My Son’s Dress

My Son’s Dress

By Jocelyn Wiener

bady-qb-979274-unsplashThe gender stuff I breezed through with my daughter feels surprisingly fraught with my son.

“I want the yellow dress,” begs the weeping, shrieking pile of two-year-old boy that lies crumpled at my bare feet.

Still in my pajamas, I dig through my son’s overstuffed dresser, scrambling to locate the pale cotton frock he has appropriated from his 4-year-old sister.

“How about a striped one, instead?” I offer.

“NO!”

“Your special firetruck PJs?”

“NOOOOOO!!!!”

For my son, his desire for the dress is profoundly logical: He needs it to twirl.

Specifically, he needs it to twirl at preschool.

Now, against the backdrop of screaming toddler, my progressively minded, almost-40-year-old adult self does battle with the awkwardly dressed, frequently teased fourth grader she carries within.

The idealist in me wants to encourage my son’s self-expression, to embrace gender fluidity, to send him out into the world wearing (almost) anything he damn well pleases. We live in Oakland, a city where people regularly announce their pronouns. I am proud of that. But fourth grade me well remembers the casual cruelty of other children. What, she whispers, will they do to my little boy?

And so, even as I tear up the house in search of the dress, a small, fearful part of me hopes I won’t find it. Even though he’s worn it a dozen times at home, even though he looks adorable in it, this tiny voice hopes my son might instead venture into the world wearing something featuring dogs or monsters or sharks or trains. I feel ashamed of this voice. But there it is.

Eventually, I give up on the dresser, and begin sifting through a basket of clean laundry we have yet to fold. (Okay, multiple baskets. They’re a fixture in our home).

Somewhere within one of them lies that faded yellow dress with an empire waist, a hand-me-down from a cousin that my daughter wore regularly until berries stained the chest slightly purple. After that, it lived on a shelf until my curly-headed two-year-old discovered it—and fell in love.

I did not anticipate this particular challenge the morning my husband and I stared at a little white blob swimming in a sea of black.

“See that little line?” the ultrasound technician pointed at the screen. “It’s a boy.”

I looked at my husband – recognizing in his face the surprise I felt. I’d intuited a girl.

A son? We wondered aloud, as we walked to the parking garage. How were we going to raise a son? How would we protect him from the macho, sports-worshipping, emotion-repressing influences that pervade our culture?

My husband is decidedly – delightfully – not macho or sports-worshipping or emotion-repressing. He is everything I might hope for in a male role model for a little boy–kind, communicative, creative and fun.  The first time he came home to meet my family, he baked brownies. My father and brothers found this perplexing.

I, on the other hand, seem to have unwittingly absorbed some of our culture’s expectations that boys be made of snips and snails and puppy dogs’ tails. Growing up, my three younger brothers dedicated hours each day to sports, video games and wrestling matches on the living room floor. By six, I swore off dolls, voicing concerns that they were instruments of oppression of my sex. I wore my hair short and refused dresses. Strangers often assumed I was a fourth son.

Maybe because of this, as a new mother the first time around, I found it easy to dress my little daughter in clothes from the boy’s section –especially given the pink everything of the girl clothes on offer. I laughed off comments from strangers who suggested my big, bald baby girl would be a linebacker someday. Who cared?

 

But with a son on the way, the gender stuff I’d breezed through with my daughter felt surprisingly fraught. In our culture, masculinity is still conflated with strength, femininity with weakness.  It’s distressing and infuriating and totally bogus. But, try as I might to ignore it, it’s there.

As I prepared for my son’s arrival, I found myself sitting on the living room floor surrounded by bins of my daughter’s outgrown clothes, trying to figure out which were too feminine for a baby boy. As if baby boys cared about such things. Every time I kept a pink item, it felt subversive.

Our son arrived five days late – a hefty 9 pounds, 4 ounces who looked like my father. At his two-day-old appointment, our pediatrician commented that the baby had a “very masculine presence.” My husband and I laughed awkwardly. Later that day, as the lab tech drew blood from his tiny heel, she started chatting with us about football. We learned then that we’d unintentionally named our child after the 49ers quarterback. This was back when Colin Kaepernick was a rising star, but before he became famous for kneeling in protest during the national anthem. My husband and I hadn’t heard of him. My brothers shook their heads.

As our son grew from baby to toddler to preschooler, we were acutely aware of all the ways we, as parents, might fail him. Several recent studies have shown that parents tend to speak more to their infant daughters, share their feelings more with their preschool daughters and, in the case of dads, sing and smile more at their daughters. I try to be cognizant of that, smothering my son with kisses and asking him about his feelings. I’ve broached the subject of gender identity, but we haven’t gotten too far yet:

“Are you a boy or a girl?” I asked the other day.

A wry smile stole onto his face.

“A girl.”

“Is your sister a boy or a girl?”

“A boy.”

“What am I?”

“A wolf.”

“What is Daddy?”

“A bear.”

“What is Papi?”

“A troublemaker.”

Much of the time, my son seems to identify as a dog, crawling around on all fours, barking, whimpering and licking people. I like it when he’s a dog, because he’s always nice to his sister in those moments. During dog hours, he holds her hand and nuzzles up against her while she pets him. During non-dog hours, he sometimes resorts to hitting and pushing. Even so, his big sister is his dearest friend and playmate. If she opts to wear a dress, he wants one, too.

But not just any dress.

Finally, I spot it, the faded yellow fabric peeking out from beneath the towels and T-shirts. Does my inner fourth grader urge me to leave it there, to coax my son into a shark-monster-train outfit instead? If she does, I shove the thought away.

I want my child to wear what he wants to wear. I also want him to stop crying.

I fish the dress out of the laundry basket and slide it over his tear-stained cheeks. The wailing ceases. We briefly do battle over his diaper. The dress, I am informed, twirls better with no diaper. I draw my line in the sand.

We are already late to preschool. We are pretty much always late, but this morning is shaping up to be extra late. I grab the kids’ lunches, and off we go, two small people in dresses, one grown person in sweatpants, tromping down the front steps toward school.

Do the neighbors notice? the inner fourth grader wonders. Would they care? Would it matter if they did?

I look at my little boy – a baby doggy for the moment – holding his sister’s hand as we prepare to cross the street. No, I decide. It wouldn’t matter at all.

A few minutes later, we knock on the preschool’s wooden gate.

The teacher who opens it greets my children with a smile. He says nothing about the dress.

A few older girls look at my son strangely. Later, over crackers and apple slices, they’ll ask his big sister why he’s wearing a dress.

“Because he likes it,” she’ll say. The explanation will suffice. Perhaps, some day, I can feel similarly unconcerned about such things.

As I turn to leave, I pause at the gate. I watch my little boy proudly show his outfit to another teacher.

“Do you want to see me twirl?” he asks her. The question is rhetorical.

Tears well in my eyes as I see a toothy grin spread across that little face. He stretches out his arms, lifts his chin skyward, and twirls and twirls and twirls and twirls. The yellow dress billows around him.

Jocelyn Wiener is an Oakland-based journalist who writes about health, mental health care, poverty, children’s issues, and her kids. Her website is www.jocelynwiener.com

 

The Promise of Maybes

The Promise of Maybes

By Audrey Hines McGill

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We walk into my two boys’ new school and check out their new classrooms. We meet their new teachers; I say hello, and then introduce the boys. I explain how we’ve recently moved cross country for my husband’s new job. But what I don’t tell these new teachers is that I’m secretly hoping for a new start, a reprieve from judging eyes and ignorant staring that made up much of my previous interactions with teachers and other parents at my children’s prior school. I wish my boys have more play dates and birthday party invitations. I dream of neighborhood friends and for my children to feel like they belong.

At this very moment, I also secretly hope my children’s telltale eye rolling tics don’t happen as we make our introductions. Just for a little while, I hope for a break from the explanations and the reciting of diagnoses.  For just a few minutes, I want my children to safely blend into the sea of students soon about to enter the classroom.

Since it is the dreaded beginning of the school year, it is time to inform yet countless more people of both of my children’s special circumstances. It is time to discuss 504 plans, IEPs, and special accommodations for their needs in the classroom. They have Tourette syndrome I will say. But how do I describe how Tourette syndrome affects them daily, while trying to sound as nonchalant as possible?  I can tell them my standard, “It’s no big deal. You probably won’t even notice the tics” intended to alleviate some of their fears as well as my own.

I can say they have verbal tics, otherwise known as a constant stream of strange noises, snorts, and grunting.

I can say their eyes roll around making it difficult to read or keep their place. I can say that my youngest son, only 7, struggles with Copralalia, which is the unwanted urge to say socially inappropriate words and phrases.

But I cannot say that my 7-year-old is so tormented by his Coprolalia that despite my constant reassuring and comforting, he is convinced he is a bad person.

I cannot say that on my darkest days, I am angry at the world, angry at God, and angry at the genetics that my children could not escape.

I cannot say that I constantly become overwhelmed with the inner struggle of wanting to hide my children and keep them safe from the world’s glare or let them go and trust that they will be okay as they set off bravely on their own.

What I cannot say is that I am terrified that suddenly one day the tics will overtake my children’s ability to find happiness and joy in their life.

What I am not allowed to say is that sometimes my children’s tics annoy me, but I am asking that as their teachers, to please disregard the noises and movements in the classroom.

What I really cannot say is that I am tired of the explanations, the quizzical looks, and even the rude stares my children receive as we try and assimilate into any social gathering.

What I know I cannot say is that sometimes I feel extremely selfish and wish that this burden wasn’t mine and my children’s to bear.  I wish for a reality much different than the reality we’ve been handed.

What I most certainly cannot say is the heartache of having children who by the very definition of Tourette syndrome, are considered Neurologically Impaired, sometimes makes me resentful. And now I am yearning for those carefree days before the words Tourette syndrome became a part of our lives and my daily fear for their future threatens to overtake my joy of living in the moment.

And so I reassure myself with maybes. Maybe everything will be different here. Maybe my children will find a place where they feel like they belong. Maybe I will. Maybe there will be a permanent vacation from the pity filled eyes. Maybe so many friendships will be made we will have to pick and choose playdates. Maybe my boys will be regarded for their beautiful big blue eyes and their senses of humor. Maybe their only noticeable characteristics will be their kindness toward others and their generous personalities. Maybe here they can just be little boys. Maybe here they can be recognized for more than their affliction’s definition. Maybe they can just love being 9 and 7.  Maybe here their stream of internal torment can absorb me instead.

So I smile big and brave and kiss them each goodbye as I tell them that I love them and that they will have a great day. I watch as they walk through their new classroom doors as the promise of maybes swells so big inside of my heart that I can barely breathe.

Audrey Hines McGill is a contributing writer and Northwest native living in Seattle, Washington. She is writing her way through life one paragraph and one cup of coffee at a time.

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When Nature Fails Nurture

When Nature Fails Nurture

By Maria Kostaki

Sleepy Mom w slippersI hated breastfeeding. Not because it hurt. Not because… I can’t think of another reason normal women don’t like breastfeeding, but not because it hurt. A few minutes after my son was born, my midwife placed him on my breast. It was the second most magical moment of my life; the first was watching him pee on the OR floor as the OBGYN shouted “Oh! He’s blond!” and handed him over to the nurse to clean up. The following day he spent nine straight hours on my breast. I had a C-section, he’d insisted on staying head up in the womb and my body’s quarters were growing dangerously small for him. It hurt to sit up, to lie down, and it definitely hurt to have an extra seven pounds on me for nine hours. But I didn’t hate it yet. It was still magic.

A week later, this is how my day goes:

10:00 pm: Stumble up the stairs to bedroom with husband behind me, hauling sleeping baby in portable crib, freaking out that he will wake and I will have to feed.

10:05 pm: In shower (sometimes), nipples burning at the slightest contact with warm of water.

10:10 pm: Asleep.

11:00 pm: Baby wakes for feeding. Right breast.

11:15 pm: Left breast.

11:25 pm: Asleep with baby on breast.

Midnight: Woken up by baby sliding off me and me sinking off the three pillows behind my back. Breastfeeding pillow is on the floor.

12:30 am: Baby awake for feeding. Right breast.

12:45 am: Left breast.

1:00 am: Baby asleep on breast. Carefully release nipple from mouth, slowly place baby in cot.

3:00 am: Jump out of bed to look at clock, feeling rested, terrified that something has happened to baby. Maybe he starved.

3:05 am: In kitchen, one hand holding pump to right breast (it works better), the other flipping and crushing candy to stay awake. Pop open a beer, they say it helps milk production.

3:25 am: Carefully place 60ml of pumped milk in fridge. Sneak upstairs.

4:30 am: Baby wakes for feeding. Wake up husband. Send him to warm refrigerated milk. Breastfeed baby while husband warms milk.

4:35 am: Leave baby with husband and turn back to both. Baby eats and falls asleep on husband’s chest.

6:00 am: Baby wakes to feed. Right breast.

6:15 am: Left breast.

You get the picture.

By month two, I’m a complete disaster. I rub my red, cracking nipples with olive oil, sit on my side because post-pregnancy hemorrhoids won’t let me sit on my ass, I’m exhausted, my baby is hungry and grumpy, cries most of the day, never sleeps for over an hour straight, and I feel like the weakest woman to ever walk the earth. Weak and useless. I can’t even feed my own child. A friend suggests I go to a lactation specialist.

“No, don’t,” another friend says. “I did and she took too much money from me and didn’t help. Just keep pushing through it, it’ll get easier.”

I go see another friend who gave birth six months before me. She has huge breasts, bursting with the magic serum, there’s so much of it, she feeds her son and her niece at the same time.

We go out as a family, just down the street, to a couple who are close friends. My son doesn’t sleep for a second, so I spend the day on the couch in their spare room with him on my breast. The woman friend keeps coming in to watch. Fascinated. She doesn’t know I am failing. I pretend everything is all right and keep at it.

At the end of month two, the pediatrician makes a house call. I buzz her in and return to my crying baby. I’ve laid him on the floor, gotten down on all fours, and tried to feed him in this rather primitive position that the Internet suggested I should try. The doctor pulls me up from the floor. Writes something on a piece of paper. Hands it to me. It’s a name of an organic formula brand.

“Go get it now,” she says.

I do. Baby eats, baby sleeps for four straight hours. My life changes.  But the guilt for giving up grows at the same rate as my son.

Two years later, I’m at the pool where I take my son for swimming lessons.

A woman is changing her two-and-half year old son next to me. She takes off her bathing suit and covers her body with a towel. Or so I assume. Next thing I know, her child was going to town on her breast. I didn’t manage to breastfeed for as long as I wanted to; I envy and look up to mothers who do, for however long they want, as long as they want to. This woman gave her child her breast after he spent half an hour swimming. This kid was hungry. She let him feed for ten seconds. And he kept asking for more. She told him to put his socks on. He kept asking for more. She got dressed. The kid went nuts.

My son stared. Oh wow, I said, immediately grateful that nothing worse came of my mouth. And then it did. “Oh honey, don’t get any ideas,” I said, zipping up his dinosaur sweatshirt. The woman asked how long I breastfed. Six months, I lied. “Oh, so he doesn’t really remember then, ” she said. No, but I do.

Maria Kostaki is a native of Moscow, Russia, but has spent most of her adult life on a plane from Athens, Greece to New York City and back. She has worked as an editor and staff writer for Odyssey magazine in Athens and New York, and her debut novel Pieces (She Writes Press) publishes in May 2015. 

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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Young Love is Real Love

Young Love is Real Love

Couple Rear View Love Holding Hands Drawing Simple Line Vector Illustration

By Jennifer Berney

My seven-year-old son might be in love. I can’t tell you for sure because I’m determined not to ask him, and even if I did, I’m not sure that he could answer. But I can tell you what I’ve seen.

Yesterday afternoon, when I arrived in his classroom to volunteer, my son sat next to a girl—let’s call her Abby—a girl who I’ve been hearing about for months. My job was to bring pairs of children to a table in the hallway so that they could complete a special worksheet. I tapped Abby and my son, asked them if they were ready to join me, and when they stood up they were holding hands. The gesture seemed so natural, as if in standing up their hands had simply joined. They walked to the table this way in comfortable silence and as I trailed them I felt as though my own heart might burst. “Do you see this?” I wanted to say as we passed their teacher, but instead I bit my tongue.

I handed each of them a worksheet and a pencil. Their job was to write down the title of a favorite book and draw an illustration. Such a task would normally take my son five minutes, but on this day he could barely write three letters without looking up at Abby and launching into conversation. I’ve seen my son be distracted by friends before, but this was different. They weren’t making fart jokes and erupting in laughter. Instead, they spoke calmly and earnestly, their eyes fixed upon each other.

I can see why my son is fond of Abby. She has a quiet certainty about her. She has a serious face, but laughs easily. Yesterday, as she colored her illustration, I noticed she was wearing an R2D2 t-shirt. She makes declarative statements that I’m pretty sure send my son’s heart aflutter such as “My favorite book is Diary of a Minecraft Zombie.” When I witness their rapport, I find myself hoping that all of his future relationships might unfold as naturally as this one has.

Tim O’Brien in the short story “The Lives of the Dead” writes about a childhood friendship with a girl named Linda, who eventually dies of cancer.

Linda was nine then, as I was, but we were in love. It was real. When I write about her now, three decades later, it’s tempting to dismiss it as a crush, an infatuation of childhood, but I know for a fact that what we felt for each other was as deep and rich as love can ever get. It had all the shadings and complexities of mature adult love, and maybe more, because there were not yet words for it, and because it was not yet fixed to comparisons or chronologies or the ways by which adults measure such things.

I just loved her.

It takes all of my willpower—all of it—to not impose my adult yardstick on my son’s relationship, to not prompt him to officially declare his feelings. Yesterday, after school had ended, my son asked me to walk him to a nearby playground because he and Abby had schemed to meet each other there. As we put on our shoes, I nearly cried out “Do you have a crush on Abby?”

I knew there were so many good reasons not to do this. For one thing I am his mother, not his big sister. It’s not my job to taunt him. For another thing, I don’t want to send the message that any friendship with a girl must be a romance. But also, as Tim O’Brien suggests, by prompting my son to label his feelings I fear I will diminish them. I don’t want to do that. I want to leave room for this friendship to grow in every possible direction.

In spite of this clarity, I nearly asked him anyways, but by some divine grace my partner arrived home at that exact moment. The diversion allowed me to recover my willpower.

I think that so often we treat our children as adults-in-training; we see their relationships as practice relationships, their emotions as practice emotions. I think that sometimes we fail to notice that our children are already whole, that their feelings are as real as our own, that their desires for themselves are as important as what we desire for them. And, as Tim O’Brien suggests, adults are reluctant to acknowledge that children are capable of loving one another with great tenderness and depth.

I don’t mean to suggest that my son and Abby are eternal soul mates. I realize that this connection between them might easily shift or fade. But I do believe that my son might always remember Abby, that the spark between them at this moment might always be source of warmth.

And so, when it comes to my son’s new friendship, I try to keep my mouth shut. As he picks flowers for her in our backyard, I fight the impulse to gently tease him. Instead, when he holds the small bouquet beneath my nose, I breathe it in: rose, phlox, and lemon balm. “It’s a smell-bomb,” my son tells me. “It’s so good,” I say, remembering what it feels like when you first meet another person who feels so much like home.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, Brevity, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

Illustration: © gow27

 

 

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Column: A Letter to My Younger Self

Column: A Letter to My Younger Self

By Danielle Naugler

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Letters to Our Younger Selves,  is a new column where readers write letters to their younger selves with insight and perspective. Submit your letter here and you may be published in Brain Child.

Dear 20-Year-Old Self,

The good news is, this will be one of the hardest years of your life, and in the scheme of things, it’s nothing.

 

Between the rejections you face in theatre, the responsibility you shoulder as an RA, the disappointment you feel in your brother when he trades his opportunity to follow in your footsteps at a great university for the chance to smoke away his college years, the fear you weather as your young garandmother faces and defeats stage four cancer, and the depth to which you realize you’ve lost yourself in your first serious relationship, you’ll think nothing can top that first year of your twenties. But just wait until you’ve been around the world and back a couple times, and to war with bed bugs for the sake of your relationship with Manhattan, and to the mansion in Malibu where they filmed a season of The Bachelor. After all that, when your weight and your heart are at their heaviest, you’ll find the cold grey basement floor of your parents’ home is the perfect place to hit rock bottom and start your climb back up.

You should know, you actually do like broccoli, and strawberries, and zucchini, and peppers, and bananas, and pears, and salad in general. Not cucumbers. Not celery. But brussel sprouts, believe it or not, cookies made with coconut oil instead of butter, and salsa – oh my God, salsa.

At the mansion where they filmed a season of The Bachelor, you’ll be starving – you won’t have had a carb in a week. Won’t have had anything to drink since before dinner the night before, because that’s how cutting water works, and you Xenadrine girls will have been told to cut water before filming your commercial there so as not to look at all bloated on camera. You’ll stand by the Grecian styled pool in a cobalt blue bikini and silver heels – cubic zirconium studs in your ears and fake lashes on you heavily made up eyes. You’ll give a misleading testimony that can be found on the internet to this day to the effect of “taking these pills totally changed my life.” And then you’ll thank God you dyed your signature curly golden blonde locks brown before landing that “gig” so no one will confuse the girl in the commercial for the one in your headshot.

You’ll learn no amount of weight you shed will change things the way you had hoped they might, because even being fitness model skinny won’t make your soap opera actor ex fall back in love with you.

You could snoop through said soap opera ex’s Facebook messages in July instead of August of 2008 to find his correspondence with the skinnier blonde, and cancel that second flight to Australia with him, because the money you’re going to spend simultaneously having your heart broken and going to the third of thirty six weddings in eight years while you’re there would be better spent paying down credit cards. You might also decline the invite to rendezvous in New Mexico in June of 2013 and instead ask the international man of mystery you met on a layover in Brussels to put his money where his mouth is and meet you on your turf instead of his. But if you don’t, fear not, because without making those pilgrimages, you won’t find out how cool it is to seek the comfort of church in different corners of the world. Mass has the same soothing rhythm whether it’s said in Italian or Spanish or English, and exchanging the sign of peace with strangers reminds you love and grace can carry you through anything.

At twenty, you’re struggling to find and define yourself, wearing a gajillion hats and scheduling your weeks so tightly, because you’re convinced you can catch up to your parents, but it was their path to “have all the answers” by twenty one when they started their family. It’s yours to keep uncovering questions well in to your thirties, and probably forties and fifties and beyond, since you will worry more about birthing your creative projects than listening for your biological clock to go off.

Luckily at twenty one, you’ll wear a fig leaf bikini on stage that makes you, your friends and your family forget you ever played a pink sheep in an operetta. And before you hit your thirties, you’ll make a point of double checking if your dreams are meant to take the shape of a place out west before your second brother has his son and you decide to settle back in on the east coast to be close to your original crew.   You’ll have met so many people searching for connections you are already incredibly blessed to have at home.

You’ll come to believe time is what you make of it when, after being on a train that’s actually going to Switzerland, you manage to re-route back to the airport in Belgium in time to catch the flight you booked for you and your baby sister.
You’ll delight in American and European adventuring on trips like that one with both your sisters, and you’ll befriend the two of them, which I know you’re hoping to.

You can’t fix anyone, or just “do it for them,” and the sooner you learn that, the lighter you’ll feel.

Girly, you’re just getting started doing the things you say you’re going to. Be patient. Be kind. Be gentle on yourself, and be open to actually living – not just dreaming up – your story. You can’t make this stuff up.

 

A few years ago, Sugar, aka Cheryl Strayed (who has published in Brain Child), wrote a “letter to her younger self” in one of her stunning Rumpus advice columns. As writers and mothers we at Brain Child are trying, in this bizarre time, to show each other (and our younger selves) our similarities and our differences with a new perspective. -Francesca Grossman, Column Editor

 

 

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Perfectly Imperfect

Perfectly Imperfect

By Elizabeth Richardson Rau

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Best friends often don’t come in the prettiest packages. The true friends I have made are like me, willing to show dents, battle wounds and flaws. 

 

In 2011 my world imploded when I left my husband. The decision was the right one; the fallout nothing short of apocalyptic. It was during this time that I learned that friends of substance run towards the burning rubble that life can become while most others flee. This friendship culling, much like that of a spring garden, is laborious and painful but necessary so as to make room for more sturdy roots to thrive. During times of crisis it feels devastating, but, as one of those fleer-friends once told me: God sometimes draws straight with crooked lines. You will get where you are meant to be with the right people standing beside you, even if the journey there doesn’t look like you expected it. This was the friend who, after three decades of friendship, told me she needed space and a break from the drama; an understandable request. That break is going on over three years now and I haven’t heard a word from her since; she is now on my ex-husbands friendship roster.

Years later, with lots of therapy under my belt and a much better understanding of who I was as a woman, I landed happily on the friendship isle of misfits, among others who are unashamed to admit the imperfections of their lives, of themselves. I suppose we are social outcasts to some degree. Unlike years ago, my circle of friends is no longer made up purely of tidy, socially embraced Jack Rogers wearing, Coach bag sporting, SUV driving stereotypes. One is a recovering addict who is physically compromised from an illness that kills most people, and prefers jeans and plaid button-downs to capris and cardigans. Another, despite criticism, waited out her husband’s affair to save what is now one of the strongest, most admirable unions I’ve ever seen. And the friend who endured not one, but two, children’s battles with substance abuse. We are the women others whisper about — the ones who have the courage to show scars without apology. This does not come without a price of course. Gone are the invitations to book clubs, cookie swaps and wine tastings. Also gone, though, is judgment, comparison to others and the unspoken need to conform.

My daughter is now navigating the complicated ‘tween’ friendship labyrinth as she enters middle school. The complexities of her relationships are really no different than mine. Society teaches us that having popular friends is something to strive for from a very young age. Even Barbie has a bestie, Midge. One of the most successful sitcoms of all times was devoted entirely to the subject of…Friends. I learned, though, that popular doesn’t necessarily mean healthier. The friendship circles of my past included those who would be considered popular: they drove the right cars, wore the right clothes and had wealthy husbands. They sipped lattes on the sidelines at Saturday morning soccer practice, wore skinny jeans instead of yoga pants and gave fake air kisses instead touching lip to cheek. In these circles, though, publicly-perceived perfection was not only a goal but a requirement. The messiness of real life was simply too unpleasant for anyone with a hyphenated last name. Then I met the runners.

I joined the morning running group at the encouragement of a friend (who does not drink latte) which was not an easy feat for this night owl. I went religiously, however, after learning it was formed to support a woman who was experiencing unimaginable grief: the death of a child. I roused myself each morning at 5:30 with the stern reminder that if she could get out of bed in the dark to run, then I had absolutely no excuse. What happened on those runs changed my life. I found women who were honest about their life struggles and I, too, was completely honest about my unpleasant life’s circumstances: that my children’s father was more interested in destroying me financially and emotionally and protecting his bottom line than he was in being a father to his two children. That I, a Master’s educated woman, had taken to cleaning houses when I could not find a professional job. The final straw was at the gas pump on a Friday morning when my debit card was declined and I had been driving on fumes and prayers for a day and a half. My child support deposit hadn’t been made. I sat in the car and cried, feeling hopeless and helpless. So I did something I hadn’t ever done — I told these new friends, women I had known for mere weeks, the truth. Within days I had a frenzy of support around me. I had a fridge full of food, gas in my car and bills that were paid. My daughter had enough back-to-school clothes when her father refused to help, declaring “that’s what child support is for.” These women had not shunned or scolded me for “making my bed and having to lay in it” the way others had; they saw a friend in need and immediately took action to help. I had finally found women who were like me: imperfect and hurting, each in her own way, but loving, loyal and generous. They taught me to believe in myself the way they believed in me.  

The book of my friendship life has not been a romance novel. Nor has it been a tragedy. I have learned that best friends often don’t come in the prettiest packages. The true friends I have made are like me, willing to show dents, battle wounds and flaws. We might not win any contests around town for having it all together, but what we do have is authenticity.

Elizabeth Richardson Rau is a single mother of two children living in central Connecticut. She earned her B.A. In communications from Simmons College and her M.F.A. in creative and professional writing from Western Connecticut State University. She is a freelance writer and a certified domestic violence victims advocate.

Photo: Melissa Askew

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How to Tell Your Babysitter Your Child is Transgender

How to Tell Your Babysitter Your Child is Transgender

Gay pride flag in the wind. Part of a series.

By Pamela Valentine

There’s some conversations that you simply can’t prepare for.

We had to tell our babysitter that our oldest child was transgender. We didn’t want to, or for that matter, even have to. Our child’s gender was nobody’s business but ours and shouldn’t play any role in how a babysitter treated him. But last summer, she had known him by another name, a female name, and used female pronouns. Now, things had changed.

I imagined a breezy announcement as we ran out the door.

“Bedtime is at eight, not a minute later! They can both have a cookie after dinner and oh, by the way, our oldest is transgender. Have fun, see you by ten!”

Yeah, somehow, I just didn’t see that being the way to do it.

Writing a letter, like we did for most of our family members, wasn’t the solution either. First of all, I didn’t have her mailing address. Secondly, she was our babysitter, not our childhood friend or relative.

I briefly considered a text. Aside from brief exchanges before and after, that was generally how we communicated.

R U good Friday @ 5? J BTW, oldest uses male pronouns and a male name now. U cool wit dat?

Again, not the kind of news to break over text message.

No, this would have to be face to face.

It wasn’t the way I generally liked giving people the news. For a variety of reasons, but most importantly, because it didn’t give them the courtesy of reacting in private. I’ve had years to adjust to my child being transgender. I’d seen the signs as early as two, he’d been telling us as early as three. I’ve known, in my heart and my gut, since he was four. His transition didn’t come easy for me, but it also didn’t come as a surprise.

But our family, even close family, wasn’t necessarily as open-minded as me and my husband. Mostly out of ignorance, not malice. They didn’t know what transgender was. As far as they knew, they didn’t know any transgender people.

Neither had we, at first. Not until our son. When we first heard the term gender dysphoria, we took the time to research, to read, to educate ourselves. And though we fully expected our family and friends to follow suit and to embrace and support our child, a letter gave them the distance to come to terms, to express any possibly negative or ignorant views in private, and then to process the information.

But how do you tell your babysitter?

On two fronts, this was a difficult situation.

First, we put ourselves and our child at risk. I didn’t know the religious or political views that my babysitter held. We had never sat down and had long conversations about where she stood on issues like marriage equality or civil rights or parenting, for that matter. I knew from my usual (if somewhat neurotic) Internet research that she leaned towards conservative, but I also knew that she was a nursing student. This could go either way. What if she got angry or rude or offensive? What if she ran screaming or called our son a freak or denounced us as sinners?

What if she thanked us but said she could no longer be our sitter?

Which brought me to the second front: how did we lose the greatest sitter we had ever had?

Because she truly was. She was kind and thoughtful and sensitive to the kids. She brought games and toys and crafts and activities. She loved my kids almost as much as I did, and the kids loved her just as much.

My son would be heartbroken if she never came to sit again. He would never understand.

No, I had to tell her face to face, to sit her down without the kids around, and break the news to her. When she arrived, I did. I started with the basics, the diagnosis, the most successful treatment, our decision to transition and how supportive our family had been so far. Then I followed that with how much we loved her, how much we hoped she would understand and support our son.

“Oh my gosh, I love both the kids! And I suspected from last summer, but it doesn’t change who he is and how I feel about him.”

I felt like all the air was knocked out of me. It didn’t change anything. My fears, my groundless, baseless fears, were put to rest. She loved both the kids. It didn’t change a thing.

“But at the end of the summer, I got an internship, so I’ll be moving for good. This will be my last summer home. I’m going to miss you guys so much!”

Relief and joy turned to despair. There’s some news you simply can’t prepare for.

Pamela Valentine is a writer, educator and self-proclaimed geek, who shares the joys and challenges of raising a trans child on her blog, Affirmed Mom. She’s looking forward to the release of two upcoming anthologies that she’s a part of: So Glad They Told Me and Here in the Middle.

 

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On Friendship

On Friendship

By Sarah Kilch Gaffney

2014-07-29 14.11.27

They are so much of why you are back on your feet, of how you are able to continue moving through life.

Great friends are thrilled for you when you go from the least likely of the bunch to settle down to all-out smitten and engaged in the span of fifteen months. They wonder a little about this fellow you met in the middle of the woods and how you’re only 22, but then they meet him and no one has any questions, just joy.

They agree to hike four miles round-trip to watch you get married in your favorite hiking pants (with a veil thrown in for good measure) on the mountain closest to both your hearts, and then help to remove the blowdowns from the “altar” before the ceremony starts.

Even when most of them are doing more productive things with their lives, they don’t judge you when you decide to put off graduate school for a while to spend too much time in the woods and hang out by the sea.

They are thus super impressed when you adopt a dog, buy your first house, and decide to actually apply for graduate school.

A week after they find a lemon-sized tumor in your 27-year-old husband’s brain, they approach your car in the parking lot after work and hand you a half-gallon jug of homemade “apple pie” comprised of spices, apple cider, and most importantly, 100-proof-liquor. Also included is an offer to make more.

They ask what you need and they mean it.

They don’t doubt you for a second when you decide to become parents and they offer to babysit after the little one arrives.

They mow your lawn, plow your driveway, and take your trash to the transfer station.

They take your daughter overnight when it’s time for the second brain surgery and then drive her down to the hospital when he’s out of the woods; they pick her up from daycare when the chemo treatments run late or you have to travel out-of-state; they take her for a few hours here and there so you can try and juggle nursing school on top of everything else.

They call and it is like no time has passed at all.

They fly a thousand miles to help you survive school and take care of your family like their own, and then accept it despite their effort when you leave school a few weeks later when your husband can no longer safely stay home alone.

They start a fundraiser for your family to use to take a vacation, then for alternative treatments, then for just anything because sometimes that’s how quickly it goes.

No matter how inopportune the timing, they meet you at the local emergency department every time.

Knowing your daughter needs as much love as humanly possible, they give, give, give.

After the oncologist tells you there is nothing left to be done, they fill the house with visitors and love.

When your husband starts hospice two weeks before your daughter’s 3rd birthday, they arrange an enormous, spectacular party for her where all you have to do is show up and try not to cry.

When he becomes home-bound, they come visit with incredible spreads of food and booze, to play with your daughter for hours on end, and with enough meals for the freezer so that you won’t have to cook for months.

After the hospice nurse says hours to days, they stand at your side until family arrives; they hold his hand and say goodbye; they put Patty Griffin on in the background, every album repeating; they shake their heads right alongside you in disbelief that this is actually happening.

They meet you at the funeral home to fill out the cremation paperwork and tentatively look at urns.  When you find a little slate one with a golden tree and say you’re not going to buy it just yet, but look at this, they completely agree.

When he dies, they shower the world with tributes of his good spirit, love for teaching everyone about the woods, and how much confidence, humor, and knowledge he brought to their lives.

They help plan his celebration of life and spill into your neighbors’ house to fill it with love and laughter and stories.

When you turn 30 just over two months after his death, they take you out to a coastal town for dinner and drinks and the comforting smells of diesel fuel and the sea.

They hike 12 emotionally and physically grueling miles with you up your mountain to spread his ashes where they need to be; at the summit they all dip their hands and join you in setting him free.

When you return to nursing school that fall, they are there to support you through and through; when you find that you are miserable and leave the program six months later, all they want is for you to be happy.

As the horror of that first Christmas approaches, they entertain and distract.

They house/pet/chicken-sit so that you can travel for the first time in half a decade.

As the one-year mark nears, they gather with you at his favorite pub to reminisce and love.

When you start to date again, they want to know EVERY. LAST. DETAIL.

Your life is what it is in great part because of these friends, these friends who kept you afloat through the best and worst years of your life, through thick and thin, through marriage, birth, death, and life again.

Oftentimes, especially early in the morning with your first cup of coffee, you wonder where you would be without your friends. You breathe deeply, slowly, gratefully for all they have done, all they have sacrificed and loved. They are so much of why you are back on your feet, of how you are able to continue moving through life. You hope they never experience anything even remotely similar, but because of them you’re there: ready, strong as hell, and by their sides to rally, protect, love, and provide anything they might ever need.

Sarah Kilch Gaffney lives in rural Maine with her daughter. Read more from Sarah at: www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.

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To My Son, Turning 8

To My Son, Turning 8

By Wendy Wisner

8

 I so desperately want to wrap him up in my arms. And I can’t. At least not in the way I used to.

 

When I turned 8 years old, I declared 8 my favorite number. I liked its loopy, curvy shape. I traced it on the roof of my mouth. I saw it everywhere, and in everything. Eight o’clock was my bedtime. School started at 8:00 a.m. I read Ramona Quimby, Age 8 cover to cover, thinking the book was written to me.

I thought everything was about me, really, and that everything could have a direct effect on me. If the kids on the playground got in trouble for exchanging Garbage Pail Kid cards, surely I was next (even though I was watching them from the other end of the playground). My teacher pointed to the graffiti sprayed on the door to our trailer classroom, warning us never to do such a thing. I was sure she thought I had done it. After all, my friend and I had played tic-tac-toe on the wall a few weeks before. We’d erased it, but still.

There was a looming, ethereal, obsessive quality to my thoughts and feelings when I was 8 years old. I’m sure it had something to do with my parents’ divorce, which I had shoved into the back of my mind. I thought it was my fault that my family was falling apart. But my main worry was that my teacher was going to get me arrested for vandalism.

*   *   *

Everyone says my son is just like his father, but I see myself in him—his tender soul, his need for love and approval. And because he is the first child I have raised, I fear for the little things that happen to him, and hope that we are doing right by him, making the right choices, leading him (without smothering, without neglecting) in the right direction.

As his 8th birthday approaches, I take note that he has a good life. My husband and I have a loving, solid marriage. He has a cute little brother, a nice group of friends, a small, nurturing school.

And yet. He is highly sensitive, as I was. If two children laugh at a picture he drew in class, he is certain that EVERYONE in the class is laughing at him. If he didn’t get a chance to shoot the basketball at recess, he is angry for the rest of the afternoon. He takes even the littlest things to heart, and doesn’t let go very easily.

At his school conference, his teacher told us that he is doing well in every area of school but recess. Apparently his sense of injustice on the basketball court ran deep—his teacher relayed a few stories of him lying on the ground, screaming and sobbing.

When she told me this, I could see him lying there, how alone and exposed he must have felt. I felt it in my own body. I wished desperately it had been one of those afternoons his little brother and I took a walk by the schoolyard, that I had found him there crying, scooped him up and brought him home.

And I wondered what had happened—or, really, what I had done—to make him so vulnerable to such meaningless things as basketball scores. Had my own 8-year-old fears somehow reached him even though his family life was far from falling apart?

*   *   *

When I relayed some of the stories about my son to my friends who have similar aged kids, they empathized. Their children were going through many of the same things: the social world around them magnified significantly, and rather suddenly.

Maybe 8-years-old is just like that, with different shades for different kids. Eight-years-old, the age almost precisely between early and late childhood. All ages after babyhood seem a little betwixt-in-between, though, don’t they? But there is something about this now, where I so desperately want to wrap him up in my arms. And I can’t. At least not in the way I used to.

*   *   *

At night, I lie with him as he falls asleep. The darkness melts everything away and we talk. Sometimes he’ll confide those twisted up feelings he has about his social life at school. Sometimes he’ll share the joys—a laugh at what one of his friends said, a game they made up. Sometimes we’ll cuddle for a few minutes. But not for long, usually.

His little brother is two. He curls right into my body. He fits there perfectly. If I leave the room, he toddles after me. He’s soothed simply by my presence.

My older son was like that once. Long ago, it seems.

*   *   *

On his 8th birthday, I want to tell my son how incredibly beautiful he is in his stretched out, lanky body—the moles that magically appeared on his arms and neck this summer, his widening jaw, his new, crooked teeth. His mind always racing, his gorgeous, fiery thoughts.

I want my son to know that his feelings matter, all of them, and I want him to feel them, really feel them, but learn to let them go a little, before they spiral out of control. I want him to know that he will learn this in time, as I did. I want him to know that even though I don’t always seem patient with him, I trust the path he is on.

And I want him to know that the fire that pushes him to the playground floor will one day make art, poetry, justice, peace. I want him to know that his fire is a gift to the world. And to me, always.

Wendy Wisner is a mom, writer, and lactation consultant (IBCLC).  Her writing has appeared in Literary Mama, Scary Mommy, The Badass Breastfeeder, Natural Child Magazine, Lilith Magazine, and elsewhere; she blogs at www.nursememama.com.

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If the Season We Could Keep

If the Season We Could Keep

art-if-the-season-we-could-keepBy Sarah Bousquet

“Let’s do arts and crafts, mama!” says my daughter, her request decidedly different than just a few weeks ago when we were doing “arts and craps.”

“What did you say?” I ask her.

“Arts and crafts!”

Her pronunciation is perfect, that very tricky “f” sound followed by the “t.” I am proud, of course, but I also feel something else, a tiny pang. The funny word has disappeared, slipped away with so many others. I’m still holding onto “bobana” and “libary.”

These are the little things that can’t be photographed or stored in a box. The minutiae of age two. I attempt to memorize it, imprint it like an internal tattoo.

When someone asks, “How old is she?” I want to say two-and-a-half, but that’s not quite true. She’s getting closer to three with each passing day, and so sometimes I answer, “She’ll be three in January,” trying get acquainted with that big new number. A number that makes my heart race a little.

But January still feels far away, maybe because the fall season has stretched itself out long and colorful here in the Northeast. The ground is carpeted with crunchy leaves and the trees are bright with reds and golds. I’ve been willing the season to stay, and magically, it’s obeyed.

My daughter collects leaves in bunches, filling buckets and baby carriages, carting leaves back and forth across the yard. We arrange some on the table, paint them and make prints, glue them to our watercolor creations. We capture them while we can.

This is how I feel about the season of age two. I want to keep it, stash it away, fill all the buckets of my memory bank, trap time.

There are the Cheerios balanced in the bowl she takes into the play room, because Cheerios are best crunched in front of cartoons. A few will find their way to the corners of the couch and onto the carpet, crushed beneath small feet. I will come later with the vacuum and grumble about it, and then think, soon I will miss this.

There is the “monkey trick” she does at the playground, grasping any bar within her reach and swinging her legs out. Her attempts to master the balance beam. The way she now pushes me away, “I can do it by myself, mama.”

There are the books she’s memorized. She pulls them from the shelf and settles herself next to the cat and says, “I’m going to read him a book!” And there she is, turning the pages and reading the story on her own.

There is our coffee ritual at the grocery store. She sits in the cart kicking her legs, pulling at the greeting cards. I hand her the coffee can lid to hold while I peel the thin aluminum seal and reveal shiny dark brown beans. I inhale the rich scent and then put it under her nose. But instead of sniffing, she exhales. It makes me laugh every time. I pour the beans into the machine. The loud motor whirs, and she startles, then laughs, delighted as the grounds pour through the shoot. She helps secure the lid, and I think, the smell of fresh ground coffee will always be this.

There is the rosy-cheeked exuberance of running inside from a sunrise walk with her dad, the smell of fresh air as she hugs me. The way she digs into her pockets for the beach treasures she collected. The frosty browns and greens of the sea glass she plunks down carefully on the table. We examine them together, smooth-edged from salt water, transformed over time.

There is the carefree joy of running toward the giant pile of brown leaves dotted with orange and red, the way she dives in and tosses leaves into the air. “Jump in the leaves, mama!”

I run after her and fall into the pile. We lie next to each other, staring up at the fiery red maple leaves against the blue sky. There is no one around to take a photograph, and it doesn’t matter. I hear the rustle and crunch. Smell the damp. Feel myself sink into the soft bed of leaves against the cold ground. See that sweet two-year-old smile.

We bring leaves back to the craft table. I have a new trick to show her. I slip a maple leaf between two pieces of paper and gently rub the graphite over the hidden leaf. Slowly it reveals itself, the intricate edges, tiny veins, strong stem. A perfect replica, a moment memorized. A version we can keep.

Headshot Sarah BousquetSarah Bousquet is Brain Child’s 2016 New Voice of the Year. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at https://onebluesail.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.

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Opinion: Tell Your Kids Early

Opinion: Tell Your Kids Early

images-1By Melissa Uchiyama

From the very start of pregnancy, there are a myriad of decisions to make. No pee stick doles out suggestions on who to tell when. There is no chart. Becoming pregnant while already a parent means another giant decision must be made: when to tell your child that he or she may have a sibling. I say, tell ’em. Tell ’em when you’re comfortable and don’t let fear get in the way of important, life-changing news that’s yours to tell.

Telling our kids early-on puts faith in them as thinking and feeling family members. Our family has only positively benefited from including our children in the good news early on, not stifling a sweet thing, pretending I’m only getting rounder from bread rolls, and not an actual baby.

My husband and I told both of our children very early on (less than ten weeks) and decided to do all of the growing and many of the discussions together, as a family. No secrets. As a result, both of my children (and now again, as I await the birth of my third) bonded with their siblings in utero, through a myriad of communication and lots of tummy hugs. I also believe telling children, and close friends, early-on is healthy, even if complications later arise. They will have already picked up on grief and may feel confused if not a part of the process. This, to me, is family. This is growing in community and building bonds that will be strong as thick rope vines as the new baby is born and continues to grow.

Other parents may dismiss their child’s ability to understand there is a growing baby inside. They often wait months, believing that their older children cannot possibility understand abstract time and that which is not instant. I became pregnant within a few weeks of a close friend. She and her husband decided to tell their toddler, who by the way, is very smart, months later, as a Christmas gift, whereas our daughter had already been touching and kissing my growing midsection, discussing her shifting life as a big sister, and learning about the process of growing a baby, for those same months. By the time our new baby was born, the bond was tangible and strong; they were siblings. It took more time, I believe, for our friend’s kids to latch on to their bond.

At seven weeks gestation, I couldn’t contain my excitement. It was a maternal adrenaline — I called my friend outside of a grocery store. She had taken a moment to answer my call while skiing on a mountain and I knew with certainty, as I divulged my news, should my good news turn to heartache, I’d need her same arms reaching through the phone, reaching into helping me cope. For me, I needed to share.

Certainly, our kids are not our besties we gab to over the phone or over a glass of Merlot. They are our children and we have the job of choosing what and how to edit information so that it is developmentally sound, emotionally appropriate. To be honest, my husband shocked me when he told our daughter at seven weeks. I knew the risks of loss. Even so, we told her and we rejoiced. It’s hard to stifle joy and it’s hard to silence the pain of loss. Kids may see lots of tears at different points—the happy and the sad. I say, with as much uncertainty in the world, let’s choose to show them the joy, never mind the risks. Anything can happen at anytime. If an egg has fertilized and rooted to the walls of a uterus, that is joy. Everything is working, especially if this was an answer to prayer, if the family can picture another squirmy body pulling up to the family table.

Again, if the pregnancy does not go as planned, if there is a problem, an abnormality, a heartbeat that later fails, leaving you empty and grieving, your children will be a comfort. They will be part of the overall process of not just a mom’s pain, but a family’s process towards healing. They will need to grieve, perhaps, the loss of a sibling, a brother or sister they could not meet. But those moments with their head on your belly, listening for a heartbeat? Those loving snapshots of big sis rubbing lotion on mom’s belly and those talks about what goes on in the womb? This is the molecular structure of jewels. These will be healing, sweet memories, the times you included them in your joy.

I say tell them. Tell your kids there is room for one more. Tell them they are important and needed. Tell them you are praying and expecting that strong heartbeat to keep beating and beating until they are in your arms and eating bananas with big sis and later, still, running around. Families share their plans.

Melissa Uchiyama is an educator, writer, and mother. She has appeared in Brain, Child, in regards to nudity and bathing, two pretty cool topics in her book, also contributing to Literary Mama, Mamalode, Cargo Literary Magazine, Kveller, and other sites. Connect with Melissa as she blogs about the motherly and literary life on www.melibelleintokyo.com.

History of David

History of David

Snow on the trees in spring season

By Kris Rasmussen

I know you only from the April showers that always flowed down our mother’s face, but never fully drowned her sorrow. By the lilies she places on the your grave each year;the only evidence of your few  breaths  on this planet.

Tonight, a snowy-mix fills the Michigan spring night, and Mom mentions you to me in a moment of spontaneous reminiscing, the kind she has too frequently these days. “Dr. Frye revived his body three times, you know. He decided that was enough. I always had to hope he was right.”  Then she notices how dirty the front windows are looking.

I, too, notice the smudges and streaks clouding our view of the sturdy maple and the precocious squirrels racing around it. I don’t answer Mom right away, because middle age brings its own wistful wanderings. I list all the ways someone I never met has marked my life.

I would never have been delivered to our parents’ doorstep from the William Booth Hospital for Unwed Mothers.

I would have remained Eleanor, a name I despise but was given to me by my foster mom.

I would have missed Coming Home days, which were, as I smugly told the kids at school, way better than birthdays.

My birthday featured all the traditional trappings of cake, parties, and gifts. My Coming Home Day, January 28 included indulgent after-Christmas bargain shopping for more presents, and permission to gorge myself on macaroni and cheese and Chicken in a Biscuit crackers until I almost puked. One year, I forced my brother to sit next to me while we went to see 101 Dalmatians, just because it was my day. (He  was adopted, too, so don’t worry, he had his day as well.)

Mom never forgot your birthday, but it was marked by screams, tears and, occasionally , broken dishes, not wrapping paper and bows. Every April Mom would say the same thing by way of explanation, “Well, the anniversary of David’s birthday is this month. What do you expect?”

What did I expect? Nothing. Our mother was the only one in my family who even spoke of you. Grandpa and Grandma Smith, Dad, Aunt Paula and Uncle Harold never mentioned you. Hundreds of photos of camping trips, hunting trips, fishing trips still exist, but not one photo of Mom pregnant with you – as if that might have been some sort of jinx.

Yet you lingered along the edges of my childhood anyway.

I felt your breath exhale from our parents’ lungs every time I asked to ride my bike beyond the usual boundary of Jennings Avenue to venture some place all by myself, like to the corner of Myrtle Street. Their response: “It’s too dangerous.” Doctors tried six different times to fix a  chronic condition in my knees growing up. Before each operation, you flickered in our parents’ eyes along with their anxiety. At 21, I was rushed to the hospital after being pummeled to the pavement by a sedan. Despite the searing jolts of pain, I refused to tell the police officers how to call Mom and Dad because I didn’t want to upset them. They had lost one child, but they were not going to lose me.

When my brother rebelled, fought someone in school, shoplifted from a grocery store, Mom hugged me too tightly and said “Losing David was a sign I shouldn’t have been a mother after all.”

You were the one God sent us because you were just what we needed, Dad scribbled on a card to me once.

You told us that before you came to live with us you were walking around in the woods with Jesus, my mom would remind me, shaking her head in amazement.

Surely it was this religious fervor over my “filling in” for you that somehow contributed to my stellar GPA and pristine high school reputation.

Tonight, I press Mom for details about your life. I’m learning almost too late that stories can drown in bitterness, wither from neglect, and vanish from inevitable forgetfulness. If I don’t learn your story now, it will die with our mother. One way I can honor you both is to find out the history of your life.

Mom snaps out of her reverie to tell me more.

Dr. Frye actually forbid Mom to become pregnant. Her high blood pressure and high risk of eclampsia made her a poor risk. “You’ll never make it to term,” he’d warned.  If there is anything you should know about Mom, it’s that she listens to no one when she really wants something. She wanted you more than anything, so you were conceived after years of our parents dodging the shame-filled question, “Why haven’t you started a family yet?”

The two of you made it only to twenty-four weeks. Mom never saw your face. Neither did Dad. Convinced he was losing both his wife and his son, he huddled on his knees in a janitor’s closet. Meanwhile the Catholic nurses, some my mother had worked with for years, refused to participate in the emergency procedure which saved her life – barely – but couldn’t save yours. She never forgave them.

Arms empty, Mom refused to sign a consent to have her tubes tied. Did I mention Mom was – and is – a stubborn woman? But Dad won this argument – in fact, this may be the only argument he ever won – when he told her he would never touch her again if she didn’t have the surgery.

Which brings your story back to me, sitting here in an olive and mustard living room, weary and striving to hold onto one more piece of Mom before it’s too late. I allow myself to dwell on one final connection you and I have. Someday I will likely be buried in a plot next to yours.

I wonder what our stories will mean to anyone else then.

Kris Rasmussen is an educator, playwright, and freelance writer living in Michigan. Her creative nonfiction work has been published in magazines and journals such as The Bear River Review and Art House America. She was a contributing editor for the multi-faith website Beliefnet for several years. In addition, her dramatic work has been by produced by the Forward Theater Company in Madison, Wisconsin and published by Lillenas Drama. She is grateful to authors Lauren Winner and Charity Singleton Craig for introducing her to the work of Brain, Child. You can follow her on twitter @krisras63 or visit her website at www.krisrasmussen.net.

 

 

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Homage to Señor eX

Homage to Señor eX

 

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By Lorena Santana

Last Saturday night, my husband and I were home, savoring the silence. Emma, my youngest daughter, was out for the night. We’re newlyweds, second marriage for both of us, with four children altogether. We’re not used to being alone in an empty, silent house, so we twiddled our fingers, weighing out our options. Should we watch a movie? Light candles and give each other back massages? Spread out on the comfy couch and vegetate? We decided on the last option and sprawled out on the couch. I immediately went into fantasizing about my soon-to-be-written young adult novel.

The fantasy came to an abrupt end when the phone rang. Robin looked at the phone, looked at me, and rolled his eyes. The screen shone, “Señor eX.” I sighed. Señor eX is the contact name for my ex-husband (programmed into the phone by Emma). Even though Señor eX and I have done our best to co-parent, I still revert to certain bad habits when communicating with him. Why? Because Señor eX only calls me for two reasons:

  1. When he’s concerned about the girls behavior.
  2. He wants something.

He’s never called to say hello. So it’s perfectly understandable that when my phone rings and the screen lights up with “Señor eX” on it, I go straight into fight or flight mode. The hairs on the back of my neck rise, my blood pressure shoots up, and my breathing becomes shorter. The inner voices began chattering, “Ugh! No! Why me? On a Saturday night? Run away!”

I shook the voices away, took a deep breath, and slid the bar on the screen,

“Hello?”

Pause. Someone was breathing on the other end.

“Lolo?”

The sweetest, most innocent, little voice was on the line.

This wasn’t Señor eX, it was Sofia, Señor Ex’s daughter, my daughter’s ½ sister.

She’s always called me Lolo, an endearing nickname given to me since she was a toddler.

My heart melted. “Hi Sofia, how are you?”

There was no time to exchange niceties. Sofia, being six, went straight to the point,

“I can’t find my Mom and Dad and I need to get a message to them.”

“Okay, I can probably find them.”

More silence, followed by a sigh.

