MAXImum Insecurity: the business of buying lady stuff

I’ve been to India just twice, but within those two trips I have lugged with me enough children, pediasure, sunscreen and travel anxiety that I feel as though I’ve lived about three years of my life there.

At this point, I’m kind of an unofficial expert. By the end of trip two in December 2012 I had my standard response to the question of “What is India like?” all figured out. It was rehearsed down to the very semi-colon and dramatic pause. It was both pithy and vast.

It goes like this: “India is everything in abundance all at once, except privacy and predictability. Not much of either of those.”

Mumbai glitters at night, but as you'd expect from any megacity: Glitter and grit coexist, and they're not always a pretty pair.

Mumbai glitters at night, but as you’d expect from any megacity: Glitter and grit coexist, and they’re not always a pretty pair.

Examples: Privacy, predictability denied

No mom can predict that a plain-clothes security guard will kick her off the slide in a congested urban park. No jetlagged traveler can understand that the overnight train’s bathroom is actually an empty car with a bucket. Attached to a chain coiled on the floor. And it’s BYO toilet paper. First graders who look like their Irish-complected momma don’t mind being photographed by random people all the time. It’s when they return as sixth graders that this attention gets uncomfortable. I teased my son that maybe the other tourists in Kanyakumari thought he was Justin Bieber (pre-DUI, pre-Anne Frank House megalomania). My son never bought it, and in retrospect I know I didn’t demonstrate the necessary compassion to help him cope with being a temporary tourist attraction. We eventually settled for having me sabotage as many of these unwanted photo-ops as possible with a sweaty, steely glare and ‘90s dance poses. This red-faced lady can vogue, India! 

One more example. You arrive in Madurai in the midst of a biblical plague of mosquitoes. You begin to rethink your decision to forgo the anti-malarial meds because your kids hated them and vomited them often on your first trip. So you ask your aunt about malaria outbreaks and hold your breath for the answer.

“No, there is not so much malaria,” she says. Pause. Relief. Deep breath. “But there is a lot of Dengue Fever.”

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For the latest updates on Dengue Fever ’13, and to wrap your unmentionables.

I hope in some small way these anecdotes (all true, all “anonymous”) convey the truth behind my earlier “no privacy, no predictability” statement. None of them are complaints of any sort. Just observations.

A shocking shopping excursion

Back to December, 2012. Our final day in India was meant to be a relaxing one, or as relaxing as any day in this teeming, ambitious mega-city Mumbai can be. My husband and I went shopping in King’s Circle while the kids were off with one or a half dozen of their aunties and uncles.

Being the adventurous tourists that we are, I insisted on a stop in the Levi’s store – the kind of place we’d never visit back in the states. I’m short. The pants I try on are long. It’s a familiar story. Until the clerk says something verrry interesting.

“We can do alterations,” she tells me, with all the eye contact and urgency one can summon when talking to the store’s only customer.

“We have a flight in 12 hours. It would never work, but thanks,” I say, feeling conspicuously touristy. Like my son must feel, sometimes, I imagine.

She smiles. “It will take one hour. It could take less time than this.”

Can you imagine if stores in the U.S. just hemmed your pants for free while you waited? No. You really can’t. Not if you’re in the Kohl’s Department Store/T.J. Maxx shopping clubs like I am. Two pairs of pants that will actually fit me are immediately purchased and measured.

So that’s a surprise. Totally unpredictable.

Then something else happens. I realize that my monthlies are about to begin, and our shopping trip will take on a new sense of urgency. Extreme travel (and stress) can alter a woman’s internal calendar, you know.

King’s Circle is just that – a circle of clothing shops, Udupi restaurants, sweet stands and flower vendors packed around a hub that includes the aforementioned park where parents are forbidden to use the slide. Though I’m surrounded by commerce I have no idea where to go for those most practical of necessities – lady stuff.

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King’s Circle

Our first stop is the neighborhood “library,” basically a toy and bookstore where my husband used to get Archie comics as a kid. For every one trip to India that I have taken he’s taken six, and Mumbai’s Matunga suburb is the setting for many of his childhood memories. He just wants me to see it. Then we’ll get on to urgent matters.

The shopkeeper at the library actually recognizes and remembers my husband. They talk about life. I get introduced. No one mentions Archie.

Our next stop is a department store so much larger and brighter than any of the other shops nearby that it brings me hope that maxi pads are somewhere under those fluorescent lights. My husband and I know that finding tampons is just an added layer of complexity and vocabulary that we can’t take on. We have a flight in 11 hours!

