Robyn Barberry is the doting wife of her high school sweetheart, the mother of three precocious boys, and the art teacher at St. Joan of Arc school in Aberdeen.

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Unconditional

Zika: What expectant moms need to know


I have permanent scars on my feet from mosquito bites I acquired while I was pregnant with Collin in the summer of 2009. I don’t know if it’s my fair skin, my AB- blood, or my vegan diet that make me such a delicacy for mosquitos, but when I’m pregnant and my blood volume is drastically increased, I find my extremities covered in itchy red bumps.

Naturally, when I first heard about the recent epidemic of Zika virus in Central and South America, I panicked. Zika virus is a common occurrence in several African countries, to the point that the virus is considered “endemic,” and people are more or less used to it. Central and South America, on the other hand, are facing a sudden epidemic with possible links to an alarming increase in birth defects in pregnant women bitten by Zika-infected mosquitos. Though most infected people suffer few if any symptoms, babies born to infected mothers are demonstrating a trend of birth defects, most significantly microcephaly, or extremely small heads. Many of the affected babies are dying and those who manage to survive face a difficult life of profound developmental disabilities.

On Wednesday January 27th, a high school classmate and current University of Maryland professor, Dr. Jennifer German posted the following message on her Facebook page: “Family and friends, before you commence with the panicking about Zika virus, please remember that you have access to a virologist that studied Flaviviruses (the family of which Zika is a member) for her dissertation and is happy to answer questions. That is all.” And the questions poured in.


Dr. Jennifer German


Dr. German reassured her friends that the virus isn’t severe for the average person and that scientists aren’t yet 100% sure of a link between Zika virus and the rise in microcephaly cases. She explained that a vaccine is being developed, but that it could take several years.

After gathering more information from Dr. German’s responses, I was feeling better, especially since the two feet of snow covering my back yard reminded me that mosquito bites were two seasons away. Besides, I’m not planning on visiting any of the afflicted regions any time soon. Still, I had my concerns, which Dr. German promptly addressed.

My first question: Is the birth defect likely to develop later in pregnancy?

Being due early in July, I knew those pesky bloodsuckers wouldn’t be making an appearance until the tail end of my pregnancy, but I was still concerned that a late bite would have an effect on my baby. Dr. German explained that the virus would most likely pose a threat in the first trimester and, to a lesser extent, in the second trimester. Towards the end, the baby is “mostly developed and getting fat and happy,” and brain development is unlikely to be affected by Zika virus.

I also wanted to know what I could do to prevent infection. Dr. German suggested I apply lemon eucalyptus oil, avoid going outside at dusk, and wear long sleeves and pants, if possible. A friend suggested to have a fan blowing because mosquitos have weak wings and wouldn’t be able to tolerate the fast moving air.

Even in the rare case that I did contract something, I reminded myself that unlike many of the women in the countries most affected by Zika virus, I am blessed to have access to excellent prenatal care, with frequent doctors’ visits, close monitoring with sonograms and heart monitors, and less than an hour’s drive to some of the best hospitals in the world.  

Still, I can’t help but feel heartbroken for the women who are losing their babies to this epidemic, which may or may not be tied to the Zika virus. Additionally, I’m saddened to hear that in several countries women are being told not to get pregnant for at least two years. I pray that a solution comes soon for healthier mothers and babies everywhere.  

 

 

January 29, 2016 10:56
By Robyn Barberry


A hands-off approach to greeting pregnant strangers


When I shared this (old) news story on my Facebook page, I didn’t expect a debate to start. In 2013, a Pennsylvania man touched a pregnant woman’s belly after she asked him to stop. She pressed charges, and it is now considered illegal to touch a pregnant woman’s belly in Pennsylvania.

“Looks like I’ll be spending more time in Philly,” I posted, referring to the fact that I like to visit museums and restaurants in the City of Brotherly Love, as well as the fact that I’m three months pregnant (looking more like six)…and I don’t like to be touched.

