Hung in Memory

Three Christmas trees stand in our house, each trimmed with memories old and new.

The oldest tree is a fiber optic tree I bought in my years at boarding school. Its motor to change colors is as loud as a washing machine, but Blondie loves it. She decorates it with all the Peanuts ornaments Bo has given me since we first started dating twelve years ago. The boys have a tree Bo bought during his year of ministry internship. We keep its ornaments mostly unbreakable, as the garland is often pulled off to be rope.

The family tree is a collection of Christmases past. There are ornaments Bo and I have made or received over the past thirty-some years.

My grandmother made this one by hand. The time, the patience, the steady hand to wrap the thread just so, to pin the pearls and sequins.

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When I was young, our ornaments were all packed in a giant stove box. At some point my elder brother and I started a contest to find this glass dove. Some years it was in the first layer of ornaments; other years the fifth.

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Some ornaments hang in memory of those who’ve died. When my mother’s parents died, I received their Christmas angels. They always fly just beneath the star.

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When my father’s parents died, I received back a few ornaments I had bought them years ago.

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Christmases had more family then. More life.

Not so much these days.

Last Christmas, my sister-in-law tried to kill herself.  This year our relations with Bo’s side have been tense, but nothing…out there, into the darkness again. And for that I’ve been thankful. They even wanted to come to our house last week for Blondie’s Christmas service and my birthday.

In the hours before they arrived, my mother called to sing happy birthday–a tradition. One hour later, she called in tears.

“It’s…it’s Aiden. Oh, Jean, he’s…he’s not with us anymore. He was so despondent, his partner…” sobs.

I stopped breathing. My cousin was just a couple years older, a sweetheart. When Mom faded after “partner” all I could think was, What the fuck did he do to my cousin, I’ll fucking–

“His partner found him. He…he hung himself, Jean.”

The kids screamed for more peanut butter waffles.

The washing machine honked.

The oven declared something, I don’t know why the fuck that timer was even on, just so much God damn NOISE. Fucking NOISE when I all I could do was huddle up in the hallway and cry.

I managed to call Bo. He managed to get out of work just before his relatives came. My sister-in-law takes the coffee I offer her and asks, “So, how’s it going?”

Part of me just wants to punch her.

“Not great.” And I find I’m physically unable to make words. Do I just flat out say, “My cousin hung himself, so I’m pretty shitty right now because the last thing I want to do is celebrate a birthday or talk to people. I want to walk outside in the below-zero snow and fucking THINK, and cry, and let the tears freeze my face because I fucking failed my family.”?

I don’t say it.

Bo tells them later.

No one acts like anything happened. They carry on just as we were directed to do last year: lots of plastered smiles and talk without substance. I cringed inside and cried outside while they all sat around the Nintendo or the snack table. After the tenth worried stare I told Blondie that my cousin had died. “So now he’s with Jesus!” She tells me with a hug. My sob shakes her bones.

~*~

My elder brother wants me to ride with him across the state for the funeral. I decline. I wanted to sit in silence…or noise, if I wanted. I want to control my environment, however briefly. To have ONE thing under my control.

Why, Aiden?

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The obituary barely mentioned depression. Was his depression like my own postpartum depression? Bo knew I was sad, knew I was depressed, but he had no clue just how bad it was until I put it into writing years later. He looked at me like he didn’t know me.

I learned as a child to live two lives: the life locked away with The Monster, and the public life of the Preacher’s Daughter. I learned to smile and joke and shrug and separate the pain and confusion so it felt like an other-life, like it couldn’t possibly impact the world outside my bedroom. Did Aiden live as two selves?

And it never even occurred to me to get it out, to really talk about it, until these past couple of years. Between the writing and the reading of Zoe Zolbrod’s experience as an abuse victim, I hadn’t physically felt just how deep that pain had saturated me. It’s been a long, nasty time, working the poisons out. And until The Monster agrees to family therapy, the poisons will never be out completely.

What kept the poisons in Aiden? Or did he not even know he had been poisoned at all?