Shampoo and bindis, saris and toys, stockings and school supplies – they’re all there. In the back of the store microwaves and toaster ovens are for sale. I circle the place a few times while my husband watches. He knows this is not the place, but I forge ahead.

“Can I help you find something, M’am?” asks a managerial-looking gentleman.

I nearly jump back as I’m so laser-focused on talking to a female clerk. Then I try to think back on all the female clerks I’ve seen in Mumbai, in India in total, since we arrived. Nearly every time we’re in a transaction, from the chaiwalla to the jeweler to the three men who made my recent ice cream cone, all are men.

“Well,” I say and sigh, “I am looking for ladies products.

“You understand,” I continue in slower, Midwestern-flat English accent. “Products for ladies.

“Yes. Yes. Products for ladies. Follow me.”

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“Ladies items,” she said discreetly. “I am looking for ladies items.”

I follow him right to the cosmetics counter, where every shade of lipstick pales in comparison to my scarlet complexion. I am a mom. I see a gynecologist yearly. Yet somehow I’m suddenly too eighth grade to handle the reality of international menstruation.

At least there is a woman there, behind the counter. I go for it. All of it.

“Excuse me, but do you sell sanitary napkins or tampons?”

“No madam,” she says. “We have none of those items here.”

I give her a moment’s pause, awaiting directions to the secret pink clubhouse nearby where one can purchase ladies’ products. Yet nothing more is said.

A few street crossings later we’re at the corner shop where we sometimes buy Oreos and granola bars for day-tripping around Mumbai for the kids. It’s the same place where I had sought out melatonin a couple weeks earlier without avail, but it did sell band-aids. It was worth an attempt.

I again mumble something about ladies products to the man working the counter. I think he doesn’t hear me, so my husband steps in. There’s some Hindi, and maybe a little Gujarati thrown about. It’s indicated that we must step out of the main grocery store section of the shop and round the corner to a detached drug store counter staffed by two other men. I remumble, and the two men understand me at once.

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“What size?” one of the men asks me. “Is it the wings you are wanting?”

“The kind that’s big enough you can just hide underneath it and disappear — that’s the kind I want,” is what I want to say. Instead, I collect my dignity because I know this should not be so difficult. Also, I’d like to see my options before I get tossed some off-brand, odd-sized package.

Wouldn’t you guess that maxi pads are high up on a shelf behind the counter, behind the clerks? It’s the combination of security and location that we reserve for infant formula and condoms in the U.S.

“I like the blue one on the left.”

“This one?”

Me and my husband both nod.

The fitter then turns to his counter-mate and issues my order. The second man takes down the highly coveted blue package. While I rifle for rupees, clerk no. two begins wrapping my purchase in newspaper. Two layers! In case some eagle-eyed passerby might actually read through the wrapping and discover my lady secret.

We now have 10.5 hours to catch a flight and retrieve my me-length Levis.

My point is finally here

I’d actually forgotten about this mostly non-episode until reading today’s articles about Arunachalam Muruganantham. My walking tour of King’s Circle is nothing but a cake walk when compared to the menstrual challenges faced by women across India, only 12 percent of whom actually have access to proper sanitary pads — the kind that are clean and that promote and preserve women’s reproductive health. Access to hygienic, practical menstrual products also goes a long way toward dissolving the stigma and shame that menstruation carries with it, unfortunately, in many cultures. After years of ridicule and trial and error himself, Muruganantham has developed a simple design for clean cost-effective ladies products, in addition to machines that women in 23 states now use to produce the goods cheaply and conveniently.

Thank you, Mr. Muruganantham! Nonetheless I’m taking no chances. Next time we travel to India I’ll bring my own. Some things can’t be predicted. This should not have been one of them!

Party in Room 324

Getting out of town ain’t what it used to be.

Just one year ago I left the husband and kids in my dust as I departed for a long-overdue ladies weekend in Austin. It was an incredible time. I missed no one.

This Saturday as I packed my bags and memorized my itinerary for a fast 48 hours in Ohio (woot!), the faces around my house were longer than either leg of my MKE to Dayton flights. Mom was going out of town – okay, fine, everybody can deal with that. But taking the baby along for the ride? Sunday morning I watched with one eye as the older kids crept into my room to take silent selfies with the baby and sneak him goodbye kisses. I remembered the bottle of wine I slid into the refrigerator – buoyed by optimism and sentimentality – just the night before.  But then I had packed and promptly fallen asleep. Now, 12 hours later, I was leaving the state with my baby and without a 13th anniversary toast with my husband. Things felt kind of gloomy.

The airport drop-off was undramatic. The turbulence on my first flight was. I celebrated National Margarita Day in the Detroit airport, confessing over chips and Don Julio that leaving home is getting harder to do. My friend, colleague and traveling companion (one person rolled into one; not three persons) agreed.