“Please tell them that the chocolate machine has stopped.”

“Sofia, are you with the babysitter now?”

“Yes.”

“Did you try to call them?”

“Yes, but they didn’t answer.”

“Is everything else okay?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, I will contact them right away.”

Sofia was born a few years after Señor eX and I divorced. After the divorce was finalized, he met a lovely lady and remarried. I felt happy for him and did everything I could to create a sense of harmony within the family unit. Soon thereafter, his wife was expecting. Camille and Emma (my daughters with Señor eX) eagerly awaited Sofia’s arrival. They’ve been great sisters, loving her unconditionally as she’s grown up. Sofia’s not my actual birth daughter, but I love her as if she were my own. Every year, she comes to my house to make tamales (a holiday family tradition), I’ve given her surf lessons, and she’s even spent the night. What can I say? We’re unconventional.

I got off the phone with Sofia and immediately went into warrior mom mode. I was going to help help her resolve this problem. So, I composed a friendly text (with a bit of urgency) to Señor eX and his wife.

“Hope you are having a nice evening. Simone just called me because she can’t get a hold of you. Distress message: THE CHOCOLATE MACHINE HAS STOPPED!”

I understand why Sofia’s so distraught. The whole family’s invested time and energy in Señor eX’s dream of becoming a chocolatier. For years, he’s been honing his chocolate making skills with a beautiful, top of the line machine that sits in the kitchen, running at all hours of the day. His house has become a chocolate laboratory, burlap bags filled with cacao beans are on the the floor, chocolate molds cover the kitchen counter, and the smell of roasting beans fill the air. His chocolates are dark, delicious and wrapped in handmade paper. I know this because I go to his house (another one of our unconventional family habits) and he sends us chocolates every once in a while. Robin and I lie in bed, popping bean-to-bar chocolates into our mouths, savoring every bite. We’ve become chocolate aficionados, comparing each batch to the last. Lately, sweetness prevails over bitterness. I’m reminded of the novel by Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate. Tita, the protagonist in the story, unintentionally begins to affect the people around her through the food she prepares. Her emotions are so strong, they become infused into her cooking. Robin and I draw from that, theorizing that Señor eX’s chocolate is becoming sweeter because he’s becoming a kinder, softer, and more compassionate man.

Within a few minutes Señor eX responds to my text,

“Thank you. I called her. Problem resolved”

“She’s a persistent little girl. Great job!”

Relieved, I go back to my Saturday evening activities. Robin looks at me and smiles because he finds our unconventional family very entertaining. I’m flattered that Sofia turned to me during a crises but I’m also stupefied. So, I mention the scenario to Emma, hoping she can help me make sense of it.

“Mom, it’s no big deal. You’re like Sofia’s stepmother. If she can’t get a hold of dad and Jane, you’re the next person on the list.”

So, I embrace our unconventional family dynamics, add the Saturday night chocolate machine scenario into my reservoir of stories, sit back, and return to fantasyland. One day, I’m going to write a memoir and Señor Ex will become a chocolatier, his wife, a fromagere, Robin surfs world class waves, and I’ll write a best selling novel for young adults.

For now, I’d just like to pay homage to Señor eX and his chocolates. Life just wouldn’t be as sweet without them.

Lorena Santana is a parent, author, educator, and performer. Much of her work is centered around two of her favorite subjects: young adults and education. In 2014 she wrote and produced Barefoot in Baja, a bi-national, multi media project. Ms. Santana lives in San Diego, California and is working on her first novel for young adults, Guava Girl. http://barefootinbaja.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The French Connection

The French Connection

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By Petra Perkins

Sometimes a mother and daughter need to get away – without husbands, kids, and without reserve. My daughter Sue and I took such a vacation. It would be our last trip together – but not our last journey.

“Let’s go to France,” I said, weeks after Sue’s diagnosis of MS., Multiple Sclerosis. A doctor told us his certainty, but we didn’t believe it until a second opinion. Maybe we didn’t really believe it then. She’d been having some weird bodily sensations – headaches, fatigue, dropping things – but felt well enough to travel. I thought I was doing a good thing by buying one big duffle bag, jazzy with a zillion pockets. Not one to travel light, I filled it to the brim and then it was too heavy and ungainly to carry. Sue named it The Monkey, because she ended up strapping it on her back.

This isn’t a story of Sue contracting a brain/nerve disease that would steal her mobility and her memory. This isn’t about me, her mother, who couldn’t stop the insidious onslaught. This is the story of our pilgrimage to France, where we discovered Roundabouts. You know – those circus circles that replace traffic lights? (Suddenly you’re in them, you stay on the fast left side, round and round, dizzy until you decide when to exit and then scream as you cut to the right.) We flew through countless roundabouts with me at the wheel of a stick shift and Sue navigating by an old-fashioned map. I would just keep circling like a clown until she said: ‘EXIT NOW!” Two madcap American ladies in a teeny orange car stuffed with us and The Monkey.

In the stage of quasi-denial after the cruel diagnosis I decided we should go to Lourdes, the place of healing waters. Lourdes is a village near the Pyrenees where sick people arrive – six million a year – on their pilgrimage to dip into holy water for a divine cure. Occasional miracle cures have been documented by the Catholic Church since 1858 when the Blessed Lady of Lourdes (the Virgin Mary) was seen there. M.S. has no cure, yet, so I thought we should try everything, no matter how far or bizarre. I would have taken her to the moon if a holy spring had turned up.

Neither of us is Catholic, but we share fascination with the French language – I’d studied it for years and Sue had taken it in high school. We constantly joked, in French/English (our version of Franglais) telling “Yo Mama” jokes. Yo maman est sooo tres gros (fat) she has her own zeep code. If our jokes weren’t classy, our esteem for fine wine was, with Bordeaux at the top of our lists.

So, there we were, off to wine tastings, to eat our way through the country’s delicacies, sip café au laits in boulangeries, and seek a miracle.

After an airplane, bus, taxi and car trek to Lourdes, we finally arrived at the grounds of the Grotto, lush with iconic statues, green lawns and shade trees. Its walkways were lined with pilgrims speaking many languages, pushed in wheelchairs or carried on stretchers. A kind, elderly nun greeted us.

“I must tell you straightaway,” she said in perfect English as we queued up. “You cannot be cured unless you change your lifestyle. ARE you prepared to change your lifestyle?” I was stunned by this admonition because she knew nothing about Sue’s life; Sue could have been a nun for all she knew. But the truth was, she did have a stressful lifestyle: a devoted mother as well as a workaholic, raising two kids and a demanding medical transcription business.

More stunning was when Sue shook her head. “No,” she said, flatly, “I won’t change my lifestyle.” Wait, I thought. We’re here only five minutes and she’s saying ‘No’? I took Sue aside, persuading her to listen to me, her omniscient mother. “Listen, girl, we’ve come halfway across the world for this… maybe you could go the last steps, okay? See what happens… who knows, maybe The Lady of Lourdes is handing out miracles today.” Sue rolled tear-filled eyes and shrugged. I continued: “I know, I know… but if you don’t believe, then how about putting an intent out there in the universe… to be open to suggestion? Maybe intent is not so far from belief.” I was persuading myself, too.

We were immediately directed to bathing stalls near the shrine, alight with soft candles. Nuns handed us plastic sheets and asked us to remove all our clothes after which they would lead us into the spring. Sue refused to go au natural, but again I persuaded. We became nudists stepping into freezing-cold holy water. I fervently prayed she wouldn’t do a “Yo Mama” joke.

“Holy shit!” my sweet daughter gasped. The nuns didn’t miss a beat of their prayers to the Virgin Mary. I concentrated hard on that moment so I’d remember it forever as I floated a mother’s entreaty – as intent – into the universe.

Sue whispered: “Should we ‘tip’ the nuns?”

The next day we turned in our car, hopped a fast train to Paris, and that’s when a second pilgrimage started. Sue led us to the famous Printemps clothing store, where she found a green and gold brocade designer gown. I bought a sultry black diamondback sundress that I doubted I’d ever wear in my hometown. Next stop: a Parisian fashion show where sleek models glided the runway. Sue fell hard for an Italian male model, giggling when he walked by. At every change in outfit he stopped to strut his stuff and wink at her.

From our hotel we toured on foot to mingle with locals and by Metro to all things Parisienne. At a jazz restaurant, we dined on lamb served with sparklers standing in heaps of cous-cous. Sue called it “coo-coo”. The food, wine and music did make us a little coo-coo. No matter where we went, Sue attracted attention with her striking azure eyes, Cleopatra hair, and her unbridled delight in everything French.

We were only months away from her worst M.S. attack, one that left her temporarily blind, deaf, paralyzed, and hysterical. But on our trip we gave no time to imagining any worst-case scenarios. How inconceivable it was, the impending horror… how her life would be in a mere five years… where going to the bathroom would be an epic event, where she would need diapers, and, later, a permanent catheter. Right now, however, we occupied France! Right now we were in the ‘now’, we lived in the moment. We were together, enjoying the sensuousness of all things French. We spoke in our funny Franglais, flirted with oh-so-serious waiters, took a boat ride on the Seine. In the dark, from one bed to the other, we wondered about nuns and virgins, and traded secrets that mothers and daughters usually don’t. I told her why and how I fell in love with her dad when I was a girl. Sue divulged some details of her first romantic encounter. She told me how sorry she was for rude behavior when she was 16; I apologized for my angry reaction to it. We resolved issues from our past, making them right, hugging them away daily, oblivious of what the future held.

We wouldn’t know that in her mid-thirties, she would lose almost everything a normal person takes for granted: good vision; her short-term memory (early on sending me the same frantic email twenty times a day); her mind/finger dexterity, struggling to do very basic things with her hands; most of her cognitive abilities – to think beyond simplicities, to reason in solving problems. Or that after another attack she would, strangely, speak for days only in French. Very good French. The brain is a mysterious thing.

We would not foresee her overdose on pain medication, and then be rushed to the ER. We didn’t worry too much about M.S., because at that moment we were in paradise, together, in the City of Love and Light, distracted by divine wine and coffee, culture and cuisine. I washed her hair with holy water brought from Lourdes. She massaged my tired aching feet with it. We snapped pictures of each other in our new French clothes.

It made the future a little easier to bear that we’d had this trip. Something to remember with happiness. In subsequent years, Sue had to give up her career, her oversight of home and family, driving, walking, reading, cooking, and finally, her independence. Sue – a dynamo, a force to be reckoned with, a mover and shaker, a generous helper to all who knew her – would become dependent on others for almost her every need.

We still look at photos which I sometimes use to reconnect us with those two weeks. Flipping through the album she made, we laugh at her carrying the giant Monkey on her back. And another photo – the two of us in matching berets, toasting glasses of Bordeaux – at the sidewalk café on the Champs Elysees. We are so happy, in those moments when we occupied France, or rather, when we were occupied by France.

The photos bring it back and she remembers, in a roundabout way.

Petra Perkins, a Colorado author, writes and publishes memoir, fiction, poetry (2015 Faulkner-Wisdom Gold Medal winner), humor and interviews. See more of her work at www.petrapetra.com

 

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Did I Breastfeed?

Did I Breastfeed?

Mother Breastfeeding her newborn baby

By Claire McMurray

Did I breastfeed my daughter? As a new mother I spent an unhealthy amount of time grappling with this question. Not because I wanted an answer for anyone else, but because I needed one for myself. I still don’t truly know. For the first few weeks of her life my baby had a mix of breastmilk and formula. Then she had milk from the breast, even though she screamed every time I tried to feed her. At 12 weeks I gave up feeding her at the breast and she got pumped milk in bottles for the next few months. When I tapered off the pumping she got a mix of frozen milk and formula. Then it was just formula.

It was the disconnect between what seemed like a simple question and my own baby’s intricate and flexible breastfeeding timeline that sent me into a tailspin. What exactly is breastfeeding? I wondered. Is it just milk from the breast? Does pumped milk count too? And what about duration? What if I only breastfed for a few days or a few weeks? Would that count?

Eventually I turned to the research and science behind breastfeeding in the hope that it would help me settle my confusion. I emerged even more bewildered than ever. I had assumed that breastfeeding studies would be based on a shared assumption of what “breastfeeding” meant. However, many studies I found defined breastfeeding on their own terms, with researchers choosing a variety of ways to divide breastfeeding mothers from non-breastfeeding ones. Worse, some studies did not mention the criteria they used to define breastfeeding at all. All of this has even lead to conflicting results among studies.

An article entitled “What is the Definition of Breastfeeding” finally came close to answering my questions. According to the author, a 1988 meeting about the definition of breastfeeding sponsored by The Interagency Group for Action on Breastfeeding (IGAB) resulted in a set of definitions for breastfeeding, including exclusive breastfeeding, almost exclusive breastfeeding, full breastfeeding, full breast milk feeding, partial breastfeeding, and token breastfeeding. The consortium also defined breastfeeding as applying only to a certain moment in time and differentiated breastfeeding from breast milk feeding (what I was doing when I pumped and bottle fed the milk to my baby). Other health organizations, like The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, have a different set of definitions. They group breastfeeding into the categories of exclusive, predominant, full, and complimentary.

What struck me most after all of this reading was that the idea of multiple definitions of breastfeeding was already in place. I was surprised to learn that some researchers and health organizations had already been arguing for years for the nuanced differentiations and distinctions that I felt were so necessary and so lacking.

Yet my astonishment died quickly. If I was unaware of these ideas, it was because they have failed to make it into the popular press and into the public’s consciousness. Too often we still see breastfeeding in Manichean terms, as a two-sided debated pitting “those who do” against “those who don’t.” Instead of nuance, fluidity, and multiple possibilities, we picture a presence or a lack. It is a dangerous duality constantly perpetuated by science and health reporting, media headlines, and even our own pediatrician, family, and friends.

Why does all this matter? Why should I or any other mother care about the definition of breastfeeding? Quite simply because it is through the network of mothers that we can change the narrow view of what breastfeeding is. We can give ourselves and each other permission to embrace the full set of possibilities that exist. In fact, we can do even better than that. We can promote and make visible the idea of a breastfeeding spectrum upon which every woman can locate herself at a certain moment in time. We can recognize it as flexible, adaptable, and individualized. And we can refuse to be divided into camps and set in opposition to one another when we read, listen, or talk about breastfeeding. Let’s even stop writing and talking about respecting the other “side.” What if there were no sides?

I have decided that changing my definition of breastfeeding will be my own personal act of feminist solidarity. And I have pledged to myself that I will change my own breastfeeding vocabulary. I won’t use words like “side” or “camp.” I won’t ask anyone if she has or has not breastfed. Most importantly, I will stop asking myself the question Did I breastfeed? I’ll replace it with a better one: Where am I on the spectrum?

Where are you?

Claire has published essays in Parent Co, Scary Mommy, and Sammiches and Psych Meds. Her stories have been  published online in Aphelion Magazine and by Scholastic Press. Claire currently live in the Midwest and work as the Graduate Writing Specialist at a university writing center. I earned a Ph.D. in French literature from Yale in 2010.

 

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The Art of Being Silly

The Art of Being Silly

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By Sarah Bousquet

“Be happy, mama!” My toddler holds my face in her clammy palms and smushes my cheeks skyward. She caught me somewhere else, far away in the land of deadlines, to-do lists, and future plans. It’s not that I’m unhappy, I’m just not here. It isn’t lost on me that she perceives these states of discontent and distraction as equivalent. Nothing yanks me back into the present like my busy, talkative toddler, those little hands forcing the corners of my mouth up in the right direction.

Trying to be present in our distracted culture often feels unattainable amidst the ping of text messages and emails. We must always be multi-tasking and yet we are told to be in the moment, especially when it comes to our kids.

Before I became a mom I thought, what’s sadder than a parent at a playground, eyes fixed on a screen while a child shouts for attention? Now I give that parent the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes I am that parent. Maybe she just survived a 20-minute car tantrum. Maybe he’s finally catching up on a few emails. Maybe she’s paying a bill. Or maybe he just needs a break, the mind-numbing scroll of social media or a quick skim of the article he’s been meaning to read for a week. It’s okay to look away. The trick is not getting stuck.

I reconnect by spending time in nature, digging in the sand at the beach, walking through the woods, collecting autumn leaves. I’m present in the simple act of noticing what’s around me, a game of I-Spy. Sometimes I reconnect through a craft project, not just one I set up for my toddler, but one I actually participate in with her. It works best if the phone is left in another room and we sit at a table with paintbrushes or lumps of play-dough and I play along too. I feel time slow as we sweep colors across a sheet of paper or roll out squishy balls of dough. She usually has a lot to tell me, and I’m available to listen and respond. I consider these activities forms of meditation.

But nature walks and craft projects are not always options. They’re situational mindfulness. What about the stressful moments? The toddler meltdowns while traveling or grocery shopping or just trying to survive the day? We are told to breathe through these moments, count to ten, wait it out. I propose something else. I suggest silliness.

I am not a silly person. I’m not one to cross my eyes and stick out my tongue. I’m not inclined to hang a spoon off the end of my nose or blow spit bubbles. I definitely don’t make fart noises. But I do like to talk in funny voices and make up ridiculous nicknames. I may suddenly break into song. Actually, I lied; I totally make fart noises and any number of wacky sounds to get my daughter to laugh.

Silliness, like any skill, can be cultivated. You may have been a silly kid who grew into a serious adult, or maybe you’ve been serious from the start. The good news is you can begin any time, and you get better with practice. Silliness becomes second-nature. You remember the goofy stuff you and your siblings did as kids, like gallop through the living room or wear underpants on your head.

When you’re being silly, you are present, immersed in the moment without even trying. It’s more fun than deep-breathing and twice as successful at mitigating meltdowns. Build your repertoire. Make fart noises. Cross your eyes. Do a crazy dance. Pretend to be a bear, a horse, Cookie Monster. Go for ridiculous. It gets easier to believe that hummus finger paint is hysterical, that the cat barf you slipped on was impromptu comedy.

This is not to say I never lose it. We all do sometimes. It’s easier to keep my cool when I’m not being pulled in different directions. Mindfulness helps me refocus on just one thing. It helps me through the difficult times and deepens the ones I wish would last. It’s reclaiming the present moment that can be so challenging. Meditation and deep-breathing aren’t always conducive to parenting small children–not the way silliness is. Perhaps, too, because silliness creates connection, it is the antidote to distraction.

Now I look for opportunities to be silly everywhere. This year for Halloween my daughter chose to be a kangaroo. A week later, I discovered a kangaroo costume in adult sizes and immediately ordered one for myself. It’s rust-colored and fuzzy, a giant onesie pajama with a long tail and a pouch with a baby kangaroo. I look ridiculous, and it makes us laugh. We’re excited to hop from house to house, the silliest family in the neighborhood.

 

Headshot Sarah BousquetSarah Bousquet is Brain Child’s 2016 New Voice of the Year. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at https://onebluesail.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.

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I No Longer Do It All —  And I’m Happy!

I No Longer Do It All — And I’m Happy!

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By Jamie Goodwin

For the past seven years, I have been a type-A kind-of-mom.  I loved it.  I loved doing it all.  I loved volunteering for each and every need at my children’s schools.  I loved throwing the best birthday party blowout.  I loved hand-making e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g.  And of course, I loved making sure my kids were dressed in their Sunday best just to go out in the yard.  After all, you never know who was going to drive by, right?

My third child arrived five years after my youngest girl.  But wait, another child, another round of being a strict Type A mom? I needed a new perspective, a new plan. So I made one, and I am so much happier.

Baby number three has taught me more than any college class I took:  I can’t do it all.  I shouldn’t do it all.  I won’t do it all anymore. And I shouldn’t apologize for it.  I can’t be the best mom, the best wife, the best friend, the best leader, the best volunteer, the best at everything.  And you know what?  It’s OK.  It’s more than just OK, it’s exhilarating!

Today as a parent, I pledge to myself and my children:

I won’t sign up for every need around our church or your school anymore.  Why? Because when I do, I am more stressed and more anxious. I spread myself too thin and took it out on you.

I won’t make sure your uniforms or Sunday clothes are ironed.  Why?  Well, I hate ironing and no one cares anyway.

I won’t hand-make your birthday invitations by myself anymore.  Why?  Because it’s so much fun for you to make them!  And I discovered that the free online invitations are not cheesy, they allow me to spend more time with you instead of searching Pinterest for three hours for the perfect invite that wound up in everyone’s trash anyway.  Yep, this year I sent a free online invitation for your party and I laughed at my old self as I hit send.  And you know what?  You told me this was the best birthday ever.

I will stop answering the phone or emails when I am playing My Little Pony with you. Why?  Because at the end of the day, you tell me it is the best day ever when I take time to play with you.  And I remember that smile on your face, not the details of an email.

I will stop using the time nursing my baby as an excuse to catch up on emails.  I realize now it is a time to bond.

I will ask my husband how his day was when he walks in the door… and actually listen. Because it’s not a time to disappear to go finish planning a volunteer event taking place two weeks from now.

I will enjoy my time with each of you.  Because I want to be with you, I want to laugh with you, I want to cry with you, I want to be in this moment right here, right now with my family.

I will make a dandelion bouquet with you instead of stressing out that you’re blowing them across the yard.  We’ve spent three years trying to get rid of those suckers and they’re not going anywhere anytime soon, at least this season.  And you deserve a fun childhood memory of making a mud pie with dandelion sprinkles on top!

I will embrace your purple shorts and pink shirt with rain boots, even when there’s not a cloud in the sky.  You are your own person and I love you just the way you are.

I will not squash your creativity and tell you a better way to do your own art project.

I will worry less and smile more.

I will not sign you up for more than one sport or activity at a time.  And that’s a good thing for you and us, you will see that later.

I will let you smear mud on your clothes and laugh about it – But yes, I will still make you take them off when you get inside.

I want you to be a bright, loving, respectful, happy, and responsible person so know that I will always instill our family’s love and values or discipline, even in the middle of a grocery store. And I promise not to worry about what other parents think.
My third child has transformed me into a more laid-back-parenting approach and I LOVE IT!.  I LOVE NOT HAVING 5 DIFFERENT SPORTS CLASSES TO RUSH OFF TO!!! I love the freedom of our weekend calendars.  I LOVE my house looking like now looking like Kaleidoscope instead of a fine art gallery!!!

To my friends, kids teachers, and Church family, please know that when I do say yes and commit to spending time with you, helping you, celebrating life with you … know that it will be with all the love that is in my heart because I am saying, “No” more.  It may be, “No” to you more often than before, but when I now commit to you, I commit with my fullest desire and heart. When I offer to come to your home at 10:00 pm the night before your child’s birthday party to help clean and assemble goody bags, I do it because I love you and you and your children are a top priority to me.  And I can now be a better friend to you because I am committing less to the rest of the world.

To one of my best friends:  Thank you for lining all of your walls with your children’s artwork. Thank you for allowing your children to be happy, healthy, and displaying their creativity all over your home. Thank you for showing me how to allow my children to be who they are.   Thank you for caring for my children last-minute when I have a doctor’s appointment or need to run an errand. Thank you for caring for my children like they are your own.  And thank you for displaying my children’s artwork as proudly in your home as you do with your own.  I thank you for showing me that I am a much happier parent when I spend time with my children first and worry about picking up last.  You have inspired me and should say, “You’re welcome!” instead of “I’m sorry I didn’t pick up.” next time I pop by unannounced.

Right now, instead of editing and proof-reading this article, I am off to pick dandelion bouquets with my girls.  I promised I would work a few hours this morning and then ignore my emails for the rest of the weekend. I have girls that are running around laughing, making dandelion pies, playing with worms, and I don’t want to miss a minute of it!  And if you drop by my house right now, I will not apologize for it looking like a mess.  I will invite you to explore, have fun, and make a mud pie with us.

Jamie Goodwin is a homeschooling mom of three. She has a Bachelor of Arts in child psychology and publishes Northland Kansas City Macaroni Kid.  She lives in Kansas City, MO with her husband in their home full of kids, animals, lots of love, and of course, toys on the floor. You can follow her daily journey of dandelion pies and mommy aha moments on Instagram @life.on.serene.ave

 

 

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6 Halloween Books for Older Kids

6 Halloween Books for Older Kids

halloween-storytime

By Katie Rosa

Halloween is one of the best times of the year. The pumpkin patch, hay rides, spooky decorations, the excitement shining in young children’s eyes as they await trick-or-treating—a holiday that celebrates gluttony and rotten teeth (what’s not to love about that?) and of course—the smell of pumpkin everything—candles, lattes, bread…

What about those older kids though? They may be too old to show their eager anticipation… too cool for candy and dress-up?

How can we help older kids get in the mood for the creepy? Give them some awesome books to read.

1) Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone. This is a great read for older kids and if yours haven’t read this series yet, they are missing one of the best series ever. The first in the series however but makes for an especially great annual Halloween read. Light and fun, full of witches, wizards, magic, pumpkins, and especially candy, this book will get those kids in the mood for sure. They may even offer to take the little ones trick-or-treating for you…

2) Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. This one is not for the faint of heart and boy did these stories get me going when I was a kid—heart palpitating, palms sweaty. Tell the kids to read these with a flashlight under a blanket. But, don’t be surprised if they start sleeping with a nightlight on for a while after.

3) Coraline. Author Neil Gaiman writes books that somehow blend scary and creepy with fun and exciting. Coraline is a little girl who just moved into a new apartment building. She discovers a door that leads into ‘the other world’. Once there she meets ‘the other mother’ and ‘the other father’—versions of her own parents except they have button eyes and long, knife-sharp fingernails. And that was enough to get my daughter’s eyes to grow three sizes and her fingernails to shrink three sizes. I also think she slept in my bed for a week.

4) The Graveyard Book. Another Neil Gaiman story, this one is set in a graveyard with a boy named Nobody Owens who is being raised by ghosts. It opens with a triple murder of ‘Bod’s’ family when he was just a baby. That part was the most intense, but the rest of the story is engaging, with ancient ghosts spouting historical facts and teaching a human boy ghostly tricks. Fun!

5) A Tale Dark and Grimm. A twist on the Grimm stories we knew and loved as children, Adam Gidwitz takes us on adventures through the darker side of fairy tales. With surprises along the way, but just enough of the familiar to keep us grounded, this is a fun, engaging read.

7) Goosebumps. Um, remember those? Dozens of eerie tales to get those older kids in the mood no matter what paranormal creature your kid may be into. Werewolves? Ghosts? Monsters? These books have ’em! And they’re short enough to make for a quick, easy read. You can thank me later when your older kid finally snuggles up to you, as he hasn’t in years, because these books are scaaaaryyyy!

Go on and get the marshmallows roasting. Invest in some light bulbs since your kids might regress to sleeping with every light in their bedroom on until Christmas…Thanksgiving at least. There are many more great Halloween reads for older kids. What are some of your favorites?

Katie Rosa is a writer, former probation officer, wife, and mother to two children, Jocelyn 8, and Liam 3. Jocelyn is her biggest fan and encourages her mother’s writing more than anyone else. You can find some of her work at her author website: http://www.katiegodwinrosa.com or you can follow her on Twitter at @judgemecrazy

 

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Giving Our Children Experiences

Giving Our Children Experiences

Northern lights and Big Dipper shine brightly over a city

By B.J. Hollars

We’re on vacation in Duluth, Minnesota when I receive the text:

Skies should be amazing tonight.

The heads-up comes courtesy of my photographer friend back home, whose knack for tracking the Northern Lights is akin to a bloodhound chasing a scent. For weeks, he’d been pestering me to join him in the dark, to witness the celestial miracle I’d been missing. And for weeks I’d turned him down. There was always some reason not to rouse myself from bed (“Big day tomorrow,” “Wife will kill me,” “I’m beat”); each reply a white flag confirming that the comfort of my covers was too great.

But tonight his message takes on a new urgency.

You’re so close, he promises. Just a short drive away.

I hem, haw, but at last, am out of excuses. Given my northern locale, I am indeed on the doorstep of the Aurora Borealis.

I glance over at my droopy-eyed four-year-old sprawled in the hotel bed; his face lit by the glow of the television. It is the wrong light, the wrong glow, and I want to show him the right one.

“Okay,” I clap, “Grab your shoes, adventure time!”

“Nah,” Henry says, waving his own white flag.

“Hey, since when do I need to persuade you go on an adventure with me?”

(The answer, I know, is since he discovered the hotel had cable.)

“Come on,” I retry, reaching for the remote. “Quit being a zombie.”

“But I like being a zombie,” he moans.

Five minutes later, my zombie and I are buckled into the minivan.

“Keep your eyes to the skies,” I say, “we’re about to see something magical.”

Or we’re about to see a whole lot of nothing. Frankly, it’s hard to say. As my photographer friend had warned, without the aid of a camera, we weren’t likely to witness the spectral green glow in all its glory. Still, I figured we’d at least see something. After all, this wasn’t exactly a needle-in-a-haystack situation. How hard could it be to spot bright lights in a dark sky?

Five minutes pass.

“Is that it?” Henry asks, pointing.

“Nah,” I say, “that’s just the sky.”

“What about that?”

“Nope. Just more sky.”

This goes on for 25 miles or so, until at last we reach the town of Two Harbors.

“What about that?” he asks.

“Nope. That’s a gas station.”

“That?” he asks irritably.

“Nope.”

We drive a few miles more, pulling to the side of the road to witness a strip of white-gray fog rippling through the clouds overhead. It’s the lights, at least I think so. And even if it’s not, I’m committed to making a good show of it.

I sigh, clear my throat, try hard to hide the disappointment in my voice.

“There they are!” I gasp. “Henry! You see’em?”

He does not. How could he with his eyes closed?

“Buddy, wake up,” I call louder. “You’re missing the lights!”

But he isn’t. Not really.

I wave the white flag again, and U-turn us back toward Duluth.

It’s then that I see it: the purple glow illuminating just beyond the tree line to my right. At first it’s so faint it hardly registers, but then, as we drive deeper into that darkness, it surges in strength.

“Henry!” I retry. “The lights! For real this time!”

But I can’t compete with a four-year-old’s dreams. A glance in the rearview confirms that he remains ragdoll limp in his car seat, a big boy overflowing well beyond all those straps. Just yesterday of course, he’d fit that seat just fine, and the day before he was practically swimming in it. But I blinked, and now I see him differently.

If you blink, you’ll see the Northern Lights differently, too. And in the worst case, a blink might cause you to lose sight of them completely. Neither the naked eye or the camera lens can halt a celestial body in flux. Nothing can halt a body in flux, either—no matter how much you wish you could.

Back in the hotel parking lot, I unbuckle him, then hoist him into my arms. His eyes flutter wide long enough to find the world just as he’s left it—quiet, dark, not a Northern Light anywhere. I lug him across the street, adjusting my arms in search of a better hold. But my hold isn’t the problem; my problem is that my boy now defies holding.

I shift his weight to one arm, then reach for the hotel door. Upon doing so, I glimpse our reflection in the glass and confirm what I feared to be true: we have lost our natural fit, have become two people whose angles no longer add up. All I have left is the snugness of his head nestled into my neck—the only concession the universe has to offer me.

B.J. Hollars is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. He the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. He serves as the reviews editor for Pleiades, a mentor for Creative Nonfiction, and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more, visit: http://www.bjhollars.com

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He Calls Me “Mommily”

He Calls Me “Mommily”

Train tracks under blanket of bright stars

By Emily Crose

My son was born after a week-long labor in August of 2013. When he came into our life, it was a beautiful moment. My tough little boy came into this world covered in bruises from his birth and I looked down at him in the infant warmer and his tired, new little body with the eyes of a proud. Albeit exhausted new father. We named him Quentin – a name both my wife and I loved.

Quentin is the star around which my world revolves. As a new dad, I couldn’t have been more excited to welcome him into the life my wife and I had built together. There were so many things that I wanted to do with my new son, and I couldn’t wait for him to be able to experience them all with me.

Saturday morning cartoons, teaching him how to rip apart a computer and then how to put it all back together again. How to grow up and how to be a smart, capable, empathetic man. In Quentin, I had invested all of my hopes and dreams. He was meant to be the legacy of our family, in the same sanguine way that every proud parent wishes for their kids. He was finally here, and I was there to live my life for him – I would die for this little boy.

It was only a year-and-a-half later that life circumstances threatened to derail all of that.

“I wish we had dealt with this earlier…” my wife said to me one night in Mid-November of 2014. “We didn’t deal with it before, and now you have a son in your life…” she went on. My face was covered with tears, I was sure that her and I were having the last conversation we would have as a married couple with a bright future together, But she was right. Her voice was choked with fear and concern. I couldn’t blame her. She hadn’t planned a contingency for what I had just told her; nobody ever does.

I had chosen that night to tell her that I was transgender. Here I was, telling her that I was trans and there was nothing that her, or I, or anyone else could do to change that fact. My life was on a trajectory from that point forward that had profound consequences on the kind of spouse, and the kind of parent that I would be for my family.

Of more urgent concern to me was how the decisions we would make following this news would impact my relationship with my son. I was reasonably worried that my wife might decide that walking this line with me was not the life for her. What would happen to our humble little family if my wife decided to leave? I dreaded the possibility that my son would be raised without me. I had languished over the future my son would have when this change was made playing and replaying the scenarios that would lead to my separation from him and his mother. Maybe my wife would move back to Michigan and take our son with her. I would have to watch my son grow up in stop-motion, through a series of photographs weeks or even months apart.

Only a couple decades ago, the psychological standard of care for transgender individuals was a suite of treatment guidelines colloquially called the “Harry Benjamin standard” it is an obsolete standard which is still practiced by some professionals in the industry today. The Harry Benjamin standard was prevalent at a time when it was common and expected that a parent coming out as transgender would absolutely be getting divorced from their spouse, and their children would be told that their transitioning parent would be leaving the family and moving away. The parent would not see their children again, and the children would not likely see their parent again. That was just how things were done and the thought that my son might grow up thinking that I didn’t love him, wondering if he was to blame, was not a future I wanted for him.

I had assumed that if my wife left our marriage and moved away, that I would be a mere peripheral character in the story of my son’s upbringing. I assumed that (of course) my wife would go on to re-marry. I even expected her to. I expected her to find a man who would then end up becoming the defacto male presence in my son’s life – a role that I could no longer fill for him. That thought brought me immense shame and embarrassment as a parent.In the ensuing months, my wife decided that her and I were going to make this work. We made plans to stay together, and I had been saved from the dishonor of playing second fiddle to anyone else raising the son that I loved so much. But it didn’t absolve me of my concern that if I went through a full transition, my son would be disadvantaged somehow by having two women raising him instead of a distinct mother and father. I was concerned that there would be no computers ripped apart, or Saturday morning cartoons. No more fishing trip and digging for worms and riding our bikes and playing a game with him…

But why?

Why did me correcting my gender inconsistency mean that I couldn’t provide for my son in the same way I could have as his dad? Of course I could still show him what I knew about being a man and teach him everything I know about how to program a computer and how to bait a hook. Of course I could do all of those things, I might just do them in a summer dress instead of stiff pair of slacks. I would just be fixing the sprocket on his bike with a wider smile on my face, gladly ruining my self-done manicure so that we could jump on our bikes and take a ride around the neighborhood.

What I came to realize is that my son needs a loving parent. What he really needed wasn’t a “dad” per-se, but a parent who could care for him as a child and nurture his needs the way every kid deserves. Intellectually, I knew this of course. I’ve met male children raised by cis-gender lesbian couples, and they’re great kids just like any other kids I’ve ever met.

Society conditions us as parents to believe that our children are constantly in a state of dire hazard. As mothers and fathers, we watch our toddlers like hawks at the park to make sure they don’t fall off the swing, or get into arguments with bossy children. We’re conditioned to believe that kids without a nuclear and traditional mother and father will be hobbled in life…but in practice, this just isn’t true.

On Sundays, I take my son to get donuts and we go to the train station in our town and sit on the platform to watch the trains go by. I love him dearly, and in many ways since I transitioned I feel that the love I have for my son can be seen by me on a much broader spectrum than I could have seen before. Being myself has unlocked a deeper appreciation for being a parent that I didn’t know existed in me before now. I am not Quentin’s daddy anymore, and in many ways I feel a certain sadness for his loss. Although this path is not one fit for anyone who isn’t transgender, and it has been difficult, he calls me his ‘mommily’ and I wouldn’t trade this life for anything.

 

Emily Crose is a transgender mommy of two adorable children and wife to her fantastic spouse, Amanda. When she’s off the mom-clock, she tinkers with electronics, writes essays and bakes. Emily is a contributing writer to theestablishment.co and btchflicks.com.

 

 

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I Know I Should Boast About Battle Scars

I Know I Should Boast About Battle Scars

Image 204By Rachel Pieh Jones

I know I’m supposed to boast about my scars, stretch marks, and shape.

I’m supposed to be empowered by naked selfies.

I don’t boast and I’m not empowered or posting those naked selfies (I’m not even taking them).

I have a stomach that looks like a saggy raisin. I never really had the chance to feel good about my body. I got pregnant at 21-years old, before I had grown into the idea of loving my size and shape. I was still in the high school and college years of hating it all, of never being thin enough or strong enough or having the right size ass or big enough boobs.

And then pregnancy changed my stomach permanently (the big enough boobs didn’t last long and leaked milk so they weren’t exactly what I’d hope for). The pregnancy was twins, it went full-term, I looked like a walrus. My skin stretched until it couldn’t stretch anymore and so it started coming apart, cracking open new seams that would never go back together, pushing the elasticity of young skin up to and then beyond the point of no return.

Then there was a vaginal delivery followed by an emergency c-section and because of all that stretching, the scar simply made a little tuck point where the flappy skin can hang over and form a bulge. I can hide two fingers beneath that bulge if I want to. I haven’t experimented with other items but I bet I could hide snacks or keys in there, too.

No amount of Pilates or Cross Fit or Whole30 or marathoning will ever give me my stomach back, that stomach I failed to appreciate until it was gone.

And guess what? I’m not proud of the scars and stretch marks. I wish I didn’t have them. I’m not complaining here. Honesty is not the same as complaint.

This isn’t to say that I would trade the scars and wrinkles. Like, if a fairy came and said, “Give me back your children and I will give you back your stomach,” I would of course, refuse. And possibly slug the fairy.

If I had to make a choice, I would choose my kids every time without a moment’s hesitation, but that is a ridiculous thing to say. It isn’t a matter of choice. This isn’t a trade that is open to mothers. So much of social media, though, wants us to buy into that lie. Children or stretch marks? If you love the kids, you must love the scars!

They are a badge of honor, a sign of sacrifice, to be worn with pride, to be boasted of in selfies on every platform with the potential of going viral for ‘courage’ and, ostensibly, for being a superior mother. The kind of mother who is above such trivialities as caring what her stomach looks like, the kind whose love for her children is so all-consuming that it cancels out every inclination she has to see herself as a woman separate from her role as mother.

I’m not convinced. Maybe it is just me, but I don’t think there are only two options for how to feel about our bodies and I’m convinced that other women also waver through various stages of contentment.

I am glad I have my kids and I wish I didn’t have my scars. It would have been nice to be one of those moms who don’t get them.

I’m glad that women feel confident enough to show their pregnancy and life-scarred bodies, in particular, Lauren Fleishman, an elite American runner. As a runner, I find it a relief to know that she too, has bumps and bulges where fashion models have them photo shopped out. I know that none of us really live in those edited worlds. And I absolutely believe that our scars make us each beautifully unique, that none of us escape this life unscathed, and that we have no reason to hide.

I’m not ashamed of my stretch skin and scars, I still wear a bikini. Saying I don’t want them is not complaining, neither is it an admission of shame. I want my girls to know that it doesn’t matter what your body looks like, we can still be confident, beautiful, content. We are so much more than our bodies or our physical appearance. But I also won’t be posting any photos on Instagram or Facebook and writing about empowerment.

This is the body I have and I’m thankful for it. It runs marathons, gave life to three human beings, continues to function in mostly healthy ways. I’m content, this is the body I am comfortable with, this is me.

I don’t feel like it is overly complicated to say that I embrace my body and am content while at the same time admitting that I’m simply not thrilled about stretch marks and awkward flaps.

Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

 

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Why We Wake Early

Why We Wake Early

art-why-we-wake-earlyBy Sarah Bousquet

I’m mid-dream, drifting through an unresolved story, when I feel my daughter bumping against the length of my body like a burrowing ground animal, nudging me into consciousness. Grumpy, I want to hit the snooze button. But the alarm clock is my toddler, and there is no going back to sleep. She is more persistent than any electronic buzzing and just as consistent, almost always 4:45 a.m. on the dot. I open one eye. Darkness, no pink light peeking through the blinds yet.

Still, I can’t complain. After two years of sleep deprivation with slow, incremental improvement, we are finally people who sleep through the night. My early-riser is no longer a baby who cries, but a toddler who climbs up into our bed and snuggles her body close, whispering sweet words like “I love you” and “Remember we go to party yesterday?” Summer felt like a parade of parties, so many events, and to a small child, it must’ve felt like every day was a party.

As we quietly reminisce about cake and games and names of friends and family, I can’t help but wish for five more minutes of sleep. I’ve tried saying, “It’s still nighttime, let’s sleep a little longer,” but she can’t be convinced. Her chant begins. “Get up, mommy! Get up!”

Determined to trick myself out of grumpiness and start on a happy note, I decide on a new ritual. Every morning, we will read Mary Oliver’s poem “Why I Wake Early,” our secular prayer, our ode to the sun as we wait for it to rise. Then we’ll get up and do a few sun salutations. We will welcome the day with body and voice. Every day will be beautiful!

The poem is an instant hit. Voice groggy, eyes half-closed, I open the book and read by the beam of my iPhone’s flashlight. “Hello, sun in my face. Hello, you who make the morning…” When I reach the end, my daughter says, “again, again!”

I read the poem again. Here we are, inside a moment of perfection. I made this happen! I created a way to begin the day with beauty. I’m so pleased with this small victory, I spring from the bed and announce with genuine enthusiasm, “Let’s do sun salutations!”

We face each other with prayer hands. I say, “Namaste” and bow, and she does the same, my brilliant two-year-old. Then I stretch my arms wide and raise them up up up. She raises her arms with a pout. As I bend forward to touch my toes, she shrieks, “Noooo! No! I don’t wanna do salutations! No!”

Bringing my hands back to my heart center, I encourage her in the gentlest tone, “Let’s try one more time!” But her protests have devolved into crying. A hysterical sprint toward the stairs. “Okay, okay, no sun salutations,” I relent, walking toward her as she begins to slowly back down the staircase. I am just reaching the top when she suddenly loses her footing and tumbles like a ragdoll all the way to the bottom. I race after her helplessly.

Within seconds I have her in my arms. Immediately, I recognize her cry is not one of pain. I calmly rock her and ask if she’s alright. Somehow there isn’t a single scratch or bruise, and the crying ceases. Our zen morning is a failure, but we manage to elude disaster.

Later that day, we give yoga another try. “Stretch your arms, sunshine girl!” She reaches up. “Now fall forward and touch your toes.” I move into downward-facing dog pose, a triangle shape, and become the human jungle gym. When her attempt to scale my legs fails, she decides to straddle my neck. I practice ujjayi breathing and try to ignore the 28 pounds squatting on my head. Ujjayi, which translates to “victorious breath,” also known as “oceanic breath” for the the sound made deep in the back of the throat, the sound a conch shell makes when you hold it close to your ear. Here we are in the present moment, upside-down, toddler banging tiny fists on my back, eventually surrendering to a backwards hug. We collapse in a mama-child heap, a messy Shavasana.

We give up on yoga and head outside, my daughter leading the way. The backyard is littered with maple leaves, but the sun is warm and bright, t-shirt weather, the seasonal cusp. She takes me by the hand, “Look, mama, leaves!” Her bare feet dance and we listen to the crackle and crunch.

Here we are inside the present moment, and I see it clearly, my tiny teacher illustrating mindfulness in the crunching of leaves. Faster than a moment, mindfulness is in the millisecond. It’s in the noticing. It’s when she points to the deer darting out of the garden. The geese flying overhead. The noise of an airplane. The smell of geraniums on the front porch. I construct rituals while she cultivates presence. We exchange the roles of student and teacher, back and forth and back again.

We forgo the sun salutations, but keep the poem. One morning, while she’s eating her yogurt and blueberries, cheeks smeared and fingers stained purple, I copy the poem into my journal and begin to recite, “Hello.” Before I continue, my daughter finishes the line, “sun in my face,” bursting into a fit of giggles. And I laugh with her, astonished. I begin the next line and again, she finishes it. It’s not until we reach the middle, when she recites with perfect clarity “to hold us in the great hands of light” that the poem’s double meaning dawns on me. My early-riser, my sunshine girl. The poem is about my daughter, because of course, she is why I wake early.

 

Headshot Sarah BousquetSarah Bousquet is Brain Child’s 2016 New Voice of the Year. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at https://onebluesail.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.

 

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It’s Nature to Nurture

It’s Nature to Nurture

Tea bud and leaves. Tea plantations, Kerala, India

By Diane Lowman

I met a friend for lunch the other day at a restaurant called Green & Tonic. She walked in and we hugged, and then I started to explain Green & Tonic’s offerings.

“They have pre-made salads and sandwiches over there in the case,” I said, pointing, and then turned her manually toward the menu board, continuing “and they make good smoothies…” But I trailed off, my hand still on her shoulder, as I heard my boys, in my head, in unison, protesting:

“Mom. Thanks. We can read the menu.”

I looked her in the eye.

“Sorry. You’re a full grown adult. I’ll bet you can navigate the place on your own.”

The need to feed our children is perhaps our most primal instinct, taking precedence even over feeding ourselves. Especially we of the Jewish persuasion. Animals in the wild, and wild Fairfield County mothers alike will go to great efforts and distances to make sure that their offspring have adequate nutrition. Some of us are pushy about it. Some of us forget what the jungle moms aim for: training their young to hunt for and nurture themselves, so they can quickly step out of the picture. I remember a very wise pediatrician telling me, “Diane, the only thing your young children can control is what goes in and what comes out. Don’t fight with them about either.” But I neither followed the laws of the jungle, nor the sage advice of my kids’ doctor.

Long after they could read, long after they graduated from high chairs to big boy seats, long after they transitioned from the children’s to the adult menu, I remained involved.

“Look, Devon,” I’ll say. “They have a T-bone steak on the menu.” I neither eat nor cook red meat. He does both.

“Thanks, mom. I can read.”

“Dustin, they have gluten free crust!” He does not have Celiac, but refined wheat doesn’t agree with him.

“Thanks, mom, I see that.”

Their reactions range from mildly amused to mildly annoyed, and vary in direct proportion with how many menu items I’ve pointed out. So I bite my tongue now, both when we peruse menus together and when we order. I try very hard not to let my mommy and nutritionist personas rear their Hydra heads in unison, saying things like, “Lamb? I didn’t know you ate lamb?” or “That’s all refined carbs, honey, no protein?”

Yet I wish, too, that they would see that I offer these well-intentioned interventions in the spirit of love, concern, and wanting my children to be sated and healthy.

My teenage and young adult irritation gave way to appreciation when my mother, having seen a news report on an impending storm or subzero temperatures would call from Florida. “You’re not going to drive in the storm, are you?” or “Are you dressing warmly? They say it will feel like 10 below with the wind chill.”

Now that she’s gone, I miss the motherly admonitions.

I try hard to navigate the fine line between nurturing and noodging. I will never stop doing the former, but need to wean myself, as I weaned my children, from the latter. When I do that, their annoyance might tip toward appreciation, too.

Meanwhile, my friend managed, with elegant aplomb and without my guidance to pick out her own lunch. I know my children can do the same.

Diane Lowman is a single mother of two young adult men, living in Norwalk, Connecticut.  In addition to writing about life, she teaches yoga, provides nutritional counseling, and tutors Spanish.  She looks forward to what’s next.

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Dollhouse Dreaming

Dollhouse Dreaming

art-dollhouse-dreamingSarah Bousquet

A hushed tone, a one-voice dialogue, the quiet clank of wooden furniture. I peek through the playroom door and see my two-year-old standing at her small dollhouse making up a story, little figures in her hands moving this way and that, in lively conversation. She is deep in the world of imagination. When she spots me at the periphery, she startles and smiles and reverts to a nonsense word, “gah-gah!” A term I’m certain translates to banishment. I instantly feel guilty for breaking the spell.

I was once a dollhouse girl, whispering my stories for hours, imagining miniature dramas. The Christmas after I turned five, my sister and I received our first dollhouse. I remember the anticipation, a vague awareness that something was being crafted in secret in the garage. The air held surprise. My mother found slivers of time while we were napping. She created a template from cardboard, deconstructed it, and brought the pieces to the hardware store to have wood measured and cut. She and my dad worked on it together in the evenings after my sister and I went to bed, painted the exterior a pale yellow like our real house, decorated the interior with remnants of brown carpeting from our living room and pineapple wallpaper from our dining room.

At my mother’s house, the dollhouse still stands tall and sturdy, a replica of my childhood home, a trip back in time. My daughter makes a beeline to it every time she visits. I didn’t expect her predilections to reveal themselves so soon, or the way they would open secret doors to the rooms in my heart. In her novel Eleven Hours, Pamela Erens writes, “She would like the surprise of children, the way they bring pieces of the outer world back to you, pieces of past, present, and future. The way they are always in a place where you cannot quite meet them.”

It’s true in a way, that children often seem to be in a place just shy of our grasp. The moments we’re able to shift our adult brains to child-wonder, to allow ourselves to be fully immersed in that world, are transcendent and fleeting. Just as I come to fully understand exactly where my daughter is, the phase disappears and she transforms again. I attempt to trap these moments in photographs and writing to be returned to later; I practice presence in an effort not to miss a moment of her growth. But I wonder, is it less about capturing these ephemeral joys and more about seeking to meet her right where she is?

With her dollhouse play, my daughter brings back a piece of the past, tangible and solid, a place where my small self meets her here in the present. Time folds over, or maybe ceases, as we meet inside the magic of imagination. Already I’m thinking ahead to Christmas, of the big dollhouse we will surprise her with. I am distracted looking online at the different designs and styles, until I land on the one, the dollhouse of my dreams.

In my excitement, I show a picture of it to my mother, who says, “Who are you kidding? This dollhouse is for you!” Well, maybe it’s for us. I had looked at many, many dollhouses. From an adult perspective, I was thinking about styles that best facilitate imaginative play. But I was also very much able to see it all with my child’s eye. Which would I have enjoyed the most? Which would have allowed the most room for my sister and I to play together and separately? Which had doors and windows big enough for little figures to easily go in and out? Which rooms drew me in, asking to be appointed with just the right furniture? I’m thinking of the miniatures we will collect. Or better still, the ones we will make ourselves. We could carve a tiny Christmas tree, make little papier-mâché pumpkins, a minuscule birthday cake, the smallest paper chain you’ve ever seen.

The dollhouse isn’t just a connection to the deep past. It is an ever-present part of me. It is me. The one who imagines. The little girl whispering her stories for hours in a quiet room. The writer here at her computer typing. This is the uninterrupted time I seek; to follow my imagination, down quiet corridors and into a bright field. To argument and celebration, death and joy and hushed conversations, birthdays and friendships and betrayals, the skinned knee, the chipped tooth, the race won, the hill we rolled down, smell of sweet grass, eyes shut tight, bodies bumping the earth until we hit bottom and split open with laughter. The past alive in the present spooling into the future.

I couldn’t help myself; I ordered the dollhouse and it’s on its way. I keep checking for its arrival like a child waiting for Santa to slide down the chimney. I can’t wait to unpack the box, admire the smooth sanded pine. Together my husband and I will assemble the pieces out in the garage the way my parents once did. The trick will be keeping it a secret until Christmas. I’ll attempt to quell my excitement by collecting miniatures that reflect our everyday life. Tiny pieces of sea glass, two cats made of felt, little houseplants. But I’ll resist adorning and decorating. I know she’ll have her own ideas about how to set things up. Perhaps we’ll sit on the floor together making our little decisions. I will meet her right where she is. And then leave her to it, to imagine her own world.

 

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Fair and Equal

Fair and Equal

Portrait of cute adorable Caucasian children twins siblings sitting in high chair eating cereal early morning, everyday lifestyle candid moments, toned with Instagram filters

By Alison Lee

Even as I count the number of Goldfish in the plastic IKEA bowls, I knew it was ridiculous. They are 18-months old; they won’t know if I dished them out at random. Yet, I give them equal slivers of mandarin oranges, the same amount of pasta on their plate, and measure their water bottles because they have to be the same. Exactly the same.

Call me crazy the day I whip out the digital scale.

From the day we found out we were expecting twins, I told myself that I have to be fair. No one gets loved more or less, or given more or less time. It’s laughable especially because I already had two children who do not get the same amount of my time and attention at any point.

Here I am, counting out the exact number of rice grains each twin gets for dinner.

It doesn’t stop at food. Whenever I buy my daughter a cute dress, I search for something nice for her twin brother. This distresses me each time because he has two older brothers who outgrew their clothes faster than you can say “Stop growing up so quickly!” and what’s wrong with wearing hand-me-downs? The economies of scale is supposed to work when you have children of the same sex.

So I put back the dinosaur tee shirt and the blue and white checked long sleeve shirt which he won’t wear anyway, and with a dollop of shame, pay for my daughter’s pink tutu skirt and dress which I wish they had in adult sizes.

***************

As soon as she is seated on my lap, her twin comes rushing over, demanding for his fair share of lap space. I pick him up and move her over to the left. As he settles in, she reaches out and tries to push him off. A fight ensues. This is the same scenario for almost everything – reading together, drawing, eating, cuddling, nursing. They demand equal attention.

****************

When they were born, my son was 4 pounds, 6 ounces, a good size for a 34-weeker. His sister was tiny, weighing in only at 3 pounds, 9 ounces, dropping 5 ounces over the next two days. However, she was the stronger of the two – she didn’t need help breathing and was off the oxygen after 24 hours. I held her for the first time when they were 36 hours old, and she breastfed for the first time at three days old. Her twin was on the C-pap for two days, and on oxygen for a further six days. When I had him in my arms for the first time at three days old, I had to navigate the many tubes and wires. His first nursing session was when he was a week old.

During their two-week stay in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, I made sure I didn’t hold one baby for longer than I did the other. When I wasn’t cuddling or nursing a baby, I sat between their incubators, training my eyes on them for what I perceived to be the same amount of time. I did not want to be seen favoring one over the other.

From the beginning, things were not equal between my twins. Physically tinier but healthier, my little girl was feisty and full of life from day one. Her brother was hospitalized for bronchiolitis at six weeks old. Much of my time and attention was focused on him when he developed infantile asthma in their first year.

She crawled, walked and spoke words first. I imagine she will come into their future milestones first, blazing a trail for her brother. I found my expectations of them sliding into disequilibrium. Hence, my clumsy and comical attempts to equalize things by giving them the same amount of food.