When pain is all we know, we don’t realize there’s an alternative. The toddler of a friend of mine often tires of walking because she’s a problem with her hip my friend can’t afford to have surgically handled. The girl’s not a fan of walking or running, and who can blame her? She’s never known the movement to not hurt. Was that life for Aiden? Did life just never not hurt?

Much of my father’s family fell out of contact with Aiden when he opened up about his homosexuality. My uncle didn’t help much: while a kind and funny man, he was also very selfish, much like his wife. The two split not-amicably, leaving Aiden and his sister with their mother in the North Woods while he moved to Florida. Even Aiden’s funeral wasn’t enough to bring him back.

No wonder, then, when I went to the visitation and studied the pictures hung about the room and saw near nothing of our branch of the family. To my shame, it’s only right. The stills of his past were filled with those who were there for him in the present. While I can look back on the warm glow of childhood Christmases spent together, we only saw each other a handful of times in the past fifteen years: I had gone on to school, marriage, and motherhood. I only caught snippets of his struggles with alcohol, relationships, and relations with his own mother and sister. The last time I saw him was at our grandfather’s funeral. We spoke for a long time about faith and love, the insanity of kids–he had been helping raise his nephew. The last I heard of him he even had custody of one because his sister continued to struggle with drugs.

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How I wish I would have known of his love of the 80s. Of writing. Of him. Because for all that philosophical and nostalgic talk we never really talked about each other. We never reached for each other.

I have to live with that missed chance now, but I’m not going to let that regret ferment into another poison. NW Filbert once shared this quote from Wendell Berry to me. It’s never fit more than now:

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Reach for those whom you love this Christmas. Hug them. Plant a big wet one on their foreheads. Christmas glows not only with light, but with hope. May that hope shine as you call them out of their inner darkness.

Click here for more on the American Federation for Suicide Prevention.

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Mrs. Fix-It

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My living room is a perpetual kill-floor.

“Mommy, fix Windlifter’s tail-fin?”

“No, it’s broken.”

“Mommy, fix the ladder truck?”

“Fix Dipper’s wing?”

“Fix the picture?”

“Fix it?”

“Fix it?”

“Can you fix it tonight?”

“No, it’s BROKEN.”

Bits of car, shards from a thrown plane. Train tracks strewn everywhere. Torn pictures, colored and blank. Books, stepped on, slid on, and therefore ripped.

Of course, this all comes from having twin boys who think biting and clawing are typical play. If something CAN break, it SHOULD, and because it is theirs it MUST be fixed. To accept something’s broken is to accept they did something wrong. Not the easiest task for a three-year-old.

And who is expected to fix whatever “it” may be?

Me.

~*~

My father was a Mr. Fix-It. Called away to the hospital to stabilize an uproar between family and staff. Between family and family. Called merely to sit, and to listen to those whose families act like they’re dead. Called away to sit, and to listen, and to attempt a bridging between those determined to tear their own families apart.

The demands on fixing didn’t stop with his vocation.

My aunt’s husband died a few years ago from excessive drinking and smoking. Surgery after surgery, warning after warning, and he never stopped. Many of us saw his death as inevitable. Not my aunt.

Life wasn’t quite so insane for me back then: Biff tucked himself quietly away in the back of my womb while Bash somersaulted to his heart’s content. Toddler Blondie loved to be with her Grandma and Grandpa, so we often visited on weekends. After a particularly busy morning outside Blondie crashed in the guest room; the rest of us settled for a quiet read/work time in the basement.

Then my aunt called. Mom put it on speaker, because apparently no phone call was private in that house. “I just got the autopsy report, and…” sobs.

This is my mother’s sister.

My mother hands her off to Mr. Fix-It, and goes to the laundry room.

I get up to go, but no–stay, Jean. You’ll wake Blondie.

So I sit, and listen to my aunt go on and on about why no one told her it was this bad, why her husband didn’t say anything. Dad all the while gently telling her no one could tell Uncle D what to do, Uncle D always had a strong faith, and on and on.

My mother occasionally comes by the phone, but doesn’t take over the conversation until my aunt’s sobs have died down. Until the fixing’s done.

Dad looks at me, shakes his head. Goes back to writing his sermon.