Celebrity Sighting!

Even the obligatory airport celebrity sighting made me homesick. When my friend spied Santa Claus on the electric sidewalk I stifled my sniffles. My kids aren’t big believers, but a random Santa sighting would’ve piqued their interest long enough to get them to stop asking for Beats, iPods, kidney-shaped pillows from the airport store. Or, they would have at least asked Santa for them and given me a break.

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I saw mommy harassing Santa Claus at the Detroit airport last night.

If my kids or any kids – but especially my kids – are reading this please note that Santa is real and he says not brushing teeth is no. 3 on his list of Hygiene Offenses Deserving of Coal (HODCs). Lying about brushing teeth is no. 7. He told me so in Detroit. Unlike things that happen in Vegas, things that happen in Detroit can be photographed and shared liberally. You’ve been warned and you’re welcome.

By the time I reached the hotel in Dayton, I was grateful for the farty, snorty, drooling baby and his entourage of personal-care items I brought with me: humidifier, amoxicillin, stroller, mucus extractor, vast personal wardrobe – he had 18 outfits for two days and I had two outfits, one each for worktime and bedtime. These items absorbed some of the quiet cleanliness of the room. Even baby knew something was up, however. He kept looking around the room, bobbing his head like a little brown sparrow. He was looking for people, clamor, noise, a sibling with a pirate/sheriff/ninja costume to stuff him into for a photo shoot. I needed more people with me. Or more stuff! Traveling lightly and solo felt completely, deeply lonely in that instant.

What was wrong with me? Just a few weeks ago I had been weeping over long-forgotten friends facebook videos. Now this! What kind of over-sentimentalized drip had I become that I couldn’t even enjoy an underscheduled night in a comfy hotel room with Wifi, wine and tiny bottles of Paul Mitchell? In Detroit I had promised Santa that we would be on our very best behavior during this work trip. My promise would be kept as I settled into homesick boredom. I had no interest in tomfoolery of any sorts.

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How moms party.

Dinner a deux

Eventually I meet my friend/mom/traveling companion for dinner in the lobby because if I stay in my room sobbing any longer/louder I am worried room 323 might call the police on me. Me and room 322 linger over wine and Olive Garden (Insert Dayton-area dining recommendations here). Our Momma’s-Away melancholy fades over conversation and digestion, but a night alone in the room looms ever larger as my wine glass empties. I think about inviting my friend to sleep over in the unoccupied queen bed next to mine. But maybe it’s too soon. Will she think me forward? Does she snore?

Ultimately I decide that I can do this – handle a night of quiet, empty beds without the stressors of lunch-packing and tooth-brushing times three. (I promise I will never write in detail about my kids and hygiene. I promise I will never write in detail about my kids and hygiene. It’s a constant struggle for me, people.)

6:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Baby and me sleep through the night without incident. I awaken early for breakfast and hair styling. The baby sleeps three hours more, worn from the travel, his first week away from mom (aforementioned daycare debut) and related illnesses. Our day at the Kettering Foundation is productive, conversational. My Parents for Public Schools colleagues come from all over the country and around this table at the Kettering Foundation to talk about community, education and children – and to coo over mine. It’s a good day.

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My work station at the foundation.

5:45 p.m. As the sun sets and dessert is served, I feel the Momma’s-Away Melancholy nibbling at the edges of a gentle red-wine buzz. I can’t handle another night alone! I invite a freshly arrived traveling companion/colleague/friend to my room for drinks and TV when we get back to the hotel. We agree to meet up 90 minutes. My other companion-colleague-friend agrees to join us.

7:30 p.m. I get to my room, delighted to have tasks to occupy the 90 minutes until it’s party time in Room 324. I change the baby, steam his RSV in the shower, change his clothes, call the family back at home, refill the humidifier, nurse baby, then head to the hotel “bistro” for one last glass of red. (Sorry Santa!) The steady pulse of domestic tasks is the perfect antidote to a day of sitting, deliberating, categorizing and downloading data. Suddenly I’m not lonely. I’m the busiest lady in Dayton!

9 p.m. Last night’s Olive Garden date texts: “Count me out. I am falling asleep.” “You snooze you lose, lady,” I sneer but don’t text. I check my hair in the mirror, brush my teeth and wipe the baby’s nose one last time as I wait for my last (only) remaining guest to arrive. I hope the pajama pants are not too informal. They are my best ones.