Nothing I’ve read has ever given me a clue to how a mother is supposed to parent boy/girl twins. Boys and girls are physiologically and emotionally different. Yet, we are programmed to think that because they are twins, they should be “the same.” I can’t speak for parents with identical twins or fraternal twins of the same sex, but I imagine they find it more challenging to remember that each child is an individual. It’s easy to refer to them as “the twins”, and treating them as one entity.

So, I give them equal amounts of Goldfish and rice. I carefully measure their water and juice. I read, draw, play and hold each twin as equally as I can. Intellectually, I understand that this is impossible and unrealistic. When they are older, the scales will tip one way or the other. There can’t ever be fair and equal forever.

I can love them the same, though. And I do.

Alison Lee is the co-editor of Multiples Illuminated: A Collection of Stories and Advice from Parents of Twins, Triplets and More, a writer, and publisher. A former PR and marketing professional, Alison’s writing has been featured in Mamalode, On Parenting at The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Everyday Family, Scary Mommy, BonBon Break and Club Mid. She is one of 35 essayists in the anthology, My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends (Fall, 2014), and has an essay in another, So Glad They Told Me: Women Get Real About Motherhood (Summer, 2016). She is also an editor at BonBon Break. Alison lives in Malaysia with her husband and four children (two boys and boy/girl twins).

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The Bittersweet of Motherhood After Loss

The Bittersweet of Motherhood After Loss

red sunset over road

By Kathleen Sullivan

“You know when you’re in the moment, and things seem perfect, until you realize your life will never be?”

No, I didn’t understand. Yet. My husband Brian and I were at our first bereavement support meeting. We had just lost our firstborn son Liam to a congenital heart defect. He was nine days old.

The woman — I forget her name — continued on. She told us about the contentment of watching her two children laughing and playing with their father. However, there was a crucial piece missing: the daughter she lost.

Back then, I couldn’t even think about the process of having additional children. Honestly, I thought our lives were completely over. I wanted to die.

That was eight years ago. Today, I spend most of my time chasing the two children that I was eventually blessed with. I get it now. The woman was absolutely right.

My living children bring me great joy. In many ways, they saved my life.

My daughter, who arrived first, was born thirteen months after Liam’s death. She gave me something to focus on besides my own grief.

It wasn’t over, though. I was still angry. I was bitter. I couldn’t face seeing another red haired little boy. I cringed when I heard another mom call after her Liam. I was resentful of friends and family who had living children. It was unfair. It always would be.

I still cry. However, my Julia and Owen keep me laughing too.

Almost eight years ago.

In some ways it feels like yesterday. In others, it feels as if a lifetime has passed.

I am noticing that family and friends don’t speak of Liam much anymore. Eight years ago, if I had asked our parents how many grandchildren they had, they would have definitely included Liam as part of the troop.

Would they do the same today?

I have been writing about loss for several years now. I was told early on that the pain would “soften”. Although I didn’t believe it at the time, I do now.

That doesn’t mean that the pain is not present everyday in some form.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t break into sobs from time to time.

In fact, I did so last week. I came across Liam’s death certificate. I couldn’t stop staring at the time of death.

His death.

My son died.

In talking about my journey, I have sought to help others. I don’t know what I would have done without the support of some special friends early on.

I call these amazing people “the friends I wish I had never met.” Losing our children is what brought us together.

As I sit here writing, my two living children are tired and content. It was a great day. We went to the movies and had ice cream.

Regardless, I did feel it.

The missing piece.

The heavy burden that I carry every day.

The guilt.

A therapist once told me that it was okay to have some sadness, yet still celebrate happiness. I didn’t believe her then, but it is true. Emotions are strange that way.

Mostly, I am happy for my living children. They did nothing wrong and our tragedy should not take away from their joy.

Not to say that I don’t have to fake it sometimes. I have become very good at forcing a smile.

As my children are getting older, they are starting to ask questions. We also try to go to the cemetery when we can.

They are fully aware that they had a big brother and his heart didn’t work well. My six-year-old tells me that makes her sad.

I see her sadness. I also see her happiness. She experiences both, just like my therapist told me.

As parents, my husband and I will never “have it all.”

Recently, a family member gifted me with a special bracelet. It was a “penny from heaven” and had Liam’s name and birth. I wear it every day.

The token brought me joy, comfort and sadness. I can’t carry Liam physically, but I can carry him in my heart.

I promised him that I would. I promised him that I always will.

For Liam, my heart will always ache.

Still, because of Liam, Julia and Owen my heart will always be full.

And I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Kathleen’s work has appeared on: The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, Club Mid, Mamalode, Parentco., and Your Tango.
I am also the creator of the blog: www.threekidsonehusbandandabottleofwine.com

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Traveler, Writer, or Mother?

Traveler, Writer, or Mother?

 

Silhouette of passenger in an airport lounge waiting for flight aircraft

By Rachel Pieh Jones

This is so weird. I’m at the airport and I have my purse and my carry-on. I don’t have a stroller. I’m holding one passport and one ticket. I don’t have a diaper bag or breast milk stains on my shirt. I don’t have to make multiple trips to the bathroom with a different little person in town each time and when I do go, I am the only person in the stall. I don’t get to board early. I’m going to Italy and I’m going alone.

I actually haven’t carried a stroller, diaper bag, or stained shirt through an airport in years. My kids are sixteen, sixteen, and ten. But I did it often enough, as an expatriate, that the memories of toddlers throwing jet-lagged temper tantrums in the Chicago O’Hare airport remain vivid. I remember holding wailing babies in my arms while planes landed and we were prohibited from moving about the cabin and I could feel eye daggers piercing my back as all the other passengers wished they had packed earplugs. I remember trying to squeeze twins, carry-ons, two tiny backpacks, and pregnant me into a bathroom stall.

I remember flying alone with all three kids and seeing that our seat assignment left the 5-year old twins in one row with my baby and I behind them. The third person to sit in my row was an elderly Somali man with a beard hennaed orange, which meant he had been on the Hajj, pilgrimage to Mecca, which meant he was relatively devout. I remember feeling nervous that, this being Ramadan, he wouldn’t want to sit close to a non-Muslim woman or suffer through the baby’s racket on this thirteen-hour flight, less than half of our total journey. I remember how he and the baby bonded immediately. He fed her his food, since he was fasting. He held her and played with her, tickled her and read to her, and I fell asleep, hazily convinced he was an angel.

I remember the time we landed over Minneapolis in the summer and the baby was asleep in my lap and the twins were coming later, with my husband. There was no crying and there was no onslaught of questions about whether or not Grandma and Grandpa would meet us, with balloons or candy or stuffed bears. There was the baby breathing warm into my stomach. There was the exhaustion of thirty-plus hours of travel. There was the green, the miraculous, never-ending green of a Minnesota summer, broken only by lakes and golden farmland. The colors and the peace overwhelmed me and I started to cry. I hadn’t been here for two years by that point. Our life, home, work was in Africa but so much of my love was in Minnesota. And now, with so few distractions, I felt what I had stuffed behind crying babies and arguing toddlers all those other arrival times.

It was a kind of loss, but also a gain. I had given up this beautiful place filled with memories and family and a contented familiarity. I gained a desert world of constant challenge and a barrage of experiences I barely understood. I gave up safe and comfortable. I gained courage and faith, the kind that has been stripped bare of all support structures and that continues, sometimes to my surprise, to refuse to break.

I’d felt this before, but the shock of modern air travel and the quickness with which we are forced to shed one life and enter another, wildly different one, hits with predictable timing upon landing. I just hadn’t been able to process the feeling or give into the emotion when kids clamored for attention, or for the window seat.

I prefer to travel with my whole family. We enjoy traveling together and it is hard to imagine seeing Italy without my teens, tween, and husband to share it. But I’m not here as a tourist or a returnee, I’m here to work. To conduct some interviews, do research, experience a certain region with my own nose, eyes, toes, and ears. My project requires deep reflection, moments of solitude. I can’t get that with my family.

This part of me, this writer part, feels separate from the mother part. Like I said, this is so weird. Also? It’s fun. I feel guilty. What are my husband and kids doing right now? I’m sure they are fine but they aren’t on their way to Italy. They are in Djibouti where it is 118 degrees and the dust blows with stinging ferocity until it catches between teeth and turns eyelids into sandpaper.

I don’t quite know what to do with all my time, all my thoughts. I haven’t trained myself to be focused for long periods, I’ve trained myself to have quick bursts of writing or thinking in between meal times and homework sessions and family soccer games. I am about to board the plane for Italy, via Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and I feel afraid. Less than a week ago, suicide bombers killed over 40 people and injured nearly 200 at the airport in Istanbul, Turkey. I have been to that airport. But I’m not afraid of terrorism, well okay a little bit, but that isn’t what I’m mostly conscious of in this moment.

I used to dread the exhaustion of international travel with little children and the jet lag and the worry over documents and timing and catching flights and staying hydrated and questions like: what currency do we use in this airport?

This time, I’m afraid of being alone with my mind. I don’t know what lies in there. I don’t know what will surface, like the surprise of tears upon landing in Minnesota all those years ago. Who am I without being attached to three children and a husband?

It is terrifying. What if I fail? What if I have left my family for two weeks and all I end up with is a roll of belly fat from gelato, pizza, and wine? What if no one will answer my questions?

This has never happened before, going all in for this dream of capturing words and lives and stories on paper. I shake off the guilt and the fear. My family wants this for me, too. They made the choice for me to leave, too. While I am fully a writer in this moment, I am also fully a member of my family. They are with me, championing me, cheering for me. I don’t have to choose between mother or writer. The work, strength, and creativity required for one informs the other.

The call to board the plane comes and I stand, sling my grownup purse, with no diapers in sight, over my shoulder. I grab my one passport. I’m a mom and I’m traveling. Alone.

Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

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Don’t Talk to Strangers…Well, Sometimes Talk To Strangers

Don’t Talk to Strangers…Well, Sometimes Talk To Strangers

Editable vector illustration of children reading and clambering over piles of books

 

By B.J. Hollars

It was a weekend we’d always remember—that’s how I billed it at least. Henry, my four-year-old, was willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. This was to be our first father-son getaway, and since I’d been invited to give a couple of readings at a local book festival, we had our destination picked out for us: Appleton, Wisconsin—the Las Vegas of Appleton, Wisconsin.

Prior to our journey, Henry had spent much of the week prepping to serve as my dutiful bookseller, and while that scenario provided us no shortage of valuable math lessons, unfortunately for him, my books did not sell at a cost of three apples take away two.

Eventually I broke the news that someone else would be selling the books—someone with a calculator, not a fruit basket—which, judging by the look on Henry’s face, was a betrayal of Judas proportions.

“But hey, you can help me work the crowd,” I’d been quick to reply. “Help me talk to strangers.”

To a well-trained, oft-lectured four-year-old, my encouragement to “talk to strangers” had seemed like a trap.

“But…what if the strangers are bad guys?”

“Well, what I meant is…”

What followed was a 25-minute lecture outlining the many “do’s” and “don’ts” of stranger-talking, a conversation that surely obfuscated the issue beyond repair.

“You should talk to nice strangers,” I found myself saying mid-lecture, though when he called me out (“How do you know a nice stranger from a not-nice one?”) I frantically backpedaled: “Ok, let’s just go with never talk to strangers.”

But that afternoon we did. Following the first reading, Henry and I drove to the nearby city of Neenah where we stumbled upon a lighthouse on the shores of Lake Winnebago. There, we waved to strangers, smiled to strangers, struck up conversations with every nice stranger we passed. After all, it was a beautiful day and we had to tell somebody; who better than a stranger?

Later, we found ourselves in a glass museum, and since admission was free (and I wanted to keep the docent on his toes), I unleashed my four-year-old amid the exhibitions, a bold move that served as the impetus for further conversations with strangers. “Does he have a history of breaking glass?” the docent inquired. “Nah,” I replied, thinking: but maybe a future.

Much to the delight of the docent, we left that museum just as we found it, then burned off as many of the wiggles as we could in the playground across the street. We’d only been there for a few minutes before a six-year-old stranger pushed Henry on a swing, followed up soon after by a ten-year-old stranger committed to helping him climb the slide. To Henry, these strangers were hardly strangers—just kids like him lost in the throes of play.

From my place on a nearby bench, I began revising my stranger lecture. And then, once I figured I had it cracked, I revised it yet again.

How, I wondered, do you keep your kids safe without making them fear the world?

That afternoon I came to two conclusions: first, my guidelines for strangers was severely flawed (after all, isn’t everyone a stranger at the start?); and second, that’s okay. As a parent, I needn’t be a paragon of clarity, or an answer-filled oracle. Mostly, all I need to be is a guy willing to wade into the hard conversations, to go chest-deep into the muck of confusion and eventually find my way out.

Better still if we find our way out together.

That night in Appleton—long after the pizza and the root beer and the three swims in the pool—Henry and I venture into our hotel hallway with an ice bucket in tow. We look left, look right, but find no signs of the ice machine.

Midway through our search, we come across a middle-aged man wielding his own ice bucket.

“Any luck?” I ask the man.

“Nothing yet,” he says.

We split the territory, promising to find one another if our reconnaissance yields results.

Five minutes later our reconnaissance does, and after filling the bucket, Henry and I shift our mission to finding the middle-aged man.

We crisscross hallways, walk a few flights of stairs, shout into the echoing stairwells. Had I had them handy, I might’ve sent up signal flares but alas, on that night, we were flareless.

Since we never leave a man behind we don’t, and within ten minutes or so, we find our ice bucket brethren. I’m touched, I admit, that he hasn’t left us behind, either.

“It’s on the second floor,” I report to the man.

“Yup,” he nods simply.

After our extensive search we’d managed to find one another, though we’d paid our price in melted ice.

Henry and I reenter our room, at which point he immediately resumes jumping on the bed.

“We found our stranger!” he calls. “Yes!”

“That’s no stranger,” I say, dunking a cup into our bucket of water. “That’s our friend.”

B.J. Hollars is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. He the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. He serves as the reviews editor for Pleiades, a mentor for Creative Nonfiction, and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more, visit: http://www.bjhollars.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Do You Lock Up Your Liquor Cabinet?

Do You Lock Up Your Liquor Cabinet?

different bottles and glasses of alcoholic drinks isolated on a white background

By Vicki Doronina

I read it often, this time in a parenting journal: “If you have a teenage child, lock your liquor cabinet.

Well, I’m not going to put a lock on it: Not the cabinet, or in our case, the cupboard. Our bar is stored in a kitchen cupboard: gin and tequila for me, rum and brandy for my husband. There’s no list – or lock – attached to the cabinet. No form of accountability. We don’t sign in and sign out.

As a biologist, knowing that alcoholism is often hereditary, I should worry. I do worry: There are plenty of people in our extended family who qualify as alcoholics. But my husband and I are casual drinkers. Still, I  am on constant watch to prevent over-drinking – not that I have desire to drink daily but in my forties I did start drinking hard liquor verses wine and beer (see above contents of cabinet).

I just don’t think that locking the drinks cabinet is the best way to prevent my son from drinking. If a teenager desperately wants a drink, no lock or clever hiding place will stop him/her. Prevention comes, I think, from preparing a teen to make smart choices, and in the case of drinking, perhaps taking away the temptation–the mystique.

Just think about forbidden fruit and all that jazz. When our 14-year-old son is visibly interested in what we are drinking, he is offered a taste. So far, he has not liked any of what he has sipped and I think he puzzles over the fuss. It’s as if he’s thinking; “What’s the big deal?”

I don’t doubt that he’ll try alcohol — one drink or many — under peer pressure, which many of his classmates already do. But perhaps if he tries a drink at home, it will lessen his desire to drink. Maybe if he has a sip of the good stuff, it will prevent him from over-imbibing the cheap stuff purchased by teens in dusty dorm rooms. Perhaps it would be like giving him a good, hand-grinded bean coffee, to attempt to deter him from cheap energy drinks.

We’ve talked to our son, and I hope, taught him to be smart about his health and well being. From his early childhood we rationed two things he likes a lot – cheese crisps and Pepsi. Again, as a biologist I know that these two items are not the healthiest food, so I have always given my son a quota of one bag of chips and one can of soda per week. We always have a supply of both, and my son has never indulged, which gives me hope that he’ll be sensible about alcohol as well. In talking with him, and explaining the dangers, in taking away the mystique, and allowing small sips of quality alcohol to deter his curiosity, I hope we’ve set him on the right track.

Of course, I cannot exclude that as a part of teenage rebellion or heartbreak he may not listen to our alcohol admonitions or deeply consider our dinner table discussions. In the end a parent can’t totally prevent a child from drinking. And lock and key won’t prevent it either.

Vicki Doronina is a recovering scientist, a veteran of Living Together Apart (LTA) and a mother of one red-haired teen. Originally from Belarus, she works and lives in Manchester, UK. Her writing appeared in Science (Careers), The Scientist, Her View From Home, Soapbox Writers and biotech blogs as well as in Russian and Belarusian media outlets. She can be found online at her blog and twitter.

 

 

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One and Two

One and Two

Art Bird Houses

By Sara Petersen

I am thirty-seven weeks pregnant with One. I rock gently back and forth in my Martha-Stewart-for-Home-Depot wicker rocking chair, enjoying the lazy summer heat, and sipping my thoughtfully mixed smoothie. I squint at the remaining crossword puzzle clues. One nudges me in the lower left corner of my uterus, and I rub my hand along his bones, savoring our connection. I can’t wait to meet him.

I am thirty-seven weeks pregnant with Two. I gulp down 50 milligrams of Zoloft, preparing myself for the onslaught of hormonal leaps and plummets soon to take hold of my ravaged body. I swear softly as One dumps out the Lego bin for no real reason other than to delight in destruction. Two taps a foot or an elbow against me, safely cocooned in the warm darkness of my womb, and I absentmindedly smooth her knobbiness away. Only a few more weeks until all hell breaks loose.

My husband and I walk towards the hospital doors gripped in silent tension, like two people about to jump from an airplane too scared to discuss their fears with each other. It’s late. And dark. Brett rings the ER buzzer, as we’ve been instructed to do.

“Can I help you?” The gruff voice on the other end of the buzzer is anything other than solicitous.

“We’re here for the birth center.” Brett’s voice sounds cartoonish and alien.

“Who are you visiting?”

“No, I mean, we’re here to check in.”

“Who is that you say you’re visiting?”

I grip Brett’s forearm with insistent panic.

“There’s a baby – I mean – we’re having a baby.”

Bzzzzzz.

My husband and I walk towards the hospital doors as the midday sun shines down on us. Brett slows down his pace to keep up with my snail-like creep towards the main entrance. I stop every so often to lean over a car and breathe through a contraction coursing through my lower back.

“So if it’s a boy, we’re going with Arthur? We really need to figure out a top-three list at least.”

“Well, definitely Rose for a girl.”

“I don’t know about definitely.”

“Did you pack the Goldfish? I’m kinda hungry.”

Brett awkwardly clicks the massive car seat into place, sweating in the July heat. I wedge myself as close to the car seat as possible, and as soon as One makes the slightest mew, I shove my crooked pinky into his mouth.

“Hurry, Brett – I don’t want him crying!”

Brett slams the front door shut, and I stare at the huge, brick front of the hospital. We’re going home. But should we be? Shouldn’t we take some sort of parenting entrance exam first to ensure we’re really equipped with the knowledge and ability to keep a 6.7 pound infant alive?

Every blood vessel and breath and spark in my body is trained toward the jaundiced little being in the car seat, but I steal occasional glances through the windows, and wonder at the oddity of the outside world. People are just walking around like nothing’s happened, like everything is totally normal. Little blue houses blurring past, commerce, people walking with purpose. Where are they going? Dogs. Children. Oh god. Children. I have one.

I watch as Brett expertly clicks the carseat into place, and I join him up front, quickly clicking on NPR.

“I really wanna hear Fresh Air – she’s interviewing Cate Blanchett about that movie – Carol, I think it’s called?”

Two is still fast asleep when we pull into the driveway. I’m happy to be home.

One will only sleep if I’m holding him. My left wrist aches from being bent in the same harshly geometric shape, supporting the lower half of his swaddled body, for the past day, night, day before that, night before that, day before that. One will only sleep if I’m holding him. I want my arms back. I want my bed back. I want my mind back. I want to eat some chicken salad.

I put One down so I can shovel some chicken salad into my mouth. After 27 blissful seconds of physical autonomy, One whimpers. My heart rate accelerates, my stomach plunges, my cheeks burn. I slam the Tupperware container onto the chicken salad. I just want a few minutes, a little nourishment – can’t you just lay in your 500 dollar thing-a-ma-jig for two seconds?

Sometimes One cries in the car. But sometimes he doesn’t. I grab One, and nearly run towards the car. He’ll nap in the car! He’ll totally, totally nap! And once he gets a good nap, his mood will improve, and he’ll sleep better tonight, and sleep begets sleep, and I’ll sleep, and before I know it, I’ll have my life back.

I bump over the back roads, desperate for the smoothness of the highway. One grunts, whines, and each noise tightens the already taught muscles in my neck, turns my knuckles a whiter shade of white. I slam onto the gas as a light turns yellow. No way can I stop.

Two will only sleep if I’m holding her. So I hold her. Her flower breath flutters against my chest as I flip through Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Holiday. “We’ve got to laugh or break our hearts in this damnable world.” I fold down the corner of the page to gaze at the bright pink of the cosmos dancing with the brilliant blue of forget-me-knots.

I hear a little peep from below, and peer down at the soft brown cap of newborn hair. I pat-pat-pat Two’s small bum, and take another sip of my IPA. Brett’s out with One, and Two and I have spent the day rocking on the deck, napping, reading, and lounging. I kiss Two’s forehead.

I scream my Subaru down the road, anxious to reach our destination before One gets angry or sad or hungry or gassy or fussy or tired or over-stimulated. My cousin grins at me, attempting to inject some sense of proportion into my universe.

“Look at you – driving with your baby and your dog. About to take a casual stroll through the woods. You got this!”

I force a reply smile onto my pale, pinched face. I don’t have anything. And I certainly don’t have “this,” if “this” means leaving the house with one’s baby in tow without having an existential breakdown.

A half hour later, we return to the car. We’ve taken a stroll through the countryside, exercised the dog, and successfully extracted me from the walls of my house. No one has died.

I drive my Subaru down the road, listening to One’s explanation that the big T-Rex is the mama T-Rex and the small T-Rex is the baby T-Rex. I repeat it back, to assure him I’ve heard and understood him.

When I remove Two from her car seat and bundle her into the Ergo, she wails tiny impotent wails at being so man-handled. I shhhh and pat and bounce and comfort and offer pacifiers. We walk through the tall grasses and waving queen anne’s lace. Two is quiet. One’s toddler voice blends with the chatter of tree swallows.

Two begins to squirm, bobbing her face against my chest like a soft, ineffectual woodpecker.

“Hey buddy – let’s pull over here.” I hand One a granola bar and settle him under a tree.

Leaning against the sand-papery stickiness of pine bark, I nurse Two in the woods, relaxed with the knowledge that boobs can fix nearly all newborn problems. One munches his granola bar, tracing a stick in the velvety dirt among the roots.

We crest the final hill of our walk, and trudge towards the Subaru, which is resting in the afternoon glow. I clip both kids into their cars eats, settle the dog next to me, and drive home. We’re fine.

Sara Petersen is a freelance writer based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She has written for BustHuffington PostScary Mommy, and Bustle. She blogs about children, pretty wallpaper, IPA, and friendship here. You can also check her out on Instagram and Twitter.

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Grace Without God

Grace Without God

14205943_1168054089928260_599285276887696418_o

By Katherine Ozment

Author’s Note: Several years ago, my son asked me what religion we were and I blurted out, “We’re nothing.” I’d long ago left the Christianity I’d grown up in and my husband had left his Jewish faith. We weren’t religious anymore, but what were we? I knew instantly that I needed a better answer for my son, his two sisters, my husband, and myself. So I began to explore how we could create a sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging outside the traditional framework of organized religion, a journey that resulted in my first book, Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age. For three years I traveled the country to bring back stories of secular pioneers who were creating new communities, forming meaningful rituals, and voicing clear answers their kids’ big questions. From hundreds of interviews and many hours of travels, I started to stitch together a new way to live in the world for myself and my family, which I explain in this, the concluding chapter of my book.

Conclusion

Make Your Own Sunday

Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,

In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else

In any balm or beauty of the earth,

Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?

—Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”

From my many trips to learn about people who’d left religion and were creating new secular communities, one couple in particular stays in my mind. I met Allen and Brenda Glendenning, a couple in their fifties, at the American Atheists National Convention. Allen and Brenda live in Great Bend, Kansas, and were once active members of the Church of the Nazarene. They were sitting a few seats down from me in a session on secular grief when Allen raised his hand and shared that he was starting to worry about what he and Brenda would do when one of them died now that they didn’t have a religious community to fall back on. It was something I thought about, too, and after the session I asked him if he’d tell me his story.

We sat in upholstered chairs on the balcony overlooking the hotel lobby. Allen wore a crisp suit and square-framed glasses, and Brenda kept her hair in neat waves. They had met in third grade and were both raised in the church. Allen’s father was a pastor in the Church of the Nazarene, and Allen attended a Nazarene university. He and Brenda said that their upbringings were very strict, with their parents training their thoughts on not upsetting God through evils such as social dancing. But Brenda said that her family had always been a bit more open-minded, more welcoming, and less judgmental compared to their very conservative religion.

After losing their faith, Allen and Brenda left the church and began to find fellowship on the road, at conventions like the one where I met them. They remained friends with another couple who had also left the church when they did, and they all got together on weekends and sometimes even took trips together. But they said they missed the larger community bonds they’d grown up with, and the music at the church. For a moment as Allen described how much he enjoyed singing in the choir, I sensed a touch of nostalgia. But then he looked me directly in the eye and said something I’ll never forget: “I wish I had been raised the way you’re raising your kids,” he said. “And I wish I could have raised my kids that way.”

He said that if he had it to do all over again, he would spend his Sundays differently. Instead of going to church, where the kids went into one room for Sunday school and the parents went into another for the main services, and instead of obeying the strict religious culture all around him, he would spend that time with his kids one-on-one, pursuing the things he and his family really enjoyed, not what they were told they had to do. At the end of our interview, before getting up to go, he added, “I wish I could have all those Sundays back.”

It has been four years since my son asked me what we were, and I’d come up short. We have not gone out and joined a church or a synagogue. We haven’t prayed to the four directions or donned Buddhist robes. I didn’t make my kids meditate or prostrate themselves on prayer rugs or study the Torah. Nevertheless, everything in our lives had changed in ways both imperceptible and profound.

In our new neighborhood in Chicago, where we moved a year ago, we are connected to our past in a way that gives us a true sense of belonging. We live a block away from where my husband, Michael, grew up, and our children attend the school he and his brother went to. Our son plays basketball at the same Neighborhood Club where Michael and his brother once played, and our daughters take gymnastics there. The older two kids walk home from school each day past the brick apartment building where their great-grandparents lived after coming to the United States from Germany in the 1930s to escape the Holocaust. They also see their cousins regularly for sleepovers and the kind of hearty family meals I envied in my Catholic friends’ homes growing up. Even here, in a new place, our son has never said that he feels homesick.

Our children continue to try to find their places in the world, both real and imagined. Our youngest has a clutch of invisible friends who keep her company wherever she goes. When I ask her where they are, she looks as me as if I’m blind and says, “Can’t you see them?” Our older daughter recently told me that she has three religions: Judaism, Christianity, and gymnastics. Our son finds the Greek gods and goddesses fascinating, plays basketball, and loves math. This year he joined the school choir, and sometimes I hear him singing the religious songs he’s learned in class. The sweet notes remind me of the boys choir at the Episcopal church on the New Haven Green that I loved so much as a child. Detached from religion, yet somehow still connected to it, they waft through our house and are even more beautiful to me now.

At night when I tuck the kids into bed, we share two things from the day that we are thankful for and one story they want to hear about my childhood—or Michael’s when he tucks them in. They love these stories of their parents as kids, of our families, of who we were and what we did.

This year I joined the board of the Neighborhood Club, and I work to raise money so kids and their families can benefit from the club’s many programs. Our kids like to give, too. On warm weekends they often run a lemonade stand and donate the money they earn to an animal shelter, the Ronald McDonald House, or another worthy cause. We participate in school-led volunteer activities as well, recently packing hundreds of bag lunches for a homeless shelter and cleaning up a community center in an underserved area of our city. Our children seem to be soaking up the values modeled in our tight-knit community, where service, diversity, and giving are prized.

Occasionally, I take myself to church. There’s a United Church of Christ a block from our house, and on the first Friday of each month it holds a Taizé service, based on a form of worship created in a French monastery during World War II as a way to bring Catholics and Protestants together. The ecumenical service lasts an hour and consists of singing simple, repetitive hymns while holding lit candles in the dimmed light of the cavernous church. There are usually only about fifteen of us there, and we sit scattered as pairs and singles through the pews. Beneath the vaulted ceiling, only the sound of our voices lifting up, I feel at once infinitesimal and valuable beyond measure.

We continue to celebrate the Jewish and Christian holidays in our secular way, but with renewed interest in the history of the traditions. This year, on the final night of Hanukkah, Michael’s brother and his family, along with old friends of Michael’s parents and a dear high school friend of his, joined us for brisket, latkes, and kugel. Surrounded by our loved ones, the children took turns lighting the candles and later opened Hanukkah gifts around the Christmas tree.

Though our lives bear all the traces of the modern American family’s trademark busyness—work and school, errands and activities—we create pockets of togetherness, in nature, at home, in our neighborhood. As we make our way forward without religion, I still don’t have answers to all the big questions. But I’m starting to see that becoming more comfortable holding the questions is the only way that makes sense to me. I turn the questions over and over again until they are like smooth, solid stones.

The novelist Marilynne Robinson speaks of grace as a form of reverence for life. Her understanding of grace is based in Christian theology, but I believe I can find that same sort of grace, too. I know that’s what I found one morning when our younger daughter, then four, had risen before dawn and wrangled herself into her glittering blue-and-white princess outfit. The dress had a satiny bodice and a gauzy skirt that puffed out from her waist. A size too big, it hung to her ankles. She wanted to go out to the driveway and get the newspaper, her favorite errand. It was 5:30 AM, and, though I was in my rumpled pajamas and my head was still in its pre-coffee fog, I opened the front door and stood at the top of the steps as she floated down them. With her feet hidden beneath the fabric of her skirt, her movements gave the impression of a fairy-tale figure descending on air, her blond tangle of hair bouncing slightly as she went down the steps. There was no sound in the neighborhood except for a bird chirping in a nearby neighbor’s yard. I froze, suddenly awake. She was a shiny blue jewel rendered all the more brilliant because of the green and brown tones of the trees and yard surrounding her.

As I watched her bend to pick up the newspaper and turn back to face me, the flash of her crystal-blue eyes showing her pride and excitement, I didn’t need her to mean anything more than she was before me. I didn’t need our lives to be part of a divine, unfolding plan. I didn’t need to believe that God’s hand would guide us through that morning and ever after. Meaning came from the intense awareness of the moment itself, from my reverence for her, for this life we were joined in as family. I simply needed to remain still enough to notice.

GraceWithoutGodFlatCover (1) copyThis is an excerpt from Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age. More of her writing can be found at katherineozment.com.

Katherine Ozment is an award-winning journalist whose essays and articles have been widely published. Grace Without God is her first book. She lives in Chicago with her husband and three children.

 

 

Illustration: Linda Willis

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Breathing Under Water

Breathing Under Water

ART Submerged

By Sarah Bousquet

It happens in a flash, my two-year-old releases my hand and dashes off into a crowd. I chase after her, glancing only once over my shoulder to make sure my mother-in-law has the stroller, which contains, among other things, my wallet and phone. My daughter is heading toward the stairs that descend in front of the sea lion tank. I grasp her hand just before reaches them.

It’s hot, sticky August and we’re not the only people who had the idea to spend the day indoors. The aquarium is teeming with families with small children and summer campers dressed in matching T-shirts. Older kids play inside a giant whale-shaped bounce house, somersaulting onto a mat. A large interactive screen flashes with images of fish.

I’m glad my mother-in-law is here with us, that we outnumber the fast and busy toddler. She scoops her up and together they watch a sea lion break the surface of the water. Droplets spray from his snout sounding like a dog’s sneeze, and my daughter says, “God bless you, sea lion!”

We leave the bustle of the main room and enter the corridor toward the first tank, where sea bass swim with giant loggerhead turtles. As we walk through the cool, dim space, watching the rhythmic movement of the sea creatures, there is a sense of calm and peace. A sense, too, of confinement. It reminds me of the primordial waters of new motherhood. The turtle makes his way toward us, glancing ruefully with one shiny black eye, which seems to say, let me out, before swimming away, the heft of him both cumbersome and graceful.

My daughter runs ahead to the next exhibit, a wide column of water cast in purple light. White moon jellies float up and down. Music is playing and she searches for its source, as if the jellies themselves are emitting sound. I think of the amorphous days of lullabies, day sinking into night rising into day while I watched in wonderment, holding her pollywog form, the newborn body curled into itself.

In the next room a wolf fish lies at the bottom of a tank, thick and grey with vacant eyes and glugging mouth, the ghost of sleep-deprivation and delirium. The accompanying anxiety and nervous feeling that my baby, so fragile and new, was not quite of this world. The nights I wished for sleep. The days I willed her to become a little bigger, a little stronger.

A friend once cooed sweetly to my baby, “Don’t grow! Stay small.” And in my exhausted state, I feared it was a hex. Mothers of older children would look at us with wistful smiles and sigh, “It goes by so fast.” But I did not believe them; life inside the murky sleeplessness seemed to last forever. Newborn care consumed me. The constant rocking, singing, holding, was a world unto itself, both beautiful and fraught, where time seemed suspended and autonomy ceased to exist.

I felt submerged, and sometimes longed to come up for air. Whole weeks would pass without having glanced in a mirror. It was as if I were disappearing. Until I began to learn to breathe underwater. My identity became fluid, our connection borderless. Every time I looked for me, I found us.

Then it seemed to happen overnight, a magical night when she slept all the way through, a slumber so deep that when we awoke she was two-and-a-half years old, and now I wonder how I could’ve wished for those slow days to pass a little more quickly. Now I am the wistful one. It’s easy to become nostalgic looking back through the dreamy water. Easy to forget the anxiety and exhaustion, the tedium, the long hours alone. I hadn’t been able to imagine how it floats irrevocably away, the infant blurring into baby blurring into toddler tumbling toward preschool, away and out of my arms.

We are inspecting an octopus when my daughter disappears. My eyes scan the groups of children and my mother-in-law runs ahead to the next room leaving me with the stroller. I hurry after her and call out my daughter’s name, startled to hear the fear in my voice. She can’t be far away, and yet she is gone. It is too many minutes before they finally reappear, before my daughter returns giggling with delight. I hug her tightly, my heart racing, and remember the security of having her strapped to my body in her baby carrier. So different from the slippery toddler hurling headlong toward independence.

We push through the aquarium doors into the thick summer air and bright sunshine, and follow the path to the butterfly exhibit. Flowering bushes fill the tent and myriad wings flutter all around us. Butterflies alight on our arms and shoulders and heads. Here we are in the frenzied world of busyness and light. My daughter, overwhelmed, leaps into my arms. Together we name the different colors we see. She rests her warm cheek against mine, and inside that moment, it is just us. I wish for the impossible: to keep her right here, to capture what’s fleeting. Instead I will hold her as long as she lets me, set her down when she’s ready to run.

Headshot Sarah BousquetSarah Bousquet is Brain Child’s 2016 New Voice of the Year. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at https://onebluesail.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.

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Sometimes, I Yell

Sometimes, I Yell

 

Young beautiful woman doing yoga indoors.

I started studying yoga and meditation when my boys were still young. I used to joke that I’d still yell at them, but at 5:00 pm rather than 4:00 pm.

By Diane Lowman

My mother was a screamer. If she thought we did not hear her, did not understand her, or did not change our behavior quickly enough, she just shouted louder. I know, now, that she shrieked to be heard. To be acknowledged. It had nothing to do with toys on the floor or the still-full dishwasher.

I, beaten down by the raised volume, vowed to be different. To speak softly, without the big stick. But, as often is the case with parenting traits, we inherit them, whether we want them or not.

My outbursts may have been neither as frequent nor as thunderous as hers – after all, I was a product of two gene pools, the other quite quiet – but I did often default to a raised voice as a discipline device. It was as ineffective with my boys as hers was with us. I regret having hurled it at them at all.

Fifteen years ago, after earning a black belt in Tae Kwon Do (my way of venting the pent-up aggression, perhaps?) I took up yoga. I liked that it helped me to cultivate the same qualities of calm and focus as the martial art, without subjecting me to hand-to-hand combat. I studied the history and philosophy of this ancient practice, and now I teach it.

I don’t believe we can fundamentally change who or what we are with any activity, drug, or distraction. What I have learned through Asana and meditation is that changing ourselves is not the goal. What I have learned on the mat is how to recognize and radically accept myself, foibles and all. Including the proclivity to shout when frustrated, provoked, or dissatisfied. I notice, more quickly, those signs in my body that tell me I’m about to blow, and watch them with curiosity and kindness.

“Why, Diane, are you so irate at that moron in front of you who cannot seem to find the gas pedal, ever, when the light turns green?” I might ask myself as I white knuckle the steering wheel on, ironically, my way to yoga class.

This is not to say that I don’t get annoyed at stupid little things, or yell at the moron anyway eventually, but I might wait longer and I certainly notice it more.

I started studying yoga and meditation when my boys were still young. I used to joke that I’d still yell at them, but at 5:00 pm rather than 4:00 pm. But that’s something.

If I was particularly short-tempered or agitated they would ask: “Mom, have you gone to yoga today? Do you need a class?” And if I thought for a moment before admonishing them, the answer would inevitably be “No, and yes.”

In her 50s, my mother went back for her associates’ degree in early childhood education. She had found and was following a better path later in life, as had I. She would call me, almost daily, to tell me something she learned in class, and “what horrible mistakes I made with you girls. I wish I had known this then.”

“Mom,” I’d say, “We do the best we can. You were and are a wonderful mother.” Yet she continued the self-flagellation all through her formal education. Maybe she couldn’t change how she parented my sister and me but she was the best, most patient, most attentive, and most fun grandmother ever to my boys and my two nieces.

There is no gold mommy star shining over my head just because I shifted my path ever so slightly. And I would never take away the gold mommy star that now shines like a halo over my mother’s head just because she shouted. She was a saint; she earned it many times over.

I, too, often feel not heard, not seen, and not acknowledged, as she did. I just wish I’d started working on better ways to earn my star earlier.

FullSizeRenderDiane Lowman is a single mother of two young adult men, living in Norwalk, Connecticut.  In addition to writing about life, she teaches yoga, provides nutritional counseling, and tutors Spanish.  She looks forward to what’s next.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Get a Real Job

Get a Real Job

Art Get a Real Job

By Rachel Pieh Jones

Minnesota winters are brutal on stay-at-home mothers with young children. It is so hard to get outside. Slippery sidewalks, slushy roads, kids who take twenty minutes to get bundled up and only then announce, “I have to pee!”

The winter my twins were infants, I felt nearly suffocated by the early darkness, the cold, the isolation. I needed to exercise and to get out of the house. I started taking the twins to the Mall of America. It was a thirty minute drive on a non-snowy day and the mall had four floors, each an entire mile in circumference.

I never shopped, we couldn’t afford anything but diapers and the basic groceries that supplemented our WIC coupons. I walked. The mall was free, warm, and not my house. It had that white noise background that can (sometimes) soothe anxious babies. In the middle of the day it was filled with two kinds of people: other stay at home moms who were empathetic and equally desperate, and elderly people also out for a non-slippery walk. The elderly were my favorite because they loved seeing infant twins. Their comments and smiles would remind me, in the haze of those sleepless months, that my children were precious and cute and treasures.

So we walked. My double stroller that was so hard to manoeuver and my massive diaper bag that knocked into other walkers and my weary spirit, thankful for a few hours out of the house, pretending we were real people with money to spend and friends to meet and not just a mom and two babies hoping to make it through another day.

One of the best things about the Mall of America was the nursing mother’s room at Nordstrom’s. I could time my walk to end up there just at feeding time and we would wander through the beautiful clothes to the bathroom.

Inside this bathroom were several beige couches, big clean mirrors, flowers, calming music piped in, a changing table, and privacy and quiet where my babies could eat in peace. I could rest one in my lap and prop one up on the couch pillows, much easier than trying to accomplish feeding both on a mall bench or fast food restaurant plastic chair.

One day, while in the nursing room, a woman came in. She looked to be in her upper sixties. She wore a raggedy faux-fur coat, a pearl necklace, and hot pink lipstick that had smeared outside the lines and snagged on dried skin on her lips. Her hair was ashy blond with streaks of gray, dry and cracking at the ends. She walked briskly past us, into the bathroom part of the room.

There was a phone on the table next to me and when she came back out, she picked up the phone. There wasn’t a dial tone and she slammed it down.

My babies jerked their bodies at the sound but continued eating.

She picked up the phone again, yelled into it, and slammed it down again. She turned and glared at me. I offered a half-smile, hoping it came across as neutral or sympathetic. She started at the babies, my stroller, the diaper bag, back at my face.

“Get a real job,” she shouted, and then she ran out the door.

Her words echoed in the nursing mother’s room. Get a real job. Get a real job.

I’d had a real job, before these babies were born. I had a university degree, albeit a fairly useless one for earning a decent salary. I was twenty-two years old. I had ambition, albeit on hold for now. Was strolling through the Mall of America on a crisp winter day not enough?

I looked at my babies. They were done now and needed to be burped, needed their diapers changed.

Day care for infant twins cost almost more than I could earn at all the real jobs I’d had or applied for and qualified for. Already, I struggled to get through the day and to keep my family clean, clothed, and fed – both financially and physically. Maybe a real job would be in my future, maybe when I slept more than two hours straight at night, I could be useful in a real job. Maybe I was wasting my skills or time and they would be better spent at a real job. Maybe…

I stopped myself. Real job?

What could be more real than keeping two human beings healthy and loved? No one paid me for it but that didn’t make it less of a job. I would have different jobs in the future, I know that now, fifteen years later, but they haven’t felt any more real than those early parenting years. The opposite of real would be fake or imagined and I certainly wasn’t faking. The stretch marks, c-section scar, sleepless nights, breast milk stained shirts, Bob the Builder lyrics running through my head ad nauseum, endless rounds of patty-cake, I imagined none of it.

When both babies started crying at the same time and I still had to clean up burp rags and dirty diapers and settle them into the stroller, I knew. This was as real as jobs get and I didn’t want a different one.

 

Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

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Beach Days

Beach Days

Art Beach Days

By Sarah Bousquet

In July I take my daughter to her first swimming lesson. We walk from our house down to the beach, where a young instructor and a few other neighborhood 2-year-olds meet. Tiny feet trod the path of my youth, hedge-lined, the bricks sprouting crabgrass. It’s the same beach where I spent every summer of my childhood. The same beach where my dad grew up. A history stretching back seventy years. I never expected, after all this time, to return to my hometown, but here we are, in a house that wakes to salt air and birdsong, a stone’s throw from memory.

My daughter is a little fish, just like me. She runs into the waves unafraid, despite encounters with small crabs, barnacled rocks, slippery seaweed. She is at home in the water, splashing with delight. Plops down on the sand and lets the waves roll over her. I can feel that feeling, when she accidentally gulps a mouthful of seawater. Sting in her sinuses, briny taste on her tongue.

There in the waves, on the ripple-patterned sandbar, I find myself inside my own childhood, a feeling truer than an echo, more vivid than a dream. I am my small self standing under a strong sun, fair skin turning pink-brown, freckled nose peeling. The beach stretches itself out familiar and changing, low tide, high tide, choppy water, water smooth as glass. Blue sky bunched with cottony clouds, seagulls diving at spider crabs, the rock jetty harboring mussels, Charles Island in the distance.

Inside this memory, I see my sister and I running over the hot sand to meet our friends at the water’s edge for swimming lessons. We race each other on kickboards, cut freestyle through the waves. I practice limp-limbed back-floats, water lapping my head, filling my eardrums, soundless, staring into the sky. Lying buoyant, body held in the water’s embrace, I drift into daydream, never hearing the instructor’s call. Eventually, I kick myself upright, unable to touch bottom, surprised at how far the current has taken me.

Midday we flock to the cooler for sandwiches, egg salad escaping the bread with each bite. The juice of plums or nectarines dripping down our chins while we bury the pits in the sand.

At low tide we run Red Rover on the sandbars, build drip castles from the black mud, dig moats, construct tiny bridges from reeds. We inspect razor clams, collect sea glass, bury our legs and wait for the tide to wash us up like horseshoe crabs. Sometimes we find chunks of red brick, wet the surface, and use sticks to draw tattoos on each other’s skin. We stab purple jellyfish, but handle starfish with care. Venture up to the seawall and crouch beneath the sailboats, ready-made forts.

On high tide days we swim. We are dolphins, mermaids, sharks. We swim until our skin is pickled, fingers and toes translucent and puckered; the whites of our eyes pink from salt.

At the day’s end, we walk up the road barefoot, hurrying over the hot pavement, pausing to cool our feet in the shady spots until we reach my grandparents’ house. Then we take turns peeling off our sandy suits and washing up with Ivory soap and Prell shampoo in the outdoor shower, run naked through the grass until we’re captured with a towel. Occasionally, my grandmother puts a bowl of goldfish crackers on the table that we eat one after another while my mother brushes our wet, tangled hair.

Memories roll in like so many waves. Less nostalgia, more a conjuring, a visceral recall that resides deep in the body. Watching my daughter repeat these routines on the same sand grants me sudden secret access to these other versions of myself, the sensation of experiencing new textures and tastes, color and light, learning the rhythms, the ebb and flow. They say you can’t go back, but as my daughter repeats these patterns, I return.

When my daughter’s swimming lesson begins, she clings to me like a koala. The other kids take turns with a kickboard, but she resists. Refuses to dip even a toe in the water. The instructor is cheerful and encouraging, but my daughter is not charmed. In the end, it proves too much, performing in front of strangers, an expectation imposed on her fun. It occurs to me I didn’t begin swimming lessons until I was four. I recall that tentative feeling, the fear and hesitation before trying something for the first time.

That weekend, I show her how to scoop water with her small hands, the first step to doggy-paddle. I hold her in the waves, kick kick kick. We search the tide pools for hermit crabs. Dig in the sand. She sees my dad on the sandbar, shouts, “Papa!” and breaks into a run, that waddle-run particular to 2-year-olds, arms out, sun hat flapping. He catches her and swings her into the air before lowering her into the water. She splashes and paddles and kicks. Little fish. These are all the swimming lessons she needs right now. The wonder of the water, the body becoming buoyant, held by strong hands. In my dad’s smile, I see the same joy reflected, and I know, he feels it too. The repeating, the return.

Headshot Sarah BousquetSarah Bousquet is Brain Child’s 2016 New Voice of the Year. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at https://onebluesail.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.

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Opinion: Are You Raising Your Daughter To Be Assertive?

Opinion: Are You Raising Your Daughter To Be Assertive?

empty swing

By Ambrosia Brody

My daughter had said no. She’d said no twice, actually, but for some reason I seemed to be the only one who heard. Her words were clearly directed to the blonde-haired boy standing only an arm’s distance away.

How much clearer can she get? I thought as I headed from the bench toward the swings. The word “no” is not difficult to understand; there should only be one reaction – stop.

Instead he chose to try and hug her again.

“I said no!” my daughter’s raspy voice echoed through the playground once again, this time with a slight tremble, an indication she is close to crying. “NO!”

“What happened?” I ask, kneeling by her in the sand.

“There was a disagreement over the swing,” explains the mom holding the hand of the little blonde-haired boy who continues to stare at my daughter, “she was standing in front of it but not getting on so my son pushed past her and got on. I told him to apologize and he hugged her. Then she pushed him.”

“I’m sure he’s sorry for doing that,” I tell my daughter.

“Excuse me but she pushed him,” the woman says.

“Yes, but she said no. Twice — three times actually. She didn’t want to be hugged,” I said, pulling my daughter to my side, preparing to leave because I already know the response to this statement. A look of confusion, contempt, judgment, a label: That little girl is “mean.”

To clarify, my daughter is not mean. She is assertive.

A man followed me out of Starbucks once to stop and ask for a business card because he was launching a new company and needed writers. How does he know I’m a writer? Was the question that played on a loop in my mind as he delivered his pitch. He asked for a business card three times, each time ignoring my polite no thank yous. I ultimately gave in and handed him a business card.

This was not the first time I stayed in an uncomfortable situation because I worried that someone would deem me rude or label me as mean, or worse — a bitch.

Growing up I was taught to be polite, to be nice to others even if I didn’t necessarily like that person or agree with their opinion. The need to be liked was paralyzing as I tolerated people, conversations and situations that I wanted to run away from. Instead of acting on instinct, I did the nice thing: I stayed in uncomfortable situations.

When I found out I was having a girl, the first decision I made was to raise her to be assertive.

Children need to learn when to practice kindness and empathy, but they also need to understand when to say no, how to walk away from toxic situations and set boundaries for themselves.

My husband and I have encouraged my daughter to vocalize her opinions even if they are in disagreement with our own. It is not easy negotiating with a three-year-old but it’s important that she understands her opinion holds meaning.

We welcome her thoughts and although she does not always get her way, it’s important that she has the confidence to assert her opinion toward adults or kids her own age.

Raising my daughter to be assertive and not “nice” has led to uncomfortable situations with other moms who do not understand why I don’t make my daughter “play nicely” when she chooses to play on her own instead of join in a game of “Frozen” where my daughter is instructed to be Anna, not Elsa.

Taking turns is important and a valuable lesson. But if she’s decided to opt out of the game altogether because she’s dead set on being the sister with ice powers – why should I force her to play along?

She’s not being mean or rude, she’s standing by her decision. And I stand by her.

I’ve received a few side glances from relatives who can’t understand why we don’t make a toddler “be polite” and greet family the “proper” way if she shakes her head when a family member requests a hug.

It would be easy to step in and tell my daughter to push her feelings aside if only for a few minutes in order to be polite. But what message would I be sending her about her feelings?

My daughter is being taught the importance of sharing and listening, she understands that she needs to follow instructions and compete tasks that are not always fun, such as cleaning up toys or sharing with her sister.

She is not being taught to rebel. She is learning to be assertive.

My daughter is learning to trust her instincts: that if at any time, in any setting, someone makes her uncomfortable, she has every right to walk away. Or to tell someone to leave her alone.

I am showing my daughter her opinion, her feelings, her voice, matters. When the time comes for her to negotiate a salary equal to a male co-worker, to turn down a date or take the lead in a group project, she should have the confidence to do so.

We continue to teach her how to hold her ground without being aggressive. That is, unless her boundaries are crossed.

I am not advocating for raising girls who bully one another, or applauding those who throw punches instead of walking away. However, I want to ensure that if backed into a corner, my daughter will stand her ground.

I’m not raising my daughter to be “nice.” I’m raising her to be assertive.

The clink of the swing fills the silence, a quiet standoff between mom and mom. Who will apologize first? Will parenting styles be judged?

“C’mon, let’s try the slide,” the mom directs her son toward the other side of the park.

A truce: they go their way and we ours.

Ambrosia Brody is a full-time editor, journalist and mother to two spirited daughters. She started to blog at Random Aspects of (My) Life when she realized how much her daughters, and being a parent inspired her writing. Writing about all things parenting is now one of her favorite pastimes. Connect with her on her blog, Facebook or on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

On Car Seats And Crisis

On Car Seats And Crisis

A father putting his baby daughter into her car seat in the car

By B.J. Hollars

In the days leading up to the big event, we received a letter from our sanitation service informing us that Bulk Item Pickup Day was just around the corner. My eyes widened at the news.

In my list of annual celebratory events, “Bulk Item Pickup Day” ranks high, second only to Christmas. And in some ways, it’s surpasses Christmas; rather than receive a bunch of garbage, we get to hurl a bit of it back..

Immediately, I take to the house to prioritize my junk. Which bulk item will I rid us of forever? I wonder. The half-broken bookshelf seems a logical choice, as does the ancient rocking chair. But moments later, as I make a sweep of the garage, my eyes fall upon another item, one I’ve long known would eventually end up on the curb.

It’s my children’s former car seat, a 2012 Graco something-or-other, complete with all the accouterment you’d expect of a 21st century “travel system”—straps, clips, harnesses, all of which, I assume, have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities I’d never quite mastered.

Frankly, I’m impressed I even mastered the buckles. After all, in the days leading up to my son’s birth—back when I was still practice-swaddling his stuffed animals and color coordinating his future bibs—I’d dedicated more than a little time working through the intricacies of that car seat. Yet my preparation hardly spared me from my recurring nightmare, one in which, upon leaving the hospital with our son in tow, I found myself baffled by the tangle of harnesses stretched before me, all of which constricted and elongated in the precise opposite manner I wanted them to. In my dream, it was the car seat equivalent of a Rubik’s cube, a contraption meant to make the user go mad.

Four years removed from the real-life version of that drive home, I find myself staring at the crumb-caked seat—reflecting on the miles logged, the trips endured, the many journeys we took together.

This was, after all, the seat that transported our son to Niagara Falls and our daughter to Duluth, the seat that carted them on endless loops to the library, the children’s museum, and the park.

How many holidays had our children sat strapped in their seat as we drove through the rain and the snow in our efforts to spend some time with our families? And when, I wonder, did we use this seat for the last time?

As best as I recall, that seat has been gathering dust for months, the result of a car seat upgrade for my son, which in turn led to a second-hand seat upgrade for my daughter. Since we have no third child—and there are no plans for one—we have no need for the third seat. And so, I sent it out to proverbial pasture (read: chucked it in the garage) and then conveniently forgot all about it. That is, until “Bulk Item Day” forced us to remember, to ponder, at least for a moment, how our lives might change if we had someone to fill that seat.

Though I’m willing to let the seat go, I have a harder time giving up what it represents: confirmation, at least for me, that there will be no third child, no future need for our second-hand-hand-me down-seat.

It’s just a bulk item, I think as I walk it to the curb. Just some garbage that needs to go.

But I don’t fool myself for a second.

That night, at around 3:00a.m., I wake to my dog’s full bladder. I hear her scratching at the bed, signaling me to rise, groan, and begin my zombie walk toward the front door. I leash her, give her ample time to do her business, and as we turn back toward the house I spot the empty car seat aglow beneath the streetlamp. The sentimental father in me is compelled to give it one last look, to run my hand over its plastic one last time just to remember the feel.

Between the first buckle and the last, I’d grown adept at my buckling skills, the result of the unspoken agreement between me and the seat: as long as I obeyed the owners manual it wouldn’t go out of its way to emasculate me on principle. It was an arrangement that satisfied both parties, ensuring not only my children’s safety, but my pride as well.

