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I am about to turn 45 and haven’t been pregnant for almost 13 years now, but I have a number of wonderful younger friends who are still firmly in their childbearing years. I am writing today to them.

Dearest friends, I see your adorable posts on social media and am thrilled with all the sweet experiences you are having now, just as I remember enjoying a decade and a half ago. I can’t help but “like” your comments and pictures of growing bellies and ultrasounds and new babies. What an amazing period of life you are in — and difficult and challenging and exhausting and … the list goes on. The joy is equaled by the fatigue and all the other challenges that can come from pregnancy and taking care of an infant.

But I’m going to say this with all the kindness and tenderness I can show in the mere printed word (hopefully you know me well enough “in real life” to be able to hear me saying this): please stop worrying about your weight.

I have seen your posts over the course of months and been concerned for you when I’ve noted multiple comments about how much weight you’ve gained (in exact number of pounds) and how you were already planning during your pregnancy to lose it post-delivery (yes, I see your Pinterest boards too). I’ve worried a little for you when you talked about your weight a mere two weeks after giving birth.

cathy pregnant

This was me just before giving birth to my third child. Do celebrities ever look like they’ve swallowed a torpedo?

Believe me, I was there. Three times. I gained the exact same number of pounds each pregnancy: 38. And each was different. I started out about 25 pounds overweight with my first and ate pizza almost nonstop and didn’t exercise at all. With my second, I started out maybe 10 pounds overweight and exercised for about the first six months and ate a little better. With the third, I was at just about an “ideal” weight starting out and exercised up until a couple of days before delivery (I looked pretty ungainly, I’m sure, with my huge belly on that elliptical machine, but it felt good). I still gained the same amount of weight each time. And every single time postpartum, I breast-fed my girls and counted calories (keeping them to a reasonable amount for nursing) and exercised after six weeks had passed after delivery. On the last one, I got back down to a really good weight for me six months after my baby was born.

I went into all that detail to show you that, yes, I’ve been there. And for me, losing weight postpartum was work. I felt the pressure. Yes, I hated seeing the pounds pile on during each month of pregnancy, especially after working so hard to take them off during previous ones. I feel bad saying that now because I wish I hadn’t been worrying about something so superficial as how I looked while I was growing the amazing human beings I’m now proud to call my daughters. But the (sad) truth is, I would feel the same way again even now if I were to be pregnant again. I struggle more now with my weight since I’m older; it’s even harder now! And I struggle with the struggle. I want to be healthy but I don’t want to allow myself to be caught up in our society’s “religion” of thinness, of image, of appearance. I am working to be kinder to myself and try to separate myself from the bombardment by media and culture that tells me how I look is a huge component of my worth.

Because this is the truth, one that goes completely opposite to the messages we see and hear all the time in our media-saturated culture: My worth is not tied in any way to how I look, whether it’s how much my body weighs or how many wrinkles I have (or that aging neck that’s manifesting itself) or how gray my hair is.

And that’s true for all of you. Even though society is pretty much shouting from the rooftops (and our ever-present computers and handheld devices) that we’re supposed to be thin, that it is possible (because, hey, look at the celebrities!) during pregnancy, except for a cute “bump,” and then entirely thin (no more bump) immediately after giving birth, and thin all the rest of our lives, that is just A LIE. Pregnancy changes us. Life changes us. And we’re all different anyway. We all have different body shapes and shouldn’t be worrying about trying to fit our square or triangular or hexagonal pegs into round holes. People come in all different shapes and sizes and colors. Make the best of your own shape, size and color. Take good care of your body. Value it for what it can do for you, for the part it plays in who you are as a whole. Treat it kindly and with respect. But don’t spend a disproportionate amount of your time and energy trying to make it what society says it should be. It’s only going to make you more exhausted than you already are, and when you are pregnant or taking care of a baby, you have NO ENERGY TO SPARE. You know this.

So, my dear friends, stop posting about your weight and size. Stop worrying about it. Take gentle loving care of your body and your psyche. Delete your Pinterest “Fitspiration” board. Those things are just plain dangerous. And please keep posting those baby pictures. I can’t get too many of those.

My husband, who doesn’t follow news as closely as I do, has been commenting frequently this past week or two on the measles outbreak. It’s on his radar as much as it is on the radars of many other Americans who might not have realized how many people have been choosing not to vaccinate their children. Now, after measles has infected 102 people in 14 states just during the month of January, as the CDC says, the issue has been covered frequently in every kind of news outlet. Not a day has gone by that I haven’t seen at least one article on the topic just in my local paper.