~*~

Being the stay-at-home-parent has made me the Mrs. Fix It of my family. All the ripped/cracked/frosted/peed on items are brought to me. When Bash gets over a tantrum, he comes to me to “clean his face.” Even if Bo is home, I’m the one sought. And if I plan to leave the home, Bo seeks me out to fix up the children’s schedule for him so he knows what to do and when.

~*~

Every family has a Fixer, the one who maintains the connections, is sought for improvements, changes.

Somehow, Dad’s death put his duties on me.

I didn’t feel it at first, overwhelmed by my own grief.

Then came the phone calls from my mother.

Grief counseling was a waste of time, she said. She wouldn’t talk to another pastor, because no one else was Dad.

I have two brothers: one who lives near her, the other a pastor elsewhere in the country. My mother and I have never been bound with more than the ties created by Christian duty.

Yet she talked to me. Sobbed to me. And I never, ever had the right thing to say.

Some souls are so…so rich with love and faith that when they are removed, it is a literal chasm in your emotional and spiritual self. I don’t know if, being my father’s daughter, my mom expected me to somehow replace Dad. I don’t know if, now that Dad was gone, she thought we could finally have a relationship. I don’t know. I’ve never known my mom, and in all the talks in tears I still don’t know her. Every attempt I made at comfort or encouragement was not what she wanted to hear, at least from me. So eventually, she stopped calling.

Then came the messages: friends of my parents, relatives of my father. At any given family gathering or run-in with friends I am the one who’s asked: “How’s your mom? Is she seeing anyone?” And all I can give are platitudes: “up and down.” “good days and bad days.” Facebook messages pop up from people I haven’t seen in years, wondering how she is. I am sought to maintain the connections. I am expected to Fix This, All of This.

~*~

I sit on the floor in my sons’ room. Shades still drawn. Dark, quiet, since the boys are happily watching their favorite trains.

Quiet but for my sobs.

There came a point where all I could see were expectations unfulfilled. Of progress dumped out onto the floor, and broken, again, to be fixed, AGAIN, and how come you can’t fix it why can’t you mommy FIX it Mommy FIX IT

And there’s nothing I can do.

Tomorrow I will leave the house, schedule neatly written and left on the kitchen counter for Bo, and pull up to an office building. Walk in. State I have an appointment.

Tomorrow I will go up to someone who’s never met me, and lay it all out. All the broken pieces, the twisted old bits that used to work until they were trampled one too many times.

Tomorrow I will ask someone else to help Fix It.

Me.

 

 

As My Sons Turn 3

What is it with schools and fluorescent lights? They do nothing to ease my pounding head as I pace in front of an empty classroom.

“They must be in the gym now,” says another mom, bland to this whole First Day of School affair. She’s been through it all, by the looks of her wrinkles and hips, at least once before, likely twice. Whichever one is in 3K is not the Troublemaker of her brood.

She does not know my sons.

~*~

Biff and Bash were evicted after 37 weeks with the help of any and every drug doctors allowed. They slid out, two minutes apart: Biff pale, Bash ruddy. They were given stocking caps straight out of M.A.S.H. with smudged permanent marker: “A” and “B.” It took longer to remove the placenta than to give birth.

Two little souls, so different before they even left my womb: “A” so quiet, so tucked away, while I couldn’t sleep because “B” kicked and somersaulted. Two sets of sleepy eyes, clasping hands. Bo and I held, traded. We had our sons. We had both wanted a boy. God blessed us with two. At last, our family, overwhelming, perfect.

~*~

“Do you want to use the potty today?”

“N-n-n-n-n-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o,” says Bash.

NOOOO!” says Biff. This fingernail scrape of a scream is new, and drives me fucking nuts.

“Fine. Fine. Then get over here. New diapers and clothes. You have school today!” After several more No’s and kicks to my chest and arms, the boys are changed and dressed. Biff wears a white polo patterned with motorcycles and classic cars; Bash wears a blue plaid button-down shirt. He looks…old. Like, “I’m off to first-grade, Mumsy” old. Could they really be ready to exit this house and co-exist around other human beings of various sizes?

~*~

November. The boys are eight weeks old.

Blondie naps soundly. Thank God she’s a heavy sleeper like her father.