“Come on, girl,” I say to the dog as she gives one last sniff to the car seat’s crevices in search of wayward Cheerios. She’s rewarded for her efforts, granting her one last meal courtesy of my children’s shared inability to hold tight to a grainy ring.

“Come on,” I repeat. “Leave it.”

There, under the glow of that streetlamp, it’s all I can do to pull her away from that seat.

All I can do to pull either of us away.

B.J. Hollars is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. He the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. He serves as the reviews editor for Pleiades, a mentor for Creative Nonfiction, and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more, visit: http://www.bjhollars.com

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A Mother’s Garden

A Mother’s Garden

Art My Mother's Garden

By Sarah Bousquet

My mother looks up from beneath the brim of her straw hat, her hands patting the dirt around a new tomato plant. “Remember, we come from pioneers,” she says. “It’s in our blood.”

I don’t feel much like a pioneer as I dig into the dirt with my 2-year-old’s plastic shovel. I can’t seem to find the trowel anywhere. I’ve been shoveling and hauling dirt in the wheelbarrow, smoothing the area around the garden so a fence can be staked.

“Imagine growing all your own food? Imagine if that was all your family had to live on for the year?” She’s splitting the basil and plotting it out between the marigolds.

I shake my head. “I think we’d be malnourished.”

For a minute I try and imagine it, growing all the food we’d need to survive, and the staggering amount of work it would require. I’ve barely managed to get one garden bed planted, and wouldn’t have, if not for my mother.

I’d planned ahead and thought I had it so together. Years ago, long before I became a mother, I’d successfully grown a garden, even pickling my own cucumbers and cabbage. Somehow I’d forgotten about all the work.

In the Spring my husband broke down the old garden beds, and together we cleared away the dirt. For a while the wood beams laid stacked under the crabapple tree and my daughter would balance her way across them, finding the spots that bounced. We bought packets of of seeds, from arugula to pumpkin to habaneros. I had good intentions to make starters. Then the rain came and didn’t let up for a month.

Eventually my husband built a new garden bed from cedar planks. We had three yards of soil dumped in the driveway, which took many wheelbarrow hauls to relocate. I bought a few tomato plants and my daughter plucked off all the leaves. A woodchuck made his appearance, and I declared we would need a fence around the garden. My husband sighed, his enthusiasm for the project waning. By then we were well into June and I wondered if it was too late to begin planting.

That weekend my mother surprised me with boxes of plants, tomatoes and fennel, peppers and herbs, straw mulch and bamboo stakes.

“I didn’t have a garden when you and your sister were small,” she said. “It was too much work.” This is how my mom dispenses wisdom, in warm rays of commiseration and perspective.

I am surprised I need all this help. After two and a half years of motherhood, I still need tending.

In the months before I gave birth, a friend shared that old wisdom: when a baby is born, a mother too is born. Though I’d imagined what that meant, I couldn’t know how it would feel. Until I pushed through to the other side like a new green shoot.

At the birth center, my midwife gave firm, direct orders. Someone would need to go to our home and change the bed linens, tidy up, prepare a meal. After 48 hours of labor, I couldn’t recall how we’d left things. Maybe there was still a bathtub full of water. My mother listened carefully to the midwife’s instructions and left to make preparations for our return home.

In the blur of days that followed, sleepless and fragile, lying in bed with my newborn, I was consumed by the tasks of holding, changing, and breastfeeding, staring rapt at her new pink form. My mother’s presence drifted in and out, like warm sun, like gentle rain, giving what was needed. She would bring one-pot meals, chicken and tomatoes or hamburger stews with potatoes and beans, nourishing and simple, meant to show me, soon you’ll be doing this again too.

While I rested, she would undress my jaundiced infant and stand by the window, holding her up to the pale winter light. When I breastfed, she would say, “You nurse her like she’s your second baby. You’re a natural.” I felt a new version of myself, my mother-self, taking root, growing sturdy and determined.

Out in the garden, I water the plants while my daughter runs through the spray sending a misty rainbow into the air. She wanders with her shovel, digging in the dirt, her wet dress becoming caked with mud. As I round the raised bed with the hose, I notice the first green pepper hiding in plain sight, ready for picking.

I hold the stalk while my daughter plucks the pepper, biting into it like an apple, then offering me a bite. It’s mild and crisp, warm from sunshine, an altogether different taste from a store-bought pepper. We even eat the small stem and soft, white seeds. A butterfly hovers over a marigold and flutters away. Eggplant leaves sway.

That evening I call my mother to report our first tiny harvest. The garden is thriving with the exception of one stunted tomato plant. The others have grown taller than me, yellow flowers transforming to fruit.

“Remember, it’s an experiment,” she says. “You can see what does well and then decide what to add next year.” My mother’s words seem to be about something larger, and always reminding, in our perpetual state of becoming, if conditions are favorable and the weather kind, good things are likely to grow.

Sarah Bousquet is Brain Child’s 2016 New Voice of the Year. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at https://onebluesail.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.

 

 

 

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The Trail We Know By Heart

The Trail We Know By Heart

father and son travel hiking in mountains, family tourism

By B.J. Hollars

In the sixth month of my son’s life, I hike him up a mountain. Or at least the closest we have to a mountain here in Wisconsin, which, as it turns out, is the Potholes Trail in Devil’s Lake State Park.

“You sure you want to do this?” my wife asks, tracing a finger along the path on the map stretched before her.

“Why not?” I shrug.

In retrospect, there are plenty of reasons “why not,” chief among them the trail’s less-than-kid friendly terrain. Yet having seen nothing but diaper pails and talcum powder for the past half year, I’d likely be willing to hike an infant up Mount Everest—anything for a bit of fresh air.

My father joins us, and together, the three of us strap my snoozing son to my chest like a backpack packed in reverse. Then, to ward off the dirty looks from more seasoned parents, we make a show of applying a generous glob of sunscreen over every exposed inch of his frame. To complete the ensemble, we fit a fishing hat atop his head, then readjust his pudgy arms. He hangs from that harness like a ragdoll hugged too tight for too long. But as I march us forward, my love for my son is replaced with a terrible truth: a misstep by me is a misstep for us both.

You’ll be fine, I think as I work up the craggy rock. Just one foot in front of the other…

***

We are fine, mostly, if you don’t count my egregious underestimation of the trail; specifically, how our little trail connected with another little trail, and then another, making for one not-so-little trail.

“What now?” my wife asks as we squeeze ourselves through the red quartzite corridor midway up the bluffs.

“We keep going up,” I report back to my wife and dad. “There’s really no other choice.”

There had been a choice—once—and I had made the wrong one.

No one, I think, wiping the sweat from my brow, could’ve ever seen this coming.

Of course, plenty of others could have. The fact that I couldn’t, however, seemed to further confirm a trend I’d become all too familiar with throughout my brief stint as a father. Namely, that I am a bumbler at best, cocksure until humbled, brave until terribly scared.

Driven by stubbornness, I lead us forward, repeating my “one-foot-in-front-of-the-other” mantra under my breath while my son continues to snore.

“How we doing up there?” my dad huffs from his place in the rear.

Translation: Will somebody pass me the water?

I turn, take a sip, and then pass the water back. My wife takes a sip too before passing, and soon, all three of our mouths are full as we take a moment to peer down at the shimmering lake stretched below. At our current elevation it resembles a giant bean surrounded by sprouting pines. To the left, we see the beach, and atop it, miniature sunbathers crawling like specks in the sand.

“What’s your rush anyway?” my dad asks me. “You got a date or something? Too busy to take in the view?”

I’m not so much busy but terrified, and the only view I see reminds me just how far we have to go.

Besides, the job of “taking in views” had long fallen to my father—a pastime I once regarded as his cost-saving measure to avoid high-priced admission fees. But halfway up the bluff, I begin rethinking my take on taking in views. After all, this is a legitimate lookout point (or will be if we make it to the top), and a part of me knows he’s right. It’s best to slow down, to take a moment and a breath, at least if I want to give this sleeping son of mine a chance to take in the view himself.

***

We reach the top, and the view—as expected—is breathtaking. I give my son a little jostle, then clear my throat, but still, he refuses to wake.

And so, his mother, grandfather, and I do our best to preserve the moment for him.

From our left, a group of fathers and teenage sons have emerged from the trail and now gather around the lookout point. They push close together at the edge of the bluff after handing me their cameras.

“Smile!” I say fitting the group into frame. “Okay, a few more now just to be sure.”

Next, we trade places and cameras, my son and I posing in the center atop the bluff while my wife and dad hover on either side.

“Give me a smile, sleepy boy!” one of the father’s shouts.

That sleepy boy doesn’t.

The man snaps the photo anyway.

Our preservation now complete, I engage in small talk with the more experienced fathers.

“How old’s he?” one asks, and when I say six months, he recites the line young parents hear all the time, the one that seems to echo from the future.

“Well, keep him close while you can. He’ll be out of your arms in no time.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” my father cuts in, taking one last swig from the water bottle.

I am surrounded by fathers, I realize, all of whom know what I can’t know until it’s much too late.

“Ready to head down?” my fathers asks, snapping me back to reality.

“Huh?”

“Are you ready to head down now?” he repeats.

Nah, I say. Not yet. I need a moment to take in the view.

Author’s Note: I first drafted this piece three and a half years ago, when my legs still ached from that hike. Since then, my wife and I have had a second child—a daughter, Eleanor—and upon returning to the Potholes Trail last summer, I considered strapping Eleanor in and hiking her up as well. “A right of passage,” I told my wife. I looked up at the bluff, then down at my daughter, and decided that this time I’d make the right choice.

B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. He serves as the reviews editor for Pleiades, a mentor for Creative Nonfiction, and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more, visit: http://www.bjhollars.com

 

 

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The Birds And The Bees

The Birds And The Bees

Art Love birds

By Mary E. Plouffe

Just when you think you’ve done it right, you’re wrong.

Wait ’til they are ready; wait ’til they ask, the advice goes. So I did. And one winter morning just after breakfast, my son, age 5, posed the question. “So, I get how the baby might look like you ’cause it’s growing in your tummy. But what I don’t get is how it could look like Dad”

The sex talk. Right then and there. Ready or not and perfectly primed, I began. And my son listened intently as I discussed sperm and eggs and the process of conception. He offered no expression, no comment, no reaction.

When I was done, he was still silent. So I asked “Do you have any questions?”

“Yes, Mom I do,” he said, looking at me sternly. “This is very important information. Why haven’t you told me this before now?”

He looked betrayed. I trusted you, his expression said, and you let me down.

I was chastened, chided by a kindergartener, shamed by my own son who found me wanting. His words echoed in my head. “Very important information, why haven’t you told me?”

Reponses flashed through my mind. You didn’t ask. We’re having a baby in a few months… It didn’t seem necessary until now.

But I was looking at an expression that would have accepted none of them as an excuse.

And he was right.

This was the infant who locked onto new faces from the safety of my arms, his expression frozen as he absorbed the new image with disconcerting intensity, until the subject squirmed.

This was the two-year old who tugged on my arm in the midst of festivities at the office Christmas party. “Mom, can I interrupt? I have two more questions about death.” The three- year-old who pleaded for workbooks on letters and numbers and addition and subtraction at the grocery store. “I don’t care if it’s hard. I want to learn it.”

This was the almost 4-year-old who tackled fractions on a long bus ride from Maine to Maryland. “Mom, how can I still be three? I’ve been three for so long.” he asked as we headed to visit his cousins. So out came the paper, and we drew circles and halved them and quartered them, and talked about months in a year. Later that weekend, we ended up in a Quick Care center to clean up a nasty scalp wound that flattened the left side of his blond curls with blood.   A nurse took his hand.

“Hi Justin, I’m going to clean up your cut, Ok? How old are you?”

“Three and eleven-twelfths” he said, as I followed them down the hall toward the exam room.

So, as I stood in the kitchen that morning after our sex talk, I realized he was right. He’d let me know since the day he was born that he wanted to learn everything as soon as he could. Not when he needed it, not when he asked, but as soon as he was able to understand.

And the look of betrayal on his face said something else to me as well. Something that made me very uncomfortable. “If you didn’t tell me this, what other important things have you not told me?”

So I apologized. And we had a different talk. One about how Moms and Dads aren’t always sure when to explain things to children, and so they wait. And about how that didn’t really work for him. “I like to learn things,” he said firmly, his steel eyes blue eyes mirroring disappointment. “You know that. And I want you to teach me.”

We agreed that if there was important information I knew about things I should tell him that.

“Even if it might be boring grown up stuff? I asked

“Just say ‘I know lots more about this. Do you want to know it?'” he coached. “If I don’t, I will tell you.”

“Deal” I said. And it was. Over the years there were a few odd reactions from other parents, when I’d follow a quick definition with “and there’s lots more to know about that” but he was happy to say “You can tell me the rest after baseball practice, Mom.”

We got through the sex talk, even though I clearly got it wrong.

But looking back, it was the trust talk that really mattered.

That was the most important information of all.

Mary E. Plouffe Ph.D. is a clinical  psychologist and author of I Know it in My Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child to be published in May 2017. She is currently writing a book of essays on the art of listening.

 illustration © art-girl

 

 

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Beyond The Makeup Aisle

Beyond The Makeup Aisle

little girl painting lips while wearing hair-rollers and bathrobe

By Marie Holmes

At the drugstore, I usually have both of my children in tow, and they usually run straight for the toys, followed by the candy. But today it’s just me and my two-year-old daughter, and the first thing she sees are gleaming rows of nail polish: pink and peach, red and purple and even blue. An entire rainbow, right there at the level of her gaze. She turns and finds the lipsticks, and then the eye shadows. She grabs one bottle, then a compact, and another, focusing intently in order to hold each of the small, shimmering items in her chubby little fingers. She is entranced.

I shouldn’t be surprised. I may now be a thirty-five year old married lesbian whose beauty routine consists of sunscreen and chapstick, but, for a long time—for my whole childhood—no one would’ve seen that coming. Just like my daughter, I was once enthralled by all things shiny, sparkling and pink. I can still feel the residual twinge of an urge to push bottles of nail polish between my fingers, comparing shades.

My daughter soon collects more items than she can carry, and weighs each one, turning it in the light, trying to decide which glimmering package to set aside. She could go on with this for an hour, I realize, wishing I had thought to bring a book with me.

Instead, I think of all the hours I spent in the aisles of the Payless drug store. It was the one of the few places that I could walk to by myself, at age twelve. I knew all the make-up lines, cheapest to priciest. I tested colors and textures on the back of my hand. Over time, I amassed a cornucopia of beauty products. The adult in me wants to reach back in time and shake that child, to tell her that she doesn’t need any makeup to discover who she is, to beg her to instead go read a book, climb a tree, do something of real value with all those hours of leisure.

My feet shift in the aisle next to my daughter. Inside of me, somewhere, is still that restless girl, chasing anything that shone with the promise of a brighter life.

Starting in the sixth grade, I wore full make-up: foundation, concealer, blush, eyeliner, eye shadow, mascara, lipstick. Were the other girls doing it, too? I wonder, now, that none of my teachers said anything, that my parents weren’t alarmed. Or perhaps they were, and just couldn’t find a way to tell me.

I can’t imagine allowing my daughter to wear make-up. Not at two or twelve or twenty. But her single-mindedness is already more than apparent, and I can all-too-easily imagine the losing battle of trying to stop her. Perhaps it was wise of my mother not to mention my make-up. Maybe if she had said something I would’ve just worn more.

I knew that make-up attracted attention, and as a young adolescent, attention is what I wanted. Or at least what I thought I wanted. Sometimes it was thrilling and sometimes it was frightening, with the line between the two entirely blurred. Around age fifteen, I would say, I reached a peak in terms of people—older men, mostly—stopping me on the street to tell me I was beautiful. It was my eyes, they would say. It was the pinnacle, too, of my being sexually harassed. Groped at a party, grabbed by a stranger while walking to school. How much, he demanded. How much did I cost?

That was as far as it went. I was never assaulted, but that was simply a stroke of luck on my part.

Somewhere in my early twenties, I aged out of the cat calls, the creepy compliments, the seedy invitations. Right around the time I stopped looking like a teenager.

I think of that girl now as I examine the shining cardboard displays of bronzers and enhancers and plumpers. The models are so young. Closer to my daughter’s age than my own. And even the older women, actresses I recognize, have had their skin digitally softened to look like a child’s.

This is beauty, I think, as I learned it: teenagers made up as adult women, thinner and more beautiful than we adult women will ever be.

No one stops me on the street anymore. It’s not nostalgia, but there is the feeling of a missed opportunity. Because now I would have a comeback.

The compliment was never really about my eyes, or even my skill with the make-up. It was my youth. It was the same gangly, doe-eyed innocence of the cardboard display girls in these drugstore aisles, their skin baby-soft like my daughter’s.

I let her play with her shiny little bottles and tubes and compacts for a while, and then take her by the hand and lead her toward the toys—and eventually the laundry detergent, which is what we came for. Slowly, I distract her and take hold of one of her treasures, depositing blusher amidst the greeting cards, nail polish behind the discounted Easter candy. I don’t want her hanging out too much in this drugstore. Not now and not when she’s a teenager. I want her to pick up these things just once in a while, just for fun. I don’t want her to confuse the project of constructing her identity with the much smaller, optional task of making up her face.

 

Marie Holmes’ essays have appeared in Cosmopolitan, Refinery 29, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City with her family.

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Opinion: Our Right to Buy Cookies

Opinion: Our Right to Buy Cookies

chocolate chip cookies in a cup on wooden table

By Jeanine DeHoney

As a mother who once received food stamps for a short period of time, I shopped for healthy food items for my family but still treated my children to chocolate chip cookies.

Chocolate chip cookies. When my children were little I hate to admit it was my saving grace. For those harrowing days when they just felt like falling out in the middle of a store, to get them to put their other shoe on so we wouldn’t be late for a doctor’s appointment, and just doggone it because I wanted to see their smile and chocolate chip cookies had that effect on them. Maybe it would help if I told you they brushed their teeth at least four times a day. But really that’s not my point.

I was sitting at my computer desk one evening, finishing a story I was working on and listening to the news when the newscaster mentioned that a bill was being introduced by Republican State Representative Rick Brattin, that would prohibit a recipient of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) from using the funds for “Cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood or steak.”

Digging a bit deeper on the internet, I read that Representative Brattin stated in The Daily Signal; a multimedia news organization that covers policy and political news, as well as commentary and analysis; “that his intention was to make sure that those in need have access to healthy food in a fiscally responsible way. He stated that the United States is “the most obese nation on the planet,” and his bill encourages a return to “healthy basics, just like the first lady’s healthy school lunch initiative, for which she was heralded.”

When my children were young and my husband was in the Army, we struggled financially on his income. We often relied on the care packages of my parents and in-laws to get us through the end of the month and when I couldn’t find a job, eventually we applied for food stamps, which neither myself or my husband wanted to do.

Growing up, I remember my father getting laid off one year. The odd jobs he got covered our rent but not much more and my mother who refused to get on public assistance would take my sister and I to a food pantry to get a block of cheese that would fix a months’ worth of grilled cheese sandwiches and powdered milk for our morning cereal. Although I’d beg my mother to take a different route so the neighborhood children wouldn’t see me holding that bag most knew where it came from, she’d refuse and tell me to walk with my head up.

When I was alone though, walking to the bus stop for school or playing in the park, I’d be teased mercilessly about eating, “Welfare cheese.” I vowed I’d never put my children through that if I had a choice.

When my husband and I applied for food stamps I had to get rid of that painful memory of those childhood jokes by children who didn’t know any better. I also had to remove that veil of shame I felt from receiving them.

I was not surprised but was angered over how judgmental not just of me but of my children people were when they saw me using food stamps. I overheard nasty comments from supermarket customers standing behind me at the checkout register. Some people even proclaimed themselves overseer of my grocery cart, seeing whether there were things in it that were on the “You don’t have a right to buy that on government assistance list,” even if it was a package of chocolate chip cookies.

Receiving food stamps was short lived for my husband and I but for many mothers and families whose circumstances are even more dire than ours; who may be living in a shelter after leaving an abusive relationship, who are trying to get back on their feet after losing a job, a spouse, etc., I can’t help but breathe dragon fire when I hear that someone thinks the majority of mothers, who most likely nurtured their babies with healthy foods from the moment of conception, needed to be monitored by the food police just because they received supplemental nutrition assistance. It makes me livid thinking that although there are definite health disparities among different ethnic and economic groups that there is a sanction of people who feel we’d choose junk food to sustain our children’s diet.

And for those who’d make that choice, isn’t education and nutrition initiatives worthier than a House Bill telling them what they don’t have the right to purchase? Do they recognize that even minorities want to buy organically but often it’s like searching for a needle in a haystack when it comes to finding organic products in our neighborhoods? Did they google to see that the nearest Farmer’s Market where we can buy a bounty of colorful and nutritious garden-fresh vegetables and fruits requires us to do commuter backflips to get to and the thought of doing it with a busy bee toddler is just overwhelming? Do they know that we wish we had a natural food co-op we could frequent so that our children could eat foods organically grown, produced with minimal processing and little to no preservatives or additives and some super mothers are starting a grass roots food co-op of their own?

Social welfare programs have always been a hot point in politics. The debate, both political and private, will continue far beyond this political season. As a mother who has been on food stamps, I will always combat the public shaming of other mothers who are walking in my shoes.

Let’s shame poverty and the fact that their children have to go to bed hungry, not them. They have the right to buy steak, seafood, even an energy drink if they choose to. And they definitely have the right as a mother to buy their child chocolate chip cookies like I did, even the ones that aren’t organic and gluten free.

Jeanine DeHoney has been published in Chicken Soup for the African American Woman’s Soul, Literary Mama, Mutha Magazine, The Mom Egg, Wow: Woman on Writing- The Muffin’s Friday Speak-out, Scary Mommy.com and Parent co., and in several other blogs, anthologies and magazines.

 

 

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So Sentimental

So Sentimental

Art Dollhouse

By Rachel Pieh Jones

Throwing away the little-girl toys doesn’t make me sad this time around.

My oldest daughter is fifteen and my youngest daughter is ten. We recently moved and I’m not a very sentimental mother. I would rather have space on shelves than boxes crammed full of old memorabilia. I would rather make room for sports equipment or downsize than keep buckets of old toys and disintegrating dress-up clothes that don’t fit any of us anymore.

Still, I thought that when the time came to finally get rid of the old stuffed animals and the old dollies and the old wooden dollhouse furniture, that I would feel sad and wind up storing all of it for that one-day-grandchild to enjoy.

There are so many ways I mourn the passing of time as my kids have aged. I miss the pudgy hands grabbing my cheeks and turning my face to force me to look them in the eye. I miss the giggles so easily brought out by a few tickles on the feet. I miss the goofy songs, the post bath slippery toddler streak shows. But I’ve also delighted in each new stage. My sister says, “Rachel says every age is her favorite.” And she’s right. When my kids were two, I loved two. When they were ten, I loved ten. When they were fifteen, I loved fifteen.

Moving is always complicated and living in east Africa doesn’t make it any easier. Few houses have built in closets or storage spaces so unless we want boxes stacked like Legos in our living room, we have to make choices. With each move, we have to consider, what is worth keeping? What would we regret tossing? What would we pay to actually ship to the US some day in the unknown future? So I downsize every time. And in typical American style, within no time at all, we manage to accumulate so much that I need to downsize again.

Our most recent moved required first storing everything in a shipping container for six months while we housesat for another family. This meant we really didn’t have space for extemporaneous items saved merely for nostalgia’s sake. So I started purging. My youngest, at ten, didn’t need the miniature musical instruments or the play clothes that didn’t fit her anymore. She didn’t need the CDs of toddler songs or of kids teaching French through nursery rhymes, she had become fluent in French at school. She didn’t need the board books.

We did keep some toys, for when families with little ones come over to visit and some to bring back to the US at whatever point we return. And we will always keep Legos and American Girl Doll treasures. But, my husband and I fought over the wooden dollhouse we bought in France when I was pregnant with our youngest. It is big and awkward to store, I said. It is precious and unique, he said. He won and it balances on top of our two boxes of stored holiday items.

I like to think that the ease with which I purge has to do with the positive character traits of simplicity and practicality. But, as I thought about it while rummaging through the toy bins and buckets of stuffed animals, I realized I was wrong. I had too high of an opinion of my emotional state and stability.

The reason it was easy to throw or give away these particular toys was because my daughter had never really played with them. I don’t have memories of her holding a My Little Pony or zooming the Matchbox cars around because she didn’t do that.

She is a builder, a creator, a performer, and a people person. Legions of homemade items were scattered everywhere in her room, cardboard boxes turned into American Girl Doll Jeeps, broken pieces of tile from the swimming pool turned into a bathtub, paintings labeled with the names of her school friends. My phone is full of videos of songs she wrote and performed, my computer has a file folder exclusively for the stories she types. Her walls are barely visible through the barrage of photos she has taped up, of all the friends she has loved in America, in Kenya, in Djibouti. These crafted things were much harder to throw away and some of them found their way into boxes and folders to keep.

I look at the dollhouse my husband and I fought over and have another realization. He is just like me. Our kids painted the walls of the dollhouse. They rearranged the interior, they marked it with their personalities.

Turns out I am sentimental, only not for the items purchased as the consumer I am. I’m sentimental for the items designed by the individual, creative child I’m raising.

Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

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Remembering The Rotating Elephant

Remembering The Rotating Elephant

vector illustration of decorated elephant

By Kim O’Connell

On a bright afternoon not too long ago, I took my kids to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., a city that I’ve lived in or near my entire life. Although we’ve been there many times, the dinosaur bones and butterfly garden and mammal exhibits always draw us back. We especially enjoy seeing the giant African elephant that has been displayed in the museum’s rotunda for decades. As we gazed up at its famous uplifted trunk, I told the kids, “When I was little, the elephant turned on a rotating platform.”

They looked at me with raised eyebrows. “When did it stop spinning?” my son asked. Unsure of the answer, I went over to the information kiosk, staffed by a white-haired gentleman who looked seasoned enough to know.

“Excuse me,” I said, “when did the elephant stop rotating?”

The man looked at me quizzically. “This elephant has never rotated.”

“No,” I countered, “I distinctly remember it rotating when I was a child.”

“Nope. Don’t think so.”

I was annoyed that a docent could be so ill-informed. You see, it’s not just that I have a vague recollection that the elephant rotated; I have vivid, specific memories. All of them, I realize, involve my father. My parents split up when I was 7 years old, a moment that forever cleaved away the early part of my childhood. In the way of the newly divorced, my father compensated by frequently taking me to special places on his court-ordered every-other-weekends—the circus, the ballet, the zoo, and the natural history museum. With my small hand in his, I remember standing at the base of the Smithsonian elephant and watching it slowly move, almost imperceptibly, like the shadow of a sundial. I remember it facing a different direction every time I walked back into the rotunda. I remember the way the elephant seemed to spot me out of the corner of its eye as it came around again. There was no way I could be wrong.

When the kids and I got home from the museum, I crowdsourced a query on Facebook: Did anyone else remember the Smithsonian elephant rotating? The answers poured in: No spinning elephant. (However, some people remembered the creature as a woolly mammoth, so I’m not alone in my delusions.) Still unconvinced, I finally tweeted the question to the Smithsonian itself, which responded unequivocally: @kim_oconnell We’ve checked…and the elephant never rotated.

I was, frankly, crushed. I began to wonder whether all my other childhood memories were suspect, too. Had I really almost drowned in a motel pool in Beach Haven, New Jersey, until my father swam up and saved me? Did we really keep a box turtle in our kitchen for a week after my dad found it on a bike trail? Had my third grade teacher really taken me out for cherry ice cream after she testified in my parents’ custody trial? Or was it all like the rotating elephant, a figment of my imagination?

I may never know the answer. Among other things, my father is now gone, so I can’t ask him, and even if I could, chances are his memory would be just as faulty as mine. Scientists have studied the phenomenon of false memories for years, and the unreliability of memory has come up in countless cases involving eyewitness testimony. Apparently, our memories are malleable because our brains are taking in so much information all the time, and our thoughts about our memories, as well as our hopes and dreams and other input, inform what we are filing away for future retrieval. Psychologists have asserted that some false childhood memories can even be useful to us, if they help to construct a positive narrative of one’s past.

This is how I’ve come to view the rotating elephant. Because my time with my father was so precious in those early days, my experiences with him were seared into my memory bank—or some version of them. Many times I have told the story about how a group of camera-toting tourists accosted my father and me outside the Kennedy Center in the 1970s, convinced that I was presidential daughter Amy Carter and my dad was a Secret Service agent. Did it really happen? Maybe. Or maybe just being there with my dad made me feel like we were something more special, together, than we ever were apart.

I hope that someday my kids will feel that way about me, even though our nuclear family—in contrast to the one I grew up in—is so stable, so easily taken for granted, that they aren’t likely to consider our outings all that precious. Still, like my father did before me, I like to take my kids to places like the Natural History museum, where they are forming their own memories of the elephant, fixed as it is on the museum floor. Maybe they find enough magic in its broad shoulders, its wide ears, and its sad eyes. Yet I can’t help but feel grateful to my younger self for conjuring up something even more enchanting—a gigantic elephant spinning, almost dancing, almost alive—to carry with me to adulthood, along with all the other real and manufactured memories that make up my life story. I’m not sure I’m ready to let it go, even now. And in my mind’s eye, at least, I don’t have to.

Kim O’Connell is a writer whose work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Ladies Home Journal, Babble, PsychologyToday.com, National Geographic News, and Little Patuxent Review, among others. In 2015, she was chosen to be the first-ever writer in residence at Shenandoah National Park. She lives in Arlington, Va., with her husband, son, and daughter.

 

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Opinion: No Services

Opinion: No Services

portrait of a sad little boy in red soccer jersey seated on a bench and holding a ball

By Jenna Bagnini

What do you do when your child isn’t disabled enough to qualify for services, but isn’t typical either?

My eleven-year-old son can’t brush his own teeth. He chews on the brush and he doesn’t know how to spit, no matter how many times I’ve tried to show him. So at some point I gave up, took the toothbrush from his hand, and started brushing his teeth for him every day. He walks around with his shoes untied all day, not because he can’t tie them, but because it’s hard for him and he doesn’t want to expend the effort. He can’t ride a bike. He refuses to go to the movies, because it’s too loud and the sensory piece is overwhelming. He can’t prepare himself a sandwich. He can swim, but he won’t put his head in the water. Yet this same child doesn’t have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or even a 504 plan to arrange some special help during the day. Despite his high-functioning autism and ADHD, he’s “not disabled enough” to need services at school.

My son used to have an IEP. He got speech and OT and a social skills group. We moved at the start of this school year, and he was immediately declassified. The new district decided that he no longer needed the assistance. And he is a bright child. He gets good grades. But his behavior is not that of a typical eleven-year-old boy. I believe, even though he is getting some counseling as a building-level service, that his behavior at home is suffering because he is not getting the help he needs at school

Though my son has good grades, if you look in his backpack you will see that it’s a complete disaster. He has an accordion folder for all his subjects, but he just shoves things in and then can’t find them. When I need to send something to school with him to hand to a teacher, I’m pretty sure it isn’t ever going to make its way to the intended destination. And he has a very hard time keeping track of his homework. It’s fortunate for him that he has an incredible memory so he does very well on tests without needing to study for them, because he is constantly forgetting when they are scheduled.

We are restarting the process of evaluating my son and I plan on bringing the paperwork from the neuropsychologist to the school to try again for school-based services. Unfortunately, we are unable to afford private OT, so I am hoping that the school will read over the neuropsych’s report carefully and make a decision that is in the best interest of my child. But I am not entirely optimistic, because he simply doesn’t look “disabled enough” to qualify.

The problem with having a child like mine is that he holds it together so well at school that they don’t see the concerning behaviors (meltdowns, crying fits, refusal to leave the house), and we don’t benefit from any of the interventions that other kids with autism could get. I am constantly hearing that “he is able to access the curriculum.” Yes, he is, but that should not be the end of the story. Grades do not make the whole child. He needs to have social skills and he needs to stop the behaviors, such as picking his nose, that make him distasteful to the other kids. I hear stories from him about being picked on and teased, and I’m afraid it will only get worse as he gets older.

I think it behooves the school to redefine what “able to function in the classroom” means. Are we really doing the best for our children without testing their social skills as well as their ability to regurgitate the facts. If our ultimate goal is to raise productive adults, we have to do better for our fringe kids.

Jenna Bagnini is a divorced mom of three boys (one with special needs), feminist, mental health advocate, yogi, and dancer.

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A Horrible Mother

A Horrible Mother

sad little girl in the car seat

By Holly Rizzuto Palker

Summer camp had just begun and it was the first hot day of the year. The air outside looked wavy. I strapped my child into her car seat and kissed her chubby cheeks. She was my third so I’d learned to take the time to do this. Often. Chelsea was impish and just shy of one-year. She looked up at me with wide eyes and giggled, “Mama.”

On average, 37 children die forgotten in cars each year in the U.S. from heat related deaths. As a 39-year-old stay at home mom of three in New Jersey, I felt constantly overwhelmed with tasks yet I never imagined I could forget my child.

We drove to pick up her older brother from day camp. The car was finally cooling from the air condition that circulated on high for the ten minutes it took us to get there. My mind spilled over with an endless to do list. Camp pickup was a change to our normal routine.

Though Chelsea was almost one, I’d barely slept the night before. I shouldn’t have run to her nursery the moment I heard her screaming but I couldn’t bear to hear her cry. She was my last and I was done Ferberizing. With this child I savored the comfortable feeling of a pudgy little body cuddled up next to me while sleeping. The problem was that once I brought her into my bed, I never fell back into a deep sleep fearing that she could be smothered under the blankets.

“I can do this,” I told myself. I believed I could handle three children with little sleep. Good mothers raised offspring, bought groceries, cooked dinner and kept the house without assistance. I was proud that I could handle it all by myself.

My cell phone rang in the car and it was my mom. She knew my life had been chaotic and my husband had been away for a few days on a work trip. She was aware I needed help since my best sitter was no longer working for me. Her voice switched over to blue tooth and filled my car.

“Do you need me?” she asked.

I glanced in the rearview to see if her tone was too loud for my Chelsea whose thighs folded over the straps at the meeting points of the car seat harness. Her mouth had fallen open, eyes closed she’d been swept away into napping bliss. I spied the rise and fall of her tummy underneath her flowery sundress.

We arrived at camp a few minutes late. I cringed because I knew my son despised being the last kid left anywhere.

“I’m good. I’ve gotta go,” I interrupted my mom who was listing time frames when she could come to New Jersey during the week. She ran her own business and was my grandmother’s caretaker. I didn’t want to burden her.

Watching the other moms walk with their kids swinging racquets on the way to their cars, I got out and locked the doors by remote. I rushed down the path to the camp. I was met with a woosh of ice cold air when I opened the door to the club house. My five-year-old son caught sight of me and ran toward my outstretched arms grabbing his belongings on the way. As I went in for the hug my mind replayed like in a movie when the twist becomes clear. I realized what I’d done. I dropped the racquet and my son’s things. I abandoned him and ran.

“Wait here. I’ll be right back,” I screamed. I waded through what felt like quicksand and I headed back to the car. How much time had passed? A minute? Maybe a few seconds more? Oh my God, how could I have left my little girl the back seat?

“Chelsea,” I yelled, my face bloated with tears. I flung open the door and unlocked the five-point harness, panting. She wasn’t moving. I shook her, assuming the worst. Had I suffocated my own child?

But then she opened her eyes and stared at me bewildered, a bit miffed for waking her so rudely.

I tore my baby from the car seat and ran back into the camp with her, shaky and lightheaded.

“I need water. I forgot her in the car,” I told a mom I knew, crying. Another mother rubbed my back to console me. The looks amongst the adults ranged from complete empathy to utter disgust. A 17 year-old counselor consoled me, “it was just a minute. Its okay.” Could she comprehend the implications of what I’d just done?

Someone brought my daughter a drink. My son looked on confused. Chelsea sipped the water as she sat on my lap, oblivious that I had just become a horrible mother.

I was embarrassed but I stayed for a few minutes, trying to regain my composure. I convinced everyone I was in good shape to drive home but I was unable to trust myself.

We entered the house and I turned on “Peppa Pig” for them to watch. I called my husband in Europe. He understood, and calmed me down.

Next I called my internist and retold the story. She was sympathetic too.

“How could I have done this?” I asked.

“This happens to parents more often than you can imagine. They don’t always remember quickly like you did.”

I kept crying.

“You’re exhausted, mentally stretched and still hormonal,” she answered.

“I’m not in my right mind,” I argued. I couldn’t accept that I made a mistake this severe. I convinced her to send me for testing to determine if I had some sort of cognitive dysfunction.

I heard a news feature about a man two months later who was being tried for murder because he “forgot” his child in a hot car and she died. I secretly sympathized with his defense because I believed how it might happen. Two of my relatives mentioned the story in disbelief. They couldn’t conceive of ever making a mistake so grave with their own children. I was afraid to tell them my story.

My tests came back negative for any mental impairments. From that day on, I drove with my purse by my toddler’s feet. I do this so I can’t leave the car without something I’m used to always holding. I check the back seat double and even triple times without a child in tow. I’ve finally forgiven myself and I thank God that I had the presence of mind to remember my child was in the car before it was too late. I’ve slowed down and stopped trying to be all things to all people. I swallow my pride and ask for a favor when I need it and If I’m late for camp pickup then so be it.

Holly is a freelance writer and novelist. She teaches drama to pre-school children and she is also raising three of her own dramatic children, a husband, and a dog. www.hollyrizzuto.com

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Bedtime Stories For Transgender Kids

Bedtime Stories For Transgender Kids

two girls sitting on the pier

By Heather Osterman

Recently my Facebook feed was flooded with posts about the suicide of a transgender woman I knew tangentially. Depression is a tremendously complicated thing and I certainly didn’t know her well enough to presume any connection between her identity and her action, but it’s hard to separate them completely and it hit me hard. I connected to the comments others wrote on her Facebook page I’m so tired of grieving my transgender sisters and We know this mourning song in our bones.

I’m not transgender, though my husband and many of our friends are. As a white middle-class couple, we’re on the safer end of the spectrum and we still know this song in our bones. But while it’s important to sing this song, as we gather the power to fight hard for a better world, it’s also important to engrave the tune of hope in our hearts because few of us grew up singing it. So, if I had one piece of advice for parents raising transgender children it would be this – fight like hell to make the world a better place for your children, but in the meantime, teach them how to sing, inscribe a story of happiness on every bone of their body. Because narratives matter.

When I came out to my mom as gay twenty-four years ago she confessed that while she would support and love me no matter what, she also worried because, from her perspective, being gay seemed to be a sadder and lonelier life. My then-self, on the cusp of adulthood, was enraged. How dare she insinuate that gay people had greater challenges finding fulfilling relationships and carving out a life for themselves? But now, as a parent of two young children myself, I understand things differently. What parent would ever want their child’s life to be harder than it needs to be?

To be fair, in 1990, her reaction wasn’t out of left-field, and she was voicing my own deepest fear, that I would never be loved. At the time, there were few positive images of gay life in the mainstream media. In every young adult novel I’d read growing up, the gay character was either raped (if they were female) or attempted suicide (if they were male). Our society had just witnessed the gay male community being ravaged by AIDS, and it seemed the only stories about gay people in the news were about discrimination and violence. I didn’t know a single gay couple who was married, let alone with children, and I knew I wanted both of those things. So, if I didn’t see it out there, how could I believe it? How could my mom believe it?

The world has changed a lot in the past twenty years. In no way do I want to minimize the challenges that gay and lesbian youth still face, but there has been a large societal shift.

I think that shift has not brought along the transgender and gender non-conforming population. Over 50% of transgender students will attempt suicide at some point in their lives and 82% report feeling unsafe at school. LGBTQ youth currently make-up the majority of homeless youth. And while I see more and more parents actively and openly supporting their gender non-conforming children, I know many of these parents are still plagued by the fear that their child will never, truly be happy and this fear can impact children in a subtle, but devastating way. While there has been a recent uptick in positive transgender presence in the media, as Janet Mock, a transgender activist, writes, “It’ll take more than a year of a few trans women in media to transform decades of structural oppression and violence, decades of misinformation, decades of exiling.”

If I had my way, the media would be also be flooded with stories of regular transgender people leading happy, fulfilling lives. And while I see more and more parents actively and openly supporting their gender non-conforming children, I know many of these parents are still plagued by the fear that their child will never, truly be happy and this fear can impact children in a subtle, but devastating way. If I had my way, the media would be also be flooded with stories of regular transgender people leading happy, fulfilling lives.

Here’s my token attempt at adding to the pot: My husband and I may not be an Oscar-winning story. We bicker over dishes and laundry and who forgot to buy the milk, but our house is filled with enough love it threatens to explode at the seams. We have two beautiful children, made possible with the help of two good friends, a gay married couple. Our children stop our hearts with smiles and hugs one moment and then drive us to utter distraction the next because they refuse to put on their shoes. Sometimes, my husband will stop in the middle of what he’s doing and say, “I can’t believe that this is my life, how lucky I am. I never imagined that we could have this.”

But he should have been able to. I should have been able to.

As a parent of a gender non-conforming child, I believe that you have three obligations: fight for laws to protect your children, teach them ways to protect themselves, and last but not lease, help them believe in an amazing future, because chances are their biggest fear is the same as yours, that they won’t be accepted or loved. And yes, you have some justifiable reasons to be scared– the murder rates for transgender women of color could make you drop to your knees and sob–but please, don’t only focus on how challenging life might be.

So every night, as you’re tucking your child in to bed, lean close, kiss their cheek and tell them this bedtime story again and again, “Once upon a time there was a transgender child and they were so, so beautiful and so, so loved. And they went out into the world, and oh, the wonderful things that happened.”

Heather Osterman-Davis is a mother of two young children and is constantly attempting to balance creative and domestic endeavors. Her work has appeared in Time; Creative Non-Fiction; Literary Mama; Listen to Your Mother; and Agave Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @heatherosterman

 

 

 

 

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Milk and Cake

Milk and Cake

beauty child at the blackboard

By Sarah Bousquet

Last week it occurred to me, I’ve stopped counting my daughter’s age in months. It wasn’t a conscious decision. It just tapered off, which I suppose is typical after age two. This morning I measured her height on the pantry door frame. She’s grown an entire inch since we last measured her on her birthday in January. Then I started counting days on the calendar and discovered her half-birthday is exactly halfway between her dad’s birthday and mine. I told her we’ll bake a half-birthday cake.

Her legs suddenly look so long. “She’s stretching out,” my mom says. That’s what it feels like too, stretching, both of us. Drifting from our perfect dyad, stretching toward autonomy. The evolution of nursing newborn to nursing toddler-the dramatic growth and change, the intimacy and beauty-is almost impossible to capture. From balled fists to dexterous hands. From curled toes to toddler feet flung in my face. It feels like only months ago I sat glassy-eyed and thirsty, nursing my newborn, so voracious, it felt like she was sucking milk from the bones of my back.

There is the magic of that transition from cut umbilical cord to latched breast; nine months of nourishment invisible, now suddenly right before your eyes. And you see how perfect the design. For us, breastfeeding was that easy. Instant and harmonious. Nursing my baby evolved almost as unconsciously as my heart pumping blood.

The triumph of a body doing what a body does was packed with meaning. After nearly three years of struggling to conceive, I became pregnant naturally, much to my surprise and elation. For months and then years I had worried, wondered, researched—why wasn’t my body working? My pregnancy was an answered prayer, but one fraught with anxiety. The act of breastfeeding, just moments after giving birth, my daughter’s perfect latch, allowed me to see my body in action. It was the assurance I was providing everything she needed, the empowerment of a body at work.

When my daughter was six months old, a hyper clarity bloomed. I would listen to conversations, observe the behavior of others, and have sudden insights, new depths of understanding. I remember saying to my husband, “It’s the strangest thing, I feel like I can almost see right through people.” I called them popcorn epiphanies, these realizations that came in quick succession like kernels popping in the pot. I tried to write a few down, but they felt indescribable and came too quickly.  The lactating brain is plastic and creative; new neurochemical pathways are forged during the process of breastfeeding. I felt the changes in myself as surely as I saw the changes in my daughter. As she awakened to the world around her, taking in sights and sounds, babbling and laughing, intelligent eyes holding my gaze, I too became more alert and aware, both of us growing together.

I more often use the term nursing, which feels all-encompassing and true. Because breastfeeding is about much more than nourishment. It is medicine, comfort, bonding, security. You have only to nurse a toddler who has just finished a breakfast of banana pancakes to understand that nursing is pure contentment. Pure peace.

And sometimes pure hilarity. When she’s in her father’s arms calling out, “Goodnight, Mommy! Goodnight, milks!” When she charms and cajoles, “How about milks on the couch? Sound like a plan?” Or when I step out of the shower, and she’s there handing me a towel, her face so full of glee, calling out, “My milks! My milks!” Such celebration of my body. Such love.

I’ve been reflecting as it begins to taper. I’d never set any specific goals around nursing, no timelines or numbers. I have followed my baby’s cues and my body’s cues. And I will follow that wisdom into the next phase, as we grow together, celebrating the glittering increments, marking the door frame, baking half-birthday cakes.

Sarah Bousquet is Brain Child’s 2016 New Voice of the Year. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at https://onebluesail.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.

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Raising A Child Who Is Like Me

Raising A Child Who Is Like Me

Silhouette of a young mother lovingly holding hands with her happy little child outside in front of a sunset in the sky.

By Tanya Slavin

I wake up to a steady and dull thump-thump-thump outside. I look out of the window: grey sky and a heavy wall of rain. It’s Saturday morning. I breath a sigh of relief.

I put my head back on the pillow, close my eyes and take in the comforting sound of pouring rain for a few more minutes. Saturday indoors? No pressure to get dressed, get organized, and go “do” things? The complete guilt-free permission to stay inside and let the day spontaneously unfold, guided only by our minute to minute desires? What could be better than that? I know, just as I lay there listening, that somebody else in my house is relieved too. Martin, my 7-year-old son, like me, is delighted at an opportunity to spend a weekend indoors.

Martin is a lot like me in many ways. We both enjoy an opportunity to stay indoors on a rainy Saturday. We both, it seems, need to have a lot time to ourselves, doing self-directed activities. We are both slow to warm up to people, but once we have warmed up to them, are ready to be vulnerable and give all of ourselves. We are both very physical – he needs cuddles, I also crave touch. We are both highly sensitive. We get overwhelmed by crowds, we don’t understand the appeal of large loud events, or the pressure to try and ‘do’ things all the time. The drive to constantly try new things is equally alien to us. We both notice and can get hurt by things that other people don’t pay attention to – a slight rise in someone’s intonation, a wrong gaze. We’re both worried that people will stare at us when we have a new item of clothing or a new haircut (well I not so much anymore, but as a child I did).

It’s a great in so many ways to have a child who is so similar to you. We have this connection going. I understand – no, I often can almost see what he is feeling. I know exactly what he is going through. My relationship with him has made me reconnect with young and child parts of myself – a process that has been both painful and healing. I have grown to understand myself so much more while trying to understand him. Every day he is teaching me how to be the most authentic version of myself. And then the best thing of all in my mind is that we never have to go to Disneyland…

But having a son so similar to me inevitably comes with its own challenges, too. Before I had kids, I imagined that being a mother would mostly involve sitting on a bench with other moms and talking about grown up stuff, while happy boys and girls around us played tag, chasing each other and laughing, climbed trees, had fun on slides and swings, and generally enjoyed themselves in a typical non-self-conscious kid way. My main job would be, just like that of other mothers, to kiss booboos and tape band-aid to scraped knees, dispense snacks and drinks, and help resolve occasional kid quarrels. For some reason, it had never occurred to me that I could have a kid who would be like me when I was little, the non-typical and shy child, who would stand there in the middle of the playground not knowing what to do with himself, and after a while come to me and either ask to go home or ask me to help him introduce him into a group of kids. “Mama, I want to play with that boy over there!” he whispers into my ear, meaning that he needs my help to get the interaction started. In such moments, I truly wish that we were different. That I’d be a confident and chatty kind of mom who could easily help him in new situations and interactions. Instead I curl up into a tense ball inside, make up some kind of lame excuse for why I can’t do that, and pray that the other mom overhears our conversation and takes on the task of initiating the interaction between the two kids.

But, perhaps, the biggest challenge in raising a kid who is similar to you is not to project too much of yourself onto him, not to assume that just because you’re so similar, he is like you in every way. I see that in Martin every day, if I pay close enough attention, his own unique ways of being in the world. I see it in his interests, in the way interacts with people once he warms up to them, in the way his energy takes over the room and engages everyone present when there is something he is excited about. He is a lot like me, but he is not me, I tell myself. He is his own person. And I have to keep reminding that to myself over and over again.

Tanya Slavin is mother of two and a freelance writer. Her essays have been published in Brain, ChildManifest-Station and Washington Post. Find her on her website, or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

photo credit: © Christin_Lola

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Tennis With The Man Boy

Tennis With The Man Boy

Tennis original hand drawn collection

By Vic Sizemore

I am playing summer tennis at Peaks View Park in the midday sun. Sweat runs inside my sunglasses, makes them slippery on my nose. My deodorant is beginning to fail and at certain swings of my racket, I catch of whiff of my stinking animal body. I take my time between volleys to get myself back to the baseline. Though I am the better player, he is several inches taller than I am, young and in better shape. He just dropped one over the net and I almost tripped trying to reach it in time. My knee and hip both ache from the jarring attempt.

The side parking lot has a steady flow of college kids here for disc golf. A boy smokes weed at his open trunk. A girl pulls up beside him. They gather their discs and head over the hillside toward the course.

I take him to deuce three times. Back at ad out, he slides a serve down the line and I swat it into the net. As we switch courts, I hold my racket out flat and he lays three Wilson balls on it.

I stuff all three balls into my right front pocket and lean my racket into the net. We both swig from our water bottles and rub the icy condensation on our faces. I take off my sunglasses and dry my face with my shirt. The man who just beat me is my son. Just through his first year of college, he is home for the summer. He takes a long swig of water and gazes out over the park.

While he is not looking, I size him up. Tall, lean but broad shouldered. Strong. In that moment, a memory hits me. I am racing my ex-wife J from West Union, Ohio to the hospital in Maysville, Kentucky, where the doctor on call, a stranger to us both, worked his rubber-gloved fingers in and out of her.

“He’s breached,” the doctor said, and he mashed and kneaded J’s stomach with such rough force, I worried he would injure the baby, who nevertheless stayed breached. They prepped J in a rush and performed an emergency C-section. I sat by her head and watched the procedure in the mirror above. The smell of singed flesh rose into the room as the hot scalpel cauterized the wound as it cut. The fatty tissue inside J’s split stomach was shockingly white.

A nurse spread the incision apart with a shiny steel tool, and the doctor pushed the fingers of both hands into the cavity of J’s torso and pulled out a red baby boy. His head was round, not squeezed into the shape of a banana by the birth canal, dark hair slimed down flat.

“You okay, dad?” a nurse said. “Do you need to sit down?”

“I’m okay,” I answered, staring at this creature.

Another nurse, on the other side, said, “You want to cut the umbilical cord, dad?”

I took the snips from her and cut the cord, purple and shiny as wet plastic.

The nurses immediately swept the boy off to the pediatrician’s table under a warming light, and the doctor immediately went to work stitching J back together.

“Dad,” a nurse said, “do you want to meet your son?”

On the table, the boy’s body folded itself back in half, as it was in the womb, heels to ears, no bigger than a bag of flour. His purple scrotum was swollen, full and tight as a new Hacky Sack. The warming light was hot on my forearm as I greeted him. He turned, squinted up at me, intense, confused.

As the memory flashes through my mind, the intervening nineteen years collapse on me,  into this impossibly brief instant. This might be his last summer home, who knows. I want to grab him in a hug but I don’t.

Instead I walk to my baseline and say, “I’m going to play for real this time.”

He chuckles, nods, and spins his racket in front of him.
Vic Sizemore’s fiction and nonfiction are published or forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review, storySouth, Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Eclectica, Sou’wester, and elsewhere. His fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award, and been nominated for Best American Nonrequired Reading and two Pushcart Prizes. Sizemore teaches creative writing at Central Virginia Community College.

illustration © bioraven

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The First And The Last

The First And The Last

Young Mother and Daughter Enjoying a Personal Moment

By Alice Jones Webb

My first child has a thick baby book. I started keeping it as soon as I discovered I was pregnant. My odd food cravings, the first stirrings of movement, and the onset of labor are all recorded in neat printed letters on pastel pages. I was so enamored by my first child, even before I had met him, that I wanted to record every detail of his existence. I didn’t want to chance forgetting anything.

After his birth, I continued to write down every one of his “firsts.” I was meticulous in recording each event. Dates, day of the week, even the time of day are all printed cleanly and evenly in the pages of his baby book. I was so afraid of the details of him slipping away as he grew. Perhaps I was afraid that he was too good to be true, that if I didn’t get every single part of him down, he would slip through my fingers.

The first time he said, “Mama” is one of my favorites. I cried fat tears. I remember exactly what he was wearing when he took his first tottering steps. The first time he laughed, the first time he used a spoon to feed himself (and the patiently waiting family dog), used the potty, rode a bicycle, drove a car, they are all chiseled in deep grooves across my memory.

He was my first child and so many of his firsts were firsts for me, too. As he was experiencing newness in his world, I was experiencing it in mine.

I shouldn’t have worried about forgetting. I haven’t needed the pastel pages of that baby book at all. It sits on a shelf collecting a layer of fine dust. Even though my first child has slipped away from me, leaving home and pursuing his own adult dreams, my memories are still incredibly clear and vivid. Each of his “firsts” are burned into my memory, because each of his defining moments also defined me as a mother. They are part of me. They are who I am.

My youngest child has had a very different experience. There is no baby book, no pastel pages, no dates or times, no meticulous list of “firsts.” Caught up in the busyness and chaos of raising her and her siblings, I was more concerned with keeping the house standing and the children alive than printing her accomplishments in neat even script. Most days I didn’t even have a moment to brush my hair, let alone write anything down. Unlike her brother’s “firsts” which I recall with stunning accuracy, hers have slipped away from me, lost in the pit of oblivion that was folding laundry, tending house, and feeding babies.

I cannot remember them. Not a single one. Not her first smile, nor her first words, nor her first steps. No matter how many times or how hard I try to conjure up the images of her “firsts” from the caverns of my memory, I come up empty every single time.

