Thursday, July 3, 2008


If you listen to scientists, particularly biologists, talk about their work, you might be surprised to discover the rich secret life of things you rarely give any mind to. DNA doesn't like to be single-stranded, you see. Some proteins just hate being in solution or else they refuse to form crystals. And do you know how hard it can be to put together a buffer that will make your particular PCR reaction happy?

This is called anthropomorphizing, ascribing human form or attributes to non-humans, and is something scientists are very fond of doing. Of course when experts do it, they understand what the other actually means. These phrases are a shorthand for "the laws of physics and chemistry make it energetically favorable for X to do Y." It also, IMHO, makes for a much more enjoyable conversation. But that could just be me.

When I switched from bench science to research and practice of science education, it quickly became clear to me that anthropomorphizing was a very dangerous thing to do around novices. There is a certain mystery to the systems that can't be directly observed, and there is a certain amount of intellectual inertia at play for students entering a required freshman class. These two things combined can result in a student remembering his TA emphasizing that DNA molecules prefer to be double-stranded, but being entirely unable to explain why that is based on the structure of said molecule.

I have been mindful of that in my teaching ever since. In making my curriculum materials, I emphasize the basic underlying reasoning. If I do slip up in class and use an anthropomorphism, I stop myself immediately and ask the class to say what it is I actually meant there. Clarity. I seek clarity and I seek to impart clarity.

This is what came to mind for me when I realized I was feeling uncomfortable with talking about the baby doing things that result in me freaking out and needing medically-enabled reassurance. You know, not kicking as much as I would like, flipping to a head up, face in position one day (causing me to look smaller in the midsection and lose my mind with worry until the emergency ultrasound that explained it), things like that. Or the contractions, which are not even technically his fault, except they do seem to correlate with the days he spends head down.

Earlier on in my misadventures in worrying, in fact right around that first trip to the labor floor, I asked B how to say "little shit" in Hebrew (harah katan, in case you are wondering). I thought it would be clever to call him that when I freaked out, you know, after it was clear that nothing bad has happened. I even did that a couple-three times.

And then I realized that it didn't feel right. I wanted to make jokes. I wanted to be able to say that I will duck his allowance for this or that infraction (as if! there are no allowances in my house, at least not yet). But I can't. I.just.can't.

As near as I can tell, I am seeking clarity again. For myself and all around me. When A died, a seven-year-old son of a friend of ours asked his mother what happened, and then asked how come the baby was playing with the cord-- didn't he know long rope-like things were dangerous to play with? This past winter it came out (and was dealt with) that Monkey was a little upset at A for pulling his cord.

If this baby doesn't make it, if anything goes wrong, I don't want to have to remember myself or anyone else faulting him, even in jest. Whatever he is doing, he is not doing it on purpose. There is no intent. There is no agency. I am being protective, over-protective even. Not his fault. Wasn't his brother's fault. I still can't visualize the good outcome to this pregnancy. The bad? It's familiar, and terrifying.

I have apparently appointed myself (or have accepted the mantle of) the protector. I will talk about that soon-- there is much to say. But for now, the relevant point is that this is also something I am apparently keen to protect my son from-- any implication of culpability in the eventual outcome, whatever it is, or even in any individual freakout I engage in along the way.

I have been thinking, though, that with this, as with everything else grief-related I have found so far, there is always more. More than one reason, more than one level, just more. I did make one joke, after I stopped shaking following that emergency ultrasound that showed the baby assuming the weird position. I called JD to tell him, and in the nervous energy between us, we spontaneously created a joke the punchline of which is that as the punishment for his in-utero antics, upon his live birth, we would subject him to what amounts to a standard Jewish religious rite.

I thought it was funny because, see, nothing extra would actually be happening to him. We are just, for now, calling it the punishment. Ha-ha, isn't it clever?

My friend Natalie called me when I was on my way to that ultrasound, so she knew what I was worried about, and she called later to check on me. I told her it was all ok, and told her our new joke. She laughed for a minute straight. Another friend I told the next day laughed too, this full, deep, appreciative laugh.

I get how and why the joke works-- I constructed it after all. What I was trying to figure out was why it didn't seem nearly as funny to me. It's the levels thing, those damned levels. The joke, see, it's predicated upon this baby being born alive. His brother did not get that rite. His brother couldn't be subjected to any of the other punishments we could conceivably joke about either.

My boys, right now, are both just babies. Babies who, by definition, lack agency. And here I am, with this enormous love for both of them, teetering on the long brink where everything will be decided-- do they both stay babies? Do we get to raise one of them? They can't do anything about it, either of them.

And maybe that is another level. I felt such overwhelming gratitude that this baby didn't die before or during my sister's wedding. I felt so relieved, but also grateful. And having nowhere in particular to direct that gratitude, I think I felt grateful to him. But he didn't do that either, he had no active part in surviving so far. Maybe what I am doing here in focusing on agency is reminding myself that if he makes it, it won't be because he did anything to cause it either. That he didn't do anything better than his brother did.

Whew. Who needs therapy when you've got a blog?