A high school friend, who has a beautiful family composed of homemade, adopted, and foster children agreed, noting that she once touched a man’s belly in return after he reached out for hers. Several other friends agreed, but my own mother did not. She said that it’s normal for people to feel excited when they see a pregnant woman and that most pregnant women would welcome the attention because they will ultimately miss it. And both sides of the debate raged on.

I can’t speak for all pregnant women, but I can honestly say that for myself, pregnant or not, I prefer my interactions with most people, especially strangers, to be hands-off. I don’t mind a belly pat or rub from excited family members, good friends, and my first graders, but I would prefer to limit my physical contact with people who don’t have a personal relationship with me. It’s not that I’m a germophobe or that I am afraid they will try to harm me, I’m just a private kind of person who needs personal space to feel comfortable.

I recognize that people mean only to share in my joy when they reach out for that beach ball I’m hiding under my shirt or ask questions or make remarks, but their attention is not always welcome. You don’t pet a cute dog without asking its owner for permission, do you? Just because a woman is pregnant, doesn’t mean she’s up for grabs or even that she’s always up for conversation.

People also have a tendency to forget their manners during small talk with pregnant women. Yes, this is my fourth child. I’m not the first mom to pull it off. Yes, I’m exhausted. Yes, my hands are full -- full of love. God sent me each and every one of my children right when I needed them most.

Some women are carrying high risk pregnancies. Most heartbreaking of all, some women are carrying babies who have already died or who will probably die shortly after being born. Touching them or asking questions may hurt more than you could imagine.    

 It’s natural to feel a sense of wonder and awe when you see a woman whose big round belly lets you know that a new life is in the making. But, you don’t need to feel it with your own hands to know it’s real. You don’t need to know when that baby is expected to come, whether it’s a boy or a girl, his or her name, and the color of the nursery. The best thing you can do for that mother, her baby, and yourself, is smile. Smiles are always a welcome gift.

January 16, 2016 02:41
By Robyn Barberry


If you like “Joy,” you’ll love “Peachy”



On Sunday night, Jennifer Lawrence earned a Golden Globe for playing the title character in “Joy,” a film loosely based on the true story of inventor and single mom Joy Mangano. Despite Lawrence’s big win, the movie has received mixed reviews. I, for one, was a fan because I’m inspired by resilient women who persist through their every struggle and ultimately come out on top. Women like Joy…and Peachy.


I’ve written about my friend Leonora “Peachy” Dixon before.  Patrick lovingly refers to her as the beautiful and intelligent Forrest Gump of Baltimore. I could probably write about her every day, but I don’t have to. She gets her incredible stories down on paper herself.


I edited Peachy’s first book, A Peachy Life, about her idyllic Italian Catholic upbringing in Baltimore, which was shattered by an abusive marriage and redeemed by a career waiting tables for Johnny Unitas, and ultimately, at Sabatino’s, where you can find her now.



After the success of A Peachy Life, Baltimore’s most famous waitress approached me again with another idea. “Did you know I used to own a sub shop?” she asked. I hadn't, but I wasn't surprised. “Well, I want to write a book about that.” And so she did. It’s called A Peachy Business and it is GOOD!



For a single mom in the 1980s, owning a business must have seemed like an impossible dream. But Peachy, inspired by her father’s advice to have something to leave for her children, charged forward with her counter-style restaurant “Peachy and Boh’s” on Belair Road in Overlea. She assembled a team of unforgettable characters and served up her family’s finest Italian recipes, with a side of humor, love, and enough craziness to keep everything interesting.


If I had to compare “A Peachy Business” to a TV show, it’s Cheers meets Friends meets The Food Network. With every turn of the page, I can see Peachy’s story become a movie. Hopefully some day Jennifer Lawrence will be earning an award for playing Peachy. (Or Sandra Bullock, if Peachy has her way.)


You can buy your copy of A Peachy Business at Sabatino’s. You might just even get to meet her there.

January 12, 2016 05:36
By Robyn Barberry


A month of mercy

With our Church's new year's dedication to "Mercy: Heart of the Gospel," the faithful are called to examine the gift of compassion God, our Father and Creator, has bestowed upon us and ask ourselves how we can treat others with the same level of dignity, regardless of their situation. 