It’s not her fault. It is mine. I had already been through the tiny little miracles of a child’s “firsts” three times over. She is the youngest of four, her “firsts” didn’t dazzle me the way her older brother’s had. Instead, they seemed more normal, more expected. I didn’t pause to savor them. At the time, it seemed like so big an effort to step over the unfolded laundry, to walk across the room, sidestepping the toys as I went, to record her accomplishments. My hands were too full of her and her siblings to even consider holding a pen, let alone print anything cleanly and evenly. I will admit that I am rather ashamed of my negligence.

So the memories of her “firsts” have been lost in the swirl of time that streams behind me. I’ll never be able to grasp them again. I can’t remember them and there is no dusty baby book to remind me, either. But there are other details of her that I remember with painful clarity. I remember her “lasts.”

For the same reasons I remember her brother’s “firsts” so intensely, I have her “lasts” cut with the same deep grooves through my memory. His firsts and her lasts, the whole of my experience of motherhood is sandwiched between them. They are the bookends. He was my first and so many of his firsts were my firsts. She is my last child. Her lasts will be my lasts, strung out like a long farewell.

I remember the last time she nursed at my breast. The last time she slept in my bed. The last time she sat on my lap. The last time she called for me in the middle of the night.

Even now, every time she runs to me, hairbrush in hand after a failed attempt at a self-implemented ponytail, I wonder “Will this be the last time I brush her hair?” And it crushes my heart to think that it might. So I take my time, my fingers lingering on the soft strands of her hair. It might be the last time. I want to remember it. Every last bit.

Alice Jones Webb lives with her husband and four children in small town North Carolina. Her work can be found on her blog, Different Than Average (differentthanaverage.com) where she writes about parenting outside of mainstream culture, as well as sites such as Scary Mommy, The Mind Unleashed, and Elephant Journal among others.

The Decision

The Decision

row of stones at water - 3d illustration

By Mandy Hitchcock

First, we took down the baby gate, leaving the wall scarred and torn. I walked up and down the stairs unencumbered, startled at the ease with which I crossed their threshold—no fumbling with a latch rickety from years of use, no extra seconds spent ensuring the gate was locked behind me. I felt liberated, as if the gate’s purpose had been to hold me back rather than my two small children. But on the outer edges of my consciousness, in that place that I notice only when it’s silent, I felt unsettled.

Next, I gave away all the baby clothes, then the baby gear. A few things remain—personalized gifts and handmade blankets that we’ll keep, and the stray teething ring or rattle that we sometimes find buried at the bottom of one of the many diaper boxes scattered around the house to hold toys.

Then we moved two-year-old Ada from her small nursery upstairs beside our bedroom into a room downstairs and across the hall from her four-year-old brother Jackson. We disassembled and reassembled the crib for the umpteenth but final time. As I passed the used-to-be nursery on my way to bed that night, I was startled by the open door and the dark, empty room where just that morning I’d plucked Ada from her crib and diapered and dressed her. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought I felt a slight chill waft out of the gaping doorway.

And finally, my husband had a vasectomy. When I got his email about the appointment, I cried. I grieved, not only because we will have no more children, but because the two children living in my house are the only two children who will ever live in my house, even though I am a mother of three.

My oldest child Hudson died of a sudden and aggressive bacterial infection before her younger siblings were born. She was seventeen months old. Today she would be seven years old.

My husband and I always planned on having three children. It seemed like the right number to us—two not quite enough, four a touch too many. My own three siblings were so much older than I was that I was practically an only child. I’d always imagined a large-ish family—loud, fun-loving, squabble-prone, and fiercely devoted to one another. I pictured the five of us huddled together on the couch with a large bowl of popcorn, fighting over which movie to watch. I imagined us crowded into a packed car as we made our way across the country to fill our national park passports with stamps, pulling out of every campground shouting, “We’re off . . . like a herd of turtles!” I saw myself presiding over big gatherings years down the road when my kids and grandkids would come home for Christmas, little groups of cousins tearing through my shabby but well-loved house.

Little did I know how hard it might be to bring to life the filmstrip that had run through my head for so long. I got pregnant so easily the first time that I almost felt guilty—some of our friends had tried for so long to have a child. But now, eight years later—after one lightning-fast and ultimately fatal infection for our first child, a cancer diagnosis for me bookended by three more pregnancies, the final one ending in miscarriage—we still have only two living children.

Our decision to get pregnant that fourth time was tortured. Though we’d always wanted three living children, we were older than we ever thought we’d be while still having children, we were exhausted from nearly seven years of parenting very small kids, and we were ready to move on to a new phase of our lives. But we hadn’t let go of the idea of three kids under our roof. The notion of three became more urgent for me after our daughter died. I could not shake the fear that we might suffer the terrible fate of losing yet another child. I dreaded leaving one of my children alone with grieving—and later, aging—parents. We left the decision to fate, and when, unsurprisingly, I turned up pregnant, I thought I’d resolved any doubts I had. But the pregnancy never felt quite right. Perhaps it was my body’s way of telling me that the pregnancy wasn’t viable, but when the baby died at nine weeks, I had the brutal realization that as much as I wanted three living children, there was no point in trying to have another baby. I was trying to fix a problem that couldn’t be fixed. No matter how many children I had, I would never have the family of three I actually wanted, because I would never get my oldest daughter back.

Acceptance of this truth has come in long and painful stages. With each piece of baby gear I give away, each little shirt I picture on one of my own babies for the last time before packing it up, each time I buckle only two kids into the backseat of my car, I loosen my grip on the fantasy that my family will ever feel complete.

And some days, I am grateful. Some days I feel so overwhelmed with these two in the house that I can’t imagine how anyone manages with more. On those days, I don’t know what we were ever thinking hoping for three, and I feel relieved we decided not to have another. But those days are also the worst days, because if the world were different and if we’d have stopped at two in the first place, that means that my youngest daughter is alive only because my oldest daughter is dead.

I cannot win this battle no matter how I look at it.

But most days, I mourn the family I’ll never have. When a neighbor dropped by to pick up some baby items I was selling, I smiled when I peeked into the open back window of her SUV and saw two car seats—one facing forward, holding a chubby-cheeked, red-headed girl, and one facing backward, holding a sleeping infant. But then she opened the rear liftgate, revealing a booster seat in the third row, overflowing with a gangly, red-headed boy. I asked her how old they were, already certain of the answer. Five, three, and five months, she replied.

Almost exactly the ages my kids would have been a year before had they all been living and filling up the back of my minivan.

That oldest sibling, that long-limbed kid in that tall booster seat in that third row. The epitome of everything I was giving away when I accepted his mother’s two twenty dollars bills.

As time flings me into the next stage of my life, a life with no more children, a mother of three with only two, I feel much like I did when I took down the baby gate: conscious of the scars, but resigned to co-existing with them; freed, but not at all certain that I want to be.

Mandy Hitchcock is a writer, bereaved mother, cancer survivor, and recovering lawyer. Her essays also appear in Brain Child, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Modern Loss, and elsewhere, as well as in the forthcoming HerStories anthology So Glad They Told Me. She lives with her family in Carrboro, North Carolina. You can find her at mandyhitchcock.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

 

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Mothering My Way Through Her Milestones

Mothering My Way Through Her Milestones

Mother and daughter holding hands while walking together

By Estelle Erasmus

When my daughter was two, we took a short family cruise. Our last night on board, I packed up our luggage and left it in front of our door to be picked up. By the time I realized I had stashed away all her diapers in our oversized suitcase, they’d already collected it.

“I can’t sleep without my pull-ups,” my newly potty trained toddler cried.

“You’re able to hold it in during the day, honey, maybe you can do it in the night, too,” I said.

“I can’t,” she wailed.

With my daughter listening closely, my husband and I investigated where we could get pull-ups. Unfortunately, the shops had closed for the evening.

As I placed a mound of towels in her crib, in a makeshift effort to avoid the flood that was coming—and not just from her eyes— I felt torn with guilt. I reassured my anxious child that she’d make it through the night dry, while my heart ached for her knowing she wouldn’t.

Then her small voice piped up.

“We have to go to the camp on the boat, mommy.”

“You’re not going to the day camp downstairs now. You’re going to bed.”

“No,” she insisted. “The camp has pull-ups. I saw them.”

Racing down three flights of stairs, I was grateful to see a cavalcade of little ones watching a movie. The understanding counselor responded to my plight by donating a few diapers. But the real gift was how my sweet baby had solved her own problem.

It started me thinking about the steps we had taken the first time we tried to toilet train her. First, I bought Once Upon a Potty, which I read to her, and then I got her a potty of her own that I let her decorate with stickers. Finally, I showed her the illustrations from the book to demonstrate exactly how it worked. My Princess sat on her “throne” and did nothing but look at picture books. After a few weeks of trying with no discernible results I was frustrated and gave up.

Shortly after, we attended a party, where the tiara-topped birthday girl in a tutu proudly pulled out her “seat” and filled it to the brim. I saw a light of recognition flash in my toddler’s eyes as she connected the deed with the device. After that, toilet training was a breeze. Just as important, I realized that my child does best when she can model her behavior after someone.

                  ***

Soon after, I had the chance to help her when I noticed that she came on strong with new friends in the playground, following them around, or reaching out for her pal’s hand, then becoming upset if the girl pulled away.

One day after another incident that left her full of ire, I hugged my frustrated little one.

Mommy’s going to help you. I’ll show you what to do.”

She hugged me back.

Let’s pretend I’m your new friend,” I said. Go ahead and take my hand.”

When she did, I pulled it away from her.

No, I don’t want to hold hands,” I told her in a child’s voice.

“But I want to, mommy,” she said.

Don’t grab her hand again,” I said. “Just tell her, ‘it’s fine’, then walk away.”

After a few practice sessions—which had her screaming with laughter when I varied the pitches of my voice— she stopped acting desperate for friendship.

***

The summer she turned five, during a weekly play date three girls battled over who would wear the one sparkly gown for dress-up. It ended up my daughter’s prize, infuriating one of the girls who told the rest not to play with her.

Though we were both upset, I calmed down.

“Listen, sweetie, not everybody is going to get along, and not everybody is going to like you and that’s okay.”

She nodded with rapt attention, brushing back the tears brimming from her eyes.

“If it happens again, say, ‘It’s a free country. You don’t have to play with me and I don’t have to play with you’. Then find something else to do.”

We practiced for a week until she had the words and the attitude right. The next time someone tried to shun her, my girl was ready with the script we’d worked on. The result was minimal emotional collateral damage.

As she grows, I’ve noticed that her friends are exerting more influence on her, particularly when it comes to achievement.

For example, last summer, she was tasked with the deep-water challenge at camp in order to be allowed to paddle boat on the lake. The challenge was to hold her breath underwater for twenty seconds, float on her back for two minutes, and swim four laps without touching the sides of the pool. A few of her friends had already passed the test. At first she was fearful, but I pointed out that everybody starts at beginner levels for any challenge in life.

“Yesterday, your friend Ellen didn’t pass the test, but today she did. She worked hard to do that—it didn’t just come to her. You can pass, it, too. But you have to practice.”

“I will,” she said. And she did.

She came to show me her medal, when several weeks later she aced the test.

“I’m so proud of you, but more important, you should be proud of yourself,” I said.

“I am mom.”

My seven-year-old is eager for more challenges.

Right now, I’m teaching her how to cross the street with me as she carefully observes how I look to the right and the left, and watch for cars turning or backing up, before we start walking across.

“Mom, when I’m older, I’m going to cross the street by myself, and I’m not going to hold your hand at all,” she shares, flush with the power of her future.

If traffic were a metaphor for life, I would say that for now, we’ll practice together navigating the quiet streets of her childhood, in preparation for the busy thoroughfare of her teen years.

Because one day, instead of being steered by me, she’ll need to be the one doing all the driving.

Estelle Erasmus is a journalist and writing coach. She has been published in Brain, Child, The Washington Post On Parenting, parenting.com, Vox, Salon and more. You can read more of her work at:  http://estelleserasmus.com

 

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Brown, Orange, and Beige like Caramel

Brown, Orange, and Beige like Caramel

Art Sandbox

By Alexander Schuhr

“Maybe you want to play with him,” the woman says, leading her daughter toward a toddler sitting in the sand. The boy doesn’t need anybody to play with. He is completely absorbed with his task of shoveling sand into a bucket. Nevertheless, this woman seems terribly eager to see her girl join him in this endeavor. She proceeds to drag her away from my daughter.

For my daughter, the fact that everybody has a different color is as self-evident as mundane. Her stuffed dinosaur is green, her plush duck is yellow, and she has a pink teddy bear. Similarly, mommy is brown. (A more accurate description than “black.”) Daddy is orange. (Inaccurate, as far as I’m concerned, but so is “white.”) She describes herself as “beige like caramel,” sometimes clarifying “like Leela,” an Indian-American character in Sesame Street (Comparable complexion, though different ethnicity… but then again, why would she care about that?) In the protected world of our home, I have a comparably innocent approach to skin color. In the outside world, however, a different reality imposes itself.

In the two years of her life, my daughter underwent a complex transformation of racial identity, unbeknownst to her. For some time after her birth, her complexion remained very similar to mine, and her hair was straight. People considered her Caucasian. On more than one occasion, my wife was asked, with an insolent tone of disbelief, whether she was the mother. Then, there was an extended period of ambiguity. Eventually, her hair became curlier, her once-milky skin tone turned into the color of a café au lait: still with lots of milk, but just enough coffee to keep people guessing. Few would guess out loud, of course. People feel much too uncomfortable talking about race. I’ve seen them several times, the relieved expressions on faces, like when a bothersome puzzle is solved, when either my wife or I appeared next to the other parent, thus clarifying my daughter’s ethnicity.

Our daughter’s skin became only slightly darker. At some point, she must have crossed a threshold, though, and the “one-drop rule” went into effect. Now she was no longer “ambiguous” but “black.” Suddenly it would be an overwhelming majority of black people—occasionally other “people of color”—who would interact with her, call her cute, and tell me how beautiful she was.

Along with her apparent transformation to “blackness” came my worry that she may be subjected to the same vicious, sneaky force that I’ve seen too many times applied to my wife. Social scientists call them “new racism” or “racial microaggressions,” these subtle traces of racial bias in everyday situations. They are faint symptoms of a social disease, well known to virtually any minority group, yet often unacknowledged by the Caucasian majority. They are harder to spot than the hateful slogans of the white supremacist with the swastika tattoo, the degrading slurs of the hooded clansman, or even the thinly disguised attacks of the populist demagogue that are effortlessly decoded by his intended audience. No, new racism is subtler, less identifiable. It is conveyed by the flight attendant whose cheerful demeanor becomes cold and distant when serving an Asian passenger, by the group of giggling coeds that turns silent when the Hispanic classmate enters the lecture theater, or the motorist who, while waiting for the green light, feels compelled to lock the car when he spots the African-American pedestrian on the sidewalk. The ambiguity of these signals makes it difficult to identify their nature. Each isolated incident may be vague and open to alternative interpretations, but their aggregation makes all doubt vanish.

And now there is that woman, who pushes her daughter away from mine, toward the deeply absorbed toddler with the shovel. She gives me a nervous smile, which reveals uneasiness as well as defiance. I don’t smile back. While I feel offended by her action, I cannot be certain of its meaning. Part of the viciousness of subtle racism lies in its obscurity to the recipient, and sometimes even the perpetrator. Consequently, I find myself wondering whether I am too suspicious. Maybe it’s innocent. Maybe she knows the little boy and fears he is lonely or bored. Maybe she fears older kids (my daughter is not older than hers, but is unusually tall for her age). Maybe she fears me, the only dad on the playground. I try to find other explanations, but cannot ignore the one reason that seems to be an obvious possibility, and I dread the day this reason may appear equally possible to my little girl.

Yet, it is a bitter truth that she will become aware of racism in its subtle and not-so-subtle forms. And it is my duty to prepare her, so that she can identify the deficiency in the senders of such messages and never attribute it to herself. It is a duty I face with the utmost determination, but also with profound sadness. I cherish our protected world, where people are simply brown, orange, or beige like caramel.

Alexander Schuhr is an independent scholar and freelance writer. He has spent much of his adult life between the U.S., Europe, and sub-Saharan Africa. He and his wife have a two-year old daughter.

Why I Stopped Reading Parenting Books

Why I Stopped Reading Parenting Books

Good Parenting and Practices of Being in a Family

By Debbie Urbanski

When I found out I was pregnant, I made some promises to myself. I was going to be a great mother. Being a great mother meant never raising my voice. It meant creating a house of quiet and calm. It meant playgrounds and crafts and my children having play dates all the time. I wanted to give my kids a different childhood than the one I had. As for how to become this kind of mother, I had no idea, so I decided to read some parenting books.

Thankfully there are a lot of parenting books.

I started with The Baby Book by Dr. Sears, which advocates in 769 pages for babywearing and lots of cuddling. This sounded nice. I bought several slings and a baby carrier before my son was born. When my son was born, he cried all the time, whether he was in the sling or not. His cries were neither small nor cute. He was really loud in fact. When he wasn’t crying, he wanted to be nursing. He began nursing all through the night and I wasn’t able to sleep while he was nursing so I became non-functional. A neighbor told me about Dr. Ferber of the rather notorious “cry it out” method. “Do babywearing mothers use Ferber?” I asked this neighbor. “Sure,” she said. We used Dr. Ferber’s book Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems as a guide to ferberize our child, meaning we set our infant in his nursery, in his crib, and we shut the door. Periodically we checked on him but we were not to pick him up until the morning. Dr. Ferber promised the child would only cry in his crib for a few nights. My son’s crying at night went on for weeks or longer. I don’t remember the exact length of time as I’ve blacked out that part of my life.

This was my first clue that the advice in parenting books was not always accurate for my particular child.

I ignored the clue.

My son grew into a strong-willed child who protested transitions and change. Positive Discipline led to Raising Your Spirited Child after which came The Explosive Child, which recommends collaborative problem solving and negotiation. Instead of problem solving collaboratively, my son screamed at me. Still, I was convinced that some book out there contained the secret to parenting my son. It was only a matter of finding the correct book.

After my son was diagnosed with mild autism, I became buried in an avalanche of books: Asperger Syndrome and Difficult Moments; The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism; anything by Temple Grandin; 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s. Mothers at social skills classes recommended more books and even some DVD’s: The Calm Parenting University and Stop Defiance Now! and The Nurtured Heart Approach.

Soon every moment of the day became a moment to improve my child using book-approved methods. My nightstand, and in fact my life, had become a mess of notes and parenting books. I felt like I was standing on a cliff beside my son, about to jump, and here I was tying pages of books to our arms like they could be wings.

It was unsustainable, of course.

One morning I woke up one morning and gave all those books away.

The moment the books left my life, I felt like a weight had been taken off of my back.

In some ways, I still miss these books. They were my addiction, my habit. They gave me an easy hope. If I only read enough, and read the right books, and managed to remember the advice such books were telling me, my son might turn into a different child, an easier-to-manage child, and I would end up being that parent, the warm playground-loving parent I hoped I would be

“No,” my child’s therapist corrected me. She said my particular child doesn’t need that parent I imagined, the one who did crafts and gave lot of hugs. “Your son doesn’t even like hugs,” she reminded me. True. My son needed a firmer parent who can teach him how to follow instructions and use silverware. A parent who implements incentive plans and sticks to them and is able to ignore the insults while keeping her temper in check, while using physical guidance if required.

That’s the parent I need to figure out how to be.

Unlike those parenting books, my child’s therapist has never promised me a miracle. Sometimes she asks me what I think I should do. No parenting book ever asked me this question.

Recently, my mom wrote me an email containing some ideas for raising my son. I wrote back and explained I was taking a break from outside parenting advice, that I was just working with my son’s therapist right now and trying one new thing at a time. Progress was slower this way, nobody was expecting a cure, though at least there was progress. My mom and I did not talk for months after I sent that message. She thought I didn’t need her in my life. What I needed, I later told her once I finally called her, is for someone not to tell me what to do, but to tell me I will know what I’m doing someday. To tell me I can figure this out. This is the message I wish more parenting books contained: that being a nurturing mother does not mean mimicking other mothers. It means being the mother your child needs, and what your child needs may not resemble anything that can be contained in a book.

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Debbie Urbanski’s writing has appeared in Orion, The Sun, the Kenyon Review, Nature: the International Weekly Journal of Science, and Terraform. She holds an MFA from Syracuse University. Read more of her work at: debbieurbanski.com or find her on Twitter @debbieurbanski.
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Dear Teachers

Dear Teachers

Beautiful smiling girl on a black background. School concept

By Rachel Pieh Jones

We are an American family living in Djibouti and my kids attend a French school. Their first days of preschool were the first days they spent entirely and only surrounded by the French language.

I am not a teacher. I think I might explode, or implode, if I were a teacher. I don’t have all the skills I want my kids to inherit, few parents do. That’s why we need teachers and these are just a few of the skills our teachers have given, alongside an academic education:

Preschool: Communication

At my first parent-teacher meeting, the teacher told all the parents that our children had to ask permission, in polite French, before using the toilet. Then she looked at me.

“Except Lucy,” she said. Lucy was allowed to grab herself, bite her lip, and do a little dance. “Until she learns the words.”

I loved the teacher immediately.

Kindergarten: Empathy

Lucy’s class was going to march in a school costume parade. She had volunteered to dress up as a wolf, they were representing Little Red Riding Hood, La Petite Chaperone Rouge. She had been so excited about her costume until she got to school and saw some of her friends dressed in cute red dresses, carrying baskets of flowers. She had a fuzzy brown mask and a dull orange costume. She started to cry.

Her teacher understood the problem right away and within minutes, she designed a red cape, skirt, and handkerchief for Lucy’s head. She manufactured a basket and pulled flowers from a bougainvillea bush outside the classroom. Voila, the wolf transformed into a smiling, damp-cheeked Little Red Riding Hood.

First Grade: Pride

We spent this year in the United States. Lucy went to a French-immersion school in the Minnesota public school system. She didn’t know how to ride the bus or how to work things out in the school cafeteria or how to play the American games at recess. But she was now a rock star in the classroom, her French far beyond the levels of the other students.

The teacher helped Lucy navigate the culture of the American classroom while celebrating her Djiboutian experiences. Lucy sobbed on the last day of school, primarily because she loved her teacher so much.

Second Grade: Compassion

Back to Djibouti and this year, my older two children started attending a boarding school. Lucy has now gone through several huge transitions. An international move and learning to be the only child left at home, missing her older siblings.

One day at school, Lucy had a total meltdown. She was sobbing and couldn’t stop. The more she cried, the more embarrassed she became and the angrier she became and the more she cried. She didn’t remember later what she was crying about. The teacher asked her to step outside until she calmed down. The next day, Lucy apologized. The teacher was not upset and didn’t make her feel embarrassed, but welcome. He let her be who she was, intense emotions and all.

Third Grade: Empowerment

This year we maintained the status quo. Tried to keep things steady – no big moves, no major changes in our family situation. And this year, Lucy got to be the rock star again. There were two new girls who only spoke English. They needed someone to help them navigate the school culture and to translate what was going on in class. The teacher put Lucy on the case and this year, Lucy learned how to be both servant and leader. And she made two new best friends.

Fourth Grade: Creativity

Oh, fourth grade! We adored this teacher. She initiated after school craft days (we don’t have many extra curricular activities) during which the kids learned calligraphy, dance, and origami.

The students learned how to put together a five-minute presentation. Lucy did hers on K’naan, the Somali-Canadian singer whose song, “Wavin’ Flag” was the official song of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Lucy (with my help) tweeted K’naan that an American girl in Djibouti was doing a presentation on his music. She asked what his favorite song was. He tweeted back that they were all his favorite and best of luck on the presentation. Lucy was so excited to share her presentation that when her turn came, she leaped up and down in the classroom.

At the end of the school year performance, her class performed a wavin’ flag dance to that song and the teacher personally made each child’s costume.

Fifth Grade: Courage

This year Lucy has the same teacher she had in second grade. He consistently encourages her to be creative, to work hard, and to enjoy and explore Djibouti. He is one of the rare expatriates who love this country and he passes that affection on to the students.

***

It isn’t easy to be a foreign family, to move across the globe, to say hello and goodbye to friends, family, teachers, and schools. And it certainly isn’t easy to be a teacher in these kinds of cross-cultural, melting pot locations.

Dear teachers, my kids have thrived around the world because of you. Between the three of them, they have attended school in five different countries on three continents and each time, you helped this new place become a home. It can’t be easy, to have a non-native speaker in your classroom and to have their bumbling parents sending notes filled with grammatical errors or who don’t quite understand how to do the homework. But you have never made us feel like a burden. You have taken delight in our kids and encouraged them to love learning. We are forever grateful.

Merci Beaucoup.

Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

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The End of Toys

The End of Toys

104

By Sharon Holbrook

We bought my son’s dresser when I was pregnant with him, my eldest. The blond-wood dresser matched the crib, and it used to have a changing pad attached to its top. My son does not know this, nor do I plan to tell him, because 10-year-old tweens do not want to think about their diapered past. But I remember. Not so very long ago, the dresser’s six drawers used to hold tiny onesies, diapers, and piles of carefully folded receiving blankets.

On his 4th birthday, my son entered his Lego phase headlong, catapulted by a construction vehicle Lego set from Grandpa. He insisted on keeping that first instruction booklet, and every one of many that came after, and I relented. We found a place in the dresser that had been vacated by the diapers and blankets that my big preschool boy no longer needed, and that became the Lego instruction drawer. His t-shirts and shorts and socks, still tiny, did not require the use of every drawer.

Now my son is almost as tall as I am. We wear the same size shoe. Sometimes, I do a double-take at the laundry basket – is it my husband’s, or my son’s? His clothing, like him, is getting bigger and bulkier. It spills out of his drawers or sits on the top of his dresser, where I place the folded clothes for him to (eventually, hopefully) put away.

He needs that dresser drawer now. Now and then I’d ask, “Can you let these Lego instruction booklets go? You never use them.” Invariably, the answer had always been an adamant “No!” Until now.

His room, to my eyes, is a mess. It’s a different sort of mess than it used to be. There’s that dresser that barely closes. There are books haphazardly spilled on the floor near his bed, and lone socks are always sprinkled around the room. Rainbow Loom bracelet and art supplies are scattered and piled this way and that. Earbuds peek out from under the bed. But where there used to be Bey Blades and cars and light sabers, there are now no toys.

Every week, it’s the same dance. “Clear your floor, buddy. We have to vacuum.” He has dust allergies, and I use this to bolster my fight for sanitation. “But Mom. I don’t have room on my bookshelves. I need a bigger bookshelf.” Maybe, I say. But first we need to stand the books up straight and perhaps let some of those books move on to someone else. Then we’ll decide. To my surprise, he says yes. He wants my help going through them, too, which I am happy to give.

We pull out the A to Z Mysteries and Magic Treehouse to pass on to his second-grade sister. The tundra and desert and all the other biome books that he loved when he was 5 (and that I still love) get set aside for his kindergartner sister. My packrat is suddenly ruthless. “I just don’t like that one.” And, “that science book is outdated.” He should know better than me, I guess, since he now reads about the periodic table for fun. Into the out pile they go. On the bottom shelf lies a big colorful hardcover, The Lego Ideas Book. It was a Christmas gift when he was 6, and he pored over it for many hours over the years. “I’m done with that, Mom,” my 10-year-old says. “I’m think I’m done with Legos.”

Just like that. “OK.” We’re done with the bookshelf now, and I stack the castaways neatly. “What do you think you want to do with them?” He shrugged noncommittally, with a bit of melancholy about him. Or was that me with the melancholy? I had guessed my 10-year-old was heading this way. Years of single-minded devotion had gradually faded into increasing detachment. The giant bin of Lego in the playroom had been gathering dust like a lonely, outgrown lovey. Sometimes I catch a whiff of restlessness about my son. He’s abandoned the kind of all-in imaginative play that his sisters still adore, and longs to replace it with the things of teens – screens, social media, video games, freedom. He is only 10, I think. I am almost 11, he thinks. I try to hold him in this middle zone, and he strains against me.

I tread carefully. “Do you want to let the Lego instructions go? Should I get a recycling bag?” He surprises me with his certainty. We begin. The recent ones are on top. They are less familiar to me, because for the last few years of Lego, my son assembled them on his own. “Oh, I loved this one!” I barely remember the Star Wars set he’s talking about. He’d tear open the box and work doggedly at the dining room table from start to finish with a kind of focus that is now reserved for Minecraft.

We get a little deeper in the dresser drawer, a few years back, and I become part of the journey. “Mom, do you remember this castle?” he asks me, and I do. “Didn’t we build this one in the basement in the old house?” I answer, and the memory of that place and time floods back, right down to the annoyingly dim lighting in the corner where we’d set up a plastic folding table so my Lego-obsessed boy could have a place of his own to build.

FullSizeRenderNow he’s found a Lego Atlantis booklet. “Oh, Nana got me this one! I wanted it so much that Christmas!” I remember building it side by side. It was a big one, and it took a long time. We had great fun doing it.

My 8-year-old pops into her brother’s room now, and seeing what we are doing, chirps, “Aw! Old memories are the best!” Before I can savor the truth of that, or the charm of her young wisdom, my son has answered quickly and evenly. “But they have to go.” They do, right? I’ve been suggesting it for years, after all. But emptying the drawer is going fast, like a fast-forwarded reel of film through the last six years, and suddenly my son seems more ready than I am. I swallow this, though, and I echo his readiness. “Yup, I guess it’s time.”

“And, oh, this fire truck! You had to superglue the ladder on, Mom, because it wouldn’t stay on.” I remember this, too. “You were so frustrated that it kept falling off! Remember,” I reminisce with him, “we were in the dining room at the old house, and Grandma was there, because Daddy and I were leaving the next day for our anniversary trip?” He does. That was when he was 4 ½. We are almost to the bottom of the pile, and he is unmoved by the fattening Trader Joe’s bag of recycling. I cannot say the same for me.

At last, on the bottom, is the very first booklet. It’s that 4th birthday construction vehicle set, the one that started it all. We both gasp with excitement. We really did it together back then, my early-30s mama hands showing his chubby preschool fingers how to snap together the bricks for the first time. “Oh, Mom, I loved this set! Can I keep just this one for the memories?”

Oh, yes. Yes, you can, my boy. And when you outgrow even that, because you will in the finger-snap of a few years, I’ll take it and I’ll tuck it away.

I’ll keep it for the memories, too.

Sharon Holbrook is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. Her work also appears in The New York Times Motherlode blog, Washington Post, and other publications, as well as in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me. You can find her at sharonholbrook.com and on Twitter @sharon_holbrook. Sharon lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio.

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What I Learned From Siri About Parenting

What I Learned From Siri About Parenting

Art Boy near car

By Beth Touchette

“Okay, you need to get in right lane…”

My seventeen year old son flipped his turn signal, which prompted the cars already in the right lane to accelerate past us.

“Do I really have to?”

The solid line of no lane changes was rapidly approaching. “Yes, unless you want to go 5 miles past our turn off.”

As I recalculated our route home if we exited one or two exits north, the right lane cleared. Bryce exited into downtown San Rafael, at a faster speed than I liked.

“Now what lane should I be in?” he demanded.

My son got his driver’s license months ago, but he lacks confidence. The latest phase of his driver education is either my husband or I taking the role of a souped up Siri on his iphone who provides directions, comments about possible unpredictable actions from other drivers, and gives lots of compliments.

Although I was tempted to chastise my son for his rude tone, I continued to talk in a calm, slow voice, just like the voice of Siri.

“You should stay towards the left. In ½ a mile, turn left on Ca-sa A-zul Road.” I mispronounced the Spanish the way Siri does, but Bryce did not laugh.

We arrived at the Safeway parking lot. A pedestrian from out of nowhere trotted into the parking slot Bryce was approaching. I gasped. Bryce, who has already stopped, glared at me. “You are not helping,” he hissed.

Siri doesn’t gasp. She never lets her emotions get the best of her, even when drivers ignore her or ask lewd questions.

She’d be a better parent for an almost adult.

Next fall, my son will be off to college. I wish I could program a Siri Mom into his phone. She would warn him that nearby drivers might suddenly merge into his lane when they realize they have to exit. At the college dining hall, she could suggest he eat some eggs at breakfast, so he doesn’t get hungry later on. On Friday nights, she would remind them that the consumption of alcohol could lead him to make poor romantic choices. On Sundays mornings, when he finally wakes up, she could suggest, in a non-guilt inducing tone, to call his family.

 

Short-Term Memories

Short-Term Memories

mighty old tree with green spring leaves

By Donna Brooks

You went down on August 26—my 29th birthday. That’s what the doctors and nurses kept calling it, anyway. It didn’t take long for me to understand that this is one of many ambiguous terms medical practitioners use to speak without saying anything.

Jack and I got the call around 9 p.m. and drove through the night; buzzed on the champagne and bottles of beer we drank to celebrate the last year of my twenties, despite it being a Wednesday. In the middle of nowhere Iowa, your doctor called to ask my permission to use life-saving measures while they transported you from the VA hospital in Des Moines to the neurotrauma unit at Mercy. I gave it, even though I promised you eight years earlier that I’d never let you live in a vegetative state. DNR you had me repeat to you over the phone. Do Not Resuscitate.

I found you drenched by the rising sun, entangled in a menagerie of machinery. Fate found us together again at Mercy, as we were on that very day 29 years before; the hospital I was born in.

Black circles of dried blood ringed your nostrils. When I asked why they hadn’t bandaged your engorged, bleeding ear, which had nearly tripled in size, a blonde nurse said, “She was down for a long time. Maybe eight hours. The blood coming from her ear is the least of our concerns.”

I had an overwhelming impulse to slap her, but buried my fingernails into my palm instead. My little brother is on his way for God’s sake. I moistened a paper towel and eased the blackness away.

A machine blew air into your lungs. A machine cleaned your kidneys—the first organs the body lets go of in an attempt to preserve the lungs, heart, and brain. Your body was the most impressive machine of all.

The neurologist and nephrologist told me to go get some rest—I’d need it for making big decisions. Big stroke. Big sister. I drank instead.

Your MRI showed what they called Shower Emboli; twelve strokes at once. The glossy photograph of your brain looked like a series of constellations mapped in a wrinkled galaxy. The doctor said your heart collected these shooting stars for years, maybe decades before the big bang. Blood pumps in quicker than it can pump out, sloshing and coagulating in the meaty basin of your left ventricle. Atrial fibrillation, he called it, a result of habitual drug use.

His tone carried a tinge of delicate inquiry, just in case the news he was delivering might come as a surprise. As if we could have possibly overlooked the last twenty years of our lost childhoods. Or maybe missed your propensity to, repeatedly, choose meth over motherhood; prison and halfway houses over our upper-middleclass suburb; crime over comfort. Dallas and I nodded. He looked relieved.

I wanted that image—my brother and I sitting there, hunched and raw, on the couch in your hospital room—to be used in D.A.R.E. programs across the country. Particularly in the Midwest where methamphetamine continues to turn mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and friends into the poison it’s made of. The message: Meth will come back to bite you. Sometimes, years after you quit using it. It destroys everything, inside and out.

Meth changed the beat of your heart.

I prayed for the first time in years. Prayed for your recovery. For your forgiveness. For relief from my opaque guilt for casting you out of my life. Jack read to you from your worn and heavily annotated bible Cousin Angel brought from Spring Hill. His voice was low and soft, a relief from the sterile, rhythmic reminder that you were not breathing on your own. Your bookmark was a picture I’d sent you from the night Jack asked me to marry him. It held the place of Corinthians 13:4-8. Love keeps no record of wrongs.

For ten days this went on. Sooner or later, the doctors said, this stroke will kill your mother. Don’t talk to me like I’m a child, I snapped, and immediately felt guilty, because I am a child. Your child. We agreed to extubate.

She may not breathe on her own, they said. You did.

She will be paralyzed on her left side of her body, they said. You are not.

She will have substantial brain damage, they said. You do.

You’ve lost your ability to create new memories—anterograde amnesia—which is pretty much on par with the cruelty life has shown you. What if, I thought, you awoke with a blank slate? Unburdened by the abuse of your childhood. The suicides of your brothers. The manic depression. What if we could meet between the wrinkles of time and start again.

 

Donna M. Brooks holds an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. She was a 2013 finalist for the Iowa Review Award in nonfiction and a finalist for the Santa Fe Writers Project Award in nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Mamalode. She lives in Sioux City, IA with her husband and daughter.

 

Commencement Speech for My Special Needs Second-Grader

Commencement Speech for My Special Needs Second-Grader

Conceptual shot of child education. Brown teddy bear in graduation cap leaning on books

By Melissa Hart

Members of the second grade class: two years ago, you scampered down these hallowed halls to play with the unpainted wooden dollhouse and the felted gender-neutral puppets and the classroom newt in a kindergarten done in womb-pink. Among you moved a little boy named Oliver.

Oliver wasn’t like other children. He forged his own way, eschewing circle-time and songs and hand-clapping games, and sprinting for the nearest exit at recess. His voice rang out above all others, commanding attention. He was, in short, a trail-blazer—a child so original that the teacher’s aide devoted her days to him.

As you struggled to form letters and numbers on your soft ecru paper, the aide bent over him, fingers gripping his around the hand-carved pencil, sometimes for half an hour while you soldiered on alone. You wonder now: What did Oliver have that I didn’t have? I’ll tell you:

A learning disability.

Like yours, dear children, Oliver’s parents visited a vast array of educational institutions. They pored over commentary at GreatSchools.org and debated into the wee hours self-directed curriculum versus whole-child learning and how each might ensure happiness.

Oliver–like the 22 of you now sipping chamomile tea while covering your soft ecru paper with watercolors–learned to finger-knit yarn spun from the alpacas you fed on your field trip, becoming so attached to his string that he wound it around his fingers until they turned purple, and screamed and bit the aide. Inspired by his teachers and principal and his tearful disbelieving mother, he forged a new path to a behavioral classroom across town.

He didn’t try to be special, dear hearts; he simply was.

I tell you this because today–as the morning glories stretch and beam from the garden boxes you lovingly decorated—there’s another child in your midst who shows the same spirit that you may recall from Oliver’s days.

Unlike that boy with his feet planted firmly on the spectrum, however, this little girl came into the world drug-affected and placed in foster care. As a toddler, she enjoyed the perks of regular feedings and diaper changes, unhampered by distractions such as caregiver eye-contact and physical embrace. Thus, she learned to sound her barbaric yawp so that she, like Whitman rolling naked in his leaves of grass, might make herself known.

You know her as the child in the front row, directly in front of the teacher’s podium, with all the privileges that weighed blankets and noise-cancelling headphones confer. The letters ADHD mean nothing to you—but you marvel at her ability to turn cartwheels behind the teacher. She’s memorized the words to over 100 songs and locks herself into the bathroom daily to belt them out. She isn’t like you, dear hearts. She marches to the beat of her own drum and refuses to learn with the rest of you how to play the pentatonic flute.

Like Oliver, she doesn’t try to be special; she simply is.

Education is a community-driven endeavor, and you exhibit this daily. For years, the little girl in question watched you arrange playdates and sleepovers in the hallways. She heard thrilling tales of birthday parties to which she wasn’t invited. Just this morning, two of your fathers dialogued in the classroom about a class camping expedition—a trip apparently open to a select few. How inspiring to know that you gather so lovingly to support one another at a school that prides itself on inclusiveness.

A mystery to you, the little girl’s mother who shows up each morning with a smile plastered across her face as you gather outside to jump rope while her child screams because she’s forgotten her homework. What pride the woman exudes as your parents remark on the artful display of her daughter’s uneaten lunch on the floor among her shoes and jackets where they lie below your own neatly-hung Columbia windbreakers and precise rows of Bogs.

How unfriendly that mother appears with dark circles under her eyes as your parents pair up to arrange warm-hearted diversions after school and on weekends. It’s impossible to picture her, dear ones, weeping at night for all she’s been given, not the least of which is a flexible schedule that allows her to work early in the morning and late at night, the better to homeschool.

So you see, dear ones, this story does have a happy ending. Next year, the little girl in question will turn cartwheels each Monday morning in gymnastics class and take professional singing lessons at the music studio downtown. She’ll study on her living room couch, travel weekly to wetlands and science museums and animal shelters. Hell, her mommy may even adopt an alpaca.

For a moment, as you pause on the threshold between your second and third grade classrooms, you may glimpse the future—six more years in these same hallways fragrant with patchouli and the bliss that only true oblivion can provide.

It’s your future, dear ones. Keep in touch.
Melissa Hart is the author of the YA novel, Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016) and the memoirs Wild Within and Gringa. Web: www.melissahart.com.

 

Sister Act

Sister Act

Back view of two little girls on caribbean vacation

By Maryanne Curran

The hostess seats the two of us at a booth. The restaurant is fairly quiet – just a handful of other diners are there.   We are late for lunch, but early for dinner. I’m not sure what to call a meal at this time of day.

My dining partner is Gail, my sister and best friend. We are not Foodies. Our tastes run to simple fare like the type of meals you can find at chain restaurants. I suppose that makes us Chainies. Give us a good burger, chicken teriyaki, or the like, and we’re happy.

As soon as I tell Gail that we are going out to eat, she starts smiling.   She loves going out to eat.

Strangers often mistake us for mother and daughter. Although, there is only an eight-year difference in our ages, Gail looks considerably younger. Gail is developmentally disabled and functions at about the level of a six-year-old. She has a sweetness and simplicity to her face that makes her look far younger than she is. That coupled with the fact that I speak for Gail and order her meal along with mine, would make any new acquaintances assume this is a maternal relationship, and not a sisterly one.

Eating out with Gail is a fun activity for both of us. But it does require me to serve up an extra helping of patience, because Gail uses the time to pose an endless litany of questions and comments before, during, and after our meal.

Sometimes, it feels like Gail is Perry Mason cross-examining me on the witness stand asking me one question after another.

I answer her questions as best I can. Sometimes my answers are not completely truthful – but I have to phrase my responses in ways that Gail can easily comprehend. Because of our relationship, Gail trusts me and what I say to her. To Gail, I am a fountain of all knowledge, and I do my best to provide the information.

Once we have placed our order is when the questions begin. “What’s her name?” asks Gail about our server.

I can’t remember what the server said. “I’ll find out when she comes back,” is my response.

When our server returns in a few minutes, I check her badge. After she leaves, I say, “Her name is Diane.”

“That’s a good name,” says Gail. “Where does she live?”

I’ve just met this woman. I’m not going to ask her where she lives like some kind of creepy stalker. I always tell Gail that the server lives in the same town as the restaurant is. It’s a guess. But it’s probably a good one.

“How old is she?” asks Gail. That question is a little easier.

“Thirty-four,” I guess.

I could say that our server was 16 or 66. The actual number is unimportant, as Gail doesn’t have a clear understanding of what various numbers mean. When asked how old she is, Gail often says the wrong number.

For the most part, Gail’s questions are simple ones. Occasionally, she poses a question that is not so black-and-white. It’s the gray questions that stretch my sisterly caregiving skills thin.

In particular, Gail’s questions about the whereabouts of our parents are an going exercise in patience for me. Our mother passed away in 2008; dad followed a few years. Gail knows that our parents are gone and now reside in a place called heaven.

Gail thinks heaven is like the mall and wonders why her mom and dad can’t drive back to see her. I try to provide consistency when answering these particular questions and choose words that are easy for her to understand. But it can be difficult to explain a spiritual concept to someone who sees things as simply as Gail does.

Thankfully, today’s questions are her standard ones and easy enough to answer to satisfy Gail. When our meals arrive, Gail starts eating and enjoying her meal. As I watch her, I’m struck by how lucky I am to have Gail in my life.

Lucky? You? (I can almost hear the disbelief as you read these words.) Yes, I’m lucky to have Gail in my life.

I’m not pretending that there aren’t challenges to caring for an adult with special needs. Every day, there are issues that cause me concern. I worry about her safety. I worry that she is healthy. I worry that others will be kind to her. Most of all, I worry that she is happy. I try to make sure she has a good life.

My friends sometimes wonder about how I handle caring for Gail, 24/7. It’s easy. When you love someone as much as I love my sister Gail. The joyous moments that we share together outweigh any challenges that we may face.

Occasionally, I wonder what my life may have been like if Gail was not in it. I would have been a very different person, most certainly. Because of our relationship, the positive attributes that make up my character make me a better person.

Because of Gail, Santa Claus lives, rainbows make me smile, and I know what unconditional love is.

Maryanne Curran is a freelance writer from Lexington, Mass.  When not exploring new places to walk with her sister, Maryanne enjoys reading, traveling, and spending time with family and friends.

Five Apps that Would Make Parenting Kids Easier

Five Apps that Would Make Parenting Kids Easier

best friends; happy kids playing

by Lisa A. Beach

Thanks to smartphones, parenting is a whole lot easier than it used to be. As a parent, you can track your kid’s whereabouts with a GPS-enabled cell phone. You can download instant advice to solve weird medical emergencies, like how to dislodge the black bean your toddler stuck up his nose. And you can frantically search Pinterest for no-bake cookie recipes for today’s school bake sale that your third grader forgot to tell you about until this morning.

But the Holy Grail of parenting apps has yet to be invented. Parents everywhere would chant a collective “Hell, yeah!” if some brilliant, tech-savvy app developer (such as your neighborhood teen) would create a few smartphone apps that tackle some of parenting’s thorniest issues.

From tantrums to finicky appetites to I-don’t-want-to-take-a-nap struggles, kids test your parenting mettle on a daily basis. Think how much easier the day-to-day parenting grind would be with these smartphone apps:

Lego Detector

Never puncture your foot at midnight again! If walking through your kids’ room is akin to navigating a plastic minefield of Legos, you need to download this little beauty. Why rely on a way-too-bright flashlight that threatens to wake up your finally-asleep kids when you can use the minimally intrusive Lego Detector app? (Bonus! It works on Barbie accessories and other small, sharp objects, like broken Hot Wheels, collectible bottle caps, dislodged pencil points, shark teeth and Indian arrowheads.) Using a combination of night-vision technology and special geometric sensors that detect sharp angles, you can safely traverse your kids’ floor in the dark and escape without a ruptured heel or perforated toe.

Squabble Solver

Pushed to the edge by your kids bickering again? No need to yell, pop a vein in your temple, or bang your head against the wall. Squabble Solver to the rescue! Just choose from pre-recorded, problem-solving monologues, where the experts talk directly to the under-10 crowd, delivering step-by-step, argument-diffusing advice in a calm, authoritative tone. Tap into classic parenting wisdom from Foster Cline and Jim Fay (Parenting with Love & Logic), Thomas Phelan (1-2-3 Magic), Adele Faber (How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk) or Gary Chapman (The 5 Love Languages of Children). And let’s get real—in the heat of the moment, you don’t remember all that sage advice anyway about the “Top 10 Ways to Diffuse Family Conflict without Ruining Your Child’s Self-Esteem.” Better to leave it to the experts.

EW! (Eat Warily: The Parent’s Guide to Finicky Eaters)

For every parent who’s ever said, “What do you mean you don’t like it? You ate it last week.”— EW! is for you. Developed by a veteran mom, EW! (Eat Warily: The Parent’s Guide to Finicky Eaters) might become the most-used app on your smartphone. While this robust app requires some upfront work (you’ve got to input your kid’s food intake for about 14 days), it’s well worth it. After just two weeks, the app’s brilliant appetite algorithm kicks in and begins predicting what your kids will like on any given day. Acting as a gauge to where in the “I-like-it-today” food cycle your kid is in, the app takes the guesswork out of meals and snacks. Bonus: You can search by individual food parameters, allowing you to deduce if a food’s ingredients (i.e., sesame seeds), texture (i.e., squishy onions) or shape (i.e., triangular vs. round) will send your kid into a behavioral tailspin at mealtime. Besides simplifying your life at home, EW! works great on the go, too. Whether you’re at a birthday party, a Sunday dinner at grandma’s or a family-friendly restaurant, EW! can help you instantly detect and plan around your kid’s finicky eating patterns.

Discipline Wheel

How many times in a row can you honestly put your kids in time-out ? With the Discipline Wheel on hand, you can just type in your kid’s latest infraction and discover a range of creative punishments as they scroll before your eyes. (Savvy kids might begin to dub this the Wheel of Misfortune when you use it frequently enough.) Bonus: When your kids tell you how you’re the meanest parent in the world, you can whip out the Discipline Wheel app to prove them wrong. When they see that Owen from Oklahoma lost playdate privileges for three weeks or Fiona from Florida had zero access to her mom’s iPad for a month, they’ll realize they got off pretty easy with your pathetically painless punishments.

Scream Screen

From downstairs, you hear a bang a thud and a blood-curdling scream, making your heart momentarily stop. Was that a mom-better-get-me-to-the-ER-pronto kind of scream, or was it a my-sister-just-took-my-favorite-doll kind of scream? Sometimes, it’s hard to tell. While you do get better at detecting the difference over time, it’s a slow process. Scream Screen to the rescue! Press the Record button and let the app work its magic on a five-second soundbite, using a combination of voice recognition and emotion-sensing technology. With a simple color-coding system (red = blood might be involved, better run fast; green = don’t sweat it, you have time to finish your cup of coffee first), you can quickly decide how to react.

Of course, this is just a starter list. What apps would you recommend?

Author’s Bio: Lisa Beach is a freelance writer, humor blogger and recovering homeschool mom who lived to write about it. Find her at www.LisaBeachWrites.com and visit www.TweeniorMoments.com, Lisa’s humor blog about midlife, family, friends and all the baggage that goes with it.

 

My Garbage Truck

My Garbage Truck

Drawing of car with family on blackboard

By Jennifer Christgau-Aquino

“Um, Mrs. Adeline’s mom…” says Kay, a classmate of my 7-year-old daughter Adeline, as she peers into the dark caverns of my car.

“You can call me Jen,” I say.

“Mrs. Jen, where am I supposed to step?” She looks back at me and then at the mess of smashed chips, books, hair ribbons, sweaters and raisins covering the carpet, which is invisible underneath the pile of junk.

“Anywhere, honey, anywhere.” I just want her and the other three children, including Adeline, to get into the car and off the busy street. It’s field trip day and I’m in charge of escorting four second graders to a goat farm in Pescadero.

She steps inside the car, wobbling over a book, crunching something green and once edible, and passing by melted crayons. Three others make the same perilous journey to the back of the car and buckle themselves in.

“Adeline’s mom, your car is really dirty. I mean, like really dirty. It’s like a garbage truck,” says another child Cleo.

I turn the key and pull away from the curb. “I know,” I sigh. “What do you guys want to listen to? We’ve got a long drive.”

In my rearview mirror I see Tyler pull a cookie from the back cup holder.

“Eat it,” my daughter, Adeline, dares. All four kids start screaming, “Ewwww.” He throws it on the floor, next to a pile of Legos.

“Why don’t you take the car to one of those cleaning places. There’s one with a duck that holds a sign and dances,” he says.

“Oh, yeah, that’s where my mom goes,” Kay says.

“I’ll pay the kids to clean it,” I say. “It’s their mess.”

“But the duck place is way better than doing it yourself,” Tyler says.

“Uh, huh,” I say. “But that costs money and I guarantee you a day later the car will be a mess again because this one,” I say, pointing to Adeline, “won’t know the responsibility of picking after herself. She’ll just think that someone else will do it for her.”

“Mom, I try to keep it clean, but it’s John,” says Adeline, pinning the mess on her 3-year-old brother.

“Yeah, I don’t think John does Mad Libs and colors,” I say, referring to the crayons stuck between the tracks in the rear captain’s chair.

“Well, just don’t let them bring anything into the car or eat in here,” Kay says.

“Good advice,” I say.

“I’d starve and be bored,” Adeline says laughing. I see her lick her finger and start drawing a picture on the window.

“Adeline, stop that. That’s disgusting,” I say.

“Mom, can you put on The Trumpeter Swan?” Adeline asks. “I want my friends to hear the story.”

“You even listen to books in the car?” says Cleo with more disgust than if I’d dared her to eat the cookie.

“Like I said, we spend a lot of time in here driving from one place to another,” I say.

“Yeah, me too,” Kay says.

“Not me,” Tyler says. “I just go to after school care because my parents both work. You should get a job. Then your car will be cleaner.”

“No, no, what you should do is just buy a new car,” Kay says. “You should get a new car and then don’t let anyone eat in it. Start over. That’s what my mom did. You should be more like my mom.”

“Mom, please with the Trumpeter Swan?” Adeline asks again.

“No!” my other three passengers scream.

“I don’t think that’s a popular request, honey,” I say. “We can listen to it on your way to CCD.”

“Adeline does CCD?” Cleo asks. “Is that like a music group?”

“No, it’s a religious education class that she attends once a week,” I say.

“Oh, I did do that last year on Sundays,” Tyler says. “It sucks. Hey, did you know that there’s a dead fly in a Tupperware back here?”

The girls scream so loud that they drown out the passing cars on Highway 1.

“It’s OK. It’s OK. It’s my son’s pet. Just leave it alone,” I say.

“You should do your personal best to keep it clean,” Cleo says reciting the school’s featured personality trait this week.

“Sadly, this is my personal best,” I say. “Sometimes you have to lower the expectations for your personal best, because there are too many other things you have to be good at.”

“I really don’t understand what you’re saying right now,” Tyler says.

“Can you turn on the radio?” Kay asks.

Jennifer Christgau-Aquino is a freelance writer and former newspaper journalist who can often be seen lounging in her front yard while her two kids clean the car. She lives in California with her husband, children, dog, cat and two fish.

Walking Lessons

Walking Lessons

Young mother and her son walking outdoors in city

by Alysa Salzberg

Most people who know me well know that I love to walk. I’m not athletic, and am sort of morally against most activities that cause me to sweat. But a good, long stroll doesn’t faze me.

When I was in middle school, I was bullied for being chubby. Amid reassurances that I was beautiful, my mom also invited me to start race-walking with her through our hilly neighborhood. I didn’t lose much weight from those regular walks with my mom, and it was my family’s support and something within me that made me overcome the bullying. But at some point, walking became about more than discipline and trying to please others.

Knowing that few things could be harder than climbing steep hills in the hot, pollen-dense north Georgia air, I wasn’t afraid of long walks. Over the years, that’s meant fearlessly crossing perilous highways or entire towns and cities on foot. Walking has been a major way I’ve discovered the places I’ve traveled to. Living in a city, it’s also the main way I get around.

It’s also something else: a way to dull my anxiety. Whether I’m at home, or on public transportation, if I feel a wave of nervous energy or panic coming over me, I go outside and walk for a while, letting my quick, sure steps keep me steady.

When my son was born, he became my walking partner in my adopted home of Paris, France. Sometimes our walks were simply to run some errands and get some air. Often they were also spurred on by crying that seemed endless, or the fears and challenges of new motherhood.

I’d push his orange stroller through familiar neighborhoods and new ones. We took on cobblestoned streets and steep hills. We slathered ourselves in sunscreen in the summer. Sometimes, he slept. But often he looked out curiously at the world. He seemed to be as invigorated by our walks as I was.