Here’s what I have told my husband: Maybe it’s a good thing this has happened. Because, unfortunately, it usually takes a crisis to alert people to a problem. The problem is this: when a high enough percentage of the population isn’t vaccinated (a threshold we have reached now in the U.S.), diseases that used to be practically wiped out can pop right back up and infect — and kill — people.

I realize we are trying to tread a tricky line between individuals’ rights and government authority to compel people to do things. This is particularly challenging when those rights are ones that spring from religious beliefs. I am all too aware of how many religious beliefs have been trampled of late, but I think when it comes to the issue of vaccinations, the vast majority of those parents who are choosing not to vaccinate are not doing so because of religious beliefs. And their choice isn’t harming their own children; it is now actually killing others. That is when their right to choose ends: when it takes away someone else’s health or life. It’s as simple as that.

On ImmunityI reviewed a fascinating book fairly recently, On Immunity, a look at the history of vaccinations and the new class inequality created by those generally more upper-middle-class parents who are choosing not to vaccinate. It is a short book but one many more might want to check out now that the inevitable has occurred.

Some articles I’ve read most recently have indicated that some doctors are not accepting patients whose parents choose not to vaccinate or are having parents who had chosen not to vaccinate change their minds. That’s encouraging. I hope that this dangerous trend can be reversed before the situation gets worse.

Path AppearsI’ve written before about how I wish I could do more to give to others, whether it’s money or time. So many worthy charitable organizations exist to address all kinds of needs, and so many individuals and families need all kinds of things. So I was heartened and inspired by a fantastic book I read last week, A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, by husband-and-wife writers Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. In short, this couple wrote that they often long to give and help those in need around the world but have been unsure of the best ways to help and the best organizations to give to or through. So they’ve “done their research” and created a book that shares what they have learned.

Their conclusions: giving not only benefits others, but it is a source of great satisfaction and fulfillment for those who give. And, even better, just a small donation of time or money really can make an impact, more than we imagine. Then the authors give specific tips on finding a charity to hone in on: 1) “Find an issue that draws you in and research it. … Choose one that speaks to you.” Then do some research yourself to find “ratings, reviews, and critiques” of the charity. 2) “Volunteer, get involved, or do something more than just writing checks.” Use your talents and skills in a place where they will fit and can be “put to good use.” 3) “Use your voice to spread the word or advocate for those who are voiceless.” Kristof and WuDunn write that this step is often overlooked or given short shrift, but it is vital to not only “talk up” what we know and do some “PR” but also to “hold governments — our own and others — accountable for doing their share.”

Not only do they give tips on how best to get involved, but they share a list of “useful organizations” that “do strong work in education, crime and violence prevention, family planning, public health, and quite a bit more.” They emphasize that this isn’t a “screened list” but just groups they have seen personally doing “impressive work.” It’s a few pages long and certainly a nice place to start.

I wrote quite a bit about the book on my book review site, Rated Reads, so you can read more details there. I just can’t say enough about how inspiring this book is. The more of us who get inspired to help and figure out the best ways that we can make a difference, the better for the whole world!

I like to read a variety of genres and subgenres, from adult fiction and nonfiction to young adult and some middle-grade books, but I thought I typically tended to skew more toward fiction. This year, however, the books that have really spoken to me and stuck with me have been more often nonfiction. I’m not sure if that speaks to the quality of the nonfiction I’ve read or to some disappointment I’ve had in fiction I’d thought would be better this year. So I’ll start with the nonfiction books I’ve found compelling in 2014:

  1. The Good Spy, by Kai Bird: This story about Robert Ames, a CIA agent in the ’60s and ’70s who spent his career in the Middle East, had me absolutely fascinated; it was challenging reading, to be sure, that required real focus so I could absorb all the pertinent details about places, people, and politics. But it kept my interest and left me feeling well informed about the big picture, better educated. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the complex history of the divisions in the Middle East, especially in the Holy Land area and its immediate environs, and all the repercussions of each action taken by locals and world governments.
  2. EichmannEichmann Before Jerusalem, by Bettina Stangneth: This fine book that will likely change the whole conversation not just about Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann but about future research into Nazi Germany and its continued relevance. As with The Good Spy, this book is not a quick and easy read; it is a work of scholarship that is comprehensive and thoroughly researched and the conclusions of which are meticulously documented and explained. But it is well worth the time and effort to tackle: anyone who has ever been acquainted with Hannah Arendt’s characterization of Eichmann during his trial in Jerusalem (he made Arendt conclude that “evil” often exhibits itself as “banal”) must read this more accurate examination of the mass murderer.
  3. On Immunity, by Eula Biss: Biss examines the issue of people choosing not to vaccinate, not primarily to persuade “anti-vaxxers” to change their minds, but to show how our culture has fostered this dangerous movement. And the result is a fascinating, informative, and thought-provoking look at parenting in 21st-century America. Not only is On Immunity a quick primer on the history of vaccination and the current attitudes about it, it is an interesting examination of a new kind of class inequality. Regardless of one’s attitudes about vaccination, this book should spur some good discussion about attitudes in our modern society and our responsibility to each other.
  4. Invisible HistoryThe Invisible History of the Human Race, by Christine Kenneally: This book is just as much about genealogy and its popularity and history as it is about how DNA relates to it. The author sets up how DNA comes into the picture by exploring the interest in and history of family history research, of cultures, of eugenics, of how people look at race (for one thing), and then adds in the puzzle piece of DNA. Her writing style and approach are engrossing and interesting, and I found myself dog-earing a lot of passages that spoke to me in various ways.

Now, on to a few works of fiction that particularly pleased me. First, this year brought the conclusions to a few good series, including Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments, Neal Shusterman’s Unwind, and Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy. I enjoyed all three but I think I was most satisfied with UnDivided, the fourth and last book in the Unwind dystology. I wrote earlier this year that I was disappointed in Harkness’ failure to share certain vital information that was pertinent to the whole series in the final book, The Book of Life. Are we supposed to accept that she made us expect a conclusion and did not provide it for us? I didn’t think so. And while I was mostly satisfied with The City of Heavenly Fire, I didn’t think it was as great as earlier books in the series (let’s face it: the first three books were great, and the next three after what seemed like a “conclusion” weren’t quite up to Clare’s previous standards). So an official mention of Shusterman’s achievement comes first in my fiction list (which is going to just include young adult fiction, so I admit I’m mixing genres, which seems fitting now that YA fiction is being read just as much by adults as teens):

  1. UndividedUnDivided, by Neal Shusterman: A conclusion to a series that’s been as thought-provoking as it’s been action-packed. It fit perfectly with the rest of the books and did not let me down. I loved how he wrapped things up. So cool. Just read the series about a future in which the U.S. has settled on a “compromise” between pro-lifers and pro-choicers by not allowing abortion but by allowing parents to “unwind” their teenagers if they cause problems (or for any other reason): their bodies are dismantled and every part is donated to others.
  2. Love and Other Foreign Words, by Erin McCahan: I loved this author’s first YA romance, I Now Pronounce You Someone Else, and this second made me just as happy. This book’s heroine is only 15 and quite precocious for her age in some ways because she is so ridiculously bright. Josie attends high school for half the day in her town of Bexley, Ohio, but starts the day with classes at a nearby college. She especially enjoys languages and how they are used by their respective groups. She is precise in her approach to the use of words. This love of precision (oh, how I love her for that!) causes her difficulties, though, when it comes to “love.” Love and Other Foreign Words is funny, real, vibrant, clever and utterly charming, and a bonus is that it has at its heart a girl who is deeply loved and nurtured by her parents and older sisters and who loves them back; the family is intact and very happy. Refreshing!
  3. The Casquette Girls, by Alys Arden: I reviewed this one for the San Francisco Book Review without knowing much or expecting much of it and was quite pleasantly surprised. Yes, this is YA, and yes, it’s paranormal, but it’s pretty cool. It’s an engaging story that’s rich in historical detail and has a richly developed setting. Readers who love magic and the supernatural will particularly eat up this well-written novel about supernatural creatures causing problems in post-Katrina New Orleans.

And there you have it: some wonderfully researched, intelligent, absorbing, informative nonfiction reads, and a few fun fiction picks that just happen to be written for young adults. Apparently, the “adult” fiction titles disappointed me a bit this year. Let’s hope for better in 2015.