The first thing I think of when I think of mercy is my "mom," who has been a nurse at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore for 30 years. She understands the meaning behind the name of her beloved workplace and demonstrates the act of mercy toward her patients there, to strangers, and (perhaps most challenging,) in her relationships with coworkers, classmates, friends and family members.


It's the Thanksgiving dinner she went out and bought for a family from the other side of the country stranded in Baltimore for a loved one's surgery. It's keeping calm and administering the appropriate medications while a patient curses at her and refuses to cooperate. It's helping the middle school version of me with a project after I threatened to run away.


My mom always inspires me to do more -- to be more, and the Church's Year of Mercy challenges me to do more, to be more -- now.


So, for the month of December, I will strive to complete one Spiritual Work of Mercy and one Corporal Work of Mercy during each week. Chances are, I won't accomplish all of them in such a short span of time, but some acts are worth repeating.  


I will keep you posted as I make progress to be more merciful. 

November 30, 2015 08:31
By Robyn Barberry


Prayers in your inbox

In October, I saw a Facebook ad for "Pray More Novenas," a service which sends different series of prayer devotions via email. I decided to sign up and am really glad I did.

I've completed three novenas and am currently on my fourth. The first was devoted to St. Therese of Lisieux. During that time, a friend's baby was in shock trauma due to seizures. I asked St. Therese, a child herself, to intercede and now the baby is recovering at home. I like to believe that she helped.

I'm currently praying the Immaculate Conception novena and asking that my unborn child may be protected.

In the chaos of my day, I look forward to the email from Pray More Novenas. It's my pause button, which temporarily relieves me from the bombardment of questions to answer, temptations to avoid (like online sales), and decisions to make. The novena is my chance to leave my worldly concerns behind to connect with God and His servants. 

If you think you'd like to join Pray More Novenas, you can do so here.

November 29, 2015 03:12
By Robyn Barberry


Let it be known

Most women are advised to wait until after 12 weeks to reveal that they are pregnant. At that point, the miscarriage rate drops significantly, which lessens the heartache of having to break the bad news of pregnancy loss.

But what is the alternative? To suffer alone in silence over the loss of an unborn child? Why are we so afraid to talk about miscarriage? Is it the embarrassment that something might be “wrong” with the mother? Or is it the painful reminder of the baby that will never be when a co-worker or a family friend congratulates her without knowing that she is no longer pregnant?

My second pregnancy ended in miscarriage. I told family and friends at 6 weeks that Collin was going to be a big brother. When I went in for the sonogram a few weeks later, the baby’s heart was no longer beating and mine was broken. I didn’t leave my bed for a week, but the cards and flowers sent by family, friends, classmates (I was in grad school at the time), and students reminded me that my baby and I were in God’s hands.

A year later, I was pregnant again. I decided to tell everyone at 8 weeks because I wanted that support again if I lost the baby. I had their prayers for a healthy baby and soon Frank joined our family, followed by Leo. If I had waited the extra month, what would have changed? I’d have to avoid the people closest to me to hide my ceaseless morning sickness. I’d have to dress in my baggiest clothes (maybe even my husband’s) to hide my growing belly. (I “show” rather quickly.) And I’d be denying my baby and me prayers and well wishes from people who care, whether things turn out fine or for the worst.

Pregnant women need love and support in the first trimester more than any other time. It’s when they’re the most vulnerable and feeling their worst, without the visible bump to remind others that they’re working overtime to create a human being. These are the days that demand the most of their bodies and their spirits. And they shouldn’t be endured alone.

And so, at 8 weeks, I’m letting the world know that I’m expecting my fourth child in the first week of July. I’m aware that I haven’t entered the “safe zone,” but my symptoms are strong and my hopes are high. I’m trusting God to make the best decisions for me and my family and counting on the people I love to keep my spirits up on days like today when I feel like I was hit by a truck. My raspberry-sized baby and I are not alone in this journey, no matter where it takes us. Please keep us in your prayers. 