The boys have nursed. They are changed, swaddled, laid in their cribs. I close the door. Exhale.

The afternoon is cloudy, plain. Nothing new in the house or outside to dwell on, work on. Nothing to consider but an hour of peace, of me conscious, by myself, in the quiet. I look at the half-wall in the middle of the living area; it surrounds the stairs to the basement. Yes, I’ll go below, get some Mystery Science Theater 3000, and—

Screams. Again.

I bolt into the room and remove Biff before he can wake Bash. He is crying. He’s fucking crying, like they always do, because they can’t just fucking sleep at the same fucking time.

They. These two. Why the FUCK do I have two, I can’t handle two. Why did God give me two

The half-wall is lit in sunlight.

There is no sunlight today.

It’s perfect.

Perfect for what?

It’s an accident.

Oh God no

It’s a fall, it could happen.

No it can’t please GOD no it I can’t

A trip.

A drop.

Shut up shut up SHUT UP

An answer.

Biff howls in my arms as I cower in my bedroom, afraid of my own house. Of my own mind.

~*~

Bash’s smiles are made of pure cheek. He half closes his eyes and peers about, and you know his wheels are turning. He revels in running away from command, laughing with maniacal glee. He sees a game to be made in everything, from hiding cars in every drawer of the house, to provoking Biff with a whack on the back.

If reality doesn’t amuse him, he creates his own. He gathers little trains, or takes a picture of the latest Thomas and Friends line, and begins. “Once upon a time, there were three engines…. ‘Hello, Thomas, I’m Toby!’ Toby peeped. …. ‘But Diesel, you can’t go to the sea,’ Gordon chuffed.” And so on. You can hear him change character, stretching his voice for each train, adding dialogue tags for of course, one must have dialogue tags. His imagination bores Blondie, occasionally amuses Biff. Impresses Bo. Brings me to tears, knowing this could not be happening had I left him on the roadside one winter night years ago. (I describe this night in “The Machete and the Cradle.”)

~*~

“Come on, little dudes, let’s get some breakfast.”

“No I’m NOT it’s time for breakfast.” Bash never misses the chance to contradict.

Biff never misses a chance to rattle Blondie’s cage. He goes to the seat next to her. “Hi, Mr. Blondie.”

“I’m not a Mr. I’m a MISS!” Blondie tries to scream, but morning phlegm makes yelling hard. Shuckie-darn.

Fork battles, tossed milk cups, crumbled muffins everywhere.

Bo comes in, unfazed, and sits by Blondie for breakfast. Muffin shrapnel lands in his milk. He sips it anyway, and looks at me. “Just wait until they’re with other kids.”

I imagine bruised legs, scabbed faces, and pissed off moms pointing at my hellions. THEY did this, Can’t you DO anything about them

~*~

Biff teeters between fixation and boredom. He took to books in infancy, sitting alone or laying on his stomach, blanket at hand, slowly turning the pages. Vehicles fascinate him. Numbers and letters fascinate him. If it’s in a book, he’ll stare at it for ages.

But if he’s bored, trouble brews. You know he’s bored when he rests his head in his hands, eyes wide and off and up, mouth slightly drooping. Everything falls under his disinterested gaze. He’ll half-close his eyes, just like his brother, as he sits there, checking out the dining room, the living room. Bash has cars, cars are boring today…and you can see his head nonchalantly turn towards his sister’s room, and the look of boredom fades.

~*~

The drive to 3K lasts roughly twenty minutes. Ten minutes in I realize the birthday treat they were due to bring because the first day of 3K also fell on their birthday is still in the fridge. No time to turn back. No time to stop on the way. Where to stop, how to stop… Of COURSE I forgot the one thing that would impact others because I was too worried about clothing and shoes and diapers and change of clothes and backpacks and car seats and coats and DAMMIT.

All the while the same song repeats, because if I let the next track start, the boys scream. The boys call it “The Song.” Blondie calls it the “Dinosaurs Die” song. Adults may know it as “Demons” by Imagine Dragons. Not a bad song, especially when a five-year-old explains which part of the song is for the T Rex’s eating everyone, which part is when the dinosaurs die, and which part is when they come back to life.