My kind of PinSeems every time “the holidays” roll around, someone invariably asks me in some setting what kind of traditions we have as a family, their eyes lit up with high expectation. I hate to disappoint, but honestly, I feel like I got nothin’. I’ve heard some great stories from other people and on social media, to be sure, but all I can mumble is something about how we “open presents, eat a family dinner, talk to family members…”. As much as I’d like to, I haven’t gotten around to taking the kids to serve at a soup kitchen, for example, or doing something strikingly meaningful and religiously significant on Christmas Eve. I do believe that Christmas exists for us to remember the Savior of the World, I really do, and I try to follow Christ every day. But do I do a lot with my kids to observe that at the time of his “birthday”? Uh … not really.

Add to that people’s Facebook posts or tweets or Pins on what they do with the Elf on the Shelf every day of December (luckily, that didn’t get popular until my kids were well into growing up, so… phew!), and I just shrug and feel a little boring or deficient.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think my kids are suffering from lack of “notable” story-worthy traditions. They’re well-adjusted, happy, fun, giving, and all-round great girls. They have good memories, as do I from Christmases past. I guess my tradition as a parent is just to do the same things my parents did when I was a kid: shop and wrap presents, fill stockings, bake and cook. And hope not to be woken up way too early December 25th. I remember presents I received, time spent with my parents and grandparents and aunt and uncle and two cousins and two siblings, the music we would listen to, the cookies and pies Grandma made, my mom’s homemade noodles simmered in rich turkey broth to perfection. And my girls will remember pretty much the same things: I make the same meal, the same pies, the same cookies and noodles. And miraculously, my daughters don’t wake up at 4 a.m. (as I remember doing one year, generously keeping to my room until about 6 a.m. before disturbing my sleeping parents) or even 6 a.m.

So life is good. We may not have many cool traditions; we listen to music, hang lights, decorate the tree, put out presents, unwrap them gleefully, stuff ourselves at dinner, even read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke. I do absolutely nothing Pin-able. Who cares? Not my girls. And in 20 years or so, they’ll be doing the same boring things I’m doing right now and smiling nostalgically about the boring days of yesteryear. I’m cool with that.

I’ve been able to attend two really beautiful funerals this year, both for people who were extraordinary, and who had wonderful families. I was struck both times by what a special experience it was to share in the remembrance and celebration of the lives of these people with their loved ones. At both, there were many, many experiences shared, sweet and tender memories and funny ones, recounted with laughter and tears.

But how often do you hear people say they enjoyed attending a funeral? That they looked forward to the funeral, that they cherished the time they took to be there?

Americans (and probably many in modern, Western cultures) are far behind some more “primitive” cultures: we do not appreciate the death process or anything surrounding it; we tread with great trepidation around death; and we don’t honor those who are aging, stepping ever closer to death each day. It’s a serious problem. We have become obsessed with youth, with appearance that speaks of youth, with the notion that all that attends death is blessedly far away from the young. I’ve written at length about the problems our image-consciousness (tied in part to the beauty of youth and unwrinkled, unblemished skin) is causing us as individuals and as a society. I’ve not written much about how it’s separating us from those in our culture who have the most to give and share with the rest of us: their wisdom, their fascinating experiences, their character.

Some cultures truly revere their elders. They hold them in high esteem, treat them with great respect, seek them out, not only include them in decisions but hold them as their highest decision-makers. Their middle-aged citizens and children look up to them and learn from them, seeking to be more like them.

In our culture, ageism is the rule. We hire young workers at the exclusion of older ones. We worry about the capacity for wisdom and clear thought of those who aren’t young any longer. We put them away. We don’t want them as leaders because we are sure they’re “out of touch” with “reality.”

And then there’s death. We fear it. We fear the process leading up to it; we fear what happens when and after we die. There is little of reverence and appreciation for the process, even when someone is able to leave this existence with a minimum of pain or discomfort. We are somewhat conditioned naturally to keep away from dead bodies, and we have very little cause to interact with them. I have had the opportunity, however, a few times in my church to help dress women for burial, and I have found it to be not “gross” or “weird” or “scary” but, instead, a privilege. I have found it to be a sacred experience and a lovely last opportunity to perform a service for women who have meant something to me in my church congregation. But, again, we hear little of this kind of experience and of reverence for those who have died.