November 29, 2015 02:38
By Robyn Barberry


Painting the fence


The contents of the refrigerator were strewn across my kitchen floor. I nearly slipped in a puddle of yogurt and broke my neck. “Frank! Leo!” I shouted. I found the culprits in the powder room, giggling beneath a confetti shower of toilet paper and random objects (a bottle of mustard?!?!). I called their father right away.



“In the 30 minutes I spent working on my computer, they’ve completely decimated the house!” I said.

“They’re doing it to get your attention,” he said. “Go outside, forget about your work for a while, and do something fun with them.”

It was either that or begin to attack the mess while they tore into another room. Why do they need to be so destructive? Why can’t they play with their toys and leave everything else alone? These and other questions I asked myself as I put on their shoes.

Then, it dawned on me. Maybe we needed to create something together. I looked at our drab fence and thought about how fun it would look with some color. I grabbed my crate of acrylic paints and some brushes and told Frank we were going to paint the fence.



Frank is not a big fan of arts and crafts, so he shoved the paint brush back into my hand and shouted out letters for me to paint. Leo watched on from his tricycle. The first word was “torn.” The second word was “yellow.” Then, it was words that start with “w.” In guiding my brush with his voice, Frank was showing me what he knows.

While I was painting, a sense of calm overpowered me. I forgot all about the mess waiting for me inside the house. All that mattered in that hour was my little muse and the picture we were creating together. Even though Frank didn’t pick up the brush himself, he was engaging in an exercise in imagination, where the things inside his head revealed themselves on the wooden posts at the other end of my paintbrush. I even learned a few things about him, like that he knows his ABCs backwards. And maybe when he’s upending dresser drawers and shoving slices of pizza down the sink, it’s the same kind of experience for him.

I highly doubt Frank wreaks havoc upon my house because he’s malicious. He doesn't want me to be mad. It’s just his way of exploring the world. I think I’ll spend more time navigating those journeys, even if we never leave our back yard.


November 07, 2015 05:39
By Robyn Barberry


The fifth little pumpkin


There were five little pumpkins sitting on my desk, waiting to play their part in the live action version of their famed visit to the gate, starring my St. Joan of Arc library students.

Each pumpkin was unique in one way or another, but you had to look closely to find the nuances between four of the five. The runt was a half inch shorter than the others. Another was slightly flat on one side. (Probably due to laziness.) All of the stems were different lengths and widths. Their wrinkles and dimples were as varied as clouds at dusk.

One pumpkin stood out. It had an additional growth at its top, next to its stem, about the size of a baby carrot. There was a hint of green on its ridges. When all five of the pumpkins were lined up, this one’s flaws were so blatant that the minor differences between the other four disappeared. “The fifth little pumpkin” as we dubbed it, absorbed all of the attention.

The students were curious about the protrusion. “What’s wrong with it?” they asked. “Nothing’s wrong with it,” I said, “but someone might tell you that there’s a genetic defect. All that means is that the cells that made this pumpkin grow didn’t get the message about what a pumpkin usually looks like. So, they chose to create something extra special. Isn’t it beautiful?”

While the students continued to marvel over the fifth little pumpkin, I thought about how the students’ curiosity revealed pivotal innocence that if harnessed early enough could translate to a lesson in visible diversity. How could students learn to accept people with skin colors, birthmarks, and physical characteristics related to various conditions present at birth, such as Down Syndrome?

Far too many adults are quick to make judgments about people with atypical faces and bodies. Some of those people are irresponsible and whisper comments about the kid with the freckles or the bald woman living with alopecia. For some reason they feel uncomfortable and want to pass their insecurity on to their children.

In my classroom, we don’t make fun of people for things they cannot change about themselves, like their names, the way they talk, or their physical appearances. Just about every student I’ve ever taught has respected that rule while they are in my presence. I hope and pray that some of them have carried that kindness into their lives outside of school.

God made all of us and every living thing. He is perfect, but all of us have our defects. They’re what make us special. Even pumpkins. 

October 30, 2015 12:22
By Robyn Barberry


The boy without a story



It’s been a long time since I wrote about Leo. A year, to be exact. But, there’s a good reason for that. A VERY good reason.

