Losing and finding Lucy Maud Montgomery

lucym-3

I just finished the Lucy Maud Montgomery biography by Mary Henley Rubio, and it broke my heart over and over again. There’s so much I didn’t know about her, and what I mostly didn’t know was how bad it was: her life was hard. She struggled with her own mental illness, in addition to her husband and son’s. I’m certainly not the first person to assume that the person who invented Anne Shirley had a happy childhood and generally contented life.

Beyond her personal family struggles, the critics turned on Maud in the 1920s; this devastated her. Rubio writes:

In the mid-1920s, the growing cadre of men who panned her books included influential newsmen, university professors, and writers in Canada, and they all knew each other. In 1926, one of Canada’s powerful newspaper critics led the attach, labelling her books the nadir of Canadian fiction. A much respected professor of literature termed her books ‘naive’ with an ‘innocence’ that suggested ‘ignorance of life.’… In the face of such attacks, even the critics who had previously lauded her writing started being careful to temper their praise.

Nevertheless, all these men were impressed (and annoyed) by her sales and success. While some allowed that her large readership might speak to some undefined cultural need, others have felt that her popularity merely proved her ‘lowbrow’ quality. These detractors spoke with such a powerful voice in Canada between the mid-1920s and her death in 1942 that her work fell into disfavour… By the 1970s, the general wisdom was that Montgomery was a sentimental writer who appealed to the uncultured and masses of undiscriminating women and children, and still in the 1980s expressing an admiration for Maud’s books was rather risky. She was relegated strictly to the category of ‘children’s writer,’ and was judged by her weakest books, not her best.

For over 50 years, even during the hardest times, even when her family was coming apart at the seams, L.M. Montgomery kept writing. I can’t imagine what that drive is like – part of it was motivated by financial worries, since the publisher of her early books, especially the cash cow Anne of Green Gables, screwed her out of royalties. A lot of her drive came from being an ambitious hard worker at a time and place (turn of the century PEI) where being ambitious was not something a woman should be.

I feel closer to Maud now that I ever have. There’s something very sad about her, but something inspiring too.

Nurses’ Week

12695034_10102397385921327_1431669702564425491_o

I’m so ashamed to say that I once (internally) judged some of my high school friends for going into nursing programs at university. I thought they were all so smart and talented that they should have been doctors instead. I think back on this now and cringe.  They may have confronted this opinion elsewhere, maybe from teachers or even parents.

I now know how wrong I was for two reasons. One, because I spent the last 15 years since high school ended submerging deep into all kinds of strains of feminist thought. Nursing continues to be a feminized profession in most cultures, and therefore taken less seriously by many of us. And two, because I had a baby in a hospital where I was attended almost entirely by nurses and midwives, and that baby needed a 72-hour stay in the neonatal intensive care (for a fairly minor issue, thankfully). I wish I could go back and slap my stupid teenage self.

The NICU nurses were beyond impressive. I don’t know how they do what they do, how they continue to do what they do day in and day out. Cliches get thrown around a lot, and some of it is condescending and maudlin, but nurses are super heroes. We should take some of that rah-rah spirit we as a country are constantly expected to show to our military, and bestow it on nurses. (This is not zero sum, and clearly there are many nurses in our military, and I don’t mean to disrespect them). This is the level of recognition I’m proposing. We are so lucky as a country that so many of the best and brightest women in my high school class went into nursing. These people save lives every single day.

NICU nurses have incredibly specialized skills. I witnessed in it during my time there. They can insert IVs and needles in the tiniest veins. They can perceive something is wrong with the tiniest changes in impossibly little bodies. I asked my friend Micheline, a nurse who spent five years working in the NICU at the only children’s hospital in the Maritimes, now studying to become a neonatal nurse practitioner to shed some light on just how NICU nurses do it:

She said: “Babies can’t tell you if something is wrong. Assessment skills are a NICU nurse’s biggest asset. You have to continually assess your patient through the day and know what their baseline was at the start of your shift or over the days of caring for them. When babies get sick in the NICU it can be very subtle. Maybe their stomach is a little more distended than before, maybe their heart rate is up a  little higher for no notable reason- those tiny little things that in the adult world would be ignored could mean a baby has an overwhelming infection.”