As my son’s gotten older, our strolls have gotten more fun — when he starts singing, I can’t help but smile. But things have also gotten more complicated. Now, there must be snacks and a toy that may get dropped…or thrown. For a while, we weathered phases, like when he’d quietly remove his shoes and socks onto the street as we strolled along. And then there was that month-long period where he kept stealing fruit from grocery store displays and market stalls. What amazed me then was how many store owners and stall operators let us keep the free fruit – or even gave us more.

It seemed strange that in the months leading up to my son’s first steps, everyone told me “Wait ’til he’s walking,” in that knowing, teasing tone that I’ve never found useful. What’s the point of making parents dread what’s to come?

And anyway, I was excited about it. I knew it wouldn’t be easy at first – I’d have to help him, and my usual swift pace would be significantly slowed. But soon, I imagined, he’d be my walking companion on a new level, keeping pace at my side as we strolled along, chatting and singing the songs he likes.

And then, he started walking, and it was harder. But not in the way everyone said it would be.

What no one told me about this new-walker phase is that my son knows how to walk, but he doesn’t know the rules.

I didn’t realize there were rules, either. Or, rather, I’d forgotten that I’d ever had to learn them in the first place. I never thought I was that far from childhood until I realized that I’d forgotten how fascinating dirty cigarette butts are, or that there was a time I didn’t suspect that a dog might have peed on a fallen leaf. I’d forgotten a time when nothing could hurt me, and the pure, fearless joy of running towards headlights.

A joy that’s even greater for my son than it could be for me; he doesn’t carry around a stuffed animal, but a plastic toy truck.

I guess I thought that with all the months of observation under his belt, my son would take to walking the streets of Paris like a pro, as I assumed every Parisian kid did. No matter how young, they always seem to obediently hold the hand of the adult walking with them, or else obediently follow, or hold onto their (or their sibling’s) carriage.

Lately, though, I’ve started watching fellow pedestrians with young kids more closely, and it seems like my son’s not the only lawless walker. Other parents do struggle, too. It probably seems obvious to most people, but I have to admit, I’d never really paid much attention. I was always too distracted by Parisian dogs, who are not only fun to watch, but usually marvels of discipline, politely entering many stores or restaurants, or even encountering other dogs without much of a fuss. And anyway, it just doesn’t look as dramatic as it feels when it’s your own child who’s insisting on walking into traffic, or leaning down to pick up the contents of a burst trash bag.

It’s brought me to what some people might consider a controversial conclusion: Maybe the truth is, just like those dogs, who you’ll sometimes see being disciplined as excited puppies, kids need to be trained to walk

For a few months now, whenever I take my son out for a walk not involving his carriage, I’ve started seeing it as a fun, albeit important, training session. I remind him that we don’t cross the street until the little electric man turns green (he doesn’t quite understand colors yet, but I guess I want to show him there is some kind of logic). I tell him sternly not to pick up things on the sidewalk. I firmly direct him to go in the direction I say we’re headed, if he doesn’t follow on his own. I’ve gotten used to saying “That’s not our car, so we can look, but we can’t touch it.”

In winter, the cold weather and our frequent food shopping jaunts inspired me to do indoor sessions, too. In bigger-sized shops or grocery stores, I’d let my son out of his carriage and follow him carefully. By now, it’s become a game: How many things can I get on my list before he heads in a completely different direction, or somehow puts himself in peril (his fascination with motorized floor cleaners knows no bounds)?

I’m happy to say it seems like it’s working. There are still the occasional tantrums and insistent wanderings – including, alas, into the street if I don’t stop him. There was that recent near-disaster when he discovered one store’s wine section and tried to pry a few bottles from the shelves. And the almost-shoplifting incident, when he snatched a pair of lacey underwear off a wrack – I think because the anti-theft tag resembles a wheel. But overall, he seems to be less intent on picking things up off the ground or pilfering fruit, so there’s that.

I’m proud, but I have to admit I’m also conflicted. I know my son has to learn to follow the rules of walking so that he can walk beside me – or even, simply survive. But a part of me also realizes some of his discoveries are being cut short, his wanderings stopped before they could ever begin.

Walking is a way to calm my racing heart. Seeing the city I love unfurl before me has always soothed me. It seems strange not to let him walk the way he chooses, like snatching a gift from his hands. Every time I tell him not to pick up that leaf, or nudge him in a particular direction, a part of me stands stubbornly with him, understanding.

Alysa Salzberg is a writer and worrier. She lives in Paris, France, with an eccentric Frenchman, a car-obsessed toddler, and a dog-like cat. Besides them, she loves books, travel, and cookies. You can read more about her adventures in parenting and other matters on her blog, or feel free to stop by her perhaps-too-sparkly website.  

 

 

 

Learning To Love My Son’s Southern Accent

Learning To Love My Son’s Southern Accent

A cute little boy in a field of green grass in the park

By Aubrey Hirsch

It didn’t even occur to me as a possibility until my family started teasing me about it. When I told them I’d accepted a job in central Georgia, and after the “congratulations” had dissipated, my mother pointed to my two-year-old and said, “I bet he’s going to get a little Southern twang.”

I smiled, politely, and shook my head. “I doubt it,” I said.

My Cleveland accent had persisted through a decade of relocations to Pittsburgh and Colorado Springs. I’ve come to accept that my high, nasal a’s and sharp-edged o’s aren’t going anywhere. I assumed the shapes of my son’s vowels were locked in as well, perhaps even inherited.

I continued to think that for the first two months we lived in Milledgeville, Georgia, until the morning my son woke up and, overnight, had taken on a melodic Southern drawl.

I recognized it immediately. “I don’t want breakfast,” he said. “I want a snack.” Only the word “snack” had two syllables. “Snay-ack.” When I set his milk down slightly out of reach, he said, “Can I have thay-at?” And then, when my husband disappeared to change our younger son, “Where’s Day-addy?”

I was, frankly, stunned. My instinct was to correct him, to say, “You mean ‘Daddy,'” emphasizing the inland north “a.” I didn’t want him to think he was doing something wrong, but still, the difference was so stark and so sudden, I felt I had to say something. I aimed for neutrality, remarking that he was starting to sound like his friends at school. He ignored me, diving into his breakfast.

On the drive back from daycare, I tried to examine why this was bothering me so much. Certainly it was jarring, to tuck him into bed one night and have him wake up the next morning speaking in a voice I didn’t recognize. It was like some foreign spirit had taken hold of him.

But it wasn’t just that. It wasn’t just the strangeness of the voice, but the particulars of the accent itself. After all, we’d had a Costa Rican babysitter for almost a year when he was small. If he’d come home with her accent, I would have found it adorable.

No, it wasn’t just the change, it was what this accent represented to me that I had trouble with. The speech affect in middle Georgia is not subtle or gentle. It’s deep, rattling. These stretched vowel sounds come from the speaker’s backbone, his gall bladder, his shoelaces.

And here’s where I must confront my own prejudice. Because when I heard my son say “snay-ack,” I heard him say it in the voice of the oppressor. He sounds like “those people,” I thought. Those people who care about success on the football field more than success in school. Who want to regulate my uterus more strictly than semi-automatic weapons. Those who would stifle marriage equality, raise confederate flags and forge purity rings in the stifling fires of gender expectations. People without a sense of justice, without imagination, without ambition.

The problem was that when I heard my son speak, he sounded like that.

It reminds me of when I first moved to Pittsburgh. Growing up in Cleveland, I had two things tattooed into my brain: hard-nosed optimism, and hatred of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers were not just our rival football team; they were the bad guys. It was as simple as that.

I didn’t realize how deeply ingrained in me this had become until I was walking around Pittsburgh. Every time I saw someone in a black and yellow jersey, I had this completely instinctual reaction where I would look at him and think, That is a bad person.

Of course, this is a ridiculous way to think. It’s also ridiculous for me to think that people with Southern accents are uniform in their beliefs and priorities. If you had asked me outright, I never would have said that I bought into these stereotypes about the deep South. That is, until I heard that voice come out of my child and panicked.

But now that I know it’s in there, lurking somewhere beneath my skin, I can eradicate it, willfully. I can remind myself that good-hearted, open-minded people wear black and gold on Sundays and pronounce “snack” with two syllables.

And who better to help me remember this than my kind, curious, whip-smart two-year-old? Whose tender heart I recognize beating through every syllable, every new rhoticity and back upglide and chain shift. Who proves his inner beauty with every single word.

Aubrey Hirsch is the author of Why We Never Talk About Sugar. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, The Rumpus and The New York Times. She currently writes a parenting advice column, “Ask Evie,” for the website Role Reboot.

The Sex Talk

The Sex Talk

Sketch Valentine set in vintage style, vector

By Mary Plouffe

Just when you think you’ve done it right, you’re wrong.

Wait ’til they are ready; wait ’til they ask, the advice goes. So I did. And one winter morning just after breakfast, my son, age 5, posed the question. “So, I get how the baby might look like you ’cause it’s growing in your tummy. But what I don’t get is how it could look like Dad.”

The sex talk. Right then and there. Perfectly primed, I began. And my son listened intently as I discussed sperm and eggs and the process of conception. He offered no expression, no comment — no reaction.

When I was done, he was still silent. “Do you have any questions?” I asked.

“Yes, Mom I do,” he said, looking at me sternly. “This is very important information. Why haven’t you told me this before now?”

He looked betrayed. I trusted you, his expression said, and you let me down.

I was chastened, chided by a kindergartener, shamed by my own son who found me wanting. His words echoed in my head. Very important information, why haven’t you told me?

Reponses flashed through my mind. You didn’t ask. We’re having a baby in a few months… It didn’t seem necessary until now.

But I was looking at an expression that would have accepted none of them as an excuse.

And he was right.

This was the infant who locked onto new faces from the safety of my arms, his expression frozen as he absorbed the new image with disconcerting intensity, until the subject squirmed.

This was the two-year-old who tugged on my arm in the midst of festivities at the office Christmas party. “Mom, can I interrupt? I have two more questions about death.” The three year old who pleaded for workbooks on letters and numbers and addition and subtraction at the grocery store. “I don’t care if it’s hard. I want to learn it.”

This was the almost 4-year-old who tackled fractions on a long bus ride from Maine to Maryland. “Mom, how can I still be three? I’ve been three for so long,” he asked as we headed to visit his cousins. So out came the paper, and we drew circles and halved them and quartered them, and talked about months in a year. Later that weekend, we ended up in a Quick Care center to clean up a nasty scalp wound that flattened the left side of his blond curls with blood.   A nurse took his hand.

“Hi Justin, I’m going to clean up your cut, Ok? How old are you?”

“Three and eleven-twelfths” he said, as I followed them down the hall toward the exam room.

So, as I stood in the kitchen that morning after our sex talk, I realized he was right. He’d let me know since the day he was born that he wanted to learn everything as soon as he could. Not when he needed it, not when he asked, but as soon as he was able to understand.

And the look of betrayal on his face said something else to me as well. Something that made me very uncomfortable. If you didn’t tell me this, what other important things have you not told me?

So I apologized. And we had a different talk. One about how Moms and Dads aren’t always sure when to explain things to children, and so they wait. And about how that didn’t really work for him. “I like to learn things,” he said firmly, his steel eyes blue eyes mirroring disappointment. “You know that. And I want you to teach me.”

We agreed that if there was important information I knew about things I should tell him that.

“Even if it might be boring grown up stuff? I asked

“Just say ‘I know lots more about this. Do you want to know it?'” he coached. “If I don’t, I will tell you.”

“Deal,” I said. And it was. Over the years there were a few odd reactions from other parents, when I’d follow a quick definition with “and there’s lots more to know about that” but he was happy to say “You can tell me the rest after baseball practice, Mom.”

Mary E. Plouffe Ph.D is a clinical psychologist, writer and mother of three. She has published essays and memoir on NPR, the Survivor Review, On the Issues, and Mothers Always Write among others. She is currently seeking a publisher for two books: I Know it in my Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child, and Listening lessons: Reflections on the Grace of being heard. Find her at www.maryplouffe.com

The Grass Is Always Greener

The Grass Is Always Greener

Blackberry plant with berries and green leaves in the garden and on the field.

By Nancy Brier

 

Lauren and I toss down our bikes, shade our eyes with flat hands. “This is a good spot,” she says, and we start to pick.

“You get the high ones, I get the low ones, right Mom?” She squats, scanning thorny branches for clumps of purple.

Blackberry juice trickles down my arm, sticky and sweet. Lauren, crouched on the pavement, looks up at me, and laughs, her lips already stained, her bucket empty. “Put some of those berries in your pail,” I chide, “or we’ll never have enough for pie.”

Summer is in its final glory, the sun still warm but not too hot. Pear pickers drop skinny ladders in nearby orchards, the last of the soft fruits to be harvested. But there’s another crop ready to pick too, the crop that keeps me up at night, its fragrance hanging in the air wet and pungent.

My husband and I moved here from the Bay Area as soon as we learned I was pregnant. Entrepreneurs, the two of us worked all the time in those days building businesses and transforming worn out properties into beautiful living spaces. We liked our life but knew it would be impossible to maintain with a baby in tow.

One day, he found a walnut orchard on the internet. “How hard could it be?” he asked.

We sold our business and moved to a town we had never heard of in a place far away from city life.

Lake County has the largest natural lake in California, the cleanest air in the nation, spectacular mountains and small towns untouched by consumerism. We bought the orchard and a run down farmhouse with space to spread out.

Our walnuts flourished, but within a few years, that other crop did too.

Within the past several years, people have flocked to Lake County from all over the country to grow pot, and the cleanest air in the nation started to smell.

“I think you have a skunk problem,” a visitor said to me tentatively while he was visiting our home. I had to explain that the skunk he smelled was pot.

When I did a Google search, I counted 47 outdoor pot grows in backyards that surround our home. More cultivation takes place in doors. In fact, PG&E, our energy provider, said that Lake County uses three times as much electricity as an average community this size.

Growers come here because the climate is perfect for cultivating their crop. A patchwork of local, state, and federal laws ensures that pot will be a lucrative commodity for years to come. And law enforcement in this rural, mountainous area is stretched, a guarantee that only a fraction of rule breakers will get caught.

Some people think of pot as a victimless crime. But living here has taught me that it comes with guns, dangerous dogs, other drugs and lots of cash.

A mile from our home, a young man was shot dead on a Christmas morning, one pot farmer robbing another. Emergency vehicles raced past our house, and my husband and I exchanged glances as our little girl and her elderly grandmother, thankfully unaware, opened gifts by the tree.

Ten miles away in the other direction, a teenage girl was imprisoned in a small box at a pot farm. And on the other side of our county, a woman was killed in a car crash as deputies sped to the site of a grow.

Pot has made our little community dangerous. When teenagers ride their horses down Main Street to get cokes at the corner store, I marvel at the old fashioned charm all around me. But when I see other teenagers with vacant stares and marijuana leaves emblazoned on their tee shirts, I see a different picture.

The most dangerous time is during harvest, when that valuable cash crop is poised to be turned into cash.

Home invaders broke into our neighbor’s house but found a frightened, elderly woman. They had the wrong address; the pot they sought was across the street.

Are we next?

Lauren and I plunked berries into our buckets, talked about the kind of crust we’ll make for our pie. “Let’s grind up chocolate cookies,” Lauren suggests, “or make a criss-cross pattern with short bread.”

I smiled, but my eyes were trained on the slats in the wood fence that divided our berry patch from a field. Tell tale bright green jagged leaves shined brilliantly in the waning sunlight.

I hadn’t realized that our berries were a fence board’s width away from a pot field.

“I think we have enough now,” I said, walking toward our bikes.

We pedaled home and set our buckets down on beautiful new countertops. Pink sunlight streamed in from perfectly placed skylights, and my favorite color palate surrounded us in our spacious refurbished kitchen.

Lauren and I decided to go with a cobbler, buttery and delicious, the last thing we baked in that fabulous oven.

Nancy Brier lives with her husband and daughter. They recently relocated to Palm Desert, California where they are restoring their new desert home. Find her at: www.NancyBrier.com

The Dance

The Dance

Art the Dance 2

By Allison Slater Tate

Though I think I have blocked most of middle school out of my consciousness in the interest of self preservation, I do still possess a few vivid memories 28 years later. Among the best: the night of one of our few middle school dances that fulfilled every excruciating promise of its kind, including boys on one side of the darkened, slightly gym and girls on the other, punch bowls and bad snacks, bored chaperones, and a distinct lack of actual dancing.

My neighbor’s dad brought us home, and I remember bursting into my bedroom, still decorated in the yellow gingham wallpaper of my childhood nursery, and throwing myself on my white wicker canopy bed, my cheeks flushed from the night’s excitement. My room was tiny, but I didn’t know it. My lavender, art deco style boom box sat on my dresser, and I turned on the radio and listened rapturously to the same songs that I had just heard at the dance: Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” Starship’s “Sara.” I was buzzing on a cocktail of hormones, friends, and the possibility of romance (Romance would not actually arrive in any real shape or form for another three years). I was a first child with no one to model, the owner of a mouth full of braces, a chest I didn’t know what to do with, and zits that befuddled me. I still carried the baby fat of adolescence.

There was nothing about me that wasn’t awkward. And still, I felt broken wide open, like anything was possible. Thirteen is not the easiest age, but it has its own magic.

I’ve lost the braces, but I still have a chest I never quite mastered, baby fat of a different nature, and, most maddeningly, the zits have returned, full force. I’m 41, and now my oldest child is 13. I never imagined when I was 13 that I would still be growing up, and yet, here I am, growing up alongside my child, both of us learning how to deal with chin hair at the same time.

From the day he was born, I have been anticipating this time: he’s coming into his own, growing into a body that has always seemed to fit him like his father’s shirts, filling out both physically and emotionally. He has opinions and a sense of humor and when he speaks, he makes cultural and literary allusions sometimes that make my heart leap out of my chest because I realize how much he is aware of now, how much he is in the world. He’s filling out his high school registration papers. He has middle school dances of his own.

He and I have our own awkward dance going on between us, too, because, frankly, I have absolutely no idea what I am doing. I have never parented a teenager before, and he has never been a teenager before. If there is anything I have learned in the past almost 14 years, it’s that every single child is different, so there’s really no book or set of instructions I can pore over and study and learn that will tell me exactly how to navigate his last four years at home. I have to wing it, and that feels a little like being 13 myself: broken wide open, like anything is possible.

That feels a little more terrifying from this vantage point.

Art The DanceSo I worry about how much time he spends alone in his room, even though I know I did the same, because I miss him. I leave new books on the staircase where he might stumble over them, resigned to the knowledge that anything I recommend outright will be dismissed summarily. I yell up to him in the mornings to wake him up a minimum of three times, my tone and my threats growing fiercer each time, then seethe when he casually shuffles into the kitchen 15 minutes before we have to leave for school and settles in for a leisurely breakfast. I nag, he shrugs. I cajole, he demurs. Push, pull, back and forth, as we each struggle to lead and not to step on each other’s toes.

Sometimes we are really in sync, and I hate to even acknowledge it, because I’m afraid I will puncture some hole in the bubble and it will all crash to earth: he wants to spend time with us, or he tells me about his day at school in more than one sentence, or he texts me about a triumph over a particularly gnarly biology test. After volleyball practice, he and I swing through a local drive-thru and we talk about music or books or what he is analyzing in English class. I tried not to grin too hard when he recently mused, “I tend to like ’80s music the best. After all, it’s what I grew up on.” My work is done here, I thought with a mental fist pump.

Other times, we stumble and fall, and this is where the hardest work is: learning when to let him struggle and when to offer my hand if he needs a lift, encouraging him to stretch and grow even when it is painful. Recently, he pulled a stunt involving his schoolwork that I pulled when I was his age. Because I had done it myself, I called him out immediately. He was busted, full stop. The question was what consequences to give him.

In general, I have been pretty lucky so far. My teenager is most definitely a teenager, but he is mostly responsible, mostly reasonable, mostly a kid who doesn’t make me worry too much…yet. But the problem is, I know to sustain that, I have to draw boundaries; I have to be a parent when the situation calls for it. That day, I struck a compromise. I let him know how angry I was, and that there would be very real consequences for his actions. I let him know that if it happened again, the consequences would be much bigger. I wasn’t easy on him, but I wasn’t quite as hard as I could have been. I didn’t exactly give him the gift of failure, but I gave him the gift of one strike.

The worst part of that day was having to discipline a kid that has only made one B in middle school, a kid that is excited about joining the Debate Team in high school and tells me he “doesn’t need the drama” of a middle school romance. He never complains about volleyball practice, he comes and kisses my head every night at bedtime on his own accord, and he fiercely loves his baby sister. He’s a good kid. Don’t make me do this, I wanted to plead to him. Don’t make me come down hard on you. Because I knew that I had to, but I didn’t want to. I know we’re both learning, both figuring this out, and as much as I want to give him room, I want to make sure he knows I am not a fool or a pushover; I’m paying attention.

But this is the dance now. When they were babies, it was a waltz: there was a rhythm, a cadence to our days, so that even when the unpredictable happened, it happened within a pattern. But now, we’re two-stepping, quick-quick-slow-slow, turns as fast as we can take them. I’m trying to keep up, trying not to step out of turn, trying to keep him with me – my cheeks flushed, my adrenaline pumping, broken open, because that is the only way to do this.

Allison Slater Tate is a freelance writer and editor and the mother of four children in Central Florida. She is a Contributing Blogger for Brain, Child, and she also regularly writes for the websites of both the TODAY SHOW and NBC News covering parenting and college stories. Her writing also appears at the Washington Post, Scary Mommy, The Mid, the Huffington Post, and the Princeton Alumni Weekly. Follow her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/astwriter) or at her eponymous website, http://www.allisonslatertate.com.

Pinch the Baby, Make Him Cry

Pinch the Baby, Make Him Cry

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By Rebecca Swanson

He is blue.

It is far away, a planet from the sun, the sun from the moon, his small face from mine. I feel as if I am looking through a tunnel—worse, down the barrel of a gun—at his lips, his chin, his rigid body. Yet right at the end of my fingertips, I feel his warmth.

I must be looking through someone else’s eyes, because my own world has stopped as his world has turned blue. He must be someone else’s child, because my child is not, cannot be, blue.

My mouth seeks his mouth with no instructions, no directions, only instinct. When that fails, his seized jaw locked firmly into place, my mouth moves to the only opening it can find. I blow. I blow into his nose, his nose that is still small as a dime, his nose that will be big, someday, like his father’s. If only.

It works and the pale rushes in and erases the blue. The pink won’t come for hours yet. They will tell me, the paramedics whose faces I will never remember, that it was not the blowing that helped; it was just because I moved him. He would have been fine, most likely, anyways, they say. But I don’t care. Their words are meaningless because he is limp in my arms now, heavy, a delicious shade of un-blue.

I pinch his thick forearm, a last bastion of chubbiness between babyhood and toddlerhood. I am grateful when he cries, a weak mewl. I have hurt my child and I am grateful, because in hurting him I hear him.

I tell the story backwards, when they ask for it, because it is only the end that I care about, how I pinched him and he cried. Before that, he was blue. And before that we were downstairs, and somehow I must have gone up the stairs, because that was where we were when he stopped being blue. That was where my husband woke, and called 911; disheveled and unsure in his faded boxer shorts, vision fuzzy without his glasses, seeing the outline of his now limp, pale boy in his wife’s arms.

His boy is limp, and pale, but not blue, because we are almost at the end of the story now, the part where I pinch him. This is the part my husband sees, and he has no story to tell when they ask for it, because he has not seen the rest.

I tell them how we had been playing, my son and I. How he was dancing out of my reach, giggling, as I tried to catch him and put his shoes on. We will be late for Starbucks, I told him, teasing because it was a Saturday and it was Starbucks, and it didn’t matter if we got there in five minutes or five hours save for a needed infusion of caffeine for mommy.

The light peeking through our yellow curtains caught his hair as he twirled, and when he fell backwards I thought he had gotten dizzy and fallen down so I laughed.

I laughed. I laughed because I did not know. But I should have known, because when I retell the story I know clearly that little boys don’t fall straight backwards like arrows. They crumple. And they giggle when they fall, they don’t lay silent. They don’t convulse, marionette arms jerking on a string.

And they don’t, under any circumstances, turn blue.

This is the part of the story that is mine alone, no matter how much I wish it weren’t mine at all.

The rest of the story belongs to our family. My husband, who will never sleep soundly again, who will sleep with a baby monitor next to his ear for years to come even when our children are far from babies. My son—especially my son; every day for a lifetime, the story of epilepsy will be his. The story will even belong to his baby brother that will be born two years later, because I will treat both of them differently from now on, no matter how much I try not to. I will pull the car over on the side of the road if someone doesn’t answer quickly enough. I will hold my hands above their mouths, their noses, while they are sleeping to feel their warm, moist breath on my fingers. I will make them wear helmets on their tricycles, and will sit next to them while they bathe long after other children’s mothers take to reading a book in the next room. They will wear life jackets in kiddie pools, and on the beach. They will not know football, or hockey, other than from afar, for as long as I can hold their interest elsewhere. The baby, his options limited before he even came into the world, and despite my best efforts.

Because the blue has changed me. No one can see the changes, except, perhaps, my husband. He will think he shares the same fears, and he does, mostly, plus some all of his own.

But he will not know this one. He will never, I hope, know the blue. I will shoulder it alone, with lonely gratitude for each moment that it stays away.

And sometimes, in the night, I will pinch my children just to hear them cry.

Rebecca Swanson lives in Colorado with her husband, two young sons and toothless dog. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brain Child Magazine, River Teeth Journal, Scary Mommy and The Manifest-Station. Follow her on Twitter.

Art: Linda Willis

 

Mother’s Day of Peace

Mother’s Day of Peace

Art Mothers Day

By Francie Arenson

This Mother’s Day marks the 35th anniversary of the biggest feud in my family’s history. The Microwave Fight broke out, as I’m sure our neighbors could tell you, on a Sunday morning in 1981, the morning of Mother’s Day and my mother’s 40th birthday, when my father, brother and I bestowed upon her a microwave.

The most upsetting part of the fight—aside from the realization that the highly anticipated contraption would apparently be going back to the store—was that we’d thought the gift was a sure thing. For months, my mother had been talking about how we needed one of these machines that cooked food instantaneously. Yes, she’d haggled over the safety aspect. There was concern about cancer. But in the end, she, like any right-minded mother, decided to err on the side of making dinner preparation easier.

The three of us took her decision and ran straight to the appliance store, and on Mother’s day, we smugly unloaded our perfect gift from the back of the wagon and hefted it towards the door to the house where the woman of the hour stood waiting. We didn’t even bother to wrap the cardboard box, that’s how good we thought it was. So we were blindsided when my mother’s face fell upon reading the word OVEN on the side of the box. From there, chaos ensued.

“But we thought you wanted a microwave,” my father said as the three of us marched the box and our dumbfounded selves back into the wagon.

I remember racing out of the driveway with my mother still in it, hollering, “No woman wants a appliance for Mother’s Day!”

Words I’ve chosen to live by. In fact, because technology may fall under the appliance umbrella, she will not be getting an iPad for this year’s joint 75th birthday and Mother’s day gift. Nonetheless, these words didn’t shed any light on what my mother wanted. Only now, thirty years and a husband, two kids and a dog later, I think I have some idea. My guess is that she, like many mothers, mothers who devote their unpaid days to putting others’ needs before them, want their people to think about them in the way they think about their people. Which, clearly, we did not. Or else we might have realized that a gift for the kitchen is not the best idea for a woman who is looking for ways to get out of there faster. And no one, regardless of their line of work wants a gift that screams, “Enjoy today, but tomorrow it’s back to the grindstone.”

For this, I would like to take the opportunity to formally apologize. Not only do I see you, Mom, but I give you credit for handling the situation as well as you did. Frankly, I’m not sure I would have stuck around. We recently fixed up our house and I refused to spend the money specifically allocated to a new microwave on a new microwave. I, instead, bought throw pillows and a glass knot at West Elm. With the change I got a facial.

My guess is that miscalculations of microwave magnitude don’t happen as often today because of the “tools” in place (marketing campaigns) to guide husbands and children towards the perfect gift. And by perfect, I mean satisfactory. One to which a mother can say, “Although I’d rather have a necklace, you all and your gift will do.” Because really, how can any single object, or day for that matter, give justice to all that we mothers are and do?

It cannot, the concept is inane, as are the countless websites, articles and emails dedicated to helping us do just that. This year, for example, Esquire Magazine lists the top 30 Mother’s Day Gifts of 2016. It suggests flannel pajama bottoms for The Mother Who Needs a Nap. To which I ask, whose mom doesn’t? It suggests a top for The Mother Who Always Dresses her Best. To that, I ask, whose mom does? Even the financial publication The Street offers a list of sure-fire Mother’s Day gifts. Though you won’t catch me putting my money on items 2 and 5, the Robotic Vacuum Cleaner or the Multi-Cooker Crock Pot.

Many stores around the country now help eliminate the guesswork altogether by offering wish lists. Yes indeed, mothers can now register for Mother’s Day. We can come in, shop around and set aside items we want, which the husband or children can acquire ten seconds before presentation with the simple offering of a wallet. On its face, this concept seems at odds with the point of Mother’s Day, which as we just established, is to put thought into your mother.

On the other hand—as my family learned the hard way—the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So perhaps the online marketing and the in-store wishlists, while seeming to commercialize and superficialize Mother’s Day, are actually heading off a storm. They are keeping the peace, which is, when all is said and done, what mothers want above all else anyways, and which, ironically, is what Mother’s Day was intended to be about.

The origins of Mother’s Day date back to 1870 and to Julia Ward Howe, the abolitionist and poet, who, after witnessing the devastating loss of sons and husbands due to the Civil War, fought to establish a Mother’s Day of Peace. A day when woman around the nation could come together and figure out how to prevent war.

“Arise then…women of this day!” she wrote.

“Arise, all women who have hearts!

Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly: ‘We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,

Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,

For caresses and applause.

Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn

All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

We, the women of one country,

Will be too tender of those of another country

To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

Nothing like a proclamation to put things in perspective. It turns out that Mother’s Day—what do you know—wasn’t even intended to celebrate mothers, and it certainly wasn’t intended to be about gifts. Julia Ward Howe called for nothing to be bestowed upon us, other than the presence of our children. So, technically, it seems anyone who asked for a day alone at the spa is doing it wrong. As is anyone who turned in a wishlist. Although to the extent that the wishlists help to keep the peace, perhaps Julia would have been in favor. Although I have a hunch her list would have never included a microwave.

Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have appeared in publications including, The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and has just completed her first novel. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook and read more of her work at: Read more of her work at franciearensondickman.com

 

Can Kids Make Us Happy?

Can Kids Make Us Happy?

Smile Freedom and happiness woman on beach. She is enjoying serene ocean nature during travel holidays vacation outdoors. asian beauty

By Rachel Pieh Jones

Some parents I talk to seem rather disillusioned. They thought having kids would make them happy. They thought having kids would satisfy a longing or fill a hole or bring a sense of hope and purpose to their lives. Turns out though, for a lot of us, having kids reveals our selfish natures, impatience, inner rage, and makes us really, really tired.

What if our expectations are upside down? What if the reason people had kids was not to make themselves happy but to make themselves better people? Not to fulfill our own needs but to learn about service, not to satisfy our own longings but to help another person achieve their longings. There is fairly clear evidence anyway that children don’t make parents more happy, though it can be reasonably argued that ‘happiness’ itself is a difficult emotion to quantify.

Personal evidence: I don’t know about other parents, but I didn’t consider myself an angry person or a worried person or a controlling person. And then I had kids. Hello, impatience, rage, anxiety, and obsession.

Researched evidence: “Daniel Hamermesh and his colleagues published a study…finding that mothers reported a sharp rise in stress after the birth of a child…Another study published this year (2015)…found that the average hit to happiness exacted by the arrival of an infant is greater than a divorce, unemployment or the death of a spouse.”

I’m happy I have kids, don’t get me wrong. But it is a different kind of happiness than is implied by the simplistic, ‘kids will make me happy’ idea.

In All Joy, No Fun, Jennifer Senior writes that:

“Having worked so hard to have children, parents may feel it’s only natural to expect happiness from the experience. And they’ll find happiness of course, but not necessarily continuously, and not always in the forms they might expect.”

I’m not angry or mean all the time. I’m just surprised by how often and how angry. I’ve also been surprised by the joy, love, gratitude, and awe I experience as the mother of my three kids. The intensity of these emotions is what has shaken me, both the good and the bad.

The point people like Jennifer Senior are trying to make, or at least one point, is that happiness is not a guarantee when it comes to parenting and that people who think having a child will fill them with endless rivers of continual delight have another thing coming. Parents-to-be could be greatly served by coming to terms with this before the shocker of that first middle-of-the-night who will get up with the baby fight.

Expecting a baby, toddler, middle-grade kid, or teenager to make us happy is an awful lot of pressure to put on another human being, especially one that will go through ridiculous rages of hormones, will demand to use our bodies and physically transform our bodies, will absorb our sleep, time, and money, and who will eventually leave us, off to conquer the world while we stand weeping on the front stoop. We know all this, it is inevitable, and yet, we continue to get pregnant and adopt and then feel shocked and surprised when we aren’t happy and when we are, in fact, less happy than before we had children, in general.

One danger in holding these expectations is that when our children fail to give us joy, when we feel the rising impatience or frustration, we will retreat. This was supposed to be fun. This was supposed to make me happy. So when it doesn’t, we disappear or distract ourselves.

I read in the book Sacred Parenting–“If we have only a selfish motivation, we will run from parenting’s greatest challenges… not by retreating to our bedrooms or backyards, but to our offices, boardrooms, workout clubs, Starbucks or even churches.” 

But what if the expectation was not that having kids would make us happy but would make us better? What if people had babies and expected, sure a little joy, but also a whole lot of challenge and the need for creativity and the desperation for community support, the humility to ask for help, the relinquishing of whatever life plan they had previously mapped out? What if at least one of the motivating factors for having a child were self-improvement? This seems fairly radical and almost selfish. But then again, the idea that a kid should make me happy is also pretty selfish.

This idea that kids can refine their parents takes the pressure off the kids to please us and to succeed and excel and obey and be talented, pleasant, intelligent, good-looking, and to fit into our categories of what we consider successful and pleasing. Instead, the pressure is put back on ourselves as parents. The kids become useful tools in our lives, even as we are training them to become productive adults in the world.

When a child whines for candy at the grocery store, I might lose my patience and then feel miserable – both for losing my temper and for failing to raise a child who doesn’t whine – this also comes with a huge dose of guilt. Now neither one of us is happy and in my mind, it is all the kid’s fault – for being a whiner. Or my fault – for raising a whiner. Either way, we both lose.

Instead, I can recognize my impatience, apologize for losing my temper, and see it as an opportunity to grow in character. My kid still probably won’t get the candy but instead of wallowing in self-pity (her) or guilt (me), we can both experience progress toward becoming better people, one tiny step toward being more patient or toward more self-control. It’s a small example but like so much with parenting, small things illuminate larger ones.

If we parents used the challenges inherent in parenting: sleepless nights, financial strain, marital disagreements, and decided to see them as an opportunity for growth rather than a failure of our children to reinforce our happiness, we might actually become…happier.

Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

The Best Parenting Advice I’ve Heard

The Best Parenting Advice I’ve Heard

Mother With Baby Suffering From Post Natal Depression

By Julie Vick

When my first son was a few months old, I was bouncing him on an exercise ball at 3:00 a.m. to try and get him back to sleep. It was the third time I had been up with him that night, and I was scrolling through an online parenting board on my phone reading posts from others in the same predicament. There were plenty of people lamenting their situations, but one post said, “Just cherish every moment, they won’t be that little for long.”

I understand where such thoughts are coming from, but reading them on a discussion board in the middle of the night only added fuel to my sleep deprived fire. I was going on three months where I had not slept more than a four hour stretch at a time, and even those four hour stretches were a rarity.

The humor and adrenaline that had carried me through the first weeks with a newborn was waning and the reality of my fragmented and sparse sleep was setting in. My mind felt fuzzy and jumbled during the day and my husband and I had both logged enough hours bouncing our baby on an exercise ball at night to earn us a spot in the Guinness World Records book for ball bouncing between the hours of midnight and 4:00 a.m.

I could have arguably stayed off my smartphone during these late night sessions (and one piece of advice I read indicated the light from the screen may be disrupting my baby’s sleep), but I found it comforting to connect with a web of other sleep-deprived parents in the same situation. My friends in the physical world who had babies all seemed to be sleeping just fine, and I wanted to find others who understood. And I did.

But some online commenters would inevitably try to spin the situation into a positive like, “I actually enjoy the few moments of quiet bonding time when the rest of the house was asleep.” This was not my experience. I was not enjoying 20 minutes of cuddle time once a night while my son ate and then peacefully drifted off to sleep; I was up multiple times watching the hours until I had to be awake for work tick by as I struggled with a wide-eyed three-month-old who would cry the minute I tried to lay him down.

In the early days of parenthood, it seemed like so many things were set up as dichotomies: breastfeeding or bottle feeding, bed sharing or having your child sleep independently, cloth diapers or disposable diapers. When I got frustrated, I often felt bad that I wasn’t just enjoying the fleeting moments of my kids’ childhoods more.

Then I heard an interview with the writer Cheryl Strayed. While discussing the advice column she had written, she mentioned that it’s okay to experience two opposing truths at the same time. While she wasn’t talking specifically about parenting, when I relate this advice to parenting it’s one of the most helpful things I’ve heard.

You don’t have to be in just a pure state of thankfulness or frustration – you can feel both at the same time. When you are up with a baby in the middle of the night you can be both frustrated at your current state and appreciative that they won’t be small enough for you to rock to sleep forever.

You can be disheartened when your toddler has another potty training accident, but understanding that it is one of the few things in her life she  is trying to have control over.

You can want to pull your hair out when your preschooler refuses to eat anything but saltines with no broken edges on them for dinner, but aware of the fact that he will likely diversify his eating habits as he grows.

Many parenting choices also don’t have to be so black and white. You can feed your kids both breast milk and formula. You can use cloth diapers at times and disposables at others. When you look for a middle ground, it’s often there.

Now when my younger son wakes up at night it’s rare, but my husband or I are still sometimes hanging out with him for a couple hours in the middle of the night trying to coax him back to sleep. When he looks at me with wide open brown eyes that seem to ask, “Why can’t we just get up at 3:00 a.m.?” I can be both frustrated and entertained.

Julie Vick is a writer living in Colorado and has been published in Brain, Child,  Washington Post On Parenting, CountryLiving.com, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. You can read more of her work at: http://www.julievick.com/

 

Book Review: The Informed Parent

Book Review: The Informed Parent

51DnMpXkTqL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_by Jennifer Richler

So much parenting writing these days comes off of as preachy or alarmist or both. Check out the parenting section of your local bookstore and you will find titles like The Collapse of Parenting. A quick Google search of “parenting” yields articles like “Six Ways Good Parents Contribute to their Child’s Anxiety.” The title alone makes me feel anxious.

The Informed Parent, a new book Tara Haelle and Emily Willingham, is different. It is a nuanced, thoughtful exploration of the latest research on parenting young children. And it is completely non-judgmental. “[W]e don’t know your family and can’t say which route would be best for you and your child. But we give you the scientific information to map your own path,” they write. How refreshing.

If you’re about to be a parent or recently became one, poring over reams of research on everything from antidepressants in pregnancy to home births to breastfeeding to vaccines is probably the last thing you want to do. Luckily, authors have done it for you, and have translated it all into easy-to-understand terms.

The result is a book that makes you feel like you’re talking to a really smart friend, one who knows a lot more than you do, but never acts like a know-it-all.

As someone who spent many years conducting scientific research, I’m always skeptical when a book bills itself as ” science-based,” as this one does in its subtitle. I worry that it will mislead readers by oversimplifying the research or overstating what it can tell us.

But Haelle and Willingham deftly avoid these pitfalls, explaining the findings clearly and thoroughly, while repeatedly reminding the reader about the limitations of scientific research: variables the researchers didn’t or couldn’t control for, biases on the part of the researchers in terms of how they collected, analyzed, and interpreted the data. When the findings on a given topic are particularly scarce or messy, as is the case for many parenting issues, the authors come right out and say so.

Even when the data are clear, the authors avoid being prescriptive, acknowledging the many factors that influence people’s parenting decisions. They cite the evidence for the health benefits of breastfeeding, for example, but are quick to point out that “for an individual woman, those benefits may or may not outweigh other considerations or possible harms of breastfeeding,” such as the psychological stress a woman might experience if nursing proves especially difficult.

When they lay out the risks of certain practices, such as co-sleeping, the writers keep their tone practical, not preachy. As veteran parents themselves, they acknowledge that some will choose bed-sharing with their infants as a way to get a few precious hours of sleep. Instead of admonishing parents for the practice, they review the research in a clear-headed way, highlighting evidence on ways to reduce the risks (e.g. , avoiding waterbeds, smoking, sharing a bed with a preemie, and having multiple bed sharers). Refreshingly, they also suggest potential risks of not bed-sharing, including a higher chance of falling asleep with the baby on a couch, which is a dangerous practice.

In the spirit of showing that there are many ways to approach parenting, the writers include “What we did” paragraphs at the end of many sections, each describing various decisions they made in their children’s early years — where to give birth, how to feed their infant, how to manage postpartum depression (both experienced it). By revealing these personal choices in a matter-of-fact way, the authors lend credibility to the claim that there is no one “right” way to parent.

The authors balance this emphasis on personal decision-making with a healthy respect for scientific research and what it can tell us when carried out rigorously. They choose high-quality, well-controlled studies to review in depth and relate findings that might surprise many parents, even those who try to keep up with the latest developments. They cite an “incredibly detailed UK analysis” that found no environmental benefit to cloth diapers over disposables, for example. They also describe studies that found no evidence of harm to the fetus from a mother dying her hair while pregnant, and no evidence of health benefits from eating organic rather than conventional food. Among the most recent research they discuss is the evidence that early introduction of peanuts actually lowers risk of peanut allergy, contrary to what was previously thought. This led the American Academy of Pediatrics to revise their recommendations last year, advising parents to introduce peanut products to infants between 4 and 11 months instead of waiting until after 12 months. By highlighting the latest research, Haelle and Willingham remind us that research is a dynamic process, and that the “accepted wisdom” is always in flux.

This openness to challenging ideas leads the authors to entertain claims others might shy away from. Instead of the standard disapproval of all things screen-related that you’ll find in many parenting books and magazines, for example, they discuss the potential advantages of touch-screens over TV: interactivity, personalization, and progressive learning, which allows children to build on concepts they’ve already mastered. “It’s entirely reasonable that touch-screen devices could promote as much learning and traditional toys,” they write, showing their willingness to carefully consider an issue for which other parenting experts might have a knee-jerk reaction.

Screen time is one of the few topics relevant to parents of toddlers and preschoolers that the authors discuss. Despite describing itself in the subtitle as a guide for “your child’s first four years,” over two-thirds of the book is devoted to topics relevant to parents of infants. This is probably because the research on these topics is more abundant and somewhat cleaner; there’s simply more to say about the research on breastfeeding, circumcision, and medications during pregnancy than on complex topics like discipline.

Still, I was disappointed that the book didn’t go into more depth on certain topics, particularly developmental delays. There is a section about the possible causes of autism (the research is unambiguous that vaccines are NOT one of them, a fact the writers thankfully state plainly), and another on screening for delays. But given Willingham’s incisive writing about autism elsewhere, I expected more, particularly guidance for parents on when to be concerned about their child’s development without becoming unnecessarily alarmed.

Readers will find more discussion of certain topics on the theinformedparentbook.com, where the authors maintain a blog highlighting the latest studies on everything from migraines in pregnancy to hydrolyzed formula.

Overall, The Informed Parent succeeds as an informative, reassuring guide to parenting in the early years. Toward the end of the book, the authors say that they set out to create a “factual resource in the face of the relentless messages about ‘how you should be doing it’ and ‘what you’re doing wrong’ that no parent can escape in the modern age.” Mission accomplished.

Jennifer Richler received her PhD in clinical psychology and is now a freelance writer living in Bloomington, Indiana with her husband and two kids. Follow her on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

Telling My Mother About My Rape Healed Us

Telling My Mother About My Rape Healed Us

teenage girl in the summer field

By Dorri Olds

Growing up, my whip-smart Jewish mother looked like Jackie O. I craved her attention but had to share it with my two older sisters. Decades later, I landed Mom’s full focus for the trauma I never wanted to talk about. I finally told her I was gang-raped at 13.

The sexual assault happened ages ago in New York suburbia. The perpetrators were classmates I trusted. My friend Willie attacked me from behind, clamping his hand over my mouth. The other four teens pounced from behind a tree and pinned me. They took turns forcing hands in my vagina and penises in my mouth while they laughed. I tried to fight but they overpowered me. There was no consent. I was too young to understand it was legally rape.

During the attack, when the weight of male bodies crushed me, I’d wanted to cry out, “Mommy!” But afterwards I couldn’t go to my mother. I was too afraid she’d be angry because I’d worn the sexy low-cut silk shirt she had forbidden me to wear. But at the same time, I was enraged because mothers are supposed to shield their children. Why hadn’t she protected me? I couldn’t tell my father, a macho World War II army captain. I was scared he’d kill the boys and go to jail. I wasn’t close enough to my older sisters to tell either one. And I was scared. If I told, I was afraid the attackers would get in trouble and I’d be labeled a rat at school — vilified, friendless, and teased mercilessly.

In a strange twist, while on Facebook recently, there was a suggestion to friend one of my rapists. I had never wanted to see their faces again. I’d tried so hard to banish the memory of that horrific night. Now I was stunned seeing him on my screen. I tried to see the slender blond boy he’d been as I stared at this jowly face. Propelled by vengeance and shaking with rage, I clicked through his profile photos and saw a boy with his nose and a pretty teen girl with long hair parted in the middle. In one image, he gripped a beer while his belly drooped over his jeans. I spotted old wedding pics with a beautiful bride. Then I searched for the other boys, now middle-aged men. I found three and sent them all messages reminding them of what they did. “I was 13, naïve, and a virgin,” I wrote. “Hope you’ve been haunted by that night. It nearly destroyed me.”

The fourth guy wasn’t on Facebook. A hometowner wrote to say he’d been brain damaged in a car crash years ago. “He was drunk,” she said. “Half his skull was ripped off.” He was the meanest of the boys so the karma felt sweet.

Through the help of a therapist, friends, and my husband, I stopped trying to suppress the memory. I wrote a piece about my assault and it was published. Right before it went to print, I had lunch with my mother. While we waited for grilled chicken I said, “There’s something I never told you. Remember that long ago fight we had over clothes?” Before she could answer, I sucked in breath for strength and the story spilled out.

First there was silence, then words caught in her throat as tears rolled down her cheeks. She said, “It breaks my heart that happened to you.” Then she reached across the table, squeezed my hand and said, “I love you and I am so proud of the woman you are.” After The New York Times published my essay I received hundreds of sympathetic comments from strangers, and what seemed like my entire Long Island town. A professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice wrote to say, “I’m including your powerful essay, ‘Defriending My Rapist,’ as required reading for my Victimology course.” She invited me to come speak to her students. She had an M.A. in criminal justice, a Ph.D. in sociology, and had written many books. I said, “Yes.”

When the day came, my nervous energy coalesced into one inane conundrum: what to wear to the class. I walked back and forth in my Chelsea apartment, peering into closets. I wondered whether to ask my mother to come. I was surprised how much I wanted her there. This time she could be my witness, my ally.

Although now in my fifties it felt like an important chance to change the past. And I wondered, not for the first time, what might have gone differently if I had told my mother. Would I have avoided shame and self-loathing? I wanted my Mom beside me during my talk at the school when I described the assault so many years ago. I hoped it would help explain why I’d been so rebellious in my teens and twenties. Still, second thoughts reared up. I feared that if my mother listened to my story, it would stir up emotions, so it seemed selfish to ask her to come. I imagined having a conversation later where she’d say, “It’s not your job to protect me. You should have asked.” So, I thought, I will let her decide and picked up the phone. She paused on the other end to think, then said, “Yes, I’ll be there.” Later she said she’d had tickets to the theater that night.

“It was an easy choice, though,” she said. “I’d much rather be with you.”

I chose my formal black pants and a freshly ironed button-down shirt. Then I changed into jeans and a soft black cotton T-shirt so I’d feel more like me. I pulled on my hip black boots with silver spikes. I knew they were age-inappropriate but didn’t care. I added a black jacket with flashy zippers. Then realized that despite a happy marriage and thriving career I had regressed to those junior high days when I wanted so badly to look cool. I chose a sedate purse and left for the subway.

I headed uptown to meet my mother; she was always stronger than my father. If he were alive I wouldn’t have published that essay. It would have been too hard to blindside him. I couldn’t bear the thought of Dad’s face if I’d told him. He would have blamed himself for not protecting me and then would’ve been furious that I publicized something so private. He was secretive and never understood why I was so open. My confession would have humiliated him.

When my mother and I walked into the classroom, only the professor was there. Twenty-five freshmen wandered in. They plopped into chairs and slouched looking like they’d rather nap than listen to anything I had to say. A few mumbled a bored hello. None looked me in the eye. I thought back to college when I’d viewed people over fifty as relics.

The room was split down the middle, females and males in a spectrum of skin tones. The professor introduced me. Fearful I’d break down and sob, I read my essay.

At 13, I was a lonely upper-middle-class Jewish nerd living in Long Island, in search of a tougher persona. He was part of an edgy crowd that hung out in a parking lot behind the school, sprawling over the cement steps like bored cats on a sofa. It was 1973, and the boys wore black leather jackets, smoked Marlboros and stashed pints of Tango and Thunderbird in their back pockets.

When I reached the end there was only the quiet. I thought my words had been too heavy for their young minds. Then this sea of students burst into applause.

Sitting in the front row, my gray-haired Mom, with her dyed red highlights, clapped the loudest; her rainbow-colored jacket, folded neatly in her lap. Although she was smiling, there were tears.

The former slouchers were now seated upright, a few brushed fingers across their eyes. Most stared at me quizzically, as if trying to reconcile that the 53-year old successful woman they saw was the same person who had lived the frightful teen experience I’d just described.

After decades of therapy and self-help groups, I had let go of irrational rage at my mother for not being all powerful and preventing the rape. The damaged and terrified 13-year-old girl I used to be healed more each time I shared my secret publicly.

I looked around the room and wondered if my talk helped the students. I hoped so. I knew it helped me. When my mother and I said goodnight on the sidewalk, she said, “I wish you had felt you could come to me then.”

I hugged her longer than usual and said, “But I did now.”

Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in book anthologies and The New York Times. She is currently working on her memoir.

The Sky Isn’t Falling

The Sky Isn’t Falling

Broken nest egg

By Sarah Coglianese

As a new mom, I experienced moments of utter bliss and moments of pure panic. I imagine that’s not unlike the experience of most first-time parents. Of course it’s not exactly the same for everyone, but it’s safe to say the adjustment period can be rife with anxiety for many of us. Among the concerns I recall having after Scarlett was born: Why was breastfeeding so much harder than I thought it would be? Why was the baby’s poop green? Why did she detest every nanosecond spent in her car seat? And why did I decide to start sleep training the night my sister-in-law and her family were staying with us, seven people in one small apartment? I guess that last one is less of an anxiety and more an example of poor decision-making.

But then there were the more obscure fears: What if the ceiling fell on her while she was sleeping? What if she was stolen out of her crib? What if she somehow got stuck in the refrigerator? Unlikely to happen though they were, these were the images that kept me up at night.

As my daughter grew, my anxieties abated. She was thriving, and developing quite a personality. A good eater, a terrible napper, alternately sweet and feisty. We got the hang of breastfeeding and took naps together in my big bed. When she was 17 months old, I quit my job and we spent days exploring our city, going to music classes, walking in the park, splashing at swimming lessons.

Then one day, I was pushing her stroller down the street when suddenly I stumbled, the stroller pitched forward, and we ended up on the ground. I scrambled to stand, to right the stroller, and then I just stood there looking down at my flip-flopped feet, one bleeding ankle. Scarlett was fine, not even crying, but my heart was racing. I pushed the stroller back to my car and told myself it was time to stop wearing flip-flops, but something in me knew that wasn’t the real problem. It wasn’t the first time I’d fallen. It wasn’t even the second or the third time. Though I’d been trying to ignore them, the falls had been happening more frequently, especially when I tried to go running. What was once my favorite activity was now nothing more than a three-minute exercise in frustration. My feet just would not lift.

Ironically, with something to actually be worried about, I stayed calm. I decided I wasn’t drinking enough water, that I was indeed wearing the wrong shoes, that I wasn’t getting enough sleep. But when Scarlett was 22 months old, I saw a neurologist who suspected Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), the muscle-wasting disease that carries with it a prognosis that no one wants to hear. I’d been worried about the ceiling falling on my sleeping child. Now the sky was falling on our life together. The diagnosis was confirmed, making my new probable lifespan two to five years. No treatments, no cure. I held my baby in disbelief. I’d had such a vivid imagination when it came to what could go wrong. But a terminal illness that would slowly paralyze me until even my lungs stopped working?

That one had not occurred to me.

Despite my ALS, our lives continued. There was no other choice. I began walking with a cane, and then wearing ankle braces. Scarlett started preschool. Eventually I acquired a bright purple walker, which made me feel like a little old lady. Sure enough, when I went to visit my grandma in the senior living facility to which she had recently relocated, a woman in the elevator took one look at me and one look at my walker and said, “You don’t live here, do you?” I was 34 years old at the time, but I knew it wasn’t a foolish question. Walkers like mine were everywhere, as I made my way to my grandmother’s apartment.

Were these my people now? Aging bodies slowing down. Death no longer a future glimmer, but a reality too hard to ignore. And was my grandmother, who had no trouble walking, actually in better shape than I was? Well, yes.

I was spinning, untethered from the person I felt I had once been. A marathon runner, a devoted mom and wife, an independent woman who had never particularly liked asking for help. I was consumed by my sadness and confusion, by my anxieties about what was to come.

And then I discovered other people who were like me. Young moms and dads, people in their 20s who never had a chance to start a family, all of them living with ALS. I found them by writing about my experience, by joining a group on Facebook, and by becoming heavily involved with several nonprofit organizations that raise money for ALS research. My people, it turned out, were not the ones in the senior home who had lived long lives and had much to show for it. My people were the ones who were fighting for their lives, fighting for more time with their children, fighting a disease that we’d been told would certainly kill us–and soon.

***

Scarlett is five years old now. She just started kindergarten. I haven’t run in a long time, and I can’t even stand up anymore. I spend my days in a wheelchair, my hands and arms are growing so weak that I often need help eating, and a machine helps me breathe for a few hours each day.  But I am still writing, and I’m still working to raise awareness and money to end this disease.