I rush Biff in. The principal, a Wonder Bread version of Jason Bateman with crusts removed, holds out his hand, “Hi, welcome to—“

“Hi.” Up the stairs, dump the boy. I don’t look back.

“Have a good d—“

“Not done.” Out to the car, grab Bash. Rush him in.

“Hi.” Mr. Wonder Bread Bateman holds out his hand and then realizes it’s me again. “Oh, yes. The twins.”

Yes. THE twins. Dumped and I’m gone, because all I can think of is where the hell to buy a birthday cookie to drop off before snack time.

I didn’t hug them. Didn’t say goodbye. First day of school, and I’m stuck on a God damn cookie.

~*~

Both boys adore Blondie’s room. It’s filled with the “good stuff”: little boxes, sparkly toys, cars she tries to keep for herself. Plush ponies and a bed without another bed directly on top of it, which makes it perfect for bouncing.

Yet today, when I find them there, they are not playing with her toys, nor are they bouncing. They are both focused on something hanging from a clip of her picture string. It’s a printout of two pictures my dad took in 2012.

Me, in the hospital, holding them, newly born. Blondie a wisp of a toddler with even wispier curls around her ears, clings to Bo. One other picture: my parents, each holding a grandson.

“Mommy, Mommy, who’s that?” Biff says, fat finger on the middle of the paper—near no one, of course.

“Who is that?” I repeat him to avoid the Shrill Anger of Misunderstanding.

“Daddy.”

“Mommy, Mommy—there’s Grandma!”

“Yes, Bash.”

“Mommy, Mommy!” Biff stiffens his back as he sniffs his blanket. “Who’s that?”

“I don’t know.” I really don’t—he wasn’t even looking at the pictures.

Biff turns around and thrusts his face into the image of my parents. “It’s Grandma and Uncle Matt!”

“No.” I choke. “That’s Grandma and Grandpa.”

I have to correct them every time. And every time, it hurts. My father died some months after their first birthday, which means they will never, ever have a memory of him.

Had my postpartum won out, there would be no boys to remember anything at all.

There would be no boys before me, staring at their newborn selves. I would not have memories of train stories, dutiful board book study, or maniacal giggles. I’d have none of the pain, which, yes, was pain, from scars on my psyche to the bruises on my body. These boys brought so much pain into my life. They still do.

But that is not all there is to them. They are mischievous, imaginative. Fearless. They’ve shown me I can face the worst darkness in myself, and fucking beat it.

~*~

Screams from the stairs below.

“Oh, someone’s unhappy,” Bland Mom says with that stupid sing-song tone that makes me want to slap her.

“Yeah. Mine.”

Pause. “Oh.”

Which one of mine I don’t know, and I don’t feel like explaining.

The door opens to Bash, sobbing, gently prodded along by the Teacher. He isn’t throwing himself to the ground, skinning his knees to blazes. He isn’t slapping her. He’s letting her guide him back to the room.

My. GOD.

Some more sniffly ones, and there’s Biff, white polo covered in paint, birthday crown still atop that big head of his, wandering away from the line. Teacher’s Aide calls to him, “This way!” He immediately turns and follows the other children inside.

“Someone had a birthday,” Bland Mom keeps it monotone this time. Good.

I exhale for the first time all morning. “Yeah, mine.”

More cries in the classroom. I approach the doorway and see Biff and Bash refusing their backpacks. They look up, and rush towards me.

“Time to go?” whimpers Biff.

“This way!” Bash points to the stairwell out.

Teacher hands over the backpacks. Not a mark on her. Hell, her hair ain’t even frazzled. “It took a while for them to calm down, but they had fun. They really did.” She emphasizes that last bit. I know she’s seasoned enough to tell a mother her kid’s not ready for school. She’s not telling me that. Just the opposite.

I half-carry, half-escort the boys down the stairs. Mr. Wonder Bread Bateman stands at the door. “Hey, you kids have fun today?”

“N-n-n-n-n-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o.”

NOOOO!”

He stares, toasted.

So I say “See you next week!” and head out the door.

In the car, buckled up and unable to escape, I risk asking for myself. “Did you two have fun at school today?”

