebirth. In the birthmother’s journey there is a very realistic cycle of life. The birthmother has sacrificed her place as a parent so that her birthchild could have more than she was able to give. The birth of a new life represents all the hope and growth that comes from such a sacrifice.

12. Return with the Elixir: What does the birthmother bring with her back to her ordinary life? Our hero carries with her the secret of true love. That secret exudes from her being and touches and changes all those people that come in contact with her. She will never be the same. Through her journey, her lessons and sacrifices, she has grown and her secret elixir will continue to strengthen her and the community in which she lives.

Is “hero” too strong a word to describe a birthmother? Webster’s Dictionary calls a hero, “an illustrious warrior; one that shows great courage.” A birthmother is a woman who has taken the path less traveled; the path of greatest resistance. She hasn’t defaulted into parenthood; out of fear or indecision. She has also not chosen to take the fast way out of pregnancy.

What is a hero if not one who sacrifices many things along her journey, for the greater good of people she has never met? So I guess what I’m saying is, birthmothers are heroes.

Tell me what you think of the working title, A Hero’s Journey: The Birthmother’s Guide to the Other Side. Thank you!

Photos of My Journey

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Unprepared Mother

It’s strange to think that when I was pregnant at eighteen, I thought I might be ready to be a mother. For almost seven months I planned to parent. How could it be that almost a decade later, when my husband and I got pregnant with our daughter, I felt less prepared for parenthood?
I was getting ready to pickup my husband from work that Friday evening that it occurred to me to take a pregnancy test in order to scare my period into coming. I burst into tears earlier that day because an incompetent grocer kept sending me to the wrong isle for gingerroot. That was my first hint that something was amiss.

As I stood in my room, staring at the positive pregnancy test as if its answer might change, my cold wet hair dripping steadily down my back, I felt my core temperature rise to boiling. Hot from somewhere deep inside, I went to the window and opened it. Ice cracked away from the frame and a cold January wind rushed in and swirled around my dripping head. I breathed deeply, forcing the freezing air into my lungs, but I was still hot. I lay on the bed, trying to calm my breathing. Tears welled up in my eyes. I shook my head in disbelief. Instinctively, I touched my stomach, feeling for life.

How can I be pregnant? I mean other than the obvious: we decided we were ready for a family and had been having regular unprotected sex. How can I be pregnant when I’ve been a birthmother for so long? How can I be pregnant again?

I know that none of us are actually prepared to be parents. And it seems the older we are when we get pregnant the more aware of our unpreparedness we are.
Like most women unexpectedly pregnant, I was fearful about what my future held. I felt unprepared to jump into motherhood. But how could I “give my baby away?” This notion was unthinkable. I imagined adoption as a final goodbye. How could I say goodbye to my baby? I felt more terrified to place than I did to parent—so for two-thirds of my pregnancy I barreled head-long toward parenthood, never stopping to ponder my incapability.
Nine years later when I got pregnant for the second time in my life, it seemed I had nothing but time to ponder the many ways I was inadequate to become a mother.
Ten years after my adoption and three years after my second positive pregnancy test, I can say that I was, in fact, totally unprepared to be a mother—both times. I was just as unprepared for my two-year-old daughter Twila as I was ten years earlier for my birthdaughter. I guess the difference was that I was ready to be unprepared. I was ready for life (as I knew it) to be completely over.
Am I glad I waited nine years to take the irreversible dive into parenthood even though I felt no more prepared to be a mother the second time than I was the first time? Yes; because as a twenty-six-year-old woman, married to her best bud, I guess I was prepared to be unprepared.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Birthmother Years Fly By

Right after my daughter (my own daughter—the one who lives with me—who I’m raising) was born someone said about motherhood,“The days are long but the years fly by.” I can’t tell you how much I ponder this sentiment.

I looked down at my sleeping infant’s face. My tears fell steadily onto her round cheeks as she peacefully slept, unaware of what was happening. I clenched my eyes closed trying to memorize everything about that moment: her smell; her tender, pink skin; the way her tiny chest rose and fell. Her heart thudded rapidly against my breast.

Walking across the room, I said silent prayers of hope for her life. I prayed that she would grow to understand my decision. I couldn’t help but wonder if she would miss me, if she would need me. Would she think I abandoned her? I pushed the thoughts from my mind and, swallowing my sobs, placed my baby in her mother’s waiting arms.

My daughter and I had coffee at my birthdaughter’s house yesterday. We used to do this weekly, my birthdaughter’s mother and me. Now it seems the weeks fly by and we have to snatch opportunities to talk on the phone. My own daughter is already two-and-a-half. My birthdaughter is nearly ten-years-old and off to the third grade.

Over Sandy's famous black coffee and the quiet sounds of our toddlers playing together, I told her about the progress of my book, or lack thereof. Still struggling to find time to write with a very extroverted daughter keeping me company, still hoping a literary agent will see the idea’s potential.

Sandy is still remodeling their house, still loving having a family. Her struggle to reach motherhood seems a distant memory now that she has three adopted children: two boys after my birthdaughter.

When I’m with the Bensons—like coffee with Sandy, or when my husband and I have their whole crew over for pasta and wine and we get to laugh and talk as I watch my birthdaughter lead my daughter (her biological half-sister) around proudly—I am invasively reminded how fast the years as a birthmother, and a mother, do fly by.

Thank you for joining me on my blog’s maiden voyage. Feel free to send this link to mothers, birthmothers, writers and anyone else who might enjoy it. I welcome your thoughts, comments and questions!
-Melissa Nilsen