One Foot in HeavenI was able to read a lovely book this year written by a hospice nurse about the experiences she’s had helping people and their families as they have passed from this life. In One Foot in Heaven, Heidi Telpner tells readers about “good deaths” and “bad deaths” and reminds us all that we all will one day experience death ourselves, and most of us will have to deal with family members’ or friends’ deaths in some way or another. As much as we may (mostly successfully) manage to evade staring down death during our lives, it is still there. It still happens to us all. And the more we are comfortable with it, the more we and our loved ones can experience “good deaths.” Telpner tells about the poignant experiences she has had getting to know good, interesting people with loving and supportive families and how their deaths have been sweet and calm. She also tells about the people who personally fought death or had family who fought the reality of impending death and made it difficult for them to die peacefully. It’s a fine primer for all of us, to remember that death is inevitable, but how we approach it can make all the difference in how we and our loved ones live — and how we prepare to die.

So I find myself still getting surprised looks from others at times when I mention how grateful I was to attend some really beautiful and inspiring funerals, that I have been blessed to be able to provide a service to a person whose body is being readied to be buried but whose spirit is still living elsewhere (as I believe). I’d love to see this change, to see our culture become more age-friendly and even elder-centric. But I’m not holding my breath: we have a long way to go.

Till we meet again

Earlier this year, I learned that a man who’s like a second father to me had cancer. He was doing so well for so long this year (from my standpoint of living at a distance from him) that I’d almost forgotten the clock was ticking on my time with him.

I was able to visit him for about an hour when I was in his state for a family event. I cherished those moments sharing him once again with two of my children, letting them spend a little time with this great man. I did know it was possible it was my last visit with him, but I hoped it wasn’t.

Now, his time on Earth is over, and he’s moving on to a new stage of life, one where he will be reunited with his sweet, sweet wife who died some years ago.

I met Robert Harbertson when I was assigned as a missionary for my church to the visitors centers at Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Rather than spending 18 months going “door to door,” as many are familiar with our church’s missionaries, I had the unusual volunteer opportunity of basically being a tour guide, of showing visitors from all over the world around Temple Square and introducing them to some of the history and beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This amazing, dear man was assigned to be in charge of all of us young volunteers (as well as the older ones, retired couples serving together). As such, he was an authority figure and a parental figure, who watched out for us and made sure we were safe and happy and thriving and getting along with each other. I saw him every day and knew he had absolutely my best interests at heart.

My 12-year-old says now her favorite story about him (I’ve told my children — and anyone else who will listen — plenty of good stories) is his opinion on the thickness of the peanut butter in my daily sandwich. Mind you, this same man handed down a rule that we young missionaries were not to comment on others’ food choices; we had missionaries serving there from countries all around the world, and sometimes they ate some strange-looking things to us Americans (or maybe vice versa). He didn’t want any comments on the “weirdness” of cultural food options to make anyone feel hurt. Even so, one day I was sitting at our lunch table and about to sink my teeth into a perfect peanut butter sandwich: it was made from the homemade whole grain bread provided in our break room and a very thick layer of creamy, gooey peanut butter. He reached around me and actually handled my sandwich, squished it, and said, “Sister Carmode! How much peanut butter did you put in that sandwich?!” I told him to mind his own business. Well, basically. We still had a good laugh.

President, as we just tended to call him, had a stern facade, which could be mighty intimidating if you didn’t know him, and if he had the need to make a point. But after just a short time of knowing him, I was wise to his game: just ready to pop out from behind the stern face was a huge, impish grin. He was also competitive, reminding us that he played college basketball, and we learned at the beginning of a spiritual address from a top church leader that President and this apostle regularly played a serious game of racquetball. I’m sure it was take-no-prisoners.

Here we are together at a 20-year reunion.

Here we are together at a 20-year reunion.

But at the heart of this stern, rule-making, authoritarian figure was a warm, gooey heart that held a spot for little ol’ me. He was in charge of probably 100 or more young women during his volunteer time, but he could make me feel I was the only one he had to take care of. Honestly, I love and miss my dad a great deal, but thanks to a very tough upbringing, Dad wasn’t a naturally, unconditionally-loving kind of person. So being in President’s care, having that place in his big heart, not just during the time he was assigned to watch out for me but in the two decades since, was a window into an experience I hadn’t quite had. It gave me a better understanding of what it means to be loved unconditionally and a boost to my feelings for myself.

When I was dating my husband, I took him to visit President and his wife, and he got their stamp of approval. It just so happened that was 2 1/2 months before my parents got to meet my then-future husband. I visited President on my way across country during one of our long-distance moves, with my firstborn baby girl. I’ve visited many times over the years and had little booster shots of that man’s love, all the while giving my girls the opportunity to experience it a little themselves.

We met in a place where a famous choir often sings “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” Now, I sing it to President. I look forward to meeting you again.

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