And about the tiny IVs: “Those are skills that are gained over years of experience, we use the smallest IVs and the hardest things with babies is that the veins are fragile so they don’t last as long as you would like. Everything is small. Even isolating heart sounds with a stethoscope or listening to all the lung fields can be difficult because a chest is so tiny. The NICU is full of lots of technical skills that although they may not be specific to the area ( like said iv) they require different procedures, policy and techniques to perform safely and successfully on a baby.”

Mich is now working as an air transport nurse for critically ill babies, children and pregnant women, bringing them to the IWK. So picture doing all that in a loud helicopter in the air:

“I can tell you without my experience in NICU I would never be able to do my job . My assessment skills are key when I am in a helicopter that is too loud to use a stethoscope. They also help us decide what to do first when we get to the patient and they are in a critical condition. Also to safely transport a patient we have a policy that they must have two working IVs- it’s harder to put one back in when you are in the air and your patient is secured in an incubator or on a stretcher. Without my nicu experience two IVs on a tiny baby would be close to impossible.”

She says the job has incredible rewards and heartbreaking challenges:

The NICU is a complex environment; it takes a lot of people, skills and technology to make it buzz. One of the best parts of working in NICU compared to maybe some other nursing areas is the multidisciplinary teamwork. RT’s, RN’s, NPs, pharmacy, physician’s, residents, OT, physio, surgery, social work and even house keeping all work together towards the common goal of optimizing a baby’s condition, empowering their family and helping them get home to live their very best life with the very best future they are able to have. Teamwork like that doesn’t always exist in healthcare. I love that. I also like being able to advocate for babies and their loved ones, especially because they are often unable to do so for themselves. I think that is a very important job considering the extremely vulnerable population. It is a challenging place to work; no baby is the same, no NICU stay mimics another. It is unpredictable, fast paced and high intensity at times but it is also filled with many special moments. I think the very best aspects of the job are those moments. Watching a new dad see his baby for the first time or helping a new mom finally have a snuggle when maybe their baby was too sick to be moved for weeks can be extraordinary experiences. Witnessing the babies and the families you have cared for reach their goals and meet their milestones is also at the top of the list. Whether it is drinking a full bottle, finally latching well during a breastfeed, having a surgery or procedure go well, having their IV taken out, breathing without assistance from a machine or even something as basic as finally having a poop after days of waiting for one- they are all things to be celebrated. At the very top of the list is seeing your patient finally going home with their family. It doesn’t matter if it was a baby who was in NICU for 2 days or 200, it is special every time. The neonatal unit is a very rewarding place to work.

The technology is impressive and not a day goes by where I am not amazed at the things we are capable of because of continued research and advancements in practice (especially considering neonatal medicine is considered relatively new medicine). That said, some of the hardest aspects of the job surround when technology fails or when it isn’t sufficient enough for a baby regardless of the advancements that have been made. For all the special and wonderful moments, there are still devastatingly hard ones. Watching a parent learn their baby may not live or that their child likely won’t function in the same ways as their peers as they grow up is very hard. Helping a parent say good-bye to child is always gut-wrenching and never gets easier. It stays with you. Luckily, those moments are far less frequent than the good ones. It is also sometimes hard watching babies experience pain, endure procedures, disrupted sleep and all of the negative things often associated with an intensive care unit. We do everything we can to keep our patients comfortable, prevent and treat pain and optimize their development but some things are unavoidable no matter how hard you try.

Honestly, I could list one hundred more things that are incredible about the job but I guess in the end, NICU is a very privileged place to work. As a nurse you share in the very best and the very worst days of people’s lives and I feel that it is truly an honor to be able to do so.”

I also discovered that some NICU nurses are experts at dealing with the fragility of brand new mothers, especially the nurses who work on the night shift. I would shuffle over the NICU in the middle of the night, careful not to aggravate my C-section incision, and feed my son while he was hooked up to the machines. The third night after having a baby is a notoriously difficult night: the vast amounts of hormones that were required for labour and childbirth now have nowhere to go, and they flood around your body making you extremely emotional. This made me cry/laugh almost in hysterics for four straight hours for no discernible reason. I couldn’t stop crying no matter how hard I tried,but when I shuffled down to the NICU for the 5am feeding, my favourite night nurse was there. She could tell I was totally overwhelmed and while I fed my baby she and I talked about everything but babies – mostly our dogs. Hers part-beagle, mine full-beagle. She showed me pictures of her dog on her phone. I showed her mine. She intuited that I just needed a mental break from the whole vast terrifying exhilarating process of becoming a mother to just look at pictures of cute dogs. An hour with her in the early morning hours was more mentally restorative than anything else at the time. I left her a thank you card when we were finally discharged.