 

When I’m teaching creative writing courses, I tell my students that every story is rooted in conflict. I write “No problem = no story” in red marker on the whiteboard and underline it three times.

 

People are naturally stimulated by drama. We love to gape from the sidelines as others find themselves in peril. The girl being chased by a monster. The man hanging off a cliff. The kitten in a tree. Some of us feel compelled dive in to save the day, while others wait for the conclusion to reveal itself, hoping for the best. We love both real and imaginary stories that take us to the edge.

 

As a nonfiction writer, I tend to follow human interest stories. People exploring. People overcoming disabilities and disease. People surpassing expectations for their age, class, gender, size, shape, or color. People finding courage and using it. "Will he/she make it?" is the first question on my mind. “How?” is the second. I like triumphs, not tragedies, but, like most readers, I like don't lie to read a story unless the hero overcomes some form of adversity. “No problem = no story.”

 

Leo just turned two and celebrated with a construction-themed birthday party. He loves tractors and trucks, cats and dogs, books and blocks, food and more food. Every morning, he climbs into bed with me and says in his sweet voice, “Mommy? Hold you!” The other day, he said the Sign of the Cross before I gave him an Oreo in our tree fort. He has enormous brown eyes and laughs often.

 

And that’s it. That’s Leo’s story. Or should I say, his “profile?”

 

I don’t tell many stories about Leo because, praise be to God, there aren’t many. He spends his time with me, Patrick, his brothers and his grandparents, and gets along great with everyone (even our temperamental cats). He doesn’t go to school. Everything he needs is provided for him. Leo’s life is far from boring, but it’s simple and carefree. It’s not the kind of life anyone wants to read about. And isn’t that a wonderful thing?

 

It makes me think about how Jesus disappears from the time the Holy Family flees through Egypt until He is lost in the temple at age 12. I like to believe that He had a happy, peaceful childhood that was so free of conflict that there was nothing to write.

 

Big brothers Collin and Frank have their own share of struggles with school, sports, friendships, and the growing pains along the path to independence. I could write a book about each of them and someday far too soon, drama will find its way into Leo's life. But, for now, I’d like for Leo’s life to consist of eating, sleeping, playing, reading, cuddling, learning, and growing in peace and quiet.     

October 29, 2015 12:23
By Robyn Barberry


Mary, Undoer of Knots




As I was researching art related to Pope Francis’ visit to inspire my students, I stumbled upon a beautiful installation called “Mary Undoer of Knots” by Meg Saligman. It is based on the painting of the same name, a personal favorite of Pope Francis.



I found a video describing Meg Saligman’s project and found myself mesmerized by her work. She built a grotto outside of The Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, hung a huge print of “Mary, Undoer of Knots,” and tied white strips of fabric into knots on fences, wires, and walls. Some were woven into the grotto, where a fountain offered the tranquility that comes from being near living water.



Each strip of fabric contains a struggle, a concern, a prayer from a different person. Some were sent through the Project Home website, or in person. At the time I showed my students the video, there were 30,000 strips. There must be close to 100,000 now.




All of the problems are tangled together and offered to Mary to untie. I had my students write their own concerns on labels that we joined together on posters in our own version of the installation. We even listened to a beautiful song called “Help Us, Mary,” which was composed by E.A. Alexander to accompany the installation. 



On my visit to Philadelphia on Tuesday, I was running out of time and realized that I probably wouldn’t make it to see “Mary Undoer of Knots,” especially because I thought it was far away from the Franklin Institute, where I was visiting the Lego Vatican. But as we pulled around Logan Square, I saw thousands of white strips flapping in the wind next to the dome of the Cathedral.



“There it is!” I told Patrick. “It’s just too bad there’s no parking available.”

And a spot right next to the installation materialized.

I don’t want to say a whole lot about “Mary, Undoer of Knots,” because the pictures will tell the story. However, I was helping a friend through a crisis, wrote down his name, and since then, things are looking up! Also, I got to meet Meg Saligman, the artist. I almost burst into tears when I met the mind and hands behind such a powerful project, but instead, I thanked her. I’m sure I’m not the only one.   


September 30, 2015 11:57
By Robyn Barberry

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