9:20 p.m. My guest arrives with a laptop. “I hope you don’t mind if I multi-task,” she says in her sweatpants and wet hair. “I hope you don’t mind sharing that glass of red wine with me,” I reply. Baby is lights-out on one queen bed. We divvy the remaining glass of red wine. I pore through Netflix while my friend checks her work email. A spontaneous and synchronized duo, we agree that “Catching Fire” will keep us up too late and settle on the first episode of “Call the Midwives.”

10:30 p.m. Episode over we trade labor and delivery memories for 15 minutes. We say good night. Departure time the next day is a no-nonsense 8:15 a.m.

What Happens in Dayton …

I won’t say “There’s no place like home.” I’m not that trite, not tonight, not even after 1,200 words of mom drivel. What I am is glad I got away, even if I can’t fully appreciate the opportunity for peace, solitude and civic engagement.

And if you’re the kind of curious and patient reader who made it all the way to the end of this post, you’ve probably already learned something about “When in Dayton” disclosure rules. If you haven’t, I’ll spell them out: “What happens in Dayton stays in Dayton, except nothing really happens in Dayton when you’re a drippy mom-and-baby duo. So you can reveal pretty much everything, which I just did.”

Maybe I should have warned you about this earlier in my post. You probably didn’t see it coming,

Don’t Call it a Comeback

I’m no feminist we-can-have-it-all icon. Yet. But today marks the 12-week birthday of my baby no. four and the completion of my first workweek in, well, 11 weeks.

Monday marked the third time in this life I’ve packed up the breast pump and pad-folio and gone back to work. I don’t count the time I quit a Fortune 500 company to attend graduate school six weeks after baby no. two was born. The first semester of grad school didn’t quite feel like work. All the other semesters did. Anyway …

…Third time is not the charm, I don’t think. The emotions ran higher in the back-to-work countdown. My baby is younger than all his sibs were when they started full-time childcare. They were nine months, five months and more than a year. New Baby is 12 weeks. Today! Relations are strained between me and the breast pump. Getting up at 5 a.m. to express milk just sucks, and neither me nor black box are as young as we used to be. Wearing sweatpants for 77 consecutive days was awesome and all my pants with zippers got smaller. Jeez, why do things have to change?

But you’re not considering purchasing a subscription to the super-deluxe, ad-free version of my mom-blahg just to hear me warble the working-mom blues. In recognition of this, I will now share with you the modest successes of my first week back in the basement (yes, I do work in a basement).

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Admitting defeat at 11 p.m. Damn you, daycare!

  1. I did not lose, forget or break any of my children.
  2. This includes the time (9:07 a.m. Friday) gale-force winds and a fierce pothole nearly capsized my Britax stroller, baby included.
  3. I ate out only 1.5 times. Friday’s 13-year anniversary dinner was the one time. Culver’s Thursday was the .5 time because I did not order a beverage and I did not have dessert so this counts as a half-meal.
  4. I worked out once and blogged twice.
  5. Despite this being the week of National Margarita Day I drank only once.
  6. I attended the school governance council meeting where I lobbied very politely for an additional gym period for the kiddoes next year if any surplus art-music-physed funds are available.
  7. I took a media interview on topics like how poorly we fund our public schools in urban America.
  8. I caught some typos.
  9. I cried only in front of my husband.
  10. I told my middle two kids in my best firm-but-loving mommy voice: “I don’t care about your Minecraft worlds. Please discuss this amongst yourselves.” Then I called it “Mindcrap” and cackled at my brilliance.

Now I feel strongly that Top Ten lists should stop at no. ten. Except for this this time.

11. After no. ten (who could forget that one: Mindcrap!) I put away my laptop, shelved my dreams of publishing a new post and admitted the sniffle-cough-chortle-fart thing that baby was doing is a first-week-at-daycare souvenir. We’re off to the doctor in a couple hours. Hopefully his illness/virus will be as moderate as my successes this week. Don’t worry momma-friends – he’s up-to-date on all vaccinations.

To those of you who read this, I hope it makes you smile, or laugh, or come to the wind-whipped Midwest for a visit. Really we are doing okay as I resume career alongside an additional child. Here’s someone I thought about all this week, myself, and it reminded me that every day I get up at 5 a.m. with breast pump and baby is a mothereffing do-not-return gift that I am blessed to receive. Please keep this family in your thoughts and send them a prayer, your most positive energy, a donation. Whatever you can do please just do that for Parker, Ellie, their new dad and their late momma.

Things to do with a hand blender that aren’t chutney: Vol. I

It takes a special type of self-absorption, that or near-total desperation, to make one reach out to a mother of newborns and demand her help. Immediately.