So don’t just thank a nurse this week, although do that too: please try to fully appreciate how specialized their skills are, how they keep us alive, how they put us back together again when we are so, so fragile. It seems like the most vital work there is. 

What kind of worries are these?

IMG_20170414_145908.jpg

At first I was worried that all the good motherhood stuff has been already written. But then I realized, just like every person writes about childhood differently – think David Sedaris vs Dorothy Allison – everyone can write about parenthood differently. There are a million ways be a child. Yes, there are shared responsibilities that link most parents across the board (the non-negligent ones, anyway), there are also a million ways to be a parent, and a million and a half feelings you can encounter along the way.

The question is, why I have internalized it any differently? Clearly when society devalues mothers they devalue their stories. Are fatherhood stories dismissed the same way? Unlikely.

This is why I should stop worrying and start writing.

And if a nice White lady writer from Nashville can be called dangerous…

The way Ann Patchett wrote about Lucy: I, and many others, loved it.

Some people very much didn’t like it. In an essay called “The Love Between Two Women Is Not Normal” from This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Patchett writes about the backlash she received when Truth and Beauty was assigned to incoming freshmen. A protest was planned.

My friends from New York offered to go with me to South Carolina, expecting a gladiatorial match I would surely win. My friends from home read drafts of my speech and howled over the ever-growing stack of newspaper clippings. My friend from Mississippi told me not to go. “Cancel,” she said. “Cancel, cancel, cancel.” Mississippians tend not to be cavalier about the dangers of bigotry in the Deep South.

And why the fuss? It doesn’t surprise me:

“The love between the two women is not normal.” The reporter and the seventeen-year-old had finally come out and said the thing that no one else had had the nerve to mention: Lucy and I must have been having sex with each other. That was the only explanation for our loyalty, love, and devotion. Sex was the payoff for a difficult relationship, and without the sex the whole thing made no sense.

She went, she gave her speech with a bodyguard there, and she notes there wasn’t much protest. She admits to spending a huge amount of time on her speech, hoping it would persuade young hearts and minds to avoid censorship, but ultimately doesn’t think she changed many minds, which is indeed a topic for another day.

In my better moments, I tell myself what happened was a noble battle between freedom and oppression, but I knot it is equally possible that nothing so lofty occurred. Some people find sex and suffering and deep friendship between women unpalatable subjects, and seeing these subjects bearing down on their children, they no doubt felt they had to try and stop it. They didn’t succeed, but I seriously doubt that anyone was harmed by completing the assignment. If I am the worst thing the students of Clemson have to fear, then their lives will be very beautiful indeed.

 

Finding a book at the right time…

A feminist book which addresses mothering, among other things. I just read and loved Notes From a Feminist Killjoy by Erin Wunker. She`s a feminist academic, blogger, activist and mother. She also, like me, loves Sara Ahmed.

She has a section of friendship that I love:

I hate most of the words used to describe friendship among women.

What is it about female friendship that inspires such insipid descriptors? I struggle to find a collective noun that fits my friends without itching in it’s not-quite-right fit. My girls (too infantilizing). My crew (I don’t row, so…). My gal pals (sounds like a condition. My tribe (too new age-appropriative). My bitches (just no). ….

I’ve been looking for the language to describe friendship among women to myself, but I haven’t found it yet.

Why is that?

What do we resist when we resist finding or forging this language? What do we lose when we don’t have the language to name the communities of care that hold our heads above water and bring us back to ourselves?

I’m thinking so much about communities of care lately, partly because of my new job. Now I’m re-reading Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett, which describes a female friendship in the best way, in the most unique and beautiful way. Ann Patchett found the language that so few have. I still have to digest this book, and will have more to say later…