Karen said...

yes, I think you've successfully "therapized" yourself here - and also, yes, you are his protector, part of your role as his mother as it is with Monkey and with A as well. One of those things mothers do for their children and it is an unstoppably strong force.

Mrs. Spit said...

We made jokes through the vomiting, we made jokes through the hospitalization, that I was grounding this child, that I was taking away their allowance. We made those jokes until it became clear that they weren't real, there would be no child to ground, to allowance to take away.

And suddenly, they weren't funny. They were predicated on the assumption that the child would live. And I'm with you, I just can't make that assumption anymore.

Tash said...

Funny, (not haha,) but I don't think I made jokes about the babies per se. Bella's chorroid plexus cysts were "the little fuckers" and we may harbor "fucked up babykilling genes" and man, do I make jokes about my body and DNA, but I don't think I really ever joked about either of the girls. I think even I was too scared to joke about that.

Humor, though, is my (and my husband's) defense mechanism, and it is what I will always fall back on, regardless. But as you said, not the live baby part. I still find it ridiculously funny when one of "us" says it, but really not so much when someone who has no clue thinks it's a riot. See: Juno.

My Reality said...

I wish I was able to work through my 'issues' on my blog as well as you are able to here.

Julia said...

Oh, Tash, that's our default too. I make fun of myself, of my couch potato status, of my constantly running brain, even of my hyper vigilance. I just seem to have finally found an off-limits topic.
And I really can't remember whether I joked about either Monkey or A in that way before. It's possible that I didn't, and just never thought about it.

luna said...

this is a beautiful post. I love how you come to your own resolution in the end. blogging is so therapeutic that way. working through the telling.

I think humor is a great defense mechanism. but it's good to know your limits. I for one make self-deprecating comments/jokes that my hub can't stand, but I can't help it -- it's how I deal with the fact that my body simply does not work... if I knew of another way that didn't involve spending a fortune a lying on some couch somewhere with the same result, I'd say sign me up...

mama o' the matrices said...

Oh, we do that, too.

We laugh when it's not appropriate, we make inappropriate comments (funny to us, at least) about medical procedures, and we joke endlessly about our lousy genes. I provided the non-clotting gene, but who was it who contributed that flimsy Y chromonome, hmmm? And we bicker happily over whose fault the allergies are (answer: both)

But yes, we anthropomorphize, and while it's kind of fun to talk about food allergies as toddlers - they have no sense of personal safety, and will do the oddest and most dangerous things - it's not a good thing. The Eldest spent some time trying to figure out which parts of his body were misbehaving so terribly, so that he could fix them.

Still, we joke. We've been able to grin through every procedure, come to think about it. Except the night when he coded. Nobody laughed then.

Caro said...

But DNA does "like" being double-stranded.

The jokes, IMO, are totally normal as is feeling a little uncomfortable about them.

sweetsalty kate said...

This was so amazing, to see you working through this so lyrically and thoughtfully. And you've gotten me to thinking, too. Thank you so much for that.

Lollipop Goldstein said...

Are the jokes also a tension reliever? We were dealing with something huge last night and Josh just kept joking and joking and joking about it until I said, "stop." But once you stop, you let in all of the fears and the things you've been holding at bay with the bubble of the joke. Or the bubble of the anthropomorphism. Or all of the things we place between those things we don't understand and ourselves when we want so desperately to know?

Amelie said...

Wonderful post.
I talk about proteins that "like each other" a lot, but I try to explain what it means when I talk to non-scientists.
On the jokes I can be quite sensitive (which sometimes annoys R). Maybe I'm just scared too easily.

Bon said...

like you, we joke, and a coping mechanism. but there is a sacred spot too serious to risk the misunderstanding of humour, unless it is just between Dave and i, and is the blackest of black humour. then, we REALLY laugh, and i usually cry.

when i joke with others, though, i'm always a little freaked by the over-laughter reaction. i think it's permission to be light-hearted that spurs it, in addition to the base assumption that all will be okay. there's something about it that seems to say "see? you can believe all will be okay this time...put all that fretting away." and so i don't joke much.

STE said...

I've been writing in journals and groups for years. It's amazing how the process of just getting words down gets them out of the way of the ideas that are behind them.

Or something.

I was first hospitalized for dehydration and NVP at 6w4d into my pregnancy and the joke was that "they're already making trouble" or "already sucking the life out of me."

My chest hurts when I think about those jokes now.

It's really an interesting thing to think about: a child's agency. Of course, they have none, so why do we joke? And why do those jokes rankle? maybe because, as you say, it assumes the baby will be okay.

If we ever get pg again, I can't imagine there are going to be many jokes.

christina(apronstrings) said...

wow, i didn't really ever think of that. though, i have the darkest sense of humor-ever- i, in the last 7.5 months, won't even say things as simple as i could k_ll him. because nothing about death is funny all of a sudden.
and this is why. see, not only do you get some good from your couch time-your readers do too.

niobe said...

i just can't do it. I can't think of an in-utero fetus as a b*by, no matter how far along it is. Though I know it's not accurate, I think of it as a fairly undifferentiated blob of cells.

And, now that I think about it, that's something I've pretty much always done. I guess it makes me feel better to de-anthropomorphize. Or something like that.