But that’s where I found myself last weekend. Tired of raking clean forks across my itchy pregnant midsection, I was ready to crowd-source my discomfort and ask some been-there/done-that kind of women for advice on soothing a third-trimester tummy that itches like a verdant private patch of poison ivy.

So I emailed my friend at 3 p.m. central standard time. I didn’t want to bother her. What with her nursing week-old twins and raising a toddler and also trying to bathe, eat and sleep infrequently herself, I was sure she’d be too busy to respond to my third-trimester-with-singleton woes.

Not 30 minutes later, and from the front lines of a post-partum English evening, she responded.

A simple salve for stretchy times

Because this friend is a private sort of person and I have neither requested nor received permission to share her personal writings to me, I post below only the recipe portion of our correspondence:

“I whipped together like 2 cups of coconut oil (the solid kind) with a table spoon of vitamin E oil, and a few drops of lavender oil (or whatever smell you like or none). Literally whip it together with a hand mixer and it will become like a soft body butter and should stay soft if you put it in a jar or back in the container your coconut oil came in. You could try that maybe?”

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Call me. I will spare you a few drops of lavender oil. That stuff is not cheap.

Without incident or delay, lavender and Vitamin E oils were procured. I brought out the hand blender, sullen yet shiny after months of neglect. One kid asked, betraying only a hint of “Now-what’s-for-dinner?” anxiety: “Mom, are you making more chutney?”

“No. A belly rub.”

I followed the recipe exactly. After a few seconds on the lowest setting, the mixture slackened and smoothed itself from a lumpy, lard-like consistency into a friendlier, creamier-looking substance. Bedtime was approaching and I was ready to apply the cream and settle in for some peaceful sleep. Peaceful sleeping now means several hours of bizarre pregnancy dreams, interrupted by bathroom breaks and foot cramps that feel like stage three labor in your feet and calves. I have highly arched feet. When that first pinch hits my ballerina-like arch, I am out of bed and flexing like an Olympian in seconds. Cold floors also help.

Please don’t think I am complaining. If I had to choose between 15 minutes of foot labor and this recurring dream wherein I give birth to a balloon baby that deflates before my eyes every time someone walks into the hospital room, I will take the physical torture every time. Balloons are for animals, magic shows and properly supervised kids’ parties. There their charm ends. Also, they are acceptable in science class and at pool parties.

From chutney to coconut oil

Well, the simple salve worked. It just did. Cool but not too greasy, it dulled the itch slowly, though my spider’s web of scratch marks lingered. As the weekend progressed, I resumed the use of silverware for dining purposes. I marveled at the compassion  of a friend who would reach out across continents and from the depths of new milk, slumberless nights and not-so-sleepy newborn twins to soothe my petty discomfort. It felt good to grip my hand-blender once more and fantasize about new recipes, to remember the bite and bliss of chutney-cheese sandwiches and remind myself I can make it all again and again. I just need to get myself together and buy some more green goods. Or as my husband calls it: “$8 of cilantro. Plus the mint!”

‘Secret Fit Belly’ reveals her secrets

Update: In an editorial meeting today I grabbed desperately at a ballpoint pen, retracted its tip and started to scratch. It was a slow build-up from the morning, when the itchy sensation had first returned in fits and jabs – like barely-there grazes from a sharpened, wool-covered needle. Then they lengthened their path across my body, staying longer, reaching deeper. I withdrew my hands from my keyboard every other sentence or so to scratch, rub, pluck a new Brillo pad from the box under my chair.

But in the staff meeting, that was when I realized: “This is not normal.” When I asked myself: “Where did my simple salve go wrong?” I had a flash of common sense. By now, the itchy sensation was more akin to a low-grade fever burning across my midsection. An inflammation or crop fire – not a tickle! Could I be allergic to my pants?

Yes, I can. About two minutes after I pushed down the “Secret Fit Belly” stretch panel on the only pair of pants I wear anymore (because, like, they still fit), the feverish itch began to subside. The staff meeting resumed. When I got back to my desk, I could type whole paragraphs (lucky readers!) between scratch breaks.

I was allergic to my made-in-the U.S.A. maternity jeans. I still haven’t found the exact breakdown of fibers in this coveted and lucrative “Secret Fit Belly” material, but I know something in that patent ends in “ex.” I now wear the pants slung lower, looser, and only with flowing tops that might look Greek-chic on a taller lady, but function more like Colonial-era nightgowns on me.

Oh well. I have a new DIY body butter and a loving and lovely friend abroad. I made two batches of chutney this weekend and served friends a chatty chaat dinner while Nina Davuluri took the crown in a pageant most of us don’t care about, yet found ourselves talking about this week.

America is full of surprises. So is the Secret Fit Belly stretch panel.

 

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