Each new phase of my experience brings fresh anxiety, but it is important to me to keep my daughter’s life as normalized as possible, to spend time with her—just the two of us—even if a caregiver is hovering nearby or waiting in the car.

ALS is relentless, and it will take my breathing muscles away from me. I don’t know when, and the worrier in me wonders if I’ll be sitting across a restaurant table from my daughter, watching her take down two slices of pizza, when my chest gets tight and an anti-anxiety pill isn’t enough.

For now, I take breaths as deep as they come, breaths that would horrify my former yoga instructor, and tell myself it’s okay. I still have time. The sky has not fallen. No one has gotten stuck in the refrigerator. And ALS, as scary as it is, is what we’re living with. The past five years of being a mom have taught me that I can’t let the fears, real or imagined, take over my life. I can be safe, I can be prepared. But I can’t give up.

Sarah Coglianese is a writer and blogger whose work has been published in The New York Times, Redbook Magazine, and CNN.com, among others. Sarah was diagnosed with ALS in 2012 at age 33, and started speed4sarah.com to raise awareness of the disease. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, their six-year-old daughter, and a puppy.

The Case Against Crowdsourcing Motherhood

The Case Against Crowdsourcing Motherhood

Surprised black woman sitting with computer isolated on white background

By Jody Allard

I came of age alongside the Internet. I used my first computer in eighth grade, a clunky Mac tower that mostly just gathered dust in the back of the classroom. My college years were punctuated by computer crashes and floppy disk failures that consumed entire papers and projects in an instant, and printing was always a perilous proposition. Rarely, if ever, did the cursed thing just print as it should. Even when it did, the dotted edges of the paper had to be torn off, and they almost never left smooth, presentable margins in their wake.

I had my first child before I reached adulthood. The Internet, too, was still in its adolescence. I read “What to Expect While You’re Expecting” as I watched my belly swell and press against my ugly hand-me-down maternity blouses. I stared at nipple positioning charts and tried to figure out how to breastfeed, or whether I even wanted to breastfeed, with only the guidance of those dog-eared pages and my mother’s voice ringing in my ears. I stumbled along, always trying my mother’s approaches first, but eventually I found my own way. Despite all of my missteps and mistakes—and that one time I forgot to buckle my baby into his highchair and was convinced his tumble had killed him—my son and I survived his first two years of life largely unscathed.

By the time my next two children were born, red-faced alien twins who surprised everyone by arriving as a pair, the Internet had also fully arrived. This time around, as I juggled a toddler and newborn twins who weren’t fond of eating, much less sleeping, I turned to the Internet for advice. I searched for a bulletin board for mothers and, just like that, I embraced my very first “moms group.” Pretty soon, we all began to gather during our babies’ naptimes to talk twins, marriage, food, and everything in between. When something good happened, I couldn’t wait to share it with my mom friends. When my son finger-painted the walls with his poop during a nap, two days in a row, I knew exactly where to turn for commiseration.

I don’t know when I began to doubt myself and my parenting but it happened somewhere along the Information Highway. Every day there was a new article to read about the best way to raise children and the risks to my kids if I messed it all up. All of the moms in my moms group had different opinions and approaches, and what had begun as a lifeline of support eventually led me to constantly question my own methods. “Know better, do better” became my mantra and I forgave myself my early awkward attempts at mothering while earnestly committing to be better.

I had wonderful intentions. Who doesn’t want to learn from their mistakes? Still, I was determined to give my children the very best version of myself, even if that perfect me was just a fantasy—and even if being that perfect me made me miserable. In a world of eternal options, it never dawned on me that my children just needed me: scars, flaws, mistakes, and all.

The Internet makes crowdsourcing seem sensible. I wouldn’t buy a printer without reading the reviews on Amazon so why shouldn’t I crowdsource my parenting? In an age of endless access to information, it feels almost foolhardy not to use it. The problem is that none of this information or advice made me a better mother. All it did was remind me of what I didn’t know while making me forget how I really learned to mother. No matter how many articles I’ve read and online posts I’ve made, I became a mother in a rocking chair in the middle of the night, sobbing as my baby screamed into my engorged breast. I learned to mother each of my seven children uniquely and individually, as they, and I, grew up.

I stopped spanking my children when I spanked my oldest son in anger and realized how easy it would be to cross that line. I pumped breastmilk for my children when I couldn’t get them to latch because my heart broke at my inability to nourish them. I’ve made thousands of parenting choices, and probably a hundred mistakes, but the best decisions I’ve made have always come from deep inside me. The mistakes I’ve made, like pumping for months past when it made sense to stop, came from my insecurities and fears; often, they stemmed from the advice of strangers I learned to trust more than myself.

The Internet tells me what science says about mothering, but it rarely changes how it feels to mother. When I spend long afternoons sitting on my friend’s couch as our kids wreak havoc, we rarely talk about the hot topics online. We don’t argue over breastfeeding or formula feeding, cloth diapers or disposable, and neither of us care that she unschools and I gladly send my kids to school. Our friendship is about each other, as mothers but also as women, and it’s watching her mother that makes me a better mother, not arguments about our differences.

Five years ago, when my youngest children were still infants, I went to therapy for the first time. It took me 13 years of motherhood to recognize my own needs and to consider myself as valuable and important, too. Therapy has given me the gift of myself but it’s also made me recognize how deep my need for external validation runs. Last week, as I told my therapist yet again about my fears for my kids, she said: “Jody, you always look outside yourself to find proof that you’re right and okay. You need to learn to reassure yourself that you’re right and okay.”

The Internet is by no means entirely to blame for my need for validation. My habits are rooted in my childhood to at least some extent. Yet, as I left my therapist’s office and texted my best friend to get her opinion of my therapist’s advice, I realized just how much of a role the Internet has played in my distrust of myself. I have amassed a decade of experience asking everyone but myself how I should mother.

I’m not the only mother struggling to find balance in the Internet age. Megan O’Hara, a licensed clinical social worker, explored the downsides of social media use for new mothers in an article for Christiana Care Hospital last year. In it, O’Hara cites a study that found 86 percent of mothers use social media and 70 percent of them believe technology makes them better mothers. Her own observations tell a different story. “Becoming a mother is a journey that comes with much uncertainty. It is quite natural to look to our peers for guidance and a frame of reference that tells us whether we are doing a good job,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, in this age of social media, what we see is not reality. What we are seeing is just a snapshot of a very complex reality full of failures and successes.”

After a few years of searching to find my parenting foundation, I left my mom groups. I stopped asking for advice on social media, and I created new accounts with only trusted friends and family members. Yet, even now, when I compose just the right snapshot on Instagram or tweet about my kids, I always keep one eye open for likes, comments, and reactions. I may have learned to stop asking for parenting advice, but I still haven’t learned how to reassure myself that I’m doing a good enough job. I don’t know how I’ll finally learn to stop crowdsourcing my sense of parenting self-esteem but I know I won’t find those answers online.

Jody Allard is a freelance writer and mother living in Seattle. She writes primarily about parenting, life with a chronic illness, and current events viewed through a feminist lens. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Time, Vice, and The Establishment, among others. She can be reached through her Facebook page.

Top Ten Book Picks To Celebrate Earth Day

Top Ten Book Picks To Celebrate Earth Day

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By Christina Krost

Caring for the earth is important to me and my family. And I bet it’s important to you, too. My family’s interest in sustainability began with a desire to save money after my husband’s sudden job loss in late 2008. We exhaustively researched cloth diapering as a way to save money, which led to hunting for non-toxic detergent and personal care products, which led to choosing more organic food options, which increased our awareness of fair trade practices and environmental justice issues. Our change of heart and consumer habits took place over several years and continues to this day, influencing our choices at the grocery store and shopping mall.

But it’s a big wide world and we’re very, very small. How do we as parents instill a desire to care for our shared land, air, and water? How do we teach the connection of families all over the world? We can start by reading. I gave my library card a workout this month to compile a list of 10 books that cover varied topics about earth care including sustainable food & land use, water preservation, energy & climate change, and advocacy. These books are great ways to begin conversations at home about what small things every family can do to help reduce their impact on the earth. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. And you can start this Earth Month at home, with story time.

Common Ground: The Water, Earth, and Air We Share by Molly Bang (1997)

This book describes how our society has moved from one of community to one focused on self-preservation. Through simple words, concepts, and illustrations, author Molly Bang describes how we’ve taken what should belong to everyone—grass for grazing, fish from the sea, fossil fuels from the ground, water from lakes and rivers—and used it for short-term benefit. Our mentality that there will always be resources to use and land to live on is quickly drying up, and soon we’ll have nowhere else to go and no more resources to deplete. This book appeals to kids’ sense of justice and fairness and might inspire your school-aged children to advocate for clean air and water or find ways to better share the Earth’s resources.

On Meadowview Street by Henry Cole (2007)

This charming book follows Caroline and her family as they move into a new home. Caroline notices some wildflowers growing in the too-tall grass of her new yard, and as her father begins to mow she ropes off an area to save the flowers from certain death. As she notices more and more beauty and biodiversity in her yard, the roped off area becomes bigger and bigger until the family sells their lawnmower and builds up a small little nature preserve within the fence of their backyard. The idea to return Meadowview Street into an actual meadow catches on, and several other families join in until there is a home for everyone—plant, animal, and insect—in their neighborhood. The illustrations are soft and there are few words on a page, making this an excellent read for all ages.

The Earth Book by Todd Parr (2010)

New York Times bestselling author Todd Parr has written another family favorite (His book We Belong Together was reviewed here). His colorful and child-like illustrations catch the eye in this simple children’s book emphasizing ways even the youngest children can help care for the planet. He illustrates simple actions like turning off the faucet when brushing teeth or using both sides of paper to draw on to reflect the characters’ love for the plants, animals, and people around the world. Parr ends the book with this sentiment: “Remember: if we take care of it, it will take care of us.”

Compost Stew: An A to Z Recipe for the Earth by Mary McKenna Siddals (2010)

“Compost is a nature’s way of recycling,” states the author’s note at the beginning of the book. This truth will lead you and your children to discover the many things you can, and cannot, compost. Got a budding chef at home? This book can help make composting part of your food prep routine and make cooking an environmental exercise. Paying close attention to what is and is not compostable might lead to improvements in eating habits. This might spark discussion about one of the easiest ways to reduce your family’s carbon footprint–going meatless for one meal a week. The illustrations are charming and use recycled materials and papers. This book is suitable for preschool aged children and up.

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney (1982)

Winner of both the American Book Award and Caldecott Award in 1983, this classic story follows a little girl named Alice through her life in turn of the century New England. Alice longs for adventure and to live by the sea, but is ultimately encouraged by her beloved grandfather to “do something to make the world more beautiful.” Though Alice isn’t sure what that thing might be, the story reflects how her life choices and travels to faraway places are framed within these aspirations. When she returns to live by the sea in her old age, though frail, she finds a way to create beauty by planting beautiful blue, purple, and rose-colored flowers called lupine. Though others think her crazy, she ultimately becomes wise like her own grandfather and inspires children of a new generation to go and make the world a more beautiful place, though they don’t yet know what that might be. The soft illustrations and beautiful landscapes make this a book for the whole family to treasure.

Recycle: A Handbook for Kids by Gail Gibbons (1992)

Our children learn at school and at home that they should recycle their paper, plastic, glass, polystyrene, and aluminum, but do they know what happens to it after it’s sent to the recycling center or landfill? The bright and colorful illustrations will engage elementary students in a behind-the-scenes look at the steps our garbage and recyclables take on their journey to reuse and provides helpful tips on ways they can help clean up the environment. The illustrations include people of varied ages, genders, and colors, reinforcing the idea that everyone can do their part to recycle.

The Green Mother Goose: Saving the World One Rhyme at a Time by Jan Peck and David Davis (2011)

Who doesn’t love nursery rhymes? With familiar verses reworked to reflect a care for creation and whimsical recycled paper collage illustrations printed with soy-based ink on paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, this book will charm your preschool and elementary-aged children. It’s become a new family favorite in my house! Familiar characters like Old Mother Hubbard, Mary Quite Contrary, and Little Jack Horner normalize earth-friendly actions like eating organic, using cloth shopping bags, composting, eliminating toxic pesticides, harnessing wind and solar energy, and upgrading to energy-efficient light bulbs. The overarching message is that care for our common land, air, and water can be fun when we work together.

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss (1971)

A favorite environmental book for more than four decades, The Lorax is always kid-approved for story time. Dr. Seuss’ imaginative landscapes and funny characters take us through the causes of an environmental catastrophe. Children can easily connect how deforestation and industry affects the animals, water, and air in the surrounding ecosystem. Though the book’s cheerful scenery ultimately ends in a grim landscape, there is encouragement for future generations: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Bag in the Wind by Ted Kooser (2010)

This book, written by a former US Poet Laureate, was inspired by an item that is often challenging to eliminate from daily life or to recycle. A thoughtful narrative of a lone plastic grocery bag that escapes a landfill, we follow the bag’s travels and interactions with people on the fringes of society and one industrious little girl. The book lends itself to conversations about compassion, conservation, and connection. Soft illustrations of wintry rural landscapes on 100% post-consumer waste paper add to the charming nature of this picture book. The author’s note at the end gives helpful information about why plastic bags are so difficult to get rid of and what simple changes we can make to keep them out of the garbage.

Why Should I Save Energy by Jen Green (2001)

Have your children ever experienced a power outage? Do they wonder where energy comes from and what might happen if it runs out? How can they conserve energy? This book helps answer such questions in a kid-friendly way. Humorous illustrations, simple text, and speech bubbles help make this book relatable and easy to understand for the preschool and elementary-aged child. The author’s note at the end gives tips on how to discuss energy use with children, suggests follow-up activities, and offers other books to read on this topic. Other books in the “Why Should I” series include topics on protecting nature, recycling, and saving water.

Christina Krost is teacher, mother, and United Methodist pastor’s wife who works for Faith in Place, an Earth care non-profit. She lives with her husband and three young daughters in rural central Illinois and blogs at http://www.5matches.com/.

 

What We Learned About Parenting At Starbucks

What We Learned About Parenting At Starbucks

Amsterdam, Netherlands - JUNE 08, 2011: Starbucks coffee logo in Amsterdam Airport Schiphol on June 08, 2011 in Netherlands. Starbucks Corporation is an American global coffee company and coffeehouse chain based in Seattle, Washington

By Kathryn Streeter

When our son was 4, he fell in love. The object of his affection was voluptuous—far too old for him. He saw her constantly. She had long flowing hair and intense eyes. He called her his “little love.” The crown she wore lent an air of power while sleek fins encircling her projected steady but enticing mystery.

The fact that our son was smitten by the Starbucks Mermaid was our fault.

One of our oldest family traditions is spending Saturday mornings at the local coffee shop. Started long before kids came along, this easy-going tradition was a sweet opening to weekends. We didn’t have a lot of money and the coffee shop fit our wallet. Wherever we lived, we targeted the local, indie or chain, just as long as we could reach it by foot. Whether sunny and blistering hot, wintry and blowing icy winds, we’d wake up and sleepily trudge towards the coffee shop hand in hand.

When we started having kids, going out for coffee each Saturday morning was a tradition we were determined to continue. We selfishly coveted this entrée into the weekend as a young couple and didn’t want kids to change this beloved routine.

Looking back, it was inevitable that our son’s first love would be the Starbucks logo. At our Washington, DC neighborhood Starbucks, we’d wolf down our weekly dark-roast coffee and cinnamon scone with our baby son and his slightly older sister in tow. It was exhausting. No longer a peaceful, relaxing way to begin the weekend, our treasured tradition had been turned upside-down. It would have been easy to let this tradition die with the arrival of kids.

Yet, we persisted, trying to roll with the times.

When the kids morphed into fidgety toddlers, we’d pull out toys. We started talking about what restaurant manners looked like because coffee shops offered a forgiving environment in which to begin these lessons

As they grew, we adapted, stashing coloring books and crayons, drawing paper for doodling, designing mazes or gradually, for hangman tournaments. We would pair up, one parent, one kid and go the distance, watching our little ones work with letters and spelling.

Once, R-E-C-Y-C-L-E was the word that stumped the boys’ team, handing them a loss. I remember this hangman tournament well because by then, we had moved to Dubai on short-term assignment, where recycling was very much a cultural afterthought. After consulting with my daughter, we decided “recycle” was apropos for the championship round.

“Dad, think harder!” our 7-year-old son pleaded.

Time passed and the kids grew. Their tastes changed, resulting in them branching out, trying new items on the menu. Previously, they had faithfully ordered chocolate chip cookies because they knew that on Saturday mornings, we lifted parental law regarding what made for an appropriate breakfast.

“It’s up to you. One thing. You decide.”

As they grew older, they took to dabbling:

 

A cinnamon roll, please.

Izze soda, please.

Pumpkin-bread, please.

A hot chocolate with lots of whipped cream, please.

A vanilla latte, please.

A yogurt parfait, please.

An egg-sausage breakfast sandwich, please.

A macchiato, please.

An Americano, please.

Time sped by and one Saturday we suddenly realized that the day we had been pining for had arrived: we were having conversations with our kids. We realized we could actually finish our sentences without meltdowns, outbreaks, or an impatient, is it time to go yet?  They answered in fully formed sentences with increasing thoughtfulness, making eye contact. In fact, we were experiencing intentional, meaningful time together regardless of the topic of conversation.

Sometimes we’d just chill and review the week. Sometimes we’d address what we needed to accomplish that day. Sometimes we’d talk current events and big ideas. Sometimes we’d have a rare moment when our blooming tweens needed to really talk, letting us into their world. Away from the distractions of the home, there was more space.

This basic tradition was mercifully adaptable, able to accommodate the various seasons of family life. As our family moved around from Dubai to London, Indianapolis to Austin, this tradition followed us, so easily transferable into new surroundings.

An old friend, this was a tradition we came to count on, a comfort during often painful adjustments.

Yet, from its infancy, the core point of this family tradition—to hang out, celebrate and support each other—remained unchanged. With amazement, I watched as we grew closer to our kids through our steady and persistent Saturday habit. We intentionally had built a routine which had serendipitously brought ease to our parent-child relationships. Additionally, our kids had grown close as siblings.

Now in high school, coffee on Saturday mornings starts much later, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all because teens need their sleep. And that is ok. There’s no question good things are happening because the kids will often text us, asking to meet up after school for coffee. Or for family happy hour where dad orders a beer, mom orders a glass of red wine and kids suck down soda, another form of caffeine. By this we know that our kids are choosing to hang out. Talk. Laugh.

There’s an element of trust. They know we’re not going to ask for deep conversation in exchange for buying them a coke. Our little inexpensive outings—whether coffee or happy hour—are going to be whatever they end up being, no strings attached. Together, just hanging out as a little family.

Could it be that this tradition is in part responsible for the young adults I now see sitting across from me at Starbucks discussing the current presidential campaign?

We all want close family relationships. We all hope for strong relationships with our teens. Yet, if not careful, we can find ourselves going from day to day, week to week, living under the same roof but in every way disconnected from one another. Is it possible that intentionally putting everything aside to walk to the coffee shop together is also a path toward stronger family relationships?

I realize now that this simple tradition of hitting the coffee shop each week started something in motion long ago. Though I’m still trying to appreciate its fullness, its richness, its direct contribution to building the relationships we have today with our young adults, I’m thankful. Starting with Starbucks, this coffee shop routine helped our kids want to be with us—their parents. And that’s no small thing.

Kathryn Streeter’s writing has appeared in publications including Literary Mama, Story|Houston, Scary Mommy, Mamalode and The Briar Cliff Review. Her essay is included in the best selling anthology “Feisty After 45.” Connect with Kathryn on her website, Twitter @streeterkathryn and Instagram @kathrynstreeter.

 

 

Thirteen, Now and Then

Thirteen, Now and Then

Art Thirteen 1

By Christine Green

Last week my daughter asked me to help her edit and revise some poems she wrote for class. The theme was a rather advanced one: the Bosnian refugee experience. She is anxious and a little sad by nature, and I sensed her nervousness. I didn’t want to upset her so I chose my words carefully. Usually, when I help her write, she becomes prickly and uneasy, quick to be offended by any suggestion I make. But not this time. She listened as I critiqued and nit-picked and corrected. She even smiled, I think.

She worked on the poems for the next couple of hours despite the fact that there was no school the next day and the rest of the family watched a movie and ate popcorn and dozed on the couch.

I read her poems the next morning. I don’t ask permission and felt a little ashamed about that. They were good but sad and dark. I was proud and confused and heart-achy. She can channel so much sadness and beauty in just a few lines of eighth grade poetry. Her melancholy and anxiety transmutes to art that is incandescent. This child, this girl-woman, is such a different animal than I was so many years ago.

***

Art thirteen 2Thirteen, 1986: I am small, much smaller than most of the girls in my class. My white uniform shirt falls limply against my chest. I don’t need a bra but wear a trainer because you can see right through the flimsy polyester. Knees, knobby and sharp, poke out from underneath my plaid skirt. I wear my hair short, which was a huge mistake. My thick, straight tresses look best when I leave them long. But a picture in some glossy magazine convinces me to cut if off. I look weird.

I am reading books I’ve taken from my father –Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant and Saki. My science teacher catches a glimpse and asks if I really understand what I’m reading. I do understand and tell her so. She believes me, and I tuck the books away feeling embarrassed but not entirely sure why.

I may be smart, but I am naïve beyond words. Once I am asked to light the candles on the class Advent wreath. The idea of lighting a match terrifies me and my natural anxiety peaks to panic. When the flame ignites, I hastily drop it… right on the pine wreath surrounding the purple candles. The teacher looks at me with disbelief. It is clear that she—and the rest of the giggling class—think I am ridiculous for not knowing how to light a match. I feel ridiculous. But my soul is all air and water. My head is filled with Ideas and Notions. My heart is somber and easily bruised. I am quick to cry, and am continually scared of the world. I can’t even use the stove at my house. I rely on others for heat.

***

She got an A on those poems as I knew she would. But I worry about all that sadness. It’s a sadness tinged with anger, confusion, and anxiety. She is too young to be so somber.

This makes me think that the coming years will be hard, much harder than I am ready for. Already we can come at each other with an intensity that startles me.

I cry. She yells.

Water. Flame.

Steam.

***

Thirteen, 2014: She is fire through and through. She can light a match, of course. And she can bake bread and walk home from school alone. She wears black and doodles on her sneakers. She hates gym class and is a voracious reader. Books litter her room and I often find them tucked in her bed sheets and even in the laundry basket. No magazines, though. Fancy fashion spreads hold no interest for her. Instead she studies Shintoism and researches the ins and outs of cardiac surgery. The affairs of the heart fascinate her on every level. She thinks about heaven and death and loss and takes on the sorrows of the world. Those sorrows are tinder for a blaze of anger that glints in her hazel eyes when she tilts her head.

She talks back and mouths off and teases her little brother. She has perfected the eye roll and slams doors in such a way as to shake the whole house.

Sparks fly.

She is so hot headed at times I want to douse her in cold water. Occasionally, when she is walking in the snow, I watch the steam rise from her heart and finger tips and the tip of her nose. I watch it rise into the ether and mix with the stars.

Christine Green is a freelance writer and columnist in Western, NY. She also organizes and hosts a monthly literary reading, “Words on the Verge,” at A Different Path Art Gallery in Brockport, NY. She is a Californian at heart and dreams of once again living near the beach.

photo credit: Courtney Webster

Where Have They Gone?

Where Have They Gone?

Asian Newborn baby girl 1 day after the birth, in hospital.

By J. Galvin

There is a trend overtaking hospitals and it terrifies me. Hospitals across the nation are taking away nurseries within their maternity wards and, instead, are insisting on twenty hour in-rooming for mothers and their new babies in the name of bonding and breastfeeding.

Why does this terrify me? Because I am pregnant with my second child. It was the hospital nursery that saved my sanity and kicked my maternal instincts into high gear when I had my first child four years ago; not a twenty four hour in-rooming policy.

Four years ago when my daughter decided to enter the world I had no clue. I had no clue how hard labor and delivery would be. I had no clue the sheer physical and emotional exhaustion a new baby came with. I had no clue breastfeeding would not come naturally. I had no clue to ask for help from the nurses and lactation consultants. I had no clue some newborns don’t, and won’t, sleep no matter how much you rock them, feed them, sing to them, and offer up prayers to whatever higher power you believe in.

I had no clue until a doctor making her rounds took one look at my face and suggested I put my daughter in the nursery for a few hours. I still remember she was dressed up as a bumblebee with a padded yellow and black body suit and a light up headband. It was Halloween.

“Put her where?” I stammered.

“Put her in the nursery,” she said with both a concerned and an amused face. “The nurses will take good care of her, they’ll wake you if anything happens, and bring her to you when she needs to feed.”

I felt terror, horrible guilt, and an inkling of hope. Was I a bad mother to leave my new baby in the nursery? Would the nurses really wake me if something was wrong? Would I be able to finally rest?

My husband listened to me weigh every possible option while the hormone-laden tears poured down my face. At this point I had been up three days straight between labor pains and a long, hard delivery. My daughter, who entered the world twelve hours earlier, had yet to fall asleep; a trend that would continue for weeks.

“Put her in the nursery.” My husband said. “It will be fine.”

Happy to relinquish all decision making to him, I agreed and my daughter was whisked away to the nursery. I passed out instantly and woke three hours later. I didn’t feel so bone numbingly exhausted or on the edge of losing my mind. I felt such a pull to see my daughter I knew my maternal instincts had finally kicked in.

Fast forward to the present and the countdown, though still a long ways away, to the birth of my second child begins. I feel calmer, more prepared and happier this time around, but still with such trepidation that should not be necessary. I don’t think someone else, namely a hospital, has the right to decide what is best for myself or my child. I alone, with my husband, have that right.

So for the time being, I will do my homework. I will research hospitals in my area that still offer the option of a nursery and will plan accordingly. I will hope hospitals realize that a mother’s decision to rest is key to both the emotional and physical well being of both baby and mom. I will hope hospitals realize that the decision to decide what is best for mother and baby lies with mother, not hospital staff or hospital policy.

Jamie Chase Galvin works part time as an Academic Advisor and is also a freelance writer. Jamie possesses an undergraduate degree in English and a graduate degree in Counseling Psychology. She loves to write any chance she can and lives in Massachusetts with her husband and very talkative four year old daughter.

Taking My Children To A Rally In A Storm

Taking My Children To A Rally In A Storm

BJ Blog Photo

By B.J. Hollars

One Saturday in the midst of primary season, I, like any informed member of the electorate, performed my civic duty of buckling my children—Henry (4), Eleanor (22 months)—into the double stroller and wheeling us toward the Bernie Sanders rally. I did so in a near-blizzard.

Let the record show that this is neither an endorsement of Bernie nor blizzards, and in fact, after a lot of soul-searching, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am anti-blizzard, especially when they strike in April when I’m expecting flowers.

Instead, that morning we were greeted with snowfall, a momentary whiteout making it difficult to determine just how far that Bernie line stretched. When conditions cleared it became obvious: it stretched forever.

Ahead of me, the line overflowed with the most rare of species—college students awake at 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday. I tried to blend in as best I could, but something (maybe the double stroller?) pegged me as an outsider. In a good faith effort at parenting, I attempted to keep the kids warm by creating a cocoon, draping a blanket atop the stroller and tucking it around their legs. Every few minutes I’d peek inside to find Henry and Eleanor belting out their off-key rendition of the Daniel Tiger theme song in the hypnotic glow of the Kindle. Which is to say: they were having the time of their lives.

Meanwhile, the conditions outside that cocoon were less than ideal, and after a lot of highly visible teeth chattering and salvos for sympathy (“It’s okay children, just keep moving your fingers!”), a kind-hearted field worker took pity on us, offering hand warmers and a promise to get the kids out of the cold as fast as he could. He was good on his word, and a security pat down later we were in, taking our seats on the front row of the arena bleachers.

“OK,” I said, wiping the snowflakes from my watch as reality set in, “just another three hours till Bernie.”

There are only so many ways to kill time at a political rally and we tried all of them: peeking into the press room, chatting with the band, waving to the news anchors until they just stopped waving back. We talked to the people behind us, in front of us, all around us, and when that game wore thin, we even tried talking to each another.

At around 10:00a.m.—two hours till show time—the kids began to grow restless.

“Dad,” Henry whined, “I’m hungry.”

I reached into my pocket to unearth a half-eaten candy cane.

“Is it still good?” he asked skeptically.

“I don’t see an expiration date, do you?”

That candy bought us a good hour, at which point the sugar crash set in. I attempted to neutralize the situation by returning their attention to the Kindle, which they watched contentedly, while I watched the battery deplete at an alarming rate.

Stay cool, I thought, you got this.

And even if I didn’t, I figured that if my children—inspired by Bernie—attempted their own revolution, the secret service would have no choice but to come to my rescue.

Yes, things were looking up, right up until that battery died.

“Dad…” Henry said, “I’m still hungry.”

By this point Eleanor had taken the liberty of eating the granola bar belonging to the young woman to our left, and when that didn’t suffice, a woman six rows up read the situation perfectly and came bearing a bag of crackers.

In my mind’s eye, that woman wore a halo round her head, floating down from those bleachers to a crescendo of harps and sopranos. It was just what we needed just when we needed it, and by the time my ravenous children had worked through those crackers, our city’s favorite son, a Grammy-winning rock star, took to the mic to introduce the presidential candidate.

I’ll give Bernie this: he was punctual. And he knew how to get college-aged folks to cheer. What he didn’t know was how to persuade my young children to cheer at appropriate times. Instead, Henry and Eleanor provided a call-and-response to Bernie, hollering like a couple of tent revival parishioners taken by the spirit.

This, of course, was hilarious to precisely them and nobody else. By this point even the most polite progressives had begun to tire of us, and though they continued to brandish their tight, forgiving smiles, I knew it was time to take our leave. We retreated to the edge of the stage where I could stand, shush, and rock as appropriate—anything to keep them quiet.

Henry demanded my phone so I handed it over (“Right away, sir!”), and for the next minute, watched miserably as my 21st century child snapped selfies of himself. As the photos momentarily froze on the screen, I noticed a blurry rock star directly in the background.

Great, I thought, not only is my kids’ behavior ruining a rally, but we’re probably pissing off the rock star as well.

All of this might have been avoided, of course, had I better prepared for our adventure. Yet in my haste to give my children a memorable experience, I’d forgotten the basics: food, water, and backup Kindles.

Conscientious parents often exaggerate how bothersome their kids are in their own minds. Maybe there’s a chance everyone in that arena actually appreciated the adorable distraction my kids provided. Maybe…

But in the event we were as bad as I think (and I think we were pretty bad), allow me to offer a public thank you.

Thank to you the field worker who kept us from freezing, and to the woman who gave us her granola bar. Thanks to the angel with the crackers, the rock star with the patience, and the political candidate whose hearing kept him from hearing us. As a voter, I’m still undecided. But as a father, those people in that rally won my vote.

B.J. Hollars is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. He the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. He serves as the reviews editor for Pleiades, a mentor for Creative Nonfiction, and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more, visit: http://www.bjhollars.com

photo credit: Bill Hoepner

 

 

Revenge and Privilege

Revenge and Privilege

Art Revenge and Priviledge

By Rachel Pieh Jones

My Somali language lesson one day ended with my tutor telling me a story about her twelve-year old daughter, Kadra, at school.

The previous week another student stole Kadra’s red pen and wouldn’t give it back. Kadra got angry about it and after class they got into a yelling match. The yelling quickly devolved into physical fighting and the other student scratched Kadra’s face until it bled and bit her ear, hard. Kadra got revenge for the ear – she bit the other girl’s breast during their tussle. But at home that evening, my tutor told Kadra to go back the next day and scratch the girl’s face

Biting the breast had been a good idea but Kadra needed to get revenge for the scratches, hers were just now scabbing over, as well.

Kadra followed her mother’s advice the following morning and scratched the girl with all five fingernails. That afternoon the girl and her mother came to Kadra’s house to apologize for stealing the pen and purchased her a new one.

I was shocked. How could my friend encourage her daughter to get into such vicious fights? What about forgiveness? What about escalating a problem? What about a more creative solution like involving the teacher? How could the girl have refused to apologize or even admit to the theft until there had been this eye for an eye retaliation? What kind of parenting was this?

My tutor was shocked at my shock. She had dozens of reasons for why my suggestions would fail and I started to learn about how much context matters, about how deeply privilege and circumstances affect parenting choices. My tutor was a good mother, with the best interest of her daughter at the heart of her values and she was raising a child in the same country as I was but in a very different reality.

The family lived in a slum region of Djibouti. My tutor worked several jobs and her husband was unemployed and often sick. The neighborhood community raised money for their family to have a roof on their house and eventually electricity in one of their two rooms. They had five children and a sixth on the way.

The teacher at Kadra’s school had over fifty students in class, came late and left early, and sometimes didn’t show up at all. Some months the teacher didn’t receive a salary and parents were asked to come in and manage the classroom or there could be no school. One teacher in this kind of environment didn’t have the capacity to deal with petty theft or fights between students.

Tattling would make Kadra a target for more violence and theft the rest of the school year and probably for the rest of her academic career. Not standing up for herself would mark her as an easy victim and she would never be able to hold on to her own pens or notebooks or snack money or water bottle.

Sure, she could forgive the other girl but only after making it clear that Kadra was no wimpy push-over. There was no expectation that the other girl would admit her crime, that would only put herself in the position of weakling. She had no motivation to respond until Kadra asserted herself. Kadra’s position in the classroom needed to be firmly established.

A Fresh Air podcast with Ta-nahisi Coates helped me understand why my tutor encouraged her daughter to respond to violence with violence. About the need to physically assert oneself, he said:

“…one of the first things I learned … in middle school … is that any sort of physically violent threat made to you has to be responded to with force. You can’t tolerate anybody attempting to threaten or intimidate your body. You must respond with force.”

Coates grew up over seven thousand miles away from Kadra. But they shared the reality of growing up in an environment where, like Coates said, they had to respond with force.

I was seeing Kadra’s dilemma from a position of someone who sends her children to a school with resources I completely took for granted. Things like paid and physically present teachers. Or other parents who, though working, were not working multiple jobs and so were able to invest in the PTA and social events among the kids.

I know about my privilege as a white mother from an upper-middle class background with a university degree and decent health insurance. I’ve also lived for thirteen years in the Horn of Africa and two of my family’s highest values about life as foreigners here has been: learn from the local people and seek to understand life here from their point of view.

My shock was evidence of how blinded I still am, after all these years, evidence of how far apart my reality is from my tutor’s. I’m ashamed of how little I understand her life even though we consider each other good friends and have spent significant amounts of time in each other’s homes. We are still worlds apart.

It is easy to judge parenting choices and children’s behavior, so simple to say, “If I were you, this is what I would do…” But we are rarely able (or willing) to fully step outside, or even recognize, the experiences that have formed our perspectives.

I’m thankful my tutor was willing to help me understand the circumstances at school for her daughter. Now, when a woman I respect and know to be a good mother, makes a statement I don’t understand or makes a choice for her children that I might not make, I am much more likely to trust her instincts. I might ask questions but these come from an attitude of wanting to learn. Rather than make assumptions about her parenting or her relationship with her children, I’ll seek to understand their actual context.

Next time I hear a friend praise her daughter for biting a fellow student’s breast, I won’t be shocked. But I’ll definitely still be curious.

Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

What’s Mine Is Not Yours

What’s Mine Is Not Yours

 

Pink share key

By Isabelle FitzGerald

“No sharing, Mama!”

My livid two-year-old swatted my hand, which hovered over his untouched supper, the meatballs I made growing cold and gray. My son clearly wasn’t hungry. I, however, was ravenous and could not stand to watch those delectable morsels of beef and oregano congealing on his plate.

Cooking together is the closest our family comes to having a ritual, and as soon as he was able, my son sifted flour for banana bread and scrubbed vegetables on his step stool next to the sink. Alas, he wanted to be in complete control of these tasks, but couldn’t be, a struggle that reached its apex whenever it was time to hand over the wooden spoon with which he stirred the soup or to relinquish the carrots he’d rinsed to the cutting board and my waiting knife.

“Mama taking my carrots,” he’d blubber. I explained that the carrots did not belong to him, that the sooner he gave them to me, the sooner he would eat them. Sometimes, he surrendered the vegetables; more often, I had to pry them from his angry fists, leading to the inevitable tantrum, to the occasional burnt meal, and to the unshakable sense I’d committed some injustice I could not place.

***

“Mine” was bound to be among his first words, according to the weekly parenting newsletter I subscribed to. The distinction between “you” and “me,” and therefore “yours” and “mine” was all part of my toddler navigating his newfound autonomy after the relentless dependency of being an infant. The experts promised that he’d outgrow this phase, eventually.

In the meantime, my son’s possessiveness intensified, expanded beyond the culinary realm. At his grandparents’ house, he prostrated himself and pounded his fists when his cousin touched the blocks he deemed were “his.” In the sandbox, he grew hysterical when the girl who owned the plastic bucket he’d been playing with came to collect her toy. “That bucket belongs to her,” I said. “See how nicely she was sharing?” He did not.

I tried positive reinforcement: I lavished him with praise on the rare occasion he offered me one of his playthings or a bite of his apple. I tried logic: if he wanted to play cars and trucks together, he needed to let me use at least one of his many miniature vehicles. No luck. Whenever I touched something that belonged to him, my otherwise cheerful child would detonate. My husband worried. I assured him this was normal toddler behavior, but I, too, began to wonder why our son’s reactions were so extreme.

***

One September afternoon, the three of us were in the car, stuck in traffic. It was hot. I was thirsty. My husband reached over the gearshift and swigged from my water bottle. I blew up. “That’s my water.”

From the backseat, our son listened. He’d overheard this fight before: my high-decibel freak out after my husband took a sip without asking and swallowed half the bottle’s contents in a single glug. To my husband, my fury over water theft seemed comically overblown. To me, it felt like he disregarded my boundaries, my basic needs. In eating from my son’s bowl, it seemed I’d picked up my husband’s same annoying habit.

A few weeks later, we sat down to dine at a restaurant. My stomach stabbed with hunger, and the stars of low blood sugar dazzled my eyes. The waiter brought our son’s food first, a hotdog with a heap of golden fries. I swiped one from his plate and stuffed it in my mouth, sweet ketchup-y relief. He howled. Fat tears rolled down his cheeks.

“What’s wrong?” my husband asked.

“Mama shared with me,” my son said.

My husband shot me a dirty look.

“Taking without permission isn’t sharing,” he said. “It’s stealing.”

Pot, kettle, black? I thought. Nonetheless, he was right.

***

Even infants know right from wrong.

A few years ago, a research team at Yale demonstrated this fact by putting on a puppet show for babies about a bunny struggling to remove a toy from a box. First, a “mean” puppet entered the stage and slammed the box shut. Then, a “nice” puppet appeared and helped the bunny get the toy. When asked which puppet they preferred, the babies reached for the “nice” puppet three times as often.

In a second experiment, the researchers put on a different show, three puppets rolling a ball between them. When the ball reached the bunny puppet, he took it and ran off. The researchers then performed the first show, the one about the bunny trying to get the toy from the box. This time round, the babies overwhelmingly preferred the puppet that slammed the lid shut. That larcenous rabbit deserved to be punished.

My son knew stealing was wrong without having a word for it, or worse, having the wrong word. Sharing.

***

That refrain from my childhood, “Do as I say, not as I do,” is as lazy a dictum as it is ineffective. My son reflects my actions, good and bad. I have sworn in front of him and later heard him parroting my blasphemes in his crib, testing inflections beginning with “F.” If my husband drinking my water drives me crazy, why would I expect my child to act – or to feel – any differently? Being his mother is as much about correcting my hypocrisies as it is about telling him how to behave.

Now that he knows the difference between sharing and stealing, he’s gotten better at the former with his playmates, if not with me. Maybe he still sees me as the thieving bunny, not to be trusted, not to be rewarded. I’m doing my best to lay off his dinner. When I forget, when my fingers sneak toward his neglected string beans, my son shouts, “No stealing!” He teaches me, little by little, how I ought to behave, too.

Isabelle FitzGerald studied creative writing at Brown University. Her writing has appeared on The Rumpus and Yahoo! Parenting. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and is currently working on her first novel.

 

Marching Along The Path of Joy

Marching Along The Path of Joy

ART Marching Path of Joy

By Rebecca Vidra

Getting pregnant at 40 was not in my plans. Not even in my wildest dreams. I already had two daughters, who I managed to keep alive and mostly happy for 10 and 8 years, respectively. My career was finally recovering from my ill-advised “I can work full-time without daycare” years and I felt like I was finally reclaiming my own identity.

And my marriage? It was about to end. Or so I thought.

It was on a sailing trip in Spain that I found out that I was “embarazada.” My husband and I had taken the trip, our first significant vacation away from the kids, under the auspices of work (as professors, we were checking out potential study abroad programs). I viewed it as our last chance to renew our commitment by choice, not just because of the economic or logistical constraints of marriage.

My husband says he knew that I was pregnant before I did. I was in complete denial that I could be carrying a stowaway.

I remained that way – in shock – for the first several weeks of my pregnancy, asking myself if I really wanted to go through with it. I searched the web for stories by women like me – middle-aged and facing an unplanned and, honestly, unwanted pregnancy. Finally, my husband suggested that we take the “path of joy” and have this baby.

For him, the decision was about the baby. For me, the decision was about us.

As the weeks went by, I started to experience little flickers of excitement, often followed by huge pulses of worry and regret. I started a list of things I was not looking forward to – preschool birthday parties, pumping at work – and started a much smaller list of potential baby names.

Throughout my pregnancy, as I oscillated between excitement and fear, I could not fully admit my dread, that I would not be able to mother this child with unconditional love and attention. How could I do it all over again, this time while coping with 2 soon-to-be-teenage girls? How would we be able to do the work necessary to strengthen our marriage, while having a needy baby to care for?

And there was this, the question that kept me up at night: could I really find it within myself to be in love with my husband all over again, when it seemed so much easier to leave? For months, I felt as if I were bracing for a big wave that I knew was going to knock me over hard.

Véla was born in my bedroom, on a warm spring day. The midwife did not arrive in time, leaving me to birth my baby with the help of my husband and doula. I reached down to deliver her and pulled her to my chest, as if by primal instinct. I felt that intense panic of protectiveness that all new parents experience as I wondered if she could breathe on her own.

Then, her tiny eyelashes – little sticky curled wisps – blinked open. And it was at that moment, watching her arrive into this world, that I knew I could do this all over again.

In the photos taken right after the birth, the baby and I are in focus. You can see streaks of milky vernix and blood on her head and my hands. In the blurred background, my clearly relieved husband is crying as he reaches for us. For me.

Today, my sleep-deprivation is highlighted by crow’s feet around my bleary eyes. I don’t have the same energy for decorating a nursery, or chronicling her every move on a blog, or endlessly searching for the best preschool. I am not worrying about every little thing, though I do worry that I am not worrying enough.

There must be some gray area between obligation and love, a space for the choices we make out of both. Having a baby is hardly a prescription for saving a marriage. I get that. It certainly was not a magic wand or even a soothing balm for ours. I’m realistic about this, yet it also re-oriented me to what love looks like on most days: doing the dishes, shuttling the kids to dance practice, not asking why I didn’t manage to take the garbage out (again).

This “path of joy” is not a forced march or a romantic wandering journey. It doesn’t always feel joyful. It is crowded by our busy schedules and minor arguments. We navigate over bumps of annoyance and around curves of “what-ifs.” I think, though, that I am able to celebrate the small moments of joy more fully now that I am not looking for the exit ramp.

And when I feel the now familiar twinge of regret, I look at Véla’s tiny eyelashes and remind myself to focus on the small steps on this shared and unpredictable path of joy.

Rebecca Vidra lives with her husband and three daughters in the oak-sourwood forest of North Carolina, where Véla (named after the Spanish word for “sail”) just celebrated her first birthday..

Photo Credit: Kallyn Boerner

 

Mom I Need A Ride

Mom I Need A Ride

Art-Mom-I-Need-a-Ride-768x630By Francie Arenson Dickman

Back in 1998, right before we got married, my husband suggested that we trade in both our cars for a new one. And so, we did. I traded in my black two-door Honda, a tiny thing that fit nothing except for me, a death trap according to my parents, for a bigger one. A safer one. A car that could and would carry children. My husband, who loves all things auto—I assume because he’s from Detroit—was giddy with excitement. But I, who tends to love merely what’s mine, stood in my Ann Taylor suit unloading tapes of Enya and Indigo Girls from the glove compartment, maps from the side pockets and cried. I wasn’t just trading in a car, I was mourning the end of an era. I was saying goodbye to my solo passenger status and paying my respects to the concept of mine and only mine.

And with good reason. In a matter of years, the backseat was occupied with carseats and with twin backwards-facing riders. My glove compartment was filled with pacifiers. My side compartments were stuffed with toys and wipes. My CDs played Ralph, but who could hear him over the all the crying. For driving, like for mothering itself, these were tense times.

But, the reliable thing about time is that for better or worse it keeps rolling on, and with it so did we. From facing backwards to forward, from boosters to butts. From Montessori straight through middle school, I drove on. Until, suddenly, a decade and a half later, we’ve reached a marker, not a destination, but a rite of passage. As it is time, a friend just brought to my attention, to sign my passengers up for Driver’s Ed. Their classes won’t start until September. They won’t have their licenses for another year after. Nonetheless, the end of another road is in sight. A road I never imagined would end. Napping, I always knew was a phase. Just like the park, Princesses and playdates. But the carpool, like Twinkies and cockroaches, seemed like something that couldn’t possibly expire.

“When one door closes another one opens,” my mother told me that day I gave away my Honda. She tells me this often, as I’m a sucker for anything having to do with the passage of time, and she was, of course, right. Though I had no idea that when the door to the Honda shut, the next one would be opening and closing ad nauseam for the next 15 years. Had I only known that I would be blessed not only with two daughters but the job of chauffeuring them around, maybe I wouldn’t have cried so hard. Or maybe I would have cried harder.

Driving’s what I do—it’s what we all do. Working the wheel is an essential part of the parenting job. On most weekdays, I’m in and out of the car from 3:00 to 8:30 pm, and on weekends we go to dance shows out in Timbuktu. Is it tiresome? Yes. Do I complain about it? Certainly. Would I trade it in for another two-seater? Not for the world. At least not now.

Although my husband is now bugging me to do it. Once again, what is to me a momentous occasion is to him simply an opportunity to head to a dealership. “Let’s get you a new car, maybe something a little smaller,” he tells me. He wants to hand down my big old car to our daughters. The bigger, the better, he says, as far as their safety is concerned.

But I know better. As does Bessie, my first car, a Caprice Classic station wagon, the biggest car ever created. Together we crashed into fire hydrants, backed into other parents’ cars, and plowed through the dry wall of our garage. In fairness to us, Bessie didn’t give a warning beep when we got too close to objects like cars nowadays do. All I had was 3 or 4 of my backwards-facing friends to scream after the damage was done. In this regard, I suppose my kids will have technology on their side. On the flip side, I didn’t have a phone in Bessie to distract me. And so, regardless of the car they drive, I am worried. Times two.

But more than that, I’m not ready to come full circle. Although this time around, it’s not the car itself that I care about losing. I’m mourning the loss of my status as driver.

“Mom, can you give us a ride?” is the most commonly asked question in our house (next to “Mom, do you have any money?”) One would think I’d hate those words by now. Those reliable words. They ring down from upstairs. They appear as texts on my phone at random and often inconvenient times. But I say, “yes” whenever I can, not because I’m such a good sport, but because I’m selfish, as it’s now almost only the car, or more accurately, my ability to drive it, that continues to reliably bind us.

My black SUV has become the last great bastion of guaranteed togetherness—like a prison for teenagers—a place where my girls who once faced backwards and cried now sit next to me and talk, albeit reluctantly, about their days. Most of which are spent away at school or with friends. At night, of course, I lose them to their rooms. But during those afternoon hours in the car, or better yet, the weekend hour after hour going to dance shows, they are still mine and only mine.* And I love that. I always have.

*Okay, well, like 60% mine and 40% Snapchat’s.

Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have appeared in publications including, The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and has just completed her first novel. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

Book Review: Catastrophic Happiness

Book Review: Catastrophic Happiness

catastrophichappinessBy Lindsey Mead

Catastrophic Happiness by Catherine Newman is a series of essays, which masterfully combine story and reflection. In the prologue, titled IT GETS BETTER, Newman captures the particular joys and indignities of raising small children – riding in the back of the car with them, distributing string cheese, the way a dental appointment feels like a spa vacation because nobody needs you, the droopy sorrow of a weaned bosom, a toddler inhaling sand at the beach – with her trademark perfection. I laughed out loud several times. And then, in the prologue’s last scene, Newman describes a mother sitting in bed between her sleeping children, “boo-hoo[ing] noiselessly into the kids’ hair because life is so beautiful and you don’t want it to change.” Haven’t we all done that? I know that I have. Newman goes on to introduce the years that come after that sleeping-toddler scene, the messy years of the book’s subtitle, by telling us that “…you will feel exactly the way you feel now. Only better.”

The essays that follow trace this getting-better with stories of Newman’s children, Ben and Birdy. My own children are similar in age to Ben and Birdy, though two years stair-step younger (my older child and Birdy are the same age). I related intensely to this book. Each of the seven chapters in Catastrophic Happiness contains power, sentiment, and visceral emotion.

Newman’s observations run the gamut from deep and profound to hilarious and true. For example, within pages in the first section, she states that “happiness is so precarious,” and that “I don’t always understand the children or what their problem is.” Isn’t this one of the defining features of parenting, the way things can swing from dense feeling to trite confusion in a matter of minutes? The hilariously confounding and overwhelmingly holy coexist, at least for me, in most hours.

Over and over again, the lines of Catastrophic Happiness made me gasp and sigh, underline and laugh, text a friend and say “OMG, read this,” and even email Newman herself and ask: “Are we the same person?” For example:

I am so glad and grateful, I am. But sometimes the orchestra plays something in swelling chords of luck and joy, and all I can hear is that one violin sawing out a thin melody of grief.

Newman’s pieces, just like life itself, touch on, and interweave, the sacred and the mundane. The seven chapters are broken into smaller pieces, each of which revolves around a specific memory of a point in time. These are presented in loose chronological order and all have marvelous “How to” names, like “How to Have Complicated Feelings,” “How to Share a Beating Heart” and “How to Hang On By a Thread.”

My favorite section is “How to See the Light Behind the Trees,” which begins in a damp, unpleasant campground bathroom with Birdy, “her pants pool[ing] around her ankles on the wet cement floor.” What parent doesn’t read that and find themselves immediately thrust back into a situation where they wait for their progeny, if not a cement campground outhouse then in a filthy rest stop toilet stall? This is one of parenting’s universal, largely unpleasant scenarios. Newman and her family visit the same campground every year, which makes it the perfect place to reflect on how quickly time is moving. Her memories remind me of our own annual summer vacation, and of the way that an annual visit to the same place provides a unique lens on both time’s passage and the way that the past is animate in the present. There’s heartache to this experience for me, and Newman captures this brilliantly:

I used to picture time as a rope you followed along, hand over hand, into the distance, but it’s nothing like that. It moves outward but holds everything that’s come before. Cut me open and I’m a tree trunk, rings of nostalgia radiating inward. All the years are nested inside me like I’m my own person one-woman matryoshka doll. I guess that’s true for everybody but then I drive myself crazy with my nostalgia and happiness. I am bittersweet personified.

Yes. Me too. Oh, me too.

In some of Catastrophic Happiness’ later sections my identification with Newman’s writing was even more powerful. When she writes how “privacy and independence come on suddenly, like a sleeper wave of separation, and children experience this with simultaneous relief and dread,” I felt like someone was reading my mind. Yes. With children at 11 and 13, I’m riding that wave right now, alternately grateful to be able to see the horizon for the first time in many years and utterly swamped by seawater.

Newman has a true gift for making the reader feel intimately connected to her family. She draws indelible images that are deeply personal to her family and hugely universal at the same time: Birdy, with unraveling braids, in a doctor’s waiting room; Ben cheerfully helping his mother with a flooded basement, the face of a beloved, well-worn beanbag toy that Birdy sleeps with every night.

In Catastrophic Happiness Newman has trapped lightning in a jar, allowing us all to admire its dazzle. In her book’s short, lovely pages she captures life as a mother, life as a human being, life in general, in all of its gorgeous, complicated grandeur. It’s hard for me to choose a favorite passage, but I’ll try.

Life isn’t about avoiding trouble, is it? It’s about being present, even through the hard stuff, so you don’t miss the very thing you’re trying so hard not to lose.

In Catastrophic Happiness, Catherine Newman both powerfully reminds me of what it is I’m trying so hard not to lose, and helps me stay present to it. In my opinion, there is no surer mark of a great book, or no higher compliment.

Lindsey Mead is a mother, writer, and financial services professional who lives near Boston with her daughter, son, and husband. Her work has appeared in a variety of print and online sources, several anthologies, and she blogs regularly at A Design So Vast.

 

Experiments in Radical Self Care

Experiments in Radical Self Care

Word Cloud with Self Care related tags

By Jennifer Berney

Before I was a parent, I thought that I was a skilled at self care. In the hours I spent alone, I took pleasure in serving my body’s needs. I went for long runs; I cooked elaborate meals; if I was feeling low I put myself to bed early with a cup of mint tea and a hot water bottle. I treated myself like I was worth something, the same way you might treat a lover you wanted to keep around.

In a sense I was right—I was good at tending to my wants. But there was a deeper layer of self-care that I could not yet recognize, the kind of self-care where you speak up for your own needs even when you risk inconveniencing others.

When I was in my twenties, I spent some months working as a prep cook in a restaurant. The kitchen was small and my station was directly in front of the pizza oven which ran at 500 degrees. One day the hinge on the door broke and the door to the pizza oven would not stay shut on its own. I expected we might turn off the oven and make a sign that said No Pizza Today. Instead my boss produced a bungee cord, which he used to hold the door shut. The door, which was made of insulated steel, was remarkably heavy. I knew that bungee cords were strong, but I was pretty sure they weren’t infallible. I was worried that at some point, as I was spreading sauce on the pizzas with my back to the oven, the cord would slip and the heavy door would bust open and hit me on the back of my head. I wasn’t sure what would happen next. Would my neck snap? Would I be knocked unconscious? Would I be carried away in a stretcher? I considered this for hours as I did my work, and yet I said nothing. I did not want to pester my boss.

It seemed that, though I was fine at caring for myself in solitude, I wasn’t so good at caring for myself in relationship to others. Other people’s needs trumped my own by default. This was and continues to be my problem. “I’m not comfortable with this,” or “I can’t help you with that,” are not words that leave my mouth easily. I know that I am not alone in this.