They pause.

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

I pause.

“Had fun at school today!”

“No, I didn’t have fun at school today!” Oh, Bash, you can’t stand not contradicting.

“The Song” repeats the whole way home as the two debate over whether or not they truly did have fun at school today.

I wonder how next week will go. How 4K will go, Kindergarten. The time would come when these boys won’t fight me over using the potty or who gets what car….well we’ll probably fight over who gets what car, just not, you know, the teeny ones. God willing we’re not in tiffs over who uses what toilet.

Unique souls from the get-go.

Unpredictable in thought, word, and deed.

Unequivocally my sons.

Firefly Night

 

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Photo from Reddit.com

I watch Blondie chase fireflies. Her first time up late and outside, she runs and giggles and squeals, “Hello there, little lightning bug! Hey, wait for me!” Few stars care to share themselves before the sun disappears, but Bo comes across Venus and Jupiter together. “The second star to the right!” Blondie tugs my hand and points beyond our world. “That’s where Tinkerbell and the fairies live. Can we go there?”

 

“In your dreams, Blondie, sure you can.”

“But I want to go for real.”

“I know, kiddo.” Magic’s for dreams and stories, I want to say, not real life. But she’s five. What does she know?

~*~

I am returning from the library in the next town. Biff and Bash have been living up to their names moreso than usual, so when Bo offers to handle bedtime solo, I flee.

The sun’s brilliance wanes. A thin haze rests upon the treetops. It is the first cloudless sky in days, and I wonder if I shall see some constellations before I reach home.

The stars do not bother. Too much competition.

Never have I seen so many fireflies at once. On either side of the road, from curbside to distant tree lines, slowly circling every corn stalk. Blondie would have called them dancing fairies. I would have agreed.

I find myself jealous of Creation.

Had I built this moment myself, in my head, I could stay in it as long as I choose. I could add more colors to the fireflies and the sunset. I could add a chill in the air to make it more comfortable. I, I, I. I wanted to be in control.

Stories allow that. I can revisit a scene from years ago and rewrite characters’ choices. Natures. Trim every unpleasantness away.

But where is the life in such manipulation?

At some point, I have to stop the fixes and simply let the characters go the ways they wish. I am tempted often to analyze what I’ve done: if I give it just one more go, I can get it right.

But will it really be “just one more go”?

~*~

We cannot see the ripples of consequence until after the stone is thrown. Some of us don’t have hope great enough to fill the palm of one hand; instead, we carry a pebble, a little nothing that could never touch another. Or, like me, some lumber about with a boulder that defines everything, everything we perceive ourselves to be. I aimed my boulder as best I could for graduate school, certain it would teach me the beautiful secrets of writing. Instead, I learned to hate it. It took years of postpartum depression for me to try writing again, and discover its power to heal. I can’t delete the dark thoughts I battled to reach this point. I don’t want to. Because I wouldn’t know, really know, who I am if not for those internal scars.

I still stare into that water sometimes, though, and wonder how much longer I should have held on to that damn boulder. What friendships I should have saved and not abandoned. Which hearts I should have sought and not ignored. I can stare, and stare…and miss the beauty of a hundred fireflies dance around my daughter.

So I do my damndest not to stare. Creators who watch nothing lose control of their worlds, and characters who immerse themselves in nothing can only drown. I am a mother of children who see me as the foundation of their world. I am a wife to a man who dared throw his pebble into the water at, of all things, the sight of me. I am a woman who wants to share her imagination with those who walk away from the water and enter the fireflies. Perhaps we will see each other amidst all the little glows, perhaps not. To miss the dance this year is not the end—one of the best miracles about fireflies is that they come back. Until then, we can look for stones to skip, and, when we’re ready, launch them across the water and make it beautiful. That, to me, is magic.

A Fellow Writer and Her Inner Battle

Whether you are a writer or a mother or both, please take a moment to learn more about PMAD (Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorder). I should think it’s no surprise that growing children inside and out will impact a woman’s body in negative ways, but we often don’t think about what those ways are. Time to find out!

Click here to read “My PMAD Gets No Respect, Part II,” by Dyane