Self-sacrifice is one of the primary tenets in the lore of motherhood. Good mothers, we are often told, are selfless. Good mothers give up their desires, their aspirations and devote themselves wholly to the care of their children. They pack them bento boxes filled with healthy and colorful foods; they sew Halloween costumes by hand and pack towels when they go to the park so that they can wipe morning dew off the slides. In whatever time is left to them, they tend to their home and their marriage. They read magazines and books about how to do better. They exercise daily and watch their waistlines so they won’t be accused of “letting themselves go.” This narrative of the good mother is now the forty-pound oven door that is constantly poised to fall on my head. It is a set of expectations I could never possibly meet, a world I can’t survive in and so, ironically, it is motherhood that has pushed me finally to claim my own space, to state my own needs, to recognize that self care means more than an occasional night out or a long bath.

Self care means that even as I raise two young children, I try to give my own needs equal priority. Sometimes this approach feels ordinary, obvious—of course I should see myself as an equal member of my family rather than a servant. Other days it feels nothing short of radical. To remind myself of my own value, I’ve developed the following mantra:

–My job is to love and provide for my children, not to meet their every demand.

–My needs are as important as my partner’s needs.

–My needs are as important as my children’s needs.

–I am allowed to take up space in this family.

Self care in my house often means that laundry overflows from the basket and onto the floor because I refuse to use naptimes to catch up on housework. Self care means I’m okay with serving grilled cheese with carrot sticks for dinner three nights in a row if it means I have time to go for a walk. Self care means I’ve learned to utter uncomfortable statements like “I need help,” or “I can’t do that.” Self care means that my kids have learned to trust and love other grown-ups in their lives because I often carve out time to myself.

These days, our conversation on parenting seems focused on creating the perfect world for our children. We talk about how to balance their meals and manage their screen time, how to maximize their achievement at school and make them feel special at home. I wish that we talked more about how we tend to our own selves as parents, about how we sustain ourselves in the midst of unending demands. There are so many ways we can tend to our children—that work will never be done. But I’ve convinced myself that to love my children wholly I need to be whole. Being whole means that I too require tending, not just once a month or twice a week but every single day.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

 

So Much More Than A Squeeze

So Much More Than A Squeeze

Mother and son holding hands into the sunset of a summer day

By Nicki Gilbert

The marks on his wrist were only visible when his sleeve rode up his arm, so I didn’t notice them right away. They were clearly fingerprints. Someone had wrapped their fingers around his 6-year-old wrist and squeezed hard enough to leave marks: bright shameful welts on his young, innocent skin. I was horrified.

Those finger marks were mine.

“Oh my G-d. Where’s this from?” I murmured as I rubbed my thumb gently over the marks. They were raised slightly, and as I cradled my wrist in his hand I could see how my fingers fit exactly in those prints. My cheeks flamed with shame and sadness in the darkening hallway. He was on his way to bed.

“From the other day, Mommy, at the pool. Remember? You squeezed my arm really hard.” No judgment. Just the facts.

I did remember. I had been so angry. I was always so angry. My heart pounded wildly in my chest and my ears roared with the ferocity of 10,000 furious banshees. The tension marched up and down my spine like an army of angry red ants, gathering in a pinching, hurting cluster along my shoulders. In those days, that was my natural state. Anger. Exhaustion. Depletion. Rinse. Repeat.

The irony is that as my house got more and more full, as my heart expanded to love baby after baby, as yet one more small person squeezed into the already crowded space between my two arms… my soul, my essence, withered and faded, angered and hardened, became cruel and unkind until there was nothing to give to these tiny, helpless, needy beings – my beings – except loud, harsh words and the surreptitious scars of my frustration. My throat hurt from yelling, and my jaw was always tight. I kept my teeth clenched tight behind my lips, afraid of what would burst forth at any minute. It didn’t matter. It all came out in a vicious spew anyway.

And still they loved me. Needed me. Wanted me. Couldn’t get enough of me.

We had been at the pool that day, the day of the Squeeze. One of those lovely coastal summer days that starts off gray, but you know by the time you leave the house – the trunk packed with towels, pool toys, sun screen and enough snacks to feed every single person within a 5-mile radius – the determined sun will have burned off the fog and your heart is full of unrecognized great expectations for a day of easy, happy fun.

Things never go as planned. With great expectations comes even greater disappointment. And heartache. And anger.

I don’t remember why. I don’t remember who did or didn’t do what, and I’m sure I didn’t much care. Somebody wouldn’t finish his lunch. Someone pooped in the pool. One of them splashed the baby who wouldn’t stop crying and needed to be held THE WHOLE TIME. Whatever it was, I had no more to give. Not one thing more. And so I held tight onto his wrist, threatened him as spit flew through my clenched jaw, and left him branded with my angry fingerprints.

So programmed to live the myth of the Martyr Mother in those days, I completely ignored this fuming monster that was me, even though she was eating me alive. “Needs? Me? I have no needs!” I laughed in her face, a bitter, angry laugh. And off I went to hang up the wet towels after bath time, to make sure we never ran out of his favorite frozen waffles, to nurse the baby, to pick up his dry cleaning, to send an email about the school fundraiser, to drive the field trip, to sign her up for tot ballet, to check on my friend (she’s having a hard time lately), to text my husband, to buy birthday gifts. Exhaustion. Depletion. Rinse. Repeat.

I knew I had squeezed his wrist way too hard. I felt a thrill of satisfaction as I watched his eyes widen first in surprise and then what must have been pain. He shut his mouth and quieted his whine, and I decided it was time to go home. The baby, probably sensing that her mother had taken leave of every single one of her senses, finally let me put her down. As I packed up the towels, the floaties, the rockets they loved to dive for, I wondered what to make for dinner and if there was time to stop for bread on the way home. The boys at last were blessedly quiet, and I had already forgotten all about the vice-like squeeze of his wrist just minutes before. So much more than a squeeze.

Until those marks showed up a couple days later, taunting me with their shy appearance. Now you see them, now you don’t. I couldn’t believe I had left those marks on anyone, never mind my own child.

I wish I could tell you I never did anything like that again. I wish I could tell you I learned to control my temper, to breathe through my anger, to walk away when I am frustrated, exhausted, depleted.

I can’t.

I can tell you that I know what it’s like to be running on empty. I can tell you that I now recognize when my tank is low, and I no longer ignore it when the red light comes on. I can tell you that I learned the very hard way that I do not have to be all the things to all the people and that the first and most important person to take care of is me.

My chubby little boy with the red welts on his wrist is now a slender, gangly tween.

“Remember, Mom,” he says, “remember when you used to squeeze my arm so hard?”

I do. I do remember.

“You don’t do that anymore.”

Nicki Gilbert is a writer and country music lover who lives in the Bay Area with her husband and four kids. She is a regular columnist for j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California and her work has appeared on NYT Well Family, Mamalode, Kveller, The Huffington Post and elsewhere. She blogs at www.redboots.me and tweets @nixgilbertca.

 

 

 

The Mommy War Inside Me

The Mommy War Inside Me

download

By Sharon Holbrook

My mother was so good at it. Full-time mothering, I mean. Unbothered by noise, she was laid-back, warm, and loving, yet strict and sensible. Her pre-kids profession had been elementary education. Clearly, a roomful of kids was her jam.

When my eldest was about one, and I was longing for more children already, I asked my mom about parenting a houseful of kids. The size of the love I felt for my son, and the happiness he gave me, were already matched in scale by my exhaustion in being fully present and attentive to his every need.

“Wasn’t it stressful having five kids?” I asked her. (My four siblings and I were all born in an eight-year span.) Mom paused thoughtfully and answered, “I wouldn’t say stressful. I was certainly very busy. But it wasn’t stressful.”

Naturally, with a mother like this, what I’d wanted my whole life was to be like her. Despite earning my law degree and taking on a high-powered law firm job, I’d always wanted to take a long sabbatical of sorts to be at home with my littles when the time came.

We planned for this. My husband and I lived in an apartment on half our income so we could stay used to living within smaller means, and we devoted the other half of our income to paying off our sizeable student loans and saving for a down payment on a house. We did it, and we were ready for me to stay home when the time came.

But was I ready? I thought so. And I was, in the sense that I’d read the books, I had everything they needed, and I was fully invested in being at-home mother. From the moment they were each born, I ached for them, particularly as two of my three were immediately snatched up and hustled off to NICU for hours. They felt stolen from me, and I could focus on little else but getting them back.

Maybe it was always like that, even in the years after the hospital. Maybe that’s how I drained myself. Maybe that’s how I unwittingly, you might say, “martyred” myself to ten years of children’s needs. It was because along with pouring out fierce love, I couldn’t help but also pour out too much of myself.

I was a woman torn. I spent those early years delighting in my children – their smiles, their new words, their cuddles. I loved breastfeeding. I didn’t even mind getting up in the night. Well, not too much. At the same time, I spent ten years craving alone time, quiet, solitude, space to just think and be. I also spent half of every year struggling and dragging with seasonal affective disorder, for which I eventually, belatedly, got help.

“Babies cry,” I remember my mom saying matter-of-factly, with a simple acceptance that eluded me. They do, of course, and mine did, but unlike my mom, I didn’t know how to extract my own emotional life from that of my protesting infant. Maybe that was her secret, to draw a line that I somehow was unable to draw to protect myself, to stop myself from being emptied?

Of course, parenting is about giving of oneself. No one who has gestated, birthed, or cared for an infant can argue with that. It’s part of the deal. In case we weren’t sure, new research confirms that, yes, parenthood drains us, and can even affect our physical health.

“Take time for self-care,” we tell young mothers, and she adds another “should” to her list. To be sure, psychologically and physically, I could have used the break of leaving the house and focusing on something other than the children for a while. Sometimes I did this. I recall a day when my eldest was about 8 months old, and my mother-in-law took him so I could run errands by myself. I aimlessly wandered around stores, unburdened by stroller or diaper bag, and feeling a lonely ache for my son’s sweet company.

Maybe if I’d instead left the house for work, I would have gotten used to it, and gotten past the unfamiliar pang of separation. The fact is, though, that I know I wouldn’t have stopped focusing on the children. I would have done both, keeping work and home simultaneously in my mind. I would have felt left out at home. I would have fretted about small caretaking decisions, like what my child was eating or how my child was being comforted when hurt or encouraged when frustrated. I could not have stopped mothering.

Recently, I read that a new study found women need more sleep than men (20 minutes more, to be exact). Why? Because our “busy, multi-tasking” brains are more complex. That must go double for women who are mothers. Whether mom wants to work, has to work, or chooses not to work, we’re all balancing the competing parts of ourselves, the parts that long for closeness and intimate involvement with our kids and the parts that long for adult interaction, and a little bit of darn space. We all have our internal Mommy Wars.

For a full-time working mom, her dilemma might be whether to go out for a much-needed evening out to recharge from both work and home, when she’s already been away from her kids all day. For me, now working flexibly and part-time from home, my dilemma as the on-demand parent is often how to say no to extra field trips and volunteering and never ending family errands and chores, lest they swallow all my oh-so-flexible and easily-consumed work time, the work time I already gave up for ten years. We mothers are certainly different, but we are all similarly divided internally.

I’m not sure what the answer is. Maybe it’s to be more like my mom was, and simply accept our families and lives without angsting and fretting so much. I can’t help but think, though, that even my mom was not immune. She returned to teaching when I was in elementary school. We spent afterschool hours in a flurry of errands, dinner-making, chores, and homework. Often, my mother would fall asleep late at night with her head on the kitchen table, right on top of her first-grade lesson plan book. Once, she fell asleep driving home from school in mid-afternoon, with everything and everyone mercifully unharmed except the neighbor’s mailbox.

Maybe it is sleep we need. Maybe it’s that extra 20 minutes. It would be a start. I suspect, though, we also need the men and the children in our lives. When the kids are babies and toddlers, utterly reliant on us, shouldn’t men should be having their own internal “Daddy War,” their struggle of how to balance full parenthood with, perhaps, paid work? That’s not a new idea, and it’s a rising one, and we need to continue to engage in that conversation at home and in the public sphere.

The other piece, though, is the kids. Time passes. They’re not helpless anymore. More and more, I’m intent on the kids becoming independent, on pitching in, on contributing to the family. This takes its own kind of hard parenting work. It’s frustrating to see the occasional homework forgotten, the “washed” dishes left greasy, and the kitchen mess after they’ve been cooking.

I can accept that, though. I can accept, too, that my Mommy War is my own. It is not, and has nothing to do with, any other woman’s Mommy War and certainly not with the snarky, judgmental “Mommy Wars” as staged by the media. I can do what’s right for myself and my family, as we decide together. I think I’ll start with more sleep. Maybe you can too, for that complex brain of yours.

Sharon Holbrook is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. Her work also appears in The New York Times Motherlode blog, Washington Post, and other publications, as well as in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me. You can find her at sharonholbrook.com and on Twitter @sharon_holbrook. Sharon lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio.

Photo credit: Tim Marshall

Nothing Makes Me Feel Better About My Parenting Flaws Then Remembering My Mom’s

Nothing Makes Me Feel Better About My Parenting Flaws Then Remembering My Mom’s

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By Lisa Goodman-Helfand

When I want to feel better about my parenting blunders, I need only to reflect on my own mother’s flawed judgment when raising me. By today’s standards, my mom would be accused of child endangerment.  I’m not referring to the typical parenting practices all moms in the 70s and 80s considered “safe.” Like many Gen-Exers, I walked to school alone at age 5, rarely wore a seatbelt, and was cared for by questionable babysitters. No, I’m talking potentially fatal errors in parenting. There’s an endless supply of examples, but I’ll stick with an automotive theme to illustrate my point.

I have fond memories of my grandfather hoisting my sister and me on top of his station wagon, and then getting in the driver’s seat shouting, “Hang on tight to the rails!” He drove us around the neighborhood like a pair of mattresses fastened atop the car, only we weren’t strapped to anything. We proudly waved at pedestrians, bikers, and other drivers (so much for holding on tight). Can you imagine doing something like that today? The authorities would be notified faster than my sister and I could have splattered onto concrete.

We also took turns sitting on my grandpa’s lap and steering while he worked the pedals. My mom would stand at the curb smiling and waving as we drove loops around the block. One could argue that plenty of 4-year-olds in the 70s took driving lessons and were considered more dispensable than a mattress, but I’m just getting warmed up.

When I was 6, our old Pontiac had a hole in the floor. And it wasn’t a tiny hole either. It was a gaping tear that fully revealed the road beneath me in the driver’s side backseat. Nothing stood between my dangling feet and the open road. I could have easily pulled a Fred Flinstone and been flattened by our hunk-of-junk. Luckily, my mom warned me to, “Sit safely on your knees with your legs under your butt!”

We finally got a “new-old” car when I was 8. This time it was a red Chevy that was safe enough to chauffeur the Pope in, at least compared to our previous clunker. That is until my mom accidentally hit a brick pillar and the back passenger side door caved in. From that point forward we could not enter or exit from that side of the car. Later on, that same car’s seat fabric got torn, leaving a large portion of the wire piping exposed. Why on earth my mom never duct-taped that sucker down remains a mystery to this day. Every time someone sat in that spot of the back seat, the wire would snag their pants, or worse, their nude nylons, and often resulted in blood shed. My sister has a scar on her thigh to remind her of those delightful joy rides. It’s a good thing the wire protruded on the side of the car where the door had been smashed, so we rarely sat there.

When I was in high school, we got another “old-new” car. It was a poop brown Oldsmobile that drove okay for a while until the fabric on the roof of the interior began to sag. Soon, the drooping material became a hazardous obstruction. Since safety first was our family motto, my mom cut the whole interior part of the roof off with a scissors. It was smooth sailing until the heat broke. Chicago winters and no heat is a bad mix, yet we went an entire frigid season without getting it fixed.

By my senior year in college, I used money I had been squirreling away for years and purchased my very own “new-old” car. I needed a safe, reliable car to get me back and forth from my student-teaching assignment. What could be safer than a used, rusty, powder blue Chevy station wagon? The car drove like a dream except for when it died at every red light. Approaching intersections would induce a panic attack, so I stuck to highways as often as possible.

I spent my formative years being mortified by our junkyard cars. I must have been an unusually dense child, because I never realized my mom couldn’t afford anything better. I didn’t know it then, but for several years after my parents divorced, we lived below the poverty line. My mom worked her butt off to fulfill our basic needs. We showed our appreciation by continuously whining and complaining about our embarrassing cars and lack of other material possessions. The truth is, my mom was doing the best she could under very difficult circumstances. Isn’t that the definition of a great parent? If it isn’t, I think it should be.

Only as an adult and a mother myself can I understand the sacrifices my mom made. In the end, my sister became a doctor and I became a teacher, all thanks to my mother’s dedication to getting us the best possible education. After a year of teaching, I traded in my old Chevy station wagon for a spanking new red 1997 Ford Escort with cloth interior, manual windows and door locks, and… wait for it… AM and FM radio (I know, I know, it was a major splurge).  To me, it felt like I was driving around in a Maserati.

Lisa Goodman-Helfand is a freelance writer and professional speaker living near Chicago. Her memoir, Does This Hospital Gown Come With Sequinsand blog, Comfortable in My Thick Skin, explore parenting, body image, and overcoming obstacles with humor. Connect with Lisa on her blog or on Facebook.

 

 

 

 

Growing Up Is Hard To Do — For Mommy

Growing Up Is Hard To Do — For Mommy

Art Growing up is hard to doBy Alisa Schindler

Dear Jack (My first born),

You’re not going to remember this because it happened just the other day and it was so ordinary, so unremarkable that there’s no reason you ever would. It was a small moment  that caused my heart to seize with love and anxiety.

We were in the kitchen and I was busy getting dinner ready. You trudged in to join your brothers at the table and finish up your homework, and as you often do, came over for a hug first. We hugged and somehow that hug turned into a sway. Your head rested near my shoulder and we rocked in front of the refrigerator to the sizzles of breaded chicken cutlets on the stove and your brothers arguing over a pencil.

I had a flashback of my wedding 18 years earlier when my husband, your father, danced with his mother. I see them there, rocking slowly, his head of dark waves leaning down against her coiffed blonde; her little boy grown into a man ready to start a life of his own. Wrapped up in my twenty-something self and the day that was all about me — I mean your father and me — I didn’t fully appreciate how bittersweet that moment must have been for my mother-in-law, your grandma, until now, until I saw myself as her in a few years that will be gone before I know it.

Tears dripped down my face and you didn’t even notice, but of course your brother Owen did.

“You’re crying, mommy,” he said, stifling a little laugh.

“Why are you crying?” Leo chimed in curiously, bouncing up and down on his chair.

None of you were in anyway upset or surprised by my emotion, and only mildly curious. Apparently I’ve cried into your hair a few too many times. I actually made the mistake of starting to explain to you all about the dance and your dad and about how fast you were all growing, until Owen interrupted me by cutting right to the heart of the matter.

“I’m hungry,” he said.

“Me too!” said Leo.

Jack, you gave me a sheepish smile and pulled away. “I’m hungry too.” You agreed and made your way to the table to do your homework.

Well that heartfelt talk passed quickly. Such is the attention span of a seven, ten and 13 year-old. It was back to the usual dinner making and homework doing, but I  couldn’t get the dance out of my head and I sniffled back my bubbling emotions as I dumped a box of pasta into boiling water. Soon you’ll be grown. You’re already in middle school, your bar mitzvah closing in and high school graduation just a hop, skip and a driver’s license away.

I swear it was a blink ago that you and your brothers just arrived. Blink, you’re all walking, talking and potty trained. Blink, you’re all in school. Blink, you’re having sleepovers, playing on travel teams and hanging out instead of going on playdates. We’ve already reached so many milestones together that have been filed away in the photo and video folders on our computer; blink, blink, blink, gone gone gone.

Remember when we went to Disney World when you were three and every time we got on the monorail you asked hopefully if it was going back to Long Island? Remember the entire summer before Kindergarten when yourefused to get on the school bus in September, but on that first day, terrified and so very brave, stepped up and on. Remember how afraid you were that I’d send you to sleep away camp like so many of your friends? You never even liked going to friends’ houses or having sleepovers. You’ve always loved your home and the familiar; so content to sit wrapped in a blanket and a book in your comfy chair, to boss around your brothers and snuggle with me.

But now that you are older, you’re changing every day. This last year has been a giant leap for you developmentally and socially and it’s just the beginning. Now, you love hanging out at other people’s houses. You walk home from school with friends. You recently unceremoniously bagged up the stuffed animals that you cuddled with every night and almost broke my heart. You tell me, “That’s private, mom.” when I can’t stop asking questions.

You’re growing up. Sometimes at night I look at your sweet face relaxed in sleep; your body growing out of boy and into man and cry happy tears for the young man you are growing up to be and sad tears for the baby you will never be again.

All these milestones watching you grow; watching the old you slowly disappear and the new you emerge amaze me. Every stage of you has been a gift, but I’m afraid of the day you leave; how every step of independence is a step away from me. It’s no secret I’m a bit over-attached; that I’ve worked hard to turn you and your brothers into mamma’s boys, although it was certainly your natural tendency anyway.

Growing up has been as hard for you just as it has been for me. Each year, at four, five, six and so on, you’ve wistfully mourned the loss of the passing year and I’ve mourned it with you. We’ve clung to each other with our mutual dependency but I can see by your shy smile and your new walk and talk that you’ve started the process of moving on.

But for the woman who stalked the nursery halls, has been class parent every year in school, has volunteered as often as they’d allow, and has lovingly finagled almost all play dates at our home through fresh cupcakes, a large supply of Wii and X-box games and a lot of balls and boys on the lawn, the idea of you (and then your brothers) leaving me is an inevitable that I don’t like to think about.

But I have to. So for self-preservation, I’ve also started finding myself a bit, branching out with my writing and reconnecting with the world outside my bubble. I’ll admit, somewhat begrudgingly, that I enjoy the time I’m spending on me. Those days where I could barely keep my sleepy head above water; snuggled up on the couch nursing your baby brother, with your younger brother climbing all around us while reading you your favorite Bob the Builder book seems so far away; another time, another place, another me. Another us.

Even though it is still years away, on a crisp autumn day that will be here before we know it, you will be going off to college. You’ve always maintained that you want to stay local and live at home but I’m not naively hopeful enough to believe that. No, you’ll go off to some fabulous school, where you’ll make many friends and the girls will love you (oh, that’s going to be a tough one). And it’s good. It’s so good but still it’s not easy watching your baby grow. It’s beautiful but it’s not easy as one day you’ll see.

“Mama!” Your brother Owen calls to me, interrupting my cutlet flipping and musings. “I need homework help…”

As I make my way to the table, he continues, “I also need milk.” I stop, turn on my heels and grab the container of milk from the fridge.

“I need help too,” Leo pipes in.

“Why are you copying me?” Owen says.

“I’m not!” Leo says, “I need help too!”

Back and forth they go, amusing me and then completely annoying me until I am forced to freak out on them, “Boys! Are you kidding me? Stop fighting over nothing. You know I’ll help you both.”

I place the milk in front of Owen and Leo immediately squeaks, “I want milk.”

And the fighting resumes.

I roll my eyes and look over at you, Jack, your face in your text book, not hearing the commotion all around you.

You don’t need my help to do your homework. You’re busy doing it yourself (Thank God, it’s Latin). And you don’t need me to get you a drink, but I will anyway. Because I intend to enjoy every second I have with you: I will cheer at your baseball games, drive you all over town, help you with homework I don’t understand, sit by your bed at night to cuddle and talk for as long as you let me, and always dance with you in the kitchen when the moment allows.

Love,

Mom (Formally known as Mommy)

Alisa Schindler is freelance writer who chronicles the sweet and bittersweet of life in the suburbs on her blog icescreammama.com. Her essays have been featured online at New York Times Motherlode, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Scary Mommy and Kveller among others. She has just completed a novel about the affairs of small town suburbia. 

 

One Cake or Three?

One Cake or Three?

Young girl wearing party hat at kitchen counter looking at cake smiling

by Andrea Lani

On the eve of my eighth birthday, my family gathered in my grandparents’ kitchen, preparing a late-summer dinner. My grandmother stood at the white formica counter and molded hamburger into patties. My aunts sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions. My mother sat on a chair beneath the antique school house clock and shucked corn. I leaned on the gleaming oak pedestal table, restless with anticipation of the meal, the cake that would follow, the presents. And then my mom, buried under corn husks, pressed her hand to the side of her lap, which had grown round and unwelcoming in recent months, and announced that it was time.

I don’t remember if she and my dad left for the hospital right then, or if they stuck around to eat dinner and see candles blown out and presents unwrapped. I don’t remember what kind of cake it was—chocolate with chocolate frosting, white with coconut, yellow with the crisp white peaks of seven-minute icing—though I know my grandmother would have made it from scratch and displayed it on a glass cake stand. Nor do I remember what presents I received, other than a hammer from my dad, my initials engraved on the ash handle and the steel head.

I do remember waking up alone the next morning in my grandparents’ guest room, bereft and abandoned. My parents called to say that my sister was born at 11:09 the previous night, fifty-one minutes before my birthday. In that moment, the baby I had anticipated with such excitement turned into a horror who stole my special day. When we all arrived home a few days later, I discovered that, rather than the living doll I had expected, a baby sister was a noisy nuisance that syphoned away all of my parents’ time, attention, and money. As she got older, she invaded my space, messed with my stuff, and saddled me with babysitting duties.

Birthdays were the worst. No longer was it my day, but one more thing I had to share with my sister—shared family parties and picnics, shared photographs, sometimes even shared cakes. She would blow out her two or three or four candles, then eight more would be added and lit. I would blow, but the magic of wishes would already have dissipated when she sprayed her toddler breath all over the cake.

When it came time for my husband and I to plan for a second child, I wanted to make sure that my kids’ birthdays would fall at least a month apart, to minimize at least this one potential for sibling rivalry. It turns out that I’m not very good at planning—or math—and I ended up pregnant with not one second child, but two, and a due date five days after their big brother’s birthday.

Twins never go full term. Even if they’re inclined to stay on the inside for 40 weeks, the doctor will schedule a C-section for week 39. My doctor performed surgery on Tuesdays and Fridays and Friday of my 39th week was my older son’s birthday. I briefly pondered the ethics of requesting a Tuesday C-section for not good reason other than to avoid my other child’s birthday, but was saved from the dilemma by the doctor, who was going out of town Friday and so scheduled my surgery for Tuesday.

We celebrated my son’s fourth birthday in the maternity ward waiting room, with no candles on the chocolate cake my in-laws brought (open flames are frowned upon in hospitals). I sat on a scratchy couch in my hospital gown with both babies propped on an enormous foam nursing pillow and watched as he opened an odd assortment of presents that my husband had picked out because I was too pregnant to go birthday shopping.

At first I made a big deal out of making each child his own separate birthday cake, the shared cake looming in my mind as a symbol of losing my youngest-child status. I bought cake pans sized for the top tier of a wedding cake, so I would not have to bake (and we would not have to eat) three full-sized cakes. But over the years I’ve realized that having their own cakes matters a lot less to my sons than it did to me. My oldest has foregone the cake altogether some years, opting instead for cream cheese brownies or peppermint bark. Last year we celebrated his birthday with store-bought cupcakes in the waiting room of the music school before his guitar lesson.

Two years ago, the twins had a Lord of the Rings birthday party and I bought a vintage bundt pan to bake them a ring-shaped cake, around which I wrote Elvish words in red squeeze-tube frosting. Last year I used the pan again to make an elaborate devil’s food cake that they’d seen on a TV cooking show. Both times they happily blew out candles from opposite sides of the single cake and they don’t appear to have suffered any long-term damage.

For better or worse, our own childhood experiences inform out parenting choices. Memories being forced by a substitute teacher to color a full moon yellow, when every moon I’d ever seen was white, loomed large in my decision to move my children from a preschool with prescriptive coloring practices to a more expensive, less convenient school that allowed more freedom of creative expression. My friend’s childhood spent sitting at a plate of cold and congealing food long after the dinner hour led her to cook separate meals for her fussy children, while my own adventurous childhood palate (pickled pigs’ feet, anyone?) made me impatient with my children’s pickiness.

Perhaps because they’re twins who share everything from their DNA to their underwear, the thought of sharing a cake doesn’t phase my kids. Or maybe because with three kids’ birthdays in the span of three days, birthday gets stretched out into birth-week or even birth-month. Between a camping trip, a kid party, several rounds of celebrations with my husband’s multi-faceted family, and boxes of gifts arriving from my long-distance family, they are certainly not deprived. We’ve taken to calling this season of abundance Second Christmas, falling as it does almost halfway around the calendar. They’ve gotten so used to this extended celebration that last year, when we moved the camping trip to Memorial Day weekend and had the twins’ birthday party on their actual birthday, one of them asked me, “I know today is our birthday party, but when are we having our birthday?”

As for me, once my sister and I were both adults I got over the cake thing and we became friends. Also, since I’ve had kids, I’ve gotten a lot better at sharing.

Andrea Lani is mother to three sons who have fashioned guns out of everything from crayons to grilled cheese sandwiches. She lives in Maine where she works a tedious day job, teaches nature writing and journaling classes in her spare time, and writes on the sly. You can find her at www.remainsofday.blogspot.com.

 

My Most Honored Guests Were the Ones Who Never Came

My Most Honored Guests Were the Ones Who Never Came

By Shabnam Samuel Thakar

Portrait of Indian family at home. Grandparent and grandchild eating butter cake. Asian people living lifestyle. Grandfather and granddaughter.

As a child in India, the day before my birthday (March 31st) was always a day filled with excitement – it was the day the tailor brought home my new tailored clothes, the day the baker brought home my cake, and the day the household help went shopping for the tea party held in my honor on April 1st. I would sit on the porch steps and wonder who would give me what as a present. Would Mrs. Tucker give me the fourth book on the Famous Five by Enid Blyton? How much money might Aunty Radha put in my birthday card? Why did Papa and Granny insist on giving clothes as presents?

But another thought persisted above all the others: maybe, just maybe, the joke would finally be over. My parents would come to my party as a surprise, scoop me up in their arms and wish me a happy birthday.

Maybe I could finally go to school and not have my friends ask questions about Papa and Granny that filled me with embarrassment and shame: “Why is your father so old?” or “How come your mother wears a dress and has blue eyes?”

The embarrassment and shame I experienced as a child over my parents’ absence made me a person who spun exceptional tales about my life: “My parents?” I would say, “They are spies for the Indian Army and live abroad, most likely London.”

The truth was sadder: I did not know my parents. I had not heard their voices or even seen a picture of my mother and father. I was raised by my bi-racial grandparents, an Indian grandfather and my Russian grandmother, in a small town in India in the 1960s. We lived in a house where, at one time, fifteen people had lived comfortably in their own space. When I was growing up, the only people who lived in the home were my grandparents and me. There was always a sense of emptiness both inside and outside of me.

When extended family came to stay, on most days you would find me sitting behind a curtain or perched precariously on a balcony, sometimes even hiding under the bed to listen. Eavesdropping to glean information from conversations was how I related to my family. I tried to piece together my history from the hushed-tone phrases I could string together: poor childorphanagewhat a trauma… how could a mother do such a thing?

I knew better than to ask – no one would explain anything to me. It seemed that my grandparents’ plan was that the words mother, father, mummy or daddy were never to be mentioned in front of me.

Still, I persisted with my hope of a birthday surprise. I wanted my parents – the young, age-appropriate ones. I wanted a normal dad who would drive a car and take me to school. A mother who was beautiful and ethereal in a sari, who would drop everything she was doing and hug me when I came back from school. I knew other, younger parents did this. I had seen my friends. I carried around a lot of envy and sadness.

But maybe, just maybe, this was the year.

The 1st of April comes, the only day I was allowed to sleep late. Schools was closed on April 1st because it was a government holiday: Orissa Day, a celebration to mark the state of Odisha as a separate province. I wasn’t able to give out toffees to my classmates, as I would have been allowed if my birthday fell on a school day. On my birthday, there was no special breakfast, no phone calls from relatives – mostly because we didn’t have a phone.

All of my focus fell to the grandfather clock in the dining room, waiting for the clock to strike 4:00pm. As the cucumber finger sandwiches were being made and the meat patties were warmed, I would excitedly put on my new clothes. My favorites were a forty-inch wide bell bottom set – I was a real trendsetter in those days. And then I would wait for friends to show up. The ones who came, though, were mostly family friends, hardly anyone in my age group.

One by one, they wished me a happy birthday and handed over their wrapped presents. In my mind, I sized up the package while speculating on the gift. Darn, that is a box of chocolates, why? Couldn’t she give me like a book or a dress or something? This would go on for a little while. In between silly talk and little foods, I would sneak back and forth into my room and open the presents one by one. Always glimpsing out of the window, always with ears perked for new voices, I kept hoping and dreaming. But they never came.

Slowly, year after year, the same old routine became boring. Of course, once I hit twelve, the party was over. “Too old to have a birthday party,” my grandparents would say. The clothes, the sandwiches, the meat patties, the cake – all gone. What never went away was the longing, the hope and the sadness that “they” never came.

Here I am, forty years later, feeling nostalgic for those days of excitement – the moments of being carefree, the future of endless possibilities, the anticipation, the innocence, the dreams.

The one flame that has never died and carries with it a ray of hope: they will come and they will say they are sorry we left you and went away – and they will, at last, finally wish me a happy birthday.

Shabnam Samuel Thakar is a writer, a business coach for low income, immigrant women entrepreneurs and is the founder of the Panchgani Writers’ Retreat in India. She has called the suburbs of Washington D.C home for the last 30 years.

Reflecting on Simple Joys

Reflecting on Simple Joys

By Tyann Sheldon Rouw

Art Balloons in Air copy

I asked my twin sons what they wanted for their upcoming birthdays. Isaac didn’t respond. He’s functionally nonverbal and wasn’t interested in using his speech generating device to answer. He was only interested in watching the garage door rise and fall as he examined how the light spread across the floor.

Noah thought for a moment and said, “I don’t need a new atlas. How about shirts? Then we can laugh when we open them.”

Today family will squeeze into our modest home to eat lunch and celebrate another birthday milestone.

Isaac might reluctantly open one present before escaping to play “Wheel of Fortune” on the computer downstairs. It’s a refuge from the sights and sounds and people that overwhelm his sensory system. Some years he resurfaces when it’s time to sing “Happy Birthday,” even though he can’t coordinate his body to blow out the candles.

Noah loves the attention and company. Once he’s focused, he opens each present quickly. He barely looks to see what’s inside. Occasionally he will say things like, “Is this all there is?” even though he’s been told repeatedly that those words are rude.

Invariably someone will say, “Can you believe they’re 7 years old?”

My husband and I will answer in unison, “Has it only been seven years?” Then we’ll laugh and point to the bags under our eyes.

It’s been a long road since they were diagnosed with autism five years ago.

Isaac’s behavior was so challenging I was not sure he could remain in our home. He didn’t seem to understand language. He seldom slept. Often he was up for the day at 2:00 a.m. He didn’t go back to sleep. Either my husband or I would supervise him while the other slept. Many nights I prayed that Isaac would find comfort – and that we would – and somehow we all could put one foot in front of the other when the sun rose in the morning.

Noah said a few words, but his language wasn’t functional. His only word was “Daddy,” which was handy when I asked him who won the Miss America pageant last year. “Daddy” was his answer to everything. Most people frightened him – especially strangers — and he cried for hours when his routine was disrupted.

When I took them to a park on a beautiful summer day, they ran in opposite directions – and never to the play equipment. In fact, they didn’t seem to notice the slide or playground equipment at all.

They’ve both come so far.

So have I.

Before my boys were born, I never dreamed I could raise a special needs child or two. It seemed like a demanding job that always felt too big for me.

Kids with autism need to be taught everything. They don’t generally pick up cues from the environment the way others do. Problem solving is difficult, as is language, social interaction, and activities of daily living: eating, toileting, bathing, and dressing.

My boys have learned a lot at speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. They’ve had feeding therapy, early childhood special education preschool, special education classes, and therapeutic horseback riding.

Now I realize my boys have taught me much more than I’ve taught them. Not all of the lessons have been easy. I’ve learned about acceptance, patience, humility, and unconditional love.

I’ve learned not to worry about the person in the store who’s giving me the evil eye when my child is having a meltdown. I’ve learned to advocate for my sons’ needs. I’ve learned I’m a lot stronger than I ever thought I could be.

I’ve learned that the boy who has no speech has a lot to say. I’ve learned that my son who is a walking encyclopedia views the world from a different lens. I’ve learned that getting angry gets me nowhere. I’ve learned how to recognize the little victories that are big victories in our world. I don’t diminish them.

I often wonder what kind of person I may have become had autism not entered my life. I believe I’d be more rested. But would I be shallow or judgmental? Would my new house or car be my biggest concern? Would I be oblivious to life’s simple joys?

Isaac and Noah are my gifts. They have made me a better person and mother.

Today I will stop to reflect upon their growth during the last year, and I’ll celebrate how richly I’ve been blessed. Then I’ll serve up those thoughts with a big piece of birthday cake.

Tyann Sheldon Rouw has been published on Yahoo Parenting, Scary Mommy, The Mighty, the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, and various newspapers. She blogs at Turn Up the V. Find her on Facebook and Twitter

Love, I Mean Like(s), Conquers All

Love, I Mean Like(s), Conquers All

By Francie Arenson Dickman         

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We had a crisis in our house this morning. It hit during the thirty seconds my daughters allot for breakfast. Instead of sitting stone still and staring at the counter, I noticed some last minute scrambling—not the physical kind, but the virtual—a frenzy with the phones, which I assumed had to do with school. They had math and science tests. A forgotten formula, maybe? Worse, it turned out. An almost forgotten birthday.The birthday of a good friend, no less, brought to their attention by another friend’s Instagram post…or maybe it was Facebook. I can’t keep track anymore.     

I’m sure if you are a parent of a girl who has finished breast feeding and is therefore old enough to have an online presence, you know where I’m going with this. You’re already aware of the online protocol required to appropriately acknowledge the birthday of a friend (defined broadly to encompass anyone they’ve ever met) via social media.     

The formula for online well-wishing for middle schoolers is complex and as incomprehensible to me as the formulas in my kids’ geometry books. It centers around “the post.” I’m not talking about a run-of-the-mill Facebook birthday wish. A simple, “Have a great day,” apparently won’t do. An acceptable birthday post is a multi-step venture. Step one involves digging. Deep and focused digging, one by one, through the eight trillion selfies and other shots in your child’s camera roll in search of pictures that show any sign of the birthday girl. (“Oh look, there’s her elbow.”)    

Not all photos, I’m afraid, are created equal. I’m fairly certain (though if I’m wrong, perhaps one of my children’s friends who are now on Facebook will correct me) but the further back in time the picture goes, the better. As the adage (updated for social media) goes, new friends are silver, old friends are gold and old photos of old friends are even golder. In other words, a picture speaks a thousand words and if you’ve got a photo with the birthday girl from preschool, you have said, “I’ve been friends with the birthday girl longer than you,” without uttering a sound.   

When we were kids, moms used to send their birthday kids to school with cupcakes that the birthday kid got to pass out with the help of a few chosen friends. Today, allergies have done away with the homemade cupcake tradition, but nothing will ever do away with the middle school girls’ ability to jockey for position. Human nature is alive and kicking: A one picture post (unless, as stated above, it’s a picture from way, way back), means you probably aren’t the girl who would have been called up to help with the cupcakes. But if you can amass 25 pictures or more, and then take the time to lay them all out in a collage, you are in the running.      

I’m not talking about the kind of collages we used to make. The ones that required hours of combing through magazines, cutting out photos and words that related to your friend or your friendship, laying it all out on cardboard and then carefully gluing it down. The modern day collage is similar, except it is, naturally, done in an app. If a kid has the technical know-how and the eyesight, she can kick out a hundred picture collage during the two minute ride to school, which is really all the time she has because, according to what I’ve gathered, a post must be live by the time the well-wisher arrives at school.  

To pass muster, the posts also incorporate words, or at least parts of them. Letters. Like H14BD ILYSM. While grammar lessons do not seem to be hitting home these days, kids really understand the value of the hyperbole. Sweeping statements like, “You are my best friend in the entire universe,” “I don’t know how I’d ever live without you,” or “I’d do anything for you,” are thrown about with abandon. On the one hand, I’ve got to hand it to these girls. They’re sure not stingy with the love, which is refreshing in a political climate plagued by constant hate and heckling. Furthermore, the unending love is not wasted on one birthday girl. Rest assured, the exact outpourings given to the birthday girl of today will be bestowed on the birthday girl of tomorrow. When it comes to effusiveness, today’s teens are equal opportunity employers.       

Yes, one may contend that it’s impossible to actually harbor so much love for so many people. Those who know better (i.e. parents) might say that there’s an element of disingenuousness to this free love business, and that perhaps all of this online PDA is indeed for the benefit of public consumption. One might be inclined to invoke the adage, empty tins cans rattle the loudest and those truly close to the BDG shouldn’t have to take such grandiose measures to prove it. After all, the reality is that behind all the birthday love, there is a quiet sting felt by the other girls (yours, of course) who look at their screens and see that the person they thought was their BFF is now labeling herself BFF with the birthday girl. Love hurts, even if it is spread too thin to have any meaning.

The good news is, the hurt doesn’t last—well the hurt may but the post itself doesn’t. Unlike the collages we used to make and receive (some of mine still occupy space in my attic), the modern day collage is ephemeral. Blink and you’ll miss the outpouring of affection. The unstated rule is that birthday posts are only meant to last the length of the birthday itself. My kids, when asked, didn’t give a reason for this but my guess is (and again, my kids and their friends can correct me if I’m wrong) that birthday posts don’t garner that many likes since they are only of interest to the birthday girl and the BFF who posted. As much as all the BFFs would do anything for the birthday girl, anything does not include leaving up a post that isn’t popular.                   

It’s truly a strange new world, this world of social media. The only place I know where love seems to know no bounds except when measured by likes.

Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have appeared in publications including, The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and has just completing her first novel. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

Illustration: gettyimages.com

Feeling the Weight of An Impossible Situation

Feeling the Weight of An Impossible Situation

By Sarah Kilch Gaffney

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Like nearly all parents, I sometimes yell. I don’t like it, but it happens. Usually it’s close to the end of a particularly long or challenging day when the button-pushing preschooler in my daughter overtakes the exhausted mother in me, and for a split second I lose my cool. I yell, then I breathe, then I apologize.

I am grateful that these times are infrequent. I am grateful that I know I am not the only parent this happens to and that I just need to forgive myself and move on. I am also grateful because I know from experience just how much worse it can be.

There was a time in my life when I was stretched incomprehensibly thin, with no hope for recovery in sight, and it felt like all I did was yell or cry.

My daughter was barely three and my husband Steve was dying; one afternoon remains vivid in my memory.

I was trying to transfer Steve from his hospital bed to his wheelchair. His hospital bed was pushed against our bed, which was pushed against the opposite wall, and there was just enough space on the near side to maneuver the wheelchair.

He had not walked in nearly two weeks. The week before, I had signed the DNR order his hospice nurse had slid over the coffee table before she moved across the living room to listen to his heart and lungs. The prior day he had suffered a massive bloody nose and nine seizures, including one that lasted for seven full minutes. We were both exhausted and at our wit’s end.

During the last months of his life, Steve took high doses of dexamethasone, a corticoid steroid, to help control his persistent and insidious brain swelling. At six feet tall, he quickly ballooned from a slim 165 pounds to over 240 pounds.

Always fond of humor, we joked about our matching stretch marks, but it was truly a terrible transformation for him. People who didn’t know Steve before the steroid treatment did not recognize him in the photographs in our home. Though he had never been one to care much about looks, the uncontrollable weight gain and disfiguring side effects pained him, and he especially hated that it made it more difficult for me to take care of him.

I had transferred him hundreds of times. Sometimes the transfers were challenging, but I was strong, he helped as best he could, and most of the time they went fine. I knew from my brief stint in nursing school that no one in their right mind would ever transfer a patient of his size without multiple assists or a mechanical lift, but I also knew that he very badly wanted to stay at home and that I was going to make it work.

The transfer went terribly. He had almost completely lost his ability to use his right side in the preceding hours, a fact that neither of us was aware of until it was too late. I was not strong enough to bear all of his weight as we pivoted and he ended up half in the wheelchair with his right arm pinned beneath his body.

Every time something went wrong—a transfer, a medication complication, an infection, a functional decline—I felt somehow responsible, whether I had any actual control over the event or not. I knew, logically, I was not to blame, but I felt so guilty that I could not seem to manage it all, and all those months of challenges, complications, and of things going wrong had piled up.

In the midst of wrestling him upright and eventually back into the bed, our daughter came into the room. I have no recollection of her action—whether she was in danger of getting hurt as I struggled to move her father or she simply tried to speak to me at that moment—but I screamed at her at the top of my lungs. I bellowed. She burst into tears and ran out of the bedroom.

At that point, I felt the weight of everything, unbearably. I so desperately wanted to do everything right: to give Steve the life and death he wanted and deserved, one with as much dignity and as little discomfort as possible; to love and support our daughter through that process; to keep all the little pieces of our quickly crumbling life together for just a little bit longer.

I wanted just a small slice of grace and peace in the throes of my chaos and grief. Instead, my life imploded in a matter of seconds and I unleashed all that fury, loss, and disbelief on my daughter. I felt like the absolute worst mother in the world.

I managed to get Steve back into bed. We were both exhausted and in tears. I called our daughter back into the bedroom. I apologized and told her that I shouldn’t have yelled, that I had been scared and that I was sorry. She hugged me and nodded and climbed into my lap. I kissed her forehead and wiped her cheeks.

On the wall above Steve’s hospital bed was a framed picture of our daughter taken the previous summer on White Head, the island in the Bay of Fundy where we visit family every year. The photograph was the epitome of light and joy: her grin haloed by wispy toddler hair, green fields, and blooming fireweed.

She pointed at the picture and asked if we could go to White Head when the snow melted. Yes, I nodded, of course. She paused and then asked if Daddy could come with us. I knew what was coming, but I couldn’t, just yet. Maybe, I said, maybe.

Steve died almost exactly three weeks later, on the second day of spring.

I still sometimes feel guilty about those days, wondering if I could have somehow handled the stress better. I cringe when I think of the times I was frustrated or short-tempered, but I also recognize it was the weight of an impossible situation, exactly where no one ever wants to be: watching one’s life, love, and family disintegrate piece by piece.

I also remind myself that it wasn’t all burning rage and pain, though those memories are sometimes the ones that surface first, especially when guilt is at play. We had a lot of moments of love and light, of sacred time together as a family, and of beauty breaking through the suffering.

Those horrific months that I often wasn’t sure I would survive are now some of the most valued of my life. I was a disaster of a person and a thoroughly imperfect mother and wife, but I was there and I gave it everything I had.

It will always be one of my greatest honors that I was able to take care of Steve until the end, that he trusted and loved me enough to grant me that esteem. Despite everything we were facing, I never for one second considered not accepting that offering.

Sarah Kilch Gaffney is a writer, brain injury advocate, and homemade-caramel aficionado living in Maine. You can find her work at www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.

When I Said Goodbye to Nursing

When I Said Goodbye to Nursing

By Jennifer Berney

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Some months ago, after enduring four hours of dental surgery, my toddler emerged from anesthesia groggy and pissed off. He punched at my ear and my jaw as I carried him to the car, and then he cried the whole ride home. I brought him to the kitchen where he clung to me and threaded his fingers through my hair, still sobbing. I offered him some blueberry yogurt in a bowl. He calmed himself enough to eat a few bites, and then he pointed to the couch. I carried him there, and once we settled, he asked to nurse. I lifted my shirt and cradled him. His breathing steadied, as did mine. I wiped the tears from his face with the edge of my sleeve. My eyes wandered around the room. “Other side,” my son requested eventually, and so we changed positions. All in all he nursed for maybe fifteen minutes, and in that time he was restored to his usual self. As I righted my bra, he slid off the couch and began to chase his older brother around the living room.

I had no idea that this would be the last time we ever nursed.

My approach to weaning had been so haphazard that perhaps it’s a stretch to even call it an “approach.” A year earlier I had wanted to quit because my son—newly two years old then—woke up desperate to nurse every morning. His demand was so insistent that it limited my ability to meet my own basic needs. I learned to master the art of peeing with a child propped on my lap and to brew a cup of hot tea with my one free hand. He seemed to have an internal rule: his feet could not touch the floor before he nursed.

Once I brought him to the couch, he wanted to keep me there all morning. If I tried to unlatch him after, say, twenty minutes, he looked me coolly in the eye and moved my hand away from his mouth. After several months of this, I left town for a conference and was gone for seven nights and seven mornings. Without me, my son woke up happy. He walked straight to the kitchen table and ate his breakfast.

I returned home wondering if our nursing relationship was over, and also knowing that I need not wonder—the decision was mine to make. If he asked to nurse, I could simply tell him no. The airport shuttle dropped me off at home an hour after bedtime. I peeked at my sleeping children and settled in my own bed. In the morning my younger son wrapped his arms around me, smiled, and asked for a bowl of cereal. We had spent two hours of our morning together before he put one hand on my shoulder, cocked his head, and asked me “nursey time?” I hesitated for a moment, and then I said, “Okay.”

In the months that followed, my son nursed less and less. Sometimes he’d go two days without asking. Occasionally, he’d ask twice in one day. Each time he asked, I wondered when I would start saying no.  With my first son, I had drawn a clear line. “This is our last time nursing,” I had told him before our final session. It was late on a Saturday morning and sun blasted through my bedroom window. I propped up pillows so that I could comfortably sit and nurse, just as I’d done a thousand times before. I thought about his first days at home and the hours I had spent in this same spot latching and unlatching my newborn, trying to get it right. I thought about the midnight feedings and the naptimes, and all the times that nursing had put an end to tears. It was a tender moment, this final goodbye, and the clarity of my boundary allowed me to savor all of the flavors, the bitter and the sweet.

I had expected to do the same with my second son, eventually. And then one day I realized that we hadn’t nursed in weeks. Our nursing relationship had ended without ceremony. I only remember our last time because it was such an unusual day.

I am thirty-nine now and, by choice, I will have no more children. I will never be pregnant again. I will never nurse another baby. I feel relieved about this, and sad about this, but more than anything I feel puzzled. How did I get here so quickly? Every day I look at my seven-year-old son and tell myself that he’s halfway to fourteen. Before I know it, he’ll be shape shifting into a man. My second child, my three-year-old, still looks like a baby to me most of the time. But then last night as he raced two imaginary friends across the living room, he looked suddenly taller, leaner. I could see in him a preview of the child he’s becoming. Somehow, suddenly, I’ve arrived at the phase of parenting where my children leave my embrace as often as they seek it.

I leave behind the years of intensive physical parenting, the years of rinsing diaper inserts in the toilet, of wiping drool away from chins, the years of mastitis and sore nipples, of baby whorls and cradle cap, the years of rarely being alone and always being needed, of being too crowded in the bed, of being asked to sing the same song over and over and over in spite of my broken voice.

Those years are now behind me. They are years that were as frustrating as they were joyful, but I have no doubt that the filter of nostalgia will eventually render them perfect. There’s no token I can hold—no lock of hair or beloved blanket—that will actually bring those years back. That era has come to an end with no clear warning, no announcement. This is of course, the way of things. To say goodbye, I must turn around and wave to the thing that is already gone.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

Raising a Multicultural 4-Year-Old

Raising a Multicultural 4-Year-Old

By Sarah Quezada

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“Mom, we do not kiss kids at school.” My four-year-old stared up at me as I covered her with a blanket.

Oh good. The before bedtime conversation every mother wants to have. Of course I’m the mom of the classroom kisser.

“Um… were you kissing kids at school?” Please say no. Please say no.

“Yes.” There it is!

My daughter went on to explain how she was playing with a friend when his dad came to pick him up from preschool. So she gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek to say goodbye.

“Ms. Terri was laughing and laughing,” my little girl said. “And then she told me, ‘We do not kiss kids at school.'”

My initial horror shifted to gentle amusement. Of course my daughter was kissing kids goodbye at school—that’s what her dad told her to do! My husband is Guatemalan, and he has been teaching her since birth to greet and say goodbye with a kiss.

I’m terrible at this practice, and it’s become a source of family humor that I’m able to make cheek kissing one of the most awkward experiences for everyone involved. I’m always too early, too late, too shifty, too nervous.

We have been passionate about nurturing my daughter’s bicultural identity, supporting her as fully Guatemalan and fully American. And it seems she’s 100% adopted her Latino kissing along with my penchant for making other people uncomfortable. But we always knew her light skin and perfect English would cause people to doubt her Latina-ness, so we’ve been even more intentional to promote bilingualism and take her as often as we can to visit her abuelos in Guatemala City. We also attend a Spanish church, where everyone kisses good-bye.

So what do I do as the mom of the classroom kisser? I know she is discovering what it means to balance her two heritage cultures. Through trial and error, she is learning who speaks which language, what’s culturally expected in different situations, and when it’s okay to kiss. Adapting to a multicultural world is a tall order for a four-year-old. It’s a tall order for any of us.

I want my daughter to be her full, authentic, bicultural self. But I also want her to fit in, right? I definitely don’t want her to be made fun of for kissing good-bye the way we’ve taught her. I never want her to look back and say, “My parents taught me to kiss everyone, and then I was ridiculed at school.”

Many months after our bedtime conversation, I witnessed her kissing in action. I came to pick her up from the gym childcare when she announced she’d made a new friend. Terrific. Then, she darted back into the playroom and kissed her new buddy goodbye. I watched as the girl wiped the wet from her face and yelled, “Ewww. Disgusting!” My daughter was unphased.

On the way home, we talked about how not everyone kisses good-bye and she should always ask first if it’s ok to do so. I didn’t want her to feel like she shouldn’t kiss friends whose culture was different. But we also discussed how it’s all right if a friend says no. And that simply means we don’t kiss them.

Weeks later, I then watched her ask a new friend at the park if she could kiss her good-bye. When the little girl said yes, the two accidentally smooched on the lips while I looked at her mom apologetically. I wanted to offer explanation, but instead just mumbled and scurried away. I wondered if my instructions had been sufficient since perhaps it would be better to simply hug in some situations.

It seems conversations about culture, context, and identity will be ongoing with my daughter. Where we are intentional to establish her heritage roots, we must also be committed to walking alongside her as she navigates their application in her world. But through it all, I am struck by how flexible she is in today’s multicultural world.

Flexible is generally not a word I would use to describe my daughter, who still needs a very specific spoon to eat her cereal in the mornings. But kids seem to have an easier time moving between cultures and adjusting with ease. My daughter gobbles up the Cuban food in the church fellowship hall while talking with her friends in English with a bit